Radio personality Ron Bennington described comedy as a game of “tell a joke, or become the joke”. Audiences view their interest in you as an investment; fail to reward that investment and they exact their reward with tar and feathers.
John Romero, bad boy game designer, quit id Software (which he had co-founded) in 1996 to launch a new company, Ion Storm, under the mantra “design is law”. It was supposed to revolutionize 3D gaming. Instead, he became a joke. Daikatana was planned to ship with the 1997 holiday season, but instead it came out in 2000 in a plague field of negative publicity, after going through two engine upgrades, a full dev team, and thirty million dollars in funding.
What went wrong is a fascinating story (told here by Gamespot’s Geoff Keighley) which has become an industry cautionary tale. It ended Romero’s career as an A-List game developer, and he’s spent twenty years bouncing from company to company, leaving a shallow strew of indie and mobile shovelware. Assuming you’re immune to the charms of Gunman Taco Truck and Pettington Park, Daikatana will likely remain Romero’s last hurrah as a game dev.
Was it any good? Well, that depends on what you want. If you’re eager to play four badly designed half-a-games at once, with a graphical engine years out of date, it’s quite good.
It’s a first person shooter featuring “RPG” “elements” (LEVEL UP flashes on the screen occasionally, and this apparently does something.) Things start off with a cutscene: an old man dying of polygon deficiency explains the plot to you. It goes on for quite a while, and the developers must have decided it was static and dull, because they have ninjas jump out of the shadows, beat the shit out of the old man, and run away…after which he continues explaining the plot to you. A mood is created. I don’t think it’s the mood the developers intended.
The story is confusing and lacks direction: it reminds me of a ten year old boy’s narrative about Spiderman fighting Sonic in Fraggle Rock, or whatever. It has no setting except the collision of random cultural debris. There’s time travel, ancient Greece, a black sidekick called Superfly (note the spelling) and an Asian female sidekick who’s into martial arts, a giant sword…
The game has massive “depth”, but so does the Marianas Trench. Eleven thousand meters of water and squidshit isn’t interesting, and nor is Daikatana’s huge stack of poorly-integrated, half-tested features.
Why did they shove in RPG-like stats when they have no visible impact on gameplay? Why is there an XP system? What does it do, and why do I care? Why design unique enemies for every level when they all feel like variants of either “annoying fast flying enemy” or “enraging slow ammunition-sponge”?
None of the weapons obey logic. There’s a double-barrelled shotgun that fires six shots at once (???), a rocket launcher that shoots two twisty rockets that hit everything except the enemy you aimed them at, etc. This is MC Escher with a gun catalog. The titular weapon, the Daikatana, proves to be a gigantic sword that blocks a large portion of your screen when you have it equipped. It cuts everything in half, starting with your own vision!
But worst part is the sidekicks.
They have the worst AI I have ever seen. They run in front of your gun. They get stuck on corners. They get crushed by elevators. They ignore weapons on the ground and charge heavily-armed enemies using their fists. When they die you lose, and they exist at all times in a state of permanent about-to-die. They are comprehensively broken.
Daikatana off the box is unplayable because of the sidekicks. Unplayable. I recommend you download the patch that deletes the fucking sidekicks from the game, thus rehabbing it to “barely playable”.
The graphics are visually interesting at times (how often do you see the colour purple in FPS titles?), but mostly dull and ugly. There’s no vibrancy. Why did they upgrade from the Quake engine when the colour scheme recreates most of Quakes excesses?
What else was happening in 2000? What did the market look like? System Shock 2, Perfect Dark, Deus Ex, Half Life, Unreal Tournament, NOLF, and two Quake games. Next to these titles, Daikatana just looks dated and old. Daikatana isn’t as bad as people say: it’s worse.
Paralysis based on traumatic shock lasts for a few minutes. Careers based on cultural shock last only slightly longer. Irvine Welsh, Bret Easton Ellis, Clive Barker, and Will Self gained fame through transgression, and then lost it, the world moving on and forgetting them.
Chuck Palahniuk is still toiling on in 2018, though his 1996 book Fight Club increasingly resembles a tombstone. Adjustment Day tries to recapture Fight Club’s urgency, along with trying many other things. It’s a confused book, windmilling punches in all directions.
It begins as a parody of generational aggrievement. A surplus number of young men threatens to disturb the global order, and so the ruling classes plot a staged war to dramatically thin their numbers. But, at the urging of a tract by the Big Brother-esque figure of Talbott Reynolds, the young men rise up and eliminate the ruling class first, seizing control of the United States.
Adjustment Day is somewhat successful here, because Palahniuk manages to hit some socially relevant points (the young men share a list of names of people to kill and vote on them, like a Reddit thread). And the revolution is violent enough.
But the book then shifts to a parody of cultural balkanisation. The United States splits into three nations, the exclusively homosexual Gaysia (which is run like a continent-sized bathhouse), the white ethno-state of Caucasia (which is like A Handmaid’s Tale), and the black ethno-state of Blacktopia (which is like Wakanda).
One of Adjustment Day‘s many weaknesses is that everything in it is exactly like something else. It doesn’t have an identity, it steals existence from other things. “Remember this? Were you aware of this? Remember the emotions this piece of media made you feel?” In a moment of desperation, Palahniuk even name-checks Fight Club, which feels like a musician trying to rouse a tepid crowd with an old hit.
The prose is spare and minimalist, but hard to read. Adjustment Day feels like eating a huge urn of light whipped cream. The characters are spasming balls of angst and introspection, none of them seeming like real people. The book soon collapses into broad farce before the ending occurs, which is so dull that I’ve already forgotten what happens.
I didn’t like it much.
Waterworld is a dystopian film that came out in 1995, stunning audiences around the globe with half-empty cinemas and poor box office profits.
The film depicts a future where water covers the entire planet, and mankind survives on bolted-together rafts and floating cities. The nameless protagonist (played by Kevin Costner) has gills, allowing him to swim to the ocean floor and retrieve dirt and other artifacts.
Waterworld relies on TVTrope’s Rule of Cool, meaning its setting is dictated by aesthetic concerns and not realism or logic. In order to make sense of Waterworld, you must assume that large amounts of information presented in the film isn’t true. But some of it’s interesting to think about – for example, the gills. How realistic are they? Would (or could) a population of humans living on an endless sea evolve gills?
First, we need a time-frame: how far in the future does Waterworld take place? We aren’t told, but probably decades to centuries. Long enough that humans have forgotten civilization, but short enough that artifacts of 20th century civilization remain. The base of the villainous “Smokers” is (in a heavy-handed touch) the Exxon-Valdez oil tanker, and it’s still floating. Production designer Dennis Gassner stated that the film is set in the year 2500. Let’s assume this is true.
Already, there are insurmountable problems. 500 years is equal to only twenty human generations, not nearly enough time for complex new adaptions to appear in the human genotype. In evolutionary biologist Richard Lenski’s famous experiment, it took twenty thousand generations of e. coli  before a useful novel trait emerged (the ability to metabolize citrate). Considering a human generation length of 25 years, an equivalent time-span would be half a million years. We aren’t even within the right three orders of magnitude!
Evolutionary traits emerge slowly, through a grinding process of random mutations which appear at a rate of approximately 0.5×10-9 per basepair per year. Even if the mutation rate in Waterworld was ten times the current rate (through elevated background radiation or whatever), that’s still only 0.5×10-8 per year. Virtually all of these mutations do nothing, the ones that do something typically cause a loss of function (it’s easier to break something than accidentally improve it), and the ones that do help have a 50% chance of vanishing in a child of the next generation anyway.
It gets worse when you consider that the gills are clearly not a de novo mutation. The men on the atoll instantly recognize the slits behind Kevin Costner’s ears as gills, and they even have a name for him (“Icthyus sapien”). They have seen men like him before. The gill trait has existed for a while, and might be under a (insert joke here) Fisherian sweep, thus cutting the timeline further still: the gills might only be ten or fifteen generations old!
It is vaguely possible that humans could evolve to be aquatic. We have examples of land-based mammals returning to the sea, the most famous being the cetacean order (whales and dolphins), which evolved from an amphibious ancestor not unlike the modern hippopotamus. But this process took millions of years, and cetaceans never evolved gills. They kept the respiratory method they already had. Gills, it appears, evolved only once (4), and the creatures that evolved an alternate method never went back.
And this leads to the second issue with humans evolving gills: we already have lungs.
Virtually every single thing about our respiratory system and upper-body bone system would need to change to accomodate them. We wouldn’t even look human. The men of the atoll wouldn’t have needed to check behind Kevin Costner’s ears to confirm that he’s a mutant. It would have been obvious at a hundred paces.
Fish require special bone structures called branchial arches to support their gills. The tetrapod lineage (which humans belong to) has long since repurposed those bones to make the thyroid gland, part of the jaw, the larynx, and the bones in the ear. If Kevin Costner magically evolved gills, he would suddenly be unable to talk (no larynx), unable to hear (no inner ear), and unable to eat (parts of his jaw and hyoid structure wouldn’t exist!).
Truthfully, gills probably wouldn’t evolve in humans given any length of time. We’ve gone too far down a different path. Evolution would have to awkwardly walk back many millions of years of development to our chest cavities.
Even if gills were a desirable method for breathing in humans (which they probably aren’t) evolution is highly limited by the fact that it’s step based, with all intermediate forms needing to be viable. In other words, humans can’t halfway evolve gills. Imagine a toy model of gills that relies on five traits. 1) a Branchial arch 2) a transport mechanism for moving oxygen around the body 3) a filtering system for elimination of waste 4) the gill tissue itself 5) and a gill spiracle, or slit. All of these would need to be present for the creature to survive. Suppose a creature miraculously evolved 1-4, but not 5. It would instantly suffocate, as it couldn’t expel water.
Truthfully, gills aren’t even the wackiest stuff in the movie. There’s an embarrassing part where Kevin Costner fights a Resident Evil 4 boss. Where did this thing come from in 500 years?
You might ask “are these even gills? Or are they some weird new breathing method that everyone calls gills out of convenience?” Good questions, which I’d answer “no” and “yes”.
These things look and behave nothing like gills.
1) they’re too small. Costner’s ear-slits are just a few inches long. Compare with how big they are on fish, and consider that humans are endotherms, regulating their own body temperature, with significantly higher oxygen needs.
2) They’re ridiculously efficient, to the point of breaking the laws of physics. An adult human land aspirates about eight liters of air per minute – hold your hand over your nose, and feel how much air you’re pumping and out of your body. Water only has about 5% as much oxygen by volume as air, so if we assume that gilled humans have similar oxygen needs, Kevin Costner would need to “breathe” one hundred and sixty liters of seawater every minute just to survive. (There’s even less dissolved oxygen in the deep oceans where the Mariner dives).
By way of comparison, the fog nozzle hoses used by firefighters typically discharge 60 litres of water a minute. Each of those tiny slits behind Kevin Costner’s ears is ejecting nearly half again as much water as a firefighter’s hose, every minute. Even if he could do this, he’d rapidly exhaust the local environment of oxygen and suffocate. The gills could only be used for brief dives, not lengthy underwater swims as shown in the movie.
3) Visual evidence is…incompatible with gills. Here’s a screen-capture of Kevin Costner underwater. There’s a massive problem – can you see it?
His mouth is shut! How is oxygenated water entering his body? Through his nostrils? Those tiny openings that are designed to keep water getting in? Are those tiny holes sucking in a hundred and sixty liters per minute?
Or this shot, where we see bubbles appearing from Costner’s…mouth? Shouldn’t they be coming from behind his ears?
Most damning is the mouth to mouth resuscitation scene with Jeanne Tripplehorn. There’s no air in Costner’s lungs! How is he doing this?
I have no clue how he’s breathing. But he is absolutely not using gills.
Given the confused terminology used by the characters (one asks if the gills are fully functional or merely “vestigial”, which makes no sense – a vestigial part is a functionless organ left behind by evolution, not a new trait), it makes most sense to assume this is a totally novel breathing mechanism that’s everyone calls gills because they don’t know any better.
Given all of the above strangeness, how does Waterworld waterwork?
There are two theories:
1. Waterworld is set on alien planet. This would solve many plot issues (such as how the melting of the polar ice caps covered the entire world), but create many bigger ones. We see countless terrestrial artifacts: crayons, cigarettes, bottles of Jack Daniels, and even a photograph of Joseph Jeffrey Hazelwood (the captain of the Exxon-Valdez). The film is absolutely set on Earth.
2. Waterworld is The Truman Show.
Let’s ignore the opening narrative (who is this person, and why assume they’re truthful?). Suppose that a futuristic government cordons off a large area of ocean, fills it brainwashed or deluded people, and allows them to think that the ocean covers the entire world. How would they ever know otherwise? The occasional sailors who reach the shore could be turned back (after being brainwashed again).
This provides explanations for the “gills” (genetic engineering), the sea monster (genetic engineering), the fast-decaying tobacco and oil (discreetly supplied by the government to add excitement to the game, like a weapon at a WWE event), and a host of other problems. (It should be noted that in 1997 Acclaim published a four-issue comic series which tried to address some plot problems. For example, the main character is explicitly genetically engineered.)
But it would have made for an unsatisfying story. Trick endings only work if the truth is more interesting than the illusion (Psycho, The Usual Suspects, and The Sixth Sense), and if it’s not (The Village), the audience feels cheated. “It was all a lie” would be a troubling note to end on in a movie devoted to heroism and bravura spectacle, and the screenwriters were probably wise not to go down that route.
And despite the film’s problems, the ending rings true. Everyone thinks Costner’s character is crazy for wanting to go back to the water, but if we take the film at face value, he’s the only sane one there. The future of humanity isn’t on a tiny, plague-ridden island, it’s in the ocean, and he is one of the first of a new race.
1. The Making of Waterworld by Janine Pourroy (August 1995). Production designer Dennis Gassner states: “The date was 2500.”
2. Blount, Lensky, et al, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0803151105)
3. Scally A (December 2016). “The mutation rate in human evolution and demographic inference”. Current Opinion in Genetics & Development. 41: 36–43. doi:10.1016/j.gde.2016.07.008. PMID 27589081.
4. Origin of Vertebrate Gills, Nature 2017/02/22
Reviewing games in 2019 is impossible. You’re shooting at a moving target: every game in 2019 is a weird quasi-finished v0.5 Pre-Release Early Access Beta, requiring a 24/7 internet connection so it can stream five gigabytes of updated content each day.
Once, a game was a $60 box with a CD in it. It was finished. It did not change. But now, a game is a spewing open sewer on your hard drive, fountaining out a never-ending deluge of shit: new characters, new mechanics, new loot boxes, new collectible cards, and new internet memes.
The ever-changing nature of modern games makes them difficult to talk about. It’s like reading a book with George RR Martin yanking pages out and gluing new ones in, or watching a movie while Peter Jackson is still directing it.
Apex Legends is the new contender for the battle royale throne. It features the genre’s standard game mode (a huge number of players, vying for dominance on a map that shrinks in size), merged with the team-based heroism of Blizzard’s Overwatch. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds asked “where will you go?” Apex Legends asks “where will you go, and with whom?”
The game leaves an indelible visual impression. Every battle royale game has a launch sequence, but this is the most visually stunning one yet, with the screen wracked by bloom and lens effects and your characters quipping as they skydive. I enjoyed the way everyone leaves coloured trails of smoke (so you can guide your team away from groups of players…or towards them, if you like living dangerously).
When you land, you loot. Your first port of call should be a gun (or two guns): the characters are absolute bullet sponges, and it’s frustrating to empty a full magazine into someone’s chest and have them continue charging at you.
It also takes time to learn the idiosyncrasies of each weapons – for example, the Peacemaker shotgun has such a tight spread that it can be almost used like a rifle, and the Mozambique is laughably underpowered, to the point where it’s better to use your melee attack. The Devotion energy rifle has a “spin-up” (the longer you fire it, the more damage it inflicts), which in practice means the enemy takes a weak shot or two, runs away, and the powerful end of the burst splatters uselessly against a wall. The gunplay as a whole, feels slightly underdeveloped.
So, too does the much-hyped character-based element.
Before each game, you choose your “legend”, each of whom has different tactical abilities. Unlike Overwatch, these are fairly subtle and seldom game-changing. Bangalore can throw smoke. Pathfinder can set up a zipline.
The number one reason to choose one legend over another is their hitbox size – Wraith is the current favorite among the Twitch elite, because her tiny size makes her difficult to hit. You will have a miserable time playing as Gibraltar and Caustic: their massive hitboxes attract every bullet on the server, or so it seems.
So there are balance issues between weapons, and balance issues between legends. I’m sure these will be rectified – hence why reviewing games is pointless. Anything I can criticize might be completely different tomorrow.
One thing that deserves unreserved praise is the pinging system. In other games, communication with your allies is difficult: you either have to type a message, or get on voicechat and entrust your teamplay to pubescent voices and $5.00 microphones. Not anymore. Apex Legends allows you to rapidly ping locations on the map, indicate supplies for your team, flare enemies, and even cancel the last message you sent in the case of a false alarm. They really did think of everything, and a good team can execute complex strategies based on two seconds of pinging.
I also must praise something that isn’t in the game – there are no emotes for dabbing, or floss dancing, or any of that shit. Good.
But overall, the game needs more content. There’s still only one map, and eight legends, two of which must be unlocked (didn’t Overwatch launch with 21?). There’s a lavish assortment of paid skins – the game is free, and this is how they plan on making money – and it’s clear that a lot of effort that could have made Apex Legends a stronger game instead went into creating fluorescent blue Mirage vests and sparkly glitter covers for guns.
On balance, I had a good time with Apex Legends. I hope it gets better, but what they gave us isn’t bad. The battle royale genre is now out of its formative stage, and into its development stage. Genres are being mixed up and recombined, in the hopes of scoring the next crossover hit. I have no idea whether Apex Legends will still be the state of the art in six months, but it’s clearly the state of the art right now.
One of the final books in Gemmell’s Drenai setting, White Wolf introduces a new hero called Skilgannon the Damned.
It’s all here: the fast pace, the brutal fight scenes (Gemmell knows sixty adjectives for an axe splitting a skull), the terse and efficient characterization, the unabashed heroism, and the tension between ideals of good and evil and the complexities of reality. I truly believe that nobody ever did it better.
But “it’s all here” doesn’t feel like an unalloyed compliment, not after twenty five books of mostly the same stuff. Gemmell was an excellent but limited author, and here he paints within the lines, offering up mostly familiar pleasures. The result is a book that, while fun, doesn’t particularly need to exist.
All the usual baddies make an appearance – the Nadir, werebeast “Joinings”, assassins, shamans – as do the typical Gemmell action setpieces (here we get three fights in a tavern as opposed to the usual one or two). Once again, a character renounces their violent ways and tries to become a monk, with predictably disastrous results. And the final encounter, while exciting, couldn’t be more of a videogame boss battle if “One Winged Angel” was playing in the background.
The protagonist Skilgannon poses a particular problem: he’s just a jumble of traits from past Gemmell heroes and never emerges as a compelling and unique character. He has Waylander’s dark past, Druss’s demon-possessed weapon (the actual Druss appears in this novel, muddling things still further), Jon Shannow’s sense of having outlived his time, Tenaka’s sense of being ill-used by someone he trusted, etc. He’s supposed to be an antihero, but he only commits evil acts because of a pair of mind-controlling swords, a bit of thematic oddness that Gemmell never addresses.
Gemmell doesn’t do anything new here, but he does turn up the emotional intensity in a few places. The scenes depicting Skilgannon’s youth were fascinating, linking past Gemmell figures such as Gorben and Michanek and adding a host of new ones. Druss the Legend steals the show every time he appears, to the point where I wished the entire book was about him. And the title’s full meaning is actually pretty interesting, particularly in light of the sequel, The Swords of Night and Day.
I enjoyed White Wolf, both when I read it here and when I read its various bits and pieces in earlier books like Waylander et al. It was probably for the best that Gemmell spent his final years writing quasi-historical fiction (re-telling the Iliad). It forced him outside of his comfort zone. Gemmell incapable of writing anything but a Gemmell novel, but many of his best stories happened when he at least tried.
Maybe you bought this book expecting to learn about the Roman Empire. Good news – you’ll learn a lot!
For example, that Caligula’s sister died at age twenty three due to a “surfeit of buggery” with her brother and “seven outrageously well-endowed studs” (p34). And how when Caligula travelled he “amused himself by taking potshots at the dull-witted peasants in the roadside fields, wielding a sort of projectile-shooting bazooka” (p38). Or how, in the arenas, skilled gladiators could decapitate a man and then direct the pumping jets of blood to spell “Caligula” on the sand, with the falling head forming the dot on the letter i. (p74).
But it wasn’t all fun and games. The most prized animal in the arenas was the “Libyan lion…eleven feet in length, with enormous paws armed with razorsharp (sic) claws of sabre-size dimensions, even their engorged testicles were as large as a man’s head”. Scary! The only way the Romans could subdue the Libyan lion and its engorged testicles was for a “particularly handsome slave to present his shapely, exposed anus to the lion’s mighty sexual apparatus; then, once the act of copulation (which invariably proved terminal for the unfortunate slave, due to unsustainable blood loss) reached its critical point and the lion was momentarily distracted, a gang of a hundred or more whooping slaves would wrestle the lion to the ground and throw a net over it”. (p83)
Divine Carnage is hilarious, and one of the funniest books I’ve read. I’m fighting and so far losing a battle just to fill this review with my favorite parts. Nearly every page of this book has entertainment of some sort: and a good thing, as you won’t find any history (or literacy).
I’m not sure to what extent the authors were in on the joke: it’s either a troll job, a parody of the “edgy history” trend (Dan Carlin, etc), or else one of Creation Books’ typical scams. The back cover has the words “ORGY OF DEATH GLADIATOR KILL”, with all capitals and no punctuation. The copyediting was done by someone throwing a gladius at a keyboard, there are usually multiple spelling and grammar errors on every page. The phrase “plebian scum” is used so often it becomes a tic. Also, the book was written by time travellers: James Havoc’s foreword is copyrighted 1999, but it mentions the “recent” Russell Crowe movie Gladiator, which came out in 2000.
Much of the book was definitely composed while drunk – sometimes the writer’s mind wanders down a little alley and you can see them clumsily make stuff up while staring at an empty glass. For example, the part where we’re told about the Imperial “thumbs up for life, thumbs down for death” thing, with an aside that the emperor’s thumb was actually penetrating a slave’s rectum.
Who are the authors of this masterpiece?
Jeremy Reed is a “Jersey-born poet, novelist, biographer and literary critic”, and Stephen Barber is a longtime Creation Books hack for hire who has written a dozen titles along the lines of “transformative future sex death semiotics in the films of Uwe Boll”. Neither is a historian, but they attack the project with gusto. At the end, Jeremy Reed heroically cites four books as “…an invaluable sources of reference (sic)”, though his final sentence is blunt: “There is no definitive life of Heliogabalus, and I have attempted to resassemble (sic) aspects of his character most likely to resonate in the current times.” Stephen Barber cites no books at all, just the “newly-excavated” Butrinte Caligula, which must be newly excavated indeed, considering that Google offers no evidence that it exists.
It is the first book in the Blood History series that marked Creation’s twilight years as an actual publisher. The second book was Flesh Inferno by Simon Whitechapel, and the third was The Bloody Countess, which was actually a reprint of a 1960s title by surrealist poet Valentine Penrose (whether Creation obtained the necessary legal rights from Penrose’s estate is doubtful). The fourth book exists only in our imaginations.
I’d be remiss not to quote my favorite line from the book, on p96. “Commodus was certainly the first post-modern Roman emperor”. That sentence sums it up. Creation Books ripped off a lot of people, but they did not rip off me. Not here.
Every culture has a beloved national dish that amounts to “take all the leftovers and put it in a pot”. Hours is David Bowie’s version of that, an unfocused collection of tracks from a videogame, an unfinished Reeves Gabrels solo album, plus some other crap, with a production job so bad it ruptured time and space.
Look at the cover. You pretty much already much know how it sounds. Light, breezy, housewife-hooking AOR pop rock with no real edge or bite. Bowie tried to get TLC to guest on “Thursday’s Child”. I don’t know what’s sadder: that he seriously had that idea or that it probably would have worked.
“Thursday’s Child” is the big hit single. It features a lame R&B-inspired backbeat, gratuitous female backing vocals, and greasy, syrupy synths. Someone once said that synths are to American musicians what firewater was to the Native Americans. I agree, and wish they were what smallpox blankets were for the Indians.
“Something in the Air” is six minutes of boredom and glitchy sound effects. I don’t know what Reeves Gabrels is playing on guitar. It doesn’t relate to the music in any way. It’s like they recorded him noodling at soundcheck time and put it on the record. This was Gabrels’ final studio release with Bowie, quitting while he was behind.
“Seven” is an acoustic song with loud obnoxious slide guitar parts. Not bad, but anyone could have written it.
“What’s Really Crappening” is Bowie’s infamous “cyber-song”, meaning its recording was broadcast via livestream. There were probably people who racked up a $40 phone bill over their 56ks listening to Bowie make this – they should have watched the video of the dancing baby instead. The lyrics were partially written by a fan, Alex Grant, who won a contest on Bowie’s website. Nobody can find any trace of Grant now. He may have entered the witness protection program.
“Brilliant Adventure” is etc…
You get the idea. I dislike hours greatly, there’s something cold and dead about it that I don’t hear in any of the other “bad” Bowie albums. Even Never Let Me Down and Tin Machine I have odd charm that renders them lovable from a certain perspective, but this has none (and no artistry either). This is a strong contender for the worst thing Bowie ever recorded on a major label.
The digital sampler is one of the great musical instruments of its ages, nearly equal to the electric guitar. Or maybe it’s an anti-instrument – rather than creating music, it takes the music of other people, and fascinatingly tortures it to death.
The Akai MPC sampler is to music what the AK-47 is to firearms – a mass-produced weapon that allowed peasants to get into the game. Not knowing a damned thing about music was no longer an obstacle to making it. Illiterate rappers could slice parts out of someone else’s tracks, reconstruct them into Frankensteinian monstrosities, and play the results to a crowded dancefloor. Sampling culture reveled in taking music out of its natural environment, and shoving square pegs into round holes. It put Beethoven’s Fifth over hip hop beats, and uncool dad rock over souped-up breakbeats. Much of the Mona Lisa’s effect comes from the fact that you must pass through an austere gallery before you see it. It would have a different impact if you saw it in a sewer. Sampling works by the same principle: it allows us to hear old music in a new way, breaking preconceptions and forcing the mind into unfamiliar paths.
Bowie’s 1997 album makes a fetish out of sampling. Most of Reeve Gabrels’ guitar riffs are actually recorded samples. Wild scratchy noises spray like jets of graffiti from an aerosol can: these are saxophones, sped up and glitched in the studio.
It’s also supposed to be a celebration of jungle music, a style he was quite enamored with at the time. In the press, he referred to it as “the great cry of the twentieth century”. On tour he split the set into two halves – a rock set and a drum ‘n’ bass set. Critics didn’t like it, and neither did his fans. After he noticed that most of his audience left after the rock set ended, he defiantly put the drum ‘n’ bass set first for the remainder of the dates. Jungle was pretty trendy and oversaturated by this point, which didn’t do him any favours with the cognoscenti. It was as he’d decided in 2001 that rap-metal was the great cry of the twenty-first century.
Regardless, Earthling is aggressive, cartoonish, excessive, and brilliant at times. Most of the tracks speed along like little mechanical rabbits, flurries of breakbeats trying to throw you out of the groove. “Dead Man Walking” proves itself the strongest cut, with a tough KMFDM groove mixed with introspective lyrics: Bowie is pondering his own sell-by date. “Law (Earthlings on Fire)” is also pretty strong, ending the record on an apocalyptic note. The music seems to be blasting from lamppost speakers while chlorine gas swirls below.
“Seven Years in Tibet” is rather long-winded, featuring a kick and snare sample that seems inspired by Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing” (or maybe it is that kick and snare! I’m not sure). The song plods along, with massive gravitas, before exploding into an incandescent fireball of guitars. Bowie was a Free Tibet supporter for many decades: “Silly Boy Blue” on his first LP deals with it, and although he forgot about all those early songs, he never forgot Tibet.
“I’m Afraid of Americans” is more KMFDM-sounding material, with Bowie using synths the way he used Ronson’s guitars in the past, as riffs for him to emote over. The song was a rare chart hit in the United States. For the last time, they had to be afraid of him.
Although the two sound nothing alike, Earthling was made in the same spirit as Low. “How can I make human musicians sound like robots?” Low achieved this with motorik, synthesizers, layered drums, and Brian Eno. Earthling uses computers. For the first time, Bowie was cut on ones and zeros. Right around the corner were BowieNet, Bowie Bonds, BowieBanc, and all the rest.
Earthling is a fascinating example of an album that doesn’t particularly want to be loved or hated, just remembered. There was nowhere to go from here. How do you follow up excess? Even more excess? Bowie course-corrected after this with the stripped back …hours, landing so hard back on earth with that he buried the record in the ground. His subsequent records tended to be conservative and calculating, carefully doling out “experimentation” one pinch at a time. Earthling is a special moment: the final time Bowie truly went mad in the studio.
1. Outside is a masterpiece, Bowie’s greatest work in fifteen years, and barring a nanotechnological rebirth, will be his greatest work in the remaining sum of human years. (Sadly, I don’t believe Blackstar finishes as well as it began.)
But it’s exhausting. “Heroes” charges you up, this album drains you dry. The occasional pop song (“I Have Not Been to Oxford Town”, “Strangers When We Meet”) falls like a sweet berry between filth-stained cobblestones of industrial metal, avant-garde jazz, spoken-word interludes, and atonal ambiance. Sometimes the music seems to be reaching too far, and I feel I’m becoming lost. But when the next chord change hits, things always fall back into place.
Some parts I still don’t understand: in particular, the album concept. Something about ritualistic human sacrifice, a private detective, and characters called things like Algeria Touchshriek and Leon Blank. References are made to the “world wide Internet”, and Richard Preston’s alarming 1994 nonfiction book The Hot Zone. Something seems to have happened to this world, an event that Bowie won’t allow us to know. We’re peering through the window, guessing. We’re outside.
Maybe there’s not even a single concept. Like Diamond Dogs, Outside is a musical patchwork quilt, assembled from the wrack of a few different projects. In 1994, Q Magazine asked him for a “week in the life” type diary. Bowie felt that his real life wasn’t quite as exiting as they were probably hoping, so he wrote a fake diary by one Nathan Adler (this diary is reprinted in Outside’s liner notes). Two years earlier, he’d re-united with Brian Eno, and attempted to form a kind of avant-garde supergroup (much of their work eventually saw release on the internet as the Leon Suite.)
In addition to Eno, Bowie has his most powerful lineup in years. Carlos Alomar is back (holy shit!), as is Reeve Gabrels, whose rhythm tracks are distorted to near Static-X levels. Mike Garson makes a very welcome appearance – if you liked the middle fifty-five bars of “Aladdin Sane”, Bowie just gives him six kilometers of rope on this album. He just lays down solo after solo, on track after track, shredding Bowie’s chord progressions with hailstorms of chromatic notes.
The internet, or “information superhighway” (as it was ponderously called in 1995) is a big influence here. Outside seems married to it, somehow. Here’s a David Bowie FAQ from 1996 or so: it’s interesting to read Bowie’s fascination with computers (the digital art accompanying the Q Magazine story was created by him, somehow). Soon BowieNet would exist.
Picking out great tracks is hard, but I really like four. They come in groups of two, each positioned next to each other on the tracklisting (ignoring a segue).
“A Small Plot of Land” is aggressive, ear-bleeding jazz, paying tribute to Scott Walker and nearly upstaging him. “Hallo Spaceboy” is an industrial dance experiment that makes “Pallas Athena” sound like “All of the Dudes”. “Thru’ These Architects’ Eyes” riffs of Thomas Aquinas’s idea of God being an architect, and takes the album to new, celestial heights. And closing track “Strangers When We Meet” is powerful, dark, and tuneful. A perfect song to end on.
Some Bowie albums are best without their context. Outside is best with it. It’s flotsam from a confused and turbulent time in human’s history, when zero started to became one. Bowie was much better than average at predicting the future, but here we see him caught up amidst manifesting predictions – society unease and turmoil, and a digital pantokrator set to pave over humanity with silicon wafer. The album was meant to have a sequel, called Inside. This never materialised, but the wheels of time still turn, and soon we will see Inside for itself.
So obscure it hardly exists: The Buddha of Suburbia is a quasi-soundtrack to the BBC serial of the same name, based on a book of the same name, written by an author of not the same name. (He’s called Hanif Kureishi, thankfully. “Mr Buddha of Suburbia, Esquire” would be a bad name – almost as bad as “Zowie”.)
On my first listen, I hated the first song so much that I didn’t listen to the rest for a long time. This was a mistake: “The Buddha of Suburbia” might be adult contemporary glurge, but everything after it is fascinating, and much of it is good.
It’s Bowie’s scrapbook circa 1993, filled with doodles and ends. It’s his most disjointed studio album if you consider it one, the hyped-up penny arcade chiptune of “Dead Against It” is followed by the adventurous world music of “Untitled, No. 1”, which is followed by about six minutes of gentle fuzz and crackling sounds. Some tracks are reworks of the TV show’s music, while others are new. A proper soundtrack to The Buddha of Suburbia still hasn’t surfaced, and probably never will.
The book, from what I remember, was about being a mixed-race Britain, separated from both white and Indian. The songs all exist alone, and can’t be discussed in relation to each other.
“Sex and the Church” is a house track that prefigures Black Tie White Noise. It makes its point – my main problem is that it’s incredibly overlong, and only has about two ideas.
“The Mysteries” is Bowie’s first ambient track since 1981. It sounds similar to Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports, which was created to be both “interesting and ignorable”. An organ builds ominously, like a cloud that never turns to rain. Again, it’s very long, but it’s an intriguing experiment.
“Ian Fish, UK Heir” is an anagram of “Hanif Kureishi”, and it’s an even stranger ambient piece that evokes peaceful unlistenability. Sometimes hints of melodies appear in the suffocating carpet of fuzz.
“Untitled, No. 1” is loaded with exotic instrumentation, and Bowie sings in another made-up language. Why no title? Scott Walker released an album in 1984 called Climate of Hunter where most of the songs had no names, they were just “Track Three” and such. This was intentional, he felt that titles would overbalance the songs like poorly-weighted boats – the listener would focus overmuch on the title instead of the lyrics. There might be a similar logic here, as “Untitled” certainly seems too broad-reaching to be pinned down the way “Warszawa” et al can. Chris O’Leary thinks it’s supposed sound like a painting, which is another credible interpretation.
The standout is “Strangers When We Meet”, although you’d never know if you only heard the Buddha version, where the fluffy production robs it of its power. It appears in a much stronger form on 1. Outside, and I still consider it a track from that album.
The final song is “The Buddha of Suburbia” again with Lenny Kravitz on guitar or something. It continues to suck.