Archive for November, 2012

Catch-Up Capsule Reviews: Punk

Continuing with my catch-up reviews of older albums I bought this year, I have three punk albums that date back to the 1980s and 1990s. It’s interesting to look back at what makes them work, or not, today. I make no secret of the fact that I don’t think most works of art age well, and I rate them now by how well they work for me in modern times. I probably would have been more generous to all of these if I were looking at them when they first came out. On the other hand, this attitude makes me inclined to appreciate the punk scene, with its living-in-the-moment approach. I think two of these three still hold up fairly well today.

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Elder Sign (Game Review)

Elder Sign box cover

Elder Sign

Most horror-themed board games disappoint me for reasons similar to those for dungeon-crawlers: The cool theme takes precedence over game design, and it ends up being broken in some way. Richard Launius’ games avoid the worst of these problems, but usually feature overly complex rules and still have a few annoyances that betray the theme. Despite the complexity, they also seem to be solvable at some level: I’ve never lost one of his cooperative games. I don’t like Arkham Horror, the popular game he designed with Kevin Wilson, at all. It’s with some surprise that I found their latest effort, Elder Sign, to be fairly tolerable. It’s a clever take on themed Yahtzee, and while I think the mechanics have more potential than this game realizes, my two plays of this were enjoyable (even if I knew I was winning the whole time).

A selection of cards in the center of the table provide challenges. On your turn, you’ll choose one and roll dice to beat it. After each roll, the symbols on the dice must match one of the rows shown on the card. It’s easy at first, but gets harder as you set those symbols aside and then roll again to match the other rows. If you can’t, you must discard one, making it even harder. (You also get to “focus” one symbol to keep it without re-rolling, though.) If you can match all rows on the card, the encounter is defeated. Each one offers different rewards when defeated, as well as punishments if you fail.

Close-up of dice and cardsThere are, of course, many more quirks to the game. Some encounters have additional ways to punish players who fail rolls, and monster tokens can make encounters more difficult. Reminiscent of Arkham Horror, each player has a character with stamina, sanity, and a special ability. There are different categories of items and cards, which can be used to change symbols, add more powerful dice to the roll, and so on. But the group must draw from a deck with harmful events every few turns, and some of the encounters will also cause problems until they are defeated. Also similar to Arkham Horror, each game pits the players against one of Lovecraft’s elder gods, with different special effects depending on the particular enemy.

To win, the players need to collect a certain number of Elder Signs before a number of Doom Tokens come out. If they fail, they get one last chance to banish the evil god with dice, but it’s very difficult, unlike Arkham Horror’s embarrassingly easy “kill Cthulhu with tommy guns” end-game. Even so, this victory condition is underwhelming. Good cooperative games usually involve tension increasing as you near the conclusion. In this, beating an encounter for the final Elder Sign rarely feels any more eventful than the first one you got.

Though I think that the gameplay is better than Arkham Horror, the theme is much more arbitrary: Even if you try to take the time to read the flavor text and tell stories about it, there is little feeling that the encounters (“Don’t Fall Asleep” or “The Hedge Maze”) are anything more than an excuse to match symbols. Also, there is very little player interaction here, making this feel less like a cooperative game and more like solitaire with long delays and a sudden conclusion. I feel like the mechanics could have been used in a different way. Admittedly, I don’t have any good suggestions: In a competitive game, it would probably be too easy to fall behind due to one bad roll. It’s better to falter as part of a team. Still, it feels like the game needs more ways to affect each other.

Despite all that, the basic dice-rolling mechanic is fun.  It is interesting to decide when to spend resources to improve your odds, as well as which encounter to choose from the ones in the middle. I do wonder if there is a better way to use the system, but I still found the game interesting.

Grade: C+

(Images above from Board Game Geek. Follow the links for the original and photographer credit.)

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Catch-Up Capsule Reviews: Country

Obviously, I’ve fallen way behind on music reviews. I’m catching up now, mainly thanks to the motivation of “oh, crap! I need to make a best of the year list soon!”, but I averaged only one new music article per month from February through October. So I’ll need to get through a lot of albums quickly.

“Cult of the new” often means “… new to me”, and so I review even the older things that I’m finding for the first time. But I know that not everyone wants to see me dwell on old things as thoroughly. So over the next week or so, I’ll try to run through quick reviews of older albums that were new to me this year. None of these were released in 2012, and most are from before 2011.

Since I group my music loosely into Country, Rock, and Pop, I’ll start today with four that fall under the “country” umbrella.

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10000000 and DungeonRaid: Dungeon-Crawling Puzzle Games for the iPhone

I’ve recently been playing two different iPhone games that mix casual game mechanics with a deeper dungeon-delving theme. 10000000 and DungeonRaid do very different things with this approach, but both of them manage to make something deeper and more interesting out of simple matching games.

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Caleb Carr – The Alienist (Book Review)

The Alienist cover

Caleb Carr – The Alienist

While police procedurals are a staple of television today, one of the things that makes The Alienist unique is how seriously it takes the mystery. While the investigation progresses unevenly, every step is believable and feels hard-earned. The culprit is a fully realized character long before he actually appears in person, with the clues slowly forming a complete person. This is especially important here, because The Alienist is set in 1896, and is a story about the emergence of psychology as a crime-fighting tool.

Though this is a novel, author Caleb Carr approaches it with the rigor he puts into his historical non-fiction. The New York City of this time comes alive, sometimes with anecdotes that Carr is obviously eager to tell, but also with an atmosphere that feels distinctly different from the world today: The city is dirty, life is cheap, and high society is completely separated from it all. The book finds an excellent balance between feeling appropriate for its era and meeting our modern expectations of a crime thriller. Its uncompromising view of this culture makes for a pretty good hook at the opening, especially when combined with the gruesome murder. Either it seems less shocking after that, or I adjusted quickly, because the story never turned out to be as disturbing as I expected. It drew me in very effectively, though.

The historical setting and the exploration of a serial killer’s character are the selling points of the book. Other elements are less consistent, as if they weren’t Carr’s main focus. A subplot about conspiracies to stop the investigation appears sporadically, and narrator John Moore’s personal struggles (he’s a fallen member of a good family, now a bitter gambler and familiar with low society as well) rarely play a role after the opening chapters. That’s too bad, because they really do tie well with the book’s main themes: That conspiracy hints at fascinating insights into the way people viewed psychology, as well as the way powerful interests cynically manipulated the lower classes. A story entirely about the battle to suppress this investigation would have been worthwhile in itself.

I often get annoyed with historical novels, because they go to unrealistic lengths to bring their heroes in line with modern morals. The Alienist does that quite a bit: The protagonists treat everyone as equals regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation, and are also on the right side of history when it comes to science, psychology, and even techniques like fingerprinting. At least their background – especially for Laszlo Kreizler, the psychologist (“alienist”) of the title – helps to justify their forward-thinking ways. And my other pet peeve with historical fiction, that characters encounter or remark on things that just happen to be significant to modern-day readers, is alleviated by the conceit that Moore is writing this decades later, with some knowledge of how history progressed.

Overall, it’s a powerful and memorable book. I do wish the ending had been stronger: After all the careful and realistic build-up, it rushes through the final discoveries by giving Kreizler impossible insights on par with Sherlock Holmes. It has a realistic, if unsatisfying, lack of resolution once the killer is caught. Despite that, I wish that the logic and rigor of this case was the standard of crime fiction, and I’m glad to see the past brought alive so effectively. I approached this from a different point of view than most readers probably do, as I read mostly science fiction and fantasy. But I found here the sort of world-building that I like to see in those genres: Thorough and consistent without requiring lots of effort to take in. I wonder how well historical fiction could play the role I usually expect from fantasy if it were always executed like this.

Grade: B+

Checking In With Marvel

The last time I reviewed the Marvel titles I was reading, I was concerned to see them raising prices and swapping artists around to squeeze out releases faster than once a month. Well, eight months later, with about twelve more issues for each series available, it’s obvious that this is the new trend. It’s disappointing to see a dominant comics publisher treat the medium like an assembly line instead of a collaborator between artist and writer. My Marvel purchases had already dwindled down to just a few favorite series, though, so it’s not enough of a problem to get me to drop those yet. I guess that makes my purchases a (questionable) victory for Marvel, though I have to imagine that the people who have been buying two or three times as much as me are being forced to cut back.

In fact, I’ve only been reading five comics set in the Marvel universe lately. Here are my reviews, with the rest of the discussion about Marvel news afterwards.

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Jello Biafra and The Guantanamo School of Medicine – Enhanced Methods of Questioning (Music Review)

Enhanced Methods of Questioning cover

Jello Biafra and The Guantanamo School of Medicine – Enhanced Methods of Questioning

The centerpiece of Enhanced Methods of Questioning is the 18-minute hidden track, “Metamorphosis Exploration On Deviation Street Jam”, which is basically one of Jello Biafra’s spoken word pieces put to music. The Gauntanamo School of Medicine’s meandering space-rock provides a backing for Biafra to riff off of as he gives an inspirational speech about his life as a freak. My first impression was that there would be no point in ever hearing it again, but it actually is worth returning to from time to time. Like a punk take on jazz jams, it works as both a twisted sort of background music and as a bravado performance piece.

That experimental jam actually provides a contrast to the rest of the album, which otherwise feels like the return to form that Dead Kennedys fans have been hoping Biafra would deliver for years. Don’t expect it to be exactly the same, of course – Biafra is unlikely to ever repeat himself. But the normal tracks have the hard, angry edge and vocal focus that is often missing from Biafra’s side projects. The hardcore foundation and vocal delivery is combined with a more metal sensibility, and the songs tend to go on longer with more variety.

The main problem with Enhanced Methods is that it has only five tracks. I’m told it’s an EP, but I have no idea whether to believe that: Ignoring the hidden tracks, it’s actually longer than the band’s nine-song debut album. And while the total play length sounds satisfying, the mix of punk intensity with drawn-out songs makes it feel skimpy as a whole.

The Guantanamo School of Medicine may be the stars of this, with a flexible style and thrashing delivery that sometimes has to cover up for a lack of ideas from Biafra. Songs like “Victory Stinks” (about the danger of ignored veterans snapping) and “Invasion of the Mind Snatchers” (proselytic Christians) could be pulled from any point of his thirty-year career, while the Bob Dole-takedown in “Miracle Penis Highway” is well over a decade late. (It would have been a career highlight for Biafra if it had come out on time, though. The contention that Viagra cured Dole’s politics is inspired.) “Dot Com Monte Carlo”, on the other hand, is a clearly present-day complaint about the gentrification of San Francisco. Without any clever things to say, though, it just sounds like the mean-spirited ramblings of someone who wants the kids off his lawn. The only unexpected topic is Henrietta Lacks’ story, told in “The Cells That Will Not Die”.

Yes, that’s every album track covered in one paragraph. None are perfect (unless you ignore the timing of “Miracle Penis Highway”), but Biafra’s strange charisma shines through even when his ideas sound stale. That high-pitched, sardonic voice is one of the defining features of American punk, and it’s great to hear it in this context. Enhanced Methods may feel lacking in some ways, but the potential shown is thrilling. Between the classic approach in the main tracks and the experimentation of the hidden one, this is a step in the right direction for Biafra.

Grade: B-


Billy Bragg and Wilco – Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions (Music Review)

Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions cover

Billy Bragg & Wilco – Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions

With digital music the new standard, CDs and their packaging have gone sharply downhill in quality over the past few years. Unless something makes it “special”, such as collectors’ editions or vinyl, physical media is an afterthought. But as the new reissue of Mermaid Avenue shows, even the deluxe releases may be trending downhill.

Mermaid Avenue certainly deserves an upscale release, especially as part of this year’s celebrations of Woody Guthrie’s centennial. Billy Bragg and Wilco recorded these unfinished songs of Guthrie’s only fifteen years ago, but they have already become a central part of the man’s legend: Playful and serious, sexual and political, Guthrie comes across as a much more well-rounded person than anyone ever knew, and his lyrics still feel fresh in today’s folk scene. The project seemed to bring out the best in all participants, especially Bragg, whose solo work rarely lives up to his potential. The first album was the strongest of the project, but the second is still a minor classic on its own.

The main selling point of Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions is that it contains a new third album. While not quite as strong as the first two, it’s worthy of release on its own. The problem, though, is that there’s no way to get it on its own. All three must be bought together at a $40 MSRP, even though you probably own at least one of the others already. That “deluxe packaging” is simply a fold-out cardboard case whose promised “booklet” is an introductory letter and the lyrics to all the songs. It also comes with The Man In The Sand, a (previously released) documentary on the making of the original album. This is worth watching once: The people and music are interesting enough to carry the piece through, despite its fluffy marketing nature. But there’s little depth or conflict to make it worth returning to. (A part near the end covers conflicts about which songs and mixes to put on the album, but it both starts and ends suddenly, leaving the viewer with no more knowledge than what the musicians were willing to say to the camera.)

That mainly leaves album number three to justify this. And it does, more or less. So many good songs were still available that it doesn’t feel like scraps from the cutting room floor. There may be a few more filler songs on it, and it feels a little less like a complete album, but it could just be that I’m comparing something new to comfortable old classics. There are several great new songs, including the rousing folk-punk “My Thirty Thousand” and the Occupy-relevant “The Jolly Banker”. If there’s a complaint, it’s that many of the best songs have already been released as promos or in the She Came Along To Me EP years ago. It feels like a blatant money-grab that you can only get this as part of a larger set.

And that’s where the recommendation lies. Packaged like a simple “triple-length album”, but priced as if you’re buying three separate ones, this is neither the deluxe edition the project deserved nor the sale that might have made sense for music from the 1990s. If you have neither Mermaid Avenue volume yet, then buying this set is a no-brainer. But if you already have some of the music, this just isn’t worth it.

Grade: B-


Three Solo RPG Books

After trying a few (generic equivalents of) Choose Your Own Adventures last year, with mixed results, I was interested in seeing what else is out there. This time, I tried some solo RPG books, where stats and dice rolls play a part along with the branching choices.

I was surprised by how different the role-playing elements make these books. I always approached traditional CYOAs as something between a puzzle and a quantum story, where of course I’d keep placeholders at previous branches and go back and forth as necessary. The end result was a non-linear meta-story, in which I knew of all possible plot-lines at once. Once I have dice and a number of hit points, though, the book doesn’t work like that. These books were more about the adventure itself, and became a legitimate game instead of a story. I couldn’t jump around without invalidating my character, and that completely changed the experience.

However, the sudden deaths that are common in these books were very frustrating. I don’t mind them at all if I’m flipping through every path of a CYOA, but when I’m actually trying to follow a storyline, and my focus is on keeping a health stat above zero, it feels very unfair to have success ripped away by a single unpredictable choice.

Below the fold are the reviews of the three books I tried over the past several months.
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The Dead Milkmen – The King In Yellow (Music Review)

The King In Yellow cover

The Dead Milkmen – The King In Yellow

The Dead Milkmen were the class clowns of 80s punk, and the thought of them releasing a new album today seems both fascinating and unnecessary. The King In Yellow fills both those expectations.

As confident and unpolished as always, the songs are all over the place. Intelligent but absurd jokes sneak into the serious songs, while poignant observations can be found in the sillier ones. The bitter “Meaningless Upbeat Happy Song” is the closest to a “classic” Dead Milkmen song, but the band always featured too much variety to be pigeonholed. Contrast that song with “Fauxhemia”‘s more mature look at the life of an aging punk: They begins with the expected complaints about popular culture, but they don’t seem so proud of it now. (“I just don’t get Norah Jones, and maybe that’s why I feel so alone.”) It’s better to think of this as a collection of outtakes than a consistent album.

Some songs are surprisingly weird, and give the impression that you’re witnessing an inside joke. “Hangman”, for example, is a straight-faced story of condemned criminals staking their lives on a word game. Other songs are painfully literal, such as “Commodify Your Dissent”‘s complaint about corporations appropriating underground music. (Though you’re pretty much required to enjoy any song with the line “Johnny Cash died for you!”) There are also songs that seem to be closer to fragments than fleshed-out ideas: “Or Maybe It Is” ends immediately after bringing up the idea that a “horse race sniper” might not be committing any crimes. When all the elements come together, you get a clever deconstruction of modern life like “Solvents (For Home And Industry)”, and when they don’t, you get the unfulfilled plot ideas of “Quality of Death”. Imagine watching Monty Python for the first time, and you’ll have an idea of how it feels to listen to The King In Yellow.

In addition to everything else, there are enough songs about murder that even I, a big fan of murder ballads, feel a little weird about it. (The detailed fantasy of the stalker in “Some Young Guy” has a lot to do with it.) In fact, the title song is a (punchy, very fun) cover of an Irish folk song about a man killing his wife.

Intelligent and aimless, the modern Dead Milkmen are much the same as ever. Whether that is a good thing or not is a personal decision: Even the catchy songs are grating, and the lyrics are sporadically brilliant. Are you able to approach a Dead Milkmen album the same way you did decades ago, or would that just seem off-putting today? You may have to buy the album to find out.

Grade: B-