2011 vs 2012. FIGHT!

Just before the end of last year, I had an idea to write a sort of end of year round up of 2011’s music, and what an absolutely amazing year it had been. As far as I’m concerned it was probably the best of at least the last five years. But then 2012 blindsided me, and 22 days in to the new year I’m already at the point of wanting to declare this as the best year in music, so rather than just looking back, how about we do some looking forward too? Yeah? Great, lets start.


Last year was a year that delivered in spades, many of my favourite artists put out new albums, all of which were of a stunning caliber. Here are some of the highlights:

Opeth – Heritage

This was one I was worried about. In my opinion Opeth’s previous album, Watershed, didn’t live up to the band’s usual seal of quality. I found it to be derivative of their older work without really bringing anything new to the table. Opeth are one of those bands that manages to find a different way of approaching every album they do, so I was disappointed when Watershed failed to surprise me. Had the band hit a creative slump? Had they finally ran out of ideas and creative energy? Needless to say, this left me worried about how their follow up would come out sounding. Not only were those worries completely unnecessary, what they came out with completely blindsided everybody to listen to it.

For those of you not familiar with Opeth, here’s a quick rundown: they’re a melodic death metal band who draw heavily on progressive rock influences, amongst other things. But for Heritage they completely threw away the rulebook. Death growls? Gone. Heavy, distorted guitars? Gone. Insanely loud drumming? Gone.

Heritage is a pure progressive rock album, and it’s a bloody good one. It’s definitely one of my favourite albums of the year, and I’d recommend it to anyone. One of the best things about it is that despite a complete shift from the band’s typical style and sound, anyone who knows the band can instantly listen to it and identify it as their work. Once again the band has excelled itself at finding a new way of approaching their work.

The Antlers – Burst Apart

The Antlers’ first album, Hospice, was widely recognised as one of the best albums of 2009, so I had a lot of expectations for the follow up. Burst Apart didn’t disappoint. When it first came out it was the only thing I listened to for about 2 weeks. As a full album it’s much better than Hospice, although I’ll concede that there’s nothing on Burst Apart that comes remotely near to my two favourites on Hospice. And that’s the album’s one downfall: a lack of standout tracks. It’s not much of a downfall when you consider the overall quality of the album though.

La Dispute – Wildlife

There’s not much to say about this album other than it’s brilliant. If you want to read my ful feelings about the band, you can do so here.

In short, the band has improved on everything. It’s a really interesting concept album that reflects on various aspects of mortality, and the lyrics are wonderfully written. Fucking depressing at times though, but incredibly powerful.

Animals As Leaders – Weightless

Looking back I think this may actually be my album of the year, and I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be. If you’re not familiar with the band, you need to rectify that immediately. But I’ll give you a quick rundown – it started as the solo project of guitarist Tosin Abasi, who is one of the best guitarists I’ve ever had the pleasure to see play. The man is capable of creating, and then playing, ridiculously complex music, all whilst making it look so easy you’d think anyone could do it.

Following his first album, he recruited a band to perform live with. And so Weightless is the first album by Animals as Leaders as a band, rather than a single man. And it shows. The guitar writing and performance is as solid as ever, but what really separates this album from their first is having a proper drummer involved in the writing process. The result is a piece of mindblowing musicianship that’s nothing short of inspired.

Steven Wilson – Grace for Drowning

I have to admit, I was a little disappointed with this one. Steven’s first album, Insurgentes, is one of my all time favourite albums. After listening to GFD a lot, I’ve finally formed the opinion that it doesn’t quite live up to it’s predecessor. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fantastic though. It is.

Thomas Giles – Pulse

This came as a complete surprise to me. It’s the second solo album from Between the Buried and Me frontman Tommy Rogers. Any of you who’ve heard BTBAM will know that they’re incredibly talented musicians who dabble in playing a diverse range of music. And yet I was still caught off guard by just how much of an incredible range of music Tommy is capable of producing, and performing. Check out the album’s first video, Sleep Shake, to see what I’m talking about.

There are a few songs on the album that aren’t anything to write home about, but by and large it’s a really well constructed album, and covers a lot of different styles. A very good listen.

A quick few honorable mentions go to Thrice for their latest album Major/Minor, which I found a bit too similar to their previous album, also Circle Takes the Square finally finished recording their second album. Given that their first was released way back in 2004, I was pretty surprised that this ever materialised. Although having said that, it didn’t really materialise. They released a 4 track taster EP, but never got around to releasing the full thing – hopefully we’ll see it in 2012 some time. Oh, and Sparta got back together and started recording a new album. Finally, Between the Buried and Me released a pretty sweet EP, as a precursor to a full album that they’re planning.


Since we’re on the subject of Sparta, 2012 should see the aforementioned album getting a release. But a much more important bit of Sparta related news was announced this year. After 12 years of being broken up, At the Drive-In announced that they were reuniting. And as if that wasn’t an excellent enough day in music news, a few hours later Refused, after 14 years of being broken up, did the same.

For me this represents the chance that I actually have the chance to have seen all of my favourite bands before I die. I’ve been very lucky in getting to see bands I love, but there are three of my favourites that I’ve never been able to see because they were broken up before I got into them. Those three bands are ATDI, Refused, and Faith No More. I now live in a world where all three of those bands are back together.

I’m excited about Refused most of all. I’m not exaggerating when I say that listening to The Shape of Punk to Come at the age of 14 changed my life forever. That album set me on the course of loving all the music that I love today, and it also helped form my political worldview. I’m sure I would be a different person without that album. The chance to see Refused perform live is something I’ve been waiting my entire adult life for.

Although I do have some anxiety about both Refused and ATDI being back together. One thing both of those bands share in common is that they broke up immediately after releasing their best works. They went out on a total high, without ever putting a foot wrong. I’m okay with both bands being back together and performing, but I worry about the possibility of them recording new music. What if they release something shit? I really don’t want to see either band fuck up their legacies. Still, neither band has mentioned the possibility of new material yet, and of course there’s always the chance that they could release something new that’s amazing. We’ll just have to wait and see. I’ll certainly be biting my nails if either of them do intend to make new music though.

Whilst I’m still on the topic of ATDI, the other band formed by it’s members, the Mars Volta, have finally announced a date for their new album, Noctourniquet. We’ll be hearing it in March. Hopefully it should be an ace album too – I’ve noticed that TMV tend to release an amazing album, then an okay one. If they stick with the trend, this one should be brilliant.

And that’s not the only album to look forward to in March, Every Time I Die release their new one, Ex-Lives. This is an album I’ve been anticipating for a while. 2009’s New Junk Aesthetic is an album that I still listen to on at least a weekly basis, if not more. And judging from the single, this one should be an amazing follow-up.

There are also a few other bits to look forward to. The Dillinger Escape Plan announced last year that they were recording material for release this year, Trent Reznor announced last week that he’s going to start recording Nine Inch Nails material again, and there’s the chance of the new Between The Buried and Me album I mentioned earlier.

All in all a lot to look forward to then. 2011 is going to be a very tough act to follow, but the signs are there that 2012 can definitely pull it off.

Ace Combat: Insult Horizon

I was a latecomer to the Ace Combat series. The first iteration of the series I picked up was the amazing Ace Combat: The Belkan War. From the first moment I picked up that game I was hooked. The series’ oddball Japanese take on the flight combat genre made it a series that’s just far more fun than more true to life flight games. One of the things I loved the most about the games was the way the action would escalate into outright insanity, for example, having you fly through, and destroy, massive death cannons that are several miles long. Or the inevitable fights against ridiculous planes with lasers attached to them. Somewhat farcical, yes. But also something I, and many others, revelled in.

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, has ruined all that. At its heart it’s still the same game, the same mechanics, and indeed quite a number of improvements to the formula. But the Modern Warfare-esque bullshit that’s strewn throughout the game is somewhat difficult to swallow.

Deadly Skies tries to reinvent the series to be more in line with the likes of the Call of Duty series, only in the sky. But in trying to emulate the success of the Call of Duty series, Namco has instead cultivated failure.

The fictional world of the previous Ace Combat games has been eschewed in favour of basing it in real world locations. The story weaves a tale of betrayal by a group of Russian would-be usurpers, (anyone who’s played a Modern Warfare game will start noticing the similarities immediately, the bad guys even have almost identical names). It’s a rather gritty affair, and quite frankly, a boring one. Not that the story has ever been a reason to play an Ace Combat game, but it’s still worth a note, because this is one of the areas where Namco’s attempt to copy the CoD series has lead Ace Combat into mediocrity, and sapped some of the fun out of the game in the process. At least the over the top, campy, and downright ridiculous nature of the previous stories made for a little extra fun outside of the gameplay itself. I wouldn’t mind the “gritty” story so much if it contributed some entertainment value to the game, but it’s awfully written.

However, the writing is a triviality as far as the game’s issues go. The main problem is the fact that, in a series about flying awesome planes, half of the missions don’t take place in awesome planes. The game is broken down into several different types of missions, many of which involve helicopters, and it’s safe to say that if you’re playing through a helicopter mission, you’re going to be frustrated and bored. There’s also one mission that is more or less directly lifted from Modern Warfare 3, where you man the weapons of an attack plane, and shoot a variety of missiles at ground targets – it was so bad it almost made me want to quit playing.

Back to the helicopters though. The chopper missions can be split into two types: missions where you man the gun turret; and missions where you control the helicopter. The gun turret missions basically consist of you doing little more holding down the fire button until you win. The missions where you actually control the helicopter are relatively well designed, but hindered by the fact that the controls are rather clunky. It also doesn’t help that before every helicopter mission you’re treated to some awesome jet action, where you get to fly around at ridiculous speeds while the skies erupt with insanity. Getting in the chopper saps all of that adrenaline straight out of you.

Now for the game’s one redeeming feature, the jet missions. They’re an absolute dream to play, and I found myself wishing there were more of them. You play through a mixture of air to air combat missions, and air to ground assaults, which keeps things from getting stale. The controls have changed slightly from the earlier series entries, which makes controlling your bird a lot easier, although you sacrifice some manoeuvrability. Luckily, Namco has included the option to switch back to classic controls, which is a welcome feature.

They’ve also added a number of new features to plane combat. The feature I enjoyed the most is ASM, or Air Strike Mode. In the previous games, air-to-ground assault missions were a tedious affair, which consisted of the player having to dive towards the ground in order to point at enemy targets, and then pull back up before crashing into the ground. Thanks to ASM you no longer have to keep bobbing up and down to take out ground targets. Instead, there are designated points on the map where one can enter ASM, the camera then shifts back slightly, so that you’re able to get a clear view of what’s below you. Once in ASM your weapons all automatically target in a downward direction, making it easy to score shots on ground targets.

The other new feature is DFM, or Dog Fighting Mode. When you get close enough to an enemy jet, you can lock on to it, and the game becomes more of an on-rails shooter. You surrender control of the direction your plane is going in to the computer, which automatically pursues your target. In return, you gain control of the direction of your guns, whilst retaining control of acceleration and deceleration – allowing you to put yourself in the right position to score a decent shot with either your guns, or to get a missile lock. Even after having finished the game, I’m still not sure how I feel about the feature. Some of the DFM setpieces are pretty to watch, and there are times when DFM really enhances both the gameplay and the feeling of immersion. But there are plenty of other instances where I felt absolutely out of control, and when you’re chasing some of the boss characters things move so fast that you can’t really see what’s going on. The other downside to DFM is that when it comes to the low-level enemies, it’s essentially an instant kill button, taking a lot of the difficulty and the need to develop skill out of the game.

Speaking of difficulty, there’s not much of a growth curve in the game. Enemies on the final mission aren’t much harder than those on the earlier missions, there are just more of them. The previous games did a brilliant job of slowly ramping up the difficulty, not just through making the AI progressively better as the missions passed, but also by throwing ridiculous challenges at you like giant airships 500 times the size of yours, armed with guns, cannons, and homing missiles. You’ll never face anything like that in this game, and that’s a sad fact.

Assault Horizon represents 1 step forward for the series, followed by about 20 steps back. There are elements of it I enjoyed, and I don’t regret buying it (but I only say that because I bought it for a tenner). It’s a good way to kill some time, and most places are selling it cheap now. If you’ve beaten everything else that came out over the Christmas period already, and you can get it for a good price, I’d recommend giving it a try. But if you’re going to buy an Ace Combat game, you’re much better off buying one of the older ones. You lose out on the amazing graphics, but you’ll have way more fun.

Leona Lewis must die (or at least be stopped from covering classics)

As I was driving to do an interview during work today, I flicked over to Radio One for a bit, just in time to catch the music news. What I heard next made me want to throw up in my mouth.

Before today I’d heard the name Leona Lewis thrown around before, but I’ve never had a clue as to who she is. According to wikipedia “Lewis first came to prominence in 2006 when she won the third series of the British television series The X Factor,” which goes some way towards explaining why I don’t know who she is, as I pay no attention to shows like The X Factor, or their kin.

So why has Leona Lewis sparked my ire?  That bit can be explained by simply paraphrasing what I heard on Radio One.

“Leona Lewis has been talking about her new cover of Hurt”

“Hurt?” I found myself wondering. Surely they can’t mean Trent Reznor’s magnum opus? Apparently they can, and did, mean that, as I found out when they played a clip of it. A terrible, warbly, clip of it.

Although that five second clip told me all I needed to know, I decided to at least give her the benefit of the doubt, put aside my biases and listen to the song without my preconceptions clouding my judgement.

I wish I hadn’t bothered, because my preconceptions were exactly right. What I sat through was three minutes and forty one seconds of over-produced, emotionless crap. If there’s one thing that song does not need, it’s someone warbling their way through it.

The thing that offends me most about her cover is how completely nondescript it sounds. For the record, I don’t like the Johnny Cash cover either. But at least when he covered the song, he put something of himself into it. It sounds authentic, and whether you like it or not, Cash made that song his own. The same can’t be said of Lewis’ version. Had I happened across this cover playing on the radio without hearing who it was, I wouldn’t be able to pick out the artist – and no, that’s not because I had no idea who Leona Lewis was before today, it’s because it just as easily sounds like it’s Christina Aguilera, or Whitney Houston, or Celine Dion, or Mariah Carey, or basically any of the women who do that whole diva thing. Yes, Lewis has a very good voice, but she does that horrible thing that women in mainstream pop with that kind of voice do, just power their way through the chorus, and get louder and louder. And that is precisely not the kind of treatment a song like Hurt should be given. The song is so powerful – such a classic – because of its subtleties, its nuances. If Reznor had just belted through the original, I doubt it would have gained the iconic status it has today. The power of that song lies within the cracks in his voice; the moments he falters; the brief seconds when he sounds on the edge of tears; the ups and the downs. Lewis has completely missed the point.

In fact, it was patently obvious from the interview she did with Radio One that she had missed the point. She started talking about what a healing song it is, which made me wonder if she even knew the title of the album it was originally from, let alone listened to it. If you don’t happen to know the title, it’s The Downward Spiral, and if the name itself isn’t a dead give away, it’s an album written by a man wrought with severe depression, who was suffering a serious drug addiction. It’s an album which plunges the depths of the worst sides of the human condition. And Hurt, as the final track, is literally at the bottom of the spiral, about a complete loss of self-worth, about getting to the point of being so broken down you’re not even sure you can even feel anymore. And I find Leona Lewis’ apparent obliviousness to that offensive – because it’s completely ignorant of the struggle involved in the act of artistry that lead to the song’s creation – and as far as music goes, I think there’s no bigger crime than that.

I’ll happily admit that I’m not a particularly emotional person. I can count the amount of times I’ve cried over the last 5 years on one hand, and still have some fingers left over. But of the five or so times I’ve seen Nine Inch Nails live, they’ve always performed that song, and it’s always driven me close to tears. I can vividly recall seeing them in 2007, in a hall filled with a few thousand people, all singing that song in unison, all singing our hearts out. It was one of the closest things I’ve come to a religious experience, and sharing that song with all those people was a touching, humanising moment that I’ll no doubt carry with me for the rest of my life. I’m sure many of the people at that gig, or who’ve seen the song performed at other NIN gigs will have similar things to say. It’s an indisputable work of art, and what Leona Lewis has done to that piece of art with her cover is analogous to taking black spray paint to the Mona Lisa.

We Are Impressed

One of my favourite albums of 2007 was One Week In Sand by A Ninja Slob Drew Me. This is no small praise, as 2007 was one of my favourite years for music – with the release of Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero, and Fear of a Blank Planet by Porcupine Tree, amongst a slew of other things. I find it deeply impressive that an album which was recorded on a laptop, in a university bedroom with nothing resembling a professional recording set up stands out against a number of releases from big name musicians. Although, to the album’s credit, you can’t tell that it was put together with such a makeshift set up – it sounds professional.

Since the release of One Week I’ve been waiting with heavy anticipation for a follow up. I’ve been lucky enough to be drip fed bits of material during that waiting period, as Daniel Brown – the boorish assassin himself – happens to be one of my best friends. I’ve been privileged with unfinished recordings, demos, and discussion of ideas: a process which has had me very excited for the end product.

And now that final product is drawing incredibly near, with tangible results. Today a six track EP called We Are was launched on the artist’s website, which showcases a large chunk of the forthcoming album. After giving the EP a listen, followed by 5 more, my sense of impatience for the full album has grown immensely. I want it now.

In brief, it’s incredibly good. And it represents a massive artistic step forward from One Week. It’s still very much a Ninja Slob album – you can immediately identify any of the songs as having Dan’s trademark all over it – but at the same time it’s quite different from previous endeavours. One of the primary differences I noticed immediately upon listening is that there’s less experimentation within the music, which I actually think is a very good thing in this case, because the album sounds a great deal more focussed as a result. With this EP Brown has produced his most cohesive work to date. It’s also his most mature – it’s hard to explain exactly why, but the playing style, and the way the music is composed comes across as being a lot more self-assured than before. We Are is the work of an artist who has found hs voice, and is comfortable using it.

Song by song, the EP takes you on a sonic journey. It’s all wonderfully mixed together, and it’s quite easy to become lost in it. Each song is distinctive, with it’s own sound and message, and yet in spite of that I found myself wondering when exactly it was that the last track ended and the current one began on more than one occasion. It’s perhaps best to view it not as a collection of songs, but rather as one piece of music which has distinct movements.

The EP opens with it’s title track, which starts off sounding very relaxing and beautiful, and then segues into a more aggressive, industrial sound before descending into silence, followed by sampled speech atop interesting ambient noise.

Then track two begins, and it’s back to the warm sound of the 8 sting bass, being played in the unique 2-hand tapping style that’s become the Ninja Slob trademark. This track has a real sense of warmth to it – you know that feeling you get when you listen to things on vinyl? This track evokes a similar feeling. Despite that warmth, there’s a feeling of something dark lurking somewhere beneath – militaristic sounding drum blasts struggle beneath the bass, as if trying to break out and make themselves heard – but ultimately the bass wins out.

At least until Inside starts, and the drums begin to pick up volume and prominence. Whereas in the previous track, the bass was leading, the tables now turn, and the drums and other electronic beats really come to the forefront of the piece. Despite the highly driven pace, the track nicely ebbs and flows through peaks and troughs, building up tension with aplomb and then releasing it with a great cathartic effect.

We then reach what’s probably my favourite track on the album: The Infinite. It starts slowly, with a soft start to the music layered under glitchy static sounds. But the music soon fights it’s way through and increases in both volume and tension. It’s a track that just builds and builds itself up – and it gets everything just right. The direction of the music frequently shifts, always at just the right moment; nothing repeats itself for too long, and you’re never left feeling like there needed to be a bit more.

No Worry takes a very different start to the rest of the album. It’s a real stand out track. It’s pace is more subdued and methodical, giving the listener time to rest. It’s one of the simpler tracks in terms of instrumentation, which it makes use of to great effect. Of all the tracks on the album, I find No Worry to be the most uplifting – a very positive vibe permeates throughout the piece.

The EP reaches it’s end point with the aptly titled End Point. It begins with very dark, atmospheric ambience, which breaks into a somber sounding piece. Slowly other bits of instrumentation join in with the melancholic bass – but as with many of the other tracks, it’s the bass that dominates. The tone of the track conveys the sadness often present when many things come to an end, but towards the end it picks up in tone, leaving on a more positive note. At around the 4 minute mark the music proper ends, and gives way to more dark electronic ambience – leaving the listener with the suggestion that all is not finished, despite what the song’s title may imply. It very deftly alludes to the coming album, which will features all the tracks on the EP, plus several more. I expect I speak for many listeners when I say that I was left eagerly anticipating more.

Besides the music, it’s also worth drawing attention to the wonderful artwork provided by Jimmy Dead. It has an effective simplicity which accentuates the music it’s accompanying, it’s also quite pretty.

All in all, I can’t recommend this album highly enough. In my opinion it’s the best release of 2011 thus far, and I’m not saying that out of any form of bias. Since you can listen to it for free, I emphatically recommend that you give it a whirl at least once, it’s a wonderful piece of music that I think a lot of people can enjoy. It’s accessible enough that anyone can sit down and give it a go, but at the same time, there’s a lot of subtle complexity contained within that will give listeners something to come back to time and time again.

Music as a means of connection

Yesterday – following a recommendation from a friend – I came into possession of La Dispute‘s discography. Pitched to me as sounding like early mewithoutYou mixed with The Bled, the post hardcore nerd in me rumbled from its year in hibernation. Has it been a year? Maybe it’s even been longer. All I know is that it’s been a long time since I’ve discovered some decent, new, post-hardcore. A long time spent hungry, in need of something to sustain. Dear reader, I must share that my belly is now full.

After the recommendation I embarked upon my regular ritual of internet searching. First I went to wikipedia, to read about the band, and its influences. I was thoroughly impressed by what I’d read, especially when I saw the band drawing comparisons to Circle Takes The Square – a firm favourite of mine. Next, to last.fm, where I read a little more on the band, checked out what other bands they get compared to, and listened to one of the thirty second samples. It sounded good. And so, I went onto the final part of my ritual: acquiring the music.

I managed to find the whole discography, and so I decided I may as well get it all instead of just dipping my toe in with one piece first. When the download finished I started with the album Somewhere At the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair. To date it’s the only album the band has released, all other releases have been EPs, and when I start listening to a band, I always start with an album. Plus, the album’s critical reception was pretty good, whereas I knew nothing about the EPs, so it was the obvious starting point.

What followed was an excellent 40 minutes of my life. I went in expecting something I’d enjoy, but what I got was something I love.

The first track’s a short one, and it wasn’t great. Initially I was put off by the sound of the vocalist’s voice, which – to put bluntly – elicits comparisons to the vocalists of whiney screamo bands. Not wanting to be put off by preconceptions I’d formed due to listening to terrible bands with similar vocals, I stuck with it. When the next track kicked in it became obvious that was a good idea. It became apparent from early in the song that the band has a quite unique musical approach. I say unique, the band do obey some of the genre conventions of post-hardcore, but there’s something there that’s individual to them, and they avoid the trap of sounding ‘by the books’ like many post-hardcore bands do these days.

The first four tracks of the album blur by in a frenzy of gnarly guitar riffs and emotive shouts. It’s evocative, it draws you in, it’s bloody energetic. It’s everything you’d expect from great post-hardcore.

And then track five comes along – and that’s when the hairs on my arms became raised by goosebumps, only to stay that way until the album drew to its close.

Track five is a slower, more considered piece than the ones that come before it. I’d been caught up in the delightful frenzy of it all, but all of a sudden that came to a halt, and the band commanded more of my attention. Atop an emotive bluesy guitar lead singer Jordan Dreyer slows his voice down to a musical cadence that borders on the spoken word. Somewhere within the first few lines of the song I began really paying attention to the lyrics, and by the time I heard the following, I was gripped:

“Understand that if you’re cold I’ll keep you warm
And besides, there’s so much beauty in a storm
So come down with me to the shore
And what’s more, I adore you
So tell me, what is there to fear?”

At that moment that I fired up google and began reading the lyrics along with the songs that I was listening to. I became even more engrossed.

If there’s one thing I can say for certain about what I enjoy in music, it’s good lyrics. It should be no surprise that I’m a sucker for creativity with the written word – and when that kind of creativity finds its way into music, I become captivated. La Dispute certainly captivated me.

Reading the lyrics as I went along with the rest of the album, I noticed a real maturity in La Dispute that I don’t often find present in bands that occupy the same genre. Admittedly, the lyrical themes are a tad trite at times. It’s clear that Jordan draws from a somewhat dark place when he writes, and this is what’s come to be expected from post-hardcore bands. But even though thematically the band walking on well-trodden ground, the lyrics do their subject matter a rare, well-considered justice.

It’s not the shallow ‘woe is me’ kind of screamo you hear from every teenager to pick up a guitar and start a band, there’s a real depth to the words. And despite the subject matter, which seems predominantly bleak, there’s always a small glimmer of hope, or a ray of positive emotion concealed somewhere within. It’s really quite inspiring.

Maybe there’s a hint of vanity in my admiration of the band, because when I listen; and when I read what they have to say, I think to myself that this is the kind of music I would write – if I still wrote music. This is perhaps why I began to elevate my esteem for La Dispute so rapidly. It feels like they’re talking my language. Even though I’m the listener, I find myself reading along and feeling a sense of agreement, almost as if I’m engaged in dialogue.

Having finished going through the album, I came out riding the high that I sometimes get when I make a brilliant musical discovery. I decided I hadn’t gotten my fill of the band yet, and so I turned my attention to the series of three EPs the band released titled Here, Hear. Expecting more of the same, I wasn’t remotely prepared for what I was about to embark upon.

The Here, Hear EPs are a massive departure from Somewhere at the Bottom of the River… musically speaking, there’s a much slower tempo to each piece, and there isn’t a trace of hardcore to be found anywhere. I struggle to place these EPs in a specific genre, but to throw a few out there to give you an idea, what you’ll find in Here, Hear has traces of accoustic, at times folksy music, with a dash of electronic ambience, and the odd smattering of jazz.

The emotive shouts are also gone. Here, Hear is predominantly spoken word. Really well thought out, powerful, persuasive spoken word.

I can’t begin to tell you how much of last night I spent poring over the lyrics to every one of the twelve Here, Hear songs. The lyrics to Somewhere at the Bottom of the River… were great, yes. But these are something else, something far beyond that. The words to Here, Hear are nothing short of pure poetry. I love to find a good quote in a song, and that’s something that doesn’t happen too often lately. Last night I managed to find a good quote in all twelve songs on Here, Hear. I wish I could just post them all, but I’m sure that would be offputting. However, I fully recommend you check the lyrics out for yourself here.

I feel compelled to post at least one quote, though. Because this particular one, I feel, demonstrates just how much depth and consideration this band puts into its art. When I read this stanza for the first time, I felt genuinely moved, and it made me really stop and consider what was being said. How often in life do another persons words do that to us?

“There is a loneliness in this world
So great that you can see it in the slow movement of the hands of a clock
People so tired, mutilated, either by love or no love.
People just are not good to each other.
We are afraid.
Our educational system tells us that we can all be big winners
But it hasn’t told us about the gutters or the suicides.
Or the terror of one person aching in one place
Alone, untouched, and unspoken to.”

Even though it appears particularly bleak in written form, delivered as a part of the piece of music this stanza forms, there’s something strangely upbeat. It’s comforting. Listening, I can’t help but feel that the message here is that “yes, we live in a world with poverty, war, and an infinite number of acts of human unkindness. But it’s okay. We have music. We have expression. Beneath all this turmoil there are good things.” Maybe that’s just my interpretation, though.

On their website, the band wrote:

“La Dispute is five close friends from the Upper Midwest with a firm passion for the concept of music and art as a medium for making new friends. As a result, La Dispute makes (or strives to make) music that is both artistically, technically, and emotionally engaging in hopes of establishing legitimate connections with any and all interested people, while encouraging dialogue between those people and themselves about things in life that truly matter and that truly last.”

I usually don’t buy into the self-promoting bullshit you read in a band’s biography. But listening to their music, I don’t feel like the above is some kind of self-aggrandising ploy, I genuinely feel as if that band have reached out to me, like we could be friends – Hence the title of this post.

And now, I’m going to go and listen to Here, Hear vol 1-3 on repeat for the next week or so.

Reggie goes on offensive against game apps – espouses bullshit

On Friday Nintendo of America’s President and COO Reggie Fils-Aime came out with this gem.

As you may have guessed from the title, I think he’s talking shit. Why? I hear you ask. Well, lets break things down.

We’ll start by taking a look at this quote:

“I actually think that one of the biggest risks today in our industry are these inexpensive games that are candidly disposable from a consumer standpoint,”

So why, exactly are candidly disposable games a risk to the industry? Well, I can see why they might threaten developers of shovelware titles, which are basically candidly disposable games that are made at an inexpensive price, and yet sold at the same price as major titles. But the industry as a whole? Seriously?

In the interview Reggie goes on to say that part of the problem with these games is that they create an expectation that games should only cost about £2. Obviously this is a potential threat to companies who make and sell games for around £40.  But will many people seriously start to have that expectation? When someone sits and plays Dead Space 2, are they really going to be sitting there thinking “this is pretty rad and all, but if I can get Sonic 1 on my phone for £1.50, why was I a big enough fool to pay £40 for this?”

Thought not.

It’s pretty safe to say that for many years now there’s existed a cluster of gamers who are looking to buy games on the cheap. Apps are a new way of doing that, but we’ve been able to go and buy games for £4 from second hand shops for ages now, and yet the games industry is still standing. In fact, it’s growing. Cheap gaming has never been a threat, I don’t see why it will be now.

Not only are apps not a threat. There’s expert opinion that it could be a boost to the industry.

It’s also worth considering that Nintendo’s biggest competitor on the handheld market – Sony – seem to think the exact opposite about apps. They’ve even gone as far as to make app support a key part of their business strategy for their next handheld.

So what’s really motivating Reggie’s comments? Is it the fact that perhaps apps are a threat to Nintendo, rather than gaming as a whole? I certainly think so.

By the time the 3DS and the NGP are released succeed their respective forebears, there’ll be a situation where if you want to play games on the move, you have 3 options: the NGP, 3DS, and the smartphone you carry around everywhere. Spot the odd one out. Hint: it’s the 3DS.

The 3DS is the only handheld device that doesn’t have any kind of app support. Whether that’s intentional, or whether Nintendo have just failed to see an opportunity, I cannot say. But clearly it’s a problem for the company that they don’t have a means of dealing in these cheap, often disposable gaming experiences. And so people who want to just pay £2-4 for something a bit rubbish that helps kill time during lunch breaks and the like, they’re going to have to go to someone other than Nintendo.

Not only is Nintendo missing out on a slice of the pie with apps, but apps do represent a threat to a portion of its business. Remember what I said about shovelware earlier? Which consoles can you find more shovelware titles on than any other? Nintendo consoles.

As a quick example I went to gameplay.co.uk and typed in the word Barbie – which is basically the shovelware franchise. All but one of the titles was on a Nintendo console. Now the thing with shovelware is that it’s horrendous crap devoid of any kind of production values, and made at a relatively low cost. Kind of like a lot of apps out there. Except unlike a lot of apps out there, these games command a price of around £20-30. Why pay that if you can get your kids an app version of a similar franchise, and pay a fraction of the price?

Also, if you’re a developer of these crude titles, then there’s the temptation of putting them out in app form. This saves you having to find a publisher, who then has to pay lisencing fees, etc. And also ensures you a larger portion of the profits.

I am, of course, speculating here. But if wild speculation about the effect of apps on the games industry is good enough for Reggie, then I think I’m allowed to speculate a little about the future of shovelware in a post-iPhone world. Whether apps will damage Nintendo’s revenue stream from shovelware is something we’ll have to wait and see on. We’ll also have to wait and see if Nintendo lose business to people buying apps on other platforms (at very least even if they don’t lose any money, they’ve lost the opportunity to make way more money by not providing a platform for apps). One thing I can say for sure, is that apps are certainly not the biggest threat to the gaming industry. And now that I think about it, with the industry now so large, can anything really even threaten it?

Is the handheld shoe finally on the other foot?

Over the last two weeks the gaming press has been dominated by handheld news. Firstly owing to Nintendo’s 3DS conference in Amsterdam, where full details on the console were announced, including pricing, games, and more on the system’s capability. The big N’s big blow out event was top of the gaming new agenda for almost a whole week, and why not? It’s big news.

And then last week, along came the announcement of gaming’s worst kept secret: Sony’s successor to the PSP – currently dubbed the NGP. There’s still a lot of details with regards to Sony’s latest offering that likely won’t surface for a while. Chief amongst those is a price point and a release date. But what information Sony did make available is absolutely astonishing. Sony have once again created a piece of hardware that’s nothing short of incredible.

Now when it comes to Sony and new hardware, it’s never surprising when the company rolls out a sleek looking piece of tech that seems years ahead of it’s time. That’s what Sony always does. Building great hardware has always been the company’s strength.

But when it comes to things like software, and good business decisions, Sony generally get themselves into hot water. It’s not good enough to simply wheel out an impressive console if that console then turns into a flop. Lets look at the original PSP as an example: Way ahead of its time, technically superb, and in posession of the UMD as a brand new media format. And yet in it’s early years the console tanked. In fact, even though the PSP is the only handheld I can think of to go against Nintendo and keep going for this long, and even though the console is now in posession of a decent software library, I’d still venture to say that the PSP is still a big flop now, especially when you compare it to just how well the DS continues to do.

I think that the NGP could truly be different though. Obviously, it’s still early days. There are still a lot of ways Sony can go wrong between now and whenever the NGP gets released. But I have a sneaking suspicion they won’t. It seems like the company may finally be making some savvy business decisions.

Firstly, lets look at the hardware itself. Previously Sony’s approach to building something new has just been to build it bigger and better than what its competitors can offer. This approach doesn’t really work anymore. Nintendo has proven that with the DS, and with the Wii especially. Yes, people want bigger and better, but more than that, people are suckers for gimmicks and innovation, which Sony have never really had a go at before. But with the NGP it seems that Sony is having a try at experimenting with new ways to build a handheld. Feature wise, the NGP has a giant touch pad on the back, a microphone, cameras on the front and back, and SIXAXIS motion controls built in (also, on top of these innovative touches, Sony’s still gone down it’s tried and tested route of building a machine with mammoth power. A handheld that can run PS3 games? Yeah, that’s not tempting the shit out of me.).

But the impressive hardware isn’t the only feather the NGP has in its cap. Sony have already announced that a number of pretty important franchises are coming to the NGP around launch. One of the biggest failures of the PSP was poor third party support for games, and this time around it seems that Sony is committed to not making the same mistake again. A solid launch line up will help build early support, and hopefully Sony will be able to keep that momentum going further into the handheld’s lifespan.

But that’s not the best software decision Sony have made for the NGP. They’ve also announced something that nobody saw coming. Something which may well be a complete gamechanger. That something is the Playstation Suite. In a nutshell, the Suite is a development platform for use on both the NGP and on Android phones. And to put it simply, it may be Sony’s best idea since they put a DVD drive in the PS2.

The suite’s a smart move for two reasons. Firstly, it will create a framework for Android phones that can rival Apple’s app store to some extent. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why that’s a good idea, apps are an incredibly lucrative business, and currently the Android system doesn’t have any kind of universal means of distributing apps, Sony may be about to provide that, and it will obviously be very lucrative. Moreover, by putting content out on Android phones, Sony is extending the Playstation brand beyond its own hardware. In a way, they’re beating Nintendo at their own game, and going for the casual gaming market. When Nintendo went for the casual gaming crowd with the Wii, they basically started printing money for themselves. And now Sony could be about to do the same by getting a slice of the cash all the people who download a couple of of games to play on their phones pay out.

This whole process is a two-way street, which leads me to the other reason it’s a great idea. Not only does the Suite give Sony that brand extension, but it will also work to draw customers and developers alike to Sony’s own hardware. Right now you have a situation where there are loads of developers working exclusively on phone games and apps, and there’s loads of money in it. Apps are the new craze, and Sony would be foolish to not try and do something that would attract the app crowd to develop for the NGP. But instead they’ve gone one step better. They don’t need to try and get app developers on board with the NGP, thanks to the Playstation Suite. Instead, they can just keep developing things for phones, except it just so happens that if they do so using the Suite’s framework, all of that content will also be made instantly available for the NGP, with no need for any kind of extra fooling around. And then there’s the added bonus that people who may start off by casually downloading a few PS Suite games to their phones may then find themselves thinking they’d quite like a dedicated device that plays those things in higher quality. Meanwhile, the execs at Sony sit back laughing at their new money printing press.

Meanwhile, on the Nintendo side of things, it seems like for the first time in the company’s history, the handheld division are actually making bad decisions.

Now, Nintendo is such a powerhouse that I’m sure these decisions won’t really matter at all. Infact, I’m sure that the 3DS will come out, smash some sales records, and continue Nintendo’s handheld market dominance.

But the company may just alienate a lot of people on the way.

When it comes to those bad decisions I mentioned before, Nintendo have made two of them. The first of which is the decision to region lock games.

Region locking isn’t anything new when it comes to gaming, it’s been in place pretty much since the medium began. But this is a first for a Nintendo handheld. Up until now the games have always been region free. But at a glance it doesn’t seem like such a big deal, I’ll just have to buy my games from the same region my DS is from. Except that region is Europe – and when it comes to games on Nintendo handhelds and Europe, Europe gets fucked. Admittedly, these days things are nowhere near as bad as when I was a kid. I remember sometimes having to wait as much as three years after a US release for a game to finally make it out here. Sometimes they just didn’t come out.

These days Europe isn’t treated with such disdain from publishers. But there are still games that don’t make it out here, or that we have to wait ages for. Generally speaking they’re more niche titles that don’t tend to have a mass appeal. So it’s the core gaming audience that’s going to be most hit by this.

So financially speaking, since Nintendo’s largest source of funds these days comes from the more casual crowd, maybe it’s not such a dumb move, there’s probably not that much money to be lost. But why do it at all? There’s an argument to be made that the import market skews sales figures a bit, but that’s no big deal, because all things being equal the worldwide number of sales will still be the same, no matter what territory the game was bought from. Except in the case of games that don’t get released in all territories. Like pretty much anything published by Atlus. In cases like that, the import market can actually help create sales that won’t otherwise happen. And more sales means Nintendo rakes in more money from lisencing fees.

So right now by implementing this Nintendo’s got a pissed off section of  customers, and is also fucking over the developers and publishers of niche games, whilst also losing out a bit of money on lisencing in the process. Please tell me if there’s something I’m failing to grasp about why this is actually a good decision, because right now I’m not seeing it.

Then there’s the matter of pricing. And this is the biggy. 3DS games will cost £40 at launch. Quite frankly, that’s going to piss everybody off. As I said earlier, I’m sure the 3DS will be a success no matter what, and I know for a fact hundreds of thousands of people will go and pay that price for games. But maybe they’ll start thinking twice about it. In fact, I’m sure that this is a move which will drive sales down over the long term.

I’m willing to make an educated guess and say that most of the people who own a DS also own at least one home console. If it comes down to the choice of what to spend £40 on, and one of them is a handheld title that looks like something that came out six years ago, and the other is an AAA blockbuster with explosions that are unparalleled in their realism, big name actors providing the voices and likenesses, and some decent online options, I’m picking the latter. In a time where across the globe people are tightening their belts, people want the most value for money. Handheld games don’t often compete with console games on that front. Handheld games mitigate that fact by coming at a much cheaper price, making them appealing.

What makes it an even more abysmal decision is that people will realise that the increased price point is motivated by greed. Yes, Nintendo are a business, and as a business their objective is first and foremost to make some money. But this needs to be done fairly in a way where people don’t feel like they’re getting fucked over.

It’s long been the case that the cost of development for console games has been going up, and perhaps the cost of games should go up to reflect that. And yet it hasn’t. If Rockstar can employ thousands of staff to create GTA4, which basically involved them designing an entire city, all whilst not having to add £10 to the price, why does Nintendo need to add £10 to Dr Kawishima’s 3D cookbook weight loss psychic ability training bootcamp? Or to Ocarina of Time, an N64 game that they’ve made look slightly more pretty? These are really simple games using age old tech, and the fact that they are in 3D is not adding such a great financial burden to the companies that make these games that the price point needs to go up by so much.

Ultimately, there’s still a lot the remains to be seen. And only time will tell what happens to the next generation of handhelds. Sony still have plenty of time to get things wrong in their usual bungling fashion, and Nintendo could wow us with a boatload of amazing new games that make us forget their follies. But at least for now, for the first time I can ever recall, the shoe seems to be on the other foot with regards to which company is making good decisions. Right now there’s only one handheld I’m excited for. And for the first time it isn’t something made by Nintendo.