Physical Media is Dead! Long Live Physical Media! Part 3: Vinyl Records

When I started this little series of short essays on physical media I knew I would have to cover this topic eventually. It’s blown up in popularity in the past two or so years and the results have been uh, fun I guess? I’m of course talking about vinyl records, those giant round discs of perceived auditory greatness. I’m sure the history of vinyl records is pretty well known. I mean, they used to be the primary form of music consumption for almost forty years before eventually being taken down by the CD. But there has been a weird resurgence in love for these things. So in the spirit of the new wave of physical media love, let’s compare the pros and cons of this tried and true format. And since I’m a wonderfully negative person, let’s start with a con.

Con: The Popularity Quality Black Hole

                Ok, out of risk of sounding like a hipster douche I have to preference this next statement with another statement: “I am not a hipster douche”. Got it? Ok, and away we go. I’ve loved vinyl records since at least the mid-2000s when I was a freshman in high school. That is to say, I was into it before it was, cool. And even then the records that I had inherited from my Dad with varying degrees of quality. But here’s the issue, when things raise in popularity there is always the chance that manufacturers will cut corners. And I’m not saying bad pressings from the 70s didn’t exist. On the contrary, the 1973 OPEC crisis resulted in some flimsy as hell records and some garbage pressings. But that’s key here, in the world of vinyl records how the wax is pressed is everything. A bad pressing means a garbage sounding record. Essentially, if you rush the process you end up with varying degrees of awfulness. So when records being to show up at say, Hot Topic or something I can’t help but be concerned. As something becomes more and more popular record companies fall over themselves to cash in on a trend. Pair that with the insane uptick in prices the end result is, well awful sounding music that costs you $20 a head.

Pro: Record Store Revival

                The days of record stores being as plentiful as Starbucks are over. And they probably will never reach that point again. But there has been a recent uptick in sales for the stores that did survive. Which conceptually is fantastic. One of the worst things about modern music consumer culture is the deterioration of just talking to people about music. Sure there are message boards on Reddit or whatever is your social media platform of choice. But it’s not the essential face to face communication that can define this medium. Record stores were (and I suppose a few still are) the hub for music communication and community. For example, Todd Terje’s It’s Album Time is an LP that is so sonically fascinating that I had to have it. That said, it wouldn’t be in my library had I not heard it and talked to the cashier about it at Music Millennium here in Portland. This is an experience that my Dad still reminisces about happening in the 70s and 80s (and accounts for a good chunk of his collection). There are of course, those certain stores that, no matter what you do, will always hate your purchase (which begs the question, why stock that music at all?). Then again I’d rather have Chad from San Francisco silently judge my music choices than have slurs thrown at me over the internet. It’s a tradeoff I guess.

Pro: Sweet, Sweet, Ownership

                Here is a fun fact for anyone who has ever purchased music on iTunes, you don’t own your music. What you are doing instead, is licensing the rights to listen to said music. Want to pass that music on to your kids? Can’t happen pal, they’re not the original purchasers don’t you know. This is a topic that I am surprised isn’t more contentious than it is.* So there is something to be said about the resurgence of physical media in the form of vinyl records. When you buy that copy of Picturesque by the Decemberists, you own it and can do whatever you want with it. I have effectively inherited my Dad’s entire physical music collection. It dominates my entire living space and it always will. Something that would have been impossible if he had bought his music purely from iTunes. Are there ways around this? Sure, but none exist outside of giving another person a username and password to their account. And that my friends is true ownership of your music.

Con: The Plural of Vinyl isn’t Vinyls

                So here’s the deal, records have their own personal quirks. They pop and hiss if you don’t clean them, they warp stupid fast in the sun, and they have a certain stigma attached to them now. And that’s the last part that I want to cover here, the stigma that records have “acquired” in recent years. There is an overused joke that seems to pop up whenever vinyl records are mentioned in anything. It goes along the lines of this: “vinyl records? LMAO what’s next? cassette tapes? I wonder if these stupid hipsters will pay for my CDs now.”** There is some truth to that statement. Vinyl has become the musical battle cry of the arrogant masses who claim that they sound better or warmer than other sources of media. I’m going to drop a little truth bomb on some of you. Vinyl records don’t always sound better than CDs. I am familiar with the oft cited “Loudness War” that occurred during the late 80s to early 2000s, a topic that I really won’t go into here. With that in mind, the topic of a record sounding “warm” (an argument that I admittedly, used at one time) is nothing short of lunacy. It does not in fact, sound warm because of the record itself. And if it does that’s how the artist intended it, and even then it’s how you interpret it. It’s pretty clear that the love for vinyl records is more or less a passing fad. Some of its biggest champions on the idiot are simultaneously pretentious and misinformed. All things point to something to be mocked when we look back at this decade twenty or thirty years from now on a VH1 special***.

Pro: It’s Vinyl

                Except for those who won’t let it just be a fad. If you get past the initial BS that is the “it does/does not sound better” debate you’re left with a singular thing. That thing is the purest form of music consumption. Records have to be taken care of for the reasons I just mentioned above. For those of you without an automatic start/stop record have to constantly be paid attention to. The process becomes almost religious in a way. Carefully remove the record from the sleeve and be sure not to touch the grooves as you place it onto the turntable. Slowly lower the arm onto the record precisely so it doesn’t slide off the edge and onto the platter. It’s a time honored practice and it makes the music the focus. For example, the aforementioned lack of an automatic start/stop switch. You have to actually listen to your music to know when to take the needle off the record. You’re actively engaged with it rather than passively pressing play and walking away. It’s a connection with music that is neigh impossible on any other format. Vinyl may be a fad for some but if even a few people learn to appreciate the ritual, art, sound, and soul of it all can that really be so bad?

Vinyl records are essentially the first and in many ways the ultimate way of really listening to music. Do they sound the best? No, and that’s ok. Are they heavy as hell and a pain to move from place to place? Yes, and again, that’s ok. In my years of listening to music I’ve found that the ritual to listening to music via vinyl is an experience that is simultaneously universal and unique. It may be a fad whose popularity will wane as time rolls on. But I guess I’ll just happily ride the wave of fake nostalgia until that day eventually comes.

 

*I have to put a little disclosure here, I use Steam for all of my PC games. The hypocrisy is blinding…

**Garbage punctuation used for effect. And as a side note, cassette tapes will be the next thing. Just you wait.

***Assuming VH1 will still exist in 2045. All take “Future Failed Music Channels” for $500 Alex.

 

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Physical Media is Dead! Long Live Physical Media! Part 2: Cassette Tapes

Two blocks from my house I met my soulmate at a Goodwill Outlet.

Which is how I would start this essay if I actually had found my soulmate at a Goodwill. But instead of a person, I found a cassette tape that was simply labeled “Mixed Bag”. Normally these custom cassettes contain garbage like bootleg self-help recordings or classical music. But the flowery script of of the label peaked my interest. There were no identifiers, no track listings, and no custom art work on the cover. Absolutely nothing outside of that small round bright green sticker with the words “Mixed Bag”. So of course I couldn’t buy it and jam it into my cassette deck fast enough. Side A began with Cracker’s “Get Off This” a so-so track that I never really warmed up to. The next three songs were classics from Supertramp, which is always a positive. But then things turned Avant Garde. After Supertramp there was a metal cover of R.E.M.’s “Losing my Religion” whose name I still can’t figure out. This was followed by three or four songs by a weird (and I mean weird) alt rock band named King Missile. Side B could be boiled down to essentially all Morrissey all the time, not that I’m complaining. As the second side of “Mixed Bag” finished it was pretty clear who had made this mixtape. A fifteen year old girl from the mid 90’s, who more than likely was just another faceless outcast. This nebulous fifteen year old girl would have, and probably did, had the same experiences I did. Live the same life that I did. And more importantly, listened to the same music I would have (and I did).

                Cassette tapes have always sort of been a garbage portable music medium. They warp way faster in the heat than records ever did and CDs never would. Tapes could (and probably would) get stretched to all hell, thus making the music unlistenable as a result. If your prized cassette somehow gets eaten badly enough by the cassette deck, you better have some extra cash my friend because it’s over. Yet there is still some charm to these outmoded little rectangles of suck in the form of the mixtape. Sharing music between your groups of friends has always been a major part of the music nerd bonding experience. Cassettes just made the distribution of it all the more easier. It’s how underground bands got their name and music in the ether without breaking the bank. And nothing is more satisfying than taking the time to carefully construct your playlist, and creating the artwork to go onto the j-card. Or better yet, just lo-fi that sucker and write non-descript labeling for that extra touch of confusing mystery (see: “Mixed Bag”). There can be an instant connection you can make with a person when you share a mixtape with them. But that feeling is sort of gone now. If there is one thing the pure digital age has destroyed in regards to music it’s the art of the perfect playlist (and its result, the perfect mixtape). For example, at its best an iTunes playlist can get close to what mixtapes were, a general theme put together with songs. But at its worst, it ends up being nothing more than a bunch of songs haphazardly thrown together. Don’t get me wrong, there are (or rather were) mixtapes that did that exact same thing. But regardless of quality there was a little more effort that has to be put into making the tapes to give to your friends. Again I am not a saint when it comes to this (kind of the opposite actually). I don’t worship at the altar of “perfect mixtape music making”. It’s a practice that I never really participated in, and now I probably never will. But what I can do is appreciate it’s long lost art.

                Full disclosure, I’m a millennial. As such it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that things were better “back in the day”. A notion that is both simultaneously pretentious and unimpressive at the same time. That and I realize just how stupid it is to feel nostalgic for an era of music I was never apart of to begin with. But it is something that I tended to begin to miss while making a couple tapes for other people on a whim. My point is this, twenty years later I picked up a cassette called “Mixed Bag” out of a mess of wires and polka tapes. A mixtape that had I not been, you know five years old at the time, was filled with music that I would have loved and made by a person who I probably would have been friends with. Twenty or so years later, there is a connection to a person who I will never meet and has to be at least thirty by now. There is something deeply powerful about that experience. An experience that would have been impossible without cassette tapes. And probably will never happen again.

Physical Media is Dead! Long Live Physical Media! Part 1: CDs

I have over at least 200 of these things still on my shelves and for some reason. And I keep buying them.  Partially because of a weird awful nostalgia (and the fact that they’re $1 at Goodwill now), but partially because of what they represent. They’re cumbersome, they have no real utility anymore, and I still kind of love them. We’re talking about CD’s kids, those round little things with reflective surfaces that are obsolete in every single way. I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place in the music nostalgia world. For those of you over the age of I don’t know, thirty or something, you’re first thought is “how the hell do you A) still have CDs and B) still have nostalgia for something so relatively new?” For those of you under the age of twenty (in which case I have to question just who my audience really is) you’re first thought is “how the hell do you A) still have CDs and B) have nostalgia for something past your time?” First, you’re talking to a guy who still snaps up cassette tapes (an article for another time) when he sees them. Second, being from the beginning of the oft loved millennial generation I grew up in this weird pseudo time. I remember a time without the internet, but I also was a teenager when it exploded (that’s 2005 folks, the internet as we know it is only a decade old). On the flipside, I remember a time where I bought (more like checked out from the library) and *cough copied cough* CDs. But the iPod blew my teenage music nerd mind, and subsequently became chronically attached to my pocket. What I am getting at here is that physical media has been just a part of my life as digital. So what better way to celebrate my bullshit nostalgia than walk through some CDs that were, or still are, part of my music collection. I can’t guarantee that the music will be good in any way possible, these are my picks from the ages of seven to at least sixteen (so you know they’re quality picks). And away we go.

Tubthumper by Chumbawamba

Universal Records, 1997

                Oh Chumbawamba you’re music are as hard to understand as your name is to spell correctly. Let’s be honest, we all know this band from the one criminally misinterpreted hit Tubthumer (you know, the one with the drinking and pissing in it). But Tubthumper actually has other pretty decent things to offer. Songs like “Amnesia”, “The Big Issue” are both catchy relatively high tempo songs. Conversely “The Good Ship Lifestyle” and “Smalltown” are slow haunting jaunts that go on for way to long, in a good way. There are of course some truly awful songs here, “Mary Mary” is a headache inducing mess that tries a little too hard to emulate the Riot Grrrl sound. “I Want More” really has no purpose and, like the previously is also a mess from start to finish. Most of the album is relatively weak, but as a whole Tubthumper is still a sentimental favorite.

Dumb and Dumber OST by Various Artists

RCA, 1994

                The Dumb and Dumber OST has no business being as good as it is. I mean, let’s just think about the source material for a second. Here you have a movie with a toilet gag that goes on for at least three minutes. That’s three full minutes folks, longer than any gag should ever go let alone a poop joke. And I thought it was the funniest thing as a kid. But then I got my hands on the movie’s soundtrack via my father’s numerous “I like one song here” purchases. My little eight year old mind exploded. “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” has to be one of the best covers of a song I have ever heard (and to this day is still my favorite version). “Hurdy Gurdy Man” takes a song that was already weird and hypnotic and somehow makes it even weirder. There are a few missteps in cover song land for the Dumb and Dumber OST. “You Sexy Thing” by Dee-lite and “Get Ready” by The Proclaimers are both unimaginative in their execution and are easily the weakest points of the OST (thank God they come at the end). Outside of the fantastic covers, the album included some original alternative rock gems in the form of “New Age Girl”, “Too Much of a Good Thing”, and “Where I Find My Heaven”. The Dumb and Dumber OST was my first introduction to the 90s Alternative world an eight or so years too late.

Lest We Forget: The Best of by Marilyn Manson

Interscope Records, 2004

                I’m what I like to call an arm’s length fan of Marilyn Manson. In no way will I ever participate in the community as they kind of, sort of, freak me the hell out. Not that and I would have never fit into that crowd anyway. That said, I loved (still do actually) everything about this album. Which is a cop out because this is, you know, it’s a best of album. As an angry fifteen year old this was one of the CDs that not only survived the great migration from CD to iPod but also earned a spot in its heavy rotation. And damn was it a doozy of rebellious statement.* There is a deep anger to Manson’s music that is extremely visceral, but also becomes harder to relate to the older you are. I can, of course, still appreciate the thrashing energy that is “The Fight Song” or the deep bitter hatred in “The Beautiful People” in my old age. But I don’t feel it like I did a decade ago. As a result the music doesn’t speak to me on a base fundamental level as it once did. And you know what, that’s probably ok.

TruANT by Alien Ant Farm

DreamWorks, 2003

                Every music nerd remembers the first few bands that they found on their own outside of the vacuum of your parent’s music. For a thirteen year old me that was Alien Ant Farm’s TruANT. As an actual pop-punk band Alien Ant Farm aren’t actually that bad. They are in fact pretty great considering the deluge of pop-punk at the time. But it’s also not the greatest band to grace the genre either. They’re stuck firmly in the “pretty good” level of music and that’s perfectly fine. TruANT as a whole has some pretty decent songs under its belt. Quiet”, “These Days”, “Sarah Wynn”, and “Glow” are all songs that sort of blend together after multiple listening sessions. But it’s a good blend, so it’s hard to complain too much about. That said, the album is broken up with more experimental songs (see “Tia Lupe” and “Never Meant”) that don’t quite work as well as they should. But who cares, the songs that are on point still work twelve years later.

Weathered by Creed

Wind-up Records, 2001

                Oh god, Creed is and forever will be one of the most embarrassing things I ever listened to during that initial music discovery/taste making phase. Which is saying a hell of a lot, I love listening to Madonna. Weathered in all reality, has some pretty ok things it brings to the table. It’s no “With Arms Wide Open” (a song my brother and I still make fun of after sixteen years of hearing it for the first time) but “Weathered” is a legit good song, from intro to chorus. “Stand Here With Me” is a hard rocking schmaltzy mess, and I still love it. “One Last Breath” breaks the monotony with a laid back guitar riff, only to diverge back into the stereotypical sludge fest that is Creed. Weathered is not however, a perfect album. It’s probably the furthest from perfect actually. “Bullets”, “Freedom Fighter”, “Who’s Got My Back”, “Signs”, and “Don’t Stop Dancing” were strictly on the “skip immediately” list (for those keeping count, that’s half the album). Weathered is one of the first albums I ever acquired on my own, and for that it’s earned a permanent place on my shelf.

Blink-182 by Blink-182                                American Idiot by Green Day

Geffen, 2003                        &                           Reprise, 2004

                The Blink-182 and American Idiot albums spelled the beginning of the end of the CD era for me. As blasphemous as this is to punk purists, the combo of Blink-182 and Green Day were my first introduction to the Punk genre as a whole. And it’s almost poetic that my departure from CDs is around the same time that these two bands departed from punk to just plain ol’ rock n’ roll. Blink 182 is actually not half bad a decade later. “I Miss You” and “All of This” are this slow mix akin that breaks the flow of the album. Compare that to “Stockholm Syndrome” and “Go” which both are on point in that old punk style. All in all there isn’t a whole lot to say here about the album. It’s a different, but slightly familiar Blink -182. It’s a sort of meh, which is simultaneously good and mediocre. But was a more mature album from a band that defined itself on teenage antics. And it also killed the band for a good five years.

On the flipside, American Idiot is almost a complete departure from the Punk genre while still retaining its sensibilities. Many had already written Green Day off as “sellouts” years before, but this really the album that hammered that final nail for long time fans of Green Day. And in some ways they were right, American Idiot ended up being my jumping off point too. I love this album so much that anything after just didn’t seem to have that same spark or imagination. “Extraordinary Girl”, and “Letterbomb” are both perfectly crafted rock songs from start to finish. Both of the nine or so minute magnum opuses that are “Jesus of Suburbia” and “Homecoming” are essentially four or five punk songs jammed together. And they’re fantastic because of it. I can’t talk about this album however without talking about the radio death march that was “Holiday”, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, “American Idiot” and “Wake Me When September Ends”. I suspect that once these songs were played for the four hundredth time on the radio it served to destroy any authenticity Green Day had. In a vacuum these songs truly are perfect and within the context of the album as a whole they’re masterful. But that’s in a vacuum. Truth is this album loses its bite once it hit the mainstream. When the obnoxious rich girl in high-school has listened to Boulevard “like, a thousand times” but has never heard of “Basket Case” or “Welcome to Paradise” there is a serious problem. That and the Broadway Musical was awful.  Who’d have thought?

Mmhmm by Relient K

Capitol Records, 2004

Here marks the actual last CD I ever received as a gift or purchased in my childhood to teenage years. So that distinction is pretty much the sole reason it’s on this list (and chronically the last, see what I did there?). In all reality Mmhmm is a product of its time and that time was sort of bland and boring. There are a few gems on this album, “Who I Am Hates Who I’ve Been”, “Be My Escape”, and “This Week the Trend” are all ok in their own regard. But that is pretty much all I can say about this album. If you have heard any pop-punk artist in the early to mid-2000s you have heard Relient K. But hey, the sound isn’t that bad. That has to be a positive right? Right? Ok…

So there you have it, a deluge of CDs from my youth. I still purchase CDs I find at thrift shops because why the hell not. But I will probably never again pay full price for a CD ever again in my life time. And for some reason that depresses me a little. There is no perceived value of digital music, nothing to look at in regards to album, no notes or thanks to read, absolutely nothing. And the importance of those things has dwindled the further we get into the digital era. You can share digital music like you could a CD. And somehow the gesture just doesn’t feel the same as it once did. But hey, this is what we wanted right? The death of physical media for convenience right?

*Side Note: I grew up in an extremely religious private school, so this actually did make a rebellious statement. Such that it was…

Nostalgic ’80s Noise: The Greatness/Awfulness that is Vaporwave

I love the ‘80s, anyone who knows me knows that. Everything about it, the cheesy movies, the cheesy music, the cheesy fashion styles, the whole shebang. But sometimes I get the feeling that modern ‘80s nostalgia, and by that I mean from people who were barely alive and/or not even born yet, has sort of reached its natural peak. Nothing exemplifies this more than the weird mix of anti-capitalism and fetishisation of ‘80s Japanese culture that is Vaporwave. It’s a stupid music trend that tends to be a skin deep high school level English class theosophy at its best. And as a result it’s become the music that I love to hate the most this past month or so. Like its predecessor Dubstep before it, Vaporwave has earned the ire of, well pretty much every music critic alive (and there are so many of those now). At its best it is a funky, slightly catchy low effort genre of music. If you can take a bunch of different samples from the ’80s and mix said samples up and or down you too can make passable Vaporwave. At its worst, Vaporwave is just friggin’ noise stacked on top of noise. But I posit to you, dear reader, that Vaporwave is simultaneously the best/worst thing to come out of the pseudo techno music camp. And what better way to do this than to go through some examples. So strap in my friends, were going to delve deep into the depths of moronic anti-consumeristic Japanese Weeaboosim* that is Vaporwave.

It’s not really fair to put Saint Pepsi on this list. His newest singles “Fiona Coyne” and “Fall Harder” seem like he’s trying to break from his Vaporwave roots into the nebulous Indie pop genre. But the past is still the past my friend, and this one’s a doozy. I’ll admit, the beats that Saint Pepsi creates in “Private Caller” are actually pretty great. It’s a pulsating, driving, in your face sort of music that propels you forward. The “vocals” such that they are fit perfectly within the context of the mix. But it still falls into that dreamlike trap that all Vaporwave seems to fall into. Its hypnotic, but it also loses almost all of its novelty in the end. On the flipside “Enjoy Yourself” is the perfect length for what it’s trying to do. Racking up to a grand total of 1:57 minutes the song says what it needs to and just sort of, ends. Other than that there is not a whole lot to say about it that hasn’t already been covered in “Private Caller”. As an added bonus, “Enjoy Yourself” is paired with the oh so successful “classy” McDonald’s branding of Mac Tonight, so that’s a thing I guess.

CVLTVRΣ’s “Asphalt Paradise” and Harrison’s “Comfort Cruise” by comparison are a weird mix of songs with their own styles. “Asphalt Paradise” is a song that would seriously benefit if faded out on the 2:40 mark. At that point the song has played its course, but until that point it’s a not a half bad one. The hook (in this case the weird little bell instrument) does its job to keep you interested as the song progresses. Additionally, it teases you with the anticipation of hearing the hook again with a little interlude. All in all it’s generally a pretty well-crafted song from start to when it really should end. “Comfort Cruise” on the other hand is pure funk and soul. Like Saint Pepsi, its bassline serves as a way to propel the song forward. Its vocals are mixed way back but that adds to, rather than subtracts from, the song as a whole. Unlike “Asphalt Paradise”, “Comfort Cruise” is at a perfect length that never outstays its welcome. Like “Enjoy Yourself” it’s its own sort of hypnotic pulsating form of music. Something that benefits the song as a whole.

Thus ends our little examples of the best that Vaporwave has to offer, below is the worst.

Here’s the deal, if you have anything relating to 4/20 (aka the “hurr durr lets smoke weed bro” holiday / joke so old it’s not funny anymore) in your name, you’ve guaranteed that I will immediately hate your music. SUPERSEX 4/20’s “F A S T L A N E” is pure hot garbage. This song literally does nothing to break up its self-masturbatory five second loop for two entire minutes. Compare that to “Asphalt Paradise” which is broken up by either a bridge, or transition, or something. Speaking of self-masturbatory garbage, let’s cover that fake “sexy” voice in the introduction and conclusion shall we? While listening to this little gem for the first time you might wonder, “did that artist really put the ‘You are now listening to Supersex 4/20’ and ‘Oh my god! Wow Supersex 4/20 is doing big things right now’ in the song?” And to that I say, yes the artist really did just self-congratulate his or herself on the masterpiece that is “F A S T L A N E”. That’s some Kanye West level ego you got there kid. But at least Kanye backs it up with actual music, not noise.

All in all, I refuse to give anymore examples of the worst because you already get the picture. That and I’m pretty sure I would lose whatever readership I do have, if I haven’t already. While the goal of Vaporwave is to scoff at the capitalist culture that we live in, there are better ways (and genres) of doing it. So let’s recap, at its best Vaporwave goes on a little too long in its monotonous cacophony. But at its worst, it’s a skin deep, pseudo-intellectual musical movement that rebels against a topic that every teenager ever rebelled against. And that is why as a genre of music it’s simultaneously the awful and great. That said, as a music scene Vaporwave has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. But when it’s on point, it’s not the worst music ever made, just some of the most pretentious. And in all honesty, I kind of love it.

*For those who don’t know, Weeaboos are in general people who love japan, like way too much. So much so that they think any other culture (i.e. their own, which is usually American) is inferior to glorious Nippon.

The Ship is Sinking: A Potential Crash of the Video Game Industry

The oh so wonderful gaming industry (and media as whole) is sort of like a pseudo Lazarus. In regards to the history of its death and resurrection I won’t waste your time. It’s a subject that has been covered since well before I was born (that’s 25 years kiddos). But the awful Lazarus analogy still applies here, the industry we all love at one time died and was reborn into the multi-million dollar juggernaut it is now. So here’s the issue, let’s say the reason Lazarus died initially was that he tended to hangout underneath heavy objects at a piano factory. We all know how this plays out, Lazarus proceeds to get himself Wile E. Coyoted’ and gets resurrected. But, instead of learning from his mistake good ol’ Lazarus decides to hangout in the same spot just thirty years later. That is to say my friends, we are on the verge of yet another massive video game crash. This is something that has of course been “predicted” for a while now (and by that I mean the past four years or so). But it was always assumed to be in the nebulous future, never in the present. That said, the crash is no longer coming, it’s already here and its catalyst comes in the form of two very distinct varieties. First we have the lack of working and worthwhile titles coupled with a severe quality control problem. And second we have the over monetization of an already stupid expensive hobby, that is to say that consumers are being bled to death.

We are a total of two years into the next console generation with the PS4 and the Xbox One (not counting the WiiU, which technically is three years old at this point). In those two years we have seen only a handful of truly notable releases. The rest have been rehashed “HD Remasters” of games that had already been released a year or even a decade ago. Let’s go ahead and compare the first two years of releases of the last generation from a historical standpoint. In 2007 Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Bioshock, The Orange Box, and Uncharted, all critically acclaimed system sellers, were released. Let’s go back even further to 2001-2002, two years after the release of the PS2/GameCube/Xbox. Halo, GTA III, Super Smash Brothers Melee, Silent Hill 2, Metal Gear Solid 2, and Final Fantasy X all were introduced and released. Titles that are widely considered to be some of the greatest of all time. Gaming has always had a pattern of slow startup, with a huge payout a year or two later after developers learn the hardware. “But it’s not even fully two years yet, and E3 is in June! Plenty of time to come up with significant releases.” I hear you say. “Plus you just said that developers need time to learn the new system hardware”. And to that I offer you, dear reader, the following. That’s what they told us last year, and the year before that, and the year before that. In truth delays have constantly plagued the industry this generation. When those games are finally released they rarely live up to what was promised. A recent example of this is Silent Hills. Here is a game that had serious potential to be even mildly interesting and a guaranteed system seller, and it was cancelled due to petty infighting and corporate jockeying. Here was a game that the industry as a whole seriously needed, was canned instead. As a result there is very little promise in the future. Additionally, the games that have been released has been nothing short of a barely functioning buggy messes. Halo: The Master Chief Collection which was supposed to combine all four of the halo games together with a new multiplayer suite barely functioned at launch (and still doesn’t, six months later). Mortal Kombat X and Grand Theft Auto V, two of the most significant releases of this year (2015 for you future people), had features missing on the first day of their releases on the PC. Watch Dogs was filled with broken promises as was Assassin’s Creed: Unity. The issue is this, if we as consumers are to toss down an upwards of $60 on a game we would like for said game to actually work. And the industry just doesn’t deliver on that promise like it had in the past.

I am of course leaving out the obvious counter example to all this lack of games argument, which would be The PC and Indie game market. While it’s true that these two markets have kept things interesting for the past six or so years their influence is starting to wane (and by influence I mean the influx of “good” games, this applies to PC more than it does Indie games). Let’s take for example Steam Greenlight and Early Access (since I am an idiot elitist PC gamer) which has become a dumping ground for cheap quick titles that barely function. What was initially intended to be a way for indie developers to get some quick and easy visibility on PC’s biggest platform has done the exact opposite. The number of zombie or survival games or the combination of the two are everywhere. In fact many of the games that are on Early Access are simply just scams, stolen assets thrown together to make a quick buck. It mirrors the mobile game market which has little to no quality control (see Candy Crush anything or Flappy anything). Are there game that are worthwhile on the service? Of course, but they are few and far between with visibility that is almost nonexistent. I’m not asking someone to reinvent the wheel every time they release a new game. That would be stupid, and detrimental to the industry as a whole (hell, movies even have boxes that they check off). But what I am asking for is something with a little more care than what has been produced. To be fair there are still significant and interesting things being released on the indie game scene. There are titles like Lisa: The Painful RPG, Dreaming Mary, Hohokum, Spooky’s House of Jump Scares or multiplayer games such as Lethal League that create interesting experiences without breaking the bank (none of those games cost more than $15, and at least two are free). And as a result we as the consumer are ok with bugs that will be fixed later. But these indie game are not the norm, and it is depressing if not damaging to the industry as a whole.

Videogames are, like all other forms of media, in the business of making money. This is an aspect to art that I’m eventually ok with. Artists need to eat and live like normal people because they are, you know, people. But something has happened in the past decade or so in video games. And that wonderful little shift was the introduction and popularization of DLC (or Downloadable Content for you layman’s out there). DLC is a topic that has been covered to death, but it’s also something that has become more egregious as time goes on. Here’s the rundown on the major complaints about DLC and other monetized add-ons. More or less the initial cost for a game at launch usually hovers around $60 US (our friends over in Australia see almost twice that). Most major releases now come with Day One DLC, which means that there are either cosmetic changes or items that effect the gameplay (usually costing around $10 for a pack, with multiple packs of DLC we are at least $100 in at this point). During its introduction most of these cosmetic changes were just that, cosmetic. If you couldn’t afford to blow the extra $10 or more you were just fine, it didn’t prevent you from experiencing the game. Additionally, most DLC packs that cost more than $20 tended to expand upon the story of the game (a function that expansion packs served in the 90s to early 2000s on the PC). But that was almost a decade or so ago. Now we have devolved into pre-order packs or on the disk DLC with characters that were intended to expand on the games universe (*cough* Mass Effect 3 *cough*). Valve’s Steam platform just recently introduced (and quickly rescinded) the ability for community mods (think DLC only community created) that were once free to now be bought.  What is concerning is that there is no quality control amongst the modding community. If a mod didn’t work in the past things were still alright. The player just uninstalled the mod and moved on because it was, and always had been, free. With the advent of paid mods there even more potential for the consumer to be nickeled and dimed to death with a potential non-working product. As a result consumers are getting tired of it.

The video game industry as we know it is sick, and those who can fix it aren’t interested in doing so. As games become more and more expensive to produce companies are expecting more and more profit to be made. As a result consumers are constantly expected to pay more and more for what is quickly becoming an inferior product. I used to think that Indie games were the answer to fixing this problem, but as time goes on I begin to lose hope. Quality control is almost nonexistent on the platform and spending is out of control on many of these projects. I want to be wrong about this, but as far as I’m concerned the gaming industry has already hit the iceberg. Now the question now is, how fast will it sink?

Legitimate High-pitched Pop: Music in The Chipmunk Adventure

It’s midnight and I’m watching “The Chipmunk Adventure” on YouTube. So two things are pretty apparent to me right now. First, this movie surprisingly still holds up since the last time I watched it (which is saying a lot since that was literally twenty or so years ago). Second, I should probably get my life sorted out. Questionable life choices aside, there is something that I can’t wrap my head around while listening to the songs in this movie. Primarily, and I am committing music snob seppuku here, some of the songs are legitimately good. Not just good from a stupid kids movie standpoint, but good from a legitimate 80s pop song standpoint.

Historically (and by historically I mean the first time these little bastards started singing) Alvin and the Chipmunks was sung by the one guy, Ross Bagdasarian Sr. Mr. Bagdasarian (who I will now refer to as just Ross) created a song called “Witch Doctor” in 1958 in a bid to make it big in the “thriving” novelty song market. Unsurprisingly, the venture didn’t work out. The ever adaptable Ross decided to make a novelty song even more of a novelty. So he speed up the recording of him singing the chorus and its result was a high-pitched hell that ended up being Alvin and the Chipmunks of the 60s. The details of how the 80s Chipmunk cartoon came into being is irrelevant here, lets just say it established what the chipmunks (and their three female counterparts The Chimpettes) are today as characters.

This should come to no surprise to anybody, the actual chipmunk voices are different from those who are singing. This is still the 1980s, computers hadn’t really made an impact on music yet (we’re talking no auto tune or any sort of voice modification/editing). “Ok Mr. Now Questionable Music Credibility” I hear you say dear reader, “you just stated that the whole shtick of the Chipmunks they are just normal pop songs that are sped up, so of course they sound like actual songs slowed down”. And to that I say, you’re right. If you were to search YouTube for “Chipmunks” anything you’re treated to every song imaginable lovingly butchered by the video’s creator. And for the most part this applies to many of the songs in “The Chipmunk Adventure” save for two, Girls of Rock N’ Roll and Diamond Dolls. While both of these songs follow the traditionally laid out setup of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus they are different to another in sound. Girls of Rock N’ Roll was in fact not originally created for the movie but instead for a movie called “Malibu Bikini Shop”. Regardless of its origins the song lyrically can be boiled down to just a “girls are just as good as boys” type of deal. But what is important here is how it is performed. Primarily the harmonies between both groups with lead and backup vocals. Oddly enough the song was written by Steve Kipner who also wrote “Physical” for Olivia Newton-John and it shows in its pure unadulterated 80s’ glory. It’s a weird mix between Madonna and David Lee Roth, right down to the cheesy as hell guitar intros and synths. Diamond Dolls on the other hand is pure Go-Go’s in both structure and sound and as a result is the better of the two. There is an actual structured harmony here and the hook in the chorus is ridiculously catchy. Lyrically Diamond Dolls follows the same theme of Girls of Rock N’ Roll but then again most won’t ever understand or care about it to begin with. The synths are, well synths and serve to only to propel the song forward. What sells this one is the vocals. So here is my point, these songs were created and sung by actual studio musicians. Of all the other songs on developed for this movie, these two original could have at one point

If I’ve convinced you of anything, outside of destroying whatever music credibility I had, is that these songs are, regardless of where they come from, actually perfect 80s pop songs. Each hits that expected pop peaks and each is perfect in their execution. Again, we are talking about 80s pop here, so take from it what you want. I should also point out that I’m not defending the Chipmunks as a whole. Quite the opposite, outside of the little bubble that is the 80s cartoon I can’t stand to even look at them, let alone hear anything related to their “music”. That said, if these songs were to be released in their alternate normal slowed versions they would have topped the charts easily. Now if you excuse me I have to go hide for a couple of months, I just defended an Alvin and the Chipmunks song as legitimate song.

Hotline Miami 2’s Hyper Nonviolence

I love Hotline Miami. The series is easily one of the most brutally violent l games ever played. Which shouldn’t make sense since most of the characters are never more detailed than glorified stick figures. But it is, and probably will be for some time now (I refuse to play Hatred because of what it represents). But its complete and total brutality isn’t why I love it, I love it because of what it tries to represent through its gameplay. That is to say, the concept of non-violence through the lenses of hyper violence.

Hotline Miami 2 is as hard as it is brutal. Everything about it seems to revel in its hyper violence.  Heads can be completely cut off, a couple of shotgun shells have been pumped into several mobsters, and at one point I think I dismembered a dude with a chainsaw. And that makes up of the majority of the levels, it’s all a bloody blur. At its peak Hotline is complete and total adrenaline rush. Its soundtrack drives the player forward and mirrors the brutality of their actions as they clear each room. But then everything stops. The tunnel vision, the music, the need to use weapons. All that is left is the player and the death and carnage they have dished out. It makes everything seem, kind of disturbing.

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But then there’s Evan, the writer/reporter. Evan’s levels are probably the most difficult to get through because of one particular quirk, he doesn’t kill anyone. Keep in mind that this is a game where chopping people in half or shooting six or so rounds into a clump of enemies is business as usual. But Evan seems to operate under the same rules that a normal person would (i.e. he’s not a psychopath like literally everyone else). Consequentially this makes him the only person with any sort of morals or redeemable character traits to speak of. In addition the music in the levels that include Evan are comparatively low key. Below are two different songs, the first is from was is probably the more brutal levels that involves four different characters (technically five). The second is the first time we are introduced to Evan.

Notice that the first video is a hyper in your face propellant for the actions of the characters (and by extension your actions). It drives you forward as you clear four different areas of enemies. Evan’s by a comparison is still propulsive, but not in the same way. Its quick and panicky tempo makes sense because, up until this point at least, you were able to outright murder your enemies. That power you had has now been stripped from you. However, you can not only complete the areas as you always had before, but also double your points if you disarm your enemies as you knock them out. So in a game where you can literally tear people in half with a chainsaw, the nonviolent option is the most beneficial from a score standpoint. And in all respects that’s what makes Hotline Miami 2 so interesting, not that it is violent, but what it says about violence. It does all this commentary through the use of gameplay. Something that is not often used in a medium where gameplay is most important.