Sunday, December 15, 2013

#20: Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea Episode 1 - DLC Worth Digging Up

Downloadable content rarely receives the same scrutiny as its parent game. It’s not quite taken for granted that DLC is a bad value, but it is certainly a creeping suspicion of the informed consumer. It’s refreshing, then, that Burial at Sea – Episode 1 offers a bite size portion of the main course instead of the tasteless imitation some have come to expect.

Burial at Sea drops the player into Rapture, the underwater objectivist utopia from the first two Bioshock games, right as society seems to be a powder keg ready to blow. You’re still Booker DeWitt, but this time you work as a private detective hired by Elizabeth to . . . well, I’ll stop there. In such a story driven game, the less I share, the better.

The game offers fans of the first two Bioshocks an illuminating glimpse into the day-to-day life inside Rapture before its collapse. Citizens discuss the pressing issues of the day as you walk by, generously heaping story fodder for series vets and setting the stage for those who started with Bioshock: Infinite. Rapture looks noticeably more pleasant when the lights are on, the water stays outside, and hulks in diving suits aren’t trying to skewer you with their drill-fists. Of course, the ugliness is still there, underneath.

The environments are astonishingly detailed.
The gunplay remains benign, with a minor selection of firearms that behave more or less as you’d expect. Luckily, plasmids (or vigors, for those who have never been to Rapture) make a return, giving players a way to ignite, freeze, electrocute, and in general channel their inner Avatar. While many sing Bioshock: Infinite’s praises, I have never found the combat terribly satisfying, especially compared to earlier entries in the series. In a concession to players like me, the “weapon wheel” returns. This simple device allows players to hold all of their weapons at once and switch between them easily on the fly, to my relief. I’m of the opinion that only being able to hold two guns makes sense in some FPS games, but much like it felt anti-fun in Duke Nukem Forever, I felt the same in Infinite.
This scene? Hidden and totally optional.

Burial at Sea – Episode 1 is a campaign that I’ve heard others claim they completed in less than two hours. While I can certainly understand a “point A to point B” playthrough being so thoroughly abbreviated, that is a blistering pace compared to my own. I stopped to absorb every conversation, every environmental detail, every secret. I ended up taking four hours. I imagine the length of a playthrough will vary drastically based on whether one is just playing a shooter or exploring Rapture.

Featuring a fan favorite setting, tried-and-true combat, and even a cool battle with a Big Daddy, Burial at Sea – Episode 1 also sneaks in exposition as far as the eye can “sea” (get it? Sea? Rapture’s at the bottom of the sea. I’ll see myself out). It’s well polished and worthy of the Bioshock name, but could be a bit short for some players’ tastes. To mitigate that, one thing is certain: you’re much better off splurging on the season pass containing all DLC for $20 than paying $15 a la carte for part 1 of Burial at Sea. Now go get it, and try and wrap your head around that ending. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Book Review - 33 and 1/3: "Doolittle"

You can barely throw a limited-run vinyl without hitting a band that claims to be influenced by the Pixies. They stand as one of the most brashly innovative alt rock bands even to this day. As Ben Sisario points out in his entry in the 33 and 1/3 series, “Doolittle”, the seminal album by the same name is so irreplaceable that not only is it never duplicated, it’s rarely even imitated. Even bands that proudly invoke the Pixies heritage seem unwilling or unable to display their bloodlines loud and proud.

So then, why did this album released in 1989 by a small alt rock band sell more copies after their dissolution than during their heyday? Why do their stop-go songs sprinkled with nigh-unintelligible lyrics reeking of sex, death, violence and rage resonate so persistently? Sisario, impressively, comes as close to pinpointing the answers as anyone ever may, combining the style of a storyteller and the attention to detail of a historian.

His book alternates from scenes of personal discussion with lead singer Charles Thompson to insightful and incisive backgrounding on the state of alt rock and the industry. Even for readers with not the slightest clue of why they should care about the Pixies, Sisario presents a compelling case for why the Pixies were and to some extent still are avant garde. You don’t even have to like them. After reading and listening to Doolittle, you will at minimum respect their contributions.

Sisario has the advantage of studying and personally speaking with Charles Thompson at a time providing clarity of hindsight. Thompson and his band have since reunited in 2004 for touring and begun producing new music only recently, though with a slightly shuffled roster.

Pixies songs have long perplexed listeners with their lyrics. Thompson explains his inspiration and songwriting process in detail, reaffirming some claims he’s made all along while at other times providing glimpses into authentic meanings. Citing surrealist filmmakers as influences on his style, Thompson might have lost the reader if it weren’t for Sisario’s constant and highly welcome explanation.

While Sisario occasionally includes the terse input of guitarist Joey Santiago, drummer David Lovering had little to offer and estranged bassist Kim Deal seems to have stonewalled any attempts to include her side of the Pixies story. A regrettable exclusion, though it does not noticeably impact Sisario’s ability to explain why the music itself matters. In fact, he admirably avoids mucking most of the book with personal interjection until the very end, where his 121-pages-proven musical chops give him more than enough clout to draw some conclusions.

Readers of “Doolittle” might find themselves surprised, impressed, taken aback, disappointed, or all of the above. It will depend largely on their existing knowledge of the Pixies. Musical pariahs who have long claimed Pixies songs to be overrated strummings behind rambling incoherence might find themselves googling “un chien andalou.” On the other hand, members of the if-you-haven’t-heard-the-Pixies-you-don’t-really-know-about-music-at-all club might find themselves ever so slightly disillusioned. Sorry guys, “Silver” really doesn’t mean anything. Even Thompson himself doesn’t know what it’s about, describing the lyrics as “throwaway rhymes.”

Sisario’s thesis on Doolittle is incredibly approachable, weaving personal encounters of the alt rock-kind with well-researched conclusions and elaboration. He leaves even the completely oblivious with a rock solid grasp of why musically inclined folks can’t seem to shut up about the Pixies, while at the same time satiating alumni with fascinating minutiae and inside stories from the band. I would go so far as to say that this little analysis stands as a necessary companion for any owner of “Doolittle”, an album that will forever mark a paradigm shift in alt rock history.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Music Review: Avicii - True-ly Great

Avicii has made a name for himself ahead of the release of his first full album through a string of hit singles including “Seek Bromance, “Fade Into Darkness”, “Levels” and “I Could Be The One”. Indeed, being personally invited to a weekly residency in Ibiza by none other than dance music king Tiesto himself is a sign you’re on your way up. Luckily for just about everyone, Avicii’s newest album lives up to the hype and delivers (almost) twelve infectiously danceable tracks.

The album opens with his teaser single, “Wake Me Up”, immediately catching the listener with his or her guard down. It’s twangy, it’s country, but it’s still got the up-tempo thump and bump that keeps one expecting something more. It’s a dance song, after all; there’s always something more. Amidst the wobbled strums of probably-a-banjo, pensive vocals belt out between choruses that make any room without a dance floor feel incomplete. “Wake Me Up”, more than any other song on the album, is a foolproof crowd pleaser.

“You Make Me” features a ferociously pounded piano beat paired with standard up-and-down synth, punctuated by sections of falsetto calm. An enjoyable foray into angry 88-key instrumentation, but mostly just above average filler.

“Hey Brother” returns to the fascinating country-dance fusion, opening with over thirty seconds devoid of any variety of synth and taking nearly two full minutes to achieve dance frenzy status. This is an eternity in dance music time. Still, while the horns triumph during the few sections conceding supposed genre of the album, the song drives home Avicii’s unique, uncompromising style. Dance music needs more of that.

“Addicted to You” continues the trend, with throaty female vocals reminiscent of Florence or Adele alongside well-balanced piano and bass. It is at this point that a listener who is not a fan of dance music might realize the feat the album has pulled off: you can just listen to it and tap your foot sometimes, if you prefer. The song transitions passively into “Dear Boy”, where velvety and passionate Lana Del Ray vocals feel as if lifted from a dusty record, placed between now-you’re-talkin’ bouts of dirty, wobbly thumps and synth. A song that pushes all the right buttons, but might be a tad too long.

The anger of “Liar Liar” stands in contrast to the prior moodiness. Svelt female vocal amalgamations alongside Avicii’s new pet piano build the listener up. In chorus, one man’s angry claim summons the only organ solo in recent memory into a dance music album.

A vague flavor of enthusiastic ragtime boogie lingers around “Shame On Me”, with a faster tempo that invites vigorous footwork almost enabling swing dancing, of all things. A merry arrangement of prior-mentioned ingredients are featured here, but overall this song is somewhat stale.

“Lay Me Down” is a throwback, a nod to the days of “Sweet Dreams” and “Stayin’ Alive” being dance floor material. Austin Powers would feel at home. “Hope There’s Someone”, on the other hand, opens with over a minute of emotional, bare-bones female vocal solo, building alongside that piano again into a drop into nothing but vocals, into the final drop that would no doubt cause a frenzy in a live venue if for no other reason than the nearly five minute wait.

“Heart Upon My Sleeve”, while overall dull and lacking vocals, at least offers an attention-grabbing choice on Avicii’s part: angsty cellos find their home in front of standard wubs, ticka-tickas, bonks and synth-waves.

Sadly, the album ends on somewhat of a weak note, with “Canyon” offering a by-the-numbers dance floor beat. “All You Need Is Love” similarly offers fare that’s enjoyable yet forgettable, though it at least has pleasant vocal injections to prevent the album from ending on a completely sober, inhuman note.

Avicii’s first full album, “True”, is somehow accessible while incorporating elements in directions other dance musicians may not have even considered treading, let alone feared. It stops short of greatness at the precipice, but that’s what playlists are for. Your party probably wasn’t going to feature only Avicii anyway, right?