Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Red Hot Valentines - s/t

The Red Hot Valentines are not the sort of band that has a lot of information online. Even so, there's even less information about this particular album. You can find relative oodles about their second album, Summer Fling or their third, Calling Off Today. Almost nobody has any information about this album and it took me nearly three quarters of an hour to find the low resolution picture you see on the left. This isn't a self-release or limited edition, it's just the debut release of a not-very-well-known band.

The Red Hot Valentines are another band that came to me in my quest to find the next Return of The Rentals, which we all know is a futile endeavor. Even so, that doesn't stop The Red Hot Valentines from putting out a very workmanlike and absolutely affable effort. The keyboards are a little buried in the mix, something that was rectified on Summer Fling. The songs all start to blend together after a while, and there are no real standout tracks on the album. The Red Hot Valentines is all heart and not quite enough substance.

Radiohead - The Bends

I'm not a Radiohead fanboy. I have been repeatedly criticized by my other music friends because I don't bow at the altar of Radiohead's musical genius. Sure, I get it. I know that Radiohead is the most highly experimental yet publicly accessible band in the world. They do precisely whatever they please and we're all supposed to say it's genius and listen to it over and over. I'm not going to say they aren't genius, and I'm not going to say that their music isn't good. As a matter of preference, I just don't listen to Radiohead much. I own all their albums (most of them digitally), but I rarely dig them up. I just generally veer more toward the ostensibly simplistic than the overtly complex. If that makes me a simpleton, I guess I'm just going to have to deal with it.

All that rant said, I really like The Bends. Radiohead's earlier albums just tended to be much more accessible to people like me who like their music to be fairly accessible. Sure, I have no idea what "Fake Plastic Trees" is about (maybe it's about exactly what it seems to be about, but that doesn't seem like something Radiohead would do) but that doesn't stop me from enjoying it. The Bends is just a fine collection of songs that is just normal enough for simpletons like me and just weird enough for Radiohead fanboys.

Rancid - ...And Out Come the Wolves

This is a classic punk album, plain and simple. Very few albums from punk's resurgence in the 90's are so good that they can be named alongside Rocket to Russia, London Calling, and Never Mind the Bollocks, but ...And Out Come the Wolves is every bit as good as the albums that defined punk as a genre.

Every single track on this album is a punk rock classic. My personal favorites are "Maxwell Murder," "Roots Radicals," "Ruby Soho," and "Olympia, WA." If you ever want to know what great punk sounds like, this is it.

Queen - Classic Queen

Classic Queen is a great compilation that compiles a few of the deeper Queen cuts not featured on other greatest hits compilations. It has since been made unnecessary by the Platinum Collection three disc set, but if you don't own that one, Classic Queen is a great album to own.

I think I piled on every possible superlative in my review of Greatest Hits, so I'm not going to say anything about Queen as a band other than they are great and that no number of Paul Rodgers will ever amount to one Freddie Mercury.

Classic Queen has some of my favorite Queen cuts, and I might actually prefer this album to Greatest Hits. "One Year of Love" is an underrated ballad that has found its way onto many mixes I have made over the years. "The Show Must Go On" is such an obvious cut, it's amazing it didn't make the first greatest hits compilation. "Who Wants to Live Forever" sounds like a wistful cry to the heavens now that Freddie Mercury is no longer with us. Oh, and allow me to wish a pox on Vanilla Ice for making me think of "Ice Ice Baby" every time I hear "Under Pressure." So yeah, there's a lot to love on this album. It's been a mainstay in my collection ever since I discovered it back in the early 90's.

Queen - Greatest Hits

When I was a young whippersnapper I was only aware of two Queen albums: Greatest Hits and Classic Queen (there was only one store in my hometown that sold CD's and those were the only ones they had). Naturally I bought them both as soon as I was able because Queen is one of the greatest bands ever and one of my all-time favorite bands (number four in my top five).

There has never been nor will there ever be another band like Queen. Freddie Mercury's vocals are absolutely untouchable, and yes I do think less of Paul Rodgers for trying. Brian May has one of the most recognizable guitar sounds ever. John Deacon and Roger Taylor are a rhythm section beyond reproach. Beyond the virtuosity of the band's members, Queen had a theatricality that simply cannot be replicated. The simple fact that they created "Bohemian Rhapsody" and did it with the limited technology of the day (piling nearly 200 tracks onto 24 track tape) is a testament to the fact that there will never be another Queen.

Accolades for the band aside, Greatest Hits is a very effective overview of the band, especially when combined with its companion compilations. Greatest Hits compiles the best songs from Queen's strongest albums. Even if you don't think you know Queen, there are at least 3 songs on this album that you know by heart. "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions" have been so overplayed at sporting events that their brilliance can easily be overlooked. Also, I can't imagine anyone not knowing "Another One Bites the Dust." The rest of the album may not work quite as easily for jock jam purposes, but each and every track represents the type of brilliant songwriting and genre-defying that only Queen could deliver. I recommend that you buy all of Queen's albums (even the Flash Gordon soundtrack, which has some great moments despite being generally viewed as subpar) but if you can't, I recommend this compilation as well as the one I'm going to review next.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Various Artists - Punk-o-Rama 8

How do you improve upon the already fantastic Punk-o-Rama 7? You add a second disc, toss a couple different genres into the mix (oddly enough some hip-hop and a bit of the fuzzed out blues of The Black Keys) to supplement the already fantastic punk, and you continue the trend of excellent graphic design in the series. So yeah, there ya go. This is another great compilation. This comp introduced me to The Black Keys, so I can't help but love it.

Various Artists - Punk-o-Rama 7

This is exactly what I want from a punk compilation. It features 19 different bands, some of which I was unfamiliar with before getting this album. It puts the best possible foot forward for each band, and it also forms a cohesive whole as an album. As far as punk compilations are concerned, Epitaph Records (who put out this comp) puts out the best ones, followed by Fat Wreck Chords (who has the best record label name ever) and just about everyone else ties for last place. Sure, there are some anomalies in which a smaller punk label might put out a decent comp, but if Epitaph or Fat Wreck Chords is on the label, you can be assured of general high quality. This is not to say that there are no decent bands on small time labels. There are plenty of great bands who are the biggest and best fish in their respective ponds, but the lack of other big fish in those ponds generally makes for bad comps by those labels because they'll literally fill out the album by pulling things out of the garage that would otherwise never see the light of day, and with good reason.

This very album is how I came to really love Hot Water Music, The (International) Noise Conspiracy, Division of Laura Lee, and a few other cool bands. I had never heard some of the aforementioned bands before buying this comp. Beyond the music, this album has excellent package design as do the other titles in the Punk-o-Rama series. This album did everything I could ever want a punk compilation to do, and I still love listening to it. So there ya go. That's my official endorsement.

Pulsars - s/t

I bought this album at a time when I desperately needed more music similar to Return of The Rentals. Unfortunately there is no such thing. Return of The Rentals is a perfected musical anomaly that will probably never be bested or even reasonably approached. Seriously, it's the greatest synth rock album ever made and all-time great underrated rock album. I've come to understand that it's just unfair to compare other synth rock albums to it, so I'll try not to do that here.

So yeah, Pulsars and their debut (and only album, as far as I'm aware) is a pretty sweet specimen of synth rock. If you like songs about robots, look no further. Pulsars is a perfect blend between drums, guitars, and synths. No one element overpowers any other, and the result is a super sweet ode to robots and other inorganic beings (you know, like silicon teens and such). I love everything about this album. The formula does wear a bit thin by the end of the meandering hidden track, and I honestly don't know how a second Pulsars album would have even been constructed. Just know they they took every nugget out of the vein they mined to make this album.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Propellerheads - Decksandrumsandrockandroll

You know how I wrote that whole thing about The Prodigy and how they do the whole electronic music thing the right way? Well, Propellerheads do it even better than The Prodigy. I freaking love this album and I don't care who knows it. I bought it during my rave phase, and it's one of the few albums of that period I don't regret.

Here's why I love this album: it has a much more lively sound than most electronic music. Propellerheads use actual drums on the album, which is somehow a groundbreaking move for an electronic group. They also pulled off some amazing collaborations. They have this fascination with Bond films, so they pulled Shirley Bassey out of nowhere and laid down "History Repeating" which is an amazing song regardless of your opinion of electronic music. They also collaborated with David Arnold on a wild treatment of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (an underrated Bond film, by the way). Not only that, but they have no problem pulling out some hip-hop collaborations. De La Soul lays down one of their very best tracks in "360° (Oh Yeah)", which features a skateboarder riding a bowl as part of the percussion on the track. It's inventive and a perfect example of why I love this album. Jungle Brothers also lay down some very fine hip-hop on the album's closer. Decksandrumsandrockandroll is filled with interesting textures and snippets. There are elements of jazz, funk, soul, hip-hop, and straight up rock and roll (there are guitars on this album. No kidding. One of the reasons I think I love Propellerheads is the fact that they don't abide by all the electronic conventions in which actual drums and guitars are off limits). Anyway, this album is relentless in its awesomeness. Oh, and how could I not mention the similarity between the cover art and this video? Yeah.

The Promise Ring - Very Emergency

This is my very favorite Promise Ring album. Yes, I know they were more experimental in their early days and this is their "sellout" album in which they openly embrace pop conventions and leave some of their indie leanings by the wayside. Even though I know that as a serious lover of music (I have a grimace on my face right now as if I'm passing these words like a kidney stone. That's what being serious about music is all about) I'm not supposed to applaud bands who go from the sublimely unique to the conventional and well-trodden, but heaven help me I love this album. It's actually the very first Promise Ring album I ever heard, so maybe there's something in that.

Even though most would claim that this album finds The Promise Ring as a shell of their former selves, I would argue that this is band at their most interesting lyrically if not instrumentally (there is little if any hint of the loud-quiet-loud formula of 30° Everywhere). I have listened to "Happiness is all the Rage" about a kabillion times now, and I'm still finding little lyrical nuances that I understand more now than I did when I first heard it. The same can be said for the title track, which is also one of my favorites in the band's catalogue. The whole feel of this album is very similar to Jets to Brazil's Orange Rhyming Dictionary, which is another of my favorite albums from this particular period and genre. I know what the naysayers say, but I dig this big time. I'm gonna give it lots of stars and let the haters hate if they want to.

The Promise Ring - 30° Everywhere

There was a time not so very long ago when people didn't really know what emo was. The genre was sort of vague and nebulus and it allowed for a great deal of variety. Back then being an emo band wasn't the sort of thing non-emo fans would mock you for. There was a time when emo was more of a subgenre of indie than a subgenre of pop punk. I don't know how or why it ever crossed over, but things were better back in the old days. Bands like Jawbreaker, Sunny Day Real Estate, and Cap'n Jazz made wildly dissimilar music even though they were all lumped into the same genre. The whole thing seemed very similar to a discussion I overheard between two cool kids back when I was in 6th grade. They were discussing what qualifies as alternative music (a very new genre at the time) and they agreed that alternative bands had the freedom to do whatever they wanted. It was a time before the rules of the genre had been solidified, and before an overly commercial version of the genre had been pushed on the masses. Of course alternative has become a catch-all for music that now qualifies as adult-contempo and emo has become a joke. Nobody outside the emo community takes the genre seriously and it's a shame given its initial promise.

Anyway, that diatribe aside, The Promise Ring is one of the very best early emo bands. 30° Everywhere is an awesome album. It perfectly exemplifies the freedom of a band doing whatever it wants. The songs are perfectly crafted off-kilter pop in the style of early emo. "Picture Postcard" is by far my favorite song on the album and it perfectly exemplifies what emo was before the conventions of the genre had been written and run into the ground. As with other early emo outings, it's best to think of The Promise Ring in terms of indie rather than emo because they have a lot more in common with Death Cab For Cutie than they do with My Chemical Romance.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Hourman - DC Universe Classics

Hourman is just one of the characters I fell in love with while reading some old JSA comics. I just find the concept of Hourman fascinating. He's not a superhero in the sense that he has some strange magical or otherwordly abilities. His abilities are the product of his own ingenuity (he developed Miraclo, a drug that gives him super powers for one hour per dose). That puts him in the same league with guys like Sandman and The Elongated Man, which I also find awesome. There's just something about a guy who uses his own ingenuity to gain entrance into a world filled with the otherwise  supernaturally gifted. It's why Batman works so well.

Anyway, as with the Green Lantern figure, which is part of this same series, this Hourman figure is almost too articulated. Luckily he does not require a pelvic thrust to remain upright. He looks very realistic and I especially appreciate how awesome his cape looks and feels. There has been plenty of discussion in various forums about his solid yellow cowl. The Golden Age Hourman always had either shadow on the front of his cowl, or the front of his cowl was always black (there is some disagreement on that point as well). So this figure either is or is not historically correct, depending on how you choose to feel about it. I did find photos of a different DC figure which does feature black on the front of the cowl, and I have to admit it looks better than this one.

Regardless of such nit-picky details, I'm proud to own Hourman. He could look a little better, but I'm certainly not one of those guys who does a little custom painting on his figures to make them more correct. He's right at home standing next to Alan Scott in my collection and he'll be there a long time.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Golden Age Green Lantern - DC Universe Classics

I bought this figure because I really enjoyed reading some Golden Age Green Lantern. I reviewed the first 10 issues here as part of my First 10 series. Anyway, I saw this beauty on sale at Wal-Mart for a mere $5 and I couldn't resist.

This figure is part of wave 14 of the DC Universe Classics action figure series. I read somewhere that wave 14 was only sold at Wal-Mart, which is nice because it's the only decent store in this town (make no mistake, I hate giving my money to Wal-Mart. I would much rather give it to a locally owned comic book store). So apparently nobody collects action figures and/or has any interest in Alan Scott. The package of this figure was coated in dust. I guess that's why it was marked down.

This Green Lantern comes complete with the lantern, a "collectable" (I put it in quotes because I can't imagine anyone cares about them) pin, and a piece of a larger figure that you can assemble by buying all the figures in this wave, which I have no intention of doing. As you can see, Alan Scott has more articulation than is necessary. There are joints everywhere on this guy. One thing my wife was quick to point out is that the only way I can get him to stand in any sort of sturdy way involves putting him in an exaggerated pelvic thrust, which doesn't seem like something the original Green Lantern would do (though I wouldn't put it past Hal Jordan).

The thing I like the most about this figure is the intense expression on its face. Were it not for the crazy mid-torso joint that makes him do the time warp again and again (well, at least the pelvic thrust part of it) I would almost swear he looked real. This is a highly-detailed finely-crafted piece of work and certainly one of the most realistic figures I own. My only gripes are the pelvis thing and the the fact that there is no way to make the bell of the lantern face the ring, which is all I wanna make it do. Of all the articulations to leave out. Sheesh, I wouldn't miss the mid-torso one or the upper thigh ones. Just make the man able to do the one thing most people are going to want to make him do. Other than that, this is a very fine figure and I was very happy to buy it for as little as I did. How much do these things retail for? I'm going to research that and tell you the answer. You won't notice it, but there may be several minutes between this set of words and the next set. If Wikipedia is to be trusted, the figures retail for $15-$18, so I really walked away with this for a song. Can't wait to pick up some cheap Avengers figures in 6 months, assuming present trends continue.

Ash Williams S-Mart Action Figure

First of all, if you haven't seen Army of Darkness, I don't know what you've been doing with your life. Get off your duff and watch it (or maybe watch it sitting down. It's your house and I won't tell you how to enjoy a movie. I'm only here to tell you which movies you need to enjoy).

Anyway, I was given this sweet action figure as a gift. I would have preferred Ash from an earlier scene in the movie (mainly I would have preferred chainsaw hand Ash over mechanical hand Ash), but I'm not going to nitpick a gift...too much.

Since I no longer have the original packaging for this figure, I'm not entirely sure who made it. I thought it was made by McFarlane toys, but I could be wrong. All it says on the undercarriage of the cart is that the copyright is held by Orion Pictures. All I can tell you is that this particular Ash stands about 6 inches tall and is only moderately articulated. His arms can rotate as well as his right thigh, but that's about it. He comes with everything you see here: the coveted boomstick, an S-Mart cart, a water bottle (the straw broke off of mine, not sure how that happened), and a leather-ish holster for the boomstick. Ash can't really stand on his own, which is why there are two small pegs for his feet on the cart. The figure is very detailed and looks very much like Bruce Campbell (did I ever tell you I met the man? Yeah, he's awesome). This is more of a display figure than a play figure, but I still love owning my own Ash Williams (that didn't sound homoerotic, did it? Mmmkay then).

Monday, May 14, 2012

Captain Amazing 8" Action Figure

Kudos to you if you recognize this figure without having me explain it to you. If you are one of the uninitiated, this is Captain Amazing from the classic film Mystery Men. Make sure that when you read the next sentence that you are aware that I am not joking and that I mean every word of it. Mystery Men is one of the greatest movies ever made. Yeah, I understand why people gravitate toward Citizen Kane and other such widely-acclaimed classics. I appreciate such high-minded highly artistic work. Umbrellas of Cherbourg is also one of my favorite films, so I'm not entirely without taste. There's just something about Mystery Men that never stops being awesome. I know that there are very few who feel the same about it. Mystery Men was seen as a critical and financial flop, but I love it. I dig it in the same way that certain types of people really dig Cable Guy (a movie I like. I wouldn't say I love it, but I've happily watched it a few times). Some movies just reach certain people and no amount of thumbs down, bombs, or rotten tomatoes can make them think otherwise. I need to write a review of Mystery Men someday. Anyway, this is supposed to be about the Captain Amazing action figure, not the movie.

My wife found this figure in its original packaging at Bookman's in Mesa. I immediately asked her if they had Blue Raja or The Shoveler, but they didn't. I'm okay with Captain Amazing, but he's not my favorite character from the movie (although knowing Captain Amazing made me enjoy Booster Gold's story in 52 so much more). We proudly brought this figure home, took it out of the packaging, and gave it a honored place in our home (my wife is also a big Mystery Men fan. It's one of the reasons I love her).

This figure is made by Playing Mantis and is 8" tall and reasonably articulated (I don't know what you consider full articulation. The DC Universe Classics figures have more joints than actual human beings. This figure has head, shoulder, elbow, waist, and knee joints, which is all I would ever want). The picture I took made him look like a drunken Tim Allen, but he looks really close to the Captain Amazing from the film. He's missing some of the endorsements from the movie, but that's understandable. It would be hard to get clearance from all the companies Captain Amazing represents. He comes just as a bare figure with no accessories whatsoever. That's how he appears in the film, so I can't fault them too much there.

Anyway, if you're a fan of Mystery Men (and really, you should be) this is a figure you might enjoy. You'd probably enjoy Blue Raja or The Shoveler more, but that's neither here nor there. This is a large finely-crafted fully-articulated figure. It's a proud piece of my collection, even if I wish it was almost any of the other characters from the movie (but not The Spleen).

Voltron: Third Dimension Action Figure

I was all about Voltron growing up. Sure, I was a fan of Transformers, GI Joe, M.A.S.K., Thundercats, and just about every other awesome cartoon/toy line for boys in the 80's (they had a pretty hard and fast girl/boy divide back then. Everything seems to have gone much more unisex since then), but Voltron was always my favorite. I remember back in the day that only one store in my hometown carried the coveted Voltron lions. I know they must have been sold as a set somewhere, but my hometown general store sold them separately. They were $5 each, and I never had that kind of money.

Fast forward to 2000 and Voltron: The Third Dimension was freshly cancelled. I was home from a two year stint in Cambodia and biding my time before getting back into college. I saw a box with all five Voltron lions marked down to a mere $19.99 and I couldn't resist. I bought the very Voltron pictured above and have loved owning the #1 most highly coveted toy of my childhood (close #2 was Optimus Prime. I remember my Mom was part of a toy drive once and someone gave away a pristine Optimus Prime complete with trailer and all accessories. I begged her to let it "fall out" of the collection for the drive and into my own personal collection. I offered several of my own toys, but my Mom didn't budge. I guess there are more important things in life than a mint condition 1985 Generation 1 Optimus Prime complete with trailer and all accessories, but not many).

Though my love of Voltron will always let me love the figure pictured above, I do have some complaints which seem to be common for this particular iteration of Voltron. First of all, the black lion has a projectile in its back (I've never liked projectiles in toys. You never use them like the kids in the commercial who always seem to have plenty of plastic bricks to blow up (an item I have never seen for sale anywhere) and you always end up losing them and/or having them shoot off when you lest expect it). This particular Voltron really suffers from premature ejection of its projectiles. I tend to leave them in the slots without pushing them all the way down, so they aren't armed. When you fold up the tail of the black lion for the transformation to Voltron (a mighty robot. Loved by good. Feared by evil.) you always hit the button that shoots the projectile. It's a poor design and it gets really annoying. Also, the nubs that hold many of the moving parts in place, most notably the yellow horns on Voltron's head and the covers for the compartments that hold the feet of the black lion, wear out and those pieces end up falling off constantly. Oh, and the pieces of the other lions that lock into the black lions come in varying strengths. The ones for the arms are too good, and I'm always afraid I'm going to break something when I'm taking Voltron apart. The pieces that lock the legs in are too weak, and if you pick Voltron up too quickly, one or both of his legs will fall off.

Here's the thing: I know how hard it must be to make a decent Voltron toy. It's a complicated thing. It's like making a good Devastator (the Constructicons have to look good on their own and have all their parts work, and then they have to turn into a decent Devastator that looks good as a whole and has pieces that work). First of all, there's no way to make the lions all the same scale. The arms have to be smallest, the legs slightly bigger, and the torso even bigger. You simply don't have cartoon magic on your side. Also, you have to design interfaces that don't get in the way of the individual toys when they're separated. It's a tall order. I appreciate this Voltron for what it is (the only one I own), but I'm also well aware of its flaws.

Now here's the thing, I'm going to give this thing a rating and I'm using Voltrons as the unit of measurement for action figure goodness. I want to give this thing 5 full Voltrons, but I can't. Not with its flaws. So I'll say this: If this was the original die-cast Voltron, it'd be worthy of all 5. As a plastic representation of the original, I'll give it...

Some Action Figure Thoughts

So my interest in action figures is riding at a high not seen since M.A.S.K. was still on TV (I used to own Brad Turner and his Condor that turned from a motorcycle into a helicopter. We had such great toys in the 80's). It started with the relatively inexpensive and highly collectible Marvel Heroics and has gotten ever so slightly out of control.

I don't really know anyone else who collects action figures, but I've seen enough Big Bang Theory episodes to know that hardcore collectors know a lot about what makes a figure valuable or worthless. I know next to nothing when it comes to action figures. I know what I like, and I collect things that I like. What should follow (I don't know because I haven't written it yet) are some of the tenets that guide my action figure collecting.

1. I open my figures immediately and I toss the packaging. I buy things because I like to play with them. Sure, I keep them on the shelf most of the time, but sometimes I pull them down and play with them. You can't play with a plastic bubble and cardboard backing (Maybe you can, but I just find it weird). I know I'm taking away from some of the value when I do that, but that just leads to the second point.

2. I don't really buy expensive action figures. Heroics cost a buck a piece. Some of my figures were bought used, which made 'em really cheap. Some of my figures were given to me as gifts, which is the very cheapest ever. The most I have ever spent on a figure is $20, and that was for a very large and awesome Voltron figure, and I bought it brand new.

3. I only collect things I like. When I bought the Golden Age Hourman and Green Lantern, I could have also picked up Gold (of Metal Men fame), which is a great looking figure and from what I've read is probably the most highly prized figure in this series of DC Universe Classics figures. There was also a great price on Zatanna, but I say meh to both of those figures. They have popped up as crossover characters in some of the comics I've read, but I don't really care about Gold or Zatanna (Harley Quinn on the other hand...). I bought Alan Scott and Rex Tyler because they're two of my favorite characters from the original Justice Society. If they had a Specter action figure, I woulda been all over it. I honestly don't care which figures are more expensive or which are a better investment.

4. I do care a bit about which version of a figure I'm collecting. Here's the thing: Michael Bay ruined the aesthetics of Transformers. Look at the clean lines and perfect colors of the original 80's transformers (either the toys or the tv show itself, it doesn't matter which) and compare them with the dull colors of the walking piles of junk Michael Bay crapped out. I could pick up a Michael Bay Optimus Prime right now for next to nothing, but I don't want it. I could pick up the robot formerly known as Bumblebee (Bumblebee is a VW Bug, not a Chevy Camero) but I don't want it. So yeah, if an inferior movie version of a toy exists, I don't want it. Side note: I think it's funny that people are coming around to my way of thinking with Michael Bay. His proposed alien movie (It's supposed to be Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but he intends to portray TMNT as aliens, so they may or may not be teenagers, probably aren't mutants, can't be ninjas because ninjitsu is a martial arts form from Earth, and they can't even be considered turtles. So yeah, he's an idiot) has caused a lot of outrage. Where was all the outrage when he ruined Transformers? I felt like the only person who cared. I didn't go see any of his Transformers movies, and I certainly won't want to see his alien non-teenage non-mutant non-ninja non-turtle movie. I scoff at the very idea of Michael Bay </nerdrant>.

I think that pretty much covers it for now. I'm sure there'll be more to it when I've gone deeper into the sickness that is action figure collecting, but that's all I've got for now. Just know that I will absolutely be buying some old Mattel Guts figures, and when I get the underwater demolition team they'll be going with me into the bathtub just like they did in the 80's. And on that disturbing note...the end.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Prodigy- Experience

I only have a few surviving albums from what we'll call "my rave phase circa 1998." I already hated on Crystal Method and Chemical Brothers, so you'd probably expect me to hate on The Prodigy as well, but I'm not going to do it. Why not? Because The Prodigy works as music. It's not just mindless droning that can only be enjoyed by intoxicated young people who are dancing (seriously, most electronic music loses its appeal when you aren't dancing to it, and as you get older it loses its appeal altogether). I will list the things The Prodigy does correctly so those of you who aspire to make electronic music can be sure to not add more trash to the genre or its many subgenres.

1. The Prodigy makes pop-length songs. If Liam Howlett can explore the depths of a texture or sonic idea in less than 5 minutes, you shouldn't need 17 to do the same thing (I'm looking at you, The Orb).

2. The Prodigy turns out short yet effective transitions. How many times have you heard an electronic song that took 12 full minutes to go from beep-beep-boop to boop-boop-beep? If that's the only idea you have for a song, you don't have enough ideas for a song. Seriously, listen to The Prodigy. If Liam wants to flip the beat upside down or add another synth line or toss in an odd sample that pulls the whole thing together, he doesn't wait for pages to fall off the calendar before he does it.

3. The Prodigy is aggressively textured. It's not just the same drum and bass sounds over and over or the same sequencer line or the same synth voices. Liam throws a lot of things into the pot. He keeps you guessing and you're never quite sure where a song will go. I don't know how many songs I've fallen in love with because I couldn't have possibly thought of them. So much electronic music is utterly predictable. If your song sounds like you sampled a beat and then just walked away for a half hour, you're doing it wrong. Keep stirring the pot. It's the right thing to do.

4. The Prodigy borrows from everywhere. One of the great things about electronic music is that you can sample anything. If you sample another electronic song and splice it into a new one, you're not a genius. On this album alone I heard samples of classic rock, reggae, hip-hop, as well as other genres and a whole slew of random movie quotes and whatnot. Electronic music has a tendency to sound soulless and robotic. If you bring in pieces from lively and soulful sources, you're more likely to break the robotic mold.

So yeah, those were the four things I thought of offhand. Experience is a great album, and not just a great rave album. The songs stand on their own and do not require lasers, knee pads, or pacifiers in order for them to be enjoyed.

Pressure 4-5- Burning the Process

I think I've already confessed that one of the guiltiest pleasures I indulge in is my near-annual listening to the sort of crappy music that musclebound guys (the ones with tribal tattoos and expensive sunglasses who stand outside convenience stores and ask people, "What are you looking at?", a question to which there is no right answer) think is fantastic. I don't know what draws me to it. I couldn't be less of one of those guys. Even so, about once a year I get the urge to listen to some really crappy nu metal, and I pull out the playlist (yes, I have it pre-made for just such occaisions). So yeah, this album fits in that part of my collection. I don't like it or listen to it for 364 days out of the year, but on that 365th it scratches a certain itch (that sounds disgusting).

Anyway, I came across Pressure 4-5 with a promo handed to me outside a Weezer concert. I had actually discovered some cool bands that way before, so I was taking whichever promos they were giving out. I got a "Beat the World" single, which is probably Pressure 4-5's best track. The other promo I remember getting that night was from the very similar Pete. (yes, like moe. the period is part of the band's name) which featured the very similar song "Sweet Daze." When you break it down, most nu metal is very similar. Sure, there are slight variations on the formula, but it's generally the same stuff. I don't think Chevelle is so different from Trust Company that you couldn't confuse one for the other (unless you're a connoisseur of the genre, which doesn't seem like the sort of thing anyone does. I could be wrong, but this seems to be the sort of music one lifts weights or is Vin Diesel to). So I'm not here to dump on the genre. I just intend to say that when you have the itch, Pressure 4-5 will scratch the itch just as readily as Taproot or 30 Seconds to Mars. No band in the genre is seemingly superior or inferior to any other.

The only question is how to properly rate an album that I don't really dig for all but one day (on average) of the year? I dunno. Let's give it two and a half stars and be done with it.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Posies - Success

This was the last Posies album before they "broke up." I put the term in quotes because they were still releasing albums (of live and/or previously recorded material, but still) and playing sporadic reunion shows before finally reuniting officially and releasing new music. So yeah, this album was at least the end of an era if not the ultimate end of the band itself.

I guess it's not surprising that this album isn't that good. By the time they broke up, The Posies were already being pulled in different directions. Ken Stringfellow had already recorded and released his first solo effort and Jon Auer was working with a new band on his solo music, which wouldn't see the light of day for another couple years. The other guys in the band never seemed of consequence or concern to anyone, which must have been frustrating. It's no surprise that this "final" album sounds like it's being pulled in different directions as well. How could it not?

The songwriting on this album doesn't stand up to the songs on previous Posies outings. Of course there are some nice songs like "Farewell Typewriter" on the disc, but much of the rest of the album seems to say, "We're tired of doing this, are you tired of hearing it yet?" I don't intend to paint Success as a failure, but there is a palpable tension on the record as well as a lack of focus. It isn't a great record, but it's not bad for a band that was falling apart.

The Posies - Frosting on the Beater

Frosting on the Beater, aside from having one of the greatest power pop album names this side of Teenage Symphonies to God, represents The Posies finding a sound all their own. Whereas the previous album, Dear 23, sounded like an attempt to literally be Big Star, Frosting on the Beater has a more distinctive Posies sound. The first three tracks are all fantastic. "Dream All Day" somehow manages to have shades of "Don't Fear the Reaper" and yet still be a great power pop tune. "Solar Sister" features some of the best harmonies in The Posies catalogue. "Flavor of the Month" is one of the best power pop songs ever written. Toward the end of the album, the songs take a turn for the darker, but it just makes the album varied and interesting. Frankly, with how great the first three tracks are, the rest of the album could be a field recording of the band belching and blowing snot rockets and I'd still say this was a good album overall.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Atarimax Maxflash Cartridges (Atari 800XL Accessory)

So Steve at Atarimax is one of the greats when it comes to adapting new technology for use with old technology. Most of his contributions have been to the Atari community, though he has made an awesome product for the Colecovision as well. He was the one who invented the SIO2PC cable which allows me to boot disk images from my PC to my Atari 800XL, or write disk images to actual 5 1/4" disks with my 1050 Disk Drive (for nerd cred I have to mention that my SIO2PC is the serial version. There was no USB version when I bought it. The only way that could be more hardcore would be if I bought the terminal rather than the SIO jack version. Feel free to take a moment and genuflect at my nerdliness). He also programmed APE (Atari Peripheral Emulator) which is the program that allows me to mount disk and cartridge images. All of these software and hardware innovations have breathed new life into the world of 8-bit Atari computing. I recently picked up one of his Maxflash cartridges along with the programming kit, and it has changed the way I use my Atari 800XL...again.

The thing about cartridges is that they work better than disks. They're more durable, they boot faster, and they don't require extra cords and power supplies. You just plug 'em in and they work. So when Steve developed programmable multicarts for the 8-Bit Atari, I immediately added them to my nerd wish list. It took me a while to break down and buy it, but I'm so glad I did.

You need three things to be able to write and rewrite your own custom multicarts for your 8-bit Atari: the programmer cartridge, a flash cartridge, and the maxflash studio software. Here's how easy it is to program the carts: 1) Open the Maxflash Studio software 2) Plug the flash cart into the programmer and the programmer into an open USB port 3) Select the games you want to be on the cartridge 4) Click "Synchronize Cart." The cart will take about 10 seconds to program (more or less depending on the number of games you include and the size of your flash cart) and you're done. Stick it in the cartridge slot of your 8-bit Atari and select the game you want to play with your joystick. You'll be amazed how fast the cartridge works and how quickly the games boot up. You can write all sorts of Atari images to the carts (.atr .rom .exe, etc.) but I prefer .xex files. It seems like I can fit more of them on a cart. Need some .xex Atari games? Look here or here.

So now you know that you need a Maxflash cartridge and the programming kit (sold separately) and the only question is whether to buy the 8-Megabit (not Megabyte) or 1-Megabit cartridge. I bought the 1 Megabit because it was cheaper, but immediately wished I had bought the 8 Megabit. You can fit 6-8 games on a 1 Megabit cart, but you can squeeze 50 or more games on an 8 Megabit cart. You want the 8 Megabit and the Programmer kit. You may have to save a few more pennies, but it's worth it. Oh, and you can save your custom multicart files so you can load the same menus full of games time and time again. I'm telling you, this is a super awesome product. It helps you play Atari games quickly and easily. I've found that some games that lag during play if I load them from disk are much faster and smoother when loading from the Maxflash cart. I love everything about these carts and I will be buying another when I'm done buying parts for the computer I'm using to type this sentence. Steve at Atarimax is a nice dude who has always had great customer service for all his products, and no, he didn't pay me to say that. I'm just an Atari fan who has found that he is the champ of champs when it comes to new tech for the 8-bit Atari. I have given him my business before and I'll happily do it again.

Homebrew Demos for the Vectrex

Included with the multicart were a number of homebrew demos. These are unfinished games or concepts that are somewhat playable in some form or fashion. A few of them are very interesting, so I thought I'd write a little blurb on each one.

Abyss- John Dondzilla- This game looks like a sort of Gyruss mixed with Tempest. You rotate around a segmented cylinder as enemies approach and you blast 'em. The game does not yet have points, sound effects, or collision detection for enemies hitting your ship. It's an interesting demo with a fair amount of promise...provided John decides to do anything with it.

B.E.T.H.- Manu Pärssinen- B.E.T.H. starts out with some of the coolest music I've heard on the Vectrex. Then the game starts with what appears to be ships in bubbles. Your ship will drift up and to the right no matter what you do. It will then explode, leaving you wondering what you've just witnessed. Clearly B.E.T.H. has a lot more work needed before it's a playable game, but the music is cool.

Disc Duel- Jon Dondzila- This is one of the better and more promising games in the homebrew demos section. It's clearly an attempt to recreate a certain scene from Tron, and it does a fine job. Two of the buttons move you right and left, another throws your discs, and another causes you to raise both hands and make an electrical arc between them. Not sure what that's supposed to do, but it looks cool. Your opponent never moves, which either means this was intended as a two player game, or that part of the game hasn't been written yet. There are no sound effects for the game yet, and there are things that are clearly just not done yet. Even so, it really looks and feels like a decent Tron game, which is an accomplishment considering how many crappy Tron games there are.

Vecsports Kingpin- Manu Pärssinen- This is an interesting little bowling game that looks pretty close to a completed product. It defaults to 4 player mode, and I'm not sure you can play it as a single player. In order to bowl, you watch the arrow that scrolls back and forth across the lane and press the button when it's lined up where you want it. It's more tricky than you think, and it's genuinely hard to get a strike (I never got one). Clearly Manu Pärssinen is having some cool ideas. He'll be one to watch in the Vectrex homebrew community.

Nonagalf- Manu Pärssinen- This is a miniature golf game that's playable. It features only one hole, which is why it's still in the demo stage. The one hole is reasonably challenging, and the controls are fairly accurate yet forgiving. I would love to see more of this game.

Spike Goes Skiing- Andy Coleman- This is a game by the creator of my multicart. This game is a beta version, which means it's pretty much done and in play testing mode. It's another way in which Spike is being redeemed by homebrewers. The game is very similar to the old Skiing game from Activision for the Atari 2600, but rather than a regular skier, you control Spike. In the first stage, you maneuver through a slalom course with nice, wide gates. Once you cross the finish line, you enter a stage similar to Preppie. You have to cross a busy street, pick up your skis, and bring them back to where you started. Once you pass that stage, you'll hit the slalom course again, but with narrower gates this time. By this point, I usually died so I don't know what lurks beyond. This is a decent fully-fledged skiing game and by far the most playable thing in the homebrew demos section.

Vexperience- Manu Pärssinen- This was intended as a two game cartridge. It features another version of B.E.T.H. with the same impressive intro, and is as unplayable as the other one. It doesn't even look like the same game. The second game is Vec Sports Boxing, which features two large boxers and no collision detection as of yet. The boxers are somewhat comically animated, and I'm not sure how well this game would work if completed, but it's another stab at a non-space shooter, so there's that.

Yoehl- Manu Pärssinen- This game feature two screens. The first looks a little like Commando, but instead of shooting at solidiers, you're chasing down a Space Invader. Once you catch the guy, you'll go through a cool transition screen and he'll be at the top of the screen shooting three projectiles at a time while you shoot only one back. There is no collision detection yet, but it's an interesting demo nevertheless.

Ztagger- Manu Pärssinen- I don't know what this is. You're in a rotating ship that shoots at the Playstation button symbols that crawl slowly across the screen. There's no collision detection and seemingly no point. At least not yet.

Monday, May 7, 2012

2D Narrow Escape (Vectrex Game)

Narrow Escape is one of the few games that makes use of the 3D viewer, a rare accessory for the Vectrex. Because practically nobody owns one, and very few have been smart enough to rig up a DIY version, the 3D games go largely unplayed. A guy named Fred Taft was nice/smart enough to turn Narrow Escape, previously a 3D only game, into a 2D game playable without the 3D visor.

Narrow Escape looks pretty cool. You pilot a ship that looks like the drop ship from Mine Storm. On either side are walls that look a little like library stacks (I used to be a librarian). Touching the walls results in death, hence the narrow part of your escape. You must successfully capture fuel cells, blast enemies, and make your way to the big boss. I've never made it to the boss, but I've had plenty of fun along the way. Some of the collision detection seems a bit wonky, which is probably due to the conversion to 2D. Sometimes it's hard to know when you're on the same level as what you're trying to shoot, but the same could be said for Blue Max and Zaxxon, so it's not a huge problem. Narrow Escape is a good title that I am grateful to see in 2D form. Now if only someone could figure out Crazy Coaster.

Vectrex Pong (Vectrex Games)

Vectrex Pong is an astonishingly simple pong clone. It doesn't feature a two player mode, it's just a one player game in which your opponent is a wall. No matter how good I get, I'll never be as good as the wall. It's relentless. Anyway, this game seems more like a simple test concept that Chris Salamon trotted out before unleashing his vastly superior Frogger clone.

Vector Vaders (Vectrex Game)

This is the grandaddy of all Vectrex homebrew games. It was the first major stride in keeping the Vectrex alive and well into a new decade and years beyond. Before the title screen comes the exciting announcement, "Over 12 years have passed since the release of any new Vectrex game...things change."

You can't underrate the impact of this game. It inspired like-minded Vectrex lovers to keep the machine alive by finding ways to create new hardware and software. Vectrex collecting simply would not be what it is today, and I would not own my wonderful multicart if John Dondzila hadn't swung the gates open with this game.

Much as I'd like to say that Vector Vaders is a fantastic game that pushed the boundaries of the system, it's not true. This is a simple Space Invaders clone that's full of flaws. It's blinky and slow. It seems like your shots take forever to land and your ship moves at a snail's pace. This is nothing compared to newer Vectrex homebrews. I respect this game for all it stands for, but I genuinely dislike it as a game playing experience.

V-Frogger (Vectrex Game)

V-Frogger is a version of Frogger, the classic arcade game, adapted for the Vectrex. It's been said many times, but there are things the Vectrex can do and things it definitely cannot. V-Frogger is a concept you wouldn't expect to work, but it does much better than you'd think.

Crossing the street is fairly simple, but getting that upper right spot across the river can be difficult. V-Frogger certainly keeps the spirit of its arcade counterpart, but I'd say it's a bit more difficult than any other version I've ever played. All in all it's a great effort and hopefully an omen of more good things to come from Chris Salamon, the game's creator.