Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Dark Ambient Review: MNZKRT

Dark Ambient Review: MNZKRT

Review by Casey Douglass


I like machines. I also like the sounds that they make. There is an airport a couple of miles from my house, and it’s just far enough away that the idling jet engines often seem to take on the aspect of Tibetan chanting. I quite enjoy this. When MNZKRT fell into my inbox, I had a little listen, and I was again reminded why I like industrial sounds.

MNZKRT is inspired by the harsher things in life. The album art would probably tip you off to that fact. Bleak field-recordings and mournful sounds of desolation populate its soundscapes, with mechanical and electronic whirrings and beeps ratcheting up a kind of post-apocalyptic atmosphere. The images that came to my mind when I was listening, mainly consisted of a depopulated Earth, maybe a decade after some kind of advanced robotic alien race decided to stop by and steal our water.

Some of the tracks appear to feature snatches of radio or TV voices, which only adds to this sense of things changing. Maybe there is still a resistance somewhere, maybe some lone TV station is still running against all odds. Maybe the aliens are using the signals as bait to lure foolish people from their hiding places. Sorry, I’m getting a bit carried away with all this.

The track titles of MNZKRT are enigmatic sequences of numbers, such as the opening track: 1.14 0.97 90. Another alien trap I hear you ask? Or maybe that’s just me getting carried away again. They do correlate to something, they aren’t just random. You’ll have to use your own Google-fu to find out though. While I like it when a dark ambient album’s track titles help frame your sense of what a track is about, I also equally like this style, where you go into a track with no real hint of the tone, mood or design behind it.

I think my favourite track is track four: 4.48 4.12 81. It opens with a snippet of hissing static, and turns into a slow building throbbing soundscape of crackles, scraping echoes and a strange repeating impact-like sound. This sound put me in mind of, for some reason, a digital anvil being struck by a virtual blacksmith. There is just something about the quality of the sound, the way it rings out. This track, for me, was our new alien overloads slipping us into some kind of virtual reality, to make us more manageable.

Another track I want to mention is track three: 3.51 2.81 90, as it features some lovely thunder field-recordings interplaying with undulating bass tones and some distorted radio-style voices. It’s a nice brooding track. The last track, 11.70 10.90 90 is another one that features a similar mood. The lapping of waves and the roiling high tones are met with a feeling of winged things buzzing over head. There are echoing crackles and impacts, distorted wooden notes... It felt like another desolate space, but the water and rain near the end at least hints that nature is still surviving, with or without us.

MNZKRT is a smooth dark ambient listen. The soundscapes are not rammed full of complicated sounds, and this simplicity makes it easy to really focus on the sounds that are there. If you’ve ever found the whirring of a fan lulling or the hiss of a radio relaxing, you might like the various beeps, throbs and buzzing contained on this album. You might even start to turn into the meme of the guy on the Discovery channel who thinks everything is aliens! Who knows?

The aliens, that’s who!

Visit the MNZKRT page on Bandcamp for more information.

I was given a review copy of this album.

Album Title: MNZKRT

Album Artist: MNZKRT

Released: 11 September, 2020

Friday, 11 September 2020

Dark Ambient Review: Mortal Shell Soundtrack

Dark Ambient Review: Mortal Shell Soundtrack

Review by Casey Douglass

Mortal Shell Soundtrack

Mortal Shell is a new grim fantasy RPG from Cold Symmetry that I’ve seen garner many comparisons to the Dark Souls series of games. When you have a game world that is so dark, the soundtrack is an important element in keeping the atmosphere and the dread going. As it turns out, Mortal Shell is certainly not lacking in this respect, as dark ambient artist Atrium Carceri is on hand to provide the extra dose of darkness that the game needs.

A dominant theme of the Mortal Shell Soundtrack is the use of dark choirs to build the sense of doom. While I couldn’t make out any particular words, at times the vocals seemed dirge-like and resigned, as if the choir itself is watching the character move towards their doom. The other prominent element in certain of the tracks are the various drum beats that punctuate the soundscapes. I liked these a lot as they lend a sense of forward motion to things, maybe again hinting at someone shambling towards their doom.

There are other sounds that might grab the listeners attention too of course, some of them enjoyably tricky to pin down. Fallgrim contains a bell-like resonance, but one seemingly without trace of an actual bell. The Tower includes a horse-like clip-clopping that could also be water, and Under A Broken Sun has a rattling alarm-clock beat. These are all interesting sounds, whatever they truly are, and they sit very nicely in with the drones, static and other shimmering tones that various of the tracks contain.

Sanctum is one of my favourite tracks, its wind and sighs, knocking and cries melding together in an echoing space. It also contains a kind of ghostly shimmer effect, and nicely conjured the feeling of being in some deep underground vault, but one that’s by no means safe. Another track that I really enjoyed was Ritual At The End of Time. It opens with a kind of grinding gears type feeling, with a lurching beat. It also features a kind of organ-like tone, one I described in my notes as “church organ blended with fun-house/distorted mirrors at the circus”.

The Mortal Shell Soundtrack is a fitting slice of the game’s dark world. Many of the tracks are quite brief, due to its nature as a soundtrack, but there are a few that are of a longer duration, and I found myself gravitating towards these a little more. The dark fantasy aesthetic shines through in all of them however, and as someone who has yet to play the game, I could certainly appreciate the tracks without much knowledge of the game’s story-line or lore. If you’ve already played the game, I can only imagine that you'll gain even more enjoyment from them.

Visit the Mortal Shell Soundtrack page on Bandcamp for more information. You can visit the Mortal Shell website to learn more about the game itself too. Check out Sanctum below:

I was given a review copy of this album.

Album Title: Mortal Shell Soundtrack

Album Artist: Atrium Carceri

Label: Cryo Chamber

Released: 25 August, 2020

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Syntropy States Review

Syntropy States Review

Written by Casey Douglass

Syntropy States

I’ve been doing various kinds of relaxation and mindfulness meditations for decades. My at times rampant OCD and other health issues mean that losing a bit of tension, when I can, makes all the difference between coping, or falling down the rabbit hole. As a consequence, I’m always on the lookout for new ways to relax. It was while browsing the net one day that I stumbled across Syntropy States, a collection of relaxation videos that make use of evolving geometries and soothing music to help the viewer refocus and refresh. The folks at Heartmath UK+IR kindly provided me with review access to Syntropy States, and in this post, I will describe how I got on with them.

Syntropy States consists of eight, five minute videos. Seven of these are themed around the chakra energy centres of the body, with the eighth being a heart coherence breath pacer. If you haven’t encountered them before, chakras are energy centres in certain parts of the body, and are the focus of a variety of Eastern spiritual and healing traditions. On a personal level, I neither fully believe they exist, nor disbelieve it. I do think that they are a nice concept to theme the various videos around, and they do lend themselves to focussing on a particular video with the attributes of that particular chakra in mind, such as the creativity and passion engendered in the Sacral chakra.

The heart coherence breath pacer is a tool to help you reach a ten second breath cycle, and to enter a state of coherence. Coherence is something that is core to many of the HearthMath techniques and devices. It is a state of balance that the experiencer can train themself to achieve, to use in situations where they can’t simply shut themselves away from the world, close their eyes and navel-gaze until they feel better. This state isn’t the same as relaxation, although it shares some of the same benefits. HeartMath sell a range of biofeedback devices and tools to help you monitor and reach this state. Sadly I don’t have one of these devices, so I couldn’t tell you if using Syntropy States put me into coherence. What I can describe however, are the effects that I was able to notice in a bodily, and a mental sense.

I spent around a week with the videos, beginning with the Root chakra video, which is themed around the notions of self-regulation and security. I have been suffering with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder for decades and I find myself in a particularly bad period. Bad enough that I have been cranking out Exposure and Response Prevention charts at least twice a day, trying to expose to my fears and to get my brain to come down from high alert. This is the state that I would often bring into my session with each video, a pounding heart, a racing mind and a fatigue that would have happily seen me go to bed and not wake up for weeks. I didn’t expect a five minute video to flip a switch and make me feel like a unicorn had just pooped a winning lottery ticket into my hands; I just want to paint the picture that it was quite a severe frame of mind I was experiencing. So did the videos help? I think they helped to some degree.

One small fear that I had about using the videos was that the shifting patterns and shapes would cause after-images while I focussed on them. I often suffer with very tired eyes, tired enough that reading a page of black text on a white background gifts me the lovely illusion of floating black line-shaped shadows as my eyes roam the page. The few times I’ve used other visual meditation videos, this effect occurred, and just became irritating. The Syntropy States videos do make a lot of use of white space, but I’m glad to report that the shifting geometries and colours didn’t once cause me any eye fatigue symptoms. So that was a great start. The geometric patterns and colours shift, undulate and flow, and there seems to be so much movement at times that it’s nice to realise that you can’t really keep track of it all, nor do you need to. I think that this is partly what helped me to get out of the hyper-vigilant, controlling frame of mind my anxiety often puts me in. The ambient chill-out soundtrack also helped, even though my mind tends much more towards a love of dark ambient, when I get the choice.

As far as their effect on my stress level, I found that about half way through each video (around the two and a half minute mark) a state of clarity or mental calm did seem to emerge in my mind. It was subtle, but it was there, a bit like the moment you realise that you are holding your breath and you didn’t even realise it. This state stayed with me until the video ended and for some time beyond. Hand in hand with this, I did notice a slight calming of the sensation of my heartbeat. Nothing major, but enough to notice that I felt slightly less “pulsey”. This seemed to be my general verdict on each video, that it did have a modest positive effect on me. Naturally, there were some that appealed to me more than others, with a favourite being the swirly patterns of the Third Eye video (the still at the top of this post is from that video). I also came to realise that I’d also have been perfectly happy to watch a video that was far longer than five minutes.

I enjoyed the time that I spent with the Syntropy States videos. Before I tried them, I was much more of an “eyes shut” kind of meditator, because I like to rest my eyes and focus in the darkness. Having spent time watching pleasing geometries flow and expand in these videos, backed by chill music, I can certainly see the benefits that open-eyed focus can bring. If you think Syntropy States might be something you’d be interested in, head over to the HeartMath UK+IR website for more information.

HeartMath UK+IRL commissioned Syntropy States from The Syntropy Partnership. It features the geometries of artist Allie Joy and soundtracks from Serenity States.

Thank you to HeartMath UK+IR for giving me review access.

Product Name: Syntropy States

Available From: HeartMath UK+IR

Price: £19

Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Dark Ambient Review: Scenes From The Sublime

Dark Ambient Review: Scenes From The Sublime

Review by Casey Douglass

Scenes From The Sublime

Paintings of strange landscapes and dark deeds often have the ability to unnerve the viewer. Sometimes the artist just nails that feeling of otherness, and it makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. Dark ambient music can achieve this affect too, it’s why I listen to it. NERATERRÆ’s Scenes From The Sublime is an album that takes as its inspiration, the artwork of Beksinski, Fussli, Dali and others, and weaves dark soundscapes around the themes of the paintings. It’s certainly a compelling idea.

A number of other dark ambient artists join NERATERRÆ for some of the tracks, giving a varied and multi-perspective treatment to the sound of the album. While each of the tracks has its own inspiration and aesthetic, they’re all united in their dark tone. Even the soundscapes that might be viewed as having “lighter” elements still contain a brooding melancholy or a “calm before the storm” variety of tension. I will add that I also purposefully didn’t look at the artwork that each track was inspired by until I’d listened to the album. I wanted to let my own impressions emerge without preconceptions. When I compared my notes with the artworks involved, I was happy to see that many of the things I wrote were a great fit for the paintings.

As an example, The Last Abjurer (feat. Phelios), opens the album with a lovely ominous droning, drumbeat-punctuated soundscape. It’s based on Beksinski’s AA72, a murky brown painting where a lone torch-bearing figure walks along a path lined with behemoth-sized death-statues. My paragraph of notes included such gems as “Sensation of colossal being breathing” and “Rock/fire/gates of hell aesthetic”. I think it’s safe to say that the inspiration from the artwork comes through loud and clear. Another strong example is the Dali inspired, ticking-clock-based track The Collapse of Matter and Time. The muffled voices and clattering wind of this track led me to write “Temporal maelstrom?” in my notes, which I take to be another good sign.

One of the “lighter” tracks is Passion Domain (feat. Mount Shrine), a track inspired by Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. This is a painting in which a cane-bearing Victorian-type gentleman stands alone upon a rock, looking down across a misty valley. This track includes muffled thunder, cosy fabric-like friction and a crackling hum. Lighter tones hang in the air as the track progresses, and the general feeling for me was like a sensation of respite or escape, but also the end of the road.

The Unfathomable Lives Again (feat. XerxesTheDark) is another track that I wanted to mention. It is based on Fussli’s The Nightmare, a dark and murky painting that depicts a demon sitting on the chest of an unconscious woman. This track is all throbbing threat and unnerving darkness. Whining tones that could be cries, chimes and distorted bells and whispers. The kind of track that would be best listened to in the early morning hours on a sweltering summer night, when the air is heavy and sleep is a long time coming.

The final track that I want to mention specifically is Doorway to the I (feat. Alphaxone). It was inspired by Beksinski’s AE78, a painting that features a strange blue portal at the top of a murky brown stairway. The deep bass, and the rising and falling of the shimmering tones creates an air of threat and of forces unseen. Later, the track changes in mood, as if the viewer has walked through the opening and found themselves in a totally different world. A long, humming tone is the sole sound for awhile, and then, it’s as if this new world becomes aware of the intruder.

Scenes From The Sublime is 10 tracks, sixty two minutes in length, and contains a darkness so thick that you’d need to chew it if you ever needed to walk through it. The artwork that inspires each track comes through very nicely and it is a pleasure to see, and to listen to, the product of two different media interplaying with each other in such a visceral way.

Visit the Scenes From The Sublime page on Bandcamp for more information.

I was given a review copy of this album.

Album Title: Scenes From The Sublime

Album Artist: NERATERRÆ

Label: Cyclic Law

Released: 20 March, 2020

Thursday, 9 July 2020

Dark Ambient Review: Graveyard Orbit

Dark Ambient Review: Graveyard Orbit

Review by Casey Douglass

Graveyard Orbit

I’ve been in a very sci-fi mood lately, so when a dark ambient album designed to evoke images of obsolete or damaged spacecraft slowly disintegrating in orbit, fell into my inbox, my interest was easily piqued. In Afnimaran’s Graveyard Orbit, each track is named after a starship or space-station, which I think is a great way to frame the music that each contains. As far as the tracks themselves, they feed the listener suitably sci-fi sounding beeps and radio-frequency fluctuations, but among the other tones and notes, are also ritual elements. When you hear an eerie chant break out in a remote soundscape, it certainly boosts the feelings of desolation and despair.

One of the tracks that I really enjoyed was Nostromo. It’s a dark and brooding track, but with a howling, trilling effect that comes and goes. There are also instances of echoing, plucked guitar notes, which boost the feelings of threat and remoteness nicely. For me, it was basically the dark ambient equivalent of what planet LV-426 sounds like in Alien. The track conjures up the murk, the wind and the threat until you can almost feel the seeping cold and sand-blasting fury of the planet. The second half of the track is more discordant, with a distorted, alarm-like blaring and some of that ritual chant that nearly always seems to carry some kind of impending doom.

Another track that I particularly enjoyed was BC-304. The main reason for this was that it carried the feel of an abandoned spaceship that might be slowly slipping into a black-hole. There is a sound that could well be the tones of the creaking superstructure of the ship, slowly being teased and pulled apart. There is also a whining, with whispers, chant and juddery strings that all create a lovely feeling of inevitability and resignation. I may be a freak, but the thought of being on an abandoned spaceship that is only hours away from destruction, with nothing to do or to be done... I find that a profoundly relaxing space to be in.

All of the tracks have their own flavour, from the more prominent chant elements in the latter ones, such as Solaris Station, to the ‘whistle-like’ tones in Enterprise-D. What unites them all is the feeling of isolation, obsolescence and looming destruction. Some of the soundscapes are relatively smooth, others become discordant or more jarring, which is also a nice touch. Spaceships, as people, all meet their end in their own special way. Where one might gently break apart, another might scream and strain until the very end. As you can tell, I enjoyed the concept of Graveyard Orbit, and it’s a concept that the album fulfills tremendously.

Visit Graveyard Orbit page on Bandcamp for more information.

I was given a review copy of this album.

Album Title: Graveyard Orbit
Album Artist: Afnimaran
Label: Kalpamantra
Released: 20 June, 2020

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Book Review: Travels with Epicurus

Book Review: Travels with Epicurus

Review by Casey Douglass

Travels with Epicurus

The dentist isn’t usually the place for moments of existential clarity. Sure, it might be the altar on which you confess your chocolate loving, sugar-drink binging tendencies, but usually, you are wholly focussed on the pain, or the prospect of it. For Daniel Klein however, a trip to the dentist set his mind turning, and led to the writing of his book: Travels with Epicurus.

The dentist’s verdict was that he’d need some lower teeth removed, and that he could either opt for dentures, or a year of painful procedures to provide him with implants. His dental problems were related to the normal course of ageing, but the two paths he could go down proved revealing about his feelings towards ageing. Did he want an “old man’s smile” or some implants that would allow him to feel more youthful? He was in his early 70s at this point. He realised that he had been caught up in the current trend of “trying to extend the prime of life well into the years that used to be called old age.” Daniel ponders that he is not entirely sure what authentic old age is, or how it might best be lived. He travels to the Greek island of Hydra with a suitcase full of his philosophy books, looking for the answers, from without and within.

The only Hydra I’d ever heard of before reading this book was the mythical creature, or maybe the shadowy crime organisation in a spy novel. Daniel describes the charms of the Greek island and it seems like a great place to contemplate your navel. There are elderly residents that Daniel can appreciate and befriend, and also a different way of life to the hubbub of more metropolitan areas. Time it seems, is perceived differently there, highlighted later in the book in a revealing conversation Daniel has about kombolói, the “worry bead” kind of thing that Greeks use to space out time.

Daniel begins the book proper with an introduction to Epicurus and his philosophy of fulfilment. It doesn't take long for him to dispel the false impression that many people have of Epicurus, which is one of seeking extreme sensual pleasures. Yes, Epicurus counselled people that to have a happy life, they should fill it with pleasure, but there is more nuance to it than that. Not all pleasures are created equal. Some are genuine pleasures, others lead to more pain and suffering. This is highlighted by the way that Epicurus preferred a bowl of plain boiled lentils to a plate of roasted pheasant. Hardly the actions of the sensation chaser he is often portrayed as. When it comes to ageing, Epicurus thought that old age was the pinnacle of life, that the “old man has docked in the harbour, having safeguarded his true happiness”. As you might expect from the title, Epicurus plays a central role in Daniel’s book.

Daniel applies various philosophies (Epicurus and others) to a variety of topics linked with ageing, from the pleasure of companionship in old age to the issues of boredom, play, and the fear of death. Daniel always does a good job of illustrating his point with an event from his past or a description of something on the island. His dog Snookers also makes an appearance, which is something I enjoyed in another of his books: Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It. This isn’t a dry philosophy book, it’s one in which real-life experience is used to illustrate the wisdom of adopting a particular way of looking at life.

When I purchased Travels with Epicurus, I somehow missed the part that described it as being about old age. While Daniel compares old age to old old age (that period in which you aren’t just old, but in which your body and mind are shutting down), I have a feeling, for various reasons, that I'll not even see these periods of my life. With that in mind, I probably wouldn’t have bought this book had I realised its focus. That being said, it was still very pleasant to read about Daniel’s experiences on Hydra, and how these helped further illustrate the philosophies Daniel was mulling over. There is also wisdom to be gleaned from the topic of how we can live best in the later stages of life, that we can apply to our life, no matter which stage we are in. I also realised that I’d probably like anything philosophical that Daniel Klein writes. If he ever brings out a book called “The Philosophy of the Sewer: Tunnels, Faeces and Rats” I’m sure he’d write it in such a way that it would be interesting.

Book Title: Travels with Epicurus
Book Author: Daniel Klein
Publisher: One World Publications
Released: 1 May 2014
RRP: £7.99
ISBN: 9781780744124

Sunday, 28 June 2020

Dark Ambient Review: Final Crisis

Dark Ambient Review: Final Crisis

Review by Casey Douglass

Final Crisis

There’s something about the heavy, oppressive summer weather that has me yearning for darkness. There’s also something about humanity, that right now, has me yearning for annihilation. Xerxes The Dark’s dark ambient album Final Crisis seems to have come at just the right time for me, as it provides both darkness and annihilation, and also happens to wrap them up in the tasty candy shell of a “science going too far” world-ending event.

The concept/story of Final Crisis revolves around scientists accidentally breaching the membrane between our own world and a parallel one. The fields and particles that can now cross between the two worlds are a threat to the very existence of both. This comes about by way of the mutations that they can bring, but also in the emergence of micro black holes and vacuum bubbles. The track titles of Final Crisis reflect these elements of the tale. On the one hand, the world being ruined by scientific accident is horrendous, but on another level, bring it on! Which would you rather, die of a heart-attack when you are 60 or be imploded by a micro black hole? I think I’d choose the latter.

So... what is the sound of two parallel worlds destroying each other? It’s quite “sci-fi” and also quite horrific. In Final Crisis, you’ll hear a variety of drones, static, and metallic clanking. You will also hear strange pops, crackles and electronic tones. On the human level, things range from fervent whispers and garbled radio-transmissions, all the way up to what sounds like the hellish screams of the masses. That’s not to say the soundscapes are all chaotic and intense, a good number feature sections of quiet menace, where you can almost hear the individual atoms of a black hole fizzing into existence.

The first track: The Hiding, gives a great taste of what’s to come. It begins with static and the rumble and clanking of machinery. The other sounds around these give a hint at the discovery of antimatter, the tones feel “plinky”, a little like elemental popcorn popping in some strange (and dangerous) microwave oven. There are crumpling, crackling sounds, and harsh whispers. After the midpoint of the track, a rending, “jackhammer-like” sound begins, sharing elements with how an alarm might shrill. There is more whispering, and the sound of machines with a “rattle-snake” stutter. Certainly one heck of an opening track.

A number of the tracks feature sounds that made me think of very mundane situations, but unknown to the people involved, things are going horribly wrong in the dark corners that they cannot see. I really relished this aspect of Final Crisis. The track Crisis Part 1 (Microscopic Black Holes) is a great example of this. It begins with a distorted fizzing tone, with voices warping and bending around it, shimmering and twisted. The elements of this track gave me the mental impression of someone’s cellar. Life is going on in the daylight of the house above, but down amongst the boxes and cobwebs, a micro black hole starts to suck ever so gently on the dust motes around it. The track vibrates and grows, and at one point there is the sound of movement, as if someone has come down to retrieve something from the cellar. I got the impression that they went back upstairs, oblivious to the growing danger beneath them. I found this quite delicious.

The most mellow track is probably the final one: Theory of Nothing. Understandably, given as it suggests things haven’t gone well for our world. Its simple melody and drone put me in mind of the scenes at the end of any good disaster movie. It’s the grey fog that hides the true horror, but also the sadness that’s left to seep into the crumbling mortar. There are other sounds, the stab of reverberating static and a deep chant-like sound. Whatever happened in the story, this track is a haunting end to a dark ambient album that takes the listener on a journey of discovery and destruction.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Final Crisis. If you are of a dark frame of mind, are partial to a little sci-fi reality dabbling, and you sometimes just wish that everything would go the fuck away, Final Crisis might be the album for you.

Visit Final Crisis on Bandcamp for more information. You can also check out the 25 minute album preview below:

I was given a review copy of this album.

On the Bandcamp page, you will also see that I edited the album description of Final Crisis. I really liked Morgoe’s story/concept for the album so I sent him a little edit of his story, keeping his words but also attempting to smooth out a few rough edges. He kindly decided to use it. This didn’t influence my review.

Album Title: Final Crisis
Album Artist: Xerxes The Dark
Label: Zāl Records
Released: 3 July, 2020

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Dark Ambient Review: Metta

Dark Ambient Review: Metta

Review by Casey Douglass


I first came across the word “Metta” through Buddhist loving-kindness meditation. Reading Metta was the title of Dronny Darko and ProtoU’s latest dark ambient release, alongside its Buddha statue in the mist album art... I thought I had a hint as to how this album would sound. I was kind of right, but also pleasantly wrong.

Metta makes fantastic use of field-recordings, particularly wind, water, thunder and rain. There are also many instances of bird song and insect calls. For me, these sounds painted a picture of a wet and humid tropical jungle, with misty valleys and fast flowing rivers racing past leafy temples and precarious rope bridges. I just got a mental image of Indiana Jones in the bridge fight near the end of the Temple of Doom. I don’t mean that kind of experience, but I hope you understand what I’m getting at.

Something I noticed that I also rather enjoyed was the way that certain of the field-recordings ebbed and flowed as various tracks progress. From the very first track: Energy Forms, and throughout various others, you might be listening to rushing water, it will fall away and then come back a short time later. Or you might be listening to rainfall during Secret Skin and notice that it has gone, only for it to come back anew. I felt this “long duration pulsing” of the large field-recorded elements really helped draw the attention and helped to keep things fresh. It also lent a nice rhythm to things.

Speaking of rhythm, there are a number of occurrences of drumbeats in Metta, strongly bringing to mind the kind of drums that you might hear being played in a ritual setting. An element I particularly enjoyed was the way that the beats often had an echoey quality to them, as if being played in a cave. There are also instances of chant-like vocals, shouts, or simply distant voices. I did half wonder if there would be more chanting, based on the album title and artwork, and there were less than I might have thought. It doesn’t matter one bit to me, the field-recordings and other elements are strong enough to create some lovely soundscapes.

If I had to choose a favourite track, I think it would be Astral Winds. It opens with the rustling sound of wind, and it gave me a strong mental impression of a crinkly brown leaf slowly being blown across a stone floor. Maybe a temple courtyard that hasn’t been swept for some time? The mixture of the drone that arises and other sounds, turned the soundscape quite dark for me. I had the impression of shuffling shadows, heard an electronic “spinning up” kind of sound, and also a possible hint of distant voices and sigh-like vocals.

Metta is described as a “spiritual successor” to Dronny Darko and ProtoU’s previous collaboration: Earth Songs, which happens to be one of my most played albums in recent years. Whereas Earth Songs tracks, for the most part, vary more in feeling and tone, I think the tracks on Metta are more tightly linked by their field-recordings. This doesn’t mean anything good or bad, it's just a highlighting of the differences. If someone forced me to choose between the two, I still currently favour Earth Songs but it’s incredibly early days in my getting acquainted with Metta.

Metta is a smooth trip into a wet, contemplative tropical space, where bird calls and drums mingle with elemental forces and human existence. The soundscapes are full of movement and life, and the feeling, for me, was one of taking a step back, taking a breath, and gaining a more holistic view of reality.

Visit Metta on Bandcamp for more information. You can also check out Astral Winds below:

I was given a review copy of this album.

Album Title: Metta
Album Artist: Dronny Darko & ProtoU
Label: Cryo Chamber
Released: 23 June, 2020

Monday, 22 June 2020

Dark Fiction: The Best Things in Life are Assigned

Dark Fiction: The Best Things in Life are Assigned

By Casey Douglass

The Best Things in Life are Assigned

The apartment door slid shut with a grinding at the end of the motion. Maz always thought that reality should live up to the old science fiction shows, especially those doors that hissed closed. Her door grated, much like her life. She smiled. It wasn’t her door any more. She swiped her wrist implant across the sensor and heard the bolts slide into place. They made a grinding noise. She rolled her eyes.

‘You’re going through with it then Maz?’

Maz turned and smiled at the bald-headed white-whiskered man. ‘Yeah. Nothing for me here Juo.’

Juo rubbed his stubble as he let his gaze slide to the floor.

She felt like an ass. He was the closest she’d come to having a friend in this dump and she couldn’t even say goodbye without ruining things. She moved forward and gave him the briefest of hugs. When she backed away she laughed at his expression. She doubted it would have looked much different if someone had pulled a gun on him.

‘You hugged someone!’he gasped.

‘I wanted you to know I appreciate you.’

‘And now you’re going to disappear...’

‘My timing was always shitty!’

‘Always! But I appreciate you too! I especially appreciate you breaking the habit of a life time and actually showing some physical affection. That must’ve been hard!’

‘Oh it was! I’m sure I felt part of me die!’

Juo snorted as he chuckled. ‘If by any chance you still remember me after, feel free to visit.’

‘I will, but I don’t think it’s possible that I'll remember.’

‘I don’t either.’

They looked at each other, Juo with a quivering fuzzy lip, Maz with a mouth so tightly closed that it looked like one thin line of magenta lipstick. ‘Bye Juo.’

‘Bye Maz.’

She knew he watched her as she left. Even once she’d hit the hubbub of the street, she could feel his eyes on her back, no doubt standing at his dirty window, his breath steaming the cold glass. She felt a tingling slide from her heart and down into her stomach. She supposed it was sadness but it always felt like she experienced her emotions second-hand, once someone else had already put some mileage on them. She merged into the throng of people.

An elbow dug into her ribs, complimented by a hand that brushed past her backside. Her hand flew to her pocket to check that everything was still locked up tight. She relaxed a little on fingering the membrane. It was intact. The membrane sucked at her finger, pinging her implant to see if she wanted it to open. She almost turned to see who had tried their luck but she stopped herself. There was no point, not in this crowd. She remembered the day she’d bought this jacket, a nice brown leather number with built in anti-theft technology. She moved her hand away and clenched her fist, ready for the next arsehole who wanted to try it.

God she hated these fucking people! It was bad enough that they were stuck in such a shit hole, but fucking each other over just made everything seem even more miserable. She waded through the bodies like she was pushing through meat in a slaughterhouse, wary of coming into contact with something that would stain her soul. The stink was about the same too.

Within a block, the feel of the neighbourhood changed. Her old apartment was in the liminal zone between the slums and the area where people could afford to eat, even if only the reconstituted protein that passed for haute cuisine there. Street vendors cluttered the side walk with their little metal carts, shimmering holograms fighting for her attention. One offered implant unlocks, another the latest in cosmetic sex splicing. Some were a little more obscure. She passed one that threw up a cryptic sigil that only those in the know would be able to decipher. 

Maz didn’t look too closely, as some of the holograms could hijack implants. She’d found that out to her cost a year ago when she’d been taking photos of a new breed of advertising holo. By the time she’d returned home, her accounts had been emptied and she was locked out. It’d taken months to get it all sorted out and even then, she never saw the money again. A cobra hologram hissed as she swerved too close to an alleyway. A gang was probably doing a shady tech deal in the shadows. She pulled up her collar and quickened her pace. She didn’t need to think about that kind of thing, not today.

A few more blocks passed and the street detritus lessened. Walkways were wide and clear, the shops looked more respectable, and the glaring colours of poverty gave way to the pastel colours of wealth. Maz had deliberately dressed down with this in mind, but she felt the magenta lipstick scream on her face. Otherwise, her style was kind of half and half. Her anti-theft jacket blended into russet jeans and sky blue ProX-Social boots. Her brown hair sat lacklustre on the top of her head, her freshly flattened mohawk doing a passable job of looking like a secretarial bun. She half wondered if people might think a rich banker had ordered a strippergram from the slums when they caught sight of her. It was the best outfit she could manage.

Maz avoided looking at the shops and buildings. Whereas before, it was for safety, now it was to avoid envy and bitterness. There had been talk of some kind of footpath toll in this area. It had never materialized but estimated charges gave the impression that ninety percent of the city wouldn’t be able to afford to walk here. She was sure it would be voted in at some point. That kind of thing always happened eventually.

She entered an inner-park space, tall trees and lush green grass jarring after the urban build-up from poverty to privilege. The fuzz of sound dampeners could just be heard in the now peaceful environment, the sounds of the city scrubbed almost to zero by an algorithm that she’d helped to develop. She realized they weren't adjusting for the particulate threshold, that’s why the slight buzz was there. Maybe if they’d paid her properly and not fired her once it was semi-stable, it would be a better product. She felt the bitterness rising. It always made her heart race before it gave way to that second-hand sadness feeling. It didn’t matter. Not really. She’d only fallen into that job and it was far more dull than she’d ever imagined a job could be.

She moved to a bench and let herself fall onto it. The wooden intelli-struts rippled and flexed, absorbing the impact and cradling her body. The few other people around her faded into ghostly silhouettes, the bench tech syncing with her implants to give the illusion of peace and quiet. She blew out a heavy breath of air in a sigh. This might be the last time she ever walked this route. Hell, this would be the last time she’d even be the same person, if what she’d read about Assignment was true.

A blue-tit landed on a fountain across the way, its chirps and bobbing motions drawing her eye. It could be a real one. It could be a simulation. The water rippled as it grabbed a beak full. Still not conclusive. She realized her mind was doing that distraction thing. Assignment. That’s what she had been thinking about. How it changed you. How it injected your life with purpose when nothing else seemed to work.

She watched the bird, both caring if it was real but also angry at herself that she also didn't give a shit. Was this second-hand anger? It felt distant, but also hers. God she hated feeling so fucked up. Would Assignment really change that?

Neurobiology and technology had advanced more than even the most optimistic researcher could have predicted. Sure, there were some parts of the brain that were still a hot mess of mystery, but others were mapped, analysed and optimised long before most people alive today had even been born. One grand discovery had been the location of the part of the brain that dealt with the meaning of life, or at the least, its purpose. This had led to various procedures that could “insert” a new meaning into the brain, and have the brain accept it. 

The government had been quick to latch on to this advance, offering a free treatment to people swamped by purposelessness. They were pretty much saying: “If you don’t know what to do with your life, let us help you. It’s the patriotic thing to do!” The catch was that you had to accept the purpose that they assigned you. The enticement was that they would give you a helping hand settling into your new life, whether a new apartment, financial aid, or even being able to step straight into a new job. The downside was the domino effect that changed who you were as a person.

Early trials had left subjects struggling with their new identity while they still lived their old life. The disconnect was fatal more than half of the time. Now, anyone wanting the procedure had to walk away from everything and everyone that they had known, with some memory modification sealing the deal.

The blue-tit glitched and faded out of existence. Maz chuckled at the timing. She felt like it was an apt image for where she might end up. The bird hadn’t chosen to glitch and disappear. Maz wouldn't be able to choose her new purpose. That was the preserve of the rich, paying customers. People who didn't sit in parks trying to stretch out time, between the now-now and the now-then.

She sighed as she stood and walked on, the dusk beginning to fall, her new life quietly calling.

The Assignment building was both nondescript and intimidating at the same time. The front was all glass, but the kind of holo-fed privacy glass that showed a fake interior filtered through the surface. It was currently set to a retro office display, women with bee-hive hair cuts walking past type-writers and other archaic devices. Maz sniggered. Maybe the government would actually improve efficiency if they really did go back to the old ways. They couldn't be any more incompetent, and they may even achieve the illusion of caring about people!

The revolving door ushered her into a warm, fresh space, the orange and yellow of the 1960s giving way to sterile metal and bicubic glass décor. A woman at a small podium greeted her, asking her the reason for her visit.


‘Paid or Complimentary?’


‘Take the elevator on the right and head up to floor seven. You’ll be booked in and assessed up there.’

‘Thank you.’

‘You’re welcome.’

The hologram faded out.

‘Shit! I genuinely didn’t suspect that one!’ Maz muttered.

The ride up in the elevator was over before it felt like it had even begun. The waiting area outside was deserted. A woman beckoned her over to sit at the desk before her.

‘Are you another holo?’

The woman reached out and shook Maz’s hand. ‘What do you think?’ she smiled.

‘Even that’s not hard to fake!’

‘I know! Have you seen the new quantum-fold holograms? They give me the creeps!’

Maz laughed. This woman was alright.

‘I’m Miss Krey, and you must be erm, Maz Stendle?’


‘Please sit down Maz. We have just a few more bits of information to enter into the system, mainly your consent for the procedure and that you understand what the pros and cons are.’

Maz sat. ‘I already know all about it. I know it won’t be me that walks out of here afterwards, and that I can’t choose which purpose I’m assigned.’

‘That’s right. Your records show that you were assessed as capable of making this decision yourself and that you are aware of all the issues. That’s great! The final questions I need to ask are if you still feel happy to proceed and why you feel the need to have this procedure?’

Maz blinked. ‘I’m still happy to proceed. Why do you need to know why though?’

Miss Krey leaned forward and lowered her voice. ‘I’m sorry, it was my own curiosity. Your records show you to be quite exceptional in a number of metrics, I’m a little flabbergasted that someone like you would roll the dice and risk ending up as some kind of menial work wage slave, wading through excrement in the sewer or something.’

Maz nodded and looked down at her hands in her lap. She took a deep breath and released it slowly. ‘I just don’t feel my life is worth living. I have almost zero money, no real friends and no prospect of improving things. I lost the best job I had when they had no further use for me and I can’t even break into many industries because of the flood of A.I workers. I’ve lost the will to fight for myself. I find myself looking at things and wondering why it’s worth the effort to carry on. Then I see people who’ve been Assigned, doing the shittiest jobs around, but smiling as they do them! I figured that if I can’t find my own purpose or meaning, why not be assigned one that my mind will accept and that will see me set on a happier path. If that makes sense.’

‘It does. It makes me sad to hear you say it but I can understand. Better to try this than end up a suicide or a junky I guess.’

‘I just want to find a purpose, something to get me through the day. I don’t care if that happiness comes from ignorance.’

Miss Krey nodded. ‘Look, I’m not supposed to, but I'll make sure you get a bigger head-start after the procedure. We have a few redundancies in the system that often get lost in the database. I can’t tell you which purpose you will be assigned, but I can bump you from a grade one to a grade two support package. It could be the difference between a food subsidy and a new place to live.’

Maz’s mouth fell open. ‘Why would you do that for me? That’s so kind!’

‘My purpose is to help people. I feel that it would help you, so I’m going to do it.’

‘You were Assigned?’

‘No. I found my purpose the old fashioned way.’

‘How? What’s it like? Are you happy?’

‘It’s good, most of the time. And yes, I am happy, again, most of the time. Everything has its ups and downs. As to how, I guess I would say that I struggled for the longest time too, trying to figure out what I wanted. I tried following my passion, which is such a hackneyed phrase. That didn’t work, so I followed my disgust and then made a U-turn.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘I guess I mean I didn’t make much progress in chasing the stuff I was already drawn to, so I looked at what disgusted me and which actions I could take to counteract the thing that was so disgusting. In my case, that was poverty and inequality, which in a winding manner leads to me sitting here with you this evening.’

‘You agree with the government using people in this way?’

‘Not fully no, which is why I do what I can to give people a small boost in prospects when the opportunity arises. I’ve seen Assigned people make fantastic things of their lives though, and they do seem to be generally happier. I don’t know. I just have misgivings. I’d guess you do too.’

‘Yeah, but I also feel it’s my only hope right now.’

‘I can understand that.’

Maz nodded, finding her mind empty of anything more to say. She felt a rising sensation in her chest; she didn’t know if it was an emotion or indigestion. She sniffed. ‘I don’t really have much else to say.’

‘It’s okay. It seems that we have reached the crucial moment. Are you ready to go through to the operating pod?’


Miss Krey smiled and took her hand across the desk. ‘Let’s get you into your new life Maz.’


Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Book Review: Ghost Stories for Starless Nights

Book Review: Ghost Stories for Starless Nights

Review by Casey Douglass

Ghost Stories for Starless Nights

Ghost Stories for Starless Nights is a new horror anthology from DBND Publishing. It features 22 ghostly tales and, upon reaching the final page, you realise how varied and inventive this collection of stories really is. Some are more gory than others, others are simply strange, yet others are humorous and a bit whimsical. You are unlikely to get tired of the ghostly theme either, as the interesting twists adopted by each author always seem to refresh your literary palate ahead of the next tale.

The book begins with a mood-setting poem by Baylee Friday, one that opens the reader up to the idea that hauntings can arise in more than one form. After this tasty appetiser, the stories begin, each throwing up something different to the previous one. There is a haunted mirror, a death-race for bikers, a time and geography-looping brush with a demon, a possessed writer, even some strange cursed windows. I find myself wanting to talk about so many of the stories, but I'll limit myself to the three or four that really stood out for me.

After Life by Clark Boyd is a tale about a rich and spoiled man who finds himself unexpectedly struggling in the after life. The tale has a Beetlejuice-esque feel to things, especially in the way that newly dead people are assigned places to haunt by a kind of afterlife job centre. The humour made me chuckle too. There is a certain exchange between the dead man and his undead job advisor, which sees him consigned to haunting a stall in a mens toilet, giving rise to the line: “It’s kind of hard to scare the shit out of someone when they’re already shitting!”

The Inheritance by Marc Joan follows a guy who has to clear out his departed, reclusive uncle’s old rural cottage. Reading this story actually made me feel a little cold and miserable, as the bleakness of the scenery and the chill of the old cottage is wonderfully described. It also likely helps that it’s based in Norfolk and The Fens, which was a pleasant surprise as it’s rare to come across a story set in a landscape that isn’t too far from me. The uncle’s cottage contains very little, except bizarrely, a digital photo frame that only contains one picture. Spoiler alert: It’s not porn. There is also a creepy scarecrow in the field behind the cottage. Strangeness then transpires...

One of the strangest tales for me was Brown Cat Blues by Vaughan Stanger. It’s a story about someone going away for a long trip and worrying about how their neighbour’s cat very possibly could’ve sneaked inside their home before they closed the door, as is its habit. This creates a ghost-projection of cat anxiety, and it makes this tale feel a little like Casper the Friendly Ghost meets Schrödinger's cat. It’s very well written, and it stands out to me as one of the more curious tales in the book.

I mentioned cursed windows in my summary above so I’d better mention the tale they originate from: Beyond the Glass by Phil Stressman. A couple are in the process of building their new house. One night, the husband arrives home with some strange windows that he found near an abandoned property in the area. The glass is odd, distorted, but they take a liking to the windows and use them as their own. It isn’t until the neighbours find out where the windows came from, and more importantly, the wife realises that the view through them isn’t quite as it should be, that she begins to fear that the windows are cursed.

The final story I want to mention is Dominic by Sam Hicks. It’s set in a student house in London. One day, a strange pinkish plate is discovered, one that keeps being set at an extra place at the table. The women living there joke about it, they start to say that it’s for “Dominic”, and begin coming up with light-hearted conversations about him. Things take a strange turn when these exchanges start to bring up jealousy and rivalry, and events in the house go downhill from there. I really enjoyed the inventiveness of this story, the way a joke evolved into something quite horrible. It was a very satisfying tale.

Ghost Stories for Starless Nights is an easy anthology to read. While some stories are longer than others, it didn’t feel like any of them outstayed their welcome. The change in setting and tone of each story makes it a great book to dip into as well, reading a few tales in a sitting rather than reading it from cover to cover in one or two sessions. There will be stories you like better than others, but for me, there were no bad stories, just ones that I found less interesting than others. I could have written about another four or five stories above, which means at least half the book spoke to me, which is revealing in and of itself. If you fancy reading some inventive, bleak, strange and funny ghost stories, you’d do well to check out Ghost Stories for Starless Nights.

I was given a review copy of this book. Thanks to Promote Horror for arranging it.

Book Title: Ghost Stories for Starless Nights
Book Author: Anthology
Publisher: DBND Publishing
Released: May 2020
ISBN: 979-8636973249
Current Price: $6.13 (Kindle) / $14.99 (Paperback)

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

Dark Ambient Review: Shortwave Ruins

Dark Ambient Review: Shortwave Ruins

Review by Casey Douglass

Shortwave Ruins

On first thought, the squelch and crackle of radio communication might not suggest itself as a candidate for a chilled, relaxing listening experience. When it’s married to hypnotic rainfall and gentle drones, by someone who knows what they are doing, you’d best bash that “first thought” over the head and bury it where you hide your other hasty ponderings. Shortwave Ruins is Mount Shrine’s latest Cryo Chamber release:
Album Description: Mount Shrine presents us an album filled with radio chatter and warm drones layered on cold textures. Your shortwave radio crackles with life as it rests on your heavy backpack. It follows your every step across the rough terrain as you narrow your search for the abandoned station. It is up here, far from civilization that the answers linger, lost for years as the stations self sustainability has kept it alive. Recommended for fans of sedative ambient and for drifting into a place of comfort.

The radio chatter is a common theme that links the tracks together. It varies in prominence from track to track. Opening track: Reach None, features it very strongly at first, the repetitive nature lulling the listener into a state in which it kind of feels monotonous, but also kind of nice. It is absorbed by the other sounds as the track continues, and then you find that you might even miss it. Other tracks might contain two people chatting back and forth in a muted, distant way; accompanied by the squeal and hum of radio frequencies trickling through the electronics. It all felt quite cosy and warm to me, like how hearing the rumble of a distant crowd can be lulling to the mind.

Another element that makes Shortwave Ruins relaxing, as a whole, is the rain. If you are at all familiar with Mount Shrine, you’ll know what Cesar can do with rain, the way he somehow makes it even more relaxing. There are moments in Shortwave Ruins where it sounds like rain falling on tent or hood fabric, which is relaxing enough, but when you add in the way that Cesar tinkers with the sound, making it softer, distorted, or more muted, it’s like the best kind of lullaby. That being said, he can also do the opposite. On some of the tracks, such as Earthbridge, the rain almost takes on the mantle of logs crackling in a fire.

When you merge the aforementioned rain and radio with the drones and other tones on the album, you get something that is supremely relaxing. Each track also gives the listener different feelings about what kind of mental space they are in. The first track, with its prominent chatter, made me feel like I was high up looking down on a grey, mist-filled landscape. Later tracks hinted at being in a tent, or even hearing raindrops splashing onto trees or rocks. I didn’t really get a sense of a narrative, beyond maybe flying, landing and journeying on foot, but I didn’t need it. It could have been a lonely experience though, if not for the voices on the radio.

Shortwave Ruins is a safe way to feel alone, yet not feel too far from others. People who live alone often like to have a TV or radio on for company. During this Corona Virus pandemic and lock-down, these devices often just fill the four walls with useless conjecture and speculation, and maybe, if you are really lucky, some actual information. If you want to get a million miles away from it all but don’t want to feel the pang of actual isolation, drop into the misty, rain-covered world of Shortwave Ruins and listen to the voices on the radio. The people hinted at in the album description might be ghosts now, but even ghosts can provide comfort.

Visit Shortwave Ruins on Bandcamp for more information and check out “Earthbridge” below. You can also find out a little bit about how Cesar creates his music in my interview with him last year.

I was given a review copy of this album.

Album Title: Shortwave Ruins
Album Artist: Mount Shrine
Label: Cryo Chamber
Released: March 17, 2020

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Book Review: Blister

Book Review: Blister

Review by Casey Douglass


As humans, we often place a lot of emphasis on what we see. A snap judgement can make all the difference between surviving a terrible attack, or laying in a hospital bed wondering why you didn’t run sooner. We also tend to like stuff that “looks nice”. Jeff Strand’s Blister is a horror novel that plays with the notion of beauty, horror and survival, weaving them together to make the reader question how they might react in a similar situation. I bought it on the Kindle store a short while ago and this is my review.

The story opens with the line: “I’m a liar, but this is the truth.” In my opinion, a great opening line. We find out that the events of Blister happened during the mid 1980's and that Jason Tray, a cartoonist, is the one telling us the tale. In an attempt to scare some kids who are terrorizing his dog, Jason goes a little bit overboard, making great use of a fake chainsaw in the process. The fallout from this is that he has to lay low in a Georgian cabin, waiting for the tension back home to ease.

Jason meets some locals and enjoys a drunken evening playing pool, but this soon leads to his being invited to come and see something interesting. He finds himself peering through the window of a strange house, setting eyes on the deformed Blister for the first time. He’s horrified and what’s worse, she knows he looked inside. The next morning, he feels ashamed and decides to revisit the house to apologise. This is where he gets to know the real Blister, and this sows the seeds of his quiet getaway turning into chaos.

The first thing I really appreciated about Blister was that it revelled in the grey areas of motivation. Jason himself isn’t sure if he is acting out of guilt, pity or self-interest, and I found this to be an excellent way to engage the reader. As I read, I found I was questioning myself on how I might have reacted in certain of the situations that he and Blister found themselves in, with the result quite often being that I’d have run a mile. I found Blister herself to be a great character. She came across as someone both vulnerable and strong at the same time. She wasn’t simply a two-dimensional “freak”, but a rounded human being.

Another big element that I enjoyed was the setting of Blister, especially the “small town mentality” that permeated events. It’s the kind of town where news travels fast, secrets are buried and dealt with on the quiet, and outsiders, while not usually unwelcome, are none the less suspect. This setting also led to one of the best “non-barfights” I think I’ve ever read, one in which both men don’t really want to fight but a bored girlfriend just keeps stirring the tension. This is heightened by Jason’s awareness of what is going on and his bafflement at how ridiculous it all is. It made me chuckle.

The horror, when it comes, lives in the descriptions of what happened to Blister, showing why she is how she is. This echoes through Jason’s own involvement in the story, and leads to some sadistic torture-based scenes that were genuinely uncomfortable. I could feel myself in that situation and it was both horrible and riveting to read in equal measure. If anything, the way the story finishes feels slightly less riveting in comparison, the outcome of events satisfactory, but not really hitting those “oh shit!” feelings achieved by the midpoint. I was happy with the ending though, it made sense and for me, got the right mix of happy and sad.

Going into Blister, I was kind of under the preconceived notion that it would be a “murderous horror-freak” type tale, even though the blurb does hint that it’s not that simple. I wasn’t expecting a more nuanced story or one that would make me think so much, and that was a pleasant surprise. The horror and madness is strong in a number of scenes, but the rest is all about the consequences, so even if you are a bit squeamish, you might still like the story too. I really enjoyed it.

You can find Blister on Amazon and on the Sinister Grin Press website.

Book Title: Blister
Book Author: Jeff Strand
Publisher: Sinister Grin Press
Released: 2016
ISBN: 978-1944044190
Current Price: £2.06 (Kindle)

Saturday, 16 May 2020

IndieDev Interview: Beard Envy

IndieDev Interview: Beard Envy

Beard Envy

When I was browsing the new releases on Steam a short while ago, my attention was drawn by a newly released puzzle game called Filament. The game itself looked intriguing, but seeing that you could buy the “Marmalade edition”, and reading that the developer is called Beard Envy... I just had to go to the developer website. Once there, I read about the plucky UK-based three-man team who make up the “Great Emanating Beard”, and had soon secured an interview with one whisker of said beard: Ben Webster. He tells us about the virtues of game jams, the challenges of creating a puzzle game, and also imparts a few of the lessons the team has learned along the way.

Casey: If someone looks at the Beard Envy website, they won’t fail to notice the humour and whimsy that the text contains. Even the circumstances of how the three of you came together to make Filament, your newly released game, also seem to fall under ‘whim’. How did two games artists and a visual effects artist come together to create Beard Envy, and what was the learning curve like as you all expanded your areas of expertise to accommodate the wider elements of game creation?

Ben: Injecting a little humour into the website was a bit of a crutch to motivate us to actually do it, web design isn't exactly our thing. Regarding coming together to form Beard Envy: we were already good friends and began doing weekend game jams in our free time. We enjoyed doing it and we liked our outcomes from the game jams, so decided to give making a full game a go. The learning curve was not only huge, but something that took a long time. Even now after Filament is done, we're still learning things from it. We have a giant list of things we did in Filament which we wish we had done differently, but that's hindsight, ey?

C: In 2017, you entered the Epic Megajam and had to create a game to suit the theme “However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.” This is where Filament was born. What was it like to create a game in seven days, which tools helped you to stream-line the process, and how valuable do you think game jams are, as a tool for creativity?

B: Creating a game in 7 days, at the time, was a luxury. Every other jam we'd done was a little over 48 hours (although now, nearly 3 years later, I can't imagine how we'd make a game in a week). During that jam, we actually had no idea what we were really making until around half way through, where we just stumbled across 'it'. So the biggest tool for us, once we reached that point, was the fear of not finishing in time and very little sleep. Honestly, we couldn't praise game jams any more highly. They are simply the best way to get some ideas that you would never normally come up with, and very quickly, get a feel for the game. We're planning our next project and we're doing our own jams for it. It’s so easy when starting a new project to get bogged down in details or to focus on the wrong parts. When you have such a small amount of time, you really focus on the bits that make the game feel right, and they're the most important.


C: Do you guys make use of any particular brainstorming or creativity techniques when you are game jamming your way through an idea, or is it more a case of cups of tea, biscuits and bouncing ideas off each other?

B: We don't have any particular brainstorming techniques really. I should take this moment to shout-out some free software we use: Drawpile. It allows us to all draw on one big canvas together and we can pull images from the web. Perfect for coming up with ideas.

C: In an interview with PC Games N, you said that when you were all brainstorming visual ideas for Filament, you soon realised that it felt important that things were “cosy”. I’d imagine that’s not a word that gets spoken very often in game development. Why did this cosy feeling become so desirable, and was there an element of wanting to soothe the player as they grappled with the puzzles?

B: I'm not quite sure I can put into words why 'cosy' felt right. At the time we weren't really thinking about soothing the player too much (Filament was a little rough then, merely a shadow of its full self). I think we were still looking for the aesthetic but the feel of the rooms we were making, cluttered and lived-in, was exactly what we wanted, what we dubbed: cosy.

C: Filament allows the player to approach its puzzles, for the most part, in the order that the player decides. It’s not even required to complete all the puzzles to finish the story-line. Why was this approach adopted over the more unforgiving puzzle-game variety, and did weaving the puzzles and story together present any particular issues along the way?

B: We decided to, fairly often, have the puzzles be solvable in (more or less) any order. No one likes getting stuck on a puzzle game, but it's somewhat unavoidable, especially if you want your puzzles to be challenging. The best way to deal with this (and I feel like this is good advice for life in general) is to leave what's currently frustrating you and to come back with fresh eyes. We wanted to enable this behaviour within the game. If the player gets frustrated with a puzzle, they will hopefully find something else to do in game and then return to the puzzle later feeling better. This is why you can approach the puzzles in any order. There is also a story to investigate and uncover (we also just really wanted to write a story) and there are secrets to find and solve.


Weaving the story into the game was challenging and I still don't think we got it spot on, we had to make plenty of compromises. We know not everyone who plays Filament will care about the story, they might just want to go to town on the puzzles, so we did our best to have the story force very little on the player, but also to leave much more to dive into for the people that are in it for the story. It's for this same reason that you can complete the story without solving all of the puzzles, the game is hard and if the story is the player's reason for playing, we don't want to force them to solve every puzzle to see where the story goes. Like I said, it's impossible to please everyone, so we aimed for a balance that felt good for us.

C: Sadly we find ourselves currently grappling with the Corona Virus pandemic. Filament released on Steam exactly one month after the UK entered lock-down. What issues did the lock-down cause in the month before release, and how have you all managed to cope with the added stresses that have come into other areas of your lives? Was there any stockpiling of beard oil?

B: We have been affected by the lock-down but nowhere near the extent of others, I'm sure. We made Filament out of our living room so the lock-down didn't hugely affect our work schedule. We all cope in our own ways; I like to go for a bike ride. There wasn't any stockpiling of beard oil. Regarding facial hair, lock-down has been liberating; permission to let it get more unwieldy. I myself am currently rocking (citation needed) a moustache for the first time in my life.

C: If you had one tip or one lesson learned the hard way, to impart to someone who is thinking about creating a game, or who is even a short way into their new project, what would it be and why?

B: It's tricky to give just one lesson, I touched on one a bit earlier, do game jams, or more importantly, get the feel of your game down before you spend time on art (and other faff), your game will be better for it. Another important lesson that we're already applying on our next project is to set a reasonable scope for your project early on and stick to it. We kept adding more and more to Filament, and don't get me wrong we ended up with something we are incredibly proud of, but it took nearly three years and finishing it was really hard. Starting off smaller would have taught us most of the lessons we've learned but in a smaller amount of time, and would have just been far more manageable.


My thanks goes to Ben for kindly taking the time to answer my questions. You can visit the Filament page on Steam for more information about the game, and you can also find Beard Envy at their website and on social media.