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Thursday, July 19, 2018

Sigur Rós -- Untitled #1 / Vaka


Sigur Rós' catalogue's nooks and crannies are stuffed with b-sides and rarities, and I'll be reviewing a few of them here. 2003's Untitled #1 / Vaka could have just been a single, as the opening track is "Untitled" # 1 from their great ( ) album. However, the band have imagined a new continuation of the track, adding three additional songs that head in quite a different direction than the seven that followed "Untitled" #1 on ( ). In the spirit of ( ), though, none of the three songs have titles, going by simply "Track 2," "Track 3," and "Track 4," respectively.  These nondescript titles are also apt, as this 18.5 minute EP features some of the coldest, most alienating music of Sigur Rós' career.
I previously described ( )'s "Untitled" #1 as "a morning mournful call through snowy fog," but the song does a have a hopeful, wall-of-noise climax, and the response to its call is ( )'s ever-warming first half. The response on this EP, however, is diametrically opposed to that. "Track 2" is even more mournful and desperate, carrying on the pitch-shifting vocal drone of "Untitled" #1," and adding a new high and searching alien vocal from Jónsi Birgisson, along with rising, elegaic horns, and funereal strings.

This wintry blizzard of emotion is carried off by a nasally, somehow even more alien Birgisson vocal line, buzzing uncomfortably as "Track 3"'s piano slowly rises. The sad, slow piano figure, along with the gently weeping strings, gives the impression of slowly rolling end credits in an empty theater, after a film about a life ended tragically. I must ad the caveat, either I was undergoing one of the more intense depressive periods of my life when I first heard this, or it just really is that damned depressing. And the bleakest moment is saved for last.
Imagine you've fallen off a ship with a weight tied to your leg in the middle of the night. The water is icy, miles deep, obsidian. The ship sends a deep, slowly repeated call into the depths as you sink, lack of oxygen slowing numbing your brain, as you realize this is the last sound you will ever hear. I'm gonna go have a drink.
Yes, this work is not only the single most depressing music I have in my collection, but possibly have ever heard. It is like God is weeping. It is like the lamentations of the dead. It is as heavy as an infinite, entombing sea. Every time I hear it, I am reminded of that feeling where you have been in your room with the lights off for weeks, and should be crying, but you can't cry because you can't feel anything. For my own health, let's move on to the next review.

2003 Fat Cat
1. Untitled #1 / Vaka 6:43
2. Track 2 4:38
3. Track 3 2:47
4. Track 4 4:22

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow Review

Sweet, another Game Boy Advance review. You may want to leave a little early, to beat the crowds.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Sigur Rós -- ( )


How do you find a band when you don't know their name, album, song titles, or lyrics? Well, now you just raise your phone in the air and click Shazam, but in late 2002 and early 2003, after hearing Sigur Rós' "Ný batterí," I had far fewer options. Type "European band whose guitar sounds like a violin" into Webcrawler? Yes, Webcrawler. It was 2003.
Eventually, I was able to narrow my selection to a few bands. The most likely choice seemed to be the one that proved correct, Sigur Rós. However, I really could only stab at the dark, and hope that the Sigur Rós CD I bought from Best Buy in May 2003 not only had the song I was looking for, but was by the correct band. Also, "stab at the dark" makes it sound like I am a Hobbit in a cave, and after doing my stabbing, I am hopping that when I get my lamp lit, I'll see a dead orc covered in blood, and not my accompanying Hobbit buddy.
In the first ten seconds of listening to Sigur Rós' ( ), my dopamine centers went Tsar Bomba. I immediately knew I had found the right band. I also shortly found that I had the wrong album, but I did not care at all. This music took me to another world.
I had a paper on the ancient epic, Beowulf, due the next day. Not like a "Beowulf is a poem about..." paper, but a lengthy final paper for an upper level college course involving multiple citations from books older than LSU itself about the importance of aesthetics in Beowulf. Of course, I hadn't even begun on the first sentence.
I went home, but got so lost in Sigur Rós that I couldn't get the paper going. I had a DJ shift at KLSU that night from 9-11, so I decided I'd just pull an all-nighter and knock it out when I got home from that. After all, me good at English, right? That night, my shift went well. I played a bunch of great songs, and had fun cutting up on air with my co-hosts. However, as we walked to our cars after the shift, I noticed one of my co-hosts seemed particularly glum. I asked him if he was okay, and it turned out he most definitely wasn't, which resulted in a conversation that lasted another two hours. I left LSU's campus around 1 am. My paper was due in eight hours.
Sigur Rós' ( ) fits Beowulf. It indeed conjures Scandinavian images, as something created in Iceland should. The bowed, violin-like guitar, the icily distorted and warped piano, the pitch-shifted vocal loops, the glacial, thick Arctic march of the drums, the forceful, seabed dredging bass, and the high, alien vocals of Jónsi Birgisson. The ever present, emoting strings. The way it hints at community, while perforating a cold well of deep sadness, with sudden outbursts of intense, emotional violence. This isn't something you just listen to on a technical level. These are sounds you feel. I feel the same way about Beowulf. Most ancient manuscripts, even with a great translation, can often feel cold and remote. Beowulf feels close to me. That night, I listened to "Untitled" 1 on ( ) in a six hour loop, while writing nonstop, then drove straight to my teacher's office to turn in my paper. I got a 97.

That summer, Sigur Rós became an obsession. I had already been listening to a ton of Radiohead. I had also taken a renewed dive into the music of Portishead, four years after an initial obsession with them in 1999. As this was to be my last summer as a college student (Joke being on me, I ended up having one more!), I decided I would work as little as possible, instead staying home to play hours -long sessions of Chrono Cross, watch Neon Genesis Evangelion, get myself ready for the next Lord of the Rings movie, and write depressing, post-apocalyptic poetry, all with a constant Sigur Rós hum in the background. It was glorious, though now that I look back on it, not leaving my room for months, while shunning contact with friends, and generally lying around and doing nothing, and this easily the third or fourth time I had done that in a five year period, I really should have started talking to a counselor about my depression sooner. Then again, when you've grown up in a cult like I did, and at one point experienced your own mother throwing away all of your personal possessions while you were at school, and at another, having your "pastor" look through you music collection and then declare that you are demon-possessed and need deliverance, you tend to get a little protective of your interests. I had made my own little world for myself, and I didn't want it to be taken away. I was two years away from finally getting out of that cult, and many years away from getting comfortable with my own skin and interests, so the only thing that I knew to do at that point to feel safe was to create an iridescent, impenetrable shell around myself, and hide inside it.
Yes, seven years into this series, it's obvious these reviews aren't always about the music, but about the life I experienced while listening to it, to help me remember. That summer was something magical, but frail and easily shattered. Thankfully, outside of its context, I can still enjoy everything I liked then, now. When I listen to ( ) in the context of the present, with its eight untitled tracks, I am still moved by its power, the way it goes from a mournful morning call through snowy fog, to a beautiful thawing rain, to a joyous sunbath, to a bleak death march, to a final cathartic outburst of sound I still haven't heard surpassed.

I don't know why bands get older and wiser, yet can't surpass the emotional high-points of their youth. Maybe your dopamine levels just drop too much to be capable of such things. Maybe my own dopamine levels have dropped to the point that current bands are making music this powerful, and I'm just not getting it. Who knows. Maybe I'll hear something this staggering one day, pull out my phone and Shazam it. Instant gratification. Or maybe not.

2002 FatCat Records
1. Untitled 6:38
2. Untitled 7:33
3. Untitled 6:33
4. Untitled 7:33
5. Untitled 9:57
6. Untitled 8:48
7. Untitled 13:00
8. Untitled 11:44

Friday, July 13, 2018

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon

I wasn't looking for a throwback to NES Castlevania games, but one found me anyway. Still waiting on a new Jackal game. Man, that game was great, and Konami made it, too! Man, 80's Konami was on fire. Hey, until the new Jackal, which I'm predicting will be a thing right here and right now, check out my review of Inti Creates excellent Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon.

Monday, July 09, 2018

Ant-Man and the Wasp (Film Review)

2018 Marvel Studios
Starring: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly,Walton Goggins, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer, Tip "T.I." Harris, David Dastmalchian, Hannah John-Kamen, Abby Ryder Fortson, Randall Park, Michelle Pfeiffer, Laurence Fishburne, and Michael Douglas
Directed by: Peyton Reed; Written by: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barrer, and Gabriel Ferrari
Nicsperiment Score: 7/10

After Avengers: Infinity War's traumatizing ending, it's safe to say that Marvel needs a palate cleanser before it dives back into heavy stakes. At the same time, Infinity War is the crowning achievement of this entire 18 interconnected-film Marvel experiment. Whatever follows Infinity War has to not only give a breather, but not drop the ball.
Thankfully, the Peyton Reed-directed film, Ant-Man and the Wasp, is up to the challenge. It fits into Marvel's greater narrative whole, with Paul Rudd's Ant Man on house arrest, and Ant Man suit inventor, Gordon Pym, along with his daughter, Hope, on the run as a result of Ant Man's actions in Captain America: Civil War. If that seems like a brainful, it really doesn't matter in the grand scheme of watching Ant-Man and the Wasp. The film, like the previous Ant Man, is able to stand by itself.
Paul Rudd brings the same non-laconic humor to this film as before, as Ant Man tries to keep himself out of trouble and his young daughter entertained, during his last few weeks of house arrest. Gordon and Hope, though, have other ideas, enlisting Ant Man to help them find Gordon's wife/Hope's mother, Janet van Dyne, who was shrunk down into unimaginable quantum depths many years before, during a world-saving mission with Gordon. Yes, many years ago, Gordon was the original Ant Man, a hero in a suit that can change the wearer's size, and Janet was the Wasp, Ant Man's similarly-size changing cokick.  Now it's up to Rudd's current Ant Man, and Hope, the new Wasp, to team up to save Janet, all while battling Sonny Burch, a southern criminal looking to steal their technology, as well as Ghost, a young woman who can phase in and out of matter, and if you think this all sounds ridiculous, don't worry because so does Ant-Man and the Wasp.
This is, afterall, a movie where our heroes, in one of Ant-Man and the Wasp's many imaginative action scenes, take out some bad guys with an enlarged Hello Kitty Pez-dispenser.  Rudd is game in continuously pointing out the insanity in the film's plot, all while the plot manages to be coherent, and flow along nicely. The film is also able to wring some emotion out its family dynamics, with the Pym/van Dyne's desperate to be made whole again, and Ghost simply trying to be made whole. Ghost , who is slowly dying because of her uncontrollable phasing powers, which were given to her unwillingly during her own father's failed and fatal experiment, is at odds with our heroes due to no fault of her own. In its most remarkable achievement, the film makes it clear that she's no villain, and simply trying to survive, watched over by Laurence Fishburne's, Bill Foster. Fishburne, exercising the same paternal power he did all the way back in 1991's Boyz n the Hood, brings an entirely greater level of emotion to the film, as his selfless care for Ghost makes what is essentially a children's film far more complex.
This is, at heart, a family film, about family, and geared toward families. It's got non-stop humor, mostly due to Ant Man's silly Michael Peña-led crew, and far more personal stakes than the "half of all beings in the universe will die" ones of Infinity War, though of course, the incredible Infinity War was able to make those stakes quite personal, as well.  However, with all of the plot excess and silliness, no matter how fun, Ant Man and the Wasp can't help but feel a little inconsequential. I remember several key moments well, but find the rest of the film fastly fading from memory.
Still, mission accomplished: my family was entertained for two hours, I'm ready for more Marvel movies (and yes, the ending of Infinity War is referenced in a post-credit scene that left audience members gasping, a testament to the power of that film), and I might even be ready for another Ant Man movie. 2018 Marvel is three-for-three.

Friday, July 06, 2018

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (Film Review)

2018 Universal Pictures
Directed by: J.A. Bayona; Written by: Colin Trevorrow
Starring: Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard; MPAA Rating: PG-13
Nicsperiment Score: 7/10

At this point, I think it's safe to say Jurassic Park might not be the greatest film franchise. While the first is a classic, it's held up by the great weight of nostalgia far more than a buoyancy of quality. It's first sequel is dreadful, patronizing and silly, while the third film, while a bit underrated, is still pretty inconsequential. Critics praised Jurassic World, the fourth film in the franchise, and a bit of a soft reboot, but truth be told, it's somehow both ridiculous and by the numbers.The plot involves scientists creating a hybrid dinosaur of all the most ferocious species, and the movie contains a scene where a grown man leads a pack of running velociraptors while riding a motorcycle, and yet the film is directed in such an anonymous style, it might as well have been credited to Alan Smithee.
I found myself so unbelievably bored during Jurassic World, I actually started to zone out, thinking about what I'd make for dinner. and also wondering if maybe the critics just missed seeing dinosaurs on the screen. Why is it so difficult to make an engaging film about dinosaurs?
This time, for Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Universal has gone out and hired a genuine auteur to direct. The crazy thing is, jaded, sequel-burnt critics aren't even given it a chance. Says the Rotten Tomatoes summation: "...genuinely thrilling moments are in increasingly short supply."
So The Lost World is full of thrilling moments? Jurassic Park III? Jurassic World? Now with this new one, they're in increasingly short supply? Did you guys even look up from your cell phones while the film was rolling?
Lest I oversell, let me get it out of the way that Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is a profoundly stupid movie. It may be one of the stupidest $200 million-budget movies ever made. But damn if it doesn't look amazing, and isn't a tooth-load of fun. Director, J.A. Bayona, he of The Orphange and When a Monster Calls fame, knows exactly what kind of script he's been handed.
How's this for a plot?
Inexplicable volcano now exists on the same island as the now defunct Jurassic World park, where dinosaurs are running free. Volcano is going to wipe out all the dinosaurs. The leads from the first film, a trashy gamekeeper played by Chris Pratt, and an ever mellowing hard-edged businessperson, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, head to the island to try to save their old dinosaur buddies. HORROR OF HORRORS, though, there's another team on the island who wants to capture and exploit the dinosaurs for personal gain! 
Where have we seen this before?
Oh yeah, it's the same plot as three movies ago! And then the dinosaurs get back to and wreak havoc on the mainland? Yes, this is nearly an identical plot as movie two, The Lost World.
On paper, this is a retreading disaster, but not in Bayona's hands. He's seen Spielberg's The Lost World, and knows that having the leads act like sanctimonious assholes isn't fun for anyone. Man, when Vince Vaughn and Julianne Moore are getting all self-righteous about the dinosaurs getting caged in The Lost World, you can literally see Spielberg behind the camera, pouting his lower lip-out in sad-faced direction. These movies are supposed to be fun.
Bayona's film is the most fun Jurassic Park film since the original. He knows how ridiculous this all is. So why not make it stylish, badass, and awesome? He films a simultaneous dinosaur stampede/volcano eruption/ near drowning sequence in a theme park roller-coaster style so thrilling, pre-00's Spielberg would be taking notes. In an hypnotic, impressionistically lit long shot, Chris Pratt runs full speed at a dude, lifts him off his feet, and slams him into a wall like a professional wrestler. A dinosaur winks at the damn camera. Blue, the well-trained velociraptor from the first film becomes the main protagonist. The last third of the movie is gothic horror set in an old, haunted mansion, midnight moon overhead, lightning strikes creating scary shadow flashes on the walls. If J.A. Bayona is going to create trash, then by golly, it's going to be the kind you want to dig through.
Pratt and Dallas Howard bring just the right combination of dedication and "is this seriously happening"-ness to their roles, running, screaming, punching folks, getting licked by dinosaurs, and ribbing one another. There's a kid, too, because these movies always have a kid, but this one is just a bit more interesting than usual, due to an actually fairly surprising plot twist I won't spoil. There's an "I hate adventures" side character played with pitch-perfect hilariousness by Justice Smith, as well as Daniella Pineda as a tough-as-nails, sarcastic paleo-veterinarian (YES, A PALEO-VETERINARIAN, and also, "Yes, a paleo-veterinarian," is actually a line in the movie). There's also a game Rafe Spall, chewing the scenery as the dino-exploiting villain like an 80's teen comedy bully, because that's exactly how he should be playing the bad guy in this sort of movie.
The true star of the show, though, is Blue the raptor, loyally protecting Pratt and crew, fighting vicious carnivores and evil soldiers alike. If anyone goes through a true "arc" in this film, it's her, and scenes like one of her running and jumping out of a window to escape an explosion like John McClane after she's cleared out a room full of bad guys had me pumping my fist in the air. She's a bonafide action hero. Just write the third movie from her perspective. Speaking of, after Fallen Kingdom's cliffhanger ending, I'm genuinely excited for a Jurassic Park sequel for the first time since 1997.
The original Jurassic World director, Colin Trevorrow, is lined up to direct the third film, and I hope he's taking notes. If truly original ideas are off the table (like making the film solely from the dinosaurs' perspective), then this is what a Jurassic Park movie should be.