Friday, 30 April 2010

Volcanoes – Sugar And Snarls EP

Volcanoes have had a lot of bad press lately, thanks to a certain Eyjafjallajokull spewing ash all over Europe, without any consideration for all those poor bastards who can actually afford to go on holidays . Makes you want to cry about their plight doesn’t it? Fortunately, the Volcanoes being written about here are not Icelandic; they’re based in Yorkshire, which isn’t on a major tectonic plate boundary. In addition to this, they’re not a mountain of ash, but a four piece band with a new EP called Sugar and Snarls which is not only excellent, lively and varied but definitely won’t be disrupting any international air travel. Good news all round then.

'Level Up' is an incredibly entertaining opening track about..wait for it...video games! It had to be with a title like that didn’t it? Mean, frantic guitar riffs feature throughout this incredibly charged high tempo track with Samson Bedford’s vocals keeping pace with the music. The lyrics are creative with chorus’ main hook being ‘At least I’ve got my medikit.’ Occasionally the words are slightly unintelligible but that’s to be expected with any fast-paced, guitar heavy post-punk tune.

The high tempo mayhem continues with 'Fret In The Half Moon'. This track features even more speedy guitar rhythms which are often sharper and spikier than those of 'Level Up'. That said, this offering isn’t all about the frantic guitars with the track occasionally softening, demonstrating an influence by Maximo Park both instrumentally and vocally. (After looking at Volcanoes' Myspace, they do in fact list Maximo Park as an influence...this is definitely apparent on this track, and also means your dear reviewer is a genius for deducing this fact)

Now, swing isn’t something that many ‘indie’ bands tend to experiment with but Volcanoes do just that with 'Pigs In Blankets' and they do it magnificently. The highlight of this is the bass guitar, played fantastically by Boa International. The toe-tapping riff would fit in with a 1930’s swing band...or an episode of Sylvester and Tweety... and really is a joy to listen, and yes, dance to. The drum work of Chris Hall only adds to the authenticity of the swing beat. This is a totally different sound to the rest of Sugar and Snarls, but it works perfectly.

Volcanoes
demonstrate that have more than just a couple of arrows for their musical bow with yet another change in style for 'Fathoms'. This is slower and more heartfelt than the rest of the EP and features numerous key changes which demonstrate the musical ability of these four guys. The track generally has a low-fi feel to it but there also appear to be vocal influences from Kasabian within this one.

Four tracks, four different styles and ultimately four excellent tracks, Sugar And Snarls demonstrates what bands should ultimately be- varied, exciting and entertaining. If Volcanoes can keep this creativity going with their future work, they’ll soon surely be exploding all over the indie music scene.

(Originally written for Gobshout)

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Gobshout review: Mixtaps and Cellmates - Rox

Swedish music is a phrase that will probably make you think one of two things – The Hives or Death Metal. Outside of these two, Swedish bands haven’t had much success in the UK recently (No, recently does NOT include ABBA) but Mixtapes & Cellmates will no doubt be aiming to change this with the release of their new album Rox

If you’re unfamiliar with Mixtapes & Cellmates, this isn’t their first album. Their debut album was a mostly electronic affair that received favourable reviews, but ‘internal problems’ led to the band going ‘on hiatus’ Now they’re back with a new sound which has definitely switched to the direction of ‘indie-pop’ So, has this been a good move? Well... yes and no.

'Never', is a great album opener. The Johan Fagerberg’s synths, combined with the scratching guitars form an impressive instrumental arrangement; the somewhat brooding vocals of Robert Svennson and the feeling of longing appear to set the tone of the rest of this ten track offering.

'Soft Eyes' is another keyboard heavy track, with the only major difference to the opener being that bassist Matilda Berggren performs the lead vocal duties. Svennson and Berggren continue to switch the role of singer between them throughout the whole of 'Rox' and this certainly adds an element of variety to album – this can only be a positive thing because things start to sound very samey as early as 'Soon', the third track of the album.

Thankfully, the 1980’s rock and roll style guitar riffs of 'Rain Letters' does something to break this pattern, even if the themes of longing and romance are still concurrent. Things decelerate with 'Sunday', one of the slower tempo tracks on the album which, despite the combined male and female vocals, doesn’t leave a lasting impression. Unfortunately, most of the second half of Rox is almost as unmemorable.

Lies gets off to an excellent start with an almost industrial electro sound, and yes the bassline throughout this track is excellent but the guitars, vocals and themes are just more of the same. It’s somewhat underwhelming, as is 'All the lights' which at six minutes is too long. Yes, it’s something different with minimal instruments supporting Svennson’s vocals but it just isn’t interesting. This track will probably be the most skipped of the album.

'Lesser half of cynical boys' thankfully drives some much needed life into proceedings with one of the highest tempo, bouncy tracks. The jinking guitars are a real treat and Mixtapes & Cellmates even show that they slow the tempo right down in a decent way when they want to, as demonstrated during the half way stage of this almost four minute long track.

At least 'Any Eye' keeps the fast temp going but once again it just sounds very familiar to the early tracks of the album. The same goes for the final song 'All of the above' which ironically describes the entire album in that this is once again similar to many of the offerings before it.

'Rox' isn’t a bad album, but it isn’t very creative. Yes, each band has their own distinct sounds but there is a difference between that and almost every track sounding the same. Of course, there are a couple of tracks that do sound different to the rest of the album but these alone aren’t enough to secure some well needed variety. Mixtapes & Cellmates might be good at what they do and there are some nice arrangements throughout the album but repetition doesn’t do them any favours. Therefore it seems unlikely that Rox will provide the Swedish five piece with much commercial success this side of the North Sea.

6/10

(Originally written for Gobshout)

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Simon the Sorcerer 5: Who'd even want contact?!

The once dead point and click adventure game has had something of a revival lately, what with the old classic, Monkey Island, making a comeback last year. Now another hero of the 1990s point and click adventure genre has returned in the shape of Simon the Sorcerer. Hero is a loose term, but the gobby wizard is indeed back in Simon the Sorcerer 5: Who'd even want contact?!

The year 1993 was a truly ancient time. Mobile phones were easily confused with bricks, the internet was something only the real nerds knew anything about, and also the original Simonthe Sorcerer game was released. This is when we first encountered Simon, an ordinary teenager transported to ‘The Magical World' to become a sorcerer. Of course, there being nothing better than a sarcastic teen in a wizard's hat, many adventures ensued, bringing us up to the present release. If you're feeling turned off by the idea of another fantasy game, fear not! This series has always spoofed fantasy stories and fairy tales with entertaining results, and number five is no different.

The game begins with our lazy, lying, workshy and downright rude ‘hero' slobbing out in front of the TV when aliens suddenly invade his home and abduct his girlfriend, Alix. Thus it falls to Simon to save the world and the girl in this rather enjoyable game. Being a point and click adventure, STS follows the familiar pattern of many before it - talk to people, examine things, pick them up, and combine them in order to solve puzzles in nicely rendered 2D environments. These puzzles are generally simple enough and it's usually easy to determine what needs to be combined with what and given to whom in order to advance the story. However, occasionally the solutions to puzzles are pretty obscure. For example, sometimes items need to be used with seemingly unrelated objects in the static background. Of course,point and click adventure games are supposed to challenge the mind, but clicking on everything in order to discover a strange solution can quickly become frustrating.

Speaking of frustrating, the voice work in STS is not only often cringe-worthy but also poorly lip-synced. The winner of the worst voice award goes to Swampy the Swampling hands down. This little green guy is essentially Simon's sidekick but you'll be sick of him as soon as he's spoken for more than two seconds. His voice and annoying speech pattern makes Star Wars' Jar Jar Binks seem like someone you'd happily engage in polite chit chat.

Jar Jar is an apt comparison given the aliens theme of STS, which takes us into Outer Space. In Hallmark Simon the Sorcerer style, the game manages to cram in numerous spoofs of classic Sci-Fi films, including blatant and amusing references to Star Wars towards the end of the game. We're also treated to a number of other non-fantasy environments as Simon's adventures take him all over the place. A tropical island and an underground city home to a race of mole people spring to mind as examples of the beautifully designed pre-rendered 2D backgrounds that bring the locations to life throughout the game.

Unfortunately, the 3D cell-shaded characters don't quite fit into these 2D worlds. Simon and his friends are designed in a similar way to those fellows in ‘Fairy Tales: Three Heroes' but in this environment they just don't work properly. This is especially evident in the cut scenes where movement is very jerky. Perhaps STS would have benefitted from being rendered entirely in 2D, but then again, in 2010 this may have been seen by the kids of today as a bit primitive, what with them new fangled 3D graphics being the only thing they've ever known. Damned kids and their music!

Anyway, what was this old man rambling on about? Ah yes. The average modelling combined with the poor voice work is a real shame because STS comes with an interesting (ie: mental) cast that often provide witty dialogue in wonderfully weird situations. This is emphasised by the fact that well-loved fairy tale folk are depicted very differently to their traditional incarnations. You'll meet Goldilocks (a leather clad cat burglar), Red Riding Hood (an angry violent feminist), and Puss in Boots (who's a bit thinner than you remember). Characters from previous STS games pop up but if you're new to the series you won't have to worry about not recognising them thanks to optional dialogue with gags explaining who these people are and where they're from - purposely and massively breaking the fourth wall in the process.

All in all, Simon the Sorcerer 5: Who'd even want contact?! is a solid point and click adventure game. The 3D character models do look strange against 2D backgrounds, and the voice work is somewhat off, but if you can overlook these flaws (which can be partially achieved by turning off the audio and switching to text dialogue) this is a pleasant experience with enough swipes at fantasy and sci-fi to keep fans of both genres entertained. The puzzles randomly jump between the ridiculously easy to the ridiculously confusing but over the course of the game this evens out and adventure enthusiasts will no doubt enjoy the occasional challenges. One other thing worth mentioning is that at around eight hours long, some may find the game a bit short. If you're new topoint and click games I wouldn't say this is the very best one to try first, but if you're a veteran of adventure games or a fan of the Simon the Sorcerer series you might want to add Who'd even want contact?! to your games inventory. A free hint to get you started: to get the best out of the game, you should combine it with your PC. You can solve the other puzzles on your own.

7/10

(Originally written for Game-Debate)