Alice in Chains — Rainier Fog

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The following is true: I just hit a deer. I just totalled my car. I’m stuck in a little town alone and every hotel room in this town is booked up. The midnight-shift dude at the Comfort Inn is into grungy guitar rock and he’s nice enough to let me hide in the lounge, hidden out of sight from the main doors, so long as I don’t fall asleep. He gave me some coffee pucks to run through the coffee-puck machine, to keep me awake. Nice guy. He’s rocking out to some awful cover of Tears for Fears’ “Shout”.

So stay up I will, and listen to grunge rock I will. Which got me thinking of the fact that Alice in Chains has a new record.

Alice in Chains, if you don’t know, were one of the big grunge rock acts of the ’90s. In order of their reverence, there was Kurd Cobain and Nirvana, there was Veddie and Pearl Jam, and—before Soundgarden captured all our attentions and took their rightful place with the near-perfect Superunknown—there was Layne and Alice in Chains. Gifted with a singular voice and a plainness in his lyrics that made Kurdtdtdt and Veddie’s words seem opaque and avoidant, Layne Staley sang frankly about his use of hard drugs and the lifestyle that came with it. He wasn’t asking for pity or for judgement, only putting words to what he saw in front of him. Combined with a soaring vocal range, a strange mix of growl and whine, and most importantly for teenaged-me, constant interesting harmonies with band-leader Jerry Cantrell, Layne’s singing always stood out to me in my formative years. In retrospect, many 90s bands were kind of shit, but Cobain and Vedder and Staley were all objectively excellent singers.

But when you sing about heroin and you live a life of using heroin, eventually the heroin wins. Alice in Chains recorded three LPs, two EPs, and an MTV Unplugged before the band decided, for reasons never I’ve never seen discussed, to go on an indefinite hiatus. A few years after that Layne died from a speedball overdose.

Jerry Cantrell, the primary songwriter and guitarist and melody-writer and general brains behind the Alice in Chains operation, toured as a solo act for a while. But eventually, the band wanted to play together again, to have fun, to keep going. They brought in a new guy, another very good singer, but everything I’ve heard from their output, he is always in the background, second always to Cantrell, the founding member. Cantrell’s voice is thoroughly fine but no standout; it’s a perfect harmonizing voice, but maybe not meant to take the lead.

So in a different configuration with a different band member and a different singing arrangement, Alice in Chains started making music again. Unlike other revival acts, they kept putting out records, touring, treating themselves as a real band and not some reunion or celebration-of-what-was. But it wasn’t for me anymore. I had loved their weird scales and punishing guitars and amazing harmonies as a kid, but as an adult I found their songs unnecessarily long (so many third verses and choruses!) and without any interesting movement. So I lost the thread on my teenage-favourite band and let them do their thing without my judgement.

But then I hit a deer and totalled my car and stranded myself in a town until the first ferry arrives at 6:30am. It’s 2:06am. I’ve been thinking about doing a review for Fraudsters (Mark’s got a bunch coming up and so I want to at least try to keep up). So let’s listen to the new Alice in Chains record, Rainier Fog, for the first time!

The One You Know — Starting on an ugly chord, working their way to an ugly-chord riff. The rhythm section is lively but boy it’s plain so far. Jerry’s got much more bite to his vocals than he used to, which is to his credit. He sounds a lot more like leading-man material, but still not quite there. The chorus is actually kind of great in a pop-rock way, in a way that reminds me of AiC’s third, interesting-but-kind-of-weak record (“Tripod”, the dog-cover record). But back we go to this weak riff. There’s a wah-wah solo, always Mark’s favourite, but it’s pretty interesting and would probably be amazing if there was more going on with that stupid riff. To AiC’s credit, this song actually has a nice, subdued bridge with some interesting harmonies, but this is very much Jerry’s show, and the new singing gent (William DuVall) is unfortunately sidelined even though his voice is strong. Overall, this is exactly the single you would expect Alice in Chains to release in 2018, for better and for worse.

Rainier Fog — A much more interesting riff this time. Rainier, if you don’t know, is the name of a mountain in Washington. The vocals are, again, far improved from old Cantrell, but the absence of Layne Staley and the weird quirks, the strange wrong-but-right melodic ideas he added, is still obvious to me. … A whole verse and chorus has passed with nothing new happening, so that I almost didn’t notice it passing. Another really interesting breakdown in this song, though, with a clear 80s influence (chorus bass, spacey drums), and it makes me wonder if Alice in Chains is getting tired of being Alice in Chains. There’s some interesting lead work in this bridge that sounds unfamiliar, but ultimately the good will is spent on an unnecessary third verse and chorus.

Red Giant — This sounds like a riff from their earlier era, filtered through a 2018-pop-metal lens. There’s something weak to the way the drums are recorded. It’s too bad. Sean Kinney is a superb drummer who has always been playing down, mostly keeping his noodley inclinations in check for this grunge band. Here, he’s much more lively, but it’s undercut by a soft production touch. Hah, I’m not sure if I’ve even heard the bass yet on this record. Not a good sign. Between the loud guitars, endless riffs, extended solos, and vocals, this record feels very much like the Cantrell show. Mostly that’s for worse, but there’s some good solo work here. Boy this pre-chorus and chorus is dreck, though. Too long! All of these songs would be better songs if they dropped the last verse and chorus, or the verse at least, or the chorus. Instead, they go on and on.

Fly — We’ve reached the acoustic song on the record. Sort of. Still lots of lead guitar. Still lots of rock drumming. Boy, this is bad. What is this about? What is he talking about? “Fill up on love when you’re hungry”? This isn’t great. It’s definitely leaning somewhere between Bon Jovi’s “Dead or Alive” and Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters”… but more optimistic! “Waiting out the storm until the skies are clear to fly.” This is what boring dad music used to be, before boring dad music became the National. And guess what? Third verse and third chorus that is exactly the same as the two that preceded it. The shortest song so far has was 4:49.

Drone — Riff riff riff. One of the thing I used to love about Alice in Chains’ riffs is that they sounded weird. Yes, they leaned on rock and metal standards, but they were chromatic, or in odd scales, or strangely musical. Here, instead, it’s all blues rock and none of the weird. Again, some interesting drums. Again, wah-wah mini-solo. Again, bland vocals (albeit one or two interesting harmonies). There’s an interesting tempo/acoustic transition here, but the part that follows is mostly interesting because it’s different from what came before it.

I can’t believe I hit a fucking deer. What an awful waste.

Jesus, this song is still going. There is a second wah-wah solo in. They’re back to the original rhythm for—yes—a third verse and chorus. After the punishing repetition of these songs, I can’t help but consider that maybe Alice in Chains was always just sort of bad and that I’m only being so critical because I’m hearing this for the first time in 2018. What would younger me have thought of this? … I hope I would have found the vocals dull, at least. But I bet I would have loved this. I was terrible. I am terrible still.

This song is still going.

Deaf Ears Blind Eyes — Not exactly an auspicious start, with a song title like that. But there’s some interesting stuff in the opening riff. The verse seems to promptly quash any hopes, BUT then the chorus comes in and it’s legitimately a little weird and interesting and actually evokes an uneasy mood/feeling. It’s no great track, but at least it’s doing something? God, I’m reaching here. This is really-well-produced nonsense.

There’s not even a Denny’s in this town. I was told that “the Tim Horton’s might be open all night if they have anybody to staff it.”

OK, a couple of interesting parts in this song, and as I was writing this sentence, the third verse began.

It was more that the deer hit me. But still. God it sucks.

Some interesting riffing at the end here.

Maybe — Maybe not, amiright? Some questionable vocal choices, into our Jovi acoustic rock again. So many harmonies but they… I don’t know, jive too well, don’t interact but act as one boring organism. God these chord progressions are killing me. Bad choice of words, all things considered tonight. “Let it die.” If they had ended the song here, it might have been an interesting choice. Instead, the song is only one third done, another five and a half minute ride through lines like “Maybe you should know I’m feeling lonely and I’m tired… Maybe this will show I’m feeling empty, uninspired.” It’s showing, Jerry. “Let it die” he says again right before a beautifully recorded solo that has none of the movement and inspiration that I remember when I was a kid. Maybe I imagined it all? No third verse, but we get the full third chorus. “Let it die.” Yeah. OK.

So Far Under — I once played with Mark and some other dear friends at a place that had a name like Jimmy’s Wing Shack or something. They had one of those punching bag machines and a drunk woman sat on our friend’s/drummer’s lap. This riff is exactly what I imagine a band playing Jimmy’s Wing Shack would play. From there, we go into a pre-chorus and a chorus that are mostly just more riff. And repeat. “No one gets off of this ride alive.” Some of these lines make me think Alice in Chains is screwing with me. I think maybe DuVall is singing some of the leads here? It’s hard to tell. The choruses sound different. Some interesting solo work here.

Never Fade — I haven’t pulled an all-nighter in some time. I’m fading.

Again, this sounds like DuVall might be taking over some of the singing duties. The verses are kind of weak, but the choruses are well sung. And the trading off between Cantrell and DuVall livens up the listening experience, hearing DuVall do two lines, and Cantrell follow with two more. It suggests what this band could be. That said, DuVall really is sort of squandering these verses. When the chorus repeats a second time, I’m just as excited and interested to hear them trade lines as the first time. Extended solo time. Boy, Mike Inez (their bass player) is just barely on this record. He’s like one or two steps from being Fieldy on a Korn record. This is not a timeless song, but for me, this chorus is as interesting as the record has been so far. “Never faaaaade!” I’m trying, man.

All I Am — The closer. Starting on a Jovi-acoustic-rock meets “Hotel California” vibe. OK, I’m being a little cruel, but it does evoke that a little. It’s almost 3am. All of these songs are longer than they need to be. This has an interesting mood, and not an abjectly bad vocal delivery in the chorus, but whenever the singing is good, it reminds me that the lyrics are bad. … OK, fuck it, I’m into this fake Hotel California nonsense. I think if they took a song like this and built some more dynamics into it, they might be able to make it interesting. As it stands, the whole thing essentially feels the same volume; you can feel it’s supposed to get louder during the choruses, but the song has no extra headroom. Some interesting time-signature stuff here. “I don’t recognize the face before me. It’s unfamiliar.” That’s the last line on the record. OK.

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Verdict — Alice in Chains have managed to make me question my confidence in my memory. Was it always this mediocre? Was I? Why couldn’t the deer have jumped the other way instead of into my lane? The album sounds wonderfully recorded and produced but simultaneously gutless, with a nearly absent bass on standard headphones, and with drums that feel thin and uniform. The guitars sound ripping and have a few inspired moments, but the vocals are just a smear of uninteresting choral work rather than the interplay between two vocalists. The Jovi-esque moments were unfortunate too.

So the verdict? I should leave Alice in Chains be. They’re not for me anymore. This is probably awesome music for somebody, but even for that somebody, I wonder if they should maybe trim off more third verses, at the very least.

3:08am. I wish I hadn’t left my toothbrush in the busted-up car. I wish I hadn’t killed a deer.

The National — Sleep Well Beast

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Ah, nothing like a man in his late thirties reviewing a band that seems perfectly designed and marketed to people in their late thirties. On the one hand, nobody makes me cringe in the “we’re just as cool as we ever were, we’re just a little older” way quite like the National; they’re still going to parties and getting trashed, but now they drink red wine and feel anguish about their life partners instead of their newest relationships. Singer Matt Berninger sings pithy line after line about all the newfound wisdom that comes to you with a little age, but sometimes I get the feeling that he hasn’t learned anything at all but how to perform the role of being an adult.

On the other hand, when Berninger lets himself be disarmed, the National can be magic. In particular, High Violet and Boxer both resonated with me quite a bit at the time, and those records can still whomp me in the guts when I put them on. “You said it was not inside my heart; it was. You said it should tear a kid apart; it does. Didn’t want to be your ghost. Didn’t want to be anyone’s ghost.” Couple that with a band of very talented musicians who come up with great arrangements but rarely demand the listener’s attention, and I have to admit that I like a lot about the National. But with 2013’s Trouble Will Find Me, I found myself tuning out and feeling like they had turned into, for lack of a better term, a National cover band. The words were similar, the arrangements were similar, but both lyrically and musically it seemed to ape themselves.

Here we are in 2017, and there’s a new record, Sleep Well Beast. They’ve already scored points for that record title, as I call my son the beast and love nothing more than when he sleeps well. But will they be able to win me over again, or is my National phase behind me? I’m going to drive my son to daycare and walk my dogs while listening to Sleep Well Beast, pretend I’m still cool, and judge for myself. Here are my first thoughts.

Nobody Else Will Be There — A guitar-loop type thing, paired with a very pretty, very nice sounding piano. Some deliberately rough vocals (i.e. late-night or first-take) off the top, which comes across to me as sincere. Sometimes there’s a quality to Berninger’s lyrics that make me think of him as a serial romantic (or serial adulterer, since he’s a married man?). It’s likely, of course, that all these “meet me somewhere secret and we’ll woo each other” songs are for the woman he’s been with for decades, but something about the delivery occasionally makes it sound illicit. Decent enough opening to the record.

Day I Die — There are those good drums I was missing. And there’s the other half to his vocals: when he doesn’t sound like a serial romantic, he sounds like a serial divorcé. This is a strong vocal performance, less crooning and more singing, and it goes really well with the sense of energy conveyed by the band. Lots of great musical ideas that appear about halfway through, and lots of hooks.

Walk It Back — And then we throw away the band for a synthscape. And throw away the singing for the crooner schtick. Ugh. This chorus is just terrible to my ears. I’d call this track a total misfire, if not for some interesting musical ideas. Not a good sign when the half-baked songs show up so early.

The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness — OK, this is more promising. Interesting lady choral intro, a more energetic tempo. But the last track sort of soured me on the vocals, so I’m being much harder on them than I was before. Granted, the singing is much better here. Really doesn’t sound like much of a song until the drums kick in after a minute or two and the vocals jump up an octave. Not a great lead guitar sound to begin with, and then a long, tuneless solo. Overall, some interesting ideas that I would never need to listen to again.

Born to Beg — Great piano and synth intro. We’re back in serial divorcé mode, but the “born to beg” line in the chorus is kind of cornily drawn out. Starting to feel the album meandering at this point, mainly because it’s as much studio fuckery (synths, sequencers) as it is an actual band. This track has a great outro with guitar and piano.

Turtleneck — The National have named their liveliest track after the most take-me-seriously shirt/sweater style. The amped-up feeling is appreciated, but unfortunately it’s full of rote live-rock-music schtick, like a worse-performed U2 that leans on the 12-bar blues. Does anyone actually want to hear the National doing their take on blues rock?

Empire Line — Cold synth drum intro with synth mallets and synth strings. It’s interesting, but I’m missing hearing the band play their instruments. I don’t even know if I’ve noticed the bass guitar to this point. This song doesn’t even seem to have bass guitar until the very end. Vocal delivery is so stilted and slow, it sounds as though he barely hashed out these lyrics before he recorded his parts. Again, some great musical ideas throughout this, especially in the drums at the end.

I’ll Still Destroy You — Have you ever wanted to hear the National use late-1980s synth sounds/drums and choral “oohs”? Then I’ve got some good news for you. Again, some really weak vocals, mumbled and awkward. This is more a soundscape than a band effort; even when the drummer eventually shows up, his part is so hyper-processed and synthetic sounding that it doesn’t add his usual pep. There’s a great breakdown in this track that reminds me of Radiohead, a band who was much more successful in transitioning away from a live-band sound. At this point, I’m mostly tuning out the vocals, although the chorus here was pleasant.

Guilty Party — Oh great, another song that starts with glitches and synth. But the piano soon follows, and it’s a really lovely mix between the natural and artificial. The chord progressions on piano seem to be a better fit for Berninger’s singing, leading to nicer melodies and rhythms. If I’m taking anything away from this song, it’s that ADULTHOOD IS HARD. A neat, swelling guitar section instead of a solo, and much more successful than the feature section in “System” above. Really great drums, which apparently is something I say about this band in general. One of the better tracks.

Carin at the Liquor Store — Piano again, and once again the vocals are strong and melodic. Maybe that’s the secret to making a good National song? I’m sure there are many exceptions. Anyway, great guitars, surprisingly mediocre drums here, but overall a pretty track, or at least it stands in contrast to some of the more obvious misfires.

Dark Side of the Gym — Man alive, is there a more depressing picture of adulthood than transitioning from Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” to fighting your own waning metabolism in the Dark Side of the Gym? This song seems to be about yearning wistfully for the beginning of his relationship. Overall this track doesn’t do much for me, but again, there are some pretty sounds and ideas, especially the ending, which blends glitches and traditional orchestral instruments. Once again, this reminds me of Radiohead moving beyond the constraints of a live band, only less successfully.

Sleep Well Beast — And even more Radiohead, with a sampled “ooh” section, a simple drum-machine sound, and synth to start. There seem to be a number of interesting lines in the lyrics, but they’re mostly lost under another mumbled performance. Not the worst offender, but certainly far from the best on here.

The verdict: Sleep Well Beast finds the National trying to be many things at once. Musically, the album is relegating the live band to the background in exchange for synths and soundscapes. Vocally, the album is equal parts mumble, schtick, and genuine heartfelt performance. Lyrically, he wants to woo you or lament your break-up, depending on the song. It feels like the album of a band that is trying to satisfy many urges and not worrying so much about who this music will appeal to. I can admire and respect that, but ultimately, I may not listen to it very much. I’m an adult, after all, and don’t have time to horse around with extraneous things. I guess I’ll get my adult music from the likes of Pile or Do Make Say Think instead.

XBox Game Pass

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XBox Game Pass is most simply described as “Netflix for video games.” For twelve bucks a month, you have unlimited access to over a hundred games on XBox One, and you can play any of them as much as you’d like. Like its movie/TV equivalent, the XBox Game Pass isn’t going to provide the same amount of value to all people. But for casual, new, or returning players, it’s a fantastic way to get access to a collection of great, varied game experiences for a very reasonable price.

Ever since Netflix’s on-demand model became hugely successful for movies and television, video game publishers and console makers have been experimenting with games-on-demand services. So far, they have come up short: Sony’s streaming service is only for old Playstation games and can have problems with lag; EA’s service is a good reminder that so many of their games play and feel too much alike. As such, games-on-demand hasn’t really taken off.

I bring up the competitors only to point out that the bar for XBox Game Pass is set pretty low. The Game Pass manages to solve the problems inherent to Sony and EA’s models: games download to your console, meaning that they play exactly like any other game you own, and there is a tremendous variety of game styles to choose from, from indie to big-budget, racing to shooting to strategy, and so on.

As summer was winding down and I found myself without a game to play, I decided to give the service a shot. There were a number of titles on the list that had caught my interest but had slipped by unplayed, so I downloaded a bunch of them.

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Mega Man Legacy Collection — Holy shit these games are still hard. I played about twenty minutes of Mega Man 1 and 2 and realized I have neither the intestinal fortitude nor the patience for the dated platforming mechanics. Beautiful, timeless art and music, but I think I’ve retired from this franchise. (I’ll always gladly watch somebody else play them, though.)

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Spelunky — Apparently I hadn’t gotten enough punishment after Mega Man. Spelunky is unforgiving and full of nasty surprises, but it’s a really interesting evolution of the blue bomber’s 1980s mechanics. I’m not super fond of the art style, but there’s a depth and fairness to the brutality that makes me understand why people keep coming back for more of this rogue-like platformer. Not me, though. I’m not good enough to get very far.

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Devil May Cry (DmC): Definitive Edition — It’s the dumb heavy metal aesthetic and pace of DOOM, paired with extraordinarily stylish third-person brawler action, and finished off with an undeservedly fine set of motion capture performances and voice acting. This is stupid and has all sorts of problems, but there is also a surprising amount of pathos and nuance in the margins of all this silly hack & slash fun. A nice find.

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Soul Calibur 1 & 2 — Still fantastic. These older fighting games play so well and have a great visual style that has held up. There’s not a lot of single-player depth to these games (I wish Soul Calibur III was on here, with its weird semi-strategy campaign), but they are perfect for hanging out with friends and trash-talking one another.

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The Flame in the Flood — A survival game I had been excited to try but nervous to buy. As such, this was the perfect opportunity to play it. And now I’m glad I didn’t buy it: while I have a soft spot for some survival games (e.g. The Long Winter), the main gameplay loop (rafting from small area to small area) didn’t quite do it for me. Really beautiful looking game, though. This was the best proof of concept for the Game Pass so far, as I got to play it, enjoy a little of it, and then not feel burned when I wanted to put the game down for good.

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Sunset Overdrive — This has all the indicators of a great game that was rushed out the door: beautiful open world that you aren’t given much opportunity to explore (because you’re constantly fetching something for somebody); incredible movement mechanics, akin to a skateboard game, but unfortunately all in service of shooting stuff; a tremendous sense of style, including a haircut named after Buzzo from the Melvins; and a pasted-on story that probably could have been interesting if the team had trusted their writers more.

There are a number games on the list that I would still like to try, including BraidD4Halo 5Mad Max, and Terraria. But after playing a few titles, I noticed the pattern: most of these are games that I’m curious about, and might be a nice surprise, but aren’t necessarily for me. The games that are brilliant and totally my style—BrothersLimboMassive ChaliceOlliOlli, and XCOM: Enemy Within, for example—I had already played.

Ultimately, I think the XBox Game Pass makes the most sense for people who are getting back into video games after not playing for a few years, or for people who play casually and want to know there’s something new waiting for them without having to put in much work. Losers who have regularly spent time playing over the last few years (present company included) may find the service less useful. But in terms of value, you’re getting far more than your money’s worth if you only play one or two of these games a month. Considering that XBox added seven games in September, and that there are already many great titles to choose from, this “Netflix for games” service seems like it will continue to be a good deal.

In Rotation — Saturday 2nd September 2017

Jay: Well, September is here and Labour Day is upon us. This weekend is your last chance to live fast and fancy-free before the autumn rolls in. Spend it well. I’ll try to do the same.

How about you, illustrious colleagues? Squandering your last week of the summer, or making the most of it?

xcom-2-3Mark: SQUANDERING IT, MY FRIEND.

With the release of XCOM 2’s substantial expansion, War of the Chosen, I’ve gone off the deep end into caring about XCOM and only XCOM once again. I’ve logged a lot of time with XCOM 2, and I never get tired of it. No matter how much better I get at this game, I know that I can always just up the difficulty and have it brutally kick my ass all over again. Now with this expansion, it can kick my ass in a bunch of ways that it previously couldn’t.

The expansion takes the vanilla XCOM 2 experience and adds a welcome bit of depth to the stock XCOM narrative, while also adding a boatload of enjoyable gameplay bells and whistles. I’m having a hilarious time making XCOM propaganda posters using the game’s absolutely terrible tools included for that purpose. Yeah, it’s just more XCOM. But it’s also better XCOM, with some of the pacing and difficulty issues of the previous iterations ironed out fairly nicely.

This write-up is late largely because I just want to play it. It’s got the voices of Counsellor Troi and Commander Riker in it. You’d be stupid not to play it!

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Josh: I finished up season 1 of HBO’s sci-fi series Westworld this week. The show, based on the Michael Crichton film of the same name, is set in a future in which wealthy humans can pay to wander through a vast Wild West scenario interacting with characters played by lifelike robots, enacting their most benign or depraved desires.

To one degree, it’s Jurassic Park with robots (and the writers slip in a few good nods to that other great Crichton story), a classic style sci-fi morality story that asks ethical questions about technology and entertainment. It’s impossible not to think about video games and see this park as an extrapolated future of them. As this form of entertainment becomes more advanced, how might it change our psychology? Especially when the ‘NPCs’ are indistinguishable from flesh and blood humans.

On the other hand, it’s a typical Nolan brothers puzzle box. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy have crafted a dense first season story that turns in ways that are sometimes expected and other times not. Part of the fun is in the mystery itself, so revelations may not yield satisfying results. Your mileage may vary, but I found the writing mostly top notch, with careful pacing and deliberate editing. It’s a show that feels particularly tightly-written when watched at the same time as this sloppy, rushed season of Game of Thrones. The great performances from Thandie Newton, Evan Rachel Wood, and Jeffrey Wright (who is fast becoming my middle-age man crush) are themselves enough reason to watch the show, but the story and characters sustain interest to the end. The season ends on a note that could itself be a pretty great conclusion, but I’m curious to see the direction the show goes in its second season.

Oh, and it’s got Ed Harris and Anthony Hopkins too.

Jay: I like how one of you tries to sell me on Academy-Award nominees and winners, and the other tries to sell me on characters from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Although, if I’m being honest, I’m not sure which one is a more compelling sell.

My to-do list is already bloating before my very eyes, so I haven’t spent as much time doing fun things as I’d like. In my spare time, though, I’ve been trying to get in as much exercise as possible before my weeks become crushingly busy. In addition to running, which will forever be my favourite way to slow down my inevitable decomposition, I’ve also been going to boxing classes.

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If you know me at all, you’ll know that boxing is a weird and terrible fit for me. I value my brain too much to ever actually invite other people to punch my skull, and I am clumsy even at the best of times. But there’s no actual hitting other people (or being hit), the class environment is good motivation, and the balance between upper body exercises and technique keeps it interesting. Plus, the class generally has more women than men, so the bro-quotient (brotient?) is low. If anything, paying attention to my balance and movement has made me a little less clumsy, just barely. And judging from how much I sweat, it’s a great workout. If you’re looking to join a workout group, there are worse ways to go than boxing. Give it a shot.

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That’s it for us, friends. Have a great long weekend, and see you on the other side in the new (school) year!

In Rotation — Saturday 26th August 2017

Jay: Greetings from the weekend, friends! Considering the most newsworthy story this week appeared to be about Taylor Swift (I don’t know, I’m not hep to the jive) and not the turgid clown president, I’d say these last seven days have been relatively successful. I’m sure it only takes one idiotic political decision to turn that around, so let’s enjoy this peace (and the last of summer) while it’s here!

[NOTE: I drafted the above on Friday, and sure-fucking-enough, that asshole president pardoned a despicable man for heinous disregard of law just before the weekend started. Damn it! So close.]

What’s been keeping you happy and occupied this week, illustrious colleagues?

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Mark: I’ve recently finished (and mostly enjoyed) the newest Nick Cutter novel, Little Heaven. It was slow-going at first, and I’m not sure that Cutter’s talents are best applied in a serving as epic as Little Heaven, but the very fun and effective middle section of this novel made it a worthwhile read. The story is ambitious and sprawling by Cutter’s standards, which have up to this point been confined to an isolated island in The Troop (still his most enjoyable work) and an underwater research lab in The Deep. Little Heaven doesn’t sustain charm and interest throughout its timeline-jumping tale that involves everything from three different heart-of-gold contract killers, Jim Jones-esque religious cults, and … uh… Hellraiser demon worm-babies (?)… but when it clicks, it is fairly creepy and fun.

Cutter seems to acknowledge the fact that he has become known for really pouring it on in his descriptions of gory happenings, and there’s no denying that the man has a talent for disgustingly descriptive prose. It all gets to be a bit much near the end of the book, and it eventually seems like every page turned makes a sound in the readers’ hand somewhere between a squish, a groan and a fart. I would also break with the critical consensus that I’ve read in regard to this book and argue that the included illustrations, while interesting in and of themselves, hurt the book more than they help it.

It’s not perfect, but given that I ripped through the (quite long) book just over the last week, I must have been pretty into it. I’ve consumed little else of note, so I’ll leave you with a soft recommendation that you pick up Little Heaven if you’ve already read Nick Cutter’s other work and enjoyed it. If you haven’t yet read The Troop, read that instead. It is a real gem of a horror novel.

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Josh: By now everyone who wants to play Mass Effect: Andromeda probably already has, and anyone on the fence has probably been dissuaded by all the negative buzz around the game. Perhaps it’s because I came to it so late—I got the game for my birthday right upon release but held off playing it until I finished some other games I had been working on at the time—that the early bugs had been worked out, or perhaps it’s because gamers are the most fickle, irrational, and impossible to please group, but I found this game a lot of fun, and a worthy addition to a franchise that is one of my favourite game series of all time.

Andromeda doesn’t have quite the same grand scope of the original trilogy, but it doesn’t try to either. Focused on the crew of a ship exploring a new galaxy with intention to settle it, the game is heavy on discovery, development, and decisions on how to deal with the species already at home on these new worlds. These decisions are ultimately not that important, but like all Bioware games, they give you something to think about during gameplay that adds a philosophical twist to the gaming experience. Do you risk giving a piece of technology to a group of exiles in exchange for their consent to settle the planet, or do you keep that tech out of their hands and cross that world off the list? The gameplay is top notch, with Bioware’s typically-great mixture of RPG and shooter elements. And the main story is supplemented well with tonnes of side-quests for completists. I put a good 80 or more hours into this game over the course of a few months.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing over EA’s recent decision to end single-player development for Andromeda, to which I say “thank god.” I’m an old school gamer with a massive distaste for DLC. I want to pay for a game once, and whatever add-on story content that was planned for this game feels ancillary to the main story, which comes to a complete and logical end here with a couple of dangling ends like you’d find in a good movie that leaves room for a sequel. I don’t know where the future of Mass Effect is going. The company has said there could be a sequel, but it’s not currently being planned. If they do develop one, I’ll be thrilled, as Andromeda feels like a solid first entry into another Mass Effect trilogy: not as good as the original Mass Effect game, but one that has room to go really exciting places.

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“Our Friend David”

I have deep sadness every time I think about the loss of David Rakoff at age 47. It’s been five years this month since the death of the brilliant writer, humourist, and radio personality, who left behind a legacy of work that was hilarious, gutting, brave, cranky, and pointed. His contributions through the years to This American Life and Wiretap were some of their best segments, from the fictional conversation between Dr. Seuss and a man played by Jonathan Goldstein who believes he is turning into a cockroach that is both absurd and deeply sad to his hilarious account of working in advertising in the 80s and having the worst instinct for knowing what ideas would catch on—he scoffed at the Internet and jokes about how he would he would have passed on Jesus Christ. The segment, recorded shortly before his death from cancer, in which he reads from his final audiobook, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: A Novel by David Rakoff, is one of the most deeply vulnerable, human, and hard-to-listen to pieces of audio I’ve heard. It gets me every time I hear it. These and more are collected in a tribute episode of This American Life that aired in 2012 and was re-aired this month. It’s well worth a listen as a reminder of what a gift these recordings are, as Rakoff was a writer whose literal voice was as important and endearing as his written work.

Jay: I don’t know what’s changed since the original series (could be me, could be the games, probably is both), but I put about ten hours into Mass Effect: Andromeda and turned it off. Considering I did the same to Fallout 4, I think I’m just done with games that feel like a collection of tasks, even if that to-do list is interstellar. Still, the new Legend of Zelda game really got its hooks in me, and it’s not a dissimilar game design. I’ll have to think about it.

On the opposite, hyper-immediate end of the spectrum, Nidhogg II is as frantic and deranged a game as I was hoping. But what’s really stood out to me is the soundtrack, in particular the cuts from an artist named Mux Mool. The title screen music (above) is almost good enough that I don’t want to press Start, and was certainly good enough to buy the soundtrack bundled with the game. If you’re into instrumental music with a good backbeat, there are some real gems here.

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On the literary side of things, I was happy to find a copy of Gil Adamson’s Help Me, Jacques Cousteau and finally finish it, after reading the first half of someone else’s copy months back. The book doesn’t quite function as novel or as short stories, and benefits greatly from its hybrid status. Each section/story/chapter/? is about the same young woman growing up in the same family, but focuses on a different aspect of that childhood: the crazy uncle, the weird neighbours, the brother’s mute phase, and so on. This is a family that’s believably odd, and there’s a through-line of tribulation between the parents that feels so much like being a kid to me. Adamson is a fantastic writer with great instincts for details, abrupt turns, and mashing together seemingly disparate elements in a way that makes it all feel related and relatable. I really enjoyed Help Me, Jacques Cousteau, as well as her Outlander, and it’s a real shame she hasn’t published anything in a decade. Here’s hoping that changes soon.

That’s it for this week, friends! Stay tuned for next week, when Mark returns to the Nails that are three-quarters of a foot long, Josh continues getting quietly drunk, and I think way too philosophically about video games. Until then, enjoy, enjoy.

In Rotation — Friday 17th August 2017

Jay: Welcome back, friends! Who would have thought that the threat of a nuclear winter was only the second biggest blunder by the reality-TV-celebrity that runs the country just south of us? And now, with the impending, timeless clash of Juggalos versus white supremacists happening next month, we have truly entered a new era.

To get serious for a moment, the events of last weekend in Charlottesville were fucking awful. I won’t bore you with the endless discussions my illustrious colleague and I have had on the subject, since you’ve probably also been inundated with news and conversation about it. But I will say that, for what it’s worth, this on-the-ground reporting by Vice was easily the best and most informative piece I saw about the weekend:

Now that I’ve addressed the racist elephant in the room, let’s get on to the silly indulgences that keep us sane in these horrific times. Josh is basking in cottage life and all its frothy perks. How about you, olde friende?

Mark: Well, speaking of HBO, did anybody else notice that next week’s episode of Game of Thrones leaked? I… I sure didn’t download it and watch it early. No sir. Sure am still waiting until it airs officially.

Apart from keeping up on my television programs, I’ve spent some of my free time this week pulling together plans for a TRIP TO JAPAN with my wife. We’re pretty excited and there’s certainly a lot to do. So we have been consumed (her more than me, but still me) by searching out places to stay and things to do. I mostly want to buy some beer from a vending machine to feel what it’s like to live in a modern civilization.

On the music front, I’ve fallen in love with a new band. Melkbelly’s new video was featured on Noisey yesterday as a “certified ripper”, and I’m not sure that I could read those two words without checking to see what the fuss was about. They weren’t kidding. “Middle Of” is a dizzying, beguiling ripper indeed. If off-kilter, arty noise-punk is your jam, this may be the stuff for you. I’ve investigated and listened to their EP and singles and have found that I like most everything they’ve released, much of it finding that space where punk meets art rock meets wobbly prog. Check out their bandcamp page. You can also find their stuff on Spotify and Apple Music, if that’s your thing.

Melkbelly rules.

Jay: That song really is awesome. Can’t wait to hear the full record.

It’s tough to put a finger on any one thing that I’ve focused on this week. Running has certainly been necessary and revitalizing. I’ve been giving that new Big Thief record another shot and it’s growing on me a bit more. XBox has a new Netflix-style program, that I’ll be talking about in more depth next week. Oh, and Nidhogg II came out this week, and I’m really looking forward to digging into that weirdo game. It’s been lots of small bites, in between the work and domesticity.

This weekend I’m going to see an AlienAliens double bill at a local rep cinema. There is nothing like seeing old movies in the theatre, and Sigourney Weaver rules. (She’s also in that new Marvel Netflix series, so I’m screwed.) No matter the depths to which the sequels later sank, these two movies remain a big deal to me. Considering our current political climate, we need more stories about defeating the disgusting parasites that gestate in the darkest parts of us, now more than ever.

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Time to close down this shitshow of a week. Even as we’ve been writing this, at least two more pieces of White House news have hit, so who knows where we’ll be by this time next week? Until then, keep enjoying art in the margins. Take care, friends.

Migraines

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You know it’s serious if people are crazy enough to do this to themselves.

We here at the Fraudsters Almanac take our writing more seriously than it deserves (and more seriously than anyone rightfully should take a review website). So when a migraine unexpectedly struck me this morning and ruined my writing schedule (and day), I was doubly unhappy. In lieu of this shittiest of semi-regular occurrences in my life, I decided to forgo my original beer critique and focus on this awful physiological state instead. It deserves a bad review.

The Bottle: Personally, there’s nothing auspicious about the day my head is going to feel like it’s cracking open like an egg. I usually wake up with no idea that a good chunk of the next twenty-four hours will be forfeit. In retrospect, however, there is typically some combination of the following: too much or too little caffeine, too much alcohol the day before, too little food, too much or too little water (yes, I drink so much water that sometimes it’s maybe too much), too little sleep.

But then there are days like today when I’ve done nothing at all stressful to my body and a migraine still decides to tear through my head. So if I were imagining the packaging for a migraine, this is what it would look like:

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The Colour: Once a migraine is on its way, its arrival is more or less inevitable. The only upshot is that there is a recognizable build-up, a warning, that occurs before the full onslaught hits. For me, this “aura” is a delightful swirl of nausea, anxiety, and increasing sensitivity to lights, sounds, and smells. When I feel it coming, I know it’s time to find a quiet, dark, flat space and prepare to get walloped. There’s no avoiding it, only bracing for the impending hours of discomfort.

So in my analogy, I’d say the colour is green like a novelty St. Patrick’s Day beer, in that both migraine auras and green food colouring in cheap lager promise further pain to come.

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The Flavour: Onto the main show. The term “migraine” derives from the Greek “hemikrania”, as in half the head, and that’s certainly how I experience it: like somebody is drilling into the side of my skull, just above and behind one of my ears. Couple that with pretty intense nausea and the sensation that every light and sound is like a meteor blasting by my face, and it’s not very much fun.

If I’m lucky (which I was today), I’m lying down and as comfortable as possible when it hits, but still it feels awful. On occasion, I’ve been stuck in a car or somewhere bright/loud/etc. and ended up throwing up into a bag, more from the constant pain than the nausea itself. How charming!

And if you don’t think all that is enough, migraines top it all off with an extended hangover period wherein I am woozy, my head is sore, and I feel like I’m looking at the world through a gauze. (Incidentally, this is where I’m writing from, so if any of this doesn’t make sense, it’s because my head is mashed potatoes.)

 

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The stock image selection for migraines is surprisingly uniform.

The Verdict: I’ve had plenty of headaches in my life, mainly from questionable life choices like drinking draft beer or getting a PhD. But migraines are an entirely different beast, hours and hours of being debilitated, useless, and in pain. They are worse than a hangover, with none of the fun from the night before. And because they aren’t universally experienced by all, I have to wonder if there’s a tendency for people who don’t get migraines to think that people who do get them are being melodramatic. So I’m here to tell you, if you’re lucky enough not to get them, that migraines are real, and they are shit.

It was strange to have these “headaches” for years as a kid, only to find out that all of the symptoms, from aura to migraine to “postdrome” (hangover), are well categorized. There’s something validating about knowing your pain is, to about 15% of the population, a shared phenomenon.

So I can say unequivocally that, while I think Foster the People are abysmal and Goodnight Moon isn’t a very good children’s book, migraines are by far the worst thing I’ve ever reviewed on this website. They are just terrible. Screw you, migraines!

In Rotation — Friday 11th August 2017

Jay: It’s Friday; I’m in love. Welcome back to the end of the week, friends! Whether you’re in the west, where the air is choked with forest-fire smog, or eastward, where people are biting dogs on the subway, at least we’ve survived the new (old) threat of nuclear war between two bozos with awful haircuts. It’s amazing that we’re living in a time when Robert Smith’s iconic hairdo looks better than the so-called leader of the free world.

So, fellas, what have you been doing with your (end of) days?


Mark: 
Well, speaking of the current collision course of two adult children who hold the reins of two nuclear-enabled nations, I can’t look away. So much so that I listen to the New York Times’ podcast The Daily, well… daily. The show is bite-sized at around 20 minutes per episode, and it is generally supplemental to one or two large stories that the print newspaper may be running each day. It stands on its own, however, asking the right questions and providing the right amount of insight to aid in grappling with current events as they unfold. It has, of course, been all Trump all the time recently, but that is presumably why I can’t stop listening. When the world ends, I’ll be very informed about it.

To distract myself from all of this, I’ve got a number of television shows on the go. Most of them fall on Sunday, so the first half of my week is largely taken up by catching up on just that one night of television. We could talk all we want about all of the crazy shit happening over on Game of Thrones, but I’d rather talk about how great it is to have Rick and Morty back. After a long hiatus, the new episodes don’t disappoint. It is as hilarious, acid-laced, and bleakly touching as it has ever been. I’m also watching the final season of The Strain, which is a terrible show, but I have given up on The Mist, because… there’s only so much punishment a person can take.

While we’re on the topic of punishingly bad television, the final episode of Orphan Black airs this weekend and not a moment too soon, because this season has been abysmal. Glad to see this show put out of its misery and tossed out of my life.

Josh: Speaking of all that crazy we’re all already watching on Game of Thrones, this great clip from Late Night with Seth Meyers is a solid companion piece. Leslie Jones’ live tweeting of Captain America: Civil War was a hit, and watching her watch Game of Thrones is a lot of fun in that way that sometimes you get joy just from other people’s excitement. Her observations on the show, from losing her mind at the Stark sisters reunion to calling Bron the “gangster who knows where to find the one dollar cigarettes,” are endlessly entertaining, because she’s genuinely enjoying it all. Watch doe-eyed Seth Meyers shrink next to Jones’ energy. “G.O.T. don’t let you down, son!”

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I checked out the sequel to John Wick, and it is highly enjoyable! John Wick: Chapter 2 has more great gunfights, more Keanu, and basically everything you loved (or didn’t, what do I care) about the first film. The best thing about the John Wick films is the surreal criminal underworld its characters inhabit, where they live by their own set of rules, with their own language, economy, and code of honor. It’s highly enjoyable to just hang out in this weird world, where contracts are signed with bloody fingerprints and the weapons dealer is “The Sommelier,” even as the film’s treatment of violence is one that treats it abstractly as an art form but personally as a consuming horror. Bonus, the puppy lives through this one!

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I like Jesse Brown quite a lot as a media critic, but less so as a personality. In The Canadaland Guide to Canada, Brown’s attempt to create Canada’s version of Jon Stewart’s America (the Book), he’s never as clever or funny as it seems like he thinks he is. There are certainly sporadic laughs in it, like the photo of an oil company CEO overseeing the oil sands that is actually just a photo of the Eye of Sauron overlooking Mordor from The Lord of the Rings, or the section ranking the “fuckability” of Canadian Prime Minsters. We’re a country that enjoys making fun of ourselves, but Brown’s treatment of Canada is so glib and often the jokes are so lazy and flat, that the entire thing too often feels like a disinterested shrug. If you want a book about how Canada is dumb on the whole and no one should care about it, maybe this is your book, but it rarely seriously skewers the country’s flaws in a genuinely funny way. I’ve read The Beaverton, I’ve laughed at The Beaverton, and you, Jesse, are no Beaverton.

Jay: Looks like it’s a TV week. I don’t tend to spend much time watching series, but when I found out Wet Hot American Summer had a new limited run (entitled Ten Years Later), I couldn’t help myself. It baffles me how a critical and commercial failure like the original movie has spawned not one, but two limited TV series, especially when its brand of humour is so goddam dumb and often deliberately corny. But if you’re willing to let yourself inhabit their world, and hang out with their astounding cast (many of which went on to to very successful careers, and yet still keep coming back for this nonsense), hanging out at Camp Firewood is a lot of fun.

And that’ll wrap up this week at the Fraudsters Almanac. Here’s hoping we’re all here (and radiation-free) come Monday!

Game Jumble: Couch Multiplayer! — 10th August 2017

For the first twenty-something years of my life, video games were very much a social hobby. From the shit-talking Blades of Steel sessions as a kid, all the way to getting gently stoned and playing some Mario Party in my twenties, games were about hanging out with other people. But for ten years or so, with the advent of online gaming, multiplayer became a much more solitary affair. Many games no longer offer a “local” multiplayer option at all; players are now typically separated across screens and thousands of kilometres. Game developers tried hard to make this shut-in behaviour more social, for example by encouraging talking through headsets, but most players aren’t interested in hearing what some idiot stranger has to say, myself included.

Coupled with this, most games became increasingly complex in their controls, which meant that it was much more difficult for a casual player to pick up and stand a chance against their “gamer” friend.

The end result of all this is that I stopped playing games with other people, and there became a clearer divide between my friends who played vids and my friends who didn’t. There was no longer any space for it to be a casual, social hobby. And that kind of stinks, because playing video games is just as fun as, say, playing Settlers of Catan, or sitting in a bar getting drunk for no reason other than it’s an excuse to hang out.

But in the last couple of years, smaller developers have increasingly turned their focus toward “couch multiplayer” games, i.e. multiplayer where people all sit in the same room again. And as with the rest of the indie game renaissance, the results have been fresh and revitalizing. These developers have been smart enough to keep the barrier to entry low, in that the games are usually quite easy to pick up and play, but without making the game superficial or shallow. Pair all this with the fact that these games are on the cheaper side, usually under $20, and it’s an enticing way to get friends playing games again.

I recruited a few of my pals, including one couple who don’t spend any time playing video games at all, to survey the state of couch multiplayer. Here’s a selection of games that were a hit.

Tricky Towers (PC/Steam, Playstation 4)

Tricky Towers takes the tetrominoes made famous in Tetris (yes, they’re really called “tetrominoes”) and repurposes them for a new competitive game. The goal of the basic game is to stack your pieces into a tower and reach the finish line above you, but your best efforts are often thwarted by your friends, who send hazards your way or get power-ups to build better stacks of their own. Meanwhile, there are all sorts of other threats to your tower-building enterprise, including the harshest mistress of all: gravity. Whether it’s the simple controls or the variants in gameplay (including puzzle and survival modes, and the championship cup we always play), this is the game my “non-gaming” friends always ask to play. Super fun.

Overcooked (PC, XBox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch)

If Tricky Towers builds a healthy antagonism between you and your friends, this one really tests the strength of those friendships under pressure. Overcooked is a bright, silly, colourful cooperative multiplayer game where you all work together to prepare meals. There’s plenty to do in the kitchen, like chopping, boiling, frying, plating, and even cleaning dishes, and it doesn’t help that the kitchens often have some bizarre challenge to overcome (such as being on the roofs of two vans that keep coming together and separating!). To succeed in the game, you and your friends need to plan ahead and work together, and that should be easy, but boy oh boy, it sure isn’t. Again, the game’s controls are very simple to pick up, but it ratchets up the difficulty every level with more demanding recipes or obstacles to overcome. It was fun to watch our best-laid plans go down in the flames of an oil fire (all of us were too busy cooking to grab the extinguisher).

 

Gang Beasts (PC, PS4)

And back to the pure antagonism. Gang Beasts is a very simple fighting game with “rag-doll” physics, colourful wrestlers, and funny locations. Your goal is to throw your friends out of the “ring”, which may be off a silo or into oncoming traffic. The game didn’t necessarily have a lot of lasting power with my gang, but it’s notable for causing one of my friends to go into a laughing fit for almost ten straight minutes. The game’s physics, the tiny punches and flopping bodies, really are hilarious, and since the game is still in development, it may end up being even better than it already is.

Mount Your Friends (PC, XBox 360)

A simple premise, a tough set of controls, and a lot of dongs. Mount Your Friends is a game about ascending a tower of men in speedos, only to become a part of that tower and force your friends to climb one nearly-naked dude higher. The game’s timer and deadly serious music pair really nicely against the absurd imagery and tricky controls (for both novice and experienced gamers). Pretty dumb and great.

Ultimate Chicken Horse (PC, XBox One, PS4, Nintendo Switch)

Let’s get it out of the way: this is probably the best proof of concept for couch multiplayer in 2017. Ultimate Chicken Horse, in addition to having the greatest name, is that perfect balance between game and meta-game. The game is simple: traverse, a la Mario Bros.‘s-style platforming, to the finish line. Between rounds, each player adds one obstacle, trap, platform, black hole, teleporter, or other shenanigan to the map. By the end of a game, the map is littered with insanity. And it’s in this meta-game that the game is endlessly replayable: how can I make it too difficult for my friends to succeed, but still easy enough for me to beat it? What secrets can I drop without my friends noticing? What are my friends scheming? Like most on this list, Ultimate Chicken Horse has a playful, cartoony presentation that hides a surprising amount of depth. This game rules, and while my friends may ask for Tricky Towers most, we always end up playing this the longest.

Nidhogg (PC, PS4)

Nidhogg is pureNidhogg doesn’t bother with fancy graphics or complicated game rules or variety of gameplay. It is a game utterly distilled down to its component parts, two stick figures swordfighting for the opportunity to be eaten by the titular beast at the end of the level. That’s right: the winner gets eaten by the Nidhogg. You jump, you stab, you kill, you run, you die, you are born, you fight again. Nidhogg is furiously paced, so much so that one friend noted his palms were sweaty and his heart was pounding out of his chest. I say a lot of dirty curse words while playing this one. There is something sublime and pure about Nidhogg, something that reminds me of the purity of playing Nintendo games against my friends as a kid. AND I just found out that the (even uglier) sequel is landing four days from now!

So when you and your friends are trying to decide what to do this weekend, consider firing up some video games and having a legitimate excuse to trash-talk each other. It’ll cost you less than going out to the bar, and it may remind you of the simple joy that games can bring.

 

In Rotation — Friday 4th August 2017

Jay: Greetings, friends! Another week of our fleeting lives has passed. I’m feeling pretty good about how I spent it, and I hope you’re feeling good about your time, too. Our illustrious colleague Mark feels so good about it, in fact, that he’s out living it instead of writing here. How about you, Josh? What did you get up to?

Josh: I finally got around to tackling the Starz show American Gods on Amazon Prime Video. The show is based on the apparently not unfilmable Neil Gaiman novel, which I read when I was 19 and quite liked. The brief 8 episode first season is a lot of fun despite a pace that feels unsure of where the show wants to go. It’s a road trip show loosely based around an attempt to assemble a team of gods for a coming war. But it’s the sheer weirdness of it that makes it feel unlike anything else on TV: the way it dedicates lengthy sequences to seemingly unconnected stories of gods “somewhere in America,” and the way it rarely spells out what’s going on. The jazz-scored opening to the second episode, which features a suit-clad Anansi convincing a ship full of transatlantic slaves to overthrow their oppressors by setting fire to the ship and themselves, is a great example of the unexpected places the show is willing to go. I love the way American Gods digs into the mythic roots of American identity as a hodgepodge of belief systems from all over the world, an Americana built from layers upon layers of conflicting and overlapping worldviews. I can’t wait for season 2.

Jay: As a lover of Gaiman’s world’s and stories, but sometimes not his prose (as in the case of Gods), I’m pretty interested in watching this. I do wish we didn’t live in an era where content was hidden behind different services (I don’t have this Amazon video thing), but maybe I should just be grateful that it allows more content to be made.

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I spent the better part of the week in Toronto, and something about that city has really sparked my love of Harry Belafonte. If you’ve seen the movie Beetlejuice, you’ll probably remember that there are two great musical scenes, one for “Day-O“, and the finale of “Jump in the Line“. A month back or so I had a peak-Beetlejuice night (don’t ask; it was fun), and looked up that music when I got home. Turns out they were both by the same artist, Harry Belafonte!

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As with a lot of the music recorded in the mid-twentieth century, there’s a charm to Belafonte’s tracks that comes from the limitations of music technology at the time. The horns are brittle, the stereo panning is extreme, and the performances feel very “live” (which is to say, not very tight or controlled). Altogether, there’s an exuberance and genuineness that complements Belafonte’s excellent vocal performances. Not every track is a winner, of course, but so much of it makes for enjoyable party music that avoids the relentlessness of modern pop music.

Plus, there’s this perfect track, which, from the songwriting to the subdued performances to the recording, I just can’t get enough of:

Couple all this with the fact that Belafonte has spent his life actively caring about humanity, and was one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s closest friends, and I’m really impressed.

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On my last night in Toronto, some dear friends (including one Fraudster) and I hit up Tilt, a bar / arcade. There’s a cover at the door (on Tuesdays it’s only $2), and all the video games, pinball machines, and other vintage ephemera are free play after that. And while “unlimited pinball plus drinking” sounds like a perfect night to me, we found ourselves most drawn to a 1983 cabinet called Ice Cold Beer. The goal of the game is simple, to lift a pinball into specific holes using a bar that you control on the left and right sides. But it was deviously difficult, really fun, and extraordinarily tense. My heart was pounding in my chest, and not just because I had to leave the city the next day.

That’s it for this week, friends! Have a fantastic weekend, and I’m sure we’ll be griping about things again soon. Until then, enjoy, enjoy.

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