Saturday, 8 March 2008

[4] Gogol, Games and Ghosts.

A lot of small, but notable things have happened since my last post. I'll try to collate them here.

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First, I uploaded another video to Youtube. The strange room in the Chemical Engineering building, with its bank of lights going through the visible light spectrum all day, has intrigued me since it was brought to my attention early last academic year. When scouting with Emilio for the (currently on hold) project to document life on campus in the early hours of the morning, I shot this short piece, capturing a progression through the colour spectrum. The video hasn't been as popular as the JaBsoc jam footage, which has had over 270 views, but it's an interesting video nonetheless.




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I'm still working on my dissertation. I'm very thankful to Steve at Languagehat for taking a look at my last post. I'm hoping to start writing it very soon; I'll make sure I post extracts up here. For the moment, I'll link to my detailed 'plan' / structure, which I prepared for my final meeting with Steve Ellis, my dissertation supervisor.

Over the last few weeks, translation has invaded my spare time. I've been reading Douglas Hoftstadter's Le Ton beau de Marot, which is a fascinating journey through a life of obsession with language. Also, after writing notes about the references to Gogol in The Seagull, I just had to pick up a cheap Penguin Classics edition of his short stories. I'd always meant to read them; in fact, I believe my Russian teacher might have read one to use once. It's also interesting to read, because a friend of mine took inspiration from Gogol's work for a play he wrote and produced in Cambridge and the Edinburgh Fringe called Coat (which, I only just found out, won the Footlights award for Best Comedy Play).

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I'm still on working on the CC2K Weekly Guide to Gaming. This week an article I wrote was published; it's on exploitation of Video Game atmosphere in military recruitment advertising. Check it here (second page). I'm currently working on a personal history of pornographic or sexually-suggestive tendencies in video games; references to Leisure Suit Larry, BMX XXX (tasteless trailer here) and Mass Effect, amongst others. This will be my contribution to another collab feature. I'll link to that when it is up.

I'm worried that the WGTG isn't getting enough hits: so far it's averaging at 100 views an article (this week's hasn't reached 70, since Thursday). I tried contacting Kotaku asking for some promotion, but they didn't reply. I might press harder next time. This links in with the general anxiety about promotion, which is pretty evenly split between CC2K and this blog.

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This week has been notable for music news. In the last 2 years, I've resigned myself to not keeping on top of new or interesting music. This is mostly because I'm always just as intent on picking up different and new (to me) music from previous decades, as I am to maintaining any sense of relevance (hard to do in the de-centralised, immense world of internet music distribution).

That said, this week I found myself enthusiastic, even excited about two new releases (albeit by established artists). Namely, the new Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album, DIG!!! LAZARUS DIG!!!, and the four volumes of Ghosts from Nine Inch Nails. I'm still digesting both, but there is too much to say about the latter, so let me spew (what ensues is a very long review):



This new Nine Inch Nails release, Ghosts I-IV, is a bold step into a world of innovation. Too many news posts around the internet have cited that 'Nine Inch Nails follow Radiohead'. This is true in chronology, but I feel the need to state the importance of Trent Reznor's strategy. For the unenlightened, this double album was originally planned as a short instrumental EP, recorded over a 10 week period in Autumn 2007. These sessions saw Reznor working with a distinct hub of musicians, including NIN regulars and guests such as Atticus Ross, Alan Moulder, Adrian Belew and Dresden Dolls' Brian Viglione. The material produced from these sessions eventually came to nearly 2 hours' worth of music. Fast-forward to the end of February 2008, and Reznor posts on the NIN.com blog with '2 weeks'. A fortnight later, Ghosts I-IV was announced.

The music itself is notable, as Reznor is allowed, outside of the major label system, to release such a baggy, leftfield, epic project. A 36-song 'soundtrack for daydreams', each track comes with an individual piece of art: the music is inspired by visuals. This expression is, in his words, only afforded by the freedom of internet distribution. The music is varied; often sparse, minimal and atmospheric, not unlike Brian Eno's Ambient albums (2 Ghosts I), or Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works releases (25 Ghosts III); at other points, noise and distortion are brought into the mix (10 Ghosts II). Without Reznor's often cliched or immature lyrics, his ever intricate and masterful use of the studio is left to shine; the louder, heavier segments crystallise as raging beauty, as opposed to frantic tantrum (8 Ghosts I). The pieces are tight and structured, meaning that ideas float in and out of focus; no figure really outstays its welcome. So the music is different. Nine Inch Nails, even at their best, like on 2007's Year Zero album, were still riffing on the same formula. This project sees Reznor tinkering with his own (nearly) 20 year old mould; found sounds, instruments created or taken from other traditions are added (30 Ghosts IV). The result isn't chart-friendly, and probably finds its closest brethren in fan-favourites, such as the live bonus disc Still, and Reznor's Quake Soundtrack. Although, why this inscrutability is worthy of rebuke is beyond me. This is experimentation without the need for Major Statements, Big Songs or Anthemic Choruses. It is certainly different from In Rainbows' slight hedge towards a poppier sound.

The double album is musically worthy; there is danger that its real worth, however, may be overshadowed by its distribution method. Radiohead gave away their album for 'whatever you want', however, the mp3s were relatively low quality, and it all seemed like a gimmick anticipating a physical release. In retrospect, the strategy was thinly executed. The release of Ghosts I-IV, is certainly more wary of the changing musical climate. Interested buyers were faced with 5 choices: a free download of Volume 1 (the first 9 tracks); a $5 download of the whole project, plus a PDF of the liner notes; a $10 physical release; a $75 deluxe release, which included a data disc with complete multitracks of all the pieces (for remixing), a Blu-Ray disc with a high-definition version of the album, and a hardback book with album artwork; and a $300 ultra deluxe limited edition with all of the above, plus a high-quality vinyl of the album, and some beautiful, signed prints. The downloads themselves are offered in three formats: MP3 320kbs, FLAC Lossless and AAC lossless, offering CD-quality fidelity.

This serves the hypotheses that cheap, high quality downloads and well-crafted, desirable, but more expensive physical editions will encourage listeners to pay for what they could get through other channels for free. Also, with the focus on making multitracks available for remixing, Reznor accepts that remix culture and sampling, in the quick-fix digital culture of the moment, is a way of spreading the word. Nine Inch Nails have previously sampled artists like Prince or David Bowie, even films like THX 1138 - and have equally created a musical community through their own remix albums (making links with other musicians such as Coil, Ladytron, The DFA). Now, Reznor is giving away his multitracks as a way of creating a fan-community around the music. A prime example of this approach is found in the Nine Inch Nails Remix website, where Reznor has made available instrumental remixes of the majority of his output, along with multitrack files for his more recent albums, for fans to come together and create their own expression. These are all ways of connecting the artist with the fan - the blog, the remix, the effort and respect in the creation of the music. Encouraging a personal link; consumer loyalty, if you will.

The free download is just as important. The first volume is still a tidy 26 minutes of music, and is more than a fair taster of what is on offer. However, what impressed me most was the method of distributing this taster: an official torrent on the Pirate Bay. There have been rumblings about Reznor leaking albums or shelved projects through bit-torrent sites before, such as the Closure DVD a couple of years ago, but this is the first official endorsement of bit-torrent by a major artist. Crucially, Reznor and Nine Inch Nails are aware of these modes of distribution (not knee-jerk reactionary, like Metallica). They were just as aware of the possibility of the whole album being leaked onto Pirate Bay before long; they said in the official album release statement: 'Undoubtedly you'll be able to find the complete collection on the same torrent network you found this file, but if you're interested in the release, we encourage you to check it out at ghosts.nin.com'. These guys know which way the wind is blowing. Indeed, this album is also released under a Creative Commons license, which means that it is free for anything - remixing, sampling, performance, broadcast, even sharing - as long as it is not for commercial profit.

These experiments are important; they need to be made. It is true that Nine Inch Nails have a very solid fanbase. Indeed, like Radiohead, they serve both the casual, mainstream listener and the obsessive hardcore fanboy. How else would the $300 deluxe version sell out in less than two days, making a minimum of $750,000? Smaller bands just aren't rich enough to be this radical. However, distribution is the next level of experimentation. Just as experimental studio techniques (The Beatles, Pink Floyd) or early synthesizers (The Monkees, Kraftwerk) were only available to established artists with financial backing, this next frontier must be traversed by the comfortable or the self-sufficient. There are other artists dabbling in audience-supported expression, such as Einsturzende Neubauten or Marillion, both of whom work outside of the major label system, and record projects sustained by donations from fans.

In this regard, Trent Reznor is on the frontline. First, he produced his friend Saul Williams' latest album, titled The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust, and released it for free (low quality) or $5 (high quality). This was, like this Nine Inch Nails release, an experiment: he posted the stats for people to read. Ghosts I-IV has already been more successful than the Saul Williams album, both in terms of business and criticism. This is a landmark release; it is both a statement of the new 'business models' allowed by the internet, but also a statement of creativity from an artist that has been previously dismissed. The release of Year Zero saw an invigorated Reznor, revisiting his hooky, noisy past while pushing forward into new areas of socio-political expression. Too many comments on articles about Nine Inch Nails start 'I liked NiN until The Fragile...'. Unlike that album's insular preciousness, on Ghosts Reznor has found a style which moves beyond adolescent frustration, towards a strident, confident, graceful experimentation.

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