Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Complete Calvin and Hobbes

by Bill Watterson

So Gary Larsons' Complete Far Side came in a giant cloth bound two volume set, but The Complete Calvin and Hobbes tops that with a similarly presented three volume set. Compared to The Far Side's accompanying art the Calvin and Hobbes set is presented in a very restrained manner. Whereas Larson drew an elaborate cover containing giant stone heads and flying cows, Watterson has included very simple renditions of the title characters in endearing poses. I guess Calvin and Hobbes evokes a lot more sentiment in it's creator than The Far Side does.

For anyone who doesn't know, Calvin and Hobbes is a newspaper cartoon strip that ran for ten or so years in the eighties and nineties. Calvin is an obnoxious little kid in the Dennis the Menace mould, and Hobbes is his stuffed toy/imaginary friend, a tiger with an incongruously mature outlook. It sounds like a twee and irritating premise, like most of the rubbish you'll find on the comics page, but Watterson has a somewhat twisted mind; for every saccharine strip about friendship there are at least a couple of sarcastic pokes at human nature, and if you're lucky one or two strips involving aliens, dinosaurs and grisly dismemberment. (It would have been nice if they'd included the letters of complaint that the editors received like The Far Side collection did, Calvin and Hobbes definitely has far more capacity to offend.)

The inconsistent tone means that reading the comic's entire run in one go can be a bit disconcerting, Calvin's character changes pretty wildly from day to day, as he quickly goes from being a wide eyed paragon pointing out the flaws of the adult world to a crazy kid with serious psychological problems to a greedy manipulative sociopath whose parents openly wish they could get rid of him. The first and last personae are curiously related, in both of them Watterson rails against the greed and corruption of the adult world, either by having Calvin the innocent point out the injustice, or have Calvin the greedy display what a monster the influence of the modern world (mainly TV and superhero comics) have created. It's kind of interesting how he at different times embodies two polar extremes of human behaviour, but I doubt that it's intentional.

Calvin in his third guise, the kid with the imagination so over-active that it's not too much of an exaggeration to say that he is tormented by it, is the one that I find the most appealing. Certainly his continuous encounters with aliens, clones, possessed snowmen and of course dinosaurs, combined with his preference for his imaginary worlds over the real one remind me a hell of a lot of myself at his age. And at my current age too, come to think of it.

The character of Hobbes gives the comic its uniqueness, and most of its humour too. The comical juxtaposition of a stuffed animal who is both as scatty and irrational as a housecat, and as witty, worldly and charming as everyone secretly wishes they were is comedic gold. His grounded, pragmatic views are a good counterpoint to Calvin's philosophising in either good or evil mode, and usually involve something along the lines of “In the end we're all here to eat each other so why worry about it?”

The nonsensical contradictions of the tone make for a curious story. As enjoyable and funny as it is I couldn't help being a little put off by the implications of Calvin's personality. What kind of an adult would he actually grow up in to? At best a reclusive misanthrope, at worst a psychopath urged on by the violent commands of his only friend in the world, a demonic feline that exists solely in his imagination. And maybe I'm just fucked in the head but I kept picking up on a weird sexual vibe between the two title characters. For these reasons I can't feel as sentimentally attached to Calvin and Hobbes as its creator and most ardent fans do, but it's still damn funny, and yes still a little touching, as long as you don't think too much about it.

Friday, March 24, 2006

In Fact, I Just Like To Say The Word 'Incarceration'

Meshuggah – I

I liked Meshuggah's other albums Catch Thirty Three and Chaosphere when I wrote about them last year, but wasn't overly impressed either. However I've found that they've both really grown on me. That's not much of a surprise considering how technical their music is. As it doesn't have a big emotional impact most of its worth becomes apparent through careful listening.

I is an EP that was released between those two albums, and while short it combines the strengths of both of them. Like Catch Thirty Three the album is one continuous piece of music, although only 20 minutes long instead of 50, and like that album it contains a mix of heavy passages and weird atonal interludes. From Chaosphere it inherits the incredibly brutal riffs that manage to be catchy despite being in completely deranged time signatures.

While the bizarre rhythms of the other albums have their own strange kind of order to them, I goes in a little bit of a Dillinger Escape Plan direction using completely random time signatures. Other than that there's not much to add except that it's another excellent release from these guys but without much to differentiate it from their other albums. It's short and succinct and would probably be a good introduction to Meshuggah.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

I Don't Like You Any More, You Lying Trying Waste Of Space

Placebo – Meds

You know, I had absolutely no idea that Placebo had a new album out. I guess never listening to the radio can have a downside. After I got their first album a few weeks ago and was underwhelmed, and found their last release Sleeping with Ghosts a bit of a disappointment, I was surprised to find that I was still pretty excited to hear this new album.

Musically Meds continues to develop in a similar direction as their last few albums. The more or less straight up three piece grunge of their first album has been joined by string sections on the slow songs, and a touch of electronica on most tracks. The emotional tone of their albums has continued to develop in a linear fashion as well, the teenage 'I hate myself' angst of the self titled and Without You I'm Nothing have given way to sadness, mostly directed at others rather than internally.

The lyrics of Meds spend a lot of time dwelling on a relationship that failed due to the substance abuse of the other. This is pretty good material for some intense music, but I'm sad to say that most of the album is fairly straight forward and unexciting rock. Not bad and certainly catchy but lacking anything to make it truly memorable. A few tracks stand out however, 'Space Monkey' has a cold unearthly vibe which gives its surreal imagery a unique twist. Plus it's about a monkey. The final two tracks are both excellent as well. 'The Cold Light of Morning' is about as sad as songs come and will no doubt hit a chord with anyone who's ever found themselves wasted at 10am on a Sunday and realising that the party is over and you have to sober up. 'A Song to Say Goodbye' is another classic, with a more upbeat melody contradicting the sad story told by the lyrics (basically 'I'm through with you, you fucked up junkie') and somehow making it that much more poignant.

So while these guys are still capable of some great stuff and even though the tracks that don't live up to those standards are still worth listening to, this album is no return to the quality of Without You I'm Nothing and Black Market Music, and it seems like they're treading water a little. Placebo have always lacked a certain element of intensity in their performance and it seems to be getting worse rather than better. Maybe they need to take more drugs...

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Some Little Bastard Crawled All Over Him For Ten Minutes...

Shadow of the Colossus (Sony)

This game is the followup to Ico, which I finished a few weeks back. Both games are quite original in terms of both plot/theme and gameplay, and it's very heartening to see that inventive games are still being made by big developers, and (in Shadow's case but not Ico's) even doing well financially as well as critically.

I enjoyed Ico a lot, but I am pleased to say that Shadow of the Colossus is even better. The fundamentals of the gameplay and the art direction are very similar, but it has a darker, more adult story and theme. The protagonist is a young man named Wanda (a mistranslation from English to Japanese and back of 'Wander') who wants to resurrect his dead girlfriend. He is offered a chance to do so by a collection of godlike beings known as the Dormin who manifest as a beam of light. In order to satisfy the Dormin, you must hunt down and kill sixteen gigantic beasts, the colossi of the title. All of this is conveyed in a very nice but overly long introduction movie. I would have preferred the plot details to be dealt out in more concise portions throughout the game instead of being dumped on you in one big chunk at the start, but hey, your patience will be rewarded.

The gameplay itself is original and unconventional, but fortunately it works really well. It uses a similar engine to Ico, but instead of being a platformer it's more of a 3d action game. Defeating each colossus is roughly a three step process. First you must find the beast, by following a trail of light that shines out of your magic sword. This usually takes a while as the world area is quite large and very detailed. There are no enemies or challenges in this phase of the game, so you would expect it to be a bit of a bore, but as it turns out the anticipation of seeing the next colossus is more than enough to keep the interest levels up.

Once you find the monster there is usually a trick to finding a way to climb on to it. This section of the game is more of a puzzle than anything else, and is mostly about thinking of some creative way to take advantage of the environment or the enemy's behaviour (while avoiding its fists, feet, teeth, weapons or laser beams). The colossi are all mechanical, robotic versions of mundane and mythical animals. There's a lion, a minotaur and an electric eel for example. They range in size from just a bit larger than your character to so hugely massive that they blot out the horizon. This aspect of the game is the real content of the gameplay and it's refreshingly original and perfectly executed. The designers have really come through in creating interesting and varied scenarios to fight each enemy in while using only a limited set of gameplay gimmicks.

Finally once you're on the beast an action element comes in, and you have to climb to the colossus' vulnerable point and stab it until it dies, trying to stay attached all the while as the monster tries to throw you off. This part is usually not too challenging, and I think ideally should have been made a little harder. The final colossus balances the difficulty of this aspect well, but the others are all a bit too easy.

The lead designer claims that both Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are meant to evoke the same emotion, and if you feel differently it means that you've grown as a person since you played Ico. Since I played them pretty much back to back and I don't think I've changed much in the last two weeks I must disagree. There are certainly similarities, both games evoke loneliness through the deserted, crumbling backdrops and silent, inhuman enemies, and contrast this with a close relationship with your companion, in Ico the vulnerable girl Yorla and in Shadow of the Colossus your faithful horse Agro (am I the only one who, instead of waxing poetic about the horse's bravery and nobility, found it intemperate and insolent?) However Shadow is a lot darker. Contrast the two games endings, Ico's twee love conquers all message and Shadow's grim warning against hubris are worlds apart, although they make a nice pair especially when you take into account that plotwise Shadow of the Colossus is a prequel to Ico.

More Important News

New Tool album artwork here.

Some very serious and important promo shots of the band are up on Toolshed. Numbers 2 and 3 are the best.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Hangover Day Random Link

(via Google Video of the Day) The old movie that the Smashing Pumpkins' video 'Tonight Tonight' was based on.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The More I Settle Down...

Breaks Co-op – The Sound Inside

I saw these guys at Southern Amp late last year and really enjoyed their gig. Then I bought their first album Roofers and very nearly died of boredom. Since eight years passed between the releases of Roofers and The Sound Inside I was hoping it would be more similar to their recent live show.

And I do like The Sound Inside a lot better. At it's core it's the same easy listening hip-hop for old people as their earlier record , but they've given the proceedings some more life with the inclusion of a new cast member who does some actual singing and acoustic guitar playing. It gives their music a more 'rootsy' feel. The first track 'The Sound Inside' is really good, and I know saying this will cost me like 1000 metal points, but I really like their big single 'The Other-side' as well.

Unfortunately after a strong start the album starts to decline fairly rapidly. It never gets as boring as Roofers but after a few songs it all starts to sound the same. While they're good at picking a nice, catchy riff or sample to base a song around, they never really develop any of them so it's just one gentle relaxing repeated refrain for five minutes, followed by another. Perfect for old people who need some inoffensive background music for a dinner party, or for a sunny afternoon outdoor concert, but not a satisfying listening experience on its own.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Big News

Hola amigos. So I know it's been a long time since I've rapped at ya, but I've had a whole lot of crazy shit going on for the last week or so. Nevertheless I have been compelled to comment on the BIG IMPORTANT FUCKING NEWS of the week.

The new Tool album has a release date, a title, and a tracklisting. 10,000 Days will be out on May 2nd, and the tracklisting is up on their official site. It seems a little iffy to me though. There was a lot of speculation about the album title being fake, since it is a bit out of character when compared with their other titles (plus it sounds kind of similar to Disturbed's Ten Thousand Fists), but I was prepared to take their word for it. However the tracklisting seems a bit more suspicious to me. Names like 'Wings for Marie' and 'The Pot' don't sound anything at all like 'normal' Tool titles. Blair (the guy who writes news posts on the Tool website) is swearing up and down that it's true, but he did that when he claimed that Maynard had found Jesus on April Fools' Day last year too.

(A little historical context: before Lateralus was released Tool sent a different tracklisting to MTV every day for a month. Plus, April Fools is coming up again...)

So I remain skeptical. But of course regardless of whether or not this is the real tracklist, the proof will be in the listening, which is still fifty odd days away...

Friday, March 03, 2006

I Don't Speak Crazy Bitch


Cult games very rarely make it over to New Zealand. We're probably never going to see Katamari Damancy here, and there are no doubt plenty of other cool games that I've never even heard of that pass us by because they don't have a popular rapper's name in the title or have a girl in a chainmail bikini on the cover. Nevertheless occasionally something manages to defy the odds and receive an antipodean release, and after hearing about it for years I've finally had a chance to play Ico.

The new game by the team behind Ico (Shadow of the Colossus) has been selling reasonably well (on account of its more mature and violent theme no doubt, but it's still a great game, and I'll have a lot of good things to say when I've finished it) so they've given Ico a re-release.

The game is at its core a 3D platformer, but its unique twist on the genre is best explained by describing the plot. The story is fairly minimal, but I don't mean that in an Unreal Tournament or Tetris kind of way, it has a very 'fairy tale'-like mood, and as all the characters speak a gibberish language, only some of which is subtitled, exposition is kept to a minimum. In recent years I've come to really appreciate this approach to storytelling in games. Games which cram huge elaborate plots with fucking shitloads of cutscenes into themselves sometimes succeed in spite of it (see the Final Fantasy series), very rarely pull it off brilliantly (see Planescape: Torment) and usually turn into an execrable bore-fest (see Xenosaga). By keeping things simple but archetypical the designers are doing themselves a huge favour.

Anyway, our main character is a boy called Ico. Believed to be cursed by his family and their fellow villagers he is imprisoned in a spooky old uninhabited castle and left to die. Fortunately he escapes and finds that the castle is in fact inhabited by nasty shadow demon things. Before long he meets a mysterious ghostly girl named Yorla who is also imprisoned in the castle, and naturally enough it turns out that by working together they may have a chance of escaping.

Throughout the game you control the boy Ico, and you must guide the flaky and helpless Yorla through the castle and its environs, a process involving a moderate amount of bashing baddies with swords and a large amount of switch-pulling, block-pushing and general puzzle solving. Yorla herself is a somewhat frustrating companion as she and Ico lack a common language (communicating through yells and arm waving) and she has an annoying tendency to wander off in unhelpful directions. As usual with game related matters Penny Arcade sum it up pretty well. But despite this one annoyance the game is very good on every level, mostly through plain old level design.

The area that the game covers is very small. The castle isn't an endless labyrinth but instead feels like an actual building with reasonably proportioned and logically connected areas. Clever design enables the creators to extend the game length by reusing areas in different ways. You'll often find yourself in the same place a few different times, only on a higher level, or with the geography rearranged in some way. The puzzles are all well thought out and are very satisfying to complete.

The art direction is pretty nice too. It doesn't leap out at you in the way that some games can, but the old castle has a very memorable and visceral mood that stays with you and evokes a real place, both in the dark, creepy dungeons and the bright sunlit rooftops.

I do have a few more criticisms though. Firstly it was too easy; while no one wants to come across some stupid unintuitive puzzle that requires either days of thought or a walkthrough to complete, it was a bit of a disappointment when I blazed through the second half of the game. I often find that once I have a handle on the designers' mindset the puzzle solutions become universally obvious. A little more variety and sneakiness in the later part of the game would have improved things a lot. Secondly, the graphics weren't so great. Being primarily a PC gamer I am used to feeling like my eyes are being stabbed with needles whenever I turn on a console, but I found this game to have far too much brightness, I often found myself squinting at the screen to see what I was doing. At first I thought this was a deliberate design decision, as light and darkness are two motifs of the story, but Shadow of the Colossus seems to have a similar problem. Combat is a bit annoying too. It's not a combat oriented game but it would have been nice to have less cumbersome feeling to the fighting scenes and it would have been especially nice to see where your character really is in relation to those smoky shadowy beasties instead of having to guess and swing wildly.

Lastly I found the end of the game a bit stupid. The last section is very good, but lacked any save points for almost an hours worth of gameplay, and that shit pisses me off. Console developers often seem not to understand that sometimes I have to get off the computer and do things like eat and go to work. The final battle is damn cool mind you, but again way too easy. Finally, the ending of the plot was far too twee. Yes I know it's a fairy tale but when the bad guy says 'Ha! Even if you kill me, you can't really win!' and then you kill them and everything turns out fine with no explanation, that's a bit stupid.

So while it sounds like I'm bitching quite a bit the truth is that it's a great game that deserves all of its accolades. I guess the good things are just more insubstantial and harder to describe than the bad things, which stick in your mind and are usually easily articulated. If you have a PS2 and have no aversion to platformers (or a mandatory rule of only buying games with hookers and guns in them) then this is easily one of the best games you can get for that console.

A final note on the plot. Normally I'd sneer at something as twee and kiddie friendly as this, but I find that I have a much higher tolerance for such things in games when compared to other media. I think it's the visceral feeling of grabbing Yorla's hand and saving her from the claws of evil with only seconds to spare (and doing it all yourself rather than reading about someone else doing it) that makes it much easier to form an emotional attachment to the story. Perhaps the finest example of this is the ending of Planescape: Torment, when you realise what a total bastard your character was in his previous lives, and are forced to view your relationships with your companions in a completely different light. It's a pity more designers don't utilise this strength of the medium.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Maynard, Make Me a Tequila and Gatorade Please

Tool – Schism

About six months before Lateralus was released Tool released a live CD/DVD, Salival, in order to build anticipation for the new album. It was pretty fucking good. In a similar move they've released a pair of DVDs containing the videos for 'Schism' and 'Parabola' (with a new album due in a few months). They're not so good.

I was a little sceptical about paying $20 for one of these discs but I received some CD vouchers for Christmas so I thought what the hell. The disc contains a mere three tracks; the original video, the same video with commentary and an audio remix of the song by Lustmord.

To be fair the disc comes beautifully packaged, with a nice booklet of cool stills from the video. The DVD menus themselves have had a lot of attention paid to them, with some really detailed art direction. The video itself is, like almost all of Tool's videos, completely fucking brilliant. Like the videos from Undertow and Aenima it contains all of Adam Jones' standard motifs; weird mutant alien things, characters combining and reforming, and freaky gross biological stuff. Unlike the older videos it contains live actors and CGI as well as the traditional stop start animation.

The songs themes of communication and loneliness are fairly straightforwardly represented by the video, although of course there's a whole bunch of extra crazy shit that doesn't make any sense at all. What the fuck's up with the little guy who comes out of the main guy's head? But that fire effect at the end (looks like oil burning on water viewed from below or something) is pretty damn cool.

The audio commentary is sadly not by Adam or Maynard, but we get instead the abstract ramblings of David Yow, formally singer for The Jesus Lizard, who tells us about what he had for lunch, makes gross burping noises, talks on the phone and refers once or twice to the actual video (“This video, is all about ears...”). To top it off, he has actually recorded two commentaries, which play simultaneously on the left and right stereo channels. One gets the impression that it's really meant as a commentary on how Adam doesn't like the idea of doing a commentary.

The remix is a very good ambient work, which happens to be at it's best before recognisable parts of the original song start appearing.

While it's cool to own the video, I feel a bit ripped off that I paid $20 for it. If it had contained both 'Schism' and 'Parabola' it would have been worth it, but I'm a bit gypped that they expect us to shell out for two discs when they could have easily packaged them together. I am interested in hearing Jello Biafra's commentary for 'Parabola', but I think it will have to wait until I find a really cheap copy.