Music Education

An Introduction to Japanese Rock

Since World War II, US and Japanese cultures have intermingled significantly, resulting in a large American market for Japanese media. While anime might be the most prevalent example, Japanese music has also gained a significant following among listeners in the US.

Personally, I’ve been drawn to Japanese rock (J-rock) as a rock style that sounds distinctly unlike anything I’ve heard from English-speaking artists. Several artists have impressive catalogs of work that deserve more widespread recognition. Now, I don’t speak Japanese, so I can’t say anything regarding the lyrical quality of most of these artists. However, the music itself is stellar enough to enjoy on its own merits.


POLKADOT STINGRAY was my first introduction into J-rock, and I think they provide a good jumping off point for deeper exploration into the genre. Their music primarily features a high-pitched, snappy electric guitar leading their songs and a very active bass guitar that’s just satisfying to focus in on. Much of J-rock also utilizes this type of guitar playing rarely found in the US, especially in popular, contemporary rock artists. Additionally, vocalist Shizuku’s rich, breathy singing allows the more intense instrumentals to shine through A significant funk influence also permeates their discography, like on the album “Nanimono (何者)”, which is my personal favorite.


If you’re looking for a more laid-back band, then Odottebakarinokuni (踊ってばかりの国) is up your alley. The band has a much softer sound than POLKADOT STINGRAY and features a more familiar, US indie rock style compared to other J-rock artists. Tracks like “EDEN” highlight the lead vocalist’s drawn out singing and a guitar with an almost overwhelming, yet quiet, overdrive.


Noise rock has also thrived in Japan as evidenced by bands like Melt-Banana. The punk band’s work has become especially popular in the US and UK, where punk often favors pure noise over the groove found in Melt-Banana’s music. Yasuko O.’s shrieking singing on tracks like “Lie Lied Lies” gets drowned out by a guitar that blows out speakers and drums that leave your head pounding in the best possible way.


CHAI is an uncommon example of a J-rock artist who frequently uses both English and Japanese lyrics and collaborates with English-speaking artists like Gorillaz and Duran Duran. While their music can be profoundly different to most other J-rock artists, they also hold a unique sound among US and UK artists. CHAI incorporates electronica and dance into their rock that makes their sound incredibly fun. When their groove is paired with that same snappy guitar popular in J-rock music, the result is catchy, experimental, and perfect to jam out to. I highly recommend “PUNK”, which captures their style perfectly.

Band/Artist Profile Concert Review

Quarters of Change at Cat’s Cradle — 01/22/23

Quarters of Change is an alternative-rock indie band from New York City. As a quartet from the lower east side, they are helping to bring forward a new wave of NYC alt-rock. The band, formed in 2017, is composed of Ben Acker, Attila Anrather, Jasper Harris and Ben Roter. 

What started as a group of high school guys playing music together has turned into a touring band with an exponentially growing fan base. The band’s debut album, Into the Rift, was released July 2022. The 11-track compilation exemplifies their versatile alternative sound. Four months later, they released the deluxe version with three additional tracks, one of them being a personal favorite, “Blue Copper.” 

With songs like “Jaded,” “Ms. Dramatic,” “Sex” and “Die in Your Arms,” they showcase this versatility in sound. They switch between electrifying guitar riffs, catchy refrains, groovy drum beats, upbeat tempos, and slow melodies. 

The band has had some newfound success in the past years with contributions from legendary producers Tom Lord-Alge and Mikey Freedom Hart. They have also had some songs, “Kiwi” and “T Love,” featured on indie and alternative rock Spotify playlists which have helped to expand their listeners. 

Quarters of Change North American tour poster
Quarters of Change North American tour poster

The first time I saw QOC was when they opened for Laundry Day in April 2022 at Irving Plaza in New York City. The show was almost sold out and the crowd was lively. I had no idea who they were at the time and was just there for the ride. I was impressed by their stage presence and vocals, but what made me an instant fan was the mesmerizing guitar riff in the crowd favorite, Kiwi. 

Now, Quarters of Change is currently on a North American headlining tour. Luckily, I was able to secure tickets for the Cat’s Cradle date before the sell-out. 

I had bought three tickets to go with friends earlier on in Jan., while coincidentally in Manhattan on a trip. 

On the day of the show at Cat’s Cradle’s back room, my friends and I settled in for the concert right next to the stage. Being familiar with Cat’s Cradle already, I was excited about the intimacy of the performance. 

The opening support, Savoia, an alternative indie rock band also from New York got the crowd going with their eccentric performance from the lead singer and their danceable songs. I enjoyed Savoia’s set and found myself doing some head-banging, although I felt some tracks were repetitive in structure. 

Yet they still successfully got the crowd warmed up for the main show. The crowd was mainly college-aged individuals and a semi-alternative scene.

QOC came out on stage to open with “Chloe”, a catchy song with a broken-hearted tone. Many of the songs the band performed were from their new album, Into the Rift.

While “Ms. Dramatic” and “Dead” seemed to be the two crowd favorites of the night, the audience was singing along and dancing to every song. It would be fair to say that the majority of the crowd was established supporters of the group already. 

The group also played iconic hits “T Love,” “Rift,” “Blue Copper,” “Sofia,” “Kiwi” and “Depression”.  

The lead vocalist, Roter, brought high energy and amazing vocals into the performance, while Acker and Harris played clean guitar and had great flow and Anrather carried with his beats. 

Despite being cut short on time by the venue, the group managed to play two more songs for the fans which was notable. The crowd definitely appreciated the gesture.

The band members were very kind and took the time to talk to fans as well as Leksie Fetrow and myself, the WKNC reps, after the show. We sat outside and chatted for a good 30 minutes with members of both Savoia and QOC. All of them were super sweet and carried a great presence off the stage as well. 

Overall, my friends and I had a lovely time. We sang, danced and thoroughly enjoyed the concert. I would definitely love to see Quarters of Change and Savoia again sometime soon.

Thanks for reading, 

Maddie H.


“Icky Mettle” by Archers of Loaf: Classic Album Review

In music communities there is always discourse about the best bands, albums, or songs of a certain genre and time period. In the 1990s indie rock fans argued over the best or most influential bands like Sonic Youth, Pavement, Pixies, the list goes on and on. These same debates still go on today, especially within a lot of online music communities.

Through online discourse about the best bands of the 90s, younger kids have been able to rediscover artists like Duster, Slowdive, and My Bloody Valentine. Internet discourse about music has been really important to the popularization of older artists with younger generations. 

In many of these discussions about the best or most influential indie rock bands from the 90s, I feel that Archers of Loaf rarely gets mentioned. I believe they never got the right amount of praise and attention they deserved in the 90s and today. According to my parents, who turned me on to Archers of Loaf, during the 90s there was a lot of discourse about Archers of Loaf vs Pavement, and who was better (which I feel like is an unfair comparison to both bands because they sound nothing alike). Growing up my parents were huge Archers of Loaf fans and I never fully appreciated their music until I was in high school and going through an “angsty” phase.

One day I put on their first album, “Icky Mettle,” in my room, and I remember not being able to stop myself from head banging to “Web in Front” and jumping around my room to “Might.” The album quickly became my go to album to listen to in the car, the album I listen to when class starts in five minutes and I’m ten minutes away and need something upbeat to get me to walk faster, an album I listen to when I’m frustrated, and so much more.

Archers of Loaf are a four-piece classic indie rock-outlet who formed in 1991 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The band is composed of lead singer and guitarist Eric Bachman, who has also had a solo career for over 20 years, drummer Mark Price, guitarist Eric Johnson, and bassist Matt Gentling, who is also the bassist for Band of Horses.  

I started writing this piece a while ago but was having trouble describing my love for the band’s debut record because nothing I could write would perfectly capture how amazing and important this record is to me, many other people, and how influential it would be to future indie rock music.

However, the band recently released their first new studio album in over two decades, “Reason in Decline” on October 21, 2022, which inspired me to revisit their discography more and dive back into “Icky Mettle.” 

Their debut album, which came out in 1993, combines elements of noise pop, power-pop, slowcore, and the slacker-aesthetic sound that was popularized in the 90s by acts like Sonic Youth and Pavement, is my favorite of theirs. “Icky Mettle” is a perfectly balanced record. It has just the right amount of angst and abrasive songs, tongue in cheek pop tunes, and slow burners. The opening track “Web in Front,” is one of my favorite songs and most iconic album openers.

The song is powerful and driving, has amazing guitar work, iconic drum beats, and lyrics you will find yourself instantly singing along to. The chorus of the song repeats the lines “all I ever wanted was to be your spine,” Bachman is crying out to be wanted and needed by someone, and he is instantly opening up and showing he is not afraid to be vulnerable on this record. 

The third track on the album, “Wrong,” has some of my favorite lyrics on the album. Lead singer Eric Bachmann sings, “I do not think that you could like me, anyway / Because you are inferior to me,” but when the chorus repeats, he changes the word inferior to “superior in all aspects to me” changing the emotions from hatred directed toward the subject to hatred towards himself, which is incredibly personal.

Bachman’s poetic lyrics always stand out to me and he has many changes in his songs that will hit you right in the gut. He has some of the most clever lyrics from this scene. The instrumental on the song sounds angry. Price bangs the drums as if this is the last time they’ll play the song and Johnson shreds some of the most interesting guitar parts in indie rock: nobody plays like him and he definitely created a signature sound on this record. 

“Wrong” is followed by another song fueled by anger and loss titled “You and Me.” It’s a sludgy and emotional track. It starts slow with just the bass line, it’s dark, heavy and consuming. The rest of the band kicks in after a few seconds with crashing cymbals, aggressive vocals, and screeching guitars. The energy on this record sets them apart from so many other indie rock bands in the 90s. This record made me realize how powerful and beautiful and emotional anger could be as Bachman seems to release all his repression and pours his heart into songs that ended up sounding so full and enormous. 

Towards the middle of the record lies one of my favorite tunes on the album, “Plumb Line.” It was one of the first songs of theirs I got into and it’s the perfect tongue-in-cheek pop song to break up the heavy hitting first half of the album. The song starts with a catchy and perfectly fuzzy guitar hook from Johnson and a driving bass line and drums from Gentling and Price.

The chorus is my favorite part of the song when Bachman sings, “she’s an indie rocker and nothings gonna stop her, plumb line says she’s a bitch.” He was clearly hurt by a really cool girl even though he tries to hide it by singing “clearly this is your loss, clearly it’s not my loss.” She’s out of his league, so she’s instantly a bitch. It’s really silly, and at the same time endearing, because it’s like the mental simplicity we all wish we could have, or at least I do.

You got to love a classic sassy breakup song for when you want to direct all your energy outward. This is honestly one of the most perfect break up albums, as Bachman goes through the bitter aspects of a break up and his inability to look inward. I find the immaturity of some of the lyrics comforting, because it can be hard to face our insecurities and downfalls.

Bachman also goes through conflicting feelings of self-hatred at times which is humanizing and grounds the record, and it’s refreshing to hear him admit his most vulnerable feelings. At the end of the song there’s a chanting part repeating “she’s an indie rocker and nothings gonna stop her” which is reminiscent of the chanting at the end of “Web in Front” and I love when Archers do that. 

The record closes with the song “Slow Worm” and the song is an earworm for sure, it’s a great ending track, it’s amazingly catchy, and leaves you wanting more from the band. Especially in the last minute of the song as the feedback swirls and rings out over consistent drum hits. 

After releasing their debut record, the band continued to release more projects full of energy and passion. They have an extensive discography, and another one of my favorite releases from them is a five track EP titled “Vs the Greatest of All Time,” which is another classic, yet overlooked, project from them. The EP was released a year after “Icky Mettle.”

The energy on the EP is so pure and raw, it’s impossible to recreate. Nothing makes me feel more unstoppable than listening to the opening track “Audiowhore.” They sure have a knack for setting the tone of their records in the first few minutes. The guitar parts in “Audiowhore” are swirling and powerful, carrying the angst of the tune. The other four tracks on the EP are equally as amazing, the next song “Lowest Part Is Free!” holds on to the energy of the first track and continues to build upon it.

Another classic song of theirs comes next, “Freezing Point.” This track is one of the closest comparisons to Pavement that I could see. It’s the perfect indie rock tune, more lo-fi, the chorus is super catchy, and I could easily see Stephen Malkmus singing the chorus. 

Their energy was (and continues to be) chaotic, consuming, inspiring, and authentic. Archers of Loaf created some of the most amazing music of the 1990s and are often forgotten about. They changed indie rock music and created a distinct sound and energy that nobody can replicate.

If you want to be cool and listen to who I believe to be an underrated band, you can check out their music on Bandcamp and other streaming services, you can also catch them at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro on March 25 in support of their new album. And if for some reason somebody from the Archers of Loaf is reading this, or one of their friends sees this, can you please tell them to bring back the Archers of Loaf Pennants?

Classic Album Review

Bent Knee’s “Land Animal”: Dynamic Rock at its Finest

Bent Knee was founded in 2009 between Ben Levin and Courtney Swain as a mashup of the members names: Ben and (Cour)tney. They’ve danced between more industrial rock at their founding to hyper-pop inspired, avant-garde rock as of their most recent album. Here, though, I want to discuss their most popular album, “Land Animal”. I believe this to be the greatest amalgamation of the band’s talents, especially lead singer Swain.

Musical Versatility in Bent Knee’s Hands

Bent Knee has a knack for progression throughout the runtime of their songs, which is amplified by the average 5:03 minute length of tracks on this album. Starting with lead track “Terror Bird”, the song starts with some simple, low-key drumming and rhythm guitar led by Swain’s voice. Eventually, the song picks up as a heavy, overdriven electric guitar drowns out Swain’s beautifully quivering falsetto.

Music Video for song “Terror Bird” by Bent Knee.

Likewise, “These Hands” highlights the musical storytelling Bent Knee is capable of. The song never repeats itself in structure, and each new phase feels fresh and invigorating. The bridge towards the end of the song, especially, seems to throw guitars and drums all around your ears as it goes on, creating an incredibly dynamic soundscape.

The Haunting Holiness of Bent Knee’s Voice

“Holy Ghost” is probably where Swain gets to show off her vocal range best on the album. Her loud, nasally singing on the chorus feels straight out of 90s grunge bands like Hole. She perfectly encapsulates a work-induced loneliness that breaks her. Even her quiet singing on the bridge sounds like shes about to have a mental breakdown, especially with how her voice echoes with delay.

These qualities persist through the album, of course, but they take center stage on “Holy Ghost”. Despite their often heavy subject material, Bent Knee’s music also becomes incredibly cathartic to sing along to because of these qualities. I’ve actually found listening to “Land Animal” in my car, screaming choruses to no one in particular, to be a great form of emotional relief.

I am shrinking in the laptop light
Messages and blessings from each part of my mind
When I’m writing fiction I can shriek in real life

Lyrics from “Holy Ghost” by Bent Knee

Concluding Thoughts

Again, I highly recommend “Land Animal”, and the rest of Bent Knee’s work for that matter. If you’re listening to this album for the first time, I suggest giving it your full attention, letting the guitars wash over you and the lyrics penetrate you.

Rating: 8.5/10

— DJ Cashew


Top Charts 1/24

1SOFIE ROYERHarlequinStones Throw
2MAMALARKYPocket FantasyFire Talk
3DIFFERENT JANERoomsSelf-Released
4STELLA DONNELLYFloodSecretly Canadian/Secretly Group
5AKAI SOLOSpirit RoamingBackwoodz
7070 SHAKEYou Can’t Kill MeG.O.O.D./Def Jam
8REDVEILlearn 2 swimSelf-Released
10LUCY DACUSSpotify Singles [EP]Matador
11ROBERT GLASPERBlack Radio III: Supreme EditionLoma Vista/Concord
12ARMAND HAMMERHaramBackwoodz Studioz
13DENZEL CURRYMelt My Eyez See Your FutureLoma Vista/Concord
16AUDREY NUNAa liquid breakfast DELUXEArista
17GHAIS GUEVARAThere Will Be No Super-SlaveSelf-Released
19LAVA LA RUEHi-Fidelity [EP]Marathon
20MAVI“Chinese Finger Trap” [Single]Mavi 4 Mayor
22PERRY MAYSUNPainting Naked [EP]Self-Released
23SCUBADIVERGodspeed ToSelf-Released
24SHY HIGHGoodbye Delicious [EP]Self-Released
25STATUS/NON-STATUSSurely TravelYou’ve Changed
26TALEN MILLERBedroom SymphonySelf-Released
27THEY HATE CHANGEFinally, NewJagjaguwar/Secretly Group
28YOUNG WABOMirage [EP]New College
29ACTION BRONSONCocodrillo TurboLoma Vista/Concord

Top Adds

1DELLA ZYR모호함 속의 너 Nebulous YouLonginus
2BETCOVERTamago 卵Self-Released
3ANNA TIVELOutsidersMama Bird
4DARKSOFTBeigeificationLook Up
5YO LA TENGO“Aselestine” [Single]Matador
6A COUNTRY WESTERNAn Insult to the SportTopshelf

Chainsaw Charts 1/24

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2DEIQUISITORApotheosisExtremely Rotten
3DRYADThe Abyssal PlainProsthetic
4JESUS PIECE“An Offering To The Night” [Single]Century Media
5LEATHERWe Are The ChosenSPV/Steamhammer
7WINDS OF LENG“Into Leng” [Single]Self-Released
8MASSA NERADerramar | Querer | BorrarZegema Beach
9LORNA SHOREPain RemainsCentury Media
10SCATTERED STORMIn This Dying Sun [EP]Blood Blast

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1OBITUARYDying Of EverythingRelapse
2HELLRIPPERWarlock Grim & Withered HagsPeaceville
3WICKED INNOCENCEOpium EmpireBurning Dogma

Underground Charts 1/24

1GHAIS GUEVARAjobs not finished pack [EP]Self-Released
4REDVEILlearn 2 swimSelf-Released
5BILLY WOODSAethiopesBackwoodz Studioz
6ACTION BRONSONCocodrillo TurboLoma Vista/Concord
9SCUBADIVERNation [EP]Self-Released
10JAY HOLLYWOODIsaiahChelsea Baby

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Afterhours Charts 1/24

2LYZZAMosquitoBig Dada
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10CLUB ANGEL6AM [EP]Astral People/PIAS

Afterhours Adds

4CY GORMANHiwaveHeard and Felt
5FORDMASTIFFCounterfeitMunicipal K7
6BILL JOBS“NOT MY PROBLEM” [Single]Self-Released

Celeste, Tackling Anxiety with Synths

On January 25, 2018, a small team led by Maddy Thorson and Noel Berry at Extremely OK Games (EXOK) released Celeste. The game quickly grew in popularity as a 2D platformer with smooth, intuitive movement, a heartfelt narrative, and a stellar soundtrack. The impressive levels of depth to the game also helped launch a vibrant speedrunning community as it is the 6th most active game on

I want to dive deeper, though, into how the music in this game ties together those other elements. Between Lena Raine’s composition and Power Up Audio’s sound design, Celeste has been nominated for (and won) 7 different awards for its score. There will be spoilers for the first 7 chapters that comprise the main game, so go play Celeste first if you haven’t already.

Lena Raine, composer and producer for Celeste. Photo courtesy of Sara Ranlett, under Creative Commons.

Opening Anxieties

Chapter 1, Forsaken City, establishes our protagonist and her goal of climbing Celeste Mountain. Madeline travels through an abandoned town with run-down steam machinery as her theme plays in the background. Using a high-pitched synth in a major key, the theme sounds hopeful and optimistic.

Along the way, she meets a fellow climber, Theo, who mostly just wants pictures for his Instapix followers as opposed to actually reaching the summit. Eventually, she finds an old campsite with a memorial “dedicated to those who perished on the climb”. The music dies down, leaving just a piano repeating the same three notes softly, and the chapter ends.

Chapter 2, Old Site, introduces Madeline’s antagonist, who refers to herself as “Part of You”. The community has instead nicknamed her Badeline so I’ll use that name here. She casts doubt on Madeline’s journey and reflects her anxieties, uncovering Madeline’s true motivations for climbing Celeste Mountain.

About halfway through the chapter, she begins chasing Madeline by imitating the player’s movements, killing her if they touch. Here, the music intensifies as Badeline’s theme begins playing. The same synth for Madeline’s theme plays a similar melody, but lowered an octave and slowed down, creating a spookier, haunting melody that echoes on. The parallels between Madeline and Badeline are obvious through gameplay and music, though their ideas still clash.

Screenshot of Chapter 2 of Celeste. Photo courtesy of Maddy Makes Games, under Creative Commons.

Books and a Breakdown

Madeline makes it up to a hotel on the mountain for chapter 3, Celestial Resort, which is often considered harder than the next two or three chapters. A soft piano introduces the chapter as Madeline meets Mr. Oshiro, the hotel owner who appears to be a ghost. As the player progresses through the level, Oshiro continues to grow more insecure about Madeline not wanting to stay.

Badeline tells Oshiro that Madeline only wanted to help him to satiate her ego, which Madeline tries to argue against. A boss fight with an enraged Oshiro ensues, and the music grows violent. An 8-bit synth mixes with Oshiro’s ghastly theme as vibrant drumming intensifies the interaction.

Madeline: If I disappear now, Mr. Oshiro could have a meltdown.
​And maybe I can actually do something good. For once.

Quote from Chapter 3 of Celeste.

Madeline was advised earlier by Theo not to try to help Oshiro with his anxieties for her own safety, but she refused, saying she wanted to “do something good for once”. So, Badeline was not that wrong in what she told Oshiro, leaving players with a sense that Madeline and Badeline are not as good and bad as they seem to be respectively.

Magnifying Mirrors

Chapter 5, Mirror Temple, delves into a visual representation of Madeline’s worries through a labyrinth of puzzles. The score is quiet, subtle, and devoid of either Madeline or Badeline’s themes. As a result, players feel alone and lost in the temple, allowing doubt about their own abilities to creep in. Madeline eventually gets sucked into a mirror where she enters rooms now occupied by seekers.

The temple amplifies the mountain’s ability to bring out a part of oneself that they despise, so these seekers represent Madeline’s worries about climbing the mountain. She feels they’re attacking her. The same vibrant drums from the boss fight with Oshiro return, indicating that Madeline feels as stressed now as she did then.

Revelation and Reform

Chapter 6, Reflection, opens with Madeline telling Part of Herself that she doesn’t need her anymore. Badeline is only slowing her down. It seems like Madeline has finally defeated Badeline as bold, optimistic synths come in. And then, Badeline breaks. She begins berating Madeline for thinking she can just neglect Part of Herself and Madeline begins having a panic attack. Badeline worsens her stress and they end up falling all the way back to the base of the mountain.

They meet again later, and the last boss fight in the game commences. The music swells louder and more complex than ever. Madeline and Badeline’s themes alternate now as the fight progresses. Everything feels so grand that this difficult section feels invigorating rather than discouraging to play.

Madeline tries to keep calming Badeline down until they are both beaten down. Madeline tells her counterpart that she was wrong to leave instead of helping her, and that they have to work together instead of separating again. They merge into one character and the player unlocks a new mechanic.

Chapter 7, Summit, ends the game by progressing through remixed versions of each of the previous chapters. Now each chapter’s music is accompanied by triumphant strings and a piano version of both character’s themes. The progression of the game becomes much more vertical as it feels like they are speeding up the mountain far faster together than they ever did separately.

Screenshot of Chapter 7 of Celeste. Photo courtesy of Maddy Makes Games, under Creative Commons

The last section features a series of checkpoints counting down from 30 as players are encouraged to jump, dash, and climb their way to the summit. As the player reaches the final checkpoint, the score fades into the background so a sense of relief can wash over. Madeline was really able to climb the mountain. The player was able to climb the mountain.

Closing Thoughts

Aside from the contents of the music within each level, there are a couple other elements I wish to praise. No part of the score ever grows stale, since there are so many small variations of each chapter’s music. They never seem to loop on themselves.

The way EXOK handles anxiety in Celeste is remarkably original as well. Much of the story was created through Maddy Thorson’s own experiences, and there’s even a genuinely helpful strategy at the end of Chapter 4 for alleviating panic attacks, both for Madeline and the player.

Although Celeste’s narrative was primarily focused on anxiety and how to reckon with it, many trans people have found the narrative to describe their experiences very well too. In fact, this coincidence likely comes from Maddy’s experiences as well, since she came out as trans not long after Celeste released. In a follow-up DLC to Celeste, the last cutscene shows a trans pride flag on Madeline’s desk, confirming that Madeline the character is also trans, which is a nice touch.

Anyway, play Celeste if you haven’t before, so you can greater experience this indie masterpiece. And if you have played it before, replay it and see what connections you can make to your own life. Keep on a lookout for EXOK’s next game too, Earthblade.


I See You, Opal – A Review of Jack Stauber’s Magnum Opus

On Halloween, 2020, Adult Swim released a series of short films titled “adult swim smalls”. Many of these featured the work of Jack Stauber, an animator and pop musician who uses many different styles and genres to create moving, eccentric pieces of art. One of these works was “OPAL”, a 12-minute amalgamation of ballads, pop songs, and animation.

Now, I highly recommend you go watch this film before continuing on with this review. It’s a fantastic work of art and the music is pretty neat I think. Also this review will just make more sense. You will find so many different analysis videos talking about “OPAL”, so instead I’m going to discuss my own experience and feelings watching it for the first time.

“OPAL”, a short film created by Jack Stauber.

Opal and the Plot Summary

I’m going to give a brief overview of “OPAL” here for people who refuse to watch the actual video. The opening scene shows a family gathered around a small, likely malnourished child named Opal as she picks up a burger and subsequently starts dancing around with it in her hand. She sees a dark, decrepit house across the street before the shutters on the top window swing open, releasing cries of anguish and despair as a ghastly presence spills out around it.

Still, she gets curious and sneaks over to this dark abode. The first thing she encounters is an old, obese smoker who calls the girl Claire. He seems to be her grandfather, and he asks her to bring him some cigarettes before launching into a tirade about how Claire shouldn’t try to get him to quit smoking because he’s fine, actually. Also, he’s likely blind.

After a while, he gets suspicious that this girl is not actually his granddaughter and starts chasing after Claire as she runs up the stairs in fear. She’s stopped by being seen through the doorway by a man surrounded by mirrors who we can believe to be Claire’s dad. He’s clearly dealing with narcissism coupled with insecurities about his appearance and hardly ever talks to Claire directly. Also, he never sees Claire’s face.

Eventually, she runs off and ends up being grabbed by a drunk, pill-abusing woman who we can assume is Claire’s mom. The mom keeps calling herself similar to or the same as Claire even if that’s not actually true. Also, she never sees Claire in focus.

Opal finally escapes and ends up in the room with the top window mentioned earlier. Through that window, she sees a billboard for “Opal’s Burgers” with the same family from the opening scene, but a healthier, well-fed girl. Claire begins to have a mental breakdown and retreats into her own head while her (probably actual) family bangs on the door to get in.

Opal and the Hamburger

The opening scene and everything to do with the first house is honestly kinda confusing to open with. I mean, it makes sense by the end, like a Tarantino movie, but it makes the later tragedy even harder to stomach. Opal’s here having a good time actually being seen by people she can consider family.

“We See You, Opal” is more of a thematic intro ballad than an actual song, so it doesn’t really leave much impact, especially since I didn’t know what “OPAL” is about yet. However, the pure, innocent joy that Opal gets just from picking up a burger is infectious.

Opal has a family who cares about her and doesn’t try to project themselves onto her and it’s really sweet. Of course, we’re only 2 minutes into the film at this point, so things were bound to get worse. The cries that come from the dark house are genuinely chilling. Opal’s dad’s warnings not to look at or think about the house are pretty spot on to how suburban parents handle local crime, homelessness, drugs, and Black bad people. Or maybe that was just my family.

Opal and the Cigarettes

A pile of used cigarettes.
Cigarettes, Photo courtesy of Ardfern, under Creative Commons

The scene with Opal/Claire and her grandfather is such a dramatic shift in tone delving into the abuse Claire faces on what is probably a daily basis. The way the grandfather’s head seems to snap around at the sound of a wood block is extremely disconcerting.

“Easy to Breathe” during this scene did not really have much going for it to be honest. I mean, thematically it works really well with how Claire is never seen for herself throughout the film, but the music itself is bland. The piano uses very simple chord progressions and the drums add basically nothing interesting. The backing vocals singing “la, la, la, la” are fun though.

Also, something I didn’t notice first time around was how claymation was implemented into “OPAL”. I’ve seen other Jack Stauber shorts before so the clay heads of the first family and Claire were not a shock, but it’s weird to see them placed in the frame so that they basically just cover the head of Stauber’s body in different outfits. Claire is the only character to get her entire body in claymation, probably so that her malnutrition can be exemplified.

Opal and the Egomaniac

On first watch, the scene between Claire and her father felt both refreshing and familiar while still bringing that disturbing touch that Stauber is often known for. Although I don’t think it’s Stauber’s intent, the father reminds me of being an “ally” to marginalized communities. He’s completely unaware of his own biases while still seeing himself as a “tiny growing thing” on a journey. And of course, he refuses to lose the audience that sees through his narcissism while he ignores any and all issues at hand.

The song “Mirror Man” in this scene creates such a dichotomy with the previous song in that this feels so sterile and clean compared to the dirtiness of “Easy to Breathe”. Also, “Mirror Man” is much more in line with the sound of Stauber’s discography outside of this film, including the voices, which he uses often. Overall, this track is definitely the most fun and enjoyable in the film, which is probably why this scene is the least impactful to the emotional punch at the end.

Now I sit here in reflection chamber

Fixing myself so that all can savor.

Lyrics from “Mirror Man” by Jack Stauber

Opal and the Booze

Seeing Claire’s mother for the first time creeped me out far more than any other character thus far. Her drunken stupor is clearly something that happens quite often for Claire to have to deal with. Her narcissism is probably the most traumatizing for Claire, as Claire has to fight fear and hopelessness in order to be better than her mother who sees Claire as a reflection of herself. Her dad is more neglectful than directly abusive, and she seems to almost exist in a sort of business relationship with her grandfather.

And that song, “Virtuous Cycle,” is just so chilling. The piano is something straight out of “Friday the 13th”. The song’s breakdown at the end as a montage of the mother’s abuse plays is by far the most haunting part of the whole film. It’s unclear whether these are the mother’s own traumas that she’s relaying down to Claire or whether these are just a collection of abuses towards Claire. Either way, the use of “Mama” in the song is the most disrespectful thing to happen to Claire that we see. Claire is fully justified in not seeing that woman as family, let alone her mama.

Opal and the Hamburger (reprise)

That ending is just a punch to the gut. Opal and her family don’t actually exist, they are just the closest thing to a loving family that Claire has reference to. Her house is so isolated that she may not ever see anyone other than her relatives. The reprise of “We See You, Opal” has such a twist of irony to it now that Claire’s troubles are not “miles away” but right outside her bedroom door.

I still don’t think I’ve seen anything as creatively diverse in medium and unified in theme as “OPAL”. Stauber was responsible for all of the singing, all of the acting, much of the animation, and most, if not all of the music. I highly commend his work as an artist, and I hope you all go on to visit more of his projects.