Blog Archive

Friday, July 04, 2014

Teach The Blind To See

Diocletian - Gesundrian [2014] []
Their latest and third album is the first time I heard of these guys. The band from Auckland, New Zealand is hard to put a label on - it piles elements of Black- and Doom- onto Death Metal, which becomes reminiscent of Portal's utterly perfect Vexovoid. By comparison, Diocletion keep it way tighter, the stretches of super-heavy steamrolling flow into upspeed blastbeats and stakkato riffage in a consistent mesh of grim, massive sound. This may also be the biggest downside of the record, there is little variety to keep the rather uniform songs apart, but the overall quality of that fabric is so high that I really don't mind. Gesundrian is not an easy album to get into, but once you made your way through the thicket of metal and stone, you find a serious quality in it.

Crowbar - Symmetry In Black [2014] []
Kirk Windstein announced late in 2013 that he would leave Down to focus more on Crowbar. The result is this juggernaut that perfectly aligns with the previous records. The high standard of a Crowbar record derives from the particular sound the band has stayed true to, so no surprises in that regard. The production is fantastic and contributes to the weight of the sound, Butt-Head's 1993 statement "this music is slow and fat" is truer than ever, except for the now rarer moments of sped up hardcore punching, especially in the furious highlight "Ageless Decay". More than anything, this record makes Crowbar sound more depressed and doom-ish, Kirk's shouts more desperate than ever. In the end it's a good album, but it won't impress you right away. Solid.

Power Trip - Manifest Decimation [2013] []
It's a positive surprise to see that not all young Thrash Metal bands today try to be the "party hard dude" brand of retro music. Power Trip from Texas distinguish themselves by prioritizing the music over the image, or so it seems. Kicking and punching and yelling as hard as they can, Power Trip sound like a mixture of early Destruction, "Best Wishes"-Cro-Mags and Vio-Lence, with the music as ugly as the cover artwork. I had this monster running in the background and caught myself pausing to check which song was playing because the riffage was so hard (Murderer's Row). While there are some very good snappy solos, the relentless blunt riffs take center stage, it's never overly technical. A distinct recommendation over the blur of modern Thrash Metal.

Modern Day Babylon - Travelers [2013] []
With all the face-shattering bludgeoning in this post so far, this is very different. This trio from the Czech Republic plays a sort of technical progressive metal that is more spaced out, more spiritually inclined than the clinical jacking off that Jeff Loomis and colleagues do. Sure the majority of the album is guitar masturbation, but interlaid with the ambient synthies and effects it feels somewhat futuristic. There are two vocal versions of songs on the record, the rest is instrumental. Imagine Cynic's "Traced In Air" trying to show how good at guitar playing it is. Space Metal. Recent instrumental releases like Conquering Dystopia turned boring after a little while, this still feels fresh. Get in your spaceship and become one with the universe by playing a one hour guitar solo.

P.L.F. - Ultimate Whirlwind Of Incineration [2014] []
My problem with today's grindcore is that in my mind, everything has to measure up against the flawlessness of World Extermination and Pig Destroyers last albums. The Texans from P.L.F. (Pulverizing Lethal Force), while not on par with the aforementioned, deliver a respectable piece of grindcore that stands out from the gored masses through fine craftsmanship and relative variety. It's not as harsh as Insect Warfare, but manages a good mixture of blunt hammering and deep grooves that many bands forget about. Don't expect any room to breath though, this monstrosity rips and tears through 15 songs in less than 25 minutes. If you're not into grindcore, this won't get you far, but if you are, this album will greatly please you.

Further listening:
KOOL A.D. - NOT O.K  - solid rap album, would be better if the flow of the songs wasn't so unsteady
Cro-Mags - Best Wishes - mindblowingly amazing piece just between the hardcore and metal days
PERTURBATOR - Dangerous Days - very good, but not brilliant retro synth electro music
Hermóðr - Vinter - ok depressive black metal record, but others do much better
Skeletons - Tombs - forgettable sludge puddle
Special recommendation : Damien Thorne - Fear of the Dark

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Wolfenstein : The New Order

I never liked Wolfenstein 3D as much as the original DOOM, and I vaguely remember playing bits of "Return to Castle Wolfenstein" when it came out in 2001 and not being particularly impressed. Despite my negative history with the series, the mixed to positive reviews and the feeling that I got bored with videogames again, I gave the recent Wolfenstein: The New Order a chance (spoilers ahead).

The game starts out in 1946 - World War II still drags on and the Nazis are on the offensive. Series protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz is severely injured during a desperate mission and strands in a psychiatric asylum in Poland, where he remains in a vegetative state until 1960. When he finally recovers his senses, the Allied Forces have lost the war and the Reich has been ruling the entire world for years, conquered America and even landed on the moon. Blazkowicz sets out to join the resistance movement, take revenge and kill as many Nazis on his way as possible. The alternative history setting is mostly done in a serious tone, and while there are many over-the-top pieces, it's explicitly not a parody (unlike the very different, but utterly genius Far Cry Blood Dragon). The synchronisation is mostly a mixture of English and German (and bits of Polish), with 80%+ of the voices being done exceedingly well.
I was blown away by how engagingly the story was told, I didn't expect it to be that good from a big stupid action game where shit blows up all the time. The trick, I think, is that the developers treat the story with sufficient dignity to outshine the many corny tropes that come with the scenario.

The setting allows for a surprisingly diversified level design, the most outstanding ones being the scientific exhibition about the moon and the actual Nazi moon-base. Occupied London and concrete-covered Berlin look great as well - and most importantly fitting the the brutal architecture of Speer and colleagues. Rather basic levels like the resistance camp are stuffed with loads of details, so even though there are lots of brown-and-grey tunnel passages as well, it doesn't get boring. The sound design is great, especially the few pieces of German Schlager songs that are sparsely sprinkled along the campaign. The graphics, stemming from the id Tech 5 engine, are top-notch, and even though you will find some blurry textures throughout the game, they didn't bother me. One highlight are the animations, especially of faces, that make the game look very smooth. The one thing I would have liked more of is vegetation, although the lack might have been intentional (because the bad guys only have concrete and no plants because they are the bad guys).

In terms of the gameplay: It's a shooter, you run around and shoot people. There are different guns to shoot people and robots with. Most of the guns are good. There's also a special laser weapon you can use to cut fences and there are knifes you can throw into Nazi faces to kill them silently. What I genuinely enjoyed were that despite some upgrades that you pick up on your way, there are no RPG elements. Every game nowadays has RPG elements where you have to collect things and learn new skills - Wolfenstein, thankfully, doesn't force you to do that. There are some stealth parts, but mostly it's classic all guns blazing fun. Remember fun?

The game takes roughly 16 hours to finish, during which you will be thoroughly entertained. I expected a mediocre dumb action game with a small, silly plot and I got a fantastic dumb action game with an amazingly well presented story. I highly recommend Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Eight Ball

Last Sunday, A World To Come turned eight years old. While few things remained throughout the years, like the music reviews, many have been redrafted. Not only did the language change, nowadays it's less videogames and short stories, instead more technology and politics. The layout has always been mostly black with planetary banners, but it's now more flexible and can properly be read on mobile devices that weren't common when this blog started. For me personally, many things have changed as well. Back in 2006, I was a student. These days, the cosmic warp has claimed my spirit and I have been struggling to find my way out of this skeleton-infested labyrinth of dungeons and crystal caves ever since. Changes like that make you look back on your old material and cringe - especially since the site had more visitors back then. The early years' schlock is terrifying. So, here's to another eight years? No, definitely not - but for now there is still lots to complain about and plenty opinions to be presented as facts.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Guns, Germs, and Steel

Writing a review of an almost twenty year old book that was awarded among other honoraries the Pulitzer Prize, spawned a documentary and has become the most popular book on its subject seems inane to me, so this isn't a review.

"Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies" is a popular science book by Prof. Jared Diamond that starts of with a question asked by a New Guinean politician: "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?". In other words: Why are there such disparities in the development of human societies? It's a question that many people have asked, including myself. While I found no conclusive answer, the most predominant ones in the last hundreds of years were either racist or ideological.

Prof. Diamond elevates the question to a transhistoric, transglobal scale and explores what factors determined the evolution of human societies over the course of the last 12.000 years. His answer to cultural diffusion argues against genetic, intellectual or idological reasons and rather highlights the importance of environmental factors, such as the availability of domesticable plants and animals, isolation versus connectivity, geographic hurdles, the spread of crops within the same climate type, the feasability of lifestyles other than hunter-gatherer, development of diseases and others. It is obvious that Europe's emissaries conquered the Americas in the 16th century because of of their superior weapons, technology and more importantly the infectious germs they brought along (thus the title of the book), but how come it wasn't the other way around so that the Inca sailed to Spain and raided Europe? The book explores the very fundamental reasons for these disparities.

To press such an enormous topic into a less than 500 page book makes generalization mandatory. Prof. Diamond admits to using broad strokes, but uses them in a careful way as to not jump to too easy a conclusion and admit gaps where there are such. His environmental determinism is illustrated in a way that is understandable to the layman, which opens up this immensely complex subject at least at the seams. Because of that, I strongly recommend this book, really to anyone.

Monday, June 09, 2014

A Spacetime Odyssey

In August last year, I posted that the successor to COSMOS : A Personal Voyage, one of my favourite things in general, would air in 2014. As of yesterday, that series of thirteen episodes has been completed. "Cosmos : A Spacetime Odyssey" was launched worldwide on all 90 National Geographic Channels in 180 countries, as well as 120 FOX-branded channels in 125 countries, making it the largest global launch ever for a television series. It currently hold a 9,5/10 rating at IMDb and a 90% audience approval at Rotten Tomatoes. The show was written by Ann Druyan (Carl Sagan's widow) and Steven Soter, who also wrote the original series. The original soundtrack by Vangelis has been replaced by an orchestral score from Alan Silvestri.

The new series is hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, author and Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. Dr. Tyson has appeared on many TV programs, conventions, radio as well as his own podcast, StarTalk Radio. You will find many of his speeches in front of US committees, universities and just in general interviews on Youtube. He has propelled himself to be one of the most popular scientists and science educators today, due to his ability to communicate why science matters and what it means to our society. There really is no other person in the world more qualified for the job to host the new show.
In the thirteen new episodes, the series deals with such topics as the forming of the universe, from the big band and condensing clouds of gas into suns, planet and galaxies; black holes and the life and death of stars; the evolution of life on earth the the phases of extinction it went through; the nature of light and how that is used in astrophysics; the transformation of planet earth over time; magnetism and gravity; atoms as building block of matter; climate change and its causes.
More than anything though, it traces the history of the scientific method and the struggles involved. Several milestones in scientific history and their respective protagonists are presented in animated short stories, such as Isaac Newton, William Herschel, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Joseph von Fraunhofer, Alhazen, Annie Jump Cannon, Clair Cameron Patterson and others.
As the original, A Spacetime Odyssey uses these milestones to reflect on society and what lessons can be learned from their stories. If demonstrates how cultural prejudice, political and economical influence, sexism, the establishment's arrogance and religion have interfered with discoveries that would go on to change the world.

Those are the facts. But is it any good?

What made "A Personal Voyage" so meaningful to many people and so highly regarded even 25 years later, was the eloquence, enthusiasm and elaborate insight that Carl Sagan gave it. It wasn't just facts thrown in your face, it appealed to you on an intellectual, a moral, a philosophical and even an emotional level.
The new series gets most things right, however there are some rather painful stretches. Neil Tyson, brilliant speaker that he is, is not as good at reading pre-written stuff out as he is at improvising. He tries in very obvious ways to give his monologues gravitas, but nothing more - it lacks the slightly enraged and agitated enthusiasm that his speeches have, and that's the most entertaining part.
The historical elements of the series, mostly focused around scientists of the 18th, 19th and 20th century, are presented as animations, whereas the original series used people in costumes. That is not a bad thing in itself, but the active speech / dialogues spoken in those segments are a bit cringe worthy sometimes and make up the worst parts of the new show.
When not using animation, the series utilizes lots of CG effects, some of which look mindblowingly amazing, like the new cosmic calender, the tardigrades or when Neil Tyson pushes the geological layers of the grand canyon apart - others are very bland and look surprisingly cheap, chief among which the tedious "Hall of Extinction" bit. Mostly, it looks either fine or amazing though.

At its best, "A Spacetime Odyssey" is easily on par with "A Personal Voyage", especially the episodes "The Immortals", "Unafraid of the Dark" and "The Clean Room". At its worst, it feels like just another documentary series. So there are more ups and downs than in the original, on average it is a great series, but it does not always capture the spirit of the original due to the choices on how to transport what they want to tell.
Sometimes less would have been more. There is a segment in "A Personal Voyage" in which Sagan demonstrates Eratosthenes' basis for calculating the circumference of the earth by bending a cardboard map and tracing the shadows fleeing from the desert sun. In the new Cosmos series, there would have been an animated segment in which Eratosthenes rubs his chin and asks aloud why shadows have different lengths at different places. This way, the new series feels like it sometimes wastes time better spent on subjects not addressed at all.
Also, at a few points, the line between proven facts and speculation is not drawn explicitly enough, particularly when it comes to the multiverse-theory and the inside of black holes. Otherwise, the explanation of the natural laws of the universe is very well done.

COSMOS : A Spacetime Odyssey is a very good series with a few bad decisions in between that stands out from the blur of normal documentary shows. What matters most is the content and the message it transports, which is summarized by Neil Tyson in the last segment of the last episode:

"We, who embody the local eyes and ears and thoughts and feelings of the cosmos, we've begun to learn the story of our origins-- star stuff contemplating the evolution of matter, tracing that long path by which it arrived at consciousness. We and the other living things on this planet carry a legacy of cosmic evolution spanning billions of years. If we take that knowledge to heart, if we come to know and love nature as it really is, then we will surely be remembered by our descendants as good, strong links in the chain of life. And our children will continue this sacred searching, seeing for us as we have seen for those who came before, discovering wonders yet undreamt of in the cosmos."