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by Alan Ranta

10 Mar 2009

Benbecula is one of the most exciting labels in Scotland.  Since 1999, they have delivered to the area and, thanks to the internet, the world some of the finest downtempo, ambient, experimental, glitch, folk, and all electronic variations of each. Not that they only deal with Scottish music, mind you. The electronic free-jazz of Brian Ellis comes from California, while Phrizzm’s IDM flows from Ontario. These six videos will give you a sense of their style. Two of them are from my personal favorite Christ. (pronounced like Christopher), who was an early member of Boards Of Canada.

Christ. - “Happyfour Twenty” from Blue Shift Emissions

Brian Ellis - “Para Ti” from The Silver Creature

Genaro - “Suspicions” from Genaro

Phrizzm - “Minutae” from Phrizzm EP

Christ. - “Always to Play” from Metamorphic Reproduction Miracle

Brian Ellis - “Say”  from The Silver Creature

by L.B. Jeffries

10 Mar 2009

The hindsight-driven popularity of Psychonauts has grown in leaps and bounds as a cult classic thanks to support from popular critics like Yahtzee and others. The game is a clever combination of adventure gaming with platform elements. Although both Yahtzee and Wikipedia point out that the idea of the game started out as being a peyote hallucination, creative director Tim Schafer’s appearance on the 1Up Podcast explains the final product a bit more clearly. The peyote idea was the start but it eventually evolved into attending a summer camp of psychics and visiting people’s internal dreamscapes. Citing a course in psychology he took at Berkeley, Schafer explains that he found it fascinating that otherwise unpoetic people could develop these elaborate metaphors and modes of expression about their problems. Carl Jung, one of the founders of dream analysis, explains in

Memories, Dreams, Reflections

, “Paranoid ideas and hallucinations contain a germ of meaning. A personality, a life history, a pattern of hopes and desires lie behind the psychosis…At bottom we discover nothing new and unknown in the mentally ill; rather, we encounter the substratum of our own natures.” It is this concept that Shafer turned into a game—a game that, if you can get past some gameplay issues, manages to explore subjects far outside the norm.

One of the great strengths of a point and click game is that you have to fill the world with a lot of details. Since the player is going to be looking at and fidgeting with everything, it means that all manner of things have a purpose and story behind them. Doing this makes your environment seem richer and more fulfilling, particularly if the player is able to engage with those details in some meaningful way. Psychonauts’ main hub, the campground, is filled with campers who can all be directly spoken to and be seen interacting in dozens of random conversations. Since these sequences are usually initiated by the player or are only starting when we’re walking around a passive environment they don’t feel as intrusive as cutscenes sometimes during active combat can. Combine this with the outlandish coloring and cartoonish appearance of each person, and the campers are easily distinguishable both visually and by their personality. For example, Chloe is marked by her space helmet and desire to contact aliens, Mikhail has a weird obsession with wrestling bears and Elka is easily recognized because of her constant ramblings about her boyfriend. A game with 25 active characters that are all recognizable and easily differentiated is no small task. These characters are then scattered about the camp and have their own story threads that can be ignored or followed. The game is basically creating an emergent camp drama for its first half. Until you complete a certain mission and night time falls, all of these details and events can be missed or seen by the player. The game itself does not suffer should the player choose to skip them, but the world becomes richer and fuller if they observe them.

On many levels, this peaceful camp setting forms a stark contrast to the chaotic minds that the player must enter psychically. Outside of the occasional wild animal, the camp is a safe place. Once we enter the dreamscapes of the various characters, however, we encounter a world that is no longer orderly or rational. The opening training level is an amalgamation of the battles of Coach Oleander’s past. In a nod to Jung, his primal memories are bizarrely tame and only show his victories and happy memories. We aren’t made aware of the oddness of this normality until we enter subsequent minds and begin to realize that, unlike Oleander, everyone has issues. Every mind has emotional baggage scattered about, which is reflected in the game design by being another item that can be collected by the player. This point is emphasized because the baggage is often loudly crying. Each person’s mindscape will even contrast with the loud sobbing coming from this baggage, such as the party world of Milla Vodello whose internal world makes her into a superstar. Another example would be the orderly mind of Sasha Nein which is mostly grey and dark. The baggage contrasts this color scheme and sticks out aesthetically just as much as it does with the sound. The game design encourages us to notice this because it is collectable and unlocks content, but its emphasis lies in realizing that everyone has issues.  Jung comments on the extreme problems of meeting people someone who claim to have no problems and are normal, pointing out that normality is often a shield people put over greater issues that are hidden deep in their psyche. Later on, Oleander’s deceptively “normal” mind will eventually reveal its true nature in the last level when we reach the true mindscape that Oleander was hiding.


The symbolism of the game is equally strong. The opening screen of the game depicts Raz standing on a brain, which represents the player’s mind, so that the game world itself is our own personal dream being played out. When Raz enters his internal dreamscape, he enters the carriage he was born in and emerges from an egg, the symbolic representation of his own life beginning. When we enter the mind of a lungfish who has been mutated to far beyond its original size, we are reminded that it still perceives us as larger than itself. In that dreamscape we are a giant creature despite the boss battle we have just had with this creature. In the game’s most hilarious and clever level, we enter a deranged Milkman’s mind who is obsessed with conspiracy theories. Using the clairvoyance ability, the people in this dreamscape perceive us as 2-D and defined by the items we carry. It shows the simplified worldview and lack of real perception the man’s mind utilizes. The actress whose level consists of people acting out her childhood traumas requires you to defeat the evil critic who is constantly dragging her down. His weapon is a pen. The wrestler whose rage at being dumped in high school manifests into a complex interplay between his rage (which is a bull) that knocks over the tower of cards he is building to his neglected lover. Once the main plot is put into action and the campers have been kidnapped, it becomes night time in the game world. This is a nod to Jung’s dream analysis as well, where night time is the symbolic element of danger and confusion for dreams involving darkness. True to form, the camp will be filled with monsters and devoid of the immersive narrative that we enjoyed during the daytime there.

Marring this excellent game are a few complaints about gameplay and technical issues. When researching this article I could never find much consent about what anyone means by this. Both Yahtzee, the 1Up crew and various forums typically agree that the game’s wonky camera and clunky but easy combat certainly exist but also aren’t deal breakers. What does stick is the difficulty curve of the last level. It isn’t that the camera is causing this problem because by this point you’re used to actively swiveling the thing. And you didn’t get to the last level (The Meat Circus) without already being able to negotiate the game’s flaws anyways. Personally, throughout the game whenever I got stuck with a platforming problem I was always reminded of Insecticide (which you should play if you liked Psychonauts) and a trait that games which meld adventure elements with action always have. They tend to think of the platforming section as a puzzle rather than an act of skill. The developers want you to do one specific thing or use a power in one way to get through the obstacle. In most cases, this is the only thing that will work. The problem is that this goes against the failure feedback of a platforming game: the reaction to failure when jumping is to try to do it better, not try something new. To give an example, the worst moment in the Meat Circus is a circular series of nets you have to jump around while water is filling the tent. The only way to beat it is to use the float ability. The problem is that most people’s impulse is to just double jump since the net is right next to them. Rather than try something new the player thinks they’re not skillful enough and they keep trying again, resulting in a broken feedback loop where the player is failing more than they should.

The last level is a fitting end for a game dealing with psychology and dreams. Raz, while helping the villain confront his father issues, must in turn deal with his own. Throughout the game Raz’s father has been a looming specter, he is coming to take Raz away from the camp and drag him back to the life he is trying to break free from. When confronting the psychological manifestation of Raz’s father in the Meat Circus, the player must jump through various obstacles in an impossible attempt to impress their father. At the end of the level, Raz’s mental impression of his father accuses him of cheating and ignores this accomplishment. It is impossible to win the approval of this awful persona. When the real father arrives using his mental powers he sees firsthand this terrible depiction of himself. He asks Raz, “Is that…really what I look like inside your mind?” The father explains that he was only looking out for our best interests and that he only wanted us safe. The psychological delusion has been undone, the father issues that have been so prevalent in Raz’s mind are resolved and Raz is now liberated from his own personal issues. Jung, while discussing a “normal” patient he encountered, had to discourage the man from pursuing a career in psychoanalysis. Jung comments, “Do you know what it means to be an analyst? It means that you must first learn to know yourself. You yourself are the instrument. If you are not right, how can the patient be made right? You yourself must be the real stuff.” True to Jung’s standards, our reward for conquering Raz’s own issues is to become an official Psychonaut. In this way Psychonauts excels at not just being a wacky game to explore, but also a psychologically hilarious one.

by Bill Gibron

10 Mar 2009

Movies about big ideas require big scores. Films about larger than life individuals also mandate music to match. There’s a fine art to making sonic mountains out of melodious molehills, a true gift that few composers have, and few longtime artists can maintain. Certainly audience familiarity and fondness can ruin/resurrect a career, and there are certain aesthetic and stylistic conceits that follow any musician when they respond to the call of their muse. But the true titans of supercharged soundtracks, names like Elfman and Williams, find ways to challenge themselves as well as the listener. Mr. Oingo Boingo is often known as the man who made Batman dark and diabolical, but his recent score for The Kingdom was a wonderful bit of experimental ambiance. Similarly, James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer have been hammering out the same bombastic backups for years, but as with last year’s incredible The Dark Knight, it works within the right context.

This time out, Surround Sound looks at the recent almost-phenomenon that is Watchmen. We dissect both Tyler Bates’ contributions as well as those cultural lynchpin pop songs chosen to represent the parallel USA of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. In both cases, the results are less than stunning. We then go back to one of the original cinematic stalwarts, the man in the funky fedora carrying a bad-ass bullwhip. John Williams will always be much more than the sonic side of the Spielberg/Lucas money machine, but there’s no denying his iconic help in solidifying both men’s amazing oeuvres. Newly minted with material not previously available on CD or MP3, the Indiana Jones films (the important efforts from the Greed Decade only) are their own unique entertainment experience, thanks in large part to the incredible abilities of the man responsible for their familiar epic sweep.

But let’s start with the recent attempt at broadstroke heroics. As Watchmen proves, not every comic book champion has a signature sound to amplify their importance:

Watchmen - Original Motion Picture Score [rating: 5]

As the first certified controversy of 2009, the lack of critical consensus over Zack Snyder’s Watchmen has been interesting to observe. Those who love it embrace the faithful translation of the famed book. Those who hate it clearly expected something more than what was on the screen. In between are opinions ranging from acceptable to awful, with many divergent judgments falling smack dab in the “no particular point one way or the other” middle. Many have hinted that the lack of “epicness” in Tyler Bates score is one of their chief disappointments, and it’s not hard to see why. As the mastermind behind the soundtracks for other Snyder efforts (including Dawn of the Dead and 300), there is a sense of unnecessary nepotism at work, and while some of his efforts for other directors (Rob Zombie, Neil Marshall) have stood out, Watchmen is just not that interesting. Indeed, when most of the music sounds like leftovers chopped from healthier compositions, you know you’re in trouble.

Fluctuating wildly between heavenly choir pomp and subtle, almost inconsequential circumstance, Bates’ score for the much anticipated adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ graphic novel is underwhelming and often underdeveloped. After the requisite hero histrionics of “Rescue Mission”, insignificant snippets like “Don’t Get Too Misty Eyed” and “Tonight a Comedian Died” underlie the music’s lack of impact. “Silk Spectre” gets things back on track, if only because of its Danny Elfman-like flourishes. Indeed, it seems the longer the effort, the more substance it has. As one works through the 21 individual pieces, it’s clear that Bates had little thematic clarity. Indeed, the best bit comes right at the end, when the composer drops the stereotypical spectacle and goes for the heart. “I Love You” is a wonderfully evocative experience, a lone guitar picking out a plaintive melody that seems to drift along, accenting everything that’s come before. It makes up for the meaningless grandstanding of something like “Requiem” (which borrows from Mozart of all things).

Watchmen - Music from the Motion Picture [rating: 7]

Oddly enough, the big problem with the actual score for Watchmen manages to cross over and condemn the collection of pop culture hits used as a backdrop to the movie’s main narrative as well. It’s not just a question of poor choices - it’s the idea that, within the vast realm of ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s music available, Zack Snyder decided that these were the indicative songs of the era he was trying to evoke. And they just don’t do the job. When a fan can sit back and pick better tracks than the one’s compiled, there’s an inherent flaw in the formulation. Granted, there are some interesting choices (“Pirate Jenny” by Nina Simone, “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen), but for the most part, a panel of VH-1 inspired soccer moms with limited exposure to either the time frame or Alan Moore’s novel could probably come up with a similar set of sonic cues.

After the noise nonsense that is My Chemical Romance’s ridiculous cover of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Road”, Watchmen jumps over Nat King Cole (“Unforgettable”) to deliver its sole genius decision. Using Mr. Zimmerman’s ode to cultural progress, “The Times They Are-a-Changin’” works perfectly within the storyline being set-up, the montage meant to bring us up to speed on the entire masked avenger idea, and the numerous historic events being referenced therein. It’s so inspired in fact that later attempts at the same thing with tracks like “The Sound of Silence” or “All Along the Watchtower” seem subpar. Elsewhere, K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s “(I’m Your) Boogie Man” is hollow, and the randomness of “Ride of the Valkyries” offsets the depth derived from a modern classic conceit like Phillip Glass’s “Pruit Igoe” and “Prophecies”. Still, Snyder understands the inherent mood created by these songs. Some are clearly used to enhance atmosphere and little else.

Raiders of the Lost Ark - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 9]
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack [rating: 8]

How John Williams, a Julliard trained pianist and composer went from tacky TV themes for The Time Tunnel and Lost in Space to the man behind such magnificent blockbuster scores as Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Superman is an amazing story in and of itself. Getting his start with Henri Mancini and contributing to the works of such luminaries as Bernard Herrmann, and Jerry Goldsmith, the man responsible for the Mystery Science mainstay Daddy-O (his first solo film credit) became an Academy fixture when his work on Valley of the Dolls was nominated in 1967. By 1971 he had a coveted Oscar (for adapting Fiddler on the Roof for the big screen) and had given Irwin Allen’s disaster flicks The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno their popcorn buzz. But it would be neophyte upstart Steven Spielberg who turned Williams into a hummable household name. After working on The Sugarland Express together, the duo delivered the seminal shark tale to a eager Summer of ‘75 public, and the rest is motion picture mythology.

By ‘81, Williams was the go-to guy for the growing Spielberg/Lucas mega-movie empire. Even lesser films like 1941 would see his amazing musical hand in collaboration. When the Hollywood heavyweights decided to pay homage to the Saturday matinee serials they grew up with, Williams was tagged to give the action opus its jingoistic charms. The resulting theme for Indiana Jones, and his work on Raiders of the Lost Ark, managed to push the artist into another commercial realm all together. As he had previously with other cinematic characters, Williams created a sonic signature that, even today, offers a kind of instant recall for the icon being preserved. In the person of Harrison Ford, Jones and his first adventure became an instant classic. Naturally, Williams was back for installments two and three (and four, if you’re counting the recent Crystal Skull stumble among the representative efforts of all involved).

Williams was also responsible for what might be called the ‘soundtrack album experience’. Instead of offering one or two recognizable tracks, almost everything he writes becomes a memorable sonic experience. During Raiders, selections for sequences “Escape from the Temple”, “The Map Room: Dawn”, and “The Fist Fight/The Flying Wing” have their own individual recognizability. It’s an effect carried over to Temple of Doom (“Slalom on Mt. Homol”, “Children in Chains”), and The Last Crusade (“Keeping Up with the Joneses”, “The Canyon of the Crescent Moon”). Williams functions in compositional wholes, of making characters thematically clear and aurally symbolic. It does lend itself to a kind of reasonable repetitiveness that makes his scores so undeniably rock solid. And perhaps the best thing about the newly rereleased remasters of these soundtracks is the inclusion of material left out in previous editions. Getting to hear three new tracks on Raiders, ten on Temple, and seven on Crusade makes the experience that much more fulfilling.

Indeed, Williams work here is without comparison. He’s truly the gold standard of such high pitched bravado. The moment his Indiana Jones theme kicks in, we know we’re in for a wild rollercoaster ride of cheesy thrills and action—packed chills. Elsewhere, he evokes the mystical elements of each story quite well, be it the Ark of the Covenant (“The Well of Souls”), the sacred Shiva lingman rocks of India (“Approaching the Stones”) or the actual holy chalice of Jesus Christ himself (“The Keeper of the Grail”). Though his work is often oversized and stratospheric in scope, Williams never gives in to the excess. His compositions always seems compact and complete, not a single note out of place, not a single cue overcompensating.

While it helps to be working with some of the most talented filmmakers in the history of the medium (good melodies have to have visuals to cement their staying power), Williams walks the fine line between necessary contributor and stand-alone star. No wonder his scores for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Indiana Jones and the Las t Crusade are so timeless. Even in truncated (and now expanded) versions, they speak of one man’s undeniable talent, and his essential assistance as a part of the motion picture equation.

by Lara Killian

9 Mar 2009

The New York Times has introduced a new weekly best seller list category: graphic novels.

To be more precise, last week the NYT debuted three different graphic books lists, hardcover, paperback and manga. Rather than limit themselves to merely mentioning graphic novels, the best seller list editors decided to go with ‘graphic books’ to leave room for a wider interpretation of the format.


For now, the lists will be published only online, and it’s not clear if they will join the ranks of the print format best seller lists any time soon. Online, traditional weekly best seller lists can be found here, while the graphic books ones will apparently be housed on the NYT ArtsBeat blog for now. It will be interesting to see if the graphic book categories get moved to the central best seller list page in the future, even if they don’t merit addition to the print edition. At least this would seem to be some form of recognition of the staying power and sales figures of the wildly popular graphic novel format.

by Sarah Zupko

9 Mar 2009

Five years ago this week, critical faves TV on the Radio dropped Desperate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes on the greatful indie masses. Our very own Tim O’Neil said of the record: “Every once in a great while, something comes along that knocks you off your socks and restores your faith in the healing power of rock and roll. Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes is just such an album, a dynamically different and radically invigorating shot of intellectual rigor into a moribund retro-rock scene.” “Dreams” was the video off this release.

TV on the Radio - Dreams

TV on the Radio - Bomb Yourself (live)

TV on the Radio - The Wrong Way (live)

//Mixed media

Because Blood Is Drama: Considering Carnage in Video Games and Other Media

// Moving Pixels

"It's easy to dismiss blood and violence as salacious without considering why it is there, what its context is, and what it might communicate.

READ the article