Archive for December, 2010

h1

Review: Rock Band 3

December 31, 2010

Buy it from Amazon

2010 was a great year for music games, at least in terms of the sheer number of choices available to fans of the genre. We saw the release of Dance Central, Def Jam Rapstar, DJ Hero 2, Just Dance 2, Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, and the latest versions of Dance Dance Revolution. For me, there was only one game that mattered: Rock Band 3. The latest Rock Band game made huge improvements to the series with the incorporation of multiple vocal lines from the Beatles and Green Day games, addition of keyboards (finally!) and establishment of pro modes so I’m reminded how much I couldn’t cut it as a real musician. The steady accumulation of downloadable content (henceforth abbreviated as dlc) and content exported from the other RB games has allowed Kathy and me to build up a pretty sizable library. Looking at my song list I feel like a karaoke DJ.

Even with tons of dlc, the main game’s song lineup is refreshingly diverse. Highlights for me include Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Rammstein’s “Du Hast,” and Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab.” I also have a new appreciation for both Dio and Smash Mouth. Props to Harmonix for including Spanish and German-language songs. While Juanes is not my cup of tea, I realize that the dude is incredibly popular and it is nice to see a music game publisher recognize the diversity of its audience.

Game progression has improved, allowing for more choice and less repetitive grinding. No longer will players have to play a “random difficult drum song,” knowing that it will be “Spoon Man,” “Pinball Wizard,” or “Chop Suey” (if you put a lot of time into Rock Band 2’s World Tour mode, you know what I mean). Goal Progression can be done in Quickplay, Tour Mode, or Career Progression, where players can view their goal lists and directly attack challenges in the game.

One of the features of the Rock Band franchise that has gone underrated in the opportunity to create a band of custom avatars. What changes from the main previous games in the series is the increased emphasis on story. Taking cues from Lego Rock Band, the game inserts your avatars into cutscenes depicting their formation and growth as you complete challenges. You’ll see them get shortchanged at their first gig, play a festival on the West Coast, and arrive in Japan to screaming throngs of fans. It’s really cool to see this motley crew (get it?) that you made acting outside of the main stage as more fully formed characters.

As for the character creator itself, it is just as fabulous as it was in Rock Band 2. There are more customization options for characters’ faces and bodies (almost enough to rival a Sims game). As for outfits, there are not a ton of changes from the previous go-rounds. The money system of acquiring outfits from the previous games has been replaced with an unlock system. Players earn articles of clothing by completing certain goals. This replaces the old tour mode grind and forces players to learn the Rock Band 3 songs, since many of the clothing-related goals are still tied to the core game. I’m resigned to not acquiring some of the items since they are tied to pro mode goals and as I’ve written before, I’m just not going to get that good.

This brings us to some of the disappointments in an otherwise stellar title. First, the game has many bugs. Before it got patched, loading screens would freeze, forcing hard resets. Some characters move weirdly or fade into their clothes in unnatural ways. One time I was playing a two-song setlist and after the first song I got kicked out of the game and sent to my PS3’s main menu. Luckily, my progress was saved. The game’s bugs aren’t deal breakers and the game is 98% playable, but the periodic bugs can be annoying.

Second, multiplayer is difficult for the wrong reasons. Playing a road challenge in the game’s tour mode requires communication among your band to get full completions and unlock more items. In road challenges, players are tasked to not only play songs well, but also fulfill conditions such as sustaining the enhanced-score overdrive, going into overdrive a certain number of times, or hitting a certain number of notes with each player taking turns to hit that number. The problems occur when one player gets designated in a difficult section and they just can’t hit that sequence, or timing overdrive is crucial but vocals and drums have limited control over when they can go into overdrive. Either way, there’s trouble.

Regarding dlc, I would like to see more content beyond music. While you can pay for Doors and Who T-Shirts for your avatars, I have a feeling those items were on the disc and you’re just paying to unlock them. I’d like to see new ensembles come out as often as songs. For more on this, Lisa Foiles has a neat article on Kotaku advocating for more crossover between fashion and gaming. As for the music content, offerings have been solid, but pretty conservative. Can we get something that was recorded in the past ten years? Nonetheless, I hope the Bee Gees dlc may be a sign of things to come.

The game includes a very deep tutorial mode to get players into playing the pro modes which simulate real instrumentation. It’s cool that you can learn to play scales and chords on keyboard and guitar, but the tutorials could be more user-friendly. In Rock Band 2, instrument tutorials included text, illustrations of someone properly playing the instrument, video demonstrations, and a play-through. In Rock Band 3, the only demo video you get is a quick intro to how the pro guitar interface works. The keyboard tutorial is text and playthrough-only, and the text directions for finger placement fail to communicate how a piano is supposed to be properly played. I may complete the tutorial lessons eventually, but I doubt I’ll really learn to play keyboards. Developer Harmonix assumes a level of musicality in their audience that may not always be there. This tutorial system would have been improved through an instruction system that appeals to a variety of learning styles.

Overall, the real value of the game comes from the sheer number of things to do and the opportunities to personalize the experience. The technical problems don’t break the game and can be fixed with future patches. Rock Band 3 is a fantastic experience with tons of music, customization, replay value, and just good times rocking out. It’s my game of the year!

 

h1

Review: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

December 30, 2010

Buy it and stream clips on Amazon

Summary: Hip-hop’s most successful eccentric since Kool Keith uses every trick in his book to bang out 13 catchy and difficult songs about the continuing journeys of a man made weak and unique by his conflicting desires.

Fun Facts

  • While it was in development, the album’s original title was Good Ass Job. Then the whole hijacking Taylor Swift’s VMA acceptance speech happened (not the first time), there was a public backlash, and Kanye had to go think about how things were going.
  • Kanye released about 25% of this album for free as part of his “G.O.O.D. Fridays” promotion, where he gave away a different new free song, every Friday (though sometimes they wouldn’t really drop until Saturday). “Monster,” “So Appalled,” and “Devil In A New Dress,” (which are all next to each other in the album track listing), were all part of the promotion. If you want to check out the album without dropping $10-13, many of the songs from the promotion should still be up on his website. You can get several cool songs that didn’t make the album (my favorites are “Chain Heavy” and “Christian Dior Denim Flow”) as well get a taste of the overall aesthetic of the album, which these songs share.
  • This occurred to me on a recent trip to the National Gallery of Art in D.C.: One of the recurring images West uses in the album’s artwork, promotional campaign, and related live performances is the ballerina, though upon several listens of the album I did not catch a single mention of ballerinas or dancers. Another artist who used frequently used ballerinas as subjects was the French semi-impressionist painter/sculptor Edgar Degas. Degas and West actually have a few things in common. Both derived their early works from the art of others (Degas drew several hundred copies of Italian Renaissance art; West built his best beats from old soul samples). Both are associated with specific genres and scenes (Degas with impressionism, West with mainstream hip-hop via Jay-Z and Roc-a-fella), but neither produced work that quite fit into those communities and sometimes distanced themselves from those networks. Both expressed anti-social tendencies in interacting with the public and both seemingly encouraged public perceptions of them as misanthropes. Degas died friendless due to his hostile tendencies and anti-Semitism. West has pulled some jerk moves in the 7+ years he has been in the limelight, but nothing so dire or unforgivable. (all Degas info from Wikipedia)
  • Note: I haven’t seen West’s 30+ minute “Runaway” video in its entirety, but one reason for its length is that it contains music from a good chunk of the other songs on the album. As such, I haven’t linked to previews for all of the songs.

Ups

  • On the production side of things, Kanye relies on the moves that helped make him a top producer and fuses them together with just enough variety and novelty to avoid rehashing. He goes back to sampling old R&B records, though there’s far less of his signature chipmunking. Occasionally he reaches for a higher-profile rock sound, like when he samples King Crimson on “Power,” but that’s no “oh snap!” moment like when he rapped over Daft Punk back in 2007. He uses lots of vocal processing, but it isn’t cleaned or robotic. It’s more like when his voice is pitched low and pasted onto itself to create an otherworldly feeling on “Dark Fantasy,” or on “Blame Game” when it’s panned around the stereo mix to sound like voices in his head (seriously, it’s quite the trip for your earbuds), or when he does an Imogen Heap impression at the start of “Lost In The World.” And sometimes, Kanye doesn’t process himself at all. He’s gotten more confident in his singing ability that he can go out on stage and lead a singalong or hold his own with John Legend. Meanwhile on the beat side, West rarely uses the same kind of drum track twice. For example he sticks to the basic drum samples on “Runaway” and “Dark Fantasy,” uses some off kilter rave beats on “All Of The Lights,” puts the lo-fi drum track way back in the mix on “Gorgeous,” and finishes the album off with some reverbed tribal drumming on “Lost In The World.”
  • One of the recurring themes in Kanye West’s work is duality. Lyrically the album continues the familiar West themes of gratification vs. guilt (“So Appalled,” “Gorgeous”) professional braggadocio vs. personal failure (“Runaway,” “Blame Game”), and challenging social conventions vs. buying into them (“Hell Of A Life,” “Dark Fantasy”). Longtime West listeners know he likes to use homonyms in his raps and unpack the multiple meanings of a word (which often results in a simultaneously clever and annoying habit of rhyming words with themselves). Considering that, there’s a reason “Power” and “All Of The Lights” and “Monster” are right next to each other on the album since those three songs each turn on their keywords. “Monster” is one of my favorite songs on the album. On its surface it’s an incredibly catchy dancehall-esque party track with West, Jay-Z, and Nicki Minaj celebrating their monster talents as MCs and the power they hold as professional entertainers, but as Jay-Z illustrates when he compares himself to a sasquatch, a ghoul and Godzilla, monsters are often feared and hated as a consequence of the powers they hold. The song celebrates that paradoxically ugly beauty.
  • As has been pointed out elsewhere, the only really double-take moment on the album is Nicki Minaj’s verse on “Monster.” Minaj stands out because as a fairly new talent she comes out hard, seamlessly morphs her voice into her array of characters like she’s Hank Azaria, keeps up her flow, sounds like she’s having a good time, and just plain kicks ass. Otherwise, most of the guests hold their own with few really stinking up the joint.
  • Overall Kanye mixes up his tricks (for both production and choice of guests) enough that nothing feels like a gimmick. On this album, it’s clear that West has an idea of what he wants to say, and he will arrange the elements in such a way that nothing overshadows the meaning of the song. The songs really cohere in a tapestry and aim for a consistent good over a series of moments.

Downs

  • For an album where many of the tracks are over five minutes long, there aren’t too many duds here, though a few songs unnecessarily meander. While some songs are fine in the extended length because there’s enough varied content within (West raps and sings in “Blame Game,” there are maybe five guys sharing time on “So Appalled”), I can’t justify the length of others. The sore thumb is the extended outro of “Runaway.” Though West’s super vocoding is cool the first time around, it almost doubles the length of the song. In a concert setting I understand. The purpose of a musician noodling onstage for 5 minutes is to (1) show off his/her technical prowess and (2) give everyone else in the band time to go get a drink of water backstage. In a studio setting though, this just comes off as pointlessly indulgent.
  • Devil In A New Dress” reminds me of some of the weaker moments in The College Dropout with its lethargic pace, vanilla soul sample, and ridiculous rapping (though it’s worth at least one listen when Rick Ross shows up at the end and does the musical equivalent of scenery chewing).
  • Maybe I’m misinterpreting things, but a recurrence in the lyrics seems to be the porn star/stripper (juxtapose those lyrics with the ballerina pics). When West fixates on sex, he does it in a puerile, visceral, and sometimes creepy way, similar to Goichi Suda’s work on the Killer7 and No More Heroes video games. While West admits this and sometimes criticizes himself for his behavior (mostly on “Runaway”), the subject matter can still be as adolescent as a crunk song (“Hell of a Life”) and as resentful as an emo song (“So Appalled”). Chris Rock’s post-coital outro on “Blame Game” is as ridiculous as Rick Ross’s appearances on the album, but the narrator’s fixation on all the things his woman does in the bedroom makes it seem even crasser (though it makes sense coming from Rock, a comedian who has been incredibly sharp and funny when riffing on race and class issues but has demonstrated a somewhat misogynistic view when making jokes concerning men vs. women and relationship dynamics). I don’t know, maybe the sheer ridiculousness of the way the ribald subject matter is conveyed is meant to show how shallow that kind of fixation is and cast the protagonists in the light of depravity (kind of like the aforementioned video games). Then again, it’s unfair to single out West and co. for acting like teenagers when so many artists in pop culture (music and otherwise) do the same thing. At least West undercuts the objectification celebration in the lyrics with bleak beats to show something is amiss. I guess my point is that I sometimes felt uncomfortable, and maybe that was how I was supposed to feel.

Conclusion: MBDTF is very much a return to form for Kanye West in terms of both lyrical themes and production style. It’s denser and more difficult than his earlier work, though I feel there are fewer actual duds on this album than on his last two. I’ll admit that it’s difficult to root for Kanye or the way he conducts himself in public. I can understand a reluctance to buy the album in that one could make the argument that buying the album is enabling the asshole. However, I feel that here he has made an interesting record chock full of introspection and cultural criticism concealed in a baker’s dozen of club bangers. This is one of my top albums of 2010.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.