Month: January 2013

The 2012 Mix

c Back in November last year, I had a great idea. Having spent my adult life condemning  cards as a waste of paper, writing time, and postmen’s arms, at 23 I found myself seeing the appeal of a Christmas Card List, as a way of getting in touch with friends who are too geographically distant to see as often as I’d like. Cards are still rubbish, though, and I didn’t fancy trying to make my own, so why not share something with my friends that they could treasure long into the New Year? Why not give them the gift … of tunes? And so The 2012 Mix was conceived. By the time it was actually born, long overdue, it was early January, but I posted those badboys out regardless to a number of close friends*. In classic fashion, though, I entirely forgot to attach any tracklist, rendering the CD completely useless as th music discovery gateway I’d intended. So for the benefit of everyone who’s asked me what the songs are, and for anyone playing along at home (in which case, here, have this zip file), here it is: 1 Kitty Pryde – Give Me Scabies2 Blood Diamonds (feat Grimes) – Phone Sex3 Big Boi – Mama Told Me4 Taylor Swift – We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together5 Summer Camp – City6 Japandroids – Younger Us7 Sleigh Bells – Leader of the Pack8 HEALTH – Tears9 Joe Goddard – Gabriel10 Chvrches – Mother We Share11 Rustie – Death Mountain12 Crystal Castles – Sad Eyes13 Lemonade – Neptune14 Tennis – Petition15 Icona Pop – I Love It16 Kanye West – Cold17 Grimes – Circumambient18 Carly Rae Jepsen – Call Me MaybeBetween this and my end of year round-up (there’s a lot of crossover), I think pretty much every artist I spent serious time with in 2012 is represented. If you’re observant, you’ll probably notice the mix has got a bit of a loose mirroring structure going on,because I’m like that sometimes. You might also notice that two of these songs didn’t come out in 2012, because a) I only realised this after burning the first CD, and b) I don’t care, I like both a lot and first listened to them last year so there. *DISCLAIMER: If you didn’t receive one of these, and you’re currently scowling, it’s probably because I was too scared of being redundant in the face of your superior music knowledge, and ice-cool tastes, or because I don’t know you. There’s also that.

2012’s Finest: THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

THE CABIN IN THE WOODSPeople talk about The Cabin in the Woods as a post-modern horror film, and it sort of is, but the word I keep coming back to is ‘maximalist’. That makes it hard to write about. The film is essentially its own essay. Taking into account the fact that talking about anything, even its opening scene, could outright ruin the experience of watching The Cabin in the Woods, and it’s almost impossible to know where to start. So I’m just going to just spoil everything. Consider this fair warning. It’s a film worth seeing, and worth seeing with as few preconceptions as possible. A lot of the joy of Cabin in the Woods lies in discovering it. If you haven’t seen it yet, I hope the fact that I singled it out of a great year of movies is all the encouragement you’ll need to check it out. If you have… well, I hope you’re sitting comfortably. Drew Goddard (director, co-writer, of Cloverfield, Lost, Buffy fame) and Joss Whedon (co-writer, of being Joss Whedon fame) apparently wrote this film over a furiously creative weekend, locked in a rented bungalow until it was finished. That feeds noticeably into the film’s feel, its tone and density, but really I’m really just bringing it up as a historical sidenote. Going into the cinema, I was excited to see a new Whedon film, but that was quickly jettisoned in favour of just trying to keep up. Cabin in the Woods constantly delights in pulling out not just the rug but the entire floor out from under you. The film’s 90-minute running time is divided into rough thirds. It’s actually a pretty great American Pie-style teen comedy for its first half hour, mixing up gross-out humour with genuine wit: Five College Kids. One RV. The Holiday of a Lifetime. Then a hatch opens up in the floor of the cabin, and the five of them step into the basement, and accidentally raise the dead. The Buckners, to be precise, a “zombie redneck torture family”. The kids start to get picked off, one by one, in a variety of gruesome ways, as they try and escape the cabin. Then, just as it looks like they’re all dead and we can all go home, the film takes a left turn into sheer insanity. The two surviving kids find a hidden underground hatch, and step behind the curtain, and help bring about the end of the world. Each half-hour segment could almost be its own film. It’s standard slasher-film business, I believe, to set up the characters in a non-murderous status quo, but I really would pay to see that Goddard/Whedon teen comedy. And it’s impressive how close to the half-hour mark each act change comes. …Except it’s not that simple, even structurally. The whole film jumps between these kids and an entirely different set of characters. They’re actually the first characters on screen, as the film cuts from its credit sequence showing various historical depictions of human sacrifice to two guys discussing their wives over a coffee. Pull back: they’re in a lab of some variety. Pull back: they’re monitoring the kids. Over the course of the film, we pull back and pull back (it’s here that Goddard’s Lost pedigree shines clearest) until the full truth of the situation is apparent. They’re the guys who make the horror movies – manipulate the kids, prep the locations, and drop in the killer clowns/zombies/unicorns until all the kids are dead. They’re making them for the benefit of the Old Ones, world-destroying demons whose hunger for human sacrifices apparently got a whole lot funkier circa 1968. It’s easy to see where the post-modern thing comes from. We’re watching the film from over these guys’ shoulders – they’re the filmmakers, checking conditions are just right on their banks of monitors, and the audience, cracking a beer and whooping as the blonde pulls her top off. On its own, that could make for a reasonably interesting film, but nothing particularly new – a combination of Scream and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. Trying to force the audience to question why they’re here watching these acts of unspeakable violence is a bit of a well-worn furrow for horror films. And I think that, for people who found the film a bit clever-clever or less original than it thought it was, this is where they stopped. But I think that misunderstands the film a little. Yes, it plays with horror tropes, to varied effect. The clichéd ‘creepy old guy at the gas station’ is played for laughs, but the way the kids are sorted into ‘whore/athlete/scholar/fool/virgin’ archetypes, while making it clear that none of them really fit that role, is a serious criticism. But Cabin in the Woods isn’t that interested in making a single argument, about horror or otherwise, as much as revelling in the joy of just arguing. It’s a film about pretty much everything. The catharsis of violence in movies, yes, as both a good and bad thing. How that ties into our need to see people punished. The way the older generation can view the youth in tabloid-simplistic terms. How young beautiful bodies are commoditised. Reality TV. The fact that the younger generation genuinely are arrogant and selfish. Whether it’s right to force people to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Whether it’s right to say no. How quickly we can become desensitised to that question, and to graphic violence. The rise of ‘torture porn’. How we cope with a violent world. How we cope with our jobs, unethical as they might be. The banality of evil. How we cope with boredom. Pause for breath. It’s a film which tries turning on every switch, is what I’m saying. Even better, it’s on everyone’s side. There are, at least, ten characters in this film, and Cabin in the Woods is interested in all of their viewpoints. The guys behind the curtain aren’t depicted as straight-up bad guys – they’re sympathetic and, […]

2012’s Finest: DISHONORED & LONDON

2012 was the very much The Year I Moved To London. I found my flat on New Year’s Eve and moved in on the second day of the year, so the two are inextricably linked in my mind. So it seemed only right, in my round-up of the year, to talk about the feeling of being A Londoner (or the lack thereof), in relation to the game that got me reflecting on the whole thing. DISHONORED & LONDON I’m that guy that loves the Shard because it reminds me of the Citadel out of Half-Life 2 – a single gleaming finger to heaven, a navigable point visible from almost anywhere. So it’s only appropriate that a game designed by Viktor Antonov, the architect of HL2‘s City 17, should be the one to get me thinking about my relationship with the nation’s capital. It’s important to stress at this point: Dishonored isn’t set in London. It isn’t – the city is called Dunwall. It isn’t – the majority of characters speak in American accents, and even the game’s title is missing a vital ‘u’. It isn’t – this is a fantasy universe, with magic powers and giant acid-spitting crabs. It really isn’t London. What Dunwall is is a beautifully realised caricature of London. To achieve that, all that Arkane Studios really needed to get right were two elements – the bricks, and the sky. They nailed both. The sky varies between sheer grey and sharp blue, but the key is the permanent slight haze. I realise it’s at least partly due to draw distance, but it’s a beautiful use of its technological limitations. Seeing distant landmarks faded into the mist feels like London to me. The buildings themselves are just right too, in the way they run up against one another, the texture of their bricks and roof tiles, and most of all the colours – that London mix of sandstone and terracotta and, yup, greyest grey. I can pinpoint the exact moment that Dishonored becomes brilliant. It takes a little while to reach Dunwall proper – the game’s opening takes place in a too-bright palacey bit, then a largely personality-free jail and sewer (which might be beautiful imitations of London’s jails and sewers, I guess, not having been to either). But that moment: You’re in the boat of Samuel, the game’s resident boatman, as it chugs along whatever Dunwall’s equivalent of the Thames is, on your way to meet the hastily-assembled bunch of rebels that are your only allies in the game’s world, as you round the corner and their makeshift base comes into sight. A pair of chimneys huffing out smoke into the overcast sky. A giant red-brick towerblock, bits of extraneous masonry pruned away by some unknown explosion. And in between the two, the crux of their headquarters – a pub. Of course it’s a pub. The Hound Pits is a perfect recreation of what a London pub should be – stained-glass door, brass taps, red-cushioned booths, backrooms and cellars … the only thing it’s missing is an overflowing urinal. From this point, the game opens up – like an estuary, like an oyster, like another tenuously London-relevant simile – in all sorts of ways. Everything comes into focus: the way the game plays – as you get handed a mix-and-match toybox of magical abilities – and its structure – individual ‘get in, assassinate target, get out’ missions – and, most importantly, its approach-them-as-you-wish levels. The same weekend I reached this bit, I rode the Thames Clipper for the first time. Heading east from the centre towards Greenwich, you escape the famous monuments pretty quickly, and the shore transforms into docks and those fascinatingly identical chunks of waterside flats. I loved it, and it was an experience I would always have enjoyed, but something clicked. It’s incredibly wanky, but I’m going to defer to Oscar Wilde’s Decay of Lying here for a moment: “Where, if not from the Impressionists, do we get those wonderful brown fogs that come creeping down our streets, blurring the gas-lamps and changing the houses into monstrous shadows? To whom, if not to them and their master, do we owe the lovely silver mists that brood over our river, and turn to faint forms of fading grace curved bridge and swaying barge? … At present, people see fogs, not because there are fogs, but because poets and painters have taught them the mysterious loveliness of such effects. There may have been fogs for centuries in London. I dare say there were. But no one saw them, and so we do not know anything about them. They did not exist till Art had invented them.” See? Even in the 1890s, people were constructing their own personal London out of snatches of culture they’d experienced. After I started playing Dishonored, the rest of 2012 was spent turning corners and suddenly catching on a moment of strange déjà vu. As well as being a brilliant imitation of London architecturally, there’s something about Dunwall which resonates with the way I think about living in the capital. A lot of London’s history is collapsed into Dunwall. Most obviously, the Victoriana stuff, which is understandable, given how heavily that period still weighs on the capital. But the diseased rats which are constantly underfoot take their lead from the Great Plague of 1666. The occasional steel structures amongst all those brick buildings wouldn’t be too far out of place on London skyline up until the end of the ’90s. Walls are covered in the scrappy remains of those painted adverts that were the 20th Century’s inheritance from its predecessor. The crumbling buildings hint to a post-war landscape. That’s kind of how London works. It’s a city built on top of itself, in a very real sense, but especially in the imagination. If you try and summon up a vision of London in your head, everything overlaps – Dickens/Pepys/Curtis/Holmes/the Romans/Wilde/the Krays/Britpop/Abbey Road/Albert Square/graffiti/Zadie Smith/Jack the Ripper/Mary Poppins/gin/opium/tea – and this is the palette Dishonored uses to built its world. Maybe it’s just me. There’s a […]

2012’s Finest: SAGA

I’ve already talked about today’s pick – very briefly – in my Comics round-up post. I called it “the much-anticipated return of Brian K Vaughan, a writer who must shoulder a large part of the blame for my comics habit. The first two issues were good, but failed to blow me away. But returning to it in trade form, I found it rich, complex and … worth writing about in depth, basically.”I’m such a little tease. But I’m not one to break a promise, not least one made on the internet, so here goes: SAGA “Face it, our only choice is to lay low and stay out of trouble. We have a family to think about n–”“Don’t! / Don’t you every say those words to me! / Sorry. But ‘we have a family to think about now’ is the rallying cry of losers.” For all its sci-fi set dressing – the winged and horned main characters, the quest to get escape a warring planet, the excellent monster design from Fiona Staples – at its heart, Saga is a story about what compromises you are and aren’t willing to make in order to protect something dear to you, something you’ve created. It’s a comic about selling out. Saga starts with the birth of the series’ apparent eventual protagonist, Hazel – a character who doesn’t speak a single word throughout the first volume, due to being a baby, but does narrate the action, in borderless captions scribbled on top of the pictures, children’s book-style. In fact, she even gets the book’s first words: …Which is pretty much the comic’s mission statement (especially because it’s almost immediately undercut with the slightly more earthy “Am I [defecating]?” from the birthing mother, Alana, but we’ll get back to that). The first scene, as well as being a beautifully, brutally honest scene of childbirth, keeps drawing this same line between creating a child and creating, you know, art. “But ideas are fragile things,” says Hazel, as her parents consistently ground these highfalutin ideas with talk of sex and poo and pain. “That’s why people create with someone else.” And so the line is drawn, nice and thick, between Hazel’s mother and father, and the book’s – Vaughan and Staples, writer and artist, each providing their half of the whole. Within moments of birth, Hazel is in danger, and the book has its drive: Mommy & Daddy have to get off the planet before the various forces hunting them down can hurt Baby. And there are plenty of forces who want to cause them harm: Marko (horny dad) and Alana (winged mom) are from two warring species, and both sides want to get the results of this starcross’d union. Enter hunky bounty hunter The Will, and aimless robot prince Prince Robot IV, who will have their own matching dilemmas set up before the first volume’s out. Every character has a clear set of values, and something they want to protect – which is actually a child in every case – and are asked by the story: what are you willing to give up for that cause? Take Marko, who puts his violent past behind him to become a pacifist, a vow made physical in the sheathing of his ceremonial sword. But, with two bounty hunters, a TV-faced robot and two armies all trying to harm his daughter, that doesn’t last too long. For The Will and Prince Robot those dilemmas are only set up in this volume. (And if you don’t want to know how, skip the rest of this paragraph). Will, clearly disinterested in bounty hunting, finds a little girl enslaved into prostitution, and realises the only way to save her is by buying her freedom. His hypocrisy is constantly, and disturbingly, questioned: “it’s morally acceptable to execute people of any age, but only to make love to a select few?” Meanwhile, Prince Robot is sucked into the conflict when he discovers he has a child of his own on the way (courtesy of an earlier scene of hot robot sex) and is told he can’t return to the kingdom until this matter is dealt with. Later, his TV-screen face – which flashes involuntarily with symbols showing his thoughts – shows a rattle with a ribbon tied around it, right before he puts a big sinewy hole in the chest of another character. Violence is something the characters of Saga are forced into. For a sci-fi adventure comic, there are surprisingly few action scenes, and what it is there is ugly. The nearest we get to ‘good’ violence is Marko’s beserker rage with that sword – and any glamour is undercut by him pratfalling ingloriously out-of-panel. It might be reaching a bit to read Marko’s attempts at pacificism – and his lack of consistency on the matter – as Vaughan himself trying to avoid big action setpieces, but there’s certainly a sense of him trying to stomp down on any signs of genre convention throughout. Vaughan and Staples are drawing as much from fantasy imagery as he does traditional sci-fi, but – like Marko and Alana turning their back on their races, which happen to be magic- and science-based respectively – Saga isn’t interested in playing by either genre’s rules. Mundane real-world elements are constantly dragged in, from the aforementioned Chaucerian interest in bodily excretions to everyday technology (one character complains about auto-updating apps crashing his phone). Even the choice of Fiona Staples on art is unconventional. She draws some deeply excellent aliens (the character design of The Stalk, another bounty hunter, being an art highlight of not just this book but of the year). What she really excels in is drawing people and emotions – something Vaughan always seems to find in his collaborators. They’re the focus, not her (admittedly gorgeous) backgrounds. So often, building the world is the real meat of sci-fi, but here they’re sketchy, smudgy, watercolour-soft. It all reflects the fact that the characters, on both sides, just aren’t interested in the big trad sci-fi conflict. They’re certainly not going to be piloting X-Wings into the heart of […]

2012’s Finest: CHVRCHES

Happy New Year! 2012 is officially over, and with it our collection of Best Of lists. But I have trouble letting go and so, over the next few days, I’m going to be writing something a bit more focused in each of the media I covered before – games, films, comics, and, starting right now, music. Enjoy. CHVRCHES Some bands just have the perfect name, y’know? The Knife. Crystal Castles. Ladytron. Robyn. These names are statements of intent – deep cuts; dark cocaine fantasyland; the beat of an androgynous titanium breast; popstars don’t have surnames, etc – and the very best of them could just be copied and pasted over and over, to the length of a full review. Not coincidentally, these bands are also some of my go-to touchpoints for describing Chvrches.Chvrches. (or more properly: CHVRCHES, which is even better but totally exhausting to type.) They were previously named Churches – which is much less perfect – until they realised that Google needn’t be their enemy, they dropped the U for a sharp Romanesque V. As Alan Moore, Dan Brown and the cast of Sesame Street will tell you, there’s a certain magic about the letter V. It’s a great visual, echoed in The Mother We Share‘s cover art, endlessly repeatable and suggestive. There’s a hint at that most dog-eared of music journo descriptors,‘cathedrals of sound’, and at something a bit eldritch. The surgical removal of a soft, organic vowel sound, replaced with crystal-clear enunciation. The way it turns the word into something familiar, altered… Seven letters. Am I reaching a bit? Of course I am. There’s something perfectly-formed about Chvrches which repels my attempts at analysis. I have listened to these two songs – The Mother We Share and Lies – on endless repeat since I found the mp3s. But each time I try to probe further, I just surface with handfuls of cliché, like silt between my fingers.Statement of intent. Sharp. Crisp. Cold. Icy – but no, that’s not right. Laser-tight. Beamed. Warped. Alternate Universe Pop. When I try and talk about them, I keep reaching for tactile words. I think that’s telling. The best synths have a hallmark texture, and listening to this thin selection of songs over and over feels like exploring that surface, like running your fingers over old wallpaper, like they were designed to be made into Audiosurf levels. So let’s explore a little: Lies, 2:25–2:45. It starts with an echoing “anyoneanyoneanyone”, then suddenly the crunching synths – which have until this point supported the song’s weight – drop out to make way for another echo: ohohohohohoh. It’s a smooth stone skimming along a fluid surface, which is left to just hang there for a moment. Then it’s given an electronic tweak. The sound starts to multiply and mutate, getting layered over itself, another anyoneanyoneanyone dropped on top of it… and then the stompy bit drops back in, like a godsent L-shaped Tetris piece at just the right moment. Delicious. Because of that reliance of the synths to build the songs, it’s hard to read the sonics as anything but cold and mechanical, especially given the way they squash and squeeze Lauren Mayberry’s wonderful vocals. But the way I respond to these songs is anything but inorganic – as I type this, I’m dancing at the laptop, thrusting my hands into the air at each climax, singing the nearest approximations of the words I can manage. At their best, Chvrches are capable of what I think of as ‘the Arcade Fire Moment’ – songs that can flood into you, through your mouth and eyes and ears and into your heart and lungs. Songs like that have been few and far between of late for me, so it’s something I treasure. I want to say the songs are built around a basic emotional core, as simple as the Beach Boys, but I couldn’t begin to tell you what any they’re about. Well, I can: they’re about looping endlessly on the biggest headphones you’ve got, and looking up to one of those perfectly clear London skies and thinking this is it, all transcendental and that… Just not, like, what the words are actually about. But since when has that mattered round here? (And just in case you’re as addicted as I am, here is pretty much everything else they’ve put out. For all my brow-furrowing over that V earlier, it’s worth noting the playfulness of retitling their Prince cover to I Would Die for V)