Friday, 30 January 2015

Time Is On Your Side:Life Is Strange: Episode One Reviewed

So many stories begin with a murder, look at Twin Peaks for example; based around the murder of a seemingly perfect high school girl in a sleepy isolated town. It's an effective point for getting a narrative engine whirring. Life Is Strange, a new game from French developers Dontnod, gets it's plot going by having you stop a murder but with a twist as you've already seen it happen.

Max Caulfield has just returned to the small town that see grew up in from Seattle for a photography course at a prestigious school, and reconnecting with people she'd long lost contact with. It's left her a stranger in a familiar place. On top of that she begins to have vivid dreams about a massive tornado looming over the town and with them, the realisation that she can rewind time.

Max's teenage life is already seeming far more complex than my own but Life Is Strange manages to stay grounded and personal. You get glimpses into a lot of character different ideas and agendas within the short chapter and it won't take long till you're picking out favourites and picking sides. The teenage slang comes thick and fast and mostly works though, and i'm in the later half of my twenties so maybe I'm losing my grip on how kids today talk, I don't know if people say things like "sad face" but for the most part it works.

I bring up Twin Peaks because there is more that a passing resemblance to the setting, the small pacific coastal town of Arcadia (and there is at least one obvious reference to David Lynch's show in the game). The game clearly owes a lot to the storytelling of Telltale Games too, you make dialogue choices and actions that split the plot and the game makes these reasonably clear that they will have some future repercussions. What is different is that once you've made your choice you can change your mind, though once the story moves on, usually set by leaving an area, there is no going back.

It also allows you to change some small things too. Here are some of the least spoilery examples: When you talk to some kid with a skateboard he calls you out on not knowing any of the tricks. Rewind time and you can drop words like 'nose slide' into conversation and impress him. Walking past a girl sat at a bench, you see her get struck by a football, rewind time and you can warn her. These moments may not have an impact on the central story but these tools can come into play in similar ways in the games more decisive moments.

The game uses some familiar metaphors, this isn't the first time a camera has been used to represent a sense of detachment to the world around you, but it still works. Likewise, the game name checks a dozen authors, films, photographers over the chapter but these are people figuring themselves out, finding people and media to latch onto to find who they are.  

Whilst you always have something to do the game doesn't rush you. You have time to explore the environment, talk or observe people around you, take pictures or poke around dorm rooms and houses. These environments are littered with little details about the people, rarely essential but filling out the characters and world. Teenagers are not easy to write. Their lives are filled with little struggles and there is a politics to how these play out. Life Is Strange may go a little too far out of it's way to remind you that this is a contemporary story, with sexting and mentions of Kickstarter, it is best at capturing the moments that never change for teenagers, the cliques, the bullies and the personal drama.

Whilst I can't relate to everything that Max goes through I remember what it's like thinking whether I should stand up to a bully or not, or just laying on a bed smoking weed and listening to music. Life Is Strange nails the small moments so it'll be interesting to see if it can keep them at the forefront as the plot grows and we get to realise the full results of out choices.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Album Review:Sleater-Kinney – No Cities To Love

(Sub Pop)

'Another year, another slew of reunions' the cynic in me wants to think. Undoubtedly there will be plenty more reunions on the horizon but outside those groups that have used it to cash in on a greatest hits tour we've also gotten some great albums in the last few years. Afghan Whigs, Swans, Sebadoh are amongst the acts that have proven in recent years that comebacks shouldn't always be met with negativity. For as many acts that want to make some easy money there are just as many with something left to say.

The much-loved indie punk group Sleater-Kinney are the latest group to reform and have brought No Cities To Love, they're first album in a decade, with them. Formed in Olympia, WA in 1994, the group where amongst the most successful and longest lasting acts to have come from the Riot Grrl scene, taking influence from the indie and punk music from the Pacific Northwest as well as the likes of Pavement and Sonic Youth. The bands sound is also shaped by the interplay between Corin Tucker and Carrie Brownstein, both playing guitars and taking on vocals, mixing empowered vitriol with punk energy they created music that had a vital message whilst punk rock as a whole was loosing it's bite.

Since 2005's The Woods and the groups long-term hiatus in 2006 the band went of in different directions. Tucker has released two albums with the Corin Tucker Band whilst Brownstein teamed up with Fred Armisen to create the hipster skewering comedy series Portlandia. Drummer Janet Weiss continued to work with her husband as Quasi and joined Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks as well as working with Brownstein as part of the short-lived group Wild Flag.

No Cities To Love begins with a playful riff and rolling drums but that first track, Price Tag, really hits it's stride with a big defiant chorus that puts stadium rock bands to shame without losing it's edge. Sleater-Kinney shine in these big moments and the album is full of them, mixing the straightforward hooks of The Clash and the jittery unpredictability of Devo. Fangless jerks about with these harsh, lurching post-punk riffs as the vocals delivered with a wild, shouted desperation.

The title track from No Cities to Love is one of the strongest here. An almost pop-punk track showing one of the groups big strengths of putting big, irresistible sing-along hooks amongst scrappy guitar melodies. The huge jagged slabs of dissonant chords that begin No Anthems are pure 90's era Sonic Youth, angry and weird. The tumbling melodies give way to the short and sharp melodic punk centre of the track. Fade channels Fugazi-style emo, which leads the the albums last big chorus, and is a neat fit for Tucker and Brownstein's heart-on-sleeve style of singing.

It's not the kind of punk record that snarls and spits in your face, content to pull you in with passion and melody. In fact the way Sleater-Kinney sits in this unique spot between grunge, indie rock and punk saw them picking and choosing their own space somewhere between. No Cities To Love is lean, it's momentum barely lets up, and makes for a good starting point for anyone unfamiliar with Sleater-Kinney as well as a welcome return for long-time fans. It's an album that easy to enjoy just on the basis of it's limitless energy and charm, but there is definitely more to find beneath the surface of it's immediate pleasures. Like quite a few reunion albums it seems to pick up where the band left us and in doing so shows reminds us what was so good about them in the first place.