Category Archives: music

NanoTone Synth 2.0 Update, How to Escape 2017

NanoTone Dev Notes

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NanoTone Synth got a lot of support on the first anniversary of its release in August, so I decided to continue updating it with more features. The biggest change is the addition of a keyboard, which allows you to play chords in any temperament. This allows you to compare which tunings are more consonant/dissonant than others.

I added a stat to show how much better/worse the tuning of each given temperament is, compared to 12-TET. It basically compares the perfect fourth (4:3), major third (5:4), minor third (6:5) and minor second (16:15) intervals of each temperament. Since the perfect fourth (4:3) and major second (9:8) are 3-limit or Pythagorean intervals, the major second’s tuning is closely tied to the perfect fourth. Therefore it was redundant to count both, as it gave less accurate calculations.

On that note, the approximator doesn’t really tell you how well a tuning handles 7-limit or higher harmonies, since they don’t occur in 12-TET music and therefore there’s no comparison to make. It can only tell you how well tuned the intervals we encounter in Western music are. If you want to find a tuning that works well for 7-limit or higher, it’s best to use the corresponding menu screens to check their accuracy.

I would like to add an alternate keyboard that allows you to play the 7 and 11-limit harmonies later. That would cost the second octave though, as I’d need those higher keys. It’s something to consider if more people start using the software.

I also added a menu for 13-limit harmonies. It’s a bit more tightly packed than the other menu screens – there are 18 ratios for 13-limit, versus 14 ratios for 7 or 11-limit. I highly doubt I will add a menu for 17-limit or anything higher. There would simply be too many ratios to fit on screen w/o dividing the menu into multiple pages. Some famous microtonal composers like Harry Partch found no reason to go beyond 11-limit, as that provides plenty of new harmonies.

I also updated the GUI to make it look prettier, and added a help page to show controls.

If you want a deeper explanation behind the mathematics and genesis of this project, refer to my first dev blog here.

 

How to Escape 2017: Delete Your Social Media

I’ve been withdrawing inward more and more lately. I deleted my Soundcloud, my Instagram, and now my Twitter as well. Yes, it’s a reaction to the way the world has been changing. Not just this insane year but the whole decade. Everything is a reaction to a reaction to a reaction now. All social media is centered around comment sections and reaction emojis so you can feed into the endless back-and-forth.

None of it is conducive to “stopping to think” before you reply. Or better yet, “stopping to research”. If you don’t correct misinformation at the source it spreads like wildfire. And most people aren’t willing to admit they’re misinformed when they’re being called out on it.

Some pictures from my now-deleted Instagram.

 

I had a lot of varied experiences with Twitter, both good and bad. The good part was getting to know some of my obscure heroes of the gaming world, and interacting with some of my favorite musicians. Those were small but important milestones for me. There were funny moments too.

On the other hand, I’ve learned too many artists become “de-mystified” when you see them up close. Certainly not all of them. But there were a few artists that I have a very different impression of after seeing them regularly on social media. Up close you see their flaws, you learn their routine, you learn too much of how they really are.

One interesting event was Kurt Travis (ex-Dance Gavin Dance singer) drunkenly losing his shit and saying he was going to quit music. Musicians can be really moody in general. But again this isn’t the case with everyone. Most people have been very cool and entertaining to interact with.

 

Russian Interference

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Russians playing a game of human chess in St. Petersburg, circa 1924. A fitting metaphor for our world right now.

 

The more I learn about how the Russians hacked the US elections and spread misinformation through Twitter and Facebook, the less comfortable I feel being on social media. My twitter feed used to be lit but not so much anymore. Too many users left or became inactive. At this point I just use it to keep in touch with old friends. The platform can change at the whim of some out-of-touch nerd in Silicon Valley, anyway.

The fact that they won’t delete Trump’s tweet threatening North Korea because of “newsworthiness” makes me sick all over. I don’t want to be using a service run by people who think like that. Trump’s deranged threats are putting the lives of American soldiers at risk, and Twitter is enabling him. It’s horrifying.

On the subject of the US elections, I’m anxiously awaiting Mueller’s investigation as I imagine most Americans are. In the meantime, this feels like a good time to be changing my focus. The state of the world has become too depressing to watch. So I don’t think people would blame me for thinking this is a good time to turning inward and reflect on my own life, rather than the outside world.

 

Sharing and Intimacy

I’ve had this notion that sharing has been cheapened by social media. You’re encouraged to share everything about your lives on social media.

Some pictures of home life, taken for a friend.

 

The act of sharing, I believe, has become cheapened to the point of losing its original meaning. In the past, “sharing” generally implied a small group of people. Now it implies sharing with the world. So my latest art projects try to get back in touch with that original meaning. They have been very intimate affairs that I only share with one person.

I am trying to keep older forms of art alive, as it were. Not sure how long I’ll keep doing this but I find it personally rewarding. More rewarding than releasing art to a group of strangers online.

You will have to become my patron to get access to my personal art now. 😉

 

What Next…?

I’m not working on a new game. I’m not writing new music. I’m not working on music software. So what am I doing? I’m mostly writing short stories, some of which you can find here.

I’m still exercising with innovative ways to tell a story to the reader, subverting traditional first or third-person storytelling with fictional documents, chat logs, etc. All while I wrestle with a few massive narratives that I’ve had in mind for years now, trying to figure out the best way to express them.

My collection of poetry is growing. You can read my old work here. Most pieces come in the form of song lyrics so I can set them to music, but I’ve also been experimenting with other forms (haiku, free verse, ballads, villanelles).

I still feel like song lyrics are the form I’m most comfortable writing in. Occasionally I have ideas that work well in free verse, like my old pieces Focus and Divine Intervention. Those work because they are written to be spoken aloud, like songs are meant to be sung aloud.

While I am fond of visual poetry and have used it before, it doesn’t hit me quite as viscerally. I’m not a huge fan of “book poems”, as it were. Sometimes I feel old poems look better than they sound.

Haiku is a lot of fun because there’s a wonderful challenge in saying a lot with very little. I’m also fascinated with jisei – the Japanese tradition of writing a “death poem” towards the end of one’s life. They often convey a disarming humor about the transience of life. Basho’s jisei is classic.

 

旅に病で
夢は枯野を
かけ廻る

tabi ni yande
yume wa kareno wo
kake meguru

On a journey, ill;
My dream goes wandering
Over withered fields.

 

That’s all for now. Till next time! 🙂

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+3 Hours of CC-BY-4.0 Music

Over 3 hours of free instrumental music for your projects. +60 tracks total. 🙂

These 3 albums encompass my early work from 2009 to 2015. Newer tracks are more suited for video games. Older tracks are more experimental. Moods range from upbeat, melancholy, ecstatic, mysterious, to anything in between.

Genres include: ambient/dark ambient, chiptune, downtempo, electronica, experimental, glitch, IDM, orchestral, techno, and trip hop.

The uncompressed WAV files can be found on bandcamp.

 

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My third album is wingsdyedblack, released September 7, 2015. This is a collection of instrumental pieces I wrote between 2012 and 2015. Many of the tracks were meant for video games, and are short and loopable. They range from bright piano pieces to dark synthesizer soundscapes.

Samples: Trauma DollVeiled HorrorThe Child Phantom

 

My second album is Mirrors for Princes, released November 7, 2012. These tracks experiment more with rhythm and tempo changes than the first album. The opening track, “Consumed With Desire”, is the first complete song I’ve produced with both singing and guitar solos.

This album continues in the psychedelic vein of my first album, while striving for a higher level of quality and accessibility.

Samples: Trying to Embrace a MemoryLegendary Pts 1 and 2Saffronbreathing

 

My first album is God is Alive and Well, released February 1, 2011. These tracks are calm electronica pieces, often in odd time signatures. They were composed in Ableton Live with VSTs, samples and synthesizers.

Samples: NakedAnkhGod is Alive and Well

 

This collection includes the Cosmic Zephyr + Eden’s Prison OSTs.

Samples: Ephemeron ThemeHypnotized (Remix)Ending Theme

 

The uncompressed WAV files can be found on bandcamp.

 

These tracks are released under a Creative Commons Attribution only license. You may use them in any works, including commercial, as long as you credit me as the original composer. More info here: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

If you use my music in one of your projects, let me know!


Trailers for My New Games!

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I made a few trailers for my newest projects! First, here’s some gameplay footage of Iridescent Crown. I’m waiting until the next update before I record another trailer (though I don’t have much left to change/add).

 

Here’s some footage of Seraphim Automata generating ambient piano music. My computer unfortunately slows down too much when the drums kick in. But the game is generally more pleasant to the ear without drums (as much as I like the random drum code), which is something I’m keeping in mind for the sequel.

Since this game covers jazz music, the sequel will cover a different genre – ambient or perhaps post-rock.

 

This video is shorter, but is also less chaotic and contains a repeating melody.

 

Here’s a video of Celody Life generating some melodies. Again, my computer lags if too much is playing while recording, so the clips are pretty short. I did catch two gliders in this video though.  🙂 It’s cool to see how they can play complex melodies on their own.

 

I also created a trailer for my old horror game, Deadman’s Dark Scenery Court. OBS didn’t completely cooperate with me on this one but I managed to fix it in Videopad.  😛

 

Updates

Planning to update Iridescent Crown sometime next month. I’ve also been working on music, which I hope to share soon.  🙂


The 5 Best Albums of 2016

This has been a crazy year for a lot of reasons, but I also think it’s been a great year for music. These are all personal selections of course, but there are some honorable mentions at the end as well. Enjoy.  🙂

 

5. Tribute Album 64

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This album is available for free and features a variety of different artists covering Nintendo 64 music. It’s a generous offering of 87 tracks spanning many different genres.

What I really love about Tribute Album 64 is it shows how indebted video game music is to progressive rock and jazz fusion. The soaring electric guitar covers seem to be the most common type, but there are also plenty of tracks driven by saxophone and other instruments.

A few tracks are driven by vocals – Sirenstar and AoS’s cover of “Orchid’s Theme” from Killer Instinct Gold is perhaps the best example. Daniel Romberger’s cover of “Koopa Cup” from Mario Golf is a complete acapella. For the most part though, this is a largely instrumental album.

The orchestral and piano driven songs at the beginning of the album are probably my favorite, and are undoubtedly the strongest songs on the album. The opening track, Joel Everett’s Ocarina of Time Medley, Folklore Guild’s choral version of “Dire Dire Docks” from Super Mario 64, IceRequiem’s Zelda Medley, are just a few of the biggest gems here.

The tracks begin incorporating more synthesizers and electronic dance beats beginning with track 22. The dance remix of Great Fairy’s Fountain from Ocarina of Time comes out of left field and is really nice. The aforementioned “Orchid’s Theme”, Masha Lepire’s “Pokemon Valley” cover from Pokemon Snap, Hat’s cover from Super Mario 64, and Felipe Salina’s “Hot Top Volcano” cover from Diddy Kong Racing are my favorite tracks from this section.

The horn driven songs begin appearing regularly around track 41, and end at track 55. The saxophone cover of “Bob-Omb Battlefield” by YamaYama is my favorite among these, as well as their rendition of “Chicago Stealth” from Perfect Dark. missingNo’s “Song of Healing” cover, and the 007 cover by Uncle & the Bacon are also noteworthy.

I do get exhausted with all the heavy metal covers toward the end of the album, which there are far too many of. This trend starts with track 56. There are still a couple of gems here, like the Wave Race 64 Medley. But the last 20 tracks in particular sound like they’re being covered by Iron Maiden. It’s a very disappointing end to an otherwise amazing album.

Also if you’re wondering what song Zero Nimbus references at the end of Crystal Pub Crawl, it’s “Grazing In the Grass” by Hugh Masekela. The fact that he references the song without naming it – the bandcamp page only mentions it as “a classic instrumental from the Golden Era” – annoyed me for about a week until I found the original song. So I hate that particular cover, but now at least you don’t have to suffer the same frustration I did.  🙂

Since there are 87 songs in all, here are some of my favorites:
IceRequiem’s Zelda Medley.
Kirby’s Dream Band’s Wave Race 64 Medley.
Joel Everett’s Ocarina of Time Medley.
Patty Rudisill’s cover of “Highland” from Quest 64.
Folklore Guild’s cover of “Dire Dire Docks” from Super Mario 64.
Josh Cortese’s “The Eye of the Void” cover from Kirby 64: the Crystal Shards.
Melancholy Robot’s cover of “Redial” from Bomberman Hero.
Gimmick’s cover of “Green Garden” from Bomberman 64.

 

4. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

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Nick Cave was toward the end of the recording sessions for Skeleton Tree when his 15-year-old son Arthur died after an accidental cliff fall at the Ovingdean Gap in Brighton, England in July 2015.

In the wake of that tragedy, this gothic album takes on an even heavier tone. The opening track “Jesus Alone” is one of the darkest songs I’ve heard in a long time. This atmosphere is obtained with a simple arrangement of eerie synthesizers, piano, and Nick Cave’s voice. Backup vocals and strings sneak in later. If you need a soundtrack to your next Witches’ Sabbath, here you go.

It’s hard not to hear prophetic overtones all across this album, especially in the opening lines of this first song:

You fell from the sky
Crash landed in a field
Near the river Adur
Flowers spring from the ground
Lambs burst from the wombs of their mothers

It’s not all death, darkness and goth rock though. “Rings of Saturn” is a painfully romantic love song. The words are delivered quickly and breathlessly, capturing the rush of feeling and thoughts one has when they fall in love.

This positive tone is perhaps necessary to contrast with Jesus Alone’s morbid opening. But by the third track, “Girl in Amber”, that dark atmosphere returns in the verses. There’s a certain self-awareness at every mention of death, which carries an extra weight that music often lacks. “Magneto” plunges even deeper into the darkness. The sparse arrangements recall Hex by Bark Psychosis.

“Anthrocene” has a unique drum beat which fades in and out, giving the song a frantic sense of urgency. Nick Cave’s deep vocal delivery reminds me of Jim Morrison here.

I don’t really care for “I Need You”. It’s probably the weakest song on the album.

“Distant Sky” has some great lyrics, instrumentation and a guest appearance by Danish soprano Else Torp. The pace is absolutely sedative. Violins and vibraphones mix beautifully toward the end.

The album ends on the title track, which is sad and sombre but also has a strangely uplifting quality in the pace and vocal arrangement. Many of these songs have a choral effect from reverb-heavy backup singers. That harmonious “spiritual” quality helps compliment the melancholy “lost soul”, embodied in Nick Cave’s voice and words.

Some critics have argued this album isn’t a good introduction to Nick Cave’s discography, but I disagree. Skeleton Tree captures his cerebral songwriting style and his gothic atmosphere, while hinting at his more romantic talents in songs like Rings of Saturn. If you want to hear Nick Cave’s more romantic side, check out his 1997 album The Boatman’s Call.

 

3. Deftones – Gore

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Deftones have been in a weird place ever since they lost their bassist. Chi Cheng was left in a semi-comatose state after a car accident on November 4, 2008. He tragically died five years later on April 13, 2013, despite showing some signs of recovery.

He wasn’t wearing his seat belt.

Their last album with Cheng, Saturday Night Wrist, was an interesting affair but not one of their best albums. The album they were working on when the accident occurred, Eros, seems to have been permanently shelved. Their 2010 album Diamond Eyes was hugely successful but felt too polished and didn’t really appeal to me. Their 2012 album Koi no Yokan was the first one to really strike me since their 2003 self-titled album.

Gore not only builds on the progress they made with Koi no Yokan, but brings the band full circle – back to the brutally heavy music they shine brightest at, along with everything they’ve learned since.

The album starts out pretty positive and accessible with “Prayers/Triangles”, but by the third track it begins showing its true colors. Stephen Carpenter’s downtuned guitar provides a lot of that textural color.

Chino Moreno’s voice is alternately sensual and aggressive. His lyrics are often as meaningful as wallpaper, but it fits their musical style of “heavy ambience”, and emotion over rationality. He makes sense when he needs to – on tracks like “Hearts/Wires”.

Hearts/Wires has a haunting familiarity to it, like deja vu. It feels like ones of those songs I’ve been waiting my whole life to hear.

“I feel like that’s when the record jumps up a notch,” as Chino Moreno said back in April.

“Pittura Infamante”, like many tracks here, sounds like a lost recording from their self-titled album. “(L)MIRL” has a very special atmosphere. The title track is heavy as fuck. More great downtuned guitar here. The closing track has some good parts. It feels like a follow-up to their song “Minerva”.

The album isn’t perfectly even – “Xenon”, and “Acid Hologram” feel like particularly weak songs to me. They’re too repetitive and get tiresome after repeated plays. The closing track also drags on too long.

Jerry Cantrell’s guest appearance on “Phantom Bride” is impressive. It’s great to hear these two sounds collide. I wouldn’t call it the highlight of the album though. Outside of Cantrell’s great solos and the ending, I don’t consider Phantom Bride to be a good song. Moreno’s story on writing the song is cool though.

He also reveals his opinions on writing lyrics, which don’t surprise me at all. It’s actually refreshing to hear.

The truth is that I hate writing lyrics. I mean, I don’t wanna say I hate it, but it’s the hardest part of making a record, honestly. For one, I don’t feel like I have anything to say and I know that sounds weird, but I really don’t. Listen, I’m not a political person. I don’t have like all these opinions or things that I feel like wow, ‘you need to know about this, because this is the way I feel about this or that.’ Or ‘here’s a story that I think you should be interested in.’

Honestly, I want people to hear the music, be affected by it and take what they want from it.

Deftones are very set in their ways, but they know what works. When it all clicks on songs like Hearts/Wires, it’s magical.

 

2. Cult of Luna & Julie Christmas – Mariner

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Julie Christmas has been quiet since the dissolution of her two primary bands, Made Out of Babies and Battle of Mice, so it’s great to see her finally return. Her insane, singular vocal style hasn’t changed at all, thankfully. She still screams as maniacally as ever.

These songs strongly recall her work with Battle of Mice. The formula of her singing over masculine screams and post-metal sludge riffs can be traced back there. Unfortunately, Battle of Mice only released one album and a split LP with Jesu before breaking up.

They leaned more on traditional sludge metal though, whereas Cult of Luna draw from post-rock, slowcore, ambient music, and other experimental genres.

Cult of Luna’s music is heavily layered, with Julie Christmas’s voice becoming just another instrument in the aural monolith that creates their sound. Julie ends up surfing their ocean rather than commanding the lead like she normally does. In a way, it makes her much more listenable.

The opening track begins with two minutes of ambience, before launching into a mid-tempo march that sets up the duality of the album – feminine singing against masculine screaming.

When Julie takes the lead on tracks like “Chevron”, she assumes an identity closer to what she had in Made Out of Babies – comfortably weird lyrics, creepy whispers, and howling screams. The track is wonderfully bass heavy.

The only real problem this album suffers from is a lack of variety, and an over-repetitious structure that plagues many post-rock bands. “The Wreck of S.S. Needle” is the best example of this, and may be the weakest track as a result. It only changes a few times, and repeats the same lyric for 3 minutes straight at the end of the song.

“Approaching Transition” does change up the atmosphere though. It’s a slowcore jam straight from Codeine’s playbook. Julie interestingly doesn’t appear here, and the identity of the track is instead driven by Cult of Luna’s wispy male voices. This becomes the breather before their masterful climax, “Cygnus”.

Cygnus is quite simply a godsend. I haven’t heard anyone reach this level of intensity since Garden of Light by Isis. It takes patience for a band to build layer upon layer, slowly and meticulously over 14 minutes the way Cult of Luna have done here. And it takes skill to pull it off without sounding too repetitious. The last 5 minutes here are pure bliss.

Julie’s voice is no doubt the element that takes them over the edge – beyond great and into astonishing territory. This album is a stellar collaboration, and it’s great to see Julie Christmas back on the mic. If you’ve never checked her (or Cult of Luna) out, here is a good place to start.

 

1. Hail the Sun – Culture Scars

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Culture Scars is one of the best post-hardcore albums I’ve heard in years. The guitar lines are fast, the drums are heavy, and the vocals are catchy. The music continuously introduces new elements; screamo, math rock, death metal, and even a bit of jazz, viewing them all through the lense of a modern “emo” band.

The music is very forward-thinking – Hail the Sun rarely revisit a verse or chorus without changing their angle or perspective. The effect is that of a band which is continuously changing and evolving.

The influence from Dance Gavin Dance’s “swancore” style is pretty obvious, but they’ve managed to preserve their identity better than most bands in that genre. Several points in this album hearken back to earlier bands – the three opening tracks remind me of emo bands like Chiodos that were big in the 2000s. Many parts are reminiscent of At the Drive-In, like the end of “The ‘Fun’ in Dysfunction”.

Donovan Melero is notably the lead vocalist and drummer. It’s a fact easily forgotten with the way his voice floats effortlessly over the music. His high, youthful voice is perfectly fitting for the style as he shifts from soft crooning, loud wails and harsh screams – often without warning. He has a great scream, but doesn’t overuse it. He loves to disarm with soft lines, before breaking to brief sections of screaming / singing over heavy music.

The heavier songs are balanced out by a few softer ‘ballads’ like “Words of Gratitude (Parents)” and “Never Kill a Mouse; Let It Kill Itself”. But these ultimately serve as breathers between the stronger, louder tracks. Shane Gann’s guitar lines are a defining element of this album – not only in the softer moments, but filling out the sound in general. He even provides occasional guitar solos, like in “Paranoia”.

The amount of math rock elements here is definitely surprising. Time signature changes are common; they can be easy to miss. The song “Ministry of Truth” starts on 7/8 before slipping into 3/4, returning to 7/8 halfway through. The closer shifts between 3/4  and 4/4. “The People That Protect Us” shifts from 3/4, 4/4 and swing time for the chorus. Melero’s drumming is impressively technical.

A few tracks also sneak in some great tempo changes, like “Burn Nice and Slow (The Formative Years)”. It is undoubtedly the apex of the album. It also has a pretty interesting music video.

The closer also has a really unexpected jazz break, perhaps hinting at more experimentation down the road?

They haven’t entirely shed their death metal roots, which are much more prominent on their previous album Wake. Melero’s drums can get pretty heavy in some songs, returning to the death metal territory of bands like Architects. As a whole though, these songs are pretty accessible, even if you’re only a casual fan of music.

If you’re a fan of post-hardcore music, prog rock or death metal, you will love Culture Scars.

 

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Some honorable mentions here: The Glowing Man by Swans, Atrocity Exhibition by Danny Brown, “Awaken, My Love!” by Childish Gambino, Passenger by Artifex Pereo, Weezer’s White Album, Blackstar by David Bowie, You Want It Darker by Leonard Cohen.

This blog post came out way longer than I expected. Good thing I didn’t end up reviewing 10 albums like I originally planned, haha. Thanks for reading!  🙂

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The 5 Worst Albums of 2016

This was partially inspired by Jim Sterling’s Shittiest Games Awards, which is an annual event I enjoy. These reviews are of course to be taken with a grain of salt, since these are all bands that have impressed me at some point. But these albums may not be the best examples of that.

If you like these bands, you probably won’t like this blog post! You have been warned.  🙂

 

5. Neurosis – Fires Within Fires

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I’ve tried to find something positive to say about this album. So far, all I’ve got is “at least Neurosis haven’t changed much”. Because they definitely haven’t strayed from their formula for sludge metal: simple riffs, slow beats and raw screams.

However, these tracks really lack the energy of their early albums. The slow, quiet parts detract more than they add. The singer’s gravelly, aged voice, along with the slow tempo of their songs, leads to the band sounding physically tired at times.  The short album length doesn’t help either (just under 41 minutes).

Their attempt at a slow burning, post-rock buildup on the closer “Reach” is particularly weak.

The mix is a major part of the problem – there simply isn’t enough bass. The mix isn’t viscerally heavy enough to hit you the way metal should. Meanwhile, the screamed vocals are mixed too loud and can get pretty annoying. And that’s unfortunate, because there are some decent moments here between the quiet parts.

If you want to hear Neurosis in their prime, I’d recommend their album Through Silver in Blood. Or Souls at Zero. Or any of their albums from the 90s, really.

 

4. Frost* – Falling Satellites

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This is the first Frost* album in 8 years, and it’s sad how underwhelmed I am at their new music. Frost* exist in this weird place between pop music and progressive rock, with elements of the former often limiting their emotional impact.

Not to say it hasn’t worked for them in the past. “No Me No You”, from their debut album, is one of my favorite progressive rock songs and remains intoxicatingly catchy to me.

They’ve definitely been influenced by Tesseract in both musical style and visual art. I feel like a great opportunity to add to the djent metal genre is being missed here.

Only a few songs stand out, like “Towerblock”, which has a great fusion of Venetian Snares-style electronica and prog rock in the middle. And while their vocals are often their weakest element, it sort of works at the climax. But for the most part, these songs are tragically unmemorable.

The keyboards give each song the same texture. For every Towerblock, there’s a filler track like First Day or Hypoventilate, or a terrible piano ballad like Last Day or Lantern.

I think the instrumental parts of this album are generally much more bearable than the vocal parts. The biggest saving grace is the abundance of virtuoistic guitar solos scattered through almost every song.

 

3. Jesu/Sun Kil Moon

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What the fuck happened to Mark Kozelek?

Mark Kozelek seems to have abandoned his excellent songwriting skills in favor of incoherent rambling over simple guitar arpeggios. It’s been … quite strange to watch. This trend started with his solo album Among the Leaves in 2012, but he took the style a step further with Benji in 2014 and shows no sign of stopping.

These songs are amazingly bad at times. The Shaggs come to mind, thanks to Kozelek’s utter disregard for rhythm in his vocal delivery. Jesu doesn’t provide much in terms of variety. He brings the same grinding layer of guitar distortion to almost every song. The tracks that use electronic beats just don’t work at all.

Aside from “Fragile”, which is sparse enough to belong on a Kozelek solo album, the first seven of these ten tracks are aimless and unbearable.

But the truly weird part is a few times, this unconventional songwriting works. And when it does, it sounds pretty brilliant. The monologue in “America’s Most Wanted Mark Kozelek and John Dillinger” has an unusual magnetism, and the recitation of a fan’s letter at the end is extremely moving.

It feels like a retrospective look at Kozelek’s entire life work – his personal attempt to narrate a new chapter in his own life story as a songwriter. At best, that’s what these songs are capable of. They view songwriting from above rather than within, in a self-aware, self-referential, “meta” way that only a seasoned musician can pull off.

A strangely appealing diamond in the dirt.

Jesu reigns in the noise in this song and the closer “Beautiful You”, which are the two best tracks on the album. The songwriting approach benefits more from space and ambience rather than noise and static drum beats.

The songs still drift into self-parody at times, particularly when Kozelek tries reciting lines in a fast sing-song voice.

This is definitely a conflicting batch of songs. “America’s Most Wanted Mark Kozelek” is amazing, but many of these tracks are deeply flawed. I think Mark Kozelek either has ADHD, or a serious case of not giving a fuck anymore.

 

2. Thank You Scientist – Stranger Heads Prevail

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Thank You Scientist is best described as a metal band with a Soft Machine obsession. I thought they would grow on me, but my reaction seems to be the opposite. A lot of bands successfully incorporate jazz elements into metal, and I’ve struggled to put my finger on where they’ve failed.

They have a great vocalist. They have a great guitar riffs, and blistering solos. Heavy drums with double bass. They even have a few great violin solos, reminiscent of Mahavishnu Orchestra. Then they have weird horn sections that throw everything off. It’s a weird collision of genres that sometimes works but mostly doesn’t.

The singing and song structures seem very modern, while the horns sound like they’re playing in the 1950s. One moment a song feels very jazzy from the horns, then a guitar solo throws the vibe into a complete 180. Then the guitar solo ends and the horns come back in. The band isn’t really blending genres so much as jumping between two styles separated by 60 years. It’s absolutely disorienting.

Plenty of other bands make this combination work. But the horns remind me too much of Mr. Bungle and not enough of The Mars Volta. Or King Crimson. Or Pink Floyd. Or any other band that successfully manages to incorporate horns. Here, they undermine otherwise good moments.

It might work if they were confined to sections of the song, but the horns are fucking omnipresent.

The worst part about this album is there are some legitimately good hooks in between the awkward fusion of jazz and metal. Mr. Invisible is a very good song, horns and length aside. The guitar solos are amazing, but everything before and after kills the mood.

 

1. Kayo Dot – Plastic House on Base of Sky

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Toby Driver used to write decent songs – back when he was in maudlin of the Well. But you wouldn’t believe that listening to his latest music. Kayo Dot’s last decent album was probably Coyote (2010). Or Gamma Knife (2012) if I’m forgiving to its terribly lo-fi recording quality.

Plastic House on Base of Sky marks the third straight cataclysm in their catalog, starting with the awkward concept double album Hubardo in 2013. There is nothing redeemable here. If anything, at least this album is only 38 minutes of weak “avant-garde” noodling, compared to Hubardo‘s torturous 98 minutes.

This album incorporates a lot of synthesizers, as it unsuccessfully tries to fill in the void left by their former violinist Mia Matsumiya. It sounds like if Joy Division stole Tangerine Dream’s music equipment. Toby has a nice bass guitar tone, but he never plays any memorable lines with it.

The opening track “Amalia’s Theme” is bearable – it reminds me of their song “Stained Glass”. But it suffers from poor recording and an ambiguous song structure, like everything else here.

The vibe is far removed from where they started in 2003. The only feature consistent with their early work is Toby’s wailing. Even their signature tempo changes and unstable rhythms are mostly gone now. I would dare say these songs are fairly conventional, despite trying to sound weird.

A truly ironic title.

Kayo Dot are trash now. It’s especially disappointing to see when I’m so fond of their first two albums. Kayo Dot and maudlin of the Well used to capture a kind of sacred energy I’ve never heard in other people’s music (Toby Driver once claimed to write his music in lucid dreams).

It baffles me as to why they’d turn away from the experimental post-rock of their early albums for this off-putting flavor of techno-goth rock. It reminds me of when The Mars Volta released several bad albums before accepting they had lost their touch. You know how that ended? They broke up. And moved on to better projects.

Kayo Dot. Not even once.

 

End

My next blog will be covering the 5 best albums of the year. That one will have a much more positive tone. Thanks for reading.  🙂


NanoTone Synth, Celody Life

NanoTone Synth

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Download it here!

This has been my big project for the summer – my first music making tool for HTML5 and Android. This software allows you to play music in any temperament up to 240-TET. You can use this to tune a guitar in 24-TET to play quarter tones, for example. You can compare any temperament to 12-TET, to see which has more accurate perfect fifths, major thirds, etc. You can also use this to compare the accuracy of 7 and 11-limit harmonies.

I want to add more features but since microtonality is such a niche in the music realm, it’ll depend on what feedback I get. I’m really just glad to see that it works on a touchscreen. I’m sure the next tool I make will be more universally applicable for musicians. It may involve guitar.

 

Celody Life

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Download it here!

I spliced together the keyboard code from Seraphim Automata and the code for the Game of Life. The result was this tool that lets you generate music with cellular automata. I was disappointed that the program doesn’t run in HTML5, but I’m glad the idea works. I don’t have anything else to add to it, but I do plan to use the Game of Life again in the future. 🙂

 

The Death of Serious Journalism

John Oliver’s video on the changing landscape of journalism really resonated with me. This is been a really depressing year for serious news, starting with the end of Al Jazeera America back in April. They were the only major news outlet that would open with the civil war in Syria, every day. They covered human trafficking, global hunger, climate change, so many important topics that aren’t discussed enough.

The fact that seems shocking just shows how little “news” we really expect from news organizations these days. I tried to replace Al Jazeera with CNN and MSNBC, but that just doesn’t work. This entire election year has turned into Maleficent vs. Voldemort.

I really hope Larry Wilmore and his crew move on to better places now that the Nightly Show is being cancelled. Mike Yard, Ricky Velez, Holly Walker, Rory Albanese, Robin Thede, Grace Parra, Jordan Carlos, Francesca Ramsey – all great comedians. The Nightly Show have gone out of their way to cover #BlackLivesMatter, Flint Michigan, and so many other issues being ignored by major news outlets (including The Daily Show). And Comedy Central are replacing their most serious news show with @midnight, which is a total insult.

Between this and claiming Stephen Colbert’s alter ego as their intellectual property, I’m pretty much done with Comedy Central. I’ve watched The Daily Show since the early 2000s, but now it’s a shell of its former self.

The Paley Center For Media Presents: "Keepin' It 100: An Evening With The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore"

NEW YORK, NY – NOVEMBER 14:Rory Albanese, Ricky Velez, Holly Walker, Larry Wilmore, Robin Thede, Jordan Carlos, Grace Parra and Neil deGrasse Tyson attend The Paley Center for Media Presents: “Keepin’ It 100: an evening with The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore” at Paley Center For Media on November 14, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by John Lamparski/WireImage)

On a brighter note, I’ve been enjoying watching the Rio Olympics. Men and women’s basketball have been really fun to watch. On the men’s side, Serbia vs France was pretty interesting. Serbia had a big lead for most of the game, and the French didn’t seem to care. Then they came back with a one-point lead with 33 seconds on the clock. It was just so very… French. I felt bad for Serbia.

Women’s basketball is more exciting. The most exciting match I’ve seen so far was Turkey vs. Brazil, which went into double overtime before Turkey finally won. Isil Alben and Lara Sanders were both great to watch.

They met their match in the quarterfinals with Spain though. With Spain ahead 62-60 and 20 seconds on the clock, most teams would go for a foul. But Lara Sanders managed to steal the ball and scored for Turkey, tying the game at 62-62 with 4.3 seconds left on the clock. Then Anna Cruz got the ball, took a long shot with less than a second on the clock, and scored for Spain. Spain won 64-62. It was an insane victory for Spain, and a blistering performance from both teams.

Even though Japan lost to Australia in the fourth quarter after a 16-point lead, they definitely left the strongest impression on me in terms of being a fast and well-coordinated team. The USA vs Japan match was really entertaining to watch. So was Serbia vs Australia.

I can’t wait to see France vs United States, and Spain vs Serbia on Thursday! And the finals!

 

The Great Time Limit

Since the rise of smaller mobile games and the recent market saturation of popular genres, I’ve slowly lost the desire to make a large scale, story-driven, character-driven game, like the ones I grew up on (Sonic, Kingdom Hearts, Silent Hill, Zelda, etc). It makes more sense now to make smaller procedurally generated games with higher replayability.

Story-driven games are difficult for indie developers to translate into other languages, unless you have a strong fan base already built. Typical subject matter also varies greatly across the world. As more of the world becomes modernized, I fear we will share less common ground because of geographic and cultural differences. This is why I feel the best stories for games are archetypal myths – ones that can potentially be told through symbology instead of words.

This one guy wrote a great article about Sonic 3 & Knuckles and the Monomyth concept from John Campbell’s The Hero of a Thousand Faces (a spectacular book). Sonic 3 & Knuckles is one of the best examples of a game that tells a complete story without any dialogue.

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Here is a more in-depth breakdown of the game.

There’s also another issue that ties with market saturation, and that is the “great time limit” of our mortality. This occurred to me while binging on movies last year, that I could never see all the movies in the world, even if I devoted my whole life to it. So I’m selective about which genre, era, actors, etc that I watch. I can run into a fellow movie lover who’s never seen any of the films I have, and vice versa. It’s the same with gamers.

I think one thing that GamerGate exposed by questioning the identity of “gamers”, is that we really have very little in common. We may all be playing different games for entirely different reasons.

One person wants to explore, another wants to collect, another wants to build, another wants to micromanage. Another wants to role-play a specific fantasy, another like branching storylines, another wants to race, another wants to fight. Some prefer casual games, while others only respect “hardcore” gaming. Single vs multiplayer. Console vs PC. Controller vs keyboard and mouse. Do we even belong under the same umbrella term as “gamer”? Hardly. At that point we need to start breaking off into groups.

So as a game developer, how can you make everyone happy? You can’t. Not with a single video game. Your best that is to spend time with people who have people with common tastes as you. Try to figure out what you both like and why. Then focus on that.

 

Sonic Mania

The new Sonic game is being developed by game programmers from the fan community. It looks really promising, and I can’t wait to see how it turns out. 🙂


Songwriting and Seraphim Notes

Inspirations

I decided to write a short biography about my life, titled “Inspirations”, mainly focused on the different kinds of art that influenced me growing up. You can find it under “About Me” on the menu at the top. I often find it difficult to talk about my personal life, so I’m happy with the way it turned out. It has some nice family pictures too. 🙂

I’ve also decided to share my poetry by posting it here, currently under my “Writing” section. I’ve split them into three collections – my early writings evolved from poems into songs between 2007 and 2011. By late 2011, most of my writing came in the form of verse-chorus songs. My life got a bit off track when I lost my home in March 2012, which is why I refer to pieces from this time as Lamentations. I still intend to record most of these, but I’m not sure what form or genre they will take.

Finally, there are the new songs. My spark didn’t really reignite until I wrote “The Fruit of Human Heads” in early 2015, and especially after I won the songwriting contest with “Angels Have Further to Fall” later that October. Adam Schweitzer’s version of the song is very good, especially given he’s only using one guitar and his voice. I fear any version I record may sound inferior. Which is an odd position to be put in.

 

Seraphim Automata (Dev Blog)

I spent about 5 weeks making Seraphim Automata, which is the shortest development time of any game I’ve made so far. I was able to speed up the process by recycling code for certain features from previous games. I began working on the game on May 16th, and posted the first screenshot on May 23rd after adding color.

seraphim1I still plan to use that fretboard for something…

The biggest challenge at this time was getting the cells to play the corresponding notes on the keyboard. Then I added a player object with health, attacks and death. I added a pause menu, an intro screen and the retry message. Now it played more like a game than a music program.

I took a break before picking it back up on June 2nd, adding power-ups and the rhythm generator. I polished the graphics up and added more samples the next day, then took another break.

On June 10th I added different time signatures. On June 14th I added level progression, a proper menu and options screen. On June 17th I began adding music genres. The next day I added the start menu, where you can select key, scale, music genre, and difficulty.

At this point the game was playable, and just needed a bit more polish. On June 21st I borrowed the timer, brightness and resolution code from Cosmic Zephyr, as well as the save/load system. These weren’t particularly large chunks of code, but they saved me a tremendous amount of time nonetheless. I added an ending message for winning the final level, and fixed any bugs I could find.

The game had 60 levels, ending on a 6/4 beat. The next day I decided to add more 20 levels to raise the difficulty and variety. That was the final change I made before releasing version 1.0 on June 22nd.

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I was originally thinking of selling the game for a few dollars, but the closer I got to the finished product (and the highly-anticipated Steam summer sale) the less feasible it seemed. It’s hard to know when your game has enough polish and content for others to consider it worth buying.

I can definitely see adding more music genres and more rhythms for variety. Maybe if I also added better graphics, more fluid gameplay, and maybe a story, I could justify selling a sequel to this game.

 

Marketing Indie Games

This could easily become a tangent on how rare people pay for video games outside of sales. If you manage to get a game through Steam Greenlight, it can end up on over a thousand wishlists while only getting a few purchases. That’s undeniably discouraging. But on the other hand, this year’s Steam summer sale went a lot better than the last one, with no daily deals and a discount average of 50% rather than 66.67%.

A lot of games these days are trying to build their communities as the games are being finished, which makes sense but also can set you up for a lot of backlash. Especially if your game gets money from Kickstarter but fails to deliver on its promises, like Mighty No 9. I get annoyed when game companies leave out features after they’ve become hyped. No female Link in the next Legend of Zelda is a timely example.

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I do like what they’ve done with Link’s hair though.

Speaking of which, the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild does look great. Do I want to buy a Wii U or an NX in order to play it though? Not really. I’m still having fun with Wind Waker on the GameCube.

This is a great article I read recently. The author list eight bottlenecks that limit the amount of people your game can ultimately reach.

I think the main takeaways are:

  • Know your game’s genre(s), your audience and how to appeal to them.
  • Know which platforms it runs on best and take advantage of it.
  • If you’re selling your game, decide early which market to target and how you’ll advertise.

I was going to post some more Steam reviews, but since they’re not ready I guess they can wait for the next blog.