Leftfield – Leftism

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The problem with approaching Electronic music is that it demands such a radically different style of listening. Everyone used to moan back in ’06 how uhn-tiss isn’t real music. It was stupid, but after checking Electronic music they had a point. How the music worked was so different in function and form that at first all you could think was ‘it’s just repetitive bullshit for mindless drones’.

There was rarely, if ever, a melodic hook or a catchy riff to hold on to. Nowadays we have the build-up-and-bass-drop structure, but all it does is borrow the verse-chorus-verse and remove the vocals. Tracks went on for 9 minutes, sounding both like they’re not changing and like they’re in a new place. Electronic music was confusing, and I wasn’t sure when I began my exploration what to look for. I knew there was an element of danceability to it, elements of progressive structure and elements of atmospherics. I just couldn’t make it gel together, couldn’t find the larger context to put it in.

Leftism is the go-to album for anyone who wants to get into actual Electronic music. Compared to other popular Electronic acts – whether it’s the Big Beat of Prodigy or the loud Brostep of Skrillex or the Pop style of Daft Punk – this is ‘real Electronica’. I don’t mean it in a snobbish way, since all the aforementioned artists are quite awesome. It’s that they won’t help you understand how Electronica works in general. They adapt other genres into Electronica so you can headbang to the Prodigy as if it were a Rock band with better drumbeats.

What Leftfield do here is combine a variety of genres into one cohesive whole without having a larger aim besides being danceable. Leftfield’s strength is that their music looks to the mainstream while not straying from how Electronica works. The problem with Orbital and Underworld is that they were too artistic, too weird for anyone who only listened to the Pop radio.

The most notable difference is that Leftfield’s drums hit harder. Underworld and Orbital never made something so dancefloor friendly like “Afro-Left” and “Release the Pressure”. These songs are more concerned with grooves, with how the drums feel to the ear. The layers upon layers of sound are there – what self-respecting Electronica act doesn’t have these? – but you’re not supposed to look for it.

Leftfield’s music is warmer and more inviting. The build-ups are ambient, but they’re easy ambient, a collection of happy, gentle sounds. “Release the Pressure” defines their modus operandi with the ambient intro and the hard drums that kick in. It shows their influence from other genres by adapting a quasi-Reggea bit and vocals. The usage of vocals in the ambient intro also helps to ease into the genre. By the time the drumless “Melt” appears, you’re used to it.

This warmth is the real key to Leftfield’s brilliance. It’s not music for raves where everyone is already on drugs or knows the music. The album wants everyone to join in. Many genres are here besides house – Downtempo on “Original”, Big Beat on “Inspection” and Drum’n’Bass on “Storm 3000” and the result is this kaleidoscope that fascinated by how beautiful music can be. There’s totality to this record. If someone told me this is their all-time favorite record, I wouldn’t be surprised.

There’s a song here called “Song of Life” and I couldn’t think of a better title for a Leftfield song with how everything here brims with life-affirming energy. People have this weird aversion to Dance music, as if only music that’s depressed is serious and has ‘content’. Yet this album leaves me with a sense of wonder that no extremely technical guitar solo can achieve. They put “Melt” in the same album as “Open Up”, because you can both chill and marvel at the stars before (or after) you start a moshpit – because why not? They pile layers of sound in “Afro-Left” and let it change as it goes on, because a song can be both progressive and a banger. Every song has clear hooks, whether it’s the drums or the bass or just sounds that stick out. Electronica doesn’t have to be difficult. A listener doesn’t have to play the song over and over until he finds all the layers but can already hop in.

The highlight is actually “Space Shanty”, which wasn’t released as a single. Every time I listen to it I’m surprised by how well constructed it is, yet how hard it bangs. It’s also the definitive House track, since the elements of repetition and progression are prominent in it, feeding off each other without negating each other.. All of the loops that drive the song change a little as it goes on. The BPM remains the same, but the climax sounds nothing like the intro. At the same time, there’s a separation between loops that create a groove and loops that provide atmosphere. No House track summed the genre as well as that one.

If you haven’t started exploring Electronic music, you should. This is where you should start your journey. Some tracks show you the more experimental and artistic side of things. Others just want to make you dance. There are a few that do both and there’s, of course, “Space Shanty”. Best of all, this album sounds like a monument. Nothing about it hints it was just a collection of singles and some new tracks. If music’s purpose is to connect people, to make us happy and love our life a little then no one has a reason to avoid this.

4 inspections out of 5

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Toradora

toradoraNote: this series has been dropped at episode 14

Unlike the main protagonist of this anime, I do not have much strength to withstand torture. Put me in the clutches of a diabolical serial killer/torturer, and I have no idea what I’d do. Ryuji, our hero, is one of a kind. Bards should sing about him in taverns all across Tamriel. For 14 episodes, he stands Taiga’s relentless abuse with a smile.

In one of the greatest songs ever written, the extremely white lead singer of the Smiths sings about how it’s so easy to laugh and so easy to hate. Kindness and gentleness are difficult, and I do agree with him. That said, I wonder if the band and their fanbase would change their mind if they saw the anime. Actually, considering how huge this anime is, becoming iconic in the school genre – I think they won’t.

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I’m a defender of the school genre. Many rant about how immature and derivative it is, but few people didn’t go to school. A lot of things happen in school and you meet a lot of people, so it’s a place rife for stories. Its low-key and stable environment actually makes it excellent for stories driven by characters. Conflicts will have to rise from within and not an external UFO coming to wreck the party. These shows rely heavily on their characters, and it’s enough to have a decent, odd cast – see Haganai – to make something decent. Toradora is a major failure because of how insufferable its cast is.

Since we’re talking about symbols and not actual human beings, I need to find a way to explain why and how disgusted I was with them and how that lead me to conclude this anime is horrid crap. Many a great story are about horrible people. In fact, one of the best novels ever is about such a terrible murder. It’s their darkness, their psychology and reasons for being so that makes them so intriguing. How frightening these characters are because we understand them and see us in them. Part of our obsession with villains and their backstories, or with serial killers’ childhoods is because we want to know why they’re like this.

Everyone in Toradora is a bit of an asshole. Actually, only two characters are but they’re so dominant that it’s easy to forget about the rest. Taiga is the big problem, since she’s both the main character and the worst. Tsunderes can often seem creepy, sometimes borderline Gacy-like sadistic. None of them are as bad as Taiga.

The archetype can be funny. Tsunderes’ appeal is their insecurity, how they address the Presentation of Self in Everyday Life – we put up a front in every social interaction, putting a different front in different places. The best Tsundere, Neptunia‘s Noire is all about this. Humor never comes from her being violent – she’s rarely is – but how hard she works on her image.

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In contrast, Taiga is nothing but violence. She reacts to everything with violence, like a 10-year-old playing Elder Scrolls and thinking that it’s supercool to kill every NPC. She may not kill anyone, let alone essential NPC’s but it doesn’t make it any less creepy. In every episode, she beats up people at least 5 times. Her reactions are always with force, causing clear pain to the other characters. I’d expect anyone to beat her in return the first time.

The fact Ryuji stays there is flat-out creepy. Moreover, she treats him with pure condescension. Rarely, if ever, she addresses him in a way that’s not hostile. Early in the series they make a pact to help each other, but Taiga doesn’t actually help him until the middle of the series. All the episodes are about the characters doing stuff and Taiga beating people up. The anime never answers why, exactly, Ryuji puts up with so much physical abuse.

Yes, ‘abuse’ is the only word that can describes their relationship. Switch the sexes. Imagine if Ryuji was constantly beating up Taiga, calling her ‘bitch’ and so forth. It’s nothing but sick. You can only watch it for so long before getting tired of this torture porn thing. Not only Taiga is violent to everyone, she also has a weird entitlement problem. She expects Ryuji to take care of her and do everything for her. She never asks, demands with the expectations that Ryuji must do it for her.

In the end, she’s nothing but a horrible person who beats up everyone but also thinks everyone owes her everything. Now, a character being a terrible human being isn’t enough. How their actions are framed is important and now we get to the main problem. Taiga is framed as okay.

A backstory occasionally rears its head, feelings of insecurity do show themselves. None of is it actually dark, none of it gives us a glimpse into a troubled psych that can only react with violence and cannot connect to people. The backstory may justify anger, but the anime never acknowledge how bad Taiga’s case is. No one around her also reacts like they should. They treat her like she’s a quirky friend, someone who occasionally goes off, like that friend who swears a lot. This is a person who’s in desperate need of help and a lawyer. It’s no longer a person having anger issues but a criminal that everyone tolerates because the plot demands it.

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Such light framing of dark material is unforgivable. Humor doesn’t have anything to do with it, but how the frame never addresses the darkness of it. Physical abuse leaves people with trauma. People react harshly to physical abuse. If people stay for a long time with a physical person, being nice to them and doing what they want it means they got issues of their own. I can’t stress how dark this material is, yet the light framing is disrespectful to anyone who went through physical abuse.

Taiga and the framing of her behavior towers over the anime, so everything else ends up pointless. No matter how hard they try, the creators frame Taiga as quirky and cute. Nothing can salvage the anime, but then again it doesn’t seem they try. There isn’t much in the way of stories or characters. Ryuji is like that dude from Haganai only not as hot. Somehow he manages to be perfect and eventually the center of the harem because he’s nice to everyone and doesn’t have wants of his own. To the anime’s credit, the secondary male actually has a purpose here and he’s a bit hot, but besides being a more energetic nice guy there’s nothing to him.

Other females consist of a wacky redhead who’s entertaining for five episodes and then becomes tiresome. As for Ami, she’s another generic asshole who’s overall unpleasant without the darkness. Like Taiga, she treats people like crap but the cruelty is never meant to shock or make us reflect. Funniest thing is how the anime passes her off as sexy. Not only the characters can’t drive a story, but they look bad.

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Art style is another problem the anime suffers from. No one has a distinctive look. School anime, at worst, create pleasing to look at characters. You may not experience anything profound but there is aesthetic value in the designs, in understanding human beauty. Designs don’t have to break boundaries, but little touches like Sena’s butterfly and deep eye color make an anime more pleasing to look at.

Toradora does nothing like this. Taiga does have a weird hairstyle, but Minori isn’t memorable at all. She has huge eyes and short red hair. End description. Worse offender is Ami who is meant to be the sex symbol. To express this, they gave her a longer hair and slightly bigger breasts. Unlike shows where the characters are actually sexy, her figure isn’t defined or emphasized – which is necessary if the character’s beauty is important to her personality. Her hair is just long without hairstyle quirks. Look at any anime that has a character whose beauty is important and you can always spot details expressing it – just as I described Sena in the above paragraph. The designers decided to do the bare minimum.

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Character designs are integral to how we view them. How people look is a part of them. It doesn’t mean characters should all be sexy (that’s actually quite odd) but their looks should somehow find their way to their personality. If your character is meant to be beautiful, make them beautiful. Toradora is satisfied with just sending the signals, mistaking low effort for minimalism. Minimalism is when you have few details but these details are important. Ami’s design and everyone else’s has no effort put into it. A simplicity that has no elegance, that emphasizes no details is just a product of no effort and laziness.

Maybe the anime drastically improves. I have a hard time believing it. Watching this anime became painful. Witnessing the abuse Taiga inflicts on everyone, and expecting to be entertained and amused by it is too much. Torture porn at least acknowledges its characters suffer even if it expects me to find entertainment in pain. This anime pretends physical abuse doesn’t cause any pain. Truly, it’s objectionable almost on a moral standard.

1 abusive partners out of 5

Charlotte (The Anime)

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“No one man should have all that power,” – Kanye West

Watchmen was a response to the explosion of superhero comics. Charlotte feels like a response to the explosion of superhero films. The Marvel Cinematic Universe helped to keep superheroes in the public’s consciousness, but it was just a dumbing-down of what Sam Raimi did before. Charlotte has a more interesting take.

These teens are superheroes. They may not have capes and a one-eyed boss (although an eye does get plucked out), but they got superpowers that can be used for saving the world. Why should they, though? A superpower is just an extension of any kind of power.

How many powerful people use their power to contribute to humanity? Musicians use their talent to vent their frustration and sell records. Programmers build websites to get traffic. Most people I know become doctors¬†because it’s a respected profession and gets money. The mindset that you should use your power to contribute is rare.

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Yuu and Nao are two different sides of the coin. For the first two and a half episode, they’re an interesting exploration of power. Yuu uses his to move on up, taking advantage of people but not actually hurting them. Nao’s desire to protect others leads her to plenty of physical confrontation.

Being a moral hero isn’t easy. Nao may have¬†good intentions, but she leaves a trail of beat up people and isolates herself. Yuu’s achievements rely on a skill he gained by luck, not by hard work. There could be an interesting examination of how we shun people who work hard and praise those who just won the genetic lottery.

Nao also has a reasonable motivation for being moral. Her moral behavior isn’t convenient but results in isolation. Sadly, this is where the character development stops.

Yusa is brought in as much-(un)needed cuteness, as if Nao isn’t pretty herself. Ayumi already does the forced cuteness bad enough, so what does Yusa contribute? Worse, she makes another character turn into a drooling fanboy. Takajou first looks like a middle ground between Nao’s vigilance and Yuu’s selfishness, but after Yusa appears all he does is worship her.

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This forced cuteness clashes with the occasional grim tone. Yusa and Ayumi are too-much-sugar cute. They’d be overly-optimistic in Azumanga. Their cuteness is plain happiness, with no unique design or quirk. Next to the cuteness there’s grief, overcoming it, time traveling and what power does to the user.

The treatment of grief does acknowledge the darkness. We see the downward spiral, the isolation and how a person is so overwhelmed he abandons life. Then after 2 episodes he rises up and things are going well. Grief is supposed to change us forever. It doesn’t automatically make us good guys. Nao’s grief turned her into a vigilantee. When Impmon’s whole world was wrecked, he changed but part of him remained. There’s no hint in Yuu that he used to be a selfish brat. He transforms into a moral hero with no relation to what he used to be.

It’s not that the story of Charlotte is convenient by nature. The core premise is an attempt at subverting a common trope. The problem must be in the length. Charlotte has too many ideas and stories which can’t be crammed in 13 episodes. Mirai Nikki couldn’t develop it all in 26.

At least Mirai Nikki played by its own rules. Charlotte often gives up any time it could get interesting. The last episodes is where its most harmful. A senseless enemy appears whose contribution to the story is nil. The only contribution is the killing of another character, but it they don’t do anything meaningful with it. The death doesn’t affect the story in anyway. We don’t see how the characters deal with grief, or how that death is a meaningful conclusion to that character’s story.

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They already touched on grief. The only thing that conflict adds to the story is to make Yuu be heroic while killing a device that makes Yuu work a little harder in the climax. Yuu is interesting because he’s the opposite of a moral hero, so turning him into one works against the story. The climax also didn’t need such a dramatic brush with death to start.

At least the final episode redeems the series. Like the detour to Dealing With Grief, it’s too short for its own. Still, its idea is intriguing and the psychological development is well-paced. It’s further development on the original ideas the series started with.

While Charlotte does suffer from rushed pacing, it overcomes it by well-structuring its episode. The last episode is an epic journey that often takes more than 10 episodes in other anime. The creators managed to sum it up in 20 minutes without the journey losing too much impact. There is talented people there, they just took on too much.

Charlotte‘s main problem is that all its detours don’t always rise from the premise. Mirai Nikki explores both an ensemble cast and the Nature of Time and Space, but these are things that are found in the premise. Nothing about Charlotte’s idea of superpowered teenagers has anything to do with exploring the nature of death or time travel.

All these detours also lead to too many characters who aren’t given enough to do. Too many events are external. The puzzle-solving of the first episodes was fun, but after that it’s all big events. The creators can’t imagine a way to approach them that’s not dull heroism, so there’s no emotional payoff.

That’s why the sentimental moments often feel manipulative. This is a criticism that’s been directed at KEY often, but here it feels even more out-of-place. Charlotte is either too plot-driven or too psychological for such convenient wrapping-up. It’s been a long time since I watched Kanon (2006), but it was a pure drama. The sentimentality rose naturally, instead of feeling tacked on.

Some credit must be given to the soundtrack. It seems originality in soundtracks is now common in anime. There is attention paid to the textures and use of rhythm that is rare in Western scores. In this case, it borrows some cues from Bass Music to create the right intensity – one that is not world-altering, but still so.

Charlotte is a clever idea that took unnecessary, if interesting baggage and didn’t have enough episodes to connect everything. It’s more enjoyable than annoying. The episode are somehow paced well, even if the overall pace isn’t. It manages to make a final turn at the end so the journey won’t be futile. Wasted potentials are everywhere, but Charlotte works more than it doesn’t. It’s not brilliant, but it’s good enough to show there are still creative minds in anime.

3 comets out of 5