Favorite Games of 2018

This list excludes DLC and remasters/ports. Additionally, I kept out games in early access, they needed to have their full launch in 2018.

  1. Marvel’s Spider-Man (PS4): Rationally explaining what this game made me feel is almost impossible. As someone who has loved Spider-Man as a property since I can remember, in the medium of video games, Spidey has had hit and miss representation. While that’s a conversation on its own, what Marvel’s Spider-Man has done cannot be understated. Not only is the best Spider-Man game of all time, but it also taught me what I wanted, and should expect, from Spidey titles in the future. Swinging is magical and fluid. The combat is fast and intuitive. And the story not only returns you to familiar characters and locals but is a fresh interpretation of the character and universe. While I don’t think this game is perfect (the camera gets wonky at times, the side-missions can get repetitive and chore-like), it was perhaps the only game this year that reminded of not only why I love Spider-Man, but why I love games and how that medium can transport me and my imagination in ways that it hasn’t been since I first picked up Amazing Fantasy #15.
  2. God of War (PS4): A lot has been made of this game, and I’m not even sure I have anything unique to say about it at this juncture. But I will say this, what God of War represents is more than just how far the medium has come from in terms of technical advancement. What this game represents is the maturity and growth of the medium as a form of art. God of War has long been lambasted as a blockbuster of series in video games. Shallow characters, lackluster storytelling, and big, violent, ludicrous action just for the sake of it. But what this development team was able to do in crafting the story of an aging demi-god, a withering world, the relationship between father and son…is so far above and beyond anything I could have, and should have, ever expected from this franchise. This is without going into the gorgeous graphics, insanely addictive combat, and the perfectly crafted open-world. What Sony Santa Monica did with God of War was not only show how much video games have grown but they gave us a glimpse into how games can continue to mature with their audiences. We are past the days of games being violent and bombastic just to sell units. We are entering an era where games can become a progressive medium for intense, creative, and unique art.
  3. Detroit: Become Human (PS4): The power of choice and the agency of the player in games is something that makes them unique as a story-telling medium in art. While some games don’t utilize this to their full potential, Detroit not only effectively communicates its story to its audience but it gives them the power to impact and change the direction of the narrative and its characters. While some of the themes are aggressively unsubtle, overall, Detroit is a game that involves players on a deeper emotive and cognitive level than most other games. The ingenious of showing the decision tree at the end of each chapter leaves players feeling like they could have changed the story. Especially in moments of regret, where either you messed up or overlooked something, you feel like you need to go back and remedy your mistakes. But you also feel the need to continue with the story you have created. That is the power in this game, not necessarily in some profound message about race/technology/humanity, but in how it makes the player feel like they contributed to the narrative they are participating in.
  4. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (Nintendo Switch): Sometimes in games, we forget the most addictive things are the simple ones. This is something the Smash Bros. franchise has always eloquently remembered about itself. It knows what it is. And what that is, is a game where you can play as some of the most iconic characters in video game history, and fight with your friends in memorable locations with different options of gameplay. No one person plays Smash the same, regardless of what the pro players may say. What is so great is that while the game seemingly has limited options, there feels like endless variety. Every match is unique. No two characters feel the same. Every map offers a different challenge and strategy to gain an advantage. Ultimate not only perfects this formula, but it offers the most variety and complexity of any Smash game to date. Not only can you play as every character from every game to date, or play on every map, but now you can online, and with a system, people actually like (sorry Wii U). Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is exactly what it sets out to be, the ultimate Smash game.
  5. Pokemon: Let’s Go Pikachu/Eevee (Nintendo Switch): I have to be honest, even though I was vocally supportive of the idea, I could help but be initially trepidatious about this title. While I was excited for a reboot of the original generation Pokemon to come out on the first Nintendo system I’ve owned since my Gameboy Advance, the idea of introducing Pokemon Go! mechanics into the console game left me nervous. However, this game blew all my expectations away. Not only is an absolutely stunning visual remake of the original Pokemon world, but some of the added elements take the franchise to new and, in my opinion, more accessible and sensible territory. The introduction of seeing Pokemon roaming the wild (and the elimination of random encounters) was absolutely genius. It takes of the most aggressively inaccessible and confusing parts of the original RPG and both streamlines and modernizes the gameplay. Being able to swap Pokemon from your bag into the party anywhere and not having to find a computer also made this the game feel so much less like a chore, and more like an adventure. Other additions, such as shared party XP, and having your partner Pokemon learn the special moves, do the same. Even the elimination of wild pokemon battles, and the replacement with the Go! catching mechanics isn’t as dreadful as I anticipated. It adds a nice flow to the game and there are enough trainer battles that I feel like I’m not losing out on combat opportunities. While I would like to see a deeper game and a more engaging story, overall, if Let’s Go Pikachu/Eevee is indicative of where the franchise of Pokemon wants to head, I’m all aboard.
  6. Octopath Traveler (Nintendo Switch): Something about the JRPG’s of old is special. The pixel graphics, the 8-bit music, 100-hour stories, grind-y gameplay. Perhaps it’s with nostalgia and rose-tinted glasses that I see these things, but Octopath Traveler was a promise to reintroduce these things to a modern gaming environment, and it was a promised delivered. While nothing here is groundbreaking, it’s a modernization and refinement of the type of game I grew up on that made me fall in love with this title.
  7. Florence (iOS, Android): A mobile game on my list??? While I’m not as vocal of a critic about games in the mobile spheres as others, mobile games do carry a certain connotation that while I think there are exceptions, they have more or less earned. Florence however, is something unique. It’s not based on a gameplay loop meant to addict you then exploit you so you can continue to progress. It’s three dollars up front, but what you get is a gorgeous and moving experience that is unlike anything we have seen in this space. There’s not complex gameplay, no in-app purchases, no bright flashing gadgets or gizmos. It’s a story that will make you laugh, cry, and remember what it is like to fall in love. There’s something special about the emotional connection Florence makes with its players, and for $3 on your phone? It’s something everyone should experience.
  8. Jurassic World: Evolution (PS4, Xbox One, PC): There’s something about park simulators that has always struck a chord with me. Additionally, Jurassic Park (and dinosaurs more in general), has always been perhaps one of the greatest influences on my life. Mix those two together? Gold. There’s nothing overly complicated about the game, but it does add an element of chaos and unpredictability (on par for the chorus with the theme of the franchise) that most park simulators don’t have. The gameplay is simple and fairly streamlined, but it feels as big and rambunctious as any Roller Coaster Tycoon. It feels like a big-budget Jurassic Park game, and that’s the highest praise I could ever give something like this.
  9. Monster Hunter: World (PS4, Xbox One, PC): Having never played a title in this series before, getting into Monster Hunter: World was rather a daunting task. There are A LOT of mechanics to this game, to the point where even now I’m not sure I can comfortably explain all of them. However, this game is loads of fun. Running around and tag teaming giant beasts with your party is an awfully rewarding experience, and there’s a lot in the game to make you feel like you’re continually progressing. The story is less than captivating, however, and if that is what you’re looking for in a big RPG, look somewhere else. However, if tight gameplay, smooth combat, cool monsters, and a gorgeous environment to explore are all you need, then this is the game for you.
  10. Red Dead Redemption 2 (PS4, Xbox One): This is the title I’ve spent the least amount of time with. There is this big, vibrant, and lively open world that certainly feels like the most real open world I’ve ever played in. The random encounters with wildlife, the long traversal, and the weather patterns all feel natural, and make it feel like you’re actually engaging in the cross-country journey. For me though, the story is lackluster. The thing that should be holding this game down and keeping me engaged on a deeper level just isn’t clicking for me. I feel no investment for Arthur Morgan. He doesn’t click with me as a character like the other protagonists do in the more story-central games on this list. While I’m enjoying the journey and can marvel at the technical achievement of this game. I can’t help but wonder how much more I would feel invested if I actually connected with the story on a deeper level. Red Dead Redemption 2 is still great, and I obviously have loved it thus far for it to make my list. But it’s not quite the powerhouse of a game I was anticipating, and hoping, for.

Honorable Mentions: Battlefield V, Super Mario Party, A Way Out, Sea of Thieves

Didn’t Get to Play: Ni No Kuni II: Revenent Kingdom, Frostpunk, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Dragon Quest XI, Dead Cells, Moss, Tetris Effect, Beatsaber, Astrobot Rescue Mission, Assassin’s Creed Odessey, Celeste, Return of the Obra Dinn

Biggest Disappointments: Fallout 76, Mario Tennis Aces, Madden NFL 19

Most anticipated 2019 releases: Kingdom Hearts III, Y2K: A Postmodern RPG, Star Wars: Jedi: Fallen Order, Resident Evil 2, Anthem, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, The Division 2, Pokemon 2019, Control, Crackdown 3, Gears 5, Luigi’s Mansion 3, Man of Medan, Metro Exodus, The Outer Worlds, In the Valley of the Gods

Advertisements

Favorite Films of 2018

  1. Annihilation (sci-fi, horror): An absolutely astonishing film. Tense, brutal, and thrilling all the way until the last frame. With this, Alex Garland cements himself as one of the best sci-fi directors in the game. While it’s not a faithful adaption of the novel, the elements that Garland does lift help create a unique world and setting that envelopes the viewer. It’s as mesmerizing as it is horrifying. As scary as it is inspiring. Ultimately it’s that dichotomy of wonder and fear that Garland perfectly balances that makes this film special.
  2. Hereditary (horror): In this new wave of horror, a lot of films are really great, but aren’t that “scary.” Hereditary, however, is absolutely horrifying. This movie is a lesson in the art of the buildup. Tension is key, and the film is excellent at leaving you a trail of breadcrumbs that takes you along on a journey you never fully understand until it’s too late. It’s also one of the most unsettling films ever made, not for the faint of heart. Moving at a pace similar to more classic horror (Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, etc) the film leaves space for the scares to really settle in. Hereditary also boasts some of the most remarkable acting in a horror film (Toni Collete needs at least an Oscar nom for her performance), as well as some of the most clever cinematography I’ve ever seen. I say this a lot, but Hereditary isn’t simply one of the best new horror movies to be released, it’s one of the best horror films ever.
  3. Sorry to Bother You (drama, comedy): A wholly unique film. Sorry To Bother You is fresh, engaging, and smart on every level. Led by a superb performance from Lakeith Stanfield and smart direction from Boots Riley, the film takes you on a wild journey through American consumerism and isn’t quite what you expect.
  4. Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse (comedy, action-adventure, sci-fi): Not only is this one of the best releases of the year, but it’s also arguably one of the best superhero films to date, and most certainly among the best of Spider-Man. It’s funny, bright, and heartfelt in ways that most big action films strike out on. This movie perfectly captures the emotive energy that I remember when reading comics for the first time, but with a modern flair. Visually, this is perhaps the coolest looking animated film in some time. It’s wholly unique and the filmmakers had a clear vision that they executed to perfection. Spiderverse is superb on every level.
  5. A Quiet Place (horror): A thrilling time. Tense from it’s first frame to the last, and even with minimal dialogue, the development and investment you feel for the characters are crafted well. This is a great entry into this new wave of cheap, but polished, horror. This is a unique film-going experience and one that I’m glad I went to a theater to experience. In the age of streaming services, A Quiet Place shows that is still merit and power in being in a theater.
  6. The Death of Stalin (comedy, historical): A smart comedy that perfectly balances it’s cast and it’s content, The Death of Stalin really hones in on it’s material and executes it to perfection. The power struggle of the Soviet was something so absurd and demonstrable, and the way this film approaches that with comedy not only gives perspective to the viewer about that timeframe but gets the viewer invested in ways that can be challenging for a historically-based film.
  7. Avengers: Infinity War (action-adventure, sci-fi): The film handles is ambitious cast-size remarkably well, and due to the careful crafting of the universe beforehand each character really feels as if they belong and are integral to the story, every moment of this movie carries a weight that feels daunting, it really is unprecedented for a movie to feel this big, This movie has fully lived up to its potential as a spectacle of film, and really is a remarkable feat. While it settles for actions and spectacle over more somber character-driven moments, what is there (an aside, but Thanos is a remarkable villain) is enough to compel you to want to go forward and to await the conclusion next summer.
  8. BlackKklansmen (comedy, drama, historical): Spike Lee is back. While there are flaws in the film (namely pacing and the narrative being disjointed) overall, he delivers one of the most powerful films of the year. The political messaging is on the nose, but this is not an exercise in subtly. He captures the terrifying reality of the alt-right, their goals to take over our democracy, and in the end, their success.
  9. Isle of Dogs (comedy, adventure, drama): Wes Anderson never ceases to disappoint, and while this isn’t his most ambitious or groundbreaking work, Isle of Dogs has a lot of heart and soul that I think was lacking in some of his most recent, more technical, films. Animation wise, the dogs look fantastic, and the style is really something that sticks out. Anderson and the animation team worked diligently to create a unique world for this film, and it pays off in a visually captivating display.
  10. Eighth Grade (comedy, drama): Featuring a witty, and all-too-realistic, script, as well as a stellar performance from Elsie Fisher, Eighth Grade is a film that not only captures what it’s like to grow up in a digital age, but how we all felt growing up and trying to become our own person. Bo Burnam proves that he is a man of many talents and that he has as much to say in the medium of film as he has in stand-up. Like Lady Bird last year, Eighth Grade is a film that gives every audience member something they can relate to, and really captures a period of all our lives that we can look at and say, “wow, growing up was tough.”

Honorable Mentions: Vice, The Incredibles 2, Halloween, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Deadpool 2, Ready Player One, Tomb Raider

Biggest Disappointments: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, A Wrinkle in Time, The Nun, Solo: A Star Wars Story

Didn’t get to see: Roma, Green Book, Bird Box, The Favourite, Overlord, Boy Erased, Mid90s, Bohemiam Rhapsody, A Star is Born, Suspira, Crazy Rich Asians, Love Simon, Widows, Blindspotting, First Reformed, Searching, RBG, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Favorite Albums of 2018

  1. The Plot in You – Dispose (alternative, rock): Dark, gritty, and spiked with electronic influence, Dispose is not only the most adventurous and diverse the band has been but is also one of their pieces of art to date. With their previous release, we saw a switch from the raw metalcore the band originally sought after to more of a focus on atmosphere, melody, and songwriting. While Happiness in Self-Destruction still leaned into the band’s metalcore roots, Dispose has all but tossed them to the side. Instead what we get is an album that is almost undefinable. Landon is at the top of his game with his soaring vocals that range from R&B, tender pop delivery, falsetto choruses, and even his signature screaming. While the instrumentation has taken a step back in terms of complexity and involvement, they add intricate layers and textures to the record that is mostly driven by an underlying industrial electronic feel. With Dispose, The Plot in You has sought to reinvent themselves, and this album is the culmination of that effort. Favorite Tracks: “I Always Wanted to Leave”, “Rigged”, “Disposable Fix”
  2. Architects – Holy Hell (metalcore): “I’m dismantled piece by piece” screams Sam Carter in the opening track of the metalcore band’s 2018 effort, and that line could not summate the general theme of this record more perfectly. The first album since the passing of founding member and guitarist Tom Searle (also brother to drummer Dan Searle), Architects trades their normal existential anger for a more raw and introspective look at grief and tragedy. This is by far the most somber record the band has written, and that reflects in it’s more patient riffs (which are as monstrous and aggressive as ever) and the more melodic presentation of Sam Carter’s vocals. However, the record is still rife with the band’s signature bone-crushing breakdowns and songs like “The Seventh Circle” still pack that signature punch Architects has built it’s sonic signature on. Favorite Tracks: “Hereafter”, “The Seventh Circle”, “Royal Beggers”
  3. Dance Gavin Dance – Artificial Selection (post-hardcore): No band has seemingly produced more music in the last 4 years than Dance Gavin Dance, and the remarkable thing is that one could argue that the band is still growing in skill and maturity with each release. The Sacramento post-hardcore outfit’s latest release completely sells itself to the soaring pop melodies of clean vocalist Tilian Pearson, who infects the record with his signature voice and delivery. Will Swan’s traditional guitar riffage is still there, but it lies underneath the more melodic tonal quality the album strives to achieve. Jon Mess and the band’s more heavy moments take a step back from being a co-force with Tilian and the sing-along moments to play more of a supporting role. While the songwriting has given itself to more melodic and pop sentiments, that doesn’t stop the band from having intensely prolific musical prowess (listen to the bass line on “Midnight Crusade”), which is where DGD still shines. The album is not only a masterpiece of technical skill, and post-hardcore traditions, but also of pop accessibility. Favorite Tracks: “Care”, “Suspended in Disaster”, “Evaporate”
  4. Rolo Tomassi – Time Will Die, and Love Will Bury It (metalcore, death metal, electronica): Aesthetic. That is what Rolo Tomassi achieves with their latest full LP. When bands write records, most of the time it feels like a collection of 10-12 songs that have a loose sonic or lyrical theme that is put together. This album, however, feels carefully constructed from the first note to the last. The album takes the listener through instrumental landscapes, melodic dreams, and even on dark death-metal paths. But none of it feels out of place, in fact, it all feels as if it fits perfectly. This is a sonic journey that Rolo Tomassi wishes to engage the listener in, and they eloquently guide us with through it. Favorite Tracks: “Aftermath”, “Balance in the Dark”, “A Flood of Light”
  5. Silent Planet – When the End Began (metalcore, djent): Silent Planet has quickly asserted themselves not only as one of the top up-and-coming acts in the metalcore scene but also one of the best acts sticking around. With When the End Began the quartet construct one of the biggest sounding releases of the year, one that can rival even seasoned metalcore vets in its sheer veracity and power. Lyrically, the album still carries powerful messages of justice, anti-corruption, addiction, and questioning reality as Garret Russell continues to draw influence (and famously cite) from differing works of philosophy and art. This is Silent Planet’s most definitive work to date and should establish them as the leaders in the heavy music scene. Favorite Tracks: “Northern Fires (Guernica)”, “The New Eternity”, “Depths III”
  6. Emery – Eve (post-hardcore, emo, alternative): Emery continues to define how to grow as a emo/scene influenced band over the decades. This is not only the most mature release from the staple post-hardcore outfit but also asserts their creative dominance and fluidity over almost any band from their era. The album shockingly flows together so well and is so intricately written that songs bleed into each other (listen to “Fear Yourself” blends effortlessly into “Jesus Wept”). Even with their growth, Eve still features elements that are unmistakenly Emery. Soaring melodies, intertwining vocals, glistening melodies, and harsh screams pepper the record, as well as driving riffs, delicate guitar moods, and punching breakdowns. The balance between all these parts is what Emery has always excelled at, and Eve proves not only why Emery has been so successful in their past, but why their best days are still ahead. Favorite Tracks: “Safe”, “Fear Yourself”/”Jesus Wept”, “Everything She Offered Me.”
  7. Tiny Moving Parts – Swell (math-rock, emo): While the record musically hinges on it’s swirling clean guitar riffs frantic rhythms, and odd time-signatures, what makes it special is the vulnerability of the band and their lyrics. Dylan Matthesian has made a name for himself for taking a deeply personable and introspective approach to his lyrics, of which he still leans on making them “sound” good rather than make poetic sense. While somber and reflective in its content, the album overall still feels joyous and energetic due to its reliance on clean guitar tones, upbeat rhythms, and use of major scales (which is antithetical to most emo music). While the band shouts about their insecurities, anxieties, and fears, you can’t help but feel the joy this trio has in playing and creating music together. That feeling is addictive and gives the record and overall sense of hope and joy that permeates even it’s darkest moments. Favorite Tracks: “Applause”, “Feel Alive”, “Whale Watching”
  8. State Champs – Living Proof (pop-punk): After the resounding success of their sophomore effort Around the World and Back, State Champs had the challenge of cementing themselves as the new face of pop-punk, and Living Proof does just that. While lacking the more aggressive bite of their previous releases, the album proves that overall the band still just gets what makes a good pop-punk song, and to not make it feel immature. While these songs still want to make you jump around in the pit on a sweaty Warped Tour summer day, the album still conceptually (and musically) presents itself in a way that more accessible to the bands growing and maturing audience. Lyrically, Derek Discanio still delves into familiar topics of heartbreak and relationships but overall the album (much like one listed above it) still has an overall joy and fun factor that makes you want to blast it with your windows down on a summer evening and sing along. It’s that energy that makes State Champs unique and that they channel excellently in this record. Favorite Tracks: “Lightening”, “Criminal”, “Dead and Gone”
  9. Vein – Errorzone (metalcore, nu-metal, hardcore): Frantic and violent, with Errorzone,  Vein proves that there still is room to explore in metalcore. With riffs inspired by the liked of older Slipknot and other nu-metal influences, the album borders on the manic, but still finds method in its madness. With its visceral imagery and hardcore undertones, the album also had an industrial feel that gives it a girth and weight that doesn’t allow for comfort at any point in the record. That’s not to say there are moments of respite, but those come only to help alleviate the listener of the violent chaos that perpetuates the rest of the record. Favorite Tracks: “Virus://Vibrance”, “Old Data in a Dead Machine”, “Errorzone”
  10. mewithoutyou – [Untitled] (post-hardcore, alternative, emo): Back with a versatile rage, mewithoutyou launches listeners into their new record with a dizzying fury. Leaning into more of their aggressive roots, [Untitled] shows a band that is wholly unsatisfied with where they are as artists and the state of the world as a whole. It’s this anxiety that serves as the underpinning to this record. Still featuring the iconic poetic ramblings of Aaron Weiss, the band focuses less on textures and ambiance and more on driving riffs and crunchy distortion to highlight Aaron’s themes of fear, loathing, and existential (as well as personal) anxiety. Favorite Tracks: “Julia (or, ‘Holy to the LORD’ on the Bells of Horses)”, “9:27A.m, 7/29”, “Wendy & Betsy”

Honorable Mentions:

Impending Doom – The Sin and the Doom, Vol 2 (deathcore)

Jesus Piece – Only Self  (hardcore, metalcore)

Chelsea Grin – Eternal Nightmare (deathcore)

Shortly – Richmond EP (singer-songwriter, alternative)

Tilian – The Skeptic (singer-songwriter, pop, pop-rock)

Crazyeightyeight – Burning Alive (metalcore, rock, alternative)

nothing,nowhere – ruiner (hip-hop, emo, singer-songwriter)

Underoath – Erase Me (alternative, rock, metalcore, electronica)

Currents – I Let the Devil In EP (metalcore)

Stars Hallow – Happy Again EP (post-hardcore, math-rock, emo)

boygenius – boygenius EP (singer-songwriter, alternative)

Fever 333 – Made in America EP (punk, hip-hop, rock)

Belmont – Belmont (pop-punk, math rock, easycore)

Thirty Nights of Violence – To Die in Your Portrait EP (metalcore, hardcore)

Mom Jeans – Puppy Love (emo, pop-punk)

Remember Sports – Slow Buzz (emo, pop-punk)

Fit For a King – Dark Skies (metalcore)

The Wonder Years – Sister Cities (pop-punk, alternative)

 

A Day to Remember’s “Bad Vibrations”: Why Breakdowns need payoff, and the art of being heavy.

Note: I use a lot of colloquies and terminology that is familiar to people who listen to this kind of music, but for those who don’t, you may find a lot of what I say confusing. I do encourage you to explore this scene and some of the terms I use if you are unfamiliar with anything I say.

When one of my favorite artists, A Day to Remember, released their last record, Bad Vibrations, it was exciting news right? A Day to Remember (also one of the biggest bands in the scene of music I subscribe to) has a new album, let’s jam!

It’s odd that I get so excited about ADTR at all though, as I used to enthusiastically hate them. I thought they were everything I thought would ruin heavy music. Fusing it with poppy melodies, bright colors on their artwork, fangirls right and left…I even left a show of theirs early once (I went just so I could see Underoath). However when the band released their album What Separates Me from You I realized the futility of my feelings, opened up to the band, and they grew to become one of my favorites.

The thing that makes A Day to Remember somewhat remarkable though is that they aren’t the most technically savvy band all around. Their guitar riffs aren’t difficult, they aren’t trying crazy syncopated polyrhythms for their breakdowns, they just simply knew how to feel a song. They also always edged the line of being a pop-punk band, and a truly heavy band. They were just as easy to sing along with as they were to mosh too. While that idea wasn’t unique in and of itself, ADTR is seen as the band who more or less perfected this blend of the genres.

But they didn’t ever force that sound, it always seemed so natural. If a song was heavy, it wasn’t just heavy in tuning and constant chug patterns. It was angry. And they wouldn’t be afraid to kick in a sing-along chorus, or a punk beat if felt right. If a song was poppy, they embraced it and attempted to make it as emotional and relatable as possible. But occasionally, that would build to a place where maybe they would unleash something heavy, and they would do this in context if it felt right in the song.

However, with this new record Bad Vibrations (and to an extent, their previous album Common Courtesy) I’ve realized this blend felt different and more polarizing. They presented songs as “here is this heavy one” and “here is the poppy one.” While the record that got me into the group (What Separates Me from You) was criticized for this exact complaint, I feel that album presented the most refined collection of songs for the band. However, I don’t think Bad Vibrations does the same. And there’s a number of reasons:

First thing’s first: building breakdowns. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again, the best breakdowns don’t come from the bands with the lowest tuned guitars or who play open note patterns the most. Effective breakdowns are about the build to them. Essentially, you have to understand what a breakdown is, and how to harness it. Breakdowns inherently are a moment in a song where the momentum is taken away, everything simplifies and the song “breaks down” around what you’re doing.

In metalcore, you can have your hardcore/metal riffs driving the song, then interrupt that driving force with a “breakdown.” From a technical standpoint, the most utilized way you see this is by utilizing a half-time cut. That is, if your main song portions are at 180 bpm, you insert a breakdown to feel like the song drops to 90 bpm. This is the feeling you get during breakdowns of you wanting to bang your head, and also why bands are fond of using bass drops as the breakdown kicks in to emphasize that feeling of dropping the tempo.

A Day to Remember used to be a band that knew exactly how to build a breakdown. Take into account my favorite heavy song from them, “Mr. Highway’s Thinking About the End.” The song opens with a dissonant chord being arpeggiated on a guitar. The drums and other instruments then cut in, using a typically building pattern to show that they are about to erupt into something. The build happens, then cuts out to Jeremey shouting, “Wake up!” and a half-time cut kicks in. The breakdown is slow and methodical but sounds massive and devastating. Once it’s over, however, the band quickly regains the tempo and has a driving riff to push into the first verse. Toward the middle of the song the chorus cuts out, you hear a handful of cymbal crashes in the background, one guitar then comes in, then the drums kick in to do a building beat. It sounds almost like the opening of the song. The moment builds on the guitar/bass/drums and just like the song’s opening part, right as the build reaches its climax it stops. Jeremey quickly shouts, “Disrespect your surroundings!” and a breakdown immediately kicks in. There is a bass drop which provides the backdrop for a halftime cut, and the band uses a quick polyrhythm over that which keeps the “build” happening before the true half-time cut kicks in. It does, with Jeremy seemingly panting, “You won’t make it out alive,” before the quicker rhythm kicks back in. They build you up and tear you down again. And it’s done euphorically.

In this breakdown, it isn’t the drop of the tempo that sounds heavy, but rather the tease of the drop and its unrelenting drive that causes it to sound so violent. They have set you up to think you know what it’s going to sound like, and they then use that to their advantage to get the listener to feel like their in utter chaos.

Then, the breakdown ends. We hear the main chord notes from the chorus again, and Jeremy comes back softly singing the chorus. The song never picks up, and softly lets the listener recover from the destruction of the breakdown as the chorus fades away and the track ultimately ends. Not only was the breakdown well built, it has ramifications for the rest of the song. There is what I call “payoff” from the breakdown. It doesn’t just happen to have a heavy moment, the band had a tactical plan on how they wanted to accomplish a feeling, and built the song around it. It’s tasteful and complicated in terms of songwriting, even if the actual instrumental parts aren’t.

Now let’s look at the title song from Bad Vibrations. It tries to capture a lot of what “Mr. Highway” does well, but is nowhere as effective. The song opens with another build, but this time it’s vocal. Jeremey shouts, “Don’t forget that this a choice/pick your poison live with remorse,” twice, then a breakdown kicks in. It’s a halftime cut, but features a more complicated rhythm than anything we see on “Mr. Highway”, it still has a riff progression to it, and then they add a lead part underneath it which for me, colludes the soundscape they’re going after. This breakdown isn’t necessarily bad, it’s just not as well-executed as the opening to “Mr. Highway.” However, it’s the main breakdown in the “bridge” of the song that lacks the payoff. There is again a build musically, and Jeremey is saying, “Toxic,” quietly, then louder and louder until he shouts it and the drop happens.

However, the drop doesn’t quite drop. There isn’t that allusion to what happened earlier, and this breakdown rhythmically feels like the build. It’s not its own entity. There are dissonant chords being played between the breakdown’s rhythm and again, the soundscape is compromised for it. Then as it ends, the chorus comes back in full throttle, as if nothing happened. Rather than being floored and realizing this song is built around this breakdown and seeing the rest of the song is impacted by it, it’s like the breakdown was there, and just kind of glossed over. You miss that “payoff.”

When you’re a heavy band, the worst mistake you can do is to be heavy just to be heavy. You can’t just drop-tune a guitar, play open chord chug patterns, and call it good. You need to be angry. While that seems superficial, being heavy isn’t about the style, tunings, or how much you scream. It’s about the emotion conveyed, that’s what draws you in.

 

Favorite Albums of 2017

  1. Days N’ Daze – Crustfall (folk-punk): Following up a classic is a hard task, their last full length, Rogue Taxidermy, came out nearly 4 years prior and has already been cemented as a staple of the folk-punk genre. Days N’ Daze fight every urge and cliche that a band might face in this situation, however, as this record is neither a copy and past of their last release nor is it such a departure that the band is unrecognizable. Crustfall is still as jammed pack with the raw emotion, energy, and angst that fueled their previous work, but there’s a touch of maturity and self-awareness the band has as writers now that takes them to a different level as composers and as people. Favorite Tracks: “Wholesale Failure”, “Days n Daze of Our Lives”, “Self Loathing”
  2. Silverstein – Dead Reflection (post-hardcore)Silverstein’s resurgence is one of the best things to happen for post-hardcore as a genre. This record is not only an example of how to progress and mature your sound in this scene, but also how to retain a sound that touches into the emotions your earlier work did. Songs like “Aquamarine” and “The Afterglow” could easily be swapped on any old school Silverstein release, but they carry a weight and depth that shows how much more refined they are as a band. “Retrograde”, “Lost Positives”, “Ghost” and other tracks show something else, that Silverstein is HEAVY. The breakdowns on this album are crushing and the riffs take up every sonic space possible. It’s funny that an old-school emo/post-hardcore band understands how to compose heavy music better than some of the “heaviest” bands around. Silverstein is a force. Plain and simple. Favorite Tracks: “Whiplash”, “Ghost”, “Aquamarine”
  3. Paramore – After Laughter (pop)I’m never mad if a band changes their sound. I’m only mad if they do it simply for radio play, and if the music is bad. I just want artists to be honest about their choices, and a lot of the times they aren’t. While Paramore has come a long way from being the pop-punk act I grew up to love, Haley Williams and company haven’t lost a shred of honesty, or creativity. This record feels like the 80’s technicolor pop the cover presents, but underneath is still a band that yearns to put its heart on its sleeve. No matter how dance-y the beat, how poppy the melodies, or how bright the electronics sound, there is another level to this record, one where Haley is searching for happiness and meaning in her life. It’s honestly quite a bleak record, which is odd because most of the songs will plaster a smile on your face until you really digest her lyrics. Teaming up with former drummer Zac Farro also feels right, as it appears that for the first time in a long time, Paramore as a unit is on the same page musically, even if there is dissonance in Haley’s lyrics. Favorite Tracks: “Fake Happy”, “26”, “Rose Colored Boy”
  4.  Neck Deep – The Peace and the Panic (pop-punk)Pop-punk isn’t dead. It doesn’t even need defending because this wave of new era pop-punk has been stellar, and with their summer hit, the boys from across the pond in Neck Deep are now leading the charge. On this record Neck Deep has finally broken into the potential they’ve always flashed but failed to capitalize on for a full release. The lyrics are earnest and clever, the melodies soar, the guitars pack a punch, and the whole album feels great. Neck Deep doesn’t reinvent the wheel here or even reinvent themselves, but they perfect the craft they’ve been meddling with for half a decade or so now. Nothing is out of place and serves a purpose (even the heavy-as-crap breakdown with Sam Carter). The album isn’t bogged down by over-editing and loads of added instruments or vocals. It is simple, effective, and fun. It’s one of those records that once you listen to it, you can’t let go because there is this energy that you can’t find anywhere else. It’s infectious.  Favorite Tracks: “In Bloom”, “Happy Judgement Day”, “Don’t Wait (feat. Sam Carter)”
  5. August Burns Red – Phantom Anthem (metalcore)This album can be summed up in one word: monstrous. August Burns Red isn’t new to the game, and they have consistently been putting out top-tier heavy music for a while, but this album…it’s crushing. Every note on this record just hits you with this weight that you really can’t describe. This isn’t ABR simply being on top of their game, they are forcing the listener to take a mercy rule. It really isn’t fair. The key here is that they truly understand what a breakdown is. The breakdown is a release of tension in the music. Firstly, they are able to concoct a number of ways to build that tension. Whether through blistering riffs, beefy guitar tones, or Jake Lurhs’ throat-tearing screams…they simply create a tension and angst in the listener, which they allow it to fester and build until they drop the floor from beneath you with a breakdown. It’s textbook stuff, but no one does it as masterfully as they do. They are the kings of metalcore, and they’re here to stay. Favorite Tracks: “King of Sorrow”, “The Frost”, “Quake”
  6. While She Sleeps – You Are We (metalcore)This record is nonstop energy. It is clear that the band isn’t happy with the current state of affairs socially/politically/economically in our world, but amidst the sheer anger is a message of hope for humanity. While She Sleeps isn’t exactly a new band to the scene either, but this is finally the record many felt the band was capable of putting out. It’s blistering, angry, and frantic. However, where this record shines is the melodic compositions, something that was lacking in their previous releases. The choruses and guitar leads are so memorable and catchy, not in a poppy way, but in an anthemic way. They soar over the top of the hectic metal/hardcore rhythms that drive the songs forward. You Are We is a stellar release from front to back. It’s one of those albums that comes on and you can’t help but bang your head. Favorite Tracks: “Silence Speaks (feat. Oli Sykes)”, “Feel”, “You Are We”
  7. Currents – The Place I Feel Safest (metalcore)Currents’ debut has taken the heavy scene by storm. Their strength here is building atmosphere for the listener, and I’d be hard-pressed to find an album on this list that does quite the same thing from front to back. The guitars on this record are also mixed perfectly. They carry this weight that makes every breakdown sound absolutely earth-shattering. Another strength is that these songs are composed extremely well. Typically heavy bands struggle creating whole songs, they’ll have a couple awesome riffs and they try to force them together. Currents overcome this by finding a way to perfect way to not just make a riff a “riff” but treats them more like sonic movements. There normally isn’t more than 2-3 riffs a song, but they are so well crafted, and perfectly accented by breakdowns/choruses that it all flows seamlessly. There’s also a groove the overall sonic tone of the album has that this record feels even more unique from other standout heavy releases this year. Currents is a band to watch out for. Favorite Tracks: “Silence”, “Apnea”, “Night Terrors”
  8. Wage War – Deadweight (metalcore): Hype. That’s the word for this record. Saying this record is “full of energy” would be doing it an injustice. This album is a force of fierce momentum, and it seemingly never lets up. It’s almost exhausting to listen to because Wage War seemingly has decided to…wage war…against your ears. There is hardly a moment to breathe, collect your thoughts, or even a hint of sonic respite. The calmer moments only serve to build a tension for the sonic explosion that’s inevitable. Even the “ballad” of the album, “Gravity,” builds to a couple of big breakdowns at the end. Vocalists Briton Bond and Cody Quistad have a dynamic that is undeniably effective as well, and the band plays to their strengths well. Bond serves to make the songs sound of desperate anger and pain, but Quistad often comes in to offer a sense of possible hope or an even more delicate sense of despair. Wage War doesn’t shy away from the record they want to make. This thing is heavy and loud. They don’t apologize, and they don’t take prisoners. Favorite Tracks: “Stitch”, “Witness”, “Never Enough”
  9. Ghost Guest – Ghost Guest (folk-punk/emo): We finally get a full length from the Massachutes folk-punk/emo inspired group, and oh boy does it live up to the hype. This album, in contrast to other albums on this list, is delicate. It’s light sonically, but at times can still sound big and powerful. The band uses the dual vocals of Catilyn and Heru to eloquently build a sense of desperation and longing, themes that pop up frequently on the album. It is also unapologetically honest. It’s one of those records that not only you can easily connect with, but it feels like the musicians are leaving a part of their souls with you. It’s like getting a glimpse into the most sensitive and private parts of someone’s life. The album is so vulnerable that you can’t help but feel everything they are feeling. More importantly, it takes you back to feelings that perhaps you haven’t felt, or have wanted feel, in a long time. But not only does it do that, it offers this unshakable notion that you aren’t alone in those feelings. That other people have been there, that they have gotten through it, and that they feel better. Ghost Guest then makes sure you feel like you will be better too. For an album that edges on being extremely dark, it offers a cathartic emotional experience that borderlines on religious. This is the kind of record that makes you believe in music, and yourself, again. Favorite Tracks: “Hardwood Floors”, “Shakey Knees”, “Lockjaw”
  10. The White Noise – AM/PM (metalcore/hardcore/alt-rock): Sometimes a band is all over the place but in a way that is surprisingly addictive and genius. The White Noise decides to take a fusion of genres: metal, hardcore, punk, California-rock, and decides to give you the finger and jam them all together. This album is all attitude. It isn’t particularly unique, they aren’t creating anything new in their sonic choices, but what they do well is mesh this frantic mess and make it sound like a cohesive collection of songs. Each song can stand well on its own, and it fits on this record, and they feel like this album is the only place where you would hear them. Ultimately, AM/PM and The White Noise feel like something other bands in this scene lack: they feel punk. Favorite Tracks: “Rated R… (feat Landon Tewers)”, “Bite Marks”, “Picture Day”
Honorable Mentions:
Local News Legend – Local News Legend
Veil of Maya – False Idol
Stray From the Path – Only Death Matters
Our Last Night – Selective Hearing EP
Winds of Plague – Blood of My Enemy
Like Moths to Flames – Dark Divine
Ankle Grease – Straight to the Bottom
Counterparts – You’re Not You Anymore
He is We – Fall Out of Line
The Ongoing Concept – Places
I the Mighty – Where the Mind Wants to Go
Hotel Books – Equivalency
We Came as Romans – Cold Like War
Being as an Ocean – Waiting for Morning to Come
Michael Poggioli – I’m Yeah
McCafferty – Thanks. Sorry. Sure.
Make Them Suffer – Worlds Apart
Palisades – Palisades
Oceans Ate Alaska – Hikari

Favorite Games of 2017

No remakes, DLC, or early access games. Which actually excludes a bunch of titles that I spent a lot of time with, namely Fortnite, Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age, and Kingdom Hearts 1.5+2.5.
    1. Horizon: Zero Dawn: Not only is Horizon my game of the year, but it’s also one of my favorite games in a while. Here’s the elevator pitch: fighting robot dinosaurs with a bow and arrow. And not only is the game just as awesome as that basic description sounds, but it also delivers a captivating story in an immersive world, with a wonderful lead character for you to become. Everything about the game is tight, sleek, and breathtaking. From its controls in combat, its visuals, and its progression systems…Horizon does it all right.
    2. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: For me, when I consume art and entertainment, the big thing I love is a good story. What Breath of the Wild did for me was show that a captivating game doesn’t need this nuts and bolts perfect narrative. This game doesn’t focus on that, but rather spends its time on the little moments that help the player create their own story and experience in the world of Hyrule. From the exploration, to the mechanics and details you find on your own, Breath of the Wild is truly an experience you get lost in and that has you begging for more.
    3. Nier: Automata: A title that I haven’t, nor probably will get the time to really get to the bottom of, Nier doesn’t take long for you to digest what is so great about it. The gameplay is this mesh of styles that on paper would seem jarring, but in reality is so smooth and effortless that you can’t imagine experiencing the world and the story in any other way. Speaking of the story, everything about it is so meticulously crafted. The central relationship between the two protagonists is heartfelt and engrossing, that you almost miss the other themes going on in the story. And the fact that the story changes so drastically on each “playthrough”, Nier is a game that you must keep going back to play to fully unravel, but in a beautiful way. Nier is a unique narrative experience that we may never see the likes of again.
    4. Persona 5: This is a game I probably will never beat, mostly because I don’t have 130 some hours to devote to it, but Persona is just so…cool. Everything about it, from the menus, the art style, the soundtrack, the character designs…it just all has this unique energy and feel that is “cool.” There isn’t a better word for it. Add on top a cast of loveable characters, an annoying cat, high school drama, and a fantastical plot, then you have a game that from the outside seems ridiculous, but once you experience it, you realize how special Persona really is.
    5. Super Mario Odyessy: I didn’t necessarily grow up a Nintendo kid, and truthfully other than Super Mario Brothers on Gameboy and Super Mario ’64 on the Nintendo 64, Mario isn’t a character I really spent an obsessive amount of time with. But man oh man, does this game just feel like a nostalgia kick anyways. Nintendo makes this Mario game feel like everything you think a Mario game should be, even if you aren’t insanely familiar with the franchise. Everything this game does is designed to bring a smile to your face. There is so much joy packed into this game that it infects you while you play. As you grow up you can’t help but become more critical and more cynical about the world around you, and about the things you love. But Odyessy makes you forget to become that old cranky man, and simply leaves you smiling like a kid again.
    6. Batman: A Telltale Series, Season 2: Disclaimer, I am a sucker for Telltale Games and any kind of  “interactive movies”/”visual novels” (whatever you want to call them) kinds of games. And while I like Telltale more than I think an average gamer does, something about their Batman saga just feels grander than anything else Telltale has done. Their interpretation of the characters and the twists that they’ve added on some of the old Batman cliches keeps the story fresh and exciting. While your choices don’t affect the plot as much as Telltale would like you to believe, the array of choices that they do give you allow you to build a Batman/Bruce Wayne that can feel drastically different based upon what you want. Not only is this series a unique take on Batman from Telltale’s perspective, but it allows the players to project their own interpretation of the character as well.
    7. Destiny 2 (at launch): At launch, D2 seemed to flesh out the failings of its predecessor, and for the most part succeeded, and it kept the things I loved about the original. The single-player narrative is finally engaging, the gunplay is just as buttery smooth, and the lore is just as deep. It is still a fairly grind-heavy, repetitive game, but the progression felt more satisfying and the story was just there enough to keep me around. I rather liked D2 at launch, but as one got deeper into the end-game, it appeared that Activision couldn’t leave it alone and was gunning for players’ pockets. I almost kept D2 off my list for these things, but the 30 or so hours I’ve poured into it were genuinely a fun time. Running around terraformed planets and fighting aliens using superpowers with my friends was a blast, and I can’t deny that, even if the publisher ruined the game with their predatory monetization schemes.
    8. Resident Evil 7: Another disclaimer: I played this game mostly in VR, and holy crap, what a terrifying experience. It’s so scary, yet so gripping that you can’t seem let it go, no matter how scared you get. I went months not being able to play because I refused to walk into a room in the basement of the house. But the game is so fun, and the atmosphere so engaging that I just had to go back for more. As the game progresses you get more powerful and it gets less “scary”, but the fun doesn’t end. The action parts are just as good as the more straight-forward horror elements are, which makes this really feel like an old Resident Evil game. Add on top a compelling story of a cannibalistic family hunting you down, and RE7 really does it’s best to bring legitimacy back to a franchise that had become lethargic.
    9. Tacoma: Gone Home is one of my favorite titles of all time, and so Tacoma was naturally high on my list of anticipated games for 2017. While the story doesn’t quite have the emotional depth of Gone Home, it is compelling and thoughtful. Tacoma takes you a journey with a cast of characters who have to make some pretty emotionally and mentally tough choices, and you’re left there wishing you could help. In the end, I felt that the story attempted to do too much and lost sight of itself, but ultimately, the journey you go on with the central cast is enough to make Tacoma stick around with you long after the credits have rolled.
    10. Farpoint: By far one of my favorite VR experiences yet, the gunplay is so smooth that you become immersed in ways that other VR shooters can’t dream of. The aliens attacking you are really freaking scary as well, and so Farpoint doesn’t some “shoot ’em up” title either. While yes, some graphical things are still a bit wonky, and PSVR clearly has its limits, Farpoint is by far the most polished, fully immersive, experience on there to date. And what is more perfect in virtual reality than battling spider aliens on a deserted planet?
Honorable Mentions: Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, Kingdom Hearts 2.8, Prey, Outlast 2, Doki Doki Literature Club, Cuphead (which I’ll admit I barely have touched, but from what I have played/seen, it’s awesome, beautiful, and I’m awful at it)
Didn’t Get to Play: Hellbade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Life is Strange: Before the Storm, Nioh, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy, 2064 Read Only Memories, Night in the Woods, Wolfenstein 2, Middle Earth: Shadow of War, Halo Wars 2
Biggest Disappointments: Star Wars Battlefront II, Mass Effect: Andromeda, Destiny 2 (post a month or so from release, when they started screwing over players)
Most anticipated for 2018: Kingdom Hearts 3, Marvel’s Spider-Man, Dreams, Farcry 5, Vampyr, A Way Out, Agony, God of War

Favorite Films of 2017

Here are my favorite movies that I’ve seen this past calendar year. I have excluded Star Wars: The Last Jedi because of it being a numerical entry into the franchise, and that messes up my ability to be objective. While the movie has some serious problems, I loved it and saw it 4 times so…it is so far above the list that it doesn’t count.

  1. Lady Bird: The movie is not shy about what it means to grow up and trying to find your place in the world, with your friends, and with your family. The script is earnest, the performances are mesmerizing, and the direction is tight. This is a film that everyone can find a little bit of themselves in.
  2. IT: While not that “scary”, the heart of Kings’ coming of age tale shines through in a film that not only startles you but reminds you of your childhood. The nostalgia of the film touches not only on growing up but your childhood fears as well, giving it a unique perspective in the coming of age genre.The acting is superb, to say the least, everything is shot gorgeously, and the scenery of Pennsylvania and the town of Derry are utterly enchanting. IT shines in a colluded genre and stays true to the source material in a way most acclaimed King adaptations don’t.
  3. Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri: Filled with a star-studded cast, Three Billboards is a dark tale that, like it’s protagonist, refuses to back down from its questions. Woody Harrelson delivers arguably his best, and most somber, performance to date and McDormand is ruthless in hers as well. In a film about letting go, it too forces you to walk away with questions unresolved and forces you to be okay with that.
  4. The Big Sick: Heartfelt, hysterical, and a joy to watch, the film has a way of tugging your heartstrings that is unique and earnest. While the tale is cliche, the sheer honesty of the story, as well as some inspirational performances from our leads, make The Big Sick a unique rom-com that will delight all of its audiences. 
  5. It Comes at Night: Sharp, entrancing, and emotionally draining, It Comes At Night isn’t the scariest movie ever, but it is among most thrilling. The tension created simply grabs you by the throat and refuses to let go, driving you further into the mystery and atmosphere of the film. It’s dazzling and uncomfortable. It’s sleek and grim. It Comes At Night is a special movie experience, and one of my favorites in years.
  6. Logan: Logan is that rare film that doesn’t work in spite of being a superhero movie, it works because it is a superhero movie. Logan is deep in thematic qualities: death, violence, accepting life, purpose, legacy, and more are discussed at length, but these themes only work because of the characters and the universe it takes place in. The film also is superb on a filmmaking level with both Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman saving their best for last for the franchise, as well boasting the best directing/writing any X-Men film has seen. It’s an engaging, intense, and raging emotional epic that will go down as one of the best superhero movies ever made.
  7. Blade Runner: 2049: Sleek, mysterious, and methodical. Villeneuve not only captures these elements which make the original a cult classic, but he adds a flare of his own. 2049 doesn’t rely too much on its old material as a crutch as much as it attempts to redefine our paradigms for viewing the old movie. It’s bold, rich, and leaves you full of wonder. This is that rare sequel that challenges its predecessor in ways that fundamentally alter how we will remember both movies. 
  8. Spider-Man: Homecoming: It’s witty, awkward, vibrant, and overall one of the best Marvel entries thus far. While it doesn’t re-invent the wheel (sounds almost cliche talking about Marvel films like this) it does what Marvel does dazzlingly well, and offers enough of its own vibe that it stands out among the filmography. Holland is the more classical Peter Parker people have been clamoring for, and his joy and enthusiasm is intoxicating throughout. This is the energy and rejuvenation the Spider-Man franchise was looking for.
  9. Coco: Charming, sweet, and wholly unique, Coco is Pixar redefining their boundaries. Everything about this movie screams about how much love, care, and thought was put into this film by everyone who touched it. And behind their creation is a story of family, heritage, and purpose that we all struggle with in our own lives. Pixar is firing on all cylinders here and it’s wonderful to behold.
  10. The Lego Batman Movie: Using the same wit and charisma that infected The Lego Movie, Lego Batman fires back with a sass and quirk that is not found in other animated films. It is entirely self-aware, self-confined, and self-conscious, but that’s what makes it work. There aren’t too many animated movies or movies in general, that understand what the audience is searching and what it is able to achieve quite like this movie does.
Honorable Mentions: Wonder Woman, Thor: Ragnarok, Beauty and the Beast, War for the Planet of the Apes, Captain Underpants, Annabel: Creation
Biggest Disappointments: Justice League, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, All the Money in the World, Murder on the Orient Express
Films I didn’t get to see: The Shape of Water, Darkest Hour, Molly’s Game, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, LBJ, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Downsizing, Mudbound, Dunkirk

Your Faith and Science Do Not, and Should Not, Clash.

I’ve spent a lot of time writing and observing the political sphere of our country in the last year, and most of my writing in the last 365 days has come from that. But a bigger question I’ve been asking is why is there this dichotomy? Why are we so divisive in our rhetoric about politics and culture?

There aren’t any singular answers to these questions. However, I have found this one common thread that has persisted throughout most of my life, and it revolves around the acceptance and reverence of science.

For those who know me and my writing well, you know that much of my life revolved around spending time in the Christian subculture. I give it that title because that’s what it was. I went to a private school most of my life (until college), I regularly attend(ed) church, I went to Christian concerts and camps. Almost everything I did came back to Christianity, and parts of that were really, really good, and a lot of it was really, really, bad. However, this wasn’t something I noticed until much later when I “broke” out of that subculture.

Now, this isn’t to say that I no longer claim myself to be a “Christian,” because I do. While it’s a tough label to swallow (see my “I Hate Being a Christian” post), I still maintain it. Even at the time, in high school especially, I saw a lot of issues in this subculture I was permeated in. I even joined another subculture (underground music) that really highlighted my angst and struggle with the larger Christian culture I lived in daily. But that entire story is probably better to save for another post on another day.

However, I believe my first big precursor to my struggle with the Christian subculture was my adoration of science. I LOVE science. I’m a total geek, a total nerd, whatever label you want to attach to this self-proclamation, you can feel free to do so. I currently am a graduate student in a social science, and my goal is to teach and conduct research based on what I’m learning. This type of career is something I’ve always idolized and wanted to achieve.

I do promise there is a point to my little life story here, it might take a bit to get too because I’m so long-winded but bear with me.

Even as a little kid, I took this love of science too far. You know every 5-year-old boy’s obsession with dinosaurs? Yeah, that was me. But it went far beyond just looking at them and having toys. I would watch every Discovery Channel documentary, and I would get these giant encyclopedias and try to learn all the scientific names for the species. I learned how to spell “paleontologist” as a 1st or 2nd grader so I could, “Be like the guy from Jurassic Park.” While that love never manifested to me actually becoming a paleontologist (it might still be a far-off goal), my digestion of all things prehistoric led me to a rather stark realization that what I was reading in the science books, and what my parents/school/church were telling me about the world, didn’t quite add up.

It was easy enough at first for my parents to just write it off, to tell me not to trust everything I read, and to have that be the end of the discussion without much pushback. But it became increasingly difficult when I started learning science in school. I was getting told the earth was only a couple thousand years old by my parents/teachers/pastors, yet I had spent an entire childhood learning about the millions of years of history found below my feet.

This, of course, was highlighted by the evolution vs creation debate. I don’t know how, but eventually, I had a conversation with my father about it sometime during middle school. I don’t recall what happened during the course of this conversation, or what he said, or even what I specifically asked. But I wound up with this book he found for me about Darwin and why creation and evolution couldn’t coexist.

It was then I knew it was bullshit.

What was bullshit? All of it. The Christians saying God can’t exist in a world of evolution. It was bullshit. In reality, the existence of evolution does absolutely nothing in the argument for or against God, and any statements I heard contrary have been based on nonsensical realms of critical thinking.

From the “micro-evolution exists, but not macro-evolution” folly, or the “Noah’s flood makes the earth look older than it is,” nonsense. It was all speculatory and based off of pseudo-science. There’s also the classic “God/the Devil put dinosaur bones in the earth to test our faith,” line of thinking. It became clear that the Christian explanations for the earth and its history were as I said earlier: bullshit.

Here we have reams of biological, geological, astrological, and paleontological data that support how old the earth, and the universe is! But the best refute I can get is “well the Bible is true and the Bible says the earth is 6,000 years old” followed up by a bunch of hogwash that goes to “support” that statement.

And here’s the crazy thing, the premise this line of thinking is the farce. Not the science, nor the scientists. The fact that Christianity has made this stake in proving the evolutionists wrong has no bearing on the actual faith of Christianity. Jesus never came down and said, “part of following my teachings is to undermine science!” Hell, they barely had science in the early 1st century. He actually seemed rather unconcerned about the age of the earth and the contents of the dirt, or how humans developed over time.

And if you look at a majority of Christian culture, this attack on science for no reason doesn’t stop at evolution. It extends into every major Republican/political talking point. The evangelical stances on abortion, sex, sexuality, climate change, and mental health are just some of the examples of concepts that Christians fight against science with.

And it comes at odds with Christian scripture. Nowhere in any Biblical text do we see anything that should refute, or claims to refute these scientific understandings. This need by Christian culture to the Bible be 100% literal and 100% accurate is a relatively new theology and is undermined by the Bible itself. It never makes those claims. It claims to be “inspired”, but poems/stories are “inspired” by real-life events and truths all the time. That doesn’t make them literal.

So why does this exist? Why does this narrative get pushed that the scientists are out to get the Christians? Well, it isn’t helped that staunch public science figures such as Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Bill Nye can be assholes who do (or did in the case of Hitchens) attack religion blindly. But notice that their attacks focus on religion as a whole (mostly) and not specific to Christianity unless brought up that way. It also doesn’t help that a large majority of our academic professors are not religious. But there is no “God’s Not Dead” scenario where the liberal professor attacks the Christian beliefs in front of a large lecture hall. Again I’m sure there are individual examples, but a majority of professors look to be inclusive of all worldview in their classes. Far more so than in any science or religion class that I took in high school. It’s not a larger narrative in the academic world to destroy Christianity.

And a big reason for the attacks on religion is the self-hypocrisy. Christianity as a religion has the ability to freely accept science and what it has taught us about how our world works, and how humans behave and have evolved, but it doesn’t. There is an underlying fear that exists there, perhaps created from propaganda and a political objective to refute those things, that doesn’t allow that narrative to take place. Whether it’s to push for an “abstinence” morality, to get you to keep buying oil, regardless of how bad it is for the environment, how bad marijuana is for you…it’s all there to scare you from things that should be un-concerning, or to keep you from being scared of the things that really matter.

Jesus doesn’t rely on the fact that we are driven by an evolutionary need to procreate. Jesus doesn’t exist or not exist based upon the fact that dinosaurs were taken out by a meteor that hit the Gulf of Mexico 65 million years ago. God’s existence doesn’t hang in the fact that humans are the major contributing factor for climate change. Your faith isn’t made stronger because you reject these principles. In fact, the opposite is true. You see how little faith you have if you let the simple facts about our universe disturb you.

So why do we have this divisive country? Like I said, there’s no one explanation. But it goes much further than the D’s or R’s next to people’s names. It starts with our basic assumptions of truth. The Christian culture has, in defense of truth, allowed itself to completely remove itself from the exciting discoveries about our world being made every day. And if anything, I have found that it harms our view of the world, and doesn’t enhance it. God/creation/the earth, is no more or less special if it’s six thousand or six trillion years old. The simple fact is that it’s special because we’re on it. Why isn’t that enough?

 

 

Yes, the President of the United States is a Racist.

A lot has been said in response to the terrifying events we saw in Virginia this weekend. So many people have offered their takes and opinions…and I’m likely to just be thrown into the mix and quickly forgotten. But I just have some feelings I need to get out.

I first want to apologize to the family of Heather Heyer. Honestly, the world doesn’t deserve people like Heather. We don’t deserve someone courageous and confident enough to stare evil people in the face and tell them they’re wrong. That kind of heart, one of both fierceness and compassion, is something we need more of. And sadly we’re one less now because of the awful people she was fighting.

Now her family has to fight her battle for her, because we as a culture are failing to do so. I offer those same condolences to the family and friends of the two police officers who lost their lives. They too died protecting something they thought was worth the risk, and while my feelings about law enforcement are sometimes rather negative, their daily sacrifice is something I do truly admire, and events like this are rather sobering.

So if you take one thing from this weekend: be like Heather. Don’t be hateful. Fight against those who are trying to rewrite a history we so desperately need to detach from. Stand up for those who are being oppressed and have to walk by these symbols and images that remind them that other humans don’t see them as equals. And don’t be like our President.

One grievance I had over the weekend was that I felt that too much focus was being placed onto Trump. But I can’t really blame the media, he’s a hot topic. And he made a terrible error. I feel that because of that, the clicks and the views were focused on a buffoon, and not on the tragic loss of three heroes.

Mr. Trump did make a rather egregious error on Saturday with his now infamous “from all sides,” quote. However, I chalked it up to him being dumb and insensitive. There were more concrete issues to deal with and more blatant examples of his racist sentiments that I felt were more important than that comment. Because inherently I agree, all violence is reprehensible. What he got wrong was a matter of politics, and in this moment we didn’t need that.

My biggest fault for Mr. Trump was that he failed to step up as a leader and a healer in that moment. He treated it like bad politics. I guess I don’t know what I expected, that’s his gimmick. He understands almost nothing about the weight of his position and sounds ridiculous and incompetent whenever he opens his mouth. However, that was nothing new coming from the President, so I let it go. I wanted to focus on condemning Nazis, talking to those who enable them, and grieving the loss of those heroes. That’s how we begin to heal.

Trump even came out and tried to get the whole thing to blow over with his half-assed speech on Monday. I didn’t buy it, but at least he was smart enough to give into his PR people and hope that would be enough to calm the waters.

Then came Tuesday afternoon, and what a shitshow.

Mr. Trump doubles down both on his “both sides” argument, as well as defends the idea that we should have confederate memorials. A podcast I follow called Pod Save America phrased it best: until you can put yourself into the shoes of a black kid who has to walk past a statue of Robert E. Lee everyday, don’t say you want to keep the thing.

And this false equivalency of the radical left vs the radical right…Pod Save America again phrased it well with their Monday episode: Black Lives Matter is about defending innocent kids being shot by cops, and the alt-right is about killing those same kids (As someone who is a self-proclaimed radical leftist (at least in ideology) I’m going to say a lot more about this in another piece).

This is when my rage kicked into another gear (which I honestly didn’t think was possible). These talking points are why Saturday happened to begin with. The right, conservatives, Fox News, the mainstream media, social media, whatever you wanna say, has allowed these conversations to happen like they have some ground in something other than pure hate. And they don’t.

To defend the Confederacy is to be a traitor and a racist. That’s it. There’s no “history” or “heritage” there besides that. I have lived in two “Union” states and have seen an uncomfortable amount of confederate imagery to make my skin boil. If you support the Confederacy because of, “state’s rights,” then you clearly ignoring the motives behind the Civil War.

The United States wanted to abolish slavery and the Southern states did not. They feared it would ruin their economies, so they argued it should be up to state government if we should own people or not. So what caused secession? Well South Carolina voted to succeed after Abraham Lincoln was voted into office, and while honest Abe was against slavery, he wasn’t all in for total abolition. But they succeeded anyways. And if you say, “but Abraham Lincoln was a Republican and the Democrats wanted slavery!” Then just know that during this period of history, the Democratic party was recognized as the conservative party, and the Republicans were the progressives. Believe it or not, party politics isn’t stagnant.

So defending the idea that we should have the statue, of a man who wanted to own other human beings, out in public is deplorable. And Trump did that. “Who’s next, George Washington?” was his response when asked about the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue. And while I’m not going to jump in and defend the morality of George Washington (although I believe he never told a lie – just kidding), I will say we should probably not memorialize someone who wanted to fight against the United States and enslave African Americans.

The fact that we have people rewriting history with this “state’s rights” bullshit, and saying, “I am proud of the confederate heritage” is terrifying. They either don’t get it, don’t want to get it, or do get it and are just as racist and bigoted as the men who were owning slaves. Again I emphasize: if you support any imagery or notion of the confederacy, you’re acting out of racism.

We have created a culture where these discussions are allowed to happen, regardless of how irrational and hateful they really are. On the surface they seem like just the “opposite” viewpoint, but really they come from a place that is meant to harm and destroy others. We cannot allow this to continue to happen. Especially at our highest levels of government. We have enabled the Nazis, the fascists, the White Supremacists, and the ignorance of history.

So what’s the answer? We have to stop legitimizing these ideas. We have to stop letting people put their own spin on history. We have to stop supporting the figureheads who spout this nonsense.

Donald Trump made something very clear Tuesday afternoon. He is a racist. He condones racist ideologies, and his agenda is to give power to those who hate other people. This is the man we voted into office. He’s more than a buffoon or a misspoken figurehead. He is an enabler of the worst part of our culture.

He is everything Heather fought against. And that’s on us.

 

The Problem With Franchises

TL;DR: it’s character development.

It’s been a couple of weeks since Alien: Covenant (a movie I very much was excited for) came out and after seeing it, I couldn’t help but think of another blockbuster film that came out within the last six months: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Now, on the surface, these films have absolutely nothing in common. The Alien movies are sci-fi/horror films aimed at an adult audience while the Harry Potter films are fantasy stories (mostly) targeted toward children and families. However, I think they both play an essential role in explaining Hollywood’s state-of-mind. And that is the mindset of the franchise, and as stated earlier, these films specifically give insight into my trepidation about those movies.

Everything is a franchise. Look at the top grossing movies of the each year from the past 10 years (data from boxofficemojo.com): Captain America: Civil War (2016), Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014), Frozen (2013), Marvel’s The Avengers (2012), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pt 2 (2011), Toy Story 3 (2010), Avatar (2009), The Dark Knight (2008), Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End (2007),  and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006). 

Now only two of these movies were not part of an already established franchise: Frozen and Avatar, but have sequels that have been planned/that are in production (Avatar director James Cameron reportedly has 5 sequels planned to film back-to-back). However general discussion about turning everything into a franchise is seen as a new Hollywood epidemic (the one of the franchise), if we go back far enough (1989) to when Boxofficemojo began tracking this data only three pictures are not franchise films (or wound up becoming franchises): Armageddon (1998), Titanic (1997), and Ghost (1990).

So Hollywood has always milked the franchise. And will continue to do so because that’s what we as consumers largely want. And I’m mostly okay with it. This isn’t going to be the normal hit piece of “I hate that we have so many reboots and sequels and comic-book movies!” Because I’m one of the people who lines up for all of them. I love Star Wars. I love Harry Potter. I love superheroes. Those are things that I have always enjoyed and probably always will enjoy. And for a large part I’ve enjoyed other franchises like Alien, Lord of the Rings, and Jurassic Park.

What I’m finding to become the problem though, is that studios and writers are getting confused. They think we love the universes that these stories take place in. But I don’t think that’s the case. While I think that a good universe and lore are essential to a thriving franchise, what makes a story special is inherently one thing: it’s characters. Star Wars wouldn’t be Star Wars without Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and now Rey, Kylo Ren, and Finn. Engaging and interesting characters that face obstacles and have to grow in order to confront those obstacles are, to me, essentially in creating a story I will care about more than once.

When I was watching Alien: Covenant I was struck by how much I didn’t care for the peril of the protagonists. They had no stakes in the film, and in fact, the film only has one interesting character (although it verges on having a couple). Yet, he is static the whole time with no major internal changes, and accomplishes his goals with little struggle. That isn’t a big pay off for the audience. The reason the first Alien is so terrifying is because we aren’t sure if Rippley (our lead) is strong enough to survive on her own, and her crewmates are slowly being picked off one by one. It is a bloodbath, but one that you still see the progression of someone who you can relate with. This makes the ending feel satisfying and relieving, and is what keeps tension throughout the majority of the film. At first she is indecisive and quiet. And by the end she has to rely on her skills and wit without error.

You see this growth in her and her confidence in facing the xenomorph. In Alien: Covenant there isn’t that relatable arc to carry us through the film. Just interest in continuing the lore. Even the previous entry of the series, Prometheus, has a more memorable lead in Dr. Elizabeth Shaw than anyone from Covenant. None of the protagonists in Covenant are emotionally invigorating. While the film is good, the lack of development from our lead hinders the film from being truly tense. She’s strong and capable to start in her fight against the xenomorphs, so her survival never feels at risk. We know she has to make it to a point further down the film, and while the movie hopes to create suspension with a twist, the twist is generic and given away entirely too soon, again, not giving the audience a reason to feel anything at all for the mortality of our lead character.

This is what got me thinking of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and really anything JK Rowling has done with the Harry Potter franchise after finishing the original 7 books. The reason people love those stories isn’t because of the history of the Wizarding World (though admittedly, some of that stuff is cool). What’s special about those books is the characters and their relationships with each other. I think of Harry, Ron, Hermione, and how their friendship carries them through a war. About Dumbledore and Harry’s relationship, where Dumbledore has to struggle with his knowledge of Harry’s fate, but needs him to carry it out to save everyone (the classic do you push one man in front of a train to save 3 psychological exercise comes to mind). Snape and his struggle with love and loyalty. Voldemort and his lust for power and his fear of death, and the (eventual) foil to Harry who embraces love and death. These are such engaging and powerful arcs, and they are the reason we love the world.

Fantastic Beasts focuses so much on building the lore of the universe, it completely disregards the fact that it has a character that I think could be on that level of engagement in Newt. He’s charming and quirky, yet has a dark and hauntingly sad past. But we learn nothing of him in the movie. And the whole time he is competent and able to quickly figure out his problems without facing many setbacks or having much growth. The film completely derails itself so it can set up lore building for the universe, and not even to the level of excitement that Covenant does. Again because of all these things, the film has no payoff.

And this brings me to the problem with franchises: if you don’t have characters to engage you, then no one will care about your universe in the long term.

When franchise sequels bomb or bust, people are always confused as to why. And I think the answer lies within characters. I don’t think Fantastic Beasts will lead to a booming franchise like the original Harry Potters. Alien: Covenant has received mixed reception and had a poor opening at the box office. But more character driven spin-offs like Guardians of the Galaxy, Logan, or Rogue One received both critical and financial success. And I think you can point to those films and see what they got right, they gave us characters to care about.

Even spin-offs of franchises have to rely on character arcs within their stories to drive interest. The Star Wars Expanded Universe books/movies/comics wouldn’t be interesting if it weren’t for Mara Jade, Talon Karrde, Nom Anor, and other characters that made those mediums engaging to be in. Perhaps the only example of pure lore that held in as high regard as the original stories is The Silmarillion from the Lord of the Rings universe, however, I would contend that the only care about the lore of that world is because characters like Bilbo, Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn got me invested.

Perhaps I’m a bit too old school in my thinking, but I believe the by-product of a good story involves some sort of character development. Not every book/movie/story has to be a character analysis, but at some point, I need be invested in what is happening to the people I’m being told about. Tension and conflict are only captivating if there’s something at stake, and in the instance of Fantastic Beasts and Alien: Covenant, I never get that feeling. I don’t even think Alien: Covenant is a bad movie. I believe it is a pretty solid and entertaining couple of hours. But when I ask myself, “do I only care about this movie because it says Alien in the title?” The answer becomes clear: yes.

But it could be more, and it should be more. The film forgets why I love Alien, not because xenomorphs are scary and cool (they are) but because Ripply was engaging. Dr. Shaw and David had an interesting dynamic in Prometheus. Those characters got me to engage in the movies, therefore I became invested in the universe behind them. But these things are forgone in the latest film, and it seems to only justify its existence by having the name Alien in the title. And I don’t want that. I expect better from the stories I love. That’s why I love them in the first place.

“Genre film essentially asks the audience, ‘Do you still want to believe this?’ Popularity is the audience answering, “Yes.” Change in genre occurs when the audience says, “That’s too infantile a form of what we believe. Show us something more complicated.'” – Leo Braudy.