By Ty Burr
Updated May 20, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

When multimedia pundits are asked for proof that CD-ROM is a new medium of expression (rather than just a bigger box to hold data in), many point to two discs from the rock & roll camp: Xplora 1: Peter Gabriel’s Secret World (MacPlay, CD-ROM for Macintosh) and The Residents: Freak Show (Voyager, CD-ROM for Macintosh). Both want to whisk you into alternate mindscapes, but only one gets you there.

Gabriel’s disc comes on like a genteel tract. There are no arrows or messages to guide you (that would be too Western, I guess). Instead, you poke around and click into ”rooms” reflecting aspects of the pop star’s career. Hear cuts from his albums, sample the acts from his Real World label, watch footage of the WOMAD Festival, or learn more about Amnesty International. Unfortunately, while it’s hard to find fault with Gabriel’s good works or music, Xplora 1 grows more self-righteous with each spin-even the playful touches seem prim. The sound dropouts and interface glitches I encountered were awfully annoying too.

Darker yet more forgiving, Freak Show is less an advertisement for its artists, the Residents (the long-lived rock pranksters from San Francisco), than a spookily calm cyberworld built around their Freaks ‘R’ Us philosophy. At first, you navigate through an on-screen tent show, watching folks like Wanda the Worm Woman and Harry the Head do their thing. The disc really takes off when you go backstage and cajole the freaks into divulging their tawdry, moving stories. Designer Jim Ludtke (not a member of the band) is the star here: His renderings literally glow with colors you’ve never considered before. If Xplora 1 chases you off with dutiful enlightenment, Freak Show sucks you in with its hypnotic sympathy for the damned. Xplora 1: B- Freak Show: A