hydraOtep describe themselves as an “artcore collective,” I think that says it all.

It is difficult to talk about this band without becoming sarcastic. I heard some songs on 2009’s Smash the Control Machine, which struck me as activism-obsessed liberal mallcore, heavily influenced by Slipknot and Hed(pe), with an annoying female vocalist. But it was music. When you pressed play, loud noise boomed around the place.

When you press play on this, the only loud noise booming around the place is the sound of your uncontrollable laughter. Hydra is practically a spoken word album. It’s 70 minutes long, with at least 50 of those minutes being angsty mutterings, ambient noise, or silence. What a retarded idea. Who the fuck wants to listen to this?

Finding good songs on STCM required a bit of dumpster diving. On Hydra there are very few songs at all, let alone good ones, so all you can do is enjoy the occasional inspired moment. “Hag” has these Nile-sounding blastbeats. “Blowtorch Nightlight” gets really uptempo and fun in the last 40 seconds. Other tracks like “Seduce and Destroy” have heavy guitars but are just utterly boring and limp along like Captain Ahab and Professor X in a three-legged race.

The rest of the album is just a book on tape with a few fragments of metal riffs and keyboard melodies. Otep Shamaya’s voice is the only consistent factor: it is consistently annoying. Whisper… BLAAARGGHHHHH… whiiiiiine…

In general I’m wary of bands with political or socially conscious lyrics, no matter what those lyrics are. When you have (hypothetically) catchy, entertaining music, write lyrics about Iraq, and fill a thundering stadium with fans…are so you deluded to think that your political views are the reason they bought tickets? Do you think that you’re now the leader of a social movement? Henry Rollins is the classic example of a guy crossing his urine streams in such a way. He keeps trying to reinvent himself as some kind of poet/activist, when all anybody truly cares about is a punk rock album he made thirty years ago.

Otep is a bit behind the eightball (they haven’t made a great album yet) but the principle is the same. In general, the bands that become famous for political lyrics do so because of novelty, not because the lyrics themselves are that compelling. In an ocean of brainless Ramones soundalikes, The Clash’s lyrics stood out. In an ocean of brainless speed metal bands, Metallica’s lyrics stood out. If The Clash or Metallica had submitted their political views to an op-ed piece, they would have sunk without a trace. Even in “seen it all” 2013, it’s not ridiculously common for metal bands to address political issues (I’m talking about actual, in-depth commentary, not “fuck the system!” or “support the troops!”), and when you’ve got a female vegetarian lesbian as the singer of your band, then you have more novelty value than most. But that’s all it is: novelty. If you’re a metal band famous for political lyrics, it’s not your brilliant opinions people are noticing. They notice you because you are like a dog that has learned to walk on its hind legs.

The long-ass closing track “Theophagy” just goes on and on forever, repeating itself like a broken record. Recurrent lyric: “I will rise like a Hydra / from the ash.” I assume she’s talking about a phoenix. The Hydra doesn’t rise from the ash. Fire is how you kill it (or at least Hercules did), so ash is the last place you’d expect a Hydra to rise from. And “Hydra” is a proper noun. It refers to a specific, singular monster. Saying “I will rise like a Hydra” is like saying “I will bike through France with a needle in my butt like a Lance Armstrong.”

If you like this band, get a life.

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ultragashinfernoUltra Gash Inferno is a collection of nine short comics from Japanese mangaka/illustrator Suehiro Maruo.

I highly recommend this book, but you shouldn’t buy it. It’s entertaining and well worth reading…just don’t spend money on it, yes? I do not offer this advice out of concern for your finances. Even if you are rich, you should acquire this book through through other means. Moving on…

There’s two things to review here, the work of Suehiro Maruo and the translation/editing of “James Havoc” and Creation Books. Maruo’s manga are brutal and nasty but very heartfelt and even strangely bathetic. They make you feel things. His characters are usually sweet, vulnerable-looking young people and his calendar seems permanently set in the nostalgic past.

His art is really interesting, there’s not too much I can compare him to except those 17th century Ukiyo-e woodblock prints. Maruo’s is a pure, unalloyed sort of manga, removed from all influences of Walt Disney and western iconography.

People call Maruo a mangaka/illustrator but I really think “illustrator” should come before the slash. Maruo draws manga but he’s more at home with stationary, tableaux-like images. He draws motion poorly, and whenever he tries a more stereotypical manga trick (like speed lines) the result appears artificial and disjointed.

“Putrid Night”, the earliest work on here (1981), is about sixteen year old Sayoko, who is married to a cruel and brutish samurai. He is hinted to have killed his first wife and soon we only feel glad at her fortunate escape, for marriage to this man is hell. Sayoko hatches a plan to kill her husband and escape with a young suitor, but of course, things never work out quite right, and sometimes all you can do is enjoy hell. “Shit Soup” is a gross-out comic, probably inspired by George Bataille, that features people having sex, drinking piss, eating shit, et cetera. Hard to believe that Maruo would just make a throwaway porn comic, I guess he wanted to make some kind of transgressive statement but needed to sex it up a bit before he could find a magazine that would print it. “Voyeur in the Attic” is about a man who witnesses infanticide, and rather than do anything socially responsible he becomes a participant in a dirty game. “Nonresistance City” is a 82 page comic set in post-war Tokyo, and is maybe the most mature and emotionally engaging thing on here.

I am a huge fan of Suehiro Maruo. Unfortunately, there’s a middleman here.

The book was edited by “James Havoc” (a pen name for another author), and he does nothing but fuck up the book. Sound effects aren’t edited into the art, they’re reproduced in awkward looking block text at the bottom of the panels. I wouldn’t mind too much if this was a scanlation, but come on, this is an actual product for sale. Some professionalism, please. The quality of the images looks faded out and weird, like bad quality scans.

Worst of all, he takes it upon himself to “improve” the book with extracts of his trademark “William S Burroughs on even more drugs” prose. “WE ARE BLACK SUNLIGHT, A VORTEX OF ANAL SWEAT IN THE SUCKLING SKY.” Oh, fuck off and leave the book alone. We’re here to read Maruo, not you. This sort of nonsense finds its way into nearly every single comic.

With the annoying editing, and the fact that Maruo likely has never seen a yen from this collection (tip: type “Creation Books” into Google), you’d be stupid to buy this. One hopes more (and better) English-language releases of Maruo’s work will be forthcoming. Treat this as a view into the world of one of Japan’s most provocative artists…however, you must look through a distorted lense.

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shogoThis is Monolith’s innovative but obscure mecha-themed first person shooter from 1998. It’s full of cool stuff, but it isn’t a classic. This is the type of game that comes out, impresses some people, and then just goes away.

I’ve never seen a game so eager to impress. It cavorts like a puppy. It has a strong and stylish anime theme, an complex and detailed story (by the standards of the day, anyway), lots of features, and an early test drive of the flashy Lithtech engine. Shogo does look the part. But soon you realise that the game’s content is not able to match its presentation.

Everything seems…rushed. Unready. Unfinished. There’s definitely a meal here, but it bleeds and squeals when I cut it. The game is a two-part experience. There’s on-foot FPS missions, and mecha missions – which are the same but from the perspective of 50 meters in the air, with you shouldering past buildings like Godzilla, and people running around your feet like little ants. Both parts of the game feel half-completed, as if the designers were trying to do too much and then eventually gave up.

Pour water into any part of the game and it leaks.

Weapons? The game basically gives you the entire arsenal from the start of the game. Unsatisfying. Where’s the thrill of progressing through the game and finding more and more powerful weapons? Imagine Doom if it gave you the plasma gun on the second level and the BFG 9000 on the third.

AI? Hopeless. In mecha mode your robot enemies get stuck going around corners, kill themselves with explosive weapons, etc. On the ground, you progress through hallways, fighting static groups of enemies that stand still even while you blast their friends from just around the corner. There are friendly soldiers that help you from time to time. You can kill them without consequence.

Level design? Not interesting, there’s a level ripped off from Quake where you ride around on wind turbines etc but otherwise it’s your usual series of techbases and “gritty” urban locales where you must flip switches and find keys. I think there was one level where you have to interrupt your quest to save the world to rescue a lady’s pet cat.

Giant robots? Here’s where the game really keels over and fucks itself. This game never makes it feel like you’re riding a hundred ton battle mecha. You can stop on a dime, make huge, floaty jumps, execute impossible mid-air pirouettes – the physics are all wrong, and it destroys the immersion and atmosphere of the game.

Story? Fairly expansive and detailed for an FPS, but it lacks colour and human interest. Shogo’s story feels like Metal Gear Solid’s story retold by an autist or a sociopath. Characters and their motivations are described in plain, anodyne terms (such and such is the brother of so and so, who is the girlfriend of who and who). The anime theme seemed cool in 1998 but these days you’d be better off playing anything from the later Touhou games to Viewtiful Joe. In general, the largeness and outlandishness of anime is missing. Monolith has copied the words but they don’t seem to hear the music.

It didn’t help that Shogo was released at just the wrong time. Half Life caused better games than Shogo to be forgotten.

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