Friday, January 31, 2014

A Godawful Small Affair: Twenty-One "Hours..."

"HOURS..." (1999)

COVER: "Will it stop, Doctor?  The drumming?  Will it stop?"  (David Tennant cries unconvincingly for three hours; fin)

Having suffered the slings and arrows of a dullard music press for daring to reach with his last two albums, Bowie closed out the Nineties not with part 72 of the hyperdiary of Nathan Adler as was planned earlier in the decade, but rather a solid if unspectacular album, albeit one with some dizzying highs, and a definitive step away from the more overtly electronic and dance music elements of the previous two albums.

But what a jaw-dropping start: "Thursday's Child" may be mature and tame compared to the material that directly preceded it, but good lord it's a good song - one for which the descriptor "emotive" can be deployed without sarcasm.  "Something In The Air" keeps the human drama at a high level, chronicling the (inevitable?) end of a relationship with tragic agony.  Many things the Nineties Bowie may have been, but this is the first time he'd really been sad - and it works.

After that stunning double-header, we're unfortunately introduced to some very pedestrian territory, with "Survive" being a common-or-garden lost love tale, even going so far as to put the line "I miss you" in there.  It could be viewed as stark, raw, shot through with naked simplicity; to this writer, it just seems a bit empty, and the following seven minutes of "If I'm Dreaming All My Life" not quite knowing where to go don't exactly help matters.

"Seven" perks things up next; it seems like a second attempt at the kind of simple confessional that "Survive" was aiming for, and it's a lot more successful at it.  From there the album settles into a pattern of dull song, good song - note the terminology there as well, for these are not bad songs per se, merely somewhat lacking in vigour and interest.

Nowhere is this more apparent in the couple of songs that immediately follow: "What's Really Happening?" is another meanderer, but "The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell" tears your face off.  In fact, "...Pretty Things" is just downright fantastic, and with a title like that it was always going to provoke interest.

Easily read as another Bowie bye-bye to his sordid past, its instrumentation wouldn't be out of place on an Iggy Pop solo offering, and I waste no time in proclaiming the track the lynchpin of this album - with the unfortunate caveat that it has now peaked, and the rest is rendered somewhat obsolete.

So, what do we have here?  I'd say another transitional album, another "Black Tie White Noise" (though better than that), another "Diamond Dogs" (though not as good as that); an album with some brilliant, brilliant individual tracks and a consistent sound, but one that's never going to be the first of his albums you pick from the pile, and sadly a death knell for the more vital-sounding Bowie of the last couple of albums.  Still: worth a listen.

Join us next time for...  I think it's "Heathen", right?  I get the next two mixed up.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

We Game To Please: Kingdom Hearts

GENRE: Action RPG.

THE HOOK: Disney favourites meet Square-Enix's finest.

THE WORLD: Right, this will take some explaining.  There's this thing called Kingdom Hearts, which is the heart of a world, or sometimes an amalgamation of other hearts...  I think.  And in short, any of the various bad guys want it, and the good guys use something called a Keyblade, which is a sword shaped like a key, to hit them repeatedly until they stop wanting Kingdom Hearts, or indeed living.  Seriously - "Killer7" was easier to explain than this.

Pictured: Kingdom Hearts...  Possibly.
The action takes place across a number of different worlds, almost all of which feature characters and situations from Disney films.  You'll run into all your House of Mouse favourites, from Ariel to Tron and Jack Skellington to Jack Sparrow - except, ironically, Mickey Mouse, whose disappearance is a plot device in the first game - plus a liberal smattering of characters from the "Final Fantasy" series, such as Cloud, Squall and Jader (“JOKER made this biological weapon to jump on BATMAN"...  Oh all right, maybe not him).

GAMEPLAY: Far more action oriented than the usual JRPG, with direct real time control of the running, jumping and swashbuckling.  Upgrades to character movement and abilities such as extra jumping power allow the gradual unlocking of greater awards and previously inaccessible areas, and there's also a shoot-'em-up section as you fly your ship between worlds.

You also get followed around by Donald Duck and Goofy the entire time, as they attempt to help you out in combat, but mainly spend the entire time hollering in their bloody annoying stupid voices and using all your healing items on each other.  For a brief respite you can often replace one of them with a Disney hero from the world you're visiting, such as Beast or Peter Pan.  Finally, as is par for the course in Square-Enix games, there's a whole bunch of minigames, superbosses and optional stuff to keep your quest going past its actual end.

SERIES: Oof.  Well, there's two core games, with a third to come soon.  On top of that, there's a bunch of other games that add to the dizzying narrative, and you sort of do have to play them or at least read their stories to get the full picture of why you're doing what you're doing.

HIGHLIGHTS: The story, if you can get your head around it, is actually very involving and intricate, but the main mark-out moments come when exploring a new world for the first time, and seeing the familiar characters interacting with your party; Halloween Town and Wonderland are particularly well thought out, with Space Paranoids and the Pride Lands in the second game adding some very different and beautifully constructed locales.

LOWLIGHTS: Having to listen to Donald and Goofy all the damn time.  Also, "Kingdom Hearts: Chain Of Memories", which has a trading card element to it which basically ruins the gameplay by removing any potential for the kind of hassle-free enjoyment that the core games trade in so well.  I'm still picking my way through that one after the best part of a decade.

IF YOU LIKE IT: Whilst there's nothing exactly like it, the newer "Final Fantasy" games are starting to incorporate more action elements, and the "Valkyrie Profile" games are also along similar lines.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Godawful Small Affair: Twenty "Earthling"

"EARTHLING" (1997)

COVER: Morrissey baiting?

Now, if "Outside" was chuckled at, but largely tolerated as a passion project for a beloved cultural icon (despite, as we previously covered, being awesome), "Earthling" was the one people really tore into.  Lambasted as the work of a "rave granddad", it was accused of everything from lamely rehashing the dance music of the time, specifically jungle and drum and bass, to borderline racism in its adoption of predominately black music styles and Bowie's use of the union flag on the cover.

However - and you can probably guess where this is going, given my oft-contrary nature - it's actually really good, and here's why.

Much like the previous outing, this is Bowie taking up the influences of the contemporary music scene and regurgitating his version of it.  Now, it's not like me suddenly deciding to go crunk, but only having access to my bass; Bowie can afford the best musicians, producers, instruments and gadgets in the world, so him having a try at it is not likely to be bad, merely initially disquieting that you are hearing a voice you know over music you don't associate with it. 

Some seemingly can't get over that - the rest of us will be over here, giving it a fair listen.

Granted, there are some ridiculous bits here, like the early nineties BBC children's show noises that introduce "Dead Man Walking", and the much-slated chanted intro to "Looking For Satellites", which ages itself by namechecking Shampoo and Boyzone...  Mind you, if he means Shampoo the product rather than Shampoo the two piece girl band, then it's technically timeless.  Ah.  Well done, that man.  In all though the lyrics are, well, a bit random, given that they have largely been chewed up and spat out by the Verbasizer, a program designed to do exactly that.

Come into this with an open mind, and there's much to enjoy: the sheer joy of "Little Wonder", the slow-burning and eventually explosive "Seven Years In Tibet", the paranoid bleeping of "I'm Afraid Of Americans" and perhaps best of all, the enthrallingly noisy "Battle For Britain (The Letter)", which remained a staple of live sets right up to the last tour.

I've often been dismissed for my rabid defending of "Outside" and "Earthling", but remember: this is MY Bowie, the one I heard as a teenager; the one I danced to at the Limehaus, the one I saw in the union flag coat at Phoenix and resplendent with perm at Glastonbury. 

It's no different to my mother hearing "Rebel Rebel", or an eighties teen buying "Let's Dance", before driving home in his Sinclair C5 for a can of Quattro and a bag of Tubes.  They may have cultural resonance for me, but I challenge you to listen to these albums without expectation, and see if you enjoy the experience.

Join us next time: we're going to hell!

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Read All It About It - Special Bumper Edition

Yes!  It's a treble header today, as I promote works by not one, not two, but THREE of my contemporaries, by way of making up for my meagre contribution to their deserved successes thus far.  Ready?  GO!

Writer - Medical Doctor - Meat Puppets enthusiast

Jamie (if I may call him that - actually, I'm going to anyway, so it doesn't matter) has been gaining quite some momentum as a horror, fantasy and speculative fiction writer of late, so I'm sure a short post on a blog nobody reads will be just the kick he needs to shoot into the literary stratosphere!  His most currently hyped product is "The Fall Of The Angel Nathalie", available NOW! through Bedlam, an imprint of Necro Press.

It's a ripping yarn about the war between heaven and hell, whilst people howl and people moan and look for a dry place to call their own...  Ahem.  Jamie will love that reference however as he is the biggest fan of the excellent band the Meat Puppets that I know. 

Buy it here:

But that's just the tip of the iceberg: there's plenty of Jamie about - check out "The Bound Book" and more recently "Theft on New Year's Eve" and the headline-grabbing interspecies homosexual love story "Modern Serpents Talk Things Through".  If that doesn't pique your interest, you can ruddy well go away.

Writer - Broadcaster - "Not" Batman

Ben (if I can call...  Hang on, I've already done this bit) is the keeper of a keen and irreverent wit, showcased across many strands of media, as is the modern trend.  At Talk About The Passion ( you can find podcasts and writing featuring Ben and pals, including one Mr. G.F. Hirons, talking popular culture before blasting off on surreal and hilarious asides; look wider and you'll find a pantheon of material, including many collaborations with Tim Worthington such as "A Question Of Bins" and "Cult Bin Corner", which were available on YouTube at the time of writing.

"What Did You Expect?" is his first book, bringing forth a collection of original comedy, articles on such cultural warhorses as "Doctor Who" and "Rocko's Modern Life", scripts from his favourite podcast sketches and, most excitingly of all, "a special foreword by Mashingtons Mash PLC's advertising spokesman, chart topper and theatrical impresario, Sir Alan Potato".  Lawks-a-lordy: it's a must!
Buy it from his store of a thousand delights at:

And remember: without Ben's drive and passion, you wouldn't have G.F. Hirons, Published Writer - partly because he published me in an actual magazine made of paper and staples, but mostly because without the inspiration of Ben and the gentleman we're about to discuss showing me what can be done with a blog and the writing bug, I'd have shot the whole writing venture in the head by now.

Writer - Television Personality - Not in the band The Television Personalities, though (or is he?  Must ask him on Tuesday)

Tim (I'll skip this bit this time) is a bloke I know from the pub.  He's also written reams of reviews, opinion pieces and untold stories about music, television, radio and cinema in between high-profile spats with "celebrities" and "Alan".  Never less than incendiary, never short of a quip and ever eloquent of argument, he also has a whole load of books out so I've picked the one with the cover I liked the best.

"Fun At One" is a history of comedy on Radio 1 - that's BBC Radio 1, for our overseas readers (if any) - if you can remember such a thing, from Kenny Everett to Chris Morris and all things in between.  So buy a copy, and keep him in Citrus Spring and Sizzlin' Bacon Monster Munch...  Damn.  I just made myself hungry.  To the cupboard!

Find this and many otters (others) at:

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Engine Blood 21/01/2014: Special "Don't Call It A Comeback (Even Though It Is)" Edition

* Kamui's BACK!

Yes, the one-man excitement machine himself, Japan's Kamui Kobayashi, makes a welcome return from the wilderness to drive for...  Oh, it's Caterham.  Cancel the excitement alarm, lads - he'll be backmarkin'!

After exploding onto the scene with Toyota in 2009, filling in for an injured Timo Glock and immediately mixing it with the then-newly crowned champion Jenson Button (who described Kobayashi as "absolutely crazy"), he took a shunt-filled half a season to adjust to life at Sauber, but really impressed in his three years with the Swiss kingmaker.

Unfortunately, he was jettisoned for last season after the team's finances became a huge concern.  For two years they had existed on Sergio Perez's Mexican sponsorship money; with Perez heading to McLaren, and Hulkenberg on Sauber's shopping list, Kobayashi's meagre sponsorship was deemed insufficient, and he was shown the door not long after scoring an emotional first podium at Suzuka.

In a last-ditch attempt to secure a seat for 2013, he raised millions of pounds of sponsorship in a sort of crowdsourcing-type affair, as youngsters are wont to do, but decided to wait until 2014 to try to secure a front-running drive.

Sadly, a punchline is not necessary.

* Completing 2014's grid will be his Caterham teammate, Marcus Ericsson.  The Swede is a debutant at the highest level, but has been in GP2 for...  HOW LONG?  Jesus.  For all you number watchers out there, Ericsson will wear 9, Kobayashi 10 (again, slow hand clap for the inventiveness there, guys) whilst formerly numberless Max Chilton has opted for 4.

No-one fancies zero, then?  Or is Damon Hill making a comeback?

* But will Caterham be a going concern after 2014?  Owner Tony Fernandes thinks perhaps not, having oddly followed his aggressive pursuit and hiring of two drivers - at the expense of the more-than-passable Giedo Van Der Garde and the common or garden Charles Pic - with the delivery of an ultimatum: score points or I'm off (probably).

Last season the team finished last in the Constructors' Championship - the first time that has happened to them, as they've usually had HRT or Marussia to prop them up.  But an unlikely thirteenth place from the latter's Jules Bianchi condemned Caterham to the doldrums, and Mr Fernandes is getting a wee bit annoyed at being bottom of the league; let's face it, life with Queens Park Rangers will do that to you!

And that will be our last attempt at football humour.  Thank you.

* Maybe it won't matter, though, as the circus is coming back to town: yes!  It's the latest Formula One expansion!  The FIA are asking for parties interested in running a new team to come forward and pay them a small fortune for the privilege of applying.  No guarantees of a place - they want hard currency for even giving you the time of day. 

These often turn into fantastic fun; think of it as an episode of "Who Wants To Be Tony Fernandes?"  We might get another one of Prodrive's increasingly ill-fated attempts to get on the grid, or another US F1 debacle, or even better another appearance of Stefan GP, a team whose entire entry strategy consisted of getting a website, phoning Kazuki Nakajima up and just turning up to some races with a old Toyota, hoping to sneak onto the grid unnoticed.

(Actually, we've just looked it up and prospective team principal Zoran Stefanović IS giving it a go for 2015!  Oh, please, good lord, let it be him!)

Anyway, it seems a NASCAR team owner called Gene Haas wants to be Tony Fernandes.  Now, he's not to be confused with Carl Haas, who ran Team Haas in 1985 and 1986, best known for employing Alan Jones way past his prime; also not to be confused with professional wrestler Charlie Haas, a three-time WWE Tag Team Champion; further not to be confused with Gene L. Coon, Gene Roddenberry, the Jean Genie or the band Gene, and most definitely not to be confused with Carl Coon, who I just made up.

Anyway, he...  Er...  Ah.  Can't remember what we were talking about, so...

* Finally, and neatly bookending our returns special, almost as if it were a deliberate choice of layout or something, comes the (several days old) news that Ron Dennis, the Emperor Palpatine of Formula One, has harnessed the powers of the dark side to throw Martin Whitmarsh from a precipice and retake his position as the Blood Lord of McLaren Formula One.

Particularly narked after a winless season last year, and presumably getting no sympathy from Tony Fernandes, he wrested his throne back from Mr Whitmarsh, who they will probably say is on gardening leave, though Dennis appears to be swilling a viscous red liquid from a cup that looks suspiciously like the unfortunate interloper's skull.

Dennis climbed atop the grisly peaks of Mount Horror to boom this ominous warning across the valleys below: "[McLaren's shareholders] mandated me to write an exciting new chapter in the story of McLaren, beginning by improving our on-track and off-track performance.  NOW COWER BEFORE ME, PUNY MORTALS!!!" (source: mainly BBC Sport, some filler)

And THAT'S all the blood that's fit to drain!  Good gravy, it's not long now!

Monday, January 13, 2014

We Game To Please: Batman - Arkham Asylum

GENRE: Batman simulator.

THE HOOK: Are y - what?  Did you not just hear me?  You get to be Batman!

THE WORLD: Batman - the gritty, post-"Killing Joke" version thereof - seemingly brings the Joker to justice, but it's all an elaborate ruse to get him trapped in Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane, along with a rogue's gallery of...  Well, rogues, really.  Batman must not only punch and kick rather a lot, but also use his skills as the World's Greatest Detective to foil The Joker and escape the island.

Plus, it's haunted by SPOOKY SKELETONS!!!  (Note: may not be true)
Of course, you'll encounter other heavily-trademarked characters such as Poison Ivy, The Scarecrow and Jader (“JOKER made this biological weapon to jump on BATMAN”...  Hang on, wrong game), plus a very conveniently-located second Batcave and all of your favourites - but not Robin - in this return to form for a character whose videogame career was in the doldrums at the time.

GAMEPLAY: A bit "Metroidvania", as the kids all say, where exploration leads to gadgets and upgrades that open new areas.  There are three main phases to the game, with unarmed combat featuring a reasonably foolproof flowing engine that makes each broken jaw a joy to mete out, and regular Predator Rooms, where Batman must stay out of sight, ominously swooping on his armed enemies to avoid being shot to pieces, in a number of appropriately moody settings.

But the best bits are the exploration; swinging and swooping, clambering and crawling, using Detective Mode to discover the Riddler's clues and pinpoint enemies at distance.  This is as close as you're likely to get to being Batman without getting sectioned and convicted of assault and peeping tomism.

SERIES: "Arkham Asylum" is game one in a three and a half game core series.  Sequel "Arkham City" and its expansion "Harley Quinn's Revenge" greatly expand the playing area and the range of missions, becoming more of an open world game.  "Arkham Origins" greatly expands the playing area, but not the range of missions, making up for it with an arguably more compelling storyline.

HIGHLIGHTS: There's a lot of different stuff to do.  For instance, The Scarecrow uses his fear gas to cause hallucinations.  Bad for Batman; good for you, as you get an interesting little minigame to play!  Or why not try to foil The Riddler by collecting a load of trophies...  Yes, I'm not sure how that one works either, but it provides a giddy little thrill.

LOWLIGHTS: Well, the Batmobile's not in it much.  Also, quite a few of the bosses or featured fights are almost exactly the same, which can lead to frustration when everything gets a bit same-y.

IF YOU LIKE IT: Here's a bit of an off the wall one for you: why not try "Infamous"?  It's another morally ambiguous superhero game with an open world and customisable powers, and it isn't half bad either.  If you're just in it for the famous names - nothing wrong with that, mind - go for "Lego Batman" or one of the other Lego superhero games.


See a younger, more beautiful me tackle the ZX Spectrum's Batman-related output - or at least wait for it to load - over at Talk About The Passion (  And hey, why not stay a while and check out some other bits and bobs?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Engine Blood: 12/01/2014

* The big news is that Formula One drivers will now be given a number for life, mirroring their counterparts in MotoGP - and apparently also pointless American banger racing series NASCAR.  But nobody on this side of the big pond cares about that, so let's stick with MotoGP.

We believe this will be a positive move for drivers, allowing them to use their numbers for promotional and merchandising purposes; just look at Valentino Rossi, who has become synonymous with the number 46 during his career and has used it to maximum impact on all kinds of overpriced tat.

We did however feel a little sad for the passing of the arcane numbering system of the eighties and early nineties, before constructors championship positioning largely dictated it.  For people of a certain age, 3 and 4 will always be Tyrrell; 5 and 6, Williams; 14 an Osella of some sort and, inexplicably, 27 and 28 are forever Ferrari.

* Some numbers of note for you, then:

 - Sebastian Vettel has chosen 5, perhaps as an ominous warning that he intends to extend his title streak.  As reigning world champion, he will carry number 1 next season, but after that he'll have to give it back to its rightful owner, Michael Schumacher.

- Kimi Raikkonen chose 7, because it was what he had last year and he doesn't care at all about anything, ever.

- Pastor Maldonado has picked number 13 - do we even have to add a punchline to this? - and Adrian Sutil has 99, whilst Valtteri Bottas has outed himself as an Ash fan by picking 77.

- Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso actually put some bloody thought into it, unlike just about everyone else.  Button has 22 as it was the number he won the title with, and Alonso's 14 is an old karting number.  See?  THAT'S how you're meant to do it!

- 00 is reserved for Dick Dastardly, whilst the number 2 has been retrospectively retired with Mark Webber.

* We've not commented on the driver moves, as they're largely what we had pencilled in anyway (Perez and Hulkenberg to Force India, Sutil joins Gutierrez at Sauber), but it's worth mentioning that Max Chilton has been retained for a further season's slog at Marussia, as we were under the impression that someone else would step in.

Max - if we can call him that, and frankly, we can.  Who's going to stop us? - actually set an interesting record last year, becoming the first driver to finish every race in his rookie year.  Granted, most of those were in last place; still, it's a testament to Marussia that they could build a car that is capable of finishing consistently, especially since their first effort didn't have a fuel tank big enough to reach race distance...

* And finally, ex-Ferrari and Jaguar underachiever Eddie Irvine thinks awarding double points for
the last race of the season is "embarrassing" and that the rulemakers " should be ashamed of themselves" (source: BBC News).

That would be the same Mr Irvine who was sentenced to jail for a brawl in a nightclub with an Italian man, which may or may not have involved brandishing a broken glass as a weapon.  Engine Blood find this "embarrassing" and believe Mr Irvine should be "ashamed of himself" (source: us).

And THAT'S all the blood that's fit to drain!  Good to back, fans!