Monday, December 24, 2018

"Look out the window... Yeah!"

1. BRAIN DONOR "She Saw Me Coming" (2001)
From the album "Love, Peace And Fuck"

And so the number one spot goes to the only group to feature twice on this countdown, with a track from the very same album.  This truly was the year I rediscovered Brain Donor…
Like “Odin’s Gift To His Mother”, this is presented at an ungodly volume.  Unlike it, this is snappy and no-nonsense, performed at pace, replete with enough lyrics to comfortably fill it and, crucially, has a rock ‘n’ roll swagger that makes it less testosterone-flavoured than its aforementioned album-mate.  It’s an earworm in the “Wrath Of Khan” sense: an absolute head-wrecker, that is tight and demented and makes me wish I was a bouncier person in general, and could summon the energy for a living-room-wrecking bout of limb-flailing and shouting “YEAH!!!” and “WHOOO!!!”.
But that’s not very me, really.  So perhaps best not, eh?
Is it my favourite song ever?  No.  It’s bloody good though, a worthy annual winner, a safe pair of hands for the crown.  But it got me thinking: what IS my favourite song ever?  The answer is “96 Tears” by ? And The Mysterians, with an honourable mention for “Search And Destroy” by Iggy And The Stooges.  But I’ve been in off-cycles for those songs; you can’t overdo it, or the magic is gone.  I can see me retiring “She Saw Me Coming” in a month or two, so as not to empty that particular bottle of its precious lightning.
So if this isn’t my favourite song ever, then can I pinpoint why it’s my most listened-to song of the year?  Well I think it has become, essentially, my entrance theme – the unofficial nation anthem of me.
It’s my go-to song any time I can’t seem to get out of bed, or I’m genuinely scared to leave my flat, or I’ve got an hour to do three hours’ worth of work, or I need to do another five minutes of cardio to be able to look at myself in the mirror without shame, or M. Bison just will not go down at the end of a hard-fought World Warrior tournament.  It helps me tap into the parts of me that work the best, and the parts that everyone likes, and be able to be that version of me for just a little bit when I don’t feel like I can.
It’s not a cure-all, but it certainly makes things seems more achievable; and that’s about the best compliment I can pay any song.  It has been a dizzying 2018, and this song has been its overriding soundtrack, cutting through the funk, confusion and uncertainty and keeping me livid, electric and alive all the way.
And that’s that!  In closing I’d like to say “listen to Retrospecticus.”  And a Merry Christmas to all of you at home!

“It’s the only way you’ll ever know…”

From the album “Chinese Wall”

No, really.

Welcome to THE EIGHTIES.  Thatcherism!  Sinclair Computers!  “Bridge To Your Heart”!  Generation 1 Transformers!  The SDP-Liberal Alliance!  Peter Beardsley!  Sizzlin’ Bacon Monster Munch!  That deferential little Tory royalist snotrag, Ben Elton!  Managed declines!  Keke Rosberg! Phil Cool!  The golden years of “Neighbours”!  An American president who did say ‘well’ a lot!  The constant threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction!  Quatro!

And, of course, Phil Collins by the absolute brimming-full bucketload, be it as part of a now more socially responsible Genesis, his solo offerings and Motown coverings (that would somehow go on to be a massive influence on nineties American hip-hop, because reasons?) and this, a collaboration with a second Phil, albeit one dignified enough to go full Philip but not snooty enough to adopt a second ‘L’.

Philip Bailey: who he?  He was one of the two lead singers for Earth, Wind And Fire, dabbling in solo projects during a hiatus for the band.  Phil Collins produced the album “Chinese Wall”, from which this is taken, and was also linked to EWF by the Phenix Horns (don’t blame me, that’s apparently how they spell it), EWF’s brass section, who not only played on Collins’ solo output but also some early eighties Genesis songs – although it looks like Collins wound up suing them, so I doubt they’ll be working together again.

The single was a transatlantic hit, standing at number 1 in the UK singles chart for four weeks, and hitting number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, only thwarted by a fellow leviathan in Foreigner’s “I Want To Know What Love Is”.  And why wouldn’t it be?  Without wishing to Patrick Bateman this, it is the Eighties in a single song: all sizzle and no steak, poorly-aged synth sounds and historically weak production, with a sharp-suited, annoyingly self-referential video about making the video…

So why is it good?  Why do I like it so much?  It’s unlikely to be childhood memories, as this would have been radio only – no rogue copies in the home, the only Phil Collins available was pre-“Invisible Touch” Genesis.  It doesn’t seem to have been on the soundtrack to “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” (though it’s only now I notice that “Pale Shelter” was – another missed opportunity).  And there is no one overriding memory I attribute to this.  It’s just…  Good.  I just like it.

As such, I do feel like I’ve spend more time than is reasonable in my 38 years attempting to defend this song, and always without a great deal of success.  It just does not stand up to any kind of intellectual dissection, being as it is a monolithic reminder of a period when music largely lost any semblance of soul in a slick of synths and production techniques that really, really didn’t like bass.  Yet stick it on, and it’s a tricky one to stay mad at; toes start tapping, air drumming commences, attempts at harmonies lead to tune butchery, and a good time is had by all.

Before I go, special mention must be made of a unique listening situation from earlier this year: in a rowboat, on a river in Bath, surviving numerous water-gun assaults, in celebration of a stag do.  If that’s not classic “Easy Lover” territory, I don’t know what is.

Reader, gird your loins for the final entry, where you’ll join us in our “White Van” for the latest “Messages” as we “Get Off Your Pretty Face”!...  Hang on a minute…

Sunday, December 23, 2018

“Whatever cools you down, take a look around…”

3. GIRLS AGAINST BOYS “[I] Don’t Got A Place” (1994)
From the album “Cruise Yourself”

We’ve touched (and gone) on this before, but Touch & Go Records had what I remember to be an almighty roster of Premier League noiseniks, though having just read a partial list of them this seems to extend as far as all the bands I mentioned last time, plus The Rollins Band, Butthole Surfers and a load of other ones I haven’t heard of.  That’s the old rose-tinted classified ad in the back of the Melody Maker for you.  But on the plus side, they did give me free stuff…

For yes!  As mentioned some six entries ago, this song came to me on a 7” from Touch & Go records, sent to me free when I ordered another batch of Jesus Lizard singles, in a physical version of Amazon’s now-classic “People Who Liked This Also Bought…” scary spy function.  And despite not having Putinesque access to my buying habits for the last twenty years, they were perfectly correct in their assumption that I’d like another crushingly loud band with an unusual approach to playing and a non-standard lead vocal.

The whole package is quite something.  The production of Girls Against Boys records is something I’ve always described as “head in a box”; you feel hemmed in by the music, surrounded, like it’s coming from eerily close to your ears as opposed to speakers on the other side of the room.  It’s even more claustrophobic on headphones…  Hm, maybe not ‘claustrophobic’ – I’ll reserve that for the Manics’ paranoid classic “The Holy Bible”.  I think the word I’m looking for is ‘personal’; like it’s happening only for you, and nothing else is happening outside of it.

As a lapsed bass player, it’s really good to hear a band with a two-bass, one-guitar line up as well – it’s always refreshing, and never less than extremely heavy (see also Enemymine).  As a result, there is nothing crisp about this song; everything is fuzzy, jittery and scratchy, like a case of bugs beneath the skin.  Meanwhile, a gentleman who must smoke 80 Marlboro Red a day is drawling the kind of half-awake vocal J Mascis would be proud of over the top of this juddering cacophony.  It was arresting from the second I put it on the turntable, and it still jolts me into livid attention every time it starts up.

It’s been starting up rather a lot lately, given it was the very first track that I looked up upon joining the still-unnamed streaming service, as despite my income-powered buying up of seemingly every CD I had to pass on as a teenager, the album of origin for this track, “Cruise Yourself”, had stayed tantalisingly out of my reach.  I haven’t looked back since.  And in closing: isn’t it nice, in these increasingly cynical times, that a song that was gifted to me as a freebie could have such an impression?

Here comes 2!  And “I’ve Had Enough”!  So let’s show some “Devotion” and take a trip to a “Boogie Wonderland”…

“I am the Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria…”

4. RAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE "Sleep Now In The Fire" (1999)
From the album "The Battle Of Los Angeles"

What’s ol’ painty-can Zack De La Rocha doing here, eh?  Can’t be anything to do with a high-pace exercise playlist I put together when I joined the gym…

This song is from after I’d forgotten RATM existed, which happened about halfway through “Evil Empire”, when it became clear that the excellent first three tracks (seriously, how good is “Vietnow”?  Go and have a listen.  Go on, I’ll still be here.

…How good was that, eh?  And thanks for coming back) were not quite illustrative of the mediocrity of the rest of the album.  I still hear songs they did after that album and think they’ve done a comeback single – and more fool me, as there’s some great material from that era which I’m still catching up with, this track being a case in point.

Unfortunately, much like Rasputin, it was a shame how they carried on.  Bereft of De La Rocha, who they lost on a trip to Homebase to pick up some cornflower gloss for his bathroom skirting boards, RATM’s musicians formed Audioslave with the now sadly missed Chris Cornell from Soundgarden, who had a heck of a set of pipes and was a good guitarist in his own right.  The partnership yielded one extremely good lead single in “Cochise”, one OK follow-up in “Show Me How To Live”, and the rest…  Anyway, moving on!

Worse was to come, as the rebels reunited and went utterly mainstream.  But in their defence, they were only taking advantage of an unlikely avenue for re-ignition: getting the UK Christmas number one spot.  At that stage, whoever won reality television show “The X Factor”, which conveniently wrapped up the week before Christmas, got Christmas number 1 – they were in the biggest shop window available in the late 00’s, a prime-time Saturday night terrestrial television show.

In 2008 some dissent had emerged around the incumbent’s use of the song “Hallelujah”, and campaigns were launched to get different, more credible versions to number one – and they failed.  But the next year, RATM’s F-bomb-ridden classic “Killing In The Name” was picked as the protest song of choice, and with the band’s blessing (and their constant promotion of it once the originally grassroots campaign looked like being a winner), it stormed the charts and squatted atop the Xmas hit parade.

This, to me, is not just a cash-grab masquerading as revolution, but also a total besmirching of the grand tradition of the UK Christmas number one.  As holders of this once-honourable office, it is your duty to turn up on Christmas Top Of The Pops in a Christmas ganzie – not one of these archly ‘cool’ efforts with “GARLIC BREAD?” or X-Wing fighters or stuff from bloody “Breaking Bad” on, but a proper one, in red, white and green with reindeer and holly and that kind of shit all over it – ideally in a rocking chair, and croon your hit with a knowing smile whilst fake snow falls around you. 

Instead they turned in a turgid pre-taped live performance, which naturally cut off before the unbroadcastable bit of that song, as we all wondered what the point was, and certain online groups completely missed the point and started planning what obscure classic they were going to get to number one next year.  But since the band themselves won’t do it, then I’ll embrace the festive spirit of forgiveness, and put aside those differences to remember when RATM had a shred of credibility, by giving this cracking tune a quick airing.

Next time, remember to drop by the “Cash Machine” on “Park Avenue”, as we’re off to “Kill The Sexplayer”!

Saturday, December 22, 2018

“Fate, up against your will…”

5. ECHO AND THE BUNNYMEN “The Killing Moon” (1984)
From the album “Ocean Rain”

I fucking hate “Donnie Darko”.  I’ve always been suspicious of films that you “simply must” see, especially those with convoluted plots; what usuallyy unfolds on viewing is a poorly-told tale that relies on pretty but dim actors, the kind of faddy visual effects that make the film look fifty years old after five years, plotting that constantly points at you and shouts “aaaaaah!  Weren’t expecting THAT twist, were you?”, and/or a great soundtrack of largely unrelated vintage bangers, designed to fool the viewing public into thinking the film was as good as the songs (delete as applicable).

However, even I will concede that there is one sequence in that film that is very impressive, and I remember being tipped off about it at the time by a housemate who had his ear to the ground on cult films and had given it a whirl in the cinema.  It’s the opening sequence of the film, and it’s set to this stunning piece of music*.  (At least, it was; it’s been replaced in the director’s cut by INXS’ “Never Tear Us Apart”, and shoved unceremoniously into another part of the film.  Apparently not even the director thought his film was good…)

I’ve also, at some stage, decided that I don’t like the Bunnymen in general (I’ve no beef with Echo, he was only following his programming).  Image-wise they seem far too in thrall to ol’ painty-can Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground, the one side of the Holy Trinity that I absolutely cannot stand, and I suspect some of their more arrogant comments may not be solely be for effect.  But this, here: this here is great.  Just sublime stuff – dramatic, ominous, with tons of little touches peppered throughout for careful listeners, yet at no stage is it obvious, overblown or patronising; it’s an infinitely rewarding listen.

And that’s the thing, that’s the mark of true quality: I can’t get down with its creators, and I despise the film this was most memorably used in, yet this and “Bring On The Dancing Horses” (itself at 37 in my annual countdown) are immense songs of undeniable quality.  They make me feel feelings, and I truly believe that they shall echo through the ages as long as human ears remain to listen – yet I’m not exactly clamouring to listen to “Songs To Learn And Sing”.

In other words, this is exactly the kind of song that I listen to more for having access to an unnamed streaming service, with the ability to find practically anything ever done and stick it in a playlist.  It’s almost like changing musical history to a certain extent – accepting the parts you like and discarding those you don’t, and in a more surgically precise way than previously possible.  Is that cheating?  Almost certainly; but each of us will judge the extent we want to do that for ourselves, as listening habits swing away from physical formats and the previously all-encompassing concept of ‘the album’.  It’s not how I ever pictured listening to music.  But it certainly has the odd silver lining.

* = I have deliberately not looked up whether or not this is correct, in terms of whether I have the right scene or not – this is my recollection of one viewing of the film ten years ago, and a conversation with a housemate approximately 15 years ago.  If wrong, happy to be called wrong.

Next up: what is this, the “Year Of The Boomerang?”  You can’t “Take The Power Back” if you don’t “Know Your Enemy”…

“Way down below, and up above…”

From the album “Now I Got Worry” 


(cough, splutter)

Good lord, it’s difficult to operate at that level of intensity for more than a few seconds at a time!  Kudos, then, to the almighty Blues Explosion, who were able to manage it for 90 to 120 minutes every night of repeated world tours, playing to bigger houses than their cult-ish record sales would suggest due largely to one simple factor: they are fantastic live.

When former Pussy Galore rabble-rouser Spencer recruited similarly chaos-oriented allies in apparent bluegrass guitarist Judah Bauer and drummer Russell Simins, who uses a kit so small it is insulting to measure it in pieces, some kind of voodoo magic was invoked, and the resultant ultra-power trio set out to immolate stages the world over, with their reputation spreading through word of mouth, when that was a thing: “you HAVE to see this band”.

The first time I saw them properly live at their own show, rather than a festival slot, was…  Well I’m fairly sure it was November 27, 1998, at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire.  Fairly sure, anyway – it fits the timeframe.  The opening of that show was them playing this song, followed by “Flavor” and “Attack”, without stopping.  It never occurred to me that live music could be presented like that, and whilst it could well have been meticulously planned, it seemed incredibly loose and free-flowing – indeed, nigh-on dangerous, to the meticulous setlist-writer and sweaty between-song-drinker that I was as a nascent performer.

The song itself is nestled away halfway through side one of “Now I Got Worry”, a less accessible but arguably deeper picture of the band than presented on their previous album “Orange”.  Both this song and “Orange”’s highlight “Bellbottoms” have a feeling of the brakes cutting out as you careen down a hill, so there’s certainly some consistency there.  In a very Blues Exploison choice, it actually gets quieter during the chorus – though that is in comparison to the verse, which is so loud it sounds like the guitars are screaming in agony.  There’s a really odd but cool overdrive effect on this tune as well; very crunchy, very nice.

Again this was a gateway band for me, and with a little help from my friend Laurie, I was soon all over garage rock past and present – they sent me backwards to The Stooges and The MC5, introduced me directly to Andre Williams, The Countdowns and Brassy, and branched me off into Guitar Wolf, Rocket From The Crypt, The mAKE-UP – God DAMN it, how good were The mAKE-UP? - and The Gories, and their descendants The Dirtbombs and Demolition Dollrods…  To name but a few, or I’d be here all day.  Given all that they have ushered me towards, I will always be more than happy to step up to the stand and wail in their honour.

In our next, probably less shouty instalment, it’s time to “Bring On The Dancing Horses”, as “The Cutter” beckons – but beware, for “Nothing Lasts Forever”!  (Also: some Electrafixion songs.)

Friday, December 21, 2018

“How ‘bout the power… To move you?”

7. TENACIOUS D "Wonderboy" (2002)
From the album “Tenacious D”

Oh dear; here’s another band I was unfairly humourless about back in the day.  Bit of a theme in this part of the chart, it would seem; perhaps I’m making up for lost time!

So back in That Day, they had these things called print magazines – “gimme two ‘zines for a bee”, you’d say to the manager of your local general store – and one of the ones I read was called ‘Bizarre’.  It started as a combination of lurid shock-and-gore and well-researched pieces on cult media, and eventually wound up as softcore porn and gawping at alternative lifestyles – but during the a transitional period where it was doing all four, seemingly up to four thousand pages a month and in danger of breaking most newsagents’ top shelves, I spotted a little boxout about a band called Tenacious D.

It explained that said band featured one Jack Black, and I immediately smelled a rubbish vanity project.  Black is an actor who I took against somewhat unfairly based on reputation and trailers alone; at that stage I’m not sure I’d seen any of his films in totality, yet I carried such enmity towards him you’d have thought he’d kicked my cat.  Since then I’ve definitely softened my stance towards his acting, and feel a little bit unfair for my previous position – an emerging theme in this little series.

Oddly enough, the very next day, BBC Radio One’s Evening Session (or, if cancelled, whatever had replaced it by mid-2002) played their song “Tribute”, and my housemates at the time loved it.  Their debut album became an unofficial soundtrack for the house, along with such luminaries as The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Queens of The Stone Age and (ahem) Sugababes.  And this led me to reassess my somewhat blinkered original opinion.

You see, this is a comedy band, and comedy is naturally hit and miss; certainly some of the sketches that pad out that debut album can test one’s patience.  But where it excels, oddly enough, in its reference for the source material: classic rock.  The track “Tribute” itself, whilst definitely wearing its humour on its sleeve, shows superior musicianship (helped along by one D. Grohl) and a good understanding of how such a song should be structured.  So it’s a big ol’ muso thumbs up from me, there.

But this track, for me, is the stand out of the album.  Epic, slightly melancholy, extremely silly; it’s got the lot.  It must take a heart of stone not to feel a rush of sheer joy when they describe the titular superhero as having “the power to kill a yak…  From two hundred yards away…  WITH MIND BULLETS!!!”  And it takes me back to Python Express, and that unforgettable fifteen months of the first flush of adulthood – epic, slightly melancholy, extremely silly.

Next time: get out your “Bellbottoms” and dig that “Ditch”, as we check in with a “Blues X Man”!

“And now we meet in an abandoned studio…”

From the soundtrack to “The Wedding Singer”

See, here’s where I take a bit of an issue with the streaming service in question’s analytics (nope, they’ve still not paid me).  I recall listening to this version, like, five times at the most, and The Buggles’ twenty-seven thousand times in late spring/early summer; although come to think of it, I’m not sure I was on the paid version of the service by then, so maybe it wasn’t counting back then.  Alright, I’ll let them off this time.

Anyway, everyone gets a bit sniffy about PUSA (no, I’m not typing it every time), including teenage me back when “Lump” and “Peaches” were out.  How dare these American clowns crash my deadly serious Britpop party with their obvious fun-having and catchy punk-pop tunes?  Why, they didn’t even have enough strings on their guitars, the cads!  And I also remember this song being the final straw; as if the disrespect of their mere existence wasn’t bad enough, they have to drag a classic of early electronic pop through the dirt?  For shame, Presidents!  I will take my leave of you!

Bearing in mind the fact that an American high-energy two-guitar three-piece would soon become my favourite band (but will we be hearing from The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion – for it is they?  You’ll have to keep tuning in to find out, you cheeky sod!), hindsight has shown me to be a great big bloody hypocrite when it comes to these lads, as they’re actually good fun, great writers of snappy tunes and more musically accomplished than their setup would suggest.  So let me use this seldom-read blog to offer an official apology to the band – I was young and naïve, and I can assure you I now know better.

But this, of course, isn’t one of theirs, and wasn’t originally anywhere near their down-the-line punk stylings – though it is a fabulous adaptation, and more reverentially treated than their somewhat odd cover of the MC5 classic, “Kick Out The Jams”.  It was used on the soundtrack of the decent comedy flick “The Wedding Singer”, which must have got them a few bob, as that was a pretty big film at the time, and was also released as a single with the movie’s branding on the packaging.

The Buggles’ version, on the other hand, is massively electronic in backing, with an odd, heavily accented and clipped vocal delivery that sounds like it’s coming live from days gone by, helping immensely with the message and the atmosphere.  It is heavily associated with the start of MTV, and not just lyrically: it was the first video ever shown on the channel.  ‘Ey, remember when MTV showed music videos?  Eh?  Eh?  You’d ‘ave to use yer brass ‘and to tune t’telly in!

I think people tend to remember that video and underestimate the emotional punch of the song, which is at its heart a tale of obsolescence, of the inevitability of the world moving on and of things changing to the extent where, in the words on the songs, “you are the radio star”.  And, therefore: dead – killed by video, or whatever ‘it’ is when what you’re with is no longer ‘it’ and what ‘it’ is seems weird and scary.

It won’t just happen to you – it’ll happen to all of us, which to me makes this a universally poignant song, and an oddly appropriate one to be listening to on my Bluetooth headphones, and via this new-fangled streaming technology, shorn of any ties to an album or back catalogue.  It’s not how I expected to be listening to music at all, and as a lapsed musician, it’s not how I intended my own music to be enjoyed.  Which suggests that in this case, *I* am the radio star – and in turn explains why this gets me right in the feelings, every single time.

(With apologies to Athletico Mince for the obvious nick.)

Next up we pay “Tribute” to some masters of rock, so pack your “Kielbasa” and hit “The Road”!

Thursday, December 20, 2018

“No cat would ever do that…”

9. THE JESUS LIZARD “Countless Backs of Sad Losers” (1994)
From the album “Down”

David Yow is inhuman.  Usually “he sounds like he’s gargled with rocks” is used as a compliment in music; in this case, it sounds like Yow has done that and come away with permanent injuries and post-traumatic stress.  It is a singular, strangled growl, simultaneously throat-scrapingly arid and disgustingly wet, and it is without a doubt my favourite voice in rock music.

My favourite thing about The Jesus Lizard in general is that their sound is so unique, you can tell one of their songs from verse one, second one.  If it doesn’t kick off with Yow’s irate gurgling, it’ll be Mac McNeilly’s pounding drums beating a grim, unstoppable tattoo, or David Wm. Sims with the bass sound I aspire to above all others, both top-heavy and rumbling below with a hint of overdrive, or Duane Denison, a guitarist who can only be described as shit hot, with his signature trebly wail owing as much to sirens and airborne combat as to conventional electric guitar.  To the uninterested ear, it’s just noise.  When you get it, though, you fucking get it.

I first got it when the band that at that time I loved above all others, the mighty Nirvana, did a split single with The Jesus Lizard, released by the legendary US underground record label and distribution company Touch & Go Records, of whom more shall be spoken down the line.  Nirvana’s entry, “Oh The Guilt”, was a window back to their punkier “Bleach” days after the surprising sheen of “Nevermind” – a slow hand clap there for Mr Butch Vig, who is America’s greatest Shakespeare lookalike, the very image of England’s greatest playwright, the spit of The Bard.  He could rake it in as a model for credit card holograms if Garbage ever splits up; he really, really looks like Shakespeare.

And The Jesus Lizard sent forth “Puss”, from their album “Liar”, and it was utterly without compare in my admittedly short experience in music.  Nothing that insanely loud yet oddly calm, that disparate yet united, that chaotic yet ordered, and all behind that uncanny voice – how was he getting away with it?  How do you even take care of a voice like that?  Arsenic throat pastilles?  Somewhere in my tiny mind, a voice that would not be stifled said, ‘I must know more’.

Touch & Go had a great mail order business, even in the UK.  In those days, you could find mail order record store adverts at the back of your weekly print copy of Melody Maker.  You’d ring them up and give them your parents’ credit card details, or cut out the little order form and mail it off with a cheque or postal order; then you’d tie an onion to your belt, which was the style of the times; and in six to twelve weeks you’d either get what you wanted, something else or nothing at all, for some, all, or more than all of the money you intended to spend.  Great days!  I hasten to add that I had no such problems with T&G though, and even received some little bonuses – of one of which, more will be spoken later.

I explored every inch of their back catalogue, ordered all the 7-inches and cassette tapes my allowance would allow, and immersed myself in the wonderfully macabre world of The Jesus Lizard - and later, Yow and Sims’ previous band Scratch Acid, producer Steve Albini’s bands Big Black, Rapeman and Shellac, Yow’s collaboration with Qui, Touch & Go labelmates Girls Against Boys and influences such as Chrome; clearly they were a gateway drug to other noise rock and grindcore.

And yet I never seemed to get to see them live – everything from miscommunication and lack of money right up to a death in the family stymied me, through to the eventual dissolution of the band, after an unlikely spell on a major label and McNeilly’s departure (luckily he was replaced by the equally-capable James Kimball).  When they reformed and played a single London date, I broke that duck.  Despite their obvious ambivalence – the official tour t-shirt was a picture of some bags of money – they played many classics with their usual zest that night, and as the final, savage notes of “7 vs. 8” blasted into the venue, I delighted in my great fortune to finally see these titans of cult hard rock do what they do best.

They didn’t play this one, though.


Next time out, get ready to “Kick Out The Jams”!...  In a “Dune Buggy”?  Strap in, as it could be a “Lump”-y ride!


10. CFO$ "The Rising Sun" (2016)

Settle in, chums; it’s wrestling time.  Let me tell you about the time when, for just one glorious night in January 2018, World Wrestling Entertainment did something it hadn’t done for a very long time before that: it got absolutely everything right. 
Shinsuke Nakamura is probably the best wrestler in the world.  He’s not a superheroic, steroid-sculpted muscle monster like Hulk Hogan or Ultimate Warrior, he’s not a hard-working, savvy underdog like Bret Hart or Daniel Bryan, and he’s not an anti-establishment icon like Steve Austin or Shawn Michaels.  He’s a gangly, uncanny, disconcerting Japanese man, with a character based as much on Michael Jackson as Rikidozan, a background in mixed martial arts and a fearsome reputation.  His finishing move is a running knee to the face.  At times it legitimately looks like he’s killed his opponents.

I was lucky enough to see him wrestle in Tokyo, albeit as part of a short multi-man match on the undercard of Best of Super Juniors, but even from his scant minutes in that match, dismantling the unfortunate Captain New Japan, it was clear he had something you couldn’t teach.  He was an absolutely immense presence.  Luckily for me, his excellent match with AJ Styles had brought him to the attention of the former WWF – still the biggest wrestling company in the world.

They signed him up; he had a succession of fantastic matches against the likes of Sami Zayn and Samoa Joe, came up to the main roster, greatly impressed pretty much every single WWE fan, ran roughshod over top names like Randy Orton and John Cena to make his way into the world title picture, and then…  Nothing.  Losses in key matches, poor to no scripting, large swathes of time off television – but the memory of his match with Styles, and the knowledge that the latter was WWE’s current world champion, kept the fires burning in fans’ hearts.

At January 2018’s Royal Rumble event, headlined by the first ever women’s version of the annual 30-person single elimination battle royal, Nakamura entered at number 14 in the men’s match, as every fan in attendance, and everyone in the pub to which my girlfriend and I had decamped to stay up until 5am and watch the event live, sang along to his WWE entrance music, “The Rising Sun”, which was a hell of a feat in itself given it’s an instrumental.  It’s a great track as well, with an oriental flavour but a western rock sensibility – and even its existence shows WWE have come a very long way, given all their Japanese wrestlers used to be given the same borderline racist plinky-plonky music.

But he wasn’t going to win, surely?  Not with WWE’s chosen one, Roman Reigns, in there.  Not with Orton and his myriad of second chances, with iron man Finn Balor still in there, with a returning Rey Mysterio in his path.  And again, Nakamura would have to go through Cena – a man not noted for losing.  When Cena was eliminated and the final two of Reigns and Nakamura faced off, the pub was at fever pitch, and I clutched my girlfriend’s hand so tight I lost the feeling in my fingers.  When Reigns hit the floor, it all went off – hugs, high fives, screaming: it’s the most fun I’ve ever had watching wrestling.  And then an interviewer asked who was next for Shinsuke, and he spake thus… “A.  J.  STYLES!!!”  It truly seemed like WWE could do no wrong.

Then he went to Wrestlemania and lost and we all went back to complaining again.  And now, we approach another Royal Rumble, with WWE again in a seemingly can’t-lose situation.  But will they drop the ball again?  I’ll tell you this much: If Lynch Loses, We Riot.

Next time, let’s get a “Post-Coital Glow” and take a dip in “My Own Urine”, because “Mary Had A Little Drug Problem”!  (Hang on – that last one’s Scratch Acid.  Damn.)

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

“When all you do is see me through…”

11. TEARS FOR FEARS “Pale Shelter” (1983)
From the album “The Hurting”

Primal therapy advocates who foolishly didn’t use the name Primal Scream for their band, avoiders of Live Aid and each other, and sowers of the seeds of love, Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith, had massive success in the United States at a time when that simply didn’t happen.  Even more impressively, success happened for them almost immediately, with their third single “Mad World” shooting to number three in the UK singles chart.  Some eighteen years later, this perfectly good song would be utterly destroyed with a cloying, mawkish, glacial cover by Michael Andrews and Gary Jules, as featured in the shit film “Donnie Darko”.  I’m not sure if you can tell, but I’m still a little bit sore about that one.

Now, back to the matter at hand.  “Pale Shelter” was originally their second single back in ‘82, but the version I always listen to is the re-recorded version from their debut album “The Hurting”.  It’s been in my life for a fair old while; I remember quite plainly my parents having this album on vinyl in a house we lived in around 1984, but must also admit that I don’t recall hearing it at the time.  Part of me thinks we might not have had a record player upon which to play it, but I get very mixed up about that time, as I was in low single figures of age.

Clearly that’s a long, long time ago, so why do I remember it?  Well, partly for the stark music; cold and distant, busy enough to feel accomplished, yet minimalist enough to retain its personality, even dare I say its charm.  It’s the highlight of “The Hurting”, for me a nose ahead of the more automatic title track, the poppier “Change” and the well and truly spoiled “Mad World”, despite a self-indulgent lyric railing at the protagonist’s parents.  But aside from this, a very good friend of mine picked up a copy back in the late nineties and we got to enjoy it all over again as drunk teenagers.

What happened next?  Well, somewhat unfair criticism of the album’s production and musicianship seems to have driven them to search for a more polished, professional and epic sound, leading them to disappear up their arses with “The Seeds Of Love”, which cost a million pounds to make in 1989, introduced the world to Oleta Adams, and was led by a Beatles-aspirant (near) title track that seemed to stay in the charts for 40,000 years, but is rarely replayed these days.  Meanwhile, “Pale Shelter” is some sad git’s eleventh most played track of the year.  I think I know which era of Tears For Fears won THAT one.

For a final chuckle, try to imagine if Tears For Fears were called Primal Scream, and Primal Scream were called Tears For Fears.  It’s about the only way Bobby Gillespie could look more ridiculous.

(Thank you to Kristian for giving me a creative jump-start halfway through this one.)

ARE YOU READY for next time?  Then “Break It Down”, or risk getting “Snakebit”, because “Here Comes The Money”!

“You know I feel so…”

12. BRAIN DONOR "Odin's Gift To His Mother" (2001)
From the album "Love, Peace And Fuck"

Introduced to me by a clued-up friend during one of my serious Stooges phases, this act – a three-piece of Julian Cope and two members of Spiritualized, playing some seriously loud, metal-tinged garage rock – were very well received by that me, and were one of the first acts I looked up on the streaming service that shall remain unnamed (unless they want to pay me) – in spite of their pretentiousness.

Pretentiousness?  From Julian Cope?  Surely some mistake.  But yes, even in this stripped-down power trio, designed to play some hairy rock ‘n’ roll with no faffing around, there’s this oddity: a thirteen-minute prog sprawl in four movements (“Theme From ‘Speed Kills’”, “Shamanic 4 A.M.”, “Consecrate The Fucker” and “Huntsabbers’ Ball”, fact fans!) is absolutely ridiculous.

Quite simply put, this is the least feminine piece of music I’ve ever heard.  It starts with an interminably repeated opening riff, hairy of chest and Brut-scented, played at a volume that makes a mockery of the human digestive system, eventually adding a keyboard that, bafflingly, sounds like a choir of Clangers.  On, through the detached, I’m-so-cool-I-don’t-even-need-a-proper-lyric “you know I feel” bit, which frustratingly fails to resolve itself over and over. 

Forward to the twiddly-widdly part that sounds like your stoned mate with his new delay pedal, and reminds me of that quote from Wilko Johnson about the ‘Lord Of The Rings’ being for girls, and on to a stompy, sweary ending that might as well be a “Raw Power”-era Stooges outtake.  It strides on without a care for the listener – you’re either with it or against it, and it couldn’t care less.

This is without glamour, without reason, without sense, without compromise – a huge great slab of a technically faultless but structurally challenging song, and one that actively dares you to stop listening, whilst tempting you with what might happen next.  It is punk doing prog, and it is wrong on so, so many levels.  It is an affront to nature.  It simply should not be.  And yet… 

And yet.  It’s my twelfth most played song of the year, so it’s no surprise that I must like it.  Specifically, I really like that opening riff, dead-horse-beating and all – it has a hypnotic effect, it’s hard as nails and it’s good struttin’ music for when struttin’ time inevitably comes around.  Do I often make it the full running time?  I’d have to say no (which, interestingly, clearly doesn’t effect the count of the number of times I’ve listened to it – seriously, I’ve finished this song maybe twice all year).  But when I do, I’m always glad to have to made the journey.

It's a “Mad World” next time, so let’s “Break It Down Again” before we have to go “Sowing The Seeds Of Love”!  Because NOBODY wants that last one.  NOBODY.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

“’Til the fearless come, and the act is done…”

13. KILLING JOKE "Love Like Blood” (1985)
From the album “Night Time”

Of all the songs in this line-up, this is the one where I genuinely can’t work how it got here.  I like it – I like it plenty, I like it just fine.  But do I like it thirteenth-most-played-song-of-year amounts?  The stark answer is: no.  Still, the stats don’t lie, and I can get some laughs out of an ageing rocker who calls himself “Youth”, so let’s get on with it!

Bands had a great workrate back in those days; this is taken from Killing Joke’s fifth album in six years, recorded some time after they decamped to Iceland to avoid the coming apocalypse.  (Bands were also berserk back in those days.)  It seems to be one of their bigger hots, perhaps their biggest, and has been described as their mainstream breakthrough, which suggests a gradual softening of their original sound.

(Also, I’ve just found out Youth doesn’t even play on this one.  Oh well, that’s most of my material out of the window.)

And, er…  That’s basically all I know.  There were some Killing Joke albums knocking around my house when I was young, but those were “Brighter Than A Thousand Suns” and “Outside The Gate”, so I’m not quite sure where I picked up an ear for this particular track.  It’s a corker though, balancing an ominous air with a rising pop chorus and a driving bassline from the dear departed Paul Raven.  Again, though: 13th most listened to?  If you say so.

The most memorable time I heard this was at a Planet X reunion night at what used to be called Bumper on Hardman Street, Liverpool, last year – literally the last thing that venue put on, as it closed the next day…  I want to say it was called Legion of Lost Souls?  Something like that?  (This lapse in memory would be acceptable if it was a story from the nineties, but no; this was 2017, and I still can’t remember it.  A good bet some beers had been had, then.)

On that night a friend of mine was on the wheels of steel, or whatever material CD players are made of, and I was sitting at the edge of the dancefloor as he did his thang, which included a spirited airing of “Love Like Blood”.  As soon as it started – before it had even really kicked in – a middle-aged couple squealed with delight and raced onto the dancefloor, the only time they’d be seen there all night.  I’m going to guess it was ‘their song’, and that it was a very important moment for them, as they looked delighted and in love as they bopped along to this most unlikely of serenades.

I believe this is where the children would use the following hashtag: #lifegoals.

Join us next time in our “White Van” for the latest “Messages” as we “Get Off Your Pretty Face”!

“Maybe you weren’t on my side all along…”

14.  DINOSAUR JR “Out There” (1993)
From the album “Where You Been”

…Or, more relevantly for me, from the soundtrack to “Wayne’s World 2”, as owned by me on tape in the early-to-mid nineties.  I (mis?) remember there being a printing error on the inlay, which led me to believe this was the first track on side two, when in actual fact – shock horror! – it was the last track on side one.  Boy, I hope someone got fired for THAT blunder.

I remember said soundtrack being slightly under par, particularly in comparison to the first “Wayne’s World” soundtrack; then again, it might just be that I’d had more experience of music by then and found it perhaps less surprising, plus that it coincided with my swing away from largely American rock to British indie music, as a quick review of the respective tracklistings show the sequel to be the superior offering.

With more of a focus on classic rock, including Golden Earring’s road ode “Radar Love”, the Joan Jett version of “I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll” and Edgar Winter’s sublime instrumental workout “Frankenstein”, and a version of The Carpenters’ melancholic masterpiece “Superstar” that not even the hateful Chrissie Hynde can drag down, it simply hangs together better as a coherent whole.

That’s not to say it doesn’t have its problems – nobody needed “What’s Up?”, let alone a second 4 Non Blondes song, and the two Aerosmith live offerings are execrable, and I say that as an Aerosmith apologist.  I draw the line at apologising for “Dude Looks Like A Lady” though – it wasn’t cool to say that then, it isn’t cool to say it now, and it needs throwing into a flaming bin, right next to “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective”.

When I got that tape, I didn’t know that much about Dinosaur Jr, other than having their track “Start Choppin’” – from the same album as this, as it turned out – on a compilation called “Loaded”, which I’ve written about elsewhere.  This is the heavier of those two, but very similar in layout – hooky, solo-laden grunge guitar mini-epics with a slack drawl crooned over the top.  When I say ‘solo-laden’, I’m not lying; the song STARTS with a guitar solo, and there are at least two other solos throughout.  It’s like ZZ Top in flannel shirts with cracked amplifiers, and it’s really, really good.

It blew me away the first time I heard it (well, technically; I must have heard it in the film, but I certainly didn’t recall that when listening to the soundtrack), it blows me away today.  It completely blew me away at Nightmare Before Christmas 2006 in Minehead’s Butlins, when a quaint English holiday camp was invaded by Iggy and The Stooges and about 12,000 grunge, punk and stoner bands.  And when I hear this I’m always transported back there – full of beer, fat of gut, ill-advised of fashion choices, watching a profoundly grey haired J Mascis tear into that opening solo.

Join us next time for a band who were known in the “Eighties”, but still active around the “Millennium”, and are best heard from “Outside The Gate”!

Monday, December 17, 2018

“The century is drawing to its close…”

15. MCALMONT AND BUTLER "What's The Excuse This Time?" (1995)
From the compilation "The Sound Of McAlmont And Butler"

Let's kick off our Christmas festivities with a tale of holiday depression, set to the toe-tapping sounds of David McAlmont wondering why he isn’t getting laid.  As “You Do”.  (A little McAlmont And Butler joke for you there.  You’re welcome.)

I’d owned “The Sound Of McAlmont And Butler” since I found a copy in Bedford’s cavernous branch of Cash Converters the day after having a conversation about their debut single “Yes”, which is easily their best-remembered song.  Having paid peanuts for the CD, I went home and listened to “Yes” – and turned it off, due to a naïve disinterest in what else was on the disc.  This pattern would repeat every nine months or so for somewhere in the region of eleven years…  Until Christmas 2013.

What was different about that time?  Well, I’d just returned from a friend’s wedding in New York full of the joys of spring and hungry to get my teeth into work and build up the ol’ savings again.  So it was a bit of a blow when I almost immediately had to interview for my own job, and was unsuccessful – but was made to continue in the job the company said I wasn’t good enough to do until my replacement was appointed.

Something about that smash-cut from good times to bad times broke my brain a little bit, so that Christmas saw bitter times, accompanied by can after can after can of Fosters, the official lager of not being arsed anymore, and marathon Doom 2 sessions.  It was during one of these demon-slaying pity parties that I put “The Sound Of McAlmont And Butler” on, and subsequently couldn’t summon the enthusiasm to walk to the CD player and change it after “Yes”.  This, then, is track two on that disc – and reader, I enjoyed it.  And possibly due to drunkenness, I mused on the infinite surprises that life can throw up, and resolved to pull myself out of my funk and get things sorted.

Then, like, three days later, Michael Schumacher had his skiing accident.  Life, eh?  What a shitter.

Anyway, you’ll probably want to know what the song’s like.  Well, it’s pretty good – otherwise I wouldn’t still be listening to it in 2018, regardless of context and association.  A nice little piano riff kicks us off, as McAlmont needles an allegedly lazy lover with every trick in the book, such as doubting their prowess, citing previous agreements and mentioning just how long it’s been.

He then moves on to speculating as to whether he’ll get any before the end of the century, which at that stage was bearing down on us all like a speeding juggernaut of hope and chaos, but to paraphrase the words of another popular song of the time, was nothing special.  Frankly it just sounds like they have very different sex drives, so they’re probably better off splitting up and pursuing people more their own speed, but that’s the benefit of distance I guess.

Apparently Bernard Butler’s also on this, but you’d be hard pressed to identify his contributions, other than a bit of guitar that goes “biddly bee” near one of the choruses.  He wasn’t long out of Suede at this point, but still a while away from Creation Records’ cringe-worthy attempt to make a solo star out of him, when he would clearly rather have been playing guitar for someone else and looking after his cats.  And when the results are this good, who can blame him on either count?

Join us tomorrow for number 14.  The band in question formed part of a “Freak Scene” in the nineties, so “Start Choppin’” or you’ll “Feel The Pain”!

My Festive Fifteen

This has been my first year using a music streaming service (I’m not telling you which one as I’m not getting paid for this).  I’ve enjoyed the convenience of it and the range of tracks available, albeit with a few unfortunate oversights – whither the “Too Sussed EP”?  And where’s “Luxury Plane Crash”? – so overall it’s been a worthwhile experience.

A week or so ago, said service sent me an email with some analysis of my listening habits in.  It was fascinating, and even more so when combined with the “Top 100” playlist I was also provided with.  It also made sense – for instance, my five most listened to acts of the year were David Bowie, Half Man Half Biscuit, Suede, REM, Manic Street Preachers.  Suede had a new album out, Bowie and REM both released live albums of concerts I was at, I got a great Manics playlist from a friend, and I spent five hours on a single day listening to HMHB and desperately trying to shut out the world while I did some analysis.  So far so good.

But the Top 100 itself…  Now that is an interesting artefact.  As a DJ friend of mine found out a few years ago, these kinds of service mean you can listen to whatever you want, from whenever you want.  So whilst it’s probably no surprise, given my age, that there’s only one track from this year in the top 100 (the lead track from the new Suede album), I did find that at least the top twenty weren’t all there on merit alone; indeed, many of them had soundtracked significant moments in my life, and the freedom of access to nearly all of history’s music had drawn me back to them.  Others had led me to internal debates and conclusions that, in turn, evidenced for me why I had been listening to this collection of songs more often than anything else.

On top of that, my aforementioned top five most listened to bands had reasonably weak showings in the top 100 - with their top entries coming in at 47 (“Ashes To Ashes”), 33 (“Took Problem Chimp To The Ideal Home Show”), 75 (“Life Is Golden”), 43 (“What’s The Frequency Kenneth?”) and 51 (“Faster”) respectively - so the tracks at the sharp end were largely one-offs from acts that I didn’t listen to full albums from.

It was at this stage that I thought about writing a “Festive Fifty”, based on the first half of the list, as a wayward tribute to both John Peel and this set of songs that was my 2018.

Then I decided not to, as I’m a lazy, lazy man.

Then I wavered a bit.

Then I thought, “sod it, I’ll do the top twenty – no-one’s reading the Final Fantasy stuff anyway.” 
Then I realised that a Festive Fifteen had better alliteration and was less work.

Then I got annoyed because number sixteen was “Breaking The Law” by Judas Priest, and I’d loved to have written about that.  But it was too late by then, I was on my way.

(Also I’ve started it way, way too late so you’re getting two a day, which in retrospect I should pretend was a deliberate artistic affectation.)

And now: we’re here.  If you take this journey with me, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll learn what a sad git I am.  So if “You Do” want to read on, say “Yes” and do “The Right Thing”, which is to check back here…  Er, whenever the next one goes up.  (Probably quite soon.)

Thursday, July 05, 2018

Each Holding An ORB: Final Fantasy 6

INTRODUCTION: Once again, an evil empire is aggressively expanding its territory, this time through the use of Magitek, a technology that apes the force of magic - magic having disappeared from the world some time before, after the legendary War of the Magi.

The Empire "recruits" a girl named Terra, who is the first human in many years to be able to use magic.  Controlling her actions with a Slave Crown, Emporer Gestahl and his deranged right hand man Kefka Palazzo send her to the remote and snowy town of Narshe.

Narshe contains two very relevant things: one, a recently-uncovered frozen creature believed to be one of the Espers, a race of highly magic-sensitive beings, and the other a resistance group called The Returners, who have sworn to bring down the Empire!

RELEASE: 2 April 1994, Nintendo Super Famicom (JPN); 11 October 1994, Super Nintendo Entertainment System (USA, as "Final Fantasy 3"); 1 March 2002, Sony PlayStation (EU, remake)

MY FIRST PLAY: 2002, naturally, again, with completion being delayed until 2004.  Chief amongst the delays for this and the last two, I now remember, was the release of Final Fantasy 10!

Courtesy Square Enix, via Logopedia.
REAL WORLD: Developed in only a year, this is the first installment not directed by series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, as he had been promoted to Executive Vice President of Square.  The principal characters were conceived by at least four different members of Square's staff, and co-director Yoshinori Kitase then melded those with an overall premise from Sakaguchi to create the layered narrative.

Get ready for more numbering controversies: this was sent to America, released as Final Fantasy 3 over there (if you remember from previous entires, they'd only had FF1 and FF4 previously).  Unlike FF4, the gameplay and difficulty were not changed too drastically, though some representations of the female form as espers and monsters are presented in a more fully-clothed fashion.

THE GAME: This game begins a transition into joint fantasy/sci-fi setting for the series, mixing technology with magic in was only briefly touched upon by previosus games, particularly FF1 and FF4.  The setting is in fact 100% steampunk, with Industrial Revolution-style trappings mixing with hi-tech, such as robot enemies and a moving castle.

And if you like playable characters, hold on to your hat...  There are fourteen "main" playable characters, all but three of whom can be considered to have fully-developed storylines and arcs, and another fourteen on top of that if you count all the Moogles, General Leo, Vicks, Wedge and the mysterious ghost that joins the party in the Phantom Train.

The de facto main character, for the first time in the series' history is female - Terra is a woman with the natural ability to wield magic, whose journey is key to the storyline.  In fact an argument can be made that the de facto secondary character is Celes Chere, who is also female, and has artifically been granted the ability to wield magic.

The contrasts between the two characters, and the key moments in their progress, is the engine that powers the story along, though treasure hunter Locke, thrill-seeking gambler Setzer, sterm ronin Cyan and the two sons of the Figaro royal family also have huge stakes in the outcome.

All the characters have a fixed "job", a la FF4, so the different combinations of these you will use throughout the game - some forced, some freely - make for a vast range of different combat experiences.

This also marks the debut of what would become known as "Limit Breaks" in the next installment - a desperation attack that is immensely powerful and randomly replaces the "Fight" command when a character's HP is low.  Bizarrely, I have never, ever seen this happen myself - but I trust the eyewitness accounts are correct.

Courtesy Square Enix, via
IT'S A KIND OF MAGIC: It's an MP system again, but how the spells are learned is quite different.  Characters who are magically sensitive sometimes learn spells by levelling up, but the main way to learn magic is by equipping Magicite.

Magicite is essentially an Esper's remains.  Characters can only equip one at a time, and it gives them the ability to summon that Esper (like summoned monsters in the last three entries).  Combat gleans not just EXP, gil and items, but also Magic Points, a separate upgrade system as per FF3 and FF5.  Gain enough AP with a Magicite equipped, and the character will learn spells related to that Esper's elements and personality.

MUSIC: "Dancing Mad", the final boss theme which clocks in at SEVENTEEN MINUTES, is a huge achievement - but the best bit's got to be the opera, hasn't it?

In a somewhat contrived but charming sequence, Celes replaces an opera singer she apparently bears a startling resemblance to, and has to perform said opera until it's ruined by an octopus, because reasons:


Magitek, robots, the subjugation of humans and mystical beings through technological superiority...  It's got the lot!

MEGABOSSES: There are a few things that might fulfill this in the original - for instance, there are eight dragons that can largely be avoided, but if conquered grant access to the magicite Crusader.  There's also the prospect of DoomGaze, but encountering it is so likely that I don't think I can count it as "optional".

The GameBoy Advance version added the Kaiser Dragon - or should I say, activated it, as it was an unused asset in the original code - who definitely fits the bill.

REMAKES: Again, the PlayStation version is a pretty straight port, as is that recently released on the SNES Micro, and also again, GBA owners get the best deal, with extra espers and two new end game dungeons.

WORST BIT: It's likely that you'll be grinding an awful lot in the end game - which is pretty easy, but does wreck the flow of the game a bit, as it will have been at a relatively breakneck pace throughout up until that point.

BEST BIT: The final dungeon is immense, requiring three separate parties of characters to work in unison to reach the final chamber, in which the epic final boss battle will begin.  Also worth mentioning the Floating Continent section, which is wonderfully inhuman in design.

OPINION: Here we are at the end of another console generation, banging on about the increase of scope and maximising of technological potential.  This will happen at least once more before we're done...

With the increased emphasis on character-based storytelling, the more tech-savvy setting and the introduction of a cornerstone of the combat system  for the next five entries, it's fair to say that this game represents the start of the "modern" era of Final Fantasy.

Many will tell you this is the best entry in the series - and it's damn hard to form an argument against that standpoint.  Unless, like me, you played the next one first...

Join us next time for a journey into a new dimension, including a guy that are sick, another guy that is just Mr. T and a massive bereavement still felt to this day.  Poor Cait Sith...

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Each Holding An ORB: Final Fantasy 5

INTRODUCTION: A drifter named Bartz (or "Butz", originally) is riding along on his chocobo pal Boco when he is caught in an unusual earthquake. Just then a meteor crashes and an amnesiac old man emerges, whilst a princess tries to track down her father, who has flown his dragon to the Wind Shrine to protect the Wind Crystal...

...Because (and get ready for this massive shock!): the four elemental crystals, you see, are dying (Jesus, this AGAIN?) - and with them the world.

Anyway: finding the king proves rather hard due to the becalmed sea, which leads the unlikely gang to find their fourth member: a drag king pirate whose ship is towed by a friendly sea serpent.  Of course, who else would it be?  And off they go to ADVENTURE!!!...  Which of course winds up with them fighting a talking tree, because JRPGs.

RELEASE: 6 December 1992, Nintendo Super Famicom (JPN); 30 September 1999, Sony PlayStation (USA, remake); 27 February 2002, Sony PlayStation (EU, remake)

MY FIRST PLAY: Again 2002, when the PlayStation remake hit these shores.  However it would take me until 2005 to complete it, again due to wandering attention.

Courtesy Square Enix, via Final Fantasy Wikia.
REAL WORLD: As you might have guessed from last week's entry, we have another numbering controversy here.  FF5 was intended for American release, with translation apparently starting quite soon after release, but several attempts were never finished, including a plan to release it under a different title due to the game's difficulty.  Due to this, the only way to play the game was on a Japanese Super Famicom cartridge.

This had a huge effect on import culture in gaming, with American fans importing these Japanese cartridges, modifying their machines to play them and learning Japanese or following guides to complete the game.  Unthinkable now that FF is a keenly awaited, shrewdly marketed, globe-straddling franchise - but a cool little glimpse at a charming corner of gaming past.

THE GAME: This is essentially FF3 with fixed characters.  Bartz, Galuf, Faris and Lenna (and later a fifth character) all have their own stories to be told, although Bartz's really isn't much to write home about for a de facto lead character, and Lenna's is boring.

As default, the characters have no skills except "Attack" and "Item", but can equip basically any armour or weapons they like.  They learn new skills by spending time and winning battles in a number of familiar job roles - yer usual knights, monks and thieves, new additions like rangers and dancers, plus a whole spectrum of mages and the non-threatening sounding mime, which is actually key to most end game strategies.

Once your characters have learned these skills, they can be used by the character when they're no longer in that job - but each character can only equip a maximum of four skills at once, and three of them are often automatically filled by the skills being learned in the current job.

This gives the player a really flexible system.  You could have a dancing white mage, or a summoner with cover, a ninja who can cast black magic, a knight who can, er, mime...  All of this leads to a feeling of near-infinite customisation, though you have to pity the poor guys who had to translate all of that from Japanese just to play it back in the day, desperately trying work out what was reducing and what the action was based on the animation.

Other than that there's not a great leap from FF4; there's a bunch more fancy Mode 7 rotation graphics, larger sprites (though that's helped by having four rather than five in the party) and a more pronounced ATB system aside, this is "as you were" - not necessarily a bad thing.

Courtesy Square Enix, via GameSpot.
IT'S A KIND OF MAGIC: Spells are purchased or found - the old "spellbook" approach again, one assumes - except for Blue Magic, which is learned from battles with certain enemies.  AP earned as a Black, White, Red, Blue or Time Mage increases the level of spells that can be cast.

Time Mage?  What gives?  Well, Time magic is mainly things like Haste, Slow, Stop, Old and other status magic.  I think Meteor is in there too though, so there's a big bang waiting for anyone who specialises in that relatively niche area.

MUSIC: Hmm, this soundtrack wasn't standing out in my head before a quick refresher dredged up this little gem...


There is interplanetary travel via artificial meteor, quite a bit of ancient technology and at least one robot superboss.  Plus Gilgamesh seems to travel between dimensions.  However, odd as it sounds, these don't have a great bearing on the locations, which are basically all hamlets and castles, so it's points off for that.

MEGABOSSES: Omega and Shinryu really set the bar for megabosses going forward.  One is a robotic spider, and has a presence in the game world, meaning combat is avoidable.  The other is a dragon found guarding a treasure chest, and is therefore also avoidable.  They are absolutely huge challenges, and the rewards are blatantly not worth it - so it's all for pride here.

Not content with these fiends, the GBA remake threw in Enuo, who is mentioned but not seen in the original game, along with a whole room full of Omegas, plus the new and improved Omega Mk. II for good measure!

REMAKES: The PlayStation version was more of a re-release, albeit with an English translation for the first time, and featuring a pirate accent for Faris!  As with FF4 the GameBoy Advance played host to an expanded version in 2006 (2007 for us Europeans), featuring four interesting if unnecessary new jobs, a new dungeon and new megabosses.

BEST BIT: Things go a bit mad with meteorites, voids, portals and interplanetary travel at several points, and the sheer density of the story is extremely satisfying.

WORST BIT: Mid and end game grinding, aside from feeling absolutely no affinity of affection for the characters (which is strictly a personal thing, and therefore not something I can comfortably cite as a problem).

I think the nicest thing I can say about this one is that you probably had to be there; playing this, FF4 and FF6 for the first times around the same time gives me an odd perspective on all this, as I had a more advanced and absorbing game in FF6 and one with characters and a story I simply preferred in FF4.  Nevertheless I do appreciate the effects this had on import gaming, and salute it as a landmark in that respect at the very least.

Join us next time for some six-y times, including a massive Weapon (ooo-er!) and magic and technology, together at last!

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Each Holding An ORB: Final Fantasy 4 - The After Years

INTRODUCTION: Seventeen years later, King Cecil and Queen Rosa reign benevolently over Baron, and their son Ceodore struggles with his privilege, being as he is of both royal, mystic and alien blood.  Millennials, eh?  Anyway, off he goes to get his Proof of Knighthood and start his progression through the Baron Army.

Unfortunately whilst he gets the job done, the Red Wings, and Baron itself, are set upon by monsters, and a new moon appears in the sky - a portent of ill times to come.  Bahamut descends from the moon with a mysterious girl who resembles (but isn't) Rydia, and shit gets real in a hurry, with the Tower of Babil going berserk again and mysterious girls invading the Feymarch and stealing the eidolons.

Rydia herself is visiting the Feymarch when this happens, and when monsters attack her, she is rescued by Luca, the daughter of the king of the dwarves, whose fascination with dolls has made her an effective if creepy engineer, and with the mysterious girls trying to claim the dark crystal, the two set off to intervene, when a man in black introduces himself - but is he an old friend, or an old enemy?

RELEASE: 18 February 2008, mobile phones (JPN); 1 June 2009, Wii Ware (USA); 5 June 2009, Wii Ware (EU)

MY FIRST PLAY: I think around 2010, as I didn't monitor Wii Ware very closely and couldn't play it on my phone at the time.

Courtesy Square Enix, via Final Fantasy Wikia

REAL WORLD: Capitalising on the success of their first episodic mobile game, Final Fantasy 7 Before Crisis, Square decided to revisit the characters of fan favourite FF4 and tell the story of what happened after the world-changing (and world-saving) events of that game.

It was released as thirteen chapters on mobile phones and nine on Wii Ware, each containing one character's story (though often featuring cameos from some others), with the final three chapters dealing with the band getting back together and battling the new threat to their planet.

THE GAME: One of the problems with tackling this one out of release order is that I have to type the phrase "this game sees a return to the Active Time Battle (ATB) system" when we were actually only just talking about it last week.  Slight spoilers, but ATB was old news when this came out - as was 2D, the battle menu and even random encounters - so this is a nostalgia piece designed to grab older players, plus new players on mobile, due to the relative simplicity of the game engine.

There are some change though.  Moon Phases, of which there are four, affect battle damage for certain types of attack, and can be cycled through by staying at an inn or using tents, which is an interesting if completely unnecessary mechanic, which I frankly largely ignored by using tents until I got to the phase I wanted.

There's also a ton of new character.  It being seventeen years later, Cecil and Rosa's son Ceodore and Yang's daughter Ursula (who is absolutely excellent, and almost game-breakingly brilliant at higher levels) are of an age to be involved, as is Luca.  Palom and Porom are grown up, Edge is training four new (and pretty rubbish) ninjas and Edward has a secretary who gets involved in fights for some reason.

The bonds of family, friendship and camaraderie are reflected in the very good and fitting new feature of Band attacks, whereby having certain combinations of characters in your party gives you access to group attacks that are generally much stronger and more spectacular than most other attacks.

Courtesy Square Enix, via Final Fantasy Wikia
IT'S A KIND OF MAGIC: Exactly the same as FF4, which is horrendous if you're trying to bulk out a blog post...

MUSIC: I was tempted to put "Welcome To Our Town" again to show how far things had moved on in terms of technology, but here's a tune that will send a chill down your spine after a little while playing the game - the "Mysterious Girl Battle Theme".  You'll be hearing it a lot, and it's never a good sign:


Most of the endgame takes place on an artificial moon and the final battle is against god.  God is an alien, by the way.  So yeah, we're right up there with this one I'd say.

MEGABOSSES: Well this is awkward - the main superbosses in this are from FF5 and FF6...  Whaaaat?  Without wanting to go too far into the specifics, there is a plot development that ambitiously tries to link the worlds of FF1 through to FF6, which makes a fair bit of sense when it's explained.

This gives us a section of the game spent battling bosses from the NES and SNES years, some of which must be defeated - but others, like Omega and Shinryu (FF5) and Deathgaze (FF6) are optional challenges, as indeed they are in their original games.

REMAKES: A graphically superior version was released for the PSP in 2011.  Which was pretty quick, really.

WORST BIT: The episodic nature of the game can be a bit of a pill, especially if you were waiting for the next one to drop.  All you can do once an episode is complete is continue to play it for extra loot, which is a really good idea if you can stand it, because there is grinding a-plenty to be done if that's your aim.  And that equipment will be obsolete within a couple of hours of starting the last episode anyway, so...  Yeah.

BEST BIT: It's just really nice to revisit the cast of FF4 and see what everyone's up to.

I really enjoyed this, though it is a bit of a curate's egg - a 2D classic Final Fantasy game with the graphical and musical trappings of modern technology.  If all you're after, as indeed I am, is more Final Fantasy in its previous inimitable style, this is a perfect, albeit largely pointless, diversion.

Join us next time for an end to the employment crisis, an Omega lacking an alpha and, of course, to see more Butz.