Collecting Time: A Quantum Break Review


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Remedy Entertainment’s Quantum Break is a peculiar title. A game that, roughly twenty minutes in, had me audibly laughing at what it proposed. A multi-media, live-action hybrid –– starring Littlefinger from Game of Thrones –– and with a script seemingly riddled with pseudo–scientific cliche. It felt preposterous, indulgent and woefully overproduced. But what transpired was a title that, in time, won my attention. One that I actually grew to enjoy; even mull over its meandering narrative whilst away from my console. A game that, for all its shortcomings, left me suitably intrigued all the way through to its closing credits.

Quantum Break is a far from perfect game. But it is an ambitious, cross-media form of entertainment. It merges AAA-budget gameplay with live action sequences that feature the actors and characters we encounter along the way. Its story, gravitates around a flawed by engaging time-travelling thriller, one that actively rewards your engagement with it. In fact, through its campaign the player is given a number of ‘choose your path’ options, which changes both the direction of the game and the episodes we watch in tandem. It’s an altogether noble premise –– one that feels worthy of your time –– if not entirely for concept over execution.


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Of course, its premise isn’t entirely new. A relatively forgettable protagonist (Jack Joyce) is drawn into a time-travelling conspiracy, no thanks to his genius brother’s machine that –– shock, horror –– disrupts the space time continuum. It borrows philosophy from many of this genre: playing on whether time is fixed or if we can carve our own fate. But it does offer a heightened sense of interactivity and replay-ablity, by providing different paths and supplementary material.

For example, the evolving narrative plays on the idea of time ‘fracturing’, with disruptions becoming more pertinent as we try to reverse the effects of the machine. These fractures affect the gameplay quite tangibly –– literally causing time to freeze and fluctuate –– which reflects a genuine mediation of the different mediums at play. Moreover, navigating the ever-changing timeline(s) encourages a closer reading of its story: something that is satisfied through the live action shorts and [frankly colossal] amount of material presented through in-game collectables. Quantum Break, in many ways, leans on more traditional methods of storytelling when appropriate. Sometimes it uses filmed media, sometime it tells short-stories through diary entries or office emails. This doesn’t always work –– which I address in due course –– but it all serves to enrich the surrounding world. And it certainly demonstrates what can be achieved by taking this broader approach.


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In fact, there are moments of true ingenuity. As the player develops a clearer understanding of what is at stake –– largely through said collectibles –– character motivations become inherently more conflicted. The main antagonist, Paul Serene (Aiden Gillen) –– who I consider the strongest asset in the game –– has his justification for opposing Joyce. His empire and ‘Noah’s Ark for the elite’ seems increasingly more logical when read from his side. This actually amalgamated to the point where I began questioning my role as the protagonist and whether or not I was indeed the villain. Yet this development is best conveyed through his laptop and diary entries, rather than the somewhat ropey dialogue during their animated cinematics. Which suggests that this cross-media approach can compliment, even rectify, the main vessel of storytelling throughout the game.

There are some shortcomings to this ambition, though. Whilst Serene and Joyce carve a decent binary, the supporting figures –– namely Charlie Wincott and Fiona Miller –– feel a little half-baked. At times, they seem added almost entirely to satisfy the need for live action segments, with only Liam Burke and Beth Wilder significantly confronting Joyce in-game. Putting faces to emails does’t feel entirely warranted, nor are their on-screen escapades particularly interesting, either. And the story more-often-than-not relies on McGuffins to justify its linearity. With that said, Wilder’s arc eventually reaps some well punctuated heartfelt moments and Martin Hatch adds a compelling third-wheel; one that welcomes a second play-through. Especially given the convoluted ending.


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As for the gameplay itself? Quantum Break sits somewhere rather awkwardly. It boasts a generic but perfectly serviceable run-and-gun mechanic –– with Timesplitters style ‘super-powers’ to combat harder foes. It’s fun and for the most part well paced; with platforming segments really utilising the breadth of these time effects. But it seems on the whole at odds with the easter-egg hunt for exposition that defines the bulk of its storytelling. Large shoot-outs are often offset by frantic email-reading and collectable scouring. This can become jarring and is only heightened by the fact players have to watch up to thirty minute episodes before each chapter, cueing an inevitable desire to jump straight into the action to little-to-no avail. Frankly, it’s for this reason I feel Quantum Break never manages to capitalise on its true potential. Its live action sequences are not written well enough to stand up as television and its gameplay isn’t engaging enough to make for a solid action title, either. It has moments where the two mediums compliment each other effectively –– at times wonderfully –– but it generally spreads itself a little thin. Which is a shame, because when the platforming/action/story-telling work in harmony, it’s damn good fun. And the long, unwinding plot certainly accommodates it.

Its production values, conversely, deserve almost unanimous praise. The live action sequences have a glossy, ‘4K’ tinge to its digital photography, with a sterility that matches the animated characters rather well. The game, too, runs and looks fantastic. The set-pieces are bold and there are moments –– especially when avoiding collapsing environments –– that feel genuinely exhilarating. If its aim was to blur the lines between filmed and computerised entertainment, then it does a fine job of striking that conjecture. It is an immersive ordeal, one that is improved exponentially by how willing the player is to buy into it. No doubt, Quantum Break boasts a confidence in its every step it takes: something that is mirrored in every expensive camera angle, in-game collectable or blockbuster level design. Even if that confidence is a little misplaced.


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On reflection, I think my immediate hostility towards Quantum Break lies in misunderstanding. It is a grossly overblown thriller, with outrageous production values and its fair share of cliche. For many, it is hard to look past that. Yet all the same it’s a narrative and text-heavy adventure. One that is far more sensitive and slow-burning than its car chases and shoot-outs would have you believe. And if you’re willing to get on board with it’s frivolity –– by reading the in-game collectables, levelling-up your powers and weighing up the pathway options –– it offers something of a rewarding narrativised journey. My initial play-through became notably more enjoyable as I dug deeper into this muddled world. It’s also a considerably lengthy game by modern standards. No doubt this is buffed out by the live action segments, but it’s certainly in the double figures, which is surprising given its linearity. This is not a free-roaming RPG –– at times it’s little more than glorified quick time event –– yet it still maintains a longevity in its story telling. Which is a noble feat.


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Above else, though, Quantum Break is a charming, daring but equally frustrating experience. It remains a deeply pretentious and self-assured ‘creative project’. And in terms of gameplay, it brings little new to the proverbial table. But it’s still a title that won me over. A game that had me engrossed; despite my initial skepticism. A game that feels like a conceptional masterstroke, even if its struggles to balance the tempo of its combat, live action and seemingly endless endeavour to collecting things. In many ways, it feels let down by the very ambition that makes it an interesting game. It’s glaring faults come as a result of its dizzying heights. But it is, if anything, a title that encourages an active engagement with its storytelling, whilst trying to discover new ways to do precisely that.

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Quantum Break is Microsoft’s glossiest IP. Whether or not it achieved its divine goals of cementing the Xbox One as a gaming machine has yet to be seen. It certainly divided opinion upon launch in 2016 –– and it’s perfectly clear why it did just that. But in an era where single-player games invariably play it safe: the blind ambition of what is attempted here earns its dues, regardless if it falls short of its full potential. Quantum Break is, in my opinion, worth your time –– even if that time, or indeed your concept of time –– will be thrown through a blender of Whovian nonsense by the end of it.


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Aiming High: DOOM, Titanfall 2 and the FPS campaign


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There’s little doubt that the First-Person Shooter genre has faltered in recent years. From overblown set-pieces, undercooked narratives to excessive downloadable content: the number of inventive and thought-provoking shooters — at least on a AAA budget — seem far and few between.

Many point to annualised releases for blame; blockbuster franchises have stifled ambition by enforcing a factory-line production. It second-guesses what fans want and creates a race to the bottom between developers, itching to outdo each other on Micheal Bay theatrics. Even as a once committed Halo player, the most recent iteration of 343’s sacred-icon felt like a confused cocktail of other shooters. The creative level design and careful story-telling I once loved had been replaced by generic climbing mechanics and clumsy dialogue.

To my surprise, however, two of the most bombastic and outrageous shooters of 2016 proved to mediate many of my issues. Titles with such creative and crafted single-player campaigns that I genuine stopped to realise how much fun I was having. Yet titles, all the same, that wear all the hallmarks of being symptomatic of the idiotic spectacle that constitutes for modern shooters. Alongside our insatiable desire to reboot existing IPs.


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DOOM (2016) and Titanfall 2 (2016) offer something new in their single-player packages by being entire self-aware of their context. This extends beyond tonality and into their very construction and level design. These are games that opt for that trendy fast, high-octane action over anything entirely meaningful. But they do so with such care that this actually becomes something worthwhile in itself. They’re composed with a sort of musical orchestration: prefacing fast combat sections with eerie build-ups, breakdowns and crescendos. They offset all-out carnage with exploration and platforming segments to capitalise upon their penchant for agile movement. And whilst political and philosophical referent is sidelined for this action: they ascertain a coherent enough story to engage the player throughout the performance.


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What makes DOOM so enjoyable is its flagrant non-conformity. It takes the dynamics of its twenty-something predecessor and repackages it to sit alongside modern-shooters. That fluid, outlandish jaunt of double-jumping, demon-slaying and nigh-on infinite waves of ammunition wears a fresh coat of paint. But it’s much more than a simple re-skin. Whilst I’ve written extensively about my love for realism and the ‘Ranger Difficulty’ Metro titles — where one is frequently down to the final bullet and forced to run — there is something deeply cathartic about this style of gameplay. In DOOM, the player is actively penalised for playing tactically, taking cover and being at all conservative. Our fabled space marine wields a seemingly self-loading shotgun and acquires mythical power-ups along the way. One is therefore forced to entertain the theatrics DOOM encourages, on its openly ridiculous terms, and reap the benefits accordingly,

In fact, the strength of DOOM is not so much its lineage and nostalgia, but rather that these elements are mutually aligned. Design and dynamics work in tandem. We move from industrial research labs to satanic rituals almost seamlessly. The level construction rewards this exploration and style of open combat, but remains linear enough to avoid getting lost. Combat situations have limitless solutions, so ammunition and weapons are aplenty to facilitate that. It also juggles its larger set-pieces with claustrophobic and juxtaposed combat to keep the player on edge. Where one is more startled by a handful of imps jumping from a dark corridor, than the hordes of Hell we have to face head-on.

It’s also accompanied by one of the strongest soundtracks I’ve heard in recent years. Mick Gordon’s aggressive score blends Periphery style guitar parts with Nine Inch Nails synths and percussion. It’s a subtle throwback to the scores of yesteryear: namely Duke Nuke 3D and Trent Reznor’s infamous Quake soundtrack. But it really ties into the game’s sense of moment and pacing: adding a tout and foreboding facet to every environment we visit, whilst allowing for clear signifiers between chaotic and calming moments.


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A similar line of thought enchants Respawn Entertainment’s Titanfall 2. Whilst it takes a seemingly more realistic stance — realistic in that includes talking, flying robots but does not extend to storming the bloody gates of Hell — it retains that marriage of design and pacing. In fact, it’s raison d’être is literally a distinction of tempo: in its ‘pilot’ and ‘titan’ play-styles. Whilst the former can mount walls and scale buildings in a traditional FPS format, the latter is rather a slow but heavily-armed AI mech. My preconception here was that this would make for an opaque, ‘one of the other’ gameplay — but it proved to shift between the two inventively.

These ‘pilot’ segments require platforming and fast combat. Shootouts are often backdropped with moving environments, conveyer belts and so forth, whilst the ‘titan’ moments offer larger and more intense encounters. Yet it’s the moments in-between, where the player is separated from their titan for a brief interlude — only to return for the boss battle — that it really comes into fruition. These moments demonstrate precisely that musical quality that DOOM attains though its side-rooms and exploration. That the game is not merely stitching together key battles but rather building a coherent body; a world and narrative, that allows the player to enjoy all it has to offer.

Titanfall 2 also flirts with time-travel with a unique creativity. In one level, the player has to navigate a destroyed building by seamlessly switching between different time periods. The requires carefully bouncing between combat and platforming, as the ‘past’ iteration of the building is full of armed militia. This leads to some wonderful moments of carefully timing impossible jumps and avoiding gun shots. And more strikingly, this feature is never exhausted to the point of boredom. The game moves swiftly onto the next problem, environment and encounter: maintaining pace and intrigue along the way.


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In terms of basic story-telling, both games follow similar themes of rampant corporatism and shooting before asking questions. DOOM flirts with the bizarre prospect of mining Hell for renewable energy, meanwhile Titanfall 2 opts for a more classic ‘freedom fighting’ affair. Whilst neither story is particularly noteworthy, they are palatable given they actively facilitate the gameplay on offer. In other words, they accommodate the action and set-peices, whilst maintaining an intelligible sense of what the stakes are and who we should care about. (The latter point is often oh-so overlooked) And to its credit, Titanfall 2 carves a particularly warming relationship between the pilot and his AI titan by the end. It’s loaded with ‘your-humour-does-not-compute’ gags, but it’s a welcome handrail for the unfolding adventure.


On balance,  Titanfall 2 and DOOM flaunt a frivolous and light-hearted tone that is easy to scoff at. They appear to be quintessential products of our time; boasting style over substance. I have purposely avoided discussing some of these factors: multiplayer, graphics and technical elements and so forth, because, whilst stunning, we should expect nothing less from these departments. Yet upon further inspection, both titles posses an attention to detail that does feel overdue and thoughtful. They are, above else, well composed forms of escapism.

They also ignite some sense of optimism for the future of first-person shooter campaigns. Given Titanfall 2‘s predecessor was an entirely online affair; this single-player campaign was added almost entirely in response to prior criticism. DOOM, on the contrary, was a title that no-one particularly asked for, nor expected to fare so well.  Yet we have titles  here that seem to quell a great deal of the angst gamers have towards this genre. They offer something fresh without faring too far from the beaten track. They have confidence and heart, without relying upon expansion packs or shameless re-skins. And even as explicit products of franchising: they stand (or wall-run) on their two feet, all the same.

DOOM and Titanfall 2 provide intense and rewarding single-player campaigns that never allow combat or gameplay to stagnate. There is a technicality and ‘method to their madness’ that holds true. And whilst neither title is particularly intellectually stimulating or life-changing, they offer quite literally the most fun I’ve had with an FPS in a very long time. And there is absolutely nothing wrong or crass about achieving that.


Band of Skulls – By Default (Album Review)

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Southampton-trio Band of Skulls remain almost permanently on the cusp of success. Widely established amongst certain circles; yet under-appreciated and overlooked all the same. Their latest offering — and fourth full-length effort — seeks to rectify this. By Default hopes to cement the band as heavyweights by championing their most accessible songwriting to date. It sees their textbook formula of bombastic, arena-worthy percussion with Loveless-inspired riffs move into something much groovier: a darker, disco-inspired realm. At best, it prides their most confident, contagious material yet. But at worse, it represents a band still torn between moving forward and cherishing the past. A fitting predicament, perhaps, for a band flirting on the outskirts of recognition.

Opening with the throbbing ‘Black Magic’, By Default reminds us precisely why Band of Skulls have quietly crept up the ranks. A tout rhythm section with a dazzling hook: it makes for a ferocious opener. It’s not far removed from lead single ‘Killer’, which echoes the recognisable blend of grunge guitar and pop melodies that have come to define the band. These tracks feel more of a hangover from 2014’s Himalayan than anything particular fresh, but such songs feel welcome; a return to proverbial ‘form’ rather than ‘playing it safe’.

Nevertheless, By Default shines when it affords to take risks. Where it applies new groovier elements to that traditional ‘Skulls’ format. The disco-infused ‘So Good’ and ‘Bodies’ are clear highlights and offer a more seductive, percussive quality. This becomes all the more finessed with ‘This Is My Fix’, which sees such groove breath as the lead guitar favours intricacy over its typical (yet wonderful) abrasiveness. This all amalgamates rather tastefully in ‘Embers’, which may may well be the perfect distillation of old and new.

By Default’s unavoidable shortcoming, however, is the extent these songs fit together. Skulls have produced an eclectic collection of songs that are far from thematically linked. One half wants to smash up a room whilst the other wants to make sweet love to everything inside of it. Its mix of angst and groove lends itself to a compelling listen and arguably shapes their core sound — but it sometimes comes across a little overcooked. The continuity (or lack thereof) is more pertinent in its second-half; where it seems torn between embracing this new sound.  So much so, that ‘Little Momma’ feels like a nod to their rawer debut record; breaking the continuity of an album taking shape and momentum.

Above else, By Default is rather a collection of great songs than a concept or well crafted record. A collection, all the same, that represents some of their finest, most daring material to date. Whilst I wanted it to be the record that bolstered Band of Skulls into the the giants they deserve to be, it lacks the focus a they still desperately require. But as a concoction of their darker, sexier sensibilities — with the bite one comes to expect — when it shines, it does so blindingly. And I can’t wait to see where it takes them next.

Key Tracks: Embers, So Good, Bodies

Attack of the Clones: A Retrospective

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Edited article published for The Boar in January 2016. Available here: https://theboar.org/2016/01/revisiting-star-wars-episode-ii-attack-of-the-clones/


Attack of the Clones (2002) was the first Star Wars picture I saw at the cinema. Despite being largely considered ‘Worse than The Phantom Menace’, there is no doubt it had a profound effect on my love for film, the franchise and in shaping the person I am today. I recall, at seven years of age, lightsaber in hand; queuing up for the next chapter of something I was already deeply emotionally invested in.

But re-watching it in lieu of The Force Awakens (2015) is like realising your childhood heroes are flawed individuals. Attack of the Clones misses every opportunity to be interesting. Plagued with poor writing, unimaginative direction and truly disappointing acting; it is unsurprisingly relegated to bottom of the pile. Albeit heavy-handed character arcs or tedious political sequences, it sacrifices all humanity and heart — traits that I feel define the best of the Star Wars universe. Its overindulgence in CGI is equally problematic and dates the film greater than its spritely thirteen years would have you believe.

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In fact, reflecting on what the film does well proves exceedingly difficult. It has a remarkable ability to feel like a lot transpires — new characters and set-pieces that have nothing to do with a desire to flog merchandise — yet it offers no real movement in terms of plot or character.  The film loosely accounts for the start of the Clone Wars, building upon Palpatine’s transition to Emperor; Anakin’s love interest and his flaky relationship with the Jedi Order. But for the most part, Attack of the Clones drags. If looking at the archetypal trilogy, the second part is typically the darkest chapter. It puts the established characters into new circumstances and allows for the final film to ascertain the resolution. But Clones sits far removed from the eloquence of Empire Strikes Back. (1980) In fact, it’s a far messier film than I remembered.

Admittedly, the politics of Clones didn’t resonate with me as a child. Yet they are the most immediately odd thing about this film upon re-watching it. They dictate an overwhelming amount time for little to no reason. Did we really need three films of Galactic Senate meetings to convey the rise of Evil? Obviously the Sith play both sides — Dooku coercing the Separatists and Palatine pushing the Senate into Civil War. But the anxiety and impact of such a move is non-existent. It’s lost on children and it’s not enough for adults. It’s hard to feel any concern for the likes of Bail Organa or Viceroy Gunray when they feel like expendable characters. Nor is one compelled by the political repercussions, either, when they’re drawn out by such tiresome parliamentary episodes. Where they offer the guise of rationale and relief in-between action sequences, they feel vague and tedious. It’s hard not to switch off. Even the film’s final line even embodies this: ‘Begun the Clone War has’ sounds more foreboding than it really is; as one finds themselves head-scratching as to what has really occurred for the last two hours and how it holds any credence towards the original films.

Worse still, the moments of genuine intrigue are wasted. The conspiracy regarding a Clone Army, commissioned by a deceased Jedi Master, has great potential. The burnt paper-trail in the Jedi Archives has a whiff of Film Noir, yet it is completely extinguished within the context of the film. There is no investigation into why a Jedi commissioned such an army, nor the implication of a Sith plot in its place. Remarkably, no-one in the Council finds it odd to use an Army that no-one [explicitly] asked for. For all their self-proclaimed wisdom, the Jedi Council are remarkably thoughtless in this film. Windu remarks in an opening sequence: ‘We’re keepers of the peace… not soldiers’. Yet the film literally ends with the Jedi roped into a war that need not even happen, with themselves happily fronting legions of troops. No doubt this is part of Palatine’s great scheme –– but it comes across as frustrating in practice. Amalgamating a film later, to our beloved Obi-Wan parading around with soldiers and a military title: ‘General Kenobi, you are a bold one!’

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This inherent lack of continuity or defined characterisation overshadows Clones. Lucas makes it hard to sympathise with anyone, Jedi or otherwise. Hell, it’s hard to care about anything in this film. Jar Jar Binks declares Emergency Powers to the Chancellor, instigating a Galactic Civil War [!] — whilst the most powerful Jedi in history, the so-called ‘Chosen One’, enjoys a picnic on Naboo. With fire-place passion to boot; Lucas simultaneously achieves one of the most laborious romances in filmic history alongside the most tedious of plots. The original trilogy triumphed because of relatable characters in a distantly un-relatable universe. Laurence Kasdan crafted perfect on-screen chemistry with Han and Leia in Empire: a human romance that blossomed in the darkest of times. In Clones, we see parallels, a vague attempt to find love in a hopeless place — but the jump from the pre-pubescent: ‘Are you an angel?’ in The Phantom Menace to ‘I’m haunted by that kiss you should never have given to me’ is almost vomit-inducing. It’s simply not believable. It’s uncomfortable to watch. Albeit it the age gap or the fact that people, even in a Galaxy Far Away, do not speak like this; the script does little to convince audiences about this newfound love.

Anakin’s seduction to the Dark Side is equally fallible to this half-baked writing style. The sequence where he massacres Tusken Raiders represents another missed opportunity. It reveals his aggressive and possessive instincts — a penchant for the Dark Side in lieu of his late mother — but the character developed up until this point is so unbearable, that the scene caries no weight. It is for this reason that Anakin’s ‘dark’ moments, just as his romance with Padmé, feel like an after-thought. It is as if the pressure of turning him into Vader hangs awkwardly over Clones; forcing abrasive dialogue and clunky character development.

All that said, there are some commendable efforts within the film. Credit should be bestowed upon Ewan McGregor; there is little doubt that his role within the prequels stands above the rest, something that became increasingly apparent upon re-watching these films. He bought his all, it’s just a shame no-one else did. Temuera Morrison (Jango Fett) also shines amidst a sea of mediocrity, which is commendable given the material handed to him, although he never feels fully fleshed-out. Christopher Lee provides a curious role as master-swordsman Count Dooku — a character whose potential seems incredibly missed. It seems whilst actors can rise above the weakest script; Lucas et al fail to develop them beyond their action-figure value. In fact, this continues an idiosyncratic trend within the Star Wars saga — one of squandered, potentially brilliant, on-screen villains. (See also: Darth Maul, Jango Fett, General Grievous)

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Above all else, re-watching Attack of the Clones, is a conflicted experience. For all its whimsical action, it has not aged well. The combat is excessive and CGI in place of thoughtful spectacle feels shallow in retrospect. Nothing comes close to that opening shot of A New Hope (1977) and the whole film is tinged in a strange digital processing, with every shot leaning upon once state-of-the-art technology to construe meaning.  Its visual style is jarring; jumping between mind-numbingly fast edits and poorly constructed backdrops. (See: Kamino and Arena Sequences) Equally, if viewing it as sophisticated political drama, it feels ill-conceived.  The plot is malnourished, dragging its feet for the two hour running time. It’s hard to care for characters and their meandering problems, nor process a clumsy Gungan quite literally changing the fate of the Galaxy forever.  As for its performative value? Bar a few commendable efforts, it’s not an easy watch. Hayden Christensen’s insufferable moaning is both coarse and irritating — and now remains in Star Wars canon as the precursor to one of Cinema’s greatest villains.

Ultimately, if one takes nostalgia out of the equation, Attack of the Clones deserves a thousand years in the digestive transit of the Great Sarlacc. It is a misguided and heavily confused picture. But by the same token, I do find it hard to scoff at a movie that for better of for worse, shaped my relationship with science fiction. My cynical, adult self will never forget that unobtainable sense of escapism I enjoyed as a child. It is for that reason, and that reason alone, I might just dig out my lightsaber for an IMAX Anniversary Cut. Just don’t expect me to enjoy any Special Edition-style adjustments.

After all, George, we already hate sand.

2000 Trees Festival 2015 (Review)


Written for The Boar’s website: theboar.org/2015/08/03/festival-review-2000-trees-9th-11th-july/

All photos are my intellectual property. Please ask permission before using.


The self-proclaimed home of ‘New & Underground Bands’ is something of a rare card in the UK festival scene. Situated amidst the Gloucestershire countryside, 2000 Trees boasts a handful of live acts over three days — all for around ninety quid a ticket. Given this price tag and its modest five-thousand head capacity; Trees offers a viable alternative to the ‘mainstream’ festival experience. But whatever it lacks for in size and prestige, it makes up for in atmosphere and organisation. 2000 Trees does something different — offering an intimate weekend when festivals only seem to be expanding — but it does so remarkably well.

  Of course, articulating the magic of a music festival is much like reviewing a holiday: there are simply too many variables affecting ones experience. Admittedly, everyone will have had a different time and music, by its very nature, is divisive. To criticise a set because of an unappealing artist would be poor journalistic form. Likewise, capturing the spontaneity of the festival — such as its bizarre fancy dress contest (with a theme of ‘literal interpretations of band names’) — is almost impossible to put into words. But there are a number of things that are unanimously brilliant about 2000 Trees. Largely, it forgoes many of the pitfalls that bigger festivals suffer from. Smaller stages means closer camp-sites, less walking and generally a more relaxed weekend. Travelling between bands takes an average of five minutes — a far-cry from Glastonbury’s colossal arena — and I myself pitched mere seconds from a stage. (The Cave). There is also no arena system, which means you can drink your own booze, and the patronising airport-grade security of larger festivals is thankfully abandoned. I won’t pretend that the toilets were ideal, but there is a lot going for this smaller set-up. Its Big Lebowski themed bar is relatively cheap: offering a wealth of locally sourced beers alongside the Dude’s favourite beverage,The White Russian. And its clientele is equally as refreshing, with everyone from the UKHC scene to small families considered welcome. It is, by and large, the friendliest festival crowd I have ever experienced. Where strangers merge campsites and sing together. Where the GCSE-celebrates urinating on your tent are replaced by punk enthusiasts debating the greatest Ruben LP. Everyone is seemingly bound by a mutual love for music, but without the rowdiness that plagues so many other festivals.

The line-up is also fairly unique. Headlined by pop-rockers Deaf Havana and Alkaline Trio; 2000 Trees prides itself on a range of punk, hardcore and fan-favourites. Each year it asks festival goers who they would like to see play and they endeavour to satisfy that demand. It would be short-sighted to say there is something for everyone — this is not a typical pop festival — but it knows its demographic well. Contrarily, it simultaneously manages to appeal to those who dislike festivals — the queuing, the bad food and the nasty festival clichés are nowhere to be seen. But the heart of Trees is found away from the main stages; in the accidental discoveries, the new bands and the Tree-clad stage known as the Forest Sessions. It’s also the secret gigs and the the camp site bandstands that set Trees apart from the rest. With that said, personal highlights included Thursday-night headliners, The Subways, celebrating the 10th anniversary of their seminal Young For Eternity. If one should begin how intending to go on on — then their set certainly set the benchmark. Post-rockers Arcane Roots and And So I Watch You From Afar also blew the proverbial roof off their respective stages, showcasing Trees’ diversity towards the heavier side of things. Scottish anthemic rock was also well received, with The Xcerts and Idlewild providing the perfect beer-clutching soundtrack for a main stage crowd.IMG_4109

On reflection, 2000 Trees attains a wonderful blend of music and people. The silent-disco(s) that follow the headline acts encapsulates this and is something of a microcosm of the festival itself. There are various channels, from indie sing-alongs to hardcore breakdowns. It knows its audience and, much like the approach to the main line-up, it satisfies the demand it creates. It doesn’t take itself too seriously either — something that is evident across the whole site during the weekend. It’s pure, undulated fun. Which is immeasurably contagious.

Above all else, it is the spirit at 2000 Trees that makes it so appealing. When a power-cut hit Alkaline Trio’s [rain-soaked] headline set, there was not anger directed at the band or organisers. If anything, there was genuine sympathy. A general sentiment of ‘Oh, I hope this doesn’t give Trees bad press!’, was reiterated around me. Bassist Dan Andriano attempted to serenade the front row with an acoustic guitar: clearly grateful for their patience. There is a real sense of solidarity between the artist and the audience and less of the us/them dichotomy that larger, staler, festivals seem to inspire. Bands can be found at the bar and watching other artists. They seem to enjoy the festival as much as the audience, taking photos with fans and often staying for the majority of weekend. There is something wonderfully endearing about a frontman telling the crowd that he has blown off work to play the festival. [Tellison, Friday Afternoon]. Frankly, 2000 Trees isn’t about the paycheque or the BBC coverage… because there isn’t any. It’s about something that existed before festivals became the musical equivalent of a Ibiza holiday and an excuse to plug your latest record. It’s something more organic, more meaningful. It’s live music in its purest form.

At a time when festivals become increasingly more commercial, expensive and less about the music — 2000 Trees brings everything back into perspective. Good people and great artists is all you really need. Of course, you’re not going to see Arctic Monkeys or Muse, but for the money you get something far more memorable. A site small enough to walk between acts. A crowd friendly enough to bond strangers. A festival that is so well organised that the stage times are staggered to minimise clashes. 2000 Trees encapsulates everything I love about live music. It even revitalises my faith in people. It’s a music festival… in the most platonic sense of the term. A celebration of music — and those who love music. And it’s quite easily the best weekend of the year.

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Ollie Ship [@OllieShip]

Live Review: Nine Inch Nails – Birmingham LG Arena (18/5/2014)


Edited article for The Boar available here:

http://theboar.org/2014/09/14/live-review-nine-inch-nails/

 All photos are my intellectual property. Please ask permission before use.


It’s been 5 years since Trent Reznor and co conquered a British arena; and they unsurprisingly stretched Birmingham LG’s 16,000 people capacity. Fans new and old gathered from as early as 5pm; dressed in the colourful attire you’d expect from an industrial-metal show. (or rather, the lack of…) But the range of washed out tour shirts proved an overwhelming point – Trent Reznor has been playing this game for over 25 years now.  


Nine Inch Nails are perhaps most famous for their work in the 1990s; with The Downward Spiral  (1994) regularly cited as one of the most influential records of the decade. However, for an act that could easily fill arenas by playing ‘the classics’, Trent Reznor advocates a real dedication towards reinventing his live act. Albeit through recruiting new members or investing in stage production, Nails’ have earned a reputation for innovating their stage show. In fact, just last summer the band lashed out at Reading and Leeds Festival for refusing their elaborate lighting rig. It seems that the UK would have to wait another year before giving Nails’ a platform that could truly accommodate them.

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The show itself opened with a spotlight on Reznor, in a minimalist rendition ofMe I’m Not’. The other band members progressively joined him, in a pattern that was allegedly inspired by The Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense tour. However, having just toured America as an eight-piece, it was somewhat disconcerting to count just three people join him on stage. 

But there was nothing underwhelming about this show. After a strobe-drivenCopy of A’ and an exuberant remark about not playing another ‘fucking festival’;  it was clear that this was a refined and polished live act. In turn, with a flurry of exotic lights during ‘March Of The Pigs’, Trent Reznor’s secret weapon was now in full swing. A mechanical screen covered the stage and sat behind, or in front of those performing. Images accompanied the music and masked those on stage; becoming one of the most immersive live act I’ve ever witnessed. The dynamics this presented were unparalleled. Screens of white noise and distortion obscured the band during breakdowns, only to be pulled back like a futuristic theatrical curtain.

This was most notable during the performance of ‘Eraser’. Uncomfortable images of insects covered the screen during its slow introduction, but were dispersed as the drum kicked in and Ilan Rubin was revealed from behind the metal sheet. This promoted the rest of the band to join in, and the crowd were engaged both visually and sonically. Frankly, these kind of theatrics are what are inspiring about live music on this scale. Trent has taken the essence of his music and projected in a way that exceeds what the audience expectant, when in all honestly, he doesn’t have to play anything more than the music.

IMG_4772In fact, for a band that is comprised of only one official member, there was a remarkable lack of ego displayed too. Whilst invariably, Trent Reznor is the crowd focal point, his band were impressively tight and professional. Ilan Rubin effortless glided between drums and synths, and occasionally picked up the bass and electric guitar. Robin Finck and Alessandro Cortini also swapped instruments; each facing a synth whilst guitars hung from their necks. It seems Trent has hired four likeminded musicians to cary his live act with him. There was no showboating or excessive guitar soloing, nor any of the usual rock star bullshit of bands (and stages) this size. Nine Inch Nails were an act, a collective unit, and above else; an experience.

Likewise, the setlist was equally as choreographed. Songs like Sanctified from 1989’s Pretty Hate Machine book-ended with tracks form 2013’s Hesitation Marks; covering as much as their catalogue as possible. (This certainly didn’t feel like a ‘plug the new album tour’ – *ahem* – Smashing Pumpkins at Wembley last year) Fans also received over-looked album tracks such as ‘The Great Destroyer’ and ‘Piggy’; something that is often missed in larger arena shows. Nevertheless, there was a distinctive scarcity of 1999’s The Fragile. Whilst this is likely the most divisive record within the Nine Inch Nails catalogue, the ripping guitars of ‘The Day The World Went Away’ proved that Trent Reznor’s darkest moments were undoubtedly, his best. Their finale was, unsurprisingly, the closest thing to a ‘greatest hits’ for Nails’. A back to back performance of ‘The Hand That Feeds’ and ‘Head Like A Hole’ ignited the crowd for one last time.  The band then returned for gut-wrenching performance of ‘Hurt’ in the encore; which sparked the cliche cigarette lighter waving that only certain songs provoke.

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Whilst I ultimately find it difficult reviewing something as subjective as live music; and no doubt I would’ve be satisfied with just hearing the songs, the experience that Trent Reznor and co have conjured is truly awe-inspiring. It is refreshing, immersive and it pushes the limit in what live acts should be doing in light of their ever inflated ticket prices. Nine Inch Nails set the benchmark incredibly high for live shows, and you’ll be hard pressed to see Reznor fading away any time soon.

★★★★★