Games

Be Prepared to be Unprepared

Bloodborne wants to catch us off guard, even as it teaches us to always be on guard.

In Dark Souls, you always knew when a boss was coming. The big bad was always behind a "fog door", a wall of smoke that separated the boss arena from the rest of the level. It would automatically close behind you, locking you in, forcing you to fight or die. Fog doors became intimidating; they were warnings demanding your attention and respect, shouting at us "This way lies death!" Passing through the fog was not a decision to be taken lightly. Passing through the fog meant you were ready for a fight.

Dark Souls 2 screwed with our heads by placing more fog doors around the world. They wouldn't necessarily lead to a boss fight;. They could, but maybe not. Passing through the fog became a gamble. It was just as likely to unlock a shortcut as it was a boss fight. I'm sure there was a technical reason for this proliferation. It was likely a means of hiding load times or some such, but psychologically it turned the fog door from a warning into a taunt. There was now an element of unpredictability, and as a result, everyone at some point walked through a fog door thinking that they'd get more of the level and instead stumbled, unprepared, into a boss fight.

Bloodborne continues this trend of increasing unpredictability. Boss fights can occur with no warning or at least no explicit warning. We can't rely on the game to warn us or taunt us because it wants to catch us off guard.

The first boss, the huge werewolf known as the Cleric Beast, is rather difficult to find and that search sets the tone for the game.

Bloodborne is partly an RPG. You earn "experience" fighting enemies and spend that "experience" as a currency to make your character stronger, but you can't actually do that at the start of the game. You can fight enemies, earn those Blood Echoes, but you can't spend them. I have friends who have spent hours roaming the gothic city of Yarnham, confused about why they can't access this important feature. Then they find that one bridge, and they brave the werewolf couple that wander it, and they follow it to its end, and then the Cleric Beast jumps down from its hidden perch and the first boss fight begins. It’s only afterwards, whether they win or lose, that they'll be able to spend those Blood Echoes and level up.

To prevent us from engaging with this one consistent trait of an RPG is to make us feel like we're missing something, and when we feel like we're missing something, we feel unprepared for whatever awaits us. We will always be unprepared for the Cleric Beast the first time that we fight it. The game makes damn sure of that.

Then Bloodborne starts playing a meta game with our expectations. Since the Cleric Beast appeared out of nowhere, I’m expecting that kind of ambush to happen again, but it doesn’t. The next boss fight with Father Gascoigne begins with a cut scene. I walk through an archway, and instead of having a few moments to analyze the environment, I trigger an introductory video and the fight begins. Gascoigne rushes me in an arena that I haven’t had time to study. My first instinct is to dodge his attacks but that only results in me getting caught on a gravestone that I didn’t know was there -- stuck between a literal rock and a hard place. Whereas the Cleric Beast surprises us by waiting, Gascoigne surprises us by rushing.

The third boss, or at least the third boss that I fought, neither ambushes you, nor rushes you. She waits for you. Vicar Amelia can be seen at the end of a long church, hunched over and praying. The environment is suspicious, indicative of a boss fight in every way that a video game environment can be indicative of a boss fight, but Amelia waits just long enough to make us doubt ourselves. You’ll walk more than half the length of the church, ready but waiting, as Amelia prays with her back to you, a vulnerable position that encourages us to come closer and attack. Except that you won’t get that chance because she quickly transforms into a giant werewolf. Crap.

Not only does the timing of the fight surprise us, but the nature of it is surprising as well. The Cleric Beast establishes that we should expect giant monsters, but Gascoigne tells us that humans can be deadly as well. Amelia looks to be one of the former, but then becomes one of the latter.

Eventually you'll learn the patterns of Bloodborne. You'll know when a boss is coming because of the environment and because it just feels like that time has come. However, when you do reach this point, the game knows that you know its patterns, and it'll change things accordingly.

There's a late-game area called the Nightmare Frontier that's infamous because other players can invade your game with incredible ease there, and make no mistake, these invaders are bosses in their own right. You're warned when an invader appears, but you don't know where they will specifically appear.

The first time that I was invaded I started running through the level, desperate to return to where I had died previously so that I could retrieve my lost Blood Echoes. I didn't consider the fact that I had died because a monster threw a rock at me and that I was running right into his line of sight again. I found my Blood Echoes and the invader, and then we fought while boulders rained around us. I died, of course. I was unprepared for that fight at that time in that area. But damn it was a thrilling death.

This is the game taunting us, toying with our expectations, and I love it all the more for that, for the way it increases my paranoia and encourages an awareness of my surroundings. There’s always a thrill in preparing for a fight, but it’s another kind of thrill to have the fight come to you unexpectedly. I’ve written before about how the Souls games are an evolution of survival-horror, and Bloodborne makes the strongest case for this yet, what with its gothic setting and Lovecraftian mythos. This is a game that wants us to be scared, and it know that to scare us it has to attack us in ways that we haven’t seen before.

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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