OPERATION BACKLOG SLOG (BLOG): Episode 8

This update includes a fair bit of content you wouldn’t expect from someone of such niche tastes and preferences as me. The big surprise was Lady Gaga (but then again, I’ll be shocked if anyone needs to read my review to decide whether or not Lady Gaga is worth listening to.) But before we get to music, I’ll begin with the game that has been devouring all my free time since I started playing it this Sunday:

VIDEO GAMES:

Shadow Complex for Xbox Live Arcade (Epic Games) – Thank goodness for Xbox Live Arcade, the last refuge of truly awesome game styles like the “MetVania” Nonlinear Action Platformer. What’s a “MetVania”? It’s a term for games like Nintendo’s Metroid series and Konami’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. These games are action platformers with an emphasis on exploration and non-linear progression (meaning that the game doesn’t consist of constantly walking from the left side of the screen to the right.) The developers of Shadow Complex were refreshingly honest about their design process – they admitted upfront that their goal was to take everything that made Super Metroid one of the greatest video games of all time and create their own game using that formula. The end result is, in a word, INCREDIBLE. Not only did they manage to replicate most of the mechanics of the MetVania games (massive, labyrinthine areas to explore, tons of fun items to find and use, intriguing boss fights that require critical thinking in addition to twitch-reflexes, a VERY useful map system,) but they managed to give the game that elusive characteristic that so few have had since the advent of 3-D gaming: honest-to-goodness replay value. Shadow Complex is fun to play again and again, even when you’re not trying to find new pathways or hidden unlockables. It’s great to just run around with items like the grappling line and the foam cannon, swinging through areas like Spider-Man and firing canisters of immobilizing (and sometimes explosive) foam at unsuspecting guards. Its small file size and Live Arcade design makes it easier to pick up and play than 2009’s other amazing MetVania game, Batman: Arkham Asylum (weirdly enough, there were no new Metroid or Castlevania games for any of the major systems in 2009.)


One of the only drawbacks to Shadow Complex, though, is its ludicrous story: Former G-Man Jason Flemyng (who shares a name with one of my favorite British actors) goes rock climbing with his girlfriend in Washington State, only to accidentaly stumble upon the base of a domestic terrorist group with frighteningly advanced technology that is poised to attack the United States. As Jason gets himself deeper and deeper into the thick of things, he’s causing so much destruction and killing so many terrorists that even John McClane would find it hard to believe. Veteran comics writer and Tigerheart author Peter David did a great job on some of the dialogue, (specifically every time Jason freaks the F out at the ridiculous events unfolding around him) but the premise snapped my suspension-of-disbelief in half. Orson Scott Card’s novels Empire and Hidden Empire tell a larger story set in the same “universe,” and were in fact commissioned by the developers specifically for Shadow Complex, but I didn’t find them to be very good either. Don’t let that dissuade you, though! If you’re a fan of either franchise that comprises the MetVania subgenre and you own an Xbox 360, you owe it to yourself to fork over $15 for this game. After all, Castlevania‘s story felt like it was torn straight out of a hundred B-movies, and Metroid barely had any story at all in the old days. All you need to know is that terrorists kidnapped your girlfriend and you have to kill all 3,872 of them to get her back and save America.

Audiosurf for PC (Invisible Handlebar / Valve) – What do you get when you combine an audio vizualizer (like the ones included with Windows Media Player) with a rail-racing video game like Wipeout? You get Audiosurf, a downloadable game for Windows PCs whose tagline says it all: “Ride Your Music.” Audiosurf works with your computer’s music library, turning the “track” of any mp3 into a playable race track. The game’s engine analyzes the song and adjusts its shape and obstacles to match the beats and tempo of the music, creating a truly excellent synaesthetic effect as your avatar races down the track, collecting multicolored blocks (and avoiding gray ones.) There’s a high score component that allows you to compete with Audiosurf users all over the world to see who can do the best on any given song, but the main reason I bought it is because it’s just so darn fun to play. Rather than talk about it more, I’ll just show you what it’s like (to the tune of some of the most popular hits of 2009):

MUSIC:

The Fame Monster by Lady Gaga (Streamline/Interscope) – Lady Gaga is pretty much the biggest thing in pop music right now, and it’s easy to see why. Her songs are complete and utter ear-worms (they get in your head and live there forever) and she really knows how to market herself (my favorite Gaga stunt is still the dress made entirely of stuffed Kermits.) What I was surprised, by, though, is just how well-produced and -structured her material is. Gaga’s much more likely to follow in the footstepts of Madonna than Britney ever was, because unlike Britney, she knows how to use her image to further her artistic expression. More an artist than a performer, Lady Gaga will probably continue to create hits long after her novelty fades, and (as I learned when I actually listened to The Fame Monster) she’s fairly versatile when it comes to musical styles. “Poker Face” is one of my least favorite tracks on the album, and I fear that great songs such as her torch-like “Speechless” or her softer love ballad “Eh, Eh, Nothing Else I Can Say” will get overlooked in favor of her more club-friendly tracks. She throws some interesting elements in her dance tracks as well, such as the rock guitar on “Summerboy” or the saxophone on “Teeth.” I was somewhat surprised at how many of her tracks sound like Ace of Base songs, though. Seriously, listen to “Alejandro” or “Paper Gangsta” and tell me it doesn’t remind you of “All That She Wants” or “Don’t Turn Around.” In short, Lady Gaga may be Bat-Guano insane, but musically she’s the real deal. The Fame Monster far exceeded my expectations.

… and now, just for fun, a mash-up of “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga and “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey:

We Started Nothing by The Ting Tings (Columbia)- Another band I didn’t expect to get into, this Brit-Indie-Pop duo churn out some downright infectious grooves. “That’s Not My Name” is a great anthem for anybody who has experienced name-related woes, but the song that brought them to my attention was “Shut Up and Let Me Go,” a song so helplessly catchy that Apple used it in an iPod commercial:

The rest of the album is an interesting combination of sounds, most of which are catchy and danceable (“Great DJ”, “Fruit Machine”) but some are softer and more emotionally-driven (“Traffic Light.”) It’s all extremely British, though, so if that’s a deal-breaker for you in either direction you should keep it in mind. Honestly, though, if that iPod commercial can’t sell you on it, I certainly can’t.

The Boy Who Knew Too Much by Mika (Casablanca) – If Freddie Mercury and Jeff Lynn (from the Electric Light Orchestra) had somehow sired a lovechild, and if Elton John had raised that baby boy in secret, he would’ve grown up to be Mika. His sexual orientation may be ambiguous, but his musical talent is plain and clear for all to see and hear. The Boy Who Knew Too Much is his sophomore album, following the excellent Life in Cartoon Motion, and shows that fame hasn’t gone to the young man’s head. This album is just as full of great songs in a variety of styles as the last, ranging from danceable radio-friendly hits like “We Are Golden” and “Blame It on the Girls”, to softer tracks like “By the Time” and “Toy Boy,” to fun sleeper hits like my personal favorite, “Dr. John.” I’m also impressed with Mika’s genuineness. He really seems like a decently nice human being who happens to also be a crazy-awesome musician/artist/performer. In fact, he’s on my list of celebrities I’d like to grab a cup of coffee with. Is he on my “Gay Island,” though? I’ll never tell. And since I’m on an embedded video binge today, here’s his video for “We Are Golden”:

Pin Points and Gin Joints by The Mighty Mighty BossTones (Big Rig) – Thank Goodness for the BossTones! There’s hardly any new ska music being created anymore, and most of the new bands will never last past high school graduation. The Boys from Boston have come out of semi-retirement and released Pin Points and Gin Joints, and it’s like the best part of the ’90s suddenly returned. Sure, Dickie doesn’t drop into that old familiar rasp as often as he used to, but I’d rather he still have a voice years from now than that he burn it out like Steve Perry. The album is a bit less rock ‘n roll than Jacknife to a Swan, but it’s still undeniably an extension of the sound that the BossTones have been cultivating over the past few decades. The tracks are more danceable in that old-school Rude Boy sort of way, and that warms my little upstroke-loving heart. “The Route That I Took” was the song that stuck in my head the most at first listen, and I still think it’s one of the most fun (though certainly not the most rockin’) on the album. “I Wrote It” is sentimental in a way that you don’t normally hear from most alt bands, but that’s a big part of its charm. It feels like the song really came from the boys’ hearts, and they added their familiar hooks around it afterward. If you ever liked the BossTones’ music (especially if your exposure to them extends beyond “that knock on wood song”), Pin Points and Gin Joints is a worthwhile purchase. Mine even came with a great MMBT pint glass!

Sink or Swim and The ’59 Sound by The Gaslight Anthem (SideOneDummy) – There’s more to New Jersey than Jersey Shore these days! Garden State residents The Gaslight Anthem have picked up a splinter of the torch that Bruce Springtseen refuses to give up (he’s so awesome, President Obama recognizes that he’s the Boss!) and injected some modern punk and rock elements to create their own unique sound (The Hold Steady took a similar path to creating their music, but each band’s end results are very different from one another.) Their singer is refreshingly not whiny, and every song feels steeped in the atmosphere of post-economic-collapse Asbury Park. The friend of mine who introduced me to them likes their slower tracks, but I’m all for the faster and more rock-heavy anthems (both albums are an even mix of each type.) A particular favorite of mine is “I’da Called You Woody, Joe” both because it’s one of the catchiest tracks on Sink or Swim and because the title is a reference to Joe Strummer (and Woody Guthrie.) It’s a shame that the video on Youtube is not very good, though. Good thing “The ’59 Sound” (off the album of the same name) sounds largely similar and is equally enjoyable:

I wish I had more to say about these guys, but sometimes music is just plain good. This is music of that type, and I encourage you to see for yourself if it’s something you can get into.

That’s it for this edition of Operation Backlog Slog. Next time, I’ll be tackling the Steampunk genre from several different angles: Books, comics, video games, and even music! Until next time…



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  1. […] OPERATION BACKLOG SLOG (BLOG): Episode 8 […]

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