Thursday, 7 August 2014

Game Review – Gods Will Be Watching


Gods Will Be Watching started out as an entry for the game jam Ludum Dare 26. It was made with the theme of Minimalism. The original game, which makes up a chapter of the full game, featured dishevelled band of individuals, amongst them a robot, doctor, engineer. Taking lead as Sgt. Burden you denote tasks to them, to find food, repair a radio and stave of madness to survive. It all took place in one screen a cold expanse of lonely woodland. It was a novel idea and more complete than most game jam results, capturing desperation and hopelessness.

It was picked up by Devolver Digital, of Hotline Miami and Shadow Warrior fame, to expand it into a full title with help from a crowd funding campaign. The game seemed a natural fit with the aesthetics of other Devolver games thanks to it's lo-fi pixel art and often grizzly violence. Now the full game has been released, Gods Will Be Watching is another game looking back on the point and click genre and like Kentucky Route Zero and, despite not having that much in common, doing something interesting with it.
Alright, maybe I'll talk.
The plot focuses around Sgt Burden, part of Everdusk, as he infiltrates a group deemed to be terrorists or freedom fighters depending on perspective. You along with a rotating team are placed in scenarios to complete from withstanding twenty days of torture to finding a base in the terror-stricken desert. While these scenarios are often interesting and inventive, they way they play out is often very similar, boiling down to managing resources and completing tasks within a time limit.

The game opens with a hostage situation. Sgt. Burden is tasked with taking care of the hostages ensuring they don't attempt an escape whilst holding of troops outside. All the while you have to assist in the hacking of a system to download a cure for a virus. Sound like a lot to manage? Well it is. Another scenario finds Burden stranded in a desert. Along with a squad of soldiers, you have to reach a military base within a time limit. Juggling these different objectives is where the challenge lies, scout ahead to ensure safety but burn through precious time. Soldier slowing you down? You can put him out of his misery. It's means more rations to go around at the expense of fire power to defend against enemies.

"Yes, the hostage situation is under control".
Often the solutions and answers to move forward only come apparent following failure, not a bad thing in itself, many games make death an important part of the game. Death has always been an interesting part of games, from Dark Souls to Devolver's own Hotline Miami, it can be an important part of figuring out how to progress but here it is just a frustration.

Deconstructeam is aware of this frustration with the conclusion of the plot getting a little to meta for it's own good, referring to the repeated failures and deaths of the legendary Sgt. Burden. In fact the end sequence seems like the biggest let down after an interesting negotiation scenario the fate of a planet is decided by a fight, turn-based where you have to figure out the opponents moves and respond offensive or defensively, whilst having a bit of a back 'n' forth discussion about morality and slavery. It all feels a bit silly, like James Bond monologuing his philosophical beliefs and chasing down Goldfinger, especially when the consequences of your failure have already been hammered home, slowing down the already turn-based combat.

Gods will be frustrated
Whilst the decisions you make can be simplified to either taking a survivalist or moral approach there is a weight an consequence to your decisions. Kill the straggling soldier slowing you down in the desert and you will be given a quiet moment of reflection as one of his comrades will pick up his dog tags. These actions and their consequences don't hold up as well over the same game, as a character you didn't make it through one chapter will return in the next. It holds the plot together but takes something away from the approach you spent the last half an hour wrestling with.

I did like that with the games lack of hints I took to writing down effective or ineffective strategies on paper which made me think back to older point and click/adventure games. With stunning music full of synth washes and sci-fi arpeggios that fit the games tone perfectly and detailed, gory pixel animations, there is still a lot to like about Gods Will Be Watching. It falls short of the original game jam's promise but still takes an interesting approach to moral decisions, shame about the execution.

Album Review:Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty

(Sub Pop)

Over the last five or so years hip-hop seemed to have made a lot of space for the stranger and weirder side of the genre to show. Alongside the rise of bedroom producers like Lil B or Odd Future and acts like Death Grips that show that there are till many ways to approach, interpret and reinvent the genre. Shabazz Palacees are made up of Ishmael Butler of Digable Planets and Tendai Maraire, two artists that have been peddling their own unique takes of hip hop for over two decades now, well before this new outsider hip hop emerged, and manage to create some of the most unique music around..

Shabazz Palaces seem to have as much in common with the cosmic stargazing of Sun Ra or sci-fi techno of Drexiya than they do with contemporary hip hop. The group's debut, 2011's Black Up, appeared with song structures that avoided conventions with dense electronic influenced beats. It balanced a left field with the approachable as glittering synths and samples twisted beyond easy recognition make for an alien feel while synthesizer bass lines and treated vocals hint at a synthetic and artificial world. Shabazz Palaces music aims for a point where the line between technology and biology is blurred, and they're getting even closer on their follow up Lese Majesty.

Forerunner Foray features the kind of electronic futurism of acts from the Hyperdub roster in the blips and bleeps that rise and fall over the beat, broken apart by soulful female vocals stretched out to a crawl. They Come In Gold hits harder and stranger, a vocal is twisted into a melody under lines like 'we converse in ancient languages' as they map out a psychedelic interstellar journey.

Lese Majesty's beats flit between the loose and easy J Dilla style to the rigid drum machine beats. #CAKE opts for machine noises and 4/4 808 whilst Colluding Oligarchs stumbles and lurches forward with an off-centre rolling drum beat. The way the duo use samples isn't just as a backdrop for the lyrics, they feel integral to the immersion that Lese Majesty demands, as sounds often swallow up the voices or at least take equal space in the dense production. The album blends together into one ever-changing shape, retreating then re-emerging in a new form, MindGlitch Keytar TM Theme appears like a lost post-punk record, jagged and uneasy before Motion Sickness floats forth almost beat-less, bleeps of spaceship computers abound, over a bass line light enough to sound like it exists in zero gravity.

Listening to the album is taking a trip to another world that I don't fully understand, song titles and lyrics are often impenetrable, but a definitely enjoy my time there. Lese Majesty is an intricate and detailed place that demands that you invest your time to explore. Amongst a style that has embraced lo-fi grit, noise and experimentation more than ever in recent years, Shabazz Palaces shows a pair of musicians that can do strange and make it sincere in a way that outs the newcomers to shame.

Album Review:Mogwai – Come On Die Young (Reissue)

(Chemikal Underground)

Mogwai's second album begins with a clip of Iggy Pop talking about the burgeoning punk rock genre “it's a term that's based on contempt, it's a term that's based on fashion, style, elitism, Satanism and everything that's rotten about rock 'n' roll”. It is easy to see the sample intended as a parallel to the post-rock tag that had been stuck on to their debut Young Team, a term they have dismissed both in interviews and musically with their follow up record Come On Die Young.

Fifteen years on and Mogwai are now amongst the most established bands to have emerged in instrumental rock and a formidable live act but over the course of their career the Scottish band have never taken the easy path and for better or worse all of their albums have distinctly different.
1997's Young Team, which took on shoegaze, metal and the sounds of forward thinking acts like Slint, Bark Psychosis and Talk Talk, won the band critical acclaim. Huge sweeping creations like the seventeen minute long Mogwai Fear Satan or the violent and harsh riffs of Like Herod. Since then they have stripped their songs down to no frills essentials on Rock Action and taken their most ambient shift scoring the soundtrack to the French television show The Returned.

Instead of an easy follow up where they continue to construct the builds, crescendos and big shifts in dynamics that would define post-rock the band have never taken the easy route. On 1999's Come On Die Young they sidestepped their noisey debut's ferocious immediacy and put together a selection of restrained and subtle tracks that unravel over multiple listens. The album is now getting the reissue treatment, and seen in a much fairer light of their whole discography can be regarded as one of their finest successes.

Guitarist Stuart Braithwaite provides vocals on Cody, starting the album unpredictably, having as more in common with slowcore acts like Codeine and Low as it does with anything anything on Young Team. The track mixes whisper soft, tender vocals with the equally unexpected pining sound of a slide guitar. In fact a distortion pedal isn't triggered until the fifth track, Kappa, and even then it's overshadowed by harshly struck, clean guitars. The whole album has an order but with it's laboured limits there is variation. The shorter moments like chiming echo of piano keys Oh, How The Dogs Stack Up or Spaghetti western outro of Punk Rock/Puff Daddy/AntiChrist help hold the album together.

That's not to say the band don't let loose at times, Ex-Cowboy is as heavy as Mogwai have ever been. As riffs give way to harsh machine-like noise and drum rolls they prove they are still capable of creating the kind of thrilling noise-laden cacophony that few other other bands can manage and here, amongst the serene sounds of tracks like Cody these moments are all the more striking. It followed by two more aggressive tracks. A sparse and melancholy piano melody carries Chocky, as drums cascade around it, threatening to turn the track into something louder and more dangerous but just about manages to restrain itself whilst Christmas Steps delivers melodic hardcore punk riffing, taking the band back to the loud quiet dynamics of Young Team.

Amongst the extensive additional material accompanying Come On Die Young is the Travels In Constants EP, originally released in 2001, which seems to fit in well with the album despite having a slightly different feel, the first track Untitled sounds like Neu!'s more electronic moments given a moody update and shows the electronic touches that would become more apparent on later Mogwai albums. Another bonus track, Hugh Dallas hold up alongside the album tracks, featuring Braitwaite's vocals placed amongst echoing guitars, beginning at a mournful dirge before before swelling up to offer up a visceral and emotive climax that still manages to surprise like the first strike of thunder from a slow-moving storm.

If there are any weak links, it's the demo tracks, which are too similar to the finished versions to really reveal an insight into the bands process, just a little rougher around the edges. Still there are early versions of Rollerball and 7-25 which would later form part of Mogwai's soundtrack for the film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait.

There have been a lot of bands that have played around with the same template that bands like Mogwai established in the nineties so it really does show how well Come On Die Young hold up fifteen years on that it still has an feel all of it's own. Eschewing some of what made Young Team such a success was a gamble, as the band reassessing the builds and distortion of Young Team and creating a different and more restrained approach. There is still an atmosphere that in a certain light creates a tense, uneasy drama and in another beauty.

Die-hard Mogwai fans may already own most of what is here as most of the extras have previously been released in some form but it is clear that some effort has gone into this reissue, gathering just about everything there is from this period in the band's history, clocking in at two and a half hours. The album itself is still the best part of the package but everything here stands up and adds a little more context around one of Mogwai's defining musical achievements where they realised that they quieter statements can be the most powerful.

Album Review:Drcarlsonalbion – Gold

(Oblique Italy)

A pioneer of both drone and ambient metal, Seattle musician Dylan Carlson has also shown himself to be a capable writer of interesting and innovative heavy music. Beginning his career with inspirations like early metal groups such as Black Sabbath and the Seattle music scene and groups like The Melvins, his main band Earth has, over twenty five years, developed and pushed itself into more varied sonic territory, especially over the last decade since their return from a hiatus caused by Carlson's drug addiction.

Gold is the first foray into soundtrack work for the Earth front man for a film of the same name. It comes amongst a productive time for Carlson, shortly before the release of his first solo album, funded through Kickstarter, and a new Earth album, both due before the end of the year. The film follows a band of German settlers, traversing the western frontier in hopes of striking gold on Canada's west coast. A familiar story unfolds, where the often environment and those that inhabit it become the main obstacles for the travelling group.

The twenty four tracks, titled Gold I through to Gold XXIV, that make up this soundtrack exists in a lonelier space to Carlson's usual work with Earth. Many of the tracks just featuring a single guitar, an effective representation of the vast and empty North American wilderness. Sparse percussion is used like punctuation for the riffs as splashes of cymbals pass by like clouds or a bass drum hits like distant thunder.

Whilst this isn't metal, the music does bare the hallmarks of Carlson's main project, Gold I establishes a guitar progression that reappears throughout Gold with slow tempo pentatonic riffs and a thick and carefully constructed guitar tone that crackles and splits like the dry ground under an oppressive sun. It does explore some of the directions that Earth has taken over the last decade, with the sound sun-baked country and drawn-out Morricone melodies dominating, twisted into a much more minimalist form.

The vast slide guitar chords of Gold VII ring out and echo like their being performed in a valley, it's the most identifiabley “western” moments on the soundtrack. Gold XII echoes about like an demo from the heyday of psychedelia, wah pedal-soaked guitar jams that sound lost and wandering. Some tracks barely hang around for more than thirty seconds, filling in the gaps between the longer tracks with soft hums of feedback and low drones rattling away, swathed in reverb.

Fans of Carlson's work should know what to expect from Gold for the most part, the thick and warm guitar sounds but the stripped down approach creates something a little different, for creating a lonely and vulnerable sound that could crackle and fall apart. There is something powerful that rings out in these singular riffs and isolated chord progressions, familiar styles that feel somehow other placed on their own with a result that is much more evocative than you'd expect from it's simple approach.