Monday, October 23, 2017

Anime You Might Not Have Tried #2: 'Gargantia on the Verdurous Planet'

Source
There's something to be said for shorter shows. Our culture is so enamored with stirring epics and long-running franchises that we often undervalue works that come in, make a good impression, then end, leaving us to savor the moments spent with it. Given this, it's easy to forget just how hard it is to craft a memorable experience in just a few episodes. With little time to develop the setting or characters, a shorter show is required to catch the viewer's attention and make an impact on them immediately, as there is little time to make up for missed chances.

While in most western television a one- or two-season show implies poor ratings or executive meddling (see Firefly for further details), many Anime are created purposefully for 12 to 24-episode runs, often to draw attention to the ongoing manga or light novels that they support. Since the writers know how much time they have to tell a story, overall closure and structure for a series tends to be better in anime than in western works.

Enter Gargantia. Though this 13-episode show will never be considered the Citizen Kane of the giant fighting robot sci-fi genre, it nonetheless sports gorgeous visuals, solid characterization, and a strong theme that make it worth a quick Netflix binge.

The show centers on Agent Ledo and his pilot support system "Chamber," who find themselves in an endless war against giant squid-like aliens called the Hideauze. These creatures have pushed humanity to the brink, forcing people to serve most of their lives in military service in order to protect the giant space station that is the last bastion of humanity. Things go badly almost immediately for Ledo, as he finds himself on the losing side of a massive battle which results in him getting sucked into a wormhole. The result? He and his robot are transported to the now legendary planet of Earth that has been forgotten for centuries.

Much has changed since humanity took to the stars. Earth is now almost entirely covered with water with the humans left behind living as scavengers on large fleets of ships. Despite this, there is relative peace and no signs of the Hideauze anywhere. Ledo and Chamber are found by the fleet "Gargantia," with Ledo forced to integrate with the locals if he's to find any hope of making it back home again.

The Fleet in Question
The visuals and initial framing of the narrative immediately set Gargantia apart from other series, as the animators clearly intended to make a gorgeous show. Humanity's conflict and the brutality of the war they find themselves in is well-conveyed, and the viewer is immediately pulled into a compelling world. Backgrounds in particular are brilliant with scenes of the darkness of space contrasted with the clear blue waters and radiant sunsets of Earth. The visuals are stunning and the actual fleet of Gargantia has a decaying industrial feel combined with winding corridors and dark alleys reminiscent of some of Miyazaki's works. These industrial corridors give way to verdant pastures and green spaces needed to support the large population contained on the ship. The animation goes to great lengths to give the fleet its own style and there is a sort of strange beauty in the rusting amalgamation of ancient ships. Small touches such as sunburn on exposed skin and scuffs and dirt on old containers further set the animation and art apart from similar shows.

So much space. Gotta see it all.
Plot-wise, the show is enjoyable, but less revolutionary. The story of an outsider learning how to cope in a foreign society is not terribly original (see Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Avatar, et al.), but the care the writers and animators took in portraying the characters puts the show above other examples of the trope. Ledo's society is one based on efficiency with no time for pleasures in a hostile world, and he finds many of the aspects of Gargantia strange. His friendship with a messenger named Amy (and her incredibly adorable pet flying squirrel) and her contrasting outlook help him to make sense of the world he's in. The show takes no shortcuts with the issues that come with differing languages and cultures and the initial adjustment is rough to say the least. Amy is Ledo's sole advocate on a fleet that has no use for a soldier and questions his value in the fleet. The friendship between the two develops naturally over the course of the series and the two share some sweet moments in the second half, with the authors doing justice to the relationship over the course of the show.

It's like a really cute squirrel
Various supporting characters such as the salvager Pinion and the ship's captain (along with the rest of the cast) are realistic and well-written, but unexceptional. Their motivations are sound in the context of the world they live in, but the world of Gargantia tends to outshine the individuals in it, aside from the few main characters. The other characters serve to move the plot along and to force Ledo to understand the world he is now in, confront his new life, and to try and uncover the darker secrets that forced humanity from Earth and into the war they now find themselves in. The plotting suffers a bit in the last few episodes because of this, as there are no more reveals to push things forward, with few supporting characters to fall back on, but the ending still results in a satisfying conclusion, even if the motivations of the antagonists don't fit as well into the world as one would like.

The show, through its various revelations, touches on issues of loss of humanity, revenge, and the value of life in an uplifting and memorable way. The contrast between the two societies highlights how the war with the Hideauze has taken away Ledo's humanity and how high the costs of "preserving" humans have been. In the end, people's actions create the world they live in and it is their choice to decide what is worth keeping.

While Gargantia doesn't necessarily bring much new to the table, what it does offer is fully-baked, in contrast to shows that launch innovative ideas at the wall and hope they stick. This overall refinement creates a more effective story in this short but sweet adventure. Gen Urobuchi (of Madoka Magica and Psycho Pass fame) had heavy involvement in the creation of the show and stated that it was targeted toward young people entering into society as a way to encourage them. Ultimately, he succeeds in this goal, with the result being a hidden gem that will likely last longer in the minds of its viewers than it will on any "top 10 greatest" lists.

Have I mentioned it's pretty?

Are shorter shows better? Does innovation trump refinement? Prove me wrong in the comments below.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Back Fo(u)r the Future: the Four Rationales of Time Travel

Great Scott! If my calculations are correct, it's Back to the Future Day! And you know what that means: when we get this baby up to eighty-eight miles per hour, you're going to see some serious … discussion about the different types of time travel?!

That line isn't in the script … (source)
More to the point, depictions of time travel in fiction can be classified into four types. These classifications are based on the purpose and volition of the traveler and/or their associates. More broadly, instances of time travel could be classified into "intentional" vs. "unintentional," but what's the fun in that? (Also, you run the risk of painting with too broad a brush—there is some utility in digging one layer deeper.) The four categories are as follows:

  1. Influence
  2. Surveillance
  3. Concomitance
  4. Coincidence

It's important to note that these four types aren't necessarily mutually exclusive within the same work, or even the same time-traveler's motives—for example, in Superhero Black Hole, the main character at one point travels to the ancient Roman era in an attempt to save his skin (Concomitance) so he can survive long enough to stop the antagonist in the future (Influence).

Let's take a look at each one, with examples from media you may (or may not) be familiar with. For the purposes of this article, "time travel" encompasses only those instances where someone or something is actually displaced from its origin in time. Simply flinging a message into the future or past doesn't count unless it's on a physical medium.

Also, beware of unmarked spoilers.

Influence

This is probably the most common motive in fiction, and it even has some near-examples in reality—preventing his father's death was the impetus sparking Ron Mallett's research into the physics of time travel. "Influence" here refers to time travel intentionally undertaken by the traveler with the goal of affecting or effecting history. This can include anything from making sure history unfolds as it should to desiring to live out one's life in peace in another century to bringing about world domination.

Back to the Future

Judging by the green graph behind him, that DeLorean either has one tricked-out subwoofer or one seriously leaky plutonium reservoir (source).
It qualifies, but not how you might think: the Influence factor isn't in Marty ending up in 1955—that's Concomitance—but in him getting back to 1985. Marty wants to return the flow of events to how it was, in the sense that he belongs in the '80s. (For why he ended up thirty years in the past, see below.)

Star Trek

Your greenhouse gas emissions are without honor! (source)
Oh, boy. So, so much time travel happens in Star Trek. The crew of the original series went back to the '70s in Star Trek IV: the Voyage Home to teach us, in a roundabout way, proper wildlife conservation practices. The Next Generation had "Firstborn" (S7E21), where future!Alexander basically tries to turn past!Alexander into John McClane. Deep Space Nine had "Trials and Tribble-ations" (S5E6), in which a Klingon with a bat'leth to grind hijacks the Orb of Time and tries to blow up Captain Kirk. Voyager had "Relativity" (S5E23), in which Temporal Investigations tries to stop someone from blowing up Voyager (interestingly, the culprit had also traveled through time in order to plant the thing, and basically manages to stop himself).

The Terminator

He isn't Todd the T-1000, but he still scares me (source).
We see both the "affect" and "effect" senses in James Cameron's franchise-igniting sci-fi flick. John CENA!!!! Connor is the leader of the Resistance, fighting against Skynet and its robotic army. Skynet has managed to figure out how to make a time machine work and has hit upon the simple idea of killing Connor's mother and preventing his birth in the first place. (Who cares about the Butterfly Effect, anyway? Not Skynet, apparently.) That's how Ahnold finds himself in '80s-era Los Angeles. Kyle Reese, meanwhile, is sent back to stop the T-800 and keep the timeline intact—in more ways than one.

Continuum

Liber8 aw8s their f8 (source).
The plot of this Canadian sci-fi series is set in motion when a terrorist cell, "Liber8," escapes a legal sentence to go back in time sixty-five years or so. Their plans involve blowing up a building and radicalizing a newborn. Not only do they succeed, but interestingly enough, they also end up killing off one major character's ancestor. Despite the fact that he's from the future, he still apparently survives.

Surveillance

"Surveillance" refers to an agent instigating time travel for purposes of observation. The agent can intend either to document events at the desired point in time as they happen, or they can simply test whether their methods for time travel actually work in the first place. Like Influence, the agent intends to make the trip; unlike it, they don't want to disturb. It's like window-shopping through the ages.

Back to the Future

One less minute to wait for the season premiere of Game of Thrones (source).
Doc Brown had to test the DeLorean somehow, after all. Einstein, being a dog, can't himself choose to run the DeLorean, but he's under the auspices of the good Doctor, and that counts for our purposes.

The Time Machine (2002)

No Whammies, no Whammies… (source)
In a nice example of the mutual compatibility of time travel types, Dr. Hartdegen's initial reasons for traveling into the future are to conduct research—he wants to see if humanity ever learned if changing the past is even possible, but can't wait like everybody else. He wasn't intending to actually alter the course of the future because of his travels there. All he wanted to do was learn if he could save his fiancée's life. (That would be Influence, but would have involved travel to the past to actively prevent her death.)

A Sound of Thunder

The description text for this image in Google Images read "An error occurred." This is an accurate summation of just about everything about this movie (source).
I almost don't want to dignify this film with discussion, but it was one of the first examples that came to mind. The upshot is that there's a company that basically offers prehistoric safaris. You're not supposed to do anything except watch—there's even a pathway that gets generated so that you don't step on anything. Naturally, some idiot messes this up it doesn't go according to plan.

Primer

Randall Munroe comes about as close as anybody ever has to accurately summarizing the plot (source).
Oh, boy. Shane Carruth's Primer is a real rat king of a movie, and some hold it to be the best time-travel movie of all time. The film ends up as a multi-car pileup of gambits and agendas, but the core reason for Abe and Aaron traveling through time in the first place is Surveillance—they want to see if the box actually works. The two Abes at the self-storage place pretty much confirmed that for Aaron … the first time around.

Concomitance

As Baron Mordu said, "The bill comes due." A concomitant event occurs as a consequence of some other action. Here, the actual act of traveling through time is not usually considered a "consequence" for our purposes (otherwise every instance would qualify); instead, "concomitance" refers to the motivation behind the time travel. Someone who researches and participates in time travel because he wants to does not travel because of concomitance, but a criminal forced by his captors to serve as a guinea pig for a new time-travel method does. It's kind of surprising how rare this motive is.

Back to the Future

Am I the only one who doesn't think the future as presented in Back to the Future Part II was all that great aside from hoverboards and self-velcroing Nikes? (source)
A bit of an odd example because it takes place due to actions Marty McFly hasn't performed yet, but the reason that Doc Brown takes Marty to 2015 at the end of the film (and in the first part of Back to the Future, Part II) is ultimately because Marty stupidly gets involved in a street race, breaks his hand, can't play the guitar anymore, and turns into a worn-out, underachieving shell of a man who isn't there to help his kid stay out of trouble. Perhaps stretching it a bit, but hey, I've got to tie this into the franchise somehow.

Star Trek

Overall, the double-Picard shots in this episode were extremely well-done (source).
Probably the clearest example of Concomitance for the Trek franchise is The Next Generation S2E13, "Time Squared." The Enterprise runs across a shuttlecraft tumbling in space. It turns out to be one of theirs, and Captain Picard is in it. Except, Captain Picard is on the bridge, and the El-Baz is sitting right next to itself in the shuttle bay. It turns out that this is future!Picard, who tried to escape the Negative Space Wedgie of the week, only for it to destroy the future!Enterprise and fling him back six hours so he could try again. Present!Picard shoots him with a phaser, the dead body and shuttlecraft vanish, the Negative Space Wedgie is satisfied, and Picard is left to grapple with whether he just committed suicide or murder. (Incidentally, per Deep Space Nine, you could probably charge him with the latter.)

Samurai Jack

Aku's not staring so much in fear of Jack's attack as he is in awe of his hair (source).
From Jack's perspective, at least, the raison d'être for the series is due to Concomitance. His initial temporal displacement is a direct consequence of his challenging Aku. Jack himself didn't want to end up in the future. Note that, on the flipside, Aku's motivation was Influence—getting rid of Jack let him move forward with his plans.

Looper

"My name is ASAC Schrader, and—wait, wrong franchise" (source).
The gist of Looper is that really bad dudes from the future send people back in time for really bad dudes in the present to kill. (Hard to prove a murder if there's no body, right?) Why these victims are sent back in time isn't always known, but part of the contract with these hitmen involves having themselves sent back. Basically, past!guy kills future!guy in the past—a result of his prior actions.

Coincidence

Stuff happens in general. Sometimes, stuff happens to people. With respect to time travel, "coincidence" considers both accidents and happenstance, and is basically an umbrella term for any time travel where the traveler did not initiate the travel of his own volition and where said travel did not result directly from his actions. "Coincidence" may not be the best name, but it rhymes and doesn't imply that the traveler had anything to do with it.

Back to the Future

I'd be remiss if I didn't find a way to work this in (source).
Marty didn't ask for the Libyans. It's not his fault that he got shot at. When he was getting shot at, his only thought was getting out of dodge. Unfortunately, in order to get out of dodge, he had to get into a heavily-modded DMC, and he ended up stranded in the '50s.

The Twilight Zone

Peter valiantly tries to change history (source).
In "Back There" (S2E13), Peter Corrigan ends up in 1865 following a discussion about whether one can influence events via time travel. He doesn't intend to get transported to the past, and while he does try to change it—and sort of does, if only in a way that ends up with one guy getting rich—he didn't set out to do any of that initially.

Heroes

Up high! Down low! Too slow—what the heck?! (source)
"Dual" (S3E13—what is it with all the episode thirteens in this post?) provides an instance of Coincidence for Hiro Nakamura, of all people. Hiro has been stranded in the past following his forcible depowering (how he got there is irrelevant for now). His brother Ando and their teammate Daphne manage to save the day for him thanks to some quick thinking. Hiro is returned and the status quo more-or-less restored when Ando augments Daphne's super-speed abilities so that she can travel faster than light.

Continuum

In the future, legibility will be sacrificed in favor of looking stereotypically futuristic (source).
Liber8's voyage into the past was discussed above, but Kiera Cameron ends up in 2012 by accident. Liber8 was supposed to Influence history; Cameron joining them wasn't intended by anyone involved. She just happened to be in the right place at the wrong time.

Were my calculations correct? Is this too heavy? Let me know in the DeLoreans!

Friday, October 20, 2017

Hypersleep Monologues: a Retrospective on Between the Buried and Me

If you like heavy metal and haven't been living under a rock for the past ten years, you know two things: one, that Dave Mustaine and Metallica have made peace, and two, that there's this really off-the-wall band from North Carolina called "Between the Buried and Me."

BTBAM are known primarily for two things: mixing disparate musical genres like a flooded palette of watercolors and working with time signatures that are impossible to count and switch between unless you're a supercomputer. This latter bit is what initially piqued my interest in them—generally, when they include odd time signatures, it's done quite well considering the guys have been brought up in the West, the domain of 4/4 music.

What I've aimed to do in this article is provide a retrospective on BTBAM's original album releases. I've excluded live albums, compilations, and The Anatomy Of (because it's a cover album).

Between the Buried and Me (2002)

I never noticed until just now that there's a leafy branch behind the "between." (source)
BTBAM's self-titled effort was released before I started junior high. I am officially an old man.

As I listened to this album so I could write this article, I immediately noticed that the production sounds a little unpolished. Not necessarily complaining, mind, but it almost sounds like they recorded the guitars directly onto the master right out of the line-in without applying any effects or equalization to them. Perhaps a better way to describe it is "lo-fi," particularly the ending of "Shevanel Cut a Flip." (Also, about 4:32 into "Use of a Weapon," there's what sounds like an error on part of the drummer, like he was trying to play a variation on the ride cymbal pattern and didn't quite get it. Initially I was a bit surprised they'd keep that take, but then again this was their first album and who knows what kind of financial constraints they were under that might have made rerecording infeasible. They weren't yet the progressive-metal powerhouse they would become.)

The second thing I noticed was the lack of the odd time signature work that BTBAM would become famous for. There are a few hints of it, mostly on the second half of the album. For example, you can hear a polyrhythm about halfway through "Use of a Weapon," with one of the guitars playing a pattern in three where everybody else, notably the drums, is in four, and the intro to "Fire for a Dry Mouth" seems to alternate between measures of 4/4 and 9/8 (or a similar just-over-four time signature). In addition, the opening of "Shevanel Cut a Flip" seems to dip into 5/4. But overall, it's 4/4 or 6/8 all the way.

One thing that did not change was the stylistic variation. "Shevanel Cut a Flip" is the major example of this, with most of the song being a chorus-drenched, non-distorted ballad in triple time. The beginning of the song is what you'd expect from a metal band, and then there's a weird section where it sounds like people are ordering food at a café—which, particularly if you're familiar with Colors, really shouldn't be surprising—and then a bunch of ostinatos that fade into deliberate clipping while the song plays out.

The Silent Circus (2003, re-issued 2006)

Incidentally, "Lost Perfection" describes what happened when they released Coma Ecliptic. (source)
Where Between the Buried and Me felt lo-fi, The Silent Circus opens with the audio equivalent of finding yourself in a dreary, foggy morning before sunrise, wandering around a bit because you're ignoring every movie you've seen where something bad happens in a situation like this, and then getting bashed over the head. In other words, for its sophomore offering, BTBAM improved noticeably over their self-titled release.

With Between the Buried and Me, only a few bits of odd-time material made it onto the album. On The Silent Circus, it's easier to name the songs that don't include odd time signatures ("Shevanel Take 2"; maybe "Reaction," if "Reaction" even has a time signature at all). BTBAM's material from here on out is liberally sprinkled with bizarro meters like 5/4, 7/4, 13/8, and 15/16. It works better in some places than others—"Camilla Rhodes" is about as subtle as a brick through a windshield about its 5/4 work early in the song; conversely, "Mordecai" has so many tempo and meter changes it's hard to determine which way is up (in a good way, I feel).

Again, BTBAM jumps in and out of genre. This is neatly exemplified if one listens to all of the tracks from "Mordecai" to "Ad a Dglgmut" in order. "Mordecai" is about half-and-half prog metal and anthemic grunge/soft rock. Immediately following this (unless you're watching the official music video, which switches the order around for some reason), "Reaction" is almost straight-up ambient music comprised of some synth chords, sotto voce lyrics, and unintelligible background whispers that fade into "Shevanel Take 2," an acoustic song that wouldn't feel out of place on a Lukas Graham album. And once that fades out, "Ad a Dglgmut," whose title is apparently the result of someone along the line having a seizure at the keyboard, is a medium-hardness rock song if you ignore the thrash-metal bookends.

As far as the metal aesthetic itself, it's alive and well. Both sections of "Lost Perfection" feature some truly merciless shredding. "Camilla Rhodes," which I mentioned above, is, for all its flaws, definitely on the harder side of its genre. "Aesthetic" features sections of persistent power chording, blast beating, and breakdowns. "The Need for Repetition" starts with an almost sludge-metal section that could almost have been performed by Sleep, if Sleep had formed several decades later instead of releasing Jerusalem.

BTBAM started experimenting with synthesizers on this album (or, at least, this is the first time it's easily noticeable). "Destructo Spin" opens with some high-pitched stabbing at sine waves, and as mentioned above, "Reaction" is almost entirely synth-driven. Synthesizers become more prominent as BTBAM matured.

Perhaps the percussionist in me is a bit more inclined to pick up on things like this, but the drums in this mix have more presence, at least in my estimation. Perhaps they upped the bass in the mix. The double-pedal work in particular has more "oomph."

Roger Ebert, in reviewing Psycho, wondered "why Hitchcock marred the ending of a masterpiece." I find myself asking a similar question about the hidden track at the end of "The Need for Repetition." It's … quite puerile. Not quite as bad as Waking the Cadaver releasing a recording of themselves using drugs on their debut album, but still, it doesn't do them any favors.

Alaska (2005)

What exactly are "croakies" and "boatshoes", anyway? (source)
Maybe I'm in the minority here. Maybe I'm not. But this is my favorite BTBAM album. It was how I was introduced to them, and it's the album I'm most inclined to listen to when the mood strikes.

Again, there's a very strong opening statement in "All Bodies." There are four counts of lead-in before the band starts chugging away full-force. Then there's an almost piratical "heave-ho"-type section, which is followed by a truly inspiring 5/4 component.

The track "Alaska" was my first BTBAM experience. I remember being astounded at all the time signature changes, and for me, it has held up in all the years since. Then there's the ending. Some may find the ending of "Alaska" too drawn-out for their taste, but I think it's like a train going full-bore and letting its momentum carry it as far as it can before it finally ends.

If you like your listening experience to go up to 11 on the Mohs Scale of Rock and Metal Hardness, try "Croakies and Boatshoes" and "Roboturner"; these two are the frontrunners for being the single most intense song in all of BTBAM's discography. I mean, sure, "Disease, Injury, Madness" off of The Great Misdirect (q.v.) has that epic first two minutes or so, and "White Walls" off of Colors plays out with almost Dragonforce-like speed work, but "Roboturner" and "Croakies" are consistent throughout. Even the eight-measure phrase with no distortion in "Roboturner" sounds like a black hole is wandering by and tugging at the lead guitar.

I mentioned above how the band began to experiment with synthesizers on The Silent Circus. Probably the representative specimen of BTBAM synth usage would be "Selkies: the Endless Obsession," which opens with a 7/8 ostinato played on a synthesizer. Other than that, there are also "Medicine Wheel," which functions as a sort of musical breather episode, and the 5/4 section of "All Bodies" mentioned above, which manages to sound hollow, electronic, and orchestral all at once. (I'm unsure if the opening of "The Primer" uses a synth or just fed-back distorted guitars.)

There's a resurgence of the freight-train, harshly-vocalic feeling in "The Primer," followed by a truly improbable ending in "Laser Speed."

Colors (2007)

"By your powers combined…" (source)
This album is probably regarded by most as peak BTBAM. I don't think it's their absolute best album, but it has considerable clout. I was in high school when this came out and it was pretty earth-shattering.

We start with a soft piano intro in "Foam Born (A) the Backtrack." This eventually builds up into a more hardcore metal-esque ending leading into "Foam Born (B) the Decade of Statues." Then we segue into a … I'm not sure what you'd call it, really, that comprises "Informal Gluttony." Seriously. It's a mix of stereotypical "tribal"-type beats, Afro-Cuban influence, and Arabesque guitar riffs when it's not chugging guitars and palm-muting. But it's not without cause that this is the song they made the T-shirt out of.

"Sun of Nothing" is where my beef with post-Colors (actually, probably post-Alaska, but the post-Colors era exemplifies this) BTBAM starts to crop up. The genre-shifting, in my opinion, starts becoming a little too self-indulgent. It's not nearly as bad as what happens two albums down the line, but still, the non-metal components start grating on me here. Thankfully, at about 9:35 into this track, we get some nice riffs back into a more conventional ending that also serves to preview "White Walls" a bit. "Ants of the Sky" similarly has cleaner, less-harsh sections, but I think there it works better with the song as a whole thematically (plus there's less de-emphasis of the harsher pieces). At least until the very end, of which a large portion is a straight-up bluegrass jam with audio of a saloon or a bar playing over it. Yeah.

"Prequel to the Sequel" feels more like the Alaska era, albeit a (very) slightly counterfeit one. Again, there's a cheesy interlude that's straight out of the repertoire of an accordion player on the Champs-Élysées, if that accordion player spoke English and formerly played for the Mahavishnu Orchestra. I liked that part a lot more in past years; maybe I'm getting old and elitist.

"Viridian" is a beautiful instrumental piece. Again, I liked it a lot when it came out, but I also like it now because it actually has relevance to the overall feel of the piece. There's some clean guitar work reminiscent of the intro to "Naked by the Computer" from the self-titled album. This leads into "White Walls."

I wouldn't dispute anyone who says that "White Walls" is BTBAM's magnum opus. The song is about fifteen minutes long and manages to cover so many decades of heavy metal successfully that there are people who have grown old and died between the eras they hearken back to—not to mention the blistering clip the guitars play at towards the outro. The final notes belong to the piano from the start again.

At this point, I wonder if BTBAM didn't start trying to do too much. As I mentioned earlier, I prefer Alaska over Colors. I don't mind listening to (most of) Colors, but it seems like they started doing things just for novelty as opposed to experimentation faithful to the overall tone of both the album and them as a group. But, still … "White Walls."

The Great Misdirect (2009)

Or, as many fans of the band might describe it, "The Great Misfire" (source).
The opening to The Great Misdirect, "Mirrors," strikes me almost as a bait-and-switch. There's a tantalizing preview of a musical chainsaw to the gut, but then they launch into a ditty akin to the work of, say, Pat Metheny or Jaco Pastorius. It's not terrible—actually, it isn't even bad—but it's not what I was expecting. "Obfuscation" is where the beat drops, so to speak, and it's actually a rather nice throwback. The two tracks seem like an attempt to repeat the experience of the first two songs on Colors, except the payoff doesn't happen at the end of track one. It's also a more harmonious beginning—again, not a bad thing, just a bit unexpected.

"Disease, Injury, Madness" has a fantastic first minute forty-five or so. It's the musical equivalent of punching a bear into submission, especially that riff at 1:26. But then, if I can borrow a quote from someone who reviewed James Cameron's The Abyss, there's a huge left turn. The musical atmosphere becomes quite rarefied and a bit corny (the sferic-like synthesizer drops don't help) and it's very hard to get back into the song once it picks up again. On top of that, once it does, there's another musical left-turn into a fast-forwarded Pink Floyd paraphrasing that ends up back in Jaco territory before ending with the musical equivalent of Dracula as performed by Howdy Doody.

"Fossil Genera (a Feed from Cloud Mountain)" is, upon a relisten, much better than I remember it being. Again, it feels like a somewhat-lighter Alaska-session jam that got saved for later. There's one part in the middle I don't care for, but even then it still resembles "Autodidact" from Alaska. Towards the end, we get a similar vampiric vibe, except I think they pull it off more successfully than in "Disease, Injury, Madness." I think the particular chords, or rather the variance between the notes comprising them, has more than a little to do with this.

"Desert of Song" just irks me. In this case, I place part of the blame on the time signature, because it's like a six-eight shuffle throughout a large part of it.

"Swim to the Moon" is kind of uneven to listen to. There's some absolutely fantastic passages reminiscent of Mastodon in the first third of the song, and the remainder of the song has its moments of "classic"-type material, but overall it's kind of like a plate of mashed potatoes that you put in the microwave, and when you bite into it, half of the bite is scalding and the other half is still frozen.

Overall, I'd have to say this album, for all its faults, has grown on me. The vision of BTBAM's musical evolution may have exceeded its grasp at times, but there are still plenty of worthwhile moments on this one.

The Parallax: Hypersleep Dialogues (2011)

Or, if the cover's anything to go by, "The Parallax: Migraine Auras" (source).
The first track is "Specular Reflection," and the opening statement is unexpected. Thankfully, I mean "unexpected" in the way that I'd grown accustomed to BTBAM being. It's very Steve Reich-esque, even in the instrumentation, and wouldn't have felt too out of place in Music for 18 Musicians, and then it's back to full-speed-ahead very quickly. Overall, the first track was like a happy medium between the pre-Colors and post-Colors eras.

"Augment of Rebirth" and "Lunar Wilderness" have this gritty, stripped-down feel to them (yeah, multiple guitars and an ersatz Farfisa organ is "stripped down," right?), and I feel much the same about these as the opening track. I found it a very pleasant listen.

There's really not much to say about this one because it was just a three-track release. This EP struck me as a return to form. The release was intended as one half of a concept project. Could the second half complement this successfully?

The Parallax II: Future Sequence (2012)

Well…no, not really (source).
The first track, "Goodbye to Everything," already starts off on a troublingly lackadaisical note, and is basically the minor prelude that exemplifies the post-Colors norm. Then we launch into "Astral Body," which … honestly, the thought struck me that it was almost like newscast bumper music for about a third of its run, with the rest of the song coming off like the soundtrack to a direct-to-video CGI movie, except with metal screams over it. "Lay Your Ghosts to Rest" begins on a promising note but devolves into overly self-indulgent jazz.

"Autumn" is a sort of harsh ambient-noise track for the inside of a spaceship. Because I like that sort of thing (ask me about my thoughts on Tim Hecker or Merzbow sometime), I enjoyed it. The intro to "Extremophile Elite," however, unpleasantly crashes your interplanetary joyride, both in aural tone and in its triple-time shuffle feel. It manages to recover somewhat by about forty seconds in, but then launches back into the same jaunty melody from earlier for a few seconds. If suspension of disbelief is a thing for albums, that track just destroyed it.

"Parallax" is similar to "Autumn" in that it's an interlude, a breather of sorts, and that I like it. It differs by actually having a melody driven by slow, longing, chorus-drenched guitars and a spoken-word segment, delivered by a narrator who bears a striking vocal resemblance to Liam Neeson, overlaid. "The Black Box" might as well be a jack-in-the-box.

"Telos" is another warmed-over helping of mashed potatoes. What's more frustrating is that the good parts are good in and of themselves, but they just don't go together. It's like finding bits of lobster in your mac and cheese. This then leads into "Bloom," which is just over-the-top and ridiculously corny (there's an obviously-blatting tuba). BTBAM were always ones to bend genres, but I think that they snapped it on this one.

I don't care for most of "Melting City." Most of the last third of the song, however, is very good. Hits a nice medium between frenetic and melancholy, up until they start kicking it into high gear again. Again, very jarring, and not the understandable jarring of their earlier albums.

"Silent Flight Parliament" is yet another grab bag full of the rocks and candy corn of music—there's too much being done, and it seems like concepts got shoehorned in. The final track, "Goodbye to Everything Reprise," is almost an afterthought—a coda, if you will.

This album comes off to me almost as a parody of BTBAM. Sure, in their classic era they would do ridiculous stuff with genre-shifting, but in the days of yore, their experimentation felt like it had purpose. On this album, it's incredibly blunt and feels as if it was done just to do it. Again, there are some enjoyable bits, but in my opinion, the negatives outweigh the positives—all the more disappointing given how good Hypersleep Dialogues was.

Coma Ecliptic (2015)

"No, you did not fool us" (source).
This album is easily the lightest release in the BTBAM catalogue. There are still hints of the metallic signature from which the band originated, but it's largely been shed.

Again, we have a now-typical opening statement in "Node," which flows pretty seamlessly into "The Coma Machine." The trouble, from my perspective anyway, is that it feels more like a pop album with a salting of distortion. There are a ton more synthesizers, largely cheesy ones at that, and the album is very unsubtle about them; the exemplar from this release is "Dim Ignition."

"Famine Wolf" is probably one of only two songs on this album I'd voluntarily listen to on even a semi-regular basis, as it at least partially captures the feel of the original band. I can even forgive the bizarre ending that leaves me somewhat "out in the cold." "King Redeem / Queen Serene" is also rather enjoyable after the first two minutes and twenty seconds for much the same reasons.

"Turn on the Darkness" reminds me of a certain ill-fated Spider-Man musical in more ways than just the title. While there are more classic hardcore-metal elements, this gets destroyed by the '80s power-ballad-type vocals and power chords that are also present. This is followed by "The Ectopic Stroll," which I found not very interesting in general, and "Rapid Calm," which reminds me of Alaska's "Laser Speed" in many respects. Again, I actually quite like the third quarter of it, but it isn't very BTBAM-y—it's another synthesizer run. Also, the ending has a cowbell and sounds more like Kansas with rough singing than the masters of odd-time death metal.

From the standpoint of instrumentation, "Memory Palace" is very good for most of its duration. The vocals, however, cut the heart out of the piece for me. The following track, "Option Oblivion," has the exact same strengths and weaknesses. "Life in Velvet," the outro, is saved from this fate by an overflow error from the use of the piano; it has this very late-1800s vibe to it that manages to keep the song from imploding before the guitars kick in at the end.

In my opinion, Coma Ecliptic was a logical progression given the band's trends; the perceived recovery of Hypersleep Dialogues was an aberration. Their original self-titled release was almost entirely within one genre, and subsequently the group started including elements from other, some might say contradictory, influences. I suppose from my subjective standpoint, it did largely seem that the softer elements became more and more prominent as time went on, with Hypersleep Dialogues being the exception. I wouldn't say it's the end of the world, but it certainly isn't to my taste.

What do you think? Am I old and elitist or am I on the right track? Let me know in the comments!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

'Gotham' Recap: "The Demon's Head" (4x04)


Welcome back to Gotham: a Dark Knight (because The Lying Game was taken). This episode, written by Ben McKenzie (who plays Jim Gordon) is dubbed "The Demon's Head." Warning for sexual content, language, and violence to a minor. Spoilers ahead.

The episode begins with Bruce and Alfred visiting Dr. Winthrop, an antiquities expert at the Gotham Museum. Bruce wants Winthrop to study the knife he bought at Penguin's auction (which is shaping up to be the MacGuffin of season 4A). Alfred, however, isn't so sure they should be involving innocent people—especially when Winthrop's grandson (and fellow history geek), Alex, drops in. Bruce, however, just can't let the matter go and insists on getting to the bottom of it. He tells Winthrop and Alex to keep the matter between themselves and then leaves.

Cut to Ed, who's just figured out the perfect riddle to send to Penguin before killing him. He gathers his information by creating a crazy string diagram reminiscent of Scott Snyder's Batman, Volume 4: Zero Year - Secret City. 


It's an appropriate reference, as the book details Bruce's transformation from an unnamed vigilante into Batman. Will Gotham go that far? Maybe not, but it's still exciting to speculate.

Back at the museum, Winthrop and Alex examine the blade and discuss the myths regarding Ra's al Ghul, who was a powerful warlord, according to history. Winthrop reads the engraving on the knife, which turns out to be a wordy yet vague prophecy. The message basically boils down to the idea that Ra's heir has to use the knife in order to become the next Ra's al Ghul, but how the heir (in this case, Bruce) is supposed to use the knife is unclear. 

Winthrop tells Alex to keep the knife and Alex leaves him. But who should appear next but Ra's al Ghul. He shows off his extended lifespan by pointing out a Greek vase that's actually a forgery and telling an anecdote about a brothel owner in Shanghai. (I bet he and Alexandra from Defenders would really get along.)

Since Winthrop won't tell him where the knife is, Ra's sets off the alarm before killing the old man. Alex hears it happen from his hiding place and runs away before Ra's can find him. 

Some time later, Gordon and Detective Harper inspect the murder scene. (Bullock is on sabbatical, apparently, and I honestly can't blame him.) Gordon realizes that Bruce was the last person to meet with Winthrop, but he doesn't have to look far to find him, as Bruce shows up at the museum looking for Winthrop to ask him about the knife. 

Gordon questions Bruce, but Bruce claims to have no idea why the knife is important. He only tells Gordon that Barbara bid on it as well, and that the GCPD should also be looking for Alex, who's nowhere to be found. Gordon tells Bruce to go home until he needs his help again. 

Meanwhile, Ra's al Ghul introduces Barbara to his henchmen du jour: a weird dog-man hybrid called Anubis (who kinda looks like Gollum) and an unnamed thug. He tells the two to track down the knife and kill the boy (presumably Alex). I'm not really sure why he couldn't have just sent some of his regular assassins after the knife, but to each his own. 

Over at the Iceberg Lounge, Penguin meets with Sofia Falcone. She acts very subservient, claiming that her father taught her "When the King of Gotham summons you, you come." Penguin wants to know if she's here to rebuild her father's empire, but Sofia claims she's here to attend to the Falcone family charities. He's slow to believe her and even points out that her father taught him "to nurture a healthy paranoia." Sofia pretends to be afraid of him and is even on the verge of tears, before claiming that she wanted to come to Gotham because she sees it as her true home. This seems to pacify him and their meeting adjourns.

Gordon, still on the case, visits Barbara. He doesn't even seem nonplussed to see her alive, but this is a Gotham character we're talking about.


Gordon catches on to the fact that the person on whose behalf Barbara attended the auction must be the one funding her, but she refuses to tell him who that is. Bruce walks right in and straight-up asks if it's Ra's al Ghul. Barbara denies any knowledge of Ra's and Gordon takes Bruce outside to talk. 

Gordon yells at Bruce for following him. He's also understandably ticked that Bruce didn't tell him about Ra's earlier and presses Bruce for more information. Bruce tells him Ra's was the true leader of the Court. Harper calls Gordon to tell him that Alex is still missing and Gordon asks her to research Ra's al Ghul.

Gordon, still upset at Bruce for lying and endangering the Winthrops, asks if he has any idea where Alex could be. Bruce recalls Winthrop and Alex's conversation earlier in the episode about a private room at Gotham Central Library and the two decide to check it out, since Gordon figures that Alex might feel safer around someone his own age.

While the scene is short, I love it because we're starting to see Gordon realize that Bruce isn't the same scared kid he met three years ago. He's obsessive, secretive, and reckless. Gordon might think of himself as Bruce's friend, maybe even his secondary guardian, but there's a lot that Bruce hasn't told him—not just about Ra's or his vigilante hobbies, but about everything he's done to get what he wants.

Gordon doesn't know that Bruce faked a kidnapping to get information out of Silver St. Cloud. He doesn't know that Bruce can fight (or that he enjoys fighting). He doesn't know that the Court trained Bruce. He doesn't know how many times Bruce has almost killed somebody out of anger. Gordon only sees Bruce as a naïve kid who's playing detective.

Gotham's done a good job of keeping Gordon from seeing the darker side of Bruce's personality, but in this episode, the mask begins to slip. I'm glad for that. I'm not saying I want Gordon to find out that Bruce is a vigilante, but I like that he's beginning to see him in a different light. Gordon and Bruce have an interesting relationship in this show, and I think McKenzie played to the show's strengths by emphasizing that in this episode (especially since this father-son/friend relationship didn't get a lot of screen time in season 3).

But not every moment in Gotham is a serious one, as Penguin and Zsasz have to sit through a riddle rap performed by two homeless men Ed sent to them. The riddle details a location to meet at, which Penguin thinks is the pier. He decides to meet Ed there and ambush him. This leads to the moment I'm sure we've all been waiting for:


(After appearances in four episodes in a row, is it too soon to assume Zsasz is now a main cast member? I don't know, but a girl can hope.)

Over at Gotham Central Library, Bruce convinces Alex to let him and Gordon in. Alex is scared stiff and asks if Bruce knew the knife was dangerous. Bruce replies that he didn't.


Alex is worried that Ra's will kill him to get the knife, which he hid somewhere. Turns out he's not wrong, as Anubis and Ra's other thug (who apparently only speaks in gibberish) attack the library. Gordon tells Bruce and Alex to leave and meet him at the station, but Anubis attacks Alex. Thankfully, Bruce is able to knock out the dog-man with a heavy book.


The two boys run off, leaving Gordon and Ra's mooks to make a mess of the library. Once Gordon returns to the GCPD, however, Alex and Bruce are nowhere to be found. But guess who is? The Demon's Head himself.

Ra's meets with Gordon and claims to be a member of the consulate of Nanda Parbat: a Himalayan country so small he's surprised Gordon's actually heard of it. (Come to think of it, I am too. Is this something Gordon picked up during the unnamed war he fought in?) Gordon decides to see what he can get out of him by playing along with his act of innocence.

The next scene shows Bruce and Alex (in some undisclosed location). Bruce helps clean up the spot where Anubis bit Alex. Alex, who noticed Bruce's fighting skills briefly in the library, tells Bruce he's ashamed of how scared he was and how he froze when he heard Ra's killing his grandfather. Bruce tells him that he was the same way when his parents died and adds that "fear is normal." The sooner Alex accepts that, the sooner he can learn to deal with it. (I have a theory that Alex represents Bruce's old self, but I'll come back to that later).

Alex admits that after the Wayne murders, Bruce was the subject of gossip at school. Bruce asks what people say about him. Alex replies that, according to his classmates, Bruce lives in a mansion, never goes to school, and "flies around in jets." He admits that while most people think Bruce is weird, he finds him "weirdly cool." But just when you think the two boys might lay low and have more bonding time, Alex tells Bruce he'll take him to the knife.

Back at the GCPD, Ra's tells Gordon that the knife is an item of historical significance to his country. He explains that the knife is tied to myths of an immortal warrior who used the knife to establish a kingdom before vanishing. Ra's tells Gordon that many people believe the warrior will return to establish yet another kingdom. 


Gordon tries to act as if he has the knife but can't release it until he knows Alex is safe. However, his bluff is interrupted by Alfred, who bursts into the precinct looking for Gordon and Bruce. When he sees Ra's, he does what we've all been longing to do since last season: he punches him in the face. Gordon pulls Alfred aside and tells him to calm down, and Ra's takes the opportunity to vanish while Gordon's back is turned. Gordon assumes this means Ra's called his bluff about having the knife.

The next scene shows Sofia Falcone at an unknown house, dogged by some of her father's old capos. They insist that she tell them when her father will return, but she insists that the Falcone family has stepped down for good. Penguin and Zsasz crash the party. Cut to Sofia and Penguin listening to the sound of gunshots.

Sofia feigns anger at Penguin for using her to draw the capos out so he could get rid of them, but he points out that he let her live. She replies that her father would've been more pragmatic and used her to gain the men's allegiance. Penguin replies that the rules have changed. After he and Zsasz leave Sofia, Crystal Reed gives us five seconds of the best facial acting we've seen on this show so far.


In the span of a few seconds, Sofia turns from a scared young woman into a budding, manipulative crime boss. In comic books, her approach was somewhat different: thanks to her towering size, Sofia had a more threatening physical presence that overshadowed her brilliant mind (and possibly made people see her more as a brute). In Gotham, her traditional good looks and wide-eyed innocence are used to hide a conniving mind. While I'm not entirely happy with how they've changed the character's physique, I like that the writers have preserved her manipulative nature.

But I digress. Alex takes Bruce to the museum and takes out the knife. Alex wonders if the knife a harbinger of a bad luck, and his theory is almost instantly confirmed by the appearance of Anubis.

Back at the GCPD, Gordon and Alfred get into an argument. Alfred is mad at Gordon for letting Bruce get involved with the investigation, and Gordon is still upset about being kept out of the loop. Their argument raises an interesting question: should Alfred trust Bruce to make his own decisions, or should he tell Gordon when Bruce puts himself in danger? It's easy for me, as someone who knows Bruce will become Batman, to insist that Alfred let Bruce have his way. But from Gordon's perspective, Bruce is out of control and it makes sense to stop him. 

After their shouting match is over, Alfred gives Gordon a case that the knife came in, which somehow clues him in to where the boys will be (don't ask me how). Gordon leaves and tells Detective Harper to detain Alfred. 

Meanwhile, Penguin is upset that Ed didn't meet him at the pier and has to sit through another riddle rap (from an equally baffled Ed) telling him the new meeting place. Penguin's reaction?


The next scene cuts over to the museum, where Anubis and the other thug are still on the prowl. Gordon arrives and manages to take out both of them and Bruce gets the knife, but guess who shows up? Ra's al freakin' Ghul, who puts a dagger to Alex's throat and tells Bruce to give him the knife if he wants to save Alex. 

Gordon tells Bruce to hand it over, but Bruce insists that Ra's is too dangerous to trust with the knife. He even admits to Gordon that Ra's killed Alfred and raised him back to life (even though, technically, it was Bruce who killed Alfred). No matter what Gordon says, Bruce just won't hand over the knife. Ra's applauds his persistence before slitting Alex's throat. But instead of disappearing this time, he allows himself to be arrested.

Later, as Ra's is on the way to Blackgate Penitentiary, Gordon tells Alfred and Bruce that he needs them to be honest with him, but Alfred points out that his skepticism about the Lazarus Pit is one of the reasons why they weren't. 

Bruce feels responsible for Alex's death and . . . yeah. He's right. That's pretty much all on him. I mentioned earlier that I think Alex symbolizes Bruce's old self: all of his childhood innocence, fear, and shame. The moment Ra's killed Alex, I think a part of Bruce died. That's not to say I'm happy about Alex's death; it sucks that Bruce almost made a normal friend his own age only for the friend to die not long after. However, from a narrative standpoint, Alex's death serves a clear purpose.

Now that that's wrapped up, let's go back to the Iceberg Lounge. Ed bursts in, upset that Penguin didn't meet him. Penguin shows up and mocks Ed for losing not only his ability to create good riddles, but also to make clever plans. Ed wants to kill Penguin, but Penguin tells him he can't: only the old Ed Nygma can truly have his revenge. From where he stands, Ed is a shadow of his former self. He calls Mr. Freeze in to trap Ed again, but Ed begs for his life, confessing "I'm not the Riddler."

Penguin calls off Freeze and decides to let Ed go, saying that it'll be worse for Ed to live on knowing that he'll never be the same man he once was. Ed leaves and wonders aloud "Who am I?"


But just in case you were worried about the relationships on this show getting too complex, Gordon goes to Sofia's house and decides to hook up with her even though he's mad at her for letting the Penguin lure out and kill those capos. Look, I'm okay with him having a thing for her. But seriously? Starting a make-out session just after you've learned your partner is a manipulative femme fatale? Really, Jim?

And in the final scene, we see Ra's transported to Blackgate and he gives a smile worthy of Light Yagami.


Overall, the episode was . . . all right. While I enjoyed all of the storylines, I think there may have been too many subplots in this episode at once. Yes, I know, this is Gotham and there are never fewer than 17 gambits going at once, but if any of the episode's subplots had been taken out and saved for later, McKenzie could've spent more time building up the others. 

But all in all, this episode introduced (and continued) a lot of great driving questions that will presumably carry across season 4A, if not the entire season. Why is the knife important? How far will Bruce go to stop Ra's al Ghul? Who is Ed without his intellect? Is Sofia Falcone ever telling the truth?

Comment below with your thoughts on the episode, and tune in next week to watch Bruce Wayne make more bad decisions. Why?