Archive for January, 2012

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.

2011

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.

2012

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.

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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.