Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie (2008)

For somebody who writes in such a terse and unambiguous style, Joe Abercrombie sure leaves me feeling conflicted. Now that I'm through the second book (of three) in his First Law series, I am still torn over how to feel about the series.

First of all, let me get this out of the way: there is still no map in this book, and after doing a little research, I found this, which is essentially Abercrombie's disavowment of maps (at least as far as his series is concerned). There are some good points brought up there, but I think on the whole Abercrombie is quite wrong about the way his books are read, and a quick dive into some SF/fantasy forums seems to confirm this. My point is this: the geography of Abercrombie's world is very discrete and confusing, and expecting readers to remember place names and locations in a 500+ page book is simply unreasonable. The main thrust of Abercrombie's anti-map argument is that the inclusion of maps and other graphics railroads the reader's imagination and takes them out of the story. But the fact is, when I have no idea what the hell is going on because I'm confused about the geography, that's hardly an immersive experience either.

That's enough about that, however. I can respect the man feeling strongly about the way his creation is published. On the basis of its contents, however, I am still not 100% sure how I feel about this book, just as I was unsure how to place its predecessor. The books were written one right after the other (more on that later), so they are consistent with one another in the extreme, for better or worse. I still found the Glokta character fascinating, but with irritating mannerisms, for example. There are still a few too many characters that are too similar to one another. There is still no sense that any of the main characters are ever in real danger.

However, this is a two-sided coin and the aspects of Blade Itself that I found excellent are still very much present in Before They Are Hanged. The story picks up right where The Blade Itself leaves off, and the book as a whole is similarly fast-paced. I read the majority of this book yesterday (probably about 400 pages or so), and I must say it flashed right by. Abercrombie has a gift for building tension and keeping a long story engaging, but it never feels cheap or manipulative. He doesn't resort to constant cliffhangers like George R.R. Martin, for instance. Which is commendable, since Before They Are Hanged juggles three or four groups of characters, depending on the point in the story, in a variety of locations. The rotation through these groups isn't a fixed 1-2-3-4-repeat cycle either; sometimes a chapter will end with one group and then the next will start up again with that very same group. I was very grateful for that, and pleased to see that Abercrombie has enough confidence in his skill as a narrator to avoid the urge to insert artificial tension with chapter breaks.

Most of the praise Abercrombie has gotten over the series has centered mainly on his unconventional approach to character archetypes. For example, the wise old fantasy wizard is here, and he is both wise and old, but he is also cranky and manipulative and self-serving. Here is my concern: it's all well and good to defy the standard fantasy character models, but is it a valuable undertaking when done for its own sake? Abercrombie certainly likes to shake things up, but when all the pieces have settled does it make for a better story? I'm not sure. George Lucas tapped into a vast collective cultural subconsciousness with Star Wars, by studying ancient storytelling archetypes and reworking them into a pulp sci-fi setting. Abercrombie does almost exactly the opposite, and while the results are interesting, I'm not totally convinced it has a purpose beyond simply being different.

Having said all that, I do like the characters and their interplay. This book pays off much of the characterization Abercrombie labored over in Blade Itself, since we can now see all these strikingly disparate personalities bouncing off one another. A few of the character arcs, such as they are, are quite pleasing as well. There is a very arrogant character who is humbled over the course of the novel, and although that was almost impossibly predictable, it still proved to be satisfying, and the predictability of it actually blended nicely with a very unlikely romance that develops between two other characters.

Even though most of the other characters have come into their own in this, the pivotal volume, Inquisitor Glokta is still the main attraction, so to speak. I enjoyed his playfully sardonic letters to his superiors sent from the remote city he has been given the impossible task of defending. His italicized "inner voice", as I have mentioned before, still grates on me for some reason though. However, this is still a gift of a character, and the subtle changes bubbling to the surface within Glokta may be the most redemptive and rewarding quality of the novel, period.

On the whole, Abercrombie has a gift for characterization, and slipping in and out of the voices of the POV characters. It has a very sitting-around-the-campfire storytelling feel to it, and I imagine that's what he was going for. He has a good feel for natural-sounding dialogue, though maybe not quite as good as he thinks. His fights are well-choreographed, and while that might not be a good reason on its own to recommend these books, it is ultimately very important because there is quite a bit of fighting done.

There is one more thing I feel I should mention. Abercrombie released this trilogy at a pace of one book a year, and frankly that's fucking remarkable, especially considering the length of the books (over 500 pages each). That's well over a full page a day, and that doesn't even take publishing lead time, rewrites, editing, etc into account. In an era where the more popular fantasy writers have the luxury of extremely relaxed deadlines, it's so refreshing to see a big name with a strong work ethic. We live in a digital age and fans can now instantly contact their favorite authors on their blogs or through email, but if anything I feel that has allowed writers a much more convenient medium through which to post excuses. I am not just referring to George R.R. Martin, although that motherfucker is undoubtedly the worst. My point is, hats off to Joe Abercrombie for keeping that nose to the grindstone.

I've just decided that I'm likely overthinking the First Law series. These books are probably best read as enjoyable, if ultimately rather disposable, fiction. There are no particular profound human truths revealed in the pages of these novels, but they are first-rate adventure stories, and the pages whiz by in a blur. I suppose the real mark of how I feel about this series thus far is that I have already ordered the final installment, and I can say unreservedly that I'm looking forward to reading it.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Dr. Robotnik's Mean Bean Machine (Genesis) (1993)

Here is a puzzle game that will haunt your dreams and send your synaptic processes tumbling down around you like a collapsing building. "I'll just play for a few minutes," you assure yourself at 9 pm. But then some sort of time warp occurs, all of a sudden it's 3 am and you're standing on top of the couch, sweating profusely and screaming obscenities at the TV.

Released in Japan as Puyo Puyo (ぷよぷよ) in 1991 for the Famicom Disk, the game was ported as a Sonic the Hedgehog spin-off (with no Sonic!) for the North American market, and released on the Sega Genesis in 1993. There are a few graphical differences, and of course a different set of characters, but none of that matters because much like Tetris, this is a pure-gameplay type game. There is zero storyline, simple graphics, no distractions or side tasks...just you in an all-out war against your own mind.

My roommate bought an officially-released collection of Genesis games for the PS3 (Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection), and honestly most of the games are complete garbage. Notable exceptions are Gain Ground, Shinobi III, Ecco the Dolphin, Streets of Rage, and obviously Mean Bean Machine, but holy shit. I grew up with Genesis so it's a bit hard to admit, but the SNES has withstood the test of time quite favorably, whereas the Genesis...

Let's talk about Mean Bean Machine, though. After a misfire with Columns, Sega really hit on a true mind-bending puzzler with this release. Combining elements of Tetris and Dr. Mario, it blows away both of those (classic) games, both in terms of intricacy and strategy. I won't say it's more fun, because your idea of fun might not be kicking over your living room table in frustration, but to me at least, it's more fun. Let me put it like this: I love Tetris, but I can routinely get above 200 lines (level 20) on, and sometimes I just want a harder drug.

It's definitely a falling-block game, like Tetris and Dr. Mario, in that the goal is to make units disappear by grouping them, but the twist is that the first group of beans don't give you many points at all, it's only chain reactions caused by that disappearance that get you ahead in the game. Let me explain that better: like Dr. Mario, the units are little two-ended jelly beans, with each end being a different colored bean (there are five colors in total, compared to Mario's three). You spin them around as they fall, and arrange them in patterns at the bottom of your screen. Four beans of the same color disappear, and in turn make the beans lodged above them fall. If you can get these beans, as a result of falling, to group themselves into another group of four, and so on, you will have seriously screwed your opponent. That's right, because in contrast to Tetris, Mean Bean Machine is always played as a competition, either against a computer or human opponent. Developers always struggled with the concept of making the competition between two players interactive, and Mean Bean Machine addresses that (and makes the game much more difficult in the process) with its garbage-bean mechanic. If you put together a good combo, useless clear garbage beans will fall on your opponent's screen, screwing up anything they were putting together on their side. These beans can only be removed by making combos adjacent to them, which gets increasingly difficult to do as time and space are constricted near the top of the screen.

It might sound quite confusing on paper, but the premise is actually rather simple once you're playing. The strategies you need to use, while equally indescribable, are similar to the multi-tiered "think several moves ahead" processes one uses in chess. In fact, it takes a great deal of chess-reminiscent "if -- then" logic to arrange a multi-level chain reaction, and you are severely time-limited. Add in the extra factor of falling layers of garbage blocks from your opponent, and it's like speed chess with an ever-changing board.

I may have made the game sound like a hopeless exercise in frustration, and it is. But the challenge is simply what makes it so rewarding. After performing some remarkable feat of mental gymnastics, you will feel a wave of euphoria as you watch your opponent's screen fill to the brim with garbage beans.

If you want your cognition to be pushed to the breaking point, this is your game. Even if you are naturally good at math and logic, the upper levels of Scenario Mode are so sped-up that I guarantee you will find a very significant challenge. If you've deluded yourself into thinking you're good at puzzle games, shut off Tetris and come play with the big boys.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Creepout - Tribe Called Hardcore (2010)

The Japanese are famous for their unwavering devotion to their chosen obsessions. The otaku mindset informs the general Japanese approach to pastimes. Video games, manga, jazz music, karaoke, name it and droves of Japanese have dedicated their entire being to it.

But Cleveland-style hardcore, that's pretty specific, right? I mean, Tokyo is a big place (about 35 million people in the metropolitan area) and all, but how likely is it that there would be a subculture of people in a foreign country dedicated to something that only a handful of people here in America know the ins and outs of? Well, I'm only half Asian so I'm not going to do the math for you, but it's pretty fucking unlikely. But lucky for Tokyo hardcore kids and the rest of us, there does exist such a subculture, replete with construction gloves, Indians tattoos, Timberlands and Browns jerseys. I guess good taste transcends language barriers.

And Creepout is top of the heap in my opinion. People usually associate Japanese hardcore with more punk-oriented stuff like Gauze and Death Side. You know; fast, fuzzed-out, treble-y, with public restroom-quality recording. That stuff is cool and all, but if you know me you know what I like, and what I like is some big fat Clevo riffs. Politics aside (as they should be, up to a point), I think Crime Ridden Society is the hardest record of the 90's, and from the sounds of it, so does Creepout.

Tribe Called Hardcore is Creepout's best material so far (even though I also love the self titled and the split with Integrity), and it's basically a loving tribute to One Life Crew, Cleveland hardcore, and the Indians. The record opens with a sample of the Troggs' "Wild Thing", which confused me at first, until I remembered that it was the entrance music of the character Ricky "Wild Thing" Vaughn from the Cleveland Indians-themed comedy movie Major League. Such an amazing reference. After that the LP kicks in and takes you for a wild-ass ride, so wild in fact that you'll think you're right in the thick of Ten Cent Beer Night, if Ten Cent Beer Night had had Those Who Fear Tomorrow playing over the PA.

One Life Crew and In Cold Blood are the obvious starting points for Tribe Called Hardcore, with certain parts (like "Martial Law") reminding me of some of Crowd Deterrent's more melodic moments (example: "Late Nights, Fist Fights"). They stick to the intro-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-breakdown that Integrity and OLC honed in the largely linear-structured 1990s. The breakdowns are fucking nasty. The pre-chorus and pre-breakdown parts develop a nice sense of space by letting chords ring, or cutting everything except one guitar, before hitting you with a fast 90s-style slam. Good examples are "Fuck Your Heaven" and "Bash Brothers", which both have breakdown lead-ins that remind me of "Real Domain". This is hands-down my favorite kind of hardcore, and it's so nice that these guys have taken such care to re-create the hallmarks of its feel.

My boy Yuichiro is on guitar sounding like the reincarnation of Blaze Tishko (Blaze isn't dead, fyi), serving up similarly tasty riffs with all the flavor but half the body fat. That picking style is so key to the Clevocore aesthetic, and I don't think I've ever heard it nailed so well by an outsider. Kunihyde's vocals are quite similar to Wake from the great Japanese oi! band Sledge Hammer (Samurai Spirit, only the truly ignorant need investigate further): raspy bordering on gurgly but still carrying a tune, sort of. With some shades of Mean Steve, too, of course. Great stuff.

One of my favorite things about the album is that they have a bunch of their homies (Senta, Ill-Tee, Lowbuster, Dr. Feelgood) come on to do guest vocal spots. This is something that is almost never done well on hardcore records, but they're placed well, and all these dudes sound so raw that it works. Especially on the last track ("59 Ways to Hell"), where there is a Wu-Tang style rotation of guys that sound like city-destroying monsters out of a Godzilla movie.

In summary, this is the best Cleveland-style hardcore record of the past 15 years. It's made with such a high degree of authenticity, it's no surprise these dudes are basically honorary Ohioans. Essential listening for fans of OLC and the Cleveland Indians.

Story time. I am one of a handful of Americans who have had the privilege of seeing Creepout in their natural habitat. On my way home from Korea in 2009, I visited Tokyo for the first time, and wouldn't you know it, there was a Creepout gig going down that coincided perfectly with my trip.

For the first three days in Japan I think I slept about 3 hours. I had decided that the best way to experience the stuck-in-a-videogame neon insanity of Shibuya and Shinjuku was to be in a sleep-deprived daze (I was right, by the way). Somehow I managed to find out how to get to the place where the show was, and let me assure you Americans reading this that that is easier said than done, especially considering that the entrance to the place was hidden between two buildings and looked like a stairway down to an abandoned cellar. Sadly, shows are pay-to-play in Japan, and at exorbitant rates to boot, so I think I wound up paying about 30 bucks just to get in. This better be the best damn hardcore show of all time, I thought to myself. Lucky me; it was totally unforgettable.

Every single person I met was incredibly welcoming and friendly, especially after I dropped the names of some mutual friends from Ohio (because I'm a baller), so it was a little bit of a shock when the show started and I saw how hard these kids go off. I should say that I've been to hardcore shows in several countries and in Asia it's unusual to see a lot of movement from the locals. I think it's extremely embarrassing when people talk about moshing, but I'm going to break my own rule here. These dudes were seriously beating the hell out of each other. But there were exactly zero fights, and everyone was smiling and having a great time while getting hit right in the grill.

I generally try to stay out of things when I'm in a new city, because every scene has varying levels of what is considered acceptable, and there can be a fine line between getting a "nice moves, bro" pat on the back and getting your ass beat by dudes with face tattoos. However, after seeing the Japanese kids wail on each other for about half an hour and fucking love every second of it, I figured I was ok. For their last song Creepout covered "Murdario Stomp/Pure Disgust" and that sealed it. I stepped out and immediately got pasted right in the face. But when the pit calls, a true pit warrior must answer, so I gave in to the dark side of the force and sang "Pure Disgust" until my throat was raw.

Anyway, I had gotten hit in the face, hard, at least three times during that last song. The trains stop running relatively early in Tokyo, so I had to run from the show to catch the last one back to my hostel. At some point while I was running, I started gushing blood from my nose, only I didn't realize it because I was seeing stars, sleep-deprived, and running as fast as I could to catch the train. I caught it, just barely, and sat down. After a minute or two I noticed all the business-suited salarymen on the train were staring at me. I was wondering what their problem was but then caught a glimpse of myself in the window across the aisle. I was quite a sight. I was wearing a white t-shirt and the front, as well as the lower half of my face, was covered in blood.

I cleaned myself up (luckily I had my backpack with an extra shirt inside), got back to my hostel about an hour later, and slept like a rock. Great night.

Note: I'm uploading this because as far as I can tell there's no way to buy it right now (I bought it on CD from the band last year), but if you dig this come out to see these dudes play Summer of Hate, which is their one U.S. show a year.