ellyssian: (sphinx)

DaVinci's Challenge - 2 or 4 players ages 8 and up

The first of three related games (the other two being a modified mancala and a card game), this is an abstract game that requires quick pattern recognition skills as well as strategic thinking.

The board has some of DaVinci's images on them, but they are all in the background. The playing field of the board itself - on top of Vitruvian Man ~ has a series of geometric patterns made up of two shapes. Those two shapes match that of your playing pieces, in both your color and that of your opponent. The four player game ~ which I've never played ~ subdivides the colors into teams, with one player per shape.

The pieces ~ ovals and triangles, they're often called, although it's a slight simplification ~ are made from plastic, and from all reports there is a lot of variation in the quality of molding. I know our set has one mongrel piece that looks like enough material didn't make it into the mold, however, I'm not complaining ~ it seems to bring me a spot of luck!

The game is played by taking turns, placing a piece of your choosing in a location of your choosing that matches the selected piece. After each piece is played, you must see if that added piece became part of one or more patterns, as indicated on the scoring sheet. You make a tally mark next to all of the patterns you completed ~ wholly in your color ~ and it moves on to the next player.

When placing a piece, you have two core strategies: complete a pattern or block your opponent from completing a pattern.

When we've played, we make efforts to stay on one half or the other and complete and recognize as many patterns as possible, so the game doesn't really move into the blocking mechanics until we start running out of space. I'm sure that, under more competitive circumstances, you can just chase each other around, but I'd think that type of game would be rather low scoring, certainly more frustrating, and possibly less fun.

As a fan of pattern recognition, I prefer that aspect of the game, and that is where ~ even with pre-defined sides, and thus an equal chance of coming up with identical scores ~ one's ability to see those patterns quickly makes all the difference.
ellyssian: (sphinx)

Vineta (domestic edition) - 2 to 6 players ages 10 and up (German edition)

Unless you're a nut like me, the domestic edition of this game will suit you just fine.


If, however, you are a nut, you're going to want to learn to read German and get the international edition, which is to say, the original German edition of the game.

While I can only speak to one of the differences authoritatively, others have reported thiner cardboard used to build the region pieces and some other bits, and a smaller size (which might be an advantage for traveling). What I can say, without question, is this:

The German edition has a board, the newer edition does not.

Region pieces and what difference the absence or presence of a board might make won't make any sense if you aren't already familiar with the game, and if you are familiar with the game, you're probably not reading this, so I expect that, by now, you need some more information about the game so you can figure out which end is up.

The heart of the game is in the 9 regions of the island city of Vineta, the Atlantis of the north. The pieces form a simplistic puzzle ~ three inner regions, three middle regions, and three outer regions. There are a number of little wooden houses that are set out amongst the 9 regions, all in different colors, with one more color (up to seven) than there are players (up to six, of course).

Eight of these 9 regions, and all houses on them, will sink, one by one, below the waves.


Well, it's simple: some fool in the city has royally ticked off the gods, and they're sending in wave after wave of, well, waves... and eight of the regions are destined to be washed away. By the gods.

And guess who get to play the gods? That's right: Odin, Thor, and the rest of the crew... that's who you're playing as.

Each god secretly favors one of the regions of the city and your followers are housed in one color of those wooden houses. Your goal is to keep as many of your followers safe from the deluge as possible, and, if you can manage it, to make sure your region is the last bit of dry land.

The game plays in eight rounds, and each round results in every player having three (more or less) turns to influence where the waves are, and, through some further intervention, which houses are on the region that will sink at the end of the round.

You play wave cards ~ either targeting a region that is not threatened, or adding to the waves already threatening a region. The region with the most waves at the end of the round sinks. Additional cards give you chances to add huge modifiers for or against a row of waves, or to manipulate houses in a variety of ways ~ moving them from threatened areas, to threatened areas, swapping them, or locking them down. There are also cards that can be played to reduce the number of turns in the round or increase it.

Two complaints that I've heard against this game are 1) that the theme of Norse gods is paper thin; and 2) that there's too much chaos. Obviously, those folks never played D&D where Norse gods were involved. If they had, they'd know the Norse gods are (mostly) chaotic, Chaotic Good, to be specific, for Odin and Thor and (most) friends.

Seriously, if you've ever looked at Norse mythology the gods were larger than life: great power, great might, and, quite often, great oops.

Now, maybe the theme would be more supported if the village was perched on the edge of fjord, and the gods sent avalanches of snow down on the city, but, really, it works quite well with the theme as is...

Overall, I really enjoyed this game. It was wild and chaotic, but it was fun. None of us got to save our own little slice of the city, and I don't think we managed to save any houses, either.

One last word on the German edition vs. the domestic edition: I did notice that the kids really seemed to enjoy looking at the sea monsters that get revealed as each piece of the city goes under the waves, so the extra art is certainly appreciated, and, to my mind, helps make the whole experience more enjoyable.

And, finally, as an added bonus, here's a demo for the game:

ellyssian: (sphinx)

ZERTZ - 2 players ages 12 and up

So simple, so elegant.

Part of the attraction for me in any game is how it looks: if the bits and pieces are interesting, if there's nice art, if, in part, it has a nice theme, and, correspondingly, if that theme is more than surface deep.

Abstract games have the advantage here. The theme is no-theme: it's all about the gameplay. However, the bits and pieces can still be beautiful.

And the gameplay, the other part of the attraction of any game, is there in spades.

There's thought required to play a game like ZERTZ, the third installment of Project GIPF.

Now, I'm no great strategian ~ in fact, I've got a history of being a mediocre chess player at best, and, although my eldest son says I'd always win, I tend to see myself as fairly challenged even at a game of checkers ~ but I really enjoy the times I can see my way through a series of possibilities and correctly determine the way to get things to flow in my favor.

The game of ZERTZ isn't lacking in the looks department. There's no real board, per se, for the hexagonal playing area is constructed out of a series of convex (or, if you played them as we did in the first game, concave...) rings made of a heavyweight plastic ~ good quality feel about them ~ and marbles. The marbles are largish ~ shooter sized, I guess ~ and are beautifully speckled, with white, gray, and black base colors. The marbles have a lot of weight, enough so you might be led to believe that the marbles could, in fact, be made from marble.

To play the game, you have two possible moves you can make: the first is to place a marble from the pool of marbles (or, later in the game, from your own collection of trophies) on to an unoccupied ring and to remove one unoccupied ring from the edge of the board; the second possible move is to jump a marble over one or more marbles on the board, thus capturing the marble(s) you leap over.

Capturing works much like checkers, you can leap in a straight line over any single marble, and, if you can string a bunch together, over any other marbles in the series. If two or more initial jumps in different directions are possible, you have the option of deciding which way to jump. However, the choice to jump is out of your hands: if the move is available, you must take it. One of the strategies that is possible is to force your opponent to make certain captures, thus setting you up in a desired position.

Their are several goals to the game and the first player to achieve one of those goals wins. You need to capture three of each of the three colors of marbles, or capture four out of the five white marbles, or five out of the seven gray, or six out of the nine black marbles.

The first game I played, with Justin, seemed to easy, and it led to an easy strategy, and I rapidly collected all four of the white marbles. The game seemed a bit too easy, and too controllable, and a wee bit shallow of strategy. We reviewed the rules and discovered that ~ oops! ~ we goofed, misread some rules, and were both placing and capturing on the same turn. Of course, this makes for an entirely different game than designed, and, while it does allow some strategic thinking, it pretty much flattens it into a simplistic race without any depth whatsoever.

The second game I played, with Rachel, followed the real, actual rules. Now, as a disclaimer, Rachel can't stand games like this. She likes the ones with the themes well enough, but abstract games in general, and the ones she's played in this series in particular (GIPF itself, and the now-demoted TAMSK) did not entertain her, so it was under some duress, and much puppy dog eyes on my part, as well as providing her the choice of playing ZERTZ or ZERTZ, that I got her to agree to play along.

I almost came to regret that, as I spent most of the game playing catch up, two or three captures behind her, and, seemingly, always setting her up for a capture on her next turn. I had fairly well resigned myself to losing, especially after she managed to succeed on a move I had failed on ~ to isolate a marble on a ring by removing the last ring linking it to the rest of the board.

This method of capturing marbles comes into play not through leaping, but when placing marbles and taking rings from the board. When you take away the rings, you can only remove rings that can be slid away without disturbing any other rings. If you manage to leave an island of one or more marbles, without any open rings, and have it fully separated from the rest of the board, you can claim that marble (and the ring, although that doesn't provide you with any advantage except providing a place to store your captive).

I think Rachel managed to do this twice.

The board was seriously shrinking, and we were already going into our own stock of captures to be able to play, and there weren't many open spots left. On my last move, with Rachel having 5 black marbles (one from winning on that goal), 4 gray marbles (one away on that goal as well), and two white marbles (one away from getting three of each, and two away from winning on the four white marbles), and with me having 4 black, 2 grey, and 2 white, I had to play one of my captives, thus taking me further from the goal.

Luckily, I saw my chance, placed one of the grey down as the point of a three-marble V with another grey and a white, and took the last ring separating them from the rest of the board to complete my move. By doing so, I captured all three marbles, and that provided me with the three-of-each needed to win the game.

The gameplay, when you actually follow the rules, was much more satisfying, and both Rachel and I greatly enjoyed the game.

While it might be a while before I can convince her to play a different abstract game, this might have made that easier, and I'm fairly sure she'll play this one again some time.

I also think I'll need to practice, because I'm not sure I'll stand a chance against her next time...

In the overall scope of the Project, it looks like the edition of the game that I have ~ a few years old, and it has changed publishers since ~ includes some of the ZERTZ potentials to play in a game of GIPF. I still haven't experimented with adding any additional potentials. These pieces provide special moves within GIPF, and can be used to link the other games in the Project together. The reason the pieces are called potentials is because their special move only occurs if the piece reaches the center of the GIPF board, and, even then, the opposing player can challenge you to the game corresponding to the potential, and if the opposing player wins the special move is cancelled...

This greatly expands the possibilities of gameplay, and can also make for a day (or evening) of gaming, all centering around one game of GIPF.

Potentials for both ZERTZ and game #4 of the series, DVONN, can be found in Expansion Set #2

Here's a video explaining the game ~ although note the requirements to win specify one less marble of each type; this is the "blitz" variant of the rules:

ellyssian: (Default)

TZAAR - 2 players ages 8 and up

As I mentioned in my review of TAMSK, it's a bit like Pluto being stripped of its planethood, the way TAMSK was pulled out of
Project GIPF. Except, well, really, there are the possibility of legitimate reasosns in this case.

Anyway, I have a soft spot for ol' Pluto, and no less of one for TAMSK. Maybe more, on account of Pluto being too far away to stop by and play a game or two once in awhile. Or even to give me a call...

Any anyway, I had some brief feelings of annoyance at this whippitysnapper upstart of a game, jumping into the second slot of the Project well after all was allegedly said and done. These feelings were somewhat tempered by the known fact that Kris Brum designs a damn good abstract strategy game, and if he really wants to keep the Project capped at six games, who am I to tell him "Stop!" when a new game, that's sure to be great, is slid into the mix as an old one is put out to pasture.

I already wrote the lament for TAMSK, so we'll just get right on with it: this is a perfect fit with the other games in the project I have played, and it seems like it will be a good fit with the three I haven't yet played as well. It's as engaging as GIPF, the rules are easy enough to pick up, and I can see some strategic challenges arising.

In TZAAR, each player has thirt pieces that are, at the start of the game, laid out on the intersecting points of a hexagonal playing field. It's GIPF-like, but bigger, with a central non-playing area.

There are three types of playing pieces, and each player has six Tzaars, nine Tzarras, and fifteen Totts. You must have at least one piece of each type on the board, or else you will lose.

For all but the first player's first turn, there are two moves you can make each time. The first is a capture ~ simply land on top of an adjoining opposing piece, or one that is on an open straight line from your piece. Any of the three types may capture any other type ~ there is no weight to the individual types of playing pieces. The second move can be another capture, or you can choose to strengthen one of your own pieces.

You strengthen your piece by landing on top of another of your own pieces ~ using the same movement rules as a capture ~ and stack the two together. The top piece is the only piece in a stack that counts, so if you stack on top of your last remaining Tzarras, you'll end the game immediately in your opponent's favor.

You can stack as many pieces together as you want. Each stack can capture any piece or stack of the same or less height. A stack of four pieces can not take a stake of five pieces, for instance, but it can trounce on a single piece, or three piece stack.

Each turn, for that second move, you need to decide whether to make your opponent weaker with a second capture or to strengthen your pieces by stacking ~ it's a bit of an arms race, really.

In my first game with [profile] aequitaslevitas, we had that arms race coming up pretty quickly. Originally, I was content to stop at a small stack and just continue to try to get rid of his Tzaars. The race began when he made his last Tzaar a triple decker, and then higher. Before it got too out of hand, I had him, with his last two Tzarras, both single pieces, right in my sights, each threatened, by both a stack of two and a stack of four.

If he had made either one or the other larger, it still would have been within range of capture of those two pieces, and his monster stack of five or six was all the way across the board. That's definitely a time where two capture moves are called for, and it put him out of business.

All in all, a very fun game, and I look forward to learning more about the strategies that can be brought to bear.

Because this is a newer game, and because YouTube was invented, there's a video of the game's designer explaining how to play this, so you can see it for yourself:

ellyssian: (Default)

Labyrinth - 2-4 players ages 8 and up

This game's been around for a couple of decades, but I've never played it. I picked it out as something all the kids could play, including Mr. B. There is a flavor of the game out there for kids ( Junior Labyrinth, ages 5 and up) and an advanced version ( Master Labyrinth, ages 10 and up), but this one, rated for ages 8 and up, seemed the best fit. The Junior flavor has larger sized pieces, thus a smaller area of play, but looked to have the same mechanics. The Master game has a final dragon battle and guards and changes the mechanics a bit, thus making it not fit my purpose of entertaining Mr. B.

Still, before we played it, I wavered a bit and actually held off on bringing it out for a while. I finally decided to give it a go, and he picked it up without a problem. In fact, he won the game.

The game is played on a standard sized board, but most of the playing surface is made up of tiles, about two inches square, that are slid in from all four sizes. Some of the tiles ~ both the sliding ones and the stationary ones which act as guides ~ have treasures on them. There are cards with pictures of the different treasures, so language is not a part of the game play. The cards are divided amongst the players and kept in secret. You have to get your share of the treasures by traveling to them, in order.

You start each turn by sliding the extra piece into the board in a location of your choosing. You can then travel as far as you want in an attempt to get to the treasure. As the maze shifts with each turn, this can take some planning and some patience. Once you get all your treasures, you have to get back to your home location in one of the four corners. The first player to do so wins the game.

For Mr. B, we did make a few changes to the rules ~ we played the cards face up, so we could help explain to him where he needed to go, but I expect next time we'll be able to try the standard rules. To make this face-up variant work for a kid, we also tried to help ~ or, at least, to not hinder Mr. B ~ with the placement of our tiles, as well as providing him some advice.

It might not be a fit for the serious gamers out there (who sometimes really need to step back a bit and remember that gaming should be fun =), but it's definitely a good choice for a family game night. With a little help from the other players, you can stretch that age range down two or three years and the kids will have a blast.
ellyssian: (Default)


Including a review of this game is a bit of a tease... sure, I linked to the product on Funagain Games, and, sure, it's a great game... but it's also slightly out of print.

You see, TAMSK was the second game of Project GIPF, a series of abstract games designed by Kris Burm. To avoid going into too much detail about what an abstract game is, but since it's been so long since I reviewed the first game of the project, I'll point you to that review here so you can get some background on the subject. I'll wait here until you read that, unless you're already pretty familiar with what an abstract game is, and then you can just go ahead with this now.

There, back now? I will ammend that prior review by adding that Project GIPF has really got me hooked on abstract games, so, yeah, I'd have to say I'm a fan of them now.

Anyway, TAMSK is now out of Project GIPF, and it's been replaced ~ the game that replaced it, TZAAR, will be reviewed within a week or so. TAMSK was slated to be produced as a standalone game under a different name*, and I have hopes I'll be able to update this review at some time with a link to that product, because, as I noted it's a great game.

TAMSK is a two player game ~ I played with [profile] aequitaslevitas earlier today. It's fairly complex in construction (for the manufacturer; no assembly is required by the player, other than setting up pieces for gameplay), and there are conjectures about cost and complications of production that have led to its replacement in the project. There is a plastic hexagonal game board, 32 rings, two smaller plastic pieces to store rings for the start of the game, one 15 second sand timers, and six three minute sand timers.

The playing board has tubes of varying heights that hold one of the six timers ~ the pieces players move around the board ~ and one to four rings. To make a move, you turn the timer over and place it in an adjacent tube and you place a ring around the tube. Once the tube is filled to capacity with its allotment of one to four rings, you can not return to that location again ~ if you do, you automatically lose the game.

The object is to get rid of your 16 rings as fast as you can. The first player to get rid of all their rings first, or to get rid of as much of their rings before there are no valid moves left, wins.

Time is a key element in this game. At the start, you have three hourglasses to work with. If you allow one to run out, that piece becomes frozen, and you can no longer use it. You can trap pieces ~ that punk kid o' mine trapped me in our game today. Sealed me off before I realized what I was doing. Of course, he also let sand run out of his timer on his second move or so, so we were both down to two timers each.

Additional time pressure can be brought to the game by the use of the 15 second timer. It is played, optionally, during your opponents turn. If they fail to make their move before the sands run out, they lose their turn.

With all the time pressure, the game is extremely fast to play. The time pressure also prevents long strategic pondering ~ if you don't move fast, you're going to lose a turn or a playing piece. If you're down a piece it's very hard to catch up, as [profile] aequitaslevitas found out. I'm pretty sure those handful or two of turns I had when he was down one piece (before he trapped my third piece) was what turned the game in my favor. Although it was bad enough to see my piece taken out by his, it's worse when you trap yourself all on your own... and if you're trying to keep up with the pace, that's a very likely occurance!

If you can track this game down, I highly recommend it. It works great as a filler, and, despite how the astronomers game producers might have demoted Pluto TAMSK, it can still be used within the Project, as, indeed, any game can be brought in to GIPF through the use of potentials.**

Just like Pluto still keeps up its dance, no matter what those astronomers might have said about it behind its back...

~ ~ ~

* I say "was slated to be produced" because it was due out in 2008 and it's not here yet, to my knowledge.

** Three potentials, and rules, are included with at least some, if not all, of the editions of TAMSK. They're not likely to be included with the renamed TAMSK, as it will be out-of-Project, but they are available in the Project GIPF Expansion Set 1. I expect TZAAR will use the TAMSK potentials, as the TAMSK potentials are identical in appearance to the unpainted TZAAR pieces.
ellyssian: (Default)
It's been quite a while since I posted any reviews; last night I went through a bunch of tools and other pieces of company equipment and posted reviews of them at Amazon.com ~ although they may or may not be useful items for those of you who aren't contractors, I'll still post them here! =)

Of course, this the last review I did, that's been hanging around for a while waiting for another review to bump it out of the holding pen, is on a work of fiction, so the disclaimer above just applies to things you'll be seeing over the next few days...

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

I liked this a lot. A very enjoyable read.

I'm thinking of how to write about the book without giving too much away...

It concerns - despite what the misleading title might state - several historians. Anthropologists and archaeologists also get in on the act.

It's about a girl who grows up over the course of the book, so it's a coming of age story.

It's about Vlad Dracul.

Yes, some of the thrills and twists and turns aren't all that much of a surprise, and much of my initial assessments of characters proved correct... except for those that weren't core members of the cast. The supporting folks seemed much less predictable in the long run, mostly because what you thought might happen should they become central to the story didn't.

Despite that knowing - or, rather, suspecting and then confirming - I still found myself wanting to read exactly how those suspicions unfolded.

Funny how when I was watching Alexander the other day, the time shifts were driving me nuts. Here, it didn't happen - and there weas jumping around - mostly between two times and places, sometimes more - until pretty much the end of the book. Might just be that such things are handled more gracefully in the written word then they are on screen.

As with Stoker's Dracula, this tale is told, in large part, through letters. Here, though, much of those letters are being told, from memory, by one character to another; beyond that, all these pieces are assembled and told by that other character to the reader. While I enjoyed this nested POV, I can see others being challenged or annoyed by it.
ellyssian: (Default)

Panorama: Joaquín Rodrigo

So many Classical labels seem to be releasing so many different reissues of great, earlier albums as multi-disc sets. Many are exactly that: 1 disc per 1 album. The Panorama series is, near as I can tell with the vast experience of this particular recording and absolutely no additional research whatsoever, an assemblage of multiple albums - a "Greatest Hits", except, unlike some bargain basement recordings labeled as such, these are first rate performances. In this case, you have music by classical guitar virtuosos Narciso Yepes and multiple Romeros, amongst others.

If you had to pick two Rodrigo tunes for one of those aforementioned "greatest hits" beasties, you'd be looking at, without question, Concierto de Aranjuez and Fantasa para un gentilhombre, both works for guitar and orchestra, and both, very likely, containing melodies even the anti-classical-music folks amongst you have heard before. As a guitarist, I sought out a recording of these works when my compact disc collection was still numbering in the single digits. In most of the stores back in those pre-online days, I searched long and hard to see if Rodrigo wrote anything else. Those pieces were all you could find, and I wanted more.

Eventually, of course, I discovered that there was more. Specifically, in the guitar & orchestra department, there was the Concierto andaluz (for four guitars, no less) and the Concierto madrigal (for two guitars). Rodrigo also had a flute and a harp concerto - two instruments that could really benefit from quite a few more concertos. Add in Entre olivares, for solo guitar, and you have the contents of this two disc set.

Although it will take many listenings for the melodies of these other works to reach as deep as Aranjuez and gentilhombre have, they are works of the same quality, and I have no doubt they will one day imbed themselves in my memory as their more famous fellow compositions have. This disc definitely satisfies, although at the same time, it leaves me wishing to collect more of Rodrigo's music, and, even then, to wish he had been more prolific. After all, there are only two other conciertos for guitar and orchestra beyond these four, and only two for piano, two for cello, one for violin... and then there's his choral works, solo guitar pieces...

This collection, however, forms an excellent core set of works, and is highly recommended.
ellyssian: (Default)

Osvaldo Golijov: The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind

One of the neatest things about this was finding that the string quartet - Kronos Quartet, in this case - was joined by a clarinet. Well, at times, a clarinet. At other times, a bass clarinet or a basset horn - all played by David Krakauer. What's neat about that is it gives some credence to the use of squeaks and squeals that a clarinet is capable of in a purposeful fashion, especially considering my daughter's band nickname is "Squeaky."

This point aside, in other works Golijov has made use of Spanish - particularly flamenco - and Turkish forms of music, here he makes use of Jewish themes. Not overly surprising, considering the title of the music, and an intended depiction of the Kabbalist rabbi, and, in the composers own words, "a history of Judaism."

Golijov has Kronos and Mr. Krakauer imitating klezmer bands, accordions and more. The result is a fascinating - although unfortunately short - bit of chamber music. Kronos Quartet - as you may have noticed - appear frequently in my collection, and, although they've proven challenging at times - or, rather, they pick music or subject matter that might be challenging - it rarely disappoints.
ellyssian: (Default)

Serenada Schizophrana, composed by Danny Elfman; conducted by John Mauceri

Film music - funny, that. You take something like Jim Steinman's work for Streets Of Fire or John Cafferty and Beaver Brown's Eddie & The Cruisers and you get lauded for the brilliance, when, what you've done is write and play some damn good tunes that you might have done anyway and gotten them into a movie. Now, you go and write some great symphonic music that supports a story line and - unless you did it years ago and called it a symphonic poem - you get blasted as a hack.

It's a pet peeve of mine, I suppose.

Danny Elfman is one of my favorite film composers - whether its his tunes for Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas or themes for Batman or Planet of the Apes. While the first has entertaining lyrics and melodies, the latter two examples are symphonic works - and they hold their own when spun alongside symphonic works that weren't written for film.

This piece was the first symphonic work Elfman wrote that was intended to stand on its own, and, rather ironically, it was later used as part (or whole? -- "Featured" is the word they use) of the soundtrack of the film Deep Sea (IMAX). Go figure.

The track A Brass Thing clearly shows lineage in some of the Batman bits, as well as some portions of the Edward Scissorhands score. While some hack critics speak of tracing paper when they speak of film composers, what they fail to recognize is something that amounts to style - and how musics can seem similar not only to other works in a composers own oeuvre but to works of other composers as well.

Although he's used wordless choral pieces and vocal parts in his soundtracks, his use of choral vocals - and solo soprano - definitely stretches beyond his prior works. As the dedicated reader of my reviews might know me as one who tends to favor choral and operatic warblings of any sort be in any language other than English, it shall come as no surprise that I am exceedingly happy that Elfman chose Spanish for the language the lyrics are performed in.

There's some interesting instrumentation here - perhaps one thing that, unfortunately, might separate him from being considered "classical" (in the sense of the overall genre, certainly there'd be no chance of expecting a living breathing person of today to have been alive and composing during the true classical period! =) You see, many of the movements of the serenade feature certain instruments and are named thusly: Pianos, Blue Strings, the aforementioned A Brass Thing. While "I Forget" is the choral and soprano solo piece, The Quadraped Patrol, Bells and Whistles, and End Tag seem to break from this tradition - even the second to last piece does, as it doesn't truly feature bells and whistles, although it does pull out the stops and gives solos all around. The bonus track jumps right back on message, though, with Improv for Alto Sax, which is what it says, although it's not strictly a solo piece.

While the concerto form - often a strict three movement structure - is the chosen vehicle for showing off virtuoso solo performances (or, in some cases dual, or even a handful more of instruments), this serenade gives out the spotlight liberally, and to varied instruments of completely differing musical families. As such, it's a treat for those who appreciate a multitude of instruments, and a boon to those who find long extended solos of a single performer annoying.

I highly recommend this work for fans of film music, of Danny Elfman's other works in particular (although if you're one of his fans, you're likely on top of this already), or of contemporary symphonic composers.
ellyssian: (Default)

John McLaughlin: Floating Point

I was really trying to resist reviewing this, on account of having his 2006 release in the bedside stack waiting for a review. To be fair, its only been there a week or so, but I've had it since 2006...

There are definitely some similarities between the two recordings - there's overlapping personnel, and there's a similar mix of his Eastern interests (see his Shakti or the Mahavishnu stuff) with a more traditional jazz.

Perhaps the most surprising thing is this doesn't really stand out as a guitarists record. The last track - Five Peace Band - comes the closest to a guitar driven tune, and even then, as I started typing this out, Hadrien Feraud breaks out into a bass solo section. Not a guitar-driven record at all, just some really good jazz.

On all the tracks, John plays a guitar synth, and that helps keep the guitar sound down - especially since on half the tracks he plays only guitar synth; the other half he plays both. Still, the lead instruments are likely to be the soprano sax, bamboo flute, or semi-wordless vocals.

While I've heard some lamenting amongst certain circles of guitarists about the long period John set down his electric guitar and played only Marielle (apologies, I can no longer link directly to it; the link goes to the Wechter custom gallery, where photos of Marielle can be found) - and I'm not one of them; not only do I love his acoustic stuff (especially his Concerto for Guitar & Orchestra "The Mediterranean"), but I've played Marielle, and it's flat-out the single best guitar in the known universe and 9 out of 10 unknown universes. Still, I think those anti-acoustic folks should be happy that he's playing the electric once again. Even if he's letting other brilliant and talented musicians spend time in the spotlight.
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Martin Barre: Trick of Memory

The surprising thing about this is not how good it is - that's almost expected! - but how little most of the songs sound like Tull. Why's that you ask? Well, if you have to ask, you just might be one of those folks who might not see beyond Ian, in thinking Mr. Anderson = Mr. Tull. Fortunately, you are about to learn Jethro Tull, the person, was a farmer and the inventor of a plow, and that Jethro Tull of Aqualung-type musical fame, is not a single person, rather a whole entire band of them. Martin Barre has been the guitarist of Jethro Tull as long as I've been alive, to the year, which means most times you've heard Tull, you've heard Martin. Thus, on this, Mr. Barre's first - to my knowledge - solo outing, one would expect some similarities.

They are there - there's a couple of tunes that just might have been potential Tulltunes, but really, most of them are their own creatures entirely. That's actually one thing I've come to notice with a lot of first solo albums from long-time band members - they play, and they range far and wide, when they get out on their own. Leastwise the best of them seem to. As a f'rinstance, I think this album fits in really nicely with the jazz/rock fusion stuff I've been listening to. Martin cruises around the neck of the guitar, and it fits right in there with the other jazz guitar slingers. And, more surprising, the funk. Not every tune, but more than a couple, have - at the least - some great horn arrangements. So it fits in with the funk and R&B stuff that's getting heavy play lately.

There are vocals - by Barre and a few others - on maybe half the tunes (I didn't count lyrics to verify, but it's close.) In some cases, it reminds me a bit of the first solo outing by another British band member - Bill Ward, the drummer for Black Sabbath. Certainly, Martin doesn't range as far into the eccentricities as Ward does, and his sense of humor really only pops noticeably into one tune, but, still, there are some similarities.

This album should be a must for Tull completists, and a good choice for anyone who likes some variety, especially when the varieties might include classic rock, jazz, fusion, funk, or good music.
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Hiromi's Sonicbloom: Time Control

This album surprised me. I expected the technically impressive jazz, on account that's what I heard when I first listened to this and added it to ye olde wish list, but I hadn't quite expected such a variety. There's some on here that fits more of the airy, spacey style of Nik Bartsch's Ronin, but other bits seem more like jazz fusion. There's definitely some humor in these compositions, with playful melodies contrasting with serious, mellow rhythms and other tunes (Real Clock vs. Body Clock = Jet Lag, I'm looking at you...) that are just pure fun, through and through.

All the tunes follow the theme and naming convention established by the title track - there's Time Difference, Time Out, Time Travel, Deep Into the Night (Okay, that might be the loosest connection, but the night is still a period of time...), the aforementioned Real Clock vs. Body Clock = Jet Lag, Time and Space, the title track Time Control, or Controlled by Time, Time Flies, and Time's Up. Hriomi added little comments and quotes after each tune, and I like that. I was just wondering, the other day, while marveling at the list of titles on a Scofield album, how entertaining the names of some jazz instrumental tunes can be - excepting the obvious ones, like Autumn Leaves or 'Round Midnight, which are standards with lyrics - and how exactly the composer came up with the names. Well, here, the composer provides at least another quick phrase or two of insight into what she was thinking.

The title track is one of those uber-technical tunes, and it is definitely playing around with time, mostly on the speedy side, no less. Hiromi is a keys and piano player, but these tunes - this title track in particular - do a nice job of showcasing the other performers. The guitar - fretless and fretted - gets a nice showcase across the entire album, and racing and easing along in this tune. The bass and percussion get a few sections to groove through and bask in the spotlight. Despite all that, the piano that opens and solos in this tune is exceptionally well done.

I'm not surprised that she was influenced by meeting with Chick Corea - hell, he inspired me on a quick five minute conversation I had with him, and I can imagine her time with him was more extensive - but when I first listened to this his Elektric Band came to mind instantly. Not that I'd mistake her playing for Chick's or that she sounds like him, but the overall style - explorative fusion, with damn good guitar and keys - was the association I made.

And that's some good company to be keeping on you fourth album into your career. I look forward to checking out her first three recordings, as well as seeing what she comes up with next.
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Joni Mitchell: Mingus

Joni? Jaco!

Okay, so, for me, the writer of all the lyrics and singer of all the melodies and player of all the guitars really takes a backseat to the brilliance of the bass player. Some others have been critical of this recording for much the same reason: Jaco really hogs the spotlight, he overrides everything else, blah blah. Not so much. I still hear Joni's voice, singing melodies some jazz fanatics insist prove she is incapable of being a jazz vocalist and other jazz fanatics insist she got spot-on. I actually do notice the guitar, which is pretty damn interesting on its own, and might make me want to listen to other Joni-stuff, although, to be fair, I'm here mostly for Jaco, on account of him being Jaco, and that's just the way it is.

This album gets a lot of critical flak, some as noted, some for the decision to put Mingus raps between most of the tunes - five raps vs. six tunes proper - but that just really doesn't fly in my world. I was expecting something disjointed, jarring, that interrupted my pleasure of the music. That didn't happen. They flowed nicely, and they were entertaining little glimpses into the life of Charles Mingus, and this is, after all, an album of Mingus music, dedicated to the then-recently-departed Mingus, who - back to Jaco's dominance on these tunes - happens to have been one of the, if not the, pre-eminent jazz bass players of all time.

If you couldn't hear Jaco on these tunes, or, if things had gone differently, whoever played bass in the band, that would be a shame. This is a musical memorial to the man, and the man was a bass player. Now, he was also a composer and a band leader, so a completely solo-bass outing wouldn't be a fitting tribute, but I see nothing wrong and hear so much that is right with the way this was done.

I've mostly been one for instrumental jazz, in fact, I think the closest I might come to a jazz singer on anything I have *thus far* in my collection would have to be classical soprano Ute Lemper's recording of Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich's cabaret repertoire, Illusions. I'll leave it up to the jazz fanatics to decide in how many ways that disqualifies me to evaluate Joni as a jazz vocalist, but, hey I like her voice and the melodies. I'm not even going to get into the lyrics themselves - more and more I'm coming to realize the place lyrics have in music, and it's not the same place that words have in poetry or literature. In fact, you can take damn fine examples of the latter, put them to music, and have them seem utter cheese. You can also take any schlump of words - sensical or not, or wordless sounds even - and string them together with a melody line that makes them pure poetry.

This is a great album, and will definitely get a lot of replay.

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Aldo Nova

All alone in the moonlight
I can smile at the old days...

Okay, so, no, this album doesn't contain that tune. Although, to be sure, the musical did come out in the same year as this album, which is kind of funny, considering the only reason I knew that was that I checked to see if I could make some kind of joke about one or the other being older. Stole my funny right off, both of them copywritten with the same year.


And, yeah, so many memories tied up in these sounds. This was often the soundtrack for basketball. Well, this was amongst the tapes that were played. Probably closer to the mid-eighties for that memory, though.

Of course, the lead off track, Fantasy is probably his most famous tune, but the rest of them are also surprisingly familiar after many moons of not hearing them - ever since I moved and left the bulk of the tape collection behind me. Not that it mattered - the tapes had all been played to stretching, and the tape players I owned (and the ones I still own) are all notoriously hungry machines, so the next time you listen to something is likely to be the last.

These tunes are incredibly dated - sound, production, vocal style, arrangements - but these are the tunes everyone listened to and ripped off. And you know, if you actually listen to them instead of passing them off as something past tense, they're still good tunes. Sure there's some cheese factor there, but it's not supposed to be rocket science in musical form, they're just love songs of one flavor or another. Of course, if you actually existed during the early eighties, you probably listened to these tunes - or, at the least, heard the aforementioned lead-off track. Which is not about love, its about drugs.

If you think of Jon Bon Jovi's Runaway when you listen to Aldo Nova, it's not just a fluke. Aldo played guitar on that tune, and on the Blaze Of Glory Young Guns II semi-soundtrack.
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Micki Free: Gypsy Cowboy

This is good guitar driven, blues based rock. There's a psychedelic edge to it, think Hendrix and you're in the right area. I'd compare it to Stevie Ray Vaughan, but find comparison to Hendrix more apt - although both guys are - or were - quite obviously smitten with Jimi's stuff, they took it in two different directions. I've heard a lot of great stuff on this first listen, but I'll bring attention to the eleventh track, Wounded Knee, with its funky, choppy rhythm, and an extended guitar solo or two and a great keyboard solo as well. The instrumental track brings to mind Eric Johnson, and maybe even a bit of early Satriani (although without the drum machine Satch used for the first few releases!)

The last track - Baker Canyon Boogie - is an acoustic number, traditional blues slide thing. And then Susan Sheller does a Native American vocal riff. And then Micki's vocals are reminiscent of maybe Axel Rose or Gary Cherone, getting a little funk rock edge into things especially on the chorus - all the while the music stays with a solo guitar and a thumped-out rhythm.
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Terry Riley: The Cusp of Magic

The Kronos Quartet always put together interesting discs exploring different styles of music, within the framework of an occasionally traditional string quartet. They've done everything from Purple Haze to Black Angels to a quintet with the dearly departed Charles Ives (They Are There! Fighting for the People's New Free World) to the Arabian Nightesque Gallop of a Thousand Horses to Bach, Monks and Shakespeare Meet in Water to the very nearly traditional Liszt piano quintet piece, At the Grave of Richard Wagner.

This is, really, the kind of contemporary classical that scares away people expecting the traditional. Give that Black Angels sample a spin - that's enough to scare anyone (then again, it's depicting the horrors of war, so it's supposed to do that). This is far more accessible, but might be better approached as world music rather than classical. Silly thing, labels. Really, what else could you consider a classical string quartet combined with Chinese pipa, performing music by a guy who mixes Oriental, Native American, blues, and more in with his classical compositions?

I haven't heard anything else by Terry Riley, but I'm likely to look into it. I was expecting some of the repetition-style minimalism that I love in Philip Glass' work but really could do without from anyone else. It is, by definition, repetitious. This, I was pleasantly surprised to find out, isn't. Wu Man - who I know they've worked before on Tan Dun's Ghost Opera - plays pipa (Wikipedia) on this recording, and, like on Ghost Opera, there's a definite eastern feel to this music. I'm very much a fan of that style of music, and that's what caught my attention with this.

There are some portions of this that wax more traditional, but for the most part, the tradition is not that of the western string quartet. There is a thematic story line to the piece, beginning and ending with a peyote ceremony, and traveling off in the middle, as those in such a ceremony are wont to do. This is more adventurous material, but worth a listen when you're in an exploratory mood.
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Claude Bolling: Suite for Flute & Jazz Piano Trio

I expect I first heard this in 1976 very shortly after it was first released. I think my dad bought a copy for [livejournal.com profile] patrixa, who tended to listen to it, and thus it became a part of my musical heritage. It's funny how, listening to it now for the first time in maybe 15 years, maybe more, the melody is so familiar - Jean-Pierre Rampal's flute playing, dancing around flightily over the piano trio of Bolling, Max Hediguer, and Marcel Sabiani. Even though I recognized that this music was meaningful to me when I first put this on my wish list (birthday's coming up, subtle hint-hint! =), I didn't realize until now that this is probably where my interest in the traditional jazz trio came from. I know I really enjoyed the rare trio performing at Musikfest, and was certainly disappointed when I couldn't find one, but I hadn't really thought about where I picked up on them before. As a bass player, I've been focusing on them more - as a guitar player, I wanted to turn it into a quartet or kick the pianist out, but now I'm quite satisfied with them.

This disc is considered by many to be the first classical crossover - something quite popular now, in fact possibly the only popular classical music out these days is that which is done with a hip hop beat or what have you. Jean-Pierre sticks with the classical themes, while the jazz crew does there thing and it blends so well. Folks who like Ian Anderson's flute noodlings over blues (as in Tull's Bach's Bouree) might find something similar here, albeit without all the overblowing and effects.

This is great music to sit and listen to on a quiet Sunday morning, or to have as a background soundtrack for a dinner party or other event. Of course, to top it off, there's also the highly suggestive cover, with the flute in bed with piano, with the flute contentedly blowing smoke rings...
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Purcell - The Fairy Queen / Hunt, Pierard, Bickley, Crook, Padmore, Wilson-Johnson, Wistreich, Schütz Choir, LCP, Norrington

While I have a number of operas in my collection, most are from the romantic period - to be fair, early, middle, and late romantic works are represented, but not a single Mozartian or Beethovian or Otherwisian (save two more modern pieces, one an oratorio by Paul McCartney, the other a vampire opera with a heavily synthesized orchestra).

Henry Purcell's The Fairy Queen is definitely a first for me - an opera from the Baroque period. I've heard the overture before, and it is a beautiful work - fits in nicely with Bach and Haydn and other harpsichord-centric pieces of that era.

On first listen, without paying the libretto any mind, some Mozart operas come to mind, or perhaps it would be better to stick with works of the period. Upon paying attention, though, a difference becomes clear: no Latin, Italian, or German for the libretto: it's in English.

Now I've gone on record for having a dislike of using English in a libretto - it often shows off that music is the strong point and the words are, well, somewhere between puerile and pure cheese. The writing here seems Shakespearian, and I suppose there's good reason for that: the text, while not transcribed from, was heavily influenced by A Midsummer Night's Dream. In this case, it's presented as a series of entertainments for Titania and, later, the mortals.

Although there are indications that some of the quaintness of Shakespeare's language was stripped away as a side-effect of the Restoration, there's enough that made it through - likely on account of the language of that day still seeming antiquated by todays standards - that it deflects some of the corniness that might otherwise come through.

The first line that really caught my ear was "Hold you damn'd tormenting Punk, I do confess-" "What, what?" "I'm Drunk, as I live Boys, I'm Drunk." And you just can't get any better than that.

Well, except when the chorus comes in a short while later with: "Pinch him, pinch him for his Crimes, His Nonsense, and his Dogrel Rhymes."
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Quiet Riot: Quiet Riot

Funny how my favorite Quiet Riot album misses out on all the original members - no, Carlos Cavazo and Frankie Banali, who play guitar and drum on most of the Slade tunes you've heard of, are not original. Kevin DuBrow was the only original member during the days of Mama Weer All Crazee Now (Slade's original) and Cum On Feel The Noize (Slade's original), although I believe Rudy Sarzo had joined QR back when Randy Rhoads still played guitar with them...

Anywho, no DuBrow on this, making it far less of a Quiet Riot album and more of... something else. Vocalist Paul Shortino came in from Rough Cutt - a band that didn't impress me in the least. Color me very surprised when Stay With Me Tonight came up on the big screen at Narsyphilis back in the day (which was a Wednesday). Shortino brings in a very bluesy sound, and if he ever used that approach in Cutt, I missed it. This was almost a David Coverdale-like feel, and it was great stuff. The whole album carries more of this vibe than of anything remotely resembling the rest of the band's catalog.

While I understand getting QR back together again under DuBrow - it was his band (well, it was Randy & Kelly's band, but DuBrow was their first vocalist...) and that's what I think of as Quiet Riot. Even though this album has Carlos on guitar and Frankie on drums, and even though both of those guys get co-writing credits on every tune, there is nothing on this that would make me think the same guys are involved.

In fact, I'll go further and go back on what I opened up with to say this is absolutely the worst Quiet Riot album ever. However, it's also one of the best bluesy metal albums ever.

Multimedia (i.e. YouTube) Extra!... behind the cut! )


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