Tori in a Blender
I don't think much of Blender, Launch or any of these other new CD magazines. They're awfully skimpy content-wise. And just a little exposure to that smugger-&-hipper-than-thou attitude exuding from these magazines, and all of a sudden I start wanting to play frisbee with their CDs instead of reading them.
I am very biased. I buy these types of magazines (whether printed on glossy paper or shiny CD) solely because they have a feature on a musical artist I like.
"Like" is wrong. In this case, the ONLY reason I bought Blender is because they advertised a feature on Tori Amos, and since I adore Tori Amos and want to own every single thing in this world that features her voice or image, I had to buy this issue of Blender.
So, my Blender review is from a Tori-Amos-fan perspective.
Now, this somewhat alien perspective is well understood by, say, readers of Really Deep Thoughts (the Tori fanzine), where we concern ourselves with the availability of Australian "Tatula" CD maxi-singles containing radio mixes which are twelve seconds longer than the album version and feature a richer tornado sound -- but to ordinary people, who just listen to music and don't necessarily devote the majority of their thinking time and disposable cash to it, my perspective will be more than a little warped.
What's in Blender?
The featured topics this issue are musicians Tori Amos, Beck, Gwar, The Residents and Heather Nova, plus twenty-odd short album reviews with one or two brief song excerpts. For non-music content, Blender features:
What did you think, overall?
Well, I was somewhat amused, but I was also somewhat... bored?... by the whole thing. As a whole, this CD-ROM (like most CD-ROMs) is somewhat slow and clunky, and while the graphics are impressive (clearly an art department working overtime) and some of background music is good, the whole thing has a disposable feel. The five ads are distracting, when they show up, and you have to click to get past them; but the largest problem is that there's just not much depth to any of the sections.
And it's so self-important. The Features section has the tag-line, "in-depth, two-fisted digital journalism." Maybe if they wrote with something other than fists? And if this is what they consider in-depth, the world is in trouble. An average Teen article is twenty or thirty times deeper.
I wish I could quote the e-mail sent to me by an employee of Blender,
who was peeved by an early draft of this review that I posted to
was upset that I was negative, although he swore that the creators
of Blender don't take these things personally, and he
admitted that he thought their content "blowed" but still
they deserved credit for being so cutting edge. The truth
is, Blender looks pretty and has big goals. But without
depth and content, Blender's merely a half a gig of furious noise
and frantic eye candy. I'd rather
they hire a writer or four to generate
some insightful commentary. God knows that on a
650 megabyte CD, there's room for it.
So what Tori content is there?
Okay, now the only part I'm really interested in: what happens to you when you decide to go to the Tori section.
You find the "Features" button, and after clicking on it, you wait for a screen with several more buttons (chunk chunk chunk). It appears, the background music changes, and you note one of the icons is Tori's face, blinking in different colors. Point to the Tori icon, and the first hint of trouble comes along when you read the caption: "Insane? Inspired? You make the call!"
Undeterred, you click on the Tori button, and a few seconds later (chunk chunk chunk), you see a nice opening screen with a black & white photo of Tori, seated, wearing a very revealing outfit. "Agent Orange," a short cut from her new album Boys for Pele, begins to play. The close-up turns to color and pans back, as the words, "Tori Amos dropped in to the Blender studio the other day..." appear. Agent Orange continues to play. A quick dissolve, and then four buttons appear. "She had a few things on her mind. Here are four of them," says Blender.
That's when the third Agent Orange sample begins to repeat itself over and over. Let me show what that's like:
"Mr. Agent, yes, he's my favorite, and they don't understand, he's got palm oil...and... Mr. Agent, yes, he's my favorite, and they don't understand, he's got palm oil...and... Mr. Agent, yes, he's my favorite, and they don't understand, he's got palm oil...and... Mr. Agent, yes, he's my favorite, and they don't understand, he's got palm oil...and... Mr. Agent, yes, he's my favorite, and they don't understand, he's got palm oil...and..." etc. etc. etc.This is a continuing theme of Blender. You definitely don't want to sit on any one page for too long, even if you are studying a photo, because the repeated music sample will quickly drive you insane.
Quick, click on one of the four buttons. How about the first one. Tori's face appears in a quicktime window on the right side of the screen, as a curtain rises. Here's what you see and hear:
The curtain closes and suddenly the clip is over. You hear:
"Mr. Agent, yes, he's my favorite, and they don't understand, he's got palm oil...and... Mr. Agent, yes, he's my favorite, and they don't understand, he's got palm oil...and...
Quick, the second button! I won't transcribe the other three movies here, but they continue exactly where the previous one left off. The same interview and song continue throughout, each interrupting each other. As the clips move along, random images and animations are inserted at different places. The handheld camera effect, combined with the jerkiness of Quicktime, make it all resemble some kind of acid trip.
The first thing that confuses me is that there doesn't seem to be any reason to break the interview up into four parts. They all run together. And why they've inter-mixed the song and the interview, I don't know. Post-modernism for its own sake?
You do see altogether seven minutes of Tori, wearing a very revealing "seventies leisuresuit" (Blender's words), answering questions and performing this song. When you're done with the videos, you click on the Next button to take you to the final screen.
"As well as being a dab hand at the electric grand," writes Blender, "Tori is also huge on the internet." Hey, that's us! But Blender quickly glosses over any actual analysis of Internet Tori content:
"Planetheads throughout the world exchange gossip about her on a daily basis, and the question they're asking these days is 'Is she crazy or what?' Ms Amos certainly created an impression at Blender--there were times we thought she was literally going to burst out of her seventies leisuresuit--but crazy? You want the answers, you're going to have do the spadework yourself."
That's exactly what's written. End of article.
So much for hard-hitting, in-depth, two-fisted journalism. I have this crazy urge to ask, hey, is she crazy or what? Hmm, I guess they're right about us "planetheads" after all.
At the bottom of this final screen are two buttons. Choose quickly because otherwise you'll hear the fourth and final Agent Orange sample ("Underwater city") over and over and over and over.
The second of the two buttons takes you to a quick discography -- of just four entries (pictures of her three albums, plus the Crucify EP). I shouldn't have to mention that any Tori Amos Discography worth its salt goes on for six or seven pages.
The first button takes you to a list of Websites. It's a little out of date -- some URLs listed here will get you a quick "404 Not Found," and Blender doesn't list the important newer sites, such as Greg Burrell's T.O.R.I. or RDT's site. Some of the sites are listed more than once. (But I was quite pleased to be the fifth site listed; and I was tempted to give them a good review in exchange; but the more I use Blender, the less inclined I am to like it. See, you can't bribe everyone.)
So, should I buy it?
If you are a Tori completist, you (like me) may NEED to buy Launch. Whatever song it is she's singing in these four Quicktime movies -- I have no clue, I've never seen it or heard it before. It's very different from her usual work; it's more in the vein of the improvised "Whoomp! There it is" that she's done for radio appearances. I suspect this Blender song is improvised as well. Tori's live performance seems WAAAAY out there; and maybe it's the video quality, but her speech seems slurred, as if she was drunk or tripping.
If you don't care about owning ABSOLUTELY - EVERY - TORI - SONG - IN - THE - WORLD, I'd skip it. It may be worth $9.95 for the song combined with the other features, but don't have high expectations.
Bugs? Hardware issues?
Blender is definitely buggy. Under Windows 95, the Quit button doesn't work, so closing Blender down involves rebooting your computer. (The system became unstable when I closed it externally with an End Task command.) The Blender logo in the upper right is supposed to give you a menu when you click on it, but in most of the sections, that doesn't work; you just hear a drum beat instead. And a couple of the video clips seems to be missing: following some links lead me to a dialog box asking for some file or another that couldn't be found (this happened twice in The Tick section).
On the plus side, they do have an 800 number, where a technician quickly and pleasantly agreed with me that the bugs were darn annoying; no workarounds, but he promised that they've been corrected for the new issue of Blender.
I don't know what sort of system Blender expects its audience to have; but on the system I used, a brand new, very vanilla Pentium 120 with a quad-speed CD-ROM, Soundblaster clone, and 32 megs of memory running Windows 95 -- a high-end system, even if the sound card is cheap -- the video is jerky and the audio has frequent drop-outs. The box lists Blender's requirements as being a 486 with 4 mb of free RAM (6 recommended); but I would hate to try Blender on such a system.
I suppose that technologically, the CD-ROM medium simply hasn't arrived yet; not until MPEG cards are standard components, anyway.
But can you tell me how you really feel?
When I first posted this review for comments, I thought I was being too hard on Blender. If anything, people thought I was being too kind.
I was predisposed to be kind to Blender. I know exactly how hard people have to work to make a CD-ROM magazine, and digitizing video and converting it to Quicktime, getting the sound bites and pictures arranged using Macromedia or whatever authoring software they're using, researching the web sites, etc. -- just like web page design, it's a lot of hours. So I was predisposed to giving them a good review; and it's Tori, so I wanted to like it.
But I didn't.
For a Tori completist, the opportunity of seeing Tori perform a new song, live -- even if it is a poorly-recorded, improvised, nonsense song interspersed with random interview questions and footage of panthers and babies walking on the beach -- for only $10, plus all the other stuff on the CD, well, that may be worth it. For everone else, Blender is probably worth the $10 only if you know exactly how disappointingly shallow each section will be.
In my heart, I have a lot of sympathy for the problems Blender faces and the trails that they're blazing. But despite my WANTING to like Blender, I have to admit I can't really recommend it. I haven't had any urge to remove Blender from the bottom of my stack of CD-ROMs and view any part of it again.
Better luck next issue, Blender. And good luck with this whole "New Media" thing.
P.S. I hear "Web Site Magazines" are the big thing now.