Code Geass

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First off, this anime ends horribly. People talk about anime suddenly ending with no resolution. Sometimes they overreact – Deadman Wonderland and Attack on Titan end an arc but keep the big story unfinished. It’s frustrating, since the arcs are integral to a bigger story and don’t stand on their own. Code Geass, however, simply ends. Worse, it ends on a cliffhanger. I know there’s a second season, but you don’t separate seasons (Or episodes, or books) for the sake of it. You separate them because they’re different stories. This one’s unfinished and this is a huge blow.

More news at 11.

At first, it’s tempting to view the anime as exploration of Japan under Western influence. World War II wasn’t so long ago, and we all heard about how the Japanese are poor victims. This story is false, and bones have a way of digging themselves out. Japan was an aggressor in WWII and responsible for some true horrors. So seeing a story in which they are oppressed can be bizarre – you have to wonder whether in the world of Code Geass they found the bones in Shinjiku. The big Western oppressor this time is the UK, whose main contribution to the world after WWII was Big Beat and Dubstep.

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It’s not about politics. The Geass is a physical manifestation of power. The creators wisely chose to never talk about how it actually works. There’s no D&D-esque magic system behind it, only a few limits to help us understand power better. A Geass is limited, because power comes in different forms. A Geass can also be used once, but can consume you.

Power doesn’t just come in isolation. Something drives power. The user wants to achieve something with that power. We hear about how some people just want to feel powerful, but why do they want to feel powerful? Powerful is ability and security. Power cannot be an end. If it is an end, it is only because power is the means to get many ends. Power never stands alone.

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Here’s your main problem with the anime. Power here stands alone. Excluding Euphie, the story is an ordinary one about oppressed people rising against their overseers, but so what? What does the British empire stand for? What do the Japanese stand for? You cannot just kill the tyrant but have to replace it with something. A person once said that anarchy is a ‘tyranny of people with guns’. Since humans are pack animals, leaders come by naturally and can be good for us. Leaders work differently, though even when they seem similar. Both the Nazis and the Japanese did unethical human experiments, but for different ends.

The series is soaked by the theme of power. The position of every character is established quickly, and is an important part of everyone’s lives. Notice how Rivalz is obviously inferior to Lelouch, how no woman swoon over him and he’s mostly just there. During high school scenes, we follow the most powerful people – the student council whose head is the daughter of the principle. Lelouch is a person who lost his position of power and that’s the same story for Jeremiah. Cornelia’s and Euphemia’s relationship isn’t just about protecting the little sister – one is clearly more powerful than the other.

It’s a fantastic stage to test what drives power and they squash it. The two sides fighting stand for nothing. Many stories use the typical Hitler-esque tyrant, which is cliched but at least something. Here, the British Empire only protect its own existence without ever answering why it exists in the first place. The Japanese want to free themselves, but they only free themselves into a vague ‘equality’ thing.

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Then again, it’s not a story of simple evil vs. simple good. Many scenes show us the Britinnians, their lives and how they’re actual human beings. The inclusion of school life comedy is brilliant. It shows us there are people behind the oppressors who might be used to their lives of privilege, but they’re still people. When everything falls apart, there’s no sadism but empathy towards the upper class.

If the creators can write vibrant scenes about everyday life, why can’t they imbue their characters with motives and ideologies? Relationships with the same structure work differently. Both Lelouch and Cornelia protect their little sisters, but Lelouch is the soft warm protector whereas Cornelia is the condescending one. A small character arc involving Jeremiah – a clear villain and an asshole – shows us the pain of falling from a position of power. Even while the series sides with Lelouch, it doesn’t shy away from how his power can hurt his enemies.

The ‘Grand Purpose’ is integral to any piece of art. Everything connects to it, and it makes the flaws more understandable. Without the grand purpose, there is nothing to review. Even shows whose only purpose is to show big boobs have this purpose. Often, average shows swing between two such purpose and commit. Code Geass doesn’t even swing between purposes but simply doesn’t have one. It goes through the motions, provides good storytelling that leads nowhere.

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Credit must go to the designers. The series sports one of the best character design I’ve seen. As pure beauty few anime match it. In fact, the characters are so beautiful that it feels like a plot point. Everyone radiates sex appeal, but somehow no one has sex with anyone. The overly-slender bodies do contrast with this. They’re not just thin but long, but every face is plastic-surgery perfect. Every stare is full of confidence with sensual lips. Even the voice-actors give a sexual smugness to it all. CC and Milly always sound teasing, like they’re just about to invite you to their rooms. It’s nice, but sometimes bizarre.

It’s also fairly expressive. Notice the contrast in design between Lelouch and Suzaku. Suzaku has a softer, cuter look with the curly hair. Lelouch has sharp eyes, black hair that falls in spikes. These designs amplifies their personalities. Rivalz is being stuck with a goofy blue hairdo. The decision to give characters similar but different hair colors is meaningful. Euphy’s pink is brighter than Cornelia’s purple, just like their personality.

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The gigantic robots don’t fare so well. The action scenes are a constant thorn in the anime. Although there are emotional moments in those scenes, they take the chess game technique to the extreme. They become more about Lelouch’s genius rather than the characters. Imagine JoJo but with giant robots. JoJo was nice, but its storytelling was built for shallow stories driven by excitement. Here, the storytelling always aims for something deeper. If the robots had a cool look to them, then fine. The designers went full lazy and just had gigantic hulks of metal with arms and legs. None of the imagination that fuels the character design (A character who appears for a barely a minute looks better than most anime characters) reaches them.

Contrast this anime with Future Diary. It’s another overly ambitious anime with so much going on it couldn’t flesh it all out. When Future Diary tackles an idea, it does so with full conviction. It may need more length, but when it’s about comedy it’s all about comedy. When it’s horror, it’s all horror. More importantly, Future Diary wasn’t about build-up but about arcs. Each arc had its own style. All of the elements in Geass aren’t spread evenly but crammed together into one gigantic arc that builds up to a huge climax. There is very little resolution in this anime. Some may enjoy the cliffhangers, the ‘what’ll happen next?’ but that’s boring. The most exciting anime are those that are exciting because what’s happening, in the present tense. They’ll keep you coming back.

Code Geass fails only because what it set out to do is be the best anime ever. It’s overall a good show with a dynamic story and a wide cast, each with their own point of view. Although it slips often to cheap thriller mode, the characters’ personality dominate it more than conventions. Even if it’s not the best anime ever, most creators can’t even attempt something this ambitious.

3 sexy homosapiens out of 5

Ed Sheeran – Divide

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Reviewing an Ed Sheeran album only takes two sentences. Any song where isn’t trying to lure a girl to sex disguised as a romance is excellent. Any song where he pretends to feel deep, serious emotions is obviously bad. Of course, two sentences isn’t a review and there’s more going on here. Ed Sheeran is a star and his love songs are especially popular, so we need to figure out how exactly this crap works and why cheesyy love songs are still pumping out when he should be putting a backwards baseball cap and collaborate with Eminem.

I said this a thousand times before and it dawned me. It’s hypocritical to claim Ed Sheeran comes off like an asshole, even a dangerous one when Lostprophets is one of my favorite. These guys are a classic case of music as acting, when the front is completely different than the real person. Solution to this conflict is easy. Fist off, acting is all that’s important when judging music. Ed Sheeran can be a fantastic person for all I know, but I review his character here. Second, Watkins never broke character. Sheeran does.

“Shape of You” is the most interesting song here since it merges Sheeran’s two sides, and reveals all I said about him. He courts a lady with soft, sensual singing and sounds romantic. Yet listen to the chorus. It’s all about the girl’s body. Imagine if the song was sung by a heroin junkie homeless in the street or an overly obese dude with glasses and anime dakimakuras. The song is quite creepy in how it goes on and on about how Sheeran desires a body and not the person.

There have been countless songs about sex, but the key is that they sound authentic. When 50 Cent made “Candy Shop”, it was all about having fun sex. He never tried to sound romantic – only more into sex as having fun instead of status symbol. “Shape of You” has a fantastic melody, but it’s equivalent of a hot guy going on a date with a girl and only telling her how beautiful she is. Something about its bluntness and how Sheeran still sings romantically makes him sound like a person trying to lure girls desperate for romance to easy sex.

Everything else here is easy to digest. There are the ballads, and they’re all quite bad. Sheeran can’t seemt to find a bit of vulnerability in him. Every ballad is sung with confidence. A slightly low voice doesn’t equal vulnerability, especially when “Dive” and “Perfect” explodes into choruses. The latter actually has a decent melody that would be good in the hands of a different singer. He can’t even fake sincerity like Coldplay.

It’s too clean. When he sings that hearts don’t break around here, it’s more believable – only it must be Sheeran’s heart since women come back to him anyway (See “New Man”). It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what is it about him that makes his ballads sucks so much. Wisely, he doesn’t do any vocal acrobatics like Adele and his voice is quite beautiful. In style, he’s closer to the Weeknd, who is the model when you want to be both a sex icon and a mess. I guess it’s because Weeknd always lets darkness in, even when he brags. “Perfect” never touches on the possibility of heartbreak. It’s music for the end credits of a bad romantic comedy, as if once a romance starts it never ends and the story’s over.

Previously, he could sound more sincere (if unimaginative) when talking about things other than love and how awesome he is. “Happier” should be his moment to show heartbreak. The guitar strums in a defeated way, not trying to produce a melody and it aims for the warmth of an early Dashboard Confessional. Everything is hushed, the singing is lower and the piano is pushed back. Yet it doesn’t work. You can still see the stage behind him. Where is the bitterness of heartbreak he is so good at showing at “New Man”? The falsetto at the end is a joke, a gorilla beating on its chest, sounding more macho and confident than a Groove Metal band who are hell-bent on beating Pantera.

Then again, even with better acting these songs will most likely suck. They don’t contain a melody, but all lead to an explosion, like Coldplay that’s more readily available to stadiums. It’s not the source of the bad acting since it was present in his earlier songs. When he gets personal, the only reaction to it is ‘why the fuck should I care?’. Many artists wrote songs like “Eraser” (quite good) and “Castle on the Hill” (awful), but none of them sounded so self-centered as he is. Why should anyone of us care about Sheeran’s life, considering he made so much money singing pretty ballads?

‘Privilege’ is a word I didn’t want to use. After all, a lot of my favorite rappers are white dudes whose albums are psychotherapies with the listener. Grieves and Atmosphere come off as humble, sharing their stories with the listener with hopes of relating. “Eraser” has a toughness in it, Sheeran trying to convince us he’s tough because he survives the pain of being famous. Considering on later songs he brags about fucking – and sounds happy about it – I’d say it’s another attempt to impress us. The song is good, though. As for “Castle on the Hill”, it has the same idea as Adema’s “All These Years” without the darkness. Nostalgia is a painful thing. I know that since I spent 3 years in a military home and seeing a distance growing between me and my old self, me and my friends and all I’ve known is quite hard. “Castle on the Hill” paints it like it’s all happy and nice, taking a trip down memory lane. Don’t say ‘privilege’, don’t say ‘privilege’.

So it’s all crap so long as Ed serious. Smack in the middle of the album you get “New Man” and “Galway Girl”, two brilliant songs that will easily rank as among the best of the year. Switching up his demeanor, now he’s a playboy who fucks women and women call him up – despite having boyfriends – to fuck. It’s believable for once, actually has spirits and Sheeran is into it. The latter is about picking up a girl at the club but there’s none of the creepiness of the lead single. Instead, it’s just about how she fell in love and they had sex. The former is a bitter break-up song about how the ex-lover’s new man isn’t that good. The confidence, the venom in that song is fantastic. It’s not a rant or a plea for the lover to return. Condescension is the dominant emotion, with Sheeran sneering all the way to next  one night stand. It’s not a song to sing to convince yourself you’re over the break up, but to celebrate how you moved on. No coincidence that both of these are Hip-Hop driven.

Nothing here is too different than previous albums by him. His sound is expanding a bit and there is more than acoustic balladry now, but overall the man remains the same. He cannot break free of being a performer, he cannot get into the act. The difference between him and the horrible Watkins is that Watkins remained in character. Having “New Man” and “Happier” in the same album is jarring, since they’re opposites but there’s nothing to connect them. Eventually, one side takes over and the most convincing one is the braggadio and macho bullshit. It’s funny how that song take shots an ultramacho new boyfriend, because that’s exactly how Sheeran sounds like. I have no problem with that, since “New Man” is actually brillaint. I only wish he would let go already. “Galway Girl” has more spirit than any song here.

2 new men out of 5

Massive Attack – Blue Lines

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Blue Lines is unlucky. It couldn’t rely on the huge influence it had for lasting critical acclaim. Everyone talks about how outdated this is and they’re right. Pretty much any work of Trip-Hop that came after this pushes the genre way more forward. You don’t have to look too far. Just listen to some Tricky, Portishead and UNKLE and you’ll find artists with a wider vision, a more diverse palette of influence and more conceptual depth. Their concepts are also so different that they hold Blue Lines back from being outdated.

Trip-Hop has a lot in common with other 90’s genres such as Gangsta Rap, Nu-Metal and Industrial Rock. It’s full of darkness, sexuality and general pessimism. The approach may be more artistic, but the negative moods remain the same. Blue Lines is the opposite. Instead of drawing abandoned and heartless landscapes, it’s enjoying life.

In truth, you shouldn’t compare it to other works in the genre. Even the influence have different filters. Massive draw from the smoother side of Hip-Hop and from the pleasant, easy side of Soul. ‘Easy Listening’ describes best the album. The breaks are slow, but funky and still hard. The rapping is so laid-back there are no rhymes to follow. Barring the oddly aggressive “Safe From Harm”, the singers sing about the virtues of love and being thankful.

Many artists have tried to make an album like Blue Lines. A lot of rappers made this type of ‘smooth rap’, but no one does it like Massive Attack. Unlike rappers who focus primarily on impressing you with rhymes (that are boring anyway), Massive Attack put more emphasis on mood. “Blue Lines” is better than anything by A Tribe Called Quest because of how precise it is in getting the atmosphere right. The break is rolling with a perfect balance between banging and not being too loud. The hushed rapping fits with the vibes. They’re not out to impress you. They’re chilling with you to the beat.

Maybe what people mean when they say the album is ‘outdated’ is because of how unambitious it is. The unassuming title-track makes it obvious. Unlike later producers who made huge statements with their albums, Massive Attack are trying to create good vibes here. Nothing here sounds revolutionary, like a new sound that inspired a lot of people. “One Love” is just a reggea song with more a Hip-Hop beat. “Unfinished Sympathy” is what happens when a Soul singer meets some Hip-Hop producer.

Yet this unassuming, unambitious nature doesn’t ruin the album’s quality. It’s only unambitious because its aim is to create nothing good vibes. The album is perfect when you hang out with a few friends not doing anything big, or when the party is at its end and most people have gone home. The atmosphere is still social and danceable, but slower and content rather than happy. It’s shocking to think this was released so early. This album was available for everyone, and smooth rappers couldn’t imitate it?

Blue Lines is an oddity in the Trip-Hop genre. It’s out of place in the canon because of how different then approach is. It may not be as deep as Mezzanine or far-reaching as Psyence Fiction, but there are few albums like it. Sure, there’s a lot of smooth Jazz and smooth Soul and smooth Rap. Massive Attack combines all these for an album that perfects the calm and social atmosphere. Forget about genres. It’s such a pleasant album that I can’t imagine anyone not finding something to like here.

3.5 blue lines out of 5

Arctic Monkeys – Favourite Worst Nightmare

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This album doesn’t make a lot of sense. The debut was explosive. Arctic Monkeys didn’t sound like they wanted to be the biggest band in the world, but they sounded like they were really into the Dance-Punk thing. The band sounded so energetic it’s like they couldn’t notice they forgot to write a song in “From the Ritz to the Rubble”.

Although the album opens with an explosive track that does sound stormy, the album doesn’t have the spark of the debut. Instead of honing their craft, they’re just going through the motions and kicking danceable Indie Rock. There’s talent and hooks, but the lack of spirit makes it hard to react to this strongly.

The main difference between this album and the debut is that this one has no concept. Whatever knew it was a Dance-Punk album and had lyrics that described that party environment with humor and wit. Favourite Worst Nightmare is a fun collection of songs that are great when they’re closer to their debut and weaker when they move further way. There’s also a fantastic ballad thrown in.

The band sounds lost on the more melodic/casual tracks like “If You Were There” or “Balaclava”. They were at their best when making sonic mayhem. On these tracks they’re turning it down but not replacing the noise with anything. There’s not much going in these tracks. On “Balaclava” Turner becomes annoying, speaking in a smug way rather than singing. Even “Flourscent Adolescent” doesn’t work. There is melodic beauty buried somewhere behind the vocals, but Turner refuses to commit to one style. He doesn’t decide whether to rap, sing or sing-rap like Astronautalis. The result is a Pop song without a melody.

Even the harder tracks feel like something is missing. The instrumental storm of “Brianstorm” doesn’t sound like the beginning of a party. It’s more artistic, trying to capture the song’s title rather than to start a mosh pit. It’s still effective though. Other tracks have some explosive hooks – “D Is for Dangerous”, “This House is a Circus” and “The Bad Thing” are all rocking. Something in the production does feel flat, nothing in these tracks compares to the mayhem of “Fake Tales” or “I Bet You Look Good”.

I can’t tell whether it’s the production or the band itself. The melodies work in the same way. There’s no change in focus. It’s still sharp, aggressive melodies with noise behind them. “D is for Dangerous” is their most danceable song, actually. Perhaps it’s the production, which is cleaner, more pleasant. It works in some tracks, but it makes these ones sound less party-ready.

There are two odd successes here. “Only Ones Who Know” is a beautiful ballad. It’s different from “Riot Van”. That one still had the lyrics about wild life of the night. The musical backdrop was different but it stuck to the concept. “Only Ones Who Know” is truly tender, with Turner doesn’t even sound like he’s putting on an act. There are whole bands basing a career on making such songs. If only Adele or Coldplay knew that great ballads work because they don’t try to attract attention. That song never explodes and always remains quiet. If it did, it’d undo its beauty.

The ambitious “Do Me a Favour”. It’s the most ambitious track here, building towards a conclusion and letting every band member contribute. “505” also does the build-up thing, but it’s a familiar end-of-album ballad that’s too ordinary to get a reaction. “Do Me a Favour” sounds like a deliberate attempt to write a great break-up song and it’s a success. The drums create tension all the way it explodes with telling someone to fuck off.

At its heart, this is just an ordinary Indie Rock album. If it was released by any band it probably wouldn’t gain any hype. It’s pretty consistent, has some great songs for a playlist but that’s it. That said, it’s a terrible album to listen to for your first album by the band. Since all they do is just kick songs, it might leave you confused on what the big deal is. Actually, that’s all they ever did – just kick catchy Pop Rock with a charismatic singer. You don’t need more than that to become popular.

3 nightmares out of 5

Arctic Monkeys – Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

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It’s amazing what cultural differences can do. This was apparently a pretty big deal in the UK. It had something to do with how Pop music dominated the charts, or that it gave a voice to macho dudes who only want to pick up girls in the club (but liked guitars), or that they gained their success via word of mouth. I’m here, listening to it 9 years after it came out. I can tell it’s big, but not really why.

It sounds like it has a mission statement, but what it states is different than everything I heard. You can’t rely on historical context for too long. Eventually there will be a generation who never heard those Pop bands you knocked off the charts. They might even like them. They will care more whether the files they got from iTunes are worth doing air-guitar to or singing along to.

The album is a Dance-Rock album. It’s not about creativity or delivering a message or being weird. It tries to do the same thing Glam Metal, later Nickelback albums and Dance-Punk artists like !!! and Test Icicles do. It wants to throw a party with guitars.

The lyrics are more sophisticated than your average Glam Metal track. They swing from trying too hard to sharp. “Fake Tales” is fantastic. It’s a great attack on people who go on and on how cool other countries are. The irony is, in Israel you can switch “San Fransico” with “London”. This just shows how the message is more than just for the locals.

“You Probably Couldn’t See” is another bomb. Turner makes fun of the guys and how they all change their behavior with hopes of impressing a woman. It describes word-for-word every social situation I’ve seen where there was an attractive female there. Even the guys who claimed they’re not into it were influenced. It’s the best song the album.

While these songs give the impression that the band is a vehicle for Turner’s lyrics, it’s not. They’re just seasoning that makes these songs better, but what drives them are guitar riffs, hooks and hard drums.

Turner is a great vocalist. While he can come off as too smug (Especially on “Still Take You Home” where he’s your typical douchebag who has sex with girls he dislikes) he also easily captures an air of coolness. He sounds both smart and hedonistic, like a person who can have fun at a rock club and later make articulate arguments about the last book he read.

He never drowns out the band. In fact, they often threat to drown him. The playing is so energetic and full of life. “I Bet You Look Good” opens with what sound like Metalcore riffs. The band sounds like it’s dying to slam. On “When the Sun Goes Down” it sounds like Turner is trying to keep up.

What makes the band so good is that they know what they’re doing. This is party rock. It exists to be catchy, energetic, to slam and to sing along to. That’s why the moshpit-friendly sections in “I Bet You Look Good” don’t feel too out of place. It’s impressive how the album never runs out of steam. The last two tracks are slightly weaker, but almost everything before it sticks to the concept and never lets up.

There are a few cuts that try to tone down the noise. Only “Riot Van” succeeds, and it’s a surprising one. It only has Turner and some guitar strumming in the back, but it’s beautiful. It comes right in the middle, the right time for a small break. This is the tracks that they will draw inspiration from in their second breakthrough.

Ignore all the people who talk about what it was like when it first came out. This album still sounds great now. It’s a party rock album where the riffs are energetic, the hooks are catchy and everyone sounds like they’re really into it. It even has some cool lyrics that prevent it from sounding moronic but rarely too smug. It’s everything a party rock album should be.

3.5 fake tales of san francisco out of 5

Coldplay – X&Y

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This must have been a disappointed to people to who loved Rush of Blood. They must be disappointed by a lot of records, because failures like Rush of Blood aren’t that common. If I first heard of Coldplay through that album, I’d be really surprised. They didn’t pull a Minutes to Midnight – that’s another predictable step. They just made an album that doesn’t hint how huge you are. I guess that explains why it took me a long time to understand why this little soft rock band sells out stadiums.

X&Y discards the previous album’s experimental approach. Instead, it tries to fix Coldplay’s biggest flaw – their weak songwriting. Even the decent Parachutes relied more on sound and atmosphere rather than melodies. This might make the album sound tame and ‘uninspired’, but it’s a wise decision by a band who’s awful at pushing limits. In fact, making a tame album is exactly what this Piano Rock genre thing is all about. Why would you want to hear these supposedly gentle songs over Def Leppard production values?

They didn’t completely get rid of this production style. This album is clearly made by a band with a huge audience and enough money to make a rap song about it. “Square One” and “A Message” got walls of guitar noise that Reznor loved using in The Fragile (Only not that aggressive). The difference is that this production is pushed to the back. The huge sounds in “A Message” are there to lift the melody a little, but Chris Martin and what he’s singing are always at the center.

Speaking of the devil, Martin’s approach also changed. Since melody is now what drives the song, he puts a lot of effort on not ruining the songs. He uses the falsetto a lot less often. His normal voice isn’t exceptional, but it suits the music much better. It’s slightly muscular, but not completely. It becomes a perfect fit for music which uses a lot of guitar noise but has no aggression.

Maybe “White Shadows” and “Talk” would have been better with the production of Parachutes. There’s an attempt here at making something intimate and warm. Martin sings calmly about trying to talk to someone. That wall of guitars in “Talk” is out of place, and removes some of the emotional punch the song could have had. Still, when the album’s at its best it offers some of Coldplay’s best hooks in “White Shadows”, “Swallowed in the Sea”, “A Message” and “Talk”. There’s nothing here that deserves to be a global hit – only “Talk” does, and I’m completley fine with borrowing the melody from Kraftwerk – but it’s all good enough.

It’s bad less often than their previous album, but when it’s bad it’s the worse. “What If?” can be tossed aside. It’s cliched, insincere and the falsetto is very unconvincing. It’s no match for “Fix You” though. At least “What If?” has some humility. “Fix You” is a terrible song that should appear in every discussion of bad music. Martin sings it all in falsetto, and what better way to convince us you really feel what you’re singing by showing off how much you practiced? The lyrics are nonsense. Somehow, ignition of the bones is supposed to be uplifting. Then it ends with another Reznor-esque wall of guitars fit for a stadium. It was supposed to be a ballad. This loss of control can only means it’s a B-Side from Rush of Blood.

X&Y is perhaps the best album Coldplay will ever make. They’re a big band, and every album they will make will be a grand statement. X&Y sees them just kicking good melodies and not more than that. Even at that they’re not great. Only “Talk” rises above, but if you need an hour of soft rock it’s a nice option. There must be better options. Keane had 3 brilliant singles in Under the Iron Sea, and all Coldplay could come up with is a great song with a melody they haven’t written.

post script: The sequel to this is pretty fantastic. It turned out they can make a huge album.

 

3 x’s out of 5 y’s

George Orwell – Why I Write

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George Orwell is a towering figure in writing. He defined how we think of totalitarianism, and created a language that’s a tool to demonize any regime or opponent. That’s ironic, because this demonization is one thing Orwell avoided. He’s an unavoidable author whose status is almost mythic. He’s a symbol.

Authors rarely become symbols. The activity is too solitary and unexciting. Orwell is one of the few famous writers who clearly wrote with hopes to improve the world. A lot of fiction is personal, even the satirical. Catch-22 reads more like a person trying to find humor in his military experience, rather than hoping the generals will read it and change their modus operandi.

The importance of the first essay relies more on the fact Orwell wrote it. It shows the human beneath the writing and the terms he invented. His four main motives are interesting, and I have a hard time thinking of another one. It’s more interesting to read how Orwell was a lonely nobody in the beginning. The writing is a little jerky, feeling as if Orwell is afraid to let everything out. He’s uncomfortable writing such a personal thing. There’s also an air of self-criticism, which is important for any serious intellectuals.

The second essay about the English culture/people is a problem. Too much of what Orwell writes is personal observation. It’s interesting and well-written, but nothing really verifiable. You have to take Orwell’s word for it. Since it’s a political piece, it’s harder to take that leap.

At least Orwell never demonizes anyone. He recognizes Hitler was the enemy back then, but there’s no joy or bravado in that idea. We need to defeat the enemy because he sadly exists, but that’s nothing to celebrate.

I’ll refrain from commenting on Orwell’s economic ideas, since I’m completely ignorant in that subject. You have to start somewhere, and Orwell is a decent beginning. He’s blunt that he’s in favour of Socialism. Again, his critique of Capitalism never descends into demonization. The essay doesn’t elaborate too much on the difference between Socialism and Capitalism, but Orwell gives the impression that he has sound reasons for his opinions.

One problem that happens over and over in that essay is Orwell’s calling some facts obvious. Phrases such as “anyone who understands” or “anyone who had eyes” and so on appear frequently. They’re not next to obvious facts. Maybe they were obvious back in the day, but in modern times you’ll have to look in history books to make sure Orwell is making sense.

The third essay is just a description of hanging. The prose is fantastic. There’s no point to it other than make the scene come alive, and Orwell does it. The prose is simple, with no stylistic quirks. It also has no bullshit. This prose was wooden in 1984, yet here it captures the sense of ‘this really happened’ that all realist authors aim for.

The last essay is not only the best, but should be spread around. Orwell’s criticism apply to every language. Complex language is overrated, especially when you’re dealing with ideas. If the purpose is to make readers understand you clearly, your words shouldn’t be a dense forest.

Complex sentences may work in fiction. Tone and describing sensory information is something authors do all the time. Fictional prose always borders on poetry. When you’re writing essays or talking about ideas/politics you need to be clear. You want to send a specific message, not something vague that can mean different things depending on the person.

There’s no reason for an intellectual person who understands his ideas to bury them. Words can be used to transmit ideas, or to blur them. The examples Orwell gives are a headache, and the way he transforms a Biblical passage into ‘intellectual language’ is hilarious.

He’s wrong about jargon, though. Jargon exists so the writing will be cleaner. Jargon takes a complex idea and sums it up in one word. These words are often obscure because people who use them often are passionate about their field and discuss these ideas constantly. Some even have subject-dependent meaning, like how ‘texture’ has its own meaning in music.

Of course, some people can use it to cover up not saying anything. You can feel your music review with ‘harmony’, ‘texture’, ‘idea’, ‘time signature’, ‘octaves’ and you still won’t be able to explain why The Beatles are so good. The way to test these people is to ask them what a certain jargon word means. An intelligent person will be able to explain it.

I’m glad Penguin Great Ideas put all these essays in one accessible book. Why I Write is an attention-grabbing title, and all of these essays help understand who Orwell is. Two of them are too personal and would only matter for writers or fans of Orwell. The last essay is a must-read no matter who you are. We all use language, after all.

3.5 politicians out of 5

Muse – Drones

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This is a joke, right?

So the previous Muse album was funky and had dubstep. Now they’re going ‘back to basics’ with a straightforward rock sound, keeping the progressive structures and with a concept to boot. The concept is important. It’s about a man who gives in to the mind-controlling government, becomes a ‘drone’, a killing machine only to revolt thanks to the power of love.

I didn’t know 16-year-old angry guys with eggs for brains were a great audience. This whole thing tries so hard to impress them, to give them a soundtrack to reading God Delusion and hating America. There will be no experimentation, no creativity and definitely no dubstep or any of that dancing crap. Dancing is for drones. You’re a teenage angry atheist who isn’t a big fan of government and now knows what life is about.

This is escapism. You do not bring new ideas to your audience and challenge the ones they hold. You flatter them. You tell them what they already think and assure them they’re right. It’s best that you do this without asking why they think what they think. Antichrist Superstar targeted those kids who are nothing, want to be something and can’t decide if they hate themselves more than the world. I’m that target audience, but Manson explored this state of mind from various viewpoints.

Antichrist Superstar (and if we’re going there, Downward Spiral) were inner journies. The reason they come off as vague and analysis of them tends to be slippy is because their stories don’t chronicle solid events. They chronicle how a person’s views and emotions changes, where a certain worldview can lead you. Drones is a blockbuster.

Drones details no personal journey. It’s about a guy who eventually revolts and defeats the government (with the power of love). So, it’s your typical action blockbuster with no personality. You can’t even compare it to good action films. There is music here, but it tends to be bombastic noise. The most interesting idea is the choir thing at the end, which is a worse idea than recording your own farts. The most fun thing here is “Dead Inside”. It also happens to bang in the whip.

When I was young I used to admire musicians for talking about ‘current events’ and ‘problems of the world’. Then I grew up a little, got interested in other forms of art (and became a drone of the whole ‘medium is the message’ thingie) and turned around. It also had something to do with all these musicians hating women, but all these political lyrics ended up meaningless. (hed) pe cared more about fucking. Chuck D’s main message is that he’s a great rapper. Rage Against the Machine were against the government because they’re not buying their records.

There is the occasional Heroes of Hiphoprisy, but music is a pretty awful way to deliver intellectual content. It’s a medium of the hearing sense. It deals with emotions, with what things feel like. Downward Spiral isn’t an intellectual exploration of ‘becoming a machine’ but an emotional one. That’s why Reznor has all these machines banging in the background.

Muse doesn’t even offer an ideas of what it feels like to be a ‘drone’. They’re not considered with sharing emotions but by telling a story. That’s why the album is so blunt. You get both a Full Metal Jacket drill sergeant and lyrics that tell you “I could use someone like you/someone who’ll kill on my command”. What’s hilarious is that Muse felt the need to include both, as if the drill sergeant interlude wasn’t enough. There is no subtley, no humor, nothing. Muse doens’t show but explains, over and over. There’s none of the humor that made the first half of Full Metal Jacket so powerful. The song itself is mishmash between Antichrist Superstar and Pale Emperor. How can you sound like Marilyn Manson and be boring?

Saying over and over that the government is bad and that the military is terrible does nothing. All you do is create an ‘unknown enemy’ with no motivation but pure destruction and death. This is what people hate about America, that the American government is supposedly creating an enemy with no motivation but killing and getting money. It takes one to know one.

The true punchline is how love is going to save us all on “Aftermath”. You have to remember the words of Mike Skinner to understand it. Muse sell out stadiums. They’re rich and they play guitar. They probably have threesomes everyday. If I were in their place, of course I’d believe that love is going to save us all. Sadly, I’m not that attractive and I see a lot of people fighting over love. Maybe it’s better to be a psychopathic killer than crazy for a person, but that’s a disucssion for a different day.

There is music here in the narrative, but it’s not very interesting. The awful concept is far more fun to talk about. The music is very loud but very pleasant to the ear. It’s great if you want to feel rebellious at school, but also intellectual. We all know that when Manson screams it’s pure stupidity, but the falsetto of “Mercy” is intellectual. There’s a dubstep rhythm to “The Handler” and I already talked about how “Dead Inside” bangs, but that’s it. “The Globalist” borrows ideas from Morricone and stretches to 10 minutes while doing nothing. No one really expected an album with titles like “Dead Inside”, “Psycho” and “Revolt” to be good, right?

2 drones out of 5

The Prodigy – The Day Is My Enemy

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If your main gripe with The Day Is My Enemy is the lack of new ideas, maybe you should reconsider your status as a Prodigy fan. Maybe, all these years, they just weren’t for you. You thought they were, because they were brilliant. They were just brilliant in a field that’s less important to you. If you want to hear how far Electronic Dance Music can be pushed and still be banging, maybe you should try MUST DIE!, Jack U or Chemical Brothers.

The Prodigy’s sound is not original and never was. People were simply too stupid to notice the common ground between Dance, Rock and Hip-Hop. No classic Prodigy song is great because of its uniqueness. The Prodigy’s music always had one aim. It wanted to bang. It’s no different than early Skrillex. They found some variety in their sound, but the heart never changed. Even when they went from the Rave of Experience and Jilted Generation to the Big Beat of Fat of the Land, the music function in the same way.

The closest thing to a new idea in The Day is My Enemy are the few very rock-based tracks, the drumless “Beyond the Deathray” and the House-influenced title-track. Only “Beyond the Deahtray” is actually new territory. It’s an instrumental that’d be much more at home in Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile. Their music already flirts with rock, so when they shift the focus to the guitars and the vocals in “Medicine” and “Wall of Death” it’s logical progression. As for the title-track, there’s something unique in its house-inspired rhythm and how it sounds like it was recorded from a battlefield.

All the rest sees Prodigy revisiting old ideas, with various degress of success. The few experiments they did in Invaders Must Die are chucked away. Everything here is driven by aggressive breakbeats, lots of noises and shouting. Every track can fit an old album. “Destroy” is from The Fat of the Land. “Roadblox” brings back the fast pace of Jilted Generation. “Rok-Weiler” is from Always Outnumbered. “Wild Frontier” with its melody (and some of the best sounding breakbeats ever) can fit in Invaders Must Die. Even Flux Pavilion can’t add anything new. On “Rhythm Bomb” he just adds some wobble noises to typical Prodigy rhythms.

You don’t even need to get over the feeling of Deja vu. Almost every track here is a winner. “Ibiza” is the only track that could be left off and the album won’t be worse off. I understand the guys are pissed at the modern EDM scene, but the track only has a decent break and someone ranting over it with a heavy accent. Everything else here explains why nobody else pursues that sound. It will be very hard to beat Prodigy in their own. We’ve heard tracks like “Medicine”, “Roadblox”, “Wild Frontier” and “Destroy” before, but these tracks are just as good as the old ones. Prodigy’s discography isn’t too big yet, so as long as they’ll keep revisiting the same ideas with the same brilliance I’ll keep listening. The old sound of The Day is My Enemy isn’t the sound of old people lagging behind the times. It’s old masters coming back to explain why the sound was so popular in the first place.

3.5 roadblox out of 5

Ian McEwan – Atonement

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There are two competing novels here. One is driven by a character’s flaw and how it brought her to do a terrible thing. The other is a manipulative, Shawsank Redemption-like tale where the author takes a character who has it made and puts a lot of external troubles on it in order to make us sympathize. Surrounding these novels is some great writing that made you understand why so few authors try minimalism.

There’s no reason to sympethize with Robbie. He has no character. He has no flaw to struggle against. The trouble he faces is all external, and it doesn’t take any effort to just pile terrible events on the character. It’s especially easy to pile on these events, and leave the character almost unscarred to show us how strong and capable he is.

Maybe McEwan wants to inspire me to be good with Robbie’s character, but Robbie needs to have a character first. After being sent to the frontlines because of nothing, Robbie remains humanitarian and nice to everyone. He tries to save a woman and a child, and even a pencil pusher that’s almost being lynched.

Why should he want to save him, though? Robbie ate shit all the way. His only companions aren’t very pleasant. Why shouldn’t anger take the best of him? Soldiers are often angry at ‘pencil pushers’ and office workers. These people make a lot of decisions from behind their desks without seeing the bombings and the fighting. There’s no reason for Robbie to try to save anyone, let alone what soldiers especially despise. There is no depth to this ‘goodness’. It’s a hook to try to make us like Robbie, but that’s exactly what makes him so boring and unappealing.

Only at the end Robbie does something less than admirable, but McEwan doesn’t let all his events reach their logical conclusion. Robbie is barely scarred. All that needs to prevent him from hitting the bottom is some cliched crap about the power of love. Does McEwan thinks that after all Robbie went through, a women’s love is enough? That’s a recipe for cheap escapism.

By never letting Robbie succumb to the logical conclusion of going through hell, he paints a world of black and white. He doesn’t want to. He tries really hard to get to the emotional core of the characters. It’s espceially evident in the small characters and Briony, but all of them deserved so much more than being on a novel where Robbie stars.

Briony is, if not exactly complex, a real character. The deed she tries to atone for comes out of her personality. She does it not just to make the plot move because it’s the reasonable thing to do for a character who lives more inside her head than in the world. Everything else about her stems from this. All her other decisions and actions comes from her character. The end of her story is also consistent with her themes.

It’s almost misandrist how McEwan gives zero depth to the male character while writing Briony so real.

The post-modern Gotcha! at the end doesn’t really redeem this flaw. If anything, it just makes Briony far deeper and Robbie shallower. It’s a twist that serves the story, but it doesn’t excuse spending so many pages with someone with less character than a shovel. It doesn’t excuse the complete lack of even hinting at Robbie is not a saint. I recall how Atwood failed back in The Blind Assassin. Being sexually attractive is not enough to make a man a saint.

Between these two stories there is a lot of writing. It’s mostly descriptions, but if everyone described like McEwan then it’d make reading so much easier.

McEwan’s greatest prose is found in the middle, writing about the war effort. His attention to small details and every person who passes by is not because it makes it ‘more real’, or to pad the book in attempts to impress. He writes every passer-by like he’s the star of his own novel. Every one of them has his own little short story. They’re so good that you tend to forget Robbie is even there.

It’s so good that the bluntness can be forgiven. McEwan writes like a sledgehammer. He describes everything, and then writes a literary critique of it. This makes Atonement a funny novel. It’s both long and very easy to read. I’d normally attack an author for being that blunt, but it’s deceptive. The emotional insight he shows with the soldiers, both on the frontlines and the hospital contains much more than what he writes.

How an author can fail on what his story focuses and writes beautifully the sidelines is beyond me. Atonement is written by an author of great talent. There’s enough her to enjoy – Briony’s character, the various digressions and descriptions – that it’s easy to forget where McEwan fails. I’m really tired about reading about sexually attractive, righteous and perfect guys whose only troubles are external. It’s not a brilliant novel, but it has plenty of hints of brilliance.

3 nurses out of 5