Friday, January 22, 2010

2nd Annual Stavers Awards Presents: Best of Everything 2009

Stating the obvious here, I should note that I'm sometimes a little resentful of the reputation I've earned amongst acquaintances as being "that guy who hates everything". My rejection of many pop-culture facets has absolutely nothing to do with some kind of internalized drive to spew bile over all that I see. In fact, I'd go so far as to blame the high bar I've set for culture as being due to loving too much. Certainly, nothing would improve without some disgruntled voice in the background pointing out the flaws in any human development. That's what critics are here for: to promote that which drives us forward, and by virtue cast out that which drags us down. Without attempting to sound too self-centered, we're doing you guys a favor in some ways. You wouldn't want to see every film be as bad as Battlefield Earth, right?

That's why I've decided to do things a little differently with this round-up of last year's greats. Consider this as the indication that I do, in fact, enjoy art a great deal, and that these are some examples of what exemplify that love. And in addition to music, I've decided to throw in movies and video games as well, which I'm planning to expand on in the blog's future. I know some people seem to like my album reviews specifically for some odd reason, as if I'm not qualified to dig into other media...but hey, if that's the case, just read the music stuff while I pave the way for my own personal self-indulgence. Err, I mean...the future.

Each category is ordered alphabetically; ever since the regrets circling my last awards session, I've inhibited the listing system altogether. Note that I may edit this list later should I encounter something from 2009 that I missed earlier that I feel deserves a mention.

Music

Behemoth – Evangelion
You can always count on Behemoth to unload some refined, passionate blackened death metal to the public, and so it is once more with Evangelion. Though their sound hasn’t changed very dramatically since at least three albums ago, you’ll be too busy trying – and failing – to keep up with their punishing riffs to notice. Though constant thrashing can occasionally get tedious, Behemoth is a little better at keeping things interesting on this album; not to mention, it always helps when your drummer is one of the best drummers in metal today. If you’ve enjoyed Behemoth before, or simply want a reprieve from all of the sloppy Suffocation clones out there, this one’s a keeper.

Between the Buried and Me – The Great Misdirect
2007’s Colors was a critically acclaimed tour de force that shattered expectations and secured a place for BtBaM as one of the forerunners of experimentation in metal. In fact, it was predicted that whatever followed Colors would be lost inside the shadow of its predecessor and be seen as nothing but a disappointment; unfortunately, a lot of critics have labeled The Great Misdirect as such. Personally, though, even if it’s not a career best, The Great Misdirect is an epic, dynamic, and impressive release that expands upon BtBaM’s more esoteric influences. The metalcore and prog-rock foundation that sustains the album is intermixed with musical styles from all over the spectrum, including jazz, classical, death metal, folk, and even Western (trust me, you’ll know when that moment pops up). Great lyrics, immensely talented and technical musicians, some truly touching moments…what more do you need? Forgo the haters and pick up this excellent, excellent album.

Devin Townsend Project – Ki and Addicted
The Canadian wonder has been pulling all the stops as of late; between an upcoming sequel to Ziltoid the Omniscient as well as two more releases from the Project in 2010, he’ll have created five albums over the course of two years. Fortunately, if you aren’t already aware of this master musician’s works of wonder, there are no better two works to start with than these. Ki is an intentionally hushed and restrained work than doesn’t burst with the intense energy Townsend is known for, instead working with careful subtlety and pulling back whenever it’s about to explode. Addicted, by contrast, is a (gasp) outright poppy album with crunchy guitar, extravagant keyboards, and the beautiful guest vocals of Anneke van Giersbergen. Both are welcoming without sacrificing the zaniness and experimental feel that Devin Townsend strives for, and are excellent additions to his already enviable release library.

Giant Squid – The Ichthyologist
The Ichthyologist was originally self-released by the band and limited to a mere 1,000 printed copies, making the actual disc a rare find. Now that it’s been re-released on a record label, I implore you to listen to it in any way you can. This conceptual masterpiece, following the story of a man who deprives himself of his humanity as he travels out onto the far reaches of the ocean, is incredibly original, startlingly coherent, and a massive leap forward from Giant Squid’s preceding debut. Though featuring chilling cello shrills; grungy guitar riffs; folky, banjo-ridden interludes; and a wide array of bizarre vocals (both of the male and female variety), the many clever tricks pulled by the band in no way inhibit its mighty storytelling abilities, making the music entertaining, new, and emotional simultaneously. If you missed this one the first time around (and you probably did, statistically speaking), do not miss it again!

Gorod – Process of a New Decline
You may have gathered that I am a huge fan of technical death metal, enjoying the excellent combo of metal’s glamour and power with jazz’s precision and technicality. So understandably, it takes a lot to impress a guy whose favorite genre exhibits daily miracles of virtuoso playing. Well, Gorod has done it. Their flawless playing is enough to make my jaw drop…and this is coming from a guy who listens to Necrophagist. That being said, Gorod’s true claim-to-fame, with this album in particular, is their ability to add a heaping dose of melody and pseudo-philosophical musings to these proceedings, making the album as catchy and engaging as it is ridiculously over-the-top. Watershed, in particular, was one of my favorite songs this year.

Karl Sanders – Saurian Exorcisms
From the same genius who brought us the songwriting and guitar mastery from the band Nile (see below) comes an excellent solo project that takes us around the ancient world through song. Drawing influence from the music of ancient Egyptian, Tibetan, and Indian cultures, and featuring an arsenal of instruments originating from those times and places, Saurian Exorcisms is an ambient, instrumental window into history. Everything apart from the clean and polished production job is intended to make you feel as though you are living in the past, and the fact that it succeeds so readily in this modern age is truly a success to be applauded. This was probably soundly rejected by a fair chunk of the fevered metal maniacs that form a part of Nile’s interests, but if your own interest in world music glows strong, then this album is an essential.

Nile – Those Whom the Gods Detest
I’ve already detailed the majority of my love for Nile in last year’s review, but it’s worth remembering the sheer mindbreaking awesomeness that they deliver with their latest opus. As always, combining brutal death metal madness at break-neck speed with worldly Middle Eastern influences has resulted in another powerful, addictive masterpiece. Again, it doesn’t divert from the Nile formula too much (aside from finally delivering an exceptional sound production), but all you really need to know is this: if any self-proclaimed “metalhead” isn’t headbanging within seconds of the first riff on Kafir!, then they may have to reconsider their goal in life.

Oranssi Pazuzu – Muukalainen Puhuu
For an album whose name is such a mouthful, its goal is fairly simple and straightforward: launch black metal into space. The result is a dark odyssey into the spacey realm of Oranssi Pazuzu. However, though a good percentage of the album is devoted to tremolo picking and sharp screeches reminiscent of traditional black metal, this is still a fairly accessible album in comparison to, say, Wolves in the Throne Room. Largely keyboard-driven, the album often zones out into open emptiness that very much reminds the listener of deep space. It’s strange and often incomprehensible to be sure…much like the universe itself.

Propagandhi – Supporting Caste
Proving that punk rock need not always dwell in the same swamp of irrelevance wherein Green Day and Rise Against seem intent on camping in, Propagandhi demonstrates that the true spirit of punk is miraculously still alive, and even evolving. Intense, energetic, and surprisingly technical, Supporting Caste makes a series of grand social statements without sacrificing catchiness and head-crushing machismo. Though clearly drawing from hardcore influences that exist far beyond the realm of the initial punk movement, Propagandhi is perhaps the best living “echo” of this age, and deserves a great deal more respect, in both musicianship and penmanship, than its more famous contemporaries.

Sunn O))) – Monoliths & Dimensions
The album art of Monoliths & Dimensions features an enormous, gaping black hole; truly, few things are more reminiscent of the sound Sunn O))) creates. This is not the kind of music you dig into with active intent; listen to it in the wrong environment, and all is lost, reducing the music to seeming like little more than noise. But it you set aside the proper time and place to really sink your teeth into the album, the grand majesty and impeccable atmosphere of M&D begins to unfold and devour you. The humming bass and droning sounds that make up the bulk of the experience, usually without any percussion backing them, create a massive wall of sound that is both calming and disturbing at the same time. Frankly, describing the encounter any more than that is nearly impossible, so I suggest you, yourself, attempt the bold experiment that Sunn O))) has produced for us to tinker with in our own special way.

Movies

Avatar
Just kidding! OK, I haven't even seen Avatar, so it's not like I can complain about it either...but for a movie that's on track to be the highest grossing of all time, my interest is exceptionally low for a movie that looks to me to be "Ferngully in Space: Revenge of the Elven Colonialist Smurfs"

District 9
Let me get this out of the way: in no way did I think that District 9 was nearly as inventive or flawless as many other critics across the world did. It’s a little ham-handed in its anti-discrimination theme, it juggles the documentary-style bits with the character-driven action somewhat awkwardly, there are some massive plot holes scattered across the story, the “villains” are fairly stock, and most of the third act revolves around mindless violence and some pretty illogical character motivations. So, why do I even like it all? Because you have no idea how refreshing it is to see a sci-fi action film with a brain in its head. For all its faults, District 9 is packed with enough wall-to-wall, nail-biting action to match all of its summer competitors rolled into one, not to mention that it’s absolutely relentless with its gore (you don’t grab a profitable PG-13 rating with guns that liquefy the human torso with lightning); at the same time, it has a heart, a message with good intent, and – most shocking of all – sympathetic characters. In comparison to the glut of lobotomized, pointless dull-fests that infected the cinema in 2009 (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Terminator Salvation, that godforsaken Transformers sequel, etc.), District 9 is a shining beacon, and as a debut for newcomer director Neill Blomkamp, it’s pretty impressive.

The Fantastic Mr. Fox
In a world where CGI can conjure up any perfectly crafted image the heart desires with a few simple mouse clicks – and one in which the species that has mastered this technology uses it most prominently to tell dumb stories about talking penguins – it’s nice to see a film that dares to be ugly…and, by virtue, beautiful in a different sense. The stop-motion visuals of The Fantastic Mr. Fox seem so delightfully homemade that the film has you hooked aesthetically from the outset, meshing greatly with the fairly retro musical presentation. Surprisingly, it also makes for an excellent story, morphing the fairly brief Roald Dahl story into a feature-length crime-drama presentation that’s equal parts Ocean’s 11 and Chicken Run. Though the tale is simple enough for children to follow, I’m willing to bet that the film is even more enjoyable for adults, thanks in part to the interesting characters but mostly thanks to a very surreal and mature sense of humor. This one may have been very easy to overlook before, (fearing the butchering of another Dahl classic, I had to be dragged into this one, myself) but don’t let it slip you by forever.

Inglorious Basterds
Taratino likes to make things difficult for his critics, doesn’t he? I spent a few hours after my first screening of this film debating with myself constantly over whether or not I even enjoyed the damn thing. And while there’s a lot of it I detest, the details of which I will spare you for the sake of brevity – some new, others inherent to Tarantino’s directorial style – there’s no denying in the end that it’s a finely crafted movie. My main problems arose from reviewing the overarching story as a whole, where I feel some issues are present in the ending and the character development, but in retrospect Inglorious Basterds is really about “moments”. Like any respectable Tarantino flick, it features some incredibly sharp dialogue, which is really what makes the movie; in some scenes there’s so much tension built up in a room by the characters’ expressions and words that you could practically cut through it with a knife. It’s also an aesthetically appealing film that recreates a specific time in history while simultaneously rewriting the timeline itself. I suppose that the overall statement that the movie is trying to make is fairly empty to me, or even non-existent entirely, but the dialogue alone is worth the price of admission.

Up
You may have noticed my attempts to distance myself from a ranking system in both my traditional reviews and these itemized lists. I do this primarily to avoid controversy and to adjust for potential changes of personal opinion after the fact. That being said, Up is probably the only kind of film that could make me declare it, without hesitation, “Movie of the Year”. It’s just phenomenal; between this and WALL-E, I’m fairly certain there’s no better and more passionate group of filmmakers out there today than Pixar. I mean, this is a movie about a crotchety old man (whose initial cynicism reminds me a great deal of myself, mind you) and an annoying tag-along youngster…and it’s far wittier, more action-packed, and more emotionally powerful than anything else released in years. It’s also one of Pixar’s riskiest moves, juggling fast-paced action and pop culture references with some pretty deep themes and feelings lying underneath…but it pays off, big time. There’s really nothing I can say to deride this film; it’s funny, engaging, and, most significantly, even sad. I have absolutely no shame in telling you all that I spent the first ten minutes of this movie bawling like an infant (for reasons I wish to keep secret from anyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet), and if you don’t as well, I think something may be seriously be wrong with you. I simply cannot understate the greatness of Up. Watch it. NOW.

A Bunch of Things That Probably Would’ve Been Good If I Ever Did See Them, But Never Actually Did
Man, I need to get to the theater more often.

Games

Assassin’s Creed II
The first Assassin’s Creed had one of the most mixed and varied reactions I had ever seen from a game; with unique gameplay and presentation buried under an abnormally repetitive story campaign, it was a game you either loved or hated. But assuming you enjoyed the first game’s few moments of clarity, it’s nearly impossible not to walk away impressed by Assassin’s Creed II. This is the perfect textbook example of a good sequel: it fixes nearly all of the original’s major flaws and adds a massive amount of new features to boot. The result is an enormous sandbox game with nearly endless things to do and, more importantly, a game that really puts you in the shoes of a badass master assassin. Yeah, the combat is still pretty mundane, usually alternating between hammering on the attack button or waiting to counter your enemies, but the game is usually very good at letting you choose your own approach to a mission, and a wide array of new tools and moves at your disposal will make either careful stealth or bull-headed aggression a viable option. The game lets you put these skills to the test in a long, winding campaign with a huge variety of different scenarios – solving the biggest problem about the first Creed – while keeping the tight controls and excellent storytelling that’s equal parts Italian Renaissance simulation and sci-fi-flavored conspiracy-theorist’s dream. I could go on about the awesome moments this game let me par-take in – like when I kicked a guard off the rooftops whilst soaring through the air on a flying machine invented by Leonardo da Vinci, or when I ran halfway up a wall, jumped sideways over the heads of the guards blocking my pursuit, and stabbed both of my targets in the throat simultaneously as I dropped down – but really, there’s only one thing I need to say to purvey the greatness of Assassin’s Creed II: you get to fight the fucking Pope.

Batman: Arkham Asylum
It’s frightening how much the quality of Batman’s gaming career has mirrored that of his film legacy. For decades at a time attempts at a critically successful game based on everyone’s favorite Dark Knight have come and gone with only disappointment in their wake, and the reason is one that we’ve seemingly only recently identified: none of them really made you feel like Batman! But just as Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster reboots have brought the darkness and inner demons of true, comic-style Batman back to the cinema, so has Arkham Asylum finally captured the essence of controlling the Caped Crusader. Using a combination of ingenious gadgets and impeccable stealth – probably the best stealth gameplay I’ve ever had the pleasure of witnessing, actually – the game allows you to strike fear into your opponents without them even spotting you; even if they do, an excellent freeflow combat system makes taking on waves of goons and thugs a snap without diminishing the challenge. Fuse this glorious gameplay to a top-notch atmosphere and presentation (particularly during Scarecrow’s Eternal-Darkness-esque nightmare sequences), a worthy plot with a line-up of classic Batman villains (with Mark Hamill reprising his role as The Joker…awesome), and a motherlode of hidden secrets and memorabilia, and you can fully understand why Arkham Asylum made a huge splash last summer. My only complaints lie within the lackluster boss fights and some occasionally shoddy writing (say what you want about Bale’s growls in The Dark Knight, but at least he never uttered lines like, “I eat punks like this for breakfast”)

Blazblue: Calamity Trigger (yes, I know the arcade release was in 2008, but since when did anyone relevant care about arcades?)
Arc System Works became renowned as gods by the fighting game community thanks to the excellent Guilty Gear series, and that legacy clearly lives on through BlazBlue (pronounced “BLAZE-blue”…yes, I’m sure). Like Guilty Gear, it thrives on overtly Japanese anime kookiness – I cite such examples as the vampire whose cat morphs into an umbrella during combat, the ridiculously loud and brazen ninja whose super-ultra-special attack has its own theme music, and the shy police lieutenant who has an inferiority complex about her breasts – but thanks to the fantastic American localization, it actually translates out to a plot that’s both interesting and even hilarious, though figuring out the complex intricacies of it might require rigorous study, complimented by flowcharts. Just as fine-tuned are the graphics, in the form of pixel-perfect 2D-sprites against fully-rendered 3D backgrounds, and the soundtrack, featuring riff-tastic compositional masterpieces courtesy of Daisuke Ishiwatari. Of course, the core of the action is the hyper-quick, hyper-polished fighting system, endowed with a berth of options and excellently balanced and unique characters. As is the Arc Sys tradition, this is a heavily skill-based fighter with a tremendously steep learning curve, but in a land ruled by more sluggish, dull, and convoluted 3D-fighters like Tekken and Soul Calibur, Blazblue’s gorgeous 2D presentation and near-perfect combat are an absolute godsend.

Borderlands
Borderlands sometimes feels like the twisted Frankenstein fantasy of the modern gamer; it takes the open worlds and abhorrent looting of Diablo II, the post-apocalyptic wasteland setting of Fallout, and the mindless shooter action and co-op play of Halo…and furthermore, somehow makes it work. It doesn’t exactly provide much in the way of new ideas, but in addition to all the mechanics of the game working in tune, Borderlands is just downright devilishly addictive, especially when you’ve got two or more players to help cut down on your questing time. Why exactly these “loot-tastic” games, wherein you have to spend five minutes after each treasure chest comparing damage values, manage to stay so engaging is really beyond me, but it’s at least slightly more apparent with Borderlands, wherein those weapons have some pretty creative and equally awesome powers (like poisoned sniper rifles, or shotguns that shoot rockets). Its paper-thin plot and occasional feeling of repetition detract from it being this year’s epic, groundbreaking shooter, but it will likely remain in our memories for a long time as a co-op multiplayer standby.

Br├╝tal Legend
Games have already conveyed a number of key emotions and feelings – happiness, anger, sadness, vengeance, regret, etc. – but until 2009 none of them legitimately made me think or say, “damn, that’s fucking metal”. Fortunately, apparent headbanger Tim Schafer – the man behind Grim Fandango and Psychonauts, which makes him awesome enough by default – was willing to make this fervent dream of metalheads everywhere into a reality. Granted, the gameplay itself isn’t perfect; the free-roaming world it presents runs out of new tasks to do fairly quickly, the story itself is startlingly short, and the core of the game is composed of a fairly watered-down real-time-strategy game. But at the same time, I’m willing to forgive these normally grievous faults because…well, because it’s so metal. The world and graphical style look plucked right out of power metal album covers, the voice acting and storytelling is superb and features a great deal of neat cameos (Ozzy Osbourne is the guy who upgrades your car and weapons…no, really, that’s how metal this game is), and the soundtrack is probably the best ever to be put to disc (every game should have Black Sabbath and Megadeth playing in the background). As for the controversial business of the actual game portion, I actually found it pretty enjoyable for a console RTS, as it sidesteps the needless micromanagement and allows you to fight alongside your troops (plus, you can’t really complain about a bladed wagon that impales your enemies’ hearts with a subterranean spike…again, totally metal). It’s not perfect by any means, but any game that makes me want to headbang and throw the horns has already earned my respect. \m/

So long, 2009. May 2010 bring us even greater innovations in the art form...and fewer Transformers sequels.

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