Tuesday, March 25, 2008

China Cat Sunflower

So Mel and I have been playing "Rock Band" lately. If you haven't heard of or tried it; it's a game where you play instrument like controllers, and sing along with a rock song playing on your home entertainment system.

The game includes a pad based drum kit, a guitar (that can also be used as a bass), and a microphone for singing along. Future planned expansions are rumored to include a dedicated bass, and a keyboard.

There is a similar earlier game (programmed by the same company but since sold to a larger distributor) called Guitar Hero which is now in it's third sequel and nth expansion; that only has the guitar component, without the bass, drums, or mic.

Honestly, if you HAVEN'T seen it (or even if you have actually), the game looks a bit ridiculous from the outside, but it's spectacularly fun. Most importantly, it's interactive group fun; something missing from a lot of household recreational pursuits these days (and why "Rock Band" is in my view far more fun than "Guitar Hero"; though GH has a better guitar only experience).

Difficulty varies from fairly simple songs, like The Clash - "Should I Stay or Should I go", or The Ramones - "Blitzkreig Bop"; to the ridiculously complex and difficult songs like Deep Purple - "Highway Star", pretty much anything by Metallica, or Iron Maiden - "Run to the Hills" (the most difficult song in the game by the internal difficulty ratings).

One of the basic characteristics of this game (like all rhythm games) is a funny quirk of difficulty; in that some very complex songs are easier to play than others that may not seem as difficult, because they have consistent patterns and rhythms without major key or time signature changes. In effect, you are playing fast and hard, but at least you can settle into the rhythm.

Some songs on the other hand...

So last night we were playing some Grateful Dead. Now, I've always been a fan, though not a massive one like Countertop.

I just have one question about The Dead: How in the hell did they manage to do THAT, while they were that high, that much of the time?

A lot of people seem to think their music is simple, uncomplicated, or unsophisticated. Those people have never tried to play it, or sing it.

The thing about The Dead, is that they were constantly changing things up. Even the simple songs have polyrythms and unusual timings, multiple key changes, multiple time signature changes etc... and that's just their studio stuff. Their extended live jams (the "real" Dead as it were) were loaded with seemingly endless complexities.

Much like Jazz, they took simple themes, and built magnificent things on top of them; while making them sound simple to the gross listener. If you're just singing along to the radio in your car, you might never notice them; but as a singer and a guitar player, the details stand out.

I think this is true of many "cult" artists. They have a reasonable general following who are just hearing the "fm radio" side of things, and don't get what the hype is about. Their true fanatical listener base though are there for the complexities (take a REALLY good listen to Scarlet Begonias some time - oh and Harmonix and MTV, if you're listening, I'd really love that for rock band. Way better than Franklins Tower). Try asking a real Ramones fan just how much you can say with 4 chords in 2 minutes and 45 seconds ("we are a happy family", "The KKK took my baby away", "Sheena is a punk rocker").

Anyway, the game rates the difficulty of the deads songs in the upper middle of its scale; probably because of the relatively slow tempo; but they are wrong. I had a much harder time with singing "Sugar Magnolia", then I ever did with say "Number of the Beast"; and "Sugar Magnolia" is one of the easier Dead songs. Try playing the title song for this post... hell, just try listening to it.

Funny thing that really.