Monday, 27 February 2012

Post-Fun: Your Phone is Killing an Art Form

As an artistic phenomena becomes more popular it becomes stupider. This isn't to say that the population, en masse, are idiots, only capable of enjoying the basest of culture. Top-flight football involves as much skill and understanding as the opera. Hirst's spot drawings have as much to contribute to discussion of colour and presentation as Blumenthal's food. Audiences cross over, and consumers combine niche interests to suit their appetite. But, to appeal to everyone all the time, culture gets stupid. Has anyone actually seen Blumenthal's menu for Little Chef in real life? No, because we've all been at stupid McDonalds. How many of us have actually been to a Hirst exhibition? Very few, compared to how many of us have read the (mostly) stupid press coverage of his work. Every middle class person you know under the age of 35 may have watched the HBO masterworks, but everyone has been engrossed in stupid, stupid Hollyoaks. However, there is no cultural phenomena for which this is more true than computer games.

Smart phones and the aggressive marketing of the female demographic now means that the computer game market is bigger than many could ever have imagined. There are many games that fit into the Heston Blumenthal end of the cultural spectrum - Skyrim is ambitious and accomplished, and, as unattractive as I personally find running around shooting things in a realistic setting, the Call of Duty series has some merit in recreating the experience of warfare. Many independent games are embracing a postmodern cannibalism of gaming conventions, the excellent Braid and Super Meat Boy amongst them. Yet, as this detailed and nuanced article from Wired explores, the rise of the casual gamer, on smartphone and social network, is also the rise of the stupid game.

Ian Bogost's 'Cow Clicker'
The crux of the Wired piece, an interview with game designer Ian Bogost, is that Facebook games now appeal to only the basest parts of our intellect. They set arbitrary, easy to complete tasks that reward with just the right frequency to keep us coming back. Like rats in a lab running through a maze for a treat, except the maze is just a straight tunnel you have to walk down 5 times a day. And we don't even have to walk, just click a button. Monetization of this model involves either advertisers paying for our blind commitment to that part of the Internet, or the motivation of slight improvements to the game through in-game purchases. Bogost was upset at this development in the industry that he loved, so he created Cowclicker, a game satirising the likes of Farmville by having just a single square of pasture with a cow on it. The game involves clicking on the cow, with a hilariously large number of clicks triggering a slight reward. The best of these was, for 2500 'mooney' (the game's currency), a cow image that was exactly the same as the free cow gamers have at the start of the game, but facing right instead of left. A brilliant satire, but with one flaw - it became incredibly popular.

The games that Cowclicker satirises also exist on the casual gamers console of choice - the smartphone. Games on smart phones fall into one of three categories: the port of an old console game, original game ideas that have some sort of narrative arc and a definable ending, and manipulative games with arbitrary tasks designed to consume your time and generate in-game purchases. It is not so simple to say that these categories are definitive labels for intelligent and stupid games, however. Many of the ported old games hide pointlessly repetitive gameplay behind a smokescreen of nostalgia. And anyone who has tried to get three stars on all levels of Angry Birds knows that even games with an achievable ending can involve plenty of mindless play - something that even infects the originator of the 'different levels with same gameplay organised into worlds' model, where gaining all 120 stars in Mario Galaxy 2 prompts an instruction to go back through every single level to gain 120 more. The third type are the most blatant, however, and it could be argued that they pave the way for more intelligent games to include more manipulative forms of monetization into their designs.

Tiny Tower involves building a tower, with competing needs for residential and various forms of commercial floors. Except they don't really compete. There is no scarcity of resources, the gamer must merely wait for his tower to generate enough money to allow them to build another floor. The manipulation of the gamer comes through incremental reward - to get money you must re-stock your commercial floors. This can take anywhere between 5 minutes and 5 hours, after which your phone will prompt you to click on the floor to complete the stocking process. The more floors you have, the more often your phone will prompt you, so the more often you return to play the game. It's an alarm clock for a non-event. Temple Run, on the other hand, is just an Indiana-Jones-ified version of the Chaos Emerald levels on Sonic 2. In other words, the gameplay of a mini-game from a game made two decades ago, with the style of  film made three decades ago. Postmodern asset stripping should be celebrated when it creates something new and interesting, but in Temple Run it is at its most cynical.
Sonic 2 / Temple Run
Temple Run's debt to Sonic 2 is at the heart of the problem with the rise of the stupid game. By reducing the narrative and complexity in games, cynical developers are sending the form back to poorer times. Naivety has a legitimate place in art: music has genres including punk; numerous visual artists play with the idea; and novels written from a child's perspective can provoke interesting insight, with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas more recent examples. The difference between this and gaming however, is that examples in music, visual art and literature use a naive approach to create a new perspective. There is no argument that Temple Run or Tiny Tower change the way we look at the world, or medium of the computer game, in an interesting way, or that they are even intending to.

The concluding rooms of the recent Postmodernism exhibition at the V&A documented how the movement, after gaining mass popularity and ubiquity, became corrupted by money and was destroyed by the vapidness that resulted. To illustrate this, exhibited in one small space, was a Warhol Dollar Sign, Jeff Koons' silver Louis XIV, and a yellow sequined jacket by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel. Temple Run, Tiny Tower and others like them are the gaming equivalents of these gaudy pieces, suggesting that they might be as dangerous as they are stupid.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

This might be quite old...

...and we nicked it off the excellent Leisure, but it might just be what finally makes me buy a skateboard. Superb shouty hip-hop from Death Grips. You can download the whole album from their brilliant website.

Post-Dubstep - The battle to reclaim the original name for the genre I love

As culture continually consumes itself and the music press diversifies through a million blogs, labels like 'post-dubstep' are inevitable. This isn't new - the idea that we are living in a freewheelingly progressive stage of cultural development fuelled by the internet is nothing but an egotistic delusion; punk was born in 1974, and the first usage of 'post-punk' was in 1977, so things moved just as fast in a pre-internet world. However, this precedence doesn't make the vague, hard to define 'post-dubstep' term any less insulting to fans around in the genre's early years.

I feel I can count myself amongst these fans as much as anyone who lived outside London during the birth of dubstep at the turn of the century. In 2005, I left my parochial, scenic hometown for a parochial, scenic campus university, and developed a desire for something more urban. Dubstep satisfied this need, and when I graduated and finally moved to an actual city it became the genre I lived in. The claustrophobic privacy of the beat, the space in the production and the sparse use of vocals all painted a picture of urban decay, graffiti on concrete walls, smashed windows and CCTV, but somehow made it incredibly beautiful. Burial, Benga, Skream, Digital Mystikz and Various Production soundtracked my growth out of my teenage years and transformed the way I saw my surroundings.

This story ended as dubstep exploded sometime around 2009. The fury of the fan of an underground genre as everyone else gets in on the act is well documented, and is a stereotype worth expending a lot of energy in avoiding. Initially this wasn't difficult; it was good to see the music I loved find a wider audience, with more people to talk to about the tunes and bigger crowds creating a more exciting atmosphere at club nights. Soon, however, like a politician corrupted by power, the popularity of dubstep went to its head and things took a turn for the worse. 

Skrillex vs James Blake, as
imagined by Hipster Runoff.
The genre split in two. One strand shot inexorably through Flux Pavillion to the relentlessly noisy Skrillex, and the other built upon the sound of Burial by keeping some subtlety and room for contemplation, producing James Blake as a breakout artist. Frustratingly, it is the former, the intelligent sound of dubstep, that became known as post-dubstep. Here, Skrillex is Blake's nemesis, facing off against him over a dubstep/post-dubstep divide like an electronic music version of Superman and Lex Luthor. This fantasy is brilliantly substantiated by Blake describing the fight for the dirtiest bass in modern dubstep as"almost like a pissing competition" in a Boston Phoenix interview last year, covered hilariously in numerous Hipster Runoff posts

Recently, with tongue firmly in cheek, Vice magazine asked if Skrillex was "dubstep's Miles Davis." In this case, though, Skrillex is more like dubstep's Bob Dylan, with Blake's comments an updated version of the heckling of Dylan as 'Judas' when he picked up an electric guitar and turned his back on folk. The big difference with this analogy is that nobody calls Dylan 'folk' anymore. The Judas-shouters got to keep their genre. The only alternative genre name is an American contribution, 'brostep', described by Rusko as 'like someone screaming in your face for an hour'. This has yet to stick over here. I'd like to suggest 'noisestep', 'buttonmashingstep' or 'messstep' as a British alternative.

Followers of underground genres have always had a protective snobbishness about them. A regular of Forward, a pioneering dubstep night, once told me that they moved to a Sunday to keep away the genre's loutish new fans. This, he explained, would allow the regulars to continue to stand still and listen to the music on the phenomenal soundsystem they have at Plastic People, whilst holding their pints and nodding their heads. For them this was infinitely preferable to throwing yourself around as a producer smashes his hand down onto random sampler buttons mapped to a range of squeals whilst glitchy bass makes your own thoughts inaudible. Even if you don't agree with that, you have to agree at the very least that it is a completely different thing, deserving of a completely different genre label.

Like rock and roll, psychedelic, prog, disco, punk, new wave, grunge, indie, garage and grime were the genres that belonged to kids of the 50s to the 90s, dubstep felt like our time. Our time is reflected in the fact that the genre has produced Skrillex, Bassnectar, Flux Pavillion and Funtcase, producers who have raced to the bottom - both in terms of the amount of thought that goes in to their productions and the depths of bass. In an age where integrity drowns in the moats of greedy politicians, is packaged with bankers bonuses, or sacrificed for the political desire for a more unified Europe, the same is happening for the music we love. Fans of dubstep should try to harness the revolutionary spirit of the Occupy movement and fight for subtlety and intellectual input over soul-crushing noise. Skrillex fans don't even have pepper spray - let's claim our genre back.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Introducing at The Hare and Hounds

"Who wants to get silly?" With this, Introducing launch in to Mr Scruff's 'Fish', a song so silly that a chorus that repeats the title over and over again isn't even the silliest part (for us, it's the line 'trout are freshwater fish/And have underwater weapons'). Playing a set of Scruff songs live will inevitably be sillier than working your way through DJ Shadow's Endtroducing - the group toured that in 2010 and we reviewed it here - but it made the night less about witnessing a musical experiment in returning sample-based music to its real-instrument origin, and more about throwing shapes so fluid that they flowed through the floorboards.

Just like the Shadow show, the sounds were perfect, from the guitar that opens 'Spandex Man', to the wobbly bass of 'Sweet Smoke.' All that was beyond their reach were the songs with rapping. Vocals were well dealt with, but an extra dimension could have been created by an emcee that would have enabled them to play 'Jusjus' or the brilliant 'Vibrate.'

First and foremost, though, Introducing are a great band. The songs they draw inspiration from are allowed to take centre stage because of their professionalism and cool showmanship. Their greatest features are crisp bass and a playful improvisation around the songs - including a ragtime break in the introduction to set-closer 'Get A Move On'. This meant that this was a night that reinvigorated Mr Scruff's back catalogue as well as paying homage to it. Even though the songs are more lighthearted than their previous project, Introducing take their duty to the artist that inspired them just as seriously.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Justice at Birmingham Academy

Justice are like an act cobbled together by people keen to give music journalists an easy life. Whether it's the ease of comparing them to that other French electronic music duo, the gift of the heavy metal cross imagery, or the Genesis T-shirt in the On'n'On video making every reviewer bring up prog, there's a lot to write about. This obviousness translates to their music; whilst not quite reaching Skrillex levels of insulting simplicity (I picture him as a frenetic version of Ross Geller playing the keyboard - which someone else has OBVIOUSLY already created) the continuous womp-womp bass and guitar sound hardly carries the complexity of the prog that these people seem to think runs through their sound.

This point is where the Catch-22 of the successful electronic music act arises. Club music is about never, under any circumstances, stopping the party. However much DJs talk about building a vibe and changing the mood throughout their set, it isn't the same as a concert band with hits at the beginning and the end, banter with the audience, and breaks between songs. This works so well in a club because there is a culture of taking a break whenever you like, for as long as you like, and expecting to be able to return to the party much as you left it. With strict curfews and horrific bar queues, this culture doesn't exist in concert venues. At times Justice got repetitive and dull, yet it felt sacrilegious to take a break from the set in a way it never would in a club.

Still, you can't begrudge their success, and it was the components of this success, the standout hits from the debut and new album, that made this an enjoyable night. Genesis is still the best opening music for any act ever. The Party, Waters of Nazareth, DVNO, and D.AN.C.E. are incredible. On'n'On is a great addition. The highlight of the night was where they held the part in Waters of Nazareth where all the sound drops out for absolutely ages, with the lights ups, before letting loose the vocal from the We Are Your Friends remis that launched their careers. Even though it was a party that ended at 10:30, it was still a party.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Something Else We're Looking Forward to

is DJ Format at The Hare and Hounds on Friday 16th March. DJ Format was such a big portion of the music I listened to at University, and I still put If You Can't Join Em, Beat Em right up there. It doesn't say he's bringing D-Sisive or Abdominal, but hopefully there'll be some live emceeing. This'll be a nostalgic one.