Kaiba

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Great works of art are not easy to review. They are not common like the cesspool of bad art. Bad art is easy to deconstruct, to show how pathetically horrible they are. “So bad it’s good” exists because these works are so bizarre, so extraordinary that they become unique. Bad art is never unique its badness. In contrast, great works of art always end up redefining what ‘good’ is, so any review of a masterpiece will never be analytical and conclusive. It always end up chasing something that we can only grasp a piece of, like a poet looking at a beautiful line he wrote and knowing he can never write a worthy poem of it.

Kaiba is one of those artworks. I say it deliberately. Judgment of it is not confined to anime. It transcends media, reaches something so deeply human and awe-inspiring that it becomes a part of you. Do not expect a rational explanation of why this anime is better than pretty much anything. If we understood completely why it’s so good, we’d have masterpiece dropping from the skies. I can try, though.

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The key to understanding Kaiba is understanding how it tells a story, specifically how it takes advantage of the personal nature of fiction. All art, including fiction, is personal. It is a product of human thought, a translation of your entire Being – your experiences, philosophy, unconscious, passions – into some kind of experience that another being can take on. Kaiba is a ridiculously expressive work. Every scene is imbued with emotion. Every object says something about what it represents. It’s so emotionally draining because of that.

Memory is the big topic, but Kaiba isn’t just about memory. In a cliched way, it’s existentialist, asking what we are. Its answer is memories, but memories are also information. The anime explores this intersection of information that defines us. Notice the symbols. When memory isn’t converted to information, it is organic and free – it is lifelike memory eggs. These are also tiny, fragile and fleeting. The memories float away and are easily lost.

The roe is us, so they use to show how tiny we are when death strikes. When a character dies, their bodies become liquid and vanish completely. The ‘self’ becomes just a bunch of yellow pieces floating way. It expresses the loss of death, how death completely erase us and we become nothing. The memory chip – a drill-like thing – can also die so easily, if it’s lost it’s gone forever. Sure, we can try to capture those roe or to protect the chip, but it’s so difficult. It’s an expression of how fragile we are.

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Yet converting ourselves into information makes us so much easier to control, and easier for us to control others. Altering other people’s memories is a sci-fi trope, but this anime is concerned with how it affects everyone, how it affects our personal lives. We see the small results of this – how erasing someone’s childhood erases who they are and they end up becoming nothing but a memory. How this power to change personal reality blurs into thinking we can change reality itself – a direct link to megalomania and tyranny.

Our memories are our personality. Once we control them, edit them, change them all lines break down. The world of Kaiba looks funny by design, but that’s because how the people experience it. People can also put their memories into a whole new body. In one episode this results in a world where bodies are manufactured like clothes. Its reality is grotesque, a mass of weird shapes that’s disorientating. Somehow we ended up creating a more chaotic reality than nature.

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Leaning towards a socioeconomic critique of society, the anime shows a world in which memories – selves – become products. So a character sells her own body with hopes that her memory will be kept. Selves are no longer precious. This society isn’t painted with strokes of black to show you how evil rich people are. Rather, to illustrate the chaos of it, we see selling your own body and putting yourself in a chip is no guarantee. You’re relinquishing control of yourself, your grip on the world.

Yet this ‘information’ is never just ‘information’. Consciousness was the result of accumalating all these pieces of data and connecting them. So we’re never really dead, and using memories this way is using people as objects. The anime is deeply concerned with living things. In a gallery of memories, the people who own these memories cry out to be released.

Everyone’s concerns are always personal. Although the characters are simple, they have motivation and a humanity. A sheriff who really wants a girl at first seems like a greedy bastard, but he’s a person. That’s his wants, and when we see this want doesn’t make him just an asshole but a good person we’re encouraged to sympathize with him. In the end, he’s a ‘human’ being – with people he loves, things he wants, and dreams lost when death comes.

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Although there are antagonists, the series always reminds us that they’re people in the most simple way. People want power, but not because they’re evil. They want it because they’re human beings, so we see the ringleader of the resistance crumbling to tears when he realizes what he’s done. He had to erase memories that painted him in a bad light, but the result was losing a friend.

This anime is in the end about treasuring people. The idea of memory is just a tool to show us how we can lose people, no matter how hard we work to keep them. We put their identity, their whole being in a chip but then that chip is lost. We sell a loved one’s body, hoping the salesman will keep the information in a chip. A friend blocks our ambition, so we erase some memories only to realize the whole person is gone. Eventually this anime reaches an important conclusion about being – we need each other, we’re social animals, power doens’t make up for it.

The castle of Warp is a lonely place. The only person he has is an all-seeing robot. He’s not happy and the only thing he can talk about are who to execute. He may be the king of memories, but these are his own memories. What good are they? In a beautiful scene Popo and the resistance at the palace, and it has a huge opening to a black void. That’s the height of power to you, a lonely high place looking out into nothing. The only thing that’s there are themselves, yet they’re craving control.

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The romance between Neiro and Kaiba isn’t a symbol for romance, but what’s really important – connection. Even during oppression, they found something of their own, a precious shared memory that’s enough. Separate yourself from the struggle for power. The privileges of the rich to put themselves in memory chips and live forever aren’t that worthwhile in the end. Every world touched by this is grotesque, people are lost yet they are still people.

You cannot talk about the art without mentioning the Neverhood, which seems like a direct inspiration for the anime. Both endings and beginning borrow from it. It opens with a man seeing an unknown, bizarre world. The ending includes a darker version of the hero and a gigantic, self-sacrificing robot. Like the Neverhood, the design is cartoonish, nonsensical and imbued with meaning and emotions. Look at the planet where the only thing that matters is the story of two old people. The planet itself is nothing but their tower. The underworld is almost colorless – but almost, since it still has some life in it. The club is colorful and weird but has a dominating shade of purple – a disorientating effect. Vanilla looks like what we expect from an asshole with the fat belly and aggressive face (Only his character later proves to be more). There is even a creature who flies by a propeller and doesn’t speak – like the sidekick from old video games. It’s as unrealistic as you get, but no scene is without emotional overtones just like life – and that makes it far closer to reality than anything else.

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Likewise the soundtrack couldn’t be better, a collection of gentle electronic sounds. It fits with the slightly childish designs, but it has the same fragility of the world. A lot of it sounds like Boards of Canada, only it takes it to less nostalgic tones. The soundtrack mostly expresses a reflective, introspective atmosphere, one of both awe and terror. Some tracks are colder and harsher that reminds us that this world is still harsh, a world where selves can be sold. Some tracks have beautiful, intimate melodies to go along with the theme of connection.

There is no other anime like Kaiba, an anime so expressive, where every shot is charged with emotion, wonder, terror and humanity. ‘Depth’ isn’t the right word. It’s not an intellectual, symbolic exercise like Paranoia Agent or a psychological exploration like Digimon Tamers yet it’s somehow better than these two. Perhaps because it takes anime to the origin of art – the expression, not explanation, of human experience. Nothing I could write would do this anime justice.

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All That Remains – Madness

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At the same time, this album both signifies All That Remains as a talented rock band who broke away from their genre and copycats who have no future besides spewing typical, Serious Rock cliches. Perhaps the album title is fitting, but that would mean the album is actually interesting. It isn’t.

Since I’m writing about it, let’s try to find something fun to say about this. All That Remains aren’t a bad band. Recently they abandoned Metalcore and just did whatever they wanted, so you got songs like “A War You Cannot Win”, “True-Kvlt-Metal” and “This Probably Won’t End Well”. None of these songs was particulalry original, but they were all fantastic. The band slammed. They sung their melodies with conviction, each part stood on its own while connected to everything else. Melodic parts didn’t exist to contrast the heavy parts, but to co-exist together. The band seemed quite content to be in their place. How else to explain the joy of “True-Kvlt Metal”, which had such victorious spite or “War” where they replace Lostprophets in making victorious rock? This new freedom allowed “End Well” to sound so vulnerable.

They still sound free. Across the first four tracks, there’s a roaring Metalcore track with no melodies and all breakdowns. Then they switch to an ordinary combination of their previous styles, while “If I’m Honest” – one of the few good things here – moves to a cocky Country rock thing. It’s impressive how each song sounds distinct, how the band throw themselves at the ideas and prevent the song from blurring into one another. Each has their obvious place and it’s exactly what I expect from a band this far into their career.

Focusing on song ideas never lets up. Even in their ballads, “Back To You” is intimate, quite and low-key whereas “Far From Home” is huge. Normally I’d say this is the ideal place for every old rock band to be. My description sure say the band is the opposite of washed up, and this is more varied than A War You Cannot Win. Yet it’s far worse, and if that one signaled the band finding their purpose, this sees them losing it.

It’s not the old Rockist case of being too varied. The best songs here – “If I’m Honest” and “The Thunder Rolls” stray the most from the genre. The problem is that the band has no good songs, only good ideas. I’m not sure whether it’s more funny or more sad how hard they try in “Safe House” yet completely miss the point. When the breakdown chorus arrives, it needs something more vulgar, more ridiculous than “Welcome to my safe/Do you feel safe now”. Where’s the swearing? Where’s the explicit bragging? Plus, the screaming is closer to low Death Metal growls than Hardcore Punk shouting. We all know that nothing makes the crowd want to shout along more than growls you can’t understand. Every metalcore band improves once they adopt intelligble screams. The song becomes an exercise in seriousness, a desperate attempt to prove these guys aren’t silly partygoers like Five Finger Death Punch.

It gets worse from there. The title-track is about how politics is pretty bad. You can tell by the music video. Although there’s a decent melody buried there, the chorus is a reptition of its title with zero melody or rhythm or swagger. Again, it’s very serious as if that makes for depth. More hilarious is their attempt at seriousness at all. No one takes this type of music seriously. Its essence is theatrics, being overblown and exaggerating emotions because we can. “Far From Home” misses that because it doesn’t go all the way with textures to capture the beauty of always being close to home. Singing with a serious tone is supposedly enough, but it isn’t.

Worse, there is no purpose in thos experiments. When they made “War” or “Kvlt”, the band sounded like they were really into being cocky and telling everyone to fuck off. Finally they sounded like they found something to be passionate over, something more than merely making music. The only song that captures this sense of purpose is “If I’m Honest” and that’s only because it’s the same “I’m a bad motherfucker” narrative, only with acoustic guitars. Although I appreciate the emotions behind “River City”, the good ideas are a sacrifice for a ‘deep and serious’ image.

Many of the songs have quite a killer sound, but the problem is in the lyrics. A kind of a dissonance appears. You want to mosh and party, but all you can conjure in your hand is the band scowling on stage. Whoever thought of the lyrics for “Trust and Believe” should stop using the English language. The song has a great melody with screaming vocals, but the lyrics are too serious. If your idea of fun is shouting the words “trust and believe” – which are already quite trite in rock music – you need medication. The victorious swagger of past albums is gone.

Only two songs stick out and are worthwhile. “If I’m Honest” has been mentioned already. It’s a mid-tempo acoustic rocker that brings back the cockiness of old records. Another highlight is the closer “The Thunder Rolls”, which is a Garth Brooks cover. Yeah, I didn’t see that either but the band does throw themselves with conviction at their ideas, even if their pointless. So the cover ends up hinting that maybe the band should borrow more from Country. Everyone in the song pushes themselves further – you get atmospheric solos and Phil sounding like he’s drinking his last beer watching Megaton blowing up. Perhaps in a good day “Back To You” will also work, its low-key and warm sound is a refreshment after the over-seriousness of everything else.

The band still sounds capable and they play everything with passion, but there is no point to this music, nothing to unify it besides telling you these guys are serious. In an interview they said they’ll go in a more electronic direction but nothing like that is here. It’s an album of cowardice, of trying new ideas but never taking them to the extreme and keeping the serious facade. “Safe House” needed bass wobbles. “Madness” needed more melody, more texture. Oh well, better luck next time.

15. trust out of 5 believe

No Game No Life

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12 episodes of praising Instrumental Reason doesn’t make for good fiction, but it makes it clear why the anime blew up so much. Popularity is never a result of quality, but of fitting in with the zeitgeist, the common biases and worldviews of an age. That’s why Game of Thrones is so popular since it shows a masculinity that’s dark, therefore intelligent instead of the happy-go-lucky nonsense of 80’s action films. As for this anime, its popularity comes from how blatant it is in showing Instrumental Reason to be the supreme reason. Imagine those vegans or marijuana advocates who think that their pet issues would solve all the world’s problems.

Before we discuss why this anime is so bad, let’s clarify what I mean by ‘Instrumental Reason’. I capitalize it because it’s a useful term. To use Charles Taylor’s definition, it is reason which is about efficiancy and problem-solving. It asks how fast we can solve a problem, what is the best way to solve a problem.

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Take the case of a busted wheel. When your wheel’s gone bust, you don’t ask what it means, what ramifications it will have on pop culture or on our perception of gender and reality. All that matters is that we change tires as quickly as possible, and that the tire will be good enough to last as long as possible. While there are theories dissecting the meaning behind games, when we play chess we don’t think what the game means. Rather, we asks how we beat the game.

In contrast, there is what I’d call ‘reason of meaning’. By that, you ask what is the nature of things. We don’t just ask how to end racism and poverty, but what exactly is racism and poverty. We’re interested in understanding these issues, defining them, understanding what is bad. Instrumental Reason leads to a lot of money for hi-tech buffons, but it cannot solve all problems since it doesn’t tell you what the problem, or the meaning of things is.

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Sora and Shiro are one pair whose world is in Instrumental Reason. While games have meaning, the meaning is related to the mere act of playing. We don’t question whether or not we should win a game and what is the nature of winning chess – the rules decide that. The world of Disboard is a world where every problem isn’t just solved by games, but by Instrumental Reason.

That means it’s a world that doesn’t have any meaning at all. The nature of any problem doesn’t matter, since there will be an arbitrary equation that must solved. Once we solve this equation, the problem ends. The anime tells the story of a megalomaniacal brother-and-sister who beat people in games, gain power and minions and occasionally pay lip-service to morality.

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Now, if the series was an examination of such Instrumental Reason, it would’ve been fine. If Instrumental Reason was merely a dominant storytelling tool, then it could still have a decent story. By that, I mean that the show works similar to Death Note and Code Geass. The story moves mainly by challenges facing the characters, and the characters need to solve them. The viewer gains pleasure from trying to solve the riddle along with the characters. However, the meaning of these challenges isn’t important.

Instrumental Reason is so dominant in this anime that these challenges don’t even pretend to have meaning. Death Note may have been a series of riddles, but underneath it there was supposed to be a story about the morality of executing criminals. It failed because it didn’t create situations where we examined the issue, but rather only asked ‘who will win?’. In similar fashion, the only question this anime asks is ‘how will Sora and Shiro win?’.

As a storytelling tool, it’s incredibly boring. It’s essentially watching a staged game. The whole thrill of watching sports is that you don’t know who will win and nothing is decided until the last moment. Stories which use Instrumental Reason make you watch a man playing chess against himself, only with more narrative fluff and (in the case of anime) pretty visuals.

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So as a story, this is a complete failure. Really, it’s about nothing. Only near the end it says something about the nature of games, but the whole thing happens in an alternative reality. Once the characters are thrown into it, no mention of the real world. Without admitting there is a real world where not everything is a game, it cannot explore the nature of games. Many throw the word ‘escapist’ around and it’s always debatable how escapist a show is, but can anyone debate this? The characters literally escape the real world so they could play forever.

If the story is an absolute failure, at least it could do well in other aspects. Sadly, it’s all bad except for the art. The art is easily some of anime’s best. It’s such a shame that a highlight in anime art is glued to a horrible story. Look at those vibrant colors, how every scene doesn’t have so much a depth of detail but a depth of color. It creates the feeling of a truly fantastical world. It applies to character design, too. While the series is shameless in fanservice, each character gets its unique touch, unique eye shapes and hairstyles. Shiro isn’t the best design, but her design is a good case in point. Her hair isn’t just long but has a distinct flow to it. Jibril is another excellent case. For a character who floats around half-naked, they sure thought about a lot of unique touches – the asymmetrical gloves, the gardient in the hair.

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Sadly, this is where the positives end. Some of the characters are good, but they need a different setting and a different storytelling method. Stephanie Dola could’ve been a light in the dark, a contrast to the world. Her emotional reaction actually could’ve added some ‘reason of meaning’, show us a character who thinks about other things besides winning. Too bad her role is to be slapped around, sexually humiliated and generally used as a tool. If so far you were convinced my rantings about ‘Instrumental Reason’ was just cranking about, here’s the final nail. The anime takes its one character who has a different view than constantly puts it down.

Sora is tied to this problem, and to the misogyny problem. He’s a 20th century masculine stereotype. Writing about transformation of masculinity in fiction is incomplete without him. We see how once the manly hero packed guns, now he’s shagging women and is being a conniving, selfish asshole. What defines Sora isn’t heroism like those in the 80’s movies, but his pure ‘Instrumental Reason’. All that matters to him is winning, all he can think about is winning.

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Occasionally he displays some moral code about being nice to those he lose. We never see the general ethics that guide him, though. Since he’s comfortable using everyone as pieces, he’s more like a Wolf of Wall Street, doing everything to win and using people as means to an end. It fits with the zeitgeist. Go to school, and they will teach you how the only important thing is making loads of money. Whatever technology you invent, whatever content you produce, it doesn’t matter so long as you get money. No surprise our politicians are so corrupt.

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Using people as means, besides pissing off Kant also gives the whole anime a strong misogynistic bent. You don’t just see women in sexy situations, but often humiliating situations. Stephanie gets the most of it. An episode is dedicated to treating her like an animal only to teach her a lesson. He also takes pictures of her nude without consent and there’s the whole ‘laughing at flat women’ thing. I don’t see anything funny about humiliating a girl, taking nude pictures of her and generally framing her as inferior and dumb. Worst of all, we’re meant to cheer for Sora and the characters eventually come to like him. I don’t see how his rise to power demanded treating Dola so awfully.

Contrary to the creator’s idea, I would rather have a beer with Stephanie Dola and not just because she’s a woman. No Game No Life is pure escapist fantasy for the hi-tech age. In an age where we want to just solve problems instead of thinking about their nature, it’s the ideal anime. I’m reminded of a story where some government officials asked how to lower the amount of poor people. Onc offered to change the definition to the American definitions, and then there will be less poor people on the count. Notice how the numbers change but no one asks what exactly poverty is and what’s the actual problem. It’s a comfortable mindset, but we don’t live in Disboard. Our world isn’t clean and ordered where each problems have clear laws. In this world, you have to ask what is the problem, what it means and the whole shebang. Also, you can’t go around treating women like Sora treats Stephanie. Somebody might come and get all 80’s Action Movie on your ass.

1.5 misogynists out of 5

(hed) pe – Blackout

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I was no naive at the time. I wanted desperately to like this. The album cover was beautiful. The word ‘blackout’ is pretty cool. The band’s name was badass and made no sense. Best of all, there were supposed to be one of the more Hip-Hop orientated Nu Metal. My previous experience with them was with Only in Amerika, which was good if you ignore how it treated women like the Japanese treated their specimen in Unit 731.

Something about this record felt off, though. Sure, the opening song was great and bizarre with its melodic-yet-aggressive vocals. Everything else lacked the punch, that Nu Metal chutzpah that (hed) pe did better than anyone else. After following them further into their career, the position of this album became clearer. It also explained why Only in Amerika was such a hateful record towards women.

This was their normal record. Apparently, the label pushed them to make this. Making a more radio-friendly record means less profanity, less lyrics about partying and more straight-up rock about the general gloom of life. The fact the record still sounds at home in the Nu Metal speaks volumes about the band’s talent. The label couldn’t crush the party. Even while playing straight, the band is weirder than their peers.

The key to this is the band’s natural talent. On previous albums, it could be said the genre pushed them to great moments. Here, they’re dealing with a duller sound that only talent can lift up. Check that ominous riff in “Dangerous”, that jerky guitar line in “Bury Me” or the frantic bassline in “Flesh and Bone”. Whenever a Nu Metal band normalized their sound, they had no such moments. They kicked ordinary riffs. (hed) pe can still finds unique sounds even when making generic gloom rock.

Jahred’s vocals are, of course, an integral part of the charm. His vocals are just as versatile as last time. He raps a little less, but he still jumps freely from style to style. It sometimes even sounds like there are two vocalists in the band. On “Suck It Up”, his singing voice goes ridiculously low. I talk a lot about the balance between melody and aggression which Nu Metal bands are great at capturing. That song is another perfect example of how it works.

He does sound defanged. The title-track should be an anthem against conformity, about trying to fit in. Jahred doesn’t have the same bravado and conviction that made “Crazy Legs” so thrilling. He just sings. His voice is pretty, but is that what people call ‘inauthentic’? In the previous records, his personality dominated. Here, he’s just an extremely talented vocalist. The only time he sounds like the old times is in “Crazy Life”. That’s no coincidence, since it’s the one song that relies more on rapping and some hedonistic lyrics.

At least he has a beautiful singing voice. On the acoustic, Everlast-esque “Other Side” his voice is so pretty it doesn’t really matter that it must be insincere. If we learned anything from the Lostprophets fiasco is that music’s an act. Jahred’s act may not be the most convincing, but his natural charisma lifts up the already excellent melodies. No one else should perform “Revelations” or “Get Away”. Then again, who really cares about authenticity in Nu Metal? It’s a genre about partying and vague complains about life. Blackout may more serious than their previous album, but the title-track is still a banger.

There’s actually a good side to removing the band’s personality. In later records Jahred came off like a misogynistic rapist. How he didn’t get involved a sex scandal is a mystery to me. In fact, I’m sure he did his sure of sex crimes that just weren’t reported yet. Blackout is unique in the band’s discography. It has all the band’s main talents – the crushing riffs, odd sounds, genre-hopping, versatile vocals – without the obnoxious “Women are evil and I love sex” lyrics. It’s the one (hed) pe album I can listen to without squirming.

Despite defanging and normalizing the sound, the natural talent of this band lead to a strong set of songs. It may lack their unique personality, but then again their personality sometimes got in the way. Everything you need in a Nu Metal record – hooks, loudness, variety are here. Not every record can be as brilliant as (hed) pe’s self-titled, but each of these 13 songs should be on a playlist for a rock party.

3.5 crazy lives out of 5

Slipknot – All Hope is Gone

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Normalization is the worst thing that could happen to a Nu Metal band. Back in the 00’s everyone whined about bands ‘selling out’, but they were concerned with the band’s image rather than quality. If a band decided to sing more and perhaps tone down the noise, it was wrong because it was accessible. Whether it lead to good music or not didn’t matter. So all the critics going hammer missed out about bands dropping elements, turning their vision more and more narrow.

The 00’s were surreal times, and pretty awesome. You could listen to Lostprophets without feeling guilt and overly serious EDM didn’t dominate the airwaves. A wave of loud rock bands rose, deciding that genres are silly. You can have funky rhythms, rapping, Dream Pop atmospherics and coherent screaming – sometimes all in the same songs. They weren’t afraid of being danceable or loud or poppy. “Eyeless”, a full-on rant with Jungle elements was considered unoriginal. It was unoriginal compared to, what, exactly? Long guitar solos and lyrics against Jesus Christ?

When Disturbed and Papa Roach dropped their quirks, it was a bummer but not too much. They weren’t too good at working with them anyway. Slipknot, however, are the band that suffered the most from the normalization. They didn’t distill their quircks into an accessible sound that still had shades of a unique personality. Korn still sounded out-of-place when they made “Make Me Bad”. Slipknot obviously read all the reviews that whined about how Machine Head does something other than an overly serious Pantera and decided, ‘hey, we’ll do it too!’

Why would anyone want to listen to “Gemataria” over “Eyeless”? What is it about the former that makes it more fun, more aggressive, catchier, more creative, more anything positive? Slipknot was so bizarre in their noisy rants that were somehow friendly to Rock radio. You would expect that the music would still have a shed of personality. If Slipknot makes ordinary music, it should at least sound like they’re playing the genre on their own terms.

Instead, it sounds like a creative band trying desperately not to come off weird, like a dude trying to hide his Slipknot shirt underneath a suit & tie. “All Hope is Gone”‘s chorus breaks into a Hip-Hop beat, and the chorus can be adapted into a Hip-Hop song. Since Corey displayed good rapping skills, nothing prevents him from breaking into a full Rap verse. It would be bolder to end the album with pure Breaks and rapping. The groove that drives it comes less from Pantera, and sounds more like the Funk-influenced ending of Prong’s “Cut-Rate”.

Elsewhere, “This Cold Black” and “Wherein Lies Continue” are more embarrassing examples of how hard Slipknot are trying to fit in. The latter has a slow groove that’s not danceable. It’s only ‘heavy’ in the sense that it’s not pleasant to the ear if your musical vocabulary consists of Backstreet Boys and the one Michael Jackson everyone knows. Imagine a Groove Metal track you’re supposed to brood too, rather than dance to. If you can imagine that, you need not ever listen to the song – or the whole album, actually. You’ll also desperately need something to make you forget this image. The former of these two track is the banding slamming their instruments seriously. There are no fun, catchy lyrics like ‘fuck you all, fuck this world’.

Really, people, why must anger be serious and dramatic? Vulgarity is informal. It mixed so well with Nu Metal because it gave it a lightness, a bouncy fun aspect to the music. Vulgarity makes the anger less serious, and the tracks more akin to venting than making grand philosophical statements involving fear and trembling. “Gematria” is limp and anemic, the band slams but can’t come up with anything truly hard-hitting. Spitting poetry about America being a killing name is so hilarious over these theatrical, brooding metal riffs. “We’ll burn your cities down” is the one highlight of the track, because Slipknot used to sound like they want to burn cities down for the fuck of it. Corey sounds more serious than angry, and you’re only allowed to be serious with Nu Metal if you’re weird enough.

Slipknot could’ve have justified their new, ‘no fun allowed’ approach since they were one of the few Nu Metal bands with an artistic bent. Vol. 3 didn’t suffer from it. In fact, it justified it by having fragile atmospheric ballads like “Danger – Keep Away” and weird noises during party tracks like “Pulse of the Maggots”. Nothing here is as brave and progressive like “Three Nil”, a track that was as angry as it was experimental as in was contemplative. It sees Slipknot utterly unrestrained by either Pop or Metal structures. Corey never once touches the conversational tone of that song, and no song has its unique, ever-changing structure except “Gehenna”. It’s an interesting song, at least, which counts for something in an album so lacking in spark or imagination.

The highlights are only “Psychosocial”, “Vendetta” and “Butcher’s Hook”. They don’t reach the heights of Slipknot’s older material except for “Psychosocial” – a fist-pumping stomper that tries to put a serious face, but still cares more about the party than grand statements. The other songs see Slipknot letting loose for a while. “Vendetta” may seem normal, but not because Slipknot are trying to be normal, but because they felt like kicking a straight-forward rocker. “Butcher’s Hook” sounds more like something out of Vol. 3 and has some fantastic atmospherics. DJ Starscream has always an important rib of Slipknot. His odd sounds made them sound more dangerous than any metal riff can, and the intro to the song is more intense than any Thrash Metal record.

Slipknot deserve so much more. While at first they seemed like they were Nu Metal’s most brutal band, they were also one of its weirdest. Even at their worst they sounded off-kilter and actually dangerous, like a band who can’t contain themselves. On this album Slipknot restrain themselves, and if this doesn’t sound awful to you consider this. “Danger – Keep Away” is an extremely soft ballad where the band jumps into its idea with full conviction. It has no build-up, just pure ambiance and creepy lyrics. Slipknot are unrestrained even in their soft songs. Nothing here sounds as dangerous or intense or authentic as that one. Here, they try to please those morons who whine about Machine Head being unoriginal since they expanded their sound. Such people you don’t want at your party, and you don’t want this album either (except “Psychosocial”, that’s Prong-level of party starting).

2 butchers out of 5

Korn – The Serenity of Suffering

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So Korn has turned into Sevendust.

The problem hearing albums like The Paradigm Shift when they come out, is that their role isn’t clear. Parts of it point to Korn still experimenting, just unsure what to do with their sound. There are still bassdrops in “Never Never” and “Spikes in My Vains” had something like rapping in it. The new edition also had “Hater”, their poppiest and catchiest song yet. On the other hand, a song like “Love & Meth”, as good as it was, had nothing going for it but the melody. Many tracks showed no interest in sound but just kicking melodies.

In an ideal world, Korn would work on both directions. They would have some weird tracks, some poppy tracks and continue to insert new genres in unexpected places. What the new album proves is that they weren’t confused at all in The Paradigm Shift. Rather, they were lacking inspiration so they couldn’t do anything with the rapping in “Spikes in My Vain”. They have seemed to lose almost all interest in their music.

What’s so disappointing about The Serenity of Suffering is how familiar it is. Nu Metal should never sound familiar. It was always about mixing genres but being catchy at the same time. That’s why silly metalheads and serious critics couldn’t make sense of it. You can stop many of these songs after the first chorus. Sometimes, you can stop them halfway through the chorus. Korn exhausts their ideas within a minute into the song.

I stopped listening to “Rotting in Vain” as soon as the hook kicked in. Korn repeats the same chorus structure for “Please Come For Me”, “Die Yet Another Night”, “When You’re Not There” and so forth. “Take Me” merely repeats its title. It was released as a single and I have to wonder what motivated them to do it. The song barely makes it to B-Side status with how lazy the chorus is. Frankly, I can’t imagine anyone wanting to write such a dull hook, not even a songwritier strapped for cash. Someone should’ve reminded them they already had a song called “Hating” back in Untouchables.

Untouchables is a reference point for many reviewers, but what people praise about is exactly what’s wrong with it. Back then, it was necessary. Korn had a bizarre sound but few hooks. “Freak on a Leash” sounds great because of the bass-heavy hook. Its melody exhausts its ideas in the first second, just like most hooks here. Now, I’m not sure what the purpose of this album. Korn proved they could write straightforward rock, so what’s the point?

Yet, there are a lot of hints here of Korn, of their unique personality. “Rotting in Vain” is as generic as you can get until the middle, where Davis breaks into his skat singing. “Insane”‘s hook may sound like a melodic carbon copy of “Let’s Do This Now”, but the band thrashes and adds some aggression to an otherwise ordinary song. Many of the songs also sound way better in the album’s context than standalone. Even “Take Me” sounds better here, since it’s surrounded by other Korn sounds and what dominates is their personality.

Speaking of their personality, it’s not adjusted for this material. Nu Metal was always shallow, so the best Nu Metal was always aggressive, angry and with an edge of fun it. The best Korn songs are “For No One” or “Right Now”, where the band was allowed to boast a little. Davis is an unimaginative lyricist, so much so that “Rotting in Vain” begs to be parodied (Only it’s not attention-grabbing enough for this). So all these songs are only about hooks. There’s no emotion here. The band has nothing interesting to say and in shows. That’s why the album often feels like above average ordinary rock. It’s being played by people who are more fun at parties, but not one you’d share your emotional troubles with.

Two tracks do stick out. “A Different World” is absolutely brilliant. It’s one moment where the emotion is convincing. Davis has a lyrics focus, and the song doesn’t just hurry to the chorus. That little build-up with the rolling drums contrast with the hook, which is itself a contrast. Davis sounds distresses, lashing out but literally backing against the wall while guitars smash behind him. They deliberately chose a steady rhythm. Corey’s guest vocals are used brilliantly, becoming more present with every appearance of the hook. It has a guarantee in the next Greatest Hits package. There’s also “Next in Line”, which proves that Korn can sometimes conjure a beautiful melody. If every song had such a hook, I’d be more forgiving.

On the one hand, I’d rather hear Korn playing a bunch of ordinary rock songs than other bands. On the other, I’d rather hear Korn playing anything but ordinary rock. They still stick out like a sore thumb. You have to do when your guitars screech and Davis’ voice is still one of a kind. It’s not a bad album and it has “A Different World”, but it has no purpose. It doesn’t add anything new to their sound and its set of songs isn’t particularly strong. Korn just goes through the motions, which is fine but I don’t want Korn to be ‘fine’.

2.5 different worlds out of 5

(hed) pe – (hed) pe

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All this time, a great rock album was a click away.

(hed) pe are extremely talented and completely stupid. Their singer is versatile, capable of doing anything with his voice and has plenty of personality. His lyrics are often so misogynistic that listening to Lostprophets is more comfortable. They were a band Nu Metal needed. Nu Metal had plenty of weird bands, but it needed someone to go full retard. Bands flirted with genres, but very few threw themselves with conviction. No surprise the genre spat out a bunch of decent, but fairly one-dimensional bands. In the end, the experimentation was used mainly to drive angry and catchy rock tracks.

How can such a difficult task be done so well on the first outing? (hed) pe are genre-benders and you’d think they’ll need experience before dropping a classic. Yet here they’re fully formed. Everything you want in a Nu Metal album is here whether you’re looking for noise or experimentation or fun. It even beats Lostprophets’ debut (which doesn’t count thanks to Watkins) and Slipknot’s self-titled. It has consistent songwriting, variety and little of the misogyny that plagued later records. All this time I’ve been dying for them to drop a classic and here it was.

It’s a dizzying, confusing album. No album destroys the claim that “Nu Metal was generic and whiny” like this one. (hed) pe don’t even have to experiment with critic-approved genres like Deftones to gain credibility. Nu Metal, at its best, was about making the best Faith No More album that never was. Mike Patton was too preoccupied with being weird which took away from the song. King For a Day is an impressive album, but it’s more about the Jazz in “Star A.D.” and the screaming in “Cuckoo for Caca” than a good hook with a sound that makes it more fun.

The band creates a unique sound for each track, but it’s rarely tokenism. Their pool of influence may be more limited – primarily Hip-Hop and Punk Rock, but it allows them to explore these influence more deeply. You don’t bend genres by simply dropping a rap verse there and screamed vocals in the next song. You have to integrate it into your overall sound. Sometimes they isolate elements, like in “33” or “Firsty”. Mostly, the genres blur into each other. Even on Punk songs like “Circus” you’ll get a few rapped lines here and there.

It’s the sort of album you have to go song-by-song to express how varied it is. There’s the vague Heavy Psych of “Hill”. “Ken 2012” leans towards G-Funk. “Serpent Boy” is a straight-forward Rap Metal track that puts Rage Against the Machine to shame. “Ground” has a Punk-Pop chorus to it which makes it the melodic anchor of the album. There’s another ingridient that’s necessary for the perfect Nu Metal album – a mix of fun and anger.

Another unique aspect of Nu Metal was that it was both angsty and fun at the same time. Bands who didn’t borrow Hip-Hop beats still had its party attitudes. Many songs would sound great whatever mood you are in. That’s one reason no other Rock genre has yet to replace it. Punk-Pop was too silly. Grunge was too depressed. Metalcore and Thrash are so serious it’s funny.

(hed) pe perfectly captures the fun-yet-angry mood of Nu Metal. “Firsty” is the definitive angry song full of shouting about not giving a fuck. Its lyrics are full of refusing to be what people tell you to be. “Ken 2012” has macho bullshit and bragging, only to go full Metal in an angry, but still cocky hook. “Hill” is the only track that sinks to self-pity with the inspiration of Sisyphus. It’s actually out of place – it’s a slow, sad rocker in an album full of ‘fuck you’ Punk songs and ‘I’m awesome’ Rap songs. By the time it arrives you’ve gotten so used to genre-hopping that it fits the mood.

The ultimate highlight must be “Darky”. It’s pretty long, but only because it aspires to be the best Nu Metal song ever. The rapping is surprisingly competent. The beat is funkier and the bars are busier. The chorus has pseudo-Deftones whispering and atmospherics and it ends with talking about dropping bombs and telling someone to fuck off. It’s a song you can’t comfortably slide into any genre. In general, the band is more comfortable and forward-thinking in their Rap songs. It’s bizarre they bragged about being Punk Rock when it’s the rap songs – “Ken 2012”, “Tired of Sleep” and “Serpent Boy” where they play with structures and elements. The band became incredibly stupid later, but still talented. You can’t reconcile their overall stupidity with such sophisticated songwriting.

(hed) pe is an experimental, angry, fun and catchy album. If this doesn’t convince you Nu Metal is worthwhile, then nothing will. Then again, why would someone who’s into loud balls out rock wouldn’t like this? It has Nu Metal’s fury without the whiny-ness and stupid lyrics. It has Rap’s macho bullshit attitude without boring Boom Bap. It’s experimental without resorting to tokenism, creating a sound that’s both diverse and consistent. Such albums can’t be debut. It’s supposed to take great skill and musical knowledge to produce such an album. From here it was all downhill, but at least (hed) pe dropped this before becoming insufferable douchebags.

4.5 fucks that were not given out of 5