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Grid is good
There is no do
Warm Copper Whiskers, no. 1
Galloway versus Big Brother: Live!
This morning
Begins with T
Fifteen of fame, five of fun

Grid is good

After reading Stuart Campbell's article on Grid Wars, I broke my long abstinence from gaming to try it out. He's quite right. On one level it's a perfectly-executed old-school shooter, hectic, tricky and fun. On another it's a strategy game, with different behaviour patterns of your various enemies and black holes sucking them and you in rewarding clever play. He explains it better than I can.

I'd go slightly further in one direction, though: Grid Wars is educational. To do well demands a whole set of life skills. Prioritisation: one green square, which homes in on you and dodges your shots, takes precedence over a screenful of aimlessly drifting pink fans. Addressing the roots of problems (the tiny icons which generate enemies) rather than the shoots which presently bother you (the enemies themselves). Treating different problems differently: pink fans can simply be blasted, green squares need to be wrongfooted by scattered fire, red bends need to be doubled back on as they chase you. (As yet I don't know how to deal with the linked pairs of orange triangles. Suggestions welcomed.) Balancing risk and reward: shepherding enemies into black holes provides an exceptional payoff only if you destroy them in time, as left too late, they'll explode and leave you nothing but more enemies to deal with. Conversely, you can use a smart bomb to clear a crowded field, but you lose the score multiplier which builds over time: the more hectic an on-screen life you can stand, the more you can gain, and the more likely you are that something will knock you out. It's a rare piece of solid evidence for that dubious thesis that gaming does you good.

What's more, it offers nothing to support the thesis that gaming is corrupting. You won't be immersed in the game-world for days on end: my average game length so far is five minutes, and even a high-score-trouncing virtuoso performance is about fifteen. And, despite 'Wars', its violence is abstracted out of existence. Though its game mechanics mix Robotron and Space War, visually it's a direct descendant of Asteroids: you're a tiny polygon, emitting polygons, causing other polygons to splinter and disappear. No blood, no brandished guns, just primary colours. Nor any rattle of gunfire or death, just a medly of distinctive synth sounds telling you what's entered or left the scene. When processing power can deliver near-film-realism, that restraint is commendable. It gets into the primeval psyche only in that it demands you survive: there's no kick of feeling deadly or powerful.

The abstraction also makes it, I imagine, much easier to code. Which, given that the new realism demands million-dollar budgets and hundred-strong development teams, is another plus. I was surprised - yet not surprised - to find it was put together in a descendant of a language I used to code Snake games in, by the kind of tiny group that ruled the world fifteen years ago and hasn't been seen since. It's personally and lovingly crafted, a proof that no matter how decadent the mainstream of an artform becomes, independent makers can always quietly redeem it. For that reason as much as any of the above, it's worth treasuring.

posted by JimRob at 3:54 pm 31.3.06

There is no do

(In which I make some sweeping and unfounded generalisations about British tastes. Count it as a royal 'we' if you will.)

Is it odd that I tuned in to Star Trek: Voyager this afternoon in order to catch a famously bad episode? ('Threshold'. And it is rewardingly awful.) I have a general fondness for crap things. But bad Star Trek is a conjunction of slick, serious form with utterly twaddly content, and in that sense it's the opposite of much outsider art and music, where the makers' passion and investment meet their lack of basic competence. Different kinds of guilty pleasure.

So I wonder if it's not something more pathological. Is it what Bill Bailey remarks on in Part Troll (caught on Channel 4, available on DVD, hilarious, highly recommended), that British people get a kick out of disappointment? Rather than enjoying success, in yourself or others, there's a more rarified pleasure in watching things go wrong and complaining about them. Not living in and improving the now, but putting yourself at a remove, being the editor and commentator of the repeated highlights (or rather lowlights) of life. If we had better weather, we'd stop talking about it. (That may be the reason for the standard British life-cycle: once you've become successful, it's almost obligatory to move to Europe or the Caribbean. Britain is something to be suffered: even its balmy days are heralds of rain. What does it mean that my long-term plan is to move to somewhere with even worse weather, Scotland or Scandinavia? I digress.) We don't have a culture of success: we want success for ourselves, but hold back from applauding it too much. Genuinely driven professional people can easily become figures of distaste (Alan Sugar); wannabes are figures of amusement (The Armstrongs).

On the other hand, we don't exactly idolise failure either. For protagonists, we prefer the ones caught between the two: striving but not quite dedicated, winning little battles but never the war. We can't quite embrace the Hollywood or Homeric hero, who is or becomes genuinely great in order to defeat huge odds. The most we can really tolerate is for heroes to summon their limited strength and keep their inadequacies at bay. If the odds are stacked against them, we'd rather they gave their best and failed than gave their best and won. It's the former that gives better matter for complaint - or for reflection and learning. Somehow we institute a separation between who you are and what you do. Your life can be a disaster area, your actions dreadful, yet you can still be a good person.* A soft, comforting, unconstructive, doubtful sentiment.

You could probably chalk it up to the Loss of Empire. I'm not sure I would: most of the population doesn't remember what it was like when the atlas was mostly pink, and I don't think the sense would be handed down through generations. But something gives us a sense of national superiority which doesn't sit easily with not having powers to match (and which makes us grab at any opportunity to look like we do: the Commonwealth Games, 'our' noisy support for any given war, etc.) And that's a kind of failure we ought not to 'fix'. Whether we can accept this and find a more healthy attitude towards success and failure, I don't know. I'm doubtful. But until then we'll keep our interesting sense of humour.

* (Or a bad one. In story it may not matter. A contrast: two good alternative sitcoms from opposite sides of the pond. My Name Is Earl has plenty of edge, but its central premise is a man setting things right, learning as he goes, and presenting his story to you in an open monologue. Peep Show takes place within the heads of its two protagonists, giving you their streams of self-deception and fantasy and how they translate into blundering action and repeatedly screw everything up. One leaves you with a warm glow afterwards, the other leaves you howling with laughter and/or embarrassed recognition. That's the trade-off.)

posted by JimRob at 4:10 pm 22.3.06

Warm Copper Whiskers, no. 1

(Some of my favourite things, that is. These are treasures of a sentimental kind, so their write-ups are wholly subjective; more meditations than recommendations. Not that I'll stop you trying them yourself, but your mileage may vary.)

Number one: Aphex Twin's Richard D James Album.

In a way I don't particularly like Aphex Twin. For me, he demonstrates the unspoken problem with the successful 'creator-for-himself': from Come To Daddy onwards, it was as if James realised that his talent and his fans' reverence would ensure sales and admiration for practically anything that he could put out. Drukqs certainly didn't sound like its creator was driven by any higher calling or dire need: some deeply pretty semi-acoustic pieces, a few spectacular but unmusical beatmongery workouts, and a brace of incomprehensible offcuts. I haven't heard any of the Analord series, but the description and critical reaction suggests that it's a big step back to his only-historically-interesting rave period.

This is frustrating because his peaks show him to be capable of brilliance: unearthly ugly-gorgeous sound manipulation ('Windowlicker'), heartbreaking freeform melodies ('Alberto Balsalm'), warm baths of ambience ('Parallel Stripes'). Philip Glass had good reason to want to rework 'Icct Hedral' as a chamber piece. So I have a special regard for the couple of really consistent albums he's created. Selected Ambient Works Volume II is one: it contains a huge tonal and musical variety, but all its pieces seem to issue from the same misty underworld. In interviews James describes them as transcriptions of the music from his lucid dreams. As music to work to, it's ideal. As music to listen to, it's a bottomless well of perturbation. As art, it's probably his greatest achievement.

But the Richard D. James Album is the one I'm really fond of. It's the opposite to SAWII in most ways: no murk, no echoing spaces, no hidden depths. Where SAWII is hypnotic and minimal, with single pulses slowly modulating for ten minutes on end, RDJ tracks average three minutes and hurls a new twist and novelty at you every few seconds. Its drum programming is insectile, throwing out the idea of a groove in favour of unpredictable stutters and skips. But - what separates it from drum and bass before and since - the racket is paired with exuberant melodies, played out in brightly-hued synthesisers, chamber strings and voices. Sometimes it's very silly: miscellaneous percussion gambols around a furious church-organ in 'Logon Rock Witch', 'Corn Mouth' ends with the loading sound from a Spectrum game, '4' (the album's most portentous moment, with drumrolls reverberating like thunder) is punctuated by a sample of the author and an unnamed other: 'Richard?' 'Yeah?' Sometimes it's very sad: 'Girl/Boy Song' is a virtuoso-piece of breakbeat science, but its rhythm gives way at last to orchestral harmonies like a memory of the sun rising over rolling hills.

I can't think of any other albums which sound so strange and yet so coherent, so right; like SAWII, it feels like James has found something particular and special to tap into. I think it's childhood: unbridled joy, sorrow, excitement, experimentation, naivety, more than a few tantrums and terrors (halfway through 'To Cure A Weakling Child', harmlessly chiming voices turn into a fearsome but quickly-exhausted metallic clatter). All presented directly, wildly, freely: who needs maturity and reticence? we're young. And it does make you feel young. At 33 minutes total, it's also over very quickly. But the memories are happy.

posted by JimRob at 11:04 pm 19.3.06


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