Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The Twilight Sad - The Wrong Car EP

Almost exactly one year after the release of their second album, Forget the Night Ahead, The Twilight Sad return with The Wrong Car. This four track EP marks something of a watershed for the four piece from Kilsyth, with it being the bands first release since the departure of bassist Craig Orzel earlier this year.

The good news is that Orzel’s departure hasn’t been negative for the band, with The Wrong Car demonstrating that The Twilight Sad are still very capable of producing their distinctive, powerful sound.

begin with its title track of the same name which very much follows in the footsteps of previous releases by the band. A quiet, piano only introduction sounds ominous as it slowly builds up to the distinctive Caledonian brogue of vocalist James Graham. The dark, brooding themes give this opening track a similar sound to 'The Room', and the vocals, guitars, drums and piano all hold together very well; an extremely impressive feat for a track that is seven and a half minutes long.

As you can probably guess from the title of track number two, 'Throw Yourself In The Water Again', is also on the thematically darker side, with lyrics including ‘I’m dancing over your grave’ consolidating this. But that doesn’t stop it showing off the bands heavier, rockier side with some excellent work on the guitar and drums from Andy MacFarlane and Mark Devine. The only downside is that this powerful instrumental work occasionally drowns out the distinctive vocals of James Graham.

The remaining two tracks on The Wrong Car are remixes, with the first being a stripped down version of 'The Room' remixed by Mogwai. The piano and drums of the excellent original track have been stripped away leaving the foreboding lyrics backed by just an electronic beat. It somehow works, with the haunting themes of 'The Room' still being highly prominent. That said, it doesn’t quite work as well as the original track.

An Errors remix of 'Reflection on the Television' closes the Wrong Car EP and although it’s still a good tune, it’s arguably the weakest of the four tracks. It has heavier electronic beats than 'The Room' and it’s easy to see this being played in certain trendier bars (you know the types I mean).

The Twilight Sad
are currently working on a new album, and if The Wrong Car is a sign of things to come, it’ll be another cracker.

(Originally written for Gobshout)

Monday, 20 September 2010

Dragon Age: Origins - Witch Hunt

Morrigan is arguably one of the most interesting and intriguing characters (not to mention hot...there, I said it) that features in Bioware's excellent RPG Dragon Age: Origins. Witch Hunt is the game's final episode of downloadable content and gives us a little insight - though arguably far from enough - into what Morrigan did after Origins epic finale.

Be aware that if you haven't finished Dragon Age: Origins, this review of Witch Hunt contain massive spoilers, so don't read on beyond here!

Witch Hunt takes place two and a half years after the events of Dragon Age: Origins, with Fereldan at peace. Morrigan disappeared after the final battle, but rumours suggest she's returned to her home in the Southern Wilderness...

Witch Hunt begins with you creating a character, with the option of importing your Grey Warden from Dragon Age: Origins - or expansion pack Awakening - or creating a new high level Warden. For me, choosing Elissa - my level 31 human rogue - was an obvious choice, especially as she'd formed a friendly relationship with Morrigan in Origins.

Witch Hunt begins outside Flemeth's Hut in the Korcari Wilds where your Warden arrives with a companion from Dragon Age: Origins - your faithful Marabi war hound. You're quickly joined by two more companions. The first is Arianne a female Dalish Warrior who claims Morrigan has stolen a precious artefact from her clan. The second is Finn, a bookish young mage from the Circle of Magi whose knowledge of ancient artefacts' proves helpful in the search for Morrigan. You'll also meet or hear references to characters from both Dragon Age: Origins and Awakening.

Witch Hunt follows a format that will feel very familiar to anyone who played Dragon Age: Origins. The party fights their way through new dungeons in familiar locations collecting plenty of loot on the way. It's enjoyable enough, with some new types of enemy thrown in for good measure, but may prove too easy for Dragon Age veterans. This is especially so if you're character is around the level 30 mark they'll be if you've played Awakening. Even Witch Hunt's final boss - a Varatell, which also features in the Dragon Age 2 trailer - wasn't difficult to beat.

Following the battle, you'll confront Morrigan who seems to ask more questions than she answers. This final meeting feels more like a prelude to Dragon Age 2 than anything else, which will be frustrating to anyone that buys Witch Hunt looking for answers.

The DLC is also frustratingly short, and can be finished in less than two hours. You may feel somewhat disappointed after spending 560 BioWare points (£4.33) for a game that can be finished in just one short sitting.

Wicth Hunt is a decent enough episode of DLC for Dragon Age: Origins but, will leave you feeling short-changed. Not just because the game is so short, but because Witch Hunt really just does feel like it's bridging a gap between Dragon Age: Origins and Dragon Age 2.

Somehow, even more questions are posed than answered in Witch Hunt, ultimately leaving it as an unsatisfying ending to the Dragon Age: Origins story.


(Originally written for Game-Debate)

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Victoria II - Putting the Grand into Grand Strategy since 1836

"So you'll basically be imposing virtual colonial oppression"


That's the conversation that occurred when I told a friend that I was reviewing Victoria II, the Grand Strategy sequel from Paradox to 2003's Victoria: An Empire Under the Sun. The good news for hardcore Grand Strategy players is Victoria II is a massive improvement over the original. The bad news for everyone else is that it's a massively in depth title which could leave it inaccessible to the casual strategy fan. However, stick with it and Victoria II provides an extremely satisfying experience... and yes, yes you can impose virtual colonial oppression.

In Victoria II, you to take control of a state in 1836 with the ultimate aim of securing a place amongst the Great Powers at the end of the games one hundred year time frame.

Of course, this isn't going to be a simple task, with the balance of power in the Grand Theatre of Europe, War in the Americas, unrest in the Empires, industrialisation, political uprisings and keeping your population content just some of the issues that stand in the way. Essentially, Victoria II gives you the chance to change history. Want to turn Belgium into the world's greatest power? You can try, although it won't be easy.

Thankfully there's a series of tutorials (and a 108 page manual!) to explain the very basics of Victoria II for the beginner. Essentially, the basic goal is to increase the prestige of your chosen nation through industrialisation, military might, political decision making and in some instances, specific goals. For example, playing as a state on the Italian Peninsula will present you with the goal of unifying all of Italy. Achieve this and Victoria II will hand you a bag full of prestige points. Alas, you don't get any extra points if you achieve it before 1871.

Of course, warfare is an essential part of any strategy game, and in the volatile world of the 19th century wars happen a lot. However, you can't just go marching your troops into neighbours territory without reason - before declaring war you need to set war goals. These can range from the relatively honourable ‘Free People' to the purely power driven ‘Conquest.' Achieve your war goals and you'll see your prestige raised, fail and prestige drops. Win or lose, declaring war raises your nations infamy and Great Powers don't appreciate the rise of an aggressive nation.

I discovered this to my detriment while playing as Sardina-Piedmont, my infamy rating had slowly risen over the years thanks to annexing smaller Italian States, Morocco (there's the colonial oppression) and the Italian populated area of Lombardy from Austria. These exploits, combined with some prestige increasing research areas and political decisions eventually raised Sardina-Piedmont to Great Power status. Unfortunately, my infamy score meant that almost every other Great Power - included the UK, France, The Ottoman Empire and Prussia, declared war to ‘contain' Sardina-Piedmontian aggression. The results were not pretty. Perhaps if the Infamy score hadn't been hidden in the Diplomacy menus, I would have been less gung ho.

This occurred many, many hours into the game and yet I was still learning things through trial and error. If you're new to Grand Strategy, you may want to play a couple of ‘trial run' games of Victoria II in order to find your feet.

Outside of warfare, industrialisation and politics also provide the player with interesting challenges and especially so later on in the game. Do you oppress Liberal uprisings or let them continue? When do you allow free and open elections? And what do you say to voters in the run up to polling day? Almost every political decision you make has repercussions that could be felt immediately, or make come back to haunt you years later. Sometimes it seems that revolts take place a bit too often after around 1860, but you could argue that this is an attempt by Paradox to mirror the revolutionary feelings that were reverberating throughout Europe at the time.

Unlike its predecessor, Victoria II isn't subject to historical determinants - or to put it another way, you're not being forced to play history as if it's straight from a textbook. For example, the wars of Italian Unification won't just start because that's the year they did in the real world: Victoria II allows the choices made by both your state and others in the world to change history. You'll see states that have never actually existed (For example, my very own Piedmontian Morocco) appear on the world map, while fictional wars between Great Powers are quite common. If the history of my game of Victoria II were true, Russia invaded North West England in the 1850's.

This unpredictability, combined with the amount of decisions and possible scenarios that could occur, make Victoria II an utterly addictive experience. Can I walk into Parma unopposed? Will I suffer the wrath of Austria if send troops into Tuscany? How can I take the Two Scillies? I asked all of these questions while playing Victoria II. I even dreamed about possible decisions in the game. I enjoyed learning about the theatre of Europe while doing my A Levels, but dreaming about it was something that didn't happen!

When something can have that much influence over your mind, it has to be good.) Victoria II goes to show that even if this day and age, a game doesn't have to look good to play well. (It had to be mentioned somewhere that it looks very basic indeed)

Victoria II is an excellent Grand Strategy game, and highly recommended for veterans of the genre. The more casual strategy fan may have to put many, many hours into Victoria II before getting a real grasp of how the game works, but the experience is ultimately worth it. Essentially, if you enjoy history and you enjoy strategy games you should definitely look into Victoria II.
Now someone be a good chap and bring me some port, I've got a state to run.


Green Man Festival - Sunday

Sunday – the final full day of the Green Man Festival – started in much the same way as Saturday; with the screaming child in the tent next to mine waking me up far earlier than I ever wanted, especially unwelcome as I’d been up ‘til almost four the night before. On the plus side, for the first time over the entire weekend it was actually sunny in the Brecon Beacons!

This meant that for the first time we could actually eat our breakfast outside and enjoy the sunshine. One can only wonder if the mood of the festival would have been lifted if the weather had been nice and sunny for the entire weekend. That said, would the good weather have been appreciated so much if there hadn’t been seemingly endless downpours for most of the Green Man festival weekend? Probably not, nevertheless the shorts were finally given their first run out of the weekend and we made the short (ish) journey to the main festival site, to the Literature Tent to be precise.

The Literature and Comedy tent was definitely one of the best parts of the Green Man festival. Offerings over the weekend had included some excellent comedy in the form of Robin Ince and a fascinating talk from Stuart Maconie & David Quantick. Mr Quantick was back again, this time in conversation with music journalist Neil Taylor whose book – Document and Eyewitness – is a history of the Rough Trade record label. The talk provided an interesting insight into Rough Trade during the 1980’s, and of course The Smiths were discussed. The talk certainly has made be consider buying the book, especially considering the amount of time I spent in Rough Trade East when I lived in East London.

Speaking of sceney spots in the nations capital, a mention must go to the girl sitting behind me before the talk began who can only be described as Camden Girl. Camden Girl was speaking to another girl about how great it was to live in Camden, with every single sentence contained ‘like’ multiple times. It actually drove me mad. In fact it wasn’t just me, with my colleague Sam passing his phone over to me. It simply read:

“How many times has she said like?”

If we’d consumed two fingers of alcohol every time she said like, it’s likely we’d have been smashed very quickly. I bet Camden Girl works in Graphic Design.

Following the Neil Taylor talk in the Literature tent, a wander around the festival site ended at the Chai Wallah tent where an unscheduled – according to the Green Man Festival programme – instrumental beat boxing session by Vid Warren had just begun. Yes, instrumental beat boxing being performed by a bloke in a sharp suit...and it was fantastic! Beat boxing is fun enough on its own, but combine it with a harmonica or a recorder and it’s even better. Top marks for the lad, it was a unique performance...and that was before he was helped out by a girl playing her own nose.

The quirky but excellent vibe continued with the Bluegrass musical stylings of The Whiskey Drifters...from Bristol here in the UK. Now no Sunday afternoon will seem complete without a hoedown, though in future I’d prefer to be in possession of a Texas Ten Gallon and a six-shooter just to complete the scene. If that could be traded for the bloke in just a grass skirt that was dancing awfully close to me, it’d be well appreciated.

Unfortunately, despite the time only being around 4 p.m. this is where my personal experience of upbeat, high tempo music at Green Man Festival ends. Why? Because after a quick trip to the tent to stock up on the remainder of our booze, the Main Stage was the chosen spot for live music and the music was mainly folk, downbeat or both.

Laura Marling is obviously a talented musician, but her set was a bit on the disappointing side... a bit wet as one of my colleagues put it. There wasn’t really energy, with everything being a bit melancholy. Of course, this is her style but for a large crowd at a festival you wanted a bit more flair.

Mumford & Sons
were up next and for some reason they drew the biggest crowd. Now this particular part of this review is going to be incredibly biased because I can’t stand Mumford. Maybe it’s because their single Little Lion Man was just so incredibly overplayed last year, or perhaps it’s because they seem to stand for everything I despise. It seems most of the Green Man festival goers disagreed with me on those points though, as large groups of them dispersed after the set was over.

Personally, the best thing I saw during Mumford & Sons set was the beautiful red haired girl who was working at the Moroccan food outlet near the main stage. She was stunning. I almost went all Mark Corrigan from Peep Show and proclaimed her to be the one. Thankfully, despite the cider inside me, I didn’t. It’s probably a good thing I’m not an impulsive person...

Green Man Festival surely couldn’t go a whole day without rain, and this proved to be the case when the heavens opened up on Sunday evening. Being rained on doesn’t exactly make a person feel happy, but what makes them even less happy still is having to listen to less-than-happy music. Unfortunately, Tindersticks were the next band on stage and they were very, very dour. Imagine a more folky, more depressed, Scottish version of Radiohead and you’d be able right. Staying awake during their set was actually a struggle.

The closing act on the Green Man Festival Main Stage was the incredibly talented Joanna Newsom who played her harp beautifully. Unfortunately, the combination of the rain, the tiredness and the previous bands downbeat songs meant both myself and my companions decided that we’d had enough about two thirds the way through her set. Again, like Laura Marling, Joanna Newsom is talented but perhaps not for the Main Stage of a festival...or maybe I’m missing the point of Green Man all together. On the plus side, Miss Newsom is very, very attractive (misogyny + 1)

Nonetheless, the Sunday night felt like an incredible let down compared to the energetic performances of Billy Bragg and The Flaming Lips the evening before. Hell, if I was in charge then Billy Bragg would have closed the festival. I really wanted to stay up until the early hours to see Milton Jones and Steve Hughes in the Comedy Tent. Unfortunately, the evenings performances had been so downbeat, I was struggling to stay awake – and this was only at 11 pm. There’d be no partying in the mud on the final night of Green Man Festival, but at least with the family in the tent next to me having left, I’d get a decent nights sleep!

Of course, the whole experience of Green Man was very enjoyable. It’s just a crying shame that I couldn’t get more into the music of the Sunday night. Of course, not everything at a festival is going to be to everyone’s tastes and there’s no doubt some Green Man festival goers who enjoyed Laura Marling and Tindersticks...or even Mumford & Sons who may not have enjoyed Metronomy, DJ Yoda or dancing in the mud until the early hours of the morning. I’d definitely go back to Green Man next year if I got the opportunity.

(Originally written for Gobshout)

Green Man Festival - Saturday

Saturday morning at Green Man started far too early for my liking, after being woken up my a bawling brat of a child in a nearby tent. The little bastard did this very early every morning until he got the attention he craved.

This seems to be an appropriate time to rant about the number of kids at Green Man Festival. There were loads of children, more of them than I’ve seen at every festival before and it was unnerving and frustrating in equal measure. Unnerving because with so many small children running around the site during the day it was incredibly difficult to relax – there were far too many times where walking into the path of a running child was far too close for comfort. No doubt if one of the little buggers had ran into me it would have been my fault, and not the parents that were letting their kids run wild! In less of a Daily Mail style rant, the number of kids at the festival was annoying because they’re so loud! They were too loud early in the morning, too loud when bands were playing and just generally shouted all the time. Oh, and the worse thing? Lots of kids around meant swearing had to be kept to a minimum.

And now enough ranting and back to our regular programme.

The morning was spent mainly inside our largest tent while we waited for my companion Mr Duke to return from his trek to Crickhowell. The local village was actually very helpfully sign posted from the exit of the Green Man site – there was to be no aimless wandering (a la 2000 Trees) at this festival. Our colleague triumphantly returned from his quest with gifts in the form of food, some local alcoholic beverages and a pair of wellies for me. These were the exact same brand of Wellington boot as were being sold at the festival, but almost half the price. Take that festival merchants, you capitalist bastards! We had lunch, drank our local alcoholic beverages and set out to see some bands.

After spending far too much time trying to figure out which stage to go to, we finally settled on the Far Out Stage. Settled is used in its most precise term here with camping chairs being set up in order to watch the bands. (I know, I know it was so rock and roll)

Egyptian Hip Hop
rather disappointingly didn’t consist of Hip Hop at all, and I don’t think they were even from Egypt. That’s all I remember about them so they can’t have been awful but not exactly top shelf either then. Next up were Voice of the Seven Thunders who unfortunately weren’t particularly entertaining either and their generic emo riffs quickly faded to the back of my mind while I became more interested in keeping tabs on the Cardiff City score (a 4-0 win over Peterborough by the way).

After a bit of a wait, next came the act I most wanted to see at Green Man in the form of Billy Bragg. The Bard of Barking was absolutely brilliant, and I’ve never seen one man and a guitar hold a crowd so well. Almost every song came with a story or a message, with one of many highlights being when Bragg spoke about the V Festival that was also happening across the very same weekend. Apparently, it was wet there and Paul Weller was getting “pissed on;"
you may be thinking, well weren’t you wet too Mr Palmer? But you’d be wrong, the Saturday night in the Brecon Beacons was actually dry.

Bragg sang many of his biggest songs including the excellent 'Sexuality' and a stirring finale in the form of a singalong to 'A New England'. There are no bad things to say about this set by Billy- for me it was the highlight of the entire weekend. I’ll admit this might have something to do with Bragg’s political leanings – similar to those of myself - being evident throughout his set but the man also puts on one hell of a show. Awesome, awesome stuff.

After Billy Bragg, we made our way across to the Comedy Tent which was more or less dead. Why? Well, a certain The Flaming Lips were playing the main stage.

If there was ever a demonstration of how two different musical acts could be so different, yet still mesmerise a crowd then Billy Bragg and The Flaming Lips'
surely demonstrate this. While Bragg captivated the audience with his powerful lyrics alone, The Flaming Lips made sure everyone was watching the stage through lights, confetti, videos, giant balloons and a large variety of other weird and wonderful things. It was all strangely relaxing and they certainly put on a powerful performance with tracks from across their career Thus we left during an encore of 'Do You Realize' to track down some beats.

As you may recall if you read my review, Metronomy played a good set at 2000 Trees, but at Green Man it was even better. The band is far more suited to a nighttime set with flashing lights and excellent videos accompanying their electro-pop in the darkness. Perhaps it was because this crowd had consumed far more intoxicating substances than those at 2000 Trees, or perhaps it was just because they were dancing more, but the atmosphere during this gig inside the Far Out tent was fantastic. I was buzzing afterwards and was up for a bit of a dance and therefore headed to one of the oddest club nights you’ll ever read about.

Well, I say club the DJ set took place outside the Green Man Pub in what had essentially become a muddy bog – and provided possibly the closest anyone could get to dancing in a trench during World War I.

The set consisted entirely of cover songs, even if some areas of my own musical ignorance were shamefully revealed. For example, I had no idea that I 'Fought the Law' was a cover of Sonny Curtis and the Crickets, or that 'Step On' by The Happy Mondays wasn’t an original (though the combination of cagoules and The Happy Mondays still made it feel like Manchester in 1992 all over again...just because would have been six years old and living in Cardiff doesn’t mean I wasn’t there, man).

The drinks kept flowing and the songs kept coming and there I was using my wellies to their full advantage by skanking in the mud (partially to win a bet) ‘til way past 3 a.m. on Sunday morning. If there’s a better way to end an excellent day at a festival then I don’t want to hear about it.

(Originally written for Gobshout)