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by Deanne Sole

18 Dec 2009

At the heart of Legends of Benin lies the spiral, the curve, the unfinished circle that leads to its replica. The silence at the start of the album is broken by the sound of a drumbeat, but this forward movement is eventually joined by a guitar, which introduces the spiral, and that’s that for the rest of the album—the spiral is there. Percussion shuffles; men shout, “yow!”; keyboards sprout rills of ice; horns proudly serenade singers; but through it all, this insidious curving tickle of noise goes on, always proposing an end and never reaching it. This sets it apart from the guitar chords of rock music, all beginnings and endings, stamping on the stage with one foot and declaring, “I’m here!” The West African guitar fills the middle ground of the song, and there’s nothing the other instruments can do to get away from it. The whole sound, spiral and everything else, comes together in a fat stew, stirring round and round and rising up and up.

by Nick Dinicola

18 Dec 2009

Whenever one compares PC and console games inevitably the subject of controls comes up, paricularly the fact that controllers simply can’t offer the same speed and precision as a mouse. This means certain PC-centric genres, like first person shooters or real time strategy games, must make compromises and concessions in order to compensate when they’re brought to consoles. The first-person shooter has made the necessary compromises, and as a result, the genre is flourishing on consoles, but unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the real-time strategy genre.

Both speed and precision are necessary for any first-person shooter to work. If headshots are instant kills, then the controls must be precise enough to actually allow the player to hit the head, and if our virtual life is on the line, we must be able to hit the target quickly before we’re killed instead. The solution for this issue of speed is rather simple: slow down the game. Halo did this quite well; Master Chief can’t run, and he even walks at a fairly slow pace. Combat is slowed as a result, giving the player extra time to consider his options. Compare an online game of Halo with the still popular PC game Counter-Strike and this difference in speed becomes obvious.

There’s also a heavy focus on cover in many console FPS games: Killzone 2, the Rainbow 6: Vegas games, any Call of Duty, and Gears of War to name a few. Not all of these games have specific cover mechanics, but they all have regenerating health, which encourages the use of cover. The use of cover itself slows down the pace of a game considerably and has the added advantage of making the player more precise as well. Enemies will also get behind cover, which means that they’re usually sitting still and all that the player has to do is train our sights on their cover and wait for them to pop out. Hitting a moving enemy in a console FPS is still far more difficult than it is on a PC, so most console FPS games are structured in a way that makes moving targets less of an issue.

But cover itself doesn’t solve the problem of precision, “auto aim” is needed as well. Auto aim helps make the player more precise by automatically moving the camera towards an enemy, giving players an easier shot. Early console FPS games had a very judicious use of auto aim. Take the classic GoldenEye for example, the use of auto aim was so blatant that your gun would actually turn to shoot at enemies even if the player was standing still. Compare that to the more advanced and elegant implementation in Modern Warfare 2, which uses what is essentially an “auto aim button”. Players hit a button to look down the sights of their gun, a button not in many PC shooters, and if they’re looking at an enemy when they hit this button, the camera snaps to that enemy giving the player a clear shot. Releasing and hitting the button again makes the camera snap to another nearby enemy, giving the player another clear shot. These compromises for speed and precision have made the first-person shooter a viable and massively popular genre for consoles, but the same can’t be said for the other PC-centric genre, the real-time strategy game.

Most RTS games on consoles try to mirror their PC counterparts exactly, and whenever they do, they inevitably fail to effectively translate the experience. Halo Wars, and Command and Conquer 3 try to replicate the genre like this. They both try to keep all the little intricacies of the genre intact, and while both are certainly playable, they’re also still plagued with problems of speed and precision. The control sticks cannot scroll across the battlefield as fast as a mouse can, and if the speed is increased to compensate, then selecting individual units becomes impossible. Command and Conquer 3 made no concessions for the console, but as a result, the controls are overly complicated, requiring players to flick though menus while fighting. Halo Wars makes resource management automatic and confines base building to pre-selected zones, but selecting small groups of units is difficult, especially if they’re off screen. In order to effectively translate the RTS experience on a console, these kinds of minor concessions aren’t enough; the genre must be radically changed. 

In that regard, Brutal Legend is a step in the right direction. The RTS portions of the game are played from a third-person perspective with our avatar being the commander who was once invisible. There is no base building at all. The strategy lies entirely in the units that you train, knowing when to build what kind of soldier and how to best use it. But this new approach brings with it new problems. Because of the third-person view, it’s hard to see what units are selected. The maps are small and your avatar can fly, so speed is not a problem as players can quickly survey the entire battlefield, but a lack of precision is the game’s biggest hindrance. You must be standing next to a single unit in order to select it, which means jumping into the middle of a battle if the unit is in combat, and if the desired unit is in a group, singling out the one that you want is painfully frustrating. There is a surprising depth to the strategy in Brutal Legend, but the lack of precision makes it difficult to take advantage of that depth. To date, there is only one RTS game on consoles that offers players a control interface with the same speed and precision of a mouse: EndWar.

Like Brutal Legend there’s no base building, but there’s also no resource management at least not in the traditional sense. You begin each battle with only three units, and as you take over certain building, you’re allowed to bring in more units. What sets EndWar apart is its use of voice recognition software in place of a mouse or a controller. We’re only allowed a limited number of units out a time, and to select one, we only have to say “Unit X.” We control our army though short phrases that can be issued no matter where the camera is on the map, there’s no need to scroll back and fourth from one unit to another giving orders. Selecting an individual unit is quick and easy, and we can jump around the map by saying “Camera unit X.” The voice recognition is precise and fast, solving both major issues that plague console RTS games. Removing the base and resources altogether complements this new interface as there are fewer menus to worry about, and therefore, fewer phrases to learn. The biggest complaint about EndWar is that the strategy boils down to a game of rock, paper, scissors: helicopter beats tank, tank beats APC, APC beats helicopter with a few other units thrown in for good measure. But as far as interface goes, this kind of radical approach is what the genre needs to succeed on consoles.

by AJ Ramirez

18 Dec 2009

After five potent doses of heady pop-punk, “Pulling Teeth” is the first track on Dookie that really allows the listener to catch his or her breath. Drawing inspiration from an episode where Green Day bassist Mike Dirnt broke his arms while having a pillow fight with his future wife, the leisurely-paced “Pulling Teeth” features a character who is physically tormented by his girlfriend. The narrator is trapped in an abusive relationship, noting wryly “She comes to check on me / Making sure I’m on my knees / After all she’s the one / Who put me in this state”. The track is pure black comedy wrapped up in electric ballad form, as exemplified by the Beatles-esque delivery of the chorus “Is she ultra-violent? / Is she disturbed? / I better tell her I love her / Before she does it all over again / Oh God she’s killing me”.

Sandwiched between album highlights “Welcome to Paradise” and “Basket Case”, the song easily falls prey to “album track syndrome”, where a listener is prone to skip over it in order to get to another, more familiar tune. I certainly do that every time I listen to the record, partly because it’s not one of my favorites, but more importantly because it kills the momentum the album has been riding out up to that point. I know “Pulling Teeth” has its fans, but I’ve always found it a bit boring.

It’s not a bad song per se. Like the tracks preceding it, “Pulling Teeth” displays Green Day’s knack for musical interplay and lyrical character studies. Based on a standard rock ballad structure, the band adds touches like dual lead vocals that harmonize throughout and one of the album’s few proper guitar solos in order to play up the song’s subversive intent. However, Green Day delivers the song predominantly in a chugging groove that moves slower than all other songs on the record save “When I Come Around”. Such grooves are rare in Green Day songs, as the band moves best when it’s jumping around syncopated chord changes at a breakneck pace. The band has a harder time keeping its performances interesting when it slows things down (this is why for all its merits I don’t think the group’s American Idiot megahit “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” is all that great). Here, it almost sounds like a chore for Green Day to keep from speeding up and busting loose. Unfortunately, the backing performance can’t be too adventurous, as the lyrics are undoubtedly the main focus of the track. As a result, the appeal of the song primarily rests on the listener finding its gender-tweaking “battered male” concept amusing. If you don’t think that a woman abusing her boyfriend is inherently funny (and why should you?), “Pulling Teeth” loses its center and becomes a two-and-a-half-minute slog that sits between you and “Basket Case”. Despite being a nice exercise for the group, these hindrances make it hard to classify the song as one of the album’s essential tracks.

by Bill Gibron

18 Dec 2009

While it would be nice if the studio stepped up the DVD release schedule and gave us more Simpsons more often (at this rate, any Blu-ray release schedule will more than likely outlast the format), it’s safe to say that no other digital presentation is this concerned about giving each aesthetic cog in their multifaceted machine a chance to be heard. The Season 12 set continues in the tradition. Each of the brilliant 21 episodes offered is peppered with commentary tracks, outtakes, deleted scenes, animatics, and other added content that really explains the entire Simpsons process. From who pitches what idea to how some sequences get completely rewritten, the men and women as part of the process are more than happy to share their experience. Clearly, they love what they are working on.

And so do we. Sure, the naysayers love to argue about which portions of the Simpsons’ protracted popularity are better than others, but said grousing is never really a question of quality. It’s more like nostalgia wrapped in a need to play contrarian to the current cultural whims (call it “Armond White Syndrome”). If The Simpsons: Season 12 were representative of any other series, the messageboards would be lighting up with unqualified praise. It’s just impossible for any TV show to maintain such a high level of hilarity - and yet, surreal or not, stepping outside the typical suburban family dynamic the show started with, this ‘version’ is still a satiric gem. It even acknowledges the constant criticism by giving the show’s leading cynic, Comic Book Guy, his own love story themed installment…and calling it “Worst Episode Ever”.

by Jayson Harsin

18 Dec 2009

cover art

Steve Earle

Townes

(New West)

Review [10.May.2009]

Townes is arguably the quintessential Americana album. Townes Van Zandt is Americana—not the culture industry’s Statuettes of Liberty and Fourth of July parades, but its people, especially its millions of restless outcasts. His songs conjure a culture’s icons: forlorn Edward Hopper loners, restless Melvillean vagabonds, and downcast Bukowskian couples. They often cite the geography to which they belong and are fleeing, from Texas and New Mexico to Cleveland and Greensboro. Their melodies and rhythms are as plucky as they are distraught. Americana is Steve Earle, too: an ex-con and an ex-junkie; an anti-death penalty, anti-landmine, and anti-war activist; an actor, writer, and singer. And Townes Van Zandt, dead in 1997, was Earle’s close friend. This album is a musical eulogy from one great U.S. singer-songwriter to another. It’s partly Van Zandt in his own words—his recurrent bewilderment with the universe and his small but surprisingly sustainable consolations in highways, smiles, wine, and one-night-stands. Yet it subtly interprets, expands, and salutes its subject through Earle’s signature scruff vocals, familiar repertoire of arrangements, and excellent vocal contributions from Justin Townes Earle, Tom Morello, and Allison Moorer.

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