Albums of the Month: October 2014

crooked_rainAlbum: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain

Artist: Pavement

Released: February 14th, 1994

Highlights: Silence Kid, Elevate Me Later, Cut Your Hair, Range Life

Pavement built their debut upon song fragments that often came off as charmingly unfinished efforts and low-fidelity sound drowned in guitar distortion. “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” does not veer off of that path: it still features unpredictable song structures and astonishing unorthodox guitar work. Moreover, Stephen Malkmus continues to deliver his lyrics in a distinctive careless manner, as if he is utterly unconcerned as to whether his verses and rhymes will soar or fall to the ground.

The difference between “Slanted and Enchanted” and their sophomore album is that while on the former the group’s fantastic melodies were frequently buried amidst the noise – only punctually jumping above the overall soundscape, on the latter they are far more pronounced. It is not that the band lost its edge or chose to adopt a standard pasteurized sound; they, by all means, as their strident feedback is bound to state, retain a strong market-defying demeanor. “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” just pictures the band making their music less abrasive.

Hardly does a track go by without putting forth some remarkably catchy hook that could have easily been an integral part to a hit. However – as if deliberately stating that they had the talent and songwriting skills to make it big, but chose not to – no song makes it completely unblemished through the group’s performance. Sometimes they just begin too abruptly or switch the tempo way too quickly; on other occasions, Malkmus murmurs for too long. Frequently, the words are frequently too awkward, the instrumentals too convoluted, and the music is overwhelmed by powerful noise pretty much everywhere.

Pavement was hardly the first band to purposely sabotage their own greatness. In fact, the indie movement of which they were such an integral part was inspired by musicians that brilliantly refused to live up to fixed expectations. Still, throughout rock history, it is hard to find a statement as subversive as this one. “Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain” is the construction of twelve masterful tunes and their subsequent destruction through execution. Only, like any mighty beasts, they do not go down easily, and that is exactly why their fall is so spectacular.

le_noiseAlbum: Le Noise

Artist: Neil Young

Released: September 28th, 2010

Highlights: Angry World, Hitchhiker, Peaceful Valley Boulevard

As far as appropriately titled albums go, “Le Noise” sits on a very high position. It is more than a pun on the name of its producer, Daniel Lanois, who is known for spinning big soundscapes with a lot of reverb. It is a nod to the fact that, more than any other Neil Young album, this is the result of a partnership. Although Lanois is not the composer of any of the eight tracks present here, his influence is felt in every passing second.

Lanois was able to work his magic to a great extent due to a simple fact: there is no backing band in any of the songs. Two numbers, “Love and War” and “Peaceful Valley Boulevard” are purely acoustic, while the remaining six are electric attacks. The instruments used here are always two: Neil’s voice and his signature loose guitar playing. Within the wide-sounding atmosphere traditionally created by the producer’s style, that leaves a lot of room to be filled, and Lanois does not waste such opportunity: he makes the lonely guitar thicker, and infuses the rest of the space with amplified sounds.

Young also plays his role remarkably well. He takes advantage of the reserved mood of the album’s production to deliver lyrics that often tread on confessional territory, and goes on to approach them accordingly during the songs. He is, through most of the record, seemingly spilling his guts out in the open. The greatest example of that attitude is “Hitchhiker”, in which he openly describes his adventures with drugs, shamelessly name-dropping a few substances.

Despite the record’s mostly angry tone, accentuated by the power Lanois’ echoing musical chambers give Young’s guitar, there are also opportunities for Neil to tackle more emotional themes. There is depression (“Someone’s Gonna Rescue You”), eternal love (“Sign of Love”), partnership (“Walk with Me”), and even a seven-minute environmental dirge (“Peaceful Valley Boulevard”). “Le Noise” rounds up as a fantastic musical experiment that is made stronger by solid songwriting and plain honesty. It is far more than a gimmicky, it is worthy of sitting close to some of Neil’s finest work.

candy_apple_greyAlbum: Candy Apple Grey

Artist: Husker Dü

Released: March 1st, 1986

Highlights: I Don’t Know for Sure, Sorry Somehow, Hardly Getting Over It, No Promise Have I Made

Sitting near the end of one of the most brilliantly prolific runs in rock history, which saw the release of six flooring records – including two double albums – in a span of four years, “Candy Apple Grey” is – unquestionably – Husker Dü’s darkest effort. It shows the group veering slightly, not completely, towards a more balanced production that would later fully flourish on “Warehouse: Songs and Stories”, hence starting to abandon the hardcore roughness of their first five works.

Even if the sound is more polished, it does not really lose its rawness. Husker Dü still comes off as one of the world’s loudest and dirtiest bands, and the record kicks off with four massive attacks. “Crystal” is yelled all the way through, and would have been right at home on the group’s early EPs; “Don’t Want to Know If You Are Lonely” and “Sorry Somehow” are fantastic and typical Grant Hart tunes, on which vicious music is fronted by sentimental lyrics and borderline bubblegum hooks; and “I Don’t Know for Sure” is yet another Bob Mould anthemic punk gauntlet.

What really sets “Candy Apple Grey” apart amidst the group’s catalog, though, is mostly what comes after that grand opening act. Out of the remaining six songs that are committed here, three are quiet ballads, something that both Hart and Mould had never attempted to tackle despite the fact their blatantly emotional songwriting was always a perfect fit for balladry. Given the band’s track record, those three numbers exhale an experimental aura, but they manage to land like stunning pieces around which the rest of the album gravitates.

“Too Far Down” is a despairing and haunting song where, accompanied by an acoustic guitar, painful lyrics are delivered by Mould, who comes across as if he is singing from the bottom of a well. “Hardly Getting Over It” is a six-minute exercise in misery held high by a gorgeous instrumental section. And “No Promise Have I Made” features a tearful Grant Hart over a piano that sounds gigantic. Where other Husker Dü albums are an endless flood of energetic anger, “Candy Apple Grey” seems bent on showing the sorrowful hangover that follows the emotional violence, and it does so extremely well.

let_it_beAlbum: Let It Be

Artist: The Replacements

Released: October 2nd, 1984

Highlights: I Will Dare, Favorite Thing, Androgynous, Sixteen Blues

As the band’s leader himself would come to declare, The Replacements’ initial brand of sound consisted, mostly, of “banging out riffs and giving them titles”. It was not exactly original, but the group did it with such power, humor, energy, and honesty, that it became remarkable. “Hootenanny”, their second full record, showed the band attempting to branch out their songwriting to various genres, but – despite the promise of growth – it lacked the focus to make it a truly solid work. The blossoming of the band was, clearly, yet to come.

That moment arrived one year later with “Let It Be”, where Paul Westerberg finely stitched up his bursts of teenage demeanor with grappling melodies and distinct song structures. Here, the wild experimentation of “Hootenanny” bears its fruits that go far beyond garage rock. “I Will Dare” kicks things off with bouncy guitars carrying a tempo that rovers around the territory of R.E.M.’s early fast-paced songs, and “Favorite Thing” follows with punk rhythms that come to a halt on the chorus.

It is only on the album’s third song, “We’re Coming Out”, that the band bumps into an aggressive guitar-attack covered with shouts that comes close to the shape of their first works. But now, tunes of this sort, along with the tongue-in-cheek humor found in “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out” and “Gary’s Got a Boner”, are no longer the meat of the record. Rather, they are downright awesome songs that add dynamism to the listen. And they work much better like that.

The key performances here, the show-stoppers that stood as their best songs up until that point, are others: the piano-led “Androgynous”, the hard-rocking Kiss cover “Black Diamond”, the painful “Unsatisfied”, the two-minute instrumental “Seen Your Video” that suddenly culminates on an explosive chorus, the beautiful “Sixteen Blue”, and “Answering Machine” – a guitar-and-vocal closer. It is that mixture of inconsequential silly humor, garage spontaneity, and surprising maturity that makes “Let It Be” one of the strongest and most fundamental supporting bricks of alternative rock. After listening to it, one cannot be surprised by the countless brains it inspired.

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From Plumber to Bear

8_bitAs far as the gaming universe is concerned, there are two kinds of progress. Firstly, there are the advances that have taken place in the field of technology. Those were the changes that have allowed us to – in the blink of an eye – watch this industry go from pixels to polygons, from chiptunes to full-fledged orchestras, and from button presses to motion-capture. In a way, they are the backbone that supports the endlessly creative minds of our most beloved developers; they are the wings that lift dreams off of the ground.

As undeniably impressive as that kind of leap might be, it is far less exciting than the second group of transformations: the ones that happen in the field of ideas. The crafting of new technology is responsible for the birth of a wild assortment of tools, but those tools would have an empty purpose if nobody put them to good use. And that’s when the magic of ideas steps in: it polishes a mountain of scattered bytes, processors, and code into a gorgeous diamond.

8_bit2Compared to pure technology, ideas are much more unpredictable. It is widely known that the power of machines will keep on growing at a steady rate with a lot of research and intellectual effort, but whether or not those new elements will be put to good use is a never-ending mystery because inspiration is harder to come by than sheer effort.

As the pieces fueling the industry evolve, so do its countless genres, and every once in a while those niches will take major steps forward either powered by the pure force of hardware, or by the influence of brilliant ideas. As a statement on how the latter tends to be much more significant and moving than the former, one of the biggest and most unexpected in-genre leaps took place within the same hardware and in a short window of less than two years.

super_mario_64That story begins back in 1996, when Super Mario 64 hit the market alongside the Nintendo 64. The game, aided by the unlocking of 3-D environments due to the hardware, was an enormous departure from Super Mario World and its sequel, Yoshi’s Island, the latter of which arrived some meager eleven months before the plumber wrote the book on how platforming was meant to be done within the confines of this newfound technology.

The concept of traveling from left to right, a nearly unshakable rule on the NES and SNES days, was deposed. Mario was put in the middle of wide environments and it was up to him to navigate through them and locate the elusive stars. What was once about performing jumps that progressively demanded more precision was now centered around exploration that had some ledges and platforms mixed in.

Super Mario 64 was, by all means, a revolution. Playing it back in 1996 was utterly overwhelming and borderline unbelievable. Yet, by looking back on it with different eyes, it is possible to see that much of it was still grounded on the quirks of sidecrolling, which is completely understandable given how it was the first step down an unknown path.

super_mario_64_2Some of its moments, usually its finest hours, could have never existed back in the 16-bit days: the iconic Bowser battles, the unforgettable slides, the magical flying challenges, and the fantastic immersion found in the hallways of Peach’s Castles. However, despite the infusion of exploration, most of the game could have been easily replicated if Nintendo only had access to more archaic technology.

Moreover, the game’s structure was still closely tied to its 2-D past. Whenever entering a painting, players would be greeted by a selection screen on which – one by one – new stars were unlocked as Mario progressed through the world. Although some could be picked up out of order, a large portion of the time – given the fact most stars demanded some changes to occur on the scenario – players were restricted to finding the one that had been chosen.

super_mario_galaxyIt is a tiny detail, but one that – often – worked against the sense of freedom the game tried to achieve. More significantly, it preserved the hierarchy of one world encompassing an ordered series of levels (stars), which dated all the way back to Super Mario Bros. It is not a flaw; rather, it is a characteristic that Nintendo decided to carry over from the franchise’s huge legacy and that has, in recent years, given us great fruits in the shape of the delightfully linear Super Mario Galaxy games and Super Mario 3-D World: games that have launched that old-school structure into the stratosphere.

Still, its links to the past and the fact that many of its mechanics had yet to fully mature meant that Super Mario 64 left a lot of room for tweaking with the foundation it had built. Two years later, they would be rocked to the core and improved in some aspects by Banjo-Kazooie. Rare’s brainchild, and a game that still stands tall among the greatest platformers of all time.

banjo_kazooieWhere Super Mario 64 could have existed in a world devoid of 3-D, Banjo-Kazooie would have never come to be. The bear and the bird inherited a lot from Mario: the encompassing overworld that was slowly unlocked, the wide open worlds, and the sense of adventure. But, truth is, with the advantage of having arrived after the stage was built, Banjo-Kazooie did much more than Super Mario 64 ever hoped to achieve.

There were the technological achievements: the enhanced and considerably less blockier graphics, the steady camera, the tighter physics, and the more predictable controls. There were the artistic triumphs: the vivid details and colors of the environments, the smoothness of the scenarios, the humorous sound effects, and the flooring soundtrack – which included musical transitions between in-land gameplay and underwater moments.

The game also took a very distinct path in relation to the setup of its gameplay. Super Mario 64 slightly guided the players in where to go next by the order and title of its stars; it was linearity in disguise. Meanwhile, Banjo-Kazooie simply threw the heroes in the middle of a location – be it a haunted mansion or a forest with changing seasons, gave them a pat on the back, and asked them to fetch 10 jigsaw pieces and 100 musical notes.

freezeezy_peakAfter that, it was up to players to explore, talk to the wacky characters, and figure out where to go next. There were no chains dictating the order on which events had to be followed. There was no automatically exiting the world after a major goal was achieved. Players could remain in there for as long as they wished to do whatever they wanted, and that looseness played into the hands of the astonishing settings, which invited players to dig deeper and deeper into what the environment held.

Banjo-Kazooie’s worlds were, in the end, massive playgrounds that embraced a grand variety of challenges to be cleared so that the bear and bird could obtain their golden prizes. Sometimes the game demanded great platforming skills, such as the engine room of Rusty Bucket Bay. In other occasions, the searches ended in fun mini-games, like the wild sled race against Boggy the polar bear on Freezeezy Peak.

click_clock_woodAt other times, pure exploration was all that it took for one to reach their goal, like getting to the lighthouse on Treasure Trove Cove. And that all goes without mentioning the RPG-like item-gathering quests, which reach their peak as Banjo and Kazooie, on the platforming masterpiece that is Click Clock Wood, must hatch and raise a little bird through the four seasons until he turns into a majestic eagle.

How could so much variety be packed inside a single game? It all begins and goes through the ridiculously big assortment of moves the titular duo can perform. While in Super Mario 64 the plumber was restricted to some acrobatics and a couple of power-ups, the bear and bird could join forces to unleash more than a dozen different abilities which, within the simplicity of the game’s setup, delivered a great deal of complexity.

grunty_lairConsequently, the weight of keeping things new and fresh did not fall solely on the shoulders of level design. Banjo-Kazooie was absolutely masterful when it came to landing big worlds loaded with details and inspiration, but none of them would ever materialize if the characters could not do everything from farting eggs to flying, and be turned into a variety of beings that included a pumpkin and a termite through shaman sorcery.

Many years later, the question that is replicated by everyone who had the honor of playing Banjo-Kazooie when it came out is whether its magic can be recreated. It is arguable that the Galaxy games did platforming better, but as titles mostly concerned with doing tricks while toying with their linearity, they belong to a niche on which there is no room for Banjo-Kazooie’s free-roaming antics.

grunty_lair2The 1998 game was a product of its era: a time when 3-D platformers where still crawling and there was still a lot to be done and enhanced. Rare took advantage of that scenario to kick things off with Banjo-Kazooie and then went on to produce a string of brilliant titles of that kind with Donkey Kong 64, Banjo-Tooie – the peak of the chain, and Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Linked by subversive and somewhat dark humor, they were the sequential output of a company that was on an unparalleled creative roll.

The sad reality about the legacy of that set (by definition the legacy of Banjo-Kazooie itself, since it was the game that lit that wick), is that – as time moved on – the more explorative line of platforming has been forgotten. Mario has recently moved even closer to his level-based origins and abandoned the Super Mario 64 style of gameplay, whereas other major platforming series have completely reconnected themselves with sidescrolling action.

banjo_kazooie_endingGoing from Super Mario 64 to Banjo-Kazooie was not just a leap forward, it was a lateral jump into brand new grounds, but that territory has been mostly abandoned. Replaying Banjo-Kazooie is remembering how platformers were able to change so much so quickly, but it is also coming to realize games of its kind are close to being extinct.

All that it might take for the industry to go back to exploring that path is inspiration. After all, it was a great idea – joined by a good deal of effort – that allowed us to, in two fast years, go from plumber to bear.

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Musical Mementos

curtain_callWith the passing of a certain amount of time, and the release of numerous remarkable games, some companies and franchises acquire the right to bask under the light of their own glory for a little while. Sometimes it is done by the addition of retro content into new installments, like returning Mario Kart tracks; on other occasions it is achieved by remaking old classics, such as the recent Wind Waker and Ocarina of Time overhauls; and from time to time the magic is recreated by giving small nods to iconic characters and moments, like the exhilarating mine-cart stages reappearing on the Donkey Kong Country Returns titles.

Better yet, there are times when the self-gratification gets blown out of proportion in such a way that we end up with full games whose spirits are solely bent on commemorating an astonishing legacy. That case can clearly be exemplified by the Super Smash Bros series: a celebration of Nintendo’s greatest assets in the shape of a thrilling brawler.

curtain_call2Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call for the Nintendo 3DS is to Square Enix what the aforementioned fighter is to Nintendo. It is an opportunity to sit down, analyze what has been done in the past, and mold everything that is evaluated as being of the utmost quality under the same gameplay umbrella.

Little to no gaming sagas have been able to amass soundtracks that are comparable to what the greatest Final Fantasy games have offered. And when one takes into account that the mother of all RPG series has been doing so for nearly thirty years, one thing becomes obvious: there are a boatload of great songs sitting idly out there, so someone should put them to good use.

It is no surprise, then, that the grand ceremony to honor the franchise’s glorious past is Theatrhythm: a musical series that has reached its second and, by far, most complete effort with Curtain Call. The greatest, and smartest, thing about the game is that the form on which the songs and rhythmic challenges are presented gives plenty of room for the recognition of facets of the Final Fantasy games that extend beyond its music.

curtain_call3The motions that are, preferably, to be performed with the stylus float across a backdrop that displays either turn-based-style battles, trips through large scenarios, or – in a few restricted cases – full-blown cutscenes. Each of the three cases slightly alter the way on which the icons appear: on the first the cues rush across four lines towards the cursors standing over the party of characters, on the second there are unique movement prompts, and on the last one it is the cursor, not the icons, that move.

It is a division that gives the game’s 221 songs, coming from 27 games, a good deal of variety. But, most importantly than that, the three groups allow Square to bring to the spotlight different properties that have been key in the construction of the franchise. Battles highlight enemies, heroes, and their unique abilities; field trips carry locations to the forefront; and cutscenes remember the cinematographic aspect of the most recent outings.

curtain_call4Under that massive layer of content and musicality lies an RPG platform that makes Curtain Call, like its predecessor, stand out in relation to other games of their genre. Among a ridiculously vast selection of famous characters, players must put together a party in order to tackle the different challenges, and keeping each member’s stats and abilities in mind is very important given that the three styles of gameplay benefit different strengths and take advantage of certain weaknesses.

That RPG clutch becomes even more apparent on the game’s Quest Mode on which, instead of freely selecting tunes from a playlist, gamers must – with the aid of items to restore the party’s energy – navigate through an overworld composed of a series of songs that have to be cleared sequentially on the way to a final boss battle.

Despite those interesting role-playing quirks, Curtain Call is – at heart – a rhythm game, and a very good one at that. After all, it checks all prerequisites a game belonging to that niche needs to have: smooth controls, a large collection of great songs, many modes, and movement prompts that are nicely matched with the tunes.

curtain_call5In the end, that intended victory of rhythm over RPG plays right into the hands of the game, because it allows even those who are not Final Fantasy fans to enjoy it greatly. The followers of Square’s finest work will see it as a great experience that is also a gateway to joyful memories, while outsiders will perceive Curtain Call as a pure fun, engaging, and loaded musical game. And both sides are completely correct.

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The Elegant Frankenstein

layton_wrightA handful of hours into Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright, one of the clear highlights on this year’s lineup of 3DS games, it is already possible to pin down how Capcom and Level-5 stitched up this crossover. Although the titular characters do bump into each other and work together intensely – sometimes even switching partners – each franchise’s signature gameplay do not fully merge into a single beast.

The game, instead, neatly divides the chapters into adventure segments, where the characters must explore their surroundings in order to locate puzzles and uncover the mysteries behind the astounding setting that is Labyrinthia, and trial sessions where the charismatic Ace Attorney, often aided by Layton, gets a chance to shine.

layton_wrightThe fact the two unique and cleverly designed styles never truly mix might disappoint those who step into the game hoping that the partnership between the lawyer and the professor will spring brand new gameplay ideas. However, within the confines of Layton’s puzzle-solving and Wright’s cross examinations, the game works wonderfully.

Moreover, it benefits from that constant switching in two distinct ways. Firstly, since the gameplay perspective is always changing, the adventure rarely stagnates and loses its luster over long playing sessions; it is nearly endlessly engaging, a natural consequence of its fusion of distinctive elements. Secondly, the writers smartly took advantage of the dual view of the same world to create fair cliffhangers as the passing of the baton between Layton and Wright often comes along with a feeling of wonder in relation to what will happen next to the character one is about to temporarily abandon.

layton_wright2In terms of its vibe, the game feels closer to the Layton experience than the one provided by the Ace Attorney games. Labyrinthia could perfectly fit side-by-side with any of the other masterful locations of the Level-5 series. It is a medieval town that seems to be somehow connected to the contemporary world, and there is clearly something wrong with it. It is an enigmatic backdrop with numerous dark corners that seem destined to be illuminated by insane plot-twists that – somehow – make sense.

The difference is that, as the plot advances and both characters get suddenly, and cleverly, dragged into the same grand conspiracy, the abilities of both men came in handy. While one attempts to think his way to the bottom of the conundrum, the other must use his legal knack to defend characters that are wrongly accused of strange mishaps.

The puzzles Layton and company must solve are usually good; their overall quality, however, is not quite up-to-par with what the franchise usually offers. Sill, the folks at Level-5 managed to create riddles that adhere with style to the context on which they are found.

layton_wright4Meanwhile, Wright’s trials are filled with the unexpected and dramatic turns the character usually deals with, which are nicely supported by the amount of ridiculous detail that is put in the presentation and description of the crime scenes. And, this time, the sharpness of the curves the legal battles take is even greater due to the fact that the logic that governs Labyrinthia accepts the existence of sheer magic.

Some might state, and it is certainly reasonable to say so, that when it is all said and done the experiment is half of a Professor Layton game glued to half of a Phoenix Wright effort. Yet, such an assessment leaves out the incredible joy it is to watch Layton and Luke interact with Wright and Mia. And, most importantly, it overlooks the great pleasure that is found in playing puzzles and trials that are tied up under the very same spectacular plot and scenario.

layton_wrightUltimately, Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright is powered by great writing: the one that crafts the flooring Layton twists and the thrilling Wright court moments. And, here, they have joined forces to manufacture a single package that is mentally engaging, and visually impressive due to all technical resources it utilizes.

The sum of the two parts – or the sum of the two half parts if one feels like being nitpicky to the extreme – has, in this case, created something that feels big and important. It is a sentiment that is hard to shake, and through witch-hunts and crimes, the resulting piece is likely very satisfying to both camps.

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Albums of the Month: September 2014

the_clashAlbum: The Clash [US]

Artist: The Clash

Released: July 27th, 1979

Highlights: Clash City Rockers, Remote Control, Complete Control, Jail Guitar Doors

Back in 1977, the year on which the British version of The Clash’s debut hit the UK market, the album was seen as the stellar beginning of a promising punk band. In retrospect, however, the record gains some quite unique contours that make it rather special. After all, it marks the only time they would go on to write and perform a set of songs mostly confined by the rules of that rebellious musical movement. Never again would they produce an album of such political weight and acid rhetoric.

Musically, the brand of punk displayed here moves away from the one crafted by the Ramones and Sex Pistols due to its larger focus on punchy rhythmic riffs than on constant guitar attacks. In addition, the very distinctive songwriting and singing styles of Jones and Strummer gave The Clash a good deal of versatility even when limited by the punk barriers. While the former leaned towards borderline pop structures and choruses, the latter was angry and purely emotional.

Therefore, while numbers like “Hate & War”, “Complete Control”, and “Jail Guitar Doors” were inclined towards the first catchier spectrum, others such as “White Riot”, “What’s My Name?”, and “I’m So Bored with the USA” were vicious attacks. Through fifteen songs, the band criticized the lack of job opportunities available for the English youth, built a humorous protest against London’s public transportation system, and called for the rebellion of punk bands against their labels and the uprising of citizens against their authoritarian bosses and money-hungry political leaders.

Amid that punk avalanche, it is also possible to find evidence of what The Clash would transform into as their career progressed: a group that would be willing to embrace multiple genres and succeed in writing great songs to fit those varied styles. The cover “Police and Thieves” and the highlight original “(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais” flirted with reggae and ska, adding an extra layer of flexibility to the first work of a band that would become the most versatile of them all.

houses_of_the_holyAlbum: Houses of the Holy

Artist: Led Zeppelin

Released: March 28th, 1973

Highlights: The Rain Song, No Quarter, The Ocean

Following a string of four incredible albums released during a very productive three-year span that saw Led Zeppelin treading the line between blues traditions and rock explosions, “Houses of the Holy” pictures the group experimenting with new sonic grounds that would eventually culminate in the stronger “Physical Graffiti”. The record plays like the selected output of a musical laboratory, and – given its exploratory nature – ends up, unlike its predecessors, featuring both hits and misses.

“Houses of the Holy” is far from being bad. The overall package is, in fact, stellar. However, the fact it comes around as a concise eight-track effort increases the weight of the few thuds it carries. Its weaknesses, though, do not cloud the fact it is an undeniable achievement in eclecticism: each tune shows the band tackling a different style and songwriting pattern, shaping the album up as their most varied effort up to that point.

It opens up with the fast-paced hard rock of “The Song Remains the Same” and segues into “The Rain Song”, a gorgeous ballad with an orchestral mellotron that chronicles the changing seasons and compares them to human emotions; one of Plant’s finest lyrical achievements. The grand album-opening trio is completed by “Over the Hills and Far Away” a folky ballad that turns electric after a beautiful introduction. The other two magnificent cuts the album offers are its closers: the sprawling psychedelic “No Quarter”, which is powered by the merging of Jones’ keyboards and Page’s guitars; and “The Ocean”, a riff-centered tune that would be right at home in “Led Zeppelin II”.

And then there is “Dancin’ Days”, “The Crunge”, and “D’yer Mak’er”. The former is a harmless pleasant attempt at a dancier brand of rock, but the remaining duo is simply lackluster. Although they could be considered tongue-in-cheek shots at funk and reggae, respectively, they fall miles below the standard set by the rest of the album and the group’s past output. Though they do not destroy a gem, they cause a few visible dents, diminishing its value and leading it to rank in the lower half of Led Zeppelin’s catalog.

wild_innocent_estreetAlbum: The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle

Artist: Bruce Springsteen

Released: September 11th, 1973

Highlights: 4th of July Asbury Park (Sandy), Incident on 57th Street, Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)

Although “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle”, Bruce Springsteen’s second record, is not fully permeated by a cohesive plot, it could be seen as a concept album. In fact, as far as perfectly joining theme and music goes, it might as well be the finest example of a work that is able to convey, solely through its instrumentation and song construction, the scenario it is attempting to paint. It is an album of urban motives, set in the midst of the metropolitan chaos of New York and New Jersey, and the music is equally hectic.

Moments of pure calm bliss are interrupted by groovy horns, wailing guitars, and thick keyboards. Rock and Roll rhythms clash and merge with jazz jams. Slow lonesome piano notes suddenly turn into the fuel that powers massive fast-paced rock attacks. And solo vocal lines are occasionally swapped for loose street choirs. The word “E Street” stamped on the album’s title is not merely for show, it is rather telling, for the seven pieces that compose this work mark the point when the E Street Band came upon their signature metropolitan sound.

Springsteen’s lengthy lyrics, which on the first record often seemed like aimless – yet engaging – rhyming, fit like a glove with the scenes they support. The match is so smooth it is hard to know whether the words were crafted with the city theme in mind, or if the combined images were naturally born out of Springsteen’s style. He spills his characters onto the streets and mixes them with busy surroundings, and in that bustling landscape they find love, lust, adventure, fantasy, sadness, and even beauty.

There is the youthful energy and universal celebration of “The E Street Shuffle”, the serene romance amidst the wild 4th of July pier parties in “Sandy”, the street-smarts fireworks of “Kitty’s Back”, the whimsical take on a decadent carnival in “Wild Billy’s Circus Story”, the misery of a hopeless one-night stand on “Incident On 57th Street”, and the wall-imploding and raucous power of love in “Rosalita”. It all culminates with the nine-minute epic “New York City Serenade”, a perfect beautiful way to encompass the portrays of the six songs that precede it and where Bruce, like a perfectionist painter, puts the final brushes on this timeless urban opera of mythological proportions.

ladiesAlbum: Ladies of the Canyon

Artist: Joni Mitchell

Released: March 1st, 1970

Highlights: For Free, Ladies of the Canyon, Big Yellow Taxi, The Circle Game

“Ladies of the Canyon” does not reach for the quality heights which Joni Mitchell would achieve on the masterful stretch that begins with “Blue”, its eventual successor. However, it displays a clear growth both in songwriting and arrangements; a leap that would pave the way towards her more consistent albums and the constant flirts with jazz she would embrace later in her career.

The melodies here are, for the most part, far more remarkable than nearly everything that is present in “Song to a Seagull” and “Clouds”, and the hooking changes that reside in some numbers make for a more dynamic listen on which the verses gain breathing room in relation to the choruses. That wider sonic range is also greatly aided by the manner in which the songs are executed. Although Mitchell’s signature elaborate guitar playing is still the backbone of the record, six of the songs are led by a piano, including the wonderful “Woodstock” which rests on top of a beautiful electric layer, and pretty much every single track has extra instruments added to great effects.

Lyrically, her work remains top-notch. Where Dylan and Springsteen were hyperactive composers who were unable to focus in one subject for too long and created hordes of characters in order to build a scene, Joni is meticulous. She channels her sensitivity as a painter in order to build deep character studies and paint portraits to grand detail. As a prime example of that gift, “Morning Morgantown”, the album’s sensible opener, is such a vivid description of a town’s morning routine that listeners will be able to see it by simply closing their eyes. They might even be able to smell the tea.

“For Free” is a downright gorgeous contemplation of a street musician, and an honest ode to the overlooked talent of those artists. “The Priest” deals with one’s questioning of faith more brilliantly in four stanzas than many do on an essay. “Big Yellow Taxi” is a light-hearted take on ecological issues and fits like a glove beside “Woodstock” and its quiet celebration of counterculture. Fittingly, for an album whose title song gives a nod to incredibly talented females who left considerable timeless artistic marks, “Ladies of the Canyon” showcases another woman coming to the end of her maturation cycle and getting ready to deliver works that would make her immortal.

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The Squirrel’s Dirty Mouth

cbfd_1Nintendo’s brand is, rightfully so, associated with family-friendly entertainment in the minds of most people. Although the company does occasionally partake in the either development or the publishing of games with slightly more adult content, the inclination towards colorful characters and light-hearted scenarios runs deep within the vein of its developers and producers.

Conker’s Bad Fur Day – released more than a decade ago on the Nintendo 64 and produced by Rareware during its incomparable mid-90s and early-00s streak – is one of those games that carries the Big N’s stamp but walks right over the line drawn between fun-for-everyone and a darker side of the gaming alley.

In fact, stating that the adventure merely “crosses” that boundary is rather tame – not to mention glaringly unfair. A far more appropriate description would be that it actually pisses right on top of that border, blurring the frontier of what is acceptable and what is borderline offensive. Then, in its attempt to pick on which side of the street it is going to stand, it drunkenly stumbles, falls on its face, and proceeds to throw up all over itself when trying to get up.

cbfd_2From that point on, the game just loses control of where it is morally headed, and spends the next twelve hours of gameplay producing reactions of disgust, joy, horror, incredulity, and laughter that is – at the same time – both childish and honest.

The game starts with the titular character sitting on a throne and donning a crown. He, in a disturbed and deep tone, claims to be king of the world. However, those royal objects could mean something else altogether. Conker’s Bad Fur Day was, at the time of its release, the king of disrespectful games. Thirteen years later, it has barely had its abusive glory challenged.

Sure, games with bad words and questionable content are released monthly, but absolutely none of them are able to match Conker’s journey. Perhaps the game’s British background – Rare’s headquarters are in the United Kingdom – gave its outrageous manner a dryness that made it more low-key and sharp while keeping it on-the-nose. It pulls all that off with uncanny brilliancy, and fills the voids in between its moral insanity with gameplay segments that often turn towards the unexpected.

cbfd_3Considering the crude nature of the package, it is delightfully ironic that – as one kicks off the adventure – the first name they are faced with is “Nintendo”. Conker’s Bad Fur Day has a cinematographic quality to it, and it acknowledges that fact from the get go by opening its travails with movie-like credits that expose the name of its publisher with a “Presented by Nintendo” projection, only to then mention its developer.

It is the gaming equivalent of going to the cinema, watching the traditional Walt Disney Pictures castle intro, and subsequently being treated to a flick full of profanities, gore, terror, and sex. The audience will likely wonder if they walked into the wrong room, or if the movie’s operator has gone mad. But no, Conker’s Bad Fur Day is the right movie reel; the operator is not a psycho. It is just that the project’s backer has just, delightfully, temporarily lost its mind.

Conker’s Bad Fur Day is so fully aware of the entertaining value of its putrid spirit that it builds its journey around cutscenes, which explains its cinema vibe. There are literally hundreds of them, each depicting situations that are increasingly absurd. Not one to lose an opportunity to ridicule someone, the game embraces those occasions to mock a range of movies with either unsuspecting quotes or full-fledged satirical reproductions of major scenes. The icing on the cake is the voice acting – a grand achievement for the era, which is present throughout the game and adds a lot of life to the whole thing.

cbfd_4The game’s flood of indecency is exacerbated by its look. Conker is, unquestionably, a cuddly squirrel; one whose plush would cause most girls’ brains to go into some state of inertia. Although most of the other characters he encounters do not have such adorable lines – the secondary designs are intentionally rough – this world is happily colorful. Yes, there might be a hill made of rolling poop in the midst of the game’s generally vibrant hub, but the palette used here is not one people tend to relate with mutilations, degenerate vocabulary, and various forms of murder.

Despite the fame he has garnered since the title’s release, Conker is initially relatively mild-mannered. His starting sin is pretty common: going out with friends and getting a bit too drunk. The same applies to his journey, as he sets out not meaning to harm anyone: he just wants to get home safely. It is true he does like money quite a bit (who doesn’t?), but other than his greed, he begins the game as a straightforward guy.

cbfd_5The problem is that, as he tries to go back to the safety of his place, he encounters situations and characters that are dirty, corrupt, and borderline evil. To make matters worse, he suddenly finds himself as the target of an evil panther king who, in a ridiculously specific turn of events, needs a red squirrel in order to fix the broken table on top of which he rests his glass of milk. The hero, then, has to go back home and contend with the horror of being perpetually turned into the feet of a coffee table.

His interactions with the outside world are not neutral. He expresses his disgust towards some of the cursing, is loathe to perform some of the tasks he is required to do, and even defends a silly pitchfork against the can of paint bully. However, as the titular bad fur day goes on, he becomes less sensitive: he does not mind butchering a few cows after they are done pooping, he explodes an entire prehistorical civilization, helps a vampire in the murdering of some villagers, and mercilessly crushes a newly born dinosaur that sees Conker as his motherly figure. Little by little, he loses touch with what is right and wrong.

It all culminates on the “Its War!” segment, when – after going through hours of psychologically harmful activities – he needs to face a brutally gruesome conflict that pitches gray squirrels against nightmarishly evil teddy bears manufactured by a mad scientist. He is certainly not innocent, for he displays the ability to sarcastically get out of tough situations when the game begins. However, the psychotic demeanor he comes to display can be explained by a disturbing series of occurrences that have him dealing with everything from an opera-singing pile of excrement to the weasel mob.

cbfd_6After thirteen years out in the world, Conker’s Bad Fur Day shows some wrinkles – even if its visuals still work fantastically well. However, the game remains astounding due to two factors: its unique structure and the unpredictability of its gameplay. Its non-explicit subdivision into chapters that are tied into one overworld gives the game a unique flow when compared to other titles of its time: the adventure does feel like a series of crazy events that happen across a day.

All of the scenarios in which Conker finds himself are so far-fetched and unexpected that the end of each segment brings a feeling of wonder in relation to what is coming next. More orthodox platforming segments might be followed by transforming into a bat, singing up for a lava-surfing race, riding on top of a dinosaur, pissing all over a night club, helping a bee pollinate a busty flower, massacring enemies with a machine gun, avoiding deadly bazooka blasts, or being thrown in the middle of a heist that includes Matrix-like moves. It is hard to know what is coming.

cbfd7Conker’s Bad Fur Day is a wild trip into a vortex of madness and stinking morality and it is so utterly over-the-top that its finest moments are eternally imprinted into the minds of those who play it. Conker’s psychological downward spiral was legendary then, and it remains legendary now. It is unethical fireworks against a naïve white backdrop, and its depraved ways have yet to be matched.

He begins his day as an average Joe seeking a path home, and – twenty-four hours later – he sits, with his mind annihilated, on a throne ruling over everything that is foul and rotten. It is a hell of a journey.

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Rebels With Cause and Purpose

donald_duckIn recent years, a degrading trend has struck modern cartoons. Influenced by parents who want to avoid discussing thorny subjects with their wide-eyed offspring, the bigwigs leading most networks have consciously opted to favor a brand of shows of empty plots, blank characters, and pale humor. While the conservative nature contained within those works makes the hearts of most adults be at ease due to the sanctity of the entertainment their kids are consuming, it also turns children-oriented TV into one dull pasteurized mass.

No channels have been a bigger display of such philosophy than Disney’s vehicles. If some eighty years ago Mickey Mouse engaged in animal harassment just for the sake of producing fun sound effects and Donal Duck exposed attitudes of questionable moral values, a supposedly more open-minded society was now being treated with doses of unadulterated clean jokes.

As it turns out, one of the key components of laughter is absurdity, and no remarkable punchline has ever been born out of situations that are not utterly self-mocking or pattern defying. All great humor either has to look inward in order to come up with a concise, precise, true, and ridiculous conclusion; or look society in the eye and dare to do the unexpected. Humor is witty rebellion against defined standards.

gravity_falls1A morally sterile landscape is, therefore, not the perfect ground for the birth of anything that is genuinely funny. However, if something truly hilarious is able to bloom in the midst of so much holiness, it becomes all the more extraordinary. Disney’s “Gravity Falls”, a stellar cartoon that has just reached its second season, is exactly that: an oasis of hilarity and clever writing amid a wasteland of handcuffed creativity.

The show’s premise is rather simple: two twelve-year old twins, Mabel and Dipper, are sent by their parents – at the beginning of summer – to spend their vacation alongside their great uncle Stan. Mabel is sweet, silly, loving, and honest; while Dipper is intelligent, brave, and somewhat self-conscious. The two, however, share a common trait: they are adventurers, and it is that sense of exploration that powers the show.

In addition, differently from most clichéd brother-and-sister relationships, their rivalry is practically non-existent. They are unstoppable partners that love to spend time together, and although natural mockery occasionally occurs, the two are willing to sacrifice themselves to save the other or give up anything they might have obtained in order to favor the other sibling. Their selfless friendship is truly heartwarming.

gravity_falls_diaryUnluckily for the pair, and luckily for viewers, the tiny town inhabited by their uncle is far from normal. In fact, its uniqueness often escalates to life-threatening predicaments. Seemingly unbeknown to most of Gravity Falls’ dwellers, their home is filled with supernatural events, weird creatures, and mysteries that – apparently – carry world-changing power.

Dipper quickly discovers such truth when, on the first episode, he comes across a diary written by an unknown author that catalogs the many bizarre occurrences and beings roaming through the land. In a sinister twist, the book’s text turns increasingly more paranoid, culminating with the warning sentence “Trust No One” inked in huge urgent calligraphy.

The choice of the setting is masterful: a town situated in a real-life geographic location – somewhere in Oregon – and whose paranormal background supports the weirdest happenings. Zombies, gnomes, minotaurs, vampires, leviathans, mermen and other creatures are able to coexist as logically as possible, and – as a bonus – Dipper and Mabel’s progressive investigation into the origins of the diary and the truth behind Gravity Falls gives viewers hope that every otherworldly happening on the show will eventually be explained via one glorious series of slowly revealed twists.

Even if “Gravity Falls” ends up like the infamous “Lost”, on which no satisfactory answer could have possibly been given to tie everything up together, fans will still be able to look back on a lot of wild surprising entertainment fondly. And, most importantly, since we are talking about a wacky cartoon, whatever puzzle it will unveil when its ending comes will have more wiggle room to work with and sound plausible due to the more light-hearted and suspended nature embedded in the color-infused animation art.

gravity_falls_tricksterThe show is able to use its mystical prowesses cleverly to muster distinctive atmospheres. Some episodes are downright sinister and are bound to send chills down the spines of even its most adult viewers. Those include the twins’ encounter with the Trickster, an overwhelmingly creepy being who curses infants who soil Halloween; the Shape Shifter; a couple of poltergeists with a gloomy back-story; and even threatening dinosaurs.

At the same time, other tales focus on more whimsical occult powers, like a gang of gnomes with a habit of kidnapping girls, a gimmicky carpet with body-switching powers, and wax figurines with a dark purpose.

As a statement to the quality of “Gravity Falls” the show is able to pull off both extremes of the mood palette with ease, and it is impossible to say which of its facets tends to be the best one. There are great episodes that are grim, and there are outstanding ones with a much lighter temper.

gravity_falls_moneyDealing with unnatural matters is not the only element on which the show shines, for it also has an incredible knack for stepping well over the line that separates the morally acceptable from the deplorable in order to pull off major stunts. Those moments are mostly achieved through the character of Stan, the kids’ great uncle.

Though his affection for the duo and other secondary characters with whom he interacts frequently is palpable, even under his grumpy demeanor, it is a wonder how two responsible parents left their children under his care through the summer. During the show’s two seasons, it has been implied that Stan has undertaken in money-forgery schemes, tax fraud, and numerous other financial crimes, some of which with the aid of the twins themselves.

Additionally, it is blatantly shown that he deceives his customers – portrayed as brainless tourists – by tricking them into believing the items he sells in his Mystery Shack are genuine, when they clearly are not; and openly steals other people’s property without any remorse. The cartoon also delightfully toys around with other morally dubious subjects in other occasions, such as on Mabel’s recurring addiction to forbidden sugary treats that cause her to hallucinate and foam at the mouth.

gravity_falls_mabelTouchy subjects are not always approached with humor and sarcasm, though, because the show knows reasonably well to touchdown from its frantic lunacy in order to explore topics of a greater emotional depth. Even if it is not bound to make anyone cry, “Gravity Falls” can – at its finest moments – tug on its audience’s heartstrings regardless of their different backgrounds.

Structurally, “Gravity Falls” is also somewhat unique and a pleasant achievement. The cartoon possesses an underlying plot dealing with the origin of Dipper’s diary and the mysteries that surround the town that is developed from time to time, with some episodes focusing on it more than others. However, it remains decently accessible to anyone who is not following it closely due to how each chapter is able to stand on its own.

If the general dullness of the Disney Channel was in need of a serious shake-up, then that movement has already found the head of its rebellion. “Gravity Falls” is the best kind of rebel, for it has both a cause and a purpose. Its root is the completely uninspiring and morally pure nature of the network’s main offerings, something that has been going on for quite a while, and its goal is to get away with morally dubious situations, add macabre twists to a children’s animation, provide deep storytelling in a cartoon, and break away from the mold.

gravity_falls_fireIt delivers humor by being silly and bringing down moral walls, crafts a set of lovable characters, and – if successful – might end up ushering in a new era of animations that know how to make people laugh and mix the stand-alone episodes of a sitcom with deeper threads of plot that run across the show’s whole extension. An uprising may be brewing.

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