Battlefield vs COD and the problems it brings.

As we come towards the end of summer, we start to reach the fever pitch time for videogames. Autumn brings the blockbusters and this year is no different: Deus Ex, Assassin’s Creed, and Batman all have new games alongside some new IP in the form of Dead Island and Rage. However, the killer IPs this year are undoubtedly the new FPS’: EA’s Battlefield 3 and Activision’s Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3, and they are not presenting the industry as a whole in the best light.

Firstly, the sheer presence of the two games is crushing. Even given the list given above, this season is seriously thin on the ground compared to previous years. Two multi-million pound backed behemoth’s which will dominate the market beyond any shadow of a doubt, one of them (COD) already expected to the best selling media property ever on its release, outstripping it’s predecessor Black Ops. Who in their right mind would want to compete with that. The only people publishing in similar windows are either really established brands like Batman or Assassin’s Creed or games coming from publishing houses with a truly formidable reputation, like Rage from id Software. The focus on these is crushing competition and independent development in a way not seen in other media. The sheer cost of producing games compared to films ensures this, as does the outrageous marketing budget soon to propel both games into mainstream consciousness.

This is a sad situation, but it’s one which we can’t really blame the developers for too much. As consumers we decide what to buy, and the whatever things we buy get reproduced ad nauseam. What we can blame on the developers though, or at least the publishers, is the childish bickering and oneupsmanship that has dogged the two companies marketing campaigns and promotional interviews. I won’t go into specifics here because 5 minutes on google can bring you all the sorry details you could ever want but the damage that this is doing in indescribable. We must remember that as artform games are still in their infancy, striving for validity and acceptance, while the world at large still sees them as teenage boys plaything. How can we possibly portray these games as being adult when the two biggest publishing houses act like children themselves? Its shameful and in the end everybody loses. We must expect better of those two titans of the industry.

And finally, in relation to that, these two big games are essentially built around the same principle: isn’t it cool to shoot people. The supposed link between games and violence in teens and young adults is thankfully finding its rightful place in the rubbish bin as did previous links with heavy metal and films but there is a stubborn refusal in some elements of society to let go of games as being predominantly violent. These two releases don’t help, and neither does a schedule which includes Assassin’s Creed, Rage and Dead Island. Heck even Batman beats people to a bloody pulp. With the exception of annual mainstay FIFA 11, every single game has you killing the bad guy as the endgame. There needs to be a greater depth. Even if you insist on sticking with shooters there are beautiful possibilities in games like Child of Eden whose auditory and visual experience is unmatched in almost any medium. And you’re not shooting anyone, you’re cleansing a virus from a computer system, where success isn’t shown by explosions and blood but by bursts of colour and musical notes. This is where the future should lie, otherwise all we’ll be doing is propagating the same negative stereotypes that we so want to avoid.

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Review: Fake Problems – Real Ghosts Caught on Tape

Fake Problems – Real Ghosts Caught on Tape
Record Label: SideOneDummy
Release Date: September 21st, 2010

Support slots are interesting dilemmas. On the one hand they take up valued time and space from your favourite band and more often than not do not have the talent to hold your interest for the course of their diminished setlist. On the other hand, every now and then you stumble across a real treasure trove of a find; one that makes sitting through all the rest of the dross worthwhile. One such band is Fake Problems who I first discovered because of the support slot under the Gaslight Anthem, arguably the finest band in modern music (seriously don’t get me started, it’s my favourite soapbox…). They are that fantastic kind of band that sound like everything at once and so sound like nothing whatsoever. Confused? Allow me to explain…

Over the course of this 40 minute album the genre ranges from indie to pop to folk to punk to rockabilly to funk and back again, often within the space of about a minute. That’s the kind of style that’s incredibly difficult to pull off at all, and even harder to do it within any sense cohesion. Fake Problems however, manage to do it with consummate ease. Everything fits together as well as that old Lego set from your childhood but is infinitely more fresh than that musty collection probably is now… Any fan of their back catalogue could tell you to expect this, but for a newcomer to the band the variety is truly refreshing and liberating. Even if you think it might be confused and incoherent, there’s something in here to sell it to most people.

It’s catchy enough for disposable listens but there’s a much deeper layer to anyone who wants to find it, and the same can be said for the lyrics. While lines like “I was hollow as a ghost, but you have brought me back to life and revived the hope” aren’t exactly heart-wrenching poetry there’s a subtle eccentricity to the lines that are the kind you just don’t find in everyday pop music. Thankfully the avoidance of mingling with any particular “scenes” means there is not an overwhelming emphasis on making the lyrics fit a certain mood or style which just makes them even more refreshing. Lead singer Chris Fallan’s voice has a similar vein running through. Just high-pitched and quirky enough to be comfortable next to label-mates on primarily pop-punk label SideOneDummy but just with that little individual twist to make him stand out.

Songwise they barely miss a step. It’s the kind of album you like when you first listen because of the immediacy but reveals deeper levels the more time you give it. Tracks like ADT, 5678 and Soulless are joyful dance numbers but ones that feature complex musical structures beneath it which creep into your head quicker than you’d think. Even slower numbers like White Lies still have a memorable quirkiness which eventually gets superseded by its emotional resonance. Truly this is a remarkable album by a remarkable band, and one surely destined for headline slots of their own.

8.5/10

Review: Frank Turner – England Keep My Bones

Frank Turner – England Keep My Bones
Record Label: Xtra Mile/Epitaph
Release Date: June 6, 2011

Frank Turner seems to have exploded recently. Support slots on Chuck Ragan’s Revival Tour in the US and increasingly large headlining shows back in the UK with bands as big as Against Me! supporting, combined with the ever growing popularity of singer-songwriters have made him bigger than ever and dabbling with mainstream charts and interests. While this success is totally deserved, it was the mainstream “rock” sound, complete with full electric band in tow, that led to some fans being disappointed with Turner’s last effort Poetry of the Deed. The bad news is that if you were one of those people then England Keep My Bones will do little to change your mind. The good news, however, is that the rest of us shouldn’t care if it’s the stripped back acoustic or the fuller band sound, because yet again Frank Turner has crafted one of the best albums you’re likely to hear this year.

Opener “Eulogy” is an opener both in style and in placement, and is this kind of slow building anthemic rhyme that really gets a crowd going. With tempting lines ‘on the day I died, I’ll say at least I fucking tried and that’s the only Eulogy I need’ you just know every fan in the crowd will be with him, echoing not just the words but also the sentiment back. The album in general keeps this feel of camaraderie strong throughout, echoing loyalty and love between not just friends, as has always been a strong theme in Turner’s recordings, but also family on “Peggy Sang the Blues,” fans on “I Still Believe” through the ridiculous but also genius idea of recording the crowds from the festivals at Reading and Leeds 2010, and most importantly location.

If you couldn’t guess from the title, Turner is vehemently proud of his English home on this album, with patriotism flowing through several of the songs. The impressive thing is that it never feels exclusive. It’s incredibly easy to turn patriotism into nationalism and leave the impression that England and the English are the pinnacle and everyone else falls short, a problem sadly all too occurrent in popular English culture and society at the minute. Turner impressively manages to completely avoid any of this by personalising his ideas and sharing some of his most personal emotions with the listener, making the whole experience one of inclusion not exclusion. As an Englishman there is definitely a strong sense of pride you can feel listening to songs like “Rivers” and “If Ever I Stray,” but the way the songs are sung means those of other nations can feel nothing but the love in the song and embrace it themselves, maybe thinking of their own loyalties in Turner’s words.

Lyrically Turner is as brilliant as ever. His words seem to channel exactly what his fans believe and say. Lines like ‘I still believe that every one can find a song for every time they’ve lost and every time they’ve won’ and ‘love is free and live is cheap and as long as I got me a place to sleep, some clothes on my back and some food to eat then I can’t ask for anything more’ have the inimitable trick of being both broadly relatable to, but also deeply personal. It’s a cliche to say, but it’s like the songs are being sung directly about you, even though you know they’re not, and that’s a skill Turner seems to have perfected. Even on more difficult themes like mortality and religion, areas where not everyone will show the same atheistic conviction he sings of on “Glory Hallelujah”, the expression carries them through. A devout religious figure will probably have some discomfort singing the lyrics ‘there never was no God’ but again the song doesn’t feel like it’s an attack on religion. It’s put forward with such poetry and passion that it’s more a celebration of where Turner is in life and the road he took to get there.

As I mentioned before, this is no longer pure folk music. The number of electric songs significantly outweigh the stripped back acoustic numbers (although the ratio diminishes somewhat if you buy the beautifully packaged special edition with extra tracks) and this is a problem for some people that there is just no way to get around. Similarly the rougher production of Sleep is for the Week has been sacrificed more a much cleaner sound throughout, and although it suits the songs, it will still disappoint some. Songs like “Nights Become Days” and “English Curse” still have the sparse feeling that was laced through Turner’s earlier albums but if you yearn for that sound throughout then you’ll be left wanting. The full sound dominates the other tracks, but they’re so joyous and passionate that it’s impossible not to fall for them, even if it takes a couple of listens. “Peggy Sang the Blues”, “If Ever I Stray” and “Wessex Boy” are perfect examples of how uptempo and upbeat songs don’t have to be disposal pop tracks that you forget seconds after they’ve finished.

Lyrically and musically, Frank Turner has completed a fantastic album, and one that will probably be on many critics Best Of 2011 lists at the end of the year. It might not be folk in its style and execution, but it’s ideas, passion and camaraderie are themes that have coursed through the folk scene in practically every one of its iterations throughout the years. There is little here not to like if you’re willing to let yourself, so ignore your folk pretensions and celebrate one of the most joyous, sincere and well-written albums you’re likely to hear all year.

9/10

Review: Frank Turner – Love, Ire & Song

Frank Turner – Love Ire & Song
Record Label: Xtra Mile Recordings/Epitaph
Release Date: March 31, 2008

There’s always been a link between punk and folk. It all started from a common ideal: punk originated principally as an anti-establishment movement, concerned with youthful rebellion and idealistic attempts to change the world for the better; folk had Bob Dylan (and others like him). This sums it all up pretty well, and while this thematic link may have been diluted over the years by the explosion of pop-punk bands and the commercialisation of folk music, it has still been a common stylistic shift for punk singers looking to broaden their horizons. Mike Ness, Chuck Ragan and Dustin Kensrue have all proved it is possible, but undoubtedly one of the finest examples that can be found is Love Ire & Song, the second solo album by ex Million Dead vocalist Frank Turner.

Lyrically the album is practically flawless. Turner seems to have the ability to make almost any sentence both poetic and accessible. “Reasons Not To Be An Idiot” is an excellent example: “He’s not as clever as he likes to think. He’s just ambitious with his arguing. He’s crap at dancing and he can’t hold his drink. Deep down he’s just like everybody.” Many people can write a beautiful poetic line, although sometimes they are seen as guilty pleasures, too pretentious and soft to be talked about over a pint when you’re chatting about music. What makes Turner’s lyrics so incredible is that you can imagine absolutely anyone having no problem reciting them: they are fundamentally relatable. This is something you would say, if only you had the ability to express it in such an artistic way. Examples of this flow fast and thick throughout the album: the closing to “I Knew Prufrock Before He Got Famous” is exactly the way I want to live my life, “Substitute” is the most sincere yet least sappy love song I’ve ever heard, “Long Live The Queen” is a poignant tribute to life lost and the final few stanzas of “Love Ire & Song” are simply sublime.

What helps is Turner’s impeccable vocal delivery. It’s a fundamentally British voice; the accent makes that clear as well as the geography of “To Take You Home,” but the passion and delivery behind it transcends any idea of it being a localised taste. While it may not be as obviously captivating as Dallas Green or as rough-n-ready as Mike Ness, it instead sits somewhere in the middle. Backed up by an impressive array of instrumentation that all seems to fit together exceptionally well, it creates a sound that practically anyone can enjoy on a variety of levels, as can be seen by the huge variety you can see in the audience at any Frank Turner gig.

If I had to be critical, and I suppose for the sake of balance I probably should, I could point out that there’s not a great deal of originality here. While the musicianship, vocals and lyrics are all exceptional, the style they represent is as old as the guitar itself, and the content is little more than a modern twist on the personal and political revolutions folk singers have been espousing for decades. But then there’s a reason why Turner is still leaning on a style older than he himself is: it’s timeless, and those folk singers who manage to capture the true spirit and feel of it become timeless themselves.

And anyway, to focus on such criticisms would be to fundamentally miss the point of Love Ire & Song. It is a celebration of life, and all the positive and negative things which constitute it; best friends, drunken nights in the local pub, lost loves, the passage of time and burning ideologies which all motivate the paths we take and the choices we make. Rarely has there been a celebration as joyous, poetic and meaningful as Turner has managed to create here. It’s a classic folk album performed by one of the finest singer-songwriters recording right now; the perfect marriage of the passion of punk and the poignancy of folk into a perfectly distilled union. Plus if you buy the most recent release you get the 23 song B-Side album The First Three Years for free, and who can say no to that?

9/10

New updates coming

OK so I’ve been pretty busy recently what with working ’til 8 most nights, spending half my days off applying for new jobs and scrimping enough money together to manage a few weeks abroad here and there, and sadly this blog has suffered for it. The length since my last post is quite worrying but thankfully this does not indicate a lack of writing my friends. No there has been plenty published on various places by yours truly recently and it’s just been a poor show on my part in terms of collating them all together on this here website so prepare for a couple more reviews to pop up, mostly of my new favourite Frank Turner, and the odd soap-box rant to show its face in the next hour or so…

The Music Scene vs music scenes

The power and importance of music in everyday life is hard to deny. It inspires, it unites, it creates, it expresses; and most importantly it’s always evolving. One genre grows out of another one consistently, or the barriers between them blur so much that you have no idea where one ends and the other begins, even though you’re completely sure that they do. Blues gave us rock and roll, which gave us heavy metal, which gave us death metal, and I’m sure death metal will at some point give us something even more extreme (although the prospect of that scares me somewhat…). Now blues and death metal are so far removed from each other in sound and style that to compare them seems ludicrous, but without people like Robert Johnson and later Chuck Berry you wouldn’t have bands like Obituary and Cannibal Corpse. That’s the beauty of the Music Scene: you can never tell what will spring from what, who will draw inspiration from who and exactly where the next new thing is going to come from. The potential for cross-pollination between genres is immense and that allows the growth that we see as bands continue to push music forwards. It doesn’t necessarily matter what you think of the results of this growth (personally listening to Obituary reminds me of listening to a grinding machinery) but it matters that this growth is taking place.

The problem is that the creation of all these genre’s doesn’t take place just within this theoretical realm of the music scene; it also creates smaller scenes within itself, and here is where I think the problems associated with musical growth and creativity develop. There is a certain mindset amongst people that says one thing is better simply because those people view it to be so. Now people are clearly welcome, and should be encouraged, to like and support whatever music they want to, but when they start to become sectarian in the granting of the support it starts to form the kind of elitism that can only ever damage music, both as an industry and as a creative process. Case in point, I recently went to see the band A Day to Remember at Brixton Academy. I think they’re a great band, and evidently so do many others as the venue sold out well on advance, and you could tell the love people felt for them by hearing what people were saying (it doesn’t count as eavesdropping if they’re a foot away from you and you can’t help it!) and also in how they acted during the gig. This is great, exactly what we want from music fans, but my problem came before when the support band, Bayside, came on to play. Now Bayside are nowhere near as heavy as A Day to Remember, but they are certainly not so removed in style as to be considered an insane choice of support. The problem for me was that people booed them. Now if they were a terrible band, or illogical choice of support fair enough, but this wasn’t the case here. Bayside are a very talented band, and people recognised that by the end as the booing had died down. My logical assumption then is that they were just booing them on principal: I don’t know them and they’re not exactly like the band I want so they deserve abuse. This is elitism of the worst kind, a my-way-or-the-high-way approach which has no place in artistic creativity. A friend of mine said to me, with sarcasm so dry a camel would find itself dehydrated, “If I can’t windmill to it I’m not interested,” and someone nearby turned around and, without any hint of irony, laughed and said “hell-yeah.” That’s a complete disregard for absolutely every kind of music beyond one ridiculously small niche, and that’s an attitude that should not be encouraged by anyone.

It’s not the case just in that particular scene either. Punk music fans have derided bands for selling out because they didn’t keep playing the exact same style of music throughout every album; some pretentious indie fans condemn anything with pop elements in it as being without deeper meaning
and artistic merit; even something as mainstream as pop creates an attitude where the only acceptable music is one that you love straight away and forget instantly. This is not a good approach to have. There is no inherently bad music. There are inherently bad performers; those who can’t sing or play, or who just create something that just destroys what they seek to venerate. This is not the music’s fault, it is the people using it. Anyone who can’t at least attempt to understand why someone else likes something rather than just condemn it as being without merit for being different commits a form of musical snobbery, and music is supposed to be one of the great equalisers in the world.

You can argue about why; decline of the music industry, rise of digital sharing, over-commercialisation of bands etc; I won’t go into it here because I’ve ranted enough. However, we need to remember that if we only venerate particular scenes within music we’re hurting ourselves. Music needs to evolve continually or it becomes stale; that’s why particular bands come in and out of fashion so quickly. It’s fine to like a particular genre but people need to be open. If we love the Music Scene as a whole, rather than just individual parts of it then who knows where it might take us in 10 years time.

Article: Shadowrun – A defence

It’s difficult to try new ideas, to try to bond disparate methods into one cohesive whole. So many times they’re doomed to failure before they even begin, as anyone who’s ever tried a chocolate and tuna sandwich can attest to. But when they work, when the distillation of two separate parts is in perfect harmony, then you’ve got something special. By popular consensus, both commercial and critical, Shadowrun is not one of those combinations. It tried a variety of new ideas, and had the noblest of intentions in many ways but just failed to deliver. It never even managed that jump to cult phenomenon like so many under-selling gems such as Beyond Good and Evil and American McGee’s Alice. Yet here I stand, one of the lone few who revel in Shadowrun as a unique and enjoyable take on the stagnant FPS genre, against the onslaught of criticism, and the important thing which I have to stress here is that I’m right! And I’m going to tell you why.

Shadowrun never had it easy: the sheer principle would prove to be problematic on a whole host of levels, many of which continued to dog the game long past its release. The Shadowrun brand itself, although essential to the game, placed the developers, FASA, in a difficult situation. It was well-established, with a small but devoted following but it was very much a niche brand. This meant the game was unable to use it to successfully infiltrate the mainstream consciousness as the mainstream was completely unconscious of it. On the flipside of the this was the small cult following that the pen & paper RPG had built up who had expectations of what any game baring the Shadowrun moniker should be. Basically, not an FPS. The game was already an RPG, with an in-depth and tactical system and the traditional devoted crowd bemoaned the dumbing down of its beloved brand into an FPS ‘for the masses.’ And when it comes to ‘core’ gamers, opinions like this can spread like wildfire over the internet, and the worst thing in the eyes of that particular group is the dilution of the essence of old-school videogames to keep the mainstream happy. Essentially from the word go, it was not guaranteed any support from either camp.

But still a good game can win over many of the sceptics, but upon release the response to Shadowrun was lukewarm at best. One huge criticism stemmed from an area which had the potential to really set the game apart: it’s PC/console platform linkup. Shadowrun allowed Xbox 360 players to play against PC players, a move that has yet to be repeated by another game, and while many championed the attempt to bring two historically antagonistic FPS groups together, the old antagonisms reared their ugly head just the same. Console players weren’t happy with the lack of an aim-down sights, something that only Halo is still managing to persevere with in the current climate, but more importantly PC players complained that the targeting system favoured console players with it’s semi-automatic aim lock-on. While it did allow this, it was a fine-tuning balancing act because of the less-responsive nature of a controller, which is something that will always be a problem for console and PC connectivity, and to be honest until that issue gets addressed I really can’t think of a better way to do it, although obviously I’m not a designer. The cross-platform functionality was fundamentally flawed for one main reason; something that was not the fault of either FASA or their game. In order to play on the PC you need to have Games for Windows Live. All arguments about the current state of the platform aside, in 2007 it was a mess, and almost no serious PC player would use it. So that takes away a huge potential customer base and also destroys one of the game’s main potential selling points.

There was also criticism of the lack of variety. Well yes in a very strict sense I suppose that’s true. There was only three game types, and nowhere near enough maps, plus at only 8 the weapon count is significantly down on games like Call of Duty or Halo. Let’s be honest though, how many of the guns on a game like COD do you actually use. Personally on Black Ops I stick fairly religiously to the Commando and occasional sniper rifle because that’s what I’m comfortable with. Not only does this make the others redundant but it makes me judge them relative to my norm, and often somewhat unreasonably. Case in point, on Black Ops I hate the FAMAS. Using that inaccurate hose-pipe of a gun I couldn’t hit a barn-door, but it’s a tried and true favourite of several of my friends for its accuracy. The difference is probably negligible, but it enforces huge stereotypes that discourage experimentation because people are comfortable with what they know. And with the exception of the majestic Borderlands, can anyone name a single game which has been made better just by the addition of more guns? Thought not. But despite all this there is variety in Shadowrun, it just doesn’t come from traditional sources.

My love for Shadowrun can be explained by a multitude of reasons, but the crux of it can be summed up by one simple idea. In other shooters of that period, and even now to a large extent, if you were caught out you were dead. In COD, a murderous rampage can be cut short simply because you happened to walk past a doorway 2 seconds too early. That’s it: you’re just dead, through no fault of your own, through no skill of your enemy, through nothing but blind luck. In Shadowrun if someone catches you from behind you can use a swift blast of wind to gust them away and mess up their accuracy, before teleporting through the floor to end up behind them and finally cutting them in the back with a katana and watching with glee as they gradually bleed out. What other game lets you do that?! In many ways the games various magical and technological abilities were precedents for Call of Duty’s perks, but active rather than passive. In essence this was the first console shooter with a customisable load-out system, and it was far in advance of anything else around; still is to this day in many ways. This was the variety. You fought in completely new ways, using completely new tactics with combinations that people hadn’t even considered. This was the variety that gamers craved, but no-one saw it because there’s only one type of SMG so clearly there’s no variety. Well maybe there was only one kind of SMG compared to the 6 in Call of Duty; but Call of Duty didn’t let you summon a demon to chase your enemies around while you pick them off with a high calibre sniper rifle.

The variety was there, just in ways that people didn’t expect to see, and so didn’t look for. And the innovation was completely lost on them. The cross-platform functionality didn’t work properly, that was true, but so many of the other new ideas did. Most importantly, the technologies and magics effected not just how you fought the enemy, but how you managed and traversed the terrain, how you co-operated with team-mates and how you balanced the risk-reward of different possibilities. And under it all, as any review you can find will tell you was a fundamentally well-made FPS with all the right check-marks one would hope to find in all the right boxes.

Maybe it tried too much, maybe it didn’t try enough, maybe both of these are true in different areas. However, for some reason the enjoyment I got out of the game wasn’t found by others. It didn’t help that the vast array of play-styles and abilities were baffling to newcomers. Several of my friends who started after my recommendation couldn’t get into it because after six months or so, there was only the devoted few left who had already perfected the games intricacies, providing the steepest learning curve. The lack of a single player campaign as a training ground damaged it here, as it probably did in many other ways too. Indeed I can certainly see some strength in the argument that it maybe should have been released at a lower price point. But none of these are to do with how good a game is to play. Sure you can forgive more for a lower price point, and expect more for a higher one, but fundamentally a good game is a good game. And Shadowrun is a good game, maybe even a great one, but you need to approach it in the right way. It’s not like Call of Duty, Halo, Battlefield or any other FPS. It tried something new, but more than that it managed to create a gameplay experience unlike any other available at the time. Perhaps so much so that it was destined to be left out in the cold, and doubtless it was edged closer to the door by a lack of support across numerous fronts, and technical difficulties that were always going to be hard to avoid. So out in the cold it seems destined to remain, and barely any of the spawn-campers in Black Ops will care. Still it’s a shame, because I doubt we’ll ever see anything like it again, and every time a new approach fails, it’s another nail for the coffin of creativity. I for one am not looking forward to that funeral.