Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Music Review: Calling All Stations

Calling All Stations
  • Band: Genesis (Ray Wilson, Mike Rutherford, Tony Banks)
  • Publisher: Atlantic (USA), Virgin (UK)
  • Genre: Rock (Progressive)
  • Producers: Nick Davis, Mike Rutherford, Tony Banks
  • Release: 1 September 1997
  • Formats: Casette, CD

Looks like there's one more thing Seanbaby and I will have to disagree with: Phil Collins, known as the drummer and one of the lead singers for the band Genesis.  The consensus on the other side of the arguement is that after he replaced the outgoing Peter Gabriel as the band's lead singer in 1975, their output steadily shifted from the progressive rock they were doing before to 80s-friendly soft rock.  A bunch of his songs, both with the band and as a solo artist, were still getting airplay while I was growing up, so I had an affinity for their kind of sound engraved in me at an early age.  So yeah, I'm a fan, and even though I recognize the shift in style caused by the switch from Peter to Phil as the band's frontman and perhaps driving creative force, I'd never admit that was a bad thing.  Then again, I admit I have yet to get into the band's Gabriel-era records, so I reserve the right to adjust my opinion once I do, although I'll still love the songs Phil made.  There's not much like them out there.

But what about after their heyday?  Phil Collins first left the band in 1993, putting its remaining two members on hiatus until a few years later, when they recruited lead singer Ray Wilson and two session drummers to record a new album, Calling All Stations, in 1997.  Wilson, originally from Scottish grunge bands Guaranteed Fine and Stiltskin, bears a positive resemblance to Gavin Rossdale from Bush (no, not even close).  Some say the reason for people's declining interest in Genesis, especially in America, was the band's apparent refusal to adapt to grunge and alternative rock in some way or another.  Depending on how you take that, coming from a progressive/pop rock band, the results could sound disturbing...  By the time they worked this style into Calling All Stations, it was too late to save the band; after this album's disappointing sales, they cancelled the American leg of their '97-'98 tour and eventually broke up "for good".  But is it worth exploring?

Since I hate my earlier song reviews in retrospect, I think I'll have more luck taking on a whole album as a macrocosm.  I'll still put down notes for individual songs, to explain whether or how they fit into the album's overarching theme, should one exist.
  1. "Calling All Stations": The guitar riff which opens this track sets the tone for not only the rest of the song, but also the album as a whole.  It's a shade (no pun intended) darker than the stuff the band put out with Phil Collins, and possibly Peter Gabriel, but has all the epic, bombastic production that you can only get from the progressive rock scene.  After a brief moment to let the soundscape wash over you, we are introduced to our new lead singer, Ray Wilson.  Being a guy who was substantially younger than his two bandmates at the time (almost 29 years old, versus 47 for both Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks), his voice sounds quite different from Phil's.  In fact, it's more like what Peter's voice would be if he had dabbled in grunge.  Not to bag on any of the three frontmen, but it would be difficult to imagine Phil singing these new songs, or vice-versa for Ray and their older material.  Fortunately, his voice adds to the moody... mood of the songs on this album.  This title track showcases the best potential for Ray's vocals, as they range from a growling, desperate intro to a passionate, heartfelt climax - twice in the same song.  We get an instrumental break mid-way to remind us that not everything about Genesis has changed.  Unlike with some of the other songs on this and other albums, which I'll get to in a moment, it's not too long; it stays just long enough to build on the emotions present in the rest of the song before moving along with the next verse.  It's one of the best songs on the album; but at 5:43 long, pity it wasn't made a single.  Call it wishful thinking on my part, but it could've even saved this album's chances in America. 5 stars.
  2. "Congo": You'd be forgiven for thinking this song is similar to the last one.  After all, they share the same key signature, changed from major to minor.  But, as the title suggests, there is an African edge to it, mostly in the form of tribalesque instrumentation layered onto some segments.  I suppose I should take this opportunity to discuss the two session drummers the band recruited for recording this album and for the following tour.  With the position vacated by Phil Collins, they got Nir Zidkyahu and Nick D'Virgilio (the latter from the band Spock's Beard) as temporary replacements, but believe me, with them around you may not even miss Phil.  They still do the same echoing drum fills you know and love, even if some songs showcase this more or less than others.  Released as a single.  5 stars.
  3. "Shipwrecked": Again, depending on how cynical you're feeling at the moment, this track may bear more than a little semblance to "Calling All Stations", except lyrically rather than musically this time around.  The singer's persona feels 'shipwrecked', or lost from the desertion of a lover/loved one and nigh unable to know where to from there.  Deja vu anyone?  Welp, if that's just Ray speaking from experience, I don't blame him.  The more orchestra-driven music accentuates this feeling of emptiness.  Released as a single.  4 stars.
  4. "Alien Afternoon": This is where the album shifts into high gear, especially if you've fallen off the Genesis bandwagon during Phil's reign.  It starts off with the music, which sounds like a bunch of extraterrestrials took over a Caribbean band.  The story presented by the lyrics starts off with the singer's persona waking up to a mundane, everyday... day, only for things to take a turn for the weird as all matter of natural phenomena take place around him.  (See, Patrice Wilson, this is how you pull this kind of thing off!)  It's sort of like the beginning of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and anyone who can channel that kind of insanity gets props in my book.  So anyway, as these things may only be happening in the central figure's mind, he expresses his need to take a vacation before he goes insane (unless he already has).  For anyone who listens to the preceding tracks and think this album will go further down the pop-rock road perfected by Collins, this will come at you like whoa.  5 stars.
  5. "Not About Us": At first listen, this wasn't one of the memorable tracks I found on this album.  But given the accoustic guitar backing most of this track, and the reconciliatory nature of the lyrics, this could've worked as a Britpop ballad.  In fact, it makes me wonder what would've happened if Wilson's Genesis had pursued that direction further, given the popularity of Oasis and Blur in the mid-to-late 90s when this album was released.  ...On second thought, that's a horrible idea.  If America couldn't handle the change we got, doing this would spell disaster for Genesis and their image among their less-understanding fans..  Released as a single.  3 stars.
  6. "If That's What You Need": Yet another song that tries to be as epic as the title track.  Thing is, they nailed that target during the choruses, but the verses are too soft and unambitious by comparison.  Oh well, at least I got the good parts stuck in my head!  As for the lyrics, there's an interesting dichotomy between the chorus and the verses.  In the former, he paints these troubadourian devotions of love, but in the verses, we learn that he's too scared and shy to say them outright.  Hm, sounds like the kind of song Shinji would write.  4 stars.
  7. "The Dividing Line": You'd be forgiven for thinking this song doesn't have a hook to speak of.  After all, the first vocals don't kick in until 2 minutes into this 7-odd-minute track.  Still, the power of the guitar riffs that drive the intro, as well as the lyrics, give this song some bite for those who stick around.  5 stars.
  8. "Uncertain Weather": Reminiscent of "Alien Afternoon" a few tracks back, and that's a plus in my book.  This one apparently describes someone whose life was ruined, remembered only by a photograph from better times (depending on how literally you take the lyrics).  Makes you wonder what happened to him: was he a soldier killed in a literal war, or did he lose in a more personal struggle with drugs, domestic abuse, or what?  5 stars.
  9. "Small Talk": It's kinda hard to make out what this song is ultimately about.  Is our man tired of everyone else talking about anything, or just malicious rumors?  Must be lies, since his girlfriend has done the same, and now he wants her to say anything as long as it's true.  And as long as she's not talking back to him.  And in the mid-track bridge, they overlay a layer of random chatter over the usual instrumentation.  You would think this would ruin any seriousness they desired, but they're prog rockers, they're allowed to do this sort of thing.  And besides, the chorus, as always, provides the singer with an opportunity to emotionally break loose.   3 stars.
  10. "There Must Be Some Other Way": In the past I've decried denying that your significant other has left you, but whoever wrote this song pulled it off tastefully.  Our main man may be trying to accept the fact that his girl's out of his life (I think we're making some progress, doc!), but he's going to make one last shot of making her take him back.  Sure, it's padded with a(nother epic) instrumental break mid-way through, but that's nothing the band hasn't done before.  5 stars.
  11. "One Man's Fool": No matter where it fits on the sliding scale of pop versus prog, it seems a Genesis album is not complete without two similar-sounding songs smashed into one double-length track.  The lineup shakeup does nothing to change this, as "One Man's Fool" fits the bill this time around.  Even more so than some of their other examples, the two halves of this suite are similar enough for one to flow more naturally into the other.  And the lyrics bring up a great point for fiction writers: good and bad are relative.  In other words, those whom we regard as the opposing force in any arguement we come across, big or small, have the right to believe what they're doing is right.  The very words I live by.  5 stars.
And this once again brings me to my original point: Genesis means a lot to me.  As far as their supposed pandering to the shallow desires of 80s audiences goes, I'll take people's words for it.  But still, even at its worst, Genesis does more and better things than some other bands can put out at their best.  Calling All Stations strikes a perfect balance between their symphonic soundscapes of the 80s and the sense of exploration from the 70s, with the angsty spirit of grunge thrown in for good measure - never mind that grunge was pretty much dead in America by the time they made this album.  I'm sorry to say this particular album, in all its glory, has spoiled me to expect more deep lyrical themes from future albums I listened to in the future.  But as long as it refines my tastes while not inhibiting me from enjoying songs for what they are, that can't be a bad thing, can it?

With all the lavish praise I've layered on this album so far, I've wondered to myself whether or not I should break out a perfect score for this occasion.  As I discussed before, a score of 100% (A+) is the highest out of the 21 ranks I can give something.  But what does it mean?  If it were to be used for only works with no flaws whatsoever, I'd never have to break it out, but if I were to use it too often, it would be rendered cheap and meaningless.  For now, let's think about the ratings I gave the individual songs.  The total comes out to 49 of 55 stars, or roughly 90%.  Since that's only taking the songs without context, I have to consider how they're all worked into an album.  On the whole, the production is consistent, the pacing is decent, with longer songs ("Alien Afternoon", "The Dividing Line", "There Must Be Some Other Way") bookending groups of shorter songs, and the songwriting is mature, exploring numerous themes without naivete, while any perceived narm can be excused by the fact that they're prog rockers at heart - they're allowed to take risks.  So, all things considered, does Calling All Stations deserve my highest honour?


Sure, why not!

The Call: 100% (A+)

Friday, April 8, 2011

Game Review: Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon

The following review was originally posted on on February 4th, 2008.

Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon
  • Publisher: Konami
  • Developer: Konami Osaka
  • Platform/Release: Nintendo 64, 16 April 1998
  • Genre: Adventure, Platformer
  • Players: 1
  • Save: Controller Pak, 16 pages
  • Rarity/Cost: Common (US$3-10)

I've covered the Ganbare GoemonMystical Ninja franchise before, but this is the item which should be the most recognizable for everyone outside of Japan: the video game Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon for Nintendo 64.  As the first game in the series to be released for the console, in any region, it introduces a gameplay cocktail that was unique for its time: the expansive worlds and dungeon levels of Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda series with the three-dimensional gameplay of Super Mario 64. The game adds some original touches to this mix as well, such as the four playable characters, each with their own special abilities, that you get to control over the course of your adventure. You are able to switch between them at will, but there is little to no difference in how they move and fight, so most of the time your choice of character will boil down to personal taste.

Yeah, it's a Zelda clone - but a darn good one.
While Mystical Ninja borrows the gameplay of 3-D platformers such as Super Mario 64, it is unable to shine as brightly. One of the fatal flaws that this game suffers is that there is no camera control. You can't rotate or zoom the camera; the only thing you can do is stand still for a few seconds to re-center the camera behind you. The R button isn't even used in regular gameplay; it could very well have handled this function manually! And although the world is split up into segments, as opposed to being one huge world, it still takes a while to get across them given your characters' fairly slow walking speeds. As a whole, the game still works, but manual camera control could have been a help here and there.

There's a fair bit of visual detail to be found here; the textures are rendered surprisingly well for the Nintendo 64, except for grass and road patterns, which look like green and yellow barf respectively.  Other than that, the graphics are on the ordinary side, with a bit of slowdown on just a few areas. But even if Mystical Ninja doesn't quite impress on a technical level, there's no denying that they help to create an amazing, memorable world. The areas are clearly based on ancient Japan, but with a whimsical fantasy twist. Each of the five different castles that you explore has a creative theme to it; for example, the Gourmet Submarine Castle is set in a modern-era submarine filled with oversized Japanese foodstuffs. The music is excellent, also mixing Japanese instruments into modern beats. Music in the castle levels also gets remixed, growing in intensity as you progress further into the level. Just have your TV's mute button handy for the songs with vocals, which are painfully corny.

You're in Mount Fuji - just roll with it.
All this is wrapped up in a story that is silly to the utmost degree. When the game opens, we find our heroes getting kicked out of a restaurant in their hometown of Oedo for trying to bum a free meal. Suddenly, a UFO approaches out of nowhere and shoots a laser beam at the Oedo Castle, transforming it into a European fairytale-style castle! And the culprits behind all this? A couple who seeks to transform all of Japan into their own personal theater. I could not make this stuff up. The game also capitalizes on its lack of seriousness by fitting plenty of jokes into the dialogue; it even has its own laugh track!

If, during the Spring of 1998, you managed to put aside GoldenEye 007 or 1080 Snowboarding  long enough to give this a try, you probably thanked yourself for it. Those of you who ventured off the beaten path and tried this game were rewarded with a memorable trek through a whimsical, whacked-out take on ancient Japan. Although time has not been so kind to this game, new gamers should still check it out, if only for its sense of humour.

+ A fresh, funny story and setting.
+ Awesome music, even if the vocal tracks are an acquired taste.
- Lack of camera control.
- Some frame rate issues.

Control: 3 rice balls out of 5
Design: 4 rice balls out of 5
Graphics: 4 rice balls out of 5
Sound: 5 rice balls out of 5
The Call: 80% (B)

Friday, April 1, 2011

Music Review: Friday

It is April Fool's Day as I write this, so I hope you've been having a happy one of those.  We've got an interesting subject up for review this time around: the song "Friday" by Daniel Bedingfield.  It's part of his 2002 album Gotta Get Through This, and to my knowledge it was only released as a single in the United Kingdom.  As such, I only know about it from its inclusion in Dancing Stage Max, which was, again, a European exclusive DDR game (I have my ways).  ...I take it this isn't going to be the real review.

April Fools!  No, my real quarry is another song entitled "Friday".  This one is performed by a miss Rebecca Black, a 13-year-old upstart from Anaheim, and was released in early 2011 by the label Ark Music Factory, who have a unique business model.  Anyone who wants to get into the music business can pay them a couple thousands of dollars and have a song written with/for them.  Its founder, a mister Patrice Wilson, co-wrote "Friday" and also cameos as a guest rapper1.  So, now that I've got the objective portion of this review out of the way, I'm free to say that personally...  I find this song nigh-unlistenable.  See, over the past year or so, I've encountered many popular songs I regard as "so bad it's good", including "Hey Soul Sister" by Train, "OMG" by Usher &, "Like a G6" by Far East Movement and company, and pretty much everything else covered by ToddInTheShadows.  (BTW he stated on his Twitter channel that he would not be reviewing this particular song, oddly enough, because he felt it wasn't quite bad enough.  I get the feeling that enough requests could change his mind... but I ain't saying nothing.)  But what, you may ask, takes this song past that threshold into the realm of no return?

Welp, it starts with her vocals on the song.  They are the worst set of pipes that have ever been piped into my own earpipes.  All joking aside, Rebecca's voice on this track are so grating, raspy, nasally, and for lack of any cleaner adjectives, unpleasant.  Combined with the lyrics, which we'll get to next, her sound has a bad habit of sticking in my head and leaving me willing to do anything to it them out!  It doesn't help that a copious slathering of Auto-tune was involved, and what's worse, even with them she only sings in one note for a sizeable chunk of the song!  Lady, please, you don't get anywhere in life by singing in fewer notes than you can count on your hand.  Except Flo Rida, but he's technically a rapper, so he doesn't count.

But would replacing her with the likes of Mariah Carey make this heap any better?  Technically, yes, but it wouldn't be anywhere remotely near good.  I mean, we start off with a description of her everyday life.
7 AM, waking up in the morning
Gotta be fresh, gotta go downstairs
Gotta have my bowl, gotta have cereal
Yeah... not something you should talk about in a pop song.  When Tiga did it in "Bedrock" ("She watchin' that Oxygen, I'm watchin' ESPN"), at least that was a representation of how their differences are skin deep, but they bond through that which they both enjoy, namely sex.  But here, there isn't a point.  And yes, the only note to be heard in these three lines is B.  Lady, if you're going to be this monotone and sing so quickly, just rap and get it over with!  ...No, we do not want to hear you rap.
Gotta get down to the bus stop
Gotta catch my bus, I see my friends (My friends)
Kickin’ in the front seat, sittin’ in the back seat
Gotta make my mind up, which seat can I take?
One, you say you have to catch the bus, but (if the music video is any indication), your friends roll up in a car. I can has consistency?  Two, you're 13 years old, so your friends must be considerably older to be able to drive themselves (I take it you know the legal driving age in the US is 16).  At the very least, you probably won't be in the same school as them, but other than that, never mind.  Three, and I say this again, what's the point to stressing out between sitting in the front or the back seat?  You would think (again, according to the video)
It’s Friday, Friday, gotta get down on Friday
Everybody’s lookin’ forward to the weekend, weekend
Partyin’, partyin’ (Yeah), partyin’, partyin’ (Yeah)
Fun, fun, fun, fun, lookin’ forward to the weekend
And this is the part which gets stuck in your head and kills anything nearby.  Read it in your head with the voice I previously described, only over 9000 times worse, and you'll see why.  On second though, don't do that.  You'll thank me later.
7:45, we’re drivin’ on the highway
Cruisin’ so fast, I want time to fly
Fun, fun, think about fun
You know what it is
Why does everyone assume we know what "it" is? First Wiz Khalifa, then you, and I think there's some more... And you're all newbies to the game! We know nothing about you, much less whatever "it" is!
I got this, you got this
My friend is by my right
I got this, you got this
Now you know it
I counted three lines of nothing and one line of you giving us some pointless description. Once again, thank you Captain Obvious, I said with sarcasm.
Kickin’ in the front seat, sittin’ in the back seat
Gotta make my mind up, which seat can I take?
The heck, you're saying that again when you're already in the car? Again! I can has consistency?
Yesterday was Thursday, Thursday
Today i-is Friday, Friday (Partyin’)
We-we-we so excited
We so excited
We gonna have a ball today
Tomorrow is Saturday
And Sunday comes after...wards
I don’t want this weekend to end


Wow.  This sums up everything you need to know about the song right there.  Is the realization of what days of the week come before and after Friday such a profound discovery that you feel you needed to share it with the world?  I think not!  ...Okay, so maybe you have a point.  Maybe you're trying to show the distinction that Thursday is bad, and Friday, Saturday, and Sunday are good.  But it would take the lyrical genius of Shakespeare to make that sound anything but dopey!  Oh, and I caught you saying "we so excited".  Because poor grammar be cool.

After this black hole, the aforementioned writer jumps in with his own rap verse which, quite frankly, is the only decent part of this song.  Sure, it rehashes much of the points from the song thus far from a different perspective, and his delivery is nothing to write home about, but like most guest rap verses this one plays it safe, which is more than I can say about the rest of this song.

So there you have it.  I just dragged myself through audio heck for your amusement.  And the worst part of it is, that was Patrice Wilson's intent all along, more or less:
'Tomorrow is Saturday, and Sunday comes afterwards.' I mean, everybody knows that, obviously, but I wanted the song to be simple and kind of sweet," Wilson says in the interview. "People talk so much about how silly or stupid the lyrics are, but pop songs, they're meant to be catchy and to tell things in a simple kind of way. I feel bad that Rebecca has been getting so many people criticizing the song. Because it was me that wrote it.1
Silly pop songs?  What's wrong with that?  (Shut up Paul.)  Seriously, catchy does not have to mean the same thing as stupid, but you, sir, have fallen on the stupid end of the spectrum.  Do you have anything to say in your defense?
And the truth is, if you look at the numbers...even though people say they hate the song...really, they love it.1
*gasp* I am shocked and appaled by your assumption!  ...I'll be the judge of that.  But before I do, I wish to explain something.  On my new 5-starwhatever scale, I've considered whether or not to include a zero as the lowest grade instead of one.  This would be something reserved for things that are obviously broken or unfinished.  For example, "Break Up" by Mario/Gucci Mane/Sean Garrett is something I would give a zero to, as well as possibly "Imma Be" by the Black Eyed Peas.  Just take ToddInTheShadows' word for it.  Oh, and it corresponds to a letter grade of E.  E comes before F, so that's not so bad, right?  Wrong: it stands for 'Epic fail' or 'Emergency', since this grade is reserved for emergency use only.  So, is it worth breaking it out for "Friday"?


YES.  It is, as I warned you, unlistenable.  Anyone can write a hack song, but it takes a special x-factor to make the lyrics sound so revolting that the whole mess becomes stillborn.  In doing so, Rebecca Black displays a lack of talent so great, that in a sense she displays her own kind of talent.  And no, you do not have to see it to believe it.  We need to forget about this ordeal as quickly and as widespread as possible.  Please, to all of the people trying to elicit a laugh (or genuine interest, you never know) by sharing this music video online, I beg of you, stop.  If we stop giving her attention, she may go away.  And if she does, well, then capitalism isn't such a bad thing after all!

Lyrics: 0 weekdays out of 5
Production: 0 weekdays out of 5
Composition: 1 weekday out of 5
The Call: 0 weekdays out of 5 (E)

1 Lee, Tiffany. "Rebecca Black's Not To Blame: Meet The Man Who Wrote 'Friday'". Stop The Presses! 30 March 2011 <>.