Music

52 Weeks, 52 Albums: August

My listening habits in August were like playing with a plate of mash potatoes without eating them. I dabbled with what was in front of me but never got enough to warrant a full impression. That might lead to a lot of albums for September or maybe I’ll never cover any of them. Sometimes you have to be in the right mood for a certain sound and I never found that groove for this month. So there’s only three albums this month. Here they are:

Have a Nice Life – Deathconsciousness

“Boney” is the word I settled on to describe this album. Its technical genre definition falls under shoegazing, ambient, post-rock, but I kept coming back to how almost every single sound feels like it’s reverberating off of bone walls. In a previous entry I talked about how The Mars Volta created an interesting album because you could listen to each song and pay attention to a specific instrument and hear what it was doing at different parts of the song. Deathconsciousness seems like the opposite approach, where focusing on individual tracks is not only impossible but antithetical to the concept of the album. Songs are treated like chemistry concoctions that are meant to be taken all at once. A song like The Big Gloom is easy to mark up as “noise,” since the vocals, guitar and even the drums are hard to make out individually, but the track taken as a whole accomplishes a mood that’s unique to the album.

Deathconsciousness is a dual album, the second part starts at “Waiting for Black Metal Records to Come in the Mail,” which is where the album takes a notable shift toward a harder sound. The tracks on each song are more identifiable as opposed to the ambient pools of noise found in the first half, but the “boney” sound is consistent. The quality of the tracks is mostly consistent from the first half and second half. However like any dual album, it’d probably be better if you selected the best songs from either half and made one really good regular album. In this case: A Quick One Before the Eternal Worm Devour Connecticut, Bloodhail, The Big Gloom, Hunter, Telephony, Waiting for Black Metal Records to Come in the Mail, Holy Fucking Shit: 40,000, and Earthmover. The final track is interesting because it’s the only track I can remember that has a cinematic moment that’s pulled off so well I thought to myself “this is so good, I hope the song never ends.” Followed by an outro that lasted so god damn long I had to acknowledge the song had gone on for too long. It is tough being an eleven minute song I guess.

4/5

Chance the Rapper – Coloring Book

This album came out earlier this year exclusively to either Apple Music or Tidal, either way I didn’t download it because I honestly feel if you’re going to lock your album behind a subscription service you deserve to have your album pirated. I have $10 dollars. I want to buy your product and keep it forever. You won’t let me. This isn’t a legality issue, this is a consumer issue. Anyway, it’s on Spotify now so that’s how I listened to it.

There was a three month period where I listened to Acid Rap on repeat. The sound of that album was something I had never heard before. It made an impression on me and has stuck since. Chance’s hasn’t made an album since and it’s clear that Coloring Book isn’t trying to be Acid Rap. Since 2013, it seemed like Chance was looking at feelings of nostalgia and how to inject them into songs without necessarily having a memory to anchor them to. He touched on this with The Social Experiment where he would perform the Arthur theme song for crowds and get a feel of the vibe of the crowd.

With all that in mind, the sound of Coloring Book makes complete sense. The album has been called “gospel rap,” for its laid back sound, ample jazz instrumentation and credentialed backing vocalists. Chance might not be instilling the psychological effect of nostalgia, but he has all the groundwork. These songs feel immediately familiar, like they’re part of your past. I associated them with relaxing in college townhouse rooms with my friends and listening to music talking about which artists we liked best. After a mere three or four listens the album feels like a classic.

That’s not to say that the album is so good it should be called a new classic, but the type of mood it sets feels like something you’ve been listening to for a while.
That said, there are traditional rap songs that stick out like sore thumbs. They’re dispersed at a rate that suggests Chance wanted to switch up the style every few tracks, which is to the detriment of the overall experience. It’s jarring to go from a personal song like Juke Jam to a loud party track like All Night back to the gospel-inspired song How Great. The majority of the album falls into the vision of a nostalgia-charged sound, which is why the outliers feel so out of place. In fact I got so hung up on those odd sounding songs I thought I didn’t like the album when in reality it’s a pretty solid effort. I need to give it some time before I decide how I can judge it, right now I feel like the tone of the album is great but a little manipulative.

4/5

Frank Ocean – Blonde

I’m not going to bury the lead: I think this album is disappointing. I’m a recent Ocean fan, considering I documented my discovery of Channel Orange just a month ago, but I could immediately see the appeal of Ocean’s artistry and why this album was so anticipated. Last month I noted how Channel Orange preferred scaled back production to focus on vocals and lyrics. It gave the album a pure essence. In a music industry that’s heavily criticized for auto-tune and effects that sedate the listening experience, Ocean’s approach was commendable. Blonde might have been trying to stick to that, but I think it goes too far.

Which is my way of saying this album is really boring. A minimalist beat was cool, but a lot of these tracks simply have no beat at all. Ivy, Solo, Skyline To, Self Control, White Ferrari, Seigfried, and Godspeed are beatless. I might sound like some musical conventionalist who’s reviewing an instrumental band and demanding that there’s vocals, but the choice doesn’t seem to serve a purpose. The songs that go the more traditional route are noticeably better. Nikes, Pink + White and Nights are the songs that reminded that I actually like Frank Ocean. Andre 3000 has a guest track with “Solo (Reprise),” which might give a window into what Ocean may have been going for. The song stands on its own thanks to a dramatic piano and aggressive performance from Andre, but I can’t imagine it would’ve worked if anyone else had tried to do the same.

The whole album doesn’t feel like four years of deep thinking and collaborating. It feels like a project that was thrown together in the past few months without much thought put into it. Most of all, it seems like fans have waited so long for this album they have a hard time admitting that it isn’t very good.

2/5

That’s all I got around to for August, but considering I’ve been ahead schedule for practically every month since I started this, I think I deserve to slow down a bit.

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Politics

The Janitor President: What If A Clinton Administration Was Terrifically Boring?

Long before we knew what this election was going to become someone on my twitter feed remarked that if Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton won it’d be the day that “politics became boring again.” Recent polls have Clinton’s chances of winning so high that she’ll not only win every single swing state, but also claim several red states like Arizona and Georgia. Ironically, Donald Trump may go down as one of the biggest losers in recent history. It’s fun to talk about Trump because he’s the edge case. He’s the guy that might drive all of civilization off a cliff. Even if he didn’t cause the apocalypse, it’s a mystery what his presidency might change if he did win. However, it seems pretty clear that that isn’t going to happen. What also isn’t clear is what a Clinton presidency would look like. Of course we know the general jist of liberal policies and continuing the work Obama started, but how much of Clinton’s campaigning was appealing to voters and how much of it was saying what she intends to do?

Clinton4

In the January debate, MSNBC asked the candidates what they would do in their first 100 days of office. Hillary Clinton answered with this plan:

“I would work quickly to present to the congress my plans for creating more good jobs in manufacturing, infrastructure, clean and renewable energy, raising the minimum wage and guaranteeing finally equal pay for women’s work. I would also be presenting my plans to build on the Affordable Care Act and to improve it by decreasing the out of pocket costs by putting a cap on prescription drug costs by looking for ways that we can put the prescription drug business and the health insurance company business on a more stable platform that doesn’t take too much money out of the pockets of hard working Americans. And third I would be working every way that I knew to bring our country together. We do have too much division. Too much mean spiritedness. There’s a lot we have to do on immigration reform, on voting rights, on campaign finance reform, but we need to do it together. That’s how we’ll have the kind of country for the 21st century that we know will guarantee our children and grandchildren they deserve.” -Hillary Clinton. January 17, 2016.

Sounds pretty detailed. But if you pull that clip back by one minute you’ll see that Bernie Sanders answered first and a different image starts to form. Listening to Sanders’ answer compared to Clinton’s, it shows her answer was meant to mute every single one of his points and portray herself as the more reasonable version of his goals. Sanders says he wants to establish unified health care as a human right, raise minimum wage to 15 dollars, create jobs by rebuilding America’s infrastructure and “bring America together” by making the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes. Keep all that in mind and re-read Clinton’s statement. She matches every single point. It’s a clear debate tactic and not indicative of what she’ll actually do, even if she actually believes in implementing all those ideas on a hypothetical level.

Hillary Clinton Attends Georgetown Institute For Women, Peace And Security Award Ceremony

Another major portion of the Hillary Clinton campaign has been “electing the first female president.” It would be a historical moment in tandem with electing the first black president. Obama’s historic election also saw higher turnout of new voters. The 2008 election saw many black voters showing up on election day for the first time. The thinking for Clinton may be that women would turn out in similar numbers to vote for her and be a part of another historic election. Yet, I’m skeptical that Clinton is as passionate about the in vogue feminist topics as she puts on. Despite pushing for “equal pay for equal work” Clinton’s own staff reportedly had a pay-gap among the female and male staffers. As for her support in the “listen and believe” mantra for sexual assault victims, her complicated history with Bill Clinton’s alleged victims may blur where she truly stands on that issue. I don’t doubt that Clinton has had her own run-ins with gender discrimination and I’m sure she supports the concept of equality, but her political career doesn’t trend toward these types of issues. She’s a big-ideas type of politician who doesn’t get involved with interpersonal policymaking.

Clinton’s preference for looking at the big picture is on display with how she handled the “superpredators” mini-scandal during the campaign trail. When the Bernie Sanders crowd realized he was doing awful with Black Americans, they found an old clip of Hillary Clinton referring to gang members with “zero empathy” as “superpredators” and that they had to be “brought to a heel.” For context, the clip originated from 1996 when Hillary Clinton was First Lady. Bill Clinton had previously passed a Crime Bill that was tougher on criminals as was the national conversation on crime, partly because the House of Representatives and the Senate were both controlled by Republicans who were strongly in favor of “three strikes you’re out.” The clip was taken from this defunct era, literally twenty years ago, brought into the modern day where the word “institutionalized racism” is common and Hillary Clinton was asked if she thought her use of the word was racist. Personally, I thought the question was unfair and it seems most of her supporters agreed because her polling barely saw a downtick.


However, her response shows Clinton’s disinterest with tackling a personal issue like racism. She immediately jumps to underfunded schools and lacking economic opportunities for minorities. Her critiques were primarily from the Black Lives Matter movement, but her response was as if it was a bullet point in a dense economic policy reform. This moment may have been the most illuminating moment of the campaign.

If her answer to the superpredator question didn’t give a sense of her priorities, then her running mate certainly did. Clinton picked Tim Kaine as her running mate reportedly to reinforce her image as the “sensible choice.” After the announcement she gave insight on how she came to this choice over other progressive prospectives like Warren, Castro or Booker:

“I have this old-fashioned idea. If you’re running for president, you should say what you want to do and how you will get it done.” -Hillary Clinton. July 23, 2016.

Tim Kanie is a terrifically boring candidate. There’s nothing on his career resume that jumps out. He runs government efficiently and that’s about all you can say. Which might be exactly what Hillary Clinton wants to do.

Kaine1

I think it’s a fool’s errand to guess what any President’s exact plans will be. The possibilities are nearly endless. It’s probably a good guess to assume that Clinton would tackle education. Obama somewhat famously ignored education in his first term to tackle health care instead. The system hasn’t seen a major reform since No Child Left Behind, which has been called a disaster by both parties, but education isn’t the only aspect of our system that’s in dire straits.

Low-level research on topics like the IRS or America’s infrastructure will reveal that there’s a lot of issues in the country that have needed moderate maintenance for some time. These issues may not be as exciting as ending racism or getting everyone on electric cars, but they are necessary. Since many of these goals are considered “boring,” they get ignored. Even loftier goals like “equal pay for equal work,” a concept that’s disputed in the economics community, sidetracks conversations about maternity leave, or vacation leave. These issues have been on the national stage for twenty years and haven’t seen progress.

Clinton3

Clinton’s positioning of being the “sensible choice,” and her positional preference for big issues, it’s possible she’ll turn out to be the Janitor President. We gave her all our crap. We spat on her the entire time, but maybe she’ll end up doing the job that nobody else wants to do. That might be what we need.

That’s my hopeful wish for her Presidency. If her first week in office she introduces a bill for Campus Speech Zones, I’m going to be pissed.

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Music

52 Weeks, 52 Albums: July

July is the month of patriotism. What’s more patriotic than independence day and two political party conventions? Staying true to your New Year’s Resolution, that’s what. I surpassed my prescribed four albums this month once again, let’s see what got listened too:

Anderson Paak – Malibu


Earlier in the month an Imgur album dropped of smart rappers for people who already don’t hate rap. Most of the list was filled with artists who had yet to release a full length album, but one of the exceptions was Paak, who released Malibu earlier this year. Malibu is Paak’s second album, following his 2015 release “Venice,” which means he must have some interest in California beach cities. Oddly enough I started working in Malibu in June and that’s partly why I started listening to the album. Although the album doesn’t portray Malibu’s culture or lifestyle at all.

I wish I had a word for how I feel about Paak’s Malibu but for now it’s somewhere between “inoffensive,” and “decent.” The album starts strong with the track “The Bird,” which shows an inspired blend of Paak’s ability as a rapper and a vocalist, as he mixes the two styles throughout the song. The start of the song is hooked by a plucking guitar and vibrating bass, but once I got a sense that Paak was a classy individual he cemented it with a well-placed trumpet and some light piano. These instruments dip in and out of the track so their presence is always felt but never feel overdone. It’s an impressive opener that got me excited for the rest of the album, but the rest of the tracks are hard to write about.

The following tracks: The Waters, The Season | Carry Me, Silicon Valley, or Celebrate, are totally fine tracks, but I can’t imagine anyone ever choosing to listen to them. I had a short-spat adoration for Lite Weight, but it’s a catchy retro song that’s popiness loses its luster after a few repeat listens. Looking back at the album I realize I only really found myself enjoying The Bird and Without You (mostly carried by Rapsody). 3/5

Frank Ocean – channel ORANGE


Following my disappointment with Paak, I looked up similar artists and stumbled upon Frank Ocean. I’ve been hearing about Ocean since 2013 when I started listening to Tyler the Creator. I keep hearing Ocean fans asking when he’ll release his long-awaited follow-up to Channel Orange, which was released in 2012. While I don’t share the adoration for this album as Ocean’s biggest fans, it was definitely a step-up from Malibu.

My initial impression of Ocean was just how different his sound is from the crew he was attached with at the time. Channel Orange was released under Def Jam, but Ocean was (to my recollection) said in the same breath as other Odd Future artists like Tyler the Creator or Earl Sweatshirt. Compared to their aggressive, angry, hate-filled rapping, Ocean’s nostalgia-driven grooves were a surprise to me. Even the opening track is ambient sounds of a PlayStation 1 getting booted up.

In terms of production, Ocean has a lot of confidence in his voice carrying all of his songs. Most of the songs follow relatively simple rhythms and melodies leaving all your focus on Ocean’s lyrics and vocals. For good reason, he’s a hell of a singer. This is established with the first song, Thinkin Bout You, a song that only has some ambient wavy noises combined with a drum beat that could be played by Meg White, but the focus on Ocean’s vocals is reinforced on pretty much every other song. There’s a pureness to all of the songs that makes them easy to enjoy and the path to relating to Ocean’s lyrics is much more direct. However, there are exceptions to this format. The mammoth ten minute song “Pyramids,” goes through multiple phases and has quite a bit going on… but it’s also the song I skip pretty consistently. There’s actually a few other songs I skip because they don’t feel like “real” efforts. Fertilizer, Sierra Leone, Not Just Money, Monks, Bad Religion… the album would probably be better without these songs. But everything else that’s left is some high quality soulful stuff. Color me orange and call me an Ocean fan. 4/5

Carissa’s Wierd – Songs About Leaving


Alright guys let’s get real depressed now. I was glancing at a list of things to listen to and from the title of this album alone I knew it was up my alley. It also helps that all the song titles are equally to the point. Some of the best titles (and songs) include: Ignorant Piece of Shit, They’ll Only Miss You When You Leave, Low Budget Slow Motion Soundtrack Song for the Leaving Scene, Sofisticated Fuck Princess Please Leave Me Alone. It’s some self-deprecating shit. I mean that in the best way possible.

It’s hard to summarize Carissa’s Wierd (spelled incorrectly on purpose) without sounding like you should be on anti-depressants, but maybe that’s part of why it’s such a perfect band. It needs to exist for those who need it. I’ve learned people deal with grief differently. Some feel the onset of misery and want to launch themselves out of it by filling their life with good times and happiness. Others want to stew in the filth of sadness, let it sink in their pores, then once they fully understand the full depth of their self-loathing, the negativity becomes an experience that they carry with them for the rest of their life. They’re no longer sad or bitter, but they’re wiser for it. If you’re someone who identifies as the latter, than Carissa’s Wierd is a band for you.

There are scores of people who will judge you for listening to any of these songs, and there are probably several dozens more who will call the suicide hotline on your behalf. But for a select few, this album is pure catharsis. For those times in your life when you want to stare into the distance without making eye contact with anyone, because the only place you’re looking is into your own head. I think this album is phenomenally beautiful, even if it comes across like the soundtrack of slitting your wrists. 5/5

Aphex Twin – Richard D. James Album


In 2014 I think I heard about Aphex Twin for 2 months straight. Apparently they released a new album? I decided to check out this super acclaimed well-known album. All I can say is: Really? This? These 2-3 minute bitesize electronic tracks have people going nuts? This album sounds like an alternate universe where video game composers have full-time jobs making full-length albums. Which is to say this album sounds like 45 minutes of noises. Trash. 1/5

Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes


This was a frustrating listen because I genuinely enjoyed the first track quite a bit. I could appreciate the folky, multilayered vocals and I could even get past the vaguely religious feel of the band. But every track after that got waaaaay too folky for me. When the second track of your album is literally a hymn, you’re a little too hipster for me. 2/5

Built To Spill – Perfect From Now On


I did some light reading on what review outlets said about the album when it was released in 1997 and what I extracted was Built to Spill was typically a normal “indie rock” band, but with this album they decided to focus on very long songs. The shortest track is four minutes and 52 seconds, and the average length of a song for the album is closer to six minutes. The result is an indie sound with progressive-rock structures. They start off very approachable, but eventually drone into these epic amalgamations of different ideas. The song Velvet Waltz demonstrates what they’re going for really well, it’s also my favorite track. I Would Hurt A Fly, Out of Site, and Untrustable are also some select songs to check out. It took me a few listens of the whole album to really “get it,” but once I did, it was easy to call one of my favorites. 4/5

I’m already a few listens into my next few albums, so I’m on track for next month’s rendition. See you then.

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Music

52 Weeks, 52 Albums: May-June

I’ll be doing monthly wrap-ups for now on. Since I missed the end of May, I’ll just pretend I didn’t in the future. Anyway, let’s talk about some stuff:

Chvrches – Every Open Eye

I got introduced to Chvrches after going to The Game Awards in 2015 where they performed Leave A Trace. They’re what I would call electronic pop hooked together by lead vocals from Lauren Mayberry. I say pop because all of the tracks are insanely catchy. I found myself, someone who typically observes stoically, dancing along to a lot of the tunes. Tracks like Clearest Blue, High Enough To Carry You Over, and Empty Threat just asked to be moved along with. Whereas other songs like Never Ending Circles, Keep You On My Side, and Playing Dead are easy to sing along with.
You can see how the album’s variances between karaoke and dance tracks makes it easy to listen to the whole thing without realizing it. I ended up buying Every Open Eye pretty quickly and I still listen to it on occasion. Whenever I start playing it I’ll end up going through the whole thing. It also helps that the final track, Afterglow, is a decent finisher track. 4/5

Christine and the Queens – Christine and the Queens

I was invited to a Grimes concert in Los Angeles and the opening acts were Christine and the Queens, and Tei Shi. I had never heard of either artist so I decided to check them out before going to the show. Christine and the Queens is practically a solo artist from France. “The Queens,” are the band members, much like “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.” Christine’s lyrical content touches on LGBT topics, which seems to be the draw for a lot her fans (by the way her legal name is Heloise Letissier, but every fan I met at the concert referred to her as “Christine”). For example the first track on the album is called “iT” and some of the lines include: “she wants to be a man, but she lies, she wants to be born again, but she’ll lose, she draws her own crotch by herself, but she’ll lose because it’s a fake, it’s a fake, it’s a fake, it’s a fake.” Of course she’s not a one-trick pony, with other songs delving into typical topics like love and loss, etc.

Christine’s music is something that would fit at a Grimes concert. I’d characterize it as more low-key than the hyperactive Grimes-style of electronic music, but there’s still a lot of synths. Some of my favorite tracks include Saint Claude, Tilted (which was named Song of the Year by Time), Science Fiction, and Paradis Perdus. Paradis Perdus is unique because it’s actually a mix of an original song by Christine and a cover of Kanye West’s Heartless. It’s an interesting blend, and as a huge Kanye fan, made me like Christine quite a lot. I purchased the album, and I’d say the whole thing is worth listening to but the last few tracks are extremely forgettable. For a first album, it’s a quality debut. 3/5

Tei Shi – Verde

The other opener at the Grimes concert was a lesser known artist named Tei Shi. On her Wikipedia there’s a line from The Fader that says she’s “known for making whispery, slow and sensual bedroom pop,” which sounds somewhat accurate but her best song is the complete opposite. I specifically listened to her “Verde” release because it had the track “Bassically,” which might be the most empowering song I’ve ever heard. An explanation doesn’t do it much justice, so I’d give it a listen. The anchor point of the song is Tei Shi’s vocals that start off timid and build to this visceral yell of emotion. It’s goose-bump inducing. Hearing that song live is an experience. The rest of the songs off of Verde are ok. Go Slow is a stand-out, but otherwise I’d hope that Tei Shi releases more. There’s potential. 2/5

Death Cab for Cutie – Transatlanticism

The friend I saw the concert with is a bit of a music junkie and they suggested a few different albums based on the previous albums I had listened to so far. Since I had The Postal Service, and I mentioned I liked it, they suggested Death Cab’s Transatlanticism. I was skeptical since Death Cab has been synonymous with ridicule but since I’m not in High School anymore I figured why not. I can say with some amount of confidence that I ended up embracing my inner emo and enjoyed the album quite a bit. I think Death Cab gets away with their style of music because the lead singer, Ben Gibbard, doesn’t make excuses for himself. All of the lyrical content on Transatlanticism is equally as hard on himself as it is on “life.”

Gibbard’s lyrics are one of the main attractions to Death Cab, specifically because of his ability to articulate difficult emotions. The track “Title And Registration,” starts off a bit bizarre, declaring that glovebox compartments should change their names because they never have gloves in them, but transitions to be about how he’d open the glovebox (a compartment that is rarely opened) and find old pictures of a past relationship. It’s a very human song, without any of the pretense found in other songs that try to depict love emotions as some grandeur concept. The rest of the album continues these themes. As for Death Cab’s comparison to The Postal Service, I’m personally more of a fan of Death Cab’s sound. The guitar/bass/drum conventional sound is more appealing to me. Especially on the pop tracks like Sound of Settling or Expo 86. 4/5

Broken Social Scene – You Forgot it in People

Let the nostalgia of High School continue. You Forgot it in People is a deceptive album because I began listening to it for the first few tracks, but I really fell in love with the second half of the album. The first few songs are very eclectic. They fall under the loose “indie rock” definition, but with my limited palette I would say some of the songs reminded me of Interpol’s catalog. Then after the track “Looks Just Like the Sun,” which is an acoustic track, the whole album is practically a designed nostalgia trip. Every song’s content, instrument choice, and overall sound, feels like it dropped out of memory in the back of your head.

The tracks themselves are called “Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl,” or “Late Nineties Bedroom Rock for Missionaries,” and songs like “Lover’s Spit,” describe a room full of people making out. Apparently the band Broken Social Scene is made up of upwards of eleven people dedicated to various different instruments, and you can hear that in the songs. With various flutes, violins, trumpets, trombones, and whatever else coming in when it feels right. It’s practically impossible to listen to these songs without reminiscing about your past. It’s a neat little experiment, and I didn’t mind having my emotions manipulated with while listening to the album. Although the first few songs grow tiresome very quickly. 3/5

Brand New – The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me

Hey while we’re reminiscing about High School and listening to emo music, let’s bring out the dark side, yeah? The side that listened to Linkin Park. What happened to that person? Well if they didn’t grow up, they’d probably be listening to Brand New and I mean that in the best way possible. Brand New is basically a credible version of Good Charlotte or some band like that. Their music is legitimately constructed and the content is more mature. This specific album was apparently written when the members of Brand New “had gotten very accustomed to going to funerals,” which explains a lot of the divine questioning in songs like “Jesus Christ.” I liked this album because Brand New is pretty good at crafting quiet moments, but by and large they prefer to go loud and heavy, which I wasn’t a huge fan of. Some songs, like “You Won’t Know,” are pretty obnoxious about it, with a minute and a half of near-silence then loud guitars. This is repeated in “Welcome to Bangkok.” I get that some people live for those massive drops, but I’m really over it. My personal favorites were Millstone, Jesus Christ, Degausser, and Limousine. 3/5

Death Grips – The Money Store

I actually tried listening to The Money Store a lot earlier in the year but it didn’t click. I had listened to Death Grips’ mixtape last year and was a fan of a few songs, but their first album wasn’t coming together in the same way. Then in the middle of May, it dawned on me: I need to listen to Death Grips right now. This album has practically been on repeat since. Part of it might be that there’s simply no other band like Death Grips. Within that qualifier, there’s no other album by Death Grips like The Money Store. Their approach to each album is different and the results are never exactly the same. The Money Store’s raw adrenaline and unique aesthetics are a mood you have to be in. Oddly enough the only song I skip on the whole album is I’ve Seen Footage, specifically because it’s not insane enough. It sounds too normal. Otherwise, I start the album at Get Got, and listen to the whole thing. Sometimes I skip to The Fever, or The Cage, if I’m in a rush. The whole album is a syringe of adrenaline, but one you have to get acquainted to. 5/5

Death From Above 1979 – You’re A Women, I’m A Machine

Death Grips kicked off an aggressive trend for a few albums, continuing with Death From Above1979’s You’re A Woman, I’m A Machine. This duo is made up of a drummer, and a bassist/vocalist which makes for a very identifiable sound, but also one that struggles to mix things up. Most of the songs sound like all the other ones. I found myself preferring the tracks Romantic Rights, Blood On Our Hands, and Little Girl, compared to the rest of it so there’s clearly some difference. I can commend the sense of energy brought to the album from a distance, the truth is I didn’t spend much time listening to it. 2/5

At The Drive-In – Relationship Of Command

Feeling the need to fill that hole for quality post-hardcore/punk, I gravitated toward At The Drive-In. Relationship Of Command was released in 2000 as the band’s third and final album, although the guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez and frontman Cedric Bixler-Zavala would go on to form The Mars Volta. Some similarities can be drawn between the two bands but At The Drive-In’s signature is the kick-your-face in energy. The album starts off big with Arcarsenal, with a build-up leading to Bixler-Zavala’s yelling vocals. Personally I was impressed with Bixler-Zavala’s ability within the first song. He’s very clearly yelling for most of the album, but it still sounds melodic, as opposed to an untrained guttural scream. Even though rowdier frontmen have proven to be a one-trick pony, Bixler-Zavala proves his singing credentials on later tracks such as Quarantined, Non-Zero Possibility or the album’s best track: Invalid Litter Dept. As much as I enjoyed Relationship Of Command for what it was, I felt like it was really close to something even better, which is why I decided to immediately jump into the next album… 3/5

The Mars Volta – Deloused in the Comatorium

After Relationship Of Command was released, Omar-Rodriguez and Bixler-Zavala left At The Drive-In and started working on a band called “De-Facto,” they eventually formed a “fluid” lineup and the band formed into The Mars Volta. “Fluid” may be an understatement. Renown bassist Flea, plays bass on 9 of the 10 tracks for Comatorium because they individually asked him to play the track for each of the nine tracks, unable to find anyone else. In their early days, The Mars Volta were heavy into drug use, and not kind that gets humorously represented in Hollywood movies. One of the founding members of The Mars Volta died of a heroin overdose during the tour for Comatorium. Afterwards Bixler-Zavala vowed to stop doing opioids, but there’s a lot of stuff in between sobriety and opioids. Bixler-Zavala and Omar-Rodriguez’s departure from At The Drive-In was partly because of their “creative difference” over drug use in the band.
However the results speak for themselves. Deloused in the Comatorium is one of those albums where you think “you’d have to be out of your mind to make something like this.” The average song length is technically six minutes, but if you take out the two intermission tracks, the average is a little over seven minutes. The songs demand these lengths to encapsulate their epic scale. The words “rock opera” come to mind. Reviews for the album have compared The Mars Volta’s first effort as a combination of influences that lies somewhere between Rush and Tool.
As a huge Tool fan, I can say I certainly found myself falling into similar listening habits. The songs themselves have an obvious hook. Most commonly found in Bixler-Zavala’s vocals, as he sings cryptic lyrics which allude meaning even when you know what he’s saying. After the initial listen I would go back and listen to one instrument: the bass, the guitar, the drums, or the little sounds in between. Each part will go off and do their own thing or come back together in ways that makes dedicating a listen worthwhile. In short—I feel I can keep coming back to this album for a long time. I feel pretty confident saying that, since I got into Frances The Mute sometime late last year and I still turn on Cassandra Gemini and listen to the whole thing without fail. 5/5
Alright, next time I’ll post at the end of July.

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Uncategorized, Video Games

REVIEW: Stellaris Shows Promise For The Future

For many people, Paradox Development Studio’s games are that nut that refuses to crack. You can go to Twitch or YouTube and find endless videos of people streaming games like Victoria II or Hearts of Iron III and see people entrenched in these amazing stories of warfare and political intrigue, yet playing the games for yourself never seems to turn out that way. Paradox games are infamous for their deep and layered systems that scare new players who get intimidated by so many mechanics without a sufficient tutorial to guide the way. The studio has seen more success with its recent games, Europa Universalis IV and Crusader Kings II, but the steep learning curve critique remained. That’s likely what led to many of the design decisions of their newest game Stellaris, a grand strategy game set in space. Stellaris ditches the overbearing historical baggage of Paradox’s past work and with it goes a lot of the depth of those games, but as a result the studio has succeeded in making their most approachable game yet.

In Stellaris you rule over an intergalactic space empire with ambitions to rule the universe. At the start of the game you select which race you want to play. This is a great way for Paradox to hit you with an immense amount of information that you don’t understand. Each race lists a tremendous amount of information about itself. There are different traits per race, as well as preferred planet types. Each government has different types of elections, in addition to ruling ethics that shape the way their society is formed. There’s also a variance on how each empire’s ships are designed, whether they use warp, hyperlane, or wormhole travel, and if they use kinetic, laser, or missile weapons. All of this is very overbearing so it’s best to just pick a random one and dive in.

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As it turns out, which race your pick first doesn’t actually matter because failing at Stellaris is the most fun you’ll have with the game. Whereas games like Crusader Kings II suffered from frustrating questions like “How does trade work?” Stellaris exclusively deals in questions such as “What’s the best way to stop this robot uprising?” Stellaris’ user interface is easy to grasp, and whatever concepts you don’t understand are easily explained by an advisor who can quickly explain it to you (or you can turn them off). You’re always tackling the challenge of the game, as opposed to struggling to decipher the user interface. Tumbling down the rabbit hole of discovering what each system in Stellaris does is how you’ll spend most of your time with the game. Almost all of your playthroughs will end with you losing or choosing to start over because you know you can do better.

Once you get a handle on the systems, the real marvel of the game starts to shine. For example, when defeating an enemy empire in war, you take their planets. This will grant you a new planet, more resources, and more population… but that population is a completely different race than yours. This newly conquered race doesn’t necessarily want to be conquered by you, so what can you do? Well, lots of things. You can relocate all the new denizens to your current planets and integrate them slowly. Or you could pass an edict on your newly acquired planet and hail it as a “land of opportunity,” which would cause your own race to flock to it and speed up integration. Or you could open the “Factions” panel and bribe the Separatists faction and hope they stop spreading propaganda that seeds unhappiness. Or you could create a vassal state of this new planet and not worry about it. Or you could pass a Xeno Leaders resolution, elect a governor to the planet who’s the same race as those new denizens which would massively increase happiness. Or hey, you could also enslave all of them. Or better yet, why not just “purge,” them all, which is Stellaris’ nice way of saying “commit genocide.” Yes, in Stellaris you can totally be a Space Nazi.

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There’s a huge amount of options available for each scenario and depending on how you want to rule your empire there’s different approaches to take. These playstyles are encouraged by the various systems in the game. For example, those ethics and governments? If you want to be a Space Nazi, you can select “Fanatic Militarist,” and “Xenophobe,” which will increase your army’s effectiveness, and your tolerance for slavery/purge. In addition to that, you can select the trait “Decadent,” which will reduce your race’s happiness unless they’re ruling over slaves. On the other end of the spectrum, you can also select the ethics “Pacifist,” and “Xenophile,” which will increase the number of embassies you can maintain with other empires, and lower the amount of food your race consumes per population. These ethics directly affect what type of government each empire has, which drastically affects the AI behavior of the various empires you encounter across the stars.

Although these playstyles seem to be encouraged through the mechanics, the victory conditions of the game send a clear message: domination or bust. The only two ways to “win” at Stellaris are by ruling over all the other empires, or by colonizing 40% of the planets in the universe. Both victory conditions are insurmountable, so it may be that “winning” the game isn’t exactly the point (previous Paradox games did not have “victory conditions”), but the game reaches a stand still after a few hours. Once you expand your borders to their limit, and research everything possible, you get to the point where you either have to start blowing people up or start over again. If you rolled as a Military Dictator this might sound awesome, but there are a variety of playstyles that are specifically punished for declaring war or for being in wars at all, even defensive ones.

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Replaying the game will also lose its intrigue after game four or five once you really understand all the systems, and specifically what is more or less effective. Once it dawned on me that the game really prefers you play as a military role, I didn’t see the point in playing the more diplomatic or scientific governments. Stellaris doesn’t have the luxury of a “map” like Europe, but the absence of one leaves Paradox in an awkward position. In Europa Universalis IV, there are well-known challenges, such as playing as Ireland and taking over all of the United Kingdom, or spreading Christianity across the Middle East. These might be obscure for people who never played those games, but they offered reasons to keep going back, and multiple attempts would yield multiple results. Stellaris tries to replicate them through random encounters such as robot uprisings or inter-dimensional invasions, but they don’t occur consistently enough to make every playthrough unique.

Paradox’s reputation for supporting their games after launch may put these concerns to rest. In fact, I was going to add a paragraph about the bugs I experienced while playing the game, including one save game that was stuck since I couldn’t conclude a war, but when I loaded the game today after a patch the bug was fixed. In addition to that small fix, there were small user-interface changes, and this is only a few weeks after release. Paradox continues to support games like Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV multiple years after their release, with DLC and small patches every few months.

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With this in mind, it’s easy to see Stellaris as the base of a game that hasn’t reached its potential yet. As on now, learning the mechanics of Stellaris is certainly enjoyable. It’s easy to summarize in a few paragraphs, but in reality I spent well over 40 hours with the game before I got a grasp on the mechanics. It takes a long time to understand the game and that process of discovery is worth having. If you’re an experienced Paradox veteran who’s looking for the next level, or if painting the map with your own brand of imperial Stormtroopers doesn’t sound appealing, I’d wait until an inevitable expansion is released. On the other hand, if you’re someone who’s wanted to get in on the Paradox bandwagon, but found the previous games too complicated, then Stellaris is a great entry point.

3/5

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Movies

REVIEW: X-Men Apocalypse Ends The World Of Good X-Men Movies

To the average movie-gover, X-Men: Apocalypse is probably an okay movie. If you’re the type of person who found the quality between X-Men Origins: Wolverine and X-Men: First Class indistinguishable, than this is the film for you (especially considering the former made more money than the latter). For anyone who takes a more critical approach to their film-watching experience, it’s easy to be down on X-Men: Apocalypse. It’s a film that ended, and although I wouldn’t say I immediately disliked it, I’ve found I have nothing but bad things to say about it. Most criticisms come from watching better action movies, or if you want to get more specific, better superhero movies. But since we’re at the ninth X-Men film, a lot of these thoughts come from watching better X-Men movies, and the truth is Apocalypse ranks closer to X3: The Last Stand than any other installment.

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The first issue with Apocalypse is that the plot is all over the place and there’s no main character to center your focus. Magneto is trying to live a normal life, Mystique is saving mutants, Charles continues to have his school, a young Cyclops discovers his powers and gets introduced to Charles, and while all this is going on there’s a villain being discovered by CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) in Egypt. This isn’t even all of the dangling threads and I can’t possibly explain in a succinct paragraph how they all converge but the short answer is: poorly, and it takes well over an hour for things to get moving. Whereas previous films like X2 or First Class were typically centered on Charles and company, or Days of Future’s Past was uniquely anchored by Wolverine, Apocalypse has no such center point. There was an outcry in some circles that Mystique, a typical “villain” character in the franchise, would be headlining as the hero of the film due to Jennifer Lawrence’s popularity, but even her character struggles to remain relevant. There’s no one leading the charge to get the band back together. The film floats from scene to scene without a real purpose. At the same time it feels like every character’s moment is rushed so we can get to the next one, but none of them end up getting significant developments.

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If any character gets a huge amount of screen time it’s the villain Apocalypse, which is to the detriment of the film since he’s easily one of the lamest villains in superhero history. His backstory is explained as a mutant whose ability is transferring his consciousness into other mutants. When he transfers he keeps all his old powers and gains whatever power the new host possesses. He apparently did this for thousands of years back when the date ended in “BC,” so he has quite a few now. This might sound cool for comic-book readers but in terms of dramatic storytelling it amounts to Apocalypse singing “anything you can do, I can do better,” the entire movie. Every confrontation with him is dull specifically because Apocalypse is so overpowered. Apocalypse can warp across the globe in an instant, he has a bubble shield that protect him from every projectile that could possibly be thrown at him, he can deflect all forms of telekinesis, and he can repair damaged limbs. The X-Men never come close to making a dent. Until they do of course, but by that point it just feels like movie is saying “well, it’s been two hours, we better wrap this up.” It doesn’t feel like a natural conclusion, but rather one done out of necessity.

In fact, most of the subplots feel forced. X-Men: Apocalypse sees most of the cast of characters more divided than ever before, but they come together faster than previous films, likely because the film didn’t know how to naturally make that evolution occur. Characters like Magneto start off on a dark note, probably the darkest in the entire franchise. You’d think they’d have to dedicate the rest of the film to pull him out of the hole he’s sunk into. Instead, he’s handled half-assedly. Repeating themes from the previous films, without introducing anything new. He’s barely an element in the final few scenes, and in fact the conclusion to his “arc” (if you can call it that) isn’t even handled by new footage, but rather archive footage from First Class. They literally couldn’t be bothered to develop his character with this new film. It really is a joke.

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This can also be said for Moira MacTaggert and her relationship with Charles. It’s mentioned that her memory was wiped since the previous film, so even though she’s interacting with the X-Men again, she doesn’t actually know who they are. Although there’s some dodgy mentions of their past relationship at the beginning of the film, the subplot is dropped, and then suddenly brought back up again at the very end. The whole thing feels like an afterthought, as if to say “Oh crap, we forgot to have a romance storyline in this movie!” The character arcs and plot has always been the best part of the X-Men franchise, as proven by its installments such as X2, First Class, and Days of Future Past. Apocalypse undoubtedly suffers the most because its storyline is half-baked at every level.

If you’re coming to X-Men for anything but story, I think you’ve already messed up, because the action sequences in this film are lackluster at best. Compared to films like Captain America: Civil War, which I was a huge fan of, X-Men: Apocalypse looks like amateur’s work. None of the sequences feel like they take advantage of the mutant powers. Even the fights between Nightcrawler and Angel, which have every reason to be some of the most thrilling experiences in cinema history, are simply satisfactory at best. I don’t know how you make a fight between a teleporter and a flying-guy who throws blades seem mediocre. X-Men: Apocalypse was directed by Bryan Singer, the same director that did X2 and brought us this Nightcrawler sequence which I would argue is the precursor to the fantastic action choreography we see in all the marvel films today. He has the capability and resources to create the spectacle that superhero films are all about. If a film can’t deliver on an effective storyline, the least they can do is make an action sequence that’s worth a damn.

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With all this in mind it’s important to keep perspective. Most of these complaints could also be leveled against X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and most people didn’t have a problem with that movie. Really, I didn’t even mind X-Men: Apocalypse that much, but I find it hard to say anything good about it. Even the good things are marred by further critiques. Take for example one of the best moments of the film: the Quicksilver sequence. Quicksilver arrives on scene and zips around saving people from an explosion. It’s a humorous and fun sequence… but it’s bookended by a character’s death and a dramatically draining scene. The choice to put the Quicksilver scene at that moment reminds me of the tonal issues in Thor: The Dark World, another lackluster superhero film. If that type of criticism means anything to you, than X-Men: Apocalypse isn’t worth your time. Otherwise, it’s an average film that you probably won’t think that much about.

2/5

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Movies

REVIEW: Captain America Civil War Ends With Marvel Winning, Their Best Film Yet

Looking at box office numbers, it’d seem like Marvel reigns from the top of the world, breaking their own records every year. Personally I’ve been checked out from the studio’s films since Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s not that I have a specific criticism that can take down the quality of Guardians of Galaxy, or Ant Man, or Age of Ultron. They’re all fine, but that’s kind of the problem. “Fine” isn’t a word that energizes me to spend $15 dollars at the movie theater. These movies have become carbon copies of each other and are the very definition vanilla, inoffensive moviemaking. It’s a far cry from the genuine excitement that we felt when Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, and the Hulk stood next to each other for the first time in 2012 and assembled The Avengers. I’ve been wanting something to change in the formula for a while now. Which is why the concept for Captain America: Civil War immediately caught my attention. This wasn’t the typical sell of “good guys fight the bad guys and go home,” there was the potential of something more. Sure enough, Civil War proves a genuine progression The Avenger’s storyline. It acts as a dark middle chapter in the arc, and plants seeds for both the future of the heroes, and the cinematic universe as a whole.

Captain America: Civil War is unique because it pits the good guys against themselves. Following the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron, where the Avengers drop a city on the earth with a huge amount of collateral damage, the global community has turned against the Avengers. In response, The United Nations and America push through a proposal that would bind their activities unless they were specifically government sanctioned. This also means that the Avengers themselves are seen as “government property,” similar to a nuclear bomb. Their gear and equipment, such as Cap’s shield or Iron Man’s suits, wouldn’t belong to them anymore. This issue divides the crew, with some believing government oversight is necessary to reel in their recklessness, and others thinking only Avengers know what’s best.

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This plot point of government oversight is ingenious because it not only allows an easy diving-in point for each character’s back story, but is also easily applicable to any audience viewer. Especially in today’s political climate, the concept of private organization versus government operation is something hotly debated in public discourse. Granted this is still “just a superhero movie,” but I applaud Marvel’s efforts to push the franchise into more mature themes. I couldn’t help but think about all the High School essays that might be written about this movie. As for how government oversight affects the characters themselves, each character has their own take on the concept.

Of course the biggest two egos in the room end up being Steve Rodgers (Captain America) and Tony Stark (Iron Man) who end up ideologically opposed, but the film is smart never to depict their disagreement as a cartoonish rivalry. In fact, both characters desperately want to work with one another. Stark has his own reasons for agreeing with the proposal, but he also believes it’s best that the Avengers stick together and is willing to meet Rodgers’ requirements to accomplish cohesion. For Rodgers, he’s close to signing on but his involvement is complicated by the reemergence of Bucky Barnes, the Winter Solider. Barnes’ past as a sleeper agent for Hydra makes him a target for the governments of the world, and Rodgers is set on protecting him. This forces Rodgers to betray the government’s trust, and pits him against Stark and other Avengers.

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With Rodgers and Stark making up the heads of the two sides there are obvious characters who go along with them. For example, James Rhodes (War Machine), a staple of the Iron Man franchise, sides with Stark. Sam Wilson (Falcon), a regular in the Captain America series, sides with Rodgers. Again, the film is smart not to portray these allegiances as obvious phone-ins. Rhodes and Wilson come to their decision before Stark or Rodgers utter their feelings on the matter. Although it inevitably ends up as “Stark and friends versus Rodgers and friends,” it feels like natural independent characters making their own decisions. This is summarized best by Clint Barton (Hawkeye) who sides with Rodgers for seemingly no explainable reason, but keen viewers of Age of Ultron will deduce that Barton’s choice is likely due to his loyalty to Wanda Maximoff (Scarlet Witch) due to her brother saving him in that film. This attention to detail is present at every level of the film. Every scene feels necessary, and with such a large ensemble cast, every bit of information is a gift. No character’s motivation is left unattended to, even if it’s the first time we’re meeting them.

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Speaking of which, there are two new characters in Civil War. I was pessimistic about the introduction of new heroes after how they handled blatant marketing throughout Age of Ultron. Miraculously, Civil War seems to have taken the opposite approach with the introduction of Black Panther and Spiderman. Both characters seem to be introduced as the solution to a narrative roadblock in the film. Black Panther acts as an elusive third party to the conflict between Stark and Rodgers. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s been harmed by the events that force him to act. His involvement is a wild card that adds another layer of tension, reminding the audience that even if Stark and Rodgers made friends, the story isn’t over. Spiderman is a less necessary addition, since he doesn’t serve a plot purpose, but he’s used to even out the sides of the conflict which otherwise would heavily favor Rodgers. His short scene glances over the “I got my powers, my Uncle is dead,” which hopefully means when Marvel reboots Spiderman in the future we won’t have to sit through that for the third time. Spiderman’s introduction is aptly done, and more importantly his inclusion in the action sequences make the set pieces all the more thrilling.

And the action of this film cannot be understated. Marvel has developed a reputation for quality set pieces, but this is by far the best so far. The choreography is something worth studying and copying until the end of time. Every gun shot, punch thrown, jump made, or hit taken, is easy to follow and the sum of each sequence leaves you bedazzled. Of course the highlight is the inevitable showdown between each side of heroes as they use their full deck of powers against each other, but the rest of the film has equally electrifying moments. The stakes are very high in this film. With an ensemble cast, and the knowledge that a few actors are at the end of their contract, it’s easy to believe that any number of these conflicts could conclude with the end of one of the Avengers. The action certainly sells the lethality of the encounters, and grips your attention for that reason.

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In fact, the whole film is exactly that: gripping. While 2012’s Avengers may have survived on likability and comedic relief, Captain America: Civil War relies on a captivating central plot and exciting set pieces. It’s for this reason that for my tastes, I’d say Civil War is the best film from Marvel. It contributes something to your life and creates a conversation point. If you were an Avenger, how would you feel about government oversight? Was Stark or Rodgers right? The film goes in a certain direction to give you a conclusive answer, but the question remains as an interesting hypothetical. Even outside of that central plot. The character developments with Stark’s guilt, Rodger’s duty, or Black Panther’s views on revenge, are more mature than any of Marvel’s previous films. It’s for all these reasons that I left Captain America: Civil War not only impressed with its quality, but energized to see what they’d create next. Consider my faith restored, for now.

5/5

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