Reviews

'Always Sometimes Monsters': Always Sometimes Struggling

Nobody gets to be the hero, but everyone is important. Always Sometimes Monsters is personal, a bit meandering, crass, and occasionally more ham-fisted than it seems to realize.


Always Sometimes Monsters

Publisher: Devlover Digital
Players: 1
Price: $9.99
Platforms: PC
ESRB Rating: N/A
Developer: Vagabond Dogs
Release date: 2014-05-21
URL

If you’ve watched a superhero movie since Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, you probably know to sit through the credits. In the eight to 12 minutes that it takes to see a blockbuster’s bonus scene, it has probably dawned on you that it takes a heck of a lot of people to take a movie out of somebody’s head and project it onto a screen. Likewise, games from basement -made indies to those produced by triple A studios are collaborative efforts. Even a novel goes through a myriad of editing processes before the lone name of the author is stamped on the cover and shipped out. Hell, even this article will pass through at least one more set of eyes before it sees the light of day. It takes a lot of people to make something. Always Sometimes Monsters explores the invisible people behind stories. It’s about the unseen ways that people relate to one another and construct stories.

Developed by Toronto developer Vagabond Dog, Monsters is an RPG about ordinary people. The game is a story told by an unidentified homeless person about a publicist named Larry and his failed protégé. As Larry, the player sifts through a myriad of novelists at a party and signs the one that he believes will net him his fortune. This is actually the player’s character creation, and it is one of the cleverest ways that I’ve been introduced to a player-character without breaking from the fiction in a game. The player-character’s gender, ethnicity, and sexuality are procedurally determined. A year after they sign their golden ticket, the player character has been dumped by their partner, evicted from his or her apartment and abandoned by his or her publisher.

Monsters follows the love story of two soulmates doomed by circumstances, favorably resembling To the Moon in its aesthetics and themes, if not in its delivery. Monsters, however, makes its love story into a bit of a red herring. As the player journeys across the country to attend their ex’s wedding, it doesn’t matter whether they’re trying to win that ex back or trying to make peace with that individual, both readings are equally applicable. Instead, the game quickly diverges from the story of these starcrossed lovers and instead refocuses on two best friends. The love story moves most of the plot along, but it’s ultimately secondary to the more interesting and complicated relationship between two friends forced to compete with one another.

Indeed, reluctant competition is one of Monsters's central themes. It works as an effective critique of capitalism because characters are constantly driven to hurt others in pursuit of their own interests. Characters who depend on one another are forced to betray one another to get ahead. To get ahead, one must put someone else down, and once down, one is never allowed back up. The player must perform a series of menial tasks to earn enough money to survive, and the plot pits characters against a callous medical industry, a corrupt union boss, and a jaded publicist. This constantly moving plot makes it a less damning simulation of poverty than Cart Life or Spent, but it still effectively mechanizes poverty in order to deliver a salient point about cycles of poverty. The player character's odd jobs gets him or her through the day but not farther. Those with authority condescend and make demands, but (especially early in the game) the character is never in a position to do more than get by.

That said, as the title suggests, nobody is ever completely reprehensible. For example, there’s a cartoonishly grouchy factory manager who glowers and barks orders while the player shuffles boxes from storage to loading bay. He’s a sexist, homophobic, self-centred prick with almost no redeeming features. But when his striking employees take a non-metaphorical shit on the hood of his car, it’s hard not to feel bad for the guy (even if he kind of deserves it). He also ends up delivering some of the most poignant, if cynical, lines in the game. Likewise, even the most apparently good people are not above reproach. Every character that the player spends any amount of time with has at least one more layer beneath the surface. In other words, every character invites judgement and then defies it. As an experience invested in how people interact, Monsters is strongest when it shows different sides of people.

All that being said, Monsters is rough around the edges. Most of the dialogue has a very colloquial North American tone but on occasion characters will spin off into a diatribe about social determinism and converging life paths that often sounds totally unnatural compared with the game’s general tone. Moreover, Monsters is more effective as a social critique earlier in the starting city when the player has nothing and gets kicked down the hardest. However, occasionally for the plot to move forward, the player character is artificially elevated to a position of grandeur or authority. Finally, when Monsters comments on poverty, addiction, mental health, crime, queerness, and racism, it occasionally trivializes the very issues that it’s trying to shed light on. There’s always a way out for the player, enemies are always willing to bargain, and resources are always available.

My own counter to its flaws is: “So what?” It’s a game about human error and the messiness of relationships, and dismissing it out of hand for being rough around the edges feels unfair. The game’s efforts might not pay off every single time, but they still count for something. Monsters is obviously very personal (the developers themselves are recurring in-game characters). It’s a bit meandering, crass, and occasionally more ham-fisted than it seems to realize. Still, though, its technical limitations are more charming than they are distracting. In the end, these flaws make it read a lot like a modern-day Clerks for the millennial generation.

Always Sometimes Monsters is an honest attempt at saying something personal and significant. It’s varied parts don’t always mesh perfectly, but given its subject matter, it never grievously wounds the experience. Always Sometimes Monsters expects to linger after it’s gone, and it expects to be talked about. That means something when people like its characters are so often forgotten.

7

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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