Reviews

MadWorld

Any game that can piss off both the left and right wing without breaking a sweat needs to be in your collection.


Publisher: Sega
Genres: Action, Multimedia
Price: $49.99
Multimedia: MadWorld
Platforms: Wii
Number of players: 1-2 players
ESRB rating: Mature
Developer: Platinum Games
US release date: 2009-03
Website
Amazon
Developer website

There are many (myself included) who have high hopes for Platinum Games, the development studio started up by some of Japan's best game developers such as Shinji Mikami of Resident Evil fame, Atsushi Inaba (God Hand and Okami) and Hideki Kamiya, (Devil May Cry and Viewtiful Joe) to name a few. Originally they all plied their trade for Clover Studios, an independent company funded by Capcom. This relationship gave birth to some of the most critically acclaimed and unique games of the last decade. Sadly for all involved, a number of these games (like Viewtiful Joe,, Okami, and Clover’s last game God Hand) became cult hits at best. Despite strong review scores, Capcom decided enough was enough and dissolved the studio. Some claimed that key development talent had jumped ship leaving Clover without some of its biggest names, some blamed poor sales figures, some blamed a lack of marketing, and some just blamed it on the boogie. Either way, the aforementioned talent formed Platinum Games and began work on four new games with the Wii’s new best friend for life, Sega. The first game off the production line is the uber violent MadWorld.

MadWorld has been shrouded in controversy from day one, upsetting moralists, conservatives, and Rupert Murdoch owned “news’ outlets.” All of whom believe that they’re in charge of the Wii’s line-up and are concerned that all the little kiddyz will get hold of it and turn into homicidal psychopaths and gun-toting maniacs. Who knows? Maybe they’ll go really nuts and end up as FOX news viewers or readers of The Sun.

MadWorld is undoubtedly the most explicitly violent game on the face of the Earth. Its striking black, white, and red palette, aping Frank Millers Sin City and its ever flowing streams of blood and its constant drop of the F-bomb as well as other expletives means for me at least that its OTT nature is well, hilarious, not harmful. If anything, this may finally put people off reality TV, though I’m sure Murdoch and Co. would hate that, as they may actually have to report on real news!

The plot goes that all round, badass, grizzly bear man, barrel chested gorilla man, roaring wild boar eating man, and all around man’s man, Jack (which is surely the default brute name in video games), has entered Varrigan City, an island which has had all external ties to the outside world severed by a group of evil-doers known as the ‘’The Organizers.’’ This group has decided to amuse themselves by turning the city into a stage for a really, really, really, violent reality TV show, Death Watch. It’s Jacks job to go in -- all chainsaws firing -- save the day, and unravel what is an interesting plot, whose influences include existing films, such as Hostel and The Truman Show, as well as novels such as Stephen King's The Running Man. The game's commentary on society's and (more to the point) man's lust for blood is effectively told and actually makes you care about what’s going on around you. It will make you consider how the rich minorities control the everyman masses and to spill the blood of a pauper means nothing as long as the millionaires get their kicks. No, the narrative is not up to Grand Theft Auto IV level of writing. But for a video game to be about anything other than bald space marines, U.S. Soldiers, spiky-haired emo teenagers saving humanity from aliens or Nazis or dwarfs or sorcerers is a welcome break in its own right.

Jack is hardly your goodie-goodie protagonist either (he does have a chainsaw attached to his arm after all). Instead, he is more a vigilante who has no pretence about being a hero. He just wants to kill, kill, kill, and get a laugh out of it as well. Mirroring the riches desire for blood sport, the writers have shown that Jack is no saint, but in a mad world (for lack of a better term) no one is perfect.

The unusual plot (for games at least) is coupled with quite possibly the most outrageous commentary ever. If the vile vernacular of the grunts that you beat down issn’t bad enough, the announcers voiced by Greg Proops and John DiMaggio will have you in stitches. Imagine Dodgeball only 1,000 times worse. Such dialogue, though, suits the aesthetic and makes you wish that all real sports were voiced by these guys. Yes, it’s a bit frat boy, but so what? It’s so tongue in cheek to get offended would be akin to hating Sarah Palin. Yes, it's a bit stupid, a little silly, maybe even annoying, but funny nonetheless. The humour is very No More Heroes. If you got the joke in that game, then you’re sure to get this. If you didn’t, you need help.

The audio further builds on this manic attitude with a fast, gritty, dark rap soundtrack. Nothing is a more fitting accompaniment to MadWorld's carnage, than a genre of music steeped in violence and brutality. Rap music has nearly always been about anarchy. Any other musical choice, simply put, wouldn’t be able to convey the perverse nature of the game as spectacularly as it does.

The graphics have earned much praise since MadWorld's unveiling. As mentioned earlier, the use of only three colours (four if you count the yellow used for the comic book sound effect pop-ups) makes Platinum Games debut visually unlike any other. To say that it’s a stunner is an understatement. Light years ahead artistically of nearly every other game on the market, its refreshing comic visuals and minimalist palette and all round stylishness will ensure that 10, 20, even 30 years from now, MadWorld will still be a stunner. It’s like seeing your first crush after years apart; she was hot back then and she’s even hotter today.

The best way to describe the gameplay would be as a 3-D roaming beat-em-up, akin to God Hand. But that would be to pigeon hole MadWorld and its accomplishments. The emphasis here is on earning points and it’s not about scoring a few hundred or even thousands. No, like everything else in the game, the point system has been exaggerated to the maximum. We’re talking millions here, folks. Each level then is not your usual straightforward a-b affair. Instead, you’re presented with a playground to roam around in and smash skulls. At the start, you’re told how many points you’re required to hit before a challenge unlocks, a new a weapon becomes available, or a new type of environmental kill is ready to be unveiled for your sadistic pleasure. It’s then up to you how to achieve those goals. You can go the whole button mashing route but that’ll only get you so far. More to the point, you’ll miss out on the main appeal, linking violence together.

For example, get a tire and trap an enemy inside, then get a signpost or two (or three) and jam them through his skull. When that’s done grab him, head butt him a few times (just to make sure he can’t get away!), and then put him out of his misery by repeatedly impaling him on the Rose Bush (a wall with nasty looking spikes on it) for maximum blood and laughter. Or, how about chopping a guy’s leg off, watching him desperately try and crawl on the floor to safety, only to stomp on his skull? If that doesn’t work for you, what about throwing a briefcase of cash, watching as all the deranged mercenaries surrounding you go after it, then throw an explosive barrel at them, and watch as their body parts go flying into orbit?

The game is filled with a generous amount of options for you to mix it up and be as creative as possible with dumpsters, trash bags, signposts, barrels, rows of chairs, toilets,. For those that go all out,, you really will be painting the town red. In between all the decapitating, mutilating, and tearing of bodies in two, you’ll be presented with special mini-games, Blood Bath Challenges. These range from Man Darts, Man Golf, Turbinator, (throwing as many foes as possible into an airplane turbine) and... erm... the Money Shot, which is as cheeky as one would expect in a game where the announcers are constantly talking about inserting things in their scrotums. These mini challenges are a pleasant (if that’s the right word to describe such fun) distraction from the main game and also places further emphasis on the game's interest in simply trying to be as shocking as possible.

There are however some niggles, the camera is pretty poor. There’s no manual control of the camera with only the C button serving as a means of realigning the player's viewpoint. This is fine in the more open areas, but, in the smaller, confined zones, it becomes a problem. While hardly a new issue to the genre, a little bit more thought in the level design considering the limitations of the camera would have been appreciated. As would a decent checkpoint system. The games is based on a fixed amount of life. Once you run out, you’re back to the start,. That wouldn’t be a problem if you’ve only spent five or ten minutes on a level but after 30 minutes or so it grates. It also makes you at times neglect the point based combos and go straight for simple kills just so you can reach the end level boss more quickly. There are also minor instances of slow down. Though not enough to affect the overall experience, such glitches really shouldn’t be there. Unintentionally though, some of these moments of slow down can add to the super stylized look of the game.

More pressing as a concern, however, is the motion controls, which are 90% accurate at best. All boss fights require some movement of the nunchuck and Wiimote (often in tandem) as does some of the fighting leading up to that final encounter. These actions work impeccably at times but other times not so well. It’s frustrating, especially when such moments lead to a death, and clearly Platinum Games would have benefited if Motion Plus was available to them.

My biggest gripe, however, is the length of the game. It took me just over three and half hours on my first play through and I -- by no means -- am a pro. The short length is offset by a multiplayer option as well as a hard mode, where the challenge of the game and its length is increased.

If anything MadWorld is actually better on a second play. You know the levels, what needs doing, and you can skip the cutscenes. The uninterrupted violence is far more immersive and motivates you to look for ever more bloody ways of bludgeoning these goons to death. Thus, though the game is not the unqualified success that I was hoping for, MadWorld gets many things right: awe inspiring visuals, a competently told story, a great script, solid voice acting and music, and a deep combat system that rewards imagination and skill. Platinum Games have thrown the rule book out the window; and they hope to make this into a series of games (who knows maybe we’ll actually see full blown versions of Man Darts and Man Golf?). For that to happen, though, you, dear reader, need to get your wallet out. It’s no good complaining about a dearth of great, original, core games on the Wii and then ignoring the ones that come along and are clearly trying to entertain. Unless you want all titles on the Wii to be about animals, babies, and fitness, then get out there and vote with your currency of choice. Just remember that any game that can piss off both the left and right wing without breaking a sweat needs to be in your collection.

8
Culture

Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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