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31Aug2011 1900: Disarray

Oh man I'm supposed to post something on Wednesday! My schedule is in disarray now that I've given up the physical Netflix discs. Without that red rectangular reminder on my coffee table, why, it could be any day at all! It could be Arbor Day!

Wait, it's almost Labor Day. I have to remember to sleep in Monday.

Okay so: hi. How are you? I guess my news this week is that I'm firmly back playing Magic. The usual pattern has reasserted itself: I started reading the website again a few months ago because there are insights into designing just about any game, and then occasionally a wacky combo that turns everything into a land. A month ago I bought cards and played in one event; I've since been to two more. This past weekend I spent a couple hours caressing the cards and building decks I'd never use. A few more months and my Magic Circuit will overload and I'll give it up.

But it's a good week to be thinking about Magic. Previews for the fall release started and just look at this shit! It's a horror-film fest and the party won't stop until the last vampire gets staked. The last time I got into Magic was also a flavorful celebration of Earth traditions, something a little more involved than "wizard shoot fire".

Magic forums hadn't rioted over anything for a couple of weeks, so they were primed to blow over double-faced cards. This is kind of a big deal, and of course the unhappy people are predicting the death of Magic. That ragestorm barely had time to get its threads locked when Gizmodo outdid itself with an article that confirmed every Magic player's worst high-school fear. That link goes to a forum thread instead of the actual article because fuck Gizmodo and the whole Gawker network. Upshot is that a lady went "ew Magic" on a blog that is nominally about gadgets, and suddenly I learned the term "nerd-baiting". That's a thing now? Apparently.

Welcome to a special Architecture edition of Amazon Free Singles. Apparently all the band names with animals have been taken, forcing bands to start working on places and landscaping elements. [Secret Cities - The Park] is a more ethereal Arcade Fire, with the straightforward tempo, drums, and piano chords of all low-effort indie fare. I couldn't understand a word she sang (from a great distance away) and the song plods on for 3.5 minutes.

[Fences - Market Place] (from the album Fences/Mansions -- I was not kidding about the architecture theme) has the earnest soloist feel of Neutral Milk Hotel. As the season turns to Fall, America's thoughts apparently turn to slow plaintive folk songs. Or maybe Hurricane Irene kept the East Coast clubbing crowd off the Internet, allowing a brief resurgence of Omaha Folk. In any case, this song hits a spoken-word breakdown around minute three, and that should be all the information you require to avoid this song.

[Futura - Battles] didn't seem to get the theme memo, although I guess "battle" and "the future" could both be places. Futura spends the first minute (of six!) tickling a guitar...the rhythm guitar, not the lead. Then the next thirty seconds are spent doing it all over again, this time with drum accompaniment. By the time I figured out this was an instrumental it was too late. It was too late for me, don't make the same mistake!

24Aug2011 1330: Mansions and Metas

I went to a wedding over the weekend and I guess it was alright. Apparently this fancy-ass mansion and garden was featured in some Julia Roberts movie and some TLC reality show, so it was desperately in need of me classing up the joint. And class I did. Two classes of gin and tonic and a class of wine.

The long drive to Chicago afforded me a lot of time to grind through some Dark Tower. The main narrative thrust of the gunslinger is starting to get lost in side stories; we pause for basically the entire fourth novel to learn about his adolescence, and now the fifth novel is taking a smoke break while we catch up with an ex-priest's alcoholism. I can picture this riling up some fans who had waited years for each book, but because I have them all at hand -- and because I overcame Scheherazade not two months ago -- it feels like the tolerable narrative nesting you would see in a Kill Bill. King is also starting to play around with the alternate-universe time-travel aspects more explicitly, injecting his own name and items from his other novels into the ongoing fracturing of the main universe. Meta crap like that will get you pretty far with me.

Oh Good Man Jesus stop the presses, GameStop is being GameStop for the billionth consecutive day. That story would get my dander up if I bought PC games from anything but Steam.

[Seun Kuti - Rise] is world music, in that twisted music-genre way where "world" means "African but not rap". Seun brings the horns, for sure, but I don't dig their continent's rhythms so out this song goes. Also this song is seven minutes long, with a two-minute instrumental breakdown at the beginning. I barely tolerate that shit from Silversun Pickups, no way I'm going to sit through it for this song.

Of Montreal is a known quantity: there will be dance beats and there will be falsetto. Or that's what I thought going in. This band/guy has shown up twice before in free singles, but [Of Montreal - Black Lion Massacre] is almost entirely unlike tea those songs. This is faux-ominous drums and explosion noises overlaid with some pitch-shifted Creepshow host reading lyrics. Like somebody tried to make a dance version of a 1950s B-movie trailer. Like a robot raping a flamethrower while Roger Corman dictates a letter. Like all those Gorillaz songs about monkey volcanos I hate. This feels like one of those gag filler tracks that separate the two hit singles of an album, only Of Montreal went one hipster step further and released it as a single itself.

I already reviewed [The War on Drugs - Baby Missiles] as part of the Rising Artists album. I don't know why it took a whole month to make it into the top 3 downloads; maybe it's because the song is dumb.

17Aug2011 1800: The Dark Tower

Today on Monty's Behind the Curve, I've been devouring the Dark Tower series. I went through a Stephen King phase in elementary school, to the point that my mom banned him from the house...after which I switched over to Richard Bachman for a bit. The Dark Tower reminds me why I was so enamored: King creates tension through efficient descriptive prose and it's written at an eighth-grade level. It feels great to just tear through a novel in a couple of days.

The album art for [Jim Ward - Broken Songs] is attempting to shoot me with eye lasers, so that's a point in its favor. It wasn't clear from the download page, but this is the acoustic version. From the song structure and tempo I can imagine a non-acoustic song that is pretty good, but this song is missing some vital spark.

[Richard Buckner - Traitor] is at the midpoint of Neil Diamond and The National on whichever axis you care to measure. 70s ballad vs. modern rock? Crooner vs. droner? Richard Buckner is right there, alternately poking pieces of my brain that store information on diamonds and nations.

[Nikka Costa - Nylons in a Rip] brings a big gospel choir voice to an utterly vapid pop song. There's some sort of weird synth/steel drum floating around in the background that's giving me vertigo. Back this lady up with a jazz band and I will be there, money in hand.

10Aug2011 1800: Cause of Death

Let's be clear: I adore The Next BIG Thing. I finished it over the weekend and it ends on a perfect note, wrapping up all its plot threads and finishing off both characters' arcs. The last two chapters of the game feel rushed, like they ran out of gameplay puzzles and substituted cutscenes, but that's not a complaint. That's praise. Because let's face it, the adventure game of the early 90s died a deserved death and only nostalgia keeps it coming back now.

For those who may be too wrapped up in this nostalgia to remember, adventure games had two main components to the gameplay: pixel-hunting and fever-logic. TNBT leans more on the pixel-hunting; I had to use a FAQ twice and in both cases it turns out I had missed a tiny object that was partially occluded by the foreground. Once I had the items in my inventory it was clear what they were used for. I should also note that I was playing on the hardest difficulty, which turns off both the in-game hints and the hotspot indicators. With the hotspots visible I could have breezed through the whole game, crushing puzzles to get to the juicy story bits contained within.

Constrast this with The Longest Journey, where I used a FAQ precisely once to learn that I had to combine the inflatable duck, string, and pliers to safely remove the key from the third rail of the subway track. That is an example of fever-logic, a solution developed by somebody who was probably on mescaline and/or French. I looked up that answer, said to myself "So that's how it's going to be?", and promptly powered through the rest of the game.

My rambling point is that the best parts of any adventure game were always the story and dialogue. We put up with bullshit like cat-hair moustaches because we wanted to see how the mystery turned out, not because we were invested in poring over our monitors with a tweezers and magnifying glass. Mass Effect is a phenomenon because we get all the character interaction and involved story that made adventure games great, but in between we get to shoot stuff in the head. The Witness sounds like it's going to be great because Mr Blow understands that the setting of Myst was great, but the puzzles of Myst were crap. The upcoming Jurassic Park is going to be great because it ditches pixel-hunting and fever-logic in favor of action and keycards. Also, dinosaurs.

What I'm saying is that, like so many adventure games, you'd get all the content you need out of The Next BIG Thing by watching some sort of Youtube superplay video, but the sheer number of dialogue options to wade through make such a video unlikely. Unlikely, but not impossible.

[Joss Stone - Somehow] is maybe the next generation of either Sly or the Family Stone? I'm not going to look it up. She's funky, gospel funky more than R&B funky...or maybe that's just the organ throwing me off. Pop music needs to do more of this and less autotune. And she uses "couldn't care less" correctly, so everybody should go buy her album.

[Jesse Sykes & The Sweet Hereafter - Come to Mary] is psychedlic folk, a real flower child of a song. Like all the best tunes of the 60s, I'm not sure whether they're singing about Jesus or drugs.

Hooray, [Archers Of Loaf - Wrong] is radio rock. Mid-tempo, mid-range, middling rock, with no licks or lyrics to recommend it.

03Aug2011 1800: Getting Pumped

As the physical-DVD portion of my Netflix queue winds down, I've wandered into a section that is best described as "Man". Last week was Rocky and The Fighter; tonight is the first of the Fast and Furious franchise, to be followed by all the others. Movies to do pushups to. I was trying to save the FnF run until the fifth movie made it to disc, but the pricing debacle has forced my hand. The Fighter was good but supremely uncomfortable -- I didn't expect it to be a horror movie, but holy crap six sisters. Rocky was obviously good and held up well against every other sports movie that's followed. The only things that didn't age well were Stallone's now-effeminate sweaters. The kind of sweaters that modern street toughs would kick your ass for wearing are rendered very nearly macho by Stallone's star turn.

Continuing on today's Monty's Behind the Curve, I'm not as behind the curve as usual: The Next BIG Thing is only a few months old. If you like point-and-click adventures in the style of King's Quest (and not the non-style of Myst) you owe it to yourself to check this out. I've played through the first chapter now, following the intrepid reporter Liz Allaire in a strange alternate-1940s Hollywood where movie monsters are real and have gained acceptance by acting in monster movies. The dialogue is sharp, Liz is an amazing character, there's a goth robot gardener, and one puzzle forces you to get a robot doorman drunk so your measurements "match" the biometric scan of the mansion's secretary. As always, this Quick Look gives you a proper taste of what's in store.

It is now August (already?), which means a new crop of cheap songs on Amazon. I didn't see anything too compelling in the $5 albums -- everybody already has Sublime, right? -- but there's also the monthly Rising Artists playlist, now with a record nine songs. I'll just run through these quickly: