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by Bill Gibron

5 May 2008

Had they only made three movies - Bound, The Matrix, and the upcoming Speed Racer, the writing/ directing team of brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski would be considered cinematic gods. They’d hold a place right next to Quentin Tarantino and David Fincher as outright geek gladiators who took mainstream cinema by the throat and throttled it until it cried “uncle”. Through their unique visual style, overripe expression of film’s formative language, and pure joy in the art of the image, they’ve been both incredibly blessed and unduly cursed. They have made some remarkable movies. Yet it appears that the two intriguing sequels to their virtual reality hit were more harmful to their reputation than once thought. The spectacular Speed Racer probably won’t change that, and it’s a shame. It should.

Like eye candy forged out of Olympus’ own ambrosia, their adaptation of the classic ‘60s cartoon series (itself an Americanized recasting of the Japanese anime) is breathtaking in what it accomplishes, as well as what it avoids. While clichés abound, the brothers have managed to literally reinvent them, bringing back the sense of wholesome fun and larger than life feats symbolic of the animation genre. And they do it in live action. There will be critics who cast this aside as nothing more than candy floss fluff, flummoxed to find a purpose or a passion, but that would be a doomed voice of post-modern irony-laced cynicism speaking. If you don’t like this movie (it opens this Friday, 9 May - full review then), you’re clearly locked in a downward spiral of self-important aesthetic impotence.

The brothers have often been accused of having an imagination on Viagra, and their last few films have born this out. The Matrix Trilogy in particular is an unfairly marginalized masterwork that requires a lot of Tabula Rosa perspective to really work. The Wachowskis were doomed by two things going into their sequels - anticipation and expectations. The first film, while a semi-success at the box office, made DVD the format that it is today (something Racer may do to Blu-ray come time of home theater release), and revitalized an already flat-lining sci-fi genre. With their inventive F/X and philosophically deep narrative, The Matrix made many into believers of the brothers - perhaps, too many. By the time The Animatrix had explored the prequel dynamic, the converts needed the new films to be brilliant.

Instead, they were dense and disturbing, offering questions while unconcerned with providing answers, utilizing themes that harkened back to the days of amphitheaters and emperors. In this critic’s opinion, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions are amazing achievements, stories of sacrifice and struggle that may provide a wrong turn here or there (who greenlit the PC populated cave rave, huh?) but still play completely within the rules the Wachowskis set up. Still, it’s easy to see why audiences dismissed them. The main heroes die. Zion is not the vast wonderland Morpheus made it out to be. There is a great deal of hubris and heartache involved in the last chapters, and everyone tends to get swept up in waves of CGI inspired stunt work. While remaining highly influential, it will be a good decade or two before these films are finally treated with the reverence and respect they deserve.

As a result, it seems like the Wachowskis have been unfairly dismissed along with their movies. It’s as if Reloaded and Revolutions literally wiped up everything else they’ve done. Even now, a few days before Racer opens, early reviews are taking the duo to task with column space devoted to how crappy the Matrix movies were. It’s like arguing Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (a nominal commercial hit 40 years ago that took eons to gain its revered status) made every film the director created afterwards a lesser experience (and that would include A Clockwork Orange and The Shining). Racer will eventually find those willing to forgive the guys, but it seems strange that so much contempt could be created out of, what are essentially, the myths of the superman.

Neo - for all intents and purporses - is a Messianic figure offered three clear temptations by the unseen powers behind his computerized world. The first is power. The second is import. The third is love. In each case, he conquers and then is corrupted by said enticements. When flying around like a superhero, he is stripped of his grace as a program infiltrator. When blind and battling an onslaught of machine sentries before making it to their city, he’s the last hope of mankind cast as a reluctant warrior. His final fight with Agent Smith isn’t about superiority or skill - it’s about pride, the very sin that cast him out of the first film’s garden and into a series of iniquitous dens. And then it all turns back on the villains themselves.

Defending the Matrix movies is not easy - especially since online consensus seems to rule all serious discussions - and the brothers have made matters worse by playing the elusive auteur game. They don’t like to “discuss” their work, instead letting the product speak for itself. Of course, this doesn’t stop the fanbase from foaming, or keep the rumor mills from recycling stories about Larry’s supposed sex-change (denied outright, and eventually proven false). Nor does it delight those who see Racer (or V for Vendetta, which they only produced) as another attempt by the pair to substitute pretty pictures for characterization or sophistication. And let’s not even discuss how Bound gets blown apart in these arraignments, reduced to a “good little thriller” since it doesn’t comport to the optical wow of their recent efforts.

It’s a lot like the grief Peter Jackson received for making King Kong after the stellar Lord of the Rings. Given a chance to do anything he wanted, the New Zealand genius went back to his roots to reinvent the classic giant monkey movie. He took a drubbing as a result, though that film was equally adept and quite stellar. And naturally everyone forgot about his first few films, wonderfully gory delights like Bad Taste and Dead Alive, and small storied dramas like Heavenly Creatures. It seems that, once you deliver an over the top, overly hyped homage to everything the blockbuster stands for, you get your reputation handed back to you - along with your ass.

One assumes the Wachowskis can whether the storm. Only George Lucas has suffered such a post-movie backlash, and while his horrid Star Wars prequels definitely deserved the attack, too many dedicated fans of the franchise have kept the flames from fanning too high. There is no similar amount of communal love for the Matrix movies. The first remains solidly supported. None but a few fly a flag for the follow-ups. It’s a shame that Speed Racer may end up consumed in the wake of such out of place hate. If allowed, it will find that audience antsy for something new and wholly original, production design and execution pushed to the very limits of the medium. If it does succeed, there is still one thing that’s guaranteed - The Wachowskis will still be locked in the critical crosshairs. It’s about time they stopped being a target. Their amazing movies speak for themselves.

by L.B. Jeffries

5 May 2008

The establishment of a critical language eventually calls for laying out a couple of basic terms for describing experiences in games. At the moment, people mostly define a game by what kind of game design it is. ‘real-time strategy’, ‘first-person shooter’, or ‘role playing game’ dominate the lexicon of video games. The first problem is that these game designs have all borrowed from each other so much that now all games contain elements of them. Mass Effect has strategy and first-person shooting elements, the FPS gimmick of silent protagonists who never talk clearly flirts with role-play, etc. Second, they’re discussed as if they were exclusive activities. All aspects of a game involve strategy, a player operating in the first person (in varying ways), and the game’s camera changing location all the time. Finally, it tends to be reductive of the games themselves to group them by one feature alone should they excel in other ways. As video games start moving away from these initial identities the question arises…how do we start identifying the experience of a game?

Eric Wolpaw (the writer of Portal) has described a game as consisting of a delta of player input, plot, and game design that comes together to form the game experience. It’s a good analogy because just as when a triangle that has one large side forces the other two to conform, so too do games twist their attributes in response to one another. So in order to divide these different definitions, it’s best to just identify which part of the delta of narrative, player, or game is the foundation while the other two rest upon it. As far as the terminology goes, rather than re-invent the wheel it’s best to just rip it off something else: books. Out of all cultural forms of art, the act of imagining what people look, sound, and act like while reading somewhat resembles player input in video games. Besides, the narrative terms for how a book engages you (first-person, third, etc.) are already used in video games to describe their own methods of engagement anyways. FPS, remember?

by Jason Gross

5 May 2008

With barely any warning, Trent Raznor’s done it again.  The Slip is yet another online album available from Nine Inch Nails and this one is for free- no options for payment or anything.  No DRM and the whole thing is licensed under Creative Commons too.  Plus he’s offering it in several formats, including high quality digital audio that beats the crap outta the usual MP3 files.  And this just on the tail of his Ghosts release, only a few weeks ago.

What’s more, it’s a really good album.  I’d even go as far to say it’s some of his best material, featuring not only his industrial strength slam-bangs and noise blasts but also a strong batch of songs and not just a bunch of moody instrumentals like on Ghosts.

So what’s the deal?  How can TR crank out all of his material?  Sure it’s possible or likely that he stored up this material for some time and just decided to put it out now as a show of strength.  Also, NIN is touring now and this is some primo promo that he’s doing.  The paradigm of records and touring has been changing where the tour once sold the records but now the opposite is happening where the records are supposed to lure you into a tour, where there’s usually more money for the band.

Any way you cut it, you gotta hand it to TR for not just signing onto the online give-away bandwagon but going beyond Radiohead with it (who’ve admitted that In Rainbows was a one-off experiment).

The question now is where or now Raznor will take it further.  What else is he gonna offer for free?  How soon can we expect a new record?  How many other bands will sign on to do the same thing?  Is the time between new releases for a band gonna be cut down now?  (once upon a time, bands would put out multiple albums in a year- even the Beatles and Stones).  In some ways, this feels like a top-this challenge to other performers too.  Expect more experiments like this coming down the pike and not just from Trent.  I can’t wait for ‘em.

by Mike Schiller

5 May 2008

As much as we enjoy going off the beaten path here at Moving Pixels, it’s difficult to go off the beaten path when the beaten path is just about the only path available to travel.  Case in point: After a couple of weeks with surprising depth in the release list, we’re back to the vast desert wasteland of game releases.  As is the case in most vast desert wastelands, however, there are a few oases to be found.

Of note this week:  Boom Blox is upon us!  Steven Spielberg’s first foray into the gaming arena is so Spielbergian that it’s got his name splashed across the top!  Actually, the only thing identifiably Spielbergian about Boom Blox is the explosions.  There are lots of explosions, though.  I have to admit, I know very little about what this game is going to be like and how it is going to be played save the Wikipedia article on it and the various major game site previews that are out there, but I do know that you can’t really go wrong when you have lots of explosions, blocks, and rectangularly-shaped animals populating your game. 

Did anyone else know that Speed Racer was a Nintendo exclusive?  When did that happen?

Regardless, the only other game on this particular list that might have had a shot of challenging Boom Blox as the week’s most highly-anticipated game has to be R-Type Command, another North American release of a somewhat obscure Japanese game (R-Type Tactics) by the mighty and venerable Atlus.  Granted, it’s a game with long-running and storied franchise behind it, but the boost provided by history is almost entirely negated by the fact that the entire history of R-Type is as a space shooter, while R-Type Command is a turn-based strategy game.  Still, the chance to fight Giger-isms in turn-based combat is just too much win to pass up.

The rest of this week’s releases (you know, the three or four I didn’t mention) are after the break…

by Roman Kuebler

5 May 2008

Photo: Meg Sheff-Atteberry

Photo: Meg Sheff-Atteberry

Under Mics with the Oranges Band

PopMatters has had plenty of nice things to say about Baltimore’s The Oranges Band (specifically here and here. When the band announced that they were headed into the studio to begin work on their new record, having soldiered through personnel changes and struggles at their label, Lookout Records, it seemed like an excellent time to catch up and to allow them to speak for themselves by cataloging the happenings. Over the next several weeks, Oranges Band frontman Roman Kuebler will write in with updates from the sessions for the band’s third full-length. Here’s part four…
Jon Langmead

VOCALS

I really have a great time singing in the studio. For some reason the set up seems so pro. The room is cleared of the instruments, the baffling goes up and instead of microphones hanging all over the place, like when the band is tracking, there is just one. It is a strange experience also, in the context of writing, practicing and recording your songs because, as long as you are a singer who plays an instrument, it is the only time ever you will sing a song without playing it as well and the only time you will sing a song without anything in your hands. So besides being a little anxious and overwhelmed by the formality of the studio setting you also have to approach the song in a much different way. It is rather exciting but also very nerve racking. For me, walking into the room after you do your first vocal take on a song is a roller coaster ride. You’ve worked hard to perform the song but you haven’t any idea what you sound like. The voice is very sensitive to placement of microphones and slight changes in sound can make a huge difference in the perception of the vocal take. It’s like the perfect storm when it happens to come together. And for the first time, you are hearing the lyrics resonate within the song and the voice is totally audible. Anyone in a band can relate to the fact that you never hear the vocals at practice.

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Me at the mic part 1. I had to take off my jacket because it was making a ton of noise.

So why, with all these “hardships”, is singing in the studio fun? It’s simple. For me, when it works—when you get a great vocal take—it is the most satisfying part of making, playing or recording music that there is. I guess it is a risk/reward thing. Which is why, in a demonstration of appropriate cosmic duality, that when it doesn’t happen it is the most frustrating part of making music.

In approaching this album I wanted my lead vocal tracks to be distinct and adventurous. I wanted them to be energetic and irreverent. In the end though, I knew I would settle for them to not suck and be on pitch. A lot to ask in some cases I am sorry to say. I guess we are all our own worse critics and for me, if I am ever feeling a little over confident, I could take a crack at singing a song in the studio to bring me back to earth.

But as I said in an earlier installment, a record is a document of what you did when the tape was rolling so you don’t really have much choice but to step up and do something, right? And so I did. When Adam (co-producer, engineer) and I were doing vocals I’d start by describing which song I was trying to rip off and he would respond with an appropriate microphone, mic placement and effect scenario. The best part about trying to rip off songs, though, is that you can never recreate someone else’s magic so you hope to stumble upon your own. So here it goes, first song.

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Me at the mic part 2. Less noisy…

We started with a song called “One More Dog”. Why? Well, it was the shortest. Short and fast and to the point. It reminds me of a Pink Flag-era Wire thing so that is where we started looking for sounds. When ripping off other songs (take notes, kids) I like to go right to the source so we played some songs from Pink Flag. We decided they were relatively dry (no reverb), mid-range (not quite a radio voice, but close) with maybe a slight delay on them. We picked out the right mic for the job and ran it through the effects and got the EQ just right… and it sounded nothing like the Wire song. Of course. The other thing about trying to rip stuff off is that what you are hearing is the whole song. You can’t isolate the vocals, necessarily, and predict how they will fit into a totally different song in a totally different context. It’s why trying hard to rip something off is a great way to work. It provides the parameters, the boundaries, and I think I said before that in the context of recording, I need some boundaries.

OK so, here we are with this vocal sound that doesn’t do quite what we thought it might, but it does sound pretty cool so we tweak it just a bit and forge ahead. Once you have a sound you can concentrate on the performance. This song was pretty straight forward, meaning I didn’t expect that it would change much from the practice room to the recording so it was just about getting the lines right—one at a time. I feel like I can always find some reason to re-do a line. A quiver in the vocal, just a little flat, I don’t like the “r” sound in that word, etc., etc. Basically, it is really hard to commit to the idea that the line you just sang will be the way that song exists… pretty much forever. Scared of commitment? Yikes. Oh well, you gotta say yes sometime and I am paying for this thing by the hour so eventually we make it through the song. The funny thing is that when you finish a vocal take you are so sick of hearing it that you can barely listen to it and appreciate it. In fact, coming back to it the next session is always kind of scary… did I really get it right or was I just sick of trying? Am I a hero or a heel? Like I said… a real roller coaster ride.

So instead of recounting my triumphs and tragedies while singing these songs… and there were a few of both, let’s just do a quick run down of what a few of the songs on the record are called and what I tried to ripped off while recording them. I imagine this could be an incriminating document in a court trial, but luckily I was unsuccessful in truly copying ANY of these brilliant works. When our album does finally come out (in 2012 at this rate) you can check these against the originals… you’ll see, total failure!

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My view. With my favorite mic, the fabulous Shure SM-7.

“Everyone Burns Out” (working title): The Replacements - “Takin’ a Ride” complete with a… “referential” line.

“When Your Mask Is Your Revealing Feature”: Peter Gabriel “Steam” and “Shock the Monkey” also ESG for the female back up vocals. This one doesn’t sound at all like those things… but it came out ok anyway.

“Gordon’s Night Club”: I thought could be a Kinks song… but it totally isn’t. I did do a Phil Lynotte thing in the beginning that is really funny and a weird trill at the end that was ALL ME (or is that Paul Macca?).

“Absolutely (Instru)mental”: As the name suggests, this song doesn’t have vocals but that doesn’t mean I didn’t try to rip something off to get it. Ha ha! It is modeled after Laika & the Cosmonauts - “NY ‘79” a truly complete and catchy song with no vocals. It was recently announced that Laika and Co. will be breaking up at the end of this year… say it ain’t so!?!

“Ottobar (Afterhours)” - Hot Snakes - “Automatic Midnight” and “Salton City” (whoos!)

“I Wouldn’t Worry About It”: This one is pretty original, really. I was going to come up with something to steal eventually but we were doing some back up vocals on a different song (Ottobar) and had a really cool sound going. Really distorted and delayed and weird. When that song was over, this one was next on the reel so we just let it roll and I did the lead vocal… in one take. Easy. It also relieved me from having to rewrite the lyrics, which I was going to do for some reason. I mean why would you need more than two lines in a song?

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This is the studio room cleared out for the vox. 

Well, that ain’t quite all of them but it is most of them. All secrets revealed right here. Man… these things take forever; albums that is. There are so many tiny parts to get right and it’s like an automobile or a golf swing… so many things working in harmony that when one things is off, your whole program is interrupted. This is just to say that here we are, nearing the end of tracking and it still feels a light year away. OK well, stick with me here. Thanks for reading.

Roman Kuebler

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