31 May 2013

Psychedelic Pill (Back to Basics with Neil Young and Crazy Horse)

A few years ago I blogged about Neil Young's then new album, Le Noise, and how the entire album was put up on YouTube for free listening. I wrote back then: 'Now that's the way to do it. Let the audience really fall in love with the album, the whole album, mind, not just some little samples. What better way can there be to sell records? I'd buy it right now, if I just had the money.'

Well, it took me a while, but I finally got around to ordering it. Because it really is a great album. It's still en route, but today I received another album I ordered at the same time, Neil Young & Crazy Horse's latest work, Psychedelic Pill.

Now this is a mammoth of a work, a double CD a whopping 87 minutes long. The sound... well, the only words one can use to describe it are Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Nothing else sounds quite alike. The raw guitar sound, the long, rambling, improvisational solos (heck, one of the tracks is a mere 27 minutes long)... And it does sound very much like earlier works by the band. There's nothing really new here. But why tamper with perfection?

There is definitely a touch of psychedelia to the sound, as the name of the album suggests. The perfect way to enjoy the album would probably be while relaxing after a couple glasses of wine (or other substances, should one be into such things)... Just sit back and let the sounds wash over you...

Well into his sixties now, Neil's still got it. This is rock, pure and perfect. While a lot of the music I listen to these days is from the metal world, it always feels good to get back to one's roots every now and then. Can't wait to listen to Le Noise again, as well. It's been a while.

20 May 2013

Ascending to Infinity (Album Review)

I've written about the Italian symphonic metal band Rhapsody of Fire before in my blog. After the release of the last album in their epic fantasy saga (which I wrote about here) a couple years ago, they made the decision to split the band in two. Rhapsody of Fire would continue touring and (I presume) playing their classic material, while the band's former lead guitarist, Luca Turilli, would found a new band as a vehicle for his own composition work. This new band came to be known by the (very inventive and original) name Luca Turilli's Rhapsody...

Now Turilli has released several solo albums over the years under his own name (and one as Luca Turilli's Dreamquest, which featured him on keyboards rather than guitar). I don't really see why he couldn't have simply released more music as Luca Turilli, instead of going to such confusing arrangements. But here we are, and this is what we have.

A mere year after Rhapsody of Fire's From Chaos to Eternity, the first album from Luca Turilli's Rhapsody was released, titled Ascending to Infinity. And somehow it took me almost a year to get around to buying it, probably partly because of all this two band weirdness, but here I am at last...

Unlike Rhapsody of Fire's albums, which featured a continuing fantasy tale, Ascending to Infinity is a collection of individual songs touching on different mythological topics, from Atlantis to Excalibur to Michael and Lucifer... The album seems to be wreathed in allegory, though, and to be honest, I'm not really sure what many of the songs are actually supposed to be about. Frequent snippets in Latin and Italian don't help with understanding... But in any case, it's the sound that's important here.

And the sound is... Luca Turilli doing what he does best. The compositions and arrangements are almost ridiculously epic. 'Born to sound cinematic,' the booklet proudly proclaims. Indeed. The jazzy cover song Luna, though not as such bad in and of itself, seems kinda out of place and unnecessary on the album, but otherwise it is musically pretty impressive. Turilli plays both guitar and keyboards on this album, and does both masterfully.

There's a new vocalist, Alessandro Conti, to get accustomed to, of course. But stylistically the singing remains fairly similar to Fabio Lione's vocals for Rhapsody of Fire (and equally coloured by a heavy Italian accent, but I guess no one's perfect). The other musicians are all Rhapsody of Fire alumni (Dominique Leurquin and Patrice Guers on second guitar and bass respectively, and Alex Holzwarth on drums, though he would later leave to focus on playing with Rhapsody of Fire), so there's a lot of experience and talent here.

So yeah, I do quite enjoy this album. Musically it continues in the strong, epic tradition of both Rhapsody of Fire and Turilli's solo works. It does, however, leave me a little cold on the lyrical side, perhaps suffering from the lack of a cohesive story. It remains to be seen whether this two band format will work and continue in the future. Turilli does kinda have a habit of starting projects that never go beyond one album... And just after writing that, I see on Wikipedia that a second album has apparently been announced for 2014. Welp, we'll see. After Ascending to Infinity I'll certainly be looking forward to it.

10 May 2013

A Quick Mass Effect Addendum: Paragon Lost

Right on the heels of wrapping up my playthrough of the Mass Effect trilogy, I decided to watch the anime movie Mass Effect: Paragon Lost, which I purchased recently.

The movie is basically a prequel to both Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3. It's set just before the former, featuring the 'collectors', the main enemy of that game, while starring James Vega, a character from the latter (voiced by  Freddie Prinze Jr, as in the game).

So yeah. It is, indeed, an anime movie. For a person who's not a big anime fan there's bound to be some culture shock regarding the art style. Even for an anime fan like me, moving from the game graphics to an entirely different style took a little adjustment. The animation quality is reasonable, though of course we're not talking anything like Studio Ghibli quality here...

The movie was written by Henry Gilroy, who's apparently best known for his work on the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series. It's reasonably loyal to the canon of the video games (although there may have been one or two plot points I wasn't quite sure of). It's not a particularly deep story, mostly based on action. But it kept me entertained for one and a half hours... I'd definitely recommend playing at least the first two games before watching this, though, as there are both references to the first game and some spoilers concerning the second.

And yeah, that's about all I have to say about it. If you enjoy both Mass Effect and anime, there's a fair chance you'll enjoy Paragon Lost. At least if you're not expecting anything too earth-shaking...

9 May 2013

The Mass Effect 3 Post

So it's done. I have finished the Mass Effect trilogy.

And what an experience it was. A unique combination of shooter and RPG, with some thrilling storytelling, wrapped up in a delightful space opera setting. Over 100 hours of fun times in total. (You may wish to check out my commentary on Mass Effect 1 and Mass Effect 2 before you proceed.)

Of course I don't want to build up too much hype. Like any thing, it won't be to everybody's tastes. And it's not like the games are without flaws. But, on a personal level, I did rather fall in love with the series. Saying it was my favourite game might be jumping the gun a little, as there are of course many games out there I really love, but it's definitely very, very high up on my list.

But onwards to my commentary on the third instalment!

I don't want to give out too much spoilers, of course. But as this is the finale of the trilogy, we're obviously heading into climax territory. A final showdown with the Reapers is looming. The entire galaxy is at war.

This premise means we're in for an epic story... but, as a downside, Mass Effect 3 seems to have the narrowest scope of the trilogy. It's all about the war, the big picture, less about individuals and exploration. You'll mostly just be fighting a couple different, relatively faceless factions. Even your choice of squadmates is more limited than in the previous game.

Gameplay remains mostly quite similar to Mass Effect 2, although there are some small changes again. There's a little more equipment management again, though not the full-blown inventory management of the original game. On the other hand, some of the mini-games (like hacking computers) are gone. Scanning planets remains, but in a very stumped form that makes you question the need for it in the first place...

In action you'll need to pay a little more attention to healing, as you'll only regenerate a portion of your health bar. Cover still plays a large role, perhaps even a little more refined than in Mass Effect 2. And you do need to be cautious. Some enemies can do a lot of damage in a very short time, if given a chance. Like the previous games, I played through it on normal difficulty. There were perhaps a few more challenging, even downright difficult parts this time, particularly towards the end of the game, even though I was at a reasonably high level (or at least I couldn't think of much more to do to level up). But nothing I couldn't beat in the end, and it was all pretty fun.

I probably visited many more systems than in the previous games, because this time exploration directly benefits the galaxy's readiness for the final battle. However, this exploration didn't feel particularly rewarding, mostly consisting of just scanning systems, without much action or story.

Technically, it may have felt marginally more glitchy than the previous game (but clearly more stable than the first game). Some of this was caused by the game still heavily loading data at the beginning of some scenes. Unlike the PS3 versions of the previous games, this one didn't install data on the hard drive, which I expect will have increased load times somewhat. Naturally being the newest game it's also probably a little more detailed visually, and there was some fairly decent music, too. But that stuff's just dressing, the meat of these games is elsewhere.

At around 40 hours, it was a little shorter than my playthrough of Mass Effect 2, but this is due to the fact that, unlike the first two games, the trilogy box version of Mass Effect 3 didn't include DLCs (not even the expanded ending, which you have to download yourself). There are several additional missions available, of course, but, frankly, they're relatively pricey and, alas, I just couldn't afford to buy them right now. Maybe for my next playthrough... Oh, and speaking of the ending, I'm going to steer right clear of that whole controversy. Suffice to say, I had no problems with the ending as it was now.

Oh, right. There's that multiplayer mode too. And... I couldn't be less interested. Seems kinda pointless. But I guess there are folks that enjoy teaming up to shoot some bad guys... Me, I'm all about the story.

I seem to be kinda focusing on negative aspects above. But the truth is, I loved every minute of this game. Now my main problem is, though, that the next game I play won't be a Mass Effect game...