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Chunk Of Change
Passion Pit - CD
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Ok, so technically this is an EP, not a full album - something which it's 29 minute, 6 track credentials make all to obvious. But I have always treated this like Passion Pit's first album; their defining sound. It's rough, the vocals are (to quote my mother...) "a bit shouty" at times, and certainly more abrasive than the more polished, melodic offerings of "Manners". In this early album, they do sound quite a lot like "Hot Chip" and others of the genre, and less American synthpop, which is not at all a bad thing.
I really enjoy their second album, it's a great example of inoffensive, yet interesting synth pop. Chunk Of Change stands out for me though, it is definitely a lot more interesting than Manners, which I could argue is somewhat "overpolished".
The first time I heard "Smile Upon Me" - the rushing, swirling opening reverb had me dizzy, the insanely catchy synth hook was in my head for the majority of 2008... All 6 tracks are memorable and stand out from each other, each are truly wonderful; the instant techno classic "Sleepyhead" is another highlight.
Passion Pit fans of "Manners" - I would offer a small word of caution; aside from the vocals, very little about the full length album resembles this original EP... I actually prefer Chunk of Change for the sheer toe-tapping factor - the songs are unpolished, "edgier", "rougher" and all the better for it. 5/5
Delphic - CD
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What I love about this album is that, unlike many "indie-electro" bands which are predominantly the same old three piece guitar led bands with the odd keyboard effect *snore*, Delphic really produce good quality electro riffs in their own right. They are in fact arguably "electro-indie" that is, mostly electro punctuated by the occasional guitar riff - and in my humble opinion all the better for it.
Far from simplistic generic char fodder, each song is made up of many different layers of sound and noise - the heavy use of classic synths, build up, drops and distort in each track gives the album an overall ethereal quality whilst still managing to keep us grounded with some ripping guitar or keyboard riff.
Stand out songs for me are "Doubt", "Counterpoint" and "Remain" - but there really isn't a single track I don't absolutely love, I can quite happily put the whole album on, sit back and let it just play. Bliss. No question though, the stand out track is the 8 minute title track masterpiece; "Acolyte". It is an absolute lesson in how to build a damn fantastic trance track - starting low, brooding with whining guitars, puckered with echo, then the kick of the high hats, the electro riff, a full two minute of build up before the spectacular drop which every time I listen to manages to make me air punch in geekish delight at its sheer awesomeness.
Delphic stand out from the crowd, offering something unique and rather spectacular in the process. They find that nice middle ground between the less than chart friendly electro-core (Crystal Castles, Salem, You only love her coz she is dead etc etc) and their rather dull, safe, uninspiring chart contemporaries (cough - Klaxons, cough - Pigeon Detectives cough cough...) I can't wait for these boys to get on a second album, and I can only hope it lives up to this one. 5/5
Bon Iver - CD
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Anyway, this is a nice little filler between the two gaps, and smoothens out a transition from "accoustic/folk"("For Emma") to "synth/shoegaze/folk" ("Bon Iver - 2011") which otherwise might catch you off guard.
The tracks on this filler EP are in a similar vein to those on "For Emma" but some show hint at the interesting directions Vernon has gone on to explore in his most recent self titled album (2011). "Blood Bank" is "typical" Bon Iver, accoustic, rough sounding guitars, haunting melodies and beautiful thought provoking lyrics."Woods" is a lesson in how auto-tune can and should be used - the gradual build up of layers is an astonishing feat - similar in sound and concept to Imogen Heap's famous "Hide and Seek" - it might seem like sacrelige to those who only ever thought of Bon Iver as an "accoustic/folk" band. I imagine these people would also be a little suprised, and maybe even a little disappointed by his 2011 album release - but for me it's even better than the first (but that's another story....)
A bit expensive in terms of money per track, but for fans it's a must :) 5/5.
Enslaved: Odyssey To The West
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This is a good looking game. There's no doubt about that. Whatever I have to say about often frustrating gameplay, it is a testament to star studded development team that the storyline and visual splendour was enough to keep me engaged for the good 10-12 hours of gameplay this has to offer.
Let's start with what's right: Firstly, it's beautiful. It really is. Most Armageddon-esque settings painted with dingy, depressing subdued palettes and desolate wastelands - whilst those are present in Enslaved, the primary impression is that of colour. Whether escaping from slaver ships, scrounging for salvage in a giant rusty metal yard or swinging through the rubble of a lush, verdant post-apocalyptic New York - there is always an array of sharp, almost comic book vivid colour.
Secondly, the story is engaging; partly because of the element of mystery as you are dropped into the game with little or no backstory and are foreced to piece it all together as events unfold, but mostly because of the quality of the facial animation used in the frequen cut scenes to tell that story. Using motion capture techniques similar to those used to make the infamous L.A.Noire faces - the characters are real, complex and deeply engaging. Watching the dynamics between them change and shift is truly absorbing. That subtley of animaion, the slight raise of an eyebrow, the most miniscule of frowns, the half-shrug - is really really breathtaking. That level of subtley makes these characters feel truly human - and had me totally sucked in and actually caring about their story.
The geek in me could happily sit and gaze and sigh in wonder at the pretty trees, faces and sunsets all day long, but that wasn't really enough to totally blind me to the fact that the game isn't exactly perfect.
It's a standard linear platformer - as restrictive and rigid as the Prince of Persia series. It looks very impressive as you hurl yourselve from handhold to handhold but essentially all you are doing is pressing A and shoving the L stick in vaguely the right direction. Add in the "PULL THIS LEVER", "GO HERE" icons and the highlighted, shining climbable hand holds and this element starts to get pretty mindless. On top of that is a very frustrating nanny-state level of restriction - the game WILL NOT let you make a mistake! It starts off as a useful feature that stops you acidently running off a platform, but after your 72nd time teetering ontop of a 3ft box as the game refuses to let you jump down unless you are in the exact right spot, facing the exact right way...it starts to get a bit frustrating. Fortunately, just when you think you might just start to tear your hair out there are some fun elements that switch up the pace of the game nicely - running away from giant metal death rhino, shooting glowing bombs, lever based puzzles, a little "surfing" - all of which are very fun and definitely a welcome break from the tedium
The combat is again a case of looks impressive; but essentially you might as well be button mashing. Upgraded combat is more fun - providing a range of dodging, counters, special attacks which encourage you to switch up gameplay against the toughter opponents - my only complaint being these upgrades are rather numerous and you'll only really be teched up by the end chapters anyway.
So...would I recommend this game? Yes. Yes if you appreciate a good looking game and are not expected an Assassin's Creed level of freedom! It is beautiful, and it is fun. The graphics and storyline are a solid 5* in themselves, but the niggles I have with the gameplay bring it down to a 4/5 overall. Well worth it for the price!!
Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Conviction
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Let me start off by saying I'm a huge Splinter Cell fan....on PC, but up till now I found the xbox/ps console versions (namely "Chaos Theory" and "Double Agent") frustrating as hell - tempermental and sticky controls often meant falling off a ledge, or jumping instead of ducking at a crucial moment, breaking my cover, and unleashing holy hell.
So when, reluctantly, I was coerced into buying and playing this chapter I was actually very pleasantly suprised indeed. Perhaps this was because this game is much faster paced, and ultimately a lot easier. Those familiar with the Splinter Cell series will know all about the previous unforgiving emphasis on the stealth aspect of the game - shooting lights, hiding bodies, stealth meters, sneaking around trying not to get caught because if you did it was more often than not game over (especially at higher difficulties where enemies could dispatch you with a few bullets!) In this game however the emphasis is often on taking down enemies - often clearing a room of all guards is the only way to progress. Die hard fans might shirk at the idea of leaving bodies behind with a lack of hiding body mechanic, but for those who want to stick to their old ways of uber-stealth, there is also the arsenal of gadgetry and plenty of shadow covered ceiling pipes to help you sneak around - just don't be suprised when the improved AI means you get caught by a patroling guard you could have taken out earlier!
The game itself actually plays more like a stealth - TPS hybird, with epic fire fights being rather frequent and whilst Sam does feel more robust this time around, don't expect to last long out in the open! Fortunately there is an active cover system, and even once you're seen it is very easy to slip away; break an enemies line of sight and they'll investigate your "last known position" (marked visually by a translucent outline) - making it all too tempting to plant a proximity mine in that place for easy kills!
There is a "mark and execute" mechanic which will have even the newest players executing incredible (and often...logic defying...*ahem*) feats of marksmanship. This can feel like "cheating" to some, but there's no doubt even you'll be using it in the final levels!
Game length for single player story is decent at 10 hours, but there's plenty of incentive to go back and complete feats of daring, stealth or marksmanship as you are awarded upgrade points which can be used to outfit Sam with better body armour, more ammo clips, more gadget slots etc. There is also a challenge mode of "deniable ops" which often involve clearing zones of enemies, infiltrating, or sneaking around levels you will have already encountered but with new enemies this time around.
The highlight of this game for me has to be the co-op story mode, which unlike being a simple rehash of the main story actually acts as a prologue in its own right - adding at least another 6-8 hrs. The characters are believable and engaging and the story is great with a classic Tom Clancy twist at the end that will keep you guessing! Of course the challenge mode is also available in co-op so there's plenty of stuff to keep you and a couch buddy entertained - making it by far the most sociable Splinter Cell yet.
There's something here for new recruits and old Third Echelon veterans - whilst newbies might be a bit lost in the story, there are some neat loose ends which get tied up for those who are invested in Fisher's story. The gameplay is exhilarating, striking the right balance between stealth and action - this is a real must. 5/5
Army Of Two (2)
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As the name of the game would suggest, this is a shoot 'em up based around co-op play. Even if you don't have an online or split screen companion, you'll still be shadowed by an AI Rios or Salem. The rather basic AI, and limited control system makes playing with a friend a far more attractive option. As well as a fairly robust (if, inelegant) cover system, the game also emphasises a mechanic called "aggro" - the "loudest" player i.e. the one doing all the shooting, will bare the brunt of the enemy fire, allowing their team mate to indulge in a bit of sneaky flanking. The game encourages you to master this basic idea, providing a clear bar in the UI, that swings from player as they make more or less "noise" respectively - and it's well worth paying attention too, many of the trickier fights require flanking a tough enemy to hit their weak spots.
The game itself is pretty short lived, there isn't much incentive to replay missions; the levels are fairly linear, and though numerous, the types of enemies are quite limited - although the addition of body armoured shot gun toting elites, and even entertaining (albeit, wildly un PC) suicide bombers who you have to try and shoot as they leg it towards you, add a splash of variety.
The story isn't particularly interesting, and frankly though the rapor between the two main characters leads to some laugh out loud moments, the other characters are forgetable and often laughable racial stereotypes.
But, all that said, despite lacking in story or content depth, the game itself is decent looking, well paced, frantic, chaotic and good fun to play. The aggro and cover mechanics work well, and the impressive arsenal of weapons you can unlock and upgrade (in a suprisingly indepth weapon customisation system). It's all rather butch and macho and ridiculous and tongue in cheek, and really rather fun with a friend.But if you're looking for a more hardcore single player shooter experience? Probably give this a miss. 4/5
For Emma, Forever Ago
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As the story goes, the entire album was conceived, written, recorded and produced over the course of just a single winter spend in lead vocalist Justin Vernon's wood cabin, up in the remote mountains of Wisconsin. In this self inflicted "cathartic hibernation" Vernon has managed to create the extraordinary; a revelation.
This is far from another generic male vocal led acoustic album; I believe Bon Iver stands out from the crowd in more ways than one. Vernon's falsetto vocals are particularly beautiful and perfect in relaying the vulnerability and depth of emotion behind the soul searing lyrics. There is a clear sense of emotional purging here, using song writing to vent his feelings and frustrations and the result is an overwhelmingly emotional album without a chart contemporary.
Unlike many acoustic albums, which tend to get a bit...well, "same-y", I find this debut to be refreshing and not at all repetitive. I don't think there's a single song which falls short but a few choice favourites are "Lump Sum", "Skinny Love" and the opening gem "Flume". However the absolute cherry on an already rather sumptuous cake is the stunning closing track "RE: Stacks" - to which belongs the gorgeous closing lyrics which sum up an album which is ultimately about love.
I can only find one slight flaw in this album and that is its length! At only 9 tracks it lasts just over half an hour - and seems to be over all too soon for my liking! As a shortcoming however that is a very minor one indeed, and it is clearly a case of quality over quantity. Each song has been whittled down and worked on for many months on end to achieve as close to perfection as any album I have heard thus far.
I would go so far as to put this is one of my top 10 albums of all time. Buy it; it is truly sublime. 5/5.
My Best Friend Is You
Kate Nash - CD
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So three years, one mental breakdown, and haircut later Kate Nash is back in the fray once again with her latest offering - embracing her edgy fringe-folk, street punk, riot grrl roots and renoucing the "pop" image of old.
People who actually liked the old pop -y album might not get on too well with this followup so consider yourself warned. However those, like myself, who thought Made of Bricks was overproduced, are in for an absolute treat.
"Paris", "Take me to a higher plane", "Kiss that grrl" and "Do Wah Doo" are all highly memorable, instantly catchy songs that never fail to have me singing along with a great big grin on my face! We also get treated to an angrier, punky, riot-grrl of old, side to Miss Nash with songs like "I've got a secret" and "I just love you more".
This album isn't just simple, future singles however. I agree with a previous reviewer who described it as thought provoking. A lot of the songs are clearly very introspective, and you really get the feeling that Nash is showing you little bits of her soul with each word. Her lyrics are, as always, just perfect. Mixing tongue in cheek humour with anger, frustration, heart break and romance - her ability to write songs that cut really close to the bone, to give you the words that you yourself can't quite find, makes her one of my favourites.
I have also had the privilege of seeing her on her latest 2010 tour and she literally blew me away. The amount of energy and raw passion she puts into every song is just incredible - On stage she is just spell binding to watch, from the angry defiance when performing "Mansion Song" to her amasing rendition of "Don't you want to share the guilt?" where she looked so vulnerable and almost broken. She puts so much of herself into what she's singing, and I admire her bravery to be so naked like that on an album. If any of you ever get the opportunity to see her live I would really, really recommend it because for me it added an even deeper level of meaning to a lot of the album songs.
But anyway, getting back on topic....the album is much harder to get into for the "casual listener" (god that makes me sound like a total music snob, but you know what I mean!) but it is really, really worth the extra effort of a few more listens.
One of my favourite albums this year, hands down. No contest. 5/5
Made Of Bricks
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Ok, so maybe I'm biased because Kate Nash might just be my favourite female singer at the moment. "Foundations" made me sit up and pay attention, but it was the rest of her songs that had me smitten. I love her voice, her song writing talent, and her lyrics. So naturally, I am going to jump to her defence when people compare her (unfavourably) to Lily Allen - a ridiculous comparison because apart from the fact they both sing in an accent and are both female solo artists, the similarities between them are few. It's typical of mainstream reviews to lump all female "pop" artists in the same neat little pigeon hole.
I do not class Kate Nash as a pop artist, and in fact I think the main problem with this album is that they clearly tried to market her as just that - a pop singer, with a pop album. As a result tracks have been polished up, made more "radio friendly" - a huge mistake because it is Kate Nash at her rawest and most exposed that is the most brilliant.
"Nicest Thing", "Mariella", "We Get On" and "Merry Happy/Little Red" perfectly sum up why I adore her - she sounds incredible when the songs aren't messed around! And yet whilst still good, if you compare songs like "Birds", "Mouthwash" and "Skeleton Song" to the respect demo/live versions (which you can still finding floating around in cyberspace....) then you realise just how short they've been sold on the album. "Play", "D**khead" and "S**t Song" would and should have served as a much needed injection of personality and attitude IF they hadn't have been given the studio treatment. As they are on the album, frankly they just annoy me.
All in all the album is a somewhat frustrating mix of crap tinsel-pop and mind-blowing brilliance. Admittedly Kate Nash is a bit of a marmite girl - either love her or hate her. I know plently of people that can't stand her style of singing, but I love it purely because it's not normal, it's not boring, it's pure personality and attitude. I also have a great personal affection for her songs; for me she just seems able to able to write lyrics that describe perfectly how it feels to be young, confused, in love, out of love and all the deliciously messy bits in between.
In my opinion her second album is much, MUCH better at showing us who Kate Nash really is, even though Made Of Bricks is a good debut, it does smack of a lack of conviction and confidence in her own sound. That said, I still think it's a fantastic album in its own right. Ok, so I'm biased, but who cares? 4/5
Sigh No More
Mumford & Sons - CD
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The latest offering of the dim-lit pubs of the London urban folk scene to get mainstream recognition, and I think deservedly so. Unlike the general snobbery, elitism and repetition of the traditional stagnant folk scene, these guys bring something new to the table, something which is both beautifully poetic and radio-friendly easy to listen to.
The whole album is incredible, I originally bought it quite a while ago off the back off their first (and much less succesful) single "Little Lion Man" which to my surprise, ended up being one of the weakest tracks on the album (which is saying something because it's not at all a weak song!!) Every single track is consistenly brilliant, the harmonies, and arrangements the lilting lyrics. Unlike (in my humble opinion) the horrendously repetitive, cliched traditional folk, this album is able to actually keep your interest throughout. There are constant changes in mood, volume and pace, not just from track to track but actually within the songs themselves.
It is these changes which give the album that wonderful lilting narrative feel to it, a concept , which admitedly not unique within the folk genre itself, that certaintly elevates Mumford & Sons way above their chart contempories. Marcus Mumford's distinctive rough vocals are marvelously versatile - equally capable of singing those songs of joy and frivolity (e.g. The Cave, Roll Away Your Stone) as he is singing about angst and anger and heart break (e.g. White Blank Page, I Gave You All) right down to the delicate lullabies of "Timshell" and "Awake My Soul". It is extremely difficult to pick a favourite out of this fabulous line up but when pushed I would answer "After the Storm" - a truly touching closing track, that never manages to leave me feeling somehow...peaceful.
For me, this album conjures up images of Britain, which even with all it's oddities, all it's quirks, all it's imperfections; is still a dazzlingly beautiful place. I think, especially in light of recent political events, everyone shouting about how Britain is "broken", it's easy to forget. Britain was never "broken" it is a brilliant, wonderful, diverse, multicultural, tollerant haven in a world of mistrust and fear and it is THIS image of Britain which this album conjures and celebrates so well I think.
But aaaaanyway, coming back off my semi-political tangent...I really do urge everyone and anyone to buy this album. It has no "target audience" no age limit, it's just good music, plain and simple. If you've enjoyed the stuff they've released so far, then prepare to be blown away!