Toradora

toradoraNote: this series has been dropped at episode 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 abusive partners out of 5

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

I See Stars – Treehouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 portals out of 5

Issues – Headspace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 wastes of headspace out of 5