Monday, 11 July 2011

Tryezz - Solar Winds

It's pretty evident to say that music sales are less and less involved with physical retail. iTunes, Spotify, Bandcamp... hell, a few years ago, pop stars were being discovered via MySpace accounts. However, the presence of artists who distribute their work entirely online is still rather scattered. Internet trends and memes can give the occasional (maybe undeserving?) artist a spotlight, as Rebecca Black could verify; but others aren't so lucky. At best they can share their music with a smaller like-minded community, but not being able to reach a wider audience can be a damn shame.

I heard about Tryezz from an online friend, who like me is a fan of instrumental hip-hop; and unlike me has the skills to produce beats in his own time. I was told that Tryezz was all about producing synth-heavy grooves branded as 'Electro-Funk', and a visit to his YouTube account would convince me. I had no idea where my friend had heard about this guy, but the music on offer was very encouraging.

The YouTube account also had a preview for Tryezz's latest album, Solar Winds. While I was only treated to 30-second samples of each track, I knew I had to track down a download link. Electronica - especially synthesiser-based music - has runs the risk of sounding samey, so the way that the preview sounded well-blended, and yet comprised of very distinct tracks was impressive; the hooks just small enough where you want to hear more of the song.

The album opens with a Track 0 - 'The Take Off'. The album sticks to a theme of space travel, and the sound of this intro track really sets the mood. Slow pacing, coupled with a careful distort on the main melody. The track is short, but leads perfectly into the title track, 'Solar Winds'. The feeling of the album trying to mimic a 'soundscape album' starts to shine through - but instead of whale song, or jungle noises, I'm getting images of drifting alongside space stations - and they seem to be throwing a disco inside.

I decided to take the album for a test drive, pushing it onto my iPod and going for a stroll. As I opened the front door, the intro for 'Fadertron 787' began with the sound effect of a heavy airlock door opening, and I smiled inside. Then it followed up with a surprisingly aggressive bass solo, notable grittier than the last two tracks, and I smiled even harder. 'Static' does its part in adding some technical variation by having the drumline consist entirely of white noise. It's fortunately non-intrusive, and is a clever concept, but otherwise, the track seems to lack the catchy melodies its peers have, until near its end, by which point it doesn't feel quite enough.

'Saturn Rings' is where all thrusters start firing. With a steady and sticky bassline leading, an equally relaxed melody eases way in, heralded by twinkling bells. I was starstruck, halting in my stroll about town. Someone walking behind me had to walk around, and gave me a funny look.

But where 'Saturn Rings' made me hesitate, 'Supernova' made me full-out crash. It starts innocently enough with some quiet chord stabs and the sound wind, but then there's a pause -- followed by a gigantic punch of a main melody with all the works, loud and bright with carefully placed distorts on the longer notes, and a wicked solo performed by what could only be a Jazz musician/astronaut. So caught up in this glorious combination, I failed to pay attention  to where I was going and walked straight into the man who passed me earlier. I met his glare with the biggest smile, and widest, star-struck eyes as 'Supernova' went into its second solo. I think I've scarred him for life.

*Ahem*, moving on; 'Galatiscape' has the misfortune to follow the album's highlight, but it still does a great job at giving a more fast-paced upbeat track, with a backing synth that tactically cuts in and out in time to the drums. 'Visions' starts off very discordant, and a little unpleasant, but after a brief pause, it sorts out its jumbled instruments to form a more conventional funky groove. It feels a bit like a punchy remix of 'Saturn Rings'; and although that puts it in good stead, it does come across as too familiar.

Solar Winds finishes on 'First Orbit', dropping the pace a bit, and going back to the more sedate, soundscape concept of the album's leading tracks. It's a smooth way to finish up, and stands as another one of my favourites after 'Supernova'.

Solar Winds came out of nowhere, but Electro-Funk has turned out to be a catchy and accessible genre, and it drove me to check out more of Tryezz's stuff; I entirely recommend you do the same. If nothing else, so the world of internet-based music producers gets some more recognition.

Solar Winds can be purchased on iTunes, Amazon MP3, and through Tryezz's own website. However, the purchase system on his site is somewhat unintuitive - every track is an individual purchase, with no option to buy an album as a whole.

If you like this, you'll also like Vikter Duplaix, Joshua Morse, Nicolay.


AKIRA is one of those larger, iconic names of anime, for those in an interest in film, but with less knowledge Japanese animation. Aside from it, you're most likely to hear about a Studio Ghibli work (Spirited Away, Howl's Moving Castle), or maybe Pokémon the First Movie. But the lack of exposure of anime in western cinema makes AKIRA feel more special than it would otherwise. This well-constructed film bridges a gap between the average moviegoer, and the dedicated fan of works from Glorious Nippon.

On the 4th of July, the York City Screen showed the latest remastering of AKIRA, with re-tweaked graphics and surround sound, in a similar fashion to the occasional remastered releases of Disney animated films. While a portion of the proceeds went towards The Japan Society Tohoku Earthquake Relief Fund, this showing was mostly to promote the remastered release for DVD and Blu-ray (and maybe the terrible live-action version that's been hinted at).

AKIRA follows motorbike gang members Kaneda and Tetsuo, who are caught up in a street riot and military attack. While Kaneda is cool, charismatic and strong; Tetsuo is much more aggressive, temperamental and harbouring an inferiority complex. During the riot, Tetsuo is heavily injured and taken into a military hospital, where he is experimented on - research into reawakening latent psychic powers in children - Project AKIRA.

The experiments go better than expected, but that means trouble for Tetsuo, as the more he develops his telekinetic powers, the looser the grip on his sanity and self-control become. When sent entirely off the deep end, the film's blockbuster action sensibilities take over, and we're treated to some spectacularly animated scenes of military taking on a lone teenager - with the teenager winning.

While the film rests heavily on the well-trodden tropes of underdogs finding new power and governmental experiments gone wrong, taking into account the film's age (1988!), AKIRA may very well have set the groundwork for these concepts to appear in many action films to come. That's not to say, however, that AKIRA doesn't handle it's story without grace or cleverness - having the awkward Tetsuo as the protagonist rather than the more capable Kaneda is an interesting subversion, and the portrayal of just what the psychic powers are capable of are subtly foreshadowed and have sly callbacks to other works in the history of anime (the Dragonball Z reference is easy to spot, but props to you if you notice - or have even heard of - Locke the Superman).

The third act of AKIRA is definitely its most memorable, but how the story is tied up is rushed and under-explained at best. This is down to the film actually being an adaptation of the AKIRA manga - an incredibly long work that had its last third truncated for the movie, which already had a 2-hour running time. The manga goes into much more depth about the resolution of the AKIRA experiment, and how the city survives after it's been ravaged by government warfare and psychic teenage tantrums.

While most works of anime struggle to hold much interest or appeal in a western market (nerdy fanbases notwithstanding), AKIRA manages to be accessible and dynamic in the way that Sudio Ghibli films don't always manage. It's a wonder that more feature-length anime hasn't followed in AKIRA's 23-year wake.

Have You Read: Idoru

When it comes to fiction, I far prefer the worlds of Sci-Fi to High Fantasy. While both genres could be argued to share many traits; swords, sorcery, and god forbid ''elves'' do very little for me. To me, science is the real magic, and when that can be applied to our everyday mundane realities, so much the better. As such, I'm entirely in love with the idea of Cyberpunk.

The term was coined by William Gibson (though it's popularity is partially down to movies like Tron); his initial work Neuromancer set a precedent - a setting where technology has moved beyond our present abilities, but human nature hasn't progressed with it; looking at how society deals with a world where computers can improve our lives incredibly, but also bear dangerous concequences if and when misused. The only problem is that I've never liked Neuromancer much. The pacing is slow and stolid; the characters flat and unlikeable; the tone so overbearingly grim and 'edgy' I found it hard to read without rolling my eyes.

So I started reading Idoru with some trepidation; but it turned out I needn't have worried. Gibson really must have found his footing as time went on, as Idoru deftly avoided the problems that marred Neuromancer for me; especially in how relateable I found it.

Idoru is build around the lives of two characters - Colin Laney, a man hired by the entertainment industry to dig through the data records of celebrities; and Chia McKenzie, a die-hard fan of the band Lo/Rez on a trip to Tokyo to have a meeting with the Japanese branch of the fandom. Both are chasing the rumor that Rez of Lo/Rez is planning to marry an A.I., an entirely simulated Pop Idol. Their stories are linked in the most tenuous of ways; but as the story progresses and the meaner side of the entertainment industry (and inexplicably, russian smugglers) get involved, the directions of the two begin to overlap.

The story goes to great lengths to keep the characters from either story arc from overlapping for as long as possible, which does wonders for the buildup in suspense concerning the final acts of the book. The chapters alternate between Chia and Colin, keeping the events feeling simultaneous. The Bartimaeus Trilogy, while a slightly childish example, also use this style of writing to great effect, and I loved it there too.

What I find most fascinating about Idoru is just how close the events and ideas it covers are to the technology we've achieved today. Sure, umbrellas that fold out of business cards, the Internet functioning entirely as Virtual Reality, and skyscrapers built from nanomachines are amusingly silly and presently impossible, but the idea of using someone's Internet browsing and social network history to dig for information and gossip is very much real; even the average Facebook user does this to a degree! Robust online fandoms for actors, musicians and even fictional characters have existed for well over a decade, and the idea of digital popstars is way more likely than you think.

Idoru is a wonderful piece of imaginative and well-paced writing, but it's an even better example of how Sci-Fi (and Fantasy in general) can be down-to-earth, relateable, and at the same time entirely out-there. The tone is moody and sometimes dark, but never too serious or brooding. I like my Sci-Fi how I like my coffee - gritty and dark, but with a hint of sweetness and mystery as to how it works.

...Wait, that would make a terrible coffee.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Duke Nukem, and Girls in Gaming

 This article can also be found at The Yorker.
Duke Nukem Forever is a problematic game. Not just in how after 12 years of haphazard development it feels unfinished, or how the game has been critically slammed by both critics and consumers; but in how it's humour relies on parody - but reads as impossibly misogynistic.
For those not aware of the premise, Duke Nukem Forever is based around the titular Duke Nukem living off his acclaimed fame from his previous game. Anyone and everyone adores him - especially the ladies - regardless of how he treats them. Then the alien antagonists from the previous game return to kidnap the women of Earth to use as vessels for creepy alien babies.

It's been reasoned that Duke's persona of 'impossibly well-liked asshole' is a knowing prod at musclehead protagonists of the 90s. But as far as I can recall, none of them were defined by just how excessively they could objectify women. This comes to a disturbing zenith on the alien mothership stage (Warning: Video is rather explicit). The area is littered with naked women being ensnared by phalic-looking tentacles and writhing in pain. Duke can't free them, but the player is free to shoot them to put them out of their misery, backed up with one of Duke's one-liners. And that's the joke. The joke is rape. Are you laughing yet?

So where do we go from here? The presence of this in Duke Nukem Forever is surprisingly downplayed in much of the game's coverage, but I sincerely hope that the general public and other games developers who witness such a poor sentiment have the common sense to acknowledge that this kind of thing is not okay. Duke Nukem Forever's stunning failure at starring an identifiable or likeable character can hopefully be a lesson to other games that might go down the same route. It's entirely possible to have a protagonist that's a musclehead or a ladykiller and still entertaining. Bulletstorm manages it. Hell, even Johnny Bravo managed it.

Furthermore, with new games featuring legitimately well-rounded female protagonists, managing to get by on marginally less titilation is a pleasant thought. Lara Croft in Tomb Raider had her franchise form around her figure, but the new Tomb Raider title announced at this year's E3 focuses more on her adventuring competence. Hopefully that will stay a consistent theme throughout.

Jade from Beyond Good and Evil is an even better example; her work as a journalist and a freedom fighter against the opressive regime of the Alpha Section means the other characters respect and fight alongside her - her gender not mattering. Aside from that, the game is wonderfully crafted, despite its age. A HD release of the game is available for Xbox Live Arcade, and is a great exercise in how character development and interaction can be handled.

Games like Bayonetta straddle the line between empowering and and worrying. As a character, Bayonetta felt like she had freedom through her fighting ability and some surprisingly human interaction when things got rough; but the game's creator said some rather worrying things that soured the image I had for her. It's a shame, since the quality of the game is incredibly on-point otherwise, and delivering positive messages through quality games is by far the ideal situation.

Games as an artistic medium feel way too immature to handle concepts like sex, let alone character design equality based around gender. But the industry is still growing and changing - maybe in the future the Duke Nukem Forevers of the world will be a marginalised historical footnote.