Saturday, October 27, 2012

Album Review: Wintersun - Time I



Oh, fine, I'll do an actual review.

Wintersun, for those of you who aren't already in the know, is a Finnish melodic extreme metal project started by Jari Mäenpää (formerly of Ensiferum) in 2003, with the first Wintersun album being released in 2004. This album was, and still is, one particularly prime cut of metal, defying the label of melodic death metal to incorporate elements of power, folk, neo-classical, black, and even progressive metal, all while having its own sound and songwriting qualities. After this, the band played some live tours, and went to record the next album, tentatively titled Time. However, during the process of the recording, everything that could possibly go wrong did. Production issues. Growing ambitions. Lineup changes. Jari's own battle with tuberculosis. Touring. So, after almost nine years of development, the first half of Wintersun's magnum opus-to-be, Time, was released to the public (at least in America, it released in Europe three days prior) on October 22, 2012 (which is five days ago at the time of this review). So, after all the hype, not to mention the long-ass production time, is Time I an auditory masterpiece or the Duke Nukem Forever of metal?

The first thing to be noticed about the album is its length. Obviously, from the name Time I, it implies that there'd be a Time II, and this album is effectively one half of a larger album. The second thing is the differences in sound. On this album, Jari utilizes a far more epic-sounding orchestra, complete with choir. The composition of the parts used in the song is, quite frankly, some of the best orchestral elements used in a metal album. It could be labeled as a real orchestra and choir, and it'd be completely believable. A lot of the melodies used in the album also have a bit of influence from Japanese folk music. There are only five tracks (plus a hidden track of the band members fooling around in the studio), two of which are instrumental interludes, so there are, in effect, only three real songs on the album. However, two of the songs are longer than 10 minutes, with the third approaching 9 minutes. It's a textbook example of quality over quantity, because every single song on this album is amazing. Yes, even the shorter interludes. When Time Fades Away ranks pretty damn high on my list of "Most Epic Album Intros", and it can certainly be admired of its own musicality, rather than just being a great intro. This fades into Sons of Winter and Stars, a 14-minute behemoth of a track that is also comprised of four sections, much like Starchild from the first Wintersun album. Jari is a hell of a songwriter, and it shows. The third section, in particular, shows how much his songwriting has evolved since the first album, with it being a soft, acoustic section that is extraordinarily well-executed for this type of album, and fits perfectly within the context of the song. The third track, Land of Snow and Sorrow, is essentially Death and the Healing, Part 2, but showcasing Jari's much-improved clean singing. His vocals do a stellar job of conveying the emotion of the surrounding music, which, after repeated listens, is among some of the best Wintersun songs composed thus far, IMO. After that, Darkness and Frost serves as a segue between the previous track and Time, the 11-minute title track of the not-quite-double-album. Darkness and Frost has an entrancing quality to it, with its backmasked acoustic background which builds into an epic orchestral arrangement, complete with what sounds like an army chanting in the background by its conclusion. Time rounds off the album, with another consistently excellent orchestration, a beautiful chorus melody, its shifting, almost progressive structure, and the only real guitar solo on the album. The song, and the album, ends on a musical cliffhanger for the next album, ending with a dark, almost ambient synth/orchestra piece that leaves the listener wanting more.

The album, as a whole, can be seen as both an album on its own, and half of a larger album. Some may be disappointed by the focus on the orchestral-qualities of the music and reduced amount of guitar heroics compared to the first album, but you can't argue with the results. Time I is, without a doubt, one of the best albums of the year, and that is really saying something considering both the lack of good metal albums this year and the quality of the music provided here. Again, quality over quantity. And once Time II releases (currently set to 2013, but god knows how many times it'll be delayed if this half is any indication), there'll be plenty of the latter as well. This album needs to be experienced by every self-proclaimed metalhead, or anyone with good taste in songwriting, or melody that also happens to have an epic-beyond-epic orchestral backing. Hell, even people without a liking for metal would probably love the interludes, at least. Simply put, the music is amazing, and once the second half releases, Time will most likely be Wintersun's magnum opus, and one of the best metal albums of the 21st century.

So, to paraphrase the opening sentiment:



Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Board Game Review 01: Zombie Dice

So, recently I discovered a web series by the name of Tabletop on Youtube.  It's run by the GeeksandSundry people, who also do the web series The Guild.  Tabletop is hosted by Wil Wheaton, and features guests popular in geek culture, such as Felecia Day (Dr. Horrible's Sing A Long Blog, The Guild), Bill Prady (Co-Creator of The Big Bang Theory), Phil Lamarr (Mad TV, Futurama), and even Blizzard CEO and founder Mike Morhaime.

Anyways, when watching one of these videos, I saw a game that piqued my interest (no, it did not peak it, that would mean my interest is capped.  Learn to use proper words internet!).  The game was Zombie Dice, a quick little dice game that can be played with 2+ players.

Don't mind my half an arm.  I'm just here for your brains.

So what about Zombie dice makes it so appealing?  It's a fast game, that can last between 5 to 30 minutes, depending on the number of players and their luck.  The game has a total of 13 dice of 3 different colors; Green, Yellow, and Red.

Those red dice suck, you will cringe when you draw them.

So the way this game work is like this.  You grab 3 dice at random from the cup and roll them.  Each die represents a person whom your hungry, hungry Zombie is going to try to consume.  If you get a brain, you score it by putting it off to the side.  You also keep any shotgun blasts you receive.  If you get 3 shotgun blasts total up over your turn's rolls, then you lose all points you earned this turn.  The feet on the dice represent a "Runner".  If you decide to roll again, you draw until you have 3 dice, counting any runners you have.  

For example, if I rolled two brains and a runner, I could either stop my turn, and bank the 2 points for the 2 brains, or I could grab 2 more dice from the cup, and roll them with my runner.  You always roll 3 dice per roll.  If, on my second roll, I get a brain and two shotguns, I'd have a total of 3 brains, and two shots this turn.  If I get a shotgun on my next roll, I get no points.  A key thing to remember though, if you pull the dice out of the cup, you can't end your turn until you roll them.  You can only bank your points after you finish a roll.

Now, what do the different colors mean?  Well, the color coordination is pretty handy in telling you which ones are good and which ones are bad.  All dice have 2 runners on it.  Green dice have 3 Brains sides, and 1 Shotgun side, making them the safest of the dice.  Yellow Dice are the most fair, with 2 of each type.  Red Dice are not good.  3 Shotguns and 1 Brain means that your odds of success with these are not good.

Of course, hubris can be your downfall.

To win Zombie Dice, you want to be the first to 13+ points.  Once a player scores 13 or more points, every other player gets one more turn to try to surpass them.  For this reason, if the game is close, I always try to score around 16-19 in order to give myself more of a cushion.  If two players tie, they each have a 1 turn tiebreaker.  

This game is all about risk management.  You have to know when to play the odds, or when to just call it quits.  It's a fun party game, and my friends have been asking to play it every time I go over there.  For only $13 at Barnes and Nobles, I'd say that it was a good purchase.

So that wraps up my first Board Game review.  I have other games lined up on the horizon, so keep an eye out for those.

PS, the game's creator is Steve Jackson Games, who you may know as the creators of the Munchkin series. We may see one of those games down the line as well.

PPS, you can download a free version of this game on mobile iOS devices.  Sorry Android users :(

Monday, October 22, 2012

Artist Showcase: Devin Townsend, Part 6

What's that, you say? You say that Parts 3 through 5 aren't done yet? Well, you see, there's a simple explanation.

I'm a time traveler.

Like this, but with more black coffee and metaphorical cheeseburgers.

About a month ago, Epicloud released, the fifth entry to Devin's Devin Townsend Project album series. As a tribute to this, I've decided to skip ahead in my admittedly-neglected series and review the four of the five albums consisting of the "story-arc" of the Devin Townsend Project (the name and logo are being kept for branding purposes, and because it'd be a shame to get rid of such a bitchin' logo).


Strap yourselves in, because it's gonna be a wild ride through Devy-land. Our first stop:

Why don't you hop in the TARDEV and go on a little time-traveling ride with me? It'll be a relatively short one. I promise. Open the door for me, would you? BAM. It's 2007, and Devin Townsend has just announced his intentions to retire from the public eye after releasing the kick-ass metal sci-fi satire opera, Ziltoid the Omniscient. This announcement comes hot on the heels of his disbanding Strapping Young Lad due to a lack of motivation to continue the project any further. He claims that he will continue to produce more solo albums, and intends to do some stuff that's just as heavy as SYL. Now hop on back in the TARDEV, there's a good chap. Get that door for me again? Thanks. It's now 2009, Devin's back from his hiatus and recording albums again under the moniker of Devin Townsend Project, with a whole new group of band members and a shiny new logo to boot.


According to Devin, the project will be a series of four albums, each with a different musical style and different band members (in the future, this will prove to be inverted due to Ryan Van Poederooyen's involvement in pretty much everything). The first album, Ki, will "set the stage" for the entire project. Even though Devin's pretty much detailed all but the most obvious aspects at this point, nobody really knows what to expect. Will it be as heavy as SYL? Will it be another ambient album? Will it be the reformation of Ocean Machine? Well, the correct answer, as we know back in our home time period of 2012, is D: None of the above. Ki, which was released on May 25, 2009 was revealed to be a mellow, acoustic album with elements of progressive, ambient, blues, and funk, all interspersed with the occasional outbursts of HOLY SHIT METAL. The Devin Townsend Project, for this album, consisted of the man himself, Duris Maxwell on drums (formerly known as Ted Lewis if you're a blues fan), Jean Savoie on bass, Che Dorval on backing vocals, and Dave Young on keyboard/piano.

The fact that Ki turned out to go in this particular direction was somewhat out of left field, but not entirely unexpected. It was common knowledge at the time that Devin was having a hell of a struggle with drug addiction. Thankfully, he managed to face his issues head on, go to rehab, shave the Legendary Skullet of Power (R.I.P.), and begin a journey of self-discovery through music. Of course, it was predicted that after this purge, none of his musical output would be as heavy or as chaotic as songs written before, like the Alien album. But few could have expected Ki to be as mellow and progressive as it was. 

Ki is, in essence, a complete musical relation of Devin's life at that point. Yeah, the album's concept is nice, and fittingly pretentious for any sort of prog, but is the music itself any good? Oh, it's a musical journey, and not just if your name is Devin Townsend, but for all listeners.
It begins with a very mellow, beautiful but melancholy instrumental track named A Monday, if the track title helps you envision the atmosphere the song's going for any clearer. This segues into Coast, a bit more upbeat track (and the album's one music video). Coast has a bit of a build to it as far as atmosphere and effects go, culminating with an acoustic chord progression repeating and wait is that an electric guitar coming into focus, oh mY GOD THIS IS HEAVY AS SHI- and it's gone, an acoustic guitar's solitary (very reverb-y, as the acoustics tend to be on a lot of the album) lick interrupting the chaos, bringing an aspect of peace back to the record. The recurring motif of mellow, acoustic vibes being interrupted by bouts of chaos is one of the musical themes of the album. Disruptr (sic) continues the trend of proggy acoustics, building up to another heavy section, but this time it maintains its composure, stopping itself before it loses control. Atmospheres get thicker, reverbs get reverbier, it seems to be doing fine UNTIL- The metal comes in at the full force only hinted at during the ending of Coast, yelling at us (or is it itself?) to "BE A GODDAMN MAN, BOY", until it has an emotional breakdown and returns to the melancholy vibe of A Monday. From there, it builds itself back up, slowly but surely, until it almost throws itself over the edge again, stopping itself suddenly before it does so. The next track, Gato, is a bit more upbeat, and repeats the same theme of acoustics building up into chaos, it losing itself, and building itself back up again, but this time with a few new compositional tricks up its sleeve. I know that it seems like a lot of the tracks so far are the same, but each manages to have its own identity, and is instantly recognizable, even to the casual listener.

The next track is Terminal, another entirely acoustic track, which seems to be the point during the album where it just stops and recollects itself, looking back on past events. Terminal is pretty simplistic as far as the guitar goes, and somewhat mellow, but not quite as obviously melancholy as A Monday. The entire point of this song is the atmosphere, which it brings in spades in the form of a somewhat-hard-to-describe fashion. If I had to describe it, I'd say it was like the combination of a busy airport and a hospital waiting room, both of which happen to bring separate meanings to the title. After this, the album begins anew its seemingly-downward spiral with Heaven's End (named Heaven Send everywhere you look, but the former is the official title according to Devin). Heaven's End is where the album really starts to just give up on itself, not just lyrically but also musically. After the first few minutes of acoustic build, the album starts going into full-on chaos mode for extended amounts of time, repeatedly, even featuring the one real electric guitar solo on the album. Right after it ends, the band talks amongst itself, and IT DIVES RIGHT BACK IN, with another repetition of the chorus section. This segues right into Ain't Never Gonna Win, a jam between the band that sounds mellow, but very funk-inspired, even featuring Devin doing scat vocals at times. The transition between the two tracks seems jarring from the description, but it really does fit rather well. This is followed up by Winter, another simplistic, reverb-y acoustic track focusing on atmosphere rather than musical showmanship. Winter, atmospherically, is moodier than Terminal, and even A Monday, but not as outright melancholic as the latter. It's somewhat upbeat, but dark.

To begin the final third of the album, a train's whistle blows. All aboard! It's time for Trainfire, the most chaotic track on the album. Rather than going for the mellow prog acoustics of the last few tracks, Trainfire starts with... 60s-era Rock 'n' Roll? It sounds like Devin covering a long-lost Elvis Presley song, but then the chorus comes and everything just goes haywire, delving into the most chaotic metal outburst seen on the album. To the listener's surprise, the punishment subsides, leaving only the drums, an acoustic guitar, and Che Dorval's vocals, heard here for the last time on the album. The apparent "muse" of the album fades away, and it is left with only itself to finish its journey. The next track, Lady Helen, is another melancholic song, the first non-interlude track in the album to be entirely acoustic, without collapsing in on itself in a wave of metal. There is also a piano part on this song that adds to its nostalgic quality. The track ends with an almost hopeful section, a reminder to keep its "eyes forward" as it nears its conclusion. The track then becomes an acoustic jam backed entirely by ambience and atmospheric noises with no drums in sort, which then fades into the title track, Ki. Ki is the happiest track on the album, showing that the album has, in a way, made peace with itself, becoming accepting of what it is, for better or for worse. After a few minutes of happy acoustics, it begins a series of sweep-picked arpeggios, as an electric guitar begins to build in the background. But this time, it is not of chaos or mania that the guitar stems from, but rather, ecstasy, in a moment of epiphany. When it reaches full blast, it is heavy, but content, representing the revelation of self-acceptance hinted at earlier. Then... it stops, leading into Quiet Riot, which musically is an acoustic version of the chorus of Cum On Feel The Noize by the band that the song is named after, with different lyrics. A change of pace, sure, but a fitting end to the musical and emotional journey that is Ki. Or... is it? After two minutes of silence, the track Demon League starts up, another short acoustic, atmospherical piece. It is brooding, but, unlike the other tracks with their melancholic air about them, simply unsure of itself. Demon League is a statement of uncertainty and "Where do we go from here?", leaving the rest of the project ambiguous. 

That is, until November 17, 2009, on which the second installment of the project was released...


 Ki was musically and conceptually pretty heavy, so to follow it up, Addicted was released, as a sort of delicious dessert after the large meal that preceded it. Addicted is, at its heart, a heavy metal album with an almost pop sensibility to it, not even close to extreme metal like Strapping Young Lad, but not quite hard rock either. This time around, the DTP consisted of Devin, Ryan Van Poederooyen on drums, Brian Waddell on bass, and Anneke Van Giersbergen, formerly of the Swedish prog-rock group The Gathering, on backing vocals, although she gets some prominent solo time over the course of the album. The theme of Addicted is that of celebration, of focusing on the here and now, through the best and worst of times, living life to its fullest, and all of that type of stuff. Seeing as how Addicted is much easier to listen to casually and is more accessible to the general listener, there is no need for a detailed track-by-track analysis here, but the album as a whole has some very consistent themes. As stated before, the album has an air of celebration about it, and even when it's at its heaviest, it continues to revel in the overwhelming joy of life and love. Each track is a standout here, with their own song structures and feels. Addicted! is a heavy-ish song with a driving beat and a shouted chorus, while Supercrush! (a personal favorite of mine and Jama7301's) is almost epic in scope, with Anneke's spine-tinglingly beautiful verses alternating with Devin's soaring choruses. Hyperdrive!, originally a track off of Ziltoid the Omniscient, was remade for this album, with Anneke handling the entire vocal track. This version is slightly more upbeat, and at the end, one small but crucial lyrical change is made when what originally ended the track with "She loves me not" cuts out before the "not" on the remake. In my opinion, both have their own strengths, but technically, the version on Addicted is the superior one. Numbered! is another track that entices shivers from the listener due to the sheer beauty of its chord progressions and one particularly effective bridge section. The album ends with Awake!!, the verse riff of which strongly resembles a riff that a band like Pantera would play (a fact that Devin knowingly pokes fun at, saying "Walk on home, booooyyy!" at one point). This gives way to another haunting chorus driven home by Anneke's vocals, and a bridge with Devin shouting of the importance of living in the now over some chugging. After the first half of the song, the track is slowly but surely deconstructed piece by piece, until all that is left is a repeated clip of Anneke singing that "All the world's a stage" and an ambient pad. Even Anneke's vocals fade away in the end, leaving only Devin, ruminating "And I saw that maybe... there was nothing more?". This ends the album as the ambient pad takes two minutes to fade out, leaving another ambiguous ending for the next installment. 
Now that the celebration is over, it's time for the project to go into full steam, facing its issues head-on. After an almost two-year wait, the final two installments of the Project, Deconstruction and Ghost, were released on June 20, 2011.

This is it. This is the one that most of Devin's fans were anticipating since the announcement of the DTP. An epic progressive metal album, backed by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, an Amsterdam choir, and a large selection of guest musicians from the metal scene (Devin Townsend and Mikael Akerfeldt? Sign me up!) The DTP itself consisted of The Dev pulling triple duty on guitars, vocals, and bass, and Ryan Van Poederooyen and Dirk Verbeuren alternating on drums. The album also featured a rather lengthy list of guest vocalists from various metal bands, all of which have relatively small roles, so don't be scared of Devin having a minimized presence on the album. 

The album begins with Praise The Lowered, which at first glance seems like an Addicted B-Side, albeit slightly darker in tone. Then... IT HITS. Electric guitars build in the background in a manner not unlike some tracks on Ki, and a brief moment of buzzing noise accompanied by Devin shouting to "SMOKE THAT FUCKING... WEED, BOY", followed by one of the heaviest singular moments in the album, accompanied by Paul Kuhr of November's Doom growling in the background amidst the choir. After a minute or so of sheer unadulterated chaos, it fades away, leaving only an electronic pad, during which an almost militaristic drum pattern fades in, signaling the beginning of Stand. Most of the song follows the aforementioned marching drums, with the exception of a muted almost ambient section near the middle. The guitars are palm-muted for the first verses, after the first of which a sample of an army marching is set to the rhythm of the drums. Then, after Devin asking if the listener is ready, the guitars come in full-blast as Devin does some shouted vocal lines before going into an amplified version of the verse riff, this time with the choir chanting and Mikael Akerfeldt of Opeth doing some background growls. Then, after an absolutely immense chorus of "STAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAND", a guitar solo is played, followed by a few seconds of marching chaos, and suddenly... silence. Devin does an almost whispered vocal passage among some background noises before the guitars fade back in, doing a breakdown with an interesting time-signature before going back into "STAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAND". After a repetition of the chorus section, the almost 10-minute track comes to a close to some objects whirring about, followed by Devin screaming, signaling the beginning of Juular, the album's one (official) single.

Juular is a very fast-paced track with a frantic but contained drum pattern maintained throughout the track. Devin's verses here are very sing-alongy, but in a demented way. I've seen people online comparing this track to what would happen if Tim Burton started doing metal, and I'm obliged to agree with that statement. After two verses, growling vocals from the character of Juular are done by none other than Ihsahn (of Emperor and his own solo project). According to Devin, the concept of this song within the album is that of the protagonist's encounter with a religious zealot, living an ascetic lifestyle of blowing into a jug for all eternity in atonement for his sins. Ihsahn plays the part rather well, even if it's a bit out of left field for anyone familiar with his solo work. The orchestra and choir on this track just keep building through the duration, culminating during the last minute of the track when everything descends into madness, the bridge riff progression is repeated once more, and it fades away, leaving only the beginnings of a twinkling keyboard in its wake. This keyboard gives rise to Planet of the Apes, another 10-minute piece. The first half of the song seems to be both a parody and a tribute to djent, one of the newer sub-subgenres to be popularized in the scene by bands such as Meshuggah and Periphery. What seals the deal is near the second quarter of the song, when Devin shouts "While we all have lots of bands who influence still, we all rip off Meshuggah!" The orchestra does a stellar performance on this track in particular, especially during the second half. After the djent section comes to an end, the song seems to chill out a bit, going into an almost-but-not-quite happy-sounding section before diving right back into the djent-inspired heaviness, with Tommy Giles Rogers from Between The Buried And Me doing some kickass growling vocals over top. After a repetition of this and a descending picking passage with the choir singing "Jesus, Jihad, Jesus, Jihad...", the song goes into a somewhat surreal passage with the drums going at full speed ahead, just as in Juular, but with only a sole guitar doing some tremolo picking and Devin singing. This goes into the recurring lyrical motif that "One is all collective, tungsten body, glowing mind" as the orchestra kicks into gear with some of the best work on the album. There's even a techno-synth at one point. The song nears its end when Devin, ever the sarcastic, interrupts the choir by yelling "WANK" before playing a solo that is, indeed, masturbatory, but purposefully so. After a few more repetitions of the "One is all collective" line, the song ends.

Directly after Planet of the Apes comes to a halt, in comes Sumeria, the promo-single-of-sorts that leaked on a radio station before the album released. This song, while not as outright djent as its predecessor, does somewhat follow in the same vein in a shorter amount of time. Much of the middle section is based around a certain breakdown with the vocal stylings of Joe Duplantier (Gojira). The choir is showcased as well, especially during the pre-chorus and chorus. After the last repetition of the pre-chorus, the song abruptly ends with a xylophone melody and Paul Masvidal of Cynic singing. This brief section is the only respite from the chaos in the entire album. Next comes the album's centerpiece track, a monumental progressive metal track, dare I say, one of the most over-the-top songs in the entire genre, but also an acknowledgement of just how damn wanky the prog metal genre can be. A song of this nature can only have one title worthy of its glory, and that title is... The Mighty Masturbator.

The Mighty Masturbator begins simply enough, with a minute or so of a single acoustic guitar and Devin singing, as the orchestra begins to fade in. Then... BAM. The orchesta, choir, and the rest of the band come in full blast, with a call-back to the bridge section of Numbered! off of Addicted, albeit heavier, crazier, and with extended lyrics. After a few like-minded riffs (including one absolutely bad-ass section, "Now, comes the time, where the night speaks to me..." etc.)  before fading out to the sounds of a man... relieving himself as another character begins ranting on his abilities to save the world, complete with his "saving-the-world-boots" before a bat-shit insane complex series of arpeggios begins, with Devin now singing as the Save-The-World character. After a repetition, the guitars fade into the background and the choir begins to scat, lending an almost carnival atmosphere to the section before returning to the main structure. After a few other arpeggios, Devin's vocals are interrupted by a man who may or may not be Ziltoid the Omniscient reciting the values of Pi, but getting stuck at the second digit. This goes into a weird-ass ambient electronic section which gives way to AN ALIEN RAVE WITH THE LEADER OF THE RAVE RANTING ABOUT ACCEPTANCE INTO THE INTERGALACTIC COMMUNITY. HOLY SHIT. This goes into a vaugely-raveish section with the remaining people chanting "Give it up... your world... give it up... your world, world, world, world" that is as catchy as it is jarring, especially with a little off-timing beeping rhythm that Devin put in the section maybe to screw with the listeners, I don't know. But it works. After a minute or so, Greg Puciato (The Dillinger Escape Plan) starts ranting about how the people PRAISE GAAAAAHHHHHDDD, which after a countered section from Devin, a section which I would not mind listening to if it alone as as long as this whole middle section) before Greg switches to WE PRAISE OURSELVEEEEESSSSSSSSSS, countered by another, slightly different vocal section from Devin, and then the entire thing just goes even more bat-shit insane than it already is, with the orchestra and instrumental lines taking a turn for the sinister as Greg brings the middle section home with a cry of WE PRAISE SAAAAAAATAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN before Greg retreats from the conflict, their one shot at salvation now completely destroyed. This fades out... and is interrupted by Devin, doing vocals for the leader of humanity now, urging his followers to follow him into the stars. This whole section is really proggy, switching between 4/4 and 5/4 timesigs on a dime, sometimes with a mini-guitar solo interjected for good measure, switching back to Greg for 30 seconds or so, before rounding it up with... ZILTOID THE OMNISCIENT. After a heavy guitar section that seems to be building up to something heavy as a really heavy thing, it goes into... CARNIVAL MUSIC.Well, not quite, it's a remake of The Infinite Waltz section off of Procession from the Christeen + 4 Demos EP with a full orchestra and choir, with Ziltoid nonsensically ranting over it all "See the man with seventeen testicles! Two for one! Indeed!" before proclaiming his status as The Mightyyyyyy Masturbatoooorrrrr! This behemoth of a masterpiece ends with one final and quite lengthy AMEN from the choir and orchestra.

From this point on, the album goes into completely chaotic and unpredictable mode, starting off with Pandemic. Pandemic is another short track, almost like Juular on a cocktail of cocaine and amphetamines. Floor Jansen (After Forever, ReVamp) does some vocals on this track which are just stellar. On the twenty seconds or so of her total time on the song, those twenty seconds are probably the best seconds of the song. The rule on this track is EARRAPE and MINDRAPE at the same time. Seriously, it's that dense. At one point it even goes into a ridiculous solo, not ridiculous in its technicality, but in its melody and its time signature of godknowswhat/8 before going into a techical solo. The song ends once the intro is reprised, just as chaotic and blastbeat-y as ever. Suddenly, the delicious sounds of a man with diarrhea flows forth from the listener's headphones, signaling the arrival of Deconstruction, the 9-minute title track and the song that got your humble narrator into the wacky world of Devland. There is simply no other way to describe this track other than gloriously bat-shit insane. From the random outbursts from the choir about SEX, POVERTY, MONEY, and an awesomely-misemphasized HAPPINESS (you'll know what I mean when you hear it), to Oderus Urungus of GWAR's speech on the purpose of life, said in almost-Ziltoidian fashion, to the endless waves of guitar sweeps and other forms of madness/wankery that accent and follow it. Eventually, this gives way to Devin's realization that... "GOOD LORD, IT'S A CHEESEBURGER! A DOUBLE!", which results in the orchestra and choir singing hymns about said cheeseburger, which is said to hold the secrets of the universe between its buns. All of this proves to be simply too much, however, as Devin exclaims "But I don't eat the cheeseburgers, guys, I'm a vegi-ma-tarian" before the batshit insanity of the last few minutes returns in full blast, with Devin ranting on the left sound channel about everything imaginable while a sped-up conversation clip plays in the right, effectively producing an overload on the unwary listener, all while Frederik Thordendal of Meshuggah does his guest solo. After this, everything fades out, only to slowly build up again, but this time, the crescendo is triumphant and euphoric in nature, with Devy breaking out his high vocals in breathtaking fashion. The true statement of the song, and indeed the album, is revealed: "Take your time, enjoy the ride". As climactic as this statement and everything preceding it may seem, this is not the end. During the fade-out, Devin exclaims "Let's finish this!", marking the final song on the record, Poltergeist. Of all the songs on the record, Poltergeist is one of the most straight-forward tracks, behind Juular. The first half of the song is an ever-shifting structure, including the choir and orchestra in top form as glorious metalized insanity is distilled to a more pure form as Devin shouts about how "Everybody wants to be the next one to bow... you'd let your mother fall on dowwwwwn!" After the first minute, the song takes a more traditional structure of verse-chorus-verse, with the chorus being a singular chant of "DIEEEEEEE, POLTERGEIST!!" and "GIVE UNTO ME!!!!! WAIT-", perhaps a signal that Devin is not quite ready to destroy this particular aspect of himself yet. The second half of the song is more epic and orchestra-focused, with the choir doing one of their more memorable vocal lines in the album, first a stand-alone verse, before Devin kicks in, shouting about "There's glory to the brave!" and the choir goes full chord-accent mode. The final seconds of the song are Devin making one final exclamation: "STAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAND!". And with that, the album ends.

This is the average listener's brain after their first listen to this album.
So, that's Deconstruction, possibly the heaviest and most epic of Devin's career, surpassing even Strapping Young Lad in its chaos and grandeur. After this behemoth of an album, one may be wondering what the hell kind of demented madness Devin saved up for last, the partner album, so to speak, of Deconstruction, seeing that both albums were released on the same day, June 20, 2011. Well, loyal Devheads were in for a treat as they bore witness to what is up for debate as an EVEN HEAVIER offering, picking up right where Poltergeist left off, in the shitstorm of internal struggle and euphoric revelation, augmented by Ziltoid and god knows what other guest musicians. Fans everywhere would find the epic, balls-out, no-holds-barred conclusion of the Devin Townsend Project in...

Right up there with Carcass and *insert underground Goregrind act here* for br00tvlest album cover ever.
Clearly, the only way that Devin could go from the metal mania that was Deconstruction was to start playing Raw Black Metal! So get your hymnes to Satanas that you ripped off some website, light those Party City black candles, and put on your Dimmu Borgir or whatever shitty cheese-black shirt you own, because you're about be blown straight to Norway at midnight during a blizzard faster than you can say Nattens Madr-

Wait a minute, this doesn't sound kvlt at all! It sounds like... *shudders*... NEW-AGE!

Welp, that is EXACTLY what this is. Pretty unexpected, huh? 

After an album like Deconstruction, it makes sense to give the listener some breathing room in the DTP, some source of light to counter the darkness. Seeing that Deconstruction and Ghost released on the same day, it actually works really well. Decon and Ghost comprise one whole of the conclusion of the Devin Townsend Project. In case you have a short-term memory, let's recap: By the end of Deconstruction, the protagonist-that-is-totally-not-a-stand-in-for-Devin-himself had finally found a decent reason that existence is: That there is no reason that affects us in any way, and all we can truly do is enjoy the ride for all it's worth. He tries to destroy his ingrained darker spirit, the poltergeist of the angst and trauma that brought forth Strapping Young Lad and all of his mental anguish contained therein, only to be held back by his consciousness (the repeated shouts of "Wait" during the chorus), and when he is finally about to slay this demon that has haunted him for so long, the album ends on a cliffhanger. Ghost, in case you aren't able to put two and two together, is the continuation of this story, just not in the way you were likely expecting. Instead of the chaos marking the frantic internal struggles and battles with personal demons, Ghost marks the state of being completely at peace, content, and accepting of oneself, regardless of any personality flaws apparent. The final statement of the album "Might as well marry the ghost", sums it up perfectly. Instead of slaying the poltergeist that Devin has hunted for so long, he realizes that, for better or for worse, it is a part of him, and he cannot bring himself to strike out this aspect of his personality for good. He marries it, so to speak, accepting that it is one aspect of himself, one part comprising the whole, and without that part, he would be incomplete. In this way, Ghost is the true conclusion to the life-story detailed throughout the DTP. 
This album also marks a journey full-circle musically, as before Devin became a teenager and got into Def Leppard and other 80s metal bands, he was a big fan of new-age music, in particular, the 60s duo Emerald Web. So, what better way to represent a full-circle of this type than to return to the roots? For this album, Devin got flautist Kat Epple (of the aforementioned Emerald Web) to do what she does best, and it really shows. Kat focuses not on technicalities, but on the atmospheres and soundscapes created with her sound, as any true new-age performer would do. Her flute adds an almost ethereal sound to Devin's already-beautiful song arrangements. Devin utilizes padded synths, acoustic guitars, and his own vocal styles to flesh out the songs, and, even though this is new-age, it's new-age done Devy style, so don't expect anything short of Devin's full producing capabilities used as a force for atmosphere and beauty rather than sheer chaos. To put a head on the whole full-circle motif, the last track, As You Were, ends with a reprise of A Monday from Ki, albeit in a much more atmospheric and less melancholy fashion.

Ghost, much like Addicted, is a singular musical statement brought to fruition through an entire album. Instead of the song-by-song story progression done by Ki and Deconstruction, Ghost is content to simply be, reveling in the newfound peace of mind and joy. Although the album is not without its darker moments (Dark Matters),  the majority and whole of Ghost is an ethereal, almost nostalgic trip through the sunshine of peace and love, and if you have any sort of a soul at all, you will almost definitely be left with a warm and fuzzy feeling inside after the album is done. 

Thus ends the Devin Townsend Project cycle. Over the course of four albums, the series takes listeners to joyous celebrations, dark abysses, and everywhere in between. Every single album is a testament to Devin's musical ability and versatility (not to mention his skill as a producer!), able to evoke the emotions that the music tries to convey almost effortlessly. The Devin Townsend Project, although not widely-known at all, unfortunately, is sure to go down in history as one of the greatest music album cycles of the 21st century, and certainly the greatest thus far. 

Editor's Note: Epicloud, while retaining the branding of the Devin Townsend Project, is not truly an entry into the main story-arc. Devin has also stated that Epicloud will be the last album under the DTP moniker, with Casualties of Cool and Ziltoid 2 being released under Devin Townsend. My review of Epicloud and Epiclouder will comprise Artist Showcase: Part 7, but I should probably return to my normal time period and do parts 3-5 first. 

 One last one, just because.

Friday, October 12, 2012

A Few Gaming Ideas

Alright, I return after a few week hiatus.  I've been playing a new set of games after finishing Saints Row: The Third and have thought about some things in gaming I'd want to adjust slightly.

But first, the obligatory reviews of what I've been playing.

Batman: Arkham Asylum

So, keeping with my traditional trend of 'not playing good games the year they come out', I picked up Arkham Asylum a few weeks ago.  I've gotta say, I enjoy the free-flowing combat system.  I can see why Sleeping Dogs used a similar style for combat.  It feels really nice to shift from attacking, to countering, dodging and stunning enemies.

First and foremost, the voice acting for this game is just phenomenal.  They retained the cast from Batman the Animated Series.

Welcome back to the 90s.

So what does this mean?  Well, it means we don't have a gravel-voiced Batman for one.  And for two, it means we get to hear Maniacal Mark Hamill as the Joker.  I might be bias, as to having grown up with the animated series, but I feel like this Joker is better than the one from the recent Batman films.  That's not a knock against Ledger, I just feel that Hamill encapsulates the insanity of the Joker better.  

Anyways, the villains in this game are the real show stealers.  Harley Quinn, and the Joker are as crazy as ever.  Those two just nail pretty much every line.  The parts that I'm enjoying greatly are the Scarecrow sections.  They are so delightfully twisted.  

Up next for me is the Killer Croc lair.  So we'll see how it goes from there.

Continuing the trip through the magical year of 2009...



Ah, Borderlands.  So, Gearbox's hybrid FPS with light RPG elements came when the brown and gritty cover-based shooters hit their stride.  Now, I'm not saying Borderlands doesn't have a heavy dose of brown in it's palette, post apocolypitic wastelands tend to be that color, but it does have some nice contrasting colors occasionally.  

The easiest way to sum up this game is "Diablo with Guns".  I'd say that's all that needs to be said about the gameplay.  And like Diablo, it's very light on the story, so here's the summation.  You're a bounty hunter on a planet called Pandora searching for something called "The Vault".  Nobody knows what's in it, but it's believed to hold untold fortunes.  And there is your reasoning to play.  

Currently, I just finished up in Fyrestone, and now have moved to 'greener' pastures.  

Now, onto the crux of my post.  There are a few mechanics that bug me in gaming.  So I was pondering how I could 'improve' upon them.  By no means am I saying my way is right, nor am I saying they're even that good.  The things I bring up may not even bother some people, but I just felt like talking about them.

First thing's first...

Pre-Rendered Cutscenes
You've seen them.  All prettied up, high definition cut scenes that show sweeping vistas, or huge cityscapes.  Then when you gain control of your character... the fidelity drops.  I know this isn't THAT big of an issue any more due to graphical developments, but I'm reminded of the PSX era a lot with this one.

Oooh, pretty.

What the hell happened!  He looks like he's made of Duplo!

The disparity of the graphics from cutscenes and in-game is sometimes jarring.  Now, as I've said, this isn't as big of an issue now a days, but here's what I'd do.  

I would make sure cut-scenes used the in-game engine and assets.  This way, if you wanted to do something interactive with the cutscenes, like different character behaviors depending on how close they are to specific places.  Example, explosion happens on screen.  Old method would have you thrown back, or hitting the dirt.  What if you want to hide behind something to protect yourself from the percussive force?  What if hiding there is the only way to clearly investigate the blast zone, and thus, lends itself to an Achievement or item.  If you allow the characters to have agency during the cutscenes, you aren't breaking immersion nearly as much.  Half-Life was really good at this.  Bemoan the silent protagonists all you want, but every event happened while never taking away control. 

Lack of Customization

So another little personal gripe I have.  I like being able to change things.  I like having choices.  In a game like Red Dead Redemption, a pretty straightforward game, I still had the choice of which outfit I wore, and how I got around.  Marginal choice, but choice nonetheless.  The worst offenders of this lack of choice though, are some JRPGS.  I'm looking directly at you, Final Fantasy XIII.  The game has no freedom of character customization (Face it, the modified Sphere Grid was streamlined with no real branching paths) and it felt like you were just there to observe.  

Batman: Arkham Asylum was pretty limited in this form too.  Sure, you could choose perks as you leveled up, but it's possible to earn each available perk in one playthrough.  That kinda takes away the choice element for me.  i like to have the opportunity to lose something by developing something else.  It gives my choices weight and bearing.

Now, here's what I'd like to see more of.  XCOM.  I've been reading stories about how people have customized their soldiers in XCOM after famous people, friend, and family, allowing you to change name and appearance of the troops.  This is something small, since it has no impact on the game, but it gives you, the player, a real connection to the game.   Granted, this couldn't be done in an RPG where the characters need to talk to one another, UNLESS...

There was a voice nickname system.  During voiced dialogue, you could have other characters refer to one of your custom characters by a given nickname you chose at creation.  This lets you keep the customizing aspect, while also keeping voice acting on those characters.

For the inverse, I cite Final Fantasy X.  You could name Tidus whatever you wanted, but he was never referred to by name.  If his name appeared in a text box, it was never voiced.  

There was no way I was going to forget to post this.

Hell, the voice databank system is already in use in sports games!  In older ones, you were referred to strictly by number.  In MLB The Show 2011, I had the game referring to my created character by name.  Yes, it may take a few more dollars in the voice-over department, but I think it'd be worth it.  

Honorable mentions for customization done right: Saints Row series.  From customizing appearance, to voice, to clothes and vehicles, this game lets you mix and match to your hearts content.  The fact that it's crazy enough to let you wear a mascot head while wearing dominatrix boots and a cowboy vest as a dudeguy just shows how free it lets you be.

Second honorable mention: Alpha Protocol.

I bet this is getting old for everyone but me.

Not a full subject, but I'm sick of games with laughably short campaigns.  I'm a primarily single player gamer, so if I drop $30-$60 on a game, I want to be entertained for an appropriate amount.  I know this is a petty gripe, because I could always find a game that fits my needs, but still, it needed to be said.  I feel a single player game should last at least 20 hours or offer so much variety that several replays are in order.

We don't all have to be like Disgaea or Star ocean (had over 120 hours in Star Ocean Til the End of Time for PS2 and my memory card got corrupted), bu some length is nice.  

That's all I got for now.  This post was in production for awhile, but then I got writers block.  Glad i could finally finish it.  

Any good concepts you have, or things you hate in gaming?  Let me know!