Tag Archives: Reviews

That’s A Puzzlin’: Part 2

Puzzlin_2

In my entry last week [That’s A Puzzlin’: Part I], I chronicled a little about the curious puzzle-box that Pete and I put together for a holiday I took with a two handfuls of friends at an impromptu board games retreat out in Devon last month.

In that post, I covered the first three of the five puzzles which made up the quest; so it seems only fair to document the final two, and apply some closure to what it all led to. Let’s find out:

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Puzzle #4: Rings

The purpose of Puzzle #2 (Lovecraft) was, in essence, to lead the player’s brains to think about using the Study as a hint mechanism for future clues involving books. Pete had always wanted to put in book cipher as one of the puzzles; so, having pre-prepped a candidate book with which to hide a cipher in the form of coordinates to specific page numbers, lines and words, we dropped the envelope containing Puzzle #4 on the hallway calendar on Friday evening.

I’d already hidden a copy of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit on the bookshelf in the study when I placed the Lovecraft code within Puzzle #2, so all the players had to do for this one was to interpret the riddle and hunt for a copy of the book – which they dutifully did after a minor amount of head-scratching. Then, using the three-number combinations, they would then need to construct a sentence (to be even more accurate, a question) using the specified coordinates; likely using a bit of trial-and-error to work out what the number combinations meant before stumbling on the correct structure: [PAGE NUMBER] [LINE NUMBER] [WORD NUMBER].

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Doing so would, eventually, translate the following trivia question, giving the solution to Puzzle #4 (and on which we had banked on our player’s Lord of the Rings knowledge to come up with the correct answer; an assumption which stuck):

HOW
MANY
RINGS
OF
POWER
WERE
GIVEN
TO
MEN
?

The answer, of course, is nine; giving the directional combination (←↑) corresponding the runic ‘H’ symbol on the original “combination lock clue page”.

Now, I haven’t (yet) explained the importance of this so, before I introduce the fifth (and final) puzzle of the game, I’ll briefly go into the meaning of it all.

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Early on, Pete and I had identified that, if we dropped the various directional combinations in order across the weekend, it wouldn’t be impossible for a brute-force method (of trying all of the combinations for the last code) to bear fruit once four-fifths of the code had been ‘unlocked’. To counter this, we aimed to drip-feed the combination parts not in order, such that the risk of brute-force entry would be minimised. To add an extra layer of puzzling to the game, the players would be given clues which associated with five directional combinations (associated with five symbols) which then would then need to work out what was linked with what.

The symbols for each would be hinted at in the form of small markings on each of the initial clue envelopes containing each puzzle: Puzzle #1 (Jigsaw) had a rudimentary London Underground symbol; Puzzle #2 (Lovecraft) was a love-heart for obvious reasons; Puzzle #3 (Pigpen) had a ‘#X’ representing the two pigpen keys; Puzzle #5 (Limes) had a five-pointed star for reasons that will be revealed in the next section; but Puzzle #4 (Rings) had a runic ‘D’ because this is the symbol which is drawn on Tolkien’s map in The Hobbit marking the secret door on the Lonely Mountain. When placed all together, they would lead to a string of directions to be entered into the padlock, eventually releasing the goodies within.

Puzzle #5: Limes

The fifth, and final puzzle, drew experience from a meme that has been orbiting our circle of friends for many years: the meme of hiding limes in each other’s houses.

This tradition kind of started at the annual party at Dan’s house (“OckFest”) whereby limes would be hidden in bizarre places in Dan’s kitchen, intending them to be uncovered while performing unrelated tasks; for example: finding a lime in the box of Crunchy Nut Corn Flakes when pouring out the morning cereal; discovering a lime hidden inside the tube of kitchen roll when reaching to mop up a spillage; hearing a lime fall out of a hollowed-out French baguette when beginning to make a sandwich.

Without wishing to blow one another’s trumpets too heavily, Pete and I are professionals when it comes to the international sport of Lime-Hiding. It was inevitable that we would initiate this tradition at The Winter Games 2017, but I forget which of us had the genius of incorporating it into the Puzzle Box game. Either way, the task for the players would be to figure out how many limes were hidden in a particular room, and then to use that number as the final directional combination.

The initial clue was provided in riddle form:

How many of I
Are plucked from the tree
And made into pie
You’ll find that’s the key

See? It’s a pun. KEY LIME PIE. Like, a key to a box that’s also a hint for the players to try and find some limes somewhere.

On each lime, we drew a five-pointed star and a number specified in Roman numerals: however, the trick was that the limes would not be numbered consecutively. Overall, four limes would be hidden, with numbers I, II, IV and VI; the twist being that, if the players simply entered ‘six limes’ as the solution, they would be incorrect. Y’see, we had circled the ‘I’ in “How many of I”, indicating that the players should not – in fact – be counting the number of limes, but instead the number of ‘i’s in the numerals written on the limes; equaling five, yielding the directional combination (↓↑).

Furthermore, the missing numerals (III and V) were simply a red herring designed to make the players hunt even harder. Yes; I know I’m a meanie.

Because our original plan to hide limes in the kitchen became untenable because of the sheer people traffic that would be present in the kitchen at any one time, we were forced to change tack to hide limes in the games room annex where it was much easier to steal away time to distribute some fruit about the place. Hence, to do this, and while deployed at #TheWinterGames, I hastily mocked up an additional sheet of paper giving a hint towards the players looking in the games room by scribbling “Want to play a game?” and including it in the envelope right before deployment.

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However, due to a simple lack of properly thinking through the implications of that phrase, we kind of didn’t realise that that’s also a quote from the movie Saw, spoken by the main antogonist, ‘Jigsaw’; causing everyone to suddenly barrel down the hallway into the Dining Room (where Puzzle #1 [Jigsaw]) was still set up, frantically searching for an answer. Secondly, everyone appeared to miss the “key lime pie” solution to the clue and instead immediately leapt to the solution of “four-and-twenty blackbirds”; since, like limes, these are also a Thing™ which can be found in a tree but also baked into a pie, according to the nursery rhyme. In retrospect, it was actually a little satisfying to have the players burrow down the wrong rabbit-hole in search of this unintentional red herring [let’s call this “Winter Games Puzzle Box Stroke of Luck #2”] but, at the time, it was immensely stressful to have to watch them struggle down a futile path and yet not be able to interfere, lest I give the game away.

However, some gentle nudging highlighted that the solution was in fact ‘limes’; at which point, several reconnaissance groups were despatched to the various rooms of the house to hunt for round, green objects. After a short while, one of the search  parties returned with four limes, and fairly swiftly cottoned on the Roman Numerals code; arriving at the answer of ‘five’.

So, our players now had everything they needed to open the box; and open the box, they did. Also: I’d love to say that I’d planned to paint the box green to match the limes, but that was simply happy coincidence.

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Puzzle #Z: Endgame

So, with great expectation and encircled by a perimeter of excited (if still confused) faces, one plucky adventurer keyed in the winning combination (↓↑↓↓↑↓←↓→←↓←↑), undid the chains and, with mild trepidation, lifted the lid of the confusing green box.

Inside was a map.

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A map of the house, with an ‘X’ marked on in big, black pen. (Which Pete and I had to scribble in on location, after we’d figured out a good place to hide the prize).

The ‘X’ on the map led the participants out to the back garden where, under the cover of darkness in the late hours of the previous night, I had wrapped the final prize booty in an old carrier bag under stone lawn roller in the approximate location of the ‘X’ marking. Following a brief period of scurrying and scouting, the booty was located by a tall, loud Spaniard and brought inside to the metaphorical sound of bugle-horns heralding the arrival of a monarch returning from a crusade.

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And so, with the ‘pop-thmph’ of the cork ejaculating from the bottle and reverberating off the living room’s wall, the adventure was over; the puzzle was solved. I’ll be honest: it was a heck of a lot of fun putting it all together and I adored the act of thinking to think laterally to come up with mysteries and conundrums that would (hopefully) confuse, but enthuse, an odd assortment of my friends.

Undoubtedly, there will be another #TheWinterGames; where Pete and I join forces to do something like this again remains to be seen. Perhaps it’d be not quite as fun if the players knew who was doing it all, but perhaps that would give us even more scope to add complexity given that – in event of them getting “stuck” – they’d be able to ask for help. I don’t know, we’ll have to see what the future brings.

Either way, it’s been mighty enjoyable recapping and documenting what happened in a wonderful house a month or so ago; and I hope it has been for you, too. Godspeed, puzzlers.

[Zinar7]

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That’s a Puzzlin’: Part 1

Puzzlin_1

Almost a month ago now, myself and thirteen other board game fanatics whisked ourselves into the wilderness a house in rural Devon to spend five days (#TheWinterGames) playing board games, chilling out and having a good time.

With the above in mind, and knowing that our cohabitants were the type(s) of people to appreciate a good mystery, my friend Pete and I hatched a plan to make a series of puzzles; beginning with a simple box locked with a directional padlock and a series of cryptic clues, that would entertain throughout the weekend.

Our initial aims of this endeavour were as follows:

  1. Make an interesting puzzle-box, treasure-hunt thing to amuse people during #TheWinterGames
  2. Have a series of puzzles, each yielding a number with which to punch into a combination lock; roughly one per day
  3. Have something interesting/rewarding to find once all the puzzles have been solved and the box has been opened

To complete the above three objectives, we proceeded to put together a spiffy wooden box, some chain and a wonderful combination lock (that you unlock using a combination of directions and which looks enthusiastically like the D-pad from a video game controller) which would serve as the booty for a treasure hunt-slash-escape room-style puzzle that would blossom over the long weekend.

After sourcing a plain, pine wood box and decorating it colourfully using some bright green ink, we had a serviceable lockbox that would mysteriously appear after everyone had arrived for the weekend and, hopefully, prove sufficiently interesting to pique their curiosity. For all of the puzzle materials (letters, envelopes, etc.) I wanted to give it an ‘aged’ feel to it to sort-of imply that it was all spooky and mysterious and done by some sort of benevolent ghost, so went to great efforts to tea-stain and crinkle the paper to make them look like aged manuscripts, and used a fountain pen (and my best joined-up, slanty-posh handwriting) to make it look old and not easily identifiable as mine. It worked.

We came up with five puzzles in total, each one of which would yield a directional code which, when all put together, would each lead to a letter or number; equating to a two- or three-digit combination of UP-DOWN-LEFT-RIGHT directions when cross-referenced on a cheat sheet (see above). Discovering the complete code and entering it into the padlock would, eventually, unlock the box and reveal its clandestine contents; but not before the previous five puzzles had been solved.

Thus, at circa 1800 on Wednesday night, the lockbox (and first clue) was deposited in the study. Game on.

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Puzzle #1: Jigsaw

We’d always wanted to include a jigsaw puzzle in the remit, but had some initial difficulties in figuring out how to make it lead to a single number for input into a combination lock.

While visiting family over the Christmas holidays, I stumbled upon a jigsaw puzzle of the classic (modern) London Underground map in my parents’ games cabinet and hatched an idea to have the players identify a single station on it to find the solution. The plan was to leave out a piece showing Camden Road, and then for the players to look that up on a sheet to get the right code; see below. So far, so good.

 

Except: in my eagerness to make the puzzle not quite as time-consuming as it could be, I went through the jigsaw bag removing all the blank white pieces of the jigsaw, so that only the map itself was there, and two things happened:

  1. I accidentally took out some parts of the map itself, including the whole of Leicester Square station, and
  2. When writing the list of stations with associated letters/symbols, I kind of forgot to write Camden Road, because I’m an idiot.

However, because (1) and (2) happened at the same time [let’s call this “Winter Games Puzzle Box Stroke of Luck #1”], we could change the first solution to be “Liverpool Street” (giving an ‘R’ and therefore ↓↑↓) and pretend that it was always supposed to be like that. So, taking great effort to be VERY QUIET INDEED, we snuck downstairs very early on Thursday morning while everyone was still sleeping and re-programmed the lock suck that the new code made sense. Thanks to good fortune that no-one walked in at the wrong time to find us fiddling around, I think we got away with it. Bingo.

Puzzle #2: Lovecraft

We’d kind of figured that it made sense to put the most time-intensive puzzle (the jigsaw) at the beginning, just in case it took longer than expected for the players to finish it; from which point we could drip-feed the following, smaller, puzzles which would be less mandraulic to solve. In reality, we needn’t have worried at all, because the keen-fingers badgers had smashed it out before the end of the first night.

So, with that in mind, the next puzzle was dropped mid-morning on Thursday, where an envelope bearing a love-heart was left on the mantelpiece of the sitting room. In contrast to the speed at which the jigsaw was complete, the envelope sat above a wooden love-heart dangling in the fireplace and which NO-ONE SPOTTED for TWO WHOLE HOURS, despite Pete even setting up a Nerf gun target range trying to pew-pew at the dangling heart immediately below it.

When it was finally discoverd, the players found a riddle, in French, thus:

P21

Dans le Salle de Dessin,
La clé que vous trouverez,
Ou l’Ombre Jette,
Dans le Métier d’Amour

Loosely translated (I used Google Translate, so don’t judge me), this says:

In the Drawing-Room,
The key you will find,
Where the Shadow is Cast
In the Craft of Love

Earlier that morning (whilst also re-programming the padlock code), I’d planted a copy of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories on the bookshelf in the Study, in amongst a bunch of other books belonging to the house. In essence, the clue aimed to lead the players to the drawing-room, and find where a shadow is cast in the Craft of Love – i.e., find a Lovecraft book on the shelf and turn to the chapter for The Shadow Over Innsmouth; one of the most famous Lovecraft stories and which we banked on at least some of the players knowing.

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After some brain-racking and some book-searching, the players eventually deciphered the clue and found the book; identifying a little ‘26’ mark at the bottom of the first page of The Shadow Over Innsmouth and giving them the direction key ↓←↓. With that, Puzzle #2 was complete.

Puzzle #3: Pigpen

I always wanted to weave in a traditional cipher into the puzzle series, and Pete liked the idea of having an “X Marks The Spot”-type puzzle with a treasure hunt inside the house, so we opted to combine the two:

Having found the blueprints for the house on the interwebs, we tried to figure out a clever place to hide something and lead to with a map. Realising that the Study and the Apple Store bedroom were identical and size and shape, this seemed a logical place to roughly sketch a room and get players to figure out a) which one it is, and b) to search inside it for the next clue.

The clue they had to find was a small, square envelope on which a “#X” was drawn on the front, matching one on the map sketch. Once found, they would open it to find a pigpen alphabet key, and a series of symbols which they must decode. The “clever” bit [note: author’s inverted commas] was making the code upside-down, meaning that the players would have to rotate the code by 180 degrees and then translate it, else it would not make sense if translated directly. To hint at this, I drew a little rotate-y arrow and a line, which had the added bonus of players thinking that they had to translate the code’s mirrored reflection instead of rotating it by π radians. I love red herrings.

Anyway; translate it correctly, and the players would reveal the solution:

X M A R K S T H E S P O T

giving ‘X’ (←↓) as the solution, and Puzzle #3 complete.

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And with that, and because I’m all out of words for one week, I will leave the second half of the story ’til Part 2, which I’ll post in a weeks’ time. All that’s left to say is: good puzzlin’, y’all.

[Zinar7]

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Sinister Sevens: Best Records of 2016

records2016

Well, Twenty-Sixteen is almost at an end. In lieu of the formal run-down of all the yearly comings-and-goings that I’ve elaborated in previous years, what lies beneath is a quick review of my seven favourite musical cuts from the past twelve months; crafted with aching love for all of the superb musicians that have made my ears so, so happy during 2016.

Without further ado, let’s crack on.

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1. Alcest – Kodama

Make no bones about it, Kodama is the most magnificent thing to have graced my ears during 2016. In its concise forty-two minutes’ length, Alcest construct an almighty portrait from the most dark and earthy of component noises; but one that is built from such a beautiful, dark-scaped presence that gently caresses both brain, heart and soul. Layer-upon-layer of delicious blackgazing post-metal weaves throughout Alcest’s almighty sonic diorama; riddled through with blistering melodies amongst crushing dischord. Alcest have always walked the tightrope between harmony and rage, but the mix reaches such a superlatively-honed crescendo on Kodama that the effect is truly staggering.

Undoubtedly, this is the record that spent the longest on my stereo of all, the one that’s almost melded with my mind, such is the level of connection that I feel with it.  It’s become a guide through the drifting hours of sleep; companion through the dark bearing a flame of enlightenment; and is deafeningly, delightfully, endearingly brilliant on every conceivable plane. Majestic.

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2. If These Trees Could Talk – The Bones of a Dying World

2016 was, despite all the politics- and celebrity death-based disappointments, a spectacular year for the genre of post-rock. With high-profile releases from many of the genre’s big-hitters (cf. 65daysofstatic, MONO, Explosions in the Sky), us music nerds have had a veritable banquet to feast upon; balancing out, at least partially, the loss of such a genre-defining band as Maybeshewill in April of 2016. At the head of the pack, Trees’ spectacular The Bones of a Dying World is a progressive masterpiece; the sort of which still continues to reveal bright new facets of its crushing, post-metal soundscape.

It’s light in times of light, heavy in times of heavy; the whole spectrum glistening in the burning fire of Trees’ particular prism of post-rock, and it’s a flame that goes from strength to strength with every subsequent release. Bask in its warm, sultry glow and absorb its rays of grandeur with every fibre of your being.

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3. Blink-182 – California

Following the departure of Tom DeLonge from the Blink stable (and replacement in a live capacity by Matt Skiba from Alkaline Trio, who would later join the band full-time), few would have predicted that the yoke of this dissolution would later bear Blink’s weightiest work in years. California harks back to a classic age of the band not seen for fifteen years; colliding sweet, high-octane pop-punk melodies with that evergreen Blink-182 lyrical cheek that’s backed up with some genuinely remarkable songwriting.

In truth, this is the best thing that Blink-182 have produced since Enema of the State, and the arrival of fresh blood appears to have genuinely reinvigorated the formula and given new lease of life; unshackled by the tight bounds that “musical differences” previously fettered. The result is an absolute punk-rock riot, so sit back and drink it in.

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4. Metallica – Hardwired…to Self-Destruct

It’s a testament to the quality of the preceding three entries in this list that Hardwired… isn’t at the head of my end-of-year rundown. The first (proper) Metallica double-album ever, and clocking in at almost eighty-minutes in length, one is truly spoiled by the sheer amount of metal that’s housed within its gatefold prison that demands to be set free. Death Magnetic hinted at the re-affirmed power of Metallica at their peak, but yet – some thirty-odd years into their career – they continue to evolve and age in the most graceful way possible.

Lead singles ‘Hardwired’ and ‘Moth Into Flame’ battered into the psyche at first contact, but the other eight cuts on Hardwired… hark with equal venom upon the eardrum. Sure, they’ll never reach their 80s apex of Kill/Lightning/Master/Justice, but if Messrs. Hetfield, Hammett, Ulrich and Trujillo are still capable of producing work that’s almost asymptotic to that Golden Age, then you can be sure that the world of heavy metal is in pretty fine fettle, indeed.


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5. Russian Circles – Guidance

Russian Circles are an enigma. They’re desperately, desperately heavy and yet do not feel at all out of place among the more ‘twinkly’ end of the post-rock/metal spectrum because they don’t sound at all heavy. Such is the craft that goes into an instrumental Circles record, it feels like everything is all part of the plan; an atmospheric soundtrack to a journey that just happens to be made of doom-like guitar chords and brutal drum-beats.

Where previous album Memorial melded this approach with an almost orchestral, operatic feel, it almost feels like Guidance experiments with the twin masters of Light and Dark; wafting soft, dulcet acoustics over you before wiping you out with a majestic tidal-wall of sound. Rarely can music feel both wild and tamed at the same time, but Guidance perfectly treads the tightrope between domestication and rage, like a lion wearing slippers: it treads lightly when it wants, but can unleash an unholy racket when (and if) it truly wants to.

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6. Prophets of Rage – The Party’s Over EP

In terms of so-called “super”-groups, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more exciting fit than Prophets of Rage – burning bright from the ashes of Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave, with the three (non-Zack de la Rocha) quarters of Rage pooling resources with the primary components of Public Enemy and Cypress Hill, it’s a perfect fit for a revival of Rage’s definitive breed of rap-rock. Landing their The Party’s Over EP alongside a flurry of live shows, it delivers one new song (‘The Party’s Over’) along with retoolings of the component band-members’ previous work: ‘Prophets of Rage’ as a studio cover and live recordings of ‘Killing in the Name’, ‘Shut ‘em Down’ and ‘No Sleep ‘til Cleveland’.

While the formula doesn’t deviate from the Rage style we know and love, it’s still a wonderful feeling to know that there’s something new to spin on the stereo for the rest time in sixteen years. Arguably, there’s still a Zack-shaped hole in the proceedings, but the new (and expanded) vocal line-up rises to the challenge and raises the game. This EP might just be the starter, but it whets the appetite for what’ll undoubtedly be a stonking main course. Let’s tuck in.

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7. MONO – Requiem for Hell

Of all of the members of post-rock royalty, MONO are undoubtedly one of the revered greats and, quite rightly, weigh in with a spectacular weight of expectation that comes with every new release. And yet, they never fail to deliver, because Requiem for Hell is, itself, a spectacular career-defining demonstration of MONO at their most crushing. Rarely does sound truly feel like it is made of matter and form, but Requiem for Hell builds up to noises that have such heft to them that it can scarcely be believed that it’s not made of the tectonic plates of the universe clashing and rubbing asunder.

The centrepiece is a seventeen-minute title track, undulating with such force and veracity that the momentous turbulence that culminates is a truly spellbinding spectacle for the ears that almost bypasses the aural nerve-endings and penetrates the brain intravenously. Have you ever felt like music was directly probing into your head and moving all of the levers that controls all of your emotions? Yep, that’s what listening to MONO feels like.

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Of course, it’s not been a year full of celebration, as we’ve lost a complete plethora of musical talents; Bowie [RIP], Maybeshewill, Funeral For a Friend, Prince [RIP] and Chairlift pulling the heart-strings the greatest within my world. Then again, there were also cracking new albums by the following that, while they didn’t meet my top-seven list, still deserve a mention: Deftones, Blaqk Audio, Thrice, Weezer, Tiger Army, 65daysofstatic, Jambinai, Eldamar, Justice, Show Me a Dinosaur, Ineferens, Biffy Clyro, The Lounge Kittens, Chairlift, Three Trapped Tigers; the list goes on.

Anyway, Twenty-Sixteen is at an end. Here’s to Twemty-Seventeen; you gorgeous beast, you.

[Zinar7]

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MY LIFE IN MUSIC: DATASTACKS 0.2

Datastacks2

About sixteen months ago, I opened this series of blogs with an uncomfortably-geeky look at my music collection and extraction of a whole bunch of statistics on a whole bunch of inconsequential data.

It’s been long enough now that it’s time for an update, so let’s begin with a brief breakdown of what my music collection currently consists of:

Datastacks-2_Type.png

Unsurprisingly, standard long-play albums make up the vast majority of my collection (93.7%); not a shock. Of the remaining 6.3%, though, two-thirds are EPs or collections of B-sides and rarities, while the remaining third consists of ‘Greatest Hits’ collections or live-recorded albums. In many ways, and in this age of digital interfaces and the ability to release small collections of new material online or through mechanisms like Bandcamp, it’s arguable that the humble EP is going extinct; though the meteoric rise of vinyl in the last few years might be its saving grace.

Still, I’m minorly proud of my collection of 576 long-play albums, so let’s investigate what’s changed in my collection since my last blog. The most interesting findings lie in the genre breakdown of my CD collection since March of last year:

Datastacks-2_Genre.png

In general, the proportions remain fairly the same: my most favourite genres grow whilst the lesser ones continue to trickle on. There’s been a slow expansion in both my flavour for “Steampunk” (mainly due to finally acquiring the entire Steam Powered Giraffe back-catalogue as well as the smashing new record by The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing last year) and, more recently, black metal coming with growing respect for the genre. Equally, I’ve seen my interests decline in the likes of thrash metal, power metal and metalcore but become no less intense; it seems that my taste continue to evolve rather than undergo full-scale revolution.

Plotting these growths on a logarithmic scale (comparing the new additions to my collection with the genre counts as of 19/03/2015), one can see the fourfold increase in “Steampunk” records on my shelf but also observe the fairly consistent growth in genres across the board. I’ve always been aware that my musical taste is eccentrically-broad (who else can boast a music collection that features both Cradle of Filth and Ke$ha; Fleetwood Mac and Mr. Bungle?), but it’s reassuring that the trend continues.

Datastacks-2_Genre-2.png

The notable gains on the swing-o-meter come under the category labelled “Indie”, and there’s a fine reason why: “Indie”, at least in this little project, has come to classify anything that can’t – for particular reasons – be described as full-on “Rock”, but is something lighter; more atmospheric; or ‘different’. In the last couple of years, I’ve absorbed more and more interest in the genre of post-rock (c.f. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sigur Ros, 65daysofstatic, God is an Astronaut et al.) and fuelled by a rampant voyage of discovery at festivals like ArcTanGent.

On this second iteration of Datastacks, it’s high time to devolve the “Indie” category a little further and delve into the numbers. Whilst ‘indie’ might, these days, have only grazing reference to the truly “independent” music scene, it’s come to mean catchment to a lot more than simply one musical style; much in the way that “rock” encompasses a thousand sub-genres. So, let’s have a look to see what that means in terms of my collection:

Datastacks-2_Indie.png

Unsurprisingly, my ever-expanding collection of post-rock makes up most of the category; particularly emphasised with a raft of spectacular albums released in 2015 and 2016 by the likes of Explosions in the Sky (The Wilderness), Three Trapped Tigers (Silent Earthling), God is an Astronaut (Helios/Erebus) and Godspeed You! Black Emperor (Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress).

Of the remains, post-punk (in this study, meaning the likes of Killing Joke, Hüsker Dü and The Cure) hoovers up what isn’t what I’d call the more ‘traditional’ indie fayre (Death Cab for Cutie, Chairlift, KT Tunstall, Snow Patrol), whilst the couple of entries tentatively labelled “swing” are delivered by the mighty Dresden Dolls.

So, there you go. Naturally, I’ll retroactively modify the genre split for the next Datastacks, so I can properly track how my tastes are evolving. I’d apologise for being such a massive maths/music nerd, but we both know that I’m by no means ashamed at all. So, nyer.

Anyway, let’s take a look at how the geographical split has divvied up in the last sixteen months:

Datastacks-2_Country

No spectacular changes, but there’s some interesting mini-growths: Canada and Sweden showing particular, short spurts for no pre-arranged reason; and new entries coming from Luxembourg and Ireland thanks to my interests in post-/math-rock stalwarts Mutiny on the Bounty and And So I Watch You From Afar. I’d expected Norway to be surging ahead, given the sheer amount of Norwegian black metal I’ve been getting down my ears in the last few months, but maybe the charts haven’t fully caught up with things quite yet. Hopefully the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union won’t affect (too much) the trickle of European rock/metal into the United Kingdom; even if it will negatively influence my access to cheap metal records from the continent. *grumble grumble*

That being said, it’s minorly interesting that the advances of homegrown artists in my collection almost matches the progress of US bands; again, through no particular alignment but reflecting, perhaps, efforts to fill back-catalogue gaps in my collection for the likes of Bowie, Muse, [spunge], Cradle of Filth and Funeral For A Friend. Not surprisingly, the NATO countries still dominate my collection, as evidenced by PIE CHARTS: clearly, were NATO to deploy heavy metal-based warfighters towards invasion of the rest of the world, then it’s likely that they would annihilate the opposition.

[FYI, the non-NATO countries reflected here are Finland, Japan, Australia, Ireland and Sweden, who I’m sure would all put up a good fight.]

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Upon moving flat, I recently took the opportunity to bolster my music shelving with a few more bookcases and fully alphabeticised my collection by artist name; something I’d been meaning to do for a long time but had never gotten around to. Anyway, beyond the satisfaction of filing everything neatly onto the shelves, the exercise also highlighted some interesting facts about the alphabet.

For clarity, bands are sorted by name (any “The” bands, e.g. The Birthday Massacare, are sorted by the next word in their time) and solo artists are sorted by surname. Let’s take a look:

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Clearly, I own a buttload of ‘A’ artists, which owes a lot to AFI but also to the likes of Alkaline Trio, Alice in Chains, Amen, American Hi-Fi, Akercocke, Avenged Sevenfold, Audioslave, Alestorm, yada yada yada. I do wonder whether bands are inherently more likely to choose monickers which are closer to the head of the alphabet for the sakes of prominence in record stores; something that’s far more a study in sociology than I’ll attempt to address here.

Curiously, I haven’t bought a single record by any artist beginning with ‘J’ in the last sixteen months; and only a single album each to the ‘E’ and ‘Q’ categories. In the positive side, though, there’s finally a tally in the ‘Z’ column thanks to the wonderful new self-titled album by Zoax, so let’s continue to watch the progress with interest.

And on that bombshell, I’ll leave things until the next time. Boo-yah.

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[Zinar7]

 

 

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My Life in Music: Datastacks 0.1

Datastacks1

You may not know it, but we’re currently living in exciting times.

The major news media may be ignoring all discussion of such world-changing events, but monumental waves of excitement are currently rippling away from my general area.

I’ve been re-organising my music collection. Oh yeah.

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A few years ago, a catalogued all of my favourite albums from all of the years that I’ve been alive. You can find them here:

Part 1: From Out of Nowhere (1985-1991)
Part 2: Where Boys Fear to Tread (1992-1998)
Part 3: Dancing Through Sunday (1999-2005)
Part 4: Set Fire to the Hive (2006-2012)

But yes, while re-organising all of my various musics, I’ve taken the opportunity whilst doing so to properly catalogue everything I have and to generate some tedious statistics about all of it. For example: as of 19th March, I own 466 full albums and EPs (after having a bit of a prune of those records I’m not likely to listen to again). Furthermore, 4.07% of those albums/EPs are AFI albums or EPs. That’s quite interesting, right?

So yeah, because I’m a nerdy engineer and I like looking at pages and pages of data, I’ve made a spreadsheet listing every CD; the year it was released, the country that the band is from and what genre it inhabits. You may say that that’s a colossal waste of time, but I say “nyer” :P. Thus, on that immature little note, let’s probe into the stats and see what we can uncover.

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Interestingly, my music collection seems to be predominantly ‘punk’. There’s a significant chunk of it already taking up my shelf-space it seems; especially when you add the ska-punk total to the mix as well. I was well aware that punk is one of my primary musical outlets, but I’m not sure I would’ve predicted that it occupy quite such a large proportion of it. [Of course, this fact is perhaps a little skewed by the fact that I’ve divided ‘metal’ up into more sub-genres than I have done for punk – the whole range of punk stuff from Green Day to Turbonegro to Amen to Sum 41 is all under one umbrella whilst I’ve split metal more into its established sub-genres]. Broadly, AFI would probably come under ‘punk’ as well if I didn’t separate them into their own genre, so there’s that to add up, too.

On that note, here’s a little chart of how many records I own from the top ten bands in my collection:

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AFI obviously take up a significant proportion of my collection, and I own literally every LP and EP they’ve ever put out on compact disc (and, in most cases, own multiple copies of them to reflect different versions or covers or international editions); even the super-rare stuff like The Days of the Phoenix EP, which only ever had 500 copies. [For further AFI geekery, I own both a legit copy of it as well as a fake/bootleg version].

But yeah, it’s satisfying that my collection is (broadly) even across the many sub-genres of rock ‘n’ roll: to establish this, let’s have a look at the pie chart because PIE CHARTS.

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For clarity, “Popular Rock” encompasses stuff like Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age; pure pop (Ke$ha, Bowie, Prince) is lumped in with “Dance/Electronic”; all types of rap/metal crossovers and stuff like RHCP and RATM all slip into “Nu-Metal”; and heavy metal stuff like Iron Maiden, AC/DC and Black Sabbath were immersed in with “Thrash/etc.”.

I’m a little sad that my “Steampunk” section still rounds down to 0% of my collection. Granted, it currently consists of just The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing Cannot Be Killed by Conventional Weapons and Professor Elemental’s The Giddy Limit, but I’m working on it: hopefully I’ll import the whole Steam Powered Giraffe back catalogue sooner rather than later, and TMTWNBBFN will soon have album #3 under their belts. Boom.

Okay, so where are my albums from? Let’s have a look.

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No big surprise; most of my music hails from across the pond. The US dominates so much of rock ‘n’ roll music that you can tell how much of an influence it wreaks upon my own listening. It’s still good to see that around a quarter of my music comes from our own shores; although mildly strange that nothing hails from the Republic of Ireland. Naturally, there’s a strong Scandinavian contingent given my predilection for power metal and Finnish folk-metal. Canada has a strong showing, but it’s worth noting that most of those are Rush albums (15 in total). Furthermore, all of my records from Italy are associated with Rhapsody or Rhapsody of Fire (or Luca Turilli’s Rhapsody). Aw yeah.

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Proportionally, of course the US absorbs more than half of my shelf-space. Interestingly, though, the entirety of the rest of my collection comes either from Europe, Australia or Japan. Before the 2015 cull, I did at least have a few things from Brazil (mainly Sepultura), but it’s curious to know that there are vast swathes and surface areas of the globe (the whole of Africa!) that have never even come close to seeing a position on my CD shelf.

Another question that my CD re-shuffling was aiming to answer was: “When Was My Collection Released?”. Naturally, I expected that a sizable chunk of my collection would have come from around 2001-2005, where my main musical addictions were formed (and I’ll talk about these in a little more depth in my next blog). While this is certainly not untrue, I was a little surprised to find that the most prolific years were actually 2012 and 2013 (with 28 and 27 albums from them, respectably); probably arising because, at the time, I was deep in the wrangles of trying to finish my PhD and research stuff and hence likely to want to hear nice, new and noisy things in my ears to take away some of the pain.

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I also anticipated that 1994 would be a bumper year, given that some of my very, very favourite albums were released in (or around) that year: [1993 // In Utero, Siamese Dream; 1994 // Punk in Drublic, Superunknown, Smash, Weezer (The Blue Album), Stranger than Fiction, Dookie, Welcome to Sky Valley, Burn My Eyes, The Downward Spiral; 1995 // Mellon Collie…, Foo Fighters, King for a Day/Fool for a Lifetime]. But yeah, whilst the hit rate of what albums were released in 1994ish and those which are cemented as some of my favourites is incredibly high, it turns out that I don’t own as much from that period as I thought I did. Huh.

I know I probably seem a little like a bit of a dinosaur for continuing to rely on (and thrive upon) little shiny, plastic discs containing lovely things destined for my ears. But yeah, I have 466 CDs in my collection. That’s pretty cool.

Please don’t burgle me.

[Zinar7]

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Sinister Reviews #14: Gabriel Knight – Sins of the Fathers

GKSotF

Genre: Point-and-Click Adventure
Platform: PC (version tested), Mac
Release Date: October 2014 remake
Developer: Pinkerton Road Studios
Publisher: Phoenix Online Studios

I missed Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers (GKSotF) the first time around. Y’see, I was always a LucasArts brand of adventure-hound rather than a Sierra one; craving the comedy adventures in the vein of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango and Full Throttle (along with other, non-LucasArts games like Simon the Sorceror and Broken Sword) rather than more serious titles, like Gabriel Knight. However, since 2014 marked the twentieth anniversary of GKSotF’s release and saw release of an anniversary remake by Pinkerton Road Studios, the time seemed as good as any to leap into the world of Gabriel Knight and his roguish brand of amateur crime-solving.

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Jane Jensen’s Gabriel Knight series still remains a heralded classic in the point-and-click canon, touching upon a tale of murder-mystery stuffed with conspiratorial happenings, secret voodoo cults and suspicious events. The titular Mr. Knight is a brash, book shop-owning novelist from New Orleans, who becomes increasingly involved in police investigation of a case known as the Voodoo Murders through his friend Detective Moseley, before getting in far over his head. Over the course of ten game-days, the player must manoeuvre Knight around various scenes and locales of New Orleans (and, later, Germany and Africa); examining objects, harassing the townsfolk and using objects with other objects in the time-honoured point-and-click fashion. However, what sets GKSotF aside from the average is Jensen’s superb narrative: where my childhood adventuring through the LucasArts catalogue mainly stroked the soft underbelly of light-hearted storylines and comedic set-pieces, GKSotF tackles far more dense subject matter; a true crime thriller, with its fair share of grisly crimes and decidedly ‘grown-up’ themes. It’s reminiscent of a page-turning detective novel, with some excellent story pacing and an array of suspicious characters all, inevitably, involved in a complex web of mystery that maintains a respectable level of tension throughout the experience.

A key part of maintaining this atmosphere lies in the engaging, well-balanced, puzzle design. While some puzzles will have you scratching head for a while, they rarely feel unsolvable; yet, never facile, either. Solutions are never made too obvious (nor is the player ever steered toward them using petty hand-holding), yet pose a median level of difficulty that don’t challenge either the player’s intelligence or stupidity. Furthermore, the puzzles all maintain relevance to the ongoing storyline and police/spiritual investigation, meaning that the game largely doesn’t feel padded out with extraneous hoop-jumping or completely bizarre, shoehorned puzzles. To my knowledge, there was only one occasion where I hit a puzzle that I would never, ever have solved without the hint system (spoilers: it was the exact wording for what I was supposed to write on the tomb wall in the voodoo code) and, of course, the ‘engage with the mime’ puzzle near the beginning of the game is possibly the most tedious puzzle that I’ve ever encountered in an adventure game, but we all make mistakes.

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GKSotF should also be commended for not relying too much on the adventure games staple of constant back-and-forth between characters or scenes to progress the action; not that engagement with NPCs feels too much like a chore. Aside from the game’s abrasive voiced narration (which, thankfully, it is possible to mute), voice acting varies from ‘really good’ to merely just ‘acceptable’, and the initially-tedious dialogue animations certainly endear and lose their irritation. Dialogue trees are also well-constructed to avoid too much repetition and deliver the ongoing narrative in a focused, natural way. In this respect, the presence of a physical narrator of Gabriel’s actions feels like an alien concept (at least when compared to the LucasArts style of having the main character comment, narrate and break the fourth wall) since it disengages the player from Gabriel himself, but adds to the feeling of being involved in a detective serial or TV movie. Pretty much all of the dialogue, scenery and storyline are – I’m led to believe – faithfully recreated from the 1993 original version of Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers (except now rendered in prettier high-definition graphics and cut-scenes) and it’s satisfying to find that GKSotF has aged commendably in the intervening two decades.

In general, the updated character models are well-rendered; faithfully-recreated scenes are packed with prettiness to look at and it all represents a fairly solid modern take on Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. If there’s a weakness in the visual and atmospheric update, it’s in the game engine – the commitment to re-drawing scenes from the original leads to the limiting decision to use high-definition, 2D backgrounds with 3-D Unity-driven character models walking overtop, rather than fully-3D scenes. 99% of the time this raises no issues, but occasionally presents unfortunate graphical glitches and evidence that the gameworld is merely a 2D plane with characters pacing around atop a stationary texture. It’s not a game-breaker, but merely leads you to occasionally feel like you’re playing an adventure game version of The Sims.

[FYI, if you want to get hold of the original version of GKSotF, then head over to GOG.com]

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But, I’m nitpicking: the fact that you notice such mild gremlins and glitches is simply because the rest of GKSotF is so solid and enjoyable. Sure, the storyline drifts off a little in the last third – away from the more interesting ‘police’-type investigation and toward a more linear path of “do this, then do this, then do this”, which feels just a teeny bit padded out – but it’s because the majority of the game feels so well-paced and –balanced in terms of both narrative and gameplay.

In truth, I was expecting to be a little disappointed by Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. My curiosity had been piqued by Yahztee & Gabe’s playthrough of the first hour or so on Let’s Drown Out, and I’d expected to be mildly engaged by the storyline but to find fault with the game’s mechanics and object/NPC interaction. Imagine my pleasant surprise, then, to discover that it’s one of the best adventure games that I’ve played in recent years. Despite a few flaws, it’s still a masterclass in adventure game design and well worth a visit for the narrative exposition alone. Perhaps it’s testament to the forward-thinking innovation of the original, or the persistence of the point-and-click genre in being stuck in the mid-Nineties, but if ever there were a time to discover the world of Gabriel Knight (or perhaps just revisit it), then it’s now.

[Zinar7]

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Sinister Sevens: Designer Board Games

BoardGamesSevens

I admit it; I’m a desperate, ravenous tabletop board gamer. This frenzy has been sweeping over me for many years now, but it’s only within the last 3-4 that it’s truly taken over every sense and synapse, and led to full-on obsession.

Since I’ve been a kid, I’ve absorbed myself in games: both console and tabletop. Whilst most of my intervening years have been dominated by video games, the recent resurgence of family-based, tabletop strategy board games in the last decade has led to Euro-style physical games falling evermore into the mainstream and many games store being drowned in an avalanche of high-quality wooden pieces and plastic/linen cards; and, consequently, my living room.

In tribute to this passion, then, I’m going to run down my favourite seven games on the market and detail a little bit about why they mean so much to me. Perhaps, through my amateurish words, I can inspire yet more people to absorb themselves in my rampaging hobby. Let’s go for it.

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1. Carcassonne (Klaus-Jürgen Wrede, 2000; published by Hans in Glück)

In almost every respect, Carcassonne is my favourite tabletop game of all time, and that will likely never change. Dismissed by some as simply a gateway game offering passage to more complex titles, one should not confuse simplicity and elegance with adolescence. A tale of tiles, Carcassonne revolves around drawing land pieces at random, placing them on an ever-expanding ‘board’, and assigning miniature wooden people (“meeples”) to be knights, farmers, robbers and priests to score points for your growing empire. However, other players are aiming to do the same, and will interfere with your progress; either by trying to steal cities, roads and farms from your possession, or placing tiles inconveniently to block your developments.

Whilst the main game mechanic opens up a significant of luck (coming down to the tile you draw on your turn), you rarely feel completely at the mercy of misfortune and there is still plenty of opportunity for backstabbing and hindering of other players, even if you continually draw unhelpful tiles. Despite the compactness of the base version of Carcassonne, there’s also a supreme amount of expansion available to elaborate on the vanilla game if you so wish, with new features and expansion sets still regularly being released.

It may be passé to claim adoration of such a simple or ‘plain’ game in a world of complex titles but, to be honest, I’m having so much fun that I couldn’t care less.

Carcassonne

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2. Takenoko (Antoine Bauza, 2011; Asmodee)

A modern classic (ish) by Antoine Bauza, Takenoko, to me, is known by only one name: Pandas.

Pandas is…a difficult game to describe: it has elements of tile-placement, hidden goals and random interference, yet fits ideally into none of these formats. The primary success of Pandas, though, lies in it daring to be different. From theme to mechanics to player engagement, it feels fresh; unburdened by restrictive gaming customs, and bringing something genuinely ‘new’ to the table (pun intended). Players build an expanding bamboo field, tended by a moving gardener and devoured by a roaming panda, aiming to complete ‘goal’ cards that are based on varying conditions. Complete seven goal cards, and it’s the end of the game.

The game is superb for player interaction, with an expanding playing area upon which bamboo pieces grow on on irrigated field tiles, and the unhelpful movements and culinary habits of the eponymous panda can destroy your finely-honed bamboo field whilst benefitting someone else. A further bonus to the main mechanics are the wonderful design strokes and charming artwork: delightfully colourful playing pieces, tiles bamboo pieces being lovely to both sight and touch, and cartoon-like miniatures representing the roving panda and gardener. Takenoko is a triumph, and one that I would introduce to any gaming environment; an entertaining romp for both newbies and seasoned gamers alike. Pandas!

Takenoko

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3. Agricola (Uwe Rosenberg, 2007; Lookout Games)

Agricola is a behemoth in the tabletop world; both in influence/acclaim and its actual, physical bulk. A game about the driest of the dry (farming in the 17th Century), it’s a heavy worker-placement game played over thirteen turns where you can do never do everything you’d like to, and compromise is the order of the day. Since its release, it’s been acclaimed as one of the greatest modern designer board games, routinely holding position near the summit of BoardGameGeek’s top 100 games. However, it’s totally an experience that takes time to drink in and appreciate; perhaps one reason why it never won Spiel des Jahres upon its release, but instead was given a special prize as “Best Complex Game”. Certainly, I don’t feel that I’ve spent enough time with Agricola to come anywhere near truly mastering its art but, one day, I will and that will be a glorious epiphany.

There’s an outstanding amount of range and variability that can be present between successive plays, thanks to huge decks of cards that dictate what occupations can be taken on and what farm improvements can be built – make no bones about it, this is a delightfully complex game that rewards those who explore every aspect, think logically and react to changing circumstances. It can be mightily brutal though, too: making sure you can feed your family, when there are a bunch of other things that you’d like to do too, can be a heartbreaking decision.

In Misery Farm, everyone dies.

Agricola

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4. 7 Wonders (Antoine Bauza, 2010; Repos Production)

As is probably becoming clear from my selections for this list, I totally have a soft spot for games designed by Antoine Bauza. To date, 7 Wonders is probably his most acclaimed game title, winning the Kennerspiel award at Spiel des Jahres 2011 for “best complex game”, and there’s a valid reason for that. It’s wonderfully put-together and crafted, with simple (concurrent) turn mechanics, fast & engaging player interactions and lovely artwork; making each player’s (of which there may be up to seven, or eight with the ‘Cities’ expansion) process of building a Wonder of the ancient world an absolute pleasure.

It’s rapidly quick; the concurrent turn order keeping things active and away from tedious Analysis Paralysis (AP); and the points salad options for points-scoring means that there’s plenty to think about in each turn/round/game. Spread over three Ages, in each one players begin with a hand of (n + 1) cards; taking one and playing it, then passing the hand to their neighbour, whereby the process continues until all cards are played. Players must build up resources, use them to construct cities with marketplaces, cultural focal points, commerce, military strength and, of course, their individual Wonder.

It’s elegant in every conceivable way, short in terms but not in terms of complexity, and with a heap of replayability that makes it a great choice for a medium-weight ‘filler’ game that makes city-building an absolute delight.

7 Wonders

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5. Tokaido (Antoine Bauza, 2012; Funforge)

Tokaido is, categorically, the prettiest designer board game ever designed (FYI: the Kickstarter collector’s edition is even more a delight), for which we have Xavier Gueniffey Durin to thank. Yes, it’s yet another Antoine Bauza title in this seven-strong list, but it accurately typifies his penchant for deriving completely novel themes and abstract (yet sensible) game mechanics, as players take on the role of Dynasty-era travellers migrating up the eponymous Tokaido Road on Japan’s coast; visiting picturesque view, hot springs and teahouses, and meeting a swathe of friendly characters and merchants.

In essence, it’s a ‘race’ game, but one which is full of charm and quirks – players cannot occupy the same ‘spot’ and the rearmost player always moves, therefore compromise must be made as to whether to jump ahead to guarantee visit to special locations, or to maximise visits by moving to the next available space. Points are awarded based on a variety of goals, with a ‘Points Salad’ approach allowing players to tackle different strategies (focussing, perhaps, on visiting particular locations or collecting certain souvenirs) and to react to other players’ circumstances. The fact that this is wrapped up in the most aesthetically-pleasing artwork is, admittedly, a bonus; but one which simply adds to the overall feel and gives the genuine feel of players going on a scenic, rewarding journey over the course of the game.

Tokaido is, at heart, a delight. Wonderful.

Tokaido

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6. Love Letter (Seiji Kanai, 2011; AEG)

Elegance is the only word that can be used to adequately describe Seiji Kanai’s microgame, Love Letter. Mechanics, artwork, components; it’s all simple, streamlined and with solid pick-up-and-playability. Formed of only sixteen cards, a beautiful velvet bag and a handful of cubes representing ‘tokens of affection’ from the Princess Annette, players must play cards until the deck runs out, attempting to draw favours from a range of colourful characters in order to deliver a letter of love to the Princess at the end of the day. The winner of the round is the player holding the highest-valued character card once there a no more cards to draw, and in the face of other players attempting to eliminate and backstab one another out of contention.

In a grand best-of-thirteen, the first player to accumulate 7/5/4 tokens of affection (for 2/3/4 players) secures the Princess’ heart and wins the game. It’s wonderfully simple and compact, and takes only minutes to pick up before players are guessing, bluffing and socially-engineering their way to the royal heart. It’s quick, easy to teach, simple to master and yet open to a wide range of strategies and opportunities for bluffing. I love it, so hard.

Love Letter

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7. Rampage [aka Terror in Meeple City] (Antoine Bauza & Ludovic Maublanc, 2013; Repos Production)

For my final choice, what remains to be selected but yet another Antoine Bauza game? Furthermore, one that is about as far removed from a traditional modern designer board game as it is possible to get, whilst still retaining a board, power cards, and wooden meeples.

Unlike all of the other titles on this list which require strategy and brainwork, Rampage is all about dexterity. Taking on the role of city-smashing monsters, (up to) four players must systematically destroy the buildings and towers of Meeple City, topple all of the resident meeples and gobble them up, using a choice of four different actions: moving your monster (by ‘flicking’ its feet across the board), smashing a building (by dropping the wooden monster pawn onto a building), breathing toxic fumes (by resting chin on monster pawn and blowing buildings down) and by lobbing vehicles (by placing a wooden vehicle on top of the monster’s head and ‘flicking’ it into buildings or other monsters).

It’s a dazzlingly physical game, and the natural antidote to the tedious end of the cube-shunting Euro game genre. In Rampage, Bauza and Maublanc have created the ideal bridge between hardcore tabletop action and the family, party game. You can’t help but be engaged by Rampage, and get sucked into the sheer fun and lunacy of a very interactive, hands-on game that’s in full flight. The snobs may dismiss it as merely a sideshow, but once you’ve played it it’ll change your mind about how tabletop games can truly bring people together in laughter.

Rampage

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So, there we have it. My top seven tabletop board games ever (or, at least, until some other awesome get released and bump some of these out of the charts). Mention should also go to some other games, which I list here for the sake of completeness:

Alhambra – Dirk Henn, 2003; Queen Games.

Thurn und Taxis  – Andreas & Karen Seyfarth, 2006; Hans im Glück.

Coloretto – Michael Schacht, 2003; Abacus Spiele.

Le Petit Prince: Fabrique-moi une Planète (The Little Prince: Make Me a Planet) – Antoine Bauza & Bruno Cathala, 2003; Ludonaute.

Splendor – Marc André, 2014; Space Cowboys.

Revolution! – Phillip duBarry, 2009; Steve Jackson Games.

[Zinar7]

 

Images from BoardGameGeek: (Carcassonne – Robert Hawkins; Takenoko – Johnathon Er; Agricola – Will McDonald; 7 Wonders – Babis Tsimoris; Tokaido – Henk Rolleman; Love Letter – Casey Lynn; Rampage – Henk Rolleman).

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A Lament for the Video Game Manual

Lament

Next time you’re playing a new video game on one of those spangly-new, current-generation consoles, spare a thought for the poor, humble, forgotten video game manual. In this age of digital releases where physical copies of games are more at a premium, and pieces of floating paper coming bundled with the game disc are becoming more and more unwieldy and rare; the presence of printed DLC (Downloadable Content) codes, etc. aside. Even then, where disc-based games still come with some sort of instruction booklet, in many cases it’s woefully inadequate in providing context to the main game, given that many AAA-franchises now have so many complex facets of gameplay and control mechanics that you’d need most of a rainforest’s-worth of papyrus to catalogue them all. The days of gaming instructions being “press right to move right, press x to jump; jump on the enemy’s head to kill the enemy” are, sadly, behind us.

So: given that it’s someone’s job to reminisce about these archaic forms of printed communication and – in the absence of anyone else – that ‘someone’ may as well be me, let me take you on a journey of discovery and revelation about the mythical artform of the video game instruction manual. Together, perhaps, we can reclaim this forgotten land for the generations ahead.

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In the distant past, the instruction manual supplied with a video game was there to do one thing: to teach you how to play the game. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, a game would rarely have any introductory backstory, let alone hints as to how to get along, before thrusting you headlong into some gameplay. Haunting back to the idea of the game being a machine and the means operation of that machine needing to be communicated to the user by means of some sort of instructive text, manuals were included in video game boxes as the conduit by which the user understood what the game was and how it worked, and also where to find contact information and telephone numbers to call when the software inevitably failed or caused her ZX Spectrum to spew out little bits of cartridge tape in a very violent manner.

As video games grew and became more cinematic and three-dimensional during the 1990s, the instruction manual became a way for more information about the plot, characters and universe to be documented, in addition to how to press the right buttons at the right time. Perhaps the reasons for this are down to the increasing ambition of video games to rival full-blown movie entertainment in terms of story and lore, and perhaps to save the developers time and money on creating extra hours of Full-Motion Video (FMV) cut-scenes or expensive animation by filling the instruction booklet with bonus information and history in written form (cf. Final Fantasy VII, Puppeteer, Chrono Trigger).

As a player who has passionately grown up amongst video games for twenty years now, I still reminisce about the thrill of buying a new video game at the shops and devouring the instruction manual (not literally; I’m not a monster) during the car ride home because, until I got home and could boot it up, reading the manual was the next closest thing to actually playing the game. This heritage naturally inspires me to view a game’s instruction manual more as a taster for the game itself than a simple set of operation codes for playing it; whetting the appetite with exciting artwork, design and (sometimes) additional game lore. As an aside, it’s worth noting that I’m like this with music, and physical media, too – I love leafing through an album’s sleeve flyer, awaiting what music will to come meet my ears and throwing myself headlong into the band’s artwork and lyrics.

However, whenever I’ve bought a pre-owned console game, particularly from the last couple of console generations, the manual is – with alarming regularity – often in mint condition and unsullied by human hand(s). It’s equally alarming how many pre-owned games are still delivered with pristine DLC/download codes hidden away in/with the user manual: a broad conclusion that may be drawn is that their owners are simply unaware that they exist; a symptom of gamers simply too impatient to get playing to investigate the other manual guff before they dive in. In these modern times, if a game isn’t packaged with an in-game tutorial teaching the user, step-by-patronising-step, how to do every little thing in the game, many players are likely to head to the internet at the first sign of confusion rather than consult the manual; or worse, ragequit and abandon the game entirely. Gamers expect a playable tutorial; not a written set of the rules and limits of the game and the primary operators and actions used to navigate it (unless it’s an in-game version that can called up from a start menu prompt). As a result, I’d wager that only a small proportional of video game manuals ever feel the touch of human flesh; merely the fleeting fondle of an excited gamer’s fingers as they scrabble through it.

Ain't Nobody Got Time Fo' That

In the last decade, I’ve noticed an increasing propensity for video game manuals (particularly from Western developers and publishers) to exist merely as a few sheets of paper held by some ragged staples; hastily thrown together to print the primary control mappings but with scant pickings of game-enhancing content. They’re now no longer a necessity, but a luxury; perhaps supplied in order to meet console licencing requirements or out of some, long-forgotten obligation to give the player something to look at before they properly delve into the game itself.

A manual is, by and large, one of the last things that will be created for a game’s release. It’s something to be done at the end, and with little effort spent on it in order to maximise the man-hours that are spent on the game itself. This means that plans for an engaging, informative instruction manual are often the first things to be cut from a development budget that’s pushing its time or financial deadline; with publishers typically finalising their printed material at the very last minute (right before shipping), seemingly assigning the task to the resident intern or work experience kid. Some culprits may be guilty of throwing a user guide together seemingly at random, with random or out-of-date concept art presented as the real thing, out-of-date screenshots and typos still embedded in the text, with no quality control. Also, some developers/publishers may eschew the opportunity to publish more of the games’ development/etc art in the manual; instead, choosing to use such content in coffee-table ‘art’ books for which the consumer may often pay a pretty penny for (Ubisoft, I’m looking at you).

Of course, game manuals must serve an important, legal purposes – details of guarantee, warranty, licencing details, epilepsy warnings, [ yada yada ] must all be presented to the consumer. For health/safety/Quality Assurance reasons, it is still – largely – necessary for every major video game to be packaged with something paper-based on which warranties, blah etc. are written for the consumer’s benefit. As such, a large number of manuals are merely this; no frills, just the facts. And, often, not even any facts about how to play the game at all: the user manual for the PlayStation 3 version of the BioShock – Ultimate Rapture Edition simply says: “Consult [url] for game instructions,” somewhat defeating the purpose of encouraging players to engage with the complex, rich world and artwork of the BioShock and Rapture universe. THANKS, 2K.

VideoGameManualNotes

But, despite the bleak message of this post so far, it’s good to see that some developers still like go to town on the accompanying user guide; seeing the instruction manual as a part of the game’s package and an equal part of the art and aesthetic of it as the game itself. Although this adds time and cost to the production of the final game, as a conscientious (and academic) gamer, this adds to my experience of the game and the value that I obtain from its universe:

Assassin’s Creed II (PlayStation 3 version tested) uses its instruction manual to enhance the experience of the game as a whole, being laid out in the form of a set of research notes from Abstergo Industries explaining how to operate the Animus 2.0 (the in-game ‘machine’ allowing Desmond Miles access to the memories of the historical assassin, Ezio Audiotore da Firenze) and annotated by Desmond’s Abstergo refugee, Lucy Stilman. For example, in one such annotation, the AC II manual makes fun of its preceding game and the insta-death the player experience upon landing in water by mentioning: “Please make sure to remove that annoying bug preventing swimming.” It may be just a small in-joke, but it rewards the stolid adventurer that delves into the user manual, and adds some local colour to an otherwise perfunctory explanation of the game’s operations and features.

More archaic instruction manuals also reflect other curiosities of gaming’s history: the ‘Notes’ section of pages which are common in many instruction guides, for example. These hark back to a time when it was necessary for players to write down level passwords or codes, when savegame functions weren’t a widespread feature of most console games and in-game cheat modes were abound. Back in the day, the instruction manual was also an important barrier against software piracy – I recall the efforts of publishers like LucasArts doing their best to stop pirates from distributing pirated games (copied from floppy disks) by requiring users to look up a code in the manual (randomised each time you play­; e.g. “page 34, line 3 ……….”) in order to access the game. Of course, there would be nothing to stop large-scale pirates simply reproducing the manual, as well, but it may have halted the disk-copying of bedroom pirates.

"Piracy harms consumers as well as legitimate developers, publishers and retailers."

Page one of the manual for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag ~ “Piracy harms consumers as well as legitimate developers, publishers and retailers.” /FAIL

What place do instruction manuals have, though, in a world where control schemes for many video games can be edited and mapped to a player’s particular tastes? If the primary operators for in-game control are not fixed, then what worth is there in publishing a list of them in hard copy form? Furthermore, with future consoles likely to ditch physical game discs altogether (Microsoft nearly managed to get away with doing it in the current console generation, but not quite), will we see an absence of all printed materials, with a reliance purely on download-only games a la PC gaming on Steam?

Of course, I have nothing against tutorials an in-game manuals per se – if they can be presented in the context of the coherent storyline and with due care and attention, then a tutorial is a highly effective way of inducting the user into the gameworld and setting up the rest of the game. But why waste the opportunity to present extra content to the consumer? Maybe I’m in a minority. Perhaps the evidence that many players don’t look at modern game manuals is evidence that they’re an archaic artform that should be retired; perhaps alongside physical copies of videogames altogether, I don’t know. But if I’m a last bastion of a bygone era where the physical world still musters a round of applause, then I’m happy to be its final pillar of support. Godspeed.

[Zinar7]

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Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites

Scary
Since tomorrow is the 2014 edition of the Capitalism-fest that is Hallowe’en and the “scary things” closet has already been opened once again and a whole bunch of horror media sent barrelling our way, I thought I’d consider the role that video games play in our annual celebration of creepiness. Hurrah!

I’m a sucker for horror movies: creepy ones, silly ones, gory ones; you name it, I’ll devour it. Horror video games, on the other hand, can GET THE FUCKING HELL AWAY FROM ME.

Joel Cuddles

Largely, horror films completely fail to give me the creeps: perhaps it’s the knowledge that it’s all just a big scam, and the girl being chased by the guy with the big axe isn’t really being chased, and the guy with the big axe doesn’t really want to examine the girl’s internal organs in minute detail and with the complete opposite of surgical precision. Like everything in the movies, it’s just a big ol’ fake and there’s really nothing to be scared about at all.

At best, a surprise set-piece will give a brief shock, but never nightmares: the only things in recent memory to actually, properly, scare me were the Spanish original of [.REC] (which, incidentally, I will never ever watch again; not because it was too scary, but because the next time I see it will be a disappointment and I want to maintain it as one of my favourite horror films of all time) and pretty much all of The Descent (which was largely an hour and a half of Scary Things Jumping Out at You in the Dark™). Aside from that, I’m pretty unshakeable even in the face of maddening terror. When it comes to horror video games though, then you can rewrite all the rule books and Consequences Will Never Be the Same.

It’s here that I should probably define what I mean when I say “horror game”:

Horror Game [hawr-er geym]

n.  A video game whose predominant function is to scare, or thrill, above and beyond a regular ‘action’ game.

“I played this horror game last night and it was so scary that I accidentally vomited out my internal organs.”

It’s not a necessary prerequisitive for horror-games to be action-based, but most fall under the well-trodden banner of ‘survival horror’: your Resident Evils, your Silent Hills and your Alone in the Darks. These (almost universally) place you in the scope of some city-wide outbreak of nasties keen to chew on your face; away from which you must navigate your way (from fixed camera angles) in a third-person manner whilst simultaneously trying to find your wife/daughter/dog and understand what the hell’s gone wrong with the world. Even so, there are plenty of other horror-filled titles that meander away from the standard ‘shoot at and run away from the monster things chasing you’ to encompass psychological horrors, as well as the physical ones. I can categorically say that I will never, ever ever ever play Amnesia: The Dark Descent: I may own it on Steam, thanks in some manner to some Humble Indie Bundle somewhere along the line, but I’ll never install it.

Broadly, I watch horror films to be amused (usually by their shocking production values, hilariously bad dialogue and entertaining special effects), not to sit on the edge of my seat. but I can at least appreciate that some find horror films “scary” in some way. Horror video games, on the other hand, require direct input and often an emotional attachment (likely with the main character or perhaps for a “damsel” in “distress” that provides the key focal point for the story slash action) which amplifies the terror through your desire to see them survive the ordeal.

With a horror film, you know everything’s on rails and that the horror will progress without your direct involvement; you’re just along for the ride until the credits roll. If you do get scared, the action will progress regardless and you’re safe in the knowledge that, in 1-2 hours’ time, it’ll be over; no matter how much (or little) you engage with the scares. Where horror movies largely stick to the same sort of tropes (meaning you can largely predict how and when the scares are going to take place, who’s going to die, when something’s going to jump out, yada yada), proper horror games don’t have the same heritage and traditions and are tend to be far more innovative and inventive with how they give you the creeps. Aside from the more direct input that the player has on the action in a horror game than horror movie, this might also arise because of the relative infancy in which horror games inhabit, at least when compared to the 100-odd-year history of cinema.

Around this time last year, Naughty Dog unleashed one of the defining games of the PS3 generation in the form of The Last of Us; a survival-horror (ish) adventure game combining tension, emotion and zombie-ish things into a snowball of praise and Game of the Year (GotY) nominations from gaming critics. A year on (and with its recent re-release on PS4 in the form of a ‘remastered’ edition), many critics still view it as the high point of the previous console generation, drawing comparison with some of the ‘greats’ of cinema and banding around nicknames like “the Citizen Kane of games”. Still, given that the first, proper, piece of horror cinema is almost a century old now (widely accepted to be the creepy, unsettling The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), it’s unsurprising that video game developers have caught on to the main tricks of making a survival-horror game scare both physically and psychologically, becoming genuinely innovative with its horror engagement and leaving much of cinema’s generic horror output writhing in the dust.

LastOfUs

Given the immense (and almost universal) acclaim in which it is still held, I kind of feel I should play The Last of Us, but it just doesn’t grab me enough to give it a go (pun very much intended). I don’t go overboard for survival horror, and never have been: I think one reason why I dislike survival horror is that it takes itself so darned seriously (that Silent Hill dog ending aside), whereas all my favourite horror films (The Evil Dead, Saw, The Happiness of the KatakurisZombieland) are those ones that blow things over the top and deploy entertainment and/or comedy to complement the terror. The slow, tense styles of most survival horror titles hold no sway: the prospect of having to tensely save ammo/health and be frightened to death around every corner is often not the greatest motivator.

Instead, I prefer to be far more ‘gung-ho’ in my gaming style: it’s much more enjoyable to be charging around levels at full-tilt, full unloading clips of ammo in every available direction and trying to have as much fun (and cause as much chaos) as possible; preferably to a soundtrack delivered by Andrew W.K. or Turbonegro or something equally mental. This does, however,tend to make me a bit rubbish at stealth-based games like Thief and Hitman, let alone standard survival-horror games where you’re encouraged to save every last bullet and avoid alerting the entire zombie horde by careering around throwing grenades at the scenery. For shoot ’em ups of every colour and creed, I far prefer those that distribute copious amounts of ammunition and supply copious hordes of ghoulies/baddies to use it on; such as the glorious Bulletstorm or the masterpiece of Halo. “Saving some ammo for later” just isn’t in my dictionary, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

When I do stray into the darkened realms of horror gaming, I tend to to fall back on my love for zombies and zombie movies as a crucial pivot and gossamer connection to the world I know and love. And, even then, I like my zombie games to be entertaining struggles rather than bleak journeys of mere survival based on scavenging for crumbs of survival; the likes of Dead Rising and Left 4 Dead providing far more amusement than any number of repetitive, po-faced Resident Evils. I’ve recently been playing through Organ Trail (Director’s Cut) once again; clocking ever more hours into its cheesy, tongue-in-cheek conversion of the classic Oregon Trail into a homage-filled zombie survival adventure and enjoying every minute of it. And even then, if Plants vs. Zombies still isn’t the best zombie game ever made, then I’m a giant heron.

Okay, so enough about full-on ‘horror’ games; what about scary monsters and nice sprites in mainstream gaming at large? There’s an increasing trope for so-called ‘regular’ (non-scary, or mainly non-horror-based) games to artificially use ‘scary’ sequences to add to the drama or tension of a regular ‘action’ game, particularly in first-person person shooters, to varying degrees of success. Half-Life 2‘s superlative Ravenholm sequence is still one of the scariest (and most memorable) sequence in a modern first-person shooter, whilst the Sander Cohen section from BioShock – with all of its weeping angel-style mannequin-splicers and haunted theatre props – is one of gaming’s most expertly-executed creep-fests. Whilst Treyarch’s Call of Duty titles – with their schlocky zombies and undead Nazi footsoldiers – just feel like a tired resurrection of the same old trope of taking a standard game and trying to shoehorn some shocks into it, Red Dead Dedemption‘s glorious DLC/story expansion ‘Undead Nightmare‘ managed to implement a superlative zombie mode with infinite more care and grace.

Aside from traditional survival-horror games, there’s still a whole bunch of originality to be found within the ‘horror’ genre; resisting the mainstream horror genre’s tropes of endless wandering through endless dark, tight, grey corridors shooting zombies and collecting herbs. The likes of Project Zero (multi-platform, 2001-), Eternal Darkness (GameCube, 2002) and Cursed Mountain (Wii, 2009) come critically acclaimed by those in the know, demonstrating that there’s innovation to be found if players wander off the beaten survival-horror path, and the indie community also seems to be leading the charge in horror gaming of late; with particular successes such as the aforementioned Amnesia series, Penumbra: Black Plague and, this Hallowe’en’s breakout hit, Five Nights at Freddy’s. The equally-fascinating and terrifying Slender: The Eight Pages (which I have played; although not for long) demonstrate that terror can be inflicted without a bullet ever being fired.

So, despite the fact that I’m active only in the fringes of horror gaming, I’d wager that the genre is in fair health; so long as you steer clear of the kind of trash that The Evil Within appears to be peddling. With the growing success of Oculus Rift and true-VR gaming, I can only imagine that the successes of immersive, truly scary video games will also go interstellar. Schlocky, jumpscare games might not be my exact cup of tea, but I’m fully in favour of the injection of psychological, unsettling horrors into video gaming as a whole and engaging stories that place less emphasis on shooting space marines and more on tapping into the brain’s psychological fears. Game designers, take note plz.

Anyway, since this post has mainly been about scary things and personal gripes, I thought I’d leave you with a wonderful scene of beauty and harmony and everything that is ‘right’ with the world; don’t have nightmares.

MemeCenter_1375716630592_653

[Zinar7]

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Sinister Sevens: Sonisphere 2014

Sevens_2

Okay, let me start off by making one thing clear: Sonisphere 2014 was just EPIC. For four days, Knebworth was host to wall-to-wall awesomeness, and I suppose that it’s now my job to try and boil that down into a short(ish) summary of all the rad stuff that happened, and the major outcomes of the festival. In that spirit, then, here’s a quick run-down of the seven bands I enjoyed the most over the course of Sonisphere 2014, along with the recounting of a few memories. Let’s crack on, shall we?

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1. Metallica [By Request]

Without a doubt, Metallica were the band of Sonisphere 2014. They may have shared headlining duties with the mighty Iron Maiden (and The Prodigy), but you could just tell that Metallica were going to be the band hitting the top gear. This was pretty clear once we entered the arena on Sunday morning to find that Metallica had completely torn down most of the main stage and replaced it with their own setup (and still hadn’t finished it, meaning that Gojira came on late). From the entire backdrop of video wall, the ‘D’ walkway out into the crowd, and the beach ball-deployment mechanisms (see later), Metallica meant business.

And what business it was. With a setlist constructed by the fans, Metallica By Request was always going to be some kind of monster and from the opening twangs of ‘Battery’, the show was unstoppable through ‘Master of Puppets’, ‘Welcome Home (Sanitarium)’ and onward toward more choice cuts from Kill ’em AllRide the Lightning…And Justice for All and Metallica [the Black Album]. Despite the popularity of Death Magnetic, the only songs extracted from beyond 1991 were ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ (which went down a storm) and the steamrollering ‘Fuel’, which led to one of the biggest sing-alongs of the night. Even “the new song” ‘Lords of Summer’ went down a treat, along with the standard classics like ‘One’, ‘Creeping Death’ and ‘Enter Sandman.

The master-stroke, though, comes in the final moments: out of nowhere, hundreds of black “Metallica by Request” beach balls fall from the heavens of the stage into the front of the crowd; ricocheting around the arena during the closing songs with gay abandon and a sense of universal glee shared by both band and audience. And heck, when { Metallica } are having this much fun, you know you’re in for a real treat.

p.s. SIT DOWN, LARS

KillEmAll

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2. Ghost (B.C.)

I’ll be honest: before Soni 2014, I’d only really heard of Ghost (B.C.) in passing. I’d only ever really encountered them visually, and so had (not unjustly) assumed that they were a standard Scandinavian black metal band after having seen their outlandish stage garb and semi-religious iconography. Oh, how wrong I was.

Earlier in the weekend, a friend described Ghost as “black metal channeled through surf rock,” and yet that doesn’t really reflect what Ghost is and are: they’re simultaneously the heaviest and not-heaviest band; a bizarre mix of style that you wouldn’t think would work on paper, and yet triumphs spectacularly. The band themselves are anonymous; five bemasked Nameless Ghouls providing the backing noise over which Ghost’s frontman vigilantly presides. Papa Emeritus (II), naturally, is the band’s lifeblood and conduit with the audience, yet he’s so unconventional a frontman that it’s almost refreshing how much an antidote the band are to the traditional ‘rock star’ image and caricature.

Throughout the set, Emeritus paced the stage with a gentle, faux-papal demeanour, gesticulating to the crowd like a preacher addressing his congregation. If the band’s fascinating music-scape is anything to go by, ‘congregation’ is an appropriate term to reflect the awe in which the Sonisphere masses drank in Ghost’s performance, undoubtedly winning over a large swathe of new followers; me included. Certainly, their foray through a handful of album tracks along with a cover of ‘If You Have Ghost(s)’, they most definitely affirmed their place as [my] “Discovery of Sonisphere 2014,” and guaranteed a place for their entire back catalogue in my ever-expanding music collection. (F)rock on.

IfYouHaveGhost

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3. Karnivool

I admit it, I ❤ Karnivool so hard. They’re a monumentally good live band, and one that seems to constantly be on tour in some form or other (this is the fifth time I’ve seen them in less than five years). Hitting the Saturn stage in the middle of Sunday, even I must concede that I was worried that the Vool’s meandering, progressive rock/alt-metal would wither in the daylight and without their ambient, atmospheric lighting and stage presence. I needn’t have worried, though, since the music – as ever – is perfectly capable of transporting you to a hypnotic, dreamlike world of robust prog-metal, regardless of the time of day.

Karnivool’s forty minutes on stage were woven from their typical headline set; drawing from 2009’s Sound Awake and last year’s Asymmetry albums. There are no surprises in the order, nor ad-hoc song changes; just the regular Karnivool machine delivering the tight, sonic experience that they’re expertly-programmed to output. Whilst fellow Aussie band Airbourne were vomiting forth faux-rock’n’roll and pre-planned ‘spontaneous’ acts of rebellion, Karnivool graced the Saturn Stage with maturity, charm and precision. Sound is the factor which holds it together.

Karnivool

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4. Babymetal

Of course, a lot of the pre-Sonisphere hype circulated about the inaugral UK (and European festival) appearance of “internet sensations” (yuk) Babymetal, and how they’d go down in front of a stoic heavy metal crowd that would, later in the day, be gearing up for real metal delivered by Anthrax, Iron Maiden and Slayer. The three girls from Japan were accompanied to the stage by projection of a tongue-in-cheek ‘back story’ video, heralding their status as the new Goddesses of Heavy Metal, before launching into album openers ‘BABYMETAL DEATH’, ‘Megitsune’ and ‘Gimme Chocolate!!’.

Of course, while Babymetal will forever be associated with The Girls, they’d be nothing without the juddering metal backdrop. The backing band provide the foundation for Babymetal’s cosmic stage presence; painting the musical stage on which The Girls sing, dance and cavort around with choreographed abandon. Inter-song solos and noodles from each of the members also goes light-years to proving that they’re not just a dance/pop band; they’re an (albeit constructed) machine of genuine musical talent and merit under the curtain of semi-contrived gimmick.

It’s a shame that, at least for the day, Babymetal could only grace the Apollo Stage for a fleeting half an hour, but it’s certainly enough to satiate the ravenous and (maybe) convince a few of the naysayers to rethink their stern opinions. Either way, for thirty minutes on a gloomy Saturday in Hertfordshire, we were witnesses to the arrival of the new Goddesses of heavy metal; and how refreshing that was. The revolution is here; the time is now.

BabymetalDeath

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5. Hundred Reasons

The assembled crowed at the Saturn Stage on Saturday afternoon felt small, but perfectly formed. After a few years of splitting-up, re-forming, playing comeback and anniversary shows, Hundred Reasons haven’t released new material for seven or so years. Sonisphere 2014 saw them going back in time twelve years, with a full rendition of their essential debut album, Ideas Above our Station; addressing a small but rabid fanbase who can sing along with every word.

Throughout their set, 100R looked for all the world like a band enjoying themselves. With each member now otherwise invested in other projects, the Sonisphere semi-reunion (they got together back in 2012 to do a few proper renunion shows to celebrate the Ideas… ten-year anniversary) had all the feeling of a weekend get-together rather than a run-of-the-mill show. Dutifully, Colin Doran’s lyrics soared over the backing provided by Hibbitt, Gilmour et al. and the voices of the assembled congregation, delivering an atmosphere worthy of a band in their heyday rather than one that’s been off the circuit for far longer than most of us would like.

If nothing else, Hundred Reasons reminded us why 2002’s post-hardcore soundtrack meant so much to so many, and convinced us (if we ever needed convincing in the first place) that the UK music scene is a poorer place without Hundred Reasons in it. Boys, you’re sorely missed.

ShatterproofIsNotAChallenge

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6. Max Raptor

…And the award for “Craziest Moshpit of Sonisphere 2014” goes to Max Raptor!

I’m not sure what I expected when I walked into the Satellite Stage tent to settle in for Max Raptor. What became clear was that, within seconds of launching raucously into their opening song, most of the central area of the tent was taken up by a frenzied [mosh/circle] pit that continuously ebbed and flowed with the motion of bouncing limbs and beaming smiles until well after Max Raptor had left the stage.

Not elsewhere across the weekend did I witness such a constant whirlwind of bodies, fervour and fun as during Max Raptor’s short (but sweet) set – the boistrous (but cordial) moshing throughout the show was accompanied by a jovial wall-of-death and, at one point, the sight of two guys dressed as 1970s long-distance runners sat on each others’ shoulders and jousting across the pit.

I wasn’t familiar with any of Max Raptor’s material before I saw them; even now, I’m almost tempted to keep it that way. Because, you see, to hear them on CD and in the manacles of a recording studio would ruin the memory of witnessing a true punk rock band being completely let off the musical leash for a festival show. They’re a band to see in the flesh, not just on record. Their debut album (Mothers Ruin, fact fans) might be the best ever written, but I’ll never know because I’ll never listen to it; nothing can compare to the real Max Raptor experience, smiles abound.

MaxRaptor

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7. Nirvana Defiled

I’m not sure what I was expecting to hear from Nirvana Defiled; a regular, main stage hardcore(ish) band [The Defiled] playing an 11pm show in a titchy tent as a Nirvana tribute band. I think, in the main, I was just hoping that they wouldn’t screw it up – having watched The Defiled play their regular set on Friday and not been bowled over, a friend and I headed into the Bohemia Stage on a high and settled in to watch the potential car crash of the same band attempting to raid the Nirvana back catalogue. Instead, what we got was one of the most enjoyable musical experience in recent memory, and hats well and truly eaten.

Nirvana Defiled took to the stage in complete costume – ragged cardigans, plaid shirts, pink hair, bras and baseball caps; even with the other (redundant) member of the four-piece The Defiled dolled up in drag as Courtney Love being pushed around in wheelchair – before belting into a perfect rendition of ‘Breed’. For the remainder of the show, The Defiled crushed through the likes of ‘In Bloom’, ‘Negative Creep’, ‘Rape Me’ and ‘Heart-Shaped Box’, before sending the entire tent into a mass frenzy with an intense rendition of the obligatory ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ before exiting the stage and leaving genuine smashed guitar all over it.

It may now be twenty years since Kurt left this world, but for forty or so minutes in Knebworth, late on a Sunday night, Nirvana were alive and well and full of the kind of reckless energy that took them from mere rock band directly to musical legend. And, without a shadow of doubt, it was glorious.

SmellsLikeTheDefiled

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So there we go; my brief (if a little late) review of most of the awesomeness from Sonisphere 2014. Honorable mentions should also go to all of the other bands I managed to watch over the course of the weekend: Hounds, Atari Teenage Riot, 65 Days of Static, Anti-Flag, Limp Bizkit, The Prodigy, Fort Hope, Centiment, The Virginmarys, Alestorm, Deftones, Devin Townsend Project, Reel Big Fish, Alice in Chains, Kerbdog and The One Hundred. Special mentions should also go to the ‘extra-curricular’ activities over the weekend, from the Official Unofficial Sonisphere Bin Joust International Invitational to the Toolbox Hill-Descent Masters. For four or so days, my life was filled with music and other tomfoolery, and it was spectacular.

Thanks, Sonisphere; you were awesome. Same time next year, yeah?

[Zinar7]

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