ALBUM REVIEW: Lorde – Melodrama (2017)

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Lorde’s Melodrama is, for my money, one of the best pop albums of 2017, and one that is sure to launch her to widespread success. This is a record full of teenage passion and naivety in equal measure, one that captures the pop zeitgeist of the moment but takes just enough risks to stay compelling.

Songs like ‘Green Light’, ‘Supercut’ and ‘Perfect Places’ are all destined for the billboard charts with huge choruses and anthemic sing-alongs, but there are plenty of other songs here that demonstrate Lorde’s range as an artist. ‘Liability’, ‘Sober II (Melodrama)’ and ‘Writer in the Dark’ are all gorgeous piano ballads which allow Lorde’s powerful voice to shine.

That last track in particular showcases wonderfully her ability to shift from a nasally and delicate upper register to an authoritative croon at will. It also features some of the most engaging lyrics on the album, which are a bit lacking on some other tracks.

Lorde’s lyrics on Melodrama have the confessional, self-dramatizing quality of a teenagers diary, and while this sometimes comes across as charming (‘I hate the headlines, hate the weather / I’m nineteen and I’m on fire’), other times it just comes across as a bit clumsy or cringey (‘We’re King and Queen of the weekend‘)

But it’s easy to forget that Lorde is, in fact, still a teenager. If Melodrama feels in some spots a bit naive and inexperienced, it’s only because other moments on the album betray a wisdom and confidence far beyond Lorde’s barely-twenty age. And there’s more than enough talent and creativity evident here to suggest Lorde will become a powerful and provocative pop star in the years to come.

8.1/10

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ALBUM REVIEW: Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up (2017)

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It’s been over six years since we last heard from Fleet Foxes, and almost ten years since their eponymous debut album, with a helping hand from Pitchfork, launched them to musical stardom. A lot has changed in that time. Indie rock seems to have reached a point of critical mass where it can no longer pretend to be looking at the music world from the outside in, and the blogs which touted Fleet Foxes as the Next Big Thing have largely moved on to more trendy emerging sub-genres like trap and alternative R&B.

With all this going on, I was very curious to hear a new record from the band, and see how they would evolve their sound to meet the changes around them. Crack-Up, however, represents more of a subtle evolution than a sea change. The instrumental palette has widened a bit to include a small sprinkling of looped samples, psychedelic brass and, at one point, a gong.

But by and large the Fleet Foxes sound is entirely intact: rushing rivers of layered acoustic guitar, steady drums, and the stately beauty of Robin Pecknold’s harmonized vocals. Like Helplessness Blues before it, Crack-Up has some darker moments, but they largely serve as a counterpoint to the album’s default mode, which is one of euphoric summery bliss.

This mood, which the band manages to conjure up a number of songs, is no doubt much less effortless than it appears to be. Crack-Up is a very dense album with impeccable production, its sound built up from a huge number of moving parts into an intricate, winding whole. If we’re going to call the album ‘progressive folk’, then it’s more in the sense of ‘proggy’ than being actually forward thinking or avant-garde.

There are some welcome surprises, though. ‘Cassius’ opens with a looped sample and a gently pulsing sheet of synth and drums before erupting into an acoustic chorus, then ends in a psychedelic swirl of strings and piano. ‘I Should See Memphis’ is a plaintive solo strummer, but ends with a strange, echo-soaked drone that transitions into the album’s buoyant final track.

And ‘Third of May/Odaigahara’, which the band released leading up to the record, begins as its most single-worthy track, with uplifting vocals and a lovely, jazzy double bass which brings Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks (a clear influence on the record) to mind. In the second half, however, it becomes an unusual, minimal melting pot of strummed guitars and wobbly synthesizers.

It’s a very nice contrast, and one which feels a bit lacking in some other passages of Crack-Up. ‘If You Need to, Keep Time on Me’ is one of the album’s more stripped down tunes, featuring only piano, a guitar and vocals. But the song finds itself soaked in the same epic, echoey production as the rest of the record, and falls flat as a result. ‘Mearcstapa’ and ‘On Another Ocean’, meanwhile, hue too closely to the Fleet Foxes formula to stand out among the tracklist.

One thing which does consistently stand out on Crack-Up, however, are Robin Pecknold’s gorgeous lyrics. They find a perfect balance between being mystical and obtuse but also quite personal and affecting, as seen in a few of my favourite which I’ve picked out below:

‘Fire can doubt its heat / Water can doubt its power / You’re not adrift / You’re not a gift / You know you’re not a flower’

‘Thin as a shim and Scottish Pale / Bright white light like a bridal veil’.

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It’s no coincidence that Fleet Foxes have released their new album right at the peak of summer. This is music meant to be listened to outside, with the grass in your feet and the wind blowing around your ears. It is breezy and optimistic, but also full of detail and precision the closer you care to listen.

All the same, Crack-Up is a bit too familiar in some spots to be truly exciting. The world of indie might have undergone a tectonic shift, but Fleet Foxes, despite the title of their latest album, have not. What they have done instead is produce another gorgeous, lavish, and highly textured folk album which their fans are sure to love, and their detractors (who are, in my opinion, rebelling more against the image of the bearded folky hipster than the music itself) will probably be turned off by. While I feel a slight sense of diminishing returns from the band at this stage of their career, I can’t argue with the sheer prettiness of Crack-Up, and I’m sure I’ll be returning to it regularly throughout the summer.

8.2/10

GAME REVIEW: The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (Nintendo, 2013)

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is, paradoxically, both the least original Zelda game ever made and a breath of fresh air for the series. As a direct sequel to 1992’s classic Link to the Past, this game is more than content to tread in its predecessors footsteps for the first hour or so. In fact, during that first hour it is so familiar that it seems more remake than sequel.

But what initially seems like purely an exercise in nostalgia soon reveals itself to be more of an exercise in subversion, deconstructing and rearranging the things you thought you knew about Link to the Past, or about Zelda as a whole.

The game’s central wall merge mechanic adds a wonderful element of surprise to a very familiar incarnation of Hyrule, forcing you literally and figuratively to look at the world from another perspective. It is employed in delightfully clever ways across the game’s overworld and many dungeons, where it forms the backbone of the game’s puzzles.

Then there is the item rental system, which is a refreshing change (if not a revolution) to the typical structure of a Zelda game. Rather than building your inventory up one dungeon at a time, here you are given access to almost all of the game’s items within the first hour, courtesy of the pink-bunny-hooded-magician and home-invader Ravio, who will rent items to you for a sum of rupees.

In practice, this means that the player is given a huge amount of freedom to explore the world in whatever order they choose. After the initial three dungeons, the game drops you into Lorule, a rather cheesily-named equivalent of the Dark World, and just says “We know you know what you’re doing, now here’s seven dungeons. Have fun”. It’s a huge contrast to a game like Skyward Sword, whose handholding introductory sequence was so excessively long I’ve still not gotten past it to this day.

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If at any point you ran out of hearts and die, Ravio will take all rented items back from you and you’ll have to purchase them again. This small but brilliant design choice adds real consequence to death within the game, and has the upshot of incentivising the player even further to explore the world and track down its many pieces of heart and other secrets.

In my own playthrough of the game, however, I only died a single time. That was within the first couple of hours, and after that first death I found myself exploring everywhere for pieces of heart and bottles, always making sure I was stocked up on red potions and fairies. Perhaps my familiarity with Link to the Past (being one of my favourite games of all time) was partly to blame, but it has to be said that A Link Between Worlds never felt particularly difficult, and could have pushed its ideas about death and fail states a bit further than it did.

One aspect of A Link Between Worlds that proved a pleasant surprise was its pacing. This is a game that moves along at a very fast clip, with Link’s movement and attack speed being much quicker than in most Zelda games. Its world loads smoothly at a high framerate, and content-wise there is nothing but meat on the bones. No lengthy intro, no pointless side quests, just great dungeons and a densely packed overworld.

My playthrough, collecting every piece of heart and almost every other optional item/secret, clocked in at a modest 15 hours. In some respects, I think this is great. Zelda games don’t all have to be epic 40-hour plus sagas that take weeks and months to finish, and I’m happy to see the series template can accommodate a leaner, more focused kind of game.

But it proves more of an issue alongside what is, in my opinion, the game’s Achilles heel: its narrative. All elements of the world, the quest and the characters in A Link Between Worlds feel quite lazy and by-the-books for the series when compared to the imaginative mechanical and structural ideas within the game.

A shorter length (while not in itself a problem) combined with a rather predictable and dull story, gives A Link Between Worlds a considerably less palpable sense of adventure and wonder. And this, in my opinion, is the one unchangeable element of the Zelda formula, and the thing that just barely holds A Link Between Worlds back from being a truly classic Zelda game.

And yet it comes so close. This is a game as daring as it is derivative, as inventive as it is referential. Like its title suggests, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds is simultaneously a bridge to the series’ past, and a glimpse into its potential future. And it’s a bright future indeed.

8.9/10

GAME REVIEW: What Remains of Edith Finch (Giant Sparrow, 2017)

What Remains of Edith Finch is the latest entry in a burgeoning genre I like to call the Walkie: interactive storytelling experiences which primarily consist of walking around, exploring an environment and the story to be found within it.

It’s a style of game that has been around for several years now, first introduced with the likes of Dear Esther in 2012, but which has been taken in directions as divergent as Proteus and The Stanley Parable. What Remains of Edith Finch, however, marks the moment of the genre’s sentience: the point at which it has become aware of, and is actively taking inspiration from, its predecessors.

One in particular springs to mind: The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home, which also features a slowly unravelling family story told by a twenty-something female narrator as she returns to a house she used to live in. Edith Finch certainly has ideas of its own, but I have to say I found it hard to shake an eerie feeling of familiarity as I played through it.

The game’s appealingly tidy structure, which finds you gradually ascending the house as you work your way forwards through several generations of family stories, is not unlike that of Gone Home. And the environmental storytelling, tightly packed into bedrooms and crowded kitchens, is effective if not altogether new.

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Edith Finch’s biggest new ideas are the sequences which tell the story of how each family member met their unfortunate demise, using interactive vignettes of fantasy, memory and imagination. Many of these sequences contain inspired ideas, but just as many are ruined by clunky animations or unclear controls which pulled me straight out of immersion.

Others go off without a hitch, however. One in particular, which tells the story of 11-year old artist Milton’s disappearance through a wordless hand-drawn flipbook, was brilliant. And the lavish, bleak, and occasionally hilarious story of Edith’s brother Lewis was another highlight.

For as effective as some of these vignettes are, however, their collective effect is of spreading the story a bit thin. There are thirteen Finches whose tales are all told throughout the game, and by spending such a short time with each one, none feel truly developed. Edith Finch misses what made Gone Home so special: the way it let the player develop a personal bond with its narrator, Sam, over a number of hours, despite never actually seeing her.

What Edith Finch sometimes lacks in narrative depth, however, it makes up in atmosphere. The house and its surrounding woodland are full of foggy moonlight and the sound of waves, while its minimal soundtrack, though it can feel a bit emotionally manipulative at times, is certainly very affecting during climactic moments of the story.

That story wraps up in a very satisfying way during the game’s final moments, coming full circle and tying all of its loose threads together. And it should be noted, too, that Edith Finch features one of my favourite ever credit sequences in a game. Without giving it away, I’ll just say that it’s goofy, very sweet, and the perfect end to such a personal tale.

My final impression walking away from What Remains of Edith Finch, then, was largely a positive one. This is an imaginative and affecting game which, while a bit derivative in places, is nevertheless worth seeing through to its conclusion. I’m sure developer Giant Sparrow has more great things to come.

7.8/10

FILM REVIEW: Dogville (Lars Von Trier, 2003)

An epic minimalist parable from prankster & provocateur Lars Von Trier.

The three-hour long Dogville is a hugely ambitious movie which plays out across a single, black and white set. There are at most three walls, one car and a handful of chairs to be found in the entire film: outside of that, there is almost nothing besides the actors and some chalk lines on the floor to tell us where houses and gardens are supposed to be.

The theatrical set design is unignorable. It’s the first thing any viewer of Dogville will notice, and it’s a quite brilliant concept. Von Trier stages his movie as if it were a play which the viewer was moving inside of, lending it a spontaneity and strong sense of presence. We feel right up close to Nicole Kidman et al as we watch them perform. But at the same time, this is juxtaposed with jittery camera movements and subtle editing cuts which deliberately strip away the illusion of film.

The effect is incredibly unsettling at first. We are left with almost nothing to cling on to except the actors and their performances, so it helps that these are uniformly fantastic. Nicole Kidman gives an astounding performance that is vulnerable, mysterious and thoughtful in equal measure, while Paul Bettany is also great as the idealistic and conflicted Tom.

By taking away so much, Von Trier asks us to consider more carefully the things that are left. There is lots of symbolism in Dogville, some very overt, some less so. In the prologue, Tom and Ben play checkers but realize they “can’t play the game with a missing piece” right before Grace arrives. When she does, she runs up the mountain but is warned prophetically by Tom that “it’s a very nasty drop”. Fall from grace, anyone?

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The religious undertones of the film heighten as it progresses. One later scene finds Nicole Kidman rather allegorically spread out on a bed of apples, signalling temptation. This develops into the central thread of the movie, as Dogville becomes a metaphorical Eden and issues of judgment and community, which germinate in the film’s first hour or so, pull back to a more universal scale.

The setup is fantastic, and the way in which Von Trier entangles each character in his web is fascinating and sometimes excruciating to watch. If I had one slight complaint, though, I do think some of the scenes leading up to Dogville’s gloriously nihilistic ending were a bit too heavy-handed with their philosophizing.

But any minor complaints are eradicated by those closing scenes, and the utterly evil credit sequence which follows. A montage of human poverty and suffering set to David Bowie’s ‘Young Americans’? Are you fucking kidding me, Lars?

Dogville’s ideas might not be revolutionary, but the way in which it combines them is. It is something like a cross between Paradise Lost, Ingmar Bergman and Samuel Beckett, with a healthy dose of malicious wit and humour thrown into the mix. It is unlike any other movie I could care to name, and while it is certainly not an easy watch, Dogville is a groundbreaking and ambitious movie from one of the most instantly recognizable artists in modern cinema.

9.4/10