Thursday, August 28, 2008

Black Metal Roundup

I've been buying so much music recently that it's been hard to find time to listen to it all but it just so happened that this week four black metal albums fell into my hands at about the same time, providing a convenient theme for a post.

First up we have Odinist: The Destruction Of Reason By Illumination by French act Blut Aus Nord. This album nicely achieves a balance between black metal's love of dirty production and the need to actually hear what's going on. The production is surprisingly crisp, especially on the drums, but has a good messy wash to the guitars and vocals that gives it some grit but not so much that the melody is obscured. The sound of the album is very reminiscent of Mayhem's most recent record Ordo Ad Chao, which preceded Odinist's release by about six months. The riffs share a similar spiralling, unsettling, atonal style and the drumming reminds me a little of Hellhammer (Mayhem's drummer), alternating between straight up blast beats and pleasingly syncopated stuttering, both driven by a kick drum that sounds crisp but not so much so that it turns into the dreaded typewriter trigger. The vocals are kind of relegated to the background but are pretty good and I must once again make the comparison with Ordo Ad Chao as they are quite similar to those of Attila Csihar on the latest Mayhem release (but not to his comical gibbering on De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas).

Odinist is a pretty good listen despite the fact that every song is in an identical style; so much so that while I'd be able to recognise a song off this album quite easily I'd never be able to tell you what the title or even the track number is. Fortunately the song they repeat is a good one and doesn't wear out it's welcome over the album's brief forty minute running time.

Obligatory Black Metal Gimmickry: Blut Aus Nord's take on the black metal philosophy appears to be informed largely by mysticism (and particularly Crowley, who's writing provides the album's subtitle). In other words, the same old same old.

Agalloch's The Mantle isn't exactly black metal, but it is folk metal of a kind that has a history often interwoven with that of black metal so I'll call it close enough to include in this post. Despite the presence of distorted electrics in the background Agalloch's songs are primarily driven by clean acoustic guitars, although on the other hand the vocals give the music its tentative black metal connection, alternating between clean singing and a gurgle/whisper that's 100% black metal derived. The overall effect is actually quite cool and original. Acoustic guitar strumming accompanied by subdued distorted electric rhythm guitar, straight up rock drumming, black metal vocals and flamenco lead guitar is something I certainly admit I've never heard any other band try. The result is a melancholy and dreamy vibe that still has the energy and epic sense of metal. I must admit though that I'm not as keen on this album as I am on Odinist, as even though The Mantle has far more variety over the course of a full hour I always tire of it before the end. Nevertheless it's still well worth a listen.

Obligatory Black Metal Gimmickry: I have to admit that I haven't checked the lyrics but Agalloch seem to be invoking extreme environmentalism, with lyrics and a mood that evokes the natural world and song titles like 'A Celebration For The Death Of Man...'. This is a nice twist on the usual black metal bullshit, and one that a few bands seem to have adopted in recent times.

Which leads us to Wolves In The Throne Room's first album Diadem Of Twelve Stars. Last year saw the release of Two Hunters, an absolute masterpiece which took the evil sounding trappings of black metal, added the occasional soaring female vocal and rendered it into something positive and uplifting. Transcendent, to use the band's own term. It took just one listen of Two Hunters to make Wolves by far my favourite black metal band but I still kept my expectations for their first album modest, and sure enough it doesn't quite live up to the standard of it's successor. All the elements that made Two Hunters so great are already present, dual guitars in a wash of distortion creating more of a texture than a melody and heaviness blended seamlessly with melancholy and their trademark transcendent, uplifting mood. Unfortunately it's held back from greatness by a vestigial concern with riffage (not their strong point) and other conventional metal trappings, as well as songs with excessive lengths outstripping the quality of the ideas therein contained. Listen to Two Hunters and give Diadem Of Twelve Stars a go too only if you're really into it.

Obligatory Black Metal Gimmickry:
These guys are another bunch of extreme environmentalists, playing gigs out in the forests over there in California and living in a country lodge 'off the grid'. It doesn't factor too much into their music however, beyond the fact that they focus on the wonder of the natural world to the exclusion of other traditional black metal topics.

The story with Shining's IV: The Eerie Cold is quite similar to that of Diadem. Last year Shining released V: Halmstad, a fucking brilliant blend of prog and black metal, but as with Wolves' first album I found this predecessor lacking. Mind you in all other ways Shining may well be the absolute antithesis of Wolves In The Throne Room. For a start they come from the other side of the world (Sweden). Secondly their take on black metal is totally evil (more on this when we get to their gimmickry section) where Wolves are about as positive as black metal ever can be. Thirdly as opposed to Wolves' skill at mood and texture, Shining excel in the area of straight up metal riffing. Not a track goes by without at least one passage with a groove so fucking powerful that you can't help but nod your head and stamp your foot, which is a little peculiar considering that it comes from a band who's main lyrical focus is desolation, depression and suicide. More in line with expectations for a band with such an image are the ghastly vocals and the maudlin piano and cello interludes, which are also very good. Shining's style and riffs may be derived from typical black metal tremello picking and gurgled vocals but they have very much evolved into their own unique kind of music, incorporating a straight up rock energy and creating something that may be very dark and dismal but is incredibly catchy at the same time.

As with Wolves though, The Eerie Cold is but an inferior copy of its successor. For every head bangingly awesome riff on this album, it is still just an imperfect precursor to an even awesomer one on Halmstad. Nevertheless whereas Diadem Of Twelve Stars is a little tedious to listen to The Eerie Cold is still a solid album, even if it does always make me want to put on Halmstd immediately afterwards.

Obligatory Black Metal Gimmickry:
Suicide (amongst other things of a similarly offensive nature). These guys claim to be proud of a number of suicides in their native Sweden that may or may not have been caused by their music. Having watched a few interviews with Shining's obnoxious frontman Kvaroth (and listened to the annoying monologue at the start of The Eerie Cold a couple of times) it must be noted that this band's conceits deserve to be labelled gimmickry more than most. When pretty much everything they do or say seems calculated for maximum offensiveness and obnoxiousness with no consistent philosophy behind it I think it's safe to say that they don't really mean it. (Even if it was pretty funny when Kvaroth called that interviewer a troglodyte.) It's just like that Calvin and Hobbes cartoon: “The fact that these bands haven't killed themselves in ritual self suicide already proves that they're in it for the money just like everyone else.”

Friday, August 22, 2008

Friendly Fire Will Not Be Tolerated!

Call Of Duty 4 (PS3)

If I'd known that this game was so short I would have saved the snark for this article instead of writing that throwaway post last week.

This is my first game post in a long while, and my first ever about a PS3 game, so I may as well start with a few words about the system itself. As a piece of hardware it can't be argued that it's not impressive. Sure it might be an enormous beastly monolith of a console sizewise but it is still only half the size of my PC (itself an enormous behemoth, by today's PC standards). At least it makes up for it's huge form factor by being whisper quiet, unlike the PS2 (or again my PC, which makes a roar like a dying elephant when it starts up). And as you'd expect from a piece of electronics containing such a ridiculous amount of processing power it renders games beautifully, at the very least justifying its reputation as the technical apex of console gaming today. I haven't bought any blu-ray discs yet (watching hi-def movies on my tiny 22” screens would be a bit of a joke), so I can't comment on that aspect of it, but it's fair to say that overall I'm pretty happy with the PS3 hardware.

Lets skip the incredibly aggravating fact that the model I own is not backwards compatible with PS2 games (guess I'll never finish Final Fantasy 12 then), and focus on the one huge damning failure on the part of the PS3, the much lamented fact that there are seriously, absolutely no good games available for it. At all. It's a real shame (and something of a mystery) that a system with such potential is going to waste, but here's hoping that Sony pull their thumb out one day soon. I was frankly a bit shocked at my lack of choices the first time I went shopping for games for it. While I ended up picking up Dynasty Warriors 6 (shallow but addictive), Assassin's Creed (brilliant ideas, boring gameplay) and Grand Theft Auto 4 (ditto) I considered it a pretty paltry haul consisting only of things that are barely OK, but that I ended up buying just for the sake of having something for the console. It's almost comical, why do we get the shitty Burnout Paradise, but the awesome Burnout Revenge is an Xbox exclusive? The other week in desperation I ended up picking up Call Of Duty, which has gotten pretty good reviews (or at least the Xbox version has).

The Call Of Duty series is part of a booming genre of World War II based FPSs, although this fourth instalment deviates from its predecessors by being set in the modern day (with the obligatory Middle Eastern and ex-Soviet bad guys). There are a lot of things I can praise about this game. For a start it doesn't force you to sit through the obnoxious ten minute install that the other PS3 games I've bought have done. Secondly it looks fantastic, by far the best looking game I've seen to date on a pretty good looking console, and the gameplay is slick, easy to pick up and satisfying to play. However its greatest achievement is a real sense of immersion; the trappings of a real special ops operation are probably not at all accurate but are at least convincing enough to distract you from the fact that you can get shot three times in the head and walk away, and that the terrorist organisation appears to have so much manpower that they can afford to send hundreds of their grunts to get slaughtered by US marines. A late night session leaves the player feeling too jittery and wound up to sleep, with a head full of exploding grenades and close call bullet traces.

Yet despite it's initial appeal I ultimately found Call Of Duty a let down. As I implied earlier, the story is the usual retarded bullshit, and further to that it's also too short. I was quite surprised when the game suddenly came to an end after killing a bad guy who was only introduced a couple of levels earlier. Of course I'm used to this kind of bullshit and considering how little time I have for games nowadays I shouldn't complain too much about the length, but what really lets Call Of Duty down is that the gameplay, while slick, is actually very shallow. For the first few levels the constant sensory overload is enough to distract the player, but it eventually becomes apparent that despite the surface appearance of tactical complexity there's very little to the game except for blindly charging into battle and relying on chance to save you from the occasional incoming grenade. Despite a wide array of abilities, including flash bombs, C4, airstrikes and night vision, you never need to do anything except tap the auto aim button and fire your default weapon for most of the game, an action that is soothing (and satisfying when you pop some poor Ruski's noggin off with a head shot), but ultimately wears thin after a few levels.

Yes the game's real strength is in multiplayer, and I actually happen to have played a moderate amount of it (not my usual style I know), and can confirm that it's pretty decent. This is all well and good, but I'm still waiting impatiently for a genuinely good single player game to let the PS3 show what it can do.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

They Stole Our Honour!

So I've been playing Call of Duty 4, and I hope this isn't a big spoiler for anyone but it turns out that the bad dude is a crazy Russian general who's mad about losing the cold war. Holy fucking shit! Who could have seen that coming! It's only exactly the same plot twist that's been used by every goddamn modern warfare game released in the past ten years (and a season of 24). It's like the entertainment industry sits down every time they try to write a story and say "Who could we use for a bad guy...? I know! The Russians!", and then after several months of production they realise that the USSR doesn't exist anymore but because their dessicated, worn out brains can't think outside of the same old tired cliches they used for thirty years straight, they roll with it anyway.

Just for once I'd like to play a game where you play a former Russian secret service agent who's called back into action in order to stop a crazy American former general who, pissed that the cold war is over, steals a nuke and tries to blow up Moscow.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Saturday Night Icelandic Pixie Confetti Party

I said they were probably going to suck. I was wrong. I must admit, there was a bit of disingenuousness in that statement, chiefly for the purpose of deliberately keeping my expectations low. I was sceptical of just how engaging a band this twee and mellow could be in a live setting and also I was hesitant because it was at the Hordern Pavilion, a venue which has an inexplicable habit of hosting concerts that disappoint me. Luckily this time around my misgivings were unwarranted on both counts.

The openers, Pivot, were playing as I arrived. This three piece (local to Sydney) has a unique style which layers glitchy electronica in the vein of Autechre (but less avant garde and more catchy) over live drums and guitar. They're a little hard to describe in more detail than that off of a single listen, partly because they traversed a range of moods even in the single half set I saw. However I can happily report that they were a pretty decent live act, with loads of energy and confidence.


As for Sigur Ros themselves, here's the setlist:

Se Lest
Ny Batteri
Vid Spilum Endalaust
Med Blodnasir
Inni Mer Syngur

Untitled #8

All Alright

I stole this list from the comments to the concerts page, as I have little chance of actually remembering it on my own considering that both the length of Sigur Ros' songs and the fact that the titles are in a language I don't understand mean that I've never been too good at remembering which one was which anyway.

As you may or may not be able to tell, the song selection is fairly evenly divided between tracks from the new album, their previous one (Takk...) and their classic Agaetis Byrjun. Despite my misgivings about the new record those songs fitted in pretty well to the set. I must admit that several times I found myself thinking “I'm pretty sure this is a new song, but I'm really enjoying it... maybe it's actually an old one...”

As performers the band were as laid back and as twee as their music. Frontman Jonsi Birgisson, despite being a towering nordic giant, sounds like a pixie with his heavily accented, elfin English. The renditions of the songs were a little too similar to the album for my liking, but were performed with soul and plenty of gusto on the louder parts, especially those exuberantly stompy drums. Birgisson's extended coos (extended as in, 'going on for ages') should be mentioned too as an unexpected bit of showiness/showmanship from a band with such a reserved image.

It was cool to go to a concert where for a change at least half of it was about feeling nice instead of being goaded into an hour long frenzy. It actually took a bit of adjusting to but it turns out that nodding your head and smiling is actually also a fun way to appreciate live music. Mind you that was only half the performance, the rest was big stompy energetic fun even though you wouldn't know it to look at my fellow concertgoers, most of whom seemed to find even nodding their heads to be beneath their dignity. Fucking indie kids are probably scared of messing up their hair or losing their brightly coloured dark sunglasses.

The only lowlight of the set was 'Festival', my least favourite track from the new album, and one that was elevated in the live setting from 'too long and dead fucking boring' to 'too long and still pretty boring'. Fortunately there were plenty of great songs to compensate. The bombast and hooky piano riffs of Takk...'s two big anthems 'Glosoli' and 'Saeglopur' went down very well and the brass band marching onstage during 'Se Lest' was a highlight too. I was also really impressed by the absolute quiet during the final minutes of the opener ('Svefn-G-Englar'), even if the audience was unemotive they were still clearly enraptured. Closing out the main set with the new single 'Gobbledigook' was a great decision, I'm not all that fond of the track on the album but with everyone clapping along and glitter and confetti being fired everywhere, it was a sweet moment, one where I could almost completely by into Sigur Ros' tweeness.

The only track from () was the first encore, predictably enough 'Untitled #8' (or 'The Pop Song') (by far the scariest thing Sigur Ros have ever recorded). As expected given the fact that their music has moved in a very different direction since that album they didn't reach the same anger and intensity as the recorded version but it was still nice and loud and an epic way to finish out the concert.

Or not quite. After rapturous applause the band returned to leave us with the very mellow, sweet 'All Alright', which appropriately provided much less of a downer to end off a night that was mostly ridiculously upbeat.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Have A Little Fun Tonight

Jerry Lee Lewis – Live At The Star Club, Hamburg

It was another crazy weekend here at Wildebeest Asylum HQ and my head is totally frazzled, but this week I'm going to push on nonetheless and try and wring something sensible out of my fingers through the haze of a headachy hangover and serious sleep deprivation.

The subject of this week's musing is one of the 1001 albums. I anticipated Jerry Lee Lewis with little excitement, knowing little about him and following on the heels of the dire previous entry in the series, Buck Owens' ear murdering country drawling. I was expecting to just give it one quick listen and then move on. How wrong I was. Even half way through the first track I was thinking “Oh this is much better than I anticipated!” and as it transpired Lewis was just warming up. Three songs into his set when he drops into 'Money' (you know the song, “Thats. What I want!”) I was floored by the absolute insanity of his performance. Lewis' piano playing is phenomenal. His riffs may be simple but considering that he's screaming like a madman whilst bashing them out like the keyboard killed his parents, and combined with his reputation for playing behind his back or while standing on top of the piano it's very impressive. His singing is amazing too. Sure most of the time he's just shouting but there's no doubt that he's giving it all he's got both physically and emotionally. And his backing band keep up in the intensity department. The guitar solos may be just two note wailing but even the likes of Opeth or Dragonforce should envy the rawness and wild energy that they capture.

The songs themselves have been reduced to hoary, clichéd golden oldies by the decades. 'Good Golly Miss Molly', 'Great Balls of Fire' and 'Hound Dog' may garner a bit of intellectual respect for their place in music history but few of our generation have much genuine inclination to actually listen to them. All the same in this performance Lewis howls his way through them with an energy and yes even savagery that would give even the likes of Dillinger Escape Plan something to think about, and should cause half assed metal bands who treat a live performance as a job no more exciting than sitting in an office all day (I'm looking at you Satyricon, Slipknot and the Deftones) to hang up their scary masks, wipe off their scary makeup and admit that a forty year old album made by a devout Christian lad has made them look like a bunch of gutless pussies.

The concert recorded on this album was performed at a time when Lewis' star was on the wane, following the media response to revelations of a dubious nature about his personal life (and it's wasn't just some moral majority era wowserism either, marrying one's thirteen year old cousin would probably still be frowned upon today), and it's easy to hear in his manic performance the sound of self-destruction; as though he feels he's lost everything and has nothing left but the catharsis of throwing every piece of oneself into the primal thunder of rock and roll. One of the tragic things about art is that we can only ever achieve our full potential when one's personal life has wound up in such an unpleasant place that the anger or despair brings about some kind of transcendence to create something beyond the norm. Sure I've heard plenty of great performances where the performers are jazzed up in a positive way, usually simply by the pleasure they take in creating music, but those can never quite match up to the spectacle of seeing or hearing someone totally fucking losing it for real. And the appreciation of this is not schadenfreude or pity or voyeurism, but the feeling that you've witnessed something truly genuine; that the hands smashing that keyboard or throttling that guitar are driven by real emotion instead of a mere abstract passion to make some good music. It's a little depressing but of course it's the human cost that it took to create the performance that makes it special. And that's why this album is rightfully regarded as one of the greatest live albums of all time, and why when I see Sigur Ros tonight they're probably going to suck.