Friday, December 31, 2010

Synesthetic Response 5

This is not review. This is response. 2010 is coming to an end, so here's three that have bent my time, altered my path, and changed my approach.

Agalloch :: Marrow of the Spirit

(2010, Profound Lore) [Genre: Metal]
Score: 11

I am almost speechless. After eleven long months, I have found my Album of the Year for 2010. Sometimes, a record comes along that makes you realize how lucky you are to still have your hearing. For me, Agalloch's Marrow of the Spirit is just such a record. It has, quite literally, blown my mind. I have been trapped in Agalloch's world of winter for a full week, six tracks on endless repeat; they are bleak, haunting and incredibly epic. And while many will comment at length about this bleakness, it is the performances here that are the key for me; they wrap you in a sustaining, protective warmth, generating a transcendental sphere which keeps you hovering in awed safety above the landscape. Hallucinatory guitar layers and mind-expanding structural flourishes dot this snow-covered expanse like meteorite fragments: cold, magnetic, blackened remnants from when the solar system was young. But then there are moments, like at 14:35 of track 4 ("Black Lake Nidstang") when that iceberg you were staring at suddenly explodes and Agalloch transports your mind to a place you never thought it could go. That track, "Black Lake Nidstang," is the most hypnotic piece of aural art I've heard in a long time. 17:34 blows by in an instant. It is filled with moments which seamlessly transition. It's the kind of song that widens your eyes as you listen to it; people might think you've lost your mind, sitting there on the train or bus, earbuds pulsing, your unblinking eyes lamely attempting to process the visual overflow of your mind. The whole album, however, is like that. Analog synths circulate in the foundation of these tracks; cellos haunt, Nature whispers, and the solar winds press further into space.

Wire :: Red Barked Tree

(2010, pinkflag) [Genre: Alt/Punk]
Score: 9

Wire are so clearly... Wire. I don't know how they keep doing this. And though I freely admit to being a hopeless Wire fanatic, that won't stop me from recommending this album to everyone. It is difficult to comment on Wire's new album without feeling a need to compare it to their prior work, but I don't think that's a particularly meaningful approach, since they have so many albums. I believe, however, that each subsequent Wire album amounts to a further distillation of what it is that makes Wire the band they are. There are familiar things here - shapes, sounds, textures, structures. Track to track, Colin Newman and Graham Lewis trade lead vocal duty, just like they always have. Newman's twisted style of "language delivery" is in full force, as is Lewis's knack for smoothly eviscerating whatever it is he's targeting (the first track "Please Take" is a wonderful example of this). Red Barked Tree contains DNA fragments from every Wire album. Because of this, the physical CD itself takes on the semblance of a tool for time travel; a shiny artifact from the future. I found myself reliving random moments from my Wire-infused past as I listened; but as these images coalesced in my mind, they were instantly intermingled with new possibilities, different outcomes. The last track "Red Barked Trees" left me reeling. I once had a dream of red trees, long ago (an aerial view of a forest; and near the center, a patch of red trees, inaccessible). There was something important about these trees, but it wasn't until I heard this track that I remembered the dream with further clarity. I don't know what the dream meant, and I am not sure it really matters. I have always suspected there is something more than just music going on with Wire (tapping into a collective unconscious?) and Red Barked Tree is extraordinary proof of that.

Rosetta :: A Determinism of Morality

(2010, Translation Loss) [Genre: Metal]
Score: 9

Something about Rosetta makes me think of deep space; of future points of demarcation from known societal constructs as the human species evolves and seeps outward to colonize distant planets. These 7 new tracks are monumental slabs, floating in an infinite, echoing cosmos; they grab you by the throat, shaking you into awareness with every searching bass note, every cascade of kick and snare and cymbal. The vocals are immersed in Rosetta's trademark hazy grandeur. And the guitars... things of aching beauty, haunting, piercing. These tracks lumber. These tracks gallop. And through it all, there is a seething intensity that I find irresistible. Unlike the tracks on Rosetta's Wake/Lift (2007) album, the tracks on A Determinism of Morality rarely feature cliff dive-like plunges into a crunching abyss. But the free-falling weight of these tracks, taking on much different structures than those on Wake/Lift, are more immediate. You can see their shapes a bit more clearly. But the title track - the album's closer - is 10:51 of abject power, beauty and unrelenting weight. It's like a spoonful of matter from a neutron star. And that's likely an understatement.

Additional recommendations for 2010...

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross :: The Social Network

[Genre: Soundtrack]
Score: 10

Brian Eno :: Small Craft on a Milk Sea

[Genre: Electronic]
Score: 10

Daft Punk :: TRON: Legacy

[Genre: Soundtrack]
Score: 10

Zoroaster :: Matador

[Genre: Metal]
Score: 9

Hans Zimmer :: Inception

[Genre: Soundtrack]
Score: 9

Enslaved :: Axioma Ethica Odini

[Genre: Metal]
Score: 10

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Just remember when you were small...

re: John Lennon...

I was in front of the television. My dad and I were watching a Monday Night Football game. History indicates it was between the Miami Dolphins and the New England Patriots, but such details are not part of my memory. I remember only a game, bisected not by a normal half-time show, but by an ABC News bulletin: John Lennon had been shot and killed. I was only 13. I spent the later part of that evening listening to a few Beatles albums in my darkened room, with headphones, trying to imagine things would be the same.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Quitting the World of Warcraft

Since November of 2006 I was a World of Warcraft player. Shortly after being admitted to the Beta for the Cataclysm expansion I simply quit playing.

I've had a lot of time to think about the reason(s) why, if any. It wasn't conscious. It was not something I had planned to do. I recall logging out one night. Then I never logged back in. A few weeks later, I removed my credit card information from my account.

World of Warcraft is an extraordinary experience, in general. Specifically, over time, it became a Groundhog Day-like nightmare. So in that spirit (e.g., the specific), here are some of the things I've discovered about why I quit playing World of Warcraft:

1. I was tired of feeling obligated. More so than in real life, WOW had ultimately become a series of endless obligations. For the uninitiated, that could include leveling up your character. Bound within that task are the quests. The professions. The battlegrounds. The auction house. The holiday events. Once you reach level cap (85), you'll be doing daily quests for gold or honor. You'll be raiding on a regular schedule. You'll be doing daily dungeon runs. If you don't do one or more of these things on any given day, its akin to traditional video gaming's "losing a life" event. You have a feeling of falling behind everyone else in the game world.

2. I was tired of feeling overwhelmed by needing to be somewhere that wasn't real, while in my home.

3. I was tired of the People (note the case). It wasn't a person or group that was the problem; I really did like all the people in my guild. I found myself internally grumbling about the fact that this video game required legions of other People to function properly. I've been playing video games since the Atari 2600 days. In fact, I'm old enough to recall when there were no video games. I'm part of the First Generation of Video Gamers - the ones who can recall going into some local pizza shop or convenience store and seeing a monolith-like black object called Pong had replaced an aging pinball machine. I guess what I'm saying is that I grew up with AI-based friends and enemies, and they are far more interesting to me than... People.

4. I was tired of raiding, and specifically, the absolute insanity that Blizzard decided constituted "fun" in this regard. It seems so insidious, on the surface, that to be the best you can be in WOW requires such insane levels of hand-eye coordination, coupled with the idea that to succeed, the 10 individuals in the raid had to become a single organism. One mistake by any one of the individuals usually resulted in disaster against a raid boss. The learning grind and chaos of reaching the Lich King in Icecrown Citadel was not rewarded, in the end. I was part of my guild's first 10-man group kill of the Lich King, and it was a profound anti-climax. The loot that Arthas dropped was instantly disenchanted. It was unusable. All we gained was the "Kingslayer" title to parade around with, yet the three months of work it took to complete the task was monumental in comparison. This left a very sour taste in my mouth. It was the single greatest disappointment I'd experienced in WOW.

Some part of me misses the daily fix of it all. But that's the craving one feels when one plays a decidedly good game. Forgive me the use of terms usually dropped in relation to addiction. I do not believe video games are addictive. Good games are replayable. Great games are compelling. World of Warcraft is a great game. For a while, anyway.

In the end, I have only a generalization to throw out there (one which no currently-immersed WOW player will agree with): happy people don't play WOW every day. I say that primarily because I discovered, a few weeks after quitting, that I was happier not playing WOW than when I was. In other words, I was unhappy while playing WOW, so I quit. Why did it take me so long to realize I was a gamer who was not enjoying the game?

So today is the day. The Cataclysm expansion for World of Warcraft is released. Is anyone really happy about that? That's a pretty big question, when you think about it. But unlike most World of Warcraft players, I know what I'll be missing by not playing: four more years of the same old crap.