Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Music: Five top tracks that put the Rock 'n' Roll into Christmas

With the war between mainstream music and 'alternative' hotting up in the charts over the Christmas number one, I decided to look at the best Christmas tunes the rockier side of music has to offer.

For those of you haven't heard, there's this little TV show called The X Factor, which managed to glue 19.1million people to their screens on Sunday night to see who would win what is essentially a karaoke competition.

Joe McElderry, 18 from South Shields, Tyneside, beat Olly Murs, 25 from Essex to win the show and release a Christmas single – a cover of 'The Climb' by Miley Cyrus.

In spite of this, a campaign started up on Facebook to get Rage Against The Machine's 'Killing In The Name Of' to the number one spot to prevent a run of five straight years of X Factor finalists.

So, now that's explained in enough detail for even the most TV-shy reader to understand (hopefully), let's think about Christmas music. Crazily catchy and repetitive (often to the point of tears), Christmas songs range from the blandness of Cliff Richard's 'Mistletoe and Wine' to the jolly 80s ballad-ness of Wham!'s 'Last Christmas'.

Not to say that some of the classics aren't...well...classic (in fact one or two may show up in a bit), but there's nothing particularly rock about prancing about on skis or getting children to sing the chorus for you.

With that in mind I've scanned the (not so) underground music scene to find five gems you may have missed, or just get that rock 'n' roll feeling absolutely right. Let's take a look, but not in an overly dramatic countdown way, it's not life and death people ;-):

  1. The Ramones – 'Merry Christmas (I Don't Want To Fight Tonight)'

Released back in 1987 as a B-side to 'I Wanna Live' from Halfway to Sanity, the song combines the band's usual power-chord charged punk with a plea for peace at home at Christmas.

Admittedly not sophisticated, but the band still hold on to one of the staples of the Christmas single: the jingling bells. Hearing the Christmas message, which is, essentially, let's all get on and have a good time for one day at least, in such a raw and real-life way makes it something a little bit different, especially when you KNOW arguments about stupid things WILL happen. Check out the video for the song if you're not sure what I mean.

Since this was towards the end of the bands career, when they had taken more of a turn to the mainstream, you might think this track would be all clichés and happiness but it still retains the gritty nature of The Ramones and makes decent listening.

  1. The Darkness – Christmas Time (Don't Let The Bells End)

Continuing our theme of Song Title (The Bit You Remember), we have Lowestoft legends/wannabes The Darkness with their stab at the Christmas charts. Admittedly this was a proper pop/rock tune, but it's complete failure in the charts makes it one worthy of our consideration here, since it is a great example of everything we love (or tolerate) about The Darkness.

Since their decline into nothingness following a terrible follow-up album, the song has all but disappeared from the Christmas playlist, despite having guitar solos AND a choir of children, surely all the ingredients of a perfect Christmas number one..? Judge for yourself (particularly note the brothers duel guitaring) actually, since the song only made it to a measly number TWO after being pipped at the post by a god-awful cover of Tears For Fears' 'Mad World' – which, personally, was the most depressing Christmas number one in history.

  1. Trans-Siberian Orchestra – Wizards in Winter

From across the pond comes this bizarrely named outfit with an instrumental, not to be confused with WiZZard's 'I Wish it Could Be Christmas Every Day', which combines electric guitar and strings in an ELO-esque way, to create a tune which wouldn't sound too out of place on the soundtrack to The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Not that combining the orchestra with rock is anything ground-breaking, but the arrangement and string melody is enough to stick in you're head after only one listen, check it out for yourself if you don't believe me.

Having been introduced to the song by a friend I'm no expert, but she said it's very popular over in the states and “they are a hit because they make older, more classical songs 'cool'” - a bit like Apocalyptica then? Just think of it as the American version of Mike Oldfield's 'In Dulci Jubilo' – if you don't know the one I mean then it's that instrumental one with nice guitar licks you WISH you could play.

  1. AC/DC – Mistress For Christmas

With 200 million albums sold worldwide, AC/DC are undoubtedly a legendary band. 'Back in Black', the group's breakthrough release, hold the

title of the best-selling album released by any band in history – 45million sold copies in total.

Fair enough, Christmas songs might not seem very rock 'n' roll, but this one is 100% AC/DC: the gang vocals, chorus being composed entirely of the song title, chugging bassline and lyrics about as subtle as a brick pummelling Simon Cowell's blindingly smug grin.

The familiar sound of Angus Young working his magic on the guitar is always a welcome one at Christmas, and despite the...un-P.C. message of the track it's still a brilliant song in its own right, building to the sort of crescendo only AC/DC can deliver with such class. Take a listen via the wonderment of YouTube and judge for yourself.

  1. Slade – Merry Christmas Everybody!

By no means unheard of, Noddy Holder's hoarse wail of “It's Christmaaaaaaaass!” is the first thing to come to mind when someone mentions that the Christmas holidays are on the way. It's not as 'alternative' as the other tracks on the list and you'll find it on any decent Xmas compilation CD, but it clawed its way to the top of this list by having the right gung-ho attitude – not to mention the most memorable and cheerful chorus of any Christmas song.

The song was released in 1973 and became the b

and's sixth number one hit, knocking Wizzard's 'I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day' from the top spot and staying there for nine weeks.

Despite being written very much for the period, strangely history repeats itself, with the economic depression and unemployment of the 1970s haunting us this Christmas, so what better way to forget your troubles than to “look to the future”.

The video, taken from Top of the Pops (we still reme

mber that, right?), captures the atmosphere of the song perfectly and you can't help but smile at how young everyone looks.

Noddy Holder once complained that radio station

s play the song too early, explaining it's a song best listened to on Christmas morning amid the excitement of all the goodies which might be hidden under all that wrapping paper.

So comes the end to my little Christmas-based ramblings, hope you all have a good one, and be sure to check back once the fun is all over to find out how James Cameron's 3D epic Avatar turned out.

For now, Merry Xmas Everybody!

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Review: Left 4 Dead 2 (Xbox 360)

New survivor Rochelle is attacked by a Jockey, complete with The Joker-style manic laughter, while Ellis minds his own business (pic: GP)

Everybody loves killing zombies. Something about fighting off the hordes of the undead gives a certain satisfaction you just don't get from killing Minion #367 or slaying a mythical beast. Perhaps it's because we relate to the characters in games like Left 4 Dead – the whole world has gone to pot so they are forced to kill everything in sight as a last resort, a final act of desperation, for survival.

Valve's original zombie-shooter raised the bar in terms of what can be achieved in the genre, and they were rewarded with countless Game of the Year Awards. The game's intro movie entranced the imagination of players as they watched a Hunter, the hoody-wearing 'special' infected, pounce across a road to attack Lewis thinking “I hope I can do that”.

Sure enough the team didn't disappoint and the multiplayer aspect in particular demonstrated a whole new level of cooperative gaming, clocking thousands of hours of play time on Xbox LIVE.

With the sequel then, the bar was set rather high. Luckily there were issues with the original which needed to be addressed, and Valve tackled these in spades, countering complaints about the lack of campaigns playable in Versus mode by making all five stories playable this time around.

On top of the new levels there are new special infected to play around with: the Charger, a Tank-esque figure who can knock down an entire team like bowling pins and pummel one unlucky survivor to the floor, the Jockey, who piggy-backs survivors and drags them away from the team, leaving them open to attack, and the Spitter, who produces a highly toxic acid from it's mouth which can cripple a team in seconds.

Choosing not to continue the story (actually you're right, what story?!) from the original L4D by changing the setting to the southern states of America, the new survivors – Nick, Ellis, Rochelle and Coach – begin their story in Georgia, not even knowing each others names and attempt to find their way to New Orleans in hope of rescue by the military.

On top of the standard campaign, which is more amusing (and frustrating) online, and versus mode, the game also offers 'Realism', 'Survival' and 'Scavenge'. 'Realism' is for the seasoned L4D player, taking away all the pop up hints like “Don't shoot team mates!” and not highlighting weapons, items or off-screen players, making the special infected all the more deadly.

'Survival' is similar to the free add on for the first game, which sets up the four survivors in various locations from the campaigns and challenges players to stay alive for as long as possible, with as much petrol and pipe-bombs as you can throw.

'Scavenge' sees you collecting fuel to power light generators or getaway vehicles and works much in the same way as 'Survival' except there are rounds, with both teams getting to play as the special infected and the survivors, forcing players to exploit the new specials abilities, such as using the Spitter to cover the fuel pouring area in acid, or splitting up the survivors by driving one away with the Jockey.

The biggest change is the weaponry. If you ever wanted to swipe off the head of a zombie with a cricket bat (á la Sean of the Dead) you can thanks to the shiny melee weapons. Totalling eight in all, the list is topped by the deadly chainsaw, which can plough through dozens of gruesome infected before it runs out of juice.

The array of main weapons available has also been boosted, now letting you deal death with an array of FPS classics such as the AK-47 or Desert Eagle, but the jewel in the crown is the grenade launcher. Ridiculously powerful, but painfully slow to reload, the launcher sends body parts flying with precision and can quickly dispatch the fearsome Tank.

As if that wasn't enough, incendiary and explosive ammo are now available, good for one clip per gun when activated. The explosive ammo is a little lack-lustre, merely causing rounds to occasionally clip infected standing nearby. The power of fire on the other hand is devastating, creating one-hit-kills and lighting up the horde like a Christmas tree, well...maybe a pyromaniacs Birthday party...

The campaigns are as fresh and engaging as their predecessors were first time around, and the implementation of weather and other environmental effects is particularly well done. In 'Dead Center' you have to escape the building while it's burning down around you, with flames and smoke everywhere making it difficult to see and almost impossible to find the way out. This is taken even further in 'Hard Rain' where the second half of the level sees you re-tracing your steps while a storm rages slowing movement and covering the sounds of the infected's approach, creating a tense and genuinely terrifying experience.

Online, this game is a triumph and promises countless hilarious and irritating moments, often at the same time. It doesn't re-invent the genre or poke at the boundaries like Modern Warfare 2, but Valve have lived up to their pedigree and provided a sequel that surpasses the original Without Xbox LIVE though, there wouldn't be much of a game, so if you're online play-challenged then give this a miss, for anyone else who owns an Xbox though it's a crucial purchase. Lock and load.

James Michael Parry

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Music digitalisation: Does CD stand for Certain Doom?

Compact discs have long been the symbol of the music industry. Since their commercial introduction in 1982 as a joint venture between Phillips and Sony, over 200 billion CDs have been sold across the world (according to the BBC). That's an average of one million discs every hour.

But CD sales have slumped in recent years and global sales in 2009 will be half the level of the peak of the CD boom according to a survey by Enders.

Download services, such as iTunes or HMV Music, now generate around 7.5% of album purchases in the UK, a figure which rose 36% in 2008. (Sources: Offcom Digital Britain Report and The Guardian)

Illegal downloading is also still on the rise, with some 40 billion tracks being shared on sites like Limewire and Bittorrent in 2008 across 16 countries. Efforts by the Government to curb the rise have been met with apathy by the 'internet generation' - 14 to 24 year-olds - who “know that file sharing is illegal but will exploit whatever technology is available to enable them to enlarge their music collections for free” according to The Times.

Unfortunately for the industry, these illegal downloads make up 95% of the music being exchanged across the internet, losing artists and record companies £180m every year. Many alternative artists have voiced that they don't mind how people get their music as long as they hear it, but you feel as though few record company executives would agree.

The silver lining is that in a study conducted by the University of Hertfordshire which says 85% of the age group in question said they would continue to buy CDs even if they were given access to an unlimited legal download service. This shows that people still put value in 'owning' things rather than just 'streaming' them from internet services such as or Spotify.

The reason that many feel it's 'OK' to download music is “mainly because it’s free and they are not going to get caught”, according to Feargal Sharkey, the former Undertones singer and chief executive of UK Music, an umbrella organisation which represents the industry.

Despite best efforts, talks between the industry and the Government have been crawling along for the past few years, with the Government last year proposing Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should use a 'three-strike' letter writing system to warn offenders, giving them the responsibility to directly tackle the problem, which was reiterated in the Digital Britain report.

Punishments range from having bandwidth curbed to their internet being permanently suspended, according to The Times. Unfortunately there is still no right answer, and the discussions continue. We wondered what people really thought about it all, so we asked you:

Sarah White, 19, from Woodham said “You should be allowed to download music for free depending how long it's been out for.”

Andy Hemphill, 22, from Ewell said “Illegal downloading isn't immoral because music companies make music too expensive and are too slow to pick up on digital sales. It may be illegal but it will continue until they lower the cost of music.”

Lis Symons, 19, from Sandhurst said “I only download from iTunes now, because the others are all too much hassle. I always got viruses when I used Limewire, it's like it's one big virus.”

Colin Miller, 29, from London said “Maybe I'm just old and bitter but the good music doesn't get the credit it deserves these days, as most of it gets swallowed up by the X-Factor money-making machine.”

Kirsty Watkinson, 21, from Darwen said “There's nothing more delightful than having something concrete that you can touch and put up on the wall to represent the music you like, that's why I love CDs so much, but having digital copies of songs from CD is safer because they can't get scratched.”

MP3 players, specifically Apple's revolutionary iPod, have been the driving force behind music digitalisation and now almost half the population (48%) of people own and actively use and MP3/4 or mobile phone music player. This percentage hasn't increased significantly in the last two years though, suggesting the market may be at saturation point.

The industry has tried to react to changing consumer demand, with companies investing millions in music subscription services , but according to industry critics Deloittle, it's not enough:

“Music services may need to merge consumer features and benefits, such as a subscription service that comes with other deliverables e.g. portability and CDs, for consumers to believe that a music service is worth paying for.”

CDs may be fading away in the industry but they're far from dying out altogether. There's no question they'll be lying around cluttering up our lofts for some time to come, and there's a certain charm to listening to an album all the way through while as the artist intended.

One thing's for sure though, downloads are here to stay, and without punishments for downloaders there's no reason for people to stop, and with the number of tracks available increasing by thousands a day, why would they want to go all the way down the shops?

James Michael Parry

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Xbox LIVE Update: Social gaming revolution or shameless franchise spamming?

The modern world is all about sharing. Whether it's your best friend uploading those potentially career-damaging drunken photos of you to Facebook or your brother ranting about the state of the economy on Twitter, everything has something they want to say.

Microsoft's latest addition to the already jam-packed NXE (New Xbox Experience) will bring these household names direct to your Xbox, along with the likes of Zune, a video downloading service, and, the sophisticated Spotify, which lets you stream music direct from the internet.

The icing on the cake for sports fans is the Sky player, which will allow you to subscribe to Sky packages through your Xbox and enjoy the latest football match with all your friends' avatars from around the world.

While it may all sound exciting in theory – in fact the round of applause from E3 has only just died down - it only goes further to hammer home the stereotype of the near-institutionalised computer games fan, hiding away from the world in a dark room out of touch with the real world.

Of course this is nonsense in this day and age. Gaming is more diverse than ever before, with the average UK gamer aged around 28 years old and over 59% (26.5m) of all 6-65 year-olds playing computer games, in no small part due to the user-friendly nature of the Wii.

Microsoft's vision is to fight back by turning the Xbox 360 into a multimedia super entertainment centre. The vision falls short in reality though as the update itself (after a lengthy download) doesn't 'wow' right away, just causes Facebook and the like to feature in the dashboard menus, prompting another download each time one of the applications is selected.

Sadly the lack of integration doesn't end there, with each application being treated almost as a separate game rather than part of the dashboard, meaning you can't have any part of Facebook or Twitter running in the background, so if you wanted to share with the world that you'd just nailed the 'Seriously 2.0' achievement on Gears of War 2 you'd have to exit out of the game.

Teaming up your happy-go-lucky avatar with your real self is a little unnerving at first as well, but once the update is released worldwide you'll be able to add friends to Facebook from Xbox LIVE and vice versa, as well as all the usual Facebook features such as viewing photos and spying on your enemies from your primary school days.

Being keyboard-less on the 360 is one major drawback for the text-heavy knitting circle Twitter and though you can splash out on a 'Messenger Kit', you might find it easier to dig out the laptop to tweet away than navigate through the swarm of menus to share your thoughts through Xbox LIVE.

For music fans offers a colossal range of music from almost any artist imaginable, though you need to pay to sign up to the premium version of the service to unlock the most useful content, such as the ability to play just your 'loved' tracks, making endless CD burning for summer BBQs a thing of the past.

Zune, the least well known of the new additions, jazzes up the already popular Video Marketplace to offer a wider choice of films, though the choice is currently fairly limited. As well as feature films, Zune also highlights the best bits and bobs from the web to keep you entertained when you fancy a break from failing to beat 'Scatterbrain' on Expert for the 18th time.

Sky Player is the most illusive inclusion to date, with Xbox LIVE's message stating it will be rolled out on October 27 and that users won't need a Sky dish to access content. What it does reveal is that there will be plenty of on-demand movies available, possibly creating a bit of competition between Sky and Zune to control the download rental market.

The features are determined to show of their usefulness to gamers but for those without a lightning-fast internet connection even updating Twitter can be a strain, making the prospect of downloading a feature length full 1080p HD film a daunting prospect, though luckily you don't need to wait for the download to finish before you start watching.

There's masses of potential here, and now Microsoft has these big companies on board things will only become more refined and sleek but at the moment all the new features seem very tacked-on, giving more of a sense of bewilderment than appreciation of a revolutionised multimedia interface.

--- James Michael Parry

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Is this the real life - Has reality TV finally lost the X-factor?

With X-Factor dominating our screens once again it's hard to see an end to the reality TV craze, but despite decent viewing figures, you can't help but feel the 'magic' of the show is beginning to fade.

Of course I'm bound to say that, as a self-confessed cynic, but surely even the faithful can see how doing the same show six times over can begin to grow stale. It's not like an edgy drama where you can kill off characters, get new directors or have some shocking plot twist (those wondering what I mean watch House immediately), because they are constrained by the rules of their own format.

The system was altered this year by an introduction of music and an audience at the audition stage. You can't help but feel a slight nod to Britain's Got Talent is due, but still the poor quality of some of the acts which reach our screens is enough to make even the hard-faced Cowell cringe.

There's never been any doubt that it is all an act. Cowell is the king, it's his show and he's ALWAYS right, even when he's being brutal and harsh it's never just to put someone down.

Unfortunately, because SO many people now apply for the show the process has been stripped down countless times to get through the vast amount of people looking for their big break. Thousands never make it to the judgemental glare of Cowell before they are told they don't have what it takes, and even then not everyone is given a fair chance, as the show would mystically have you believe.

One story I heard from a young man called Adam exemplified this 'injustice' more than most. Some would say "Well, that's the industry, you have to be lucky", but surely the point of a show like this is that everyone can have the same chance?

In Adam's case, he started with the best intentions: a level head, a clear mind and some actual vocal talent (always a plus). After reaching the first audition he was called through to potentially begin his musical career, only to be met by an apathetic, dazed individual, who he was told would be listening to him sing.

He walked in and told the judge his name and what he was going to sing, to which the man responded "Fine" staring off idly into the distance, barely even registering that Adam had come in. Despite being virtually ignored Adam went ahead and sang, and the apathetic judge let him through. As it turned out, this man was by no means a professional, just someone TalkbackThames had found to help out with the auditions, and wasn't given any training or guidance in how to pass or fail people, making the process a bit of a 'pot luck' scheme.

Another one or two rounds of similar treatment ensued before Adam found himself up against the real deal: the X-Factor judges themselves. Surely this is when it becomes serious? When the people who have got to that stage actually show some talent?

The audition organisation team pulled Adam aside before this crucial stage, but not to offer encouragement, to suggest that he change his song choices from the ones he'd been singing the whole process so far, the likes of Usher and Ne-Yo, to "something a bit more mainstream".

Adam wasn't too keen on the idea, but the team persisted "something like err...who's that guy? Oh, R Kelly, what about that 'I Believe I Can Fly' one?" Adam begrudgingly agreed.

Adam waited patiently backstage for his turn, listening to the acts before him, some good, some pretty bad, until he was told to get on stage and walked out before the panel and a room of excitable spectators to make or break his music career there and then.

Cowell asked him routinely which song he would be singing, and as Adam said the name his face quickly fell from receptive disapproving. He sang through about six seconds before Cowell decided he'd had enough and said: "Sorry, it's a no" to which his panel of puppets quickly concurred.

After all the time and energy put into the process it came down to six seconds of a song he was forced into singing, but that wasn't the worst thing about it.

A few weeks later when the show began to air, Adam noticed something interesting on the Xtra Factor (ITV2's cash in show designed to give more insight into the process). Host Holly Willoughby was talking to Cheryl Cole about big audition no-nos, and the first thing Cole said was "Well, anyone who sings 'I Believe I Can Fly' is out". Adam's face fell as the show cut to a montage of people performing the song, and he immediately saw himself performing the first line.

Never has it been more clear what X-Factor is, not a talent show, but a glorified freak show that builds hopes and shatters dreams needlessly.

With Big Brother 10 having suffered plummeting viewing figures compared to the shows hay-day, perhaps the shelf-life of X-Factor is almost due as well? Strictly Come Dancing has shown how the older generation can be lured into the petty past times of the TV-watching majority, though it's still managed to drag up it's own controversies (no pun intended - honest).

Probably the best way The Xfactor is summed up is in comedian Ben Elton's book 'Chart Throb', which satirically takes off the series in a way which you feel could so easily could be completely true. It splits contestants into four groups: Blingers, Clingers, Mingers and Singers.

Blingers are the over-the-top personalities that make up the Chicos and DJ Talents of this world, while Clingers are those so desperate for the opportunity to save their lives and usually have some ridiculous sob story attached. Next come the Mingers which speak for themselves really, serving as ammunition for the book's incarnation of Cowell to fire insults at by being so horrendously awful, and of course the Singers (a very small group) are those who may eventually win.

So the next time you join the masses in watching Simon and the gang try to find the next big thing, consider if you're watching it because it's genuinely entertaining or just because there's only dated films or the BBC's own version on the other side.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Album Review: Muse - The Resistance

Like an eerie remake of the Doctor Who theme tune, The Resistance trundles into life with the haunting “Uprising”, its first single, ushering in a welcome return for Devon's greatest ever export: Muse.

It's three years since the band's epic Black Holes and Revelations stormed the charts, delivering the band their second number one album and the first to go double-platinum, as well as the distinctly un-Muse-like single “Supermassive Black Hole”.

Listening to Resistance the gaps between the Muse of old and the band as they are now have been filled in, stripping back some of the dancier elements in favour of a more bass-driven sound like that used on breakthrough release Origin of Symmetry.

The album as a whole takes rebellion as its central theme, and despite much discussion about its 15 minute song, the “Exogenisis: Symphony”, it is tucked away at the end of the record, but provides a worthy climax of musical and song-writing prowess to summarise what the entire album is about.

The piano makes a welcome return in this album, with over half of the tracks featuring frontman Matt Bellamy's instrument of choice prominently, creating moments where the band resembles Freddie Mercury's Queen. In many ways they have become the Queen of the modern day, since no other current guitar-based British band has maintained popularity for so long with such a theatrical feeling.

The third track, “Undisclosed Desires”, (the second of four tracks beginning with 'U' on the album) deserves to be the strongest single release, with the synthesized strings and relentless beat driving forward a story of the deadly nature of love.

There's none of the anger of Black Holes' “Assassin” here, but that doesn't mean the album is without it's powerful moments, just that they come in dark lyrical choices and a continuous strong bassline. The guitar takes a back seat once again this time, with only a few notable riffs to speak of, but strangely it isn't missed as much as expected, as the other instruments step up to take its place.

Bellamy teasingly reminds us of one of the band's staples in “Unnatural Selection” by basing the riff around the impact-ridden guitar intro section of “New Born”, suggesting it may be some sort of sequel, something which the band have done in the past with “Sing For Absolution” and “Starlight”.

Every track feels very much at home, unlike the occasional track in the past where you feel the band have dropped the ball and things sound out of place like “Hoodoo” or “Megalomania”, this album is complete and listens well all the way through without nagging you to skip past to the next song.

The album as a whole is one where tranquility and anger are uneasy bedfellows. In “United States of Eurasia” for example, the sombre piano quickly makes way for a flurry of musical build up, but the transition is well handled and serves to hold the audiences attention. Because it is for an audience, as much as a CD is designed for a listener, this one is presented as a spectacle; grand strings, foreign vocals and quiet moments combine with pounding drums and bellowing bass to create nothing short of a fully modern rock opera.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

You're so last summer: How times have changed for the better since 2008

It's been a while since you heard from me, sorry about that, but now I'd like you to try and cast your mind back to this time last year, what were you doing? What has changed? Is life better or worse?

Personally this time last year I was just getting my teeth into the last year of university with a mixture of trepidation and excitement. Now I find myself on the other side the grass is greener, but too short to graze on just yet.

2008 was a negative year for many people, though strangely it was the international year of the potato...I've no idea why ask Wiki, but amid all of the job losses, wars and natural disasters there are a few things to be positive about.

The Olympics for one, we got 19 gold medals, NINETEEN, it's pretty impressive non? Unfortunately it does mean we've got to work extra hard to do even better when we get to host the event to avoid colossal worldwide embarrassment...could be a tall order.

House prices fell dramatically, Andy Murray succeeds at getting everyone's hopes up only to fail Wimbledon and Carol Vorderman leaves Countdown after 26 years and most exciting of all the Hadron Collider's proton beam is switched on only for nothing to happen.

On the upside Obama was elected as the 44th president and we gained an extra leap second on the end of the year, a small reward for colossal global financial meltdown you might say, and with over 5million jobs lost in the UK and 7million in the US you'd be right.

The sadness does not end there, the year robbing us of acting legend and humanitarian Paul Newman, though arguably 2009 hit back by relieving us of reality TV 'star' Jade Goody, amid a flurry of tasteless publicity.

Speaking of tasteless, Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross get a firm slap on the wrist from the BBC in October after harassing ex-Fawltey Towers star Andrew Sachs about his daughter, but the two hang onto their jobs at least, which is more than can be said for the Radio 2 Chief Lesly Douglas.

The interest rate was slashed from 4.5% to 3% to try to stimulate the economy, as well as slicing 2.5% of VAT, but now that seems minor compared to the 0.5% interest rate reached in March 2009.

So really, there are some reasons to feel happier today. The economy is finally starting to turn around and technically speaking we may already be out of recession. The jobs market is in its best state in 17 months and England have actually started winning sporting events...surely this means Armageddon?

The simple truth is that things always look bad in the moment, but when we look back on this summer in years to come we'll see the oft mentioned 'green shoots' of recovery and the hint of opportunity.

For me it's been a hard summer of job applications and economic woes, but even in my world, where headlines proclaim: "Worst year to graduate, like, ever!" everywhere you turn, I'm starting to feel a little better about my place in the universe, not least because of the new friends I've made along the way. It might not be perfect, surely nothing ever is, but there's still potential for me to achieve something before the end of the year.

So, with the first decade of the new Millennium almost as an end, what have you accomplished? Have a good think about it, it will probably be more than you think.

Friday, 7 August 2009

10 Classic Albums of the 21st Century which you should own: Part Two

After a long absence it's time to get back to our Top Ten. It must be a good idea, even Kerrang! have stolen it for this weeks issue, albeit in a more over-the-top manner as usual.


And so on to numero six, an album which at the time crept onto the scene almost unnoticed, only to gradually increase the new band with a funny name: Kasabian.

Though they weren't the first 'indie' band, a title claimed by another contender who I will get to, they were the first band to make electronic-inspired indie rock and roll cool again, something the Killers continued in a poppier vein.

Their self-titled debut remains a thrilling mix of driving basslines and choral vocals, making the band an immediate live hit as well as a favourite for advert makers everywhere, with epic album opener Club Foot gracing screens the world over.

The album has a song, not for every occasion, but enough variety to ensure listening through the CD won't make your eyes glaze over or think the songs sound too 'samey'.

The standout track is Reason is Treason, a blistering combination of thumping drums and driving bass coupled with a brilliantly crafted chorus makes the song impossible to shake from your mind.

The overall quality of the album is what puts this above mediocre follow-up Empire, which may have had more commercially successful singles, but there's no denying they sounded very similar.

Whether you want to chill out or rave there are songs for you here and the musical arrangement is impressively daring for a first album, shame their later albums couldn't recapture their initial spark of originality.

Critical Tracks: Club Foot, LSF, Reason is Treason


The seventh entry to the list is another well-know band, Arctic Monkeys, with their debut Whatever They Say I Am, It's What I'm Not.

The reason for this album making the list is three fold: first off, the album is actually good. When you forget about the hype and the band and everything surrou
nding it there are decent songs with a fun message and an instantly relatable lyrical style (particularly if you're a Northerner).

Secondly, the internet aspect of the Monkey's - no, not the Monkees - rise t
o fame was unprecedented at the time. This is before Myspace was spewing out a band a week and the group went from unknowns to headling the Reading Festival main stage in a year, a daunting prospect for anyone.

Thirdly, statistics (in this case at least), don't lie. The album surpassed Oasis'
Definitely Maybe as the fastest-selling British album of all time when their second single I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor. The album shifted 360,000 copies in a week - that's almost 36 every minute - and sold more than the rest of the top 20 combined, eventually going Platinum four times over.

People heralded them as having as much impact as the Beatles, clearly a foolish brag even at the time, but undoubtedly the release was an event for the British music industry and unus
ually the music justifies all the fuss.

Tracks have a gritty down-to-Earth story element to them, such as Red Light Indicates Doors are Secure which is nothing more than a trip home in a taxi after a night out, but leading man Alex Turners bring it to life, and not in the cheesy way we've come to expect from the pop charts.

The style just works, and gives the North a band to be proud of now that Oasis are shockingly bad (/worse) *r
uns from angry Northern mob*

Critical Tracks: I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor, Dancing Shoes, A View From The Afternoon


Another slice of British rock takes the stage at number eight with the long overdue induction of Muse to the list with Black Holes and Revelations.

Undeniably one of the heavyweights, Muse have shaken their Radiohead-inspired routes and become a band all of their own.

It was a close race between BH&R and Absolution, but in the end the cohesion o
f BH&R as an album wins the day for me, from the blissful melody of Starlight, the angered stampede that is Assassin to the air guitarist's dream that is THAT riff in Knights of Cydonia.

The album brings together Muse's best elements, which is why it works so well, and also provides the band with a number of impressive live songs, something which always enhance an albums impact, as was proven with the HAARP live CD/DVD.

What makes the album so special is that despite the fact it's undeniably a Muse album, there are songs which could easily slip into other bands' albums, particularly the B-sides packaged with the singles such as Crying Shame which has a strong Franz Ferdinand vibe.

The album tracks too share this variety, with the apocalyptic Map of the Problematique being juxtaposed by the quiet and heart-felt Soldier's Poem.

Overall though the album is energetic, and the trio's musical skill has clearly reached a peak, though the alb
um doesn't quite seem complete without the standard Sergei Rachmaninov-inspired piano interlude. If you could swap the dreary Hoodoo for the fiery Butterflies and Hurricaines the album would be near-perfect.

As it is, the choppy changes in style may detract from listening to it all the way through, but when considered individually the tracks all hold their own and with a general standard so high it's acceptable that the band may have missed the mark with a song (or two, depending on who you ask).

Critical Tracks: Assassin, Knights of Cydonia, Starlight


Now we return to the less well-knowns as we near the end of our list with Lights and Sounds from pop/punk specialists Yellowcard.

Dismissed as a gimmick when they first broke through with Ocean Avenue in 2003, the main talking point was, and still is to an extent, that the band has a electric violinist. This is considered something very unusual for pop/punk, but really these bands often synthesise violins and string arrangements so it's not ground-breaking to have a permanent member who fills the role.

What is significant is how it is used. Sean Mackin adds in violin sometimes so subtly it can hardly be noticed and other times it blazes over the top, carrying the song. It can completely change the dynamic of a song in seconds because it is used so well.

In Lights and Sounds the violin work is the best of any of the band's albums and it goes a long way to securing it a place on this list.

The album's blisteringly fast title track only makes such an impact because it follows the slow and tranquil string introduction that is Three Flights Up, and closing track Holly Wood Died trails off and back to a similar arrangement, giving it a cyclical feeling.

The track which sets this album apart is tear-jerking ballad How I Go, which is centred around the story of Tim Burton film Big Fish. The use of strings here is nothing short of genius, and unprecedented for a pop/punk band before or since, the band achieve real depth and feeling, helped along by guest vocals from Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines. The interplay of melodies between here and lead vocalist Ryan Key is truly astonishing.

The album is centred around fictional character Holly Wood who is both loved and hated in songs on the album and serves as the anchor to pull the songs together. The device is just sutble enough not to be noticed unless you look for it, and yet when you do you appreciate how well it works to keep the album cohesive.

Yellowcard came of age with this album, and it deserved more sales and critical success than it got, but that was to be expected after the success of their breakthrough effort, which, though a decent album in it's own right, doesn't reach the levels of excellence this album does.

Critical Tracks: How I Go, Grey, Down on my Head


The last band on the list is a little Welsh band called The Automatic, and I know what you're thinking: "You don't mean that band that did that Monster song do you?!"

As a matter of fact I do, but the album which that constant radio spam single came from, Not Accepted Anywhere, is not the album that made the list. Instead, it's the band's follow-up, This is a Fix, which deserves the praise.

While their debut gave people a reason to have heard of The Automatic, it wasn't the limit of their potential. This is a Fix goes further and holds together better, you only need to look at the band's live performances during their early days to see the cracks were beginning to show by the time Monster became a hit.

Wailing keyboardist Alex Pennie parted ways with the band in 2007 after he found "
the last year increasingly unenjoyable and growing apart from the rest of the band", according to an official statement.

With Pennie gone the band could focus on the new album and it seems without the friction they developed as a group and created their best material to date. They replaced their departed keyboardist with Paul Mullen from Yourcodenameis:Milo, since they were on hiatus, and recorded This is a Fix to be released in August 2008 just after the Reading and Leeds festivals.

The album's lead single, Steve McQueen, reached number 16 in the charts but all other singles and releases from the album were pulled after disappointing sales.

Critically the album was hit and miss, and suffered from high profile slating from the likes of The Guardian despite favourable reviews from Kerrang! and Rock Sound.

The band were quick to cut their losses and move on to album three, but the songs themselves are worth taking the time to listen to, since everyone is a prime example how synth pop/rock can be done well in the 21st century.

The music industry attacking Accessories voices the band's cynicism about music in Britain, and Magazines slates journalists in much the same vein, but despite the similar subjects the songs are quite different and distinct, which is one of the strengths of the album overall.

Critical Tracks: Steve McQueen, Magazines, This Ship


So that brings us to the end of our top 10 albums of the 21st century, just to summarise:
  1. Green Day - American Idiot

  2. Adequate Seven - Here On Earth

  3. Linkin Park - Hybrid Theory

  4. Rise Against - The Suffer and the Witness

  5. The Music - Welcome to the North

  6. Kasabian (self-titled)

  7. Arctic Monkeys - Whatever People Say I Am, It's What I'm Not

  8. Muse - Black Holes and Revelations

  9. Yellowcard - Lights and Sounds

  10. The Automatic - This is a Fix

All of these are albums which demand a listen, if not a privileged spot in your CD (or download) library.

Lost part one? Click here

Monday, 13 July 2009

10 Classic Albums of the 21st Century which you should own: Part One

With 2009 speeding along nicely and a wealth of music having been produced since the Millennium, it's high time we stepped back a minute, past the X-Factor winners, past the endless re-releases, re-masters and greatest hits to appreciate the albums which have really defined the decade, and indeed the century.

Though I've picked out only 10 here, I could suggest dozens more which might be worthy for the list, but the important thing is not the album that's sold the most, but those that put quality over quantity and dare to be different and, dare I utter yet another cliché, break the mould - or is that just a VO5 advert...never mind.

So here they are in their divine splendour. You will definitely have heard of one or two, but really it's the ones you haven't heard of you should pay attention to. Every album here has a combination of bold ideas, impressive musical skill - whether it be technically or pop-hook-crunchingly - and contains songs which have made the awkwardly titled 'noughties' surpass critics expectations for brand new music.


In no particular order, we begin with a more obvious choice: Green Day's American Idiot.

Now I'm not suggesting it was the best album they've ever produced (that right is reserved for 1,039), but there's no doubt that when it was released back on 2004 it caused a bit of a stir across the music world.

The idea of a 'rock opera' concept album is nothing new, with examples dating back to the 1960s and even earlier, but it had never been done with such flair and enthusiasm, or if it had then people must've conveniently forgotten about it.

Based around the failings of modern America, the album boasts two nine minute tracks and follows the story and issues of a boy, the self-proclaimed 'Jesus of Suburbia', as he leaves what he knows behind on a voyage of self discovery which is vaguely referred to throughout the album.

The video for the rock ballad track Wake Me Up When September Ends offers a little more clarity, portraying the boy as part of a couple who are quickly torn apart when he heads of to war.

Despite not being the Green Day fans were used to, it spawned an entire generation of new fans and saw the group play a two-day stint at Milton Keynes Bowl to a crowd of over 120,000, the biggest of their career.

This album will be talked about in years to come as a standard set for the modern concept album, and since Green Day themselves haven't been able to better it with latest effort 21st Century Breakdown, then it deserves some attention.

Critical tracks: Jesus of Suburbia, Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Holiday


Next up is a band you almost certainly will never have heard of. Why on Earth are they on this list you might ask? The reason is simple: pure musical perfection.

Adequate Seven were, surprisingly, a seven-piece band from Wales who released two albums and then faded into darkness.

While their first album: Songs of Innocence and Experience, may have made more impact, by the time 2006's Here on Earth was released the band had found their stride and put everything into it.

The diversity which came as a result is something almost unprecedented on a ska/punk record, showing elements of hardcore one minute and melodic duet the next.

Musically the arrangement is magnificent, with each instrument playing off the others as the Chili Peppers-esque lyrics dance over the top.

Slap bass has never been used so infectiously, particularly in recent years, and you can't help but get into the groove with this album as each song throws out a fresh hook to keep your attention.

The style is difficult to describe, and despite its similarities to early RHCP there is a lot more to offer here. Adequate Seven is a band which defines the term 'funk punk', an exquisite blend of the bouncing bass of jazz and the passion of punk.

The recording quality may not be top-of-the-line and the drums may come over a little quieter than they should in places, but all is forgiven when you immerse yourself in what the energetic septet (yes, I had to look it up) are trying to do.

Critical tracks: Foward Motion, Seven Mics for Seven Brothers, Gotta Stay Focused (re-record)


Returning to more familiar territory with the next album, this release undoubtedly made nu-metal a household term. The genre may have broken free from the underground with Korn's Follow The Leader in 1998, but it wasn't until Linkin Park's Hybrid Theory was released that the world realised the genre had truely arrived.

Selling 24million copies worldwide since its release in 2000, the significance of this album is hard to ignore. Songs like Crawling and One Step Closer saw rap and metal collide in a way which the pop-listening public had never heard before.

The most significant part of that of course is that the public didn't like it, which may account for the genre's quick demise, but the most pop-friendly single: In The End, made it to #8 in the UK charts and took the top spot in the US Modern Rock chart, as well as #2 in the main US chart.

The band made significant use of the music video as a medium, putting time and effort into bringing the songs to life, often disturbingly so, and dealing with themes such as paranoia, violence, childhood abuse and isolation.

The video for Crawling was particularly powerful, depicting a child abused by her father, much as lead vocalist Chester Bennington was, and the blood pouring out of her as the video goes on until she appears fine by the end. The chilling beginning and ending sample of water (or what sounds like water...) going down a drain still has the power to make your hairs stand on end even today and encapsulates everything that the album is about.

The combination of Chester Bennington's distinctive screaming vocals with Mike Shinoda's rap creates a unique juxtaposition which gives the album it's unique sound. It's on fourth track Points of Authority that this comes across the most strongly, with Mike's vocals interwoven with Chester's pointed screams.

Critical tracks: Crawling, Papercut, In The End


Continuing in the hardcore theme we come to the next entry, a little album called The Sufferer and the Witness by Chicago hardcore heavyweights Rise Against.

From the very album artwork your eyebrows immediately raise with this album, what do the patterns on the cover mean? Two figures? One the sufferer and one the witness? Like much art it's best to draw your own conclusions.

Their previous album Siren Song of the Counter Culture gave the band mainstream success, so now that pressure to succeed was lifted they were able to flex their musical muscles a little more on this album and produce something outstanding.

From the first few seconds of the album you know you are in for something special as a voice-over matter-of-factly announces: "This, is noise." From there the album keeps the accelerator down right until the end, tearing through every track, hardly pausing for breath.

Two songs where the album just take a break are the heart-felt Roadside and the depressing tale of loss: The Approaching Curve, which tells the story of a two people tearing each other apart as their relationships breaks down during a late night car journey, ending with the inevitability suggested in the title.

The album is full of memorable riffs, powerful choruses and overflowing with energy. Injection, which tells the story of a struggling drug addict battling his addiction, is a prime example of everything Rise Against is good at, and takes serious issues and combines them with the passion which only music can unlock.

The album also saw the first track to be launched into the mainstream on the back of the hugely successful Guitar Hero franchise, as Prayer of the Refugee began to tear up living rooms nationwide and introduce a whole new generation to the angered musical stylings of the band.

The album stands of one of the most complete and flawless of the decade, each track earning its right to be there and to such quality that it's impossible to skip a single one.

Critical tracks: Injection, Prayer of the Refugee, Under the Knife


The fifth addition to our list comes from Leeds, a place well connected with good music thanks to its own counterpart to the legendary Reading Rock Festival, which began in 1999.

The Music, forever the enemy of the search engine, formed in the same year and released their self titled first album in 2002. Despite the album getting to number 4 in the charts, it missed out on snatching the title from its successor by not holding together as well as an album.

Welcome to the North, is one of the most complete 21st century albums you are likely to find. At just 11 tracks long the album takes listeners on a voyage in the only way modern hippies can. With 'love' and 'freedom' featuring heavily throughout it's not difficult to start feeling the flower power, albeit in a reserved and controlled way - very 21st century.

An effects laden guitar echoes expectantly as the albums' title track begins, from here is a sound which takes the slow pop rock ramblings of The Beatles and kicks them into gear. It may sound harsh to a band as epic as the fab four but when you compare the trudging beats of the 60s to the hard hitting tempo of the 00s from The Music, it's very difficult to ignore.

Every song has powerful bass grooves, drum beats riddled with hi-hat and multi-layered guitar, giving the music an almost hypnotic quality. Add to that Robert Harvey's simplistic but endearing lyrics, not to mention his mastery of manipulating nonsense words to create irritatingly catchy choruses, then you have something which is truly a sound to behold.

The album itself didn't do quite so well in the charts, with many hardcore fans criticising the newer, more reserved sound of The Music, but the band aren't really holding back, just are more focused on creating rounded complete songs, and succeed time and time again here.

Critical tracks: Freedom Fighters, Breakin', Welcome to the North


So, that's the first five, five more still to come. Like my suggestions? Feel like sharing some of your own? You can leave a comment or two below, I don't pretend to know all the answers, and, as I said, this list of ten won't be the only important albums to come out of the decade.

Stay tuned for the next part of the list in the next few days...

Monday, 6 July 2009

3D or not 3D? The future of cinema is...the past?! This Is Entertainment looks at Ice Age 3 through 3D specs

I saw my very first 'Real 3D' film yesterday. I felt as though it should have been a massively significant moment, as if it would change the way I looked at films forever and warp my mind in ways never before experienced.

So, I got to the cinema, fashion-disaster 3D glasses in hand, went into the screen, sat down to enjoy the Odeon Digital 3D experience and... a headache.

The film itself, Ice Age 3(D), was reasonable. Your classic kids' film mix of cliché, parody and talking animals sees Manni, Sid and Diago return in another slapstick adventure with added family, another inevitability in kids' film sequels.

While the endless toils of the acorn seeking Scrat raised a smile or two, if hand-in-hand with some eye-rolling moments, the deminishing return of the jokes from the first film was now began to show.

That said, Simon Pegg quickly turned a limited stereotypical role into a filled out comic relief machine. As the other characters collected and toyed with their collective baggage, Pegg's 'Buck' ("short for Buckington") riled off one-liners and delightfully mad mannerisms to keep adults, as well as kids, entertained.

The 3D effect though is an interesting beast. At times the effect was sublime, drawing you into the picture with perfection to make the events on screen grab your attention and 'come to life' all the more. One particular highlight was when the camera flew right through a torrent of molten lava, peppering the screen (your eyes) with intense colour and forcing you try to move your head to dodge it.

Often though, particularly when changing scenes, the action moved too fast for your eyes to keep up with, making the 3D animations blurry and difficult to concentrate on. Too often I found myself longing for characters to stop moving to save my retinas.

The glasses are reasonably comfortable, compared to the red/green specs of old, but if you didn't have to wear them things would have been far more comfortable, particularly since the 3D magic stopped at the edge of the film screen and not the glasses.

The only comparison to make is with IMAX, the only significant 3D experience I'd had before, and it was so much more immersive. Part of that is the far-bigger-than-a-standard-screen aspect, but in Odeon's favour their film was far more entertaining than watching underwater creatures.

Since 3D has been around for so long, Hitchcock famously imagining Psycho and Vertigo in 3D back in the mid 20th century, it's staggering it's taken so long to get from the early stages of the technology to where we are today, and the fact that it still underwhelms is disappointing.

For glasses wearers the toil and trouble is even worse, since you're forced to balance them precariously on the end of your nose to fit your own glasses on in between. Price is another factor, with even a student 3D ticket costing a meaty £8.50.

All in all there is definite glimmers of potential in the technology, but we're not quite to virtual reality film-watching, and with the escapism of film being one of its strongest points, do we really want to be?

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Film Review - Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

We were promised 'Bayhem': more location, more action and, bizarrely, less explosions and Revenge of the Fallen doesn't disappoint on these counts, delivering a marked improvement on robo-duelling as well as believable robot to human interaction.

If you go to see this film expecting more than giant computer generated robots kicking nuts and bolts out of each other you were always going to be disappointed and though Director Michael Bay has done little to convert nay-sayers, there's little more of a plot this time around to hold things in place.

Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) returns with his impossibly attractive girlfriend Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox) and he's now starting college and trying to get on with his life after disposing of evil nasty Megatron two years ago.

The Decepticons (the baddies) aren't content to shuffle off and leave Earth be though, and have been tackling with ultra-secret taskforce NEST (which may stand for Nuclear Emergency Search Team – we aren't told – but the important thing is it's an alliance between the Autobots and humanity against the remaining Decepticons).

The story this time revolves around the fact that the Transformers have come to Earth before, some 19,000 years ago, and to cut a short story shorter the Fallen is the equivilent of the devil, a Prime (yes, like that Optimus guy) cast out after he decided killing innocents to obtain Energon, the races power source, was a good idea.

What follows is a highly computer generated chase movie with some comedy moments thrown in for good measure, Sam's mum trying some 'special' college brownies is a particular high point, and eventually coming to a climax in the sandy lands of Egypt.

The film works. It isn't flawless, it isn't outstandingly excellent, but it does what it set out to do. With the summer release schedule peppered with heavy releases it lets you forget reality for a moment and embrace this strange world where toys come to life...wait a second that sounds familiar...

The returning cast all put on a good performance, save Megan Fox who rests on her laurels somewhat in her eye-candy role and resorts to a few damsel-in-distress turns. John Turturro fills out Agent Simmons, who's fallen on hard times after Sector 7 was disbanded following the events of film one, and treads the line between action and comedy perfectly to set the tone of the final act.

Megatron seems a little emasculated by title-stealer The Fallen, and bravely runs away at the end to leave the door open for a three-quel, which despite Bay's insistence this was written as if it was the last Transformers movie, seems inevitable, if not for a couple more years.

Already in the two years since its predecessor you can see how much the technical complexity of the robots themselves has left forwards, with fights between up to have a dozen at a time a common occurrence, one particular highlight is the Mortal-Kombat style de-spining of a cougar shaped Decepticon.

The real hero is, of course, Optimus Prime, who, keeping with the Biblical analogy here, is killed and then resurrected for the final face-off against the big nasty, while Sam and Mikaela carry on their (slightly) forced love story, takling the issue of the 'l' word itself, which really pales in comparison to the excitement going on all around.

Bay has surpassed himself to create a film which people are sure to enjoy if nothing else, but he wasn't trying to make people thing or deliver a moral message, he just wanted to blow stuff up.

And, despite his initial claims, he does like no one else could.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Introducing: Streetfight Silence Live from the Cellar Bar Bracknell

Bracknell's Cellar Bar was rocked to its foundations last night when 80s-inspired synth rock band Streetfight Silence took to the stage.

Though they were second on the bill, the three-piece, Bracknell based themselves, wipped the crowd out of their Sunday night comfort zones to get connected with some quality music.

Russ Merry, who spends his days working at Legoland to pay the bills, tackles lead vocals and guitar with Chris Cooley on the drums and Chris Penfold on bass. The group have already won the Wokingham Battle of the Bands, bagging them a cool £200 and time at a high end recording studio, making them a hot contender for this year's Best British Newcomer at the Kerrang! Awards.

The gig drew an sizeable crowd and managed to get them singing along to melodic ballad “After All”. The energetic performance brought the dingy venue to life with some solid drumming, ambitious bass and impressive guitar work from Russ himself.

The band will soon go into the studio to record more material, but you can get your hands on the “Skys The Limit” EP now, or check out

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Interview with Burnout Paradise's Big Surf Island Producer Pete Lake

Downloadable content is big business in video games at the moment, with Microsoft famously paying Rockstar Games over a million dollars to create new episodes of Grand Theft Auto IV.

One pioneer of DLC in recent years is Criterion Games, the brains behind the car-smashing racing series: Burnout.

As a Burnout enthusiast myself, I decided to get in the passenger seat with Pete Lake, Producer of Big Surf Island, to find out how this latest release would enhance the landscape of Burnout Paradise.


James Parry: How do you feel the Big Surf Island DLC will enhance the
Burnout Paradise experience?

Pete Lake: Big Surf Island brings a whole new location to Paradise City. People have been exploring the existing landscape for over a year now, finally we can bring them somewhere new to drive and have fun together. With the new location we are also adding more of everyone's favourite activities, new experiences and new vehicles to drive.

JP: There's more of an emphasis on the 'playground' aspect of Paradise with this update, what's the reason for this?

PL: We have been working with our community to understand what people love to do in Paradise City. We know everyone loves the more playground elements of Paradise like the quarry and the airfield. We set out to make the entire Island like one of these, a super condensed, explosion of fun.

JP: Will there be any gameplay updates with this DLC? Such as the ability to place waypoints on the map to allow players to converge on an area more easily?

PL: We are adding many new gameplay updates with the Island, far too many to detail here. Really noticeable things are the new visible checkpoint markers. All of the events on Big Surf Island get you to drive through checkpoints so we needed to make sure the player can see them where ever they are, so adding visible markers in the world was important. On your question, there are numerous Freeburn challenges which get people to meet at specific locations, if you want to meet up with friends try one of these.

JP: After the extensive updates to Paradise to date, what thought
has Criterion put into its next title? Burnout or otherwise.

PL: We are always working on new ideas and figuring out the best way to bring them to our customers. Currently the best way has been to develop them into Burnout Paradise, who knows what else we may develop in the future and how we will get it into people's hands.

JP: Do you think the emphasis on DLC in Paradise is something which will becoming increasingly common for other games in the future?

PL: I know it will for us, it's changed completely how we think about development. It's so exciting to keep bringing new experiences to
people and to use those to bring people together in exciting and fun

JP: Freeburn Online is a big part of Burnout Paradise, what new
experiences can we expect from the new challenges?

PL: We have a set of 10 new challenges for Big Surf Island which showcase some of the incredible new locations on Big Surf Island. New for the Island is the ability to play each of these challenges with any number of players. No more waiting around for your 8th friend to get online before you can complete the challenge.

JP: The free-roaming aspect of Burnout Paradise as a whole was a
big risk to take after the previous titles, how effective do you feel
it's been overall?

PL: I think it's been a huge success. We have delivered a location people
love whether they race or just like to drive and explore. We can see people all like to play the game in different ways and express themselves. Big Surf Island brings something for all these people; there are new events but there are also new billboards, Mega Jumps and Smash Gates to reward discovery.

JP: Last year the bikes update changed the Burnout landscape forever, what is the future of bikes in Burnout? Are there any tailor made sections in Big Surf Island?

PL: Big Surf Islands offers 12 new roads to rule on bikes during night
and day and plenty of areas to explore at high speed.

JP: Many racing games strive to create a real and authentic simulation of driving, rather than simply a game. How important do you believe realism is to racing titles, and games in general?

PL: I think a sense of believability is very important and is a different concept from a simulation. Players must believe what they are doing
is possible so they can enjoy doing it. We want to make games which are accessible and fun to play, with the Bikes we spent a lot of time on the handling to ensure that it remains a really fun riding experience inside the believable Burnout world. Just creating a simulation of bikes wouldn't have been fun and would have been out of place in our world.

JP: How much have you been considering players' input and opinion
in the updates and changes you make in Paradise?

PL: We have a very active community and we have involved them as much as possible during development of all our DLC. We've even had people tour the office during development. We run our Crash TV podcasts and have developed our Criterion Games Network so we can ensure our community gets the feedback it deserves from us.

JP: Some claim downloadable content is often profiting from content which should have been included in the original retail release, what is your opinion on this?

PL: The downloadable content you are seeing for Burnout Paradise could not have even been thought about until we had released the game and seen how people reacted to it. We could not have designed Big Surf Island without the support of our community.

JP: How do you think the content and significance of DLC, Criterion made and otherwise, will change in the future?

PL: I hope we (and other developers) can continue to offer our players more and more new experiences. The game is bigger than the box it comes in, offering players new ways to experience the product and new ways to expand it are really important.

Monday, 8 June 2009

This Is Entertainment's comprehensive E3 Summary: Part 3 - Microsoft

Here it is then, the one you've all been waiting for, at least I hope so! After watching Microsoft's mammoth E3 press conference in full I'm going to digest that down as much as I can to get you all clued up on the latest and greatest information.

You may have heard a few things blowing around on the internet, so first let's answer a few quick questions:

- What do you mean there's going to be Metal Gear Solid on Xbox 360?!
- Well the creator of MGS announced the next title: Metal Gear Solid - Rising, will be coming to 360, but there's little chance MGS4 will make it over as well, sorry about that! Don't rule out MGS1 on Xbox Live Arcade though...

- I hear Microsoft is partnering up with enough different companies to be declared serial bigamist of the year?
- That's right, well, the partnering part at least, not sure what you're going on about...MS announced partnerships with Facebook, Twitter, Sky, AND Netflix. (more on some of these later on)

- So Xbox is trying to be some sort of all-in-one box of entertainment then really?
- That's the idea. They're pushing all possible avenues to bring gamers full 1080p HD video with instant streaming, music, social networks, everything you could possibly want bar going and getting you another beer from the fridge basically.

- Halo Reach? ODST? WHAT IS GOING ON?!
- Calm down! Yes there are now officially two Halo games in the works over at Bungie. Halo 3: ODST (Orbital Drop Shock Trooper) is an add-on to Halo 3 which will include 3 Halo 3 multiplayer maps and a 10+ hours campaign focusing on the ODST troops around New Mombasa, set between Halo 2 and Halo 3. Halo Reach is a "top" secret Halo project Bungie have been working on. My reliable sources tell me that from the name it would suggest it has something to do with the first Halo ring over Reach, which was destroyed in the first game and was a pivotal moment in the war. Not much official info on it exists just yet, but it's due out late 2010, for now, just check out the teaser trailer:

- What on EARTH is this Project Natal thing?
- That's a very interesting question. In a nutshell it's some fancy new technology which lets YOU be the controller, including facial and voice recognition and full motion capture without the need for any strange suits or anything. It's essentially MS' answer to the Wii's motion capture, but done in true MS style...they had to go one better. If it really works like it claims to then it genuinely a big step forward in potential for MS, but the videos seem a little contrived to be convincing, take a look for yourself:

Also, you can check out a blog post on Natal from a good friend of mine, Andy Hemphill:

Now, I think it's time we had a look at what's the most important thing about a games console, aside from the fancy deals and new technology, which is its games.

The first game to take the floor was Tony Hawk Ride, which uses a skateboard controller to track the gamers motion and movements on the sk
ateboard, and let them have more control than the plethora of Tony Hawk titles of years gone by. The man himself was there to show it off, just the first of MS' star guests of E3, but despite the 'bigging up' it still could be an excellent and innovative game.

Next up was a biggie: Modern Warfare 2. So major it made the cover of the latest OXM, the game is the sequel to the phenomenally successful Game of the Year that was Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The trailer, which you really should have seen by now (but here it is if not), was impressive enough, but the gameplay shown was the most interesting element. It sees a new recruit, codename 'Roach', following COD4 hero 'Soap' McTavish in a snowy blizzard through which the player must claim an icy rock face to the next encounter. The weather plays a massive part, marking the shift between stealth, as you sneak around stealthily before the blizzard clears and colossal frantic fire-fight takes place. The game looks outstanding and the single player was a personal high point so it's good to see that Infinity Ward haven't relied on the predecessors ridiculous success on Live.

Joyride, a FREE XBLA game, will be the first racing title to use your avatars for some funky Mario Kart-esque action. The game certainly gives a decent platform for UGC, and while you do have to pay to get the best tracks and cars, only one of you're friends has to have bought them to play them with you, which is a neat idea.

Teaser trailers for Crackdown 2, Left 4 Dead 2 and Splinter Cell: Conviction mark the emphasis of MS' focus on 'Only on Xbox' titles this E3, and admittedly come of impressively for it. Conviction in particular looks to break free a little from the traditional Splinter Cell format, as Fischer takes off his tri-goggles and dons a distinctly Bruce-Willis-in-Die-Hard attitude as he tries to find out who killed his daughter. A couple of slick design features make this release stand out, namely super-imposing credits and objectives on the landscape of the levels, immersing you in the world while keeping the real-time narrative going, and a refreshingly tasteful use of slow-mo.

Not to be left out, Epic Games, the kings of Gears of War, demoed their old-school 2.5D side-scrolling platformer, which showed a nice level of depth, ironically, for the genre through Xbox Live Arcade.

Halo was always going to get some hype, and the play-through of ODST delivered everything fans of the series have been waiting for, complete with ill-fated TV show Firefly voice actors, which is always a plus.

Natal proved to top off what was near to being a continuous round of applause for most of the press briefing, but where can I hear all this news for myself I hear you ask? Just head over to Gamespot to check out their full press conference video, but be sure you have two hours to kill!

The year looks set to be a good one, and if MS delivers on what it has promised then it will certainly give Nintendo some sales figures to contend with by the time the Christmas spending spree begins.