Honorable mentions

Numbers 25-21

Numbers 20-16

fifteenth: Swans – The Seer

Few albums are as evidently intended as career-defining masterpieces as The Seer is. Its two hours encompass everything that Swans have been, in all their different permutations, as they enter their fourth decade: grinding industrial assaults and drones, sweeping apocalyptic folk, quasi-doom-metal stomp. In every sense, this is an album as Defining Statement: Swans are going for broke here and aiming for the stars. If, taken all in one go, it can get wearying in its relentless confrontation and nihilism, that seems to be entirely the point: this isn’t meant to be pleasant. “Harrowing” would probably be a better term. But it’s undeniably mesmerising, and it’s difficult not to be swept up in its overwhelming, unrelenting power. It is a remarkable achievement, however you look at it.

fourteenth: Beach House – Bloom

The music of Beach House’s first two albums is haunted: it is the sound of empty rooms, gaudy old trinkets, incense and dust. In its claustrophobic spaces sat Victoria Legrand, melancholy, intense, in communion with some vanished spirit, a memory of something lost. Their third album, Teen Dream, was like a window being flung open and the world bursting in, a ray of light piercing the darkness. If Teen Dream was the first bright day heralding the end of winter, Bloom is high spring, warm, fecund, flowering, languid. Its songs unfurl themselves, appropriately enough, like flowers coming into bloom: delicate, contained beginnings exploding into brightness and colour. Beach House’s sound has never been this rich, but it’s arguable that something has been lost along the way: where a Beach House song used to be a perfect articulation of a moment of longing, an expression of desire or devotion, wrapped in evocative imagery that suggested a world beyond the borders of its verses, all too often the songs here slip into vage generality. I still think this is a great, great album, but it’s also the first Beach House album I wouldn’t unhesitatingly place near the top three for its respective year. But when everything connects – as it does in the commanding majesty of “Myth”, the Cocteau Twins-meets-The Carpenters lament of “Wishes”, the gorgeous flight of “Lazuli” – Bloom offers us a mesmerising new Beach House, where new-found confidence and clarity complicate their aching melancholy rather than obscuring it.

thirteenth: Purity Ring – Shrines

I initially dismissed Purity Ring as The Knife Lite, before this album burrowed its way into my heart. Shrines might hit some of the same notes and display very similar sonic textures to those of the Norwegian duo’s epochal Silent Shout, but the resulting effect soon reveals itself to be very different. Where The Knife are icy, Purity Ring are warm and organic, anchored by Megan James’  intimate, affecting voice adrift in its austere, electronic setting. In what must be a very deliberate irony, this is a proudly unchaste album, with the body, and the transgression of its boundaries, a primary theme: it’s an album of “weeping chests and trembling thighs”, where ribcages are torn open and holes are drilled into eyelids.  In “Fineshrine”, James pleads, “Cut open my sternum and hold my little ribs around you”: it’s a line that’s both startling and beautiful, a declaration of intimacy that’s equal parts unsettling and tender. It’s a fine tightrope to walk, but Shrines maintains that brilliantly uneasy balance throughout.

twelfth: Of Montreal – Paralytic Stalks

Is it suddenly no longer okay to like Of Montreal? I don’t get it. This astonishing, ambitious, raw, overreaching, grandiose album is easily their best since Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, and if it doesn’t quite equal that unquestioned masterpiece, it’s a towering return to form after the slight misstep of False Priest. Kevin Barnes wraps his tales of destructive relationships, dysfunctional families and self-hatred, all delivered with his typically lacerating self-examination, in layer upon layer of ostentatious wordplay, theatrical flamboyance and ambitious arrangements that bridge the gap between synth-pop and twentieth-century avantgarde. It’s often ugly, chaotic, atonal and uncomfortable, but just as often (and frequently at the same time) it’s catchy, even danceable, hooks and melodies coming at you at the rate of several dozen per minute: it’s almost overwhelming and it definitely needs more than a few listens before it all begins to cohere. At the heart of it all, as always with Of Montreal, is a despairing soul tearing itself and its world apart, trying to get at something more beautiful: here, the violence is more apparent than ever, but the despair is no less keenly felt.

eleventh: Dum Dum Girls – End of Daze EP

If I were to judge an album’s quality purely by how much I’ve listened to it, I would have to conclude that Dum Dum Girls’ Only in Dreamswas one of the very best albums of 2011. And yet, this EP is a massive step forward, with new textures, spaces and intimacies emerging as the Girls’ sound receives a new dose of polish. The (very evident) set of influences at play here – 60s girl-group pop, riot grrrl, shoegaze – have never been as seamlessly synthesized into a whole that is distinctively the Dum Dum Girls’ own, and the five songs here are all, in their own way, astonishing. From the way “Mine Tonight” starts off as post-breakup dirge before reaching for the rafters in a chilling death-wish/premonition of a chorus,  to the way “Season in Hell” closes the album with a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel – “Doesn’t the dawn look divine?” – this miniature masterpiece takes the listener on a perfectly-judged, powerful emotional journey. Along the way, “Lord Knows” is surely one of the very best songs of the year.

One thing about lists like this: of course, they’re not exactly scientific. The order of these albums tends to change just about every time I revisit an album and discover new facets I had previously overlooked. Some albums I thought would rank highly dropped out of the top 25 entirely; others I kept revisiting until I had no choice put to push them up the ranks. Still others I forgot about until I dug them up again once I decided to compile this list and remembered quite how great they were.

Anyway…

Honourable mentions

Numbers 25 – 21

twentieth: Animal Collective – Centipede Hz.

A relatively weak Animal Collective album is still an Animal Collective album, and as much of a mess as this album is, there’s still an embarassment of riches to be picked out. Take the manic colourburst of “Today’s Supernatural”, all screams, yelps, restlessly shifting rhythms and guitar riffs layered haphazardly over keyboard lines. Take the weary, descending-dark melancholy of “New Town Burnout”.  Best of all, take “Amanita”, which opens with a fanfare worthy of some mythical Oriental court before concluding with a departure into the mystery of a fairy-tale forest, with the promise to “bring back some stories and games”. I can’t wait to see what they find in the woods.

nineteenth: Chromatics – Kill for Love

Kill for Love opens with a cover of Neil Young’s “Into the Black” that cuts to the very heart of the album. Young’s anthemic rock ‘n’ roll manifesto is distilled into a repetitive, skeletal guitar line, a simple canned rhythm, some washes of neon-tinged synth, and frontwoman Ruth Radelet’s weary, distracted vocal take. It’s atmospheric, aglow with garish eighties neon, but also tired, oddly listless and melancholy. And the same is true of the album as a whole, which, far from a weakness, is kinda the whole point: Kill for Love is derivative, its sounds are the corpses of 80s electro and New Wave and 70s disco,  drained of blood and life but strung up for one more dance, and in this way they speak perfectly of loss, alienation, longing and emptiness. Front-loaded with its catchiest songs, the album seems to go on forever, so much so that it feels like it doesn’t actually end – it just dies down into ambient passages and meandering atmospherics that go nowhere, until your attention drifts off and you forget it’s still on. This is an album that suggests that, far from burning out in a glorious arc across the sky, rock ‘n’ roll is deep in the throes of a long, protracted fade-away.

eighteenth: Jessica Bailiff – At the Down-Turned Jagged Rim of the Sky

On this album, Jessica Bailiff’s musical touchstones range from gentle, piano-led ballads, to dreamy shoegaze-influenced pop, to heavy, funereal dirges that almost verge on doom-metal territory. But she never sounds like anything other than herself: what brings it all together into a coherent whole is Bailiff’s sonic investment in the textures and atmospheres of drone, which gives her music a hazy, indistinct quality, as if it is coming from far underground – or from some private chamber of the heart. Bailiff’s music feels private, painfully intimate, and it invites the listener to stand still, share in the intimacy and discover its secrets.

seventeenth: Julia Holter – Ekstasis

Julia Holter’s remarkable debut album, Tragedy, announced her as a major talent from the word go; her follow-up underlines that fact. Here, Holter emerges into a new-found clarity, shedding some of the abstraction and harsh surfaces of her first album without sacrificing any of her idiosyncracies.  Ekstasis is possessed of delicacy, grace and ethereal beauty, but it is also purposeful, meticulous and fiercely intelligent, its erudite literary references and gorgeous harmonies and details suggestive of mysteries constantly on the verge of being deciphered.

sixteenth: Burial – Kindred EP

Or, How I Learned to Finally Stop Worrying and Love Burial. I admired his self-titled debut and Untrue more than I loved them, but Kindred is something else. Its soundscapes are dense, dark and bottomless, weighed down with a heavy inevitability and pulsing with an unnameable  but almost unbearable ache. This is the sound of the city at 4am, the music of the night still ringing in your ears, disappointments and fears welling up, the orange glow of street-lamps and the red tail-light snakes on the tired drive home ignite some existential dread that is too deep in the gut for words to find any purchase on it.

When year-end Best Albums lists start coming round, I always find myself slightly disappointed by their relative consistency. Why do the same batch of albums keep cropping up all over the place? Not that they would be bad choices, necessarily, but music is such a personal thing. We all listen to music for so many different reasons and get so many different things out of it. A list should say at least as much about the person compiling it as about the musical landscape of the year – so why does it seem like everyone was affected by exactly the same very small set of music?

Of course this is partly inevitable. We can’t listen to all the new music out there, so we need gatekeepers to skim the cream of the crop off the pile of thousands and thousands of records released every year. I don’t exonerate myself – I learn about most of the music I listen to from Pitchfork, same as any other pretentious hipster. You have to start somewhere, and certainly a lot of the music on my list is gonna be more or less exactly what you’d expect. I’ll just be happy if I can provide a couple of interesting surprises along the way.

So. With the honourable mentions out of the way, it’s time to start counting down the Top Twenty-Five proper.

twenty-fifth: DIIV – Oshiin

This year, this was the album for blissed-out summer drives to the beach and 4am drives home on suffocatingly hot nights, for heat-haze and the glare of too-bright sunlight, for the sleepy-but-sometimes-alm0st-eerie stillness of Maltese July afternoons. Deceptively simple, hummable tunes and driving rhythms frame intricate guitarwork that slowly reveals hidden textural depths, enough to sink into and lose yourself in.

twenty-fourth: Bat for Lashes – The Haunted Man

No denying it: after the grand beauty of 2009’s Two Suns, absolutely one of the greatest albums of the past few years, what I first heard in The Haunted Man was the sound of mild disappointment. I still don’t think it’s a match for the album that, for now, remains Natasha Khan’s masterpiece, but time and repeated listens have been kind to her latest. I’m not the first to point out that the two albums’ very different but equally striking cover images serve as the perfect metonym for the albums’ divergences. Two Suns is introduced by a kaleidoscopic Technicolor fantasia that references Catholic iconography, alchemical imagery, beloved 80s blockbuster cinema, bad stoner airbrush art and probably countless other details I missed – it’s maximalist, rich, gorgeous and utterly idiosyncratic. On the other hand, the Ryan McGinley-shot image announcing The Haunted Man (incidentally, probably the album cover of the year) is raw, grainy, stark and unadorned. It’s stripped-down and naked, both figuratively and literally, and likewise the album is sparser, less ornate, more direct, more honest. Still, the image is an arrestingly strange one, and ultimately so is this album – it’s a landscape of hauntings and ghostly figures, of voices lurking at the edges of songs. It’s strange, evocative, mysterious, and, yes, utterly idiosyncratic.

twenty-third: James Blackshaw – Love is the Plan, The Plan is Death

Blackshaw’s music feels like listening in to the eternal, interlocking circular harmonies of the celestial sphere, and glimpsing the fundamental order of things. If you think that sounds like hyperbole, you’re probably not familiar with his work. Here, his switch to a six-string guitar lends an earthier, campfire quality to his ethereal compositions, while “And I Have Come Upon This Place By Lost Ways”, his collaboration with Menace Ruine singer Geneviève Beaulieu, is both remarkable and entirely unlike anything Blackshaw has done before, hinting at tantalising new directions.

twenty-second: Grizzly Bear – Shields

Grizzly Bear make cathedrals of sound, imposing edifices that show the hands of perfectionists at work. Every detail reveals patience and painstaking craft. Still, it is not the sounds that make Grizzly Bear so special, but the space they create, a cavernous, lonely, hermetic nave for the band’s flawless harmonies and crashing percussion to reverberate in. Shields is their most towering, meticulous work, and also their most aching.

twenty-first: Passion Pit – Gossamer

Never has music this despairing and world-weary sounded so fun, bright and cheerful. Call it bubblegum pop with the bitter aftertaste of knowing the bubble has burst – nothing this year was as infectious, as great at making you want to dance or as merciless about making you feel bad at wanting to dance to someone’s misery.

To be continued.

I have probably listened to a lot more new music this year than any other year. This was partly due to changes in lifestyle that left me with ample spaces in my daily routine that could be filled by putting a new album on – public transport commutes, long walks, cooking alone. Beyond that, though, I guess I got to a point where the amount of new music I had listened to reached some kind of tipping-point and triggered my completionist impulses: if I had already listened to so much, I figured, I might as well try to listen to everything that sounded even vaguely worth listening to, and really be able to say that I had ‘done’ the year 2012, at least when it came to music.

I soon found out this was impossible. Here’s the thing: there is so much great music being produced. So many wonderful people doing amazing things that it feels rude not to lend them your ears and listen to the product, time, and hard, hard work. But there’s only so much time in a year, and so many albums I can listen to. There’s probably an album I haven’t even heard of out there somewhere that blows everything on my list out of the water.

Anyway. This is the list. This is my list, and I make no pretense to objectivity or to this list representing a complete overview of the most culturally relevant releases of the year, or of its accounting for every major genre and movement. It’s simply a link of what I liked, what moved me, what stuck with me enough to keep me listening to it over and over.

First off, today, the honorable mentions – the albums I loved but couldn’t quite fit into the top twenty-five. In alphabetical order, it’s…

Brikkuni – Trabokk

So it seems there was some sensitivity beneath the brash confrontation of Kuntrabanda. Of  course, now that the EFAs have made them household names all over Europe stardom will probably go to their heads. It was fun while it lasted.

Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory

The alt-rock 90s live!

Daphni – Jiaolong

Dan Snaith’s side-project doesn’t hit the same grace notes or touch the same raw nerves as Caribou, but you can tell how much fun he’s having, and it’s infectious.

Jens Lekman – I Know What Love Isn’t

Witty, smart, tender, melancholy. It’s good to have you back, Jens.

Krallice – Years Past Matter

I’m not necessarily big on metal, but I do have a soft spot for the vein of black metal that veers towards noise, unpredictability and elemental chaos rather than cheesy riffs, and this provided my recommended yearly dose of that.

Liars – WIXIW

Few bands can reinvent themselves so totally and yet still sound like no-one but themselves. Keywords this time round: texture, repetition, atmosphere.

Lower Dens – Nootropics

Understated, but sneakily so: this is an album that slowly reveals tremendous force with repeat listens.

Frank Ocean – Channel Orange

Or: the one that’s topping everyone else’s list and taking over the world. I must say it took me some time to get into Ocean, but there is warmth, craft and massive ambition here: this is an album of great empathy and keenly-observed detail.

Frankie Rose – Interstellar

Because sometimes, all you need is a dose of crystal-clear, chime-perfect, dreamy new-wave pop.

Sharon van Etten – Tramp

Van Etten adheres so closely to the broken-hearted confessional female singer-songwriter trope it’s almost parodic, but when she carries it off with such intensity of feeling, it really doesn’t matter one bit.

Sleep Party People – We Were Drifting on a Sad Song

My sound of Copenhagen.

Stolen Creep – Throw Your Heart to the Sea EP

So yes, a very good friend of mine is in this band. But that’s not the reason why their brand of early-90s-alt-rock-by-way-of-Warpaint was one of the most promising local releases of the year.

John Talabot – fIN

Dark, uplifting, soothing, floor-filling – trying to describe fIN sounds like a list of contradictions. That’s why it’s so great.

The Walkmen – Heaven

Hardly what you’d call a new direction, but the Walkmen add enough nuance and subtlety to their sound to make this a clear improvement over Lisbon. 

Wild Nothing – Nocturne

Few people can craft a guitar tone as perfectly as Jack Tatum. While there’s nothing here that hits the highs of “Chinatown” on Gemini, this is still music to sink into.

blood, blood, blood

January 2, 2011

‘Tis the season, as everyone knows, for the making of resolutions, the arbitrary line drawn in time by the beginning of a new year being as good a time as any to take stock of one’s life and try, however fleetingly, to imagine a ‘new you’. Now, I’m not much the resolution-making type, save for, as I attempted to communicate to a friend some time after midnight at a New Year’s party over music that was far too loud to make this an easy task, a general sense of trying to do better. However, one of the many more-or-less vague intentions contained within that impulse is the desire to write more regularly – by which I mean writing fiction, primarily, but also an attempt, time permitting, to return this blog to being at least a slightly more regular chronicle of things that, in whatever form, leave an impression on me. In the spirit of living up to this resolution, then, let me tell you about the game that, along with the much more celebrated Minecraft, was my game of 2010. Let me tell you, friends, about Space Funeral.

Space Funeral – which, I might as well point out, does not contain any funerals and is not set in space – is a JRPG, but that categorisation, though functionally true, is as misleading as it is pointless. Space Funeral doesn’t really care about being an RPG: although turn-based combat, dungeons, party management, levelling and item shops are all present and accounted for, they’re only there as the necessary frame upon which to hang  You are Philip – a boy (presumably, not that you can tell from the astonishingly bad – and yet effectively grotesque – artwork) thrown out of the house by his parents, still in his pyjamas and crying his eyes out – as he will continue to do throughout the game. 

What awaits outside the house is a dayglo-bright wasteland, like body-horror virulently exploding into a Saturday morning cartoon: houses shaped like smashed heads, monstrous fleshy trees, primary-colour landscapes. It’s a setting that has been, like Zeno Clash before it, compared to the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky because, hey, Jodorowsky is shorthand for ‘weird and surreal’. In truth, Space Funeral‘s milieu is delivered with a nudge and a knowing wink, instantly setting it apart from the feverish intensity of the Chilean filmmaker’s symbolic visions. Rather than mythology, Space Funeral draws upon a highly postmodern stream of pop culture detritus for its imagery: high fantasy tropes (wizards, quests, villages) clash with B-movie horror icons, comic strips, glam rock and poetry – Peanuts and Dracula, Charles Baudelaire and Marc Bolan all feature, in one way or another, and the whole thing is soundtracked by a remarkable collection of avantgarde music (I owe my discovery of the awesome Les Rallizes Denudes to the game, for which I am eternally grateful).

In this lurid hell-carnival of a world, what do you do? Well, you quest, because questing is what you do in an RPG. It’s an interesting point to note that, as peripheral as the RPG mechanics are to your enjoyment of Space Funeral, they serve an essential role in framing your experience of the gameworld. In the absence of any narrative or referential coherence, it is the game’s RPG-ness – the fact that you’ve played JRPGs before, so you instinctively know what to do – that structures your understanding of the game: no matter how strange, how off-the-wall random, how just outright insane the game gets, the mechanics keep you grounded.

The details of the quest? In time-honoured fashion, something is wrong: the world has been somehow corrupted, and the root of the decay appears to be a corruption in the City of Forms, the perfect city of which everything else in the world is an image. Although, as you are repeatedly informed, it’s too late for you, you must nonetheless head north in an attempt to locate this city and, presumably, in some way, fix whatever the hell has gone wrong.

At heart, then, Space Funeral is a replaying of the Heart of Darkness trope: a journey upriver through a world gone mad, in search of the source from which all the madness is flowing. What cannot be stressed enough, however, is how unpredictable this journey is, and what delight you will experience at each new discovery along the way. Space Funeral is a very, very, very funny game – more so, perhaps, than any game since the heyday of the LucasArts adventure – and any number of moments will stay with you and provoke quiet grins when recollected weeks later – the steak farm, the something’s-wrong-but-I’m-not-sure-what conversation with the Blood Wizard, and the encounter with Dracula are the ones that stand out the strongest for me, but you’ll have your own favourites.

And when you do get to the end of the journey (it’ll only take you two hours, tops), well…let’s talk about the ending (and, if you haven’t actually played it yet, please stop reading now, and go play the game THIS INSTANT, for this is one of the still depressingly rare games with a proper, satisfying ending. rather than a half-apologetic, “Yeah, it’s over. Wait for the sequel.”) The conclusion to the player/Philip’s quest  – the arrival at the City of Forms – is remarkable not only for its wit, its blending of self-consciously highbrow literary references (Paradise Lost, take a bow) with the most irrevently puerile of lowbrow humour, but also for how thoroughly it reconfigures the weirdness that came before as the setup for a philosophical point that is delivered – like everything else in the game – with tongue firmly in cheek, but that, given its context, is startlingly (and affectingly) profound. It probably says as much about me and my pretensions as about Space Funeral that I picked up distinct echoes of the Neoplatonism of Romantic aesthetic philosophy at this point – suggesions regarding the relation of art to the world and to notions of a more ‘ideal’ state from which the world has somehow fallen – but these echoes cannot be ignored.

The source of the corruption, it is revealed, is an artist who visited the City of Forms in search of inspiration. Confronted with its perfection, however, he froze: nothing he could create would be anything but a pale, inferior shadow of its beauty. The only course of action left to him, the only way he could free himself, was to destroy the City: but still the world continued to be haunted by echoes of its lost, perfect forms, still occasionally visible through the chaos. And so, he tells us, he must destroy again, and again, and so on forever, always tearing down in order to rebuild anew.

The questions this revelation raises about the role of art and the process of artistic creation are by no means anything new, but, in their context, they couldn’t feel any fresher, or any more vital. Space Funeral is, itself, the wrecked result of an iconoclastic thrashing: primarily a tearing-down of the JRPG, but also of all the throwaway fragments of cultural tropes and ephemera it assimilates. It presents you, the player, with the shredded remains of its inspirations, hastily re-glued together in new configurations and covered with glitter, poster-paint and paper-cut blood, and asks you, “Now isn’t this just more interesting?”  If the resulting chaos is as invigorating, as surprising, as clever and as plain fun as Space Funeral, one is almost inclined to agree that the destruction is a noble cause.

That it passes all of this off as the elaborate build-up to the (brilliant)  punchline of the game’s closing images is, possibly, even more of a stroke of genius.

So, GO PLAY or you will SURELY DIE. Or something.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been playing some Neptune’s Pride, a free browser-based 4X game. It basically strips the 4X game model down to the basics – stars to conquer differentiated only by a single resource value, four technology tracks, one kind of unit, and three improvements that can be built on each of your stars (giving bonuses for economy, industry and science). There’s no attempt at setting up a fiction or creating atmosphere – this is pure mechanics, numbers and vectors plotted over a functional graphical display. You could call this focus, and it’s a necessary choice given the way the game system is revealed as no more than the foundation for the game’s real point of interest: the complicated web of diplomacy, fragile alliances, secret dealings and betrayals into which inter-player relations inevitably devolve.

A game of Neptune’s Pride plays out over several weeks, though you don’t need to play for more than a few minutes each day (it does, admittedly, become more time-consuming as the game nears its end). You issue your construction orders, set your fleet’s paths, message other players, and then go off and leave the orders to be executed over the following hours. This long-form system does, of course, mean there is plenty of time to mull over strategies, rethink courses of action and consider your allegiances. It makes for a more considered, meditative approach than the standard multiplayer game, and the result is that each player’s action feels deliberate and calculated: betrayals aren’t spur-of-the-moment, kill-or-be-killed impulses. They are premeditated: that green player’s probably been planning his surprise attack on you, while feigning friendship, for five days.

As much as it is about the inherent moral bankruptcy of the average player, however, Neptune’s Pride is also about something else: the tyranny of mathematics. I’ve played two games so far, one in which I was the first to be eliminated – three players ganging up on me while I was still learning the ropes – and one in which I won by a huge margin, finishing with more than double the number of stars of the second-place player. I’d like to think this was due to my awesome skills, but it had a lot to do with the fact that three players surrounding me went completely inactive, leaving me with vast areas to expand into to the west and south while the other players fought over limited territories. This gave me an insurmountable advantage: it was evident I was going to win halfway through the game, making the last week or so an oddly joyless process of sending the vast, mass-produced space armadas my extensive resources allowed me to field to crush the players I had been feigning allegiance to for several days. Perhaps I don’t have enough of a predatory disposition, but I couldn’t really get much pride or satisfaction out of betraying these allegiances and crushing their inferior empires underfoot.  I was the bad guy – they got screwed through sheer luck, and I was only the agent by which the game system plotted out their arbitrary demise.

This isn’t a criticism of Neptune’s Pride, really – perhaps, in paring down the 4X model to the basics, it allows an essentially distasteful property of the form to come to light. In the end, I came back home yesterday evening, not having accessed the game all day, to find that it had basically won itself: following the lines of attack I had set down some days previously, my fleets had made enough conquests to push me over the 89 stars required for victory. The game was over. I had won. Yay.

Zoom into an action scene close enough, and the fun turns into torture. The Hurt Locker is action film-making in real-time close-up. The camera follows every bead of sweat, catches every panicked flicker of its protagonists’ eyes. We register every distant cry, hear the crunch of sand under every footstep, wince at the roar of jets overhead. At this level of intimacy and immersion, action isn’t exciting, it’s terrifying. It’s somewhere you don’t want to be.

Especially in its standout set-pieces – the opening, the car bomb – there is a sharp, tactile quality to the film. The ruined streets of Baghdad could almost be an alien planet, the suited-up soldiers of the Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit treading its fraught surface like astronauts. Each scene is enveloped in a dizzyingly vivid sense of place and mapped out in a clear geography – a surprisingly rare skill among action directors. The verite-style camerawork, frame-perfect editing, flawless spatial construction, exceptional sound design and minimal score combine to make every scene tense, visceral: The Hurt Locker is a remarkable technical achievement for Kathryn Bigelow and her crew.

Everything that is inessential to the action is pared away. Politics, or even much of a narrative, are conspicuously absent – we follow a bomb disposal team’s tour of duty, during which they engage in routine operations, where any momentary sense of safety is relative at best. The film never leaves a soldier’s-eye-view. This is about nothing other than the thrill and fear of constant danger, each moment pregnant with the possibility of instant, unforseeable death.

It’s now been overshadowed by its Academy Awards success, Bigelow’s historic win in particular. It’s a more modest film (in intent, not in quality) than this hype might suggest, which has already led to an undeserved backlash. It doesn’t set out to be a Big Statement film, and it’s all the better for it. As a study of men’s responses to death and mortal peril  (and this is a very masculine film), as a riveting, unforgiving piece of action cinema, The Hurt Locker marks itself indeliby in the mind.