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Photo: Robert Toren

Game Theory: 2 Steps From the Middle Ages

Game Theory’s 1988 release anticipated the alternative music explosion of the early '90s.
Game Theory
2 Steps From the Middle Ages
Omnivore

In the liner notes accompanying this final entry in Omnivore’s Game Theory re-release project, Franklin Bruno recounts a story of Poison guitarist C.C. DeVille throwing a hissy fit in a guitar shop only to be stopped in his tracks when he realizes that one of the witnesses is Mitch Easter, the producer of 2 Steps From the Middle Ages along with three of Game Theory’s four other albums. Identifying the band and album as among his favorites, he grabs a nearby acoustic guitar and plays Scott Miller’s song “Wish I Could Stand or Have” from memory.

It’s an odd, wonderful, and surprising anecdote. But then, Game Theory and Poison had been labelmates on Enigma Records before the latter band rose to national chart fame and, as strange as it might sound, they had more than just a label in common. At their core both were pop bands, just occupying different places on that spectrum. Poison — along with Mötley Crüe, another hair-metal band that got its start on the Enigma label — mixed heavy metal with lighter pop structures while Game Theory offered pop music that, despite an ability to sound confectionary-sweet, was never without a harder edge. It makes sense that DeVille would have been drawn to the mix of lightness and edginess in Miller’s work.

1988’s 2 Steps From the Middle Ages is the edgiest among the five Game Theory albums, their final record and the only one to feature the same major players (Miller, Gil Ray, Shelley LaFreniere, Donnette Thayer, and Guillaume Gassuan) on sequential LPs, this collective having recorded the Easter-produced grand pop experiment Lolita Nation the year before. Where that ground-breaking and now-revered work sprawled over two records, Miller conceived 2 Steps as a more straightforward, singles-based record. Of course, little in Miller’s creative world was ever simple. Sonically, he was a natural iconoclast capable of creating magisterial riffs but impatient with trite or traditional song structures. Witness a song like “Picture of Agreeability” which seems built intentionally riffless, a brief, jangling progression that exhausts itself and, in doing so, intensifies the cynical point of its lyrics.

The band as a whole plays more aggressively on the album’s songs, from Ray’s muted yet driving drum pulse that opens the album through LaFreniere’s heavier, more ominous keyboard contributions. Miller’s guitar playing is less foregrounded than on previous albums, allowing space for his bandmates to fill the sound. The swirling synths that wrap around Miller’s vocals on album opener “Room For One More, Honey” create an ominous sense of approach. Later, in “Don’t Entertain Me Twice”, the keyboards serve to amplify Miller’s growing dis-ease with the dysfunctional relationship the song describes. Meanwhile, Thayer sings with stronger confidence here, both in support and in the lead on “Wyoming”, and her rhythm guitar playing, combined with Gassuan’s bass, enhances the sense of moodiness in many of the songs.

Miller’s songwriting remains sharp here if less haphazardly referential than on Lolita Nation. Though Douglass Fairbanks and Clint Eastwood make appearances here, there are fewer “Kenneth, what’s the frequency?”-styled pop culture challenges to send listeners racing to the reference library. Rather, Miller plays to his strengths in embracing the role of a perpetually spurned lover. While this loser-persona didn’t actually reflect upon the handsome and physically fit singer, Miller was masterful at capturing the mix of vulnerability and bitterness embedded within adolescent male sexuality. “Amelia” he sings in the album’s fourth song, “has the one you trusted / Grown hard and maladjusted?”, a great put-down, yes, but one that only someone who has been put down by its target could conjure. The only delight found in such a perspective is spite, and that is cold comfort. This is a common characteristic of Miller’s anti-romantic jibes: they bounce back upon their subject because only a pained romantic could care so much to be so bitter.

Miller’s masterpiece of discontent, romantic or otherwise, might just be this album’s penultimate cut. The heavy, buzzing drone that opens “Throwing the Election” conveys a warning that, though the song’s tone turns light, its focus will remain dark. Maybe it’s about his band’s brilliant but futile pursuit of success (The world wasn’t ready). Maybe it’s another treatise on fumbled love and lost opportunity (Could such a restless seeker find satisfaction?). Probably it’s a bit of both, and it remains my personal favorite among his songs. A sleepless night, frustration and ambiguity, a lost revolution, and mass judgment all swirl together to form a wonderfully mixed metaphor of personal longing and questions of self-value. As Miller sings the song’s final lines “I’ve got a feeling the votes are in, and I got none” his voice rises to a keening wail of heartbreak at the conclusion: “And all I want is one.” It’s the culmination of every childhood and adolescent slight now haunting the young adult still in search of place or purpose, meaning and true affection.

As with previous in the series, reissue producer Dan Vallor curates a generous collection of bonus tracks to fill the disc, with highlights including Miller covers of Paul Simon’s “America” and Easter’s “Bad Machinery” and an incendiary live version of “The Waist and the Knees”, one of Miller’s strongest compositions.

2 Steps From the Middle Ages is a fitting final record in the Game Theory canon. Less experimental than Lolita Nation and darker than Big Shot Chronicles, it points nonetheless forward towards what would, by 1993, become fashionable under the “alternative” label. One can hear echoes of Game Theory’s trailblazing in many of the bands that enjoyed success in the early ’90s, including Belly and, especially, Smashing Pumpkins.

RATING 7 / 10
PopMatters