Monthly Archives: February, 2014

“With Love” by Zomby – a look back

Zomby’s “With Love” and the importance of physical media
Zomby’s “With Love” is a double album by a dubstep artist known for recording 1- and 2-minute shuffles. How did it come to be?

I ask this while holding a gatefold triple-vinyl edition of “With Love.” The history of physical media, especially the relationship between vinyl and CD, explains how even artists given to brevity have been pushed to make expansive epics.

Zomby With Love

With Love – vinyl cover

By 1984, the writing was on the wall for vinyl LPs. The Compact Disc, introduced a few years prior, promised higher fidelity sound in a portable size, although it would take a while before CDs became a truly on-the-go format. Large home stereo systems were still the name of the game – if you were rich enough to afford CD playback equipment, why not go all-out?

But did CDs really sound better than LPs? That’s up for debate, and listeners will hear what they want to hear. The CD did have at least one decisive advantage – its maximum playing time, which at 74 minutes easily outstripped the 40-50 minutes typical of an LP. The greater length opened new artistic doors even as the CD’s single-sided nature closed others (no more per-side themes), and throughout the 1980s artists pushed the boundaries of the album format, with the Red Book spec as their key enabler.

They added content that would have been nixed in the past to keep the album under 50 minutes. It was possible to make a single CD with an amount of music that only a few years before would have required 2 or 3 LPs. And releasing 2-3x LP (a double or triple album) wasn’t something that bands did lightly. Pushing 60+ minutes of content on the public was a statement.

The Mother of Invention had unleashed Freak Out! in 1966, a four-sided monster with an atonal collage on side four, and two years later The Beatles brought sprawl into the mainstream with the 30-track, 90-minute White Album. While the latter still requires 2 CDs, Freak Out now comfortably fit on one disc, which takes some of its grandeur (two LPs! side 4 is all noise!) away.

During the transition from LP to CD, artists previously known for their restraint began to dabble in longer-form projects. The punk label SST Records was a microcosm of what was happening with recording at large. Husker Du finished the 70-minute Zen Arcade in 1984, an expansive work that inspired (or perhaps kindled the envy of) labelmates The Minutemen. Only a few months later, The Minutemen recorded 45 songs – padded with stripped-down covers and instrumentals – that lasted “only” 81 minutes. Their Double Nickels on the Dime was a double LP that still hasn’t been pressed on double CD.

While the Huskers-Minutemen rivalry was the impetus for these epic works, the changing of the guard in physical media format enabled their largesse.  The Minutemen may even have gone too far in swallowing up the possibilities of the CD era, much like video game developers went bananas for full-motion video after the CD-ROM displaced the floppy in the mid-1990s (the 6x CD The Beast Within is still the best example of this excess).

In 2014, we’re seemingly long past the point at which CDs became obsolete. Streaming music services and digital purchases are more convenient, if not more profitable. Still, the CD lingers, but it barely resembles its 1980s self. Today’s CDs come with bonus discs, bonus tracks, bonus everything – anything to push that 80-minute barrier. At the same time, the double CD album has become less of an oddity than a fact of life – whether it’s the studio album + a live disc, or two studio discs, recording more than 80 minutes of music is cliche.

I’ve already looked at one of last year’s double albums – Shaking the Habitual by The Knife – and in that entry I mentioned Terre Thaemlitz’s excellent work on the growing disconnect between album length and performance length. He skewered the divide with his 30-hour album Soulnessless, which shipped on a microSDHC. But I’m not surprised that an artist as ambitious as Thaemlitz would do that. I am surprised, however, that Zomby made a double album at around the same time, a time when MP3s have essentially made it possible to record a never ending album.

With Love: The gritty details
Zomby’s style would seem unsuited to  long form media. There are few lyrics, so telling a long-winded story is pretty much out of the question. Similarly, there are no exceptional instrumental chops that would justify, even if tenuously, extended jamming and progressive rock pretentiousness. Sure, Zomby is not heir to these  traditions of rock music, but his style forgoes even the most excessive aspects of the more stylistically germane electronica genres, such as the extended remix (trance), the sprawling soundscape (drum n’ bass), or the mashup (EDM).

What does Zomby sound like? There’s a lot of plinky keys and synths, as well as 1990s R&B samples, which is de rigeur for dubstep. In dubstep, the 1990s are ancient history, with a historical relationship to the present-day akin to that of the 1960s British Invasion to modern pop and rock – Zomby’s breakthrough album was, after all, called “Where Were U in ’92?” and closed with a dizzying sound barrage punctuated by samples (“Sonic Boom!“) from 1990s cultural hallmark Street Fighter II. It was one big long send-up to rave.

With Love isn’t a similar single genre exercise. Rather, it has inspiration, variety and length that seem rooted in the ideal of a compilation album. There’s a little bit of chiptune, some jungle, a dusting of ambient, and a lot of trap. Opener “As Darkness Falls” is so chiptune that it reminds me of another double album, Hella’s  2005 opus Church Gone Wild/Chirpin’ Hard, which was essentially two separate albums, with the superior half consistently echoing Nintendo Entertainment Sytem-era boss battle music (the other was an unlistenable menage of Boredoms-esque drum noise). With Love follows similar logic. One of its halves is trap-dominated, while the other is more stylistically varied.

There’s a consistent, melancholic veneer that tries to tie With Love together. Though it moves between genres, there’s always a certain distance, a particular darkness that emanates from the music. It’s this theme that makes With Love a real heir to the epic album because it insists that the proceedings are more than just a collection of songs, that there’s a singular logic holding it all together despite the apparently unfocused running time. Taking such a stance is a cliche, as it is literally the raison d’etre of the artist album, but it’s necessary all the same because advances in physical media capacity has enabled works that seem destined to be unfocused.

“Soliloquy” may be the best track on With Love, with lightly whirring rhythms, punchy bass and overlapping melodies that interlock nicely, drawing the listener in even as the iciness keeps them at arm’s (ear’s?) length. Vocal samples are rare, but the ones in “It’s Time” recall 1990s-era Goldie and maybe hint at trip-hop, a suggestion strengthened by the track’s beat.

With Love has the length and scope of a trance compilation, but the singularity of purpose of Zen Arcade. While it’s hard to call anything the “last” of its kind, With Love feels like the send-off for the double album. It exhausts the listener across six sides of vinyl/2 CDs, its every machination under pressure from both the growing expectations around how much material an artist should churn out in the MP3 era and the need to “tie it all together” and make it more than the dreaded Just a Collection of Songs.

It’s not the most extreme example of a product forged under these dual pressures. Pan Sonic’s 4-CD Kesto, not to mention Thaemlitz’s aforementioned SD card-album, push the envelope further, but by doing so they become something alien, something that’s barely recognizable as an album that can be packaged, enjoyed in one sitting and replayed. But With Love is still relatively traditional. IT paradoxically feels extremely long – 33 tracks will do that – while being short for a double album, much like Double Nickels on the Dime nearly 30 years ago. It does long form in the only way that the brevity-minded dubstep genre can do – as a glorified mixtape, roughly transitioning form one burst of notes to another. Only the thematic darkness keeps it together, as if midnight were approaching for the album’s Cinderella run.

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Writing Apps on Writing

Critiques of the writing app Hemingway have been making the rounds. Hemingway (the app, not the writer – though I’m not sure I would trust his prescriptions on writing, either, while we’re at it) has discriminating taste – it doesn’t like adverbs, passive voice, or anything that it opaquely deems “very hard to read.” The self-described aim of Hemingway is making writing “bold and clear,” hence the name, and this motive and the mechanisms (color-coded highlighting system) with which the app sees it through, aren’t inherently bad – better bold and clear than timorous and muddy, right?

I’m neither a linguist nor a marketer, so my critique of Hemingway is going to be more on the cultural side. Here’s Hemingway’s feedback on my paragraph above:

Image

The irony of the “very” in the app’s “very hard to read” category aside (I’ll get back to it later), Hemingway isn’t a fan. It isn’t even a fan of its namesake, as Mark Liberman noted in his entry for Language Log. There’s lots of good writing that won’t make it through the Hemingway gauntlet, but I think that’s neither here nor there. What’s notable about Hemingway is how it enforces more than 50 years of overbearing conventional wisdom about what “good writing” even is.

In 1959, Cornell professor William Strunk, Jr. and writer E.B. White’s The Elements of Style was published, and over the ensuing 50 years it became the grammar bible for millions of postsecondary students. That’s too bad, since The Elements of Style is full of terrible advice, terrible advice that lives on in those annoying jagged red lines in Word, the platitudes of SEO experts, and in apps such as Hemingway.

If you’ve not read it (lucky!) Strunk and White doled out expert maxims such as:

  • “Be clear”
  • “Do not explain too much”
  • “Omit needless words”

These suggestions run the gamut from vapid to tautological to useless, as linguist Geoffrey Pullum noted in his evisceration of The Elements of Style on the tome’s 50th anniversary. They’re jargon, really, and the irony was lost on both Strunk and White, who similarly violated their own rules at every turn. Hemingway’s “very hard to read” prescription seems insignificant as a violation of its edicts, but it’s as good an illustration as any of how opinions about what constitutes “good” (or “bold and clear”) writing are projected from weak grounds.

Hemingway is an heir to a long line of nag-apps, from Word to more subtle offenders like the wave of “distraction-free” writing tools that through their spartaness softly scold writers for exploring alternative methodologies (Dr. Drang has a great piece on why those apps don’t work for him). A nag-app doesn’t have to concern itself primarily or exclusively with writing, but writing is the art that yields itself most easily to e-nagging, since everyone consider herself an expert on the matter.

The comments to Liberman’s piece contain a counterargument to the effect that Hemingway is for technical writers and marketers. Perhaps it is, but it seems to cast a wider, much more broadly prescriptivist net than that. The opacity of the terms “bold and clear” rival the seldom-questioned, but eminently fungible, word that Google has so redefined: “relevant” (what’s “relevant”? That depends on…everything). In this respect, one can entertain the idea that Hemingway has roots not only in the over-opinionated Elements of Style but in commercial writing, a field that really has little to do with much that it good or literary about writing.

Google apparently values how-to’s, varying lengths, and keywords (tho increasingly less so). Writers “clean up” their copy so that they don’t risk running afoul of Google’s algorithms – it’s a similar effect to being told by your clueless 1st-year English professor that “is” is passive voice, and being forced to change it to something “more active.” In both cases, the rightness of the prescription isn’t questioned, for some reason – its roots in some very specific cultural context (postwar, hypermasculine America for Strunk & White; marketing, ad sales, and machine learning for Google) are forgotten and it becomes something akin to dogma. And dogma helps no one.

I suppose it’s this presumptive universality that gets me about Hemingway. It also has the air, as Kevin Nguyen points out, of a coding text editor trying to force its prescriptions onto all writing. Such a phenomenon isn’t surprising, given the cultural ascendancy and increasing prestige of programming (the absolute extreme example of this rise is Kentucky’s decision to let Java and C++ count toward foreign language requirements in schools). It’ll pass, and there may be a whole new wave of writing tools that aren’t always looking over their shoulders at computer science. Until then, writers have better (but more contradictory) sources of advice.

Flappy Bird and video game controllers

Flappy Bird

When worlds clash – one free game advertising another. Also, platinum medal!

Many iconic games can be grasped in just a few seconds, yet can fascinate players for years, either because of their novelty (Super Mario Bros., Ocarina of Time), their difficulty (Ghosts n’ Goblins, Castlevania), or their seemingly endless skill curve (Tetris, Dr. Mario). Flappy Bird hits those last two categories hard. Some redditors have scoffed at Flappy Bird’s difficulties, referencing one of the very games I mentioned above as evidence of a truly hard, bygone era in gaming, but they’re wrong – this is a tough game for the ages, in large part because it’s imprecise. You never quite get a good feel for how high your bird is going to flap, and as such you bump into a pipe lip and it’s all over.

All games used to be hard – because of hardware
Before the advent of precise controllers – which relay took off with the analog stick of the N64 – games were super hard not just because of how they were designed, but because the hardware was working against you. Picking up an NES/SNES controller now is quaint – the buttons are stiff, and I’m all the more impressed that games such as FF3/6 could pull off things like Sabin’s Bum Rush requiring a 360 rotation (you HAD to hit those diagonal directions!).

But once controllers became great big dual joysticked bear claws for Xbox 360-playing bros, games went soft. Unless the game was just sadistic, the precision of having tons of trigger buttons (for hairpin reactions to enemies) and analog sticks would let you just grind through until you finally cleared the area/completed the task. Elaborate save systems gave each game its own de facto save state/cheat mechanism (a la an emulator), but in a way, all these software changes were a result of fundamental hardware changes.

It’s odd then, that it’s taken this long for a mobile game to reprise the truly rage-inducing difficulty of the early home console era. After all, nothing could be more seemingly primitive than having no buttons at all – just a touchscreen. But rather than force you to do tons of difficult tasks with just your free hand (something akin to Ryu Hayabusa’s wall jumps), mobile games have been content to let you fling birds or clear away saccharine sweets.

Flappy Bird is a revelation is in this respect. It makes you jump, so often in vain, to clear lots of pipe pairs. There’s nothing to the control scheme other than tapping anywhere to jump, and letting go to fall at a surprisingly rapid rate. And yet the control scheme, like the ones in those old NES/SNES games, is clearly struggling to keep up with what the game needs you to do.

The arcade effect
Flappy Bird is a lot like an arcade game, and not just because of its side-scrolling Gradius-like action and old school graphics. Arcade games were understandably hard as hell – how else could they get you to keep spending quarters? – and their legacy exacerbated the insane difficulty of early console titles such as Ninja Gaiden. Flappy Bird is like something from 1989.

The only thing that makes it seem like it came from 2014 instead is the presence of an ad network. It’s a free game, but has to make money somehow – mercifully from ads, then, and not increasingly annoying in-app purchases.

There’s been a bit of debate about the effect of IAP on games recently, with some saying it’s destroying the industry and others quipping that arcades were the original IAP and kids these days don’t appreciate that. I think the latter article misses the point by focusing too much on economics rather than quality of gameplay (plus it trots out the old falsehood that Nintendo requires brick-and-mortar offices for indie developers).

Moreover, many arcade titles gave great value for only a small upfront investment, and their successors such as Flappy Bird let you skate by with only handing over your details to an ad network. Today’s IAP games will barely let you breathe without nagging you to buy more donuts, gems, or gold.

Fortunately, gaming is still a young industry, and with more consoles likely on the way from Amazon and Apple, business models are sure to change. I just hope it’s more like Flappy Bird – both in gameplay and economics – than Clash of Clans.