Sunday, October 30, 2016

Phantasma Chorale I

"Shadows Are in Hiding"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

I like creepy music.  Probably because I love horror novels and movies, because my favorite authors are people like Stephen King and Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman, because my favorite illustrators are people like HR Giger and Brian Froud and Edward Gorey ... and, yes, I quite like Tim Burton, and, while I wouldn’t name him my favorite filmmaker—that honor would probably go to Terry Gilliam, who has his own brand of creepy going on—Beetlejuice is definitely one of my favorite films.  So I’m a bit of a connoisseur of creepy music, and in fact I have about six different mixes that fall more or less into the general category of “creepy,” from one which features general goth music (which is not always creepy) to one which is more sound effects than music, for playing in the background while trick-or-treaters approach your porch.

But today, just in time for Hallowe’en, I want to share with you one of my favorite creepy mixes, Phantasma Chorale.  This mix is inspired by Bruno Coulais’ fantastic score for the quite excellent Coraline; when I first heard “End Credits,” which is our opener here on volume I, I was blown away by how awesome it was.  Creepy to the max, but also childlike and light.  It’s like a song sung by a chorus of ghost-children,1 hence the name.  I immediately started toying around with songs which either had creepy, wordless, choral vocals or a childlike quality, or preferably both.

With such a specific theme, I have to be flexible.  Not every song can have a theremin or a soprano that can be convinced to just howl without using any words.  In fact, Bruno Coulais uses neither of these techniques: he got the Children’s Choir of Nice to sing nonsense syllables—meaningless morphemes that sound just enough like real words, in English or French or Italian, to drive you crazy trying to figure out what they “mean.”  So I went scouring soundtracks, Internet music, and even a few “regular” albums for music that might fit this vibe.  Sometimes I settled for words in a language I had no chance of recognizing (like the Croatian of “U Plavu Zoru”) and sometimes I settled for no vocals at all, but a carnival-like atmosphere that provided childlike-but-creepy in spades.  The result is something which is not truly scary, but just enough unsettling to keep your mind from getting too comfortable.  Personally, I use it when I’m working on my novel: it keeps the creative juices flowing in just the right direction.

So, as I said, soundtracks were the first place to go looking.  There are three songs from Coraline here, including the mix starter, and I had to trim that down from how many I wanted to add originally.  On the one hand, they’re all very short—in fact, at 27 tracks, this is my second longest tracklist2—but, on the other, I want to save something for volume II, eh?  Beyond that, Danny Elfman was an obvious choice, so there are two tracks of his soundtrack for Beetlejuice, both offering the creepy carnival vibe.  As does Angelo Badalamenti’s contribution, a track off the City of Lost Children soundtrack.  On the other hand, “The Citrine Cross,” from the soundtrack for The Da Vinci Code, and “In Noctem,” from Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, feature a classical chorus singing in what is most likely Latin, though it’s difficult to be sure.  The woman (or women?) in “Arrival at Rookford” from Daniel Pemberton’s3 score for The Awakening is probably singing in English, but the vocals are so haunted and eerie that I can’t quite tell.  Contrariwise, in “Betrayed!”, off Iain Ballamy’s trippy score for Mirrormask,4 I’m pretty sure the “vocals” aren’t actually vocals at all, but just synth-generated noises meant to sound like different vocal ranges of people going “aahhhh!”  But it also maintains a strangely childlike musical motif, as does “Primeval Landscape” by John Corigliano (off the Altered States soundtrack).  Well, that last one is a bit of a stretch, if I’m honest.  But I can hear some childlike motifs in it at any rate.  To close out the soundtrack category, Four Rooms provides a couple of our bridges, although in a list of songs that are all this short, it’s tough to say what counts as a bridge and what doesn’t.  Still, these two tracks (both by Combustible Edison5) both count, in my book: one is under 30 seconds long, and the other is a minute and a half of building, which I pay off with “U Plavu Zoru.”

Which is itself quite a curious choice here.  You may remember my talking about Pink Martini before,6 and specifically about China Forbes’ amazing ability to sing in (but not speak) 15 different languages.  One of those 15 is, apparently, Croatian, whence cometh “U Plavu Zoru,” which, according to a couple of translations I found on the Internet,7 means “At Blue Dawn.”  The lyrics for this are quite beautiful—so much so that the English translation of one line became our volume title, which is handy because it’s hard as hell to find a volume title for a tracklist composed almost entirely of instrumentals.  The music somehow reminds me of the theremin-laden theme from the original Star Trek.  So, you see, it fits perfectly here, despite being found on an album of popular rather than cinematic music.

But, still, cinematic music is the best place to find these sorts of tracks, and, once I ran out of soundtracks, I had to look for other sources of it.  My first thought was to turn from the people who had actually written soundtracks to those who just wish they were writing them.  The Internet is full of what I call “pseudo-soundtracks,” which I imagine8 are composed by people who want to write music for movies one day, so right now they’re putting out the soundtrack equivalent of a portfolio.  The end result seems to be soundtracks for movies that never existed, often really weird, genre-blending movies, to show off the composer’s range.  If you too are interested in this sort of thing, there are many places on the Internet you can look, but my personal favorite is Jamendo.  All music on Jamendo is free for personal use; what they really want to do is attract people who wish to license the music for use in video games, or YouTube videos, or—of course—movies.  So this is the perfect place for wannabe soundtrack artists to show off their stuff.  My absolute favorite such artist is Xcyril, a French composer who seems to specialize in fantasy and sci-fi music, which is of course perfect for this mix.  The two tracks of his that I use here both feature some wordless “vocals” (again, likely electronically generated); “Séraphine” has a bit of a Danny Elfman feel to it, and “Discovery,” from his album StarGate Odyssea is a little more sci-fi focussed (as its name suggests).

So where else can you go for cinematic music?  Well, there’s videogames, of course.  Next volume, we’ll hear a track from an actual videogame, but here I want to share with you something I discovered way back in 1997—before my kids were born, before I moved to California, back when I had my own company and my own fat Internet pipe and not a whole lot to do with my spare time but surf the dingier corners of the proto-web.9  And I stumbled across this page in the back rooms of CSU Long Beach’s website which talked about lucid dreaming, and music, and 3D rendering, and an “upcoming” videogame which was to be titled Chthon.  It’s now almost 20 years later, and, like ever-so-many pages on the Internet, it’s still there, untouched in over 15 years, talking about a game that will never be made, produced by people who probably don’t even know each other any more.  The music files they offer are just samples, snippets of full songs.  But they’re all so surreal that the fact that they fade in and out at odd times almost seems by design, so I’ve happily been using them in various mixes for years.  Mostly in my Dreamtime mix,10 but occasionally something will work elsewhere as well.  Like this one.

There is one more great source for cinematic music: gaming music.  At least that’s what I call it ... it’s cinematic music that seems to exist only to provide a backdrop for playing D&D to (or, more likely, LARPing for Vampire: The Masquerade).  To be fair, it can also be used as mood music for Hallowe’en haunted house attractions.  After that, though, I’m mostly drawing a blank.  The trouble is, outside of listening to it while you’re actually gaming, most gaming music is too monochromatic to listen to an entire album straight through, but also too good to ignore entirely.  So it lends itself very nicely to mixes, but it has to be a particular kind of mix, and luckily this is one of those kinds.  The two primary purveyors of what I call gaming music are Midnight Syndicate and Nox Arcana.  I’m not sure that either of those groups would appreciate being pigeonholed so narrowly, but then again I doubt either one would deny that background for gaming sessions is an excellent use for their music.  I have several albums by both artists, but we’ve never seen them on in any of my mixes ... until now.  Here we have two from Midnight Syndicate (one from Gates of Delirium and one from Vampyre: Symphonies from the Crypt) and one from Nox Arcana (from Winter’s Majesty); all three tunes have the wordless vocals we’re looking for (“Adelaide” in particular has some uber creepy wailing in the background).  And I can’t neglect the album that was my actual introduction to the wonderful world of gaming music: Shards of Eberron, by David P. Davidson, which was included for free when I bought my copy of Sharn: City of Towers.11  “Dreams of the Inspired” is quite possibly the best track on this album (which is saying something), and the one which best stands alone.  It’s perfect here.

And, when you run out of cinematic music, where can you go then?  Well, what I call “cinematic” is more often referred to as “neoclassical,” so perhaps there’s something to be found in the realm of classical music.  It turns out this this is a tough genre to find in the classical métier, but I did stumble across one good example ... completely accidentally, as it was being used in someone’s Kickstarter project video that I looked at.  It’s “Aquarium” by Camille Saint-Saëns, a short piece from Le carnaval des animaux (The Carnival of the Animals) that has a spooky underwater sound which stems primarily from its use of the glass harmonica, a bizarre instrument created by Benjamin Franklin as a more efficient version of rubbing wet fingers around the rims of wineglasses filled to different heights with water.12  Once I heard it, I knew I had to slot it in here.

Phantasma Chorale I
    [Shadows Are in Hiding]

        “End Credits” by Bruno Coulais, off Coraline [Soundtrack]
        “Dreams of the Inspired” by David P. Davidson, off Shards of Eberron [Game Soundtrack]13
        “Arrival at Rookford” by Daniel Pemberton, off The Awakening [Soundtrack]
        “Aquarium” by Camille Saint-Saëns, off Le Carnaval des Animaux
        “Séraphine” by Xcyril, off Séraphine [EP]
        “Enter ... "The Family" / Sand Worm Planet” by Danny Elfman, off Beetlejuice [Soundtrack]
        “Strange Brew” by Combustible Edison, off Four Rooms [Soundtrack]
        “Adelaide” by Midnight Syndicate, off Gates of Delirium
        “Oompa Radar” by Goldfrapp, off Felt Mountain
        “L'Exécution” by Angelo Badalamenti, off The City of Lost Children [Soundtrack]
        “Interlude II” by Stratus, off Fear of Magnetism
        “The Night Garden” by Waldeck, off The Night Garden
        “Discovery” by Xcyril, off StarGate Odyssea
        “Windfall” by Dead Can Dance, off Within the Realm of a Dying Sun
        “The Supper” by Bruno Coulais, off Coraline [Soundtrack]
        “Betrayed!” by Iain Ballamy, off Mirrormask [Soundtrack]
        “Primeval Landscape” by John Corigliano, off Altered States [Soundtrack]
        “Awakening” by Midnight Syndicate, off Vampyre: Symphonies from the Crypt
        “Chthon: Modules” by Ensemble of the Dreamings, off Chthon [Videogame Soundtrack]14
        “It Was Fantastic” by Bruno Coulais, off Coraline [Soundtrack]
        “Theme (from - "It's Better to Travel")” by Swing out Sister, off It's Better to Travel
        “Lydia Discovers?” by Danny Elfman, off Beetlejuice [Soundtrack]
        “In noctem” by Nicholas Hooper, off Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince [Soundtrack]
        “The Citrine Cross” by Hans Zimmer, off The Da Vinci Code [Soundtrack]
        “Invocation” by Combustible Edison, off Four Rooms [Soundtrack]
        “U Plavu Zoru” by Pink Martini, off Hang on Little Tomato
        “Solstice Spirits” by Nox Arcana, off Winter's Majesty
Total:  27 tracks,  76:55

And that just leaves us with the unexpected tracks, primarily those which are coming from popular music rather than classical or cinematic music.  First up we have “Oompa Radar” by Goldfrapp.  Now you may recall Goldfrapp from Smokelit Flashback III (and IV, and V), but we’ve also seen them on Darkling Embrace, Sirenexiv Cola, and even Totally Different Head, thus demonstrating their amazing versatility.  “Oompa Radar” is a rare instrumental tune from them, very bizarre and carnivalesque, and it works well here.

Then we have a short connective tune from Stratus15 which flows directly into our centerpiece, the amazing track “The Night Garden,” by Waldeck.  Waldeck is an Austrian trip-hop artist who I first discovered via his cover of “Bei mir bist du schon” and so had him pegged as electroswing.  But he really is more suited for Smokelit Flashback,16 and of course the title track of his second studio album17 is practically tailor-made for this mix.  I have no idea if the primary feature of this tune is an actual theremin, or just electronically-generated “vocals” as we’ve seen on other tracks here, but it’s really quite stunning.

From there we hit the second Xcyril track, and then into a Dead Can Dance instrumental, “Windfall,” which somehow manages to be both wordlessly-vocal and carnival-like despite not really being either.  I’m not sure what instruments they’re using, but the combination of pipes and chimes, backed by the sound effect of a howling wind, gives the whole thing what one Internet reivewer described as “an almost macabre carnival style.”  Exquisite, and quite perfect here.

Which just leaves us with one of Swing out Sister’s instrumental tracks off of It’s Better to Travel.  Swing out Sister is of course best known for their tracks worthy of Smooth as Whispercats, but they have a bit of range as well, as this track shows.  It’s not quite as creepy as some of the tunes here, but it fills its slot here in the final stretch very nicely, bridging a Coulais and an Elfman, and setting us up for the 1-2-3 closing punch of Combustible Edison, Pink Martini, and Nox Arcana.

Next time, I think it’s time (and the proper season) to return to some autumnal meditations.


1 Which are, as you know if you’ve seen the film, an actual thing in Coraline.

2 My first, coincidentally enough, is the aforementioned Hallowe’en mix.

3 Pemberton I discovered from his work on LittleBigPlanet; The Awakening I discovered while aimlessly flipping through cheesy horror movies on Netflix.  It’s not too shoddy, really.

4 A trippy little movie by one of my literary idols, Neil Gaiman.

5 As are nearly all the songs on the Four Rooms soundtrack, to be fair.  You may recall my first mentioning Combustible Edison back on Paradoxically Sized World III.

6 Specifically, on Salsatic Vibrato III and then again on Moonside by Riverlight.

7 You always want to find at least two sources that agree for this sort of thing.  Otherwise it’s likely someone just pulling shit out of their ass.

8 I must stress I have no data to back this up.

9 And, honestly, they were all pretty dingy back in those days.

10 Which we shall come to in the fullness of time.  Probably.  Dreamtime and its cousins are not exactly “modern mixes”, but they’re not exactly pre-modern mixes either.  They live in a strange half-state that may or may not ever see them fleshed out in this series.

11 Please note that I have no idea if new printings of the book still include the free CD.

12 And, if you’re looking for a version of this track, make sure you find one that uses the glass harmonica and not an inferior substitute such as a celesta.

13 Again, while I normally hate to point you to places where you can download things for free and the original artist will get nothing, this album is impossile to find, so you gotta do what ya gotta do.

14 Not really a soundtrack, and arguably not even a videogame, since it was never actually produced.  But you can still download the music files for free in .wav format (or .au format, if you know of a program that can decode that).

15 Who we heard from briefly on Paradoxically Sized World I.

16 And we’ll start seeing there once we get to Smokelit Flashback VI.

17 By which I mean not counting his EP and remix albums.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

National Heroscape Day 2016


SoCal Heroscape League members (forum names):
  • “warriorneedsfoodbadly,” a.k.a. “wnfb,” a.k.a. our host: the fellow who generously puts up the rec room of his apartment complex for us to play in
  • “Leotheanimal87,” a.k.a. “Leo”: league member and past tournament champion
  • “hivelord”: league member and past tournament champion; hasn’t been able to attend the past 4 years
  • “Detrimentalman,” a.k.a. “Dman”: league member and past tournament champion; hasn’t been able to make the tournament for a couple of years, although often comes after the tourney is over for after-games
  • “Xotli”: me
  • “Quillon”: the demonspawn
  • tourney thread on our Heroscapers forum

Before I tell you how our annual National Heroscape Day tournament went, I should give you a little background on how “Swiss-style” tourneys work, and in particular how ours works.  If you want the super-gory-detailed version of Swiss tournaments, Wikipedia exists to fill that need.2  But I’ll give you an abbreviated version.

In Heroscape, each player has an army consisting of a certain number of points.  Heroscape itself is very flexible on point values, map sizes, and even what the object of a given game is, but tourneys are generally more constrained.  Some areas of the country have more interesting options, but our league is more conservative.3  So it’s pretty basic: we use small-ish, usually symmetrical maps,4 we play 1-on-1 with identical point value armies, and we play “kill ’em all,” which means the object of the game is always just to wipe out your opponent.  You bring two armies: one is your primary army, which you start out playing with, and the other is your backup army, which you can switch to if your primary army is not living up to your expectations.  We happen to use 520 points, but that’s not really crucial to the outcomes.  We generally build 1 or 2 more maps than we absolutely need, to allow a bit of flexibility—the ultimate goal is for no one to have to play on the same map twice.

So the basic way our tourney works is this:  The first round, opponents are assigned completely at random.  After that, all the winners play each other, and all the losers play each other.  Then the people who are 2-0 play each other, and those who are 1-1 play each other, and those who are 0-2 play each other.  And so it goes until you’ve played enough rounds.  How many rounds you need depends entirely on how many participants you have, and often things don’t work out perfectly: perhaps there are 5 people with the same record and 3 people with the next lowest, or maybe you have an odd number of total players.  In those cases you just do the best you can—mostly choosing things at random, although, for an odd number of entrants, there are somewhat complicated rules on who gets the “bye” after the first round, but we needn’t go into that level of detail.

At the end of all the rounds, you look at who won the most games.  If there’s a tie for number of games won, you look at the “strength of schedule” (or SoS): that is, the total number of games won by all your opponents.  The idea here is that people with higher SoSes played tougher opponents than people with lower SoSes, so they rank higher.  If there’s a tie in number of wins and SoS, then you look at “points remaining,” which means how many points you had left on the board at the end of the game.  If your opponent succeeded in wiping you out, then you get 0 for that round.  But each round is also timed,5 so two good players may not be able to put much of a hurting on each other if both are playing defensively.  If neither player is wiped out, then the winner is the one with the most points remaining, so points are important in determining wins as well as figuring out the tiebreaker for the tiebreaker.

This year, we started out with 11 players, 6 of whom came in my car.6  hivelord brought his pop and his roommate; our host was of course there, as was Leo, and Dman would not be arriving until after the tourney.  The second round, it was one of the Skype Squad who drew the short straw,7 and I ended up playing the demonspawn while she watched our game.  The third round, the Smaller Animal was scheduled to sit out, which he was really unhappy about, but then Dman showed up early, so we just threw him into the tourney,8 bringing us to a total of 12 people.  (Side note: not only is this more than last year, it’s more than we’ve had since 2011.  I’m pretty happy about that.)  So the Smaller Animal got to play with Dman ... and of course my kid got schooled, but I gather that was still better than sitting out entirely.  After that, we only needed one more round to settle final standings.

This year I was quite intrigued to try out an army with a Native American theme.  There was a brand new unit that had only been out for a few days at the time I was building my army: the Teeth of the Makwa.  Combining them with the existing Heroscape tribesmen—the Mohicans—gave me this army, which has the unusual property of having the only “chained bonding” in the game: normally, when one unit bonds with another, if that second unit can bond with a third unit, there is specific language to disallow taking all 3 turns at once.  But this combo specifically allows the chain, mainly because it’s both conditional and not a full turn with the third unit.  The exact situation is, you take a turn with the Mohican squad, and if you end that turn with 2 of them engaged, then you can take a turn with Brave Arrow (the Mohican hero), and that triggers the ability to move (but not attack with!) 6 Makwa,9 but only up to 3 spaces each.  This has two major downsides: 3 spaces is not very much in Herosacpe, and, generally speaking, if you still have 2 Mohicans engaged at the end of their turn, it means they failed to kill their enemies, which makes the triple turn somewhat of a consolation prize.

In any event, my first game was vs the demonspawn and his dwarves, led by the dwarf-ridden giant Mok.  This was a fairly close game, but in the end my kid came in 100 or so points ahead of me.  I’d like to say that it came down to luck, but honestly I think my kid just played smarter than I did.  My second game10 was against one of the Skype Squad who was sporting cybermonkeys, led by Zaeus and those sneaky Nakita agents.  This game was much closer: in the end, I lost by a paltry 30 points.  The armies were pretty evenly matched: Mohicans are pretty hard to kill at range, Makwa are just plain hard to kill,11 and the whole army has decent range and gets even stronger when you get in their faces.  In contrast, Gorillinators are also tough to kill, the whole army is excellent against range because of the Nakita’s Smoke Powder, and they’re way more mobile than the tribesmen.  So it was a tight game: with one less round, I would have lost decisively; with one more round, I think I could have come out on top.

In the meantime, the demonspawn had lost his first game, beat me in the second, then went on to win the third (against hivelord’s roommate).  The Smaller Animal, meanwhile, had just had a run of three really tough opponents: hivelord’s pop first, then hivelord himself, then Dman (as previously mentioned).  In the final round of the tourney, hivelord and his dad went head-to-head and the father beat the son, thus securing the tourney win and consigning his son to second place.  Which meant that the Smaller Animal’s first two games were, in fact, against the two players who ended up coming in #1 and #2.  So both he and I were scoreless going into the final round, while the demonspawn was 2-1 and looking pretty good.

I drew hivelord’s roommate, the demonspawn ended up with our host, who was also doing pretty well, and the Smaller Animal ended up going against the final member of the Skype Squad, who, like him, had not won any games thus far.  I won my game, pushing me back up towards the middle of the pack, which is where I often end up in these sorts of things, and the demonspawn won the final game to end up in third place, which is the highest anyone in our family has ever managed in our ten years of attendance.  The Smaller Animal’s game literally came down to the last throw of the dice.  By this point, he had given up on his primary army (a Marro army led by the bone dragon) and had gone with a ninja army, led by the mysterious jonin.12  Now, the way the jonin’s leadership works is, the ninja don’t have to be anywhere near him,13 but the jonin himself must be unengaged.  Happily, he has Phantom Walk, just like a proper ninja, so, if he is engaged, you just disengage with him and get on with your ninja taking their turns.  Because of this, he hardly ever actually attacks anyone,14 and his attack isn’t that impressive anyway.  So, it’s the last turn of the last round of the last game in the last round of the tournament.  Everyone else has finished playing by this point, and we’re just standing around playing peanut gallery for my kid and his opponent.  His final order marker is, of course, on the jonin, who happens to be engaged.  He starts to move him away from his enemy.  The demonspawn and I, at about the same time, realize that he only has one ninja left—all the others have been taken out already.  And, as it happens, she’s too far away to reach anyone.  So we point out to him that, while his first instinct would normally be correct, in this case he’s not doing any good disengaging and taking a useless turn.  Just go ahead and attack the person you’re next to.  It probably won’t do anything, but at least you’ve got a chance of inflicting a final wound or two.  He studies the board and then notices that there’s another enemy that he can reach: his opponent is also using her backup army, which is led by an elf wizard on a pegasus, and that exact fellow is just sitting there, 3 spaces and 2 levels down, only 1 wound away from being totally dead.  So my child decides this is a better target—partially from being mostly dead and partially from potentially being worth more points, but mostly because being higher gives the jonin one more attack die to roll15—rolls the dice, gets 2 skulls, his oppoenent rolls a single shield, pegasus-boy goes down, and the Smaller Animal wins the game by 3 points.  By a single skull, on the last die roll of the tourney.  It was pretty spectacular, let me tell you.

To top everything off, Leo’s contribution for the tournarment prizes was a copy of Arena of the Planeswalkers, which is a new-ish game that has a lot of similarities to Heroscape,16 and worth a decent chunk of change.  Enough that we had been putting off buying it ever since it came out.  Enough that it was a pretty impressive prize sitting there on the prize table.  But, as it happens, hivelord and his pop (who came in #1 and #2, you may recall) already had the game, so they went for other prizes.17  Which meant that the demonspawn was able to snatch it up by coming in third.  And the Smaller Animal, by dint of having an insane SoS (9 games, all in all), came out ahead of everyone else with his same record, making him 3rd or 4th from the bottom, which he felt pretty good about.  All in all, a mighty fine day for the family.


1 From their tendency to stay up until 3 in the morning talking to each other on Skype, obviously.

2 As always.

3 Not from my lack of lobbying for change, I can tell you.

4 As I discussed last week.

5 In our tourney, we play for 45 minutes, then you get to finish the particular round of that game.  “Round” is unfortunately an overloaded term in Heroscape tournaments: each round of the tourney consists of several games (one game per pair of opponents), and each game consists of rounds, and each round in a game consists of three turns per player.

6 As mentioned above: myself, the Smaller Animal, and the Skype Squad.

7 So to speak.  As I mentioned before, it isn’t really random.

8 Of course, at that point, having missed two games, he had no real chance of winning, but at least nobody had to sit out any more.  So he graciously agreed to jump in.

9 By the way, if you’re wondering what “Makwa” are, they’re the bear clan of the Anishinaabe, which is a group of tribes which include the Ojibwe and Algonquins.

10 Remember, this is the third round of the tourney, because I sat out the first round.

11 Well, okay, they should be hard to kill: their Shield of the Great Bear power theoretically keeps them alive 25% of the time when otherwise they would be killed.  In practice, however, the Great Bear was not much interested in my poor Makwa this tourney.  I think I only hit that die roll 2 or 3 times out of the dozens of times it came up.

12 And, if you’re wondering what a jonin is, then you don’t watch enough Naruto.

13 Unlike, say, an elemental army, where the elementals have to be within 8 spaces of the elementalist.  8 spaces is a pretty long leash in Heroscape terms, but it’s a leash nonetheless.

14 Because, in Heroscape, you must always move first, attack afterwards.  Unless you have a special power that says otherwise, of course.

15 My kid is surprisingly analytical for a 10-year-old sometimes.

16 Including reusing some of the terrain for it.

17 Actually, it was my prize donation that was chosen by the #1 winner.  So I was pretty pleased about that.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Tournament afterglow

As I mentioned last week, yesterday was our annual Heroscape tournament.  So this weekend I haven’t even had time to come up with a partial post for you.  Next week I’ll bring you a report of how the tourney went.  But this week I’m just too tuckered out to write any more than this.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Mapmaker, Mapmaker, Make Me a Map

No time for a proper post this week, as I’m hard at work preparing for National Heroscape Day 2016.  More links once I do my official battle report, which will most likely be in two weeks—next week, most likely, you won’t get a damn thing.  But, c’est la vie (and see la title).

What I mainly had to work on this weekend was nailing down maps.  Now, I’ve talked about Heroscape before, and I’ve talked about building maps before, and you may have gathered (if you were paying attention) that building maps is not my favorite part of Heroscape.  Most of the maps I talk about building on this blog are huge affairs which take forever to build, but generally last a long time because they’re big enough not get too bored with after a while.  On the other hand, NHSD is a tournament, where things are a bit more constrained.  You can’t just throw together any old map all willy-nilly.  Maps have to be “balanced,” meaning that you don’t have an advantage or disadvantage depending which side of the table you’re sitting on.  Quite often this is achieved by making the maps perfectly symmetrical.  They also can’t have too much height (because tourney games are quick games, so you can’t waste a lot of time scaling mountains and whatnot), or too much water (because then it’s a pain in the butt for the two armies to get to each other), or too many weird features that might be easily exploited by some units but not others.  In other words, tourney maps need to be boring.

Well, at least that’s my perspective.  Obviously not everyone feels that way.  There is, in fact, a thriving trade in creating maps specifically for tourneys.  Well, there used to be anyway ... there haven’t been any new entries in over 3 years at this point.  But still there’s quite a few out there, and somewhere along the way it sort of became my job to go through the maps and pick out what I think might be interesting ones to build for the tourney.  And that changes every year, of course, because what’s really interesting one year we may be sick of three years later after playing on it every year.  And perhaps maps that didn’t seem that exciting 3 years ago might be a bit more exciting in hindsight now that we’re looking for an infusion of something different ...

Anyhow, there’s more to it than just finding maps which seem like they’ll be cool to play on.  There’s also a paleontological aspect, which comes in the form of digging out what maps we’ve used for the past several years and seeing which need to be retired in favor of something fresh, and an engineering aspect, in figuring out how many of which terrain sets it takes to build a given map, and then a social aspect because only certain people want to bring their terrain and build maps, and then which people have enough to build these two maps vs those two? and if you can’t build that one, can you build this one instead? but then that means that whoever was going to build this one now has to build that one, and do they have the right sort of pieces for that?  And so on.  It can get quite complex, depending on how many maps you need to choose and assign, and how many people you have to assign them to.

So, being the programming nerd that I am, I naturally made a spreadsheet for it.  I won’t bore you with the details, but suffice it to say that it involves a lot of rows of maps and columns of terrain sets, and different tabs for each potential mapmaker, and turning numbers red when I’ve managed to assign someone more maps than they actually have enough terrain to build, and ... well, yes.  It’s a bit complex.  But of course that’s the sort of programming that I always find the most fun.

Anywho, all of this resulted in this post in our tourney thread about maps (don’t forget: I’m known as “Xotli” over there).  But then, while I was writing this post, I actually found some new maps to choose from, so now I may redo my whole list.  Or then again I may not.  But it’s keeping me busy anyway.

Until post-tournament.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Porchwell Firetime I

"I Came Here from Nowhere"

[This is one post in a series about my music mixes.  The series list has links to all posts in the series and also definitions of many of the terms I use.  You may wish to read the introduction for more background.

Like all my series, it is not necessarily contiguous—that is, I don’t guarantee that the next post in the series will be next week.  Just that I will eventually finish it, someday.  Unless I get hit by a bus.]

When I first heard Wiskey Folk Ramblers (and who in the world knows how I stumbled onto them ... the result of some long, drunken linkwalk, no doubt), one of the first things that struck me was how similar “Gambling Preacher and His Daughter” was to “Hayride to Hell” by Hoodoo Gurus.  It got me thinking: should I maybe have a mix for story-songs?  You know, songs that just seem to be compacted little short stories wrapped up and set to music?  Several other possibilties immediately sprang to mind, such as “Jackie” by Sinéad O’Connor and “In the River” by the Call.  Eventually I would come to expand that to include songs which, while they might not strictly be linear stories in the way that those songs are, they at least are songs that you could imagine hearing while sitting on a porch, or around a campfire, being told/sung to you by a bony older relative with a guitar, or a banjo, or a mandolin.  A little bit folksy, a little bit airy, and no matter what transportative.  Thus was born Porchwell Firetime.

My initial thought was to put “Gambling Preacher” and “Hayride to Hell” together on volume I.  Sometimes two songs which have common roots complement one another, and can flow nicely into each other.  But sometimes they’re just too much alike, and that was the case here.  The choruses especially line up rather eerily: “he would ride, oh he would ride” vs “and Charlie would drive, for miles and miles.”  Add in the similar loping beats and similar stories of jilted love, and I decided they shouldn’t even be on the same volume, much less back-to-back.1  If the good folks in Whiskey Folk Ramblers were to try to convince me that they’d never heard “Hayride to Hell” before, I do believe I would look at them more than merely askance.  Still, “Gambling Preacher” has its own unique charm which is more than reflected Gurus’ glory, and well deserves its place both as mix starter and here on volume I.

One of the next songs to end up here was our opener, “Facts about Cats” by Timbuk 3, almost exclusively known as one-hit wonders for their unforgettable 80’s tune “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.”  Which is a shame, as they’re very much more than just that.  As hopefully you will hear after listening to our opening track.  That’s followed by the Red Sea Pedestrians’ take on Curtis Eller’s “Sugar in My Coffin.”  I’ve heard the original, and I really think RSP’s remke adds something valuable to the song,2 which isn’t exactly a story, but still feels like one in a weird way.  Another early contender was Ed’s Redeeming Qualities, whose nearly every song is a story, so I had lots of choices.  For this first volume, I thought “Random” would be a good first taste, and I’m sure we’ll see them return on nearly every volume of this mix from here on out.

Other songs which sprang quickly to mind were “that Rev. Horton Heat song that so much reminds me of Tom Waits” (which turns out to be called “The Devil’s Chasing Me”), the Call tune I mentioned earlier, which I’ve always found particularly poignant (and their best tune not on Reconciled3), and Robbie Robertson’s classic “Somewhere Down the Crazy River.”  While I’m not a huge fan of Robertson in general, there’s something smokey and mysterious about that tune that I’ve always found irresistible.  And of course Feist’s quite amazing version of Nina Simone’s “When I Was a Young Girl,”4 which a good friend of mine played for me once because he had stumbled across it and immediately pegged as something I would appreciate.  He was right.  Feist’s anti-folk also lends itself pretty handily to a story-song mix, but “When I Was a Young Girl” in particular has a pulsing, conga-and-clapping-driven beat that I find highly reminiscent of “Down by the Water” by PJ Harvey.5

Other bands which seemed like no-brainers for this mix include House of Freaks, whose spare, guitar-and-drum sound provide a number of promising candidates, and Meat Puppets, whose alt-country-tinged grunge sounds perfect when played around a campfire at night.  For the former, after waffling around for quite a while, I eventually went with “Black Cat Bone,” but they have several good choices among the 3 albums’ worth of material of theirs I own, so we should also expect to see them again soon.  For the latter, “Shine” was the obvious candidate, and I went with it.  The “story” is perhaps a bit nonsensical and hard to follow exactly what’s going on, but I feel like it stands up.  On a slightly more downbeat note, the Decemberists, who along with bands like the Lumineers and Arcade Fire have pioneered the large-ensemble neoclassical folk-pop sound that has become popular in the past 10 to 15 years, and the Smoke Fairies, a British duo of female vocalists whose work ranges from folk to dream pop.  The Decemberists give us “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect,” and the Smoke Fairies provide “Misty Versions,”6 both of which are slow, deliberate stories of the subconsious (by which I mean they use a lot of symbolism to hint at more than the surface words are saying).  Plus “Misty Versions” gives us our volume title.

I also thought of my good friends emmet swimming,7 because Todd is quite good at telling stories via songs.  I chose “Angst II” off of their first (self-produced) album, which may be tough to track down, but, trust me: it’s worth it.  And I couldn’t help but remember a more recent discovery, Chingón, which is Robert Rodriguez’s band which he put together originally to provide music for Once Upon a Time in Mexico.  Although their album Mexican Spaghetti Western was released over 10 years ago, it was only about a year or two ago that I first went looking for more music from the performance I had just rewatched in the special features of that movie and stumbled across it.  Several of the songs on that album are stories, with a Western flair, as the name indicates; most are in Spanish, but “Bajo sexto” is, despite the name, an English tune.

For more of that dark, wistful tone, I turned to two bands from Darkling Embrace: Bat for Lashes and Devics.  Both can do story-songs, but most of the time they tend to drift into the darkly pretty territory mined by Darkling Embrace, or even the noir trippiness of Smokelit Flashback.  Here we have two tunes which are slightly more straight-forward for them—which means they’re on the more surreal side of this mix—“Horse and I” from Bat for Lashes, and “My Beautiful Sinking Ship” from Devics.  The former is the opener of BfL’s best album, Fur and Gold; the latter the title track from Devics’ best.  With one sporting the lonely sound of wind in the trees and what I feel sure must be a theremin in the background, and the other using cello, accordian, and the tinkly piano of a dive bar entertainer, both are dripping with atmosphere.

Porchwell Firetime I
    [I Came Here from Nowhere]

        “Facts about Cats” by Timbuk 3, off Greetings from Timbuk 3
        “Sugar in My Coffin” by The Red Sea Pedestrians, off A Lesson in Cartography
        “White Tooth Man” by Iron & Wine, off The Shepherd's Dog
        “Random” by Ed's Redeeming Qualities, off It's All Good News
        “Mr. Zebra” by Tori Amos, off Boys for Pele
        “Shine” by Meat Puppets, off Too High to Die
        “Black Cat Bone” by House of Freaks, off Monkey on a Chain Gang
        “The Devil's Chasing Me” by Reverend Horton Heat, off The Full-Custom Gospel Sounds of the Reverend Horton Heat
        “Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect” by The Decemberists, off Castaways and Cutouts
        “Somewhere Down the Crazy River” by Robbie Robertson, off Robbie Robertson
        “When I Was a Young Girl” by Feist, off Let It Die
        “Misty Versions” by Smoke Fairies, off Smoke Fairies
        “My Beautiful Sinking Ship” by Devics, off My Beautiful Sinking Ship
        “In the River” by The Call, off Into the Woods
        “Angst II” by emmet swimming, off Dark When the Snow Falls
        “Bajo sexto” by Chingón, off Mexican Spaghetti Western
        “Gambling Preacher and His Daughter” by Whiskey Folk Ramblers, off ... And There Are Devils
        “Horse and I” by Bat for Lashes, off Fur and Gold
        “Golden Frames” by KT Tunstall, off Tiger Suit
        “Some Velvet Morning” by Firewater, off Songs We Should Have Written [Covers]
        “Halley's Waitress” by Fountains of Wayne, off Welcome Interstate Managers
Total:  21 tracks,  78:08

In the cateogry of more unlikely tracks, we have a couple of early tunes which skew even more surreal than Bat for Lashes and Devics.  To call them “non-linear storytelling” is perhaps understating it a bit.  You may recall my mentioning Iron & Wine back on Slithy Toves.  Well, here he is again with “White Tooth Man,” which may not be his best song,8 but it’s pretty damned close.  To complement that, and serve as a bit of a bridge between “Random” and “Shine,” I chose “Mr. Zebra” by Tori Amos.  It’s an odd little tune that I’ve always dug.  To show you the contrast, though, here’s a bit from the opening of “Random”:

Her boyfriend is thoughtful,
She’s a passable cook,
But sometimes she eats alone.
And, one time, she was hit by lightning
While sitting on the roof of her home.

and here’s the opening of “Mr. Zebra”:

Hello Mr. Zebra
Can I have your sweater,
‘Cause it’s cold cold cold in my hole hole hole?
Ratatouille, strychnine,
Sometimes she’s a friend of mine,
With a gigantic whirlpool that will blow your mind ...

So “story” is a bit of a stretch for some of these tracks, but, as I’ve said, it’s more a feeling than a strict definition.

Which just leaves us with our closing triptych.  Coming off the almost spooky “Horse and I,” we kick off the home stretch with “Golden Frames” by KT Tunstall, which appears to be a story-song about being abducted by aliens, so it flows nicely.  Then we drift into the very song that discovered Firewater for me: “Some Velvet Morning,” originally sung by Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra.  In fact, when I think of songs that tell stories, right after I think of Gordon Lightfoot,9 I think of “Some Velvet Morning,” along with Sinatra and Hazelwood’s other hit, “Summer Wine.”  Sometimes called “cowboy psychedelia,” I always found these two tunes fascinating as a child, although nowadays they’re a bit country for my tastes.  But I went looking for updated versions that I might find more palatable,10 and that’s how I stumbled onto Firewater’s cover album, Songs We Should Have Written.  Firewater’s Tod Ashley and guest Britta Phillips11 do a very smooth version which keeps the echoey guitars and the psychedelic aspects, but replaces the overblown strings with a Hammond organ and adds a few new touches, like voice distortion on the female vocal to give it even more of a trippy feeling.  Then, to close out the volume, we cap it all off with “Halley’s Waitress,” Fountains of Wayne’s understated little ode to a disappearing server.  It’s a mellow way to wind us down to reflect on the 21 little stories we’ve heard.

Next time, we’ll take a look at our creepiest mix so far.


1 In other words, we won’t see “Hayride to Hell” until volume II.

2 Perhaps it’s just the sweet clarinet break.

3 Which is their best album by far.  I often find that artists have one great album and the rest of their oeuvre is mediocre.  But just because the rest of the albums are “meh” doesn’t mean there aren’t some great individual tracks there.

4 To be fair, that song existed before Nina Simone’s version.  But I think it’s fair to say it’s most commonly associated with her.

5 Which no doubt we’ll also see on a future volume.

6 Which I believe also uses congas for its main beat, as it happens.

7 Who we’ve seen twice thus far: once on Salsatic Vibrato, and once on Darkling Embrace.

8 That would almost certainly be “Boy with a Coin,” which we shall come to in the fullness of time.

9 I should try to find a modernized version of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” somewhere.  The original is a bit too cheesy for my tastes these days, but I still have some fond memories of it.

10 We’ll see what I found for “Summer Wine” on volume II.

11 Who not only doubles for Nancy Sinatra on this album, but also covers for Cher.