Reviews

'Game of Thrones' Sets the Gold Standard for TV Dramas

It’s no wonder that Game of Thrones is one of HBO’s biggest successes and a worldwide phenomenon. Plus, you know, it's got dragons.


Game of Thrones

Distributor: HBO
Cast: Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke, Michelle Fairley, Lena Headey, Charles Dance, Kit Harington
Network: HBO
UK Release date: 2014-02-17
US Release date: 2014-02-18
Website
Amazon

Game of Thrones continues to set the gold standard for television dramas, based upon four factors: 1. the dizzying depth and detail of its fantasy world, ranging from its richly imagined visual sense to its reams of made-up history; 2. the lavish budget, which allows for that detail to be visually explicit onscreen; 3. the multilayered storytelling, which follows a multitude of plots concerning dozens of characters, each of whom is caught up in situations outside of their control but which carry life-or-death consequences for each; and finally, 4. the top-drawer acting of nearly every member of the cast, who bring an almost Shakespearean gravitas to what could easily have been a bit of Tolkien-lite puffery.

Throw in a host of other details – the costumes and special effects, sound editing and score, the unexpected humor and genuine human emotion – and you’ve got an unbeatable formula. It’s no wonder that the show is one of HBO’s biggest successes and a worldwide phenomenon. Plus, you know, it's got dragons.

As it happens, Season 3 is the dullest season so far, lacking both the forward momentum of Season 1 and the epic, world-expanding scope of Season 2. Yes, Season 3 is large-scale, but warging aside, it does little to push those boundaries any further back, remaining content for the most part to explore within already-existing limits. Sam and Jon rattle around in the north, Dany gets herself an army in the east, the Lannisters scowl alarmingly in King’s Landing, Arya and Bran wander, Sansa mopes. Jamie… well, Jamie has some trials he must get through, including a bear. No shit – a bear!

Yet despite the sense of going over much familiar ground, the season ends powerfully, its penultimate episode being the strongest single hour in its run so far. No spoilers here, but that episode “The Rains of Castamere”, and the infamous “Red Wedding” it encompasses, incorporate all the elements beloved by fans of the show, most of all the disorienting sense that the fictional kingdom of Westeros is a world that plays by its own rules, and those rules are often rigged.

There are other highlights, of course. Robb and Catlyn’s journey to Riverrun introduces a couple of delicious characters, the foppish Edmure and Cat’s cousin Blackfish, a thoroughly badass figure in a world with no shortage of thoroughly badass characters. Arya encounters The Brotherhood Without Banners, a guerilla army dedicated to fighting just about everybody else, led by the charismatic Thoros of Myr. Up north, Jon Snow discovers girls (yay!) and Bran discovers he’s a warg, which is something most viewers cottoned on to midway through Season 1, even if they didn’t know the name for it yet. As one of the few resolutely magical storylines in this muddy-and-mucky fantasy series (along with the white walkers and Dany’s dragons), Bran’s ability to enter the consciousness of animals holds great promise for upcoming seasons.

Note: that’s not a spoiler. I haven’t read the books, and have no idea what’s going to happen. But a lot of it will probably be bad.

Oh, and Dany’s dragons are getting bigger.

Dany’s adventures to the east, in which she negotiates to buy a slave army, provides one of the most satisfying narrative arcs of the season, which is a nice change from Season 2, in which her going-nowhere storyline was a drag from the get-go. However, her final moments of here, in which the blond-haired, Aryan-looking Dany appears as a liberator and savior to great masses of unwashed colored slaves, is more than a little creepy. Are those celebratory, devotional hand-salutes supposed to look like Nazi “Hiel Hitler” gestures? Cuz they sure look that way to me.

Will Dany grow drunk with power, perhaps turn as wacko as her father, the deposed mad king? It’s certainly possible within the context of the story, but it would take daring to transform Emilia Clarke, the face of the franchise for many, from powerful woman to unstable villainess. Here’s hoping they do it.

Again: no spoilers here, just speculation.

Not every storyline is awesome. Theon Greyjoy spends much of the season strung up for torture, which is painful to watch, and not in a good way. The viewer would get a perfectly clear sense of what’s happening to him with the scenes shaved in half. The relationship between Jon Snow and wilding redhead hottie Ygritte spins in endless circles even as Jon struggles with his shifting allegiances. Finally, somebody needs to please hit Joffrey in the face, really hard, with a plate or something.

With such an ensemble drama, it’s difficult to declare the need for a central character, but the fact is that the first two seasons did have such Ned Stark and Tyrion Lannister, respectively. This season diminishes Tyrion’s importance, with the result that that the season feels slightly formless. Tywin Lannister and Olenna Tyrell are fantastic elders for their respective clans, and they are played fantastically well by Charles Dance and Diana Rigg, but neither one commands enough screen time to be considered the main engine to the narrative. Again, this isn’t a criticism per se, but it’s something different from previous seasons that lends this outing a somewhat different feel.

The blu-ray/DVD/download combo pack is the last word on this season, containing as it does all of the formats mentioned, with the kind of dazzling picture and sound that has become standard for high-end TV productions. It is laden with extra features, ranging from the usual commentaries featuring cast and crew, to puff-piece featurettes (do we really need a 14-minute recap of Season 2?) to some genuinely engaging stuff.

There are a couple of guides to the history of Westeros, narrated by various cast members in character and illustrated through comics-like drawings, which add much lore and background to the already-packed world of the TV show. (I assume this lore comes from the books and just couldn’t be packed into the series.) There are about 15 minutes of deleted scenes and expanded scenes, which for fans will provide extra moments with their favorite characters.

Most of all, there is a long (one hour 15 minute) feature on the ninth episode, “The Rains of Castamere”, which offer insight from director David Nutter, cast members, series producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and many others. It is essentially a visual commentary track that accompanies the entire episode, with drop-in commentary from George RR Martin to boot. It’s a worthy accompaniment to the season’s strongest episode.

Taken together, these extras provide hours more extra content than the episodes themselves (if all the commentary tracks are taken into account). For fans, this is a terrific pile of stuff to sift through. The in-episode guide, which provides information on characters, location and history even as the episode is running, is a distraction, but might be useful for less-rabid fans who have trouble keeping all the details straight.

For viewers wishing to own this series, this is definitely the set to get. The cost difference is minimal as compared to the DVDs alone, and the improvement in picture quality is significant (I have the first two seasons on DVD, and the better picture on my 26” HDTV is plain even to my not-especially-discerning eye). With Season 4 gearing up in early April, now is the time to refresh yourself on events from last year. If you’ve been keeping your distance from the series so far, well… this is a fine time to jump in.

8

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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