Another

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What we have here isn’t so much an anime, but an experiment. At least I hope it’s an experiment, because as an anime it’s quite an atrocity. It deserves a place in the bottom of the barrel, not because it’s awful in a unique way. There’s no content, nothing particularly offensive that stick out. It’s just a series of mistakes piling up on one another.

If this is an experiment, it’s an interesting and important one. In fact, as an experiment it deserves the attention of all literary scholars. Finally, a piece of fiction tries to answer the age-old question of what is more important – execution or the idea. Since the end result is closer to vomit caused by excessive drinking (which itself was a means of coping with an awful party), the answer is execution.

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“Execution” is an ironic word to use in the context of this crappy anime, both because a lot of characters die and the anime ends up killing its brilliant premise. Most creators don’t have any idea what ‘horror’ actually means. They think we experience horror when someone holds a knife against us and we need to fight them, but that’s not it. A dangerous situation where there are a few predictable outcomes, some of them bad is thrilling and causes adrenaline but it’s not scary.

People are afraid of walking alone in the streets and of being on the stage, yet no one is going to kill you if you deliver a speech (Unless you’re a politician). The common ground between two is the unknown, and more importantly a fairly hostile unknown. Horror is effective when we know or speculate there is something hostile there and don’t know its nature. The best of horror is striking a balance – having a good enough idea what kind of danger there is, but not enough.

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Horror fiction often features weak protagonists. In order to effective, the protagonists need to know little so they won’t really have a way to defeat the Big Bad. Stories are the scariest not at the climax – it means very little in this genre. Experiencing the unknown is what’s important. A shot of Michael Myers standing outside the house is scary, because we don’t really know what Myers is except the fact he kills people for some reason. More than any other genre, Horror isn’t about a tight structure but strong, atmospheric moments emphasizing how the characters view the world.

The creators commit the horrible mistake of thinking that what works in video games also works in fiction. So the main character isn’t actually a human, but a distinct organism only found in shitty stories called Plotus Moverus. Exploring a mystery on my own is one thing. Merely watching someone else do it is something else. Shows on TV that show you how to cook things have more narrative thrust, more personality. People actually remember all those dudes in TV who talk about food, yet I’ll only remember Kouchi because he starred in this horrible anime.

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Kouchi gives a point of view with less personality than a Wikipedia article, so already we lack any kind of framing for this town. Look at this as a self-insert character, and you get zilch. If Kouchi had a psychology or a personality that would react to the horror, then I could insert myself into him and feel like I’m experiencing the same thing. I could use this story not only to explore the nature of horror but how we can react to horrifying things. Kouchi only gathers data.

The scenary is now responsible to frame this story as scary, and at the beginning it’s actually quite good. People criticized it because ‘nothing happened’, but they just misunderstand the genre. Things don’t have to happen and it may be for the best if they won’t. What should go on is atmosphere. The art and especially the background is fantastic. The colors are varied, yet there’s a slight dark tone to everything – not enough to make it monochrome, but enough to hint there’s something bad going on underneath. This balance is difficult to attain but the series does it. Every scene in the beginning is imbued with uneasiness, empty streets of a small, isolated town and a dark shade over thing because disaster can strike at any moment.

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An episode which takes place at the beach is a perfect example of how well the atmosphere works. There is silence and uneasiness all over it. Every interaction is a bit more hushed. A game of fishing ends with people capturing nothing interesting but kelp and a blowfish. Romance is right around the corner, but everyone is too preocupied with the horror to go with it

Here you get why the premise is so brilliant. By its very nature it’s horror, it’s a premise where people know disaster strikes but not really its nature or how to stop it or how exactly it will affect. Reduce the genre to its bare bones and you get that. Now all you need to do is let the characters do their thing. Let them react to the situation with their personalities. Let it affect their relationship, the structure of the town. Show us the effect of death and the unknown on us, tickle our sense of empathy.

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Mentioning the Saw film at this point, because they’re an example of how this anime failed. The first Saw film featured two dudes locked in a rusty bathroom which is quite frightening, but that’s also because of the mystery – what the hell is that bathroom? The anime does contain a mystery, but instead of letting it be one they solve it in – get this! – one episode. No, really, there is no build-up or any psychological thrust to the discovery. One day a character info-dumps the whole equation. Now the characters only need to find the X, literally.

Remove the mystery and the psychology and all you have left is a dull process of elimination. The side-characters are slightly better than Kouchi but even they don’t do much. The last episodes consist of fire and brimstone and that hardly makes for an effective climax. As an action scene it might serve, but its main role is to revel and swim in the blood of the characters.

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What it reveals is what I tried to suppress all along – that the mystery isn’t actually a symbol for our fear of death, but a plot tool to kill characters. Instead of experiencing this anguish and angt, understand the meaning of fear and trembling and reflect upon the nature of death you enter a guessing game. Every episode is a game of ‘who dies next?’ until it ends with a massacre that might’ve been effective with a different build-up. Too bad it’s just has everyone smiling psychotically while chanting the same sentence.

In the beginning of the anime Stephen King is dropped, a popular writer with great ideas and horrible execution. Even he wasn’t that bad, but the series is loyal to his style. It took an idea so good you can use it to explain the nature of the genre and turned it into a who’s-gonna-die game. The final twist isn’t that surprising either and doesn’t add any meaning, although it could’ve lead to a powerful character moment if Kouchi had something resembling a personality. Write off the popularity of this anime as pure shock value.

1.5 spooky stuff out of 5

Shinsekai Yori (From the New World)

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This is a story where the antagonists are the main characters. Either that, or it flips up the romanticized notion of revolution. Wouldn’t it be awesome to just go guns ablazing into Washington DC? Wouldn’t it be fun to kill all the powerful people that dehumanize us, make us work in low wages and study in their jails called schools? Only we forget powerful people also bleed. Beautiful people suffer from rape, and famous actors develop anorexia.

If only we could change.

Our relationship with beauty is odd. Although political bands make money off hating rich people, beautiful people may have more power. That’s thanks to the Halo Effect. If we perceive a good quality in a person, it makes all other qualities look better and the bad qualities look a little worse. Throughout the anime, we see a bunch of pretty kids/teenagers do their stuff. They fall in love, they have a lot of sex and they have fun out in nature.

Compare them to the queerats. It’s not that they don’t look human. They look ugly. They’re desexualized, have rough voices and do manual work. Surely, such stupid and ugly creatures deserve their place. When hundreds of people die, we can’t help but despise them. It’s not like the people of the villages are evil. They’re perfect, stick-thin intelligent people who care for the order of society.

“but they all forget somebody’s gotta scrub the toilets” – BioShock.

The anime is, at its heart, about power imbalance. Its way of exploring this idea is by deliberately making the powerful people sympathetic and appealing. There are two reasons for this. Evil people don’t really exist. There’s a coherent theory behind the oppression of the queerats. Also that often we won’t rise up against powerful people because we love them. It’s easy to hate the rich fat dude, but what if it was a beautiful women who enslaved people or send them to the gas chambers?

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The faction you side with tells a lot about your preferences. The story is the basic old tale of the oppressed rising against their oppressors. If you’re siding with the villages, then maybe justice isn’t in your priorities. The villages are more appealing, more like how we want to be. If you side with them, you just might be a victim of the Halo Effect.

If you hate the humans and relish all the death and destruction, then you also missed another point. There’s no difference between dehumanizing people for being powerful and dehumanizing them for being ugly. The anime makes the villains appealing both to reveal how the Halo Effect can make forgive terrible things, but also how people who do terrible things have their reasons for doing so.

Underneath all these philosophies of power there’s also an emotionally engrossing sci-fi story. Shinsekai Yori is a great argument for how sci-fi can be about human relationships and drama, not just showing off about possible technologies. Sci-Fi isn’t about predicting possible technologies – how a car works isn’t a story. It’s about how our society might look like if a certain technology emerges.

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It’s about what would happen if we’d become too powerful for our own good. If I were an expert in Japanese culture, I’d say there are parallels to the atomic bomb. The Cantus is a genetic mutation that gives human beings ridiculous amounts of power, but you can replace it with any possible mutations – super-strength, super-intelligence – that will cause a power imbalance.

Every human in the villages is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode. Despite the peaceful exterior, danger is ever-present. It can coming from inside – one of us loses their mind and goes berserk. It can also come from above. The masters can take you away because they consider you a danger.

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We humans have a hard time building an honest society. We feed our children a lot of things they later have to unlearn – there’s no tooth fairy, the people in TV aren’t your friends and schools don’t teach you anything. The ‘growing up’ the kids do is realizing that the world isn’t peaceful and cannot be. The Cantus is part of human nature. Reality is hostile from every direction – your servants can rise up, one of you can go berserk and someone from above can erase you from reality. You learn similar lessons when you grow up – the job market is cruel and being a programmer isn’t enough, rapists can be sexy and you might get sent off to war.

Like any other organism, we’re constantly trying to remake the environment in our own image. By constructing a peaceful environment, we could ensure our survival. Utopian fiction often portrays these environments as a jungle of machinery and wires. So the main lesson we learn is that technology is evil, savages are noble and we all should be one with nature. The villages are ‘one with nature’. Technology hardly exists there yet the world is still hostile. Cantus isn’t just a genetic mutations. It’s a physical manifestation of the power we hold over each other. Organisms by nature are dangerous. No amount of sex or being one with nature or creating a class of ugly people can solve it.

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Shinsekai Yori is so good that talking about the technical side is pointless. It’s fantastic in how it explores its themes and anime like this are why I put so much effort into writing reviews in the first place. Every year a thousand works of fiction come out, and books or live-action movies may seem more mature but I doubt many come close to the lows of this anime. It’s at once simple, emotionally engrossing and explores its themes to the fullest. There isn’t a reason for anyone to skip this.

If only we could change.

4.5 Queerats out of 5

I See Stars – Treehouse

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I See Stars produced one of the finest metalcore songs in “Ten Thousand Feet”. It was an astonishing achievement. While it wasn’t catchy, it had deep textures using Trap music, a dynamic but focused structure, a beautiful melody and a strong candidate for heaviest breakdown ever. If the song is about a plane crashing, the breakdown at the end is the aural equivalent. There’s a similar, brilliant breakdown here in “Mobbin’ Out”.

They can make good heavy music, but their reliance on heaviness was always their undoing. After transforming into an artistic Trancecore band, the guitars always drowned out the vocals. You kept waiting for a beautiful texture or for a bass drop only to have the guitarist chug all over it with the dude screaming nonsensical lyrics. One song like “Ten Thousand Feet” is enough, but when the dance section of “NZT48” is barely a minute long despite being the band’s finest hour, it’s clear they’re is holding themselves back.

The departure of the screaming vocalist and the guitarist was a blessing. No Trancecore band will benefit more from getting rid of their heavy side. I See Stars’ charm wasn’t in the contrasting between loud noises and electronics. It never was much of a contrast, and their aesthetic put them closer to Celldweller than Issues. Treehouse is an opportunity to expand on their electronic side, but it doesn’t really do that either. This is the band’s most accessible and artistic record. If it was made by another band, it would be acclaimed as Indie Rock’s clever take on Trancecore.

The roots of Trancecore are here, but the approach is completely different. Trancecore/Metalcore is party music. It’s about slamming, having a great chorus and screaming profanities. I See Stars were more sophisticated about this than others, but “Ten Thousand Feet” still relied on the fun of the heaviness. They don’t go full EDM on Treehouse. Rather, they become softer, focusing more on beauty and vulnerability. Considering “Murder Mitten” is one of their best songs, this shouldn’t be surprising.

What is surprising is to hear such tenderness over breakdowns and wobbles. “Break” is the album’s defining moment. The chugging riffs with the wobbles are ready for a DJ set, but the context is different. There’s something so pretty and cute about Devin singing “Did your heart let someone in?” over twinkling electronics. It’s almost like they’re moving towards Midwest Emo. When the guitars hit again, it’s not so much ready for partying as it is the sound of the song’s subject breaking.

Wobbles and dance beats appear, but the departure of the loudest members lets the band experiment with a new kind of electronic. The sounds more warmer, more fragile. It has more in common with Skrillex’s soft work. The album’s obligatory detour into pure electronic territory isn’t a club banger. “Walking on Gravestones” is a slow dance track with chopped vocals. It’s more gloomy than Skrillex’s soft tracks, tackling that sort of nostalgia you feel at the end of a great social event knowing you probably won’t see those people event.

There are some heavy moments here, but now the band is liberated they sound even better. “Mobbin’ Out” is the closest they come to their old style, but even that song is bizarre. It has the fragility of the album, with verses sung over beautiful soundscapes. It all builds up like an EDM track to two different breakdowns with bass wobbles. What’s bizarre is that between those breakdowns, you still get the emotional resonance. In a way, it’s a misstep. It’s too heavy and fun to be beautiful but too beautiful to be in a party playlist. Still, it’s fun enough. “All In” is inspired by Trap without actually containing any Trap beats. At first it’s too much of a tease, but hearing semi-rapping over breakdowns is pretty cool.

In their previous efforts I See Stars forgot about catchy hooks. Their melodies were pretty, but not immediate. This is the same story here, but that’s okay. The melodies may not be immediate but they’re beautiful, especially when Devin lets the gentle side of his voice out. Pretty much every song here has such a moment that sounds so cute – “Light in the Cave”, “White Lies”, “Calm Snow”. They return to the teen atmosphere of The End of the World Party, only now it’s wide-eyed but scared. If that album was about a party full of weird people, this is the aftermath – when relationships fall apart and you sometimes have to say goodbye

Treehouse is a beautiful rock album. For once, the band doesn’t just tease something. It’s no longer a good Metalcore record with some EDM interludes or soundscapes. The band has a different promise this time, and they deliver it. Breakdowns, for a change, aren’t just heavy but add weight to an album full of beautiful melodies and soundscapes. I See Stars aren’t a part of any scene now. They combined their influence with a specific vibe they want and made an original album that anyone who likes guitars will find something to enjoy here. If this was a debut album by a new band, it’d get massive hype.

4 portals out of 5

Issues – Headspace

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So far, the Nu Metal revival was great but a little disappointing. We got bands that mined the genre for emotional. It sounds impossible, but there’s beauty in Islander’s “The Sadness of Graves” or Of Mice & Men’s “Another You” that no other band in the style had. Others just knew how to rock. What the revival didn’t have was a band that captured the original weirdness.

Nu Metal was, at its heart, a weird genre. The reason critics and True Metalheads whined about it was because they couldn’t keep up. Bands switched vocal styles and genres but still kept it simple. You don’t hear a song like Slipknot’s “Only One” anymore – a mish-mash of three genres that’s accessible enough to play Tekken to. Issues finally deliver what the revival needed – an album that’s as bizarre as it is catchy.

It was so easy to go the other route. It was so easy to feed the mosh kids what they want, play 100 more breakdowns with the occasional R&B break. Instead we get “The Released”, which explodes with a funky riff, rapped vocals and then towards R&B singing all backed by Djent guitars. The second single “COMA” sounds even more like Periphery remixing a Justin Bieber song. Previous Trancecore band still had some aggression in their vocals, but Carter forgets he’s in a rock band. If I were a Slayer fanboy, I’d be offended.

The problem with mixing genres is getting the balance. Some bands merely add elements – a rap verse here or a bass drop there. The most frustrating ones add so much you can’t ignore, but never enough to break out of their subgenre. In their beginning, Issues’ R&B elements were hard to ignore but were also not enough. “Stringray Affliction” may be brilliant, but it’s a Metalcore song spliced with an R&B outro.

Headspace isn’t completely genreless, but it’s diverse enough to make it only fit ‘Rock’ or ‘Nu Metal’. It’s not even that the band isolates the styles, playing a Djent song and then a Pop song. The songs don’t even switch sections. It’s the methodĀ of picking small elements, mixing them and creating a whole song. “The Realest” is the best example of this. Despite mixing Funk, R&B, Djent and Hip-Hop it still sounds like a whole song rather than hopping from one thing to another. What’s more impressive is that these outside influence aren’t filtered. The rapping in “Blue Wall” and “Someone Who Does” is convincing. The two vocalist can produce a Rap record and no one would guess they have a Rock background. It’s also no surprise Carter released a solo record, because he never sounds like a Rock singer imitating Craig David.

As exciting as the sound is, there’s also disappointment. Issues never go full weird. There’s nothing like “Kobrakai” or “Nobody’s Listening”. While the band managed to distill their influence into a coherent sound, they’re afraid of expanding on it. The songs never differ too much from another. “Blue Wall” is feels like the most radical departure here, only because it commits itself fully to brutal slamming. None of the song commits itself to anything, but the band merely plays variations on a sound.

They got hook to back it up, though. The sound isn’t the only attraction here. Issues use their sound to dress up already great hooks. In fact, the album is ridiculosly consistent. The only missteps are, perhaps, “Yung & Dum” which feels too redundant in going on and on about how fun it is to be young. It’s easy to forget there were singles when the songs remain catchy all the way through. They also borrow Periphery’s songcraft. While still relying on choruses, the verses are often different and the songs conclude (“Lost-n-Found” gang vocals are an album highlight). The band doesn’t just wants to have a gimmick or hit singles. They produce actual songs.

Anyone who’s moderately interested in music should hear this. People who like heavy music can use this as a gateway to beautiful melodies. People who love hooks and clean singing can use this as a gateway to harsh vocals. Many will still dislike it. The typical criticism of ‘they have no direction’ and ‘they’re gimmicky’ will surface, but these are just Slayer fans being stupid or Indie fans not knowing how to have fun. It’s the Blue Lines of Rock – an album that mixes genres seamlessly, creating a consistent sound and plenty of great songs.

4 wastes of headspace out of 5