Monthly Archives: November 2009

Let’s Get Cynical About: Assassin’s Creed II

In lieu of having anything I want to talk about musically right now, I thought I’d focus on another interest of mine – video games. Having just finished Assassin’s Creed II, here are my thoughts.

The fact that I cared almost infinitely more about the release of Assassin’s Creed II than the much-hyped Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 does perhaps indicate something about the nature of my own personal appreciation of games (or, as Alex would say, how big a geek I am). Not for me the game that many people were buying purely for the multiplayer aspect, no, instead I care more for the expansive single-player experience offered by the Assassin’s Creed series – if that makes me a hopeless introvert, so be it.

Story-wise, Assassin’s Creed 2 picks up directly where the first game left off – though the game begins with a short recap just in case your memory is rusty or you didn’t actually play the first game. You are Desmond Miles, a seemingly ordinary man caught up in a centuries-old war between the Assassins and the Templars – the latter being represented in the modern world by a typically sinister corporation called Abstergo. In case you weren’t aware, the first game’s big ‘plot twist’ was that the whole assassin thing was in fact just an alternate reality accessed through Desmond’s memories (sorry if I spoiled that for you, but the original gave it away within the first 5 minutes anyway). Naturally, the premise of the second game follows on from this – except this time you get busted out of Abstergo to help the Assassins more directly, by training to become an assassin via the memories of Desmond’s Italian ancestor, Ezio Auditore. But what starts out as a glorified crash course in assassination soon turns out to be much more, and so you run, jump, climb, sneak, stab and battle your way through Renaissance Italy in a story of betrayal, intrigue, revenge and much more.

I enjoyed the first game, but certainly recognise that it was flawed – and thankfully, the sequel has done a lot to address that. No more trekking around a largely pointless overworld – not only does every area of the world have a purpose, but you can travel back and forth between cities for a small fee. No more running around doing investigation errands before you get to the good stuff – the story flows from one key event to another, and while it’s not all non-stop action, there’s more of a sense of purpose in what you’re doing, whether it be stalking a target, learning a new skill to help with an upcoming mission, or undertaking one of the thrilling assassination sequences. However, some of the things that would have fallen under the investigation category in the first game are still present in a slightly modified form as side-quests. For example, there are optional assassination missions galore, you can challenge certain characters to a timed race, and instead of beating up enemies to gain information, you can now beat some sense into cheating husbands. Not only do these provide a nice distraction from the main quest, there’s also a more tangible reward that’s tied into another of the game’s new features – money. Pickpocketing also returns, but thankfully it’s also entirely optional and nowhere near as frustrating – instead of having to pickpocket a specific target, you can now steal from anyone you see to get a little bit of cash. It’s not the most efficient way, for sure – but if you’re short of just a few florins at a crucial moment, you’ll be thankful that the option exists.

The reason you’ll want money, of course, is the game’s new ‘economic system’ – although to be honest, such a term seems a little bit grand given the ultimately limited nature of the purchases you can make. Basically, you’ll need cash to buy weapons, armour upgrades, health vials, ammunition, and various other things. If you wanted, you could leave it at that – but fairly early on in the game, you’ll gain access to a villa-cum-stronghold, which you can use your cash to upgrade. In a nutshell, the more you spend on it, the more cash it’ll earn for you – but upgrades can also convey other benefits, such as discounts in the stronghold’s shops. It’s entirely up to you whether you choose to spend your money directly on weapons and armour upgrades now, or plough it into your villa and cash in later. Admittedly, if you focus on the stronghold you’ll eventually end up earning more money than you can spend, but it’s nice to have the option of building up a regular income – and then blowing it all on fancy weapons and paintings. Oh yeah, in another of the game’s nice little diversions, you have the opportunity to decorate your villa with a number of art pieces from the period, as well as being able to dye your clothes to suit your taste or mood. Ultimately, though, the potential to select different weapons is nice in theory but ultimately ends up feeling uninspired – you’ll probably just buy the best sword available and then forget about it until you have the cash to buy everything else at once.

You can also use cash to create a distraction – either directly by tossing coins on the ground, or indirectly by hiring groups of mercenaries, thieves or, er… ‘courtesans’ (as the game tactfully puts it). They all basically serve the same purpose – point them at a group of guards to distract them while you sneak past or otherwise go about your dirty work – but they do all have their own perks. Mercenaries are good fighters, thieves can free-run, and courtesans act as a mobile blending spot. Oh yeah, that’s another improvement right there – you can now blend with any small group of people rather than just the roving bands of monks from the first game. Yeah, suspend your disbelief about how the guards are too stupid to spot your outlandish garb, ultra-realism isn’t the name of the game here (see also: the ‘sit on a bench to hide’ mechanic and the physics-defying leaps of faith into bales of hay).

That’s not to say that the game isn’t somewhat rooted in reality – the cities of Florence and Venice in particular are beautifully realised. Standing on one of the many viewpoints in either city, you can get a very real sense of what it they might have looked like in the 15th century – sure, one look at an actual map of Venice will show you that the game isn’t aiming for 100% accuracy, but that’s not the point. To simply convey the sprawling expanse of a Renaissance city is an achievement in itself, never mind the lovingly re-created historical landmarks present throughout the game world. But rather than be slavishly tied down to reality, the game merely uses it as it sees fit – realistic when it needs to be, and unrealistic when it makes for a better gaming experience. Equally notable is the extent to which the game has gone to tie its fiction in with real-world history – the main story is full of notable characters from the period, and even the game’s overarching conspiracy theory is interwoven with important historical events.

So what works, and what doesn’t? By and large, the new equipment and combat features are a success. The time-honoured ‘counter-attack everything’ strategy from the first game still works to some degree, but as the enemy types are more varied now you’ll want to use different tactics against different opponents. For example, I couldn’t get the hang of countering the spear-wielding ‘Seeker’ guards, but they seemed more vulnerable to being grabbed than the others. The nimble ‘Agile’ guards are not only better at chasing you down, they seem better at dodging and countering in combat as well – I found I had more success using my short blade against them. Of course, combat is generally something you can avoid in most situations – either by just legging it and finding somewhere to hide, or by using items such as smoke bombs to cause a distraction. The smoke bombs seem almost too effective actually – after using one you can pretty much just butcher the guards as they stand and choke on the smoke.

The other way to avoid combat, of course, is to be sneaky – you are an assassin, after all. The new dual hidden-blades certain help here, as does the addition of a poison blade. There’s even a somewhat less-subtle pistol attachment which gets a memorable use during the story – it’s not as overpowered as it could be, but neither is it useless. Sneakiness is also aided by the fact that the enemies can be a bit thick at times, but to be honest if they were ultra-alert it would make the game less fun.

One much talked-about aspect of the new game are the Prince Of Persia: Sands Of Time style platforming sections. Again, all but one of these are entirely optional – but there’s a tasty reward if you complete all of them. The problem is that such gameplay isn’t exactly a perfect fit for Assassin’s Creed’s mechanics. The free-running mechanics, while solid, don’t feel designed for precision platforming in the mould of Prince Of Persia – and as such, when I went plummeting to the ground or dived off a platform at the wrong angle, I felt like it was at least partially the fault of the control scheme. Of course, in the Prince Of Persia series you could rewind time to correct such mistakes, but no such luck for Ezio. Indeed, given our hero’s surprising resistance to fall damage, it’s difficult to kill yourself – even if you want to do so intentionally to get back to a higher checkpoint. And so, after most falls you’re left with no option but to trudge back up to where you were before. This is compounded by the fact that it’s sometimes not completely clear where you should be going – and unlike in Prince Of Persia there’s no fail-safe for experimentation. Ultimately, most of these sections are optional – you can decide for yourself whether the reward is worth it (as it’s waved right in front of your nose), but I couldn’t help but feel like they were more frustrating than fun.

Another problem with the first game was the ultimately pointless (unless, like me, you’re a bit of an OCD achievement-whore) flag-based collect-a-thon. Assassin’s Creed II goes at least some way to addressing this by adding some incentives to search its collectables out. There are 100 feathers scattered throughout the world, but this time round there’s actually a reward for collecting them all. Admittedly, it’s still only going to really interest the completionists, but it’s nice that it’s not just collecting for the sake of collecting. There are also hundreds of treasure chests to be found, each containing the more instantly gratifying reward of cash to spend.

Graphically, the game looks stunning for the most part, particularly when you consider how much is often being displayed on screen at one time. There are a few quibbles perhaps – the odd texture glitch, a tiny bit of pop-in (the game particularly seems to struggle with gondolas for some reason), and the fact that the character’s faces can look a little odd during cutscenes. But the game looks so good in motion and the landscapes are so spectacularly created that it’s impossible to hold a few minor things against it. The music is also great, suitably stirring when it needs to be without overpowering the action. Voice-acting is good too, including a particularly amusing turn from humourist Danny Wallace as Shaun, a sarcastic historian who’s part of the modern-day Assassins. And if-a you get a bit-a fed up-a with everyone-a talking like-a this, you can always choose to have all the characters speak in Italian – and it’s worth turning the sub-titles on even if you don’t, as some Italian still slips through regardless.

Overall, Assassin’s Creed II isn’t without its faults, but it does a good job of fixing the problems that the first game had. It’s also worth experiencing purely for the spectacle of it all – the world Ubisoft have created is a marvel in itself, and it’s filled with colourful characters and inspired scenarios. Oh, and as it happens the game’s pretty fun too, and full of satisfying moments – leaping from a building to nail two guards at once with your hidden blades, stealing a Brute’s axe and beating him down with it, or surveying the city after painstakingly climbing the highest tower. Not to mention the thrill of finally hunting down the bastards who’ve caused you so much pain and trouble and giving them their just rewards. Yeah, it’s a game you can get involved in alright.

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A Weekend In The City, pt II

(No, not an incredibly belated review of the second Bloc Party album, but a reference to an actual weekend spent in the city it references with a very dear friend of mine. Oh, and the gigs we went to, of course…)

Patrick Wolf @ London Palladium, Sunday 15th November 2009

Tonight is Patrick Wolf‘s night. Yes, he may have bolstered his usual live band with a 6-piece string section, a 4-piece backing choir, and a smattering of special guests, but he is unquestionably the star of the show.

The traditional grandeur of London’s Palladium Theatre may not be the most conventional setting for a gig, but for an artist who emphasises storytelling and spectacle as much as Patrick Wolf does, it makes a lot of sense. Indeed, for well over half the gig this feels like the perfect way to experience his music, each song like a miniature piece of drama in itself. ‘Overture’, sweeps in on a wave of strings, like the opening of some sort of wonderful musical. The ‘Voice Of Hope’ (not Tilda Swinton herself, but a tall, striking blonde lady) appears in a floaty dress and shiny headpiece to add to the hammy theatrics of ‘Oblivion’. ‘Who Will?’ transcends any accusations of mawkishness and becomes a genuinely affecting moment.

But what’s truly wonderful is the fact that, rather than make this a predictable run-through of his ‘greatest hits’, Patrick makes the most of the opportunity provided by the string section to play some tracks he might not normally include. Sure, we get some of the big hits – specifically, stunning renditions of ‘Wind In The Wires’ and ‘Bluebells’, the latter of which leads seamlessly on from a plaintive solo rendition of ‘The Shadow Sea’. But we also get jaw-dropping rarities in the form of ‘Pigeon Song'(!), ‘Wolf Song'(!!) and ‘Paris'(!!!) – and frankly I could easily forgive the fact that one of ‘Paris’s synth lines appeared to be missing because it’s PARIS! Performed live with a full band! And a 6-piece string section!!

Erm, yes, sorry. Critic. Impartial. Objective. Right.

Equally, it’s easy to overlook the fact that about half the night’s set is taken from the The Bachelor when it includes rarely played cuts from that album, such as ‘Thickets’, which again takes advantage of the string section. The title track also gets a unique airing, with surprise special guest Florence Welch doing an admirable job of performing Eliza Carthy’s role. Ok, admittedly it wasn’t as much of a surprise to anyone who’d caught the clues in Patrick’s Myspace blog like Euge and I did, but it was still a great performance. Crucially though, her voice never threatened to overpower Patrick’s as much as Eliza’s does on the record. After all, this is Patrick’s night, remember? Even when the ‘Voice Of Hope’ returns to perform on ‘Theseus’, she’s suitably reined in, only talking over the intro and chorus – and the song is *so* much better for it. Seriously, if I could remove Tilda’s vocal track from the album version, I wouldn’t hesitate to.

After Florence leaves the stage, Patrick also departs for a lengthy costume change, while the strings are once again put to good use, filling the interlude with the beautiful instrumental ‘Epilogue’ from Lycanthropy. And then, the moment that I’m sure as many people were dreading as were looking forward to – a large black box is wheeled onto the stage, covered in all sorts of synthesisers and a spaghetti-tangle of wires, signifying that Alec Empire is about to arrive. He arrives to a chorus of cheers, but they obviously weren’t loud enough for his liking, as Mr. Empire gestures for a bigger response from the crowd after playing just one note. I was skeptical about his appearance at this gig, and the fact that he then spends the next few minutes forcing some fairly indeterminate synth noises out of his equipment doesn’t particularly do anything to help matters. Finally, after twiddling our thumbs for a while, we eventually hear Patrick’s voice again – and shortly after, the black screen at the back of the stage is lifted to reveal him standing on a podium, dressed somewhat like an eccentric granny (no, really). He then proceeds to throw himself around the stage to ‘Count Of Casualty’, while Empire spends the song producing some barely audible noise that does little to add to or detract from the original.

And then… well, we all knew as soon as Alec Empire was announced as a special guest that it was coming, so we might as well get it over with. ‘Battle’. Oh, ‘Battle’ – that ugliest of blemishes on Patrick Wolf’s recording career. Granted, I’ve listened to it enough that it’s gone from ‘utter abomination’ to ‘almost amusingly bad’ in my mind, but nevertheless it’s easily the worst thing that he’s ever written. Still, the situation is made unintentionally amusing by the venue itself – when you stop to take stock of the situation, you realise that there are hundreds of people sitting politely in an upmarket theatre, listening to someone spouting angsty teenage poetry over a thumping digital hardcore pastiche. Surely, that has to raise a wry smile at least – and if that doesn’t, then the contrast between Patrick’s fervent enthusiasm towards his hero and Empire’s apparent mixture of disdain and disinterest just might.

But even when the ‘Battle’ is over, Alec Empire isn’t quite done yet. “Give us some more!” cries Patrick, with the wide-eyed fervor of a teenager who’s had his life changed by an Atari Teenage Riot LP. And so Empire adds more fairly anonymous noise to ‘Hard Times’, which finally sees the crowd take to their feet – sporadically at first, but quickly reaching that critical mass where everyone has to stand up, for fear of having their view completely obscured. And with the demur beauty of the gig’s first half truly abandoned, there’s nothing for it but to go for broke and lay on the high-energy numbers and the big hitters. First, a slightly rockier version of ‘The Libertine’, then the lovelorn drama of ‘Damaris’ – suitably theatrical, but it would have seemed a bit too much in the earlier stages of the show. Here however, it makes perfect sense alongside the equally dramatic, but much darker lyrics of ‘Tristan’. Finally, one last sublime string-based rarity – the poignant ‘Eulogy’ from Wind In The Wires – an overwhelmed Patrick thanks us all dearly for our participation, calling the gig the best night of his life. Putting on a sparkly hat and a happy face, he leads us through the ever joyous ode to love that is ‘The Magic Position’ – even if there wasn’t any more to come, it would have made a fitting ending to the show.

Thankfully, Patrick has a couple of songs left for us. First, ‘The Sun Is Often Out’, touchingly dedicated not only to the man who was the original inspiration for the song (a friend of Patrick’s called Stephen who committed suicide last year), but also to another friend who recently passed away. In deference to the fragile tone of the song, the crowd sits back down for the first time since ‘Hard Times’, listening with rapt attention as the song reached its poignant climax. Then finally, after once again thanking us all and rushing off for another costume change, Alec Empire returns to the stage, and as the band launched into ‘Vulture’ the black screen at the back of the stage rose one last time to reveal Patrick stood on a spinning podium, complete with half a disco-ball adorning it.

Patrick had joked that this was a “family show”, inferring that he didn’t want to reveal too much when suffering from a costume problem earlier. Well, during ‘Vulture’, he pretty much threw that out of the window, adorned only in a silver neckpiece, liberal amounts of glitter and a precariously thin pair of white trousers that did little to disguise the fact he was wearing a thong, thus somewhat exposing his not-so-pert buttocks to the public. ‘Vulture’ itself is an absolute riot, proving far more entertaining than on record and immediately getting the crowd back on their feet. Alec Empire’s contribution was notably anonymous once again, but by this point that fact is just ramming the point home. Patrick’s show. Patrick’s big night. A celebration of all that we love about Patrick Wolf.

I could make a few minor gripes – although I didn’t realise it at the time, the set was perhaps weighted too heavily in favour of The Bachelor (not wanting to labour this point, but ‘Battle’ certainly could have been replaced with.. anything else really). I could say “oh he didn’t play [song]” but to be honest if I started doing that I probably would end up doubling the size of the setlist. The point is, despite any petty quibbles and the jokes you can make about Patrick’s slightly flabby arse, there is one fundamental thing that makes Patrick Wolf’s shows so special (and I’m going to give it its own paragraph):

He always leaves you wanting more.

Even factoring in the time taken for costume changes and everything else, he still played for almost two hours – easily the longest show I’ve seen him play to date. And yet I could have sat there for another hour or more, engrossed in the wonderful music and imagery he creates. Hell, even if he’d have played his entire back catalogue I’d still want him to do it again. Simply put, he is one of the most engaging performers alive today, and he has surely touched the lives of many. If you are one of those people, you owe it to yourself to see him play live – and if you know and love one of those people, you owe it to them to make sure that they do.

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A Weekend In The City, pt I

(No, not an incredibly belated review of the second Bloc Party album, but a reference to an actual weekend spent in the city it references with a very dear friend of mine. Oh, and the gigs we went to, of course…)

Kasabian @ London Wembley Arena, Saturday 14th November 2009

If my opinion of Kasabian‘s latest album in my Mercury Prize round-up seemed a little guarded in its praise, that’s because, well, it was. I wasn’t desperately impressed by the band’s attempts at experimentation – truth be told, I preferred the songs that sounded more like their previous work. I also wouldn’t doubt that the ‘big’ tunes are what the majority of tonight’s audience are here to see – and I know it’s a massive cliché to talk about the crowd at a Kasabian gig, but in this case their response to certain songs went at least some way to proving me right. But more on that later. The stage set-up is obviously inspired by the title of the band’s latest effort, West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum, with various psychiatric trappings, roadies wearing lab-coats emblazoned with the word ‘SANE’, confusing statistics and (probably fictional?) patient reports flashed up on the big screens before the gig even began. The giant ‘video-frame’ (for lack of a technical term) that the band performed in was a nice touch too.

So, after an on-screen countdown that ran down twice without any sign of the band and an overly long message at the top of the frame that culminated in the phrase ‘Now Or Never’, the curtains were finally pulled back to reveal the full extent of Kasabian’s lunatic asylum – and the band themselves, of course. After riding through a perfectly decent B-side (called ‘Julie And The Moth-Man’, apparently) on the back of the crowd’s pent-up expectation, they waste no time in dropping the first of their heavy hitters, ‘Underdog’. Predictably, the crowd goes nuts, and fair play to them because it’s a MASSIVE tune – and I’ll admit to being suitably caught up in it too. So much so, in fact, that it only now strikes me as ironic that Tom Meighan sings “I’m the underdog,” when he quite obviously believes the exact opposite – he’s more ‘top dog’ than underdog. (Ok, that was bad…)

The band relentlessly keep up the pace, blasting through more big numbers – ‘Where Did All The Love Go’, ‘Shoot The Runner’, ‘Cutt Off’ – but then the gig falls into a lull that it’ll take about two and a half songs to break out of. First up, the lead singer from chronically boring opening act Dark Horses took to the stage to perform Rosario Dawson’s role on ‘West Ryder Silver Bullet’. Unfortunately, it’s one of the dullest songs on the new album, taking about five minutes to go precicesly nowhere – and rather than give the gig a much-needed shot in the arm by following it with an up-tempo song, the band are content to saunter along with ‘Thick As Thieves’, which pretty much kills the crowd entirely until the chorus of “La La La”s towards the end. It’s only when we get to the chorus of ‘Take Aim’ that the gig really feels like it’s started to get going again. Meighan’s absence during this song is notable – while Kasabian’s frontman exhibits an apparently unshakeable belief that his band are the heirs to Oasis’ throne, guitarist Serge Pizzorno doesn’t quite appear to have the same sense of confidence.

It’s a good job that ‘Empire’ comes crashing in afterwards to turn the throttle back up to the maximum, and Meighan salutes the crowd with an utterly obvious cry of “WEMBLEY YOU ARE FUCKING EMPIRE!” With the crowd firmly back on their side, you can easily forgive the band for stepping down just a couple of notches with ‘I.D’ – although that’s largely because it’s pretty ace, in a woozy, trippy sort of way. Sadly, another mis-step is forthcoming, with ‘Ladies And Gentlemen (Roll The Dice)’ being another snore-fest that not even a dedication from Meighan to ‘absent friends’ can save. After that though, it’s all business from here on out – ‘Processed Beats’ and ‘Fire’ are predictably huge, while ‘The Doberman’ proves that Kasabian  *can* do a slow song without boring the audience to death. They wrap up their main set with a one-two punch – softening us up with ‘Fast Fuse’ before delivering the hammer blow that is ‘Club Foot’.

With the lingering spectre of the night’s duller songs still in my mind, I suggested to my friend Euge that the encore will consist of “something dull off West Ryder, and ‘L.S.F'” – to which she promptly replied that I should “stop being so cynical”. She was quite right, as it turns out – I was so pre-occupied with the fear that they might waste five minutes of my life playing ‘Happiness’ that I ended up being completely blindsided when they opened their encore with ‘Vlad The Impaler’. They even gave us a nice little surprise by getting Noel Fielding on stage to reprise his role from the song’s video. I mean sure, all he did was prance around and punt a few fake severed heads into the crowd, but it was fun nonetheless. Possibly a disappointment to the guy at the bar who enthusiastically told me about a rumoured appearance by Noel Gallagher though…

Happily, the band surprise me again by following up with a high-energy performance of ‘Stuntman’ (another song that had completely slipped my mind), before the night closed with a rendition of ‘L.S.F (Lost Souls Forever)’ that was nothing short of anthemic. So anthemic, in fact, that the the song’s closing refrain of “LAAAAAA LAA LAA, LA LA LA LA LAAA LAAAAA” could be heard echoing through the streets and tube stations of London long after the confetti cannons had stopped (seriously, even when we were miles away from Wembley there were *still* people singing it).

It’s fair to say that a band like Kasabian present an interesting conundrum for the ‘self-respecting music fan’, or whatever pretentious phrase you wish to use. Clearly, they see themselves as a ‘band of the people’, and that doesn’t just mean lager-lads – a quick look at the people around me during the gig makes it clear that the band appeal to a broad cross-section of ages and genders. They’re often snobbishly derided as appealing to the ‘lowest common denominator’, an opinion that’s somewhat supported by reaction to the band’s more experimental numbers – give the crowd a song like ‘Thick As Thieves’ that deviates from the usual Kasabian template and what do they most easily identify with? The ‘La La La’ bit they can chant along with. In a similar vein, the huge cheer that the word ‘Ecstasy’ gets when it appears at the top of the ‘video-frame’ before the encore speaks volumes. But should that matter? Surely we should focus on the band themselves rather than dismissing them due to elements of their fanbase?

However, you can also pick holes in the band’s performance. Tom’s stage banter is pretty much brain-dead – aside from the ‘Empire’ reference I mentioned earlier, we get such gems as “WEMBLEY, YOU ARE ON FIRE!” (take a guess at what song that came after), something about seeing “lots of whites of eyes” during ‘Stuntman’ (yeah I get the lyrical reference and all but… what?), and about a million demands to “PUT YOUR FUCKING HANDS IN THE AIR!” There’s also my previous complaint about the slow songs, never mind the fact that if you think too much about it the band’s lyrics tend to fall into the ‘anthemically vague’ category – the type of thing you can chant along with without caring very much about whether it really means anything. And I’m sure people more astute than I could unravel the very music itself until there’s nothing left but a mess of derivative threads.

But the band are, for all their faults, entertaining – at least to me and the thousands of others present here tonight. I’m not trying to justify the inherently flawed “popular = good” defence, but what I’m trying to say is that a band shouldn’t immediately become some sort of musical pariah just because they’ve become popular. Critics may sneer at Kasabian’s fans, lazily tarring them all with the same brush. But I’m not a lager-lout. Or a thug. Or an idiot (some may disagree with that last one, but shhh). But I like Kasabian. I mean sure, I’m not going to rush out and declare West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum “album of the year” (seriously now Q Magazine, do you realise how daft that makes you look?), and I don’t slavishly adore them, but I do like them. If that makes me a bad person in some people’s eyes, then so be it – but if you genuinely hate the band then surely you should be able to articulate why that is without resorting to cheap shots at their fanbase? It’s fair to say that a person’s taste in music can say a lot about them, but not all the time. Sometimes, even the most cynical or snobbish music fan must want a simple pleasure, no?

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Taking a crash course through 2009.

Having been asked to submit my top 20 albums for Muso’s Guide‘s end of year album list. I took a quick browse through my iTunes library and discovered I hadn’t actually bought many more than that – and I didn’t feel that all of them were top 20 material. But rather than take the cop-out route and submit a hastily cobbled together top 10, I thought that I’d take the opportunity to listen to a whole bunch of albums that I didn’t get round to checking out, in the hope of making a slightly more informed decision. To help me in this endeavour, I’m using this handy Spotify playlist, courtesy of Drowned In Sound. Here we go then – bear in mind these are pretty much all first impressions:

The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart

This actually connected with me a lot more on record than it did live. Does that make me wrong? I dunno. Anyway, thouroghly pleasant tweegaze sort of thing that’s got the potential to slot into my list somewhere.

Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

Ditto the above, although less so because I did rather enjoy Phoenix live. Perhaps a little bit samey though? Definitely warrents another listen though – if nothing else, it’s got a great instant pop vibe about it.

St. Vincent – Actor

I rather like this – she sounds a bit like Feist, but backed by instrumentation that sounds a bit like something Patrick Wolf might come up with.

Wild Beasts – Two Dancers

I still just can’t quite get past the lead singer’s voice, even if it is more restrained than on their earlier material – and it’s a shame, because there’s some really interesting stuffy going on instrumentally.

Paramore – Brand New Eyes

No.

…ok, perhaps I’m being a bit unfair – ‘Misery Business’ was a bit of a guilty pleasure for me. But I only ended up listening to the first song because the end of Two Dancers ran into it, and I got bored about halfway through, so… *skip*

Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca

Unfortunately, I’m gonna have to file this one under ‘W’ for ‘would dearly like to love, but can’t quite get into’. The mid-section is quite sweet though.

Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion

‘My Girls’ is brilliant, ‘Lion In A Coma’ and ‘Brother Sport’ are pretty ace too, but other than that… I dunno, it’s good, but it’s not grabbing me. Maybe needs another listen?

Girls – Album

This is an odd one. Whenever I start to feel like I should file this under ‘W’ for ‘What’s all the fuss about?’, the next track does its damned best to convince me otherwise. I think its the fuzzier, noisier bits that I like most – see ‘Big Bad Mean Motherfucker’, ‘Summertime’, and ‘Morning Light’ – but when it starts drivelling on about girls in an overly melancholy way it just makes me switch off.

HEALTH – Get Color

When I saw HEALTH (all caps obligatory, apparently) live last year, I found them utterly bewildering – I wasn’t sure if I *liked* them per say, but I couldn’t help but be impressed. Get Color sees them temper their blistering noise with just enough melody to make it, for me at least, easier to connect with than their debut.

PJ Harvey & John Parish – A Woman A Man Walked By

Also filing this under ‘W’ – but this time for ‘Why the hell haven’t I listened to this before now?’ Brilliant stuff, but I shouldn’t have expected any less from Polly Jean.

Metric – Fantasies

This is good. I can’t think of much else to say about it, but it’s good.

Atlas Sound – Logos

Interesting stuff, an odd mishmash of sounds that ends up working together fairly well. Not sure if it’ll be a particular favourite of mine this year, but it warrants another listen at the very least.

Emmy The Great – First Love

This makes me smile. Yay!

A Place To Bury Strangers – Exploding Head

Certainly blew me away. Seriously heavy stuff – a dirtier version of My Bloody Valentine.

The Maccabees – Wall Of Arms

I fell like I’ve somewhat unfairly overlooked this record – it’s at least as good as their debut on first listen.

Future Of The Left – Travels With Myself And Another

Angry riffs mix with cynical, twisted lyrics to make for a consistently engaging record.

The Raveonettes – In And Out Of Control

It’s more of the same as the last album – but that’s hardly a bad thing really.

The Big Pink – A Brief History Of Love

I was genuinely surprised by this album on first listen, and upon re-visiting it it’s still very impressive – the fantastic singles (‘Dominos’, ‘To Young To Love’, ‘Velvet’) are largely matched in quality by the rest of the album.

Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career

It’s all very sweet and lovely, but nothing quite matches the sheer pop joy of ‘French Navy’.

The XX – XX

Uh… wow. I thought these guys were good when I saw them live, but this is honestly stunning. So understated, yet atmospheric.

There are even more albums I should probably listen to, but I’ve got to submit my list today, so I’d better call it a day there. Speaking of that list, here it is:

20. The Joy Formidable – A Balloon Called Moaning
19. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
18. The Temper Trap – Conditions
17. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!
16. St. Vincent – Actor
15. PJ Harvey & John Parish – A Woman A Man Walked By
14. The Big Pink – A Brief History Of Love
13. Arctic Monkeys – Humbug
12. Dananananaykroyd – Hey Everyone!
11. HEALTH – Get Color
10. The XX – XX
9. Editors – In This Light And On This Evening
8. Johnny Foreigner – Grace And The Bigger Picture
7. Sky Larkin – The Golden Spike
6. George Pringle – Salon Des Refusés
5. Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport
4. Bat For Lashes – Two Suns
3. The Horrors – Primary Colours
2. Grammatics – Grammatics
1. Fever Ray – Fever Ray

Commiserations to The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, Future Of The Left, and A Place To Bury Strangers, who all missed out rather narrowly on a top 20 place. Bear in mind this list is preliminary, and I’ll probably change my mind about it about 5 minutes after posting this. Oh well, let me know what you think.

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Ultimate Power, Maximum Life.

On November 5th, as fireworks exploded in the sky and the MTV EMAs continued to prove their complete irrelevance by awarding Tokyo Hotel the ‘Best Group’ award, a rock act of a far more genuine, primal kind took to the stage in Leeds. I’m talking about the band Huw Stephens introduced as “the best new rock band in the world” (and in my opinion that’s not a hyperbolic statement), Pulled Apart By Horses.

The gig itself was slightly unconventional, taking place at Eiger Studios, a new rehearsal room/recording studio on the outskirts of Leeds, which had been converted into a venue for the evening. And as the gig was organised by Xbox Reverb, there were plenty of video games on offer to while away the time between bands, including the chance to embarrass yourself in public by playing Guitar Hero 5.

However, the music was the main draw tonight, with Napoleon III opening the line-up of local acts – and despite being a one-man band, he’s an engaging performer. His music is a bizarre mashup of looped vocals, synths, guitars, toy instruments and more besides – and with so much going on it’s to his credit that it works more often than not. Next up were Sky Larkin, a band who’ve earned well-deserved praise for their debut album The Golden Spike, which was released early on this year. For me, this performance was a real reminder of just how good they actually are. Nestor is an absolute machine on the drums, and singer/guitarist Katie is in possession of both a wonderful voice and an endearing cuteness – she’s the kind of girl you’d happily take home to meet your Mum. As well as rattling through tracks from their album, they also premier a new song – it’s the first time they’ve ever played it live, so they ask for the cameras to be turned off so they don’t get freaked out. It’s not a big departure from their previous material, but it still sounds brilliant, so why fix what isn’t broken?

Finally, Pulled Apart By Horses prove that they bring the rock with a raucous set, blasting through fan favourites like ‘Meat Balloon’ and ‘The Crapsons’ as well as previewing tracks from their forthcoming album (due in early 2010 apparently). While some might sneer that the band aren’t doing anything particularly nuanced or innovative, it doesn’t matter one bit because they are still a hell of a lot of fun – raw, powerful and energetic songs mix with a stage presence that combines reckless abandon and wilful irreverence. The band throw themselves around the stage like their lives depend on it, and guitarist James is up to his usual speaker climbing antics, even swinging from a ceiling beam at one point – wryly quipping “thanks for the support” to the fans directly below him afterwards. And despite confessing a love for gaming, they also aren’t afraid to have a dig at the show’s corporate sponsors. “This is how much money Xbox have,”  says lead singer Tom, holding up a setlist that’s been hastily scrawled on a paper plate. It’s the songs on that setlist that matter, with filthy riff after filthy riff mixed with guttural howls and big, dumb, grin-inducing chorus hooks – a formula that is perfectly encapsulated on set-closer ‘I Punched A Lion In The Throat’. With the moshpit in full force and the crowd screaming along with Tom as he howls out the song’s coda of “Ultimate power! Maximum life!” this is all the evidence you need to prove that Pulled Apart By Horses are one of the most exciting live bands around right now. Their current support slot with Biffy Clyro is well deserved – and here’s hoping they’ll go on to bigger things. But failing that, there’ll always be a hell of a lot of love for them in Leeds.

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