12.31.2008

Squeeze, PLAY

Squeeze was one of the leaders of the '80s new wave music movement -- but how about their music in the '90s? The Squeeze album Play (get it? "Squeeze play?" yeah, forced cleverness, like the play in the inside notes) is an alright album, consistently pleasant but seldom outstanding.

Anyone who's heard Squeeze before will recognize both Glenn Tilbrook's voice and the music from the rest of the band. Play is pretty mellow, never cutting loose but also seldom allowing its slower songs to resist becoming upbeat pop; the exception is "Walk a Straight Line," my favorite song off the album.

Play suffers from some frequently stupid lyrics ("The truth is not my middle name," "Her nails were long and sharp/but she didn't play the harp") and music that sounds like it's all auditioning for top 40 radio. Play is out of print; I didn't mind picking up my used copy, but I won't be listening to it often either.

Overall grade: C

Reviewed by James Lynch

Blood - Michael Moorcock (1994)

Michael Moorcock is one of the three most influential fantasy writers of the last fifty or sixty years: Tolkien created the Epic Fantasy as we know it; Robert E. Howard gave us Conan and the archetypal barbarian; and Moorcock gave us Elric of Melniboné and defined the anti-hero. He proceeded to write a vast number of books, most of which are part of a giant, over-arching shared mythology. The upside of this is that there is a great deal of depth and texture to the various books and characters as each informs the other. The downside is that some of the books tend to blur together a bit when the parallels and similarities swamp the differences. Blood has most of the upside with little of the downside.

Jack Karaquazian, a gambler in a decaying alternate Earth slowly being eaten both literally and figuratively by Chaos, loses his lady love across the multiverse after making an error of judgement that resulted in the death and maiming of some innocents. He spends the rest of the book seeking first redemption in his own eyes and then his lady love in the dimension to which she had retreated. If you are a Moorcock fan, the common themes and ideas are already apparent to you - a flawed protaganist, harm to the innocents causing an existential crisis, and, of course, the conflict between Law and Chaos.

Moorcock is a beautiful writer. His prose is lucid and his imagery beautiful. In this book it is perhaps a bit more surreal and psychedelic than in many of his works, which lends it an uncommon lustre. Structurally the book alternates between Jack's story and the pulp adventures of the "Corsairs of the Second Ether." The two stories, seemingly unrelated, slowly but inevitable begin to merge. As they do, a meditation on the nature of narrative itself unfolds as fiction merges with fiction-within-fiction, as reality-as-defined-in-the-book collides with fiction-as-defined-within-the-book, books within books ...

(In an odd synchroncity, these are some of the same themes explored in Zeitgeist which I recently reviewed here.)

While not Moorcock's absolute best work, Blood is a fine book. Although part of a series, it stands alone and would serve as a decent introduction to those unfamiliar with Moorcock's work. (Although, tracking down the first Elric book would be even better.) For those who are familiar with Moorcock, Blood makes a fine addition to one's library.

Overall Grade: B+

12.30.2008

She & Him, Volume One (Merge Records, 2008)


"She" is actress Zooey Deschanel, a rising star in Hollywood currently serving as the female lead in Yes Man. "Him" is M. Ward, a multi-instrumentallist and producer from Portland, Oregon. Together, She & Him have released an album called Volume One which, according to the good people at Paste Magazine, was chosen as this year's best album.

Of the thirteen songs on Volume One, nine were written by Deschanel and one was co-written by her. I'd describe Deschanel's songwriting style as being one part Carole King, one part Patsy Cline, and several parts sixties girl groups. It's rare for established movie stars to successfully pull off a side career in music (i.e., do something that's actually good), and it's even rarer when they succeed as songwriters to the degree that Deschanel does on this album. If this were the mid-sixties she'd be a highly regarded hit maker, with charming pop songs like "This Is Not a Test," "I Was Made for You," and "Sweet Darlin'." The catch, though, is that her vocals aren't really all that strong, especially on the ballads. The album's one really good vocal performance comes, ironically, on a cover of Smokey Robinson's "You Really Got a Hold on Me."

While Volume One is generally categorized as alternative or "indie," there's not actually anything about the sound of the album that's cutting edge. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course, and if you're a big fan of sixties pop music you'll probably like this album a lot. But I'm starting to notice a significant trend among indie performers to go retro, whether they're making albums like this one or the one I just reviewed by The Submarines, or engaging in the more extreme act of covering an entire album like Meet the Smithereens! did last year. This trend has some strengths and weaknesses. On one hand, some old styles still have plenty to offer, as She & Him show on this album. Many older songs are also worth preserving and bringing back to people's attention; I'll be talking about this more when I review (hopefully in a day or two) Dion's latest album. A good song is a good song, after all, regardless of how old the song or the style may be.

On the other hand, I'm a bit leery of showering too much of a reward on something that's not really original. Volume One has some fun songs, and something tells me we're going to be hearing a lot from Zooey Deschanel on multiple fronts over the next few years if not beyond. But I wouldn't call the album a revelation, either, just a nice record featuring an emerging performer with a broad range of talents.

Overall grade: B+


reviewed by Scott

for the video of "Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?," click here.

The Submarines, Honeysuckle Weeks (Nettwerk, 2008)


Originally from Boston but currently living in Los Angeles, The Submarines are a duo consisting of John Dragonetti and Blake Hazard. Honeysuckle Weeks is their second album. With the exception of the occasional use of a string quartet, Honeysuckle Weeks is an entirely homemade record, with Dragonetti and Hazard playing all the instruments. The resulting no-frills feel of the record generally works, although the album suffers a bit from the absence of an accomplished drummer.

Blake Hazard does most of the singing. Her voice reminds me of The Cardigans' Nina Persson, especially on the sunny, 60's-inspired pop songs that make up most of the album. Dragonetti provides an effective change of pace on the three songs he sings, especially "The Wake Up Song."

The album's single and standout track is called "You, Me, and the Bourgeoisie." This song cleverly mixes modern alternative rock with the Pet Sounds era sound of The Beach Boys. At first glance the lyrics might seem a bit flowery -- "everyday I wake up, I choose love, I choose light" -- but the song quickly turns into a commentary on how we surround ourselves with countless amusements but not with enough things that are truly meaningful. (Somewhat ironically, the song has gotten significant exposure from its use in a commercial for the iPhone 3G.) It's also the one track on the album where the percussion is really creative enough to enhance the song.

Honeysuckle Weeks boasts a couple of good songs, with the rest of the album being at least pleasant. The Submarines' music is readily accessible pop with a sixties retro feel. Dragonetti and Hazard probably need to bring in a full-time drummer to get their sound to the next level, though.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott

"You, Me, and the Bourgeoisie"

12.27.2008

Danielia Cotton, Rare Child (Adrenaline Records, 2008)


Hopewell, New Jersey native Danielia Cotton was something of a rare child even when growing up. For whatever reason, black girls listening to bands like Led Zeppelin and AC/DC just aren't all that common. Cotton was also raised on the jazz and gospel that her mother sang, so when she started singing herself, mixing styles came naturally. Eventually she started singing professionally, and Rare Child is her second album.

Rare Child combines R&B and soul with muscular hard rock. Cotton channels Mavis Staples and Janis Joplin with equal enthusiasm, and while she plays primarily acoustic guitar herself, the rests of her band plugs in and cranks it up. The album has two real standout tracks. The first is the single "Bang My Drum," an anthemic rocker about being independent and true to yourself. The other is the title track. Like "Bang My Drum," "Rare Child" is a celebration of free spirits, although musically it is much more aggressive. The crunchy guitar on that song makes for some of the best pure rock I've heard in a while.

While those two songs dominate the record, the rest of Rare Child is at least decent. I'm a bit worried, though, that Danielia Cotton will suffer a similar fate that the stylistically similar Roachford has faced for the past twenty years, in that she doesn't fit comfortably enough into any specific radio format and as a result won't get airplay. This would be a shame, as Cotton is a solid rocker with a great voice, and she appears to have much to offer.

Overall grade: A-

reviewed by Scott

"Bang My Drum"

12.26.2008

The Born Again Floozies, Street Music (Triple R Records, 2008)


At about this time last year, I reviewed 7 Deadly Sinners, the debut CD from the eccentric Indianapolis group The Born Again Floozies. With a rhythm section consisting of tap dancers and a tuba, and Joey Welch's uniquely offbeat style of songwriting, I wasn't certain if they could achieve more than novelty status. However, with their strong follow-up album Street Music (13 Rebellions and a Song of Consolation), the band demonstrates enough substance and depth to indicate that they have plenty of staying power.

The basic framework of the band hasn't changed any. Welch still fronts the band and plays his guitar with same percussive style that characterized the last album. The current line-up sports a new tuba player and only one tap dancer, but the changes don't result in a noticeable difference in the style. What has changed is that Welch is quite a bit more pissed off this time around. He has a big time axe to grind, and his lyrics and playing have gotten considerably edgier. On the opening song "We Got The Power (Love Letter from America)," for example, he sings "We got the guns to manufacture truth; we got the shot to quell our own youth." Indeed, the whole album is series of songs of defiance against the attempts of the powers that be to corporatize and homogenize everything and everyone.

You could cram as much quirkiness as possible onto one album, but you would still need some good songs to make it work. Happily, Joey Welch delivers the goods, to a such degree that he's vaulted himself into the highest tier of songwriters in today's music scene. The lyrics hit their mark repeatedly. The band makes the music work as well, whether they aim for funk ("Dumb It Down Now!"), a subtly insistent groove ("Beulah, You Rock"), or swing ("Dirt Cheap Suit").

Street Music contains 44 minutes of defiance, irreverence, and most importantly, fun. Hopefully The Born Again Floozies will keep flying their freak flag high for some time to come.

Overall grade: A


reviewed by Scott


"Beulah, You Rock"

12.22.2008

THE GREAT SPACE RACE

It's time for the universe's most popular sporting event! The contestants have been picked from the most inept species in the galaxy, and the winner gets to have their species not wiped out. This is the premise of The Great Space Race, an insanely fun racing game from the good folks at Kenzer & Company.

The board consists of an oval track of six-sided hexes, with a bright blue border on the inside and outside forming an imprnetrable barrier to the ships. Each player gets a small plastic ship on the board, and the first player to complete three laps wins.
There's a lot more to each ship, though (as the picture here demonstrates). Each player's ship card has: dials for shield strength (1 to 10 points), hull points (1 to six points) and speed (starting at 1, up to 5); two Bays to keep equipment; spaces for command counters (which let you draw more cards, avoid an impact, turn one facing, or rearrange your cards) and mines; each ship's unique ability; and, most important, five slots for actions.

The faster a player goes, the more cards they draw and the more cards they can play. (A player's speed equals the number of slots they fill each turn.) All players play cards face down, and they are revealed in order each turn. Most cards are movement cards, showing how a player's ship moves (sometimes with optional turning or direction) and whether or not they can drop a mine; players can also place Maintenance cards, letting them draw an Equipment card and use it.
Speed has its price: crashing! The faster you go, the more likely you are to hit something: mines, planetoids, other players. Especially other players: With relatively few weapons, you'll do most damage to other players by ramming them -- and that makes them drop speed and lose cards, plus go off their course! If you miss, though, you'll be in front of them, giving them the chance to ram you.
Then there are events. Resolved before movement, events tend to be bad -- and major events tend to be very bad. Players may lose their equipment or have their speed reduced to 1. A giant amoeba or acid cloud may wander looking for ships to attack. And the dreaded Black Hole requires a substantial amount of maneuvering to pass by.
I've played racing games with no combat and racing games that have almost nothing but combat, and The Great Space Race combines the best of both these worlds. It's great to smash into another ship, or drop a mine directly in their path, but you're far more likely to win by going the fastest than through combat. (In the last game I played, no player lost their ship.) Much like Roborally, The Great Space Race has players planing their movement at the start of their turn -- and sometimes paying for it when unforseen obstacles appear. (Most players use their command counters to turn, avoiding walls or other onstacles.) Maintenance cards are a gamble, as they can give you something very useful or quite useless -- but you'll be sititng still for a turn while installing it.
The Great Space Race has what I'd call a medium level of difficulty, and each game takes 2-3 hours to play. It's very worth it: This is a balanced game with a near-perfect blend of strategy and luck. It's cutthroat, it's fun, and win or lose, you'll have a great time! Though your species may not think so if you lose...
Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch

Jim's Cure for the Common Carol

I must confess: I've never been a fan of Christmas carols. Many are played ad nauseum, most are intensely sappy, and from November on, they're fairly omnipresent. Bring me the head of Dominick the Christmas Donkey!

Ahem. Anyway, while I don't particularly enjoy this branch of music, I do love a variety of music -- and many of my favorite artists have both tackled traditional tunes and come up with their own original songs. And so, many years, ago, I made a mix cd called The Cure for the Common Carol, my alternative music collection for a stereotypical time of year. There have been countless Christmas albums since I made my mix, but I believe it holds up very well. If you can find these songs, enjoy!

James Lynch

* * *

The Cure for the Common Carol

The Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack: What's This?
The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl: Fairytale of New York
Kate Bush: December Will Be Magic Again
Aimee Mann and Michael Penn: Christmastime
The Arrogant Worms: Santa's Gonna Kick Your Ass
Fountains of Wayne: I Want an Alien for Christmas
Graham Parker: Christmas Is for Mugs
Enya: Oiche Chiun (Silent Night)
Syd Straw: Christmas Twist
Blink-182: I Won't Be Home for Christmas
South Park: Christmastime in Hell
Robert Downey, Jr.: River
Dar Williams: The Christians and the Pagans
The Kinks: Father Christmas
"Weird Al" Yankovic: Christmas at Ground Zero
The Pretenders: 2000 Miles
XTC: Thanks for Christmas
John Wesley Harding: Talking Christmas Goodwill Blues
Frank Zappa: Don't Eat the Yellow Snow
Cocteau Twins: Frosty the Snowman
John Wesley Harding: When Southern Bells Ring (Here Comes XMas)
Shawn Colvin: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Týr, Land (Napalm Records, 2008)


A couple of months ago I reviewed the 2006 album Ragnarok, by the band Týr. Hailing from the remote Faroe Islands in the northeastern corner of the Atlantic Ocean, Heri Joensen (guitar and vocals), Terji Skibenæs (guitar), Gunnar H. Thomsen (bass), and Kári Streymoy (drums) combine heavy metal with the Celtic and Nordic musical traditions that shaped the culture of their homelands. The band just released a new album called Land. Like Ragnarok, Land is a concept album; the songs this time around relate tales of voyages across the sea.

Land begins rather ominously, with a Faroese lyric composed by the Islands' most famous poet, J. H. O. Djurhuus. The poem is actually a spell, cast by the sorceror Trond to protect the Faroe Islands and their pagan culture against Norse invaders intent on Christianizing the Islands. The leader of this force, a Faroese native named Sigmund, is an actual historical figure. The poem is recited over a traditional Faroese tune played not by the band, but by a string quartet. Faroese tunes like this one mash the Nordic and Celtic influences together, resulting in a style that sounds somewhat familiar yet is very complex rhythmically. The band kicks in after the poem is done, turning the Faroese melody into a heavy metal riff that becomes the dominant musical theme on the album.

The subsequent songs on the album follow the lead of the opening piece. Voyagers from places like Scotland and Norway and from many different historical moments cross paths with the Faroese people. Sometimes the voyages involve a confrontation, and sometimes the voyages involve an escape from hardship and the quest for a new life elsewhere. More songs on Land are sung in Faroese than there were on Ragnarok, which was sung mostly in English. The lyrics borrow heavily from Faroese poems and legends, and also from a Norwegian poem written by Edvard Storm in the eighteenth century called "Sinklars Vísa (The Ballad of Sinclair)." Featuring some excellent group vocals, this particular song recalls the brutal ambush of an army of Scottish mercenaries who were hired by the Danes to fight the Norwegians. The two songs mostly in English, "Ocean" and "Land," are both epic pieces lasting over ten minutes.

While I don't think the underlying concept was quite as effective on Land as it was on Ragnarok, the album is still solid. Joensen's vocals are strong throughout, and the group harmonies were particularly well done. Týr's musical prowess should not be overlooked, either. Coupling the complexities of their homeland's traditional music with the volume and speed you'd expect from a heavy metal record is not an easy task. Týr are one of the most consistently fascinating bands that I'm aware of, and I look forward to hearing what they do next.

Land also contains a concert DVD filmed at a performance in 2007. The vocals weren't quite as tight live as they were on record, but otherwise the DVD is a fun bonus.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott


"Sinklars Visa"

12.18.2008

THE HILLS RISE WILD!

H.P. Lovecraft may have created cosmic horrors and eldritch tomes, but he also enjoyed the backwoods, inbred families hidden deep withinm the woods, developing far away from civilization. This latter element is the subject of The Hills Rise Wild! , a game from Pagan Publishing where players try to snatch the Necronomicon and and summon their evil god -- or destroy their opponents in the process.


Each player controls six members of an evil faction: the Marsh clan, the Whateley Clan, the DeGhoule Clan, or the Cult of Ezekiel . The characters are represented with small cardboard counters, and players have sheets with each character's stats (attack and defensive bonuses, life, movement, sometimes ammo), abilities, and special abilities that can be used once per game.

All factions are after the Necronomicon, left behind when Old Wizard Whateley died. The board, made up of individual tiles, has 12 shacks, the Whateley Mansion (with four rooms), and assorted trees and terrain. Each shack and room of the Whateley Mansion has a mystery card: Some are items, some are events, and they can help or hurt the characters. When a player finds and picks up Thuh Great Whateley Seal from a shack, they can unlock the Whateley Mansion (for all players). When a player inside the Mansion finds the card Ah Found Thuh Necronomicon, that player can bring it back to their home tile and try and summon their god, thus winning the game.

That's the theory, anyway. In practice, combat often determines the winner. Each turn after a player moves their characters they can attack -- and they will! After calculating such factors as range, facing, attack and defense bonuses, and if a character is stunned, slammed, or unconscious, the attacker rolls a 20-sided die, to see if they hit and, if they do, for damage. While players can take several hits before dying, it's not uncommon for a vulnerable character to get ganged up on; and the Brutal Damage Table is very aptly named.

The Hills Rise Wild! may seem atypical for a work based on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, but it's actually in keeping with Lovecraft's mythos. There is plenty of humor in this game, which is plenty dark (such as the tokens showing the characters that got killed) and good for quite a few laughs. Gameplay works very well: The combat system is easy to follow, the factions are all unique but well balanced, and while sometimes The Hills Rise Wild! can degenerate into a slugfest, wise players can use strategy to have one character make a mad dash to their home tile while the other characters run interference.
The front cover of The Hills Rise Wild! describes it as "a frenzied fury of hillbilly horror!" and that summarizes this silly, gory, and extremely fun game very well. Sadly, the expansion The Re-Animated never got released -- but that's my only complaint with The Hills Rise Wild! If you want a great combat game that also captures a lighter side of H.P. Lovecraft, find a copy of The Hills Rise Wild!
Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch

12.16.2008

Zeitgeist - Bruce Sterling (2000)


The best science fiction books sometimes seem prescient, such as the moment in Zeitgeist where Bruce Sterling name checks Osama bin Laden. In a book published in 2000. (Not that he's predicting 9/11 or anything, but it's still jarring to read and it made me double check the publication date.) Zeitgeist is full of odd little moments like that as the narrative careens across the world, mostly in Turkey and Hawaii but with sidetrips through Mexico and the US Southwest. The book is a complex, slightly hallucinatory, and obscure meditation on the nature of life and history as understood by the twentieth century on the eve of Y2K. It works surprisingly well given what sounds at first blush like an unwieldy premise.

Our protagonist, Leggy Starlitz, is running a scam in Turkey, pushing a Spice Girls ripoff called G-7. Step by step, Sterling shifts his setting from what seems to be a rather tawdry part of the real world, into an even more tawdry alternative history. Things get stranger in minute increments and it's hard to tell exactly where reality runs off the rails. It reads like a caper novel on acid. French philosophy starts to make an appearance along with discussions about the consensual nature of reality and the lack of any objective reality.

In many ways, the book is sort of a hard science version of Jasper Fford's "Bookworld" series (one of which I reviewed here), asking questions about the nature of reality and fiction. "History is written by the winners" is not just a pithy aphorism in this book, it's literal truth.

As usual, Sterling writes well and manages to pack these ideas into a rollicking good read. Zeitgeist is one of his best books, pulling you seductively into a world which is just not quite right ...

Overall Grade: A-

12.13.2008

The Raconteurs Consolers of the Lonely (Third Man Records, 2008)


The Raconteurs are something of anomaly in rock music in the sense that the band is a side project for its four members. The most famous Raconteur is Jack White, the singer, guitarist, and occasional keyboardist for The White Stripes. But the other members have separate careers as well; Brendan Benson (vocals, guitar, keyboards) has made several solo albums, and Jack Lawrence (bass) and Patrick Keeler (drums) are part of a band called The Greenhornes. Consolers of the Lonely is The Raconteurs' second album.

Jack White may have built his reputation on creating a sound that's even more minimalist than punk -- The White Stripes are basically a power trio minus the bass player -- but with The Raconteurs he settles comfortably into a more standard two guitar, bass, and drums configuration. He and Benson share the vocals throughout the disc. This is a good thing in my estimation, as I've never considered White's voice to be a selling point. The sound on Consolers of the Lonely leans heavily towards anthemic classic rock, with a few loud rave-ups thrown in for good measure. Several of the songs, most notably "The Switch and the Spur," feature dramatic shifts in the mood part of the way in.

I sort of have mixed feelings about Consolers of the Lonely on the whole. On one hand, it sounds like the kind of album that would have become a staple of classic rock radio had it been made thirty or more years ago. On the other hand, I think their general approach sounds a little bit dated now. I like my share of bands with something of a retro sound, like The Soundtrack of Our Lives for example. But that particular band is more melodic than The Raconteurs, with a bit more emphasis on musicality and less on volume, and I guess that's why they sound fresher to me.

Overall grade: B-

reviewed by Scott

"Salute Your Solution"

12.12.2008

BETTIE PAGE 1923-2008

Bettie Page, possibly America's most famous pin-up model, passed away this week.

Page began posing for photos in the 1940s, and by the 1950s her image was omnipresent. She posed in swimsuits, did fashion photography, became infamous for her bondage and s&m photos, and appeared in the then-young magazine Playboy.

Page retired from modeling in the 1950s, but she enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the 1980s. She was often painted by brillinant cheesecake artist Olivia De Berardinis, and there was a movie made about her life: The Notorious Bettie Page, with Gretchen Mol portraying the famous model.

Bettie Page was as famous as Marilyn Monroe, and it's been suggested that Page helped usher in the sexual revolution of the 1960s. She will be missed.
James Lynch

12.09.2008

The Wilk Are Among Us - Isidore Haiblum (1975)



The Wilk Are Among Us is the rather misleading, but funny and eye-catching, title of this rather eccentric but charming book by Isidore Haiblum. The "wilk" are just one of five different alien species that have members stranded on Earth by a bizarre "transmitter malfuction." One of them, the tentacled Leonard, must try to save the planet from the terrible threat of the "wilk," which look like humans, the "nill," and their fearsome mind control powers, the "hunter," with its ability to inflame violence in others, and a mysterious hairy being that no one can identify. Leonard takes on the shape of a wilk-like human and sets off to save the world. The problem is, or rather, one of the problems is, that Leonard's not a solider or even a good field agent, he's a sociologist.

The story plays out with a variety of action-adventure or spy-thriller scenes, with a veneer of science-fiction and some gently funny social commentary mixed in. Fish-out-of-water Leonard faces aliens on Earth and beauracrats with office politics back at "home base." And, of course, humand are disgusting to look at, which doesn't help.

Leonard is a very engaging character, an outer-space nebbishy type, doing what he can while griping about it the whole time. The writing is fast-paced, as is the story, and the whole book just whirls right along. It's not great literature, but it's certainly a pleasant enough way to spend a couple of hours.

Overall Grade: B

The Müller-Fokker Effect - John Sladek (1971)


Satire is a tricky business, and it tends not to age well. Some satire, like Dr. Strangelove or M.A.S.H., transcends the genre in some sense and remains enjoyable far beyond the usual satirical sell-by date. Most however starts to look dated pretty quickly, as soon as the social situation that is being commented on changes, and while it can be interesting as a period piece it is no longer the biting comedic tour de force that it once was. Such is the case of The Müller-Fokker Effect.

Don't get me wrong, there are parts of the book that I like pretty well and parts that remain funny nearly forty years after it was published, but the structure and episodes simply haven't worn well. The book is attempting to be a zany, spinning out of control, over-the-top weirdness fest, like some of Terry Southern's work in the same time period (such as The Magic Christian), with darkly comic elements like you find in some Vonnegut or Jules Feiffer, but the set pieces just don't hold up.

The plot, in short, is that an attempt is being made to digitize a human being, but the tapes containing the encoding are lost and dispersed. A variety of factions go hunting for them, but that's merely the mcguffin to allow a variety of eccentric characters to run all over the place engaging in bizarre behaviour. The book ultimately ends in more-or-less full blown race war.

Sladek is good writer, and some of his later work, books and stories not quite so pointedly satiric in tone, are still engaging and worth reading. The Müller-Fokker Effect, however, is only for completists or students of the time.

Overall Grade: D

12.07.2008

BATMAN: THE COMPLETE 1943 MOVIE SERIAL


Before Batman's cape and cowl were donned by Christian Bale, Michael Keaton, or even Adam West, he was played Lewis Wislon. Batman: The Complete 1943 Movie Serial Collection gathers this 1943 World War 2 series that first gave us a live-action Batman.

This series has Batman/Bruce Wayne (Lewis Wilson) and his young sidekick Robin/Dick Grayson (Douglas Croft) fighting the minions of the evil Japanese villain Dr. Tito Daka (J. Carroll Naish), who uses everything from a radium-powered death ray to hypnotized super-strong victims. There's also Linda Page (Shirley Patterson) as Bruce Wayne's love interest, Martin Warren (Gus Glassmire) as Linda's uncle and early victim of Daka, and Alfred (William Austin) as a wimpy, "comical" butler to Batman and Robin.

Even if you attribute the omnipresent racism of this series to the time it was made (you'll be hard-pressed to find a more offensive stereotype of the Japanese than Dr. Daka), there are numerous other problems with this Batman serial collection. The budget was so low that Batman and Robon's costumes look like they were made of felt, the "Bat's Cave" (yes, that's what they call it) is a cave with a desk in it, and the "Batmobile" is a normal car, with Alfred driving it. Worse, the fight sequences are repetitive, with Batman and Robin punching out the same thugs repeatedly, while getting beat up by the same thugs. And remember the movie Misery where Annie complained that she hated cliffhangers where a hero would be in peril at the end of an episode, then the next episode would add a scene showing why they weren't in peril? That happens in every episode here! Also, why is the government giving Bruce Wayne top-secret assignments? Does the government know Batman's secret identity?


Batman: The Complete 1943 Movie Serial Collection has a few good touches -- Batman assuming the disguise of gangster Chuck White, foreshadowing his "Mathces" Malone disguise; Dr. Daka speculating that there are multiple Batmen since he keeps escaping death -- but overall it's more painful that entertaining. Fans of the Batman character might be curious to see this earliest live version of the Caped Crusader, but you'll be more entertained with the Tim Burton films, Batman: The Dark Knight, or even Batman: The Animated Series. This version is far too clunky, dopey, and repetitive.




Overall grade: F
Reviewed by James Lynch



12.06.2008

Ljova and the Kontraband, Mnemosyne (Kapustnik Records, 2008)


The violist Ljova first came to my attention when he joined the superb Brooklyn-based gypsy band Romashka a few years ago. Although I know him from folk circles, Ljova's musical background is extremely diverse; the list of performers he's worked with includes both Yo-Yo Ma and Jay-Z. I was actually the first person to publish a review of Ljova's debut CD Vjola: World on Four Strings. That album featured Ljova, almost exclusively, multi-tracking several different viola parts for each tune. On his new album Mnemosyne, though, Ljova works with a backing group called the Kontraband, featuring Patrick Farrell on accordion, Mike Savino on bass, and Matthias Kunzli on percussion. A couple of tracks also feature vocals from his wife, Romashka's singer Inna Barmash.

As with his first album, Ljova composed all the music himself. The tunes on Vjola: World on Four Strings alternated between folk music of a mostly eastern European feel and darker, more impressionistic pieces. The tunes on Mnemosyne are generally more consistently structured, although a few of them include a breakdown in the rhythm and melody to allow for Ljova and Farrell to do some heavy experimentation. Ljova displays some serious skill as both a composer and player throughout the disc, but he definitely has a playful side as well. Often this side manifests itself in the tune titles -- my two favorite instrumentals on the disc are called "Love Potion, Expired" and "Crutchahoy Nign"-- but the music itself often unpredictably bounces off on some fun tangents.

Inna Barmash is comfortable singing in a number of different languages, to the extent that it was a bit surprising at first to hear her sing in English on two of her three songs. But she does a particularly good job on the song "Mnemosyne," a poem by Trumbull Stickney that Ljova set to music. She sings in Yiddish on the traditional Yiddish song called "Koyl." Her last song, the very tongue-in-cheek love song "Gone Crazy," was written for her by Ljova and done in the style of an American mid-1900's standard.

Ljova is a unique and intriguing performer, and Mnemosyne is another broad exploration of the many facets of his personality in general and his musical tastes in particular. As was the case with his first offering, the new album is so diverse that it may be hard for one person to like everything on it. But any music fan will probably find at least a few tracks that pique their interest.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

Ljova and an early version of the Kontraband performing "Bagel on the Malecon" at Joe's Pub in Manhattan.


Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright 2009 The Green Man Review

12.05.2008

Kouon Frouva, Askel Astuttavaksi (Lempilevyt, 2007)


When I was up at the Maine Kantele Institute in August, guitarist Topi Korhonen introduced me to a whole bunch of music from the current Finnish folk scene, including several bands which he's involved with. One such band is Kouon Frouva. In addition to Topi, the band also includes Värttinä's Lassi Logrén on fiddle, Jarmo Romppanen on mandolin and mandola, Jani Snellman on bass, and Silvo Vatanen on flute. Their album is called Askel Astuttavaksi, which means "step by step" in Finnish. Jarmo Romppanen handles most of the songwriting, but Korhonen and Logrén share the vocals with him.

This album is a bit unusual for a Scandinavian folk recording, in that there's a heavy emphasis on male group vocals. You might think that the masculine voices would result in a more aggressive sound than is typical for Finnish folk, but in fact the opposite is true. In contrast to the high, harsh harmonizing of a band like Värttinä, Kouon Frouva is laid back, subdued, and jazzy in a mellow sort of way. The voices blend together nicely and pleasantly throughout. Likewise, the musicians are all solid players as well. There's some especially nice interplay between the guitar and mandola on "Olet Sankari," for example, but I'm partial to that sort of thing.

Askel Astuttavaksi
does not have a real standout track, but the whole album has a really cool groove to it. While the mellowness might take some getting used to, this is definitely the kind of album that grows on you with repeated listenings.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott


Twilight (Summit Entertainment, 2008)


The movie Twilight, based on a novel by Stephenie Meyer, tells the story of a teenage girl named Bella and a vampire, Edward, who fall for each other. Kristen Stewart (Panic Room) stars as Bella and Robert Pattingson (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) as the Jim-Stark-esque bloodsucker.

Clearly, the leads are invested in doing a good job and yield earnest performances. Their portrayals walk the difficult line between "brooding" and appearing to be falling in love. Bella's friends from high school complement the leads with their perkiness, particularly Eric (Justin Chon) and Jessica (Anna Kendrick). Although romance is at the film's center, action arises in the form of a sports game as well as in the form of a fight sequence, the latter as Edward and his family rally to protect Bella from a vicious, out-of-town vampire. The scenery is terrific; highlights include forests of the Pacific Northwest and stately, 70-year-old Kalama High School, moodily captured on overcast days.

On the down side, there are some plot holes. For example, Edward uses his secret superpowers to save Bella from being crushed by a car in view of numerous kids, yet no one besides Bella becomes curious. Later in the film, after Edward's family thoughtfully prepares a meal for Bella on the occasion of formally meeting her, she declines because she already ate. Surely a hopelessly lovestruck gal would compromise to show some appreciation -- maybe have a salad and samples. Of course, some reason was needed for the one family member who's skeptical of the liaison to "snap" and voice her disapproval, but that could've been woven in more skillfully. And, during the fight sequence, Bella is seriously injured: hit, bitten, sent careering over jagged shards of broken mirror. Shortly after, we see her hospitalized but not visibly much worse for the wear. In the most obvious sense, that would suggest she's superhuman like Edward (but I gather that's not the case). In at least these three spots, the plot could've been tightened up.

Despite the parts that ring false, these in my estimation seem "innocent" enough not to detract that much from the overall picture. The earnest lead performances are what's most obvious, and if you allow yourself to go with them you may have a li'l harmless vampire fun.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by David Nofer

12.03.2008

VICTORIA'S SECRET 2009 FASHION SHOW

Tonight, December 3rtd, is the Victoria's Secret 2009 Fashion Show. I doubt there's anything I can say about this one when I wrote about last year's special here (except the featured singer is Usher), but since that means more hot women strutting their stuff down a catwalk in designer lingerie, truly repetition can be a good thing.

But why tell when I can show? Since lingerie is better seen than discussed, here are several photos from the show. What else can I say, but...

Enjoy!

James Lynch




























A Trio of Tales from Creeping Hemlock Press

I recently received three publications from Creeping Hemlock Press. These tales were dark, disturbing, fairly brief, and pretty original.

The Shallow End of the Pool by Adam-Troy Castro may be the most extreme example of parents hashing out their differences through their kids. When two parents split up, the father took and raised their daughter Jenny and the mother did the same for Ethan. But the children were raised, trained, and even medicated to destroy each other. When the kids are 16, their parents (who Jenny only calls "Daddy" and "the Bitch") take them to the desert, bind their arms behind them and gag them, seal them in an empty swimming pool (the top covered with a wire fence), and leave them to kill each other.

This 56-page tale is very brutal and surprisingly involving. Everything is told from Jenny's point of view, and she is both aware what her parents are doing to them while still struggling to please her father. The Shallow End of the Pool pulls no punches, leaving the reader feeling sickened, shocked, and having experienced something very, very original.

The other two short stories (called "chapbooks" by Creeping Hemlock Press) are two tales of zombies. Thin Them Out, written by Kim Paffenroth, R.J. Sevin, and Julie Sevin, looks at the aftermath of the aftermath of the zombie invasion from two sides. Human survivors battle against zombies and -- as so often happens in these tales -- each other. Alternating with their plight is a nameless zombie who wanders while flashes of his former life pop in and out of his head. This is a pretty grim story, though there is some some gallows humor (the zombie uses a hole in his chest to carry some items) .

The third tale is Flesh Is Fleeting... Art Is Forever! by Gary A. Braunbeck. Pretty much straight comedy (with some gore tossed in), this tale is a parody of pretentiousness. Written as a review in the "Arts and Entertainment" section by a Wendell Shakelton-Bailey III, this story is a snob's take on the first post-apocalyptic zombie classical music concert. There's little subtlety here -- the subtitle is "Some Bullshit Will Continue Even After the Dead Wipe Us Out" -- but there are plenty of chuckles as the critic looks down his nose at everyone "common" and revels at the ingenuity of the decomposing orchestra.

Overall grades:

The Shallow End of the Pool: A-
Thin Them Out: B-
Flesh Is Fleeting... Art Is Forever! B

Reviewed by James Lynch

11.28.2008

LET THE RIGHT ONE IN

Growing up can be a challenge -- and having a vampire next door certainly doesn't make it any simpler. The Swedish horror-drama Let the Right One In goes beyond the usual vampire motifs to explore the violence, loneliness, and neediness of growing up.

Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) has it rough. A pale, skinny 12-year-old boy, Oskar is bullied at school constantly. He shows an interest in groesome news stories and practices stabbing with a small knife. Things change for Oskar with the arrival of Eli (Lina Leandersson), a cute girl who moves into the apartment next door. While initially shy, she and Oskar soon become friends.

But Eli and her father are far from normal. Eli only shows up at night, stands in the snow without a jacket (or shoes), and has the window of her room covered up with a poster. Further, her father has been attacking people, hanging them upside down, and draining their blood into a plastic container. You don't need to have seen too many horror movies to know the truth about Eli.

To its credit, Let the Right One In takes the vampire tale in an atypical direction. While there the usual vampiric elements -- skin smoking when exposed to sunlight, throats being attacked, a creature scampering up a wall -- the movie centers more on Oskar and how his relationship with Eli affects him as a person. Kare displays a disarming vulnerability as the perpetual target of the stronger kids, while Eli strikes an oddly appropriate right note as the cold creature who nevertheless becomes Eli's only friend -- without losing her creepiness. (When asked her age, Eli replies, "Twelve, more or less.")

The pacing of Let the Right One In is sometimes slow, and the "action" part of the movie -- where some drinking buddies are the ones after the mysterious killers in town (and often her victims) -- feels like some forced action. Still, with so many horror movies devoted solely to gore or sadism, Let the Right One In is, flaws and all, some (gotta say it) fresh blood in the horror genre.

Overall grade: B-

Reviewed by James Lynch

William Pint and Felicia Dale, The Set of the Sail (Waterbug, 2007)


William Pint (guitar, vocals) and Felicia Dale (hurdy gurdy, fiddle, vocals) are a folk duo based in the Pacific Northwest. They specialize in performing folk and Medieval ballads about sailors and seafaring. Their latest album of stories of the sea is called The Set of the Sail.

Pint and Dale keep things basic and simple, and the approach works pretty well. Most of the arrangements only need two instruments, although a few guests do appear on the record. There's no gimmickry anywhere on The Set of the Sail; nor does the duo stray from the nautical theme. In other words, what you see is exactly what you get.

The Set of the Sail contains a bunch of decent songs, along with a couple of very good ones in "Go from My Window" and "The Dreadnought." The performances are more solid than spectacular. I'd rate it as a pretty good folk album, although if you're partial to sea songs or to the sound of the hurdy gurdy you might like this album a lot.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott

Kate Rusby, Awkward Annie (Pure Records, 2007)


She may have an enviably youthful appearance and demeanor, but South Yorkshire native Kate Rusby has been part of the English folk scene for over fifteen years. Rusby has built her reputation with an endearing combination of rustic Engligh charm and one of the sweetest voices in all of music. On her latest album, called Awkward Annie, she mixes traditional songs with a bunch of her own compostions, maintaining the standard of quality she has set for herself.

While her voice dominates the proceedings, Rusby benefits from a stellar core of supporting musicians, including multi-instrumentalist John McCusker, guitarists Ian Carr and John Doyle, Chris Thile from the fine American band Nickel Creek, and several members of the renowned Scottish group Capercaillie. The song styles range from Rusby's trademark sad ballads to more lighthearted, humorous songs. The darker material might not be for everybody, but Rusby is skilled at capturing the emotion of a song, and her voice makes any melody sound golden. I'm a bit more partial to the humorous pieces, though, particularly "The Old Man," a song about a farmer and his wife who trade roles for a day. (Spoiler alert: the husband gets the worse of it.) My favorite track on Awkward Annie is actually the bonus track, a cover of The Kinks' "The Village Green Preservation Society." Ray Davies has always had a more distinctively English lyrical style than any of his rock contemporaries, and this song in particular just seems like it was meant for a good folksinger to sing.

Kate Rusby was a delight to see perform when I saw her in Manhattan a few years back. Awkward Annie reflects the same combination of laughter, emotion, and grace that makes Rusby worth seeing in person.

Overall grade: B

reviewed by Scott

An interview with Kate Rusby, followed by a performance of the old folk standard "Blooming Heather" which she recorded for this album.

11.23.2008

MUNCHKIN QUEST

It's time to go dungeon diving and kill the monsters, steal the treasures, and stab the buddies in a tabletop board and card game: Munchkin Quest. This game is largely based on the Munchkin card game and adapts it quite nicely to a board game.

As in Munchkin, players in Munchkin Quest start at level 1 and want to reach level 10, mainly by killing monsters, selling goods and gold, or playing "go up a level" cards. Each turn, players build the "board" by moving into unexplored areas, laying down a room tile (and hallways, doors, passages, or walls that affect how much movement it takes to enter or exit the room), and fighting a monster in there. Other players can play cards to interfere, and adjacent players can help (though usually only if getting something in return). Victorious players go up levels and gain treasure; defeated ones take a wound, try to run away, and may lose items or even die.


Many of the cards (and most of their art) in Munchkin Quest are taken directly from Munchkin. Munchkin Quest does expand on the card game in several ways. Players have "life tokens" (think hit points) that are lost even if a player manages to run away from a monster, making every combat riskier. Players and monsters also roll dice to affect who wins, adding a more random element to combat. Using moves to search rooms or discover multiple rooms offers more chances to level up quickly. Monsters get their own "turn," moving around at the end of each player's turn. And reaching level 10 isn't enough to win: A player has to make it back to the Entrance and defeat a boss monster (which always starts at level 20) before claiming victory.
Munchkin Quest is illustrated by John Kovalic, and it has his signature wit. The artwork is humorous, there are oddly comical card combinations -- one game I played had a player battling a Coldly Logical Itsy-Bitsy Spider -- and the rooms often have in-jokes with the art. (The room Den of Thieves includes a sign stating "Members: Please Stop Stealing the Furniture.")
If you're looking for a cutthroat "board" game with lots of competition and plenty of comedy, get Munchkin Quest. The rules will be easier to learn if you've played Munchkin (or one of its spin-offs) before, but after a few turns of Munchkin Quest you'll be seeing out powerful weapons and looking to lay down some monster smackdown!
Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

11.19.2008

Quantum Of Solace (MGM/Columbia Pictures, 2008)


It has become very trendy in recent years to re-invent characters from popular series, getting a whole new cast and crew and often restarting the story. The new Batman movies, in particular, have been enormous commercial and artistic successes. The most surprising and intriguing reinvention, though, has been of James Bond. The celebrated British spy has been entertaining movies audiences for nearly half a century with his dry wit, numerous gadgets, countless trysts with beautiful and exotic women, and the ability to escape from any situation and save the world many times over. As entertaining as the twenty-plus Bond movies were, though, you could make the argument that James Bond was the most static character in all of cinema. That is no longer the case, though. First with Casino Royale and now with Quantum of Solace, actor Daniel Craig gives Bond an element of depth he never really had before. And for the first time, the behavior Agent 007 is influenced by the events of a previous movie in the series and the relationships he developed in it.

In fact, a good memory of what happened in Casino Royale is required if you want to understand much Quantum of Solace. For starters, the wonderful Judi Dench returns as M, the head of the intelligence agency called MI6. Jeffrey Wright also returns as sympathetic CIA agent Felix Leiter, and Giancarlo Giannini intriguingly reprises his role as René Mathis, an agent that Bond mistakenly had arrested in Casino Royale. Of course, Casino Royale climaxed with the death of agent Vesper Lynd, for whom Bond had genuine feelings of affection for (a radical departure from most Bond movies). It is this event which fuels Bond's anger for most of this movie.

I don't think Bond begins the movie quite as hell-bent on revenge as some reviewers have made him out to be. He doesn't actually use any sort of excessive or unjustified force; rather, like in any Bond movie, he disposes of people who are coming after him. But the fact remains that in the early part of the movie, most of the bad guys who get in Bond's way don't live long enough to provide any information on Quantum, the shadow organization that MI6 is trying to investigate, and M becomes suspicious of Bond's motivations. Bond has enough of a trail of clues to find Dominic Greene (played by Mathieu Almaric), a sinister entrepreneur and high-level Quantum member, but not before bumping into Greene's lover Camille Montes (played by Olga Kurylenko). Greene had sent somebody to kill Montes, who is actually a Bolivian spy, before Bond intervened. It turns out that Greene is supporting an imminent coup attempt in Bolivia, led by a deposed dictator, in exchange for some land whose value to Greene is not immediately apparent.

With the main thrust of the plot in place, Bond spends the next hour and a half or so in a series of escapes, rescues, chases, fight sequences, etc. While the pace could get blistering at times, there was enough room for plenty of dialogue and character development, to a far greater degree than most Bond movies. Indeed Quantum of Solace may be both the best written and best acted movie in the entire series. Craig and Dench are both superb, especially when interacting with each other, and Kurlyenko holds her own as well. Unfortunately, the cinematography got very aggravating during the action sequences. I don't know who thought changing the camera angles faster than moviegoers can process what they are seeing was a good idea, but it severely compromised what was otherwise a great movie. Being caught up in the fast pace and intensity is only exhilarating when you have some clue what's going on.

I have no problem at all with Bond movies getting more cerebral and thoughtful. I certainly don't understand people complaining about the title; all Bond movies have cryptic titles, and I thought Quantum of Solace as a title made perfect sense in the context of what happened in Casino Royale. So many things about Quantum of Solace were done right that I would still strongly recommend going to see it. It's rare that an action movie succeeds as well in the fine details like plot, characterization, and dialogue as this movie does. But that only makes the movie's shortcomings in visualization that much more perplexing and frustrating.

Overall grade: B+

reviewed by Scott

SUKIYAKI WESTERN DJANGO

Plenty of Westerns have borrowed heavily from Japanese films -- The Magnificent Seven was a remake of The Seven Samurai, while Yojimbo was turned into A Fist Full of Dollars -- so it seems appropriate that Sukiyaki Western Django is a Western with an almost all-Japanese cast, despite being set in Nevada. Too bad it's so self-indulgent and insanely over the top.

A mysterious, cool, unnamed Gunman (Hideaki Ito) comes to a small town where two clans -- one dressed in red, one in white -- have been feuding for centuries and are now in search of a hidden treasure. The Gunman offers to find the treasure for whatever clan makes him the best offer, and before you know it just about everyone is shooting everyone else.

Director Takashi Miike has done wonderful films, such as The Audition and Ichi the Killer, but Sukiyaki Western Django is a misfire. While there's some ridiculously cool action (including shooters capable of blasting crossbow bolts out of the air), the acting is also over the top (such as the corrupt Sheriff who suddenly pulls a Gollum-like dual personality) and everything is fully ridiculous. Quentin Tarantino produced this movie (as well as appearing in it), and some of his stylictic excesses show through (an animated sequence, ultra-cool characters). I really wanted to like this film, but Sukiyaki Western Django proves that sometimes too much is just too much.

Overall grade: D
Reviewed by James Lynch

11.14.2008

The Lord of the Rings -- Original London Cast Recording (Kevin Wallace Music, 2008)


Back in 2006, I got to see the theatrical production of The Lord of the Rings that premiered in Toronto that year. While I gave it a mostly favorable review, the show was not particularly well received by critics in general. Eventually the show opened in London as well, to a more favorable response. And unlike the Toronto cast, the London cast got to record the music of the play.

The lyrics for the songs in The Lord of the Rings were written by Shaun McKenna and Matthew Warchus. The music for the play came from the Indian composer A. R. Rahman and the Finnish folk group Värttinä, with some assistance from the musical supervisor Christopher Nightingale. Nightingale wanted from the outset to use a lot of world music in the play, not just to portray the rustic folksiness of the hobbits, but also to best capture the peculiarities of the other races in Tolkien's world and the dark forces at work in many of the scenes.

As anybody familiar with the story would expect, the music covers the full range of the emotional spectrum. "The Cat and the Moon," sung by the hobbits in The Prancing Pony, is a boisterous romp faithfully modeled on Tolkien's song from the book. By contrast, the loud, dissonant female voices heard from offstage in "Flight to the Ford" convey the intensity of the desperate run to Rivendell that Strider and the hobbits make with the Dark Riders in close pursuit. On the sentimental "Now and for Always," McKenna and Warchus do a fine job of capturing the spirit of the conversation between Frodo and Sam as they rest far above the city of Minas Morgul.

My biggest criticism of The Lord of the Rings is that it has a split personality. At its best, it represents a bold marriage of a classic story to music based on the same folklore and myths that inspired Tolkien in the first place, and in many ways it is truer to the spirit of the books than Peter Jackson's movies were. But there are also plenty of formulaic musical theater clichés thrown in for good measure, like an overwrought duet between Aragorn and Arwen, that I really couldn't be bothered with. Still, the producers deserve plenty of credit for taking some chances with the play, especially with the music. Like the play itself, the soundtrack to The Lord of the Rings is flawed but still worthy of the attention of people who like the story.

Overall grade: B


reviewed by Scott

11.13.2008

Alas, poor WizKids Games


On November 10, 2008 the gaming company WizKids Games was shut down. Topps Company, which took over WizKids in 2002, announced that WizKids "will immediately cease operations and discontinue its product lines."




WizKids Games burst onto the gaming scene in 2000 with their first game, Mage Knight Rebellion. This game was a miniatures game, set in a sword-and-sorcery world (though with guns), where people costructed armies of figures from different factions. The figures were plastic (making them cheaper than many other miniature games out there) and pre-painted (which was great for folks like me who couldn't paint well on tiny figures), but what set them apart were the simple-but-brilliant bases.

Every figure's base had all the statistics for that figure -- speed, attack value, defensive value, damage, and if they had a ranged attack or could fly -- shown in an L-shaped gap on the base. (Special abilities are shown by color and explained on a separate card.) As a figure takes damage, the player turns the base a number of clicks equal to damage, revealing the new stats for the figure. Instead of referring to rulebooks or sheets of paper for each unit, everything is shown on the figure itself!

WizKids used these bases for several other lines of games. Mechwarrior: Dark Age was based on Battletech and had three types of units: giant 'mechs, vehicles, and infantry. Marvel HeroClix and D.C. HeroClix games brought the heroes from the comics onto the game table; and since the figures could be mixed together, comic book fans could create wild mixes of units, go with themed teams, and finally determine if the Avengers could defeat the Justice League. HorrorClix had evil monsters and fleeing mortals competing.


Not all went perfectly for WizKids. Mage Knight Rebellion eventually underwent a reboot -- turning to Mage Knight 2.0 -- before being discontinued. While Mechwarrior: Dark Age and the HeroClix games did quite well, there were a number of failures: Crimson Skies (which was adapted for the XBox), Shadowrun Duels (whose large figures work very well as Shadowrun action figures, not so well for playing), Creepy Freaks (gross monsters for kids), and even MLB SportsClix. They tried a few non-miniature games as well, including the board game Tsuro and a collectable card game based on the new Battlestar Galactica .


I lost interest in most WizKids games a while back. A few years after their beginning WizKids adopted a policy of "planned obsolescence," making all figures tournament-illegal after two years. They claimed it was to level the playing field (literally) for new players, but I thought it was a way to force people to buy new figures every few years.


Still, it's sad to see WizKids Games fold. The company managed to make miniature gaming far more accessible and inexpensive, and having everything listed on the base simplified gaming enormously. Topps will "pursue strategic alternatives so that viable brands and properties... can continue without noticeable disruption" -- I'm sure HeroClix will continue; not so confident about MechWarrior and HorrorClix -- but this remains an ominous event for the gaming community in this troubled economy. While I did drop most of WizKids' games (I still play Tsuro, and the Dwarven Steam Behemoth is so beautiful I kept it), I enjoyed putting together teams and armies, I had lots of nice games against other players, and I enjoyed collecting their figures. WizKids Games, you will be missed.

James Lynch