Ethereality News & Weblog

April 10, 2010

Daydreams in Cold Weather

Filed under: Art & CG,Audio & Music,Film/TV/Animation,My Life/Musings,Video Games — Rob Chang @ 10:20 pm

It’s kind of strange for someone who’s so passionate about music to actually blog very little about musical artists or just music I love, while I write far more about movies, TV shows, video games, and books. Sure, I write about musical instruments and audio gear a lot, but I don’t really write much about just music in general. I think the reason is because the Influences page already lists all the music I love including the reasons why, but it’s also because I rarely find entire albums I really like. While a really good song is better than none, I tend to not think as highly of an artist until he has proven he’s more than a one-hit wonder; I want to see clear artistic direction that maps the artist’s creative footprints. The key here being that footprints is plural–a single print doesn’t tell me enough except that maybe there was a singular and isolated moment of inspiration–one that might never happens again, but multiple prints traveling in a clear direction tells me it’s not a fluke–that it’s something to be taken seriously.

With movies, TV shows, video games, and books, you have to invest a bit of time into them to find out if they’re any good, or if you even want to bother with finishing them. This creates the situation where even if you don’t like something, you want to talk about it anyway because you already invested time into your dislike for it, and also, you kind of want to just vent or warn others. With music, a typical track is much shorter than any of the other mediums mentioned, so if you don’t like something, you just skip to the next track and it’s out of hearing and out of mind. It’s also much easier and faster for me to assess whether I like a piece of music–I listen to the intro, jump forward about 1/6 of the track and listen for a few seconds. If it still sounds the same without any interesting progression in melody, arrangement, sonic textures, rhythm…etc, then I jump forward by another 1/6 and listen again. I’ll do this until either I hear something interesting that demonstrates the song actually isn’t monotonous, repetitive, and lacking imagination, or the song’s over before anything interesting happens and I rate it the number of stars it deserves (I use J River Media Center as my media librarian) and move on to the next track.

This isn’t to say that I can’t enjoy music that’s built on repetition–I certainly can, but it has to have something interesting about it–be it interesting sonic textures, rhythm, subtle and muti-layered progressions, or anything else that makes it not merely repetitive. There are plenty of amazing electronic music that’s built on the foundation of repetition, but it’s the subtle progressions and shifts in the layers of sonic textures and rhythm that makes them hypnotic and groovy.

With that said, I want to talk about a couple of interesting musical artists I’ve enjoyed recently. The first one is John Tejada, an electronic musician who’s associated with the Detroit techno and house movements. I accidentally stumbled upon a couple of tracks from his album The Matrix of Us a few months ago and really enjoyed them. I then dug into his musical career thus far and hoped to find other gems. After some digging, I was starting to get a little disappointed as many of his other releases were of of 4/4 on the floor sparse techno that sort of relied on the same kind of approach and just wasn’t rhythmically very interesting. Then I came upon his 2002 album Daydreams in Cold Weather, one that features this insanely cute cover:

One listen and I knew I had found the gem I was looking for. It’s an amazing album full of percolating electronic particles and synth bleeps, without any of that 4/4 on the floor monotonousness, and the melodic contours are in that impressionistic and abstract vein–not something you could immediately remember and hum, but definitely melodic. It reminded me of how I felt when I heard LFO‘s Frequencies, for the first time in 1991, or how I felt when I heard Orbital‘s Snivilisation, and also some of stuff by Plaid. Out of the twelve tracks on the album, I really liked all except three tracks, and that’s definitely a very rare thing when it comes to full albums–usually if I like half of the album I’m already quite happy.

Another musical artist worth mentioning is Devin Townsend, whose various projects (including the infamous Strapping Young Lad) span an interesting range of metal, progressive rock, ambient electronic, punk, and in the case of SYL, extreme metal (SYL is supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek spoof of black/death metal). What’s interesting about Townsend is his diverse influences and his melodic and intelligent take on metal. He’s got a sense of humor and can laugh at himself and the musical genres he works in, and I really like his vocals–magnetic, powerful, and soothing all at the same time. The dude’s a good guitar player too, not to mention a good producer with a unique sound that’s lush and layered. Unfortunately, I only really like one or two songs from each album. Although the other songs are good too, they hovering around three out of five stars ratings instead of the four (really like) or five (love). The two albums I would recommend to try would be Ocean Machine: Biomech, and Addicted.

One of Elena’s nieces is currently staying with us for a couple of months, and one of her other nieces (a few months older) would come and hang out with her cousin on the weekends. So we pretty much have a twelve and a thirteen yr-old around all the time now. At that age, they really aren’t quite aware enough of their femininity yet (at least not with these two), so they mostly act similar to boys around the same age–just as loud and rowdy. What we find frustrating is that we can see all kinds of symptoms of bad parenting on them–bad habits, misguided mentalities, ignorance, and complete lack of any manners–are all because their parents haven’t a clue about how to properly raise children and teach them right from wrong, common sense, and what it means to be a worthy human being.

After living with us for over a month, Elena’s niece would constantly make comments like “How come everything you two say make so much sense and you make me realize things I never thought about before or cared about?” or “How come your way of thinking/doing things is so much more effective and meaningful” or “How come no one has ever taught me that before?” From personal hygiene, daily routines, good habits, nutrition, how to deal with bullies, how to study properly, to having honorable and noble values in life–all of these things seem to be neglected in their upbringing. Some of the stuff is so basic and foundational in every human child’s development that we have to wonder what the hell their parents have been doing for the last dozen years? Both girls never eats any fruits or vegetables or barely drink any water at all, and their parents don’t do a thing about it. One of them have not turned in any homework for God knows how long, and is so far behind in her studies that we can’t believe the school hasn’t kicked her out yet. Once again, what the f-cking hell were the parents doing?

Since she’ll only be staying with us for a couple of months, we try to teach her as many good habits as possible and educate her on right and wrong, what it means to be a noble person, what good nutrition is, how to maintain personal hygiene, and a bunch of other stuff. The truth is, Elena and I have decided a while ago that we don’t want any children, and now it it’s very clear to us that part of the reason is because we know we’ll be very responsible and involved parents, and we would essentially devote all of our time and energy to raising the kind of children that we’d be proud of–children that would grow up to become respectable human beings. And it’s because we know how involved we’d become that we prefer not to do it, as there are already too many things in this lifetime we don’t have time for already. For this lifetime, we’ll be content with educating other people’s children as the cool aunt and uncle (and in my case, also as a teacher).

I’m currently still playing Mass Effect 2, and one thing that I find kind of silly in these types of games is how you could wander around and just take stuff from other people’s offices and homes and they just let you do it like it doesn’t cost them a thing. While it’s kind of silly, I still prefer it to the drastic opposite approach, such as in the Elder Scroll games where if you even touch anything, the person would immediately start to attack you. To take it that far is even far more stupid because overdoing it and turns it into a pain in the ass. Something that’s actually logical would be nice, but I have no faith we’ll see anything of the sort anytime soon.

While in the Afterlife club on Omega station, I was struck by how groovy the club music was, and I did a bit of research and found out it’s a track called Callista by Saki Kaskas, a composer who used to be the in-house composer at EA and has scored a number of games. Unfortunately, Callista seems to be the only track he did in that style, whereas the other music he’s done are pretty stereotypical hyper-kinetic racing game music–too arcade-like and musically on the garish side).

I also started on Battlefield: Bad Company 2, and it felt so much like the COD games that I couldn’t help but compare the two franchises. The main difference I noticed was the bad character art and animation in BC2. There are some visual styles where you just have to do motion-capture, otherwise the mediocre quality keyframe animation would stick out like sore thumbs. I’m not saying keyframe animation can’t look very convincing or natural–just that it’s takes some of the best animators in the world to pull it off, and whoever the animators where on this game are just not that good. The character models and textures also had that horrible Uncanny Valley look to them. Although just about all video games don’t have convincing looking realistic characters, the ones in this game are particularly bad that you can’t help but notice them.

The destructive environments in BC2 is a good idea and pretty refreshing–reminds me a bit of Red Faction. It would be even cooler if when a wall or ceiling collapses, it would actually cause physical damage to the players–maybe even pin them down until teammates come and do a rescue.

I made my way towards the end of Resident Evil 5, and I’ve lost the desire to finish it because of how unnecessarily difficult they made the final boss fights. So much of Japanese game design is based on arbitrary ridiculousness and crassness that I can only take them for so long. RE5 is already much less annoying than RE4, but it still annoys. For example, the loot that’s left by enemies would actually disappear if you don’t collect them fast enough. What the hell is that crap? How does items just vanish into thin air like that? That’s the kind of game design mentality left over from the previous century that really sticks out in today’s modern games–just illogical and lazy design. There are other lazy game design like when you’re turning the mirrors to line up the beams, Sheva just stand in one spot and refuses to do anything. To make it worse, if you call to her, she’ll just say something totally out of context like “You gotta be kidding” or “No way! Not a chance!” It’s such lazy game design when the designer allows situations like that to happen. Why not just create context-appropriate dialogues and responses? I really hope that outdated game design approaches like that will get phased out and left behind, because moving forward, there’s just no room for these lazy and outdated approaches in modern games.

What exactly is the definition of a horror film? I often see movies that get categorized as horror when they are nowhere near being horror films. Too often, supernatural thrillers or dramas are being labeled as horror and I think the people who are doing it are either ignorant or doing it on purpose for marketing purposes. For example, Interview with the Vampire is not a horror film. Let the Right One In is not a horror film. Both to me are dramas with a supernatural premise. Neither films are supposed to scare the crap out of you. Horror films to me are Night of the Living Dead, The Exorcist, Descent…etc, where the main goal of the films are to scare the living daylights out of you. Slasher films I also consider horror films because they pin you to your seat and fill you with suffocating dread and terror. Movies like Donnie Darko are also not horror films–they are supernatural thrillers, and not meant to scare the crap out of you, even if they make you uncomfortable. What about Aliens or The Mist? Both are sci-fi/action/horror, so yes, technically they certainly have elements of horror, but offset with plenty of sci-fi action. Anyway, I’m sure I’m not the only one who notices this and wonders about it.

Quickie movie and TV reviews:

Army of Shadows – I checked this one out because it’s hailed as a masterpiece. I thought the film had a few good moments, but as a whole the pacing was kind of slow and the direction lacked dynamic energy. I think this is because the language of cinema has evolved so much in the last few decades, and many films made in the previous decades feels too stagnant or safe, as many of the techniques used today have yet been developed. This isn’t to say that all older movies don’t hold up–many certainly do, and one of my all time favorite films was from the silent film era (Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans). The machine gun escape scene was totally unexpected and ingenious, but it was really the only scene I felt truly compelling. There was one scene where they obviously used an electrical light to masquerade as an oil lamp, and it was ridiculously bad because as the character walked around the room with the oil lamp, you could clearly see the electrical cord being dragged around with it. That’s got to be one of the worst blunders I’ve ever seen in any film–especially considering the serious subject matter and the movie’s status in cinema history.

Pineapple Express – A movie that tries too hard for laughs in some scenes and drags out for too long–as if the director told the actors to just improvise and then later forgot to edit the footage. I was happy to see the actors from Freaks and Geeks though–I really enjoyed that show and I was bummed out that it only lasted one season.

Survival of the Dead – Another big disappointment from George Romero. Diary of the Dead as so bad that if I had watched it without reading the credits, I’d never have believed it was directed by him. Survival of the dead was about as bad, with really clumsy editing, directing, acting, and just not something I’d expect from a veteran filmmaker. I suppose in a way I really don’t care anymore, because Romero’s golden years have been over for a while now, and his influences have already spread far and wide. There has been a zombie revival in the last several years and the genre is looking quite healthy, even if Romero has become irrelevant in his old age.

Daybreakers – A pretty entertaining vampire flick with a twist. I could see why they cast Ethan Hawk, because this film has a similar vibe to Gattaca, where it’s near-future, and there’s been a drastic change in human society, with a moral motif at the center of story.

I am Sam – I had seen the first half of this film a while ago but didn’t get to finish it. This time I tracked it down and finished it. I still can’t believe how good Dakota Fanning was at that age–precocious, expressive, and very natural. The movie’s convoluted message is a bit hard to swallow, but its heart is in the right place. The father’s obviously incompetent, being mentally handicapped (Sean Penn was really good), although through no fault of his own, yet the movie makes sure she ends up with him anyway–a naive and sentimental “love conquers all” mentality that in real life would do more harm than good.

Bandslam – The movie tries too hard to be hip and touching, but ends up being too contrived. Even though it’s supposed to be a harmless family/teen drama and we’re not supposed to be too picky about it, I still have to say how disappointed I was at how the process of creating music was portrayed. This is one of the things that an overwhelmingly high percentage of movies totally get wrong. Nobody creates music the way it’s portrayed in the movies. People don’t just stand around and talk about how to play song for a few minutes and then everyone immediately nails it on the first try–that’s is utter and complete bullshit. It’s almost as bad as August Rush, another movie that portrays the musical creative process as some ridiculous magical trick, and in turn insults all the real musicians on the planet.

And what the hell was the significance of David Bowie in the movie? Not once did the main character even explain to anyone why he idolizes Bowie, and the truth is, I’m sure a very high percentage of the movie’s target audience has no idea about any of the musical artists and styles that the characters talked about. It’s just an awkward film where the writer is aiming at a younger audience, yet uses references that have nothing to do with what young people actually listen to today, and for the most part are completely irrelevant to them.

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