March Music Picks

This month wasn’t great for music, especially compared to the awesome new releases from Beck, Marissa Nadler, Sun Kil Moon and Nicole Atkins in February. But I still found myself enjoying a few records.

Animals as Leaders – The Joy of Motion (Instrumental; Fusion; Metal)

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Until recently, Animals as Leaders were a band that fell through the cracks for me. Having heard more than my fill of generic instrumental progressive metal over the years, I was reluctant to try out another band that might blast me with djenty tones and sci-fi levels of virtuosity. Man, was I wrong. Animals as Leaders aren’t prog metal as much as they are a tasty blend of fusion that combines energy with atmosphere and technique. Tosin Abasi is quick becoming one of my favorite electric guitar players.

Hozier – From Eden EP (Singer-songwriter; Folk)

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None of the songs on “From Eden” are as good as “Take Me To Church” on last year’s phenomenal EP of the selfsame title. But this release still displays Hozier’s uniqueness in lyricism and phrasing that should make for an awesome Hozier album in the future. Both EPs are brimming with potential, but I’m still waiting in anticipation for the eventual full-length from the Irish bard. In some ways, Hozier feels to me like a male counterpart to Florence – with a voice that can haunt or uplift in equal proportions.

La Dispute – Rooms of the House (Spoken Word Hardcore)

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-Core music has never really been a favorite genre of me, but I found something alluring about the jagged stream-of-consciousness delivery on “Rooms of the House”. The album is tight instrumentally too, but really it’s the words that paint all the pictures – if you can get over the monotone and follow along.

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Well, that’s it for this month. I was hoping there’d be more, but like I said above, this month was weak. Plus, I’ve been doing a lot less desk work, so I’ve been listening to less music overall. Next month looks to be pretty promising, with new releases from Nickel Creek, Cloud Nothings, Devin Townsend, and Manchester Orchestra.

Playing the Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars demo

The video game industry is definitely evolving. When I was agrade schooler in the 90s, the archaic Nintendo Gameboy and tape-recorder sized Sega Game Gear were items reserved only for the most nerdy boys in class (and, probably those with the most loaded daddies). These days, kids with all sorts of different personalities play games on the Nintendo 3DS or tablets, regardless of age or gender. Despite games now appealing to men and women alike, there are good arguments to be made insisting that the industry has failed to shed much of the sexist skin leftover from an age when it appealed overwhelmingly to boys on the cusp of puberty (see: Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency page here).

I, for the most part, think the industry is improving. In some ways, though, its regressing. And here, we have Conception II: Children of the Seven Stars – a new and highly anticipated game published by AtlusUSA for the 3DS and Sony PlayStation Vita.

After being urged to preorder Conception II by an oblivious Gamestop employee who detected my Persona fandom, I determined the title was worth looking into. Like Persona, Conception is mix between a social sim and dungeon crawler, but it’s got a decidedly mature twist. Whereas the latest Persona games tell coming of age stories, with dark and more lighthearted themes dished out in equal doses via a plethora of real-life and sci-fi scenarios, Conception tells a much simpler tale: you are the leader of a prestigious Space Academy, charged by God to form sacred bonds with anime girls and ritualistically create “Star Children” to fight back the greater threats in the universe.

While never explicitly stated, sexual innuendos are deliberate and continous. A demo of the game now available on the Nintendo eShop allows you to play through the first chapter of Conception, which begins with a moderately lengthy text intro where a beta-male supporting character explains to  you how (sic) “No one has ever produced as much Star Power”, the substance that allows you to create Star Children with your companions. Judging by the demo, Conception II appears to follow a pretty simple pattern: First, you drop in on any number of several of your students and simulate social situations with them (i.e., shopping, training, etc.). Next, after all the hangouts have ended, you chose to ask one of the girls to help you create Star Children (by handholding, apparently) and from there you assemble a team of Star Children and grind through the game’s next dungeon. Unlike your main character and virtually all the other characters in the game, the girls themselves feature full voice acting and animation. Like every other character in the game, they basically worship you, and serve no purpose other than to stroke the player’s ego.

Conception is essentially a giant sex metaphor, and occasionally the over-the-top dialog and extreme measures it takes to uphold its allegorical mythos IS amusing. I felt dirty for playing Conception, but I also got a good laugh out of it. On my first playthrough, I found myself in an awkward conversation with the gatling-gun wielding Torri – a heroine with dual hair color who’s biggest concern was that she wouldn’t have money to buy clothes for me once I shacked up with her.

Unfortunately, though, despite its admittedly niche charm and potential so-bad-it’s-good value, Conception II is just a dull game. Beneath the disgused-for-Nintendo softcore dating sim, the game is really just a dungeon grinder without any particular uniqueness. It isn’t exactly bad, but it IS as mediocre as can be. Despite that, there are hardcore Otaku who will buy it anyway. For them, there’s a 3DS version, or the graphically superior Vita version, though I suspect some will opt for Nintendo’s three dimensional jigglies over Sony’s graphical prowess.

EDIT: I should add that the biggest offense Conception commits is letting the player fast-forward through literally everything. You can elect to “skip” all the conversations with the females, but not only that – I got through the first dungeon by simultaneously holding “X” (for “AutoAttack”) and “R” (fast-forward). If the game weren’t lackluster enough, there’s something offensive about the implication from the developers themselves that perhaps neither the softy sim nor the dungeon crawl are really worthwhile.

February, Month of Folk

February’s a short month, but thankfully a ton of great music has come out, especially if you like folkie or singer-songwriter stuff. Here are a couple of albums I’ve been digging for the month of February.

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Beck – Morning Phase

I’ve never listened to much Beck, but “Morning Phase” is going to make me a fan and send me back scrounging through the latter discography. “Morning Phase” is a lush, emotive album that combines downtempo strumming and folkie dreampop vocals with lyrics that express hopefulness for new beginnings. It’s a compact and solid album, but lush and diverse enough to earn repeated, ever-rewarding listens.

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Marissa Nadler – July

Marissa Nadler’s “July” continues her trend of  folk records that combine eeriness with American fingerstyle guitar patterns. The album is somber, as Nadler delivers lines like “You’ve slept through the day, the night and the day/you’re never coming back” and “There’s nothing in my heart”. Under it all is Randall Dunn’s production, usually reserved for extreme metal acts like Wolves in the Throne Room, but here mostly lending ambiance to Nadler’s gothic expressions.

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Nicole Atkins – Slow Phaser

The lastest record from songwriter Nicole Atkins is a quick, bohemian statement that, at times, sounds like Sufjan Stevens; at other times, Deep Purple; and sometimes, like a spy movie soundtrack. Atkins’ husky voice and down-to-earth lyrics triumph over all, however, asserting the full command the artist has over her material. More like a quick burst of eclecticism than a “slow phaser”, Atkins’ record is bite-sized and tasteful, but still dangerous.

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Sun Kil Moon – Benji

Mark Kozelek’s unabashedly honest lyrics have deterred a few reviewers, but they also drive the confessional, no BS style that makes “Benji” unique.  The album’s droning fingerstyle patterns accompany vivid, often brutal images of loss and anger, but there are plenty of soft and reflective moments too. “I Saw the Film the Song Remains the Same” is a particular highlight which exemplifies Sun Kil Moon’s unique brew.