Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Metallic Grostequerie: Sequel Interstitial (Between-quel?)

This article has been on the backburner for a while. It had several drafts and has been abandoned as many times. But thanks again to Metalsucks it is back. Well, a version of it anyway. Please note that I am referring to a news article that came out on June 25, 2013.
In my morning RSS feed reader scan (RIP google reader) I came across this week's NSFW version of Sh*t that comes out today (their asterisk, not mine). The NSFW portion of the posting was a single album artwork used just below the heading, Documentaries of Dementia by Necrotic Disgorgement. The album artwork features three naked, white zombie women in various states of mutilation. What makes this cover somewhat different to similar works is that it is photographic. Death metal art is frequently hand painted or more often than not these days digitally created. The controversy surrounding this image arises not from the article itself but from the comments that follow it, in particular an argument in the comments around the implied meanings of tortrure and gender relations.

The thread started by Igottawocket proclaimed:

Can metal, like, collectively agree to cool it with the album covers depicting tortured, naked women? Not really sure if it was ever "cool," but it most certainly isn't now. It kind of begs a lot of questions about what's going on in the heads of the band members, and, frankly, is kind of just fucked all around.

This is a sentiment to which I am mostly in agreement. The key word here is "mostly". As I have previously discussed grotesquerie in metal has a long tradition and is a complex discourse of aesthetics, shock tactics, subversiveness and misogyny. As a result it is difficult for me to condemn this particular (or most other similar) artwork out of hand. After all there are a range of contextual issues that the viewer may not be aware of that influence how the art is to be read. Did the women give consent to be protrayed in this way? Were they paid? Is there an attempt at subversiveness here? Is it an attempt to engage with the horror porn genre?

However, what we can say is that the artwork is clearly part of a broader metal aesthetic tradition in which violence is foregrounded and women are marginalised.

The thread continues with Hair Metal Police, Meh and Snobber McSnob providing fairly typical oppositional, adversarial replies:

So, according to your logic, anybody who directs a splatter film is a psychopath.
I personally don't see a difference between this and the flat-out misogyny of the lyrical content of bands that use picture of dogs eating kibble on their covers. In most cases it's VERY heavy satire.

There is a level of defensiveness in metal which is on one hand admirable, since it shows that metal heads have a passion for defending the genre but on the other hand it is somewhat worrying. When blanket statements incorporating socially accepted memes such including "freedom of expression" and "democracy", I start to worry. What these once subversive discourses do in the present is confine debate to the placard level:

"Naked, beaten women on record covers is bad!"

"Yeah well, opposing freedom of expression creates battered women".

Rinse and repeat all over the internet.

Interestingly, I would contrarily agree with Hair Metal Police's sarcasm in that I believe people who are enjoy creating violent artwork are psychopathic. However, where out opinions diverge is at the point where moral value is automatically accorded to the concept of psychopath. A psychopath need not be evil, nor is s/he required to actually enact/execute her psychopathic tendencies. Indeed as most people with some sort of secret desire, fetish or fantasy are aware, the consummation of the desire frequently results in its deflation, disappointment or even complete dissipation. It is the erotica in the mind, the exploration of taboo without risk to either one self or another party (consenting or in a worst case scenario, non-consenting).

Creating grotesque art can function in the same way especially with the consent of involved agents. It becomes a way for those with “psychopathic” non-vanilla, non-normal and potentially harmful tendencies to achieve a degree of satisfaction or consummation through the physical execution of their unique, personal eccentric world view without inflicting unnecessary, unjust, unethical and unwarranted harm on other, actual human beings.

The user known as Meh claims that it is very heavy satire. While I see a potential for satire even as a lifelong metal head I see very few identifiable clues as to the satirical function of this and many similar artwork in contemporary death metal. I would ask Meh; what exactly is the satire critiquing? 

Similarly there are a number of writers who express opinions along the line of: "Well it's all just make believe, it's not serious". Like this entry by Sion Wyn Jones:

It's just an album cover. It's ingrained in the Death Metal or BDM culture. It's the norm, to depict something horrible and disgusting. Especially if that's what the lyrics are based on as well. And for the artist, their just artist. There's nothing wrong with them, their not actually promoting killing Women or any other person. It's just fiction, something that fits the music style. Dammit OP, don't take this stuff so seriously.

This is actually a fairly common opinion among metal heads. It also happens to be a line of reasoning that is dense with complexity. What I take issue with is "engrained in [...] culture. This is simply conservatism by another name. If the purpose of the cover is to be shocking/provoking/subversive yet is done so in a way consistent with engrained values, how does it actually achieve this purpose? I also wonder about the sentiment relating to the lyrics no "promoting killing women or any other person." The fact is that this is exactly what the lyrics do refer to. Again a key problem as I see it is with the application of default moral positions.

Meanwhile there is Robstermb's reply to Jones:

The largest issue with it, to me, is not that it's sexist or disturbed... but because it's just so done and boring now. It's no longer shocking and it just seems immature and forced now. It's been a long time since Tomb of the Mutilated.

This is consistent with my own thinking. Death metal in particular had a zeitgeist in the post-80s context of thrash and early death metal. There was a legitimate fight against censorship and many groups at the time sought to push the limits of erotic and violent expression. As with most contemporary expressions of a genre it is exceedingly common to see a historical disjunct a kind of hyper aware "today" cannibalising its "yesterday" with barely enough time to consider last week let alone twenty or thirty years ago.

Ultimately my problems with grotesquery and sex in metal can be distilled thus:

1. Shock for its own sake is an extremely limited intellectual framework from which to work these days. As I said in the original article on this topic, true shock/subversiveness should unseat us deeply. It should ask more questions than it answers. It should be unsettling. In the past, grotesquerie in metal achieved this. It rarely does so in the present.

2. Metal offers a space for the exploration of the grotesque, the profane, the ugly and the immoral. However, not all expression within its boundaries is self-reflexive. The failure to connect with the intellectual, ethical and moral frameworks of the past significantly influences the extent to which metal art can be considered legitimately "shocking". Is it just that now we live in an age of perfect, decontextualised appropriation? Personally I believe this to be both true and not. After all, when we underestimate the intelligence of others we underestimate our own. Thoughtful, reflexive people are born out of the strangest events, through effort and sometimes mere coincidence. There is no single, unbroken line that connects present visual aesthetics with the past and furthermore it is the social, cultural perspective of the viewer which plays an important role in determining the context of an artistic work.

3. Metal is still mostly a man's world. The objectification of women within the genre has yet to be fully dealt with. Coupled with the demographic context of metal makers in the west it is highly unlikely that this will change any time soon. However, it is already changing and a number of bands continue to push against, traverse and ignore boundaries. It is interesting to ponder just how acceptable, grotesque or titillating images of men being tortured and raped would be to men, especially given the still prevalent taboo of homosexuality in a lot of metal circles.

El Fuerte: The Anti-Scrub Mechanism

So I main him. So people kick me from lobbies. Then there are the rage quitters and the junior rage quitters (the ones who stop playing once you take them to splash mountain and back… repeatedly). So what is with the El Fuerte hate? Aside from superficial aesthetic protest (maybe his package wrapped in shiny PVC is just too much to handle for teenaged homophobes, and hey, they might just be racist – y’all know how Americans feel about Mexicans, right?) the bitter and salty scream: “He just doesn’t play like Streetfighter” or “Run, Stop, Punch/Fierce (aka the dai-punch loop) is broken” or even my favorite, “Everything you do with him is just a gamble”.

Well, they are mostly right, it is just that their sentiments are on the wrong (lag-free, training) stage? If these folk were not so salty and a little more meditative they would likely come to the same conclusion as myself: that El Fuerte is the greatest thing to have happened to the Street Fighter series. But how can this be so? With no projectile, a weak anti-air game and an easily escapable “vortex” how is possible to call this master chef, “the best thing”?

Simple, it just requires going back in time and looking at the deep underpinning mechanics of the game. Along with Sirlin, one of the most lucid and relevant meditations on Street Fighter out there today is on Tim Rogers’ Insert Credit. In the chapter entitled “Ryu versus Ryu (everything you need to know about fighting games)” Rogers clearly outlines how spacing, reflexes and execution are the building blocks of what is essentially real time, reflex incorporated chess.

What does this have to do with El Fuerte? El Fuerte is perhaps the single most “meta” character of the series (yes, including my beloved Dan). He has access to space on the screen like no other character. His main “special move” is a command resulting in a run. At the end of this run he can execute a special move designed to hit the opponent directly in front, overhead/behind, throw or low. His very existence is like one giant akanbeh to vortex lovers and purists. He lacks powerful combos (outside of the considerably difficult to execute daipunch) and instead, his player has to get inside the opponents mind.

Low level luchadore lunging works against the uninitiated. Indeed, some of the best fun you can have with Mr Strong in this game is the sheer, brazen cheekiness of seeing what you can get away with. Even against the most skilled players. However, high level Elfnanigans require a robust heart, a cool calculating mind and an undeniable understanding of space. El Fuerte is the anti-derp. At high level play he is at a significant disadvantage, the only tools on his side are his speed coupled with what appears to be randomness. “Appears” is correct. The better Elf players require not only a Plan A and a Plan B (heavily dependent on matchup) but Plans A through G running at the same time. This is where things become complex and difficult describe.

Elf appears weak and unassuming. This is to his advantage. His primary tactic is bait, bait, bait again and then switch. Predictable Elfnuts switch between predictable patterns of attack. I do on occasion (yeah, ok, too often) too. But when my brain, eyes and hands are working at the same speed at the same time it becomes possible to rain hell down on the opponent. Raining hell, however, requires significant matchup experience and to reach back to an earlier point, necessitates getting inside the other player’s mind.

El Fuerte teaches you that to play better, you need to play smarter. And that is not always easy, especially if some shoto-wielder has got you locked down and in their zone and a full meter. The upside is that playing a “weak” character allows you to enjoy the taste of losing. A lot. Reflecting on our errors, incompetence and habits is a powerful tool in becoming better players. I guess that makes El Fuerte a type of life coach or counselor?

Finally, Mr Strong gives the social player a useful identity to employ online, giving him/her a chance to communicate with even the nastiest, bitchiest crybabies. Someone cussing you out? Don’t take that sitting down, just tell ‘em your salsa is better than your execution and that with a little more practice you might be able to tortilla into space, amigo!

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Oh Judas! Stop hurting me. Bring me a Priest!

So, what is it?

Tough, tightly produced zeitgeist thrash not unlike that heard on Pantera's Cowboys From Hell?

A 90s update to the old school metal sound of Dio era Black Sabbath, just faster and with Maiden-esque dueling guitars?

Both of the above and an out of left field, all round metal classic?


A Tri(vium)p Ascending the Lane

I remember my return to metal. At the dawn of the torrent age, discrete P2P software was still the norm. Many of the big programs had central servers shut down, moved toward contemporary iTunes style interfaces or just faded out as torrents took over and google plus megaupload, mediafire and rapidshare filled the gap for instant gratification.

This was just around the time of the best-before date of "nu metal" as a mainstream offering of heavy metal. If you can recall, this was the dawn of the age of metalcore, a hardcore resurgence, post-metal (a term whose actual execution never lived up to its potential)  and emo/screamo. Hip-hop was being excoriated from the genre, baggy pants burned, sportswear retired and bands were dropped from labels.

In 2004 Roadrunner released Trivium's debut as a four-piece, Ascendancy. Ascendancy made its presence felt by going back: an extended acoustic guitar piano introduction, grand melodic movements and cool harmonised, dueling leads. The production was crisp, protagonists young and inspired and seemed to represent a simultaneous return to classic metal values and fronting the vanguard of the genre's new forward movement.

At the time, I thought it was great. Then I thought it was not. Then recently on a dark and cold mid-November late night car trip home from work, I finally "got it".

The problem with Trivium is that for whatever reason they never really clicked with a diverse metal audience. Perhaps it was their age, their looks or workingman-esque lack of overt charisma, maybe it was even certain questionable stylistic decisions made around the time  of the crusade. What can be said about Trivium though, is that they are good at what they do even if their latter day execution has yet to live up to the promise of their debut. The Crusade was middling. Shogun was stunning. In Waves had its moments and Vengeance Falls is similar to its predecessor.

Going back to Ascendancy after all these years (and why the hell doesn't it have a current vinyl print?) after all these years makes it possible to discover a few somewhat surprising things. It is a really solid, traditional thrash metal album. Sure, the lyrics are somewhat immature and heart on sleeve but have you ever read thrash or death metal lyrics. So while the subject matter combined with the melodies can move the listener toward cringe worthy emo territory on closer listen it sounds like Heafy is doing his best The Real Thing era Mike Patton. Soaring vocal melodies over weedling guitar and a giant rhythm section sounds great. Furthermore, even though the album came out during the metalcore flood it is actually far less formulaic and with an abundance of solos and old-school thrash arrangements and tension buildings... it's a rock solid classic metal album.

Ascendancy deserves a re-listen or a first listen if you were scared off the first time. Metal!

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Guilty Gear Location Test: Nagoya

Until the other day, I hadn't been to Kanayama, properly that is, in a number of years. It was quite the nostalgia trip since after a quick stop with a snakey gaijin handler at a Freebell mansion for green gaijin and then a very spartan move in to my own tissue box sized apartment in Iwakura it was one of the first places I visited when I arrived in late March, 2002.

It was with great anticipation that I visited that hub of transport, art and debauchery for  the second round of location tests for Arc System Works' Guilty Gear Xrd (to be released  April 2014). The first thing I noticed on leaving Kanayama station was that although some  hardcore gentrification had occurred around the creation of the Asunal shopping precinct  (imagine one of those airport town shopping/outlet malls transplanted into the middle of an  actual metropolis), the grit, squalor and sleaze, though somewhat anemic compared to its  glory days, remained.

As I exited the station I was greeted with cold clouds, a very worn out homeless man and a  chilling October morning breeze. Further up the road I noticed the queue was already forming.  Sure, I made a few wrong turns in the station (it has been several years and many renovations) but I was still scheduled to arrive at 9:45. Within moments of taking my place  in the line the number of people had doubled. Inside Kanayama Sega, lights, machines, recorded voices  kicked into life and the snaking stream of previously murmuring otaku started to shuffle.

The doors opened at exactly two minutes after ten which suggests one of two things: either the tencho's watch is running late or he just wanted to create a sense of building tension in  a distinctly understated yet polite Japanese fashion.

We poured inside in a mostly orderly fashion, game nerds such as myself split off and headed  up to the 4th floor where the unveiling was to take place. The rest of the crowd (public  holiday, lots of middle and high school kids) flooded into the rhythm games, purikura and UFO catcher prize machines.

Let me take you aside for a moment. Location tests in themselves are special events. They are  a demonstration of a work in progress, usually by top or close-to-top-tier companies. They are exclusive previews of up and coming products a means to a marketing and bug-testing end.  What made this event particularly special to me was that it was being held in Nagoya. These  events usually pass over my humble city, after all, though not small and certainly a  prosperous, rather large city, Nagoya has never had the executive prestige of Tokyo nor the  rough and ready eccentricity of Osaka. Nagoya is a town built on textiles and automobiles,  that's right this is the playground of Toyota.

Nevertheless, a loke-test in my town. Better believe I'd be there (family commitments, work  notwithstanding).

As we snaked up the staircase we soon (this "we" is the crowd I was in) arrived at... well  almost the entrance to where the test was happening. Three or four dudes deep, by stretching  and straining (as in hurting) my neck it was possible to get a glimpse of the screen. Little  by little, I got closer and then was instructed (along with the thirty or so people behind  me) by the tencho to line up "over there". Sigh, right next to an explosively loud  demo/commercial for online Virtua Fighter customisation...

The line moved far more quickly than I thought it would. It seemed that protocol had been  decided. You lose, you go to the end of the line. Winner stays on, head-to-head action only. Talk about doki doki. Let's be honest here. Street Fighter has always been my main game. And I suck at it. The next closest title I am almost proficient at is Persona 4 Arena. Guilty  Gear itself? It's just embarrassing. Nevertheless, I managed to learn a lot during my one  win, one loss and long waiting period.

Let's get it right from the start, in this day of HD remakes (from Jojo's Bizarre Adventure  to Super Street Fighter II Turbo and Street Fighter III Third Strike), imperfection and "that'll do"  seem to be the overriding sentiments. So-called HD remixes can only do so much with existing  code. Sprites and frames of animation can be re-drawn, semi-funcitonal netcode bolted on and  menus redesigned but a proper fully functioning contemporary remake of an existing FG has yet  to be fully realised. One look at Xrd and you will feel the same as I did: "Wow, someone  finally did this right!"

At first glimpse this is clearly the new standard for anime/air dash fighters. It combines  the (controversial to some players) prestige system of Guilty Gear with (not quite) the  latest technology to produce a highly refined, immersive fighting game experience.

While these days anime/air dash (and similarly inspired) fighters are perhaps exceedingly  common (from Aquapazza to Chaos Code, melty blood etc), none of them is as fully realised as  Xrd.

The newest iteration of Guilty Gear will be a standard to which all others will have to equal  or better as next generation technological standards developed for the new age. Using the Unreal 3D environment engine as its core, it features richly detailed anime style mapping in  a style consistent with the series. The first thing you notice, whether playing or watching  is the just how crisply, fluidly and prettily it runs.

What seals the deal though is actually playing the game. You are in control of protagonists  in a game in which the barrier between anime as a genre of television and its execution  within a playable environment has been removed. Character introduction, winning animations,  special moves and over the top actions extend out of the action on screen and explode into  Japanese anime fluidity, then return seamlessly to the action. The integration between media elements is superb. But this is not the whole story.

While P4U and Blazblue (especially the most recent version of the latter, Chronophantasma)  have moved toward increased visual fluidity as it relates to control inputs, Xrd is clearly  the result they have been aiming for over the last decade or more. When looking back at some  of the earlier 60 fps games such as Third Strike or the older versions it is easy to see  moments of jerkiness when the animated frames and system engine collide, causing cancellation  in visual information in order to accurately execute player inputs. In the past aesthetics  have almost always lost to pragmatics.

In order to have a certain move fully "active" by a certain time and the frames of animation  required to accurately represent this action to the player, concessions must be made. This  results in jerkiness and choppiness. While merely visual it does have the effect of  distancing the player from the visual heart of the game.

But now, with the GG franchise license back in their hands and considerably more processing  power under their belts, ArcSys are working hard on matching, balancing visual information  with play information in ways previously impossible. The results are stunning.

Cannot wait for the next loke test in my backyard.