Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass – REVIEW

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It’s no secret that I’m not the biggest fan of poetry. Whilst I’ve been an avid reader since early childhood, my first experience I remember reading poems of my own accord and not some flowery trite nonsense for the purpose of dissection and discussion in English class was ‘The Raven’, by Edgar Allen Poe, and a few of his other works. I found it dark and compelling, but something about the rhyming structure of poetry becomes distracting and gets in the way of the storytelling for me. Whether it be an unconventional rhyming structure leaving me unsure how it is to be read, and which words to stress, repeated usage of the same word for the purpose of rhyming, or even a particularly cringe-inducing ‘slant-rhyme’, I just cannot get as absorbed in the words as I would like, in the ways good narrative or lyrics encapsulate the mind. Another problem I have with poetry is – like horror fiction – it is often incredibly sterile and formulaic. By this I mean the tropes are so clearly defined and understood in our culture, even by those who do not consume the select media, that it is an almost effortless exercise for someone to amalgamate their ego’s trappings and fractured memories to spit out some divinely uninspired trollop hoping to appease the fans they so disingenuously appeal to. Some may read this assessment and think of me as an uncultured swine – a hack who pays no regard to the arts he claims to respect – and I’m fine with that.

Lana Del Rey is an American singer-songwriter (and an artist & poet, according to the dust jacket of her book). After a false start in 2010 with her oft-forgotten debut album “Lana Del Ray A.K.A. Lizzy Grant” (and no, that is not a typo) she had breakthrough success with her sophomore album “Born to Die”. Marrying baroque pop instrumentation and sleazy, sardonic and melodramatic lyrics, the album was a commercial success, but it polarized the critics. A lot of people have accused Lana Del Rey of being an “inauthentic character”, created to get appeal and an audience within the indie music scene. Whether or not that is entirely true is a matter of conjecture, however I found “Born to Die” and her follow-up release “Ultraviolence” to be a somewhat refreshing sound amid the early 2010s pop landscape. Rich sonic textures, with quality mixing and production made the albums evoke a sort-of phantom nostalgia, in part from her references to 50s and 60s Americana, and played a big part in getting me to grow the hell up and embrace pop music for it’s merits instead of depriving myself of quality tunes. However, with her 3rd album, “Honeymoon, I found that her sound & lyrics (or ‘character’, if you prefer) had begun to stagnate, and I lost interest. Her 4th album “Lust for Life” completely passed me by, and her latest offering, 2019’s “Norman Fucking Rockwell” was just… weird. All the familiar Lana-isms were there (the opening lyric of the album is “goddamn manchild, you fucked me so good I almost said I love you”. Gross.), but the album’s aesthetic was confusing, and strange. The song titles deviate between being all lower case, somewhat lower case and traditional word capitalisation, and words cannot truly convey how much I fucking hate this album artwork.

LanaDelRey_NormalFuckingRockwell

Seriously, what in the holy mother of ass is this trying to convey? Every time I see it it fills me with a kind of inexplicable combination of disgust and rage. Also, who the fuck is Norman Rockwell, anyway? I researched him expecting him to be some controversial 60s movie star who died of a mob-related suicide (gunshot wound to the back of the head) or something, but he was just some painter, famous for his magazine covers of American social commentary from the 40s to the 70s. His significance to the album’s narrative may have been lost on me as I found myself tuning out of the album when I listened to it as it just didn’t grab me the way Born to Die and Ultraviolence seem to.

After the albums release, I didn’t take much notice of what Lana was doing with herself, however with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of artists started posting what they were up to in the interim in lieu of touring, and she was one of them. Whilst many artists were just catching up on reading, baking, or jamming out acoustically, Lana started occasionally posting pictures of typewritten poems. Painfully average poems. I couldn’t tell you if any of these made it into the book or not (I’m leaning towards they did, as I don’t think Lana has ever vetoed anything she spent longer than 15 minutes on) as I have blocked them from my memory but I found them incredibly basic and reeking of first-draft energy. Imagine my surprise and dismay upon discovering that these were in the lead up to the release of a poetry collection, and accompanying spoken-word album. The album and book release dates came and went, and once again slipped through the cracks of my memory until recently, when I saw pre-orders go up for a vinyl pressing of the ‘audiobook’. Now this was something I could not ignore (how does an entire book fit on a 45-odd minute LP?), so I secured myself a copy of the hardcover book and started to listen to the album on YouTube, as it is unavailable for us in Australia on Spotify.

So let me tell you, what a painful experience it was. I was unable to listen to more than a single poem of the audiobook, as the cadence of her speech (it sounded like it was the first or second time she’d ever read them aloud) and the words of the poem were giving me second-hand embarrassment. It’s like when someone posts a video of themselves singing on social media and there’s no production, no music, and it just sounds like absolute dogshit and you feel so bad for them your asshole puckers up so tightly you could use it to crack a walnut. It is also worth noting the poems on the audiobook have musical accompaniment, but it’s this quasi-ambient noodling shit that sounds like the safe room music from Resident Evil, except instead of feeling relaxed because you’re not being chased by the undead, you feel tense because you’re hearing a 33 year old woman read words that would be considered average for a middle-schooler. I resolved to reading the 112 page hardcover book instead. A few reviewers online said they finished it in about 45 minutes, yet it took me a little over 2 hours. Why? Because I had to keep taking breaks. It was incredibly draining, and when I finished it I had a 30 minute nap to recoup the energy I lost processing some of the most pseudo-intellectual, disingenuous prose I’d read since taking a writing class at university.

As I mentioned earlier, many of the poems read like a first draft, which is something Lana herself acknowledged when talking about how the book came together (some poems are presented with the pen edits over the typewritten pages, for some inexplicable reason, making them look more like a teacher’s graded assessment than a finished poem). She says, in the dust jacket at the front of the book: 

Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass is the title poem of the book and the first poem I wrote of many. Some of which came to me in their entirety, which I dictated and typed out, and some that I worked laboriously picking apart each word to make the perfect poem”.

No shit – it fucking shows. Many of the poems in the book read like second rate imitations of her own lyrics, but without lush instrumentation and production to accompany them, try instead to stand on their own merits, and fail miserably. Another gripe I had (and this may be a more personal issue, as I know off-kilter layouts/punctuation is a common trope of poetry) was a constant inconsistency with grammar and punctuation, spelling ‘you’ in one line and substituting it with ‘u’ in the next, like she thinks she’s Prince or something. I also never want to see the words “emoji” or “bb please come over” in a poem ever again, let alone an actual goddamn watermelon emoji (seriously, why?).

One of the most stand-out poems was a piece entitled ‘L.A. Who Am I To Love You’. In this poem, she humanizes the city of Los Angeles, lamenting her absence from it whilst on some liaison in San Francisco with a man she describes only as “a billionaire”, describing the various ways she misses it as if it was a lover. The entire piece just comes across as incredibly whiny, the diction and word choices are boring and uninspired, and I actually audibly cackled like a witch over a boiling cauldron at the lines:

but certainly I feel your body next to me

smoking next to me

vaping lightly next to me

The entire book has what can best be described (in Lana’s own words, no less) as a “battered housewife” vibe, just a strange juxtaposition between constant lament for her poor choices in men and reaffirming her identity, self-discovery and finding happiness in smaller moments of life. She also constantly refers to herself as a poet throughout her poems, which is something I found very obnoxious and reeking of insecurity. She also consistently uses the same metaphors and imagery, with incessant references to the beach, sunshine, sugar and fruit and kissing things, which grew very tiresome and clearly shows the collection must have been primarily authored over a short time frame.

Salamander is easily the worst piece amongst the collection, as it epitomises almost every single complaint I have made about the collection onto a single page, as well as the fact that after reading it 3 times it STILL made no goddamn sense, and was somehow the hardest poem to read (maybe I was getting tired).

The final 3rd of the book is a collection of incredibly forgettable haikus, followed by some beautiful watercolours painted by the artist who also did the cover, Erika Lee Sears.

It wasn’t a collection completely beyond redemption, however. Scattered amongst the ashes are a few poems worthy of print, that I found to be very enjoyable, sincere, emotional and well-written. My 2 personal favourites were pieces entitled ‘Never to Heaven’ and ‘Thanks to the Locals’, with the former being about, in a few words, finding comfort in staying in the present moment, and the latter about Lana’s experiences with Alcoholics Anonymous, and a bad relationship. These pieces were touching, and show that despite this collection’s shortcomings, Lana Del Rey does have the potential to transition into a competent writer, she just needs to spend a great deal longer on the editing process and find someone who isn’t a complete Yes-man to proofread her work. Also of note is that approximately 50% of the book contains grainy, unexciting photos of whatever the fuck Lana decided visually accompanied these poems, which means that at $22AUD for the book, you’re essentially paying $2.50 per poem, and considering there’s at least 10 haikus, that is not worth the price of admission.

Allow me to finish this review with a haiku of my own, summarising my feelings about the book in 17 bittersweet syllables;

baroque pop artist

with a devastating book

try harder next time

The Last of Us Part II – REVIEW

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Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves”

7 years is a long time to wait. While waiting for a sequel, follow-up or other adaptation set in an established universe using beloved characters, people build up expectations. Unrealistic expectations. The sad truth of it is that a delivered product – especially after so much time – will fail to meet many of those fans’ expectations and preconceived ideas. You can’t please everybody, that’s understandable. However the extreme backlash that The Last of Us Part 2 has received is completely unfounded. It truly boggles the mind to wonder how professed ‘hardcore’ fans of the original game could be completely dissatisfied with every aspect of the story-line and narrative. After having played the original game and then immediately ploughing straight into Part 2, I am left with a sense of bittersweet, reflective melancholy. To play one and/or both of these games is to be taken on a journey, and much like when I finished the first game, I have been reflecting on all the decisions and plot points of the second. I have even dreamed about it. It may not be a ‘perfect game’, there are definitely a few things that could’ve been changed/improved for the better, but if you were a fan of the first game – or even just casually enjoyed it – this title is an absolute must-play. Naughty Dog have taken everything about the first game – from gameplay mechanics to heart-wrenching narrative – and supersized it.

Almost every aspect of gameplay from the original title has been expanded upon or improved in some way, but by far the largest improvements that have been made are with the combat. The melee combat is more tense, (at times) more difficult and requires finesse to pull off flawlessly to come out unscathed. The improved dodge mechanics, while somewhat unforgiving, add a complexity to the melee combat that it felt it was lacking in the original game, and both human and infected enemies pack quite a punch. The animation for the melee combat is polished to hell and back, as well as being visceral in its detail. There are a couple of new enemy types, which added variety and challenge to a number of sections in the game (especially when you’re running low on ammo and you can’t see how many enemies there are because they’re immune to Listen Mode goddamn Stalkers had me yelping like a wounded dog every time they came rushing at me from behind a desk). The enemy AI has been given a much-needed overhaul, as well. The scripted paths the NPCs follow feel a lot more fleshed out and organic, enemies notice missing comrades faster and call out to each other by name when reporting in/trying to find each other/witnessing each other die, which adds a hefty layer of realism and tension (especially when you’re trying to be sneaky or blast someone in the face in front of their brother or whatever) to an immersive experience. The combat sections feel more diverse and less linear than in the first game, with many alternative pathways and unconventional methods of dispatching enemies available to the player, should they care to roam about or examine their surrounds. A personal favourite tactic of mine was using throwable distraction items to lure the infected towards human enemies and cause them to fight each other while I sneaked by, pillaging all the resources out of every nearby cabinet and drawer I came across like I had an addiction to oily rags and broken pairs of scissors. The weapon customisation feels a little more fleshed out, and the weapons change aesthetically more noticeably with each customisation – which is a nice touch. However the weapon sway did make an annoying – if not as horrific – return so I recommend upgrading that on your longer range weapons immediately if you don’t want to simulate what I imagine it feels like to try and aim at something while drunk off your tits. Lastly, the swimming has been improved, and feels more fluent and controls a lot tighter, in the original game swimming felt like you were treading water in molasses and diving underwater rendered your view about as detailed as trying to see the bottom of a bucket full of murky piss. All in all, the game plays even better than it’s predecessor, and while the gameplay may not win any awards for being experimental and innovative, it is enjoyable and really shows the upper limit of what the PlayStation 4 is capable of. A very nice benchmark title to come out near the end of the PlayStation 4’s lifespan.

Those who cannot forgive others break the bridge over which they themselves must pass.

The storyline is – and I do not say this lightly – an absolutely wild, heartwrenching ride from start to finish. While the central ‘theme’ of the first title was “Life goes on”, it feels like the theme of the second is grief, and the destruction it can cause to ourselves and those around us, and the consequences of letting hate consume us. The characterisation is once again absolutely excellent, every single character – for better or for worse – lives and breathes within the narrative, and apart from a couple of oddly stilted moments of exposition, the dialogues feels as natural as a cool breeze blowing through the silent trees of a redwood forest. To discuss any spoilers would be doing this game a disservice, as I feel every moment in the narrative needs to be seen and felt first-hand to have the most profound amount of impact. However I will say that Abby is one of the most finely written ‘villains’ I have experienced within a narrative – let alone a video game – for a long, long time and the particular way that the narrative is shown to the player is something I have wanted to see done for years, and Naughty Dog did it (almost) perfectly.

The game is not absolutely flawless, there are a few minor gripes I had with the story (particularly near the end) but the game did not come across as preachy at all, to me. There is representation, as I am sure you have heard, but none of it really feels tokenistic by any measure. I honestly think people let conjecture from the leaked script – as well as their long-built expectations – unfairly colour their opinion of this gripping title, and while a controversial release now, I think The Last Of Us Part II will go on to become a highly regarded and beloved title on the PlayStation, much like it’s predecessor. If you were a fan of the first game, you absolutely must experience this game. Let the waves of emotion crash over you, close the book on the story of Joel and Ellie, and feel it every step of the way. It really is something worth feeling.

You don’t need strength to let go of something. What you really need is understanding.”

Big Bill and The Bigots // Let The Empire Burn – REVIEW

You awaken in a cold, damp basement. A single, dusty lightbulb swings like a pendulum above you, as you clear your eyes of sleep. The four cinderblock walls around you ooze a translucent, sticky gruel, and the concrete slab upon which you sit is like ice. You see a figure standing in front of you, he crouches down to meet your gaze, and holds a cracked mirror to your face. Inside it you see not yourself, but the face of God, and it is weeping.BBATB_LTEB

Let The Empire Burn is a dreary, macabre soundtrack to a coming apocalypse. Reminiscent of Nick Cave or post-reformation Swans, Big Bill & The Bigots use deep, visceral instrumentation paired with a gravelly, drawling vocal to evoke the feeling of being in a cholera-stricken town in the old west – one of dread and unease. You peer from the window of your stagecoach as it rolls through the center of town and see the melancholy on all the townsfolk’s faces, wondering which of their many burdens weighs heaviest upon their shoulders.

Each track on this EP is filled with chugging guitar riffs, feverish drumming and thought-provoking lyricism. Big Bill is a raconteur of high calibre, and across these five tracks he delivers a snarling critique of the poisonous culture that still permeates the minds of our citizens. The production quality is superb, and repeated plays reward the listener with something new to appreciate each time. Humble beginnings, to be sure, but absolutely brimming with effervescence and potential. If this is just the first helping of what Big Bill has in store, you would be remiss to cast your eye elsewhere and miss watching the sight of this new crimson flower coming into bloom. Let Big Bill take your hand and lead you down the spiral staircase into hell, where you will be cleansed by the flames and from the ashes, born anew.

This EP is available on Bandcamp and Spotify. Check out the video for ‘Sunday Mourning’ here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mB6DxXZjXeE

The Last of Us – REVIEW

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To quote the supremely talented and dearly missed George Harrison; “it’s been a long, long, long time…” since I have done a ‘review’ that amounted to more than an afternoon shitpost about various substances getting in my eye (not recommended) or a late night Facebook rant about some godawful reboot movie. (That Hellboy remake was somehow so bad it managed to make me kind of hate the original Guillermo Del Toro adaptation, and the Pet Semetary remake was stripped of all the lovable camp of the original and replaced with enough fog you’d be forgiven for mistaking it for Silent Hill).

I’ve been meaning to get back into the swing of writing reviews but I guess the time just got away from me, and being the chronic procrastinator that I am, I lacked the discipline to force myself to do something I actually enjoy doing that requires some semblance of effort.

Well, with isolation not going anywhere and with nothing but time on my side, people encouraged me, the stars and planets aligned, and I found something that I thought would be a great entry point to get my foot (back) in the door: The Last of Us Part II. From the moment this game was rumoured – then leaked, you couldn’t bring up the topic of video games without having someone start talking about it – people were hyped and ready to be blown away or disappointed. Preliminary thoughts and reviews were polarising to say the least, and I didn’t understand why, as the first game totally passed me by. I was absorbed in Dragon’s Dogma at the time of release, and despite being gifted a copy by a friend in September of 2014, I never got around to playing it as something else always seemed to bump it further down the list, until it fell into the backlog purgatory, joining other “must-play” titles such as EarthBound, Super Mario RPG, Deadly Premonition and Psychonauts.

But with all this speculation and conjecture surrounding the long anticipated sequel, and being no stranger to critique and riling people up with my nonsensical thoughts, I decided to blow through the first game so I could have a review for Part 2 ready quick-smart after release, and well… you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men. This is not a game that can be ‘blown thru’ without a guide (which I tend to avoid unless absolutely necessary) and without missing significant plot developments, and seeing as the plot is the main appeal people seem to mention when discussing this game, I thought it was right to give it it’s due course and really let myself sink into the experience. However, the more I played and the further I got into the ‘meat’ of the game, so to speak, I found that there were some things I feel are worth discussing, from my viewpoint of someone who really didn’t give a shit but was willing to give it a chance. So without further preamble, here’s my review.

 

Picture this. It’s the middle of winter, and snow encapsulates the forest, smothering the trees and obscuring much of the forest floor. You see the many trees and valleys, the snow-capped rocks and towering pines, all is silent but for the blowing winds. Suddenly, a small, tan rabbit pops out of his burrow. With cautious curiosity, he begins to make his way along the forest floor, sniffing for a trace of some sweet , preserved berries or other fauna to snack upon in the harsh, unforgiving winters of an apocalyptic wasteland. He pauses, raising his head and before he can take another breath an arrow splits him sideways through the skull, pinning him to the forest floor. This scene is a perfect allegory for much of the attitude throughout The Last of Us. Every tender moment is usually counteracted by a moment of brutal realism, casual violence or emotional dissonance. The central theme of the game was said by the developers to be “life goes on”, and it really cannot be simplified any more than that. Naughty Dog were unafraid of juxtaposing tenderness with savagery, happiness with sadness and all the grey areas inbetween throughout the narrative, and it’s a gamble that well and truly pays off. To say the survival horror genre has been all but exhausted of it’s creative merits is not so much a matter of conjecture, but rather a statement of fact. However the narrative of The Last of Us uses the genre tropes to it’s advantage and manages to deliver a story that feels fresh and original, mostly thanks to its excellent characterisation.

If you were to ask someone for a reason to play The Last of Us, you’re all but guaranteed they’d say “for the story”. It’s the answer I got every time I asked why there was so much hype and high regard surrounding this game, because at a glance you wouldn’t be remiss in saying that it bears a lot of resemblance to another popular Naughty Dog series – Uncharted. However the over-the-shoulder third person gameplay involving cover mechanics is where the similarities really end between these 2 beloved titles (the theory that The Last of Us takes place within the Uncharted universe not withstanding). Whereas Uncharted is more of an interactive love-letter to the action-adventure genre in the vein of something like Indiana Jones, The Last of Us is more of a cinematic experience about the pain of loss and the lengths people will go to survive. The game opens with an unforgettable 5 minute sequence – in which we see one of the primary characters lose everything they knew and held dear – and it sets the tone perfectly: this is a game unafraid to kill children to tug at your heartstrings. In seriousness, from the moment I witnessed that sequence, I was absolutely hooked, and needed to see where the characters were going to go next and how their plot thread would eventually be resolved. There are a lot of highs and lows – even a few funny moments – littered throughout the game’s relatively decent-lengthed campaign. As mentioned earlier, the narrative really shines in part to the characterisation and development of the relationship between Joel and Ellie. Every line of dialogue peels back another layer of one or both characters, and I made sure to find every optional piece of dialogue I could to learn just a little more about these 2 radically different people and what had happened to them before the journey they had set out on together. It’s also refreshing to see a game wherein the primary characters relationship is one of budding mutual respect and platonic love – another refreshing aspect of the narrative – as I feel that romantic relationships between main characters is trite and uninspired as well as being a cheap way of garnering the player’s interest and investment in the characters’ relationship. However, the narrative did have one minor flaw. The storyline is punctuated by ‘flash-forward’s, at the end of each chapter and at a couple of other crucial moments in the story, and feels like the writers painted themselves into a corner and didn’t know how to resolve the plot thread without it being ridiculous or boring, so they chose to just jump ahead in time instead. It’s not the biggest narrative sin one can commit, but it definitely broke the suspense/emotion right at its peak a few times for me.

You’re probably wondering how I’ve made it this far into a review of a video game without having discussed the gameplay. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “uninspired” but it definitely isn’t anything life-changing. In few words, the game plays like a strange fusion of Resident Evil 4 and something like Uncharted, with slightly stiff controls and cover-based mechanics for when firefights heat up, as well as the option to take many sections stealthily, incapacitating enemies silently or bypassing them altogether. However, what the gameplay lacks in originality it makes up in tension. Due to the relative scarcity of ammo, you really try your hardest to make every shot count, and feel like a right fool when you waste 5 rounds on a Clicker at point-blank range because Joel can’t stop his goddamn arms from swaying about like those inflatible horror-puppets you always see outside of used car dealerships. (For the love of God, make ‘Weapon Sway’ your first purchased upgrade at any cost, the shooting is infuriating without it. For someone who’s been using guns for years, Joel sure does seem to suck at it.) I opted to bypass enemies or trap them in an area and hit them with a molotov cocktail whenever I could, and being out of harms way always brought a welcome (if short-lived) sense of relief, which really added to the atmosphere of dread and unease the game was trying to convey. The player has a few other tools at their disposal, such as ‘Listen Mode’, which is basically the ability to see enemies locations through walls if they’re within a certain radius and the ability to craft/upgrade weapons and items. Pretty much par for the course in a survival horror game.

To summarize, The Last of Us is an incredible cinematic gaming experience, and one I fully recommend to anyone who’s a fan of Naughty Dog’s other titles, survival horror or just ‘cinematic’ games in general. When I started playing this game and writing this review I thought I was going to just take the piss out of it and blow through it in a day or so, however I was genuinely and pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. I avoided discussing too many of the major spoilers in here because I hope my review gives you the push to finally try this unforgettable title. For the duration of my playthrough and beyond I found myself constantly thinking about details from the story and imagining how I myself would have handled them if I was placed in a similar situation, which is what it feels like the developers set out to do. Not one part of the story feels like ham-fisted commentary and the script absolutely reeks of polish, my interest in the plot was held strong from the beginning to the end. I regret having waited 6 goddamn years to finally give it a try, but you know what they say, better late than never, right?