The daring escapades of one man and his exploration of the musical world. Packed with whimsy, wonder and the occasional gif, Guitar Pornography is the blog for those who know that music is more than just an arbitrary standard to be judged by, but instead is a mix of emotions, skill and content. Lists will be ongoing and reviews will be by demand, so please, fill the inbox and give this poor wanderer something to ponder.

 

Versus Steam: #23 Bravely Default (3DS)
Developed by: Silicon Studio/ Square Enix
Published by: Nintendo/ Square Enix
Before I begin, let me apologize for the hiatus I’ve been on guys. In the past couple months I’ve uprooted my life as I knew it and moved across the country, started a new job and engaged in a more brisk social life than I’ve had for quite some time. I will make no big promises about my ability to maintain an update schedule for my blog, but I do want to thank anyone who has followed me since my hiatus and those of you who have continued to follow and support me. You guys are great and I really do appreciate it.
I’m a bit of a repetition machine in my various intros to things. So as is rote, let me say my mindset: I have two favorite genres of games, survival horror and JRPGS. Survival Horror is a more recent thing, cropping up from my extended understanding of the mechanics of it from my youth playing Resident Evil. My love of JRPGS is my youthful fancy, having had my mind blown by Final Fantasy 7 at just the right time when I was beginning to understand how complex and expansive games could be as a genre. While both have gone downhill in recent years, I still love both dearly and am always hoping I’ll get something good from them to talk about. And look who comes sauntering up, Bravely Default. I had no idea this game was a thing, until I held it in my hands at work (I receive merchandise for a retail chain) and it haunted my thoughts for a week, until I decided to pick it up on release day. If ever there were a major joy to come from the DSs as a platform, it’s how easily they adapt to niche genres. And boy howdy is Bravely Default niche. As far as JRPGs go, Bravely Default is very reminiscent of early Final Fantasy games, Final Fantasy 5 coming to my mind as the closest, while adding a few dashes of Final Fantasy Tactics into the mix. This crops up in many aspects of the game, but I suppose I should start with the story. As with many of the early Final Fantasy games, the basic premise revolves around four elemental crystals, Wind, Water, Fire and Earth, and in this particular case, each has become corrupted. You play as a constant party of four, Tiz, a young farm boy whose home town has been destroyed by the Darkness extending from the crystals’ corruption, Agnes, the vestel of the wind crystal trying to set things right, Ringabel, an amnesiac warrior who has a journal that tells you the events before they happen in vague detail and Edea, the daughter of the leader of the antagonistic empire’s leader, all the while trailed by Agnes’ helpful companion, the Cryst fairy, Airy. While many appreciate JRPGs for their ability to present complex plots, myself included, I’ve always felt that they are at their best when they’re presented simply, allowing the player the ability to experience a very easy to understand identification with the characters they’re playing, their plight and how their interpersonal relations effect this While Lunar: Silver Star Story will likely always stand as my exemplar of this, Bravely Default does a good job of exploring why this formula works. Honestly, Bravely Default is not a hard game to follow. The story presents itself in a very formulaic good versus evil story that eventually results in a twist that does nothing to detract from the world shattering consequences presented at the games outset. The characters, as they stand, are largely archetypal, allowing you to enjoy the simplicity and beauty of their interactions without the specter of abrupt philosophical intrusion. Tiz is a dopey boy outside his depths who meets a woman beyond his comprehending and falls in love with her. Ringabel is both lost in his selfhood and in his attempts to be a charismatic lady’s man, thus endangering his more honest interactions with Edea. The nice part that comes from this is how identifiable and representative the characters become in the story, and in consequence, how their growth as people forced into a situation they shouldn’t be able to handle is reflected in their progression of levels during the game. The idea that they are becoming stronger is ideally exemplified and we always understand why they are acting as they are, working to save the world as they know it and in turn, saving the new selves they are creating.

To balance this, Bravely Default is a well-focused game mechanically. While I will give the game some heat for having largely boring environments, both with the towns being sparsely populated and the “traps” of the dungeon areas being more tedious than challenging, the combat is fresh enough to actually warrant an interesting trial. While primarily turn and class based, a new wrinkle is presented from the title, as both “brave” and “default” are actions one can take. Defaulting is kind of like blocking but as a consequence, it allows the player to build up an extra turn that they can execute later, allowing for multiple actions within a single turn, while braving is the opposite, allowing the player to gamble multiple turns worth of actions all at once but leaving them vulnerable afterwards. The idea of this is simple but is somewhat enhanced by the situational nature of the combat and really, the genre itself. Look, I think turn based combat grows rather thin and boring after a while, especially in a game like this whose main combat wrinkle is elemental weakness, so being able to take up to 16 turns with all your characters at once is a great way to make combat move along (and kudos to the developers for giving you the option to up the animation speed of the combat itself). But this is such a risky thing to do because if you have no turns at all to use, your enemies can attack you with impunity, often resulting in multiple party members being killed. It becomes a game, especially with boss fights, of balancing the nature of the enemy to how frequently you unleash your turns at them. A boss might warrant three defaults, only to find out that it has a limited period of vulnerability to work within. This gives the combat a nice layer of strategy that doesn’t appear on the surface and is made all the better by the robust class system. All of the classes allow for a different set of values and skill sets to be deployed, with any class you learn giving you the chance to add some of their skills to your passive/active pool. Mixing classes together can get such potent results and ease combat, but it can also leave you stranded when your ideal conditions are violated, making the way you decide to use a character critical. This also effects the move sets you use, notably powerful specials which can harm, heal or anything in between depending on what you’re hoping to achieve. In addition, you can add players from the internet as special summons to be used in battler to make fights easier, while also going into another mechanic of the game, the reconstruction of Tiz’ village which takes real world time but grants new resources. The more people you have, the faster you can rebuild something and this is an oddly engrossing aspect of the game. I don’t make any claim that it’s revolutionary, but these do make the game rather refreshing to play.

But I’ve been winding up to this one: Bravely Default is about 50 hours of entertainment and 10 awful hours of nonsense. BIG SPOILER TAG for this: once you’ve defeated the four big bosses and purified all the elemental crystals you fly to a giant light expecting a final boss… and instead are transported back in time before any of the actions you’ve taken have happened. Bravely Default takes what was an otherwise engaging story and injects it with tedium by forcing the player to play certain segments over and over. I believe you fight the four crystal bosses at least 3 times each, with the rewards for this being sharply cut. While you can skip through most of the dungeon and just go fight it, I don’t see the point in doing it again, as it just drags out the gaming experience. This is made worse by the fact that you can fight any boss again, but this nets you no money or experience, resulting in a chore of a quest for the sake of completetionism. It feels as if the game developers ran out of ways to continue to the game in an interesting direction and instead decided to pad it with the vague notion that time is a central theme to the combat of the game. And oh god! There are two endings. So to see both you must beat all the main bosses at least 7 times and then fight two final bosses, each of which has multiple forms. While this is idea as old as time with RPGs, its never been a particularly good one, since it sets the stakes at a standstill, forcing the player to engage for the sake of ending the experience rather than being a natural extension of the story. I wanted to see these characters win but I felt punished for choosing to see it all through, that each time I repeated the sequence I was being drug through an experience the characters could not properly mirror. This just ends up hurting the game so much, thematic conceit be damned and makes a nice experience carry a giant asterisk.

With a sequel on the way, Bravely Default is a game that does so much well for the genre its placed in but then throws it away for the sake of feeling larger than it actually is. While the world is at stake, Bravely Default feels very intimate in scale, dealing with four characters and their lives and why they are each vested in saving the world. The idea that they’re punishing themselves and by extension, the player, by making them backtrack through it all is kind of insulting and boring, and takes away the idea that the climax is the climax. You can easily get over this and enjoy the game, but its something I feel like not enough people are being made aware of going into it.
The Moment: The natural extension of the drawn out conclusion is that the ending feels especially important, especially since an after the credits video using the DS’ VR technology gets you hyped for a sequel we won’t see for a year yet. We’re stuck in a tank, scientists peer in and you can look around but do nothing. Suddenly, there’s a commotion and a strange girl appears, attacking the installation and fighting off monsters as you move to the different viewports to see what she’s doing. She cracks you out and gloats a little and the scene ends, revealing the person in the tank is Tiz. So many questions, but much like the Marvel movies, the tease is just a way to whet the appetite and make you more wholly appreciate the experience you’ve been through.
Games It Might Remind You Of: I’ve been looking over my JRPGs as of late and as I said, it reminds me closely of Final Fantasy 5. Both games share a similar Crystal based story, both stories have amnesiac main characters. Both games use a job system, allowing you to acquire more jobs by beating bosses. And in much the same way, they’re both intimate stories about the party rather the world they’re set in. You come to invest in their story because we’re not made to linger on the details leading up to it and that makes it a wholly  more satisfying game.
An Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

 

Versus Steam: #23 Bravely Default (3DS)

Developed by: Silicon Studio/ Square Enix

Published by: Nintendo/ Square Enix

Before I begin, let me apologize for the hiatus I’ve been on guys. In the past couple months I’ve uprooted my life as I knew it and moved across the country, started a new job and engaged in a more brisk social life than I’ve had for quite some time. I will make no big promises about my ability to maintain an update schedule for my blog, but I do want to thank anyone who has followed me since my hiatus and those of you who have continued to follow and support me. You guys are great and I really do appreciate it.

I’m a bit of a repetition machine in my various intros to things. So as is rote, let me say my mindset: I have two favorite genres of games, survival horror and JRPGS. Survival Horror is a more recent thing, cropping up from my extended understanding of the mechanics of it from my youth playing Resident Evil. My love of JRPGS is my youthful fancy, having had my mind blown by Final Fantasy 7 at just the right time when I was beginning to understand how complex and expansive games could be as a genre. While both have gone downhill in recent years, I still love both dearly and am always hoping I’ll get something good from them to talk about. And look who comes sauntering up, Bravely Default. I had no idea this game was a thing, until I held it in my hands at work (I receive merchandise for a retail chain) and it haunted my thoughts for a week, until I decided to pick it up on release day. If ever there were a major joy to come from the DSs as a platform, it’s how easily they adapt to niche genres. And boy howdy is Bravely Default niche. As far as JRPGs go, Bravely Default is very reminiscent of early Final Fantasy games, Final Fantasy 5 coming to my mind as the closest, while adding a few dashes of Final Fantasy Tactics into the mix. This crops up in many aspects of the game, but I suppose I should start with the story. As with many of the early Final Fantasy games, the basic premise revolves around four elemental crystals, Wind, Water, Fire and Earth, and in this particular case, each has become corrupted. You play as a constant party of four, Tiz, a young farm boy whose home town has been destroyed by the Darkness extending from the crystals’ corruption, Agnes, the vestel of the wind crystal trying to set things right, Ringabel, an amnesiac warrior who has a journal that tells you the events before they happen in vague detail and Edea, the daughter of the leader of the antagonistic empire’s leader, all the while trailed by Agnes’ helpful companion, the Cryst fairy, Airy. While many appreciate JRPGs for their ability to present complex plots, myself included, I’ve always felt that they are at their best when they’re presented simply, allowing the player the ability to experience a very easy to understand identification with the characters they’re playing, their plight and how their interpersonal relations effect this While Lunar: Silver Star Story will likely always stand as my exemplar of this, Bravely Default does a good job of exploring why this formula works. Honestly, Bravely Default is not a hard game to follow. The story presents itself in a very formulaic good versus evil story that eventually results in a twist that does nothing to detract from the world shattering consequences presented at the games outset. The characters, as they stand, are largely archetypal, allowing you to enjoy the simplicity and beauty of their interactions without the specter of abrupt philosophical intrusion. Tiz is a dopey boy outside his depths who meets a woman beyond his comprehending and falls in love with her. Ringabel is both lost in his selfhood and in his attempts to be a charismatic lady’s man, thus endangering his more honest interactions with Edea. The nice part that comes from this is how identifiable and representative the characters become in the story, and in consequence, how their growth as people forced into a situation they shouldn’t be able to handle is reflected in their progression of levels during the game. The idea that they are becoming stronger is ideally exemplified and we always understand why they are acting as they are, working to save the world as they know it and in turn, saving the new selves they are creating.

To balance this, Bravely Default is a well-focused game mechanically. While I will give the game some heat for having largely boring environments, both with the towns being sparsely populated and the “traps” of the dungeon areas being more tedious than challenging, the combat is fresh enough to actually warrant an interesting trial. While primarily turn and class based, a new wrinkle is presented from the title, as both “brave” and “default” are actions one can take. Defaulting is kind of like blocking but as a consequence, it allows the player to build up an extra turn that they can execute later, allowing for multiple actions within a single turn, while braving is the opposite, allowing the player to gamble multiple turns worth of actions all at once but leaving them vulnerable afterwards. The idea of this is simple but is somewhat enhanced by the situational nature of the combat and really, the genre itself. Look, I think turn based combat grows rather thin and boring after a while, especially in a game like this whose main combat wrinkle is elemental weakness, so being able to take up to 16 turns with all your characters at once is a great way to make combat move along (and kudos to the developers for giving you the option to up the animation speed of the combat itself). But this is such a risky thing to do because if you have no turns at all to use, your enemies can attack you with impunity, often resulting in multiple party members being killed. It becomes a game, especially with boss fights, of balancing the nature of the enemy to how frequently you unleash your turns at them. A boss might warrant three defaults, only to find out that it has a limited period of vulnerability to work within. This gives the combat a nice layer of strategy that doesn’t appear on the surface and is made all the better by the robust class system. All of the classes allow for a different set of values and skill sets to be deployed, with any class you learn giving you the chance to add some of their skills to your passive/active pool. Mixing classes together can get such potent results and ease combat, but it can also leave you stranded when your ideal conditions are violated, making the way you decide to use a character critical. This also effects the move sets you use, notably powerful specials which can harm, heal or anything in between depending on what you’re hoping to achieve. In addition, you can add players from the internet as special summons to be used in battler to make fights easier, while also going into another mechanic of the game, the reconstruction of Tiz’ village which takes real world time but grants new resources. The more people you have, the faster you can rebuild something and this is an oddly engrossing aspect of the game. I don’t make any claim that it’s revolutionary, but these do make the game rather refreshing to play.

But I’ve been winding up to this one: Bravely Default is about 50 hours of entertainment and 10 awful hours of nonsense. BIG SPOILER TAG for this: once you’ve defeated the four big bosses and purified all the elemental crystals you fly to a giant light expecting a final boss… and instead are transported back in time before any of the actions you’ve taken have happened. Bravely Default takes what was an otherwise engaging story and injects it with tedium by forcing the player to play certain segments over and over. I believe you fight the four crystal bosses at least 3 times each, with the rewards for this being sharply cut. While you can skip through most of the dungeon and just go fight it, I don’t see the point in doing it again, as it just drags out the gaming experience. This is made worse by the fact that you can fight any boss again, but this nets you no money or experience, resulting in a chore of a quest for the sake of completetionism. It feels as if the game developers ran out of ways to continue to the game in an interesting direction and instead decided to pad it with the vague notion that time is a central theme to the combat of the game. And oh god! There are two endings. So to see both you must beat all the main bosses at least 7 times and then fight two final bosses, each of which has multiple forms. While this is idea as old as time with RPGs, its never been a particularly good one, since it sets the stakes at a standstill, forcing the player to engage for the sake of ending the experience rather than being a natural extension of the story. I wanted to see these characters win but I felt punished for choosing to see it all through, that each time I repeated the sequence I was being drug through an experience the characters could not properly mirror. This just ends up hurting the game so much, thematic conceit be damned and makes a nice experience carry a giant asterisk.

With a sequel on the way, Bravely Default is a game that does so much well for the genre its placed in but then throws it away for the sake of feeling larger than it actually is. While the world is at stake, Bravely Default feels very intimate in scale, dealing with four characters and their lives and why they are each vested in saving the world. The idea that they’re punishing themselves and by extension, the player, by making them backtrack through it all is kind of insulting and boring, and takes away the idea that the climax is the climax. You can easily get over this and enjoy the game, but its something I feel like not enough people are being made aware of going into it.

The Moment: The natural extension of the drawn out conclusion is that the ending feels especially important, especially since an after the credits video using the DS’ VR technology gets you hyped for a sequel we won’t see for a year yet. We’re stuck in a tank, scientists peer in and you can look around but do nothing. Suddenly, there’s a commotion and a strange girl appears, attacking the installation and fighting off monsters as you move to the different viewports to see what she’s doing. She cracks you out and gloats a little and the scene ends, revealing the person in the tank is Tiz. So many questions, but much like the Marvel movies, the tease is just a way to whet the appetite and make you more wholly appreciate the experience you’ve been through.

Games It Might Remind You Of: I’ve been looking over my JRPGs as of late and as I said, it reminds me closely of Final Fantasy 5. Both games share a similar Crystal based story, both stories have amnesiac main characters. Both games use a job system, allowing you to acquire more jobs by beating bosses. And in much the same way, they’re both intimate stories about the party rather the world they’re set in. You come to invest in their story because we’re not made to linger on the details leading up to it and that makes it a wholly  more satisfying game.

An Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

 

Ten for Ten – Ten Favorite Number One Hits: #6 Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”

Originally appeared on: Talking Book

So Jeff Beck wrote the drum line to this song? Interesting. Stevie Wonder is an artist that has long been at the periphery of my musical vision. I know certainly that I enjoy his music, but it’s so rare for me to actually listen to it, hearing it more in passing than in intent. But “Superstition” is kind of an unavoidable song, usually being the first of his tracks summoned to capture any sort of moment, from the atmosphere of the 70s in film to the chessiness of beer commercials. But this sort of practice isn’t without merit, as “Superstition” is an immensely iconic song with good reason. It’s to that point where most people will be able to at least identify that intro… that sultry, crawling intro. I’m not sure as to what instrument it’s being played on, though synthesizer would be my guess, but that sound is so immensely vibrant and enthralling, using that distinct fuzzed out twanginess to create a rather distant timbre, one on the edge of familiarity, but not all the way there. The same can be said of the actual structuring of the piece, as the intro is a mere seven notes, five in a scale and then two plucked disharmoniously from the rest, conjuring that air of immediate musical response before yanking it back to give us a taste of just how otherworldly this is all meant to be. While akin to both blues and jazz, “Superstition’s” intro is marked in just how well its syncopated, taking that easy gait of blues and that fragmentation of jazz to create to a decided groove that leeches into the rest of the song, building the idea of the title without ever having to articulate it. Honestly, it just sounds kind of like old world mysticism personified, the roots of the Delta poured into a simplistic arrangement and then relayed to us in pure funk. The result is very immediate, as it sticks like glue to the mind, being one of those things you absent mindedly hum as you go through the day.

Talking Book

What’s odd is how indicative this is for the rest of the song. I make it a point to really take a deep listen to lyrics to try and conjure from their depths whatever meaning I can, but honestly, I don’t think there’s one that’s apparent in “Superstition.” Honestly, the whole set of lyrics are rather… fragmented I guess, feeling like different thoughts that are never quite finished. Stevie goes from repeating the phrase about being superstitious to talking about a baby breaking a mirror to bad luck to the rousing chorus. There’s a line of logic there about bad luck and how it affects you, but they’re very bluesy in delivery, making it feel as if they’re several snippets of a larger story. But this is ultimately to the songs benefit, as the easy digestibility of the lyrics allows Wonder a great deal of brevity to be expressive within and allow the song to function more succinctly as a delivery method of the groove he’s using. Groove is the operative word here, as the drum and synthesizer combo only really give way towards the chorus and ending of the song, allowing horns to add a layer of flourish to a perfectly paced and thought out idea. Because the actual music is so tight, Wonder wheels and deals with the same thoughts in his voice, finding new ways to add things to them, bringing different inflections that punch above the steadiness and make the song feel more lavish for his entrance. Who can forget his rise of tone into the chorus and the Louie Armstrong-esque bellow towards the end of it? The whole thing manages to create a lot of resonation between the different parts, feeling rather full, but always organized in its thoughts, as Wonder conjures a wonderful soundscape to place some bluesy lyrics on and then add soul and fire to them, allowing the groove to be the devil’s backbone.

Stevie Wonder

And it’s just honestly a song I’ve yet to get tired of. While I’ve heard “Superstition” a million times, it still remains one of those songs my shoulders start bobbing in time to unconsciously, knowing that the rock steadiness of rhythm and melody are my the key to my body’s ecstasy. I like the fact that the song is built around adding touches, always becoming more as it goes along and yet can feel so much like the same song throughout, giving you a direct imprint in your consciousness and expounding upon it with each new time you hear it, allowing for this folkloric memory to weave around your mind between listens.

Versus Steam #22: Beyond: Two Souls (PS3)
Developed by: Quantic Dream
Published by: Sony Computer Entertainment
Quantic Dream’s catalogue of games is an oddity among console releases, as their stance in both design and presentation is more akin to the creation of interactive narratives rather than traditional video games. I played Indigo Prophecy once upon a time, finding it to be an interesting experience but didn’t get Heavy Rain until far after its initial release. A lot of the charm that comes from Heavy Rain is the fact that the experience of the narrative is ultimately personal, investing the player into the intertwining lives of characters as a way to provide stakes during the life or death struggle at the game’s core. Moments of interactivity within Heavy Rain were built on the struggle of doing what was necessary versus what was morally just, creating a visceral experience as the two interacted. The reason I say this upfront is the simple fact that I have no idea what the fuck Beyond: Two Souls was trying to do as a story, a game or an interactive experience. I don’t claim to be any sort of genius, but I am trained to and regularly engage in analysis of narratives, something I make liberal use of during reviews of this blog. During my entire playthrough of Beyond: Two Souls, I was struck with a profound sense of disquiet at the way in which the game tried to engage the audience by providing a seemingly cinematic and emotional experience without understanding the progression of narrative as a natural part of character development: Beyond follows the story of Jodie, a young girl both blessed and cursed with the presence of some sort of spirit known as Aiden. Due to Aiden’s presence, Jodie is unable to engage in a normal life, first finding herself in the custodianship of Dr. Nathan Dawkins and later as a tool used by the CIA before finally trying to set off on her own. The game goes to great lengths to get us to sympathize with Jodie’s plight, as the people within the narrative seem to solely judge Jodie based on the presence of Aiden, either seeing her as a means to some end or distrusting her because of his otherworldly presence, resulting in the sense that she never truly belongs in the world she lives in. This is a somewhat interesting idea, as it becomes more apparent as the game goes on that Aiden is linked to the land of the dead, resulting in Jodie’s own failure within the living world being drawn from her connection to the spiritual realm. This however, is so muddied and convoluted within the actual presentation of the narrative that I don’t get the idea that the developers had any idea beyond this. Beyond: Two Souls narrative covers many different age ranges in Jodie’s life, but is told in a nonlinear fashion, resulting in a great deal of moments where we jump to different parts of her existence. Because of this, the conflict of the story itself is fleshed out thematically rather than in a way that allows us a clear vision of the worlds of the living and the dead interact, depending on the audience to make sense of how different episodes join together. At several points throughout the game I found myself utterly lost as to why particular segments were placed as they were, let alone why they were present at all. The most notable of these is the segment “Navajo,” one of the longest sequences in the game, which sees Jodie as a drifter coming to the ranch of a Navajo family and encountering their struggle against ancient spirits that disturb their peace, before ultimately using her powers to help to quiet them. At no point does this begin to make any sense within the larger narrative of the game, as it seems almost a superfluous addition in order to provide set piece moments and essentially say “there are other dead spirits in the land of the living,” a point already made by several sequences earlier in the game. We don’t get a sense that this has anything to do with either establishing the world or the character of Jodie, but instead, to be a rather narrow sliver of a narrative that is wholly based around showing us good experiences of being alive and bad experiences of being alive. Almost every sequence in the game can be divided in this fashion, using rather tired and often troubling tropes to show us how beautiful and ugly the world can be, including righteous homeless people, sexual assault and clear cut power lust. The worst of this is how little this actually leads to what is meant to be a conclusion of the narrative as SPOILERS Nathan goes batshit crazy right at the end of the game, an apparent effect of his wife and daughter’s death we learned about two sequences prior, and decides to use a device to merge the land of the living and the dead. There is so much wrong with this, how the game has built Nathan as the one person who truly loves Jodie only to yank this away at the last moment to give the ending an antagonist, how his actions are not built to at all, how his plan makes no sense within any parameters the game has set up, how it is really emotionally manipulative for emotions that should not exist at this point, how it is built for action rather than narrative, etc. etc., resulting in a messy ending where the game tries to salvage something by asking us to choose between life and death, which makes sense for the loose theme of the game, but asks for an investment in characters beyond Jodie, something the game has done so little to build to. The game wants us to care so deeply about how Jodie might see the different characters in the game, but the only three span more than one segment and one of them is Nathan, the most prominent of the side characters. We’re not given any sort of information by the story to make a grand philosophical choice about whether it is better to risk suffering and live or die and avoid it all, making a clunky choice ending seem unfulfilling as it must wrap up a narrative we had to spin for ourselves out of the tangle the game provides.

And this is of course assuming you really understand what the deal with the characters of Jodie and Aiden are really about. While I think a large problem of the characterization stems from the fact that the game jumps around in time so much, it is still troubling how inconsistently Jodie is built as a character. A transition from a sequence can leap from Jodie being a shy and scared child to a superfluous bad ass action girl to a nihilistic vagrant to an empathetic young woman with real world problems all rather rapidly. I suppose the intention is to show Jodie as a multi facted individual, echoing humanity’s own propensity to have multiple traits buried within the same complex personality, but that just simply does not work for a narrative, let alone an interactive one. We never get any sense of progression in how Jodie is arriving at these different attitudes, ones she seems to harbor to the point of exclusivity within herself and only manifesting once a chapter demands it. Jodie comes off as a person who is confused and rightly so, but she makes no effort to actually define herself amongst the immense strings of dialogue and instead the game tries to place this solely within the realm of player choice, making our limited options our only attempts to define Jodie as a character. This is faulty from the get go, as this assumes there is both the idea that we can determine how such progression can go and that all options will be available at all times, making her jump even more around in her responses to people and events. I can’t think of a strong moment where we really get a sense of anything in Jodie beyond the fact that having Aiden makes her life harder and this is not a true personality to invest ourselves in, its an attempt to grab sympathy which they can’t seem to hold onto since the game also demands action. I’ll bring up a counterpoint to what they were trying to do right here with Clementine in the Walking Dead. Clementine is a little girl thrust into a horrific world she can barely understand and put under the stewardship of someone she barely knows. Since we do not have direct control of Clementine, our choices d little to actually define her as a character, yet she always exhibits a strong personality and brightness within the bleakness within the world of the game, making player’s choices in regards to her geared towards our idea of how we want to view the world. The game puts a lot of care into making us care about Clementine and what she means to both us and the protagonist Lee, but allows us free will in determining how close we ultimately grow to her, allowing us to range from pure sympathy for her plight, empathy for her returned care or full on love her expressed traits. With Jodie, we’re never given a choice as to how we view her, all of our in game choices seeming to be morally black and white in what happens to her, resulting in a rather binary view of how she is within the world and making it hard to do anything beyond basic disgust or admiration without any of the emotional investment. Aiden is even stranger as a character, since he doesn’t really exist as one, instead seeming to shift around depending on how the story situation should be, making him either an asshole to Jodie, her tireless protector, her utter slave or a benign presence altogether. The game asks us to think of him as a character but doesn’t give him any personality to do so with, making it extremely hard to make sense of how he fits into Jodie’s story aside from his presence.

I will give the game a little praise here, as the game’s aesthetic design is rather well done, but even this is damning with praise, as Quantic Dream seems intent on ruining this. Of all the things I disliked about this game the most, the controls were the most obvious. Like previous Quantic Dream games, most of the gameplay is based upon finding points of interactivity and then doing various quick time events or button combinations with them to interact. I find the idea of this problematic to begin with, as it implies a total interactivity while be limited in it, but even without that, the gameplay is wholly boring and cumbersome. Because so many of the game’s various quicktime events are built around the use of the right analog stick, there is no control over the camera in the game, making the movement of Jodie feel like a Playstation 1 era character and leaving us at the mercy of camera angles that never show us all the different things we may need to see within the scene. In tighter spaces I would find myself walking in circles, as a slight bump against a surface would cause Jodie to turn and circle back through the environment. Worse still, so many of the points in the game in which you can interact are not made explicit in how you can interact with them, forcing you to hope any shot at an angle will allow you to interpret which direction to move the analog stick to work with it. This is the worst when it comes to the repeated fight sequences which see you need to move the stick in the direction that Jodie’s limb is moving to block or attack. If at an angle, you have to take a chance that you’re guessing correctly, as there is no actual button prompt, making your punishment for failing pure chance and that is if you can see it, as so many of these sequences takes place in heavy darkness, making the use of visual cues for control extremely tedious. Playing as Aiden is worse still as we suddenly have complete control over the 3D environment for what I can only describe as several scavenger hunted for points of interactivity. The dissonance between these two control schemes is jarring, as Aiden moves far too loosely within the environment, making it hard to define where you can move without testing the limits the games set fr it. You’re usually just looking for the glowing prompt so you can do a control stick pattern over I, making some segments frustrating in trying to find the single dot you need to progress the game. Beyond: Two Souls wants too much to mix interactivity and traditional gameplay and use an interface that benefits neither, making what you’re doing a confusing trial in trying to find the right pattern of things to do and hoping the game won’t arbitrarily punish you before you get there.

While I haven’t played Ride to Hell: Retribution, I’m going to go ahead and call it: Beyond: Two Souls was the worst game of 2013. At least Aliens: Colonial Marines had the decency to be hilarious. The fact that both Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe give such strong performances as their characters is an amazing feat, as neither is given a strong sense of actual motivation in characterization nor any true narrative development to make their characters feel real or fleshed out. At no point in it’s incoherent, pretentious, garbled mess is there any sort of sense of narrative cohesion, well thought out gameplay or thematic understanding of what is actually supposed to be happening, depending instead on some metaphysical struggle to define a rather narrow band of ideas that the game cobbles together in a nonsensical order. Maybe some refinement in the storytelling could have saved this, but Jodie still would have been inconsistent as a character as the game can’t make up its mind about the limits of how the player defines her, seeming to ignore these decisions one moment for the sake of a set piece and then demanding genuine human emotion from us when they suddenly decide to honor our choices. It’s messy and frustrating to play and is clearly not the same well thought out interactive story that Heavy Rain was. If you liked it, more power to you, but to me, it’s just too screwed up to be worth anyone’s time.
The Moment: The one choice in this game that I really think was well fleshed out comes during a chapter which sees Jodie and CIA associate Ryan invading a rival installation that had attempted to harness the dead. Having escaped, the pair sit near naked on the frozen wastes awaiting an unlikely rescue when Ryan pours his heart out and expresses his genuine love for Jodie. This is an interesting idea, as we’ve seen Ryan previously show affection for Jodie, as well as manipulate her into actions she does not wish to be part of, making our choice of whether to reciprocate his feelings impactful since he is our only reference of romantic love for Jodie in the game. This is undone later when we can still choose to ultimately live because we love Ryan regardless of choice, but here, it is a moment when you can say clearly what Jodie is as a person.
Games It Might Remind You Of: I honestly don’t know. Sorry.

An Arbitrary Rating: 1/10

Versus Steam #22: Beyond: Two Souls (PS3)

Developed by: Quantic Dream

Published by: Sony Computer Entertainment

Quantic Dream’s catalogue of games is an oddity among console releases, as their stance in both design and presentation is more akin to the creation of interactive narratives rather than traditional video games. I played Indigo Prophecy once upon a time, finding it to be an interesting experience but didn’t get Heavy Rain until far after its initial release. A lot of the charm that comes from Heavy Rain is the fact that the experience of the narrative is ultimately personal, investing the player into the intertwining lives of characters as a way to provide stakes during the life or death struggle at the game’s core. Moments of interactivity within Heavy Rain were built on the struggle of doing what was necessary versus what was morally just, creating a visceral experience as the two interacted. The reason I say this upfront is the simple fact that I have no idea what the fuck Beyond: Two Souls was trying to do as a story, a game or an interactive experience. I don’t claim to be any sort of genius, but I am trained to and regularly engage in analysis of narratives, something I make liberal use of during reviews of this blog. During my entire playthrough of Beyond: Two Souls, I was struck with a profound sense of disquiet at the way in which the game tried to engage the audience by providing a seemingly cinematic and emotional experience without understanding the progression of narrative as a natural part of character development: Beyond follows the story of Jodie, a young girl both blessed and cursed with the presence of some sort of spirit known as Aiden. Due to Aiden’s presence, Jodie is unable to engage in a normal life, first finding herself in the custodianship of Dr. Nathan Dawkins and later as a tool used by the CIA before finally trying to set off on her own. The game goes to great lengths to get us to sympathize with Jodie’s plight, as the people within the narrative seem to solely judge Jodie based on the presence of Aiden, either seeing her as a means to some end or distrusting her because of his otherworldly presence, resulting in the sense that she never truly belongs in the world she lives in. This is a somewhat interesting idea, as it becomes more apparent as the game goes on that Aiden is linked to the land of the dead, resulting in Jodie’s own failure within the living world being drawn from her connection to the spiritual realm. This however, is so muddied and convoluted within the actual presentation of the narrative that I don’t get the idea that the developers had any idea beyond this. Beyond: Two Souls narrative covers many different age ranges in Jodie’s life, but is told in a nonlinear fashion, resulting in a great deal of moments where we jump to different parts of her existence. Because of this, the conflict of the story itself is fleshed out thematically rather than in a way that allows us a clear vision of the worlds of the living and the dead interact, depending on the audience to make sense of how different episodes join together. At several points throughout the game I found myself utterly lost as to why particular segments were placed as they were, let alone why they were present at all. The most notable of these is the segment “Navajo,” one of the longest sequences in the game, which sees Jodie as a drifter coming to the ranch of a Navajo family and encountering their struggle against ancient spirits that disturb their peace, before ultimately using her powers to help to quiet them. At no point does this begin to make any sense within the larger narrative of the game, as it seems almost a superfluous addition in order to provide set piece moments and essentially say “there are other dead spirits in the land of the living,” a point already made by several sequences earlier in the game. We don’t get a sense that this has anything to do with either establishing the world or the character of Jodie, but instead, to be a rather narrow sliver of a narrative that is wholly based around showing us good experiences of being alive and bad experiences of being alive. Almost every sequence in the game can be divided in this fashion, using rather tired and often troubling tropes to show us how beautiful and ugly the world can be, including righteous homeless people, sexual assault and clear cut power lust. The worst of this is how little this actually leads to what is meant to be a conclusion of the narrative as SPOILERS Nathan goes batshit crazy right at the end of the game, an apparent effect of his wife and daughter’s death we learned about two sequences prior, and decides to use a device to merge the land of the living and the dead. There is so much wrong with this, how the game has built Nathan as the one person who truly loves Jodie only to yank this away at the last moment to give the ending an antagonist, how his actions are not built to at all, how his plan makes no sense within any parameters the game has set up, how it is really emotionally manipulative for emotions that should not exist at this point, how it is built for action rather than narrative, etc. etc., resulting in a messy ending where the game tries to salvage something by asking us to choose between life and death, which makes sense for the loose theme of the game, but asks for an investment in characters beyond Jodie, something the game has done so little to build to. The game wants us to care so deeply about how Jodie might see the different characters in the game, but the only three span more than one segment and one of them is Nathan, the most prominent of the side characters. We’re not given any sort of information by the story to make a grand philosophical choice about whether it is better to risk suffering and live or die and avoid it all, making a clunky choice ending seem unfulfilling as it must wrap up a narrative we had to spin for ourselves out of the tangle the game provides.

And this is of course assuming you really understand what the deal with the characters of Jodie and Aiden are really about. While I think a large problem of the characterization stems from the fact that the game jumps around in time so much, it is still troubling how inconsistently Jodie is built as a character. A transition from a sequence can leap from Jodie being a shy and scared child to a superfluous bad ass action girl to a nihilistic vagrant to an empathetic young woman with real world problems all rather rapidly. I suppose the intention is to show Jodie as a multi facted individual, echoing humanity’s own propensity to have multiple traits buried within the same complex personality, but that just simply does not work for a narrative, let alone an interactive one. We never get any sense of progression in how Jodie is arriving at these different attitudes, ones she seems to harbor to the point of exclusivity within herself and only manifesting once a chapter demands it. Jodie comes off as a person who is confused and rightly so, but she makes no effort to actually define herself amongst the immense strings of dialogue and instead the game tries to place this solely within the realm of player choice, making our limited options our only attempts to define Jodie as a character. This is faulty from the get go, as this assumes there is both the idea that we can determine how such progression can go and that all options will be available at all times, making her jump even more around in her responses to people and events. I can’t think of a strong moment where we really get a sense of anything in Jodie beyond the fact that having Aiden makes her life harder and this is not a true personality to invest ourselves in, its an attempt to grab sympathy which they can’t seem to hold onto since the game also demands action. I’ll bring up a counterpoint to what they were trying to do right here with Clementine in the Walking Dead. Clementine is a little girl thrust into a horrific world she can barely understand and put under the stewardship of someone she barely knows. Since we do not have direct control of Clementine, our choices d little to actually define her as a character, yet she always exhibits a strong personality and brightness within the bleakness within the world of the game, making player’s choices in regards to her geared towards our idea of how we want to view the world. The game puts a lot of care into making us care about Clementine and what she means to both us and the protagonist Lee, but allows us free will in determining how close we ultimately grow to her, allowing us to range from pure sympathy for her plight, empathy for her returned care or full on love her expressed traits. With Jodie, we’re never given a choice as to how we view her, all of our in game choices seeming to be morally black and white in what happens to her, resulting in a rather binary view of how she is within the world and making it hard to do anything beyond basic disgust or admiration without any of the emotional investment. Aiden is even stranger as a character, since he doesn’t really exist as one, instead seeming to shift around depending on how the story situation should be, making him either an asshole to Jodie, her tireless protector, her utter slave or a benign presence altogether. The game asks us to think of him as a character but doesn’t give him any personality to do so with, making it extremely hard to make sense of how he fits into Jodie’s story aside from his presence.

I will give the game a little praise here, as the game’s aesthetic design is rather well done, but even this is damning with praise, as Quantic Dream seems intent on ruining this. Of all the things I disliked about this game the most, the controls were the most obvious. Like previous Quantic Dream games, most of the gameplay is based upon finding points of interactivity and then doing various quick time events or button combinations with them to interact. I find the idea of this problematic to begin with, as it implies a total interactivity while be limited in it, but even without that, the gameplay is wholly boring and cumbersome. Because so many of the game’s various quicktime events are built around the use of the right analog stick, there is no control over the camera in the game, making the movement of Jodie feel like a Playstation 1 era character and leaving us at the mercy of camera angles that never show us all the different things we may need to see within the scene. In tighter spaces I would find myself walking in circles, as a slight bump against a surface would cause Jodie to turn and circle back through the environment. Worse still, so many of the points in the game in which you can interact are not made explicit in how you can interact with them, forcing you to hope any shot at an angle will allow you to interpret which direction to move the analog stick to work with it. This is the worst when it comes to the repeated fight sequences which see you need to move the stick in the direction that Jodie’s limb is moving to block or attack. If at an angle, you have to take a chance that you’re guessing correctly, as there is no actual button prompt, making your punishment for failing pure chance and that is if you can see it, as so many of these sequences takes place in heavy darkness, making the use of visual cues for control extremely tedious. Playing as Aiden is worse still as we suddenly have complete control over the 3D environment for what I can only describe as several scavenger hunted for points of interactivity. The dissonance between these two control schemes is jarring, as Aiden moves far too loosely within the environment, making it hard to define where you can move without testing the limits the games set fr it. You’re usually just looking for the glowing prompt so you can do a control stick pattern over I, making some segments frustrating in trying to find the single dot you need to progress the game. Beyond: Two Souls wants too much to mix interactivity and traditional gameplay and use an interface that benefits neither, making what you’re doing a confusing trial in trying to find the right pattern of things to do and hoping the game won’t arbitrarily punish you before you get there.

While I haven’t played Ride to Hell: Retribution, I’m going to go ahead and call it: Beyond: Two Souls was the worst game of 2013. At least Aliens: Colonial Marines had the decency to be hilarious. The fact that both Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe give such strong performances as their characters is an amazing feat, as neither is given a strong sense of actual motivation in characterization nor any true narrative development to make their characters feel real or fleshed out. At no point in it’s incoherent, pretentious, garbled mess is there any sort of sense of narrative cohesion, well thought out gameplay or thematic understanding of what is actually supposed to be happening, depending instead on some metaphysical struggle to define a rather narrow band of ideas that the game cobbles together in a nonsensical order. Maybe some refinement in the storytelling could have saved this, but Jodie still would have been inconsistent as a character as the game can’t make up its mind about the limits of how the player defines her, seeming to ignore these decisions one moment for the sake of a set piece and then demanding genuine human emotion from us when they suddenly decide to honor our choices. It’s messy and frustrating to play and is clearly not the same well thought out interactive story that Heavy Rain was. If you liked it, more power to you, but to me, it’s just too screwed up to be worth anyone’s time.

The Moment: The one choice in this game that I really think was well fleshed out comes during a chapter which sees Jodie and CIA associate Ryan invading a rival installation that had attempted to harness the dead. Having escaped, the pair sit near naked on the frozen wastes awaiting an unlikely rescue when Ryan pours his heart out and expresses his genuine love for Jodie. This is an interesting idea, as we’ve seen Ryan previously show affection for Jodie, as well as manipulate her into actions she does not wish to be part of, making our choice of whether to reciprocate his feelings impactful since he is our only reference of romantic love for Jodie in the game. This is undone later when we can still choose to ultimately live because we love Ryan regardless of choice, but here, it is a moment when you can say clearly what Jodie is as a person.

Games It Might Remind You Of: I honestly don’t know. Sorry.

An Arbitrary Rating: 1/10

Ten for Ten – Ten Favorite Number One Hits: #7 Jay-Z & Alicia Keys’ “Empire State of Mind”

Originally Appeared on: The Blueprint 3

The problem of doing a list of Number One Hits is the fact that I don’t generally like the most popular music. While I can mine the 60s and 70s for things that are classic now and I grew up on, most modern music leaves me kind of hollow, sounding more like it’s meant to be catchy for it’s own sake rather than having some sort of substance under the surface. Not so with “Empire State of Mind” though, which manages to take a lot of little things and gel them together in this perfect anthemic way. Listening to Jay-Z rap is always a delight, as his hard edged timbre really manages to balance out his rather odd flow. While “Empire” has a rather predominant backbeat for him to get into cadence with, much of the track sees Jay-Z kind of rushing to catch up to it, as his use of New York landmarks leaves him with many difficult to integrate words in his delivery. This is a rather neat effect however, as this kind of constant speed check really manages to convey a lot of the hustle and bustle of the city he’s singing about. During the second voice, he seems to especially be choking on the words, which in turn gives them a very memorable emphasis as each syllable becomes especially important to his delivery: “Three dice Cee-lo, three Card Marley/Labor Day Parade, rest in peace Bob Marley/Statue of Liberty, long live the World Trade/Long live the King yo, I’m from the Empire State.” These flash references really seem to breathe a lot of interest into the words themselves as you see him manage to sew a city out of constituent pieces, while still maintaining the attitude of the area. It comes off as pretty haughty, but it seems to be pride in having come from there and everything the stands for rather than any sort of arrogance, which makes it all feel pointed, lyrical and impressive.

The Blueprint 3

The other side of this is the fact that the song, while largely a constellation of ideas about New York, is also an oddly personal journey. While I mainly know Jay-Z for being a rich and famous rapper, part of the way he constructs the song is to show the city of New York as the place where opportunity arises and how his own journey to the top is indicative of the great Melting Pot experience. The song opens with what seems like a framing device, as Jay-Z is direct in the words he brings across: “Yeah I’m out that Brooklyn, now I’m down in TriBeCa/Right next to Deniro, but I’ll be hood forever/I’m the new Sinatra, and since I made it here/I can make it anywhere, yeah, they love me everywhere.” This slurry of words slowly fades out to the more reference point lyrics, but has a way of intruding back into the narrative, giving the feeling that not only does Jay-Z see the city as a safe haven, but also as being rather representative of himself, though but bright and flashy. This becomes more apt as the song goes on and he injects more swagger into each of the statements he makes, and while a lack of vulnerability is apparent, the warm nostalgia of it all really makes the song more vibrant and his rhymes more potent.

But what would the song be without it’s hook? I think everyone is well aware that Alicia Keys is a talented singer, but her big voice brings a lot of power to what I would describe as otherwise boring lyrics. This is kind of where the sample the song uses comes in, making use of a repeated piano pattern, which seems to be a very natural motif for Keys to work with. While the piano part is rather dramatic, Keys comes over top of it with so much fire, so much bravado that it feels almost cinematic: “New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of/There’s nothin’ you can’t do/Now you’re in New York/These streets will make you feel brand new/Big lights will inspire you/Let’s hear it for New York, New York,/New York.” The part that really makes this for me however, comes from the little inflections Jay-Z does right before the chorus comes back, using a different light sound to hype the chorus but at the same time, differentiating them. For a song with so much content, repetition would be killer, the pair manage to avoid it making the dramatic and oddly loving voice of Keys seem fresh each time.

And really, I can’t dislike the song that gave us the Bacon Pancakes remix. I’m no rap afficianado, but I certainly can recognize clever lyrics and a rock solid hook and “Empire State of Mind” brings both with an intense fire, making a rather loving tribute to the famous city and an oddly nostalgic look at how where you’re from defines you. Both Jay-Z and Alicia Keys bring so much to it through their voices alone, carrying a lot of weight and feeling in a song I wouldn’t have thought from the outside would be so intense.

My Top Albums of 2013: What Else I Listened To

As is usual, there was a lot of stuff I listened to this past year that didn’t end up making my Top 20 List and despite promising myself I would listen to less music in 2013, I somehow eclipsed 172 albums. That is… a lot of music. In the months to come, I’ll be reviewing various albums included here, some because they were this close to making the list, some because they were god awful and some because they were simply interesting. If  completely missed something you loved, please feel free to tell me about. Normal schedule resumes Monday.

Keep rockin’

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My Top 20 Albums of 2013: #1 Ragana’s “Unbecoming”
I’ve started and re-started this write-up three times now. I’m at a bit of a loss to be perfectly honest. I don’t know how to convey exactly how a year with Unbecoming has left me feeling. While only an Extended Play in terms of length, Ragana’s Unbecoming managed to say more in twenty-two minutes than most other bands this year could in over an hour. I’ve had one word spinning around my brain since I first heard Unbecoming: primal. I have images in my mind of stumbling through a moonless night through the verdant tangles towards a dying light and finding myself there, all knotted and bruised to witness a strange scene, one which my eyes were never meant to see, but must stare at in reverent awe for all its rarity. Hearing Unbecoming is to become involved in the idea that we have found some urr-source, something dark and tangled that inspires worship from us. For this, I must give massive credit to Ragana for managing to create such a large and atmospheric sound making use of only two members. At times, tracks become very involved, especially as speeds increase, with the mix of vocals, guitars and drums feeling rather chaotic and consuming in their delivery. A song like “Enough” is given such momentum by the clashing of sounds going on amongst its construction, drums and guitars barely seeming to stay in synch as some frenzy takes over. Yet, the moments that are most disconcerting come from the fact that Unbecoming makes such use of stillness in its music. Stillness is an odd trait to assign to music, as we don’t expect the absence of sound to be such a large part of the experience. But moments when we are left alone with the dying whisps of a note or the decay of a rhythm are those moments when our expectation rise, when our desire to reinvest ourselves in the music hit their peak. Ragan is very controlled in this regard, managing to link moments of pure chaos, atmosphere and stillness together in such a way as to give a fully emotional and dramatic narrative to their songs. “Curved Grass” is made powerful at first by the crushing slow rhythms of fuzzed out guitars matched to the subtle slow sounds of drumming, a sound we might appreciate as supposed to be sounding frightening, yet it is the slower passage of largely clean guitar that makes it feel troubling, makes us feel less comfortable in our skin, as we await the dread of confrontation. As the melody transforms and becomes the same design of single notes, but with the fuzzed ut tone of the previously blocky riff, the song opens up, creating this new musical understanding that synthesizes the two ideas and allows the song to reach such an amazing climax. This is easy to appreciate throughout, as a lack of formal structure gives Ragana a great deal of room to create truly memorable songs that always seem to be branching into new ideas and working through them until the song can no longer sustain them and must end. The lack of appreciable repetition within the song’s structure is itself deconstructive, forcing our recognition of an evolving sense of atmosphere, a progression through different stages of thought and emotional bonding to uniquely human sounds, yet ones not linked to our formal understanding of the practice of music. This is where the drums are at their peak, as I cannot think of a better example of atmospheric drumming, with the rather familiar sounds of rhythm seeming to come in and out of focus, the volume swelling and tempos constantly changing to put us off balance with ourselves and make us more deeply involved with the mental narrative we have formed through listening. This is the power of heavy metal, to be invoke a visceral, primal confrontation with oneself over the ills of reality and become part of the darker leanings that drive the human cause. Unbecoming is an exercise in such confrontations, but one that can so easily subsume us and let us fall to pieces in its own mysticism.
This extends quite well into the vocal delivery of the album, which sees both members use the mic at times in odd off-harmonies. Lyrics on Unbecoming are oddly sparse, mere snatches of words seemingly conjured from a deep smoke rising off the music at moments ones do not initially expect and never in the way you expect them to be sung. Voices tend to be a mix of rather straight forward, tightly tone controlled singing and the most ear shattering yelling one can imagine. I really can’t think of a better word for it than yelling, as the attempts to hold tone throughout the words being used tends to break apart as it happens, slowly shedding its idea of immediate artistry and assuming deeper stance of artistic delivery by imbuing it with as much fury and power as one can wrench from the frail human form. The album closer, “Invocation,” is especially powerful in this regard, as the slow build up to this moment of destructive force is aching, having developed an expectation of its arrival and being made to wait patiently, if not anxiously for its arrival. As the words march from the ether, their formal march sounds like a spell being woven, the imagery and first hand accounting making it feel rather evocative: “we will hold a space/a tender structure/made of breath and bones and flame/and all is change/and it moves through me/and we’ll start over/again and again and again,” Another seeming verse rises from this, the song seeming to wish for some apocalypse that does not come soon enough and yet must wait for its moment of climax, terminating into the idea of repetition, but with seemingly massive changes in cadence giving it new credence: “we invoke the names/we will rise up like water/wreck ships in our wake/we are strong beyond measure/our hearts will not break.” These are the types of moments I’ve really come to appreciate from Unbecoming, the moment where all the sparse delivery and subtle changes in structure seem to rend a forcefulness from the music itself, creating this rather natural emotional response to the dark nature of the atmosphere. We feel the increased desire that the atmosphere should break, but to hear it only in the music is not enough, needing that power the human voice can provide to give us an immediacy to latch ourselves onto, to feel as if we hear our own dark hearted voices amongst the tumult. The added effect of all this is just how well this formats Unbecoming as an album, as a cohesive unit of sound. Songs have this natural fluidity to them, as one song can seemingly become enough without drawing your attention, making everything feel as if the continuity is drawn by the presence or lack thereof of the vocals. It’s a powerful effect which makes the twenty two minute length feel far too brisk and yet so dreadfully large in its delivery.
Here is the link to Ragana’s Bandcamp. Go listen to Unbecoming and purchase it. As futile as it may be for me to say this, as I’m not really a journalist nor immensely popular, Ragana is a group who have put together a staggeringly powerful work that does so much in so little time. It is atmospheric, angry, emotional, compelling, dramatic, disquieting, beautiful, evocative and any number of other adjectives, all the while being a direct link to something else, something far beyond a simple understanding of music. This is an album I hear at the beginning of 2013 and 172 albums later, it remained my favorite of all the albums I had heard, because it is an album that sits in your mind and makes your imagination run amongst the nightmarish scapes until at last your weary spirit is consumed by its powerful grasp.
Is It Guitar Pornography?: The way I would put it is this: while I’m sure I could play the notes, I do not think I could make these sounds. Judge that for yourselves.

Favorite Track: Unbecoming

My Top 20 Albums of 2013: #1 Ragana’s “Unbecoming”

I’ve started and re-started this write-up three times now. I’m at a bit of a loss to be perfectly honest. I don’t know how to convey exactly how a year with Unbecoming has left me feeling. While only an Extended Play in terms of length, Ragana’s Unbecoming managed to say more in twenty-two minutes than most other bands this year could in over an hour. I’ve had one word spinning around my brain since I first heard Unbecoming: primal. I have images in my mind of stumbling through a moonless night through the verdant tangles towards a dying light and finding myself there, all knotted and bruised to witness a strange scene, one which my eyes were never meant to see, but must stare at in reverent awe for all its rarity. Hearing Unbecoming is to become involved in the idea that we have found some urr-source, something dark and tangled that inspires worship from us. For this, I must give massive credit to Ragana for managing to create such a large and atmospheric sound making use of only two members. At times, tracks become very involved, especially as speeds increase, with the mix of vocals, guitars and drums feeling rather chaotic and consuming in their delivery. A song like “Enough” is given such momentum by the clashing of sounds going on amongst its construction, drums and guitars barely seeming to stay in synch as some frenzy takes over. Yet, the moments that are most disconcerting come from the fact that Unbecoming makes such use of stillness in its music. Stillness is an odd trait to assign to music, as we don’t expect the absence of sound to be such a large part of the experience. But moments when we are left alone with the dying whisps of a note or the decay of a rhythm are those moments when our expectation rise, when our desire to reinvest ourselves in the music hit their peak. Ragan is very controlled in this regard, managing to link moments of pure chaos, atmosphere and stillness together in such a way as to give a fully emotional and dramatic narrative to their songs. “Curved Grass” is made powerful at first by the crushing slow rhythms of fuzzed out guitars matched to the subtle slow sounds of drumming, a sound we might appreciate as supposed to be sounding frightening, yet it is the slower passage of largely clean guitar that makes it feel troubling, makes us feel less comfortable in our skin, as we await the dread of confrontation. As the melody transforms and becomes the same design of single notes, but with the fuzzed ut tone of the previously blocky riff, the song opens up, creating this new musical understanding that synthesizes the two ideas and allows the song to reach such an amazing climax. This is easy to appreciate throughout, as a lack of formal structure gives Ragana a great deal of room to create truly memorable songs that always seem to be branching into new ideas and working through them until the song can no longer sustain them and must end. The lack of appreciable repetition within the song’s structure is itself deconstructive, forcing our recognition of an evolving sense of atmosphere, a progression through different stages of thought and emotional bonding to uniquely human sounds, yet ones not linked to our formal understanding of the practice of music. This is where the drums are at their peak, as I cannot think of a better example of atmospheric drumming, with the rather familiar sounds of rhythm seeming to come in and out of focus, the volume swelling and tempos constantly changing to put us off balance with ourselves and make us more deeply involved with the mental narrative we have formed through listening. This is the power of heavy metal, to be invoke a visceral, primal confrontation with oneself over the ills of reality and become part of the darker leanings that drive the human cause. Unbecoming is an exercise in such confrontations, but one that can so easily subsume us and let us fall to pieces in its own mysticism.

This extends quite well into the vocal delivery of the album, which sees both members use the mic at times in odd off-harmonies. Lyrics on Unbecoming are oddly sparse, mere snatches of words seemingly conjured from a deep smoke rising off the music at moments ones do not initially expect and never in the way you expect them to be sung. Voices tend to be a mix of rather straight forward, tightly tone controlled singing and the most ear shattering yelling one can imagine. I really can’t think of a better word for it than yelling, as the attempts to hold tone throughout the words being used tends to break apart as it happens, slowly shedding its idea of immediate artistry and assuming deeper stance of artistic delivery by imbuing it with as much fury and power as one can wrench from the frail human form. The album closer, “Invocation,” is especially powerful in this regard, as the slow build up to this moment of destructive force is aching, having developed an expectation of its arrival and being made to wait patiently, if not anxiously for its arrival. As the words march from the ether, their formal march sounds like a spell being woven, the imagery and first hand accounting making it feel rather evocative: “we will hold a space/a tender structure/made of breath and bones and flame/and all is change/and it moves through me/and we’ll start over/again and again and again,” Another seeming verse rises from this, the song seeming to wish for some apocalypse that does not come soon enough and yet must wait for its moment of climax, terminating into the idea of repetition, but with seemingly massive changes in cadence giving it new credence: “we invoke the names/we will rise up like water/wreck ships in our wake/we are strong beyond measure/our hearts will not break.” These are the types of moments I’ve really come to appreciate from Unbecoming, the moment where all the sparse delivery and subtle changes in structure seem to rend a forcefulness from the music itself, creating this rather natural emotional response to the dark nature of the atmosphere. We feel the increased desire that the atmosphere should break, but to hear it only in the music is not enough, needing that power the human voice can provide to give us an immediacy to latch ourselves onto, to feel as if we hear our own dark hearted voices amongst the tumult. The added effect of all this is just how well this formats Unbecoming as an album, as a cohesive unit of sound. Songs have this natural fluidity to them, as one song can seemingly become enough without drawing your attention, making everything feel as if the continuity is drawn by the presence or lack thereof of the vocals. It’s a powerful effect which makes the twenty two minute length feel far too brisk and yet so dreadfully large in its delivery.

Here is the link to Ragana’s Bandcamp. Go listen to Unbecoming and purchase it. As futile as it may be for me to say this, as I’m not really a journalist nor immensely popular, Ragana is a group who have put together a staggeringly powerful work that does so much in so little time. It is atmospheric, angry, emotional, compelling, dramatic, disquieting, beautiful, evocative and any number of other adjectives, all the while being a direct link to something else, something far beyond a simple understanding of music. This is an album I hear at the beginning of 2013 and 172 albums later, it remained my favorite of all the albums I had heard, because it is an album that sits in your mind and makes your imagination run amongst the nightmarish scapes until at last your weary spirit is consumed by its powerful grasp.

Is It Guitar Pornography?: The way I would put it is this: while I’m sure I could play the notes, I do not think I could make these sounds. Judge that for yourselves.

Favorite Track: Unbecoming

My Top 20 Albums of 2013: #2 Youth Lagoon’s “Wondrous Bughouse”
I’ve been waiting rather patiently to talk about this album for a very specific reason. I try not to make it a habit of talking specifically about my favorite song from an album because I like to think whatever I feel about them will stand on their own. I say these words whenever I work up the courage to actually discuss my favorite song on an album and perhaps more than ever, as we look at my favorite song of 2013, I need to do so. 2013 was a rough year for me in many ways, though far from the most catastrophic of my existence, and at some point I was at the right point to be struck by Youth Lagoon. I wonder what it will be like when I finally have a year where my favorite song of the year is not on one of favorite albums of the year, but for now, I get to talk about “Dropla.” “Dropla,” has been on near constant repeat since I first heard it, sometimes just played endlessly back to back as I stare off into the middle distance and think carefully about each individual element of it. But I know why it caught my attention so much: the chorus. Youth Lagoon makes use of a very simple statement in “Dropla” for the chorus, simple repeating the phrase “You’ll never die” over and over and over again. It’s almost funny what a loaded sentiment this is, because mortality is a constant concern of the human condition. To say we’ll never die is to say we are both free of the greatest unknown of existence and doomed from enjoying the ephemeral nature of our world’s pleasures, and yet, we may always wish this idea for those we love, wishing to outlive them simply because the thought of losing them is too much. This is the mode of thought I’ve undertaken towards this song as of late, because the chorus changes its presentation by the end of the song. Each time Trevor Powers (the sole member of Youth Lagoon) winds into the chorus, both the inflection of his delivery and tone change. The first time we hear it, the words are joined so perfectly, stated so wholly, giving off this air of confidence in what he’s saying, this firm assurance that the person he’s singing to will never die. But by the final chorus it has transformed immensely, as Powers seems almost overwhelmed, his words less spaced, apart, more hurried, more like he’s assuring himself that this person, whom he seems to adore will never die. It is the musical equivalent of hearing someone plead with the heavens for someone, to hear someone talk while crying, this need to speak as rapidly as possible to make the words comes true and it hits me to my core. The actual verses of the song are a stark contrast to this, seeming to be of almost vaunted metaphor, slowly unwinding a picture of what would be a perfect life worth preserving before smashing it against the idea of mortality, before finally howling out: “You weren’t there when I needed/You are gone, you’re going under.” Was the addressee of the song dead all along or were they dying or is it all just a metaphor? This is little assurance in the music, which is a wonderful haze of whirling sounds, blanketing the song and taking most of its run time. It’s an oddly upbeat song for all it’s subject matter, but this contrast provides a lot of its depth, as the powerful drum beat that opens the lyrics and the singular water drop-esque notes speak volumes about the singularity of the feeling while the whirring synthesizer noises matched with the lo-fi production all the feelings to extend to the populace at large. It may just be a perfect song and that scares me, but at the same time, there is no amount of love I can give that can match my own heart’s ability to find time with “Dropla.”
I guess I should say that the rest of the album is pretty damn good too. I won’t pretend like my love of a certain song doesn’t color my perception of the album as a whole, but I was rather impressed with what was happening on Wondrous Bughouse before I got to “Dropla” on my first listen. I would describe Wondrous Bughouse as having a sound that is very carnivalesque, with all the songs having this wonderful drifting funhouse kind of tint to them. Perhaps this is due to Youth Lagoon’s use of rather bright registers in the synthesizer banks, finding a lot of different sounds to run simultaneously but always sounding wavering and distant. It’s rare for their to be a moment of true stability to the music presented, but the melodies are always crystal clear and actually very simple, as Powers seems keenly aware of just how a few well thought out notes put together are all you need and the rest ices the cake. A song like “Raspberry Cane” has maybe six notes total that make up its main melodic line, but the rest of the song is populated and so busy with all this other noise going on at once, making all these little contrasts appear to the repetition, like different slides appearing on a screen. This tends to make the music feel especially visual for me, as you can kind of characterize all the colors going on at once, trying to put together this rainbow of ideas within the songs themselves. The odd thing is that most of these songs are rather depressing or at least wistful in what they’re actually about, yet the contrasting music allows this to flourish a bit, aking these happenstances of life seem to be one of the special experiences of being alive. I would also like to point out the production of this album, because it was probably the first thing that caught my attention. I know what the term lo-fi means, but it seems incongruous to the actual music of Youth Lagoon and yet so perfect for Powers’ vocals. Powers’ has a very offbeat timbre to his singing, falling somewhere between sounding like a rather young boy and a very old woman, making each thing he says really stick to your mind. Yet, the vocals always feel third hand in the presentation, taking all the natural characteristics of the equipment presenting them, right down to crackles, reverb and volume swells. This ends up being very organic to the overall sound, as the otherworldly general sound of the music clashes with the raw, very human approach to the vocal production, resulting in you feeling very intune with Powers’ voice and what exactly it is he’s saying. The album as a whole makes all these wonderful ideas really pop, really make you feel like you’re part of something far off with someone you know very well and I think that’s the reward: the songs are catchy enough to bring out your most astute listening ability.
Again, Wondrous Bughouse was pretty close to taking the top spot, which I think would be serendipidous sincem y favorite song of 2013 was present on the disc. Still, I can’t fight the fact that this album is responsible for my burgeoning consideration of exactly how production is important to works and how this brings out the true contrast of musical elements, which in turn informs my own emotional narrative through the music. Make no mistake, beneath the sounds of youthful glee and dream-time playgrounds, Youth Lagoon is writing about some dark subject matter, but it is our ability to feel this that makes us special as a species and Wondrous Bughouse celebrates that.
Is It Guitar Pornography?: Not 100% sure there is guitar on this album at all.

Favorite Track: Dropla

My Top 20 Albums of 2013: #2 Youth Lagoon’s “Wondrous Bughouse”

I’ve been waiting rather patiently to talk about this album for a very specific reason. I try not to make it a habit of talking specifically about my favorite song from an album because I like to think whatever I feel about them will stand on their own. I say these words whenever I work up the courage to actually discuss my favorite song on an album and perhaps more than ever, as we look at my favorite song of 2013, I need to do so. 2013 was a rough year for me in many ways, though far from the most catastrophic of my existence, and at some point I was at the right point to be struck by Youth Lagoon. I wonder what it will be like when I finally have a year where my favorite song of the year is not on one of favorite albums of the year, but for now, I get to talk about “Dropla.” “Dropla,” has been on near constant repeat since I first heard it, sometimes just played endlessly back to back as I stare off into the middle distance and think carefully about each individual element of it. But I know why it caught my attention so much: the chorus. Youth Lagoon makes use of a very simple statement in “Dropla” for the chorus, simple repeating the phrase “You’ll never die” over and over and over again. It’s almost funny what a loaded sentiment this is, because mortality is a constant concern of the human condition. To say we’ll never die is to say we are both free of the greatest unknown of existence and doomed from enjoying the ephemeral nature of our world’s pleasures, and yet, we may always wish this idea for those we love, wishing to outlive them simply because the thought of losing them is too much. This is the mode of thought I’ve undertaken towards this song as of late, because the chorus changes its presentation by the end of the song. Each time Trevor Powers (the sole member of Youth Lagoon) winds into the chorus, both the inflection of his delivery and tone change. The first time we hear it, the words are joined so perfectly, stated so wholly, giving off this air of confidence in what he’s saying, this firm assurance that the person he’s singing to will never die. But by the final chorus it has transformed immensely, as Powers seems almost overwhelmed, his words less spaced, apart, more hurried, more like he’s assuring himself that this person, whom he seems to adore will never die. It is the musical equivalent of hearing someone plead with the heavens for someone, to hear someone talk while crying, this need to speak as rapidly as possible to make the words comes true and it hits me to my core. The actual verses of the song are a stark contrast to this, seeming to be of almost vaunted metaphor, slowly unwinding a picture of what would be a perfect life worth preserving before smashing it against the idea of mortality, before finally howling out: “You weren’t there when I needed/You are gone, you’re going under.” Was the addressee of the song dead all along or were they dying or is it all just a metaphor? This is little assurance in the music, which is a wonderful haze of whirling sounds, blanketing the song and taking most of its run time. It’s an oddly upbeat song for all it’s subject matter, but this contrast provides a lot of its depth, as the powerful drum beat that opens the lyrics and the singular water drop-esque notes speak volumes about the singularity of the feeling while the whirring synthesizer noises matched with the lo-fi production all the feelings to extend to the populace at large. It may just be a perfect song and that scares me, but at the same time, there is no amount of love I can give that can match my own heart’s ability to find time with “Dropla.”

I guess I should say that the rest of the album is pretty damn good too. I won’t pretend like my love of a certain song doesn’t color my perception of the album as a whole, but I was rather impressed with what was happening on Wondrous Bughouse before I got to “Dropla” on my first listen. I would describe Wondrous Bughouse as having a sound that is very carnivalesque, with all the songs having this wonderful drifting funhouse kind of tint to them. Perhaps this is due to Youth Lagoon’s use of rather bright registers in the synthesizer banks, finding a lot of different sounds to run simultaneously but always sounding wavering and distant. It’s rare for their to be a moment of true stability to the music presented, but the melodies are always crystal clear and actually very simple, as Powers seems keenly aware of just how a few well thought out notes put together are all you need and the rest ices the cake. A song like “Raspberry Cane” has maybe six notes total that make up its main melodic line, but the rest of the song is populated and so busy with all this other noise going on at once, making all these little contrasts appear to the repetition, like different slides appearing on a screen. This tends to make the music feel especially visual for me, as you can kind of characterize all the colors going on at once, trying to put together this rainbow of ideas within the songs themselves. The odd thing is that most of these songs are rather depressing or at least wistful in what they’re actually about, yet the contrasting music allows this to flourish a bit, aking these happenstances of life seem to be one of the special experiences of being alive. I would also like to point out the production of this album, because it was probably the first thing that caught my attention. I know what the term lo-fi means, but it seems incongruous to the actual music of Youth Lagoon and yet so perfect for Powers’ vocals. Powers’ has a very offbeat timbre to his singing, falling somewhere between sounding like a rather young boy and a very old woman, making each thing he says really stick to your mind. Yet, the vocals always feel third hand in the presentation, taking all the natural characteristics of the equipment presenting them, right down to crackles, reverb and volume swells. This ends up being very organic to the overall sound, as the otherworldly general sound of the music clashes with the raw, very human approach to the vocal production, resulting in you feeling very intune with Powers’ voice and what exactly it is he’s saying. The album as a whole makes all these wonderful ideas really pop, really make you feel like you’re part of something far off with someone you know very well and I think that’s the reward: the songs are catchy enough to bring out your most astute listening ability.

Again, Wondrous Bughouse was pretty close to taking the top spot, which I think would be serendipidous sincem y favorite song of 2013 was present on the disc. Still, I can’t fight the fact that this album is responsible for my burgeoning consideration of exactly how production is important to works and how this brings out the true contrast of musical elements, which in turn informs my own emotional narrative through the music. Make no mistake, beneath the sounds of youthful glee and dream-time playgrounds, Youth Lagoon is writing about some dark subject matter, but it is our ability to feel this that makes us special as a species and Wondrous Bughouse celebrates that.

Is It Guitar Pornography?: Not 100% sure there is guitar on this album at all.

Favorite Track: Dropla

My Top 20 Albums of 2013: #3 Panda Riot’s “Northern Automatic Music”
It’s troublesome to sit on a listening experience for this sort of thing for a long time, because moods and taste evolve as the march of time progresses. Albums I loved throughout 2013 slowly had to march up or down this list depending on the type of person I was at the moment of listening until at last our rotation around the sun ended and all things needed to be set in stone. I knew rather early that Panda Riot’s Northern Automatic Music would rank very high on my list and it would spend it’s time battling with the two albums above it for my top spot. While it settled at number three at the end, this is in no means a knock on it’s quality nor a comparison to the two albums ranked above it, because Northern Automatic Music is a truly sublime work of decadent, wistful sound. If I am to begin my commentary here I would point to the voice of singer Rebecca Scott as the anchor that allowed me access to this wonderful sound. Ostensibly billed as either dream pop or shoegaze, one expects a certain degree of atmospheric charm to the music  of Panda Riot, those blissful sounds that echo through our heads like waves lapping up on some far distant azure shore, but whereas many bands of the type use the vocal lines as just a part of the myriad of confused dark world speak, Panda Riot and Scott are so fully engrossed in their sound as to crest above and dive below the point of reality several times. Many times throughout Northern Automatic music, it seems as if Scott is merely the specter of a distant siren, using a rather washed out timbre with an expressive high range to simply beckon us further into the other world, such as on the album opener “Amanda in the Clouds” or the more turbulent album closer “Camden Line.” Because Scott’s inflection is so immediately crystalline in its delivery, the note seeming to ring out before the actual character of her voice is present, it makes it easy for it to be placed rather distantly in the mix of the track. Much like any seeming number of influences from similar genres, the effect of this creates a feeling of cold distance for the listener, as the immediate sound of the human voice not being fully present makes us ill at ease with the idea of their presence in our world view, but at the same time feels comforting, as we now have a relationship with the otherness of the sounds we’re hearing. But Scott is not singing solely as an atmospheric element on Northern Automatic Music, as she is both delivering stunningly beautiful lyrics with sincere emotional conviction and occasionally breaking through the sound of the band to transform it into a rather direct connection with the humanity of the sound. I would point to “Northern Automatic Music” as the prime example of this, as the song’s swirl of electronic instrumentation that begins the song slowly gives way to a rather straight forward, arching guitar sound that lets Scott’s delivery seem like the singing of a sweet, personal lullaby. As the music shifts, these moments stick out, as she presents two contrasting voices, one stretching and soaring in all resplendent upper register, with a more staccato delivery pressing certain phrases forward into the mind: “Slow down now they’re gone/you’re on your own/Quietly keeping time/Your heart is a nothing ghost.” The effect is dramatic, as the son shifts between quick emotional attitudes, asking you to involve yourself with this voice of a distant star that knows some great secret we don’t, slowly unfolding with motherly care a beautiful yet sad series of statements that we can invest in. Scott’s voice is both a key element of the atmosphere of Northern Automatic Music, but is also the human element that lets us be part of the dreamy sound, telling us in sound alone but enhanced by words just what a human experience this album is.
Perhaps it is because of this that her bandmates manage to create such a lush sound around her, as her voice not only adds to charm to the atmospheric elements they use, but takes impetus from the layered landscape they present. Maybe saying this album is atmospheric is a little mundane, because atmosphere can mean so many different things, but I can’t really think of another way to put it. All the instrumentation on Northern Automatic Music kind of coalesces in a way that seems to be of some grand sweeping design, that kind of implied landscape that comes from the way different sounds are layered. I find it rather notable just how rhythmic an album Northern Automatic Music is, as I would normally expect rhythm to be subsumed by the larger designs of the instrumentation, but Panda Riot seems intent on giving each song a living, breathing pulse. Songs have this almost rubber band pace to them, snapping back and forth between languid strolling and fast movement, making the use of drums an impeccable way to keep the audience instinctually engaged in the cadence of the music and at times, increasing the atmospheric tension of the songs being played. I’ve read that the band makes use of a drum machine as well as an actual drummer, which would be interesting if that were the case for the actual recording of the album, since this would present an interesting dynamic of rhythm signifying both the actual act of providing the beat, as well as a musical element to add further layers to the sound. Primarily however, the melodies found on Northern Automatic Music are derived from a combination of guitar and keyboard, neither of which doing much to blend into the other. This is an interesting choice, as the distinction in the layering of the sound means we’re keenly aware of the particular timbres at play, making it very precarious to hear both going at the same time, but the band pulls it off amazingly. Guitarist Brian Cook does an amazing job of handling both effect laden added elements, as well as providing some really driving rock riffs on the album, providing a lot of the solidity of the music that Scott’s keyboard can become more effervescent over. Scott’s keyboard can be very ephemeral at times, quickly oscillating between particular noises, but this adds to the charm, making you listen specifically to when those sounds are being played and becoming more enamored with figuring out their significance. And when the pair plays together, the wall of sound they create is an engrossing vortex of both delightful noise and chaotic whimsy, feeling a bit cold at times, but always inviting and pleasant enough to drift away to. I won’t say exactly what my mind pictures when I hear those instruments play, but needless to say, it’s beautiful.
The fact that Northern Automatic Music is a full length debut for the band is staggering to me, as the sound is so mature and fleshed out, finding all those little nuances of pop music and weaving them into this dense, yet still somehow airy music. I continue to struggle to find words for things I truly adore, because the more of my heart I sink into something, the more my mind detaches practical terms from it and gives way to flowery poetry, but I’ve tried to be on my best, objective behavior here. Panda Riot is a band that gets that music can be at once enjoyable and consuming, building sounds beyond the voices of distant stars, but always showing that even these distances will not blight what makes us fundamentally human.
Is It Guitar Pornography?: Not really. The guitar playing is nice and fits the music, but it’s a very collaborative sound all-around, so the guitar is rarely at the forefront.

Favorite Track: Serious Radical Girls

My Top 20 Albums of 2013: #3 Panda Riot’s “Northern Automatic Music”

It’s troublesome to sit on a listening experience for this sort of thing for a long time, because moods and taste evolve as the march of time progresses. Albums I loved throughout 2013 slowly had to march up or down this list depending on the type of person I was at the moment of listening until at last our rotation around the sun ended and all things needed to be set in stone. I knew rather early that Panda Riot’s Northern Automatic Music would rank very high on my list and it would spend it’s time battling with the two albums above it for my top spot. While it settled at number three at the end, this is in no means a knock on it’s quality nor a comparison to the two albums ranked above it, because Northern Automatic Music is a truly sublime work of decadent, wistful sound. If I am to begin my commentary here I would point to the voice of singer Rebecca Scott as the anchor that allowed me access to this wonderful sound. Ostensibly billed as either dream pop or shoegaze, one expects a certain degree of atmospheric charm to the music  of Panda Riot, those blissful sounds that echo through our heads like waves lapping up on some far distant azure shore, but whereas many bands of the type use the vocal lines as just a part of the myriad of confused dark world speak, Panda Riot and Scott are so fully engrossed in their sound as to crest above and dive below the point of reality several times. Many times throughout Northern Automatic music, it seems as if Scott is merely the specter of a distant siren, using a rather washed out timbre with an expressive high range to simply beckon us further into the other world, such as on the album opener “Amanda in the Clouds” or the more turbulent album closer “Camden Line.” Because Scott’s inflection is so immediately crystalline in its delivery, the note seeming to ring out before the actual character of her voice is present, it makes it easy for it to be placed rather distantly in the mix of the track. Much like any seeming number of influences from similar genres, the effect of this creates a feeling of cold distance for the listener, as the immediate sound of the human voice not being fully present makes us ill at ease with the idea of their presence in our world view, but at the same time feels comforting, as we now have a relationship with the otherness of the sounds we’re hearing. But Scott is not singing solely as an atmospheric element on Northern Automatic Music, as she is both delivering stunningly beautiful lyrics with sincere emotional conviction and occasionally breaking through the sound of the band to transform it into a rather direct connection with the humanity of the sound. I would point to “Northern Automatic Music” as the prime example of this, as the song’s swirl of electronic instrumentation that begins the song slowly gives way to a rather straight forward, arching guitar sound that lets Scott’s delivery seem like the singing of a sweet, personal lullaby. As the music shifts, these moments stick out, as she presents two contrasting voices, one stretching and soaring in all resplendent upper register, with a more staccato delivery pressing certain phrases forward into the mind: “Slow down now they’re gone/you’re on your own/Quietly keeping time/Your heart is a nothing ghost.” The effect is dramatic, as the son shifts between quick emotional attitudes, asking you to involve yourself with this voice of a distant star that knows some great secret we don’t, slowly unfolding with motherly care a beautiful yet sad series of statements that we can invest in. Scott’s voice is both a key element of the atmosphere of Northern Automatic Music, but is also the human element that lets us be part of the dreamy sound, telling us in sound alone but enhanced by words just what a human experience this album is.

Perhaps it is because of this that her bandmates manage to create such a lush sound around her, as her voice not only adds to charm to the atmospheric elements they use, but takes impetus from the layered landscape they present. Maybe saying this album is atmospheric is a little mundane, because atmosphere can mean so many different things, but I can’t really think of another way to put it. All the instrumentation on Northern Automatic Music kind of coalesces in a way that seems to be of some grand sweeping design, that kind of implied landscape that comes from the way different sounds are layered. I find it rather notable just how rhythmic an album Northern Automatic Music is, as I would normally expect rhythm to be subsumed by the larger designs of the instrumentation, but Panda Riot seems intent on giving each song a living, breathing pulse. Songs have this almost rubber band pace to them, snapping back and forth between languid strolling and fast movement, making the use of drums an impeccable way to keep the audience instinctually engaged in the cadence of the music and at times, increasing the atmospheric tension of the songs being played. I’ve read that the band makes use of a drum machine as well as an actual drummer, which would be interesting if that were the case for the actual recording of the album, since this would present an interesting dynamic of rhythm signifying both the actual act of providing the beat, as well as a musical element to add further layers to the sound. Primarily however, the melodies found on Northern Automatic Music are derived from a combination of guitar and keyboard, neither of which doing much to blend into the other. This is an interesting choice, as the distinction in the layering of the sound means we’re keenly aware of the particular timbres at play, making it very precarious to hear both going at the same time, but the band pulls it off amazingly. Guitarist Brian Cook does an amazing job of handling both effect laden added elements, as well as providing some really driving rock riffs on the album, providing a lot of the solidity of the music that Scott’s keyboard can become more effervescent over. Scott’s keyboard can be very ephemeral at times, quickly oscillating between particular noises, but this adds to the charm, making you listen specifically to when those sounds are being played and becoming more enamored with figuring out their significance. And when the pair plays together, the wall of sound they create is an engrossing vortex of both delightful noise and chaotic whimsy, feeling a bit cold at times, but always inviting and pleasant enough to drift away to. I won’t say exactly what my mind pictures when I hear those instruments play, but needless to say, it’s beautiful.

The fact that Northern Automatic Music is a full length debut for the band is staggering to me, as the sound is so mature and fleshed out, finding all those little nuances of pop music and weaving them into this dense, yet still somehow airy music. I continue to struggle to find words for things I truly adore, because the more of my heart I sink into something, the more my mind detaches practical terms from it and gives way to flowery poetry, but I’ve tried to be on my best, objective behavior here. Panda Riot is a band that gets that music can be at once enjoyable and consuming, building sounds beyond the voices of distant stars, but always showing that even these distances will not blight what makes us fundamentally human.

Is It Guitar Pornography?: Not really. The guitar playing is nice and fits the music, but it’s a very collaborative sound all-around, so the guitar is rarely at the forefront.

Favorite Track: Serious Radical Girls

My Top 20 Albums of 2013: #4 Altar of Plagues, “Teethed Glory and Injury”
Having learned during my quick research for this write-up that Altar of Plagues broke up only a few months after the release of Teethed Glory and Injury, it’s a bit sad to discuss the album that left me so enamored knowing that the possibility of hearing more like it from the group is a rather slim possibility. While metal had the superior year to indie rock, I ended up with more albums making my top twenty that lean towards the latter than metal albums, partially because those metal releases that so excited me hit me in very specific areas of my own musical interests. Teethed Glory and Injury was the metal album this year that most strikes me as an album, that is to say, a cohesive collection of songs whose arrangement presents a thematic idea of the band’s musical style. Starting off as a rather roots black metal album, complete with growled vocals, gluts of needle thin distorted guitar lines and drums pounded as quickly as feet can take them, Teethed Glory is an album that begins to unfurl the deeper you go into it. Tracks, despite having largely compressed lengths, begin to unfurl, to expand upon the musical horizons with each track, maintaining a semblance of the idea of black metal while always reaching for a more expansive and ultimately darker sound. This becomes at it’s most prominent during the track “Twelve Was Ruin” which makes use of electronic elements and chanted vocals set to the rhythm section to open the track. The effect is haunting, as the landscape of the song that follows becomes a dirge of wails into the cold blackness of night, the instrumentation subsumed beneath the increased volume, but ultimately breaking apart to allow the atonal dissonance of the band to take the way, leading to a massive upswell of consecrated rage. While it would certainly be a solid thought to think of this as mere contrast, it functions rather more like a blend, the slow quieting of otherworldly voices into the mimicry of mortal man below, as the instrumentation remains the same, albeit in increased volume. We become lost among the idea that the shift is meant to convey weight to the unmusicality of the more metal section to follow, but it functions more as a long introduction unwinding our mental preparations into a place where thoughts were not meant to go. The songs that follow seem to take from this idea, embracing the space of the music more to create multi-faceted approachs to the same generic approach to the music. Some songs become about clashing drones of guitar raging in furious, slow battle, some songs are about the disquieting effect of slightly off tone, some songs are about the abrupt change of time and instrumental focus. The band seems to understand the root idea of black metal is to be confrontational towards traditional musical values and uses the rather sparse idea of it to push black metal into new directions, resulting in the album feeling like it is mutating and growing as each new track comes on. This is especially important to the overall atmospheric effect which leaves the listener feeling uneasy, the songs building on an idea of wrongness rather than confrontation, their new ideas becoming the seeds of a fascinating but discomforting adrenaline high.
I am especially enamored by the band’s use of longer instrumental passages as a way to indicate the visceral reaction of their music. Post-metal is a term I see bandied about a great deal without any clear definition of what it means (is it just heavier post-rock?), but at times I’m almost at a loss for a term for some of the passages included on this album for all their sweep, majesty and ruination. I must stress again that these tracks are pretty short for what ultimately feels like a roller coaster ride, which speaks well to the band’s use of economy. Ideas tend to drip slowly within the songs on Teethed Glory, as easily condensed sections of repetition begin to elaborate upon themselves, adding that degree of narrative scope that only instrumentals can have. A simple riff repeated over and over again becomes a meditative point as we trace the breakages of it’s pattern, such as on “God Alone,” which sees a largely forward assault become an almost mellow journey between different stratas of emotional torment, at first accusing and then lamenting or on “Burnt Year” that makes use of extended periods of white noise to simulate the confusion and disparity of the lyrical content. These moments are ultimately brief, but they are indicative of a care for quality of sound, making specifics in tone and cadence and duration important links in the chain that joins the songs together. Because the songs are always progressing towards a new horizon without returning to elements within, it has a way of making a fullness appear within each song, a suite-like structure unhampered by a lack of cohesion within. As you know, I have a certain fondness for the guitar and I’m certainly pleased to see the band make the black metal sound so malleable, so capable of conveying the different levels of crushing despair and weight, rarely seeming to be a purely aggressive affront, but more akin to the emotional balance of the songs, with the rhythm section providing the halting gait that marks its heartbeat. Songs become more narrative, more thematically driven as attitude and intent meet dig these passages and he ongs become more joined from within as each seems to exhaust all its possible ideas before withering away and giving rise to the next track.
That I am too late to enjoy Altar of Plagues during their reign as a band is sad, but hearing Teethed Glory and Injury was one of my awakening moments this year. It is a album that justifies my love of the album, by first hypothesizing black metal and then expounding upon the different proclivities of its generic structure and in writing songs that join musical sounds as the basis of a thematic narrative. The album is wholly destructive in its sound, so metal purists who want to drift away into the world of slung body into body will find their place here, but it is amongst these ruins of the world that the darkest days may yet be found.
Is It Guitar Pornography?: I’ve actually been including more and more black metal elements into my own playing as of late, so I appreciate the effort and skill that is required to create that type of sound. That being said, the other musical ideas that guitarist James Kelly brings to the proceedings are what make it easy to declare it guitar pornography.

Favorite Track: Reflection Pulse Remains

My Top 20 Albums of 2013: #4 Altar of Plagues, “Teethed Glory and Injury”

Having learned during my quick research for this write-up that Altar of Plagues broke up only a few months after the release of Teethed Glory and Injury, it’s a bit sad to discuss the album that left me so enamored knowing that the possibility of hearing more like it from the group is a rather slim possibility. While metal had the superior year to indie rock, I ended up with more albums making my top twenty that lean towards the latter than metal albums, partially because those metal releases that so excited me hit me in very specific areas of my own musical interests. Teethed Glory and Injury was the metal album this year that most strikes me as an album, that is to say, a cohesive collection of songs whose arrangement presents a thematic idea of the band’s musical style. Starting off as a rather roots black metal album, complete with growled vocals, gluts of needle thin distorted guitar lines and drums pounded as quickly as feet can take them, Teethed Glory is an album that begins to unfurl the deeper you go into it. Tracks, despite having largely compressed lengths, begin to unfurl, to expand upon the musical horizons with each track, maintaining a semblance of the idea of black metal while always reaching for a more expansive and ultimately darker sound. This becomes at it’s most prominent during the track “Twelve Was Ruin” which makes use of electronic elements and chanted vocals set to the rhythm section to open the track. The effect is haunting, as the landscape of the song that follows becomes a dirge of wails into the cold blackness of night, the instrumentation subsumed beneath the increased volume, but ultimately breaking apart to allow the atonal dissonance of the band to take the way, leading to a massive upswell of consecrated rage. While it would certainly be a solid thought to think of this as mere contrast, it functions rather more like a blend, the slow quieting of otherworldly voices into the mimicry of mortal man below, as the instrumentation remains the same, albeit in increased volume. We become lost among the idea that the shift is meant to convey weight to the unmusicality of the more metal section to follow, but it functions more as a long introduction unwinding our mental preparations into a place where thoughts were not meant to go. The songs that follow seem to take from this idea, embracing the space of the music more to create multi-faceted approachs to the same generic approach to the music. Some songs become about clashing drones of guitar raging in furious, slow battle, some songs are about the disquieting effect of slightly off tone, some songs are about the abrupt change of time and instrumental focus. The band seems to understand the root idea of black metal is to be confrontational towards traditional musical values and uses the rather sparse idea of it to push black metal into new directions, resulting in the album feeling like it is mutating and growing as each new track comes on. This is especially important to the overall atmospheric effect which leaves the listener feeling uneasy, the songs building on an idea of wrongness rather than confrontation, their new ideas becoming the seeds of a fascinating but discomforting adrenaline high.

I am especially enamored by the band’s use of longer instrumental passages as a way to indicate the visceral reaction of their music. Post-metal is a term I see bandied about a great deal without any clear definition of what it means (is it just heavier post-rock?), but at times I’m almost at a loss for a term for some of the passages included on this album for all their sweep, majesty and ruination. I must stress again that these tracks are pretty short for what ultimately feels like a roller coaster ride, which speaks well to the band’s use of economy. Ideas tend to drip slowly within the songs on Teethed Glory, as easily condensed sections of repetition begin to elaborate upon themselves, adding that degree of narrative scope that only instrumentals can have. A simple riff repeated over and over again becomes a meditative point as we trace the breakages of it’s pattern, such as on “God Alone,” which sees a largely forward assault become an almost mellow journey between different stratas of emotional torment, at first accusing and then lamenting or on “Burnt Year” that makes use of extended periods of white noise to simulate the confusion and disparity of the lyrical content. These moments are ultimately brief, but they are indicative of a care for quality of sound, making specifics in tone and cadence and duration important links in the chain that joins the songs together. Because the songs are always progressing towards a new horizon without returning to elements within, it has a way of making a fullness appear within each song, a suite-like structure unhampered by a lack of cohesion within. As you know, I have a certain fondness for the guitar and I’m certainly pleased to see the band make the black metal sound so malleable, so capable of conveying the different levels of crushing despair and weight, rarely seeming to be a purely aggressive affront, but more akin to the emotional balance of the songs, with the rhythm section providing the halting gait that marks its heartbeat. Songs become more narrative, more thematically driven as attitude and intent meet dig these passages and he ongs become more joined from within as each seems to exhaust all its possible ideas before withering away and giving rise to the next track.

That I am too late to enjoy Altar of Plagues during their reign as a band is sad, but hearing Teethed Glory and Injury was one of my awakening moments this year. It is a album that justifies my love of the album, by first hypothesizing black metal and then expounding upon the different proclivities of its generic structure and in writing songs that join musical sounds as the basis of a thematic narrative. The album is wholly destructive in its sound, so metal purists who want to drift away into the world of slung body into body will find their place here, but it is amongst these ruins of the world that the darkest days may yet be found.

Is It Guitar Pornography?: I’ve actually been including more and more black metal elements into my own playing as of late, so I appreciate the effort and skill that is required to create that type of sound. That being said, the other musical ideas that guitarist James Kelly brings to the proceedings are what make it easy to declare it guitar pornography.

Favorite Track: Reflection Pulse Remains

My Top 20 Albums of 2013: #5 Surfer Blood’s “Pythons”
While a lot of times it’s a long search in mind to associate a band with another, I kenw almost immediately who Surfer Blood reminded me of on Pythons: the Pillows. That’s right, the Japanese band that did the soundtrack to FLCL. And much like the Pillows, Surfer Blood caught my attention almost immediately by making blanketing rock music. I think it’s often at times hard to say how I end up placing the order of items on a list, as I kind of just have to go with my gut and Pythons was just one of those records I listened to endlessly. I don’t think it’s the best composed record I’ve heard this year, nor the most exciting intellectually, but what it does is stimulate all those comfortable feelings in me that come from listening to rock n roll. Sporting a kind of lo-fi sound, Pythons is an exercise is controlled vibration, as instruments bounce in and out of the atmosphere of normal tonality, creating a rather rich feeling to each track being played. Upon hearing “Needles and Pins” for the first time, I was reminded of those classic love songs of the 50s, those beautiful slow moving ballads made to be heard when you have another person in your arms and want to be separated from the world for just a moment with them. As the wash of fuzz and amp reverb became more and more present, you focus in more and more on singer John Paul Pitts voice, it becoming this caressing lullaby as he croons soulful words directly at you. Tracks on Pythons have this way of sucking you in, making you feel perfectly in time with what’s happening within them. A lot of this stems from the production, surely, which emphasizes the natural timbre of the instrumentation, but I think the biggest part of this comes from how earnestly thought out the songs are. Songs that are meant to rock you to your very core achieve this to an extensive end, as the band has so much of those well timed shouts that I love, infusing those manic bursts with an energy that just makes you want to lift your own voice to the sky in time with it. Drums bounce around the landscape, always finding that perfect beat to tap your toes along to as guitars find ways to make riffs that seem to archetypal feel alive and vibrant, making the melodies stick in the mind long after the record is over. My love affair with “Say Yes to Me” comes from that massively swinging beat that is able to really bloom with the ringing and distant sound of the guitars, giving you a sense of quiet that contrasts to the upbeat rhythm and vocal patterns. It’s got that vibrantness that takes you away from the troubles of the world, bouncing a simple idea into your mind and giving it the energy you would associate with the feeling yourself. And so many of the songs end up richly atmospheric because of this, finding atmosphere in emotional states we don’t normally associate with the word. The guitar becomes perfectly matched in tone and style to convey happiness or darkness or loneliness and creates a great deal of momentum heading into the rest of the track, allowing you to be surprised by how each element will be introduced. Pythons is ultimately a record that really feels alive by capturing the richness of the sounds and using them as a way to emphasize the song’s nature, finding emotion and atmosphere by simply going full swing into the magical connective tissue of rock n roll.
And while it is not my favorite track of the year, I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss “Demon Dance.” If any of you have been around me in the past couple months, you have heard me play this track ad nauseum. Opening the album, “Demon Dance” is a perfect tone setter for the experience that follows, creating a series of elastic rhythms and atmospheres that kind of mesh together under the all-encompassing sky set up the song itself. The opening riff is this perfectly strummed little bit of clean guitar, teasing of simplicity, before the rest of the instruments come in and the second guitar throttles in the overdrive with some chaotic bends and a simplified, but harder version of the same line. Pitts sings the song in such a lacsedasical way, seeming t be nearly slurring every word, as drummer Tyler Schwarz comes up underneath him, pounding away the toms in emphasis of all the important syllables being spoken. The lyrics are so simplistic, yet so abstract in their wording, making it a wonderful mystery underneath the rather total musical sound: “A word has weight/When it rings true/There’s nothing I/Can hold you to/The hounds of hell/Need love and care/The hounds need/Organs and limbs to tear.” There’s at once this mix of terror and great affection in the words, as the singer’s desire for the other is marred by the idea of their words being false and how damning this is, how far apart he feels from them and how that makes it easy to either condemn them or condemn himself. A well-timed shouting sections towards the middle of the song, complete with squeaking feedback cracks increases the fury of this, adding to the idea of fury underlying each word being sung: “Apologies, meet apologies/We could demon dance all night/Teeth as white as snow/In the vertigo.”  This section is much more truncated in delivery, really bringing across the fire of the words, as each syllable is emphasized and spat between gnashed teeth, the turbulent fight to see the confrontation at hand, but separate onself from it. This is an odd moment because the rest of the song is so overwhelmingly pleasant and filled with fluid coalescences of the different instruments, making the individuated words really stick out and carry the most weight in the song. It’s a remarkable song in so many respects and so absorbing, to the point where I can simply listen to it over and over again without ever feeling a disconnection from it.
And as much as I think “Demon Dance” is an all-time classic in the making, the rest of the record is filled with songs that leave zero dead space, but find new ways to enthrall with the same level of energy. Surfer Blood seems to have hit the sweet spot of sounding rich and lavish while remaining true to the simplistic spirit of rock music writing, finding ways to make things feel atmospheric or over stuffed, but without ever tipping over traditional song structure for the sake of doing so. It makes Pythons a record of rich balances and easily detailed emotion that one need only tap their foot along to to enjoy.
Is It Guitar Pornography?: Sure. It’s not wildly verbose in how the guitar is played, but it is among my favorite examples of how to emphasize a guitar on an indie rock record and I cannot get over the tones they use.

Favorite Track: Demon Dance

My Top 20 Albums of 2013: #5 Surfer Blood’s “Pythons”

While a lot of times it’s a long search in mind to associate a band with another, I kenw almost immediately who Surfer Blood reminded me of on Pythons: the Pillows. That’s right, the Japanese band that did the soundtrack to FLCL. And much like the Pillows, Surfer Blood caught my attention almost immediately by making blanketing rock music. I think it’s often at times hard to say how I end up placing the order of items on a list, as I kind of just have to go with my gut and Pythons was just one of those records I listened to endlessly. I don’t think it’s the best composed record I’ve heard this year, nor the most exciting intellectually, but what it does is stimulate all those comfortable feelings in me that come from listening to rock n roll. Sporting a kind of lo-fi sound, Pythons is an exercise is controlled vibration, as instruments bounce in and out of the atmosphere of normal tonality, creating a rather rich feeling to each track being played. Upon hearing “Needles and Pins” for the first time, I was reminded of those classic love songs of the 50s, those beautiful slow moving ballads made to be heard when you have another person in your arms and want to be separated from the world for just a moment with them. As the wash of fuzz and amp reverb became more and more present, you focus in more and more on singer John Paul Pitts voice, it becoming this caressing lullaby as he croons soulful words directly at you. Tracks on Pythons have this way of sucking you in, making you feel perfectly in time with what’s happening within them. A lot of this stems from the production, surely, which emphasizes the natural timbre of the instrumentation, but I think the biggest part of this comes from how earnestly thought out the songs are. Songs that are meant to rock you to your very core achieve this to an extensive end, as the band has so much of those well timed shouts that I love, infusing those manic bursts with an energy that just makes you want to lift your own voice to the sky in time with it. Drums bounce around the landscape, always finding that perfect beat to tap your toes along to as guitars find ways to make riffs that seem to archetypal feel alive and vibrant, making the melodies stick in the mind long after the record is over. My love affair with “Say Yes to Me” comes from that massively swinging beat that is able to really bloom with the ringing and distant sound of the guitars, giving you a sense of quiet that contrasts to the upbeat rhythm and vocal patterns. It’s got that vibrantness that takes you away from the troubles of the world, bouncing a simple idea into your mind and giving it the energy you would associate with the feeling yourself. And so many of the songs end up richly atmospheric because of this, finding atmosphere in emotional states we don’t normally associate with the word. The guitar becomes perfectly matched in tone and style to convey happiness or darkness or loneliness and creates a great deal of momentum heading into the rest of the track, allowing you to be surprised by how each element will be introduced. Pythons is ultimately a record that really feels alive by capturing the richness of the sounds and using them as a way to emphasize the song’s nature, finding emotion and atmosphere by simply going full swing into the magical connective tissue of rock n roll.

And while it is not my favorite track of the year, I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss “Demon Dance.” If any of you have been around me in the past couple months, you have heard me play this track ad nauseum. Opening the album, “Demon Dance” is a perfect tone setter for the experience that follows, creating a series of elastic rhythms and atmospheres that kind of mesh together under the all-encompassing sky set up the song itself. The opening riff is this perfectly strummed little bit of clean guitar, teasing of simplicity, before the rest of the instruments come in and the second guitar throttles in the overdrive with some chaotic bends and a simplified, but harder version of the same line. Pitts sings the song in such a lacsedasical way, seeming t be nearly slurring every word, as drummer Tyler Schwarz comes up underneath him, pounding away the toms in emphasis of all the important syllables being spoken. The lyrics are so simplistic, yet so abstract in their wording, making it a wonderful mystery underneath the rather total musical sound: “A word has weight/When it rings true/There’s nothing I/Can hold you to/The hounds of hell/Need love and care/The hounds need/Organs and limbs to tear.” There’s at once this mix of terror and great affection in the words, as the singer’s desire for the other is marred by the idea of their words being false and how damning this is, how far apart he feels from them and how that makes it easy to either condemn them or condemn himself. A well-timed shouting sections towards the middle of the song, complete with squeaking feedback cracks increases the fury of this, adding to the idea of fury underlying each word being sung: “Apologies, meet apologies/We could demon dance all night/Teeth as white as snow/In the vertigo.”  This section is much more truncated in delivery, really bringing across the fire of the words, as each syllable is emphasized and spat between gnashed teeth, the turbulent fight to see the confrontation at hand, but separate onself from it. This is an odd moment because the rest of the song is so overwhelmingly pleasant and filled with fluid coalescences of the different instruments, making the individuated words really stick out and carry the most weight in the song. It’s a remarkable song in so many respects and so absorbing, to the point where I can simply listen to it over and over again without ever feeling a disconnection from it.

And as much as I think “Demon Dance” is an all-time classic in the making, the rest of the record is filled with songs that leave zero dead space, but find new ways to enthrall with the same level of energy. Surfer Blood seems to have hit the sweet spot of sounding rich and lavish while remaining true to the simplistic spirit of rock music writing, finding ways to make things feel atmospheric or over stuffed, but without ever tipping over traditional song structure for the sake of doing so. It makes Pythons a record of rich balances and easily detailed emotion that one need only tap their foot along to to enjoy.

Is It Guitar Pornography?: Sure. It’s not wildly verbose in how the guitar is played, but it is among my favorite examples of how to emphasize a guitar on an indie rock record and I cannot get over the tones they use.

Favorite Track: Demon Dance

My Top 20 Albums of 2013: #6 William Tyler’s “Impossible Truth”
This is the music of careless dreams, that subtle softness of an imagined sun wafting the breeze along the pastoral paths. Much like with last year’s Buckethead tour de force, Electric Sea, William Tyler’s Impossible Truth is a true work of passionate beauty said without a single word. I make no secret of my love for the electric guitar and all the wonderful sounds it can make, because there is something about the instrument that is truly amazing, the way it can add so much color and life to notes, the way it’s forms are endless and mutable and it’s constructions so limited yet so unrestrained by how they can sound. Impossible Truth is not surprising for how beautiful it makes the electric guitar sound, but rather, how different it sounds than other instrumental records. I would describe a typical guitar instrumental as having a seeming narrative arc to it, a seeming attempt to encapsulate a story through the structure of the songs. But William Tyler’s songs have this ambling quality to them, as if they’re just [assing idle thoughts on your way down a road somewhere in the country. Passages repeat for much of the breadth of a given song, moving in and out of different picked notes, always maintaining this consistent pace and jaunty stroll to them, slowly adding in layers of other instruments to accompany them. The opening track alone, “Country of Illusion,” is a sprawling nine minutes in length, seeing the inclusion of pedal steel and horns added to its mix before finally terminating in a subtle and percussive downstroke to end the track. It’s an odd experience to take with music, as much of my own understanding of music comes from formula, but these are songs that don’t build to any sort of climax, instead fully painting scenes within the mind. Each time a passage repeats we become more aware of a different aspect of it, wiser to how the strings are interplaying within moments. It becomes meditative almost, as you begin to allow your mind  to drift into a panorama of scenery that could encompass such a sound. I would describe it as being akin to looking at paintings and tracing all the different aspects within, as each song is teeming with ideas that can be endlessly thought about, why a transition happened here, how the timbre of the guitar changed there, etc. etc.. It becomes its own layer of majesty to simply drift along with it and see it as the soundtrack to an existence far apart from our own, finding the moments when we can see the humanity through the bounce of the six steel strings.
This leads to a rather natural inclination for the music to feel rather emotional without ever being blatantly infused with the trappings of emotion. As I’ve said, most songs feel like a journey along a path rather than a climb up a mountain, so the encapsulation of emotion within each song is not about the wild swing and whimsical direction emotions can take, but rather the steadfastness of it until we can see the truth of it. “The Last Residents of Westfall” possesses an ominous title, but is among the brightest sounding tracks on the record, causing my shoulders to bounce in time with it, though it slowly loses and picks up speed at intermittent times with a subtle hint of winds coming in the background. It is a track that glows brightly, making you feel the happiness of moving on in life, finding something new while always treasuring those things in the past. The track has a little turbulence about midway through, as the lines become more stilted and bass comes more into the mix, but it never feels abrupt of catastrophic, as if there is a hint of doubt beneath all that resolve. “A Portrait of Sarah” is made of jumbled acoustic strings vibrating freely in the air, the fingers of Tyler barely seeming able to keep up with what this vivid picture is in his mind. You can sense that intense longing in it, that need to say these things over and over again so they’re close to our hearts and therefore, as true as they can be. The track opens up eventually, feeling more confident, but never so confident as to lose that shy trepidation that comes from adoration  But the beauty of this is that anyone could hear the same songs I hear and feel something entirely different from them. Tyler puts a lot of effort and concentration into making his guitar sound different in each song, giving us only hints through the timbre that things have changed and it becomes up to us to find the place where his subtle and graceful playing meets the intersection with our own lives.
It’s certainly not Joe Satriani or Steve Vai, that’s for sure, but the lack of technical virtuosity results in William Tyler creating a layered record where every change, every new layer and subtle difference seems to be the most important thing in the world. These are the sounds of our hearts as we become absorbed in a singular moment of beauty in the world, so engrossed and cut off from the rest of reality, yet so enamored to be a part of it.
Is It Guitar Pornography?: Does it have any choice but to be? Don’t come in expecting a technical display and you will be very satisfied.

Favorite Track: The Geography of Nowhere

My Top 20 Albums of 2013: #6 William Tyler’s “Impossible Truth”

This is the music of careless dreams, that subtle softness of an imagined sun wafting the breeze along the pastoral paths. Much like with last year’s Buckethead tour de force, Electric Sea, William Tyler’s Impossible Truth is a true work of passionate beauty said without a single word. I make no secret of my love for the electric guitar and all the wonderful sounds it can make, because there is something about the instrument that is truly amazing, the way it can add so much color and life to notes, the way it’s forms are endless and mutable and it’s constructions so limited yet so unrestrained by how they can sound. Impossible Truth is not surprising for how beautiful it makes the electric guitar sound, but rather, how different it sounds than other instrumental records. I would describe a typical guitar instrumental as having a seeming narrative arc to it, a seeming attempt to encapsulate a story through the structure of the songs. But William Tyler’s songs have this ambling quality to them, as if they’re just [assing idle thoughts on your way down a road somewhere in the country. Passages repeat for much of the breadth of a given song, moving in and out of different picked notes, always maintaining this consistent pace and jaunty stroll to them, slowly adding in layers of other instruments to accompany them. The opening track alone, “Country of Illusion,” is a sprawling nine minutes in length, seeing the inclusion of pedal steel and horns added to its mix before finally terminating in a subtle and percussive downstroke to end the track. It’s an odd experience to take with music, as much of my own understanding of music comes from formula, but these are songs that don’t build to any sort of climax, instead fully painting scenes within the mind. Each time a passage repeats we become more aware of a different aspect of it, wiser to how the strings are interplaying within moments. It becomes meditative almost, as you begin to allow your mind  to drift into a panorama of scenery that could encompass such a sound. I would describe it as being akin to looking at paintings and tracing all the different aspects within, as each song is teeming with ideas that can be endlessly thought about, why a transition happened here, how the timbre of the guitar changed there, etc. etc.. It becomes its own layer of majesty to simply drift along with it and see it as the soundtrack to an existence far apart from our own, finding the moments when we can see the humanity through the bounce of the six steel strings.

This leads to a rather natural inclination for the music to feel rather emotional without ever being blatantly infused with the trappings of emotion. As I’ve said, most songs feel like a journey along a path rather than a climb up a mountain, so the encapsulation of emotion within each song is not about the wild swing and whimsical direction emotions can take, but rather the steadfastness of it until we can see the truth of it. “The Last Residents of Westfall” possesses an ominous title, but is among the brightest sounding tracks on the record, causing my shoulders to bounce in time with it, though it slowly loses and picks up speed at intermittent times with a subtle hint of winds coming in the background. It is a track that glows brightly, making you feel the happiness of moving on in life, finding something new while always treasuring those things in the past. The track has a little turbulence about midway through, as the lines become more stilted and bass comes more into the mix, but it never feels abrupt of catastrophic, as if there is a hint of doubt beneath all that resolve. “A Portrait of Sarah” is made of jumbled acoustic strings vibrating freely in the air, the fingers of Tyler barely seeming able to keep up with what this vivid picture is in his mind. You can sense that intense longing in it, that need to say these things over and over again so they’re close to our hearts and therefore, as true as they can be. The track opens up eventually, feeling more confident, but never so confident as to lose that shy trepidation that comes from adoration  But the beauty of this is that anyone could hear the same songs I hear and feel something entirely different from them. Tyler puts a lot of effort and concentration into making his guitar sound different in each song, giving us only hints through the timbre that things have changed and it becomes up to us to find the place where his subtle and graceful playing meets the intersection with our own lives.

It’s certainly not Joe Satriani or Steve Vai, that’s for sure, but the lack of technical virtuosity results in William Tyler creating a layered record where every change, every new layer and subtle difference seems to be the most important thing in the world. These are the sounds of our hearts as we become absorbed in a singular moment of beauty in the world, so engrossed and cut off from the rest of reality, yet so enamored to be a part of it.

Is It Guitar Pornography?: Does it have any choice but to be? Don’t come in expecting a technical display and you will be very satisfied.

Favorite Track: The Geography of Nowhere

Based off of recent posts on my dash I guess I need to say this: love is important. Love is a big, terrifying emotion that rushes at you like a tidal wave from out in the deep. Love is the culmination of all those good things about being human, where we understand something so clearly through the tangled, dangerous mess of our hearts. Love can be for anything or anyone, but it is also deceptive. You can love anyone of any gender, size, shape, race, religion, background, financial means and it will be the most important thing in the world. And it should be. Because love is something that affirms that it’s ok to live in a world where people can harm you, where those around you can treat you carelessly, where fucked up accidents happen and violence is inflicted from one person to another and lives are ruined because people don’t understand how to treat one another. You can love who you like, what you like, how you like, but never waste it. Life is an ephemeral thing and love is even more like a ghost you try to hold. Treasure it even if it must end at some point. Because all things end. You will end. They will end. But at least you had something important. Love your friends. Love your family. Love anyone who is ever kind and deserving of it. And rebuke anyone who pervert those good feelings. Throw abusers off a cliff, throw the liars into a fire. But never give up. Always know that the brighter you love, the longer the potential shadow can be. And always remember, that your heart has the potential for as much love as you can imagine. No matter how things end with one person, your heart will crave more with another and let it do that. Our minds aren’t always ready to understand that there is something shared between people that is more important than ourselves, but our hearts know. They know we can love again in any size and shape because people should be important to each other in that way, so let your heart guide your mind to the important and worthwhile things worth your love.

My Top 20 Albums of 2013: #7 Watain’s “The Wild Hunt”
If ever there was a genre that flourished this past year, it was black metal. I’ve already talked about De Odeslosa and Sunbather and now here I am at the Wild Hunt and what I think I’ve really come to appreciate is how remarkably different these albums are. The Wild Hunt was a hard record for me to immediately engage with, as I usually tend to shy away from traditional black metal, but as the album marched forward, my eyes became more and more open to the strange goings on present. Rather than be a simple ideological confrontation through the medium of dissonance, The Wild Hunt is an unwinding path, slowly making its way into the closed thickets of the past to a moment of clarity before once again entangling the listener in confusion and desperation. In many ways, The Wild Hunt is all about this elemental force, channeling the energy of black metal while incorporating the instrumentation of more disparate genres. I was struck most potently by this while listening to the title track, which invokes a great deal of ritualistic chanting in order to sustain it’s structure. While the song is still propelled by the needlepoint guitar work and growled bellows representative of the genre, there are these moments of breakage within the song in which all the different elements clear up into wonderful tonality, shedding the horrid trappings of the mortal sphere and ascending to newfound harmony. While the chanting comes off as immediately ritualistic, conjuring invocations and mourning for times long past, the guitar work takes an odd moment of tonality, embracing a rather sweeping tone for its solos. This is indicative of the album as a whole, as many moments seem to see the brutal totality melt away when a guitar solo more akin to Pink Floyd than Mayhem enters, slowly melting into bent tones. “Ignem Veni Mittere” and “Black Flames March” accomplish much the same thing in their structures, at first coming off as rather standard, if not very raw, variations of prototypical black metal before allowing this glorious phoenix of guitar to rise up in flames from amongst their midsts. The solos themselves are wonderfully placed within the song, adding a degree of mystery to the overall track, as their chaotic beauty does not immediately gel with blast beats and gain for its own sake, yet they become the anchor to the songs they are in, listlessly burning away the darkness to create a new layer of shadow and add a certain degree of melancholy to the aggression at hand. It as if Watain has taken a moment to recognize exactly where their brutal attack stems from and made it into a wondrous tone poem within the songs. And the album is more varied than one would expect, having a few ballads within, most notably “They Rode On” which adds even further serenity to the otherwise confusing all-out style the band uses. These moments surprise, not because they’re different, but because they layer the music and add dimensions to the chaos, making profound statements about just where such raw emotion can stem from.
Of course, this does not work without the raw aggression also being at top form and  Watain does not disappoint. Nearly any song the record can stand in as an example of aural chaos, but Watain does everything in this minutely different way, so let me stick to one as my primary example: “All That May Bleed.” The song opens with a riff more akin to Viking metal or melodic death metal, slowly building in a slow galloped step, before finally giving way to the typical black metal sound, that rush of blanketing guitar that rushes up the spine like needles of ice. This pinpoint distortion gives way in a moment of almost pure chaos, where singer Erik Danielsson is barely audible through the cacophony of different sounds, before at last it breaks and he is left alone, summoning in a new thunderous riff that returns to the style of the opening. The song makes several switches back and forth between the sounds, finding moments that create a landslide of massively trilled distortion and others which see more separation in the riffs, allowing them to build through easy to follow patterns. Danielsson does his best to anchor this, but the ever increasing intrusion of different levels of dissonance is jarring, throwing off the senses until we are fully off balance. Rhythms crash and clash with one another, audible chaos becomes atmospheric and breaks apart in orbit and voices declare without signification. This is perhaps the greatest trick the band pulls, as while they ostensibly see the differences between genres, they are not immediately confined to nay, instead using the varying styles of aggression to create atonal clashes. To hear a drum part rock back between a thunderous marching bass pattern and then fly back into the rapid fire blast beat, disorients, destroying our natural sense of rhythm with the music Guitars swinging back and forth never allow us to acclimate to the style of the music, never allow us to truly be part of the chaos at whose altar we’ve come to worship. The singing is perhaps the most even keel piece of the puzzle, but Danielsson is never given a generic focus, never allowed to cadence himself in any meaningful way, often times resulting in him sounding more like he’s orating rather than being part of his own musical ideas. I think you can guess that the design of this is supposed to be confrontational and off-putting, creating music that is at times, decidedly non-musical, but this makes the intent of the songs all the more powerful. As the band tries to create these moments of frustration, they are also sewing the seeds of true unrepentant primality in their style, leaving the rawness of fury without the baggage f fitting it into a specific mold. It makes the songs feel more alive and intune with the ideas being sung, enhances the beautiful moments and gives the mind so much to assimilate to join in the meditative calm that comes from being truly within the eye of the storm.
The Wild Hunt is a record that is very varied in what it does and I feel almost sad that I don’t have space to discuss just how well it stands as an album. Nevertheless, the different sides of the Elder world all shine through Watain, as the primordial fires which keep still embers in our hearts burn through, never in any pattern we can understand but even in fury, remain beautiful. I remember the moment this record shook me from my slumber and I will remember the wildness it holds within.
Is It Guitar Pornography?: Oh fuck yes. Damn fine guitar all around on this record, on nearly every inch of it. I think pure black metal fans will be turned off by some of the more quieter approaches they add to this record, but I think these moments enhance the overall sound.

Favorite Track: Black Flames March

My Top 20 Albums of 2013: #7 Watain’s “The Wild Hunt”

If ever there was a genre that flourished this past year, it was black metal. I’ve already talked about De Odeslosa and Sunbather and now here I am at the Wild Hunt and what I think I’ve really come to appreciate is how remarkably different these albums are. The Wild Hunt was a hard record for me to immediately engage with, as I usually tend to shy away from traditional black metal, but as the album marched forward, my eyes became more and more open to the strange goings on present. Rather than be a simple ideological confrontation through the medium of dissonance, The Wild Hunt is an unwinding path, slowly making its way into the closed thickets of the past to a moment of clarity before once again entangling the listener in confusion and desperation. In many ways, The Wild Hunt is all about this elemental force, channeling the energy of black metal while incorporating the instrumentation of more disparate genres. I was struck most potently by this while listening to the title track, which invokes a great deal of ritualistic chanting in order to sustain it’s structure. While the song is still propelled by the needlepoint guitar work and growled bellows representative of the genre, there are these moments of breakage within the song in which all the different elements clear up into wonderful tonality, shedding the horrid trappings of the mortal sphere and ascending to newfound harmony. While the chanting comes off as immediately ritualistic, conjuring invocations and mourning for times long past, the guitar work takes an odd moment of tonality, embracing a rather sweeping tone for its solos. This is indicative of the album as a whole, as many moments seem to see the brutal totality melt away when a guitar solo more akin to Pink Floyd than Mayhem enters, slowly melting into bent tones. “Ignem Veni Mittere” and “Black Flames March” accomplish much the same thing in their structures, at first coming off as rather standard, if not very raw, variations of prototypical black metal before allowing this glorious phoenix of guitar to rise up in flames from amongst their midsts. The solos themselves are wonderfully placed within the song, adding a degree of mystery to the overall track, as their chaotic beauty does not immediately gel with blast beats and gain for its own sake, yet they become the anchor to the songs they are in, listlessly burning away the darkness to create a new layer of shadow and add a certain degree of melancholy to the aggression at hand. It as if Watain has taken a moment to recognize exactly where their brutal attack stems from and made it into a wondrous tone poem within the songs. And the album is more varied than one would expect, having a few ballads within, most notably “They Rode On” which adds even further serenity to the otherwise confusing all-out style the band uses. These moments surprise, not because they’re different, but because they layer the music and add dimensions to the chaos, making profound statements about just where such raw emotion can stem from.

Of course, this does not work without the raw aggression also being at top form and  Watain does not disappoint. Nearly any song the record can stand in as an example of aural chaos, but Watain does everything in this minutely different way, so let me stick to one as my primary example: “All That May Bleed.” The song opens with a riff more akin to Viking metal or melodic death metal, slowly building in a slow galloped step, before finally giving way to the typical black metal sound, that rush of blanketing guitar that rushes up the spine like needles of ice. This pinpoint distortion gives way in a moment of almost pure chaos, where singer Erik Danielsson is barely audible through the cacophony of different sounds, before at last it breaks and he is left alone, summoning in a new thunderous riff that returns to the style of the opening. The song makes several switches back and forth between the sounds, finding moments that create a landslide of massively trilled distortion and others which see more separation in the riffs, allowing them to build through easy to follow patterns. Danielsson does his best to anchor this, but the ever increasing intrusion of different levels of dissonance is jarring, throwing off the senses until we are fully off balance. Rhythms crash and clash with one another, audible chaos becomes atmospheric and breaks apart in orbit and voices declare without signification. This is perhaps the greatest trick the band pulls, as while they ostensibly see the differences between genres, they are not immediately confined to nay, instead using the varying styles of aggression to create atonal clashes. To hear a drum part rock back between a thunderous marching bass pattern and then fly back into the rapid fire blast beat, disorients, destroying our natural sense of rhythm with the music Guitars swinging back and forth never allow us to acclimate to the style of the music, never allow us to truly be part of the chaos at whose altar we’ve come to worship. The singing is perhaps the most even keel piece of the puzzle, but Danielsson is never given a generic focus, never allowed to cadence himself in any meaningful way, often times resulting in him sounding more like he’s orating rather than being part of his own musical ideas. I think you can guess that the design of this is supposed to be confrontational and off-putting, creating music that is at times, decidedly non-musical, but this makes the intent of the songs all the more powerful. As the band tries to create these moments of frustration, they are also sewing the seeds of true unrepentant primality in their style, leaving the rawness of fury without the baggage f fitting it into a specific mold. It makes the songs feel more alive and intune with the ideas being sung, enhances the beautiful moments and gives the mind so much to assimilate to join in the meditative calm that comes from being truly within the eye of the storm.

The Wild Hunt is a record that is very varied in what it does and I feel almost sad that I don’t have space to discuss just how well it stands as an album. Nevertheless, the different sides of the Elder world all shine through Watain, as the primordial fires which keep still embers in our hearts burn through, never in any pattern we can understand but even in fury, remain beautiful. I remember the moment this record shook me from my slumber and I will remember the wildness it holds within.

Is It Guitar Pornography?: Oh fuck yes. Damn fine guitar all around on this record, on nearly every inch of it. I think pure black metal fans will be turned off by some of the more quieter approaches they add to this record, but I think these moments enhance the overall sound.

Favorite Track: Black Flames March

My Top 20 Albums of 2013: #8 Toro y Moi’s “Anything in Return”
The balmy chill of a life lived in too long and not experienced enough. Toro y Moi’s Anything in Return creates a wonderful tapestry of disparate sounds, layering them together into a cozy blanket of reasonable calm and understanding. I find chillwave to be such an odd genre to try and push Toro y Moi into, as while the music itself is so calming in its ambience, there are just so many layers that place the realm of normalcy within the turbulence of everyday living. The more I’ve listened to Anything in Return over the past months, the more apparent it’s become to me that the songs in the album deal with the more troubling aspects of everyday living, most notably relationship troubles. I think the big reason for this comes from the fact that it rarely feels as if Chazwick Bundick’s voice is the focal of the track being played, burying all the sentiments he sings about within the lapping waves of electronic noise he is capable of making. While I was preparing to write this review, the track “Studies” caught my attention for the first time. While Bundick’s voice is more present in this one due to a falsetto 70s funk choral part, I had never quite understood the words he had been saying: “Why is she still sleeping?/I wish she’d explain/The family’s busy stressin’/About where you are/I guess it’s just a habit/To have sense that things are fragile/It’s the warmth inside your bag/If I hadn’t spent the night with you/I don’t think we’ll ever make this through.” While the hook is so immediately engaging, the lyrics of the verse are so pregnant with a narrative scene, as it puts absence to the forefront as a solitary girl waits patiently and rages at the absence of her lover on a day that should have been theirs together. It’s a scene that’s easy to excise from the track, to make stand on it’s own as both an archetypal sense of distance once experiences when they’ve become dependent on closeness, yet also so specific in what it asks of the person the track is directed at. What I find so interesting about all this is not just the fact the lyrics themselves are remarkably astute in all their truncation, but the fact that Toro y Moi is so skilled at making his lyrics and music points of contrast. As I said previously, the general sound of Anything in Return is a widely ambient and varied arrangement of synthesizer noise, very rarely peaking in any way or becoming especially traditionally rhythmic, focusing more upon layering sounds in such a way as to add counterpoint melodies. The result of this is strangely soothing, making one’s problems in life melt away from their shoulders and allow them to fall into the totality of the music. But the fact that the lyrics are largely troubling, moments of emotion spiraling out of control, the music doesn’t initially seem to gel with the ideas being inserted into them. This creates this wonderful normality to the situations being described, this soothing aspect of having troubles of the heart and mind. While we never wish troubles onto ourselves, the music seems to signal to us just commonplace and vibrant these things are, how much they define us as people and allow us to feel more at comfort with the world around us. When brought together, the music and the lyrics create the impression of just how wonderfully beautiful and distant memories of trouble can be and how these small patches of self allow us to become more comfortable with what’s within us.
Naturally, this leads to a lot of very interesting musical directions being played out all at once on Anything in Return. It’s been a while since I’ve gotten to play one of my all-time favorite games and try to pin down exactly what my ears hear when I listen to a record: Anything in Return sounds like Daft Punk’s “Something About Us,” mixed with Parliament Funkadelic era guitar and layered like a mid-era Pink Floyd album. That is about the oddest combination of things I can say about how something sounds, but it all kind of makes sense in Toro y Moi’s hands. I don’t want to call them samples, but whatever synthesizer parts you hear have this wonderful smoothness to them, bringing in a lot of disparate noises that sound specifically electronic in nature. This is always a tricky proposition for me, as I generally tend to prefer analog instrumentation, but Bundick does a lot to peak interest in individual sounds without making them feel alien to the listener. The soft tinge of effects coming across the notation creates this wonderful softness to everything, allowing the immense layering that comes in to feel especially potent. Any given song can seem to have several melodies going on at once, the different synthesizer parts intertwining in a way to create a lush system of atmosphere to dive into and allowing for the more dominant melody line to add movement, rather than be dependent on rhythm for this purpose. This is where the guitar kind of comes in, as the occasional intrusion of the instrumentation allows for an interesting contrast to the totality of synthesizer we’ve heard up to this point, allowing for some songs to have a more dynamic tension based on the wildly swinging wah’d out funk sound that infects it. At times this is most akin to straight up hip hop, but Toro y Moi is less dependent on cadence and more on the natural gracefulness of his sound, allowing his voice to become a more rhythmic instrument as he swings between talking and singing. The result is so remarkably soothing and embracing, letting you fall off the edge of the world into this dream-lit landscape that comes from totally understanding the music as one unit while being tantalized by its divisibility.
Anything in Return joins that great list of albums I’m accumulating where the album itself is so wonderfully composed that it can simply be present without your attention necessarily being on it. This sounds kind of negative, but it’s wonderful in its own way, as its moods and subtle shifts in emotional color allow the listener to simply drift with their own emotional state until they arrive at the same point as Toro y Moi by album’s end. It lifts the spirit without ever conquering it and slowly rocks the listener into a world outside their own.
Is It Guitar Pornography?: I can’t definitively say the guitar on the album is banked to synth when I do hear it, but it is interesting.

Favorite Track: Cake

My Top 20 Albums of 2013: #8 Toro y Moi’s “Anything in Return”

The balmy chill of a life lived in too long and not experienced enough. Toro y Moi’s Anything in Return creates a wonderful tapestry of disparate sounds, layering them together into a cozy blanket of reasonable calm and understanding. I find chillwave to be such an odd genre to try and push Toro y Moi into, as while the music itself is so calming in its ambience, there are just so many layers that place the realm of normalcy within the turbulence of everyday living. The more I’ve listened to Anything in Return over the past months, the more apparent it’s become to me that the songs in the album deal with the more troubling aspects of everyday living, most notably relationship troubles. I think the big reason for this comes from the fact that it rarely feels as if Chazwick Bundick’s voice is the focal of the track being played, burying all the sentiments he sings about within the lapping waves of electronic noise he is capable of making. While I was preparing to write this review, the track “Studies” caught my attention for the first time. While Bundick’s voice is more present in this one due to a falsetto 70s funk choral part, I had never quite understood the words he had been saying: “Why is she still sleeping?/I wish she’d explain/The family’s busy stressin’/About where you are/I guess it’s just a habit/To have sense that things are fragile/It’s the warmth inside your bag/If I hadn’t spent the night with you/I don’t think we’ll ever make this through.” While the hook is so immediately engaging, the lyrics of the verse are so pregnant with a narrative scene, as it puts absence to the forefront as a solitary girl waits patiently and rages at the absence of her lover on a day that should have been theirs together. It’s a scene that’s easy to excise from the track, to make stand on it’s own as both an archetypal sense of distance once experiences when they’ve become dependent on closeness, yet also so specific in what it asks of the person the track is directed at. What I find so interesting about all this is not just the fact the lyrics themselves are remarkably astute in all their truncation, but the fact that Toro y Moi is so skilled at making his lyrics and music points of contrast. As I said previously, the general sound of Anything in Return is a widely ambient and varied arrangement of synthesizer noise, very rarely peaking in any way or becoming especially traditionally rhythmic, focusing more upon layering sounds in such a way as to add counterpoint melodies. The result of this is strangely soothing, making one’s problems in life melt away from their shoulders and allow them to fall into the totality of the music. But the fact that the lyrics are largely troubling, moments of emotion spiraling out of control, the music doesn’t initially seem to gel with the ideas being inserted into them. This creates this wonderful normality to the situations being described, this soothing aspect of having troubles of the heart and mind. While we never wish troubles onto ourselves, the music seems to signal to us just commonplace and vibrant these things are, how much they define us as people and allow us to feel more at comfort with the world around us. When brought together, the music and the lyrics create the impression of just how wonderfully beautiful and distant memories of trouble can be and how these small patches of self allow us to become more comfortable with what’s within us.

Naturally, this leads to a lot of very interesting musical directions being played out all at once on Anything in Return. It’s been a while since I’ve gotten to play one of my all-time favorite games and try to pin down exactly what my ears hear when I listen to a record: Anything in Return sounds like Daft Punk’s “Something About Us,” mixed with Parliament Funkadelic era guitar and layered like a mid-era Pink Floyd album. That is about the oddest combination of things I can say about how something sounds, but it all kind of makes sense in Toro y Moi’s hands. I don’t want to call them samples, but whatever synthesizer parts you hear have this wonderful smoothness to them, bringing in a lot of disparate noises that sound specifically electronic in nature. This is always a tricky proposition for me, as I generally tend to prefer analog instrumentation, but Bundick does a lot to peak interest in individual sounds without making them feel alien to the listener. The soft tinge of effects coming across the notation creates this wonderful softness to everything, allowing the immense layering that comes in to feel especially potent. Any given song can seem to have several melodies going on at once, the different synthesizer parts intertwining in a way to create a lush system of atmosphere to dive into and allowing for the more dominant melody line to add movement, rather than be dependent on rhythm for this purpose. This is where the guitar kind of comes in, as the occasional intrusion of the instrumentation allows for an interesting contrast to the totality of synthesizer we’ve heard up to this point, allowing for some songs to have a more dynamic tension based on the wildly swinging wah’d out funk sound that infects it. At times this is most akin to straight up hip hop, but Toro y Moi is less dependent on cadence and more on the natural gracefulness of his sound, allowing his voice to become a more rhythmic instrument as he swings between talking and singing. The result is so remarkably soothing and embracing, letting you fall off the edge of the world into this dream-lit landscape that comes from totally understanding the music as one unit while being tantalized by its divisibility.

Anything in Return joins that great list of albums I’m accumulating where the album itself is so wonderfully composed that it can simply be present without your attention necessarily being on it. This sounds kind of negative, but it’s wonderful in its own way, as its moods and subtle shifts in emotional color allow the listener to simply drift with their own emotional state until they arrive at the same point as Toro y Moi by album’s end. It lifts the spirit without ever conquering it and slowly rocks the listener into a world outside their own.

Is It Guitar Pornography?: I can’t definitively say the guitar on the album is banked to synth when I do hear it, but it is interesting.

Favorite Track: Cake