Echoes of Old Applause — An Evening of Jethro Tull with Ian Anderson


When Ian Anderson announced this tour toward the end of last year, I knew I absolutely HAD to go see him. After all, Jethro Tull is one of my absolute favorite bands of all time, and their blend of prog and folk-rock is unlike anything else. Several Tull albums find themselves in my daily rotation (namely Aqualung, Thick as a Brick, and Songs from the Wood) and while this wouldn’t be a proper Tull tour, it’s still Ian Anderson, the band’s central songwriter, vocalist, flutist, and acoustic guitarist. Fortunately, that signature musicianship has survived the impressive 50-year tenure of Jethro Tull, and Anderson has assembled a talented and extremely capable group of musicians to back his endeavors. Unfortunately, while Anderson’s flute and acoustic guitar work remain unparalleled, his vocals are disappointingly … less so.

Similar to Rush’s 40th anniversary tour, Anderson’s setlist proved to be somewhat chronological, though it was peppered with some baffling choices and omissions that one wouldn’t expect to be hearing (or not be hearing) at what could be one of Tull’s last hurrahs. For starters, Anderson spent quite a while in the pre-Aqualung era of Tull tunes, which I don’t think it’s unfair to say are among their least known. Tull’s most popular and hit-making period is firmly between 1971 and 1978, from “Aqualung” to “Heavy Horses”, so to hear quite so many tunes from their first three albums was a surprise. There were a  whopping four tunes from their debut album “This Was” and a few tracks like Living in the Past and Witch’s Promise, which were only released on compilation albums.

That isn’t to say the songs weren’t performed admirably. They were — for the most part. Love StoryA Song for Jeffrey (which was preceded by a delightful video greeting from former keyboardist Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond), and Dharma for One (which featured a sublime drum solo) were all excellent, though tracks like My Sunday Feeling and Someday the Sun Won’t Shine for You definitely suffered due to Anderson’s vocals.

Anderson simply seems lost in his own words when he steps up to the mic. He can’t hit the pitches anymore, his voice has become grating and nasally, and — most damning — he doesn’t seem to be able to keep up with the rhythm of the tunes anymore. His flute and acoustic work remain superb, with nary a wrong note or missed solo, and on top of that he’s still able to dance around the stage with his bandmates and strike his classic poses. Unfortunately, the facade of youthful vibrancy falls apart when he takes the mic.

This became painfully obvious with the song they closed the first half of the show with — Cross-Eyed Mary, a staple from 1971’s “Aqualung”. Anderson’s inability to maintain the rhythm of the songs, prior to this, could’ve been played off as a stylistic choice, a way to differentiate the rhythms of classic songs, but here it became clear he simply couldn’t sing quickly enough to maintain the meter of the song, and the performance (which was otherwise outstanding), suffered for it.

The second half of the show opened with an excerpt from my favorite Tull album, “Thick as a Brick”. While I knew he wouldn’t bring out all 45 minutes of the title track, I was hoping for at least some of my favorite parts — “Really Don’t Mind” in particular — or maybe the truncated version from “Bursting Out”, but he elected to play the back half of that version of the song, resulting in … a pretty strange tune, to be honest. It almost didn’t work, and he was clearly struggling with the lyrics yet again. Though, yet again, his flute and guitar were exceptional, as were the instrumentalists behind him (with special mention to his bassist, David Goodier, and drummer Scott Hammond).

Then he moved onto “A Passion Play,” with a solid performance of an excerpt of the title track, which was decent enough. That said, “A Passion Play” is definitely one of Tull’s weakest efforts. After this came Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die!, which was one of the few tracks Anderson still handled relatively well, vocally, although the somewhat bitter irony of that track was probably not lost on anyone in the audience. He followed this with two tracks from “Songs from the Wood,” the title track and Ring out Solstice Bells, both of which were also very good, as he had some help from Goodier on backup vocals, and then Heavy Horses, which was exceptional. He then jumped to 1987’s “Crest of a Knave” with Farm on the Freeway, which was good enough, though that’s (in my view) a fairly weak track in comparison.

He ended the show with a rollicking performance of Aqualung, which was superb, and encored with Locomotive Breath, which featured some truly exceptional work from all of his instrumentalists and a killer flute solo. The show was peppered with congratulatory videos from past band mates or fans from elsewhere in the industry, and with background visuals that showcased the various stages of the band’s lineup (and Anderson’s hair), it felt like a heartfelt sendoff of to some music that was clearly close to the audience’s heart — and Anderson’s himself.

The performances of his band were outstanding, with each getting a moment to shine, and Anderson’s flute work didn’t disappoint, with some truly incredible solos played flawlessly like they were simple. That said, the performance suffered due to Anderson’s vocals and the somewhat confusing setlist. While he went through some of Tull’s greatest hits, he seemed almost reticent to pick up his acoustic guitar, only really going to it for a handful of songs. Those which he did — My GodLocomotive Breath, and Aqualung in particular — were among the best performances of the show, but he seemed to leave out some potentially crowd-pleasing tracks to avoid picking it up. It would’ve been great to hear the intro to Thick as a Brick, or Skating Away, the latter of which I consider to be the pinnacle of Anderson’s acoustic work, but ultimately he seemed more comfortable on the flute, and nobody there had a problem with him sticking to it.

Overall, gripes aside, it was a great show that provided a walk through the history of Jethro Tull, and really felt like Ian Anderson simply celebrating some of his greatest work. And regardless of the fact that he really can’t sing them anymore, it’s amazing enough that he could perform as exceptionally as he did, and after giving us 50 years of fantastic music, I think he’s earned the right to have us indulge him.

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Top 10 Games of 2017

I can’t come up with anything pithy or clever to start this list out with — let’s just get right to the meat. Here are my 10 favorite games from 2017.

(Honorable Mention) Assassin’s Creed Origins

Alas, we don’t have time to play them all as much as we’d like to when we’re busy doing things like living life, but the few hours of ACO I’ve played have been a joy. Ubisoft took a year off after the somewhat underwhelming Syndicate in 2015, and that break paid off tremendeously. ACO is a gorgeous game, for starters (one of the best-looking this year), and cleverly augments the tried-and-true 3D platforming that’s one of the series’ trademarks with some fun RPG customization options and much more tense and nuanced combat. I haven’t played enough to truly give this one a spot on my list, so I’ll have to settle for at least mentioning it in my ranking.

10. Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia

Anyone who knows me can tell you that I absolutely adore the Fire Emblem series. The tactical-strategy series has experienced a resurgence with the release of the past few titles on the 3DS, and as they did a few years ago with Shadow Dragon on the DS, they’ve decided to go back to their roots and remake a classic installment for modern (read: American) audiences to enjoy. Remaking the second game in the franchise, Fire Emblem Gaiden, Echoes is somewhat jarring to play coming off of the spectacular Fire Emblem Awakening (2013 GOTY) and Fire Emblem Fates (#4 game of 2016). Where the most recent installments in the Fire Emblem series have expanded the games dramatically, bringing in RPG elements, deep, involved stories with branching paths, deep character customization, and relationship options between your characters (even going so far as to bring children into the mix), Echoes seems somewhat stripped-down in comparison. Echoes is a return to Fire Emblem’s roots, for better or for worse, and while it does suffer for what it lacks, it’s still a fantastic and challenging tactical strategy game from one of my favorite series ever.

9. Cuphead

Another gruelingly challenging game I played this year was Cuphead, a run-‘n’-gun sidescroller that got a lot of well-deserved attention for its hand-drawn early 20th century-inspired art style and gorgeous soundtrack, made up of tons of original jazz compositions. Not only is Cuphead insanely beautiful to look at and hear, it’s also a hell of a lot of fun — if you’ve got the patience for its crazy difficulty. Cuphead is — most of the time — a blast to play, with two of its three gameplay styles, the run-‘n’-gun platforming levels and Megaman-esque boss fights, being sure to bring a lot of fun and challenge. The third type of levels, the airplane-themed bullet hell stages are … less fun. Still fun, but … yeah, less fun. Cuphead is great fun for experienced platform gamers, and if you’ve got a buddy it’s also got great couch co-op. All that aside, though, the artwork is seriously amazing. Rarely can a game make me stop and just admire it, but I found myself doing that a lot with Cuphead. A serious win for the “are games art” debate, and a great game.

8. Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds

PUBG is something of an interesting beast. Mechanically speaking, it’s not exactly what I’d call stellar. Its third-person shooting mechanics aren’t extremely tight (they’re good, but not as precise as I’d like), there’s a lot of lag to deal with, and sometimes loot spawns and vehicle locations are a bit stupid. However, despite all of that (and indeed, sometimes because of it), it was perhaps the most fun game I played with my friends this year. PUBG’s premise is simple — 100 people (in teams of 2 or 4, or solo) are dropped onto a big island with no weapons or equipment to speak of, and they have to run around and find stuff to kill each other with until there’s only one person left. To the outside eye I’d basically describe it as “Hunger Games with more people”. PUBG is a lot of fun because no two matches are alike. Sometimes you’ll find tons of great loot at the beginning and go on a rampage, only to get eviscerated after five minutes. And then other times you’ll find nothing and win the match by hiding in a bush. PUBG, despite its somewhat … unfinished quality, is a technical marvel and a thrilling experience. Few things got my blood pumping this year like hiding from an enemy in an open field as one of the last two players remaining, and few things were as tantalizing as the prospect of finally getting that chicken dinner.

7. Horizon Zero Dawn

Horizon was one I was looking forward to for quite some time thanks to a pretty impressive showing at E3, and it really didn’t disappoint. Horizon has basically everything you want from an action RPG — a massive, open world that’s filled to the brim with interesting encounters and characters, a deep customization system that manages to make every upgrade and new piece of equipment feel substantial, a solid story, and really, really fun combat. On top of all that, Horizon is beautiful to look at, and Ashly Burch does a fantastic job as the game’s lead, Aloy. Looking back on 2017, some of the most memorable experiences I had were just exploring the world of Horizon Zero Dawn, and whether I was controlling a robot dinosaur to make it kill another robot dinosaur or just climbing a snowy mountain, it was memorable.

6. Middle-Earth: Shadow of War

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor was one of my favorite games of 2014. Tolkien’s massive world seems impossible to adapt properly into a video game, so rather than attempt to tell any of the stories told in his books, the Middle-Earth games fill in some of the gaps, giving us a look at a post-Sauron, pre-Frodo Mordor, before it was a lava-filled wasteland, but after it became infested with Orcs and Uruks. Shadow of Mordor was a blast, but there were some significant flaws with its pacing, and kinks in the Nemesis system that often resulted in some boring encounters and a general slogging feeling through the end game. I’m happy to say that almost everything was improved in its sequel. Shadow of War is brisk and tense in the moment-to-moment combat, and intricate and brilliant at a large scale. Uruks who you kill or who kill you will come back with a vengeance, and almost all of the most fun and memorable moments in Shadow of War came from my multiple encounters with a couple grade-A assholes who would constantly manage to show up at the worst possible times with a pithy monologue about how they were going to crush me. Shadow of War has a spectacular combat system, some great customizability, and some really stellar voice acting on the part of its enemies thanks to the capable work of awesome voice actors like Darin De Paul and Matt Mercer. Shadow of War is the rare sequel that mimics what its predecessor got right, and fixes what it did wrong, and was definitely one of the best games of 2017.

5. Pyre

I’ve always been a fan of Supergiant Games. I absolutely adored their previous two releases, Bastion and Transistor, and Pyre once again knocks it out of the park. Pyre is, first and foremost, a beautiful game, in terms of look, feel, sound, and story. The art style is at once simple and incredibly evocative, the story is engaging and heartfelt, and Darren Korb’s soundtrack is, as always, superb. But these are all things we’ve come to expect from Supergiant. Pyre stands out as a different kind of game because, well, there’s never been anything quite like it. Think Final Fantasy Tactics meets Rocket League to get some sense of how the gameplay works and you’ll start to get the idea. Confused? Makes sense. It’s the kind of game that has to be played to be believed. Pyre’s story is engaging and heart-wrenching, and fits in with its progression system in really wonderful ways. Pyre is just a beautiful experience. Supergiant’s 3 for 3.

4. Opus Magnum

I came across Opus Magnum on a whim, thanks to a war between a couple friends on Twitter over who had built the most efficient design. Intrigued, I picked it up, and spent a solid two weeks unable to think about anything else. Opus Magnum is perhaps the perfect puzzle game for me, appealing to my engineering side more than any other game has ever been able to. Opus Magnum challenges the player to create alchemical compounds out of a set of given materials, using only a few tools like arms, pistons, and tracks and their imagination. The great thing about Opus Magnum is that there’s no right answer to any of its puzzles. So long as you get your product, you can continue through its surprisingly interesting story. You can see how well your solution compares to others in terms of size, time, and cost, and go further to improve its efficiency as best you can. Writing out the instructions for my various pieces of equipment felt like the most fun parts of writing code, and watching it all unfold is really a joy. Once you’re done, you can use the game’s built-in .gif creator to share your solution and see how it compares with your friends’. The puzzles increase in complexity and demand a lot of the player, and this constant challenge to improve your own solutions to problems makes Opus Magnum perhaps the best puzzle game I’ve ever played.

3. Sonic Mania

We’re now reaching the part of the list that becomes really, really difficult to rank. However, every year I force myself to rank them, so rank them I shall. This year we got one really depressing Sonic game, as we usually tend to, and one really, really, really good one. Seriously. I’m not yanking your chain. Sonic Mania is just about everything I’ve wanted from this series since I was old enough to understand why Sonic Adventure 2 kind of sucks despite being my favorite game of all time. Sonic Mania is a return to classic form for Sonic, not just in terms of its bright, joyful 16-bit visuals, its fantastic chiptune score, or even its ingenious level design. Sonic Mania is a return to the classics in that it’s simply concentrated joy to play, and that’s just about the best way I can describe it. If you’ve ever liked Sonic, ever at all, you owe it to yourself to play Sonic Mania. Just … just don’t play Sonic Forces. We’re not gonna talk about that one.

2. Super Mario Odyssey

Earlier in the year when I bought my Switch, this game was the way I rationalized the purchase. “Sure,” I told myself, “you’re dropping $400 on a console that may never get any decent third-party support, relies heavily on a portability gimmick despite the 3DS still having games made for it, and may not even run all that well as a home console. Sure you’re not really gonna have anything to play for a couple years but one or two games. But there’s a Mario game coming out for it.” And so I bought one. And God damn, did Mario Odyssey deliver. If Sonic Mania was concentrated joy, Super Mario Odyssey was concentrated bliss. Super Mario Odyssey is perhaps my favorite Mario game since Sunshine, with a Banjo-Kazooie-esque collect-a-thon mechanic tying together a ton of beautifully-imagined worlds. Super Mario Odyssey really reminded me of Sonic Generations, a favorite of mine, in that it was at times a celebration of everything great this monumental series has accomplished, and at times an optimistic look at the future of not only series, but gaming as a whole. Mario has come to represent everything great about video games — the child-like sense of wonder, the brilliantly simple controls, the beautifully-realized environments — and Odyssey is a celebration of everything this series has been over the last 30 years. It would take a truly spectacular game to beat this as my number one game of 2017, and nobody but Nintendo could’ve delivered it. But deliver it they did.

As is to probably be expected by this point, my number one game of 2017 was …

1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Holy hell. I don’t even know what clever things I can fill this space with. I’m still rendered completely speechless by this goddamn game. Breath of the Wild is just everything I’ve ever wanted from a video game — I can say with complete honesty that I’ve never been so transfixed by any game in my life, and I doubt I ever will again. The first few hours of Breath of the Wild are without a doubt the greatest experience I’ve ever had playing a video game — I’m glad that I was able to share them with great company — and that sense of pure wonder just grows as you play and discover more of what this beautiful game has to offer. Breath of the Wild completely reinvents The Legend of Zelda, turning it into an exploration of an incredibly vast and breathtaking world rather than a cut-and-dry adventure to save a princess, and it seriously does basically everything right. Nintendo outdid themselves this year in a big, big way, and while part of me is concerned they’ll never be able to top this, the rest of me is eagerly anticipating what they’re going to do next. I’m already done talking about Breath of the Wild, because I really find it difficult to articulate with any sense of brevity exactly what is so tantalizing about it. If you’ve not played it yet, do yourself the favor of doing so as soon as possible. It’s not only the greatest game of 2017, not only the greatest game in the Legend of Zelda series … it’s quite possibly one of the greatest games ever made. So, yeah. Game of the year, like, for sure.

 

And there we go! At long last, this … thing. I do it every year, and I’m going to keep doing it, damn it. So yeah. See you guys next year.

 

Top 5 Albums of 2017

It’s that time of year again, where I emerge from my cave of blog inactivity and make a list ranking the top games of the year. Almost. That list is coming (don’t worry, it’s coming), but I figured this year I’d also jot down some notes about the best new music I found myself listening to in 2017. There was a lot of really fun stuff this year, with new material from old favorites and new discoveries alike. I’m gonna keep this at a short and sweet 5 albums, so you know that these 5 are really the best of the best. Kicking it off is one of my all-time favorite female vocalists.

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5. Alison Krauss – Windy City

Windy City is a somewhat different turn for Alison Krauss, shifting away from her usual bluegrass fare to a batch of simple but delightful covers that run the gamut from jazz standards to country classics. When I heard this was coming last year, I was excited for something new from Krauss, as her last activity was in 2011 with the fantastic Paper Airplane. While it’s somewhat disappointing that this album is a solo effort, and not more work with her frequent collaborators Union Station, it’s by no means a disappointing album, with a couple of standout tracks. Tracks like Losing YouRiver in the Rain, and the title track are haunting and beautifully brought to life by Krauss’s ever-spectacular vocals, and the country covers are excellent as well, with Glen Campbell’s Gentle on my Mind being perhaps my favorite track on the album. Some of the songs are given a different weight by Krauss’s unique style and vocal presence, and tracks like You Don’t Know Me are almost entirely different with the new life she breathes into them. By no means a complex album, Windy City simply gets the job done for those looking to get their Alison Krauss fix. Hopefully soon we’ll get to see more from her with the Union Station gang.

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4. Styx – The Mission

I’ve been a huge Styx fan for quite some time — longer even than I’ve been a Rush fan. Styx was one of my first musical loves, one of the first bands I listened to when I was old enough to decide to listen to music for myself, and while Dennis DeYoung’s masterful vocals will always hold a special place in my heart, Tommy Shaw’s classics like Blue Collar Man and Renegade are among my favorite Styx songs. The Mission delivers more of that Tommy Shaw goodness, with many tracks like Hundred Million Miles from Home and Radio Silence being immediately reminiscent of Styx tracks from the late 70s. On the proggier side of things, Red Storm and Khedive give the listener a taste of the musical prowess brought to the table by newer members like keyboardist Lawrence Gowan and drummer Todd Sucherman. Rounding out the album are catchy, simpler tunes like The Outpost and Gone Gone Gone, and it wouldn’t be a Styx album without a vocal turn from James “JY” Young, which we get in the all-too-short Trouble at the Big Show. While The Mission might not be Styx’s best work, it’s certainly the best we’ve seen from them in 35 years, and hopefully indicative of a return to form for the legendary group, showing that they still have something to say 45+ years in.

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3. Sons of Apollo – Psychotic Symphony

Ever the king of the modern prog scene, virtuoso drummer Mike Portnoy kept himself busy as usual this year, playing shows around the world with a whole slew of talented musicians, traveling and playing with a roster that’s a veritable who’s who of progressive music. In keeping with that tradition, he co-founded Sons of Apollo this year with fellow ex-Dream Theater member Derek Sherinian, bassist Billy Sheehan (with whom he’d previously worked in The Winery Dogs), guitarist Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal of Guns ‘N’ Roses fame, and vocalist Jeff Scott Soto, known for his work with Yngwie Malmsteen and a brief stint with Journey.  Certainly an impressive line-up, but how does the music work? Fortunately, pretty damn well. Leaning more into the “metal” side of “progressive metal,” Psychotic Symphony is a great freshman effort from a new supergroup, with a decent variety of tracks ranging from more ballad-sounding tracks like Alive and Divine Addiction, to more straightforward metal in songs like Coming Home and Signs of the Time, to full-on prog epics like God of the Sun and the instrumental Opus Maximus. Sons of Apollo does a great job showing off the various musical talents present here, and I’m certainly excited to see more from this group.

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2. Toehider – “Good”

Mike Mills’s (not the REM guy) Toehider was a new discovery for me this year, brought on by my further looking into Ayreon. Toehider is Mills’s solo effort, fully written, sung, and played by him. Mills is an insanely talented musician and vocalist (one need only check out his cover of Wuthering Heights to get some idea of his spectacular range and control), and his songwriting is pretty much the result of bubbling in all the kinds of music I like. As such, Toehider pretty much became my new obsession this year, as I vociferously sought out and bought up all his past material as soon as I found it. To new listeners, I’d describe Toehider as “Tom Lehrer does progressive rock”. “Good” is a delightfully strange album, and every one of its eight tracks is wonderfully weird. The title track is short and comprised of acoustics and harmonies, leading right into [funnythings], a fast-paced metal romp about a guy and his cousin who accidentally break a cabinet at an estate sale. Other standouts include Millions of Musketeers, recounting the tale of what happens when you fall asleep in a rocky field, How Do Ghosts Work, which asks all the questions its title implies, Dan vs. Egg, an acoustic number about a guy named Dan … fighting an egg … and the funky I’ve Been so Happy Living Down Here in the Water, a tale that continues a long string of songs about a man named Malcolm, his wife (a rock giant), and their child (who may or may not be Malcolm’s child), who is some sort of creature (his travails about discovering his identity are documented in 2013’s What Kind of Creature am I?).  Yeah. It’s definitely weird stuff, but it’s all just so damn … well … good.

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1. Ayreon – The Source

I came across Ayreon last year by way of Neal Morse and James LaBrie, and fell in love with it this year with The Source. Ayreon is the project of Dutch musician Arjen Lucassen, who’s been telling a huge, arcing space opera across many albums since 1995. The Source is a prequel to his hugely complicated story, and, as always, he employs an all-star cast of great vocalists to tell the tale. Standouts from these are Dream Theater’s James LaBrie, Edguy’s Tobias Sammet, Symphony X’s Russell Allen, and the aforementioned Mike Mills, but every vocalist is given a chance to shine. The Source shows off some of the best of Ayreon’s style, ranging from epic prog metal to mournful ballads, and everything in between. The Source is shorter than most of Ayreon’s albums, and it really cuts out the fat of some of Arjen’s more bloated releases like 01011001 and The Human Equation. Pretty much every track here is great; all of the instrumental parts are spectacular, with longtime collaborator Ed Warby doing his usual great work on the drums, and some great guest solo work (the guitar solo from Guthrie Govan on Planet Y is Alive! is heavenly), and the vocalists all work together exceptionally well. The opening track, The Day that the World Breaks Down, is a proper prog epic, setting the scene with panache. Some of the other great tracks include Run! Apocalypse! Run!, a panicky speed metal jaunt, Deathcry of a Race, a proggy look at survivor’s guilt(!) with a great flute riff, and the best track on the album, Everybody Dies, which basically sounds like what would happen if Queen did heavy metal thanks to Mike Mills’s impressive voice work. It’s seriously awesome, and the whole album manages to tell a cohesive story and tie into that of the rest, while balancing 10 excellent vocalists and the sizable instrumental talents of Arjen Lucassen. It’s definitely the best album of the year.

 

So that about wraps that. I listened to a lot of new music this year, but these were definitely the cream of the crop. We’ve got some prog rock, some metal, some downright crazy stuff, some bluegrassy jazz, and some classic rock, so really, this list is pretty comprehensive and should have at least one album for everyone to check out and enjoy. Man, I listen to weird shit. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for my top games of 2017!

 

 

Wheeling Through the Galaxies — Styx’s “The Mission”

At long last, after 14 years, we finally have a new Styx album. As a longtime Styx fan (“Stygians,” is that what Styx fans are called?), this is a pretty exciting time for me, as it marks the first time in my life when I can get excited about a new Styx release, considering “Cyclorama” contained at best one good song (here’s looking at you, One with Everything). What’s more, “The Mission” is a concept album, and while this might be upsetting to former vocalist Dennis DeYoung, who’s prog proclivities put him at odds with his bandmates, “The Mission” is proof that Styx can still do what they did best in the late-70s — condense expansive, progressive concepts down into accessible, digestible chunks, and still make some damn fine records. While “The Mission” never reaches the emotional highs of “Paradise Theater,” the ingenuity of “Pieces of Eight,” or the pomp of “The Grand Illusion,” it’s a worthy entry to Styx’s 45-year catalog and a testament to the talents in this band, both old and new.

Like any concept album should, “The Mission” begins with a track called Overture, which, like everything else on the album, is short and to the point. Relative newcomer Lawrence Gowan (with “relative” meaning “very relative” — he’s been in the band since 1999) doing some great synth work and providing the only vocals on this track. However, as is often the case with this album, the spotlight is stolen by drummer Todd Sucherman, an absolute showman — he wouldn’t fit in in Styx were he not — who joined the band after the sad passing of their founding drummer John Panozzo in the ’90s. Overture swings right into Gone Gone Gone, a jaunty, ridiculously upbeat tune that served as the album’s first single. Guitarists Tommy Shaw and James “JY” Young keep the groove moving with the able assistance of Sucherman, and while Gowan has the primary vocal credit on this one, the real joy comes from the full vocal harmonies of the chorus, which are so reminiscent of early Styx it’s almost ridiculous. It’s hard not to think of Rock & Roll Feeling or You Need Love when listening to Shaw, JY, and Gowan in the chorus, though the fun ends nearly as soon as it starts. This ends up being a common thread through “The Mission.” While not necessarily a bad thing, half the songs clock in under 4 minutes, with only a few tracks fully realizing the great ideas put into them. It’s almost as though the band came up with some great hooks, but didn’t know how to expand upon them, and this is evident in both Overture and Gone Gone Gone, as well as several later tracks.

Next is Hundred Million Miles From Home, putting Tommy Shaw behind the microphone for a great turn on a tune that’s reminiscent of some of Shaw’s best slower songs from the ’70s like Lights and Crystal BallMiles is a pretty simple track, but it shows that even with Dennis DeYoung’s notable absence in the band, Tommy Shaw is as much an able lead singer as he was 40 years ago. A weird, talk-boxy guitar solo permeates the latter half of the song, but the catchy chorus and ever-present harmonies make Miles one of the best tracks on the album. Trouble at the Big Show is a bluesy turn for the band, and Sucherman’s bombastic swing drums would take the center stage were it not for the inevitable once-an-album welcome appearance of JY’s turn as main vocalist. He shows he’s still got more than what it takes as a singer, but has a lot more interesting work to do as a bluesy interjection to Shaw and Gowan’s chorus than the anger and grit he used to display during his vocal turns. And, I must say, it works quite well, as brief as it is.

Locomotive is a contemplative, acoustic powerhouse featuring — nay, showcasing — Tommy Shaw, the arguable star of Styx post-DeYoung, and it works as a soft, emotional break from the rockers preceding it. Shaw hearkens back to his earlier, softer work like Boat on the River while still coming up with an interesting take on his usual love song — this one’s from a father to his estranged son in space, and he manages to capture that sense of longing even better than Elton John does on his famous song of a similar subject. The guitar solo near the end is one of the best things Styx has ever made (honestly not sure if it’s Shaw’s or JY’s). Next comes Radio Silence, my current favorite track on the album, and all but an outright sequel to Man in the Wilderness, one of Shaw’s best songs. While promoting this album, the band often compared it to 1978’s masterwork “Pieces of Eight,” and Radio Silence is the song that really cements these comparisons as valid, as few would argue that that album was what confirmed Tommy Shaw as a powerhouse addition to the band. Shaw once again takes center stage alongside JY’s cutting guitar and the band’s tight, crisp harmonies in the chorus that make this an instant Styx classic.

The Greater Good is perhaps the cheesiest song on the album (just look at that title), but it really wouldn’t be Styx without it. A conversation between the two lead vocalists, and, by extension, the two main characters of the album’s story, takes center stage here, and Gowan gets to display a little bit more reservation than he’s previously shown. This coupled with his flamboyance on previous tracks, allows him to firmly cover the gap left by Dennis DeYoung once and for all. Shaw and Gowan both drip emotion in this song’s verses, and the subdued piano and drum parts alongside the fantastic guitar solo at the bridge keep this one from getting too silly despite its rather silly chorus and message. Time May Bend puts Gowan back in the driver’s seat for a brief, excellent resurgence of most of the themes from the overture. There’s not much to the verses, but the swinging, sweeping chorus is some of Gowan’s best vocal work on the album. It’s followed by the even briefer Ten Thousand Ways, a sort of extension of Time May Bend with some synth ambiance, subtle piano, and vocal harmonies that serve as a lead-in to Red Storm.

Red Storm is probably the second-best track on the album, and shows Styx at perhaps the proggiest they’ve been since the ’70s, and it’s a triumphant return to form for them. Everyone is at their best instrumentally here, with certain parts being reminiscent of Aku-Aku, and Shaw’s vocals over top, while sometimes out of place, give more credence to the album’s otherwise fairly subtle story, and the constantly present piano and steel guitar give the song an exotic, other-worldly feel fitting to a song about, well, Mars. Post-fantastic guitar solo, Gowan and Shaw give some more of the excellent harmonies we’ve become accustomed to, and the closing synth through the fade leading to some light piano noodling textures the piece with mystery. Khedive is pretty much an excuse for Gowan to show off his piano virtuosity, and it gets the job done with gusto.

The Outpost pairs a suitably computerized-sounding verse with a rollicking, catchy chorus, and the way the two work together makes this track somewhat reminiscent of a Queen song. Gowan’s vocal work is, once again, on point, and JY’s thick-sounding guitar work through the chorus makes The Outpost’s hook one of the most memorable of the album. Additionally, Sucherman’s drumming is, once again, superb. The album closer Mission to Mars is a simple, ELO-esque track featuring all of the vocalists in those trademark tight harmonies of some fun, sometimes goofy lyrics documenting the story at large. While not a particularly cerebral song, it’s a good time, and works well as the ending to the album.

While “The Mission” certainly isn’t the most ambitious or interesting Styx album, it displays a lot of musicality and ultimately serves up a welcome return to form for the veteran rockers, and shows that life after DeYoung truly is possible. Relative newcomers Lawrence Gowan and Todd Sucherman earn their stripes and show they can more than match the pomp and flamboyance of their bandmates and tell a pretty good story with their first concept album since the oft-maligned “Kilroy was Here”. While many of the tracks feel truncated or not fully-realized, there’s enough here to make a full album’s worth of really solid pseudo-prog, with Red Storm serving as the possible exception to this moniker. Like some of the best concept albums (“Clockwork Angels,” anyone?) the concept is subtle and somewhat buried, which means that the songs work as well on their own as they do as a cohesive unit. “The Mission” demonstrates that these guys aren’t done yet, and we’re the better for it.

Like Some Pilgrim who Learns to Transcend — The Similitude of a Dream

I discovered Neal Morse by way of Mike Portnoy, the founding drummer of prog metal group Dream Theater and one of my very favorite drummers of all time. Over the past 20 years, Morse and Portnoy have collaborated on plenty of albums over several projects, from the prog super group Transatlantic with The Flower Kings’ Roine Stolt and Pete Trewavas of Marillion to Flying Colors, a prog pop-rock group with Steve Morse and Dave LaRue of the Dixie Dregs and vocalist Casey MacPherson, to numerous solo efforts of Morse’s that tend to be more religious in nature. These two guys get around, and many consider them (with good reason) the Lennon and McCartney of modern prog rock. Their newest project, the Neal Morse Band, brings in longtime collaborator bassist Randy George (who’s worked with these two guys performing a number of covers, sometimes under the banner of Yellow Matter Custard, a Beatles-oriented cover group, and otherwise simply as Morse Portnoy George), and two welcome newcomers in keyboardist Bill Hubauer and guitarist Eric Gillette, both of whom are excellent vocalists as well.

Their first effort under this flag, 2015’s The Grand Experiment, showcased some fantastic prog with touches of religion here and there, and while there were a couple of missteps (Agenda, primarily, or at least its music video), there were touches of brilliance in the 25-minute epic Alive Again, the 10-minute opener The Call, the more religious-themed New Jerusalem and Doomsday Destiny (which gave us a taste of Bill Hubauer’s substantial vocal chops), and their sweeping cover of MacArthur Park that signified that there was more greatness to come from this band. And that’s exemplified in The Similitude of a Dream. Based on the first several chapters of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the extended title of which lends this album its somewhat florid title, The Similitude of a Dream is the sum of its parts — and then some. A concept album packed with religious symbolism but decidedly tighter than 2007’s Sola Scriptura and catchier than 2003’s Testimony, Similitude can truly be enjoyed from both a secular and religious standpoint, and is really just some fantastic prog.

Similitude begins humbly and delicately with thirty seconds of a string quartet introducing us to one of the more pervasive musical themes on the album, the “Long Day” theme. Morse portrays either a worn out Christian, the protagonist of Bunyan’s work, or Bunyan himself, who delivers his entire story under, well, “the similitude of a dream.” As the opening continues, Morse depicts a true sense of longing and need, with the final words “I’ve got to go” bringing us directly into the sweeping overture. The overture, as is to be expected, is instrumental and introduces many of the other musical themes we’ll be hearing over the course of the album, perhaps the most easily identifiable of which are the central musical conceits of The SloughSlave to your Mind, and The Battle. The overture is, simply put, a gorgeous display of musicianship, especially on the part of Portnoy, who seamlessly navigates the ride, splash and hi-hat, and Hubauer, whose various keyboard parts (perhaps there’s some of Morse himself in there as well), some of them nearly siren-like, tie the whole piece together and help to bring it to an exceptional swell of a conclusion.

The Dream sets up Bunyan’s character (and indeed Bunyan himself) with an almost Steven Curtis Chapman-esque acoustic melody interplaying with Morse’s vocals. While perhaps not as exciting as the overture before it, The Dream sets up well the journey to come, simply depicting Bunyan’s “dream” and shifting the focus to the character of Christian and his learning of what he must do. This continues into the rollicking City of Destruction, which finds Christian in distress and dismay, emphasized by muted chords and stamping feet. Christian laments that “my family thinks that I’m insane” as a voice (ostensibly Bunyan’s Evangelist) calls him to leave his home and travel to the Wicket Gate. This voice is represented in the chorus by Eric Gillette’s excellent, John Elefante-esque vocals. City of Destruction is the album’s central impetus, doing for Similitude what The Temples of Syrinx did for 2112 — introducing us to our protagonist and his dilemma, while setting him up for the journey ahead and providing an excellent, tight piece of music to boot.

We Have Got to Go is another lighter, acoustic tune (to begin with) that shows Christian unsuccessfully attempting to convince his wife and kids to come with him on his journey. We never directly learn that he fails to do so, but it’s quite obvious that he has by the repeating, tortured-sounding musical theme that follows and becomes more complex thanks to Hubauer’s synth riffs as it continues. Shortly thereafter, Christian departs, and recounts how “the awakening dead” (ie. his neighbors) come and laugh at him while trying to convince him to stay in the City in Makes No Sense. Realistically, Makes No Sense serves as a sort of filler song in a narrative sense, but gives us the welcome vocal addition of not only Eric Gillette, but also Bill Hubauer, whose soaring vocals are more than a little reminiscent of Genesis’s Peter Gabriel, making this song hearken back to some of their early progressive work, especially Selling England by the Pound. I’m not complaining — and one of Similitude’s greatest successes is the utility of all of these guys as vocalists, because they’re all very, very good.

Draw the Line introduces yet another vocalist in Mike Portnoy, giving him one of his few moments to shine vocally, portraying the character of Obstinate, who comes to at first plead with, then to berate Christian, once again portrayed by Morse. Indeed, Mike Portnoy’s vocal work here is actually quite good, and as a drummer myself I recognize how difficult it is to sing and play at the same time. Unfortunately, this is one of the few times we hear him on Similitude, and while understandable, it’s still a tad disappointing, as I do quite like his vocal work (check out Flying Colors’ Fool in my Heart). While Portnoy’s Obstinate is unimpressed, his companion Pliable is more, well, pliable (Bunyan was either completely void of creativity or an allegorical genius), and seems to be portrayed by the whole band at once in a sublime harmony, with some of the higher bits being tackled ably by Gillette alone. Unfortunately, Pliable’s journey with Christian is cut short by the Slough of Despond, and the instrumental track The Slough serves essentially as a short-form version of the overture, with the keyboard work once again being a highlight, especially about halfway through the song when it switches from a synth to a piano proper for one of the more serene moments of the first half of the album.

Back to the City shows Pliable’s angry return to the city, this time played mostly by Morse, who insists that this first hardship is a bad omen for the continued journey. Christian, unsuccessful in his attempts to convince his companion to stay, is despondent, and the mournful and desperate riff repeated by the guitar and keys (first seen near the end of the overture) exemplifies his struggle in the mire. Hubauer gets another shout-out here for his excellent vocals representing Pliable’s excitement to return home. The theme from The Dream briefly appears here as Christian nearly meets his end in the Slough before being saved by an unnamed companion (whom we know from the book to be called — wait for it — Help). Following is The Ways of the Fool, a spectacular track which borrows from Queen and ELO quite extensively, especially Turn to Stone. Hubauer is the lead vocalist here, and the track almost seems to glide along thanks to his piano and lilting vocals as Mr. Worldly Wiseman, who convinces Christian to go a different way, insisting, “trust me, I know I’m right.” Well, Mr. Worldly Wiseman turned out not to be right after all, but The Ways of the Fool is still one of the best songs on Similitude. The song ends with Christian reassuring himself that this new path is a good choice, and slows down into a gentle and somewhat dangerous-sounding rendition of the main theme of the album first introduced in the overture.

So Far Gone is next, and begins with a similar guitar riff to the one from City of Destruction, and gives Eric Gillette the reins again as lead vocalist, who does an excellent job showing Christian’s turmoil and disbelief that he managed to mess up as badly as he did by following Mr. Worldly Wiseman’s advice. So Far Gone is mostly straightforward rocking, which certainly isn’t a bad thing, and gives Mike Portnoy a chance to expertly utilize a cowbell. Luckily for Christian, Evangelist returns at the bridge, slowing down the piece and having Hubauer explain that he’s not, in fact, too far gone. Morse returns to the role of Christian, somewhat in disbelief that he can still find the right way, but luckily he gets back on track and reaches the Wicket Gate by the end of the first disc.

Breath of Angels closes the first half of the album with the most gospel-sounding tracks here. It’s pretty straightforward, swelling gratuitously throughout with a full-on gospel choir near the end, but it’s no less an enjoyable track that signifies the end of the first part of Christian’s journey as he walks through the Wicket Gate onto the house of the Interpreter.

Slave to your Mind opens similarly to The Slough, but ends up as one of the most musically and lyrically complex pieces on the album, as it chronicles Christian seeing various “emblems” at the house of the Interpreter. First among these is a room full of dust into which a woman brings water, followed by a fire, with one man attempting to put it out with wet blankets, and another hidden behind it feeding it with oil. Understandably, these symbols aren’t necessarily expounded upon in the song, but the general gist, as Hubauer recounts from Bunyan’s point of view (“I saw in my dream …”) is that the man attempting to put out the fire is the devil, the other god, both of whom use the phrase “slave to your mind” in different ways (one discouraging, the other encouraging). The middle of the song features a fantastic keyboard solo, and Randy George’s bass work, while ever diligent, shines specifically in this track as well. At this point the album diverts a ways from the book for obvious musical reasons, and Christian leaves the house of the Interpreter and continues on down the road.

Shortcut to Salvation is an almost jazzy tune, brought out especially by the vocal harmonies, the delightful saxophone solo, and the piano. Christian comes across two men who evidently “jumped the wall” rather than going the proper way through the Wicket Gate, and Christian reviles their attempts to convince him to “join their merry band.” A simple song, Shortcut is nonetheless quite a fun little track, and shows Christian becoming decidedly more resolute in his mission. Shortly he meets with The Man in the Iron Cage on a track that gives Eric Gillette’s guitar some excellent attention. This man, in Bunyan’s work, is one of the symbols the Interpreter shows to Christian, but here (at least as evinced by the artwork with the album) seems simply to be a wayward soul in the midst of the path. The song follows a similar narrative structure to So Far Gone, with the titular man’s anger shining through with Morse’s vocals and his angst with Gillette’s, providing an excellent counterpoint and showing once again that these men are truly meant to be together in a band. Similar to So Far Gone, the track ends with a quiet bridge in which Christian informs the man that he is not, once again, too far gone, but it does end on a somewhat sour note with Christian ultimately giving up and leaving.

The Road Called Home is almost an instrumental, with the first half giving Randy George some great solo work, and the second half echoing the beginning of the overture’s frenetic synth wanderings. Finally, the song once again reprises the Dream theme, albeit much faster, and shows Christian coming across two men asleep by a mill — Simple and Sloth. Sloth might be the weakest track on the album — which is surprising, because it’s still exquisite — seeming mostly to be a breather in the story wherein the Sloth character slowly and amusingly (“nothing makes me grin / more than sleeping in”) showcasing his pride in his lazy lifestyle. I must admit I probably like this song simply because of Eric Gillette’s astonishingly sublime reprisal of the Long Day theme at the end of the song, with Christian assuring Sloth he has to continue.

Freedom Song sounds almost like a bluegrass track, with some truly great country-esque guitar work backing it up throughout. This track and the next show Christian finally getting rid of the burden that initially set him upon his journey (which in Bunyan’s original work happened immediately after leaving the Interpreter). Freedom Song is a jaunty tune and again shows some gorgeous vocal harmonies, and feeds directly into the more up-tempo I’m Running. This song opens with one of my favorite drum fills on the album, with Portnoy the whole track borrowing more than a little from Keith Moon. Once again it’s a rather simple tune, and the last breather before the climax of the album, but special recognition should be given here to the horn parts that punctuate and liven up the proceedings. Once again, Randy George has a fantastic, dare I say Geddy Lee-esque, bass solo in the middle.

The Mask opens with a fantastic, serene, and somewhat foreboding piano solo from Hubauer which is definitely one of my favorite parts of the album. The song then transitions into a dark, almost scary interplay between Morse’s vocals and Hubauer’s piano, wherein he recounts his journey thus far and explains the threat that he’s about to come face to face with, punctuated by brief moments of chaos where they’re joined by the rest of the band. The Mask bleeds seamlessly into the climactic Confrontation, which, in conjunction with the instrumental The Battle, showcase Christian’s fight with the demonic Apollyon, and also show off some of the finest musicianship, making up some of the best moments on the album from every band member.

The last track, Broken Sky / Long Day (Reprise) shows a final culmination and as masterful a conclusion as I’ve ever seen on a concept album since Thick as a BrickBroken Sky brings out the “I have seen / I have known” theme seen several times through the album, as well as the “broken sky” vocal conceit we’ve been hearing from every angelic figure. Then, Eric Gillette once again brings out the Long Day theme for the last time in a truly beautiful musical moment that feels earned in a way few swells like this have in past musical finales. Finally, Morse singularly closes out the proceedings with a simple vocal part showing Christian’s finality in a way reminiscent of his earlier gospel work.

Simply put, The Similitude of a Dream is a masterpiece. Whether you’ve read the book or not, whether you’re religious or just a fan of good music, you’ll gain something from listening to it a few times and appreciating it for the flowing, sweeping work of art that it is. The Neal Morse Band is more than just another Morse/Portnoy project, with every band member getting multiple moments to shine and being smartly integrated (especially on the vocal front) in the band in a meaningful and profound way. Truly, The Similitude of a Dream isn’t just one of the greatest progressive rock or religious albums of all time, it’s one of the greatest pieces of music of all time, borrowing from so many great musicians across all genres, representing a centuries-old work, and creating a new piece of music with something to say while doing so. After you listen to it, you’re sure to be left with something that will be with you from this world to that which is to come … under the similitude of a dream.

Top Ten Games of 2016

Here we are once again, counting down the top ten games of the year as we always do. This year’s list, like any other, was a difficult list to compile and pare down to only ten, but I’ve managed to do it just in time for the end of the year. Here’s to 2017, and here’s the list.

Honorable Mention: The Witness

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This list will once again have an honorable mention in The Witness, a charming puzzle-solver from veteran indie developer Jonathan Blow with a beautiful game world full of intriguing secrets. Unfortunately, I haven’t devoted nearly as much time to this game as I would need to to feel right about accurately placing it anywhere within this list, so I’ll have to settle for at least giving it a mention in passing. Now onto the list proper.

10. Ratchet and Clank

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Ratchet and Clank has always been a solid contender in the 3D platforming genre, and its steady stream of releases over the past decade or so has sort of cemented it as Sony’s Mario, or at least the closest thing they have. This year’s installment manages to recapture some of the best moments of the better games in the series, and still introduces more new elements to breathe new life into the familiar landscapes and settings of the first game. Ratchet and Clank is technically based on a movie, the underwhelming Ratchet and Clank movie released in April, but is in effect a reboot of the franchise that simultaneously manages to innovate and indulge, with some of the absolute best visuals of the year and clever voice work that wouldn’t be out of place in a high-budget cartoon movie.

9. Doom

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Continuing with the reboots, Doom is a refreshingly simple and to-the-point FPS murderfest, with your only real goal being to, well, kill everything. Fortunately, Doom supplies us with enough crazy weapons, gory finishing moves, and trinkets to find secreted away in its hellish landscape to be more than entertaining enough without forcing us to use too much brain power. Doom excels at making the player feel stupidly powerful without ensuring that every encounter will result in victory. There’s a pervading sense of tension as you scavenge through hell looking for more health or armor to survive the next demonic onslaught, and that tension clinches the feel of the original games in the series without looking anything like them. Sure, the reds and oranges of hell are still there in all their glory, but no longer are our enemies pixelated and goofy-looking. Now they’re beautifully rendered and goofy-looking, and I love it.

8. Uncharted 4

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Those of us who’ve been following Nathan Drake and Co’s adventures over the past seven years have something of a guilty pleasure in A Thief’s End, the fourth and ostensibly final installment in the groundbreaking cinematic platforming series. Almost all of our favorite players are here, with primary love interest Elena and best friend Victor “Goddamn” Sullivan thankfully still in play, and new characters like Nathan’s brother Sam and the slew of enemies, each more compelling than the last, keep the banter fresh and amusing as we trek through Uncharted 4’s downright gorgeous landscapes and environments. More important than the tight platforming/shooting/puzzle-solving gameplay, expert voice work, or beautiful visuals is the story, which manages to cap off our journey with Nathan Drake in a satisfying and meaningful way, indulging us by giving all our favorites their own happy endings regardless of whether they actually deserved it. Of course I’m excited at the prospect of a new Uncharted game (which PSX has confirmed for us in a spin-off), but I’m satisfied to never see Nathan Drake again, knowing that his story has been effectively ended.

7. Pokemon Sun/Moon

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I didn’t expect to be putting a Pokemon game on this list, well, ever, but somehow Gamefreak and company have managed to also breathe new life into this 20-year-old franchise, a common thread among this year’s entries. (In fact, now that I think of it, there’s at least one other game on this list that’s also here for that reason.) Pokemon Sun and Moon bring us to Alola, the blatantly Hawaii-inspired new region where things are different, but the same. The central mechanics are still there in general — find Pokemon, catch Pokemon, train Pokemon, beat other Trainers, fill your Pokedex, etc. — but other things have changed, not the least of which is the Pokemon themselves, many of whom have different forms and types here. Gone are Gym Leaders and the city-route-city-route routine that inevitably became tedious. Instead we have the “Island Challenge,” a more RPG-esque style of gameplay progression that puts the player through various puzzles and legitimately entertaining gauntlets to test various aspects of their ability as a Trainer that extend beyond just the strength of their Pokemon. Gone are HMs, the tedious, difficult-to-unlearn moves we’d usually have to heap on a poor, unsuspecting Bibarel to carry around as our designated “HM slave”. Instead, we have the Ride Pager, an admittedly stupid but still fun way to call on various Pokemon to use outside battle. Also, the Pokedex talks. Luckily, all of these changes are smartly implemented, and apart from the hand holding that pervades the game (for which I can forgive them — not everyone’s been playing these games for over a decade), almost everything works here.

6. XCOM 2

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2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown brought back this veteran tactical strategy series with force, and XCOM 2 manages to top it in terms of scale, difficulty, and depth. XCOM 2 takes place in a timeline where you failed in the first game (which is an accurate representation of my many times through that game), and now you’re not fighting off an invasion, you’re resisting the aliens already there. This changes the tension and feeling of each mission, and also affects the choices you make between missions in subtle ways. You have to fly your aerial base between outposts to defend what you can, but you obviously can’t do everything at once. XCOM 2 demands a lot of the player, and while you’re rewarded for making smart decisions, chances are that’s not going to happen a lot, and you’ve just got to deal with it. Which is pretty realistic, honestly.

5. Civilization VI

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When the Brave New World DLC was released for Civilization V, I and many others said that this was effectively the full realization of all the potential the base game had. BNW and the previous DLC, Gods and Kings, managed to add complexity without complication, make the victory conditions more logical and attainable, and make the late game enjoyable. Civilization has accomplished all this and more right out of the gate. The first proper sequel to Civ V in 6 years, it was most assuredly worth the wait, as nearly every aspect of Civ VI lands perfectly and makes the players feel in charge of how their civilization will develop throughout the ages. While 2014’s Beyond Earth never managed to get that “just one more turn” feeling out of me, Civ VI grabs on mercilessly and won’t let go for hours at a time. Like it should.

4. Fire Emblem Fates

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I absolutely adore the Fire Emblem series. It could be the most ruthless series Nintendo has ever produced in terms of difficulty, and no other game series makes you care as much about its characters as Fire Emblem manages to. Fates took the Pokemon route this year, releasing not one, not two, but three completely different versions of the same game, each taking a vastly different story route resulting in completely different decisions to be made, characters to be met, and battles to be fought. And it is glorious. While Fates may falter a bit in areas where previous installments like the nearly-perfect Fire Emblem Awakening (2013 GOTY) shone, it makes up for these by showcasing the sheer complexity, quality, and quantity of content Nintendo is able to pump into its three versions, Birthright, Conquest, and Revelations. While Pokemon’s different versions have always felt a little like a cheap cash-grab, Fire Emblem Fates assuredly deserves three versions, and I recommend all three to anyone who wants a compelling story attached to some absolutely brutal tactical strategy.

3. Titanfall 2

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From my review: “2014’s Titanfall got a lot of things right, as far as I’m concerned. The gameplay was fast, nuanced, and well-balanced, the level design was decent, and the action itself was varied and enticing enough to bring me back time and again … Titanfall 2 improves on essentially every aspect of the original by speeding up the gameplay even more, making traversal more instinctive, improving the campaign tenfold, deepening the customization, and, most importantly, adding a grappling hook.” Months later, Titanfall 2’s community still seems to be going strong, and it’s still just as enjoyable and tense as ever.

2. Dishonored 2

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Like every year, figuring out which of my final two games would take the number one spot was agonizing (last year’s decision between The Phantom Pain and The Witcher 3 nearly killed me), but I always force myself to pick a clear winner. Taking the respectable number 2 position this year is Dishonored 2, a smart first-person stealth game that makes the player feel more powerful than I think any other game has before. The player has the option at the start to choose to play as either Corvo Attano, the grizzled protagonist of the first game, or his daughter, the empress Emily Kaldwin. While this choice has a small but still important impact on the story, it impacts the gameplay greatly, with each character having a unique ability set conducive to playing the game in slightly different ways. The thing is, those slight differences have massive impacts, as Dishonored 2’s missions have a dizzying amount of different paths to take and ways to complete them. Do you want to ghost your way through and be as nonlethal as possible? Go ahead. Do you want to straight-up murder everyone? That’s fine, too. Every option in between is also plausible, and has its own consequences on the story. Finally, a shout-out to the fantastic Clockwork Mansion mission is necessary. Buy this game.

And now it’s time for my number one game of the year …

1. No Man’s Sky

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No.

 

 

1. Overwatch

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As soon as I settled on what was to be my number one pick this year, it seemed so obvious. My in-game stats tell me I’ve played 153 hours since this game came out in late May, which is already a lot even when you don’t consider the fact that I’m a full-time student who ALSO works part-time for NASA and ALSO played enough other games to have a difficult time narrowing this list down to just 10. So yeah, I really, really dig Overwatch. Blizzard has proven once again that they are genius game developers, taking some of the most enjoyable aspects of MOBAs and other multiplayer shooters to create the most colorful and unique shooter I’ve ever seen, giving its 20+ playable characters even more distinct personality and style than TF2’s, which any TF2 player will know is saying something. Simply put, Overwatch is an absolute triumph for multiplayer gaming, and will most assuredly stand the test of time and be as much of a blast in 10 years as it is today. Cheers, love.

Through that Timeless Space — Rogue One

[The following review may contain spoilers. You’ve been warned.]

If The Force Awakens had a heavy burden to bear being the culmination of over 30 years of fan theories and speculation, Rogue One has an equally heavy burden, purporting to bridge the gap between prequel and original while simultaneously managing to tell a compelling story on its own without overstepping its bounds. Luckily, it succeeds on all fronts in this endeavor.

Rogue One is labeled “A Star Wars Story,” not an “Episode” proper, and it establishes itself apart from the regular Star Wars canon in a few ways — some cinematic, some dramatic, some thematic — and it is in these differences that Rogue One excels. There’s no opening crawl explaining the situation, no sweeping John Williams soundtrack (which isn’t to say that Michael Giacchino doesn’t handle the task ably — he does), no Jedi bringing a mystical air to the proceedings, hell, there’s not even a proper “I have a bad feeling about this” (but only just). However, Rogue One does give us things we haven’t seen before in a Star Wars Episode — a flashback, a time jump, helpful notes on the screen telling us where we are and why it’s important, and, most importantly, actors we’ve actually heard of before, and not just because of Star Wars movies.

The most important difference noted above is assuredly the absence of Jedi and, by and large, Sith (though the appearance of Darth Vader, once again voiced by the eminent James Earl Jones, is much appreciated and powerful in its brevity). While we still have staunch believers in the Force here (most notable is Chirrut Imwe, played fantastically by Donnie Yen), we don’t have any prominent Jedi characters in the film. Realistically, it makes sense, as we’re smackdab in the middle of Anakin Skywalker annihilating nearly all of them and his son realizing his power. At the time of this film’s story, there’s only two Jedi out there — Yoda and Obi-Wan — and both of them are in hiding. The lack of Jedi really brings out the “science” in science fiction, and thus really brings out the “wars” in Star Wars. Without these mystical, powerful players on the table, what we’re left with is gritty, character-driven all-out battles between soldiers, and the fact that it takes place in the Star Wars universe can become easy to forget even amidst X-Wings and TIE Fighters zipping about and the newly-constructed Death Star looming overhead.

The main hero of our story is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), daughter of engineer Galen Erso (a fantastic Mads Mikkelsen), who worked on the construction of the Death Star somewhat against his will, and who may hold the key to its demise. Jyn is a sort of Han Solo-type character, or at least what Han Solo was supposed to be — an antihero who’s really only dragged into the proceedings against her will or for her own gain. In her case, she’s brought on by Rebel Alliance leaders Mon Mothma and Bail Organa, both of whom are back from the prequels and give excellent ties back to that trilogy without dredging up too many painful memories of Gungans or pod racing. Jyn is tasked with finding her father, and to that end teams up with the morally gray Rebel pilot Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and the repurposed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) in order to locate the Rebel extremist Saw Gerrara (Forest Whitaker). All three of these characters are stand-outs to me, with Andor and Gerrara highlighting the moral ambiguity of the resistance, previously untouched in the Star Wars franchise which decidedly favored their cause, and K-2SO being the main source of humor with his terse commentary reminiscent of a clash between Threepio and Marvin the Paranoid Android. Tudyk goes a long way to give this character depth and the CGI used to depict him is able to stand right up there with the practical effects used elsewhere.

On that note, however, there are other CGI characters who don’t fare as well as K-2SO does. Both Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing have been recreated with CGI for this film, with Cushing having passed away years ago and Fisher’s face being largely comprised of silicon these days. Fisher’s cameo is mercifully short, but Cushing’s Governor (not yet Grand Moff) Tarkin gets way too much screentime to be comfortable, and for a film with such great CGI elsewhere he just looks clunky, disjointed, and quite frankly terrifying. It’s not quite as bad as Tron’s CGI Jeff Bridges, but it’s not nearly as good as Ant-Man’s CGI Michael Douglas.

Jyn’s mission is fairly simple — retrieve the plans to the Death Star to aid the rebellion in its destruction — and the conflicts she finds herself in serve very well to highlight just how bad the Empire’s reign was. There are several brutal fight scenes (including a spectacular one featuring Donnie Yen’s martial arts skills) and one particularly well-done moment showed a young child caught in the crossfire. This is just one example of how well Rogue One sets itself apart from the Episodes, all of which focus on important figures and powerful players in the conflict. Rogue One’s characterizations are nothing short of outstanding, and relationships like Cassian and K-2SO, Jyn and Saw, and Chirrut and best friend Baze (Jiang Wen) are at the heart of this like they should be in any good war movie.

Rogue One is perfectly suited as a standalone film, but that doesn’t stop it from tying itself into the franchise in very satisfying ways. There are plenty of fun cameos, most of which make sense (except for one which was fun but unequivocally stupid), and the aforementioned Darth Vader is able to punctuate the film with his foreboding presence, lent even more gravitas by James Earl Jones’s still powerful voice acting. It was a marvel even in 1977 that such a (let’s face it) silly-looking character could be a dark and even frightening presence, but he manages it yet again here. Additionally, the film ties itself into the first film (A New Hope these days) spectacularly, ending mere minutes before the 1977 original begins.

Don’t come into Rogue One expecting too much of a happy ending. After all, we all saw Episode IV and we know what state the galaxy is in. What Rogue One does, and does extremely well, is answer a simple question that we never bothered to look at from the rest of the franchise — how did they know where to hit the Death Star in the first place? Where did they get those plans? They got them from Jyn et al, apparently, but unfortunately (and undeniably realistically), nearly every single character in this film paid the price for them to get it. It’s nice to know that their labors paid off and the Death Star was eventually destroyed (twice!), but it is of course a shame they never got to see it. But you can, and you should.

Emotional Feedback — The Astonishing Live

As anyone who has ever read anything here or met me in real life can attest, I’m a giant Rush fan, both literally and figuratively. As such, an admiration for prog metal gods Dream Theater seems only to be a natural progression (NPI). Their latest album, this year’s The Astonishing is their second concept album, and their first double concept album, and on top of both of those, it’s essentially a two-hour love letter to 2112. So I love it. And seeing them perform it live is even more awesome.

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Straining the Limits of Machine and Man – Titanfall 2

2014’s Titanfall got a lot of things right, as far as I’m concerned. The gameplay was fast, nuanced, and well-balanced, the level design was decent, and the action itself was varied and enticing enough to bring me back time and again. Unfortunately, it didn’t have this effect on many, and the multiplayer game became nearly barren withing a few months of release. That said, Titanfall still managed to retain enough of a following to warrant a sequel, and I sure am glad it did. Titanfall 2 improves on essentially every aspect of the original by speeding up the gameplay even more, making traversal more instinctive, improving the campaign tenfold, deepening the customization, and, most importantly, adding a grappling hook.

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Top 10 Underrated Rush Songs

On this, the anniversary of this blog’s inception, it seemed fitting to go back to one of the primary reasons I started it in the first place — I like writing about weird stuff. This time around, I’m gonna be taking a look at the ten Rush songs I think don’t get enough time in the, er, Limelight, if you’ll pardon the pun. For whatever reason, these ten songs never got much notice from the general populace (being Rush songs), or even from Rush fans, at least from what I’ve noticed. Obviously, it’s a highly subjective list, and what I consider to be underrated may be considered by another Rush fan to be given exactly what it deserves. Nonetheless, let’s kick off this anniversary celebration with song number ten …

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