Monday, March 31, 2014

Music Review - Alice Cooper - Easy Action

Easy Action is the Alice Cooper band's second release, just one year after Pretties For You. That would make it 1970. The title comes from a line in West Side Story, a favorite of the band that later received even greater tribute on their School's Out album. To my ears it's obvious that the band focused on writing more accessible songs but the critics at the time didn't much like it. But at this time, as well as back in the late 80s when this odd record first made it's way to me, I likes it. Not a whole super lot but there's certainly a unique appeal in that it's more defined than their first and has some very memorable songs. However it would only be fair to admit that I had "Apple Bush" from their first album stuck in my head most of this past weekend.

"Mr. & Misdemeanor" is notable for Mr. Furnier finding his vocal snarl. Just the tone of his voice leads one to think that this is one nasty duo, but the fuzzy guitars help. Dig the heavy use of piano and slippery bass line, man. "Shoe Salesman" is an amiable song about a drug using fellow, written with heavy nods to Revolver-era Beatles and well worth 99 cents to download. "Still No Air" begins without much direction but soon becomes a West Side Story tribute, a first attempt at what will later become "Gutter Cats vs. The Jets" on School's Out. Only two and a half minutes long, it's a fairly ambitious, dare I say progressive, undertaking. At 6:54, "Below Your Means" is mostly an instrumental jam song and has so few hooks that I had forgotten it existed. A cold pocket in an otherwise warm lake.

The snarl comes back with a vengeance on "The Return of the Spiders", a gritty, menacing rocker where the band finds it's voice but doesn't know it yet. "Laughing At Me" is another song which packs a huge punch in a small footprint. Harmonizing guitars, flutes, a gentle melody, occassional progressive rhythms in an otherwise very singable song. "Refrigerator Heaven" is about being frozen "until the find a cure for cancer," eerily stuffed with fuzzy guitars, bone clanks and sound effects. Sung by Michael Bruce, the piano-led "Beautiful Flyaway*" has always been a favorite of mine, appealing in the same mournfully nostalgic way as "Dear Martha" by The Beatles. The final track is another lengthy monster, "Lay Down and Die, Goodbye", a progressive mostly instrumental beast which shares much in common with Pink Floyd of the late sixties. It's an interesting song, very experimental, and was surely the result of recreational drug use.

In retrospect, this is one of those albums that is not as good as I remember it, mostly due to a couple of very strong songs. Not as good as Pretties For You but still worth a listen for the curious.

Rank: True Cooper Fans Only

* Decades ago, right about the time I was starting to drive, I signed up for keyboard lessons with some big-haired guy at a music place that used to be a Schwin dealership. He came highly recommended as a rock keyboardist (it was the 80s) and so I paid the man for a month of lessons. I had part of "Beautiful Flyaway" figured out but wanted him to help me figure out the rest and then to help me learn it. Instead this guy gave me a chart with the circle of fifths and explained that it was important to learn this chart and that since I had already began to incorrectly learn the song that it probably wouldn't be a good idea to work on it. The unassertive sixteen year old me said, "Okay." Something happened where I had to reschedule the next weeks lesson but the following week I drove to the studio only to find that the guy had left town to find his fame and fortune in Nashville. The lesson rooms were rented out privately and there was no refund to be given, no way to get in touch with the bandit. The unassertive sixteen year old me was ticked but rolled with it. To this day I still don't know how to play "Beautiful Flyaway."

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Music Review - Alice Cooper - Ladies Man / Science Fiction / Freak Out Songs

In general when it comes to live albums I just don't like 'em. Ditto for live music. Give me the carefully crafted, detailed, layered nuances of the studio and I'm a happy man. But every now and then live music will affect me like nothing else. This album is not one of those instances.

This album goes under many, many names*. I knew it as Ladies Man and Freak Out Songs. The reason it has so many monikers is because it is an unauthorized recording of the 1969 Toronto show where someone threw a chicken onto the stage (apparently there was no additional charge for livestock) and city slicker Vinnie, seeing a bird, threw it back to the audience thinking it would fly away. Instead it fell with a plop and the peace loving hippies proceeded to tear the formerly living chicken to pieces.

But that isn't on the album.

Instead we get eight messy, live tracks, mostly versions of songs off their Pretties For You album. As I stated before, I'm not a fan of live music and don't intend to review the live album recorded at Sammy Hagar's club (though I'll probably do The Alice Cooper Show) but this album has a certain historicity and loose charm that I feel merits a post. Which is to say that despite my dislike of live albums, this one kinda grew on me. The band is anything but tight but are rather experimental, perhaps the influence of Zappa. But they're enjoying finding themselves and it's fun to tag along.

There are two songs that don't appear until decades later on the Rhino box set. "Freak Out Song" (a.k.a. "Don't Blow Your Mind") is a very early song from when the band was known as The Spiders. The recording I have has Vince sounding drunk or perhaps the tape is slowed down. In any case, it isn't good.

The real winner on the album is "Nobody Likes Me." One of their first forays into theater rock, Vince would sit behind and sing through an open double hung window, being that lonely kid looking out at a world that doesn't like him and won't play with him. They even hate his dog Spot. The song itself is very catchy, almost like a bent nursery rhyme, with the rest of the band angrily singing back against this pathetic soul in call and answer fashion.

Rank: True Cooper Fans Only

* A full list can be found here.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Music Review - Alice Cooper - Pretties For you

Pretties For You is the debut album but the band known as Alice Cooper. By law I have to include the label “shock rocker” though at this time* they were still figuring out who they were. This band existed in the psychedelic world of Los Angeles and had caught the attention of Frank Zappa who was starting a new label devoted to freaky music and signed them for three albums. Freaky they were, seeing as how they were mostly ex-art students and influenced by the likes of Salvador Dali.

So what’s it like? Freaky, of course! It’s raw, rough, sloppy and experimental. But through it all is a strong melodic undercurrent, the very same one that eventually created the classic hits that are still played on the radio forty years later. Because this isn’t a well known album I’ll go song by song. Bear with me or feel free to check out the latest celebrity news.

“Titanic Overture” is a brief instrumental that sounds orchestral, mostly due to a thick wall of organs. Weird worm-like sounds augment “10 Minutes Before the Worm”, a lumbering, bouncy ditty with vocal harmonies. “Swing Low Sweet Cherrio” is definitely a hippy dippy song of the times. Throughout Vince (before he legally changed his name to Alice) sounds very young and had yet to develop his signature vocal snarl. Very clean, his voice is. This song is a bit progressive in that it switches around a bit and even includes Vince playing a harmonica solo, dueling against the lead guitar while the rest of the band goes gonzo. In fact, most of this nearly six minute song is this crazy, energetic duel. The theatrical story song “Today Mueller” is under two minutes, featuring piano, falsetto backing vocals, a reference to the “red rover” nursery rhyme, and is incredibly catchy. Think Sid-era Pink Floyd. “Living” is another late sixties song of its time… decent and with a pretty good natty guitar tone but nothing amazing. The lengthy “Fields of Regret” is an acid rocker with lots of electronic effects and quirky rhythmic patterns before settling into a spacey jam session that settles into a disturbing dream-like section of spoken word poetry.

Side Two. “No Longer Umpire” is another brief theatrical art-rock song that packs a big memorably melodic punch. It gets in there and gets out, leaving you wondering why this song won’t leave your brain. “Levity Ball” suffers from poor recording, sounding like everyone was too far from the microphones, but it’s a good song that is allowed to breath and develop, going through a number of interesting musical stages. I have no idea of a levity ball is so don’t ask. “B.B. on Mars” is a disposable 1:17 ditty but the next song, “Reflected”, was later reworked as “Elected” for their massively popular Billion Dollar Babies album. It’s a major transformation and you won’t readily catch it unless you’re listening closely as they only took part of verse and what might be called a post-chorus to create the rock classic. “Apple Bush” is catchy psychedelia with loads of big, thumping drums while I barely remember the dramatic, experimental tittle coined “Earwigs to Eternity.” The final song, “Changing Arranging” is slow to get started but once it does you’ll hear a pretty little flower power song pleasingly overpowered by thundering drums before breaking down briefly in sheer weirdness.

By the time I finally got my hands on this record, and yes in the mid 80s, it was a record, I had absorbed most of what Alice Cooper had released and was well prepped for anything they could throw my way. Which is good because it isn't hard rock or even remotely like their early 70s albums. But I digress. Back when I first heard this album there was nothing called eBay or Amazon, kids, so if you wanted to find a rare album you contacted a local used record dealer, such as the amazing local Wooden Nickel Collectors Store, and put the word out. When I called Tim, the manager at the time (as well as now and probably until he dies), wrote down my request and many months later called to inform me that someone had finally brought one in. Hop in the car, drive in anticipation, pay for album, feast your eyes on the artwork in your car, drive home with even greater anticipation, and finally feast your ears on the music after months of waiting. That’s how it was in those days… not even a thirty second preview to give you a clue of what you were getting. Collecting rare music back in the day was not for the impatient. Overall I enjoy this album and get the hankerin’ to listen to it now and then. In any case, I prefer Pretties For You any day over Trash or his other early 90s albums.

I was going to rank each album in terms of its standing as an Alice Cooper Band album and as part of the entire Alice Cooper catalog, including his solo years, but I just can’t do it. I mean, how can I say if Easy Action is a better album than Special Forces? So instead I’ll create a few broader categories and leave it at that. I also just realized that I either have some holes in my collection or I’m getting sloppy in my archival duties. For some reason I don’t have listed that I own Muscle of Love, Trash or Constrictor. True, the first two are not even close to being favorites and enjoyment of the last is mostly nostalgia but I thought I had purchased these on CD, previously having had one on record, one on cassette, and one on CD that I, em, trashed, because I hated it so much. But that’s another story for another time. I guess it’s time to dig through all those boxes of CDs from the move and see what I actually have.

Rank: True Cooper Fans Only

* That being 1969.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Music Review - The Beatles - The Singles

And now for the singles!

Released in 1973, these double double albums contained every A-side single released by The Beatles, split into 1962–1966 (a.k.a. The Red Album) and 1967–1970 (a.k.a. The Blue Album). When they were released on CD the names were changed to Past Masters. Oooooo!

You see, kids, back in the day the 45 single was the big thing. Long playing albums weren't what brought in the bucks so bands put their best songs on these wee little records, songs that didn't always make it onto the album proper. Such was the case with The Beatles which means that these four records* are over stacked with hits!

The first set, The Red Album, has such great songs as "Love Me Do", "From Me To You", "She Loves You", "I Want To Hold Your Hand", the rocker "I'm Down" and the amazing intro of "I Feel Fine." Yeah, there's some other songs on here but now that I really look at it, there really aren't all that many amazing songs. Just the ones I listed. Sure, "Komm, Giv Mir Deine Hand"is pretty good, especially if du spreche Deutche. That's not saying that the rest of the songs are slouches. In fact, compared to the early original songs on the L.P.s the singles stand a few heads taller. Dandy tunes, but not an album I grew up with.

No Red Album but we did have The Blue Album. One wonders how I would have turned out differently had this been switched. Well, at least I do. This one kicks off with a triple threat of "Day Tripper", "We Can Work It Out", and "Paperback Writer." WOWSERS! The listener is allowed a very small breath with "Rain", a fine upstanding raucous tune but not of classic status, before being lifted again into glory with "Lady Madonna," a boogie woogie piano-based song with sax all over it. Hello? Any guitars in there? "The Inner Light" is a skipper and, in my book, so is "Hey Jude" which carries for far too long. Raise your hand if you love that nasty, gritty, fuzzy guitar tone on the heavy version of "Revolution." You, the kid in the back without your hand up. You may leave. I recall enjoying "Don't Let Me Down" but now it seems a bit thin. Then and now I like "The Ballad of John and Yoko" melodically but now don't care much for the abuse of Jesus' title.

I just realized that I was writing according to my Past Masters rips and not based on the actual blue/red track listings. Ooops. Maybe we Did have the red album also because those songs seem real familiar, like I've heard them somewhere before. And I recall really enjoying the Magical Mystery Tour songs that are on the Blue but not on Past Masters 2. What a big ol' messy bowl of spaghetti.

In any case, this series is now officially over. No, I won't be writing about Love or any other attempt the remaining live members create to squeeze few more bucks out of this cow. I'm done with it.

* Or two compact discs**.

** Or a bunch of digital files.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Music Review - The Beatles - Abbey Road

Abbey Road The year is 1969 and I wasn't even a zygote. The Beatles had just canned a disastrous attempt to record what became the album Let It Be. Hoping to salvage the band they again enlisted longtime producer George Martin who had walked out on the previous album due to egos and arguments. He imposed certain conditions to his involvement to which all agreed. Martin truly was the fifth Beatle. None of the band was thinking that this was the last album but, per Harrison, "It felt as if we were reaching the end of the line."

Abbey Road is partially famous for the adventurous Side B where a variety of shorter songs are linked together to create a kind of suite, a technique that later came to impress many progressive rock bands. This was the result of a compromise. Lennon wanted a regular album where each song stood on it's own but McCartney wanted Sgt. Pepper Part 2. So Side A is distinct songs, Side B is Part 2. And everyone was happy and all the trees began to sing and the squirrels danced with the wolves and ...

As for the album proper, well, I right kindly like it even if Lennon doesn't. Or didn't. "Come Together" is a subdued, sparse, odd song with a unique bass line that would never be released as a single in today’s heavily regimented radio world. Harrison's "Something" is absolutely gorgeous with orchestral strings, piano, gentle pitter patter from the drums and that stunning melody. This one could have easily tipped over into cheesy excess but managed to step right up to the line of good taste without falling over. "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" is a song I enjoyed growing up. My family didn't own Abbey Road but my brothers neighbor friend did so I got to hear the album quite a bit while we rode Green Machines around in his basement. Apparently the rest of the band referred to songs like "Maxwell" and "When I'm 64", which were written in the music hall style, as "granny music." Yeah, I can see that but since Paul's dad earned a living playing that kind of music it must have been deep in Paul's genes. I never cared much for "Oh! Darling" but as a kid I most certainly liked "Octopus's Garden", a playful song whose lyrics were written by Ringo. "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" is simple lyrically but still appeals to me. It starts light but definitely becomes heavy, grinding even, and has a progressive, expansive structure that stretches to nearly eight minutes, layering in organs, screaming vocals and white noise, ending with a jarring abruptness. Thus ends Side 1.

The turbulent night that ended the first side is overcome by another astounding Harrison song, "Here Comes The Sun." Put this song on and by the end of it you'll be just a bit happier, just a bit more pleased with life. Harrison was on a roll, I tells ya! I always liked the sound of "Because" and later found that it was Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata played backwards on a harpsichord. Very complicated vocals on that one. I don't think Alice Cooper attempted those when he covered the song on that BeeGees movie. If you don't know what I'm talking about you're better off. Okay, since I know you'll just go looking for it anyway, here it is. Enjoy Cooper with a moustache! Good career move, shaving that off. MOUSTACHE!!!!

Now begins the medley!

At one point I could play the thirty seconds of "You Never Give Me Your Money" on the piano but I lost that muscle memory decades ago. I rather still like this song, it being a bit morose at the beginning but rocketing right up soon enough. BLIMEY! At 4:02 it's the longest of the medley bits and is actually a proper song where the rest are just mostly unfinished fragments. Necessity is the mother of invention, or at least of Side B. "Sun King" is boring and I'm not afraid to say it. "Mean Mr. Mustard", "Polythene Pam" and "...Bathroom Window" are nice, albeit brief, ditties. I especially like the fat bass notes on "Mustard." "Golden Slumbers" finds Paul being a bit too theatrical but the horns and string prevent a misstep, leading to the boring "Carry That Weight" which recaps a melody from "You Never Give Me Your Money", serving to round things up nicely. Fittingly the album (almost) ends with "The End" which features a drum solo, dueling guitar solos from all three guitarists and the famous last words "And in the end / The love you take / Is equal to the love you make." Pure flower power, man. Side B is a piece that is truly larger than the sum of its parts, taken as a single composition it is a fitting farewell from the famous fab four. After something like this it would almost be embarrassing to come back with another album. Kind of like performing your third farewell tour.

And then there's the twenty-three second snippet known as "Her Majesty" which was supposed to be part of the medley but was removed at the last moment and tacked at the end of the master reel.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Music Review - The Beatles - Let It Be

Let It Be is possibly my least favorite Beatles album, though that didn't stop me from buying Let It Be...Naked a few years ago in the hopes that removing all the superfluous orchestrations (not added by their longtime producer George Martin) would increase their appeal. It didn't.

At this point in their existence the members of the band were under immense tensions. In an attempt to recapture the magic and kinsman ship of their early years the band decided to shed all the exotic trappings and studio gizmodery of their recent albums and get back to their roots, writing songs together they way they used to. They unwisely allowed the proceedings to be filmed as material for a future film. The existence of cameras only added to the interpersonal tensions and the band flew apart. As I a result they wrote, I feel, some fairly weak songs. Sure, songs like "Two of Us" and "Dig A Pony" and "I Me Mine" are fine songs but they are simple, almost immature.

"Across the Universe" is one of the better songs, though it depresses me now with it's hopeless chorus of "Nothing's gonna change my world." Everyone seems to like "Let It Be" but to my ears it sounds like "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" though with slightly better musicianship and compares to "Hey Jude" in terms of yawn inducing repetition. The album ebbs further with unripened songs like "One After 909" and "I've Got A Feeling."

As a youngin' I really liked "The Long and Winding Road" but I've since accumulated enough musical experience to wince at the over-the-top cheesy strings and gossamer choir lacquered on by Phil Spector. While the "...Naked" version is an improvement it's incomplete. At least the wisely end the album with "Get Back," the strongest song of the bunch but still a mere wisp compared to their best.

To their credit The Beatles knew that this was a failed experiment and shelved the album, not intending to release it. It was only after their official breakup that the record company dusted off the tapes and did their best to make a few more bucks off the backs of these blokes.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Music Review - Yellow Submarine Soundtrack

The Beatles already had a weekly cartoon series, mostly aimed at impressionable young children. At one point the decision was made to have them in an animated feature film but instead of the cheap animation style of the television cartoon the creators were able to up the ante with improved writing and experimental, psychedelic animation techniques. They aimed to reach higher and in doing so created a classic. This movie was one of my first introductions to The Beatles. Way back when, one of my brothers friends had a Betamax player (well, his dad did) and recorded the movie when it played in the middle of the night on the local independent station, WFFT 55, back when they played movies. Oddly they aired the movie without commercial breaks which is a good thing because there was barely enough tape left on the cassette. Now that I think about it, I don't remember ever watching the movie at their house, just being told of this amazing score.

The accompanying soundtrack to this movie was butter for my musical bread. Much like putting on a story record from Disney ("When you hear this tone BEEP turn the page") listening to this album was like watching the movie but without the movie because, you know, back in those days hardly anyone had a VHS or Betamax player and absolutely no one had blue ray or streaming video from Netflix.

I rather enjoyed the four obligatory original songs. The organ-drenched "Only A Northern Song" was weird yet melodic and I liked weird yet melodic. Still do. Only later did I learn that it was a jab at their publishing company*. I can't hear "All Together Now" without thinking about all those faces in bubbles robotically moving their mouths to the words. "It's All Too Much" isn't worth all that much to my mind (but it does have plenty of cowbell) but "Hey Bulldog" is pure gold! So enamored was I of this driving, rocking piano song that I made a pep band arrangement as part of a music theory class assignment in high school. Since our mascot was the bulldog you would think that the band director would have at least given it a run through, if not put it into our repertoire. Rejected! Or perhaps in 1988 it was considered too esoteric.

However it might be side B that has left the largest impact on my brain. This was my introduction to orchestral music, giving me an appreciation and understanding of how music can convey emotions without the use of words. “Pepperland” is cheerful with a hint of melancholy thanks to French horns while “Sea of Time” starts mysterious and pensive, later giving way to a bout of serenity before ushering in a tide of sweeping strings. “Sea of Monsters” was especially invigorating to my imagination with sawing cellos, serene flutes, weird percussion noises, a quote from the famous “Air on G String” by Bach and unusual melodic shifts. Plus I really liked monsters back then. “March of the Meanies” is total tension in two minutes twenty-two teconds.

In 1999 they redigitized and cleaned up all the proper Beatles songs on the soundtrack and rereleased the album. You can read the review I wrote back then here.

* If you know what a publishing company is then you can officially call yourself a music nerd.

Music Review - The Beatles - Yellow Submarine Remastered

As I brought the digitally scrubbed and remastered Yellow Submarine home I thought to myself, "Fool! You've been suckered into the hype! They convinced you to buy a CD of songs you already own!" My head low in shame, I played the CD anyway. The CD started with "Yellow Submarine" and through the verse I thought it sounded a bit cleaner and brighter but not much else. When the song came to the bridge with all the sound effects, however, I heard things I had never heard before, things that had been buried for twenty-five years under the noise of 1968 technology. By the time the first verse of "Eleanor Rigby" was past, I was a true believer. The strings are clear and individually defined with the cello especially being deep and rich. And so it went through each of the fifteen songs, hearing the bright glissando of Harris' sitar on "Love You To", the full horns on "All You Need Is Love", each song revealing nuances that were previously hidden. Through the process of tearing the music down to the original tracks the engineers have been able to bring these songs out of the comparative shadows of 1968 and into the digital brilliance of 1999. The instruments no longer sound muddled together but rather each one rings out with distinct clarity. With the success of this CD, I would not be surprised to see such treatment given to each Beatles album, with the appropriate fanfare, of course.

Not that everything is all roses with this release. Missing is the orchestral music that appeared on the first Yellow Submarine release, music which for myself and many others was an imaginative introduction to the orchestral world. While the songs are cleaner, they have been remixed, sometimes altering the balance of the instruments (McCartney's bass on "Hey Bulldog", for example, is now almost inaudible), something which might offend purists. For all the richness of this new release, the changes are mostly subtle nuances, a fuller guitar or a more velvety organ, things that are barely noticable except in a side-by-side comparison. The rabid fan like myself will buy the CD and spend many enjoyable hours with headphones intimately dripping the songs into their heads, noting the brilliance of the instruments and the vocal harmonies, but the average fan may wonder is he has been suckered into buying another copy of Anthology 1.

Short Story - Project Petman Avenger

I wrote this in the fall of 2013 as part of a writing challenge with Adam Sherwood.

Project Petman Avenger

Kyle knocked on the thin plywood-covered plank that served as a door in his dorm. Three seconds of silence prompted him to repeat his knock, pounding four swift hits that shook the door. Being this loud at home at two in the morning would have woken up his dad and gotten him grounded from something but here at school there were plenty of people still up and no one seemed to notice, especially on a nice Texas night light tonight. “YO!” came from inside the room, enough of a response that Kyle entered. His long-time friend, Duke, a nickname earned in fifth grade from constantly playing Duke Nukem, sat bathed in the glow of his laptop. So everything was right with the world.

“I got your text. What’s up?”

“I got another e-mail. About that new game, Project Petman Avenger? Stupid name… sounds like a kid’s game. I hope that’s just a working title while it’s in beta.”

“Oh, the shooter game?”

“Not just ANY shooter… wait ‘til you see this. It’s amazing! When this game hits the market, assuming they change the name, it’s gonna blow everything away. Here’s the e-mail that showed up a few minutes ago. It’s just like the last two.”


You are invited to test Project Petman Avenger, the latest in gaming technology. The below link will be will be active tonight only between the hours of 2:00 AM and 3:00 AM.

“That’s it?”

“Well, and the link.”

“Who’s it from? ID? GT?”

“Not a clue. The e-mail address is faked. I was able to trace it to a government domain but I’m sure that’s faked too. But enough talk, it’s already after two and I don’t want to waste any time on this engine.”

Duke double clicked the link, the browser churned for a few seconds and the screen flickered once, now reflecting the interior of a parked car. The view through the windshield revealed a typical residential subdivision street at night, though it seemed unusually due to the streetlights immediately fore and aft of the care being out. “The controls seem to be standard,” said Duke as he turned his character to the left and opened the door by pressing the Enter key.

Kyle leaned his lanky frame over Duke’s shoulder, his face about a foot away from the screen. “It’s pretty good but nothing mind-blowing.” He sat down on a padded chair next to Duke, wincing as various rancid odors perfumed the room.

“That’s because it’s dark and we’re not close to anything.”

A generic female voice came over the speakers: “Your mission for tonight: Eliminate the drug dealer at 8481 Walnut Mist Drive. Male, age sixty-eight.” A semi-transparent map appeared in the upper right-hand corner showing Duke’s location and 8481 Walnut Mist Drive, a couple of blocks away.

“That’s it for a story? How original,” complained Kyle.

“Yeah, I assume it’s because they’re still working on it. There’s also a pretty limited selection of weapons, pistols and stuff. No rocket launchers or pulse weapons. But… well, wait until you see it for yourself.”

Once Duke’s character started moving Kyle began to get more interested. “I’ll admit that the lighting effects are pretty good. Realistic bob in the walk algorithm.”

“And they’ve got water down perfectly. The stuff looks absolutely real instead of plastic. I’ll show you when we get inside unless I can find a puddle or something. And check this out,” he said, toggling to a diagnostic view. “It’s all happening on whatever server they’re running and then they stream it to me. My CPU is barely awake.”

By this time they were outside of a typical suburban house. “Some fancy drug lord house… You’d think that the designers would have had more imagination but it gets the job done.”

“So how do you get in,” asked Kyle. “Can you kick the door in or use a bomb?”

“It’s more of a stealth game, like Thief. I found out the first time that I played that the entire neighborhood is wired for sound. Make too much noise and lights start going on in houses, dogs bark and, I guess it was game over because my connection got dropped and I couldn’t get back on. The next time I was quieter. It’s also best to stay in the shadows as much as possible. Lemma take a look around.”

Dukes pudgy fingers maneuvered his character to the front door and deftly pressed a couple of keys. The camera moved naturally as his characters hand moved into view, gently trying the front door. Locked.

“Even in the darkness I can tell there’s a lot of textures. And the details are amazing, the worn door knob, a spot on the siding where it looks like it got hit by a baseball. The last house I was in even had bad paint jobs on the walls. But, yeah, there are a few drawbacks. Like you can’t switch to third person view, just first. But it’s a really good first. It almost looks like a real camera is mounted on your head!” Duke just smiled and made his character creep around the side of the house to the back door which was also locked.

“Can you pick the lock?”

“Not that I’ve found. All I have are my hands and a handgun with a silencer. The games pretty light on weapons. No rocket launchers or gas grenades or futuristic pulse weapons but since we’re here in the dark back yard let me show you something else. Everything, and I mean everything, is usable.” He turned his view to take in a typical suburban back yard, lit only by the moon and a bit of lights from the street in front of the house. “Like this.” We walked over to a two foot tall pot filled with small white flowers and pushed it over. The dirt spilled out onto the ground. He then reached forward and grabbed some of the flowers and shook them. “See the roots? And how the dirt clings to them? And how it falls off the roots?”

“Incredible! That’s a great physics engine!”

Then flowers were dropped, replaced by a handful of dirt. A squeeze and release revealed that the hand in the video was now dirty. Walking to the house Duke was able to make his character wipe his hand on the grey siding, leaving a realistic smudge. “You see? EVERYTHING is modeled. And if you shoot a wall, it stays there. If you break two dishes, each one breaks differently. It’s insane how much detail has been built into this thing. But now how to get in? Ah, a keypad lock! These things usually give you at least two tries before they go off.” He tried 1-2-3-4. Nothing. “What was the address on this place?”

“8481,” offered Kyle.

8481 did the trick as the lock snicked open. “Not very bright, are they?” Duke entered the house, leaving the door open a crack, and found he was in a laundry room where he picked up a handful of laundry and slowly dropped them back. “Everything is completely photorealistic. And I see the man of the house prefers boxers.“ He picked up a box of laundry soap and held it up to where you could read the warning, all without any kind of pixilation. “And it’s not just laundry. In the last house you could look at family photo albums, pick up and read books, open containers of food… anything and it’s all rendered perfectly!”

Duke turned the corner and saw a half bath, complete with poorly chosen floral wallpaper. He turned on the light, revealing the avatar in the mirror, covered head to toe in futuristic black military garb. The face was dominated by large goggles, the mouth by some kind of respirator or gas mask, leaving not a centimeter of flesh showing. The designers even incorporated the camera into the helmet design. “Watch this water simulation,” said Duke as he turned on the faucet, placing his hand under the water. “It’s almost like virtual reality! Once they wrap a proper game around this it’s going to be killer!” He lifted the lid of the toilet and flushed it, the water swirling convincingly, ending in a triple glug and slow refill.

A voice came over the speakers, male, older, slightly afraid. “You there! Is there someone down there?”

“Crap! I woke him up with the toilet. But I’m still connected so I haven’t lost yet.”

A short, horrible silence and then a woman’s voice. “Harold? What is it?”

“Shhh.” More silence. Meanwhile Duke slowly backed his character out of the bathroom, leaving the light on, and hid on the other side of the wall in the laundry room. A few hesitant creaks on the stairs told of Harold coming to investigate. Duke waited in the darkness.

The women spoke again, now closer, at the top of the stairs. “Harold? I probably just forgot to turn off the light. You’ve been so jumpy these last few months. I wish you’d just retire from that place.”

Silence from Harold but Duke and Lyle could almost feel him on the other side of the wall, straining to hear any wayward sound, their own hearts beating strongly in their chests. The light clicked off in the bathroom. “I guess you’re right.”

“Now watch this.” Duke stepped out from the laundry room in front of a short hallway, the stairs just to his left and a man in a bathrobe in front of him walking away. He must have made some sound in moving because Harold began to turn around. But Duke already had his gun out, squeezing off three well-aimed rounds, Harold making more noise than the gun itself, half in surprise, half in pain. The screen convincingly showed dark splatters of blood hitting the wall and begin to travel down. “That’s some detail!”

“Harold?! Are you okay?” said, Duke presumed, his wife as she scrambled down the stairs.

Kyle was impressed. “Characters on stairs are hard and this one has it down!”

“Check out her face! Realistic in every way. And the AI is, well, it’s like they’re real.”

By now the wife was down the stairs and running to her husband who was crumpled on the floor. In the darkness she couldn’t see the bullet wounds but as soon as she reached Harold she could feel their sticky moisture and smell the iron at which she looked up and saw Duke, her face, a wretched combination of fear and anguish. Duke didn’t give her a chance, using her face as a target.

“Not much of a challenge,” offered Kyle.

“Yeah, like I said, it’s all environment right now. Not much game play.”

The former generic female voiceover started up. “Exit the building and return to your car as quickly as possible.” “See? Not even a timer?” Duke obeyed, closing the door behind him quietly and making the round trip to his car at which time the screen faded to black and the connection dropped. “Would it have hurt them to add a few Dobermans or newspaper delivery guys?”

“All they need is to make some better scenarios. And that guy was just some old guy. He didn’t even look like a drug king pin. But yeah, they’ve got that world down! ”


“Thanks for joining us tonight on WANE TV Evening News. The city is still in shock over the double homicide of Harold and Marcy Dunaway which occurred last night. Police believe the couple interrupted a break in at their home but are currently without a suspect. Harold was an outspoken member of our community and a Vice President at Raytheon. Very sad. And speaking of defense contractors, a little bit later we’ll get a look at a project called Petman from Boston Dynamics, the latest in robot technology. But first, Peter, what kind of weather are you giving Fort Wayne this next week?”

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Music Review - The Beatles - The Beatles

And now kids we arrive at The White Album a double album which I shall attempt to ingest whole because I'm just that way.

About one year earlier they had recorded their magnum opus, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album so "magnum opus" that it's name can even today be used in place of "magnum opus." So how do you follow up something like that? The best songs from the album immediately following (Magical Mystery Tour, in case you weren't following along closely) were songs written and recorded while they were making Sgt. Peppers so now it's back to the studio. Except egos are starting to grow and the urge to fly on one's own is growing stronger.

Instead of letting the band take a breather and a break and a chance to make their solo albums the record company herded them back into the studio. The result is a heavily fragmented album containing more than a few solo songs. Following this album they tried to heal some wounds and recapture the magic and fun of their early years (Let It Be) and then realizing that it was over decides to go out in style (Abby Road). But I'm getting ahead of myself. As a kid I didn't know anything about album order and band arguments or anything. All I had was the music.

My favorite songs were on the first disc, though the second is not without charm. Though I had many favorites, top of the heap was probably "Martha My Dear", so much so that I eventually learned how to play the first thirty seconds or so on the piano. Sheer muscle memory... can't apply it to anything else but at least I can dust this off for an impressive "Guitar Center" moment. I especially like the chuffing strings! And speaking of "Guitar Center", my GC song is "Blackbird" which I learned to play compliments of a "Learn to Play The Beatles" CD-Rom. Again, it's impressive but complete muscle memory. Hey everyone! I can fingerpick... on just this one song. It's sad, really.

I dig the swooping bass line of "Dear Prudence" which shows that McCartney is still experimenting with inventive bass lines and "Glass Onion" is odd and kooky with many references to other Beatles songs, a kind of "Walrus" sequel. "Wild Honey Pie" and "Revolution 9", while not favorites, exhibit the "anything goes" feel of the album and are thus essential... for the skip button. I was rather keen on "Bungalow Bill" and "Rocky Raccoon"* as a child but that affection has waned. On the other hand "I'm So Tired" has grown in my admiration, especially when we have an infant on the premises. The beautifully mournful "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" was and remains a personal favorite.

At this point I find myself saying "I like that one. And this one. Oh, and don't forget that one." Suck it up or quit reading.

"Happiness is a Warm Gun" is a mish-mash of three different songs and it's angular weirdness and loopy Lennon lyrics still find a cherished home in my heart even though it still confuses me. Another favorite, then and now, is "Piggies" with its harpsichord, string quartet, and twisted nursery rhyme feel. I was around twelve when I learned that Manson liked this song, thanks to the movie Helter Skelter. I was pretty much unsupervised in my television viewing choices.

That's about it for the first album, or at least the songs I enjoy.

The second platter opens with the raucous "Birthday", a fun little number to play on the bass. The first song I really liked on this platter, though, is "Sexy Sadie" I never understood the song growing up because the title had nothing to do with the lyrics but later found out that it was originally titled Maharishi", a disappointed, disillusioned song against the Indian yogi they had been studying under. "Helter Skelter" also had a large number of plays, foreshadowing my continuing love of heavy yet melodic music. Is there a pig stuck in the bass guitar? This "loudest song ever" is immediately followed by the subdued Harrison penned "Long, Long, Long", a skipper in my youth but one I've come to appreciate more as it fits well with All Things Must Pass. "Honey Pie" always made me smile, a music hall styled song that reminded me greatly of "When I'm 64." The electric piano and raunchy horns of "Savory Truffle" made for a tasty treat on the ears** both then and now. Maybe this song with inspire me to dust off my studio gear and record a Fluid Imbiber cover... The chorus of the simple yet endearing "Cry Baby Cry" is frequently on my mind when I'm surrounded by crying children and is the last great song on this double album. And no, I didn't listen to all of "Revolution 9" while writing this review. Much like genealogies in the Bible, it's good enough to hear it once and then skip over it.

* I had no idea who Gideon was but Rocky Raccoon sounded like a cartoon character so I liked it.

** Yeah, sorry about that but it was such low hanging fruit I had to go for it.