Comfort: how I’ve been withdrawing as a response to work stress

I work for a company that is either right at or already past a precipice that I have unfortunately lived through before. We as employees don’t know whether we are fighting to keep it afloat, or if it will still be around in the next few years. The future is scary and uncertain. As part of that process, over the past two years our ability to function as “empowered” employees has been increasingly suppressed. This means that from a practical standpoint, my colleagues and I often feel like we are trapped in a vice while simultaneously drowning in unreasonable expectations.*

The pressure waxes and wanes on an irregular schedule. When the stress gets particularly bad, I find that I tend to crawl into a certain place within myself. This retreat takes the form of a hybrid of emotional and practical behaviors akin to “battening down the hatches.”

If I look at this from a detached perspective, I find it interesting. It differs, slightly, from how I dealt with stress as an adult up through the middle of last year. Prior to that point, I had often responded to stress or anxiety by drinking heavily. Last year, I was doing a lot of that, and I reached a point during the summer where I was disgusted enough with myself that I quit drinking alcohol, cold turkey. As the months of sobriety added up, I reasoned that I would be better able to handle stress because I would always have a clearer, sharper mind than I’d had when I was drinking every night.

Of course, as the stress level ratcheted itself ever higher over the course of this year, dealing with it in a non-destructive way became more and more challenging. Rather than (re)turning to the bottle and possibly getting myself into trouble, however, I instead started what turned out to be a project that has evolved and grown throughout the year.

The stress I have with respect to my job comes from several places. Ultimately, my greatest stressor is a fear that I will lose my job for reasons ranging from corporate bankruptcy to local closure to personal failure. As such, I started a “preparation for loss of job” project.

The project has several components that I have fleshed out over the months since I started it. I laid the groundwork in March via notes I made in my phone, which I then expanded upon in both Google Sheets and a college-ruled notebook. I went back to it in July, and again on several occasions during each of the past three months, continually expanding the details. I created a budget, which has been whittled down and refined quite a bit since its incarnation, along with a plan for stretching my emergency fund; a plan for eating on a very low budget (with food price lists, meal costs and schedules, rudimentary shopping schedules, etc.); plans for how I would use my time to recover and rebuild myself; and so on. I won’t bore you with the details, but I’ve put more into it than I ever imagined I would at this stage of my life.

Thinking back on those first notes, what my detached self finds interesting about all of this is that I’ve almost exclusively worked on it while experiencing a heightened amount of anxiety. When I’m having a day like I had last Friday, where I spent my entire morning absolutely dreading going to work, I tend to draw comfort from the act of retreating into my “preparing” mental space. It’s not a positive place, per se: in times like these, I am almost always alone, anxious and withdrawn, focused on moving around pieces to potentially stretch dollars. It’s an activity driven by a reaction to fear, manifesting itself as a somewhat proactive project.

At any rate, though, time passes. Progress on the project is made. And when I get to the point where I have to get ready for work, I’m able to know that my plan is better than it was yesterday. I shower, drink a big cup of coffee, put on my public face, and try to have a great day.

*Side note: For the record, I have a great boss who fully supports us. I still feel terrible about my job most of the time.

Thanks for reading this post by Russ (@DischordantRuss) at Dischordant Forms. Comments are welcome!

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Awake from slumber

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A dead tree fell over in our neighbor’s backyard, during a storm the night before Halloween, this past fall. I took this picture a few days later. It’s still there.

Good morning!

The title of this post is ridiculous on a personal level: if there is one thing I have been doing less of since my last post – 31 months ago! – sleeping is that thing. For the purposes of this blog and blogging in general, however, it is appropriate for the moment.

I want to begin blogging again, and perhaps this post is my new beginning in that sense. What I don’t know is whether I will continue to blog here at Dischordant Forms or elsewhere. I’m less fond of the name than I was several years ago when I started the blog, and I also feel separated – by time, circumstance, and perspective – from the writing I did then.

I am not entirely out of practice, mind you. I have had another blog for several years, and while that one is also currently neglected, I’ve continued to post there irregularly (and as recently as this past summer). Additionally, over the past several seasons I have pounded out more than a handful of unfinished drafts for this place. Dissatisfaction, for one reason or another, has consigned those posts to purgatory.

What do I want out of my blog?

I want to write. I want to have a modicum of discipline about it. I want to have the satisfaction that comes from building a body of thoughts and expressions that I can refer back to.

I’m a person who likes to put boundaries around certain things that I do. Consequently, when I begin a post, I generally do not consider it finished until it contains most of my thoughts on the subject, in an acceptable form and logic. (These posts can end up being 1500-2500 words.) If it doesn’t meet that standard, the entire post then goes into the purgatory file, never to be revisited again.

Add in job demands, time management issues, and laziness, and I’ve got no blog posts to speak of!

As I’ve gotten to this place today, I’ve come to appreciate, to some extent, my learning experience writing brief comments on Facebook this past year. Twitter, Facebook, and other social media tend to be perfect for reacting to things, for better or otherwise. I’ve experienced that myself, particularly with respect to the 2016 Presidential election. Many times, I clicked the “What’s on your mind?” box on Facebook and created a reaction-based comment, considered it for a while, and then either scrapped it entirely, or came up with something more concise and thoughtful before clicking “Post.”

What I learned over time was that it’s okay to pre-edit or modify your post, and to not post your entire thought if it is not something that you feel you are expressing in a way that satisfies you. In other words, while I may still scrap many things, I can still post abbreviated versions of ideas that are begging to come out of me, without requiring that it be a treatise first.

So, are shorter posts the answer to my blogging issues? Possibly, partially.

Ultimately, I don’t know that the name of my blog really matters, or that what I wrote in the past matters either. This post is for Dischordant Forms, and we’ll see where it heads from there. Thanks for reading, and Happy New Year!


The long, long wait for Metallica’s new album

In September of 2008, Metallica released Death Magnetic. While I wouldn’t argue that it rivals their best work, it was at least a return to something aggressive, and was much more cohesive than its predecessor, St. Anger. In spite of the terrible clipping problems, I did enjoy it.

Since then, they’ve toured. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They made a non-Metallica record with Lou Reed. They celebrated 30 years with a set of shows in San Francisco. They “made a movie.” They’ve toured. They’ve talked about recording, and how they either can’t wait to make another record, or how they’re not feeling obligated to thrash one out for the sake of having a new record. They’ve toured. James Hetfield has 800 riffs for the new album, and Kirk Hammett has 400. They played Antarctica, “forgetting” to play “Trapped Under Ice”… They played “One” at the Grammys with Lang Lang. They’re going to write and record a new album soon. They’ve toured. The latest news is that they’re writing the songs, hoping to get into the studio to record them in 2015, and have the new record out in 2016.

2016.

Let that sink in for a minute.

* * *

Touring the new song

In March, Metallica began a short “By Request” tour in South America. Fans voted on the songs they wanted to hear, and Metallica used the survey results to create their setlists. As the tour approached, the band teased the possibility of a new song, and they delivered “The Lords Of Summer” at the tour opener in Bogota, Chili on March 16.

Beyond that, there’s little for fans to go on, other than nebulous indications that Metallica are working on the next record, and the aforementioned vague talk about not really getting down to recording until next year, and releasing it in 2016. According to this article, they have presumably reconvened (or will do so shortly) in order to continue working on the album.

* * *

Thoughts on the new song

As a fan who’s been interested in hearing the next Metallica album since 2010, I have to say that the “late 2015/early 2016” thing has had me feeling a bit down about the whole thing. “Lords Of Summer” didn’t really ease that feeling. I like the concept of melding fast, thrashy parts with slower, melodic ones, so that idea has potential. But I wasn’t really moved by the song. In fact, I found it kind of boring. The thrashy part was fast, but was essentially one note chugged repeatedly with little variation with a stock riff thrown in at the end of each bar. The chorus was okay but generally uninspiring, and the beginning and middle sections were too long. The main riff sounded like a simplified take on the main riff from “That Was Just your Life,” and it got old for me during my first listen, before the vocals came in. Kirk’s solo started very simply and repetitively – and that bit lasted too long as well – although it got better when he started playing like he normally does. And the lyrics left me baffled.

I did like the little motif that starts at approximately 3:10 of the video above, and I liked Hetfield’s vocals in general. However, I hope that the song was, as Hetfield told the crowd in Bogota, written “for the shows” – hastily thrown together and recorded in demo form without the usual refinement that historically goes into their composition process.

I understand that it’s probably going to either be disassembled and reassembled in some other form, or gutted for parts to be integrated with other material on the new album, or jettisoned altogether. While it’s a better song than the two new songs that they performed before they recorded Death Magnetic, it’s so much more “stock” than “The New Song” from 2006 – a much heavier and more interesting song musically, riffs from which turned up in “The End Of The Line” and “All Nightmare Long” – that my guess is that they will likely either A) build up and refine the tune (and write new lyrics) for the album, or B) abandon the song mostly or entirely.

* * *

Megadeth and the Big Four (and more)

What’s frustrating for fans like me is that, while Metallica keeps itself in the public eye by touring and participating in a variety of other non-Metallica-album-creating activities (Lou Reed, Through The Never, etc.), their pace of album creation has been slowing for the last 20 years. After the epic touring that took place in the wake of the Black Album, they put out two albums in two years. Since then, they’ve put out two albums of original material (and an EP, Beyond Magnetic). That’s two albums in, at this point, 17 years. Since the Black album, they’ve done four albums in twenty years.

To strike the most extreme contrast possible with their thrash brethren, one needs to look no further than to Megadeth. Dave Mustaine has put out nine albums since Countdown To Extinction (1992), and will soon be working on another one. And that one will probably be released before the next Metallica record. A very likely scenario is that, between the releases of Metallica’s ninth and tenth albums, Megadeth will have released at least four records.

It’s not like Megadeth are abnormal in averaging a record every two years or so – they’re certainly not the Beatles with their eleven albums and two soundtracks in eight years – but they’re the most prolific of the Big Six Or Seven of American Thrash over the past two decades. Additionally, Slayer may release their second post-Death Magnetic album late this year or early next, in spite of the death of Jeff Hanneman and split with Dave Lombardo. Same with both Anthrax and Exodus. Overkill’s third post-2008 album arrives in July. And Testament has released two albums and a live album since Death Magnetic, and a third is in the works, tentatively scheduled for release later this year.

Metallica, Megadeth, and albums

When we’re treated to releases every few years from many of the bands in the genre, we fans tend to wonder why Metallica doesn’t pick up the pace.

Everyone knows that record sales are way down from where they were ten years ago. With that in mind, it’s certainly understandable that a band in Metallica’s situation as a huge band that can make boat loads of money from touring would be less interested in taking a year or so to write and record an album – itself, an extravagant time- and money-sink that most of the other bands listed above don’t have.

However, I look at Megadeth, a hard-working, successful band that keeps pumping out records which are always well-recorded and are sometimes excellent (like 2009’s Endgame). Megadeth have managed to alternate efficiently recorded albums with lots of time on the road, themed tours, lots of fan interaction, and other creative outlets. Mustaine has always been driven creatively, and the fact that he is out-producing Metallica music-wise by maintaining the same cycle he always has can’t have gone unnoticed by someone as obsessed about his past with Metallica as he has always been. It’s certainly something that I’ve thought about, and I’m sure that others have done so too.

Anyway, with David Ellefson back playing bass, drummer Shawn Drover serving as a rock in so many ways both musically and otherwise, and an extremely talented creative partner in guitarist Chris Broderick, Mustaine hasn’t let neck surgery that has seemingly made it difficult to sing on the road stop him from going year-round, and keeping up his recording schedule.

When they do record an album, by the way, there isn’t any of Metallica’s six-months-to-a-year overanalysis that goes into the process. Perhaps this is because Mustaine is the unquestioned leader of Megadeth; at the end of the day, it’s his creative vision. Whereas in Metallica, James and Lars drive the car, and they’ve butted heads over the decision-making process so many times over the years that in some ways it’s no wonder that it takes them aeons to write and record an album, as opposed to Mustaine’s weeks…

That isn’t to say that every Megadeth album is great – although that’s subjective, of course – but many reasonable people thought that Endgame was very good, and that 2011’s Thirteen was also good. In my opinion, when Mustaine gets it right, he’s writing interesting, riffy, heavy tunes, and both of those records have those elements (if not in every song). And it doesn’t take him five to seven years, six to nine months in the studio, and “1200 riffs” to get there every couple of years.

* * *

I wonder

This leads me to wonder what else is weighing down Metallica, with respect to the long lapses between albums over the past decade-plus…

1. Family?

All four of the guys have kids. All four are family men, in that they seem utterly devoted to their children. This is a good thing. And if the guys in Metallica are simply spending a ton of time with their families, I have every respect for that.

2. Stardom/money/Lars?

You’re James Hetfield. Every few years, you think about making an album. And you think about all of the other albums you made, and how long it took, in part, because both you and Lars are really anal about stuff, and sometimes it’s not the same stuff. But Lars has his hands in every pie – that guy is really, really anal about stuff. Do you really want to go through that again any time soon? Maybe. Maybe not.

Maybe, an alternative would be to play two-three dozen shows this year, make a ton of money from them, and spend the rest of your time playing guitar by yourself, hanging with the kids, tinkering with your cars, and doing the occasional interview.

I’m sure that’s an oversimplified, negatively assumptive view of what may go through the head of someone that I don’t personally know. I’m sure the guys are busy, both with family and with other things. Many other things.

And hey, James did have that 4-hour-per-day rule when they made St. Anger…

3. Lars?

But seriously. I don’t want to be one of those guys who dumps on Lars about everything. I actually like Lars, and its obvious that he’s a huge part of the personality and creative makeup of the band. He’s also its biggest fan.

But I wonder if there’s something about Lars. Post-Black Album, when the entire band started loosening their playing styles a bit, he arguably loosened his the most. He’s become more the guy who thinks globally rather than locally. He’s concerned with the big picture with respect to Metallica and art and other things. As such, he often seems to be openly at war with his drum kit (not in a good way), to the point where, when a video shows up on YouTube where he plays a lot of double kick drum on an old song, people get all excited: “All right! Lars using a lot of double bass drum! Awesome!” I don’t know of another situation in metal where people are so impressed by a drummer not playing sloppily, playing his old songs even just close to correctly, or by double kicks being used on a new song, but honestly? That’s how I’ve felt too. In those situations, it’s like there’s a whiff of a promise of “return to form,” and you want to feel good about it… even if it’s a fleeting thing.

And so I get a sense that, more than anything, Lars is less interested in making a new record than the other guys*, and more interested in playing live and being Lars From Metallica. I know that’s a trite, possibly cruel way to put it – and I don’t intend it that way, because I’m a fan of him – but fans (and people who care about the music so much) only see a certain amount of what is made public, and can only infer thereafter. And remember, he’s one of the guys who drives the car.

4. *About that asterisk in the above paragraph…

When we’re told that James has 800 riffs at his disposal, we’re not surprised. The guy is known to be a riff master, and he has “RIFF/LIFE” tattooed on his fingers. The Metallica catalog is littered with his riffs. Sure, some are Hammett’s or Cliff Burton’s, a couple are Jason’s, and several are Mustaine’s. But the vast majority are James’, and so many of them are extremely good.

I was reminded of this while watching footage from Metallica’s Guitar Center Sessions, which were released on YouTube earlier this year.

Watching James play, talking about his love for music and throwing out some riffs along the way, makes me excited about this new album. If there’s anything holding back the making of this album, it’s not the James of thirteen years ago, who seemed to be at a loss for virtually any inspiration at points during the Some Kind Of Monster film. This is the James of today, one of the three guys in the band who seems to really get off on doing his thing.

As for Kirk? We’ve been treated to several recent examples of his love for metal. He invited Exodus, Death Angel, and Carcass to play at his Fear FestEvil, and jammed with the first two. And his Guitar Center Session interview, while not as lengthy (or riffy) as James’, showed just as much love for music.

He’s not the riff master that James is, but the guy is passionate about making music.

As for Rob Trujillo, I don’t know as much about him, but he seems to be someone who would play with anybody, at any time (and he kind of has!). He’s talented and innovative, and shows both fire and fluency with his instrument during Metallica shows. I don’t know that he has played any part in preventing the band from making a new album.

5. A lack of creative juice?

Having said all of that, it would be difficult to infer that there is a lack of creativity from individual members of the group. However, I recently read a terrific article by The Metal Pigeon, who has an interesting theory on the subject.

The Metal Pigeon doesn’t consider Death Magnetic to be a good album, and posits the following:

So what was it that made Metallica’s new music come off to me as uninspired and clunky?

I think the answer, ultimately, is that there was little in the way of artistic continuity. Metallica’s writing sessions for the Black Album took place in 1990, and after its gargantuan mega-tour the Load/ReLoad sessions occurred around 1995 with some touch-ups in the two years afterwards. Touring and various projects such as S&M and Garage, Inc took up the intervening years. Metallica wouldn’t work on a collection of new material until those dysfunctional, therapist guided, captured on documentary sessions for St. Anger a whole seven years later. It would be nearly six years before they reconvened once again for Death Magnetic —- simply put, this is a band that tours and tours and tours, and I’ll argue that despite its financial benefits their incessant touring has come at the cost of their artistry. I’m not suggesting that its wise for Metallica to scale back its touring, these guys obviously understand where their huge paychecks come from. What I am saying however, is if the band is interested in making continually better original music, they would do well to realize that they need to attempt its creation more often. How do they relate to one another musically speaking when they haven’t attempted to write new material in half-decade long spans? At what point do you overdo touring?

I don’t know that I could argue with this idea. While Metallica has some great creative forces in its ranks, they’ve written and recorded just two albums in the past seventeen years. Whereas other groups gather to write and record on a (relatively) much more regular basis, Metallica tours, or records covers or a live album or with another artist. They do jam in the tuning room, of course, but if that were a recipe for writing new albums, I would imagine we would have seen at least one more album by now. So I think there is definitely merit to the idea.

* * *

By now, this post is firmly in longform land. I obviously think about this subject too much!

Sometimes, I wonder what would happen if there were different drummers involved. If, for instance, Hetfield, Hammett and Trujillo hooked up with Dave Lombardo, who seems to be completely comfortable with his drums, it’s easy to imagine that Hetfield would drive the car, and Lombardo would have an answer, drum-wise, for every idea that James bounced off of him. In this hypothetical situation, the members who have guitar straps slung around their necks would be able to offer their ideas, and James and Dave would hone them to a razor edge with less head-to-wall moments and dithering. Listeners would be treated to more albums, more adventurous albums, and better shows. More riffs. More double kick drums and more interesting fills.

But that’s not going to happen – it’s just the occasional fantasy of an occasionally frustrated fan. Lars is Metallica, just like James is. They’ve been friends and creative partners for more than 30 years, and my hypothetical situations don’t mean a damn thing to them. And that’s 100% as it should be.

Hopefully, the new album will come out sooner than later. I’m betting on later, myself, given the band’s history and the fact that they will be playing several more shows over the course of the rest of the year. As I said, the fact that they’ve been talking about this album for three years, and are just now starting to piece some songs together, rankles me. On the other hand, it’s not like we fans aren’t used to this. Remember: two albums, seventeen years.

I’ll be there when it does come out. I’m still looking forward to it, and I’m pretty sure that I’ll enjoy it, even if it isn’t the “return to form” that so many fans want. I’ll listen to it in the spirit that it deserves, which is that it is the next step in a journey (whenever that step happens). To me, Metallica is like an old friend at this point. The band has aged, grown, and changed with time, and I have as well. But its members and songs are still welcome.

* * *

Thanks for reading this post by Russ at Dischordant Forms. Follow me on Twitter at @DischordantRuss. Comments are welcome!


“A denial!” – a listening experience, verbalized

April 10th: April Joan Jett nails “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with Nirvana at the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. I proceed to write about how it made me cry.

Weeks later: I revisit my blog after weeks of not posting anything.

I replay the video of Joan Jett and Nirvana’s performance at said ceremony.

I still get chills watching that video.

Then, I bring up iTunes and listen to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – the original recorded version from Nevermind.

I revel in the greatness that is the original song, disregarding with every ounce of my being any diminishing effects wrought by over-saturation of the song on radio and everywhere else.

The final chorus starts. I nudge the volume level – which is already high – a little higher.

The chorus resolves to the song’s finale – “A denial!…”

I slam my hands to my headphone-covered ears, as if I am trying to drive the song even more emphatically into my brain and my soul.

As a result, the highs are somewhat muted. Some of the lower mids are somewhat muted. I let up on the phones a bit, and – in doing so – reach as perfect a balance as I can muster with such an impromptu, primitive mixing endeavor (and such crappy headphones).

The mantra repeats.

“A denial!”

The guitar and bass move in concert.

The drums have effectively doubled their urgency. I live by the beat of the drums, while I ride the repeating vocal…

“A deniaaaalll!!….”

It can never be like the first time… or, for that matter, like hearing it the first time after Kurt died. But it is still a heavy, powerful song.

* * *

Thanks for reading this post by Russ at Dischordant Forms. Follow me on Twitter at @DischordantRuss. Comments are welcome!


Nirvana and Joan Jett

* * *

Thursday night (April 10th), Nirvana* was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They were inducted by Michael Stipe, who is one of my favorite singers, and they played four songs with four different vocalists:

  • “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Joan Jett)
  • “Aneurysm” (Kim Gordon)
  • “Lithium” (Annie Clark)
  • “All Apologies” (Lorde)

Of course, the induction ceremony was not televised live; rather, HBO subscribers (not me) will be able to watch it when it premieres on May 31st. Which is more than seven weeks after the ceremony. Which is annoying, because I would have loved to have watched the whole thing.

Fortunately, I did get a chance to watch the band’s performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I came across an article on HuffPost on Friday that included** audience recordings of “All Apologies” and “Teen Spirit.” While the title, Lorde Covers Nirvana with Joan Jett, Kim Gordon and Annie Clark, was obvious click-bait (and the post itself barely mentioned the other three singers), it did include a video of Jett’s performance.

I watched the video twice.

The first time, during the second chorus, I found myself welling up. For the first time in years, a Nirvana song had moved me in some way other than simply making me want to move my head/hands/body with the music.

A few minutes later, I watched it again, and I cried almost the whole way through.

I loved Nirvana as a teenager. The first time I remember hearing “Teen Spirit” (etc.) was in the early spring of 1992, in my friend Mike’s car one afternoon after track practice. Mike went on to the Naval Academy and eventually became a commander in the Navy Seals, and he died in 2005 in Afghanistan when his chopper was shot down during a search and rescue mission.

I went on to different things. I grieved, like so many did, when I heard about Cobain’s death in 1994, and watched MTV Unplugged all day. I listened to, and devoured, whatever Nirvana music I could get my hands on until it dried up. And I eventually moved on to other music.

Nirvana’s music is awesome, but I saturated myself in it to a point where it ultimately didn’t move me like it had before, and I decided to give it a rest. I rarely purposely listen to Nirvana anymore – although “Drain You” (live, From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah) is a more-than-occasional favorite – but the love and appreciation of their music is still here within me.

* * *

Watching Joan Jett with Nirvana on Friday was a catharsis of sorts.

Joan, well, she nailed it – she was the perfect choice. Her voice fit the song so well, and she was in complete command.

Krist Novoselic was the rock, the steady rumble beneath Nirvana’s howl. He bobbed and bounced and rocked out in his Krist-like way, and it was wonderful.

And Dave Grohl absolutely killed it on the drums, as always. One of my life’s great pleasures is watching him play drums, because he gets such obvious pleasure from it. Seeing his huge grin always brings me joy.

And as I watched that performance, I lost control. Kurt died 20 years ago, and he took his future with him. Many have speculated about what he might have done, had he lived: would Nirvana have continued? If so, what would their future albums have sounded like? Michael Stipe invited Kurt to work with him; how would that have turned out?

Those things will never be definitively answered, because sadly, he died before they could come to pass. But here I was – 20 years later – watching Dave with his big grin, and Krist rocking out, and Joan kicking ass… Suddenly, I was grieving again, for Kurt and his band and the people who knew and loved him. And for my friend Mike, and probably for other things. And the tears ran down my face, and my chest shook, and it felt like a relief.

In some small way, Joan Jett fronting Nirvana was the most perfect coda to Nirvana’s career.

* * *

Notes:

Along with Kiss, Linda Ronstadt, Peter Gabriel, The E Street Band, Hall & Oates, and others.

** I say “included” because I very much expect audience recordings to be removed for copyright infringement sooner than later. I fully expect to have to remove the video at the top of this post at some point soon for that reason…

* * *

Thanks for reading this post by Russ at Dischordant Forms. Follow me on Twitter at @DischordantRuss. Comments are welcome!


Digging into “Black Hole Sun” and Superunknown

My introduction to Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” was via the song’s video, which I first saw during the early summer of 1994:

This video was both awesome and, at the time, quite possibly the most fucked-up thing I had ever seen. As a result, the song creeped me out a bit whenever I heard it, because I always associated it with all of the bizarre, psychedelic stuff going on in the video. To this day, if I watch the video, my hair invariably stands on end at points, especially when the black hole sun starts making things turn even more chaotic and weird than they were during the first couple of minutes…

Eventually, I bought Superunknown – which was released 20 years ago this month, and is being re-released as a Super Deluxe edition on April 19th (Record Store Day) – and I got to know the song and its companions a whole lot better.

This was back when the Walkman and its ilk were beginning to approach their death throes, but to a college student with little in the way of pocket money, the Walkman was great. I bought blank cassettes, dubbed my favorite music onto them, and listened to them through headphones at high volume as I fulfilled my work-study obligations. I worked a job that required virtually zero personal interaction, which made it a perfect opportunity to shut off the world and listen to rock and metal without bothering anyone. I became good friends with the likes of Machine Head, Testament, Alice In Chains, Metallica, and Soundgarden during those (many, many) sessions.

As I made my way through my college years, I developed some pretty specific memories of “Black Hole Sun.” The details of what I was doing while listening are both fuzzy and irrelevant by this time; what I remember vividly is the small epiphanies I would have while listening to Superunknown (which is an album that, if you’re in the right mood, will blow your mind in many very pleasant ways the first several times you listen to it).

“Black Hole Sun” has several interesting elements, some of which are:

  • It’s a slow, steady, heavy rock song, but is well-polished and multi-layered, both vocally and instrumentally.
  • The lead guitar melody has a somewhat haunting, yet beautiful and ethereal quality that contrasts nicely with the heavy parts of the song.
  • The “black hole sun!” screams in the last chorus are pretty awesome.
  • The hard alternate-panned “black hole sun!” vocals during the “won’t you come?” part at the end of the song are pretty remarkable to listen to on headphones… especially the first time you hear them.
  • The John Lennon-inspired vocal harmonies in the choruses sound great.

And there are others – those are just off the top of my head. I didn’t discover each of them on the first listen. When you hear the song come at you from directly in front – as with a music video on TV – you don’t necessarily hear everything. But on headphones, the stereo space revealed nuggets such as the ones I listed above, and from a musical perspective, it was heaven.

Superunknown has several gems. I’m not usually partial to the big hits by an artist – and “Black Hole Sun” was probably Soundgarden’s biggest – but in this case, the song stands on its merits. But there are other great songs on the album. “Like Suicide,” for instance, is not only a great song, but has one of my favorite Soundgarden treats: Chris Cornell singing/screaming at the beginning of Kim Thayil’s guitar solo… and the solo itself is, in my opinion, one of the most emotionally powerful solos I’ve ever heard. He does a smiliar thing at the beginning of the solo in the album’s opener, “Let Me Drown,” which I also love. Other favorites abound… “Head Down” has a great intro; “Fell On Black Days” is just a great song; “Spoonman” needs no explanation; “Fresh Tendrils” (the “shame! shame! throw yourself away” chorus-y part is incredible); and “4th of July” with its down-tuned sludginess that I struggled to comprehend at the time.

From front to back, it’s one of the strongest albums I own. In my humble opinion, there isn’t another Soundgarden album that’s as dynamic and well-written as Superunknown, and 20 years later, it’s still an album that I can enjoy from start to finish.

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Thanks for reading this post by Russ at Dischordant Forms. Follow me on Twitter at @DischordantRuss. Comments are welcome!


Not a real review: Fable Anniversary (Xbox 360)

Fable Anniversary

Fable Anniversary (Lionhead Studios) – beautiful, but buggy.

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I was ecstatic when Lionhead Studios announced Fable Anniversary last June. The original Fable – the game that sparked my interest in video games (beyond racing, sports, etc.) as an adult – turns ten years old this year, and remains one of my favorites. A long-hoped-for, remastered-for-HD version of my favorite Xbox game, originally expected to release less than five months after its announcement? I was 100% there.

Of course, it was pushed back to February, ostensibly so that Lionhead could add some final polish and make it the great remake that it deserved to be – and that its fans deserved, and craved.

I picked the game up on its release date (February 4), but I didn’t get around to starting it for a couple of days. Since then, I have put approximately 25 hours into it over the course of a half-dozen play sessions. I’ve spent my time in-game savoring the HD graphics, basking in the soundtrack, and exploring every nook and cranny of Albion. It’s wonderful to see the original Fable in its updated glory. The adventure can be completed in a relatively short amount of time, but I’ve been taking my sweet, sweet time, and I have no regrets about doing so.

The not-real review:

Graphically, Fable Anniversary is a pleasure, although this is expected: in the Xbox 360 era, we’ve already had Fable II and Fable III, which both look bright and colorful; Anniversary feels right at home when compared to those two.

The gameplay is faithful to the original, with the added option of using the Fable II controls. Personally, it’s a pleasure to play a 360-quality Fable game with the map on-screen again, and while the menu interface design has been updated, it still feels like old times, in a good way.

I won’t go into detail about every aspect of the game. I’ve been thoroughly enjoying myself, and I’m sure most fans of the original game would have a lot of fun revisiting Albion in Anniversary. Plus, this is not a real review.

However, I will note a handful of troubling issues with the game.

1. The original game’s “trade between shops for gold” “bug” – where a player can buy out a vendor, instantly increase that same vendor’s demand (and buy price) for items, and then resell those items back to the vendor for a profit, instantly re-lowering that vendor’s demand (and sell price), ad infinitum – made it into the remastered game intact.

It’s fairly obvious that Lionhead isn’t terribly concerned with the ease of gold-making in the series. After all, Fable II and III both had fairly simple, repetitive job systems that made gold-making a mindless afterthought after players put in a little bit of initial work. However, I would argue that this a broken system that needed to be fixed. They did fix it to some extent in Fable II, which had a much better “sale” system, but in remaining faithful to the original in this case, they trivialized several other systems. For instance, with basically unlimited gold, the use of Health/Will potions and Resurrection Phials goes from somewhat strategic (in the first hour or two of play) to completely trivial: when you’re sitting on 500+ Health/Will potions, you can use them like candy and it’s not challenging. Additionally, getting very good armor and weapons becomes simply a matter of opening up new areas (and thus, new vendors), with little-to-no real cost. And getting the “Choosing My Religion” achievement for donating at least 100,000 gold at the Temple of Avo (which also rewards a very strong melee weapon) is a drop in the bucket. There is no real choice necessary there (unless you deliberately choose not to make gold that way); instead of making choices have consequence, you simply buy what you need – even an achievement – while suffering virtually no effect on your overall gold balance.

2. The game freezes way too often, which is a problem. It’s happened to me more times than I’ve cared to count. On Sunday, for instance, I played for just over two hours and had to shut off/restart my 360 three times. The first time it happened was early on in the game, when I was halfway through the “Twinblade’s Camp” core quest. I was mollified when I realized that I could load from the latest checkpoint, but that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. I’ve had to hard-restart my 360 almost 20 times with Fable Anniversary, and even though Lionhead came out with a stability update a few weeks after release, I’m still having many of the same problems.

3. There are some annoying jagged edges in the game. The one that has annoyed me the most – probably because I’ve used it so many times – has been a problem where, if I run straight into a cullis gate (usually at the Heroes Guild), I can’t actually get onto it. I have to approach it in a semi-circular manner in order to avoid the jag, which is just a pain. There are some other ground jags, but nothing that has been as consistently frustrating as the cullis gate issue. Fortunately, we have the Guild Seal, and I’ve taken to using it almost exclusively for teleportation.

4. On that note, I’ve also noticed some instances where, when attempting to use the down button on the d-pad (Guild Seal) to teleport, the game instead reflects that I’ve used either the right or left d-pad buttons, which means I use some type of expression (usually a fart, which I guess is hilarious in its own way), eat something I didn’t want to eat, or something to that effect. At certain points, that has been frustrating, particularly at times when I was some distance from the nearest cullis gate. Since the update, this seems to have toned down, although I don’t know if that’s just a coincidence.

There are other gameplay elements that aren’t the cleanest, but these bugs are the ones that have bothered me the most, because they’re particularly immersion-breaking and because I would think that, aside from #1, Lionhead would have been able to smooth out the game’s rough edges (bugs) with the extra time afforded them by the delay.

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In general, I’ve had a heck of a lot of fun playing Fable Anniversary. It’s been great to revisit the old stories, places, music, and choices. I’ve laughed a lot, and enjoyed the coziness of the game. At the same time, I’ve found myself getting chills during certain quests, even though I’ve done them before: the quest sequences where you a) find out Lady Grey’s secret at Grey House and b) fight through the graveyard on the way to Bargate Prison were, in particular, very cool combinations of atmosphere, music, and spooky situations.

Looking back at the original through this fresh experience, it’s easier to see how Lionhead took some big leaps forward from Fable to Fable II, with jobs, the vendor sale system, combat system, expanded pub games, and the social/Renown/relationship overhauls. While I still sort of want to look back on my experiences with the original and tell people that the first Fable was the best game in the series – and I do think that it’s still my favorite – I have a much greater appreciation for the changes in game mechanics that Lionhead made in the second game now. Fable Anniversary is great, and it’s a loving tribute to the original classic, but it also shows both its age and its limitations when compared to its newer brethren. As such, it generally deserves its decent-but-not-smokin’-hot review scores.

I would definitely recommend Fable Anniversary to fans of the original Fable, as well as fans of Fable II and III who haven’t played the original, if for nothing other than to experience the original story. Albion is rich with lore, and for those who never played it on Xbox (or never owned an Xbox), this is a wonderful opportunity to visit that era in its history.

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My experience with Fable Anniversary:

  • Previous Fable experience: played the original several times. Also played II several times, and III once.
  • General game thoughts: beautiful – and still a lot of fun – but also a bit buggy, and shows its age.
  • Graphics: not cutting-edge anymore, but generally on par with other 360 Fable entries.
  • System/game performance: generally consistent with the original, and very playable, but – again – has some unfortunately frustrating bugs.
  • Music: excellent, as usual – a game soundtrack worth buying.
  • Xbox Smartglass: I didn’t test the Smartglass features. Additionally, I didn’t feel like spending extra money for the premium features, and they aren’t totally necessary anyway (although from what I’ve read, they’re pretty cool).

Note: Not a real review is a new series here at Dischordant Forms, where I write about my experiences playing through various video games – usually older games that I can get at bargain bin prices (although this game is something of an exception in that regard). These posts should not be considered actual reviews, which are usually written by people who are both competent gamers and decent writers. These are simply my impressions, and the context in which those are formed may be vastly different from that of most other players/readers.

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Thanks for reading this post by Russ at Dischordant Forms. Follow me on Twitter at @DischordantRuss. Comments are welcome!