Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Future of the Left - How To Stop Your Brain In An Accident

It’s nice when music and lyrics combine in a way you can relate to and end up succinctly summing up a feeling isn’t it?

“Once I dreamt of owning my own home and renting six bedrooms / to call center veterans, good tenants and better communicators / but ambition encountered in an economy dominated by forces so deep they confound themselves / I’m just a man (a simple thing).”

In fact I could more or less dedicate an entire Blog to just reciting the lyrics on this album.  I won’t.   But I could.  For example this is the delicately sung chorus of ballad French Lessons:

“Well I don’t need coy carp swimming round my feet / and auburn haired children blocking my path / as I run to the disabled bathroom / topping off a 12 hour drinking spree / The rich kids stole the ball.”

As a lyricist, singer Andrew Falkous has matured and improved with each album he has released – that’s 3 with former band Mclusky and 4 with current group Future of The Left.  Considering some of us can spend three years writing an album which retrospectively only has a couple of good songs on it this is QUITE GOOD.

Musically Falkous’ previous band Mclusky all but refused to incorporate the post-Metallica predictability of guitar chords in order to make their music stand out from the crowd, perhaps inspired by similarly bald-man-fronted Nirvana-influencing scamps The Pixies.

Future of the Left have no such quibbles, preferring instead to use oft repeating combinations of power 
chords to make their music unpredictable.  On this album this is best showcased in opener Bread Cheese, Bow and Arrow but this was also demonstrated to full effect in adeadenemyalwayssmellsgood and the superbly named Robo-Cop 4 (Fuck Off Robo-Cop).

Previous album The Plot Against Common Sense was a collection of terrific pop songs that lost a bit of the band’s customary grunge sensibilities but still maintained the cutting edge and controlled rage that are the band’s hallmark.  It was also their most complete, enjoyable and strongest collection of songs to date.

Funded by fans via Pledge the follow up How To Stop Your Brain In An Accident is perhaps a step sideways rather than a step forward.  Power chords are unapologetically back in vogue while songs like Future Child Embarrassment Matrix echo the more punk idea-track sensibilities of early Mclusky album tracks.

Johnny Borrell Afterlife would have been comfortably at home as the stand out track on The Plot Against Common Sense but feels strangely out of place in the running order of this album.  How To Spot A Record Company sounds bizarrely influenced by Blur’s Britpop bridge-too-far The Great Escape.  The first minute and a half of Bowie-esque Something Happened is haunting, unexpected and promises enormous excitement. 

Unfortunately the final two minutes are ultimately predictable and boring.

When I first heard Mclusky’s second album Mclusky Do Dallas as a spotty faced whippersnapper I was acutely aware that I either hated it or loved it.  I just wasn’t sure which.  It ended up being the only album I wanted to listen to for about a year.*

And I had a similar vehement love / hate reaction the first time I listened to this album.  I expected to love it but in truth I didn’t enjoy it as much as I anticipated.  Then I started to dislike it...

This was a frightening moment of identity loss for me.

Could it be that I had started to hate what I loved the most?

Whatever next?          

Was this the first step on a path that would end with me kicking pets, sending my friends spiteful group text messages and burning my copy of Football Manager?

Then it clicked.

There’s nothing wrong with the songs. It’s the running order of the album I don’t like.  Previous Mclusky and Future of The Left albums have been flawlessly constructed and perfectly paced.

Pacing is a key part of making a record.  It’s what makes an album an album rather than just a collection of songs.  It’s what makes Radiohead’s OK Computer a great album.

The pacing of this album is flawed.  Most noticeably the 3rd, 4th and 5th songs are simply in the wrong place.  As a man not totally unaccustomed to the occasional bout of OCD this annoyed me enough to make me want to switch it off.

Thankfully in these days of Spotify playlists I can just rearrange them.

Hey Presto Bingo.  It’s one of my favourite albums.  A masterpiece.  IN THIS ORDER:

1.       Bread, Cheese, Bow and Arrow
2.       I Don’t Know What You Ketamine
3.       French Lessons
4.       Future Child Embarrassment Matrix
5.       Johnny Borrell Afterlife
6.       The Real Meaning Of Christmas
7.       The Male Gaze
8.       How To Spot A Record Company
9.       Donny of the Decks
10.   She Gets Passed Around At Parties
11.   Something Happened
12.   Things To Say To Friendly Policemen
13.   Singing Of The Bonesaws
14.   Why Aren’t I Going To Hell?

*Might have been longer than a year     

Monday, 16 December 2013

Xbox One and Playstation 4

I’ve made a number of confident predictions in my life.

Here are some randomly selected highlights: 

“That Eric Djemba-Djemba will turn out to be a terrific player”

He wasn’t.

“I bet you Portugal’s lone striker Pauleta will be the top goalscorer at the 2004 European Championships”

Played every single game.  Didn’t score a single goal.

“I think Watford will win the 2013/14 Championship and get promoted to the Premier League”

We are currently 13th and, as of today, managerless.

“I'm certain England will win the 2006 World Cup”

We didn’t.                                                                                                       

You get the idea.

Well the time has come for me to make another one. 

“I'm not convinced the Xbox One and PS4 will really catch on”.

There I said it.

We are currently experiencing a massive price crash on Xbox 360 and Playstation3 games due to those heartless bastards with jobs and those fucking awful rich children whose parents buy them entire houses trading in their consoles for the latest fancy technology. 

You’d think I’d be bitter and you’d be right.  But mainly because that’s just my default setting.  Generally this is good news for me. 

I bought ten games today for less than 50 quid.  A couple of months ago the same ten games would have probably cost me closer to £250.

When the Xbox 360 and Playstation3 came out the Xbox and Playstation2 didn’t stand much hope of surviving.  

This was down to a number of factors.

First of all HD technology was clearly about to revolutionise our television screens, and nowhere was this to have such a big impact as with gaming.  The 360 and PS3 came with built-in HDMI capability whereas the Xbox and PS2 still ran off of SCART.  The PS3 also included a Blu-Ray player, before HDTV or Blu-Rays had really even been invented.

Secondly Wi-Fi was about to completely alter the way we used the internet.  It went on to make online gaming and indie gaming a mainstream activity.  Sure you could play online games on the original Xbox and PS2 but it was about as popular as cooking baked beans in a toaster.

Fast forward 8 years and the situation is completely different.

Most major titles are currently scheduled for release on both the Xbox 360/PS3 and Xbox One/PS4 generation of consoles.  DragonAge 3 for example is currently scheduled for a late 2014 / early 2015 release on both Xbox One and Xbox 360.

This didn’t happen back in 2005 when production of Xbox and many PS2 games all but stopped in favour of the new generation.

Undoubtedly the Xbox One and PS4 are more powerful machines than their current generation counterparts.  And in two or three years time game developers will no doubt be producing games purely with their specifications in mind.

But it’s difficult to feel the same inexorable wave of revolution as back in 2005.

The only exception to this is in the case of motion tracking technology and voice activation.

Call me old fashioned but personally I’m still happy to turn my console on by pressing a button.  Likewise the idea of having to stand up or move to play a video game is still about as appealing as it was in 2006 when Nintendo released their fun with a very small F Wii.

So there you go.

I’ll leave that there. 

I was only writing this while Battlefield 3 installed itself on my Xbox 360 which it just has.

That took over half an hour.

But then again that’s current generation loading times for you...

Grand Theft Auto V

It’s worth noting that the only movie to have cost more than GTA V to make was Pirates of The Caribbean: At Worlds End and GTA V more than recouped all of its 270 million dollar production costs within a day of its release.

It’s certainly a dramatic improvement on GTA IV – the game that decided to make it difficult and tediously unenjoyable to drive cars in a game where all you can do is drive cars.  In GTA V the driving has been made fun and you can fly planes again.  Much like in 2004s GTA: San Andreas...

It’s all still a triumph of glamour over substance however.

GTA games are often held up as being an ‘open world’ experience but unfortunately this is something of a misnomer.  Missions will see you repeatedly drive through the gloriously rendered world by staring at your GPS system and then get led through a series of tightly scripted often uninspiring set piece routines.

The open world elements in the game have no point to them.

As fun as it is to fire rockets at police cars there’s no reason to do so and this is GTA’s biggest crime. 

It builds a game out of its weaknesses rather than building it from its strengths.

Sure you can mow down policemen or businessmen to your heart’s content but aimlessly doing this for days on end loses its shine rather quickly.

Sure you can race cars in mini-games found around the map but there’s plenty of other similarly average racing simulators out there that I could pick up and similarly never want to play more than once.  You also don’t win any money for winning a race or unlock any new items.  So why bother?

Sure you can play tennis and golf or go skydiving but the same applies.  Where’s the reward?

As a game GTA V is weaker than the heavily GTA influenced Red Faction: Guerrilla and Assassin’s Creed 2 which were both masterpieces in their own right.

If you’ve seen the extensive marketing campaign this game is still putting out now Christmas is nearly upon us you’ll see it has essentially been marketed as a film.  I’m usually an enormous critic of video game stories and characters but I have to admit the ghoulish character of Trevor is interesting enough and I actually related quite well to Michael.  There’s also a guy called Franklin in it.

The story is good to a point but ultimately nowhere near strong enough to be sustained over the time it takes to complete the game.  Within about an hour you’ll have sussed out everything the story has to say.  The rest is an awkward attempt to stretch and pad out its content.

And for a game that places such a massive emphasis on story this is a fundamental problem.

Cutscenes are at their strongest in video games when they are used to reward the player for completing a section of gameplay.  GTA V instead uses a few minutes of gameplay, often driving to a point in the map, as a reward for watching its self indulgent cutscenes.

The open world it creates is a technical and graphical marvel.  This is undoubtedly where the several hundred million dollars really show themselves.  The attention to detail is staggering. 

If you beat someone up a member of the public might film it with their camera phone.  The changing moon phases dictate the contrast of the night lighting.  Puddles form over time when it rains.  You can invest in the stock market.  Characters sweat when they run.

All of which is nice enough, but it’s a bit like a girl proudly swallowing your cum after a bad blow job.

And if that joke seems distasteful then if you plan to play GTA V you better get used to it. Because GTA V is also frequently crass and misogynistic in a way that is neither clever nor funny.  The game contains no strong female characters and it openly mocks and belittles the ones that it does have.

And in 2013 that’s a real shame.

Spec Ops: The Line

In my own way I suspect I may have helped the British war effort more than any soldier.

Judging by my performances in today’s modern war video game shooters I would have killed and maimed Taliban, Americans, British and casual passersby fairly indiscriminately.

Not out of pleasure or psychopathic revenge upon humanity you understand but purely out of my own incompetence and inability to quickly recognise slightly different coloured uniforms.

Perhaps it’s what comes of being raised on a diet of playing Doom and Wolfenstein 3D as a child.

If it moves, it dies and I apparently have neither the patience nor the intelligence to work out who I’m meant to be shooting.  Yet not one person I know who has served in Afghanistan has ever sat me down and thanked me personally for not going to Afghanistan with them.

Not one. 

It seems to me in many ways these people probably owe me their life.

Spec Ops is a 3rd person shooty Afghan war inspired thing set in Dubai.  You command a small squad of soldiers who frequently shout things like “Friendly fire!” and “Stand down!” at you throughout the course of the game.

My main criticism of this game is that the standard white generic meat head I’m forced to control is voiced by the same bloody guy who voices every other main character in this generation of games.  So in this game he’s Captain Whatthefuckever but he’s previously cropped up as the astonishingly dull Desmond from Assassin’s Creed 1, 2, 2.2, 2.3, 2.4, 3, 3.2 and 4, Nathan Drake from Uncharted 1, 2 and 3 and he also sounds identical to the identical looking protagonist in Bioshock Infinite and that guy from The Last of Us.

The game has a vibe to it though.  A thinking man’s Call of Duty if you will, that attempts to in some way examine the psychological effects the horrors of war can have upon soldiers.  And for that it deserves credit.

It also has a style and atmosphere that feels surprisingly distinctive.

From the sweeping sandstorms that dominate its impressive visuals to the exceptional soundtrack that accompanies them.  Usually I have to turn off music on games but I have to confess that slaughtering bad-twats in a Dubai Aquarium to Mogwai was the highlight of my day.

Still, it’s a rough diamond rather than a fully polished carbon beauty. 

Enemies will frequently spawn right on top of you from nowhere and this becomes progressively more frustrating throughout the game as you are continuously returned to the same checkpoint.

The cover system is more Mass Effect 1 than Mass Effect 2 (in that it doesn’t quite work).  Your character will happily stand still under a hail of gunfire while you desperately try to convince him to hide behind something and frequently dying in this manner can make the game feel cheap.

Overall though it’s a damn sight better than most of its competitors. 

At least it tries to engage my emotions and involve me in a narrative that has some depth behind it as opposed to the over enthusiastic Call of Duty jerking me off at full throttle for increasingly unstimulating and unsatisfying hours on end.