GAME REVIEW: Sonic Mania (Headcannon & PagodaWest Games, 2017)

Sonic Mania is a game that understands the appeal of the Sonic series better than almost every game that it has produced in the last twenty years. What Sega seems to have missed is that Sonic was never really about platforming, or about the grating, two-dimensional furry-bait characters – those early Megadrive classics were more like moving pinball machines, at their best in the moments where you were almost in control of a rapidly moving object.

The level design in Sonic Mania nails this feeling, and is by far the game’s greatest strength. Each stage is full of clever contraptions that launch Sonic around at high speed – my personal favourite being the enormous moving gun that Sonic loads himself into like a bullet in the Mirage Saloon Zone.

Act 2 of each stage cleverly subverts the mechanics introduced in act 1: in the Oil Ocean Zone, for example, act 1 introduces pools of oozing oil that you can jump into and use as ladders, while act 2 grants you the fireball powerup, causing every pool of oil you jump in to burst into an enormous sea of spectacular pixellated flames, which slowly drain your rings.

On top of that, the multiple pathways of each stage interweave in some very clever ways, and are full of hidden secrets that reward exploration. At their best, Sonic Mania’s levels feel like a series of tightly wound contraptions intended to get you from A to B as fast as possible, while at the same time being littered with distractions that tempt you to slow things down.

Visually, the game looks a treat – the colourful presentation and high FPS all contribute to the sensory overload which classic Sonic depends on, as does the fantastic music. The developers have captured the look and feel of these games to a tee, but bring enough of their own ideas to stop it being a pure nostalgia trip.

But there are some aspects of Sonic Mania which hew too closely to the design of the original games. Things which are in fact so fucking frustrating they make me question whether I see the original three games with rose-tinted glasses.

First of all is the bosses. The bosses in Sonic Mania fluctuate wildly in difficulty, from insultingly easy (the Eggman sub in Hydrocity Zone) to stupidly difficult (the robot spider in Studiopolis zone). Often I felt that it wasn’t at all clear what I was supposed to actually do in these fights, and even when it was I still felt that the slow, floaty imprecision of Sonic’s jump was not at all suited to combat in a game of this pace.

My second problem is with rings. Rings are a bullshit system for health. The random angles at which they fly away from you after getting hit was a source of endless frustration for me while playing through Sonic Mania. If you get hit at any point while standing beside a wall or other impassable object, there is a high chance that all your rings will clip out of bounds, and be impossible to recover.

In several difficult boss fights which force you into one corner of the screen, I just felt plain cheated when I lost all the rings I had accrued throughout the stage in this way. And in almost every case, boss fights descended into a crude game of ‘get hit, scramble for the one ring I can keep hold of, and use the very lenient period of invincibility to damage you’.

After one particularly difficult boss fight caused me two or three game overs for the reasons described above, I decided to change tack. I replayed act 1 and 2 of the stage, carefully collecting 100 rings until I acquired a couple of extra lives, to give me a bit of a cushion. I was just approaching the boss, feeling prepared and ready to go, when – bang. I died to the timer, which apparently kills you if you spend any longer than ten minutes in one stage.

I turned the game off right then and there. Fuck that. I felt like I was being punished for not playing the game fast, but if Sonic Mania is a game meant to be played recklessly, then why the equally punishing and difficult boss fights?

It felt indicative of a contradiction at the heart of Sonic Mania, and one that might be at the heart of the Sonic franchise as a whole. These are games that revel in the thrill of moving at a speed beyond control, but their difficulty and structure often ask for a level of precision completely at odds with that. Ultimately, the many ways in which Sonic Mania successfully revitalizes the series only serve to highlight these frustrating inconsistencies.



The Wooden Man is going to India!

As I alluded to in my last post, and as many of you will already know, I’ve got some exciting news to share. I’ve been accepted to complete an internship at The Telegraph in Kolkata, India, and will be leaving a few weeks from now at the beginning of February. It’s only a month long, but afterwards I will be travelling around India for a few months more, or as long as my finances allow.

The paper have said there may be an oppurtunity for me to write a travel blog which they will publish, but even if that doesn’t come to fruition I will be writing one for The Wooden Man. I want to bring lots of new content and ideas to the blog in 2018, so expect some form of travel diary and some tales from the East. Hopefully I’ll be able to share on The Wooden Man some (if not all) of the pieces I write for the paper, as well.

Outside of this, I have lots more ideas for content to come in the rest of 2018. I’m currently in the process of writing a short story which I will be posting here chapter by chapter once complete. It’s kind of a surreal mystery/horror story which features solvable logic puzzles, and is expanding beyond my initial idea for it as I write. This was going to be my next project after finishing AOTY, but it might go on the backburner until the summer now I’ve gotten the internship. You can definitely expect it at some point in 2018, though – I’m very excited about it.

Once I’m back in the summer, too, I’d like to start writing some different kinds of articles. Maybe conducting some interviews with local bands and rising artists, rather than just turning out reviews. And I’d also like to write some more interesting editorial pieces, the kind that require proper research and planning. We may also redesign the visual layout of The Wooden Man again to be a bit more appealing, and to get back in the habit of drawing.

I have some other plans for 2018 but it wouldn’t be as fun to spoil everything here, so you’ll just have to keep checking back in to see what’s in store. Hopefully this year will be even bigger and better than the last for The Wooden Man. I might even get a tan. Alavida!

Album of the Year 2017: The Complete List & Year in Review

Another year, another rundown of my favourite albums. It isn’t easy to write 50 record reviews in the space of a month, but that’s what I’ve done from the beginning of December to now, so thank you anybody who’s been reading. 2017 was the year I started trying to turn the Wooden Man from an internet dump of odds and ends into an active blog that I’ve been attempting to grow, and it’s exceeded my expectations so far. Here’s my complete list of 2017 albums, ranked #1 through #50, which was the basis for all the reviews. Clicking any album will take you to its individual post, and below the list are some thoughts about the year 2017 in music.

1.) Milo – Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!?!?! – 9.4
2.) Richard Dawson – PEASANT – 9.2
3.) Brand New – Science Fiction – 8.9
4.) Iglooghost – Neo Wax Bloom – 8.8
5.) Benjamin Clementine – I Tell a Fly – 8.8
6.) Kendrick Lamar – DAMN. – 8.7
7.) Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked At Me – 8.7
8.) Elder – Reflections of a Floating World – 8.7
9.) Perfume Genius – No Shape – 8.7
10.) Four Tet – New Energy – 8.7
11.) Protomartyr – Relatives in Descent – 8.7
12.) Chelsea Wolfe – Hiss Spun – 8.6
13.) Gas – Narkopop – 8.6
14.) Algiers – The Underside of Power – 8.6
15.) Big K.R.I.T – 4eva Is a Mighty Long Time – 8.6
16.) Idles – Brutalism – 8.5
17.) Angelo Badalamenti – Twin Peaks S3 Soundtrack – 8.5
18.) Jay-Z – 4:44 – 8.5
19.) Slowdive – Slowdive – 8.5
20.) Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights – 8.5
21.) Kamasi Washington – Harmony of Difference – 8.5
22.) Converge – The Dusk In Us – 8.5
23.) Ryuichi Sakamoto – async – 8.4
24.) Rina Sawayama – RINA – 8.4
25.) James Holden – The Animal Spirits – 8.4
26.) Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell Live – 8.4
27.) Angles 9 – Dissapeared Behind the Sun – 8.4
28.) King Krule – THE OOZ – 8.4
29.) William Basinski – A Shadow in Time – 8.4
30.) Oddisee – The Iceberg – 8.4
31.) The Horrors – V – 8.4
32.) Joey Bada$$ – All-Amerikkan Badass – 8.3
33.) Max Richter – Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works – 8.3
34.) Godflesh – Post Self – 8.3
35.) Tyler the Creator – Flower Boy – 8.3
36.) The National – Sleep Well Beast – 8.3
37.) Lorde – Melodrama – 8.2
38.) Billy Woods – Known Unknowns – 8.2
39.) Kelela – Take Me Apart – 8.2
40.) Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins – 8.2
41.) Blanck Mass – World Eater – 8.2
42.) Sampha – Process – 8.2
43.) Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up – 8.2
44.) Amenra – Mass VI – 8.1
45.) Various Artists – Mono No Aware – 8.1
46.) The XX – I See You – 8.1
47.) Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness – 8.0
48.) Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory – 8.0
49.) Alvvays – Antisocialites – 8.0
50.) Brockhampton – Saturation 2 – 8.0

So, 2017. The easy narrative of 2017 is the one about Trump and North Korea and Brexit, the one about impending doom and general gloom. And while I’m honestly bored of hearing that story, it is certainly true that politics was one of the biggest topics in music this year. Political music came out of every genre, from the mainstream to the underground, and some of my favourite albums came from artists with one eye on the streets.

IDLES, Joey Bada$$ and Algiers released the most overtly political records of the year, but it was everywhere you cared to look, from Vince Staples’ Big Fish Theory to LCD Soundsystem’s American Dream. While I loved a lot of these albums, it’s interesting to see that my favourite records from 2017 were those that were not political at all; instead they were the records that felt like self-contained worlds, records that offered a form of imaginative escapism. File under this category the latest albums from Milo, Richard Dawson, Iglooghost, Elder and Angelo Badalamenti, all of which were stellar.

My pick for the most original album of 2017 would be a close call between Iglooghost’s Neo Wax Bloom, Benjamin Clementine’s I Tell a Fly, and Algiers The Underside of Power. All three of these albums do things I’ve never heard before in their respective genres, and were at the very cutting edge of music this year. For anyone who wants to hear something new, give these three a try.

On the whole, I would say 2017 has been a very good albeit not great year for music. Nothing except Milo came close to surpassing my favourite records of previous years, and only two albums reached a 9/10 rating. Nevertheless, the quantity of great albums released throughout the past 12 months was very high, and I was never short of amazing music to listen to.

I’d like to give a quick shoutout to Frank Ocean’s ‘Chanel’ as my favourite individual song of the year, because I tend to only write about albums and EPs on The Wooden Man. Frank has been the artist I think I’ve listened to most throughout 2017, an impressive feat considering he didn’t even put out a full length album. If I was rewriting AOTY 2016 I think it’s very likely blonde would come out on top, but that’s something to save for the list of my favourite albums of the decade, which you can expect in a few years time. Oh yes.

And that’s a wrap! Thank you everybody for tuning in to The Wooden Man in 2017, and if you check back tomorrow you can expect to find out what’s coming in 2018. I’m really excited for the year to come, and have lots of great content and ideas to share with you guys. Tell your friends, tell your Grandad, save me as a bookmark. See you next year.

Album of the Year 2017: #1 Milo – Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!?!?!

Number one! We made it. Drumroll please…my favourite album of 2017 is Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!?!?!, the latest record from underground MC and producer Rory Ferreira, AKA Milo. Milo has been on the scene for several years now, tempering his unique brand of comic-philosophic rap music. But Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!, his fifth album, is the culmination of all his training in the hip-hop dojo.

Milo has always been an abstract and very poetic lyricist, but on some of his earlier material, particularly A Toothpaste Suburb, he sounded like he was trying too hard to impress. This is a man who would regularly namedrop philosophers and obscure authors like Schopenhauer or David Foster Wallace, but for every line that came across as inspired, another felt like it was reaching a bit too far.

On Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!?!, Milo earns every allusion as he rises to the stature of mystical prophet MC, spinning mind-bending wordplay around beautiful, spacey production that brims with confidence. This is the tightest, densest, most poetic batch of lyrics I’ve heard from any rapper in years, with line after classic line that has me reaching for the rewind button.

Musically, Who Told You to Think??!?!?!?! is an atmospheric blend of jazz rap and cloud rap, with some sprinklings of boom-bap and Shabazz Palaces futurism. Each track (many of which were self-produced) reverberates with gorgeous keys, crispy drum hits and melancholy bass, always leaving plenty of space for Milo’s vocals which are placed front and centre in the mix.

This lends the album a strong sense of space and clarity, inviting the listener to pull some of Milo’s cryptic lyrics apart. Try these, from ‘Paging Mr Bill Nunn’: ‘The most understated mage / Flow monotone, how you sublimate the rage? / I be to rap what Keynes be to Locke / What scenes be to plot / Or a cop tappin’ on the glass like ‘what seems to be the problem?’’

Milo’s words have a newfound sense of purpose here, which grounds much of the esoteric imagery contained within them. This is particularly the case on touching personal tunes like ‘Note to Mrs’ or ‘Take Advantage of the Naysayer’, where he raps about his wife and father respectively. Elsewhere, he’s content to spit dizzying metaphysical boast raps: ‘Seen his hands fasten round the hilt of that rusted ruby scimitar / Speaking time-tested codas / Who them other rhythm wizards are?

It’s this confidence that really sets Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!?! apart from Milo’s earlier work. His performances throughout the record are so sharp that whenever a guest MC appears, I find myself waiting in anticipation for Milo’s next verse. Said guests still manage to hold their own, however, particularly Elucid and the enigmatic Self Jupiter.

The only complaint I have for this record is simply that I want more of it. 42 minutes isn’t short by most standards, but when what’s on show is so fearlessly creative, it seems to fly by every time I put it on. I’ll happily devour any EPs and leftover tracks cooked up from this record, and am eagerly awaiting Milo’s next project.

Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!?! is the kind of album that I follow music so closely for. The kind of record that finds a promising artist emerging with a unique and engaging voice, fulfilling their potential in the process of creating something truly new. It’s my favourite album of 2017, and I would implore anyone interested in good music to give it a listen. Peace out.

Album of the Year 2017: #2 Richard Dawson – PEASANT

Richard Dawson is the most unsung bard in all of England. This short, stout, Geordie songsmith first caught my ear in 2014 with his album Nothing Important – on its sixteen minute title track, Dawson started by telling the story of his own birth, before embarking on a poetic odyssey through the most formative memories of his entire life, set to some absolutely wild guitar playing.

PEASANT, the follow-up to that album, is even more ambitious. This time, Dawson has turned his genius for storytelling away from his own life and – as you do – towards the Middle Ages. Yes, you read that right: PEASANT is a concept album that tells the stories of ten imaginary Medieval characters concocted entirely in Dawson’s imagination, each given name in the track listing: ‘Soldier’, ‘Weaver’, ‘Beggar’, ‘Prostitute’ and so on.

If that sounds intimidating, it isn’t. PEASANT is vibrant and uplifting music, and listening to it feels like charting an unexplored corner of a fantastical world. Anyone who appreciates an album like Joanna Newsom’s Ys will find in this record a kindred spirit: the winding songs and allusive stories are of the same ilk, though the songs are of a more digestible length.

The first time I listened to PEASANT, I was bowled over by its second track, ‘Ogre’, in a way that few songs managed in 2017. The song opens with lilting guitars and strings, which seem to come from a very ancient place. But the final minutes are what really took my breath away: a rush of harp, acoustic guitar and euphoric choir vocals form an invocation to the sun for three minutes, chanting over and over with increasing fervour: ‘When the sun is climbing…

Even after a year with PEASANT, that moment still gives me goosebumps. It makes me think of a community gathering in a tiny Medieval village in the middle of Spring, where all the children and cows and sheep are dancing around and clapping, celebrating the season with a kind of earnest joy that music seems hardly capable of these days. And something about it is so English in a way I find very endearing.

Smart of Dawson, too, to put this moment at the beginning of his record, because from here on in things get a bit knottier. ‘Prostitute’ tells the story of a downtrodden prostitute who steals a horse and escapes into the country, after her latest suitor chokes to death on his own puke. In ‘Shapeshifter’, the narrator gets lost in a mysterious place called the Bog of Names, before being freed by a benevolent animal spirit.

Each tale is strange and twisting, constructed with the kind of vivid imagination we might expect from a fantasy author like George R.R. Martin. And each one is delivered with Dawson’s absolutely marvellous voice, a thick and highly Northern drawl which is nevertheless capable of ascending to some perilous falsetto heights. The supporting musicians Dawson surrounds himself with, meanwhile, bring a huge amount of character and variety to each song, especially the fantastic choir vocalists.

Together, Dawson and his troupe of minstrels have put together one of the most ambitious folk records I’ve heard this decade with PEASANT. It is as uplifting as it is experimental, as intricate as it is inviting, and the tapestry of Olde English stories which it weaves is as compelling as any record I heard all year. Bar one, of course…

Album of the Year 2017: #3 Brand New – Science Fiction

I’m not sure about this one. Truthfully, I feel very conflicted. Throughout almost the entirety of 2017 I had Brand New’s Science Fiction at my number two or three spot for album of the year. I listened to it constantly, more than any other record except my pick for number one. I bought tickets to go see them live at the O2 Academy in Brixton. And then the gig was cancelled and the band’s career almost instantly brought to an end by the sexual misconduct allegations levelled at frontman Jesse Lacey in November.

I wrote a lengthy blog post about the allegations and the business of public shame a couple of months ago, which I would like to point people towards here. But the end result of it all is a strange feeling I haven’t experienced in music before: disappointed idol-worship, or the realization that an artist you admire has done some really terrible, terrible things. It completely ruined my ability to enjoy old Brand New material, particularly Deja Entendu, the lyrics of which now read as the callous and self-obsessed confessions of an emotional abuser.

So where does that leave us with Science Fiction? Truthfully, I haven’t touched it since the stories about Lacey broke. I debated whether I should scratch it from the list entirely, but it wasn’t until I came to writing this review that I revisited the album in its entirety. Having done that, I’ve made the difficult decision (and one which I may regret later) to try and remove the music contained within Science Fiction as much as possible from the ugliness that surrounds it.

Part of the reason I feel able to do that is because Science Fiction feels, not just lyrically but in every way, like a maturation for the band. Lacey’s lyrics throughout are repentant in tone, but they aren’t self-serving in the way a song like ‘Me vs Maradona vs Elvis’ is. The picture it paints for me, and I am very hesitant of sounding like an apologist here, is one of a man who is more than aware of the fucked up things he has done, and is still dealing with the damage and the emotional implications of his actions.

Opener ‘Lit Me Up’ sounds, in retrospect, like a song directly about sex addiction. And it even portends the way Lacey’s public life and career have been devoured on social media and in the music press: ‘It lit me up, and I burned from the inside out / Yeah I burned like a witch in a puritan town’.

The first half of Science Fiction contains a running theme of therapy and psychodrama. Tracks are interspersed with ominous voice recordings of therapy sessions and recalled dreams, while lyrics are heavy with psychological strife. ‘Lit Me Up’ and ‘Can’t Get it Out’ are among the most atmospheric and immediate album openers of 2017, while the next three tracks chart a difficult path through self-harming, death and religious doubt.

If ‘Never Be Heaven’, a plodding and mopey acoustic ballad, is perhaps the album’s only misstep, then it only makes the catharsis all the stronger when the record reaches the explosive religious apocalypse of ‘137’, where Lacey imagines himself being immolated by an atom bomb as his band reach a furious climax. Then comes ‘Out of Mana’, the most brilliant and visceral rock song of the year, with an unforgettable but deliciously simple guitar riff in the chorus.

Science Fiction’s second half delivers track for track the best guitar music of the year, the band shifting from melancholy to manic with ease while writing some fantastic melodies. The harmonized vocals of ‘No Control’ are another highlight, as is the whisper-quiet finale ‘Batter Up’, a song that seems all too aware of its position at the close of a chapter, and the bittersweet sadness of ending: ‘It’s never going to stop / Batter up’.

Some will be glad to see Brand New come to an end in light of the allegations against Lacey. Many hardcore fans have had to make a difficult choice between rejection and reconciliation with the band’s music. For my part, I have chosen the latter only for Science Fiction because I think it is an honest record that approaches the problems with a great deal of humility and artistry. For some that won’t be enough, and I respect that. But whatever your opinion on Jesse Lacey and his actions, it’s hard to argue with the music on Science Fiction, which is simply some of the best 2017 had to offer.

Album of the Year 2017: #4 Iglooghost – Neo Wax Bloom

Iglooghost’s Neo Wax Bloom is, unquestionably, the most fun record of 2017. Nothing else even comes close to the level of reckless abandon and hyperactive joy on show in this amorphous blob of an album, which is the best to come out of the Brainfeeder label since Flying Lotus’ Cosmogramma in 2010.

It’s not an easy album to pin down. The music contained within has a lot in common with drum ‘n’ bass and grime, but chopped up into an impressionistic splat and moving at extra light-speed. Like in grime production, there is a lot of empty space and use of found sounds, but instead of the characteristic gun clicks, these sound more like the noises that a two foot laser cannon might make while reloading.

Each song transitions into the next imperceptibly as in a DJ set, and truthfully the whole is so fast and disorienting that it can be difficult to pick out individual tunes. ‘White Gum’ is certainly a highlight: an enormous stomp of crashing breakbeat drums and grime vocals that have been chipmunked beyond comprehension. ‘Bug Thief’ is another, with its sticky and sentient keyboards warping around alien rhythms.

But the best way to listen to Neo Wax Bloom is not to pick out individual songs, rather to just let it wash over you in its entirety. I can’t help but think of this album as the musical equivalent of Katamari Damacy, for anyone who’s played that game. It’s like a huge, expanding ball of noise in constant motion, crashing through a surreal, whimsical landscape and absorbing everything in its path.

Neo Wax Bloom is fast and hyper-colourful in a way that could only have been put together by someone very young, and if you take a trip to Iglooghost’s bandcamp page it will tell you in uncertain terms that he is ‘13 YR-O OLD MAN FROM THE UK  ◑◑ EYEBALL PRINCE ◑◑.’ Whether or not you believe he really is thirteen years old (and honestly, a Google image search doesn’t rule out the possibility), one thing is certain: this kid is an electronic music prodigy.

No electronic album in 2017 felt so wildly creative, so head-spinningly complex and yet so simple in its childish innocence. The eleven tracks of Neo Wax Bloom were rhythmically combative and, fittingly, bore names that sounded like Pokemon attacks (one of them actually is). But also there was a kind of zen peace to be found in the eye of this record’s storm: a devotion to wildly imaginative silliness, even in the midst of chaos. I think 2017 needed that.