Sort of on impulse I decided to figure out how to run emulators/play old video games on my TV. A (video-game, naturally) programmer friend of mine guided me through it; even with his help it was an absolute bear and it's still not perfect (the button-mapping with NES is a bit wonky. I can get either the NES or SNES controls to work right at a time, but not both). I'm not familiar with the technology required so I would never have figured out how to do it on my own; after side-installing the program (with an exact URL I wouldn't otherwise have had), downloading ROMs and figuring out how FTPs work, and panicking because I thought I had thrown $60 away on a PS4/Dual Shock 4 controller because I couldn't get it to work on the Fire stick I bought just for this purpose (that is, emulation): turned out I just didn't know how to put it into Bluetooth pairing mode. It's not in the manual. I've also had to contend with controller low battery, and I panicked the couple of times that happened before fixing it (whoever heard of charging a video-game controller?) Even after starting ROMs I've had to fix the controls and take on the latency bugbear that threatened to derail everything. I must say that RetroArch is a damned finicky program: even though my copy is billed as a stable release, the program still crashes upon loading a game way too much (it starts those games just fine at other times), and it crashes sometimes in the middle of games sometimes (I quickly learned that save states are your friend). BUT, it's all more or less worked out and I'm having a blast with old games, some of which I had never played. Naturally for the first few days I was obsessed to a perceptibly distressing level seemingly out of my control -- might not be a good idea to take up pot, then -- and beat the first Final Fantasy in a few days (Final Fantasy 2 is on the order of weeks so far), but I've settled into playing responsibly.
Castlevania: At first I thought: "This, one of the most difficult games? I haven't played any platformers in like a decade and I just breezed through the first two stages." (That is, through two bosses, not two sections of a level.) Then I started the third level and there were trickier jumps there and the Medusa heads that knocked you down the pits and yeah, it gets harder. Never really played this, and it's really fun. It's way too easy to accidentally use your special weapons instead of the regular whip: I tend to nudge upwards on the D-pad/joystick and up-attack is how to use the special weapons.
Final Fantasy: Well I'll be! Either FF1 was never that hard and has that reputation from comparison to other Final Fantasy games (very possible) or the Game Boy Advance port takes the difficulty way down. If you just go through the game, without even stopping to level up, you'll achieve god-like strength that lets you plow through the game. The dungeons are a bitch, with at least one total maze of a floor each (I gained three levels trying to get out of the second floor of the water shrine) and the last boss is absurdly, absurdly overpowered (you have to fight the four other main bosses in the game all over again right before him) after a brutal final dungeon; you really need to save the one megalixer in the game for that fight, because it'll drain about everything you have (and sometimes he heals himself to max late in the fight, when you've used up most of your MP, so you're pretty much ####ed). Nevertheless I did three fetch quests backwards (getting the item and only later meeting the guy commissioning it). I played (and beat) this one way back in the day; including the time I had it running when I accidentally locked myself out of the apartment building, it took about 13 hours over a long weekend. Big LOL at the fact that, while the GBA version has a whole new translation, they kept the line "I, Garland, will knock you all down!" from the original (the "you spoony bard" moment). (It seems the GBA version is easier for XP/gold acquisition but the bosses have significantly more HP.)
Final Fantasy 2: Remember when we used to call this FF2J to distinguish it from the American release of FF4? Good times. I briefly played this years ago as a fan-translation ROM hack. Remember fan translations? Good times. I quit it soon because I thought that the experience system -- gaining skill in stats, weapons, magic, et cetera as they're used, not as a blanket increase at X-experience-points -- would lead to tedious micromanagement, but it's not that bad at all (you gain HP pretty steadily and before long, with normal play, you can also attain godlike status pretty quickly with more money than you'll ever know what to do with). Also I had it in my head that the monsters increased in ability with you but they don't. This is a much better game than FF1: most notably, there's a central plot (though standard rebels-versus-empire stuff) in contrast to the first game's collection of quests, which were bound together by an overarching story only when it's time to go to the final dungeon. Speaking of dungeons: the monster encounters in FF2 can be nightmarish, but there aren't many of them, only two or three per floor; sometimes the draw can be totally unfair (e.g. against eight Imps, who can cast Confuse and basically destroy your party in one turn) but there tends to be a best- and worst-case encounter, and if you restore your save state you can keep going back and starting the fight over until the odds are in your favor. Gotta be a bitch to do without save states. I'm almost done with this game; there's only the last dungeon left and it looks nightmarish, maybe harder than in the first game. Gotta build up my characters and buy lots of elixers, and that's boring so I might not be done for a while.
WWE Network - Got a free trial (and it's only $10/mo after that) for a service with every WWF and WCW pay-per-view and television broadcast ever. Been watching some mid-'80s stuff, and it's... not very good. They really didn't get their shit together until Wrestlemania III, but it's interesting to see that (now) completely alien world and style of rasslin. Really interesting to see the first Wrestlemania as a one-off "supercard" event that wasn't meant to be repeated. They didn't take their training (steroids) very seriously then: half the wrestlers have man-boobs and potbellies, the undercard mostly.
Electric Light Orchestra - Electric Light Orchesta II: I don't get the hate for this one. Sure it's not good; sure, it's the weakest ELO album I've heard yet. But it makes decent background music, not falling too heavy on the ear and with a few hooks; it seems that semi-attentive (at most) listening is the norm nowadays anyway. Kind of dull to listen to though I like the first two tracks ("Mama" is the kind of ballad that can be stretched out for a while). I did lose focus and the second side devolved to Muzak and I haven't listened to it again. George calls the Beethoven quotations in "Roll Over Beethoven" from the Ninth but they're from the Fifth. C'mon, there's a well-known disco song called "A Fifth of Beethoven"!
Darkthrone - Ravishing Grimness
Darkthrone - Plaguewielder: These two albums are only okay, and are considered two of their weakest by fans. During the writing and recording Fenriz (the drummer and lyricist) fell into a deep depression and Nocturno Culto (vocals and all the other instruments -- you'd think he'd balk at such an uneven division of labor, but they've been together as a duo going on 30 years now. Never performed live, obviously.) kept the band afloat. He wasn't quite up to it but they survived. This is just mediocre stuff (and the album covers look like absolute ass).
Darkthrone - Hate Them: A Steel-Wheels-style comeback, where the spirit has returned even if the results are uneven, even kind of sloppy. The first and last tracks are classics and "####ed Up and Ready To Die" I guess you could call depressive/suicidal black metal, a little ditty where you can make out the lyrics.
Darkthrone - Sardonic Wrath: Hello, old friend: after some more polished albums, and after a more polished intro track, we erupt again with the kind of lo-fi production that characterized their first four albums. Good riffs, a punkish edge that wasn't there in the early stuff, but nothing you haven't heard before. Probably felt like an even bigger comeback than Hate Them at the time. Their shortest album, this is where the goofy track titles return ("Information Wants to Be Syndicated", "Straightening Sharks in Heaven").
Kenny Burrell - Midnight Blue: This has been blocking my jazz listening (this, Bach, and FF); haven't spun the genre much because I had to get through this, and I don't really like it. The first half is terrific and would seem to portend a great album, but the whole second side is blues stuff, and not blues as a form or style (as on Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges' Back to Back), but as the blues as a genre which can be pretty dull and restrictive stuff. Burrell is a great player, and the lineup is basically the same as Back at the Chicken Shack minus organ and plus bassist and conga player (mostly subtle except for on the first track, but cool), without the good-timey feel. When I'm not in the mood for this kind of stuff I get fidgety and distractible as the second half winds on. But those first few tracks are killer. (Don't know which side the title track is on since the timing doesn't break down evenly, but I'm inclined to think it kicks off the second side.)
Sonny Clark - Cool Struttin': Nice gams on the cover! This is how the blues should be done (yeah, this and Midnight Blue are apples and oranges but this rules and that does not). Never quite liked Jackie McLean, who's struck me as a bit busy, expending too much effort to say too little, and he can have a harsh tone. Obviously I'm wrong since he's universally acclaimed and played on many great dates of the era, and I will concede that his solos on this record are mostly great (middle two tracks in particular). Art Farmer delivers as always; somehow I never heard anything from him until the last two or three jazz HAULS where this marks his third appearance in my collection. All the albums are good. Sonny Clark is a great pianist -- the other of his albums I have, a trio disc, he doesn't really leap out on, and I'm not sure what albums I have with him as sideman -- with a great gospel tinge (his part on the title track could be a direct transcription from an organ). Sometimes when I see "Sippin' at Bells" I think "Slurpin' on Balls". It's a good track, though.
Brahms - Piano Sonatas 1 & 2 (Idil Beret): I've been curious about the first two sonatas after seeing that all three are in the first five opus numbers, and nobody ever seemed to record the first two. They're pretty obviously early; the first is the more polished of the two but doesn't wear as well as the more subtle, lyrical second. The highlight of both are the slow movements. The first, if I have my classical-music-German right, is based on an old minstrel-tune while the second is just desolately beautiful. But even though these are appealing works I can see why the Third gets much more love and I can't guarantee I'll ever put this disc on again. It's good that I got a used copy of a Naxos recording.
J.S. Bach - Two- and Three-Part Inventions (Martin Galling, harpsichord)
J.S. Bach - Two- and Three-Part Inventions (George Malcolm, harpsichord): Two sets of fifteen short contrapuntal pieces each, in two and three voices respectively. One of his more popular works though I haven't heard them until now. Took a few listens to get them under my skin and it's all enjoyment from there. The Martin Galling is from the same complete-keyboard-works as below (actually, the third disc of the set containing the WTC Book I, which is why I was drawn to this), and it's just as solid. The Malcolm recording has lousy sound (thin and echoey, all scrunched up in the middle with no sense of space) and his two-parters are a disaster. He seems to take the pieces as collections of motives rather than as melodies, and the whole thing is kind of rote. His three-part inventions are terrific -- different skill set. Might prefer them to Galling's, but the sound quality hurts and Galling's two-part pieces beat Malcolm's by a mile. The Galling has pre-echo throughout the entire first side. Malcolm's cover art is fantastic ('60s Nonesuch records are very collectible).
J.S. Bach - Two- and Three-Part Inventions (Glenn Gould, piano): Typical Gould Bach: lucid, idiosyncratic, a reimagining (each inventio paired with the sinfonia of the same key -- his terminology, Bach's originally, I guess -- in a totally rearranged order), with genius about it, but definitely not the only recording of a particular work to have. The inventiones and sinfonie are idiomatically different but then again so are preludes and fugues. Good recording but I need to hear a more by-the-book piano set.
J.S. Bach - The Well-Tempered Clavier (Rosalyn Tureck, piano)
J.S. Bach - The Well-Tempered Clavier (Angela Hewitt, piano): Got familiar with most of the first book years ago and never had the patience or inclination to listen -- and to let all 96 pieces grow on me -- further. Turns out the second book is even better than the first: Book I is the pretty ditz for classic backseat sex, while Book II is the real deal you want to settle down with. It's solider and more satisfying and goes by faster, even though it's 30 minutes longer than the first. Listening to all 48 preludes and fugues -- pushing five hours -- in a stretch is a feat of endurance equal to watching the first two Godfather movies in one sitting (which I've done, but I've never heard the whole WTC). Anyway, Hewitt's is the set I'd recommend as a reference. It's piano, but not overtly pianistic like Tureck nor stretched out as long (and without the prominent tape hiss on the DG release); it's not really like a harpsichord, either. Just ordinary, balanced, period-informed modern-day piano playing. You really should own the Tureck, though, but it feels bloated to modern sensibilities.
J.S. Bach - The Well-Tempered Clavier (Martin Galling, harpsichord): The harpsichord version I have, from an 18-LP 1963 recording of Bach's complete keyboard works. A good recording, but I'm used to hearing this on piano, and the harpsichord isn't very tolerable for long stretches. It's different, I guess, but I'd stick with the piano stuff. Several of his fugues are unlistenable; their dense, generally fast, contrapuntal writing on an instrument with no sustain or loudness control doesn't go down well.