YEAR IN GAMER In 2010, year-end awards were dominated by one game: Red Dead Redemption. Published by Rockstar Games, the title was a sweeping, epic Western in the best American tradition. Using a proprietary game engine, Rockstar stitched together a giant swath of imaginary frontier, a teeming open world that seems to leap straight from the imagination of John Ford or Sergio Leone.
Now that 2011 is nearly done, it’s clear that Red Dead Redemption‘s success was merely a sign of things to come. Rival publishers must have watched contentedly as the game’s accolades stacked up. They were about to make 2011 the year of the open world game, ushering in a glut of go-where-you-want, do-what-you-want, slay-who-you-want titles that would dominate both discourse and sales.
Rockstar themselves were the first to get in on the action, taking a second bite at the apple in May with L.A. Noire. Developed by now-shuttered Australian studio Team Bondi, the game takes place in a meticulously recreated version of late-40s Los Angeles. Like Red Dead Redemption, Team Bondi’s title is an engrossing pastiche of classic cinema, drawing on the tropes, mopes, and molls of vintage noir. While critics rightly complained that the game’s open world offered little except the opportunity to drive around and sightsee, the simulated city’s presence added atmosphere and heft to an already immersive game.
Explore L.A.Noire‘s carefully art-directed metropolis, and the most dangerous thing you’re likely to encounter is fast-talking dame with nothing to lose. Not so in DarkSouls, an October release by iconoclastic Japanese studio From Software. From’s open world is a foreboding, twisted take on fantasy gothic, full of decaying grandeur, uncanny creatures, and fetid environs. Players must creep forward against their better judgment, dreading whatever horror lurks around the next corner. Though the game’s uncompromising difficulty acts as a deterrent, Dark Souls‘ labyrinthine, deadly world and endless creativity are well worth the frustration.
In Batman: Arkham City, British developers Rocksteady Games put Batman in his place: perched on the roof of some crumbling Gotham pile. The game’s titular open world is a vast outdoor prison, an entire urban zip code done up in hyperbolic neon-noir, then filled with psychopaths and super-villains. While he’s not using Rocksteady’s impressive, flowing combat system to put the hurt on Gotham’s criminal underclass, Batman can deploy gadgets like the Batclaw to swoop around. Though Arkham City mostly serves as a backdrop for a fairly linear narrative, but there are also dozens of collectible, lime-green “Riddler Trophies” scattered around, giving gamers an incentive to explore every inch of the game’s open world.
For sheer size and scope, you can’t top The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, released in November by Maryland-based Bethesda Game Studios. Bethesda have made open worlds something of a specialty in recent years, and Skyrim is the company’s most ambitious effort to date. Set in a frigid, arctic landscape, the game showcases natural beauty on a grand scale, rendering icy peaks, swampy tundras, and furtive wildlife darting among snow-dappled pines. Players will spend hours completing hundreds of quests, scaling the world’s highest heights and descending into the bowels of its darkest dungeons. Though the game makes it easy to follow a floating arrow directly to you current goal, Skyrim’s best moments are often the product of getting hopelessly lost.
When it comes to the sheer joy of exploring an open world, Minecraft reigns supreme. Created on a lark by Swedish programmer Markus Persson, the game randomly generates a gargantuan new environment every time you tell it to. Comprised entirely of chunky, Lego-like blocks, the world can be altered at will — dedicated players have spent hours moving blocks one-by-one to create replicas of things like the USS Enterprise. Minecraft is an impressive indie success story — first released in its alpha version in 2009, the game now boasts nearly 242 million logins per month.
What lessons will open world games learn from the class of 2011? Will 2012’s vast gaming environments be welcoming or forbidding? Will players be given long lists of collectibles to hunt, or simply asked to explore for its own sake? Dec. 20, thousands of people logged into Star Wars: The Old Republic for the first time, a big-budget MMORPG from local publishers LucasArts and Electronic Arts. Not content with the vast worlds already available to them, these intrepid gamers opted for an entire galaxy — a galaxy far, far away.
GAMER Though video game sequels abound every season, fall 2011 plays host to an unusual profusion. Three is indisputably the magic number, though five and a pair of un-numbered twos make a strong case. Decide for yourself which game deserves your dollars by delving into the details below.
Shooter wars In terms of sheer seismic impact, it’s hard to match Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, which hits store shelves Nov. 8. Successor to Call of Duty: Black Ops — literally the best-selling video game in the history of world — Modern Warfare 3 is the 2011 iteration in a once-yearly parade of market-dominating games released by publishers Activision. Defined, for better or worse, by its frenetic gameplay and rabid fans, Call of Duty‘s vast popularity has resulted in uncanny levels of cultural saturation. It’s the video game of choice for people who only own one video game.
This appeal to the lowest common denominator has been tacitly criticized by the team behind Battlefield 3, another hyper-realistic military shooter from rival publishers Electronic Arts. Released exactly a fortnight earlier than its megalithic competitor (Oct. 24), Battlefield 3 will point to a less puberty-addled player base and the excitement of pilotable vehicles (tanks, helicopters, etc.) as its main selling points.
Though the chivalric code of video game public relations prevents these two giant franchises from really laying into each other, the gaming intelligentsia expects a consumerist cage match come late October. By the time the first-week sales numbers are compared, they’ll be baying for blood.
Open worlds Evaluated superficially, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim seems like a parody of itself. Every gaming stereotype is represented, starting with the portentous title. Screenshots reveal barbarians swathed in fur, casting wary glances at the dragons wheeling overhead.
But despite its conventional high fantasy trappings, Skyrim (Nov. 11) represents the sophisticated, forward-thinking apex of modern RPG design. Its new Creation Engine allows surprising flexibility — the A.I. modifies quests on the fly to test a player’s strengths and weaknesses, and to showcase the content that player might be missing. The aforementioned dragons are given license to roam, appearing randomly to ruin your day at the expense of choreographed, scripted sequences.
Speaking of ruined days, no game will kill you quite as dead as Dark Souls. The follow-up to the cult Japanese import Demon’s Souls will expand on its predecessor’s distinctively punishing gameplay, turning players loose in an ominous open world filled with booby traps and seemingly invincible monsters. It will take unwavering concentration and an iron will to succeed when the game releases Oct. 4.
Gamers who prefer a more modern open world are gearing up for Batman: Arkham City (Oct. 18.), sequel to 2009’s surprise smash Arkham Asylum. Escaping the confines of the comics world’s most recognizable prison, Arkham City will allow the Caped Crusader freedom to explore a wide swath of dystopian Gotham, putting paid to recognizable Batman adversaries like the Penguin, Bane, Two-Face, Catwoman, the Riddler, and the Joker.
Arkham Asylum won players over with its fluid, timing-based combat system, which will return improved, able to pit Batman against 27 heavily-muscled henchmen at once without breaking a technological sweat. Fisticuffs aside, Arkham City will also allow you to swoop down off buildings with only an inky-black cape to break your fall — who wouldn’t want to try that?
Trilogies completed Like Batman, Uncharted protagonist Nathan Drake is no stranger to precipitous heights. The wisecracking Indiana Jones homage returns Nov. 1 in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, rounding out a trilogy of cinematic, visually stunning adventure titles.
Clambering up priceless ancient architecture while dispatching baddies with bullets and bon mots, Drake will take advantage of huge investments in motion capture and hardware optimization that will make Uncharted 3 one of the most realistic looking games ever. You can also expect it to set new benchmarks for video game writing and voice acting — traditional strengths of the series.
Gears of War 3 might not boast the same level of insouciant wit, but its graphical and gameplay bona fides are second to none. Due out Sept. 20, the new game from influential studio Epic Games (famed for their extensively licensed Unreal 3 engine) aims to wrap up the story of hydrant-shaped marine Marcus Fenix, who first growled his way onto consoles in 2006. The plot is conventional stuff — find your missing father; save the world — but Epic’s satisfying cover-based shooting mechanics and popular multiplayer modes will attract customers in droves.
Pentagram has had more members than many bands have songs. You could see the band three times and see 10 different people, with singer Bobby Liebling and his spooky, howling voice the only constant. But when Liebling takes the stage in San Francisco August 16, guitarist Victor Griffin will be beside him. Over the course of 30 years, their relationship has endured enough hardship and heartbreak to last a dozen lifetimes. When they stand together onstage, however, nothing can stop them.
Liebling, who founded Pentagram in 1971, grew up an only child in D.C.’s tony Virginia suburbs. When a high school guidance counselor suggested he take some time off before starting college, the goggle-eyed vocalist threw himself headlong into the two activities that would come to define the rest of his life: music and drugs.
Like Liebling, Griffin embarked on his rock ‘n’ roll career right out of high school. With friend and bassist Lee Abney, he had founded an outfit called Death Row, which gave voice to his thunderous, Sabbath-inspired guitar playing. In 1980, needing a drummer, the pair moved to D.C., where they linked up with Joe Hasselvander. The trio then began searching for a singer; with some trepidation, Hasselvander mentioned Liebling. He played Griffin a seven-inch single featuring two Pentagram classics: “Livin’ in a Ram’s Head” and “When the Screams Come.”
Reached by phone from his home in Tennessee, Griffin remembers that moment: “I was just blown away. To this day, that’s still one of my favorite recordings of Bobby.” Despite Liebling’s talents as a singer, however, Hasselvander had his doubts. “I was pretty much all for it,” continues Griffin, “but he went into a little more detail. He’d played with Bobby around ’78, and Bobby had blown some deals because of the drug use.”
Death Row decided to take a chance, inviting Liebling to try out. “We hit it off right away,” Griffin recalls. The guitarist had written lyrics for his songs, and rough vocal melodies, but he told Liebling to “just take it and do your thing with it.” The results were impressive. “What I can remember from that audition is just smiling from ear to ear,” Griffin says with a chuckle.
The pair formed a friendship and musical relationship that would last for three dramatic decades. Liebling was notoriously difficult to get along with, combining prickly pride and erratic, drug-induced behavior, but in Griffin, he found himself a partner, both in music and in crime. “Bobby and I have never had a problem with each other,” the guitarist allows. “We kind of share a weakness for drugs and alcohol. We kind of fed off each other.”
Liebling is enthusiastic: “We’re the same person in a lot of ways and nearly exactly the same person musically,” he wrote in an email interview.
Though the quartet initially performed as Death Row, it soon adopted the Pentagram moniker, losing two members, Hasselvander and Abney, in the process. Liebling and Griffin became the core of the band. But though they were producing some of the best Pentagram material to date, the duo never made it far outside the D.C. area. “Back in the olden days, we just didn’t really care,” says Griffin, ruefully. “It was the whole sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll attitude.”
Throughout the 80s and early 90s, the drugs continued to exact their toll. “We were our own worst enemy,” admits Griffin.
“I made a lot of bad decisions. I regret the ones that I made that hurt people. Especially people that I loved,” Liebling adds.
In 1996, after a seemingly endless litany of acrimonious disputes, Griffin quit the band. He eventually succeeded in ending his long-running addiction to drugs and alcohol, emerging in 2000 at the head of Place of Skulls, a new band heavily informed by the guitarist’s embrace of a fervent Christian faith.
Liebling was left, as he had been at many times in his career, with a band name, a collection of songs, and not much else. Even his storied voice was beginning to decay, thanks to nearly forty years of heroin and cocaine abuse. It wasn’t until he met his now-wife, Hallie — 27 years his junior — in 2006, that he was finally able to get clean. When guitarist Russ Strahan quit a patchwork version of Pentagram the day before the start of the band’s 2010 tour, Liebling called Griffin.
Now sober, the guitarist was interested, but skeptical. “I wasn’t sure I believed it. I’ve heard every story Bobby’s ever had to tell. I know him as [well] — or better — than most people.” Still, Griffin agreed to rejoin the band on the condition that Liebling remain clean.
Since that fateful decision, Pentagram is arguably more secure and more successful than it’s ever been. In April 2011, the band released the thunderous studio album Last Rites. On the road, Liebling and Griffin look out for each other, supporting each other’s efforts to stay sober. “There’s a lot of people out there who would like to screw you up,” explains the guitarist. “I think that both of us being on the same page with all this stuff is definitely a help — to know that you’ve got a brother there with you, who’s gonna back you up.”
Liebling agrees. “The band is stronger when we are together,” he says. “I am so lucky to have him back.”
When asked if he thinks Pentagram might finally be getting a second chance, Griffin is cautiously optimistic: “Sometimes it seems like we never really got a first chance. We’re trying to take advantage of it now, and make better decisions than we used to make back then. Live better lives.”
With Pelican, Alpinist, Masakari, Early Graves, Baptists, and Aeges
It has been roughly two decades since the arrival of 3-D graphics changed video games forever. Visual fidelity and realism have increased geometrically. But though the ability of designers to render convincing buildings and 800-ton interstellar battlecruisers is at a zenith, one aspect of their games falls consistently behind: the people.
Sure, glistening muscles have long been perfected, and the hair looks better every year. Stare into the lifeless, glassy eyes of a cartoonishly-breasted video game sexpot, however, and there’s no mistaking where you are: the uncanny valley, a metaphorical location coined to describe the sudden onset of revulsion we experience when exposed to simulated humans that approach but do not attain realism (think Tom Hanks in 2004’s The Polar Express).
L.A. Noire, at long last, has built a giant suspension bridge over the gap. Team Bondi, the game’s Australian developers, relied on a new technology called MotionScan, which entails filming actors in a special room using 32 synchronized high-definition cameras that shoot from every angle, but focus on the head. The data from the cameras is then combined to create a stunningly accurate 3-D model of an actor’s face, right down to the laugh lines and the slicked-back, 1940s hairstyle. The model is then grafted onto a body rendered using conventional motion capture, resulting in the most believable human beings ever seen in a video game.
This technological innovation was crucial to L.A. Noire‘s design. As a police procedural, the game makes interrogating suspects the player’s most important challenge. Team Bondi turned to MotionScan in order to create a game that allows sharp-eyed, controller-clutching gumshoes to scrutinize the faces of potential perps, hoping to spot the telltale hard swallows, sidelong glances, and spastic blinking of a liar.
The success of MotionScan reaches far beyond the interrogation sequences, however, or even the game itself. There are important scientific findings suggesting that the interpretation of facial expressions is crucial to the way we experience empathy and understand emotions. The introduction of believable human faces into video games will have a seismic effect on the medium, revolutionizing the creation and efficacy of story and character.
L.A. Noire, like any good detective, provides elegant proof. It may be a game about arresting criminals and identifying their lies, but it is also a game whose strength lies in its tragedy. Lives are ruined, children are orphaned, and a generation of soldiers struggles to cope with the horrors it experienced on the killing fields of World War II. Though they all refuse to talk about it, you can see it in their faces.
GAMER When they first announced a new game called Dragon Age: Origins, the prizewinning developers at BioWare were enjoying the success of Mass Effect, their wildly popular space opera, which had just introduced the public to the intergalactic potential of the studio’s imagination by creating an entire sci-fi universe from scratch. If Mass Effect was all about the future of role-playing games, Origins was all about their past. Almost defiantly traditional, even down to its title, the game embraced shopworn role-playing game tropes like dwarfs, elves, rogues, and locked chests with the tender respect of a closet-cleaning teenager encountering a childhood toy.
Set in a world of high fantasy that simultaneously revered and reinvented the genre’s many archetypes, the series also resurrected the company’s most popular play style: players control one hero and three companions, switching between them at will. The fighting can be paused at any time to better coordinate your party’s actions.
Despite having many virtues, Origins was marred by its imperfections. Its art directors woefully misinterpreted their retro mandate (the loading screen featured what was effectively a giant, rotating tribal tattoo). The scope of the game world, along with the geographic and interspecies conflicts that underpinned it, was unevenly developed. An overabundance of meaningless dialogue meant that the urgency of the plot was often lost amid the ramblings of boring NPCs. Most damningly, the combat felt strangely weightless — allies and adversaries seemed to stand there swinging mightily at each other until someone fell down.
Dragon Age II is as elaborately polished and stage-managed as its predecessor was rough-hewn and idiosyncratic. The game’s opening sequence drops you right onto the battlefield, showing off a redesigned game engine that makes combat at once visceral, gory, and kinetic. Even while playing as a mage, zapping enemies at range with your staff, you feel as if your avatar is breaking a sweat. The characters’ special abilities look legitimately powerful, sending foes flying or julienning them into a shower of immaculately rendered giblets.
The story follows a family of refugees called the Hawkes, whose flight from their homeland of Ferelden parallels the events of the first game. Arriving in the city of Kirkwall, they are quickly confronted with the game’s major theme: dystopia. Founded centuries ago by an unpleasant-sounding empire of slave-owning magicians, Kirkwall is marked by strife, xenophobia, and violence.
Much of the conflict centers around BioWare’s carefully crafted axes of enmity. The city’s human residents resent the influx of Fereldean refugees. The local elves are considered second-class citizens, and summarily abused. The series’ treatment of magic is particularly fascinating, pitting a self-righteous order of Templars (who think that the magic-adept are dangerous and should be controlled by force) against the mages themselves (who bridle at the Templar’s pious enthrallment).
Players will experience Kirkwall’s vicissitudes both through their own story and through their relationships with a fascinating cast of characters. Rich or poor, straight or gay, insouciant she-pirate or revenge-hungry ex-slave, the city’s inhabitants spring to vibrant life from the pen of BioWare’s inimitable writing team. The entire narrative is even structured around an ingenious frame story.
Try too hard to scratch beneath the game’s admittedly pretty surface, however, and you’ll be dealt a stinging rebuke. Though its appearance is universally stunning, Dragon Age II compensates for Origins’ excessive ambition by limiting itself to a narrow range of environments, enemy types, and mission structures. In 12 hours with the game, a player will clear out the same identical cave five or six times. Though the cut scene and conversation dialogue is excellent, game play is too often comprised of “travel here, travel there,” with the occasional ambush thrown in just to whet your appetite, your sword, and, thanks to the series’ distinctive blood-spatter graphical effect, pretty much everything else you have on.
If you can ignore some repetition (you want me to save another wayward, magic-addled youth?) and concentrate on the game’s positive qualities (there are many), Dragon Age II will provide some 40 hours of enjoyment. BioWare has taken an old role-playing dog and taught it a number of impressive number of new tricks. Unfortunately, “roll over” and “shake” are often overshadowed by “fetch,” and sometimes, “play dead.”
MUSIC There’s no easy way to describe Valient Thorr. Hailing from Chapel Hill, N.C., the quintet has labored throughout its career under the strain of countless casual characterizations, each less accurate than the one before it. Reached by phone in Raleigh, N.C., as he prepared for the band’s impending tour with Motorhead, singer Valient Himself gives the wry rundown.
“Forever, in The Onion, it said ‘Kiss-like band, biker band’ or some shit. None of us ride motorcycles!” he scoffs. Nor, for that matter, does the band wear elaborate makeup or sell branded coffins. The mistakes, however, continued. “People would say something like ‘Lynyrd Skynyrd-esque’ or some shit like that,” complains Valient. “We don’t play Southern rock. We have accents from the South because those are the colloquialisms that we have been accustomed to since we crash-landed here. Or they look at ‘Thorr’ and they say, ‘Oh, they’re Vikings.’ If you could pick three adjectives that we get called the most that are totally wrong, they’d be Southern, Viking, biker metal.”
Now, if you’ve been paying attention so far, you’ll have noticed that the singer goes by an outlandish pseudonym and makes offhand references to things like “crash landing.” By “here,” in the previous paragraph, he means “planet Earth.” This is because the band Valient Thorr claims, with a straight face, to be from the inside of the planet Venus. Valient Himself, a former sixth-grade teacher, sticks to his story throughout the interview, even when gently prodded to discourse on non-Venusian topics.
The band’s beginnings can be traced to East Carolina University, where the five Thorrs (Valient Himself, Eidan, Lucian, Sadat, and Dr. Professor Nitewolf Strangees Thorr) were masquerading as undergraduates. Nurtured by the college radio culture that defined their adopted home state for much of the 1990s, the band soon discovered the geographic advantages of hailing from the Tar Heel State, which features nine midsized cities along the axis of Highway 40, which neatly bisects it into northern and southern halves.
Before long, Valient Thorr was traveling nationwide, hitting 47 cities in 52 days on its first trip out. This relentless dedication to touring would come to define the band, which has effectively been on tour since Valient’s career in the classroom ended in 2005. That event also marked the last time he cut his beard, a fiery red thatch that has since attained truly epic proportions.
Though Valient Thorr’s music — a combination of the rabid, breakneck pace of punk rock and the precision guitar work of classic Thin Lizzy — produces some infectious, exultant tunes, the onstage charisma of the band in general and the singer in particular forms the most important part of its appeal. Clad in impossibly tight pants, cherry-red wrestling shoes, and little else, Valient prowls the stage soaked in sweat, striking mock-muscleman poses and exhorting the audience with the inexhaustible, manic energy of a true rock ‘n’ roll evangelist.
The power of Valient Thorr’s proselytizing can be seen at any show. A growing legion of die-hard fans, called Thorriors, pledge allegiance to the band above all others, often sporting customized jean jackets as emblems of their dedication. In that sense, at least, the band is like Kiss. One Thorrior, a Kansas City native, has even been granted an honorary Venusian surname; “Tim Thorr,” as he is known, “has more Thorrior tattoos than anyone else” explains Valient. “We call him the True Believer.”
Touring with a band as well-known as Motorhead, Valient Thorr is sure to win more converts to its cause. But whether people like it or not, or whether they believe it or not, the Thorrs will be out there. “I think performing is in your blood,” Valient says. “I think everyone was born to do something. We didn’t go to school to be rock ‘n’ rollers — it’s just something that came out of us. It’s an idea that started and it just had to happen.” *
Over the course of nine full-length albums, Neurosis has proven its metal mettle, at least on record. To truly appreciate what the band is capable of, however, you’d have to witness one of its legendary live performances, which despite their decreasing frequency are becoming more and more transcendent. Next week, Bay Area headbangers will have two opportunities to do so, both at the Great American Music Hall, where the band plays its first hometown shows since New Year’s Eve 2008.
Reached by phone from his Idaho abode, Neurosis guitarist Steve Von Till underscores the primacy of the live experience. “There’s no way the emotion and intensity of what we do live can be captured,” he says. “It has to do not only with the look and the sound but also the energy in the room and the way the bass hits you in the chest.”
The band’s music is nothing if not hard-hitting. Though its members coalesced in 1985 as a rampaging hardcore outfit, Neurosis eventually evolved into a musical force defined by its deliberate, inexorable pacing, sprawling arrangements, and thunderous crescendos. Slabs of detuned, distorted guitars blend with throat-ravaging vocals courtesy of Scott Kelly, second guitarist Von Till, and bassist Dave Edwardson. Though this combination is orthodox, the band’s frequent use of samples, inventive instrumentation, and stately acoustic interludes is anything but.
The “look” of Neurosis is handled by journeyman musician and artist Josh Graham, now a permanent member of the band, who crafts visceral, tectonic visuals during performances in real time, displaying them on a giant screen behind the band. “Certain themes are permanently tied to certain songs,” Van Till explains, “but he performs them. It’s always fluid and always changing, though he’s always trying to keep it clearer and keep it evolving with the music.” So lost are the band’s other members in their own instruments that they have next to no idea what’s going on onscreen. Thankfully, they don’t care: “We have absolute trust in what he’s doing.”
Neurosis is currently preparing to reissue its seminal 1992 album Souls at Zero, which marked an important milestone in the evolution of the band’s sound. “We were crawling out of our hardcore roots and struggling with our instruments,” Van Till explains. “Through touring those songs, we really began to understand that we could totally surrender to the power of this music. It was way bigger than us, and way bigger than any preconceived notions we had about what the music should be. It was like a spiritual, driven force that demanded [things] of us.” While crafting their follow-up the next year, the band members continued to subsume themselves to this otherworldly energy: “Over the course of Enemy of the Sun, we tried to facilitate that [demand] in the songwriting process as well, trying to find the ultimate non-interruption of flow. We’re not very angular. We don’t have lots of crazy time-signature changes or cerebral shifts — we really try to have it go from one place to the next.”
Despite 25 years together as a band, the inescapable drive to create Neurosis music continues unabated: “We’ve been in this band our entire adult lives, and it influences everything we do,” Van Till confides. “Everything in our lives affects how Neurosis music is going to evolve. Everything we hear, everything we see, everything we feel. Life’s trials and tribulations. All of it speaks to what’s happening in the music.”
Something is happening, and Neurosis’ many devoted fans will be overjoyed to hear that the band has been playing “two new songs that are pretty close” during their recent run of shows. “We basically have some skeletons that will really evolve into the next record,” says Van Till. This is momentous news, but the guitarist urges patience: “When that happens, we don’t force it. In some ways, we don’t feel all that responsible for creating [the music], and in a lot of ways — sure, somebody comes up with a riff or somebody comes up with an idea — but it’s an unspoken spirit when we’re all together in a room — it’s just magic and it just clicks.” Van Till insists that nothing can or should be accomplished in a hurry: “We trust the process, and the process is one of starting with some ideas, jamming them out, destroying them, and then having the come back together as a whole that’s greater than anything we could have thought of ourselves.”
Listening to the guitarist talk about his band’s next record, one gets the sense that its arrival will be characterized by the same deliberate, gradual escalation that typifies the band’s heavily-amplified climaxes. No matter which angle you approach Neurosis from, an emphasis on trust — and on the attendant forfeiture of control — is paramount. Speaking of the band’s live performances, Van Till echoes this theme: “We just want to be lost in the trance of the situation, and we hope that the people present also want to just surrender and become a part of it.” Those who attend the show would do well to heed his words. *
with U.S. Christmas, Yob (Sat/15), Saviours (Sun/16)
GAMER 2010, TAKE TWO For the first time in my life, in 2010, I feel the weight of games yet unplayed. Soon, 2011 will begin, and the ghosts of my gaming fecklessness will lurk, dormant, on my hard drive, pregnant with the possibility of fun.
Maybe it’s just that I finally got a life; I am now too busy to head out to GameStop on a Tuesday morning, come home with a new game, and only take a break — for lunch — around 7:30. Maybe games have gotten harder, or I’ve gotten worse — are all those mistimed jumps and bungled headshots adding up? Maybe there’s a simpler answer: games have gotten better, and there are many, many more of them.
With each passing month, it grows harder to prioritize, to write off vast swathes of the medium in the hopes of maintaining a schedule that actually allows for gainful employment. Indie games are becoming more ambitious, jabbing the mega-budgeted mainstream in the ribs with the elbow of unfettered creativity. Minecraft, coded by Swedish programmer Markus Persson in his spare time, has attained nearly 2 million registered users, despite debuting in mid-May alongside the putative game of the year, Rockstar’s cowboy epic Red Dead Redemption.
You also start with a backlog of old games: last year’s modern classics and overlooked gems (one day, I will finish Psychonauts), not to mention the really old games that are increasingly available for a Monopoly-money pittance on networks like Xbox LIVE, Playstation Network, Wii Network, and Valve’s potent PC-gaming service Steam — an insidious piece of software that is the gaming equivalent of having a drug dealer literally living in your house.
As if the congestion wasn’t already bad enough, you can never really finish a game anymore. Downloadable content (DLC) has extended the shelf-life of marquee titles almost indefinitely, allowing developers to graft on missions, characters, and crucial plot developments long after the game has been boxed and shipped, thanks to the aforementioned download services. In general, these add-ons don’t provide much in the way of bang-for-buck, though that may change with time. Nevertheless, in some cases, pertaining particularly to popular multiplayer first-person shooters, purchasing DLC is a prerequisite for participation.
Even if you manage to scale your towering “to play” list, the release schedule simply refuses to cooperate. Sid Meier’s Civilization is the game that made me the addict I am today, and when Civilization V was slated for a Sept. 21 release, I was ecstatic. But a round of Civilization takes about 10 hours, and Dead Rising 2 lurked, hungry for brains, on the horizon, ready to hit store shelves the following week. Next to it, juggling a ball with a confident smirk, was FIFA 11, sharing the same release date. I didn’t stand a chance. In the end, the strategy classic got shamefully short shrift.
Whatever guilt I felt at betraying my childhood obsession was assuaged by countless six-minute soccer showdowns and the corpses of exactly 2,129 zombies. Then, just at the time I was ready to consider diving back into Civ, (or at least to compose Mr. Meier an apologetic letter), Fallout: New Vegas ushered in Armageddon.
To date, I have invested nearly 50 hours of gleeful postnuclear role-playing. Despite this effort, there is much of the game I will probably never see. At a certain point, I had to move on, lest I get hopelessly behind. Thanks to the month of December — the annual industry doldrums — some catch up has been played, but not nearly enough. Two weeks from now, we’ll have a new year. Five weeks from now, we’ll have Dead Space2, and the backlog will begin again.
YEAR IN MUSIC Sometimes it appears that metal is aging backward in time, like a jean-jacketed, beer-swilling Benjamin Button. A cannibalistic hunger for old tropes sends budding musicians traveling deeper and deeper into the past for inspiration. By the beginning of 2010, the corpse of thrash metal was well and truly picked over, and as a legion of teenage “retro-thrashers” began to wear holes in their all-white high-tops, a new reverence emerged, one that looked beyond the aggression and speed of the middle 1980s, hearkening back to an earlier, heavier time.
This appetite for headbanging history was nurtured by 2010’s profusion of reunion tours. Emboldened by the music’s broadening audience, aging musicians the world over have been emerging from seclusion (voluntary or otherwise) and honing in on ticket territory that recently belonged to their younger colleagues.
Traditional doom metal was robustly resurrected; cult late-1970s acts St. Vitus and Pentagram both graced the stage at DNA Lounge, with mixed results. Considering the promise evinced by its summer 2009 appearance at the same venue, Pentagram was disappointing, though a last-minute lineup change was made the scapegoat. St. Vitus was another matter, thundering forth on the strength of guitarist Dave Chandler’s dive-bombing psychedelia and singer Scott “Wino” Weinrich’s booming baritone. The renewed vigor of the legendary L.A. outfit made the recent death of original drummer Armando Acosta especially poignant, though he had not played with the band for some time.
Metal was robbed of another sainted figure this year: Ronnie James Dio, whose inimitable voice and boundless energy made him one of the best-liked musicians in the business. His performances remained impeccable almost to the bitter end, which exacerbates the sense of loss. Fans can take comfort in the fact that he died during 2010, a year that witnessed a veritable renaissance of exactly the kind of late-1970s metal Dio did so much to popularize.
The fervor for classic, “traditional” metal was on display this past summer at Tidal Wave, a free concert in McClaren Park that featured three reinvigorated acts as its second-day capstone, each interpreting genre-progenitors Iron Maiden and Judas Priest in its own particular way. Anvil Chorus was formed during the dawn of the Reagan administration, and “Blondes in Black” and “Deadly Weapons” served as catchy centerpieces to an expertly-played set. Bay Area treasures Stone Vengeance, an all-African American trio from Hunter’s Point, showed why it has been able to survive for more than three-decades, combining engaging enthusiasm, unimpeachable technique, and a deep-seated sense of humor. U.K. legend Raven was the headliner, belying its advanced years thanks to rapid tempos, vertiginous falsetto, and captivating NWOBHM licks.
Elsewhere, German legend Accept released a new album and set out on the road, and long-running S.F. veterans Slough Feg returned this year with The Animal Spirits, a potent full-length. And yet a love of melody, guitar harmony, sung vocals, and galloping drums is no longer limited to hoary veterans. This year also witnessed a crop of new bands that drew heavily on late-1970s and early-1980s inspiration to craft a compelling crop of fiery LPs.
Sweden’s Enforcer (Diamonds) and Steelwing (Lord of the Wasteland) and L.A.’s Holy Grail (Crisis in Utopia) all took advantage of their klaxon-throated singers to release albums that draw heavily on classic Judas Priest, with a particular focus on high-register vocal melody and a bevy of shredding. Breakout Olympia, Wash., group Christian Mistress took a slightly different approach. The group’s EP Agony & Opium leavens influential British outfit Diamond Head with the unique, melancholy delivery of singer Christine Davis.
If metal spends 2011 in this same archaeological mind-set, the Blue Cheer comparisons will start to fly fast and thick. But while some may decry the stultification that accompanies veneration of the retro, they cannot deny its curatorial power. Like Dio himself, the metal of the past is destined to live again, in the overburdened eardrums of the present.
You can see it at your local Walgreens: that magical moment, at midnight every Nov. 1, when the Halloween display melts into the ether, replaced by a bevy of festive, possibly toxic, green-and-red confections. Christmas comes similarly early in the game business; unlike holiday movies, year-end software blockbusters have to be sitting on store shelves in time to entice flocks of early-bird shoppers.
This year promises a winter harvest of diverse delights, though there is a clear emphasis on familiar faces and established names. Groundbreaking technology will wheedle its way into American shopping carts alongside intellectual property that dates back to 1928.
Though its most promising features are spread out over multiple months, Rock Band 3‘s release in the dying embers of October signaled the start of the holiday game glut. On the more casual end of the spectrum, there are many changes designed to improve the title’s performance as a party-powering karaoke machine on steroids. But it’s on the hardcore end that Harmonix’s offering really shines. New “Pro” instrument modes transform the entire idea of the rhythm game, promising exact correspondence between notes heard and notes played, turning an exercise in plastic-instrument frivolity into an actual teaching tool. The retail version ships with a full two-octave keyboard; future bedroom shredders will have to wait until March 1 to get their hands on Squier’s six-string electric guitar-controller hybrid.
Harmonix rolled out another big title this year: Dance Central, a gleefully earnest dancing simulator that aims to do for cutting rugs what Guitar Hero did for ripping solos. Taking advantage of Microsoft’s Wii-killing, Xbox 360-exclusive Kinect technology (available now), which uses a TV-mounted camera to record player movements, the game weans digital dance off Dance Dance Revolution‘s cheesy floor pads, tracking your entire body and translating that motion into animated on-screen boogieing.
A number of other games have been released that are calibrated for use with the Kinect, either focusing on fitness (YourShape: Fitness Evolved, EA Sports Active 2) or cartoonish, arm-waving sports-mime (Kinect Adventures, Kinect Sports). Liberated from the tyranny of holding onto a controller, 360 owners will also be able to deploy the Kinect’s voice commands, which be useful for browsing through a number of new software features, which include ESPN and Last.fm, streaming direct to your console.
EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN
Cannibalizing the past is nothing new when there are profits on the line, but no one does it with the kind of capitalist élan that the game industry evinces. Did you enjoy NBA Jam and Goldeneye 007 in the 1990s? Of course you did. And you’ll enjoy them again, now that they’re back, sporting upgraded display resolutions and gameplay adapted to modern, button-coruscated controllers. NBA Jam began as a downloadable adjunct to NBA Elite 2011; now that that game has been pushed back, the two-on-two hoops title is getting a full retail release on all the major consoles Nov. 17. Goldeneye is available now for Wii and Nintendo DS; playing as Oddjob is still totally cheating.
Japanese giants Namco Bandai have dusted off Splatterhouse, their goofily gory 1988 smash. Musclebound protagonist Rick is back, still sporting a hockey mask, still dismembering ghosts and ghouls with a blood-soaked two-by-four. The survival horror-brawler hybrid is due out Nov. 23 for PS3 and Xbox 360.
It’s been a long time since Disney’s iconic character was featured in his own video game, so Junction Point Studio’s Epic Mickey is sure to be met with high expectations. Helmed, bizarrely, by legendary designer Warren Spector, who is better known for gritty cyberpunk classics System Shock and Deus Ex, the game promises a slightly more adult — even gothic — take on Disney’s least-adult character.
Gameplay will center around a painting mechanic. Using his trusty brush, Mickey will be able to transform his environment, daubing in bridges over otherwise impassable chasms. The judicious application of paint thinner will erase dastardly enemies. Look for Epic Mickey Nov. 30.
WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD (OF WARCRAFT)
If you were to measure the impact of this year’s holiday releases using total hours invested as your metric, there’s no doubt that World of Warcraft: Cataclysm would come out on top. As the third expansion to Blizzard’s megalithic franchise, the game can count on a built-in player-base of some 12 million subscribers, each about as likely to buy Cataclysm as a heroin addict is to buy more smack.
The attractions this time around include two brand-new races — players will now be able to battle their way around Azeroth as Goblins or Worgen (read: werewolves). The expected litany of new dungeons, new loot, and new gameplay tweaks is also provided. The Cataclysm begins Dec. 7. And if you don’t know what to get that tween WoWer in your life at the last minute? But her some game time at www.blizzard.com.
(For a review of Slough Feg’s latest, The Animal Spirits, go here. Read on for an interview with the band’s guitarist-singer, Mike Scalzi.)
San Francisco Bay Guardian: I noticed a clear theological theme running through the album. Was that – the Reformation – an area of historical interest to you? I’m interested in that choice, of a less exciting historical topic than maybe a more violent event…
Mike Scalzi: It’s not as metal, certainly. But in another way, Martin Luther was very metal, in that he was dedicated. Though he was Christian, in his dedication and his rebellion, he was metal. I was reading about all that stuff in an anthology of Western cultures. It was very general – I had to teach it. I’m a teacher. I started teaching Philosophy of Religion a year ago for the first time, and I’m not really that into teaching it, because its not my area of expertise, but I kinda had to.
[Writing music] helps me, actually. If I can write a song about it, it becomes more ingrained in my everyday thought. It becomes more second nature to say “oh, the 95 Theses!” It’s not just as a teaching aid, though. When it comes to Renaissance Christian theologians, he’s the most metal one. He’s out in the world. He’s out doing stuff, being a revolutionary. And a lot of his views are funny, a lot of the things he said were really funny and really extreme.
SFBG: Less metal for being ultimately successful, though. A lot of those so-called heretics were metal in the sense that they died for their principles, or were burnt at the stake or what have you.
MS: But he was the most badass one! Obviously, I don’t agree with him – he was a fundamentalist and all that, and he brought on fundamentalism in a way, I guess. But at least he said that trying to believe that the Bible is literal fact by reason alone is preposterous. That’s why he thought you had to exercise faith – because it’s preposterous. Everything in the Old Testament is preposterous, but you have to believe in it, purely to test your faith.
After seven records, you have to think of new things. I don’t want to repeat myself.
SFBG: What was the rubric for the lyrics that were included in the liner notes?
MS: Oh, those are the lyrics to “Trick the Vicar”
SFBG: Oh, so it’s just the one song?
MS: That was my decision. I’m sick of like…I’ve done that on every record and…
SFBG: People parse your lyrics?
MS: Oh, I don’t care about that. They come up with all sorts of weird interpretations, as if I really care that much. “Oh this means this and that means that. This is the deep meaning in this.” There’s no deep meaning in this shit! At least not that I know about! But at this point, trying to find things to say is a challenge.
With “Trick the Vicar,” I thought the lyrics to that would be important because it’s all one big pun. There’s obviously no deeper meaning, other than just being entertaining. It’s like something from a Benny Hill skit or something. So on the inside of the CD, I had all the puns – I came up with all those puns in the same month. They’re really silly, obviously.
SFBG: Well I did mean to confirm whether or not “boister” was a word.
MS: Good, good! No, its not. But when I say “There’s a boister that goes on in the cloister”…
SFBG: …from context it’s pretty clear.
MS: Yeah. It’s just a bunch of silliness, but it works for the song. I like silliness, and that’s one of the things that’s missing from a lot of metal: a good sense of humor. Metal used to have a sense of humor, in the 70s and 80s.
SFBG: That’s something that I was meaning to ask you about, if there’s a way to account for that sudden lack of humor. You have this form of music that has this potential to be taken seriously, but also the potential to be looked at with a sense of humor, or with an understanding of its many tongue-in-cheek aspects. It seems like a lot of its biggest fans, a lot of the people with the kind of familiarity with it that would enable them to see the humor, are the people least able to see it.
MS: Well, there are a lot of stupid people. You go to a metal show and you run into a lot of morons. Around here, you don’t have as many.
SFBG: I think it’s sort of like a dumbbell shaped-graph. On the one end, it attracts a lot of stupid people, but on the other end, it attracts a lot of people who are discerning and smart.
MS: I think, basically, they’re going to laugh at you one way or another. Being a metal guy, especially when you’re old, or older, or from the last generation of metal, they’re going to laugh at you. You make the choice of whether they’re going to laugh at you or with you. And I choose to laugh with them!
Also, metal, or indeed all rock and roll, is inherently funny. It is! People used to know that!
SFBG: Or inherently fun. That’s what a lot of people seem to lose sight of.
MS: Metal is inherently funny. No matter what! It’s funny. That’s one of the best things about it! It’s ridiculous, and it’s great because it’s ridiculous. People realized that way back. Black Sabbath, maybe not Led Zeppelin — they never had much of a sense of humor – Deep Purple, Judas Priest. The New Wave of British Heavy Metal. Early glam metal – Twisted Sister, Quiet Riot – they all had a sense of humor. Van Halen! Give me a break…that band was all humor until Sammy Hagar came, and it lost its sense of humor, and it started to suck.
The way that these things incorporated humor resembled vaudeville. That was David Lee Roth’s whole thing. Humor is part of entertainment. The most serious, heavy band, Black Sabbath, was also the most funny, because they realized – they were a British band with a British sense of humor.
SFBG: It’s interesting that you mention that. Do you think the trans-Atlantic shift had anything to do with that loss of humor?
MS: No, because Van Halen is the funniest. Maybe they’re not metal. Manowar! I don’t know if you want to open that can of worms. There’s a lot of evidence that they started out as a joke. They started out tongue-in-cheek and got serious as they went along. They know they’re funny; they may not want to acknowledge it, but they are.
SFBG: And the humor is bound up in the fact that everyone knows there is a joke, but no one will actually admit it. You can listen to it and pretend that you’re taking it seriously.
MS: It’s true of hardcore too. It used to be funny, now its all [imitates hardcore singing]. It’s lost its humor – some of it hasn’t, but most of it has. That’s one of my problems with a lot of the metal in this country, or in Germany too – people take it too seriously.
It’s the same thing with entertainment. I’m accused of being too traditionalist and narrow, but I’m bored by anything else. The way that entertainment used to be, in my opinion, was better. Period. It just used to be better. And now, it lacks.
I guess the question you’re asking is “why?” I don’t know why. I think it’s something about the world and the way people see entertainment. It has a much wider scope than it used to. People are much more involved in it as fans, and take it seriously as a statement, which is great, but maybe some of the actual enjoyment of it – from the performance standpoint and the artists’ standpoint – has been diminished by the fact that people hold it too close to their heart. The fragility of their egos and their identity are wrapped up in it in a way that causes problems.
SFBG: Like many discussions about the evolution and history of metal, I blame Nirvana. They taught people, or people took away from them this idea that if a band was trying to entertain you, that was somehow false.
MS: Well, that happened way before Nirvana, but that’s when it hit mainstream.
SFBG: There’s that line in Smells Like Teen Spirit: “Here we are now/Entertain us.”
MS: I don’t know if I have much to say about that. At the time, I didn’t like it. I heard their first album, before they were really popular, and I didn’t like it then. I was playing shows in San Francisco at the time, and I knew that I was not down with what was happening as a result of them. “Don’t try.” “Don’t give a shit.” “Nevermind.” “Be a loser.” I mean, sure, I thought that when I was a teenager. That’s the 14-year-old mentality: “everything sucks, so fuck it, man.” By the time you’re in your twenties you’ve grown out of that, you try to do something, unless you end up like Kurt Cobain, and you just fade off into negative, negative, everything sucks, and then die. [Sarcastically.] That’s great! That’s my hero! [Chuckles ruefully.] What the fuck is that?
SFBG: So, part and parcel of the conversation we’ve been having is the fact that you’re a very opinionated guy…
MS: So you’ve read my blog posts. There’s a new one today! I was just reading the comments.
SFBG: I did read them. I can only imagine what kind of comments you’re going to get on the most recent one. I was wondering if there’s something you can identify about metal that helps it attract opinionated people. Or, to reverse the chicken and the egg, if there’s something about being into metal that makes people opinionated?
MS: Well, I don’t think people get into metal for some other reason, and then get opinionated once they’re into metal. Unless you want to get into the fact that most metal is so bad now that you can get into it and say “oh god I’m so opinionated because there’s so much garbage out there. That’s true of a lot of kinds of music though.
It attracts opinionated people because it is extreme music. It attracts people who are into a certain kind of mentality. It happens from such an early age! I can’t analyze it. I got into metal, like a lot of people, when I was pretty young, and that was a long time ago! I don’t remember exactly. I don’t have immediate access to that feeling first being attracted to it. To me, its something that happened so far back that its like…
SFBG: …it’s like asking “why do you like mac ‘n’ cheese?”
MS: Exactly. And I have more access to what’s happened since then. But I don’t feel like I’m actively opinionated. People take things in, and they call them like they hear them. To me, things assault my sense, not the other way around. Nobody remembers being born into the world of music or food or anything and going “Hmm, I’m going to investigate this thing!” It’s more you hear something and you’re passed into this impression that you have. And some things, you get an impression and you go “Argh, that sucks! That really bothers me!” So my opinions, like those of most people who are opinionated, come from being stimulated by something in a positive or negative way. I would say I call it like I hear it.
I never thought of myself as opinionated until I moved here. People said that if I moved to San Francisco there would be all this great music. They said, “People out there are very enlightened.” And then I got here – 20 years ago – and I thought, “Everybody here’s not really that enlightened. There’s a lot of stupid bullshit going on out here.”
SFBG: Switching tacks completely, I’m curious about your master’s degree in philosophy. I read a little bit in another interview about what you teach, but I’m curious about what you focused on in your studies.
MS: I ended up studying Descartes for my thesis. I was interested in Descartes as a graduate student because his method was very simple and intuitive, and the whole point of it was a do-it-yourself type thing, rather than getting involved in this long academic tradition. Obviously, like anyone else, he comes from an academic tradition, but his point in Meditations [on First Philosophy] was to say “let’s erase everything that happened beforehand in philosophy and science and start on your own, with what you can know by yourself.”
I just found Descartes pretty easy to understand. I was able to maneuver in that ontology. I started taking seminars on Descartes, and I subsequently got interested in German idealism, like Kant and Schopenhauer, and like every metalhead, I was interested in Nietzsche.
In a master’s degree, you end up focusing on major guys because they have these comprehensive exams that test your knowledge of Plato, Descartes, Hume, etc. I stuck to a lot of that, because I knew I would have to take an exam on it.
SFBG: That Kantian or Cartesian originalist thinking – wiping the slate clean, starting with the Categorical Imperative, or something like that…
MS: …well, Kant is much more in the tradition, he’s not trying to wipe the slate clean. He’s just trying to be revolutionary.
SFBG: I’ll admit I’m only tenuously familiar with Kant, but I remember his ethics being founded on a sort “first principle” that ignores cultural baggage and so forth.
MS: Well, that’s what people say, but his point is to come up with something that is not dependent on circumstance in any way at all. Something that’s not empirical, that’s totally dependent on reason. Just like Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” in a way.
It’s something that you try to universalize by saying “what if everybody did this?” [Motions toward cookie on the table.] What if I were to steal this cookie? What if everybody did that? If it produces a contradiction – if its unreasonable for everybody to do something – you have to decide if it would be possible. Not if it would be right or wrong.
In order to establish a standard of right and wrong, you have to decide if it’s reasonable – could everyone do it. Suppose I don’t keep a promise – I say I’m going to show up here at 11, and I don’t. If I don’t do that, and I don’t keep my promise, what happens? It undermines the principle of the promise in the first place. If I don’t keep a promise, whatever, no big deal. What if nobody keeps promises. Could everybody do what I did? If no one keeps promises, there wouldn’t be promises in the first place.
SFBG: There’d be no point.
MS: You couldn’t make promises, because there’d be no such thing.
SFBG: Like if everyone stole, there would be no point in having property.
MS: If there were no property, you couldn’t steal. If there were no taking anybody’s word for anything, you couldn’t make a promise. It undermines its own possibility. It’s a contradiction that makes the act itself impossible. If its irrational to that extent, to the point where it makes the act itself a contradiction, then, according to Kant, its not morally permissible. That’s a little bit of a long answer.
SFBG: I’m going to attempt a sort of interviewer Triple Lutz here. Is Descartes’ idea of discarding what has come before, or Kant’s idea of ignoring circumstance to come up with principle…
MS: …Rational principle…
SFBG: …purely rational principle. Can that be applied to your creative process? In the sense that…
MS: No. [Laughs.] I wish I could say that it could. That’d be a brilliant piece of journalism. But as much as I’d love to be able to say that there’s some heavy metal calculus that I use in order to write by sheer principles of reason…no. At least, not for me. It’d be cool if there was some guy, some alchemist songwriter guy who was trying to find the principle of guitar or whatever.
SFBG: You could sort of take a stab at the categorical imperative of metal though, being like Maiden, Priest, and Sabbath, and not being affected by sort of the whims of circumstance.
MS: That’s the problem I’m encountering though. I don’t want to say that everything’s all based on the past. I don’t want to be a heavy metal anachronism. That’s what I’m getting in a lot of these responses to my Invisible Oranges articles. Again, to be philosophical about it, I get this confusion of cause and consequence. A lot of people say to me: “you don’t like death metal because you haven’t explored it.”
I try to keep the analysis somewhat objective, about why I don’t like the cookie monster vocals, the guitar sounds that are very brittle, and the drums that are triggered – clickety, clackety, clickety doesn’t sound “brutal.” It sounds like some bullshit to me.
People say, “You haven’t explored it enough. You haven’t heard the good stuff. You haven’t gone to the lengths that it takes to appreciate it.”
SFBG: If it’s good, it shouldn’t take any “lengths.”
MS: It’s confusing the cause with the consequence. It’s not that I don’t like extreme metal because I haven’t listened to enough of it. I haven’t listened to enough of it because I don’t like it. People think that I’ve come up with some sort of rigid heavy metal calculus and say “I like Priest, I like Maiden, I like Sabbath, Saint Vitus, whatever, some underground stuff too. These are the criteria of what I will listen to.”
It’s not like that! I grew up with the evolution of the whole thing, listening to it happen, and I heard things, and I said “I don’t like that! That’s crap! That sounds like someone who doesn’t care about what they’re doing.” It just sounds like shit to me, for whatever reason. And I heard more and more of it, and I chose not to investigate it.
SFBG: Getting back to philosophy just briefly, I saw in another interview that you described your music as having a Machiavellian aspect. I understand a Nietzschian aspect, but how does Machiavelli come into it?
MS: I was probably joking! I’m not sure. I was just being macho, talking about taking over the world. It’s a very vague characterization of Machiavelli, who I don’t really know shit about anyway.
SFBG: I was struck by the William Blake references in one of your old songs, “Tiger! Tiger!” Blake has always struck me as very metal.
MS: The reason that I put that stuff in there is not because of William Blake. It’s because of Alfred Bester, who quoted him.
SFBG: I noticed that you mentioned that author a lot in other interviews.
MS: A lot of sci-fi fans haven’t read him! This is insane to me. When people read The Stars My Destination – the original title of which was Tiger! Tiger! – they say “that’s the greatest fiction book I’ve ever read.” I was not a sci-fi or fantasy reader until I was 26, and someone got me that book. It was completely a fluke. I got it and I was like, “Ehh, I don’t really like science fiction books,” and then I finished it and said, “This is the best book I’ve ever read in my life.” Only on the basis of that did I get into science fiction.
SFBG: It’s tempting to ask you questions about Slough Feg’s distinctive sound, but seeing where my fellow interviewers have gone before, I was wary. It seems like we journalists want to get you to say “Oh, I choose to write songs with major chords because of this reason which is easy to print,” and your response is to say, “Look, this just my creative process; it’s how it sounds good to me.”
MS: Well, something that sounds good to me vocally sounds good because it’s catchy. If I remember it. I don’t always tape everything that I do. So, why do I remember it? That’s a whole question. Maybe I remember it because it sounds a little bit unique, maybe for some other reason.
SFBG: I think the music stands out to people, whether on record or live, because it makes melodic choices that almost seem like a deliberate subversion of the conventions of metal, like all those major chords. But I’m assuming that wasn’t a choice to subvert. That there wasn’t a point at which you were like, “Heavy metal is in minor keys – I’m going to do it a different way.”
MS: Well maybe there was! Again, it wasn’t a conscious choice. I don’t write Slough Feg songs according to music theory. I don’t say, “Now we’re going to do a song like this; now we’re going to do a song with these chords, or with this type of vocals.” If you do that, it ends up sounding overly stiff and deliberate.
But having said that, that’s not to say that there isn’t some kind of overall approach. When I do write stuff, what do I edit out? What do I keep? Stuff that reaches a certain criteria after the fact. Not when I come up with riffs, or vocals – that just happens. But what do I choose to keep? I don’t think about it consciously – it’s second nature to me now, so its hard to say – but basically, at one point, I wanted to write things that imitated Maiden, Sabbath, Thin Lizzy, Alice Cooper, Saint Vitus, Black Flag, and all that.
It became second nature to say “I want to pick up where Maiden left off,” but not to use major chords. The first “Irish-sounding” song I ever did was called “The Red Branch,” and I was sitting around in my living room, in a place I lived in years and years ago, I was sitting in my living room with an acoustic guitar, just joking around, singing to somebody as a joke, and I thought, “That’s a cool chord change!”
I keep a lot of things that other people would throw away, that they’d be scared to put on a record because it’s too silly-sounding. I say to myself “this is actually something that someone else wouldn’t do, and have the nerve to take seriously.” I think a lot of people are embarrassed to play Slough Feg-type songs. They were 20 years ago, at least. And now we’ve developed the sound to the point that it’s sort of obnoxious. People are like “what the hell man! This guy is willing to do this?!”
That’s what happened in San Francisco in the mid-nineties, playing this music. People would be like “God, you’re willing to get up onstage and play that? That sounds like nursery-rhyme music with metal instruments. It’s major. You’re singing like you’re in a 50s musical!”
Those are the kind of influences that I incorporate, maybe because it was something people weren’t willing to do, and so it sounded fresh to people.
SFBG: That sort of discomfort you describe is interesting, because you have this whole other offshoot of metal that’s built on discomfort. Black metal is based around saying “which chords can I play that will make people uncomfortable, that are the most dissonant.” You’ve come up with an incredibly unique way to do the same thing. You challenge people’s expectations, you make them uncomfortable, you take them out of their comfort zone, but instead of being really really heavy, or really fast, or really dissonant, or really down-tuned, you just have your own personal approach: to write chord changes that are, you know, silly.
MS: Or just really, really, traditional. Not that I intended that. But this is good, I think we hit the nail on the head in sense. When I started developing the sound, in the early nineties, a lot of it was a reaction. I didn’t write these looney tunes in 1989. I wrote them when I got here, and I started playing some shows, and I noticed that all the bands were drab, and all the bands played sort of one-dimensional speed metal. And I was totally nonplussed by it.
What I was writing was a reaction. I was saying “what can be done at this point?” Punk rock and speed metal and grindcore are just an extension of the same dirge – being obnoxious by being a dirge.
SFBG: And it’s an arms race, right? You can only go so fast. And then the next band that comes along has to go faster than that.
MS: And also it’s the attitude that’s so passe after a while. Spitting blood and whatever. I wanted touch on what people inevitably heard – kid’s music, or what your parents were playing – and pose the question: “are you willing to admit that this is enjoyable to you?” Slough Feg songs that do sound like they’re from a 50’s musical. Are you able to admit that this is catchy to you? That’s the punk rock maneuver, that I was able to think of it in those terms. And that’s what set us apart. But in a totally different way, in a way that goes back to like, “This is inherently enjoyable. Are you willing to partake in it, or are you too cool for it?”
SFBG: And it’s diametrically opposed to black metal. Black metal is “I will alienate you by doing something that is not enjoyable.” Your approach is “I will alienate you by doing something that is too enjoyable.”
MS: After the fact, that’s how we can analyze it. I think that’s a proper way to look at it. My songs do assault the listener, and people say “I can’t get it out of my head!” Because it’s written in very simple way – they’re really not that hard to write, but it’s a kind of songwriting that people aren’t willing to do.
Someone said to me in the 80’s, when I liked Venom a lot – they’re a very silly, vaudevillian form of Satanic metal – “Why do you like this? Anybody can do that. Anybody can play Venom songs.” And I said “yeah, that’s true. But nobody is willing to. That’s what makes it special.”
All good heavy metal strives to challenge the listener, pushing buttons and boundaries. Some of its most successful incarnations make people downright uncomfortable, achieving escalating extremes of tempo, tuning, and tone.
Slough Feg is one of San Francisco’s most unique underground bands, an honorific that stems directly from its unique approach to the challenge of challenging. Eschewing thrash’s BPM arms race, death metal’s knuckle-dragging celebration of “brutality,” and black metal’s dissonant, low-fi navel-gazing, the quartet (now two decades or, if you prefer, five drummers old) manages to discomfit with an unlikely tool: melody. New album The Animal Spiritswas released Tues/26 on Profound Lore Records.
Bursting with major-scale chord changes, Celtic-folk influences, and vocal lines that make the tautological adjective “sing-song” suddenly useful, the band’s music is resolutely unlike anything you’ve ever heard before. Some of the heavy metal staples are present – the acrobatic drumming and soaring, dual-guitar harmonies, for example – but that’s where the easy descriptions end.
The Animal Spirits‘ song titles evince an ecclesiastical theme, which is made immediately apparent in the music – album-opener “Trick the Vicar” rampages through two minutes of triplet-driven NWOBHM wordplay, all of it pertaining to clergy. “Out of the frying pan/into the Friar” is but one of many examples.
Though the lyrics are a bewildering mix of the high- and lowbrow, a strand of gleeful silliness is apparent throughout, even when Slough Feg tackles weighty historical subjects like Martin Luther (“The 95 Theses”), alchemy (“Materia Prima”), or trans-pacific feats of seamanship (“Kon-Tiki”). The Alan Parsons Project cover (“The Tell-Tale Heart”), conversely, is defiantly straight-faced. Closer “Tactical Air War” features a guest appearance by Bob Wright, vocalist in cult local metal band Brocas Helm.
No matter how frenzied the music around him becomes, drummer Harry Cantwell never seems to tire, and his versatility is a crucial complement to the band’s idiosyncratic arrangements. Bassist Adrian Maestas excels at the genre’s distinctive low-end gallop, though his forays up the fretboard are also a valuable addition to the sound. Guitarist Angelo Tringali is laden with responsibility, forming one half of the harmonic partnership that lies at the heart of the band’s music.
The complementary half is provided by guitarist-singer Mike Scalzi, who founded the band in his native Pennsylvania. Scalzi’s vaudevillian vocal delivery and incomparable songwriting approach are the defining elements of Slough Feg, and it is his desire to alienate people through melody that makes the band sound the way it does. A charismatic iconoclast, Scalzi has lately begun contributing to metal blog Invisible Oranges, promulgating his strong opinions with the help of a prose style he honed at his day job: teaching community college philosophy courses.
Check back in this space soon for an extensive interview with Scalzi, one of the few people in the world who can discuss Saint Vitus B-sides and use the word “ontology” correctly in a sentence, though, it must be said, not simultaneously.
(PC, PS3, Xbox 360) Obsidian Entertainment/Bethesda Softworks
GAMER Despite the reverence it commands, the Fallout series has a tortured history. The first two games (both classics) were developed by Black Isle Studios and published by Interplay. Out of nowhere, Micro Forte and 14 Degrees East stepped in to produce a licensed spin-off in 2001. Interplay’s 2003 financial difficulties led to the demise of Black Isle, and the publisher produced a fourth game in-house before selling the Fallout name to Bethesda Softworks, which released the mega-hit Fallout 3 in 2008.
The creative core of Black Isle, meanwhile, went on to form Obsidian Entertainment, which cut its teeth on ambitious-but-flawed follow-ups to popular franchises like Knights of the Old Republic and Neverwinter Nights. After the success of Fallout 3, the company got permission from Bethesda to return to its roots, producing a new game in the post-apocalyptic Fallout universe, superintended by series vets Josh Sawyer and Chris Avellone.
The result was Fallout: New Vegas. Though its outward appearance is defined by the wooden character models and awkward animations of the Gamebryo engine (a holdover from Fallout 3 and Bethesda’s swords-and-sorcery smash Oblivion) New Vegas feels and plays more like one of Black Isle’s isometric 1990s classics.
This distinctive sensibility is most notable in the writing, which oozes dark comedy and pulpy, hard-boiled dialogue in a way that Fallout 3 never did. Questing and character creation have also been redesigned in accordance with the Black Isle games’ core principles, necessitating difficult choices whose outcomes are not always immediately clear. The score, by delightfully named Israeli composer Inon Zur, deftly echoes the series’ bizarre, dystopian musical tradition.
There is one element of the original Fallout titles that nobody missed: the bugs. Unfortunately, Black Isle’s questionable quality assurance survived the name change, and New Vegas is not without its many hiccups. Given the sheer scope of the game, however, it’s hard to complain too stridently.
When Interplay shuttered Black Isle in 2003, many of the company’s leading lights felt that the Fallout franchise, every bit their brainchild, had been unfairly taken from them by the vicissitudes of corporate law. Seven years later, they’ve gotten the opportunity to welcome the gaming public back to wasteland. And nothing, after all, says “we’ve missed you” like a dual-mohawked psychopath with a belly full of mutated cockroach steak and a rusty machete.
GAMER The release of a new Civilization game always results in time-management Armageddon. Notorious for its addictive, epic gameplay, the long-running franchise has been the bane of term papers, careers, and marriages over the course of its nearly 20 years in existence.
Visionary franchise creator Sid Meier is now head of his own game studio, Firaxis, and he’s waging a multifront war on productivity. Civilization Revolution, the series’ streamlined console cousin, is out on the iPhone and iPad, and Meier himself is hard at work on Civilization Network, fusing the game onto Facebook and finally realizing his lifelong dream of preventing people from getting anything done, ever.
With the release of Network (the strategy-gaming equivalent of a crack lollipop) still far off, Meier’s team at Firaxis has unveiled Civilization V, a big-budget tent-pole sequel. Eagerly anticipated by the legions of history nerds, armchair generals, and would-be despots who loved the game’s previous installments, Civ V provides a snappy, Art Deco graphics overhaul and a wide array of gameplay redesigns.
Chief among these changes is the introduction of hexagonal tiles in place of square ones. Previous Civilization iterations divided their sprawling maps chessboard style, in rectilinear grids, slicing vast deserts and broad oceans into intelligible collections of tiny squares. This time around, the geometry has been switched; moving diagonally is no longer slightly faster (thanks, but no thanks, Pythagoras). Cities, ever the building blocks of the gameplay, can now collect resources from any tile within three hexes.
The hex system doesn’t really shine until two civilizations go to war, when the game’s other key innovation comes into play: only one unit can occupy any given tile. Proper unit positioning, maneuver, and tactics are now the keys to victory — gone are the days of stacking up 20 Swordsmen and ramming them straight down your enemy’s throat. Combine this change with the fact that cities can now defend themselves without the need for a garrisoning unit — and the fact that ranged units such as archers and catapults can fire and hit a target two tiles away (over the heads of screening infantry, if need be) — and you’re left with a combat system rife with new challenges, dangers, and enjoyment.
It takes guts to effect fundamental changes to a popular franchise, but Meier and his team at Firaxis were abetted by new blood. Civilization V‘s lead designer, Jon Shafer, started out as high school-age fan of 2001’s Civilization III. At first he coded modifications to the game in his bedroom, but Shafer soon found himself crafting customized maps and complicated scenarios. He secured a position as a beta tester for III‘s first expansion, then another as a tester for 2005’s CivilizationIV. By the end of 2005, he had talked his way into a programming internship at Firaxis. Thanks to his proven initiative, love for the series, and dual-threat mastery of both design and programming, Shafer was eventually handed the keys to one of gaming’s most venerable cars.
Though the cosmetic changes are eye-catching, it’s still the same game under the hood. Most key components have been streamlined, with the exception of the still-wonky A.I. diplomacy. Other longstanding fender-dents have, at long last, been hammered out. If there are complaints, they’ll center around what was omitted — IV’s masterful handling of religion will certainly be missed.
Civilization will enter its third decade in 2011. For most games, this would be a huge milestone. For a game that takes the entirety of recorded history as its subject matter, it’s just another year. For me, it’s time to get back to my war against the Persians.
Once a metal album has surpassed a certain threshold of ambition, it is obligated to begin with an instrumental intro track. If said album is a concept album, this is doubly important. Warp Riders, the latest album by Austin, TX quartet the Sword, is a concept album in the most deliciously nerdy sense.
Weaving a dense science fiction tale of a distant plant caught in the throes of “tidal locking” (confining one hemisphere to dark and one to light), its songs regale the listener with visions of archers, mystical orbs, time travel, space travel, time/space travel, and beings called Chronomancers. The instrumental intro, “Acheron/Unleashing the Orb,” is therefore exactly as epic as you would suspect, erupting out shuddering guitar effects into hard-charging downbeat thrash.
The Sword have traveled a long way since their debut Age of Winters landed them on tour with Metallica. Warp Riders’ second track (and first single) “Tres Brujas” bears the trappings of this journey, boasting a chunky, arena-ready riff that prepares to bang heads in the nosebleed seats without sacrificing the band’s distinctive sound.
In the hands of producer Matt Bayles, this sound is rounded, warmed and perfected. Full of crystal clarity and meticulous composition, the album represents a milestone of professional accomplishment, if nothing else. Every note seems to fall in it’s proper place; every fill is carefully constructed and performed. Even the palm-muting sounds mysteriously augmented.
Third track “Arrows in the Dark” is a classic Sword singalong, taking advantage of singer J.D. Cronise’s improved vocal power and enunciation. Cronise is responsible for the album’s impenetrable plotting, so any questions about why arrows play such a big role in a sci-fi story should be directed to him (or possibly James Cameron).
“Chronomancer I: Hubris,” which follows, provides the album’s best riff, an anthemic masterpiece that resolves into vocal-powered verse that inches the story along. “Lawless Lands,” immediately after, is more of a sleeper hit, a stylistic departure that allows the band to settle deep into a hypnotic groove, showcasing bassist Bryan Richie.
After a methodical beginning, the tempo revs up for “Astraea’s Dream,” which is sure to please fans of the band’s more adrenaline-soaked early material. The title track that follows is a barn-burner along the lines of “Freya” (the song that got the Sword their big break), delivering big chunks of exposition along with a massive, concept-encapsulating chorus.
If there’s a song on the album destined to get goats, it’s “Night City,” a mid-tempo Thin Lizzy-style butt rocker with a chorus riff that borders on tongue-in-cheek. But when you consider what the lyrics describe — “You’re in a place they call the Night-side/In the shadows where the killers and the pirates hide/Stick around if you think you can survive” — the choice of a bloozy, verse-chorus-verse number to match a hard-drinking, hard-partying spaceport makes much more sense.
“Chronomancer II: Nemesis” opens with thunderous heaviness and finishes with a guitar solo – Kyle Shutt joins Cronise on a hair-raising tapped harmony as they conclude the enigmatic time-sorceror’s story. The table is then set for “(The Night the Sky Cried) Tears of Fire,” a valedictory epic built around the “Immigrant Song” drum pattern, lovingly adapted by drummer Trivett Wingo. Rife with cataclysmic imagery and infectious choruses, the song burns hot before breaking apart, resolving into the same keening guitar that began the album.
Though it represents the band at its most accessible, but also its most self-indulgent, Warp Riders is nothing if not a smashing success. That a band with such ability has the time, skill, inclination, and funding to craft an impeccable stoner rock album about time travel can be viewed in this day and age as a great boon. The Sword have escaped the gravity of their Sabbath homage roots, and dodged the asteroids of their detractors. Only one question remains: where is this rock ‘n’ roll spaceship headed next?
Check out Ben Richardson’s story on the Southern Lord Mini-Tour in this week’s Guardian. Here, he talks with Mike Dean, bassist and singer of Corrosion of Conformity.
San Francisco Bay Guardian: You guys are practicing in North Carolina now, in preparation for the tour?
Mike Dean: That’s right, yeah. It might be useful.
SFBG: How long has it been since you’ve played all these Animosity songs?
MD: Quite a while. Easily 23, 24 years, something like that. 23 years!
SFBG: How does that feel? Is it like putting on an old garment?
MD: Either I remember the stuff precisely, and it is like putting on an old garment – it feels just like yesterday, and I can play it – or there are parts of songs that I have no recollection of. It’s either completely natural or kind of strange.
SFBG: Can you point to any particular parts that seem unfamiliar?
MD: There’s a bridge-like part in the middle of the song “Holier,” that I completely forgot about!
SFBG: This must be due in part to the fact that your technique has changed a lot over the years. At this point you’re a veteran, a very well-schooled musician – not to say that you weren’t good to begin with…
MD: It’s funny that you should mention that. It’s an astute observation, because sometime around the time we did [1987’s] Technocracy, I started to play with my fingers more and more, and sort of leave the picking thing behind. Basically, it was like starting all over again, to some extent. Now, I can do all the things on Animosity and Technocracy with my fingers, as opposed to a pick, which I would just be dropping anyway.
SFBG: So you recorded Animosity playing with a pick, but now you can play all those parts with your fingers.
MD: Yeah, I guess I’m losing points for authenticity that way.
SFBG: Well, I’m a fan of the pick-less bass playing, in general, so I gotta support that approach.
MD: I am too, but I try to have a real open mind about it now. You’ll see videos, certain songs in which John Entwistle [of the Who] or John Paul Jones [of Led Zeppelin] use a pick to mix it up.
SFBG: Tell me a little bit about how you got involved with this Southern Lord Mini-Tour. How did it all come together?
MD: That’s an interesting story. I’ve done a little recording for a band that was on Southern Lord called Earthride. Maybe about five years ago. I kinda knew Greg [Anderson, owner of Southern Lord Records] from that business. Greg was kind of a hardcore fan when he was really young. I believe that Corrosion of Conformity stayed at his house in Seattle back in the day. I have a foggy recollection of that happening. It took me a while to sort of put that person together with the guy in SunnO)))) and Goatsnake, but eventually I made that connection. Dealing with him is pretty cool, and there are a lot of artists on his label that I admire, like Wino and Goatsnake, whom I thought were really good the first time I heard them – it’s hard to go wrong with basically the rhythm section from the California version of The Obsessed and the singer for Scream.
MD: He reached out to us. He was looking to re-issue some old stuff, and that still hasn’t happened too much. We mentioned that we were gonna record a new release, and that may happen. So we just started talking to him about doing that, and he said “hey you wanna play some shows out here?” and we were like “oh yeah!” It kinda lit a fire under our ass to get some new songs down and go out and play ’em.
SFBG: This is the new release as a trio that I’m hearing rumors about, with the Animosity line-up?
MD: Yeah. The only tangible thing that’s done is a seven-inch vinyl, two versions of one song called “Your Tomorrow.” That should be available by the time we’re out playing on the West Coast. It was kind of a hurry-up production, though it sounds really good, and looks really good too.
SFBG: Are there any plans to do any new C.O.C. material with [singer-guitarist] Pepper [Keenan]?
MD: There are plans to do that. We have a multi-pronged general plan, to perhaps take this and do a full-length three-piece release, and get out there and play it some. That’ll be quite a story – it’s been a long time, and I think we have some new material that we’re excited about. I think at the point after we’ve done that, it’ll be a story to get the Deliverance line-up together. Before we got the three-piece together, we were supposed to go to Europe and play some festivals, we had some offers, but Pepper’s busy with his other group, Down, so his schedule’s a little jacked up. So almost as a joke, I said, “Well we should do a three-piece tour!” Everybody stopped and went “Uhhhh….maybe we should!”
SFBG: What had you been up to since C.O.C. went on hiatus, in 2006? You mentioned recording Earthride…
MD: Well, C.O.C. had been going without [drummer] Reed [Mullin], and in some point around 2004, we decided to make a record with Stanton Moore, from Galactic – In the Arms of God. That’s something I’m pretty proud of, something we did ourselves in Galactic’s now-demolished rehearsal space, which was flooded out of the warehouse district of New Orleans. We had a nice little tour with Clutch, in the UK. At that point, [C.O.C. guitarist] Woody [Weatherman] and I started a band that we tentatively called Righteous Fool, and he moved up to the mountains, to basically go into agriculture and have a kid — that kind of put a damper on our plans. Then I started getting in contact with Reed for the first time in quite a few years, and we started jamming together, and that became Righteous Fool, and through that combination of circumstances we have Righteous Fool opening up for the three-piece-C.O.C gigs we have lined up in a couple weeks. It’s a slightly greasier kind of feel.
SFBG: I was gonna ask, since there’s only one song up on the Righteous Fool MySpace, and it seems more in the uptempo vein, like the older C.O.C. stuff: what are your plans for the Righteous Fool sound? What side of your musical personality do you get to express in that project?
MD: Well…it’s kind of in its infancy. We’re a couple years into it, and some good songs have emerged, but it’s difficult to call where that’s gonna go. We have a pretty solid musical presence in the form of Jason Browning. I don’t really know what to say about that. There’re a lot of directions we could go. I think there’s going to be more of an emphasis on vocal harmonies, things like that. We have a couple fun things we do, with a Fleetwood Mac song, and a Skip James song.
SFBG: Well I think people are curious to see what’s going to happen with that, and excited to see the band live. You’ll be playing two sets in a pretty short duration on this tour. What do you think the audience reaction is going to be, going from a super-slow, enveloping Goatsnake set right into this pissed-off hardcore Animosity stuff.
MD: It’ll be interesting to see. There are a lot of people who perform that kind of music [doom metal, a la Goatsnake] at some point in their life, in their younger life, in their previous life, who might have been into the hardcore kind of thing, so there’s a lot of overlap there, in terms of the cast of characters who perform that kinda stuff well. At the time – it’s kind of humorous to think, now – some of the parts on Animosity that were slower, briefly dirge-like, somewhat Black Sabbath inspired – that was considered slow, and within a certain kind of close-minded scene, was actually controversial. It was a controversy that you would play a few measures of something slow or heavy rock-inspired.
I think we were credited with being on the forefront of that, but in a way, we were just imitating Black Flag, but taking our Black Sabbath influence a little more literally, and indulging some more regressive influences. We did something original with borrowed ideas. There are people that would say we were involved in the beginnings of that type of thing, y’know. I don’t think that would be too pompous to say. [Laughs] If it is, I just said it, so…
SFBG: You mentioned having respect for Wino earlier. Being in Saint Vitus in that SST scene, he encountered people who would really be pissed off that he would play slow, super-Sabbathy songs.
MD: That was a pretty crazy thing. I’d already been initiated to the music of the Obsessed by that time, and picked up an appreciation for it. And so to see that dude in Saint Vitus not playing a guitar! It was just absurd, but it kind of wound him up, and made him a more intense vocalist. He’s been playing some shows with Saint Vitus recently, and I’ve heard that that’s still the case. I haven’t witnessed any Saint Vitus in quite a few years.
SFBG: You should take the opportunity, if it arises. I’ve seen two shows in this resurrected Saint Vitus era and…
MD: There’s no Armando on drums…they have some other dude on drums…
SFBG: Yeah, they have a different drummer, but Wino and Dave [Chandler, guitarist] are still really potent.
MD: So Saint Vitus comes to Raleigh, NC in like 1986, and Wino stays at my house (it’s a house a lot of people live at) and here he is on this tour not playing guitar. He picks up an acoustic guitar and plays tunes in a couple funny different ways, and plays Robert Johnson songs verbatim, as they are on the one LP – Robert Johnson Complete Recordings – we were just like, “Oh, my God!”
SFBG: I’m curious as to how you got from playing hardcore with Sabbath interludes to playing that reinvented C.O.C. sound from the early nineties, which is much more directly Sabbath-influenced. But that transition corresponds with the time when you were out of the band…
MD: I think we were already looking in that direction. You go out there and you play hardcore music, and you’re on tour, and the quality of it – of some of the bands you see – isn’t that great, and you’re listening to music partially devoid of melody. You want to unwind, and listen to some older stuff, and you realize that the craftsmanship of the older stuff is a little more advanced, even though its time has come and gone. Whats the next logical thing if you’re listening to Sabbath, or the next logical regression, to try to take something new? Deep Purple! We were listening to a lot of that. It’s funny, because after I quit the band they ended up with a singer [Pepper Keenan] who’s obviously really Ian Gillian-inspired, and they hooked up with a producer who had really sound music theory ideas. That resulted in Blind.
I had kinda moved on. I met a nice girl and moved to San Francisco for half a year. I lived in Philadelphia and I was delivering things on my bike. I heard the Blind record, and I was like “Oh mah god, its really good!” That minute came and went, and around the end of 1993, they had a dispute coming up with new material, and they were looking for a bass player and a singer. They asked me, did I want to come and make a record, and I was like “Yeah, all right!”
SFBG: That’s been the thing doing research for this interview…I think the archetypal narrative for rock bands is that they have members in and out and it gets complicated, and there are a lot of hard feelings, whereas it seems like with C.O.C. there’ve been all these people in and out of the band, but it’s been very amicable. You left and came back; you’re playing in Righteous Fool with guys who had been in the band before…
MD: Well, you know, that’s not to say that there weren’t heated incidents involved in some of this revolving door activity. There might be some negativity that occasionally rears its head. But I think everybody tries to be an adult, and a compassionate person. I think Kyuss would be the band that had that more amicable situation. Drummers in and out, a couple bass players…
SFBG: I thought some guys from that band don’t even speak anymore…
MD: Well now, yeah, you’re right. The funny thing is that they were all supposed to be on Roadburn in Holland like the same day. Nick Oliveri playing his acoustic stuff. Mr. Garcia doing some Kyuss stuff…
SFBG: It seems like a lot of these differences are being put aside in the interest of these tours that are resurrecting bands – bands that have been broken up for awhile and are coming back to tour.
MD: There’s a big rash of that right now, and it’s one of things that actually kinda gives me pause about doing this, to some extent. The only thing I can do to allay my feelings of not wanting to be part of that is to attempt to offer something new. At this point, we have four or five new songs that we can perform. We’re doing this as part of readying ourselves to do something new. And I know people are excited about the old stuff, and its fun to play, fun to reinterpret, and we enjoy it, but it’s also about having something new. Because there are a lot of 40-, 45-year-old people who were in some moderately famous musical endeavor when they were 20, and they’re all coming out of the woodwork. There’s just a new market for it.
SFBG: Is it possible for you to expand on the drawbacks of these nostalgia tours? Not asking you to slag anyone off, obviously. Are there things that you could point to that give you the bad vibe with that trend?
MD: No, not really. I’m not going to point to anyone who’s substandard or insincere. At some point it just becomes a little redundant. I’m kind of an unlikely subject [for a retro-focused tour] because I’ve never been real big on the nostalgia factor. But here we are.
SFBG: It just seems like if it’s overdone, it can take away the spotlight from some of the cool new bands. But it cuts both ways, right, because if you have these nostalgia tours, you can have new bands as openers, and take advantage of the known quantity, the big name. If there’s a similarity in the music, then the fans of Saint Vitus, say, get exposed to up-and-coming bands in the same genre that the older cats who listen to Saint Vitus might not have heard of.
MD: Well Saint Vitus this doesn’t really even apply to…
SFBG: Well, yeah. You’re right…
MD: …regular time, the laws of time, don’t really apply to them. They started off working this old crazy freedom-rock ethos anyway. They started off being out of style, and they’re a special case.
SFBG: A bad example for me to cite. In general, do you think it’s a good time in musical history to be a metal band?
MD: It might be! One of these trips has a corporate sponsorship, so apparently someone believes that this can help with product placement and identity. That’s…pretty crazy.
SFBG: Do you follow any newer, up-and-coming music? I’ve been impressed in recent years by the resurgence of a lot of North Carolina-based bands that have been making names for themselves…
MD: You know, the funny thing is, Between the Buried and Me…we had no earthly idea that they were from Raleigh, North Carolina. I was just like “that band with the really badass drummer, and sort of exaggerated dynamics – they’re from Raleigh?! Really?!” I’m not actively following stuff like that, but I’ve heard of them, and I’ve heard them.
MD: Valient Thorr I’ve actually seen, and the funny thing is I do a lot of…I work a lot of events, I do rigging, and I used to do straight-up stagehand stuff, so I’ve moved Valient Thorr’s gear, at the Warped Tour. They were like, “No, no, you can’t move our gear, you’re Mike Dean!” And I was like, “Dude, the rent is due, every month, I will move it.” I like them, I like their crazy anti-war video from several years ago, with Mr. Brian Walsby. Have you seen that? Being on the Volcom label, no one ever sees their shit.
SFBG: It seems to me like Southern metal has experienced a crazy boom in the last five, 10 years or so. All these bands out of Georgia – Baroness, Mastodon, Kylesa, Black Tusk. You’re sort of in a unique position to speak to how well Southern rock can combine with heavy music.
MD: A lot of the bands that you just mentioned there are good, non-stereotypical versions of what you would call “Southern metal.” There are other acts that kind of exploit that in an uninteresting way. There’s a lot interesting musicianship in that stuff, which is pretty cool. I’m not a big flag-waver, but all those bands are pretty good. It’s kind of astounding how popular and successful Mastodon are.
SFBG: It’s crazy. I’ve seen them go from the club shows to the college amphitheaters. It’s crazy to see the change in the kind of people who you see at the show.
MD: I’ve never been to a Mastodon show. I’ve may have seen them open for somebody a long time ago, but I’ve never been to one of these big shows. I’d be curious to see.
SFBG: They’re total pros in one sense – the performance is really top notch. But the guitarist, Brent, is kind of a wild man, and I think they’re almost better when he’s three sheets to the wind, because it ups the intensity. If he’s getting angrier and angrier as the show goes on, his solos get more expressive…
MD: A whole album based on Moby Dick.
SFBG: Can’t argue with that, right?
MD: Those kids’ English teachers gotta be proud!
SFBG: One of the things I was struck by, listening to Animosity to prepare for this interview, was the strident political nature of a lot of the lyrics. Even though we live in very politically contentious times, there really hasn’t been the kind of musical reaction that existed under Reagan, when people were using music as a channel for their dissent. Do you have any insight, having written a seminal political hardcore album, about why that isn’t going on today?
MD: That’s an interesting observation. I don’t really know the answer to that. I don’t think there’s as much consensus, because of the disparate nature of media now, or the wider number of outlets. At that time, we had cable TV in its infancy, we had print media, we had three networks – I think that people would be more tuned in to the same media outlets at that point, and they would either accept it or reject it. I think there was more potential for mass consensus even in terms of dissent. Now it’s just so diffuse; people just look at things that reinforce their worldview. A lot of those worldviews don’t have anything to do with reacting to political situations, or reacting to wars that are going on. Also, I think expressing oneself through music didn’t result in any massive type of change. I don’t think its really an effective means of effecting any kind of change. It’s just blowing of steam…
SFBG: Well, Bono cured hunger in Africa. So, there’s that.
MD: I crewed for U2 on their 360 show as a local, working the spotlight, and the guy on the spotlight above me pissed himself in the spot chair – I got to watch the piss drip down.
SFBG: He couldn’t leave?
MD: Yeah, he couldn’t leave. I watched him drink some coffee beforehand, and I was wondering…
SFBG: You said it was the spotlight above you? That sounds like a bad situation…
MD: Fortunately, they were offset.
SFBG: Did you see a trickle of urine going by, a couple feet from you?
MD: I did. Yeah, I did.
SFBG: That’s brutal.
MD: They landed the truss, and the guy just left – he resigned on the spot.
THE SOUTHERN LORD WEST COAST MINI TOUR
Corrosion of Conformity, Goatsnake, Black Breath, Eagle Twin, Righteous Fool
Check out Ben Richardson’s story on the Southern Lord Mini-Tour in this week’s Guardian. Here, he talks with Southern Lord founder and Goatsnake and SunnO))) guitarist Greg Anderson.
San Francisco Bay Guardian: So, first off, could you describe the planning of the Power of the Riff festival, and the Southern Lord Mini Tour that’s sort of spun off of that?
Greg Anderson: Well, last summer we did a Southern Lord event in Seattle with SunnO))), the other group that I play in. Basically it was two nights up there at this venue Neumo’s, and SunnO))) headlined each night, playing different sets each night. The support for both shows was Lord bands: we had Black Breath, Accused, Pelican, Earth, Trap Them. It was great! So the promoter of that venue – who put that on for us last year – called and asked if we wanted to do something similar this year – another Southern Lord event. So we were trying to put something together for that, and right around the same time, another good friend of mine told me that he’d been asked to put together something down here in Los Angeles, at the Echo and the Echoplex, and was I interested in getting involved in that. So with these things impending on the horizon, I thought I’d put together a decent line-up of Lord bands and make it happen.
Also, at the same time, I’d been talking with Mike Dean from C.O.C., who told me that they wanted to get out and play some shows with the three-piece line-up, the 80s Animosity line-up, and asked me if I was interested in working with them on that. So I thought I’d base it around them being the headliner and some of our bands on the bill as well. So that’s how it came together, and over the last couple months, I’ve been slowly putting together the pieces, getting other bands on board.
San Francisco just seemed like a natural choice, also, to do a show. San Francisco’s always been very supportive of Southern Lord and heavy music in general, so I thought “we’ve gotta do a show in San Francisco with this package – it’s gotta happen!”
SFBG: How long have you known Mike?
GA: He stayed at my house in 1986, when C.O.C. played in Seattle, actually, on the Animosity tour. It was an amazing show, and back then there were a lot of bands crashing on people’s floors. They still do, of course. I had a lot of bands stay at my house, and they were one of them. I met him then, but I didn’t reconnect with him as far as a working relationship goes until about 2003 – he was on the Probot record, as one of the vocalists on that, and I reconnected with him that way. A couple years later, he produced and recorded a record by this band on Southern Lord called Earthride.
It was kind of off and on. C.O.C.’s come to town, and I’ve talked to him and what-not. I have a lot of respect for his playing, over the years.
SFBG: Did the idea of playing the shows this summer precede the idea of releasing the seven-inch you guys are putting out, with the new track by that Animosity trio line-up?
GA: No, it all kinda came at the same time. I suggested it might be cool to have some new material, and he was really gung ho for doing that too, so we’re putting it together really for the shows that they’re playing – in time for the shows.
We thought it’d be cool. There are a lot of bands getting back together these days that rarely if ever have any new material, or really anything new. We had talked about that, and told me “hey, we’re actually playing a handful of new songs at these shows, so we’re really into writing new material.” So I said, “well, lets try to get something out there,” and that’s how the seven-inch happened.
SFBG: What’s your feeling on older, defunct, previously broken-up bands coming out of the woodwork? I saw an interesting comment of yours in another interview about the “Kyuss Syndrome,” in which a band isn’t a draw while they’re together, but if you give them some time, they build up this huge fanbase, whether or not they’re actually active and playing shows. What kind of ramifications do you see this trend having?
GA: First of all, I think it’s really great, actually. Some people kind of have a bitter attitude about it. They say “where were these people back in the day!” But the truth of the matter is that its really based around the internet, and the fact that information is so easily available, and cataloged and documented meticulously on the internet. You can find out a lot of stuff!
The other thing about the internet is that it’s like a trail, a path you can get on, on which you find one thing, and it leads to another thing, and it’s just a snowball effect. I think it’s just an amazing tool for discovery. It’s great, because there’s important music that’s been made, that before the internet, or without the internet, would have been much more difficult to learn about. Now, it’s easy, and I think people are getting turned on to all this stuff. The interest grows, and it makes it possible for these bands to come out and play to three to four times as many people as they did in their heyday.
It’s amazing! I’ve seen it in different genres. I saw At the Gates play in Los Angeles, and they sold out this huge place. I saw them in their first tour in the U.S., in the mid-nineties, and there were 50 people. It was the same thing with Saint Vitus. I saw them in the 80’s and it was a very select audience; very few people were there. Then, they come back, and they’re playing for three or four hundred people. I think it’s cool, I think it’s a real testament to the fact that this music is valid and incredible. It needs to be heard, and it needs to be given the respect that it’s due.
SFBG: Particularly in the case of At The Gates, there’s almost a sense of justice, in that a lot of people made a lot of money aping ATG when they weren’t around. Now they’re able to take advantage of a bunch of people who were introduced to the music through other bands that were playing an At the Gates style.
Do you think the proliferation of big summer metal festivals has had an effect on bands reforming? From what I can glean, that seemed to be an influence on Goatsnake getting back together, having this opportunity to play Roadburn, and you guys thinking “hey, why not?”
GA: I think there are two big factors: one – I won’t lie – the money is really attractive, especially when you get older, and you’ve got families, mortgages, etc. You can’t just crash on people’s couches – you’ve got responsibilities. When these festivals come along, or sponsorship from Scion or Converse comes along, it makes it so it can actually happen – the resources are there. And that’s something that wasn’t available – to my knowledge – in the 80s. These opportunities involving people with deep pockets who are willing to put it into underground music. It just didn’t exist. It definitely didn’t exist in the 80s and in the 90s, with the alternative music boom, stuff was available, but for underground metal and hardcore it wasn’t available.
Now, you’ve got these corporate sponsors who are putting together these insane events, and a lot of times – they’re free! Like the Power of the Riff fest that we’re putting on. We were able to get the funding to make it a free event. And at the request of the sponsor – they demanded that it be a free event – and we were like, “Wow! This is cool!” I think it’s an interesting time right now. There’s nothing like it. That wasn’t possible before. Like you’re saying with your question, it makes it so that these bands can get out there and do stuff. They have the resources to do that.
A lot of the bands I’ve seen are really kicking ass! I saw Saint Vitus a couple weeks ago, and it was mind-blowing – it was absolutely mind-blowing. They had it, man, they were killing. Eyehategod, same thing! These bands are charged! I saw Death Row play, which is like the original Pentagram – they were killer. It’s an interesting and cool time in music right now.
SFBG: Your bringing up Eyehategod and Death Row provides a good segue to my next question: does the doom metal genre have a particular affinity for a lot of interpollination between bands and musicians? For this kind of freewheeling collaboration, in which Goatsnake is tied into the Obsessed, and tied into SunnO))). I think of Eyehategod in the same way, with their connections to Down, and therefore C.O.C., and so forth. Do you think there’s something particular about doom-stoner metal that enables or inspires this kind of collaboration?
GA: I’ve never really thought about it before, to be honest with you. It’s just kind of a friendship or a brotherhood between the musicians, and kind of a desire to take things in different directions and do different things with it. You mentioned the Eyehategod thing, and that whole New Orleans scene is super, super-intertwined. Outlaw Order, Crowbar, Arson Anthem, and all these other bands that all share members. I think it’s really cool. Soilent Green. There’s tons of those bands, and I think it’s cool when bands can branch and do different side-projects. For me, as a fan, it’s interesting, and if you’re into the player or the players, and what they’re doing, it’s a real treat to have all these different outlets, rather than just doing one band, and one album a year.
I think it has to do with the punk rock roots that these people have and come from, and the DIY aesthetic of doing things on your own, and not really having to answer to a major label or someone telling you, “Well, you can’t do that, and you can only focus on this one band.” It’s kind of a shame, when you think about it. What if that spirit, and that mentality was happening with bands like Led Zeppelin and Sabbath? We’d have all these spin-offs and different projects that they were involved in, that were kind of pushing boundaries and doing different things. I think these [younger] people do what the hell they wanna do.
SFBG: Well you’re making my job easy, mentioning the punk rock ethos and the DIY ethos of these musicians, because my next question was about all the connections that exist between the 80s hardcore scene and the doom metal bands, and the doom bands that grow out of that scene and the musicians that play in hardcore bands and then do metal bands. I think I remember reading that you were a hardcore fan in your youth, and played in a more hardcore-oriented band. Do you have any insight into how those connections came to be? Stylistically, the types of music have some serious differences, and I know that at particular points in history, there was a lot of animosity between people who like their music fast and those who like it super-slow. Is there anything you can point to that speaks to the connection between those two worlds?
GA: I’m not sure I can explain or pinpoint why that’s a phenomenon, but you’re definitely right. What I was thinking when you were asking the question – I was thinking about Black Sabbath, because I think they’re one of those bands that everyone likes, and there are a couple hardcore bands like that too, like the Cro-Mags, and Bad Brains. Everyone can agree on those bands – at least a lot of people can.
I grew up in Seattle, and we didn’t get a chance to see a lot of outside, touring bands, because we were way up in the corner – we were sort of geographically isolated. There’s a lot of stuff that can happen because of that, and one result was the grunge explosion, where a strong local scene grew and was cultivated because there wasn’t a lot of outside influence. That also adds to how people got some of their open-mindedness. Grunge is a fusion of a bunch of different musical styles – punk included, metal included. What I thought was cool about Soundgarden, from the beginning, was that they sounded like a fusion of Zeppelin, Sabbath, and [Black] Flag. And the most important band in that scene growing up, at least for me, was the Melvins, who were the perfect combination of Black Sabbath and Black Flag. To have these prejudices against certain styles of music didn’t seem right to me, because there were all kinds of cool music happening around me. I know what you’re talking about – some of the punk rock attitude, and some of the metal attitude can be pretty narrow-minded at times. But at the time that I grew up in, the bands that I was heavily influenced by were available for me to see on a regular basis. That wasn’t the attitude, and it was obvious why it wasn’t the attitude.
I was turned onto metal first – Metallica, Motorhead, Raven, Slayer, Venom. Through those bands, and their attitude, and who they thanked on their records, and which T-shirts they wore, I got turned onto punk rock. And hardcore was a revelation because metal was played so fast and heavy, but then there were these hardcore bands that were playing even faster, like C.O.C. or D.R.I. The excitement involved in discovering new music has carried on throughout my entire life. And that was the start of it: being into metal, and then getting into hardcore.
SFBG: So the liner notes and sweaty T-shirts were like the internet of the 80s? Sticking with that theme of Seattle, and hardcore, and being psyched about discovering new music, can you talk to me about how you first came in contact with Black Breath, and the process of getting them on Southern Lord, and getting them on the tour this summer?
GA: It’s actually an interesting story! Over the last couple of years, especially playing with SunnO))), and working on this last record we were working on, I really turned away from, or wasn’t listening to much aggressive music. It was either experimental, or I was actually really into jazz music. It’s not like I was turning my back on heavy music, but my taste had just drifted a bit.
And then something snapped. I started listening to old hardcore records, like Jerry’s Kids, and Crucifix, which was sort of a reaction to where my mind was with the SunnO))) stuff. I wanted something that was the complete opposite of it. And so I was rediscovering stuff that I was listening to when I was younger, and I really got heavily into that. And I started searching about bands now that were happening, and I got turned onto His Hero is Gone, and a band called Cursed, and I was like “gosh, there’s actually some great music happening in the hardcore scene that I didn’t have any clue about!”
I got more into checking out the hardcore stuff that was happening over the last couple of years, and I got a record in the mail – a 12-inch, in the mail – by Black Breath. The font of their band logo was stolen from Celtic Frost, and they listed Poison Idea and Dismember as influences, and they were from Seattle, and I was like “Wow!” Because I actually get a lot of demo submissions, and most of it’s just CD-Rs, and honestly I just don’t have time to listen to ’em, but when we get a 12-inch we stop and think “that’s cool!”
SFBG: If I publish that information, you’re gonna get a lot more twelve-inches…
GA: [Laughs] If people are going to take the time to do that, it almost warrants me taking the time to listen to it. I think it’s a cool thing.
So I threw this record on, and I was totally blown away by the energy and intensity of it, and it so happened that this was close to a time that I was going back up to Seattle for Christmas. I ended up looking at the local paper to see what was going on around town, and they were playing one of the venues in Seattle. I went down to check it out, and their live show totally, totally blew me away. I hit ’em up after the show to see if they wanted to get a drink and talk about stuff, and it just kinda went from there.
SFBG: What was their reaction to that? It sounds sort of like the Miracle on 34th St. of metal…
GA: The funny thing is – and one of the things that really sold me on these guys – was that they were more impressed by the old hardcore band that I was in in Seattle – this band called Brotherhood, a hardcore band in the late 80’s. Being able to talk about that sold them on me. We bonded on a lot of different music. They’re really into the Swedish death metal of the 90s, which I’m really obsessed with as well.
Those guys actually turned me onto to a lot of other music as well. There’s this band that we just signed called Nails – they played a couple shows with Black Breath and I thought, “God, that’s great!”
SFBG: One last band-signing question. I noticed in another interview you did, you used a phrase “vigilantly heavy” to describe bands that you you appreciate. I can sort of figure out from context what you mean, but you applied it to Black Breath and I was hoping to get a more detailed description of how you’re using the word “vigilantly” in that way.
GA: I think it’s about being focused on what you’re doing. I notice a lot of intense focus from those guys on creating really amazing songs and riffs, especially. I’ve talked to them, and had in-depth conversations about that, and about how they write songs, and what they want. And they’re not just throwing the stuff together, and that’s pretty obvious. That’s one thing I’ve seen, with a lot of music these days. I won’t name any names, but there are more bands than ever, and more labels than ever – that’s kind of the curse of the internet, that there’s just too much music, too much information! It makes it more difficult to really find the good stuff. But I’m a seeker, man, and I enjoy that part of it, whether that’s going to a used record store and spending two hours flipping through all the used records, or really searching out music. When I find out about a band, I want to know everything about them – what other bands the members have been in, who’s influenced by them, who their influences were. That’s the same type of thing with Black Breath. They’re not just blowing stuff out there, and they’re really careful about what they do.
SFBG: To switch gears to a couple of Goatsnake questions to wrap up: do you remember the moment you first heard a Sunn amplifier?
GA: I do. I have two different recollections. One is Buzz Osbourne [of the Melvins], using the solid-state versions of the Sunn amps. I actually had no idea that Sunn had made a tube amp. I thought they were all about solid-state. In a lot of ways, to use a geek analogy, they were kind of the Peavey of the Northwest. They were based in central Oregon, in a town called Tualatin, and their whole thing, at least how I saw it, was that they were creating solid state amps and putting them out there at a reasonable price, for people who were getting into music. It was a good and cost-effective alternative to a Marshall, like a high-end model. Peavey was the same way – an inexpensive amplifier, usually solid-state, for people who were just learning to play guitar. Now, playing guitar is just so accepted and so huge that every company has a line of amps now that is targeted to this audience.
So this to me was what Sunn was about, and back in those days, you could go to any fucking pawn shop or any used store and get a Sunn head for really cheap! Especially pawn shops. That’s why bands like the Melvins picked up on them – because they were readily available.
The first time I heard the Model T, which is the amp I use in SunnO))), was actually in the mid-90’s. I was seeing this band in Olympia called Life, and the guitar player was this dude – actually a San Francisco dude, now – Tim Green, who went on to be in the [Fucking] Champs, and records bands now in San Francisco. And he played in this band that was amazing. Pretty Eyehategod-influenced. I went and saw him play in this basement, and he had this Sunn head, a tube amp, and I was like “what the hell is that!” It was super-loud, ripping, super-heavy, and immediately after I saw that, I searched one out – I had to have that amp. That was the beginning. I had never seen anyone play Sunn tube heads. I didn’t know they existed! And of course, after my search, I realized that they made a lot of them. But they stopped making them around the mid-70s, and that’s when they started making the solid-states, as a more reasonably-priced option.
SFBG: Do you remember the specific influences that were working on you around the time that Goatsnake was created?
GA: I moved to Los Angeles from Seattle in the mid-90s, and I had played in this band in Seattle called Engine Kid that was more – it was more about melody and dynamics, and we were really influenced by a lot of the stuff that was happening in Chicago, the Touch and Go style of bands like Shellac and Slint and Bastro and those kinda bands. But we were always into the heavy stuff too, and the Melvins, so there was that kinda influence.
When I moved to L.A., I had a chance to jam with the rhythm section from the Obsessed, because [Scott] Wino [Weinrich, singer-guitarist in the Obsessed] had just basically left town, and he was the leader of the band, and the band ended. They were just looking to do something new, and a friend of mine knew them and knew that I was looking to do something new too, so we put it together, under the guise of creating a heavy band, but with no guidelines.
At that point, I was listening to a ton of Eyehategod and a lot of Kyuss, and Slayer. Our common interests in that band – the bass player, drummer and I – were Pentagram, St. Vitus, and Trouble. That type of stuff. Basically, I started bringing them some music that I had written, and it was really heavy.
But we didn’t have a vocalist. And we thought, “how are we gonna do this?” We thought it would be too obvious to get a screamer, in the Eyehategod style. I really like that kind of music, but we wanted to go somewhere different, and to have some bit of melody in there. Pete Stahl was an old friend of all of ours, and we played him some of the demos, and he said “this is great, I think I could really do something with this.” It was a perfect combination, because the music’s really heavy, and I think you really expect someone to come screaming over it, but the vocals are really soulful, and really melodic. It was a really interesting contrast, and it set it apart from a lot of the other stuff coming out at that time.
SFBG: Was the harmonica Pete’s idea? That’s one of the things that put the music’s uniqueness over the top for me, is that it has this element that no other band takes advantage of.
GA: He’s a great harp player, too! When he first started doing it, I thought, “this reminds me of the first Sabbath record,” of “Wizard.” One thing I didn’t mention when you asked about the influences – at that point, I was overly super-obsessed with Sabbath. They’re my favorite band of all time, but at that time especially, I wanted to tap into something that had that sort of vibe. A lot of the music that was written for Goatsnake — all the time, but especially back then – was just sort of re-working Sabbath riffs. Turning them around, and playing them with much more distortion and tuned down a little bit more. Sabbath has always been, and always will be the most important inspiration for me. Also Sabbath, in my eyes, were basically just a heavy blues band. People ask me “Is Goatsnake stoner rock?” and I say, “No, it’s blues played slower, down-tuned and played a little heavier than you might have been used to hearing.”
SFBG: Can Goatsnake fans expect sort of a retrospective set? Is it gonna match up pretty closely with what you guys played at Roadburn?
GA: Yeah, it’s pretty much the same material that we’ve been working on. The big difference is that on Roadburn, we were playing with the original bass player for Goatsnake, Guy [Pinhas], who was in The Obsessed, and Acid King after that. But he lives in Europe, and he’s not able to come out for these other shows, so we’re going to be playing with Scott Reeder, who was in Kyuss, and who was actually in the Obsessed also – Guy took Scott’s place in the Obsessed. It’s amazing, because he’s actually played with Goatsnake before. He played on the last EP that we released, as well.
His playing is very different than Guy’s, and we’re going to attempt one song off the EP that we did with Scott. So we’re working on that, and he’s fitting in well with the other material. Actually, the last time Goatsnake played San Francisco was with Scott, in 2004. We played another Southern Lord showcase [at the Elbo Room].
SFBG: Is there a future plan for other Goatsnake shows down the road? I know you’re super-busy with your other band and, of course, your label, but I’m assuming that the people who read this interview will be dying to hear whether there’s a chance of a more extensive tour, or some new recordings.
GA: There definitely won’t be any extensive touring. Given all of our schedules, that’s just not possible. To be honest with you, I don’t think it’s an appropriate thing for this band to do. We’ve sort of made the decision, “We’re all having a good time, but let’s keep this special. Let’s do special events, and not beat it into the ground.” I think it’ll be every once in a while. We have actually already committed to doing one other show at the end of October, here in Los Angeles. Friends of ours and labelmates Pelican are doing their tenth anniversary show, and they asked us to play that show with them. That band Nails that I mentioned are going to open.
Other than that, we’ve gotten a lot of offers, and a lot of interesting ones, which have been really flattering. But we’re taking the mellow approach to it. Definitely not a “get in the van” kind of approach.
But I would love to make some more music with these guys. It’s just a matter of scheduling, and seeing what that’s about. That’s definitely something that I’m hoping for, but we’ll see. I don’t want to push anything. If it happens, it happens, and I’ll be stoked, but if it doesn’t, so be it.
THE SOUTHERN LORD WEST COAST MINI TOUR
Corrosion of Conformity, Goatsnake, Black Breath, Eagle Twin, Righteous Fool
Even for a company known for its notoriously long development cycles, Blizzard took its sweet time with StarCraft II. Though thousands of people now have their fevered hands on a copy, the reality of its arrival hasn’t really sunk in. Playing it feels like the first time I listened to Chinese Democracy, except with fewer unnecessary keyboard tracks.
When it came out in 1998, the original StarCraft was a big hit, selling 1.5 million copies in its first year. In the 12 years that followed, it turned into cultural behemoth; total sales now top 11 million — 4.5 million in South Korea alone, where it became a wildly popular pseudo sport.
With this massive success in mind, it’s no surprise that the Irvine wunderkinds at Blizzard avoided revolutionary redesigns. The gameplay is still built around the three real-time strategy pillars: resource-gathering, base-construction, and frenzied tactical combat. Players will still choose between the meticulously-balanced rock-paper-scissors of the game’s three factions: Terran, Protoss, and Zerg.
Considering its endless wait time, the game’s detractors can be forgiven for complaining that the title shipped with only one faction’s single-player campaign (the Terran’s), or that it amounts to little more than a 3-D re-skin of the same old game. But Blizzard was never going to please everyone, and it’s clear that it eschewed this impossible task in favor of perfecting what it could, which was a lot. The production values are simply astounding, and consistent across a range of categories — the animation, voice acting, sound design, user interface are all impeccable. For a media subculture (gaming) that has made taking the good with the bad something of an art form, a title in which every decision has been carefully considered and executed is truly to be treasured.
The single-player campaign is narrative-driven and exciting, and rife with entertaining cut-scenes that play up the game’s drawling, honky-tonk version of the future. Looking back, it’s clear that the StarCraft series was a sci-fi Western four years before Firefly hit the airwaves.
Multiplayer, of course, is the real draw, and Blizzard’s online utility Battle.net has been overhauled to bring gaming and social networking together in a way that isn’t totally stupid. The way the company is preparing to bind your life together with the sinews of Facebook, StarCraft II, World of Warcraft, and the forthcoming Diablo III would be terrifying, if it wasn’t so goddamn fun.
MUSIC No one can agree on how guitar distortion was invented, or by whom. The only thing the experts do concur on is that, like many of humanity’s most excellent leaps forward, it was a complete and utter accident.
Whether it was created by a punctured speaker cone, a faulty cable, or a malfunctioning vacuum tube, distortion is now inescapable. Distorted guitars birthed rock ‘n’ roll, and rock ‘n’ roll birthed the idea that anything worth doing is worth doing to excess. For Greg Anderson, founder and proprietor of cult metal label Southern Lord Records, amplified excess is more than just an artistic pursuit — it’s a philosophy. This August, Anderson will appear on stage with his band Goatsnake as part of the Southern Lord Mini Tour, a three-date testament to distortion that will batter the United States’ Western coast with an avalanche of overdriven, fuzzed-out guitar tone.
The guitarist is best known for his work in experimental outfit SunnO))), bane of eardrums and copy editors, whose ribcage-rattling drone compositions and be-robed stage presence were the subject of a widely-read New York Times feature in 2009. If Anderson can be considered the pontiff of an experimental, distortion-worshiping subculture, then SunnO))) is his Easter Mass. But it is his day-to-day work at Southern Lord’s Unholy See that has the more profound effect on the musical landscape.
A CAVE OF WONDERS
Reached by phone in, as he put it, “the caves of Southern Lord,” Anderson is eloquent and good-humored, and though he perches at the absolute pinnacle of metal coolness, he discusses the music in the earnest tones of a die-hard fan: “I’m a seeker, man … when I find out about a band, I want to know everything about them — what other bands the members have been in, who’s influenced by them, who their influences were.”
From the point of view of this kind of music junkie, Anderson is living the dream, effectively populating his label with bands that appeal to his personal taste. Rather than being a vanity project, however, Southern Lord performs an important cultural role, curating a uncompromising collection of metal bands that push the boundaries of the possible by wringing the most out of their distorted electric guitars.
Spread thin over three decades and thousands of miles, this underground community can be ephemeral and capricious. Armed with his own significant talent and an omnivorous musical ear, Anderson rides herd on an army of devil-worshiping iconoclasts, elevating up-and-coming acts to positions of prestige, while simultaneously cultivating older bands that have either been long forgotten or driven deep into the cultural topsoil.
Anderson’s description of his newest signing (and Southern Lord Mini Tour opening act), Seattle death metal-crust punk hybrid Black Breath, typifies the former process: “Over the last couple of years, especially playing with SunnO))), I really turned away from, or wasn’t listening to, much aggressive music. I was actually really into jazz. And then something snapped. I started listening to old hardcore records. I wanted something that was the complete opposite.” Newly re-attuned to the D-beaten tones of hardcore, Anderson received a demo — a four-song, 12-inch vinyl record — in the mail, and couldn’t believe his luck. The album — Black Breath’s self-financed Razor to Oblivion EP — was a distorted revelation. “The font of their band logo was stolen from Celtic Frost, and they listed Poison Idea and Dismember as influences!” Anderson effuses.
Soon after hearing the record, the label headman was due to return to Seattle for the holidays, where the incendiary quintet had a show scheduled. Speaking by phone from his home in Seattle, Black Breath guitarist Eric Wallace describes the madness that ensued. “The details are kinda hazy,” he begins, “but we’ve been telling people that our guitarist Funds [real name: Zack Muljat] and Greg [Anderson] were having an argument about a song that was playing on the jukebox … Funds was arguing that it was S.O.D., and Greg was arguing that it wasn’t, and they were putting bets down and stuff. We ended up singing with Southern Lord after that. It may or may not have been part of the bet.”
Though Anderson’s fingerprints are all over the forthcoming Southern Lord Mini Tour, his band Goatsnake will not headline. That honor goes Corrosion of Conformity, a legendary underground metal band founded in Raleigh, N.C., in 1982. Though they charted in the early ’90s with two albums’ worth of thick, Southern-fried Sabbath worship, C.O.C (as they’re often called) started as a lightning-fast hardcore trio, churning out political anthems over adrenaline-soaked pogo beats. This summer’s tour boasts the reunited three-piece lineup of guitarist Woody Weatherman, drummer Reed Mullin, and bassist/singer Mike Dean, who will perform the group’s seminal 1985 release Animosity (Metal Blade Records) live in its entirety.
Anderson and the Piedmont power trio go way back. “They stayed at my house in 1986, when C.O.C played in Seattle, actually, on the Animosity tour.” While band’s output in recent years has been limited to 2005’s under-appreciated In the Arms of God (Sanctuary Records), Anderson’s curatorial instincts were ever-vigilant. Reached by phone as he decompressed from a tour rehearsal, Dean explained how it went down: “He reached out to us. He was looking to reissue some of our old stuff. We mentioned that we were gonna record a new release. We just started talking to him about doing that, and he said, ‘Hey, you wanna play some shows out here?’ and we were like, ‘Oh yeah!’ It kinda lit a fire under our ass to get some new songs down and go out and play ’em.”
The existence of new songs was of crucial importance to both parties. For better or worse, reunited metal bands has been emerging from their dingy practice spaces lately like underfed jackals, and results are mixed. To avoid getting lumped in with the rest of the Lazarus-rock scene, Dean wrote songs: “The only thing I can do to allay my feelings of not wanting to be part of that is to attempt to offer something new. At this point, we have four or five new songs that we can perform. We’re doing this as part of readying ourselves to do something new.”
Despite all the hand-wringing about illegal downloading, Anderson attributes this explosion of reinvigorated headbangers to “the fact that information is so easily available, cataloged, and documented meticulously on the Internet. It’s like a trail, a path you can get on, on which you find one thing, and it leads to another thing, and it’s just a snowball effect. It makes it possible for these bands to come out and play to three to four times as many people as they did in their heyday. It’s a real testament to the fact that this music is valid and incredible. It needs to be heard, and it needs to be given the respect that it’s due.” With people like Greg Anderson keeping watch for the young talent and shepherding the old, it definitely will be.
THE SOUTHERN LORD WEST COAST MINI TOUR
Corrosion of Conformity, Goatsnake, Black Breath, Eagle Twin, Righteous Fool
In the fifth chapter of his essay collection Extra Lives: Why Video GamesMatter, author Tom Bissell meets “Al,” a staffer at the 2009 DICE convention, an annual game industry event held in Las Vegas. “By 2020,” gushes Al, “there is a very good chance that the president will be someone who played Super Mario Bros. on the NES.”
There exists an entire generation who grew up alongside video games, and while it might well include a future president or two, it also contains a handful of talented writers eager to vivisect their childhood obsessions. Bissell is a model for this new breed of video game journo — schooled in the discourse of academic criticism, tempered in the crucible of high-stakes, highbrow publishing, and possessed of an unapologetic love for the medium — and Extra Lives is an important, relentlessly perceptive book.
Bissell began as a travel writer, and his background gives him a gift for evocative descriptions of video game vignettes that sketch the aesthetic and technical particulars in deft, efficient strokes. Each of the nine essays in the collection is roughly centered around a single game; the limited corpus, chosen with conviction and care, skews toward recent games like Bethesda’s Fallout 3 and Bioware’s Mass Effect.
This modern focus is a reaction to a game design sea change, one that privileges story and artistic ambition over technical achievement and mindless action. But games have a long way to go, and Bissell is determined to unpack their puerility, along with his unblinking acceptance of it: “If I were reading a book or watching a film that, every 10 minutes, had me gulping a gallon of aesthetic Pepto, I would stop reading or watching,” he opines. “Games, for some reason, do not have this problem. Or rather, their problem is not having this problem. I routinely tolerate in games crudities I would never tolerate in any other form of art or entertainment.”
Veering constantly from the personal to the theoretical, Bissell proves that it’s possible to ruminate on the past, present, and future of video games in a way that is both intellectually rigorous and consistently entertaining. The book’s only flaw is its relative brevity, especially considering that two essays (“The Grammar of Fun” and “Grand Thefts”) already have appeared in print in an abridged form. Nevertheless, games and gamers should count themselves lucky to have Extra Lives on their side.
GAMER Sometimes you play a game like Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction and think, “Did the people who made this even bother to play it?” Questions begin to boil over. Why would you make a game in which you can skip some cutscenes and not others? If it’s really necessary to include unskippable cutscenes, why must they precede the three parts of the game most likely to cause the player to die and reload? My fingers got tired while playing the game, but not from the controller — from scratching my head in angry confusion.
Conviction has its satisfying moments, to be sure, nice visuals, and a distinguished pedigree of stealth-based, third-person titles. But the overall impression it leaves is of a game that is frustrating, uneven, and short. For every ambitious step that Ubisoft Montreal takes forward, it takes two in the opposite direction, mimicking the actions of the game’s protagonist, grizzled superspy Sam Fisher as he tries to creep up on a unsuspecting henchman. Clever set-pieces, like the one in which Fisher must eavesdrop on two villains with a remote-control surveillance array, are quickly overshadowed by the game’s profusion of sour notes, including a truly wretched take on the timeless “dodge the laser beam of instant death” mechanic.
The Splinter Cell series has always been about sneaking around in the shadows, and Conviction mostly hews to this dogma. Except when it doesn’t, and you’re suddenly expected to gun down enemies by the bushel while running at a full sprint. The developers seem to take a perverse pride in forcing you to unlearn the lessons of completed gameplay. Getting used shooting enemies in the head? Wait until you come up against their magical, bulletproof helmets as the game limps toward a conclusion.
Michael Ironside is a gem as the voice of Fisher, and he growls his way doggedly through a plot full of Clancyite conspiracy gibberish. Another amusing touch is the Zombieland-style floating text that shows up on the walls when the game is trying to get you to do its bidding. Less appealing, as far as pop culture goes, are the creepy, 24-style “torture is cool” minigames. We all play video games to be empowered. But if your idea of fun is bashing an unarmed prisoner’s face into the wall using the B button, please, seek help. At the very least, I can hope to avoid partnering you in the Conviction‘s entertaining co-op modes.
MUSIC When asked if it’s a good time in history to be in a sludgy, uncompromising heavy metal band, High on Fire’s Matt Pike stifles a chuckle: “It is for me, man!” Reached by phone in Los Angeles as he prepares for a show at the El Rey Theatre, Pike is far from loquacious, but clearly enjoying the arrival of hard-earned, well-deserved success. His band, a thunderous, heavily-distorted power trio, bastard son of St. Vitus and Slayer, just signed on for a string of European dates opening for Metallica.
Before they set off across the Atlantic, High on Fire will appear at Oakland’s Fox Theater to play a concert called the Missing Link, a weighty omnibus of a heavy metal bill that brings together two potent touring packages, their itineraries cleverly fused into one mammoth night of music. Pike’s band is joined by tour-mates Priestess, Bison B.C., and Black Cobra. Headliners Mastodon deploys its own retinue of support: Between the Buried and Me, Baroness, and Valient Thorr.
The bands at the top of the bill are living proof of this epoch’s friendly attitude toward challenging, underground heavy metal. Mastodon charted at No. 11 with 2009’s Crack the Skye (Warner Bros.) and Between the Buried and Me hit No. 36 with The Great Misdirect (Victory). Oakland native sons High on Fire stormed into the limelight in February 2010; Snakes for the Divine (E1 Music) debuted at No. 62. Baroness’ Blue Record (Relapse) was the critical darling of 2009 — Decibel magazine named it album of the year — and it peaked at No. 117.
Those still working their way up from the bottom are no less optimistic. Speaking on the phone while peregrinating around L.A., Jason Landrian, singer/guitarist for crushing S.F. duo Black Cobra, is loving life. “I think it’s a great time to be in a heavy band. There are a lot more people paying attention and taking the music a lot more seriously.” Black Cobra, which was recently signed by legendary label Southern Lord Records, has ample experience with and appreciation for the bands it will share the stage with at the Fox. “For us,” Landrian says, “it’s a thrill to be involved with what seems like a cross-section of what’s going on right now in the underground scene.”
Superficially, the bands on the bill are easy to circumscribe within geographical boxes. Mastodon and Baroness both hail from Georgia, a state that is quickly becoming one of the nation’s most fertile breeding grounds for independent metal. Between the Buried and Me and Valient Thorr are also from Dixie, storming out of North Carolina university towns Greensboro and Chapel Hill, respectively. Priestess was founded in Montreal, and Bison B.C. in Vancouver (in the eyes of American rock critics, everything Canadian seems related). Black Cobra and High on Fire represent the Bay Area.
Yet this sort of convenient compartmentalization is redolent of a scene-based musical analysis that is rapidly becoming obsolete. A generation that came of age during the sodden triumph of the “Seattle sound” has matured into an army of bands that defy physical space. The insidious tentacles of social networking and the exponentially expanding capacity of cheap bandwidth have enabled independent musicians to bridge vast distances, to identify kindred spirits and isolated fans. Early Black Cobra material was written while the band’s two members resided on different coasts, swapped back and forth methodically with the click of a mouse. The Internet has been a boon to concert bookers and promoters as well, allowing them to ferret out undeserved markets and spread the digitized word.
Looking back through lists of past tour dates, the connections and inter-pollinations among this underground army of heavily distorted road warriors are practically infinite. It seems as if every band has toured with every other band on the Missing Link roster at least once. “We’ve known those guys forever,” Pike says when asked about Mastodon, and it’s only partly hyperbole — the members of Mastodon met at an Atlanta High on Fire show in 1999.
Though today’s metal vanguard takes advantage of technological innovations, it’s the relentless touring that reaps rewards. And while life on the road has its costs, the new century’s burgeoning crop of itinerant headbangers can depend on a tight-knit nomadic community — bearded and unwashed — that grows stronger by the day. “It’ll be a reunion with friends, which is a cool thing,” says Landrian. “You end up meeting all these people, touring around, and when you get a show like Missing Link happening, everybody knows each other.”
Armed with vans, smart phones, and arsenals of crushing riffs, the bands of Missing Link have the entire continent at their disposal. It’s a far cry from the specter of the 1980s, poisoned by feuding thrash titans and the internecine, hair-sprayed fist-fight for scraps from the Sunset Strip table. “That’s the thing about this underground metal scene,” Landrian says beatifically. “Everyone’s working together. There’s not a lot of ‘Oh, we’re competing with these bands to be in a position of honor.’ There’s a lot of camaraderie. Everybody sees each other in the same light.”
THE MISSING LINK
Mastodon, Between the Buried and Me, High on Fire
with Baroness, Priestess, Valient Thorr, Black Cobra, Bison BC
Between the pre-salers and the at-the-door buyers, Pentagram fans shelled out around $20 each for the DNA Lounge show Wed/24. Though the complications of the band’s discography could fill the pages of a sizable book, suffice to say that they are not promoting a new album — the concert-goers in attendance were universally excited for a healthy portion of Pentagram classics (especially those diehards who saw July 2009’s command performance, also at the DNA).
The set that followed was a sham. It started auspiciously with “Forever My Queen” and “Review Your Choices” — two of the favorites that everyone expected. Then singer Bobby Liebling, 56-year-old butt poured into turquoise skinny jeans, reached for his harmonica.
What followed could hardly be called a “song,” and would be more appropriately and unfortunately be called a “jam.” It was the most ham-handed attempt at concert filler I’ve ever witnessed. Despite a half-hearted attempt to evoke ZZ Top’s “La Grange” somewhere around the middle of its bloated, 20-minute run time, it was largely an exercise in poorly-rehearsed, poorly-performed 12-bar-blues, packed start-to-finish with Liebling’s unsettling attempts at being “sexy” onstage (read: lots of cunnilingus-style tongue waggling and Robert Plant crotch diddling). After two more songs (the well-received “Sign of the Wolf” and “20 Buck Spin”), Pentagram bugged the fuck out, without playing an encore.
Turns out the band’s long-time lead guitarist, Russ Strahan, quit under mysterious circumstances right before the current tour was about to start. According to a statement posted on his MySpace page, Strahan felt he had to walk away “Due to communication breakdowns and inner band issues,” refusing to “compromise [his] values and love of playing music.” He cryptically concluded: “True fans of Pentagram … will understand the ongoing internal turmoil that has haunted this band from its inception & I refuse to air dirty laundry to the public.”
As tempting as it is to speculate, the exact nature of the stains on the band’s “dirty laundry” is likely to remain unknown. It is telling, nevertheless, that Liebling is the sole constant in a band that lists no fewer than 23 “former members” on Wikipedia. The singer is notoriously difficult to get along with, though, to his credit, he has recently kicked a long-running and devastating drug habit, thanks in large part to his relationship with 23-year-old wife Hallie, a fresh-faced, fashion-forward blonde who ironically blogs and twitters under the name “Halcoholic.”
In order to continue with their current tour, the band recruited axeman Johnny Wretched (formerly of under-appreciated Mid-Atlantic doomsters Unorthodox) to fill in for Strahan. Though a competent guitarist, he was apparently unable to learn a sufficient amount of Pentagram material in the short time frame available, leading to the debacle that transpired onstage at the DNA Lounge last night. It would certainly behoove the band to be more forthright (one pre-set apology aside) with their short-changed fans in the future. More importantly, those intending to attend one of the shows later in the tour should “Be Forewarned.”
For further reading, check out this fascinating interview with Liebling on metal blog The Obelisk.
GAMER Ukrainian developer 4A Games is a minnow in an industry dominated by krakens, so it’s heartening to see a small, Old World studio deliver engrossing product in the form of Metro: 2033. Based on a novel by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky, Metro takes place in a postapocalyptic future. Nuclear winter has driven the population of Moscow underground, into the city’s vast subway system, and the survivors are beset from all sides by Communist fanatics, neo-Nazis, and bloodthirsty mutated beasts.
4A’s homebrewed game engine is a little rough around the edges, but it does an impressive job rendering the junk-strewn, densely populated Metro stations and the haunting, pitch-black tunnels that connect them. The title makes good use of the source material to create a convincing, cohesive atmosphere, drawing on local voice actors and maintaining a firm commitment to first-person storytelling reminiscent of Valve’s Half-Life series.
The voice-acting is just one component of the game’s excellent sound design, which cannily reinforces the eerie atmosphere. Whether it’s the unexpected howl of a mutant leaping at your throat, the off-key singing of a Communist guard about to get a throwing knife in the back, or the cacophony of haggling voices that welcome you a populated station, the game’s auditory cues can be almost as important as its visual wizardry.
Working in concert, audio and video can make Metro: 2033 a terrifying experience indeed. During intermittent visits to the city’s bombed-out surface, the player must wear a gas mask. Spend too much time breathing Moscow’s toxic atmosphere, and you will soon notice your character’s ragged, wheezy breathing as the air filters start to give out. If you’re attacked while wearing the mask, it will crack, impairing your vision, and soon you’ll find yourself battling enemies while staving off asphyxiation, unable to see them through your cracked, foggy gas mask — not for the faint of heart.
Unique touches like the gas mask, the hand-powered generator that juices your flashlight, and the pneumatically-pumped silent sniper rifle add convincing weight to the game’s dystopian world. The latter is particularly useful due to the game’s heavy emphasis on stealth — running and gunning through the Metro is a good way to get killed. This is partly due to a design decision, and partly due to the game’s wonky shooter mechanics. Some enemies require an exorbitant amount of ammo (which is doubly frustrating — ammo doubles as in-game currency), and it’s often difficult to tell whether or not a shot aimed at a fast-moving target has hit or missed. But these and other qualms are eminently forgivable in a first-time developer. Despite the game’s flaws, 4A definitely hits the target.