IC2S Playlist Update 28/10/2015

First up this week is “God Is Dead?” by Black Sabbath from their latest album 13. I wrote a short article about this song almost 2 years ago*, claiming that the song was in fact the opposite of the anti-religious song that it appears to be on the superficial level. I still hold fast to this interpretation of course, and it has caused the song to endear on me ever since its release. I hadn’t heard it in quite some time though, until a couple weeks ago when my internet radio station of choice put it on and reignited by love for this song.

Also, I just love how the song sounds. The dark, religious imagery is very effective, and the song has an unmistakable twinge of menace throughout it. It’s just a great example of modern metal and proof that Black Sabbath still have talent and relevance even after a career spanning four decades.

Secondly, we have “Normandy” by Project 86 from their album Rival Factions. Rival Factions was a really strange album for Project 86. From what I understand, there seemed to be lots of frustration within the band about their musical direction – some of them wanted to branch out their sound, and I imagine that there was frustration over the control exercised by frontman Andrew Schwab. The band’s drummer ultimately left prior to Rival Factions‘ recording, while the other bandmates (except for Schwab) would all leave as well by the time that the next album was complete. These frustrations are clearly the primary driving force behind Rival Factions, as the title points out. The album has a really diverse sound: they’ll use their traditional post-hardcore sound for a couple songs, then they’ll break into metalcore, then a straight-up rock song. The resulting album isn’t entirely cohesive and has an extremely short runtime of just over 30 minutes, which makes it probably my least-favourite Project 86 album**… I mean, I still enjoy it, but it’s a bit of a blemish on Project 86’s otherwise extremely consistent discography.

Anyway, “Normandy” is probably the song which most directly addresses the background struggles of Rival Factions. In high school, right as I was getting into Project 86, I was actually going to do a presentation on this song for a class where we were supposed to interpret a poem or song. It’s probably a good thing that I never did this presentation (I got my wisdom teeth taken out the day I was supposed to present so I got off scot-free), because even now I still have a fuzzy idea of what it all means. The song seems to very cryptically use the metaphor of a head-on collision to represent the opposing wills of individuals leading to a severing of ties.

*Side note: two freaking years ago? Where has the time gone?!?
**The only other album of theirs that I think is rather weak and might actually be my least-favourite now is their latest release, Knives to the Future. The album is pretty well-done I’ll admit, but very few of the songs stand out and I can’t help but be disappointed that their hardcore sound has been toned down significantly. Again – still a good album, but I just found it a tad disappointing and not the same high bar that Project 86 usually hits for me.

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IC2S Playlist Update 21/10/2015

Unlike recent weeks, I don’t really have a theme tying the songs together this week. We’re going to start out with “Nuclear” by Mike Oldfield from Man on the Rocks. I’ve been listening to the Metal Gear Solid V soundtrack for a couple weeks now and it’s making me really dig this song. It was a good selection for the game, as its apocalyptic imagery fits the games’ themes perfectly.

Speaking of Metal Gear, the preparation for the big retrospective is underway. I’ve been writing up a review for The Phantom Pain and have blazed through Portable Ops in the past week. I’m currently working through Peace Walker and then we’ll see where it goes after that. I’m planning on sticking to canon entries only (including Portable Ops of course and Rising as well), but if I’m not sick of the whole series after all of this then I might do a couple entries for the Ac!d games because I remember enjoying both of them quite a bit. So… yeah. That’s what my life looks like for the next couple months. It’s gonna be a mammoth undertaking, but it’ll be very fun and hopefully will give me a better appreciation for this franchise I enjoy so much.

Anyway, secondly we have “Hearts Alive” by Mastodon from Leviathan. I was really debating between this and arguably their most popular song, “Blood and Thunder”, but “Hearts Alive” won out in the end. For one thing, if you’re familiar with the playlist then you’re probably aware that I’m a big fan of good, long songs. “Hearts Alive” definitely fits that bill at over 13 minutes in length. Mastodon has such a classical style to their metal, that it always shocks me that they are a post-2000s band, as they sound like nothing else that I’ve heard from their era. Like, when they put out their debut album, nu-metal was probably the most commercially-successful force in metal. Maybe I just haven’t explored the genre well enough yet, but I have always found Mastodon to sound very regressive, but in a very intentional, intelligent and good way.

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Review Misuse

Critical reviews are an endless source of discussion in popular culture. On the one hand, they offer a useful tool to sort through content and get a general idea of whether the product will appeal to you. On the other hand though, people often bristle at review scores and find themselves in a sharp divide between critical opinion and public perception. TotalBiscuit recently put out a pretty good video highlighting the disconnect between reviewers and the general public after the latest debacle regarding review scores of the Mad Max video game. In case you don’t feel like watching/listening to a 40 minute video, TotalBiscuit basically says that reviewers and the public have differing opinions on what constitutes value, that the public tends to value familiarity over innovation and that the public puts too much stock into review scores rather than the content of reviews themselves. While I liked the video, I think that TotalBiscuit waffled a little too much and didn’t really dig hard enough into the issues at hand for my tastes.

First off, I will agree 100% that people (particularly video gamers in my experience) put way too much emphasis into review scores. This is generally where the most ridiculous controversies spring from, such as the numerous occasions where reviewers have received death threats for giving games a glowing 9/10 review. This is due in part to some members of the gaming media’s really poorly skewed scoring system, which has messed with gamers’ expectations of what score a game should receive. I can’t be the only one who has noticed that many video game reviewers tend to score games very “softly”, giving almost every major release an 8 or a 9, with one or two huge releases typically getting 10s. For many gamers, this has created the expectation that games scoring lower than a 8 are unacceptable, even though the scale itself has been incredibly devalued and uninformative (and even then, they have a hard time accepting an 8 for a hyped, triple-A release).

In spite of its problems, I actually rather like the 10-point review scale (or its various gradients, such as the 100-point scale). As a bit of a stats geek, I like the idea of being able to quantify my feelings towards a piece of media through a simple system like this. This is the whole reason that I signed up for an IMDb account more than a decade ago and have been tracking every movie I’ve seen ever since. Obviously it’s still not perfect – “so bad they’re good” movies such as Troll 2 get a low rating for quality but I find them endlessly enjoyable. Other movies just may be super generic or very flawed, but I like them quite a bit anyway (such as Howling V).

That said, I don’t find websites like Metacritic to be very helpful*. Metacritic prioritizes review scores over the content of the reviews themselves, effectively making anything but that final score worthless. This also becomes problematic when different reviewers use differing review scales – since many game reviewers are “soft” these days, the few that actually do use the full spectrum of the 10-point scale can knock a game’s Metacritic score down and cause an uproar. This becomes even more distressing though, because publishers have been known to hand out bonuses to developers for hitting score-thresholds on Metacritic. How about this publishers: if you want the game to hit a score-threshold on Metacritic, then maybe give your developers more time to polish the game and don’t hold them to a hard-and-fast release deadline? Or worse, what are the odds that the desire for high review scores and sales stifles creativity by stifling innovation?

Another element that I thought that TotalBiscuit missed the mark on was the disconnect between critics and the public. He was acting like he thought critics were on a totally different wavelength from the rest of us. Personally, I think this stems from a misunderstanding of the purpose of critics. In essence, a critic is someone who has studied, and consumes, a lot of media and therefore has an informed opinion on whether individual media is worth consuming, which they pass on to the public as a form of service. Having seen a wider variety of good and bad content than most consumers, a critic tends to be better able to judge the quality of a piece of art. That said, it must always be remembered that a critic is just a professional giver of opinions – even the best critic will find themselves at odds with other critics and/or the public at times and it isn’t unheard of for peoples’ opinions to change over time. The critic’s own preferences can also affect the review process – it’s pretty common for horror movies to get mixed to negative reviews, even if they’re well-regarded amongst fans of the genre.

The disconnect comes from a couple elements of the differences between critics and consumers. Many consumers will have a very limited scope of the media – they may only watch summer blockbusters, or only play first person shooters, or not have a lot of interest in the finer points of a genre outside of whether they enjoyed it or not. As a result, reviews might not even be that big a factor in their purchase, but rather a badge of pride that something they like is considered “good”. These will often be the consumers most vocally hostile towards critics as, from their perspective, critics are held in high regard but do not line up with their understanding of media. This is related to arguably my favourite post on this blog, Translating Ideology, where I explored the gulfs that form between people with different world views. It’s a strange dichotomy – they may personally dislike critics for disagreeing with their perspectives, but still hold their opinions as authoritative and somehow able to diminish their media. Consumers in this mindset need to keep into perspective that, in the end, critics are just putting out their opinions.

Perhaps this prods at a deeper area of resentment though – the old hatred of “snobby intellectuals” versus the uneducated “everyman” who knows what is actually good and what isn’t (this is what Conservapedia would refer to as “the best of the public”, and you know it has to be great if Conservapedia endorses it…). I wouldn’t be surprised if there is an element of this in complaints about snobby critics, where the consumer is literally too unlearned on the subject to understand the critic’s perspective. Bear in mind that this isn’t to say that the consumer is wrong to enjoy whatever media they want to, but it is worth understanding that the divergence between critics and consumers comes down to a wide variety of personal experiences, not simply because “critics like innovation, consumers like what’s familiar” as TotalBiscuit boils it down to.

Wrapping things up, I think that we need to keep a few things about reviews in mind in the future. First of all, don’t put all your faith in review scores, but be sure to read the full reviews to see if you agree with their analysis. Secondly, understand that a “low” review score can still be great – I really enjoyed Lollipop Chainsaw and Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge, both relatively low-scoring games which I feel deserved their lower score for technical/design reasons, but which were still well worth playing. I myself gave Alien Isolation a 6/10 on this blog, but enjoyed it for the most part and would recommend trying it. Lastly, keep in mind that the opinion of a critic is just that – an opinion. If you have different experiences than they do, then you may disagree and that’s totally fine. Don’t let it diminish your own feelings towards a piece of media.

*That said, I actually quite like Rotten Tomatoes’ system. Instead of just averaging the differing scales of a handful of critics, Rotten Tomatoes measures from the number of critics who “liked” and “disliked” the movie and then gives it a “fresh” rating if more than 60% of critics liked it. It’s a much better aggregate system in my opinion and tends to be my personal source for information on a movie’s reception.

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IC2S Playlist Update 14/10/2015

EDIT: I’ve been working on a little update for the blog, going through past, current and upcoming posts to tag them with their subject matter. If you’re interested in what I’m talking about in any blog post, click one of the labels at the bottom of the post and it’ll link you to all of my posts on the subject! Considering that I’m often calling back to previous topics, this should hopefully be quite handy for everyone, myself included!

So it looks like we’re going for an anti-war theme this week (or at the very least, songs which explore the human cost of war). This wasn’t entirly intentional, but as soon as I made my selections the theme clicked and I quite like how it all worked out. First up this week, we have “One” by Metallica from their album …And Justice For All. I decided to pick this song this week after a particularly epic air-drumming session that spontaneously commenced when this song came on the radio at the end of a late-night road trip. Like many people, I first got exposed to this song by Guitar Hero 3, and it really ignited a love for early Metallica music. “One” is just a natural fit for me – as you might have noticed from some of my earlier selections, I really love longer songs with a slow build-up which supports the epic musicianship/lyrics later and just makes them stronger overall. “One” is pretty much a text-book example of this.

I also like the story that the song tells: losing all of your senses but only being able to feel pain seems like it would indeed be the very definition of hell on earth. For the longest time I thought that the song was based on a real person, but thankfully not. It seems to be based on an anti-war novel and film called Johnny Got His Gun (or, at the very least, was based on the same concept).

Secondly, we have “The Price of a Mile” by Sabaton from the album The Art of War. The Art of War is, in my opinion, the first good Sabaton album, and “The Price of a Mile” is a good example of why. I’d argue that it’s one of their all-time best songs and stretches their usual formula of singing about great historical victories, this time singing about a horrific, senseless waste of life. It is especially resonant for me as a Canadian, since we are all brought up being told about the thousands of Canadian soldiers who died in the Battle of Passchendaele to win a few measly miles which were soon lost again. It’s a really sombre, and yet bad ass, song which really hammers home the meaningless nature that war can take on, and questions the costs that are associated with victory at all costs.

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IC2S Playlist Update 07/10/2015

So I’ve got a bit of an ambitious undertaking that I have been formulating over the course of the last couple weeks. I beat the main story in Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain just in time for the release of Metal Gear Online, and have been sketching out the beginnings of a review. However, I don’t just want to review The Phantom Pain: I want to do the retrospective to top all retrospectives and write up a comprehensive series review. Obviously this could take months to do (and that’s assuming that I do manage to make it through), so I’ll have to make up my mind on whether to write it all and then release or to put it out in chunks as I finish them. I’ll have more details soon as I get the project underway, so stay tuned!

Anyway, kicking off the playlist this week, we have “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum. I chose this song for little reason other than because I really like it. It’s extremely catchy and goes to show that people will listen to gospel music if you make it sound awesome (ahem, take a hint from that Casting Crowns). I also find it really interesting that it is seen as a really big gospel hit, and I can imagine that there are some people would say that it’s a “sign of the times” that songs like this don’t become radio hits anymore. However, this song is not really all that it appears to be – theologically, it’s kind of heretical at times when Greenbaum declares that he’s “Never been a sinner I never sinned”. This is in part due to the fact that Greenbaum was essentially making fun of how shitty gospel music is (and also explains why the lyrics are so simple).

Next up, we have “Get Back” by David Unger. Of all DUM’s “parody” songs, “Get Back” is definitely my favourite. For one thing, it has an amazing music video (of the kid torturing the bad guys in Home Alone). As soon as it begins you’re hooked, as the music is very catchy (is that a keyboard in guitar mode…?) and David Unger has a really great voice.

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