Monday, January 5, 2015

Book Review: The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle
Probably one of the best books about the I Ching and Nazism ever written.  Probably.

Well, everyone who is anyone knows that Philip K. Dick is one of those writers whose books have at least two levels to them- batshit crazy and profoundly moving. Much like Vonnegut, in Mr. Dick I found an author whose books I devoured when I was a wee lad, and am now reading them again and find myself (gasp!) getting a lot more out of them as I get older and wrinklier. He is a challenging dude to read, for sure, but man, such good stuff.

I remember when I first read this book- I had a really hard time getting into it.  It might have been all the hexagram talk, or the weird "what is actually happening here?" vibe, or the stilted Japanese thought patterns used by everyone on the west coast in the story.  Or it could have been the fact that I was 12, and the only fantasy I had read at that point consisted of the Xanth trilogy.

Which was also an awesome series of books (at least through Question Quest, before it got super creepy and old man pedo-flavored).  Comparing the two, however, is like comparing Rocky with Ricky 1.

Hint- the difference is not in the size of the posters.

So what would I call this book?  Fantasy?  Science Fiction?  Speculative Fiction?  I think it can be given any of those labels, but it doesn't fit neatly into any of them.  This is the type of novel, dear readers, that transcends those kind of boundaries and became something bigger, something much more than the sum of its parts.  To judge a book like this using those shallow genre criteria would be akin to analyzing Hulk Hogan's wrestling career simply in terms of how realistic his leg drop looked.

Leg Drop from the High Castle.

On the surface it seems a pretty standard, albeit very well written, "What If?" story, positing a world where Germany and Japan (and Italy, sort of) win WWII and split the world up into two zones. They then immediately vie for domination. There is also some space travel thrown in.  It follows a few weeks in the lives of various characters who are loosely connected to each other and scattered throughout what is left of the United States after the war, the country having been split into three different areas: one run by the Japanese, one by the Germans, and a bit in the middle, around the Rocky Mountains, which has been left alone, at least for now.  Everyone in the book is painted with varying shades of miserable, even the "victors".  Not a happy world, for sure.  Mostly, they are trying to get by, and do the best they can in a world they clearly don't belong in.

So, nothing too interesting, right?   Throw in some sparkly douchebags, and it could be Twilight.  Been there, done that.  Well, except . . . the characters don't seem to fit into their own narratives. There is a sense of wrongness which pervades the book.  Not just in what the characters say, or do, but in how the very book is written.  Nothing really seems to belong, and what the hell does the I Ching have to do with anything?

As always with his books, there is much more to say. This is much more a meditation on perception and reality, on what we choose to believe, to compromise every moment of the day just to get through life relatively unscathed.  This book has been very influential on me as a writer, and in fact was one of the main inspirations for my own novel, Endtyme (cheapest of cheap plugs!).  The way that Mr. Dick plays with reality and narratives was groundbreaking at the time, and you can see the influence everywhere (Inception comes immediately to mind, as does Mayhem's Order Ad Chao album).

Our High Castle goes to the 11th floor.  Eh?  Eh?

Regarded as a classic, and for good reason. If you have read it already, awesome.  I will buy you three "literati" beers.  If you haven't- c'mon, bro.  Be cool.  Read it- trust me.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Game Review: Stick It To The Man

Stick It To The Man
Point And Stick (get it?  Eh? Eh?)

To give y'all a bit of a background, the "Point N Click" graphic adventure games have always been my favorite genre.  As a young lad, growing up in a small Rage Cage, my brothers and I would spend hours pouring over text adventures like Jinxed, Zork, Wayfarer . . . oh man, good times.  Then, graphic adventures happened, and we immediately spent the next 5 years swooning over the epic great times of games like Monkey Island, Indiana Jones, Maniac Mansion, Kings Quest, Space Quest (Oh Goddamn Space Quest), and countless others.  These games were probably some of the few that we would all play together, helping each other solve the puzzles, giggling over the humor (Goddamn Space Quest) and raging (tm) over the cheap deaths inherent therein.  While the evolution of games over the last 15 years have brought some sweet, sweet things, one of the saddest losses, for me, was the old Point N' Click.  They were left by the wayside as companies began putting out waves of identikit platformers, sports games, FPSs, MMOs, and a number of other fun acronyms.  The lowpoint for me was when King's Quest 8 was released as a crappy clone of Tomb Raider:

I think that Satan guy wants to play a different game.  Probably one that gives a damn.

There was a huge lull for me after the two Discworld games came out on the Playstation.  For the next two generations, almost 10 years, I pretty much had to do without graphic adventures (not being a PC gamer).  Then, with the rise of the Wii, and it's sexy pointer controls, those games began to come back on home systems (along with the increased output from Tell Tale games).   There were some changes to the structure, of course, but to me these last four years have been such a great nostalgic trip.  Good times for adventure fans (and a cheap plug for my upcoming "favorite adventure games" entry).

Awesome intro aside, we now arrive at Stick It To The Man.  It's available on tons of platforms.  I played through it on my shiny Wii U, but all versions are more or less the same.  To put it simply, I loved this game.  It's essentially an old school game, with it's focus on puzzle solving and story over action.  The main premise is that the main character (a fantastic, Homer-esque lovable loser) can read minds.  Everyone's minds.  This is the gameplay concept that creates all the comic situations in the game. And these moments of hilarity are legion.  You move from level to level by helping everyone solve their problems, which could range from giving an old man a new toupee to fixing a women's teeth to helping a crazy old dude catch a zombified whale.  Great writing, awesome graphics (done in a cool diorama/paper cut style), kick ass voice acting . . .  this game is awesome.  Play it, you bastards.  And, for busy sumbitches like me, the length was perfect, at a few hours for the first playthrough.  Anyone who, like me, misses the days of huddling around an old Amiga, working through the first scene of Space Quest I at 1130 at night, owes it to themselves to give this one a whirl.  Doubt me?  click on this trailer and tell me you don't want some:

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Music Review: Hoth

'Tis the season.  The season of occasional drama, frequent drinking, and massive amounts of eating, but predominately of giving.  Speaking of giving, what franchise has given more to our culture than Star Wars? Movies, books, TV Shows, Christmas specials, toys, video games, bed sheets, conventions, Rule 34 . . . the list goes on and on.  It's about time we gave something back, isn't it?  With that in mind, I present you Hoth.

Hoth, a Star Wars themed Black Metal band.

And yes, it is as kick ass as that sounds.

Hoth: Oathbreaker
Very FORCEful.  Get it?  Get it?  Heh.

I never would have thought to do something like this, mostly because I am unoriginal as fuck.  Listening to this makes me wish I had sent more time in Creativity 101, because once you hear it, the only thing left to say is "why didn't someone do this before?"  Much like the planet itself, Hoth (by the way, check out the logo- saucy) is cold, unrelenting, brutal, and beautiful.  The theme of this album is basically the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker and it's covered here much better than in the prequel trilogy.  They do such a good job, in fact, that I am almost tempted to go back and watch that god awful series of films again, which previously would only have happened if George Lucas came to my house on a flat bed truck carrying a champagne hot tub, 5 women dressed as Slave Girl Leia, and a Rancor working as bartender.

The production is great.  There are multiple styles of vocals weaving into, out of, and over each other, like the victims of the Sarlacc Pit.  The lyrics match the theme perfectly, and unlike most concept albums, which tend to collapse under the own weight like a hobbled AT-AT, here the concept manages to drive the album forward.  This is black metal of the speedy epic variety, with many of the songs building up to killer choruses which could cause dangerous amounts of light saber waving.  Some kick ass riffage happening here, too, with lots of galloping guitars, drums following closely behind- a rhythmical Chewbacca.

Check this album out.  This is a shining example of a core concept, brilliantly executed.  Still not sure?  Rock this track.  There is no try.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Game Review: Thomas Was Alone

Thomas Was Alone
Pong Meets The Goonies.

I know it has been out for a few years now, but bear with me.  I just got it on the Wii U, and don't play games on my computer because keyboards give me anxiety issues.  I often hear lots of hype about some indie type games that I never get a chance to play, and this one has been on my radar for some time.  I finally got a chance to pick it up and have been playing it all weekend and, man, it lives up to the hype.

Essentially a platformer, with some puzzley bits thrown in, where Thomas Was Alone succeeds is in drawing you completely into its world.  By the end you will be rooting for Thomas, Claire, John, Christian, and the rest of the gang.  You'll have your favorite character.  You will really BOND with the people in this game. The world itself will become alive.  The music, story, and gameplay all come together to create this unified experience.  The goal of the game is simple: lead your rag tag squad of characters from one end of the level to the other. They each have their own personalities and powers, and only by working as a team will they succeed. It is never very challenging, but finding the end of every level is always satisfying. The best part?

It looks like this:

 Thomas is the rectangular one.

In an age of hyper realistic graphics, 150 million dollar budgets, and the endless quest to make games more like movies (and less and less like games) comes this gem.  It is abstract by choice and the minimalism is in stark contrast to the big budget games of today.  However, if someone asked me why, as a 37 year old man, I still play games, after punching them repeatedly in the face I would have them rock a few minutes of Thomas.  I started with Pong and, after 30 years, my current favorite game is so Pong ish that I feel like breaking into Circle Of Life a few times a day.

Well done, sirs.  If you have not played this yet, I would highly recommend checking it out.  It won't change your life, but it might remind you why you liked games in the first place.

Music Review: Spirits of the Dead

A few reviews back, whilst talking about some killer black metal/viking bands (Skogen FTW!) I mentioned Einherjer.  Now, anyone who isn't familiar with Einherjer, and calls themselves a metal fan should rip off their denim jacket right now and trade it in for a pair of spandex rave pants.  Killer, killer band.  I have fond memories of blasting Odin Owns Ye All whilst driving around the back alleys of Monmouth County en route to White Castle.  I loved that album.  Still do, in fact.  While Einherjer is still around (and shall be reviewed soon), they have gone back to their blackened, deathy roots, so whatever happened to the vocalist on that album?  Simple- he went on to form an awesome prog rock band.  Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Spirits of the Dead.

Either the world's best T Shirt or the world's most complicated tramp stamp.

Spirits of the Dead: Recollections of a Presence

I tend to approach Prog rock like I approach the groupies who try to get into The Rage Cage: from the side, with a large stick.  I find most of it to be more ponderous then emotionally engaging.  Through Google snooping, however, I came across this band and once I saw that it was the same vocalist who sang on that timeless release mentioned above, I had to check it out.

And, long story short, I am glad I did.  I love this album- the guitars sounds so raw, the bass is EVERYWHERE (like Marlon Brando at Sizzler's), and the songs are long but interesting, which is not easy to pull off.  Vocally, the singer keeps it pretty light, pretty mellow, but his style fits the music perfectly.  So, not metal, mostly, but nice Sunday morning post rager music.  Like most prog stuff (to me, at least) it tends to blend together, but the riffs . . . ah, the riffs.  Not something I'd headbang too, but perhaps something I would tap the top of my skull pile to while greeting my warriors in some futuristic cannibal bar.  There are elements of metal, rock, prog, sludge, doom, etc etc.  Here is a personal highlight for you to check out yourself, you proggy bastards.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Music Review: Solstafir

Sometimes even the greasy inhabitants of the Rage Cage (patent totally pending) need a bit of down time.  A chance to step away from the flaming pentagrams, howling skulls, and demonic visions that normally make up our Saturday morning easy listening time.  But where does one go when one wants to mellow out, but still be a somber, cynical bastard- the type of guy that is a huge hit at the late night Goth Clubs?  Well, one option, and one I do often, is to crank up these guys, preferably with a glass of wine in one hand and a hat filled with tears in the other.

I think I worked with this guy at a gas station once.

Solstafir: Otta
Music for walking in slow motion away from a collapsing glacial shelf.

This is a beautiful album, and I am totally not being ironic.  From Iceland, or something like that, I dunno, comes a band that describes themselves (on their website anyway) as "Heathen Cowboy Bastards" and that totally fits.  Great melodies, cool songs, awesome vocals, and lots of little bits to round out everything into one killer package.  Liberal, and welcome, use of piano and a definite western guitar vibe in many of the tunes creates the kind of album that both the heavy heavy folks and the languid hipster folks can both enjoy.  Really good.  I bought this just because of the album cover, and it has become one of my most surprising finds of the year.  Well worth checking out.  Here is a sweet, sweet taste:

Music Review: Skogen

I love Melodic Death metal as much as the next greasy metal head, especially of the viking/pillaging variety. Amon Amarth is always a good time, especially their new album, which is super killer.  To this day, I listen to Einherjer's Odin Owns Ye All at least once a week.  When I see a review that starts with the words Folk, Viking, or Melodic, with some death metal tags attached, I am usually all in, especially if it has the proper ratio of Valkyries to Fire Gods on the cover.  Once in a while, though, I want my vikings to be bleak instead of rollicking- I want songs about the wretched few days after the epic battle, as opposed to the "check out my huge sword totally not a stand in for anything else I promise".  So, where does one go for that?  Well, here's one place, dear readers.

Now that, THAT, is an album cover.

Skogen- I Doden 

This is what happens when you combine the stark minimalism of Black Metal (complete with grindy guitars and raspy vocal churn) with the folkish stylings talked about above.  Since all of the lyrics are in some language other than 'Merican, I don't know how many songs wax poetically about the glories of battle and so forth, but based on the cover and the general vibe of the music, I would say very little.

Musically, this acts as a neat gap between the more melodic side of the folk metal spectrum and the harrowing sounds of your average Black Metal groups.  There are some clean guitar parts, a few clean singing bits, but most of this is more along the extreme side of the music line.  The songs tend to swirl around a few central riffs, but man, what riffs they are.  You get the impression that these are the songs for the vikings left behind, watching their fellows fly off to Valhalla while they stay there bleeding out into the snow.

The production is perfect for music like this, with the buzzing guitars underlying everything.  Yiu can even hear the bass, which is always a nice plus on Black Metal albums.  If you are into vikings, but think sometimes the songs might get a bit too gallopy (and don't even get me started on Alestorm), this might be right up your alley.   Check out this song, turn the lights off, and pour out some mead for your dead homies: