Album review: Steps – Light Up The World

Nostalgia is a funny thing. It can doom someone to forever repeat what they’re most famous for and make you seem hilariously out of touch with the modern day, or it can bring people of certain ages together and change a mediocre night out into a great one. For a lot of people, Steps were an integral part of growing up, a reminder of a happy and carefree era of making up dance routines or singing into your hairbrush.

Well, Steps fans, avert your eyes, because this is going to be like taking the giblets out of a turkey with a claw hammer and a vacuum cleaner. Messy.

For a comeback album, Christmas songs were an odd choice. The traditional tunes associated with the festive season are just as nostalgic as Steps’ original material, so covers and new efforts alike will be greeted with about as much warmth as a snowman’s balls. This isn’t the triumphant return fans would be hoping for; it’s more of a confused muddle of glitter and sleigh bells.

Album opener ‘History Is Made At Night’ sets the tone of Christmas cliché, with jingling piano and some brass touches, but the awkward theme of school and teaching in the lyrics just seems out of place. The confusion continues with the Spanish guitar and funky bongos on ‘Overjoyed’ and the almost reggae like riff on ‘It May be Winter Outside’.

All subtlety is removed with the use of the first few bars of ‘jingle bells’ in this song, but the album struggles between it’s seasonal leaning and it’s attempts to be original. Throw in some flat vocals, a well-executed but misplaced cover of ‘When She Loved Me’ from Toy Story 2 and it’s clear Steps are on the naughty list this year.

So if someone asks you for ‘Light Up the World’ for Christmas, do them a favour. Put a lump of coal in their stocking, light it, and get the funk out of there. Bah Humbug!



Gig review: Opeth at Portsmouth Pyramids

If you’re a fan of metal, or have even the vaguest understanding of it, chances are you’ll have heard of Opeth. The titans of progressive death metal have carved an unmistakable niche out for themselves over the last twenty years, and this couldn’t have been achieved without one hell of a live show.

First up were Liverpudlians Anathema. Their shifting ambient-rock is rich and uplifting, mellow but not without intensity. Vocalist Vincent Cavanagh romanced the audience with his impressive vocal ability, but the band themselves were first to admit they were but a mere morsel compared to the main course.

The mix of fans at an Opeth gig, from whippersnappers to golden oldies, doesn’t make them any less rabid in their love of the Swedish quintet. Rapturous applause greets their arrival onstage, and although there wasn’t much moshing to be seen, there was plenty of head banging and fist pumping, leading to many a sore neck the next day.

Earlier in this tour cycle, Opeth had a minor backlash from their supporters for packing the set list with material from their controversially received 2011 album Heritage. This time out the tunes on offer are much more varied, covering most of the bands 10 albums and showcasing their mastery of dynamics.

From the prog-rock jam of ‘The Devil’s Orchard’ to the moody and contemplative ‘Hope Leaves’, Opeth keep things interesting, varying the pace enough to keep you on your toes. Truly ball-breaking renditions of ‘White Cluster’ and ‘Deliverance’ are the best of the night and the masterful choice of ‘Blackwater Park’ as an encore definitely ices this metal cake.

What sets Opeth apart, other than their fantastic blend of musical genres and harmony, is their audience interaction. Frontman Mikael Akerfeldt has the crowd eating out of his hand with his deadpan jokes and anecdotal wit.

Hearing a metal musician discussing the benefits of Crumpets vs Muffins or lamenting his new trainers getting covered in dog turd is an often surreal experience, but one that really connects you with the guys onstage. The banter between band and audience has both sides laughing, and the atmosphere is communal and positive throughout the show, with nobody breaking gig etiquette to a major degree.

A few hiccups marred the evening a smidge. Sound issues dogged both bands, leaving Anathema’s backing vocalist Lee Douglas inaudible at times, and resulting in a lack of Martin Mendez’s bass punch for Opeth, and guitarist Fredrik Åkesson frequently drowning out everyone else with his frenzied and dexterous soloing.

From the first few lines of the opener, it is clear that Mikael’s vocals aren’t one hundred percent. His ragged and guttural death growls are still there, but his wide range of clean singing seems to struggle and fall flat. He admits himself that he’s feeling unwell, but soldiers on and still delivers a sound performance. A few false starts and confusion over the setlist are surprising considering the band’s experience and pedigree.

These small issues are dwarfed by Opeth’s dominating live presence. Not just your average metal band, they offer heavy and melodic in equal amounts, and leave their audience uplifted and smiling, metal head and non-metal head alike.



My Dying Bride – A Map Of All Our Failures
If you’ve just suffered a break up, or are down that the object of your affections doesn’t notice you exist, only self-indulgently angsty music will express your woes.

Enter Bradford based Doom Metal quintet My Dying Bride. These twenty year veterans of the British metal scene specialise in melancholy and morbid tunes that will have your man-scara running down the front of your shirt ruffles.

The apt title, A Map Of All Our Failures, certainly sets the tone for the hour of melodic and moribund metal that follows. Abandon hope all ye who enter here, and those with a short attention span should be extra cautious, as the songs all hover around the eight minute mark and the droning and strung out guitar parts make them feel a lot longer.

Said guitar parts definitely sound grim and lamenting, with a thick and crunchy tone. Singer Aaron Stainthorpe’s mournful and eerie vocals are full of emotion, and his occasional use of creepy whispers and spoken-word passages really give the impression of every song being a fireside Gothic tale.

Just like a bout of depression, there’s very little variation on offer here, the low-tempo crawling its way through the 8 tracks. Where it does speed up for the occasional Death Metal style blasts, things seem curiously hollow. Neither the vocals nor the guitar lack the punch to express aggression, leaving a sense of impotent fury rather than raging aggression.

The poetic lyrics within songs such as ‘A Tapestry Scorned’ and ‘Hail Odysseus’ recall literary influences like Romantic or Classical era works, and add an interesting depth to the album that could otherwise be classed as ‘misery for the sake of misery’.

My Dying Bride are very good at what they do. A band doesn’t release eleven albums over the space of two decades without cornering a fan niche, and if you’re in the right frame of mind these songs can be a brooding and intense treat for the ear holes.

If, however, your ideal home isn’t a moonlit castle in dreary moorland, you don’t have a wardrobe that was dated even in the 1800s, and you enjoy up-tempo ‘happy songs’, this may not be the album for you. But for those who like unremitting romantic mourning, you’re right at home. All this begs the question, however. It’s not that bad up North, is it?



Game review: Assassin’s Creed III

The third numbered (and fifth overall) instalment of the the best selling franchise has been hotly anticipated by gamers worldwide. But does it revolutionise the series, or is it more of the same murder, stab happy fun time?

It’s a little of both. Major changes to the game’s mechanics include slight tweaks to the combat, free running and inventory systems. These haven’t been totally overhauled so much as streamlined.

Free running is now based on holding one button continuously, instead of pressing additional buttons to jump or grab, and feels much more slick and fluid, with the additional animations thrown in for running diagonally being an especially nice touch.

Combat has been changed too, the buttons for blocking and attacking having been reassigned, which can prove pretty confusing even for a veteran of the series, leading to protagonist Connor taking a lot of hits due to mashing the attack button when you meant to block.

For those unfamiliar with the storyline of the series, it focuses on the secret war that has been raging for hundreds of years between a guild of assassins and the shady Knights Templar.

In the present day, Desmond Miles and his rag tag bunch of associates are in a race against time to prevent the Templars (now under the guise of ‘Abstergo Industries’) from using ancient technology to bring about the end of their world in their quest for absolute power.

As ridiculous as it sounds on paper, the story is actually engaging, as it would have to be to sustain fan interest over a five game series. The majority of your game time spent in the ‘animus’, a machine that allows Desmond to experience the ‘genetic memories’ of his ancestors in order to further unravel the mystery surrounding the Assassin/Templar conflict. Think Scooby Doo mixed with a little Back To The Future and a dash of Antiques Roadshow.

The story takes a little while to unfold over the course of a good few hours, which basically serve as an extended tutorial, slowly introducing you to new aspects of gameplay. These are kept fresh and interesting, and never descend into the ‘go here, do this, do that’ of some tutorial levels.

The storyline has some really huge plot twists that keep things interesting, and although the main character Connor isn’t as suave and likeable as previous protagonist Ezio Auditore,he has his moments, and some of the secondary characters more than make up for his stiff pantaloons.

Graphics wise, it’s a mixed bag. The cityscape and frontiers of Boston are sumptuous, especially in winter, looking like a picture postcard. Character models are varied and detailed, but facial animations are a little wooden, and suffer from ‘dead eyes’ that can be a little disconcerting.

The textures of leaves look very shallow at times, almost 2D, but when you factor in the size of  the maps and the amount of space you can explore this is forgivable. Some of the voice acting is also very starchy, especially some of the Native American dialects, which seem read off a card.

Throw in some cringeworthy English accents by obviously American voice artists and it can ruin your immersion a little. Minor quibbles aside, Assassin’s Creed III is a rich and involving experience.

With a slightly higher difficulty than previous instalments, and missions based more on stealth than slashing, it’s a minor shake up of an established series. With much to see, do and murder, and even a few hints of social commentary, it has a lot to excite gamers, raw recruits and master assassins alike.



Easy Star All-Stars - Thrilla
For most discerning music fans, there are few words that contain more dread than ‘cover album’. It brings to mind local garage bands butchering established classics, or well-known acts totally changing their style to try and pay homage to a song from another musical niche.

Granted, not all covers are terrible, some even surpassing the popularity of the original (think Hendrix’s cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘All Along the Watchtower’), but to most, covers are usually never as good as the ‘real thing’.

Easy Star All-Stars may just change your mind about that. The New-York based super-group has a history of taking classic albums from other genres and giving them a reggae twist, including ‘Dub Side of the Moon’, a take on Pink Floyd’s progressive opus, ‘Radiodread’, a reworking of ‘OK Computer’ and their tribute to the Beatles with ‘Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band’. This time the collective takes on the biggest selling record of all time, Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’. But they key question is, does it work?

Yes and no. For the purists who see the King of Pop’s legacy as an unalterable masterpiece, the experiment won’t have worked. But those with an appreciation of the original, a hankering for some Ska and broad musical horizons will dig it. Typical of the Reggae style, some of the tracks are slowed right down to a laid back tempo, making a few of the songs feel a little long.

None of the groove of the original album is lost in translation, with the opener ‘Wanna be Startin’ Something’ making you want to get on down whether you’re in the queue at Co-Op or in the lounge in your underpants. Other choice cuts include the brilliantly bombastic ‘Beat It’, the head-bobbing groove of ‘Billie Jean’, and the funky rather than frightening title track (with awesome spoken word ending still intact).

While it sounds like a mental idea on paper, this is a fresh and enjoyable take on a classic album. While some will see it only as a passing novelty, and others an act of musical blasphemy, fans with an open mind and a sense of fun should come away from Thrillah with a smile on their face and a few new tracks on the pre-drinking playlist.



We Are The Physics – Your Friend, The Atom

That aside, for those of you who like your tunes with a side order of ridiculousness, We Are The Physics will be right up your street. Now prepare, as we crank up the pun-o-meter and see how much science we can fit in a review. Each of the 14 tracks here are full of atomic energy that will have you bouncing around like an excited proton.

The Theremin on track one ‘Go Go Nucleo -> For Science’ sets the dial for the sciencey shenanigans that follow, and by the time you hit the last track, ‘Olivia Neutron Bomb’, you’ll be losing your sweaty lab coat and having a well-earned sit down.

All of the tracks are supremely danceable, keeping the tempo helium high. The Glaswegian lab rats seem to have the formula for their so called ‘Mutant Science Punk Rock’ perfected, and although it’s not entirely fresh, it’s still good clean fun.

Think The Futureheads thrown in a Petri dish with Weezer and the tongue in cheek vibe of Electric Six and you’re about halfway. On the molecular level, the guitar riffs are jangly, the drums punchy and the bass lines groovy. A major gripe is with the high and squeaky vocal delivery that is fun at first but wears a little thin through the album’s duration.

Highlights include the good (space)time stomp of the ridiculously named ‘Dildonics’ and the high-energy funk of ‘Eat Something’. The various electric intros and sounds serve to add texture and enrich the uranium of the album’s nuclear core, and although the ideas seem to reach their half-life about 9 songs into the record, those who enjoy fast paced indie rock with a twist will conclude this experiment a success.

So those fission for a relatively new(ton) group with a lot of chemistry who can deliver a big bang, put down your clipboard and look no further. We Are The Physics might be a little ridiculous, but it doesn’t (anti) matter, so get your finger on this pulsar and take the tr-Hubble to check them out. For science!



Muse – The 2nd Law
Muse have been a huge landmark on the British musical map for nigh on 20 years now. The sound on their previous albums has been a constant fluctuation of elements from different genres and has resulted in fans and critics alike being unable to pigeonhole them into any one style.

They pull together fans from all walks of musical life, rockers, ravers, indie kids and metallers, and they have never been afraid to shake things up, experiment and make the music they want to make.

Even through all of this, there’s been an unmistakable ‘Museness’ to their sound, and their award winning live performances have seen them headlining many a festival. But as was said, this was on previous albums. So what are they doing with new offering The 2nd Law?

Complete and utter fudgewankery, that’s what they’re doing.

Most moderate Muse fans would agree there’s been a little bit of a lack in their recent work. 2009′s The Resistance was patchy at best, and despite my love for Black Holes and Revelations it had its weaknesses.

Bands should constantly push themselves to experiment musically and broaden their horizons, otherwise music would stagnate and die, but when a band experiments so much, and just chucks any old contemporary influences into the mix, you get patchy, substandard albums.

That’s very much the case here. Muse are struggling under the weight of their own ambition. The constant shift from the Queen-esque to electro backbeats to atmospheric rock to (shudder) dubstep drops leaves the listener confused, the album lacking cohesion, not feeling whole.

There are times where you think ‘oh yeah that’s totally Muse’ and others where you feel ‘what the hell, when did Brian May get here?’ Sure, we’ve compared them to Queen twice now, as have many other reviewers. There’s nowt wrong with being influenced by bands, but when you use guitar riffs that sound identical to something played 40 years earlier, it’s a little too cliché.

This isn’t a terrible album. The instrumentation is tight and impressive, the production is flawless, guitar and bass tone varied and interesting. The songs are well constructed, with very strong moments like the guitar licks on ‘Animals’ and the uptempo rocking of ‘Liquid State’. Matt Bellamy’s vocals are, as usual, impressively varied.

It just feels like Muse have tipped over the edge from pioneering experimentation to pretentious self-indulgence. Total musical Marmite.



Album review: Bring Me The Horizon

There Is a Hell, Believe Me I’ve Seen It. There Is a Heaven, Let’s Keep It a Secret

After taking a deep breath and reciting the album title Ace Ventura style, it’s time to get down to the blood and guts of the matter. Bring Me the Horizon are a band often lauded as being at the forefront of British metal, critically acclaimed and with a rabid fan following. This, their third full length album, has received the warmest reception of all. Keeping that in mind I approached with an air of anticipation, hoping for some surprises, perhaps a maturing of their sound. I was disappointed.

Bring me… are a young band by anyone’s standards, and this is mirrored in their predominantly teenage fan base. However, this doesn’t excuse the shameless pandering on show here. The attempted blend of musical influences seems as if the band have attempted to take what is ‘popular’ in contemporary music and fuse it together, resulting in hardcore sitting uncomfortably next to drum and bass style beats and electro synths.

This isn’t helped by the production. It sounds like someone has got their hands on ProTools and used every ‘cool’ sounding function to try and enhance the album, having the opposite effect entirely. Overuse of production gimmicks aside, dynamic shifts are employed to try and add some depth and tonal shift, which often serves to irritate, especially when overused during outros (something that happens in 4 of the 12 tracks here).

Indeed, 12 tracks seems overlong for the band, with energy in many of the longer songs being burnt up after a few minutes, leaving to a feeling that they drag. Perfectly acceptable breakdowns (‘Anthem’, ‘Home Sweet Hole’) still don’t deliver anything new compared to bands such as Carnifex or Whitechapel, and are overshadowed by group vocals, with potty-mouthed titles (‘Fuck’) and angst ridden lyrics further marking this group out as a band desperately appearing to be ‘edgy’.

With their focus on overproduction, attempts at ‘brutality’ and their fashionable haircuts, Bring Me the Horizon are the metal band it’s okay for emo kids to like. For the more concerning metal fan, it’s a definite case of style over substance.



Opeth - Live, Brixton Academy, 13/11/11
The Swedish masters of proggy death metal are back to promote their newest album, Heritage, and boy have they been missed. The Academy is filled, if not packed, with fans of every description. Opeth are a uniting influence, drawing fans of all age ranges, (mostly the upper range of the age scale, perhaps because it was a Sunday), musical leanings, (as displayed by the differing band t-shirts on display), and, perhaps unusually for a metal gig, both sides of the gender divide.

First up is Pain of Salvation, although it’s certainly more of the former than the latter as we’re treated to music so dull people literally fall asleep in their seats. The highlight of the set is arguably when the lead guitarist falls flat on his face after a risky amp-jump, but he carries on with a smile. Done with the appetisers and onto the main course, Opeth offer up a sumptuous feast for the ears. They attack material, new and old, with gusto and slick professionalism, with personal highlights including a gorgeous Face of Melinda, a blistering A fair Judgement, moving Closure and outstanding Porcelain Heart.  Of the new material, the moody I Feel the Dark and the head bending Throat of Winter are the best, but the songs off the new album sit a tad uncomfortably with older offerings, which may wear off as both fans and band become more comfortable hearing and playing the songs live.

Main man Mikael Akerfeldt is charming and witty as always, and deals admirably with a somewhat too rowdy crowd (shouting over acoustic interludes is not cool). The unexpected drum solo is punishing, but perhaps one of the biggest complaints is the lack of the heavier material from a band regarded as masters of the dynamic shift. No matter, a magical and wondrous evening of soul soothing goodness. 

Hot Coffee - Sexual Taboo and Video Games
Controversy is not something unfamiliar to the video game industry. Games and Gamers frequently face adversity from major media figures in regards to ‘morally damaging’ elements of certain titles. Ultra realistic violence deemed ‘easy to imitate’ caused a media storm around the Manhunt games, leading to calls for them to be banned from sale. The so called ‘glamorisation of criminality’ argument rears its head every time a new Grand Theft Auto game is released, and accusations of Blasphemy surfaced when Resistance: The Fall of Man used images of Manchester Cathedral without express consent. I am not claiming that Video Games are the only sector of the media to suffer from controversy, Cinema, Art, Literature and Music have all had their fair share of ructions over the years. However, perhaps the thing that cemented Gaming’s popularity is the very element that causes such heavy controversy: It’s interactivity. Whilst playing a game, one is literally in control of every movement and action of their digital representation, ‘responsible’ for every bullet fired or platform jumped.  

Although demonised more than Violence, drug use and explicit language put together, Sex in games is usually  brief, and one of the least erotic things in the world. Although it is easy to imagine a cadre of teenaged, bespectacled nerds finding their sexuality and wiggling their joysticks, sex in high profile games such as Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age 2 is about as sensual as two shop dummies grinding together in a paddling pool full of Lemon Curd. In games such as this the emphasis is on building a relationship to a healthy level before becoming intimate, something that is surely more valuable than a one night fling.

If only life had a handy guide in the top left...

The media disapproval of sex in games stems from incidences such as the now infamous ‘Hot Coffee’ mod. This mini-game was part of the code for GTA: San Andreas that was uncovered by dedicated game hackers, and was never intended to be part of the release, presumably due to the media scrutiny of sex in games. Other games, such as the Leisure Suit Larry series, have come under similar assault, even though they present a light hearted view of the subject, and even a subtle critique of existing attitudes towards the taboo of sex. The argument against, as always, boils down to the ‘influence’ these games could have on the young and impressionable. However, most games with sexual content have age restrictions, just like DVD’s , and the responsibility inevitably boils down to the individual playing the game or the parents/guardians of children allowing them to play. Ironically, consensual sex between adults is one of very few legal acts present in games like Grand Theft auto, which puts emphasis on murder, theft and drug use, yet it is the one arguably demonised the most.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a joystick to fondle.   

Graphic sexual romp or Accurate University simulation?


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