Sunday, November 23, 2014

Foxygen, Musical Ambassadors

Earlier this year, Foxygen, the two-piece band from California released their fourth album, ...And Star Power, to generally positive reviews. To be honest, I have not listened to the album enough. I tried it a few times and liked what I heard, but I would not say it was an extraordinarily lasting experience. Again: there was nothing wrong with it, but it did not immediately stand out for me. Listening to it, however, reminded me that their previous album was absolutely incredible.

Released in 2013, the obnoxiously-titled We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic is nine tracks that sound like they were lifted out of the previous century. Many reviews state the comparisons between this album and early Velvet Underground albums, statements which are totally valid. At times, singer, Sam France, carries some of the guttural tones reminiscent of Lou Reed with elements of the avant-garde. The Velvet Underground are often cited as one of the most historically influential bands in music, and the results are pleasantly apparent here. I had to continually remind myself that Foxygen was from California, not the New York scene that tends to produce Velvet facsimiles.

There are hints of sixties pop and rock music all over this album, not just from the Velvets. Some songs sound like Beatles; I hear bits of Fleetwood here and there. There has been obvious care to preserve the sounds of classic equipment, for example, in the instrumental track “Bowling Trophies” which serves as the midway point in the album. Even the enigmatic cover looks like something that you could unearth at a used record shop. I hesitate to use the word, “retro,” a meaningless word that has been so bastardized that it is now a smug fashion statement, but the album is truly an honorable evocation of classic pop.

That said, the title of the album may be more accurate than I thought (although still just as troublesome to say aloud). As France howls on the titular track, they are the 21st century. Perhaps their roles as ambassadors is to connect modern music with pop music of the sixties. Not to say we necessarily need more homage to classic pop, but it is welcome when done correctly. Many artists may attempt this link to earlier musical roots, but Foxygen does it quite neatly here.

The positives of this album are not limited only to its resemblance to music of decades past. That makes it seem that this album is unoriginal: not so. Beyond its influences, the album is simply a joy to listen to. Fairly short, it packs a lot into 35 minutes, feeling longer and more full. The sultry “Oh Yeah” is counterpointed by poppy love songs like “San Francisco.” The single, “No Destruction,” is one you can put on repeat. The final three songs create a sort of cerebral trilogy that could function as an EP by themselves. In short, the album is a fine-tuned collection of songs, reverent to decades-old music, but easily enjoyable by today’s listeners.

The production on the music is amazing as well. Throughout the tracks, it is easy to forget that this is a two-man band. Naturally, invaluable backing musicians are impossible to discredit, but the work is mostly done by France and Jonathan Rado. The songs sound full while retaining a sharp, clear tone. From backing strings to electric organs, there is a lot of music to unpack.

Foxygen’s newest album will probably continue to grow on me; in the meantime, Peace & Magic proves a near-perfect example of a classic pop revival. Whether you are a fan of rock music from yesterday or yesteryear, this release will be a pleasure to experience.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

On Alan Wake

Anytime Steam rolls out one of its amazing sales on video games, like many people, I browse through and pick up way more than I need. And why not? If you can pick up a title for an incredible 90% off, you would be crazy not to buy it, right? Well, I know I’m not the only one who does this. Spending habits notwithstanding, one such game that I found at this price level was the collection of action/horror games featuring fictional writer, Alan Wake.

I did not know much about the game other than seeing some generally positive reviews upon its original release. The story seemed interesting, and the gameplay sounded different enough to be intriguing. So, when it flicked across my screen (for less than three dollars), I decided to pick it up. It didn’t hurt that I was reading some Stephen King at the time and had recently finished the stunning TV series Twin Peaks. This game seemed like a personal can’t-miss.

At any rate, I bought it, and like so many games from sales, put it away for a later time. That time came one winter night when I decided to install it and sit down with it for an experience. I did it correctly: I waited until it was dark outside, put on headphones, and took it in. I was in for a disappointing time. I played through the first of six episodes at a mind-numbingly slow pace. The enemies were annoying; controls were frustrating. There was a story there, but it was hidden behind too many discouraging battles. I finished the episode and went to bed feeling that I had bought a dud. At least I wasn’t out much.

Several months later, I decided to give it another shot. I had never uninstalled it, because I knew I would never go back to it if I had. And since it was the week before Halloween, and since I am a living stereotype, I thought I would try the survival horror game one more time. I opened it up and--at the risk of sounding like a “casual”--turned the difficulty down from ‘Normal’ to ‘Easy.’ That was exactly what the game needed. Now, I understand the desire to challenge yourself and play through a game on the hardest difficulty. Finishing something like Halo on ‘Legendary’ feels great; but Bioshock or The Last of Us on ‘Normal’ feels just as good. That’s because for a game driven by an engaging story, sometimes minimizing the gameplay is necessary to get to it.

This should not, however, excuse the gameplay. The game makes some innovative choices involving using light as a weapon, but at time even just a few of the simplest enemies were more annoying than they were worth. I did not feel a sense of accomplishment moving from location to location. Instead, I just felt relief that one more part of action was over. This is all too harsh, though. Lowering the difficulty was enough to make it manageable, and I even began to appreciate some of the light-as-weapon mechanics. As you progress, there are even some simple puzzles that need to be solved using various lights to combat the darkness.

But again, this is not a game you play for the action; you play it for the story. It absolutely lived up to the Stephen King-in-Twin Peaks level of anticipation I had pre-determined. The action revolves around the titular Alan Wake, a mystery writer who visits the quaint, mountain town of Bright Falls in order to clear his head and do some writing. The setting of the game is just gorgeous. Even on my four-year-old PC, the sun setting over the mountains looked incredible and added to the sheer scope of the game. But of course, disaster strikes. Wake’s wife is kidnapped, and the town is not as it appeared. To reclaim his wife, Wake must deal with the terrors of the town as well as his own enveloping madness. All of this sounds like clich├ęd horror--and it is--but it actually does work well during the hours you spend in this world. It is not all psychological fear, though. There are some well-placed moments that jump out at you, especially in a dark room with headphones on.

The episodic qualities of the campaign do wonders for the storytelling. Each episode is essentially a self-contained series of scenes that ended with cliffhangers, making it feel like an intense serial story. By the end, I was interested enough to play through the supplementary bonus episodes which I rarely do. While maybe not quite as good as the aforementioned Bioshock or The Last of Us, the story is certainly worth seeing. I was invested in the lead character, and the setting provided the perfect foil to Twin Peaks

As I played through the story over the course of a week, I was actually not surprised by how much I was enjoying it. It was the enjoyment I had originally expected when I purchased it. The first time I tried playing must have just been an anomaly. So, if you have some spare time and care about video games with something interesting to tell, Alan Wake is a good one to start with. Turn the lights out, put on headphones, and enjoy the vacation to Bright Falls.