Friday, April 25, 2014

Rez - 2001, 2008

Rez is an audio-based shooter, where the combat is about rhythm. When it came along in 2001, rhythm games were still mostly a rarity, not the heavily established genre they are today. Sure, there were a few, but nothing like Rez. Hell, there hasn't been much like Rez before or since.

Rez was the brainchild of Tetsuya Mizuguchi, who would go on to make other fantastic games as Lumines and Space Channel 5. Mizuguchi started working at Sega building arcade machines like Sega Rally, but eventually he founded United Game Artists, who were created to make more experimental fare. Space Channel 5 was the first game from that group, and it was a dancing game with trippy space age visuals. From that, came the idea of Rez.

At its core, Rez is simply an on-rails shooter, a kind of game that's been around for a long, long, long, long time. The "on-rails shooter," for those of you less familiar with videogames, is a shooting game where you only have a limited amount of mobility, and have to concentrate more on shooting things out of the skies than you do avoiding things (although avoiding things is also important) because you aren't choosing the general path - it's on a rail, like a ride at an amusement park.

But that's where the similarities end, because Rez is more interested in the experience than it is being an overwhelming challenge. See, all the sound effects in Rez make music. You heard me. The game itself becomes a form of music creation, and somewhere along the line, your senses start to blur. You start killing enemies to a rhythm, which in turn, generally makes you play better. You are, for all intents and purposes, riding a groove. Each playthrough will sound similar, but different. You are, after all, playing a game and making music at the same time.

Also, each area in Rez has music put together by a different artist, with Area 5, the last, big world before the boss fights, featuring music from Adam Freeland, a track called "Mind Killer," which has become a staple in my workout mixes and fast driving mixes. From here, I turned into a Freeland fan, and at some point, I'll probably write about his music.

The game's graphics, as you can see, have a visual style unlike pretty much anything else in videogames. It's inspired by the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, and has a very unique look - empty polygons, neon lines, flat backgrounds - you will get an experience that is singular in games.

When Rez came out, it didn't sell that well. However, the game because the classic "sleeper hit" as people found the game in rental places, bargain bins and through word of mouth. Eventually, copies of Rez were going for as much as a couple hundred bucks on Ebay, and the game was reprinted, something that is extremely rare in the world of videogames after a title goes out of print. Years later, the team remastered the game for HD and it went on sale on Xbox Live Arcade, where you can still get it, and absolutely should.

Rez got a sequel/prequel of sorts called "Child Of Eden" that was good, but I think the marketing leaned too heavily on the game's support of the Kinect/Move, which, at the time, were still very much fringe products. It's still out there, though, and if you like Rez, you should pick up Child of Eden as well.

Sadly, Mizuguchi has reportedly turned mostly to development and isn't really directing games any more, but we can all hope he'll come back and bring us another amazing musical experiment at some point in the future. Until then, go and find the cult hit that is Rez.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Ocean's Twelve - 2004

I fully expect a bunch of people to disagree with me on this one, but I think "Ocean's Twelve" is a good movie.

I know, I know, I can hear people now. "I didn't like it as much as 11, or 13!" "It wasn't the same kind of movie!" "Entertainment Weekly put it on their list of 25 Worst Sequels Ever!" Well, just because you didn't like it as much as 11 or 13 doesn't mean it isn't a good movie. And yes, it was a different kind of movie. (And Entertainment Weekly is full of shit on this one.)

See, the first "Ocean's" film in the modern era was meant to be an homage to the swinging sixties. When they came back to do "Thirteen," they did another sixties style film, akin to the first one. But "Twelve" is something rather different. "Twelve" is a seventies-style European movie.

If you look at even the very way that 11 and 13 are shot, and compare them to 12, you'll see the difference immediately. All three films use very saturated color and bright palettes, but 11 and 13 are very crisp looking movies, whereas a lot of 12 is very grainy. 11 and 13 are going for pop, and 12 is going for a low sizzle. Much of 11 is set under the neon jungle of Las Vegas, but 12 is set all over Europe.

Also, I appreciate all of the short hand that stuck around from the first movie. We get to see Danny and Rusty finishing each other's sentences, and it reinforces point that these guys know each other so very well. And the scene of all the guys arguing about how Benedict called it "Ocean's Eleven" is absolutely priceless. "It's just, I thought we agreed to call it The Benedict Job." Man, it kills me every time.

In the end, I think people were expecting 12 to be exactly like 11, and that isn't what happened. Each of the three films is somebody's movie. The first film is Danny's movie. The last film is Reuben's movie. And the middle film, well, it's Rusty's movie. Everything is a little more complicated, a little more likely to go off the rails, and requires a little bit more trust. Those of you who only saw it once, go back and watch it again, and try to keep an open mind about it this time. I think you'll be surprised how good it is...

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Mercury Rev - Deserter's Songs - 1998

I've never been quite sure what to make of Mercury Rev. I don't think anyone has been. Maybe that's part of the appeal. I'm not even sure you can even call Mercury Rev a group. More of an anarchic audiophile collective movement.

When talking about Mercury Rev, it's probably best to give people a touchstone, something even vaguely similar that people can latch onto. The best case scenario there is to talk about The Flaming Lips, which is to say, no help at all.

In the case of both bands, each album is a singular moment unto itself, fairly unlike both whatever preceded it and whatever will follow it. I actually jumped onto Mercury Rev from the beginning, when their first album, "Yerself Is Steam," was re-released, after their original distributor, Rough Trade, collapsed in the US just weeks after its release. The song "Car Wash Hair" was a sort of hazy epic that I was looking for. It reminded me of a lot of the shoegaze stuff I was getting into at the time - My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Slowdive - but it also had an insanely catchy hook, something most of the shoegazers never needed. They also had a flute! It also warmed up slowly, blossomed into light and a ton of random sounds, and then baked in the fading daylight. I used to listen to the song a lot when I'd watch the sun go down in the summer.

By the time their fourth album came around, the monumental "Deserter's Songs," in 1998, the band had gone through a bunch of changes, and a bevy of styles. They'd fired their original vocalist. The band's second album, "Boces," was similar to their first, but was getting more active. Their third album, "See You On The Other Side," was practically a full blown rock record, albeit with the flourishes the band was accustomed to. But I don't think anyone was quite ready for "Deserter's Songs."

"Deserter's Songs" is a collection of songs that seem like they would most befit a cabin somewhere up in the mountains, coming from a radio that's just barely on the edge of reception, transmitted from some time in the deep past. It's full of things you don't normally hear that much of any more - falsetto operatic choir voices, theremins, pipe organs, woodwinds... and yet, it's still a very modern record.

It was also supposed to be the band's swan song. They were going to put it out and then when it failed, they could walk away, knowing they had given it their last, best shot. And then, a funny thing happened. The album was a big hit. Oh, not here in the States, where it was an indie darling but didn't get that much airplay, but in the UK, NME magazine named it Album of the Year, and over there it spawned 3 Top 40 singles.

Since then, Mercury Rev have mostly followed their own path, and the albums since then have been fascinating, a blend of new and old sounds, and it's always been impossible to predict. Their last album was six year ago, 2008's "Strange Attractors," but apparently they're back in the studio now, which means we should get more amazing music from them in the near future.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Failure - Fantastic Planet - 1996

Holy crap, Failure is on tour. They've reunited. Goddamn.

I'm fairly certain most of you don't know who Failure were/are, but you absolutely should. They should've been a massive success, and it's always bugged me that they weren't. "Fantastic Planet" should've been that moment when they took the world by storm, but instead, it appeared and disappeared without so much as anyone batting an eyelash, and the band was gone not long after. A lot of this (but not all of it) was due to Slash, their label within the Warner Brothers music collective being, for lack of a better description, a fucking mess. In a lot of ways, Failure were sort of the 90's analogy for the Velvet Underground. They weren't widely known or liked, but the people who knew them were always big champions, and a lot of them started (or were in) bands. Tool brought them on tour a bunch (including recently!) and Adam Jones, Tool's guitarist, would often come on stage to play a song with them.

Failure's greatest strength has always been the genius sounds of Ken Andrews' guitar work. Andrews has gone on to be in a million and one side projects, and has also engineered/produced/mixed/remixed even more. Musicians love collaborating with Andrews, because the dude paints sonic textures. He does things with guitars in the same way that someone like Tom Morello does - the guitar itself transforms into something even bigger and better than when it started, distorted beyond compare. This isn't to say Andrews is the only person in Failure who matters. Oh HELL no. Greg Edwards plays a mean heavy bass, and Kellii Scott knows how to let the drums bash around the sound.

Failure were, in many ways, the transformation of grunge into something spacier, more cosmic. I tried describing "Fantastic Planet" at one point when I was younger as what would've happened if Nirvana and The Smashing Pumpkins had tried to split the difference - psychedelia mixed in with big, heavy sounds and relaxed, unhurried sound. "Stuck On You," the video above, was a very minor alternative hit, but the band never seemed to get the attention it deserved. The band is reunited for a tour, and I'll be damned if I'm going to let them pass by without seeing them live. Hopefully they put together a new album. Andrews has learned a lot of new tricks over the years, and I'd love to see what he and the guys would put out now...

Also, there was absolutely no way I was going to write about Failure without writing about this. Failure recorded the greatest cover song of all time. I don't make this claim lightly, but after you hear it, I think you'll be hard pressed to disagree. See, I remember picking up my copy of "For The Masses," a collection of Depeche Mode cover songs, back in college, because I love me a good cover song, and there were a number of people I liked on it - The Cure, The Smashing Pumpkins and Failure. But man, I did not expect Failure's version of "Enjoy The Silence" to be so insanely gorgeous. There have been reports that Andy Fletcher, Depeche Mode's keyboard, actually prefers Failure's version to the theirs, and that wouldn't surprise me. Right around the one minute mark, the song climbs from slinky seduction to in-your-face cosmic power infinity guitars, and wait for the three and a half minute where the tubular reedy guitar comes in to bring the song to a close.

 I literally cannot stop playing this song to completion any time it comes on.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Boys - 2006-2012

So on Mondays I'm going to talk about larger things, starting with today. Today I want to talk to you about "The Boys," but first, absolutely no kids allowed on this one, because "The Boys" has absolutely everything in it that parents probably want them to steer clear of.

Over the top violence? Check. Sex with body parts drawn? Check. Profanity? Abso-fucking-lutely. A cast of characters where lots of them are pretty appalling people? You bet. A cynical world-view that can, at times, be bleak and oppressive? Damn straight. But you'll also get some of the finest gallows humor, superhero deconstruction and effective storytelling that's ever hit the comic book pages.

"The Boys" began its life over at DC/Wildstorm, and saw all of six issues published there before the book was cancelled, but it was picked up shortly thereafter by Dynamite Entertainment, and quickly became one of that publisher's most successful titles.

DC, it turns out, thought maybe it was a little too dark for them, although they really should have known what they were signing on for. After all, the two creative forces behind "The Boys" were writer Garth Ennis, whose "Preacher" was one of the biggest smashes DC's other imprint Vertigo ever had, and artist Darick Robertson, who with writer Warren Ellis had done "Transmetropolitan" with Vertigo (and believe you me, we'll do "Transmetropolitan" on one of our big Mondays sometime soon).

These were two guys who didn't want to push the envelope, they wanted to rip the damn thing up. But the violence and profanity in the first few issues of The Boys weren't really that far past what the other two series had done. It wasn't until the book relaunched over at Dynamite that it went from a hard-R to the NC-17 nasty masterpiece that it is. So what was the problem that got them cancelled from Wildstorm?

Ennis has said in interviews since that DC was really uncomfortable with the anti-superhero tone of the book, and that moving to Dynamite was what let the book to thrive, because they weren't on the hook to anybody over there. Dynamite didn't want them to reign it in - they wanted them to let loose. Nudity, violence, profanity - let loose the dogs of war, if you will. Dynamite wanted to see what Ennis would do with no one around to tell him "no." And that was that. "The Boys" could let its freak flag fly as high as it wanted to.

See, "The Boys" is really an upending of the apple cart that is superheroes. It's a book that takes the core conceit of superhero stories and gives it a good old slap on the ass. "The Boys" are a CIA sponsored unit whose job is to keep superheroes in check when possible, and to "deal" with them when not. When superheroes sprung forth into the world, they became instant celebrities. Some of them dealt with it better than others. "The Boys" are given a chemical to turn them into super-powered beings, so they can handle superheroes, but really, this just means they're insanely strong and tough. In many ways, "The Boys" are old-school legbreakers. And that's part of what makes this series so goddamn entertaining.

There are five members of "The Boys." First and foremost, there's Butcher. Billy Butcher is the leader of The Boys, and has been around the longest. He's loosely based around Michael Caine in "Get Carter." He's friendly, jovial even, but you also know right away that he is absolutely deadly. He's a soldier. You'll know that right at the start.

Next is Mother's Milk. He's sort of Butcher's right hand man. He's the only American on the team. He's an ex-Ranger, ex boxer. If they ever get a movie off the ground, I can see someone like Terry Crews playing him. Despite being probably the nicest guy on the team, he's ... got lots of family issues. On a lot of levels.

You have The Frenchman. He's crazy. He's scrawny. He's also half of the team's "muscle," because he's pretty insanely ruthless. He's fun, simply because you're never exactly sure how much is an act and how much is genuine psychosis.

There's The Female. She never speaks. She's the most deadly member of the team. She's also the most mysterious, and throughout the whole of the series, you still won't learn all that much about her. A little, yes, but probably not as much as you think you're going to.

And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there's Wee Hughie, who is modeled after British actor Simon Pegg. Hughie is the new guy to the team, and the book opens with his recruitment, and it's through his eyes we get introduced to the world of "The Boys" when a superhero accidentally kills his girlfriend right in front of his eyes, and sends him into shock. Hughie is the character we come to know the most, and best, through the course of the series. And while he goes through some changes, probably the most impressive thing about Hughie is that at the end of the day, he's always Hughie.

At the opening of "The Boys," Butcher is starting to get the gang back together, but Mallory, the other co-founder of the group, isn't interested in rejoining, so this is why Butcher gets Hughie. Because The Boys needs to be a group of five.

I don't want to tell you too much about the whole story, but I can tell you a few things - you'll end up seeing parodies/homages to many familiar hero archetypes, and the more invested in comics you are, the funnier all of this will be. You'll see things that will remind you of characters from both of the two big houses, as well as a bunch of stuff you know they'd never dare to print. I mean, shit, one of the arcs of the series is called "Herogasm." You can extrapolate for yourself what to expect from that, I imagine.

This isn't a short story, so you'll probably want to delve in a little bit at a time. All said and done, "The Boys" has been collected in 12 trade paperbacks, or 6 oversized hardcovers. (In researching this article, I found there will also be "omnibus" editions in the near future, starting in July. Best guess from the description/page count is that there will be 4 or 5 of those.)

I know that sort of commitment can sound intimidating, but you should trust me on this - it's worth it. If you pick it up in collected form, in any collected form, you'll get all 72 issues of the main "The Boys" comic, and the three miniseries - "Herogasm," "Highland Laddie" and "Butcher, Baker, Candlestickmaker" - in their correct placement in the series. You'll get the sort of big screen epic that you really can't get from the big two.

For a long time, I wondered why most superhero stories never felt all that, well, real. After The Boys, I understood why. Don't get me wrong - I love superheroes, but when you see them in a horrible warts-and-all approach, where a few of them are good, most of them are indifferent and a bunch of them are kind of assholes, you start to see superheroes as the people rather than the mask. But even with that, The Boys has a great big storyline full of twists and turns, of horrible things but also of love and heroism, the true kind.

Still hesitant? Here, you can go read all of issue one, free and online, from the publisher, to whet your appetite - just click here. (It looks like there's a bit of a problem with it when I loaded it up, so your mileage may vary, but it'll give you an idea of what you're in for.) Trust me, if you like your stories dark and feral and sticky with just a hint of nobility around the edges, it's hard to beat The Boys.