Archive for February, 2011

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.

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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?