Kyuss – Blues For The Red Sun (1992)

So this’ll be my album of 1992.

Relistened to it the other day, and it’s fucking marvellous. I recall Morat at the time saying how Soundgarden should be running scared, and with good reason. This was everything they were at the time, just a lot more of it.

It’s about as cool as music gets for me. Production good enough to hear all the instruments, but bad enough to maintain that ‘don’t give a fuck’ edge. Guitars that boom and shred at the same time. Sabbathy and punky, and – most of all – Hommey. Vocals that snarl and scream, but all the while utterly melodic. John Garcia is the best rock vocalist at that point in time. And the bass – that massive, enveloping bass. That’s what truly set this band apart from their relatively tinny peers. Mudhoney through to Earth, via dub. Heck yeah.
The songs rule it. Utter rock excellence, played in a really punky way. Each one different enough from the last. Perfect balance between direct musical message and trippiness.

‘Thumb’ is an ideal opener, crashing as it does into your consciousness. Riffs, hooks and menace. ‘Freedom Run’ freaks out the unwary psychoactive traveller with loops, echoes and eventually a rock song breaking through the hidden messages. My favourite, though, is ’50 Million Year Trip (Downside Up)’.

It starts off quite normally, and the listener rocks out. However, something happens which I cannot quite explain. It mellows out, certainly. Homme strikes up a gorgeous melody, while all else slows and the bass rhythm becomes a focal point. The guitars are all shimmery, the vocals all echoey, and it feels so right.

Slow soloing ensues, while the bassline lollops along and the singing drops away. More shimmery guitars join the cocktail. Then it all drops off, save for a lone guitar thread, as if playing on a distant hilltop. Slowly, it all fades back, giving such a euphoric rush that it just has to be experienced. On headphones.

The album is notable also for pretty much the first QOTSA and Mondo Generator songs, as Josh and Nick take the vocals respectively. The former is a melodic tune, with harmonised chorus and shy singing. The latter is a noise-drenched rockout with no discernable direction.

Not much has changed there, then…

My Top 10 Video Games…

Yeah, someone asked me what my favourite video games ever were. So here’s the list I came up with:

10. Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time (Ubisoft, PlayStation2, 2003)

This was such an eye-opener back when it came out, and its beauty shines undiminished today. What this game offered me was a sense of freedom, freedom to do whatever I want. I’ll never forget the first time I ran along the wall, or somersaulted over an assailants head, only to
smash him.

With such impeccable game mechanics, the time feature is the icing on the cake. Much like its peer, Viewtiful Joe, the player can slow time as he sees fit, lending the game not just a different feel to others, but another aesthetic entirely.

Speaking of aesthetic, this game offers perceptual satisfaction in spades. The environment is at once familiar and exotic; beautiful, shimmering, and most importantly creates a believable gameworld. A gameworld unhampered by the usual cliché of the genre. There is a deft touch of personality sadly lacking from the sequel.

This is a game about ambition and freedom. It is also a work of art.

09. Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time (Nintendo, Nintendo 64, 1998)

A bit lower than it might have been, due to the fact that I never finished it. Nevertheless, this is another game of exquisite beauty, undimmed by the passage of time and new generation of technology. Why? Because, as with all truly great games, this is one which masters its host system without being a slave to it.

The atmosphere of this game is almost unbearably beautiful, creating as it does a climate within the world that is a pleasure to exist in, no matter how vicariously. Almost every environ (certain stomachs notwithstanding) is gorgeous, sumptuous – not only a great sandbox in which to flex ones gaming muscles, but to do anything.
And, like the above game, there is the underlying theme of chronology. I cry at not having explored this fully – I will do, though. However, it’s a smart and well-executed device from what I have seen, and serves the Zelda formula well. Combat was perfected in this incarnation of the game. Z-trigger was used expertly to aid uncluttered 3D battle, and works almost instinctively.

Although I have been guilty of finding the Zelda series a tad formulaic in gameplay, this version offsets that by virtue of sheer beauty.

08. Final Fantasy VII (Square, PlayStation, 1997)

I feel guilty placing this game so high, though I’m not sure why. Maybe because it didn’t do all that much to advance the series, other than the obvious graphic overhaul.

I don’t care though. It’s great; opulent NextGen grandeur at its very best. While it lacks the depth of characterisation that marked out its directly previous iteration, it has a narrative depth to compensate. Or should that be ‘narrative size’?

When thinking of what to write about this game, I wonder where to start. I remember the end of the initial adventure within the city walls. As the tower collapses, it feels like the end of the game. Then the city gates open and I realise it’s just the beginning.

One key moment which springs to mind is the death of Aerith. That one incredible, ghastly moment when time stands still, as I reel – shocked that such a pivotal character can be killed off, and so suddenly, brutally.
I hated Sephiroth, more than I liked Cloud, and it was that hate which propelled me through the world. The world of chocobo breeding, dating, wargaming, cross-dressing and Resident Eviling. And then I realise:
I love this game so much, not for some beautiful artistic statement, but for its maximalism. For when it’s executed as well as this, more is most certainly more.

07. Mario Kart Advance (Intelligent Systems, Gameboy Advance, 2001)

True, this is not the game I spent years with, heaving the game around my group of friends, as we all chose a character to stay with for the sake of knowing who had the best times.

However, it is a game which is a definite improvement over what is otherwise the best version of the game, and that in itself is a remarkable feat. This was the game which had me skipping lectures, hunched over that wide screen, angling desperately for the best light. Thumbs were keenly hovering over the shoulder buttons that were so expertly utilised as hoppers.

Must trim those split seconds. Must get the fastest time on Ghost House 3. Shit. Screw the haters who would deride it for not being ‘a proper racing game’. It is. The tracks are ingenious (and the new certainly complement the old), and the racers are – as ever – perfectly balanced.

It’s just such a good game to play, and one of the best with which to gloat over your defeated ‘friends’.

06. Tetris (Alexey Pajitnov/Bulletproof, Gameboy, 1989)

A simple game, but one which is realised perfectly, Tetris is one game that can truly claim to be pure gameplay. The size of the ‘pot’ is perfect, as are the shapes and difficulty curve. What more can I say?

05. Super Mario World (Nintendo, SNES, 1991)

The greatest 2D platform game, bar none. The classic Mario controls were perfected in this game. Everything, from his acceleration, to jumping, and use of his special powers just felt so right. This is 2D gameplay distilled into a 4-megabit cartridge, and there’s not an ounce of fat on these bones.

Underrated, though, is the aesthetic. The graphics are very stark and modest, but they are perfect for the game. The character design is spot on, as are the colour schemes. Something which took years to really sink in for me is the quality of the music. Along with the likes of ‘Good Vibrations’, tunes from this game just randomly pop into my head – years after last playing it.

But playing it is all. The challenges and variety are stunning in their range and execution. The reams of secret areas and bonus stages render this more of an exploration game than kin to the likes of Sonic. It’s a fucking legend of a game, and with all of Miyamoto’s best work, balances satisfaction and frustration on a knife-edge.

04. Streetfighter II: Turbo (Capcom, Coin-op/SNES, 1993)

For me, this is the pinnacle of fighting in video game form. Soul Calibur nearly made top 10 (and Tekken 3 is pretty certainly top 20), but this is a dead cert.

Capcom took the massive improvement that was Streetfighter II, and amped it up. Improved the graphics, balanced the moves and characters, and let you play as the bosses – an underwhelming experience, admittedly.

Most importantly, the game was faster. SF2: Turbo is the fighting gamer’s fighting game. At once accessible and immeasurably deep, this franchise created the combo – and unlike the memory tests that were Tekken and Killer Instinct, the gameplay was so intuitive.

It made so much sense to jump in deep with an attack, and follow up with a one-two – a normal move cancelled or hidden with the controls of your combo-finishing special move. And the attacks were so satisfying – the crunch as you laid in a roundhouse, the little blood-puke a heavy punch occasionally elicited. It was so natural, and so addictive.

Later iterations would ramp up the complexity on a superficial level, and franchises such as King Of Fighters and Virtua Fighter would claim to be the choice of the hardcore. Maybe they were, but this was the perfect balance of simplicity and depth, with no extraneous characters (a great player could beat others with anyone from Ken to Dhalsim), no goofy super-combos or bells and whistles.

This was videogame hand-to-hand combat at its peak, and I don’t think it has ever been bettered – especially not with two players.

03. Secret Of Mana (Squaresoft, SNES, 1993)

To be quite honest, any of the top three could have occupied any of these positions. However, I deem SoM, as much as I love it, to be third favourite ever.

From the moment I first saw it in a magazine in summer 1993, I knew I had to have it. It looked so lush, so beautiful and so alien. I had never played a Japanese-style RPG before. By December, I had a review of it in my hands, from my favourite magazine, Super Play.

I remember, even now, the feelings I had upon seeing this review. The reviewer loved it, and I had a feeling I would as well. Looking at the home village environment filled me with a sense of wonder and awe. Such a perfectly constructed place, with simple – yet exquisitely rendered – graphics. I needed it, and had no idea quite how it would play.

Roll on Xmas day 1993. The dumbfounding intro sequence segued so well into the game, I had no idea gameplay had started. Yet once I picked up the pad, I entered into an experience that would delight me for years to come.

Driven by storyline, I was hooked for the duration. The travails of out three main characters were heightened by the alien and ever-beautiful landscapes in which they occurred. The ideas boggled my mind, as all of the characters and scenarios were brilliant. Neko the cat always managed to be where I was, and first.

Thanatos was a hell of a bastard, well beyond the later Sephiroth. And there were the sub-villains, of varying menace and competence. The puzzles were basic, but took a backseat to the narrative. The battles were extremely well balanced, and the action format lent combat an exhilarating feel.

The way physical attacks and magic intertwined so well (especially, and poignantly at the final battle), and the use of the ‘ring’ menu system worked as both an excellent intro to RPGs, but also had a depth belied by its ease of use.

The game was heart breaking, humorous and incredibly catalysing, and I have no problem calling it a joint favourite game ever. And those gamelan-soundtracked zombie sections were really scary…

02. Super Mario 64 (Nintendo, Nintendo 64, 1996)

In 1996, Miyamoto reinvented the wheel.

This game was such a spectacular creative and artistic success that it hindered its host system. It took years for another game to compete with it in the quality stakes (I would venture there was none), and that hindered the system.

Context aside, this is a masterpiece. Everything about it is perfect. Nintendo created a truly 3D, truly believable world, where anything was possible. If you saw a tree in a distance, you could climb it. If you saw a koopa troopa trundling along, you could bounce him out of his shell and surf along the level with it.

We take things like this for granted nowadays, but it was an absolute revolution at the time. And its quality is undiminished today. As with SMW, it makes good use of the technology, never straining with graphical trends that may date it as time goes on. It is simplistic, but gorgeous. And it is varied.

The idea that there can be many objectives within one level was brilliant – it makes the most of whichever environment you were in – and they all had personalities of their own. Each level was almost like a game in itself, with different rules, different toys and mechanics.

There was the simplistic brilliance of the initial level – such a perfect way to acclimatise to the third dimension. The literal different levels of Wet-Dry World. The constant peril of Lethal Lava Land… I could have spent an age just taking in the atmosphere of Cool, Cool Mountain or Tall Tall Mountain.

Would you have to explore the dank caverns, or swim inside a sunken ship? Alter the very size of a level, or dangerously climb a gigantic clock? Or there could be a race down a snowy slope or time trial within a small castle room; get yer hat stolen or simply fly around a level.

Flying is one of the very few issues I have with this game. The controls weren’t very intuitive, and made some tasks more difficult than they otherwise would have been. And – as aforementioned – Miyamoto games can be frustratingly difficult anyway. However, that’s part of the challenge, and the difficulty curve is great.
It’s a game limited only by your ability.

01. Final Fantasy III (Squaresoft, SNES, 1994)

My pick for greatest game ever.

After SoM got me hooked, FFIII was handily at the importers’ by the following Christmas. After initial confusion at the turn-based formula, I was soon swept once again into another world of Squaresoft’s creation.
This was a darker world than the previous year, though. An edgy world, where magic was seen as a threat in the eyes of ongoing technological advances. This game seemed a lot more grown up than what I had been used to.

The story was more complex than that of SoM, as well, with a far larger cast of playable ad non-playable characters. The world was larger, and – due to Armageddon occurring halfway through – larger again. This was serious business, with a serious game to back it up.

Incredibly deep, all of the main characters had history, had stories to tell – usually sad ones, or at the very least, battles against adversity. The battles had such tactical scope in terms of esper use, spells, attacks and characters’ special attacks. Similarly, there were tons of armour, weapons and ‘relics’ to equip, with so many variables of effect, both individually and in combination with others.

The breadth of what the player had ton do was almost overwhelming. Anything, from disguise and subterfuge (well before MGS), to piloting mecha; from witnessing women get beaten, to towns get poisoned; trying to save the world, many times over, seeing characters properly ‘die’, and – umm – painting. And paintings coming to life and attacking.

That’s without even mentioning the auction scenes or the utterly spectacular opera scene, which to this day is flabbergasting in its execution and drama. Speaking of execution, this was a well-crafted game. The graphics were of a standard never seen on the SNES (or, as far as I’m concerned, never bettered).

The use of sprites over hand-painted backgrounds, digitised into the game was both innovative and very artistically successful. The character design, by Yoshitaka Amano, was similarly delicate and flawless. Perhaps the biggest success, though, was the soundtrack. I still find it hard to believe that a Super Nintendo cart could hold that many tunes. Whatever the situation in that 60+ hours of initial gameplay, there was music to suit it in fine fashion. All the emotions, from fear, to sorrow, to humour, and more were all well catered for.

And as the game progressed, it only got more impressive – until the final battle. Not until I visited the galleries and museums of Florence did I spy such grand classical design. The bosses were of a quality to be never forgotten, with suitably epic, Handel-esque synth-organ work. The player had the firm feeling that they had ‘arrived’.

With completion came not just a sense of great satisfaction, but a feeling of loss at the game being over. Everything, from exploring the Veldt, to trying to keep Cid alive, to the alternate existence of Tina as an Esper in another dimension, was but a memory.
Sure, I could – and did – dig it out again for another spin, but alas the game can only happen to you once in a lifetime. And I shall never forget it.

Frances The Mute~!

Hey, so it’s been a while since that last post. And I never even got it finished. Ah well…

To add to what little content is here, I shall post some musings I penned upon hearing the latest Mars Volta album for the first time. It was last Tuesday, and it goes… a little something… like this:

“Okay, so the new album by The Mars Volta arrived today. I had time to listen to it once, and was impressed. Anyway, this is what I thought…

Initially, I was taken aback by the fact it seemed to be SuperTMV; their usual stuff, but ramped up to the next level. Conversely, it seemed also to be something of a self-parody. On the plus side, it seemed like a gauntlet had well and truly been thrown down to Tool, in terms of uber-complex proggyness.

The strange thing is, it was all very complex and exciting, but I seemed to zone out a tad. This certainly was not helped by the random noisage that populated their debut being stretched out to fill minutes and minutes.

But I liked it, and had the feeling that this was certainly an album that would grow on me.

Second song came and went. Good though this album is, it didn’t really stick in my mind; but I’ll elaborate on that later in this post. I remember the third song being good. Finally brought the uber-emotional enthusiasm I was hankering for, and that I loved so much about Deloused In The Comatorium. Well, that’s when the song finally kicked in after 5 minutes or so…

I also liked the fourth song. Nice, latin, feel to it. At points it sounded like a very good version of that bloody Santana song with Matchbox20 fool singing it. But en Espanol, and a lot more convoluted. Reminded me – as the debut did – of Shakira, too. I love the singing on these albums. But while it was technically all well and good, it lacked the overemoting that I demand from my very favourite music.

Really liked the fifth song (sorry, but I wouldn’t know where to start naming these bastard songs. It’s all too confusing for me. I know, I should probably hit up a website and find out. I will later). I can’t remember why, but I liked it.

At this juncture, I should probably explain my instinctual interpretations of music heard for the first time (and ergo this post). I remember very little the first time around. Or, for that matter, the second or the third. I remember facts, just not actual details, if you catch my drift. It’s like when I see a really good band. I’ll go all out in enjoying them, I’ll remember who played, some of the songs and the date etc, but not what the songs sounded like. Or any real visual cues, either.

The instinctual is all. What I felt and thought on an occasion, even though the topic of what I was thinking and feeling has been all but forgotten.

Anyway. I really dug this. The singing was quality. And, as I closed my eyes for a better listening experience, I was taken back to 2000. It was a fine year, especially the summer. But I was taken back, and my feelings were a mix of the usual hurting pangs that accompany nostalgia, and also a warm glow that this not only reminded me of good times, but also that it did provide a good feeling within me.

I think I was really in the digging zone by this point. I have a feeling this album was designed for psychedelics, and as a holiday is coming up, I may partake in the legal purchase thereof. Especially as mid-March is really nice anyway.

It was by this point that any real awareness of track number fell by the wayside. It is one of the symptoms of my condition to feel a need to know which song I am listening to. When it ends. How long it was. How it segues. However, when I opened my eyes, it was track 6. Then 7. And on.

And I liked it. It certainly explained how the opening songs could have been an average of 12 minutes apiece (the mode, not the mean – I think track 2 was about 5 mins). I knew, as it was 12 tracks and 76 mins, that they couldn’t keep this up. I recall thinking the album had been on a long time, and I looked at the CD player. It was track 3. I remember thinking it had been on a long time again, and it was track 4. I was puzzled.

It seems as though the tracks 6-11 were all one massive conclusion for track 5. Or maybe I slipped into slumber and missed something. But it seemed like it was all one big song. And as this was all one big voyage of discovery (I didn’t even check out ‘time remaining’ on either track or album), where feeling was paramount, it was good.

Not sure how well this will pan out now I know the format. I should like it, though. I had that same feeling of being impressed, yet thinking there was something missing, that I do with a lot of the albums that end up being my favourites. The Lift To Experience album, for example.

I bought the latter album knowing one song. I listened to it and appreciated it, but there seemed not to be anything to grab onto. Not that there were no hooks, but that it was an intangible sounding album. I look back now, and fail to understand that perspective, but that’s what I like about first listens.

And though I can listen to any album for the first time once, you rarely get that special, lustful-yet-confused feeling. It’s the feeling I got when I first heard Aenima. I knew I liked it, on a psychological level, but I just didn’t actually like it yet.

So it was with this. I don’t know what I really think re: the brevity of the final two tracks. nice culmination, especially when viewed in the context of the grand narrative. Viewed in isolation (and sans the relief that the end of the album brought, as I was wondering when it would actually finish), I may be disappointed. They were seemingly cut short; nipped at a bud which could have flowered beautifully.

But I remembered the last Ghost album, and how that had a similarly brief conclusion to a multi-song suite. Unaware whether this was tribute, kindred spirit or mere coincidence, it reassured me nonetheless.And I was impressed by their musical manliness. How does one follow up a few 12-minute songs? Why, with one that essentially lasts 45, of course!

So this was my first experience of listening to something I think I will grow to love. And though it was a strange ride of excitement and boredom, elation and disappointment, and although I have a feeling I will like this album more in the future than I do now, this was special.

You only get one first listen.

And I hope to update my Frances The Mute experience as my knowledge and feelings about it evolve over time.

Update, Schmupdate

Damn, I’ve had this ‘ere blog for over a month now, and no new posts have been made. That’s sad. The plan was to concoct some remarkable feat of literary ingenuity and place it, fully-formed and flawless, onto the blog.

So it’s come to this. Hastily pecking away at the keyboard, as though I was some particularly keyboard-obsessed mental patient. Making things up as I go along. Don’t tell me this is going to be one of those Dear Diary dealies? Oh sweet dear crap yes…

Today was a pretty good day, then. I awoke to the jolt that ‘Home Truths’ is no longer presented by the mighty – and much missed – John Peel. Most of the programme was met with sweet sweet sleep, truth be told. Lunch date was cancelled, so I had time to exercise – a practice enacted unfortunately rarely. So, exercise I did, and briefly hit the internet to jot down my reservation number for the Jeff Buckley film I was seeing with Fran, a film entitled Amazing Grace.

So I met Fran. After a visit to an overheated music emporium, we made our way to Firefly. A posh bar in the centre of town, Firefly is either exceedingly pleasant, or the waiting room for Purgatory. During the day, when the clientele consists largely of me, it’s great. I have the plush leather sofas and bar all to myself. It’s as pleasant a place to relax as one should find in the centre of Leeds.

Of course, the Hyde-ian transformation occurs once dusk hits and the cro-magnon men enter, with their equally undeveloped ‘womenkind’. Shirts, alternately checked and diagonally-bestriped, block ones view of anything else, their foreheads jutting over their eyes like poker visors hewn from bone and skin. Leering at those poor, attractive females in the employ of the establishment, able to summon no more to their lips than ‘aaaaaright luv?’. I hate them. But I digress.

We were in there just long enough to discuss various subjects briefly (the drudge of work, the increasing shortness of days, the superiority of Tim Buckley’s ‘Song to the Siren’ to anything his son ever released. Or, indeed, any cover version of that very song) and to consume a disappointingly watery hot chocolate. Perhaps more pertinent nomenclature would have been ‘warm brown water’? On we went, to HiFi Club, and the film!

Our journey to the venue was one riddled with wrong turn… or was it merely a meandering route? Either way, ours was a journey that seemed to be misinformed… until we actually got there. And gazed upon the queue, snaking around the street corner. Hopes were resting on my internet booking actually holding water, and if it did, we’d be scrabbling for anything resembling decent seats. And would they accept my 4-year-old Leeds City Council ID card as sufficient grounds for discount ticketage?

Coincidentally, I bumped into an acquaintance, who was directly in front of us in the queue. He was partnered by an individual who we were certain was a girl, but who apparently turned out to be a 13 year-old boy. Strange indeed. This acquaintance, who shall remain unnamed, had no ticket, but was brimming with optimism regarding his (non-extant) chances of entry. He was also attempting to get the number of a good friend of mine, simply because they had a brief chat at the Leeds Festival.

He failed to comprehend one of the basic tenets of mobile phone etiquette (if indeed, such a term is not oxymoronic). He asked for the number. I told this acquaintance that I would ask said friend if he was willing to have his number doled out willy nilly (for this amounted to willy nilly number distribution). Acquaintance failed to comprehend this, and repeated his theory. Once more, rebuttal was in order. However, being the eternal diplomat, I thought of another plan. I would take the number of Acquaintance, and pass it on to Friend, so the latter would have the choice of whether he wanted contact to occur. Still Acquaintance failed to understand. nevertheless, I took the number, and said I’d pass it on.

Fortunately for Acquaintance, a middle-aged lady with a ticket wanted to return said ticket. She decided HiFi wasn’t the venue she wanted to see the film. Acquaintance stepped in, suggesting he could take said ticket from her. So he bought it. HiFi Employee said “but it’s only one ticket”, at which point Acquaintance turned to his associate of indeterminate sex and said see you later”. The expression on the face of associate was one of pure disappointment. I was awaiting tears, but exit prevented such a view.

My tickets arrived in due course, and identification wasn’t even sought. Good. We entered the venue, and took our places at a table, with sufficient (read: full screen) view. More fool me:

There were spare seats in front of us, which were duly taken by a man in a Joy Division t-shirt and his colleagues. They disappeared off, and a beautiful young lady – rather reminiscent of Fairuza Balk in The Craft – aproached. “Are these seats taken?”, she asked, at which point a completely misguided sense of loyalty to Joy Division Bloke kicked in. “Yes”, I mumbled, and she moved on, checking me out all the while.

JDB never returned, and the seats were taken by two idiotic couples, whose idea of watching a film consisted of talking through it (especially when Jeff Bleedin’ Buckley was singing), and of course bringing their heads together and obscuring my view of the screen. Morons. I was tempted to tap one of the ‘men’ on the shoulder and request he desist this ridiculous behaviour, but I maintained an (evidently misguided) optimism that this would stop.

And to think I could have had young Fairuza in their place…

The film itself was decent enough. It was a very well made puff piece, which hit all the right buttons in regard to making us fall in love with Buckley, and featuring sizeable quantities of performance. Chris Cornell added his thoughts on JB, as did the rather incogruous Sebastian Bach, which was a breath of fresh air (as was Skid Row’s rendition of ‘Eternal Life’). Usually, puff pieces aren’t to my taste, being as they are lengthy adverts for whatever subject is at hand.

However, given the high quality of todays subject, and the fact that people seem to find it impossible to attain any semblance of objectivity regarding the late, young Buckley, this was forgivable.

Not so for Fran, who had seen many Buckley DVDs and TV specials, and for whom this was largely deja vu. Not enough new material, apparently. So be it, but for someone as wonderfully uninformed as I, ’twas quite the eye-opener.

Erk. Might finish this missive to mineself tomorrow…