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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Aggregation #02

Aggregate - Part 2

If M.D. Geist Were Emo: Deadman Wonderland

People don’t know what to expect from this strange thing called “anime,” but they do know what to expect from Toonami: accessibility and action.

Deadman Wonderland has plenty of the latter, added and stirred with a cup and a half of good ol’ fashioned manipulative nihilism. Bake at 400 degrees. Ding. You now have your very own incredibly dumb, barely competent, and completely enjoyable exercise in blood, half-way bildungsroman, and what the hell, here’s some more blood, because we’re cool like that.

Ganta is a nice little ordinary middle school kid. So naturally, his whole class is violently slaughtered, and he’s pinned with the crime. Innocent as he is, few judges are on the circuit who are inclined to believe testimony alluding to a murderous phantasmic “Red Man” who, according to Ganta, implanted a red crystal in his chest. The villainous DA, who obviously knows exactly whats up and further frames him for the crime, does nothing to help. So Ganta gets interred in a privately owned prison called Deadman’s Wonderland (and everyone’s okay with this, apparently) where everything is awful, and he meets a mysterious albino girl in a skintight body suit who immediately greets Ganta as her bestest buddy.

So basically, a not particularly unusual shonen adventure setup. The grownups are terrible, the girls are well endowed, and the kid is special. Why, then, is Deadman Wonderland as enjoyable as it is?

Not because it’s any good. A drama starts and ends with its characters, and Shiro and Ganta are flat. We never really find out that much about them, or why they are the way they are. They wear their motivations on their sleeves, and they seem to feel things out of habit than actual emotion. I seem to remember all of about three emotions from Ganta, and most of them have to do with the fact that the show is doing everything it can to make the guy miserable.

And the show goes out of its way to do so, to the point of completely, almost naively transparent contrivance. Why is the friendly, decent guy introduced? So he can get stomped on with a stiletto heel. Why must Ganta consume antidote “candy” to stay alive? Because it’s dramatic. Why does anyone do anything in this whole show? Because the director had one burning question he wanted answered during this production: how do we make it more dark?

Deadman Wonderland is a show that revels in its own nihilism, trying to one up itself at every corner. Yet in the end, the show reveals it actually has a theme.

What’s that theme?

You have to reject nihilism…to reject nihilism.

A theme that it states boldly and with supreme and utter self confidence, as if it were the most brilliant realization in all of human history.

And that’s what makes it so special. It has the audacity to be a stupid piece of crap. At no point did it feel like this was something that came out of a production committee. The director’s semi-competent fingerprints are all over this show, and while the result is intensely dumb, it feels like a special kind of dumb that will never be reproduced anywhere else. It is a show as written, it feels, by an edgy teenager, for other edgy teenagers to marvel at.

Miraculously, the show is also halfway competent on the technical side. It’s paced decently, the dub is just good enough to get by, and all the little filmmaking details are all there. All this helps make all that’s stupid with it watchable, instead of simply boring.

For the weapons that require you to cut yourself to use. For the dumb OP song. For Greg Ayres doing his best Shinji impersonation. For the complete tone-deafness to theme. For the complete lack of anything like self-moderation. For all those things, I loved this show, in spite of itself. It’s pretty hilarious.

Wargame: European Escalation

Obviously, by “one post a day,” I meant “one post after about a week of chilling with friends, drawing, and trying to decide how I feel about going back to college.”

Also, playing vidya.

Specifically, I’ve had a bit of a problem. I used to play a lot of a mod for the old game Command & Conquer: Generals called Cold War Crisis. As you may guess, it’s set during the 80s, and involves conventional warfare with the Soviets. Think Red Storm Rising.

In the real world, had the Soviets ever decided to roll across the Fulda Gap into West Germany, they’d be rolling in under a fog of deadly chemical weapons and would have likely trounced NATO forces in Europe in about a week. Assuming things had not already gone all fission-y.

Fortunately, as this is a game, NATO is strangely well-supplied, and the thousands of chemical and nuclear weapons have been thankfully ignored, allowing you, the player, to command your armored division with impunity.

Note how I use the past tense.

When I got my new laptop, it came with OS 10.7, a user friendly but problematic OS that, among other things, broke the Cold War Crisis mod. If this were merely a configuration problem, I could fix it myself, post the fix on the internet, and be a minor sort of hero, but alas no. The problem is with the launcher, which only the CWC team would be able to fix.

I enjoyed the style of game, and I wanted a replacement. Unfortunately, none presented itself on the mac, but on the PC, I found Wargame: European Escalation.

A game developed by people who hate the letter “s.”

Compared to the CWC mod, it’s a much more tactical game. You control objectives, earn points, and use them to bring in reinforcements. Vehicles use roads to move faster, tanks run out of fuel, and using transports to move around infantry actually makes sense on these huge German expanses. Given how much you’ll need to be shuttling supply trucks and reinforcements to and from the FOB, the game is as much about logistics as tactics.

It plays on very large maps, but it still conserves individual unit detail. Unfortunately, unless you’re running on a very good computer, you won’t see much of that detail. I’m actually experiencing some rather unfortunate texture glitches, but I think that’s the fault of something I did to the configuration.

With the added dimension of realism, I’m having to get used to thinking with practical tactics, and learn more about cold war era weaponry. For instance, hiding a squad of Panzergrenadieren with MILANs in the trees to fire on approaching armor is a good idea, but their missiles are manually guided. That means, even though they can engage at significant ranges, they will almost always miss even a sitting target, wasting all their missiles. You have to tell them specifically to hold their fire until the armor gets closer.

On the other hand, micro is more difficult to pull off. I have yet to be able to maneuver my tanks into a “hull down” position (stopped behind a hill so just the turret is visible over the crest). Though tanks have different amounts of armor on different sides, there’s not really much of a way to make sure they’re facing the right direction. Most tank battles seem to come down to who has the better tanks and crews.

Playing skirmish agains the AI is fun, though on easy, it makes some weird choices.

I once found myself moving up my armor to defend two middle objectives when all of a sudden the AI decided to bring out all the MI-2s ever. I had about three units of four Leopard L4s, and two of them routed under the hundreds of rockets that were coming down on them from all directions. It worked for the AI. But then my Gepards arrived and all of a sudden it was full of burning MI-2 wrecks.

Later, I was playing, and it decided to camp around…somewhere. I’m not sure where all its forces were, if it even brought any in, but I sent in a recon helicopter to scout their FOB. There was nothing there except the command vehicle, which got destroyed, securing victory.

Most of the time, it’ll simply bring up lots of tanks with scout vehicle support and some anti air in the back. Woe to any tank elements that get caught out of position, but with some scouting and good preparation, its armored pushes stall pretty quick by better quality tanks with infantry, helicopter, and logistical support. The first time it tried this, a unit of Leopard L4s and two of L3s got caught behind enemy lines with no support against about five units of T-55s. The tanks took more than 50% casualties, but the remaining tanks held out, because the AI didn’t stop to deal with them. So they followed them and took shots at their rear while two more units of Leopards came to reinforce the other side of a rather obvious choke point they were headed for while artillery fired ineffectually in the general direction of the advancing armor.

So anyway, it kinda sucks that it’s on the PC, but it’s a good game. I’ll definitely be playing a lot more.

Did I mention you’d be spending a lot of time watching tanks drive down the Autobahn?

Aggregation #01

(I recently made myself a tumblr to post things that I didn't feel warranted essay length entries here.  I have aggregated some of it in this article)

C82#01: 幻想郷茶房~tea for two~ - 10th Avenue Café

Sometime early this morning, the first uploads from C82 began appearing on /jp/, slowly but steadily. It will likely take at least a week for even half of the stuff I actually wanted to listen to starts appearing, but I am a patient fellow (though that cruel, cruel premature upload thread was hard to deal with). I have the Tokyo Active NEETs album downloading as I’m writing this, but for now, I’m trying out some stuff that went under my radar.

I had never heard anything by the 10th Avenue Café before, but there were some familiar names on the credits. Miki - the vocalist on Close to You - I seem to remember from somewhere. The mastering was done by Shibata Takahiro of ShibayanRecords, a very familiar name indeed. His Bossa Nova albums show an interest in lighter, jazzy music, in contrast to his very heavy electro that most know him for. It is not surprising, then, to see him working with the 10th Avenue Café.

This album is rather short, but I feel like a longer album would overstay its welcome. There is, after all, only so much smooth jazz you can listen to at a time and not become a little bit bored. As ambience though, it works wonderfully.

Unfortunately, smooth jazz is hard to talk about in any interesting way. The arrangement makes heavy use of electronic instrumentation for harmonics and backup, but the melodies are primarily carried by piano (or keyboard) and vocal. In terms of license, the arrangements take very little: it’s very easy to tell what songs are arrangements of what originals.

The mishmash of backup elements could, if handled poorly, end up sounding off, but as unchallenging as the arrangements are, they are also masterfully done. That the tracks sound like anything at all is impressive: for soft jazz, it has a fair measure of soul in it.

Mood stays more or less consistent across the album - another reason for it to be short. Albiet, the first two tracks make more use of funk guitar and harmonics than the last two. Forest Calling especially seems to be the most focused on rhythm and groove of them, containing a piano riff that covers an unexpectedly broad range of octaves for a soft jazz arrangement.

In the end, I’m not sure how much I’ll end up listening to this, but it’s eminently pleasant, if just as eminently unchallenging.
C82#02: Mythology - Sound Online
Remember Sound Online, guys? The guy who Alstroemeria Records and REDALiCE would team up with to make those triparte albums way back when? Fun times. He doesn’t seem to be doing all that much on his own of late. His last album was six tracks: three with vocals, three instrumentals. This appears to be his new business model, and it appears to be working out for him.

I keep up with his releases, but I really don’t get exited by his stuff. He had, back in the day, a very clear style. Very clean sounding instrumentals and ambient reverb were dominant. In the present day, his work seems to have taken on more rock influences than were present in his heyday of co-releases with RAMM. I do not care as much for this new direction, but he still has his moments. Perhaps Tsubaki is no longer hitting his stride as he used to, but he isn’t down for the count yet.

Since it’s a short album, I’m going to be all unprofessional and do a track-by-track. Sorry y’all.

We see what this new direction means in the first track - 春暁ストライド - with an arrangement that features prominently guitar backing and a rock style drum kit. In a way, it reminds me of a faster, less intense Cytokine, before he went heavier to the electronic side of things. 3L delivers excellent vocals, as always, but as a whole, it lacks progression, either rhythmically or melodically or in pacing. It starts off as it ends: rapid and with little in the way of tonal contrast. It’s okay at the outset, but it gets rather tiring quickly.

The vocal version of Borderland has some problems keeping itself integrated. The synth work does not flow well with Nachi Sakue’s vocals, which, because she’s Nachi Sakue, are in moé timbre. The combination of squealy dancefloor synth and squealy voice doesn’t work. However, the instrumental version largely solves this. We discover, in the vocal-less version, a throwback to SO’s older work. The underlying arrangement is actually both ambient and powerful, like his best days.

The third track - 白銀桜花 - handles its vocals far better. Aki Misawa does not sing in moé timbre, and mostly sticks to octaves she can reliably hit. It also helps that the background arrangement is more subdued, primarily consisting of continuo, piano, and placid electronic drums. On the instrumental version, this makes it a more ambient piece than the others. Some added electronic flute and synth work makes it work well enough, though at 4:23, it runs the risk of overstaying its welcome slightly.

So, just like his last album, we have two kinda passable tracks, and a pretty good one. Is it worth it? Maybe. Do I wish Tsubaki would pick up his game? Yes, but honestly, I know nothing about the man himself, or whether this is his full time job, or simply a diversion. If it is a diversion, it is a good one. If not much more than that.

C82#03: 東方爆音ジャズ3 - 東京アクティブNEETs
Okay, our first full length album!

As a fan of hard jazz and fusion, I am rather surprised I never came across these guys before. However, I am glad I did.

Despite being a fan of it, I am unfortunately not very well acquainted with the technical side of jazz, which makes it hard for me to talk about it very engagingly. Since the jazz almost writes about itself, putting into words that which comes intuitively from the music is impossibly difficult, so I won’t even try to do an analysis of any individual songs.

Instead, I do give a hearty recommendation just from the outset to go and check out the album if you like either hard jazz or Touhou. If you live in Japan, buy this shit.

I still have observations about it though. NEETs’ interpretations are excellent, but they feel very strange when they’re quoting ZUN directly. It encounters the same phenomena as Shostakovich’s singularly odd jazz album: the strong classical tendencies find their ways into the piece and end up overpowering the jazz-ness, converting it into some sort of hybrid. In some contexts, this would ruin the soul of the thing, but here, everyone’s playing with enough style and cohesion that it never feels like it’s departing the jazz envelope.

Still, the juxtaposition of ZUN’s neo-romanticism with the flow of the jazz itself means that this is a very, very different beast than, say, Kind of Blue. It’s melodic and tonal in ways that BeBop generally isn’t. Which is because, it’s not consistently BeBop. It falls into the softer end of the scale (though never into soft, and never at the cost of its complexity) from time to time, just as it sometimes treads the border of fusion. It brings variety, which is always a good thing. Never once was I anywhere even close to bored with this album.

I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed in their interpretation of Greenwich Upon the Heavens. In its original, it’s already a track highly suited to jazz arrangement, but the NEETs’ interpretation doesn’t really play that up. Though “this truly spectacular music isn’t as spectacular as it could be” is hardly a complaint.

So if you couldn’t tell already, this is a godly frakking album, and you should, like, listen to it right now.

So, all the albums I had assumed would be showing up last are the ones that were showing up at the outset. The Tokyo Active NEETs’ album, and ButaOtome’s Bowling both were on the first day, but Alstroemeria Record’s new album is still nowhere to be found.

On the other hand, this gives me time to enjoy each in turn, and even more time to write a short something about it here, before going onto the next thing.

C82#04: Crimson Tempest - REDALiCE
REDALiCE is one of those guys. Occasionally, he’ll have something really neat, and occasionally, he’ll just kinda…pass by. Back in the day, he and Minoshima of Alstroemeria Records would do a bunch of collaboration, but I haven’t seen them working on Touhou much together. What they did work on, however, was the ED to the spring’s Haiyore, Nyarlko-San, I’ll Absolutely Be With You (or something like that). Which, unfortunately, isn’t all that great (hey, kinda like the anime itself).
I wish I could say this album goes to show that REDALiCE still has it in him. It…kinda doesn’t. Admittedly, the style of most of the album is not one that greatly appeals to me, so I’m having a hard time separating the technical genius from my personal taste, but honestly, not a whole lot of it was particularly interesting listening.

The problem is mostly with his vocal stuff. A very (surprisingly) wide variety of vocalists show up on this album, from the familiar Nomiya Ayumi to the less familiar Rizuna. For the majority of the songs, REDALiCE has them sing in moe timbre. And honestly, that’s probably what, say, Nachi Sakue is best at. At the outset, this is unpromising for my own tastes, but it also seems that, on the vocal tracks, REDALiCE’s arrangements get a lot less interesting as well. Either that, or the mastering is such that they get overpowered by the vocals.

This is, of course, a generalization. Some songs work considerably better than others, and some are actually rather good. Your mileage will vary on which ones, but, having put the album on shuffle while writing this, the current song, Hungry Girl, is very nice in both how it phrases the vocals and the way it contrasts tones.

On the other hand, the two vocal-less, j-core oriented tracks on the album, are pretty neat. It is what he’s good at, and it’s what I listen to his albums for. If he delivers at nothing else, he delivers at that.

So far, I’ve talked only of REDAliCE’s own tracks, but he shares almost 40% of the album with guest arrangers: t+pazolite, ARM of IOSYS fame, and someone named Gennya, who is as of yet unfamiliar to me. t+pazolite has two tracks, similar in their flaws to REDALiCE’s own, and neither one of which I particularly care for. In truth, I have not heard enough t+pazolite to compare it to his normal, but I have not been too thrilled with his work that I have heard. ARM’s track is…well, he’s IOSYS, so that means crazy out-of-character humor. And indeed, that’s exactly what it is. At least, the fragments I actually understood. Gennya sounds like what I’d imagine Sound Online would sound like if Tsukasa did happy hardcore. Which isn’t terrible, but the track doesn’t really go anywhere either.

All told, I’m not really a fan of this album. A lot of the tracks don’t really go anywhere, and about 70% of it is rather underwhelming in general. I’m not writing off the whole album, but if you’re really interested, wait for some of it to get uploaded to youtube, then decide if you want to buy it/download it/get low quality rips of it from youtube.

C82#05: THE WORLD DESTINATION - Alstroemeria Records
I had intended on writing something about every album I listened to from C82. I had this notion that I’d just write brief blurbs about stuff I hadn’t been anticipating. How silly of me, I don’t do ”brief.” I only do long, convoluted, and flowery.

I listened to Bowling, but I want to make sure I can’t actually purchase it legally before writing about it. I’ll give it a while. Maybe do that one last. I’ll go ahead and say this though: it’s really, really good. As if that were ever in doubt.

So as of now, I have a few albums I need to write about:
  • xi~on’s 12th Spell Card 
  • EastNewSound’s Blaze Out 
  • TAMusic’s Touhou Quartet 7 
  • Unlucky Morpheus’s Parallelism α 
And this one.

More widely known as The Granite Countertop Album (Not really)

It’s actually a nice change of pace from tats’ normal covers, and it’s not just the cover that’s changed either. This is not one of Minoshima’s “Dancehall” albums (see Haunted Dancehall, Killed Dancehall, and Abandoned Dancehall, his previous three). Unlike them, it is separated into distinct tracks rather than a continuous play. Because of this, Minoshima has more freedom in terms of sound and tone diversity, since they need not lead into each other as smoothly.

He demonstrates this with his first track, an original. Brostep. I am not a fan of brostep (most of it has all the subtlety and art of a power drill), but I do not shun it, and this is a pretty good example of how to do it in a way that doesn’t get annoying fast. More importantly, I don’t think Minoshima has ever done straight up brostep before.

As a whole, the album is heavier than the usual for Minoshima. It sounds more like Plastik World than Abandoned Dancehall at times, though the electro and brostep influences are definitely still there. It’s definitely still nu-Minoshima, but I think he’s taking slightly more risks with this album.

Most of the tracks have something interesting in their conception, and though towards the longish side, none of them really and truly start to drag. At seven minutes, YOU’RE MINE almost runs into this, but it’s an improvement on some of his other longer tracks (like Plastik Mind).

Minoshima seems to have started working more with a producer called Camelia. He is not a Touhou arranger and does not have a circle of his own: he produces Vocaloid albums. Moreover, he produces pretty good Vocaloid albums, from the one that I listened to, but I’m glad to hear him use real people on Minoshima’s albums. A funny artifact of his background is that his vocals still sound like they were written for Vocaloid, a sense reinforced in his track - IN THE FLICKERING - from the processing he did to it. The vocalist, Takanashi Toriko, does well in following Camelia’s baroque and demanding score.

I honestly was rather skeptical of this album, when I heard the crossfade. I was anticipating it regardless because I trust Minoshima to, at the very least, fail in an interesting way, but I was only expecting maybe a few good tracks. THE WORLD DESTINATION, as it turns out, is not only pretty good, but very good. Recently, I’ve wondered why it is I still hold Alstroemeria Records in such high esteem, especially compared to Shibayan and Syrufit. I no longer wonder.

C82#06: Parallelism α - Unlucky Morpheus
I think I’m gonna make myself only do one of these a day. Otherwise I’ll burn out and start getting boring.

Well, more boring.

That, and I want to do at least some actual fiction writing this summer.

Today’s album comes to us providence of Unlucky Morpheus. My first exposure to Unlucky Morpheus was Rebirth, a 2009 album. Rebirth was primarily speed and power metal, with vocals. It was pretty okay, and I never listened to it all that much. I paid them no attention until last Comiket, when they released Faith & Warfare, a fusion album. It was surprisingly really good. I just assumed that they were better at fusion than they were at actual metal.

Still, they made me curious, so when this Comiket came around, I went ahead and listened to this.

What I got was this.

It seems that in the interim, Unlucky Morpheus not only got a hell of a lot better (providence of some roster changes, I believe), they morphed into Dark Moor: Touhou Edition. Specifically, Dark Moor when they had Elisa Martin, though they too brought on a male vocalist for a few tracks.

I am at a loss to provide much more criticism than that. The team of Fuki and Yuki have gotten better at making interesting arrangement, and the newcomer vocalist - Denshirenji “Most Dangerous” Takeshi - has a powerful and emotive voice (I…err…actually mistook him for a girl at first). The drummer, who previously on Rebirth did little more than a straight and tiring double base drum attack and was the source of most of their problems, has either gotten much better, or left. The percussion on this album is still not its high point - it’s a bit stiff and still pretty basic - but it’s serviceable and allows their high points to show.

That isn’t to say that the album doesn’t have one or two problems. Yuki makes the questionable decision to try to sing in English for Inside of Me. Yes, she still sings pretty well (if a bit too emotively), but I haven’t the faintest what she’s actually saying, and it does stick out to a native speaker. The album itself is also mastered rather poorly, though it is not too egregious, and a good sound system or pair of headphones will help.

But those things aside, if you like power metal, go for it. Demetori has the harder end of the spectrum filled out (here’s hoping to C83!), and xi~on has the progressive metal handled, but besides for Sound Holic’s two pretty-good metal albums, we’ve lacked a really consistent vocal metal act. Perhaps, until now.

Favorite track.

Wait, sorry, I meant this.