Wednesday, 22 January 2003

Game Review: Deus Ex

Freedom is something that game developers are constantly promising gamers, very few games however offer the levels of freedom that is promised. In the last few years many games have promised massive levels of freedom, most notably Shenmue and Red Faction, but in actuality neither gave the player many choices. Deus Ex is the exception, a game that lives up to the hype and goes well beyond it.

The player is cast as anti-terrorist agent JC Denton. Denton has been nano-enhanced, he has certain skills that can be upgraded at various points in the game (night vision, silent running etc), but these opportunities are rare, and the player is not given the opportunity to upgrade everything. This forces the player to make choices about Denton's development; would you rather run faster or silently? In addition to these nano-augmentations the player can increase skills in certain categories on completion of level goals. These range from sniping ability to swimming speed. Increasing Denton's lock-picking skills make doors easier to breach but this may be at a cost to Denton's computer hacking skills, then what happens if there is no door, merely a PC to hack? Get into this line of thinking and the intricacies of Deus Ex will become clear.

The goals are clearly defined; how they are completed is left entirely up to the player. The player may be required to enter a terrorist compound - this could involve going in machine guns blazing and killing everyone in sight, or a more subtle attack with a sniper rifle might be favoured - but what about that air-vent over there? That way conflict would be avoided, but now a lock pick is needed.

Performing any action in the Deus Ex universe matters; it's all about making the player accountable for their actions. Early in the game the player is given the opportunity to explore the UNATCO Headquarters where Denton works. If the player should enter the women's toilets, Denton will later receive a dressing down from your boss, and the female employees will respond to you accordingly. This might seem small, but it is merely an example of the levels of AI the developers have implemented to make the game universe more tangible.

The only slight criticism would be the disintegration of the plot into sub X-Files Sci-Fi nonsense. However, while the plot becomes a tad confusing, it is not a flaw substantial enough to detract from the overall quality of the gaming experience. It's a glorious game - one of the best I've ever played.

Tuesday, 21 January 2003

Album Review: Liquid Swords

Seeing as the Wu Tang seem to be doing all that they can to tarnish their reputation, it's worth looking back at some of the albums that helped them forge their near-mythical stature. Liquid Swords is my favourite Wu Tang release - superceeding even, their debut The 36 Chambers.

Genius is often overlooked in favour of more visible members of The Wu such as Method Man and Ol Dirty Bastard - but when it comes to word play there are few better MCs around than the Genius. The LP begins with the title track, and to this day, there are few better examples of an MC at the top of his game. The track hops along to the sound of Willie Mitchell's soul classic Groovin, while Gza's rapping is so laid back and cool that the listener almost fails to acknowledge Gza's braggadocio ("I don't waste ink, nigger I think / I drop mega-ton bombs more faster than you blink.") It isn't the last time Gza is caught bragging; the album buzzes with bravado ("Check these non-visual niggers with tapes and a portrait / trying to orbit this corporate industry / but what them niggers can't see / must break through like the Wu unexpectedly." - Shadowboxin) but for once, this arrogance is not misplaced. On'Liquid Swords Gza is every bit as good as he thinks he is.

Another example of Gza's superior skill comes on the track Labels. Gza incorporates the name of almost every record label into his rhyme with absolute success. He tried a similar trick later in his career with the track Fame (from his most recent album Legend Of The Liquid Sword), it works better here however. Rza should also be congratulated on this track in particular for some innovative production.

Gza also proves he's a master storyteller on Killah Hills 10304, positioning himself as a rap Johnny Cash. Once again the subject is nothing new (a tale of organised crime), but Gza's delivery is superb, he spits, "The sharpshooters hit the prosecutors / Judges are sent photographs of their wives taking baths / along with briefcase filled with 1.5 / that's the bribe, take it or commit suicide."

The album is interspersed with snippets from samurai b-movie classic Shogun Assassin. Nowadays, the use of movie samples is nothing out of the ordinary - but it was revolutionary in 1995, and it helps to give the album a mythic quality. Credit should also go to Rza for his typically sparse production.

It truly is a landmark album, and as good a hip hop album as you will ever hear. It's real shame that the follow up Beneath The Surface was so woefully subpar. His latest release Legend Of The Liquid Sword is a step back in the right direction, but Gza will have to go someway to topping this.

Sunday, 19 January 2003

Album Review: Ghost Of David

The third album proper from Seattle resident Jurado, who has previously spellbound listeners with his albums Rehearsals For Departure and Waters Ave S is haunting, miserable and wholly wonderful.

The album starts as it means to go on with Medication. A plea to God to end the life of a brother. It is an example of Jurado at his most tortured. Jurado whispers over a frail guitar, "Lord, do me a favour / It's wrong but I ask you / take me brother's life." It might just be the best song Jurado will ever write. He'll certainly have to go someway to topping it.

Elsewhere, Jurado treats us to not-so-cheery subject matter. Tonight I Will Retire is the confession of someone on the verge of committing suicide. Meanwhile, December is the tale of a man found frozen to death in his car. Not since Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska has an artist written such affecting lyrics and music about such funereal subject matter.

Musically it's a more ambitious album that it's predecessor Rehearsals For Departure (itself one of my favourite albums of recent times). From the bizarre vibrating ruler effect at the beginning of Johnny Go Riding, to the muffled guitar of Great Today, it seems as though Jurado is trying to break free from the entirely acoustic affair that Rehearsals offered. Jurado even gives us his best Sonic Youth impression on Paxil.

It's certainly a contender for the most miserable album of recent years. That is no criticism, this is one of the most affecting albums I have ever heard. Everyone should be made aware of Jurado's awesome talents.

Album Review: Ironman

Ghostface Killah was the fifth member of the Wu to release a solo LP, Ironman arriving after Genius, Raekwon, Method Man and ODB had all cut their teeth on solo projects. The previous four albums had all been declared classics upon release by fans. Ironman had a lot to live up to. It did not disappoint one bit.

Like every other early Wu solo album, it is at times a group effort. In fact, Raekwon and Cappadonna are giving second billing on the album. This trio works to best effect on the club favourite Daytona 500. On it, Rza drags the listener into his chamber of innovation. The track grabs a heavy sample of Bob James' seminal funk track Nautilus and couples it with some outrageous scratching. Method Man delivers a typically nonchalant verse on Box In Hand. Meanwhile, Raekwon and Cappadonna reappear on Camay to play sweet-talking suitors along with Ghostface.

Certainly the LP is best known for containing Ghostface's most commercial track so far, All That I Got Is You. It's almost the perfect blueprint for a commercially successful hip hop track. Combining a guest spot from Mary J Blige with a heavy sample of Maybe Tomorrow by the Jackson 5, the track tells the story of Ghostface's deprived childhood. "Fifteen of us in a 3 bedroom apartment / Roaches everywhere, cousins, Aunts was there / Four in the bed, two at the foot, two at the head / I didn't like to sleep with John John he peed the bed." It's a heartbreaking track. Rappers seldom manage to get tearjerkers right, but Ghostface manages it without breaking a sweat.

Credit must go to Rza for some innovative production. Rza, in his trademark style, takes sparse percussion and bass thuds and marries them to lush orchestration, baroque riffs and 1960s soul samples. The result, which is somewhat par for the course when dealing with early Wu releases, is remarkable. On Assassination Day he chops the Pledge of Allegiance over some thumping beats. Fish is the one track not produced by Rza; Tru Master takes control of the desk for this one. He doesn't let the side down; the mounting piano is met with a fizzy melody making it one of the album's highlights.

The album contains a lot of movie samples, even for a Wu Tang album. The album's opener, Iron Maiden begins with dialogue from the movie, Fresh, Wildflower kicks off with a snippet of cult classic JD's Revenge; Assassination Day grabs a sample from The Usual Suspects and The Soul Controller begins its outro with a snippet from Carlito's Way and ends it with yet more from The Usual Suspects. One might think that so many samples would detract from the music and verse, they don't. In fact, because they are used so well, they manage to take good tracks and make them great.

Ironman points to Ghostface's awesome talent. It comes as no real surprise that he is the only member of the Wu to release three good solo albums while his peers have struggled to release two decent efforts. For me, Supreme Clientele marginally edges out Ironman as the essential Ghostface album, but there's no reason why you shouldn't check out both.

Wednesday, 15 January 2003

Album Review: Time (The Revelator)

Time (The Revelator) was my first foray in Gillian Welch's work, it won't be my last. It's empty, it's desolate but it also happens to be one of the most touching albums of the last few years.

From the fragile opener Revelator ("I'm the pretender and not what I'm supposed to be / but who could know if I'm a traitor?") to the closing opus I Dream A Highway, I was enraptured with Welch's voice. Revelator is a gorgeous piece of music, but I Dream A Highway is simply one of the finest songs ever written. It's fifteen minutes worth of majesty, and possibly the finest closing track ever put to record.

In between the album's two highpoints the music is still of obscenely high quality. I Want To Sing That Rock And Roll marks a slight departure from the rest of the album, it borders on upbeat. It's an amazing song.

It won't appeal to everybody, which is a crying shame. Many will dismiss it as dreary or dull; neither could be further from the truth. A must buy for any fans of good, heartfelt music.

Friday, 10 January 2003

Album Review: Waters Ave S

Having fallen in love to Jurado's later album Rehearsals For Departure, I worked back to this, his debut release. Needless to say, I was not disappointed.

There are some signposts to the direction Jurado would take on his two preceeding LPs, Angel Of May could easily have been lifted from 2000's Ghost Of David LP. It's one of the highlights on the album. Elsewhere Independent, proves that Jurado was an incredibly mature songwriter on his debut release ("I don't need you anymore / I'm independent there's nothing to say / I don't need you anymore / I'm independent don't you walk away").

Don't expect many laughs on the album, Jurado is at his most melancholy on some of the tracks. For any long time fans, this will come as no surprise. Unrequited love is an underlying thread on the LP ("I'm standing on the top of the world looking at a girl / who doesn't notice me" - Halo Friendly).

Elsewhere on the album, Jurado proves himself to be (at times) every bit as good as songwriter as Bob Dylan. Yuma, AZ is as good a song as Jurado has yet to write, and is reminiscent of Blood On The Tracks-era Dylan.

If like me, you were slightly disappointed by Jurado's latest offering I Break Chairs due to its abandonment of his acoustic style, there will be a few tracks here that will dishearten you. The Joke Is Over plods along at a fair pace, but is not a fair reflection of Jurado's talent.

The album concludes with the title track which closes with the line, "You used to kiss me on the bus and now / I'll walk these streets alone / By myself." With music of this quality, he won't be alone for long.

Thursday, 9 January 2003

Album Review: I Am Sam

Covering any record is a dangerous business, but covering some of the most popular records ever made is normally suicidal. However any remaining doubts I had washed away after one listen. There is not a bad track on this album.

There is a clear division within the album which becomes apparent. On one hand are the artists who play it straight, recording versions that are very similar to the originals (Rufus Wainwright, The Black Crowes and Ben Harper). On the other are the artists who have taken a few more liberties with classic Lennon & McCartney numbers; Nick Cave, Grandaddy and Eddie Vedder fall into this category. Each group work equally well. Beatles songs are so good that generally they don't need to be changed much, but equally it's good to hear a new spin on a old record (the version of Revolution by Grandaddy's sounds a 1000 years away from the original).

The album fulfills reminds us all how good the Beatles were, and how timeless many of their songs are. It also proves on many counts the range of artists who owe a debt of inspiration to them. It's not often you find Nick Cave on the same CD as the Stereophonics. Finally and perhaps most importantly it highlights the talents of many of the artists on the soundtrack. Nick Cave proves to his doubters that he is more than a funereal mumbler with a stellar rendition of Let It Be. Eddie Vedder sings a John Lennon song every bit as well as Lennon on You've Got To Hide Your Love Away. Even the normally mundane Stereophonics up their game with a terrific version of Don't Let Me Down.

Tuesday, 7 January 2003

Album Review: Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots

Question: How does a band top one of the greatest and most ambitious LPs ever released? Answer: They release Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots.

1999s The Soft Bulletin was an absurdly good album from a group who have constantly sought to push the listener's aural boundaries. Yoshimi sees the band adopt a slightly new approach which leaves them sounding like a 27th Century Mercury Rev, and frankly the result is marvellous.

The first single from the album, Do You Realise? is reminiscent of their earlier classic, Evil Will Prevail and sees Wayne Coyne in reflective mood, "Do you realise / that everyone you know someday will die?" Written for Coyne's girlfriend, it's truly a beautiful song and one that deserves to be every bit as huge as Imagine by John Lennon. In a parallel universe it no doubt is.

Other standout tracks include the opener Fight Test, where Coyne tells a tale of regret where he let another man take his girlfriend "Thought I was smart / thought I was right / I thought it better not to fight." It's an astonishing song and one that goes alongside Smells Like Teen Spirit, Black Dog and Mojo Pin as a contender for greatest ever opening track.

The recent titular single tells the underlying tale of the album, that of a young girl's battle against an army of robots. It marks a return to the Lips passion for bizarre track titles and more bizarre lyrics ("She's a black belt in karate working for the city / she has to discipline her body / cause she knows that it's demanding to defeat those evil machines") Nevertheless Coyne's delivery is exceptional as he glides over a messy series of squelching sounds.

This is a tremendous album and proof that The Flaming Lips continue to tread their own path.

Sunday, 5 January 2003

Cocaine toothache drops


Here's a gallery of pre-prohibition psychtropics.


Saturday, 4 January 2003

Album Review: Constant Elevation

I bought this compilation last summer and it's taken me until now to get round to forming an opinion on it.

Things start, as perhaps they should, with Day After The Day After by the saviour of underground hip hop, El-P. The producer du jour proves once again why he is so highly regarded in hip hop circles with another awesome instrumental track.

Schrodinger's Cat by Omid is the standout track on the LP. A fantastic drum and bass track that floats around in outer space for around 2 minutes before reaching a drum break as good as any since Ashley's Roachclip by the Soul Searchers. It really is an extraordinary piece of music that everyone should go out of their way to hear. While Omid's other contribution Wading Venus doesn't quite the dizzying heights set by Schrodiger's Cat it remains a decent slab of funky hip hop.

What the CD succeeds in doing so well is blending unidentified space age sounds with old school beats and breaks. No track illustrates this blend better than Vox Apostolica by Steinski. A Buddhist chant plays over an Ike Turner-esque drum break. It's truly remarkable.

There is a vast range in the music on offer here. Besides the aforementioned Omid tracks, Anti-Pop Consortium's Crab Lice is a melange of rapping, scratching and what sounds like a high-tempo game of Pong - it's one of the weirdest things I've ever heard. It's utterly bizarre, but another great piece of hip hop. Of the more orthodox tracks, Rawcore by Peanut Butter Wolf & Madlib stands out. It's a collection of scratching and vocal samples any fans of RJD2s awesome Deadringer will be familiar with. The only other truly vocal track on here comes courtesy of long-time underground hip hop champions, Freestyle Fellowship. The track Crazy is one of the group's best.

It's far too weird and challenging to be to everybody's taste, and even those who do go on to like it might not find themselves enjoying that much on the first couple of listens. Certainly any fans of the Def Jux label would be wise to buy this immediately.

Album Review: Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)

The music world had never heard anything like it. Eight MCs from New York with at least three personas each and an unmitigated passion for kung-fu movies release an album full of blood, passion, violence and Eastern mysticism coupled with eerie piano and string arrangements and pulsating basslines. Now, a decade after its release it's believed to be the second most essential hip hop album ever recorded (just behind Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions).

The moment Ghostface Killah nails the first line on Bring Da Ruckus the hip hop world would never be the same again. After an uncompromising verse and with no fuss or pause Ghostface passes the microphone to Raekwon who seamlessly continues. Hip hop groups of course were not unheard of, but where groups like Public Enemy and the Ultramagnetic MCs each had a main rapper, here there were eight equally visible rappers, each as talented as the last.

While eventually the group would collapse under the weight of kung-fu kitsch, ten years ago they were genuinely intimidating. Their description of what they do to journalists that serves as the introduction to Method Man is grotesque. Earlier Gza had threatened to "slit a nigger's back like a Dutch master killer" on Wu Tang: 7th Chamber.

What makes the Wu Tang so entertaining is that each MC has their own personality well-crafted, even at this formative stage of their careers. Each MC brings an enthusiasm and character to the album. Surrounding the three master storytellers (Raekwon, Gza and Ghostface Killah) are U-God and Inspectah Deck who have never bettered their respective verses on this LP, the director Rza who also delivers most of his best verses here, witty prankster Method Man and resident lunatic ODB. Method Man, in particular, has never been in better fettle than on his eponymous track. His humour is evident throughout the entire LP, but it is on Method Man where he most successfully melds it with a degree of gravity ("I be Sam, Sam I Am / and I don't eat green eggs and ham / style will hit ya, then god damn / you be like oh shit, that's the jam"). ODB is as manic as ever; he is only slightly more coherent than he has been on later releases ("Burn me, I get into shit, I let it out like diarrhoea / got burnt once, but that was only gonorrhoea"). This blend is what makes Wu Tang group efforts so good, but it is on their debut that the melange is at its most potent.

C.R.E.A.M. remains the Wu's most perfectly recorded moment. Raekwon and Inspectah Deck fill the listener in on how hard it was for them growing up, "A man with a dream with plans to make CREAM / which failed; I went to jail at the age of fifteen / a young buck selling drugs and such who never had much / trying to get a clutch at what I could not.... could not...."

Wu Tang: 7th Chamber has the entire Clan (bar U-God) attempt to out-do each other in some short verses. The beat is almost skeletal and the track has no chorus, meaning that each MC merely passes the mic to his next compadre. The track also gives ODB the chance to say perhaps his best, and unquestionably his funniest, couplet to date, "Are you, uh, ah, uh, are you a warrior? Killer? Slicing shit like a samurah / The Ol' Dirty Bastard. Wunderba!" It's the first and last time ODB would deal in the German language, which, on this evidence, is a crying shame.

Meanwhile, the Wendy Rene-sampling Tearz sounds like some demented carnival mixed with the subject matter of TLC's Waterfalls. In fact it's hard to believe that TLC's track wasn't heavily inspired by this track, as the subject matter is essentially identical. Rza's first verse tells of the murder of his brother and Ghostface Killah's verse tells of his friend who catches HIV. And has any band ever recorded a mission statement as perfect as Wu Tang Clan Ain't Nuthing Ta F' Wit? This writer thinks not.

Many albums are branded as being landmark releases few however actually deserve the title. Enter The Wu Tang is an album that is entirely worthy of its reputation. It seems unlikely that the Wu will ever better it, or anybody else for that matter.

Thursday, 2 January 2003

Album Review: Nirvana

It's impossible to review this compilation without making some reference to the tracks that were ommitted. But to ignore exactly what is left on the CD would a heinous crime. Certainly it is the poppier side of Nirvana, that cannot be argued, and as someone who enjoyed the heavier, darker side of Nirvana I was slightly disappointed to see the likes of Aneurysm, Milk It and certainly Scentless Apprentice left out. However, what is left on the album is exemplifies Nirvana's genius.

The album begins with the much-discussed You Know You're Right. Discounting the nostalgia of hearing a new Nirvana track, it remains a great song. Full of the angst and raw energy that Cobain was having trouble holding onto towards the end of his tragically short life.

About A Girl is next up and this new remastered version sounds incredible. It was a very good track before, now it is truly remarkable. It remains the standout track from Nirvana's debut release. The alternate version of Been A Son barely sounds the same as the original vinyl version or as the track from the BBC sessions that found its way onto Incesticide. Novoselic's bass solo in the middle of the track is worth £10 of anyone's money. Sliver completes the first portion of the album, the story of Cobain's unhappy visit to his Grandparent's was never my favourite Nirvana song, and for me is the weak link on this LP. I would have liked to have heard Love Buzz or Spank Thru complete the triolgy from Nirvana's early years. Nevertheless, the track highlights Nirvana's raw energy and punkier side when surrounded by some of their poppier work.

It's unlikely that anyone will need any introduction to the following four tracks. The selection from Nevermind would always cause controversy, and everyone will bemoan the lack of one or two tracks (I would have liked Drain You to make an appearance), but no one can deny that Smells Like Teen Spirit, Come As You Are, Lithium and In Bloom summarise the LP as well as any of the notable exceptions (Polly, Breed, Something In The Way).

As In Utero is my favourite Nirvana album I was again disappointed not to see my very favourite Nirvana track Scentless Apprentice make the cut, but what replaces it is hardly lackluster. Heart-Shaped Box was a bolt from the blue upon its original release and the lyrics remain as harrowing to this day. The Scott Litt mix of Pennyroyal Tea is just beautiful. Rape Me and Dumb fittingly conclude the In Utero contributions as they are two of the finest songs Cobain would write.

The three final tracks (All Apologies, The Man Who Sold The World and Where Did You Sleep Last Night) are taken from the MTV Unplugged LP. As Cobain screams the finale of Huddie Ledbetter's Where Did You Sleep Last Night any music fan's hairs on the back of their neck should be well and truly on end.

Like many Nirvana fans, I didn't whole-heartedly agree with the track-listing but every track on this album is utterly, utterly brilliant. No self respecting music fan should be without this collection.