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I Think Lupe Fiasco Just Released His Best Album

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It’s tough to get a good handle on Lupe Fiasco. Ever since his debut, Food & Liquor, Lupe has been an artist that dishes out excitement and disappointment in nearly equal doses. Albums like The Cool were ambitious and reached for admirably high themes, but failed to deliver on the level of some of rap’s greater concept albums. Other releases, like Lasers, went for a more mainstream and accessible sound without gaining much momentum (Although who can say they don’t like “The Show Goes On”?).

Tetsuo & Youth seems to be where Lupe has finally put it all together. Lupe is undeniably Lupe – with the typical references to social activism, nerd culture, Islam. But here, unlike any time before, Lupe has dropped the sledgehammer pretension without  skimping on edginess and intellectual content. Instead, what Tetsuo & Youth offers is something far more raw, something that cuts straight to the bone. This album is a real portrait of an artist who, after 5 albums, is finally putting all of the pieces together and finding their true voice. It’s awesome. One can hope that this is just the beginning of a new chapter in Lupe’s career.

2014 Review

This year, I started a number of self-improvement projects. With major events like grad school, finding a job, and getting married out of the way, I found that I once again had time to my various hobbies. I started listening to more music; I began actually recording my own music. I started studying Chinese again, and learned new techniques for playing guitar. I began to pay attention to my diet, and joined a gym. Perhaps more than anything, I caught up on TV shows and finished several video games.

It’s been a pretty good year: not too exciting, but not very boring either. Going into next year, I would like spend a little bit less time in front of the TV, and more time on music and language. I would also like to revive this blog.

Somewhere, the purpose of the Tingle Review was lost. Initially, I saw the Review as a purveyor of how I experience culture.  As time went on, however, it diminished to this sparse wasteland of lists. I’m hoping to change that in 2015.

Here are a few books, games, and albums that gave me inspiration that I’ll carry into whatever I do next year:

Book – The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

I’ve read a few of Mitchell’s books in the past. This one wasn’t my favorite, but I still really enjoyed the way this book seamlessly wove several different points of view and unique plots around the common thread provided by the main character. Maybe this has been done before and I have simply never read another book like it. Regardless, I found Mitchell’s style to be refreshing, and clever. Increasingly complex worlds and characters are built in a way that feels completely organic.

Book – Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Unfortunately, I haven’t read many of Murakami’s books. This one was great, though. This book perfectly captures the feeling of being isolated by friends, as well as being vindicated by the discovery of new friends.  The loneliness Tazaki experiences is inherent in human relationships, even successful ones.

Music – Casualties of Cool by Casualties of Cool

Devin Townsend really outdid himself with this collaboration. Having delved more into acoustic music and ambient music lately, this album came out of the woodwork and knocked me flat with its genre defying style. I know for sure that Townsend’s empty, ambient folk is going to be a huge influence on any music I make on my own.

Game – Mario Kart 8

If for nothing else, for at least reminding me that games can be simple games and still just as fun as the big-budget interactive movies you see on the other next gen consoles.

Best New Music – Apr – Jul 2014

I’ll admit – I’ve been slacking. Still been listening to quite a bit of music this summer, so it’s time for an update.

BADBADNOTGOOD – III (Jazz/Instrumental/Hip Hop)

Featuring a multitude of jazzy hip hop beats that sometimes sound like videogame soundtracks (artsy videogame soundtracks), III is one of the tightest instrumental records of the year. Always compelling and never pretentious, BADBADNOTGOOD have crafted a well-together album that expands the mind while moving the body.

Kishi Bashi – Lighght (Pop/Electronic)

The electric violinist of Of Montreal returns with a second solo album full of catchy hooks and trippy melodies. The end result is something like Electric Light Orchestra, with a little bit more poetry and a little less prog. Lighght is a big improvement over the solid solo debut.

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu – Pika Pika Fantajin (Pop/Electronic)

Kyary Pamyu Pamyu’s newest record is the musical version of a kid shotgunning pixie sticks. It’s childish, cute, addictive, and probably not very good in the long term, but did I mention how cute it is? Pika Pika Fantajin is an overwhelmingly fun album. It sticks to you and grows, and with repeat listens reminds you of all those great previous listens.

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.

* * *

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.

January Music Picks

The new year started off slow, but by the end of them month I already found myself behind on a ton a new great music to listen to. Here are some of my favorites:

Alcest – Shelter (Shoegaze; Black Metal derivative)

Alcest have veered away from their trademark blackgaze style, and moved 100 percent into the realm of pure shoegazing music. While the music is atmospheric and dreamy, and there is a greater diversity of soothing shimmery sounds than ever, I would be lying if I said that I didn’t miss the light/dark dichotomy of previous records. However, Shelter still reaches melodic and emotional heights that are as heart wrenching as can be, and while the black metal elements are missed, I can’t fault the artist for moving in a new direction.

Cities Aviv – Come to Life (Hip Hop; Cloud Rap)

Gavin May’s unique beats and production defy genre. Voices are old school, atonal, gritty, but most of all, exuding confidence. Rhymes rely more on philosophical content than pure word play, but really percussive instrumentals are what drives that songs home. “Come to Life” sounds raw and harsh at times, and isn’t for everyone, but to its credit it is never, ever boring.

Sithu Aye – Invent the Universe (Progressive Metal)

Sithu’s sense of melody continues to be astounding – but over time, he’s made solid improvements to his tone, production sense, and chops as a songwriter. Pristine guitar tones, tasteful solos, intriguing rhythms, and glorious melodies scatter through “Pulse”, making the short EP his strongest and most concise work to date.

Transatlantic – Kaleidoscope (Retroprog)

Crisp instrumentation and a punchy, one-of-a-kind rhythm section make Transatlantic one of my favorite bands to listen to. This time around, songs feel more like genuine collaborations rather than simple Neal Morse epics which some additional arrangements. Ultimately, “Kaleidoscope” is a ton of fun, and it’s not all that often you see such a talented group of people come together to make music so pristine and glittering that it can take weeks to wash off.

Warpaint – Warpaint (Indie; Dream Pop)

If Dream Pop, as a genre, offers swooning soundscapes, Warpaint offer an echo of a trance murmur heard from the opposite end of a dark tunnel. I think I like it. The vocals are lethargic but ghastly, with lyrics too loaded to be considered mundane. Instrumentals emote, giving plenty of reverb-washed sonic space to the trio’s endeavor. There are times, though, where the production clips. A softer mix would have helped keep the brooding magic of the album in the bottle, and it’s a shame the record was mixed so loud.

Year of Our Lord, 2013 – Favorite Albums

So much new music, so much time commuting to listen to it all.

Here were my favorite albums in 2013.

  1. Olafur Arnalds – For Now I Am Winter
  2. Laura Marling – Once I Was an Eagle
  3. Protest the Hero – Volition
  4. Laura Stevenson and The Cans – The Wheel
  5. Levin, Minneman, Rudess – Self-titled
  6. Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampies of the City
  7. Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
  8. Steven Wilson – The Raven That Refused To Sing (And Other Stories…)
  9. Sigur Ros – Kveikur
  10. Vali – Skolslandskap
  11. Blackfield – IV
  12. Chrvches – The Bones of What You Believe
  13. Volcano Choir – Repave
  14. Bob Dylan – Another Self Portrait
  15. The Dear Hunter – Migrant
  16. Scale the Summit – The Migration
  17. Haim – Days are Gone
  18. Deafhaven – Sunbather
  19. Ulver – Messe X.I – X.VI
  20. Chance the Rapper – Acid Rap

Honorable Mentions –

  1. Cloudkicker – Subsume
  2. Tyr – Valkrya
  3. Devranda Banhart – Mala
  4. Junip – Junip
  5. Laura Veirs – Warp and Weft

Bargain Games You Shouldn’t Miss – The Last Story

While the Video Games generally make a pretty expensive hobby, we are now arriving at an economically-friendly period for for gamers. The next generation is on the horizon, and will be here by the holidays. Meanwhile, the current generation is ending, and its games are dropping in price. Now is a rare time, when you can buy a plethora of games which are both inexpensive and relatively recent.

Over the next few months, I’ll be finding whatever time I can to play catch-up ; not on the big name games everyone knows, but on some of the sleeper titles that may have gone unnoticed, and shouldn’t be missed before the next generation arrives.

1st Recommendation: The Last Story

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The Last Story is a pretty interesting game. It falls in beside other Japanese Role Playing Games like Lost Odyssey and Blue Dragon in the category of RPGs that are more “Final Fantasy” than the thirteenth installment of the series — but not necessarily better all the same. In the case of TLS, it’s no secret that the game lacks polish.

Uematsu’s soundtrack is lush, and old-school FF director Sakaguchi throws in the kitchen sink: every FF trope and twist seems represented here, with no regard for avoiding cliches. There’s even some new “gotta have” elements thrown in, like a “first person” mode which both aspires to and lacks relevance in equal proportions.

While the game provides a wealth of ideas and puts the player in a myriad of situations,  it also lacks consistency, even in the literal sense. The graphics are detailed, almost too much for the Wii, and most levels and towns look like blurry palates of gray. The framerate is awful, too, and ebbing and flowing at various rates.

That, however, is the worst of it. Combat feels gimmicky at first, but is fun if not a bit extravagant. The story and its characters are also surprisingly engaging, if not on their own merit at least in some nostalgic way. And despite technical hurdles and some editorial fluff, The Last Story is just an all-around heartwarming game for fans of the genre. It succeeds where recent bigger names – Star Ocean, Final Fantasy, etc. – have failed completely, in that, for all its flaws, its story and characters manage to engage the player. 

After getting past several shortcomings early on, I found that The Last Story was  succeeding at pulling me in. The game was reaching me, in that rare way that only the RPGs of the SNES and PSOne era really do. It might fly over the heads of modern gamers, but TLS is a rarity, and no-doubt a rough gem that shouldn’t be missed by people who appreciate the RPG genre.

You should be able to pick it up for $20-30 dollars. That’s a great price, and you’ll be getting a ton of game for it.

Dream Theater’s New Self-Titled Album

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Considering I spent nearly four years of my life listening exclusively to this band and their circle of peers and influences, it’d be a shame if I didn’t write at least a little bit about them, now that they have a self-titled record out. I’m not blown away by the new Dream Theater album, but it’s a very strong late-career outing for a band that have been incredibly productive over the course of their career.

The album can be streamed here: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/dream-theater-channel-prog-metal-in-dream-theater-premiere-20130916

And, here’s my track-by-track:

False Awakening Suite: A short piece that has interesting moments but fails to gain much momentum and suffers from a lack of fluidity. It seems to lack purpose. Score: 2/5

The Enemy Inside: An exceptional instrumental section and JP/JR solo spot gives existential validity to this otherwise vanilla prog metal tune. Score: 3/5

The Looking Glass: Dream Theater play to their strengths here moreso than anywhere else on the album, infusing old-school progressive metal with their trademark instrumental craftmanship and LaBrie’s Arena Rock knack for melody. Score: 5/5

Enigma Machine: It’s not as bad as “Raw Dog”, but it lacks direction and fails to mesmerize despite showcasing virtuosity. It might be a lot more fun to watch live. Score: 2/5

The Bigger Picture: This dynamic and powerful song spirals out of control after the first chorus, but that instrumental build-up into the finale puts everything back into perspective. Score: 4/5

Behind the Veil: Parts of good and bad songs are jarbled together without much regard for fluidity.  JP’s solo almost saves the song, but we’ve seen that trick too many times before. Score: 2/5

Surrender to Reason: The Rush influences on this album are starting to feel blatant. Dream Theater are obviously lifelong disciples, but even they should know how to avoid those awful 70’s Rush transitions by now. Score: 2/5

Along for the Ride: A solid effort that sits well beside songs like “Wither” and “This is the Life”. Score: 3/5

Illumination Theory: For every fantastic section of this 22 minute song, there is section that feels like a mere formality – including & especially Rush homages. I love the orchestrated section, and the piano/guitar fadeout at the very end. Can we have more of that? Score: 3/5

In sum, things seem looser in DT world this time around. DT12 is a mixed bag that continues to demonstrate that band’s excellent musicianship and creativity, but homages to the band’s influences are too prominent, and the songcrafting is more concise but nowhere near as seamless as on A Dramatic Turn of EventsOverall: 6.5/10

The Habitual Introvert

The musings of a habitual introvert, "starving" artist and aspiring polyglot.

Folded Word

Exploring the world, one voice at a time.

powerprogmetal

It all started with Symphony X

Hopped on Pop

Pop culture and entertainment...for nerds!

Casey Tingle

A Writer at a Loss for Words

The Habitual Introvert

The musings of a habitual introvert, "starving" artist and aspiring polyglot.

Folded Word

Exploring the world, one voice at a time.

powerprogmetal

It all started with Symphony X

Hopped on Pop

Pop culture and entertainment...for nerds!

Casey Tingle

A Writer at a Loss for Words