The other day I tweeted “indie rock fucking sucks” and that still feels belligerent. Maybe it’s something that’s never wrong even if I’m not being honest. I was listening to early Yo La Tengo, which is alike to Modest Mouse and Dinosaur Jr., and I surely think those bands suck. I enjoy listening to them sometimes but their whole existence is obnoxious. Which I couldn’t quite articulate why for awhile and maybe I can’t really nail it because I’ve never felt intimate with rock music. Still I was listening to The Kingsmen and The Sonics and The Saints and The Stooges for, well, I really have no goddamn clue why I was listening to garage bands that begin with The. I just felt like it. The Stooges are still really fucking good. Anyway I realized the gap between rock music and the so-called hipsterism of indie rock isn’t very wide at all. The point of rock music, at least as presented by british dudes and white americans, was a stance of disaffected appropriation.
I was listening to The Sonics and The Kingsmen and their whole thing was playing blues standards, but grittier and faster. That sounds like it’d pass as an ironic gimmick now, right? They’d have to be in on the joke, whatever the hell the joke is. Now these old bands covered songs because they genuinely liked them, so it’s not an intentionally overt, I dunno really what a modern band would say, but it’s not like they’re mocking the songs. I think a disaffected machismo still comes through when they rip the songs of their sentimentality and context (richard berry vs. the kingsmen). Like, Richard Berry sings clearly, a poppy pseudo-calypso song with tinges of regret and uncertainty. The Kingsmen cover is unintelligible, no fucks given, reduced and hyper-focused on being effortless and cool, which was an aspect of the original, but now utterly consumed as accelerationist fixation.
Okay this isn’t a wild revelation—in case it is hey y’all rock music is exploitative and racist in its dna and negotiates that as often as it doesn’t—I’m just laying down that obvious to flash forward to indie-capital-r-Rock, the kind of indie rock that just sounds like REM forever. I might as well just, it was Yo La Tengo’s “Drug Test” that overwhelmed me that this is still the same shit. A side by side comparison with that Kingsmen track doesn’t really work, like obviously it isn’t the same sound, but the attitude, the disaffected machismo, it just pushed on and on. To peddle that garage rock sound into the 80s and into forever requires more and more distance to keep up with its stretched context (Eagles of Death Metal might just be the end point though). It’s rock as always, but the twist: they hate rock too. Not that they hate making music, or playing guitar, or hell I mean, they don’t hate playing rock, just they don’t want to stand for what rock stands for, without any sort of texture or attitude as a replacement, so they end up representing a lack. This is a hyper-focus on being effortless and cool, accompanied by eroding history so that it is (well, was) born new, in the present. The irony is distended past. (In fairness, Yo La Tengo hasn’t been playing rock as it’s been for awhile now.)
Rock as it’s always been will always be, though it’ll never stop being annoying. I love all sorts of indie rock though, admittedly. That umbrella of whatever reverb and pedal sounds within dream pop, shoegaze, space rock, neo-psyche, and noise rock, still technically comes from a lineage of “indie rock” (and hey, reminder it really isn’t just games that has cumbersome descriptive nouns). It’s not impossible to make those genres into distinct entities but it’s also a pain and not really worth it. They’re often dreamlike, intangible, surreal rock music, using a spectrum of discordant or repetitive sounds to induce a trance, or to otherwise create a landscape of sounds. Flowing plains or dead concrete; the music evokes a state of being that’s solid and stretches on and on. Most importantly, the genre is like twee—though more cynical—in that it dares the listener to care. It’s not explicit, like rock music usually is, but yet still serious, mawkish, maudlin, most often in a very uncool way. Indie rock traditionally gives the listener a texture to cerebrally be cooler than their assumed boring life. Noise rock and its splinters asks for vulnerability, for the not-immediate to be taken seriously. It doesn’t offer an ego boosting interplay, but a subsuming equal footing.
I mean, of course anyone can feel cool about being privy to not-immediately-accessible art, but whatever. Innate or fellowshipped ego of that kind ends in mostly frustration. Anyway, anyway, my gradual point, is that indie games have been in that precarious place for awhile now. There are a lot of efforts in gaming to make games as they always were. We are seeing more games like noise rock (well, maybe in viral gaming’s proficiency, what we’re really seeing is prog rock, but this analogy is getting stretched anyway), but a desire to feel as we always were is a way stronger force than game development that reflects where we are. (Literally everything reflects where we are, but my distinction is trying to make sense of the present, rather than retreating to the past). As videogame “celebrities” out their horrible selves, there might be a correlation between videogames as they always were and a tendency for violent, entitled, and ultimately distanced attitudes that make the faux out-of-touchness of indie rock look really tame.
This is where, I’ve set this up pretty blatantly because essays are all like this, this is where I’d assert the “noise rock” of videogames is a way of healing. But I don’t know, my heart isn’t really in it. I feel like there’s a glacier when I say these things and I don’t know in what direction that mass is going. Like, I’m small, the amount of people who’d entertain my ideas are only a slight more, so it’s not that I’m necessarily wrong but… well, I think I’m out of bounds about being right. It’s more accurate that I’m throwing other things in hopes they stick, because I know without a doubt that our prior fixations were less than a net positive. I think as the pulse of panic and immediacy about, you know, where world politics are going, many people’d rather simplify culture, and have easier escapes. Like not just a simple temptation, but used as a lifesaver. Strong distractions in combat with terror and depression. And that might be what done us in the first place.
Comforting Sounds is an interactive music video for, uh, Comforting Sounds. Playing this was my introduction to Mew. I really like the song. The rest of their album Frengers has one foot inside the knowing disaffectation of the indie scene, which confessionally, I’d enjoy if it wasn’t that sort of disaffection. Else they rest outside those tropes, displaying a tired earnestness found explicitly on Comforting Sounds. Music of a bored entropy, aware of where they’ve gone but not really where they’re going to go, the normal kind of sly winking smugness smothered by the only elitism that has weight. A smug knowledge that we’re all only human.
Possible genres for Comforting Sounds, the song I mean, are progressive dream pop, maybe post-rock, probably shoegaze? I like the melding that defies convention, a sound that’s immediately accessible and yet knowingly flummoxes journalist type stuff. A quote from an interview that gets plastered around is that Mew doesn’t identify with classifcation—ironically as their modern material plainly resembles prog rock, not really the hard-to-pin down synthesis of modern rock inflected by shoegazing, but whatever. Through their oeuvre they remain an amalgam of side stepping indie rock cliches with cognizant influences from less monolithic scenes. I think splicing pop with whatever a person’s keyed up influences are is very effective for producing individuality and bridging complexity.
Comforting Sounds, the game now, could be called an avoider game, or a post-shmup, while employing aesthetic sense and the lack of a win or lose state that’d push it to be defined as an artgame. I called it an interactive music video, but all of these words feel unsatisfactory (yet eventually will feel more right, I think). Its developer, Colin Horgan, has been refining an aesthetic that almost seems excessively rough. Tatakai and IAMNOTAMACHINE share traits with Comforting Sounds. Their play area is dark, either submerged by a void or being of a literal one; lineart is sharp, striking, with a calculated messiness; designs are both lo-fi and confidently surreal. They resemble sketches and though flexible they stay readable. That’s why comparisons to noise rock and related shoegaze feel apt to me. Those styles of music are a cooperation of legible and incomprehensible techniques, abstract expression within traditional sensibility. Acknowledgements of how we got here, where we’re going, and sometimes a push for where to go from there.
Play in Comforting Sounds is simple. The player controls a messy, awkward, angular avatar. Visibly imperfect and unable to anything but float on, like an inverse vertical shooter. I can move them right and left. There are lights to collect that float on by and sharp, geometric shapes to dodge. Lights are converted to flowerlike baubles which touched. Getting hit by a sharp thing causes some of them to dissipate. The little one raises their hands up when being targeted by a thing that hurts and I feel sorry for them. I feel vulnerable too.
Lyrics from Comforting Songs are displayed as the player drifts in the abyss.
I don’t feel alright
In spite of these comforting sounds
And now all the good kids are
Nobody has gained or
I don’t know what inspired Colin to make this game, but I hear all of it. I don’t feel alright. It feels like my wide-eyed abandonment becomes more meaningless by the day. I’ve been trying to avoid writing of doom, scrubbing out tinges in nihilism that pop up because of where I feel we’re going and where I feel I’ve been. Dead catharsis is a fine thing. Too much of it will induce a paralysis. I need to survive and means a heightened focus on, well, living. Blows are piling up, people feel more distant, everything’s been just that much harder. So I need to direct the doom, to have it manifest is subtler ways, generally.
Comforting Sounds has two parts: first half is a direct, clean, and vacant section for the lyrics, with tone and chord progression inexplicably similar to 90s emo. Drums and distortion kick in as the song cascades, adding more instruments, getting progressively harsher, boiling into intensity backed by gazey tremolos. At the moment the song shifts, in game the avatar goes through a transformation. They’re able to freely fly around where they previously were miserable and directed, collecting dozens and dozens of stars, completely untouchable by that which means to hurt them. Experiencing the transformation for the first time I let out an involuntary noise, so many parts surprised, delighted, excited, and overwhelmed. As the noise enveloped me, and I experienced this sudden, overbearing freedom, I teared up a little. It was transcendent. I looked at this sharp, simple game, and cried that I could feel free from the weight of doom.
They become untouchable. Able to nurture their life the way they need to; able to become their most beautiful self. Painful things are frustrated in the wake. This might be a power fantasy but it might be the only power fantasy that matters. I’m focused on where we’ve been. I can’t see where we’re going. We gotta band together and lift each other up. Just going to echo what I got out of the game here: your time is important and magnificent and we’re going to survive by any means necessary.
check out comforting sounds
also personally I’m really excited for lucah, look out for it, it’s going to be fantastic