nowListening: No Matter How Narrow by The Republic of Wolves

All lyrics and songs belong to The Republic of Wolves, not me.

When I first heard The Republic of Wolves, I hated them.

To be clear, I didn’t have anything against their sound. I guess a slice of history is in order: The Republic of Wolves made the scene when several of their demos appeared on YouTube disguised as Brand New demos. Brand New is my favorite band, and when I found out it wasn’t them, I was disappointed in how shady the whole thing was. When the band came out and claimed the demos, they said it was a friend of theirs who posted them, without the band’s knowledge. That didn’t alleviate my disappointment.

I think deep down I was mostly upset that I wasn’t hearing new music by my favorite band. (I probably knew this anyway; the demos sounded very similar to Brand New, but “similar” is as close as it got.)

Despite my mostly forced aversion to the band, every now and then, echoes of the song “Cardinals” played in my head: “I think I found a better way to live, and I think I found a better way to die.” The lyrics were so simple, but said so much. I found myself returning to the song to see what else it had to offer. I found more to like: “I’ve been fitting myself into that small space, that you set out for the screaming of the wind, ’cause that is all I’ve ever been.”

“Cardinals”, by The Republic of Wolves, uploaded to YouTube by a fan.

The immature compulsion I felt to avoid the band eventually broke down, and one day, I used the last of an iTunes gift card to buy the band’s EP His Old Branches. I would come to love the songs “Cardinals”, “For His Old Branches”, and “The Clouds”, and eventually I picked up the rest of the band’s releases.

The band’s first full-length album, Varuna, solidified them as one of my favorite bands. From the haunting, selling-your-soul-themed “Sea Smoke” to the energetic “Oarsman”, the seven-minute-long epic “Monologues” to the lethargic, melody-driven “Pitch and Resin” and “Grounded, I Am Traveling Light”, some of my favorite songs come from this album. I hadn’t felt particularly moved by music in a long time, and Varuna helped change that. It’s impact on me is probably clear; in my novel In the Lone and Level Sands, two characters meet up in the middle of the zombie apocalypse and travel across the country listening to music, and “Pitch and Resin” becomes their anthem. (I didn’t reprint any lyrics as that would infringe upon copyright, but it was and still is my hope that mentioning the song will inspire people to find it.)

The Republic of Wolves next released an EP called The Cartogropher, full of oceanic songs primarily sung by the band’s backing vocalist, which provided a fresh and interesting perspective on their music. Next came their second full-length, No Matter How Narrow, in which the band nails down a very new, more unique sound.

No Matter How Narrow by The Republic of Wolves

From the opening track “Frozen Feet”, it’s clear that No Matter How Narrow sounds radically different from the band’s previous material. The introspective, cleverly crafted lyrics remain, but the vocal melodies and the music that accompanies them are much brighter and lighthearted compared to the often dark, serious tones carried in the band’s past work.

There’s a cold that I must catch,
Living well in all that I’ve said
And I feel it coming on,
Unless it’s all in my head.

But you were up at two A.M.
Figuring out what it meant:
That all those sins were really sicknesses,
And nobody’s to blame.

—The Republic of Wolves, “Frozen Feet”

“Stray(s)” comes in quieter and darker, with verses reminiscent of Coldplay. The chorus is much louder and led by backing vocalist Gregg Andrew Dellarocca (something I wish happened more often on the album; in past releases, he handled lead vocals on at least one song, but not this time around). After this is “Spare Key”, a more upbeat song with lyrics hearkening back to “Cardinals”.

The official video for “Spare Key”, from the band’s YouTube channel.

“Greenville, MO” is perhaps the most akin to the band’s former sound, with distant guitars accompanying a prominent bass and slow, droning vocals. This isn’t to say this song would belong on one of the band’s other works; two bridges heartily shouted by vocalist Mason Maggio sound like nothing the band has produced before.

“Pioneers” introduces itself with a loud, catchy chorus, then calms down long enough to deliver the precisely placed, cleverly woven lyrics I first fell in love with this band for.

Enough with the coronations,
There’s no one left who isn’t king of something arbitrary
That’s why I’m looking for a crown to pick apart,
We’re just collecting flies in jars, a reconquista in our yard
A war I never had to start.

—The Republic of Wolves, “Pioneers”

After this is one of my favorite songs on the album and from this band, “Keep Clean”. The song contains the energy and enthusiasm of past tunes like “Oarsman” and “The Dead Men Stood Together”, but is possibly the most upbeat track they’ve ever recorded. The talented Will Noon of Straylight Run and fun. fills in on drums for this song.

So we’re all ordaining ministers
Because we can’t keep, no we can’t keep clean.
We’ve been deferring to a hypocrite,
With a kind voice and a loud idea
He divided up the races with a pencil and the Book of Genesis
And sorted us into companies and colonies all pitted up against each other
No matter how, no matter how common is our cause.

—The Republic of Wolves, “Keep Clean”

Following this is “Arithmetic on the Frontier”, an experimental track with a lot of effects, which sounds like something that could easily go wrong, but is perfectly executed. At just over two minutes long, the tune doesn’t wear out its welcome, and culminates in one of my favorite moments on the album, a loud, multi-layered chorus that reminds me of some of my favorite songs from The Cartographer. This leads into “Turning Lane”, another fast-paced track that contains some of my favorite lead guitar work on the album.

Next is the moody, quasi-acoustic “Vinedresser”. This is another of my favorites, with lyrics drenched in metaphor, stopping only once to deliver a moment of clear, undisguised sincerity:

But I was a victim like you,
My shoplifted grace in hand.
How could you know me so well,
When I couldn’t know myself?

—The Republic of Wolves, “Vinedresser”

“Orange Empire” is probably the heaviest song on the album. With lyrics like “Now I’m barely blood and flesh, just an anatomic sketch, coming to find this may be as solid as we get”, the song is contemplative, if not angry, which makes for a very solid penultimate track.

The album closes with “Through Empty Vessels”, a melodic and honest reflection on two people who have had a falling out. This one hits close to home for me; the subject isn’t new to the world of music, but the stance it takes is a little more original. When two people fight, it’s almost never one person’s fault. Sometimes things just don’t work. I’ve tried to capture this in song before, but I don’t think I’ll ever do as good a job as this song does.

And I was intertwined, for the first time, with my own lies
As we both crossed a devastating line
In the flood tide, it never mattered why
When we chose sides, we were both right.

—The Republic of Wolves, “Through Empty Vessels”

The title is possibly a reference to the band’s first EP, whose last song was called “Through Windows”. It wouldn’t be the only reference on No Matter How Narrow to the band’s previous work, and it’s obvious that The Republic of Wolves have come a long way in their musical journey. I can’t wait to see where they go next.

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nowPlaying: Bioshock Infinite

Bioshock was one of the first Xbox 360 games I ever played. I bought the console from a friend, along with a few games, and that was the only one that looked interesting to me. (I had yet to go pick up my copy of Fallout 3, which was my reason for buying the console in the first place.) I remember being surprised at how much fun it was: Not your average first-person shooter, the game implements the use of biological powers called plasmids, which ultimately led to the fall of the game’s utopian underwater city, Rapture. The game introduced the Big Daddy, one of the most iconic video game characters to appear in recent time, and the story’s twist ending was something I hadn’t seen much in the world of video games.

I remember playing Bioshock 2 and finding it to be a little too familiar. It’s a solid game, but it didn’t offer much that the first game didn’t. Perhaps this is to be expected; the game is made by a different team.

The team behind the first Bioshock would later go on to make the third entry in the series, Bioshock Infinite. This one leaves the underwater city of Rapture in favor of the floating city of Columbia. It’s clear from the beginning that this isn’t going to be more of the same.

Welcome to Columbia.
Welcome to Columbia.

The protagonist of Bioshock Infinite, Booker Dewitt, is much more present than in past games. In recent years, there’s been an influx of silent protagonists. This is something that isn’t always successful in terms of storytelling; when done correctly, the player will feel like they’re in the game, but if not, it tends to feel more like you’re playing as a wall that other characters keep asking to do things. It’s refreshing to see the concept of the pre-made, vocal protagonist is still around and can still be successful.

While you don’t control what Booker Dewitt says, several decisions are left up to you, the player. These range from trivial to very difficult, but great care has been taken to make sure they aren’t out of place. This is the downside to playing as a pre-made protagonist: Sometimes you, the player, make them do things that character would never do. Bioshock Infinite treads this line perfectly. Nothing Booker does is out of place, and he reacts to things the way you’d expect him to react.

Strong storytelling isn’t limited to Booker Dewitt. Bioshock Infinite is one of the strongest games I’ve seen in a long time, in terms of story. Booker’s journey begins on a boat trip to a lighthouse, and takes him into a floating city. His mission: Bring us the girl and wipe away the debt. “Whatever that means” will likely be your first thought, and this is intentional: Booker is the kind of guy who does things he needs to do and doesn’t ask questions. At least, that’s how he starts out.

Things in Columbia quickly take a dark turn, and Booker finds himself fighting for his life, trying to reach a distant statue so he might “find the girl”. It seems Booker is Columbia’s prophesied antichrist figure, recognizable by the “AD” carved into the back of his right hand. Columbia’s prophet, Zachary Comstock, has seen Booker coming, and wants him stopped at all costs.

Columbia is made up of floating islands, and to traverse them, Booker will use a device called the Sky-Hook to latch on to rails connecting the islands. This makes for an interesting mechanic: While sliding along these rails, called Sky-Lines, combat is still possible, and sometimes even required.

The Sky-Hook also makes for a powerful melee weapon.
The Sky-Hook also makes for a powerful melee weapon.

While interesting, the Sky-Line and Sky-Hook system never realize their full potential. Whatever you do the first time you use them is probably going to be all you do with them throughout the game. Shooting from the Sky-Line is difficult, and you’ll most likely miss most of your targets. There also isn’t much complexity to be found: Most of the Sky-Lines in combat areas just take you in a circle around a platform your enemies will be shooting at you from. I couldn’t help but feel like a lot more could’ve been done with this system.

This brings me to my other main complaints about the game. Instead of the plasmids found in earlier games, Booker will use Vigors. The concept is the same: Your DNA is altered, allowing you to use biological attacks. If I had to summarize the game’s use of these, it would be “too much shock and not enough bio”. In most cases, you’ll just end up pulling the trigger of your regular old rifle until everyone else stops shooting at you. I found the Vigors to be mostly useless; one of them, called Devil’s Hand, was just about the only one I used, and it wasn’t particularly creative: Throw a ball of fire and it explodes. As far as first-person shooters go, they may as well have given you grenades.

The exception to the rule is a Vigor you acquire later in the game called Return to Sender. This one is easily my favorite, and the only one I found creative or even fun to use: Booker summons a ball of energy into his hand that allows him to catch incoming bullets and then throw them back at enemies. Doing this requires the use of Booker’s shield, so it isn’t unlimited, and timing is everything.

Return to Sender is particularly useful against Patriots, robotic renditions of the Founding Fathers equipped with machine guns.
Return to Sender is particularly useful against Patriots, robotic renditions of the Founding Fathers equipped with machine guns.

Return to Sender aside, Bisohock Infinite is a pretty basic first-person shooter. There isn’t much variety in the enemies (the iconic Big Daddies are nowhere to be found, instead replaced with Handymen, which are far more annoying than frightening or formidable). Where the game surpasses your run-of-the-mill FPS is in its art direction. You’ll be using the same guns to fight the same enemies you’ll find in any FPS, but they’re going to look a lot more beautiful.

It takes more than looks to make a great game (which Bioshock Infinite is). With breathtaking visuals but standard gameplay and game time (a playthrough will take about 8-10 hours), where Infinite succeeds is its story, and this really takes off when you meet “the girl”, Elizabeth.

It’s difficult to meet Elizabeth and not be immediately reminded of a Disney character (Belle from Beauty and the Beast comes to mind). She’s a young, naive girl who’s spent her life alone in a tower with her books (and a certain guardian I won’t spoil for you). Sounds easy, right? Find the girl, protect the girl, get her to New York, wipe away the debt. Looks can be deceiving; Elizabeth is no sucker, and she’s not going to obey Booker as easily as Booker obeys the man who hired him. She has a mind of her own, and this lends to what is perhaps the game’s biggest charm.

The first time Booker meets Elizabeth, she attacks him with a book on quantum physics. and thus, a legend was born.
The first time Booker meets Elizabeth, she attacks him with a book on quantum physics. and thus, a legend was born.

Elizabeth makes for an interesting character in so many ways. I said she has a mind of her own, and this extends to the gameplay itself: Elizabeth will be with you for most of the game. She’ll stay out of the way during combat, searching for ammo and health for Booker, sometimes finding money, lockpicks, and other useful items. The game’s AI is often mentioned, and with good reason. She’ll walk ahead of you toward your goal, sit down, chat with strangers, lean against walls, look through shelves; Elizabeth acts like a human being. She’ll talk with Booker about everything from his mission to her missing pinky finger. Her personality and programming make her one of the most likable video game characters I’ve ever met.

It’s hard to talk about the game’s story without ruining it. From the point you meet Elizabeth onward, Bioshock Infinite carries one of the strongest stories in video gaming. You’ll meet a lot of characters and factions with their own reasons and purposes, and the story carries what would otherwise be a decent game into greatness. Enemies become friends, motives change. Something as small as the tip of a pinky finger can have life-altering ramifications.

When the screen finally cut to black and the credits began to roll, my first thought was “That’s it?” This quickly gave rise to “What in the world did I just witness?” which was then followed by me sitting in silence for about a half hour playing back everything I’d just experienced in my head. What seems at first like a tangled, nonsensical web of plot holes becomes a complex, intricate, purposeful and meaningful series of events the more you pick at it, the further you unravel it, and I’m not convinced it’s possible to straighten everything out. There’s a reason the title contains the word “Infinite”.

Look up any list of the most mind-blowing endings in video game history, and you’ll probably see the first Bioshock on it. Bioshock Infinite puts it to shame. If I hadn’t rented the game, I would have popped it right back into my Xbox and played through it again to see what else I could see. I look forward to my next playthrough (but I’m aiming for PC next time; the Xbox 360 version suffers from an unfortunate amount of lag, especially during the last battle).

The game’s developer, Irrational Games, recently announced a massive scaling-down, as well as an intent to make no further Bioshock games. I have no doubt their publisher, 2K Games, will assign another team to make sequels, but it’ll be hard to see them as true Bioshock games. Bioshock ends with Infinite; you can’t take a story this well planned and executed and simply add on to it. It’s rare in the world of video games to see a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end. Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite create one of the exceptions to this rule, and I think I’d be happier if they remained that way.

All images taken from the official website and not owned by me.

nowListening: Wildlife by La Dispute

Recently I re-visited one of my favorite albums, Wildlife by La Dispute. Normally I walk on the treadmill for 20-30 minutes a day, but Wildlife clocks in at almost an hour. I had planned to stop at my normal time, but couldn’t bring myself to do it, and went the whole hour. This isn’t one you listen to just part of, it’s an album you commit to.

All lyrics and songs by La Dispute, not me. Obviously.

The interpretation of these songs as presented in this post, however, is mine. At no point should you feel like it’s the correct or only one; that’s the beauty of music.

I first heard of La Dispute in the summer of 2011, when the band released their entire discography for free on the internet. I happened to be browsing a post over at AbsolutePunk, and one of my friends on that site couldn’t recommend the band enough.

I downloaded their discography and gave a few of the releases (one LP and about seven EPs ranging from two to eight tracks) a try. I was at first put off by the vocals; at first listen, Jordan Dreyer’s voice can be intimidating, if not raw.

Even then, there were a few songs I could really get into. I think “The Surgeon and the Scientist” was first among them. One day, with my iPod on shuffle, a little tune called “Such Small Hands” came up. The first thing to catch my hear was the haunting, disembodied guitar intro. Then the vocals come in, and what hooked me were the lyrics.

I thought I heard the door open, oh
No, thought I heard the door open but I only heard it close
I thought I heard a plane crashing
Now I think it was your passion snapping

La Dispute, “Such Small Hands”

As it turns out, “Such Small Hands” is the first track on their first album, exhaustively titled Somewhere at the Bottom of the River Between Vega and Altair. That provided the foot in the door for the rest of the record. One listen to the following track, “Said the King to the River”, and I was sold on La Dispute.

La Dispute is a writer’s band. Vocalist Jordan Dreyer had reportedly never participated in music before being asked to join; he wrote short stories and poems instead. Literature is prominent in all of the band’s music. Two of their EPs (Hear, Hear. and Hear, Hear II) consist entirely of the band playing along to Dreyer reading, singing, and screaming famous poems, such as Poe’s “Annabel Lee”.

A fan-made lyric video for the song “Andria”, showcasing a few of the band’s common styles: A blend of spoken-word poetry and fast-paced punk vocals, Jordan Dreyer’s raw, honest-to-God voice and absolute control over his range, the bass coming in to foreshadow the intensity the song is about to escalate to, the lead guitar part forming a sort of “dueling guitars” melody to compliment the lead vocals. While it appears on their first release, this song is referenced many times on the album Wildlife.

For a lot of bands, you can hear the bands that influenced them in their music. With La Dispute, the keen listener will hear all of the writers that influenced the band instead.

It didn’t take long for La Dispute to cement themselves as one of my favorite bands. In October of 2011, they released a new album called Wildlife. I bought it immediately, and took my iPod out to the back deck to listen to it on the porch swing. It seemed fitting: That’s where I go to read books, and Wildlife is audible literature.

Still, I wasn’t prepared for what I was about to hear.

Wildlife by La Dispute

Wildlife is a concept album. Each song has a clear and complete narrative, but also fits into a larger one (think chapters in a book). The album opens with one of four letters the narrator is writing. The song is called “a Departure” and sets the stage for the story about to unfold.

Night fell on me writing this, and I ran out of paper
So I crossed the name out at the top of the page
Not sure why I’m even writing this, but I guess it feels right,
It sort of feels like I have to, like an exorcism.

I guess that makes me sound crazy, but that’s all right.
Lately I feel like I might be, not that I’ve heard any voices or anything
Just like that everyday kind, where you forget things you shouldn’t,
And you think too much about death.

La Dispute, “a Departure”

The album can be broken down into parts: A letter, three songs, the next letter, three songs, etc. Following “a Departure” is the fast-paced “Harder Harmonies”, which tells the story of an extraordinary piano player whose music is overtaken by the tones of the nearby city.

In all of the songs, it’s difficult to tell how much is literal vs. metaphorical, and how many of the stories are true. I’ve heard that most of them are things experienced by the band members or people they know. Part of me wants to never find out; not knowing contributes to the magnitude Wildlife carries. I can only hope these things didn’t all happen to the same person, but in terms of the story, I’ll say they do.

“Harder Harmonies” escalates into a sense of frustration conveyed not just by the lyrics, but by the music. The song ends on a message anybody could sympathize with: “There’s a melody in everything, I’m trying to find a harmony, but nothing seems to work, nothing seems to fit.” This is a recurring theme: Nothing seems to fit, and I think that’s where the story really picks up.

“St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church Blues” comes next. It tells the story of a church our narrator passes by every day, the once-beloved church now abandoned and falling apart, and the narrator thinks the same thing of some kind of relationship in his life, possibly the loss of his own faith.

Ten years now standing vacant
Ten years on empty, maybe more.
Once held the faith of hundreds,
Soon one more cell phone store.
For years they gathered here
Inside the building, sound and true
To sing their praises to a God that gave them hope
To carry on, to carry through.

La Dispute, “St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church Blues”

After this comes “Edit Your Hometown”, which sounds like a link you’d click on facebook, and that’s probably the point. The song tells the story of a young man who claimed his city with his friends, spending nights together and having fun, but as the years went on, his friends all moved away and carried on with their lives, leaving the narrator feeling alone with an empty city.

After this is our next letter, this one titled “a Letter”. The narrator looks at all of his anger and frustration and begins to wonder if it comes from within, and that maybe things aren’t working because he isn’t really trying to make them work.

Next up is a song in two parts: “Safer in the Forest/Love Song for Poor Michigan”. Both songs occupy the same track and are loosely related, but you can tell where one ends and one begins. “Safer in the Forest” is a relatively quiet, droning tune carried by guitars that never stop but don’t quite repeat themselves, moving up and down in tune with the vocals, until the song explodes into “Love Song for Poor Michigan”, a song about how a bad economy can break people down. In these you can hear references to previous songs; “Safer in the Forest” mentions the city’s song first suggested in “Harder Harmonies” as well as the desire to leave found in “Edit Your Hometown”, while “Love Song for Poor Michigan” hearkens all the way back to the song “Andria” off the band’s previous album, with the line “I will hold these old streets safely in my head, like her”. If you choose to interpret it as such, Wildlife can be seen as a sort of sequel concept to Somewhere at the Bottom… as this isn’t the only reference you’ll find to the band’s previous work.

“The Most Beautiful Bitter Fruit” carries tones of trying to forget pain through things like drugs and sex, but reflecting on how these releases are only temporary.

After this we get our third letter, titled “a Poem”. The narrator reflects on how the writing isn’t helping: “I had a reason for the writing, but trying to exorcise my demons didn’t work.” The narrator instead writes a poem to summarize his feelings and actions. This is reflected in the song as it slows to a crawl and transitions into a spoken-word poem.

The worry, the wonder, the shortness of days
The replacement for purpose
The things swept away
By the worry, the wonder, my slightness of frame
The replacements for feeling,
The casual lay.
And the worst of the wildlife wears clothes and can pray
And they worry and wonder for three meals a day.
Only death unimpeded, not slowing its pace
Brings that petty old worry and wonder away.

La Dispute, “a Poem”

After this comes a suite of three songs that I find hard to listen to, but I mean that in the best possible way. The next three songs are, without contest, the most emotionally exhausting suite of music I can think of. By the time I was through the first of them, “King Park”, I had stopped swinging on my porch swing, my shaking hands were pressed against my mouth. If you can think of a movie that brought you to the edge of your seat in anticipation, not in the exaggerated, metaphorical sense, but one of those moments that actually made you drop everything and just sit down and pay attention, this song is the audible equivalent of that. If you listen to nothing else from this record, listen to these three songs, in order, please. Something like this doesn’t come along often in any medium.

I don’t want to spoil the effect for you, so I’ll try not to go into too much detail about these three. Just grab a pair of headphones, sit down in a dark room, and listen. You might want to bring a box of tissues and find some ear bleach for when it’s over. These aren’t songs you just listen to; you’re probably going to want something to help you calm down afterward. I guess this all comes off as pretentious or exaggerated, but that’s not my intention. I’m serious, things are going to get intense.

“King Park” opens with a shooting: “Another shooting on the southeast side, this a drive-by, mid-day…Not far from the park, about a block from where the other shooting was last month. Or was it last week?”

The first two stanzas of the song are told in an omniscient, procedural tone, just the basic facts. There’s been a shooting, not far from where another one was recently. At the end of the second stanza, we hit the human element: “The target: a rival, but they didn’t hit the target this time. They hit a kid we think had nothing to do with it.”

From there, our narrator becomes a spectre, a spirit transcending time and space in an attempt to find a reason for the violence. His journey takes him “High and high up over King Park”, back through time, where he can visit the victims before they died, just “playing games and doing homework”, and visit their families, see their lives.

I want to write it all down, so I can always remember
If you could see it up close, how could you ever forget?
How senseless death, how precious life,
I want to be there when the bullet hit.

La Dispute, “King Park”

After this, our narrator moves forward in time to find the shooter, and from there an already dark and heavy song becomes almost too much to bear. I won’t even say anything about it. Just go listen for yourself.

After this is a song called “Edward Benz, 27 Times”. This one starts off on a much lighter tone than where “King Park” ends, and for that I’m grateful. We open with an old man, the titular Edward Benz, entering the narrator’s store and asking him to repair a window on a door.

Things take a drastic tone throughout the song as Ed tells our narrator his story. The song bounces back and forth between the narrator in the past, standing on Ed’s porch and listening to his story, and our narrator as he is currently, feeling alone and desperate and in pain. Slowly, our narrator realizes he’s writing a parallel to Ed’s story, so he revisits it in his head for comparison.

The underlying tone seems to be that the narrator finds the two situations incomparable: What the narrator is going through (suggested to be a breakup) is shallow compared to what Ed experienced, but that fact brings our narrator no solace; his pain is still pain.

And I sit in my apartment,
I’m getting no answers.
I’m finding no peace, no release from the anger.
I’ll leave it at arms length,
I’m keeping my distance
From hotels and Jesus and blood on the carpet.
I’m stomaching nothing,
I’m reaching for no one,
I’m leaving this city and I’m headed out to nowhere.

La Dispute, “Edward Benz, 27 Times”

Our trio rounds out with the song “I See Everything”. In this one, our narrator recalls a day in his junior year of high school, when he walks into the classroom a little late and finds a heavy atmosphere in the room. He takes his seat and finds his teacher handing out photocopies of a journal she kept in the 80’s, shortly after her seven-year-old son was diagnosed with cancer. Following the introduction, the middle of the song is presented directly as these journal entries, and the end finds our narrator alone many years later, reflecting on the teacher and her son, as well as his own life.

July 9
There’s a suffering when I look in his eyes
He’s been through so much.
We’ve all been through so much, but
What incredible resolve our little boy shows
Only seven, standing face-to-face with death
He said it’s easy to find people who have suffered worse than him
“Like Jesus suffered worse than anyone,”
He told me last night, when God abandoned him.

La Dispute, “I See Everything”

Once this suite ends, we’re given our last letter, “a Broken Jar”.  Our narrator has grown tired of writing down these stories in attempt to cope, they aren’t helping. In his frustration he turns over a table and a breaks a jar, which he then attempts to repair, but reflects that no matter what he does, the cracks will still be visible, and some things can’t be fully repaired.

After this letter, we’re presented with two songs to serve as falling action. The first is “all our bruised bodies and the whole heart shrinks”. Maybe I look too much into it, but I think the fact that the title is improperly formatted (using all lowercase letters) is a reflection of how the writer has become tired and apathetic, but he hasn’t given up, hence the title being so long.

In this song, our writer comes to a realization. He’s been writing down the suffering of other people to cope with his own, and rather than comparing them, he begins to collect them, to realize that other people have made it through their pain, so it’s possible that he will, too.

Tell me what your worst fears are
I bet they look a lot like mine
Tell me what you think about when you can’t fall asleep at night.
Tell me that you’re struggling, tell me that you’re scared
No, tell me that you’re terrified of life
Tell me that it’s difficult to not think of death sometimes.
Tell me how you lost, tell me how he left, tell me how she left
Tell me how you lost everything that you had,
Tell me it ain’t ever coming back.
Tell me about God, tell me about love,
Tell me that it’s all of the above.
Say you think of everything in fear,
I bet you’re not the only one who does.

La Dispute, “all our bruised bodies and the whole heart shrinks”

The album’s final track is “You and I in Unison”. In this song, the writer finally tells his own story, adding his own pain to the pages he’s been writing, and leaves them with the feeling that even if we suffer, we all suffer together. Our narrator isn’t alone and never has beenhe has a stack of pages that prove it.

There’s a certain feeling you get when you finish reading a good book, and Wildlife is probably the only album that’s ever given me that feeling. It’s painful but hopeful, it’s heavy but beautiful.

La Dispute is releasing their third album in March 2014, called Rooms of the House. I’m looking forward to it, and I hope I love it half as much as I love Wildlife.

La Dispute provides nearly all of their music for listening on their website here: http://www.ladisputemusic.com/music/

If you enjoy the music, please consider supporting the band. Pre-orders of their upcoming album Rooms of the House support various charities. More information can be found on the album’s pre-order pages here: http://hellomerch.com/collections/la-dispute

nowPlaying: Xenoblade Chronicles

You might remember how, for a few months, I was a staff writer for a Nintendo fan site. The site is gone now and the admin vanished, but my love for writing, video games, and writing about video games is stronger than ever, so I’m happy to continue doing it on my blog. I’ve also decided to extend my reviews/analyses outside of the gaming world (with music and films in mind), but for now, here’s the first in my nowPlaying series: Xenoblade Chronicles, developed by Monolith Soft, for the Nintendo Wii.

All images taken from the official site, not owned by me.

When you ask people about the greatest video games ever made, there are a few titles that’ll come up on almost every list: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Half-Life 2. Resident Evil 4. In a perfect world, Xenoblade Chronicles would be one of them. It’s near the top of mine.

Released for the Wii in 2010, this one took a while to leave Japan. It didn’t reach America for nearly two years, coming out shortly before the Wii’s successor, the Wii U. The game received a limited printing, so a copy is going to cost you anywhere between $60 and $80, but it’s worth it.

The word “epic” is overused these days, but it fits this game perfectly. The story opens with two titans fighting each other in an otherwise empty ocean. They strike fatal blows at the same time, but their lifeless bodies remain standing, and from these spring forth all living things.

You play as Shulk, a young boy who grew up on one of the titan’s knees. Did I mention the game is epic? The whole world consists of the bodies of the titans. At any point you can look into the sky and see their arms, their heads, you can look across the ocean and see most of the other titan—all but the part that extends beyond the clouds.

An example of the view from one of the legs, complete with the torso of the titan in the distance.
An example of the view from one of the legs, complete with the torso of the titan in the distance, and its extended sword hovering above.

This game is huge. Everything about it is massive: Open-world areas in the same vein as Bethesda’s latest games, seamless combat (nearly all of the game’s loading screens are just there to load cinemas, only a few places require a loading screen transition), character customization; everything you’d expect from an action RPG, but bigger. My final play time, for example, was 75 hours. There were still dozens of side quests I hadn’t done, and I could have sunk another few hours in to level up and have an easier time with the final bosses (because a game this big can’t have just one).

The graphics are good, for the Wii. You can find screenshots, but they don’t do it much justice. The wind blowing through the grass, the people and creatures going about their lives, the ever-looming titans, you have to see it for yourself. It’s a Wii game, so by today’s standards it’s dated, but even as such it looks good.

Colony 6, where the main characters grew up. From this viewpoint, you can travel all the way into the town and along its streets without loading screens.
Colony 6, where the main characters grew up. From this viewpoint, you can travel all the way into the town and along its streets without loading screens.

 

The characters you face are, for the most part, lovable. Off the top of my head, only one enemy character comes to mind who I could describe as one-dimensional, and she’s not a major character. Everyone else is a well-acted, well-designed being, complete with their own motives and reasons, and this adds to one of the game’s running themes: Existentialism.

Your run-of-the-mill game can be pared down to “Find the bad guy and kill him”. You’ll be doing a lot of finding in this game, and you’ll be doing your fair share of killing, but you won’t want to. Instead of faceless “baddies” that only stand in your path, the game presents your adversaries as people who happen to be on the other side of the coin. Shulk, the main character, begins as a naive kid with a desire for vengeance, but transforms into a strong, noble man, one who tries to reason before ever lifting his sword, and who understands his enemies. I have a feeling the game’s director, Tetsuya Takahashi, might have been influenced by the works of Orson Scott Card and Ursula K. Le Guin: Before Shulk defeats his enemies, he has to know and love them, and he feels every loss along his path.

The game’s story goes on to tackle the idea of what it means to be part of a Universe in which you aren’t the only inhabitant. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game do this before. There are often moments of depth, often strong characters that you feel for, but Xenoblade takes it to a new level. As big as the game is, it must also be described as “deep”.

The tree in the background is just a texture from this distance, but you will eventually reach the top of it in-game.
The tree in the background is just a texture from this distance, but you will eventually reach the top of it in-game.

Some of the plot points are trite, but most are unpredictable. The game threw a lot of curveballs. In most cases I had no idea what was coming until the second it happened. It does suffer from some overly-descriptive and repetitive dialogue (sometimes the characters just plain talk too much), but it’s nothing you won’t find in the average video game.

The gameplay itself is fun, but a lot of people seem to have trouble with the battle system. Unlike most games, you won’t be mashing the A button to obliterate everything in your path. Characters (there are several in your party, and you get 3 on-screen at a time and may play as any of them) auto-attack. Your job as the player is to choose where they go. Some attacks are more powerful from behind, some from the side, etc. You also have special attacks called “Arts” that you choose from, giving combat a layer of strategy comparable to that of a turn-based RPG, but the battles won’t wait for you, and timing is everything.

Another word I might use to describe the game is “exhausting”. The last ten hours or so started to wear me down. I did get a little tired of running around fighting random creatures and fetching items for NPCs. The game’s design is relentless, every new place you find is as large and as full of things to explore and do as the last, but by the time I reached the last handful of areas, I just wanted to skip them and go straight into the main quests. I never really wanted to stop playing, but if there had been another ten hours of main story, I might have.

The upsides far outweigh the downsides, and in the end I’m so glad to have played through this game. It’s one of the most original and unique stories I’ve ever encountered, especially in the world of video games.

In January 2013, Nintendo revealed a trailer for a game by the same company, Monolith Soft, that is very heavily implied to be a sequel to Xenoblade Chronicles. I can’t wait to see what’s in store this time around. The possibilities are limitless, and I’m looking forward to what will surely be one of the richest gaming experiences offered this generation.