Friday, 4 November 2016

Dark Music Review – Nyarlathotep

Dark Music Review – Nyarlathotep

Review Written By Casey Douglass

Nyarlathotep Album Art

A 190 minute dark soundscape album recorded by 25 ambient artists to pay tribute to H.P. Lovecraft.

Field recordings from the deepest dark corners of 4 continents. Dusty tapes out of forgotten archives. Strings through crackling amplifiers and distorted drone combine into a sea of pitch black.

Nyarlathotep is a manipulative being in the Lovecraftian Mythos. Unlike Cthulhu, or Azathoth, he delights in cruelty and deception. Causing madness is more important than destruction to him. Smell the burning embers as you kneel outside the sunken temple before Nyarlathotep. Feel the raspy touch of the faceless pharaoh as he leads you to the ancient Pyramid. Hear his inhuman summoning call to gods beyond reality.

Ah Mr Lovecraft, where would the world be without your own particular brand of creeping horror? Probably still in the current state it currently resides, but with less tentacles I guess. As always, anything that takes Lovecraft’s creations as inspiration, be it audio, video or game, instantly has my interest. When it comes down to music however, it just might be one of the most visceral ways of creating that sense of the eldritch that Lovecraft himself so excelled at. Nyarlathotep is a dark ambient album that uses the creative juices of no less than 25 ambient artists, working and bouncing sound off each other, going ever deeper into what Nyarlathotep might sound like or embody.

Nyarlathotep consists of 3 tracks, all around an hour long, give or take five or ten minutes here and there. For the most part, each track is a quieter visit to the dark ambient genre; plenty of echoing notes and deep rumblings that, while prominent, don’t particularly loom with any great threat or menace. I guess what I'm saying is that it is a pretty slow burner, the languid strings and electronic creakings and trills creating an undeniably dark space, but one in which you can let the echoes carry you away, rather than anything too intense.

That is quite a simplistic view and doesn't quite take into account the host of other sounds and tempos that emerge as you make your way through the tracks. There is a variety of chant-like vocals, some deep and satanic, others high and angelic. Static and distortion play their parts too; a static-fuzzy sound becoming a beat at one point, or later dancing around the soundscape like some digital insect fluttering its wings. Oh and there are chimes and bells and other metallic sounds, along with distant thumps and shufflings, I mustn't forget the shufflings.

Highlights for me were the distorted lightening strikes that emerge about eleven minutes into track two, and a bit later in the same track, the dark soundscape that features the sounds of someone breathing as they seem to be exploring wherever they have found themselves. I also enjoyed the metallic clattering that begins track three, a harsh electro-drone rising, soon to be joined by voices that either sound pleading or worshipping.

I enjoyed the time I spent listening to Nyarlathotep, although for me, there is a tentacled beast in the room that I haven’t addressed yet, and that is a previous Cryo Chamber Collaboration that goes by the name of Cthulhu. Cthulhu really blew me away, I think maybe because the soundscapes were more active. Nyarlathotep is a smooth, dark listening experience, but it didn’t get its hooks into me in the way that Cthulhu did. I’m going to give Nyarlathotep 4/5, but if you like your dark ambient at the smoother, more introspective end of the spectrum, you could easily add at least half a point to that score.

Visit the Nyarlathotep page on Bandcamp here for more information, and check out one of the tracks from the album below:

I was given a free copy of this album to review.

Album Title: Nyarlathotep
Artist: Cryo Chamber Collaboration
Label: Cryo Chamber
Released: September 27, 2016

Monday, 31 October 2016

Book Review – Overcoming Depression

Book Review – Overcoming Depression

Review Written by Casey Douglass

Overcoming Depression

If you suffer from depression you are far from alone. Depression is very common, affecting over 300 million people around the world. Written by Professor Paul Gilbert, internationally recognised for his work on depression, this highly acclaimed self-help book has been of benefit to thousands of people including sufferers, their friends and families, and those working in the medical profession. This fully revised third edition has been extensively updated and rewritten to reflect over ten years of new research on understanding and treating depression, particularly the importance of developing compassionate ways of thinking, behaving and feeling. It contains helpful case studies and new, easy-to-follow, step-by-step suggestions and exercises to help you understand your depression and lift your mood.

It occurred to me recently that even though I’ve read countless books on anxiety, OCD, CBT and other topics, I’ve not read nearly so many on the topic of depression. As someone who dips into depression with some regularity, I’m not sure why this use for dead trees has eluded my book collection. After a particularly crappy few weeks, weeks in which my usual health struggles were added to by a creeping despair that left even the posting of a tweet seemingly beyond me, I decided to look for a book on depression that might prove useful. I saw that the Overcoming series of books seems to be highly recommended, and as luck would have it, it was the Overcoming Depression flavour of the book that I opted for one drizzly day in Waterstones. There were others on the shelf that seemed like they might be worth considering, another one mentioned mindfulness and had a suitably nature-based cover, but I’ve had my fill of mindfulness-based books for this year at least, maybe more. That being said, Overcoming Depression: A self-help guide using Cognitive Behavioural Techniques does feature mindfulness, but along with a heck of a lot of other things.

A few pages shy of 600, it’s no brief flirtation with the subject, but an in-depth look at the many sides to depression: what can cause it, the purpose it might serve, how we can start to leave the depressive state and other issues that might just have a bearing too, such as how other emotions and feelings like anger and shame play their part. An early chapter looks at how evolution might have shaped our minds for depression, and how the things that happen to us in the modern day might hook into these old brain systems. This is particularly fascinating with regards to the purpose depression might have served in the earliest times of humanity, when a poor cave-person’s emotions might have been such that they went to the back of the cave and stayed there until things improved enough to come out again. The book says that viewing depression in this way is far more useful than simply viewing it as a disease.

As you might expect from a book with so many pages, it doesn’t stop there. It looks at the social and psychological aspects of depression too, before heading into the issue of what the relationship between our thoughts and feelings really is like, and how depression can skew our thoughts to a more pessimistic or rigid point of view on life. This naturally then leads us into the next section of the book, which deals with how the reader might be able to begin to cope with having a mind that is working this way. Mindfulness is described here, and also the practice of being compassionate, to yourself and others, as well as why we might want to try this and what benefits it will bring us and the people around us. It is in this section that the book goes into the depressive styles of thinking, pointing out that we often view the world in unhelpful ways, such as with all-or-nothing thinking, acting as if we “know” what other people are thinking about us, over-generalization, and others that will be familiar to anyone that has read about, or been treated with, cognitive behavioural therapy.

One of the biggest takeaways I had from the book was an improved understanding of the various emotion systems that regulate our minds. Coming from an anxiety background I was fully aware of the nervous system and how the sympathetic and parasympathetic sides of it play their part in our fight-or-flight and the rest-and-digest responses. Overcoming Depression added a third state to this duo, the drive and achievement system, the one behind our vitality and urge to do things. Depression disrupts the balance between these three systems, leading us to experience far more threat-linked feelings and fewer positive emotions such as happiness and contentment. The book, as you work through it, describes the ways that activating our contentment/rest system, via compassion meditation and other exercises, can help us to restore a more healthy balance in these three areas, also suggesting ways we can tackle our lack of motivation and the issues that come along as part of it.

Paul Gilbert writes in a warm and friendly manner, and does a very decent job of conveying a whole range of information in a clear way. I didn’t really expect to find anything particularly new or groundbreaking between the book’s covers but I came away with a few new tidbits of information and a decent understanding of things through the focussed lens of an author who clearly knows his subject and how to explain it. I can fully imagine myself referring to this book again and again as I try to internalise more and more of what he says, in an effort to manifest changes in my own life. If you suffer with depression, or know someone that does, Overcoming Depression: A self-help guide using Cognitive Behavioural Techniques is well worth buying and I’d definitely give it 5/5.

Overcoming Depression bookcover Image © Copyright Constable & Robinson

Book Title: Overcoming Depression: A self-help guide using Cognitive Behavioural Techniques
Author: Paul Gilbert
Publisher: Constable & Robinson
ISBN: 978-1849010665
RRP: £12.99

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Dark Book Review - Children of God

I review Children of God, a poetry book that showcases some of the poems from survivors of a cult-based mass suicide. It reveals their conflicted emotions and thoughts in a bid to help with their therapy. Click here to go to Geek Syndicate to read my full review.

Children of God book-cover image © Copyright ZING Communications, Inc.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Why I Think that Korn’s “Rotting in Vain” Music Video is Amazing

Why I Think that Korn’s “Rotting in Vain” Music Video is Amazing

Written by Casey Douglass

Every once in awhile, I find a music video keeps pulling me back for repeat viewings. It doesn’t happen that often, but lately, I just can’t stop watching Korn’s music video for “Rotting in Vain”, a song from their upcoming album The Serenity Of Suffering. At various times in the last few weeks, I have been thinking about the video and what exactly it is that I like about it. These musings got funnelled into this semi-introspective piece of writing, which you may or may not find interesting; I just wanted to write it.

First up, I like Korn. I haven’t clicked with every one of their albums but there are a good number of songs that would probably sit high if I ever had to write a personal top 100 metal songs chart. I guess what I’m saying is that I am not predisposed to like something just because it’s Korn, but I do generally like their stuff.

The first thing a viewer of the video for “Rotting in Vain” will see is none other than Mr Tommy Flanagan, an actor that I have come to rate very highly, particularly for his role as Chibs in Sons of Anarchy. He does the “steely-face but twitches of inner turmoil” thing very well, and seeing him in a video such as this really adds to the video’s effect.

Up next we see some strange steampunk contraption with lots of bulbs and a strange gas mask attached via a bendy tube. It isn’t long before Tommy’s character rams this mask onto his face, and, whether inhaling or screaming, triggers the appearance of the band members in various rooms, emerging from leaves and other debris as the track’s heaviness comes out to play.

I could probably search the internet to see what the video really means, but finding your own meaning in things is much more fun. To me, the run-down house is likely the rooms of Tommy’s character’s mind, the dark spaces where his troubles and agonies roam. The strange steampunk machine puts me in mind of the old fashioned opium dens seen in other steampunk settings, facilitating his reflections, but also a kind of an addictive drug too, likely keeping his pain going or even making it worse. The video ends with him slashing the tube with a razor, which seems to be another sign of an addict, but this time one who is deciding that enough is enough. I think most people will be able to relate to having to give up some addiction or vice, for the sake or their mental or physical health. Mine seems to be eating too much, but slicing a cream-cake in two simply makes it easier to eat, rather than look like a grand gesture.

Of course, the other half of the equation is the music, and with this video, the effect of the two seems doubly amplified. The chorus hits all the right notes with me, tapping into my recent moods and feelings, which is no doubt where another large part of my affinity for this video comes from:

“Digging deep inside of me,
getting past this agony,
I can’t seem to get away,
Another day rotting in vain.”

These four lines sum up so much about how I currently feel about life, it’s kind of uncanny. Add in the hoarse screaming of “vain” and the ear-hammering riffs, and this song is enough for me to buy the new album, even if I don’t hear a single one of the other tracks before hand. I don’t often say that about the music I buy.

I think that about sums it all up. I’ve linked to the video below so you can see it and hear it in its full glory. Korn’s new album The Serenity Of Suffering is released October 21st and is from Roadrunner Records.

Rotting in Vain Video Images © Copyright Roadrunner Records

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Who Listens to Dark Ambient Music?

Who Listens to Dark Ambient Music?

Written By Casey Douglass

"Who listens to dark ambient music?" is a question that I’ve come across a good many times while browsing the web. Another variation is “What kind of person listens to dark ambient music?” often by someone who listens to ten seconds of a track than promptly spits out their incredulity dummy as they fail to click with it. I can’t answer for anybody else, but I have spent some time reflecting on my own reasons below. 

If someone asks me what dark ambient music is, I tend to describe it as resembling the score to a horror movie, but that glosses over the more peaceful or sci-fi varieties. Dark ambient is a kind of music that touches uncomfortable feelings and features harsh, often cold soundscapes, that bring you out of your safe mental space and into something more melancholy or challenging. As far as I am concerned anyway. As far as why I listen to it, read on.

The first thing that comes to mind is the variety of dark ambient out there, and that’s if you ignore the larger parent genre of ambient music. One dark ambient artist might use the kinds of drones and bassy rumbles that might accompany the summoning of Satan himself, another might use field recordings of cars passing in the rain and birdsong, mingling in a little melancholy piano for added effect. Yet another might revel in creating massive fuzzy walls of noise that trick the ear into conjuring other sounds deep within the staticy mass. It is always a great pleasure to find a new artist, or to hear a new release from an existing artist, that makes you sit back and go “Wow!”

With the mentioning of Satan in the previous paragraph, I suppose I'd better address the perception of dark ambient listeners. There are certain genres of music that just bring out the hysterical in some people, people who might think that heavy metal fans are Satan worshippers, all rave music lovers are druggies etc. Dark ambient is very dark, and I have no doubt that there will be some Satanists listening to it, along with a whole heap of Atheists, Buddhists, Pagans and whatever-ists. Personally, I don’t mind the fact that people might be shocked by the darkness contained in a dark ambient track. I’m a horror writer after all, it adds to my cachet. I also don’t particularly care how people view the things that I enjoy, be it the music I listen to, the books I read or the TV series I watch.

Speaking of writing, dark ambient is a tremendous tool for a horror writer to find some inspiration. Even the most directed of tracks (e.g. something called “journey into the forgotten temple”) can send me on a totally different tangent, maybe into space, hell or a strange reality of bog creatures. If you are a writer of fiction that has even the smallest amount of darkness to it, it would be well worth your while investigating dark ambient as a genre. I’ll mention a range of artists at the end of this piece.

While we are delving into the mind, dark ambient serves another purpose for me, and that is one of catharsis and relaxation. I have suffered with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder for decades, an anxiety condition that floors me at times. I also have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, an illness that leaves me exhausted 24/7. Most days are a teeth clenched struggle for me, even with various therapeutic approaches in play such as CBT, ACT and mindfulness. When everything is turning to shit around me, tension building in my neck and shoulders, heart hammering; listening to a bit of dark ambient while resting on my bed gives me a mental holiday when few other things will. This gives the stress response in my body time to ease off, lets the anxious thoughts drift away, and very often, gives me a little sleep too. When I was younger, I dabbled with the New Agey types or relaxation music, whale song, birds and that kind of thing. It was okay but nothing great. I did notice that I clicked more with ones that had darker undertones. Phil Thornton’s Shaman is one that comes to mind: wolf howls and drum beats the order of the day. When I discovered dark ambient, it was like “This! Holy shit this!”. For the record, the first dark ambient I knowingly heard was one of Atrium Caceri’s early albums.

So there we have it, my reasons at least, for why someone might listen to dark ambient music. There are countless other reasons, I have no doubt, but these are the main ones for me. I’d love to hear the reasons someone else might have too, so if you are reading this and feel compelled, feel free to comment or just find me on social media and say hello. Oh, and before I go, here is a small collection of dark ambient artists you might like to check out. Many of them will have a Bandcamp page where you can freely stream some, or all, of their tracks. Others might be on Soundcloud or even YouTube. Wherever you look, if the website has the feature, like YouTube, pay attention to other suggested videos or sounds if any are recommended beside what you are watching, you never know where it will take you.

Okay, here are a few artists that you might like to check out: Atrium Carceri, CryoChamber (a dark ambient music label), Hoshin, Randal Collier-Ford, Terra Sancta, Lustmord, Cities Last Broadcast, Creation VI, protoU. Dronny Darko and Zalys.

Thank you for reading.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Dark Game Revisit – Should you go back to Aliens: Colonial Marines?

Dark Game Revisit – Should you go back to Aliens: Colonial Marines?

Written By Casey Douglass

Aliens: Colonial Marines Logo

I am more than happy to be alive in a time where I can say that the last Alien/s game, Alien: Isolation, was a corker. The blend of sneaking around trying to avoid a prowling xenomorph and the filmic atmosphere made it one of the most intense gaming experiences I’ve ever had. This was also no doubt due to the love I already had of the films/graphic novels/books etc. If I delve back further however, memory butts up against another game: Aliens: Colonial Marines, one that was greeted on launch with a gnashing of teeth and a whipping of wagging fingers that almost mimicked the movements of the black shiny predators that the game featured. People felt that the game’s graphics compared badly to the pre-launch trailer, there were doubts about the narrative, and the game was just viewed as pretty shonky. I remember seeing one YouTuber show that you could run through one part of the game without actually needing to attack anything, even though you were clearly meant to be fighting for your life! It was with all this rattling around in my head that I decided to give the PC version of the game another go, having previously played a few hours and called bullshit on it many years ago.

Aliens: Colonial Marines Screenshot
No, he's not bursting into song.

The first few hours were again, a period in which I found myself tempted to give up. While the game has likely been patched since I last played it, the A.I is still a pain in the arse at times, and the number of times all of the attacking xenos seemed to have a hard-on only for me, ignoring my teammates, got a little annoying. I also experienced a few frustrations with the save game check-pointing, a few instances occurred where I died and had to replay 5-10 mins of the game to get back to where I had died again, one including an unskippable character dialogue exchange. I’m not sure if this is a relic of when the game was released (2013) and modern games are a little better at that kind of thing, or if it was pretty bad in comparison to other games even back then. All I know is it annoyed me more than a few times.

Aliens: Colonial Marines Screenshot
Give us a kiss beautiful!

Graphically, the game is serviceable. Dark corners and dripping vents all look suitably menacing, and the xenos rushing at you certainly tickle that “Holy shit we are fucked!” feeling. Until they get in your face and you see that the textures and animation is, once again, simply serviceable. Audio wise, things fair a little better, the screeches of the creatures and pips of your motion tracker increasing the tension and foreshadowing more confrontation in a pleasing, horror-like way.

I found the gun-play to feel a little disconnected though. The weapons feel like they have little “heft”, your gun seeming to float about easily in front of you, click to kill, click to kill, click to kill. I can’t fault the variety of weapons though, from pulse rifles and grenades to more legendary weapons like Hicks’ shotgun, the player certainly has options when it comes to death dealing. Weapons can also be improved via a ranking upgrade system, letting you add new types of sight or extra capabilities like an under-slung shotgun or grenade launcher. Ranks are in both single and multiplayer, but I didn’t try the latter as I just wasn't interested. 

Aliens: Colonial Marines Screenshot
A costly trip and looming death. I like this pic.

I came back to Aliens: Colonial Marines because I’m going through a period where I really don’t know what games I feel like playing. After finding that I didn’t enjoy replaying Alien: Isolation once I knew how it ended, I was left with a xeno-void that had me looking back at this game. It was with this in mind that I gave it another go, and I have to say that it did scratch that xenomorph itch. Whether the narrative sits well with the main story of the films and other media or not, it was enjoyable enough in a pulpy way. While the combat was lacking, it was still satisfying mowing down waves of insect-like death with shotguns and pulse rifle blasts, and the environment was truly threatening and interesting to negotiate at times.

Aliens: Colonial Marines Screenshot
A xeno queen misbehaving in a steam filled room. Sounds like a new porn category.

Looking back on Aliens: Colonial Marines, it is still sad to think how it might have been better, but viewed as a guilty pleasure when you just want to visit that hostile universe again, it does the job. It did for me at least. If you have it sitting in your game library and have only played a short distance into it, maybe think about giving it another go at some point.

Here is a link to the Wikipedia page for Aliens: Colonial Marines. At the bottom there are tens of articles referenced that go into all the hoo-ha it caused when it was released.

Aliens: Colonial Marines Images © Copyright SEGA

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Dark Film Review – Blair Witch (2016)

Dark Film Review – Blair Witch (2016)

Review Written by Casey Douglass

The original Blair Witch (The Blair Witch Project) came out in 1999, to the fanfare of, if memory serves, some people finding it so intense that they had to leave screenings. I have somehow managed to miss seeing the original film, and in the intervening years between then and 2016, found footage films have become a more common cinematic device, from the likes of V/H/S to Cloverfield. I do enjoy the format, the shaky-cam adding a more visceral feeling to the events of whichever film might be using it, even sometimes adding juice to the jumps and scares. Blair Witch (2016) however, was a big, fat, yawny experience for me.

The film follows the story of James (James Allen McCune), documentary maker Lisa (Callie Hernandez) and a couple of other friends, as they head into the woods after a video emerges online seeming to show James’ vanished sister (from the first film) Heather. They gear up with all manner of expensive looking tech, from ear cameras with GPS to a neon lit drone, in the hope of capturing some element of what is going on out there, and ultimately, for James to hopefully find Heather. They meet up with the guy who posted the triggering video and his girlfriend, who want to tag along too. Thus the scene is set.

Before I start to pound the film, the aspects that I did enjoy were the narrative and the soundtrack. The narrative, while seemingly basic, did feature enough twists and uncertainty, especially with relation to the video posting couple, that it did cause me to have to sit and be suspicious of what was really happening. This gets a big thumbs up from me.

The soundtrack was also very enjoyable, especially from a dark ambient perspective. Ominous rumbles, animal calls and creaking trees, backed up by lots of crumping heavy footsteps did a wonderful job of setting the scenes firmly in the environment. This proved a very good thing, as you will soon suffer with tree fatigue when you watch Blair Witch.

Yes, I know Blair Witch is set in the forest. I get it. If you like seeing blurry trees with pixelated artifacts rush by as someone screams and pants, you’ll bloody love Blair Witch. This is where the sound became so important: there isn’t that much to look at a lot of the time. The film seems to know this as well, using stupid people-based jump-scares for large portions of time until things begin to progress. Someone looking at a tablet in the dark, “jump-scare!” yep, someone with absolute ninja skills just made them jump by touching their shoulder. Open your tent because you hear something outside, “jump-scare!” someone jumps inside having made no sound on approaching and ignoring your fearful shouts. All I can say is that the film seemed full of ninjas who were incapable of saying “I’m coming!”, preferring to scare the shit out of their victim.

Another positive for the film though, is that I don’t feel it revealed too much of its antagonist, The Blair Witch, which is something it should be applauded for. Most of the time she is just a rumbling mass of impending doom, and when you do get to see her, it’s for the merest of glimmers.

On to the business of a rating then. I didn’t think Blair Witch 2016 was terrible, but it was far from brilliant as well. On a personal level, it didn’t scare me or make me jump once, leaving me plenty of time to ponder why someone with a fever suddenly seems to lose it, or what were they thinking they would see using a drone in a dense forest besides a tree canopy stretching as far as the eye can see?

Blair Witch is worth watching but don’t expect much. I give it 2.5/5, and really wonder how the reviewers quoted in the trailer managed to get so much fear and enjoyment from it.

Blair Witch Images © Copyright Lionsgate