Monday, January 28, 2008

Video Games Live - 2008.01.26 The Fox, St. Louis, Missouri

A long time ago I used to be a mildly passionate video gamer. There was a fairly direct conversion from my interest in video games into my interest in music, although I can't really explain why. I still like video games a lot, and I have fun playing them (I just recently played Portal and loved it, and I plan on covering "Still Alive", the credits song), but I just don't do it often at all. So when my brother proposed seeing Video Games Live, a performance of video game music by a 27-piece orchestra and 21-person choir with video accompaniment, I was down. We went with two other friends, one of which is an old Kansas City friend of ours who will probably write his own review. (If he does, I'll post a link to it.)

Event: Video Games Live
Venue: The Fox
City: St. Louis, Missouri
Date: 26 January 2008

I can't remember the precise setlist, and I don't know the actual names of most of the pieces, but I'll try to give a general idea:
Classic Arcade medley
Metal Gear Solid medley
God of War
Space Invaders interactive segment
Kingdom Hearts
Myst medley
Medal of Honor
Super Mario Bros. piano solo by Martin Leung
Civilization IV
Sonic the Hedgehog
Frogger interactive segment
World of Warcraft
Starcraft II
Super Mario medley
The Legend of Zelda medley
Final Fantasy piano solo medley by Martin Leung
Halo medley
One-Winged Angel (from Final Fantasy VII)

The choice of material was fairly all-encompassing, spanning a number of popular franchises and big-name developers (and composers). The opening medley of classic arcade music was great – the accompanying video followed the selected games, each of which went by fairly quickly. It started hilariously: the video displayed Pong and was performed by imitating the sound effects of the bouncing ball. Some of the games were ones I've never really played and thus didn't connect much with (Medal of Honor, God of War) but others were excellent fond remembrances for me (Zelda, Sonic the Hedgehog, Super Mario Bros.).

One of my biggest complaints was the reliance on newer material. Some the games they chose were the latest in a long series, but even when they did medleys, the video footage tended to favor the newest versions (which I realize makes sense since they have the best graphics, but the older games are still worth noting). I loved the original Civilization (and what I'd played of II and III were great), but I'd never even seen the fourth, which is the one they showed. The same story goes for Warcraft and Myst (which, as my brother pointed out, they cheated on, since the footage from the original Myst was taken from the real-time 3D-rendered Real Myst instead of the still-frame original release). Also unfortunate is that Square refuses to lease their footage and thus the Kingdom Hearts segment merely featured Disney animated classics (and the Final Fantasy medley just showed real-time footage of the performer).

The video that was used alternated between gameplay footage and rendered sequences from the games, which was completely fine in concept, but had one problem: the gameplay footage was surprisingly bad. I don't mean poor quality; I mean that whoever was playing when they recorded it wasn't very good, or the editor was just mean and choose to use dozens of sequences of Sonic and other playable characters getting hit by the enemies or suffering environmental damage.

The biggest surprise of the evening was the presence of Martin Leung, the "Video Game Pianist", known for his internet video of playing the Super Mario Bros. theme on the piano blindfolded. He came out twice during the night, although I think I'm confusing what all he played. I know he repeated his Super Mario Bros. blindfold performance (which was completely spot-on) and I believe he did a Final Fantasy medley and something else that I'm forgetting. He's incredible.

The low point was probably the host, Tommy Tallarico. He acted as if everyone in the world knew who he was, and although much of the audience apparently did, I did not. He fulfilled his required part of announcing song titles fine, but his attitude was a bit much for me. When he came out with a guitar for the Halo theme, I was prepared to be unimpressed, but he performed fine albeit at a relatively low volume, a trend that was repeated for the closer, "One-Winged Angel". I was amused by his reference to each piece as a "song", something a classical composer or music theorist would run screaming at.

There were a couple other fun bits thrown in, like a costume contest that preceded the performance. More significant were the interactive bits. First, a gamer was chosen to come on stage and play Space Invaders for a chance to win a mutli-game arcade machine. He was given a controller to shoot but had to move his body to move his in-game ship. The orchestra handled the music in tandem. He was give two minutes and nearly had it but failed. I blame a fairly poor movement response on his ship getting hit so many times. Later in the evening a woman and an older man were chosen to each play Frogger for 90 seconds, which the orchestra again accompanied (and changed parts in real-time). The man went first and played absolutely horribly (Tallarico made quite a bit of fun at his expense), but the woman played fairly well and won the challenge.

It's worth noting that the orchestra and choir were local St. Louis residents, which is rather cool. I don't know how much rehearsal time they had, but I didn't catch any wrong notes: their performances were solid. (I did spend the whole night trying to figure out who was triggering the backing percussion tracks and why they didn't just hire a third percussionist to handle the parts instead of preprogramming.) I also wonder who did the arrangements; Tallarico and the conductor, Jack Wall, both had composed some of the selections, but the majority had to be rearranged by someone. (My guess is Wall, who also doubled as a part time host when Tallarico wasn't to be found. I liked his personality much better.)

I didn't come in with any specific expectations, and in fact I didn't really know what to expect, but the two hours of entertainment were well worth the cost. I did have the unfortunate "pleasure" of sitting quite near the loudest punters in the house, which was kind of funny, but I could have done without the semi-drunken shouts. It made for a fun night and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Having some knowledge about video games is probably a prerequisite for similar such enjoyment, but since the theater was entirely filled, they have quite an audience. Power to them, I think.

Score: B+

P.S. I apologize for not posting for a month. I'm working on it.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Alex Green - The Stone Roses (2006)

I'm again going to do something a little different for this review. You may be familiar with the 33⅓ series of books about albums. The albums reviewed range from classic 60s albums to a few more recent releases already hailed as classics. I don't know how authors or albums are selected, but their choices are usually very good. I've read several, including ones on Radiohead's OK Computer, The Kinks' The Village Green Preservation Society, and the Velvet Underground's The Velvet Underground & Nico. I have to say, the series is very inconsistent (in terms of quality and style), which is natural due to each book being written by a different author. Therefore, that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

I found the Village Green and Unknown Pleasures books to be incredible descriptions of the albums as whole units and as collections of the individual songs, additionally including thorough historical background and information on outtakes and contemporaneous singles, television appearances, and so on. I found the OK Computer book to be a bit tangentially distracted (too much discussion of "keeping songs alive" and on mathematical analysis of song length with no actual discussion of the relevance), but the worst so far was the one for the Smiths' Meat Is Murder. Instead of a biography of the band or a contextual essay, the book was a fictional account in which the characters adore the album. This was far from enlightening, and the countless overuse of clichés made it a tedious chore to finish the book.

I just finished reading a book on The Stone Roses' self-titled debut album, written by Alex Green. The album was originally released in 1989 and the book was published in 2006. I admit that I don't quite know how to structure this review, since it will be impossible to discuss the book without discussing the album. I think I'll give some background first.

Title: The Stone Roses
Author: Alex Green
Publisher: Continuum
Year: 2006
Series: 33⅓ #33

The Stone Roses is a fantastic album, often hailed as the best British album or just the best album ever. The band preceded the album with three singles: the gothy "So Young" in 1985, the shimmering "Sally Cinnamon" in 1987, and the funky "Elephant Stone" in 1988. "Elephant Stone" was included on US releases of the album (but not in the UK). After two album tracks were released as singles ("Made of Stone" and "She Bangs the Drums"), two non-album singles were released ("Fools Gold"/"What the World Is Waiting For" and "One Love") followed by three more album track singles ("I Wanna Be Adored", "Waterfall", and "I Am the Resurrection"). Then the band tried to jump their label, fought a long legal battle, eventually won, and released a mediocre album in 1994 before losing members one after the other and breaking up in 1996. A sad tale of lost potential.

The album itself is a work of art (literally, in the sense that the cover is a Jackson Pollock-inspired piece by guitarist John Squire, but more so just because of how good it is). The production and general sound is somehow simultaneously rooted in 60s pop, enmeshed as a definite product of the 80s, and yet different from almost anything else. It's a guitar album, but the vocals and drumwork are wonderfully done. The lyrics are slightly difficult to make sense of, but the possible interpretations are a pleasure to ponder. Perhaps the best part is the general sense of grandiosity offered by beginning the album in a long fade-in build-up of effects followed eventually by bass and then the rest of the instrumentation while singing "I Wanna Be Adored" (whose lyrics don't get much more complex than that) and then ending the album with a song like "I Am the Resurrection", replete with complex drumming, a great bassline, and two great and different choruses, one being a harsh indictment ("Don't waste your words / I don't need anything from you / I don't care where you've been / Or what you plan to do") and the other a more bombastic approach to a similar theme, but not without religious imagery ("I am the resurrection and I am the light / I couldn't ever bring myself / To hate you as I'd like"), before ending the song with a four-minute overdub-happy jam session that actually works really well. I apologize for the long sentence, but honestly, you think that last song is done, but the bass just doesn't quite want to stop and suddenly the drums and guitar are like "oh wait, we're not done yet" and then the awesome workout begins.

So the book. Green goes through the album one song at a time (like the majority of authors in the 33⅓ series) and discusses some aspect of the band or their environment at the time of recording and then briefly discusses the song. The unfortunate part of this is that there are really only a small number of pages devoted to each song (usually two or three), but we do learn a lot about the era and the scene. This is arguably extraneous, but if it had been included alongside a more thorough analysis of the actual songs, I would have been more appreciative. There's a lot of information about ecstacy and Margaret Thatcher (which is more or less appropriate considering the drug culture of the time and the clear fact that "Elizabeth My Dear" is about assassinating the Queen) but only only a limited demonstration of the connectivity of the discussed topics to the band itself and a mere small dose of information about the band's public appearances and activities.

When Green does analyze the actual musical material, he's usually good, but he seems to leave things out and keep his discussion brief. Given the space of an entire book, he has the space to say so much, yet he doesn't dig all that deep. Each song has its lyrics painted in one particular color, sometimes in a bit of a stretch to interpret the words, but also sometimes quite insightful. I think "Made of Stone" is more about an outsider gleefully observing a scene of destruction than about a drug trip, like Green suspects, and I really don't think "She Bangs the Drums" is in the slightest bit political, but "Elephant Stone" probably is about drugs and "This Is the One" is probably about a lopsided view about a relationship that's about to change.

Green also talks about some of the production values, most especially the reverse-track with overdubs that sums up "Don't Stop", but he doesn't even mention the envelope effect at the end of "This Is the One" or the multiple guitar overdubs used nearly every track. One of the best things about this album is the guitarwork, and not even mentioning overdub misses out on so much of the story. John Squire is a great guitarist, but he layered things up wonderfully. (Also funny is that Green writes a lot about how the Stone Roses are so different than the Smiths, but both bands loved their countless guitar overdubs done by a single guitarist.) Many songs are built around two clearly different guitar tones, both very effects-laden, often to the point of sounding like chimes or a piano. (How this was adapted to the live environment is a mystery to me, and Green doesn't seem to notice.)

Green also gets distracted by a lot of personal anecdotes and footnotes, often combining the two. I don't really mind all that much, but it doesn't really add anything. Furthermore, Green never speaks ill of any particular song – either himself or a quote by another musician or magazine is used to effectively say that every song on the album is either the best or at least utterly great. There is no negativity; this is pure worship. There are a lot of quotes in here, and most of them are pretty reputable – Alan McGee, founder of Creation Records; Dave Newton, guitarist of The Mighty Lemon Drops; the band themselves, and so on. Presumably, if all these other bands speak so highly of the band, and the press was similarly positive, maybe worship isn't the wrong choice.

Although I have been picking apart the book and focusing only on criticisms, the book is fairly well done. The analysis that is present is well done, and some of the background and whatnot is really good, but there is so much in the book that didn't need to be there compared to what could have been there that I would say it failed to live up to its potential. It's not a bad read, though. One last weird thing, though. The book has twelve chapters... one for each song on the first US album release. Every single other release of the album either has eleven (the European and Asian releases) or thirteen (every US pressing after the first) tracks, so the choice of twelve seems uninspired to me. (The first US version added "Elephant Stone", later versions also added the "Fools Gold" single.)

The book: C+
The album: A