1 May, 2009
Anyone have a spare $1,000? 'Cos I want longer legs.
I know; BoingBoing's mistaken and these leg extenders plainly have the cloven hooves of a satyr, but still: WANT!
15 November, 2008
Review: 'Neverwhere' (graphic novel) (Neil Gaiman/Mike Carey & Glenn Fabry, 2006)
I only have a very vague memory of watching 'Neverwhere' when it was first shown on TV in 1996, but I recall thinking its concepts and story far exceeded the (usual) low-budget BBC execution of it.
I didn't know it at the time, of course, but that was my first exposure to Neil Gaiman's work. Years later, I read 'The Sandman', having frequently heard it recommended. No, I didn't read it, I devoured it; the attraction didn't diminish to mere 'reading' until at least the third time. In the considerable wake of that, I discovered that Gaiman had been responsible for 'Neverwhere' (with Lenny Henry, of all people), and that he'd subsequently released it as a novel, which I loved too.
Hence, I was excited to see that there's a graphic novel adaptation of 'Neverwhere' – and disappointed. As I've implied, I have a certain emotional investment in Gaiman's Londons (yes, plural), and have well-defined visualisations of the characters. I was prepared to be challenged, but not this much: the characters look nothing like I'd expected and, more importantly, nothing like Gaiman described.
The linked image shows Croup, Door & Vandemar, L->R.
I'd expected Croup & Vandemar to be sinister yet anonymous; I'd imagined neat, if seedy, black suits. I hadn't expected a frock coat and top hat, nor a Fifties quiff and sideburns. Gaiman describes them as like "a fox and a wolf", not a rat and a bear, and specifically as wearing greasy black suits of a modern cut.
From the TV series, not to mention Lenny Henry's involvement, I'd expected the Marquis de Carabas to be black (Gaiman merely specifies he has extremely dark skin), but not literally, inhumanly so, a Regency dandy with long white hair and only eyes & mouth visible in an utterly black face.
Worst, I just don't see the need to depict Door as a lingerie model. Gaiman describes her as a girl (i.e. a teenager) in multiple layers of bulky clothes, which is somewhat contradicted in Fabry's version by legs bare but for suspendered stockings (miraculously unladdered). Somehow Gaiman fails to mention a gravity-defying cleavage, too. I'd have thought that rather memorable.
That's rather the point. Fabry's highly-detailed renditions are far more visually distinctive, even dramatic, than Gaiman's and in their own way are equally valid creations (Maybe. Croup & Vandemar's squalid ordinariness is part of their horror, and I just don't see the necessity of 'sexing-up' Door.). As Mike Carey says in the introduction, changes had to be made in adapting the novel to graphical format, in terms of narrative and subplots, and one shouldn't expect 'the comic of the book'. That's entirely valid (though it's a pity to lose Gaiman's prose), but I can't help thinking this deviates a bit too far from the original, even contradicting it.
Oh; and the Americanization: "favor", indeed, and a US phone number on the 'missing' poster. Tsk. It's odd, as there are several very British cultural references in the backgrounds; even a specific brand of teabags in one panel.
I think I recommended the graphic novel, but very, very emphatically not as an alternative to the book, which I recommend far more and which should be read and absorbed first, before the alternative visualisations intrude into the richer world inside one's own imagination.
30 May, 2008
Review: Blessed are the Bonds (The Pax Cecilia, 2007)
Fancy some free music for the weekend?
Last year, New York band The Pax Cecilia distributed their album 'Blessed are the Bonds' as 'proper', pressed CDs in 'real' digipacks absolutely for free, to anyone who requested them, merely in return for a promise to spread the word – yes, they want people to copy their CDs for friends.
In February that ceased, with the dwindling stock of CDs being held back for (free) distribution at concerts. However, the album is now available for download from their website in non-DRM'd 192kbps .mp3 format. It's still entirely free, but if you like what you hear, there's a PayPal donation link on the download page.
'Blessed are the Bonds' demonstrates a high level of musicianship, production and general professionalism – this isn't the band's debut album (their 'Nouveau' CD was distributed the same way) and they're not unsigned because of any lack of ability. Rather, it's an apparent desire to distribute the music from band to listener without the restrictions of an intermediary, plus the implausibility of pigeonholing music which combines progressive metal, post-rock and ambient soundscapes, from a band with limited idea about where their tastes will take them in future. Interviewed for Deaf Sparrow last September, Kent Fairman mentioned a desire to follow 'Blessed are the Bonds' with a full-on 'heavy' album, or maybe something which "delves even deeper into conceptual elements and the possibilities of recording technologies". Not an easy career plan to market....
The opening tracks in particular are post-rock from the metal end of the rock spectrum rather than the more orchestral sound of Godspeed You! Black Emperor or ethereal sound of Sigur Rós, yet admirers of those bands, Explosions In The Sky and even the dark ambient Bass Communion would also find much of interest in subsequent tracks.
The (stereotypical?) post-rock climaxes are extremely heavy, but other sections incorporate melancholic piano and strings; few bands manage that balance without the very disparate elements feeling 'tacked on'.
Labels are of limited use, of course, but one I'd be particularly reluctant to use is 'post-metal', as that term is generally understood. A fairer description, referencing a band many are likely to have heard of, would be 'Godspeed You! Black Emperor does metalcore, with occasional vocals'.
The vocals/lyrics may be a slight weak point, particularly a couple of instances of incoherent shouted vocals, thankfully brief. There are minimal vocals overall: two tracks of the nine are fully instrumental, three have less than a dozen lines of lyrics each and the remaining three are primarily instrumentals. I haven't given the lyrics much attention (though my immediate impression is that they're overblown); it's claimed that there's an overall concept, but I'm afraid that has eluded me so far.
One thing I have noticed is nice sequencing: though each track is strong enough to stand alone, I find the album works particularly well as a coherent hour-long trip.
As I said when I discovered Gazpacho last December, I don't have a new favourite band, but I'm certainly happy to recommend you give 'Blessed are the Bonds' a try, if any of the above sounds interesting.
2 February, 2008
Review: Title Temporarily Unavailable (2008)
I can't help agreeing with these reviews at LoveFilm; I found it literally unwatchable too.
4 January, 2008
Catching up with the flow, IV
In March 2005, I joined Amazon DVD Rental. Four months later, I commented on those I'd seen, and repeated the exercise in December 2005 and 2006. In 2007, I rented:
Paths Of Glory – Reviewed here.
The Sea Inside – Excellent, humanising the difficult issue of euthanasia.
Psycho – The 1960 original, obviously, not the bizarrely pointless 1999 remake. Nowadays it's obviously impossible to watch this without preknowledge of the central event, but I rather wish I could have done. I hadn't realised that the film begins with an entirely different plot; the events at the motel must have been genuinely surprising to the 1960 audience.
Vertigo – Very impressive writing and execution, if a little disturbing in places.
Manhattan – I'd always thought Woody Allen's screen persona was something of a caricature, but at one point I had to stop the DVD and watch the scene three times. The man can act. More generally, the film dragged, and I kept glancing at the clock, but it's stayed with me, and would reward a second viewing.
La Belle Noiseuse – Very slow (a four-hour character study) and a little depressing, but if you are inclined to brave it, be aware that the film is spread over two DVDs – rent both!
Death In Venice – I rented this simply because I had a holiday in Venice booked, and I wanted a little background viewing. Ugh. Stultifying. The content was rather good, but could have been conveyed just as effectively in half, even a third, of the time. Much might be made of the sumptuous costumes & settings and overall lush visuals, but Visconti's direction lingered on these elements for far, far too long. And Venice itself was barely shown – most of the film takes place in the Lido.
The Piano Teacher – As soon became apparent, this was another film by Michael Haneke, director of 'Caché' ('Hidden') – the visual and narrative styles were very similar, and similarly the audience was expected to work hard to interpret the characters and even key plot details. I hadn't realised any of this when I rented the DVD; I'd heard of 'La Pianiste' as an examination of power-transfer and psychological domination in relationships, though I'd better stress that it couldn't be further from vacuous bdsm p*rn! There were a couple of graphic, frankly grotesque, moments, but they were the exception in an otherwise extremely internalised, thought-provoking film.
The Insider – Very good. This is what I'd hoped for and expected from 'All the President's Men': a dramatisation of specific events, but with wider applicability to general themes of moral integrity. Well-told, too.
La Dolce Vita – Maybe I was in the wrong mood, but I couldn't get past the perception of this supposed classic as a sequence of barely-linked set pieces; it totally failed to hold my attention, and I gave up after about an hour. I rather regret that now.
Love And Human Remains – Certain people will understand why I rented this, but it's not great: moderately interesting characters and a certain darkness elevate it from the mere farce it superficially seems to be, but not far.
Wings Of Desire – The Anglicised title's awful; a direct translation of 'Der Himmel über Berlin' as 'The Skies (or Heavens) over Berlin' is far more apt. It would be accurate to say it's about an angel, one of many dispassionately watching humanity, who wishes to experience rather than merely observe. However, that summary doesn't adequately describe a film which itself needs to be experienced. Incidentally, apart from the central concept, it's entirely dissimilar to the US 'remake', 'City of Angels' – direct comparison flatters neither film.
All About Eve – Far better than I'd expected: my expectations, that it was a light, frothy film, were entirely incorrect. Recommended.
The Thirteenth Floor – Reviewed here.
Fanny And Alexander – I hadn't expected a TV mini-series filling two DVDs, and may have missed some of the subtilties of 19th Century Swedish society, but extended insight into characters and family life transcended the specific setting, and was very compelling.
Chinatown – I wasn't entirely sure about this initially, as I haven't liked some of Roman Polanski's films and think Jack Nicholson has been dangerously close to self-parody at several points in his career. However, those preconceptions were misplaced here, and I enjoyed this noir-ish film. I particularly appreciated the nature of the ending, though I can't state why, obviously.
Ran – Visually stunning, not only for the famous burning castle but also for the general cinematography and stylised structure; it was like watching a very mannered stage play or succession of narrated paintings. However, my overwhelming impression was that the middle of film was drastically too long; I thought it had to be drawing to a close after about 1hr40' of the 2½-hour film.
Incidentally, this is sold/offered for rental on two discs, but it's safe to rent just the first if one only wants to see the film.
Saw II – The original was an excellent, self-contained film, but this seemed to be a classic 'we-didn't-think-we'd-need-to-write-a' sequel lacking the tight focus and strong, rules-based internal logic which had sustained the first film. The acting, or perhaps characterisation, was clichéd and the plot was weak until the very end, when it suddenly did match the earlier standard. It's almost as if that was written first and everything else was filler leading to the twist.
On The Waterfront – Excellent, particularly the electrifying and justifiably famous 'contender' scene. Afterwards I found it interesting to read about the context in which the film was made; it would probably be possible to do that research beforehand without ruining the story, and hence perhaps gain greater appreciation whilst watching.
Battlestar Galactica: Season 2 – The 13-episode series (very good, though not as good as the first series) was provided on five discs of the 6-DVD set; in hindsight I could have omitted the sixth, which merely contained justifiably deleted scenes.
Eros – Three short films on the theme of erotic love by three prominent directors. The first, by Wong Kar Wai, was as good as I expected and very much in the style of 'In The Mood For Love' and '2046'. The second, by Steven Soderbergh, was a noirish tale which didn't really grab me. The third, by Michelangelo Antonioni, was merely embarrassing: an old man's self-indulgence.
Dekalog – I had problems renting part of this 4-DVD set and enjoyed one of the ten films, so decided to buy my own copy. Which I haven't got round to watching yet....
Sympathy For Mr Vengeance – Heart-rending: the first of Park Chan-wook's 'Sympathy' trilogy certainly inspires sympathy for pretty much every reluctant participant in the novel, convoluted sequence of events.
Casanova – This TV mini-series featured attractive costumes. Unfortunately, I can't think of much else in its favour, and it certainly didn't earn three full hours of my attention.
X-Men 3: The Last Stand – Yawn. A sequel too far. Plenty of shouting and explosions, and as forgettable as that implies.
The Incredibles – Pretty good story and interesting technically.
Volver – Few other directors could elevate this story from farce, but Almodovar managed to provide a touching insight into the lives of four (no, five) women.
Killing Me Softly – I'm not entirely sure why I rented this.
The Bridge On The River Kwai – Very good, particularly showcasing Alec Guinness's acting. I hadn't realised that his was a supporting character, so was slightly disappointed by the focus on the American escapee/saboteur, particularly the slightly comedic subplots, but that's a very minor criticism.
As Tears Go By – An entertaining example of Wong Kar Wai's earlier writing & direction. Recommended.
The Manchurian Candidate – For once, I can't decide whether I prefer this, the 1962 Frank Sinatra original, or the 2004 Denzel Washington remake. Both are good.
Days Of Being Wild – What could be better than existentialism and compelling characters, performed well, in an excellent production with excellent direction (from Wong Kar Wai)? It's not quite so 'heavy' or pretentious as that suggests; the pace is... contemplative and the interlinked plots initially obscure, but I did enjoy it, and once one spots the narrative structure, the artistry is clear.
All Quiet On The Western Front – It took me a while to become accustomed to the dated, very American colloquial manner of the characters (which would presumably have been naturalistic to the 1930 audience, adding impact) and the plot development seemed very obvious, even heavy-handed, by modern standards but for all that, the quality and message were no less poignant.
Smokin' Aces – Initially, this looked like an Americanised cash-in on Guy Ritchie's 'Lock, Stock...' subgenre, but it failed in every respect – a bit of a mess.
Million Dollar Baby – I rented this expecting a retelling of the 'Rocky' story with overlaid gender issues, and wondering why that'd have attracted such critical acclaim. I was totally mistaken: this wasn't what it seemed, and the twist was genuinely affecting. Excellent.
Seven Samurai – It's a credit to the storytelling (visual, too) that this rather long film didn't feel long. I haven't been able to say that for many Kurosawa films.
The Crow - Salvation – 'Rent, don't buy' might seem to be faint praise, but if you liked the original film, give this, the third, a chance. It's not not great art (so what?) and not radical progression of the concept, but it's a huge improvement on the second film.
Babel – Stunning: the interlinked (and intercut) stories of four families in as many countries and languages were fascinating, leaving me eager to see Alejandro González Iñárritu's other films.
Great music, too – I added the soundtrack album to my Amazon wishlist immediately.
Metropolis – I'd expected this to be hard work, more of an education into the history of film than real entertainment. Wrong! The image quality was also far better than I'd expected, being the result of a painstaking renovation project, itself explained on the 'bonus' DVD.
Casino Royale – My observation about the opening credits applied to the rest of the film: many of the standard elements of Bond films from past decades, particularly the casual sexism and OTT gadgets/locations were toned down in this 'back to basics' return to the original Bond story, yet it was markedly more physically violent. It was still very much a Bond film, though, occupying an affluent world bordering on decadence, and product placements similarly bordering on laughable. Attempts were made to develop the James Bond character, but mainly through exposition – a better screenplay would have shown, not told. Perhaps that was expecting too much; on a shallower level, I did enjoy the film, though the parkour sequence towards the start was the highlight.
Great Expectations – Very pretty (and very green), with an excellent cast and soundtrack, but I'm not sure whether this loose translation of Dickens' classic story to modern Florida and Manhattan really captured the full emotion of the novel; I enjoyed it, but somehow wanted slightly more. I suppose if it drives a viewer back to the book, that's a good thing.
The Passenger – A journalist, bored with his life, swaps identities with the dead man in the hotel room next door, who happens to have been an arms dealer. The beginning of a Hollywood thiller? Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, no. Very contemplative and internalised (and hence slow-paced), but also rather beautiful. It was also good to see Spain (particularly the parts of Barcelona I've visited) in 1973, before mass-tourism.
State Of Play (2 discs) – This political detective thriller was entertaining and fully held my attention through the six hour-long episodes. It was certainly a case of excellent storytelling, acting and production, as in hindsight the story itself wasn't that memorable.
City of Industry – According to the DVD extras and the IMDb, this shows a 'real' – mundane – Los Angeles rarely seen in films. As such, perhaps the hackneyed 'heist-betrayal-revenge' plot was merely a carrying medium. That, and the fact that I've never had a fascination with a city I perceive as soulless and lacking in history, meant I abandoned the film after an hour, bored and slightly irritated.
The Black Dahlia – It was good to see a modern interpretation of the classic noir production style (over-elaborate plot and all), but it felt a little self-conscious, and having not heard of "the most notorious murder in Hollywood history" before renting the DVD, it had no especial cultural resonance for me. Ultimately, sumptuousness and a mass of detail were no substitute for real substance: I wanted more.
Neverwhere – The complete BBC series on one DVD, with a couple of... 'okay' extras. I'm more than a little familiar with the story and production history (cut-price TV series then excellent novel, with a graphic novel adaptation later) and knew this was the weakest version, but it was still worth seeing; dodgy acting, wobbly sets, bull-with-prostheses (really) and all.
Cronos – Slightly disappointing, this felt more like an episode of a TV series than a substantive feature film. One for Guillermo del Toro fans; those interested in the point from which his international career developed.
Fellini's 8½ – Whilst watching, I thought this was very shallow, even trite, but it left me thinking, which can't be bad. I'm not certain I fully understood it, though.
8½ Women – I suppose it helped that I watched the Peter Greenaway film immediately after the Fellini film which supposedly inspired it, but I still couldn't quite grasp the entertainment or artistic value of what seemed to be a feeble comedy. That said, there were a few interesting concepts and powerful moments; Polly Walker's acting was particularly admirable.
Fur - An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus – I'm not sure what I was expecting, but this wasn't it. I suppose it was entertaining enough, but I wouldn't rush to see it again, nor particularly recommend it to others.
The Fountain – Excellent sci-fi/fantasy from the director of 'Pi' and 'Requiem For A Dream' – if you've seen those, you'll be anticipating original writing and presentation, and won't be disappointed. The overall message was particularly disturbing. Recommended.
The Prestige – A dark film which demands a second viewing. Not because it's remotely difficult to follow – it's an extremely accessible Hollywood film – but because once one has spotted the twists (or seen the end of the film, which clarifies them), watching it again one sees an entirely different film. For this reason, I strongly recommend seeing it before reading any review containing a hint of a synopsis.
The Libertine – Visually evocative of late 17th Century England, with lots of mud, naturalistic lighting (filmed by candlelight/daylight) and of-its-time makeup/clothing, this was far less sanitised than the average BBC costume drama (which is a reason I find the BBC's efforts unwatchable). However, I'm not sure whether the plot, direction or acting matched that standard of production....
Hotel Rwanda – I'd been expecting something Americanised (sanitised and with a certain socio-political stance) or deeply worthy, and in hindsight the former criticism does rather apply, but it did offer at least some insight into a monstrous situation which should have received greater attention at the time (and I certainly don't exclude myself from the complacent ignorance).
300 – Technically and visually stunning. One could criticise the hyper-macho story (totally plot-led and with two-dimensional characters) as too like a comic strip, but that's kind of the point.
La Haine – Excellent. Very tightly focussed on a brief episode in the lives of three youths from a Parisian sink estate, this covered topics of importance to the characters in a way the characters themselves would appreciate (i.e. it's a very male film: visually-impressive with limited externalised emotion). This made for a powerful, rather immersive experience.
The Departed – Reviewed here.
2 January, 2008
Review: The Departed (2006)
I wasn't sure whether I wanted to see this, as I resent the idea that 'Mou gaan dou' ('Internal Affairs'), a wonderful 2004 film which just happens to be in Chinese, needed to be remade for an Anglophone audience too lazy to read subtitles.
This is the bit where I say "actually, it was pretty good", right?
And it was. Because the original was pretty good. The American version had a big-name director, but that didn't disguise the fact that it was the same film, merely moved from Hong Kong to Boston and reduced to a showcase for big-name Hollywood stars (who, frankly, merely provided their standard, well-established performances). Well, with the graphic violence turned up a notch, and the ending totally ruined by 'closure'.
I think its carbon-copy nature is my main problem with 'The Departed': it doesn't complement 'Infernal Affairs', it replaces it; if you've seen one, there's little reason to see the other. No doubt most people (outside Hong Kong/China) will choose the Martin Scorsese movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, et al. over the Wai-keung Lau/Siu Fai Mak film starring Andy Lau and Tony Leung, thereby burying the latter (deservedly in the IMDb Top 250, 'Infernal Affairs' is currently 193 places below 'The Departed'). And that's a great shame: money will take precedence over originality.
This is the bit where I hope to fight back a little. Watch 'Infernal Affairs'. Avoid the rip-off. Not 'only' as a matter of respect to the original film-makers, but because theirs is the better-realised setting, offering greater insight into the characters' inner turmoil (with no simplistic resolution) – and two good sequels.
25 December, 2007
Music of the year
I don't really like ranked 'Best of' lists – their compilation is too anal and stereotypically male for my taste, and the idea of asserting that Album A is 'better' than Album B but not as 'good' as Album C is patently absurd. However, I thought it reasonable to identify those albums released in 2007 that I have (and haven't...) particularly liked.
It wasn't until that list reached fourteen albums that I really realised how productive a year this has been – most of my favourite artists have released something in 2007, and I've made a couple of worthwhile new discoveries.
Album of the Year
Porcupine Tree - Fear of a Blank Planet
This wasn't in much doubt – if only in subjective terms of my own preferences, this was well ahead of anything else released this year: the first Porcupine Tree release since 1999 that I've liked completely, from start to finish, with multiple highlights. This would rank highly on a hypothetical list of my all-time favourite albums, too.
Continuum - Continuum II
I wasn't sure about an electric guitar accompanying full-on, extended dark-ambient pieces, but when I'm in the right mood, this grabs my total attention. Transcendental!
Fovea Hex - Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent
I have to confess I was drawn to 'Allure', the third of this 3-EP project, by the participation of Steven Wilson, but I couldn't distinguish his contribution and there was nothing 'fanboy' about my being blown-away by the music itself: a wonderful combination of haunting, vaguely Celtic folk and stark dark-ambient music. The other two EPs didn't quite meet the expectations set by 'Allure', but the overall result is still one of the best albums I've heard for quite a while.
Porcupine Tree - Nil Recurring
Not, as some people have said in year-end reviews, 'FoaBP/NR' – that's just plain incorrect, as 'Nil Recurring' is an entirely separate release featuring material which happened to originate at the same time as, if not slightly before, 'Fear of a Blank Planet'. It is not b-sides/outtakes from 'FoaBP'.
Anyway, I like it a lot, though it's not as consistent as 'FoaBP'.
Explosions In The Sky - All Of A Sudden I Miss Everyone
I said two years ago that I like this guitar-led, instrumental-only, post-rock. The new album isn't hugely different to its two predecessors (though stronger than the reissued debut album – if you're new to the band, don't start there!), but I liked them, so that's hardly a problem, and it's not really just 'more of the same'.
Sigur Rós - Hvarf-Heim
I think the band have called this a stopgap between 'real' albums or an offshoot of the 'Heima' tour & DVD project. I'd agree with that assessment: some of the live and revised arrangements of existing material are truly wonderful and the new material compares well with that on past albums, but I can't deny having hoped for genuine progression of the Sigur Rós sound.
The Reasoning - Awakening
An excellent reminder for me to keep my mind open: had I known before hearing the music 'blind' that The Reasoning are a new band featuring ex-members of 'neo-prog' acts Karnataka and Magenta, I wouldn't have expected the freshness and maturity of their debut album. The title track hooked me immediately, and repeated listening continues to unearth excellent details in the whole album.
Gazpacho - Night
My appreciation of this new discovery is developing daily, particularly as I become more accustomed to Jan Henrik Ohme's voice (I wasn't too sure about it at first). One could note a similarity to contemporary Marillion, but it's not too close and this is immeasurably better than the 'parent' band's 2007 release.
Blackfield - Blackfield 2
Like the debut album, I thought this was pretty good for a few weeks, but rapidly tired of it. I doubt I'd bother buying a third.
Riverside - Rapid Eye Movement
I was disappointed by Riverside's second album, as it lacked the novelty and energy of the first (my 'album of the year' acquired in 2005, though it was released in 2003). Hence, my expectations of this, the third, were more realistic: I didn't expect much, and was neither impressed nor disappointed.
Fish - 13th Star
I tried to convince myself that I liked this, and I do think it works well when played as one continuous composition, in sequence, but occasional plays over several months have led to the conclusion that it's far from Fish's best.
In fact, I recently made an uncomfortable realisation. As I've mentioned, I've been listening to Frans Keylard's 'prog'-orientated podcasts for a couple of weeks in a conscious effort to widen my knowledge and discover new music. Apart from certain highlights (some on this list), the experience has reinforced both my prejudices about the stale 'prog'/'neo-prog' genre and my perception that there are 'top' bands exhibiting originality and musicianship, and 'also-ran' bands merely emulating what's gone before, somehow lacking the undefinable 'spark' of creativity that'd elevate them to the premier league of headline acts.
And '13th Star' very firmly fits amongst them.
Radiohead - In Rainbows
I only have a slight interest in Radiohead anyway, and only like a few post 'OK Computer' songs, so I didn't expect to love the new album. It didn't meet even that expectation, and I only listened to it a couple of times.
Marillion - Somewhere Else
This bored me in April, and I don't recall feeling the remotest urge to play it since then. Best, and easily, forgotten.
Too Soon To Decide
Pineapple Thief - What We Have Sown
I only received my copy a few days ago, and haven't even heard it once from start to finish, so I better hadn't comment, beyond saying it seems much more promising than '12SD'/'10SD' (haven't heard 'Little Man' yet; that arrived with 'WWHS'). There are another six days until the end of 2007, so if I get an opportunity to give the album my full attention (possible but unlikely), I might post an update.
15 December, 2007
Review: Porcupine Tree, Academy 1, Manchester, 8 December, 2007 (w. Anathema)
Back to Manchester for my second Porcupine Tree concert of the year.
I seem to have missed the pre-arranged meet-up of PTF members; I knew some planned to be at the designated pub from 15:00, but I wrongly presumed they'd still be in residence when I arrived at 18:00.
Not to worry; I was soon adopted by a friendly couple apparently on the basis that they and I looked "suitably biker-gothy" without having resorted to such kiddie-metal stereotypes as faux-leather trenchcoats. Porcupine Tree audiences are getting younger. Pleasant couple, and that's not a reference to a laced-front leather bodice which was more laced than bodice, and which seems to have driven out much recollection of our conversation. Ahem. I do remember they weren't going to the concert, so I left them there at ~19:20 and crossed the road to the venue – accompanied by Richard Barbieri, Colin Edwin & Gavin Harrison, returning with a takeaway. Good start.
As I'd known in advance, remodeling work in the main Academy venue (Academy 1), which was the reason Porcupine Tree performed in Preston instead in April, is still ongoing. The hall itself was usable, obviously, but access was through a fire exit and the toilets were in a portakabin outside. Fine with me, but I think the lack of a cloakroom caused problems for some people.
Once inside, there was absolutely no hope of meeting anyone, as the hall was in near-total darkness, illuminated only by a couple of blue spotlights on stage plus the lights of the bar and merchandise stall, both obscured by the small but rapidly growing crowd. I'd already bought a tour T-shirt (er, three different ones, actually) by mail order from Burning Shed, so didn't need to investigate the stall myself, so I wandered around the room a little (which seemed unchanged; presumably remodelling has been confined to the backstage and foyer areas, the latter still boarded-off at the rear of the hall) then just as I decided to find a spot to stand, at 19:45, Anathema's Vincent Cavanagh was suddenly already on stage. I didn't get as far forward as I could – large gaps remained in the thinly-packed crowd – but it seemed rude to push past and obscure the view of shorter people at the very last moment.
Within a few moments of starting, Danny Cavanagh (lead guitar) was exhorting the audience to clap along, which would have been a bit of a mistake even if this hadn't been a typical Porcupine Tree audience, seemingly unresponsive yet fully attentive: they (we) hadn't yet warmed-up sufficiently that we wished to participate. Unfortunately, that established the relationship for the entire set. I hope the band understood their audience; Vincent didn't seem impressed and his statement that they'll be back next year "as headliner" seemed to have an edge.
It was a well-chosen 45-min set, showcasing the high-energy rock and 'menacing' intensity I particularly like in their music, yet with space for some of the gentler, melancholic material I, er, appreciate less.
Fragile Dreams is amongst my favourite Anathema songs, so was an excellent start.
A Simple Mistake is one of the three songs released via the band's website as a preview of the next album. I hadn't been overwhelmed by that studio arrangement, but it worked much better live, particularly the powerful second half.
'Closer' was the song which introduced me to Anathema, so it was particularly good to hear it the first (and certainly not last) time I've seen them live.
Without wishing to criticise, Lee Douglas's voice (or more generally, female voices like hers) isn't to my taste, and nor are the slower-paced Anathema songs on which she sings, so I wasn't overjoyed that she joined the band on stage for 'A Natural Disaster', a song which I've just noticed I hadn't even bothered to upload to my iPod. Played at concert volume, I was wincing by the end.
She stayed to sing backing vocals on 'Angels Walk Among Us', which was preferable, but I wasn't pleased when Vincent thanked her by saying she'll take a greater role in the next album.
Somehow I didn't realise until later that Deep had been played; it segued straight from the unfamiliar (to me) 'A Natural Disaster', so perhaps I confused it for part of the same song. No, I don't know how, either.
Flying is another that I hadn't particularly appreciated on the 'A Natural Disaster' album (my least-favourite of Anathema's post- doom-metal releases), but it worked well live.
An as-yet-unreleased track, Hindsight closed the set. I think it was fully-instrumental apart from a vocal sample from what sounded like an American self-motivation album, which somewhat detracted, in my opinion.
Both in terms of music and live production, it was clear that under normal circumstances (i.e. with the backing of a record label) Anathema are a headline act. After their set, it took a full 15 minutes to clear the stage of their monitors and equipment (seemingly assisted by Jamie (third Cavanagh brother and bass player) – not so typical of a headliner!) and they made good use of the lights (if with a little too much dry ice – Les Smith (keys) and Mick (drums) were almost invisible at times). For a support band, the sound was extraordinarily good, though not in the same league of clarity as Porcupine Tree. It was particularly noticeable that Anathema's richly-textured music came across well, in extreme contrast to Amplifier's muddy sound in April.
Some Porcupine Tree fans encountering Anathema for the first time have commented negatively about Vincent's 'out of tune' vocals and John Douglas' 'imprecise' drumming.
Firstly, Vincent's diction (not just accent) is strongly Liverpudlian, more so than, say, The Beatles, and the melancholic nature of the music demands a certain delivery which I think he fulfills well. If you want a polished, formally-trained crooner, you have the wrong band.
Secondly, there's more to musicianship than empty virtuosity, and I've never noticed a problem with John's drumming, whether on studio albums or live recordings. I couldn't judge for myself this time, as John had become a father earlier in the day, so the band was accompanied by Mick, a stand-in who certainly seemed familiar with the material.
As soon as Anathema left the stage, some people headed for the bar, but otherwise there was a general shuffling forward, eliminating gaps and dodging around those slow to join in. I ended up at least 10 m further forward, 6-8 m from the stage, dead-centre, with only one taller person in front to my left. Perfect; I had a great view throughout the main set, though Wes was slightly obscured. There wasn't much room to move, so it's lucky that those (very closely) around me weren't inclined to, and the half-hour wait before the main set, in a London Underground-like crush, was rendered bearable by watching the bands' techs clear and reset the stage.
Porcupine Tree's stage setup was identical to that in Preston eight months ago, contributing an odd familiarity. In fact, that was my overall impression of the concert: truly wonderful, and I enjoyed myself tremendously, but somehow it lacked the novelty and extra thrill I'd experienced in April merely from being in the presence of the band. That's not necessarily a disadvantage, as I was able to focus more on their performance and the music.
There were a few videos and lighting effects projected behind the band, but as usual I consciously ignored them (I attend concerts to see the band perform for real, live, in front of me, not to watch something prerecorded) so can't really comment on their content. I did get a dim impression that there were fewer Lasse Hoile videos than on previous tours; perhaps 5 of the 15 songs (indicated with asterices below), as opposed to 8 of 16 last time. The remaining songs were accompanied by more abstract, less attention-drawing lighting effects.
I'm pleased to say the audience (at least those in earshot and in my line of sight) were particularly still and attentive – some would wrongly say 'unresponsive', but there was plenty of appreciation at the appropriate times: between songs. I was aware of people around me taking the opportunities of quiet sections to exchange comments, but no-one near me was shouting or jumping around.
From my position 8-10 m from Steven Wilson (SW), the sound was excellent, with clear stereo effects and good balance on both quieter and 'full-on' material; perhaps the guitar separation wasn't perfect, meaning a few subtleties were only apparent because I was listening for them. However, as explained below, I moved to the extreme rear left corner of the hall during 'Trains' and noticed a general deterioration in sound quality (hardly surprising) and a distracting effect off the temporary back wall, which mightn't have optimum acoustics. As in April, the sound was loud but 'clean', and as I was walking back to the station my hearing was about as clear as when I'd entered the Academy, which makes a tremendous difference to one's appreciation of the music.
The basic logistics of SW being unable to switch guitars quickly enough and having too much to do in complex arrangements of (in April) fairly new material rather dictated the relative roles he and John Wesley played on the last tour: on several songs Wes played lead guitar and the electric solos whilst SW played the acoustic or rhythm guitar parts. Another reason was apparently that Wes improvises solos in his own style rather than following the album arrangements closely, adding novelty to live performances. I can certainly respect that reasoning, but I don't actually like it. I do appreciate Wes' playing on his own albums, but given a direct choice, I prefer SW's sound, and in general I dislike improvisation. Hence, I was very pleased that SW and Wes switched back this time, Wes returning to a more supporting role and SW taking more of the solos himself. I was only jarred out of my rapture twice by Wes solos which I didn't think quite worked.
The set featured fifteen songs and no instrumentals, though several of the chosen songs include extended instrumental sections. Six songs were from 2007, three each from 2002 & '05, and one each from 1995, '96 & '99. That's the balance I expect at Porcupine Tree concerts, emphasising the 2002-2007 albums with a few token representatives of the earlier back-catalogue. I was interested to hear that the band varied the setlist rather a lot on this tour; six songs were replaced for the following night's concert in Leeds.
There was no distinct intro track this time: the band walked on stage to the accompaniment of a few seconds from Lasse Hoile's 'Blank Planet' short film (as seen on the 'Fear of a Blank Planet' DVD-A) then launched straight into the song itself, Fear of a Blank Planet*. An excellent start to the album, and equally so in concert.
As I said in my review of the 'Nil Recurring' mini-album, I suspect What Happens Now? was derived from jamming and was in turn cherry-picked for details when composing the main 'Fear of a Blank Planet' album. Live, that relationship operated in reverse, the song neatly summarising the overall feel of the album without quite quoting from other tracks.
Incidentally, congratulations to SW for hitting the high notes live!
As usual, it was good to hear The Sound Of Muzak, but the 'as usual' part was a problem. Porcupine Tree only play a two-hour set, and there are other songs I'd prefer to hear (not necessarily 'better', just 'other'). Perhaps it's time to retire this tour regular.
Apart from that on the 'Deadwing' album, this was the best-yet arrangement of Lazarus*, one of my all-time favourite Porcupine Tree songs and one which SW's mother "actually likes". I'll have to hear an unofficial recording (which I happen to know was made, but which hasn't reached me yet) in order to pinpoint its attraction, but I think a greater role was given to the electric guitars, providing a less haunting but more immediately exciting feel. Wonderful.
As in April, Anesthetize* was sublime, but curiously it felt very long. With a running time of over seventeen minutes it is a long song, of course (a seventh of the entire concert – a seventh very well used), but this was the first time I really appreciated how long the high energy of the middle section is sustained and that the closing 'Water So Warm' section is itself fully 5½ minutes long. A marathon effort, both for the band and the audience.
Open Car isn't one of my favourite songs – the lead-in to the chorus and parts of the chorus itself are too 'generic pop-rock' for me – but it follows 'the beast' of 'Anesthetize' well. Sometimes one needs the undemanding pleasure of a little plain vanilla ice cream to appreciate a complex, heavy meal.
Dark Matter was a highlight of the concert for me. Perhaps because of its contrast with the heavier, more recent material and the fact I hadn't expected it (I almost mistook the intro for that of 'Russia On Ice', somehow), it stood out strongly, really holding my attention. I gained a new appreciation of the track, refreshing my interest in the whole 'Signify' album.
Blackest Eyes* has been a standard part of Porcupine Tree concerts since 2002, but unlike 'The Sound Of Muzak' it still feels fresh and I enjoyed it immensely. I fact, I think it's improved over the years, and prefer the vocal timings to those on the 'In Absentia' album.
This was the third rendition of Cheating the Polygraph that I'd heard. On the first occasion, when all the 'Fear of a Blank Planet' material had been unfamiliar, the then-unnamed 'Track 5' stood out as the weakest of the planned songs and I was glad it was dropped from the main album. When it reappeared on 'Nil Recurring', my immediate opinion was more favourable (apart from the overbearing drumming) but since September the slightly whiney vocals (not lyrics, vocals) have gradually dropped in my estimation. That impression was reinforced live, but the new arrangement highlighted something new to me: just how similar the heavier sections are to those of 'Anesthetize' and hence how, well, redundant. In short, this was probably my least favourite part of the set.
A Smart Kid had felt out-of-place in the April set, almost lacking in power compared to the 'Fear Of A Blank Planet' material, but not this time, either because the arrangement had been revised or because of the overall balance of tonight's setlist. It was particularly good to hear SW take the climactic solo himself, as I love the 'standard' version.
Though SW almost apologised for repeating parts of the April concert, the main set again finished with the final two tracks from 'Fear of a Blank Planet', Way Out Of Here* and Sleep Together. This tour is supposed to be promoting the album, which I particularly like, so I didn't exactly object. An excellent ending. Though they're approaching the end of a long tour and SW had said he was looking forward to a rest, I was impressed by the strength of his vocal delivery on 'Sleep Together'. His voice has certainly developed in recent years.
The band left the stage for a couple of minutes then returned for possibly the highlight of the concert for me: a ~9-minute version of 'The Sky Moves Sideways Phase 1' performed live in Manchester for the first time since 1999 and hence my first time ever, if we don't count unofficial recordings. At the time I thought SW performed the opening instrumental alone, the others having nothing to do (this was the only song of the concert during which Wes wasn't on-stage, presumably grabbing a Guinness), but in hindsight Richard must have been playing too (his contribution makes the song) and I doubt the percussion was prerecorded. The subsequent vocal section was electrifying, whilst the high-energy end was a reminder (as if that was needed) of how much I love the band's pre-2002 sound.
I quite like 'Trains' but I've never understood the level of fan adulation it attracts and as with 'The Sound Of Muzak', I wouldn't object to it being dropped from the live set for a while; somehow its familiarity meant it failed to fully hold my attention. The circumstances didn't help. As it was introduced, I received a strong impression that 'Trains' would be the final encore piece. Excellent – even though I had to leave at 22:55 to catch a train, it seemed I'd see the whole concert after all. It then occurred to me that that'd only work if I was already by the exit at the end of the song – I wouldn't be able to wait for ~1,700 people to filter out ahead of me. Hence, I was obliged to push through the crowd in the middle of the song (sorry, folks) then leave quickly (at precisely 22:55) as soon as the applause began and SW looked as if he was removing his guitar to finish.
Bad news: I've since discovered that there was another encore. Good news: it was 'Halo', one of the few Porcupine Tree songs I absolutely dislike and one I was actually glad to have missed – as the final encore at the concert in April, I'd thought it a disappointing way to end, and I much preferred to walk back to the station with 'Trains' in my immediate memory.
So, another wonderful concert (from both bands), and I can't wait for the next one. It's unclear when that'll be; 2008 is supposed to be a year off for Porcupine Tree and the only known releases are to be reissues and SW solo projects. However, SW did mention they'd be back late next year, which made little sense. There's certainly been no suggestion of new material to tour.
[Those wanting the review can stop reading now; the following bit is just for cyclists.]
Leaving Preston station at ~00:15, the ride home took longer than normal due to an annoying gusty headwind, reducing my average speed to 14.5 mph (23 km/h; 38 km/h max. speed) and meaning I wasn't home until ~02:00 (01:58, I think). In hindsight, that average isn't much lower than the more usual 16 mph (26 km/h) for this route and my bike computer says I was only moving for 1 hour 34', so Preston's numerous traffic lights must have been the main delay.
For my own future reference and anyone else considering cycling from Preston railway station to Moorlands, Lancaster, the precise(ish) distance is 22.75 miles (36.6 km) – 1.75 miles more than I'd thought, which explains why it's always felt like more than 21 miles! Two useful landmarks are the northernmost turn-off from the A6 to Garstang, at 12.1 miles and hence only slightly over 10 miles from Lancaster, and Junction 33 of the M6, at 16.6 miles – it's important to accept that one isn't 'nearly there' at that point, and over 5 miles remain ahead.
2 October, 2007
Review: 'Nil Recurring' (Porcupine Tree, 2007)
In mid-September, Porcupine Tree released a 29-minute CD 'EP' of additional material derived from the 'Fear of a Blank Planet' sessions, with a title arguably better than that earlier album: 'Nil Recurring'.
It's important to note that though these tracks arose alongside the 'Fear of a Blank Planet' songs, they aren't outtakes rejected because they were in any way inferior, it's just that they didn't contribute to the very specific concept of that album.
To repeat: each Porcupine Tree album is a coherent composition, to be heard in order, not merely a bunch of songs. 'Fear of a Blank Planet' can be considered as one 51-minute piece in six sections, and there's no room for tangential bonus tracks.
Hence, as the band said at the official site, 'Nil Recurring' could be considered as the second Porcupine Tree album of 2007, forming an independent, standalone composition, not merely as an addendum to the 'main' album.
This material is therefore additional to the earlier release, with one possible exception. Featuring a key line from 'Anesthetize' (actually the most direct quote from 'Lunar Park', the Brett Easton Ellis novel which inspired the whole concept) plus the title and chorus of 'Sentimental', 'Normal' might be considered an alternative take on some of the material already heard on 'Fear of a Blank Planet'; had this song been used then, it could only have been instead of 'Sentimental' (and I wouldn't have wanted that to be dropped!).
Two pieces, 'Nil Recurring' and 'Cheating The Polygraph', were recorded at the same time as the 'Fear of a Blank Planet' tracks, between October and December 2006. John Wesley isn't a member of the studio band, so doesn't play on the EP, but the guitars were produced (and recorded?) at Wes' studio in Florida, as SW particularly likes the setup.
In contrast, these renditions of 'Normal' and 'What Happens Now?' were recorded more recently, in July 2007 after the first full round of touring 'Fear of a Blank Planet' across Europe and N.America.
The title track is a splendidly-complex instrumental (not that complexity is automatically good). I do like it, but I don't find it particularly distinctive; randomly shuffled amongst the other post-2002 instrumentals, I'm not confident I could distinguish it. Not a problem, as I like them too.
'Normal' is by far my favourite track on the EP, at least comparable to anything on the full album. It features acoustic guitar sections almost reminiscent of Jethro Tull, the best Porcupine Tree overlapping vocal harmonies since 2002, a recurring Eastern-influenced theme like that of 'Sleep Together', a 'heavy' guitar interlude and even a shiny new kitchen sink. Perhaps not the latter – the song really does work, despite this description implying it's a mess of conflicting elements.
Even as recently as the end of 2006, 'Cheating the Polygraph' was considered for inclusion in 'Fear of a Blank Planet': it was the then-untitled 'Track 5' played live on the 'Arriving Somewhere...' tour. Even before it was known that it'd be omitted from the album, concertgoers had been saying that it didn't seem to fit; evidently the band agreed. I recall that working version as one of the less impressive preview pieces, particularly an OTT guitar solo which only seemed to excite a couple of teenagers standing near me.
The first time I heard the mini-album, I had major doubts about this track, as the drum rhythms seemed annoyingly mismatched with the verse lyrics (Gavin Harrison shares writing credits with SW). I still think they're far too busy, but the other elements are strong enough. That 'guitar frenzy' I'd criticised last year seems to have been tamed.
'What Happens Now?' is the longest song on the EP, with a running time of 8:23, but there are no lyrics after 3:07, so it's more of an instrumental, really. Like the other instrumental, 'Nil Recurring', writing credits are shared by the whole band; I could speculate that it was derived from initial 'jamming', then cherrypicked for ideas which were developed on the main album, as fragments of 'What Happens Now?' have an oddly familiar feel.
The initial release of 'Nil Recurring' has been on the band's own 'Transmission' label, solely available by preorder from the Porcupine Tree webstore at Burning Shed, as a limited edition in a digipack. Three thousand were allocated to web sales, with a further 2,000 held back for the merchandise stall at concerts on the forthcoming tours of N.America and Europe. However, the first batch sold-out within a week, so some of the tour stock was offered via Burning Shed. That too sold out overnight, so yet more were allocated to mail-order. It's unclear how that'll affect tour merchandise, and whether the 'limited edition' has been repressed (Burning Shed apparently say not), to the annoyance of collectors who wanted it to be limited.
In any case, there was never an intention to limit availability of the music, just the digipack. As planned from the outset, a retail edition of the EP, in a jewel case, will be released in the new year by Snapper. The music is now also available for download from Burning Shed in both .mp3 and lossless .flac formats.
It's also worth mentioning that all four 'Nil Recurring' tracks appear on the limited edition 'Fear of a Blank Planet' double LP and in 5.1 surround sound on the (not limited) 'Fear of a Blank Planet' DVD-A, due out this week.
Therefore, unless you're a packaging collector, please do not pay premium eBay prices for the mini-album, and there is no excuse for accessing an illicit torrent.
I'm certainly looking forward to hearing at least some of these tracks live in December!
[Update 24/11/07: The jewel case edition of the EP will be released on 18 February, 2008. Surprisingly, it won't be released by Snapper, but by the metal-orientated Peaceville Records.]
[Update 24/02/08: The 'mainstream' edition of the mini-album has entered the BBC 'Top 30 Independent Label Albums' chart at no.8. Not bad considering the majority of hardcore fans will have already bought the digipack edition.]
[Update 02/03/08: It dropped to no.24 in its second week, but I'm surprised it charted at all, never mind still being there for a second week!]
24 September, 2007
Review: TRON (1982)
I watched this on TV last night, slightly amused by the pretext under which BBC 4 (the BBC's 'arts' channel) showed it. The previous programme had been a documentary on Jean Giraud aka Moebius, the French comics artist. He'd designed the set and costumes for 'TRON', so....
This review will be brief, as I only want to make two observations:
The visual designers showed real ingenuity in making the best use of limited computer graphics technology. A remake might look more spectacular, but would probably have a shiny ordinariness rather than the original's stylised originality.
Like the other Disney-funded sci-fi film of that time, 'The Black Hole', the script was awful, in exactly the same ways. The dialogue wasn't great, but in particular, the plot was too abrupt, as if over-edited. There was no sense of gradual development, whether in plot or characterisation; one was dropped straight into an under-explained existing situation, then carried along having to interpret conceptual elements for oneself. Fair enough, the target audience was presumably rather young, but still....
I may be misjudging the approach – it could have been a revolutionary attempt to reproduce the effect of reading a novel, in which the words on the page are elaborated by the reader's own imagination rather than being stated outright. Maybe.
16 September, 2007
Review: '13th Star' (Fish, 2007)
This is a 'grower'.
My first (mistaken!) impression was... succinct: "That was dire." However, repeated listening and a little insight from the 'Making Of...' DVD which accompanies the special edition CD¹ have boosted my appreciation. I think the main problem was my own expectation of high-energy, accessible rock music (with more substance emerging with familiarity) comparable to 2003's excellent 'Field Of Crows' album. Though it's not the one I'd anticipated, I now think 'Thirteenth Star' is a reasonably strong album (though not one I necessarily like...). Perhaps I'm overstating, but its unexpected depth makes 'Field Of Crows' even seem a little superficial.
To expand that initial impression, at first I thought the music and lyrics were boring; 'been there, done that', and if you've heard one downbeat Fish song, this album would be all too familiar. From an artist who claims to be progressive, it seemed dreadfully stale. However, that was only the result of a single play-through and based on mistaken (inflated?) expectations. Hearing it again a few more times, and considering it on its own terms, I'm more impressed.
Uncharacteristically, I've taken a while to compose this review, returning to it several times over the weekend, between playing the album again several times. In that time, I've gone from "this is appalling" to "It's not his best" to "er... actually, it might be" and back to "don't be so wishful: it's not his best".
If this review has any purpose beyond spreading the word that Fish has a new album out², I hope it's a warning against preconceptions and an appeal to give the music, and especially the lyrics, more than one chance to penetrate.
It'd be naïve to ignore the context in which Fish wrote these lyrics, namely the departure of his fiance, Heather Findlay of 'prog' band 'Mostly Autumn', in late May 2007. This was another reason for my initial dislike. The material seemed too personal, and I have a strong aversion to people criticising ex-partners in public; I'd thought better of Fish. Yet that too was a flawed preconception, and it seems the album's concept was determined well before it was mirrored by real life.
There's a fine balance. I don't listen to music for mere transitory entertainment, 'just a bit of fun': I demand more substance. Yet nor do I seek discomfort, or to be unproductively reminded of unhappy times in my own life. If '13th Star' had been no more than an bitter declaration of Fish's grievances, I wouldn't have wanted to hear it. Though there are clearly raw emotions in the lyrics, framing them in a slightly abstract narrative somehow adds sufficient distance, and it feels like a fictional protagonist singing about a fictional lost love, not Derek singing about Heather. Whether that's strictly accurate is a different matter....
That pre-existing concept (yes, it's a concept album, but don't worry about it) still defines the basic structure, being the story of someone seeking love/fulfilment within the mundane cycle of everyday life, and failing; the protagonist is left looking for his 'thirteenth star' alone ('Misplaced Adulthood', anyone?). According to the 'Making Of...' DVD, ~80% of the lyrics were already completed by the time of the break-up, so the subject matter and direction apparently predate events and emotional responses they seem to document. An interview segment from April 2007 casually mentions an intended happy ending, so clearly the narrative arc was amended to incorporate Fish's strong feelings, but it's not the overt attack on Findlay that I'd thought (though read whatever you wish into the first line of '13th Star': "With a heart full of sky,..."). Apologies for doubting his integrity.
The only remaining uncomfortable moment is in the 'Fish TV' promo at the end of the 'Making Of...' DVD rather than on the album itself. A video clip of questionable relevance shows Fish singing 'Just Good Friends' to Findlay³: "what would you do if I went down on my knees to you...?" (which he did (twice), under Micklegate in York). I really wonder why he included that.
The music itself is a minor problem. As a non-instrumentalist, Fish is slightly dependent on his collaborators. When that was Mickey Simmonds on the early solo albums or Steven Wilson on 'Sunsets On Empire', it was fine, but this time his primary partner was bassist Steve Vantsis on his first ever writing project. Unfortunately, it shows: the music is competently workmanlike and enjoyable, but in places it's a little predictable, particularly in terms of song structure. I'm not really complaining, and '13th Star' is consistently preferable to, say, 'Fellini Days', but it doesn't particularly challenge the listener; it doesn't sparkle.
Naturally, the immediate highlights are the full-on 'rock' tracks, 'Openwater' (especially the verse keyboards), and 'Dark Star' played at a neighbour-rattling volume. In an earlier draft, I was going to name 'Where In The World' as the album's low point, the obligatory maudlin ballad to skip (there's one on every Fish album). Yet in context, it works, just not necessarily in isolation, which illustrates that '13th Star' is indeed an 'album' album: a coherent composition with an emotional curve rather than a bunch of unrelated individual songs.
In terms of technique, Mark Wilkinson's cover art may his best ever (though the booklet layout work still looks cursory, even amateurish), but the subject matter is disturbingly 'proggy' – angels sailing into a stormy sea, exaggerated starscapes, even a ****ing sea serpent. Dangerously Roger Dean-ish. I'm glad the special edition digipack comes in a plainer slipcase, but presumably the Wilkinson artwork will appear on the retail edition, and deter potential buyers who'll naturally question the album's apparent mainstream credibility.
Yes, I know genre pigeonholing is annoying and it shouldn't matter if journalists and mainstream rock fans falsely associate Fish with crappy retro 'prog' or 'neo-prog' acts, but this is marketing, and first impressions do matter. I loathe 'prog'. If my first exposure to Fish's career was seeing this artwork in a jewel case in HMV, I would not buy it. Simple as that.
Heh. I've just realised that I primarily associate the pictorial content with albums by second-rate 'neo-prog' bands, the artwork of which was very probably influenced by Mark Wilkinson's early work for Marillion and Fish! The original remains the best, but still, the association is unfortunate.
Two final, isolated thoughts:
- I don't have anything specific to say about it, but the beautiful production work by Calum Malcolm deserves especial mention.
- Why does '13th Star' (the song) begin with the intro to 'Sugar Mice'?
1: Should an album need to be justified by the artist, or should it stand alone? I genuinely don't know; I'm inclined towards the latter, but that sounds like a pointless test, and music isn't a competition.
2: The special edition of '13th Star', featuring the CD in a three-panel digipack with a full-colour booklet and 'Making Of...' DVD, all within a decorative slipcase, is available now, solely from Fish's webstore and concerts. The standard retail edition is expected at the start of 2008.
3: It may be from the Berlin concert in October 2006, the last time they appeared together on stage.
29 July, 2007
Review: 'Klimt' (2006)
Incoherent, diminishing in coherence over almost two hours.
I suppose it was fairly pretty, and an interesting view of emerging modernity in fashions, but not recommended, I'm afraid.
One point which might help to know beforehand – I'd have approached it differently if I'd realised sooner – is that it's not really a biopic, but more intended to be a stylised reflection of Klimt's mindset, even aesthetic, involving symbolic composite characters.
24 July, 2007
Review: 'Curse of the Golden Flower' (2006)
Sumptuous, expansive... and that's just the anachronistic décolletages*.
2002's operatic 'Hero' and 2004's 'House Of Flying Daggers' are amongst my favourite films, if only in terms of visual production and cinematography (towards the end of the latter, the plot is less than wonderful). Hence, when A. informed me that it was being shown at The Dukes, I was immediately interested to see Yimou Zhang's latest Chinese 'historical' epic, 'Curse of the Golden Flower'.
Maybe those earlier films had raised my expectations too far, but I found it disappointing. No; on reflection, I do think the film itself was flawed.
A major part of the earlier films' visual appeal was the use of simple blocks of colour: whole scenes in which everything was, for example, a deep red or a vivid blue. Hypersaturated colours were used again here, but in more complex and ultimately less satisfying combinations. One scene, in which a black-clad 'ninja' (in 10th Century China?) crept along a corridor was unintentionally comic, as plain black was the worst possible camouflage against the brilliantly-coloured, near-psychedelic pillars and walls. The coloration and extensive use of gold certainly conveyed opulence, even decadence, but also a lack of taste.
That may have been my initial source of disappointment, but the main problem was a two-dimensional sterility in the characterisation. All the characters seemed like shallow puppets, or models in the other sense, being little more than a means of displaying costumes and jewellery. Admittedly, the actors played characters themselves playing formal roles, but even in private and when that outer layer was shattered, the audience learned very little about any of them as people.
In particular, the Emperor and his third son were cyphers, the former too well hidden behind his ceremonial demeanor (which is understandable) and the latter less prominent than servants until almost the end of the film.
I'm certainly not saying the acting was poor – far from it: Yun-Fat Chow, Li Gong and Ye Liu were particularly good, but they portrayed generic, or at least underdeveloped, characters well.
The film was based on a well-known play, but I understand that was set in a different social context. Transposing it to the sterility of the Imperial court obviously increased the opportunity for visual opulence, but sacrificed the chance for the characters to behave as genuine humans rather than ceremonial performers. An obvious theme was that the Imperial family was glorious on the outside but rotten inside. Regrettably, that assessment could be extended to the whole film.
Conversely, I was impressed by the depiction of the sterile, stultifying rigidity of ritual court routine, which may have justified the outward actions of the characters (certainly the Emperor). The film was punctuated by announcements of the hours, a stylistic device more familiar in Peter Greenaway's highly structured 'art-over-narrative' films. In fact, early scenes of court servants' daily preparations were also reminiscent of Greenaway's work – even at the time, I wondered whether it was a deliberate allusion.
This wasn't solely a stylistic device, though; it added impact to a major plot point. Immediately after the climactic battle scene in the palace courtyard, another army, of servants, replaced the crushed flowers, rinsed the blood off the steps, and laid fresh carpets, all before the next hour announcement. Preserving the illusion of eternal calm was beyond question.
Yes, there was a battle scene, but despite the title, setting, genre convention and the foregoing two Yimou Zhang films, this wasn't really a kung-fu or 'adventure' film, being a somewhat Jacobean/Shakespearean tragedy focusing more on family intrigues than physical combat. That said, there were some fights, with the expected high standard of choreography and a literally spectacular scale. The aforementioned courtyard battle apparently took over twenty days to film, on the largest set ever built for a movie in China.
It didn't help that the film was out-of-focus again. I did complain, but from the back of the auditorium, and hence the projection room, it didn't look too bad. Nothing was done.
From my seat, four rows from the front, the entire right side of the screen was blurred (strange that it was only one side) and the subtitles had a ghost double-image. Close-ups were okay, but intricate patterns – something of a feature in this film – were smears of colour and in wide shots faces were unrecognisable. It wasn't disastrous, and I didn't leave, but it was rather like watching on VHS with dodgy tracking, when I don't think it unreasonable to expect something closer to DVD quality, count-the-pores-in-Yun-Fat-Chow's-nose, pin-sharp clarity.
So, what am I saying? (I often wonder...)
If you enjoyed 'Hero' and 'House Of Flying Daggers', 'Curse of the Golden Flower' is worth seeing, but I do think it's the weakest of the three (not that they're a trilogy) and could have been better. Very much a case of style over substance.
*: Cheap joke, but unexpectedly accurate.
22 July, 2007
Review: 'Continuum 2' (Continuum, 2007)
Four minutes and three seconds.
Continuum is a collaboration between Steven Wilson (Bass Communion, Porcupine Tree, etc.) and Dirk Serries (vidnaObmana, Fear Falls Burning). For those unfamiliar with those projects, I'd better state that the content of their second album is dark ambient 'music'.
Ambient means it's composed of drones and processed samples. There's no melody or conventional structure, merely chord progressions and s-u-s-t-a-i-n-s. Where any conventional instruments are used, it's as individual notes prolonged for 5-10 minutes. Much of the attraction is in the texture, the atmosphere, the, well, ambience.
Dark means it's evocative of emptiness: windswept moors and abandoned factories, not flower-filled meadows and waves lapping on quiet beaches. New-Agey whalesong does not appear.
'Music' is in quotes because some might question whether ambient noise meets the definition of the word (I don't).
There are only three pieces, 'Constructs IV-VI' (I-III are on the debut album), but the shortest is over 17 minutes long, giving an overall running time of almost an hour. However, I feel those are appropriate lengths to absorb as individual pieces, separately, rather than playing the whole album as a continuous experience.
One soon realises this album is going to be a lot less ethereal than 'Continuum'. A lot less. 'Drones and processing' are the expected components of dark ambient music, but Continuum have added electric and bass guitars, creating something approaching ambient metal. The pace is slow, suggesting the unstoppable ponderous encroachment of an oppressive weight. It's not party music!
Very reminiscent of Bass Communion's 'Ghosts on Magnetic Tape', faux-EVP voices backed by a drone itself reminiscent of distant machinery, soon joined by additional layers of mechanistic electronic tones. Imagine walking alone through the vast turbine hall of a near-derelict power station, towards the sole remaining functional generator, with a disembodied voice whispering wordlessly in your ear, gradually drowned out by pipes 'singing' as they warm and the noise of the generator itself. Though the tones are purer and marginally more musical than raw mechanical noise, you get the idea.
Again, there's a sense of occupying a vast, derelict space; the beginning inspires thoughts of the wind through a disused factory's broken skylights. The organ-like electronic drones, accompanied by more heavy, fuzzy guitar drones, add to the sense of wandering alone through a deconsecrated cathedral of industry, the ghosts of machines gradually materialising from the darkness. Towards the end, it's as if the building itself is collapsing under the bass-rich vibration of the phantom machinery. Play it loud enough, and that mightn't be entirely fanciful.
I must stress that this isn't kiddie-goth music, wallowing in pretentious angst and self-pity. It's very, very dark, but not merely for effect and not in a melancholic, depressing sense; if anything it's a little sterile. In context, that's a good thing; one could interpret it as going beyond the futility of mortal emotion: everything dies, as exemplified by the majesty of large, empty spaces which were once hubs of intense activity, so why mope about it?
As with the first album (indeed, like most Bass Communion releases), a little more attention has been paid to the packaging than is usual. The CD comes in a DVD-format digipack designed by Lasse Hoile, with three postcards instead of a booklet (there's little to say about the musical production). The artwork is somewhat similar to Hoile's work on the first 'Blackfield' album: very dark processed photographs, predominently red (on black) and subtly degraded. This time the subject matter is coastal: seaweed holdfasts on rocks, pitted pebbles and a barnacle-encrusted whelk shell. The effect is of specimens from the collection of a macabre Edwardian gentleman scientist.
Again like the first album, 'Continuum 2' is a limited release, with only 2,000 copies available from Soleilmoon, Headphone Dust and vidnaObmana (collectively, not 2,000 each). The first album sold out fairly quickly, so if you're interested, order it now. You will not find it in your local record shop, nor at Amazon, etc. That said, 'Continuum' (a limited edition of 1,000 copies) was so popular that it was reissued on iTunes.
Four minutes and three seconds. Remember that. You've been warned.
23 June, 2007
Review: Free (OSI, 2006)
Soon after the release of OSI's second album, 'Free', I drafted a review, but somehow I prevaricated about filling-out and rewriting my rough notes, and a year has passed. I think I'd better accept the inevitable and publish it almost as-is.
The first album, 'Office of Strategic Influence', was sufficiently complex and non-standard to sustain interest – it's not mindless pop rock. However, there were beautifully catchy moments throughout. 'Free' doesn't achieve that balance so well, and fewer songs grabbed me from the very first time I heard them.
Some of the sampled material and the title of 'Office of Strategic Influence' (it refers to a post-9/11 propaganda agency established by the Pentagon to manage foreign perceptions of US policies) meant that the first album had a strong thematic feel; almost a consistent statement. 'Free' doesn't, and initially seems to be 'merely' a bunch of unrelated songs. That's not necessarily a problem, as the songs are rather good!
There's nothing as obviously dark as the debut album's 'ShutDOWN'.
The presence of Jim Matheos (of Fate's Warning) and, to a lesser extent Mike Portnoy (of Dream Theater), might over-emphasise the prog metal aspect of the project – it's there, in some sections of some songs, but on the whole this sounds a lot like Chroma Key with extra guitars. That's probably the main thing to emphasise to those who have heard the debut album: 'Office of Strategic Influence' could be considered to be an equal mix of Matheos' guitar-led prog metal and Moore's atmospheric keyboards-and-textures music, but 'Free' has greater emphasis on the latter.
This time, it's a little clearer that OSI is a two-man project: Kevin Moore and Jim Matheos are credited as composers, producers and lead musicians, with guest appearences (performance only) by others including Mike Portnoy and Joey Vera, who presumably weren't involved in the writing sessions and overall direction of the project.
Some songs seem a little repetitive, but on repeated listening, that seems to be for deliberate effect, and works well, particularly on 'Sure You Will'.
It may be a coincidence, but the second song, the title track, is one of the heaviest and comes across as an almost anthemic 'statement of intent', just as 'OSI', the title track of the first album, was sequenced second, and is one of that album's heaviest tracks.
Overall, the album isn't so full-on 'heavy' as its predecessor. Parts of 'Better' (the eighth song; I'm mentioning it here out of sequence) approach the same intensity, but it's not so in-yer-face, seeming a secondary accompaniment to the song rather than the dominant, driving element.
I may be imagining another structural similarity: The rhythm guitar accompaniment to 'Standby (Looks Like Rain)', the last track on 'Office...' sounds remarkably like that of 'Our Town', the last track on 'Free'. Listening to both albums together on shuffle, I misidentified one as the other for a moment.
Though I like them, the first two songs didn't immediately strike me as extraordinary, but 'Go' has it; within 20-30 seconds I thought it was great, and I like the way it developed. The syncopated vocals really grabbed me, as a very Chroma Key element.
There's a strange vocal rhythm, but it really works.
All Gone Now: another 'heavier' one, using the same 'almost repetitive' style as 'Sure You Will'. It's okay, but I'm afraid it doesn't hold my attention.
Somehow, I don't associate OSI or Chroma Key with wistfulness or sentiment, so 'Home Was Good' is a little different. Otherwise, it could be a Chroma Key song – voice, keyboards, ambient textures and some semi-acoustic guitar. Though one of my immediate favourites, it hasn't grown as much as others.
'Bigger Wave' is very OSI, consistent with the first album.
I particularly like the simmering, almost menacing rhythm of 'Kicking'; there are a couple of particularly nice chord changes, too. The first few times I heard it, I thought it slightly over-long, but somehow that feeling has diminished. It could almost be a good single. Imagine that.
'Simple Life': Er. Nothing to say about this one!
The intro to 'Once' could be the Ozric Tentacles, though with a little too mechanistic a feel for those hippies. The track proceeds in the same style, reminiscent of industrial processes or the operation of monolithic bureaucracy – apt for an Office of Strategic Influence (or a Ministry of Information...). I also the overlapping vocals.
'Our Town': just acoustic guitar and voice, with a little electric guitar and a very nice banjo section.
So: I like it, and that has only increased with repeated listening. It's certainly one of my musical highlights of 2006. However, fewer 'Free' tracks have stuck in my mind than those from 'Office...', and I choose to play the latter far more frequently.
As with 'Office...' I bought the 'Special Edition' of 'Free', which included a further 20 minutes (okay, 19:25) of music on a bonus disc. As with 'Office...', it's okay, and if you happen to see the Limited Edition available for about the same price as the standard one, go for it, but don't make a special effort to find it or pay a premium price.
The bonus tracks make greater use of samples, especially sampled speech, than the main album. Except for 'Set It On Fire' and part of 'OSIdea 9', all percussion sounds programmed.
'OSIdea 9' is a heavy guitar instrumental, accompanied by programmed percussion and the sampled voice of someone claiming he's about to be extradited to the USA to be executed.
'Set It On Fire' is the only bonus track to sound like a completed OSI song. Moore is credited as writer, but there's quite a lot of heavy guitar accompaniment.
'Communicant' sounds like a completed instrumental, featuring keyboards, samples and percussion, with guitars only introduced in the final 30 seconds. It's slightly surprising, therefore, that it's a Matheos composition, not by Moore. It's good, but I agree with the decision to leave it off the album, as the sampled speech wouldn't have fitted the album's overall sound, if not theme.
'When You're Ready' is one of my favourite tracks on 'Office of Strategic Influence', but the inclusion of the demo (and why on this album?) is redundant. Apart from the lack of 'real' drums, it's near-identical to the finished version.
'Remain Calm' seems a self-indulgent opportunity for Moore (alone) to play with odd drum rhythms, directionless keyboard sustains and fragments of sampled speech. Experimentation is fine, but this is one Moore could have kept to himself. It's marginally better in distinct stereo e.g. via earphones, as the overlapping rhythms are a little more comprehensible.
The final track is an odd inclusion: 'Old War' is a 66-second song by Bige Akdeniz, who also contributed guitar and vocals; the only OSI contribution is a few seconds of percussion, presumably programmed by Moore.
26 April, 2007
Review: Porcupine Tree, 53 Degrees, Preston, 20 April, 2007 (w. Amplifier)
One of my favourite bands, performing my 'album of the year' (to date) live, within cycling distance (well, 37 km) of my home? Do you think I could have missed that?
[Looking for the album review?]
Queuing outside the venue, the audience seemed older and more predominantly male than usual, wearing a disconcerting number of retro 'prog' T-shirts. However, once inside, the hall soon filled with a wider range of people displaying preferable affiliations.
The doors opened on time at 19:30, and I went straight to the merchandise stand. I needn't have rushed, as Ade (Porcupine Tree drum tech & stallholder) seemed to have learned from last September, when tour T-shirts completely sold out within eight minutes, and there was plenty of stock. If anyone's interested, I bought the new tour T-shirt featuring a curiously low-res version of the 'Fear of a Blank Planet' cover image and a long sleeve shirt featuring the silhouette of an open hand (in the 'FoaBP' special edition's booklet, it's the image opposite the 'Anesthetize' part 3 ('Water so warm...') lyrics). Porcupine Tree are really grasping marketing opportunities at last, and Ade dropped a promotional postcard into the 'FoaBP' carrier bag.
Incidentally, don't wait to buy your copy of the new album at a concert, as neither the special edition of 'Fear of a Blank Planet' nor even the standard retail edition is being sold by the merchandise stall. This is because the band and label wish to maximise initial sales via mainstream, chart-registered retailers.
In the remaining ~20 minutes before the concert began, it was great to meet Simon 'Carbon Nation' Clarke in person, and meet ex-Lancastrian Adam again, but putting faces to online identities is always difficult, and two others vanished into the crowd before I registered that I recognised them from photos.
The venue was smaller than I'd expected; more of a club with a bar area and dance floor than solely a concert hall. I was told the capacity was around 1,200, and I don't think it completely filled, so the one-off move from the Manchester Academy (capacity 1,700-1,800) may have deterred some.
One advantage was that the room was on two levels, offering people at the back a better view than at the one-level Academy. That also seemed to spread the crowd slightly, and I easily found myself only seven 'rows' back from the stage by the time Porcupine Tree came on (I usually stand well back, 15-20 'rows' away, near the mixing desk to avoid the crowd and appreciate optimum sound).
For those planning to visit in future, the 53° is a 10-15 min walk from Fishergate (Preston's main shopping street) and the railway station, and there's a car park right by the venue.
I've mentioned before that I don't like the custom of including support bands in concerts, but for once Porcupine Tree were accompanied by a band I already like, Amplifier. In fact, after OSI's 'Office of Strategic Influence', 'Amplifier' was probably my favourite album of 2003 (though I didn't discover it until late 2004), markedly ahead of Porcupine Tree's 'In Absentia'.
It made a change to be very familiar with the support band's music, though I admit I couldn't name the opening instrumental until playing 'Insider' again this morning. Only two songs were from that second album, with the remainder being obvious choices from the eponymous debut album. Amusingly, I was able to predict which they'd be, in almost exactly the right order:
So far as I could tell, the playing was excellent, remaining quite close to the studio arrangements, if abbreviated. So far as I could tell. Unfortunately, the sound quality was... sub-optimal. Amplifer's music incorporates considerable controlled feedback, but the further distortion introduced by the band's amps and mixing desk (they didn't use Porcupine Tree's) resulted in rather muddy and out-of-balance sound. At a few moments I was appreciating the memory of the album versions, as the live renditions were indistinct. I suspect those less familiar with how the music should sound received a poor first impression. That's a pity, and I recommend giving them a second chance.
Amplifier played from 20:00 for forty minutes, so there was a twenty-minute interval before Porcupine Tree were expected. Some headed for the bar, but I took the opportunity to edge forward a little, towards the middle of the stage. I'd provided a vague description of myself at the unofficial Porcupine Tree forum, which was adequate for one of my new neighbours to recognise me – hi, Steve (who introduced me to his friend as 'a man from the Internet', as if I'd just downloaded to the venue).
The lights dimmed at 21:05, but it was a further five minutes before the band came on, causing me slight anxiety about abbreviating the set to meet a 23:00 curfew. I needn't have worried; the full set was played.
The sound was excellent – perhaps the best I've heard at a concert. It was loud, but extremely clear. Last September's mix had been far too bass-rich, which battered the crowd in a way which was interesting in itself (I thought the 'wall of industrial noise' effect was great) but which distorted the music. This time, every element was crystal-clear without compromising raw power, allowing the effective use of stereo, er, effects in places. Well done. It makes a tremendous difference to be able to appreciate the subtleties of the final song with as clear hearing as during the first. This may be the first rock concert I've left without my ears ringing.
I don't particularly like back-projected videos at concerts; I don't want someone else's interpretation of the music to distract from my own enjoyment, and the whole point of attending is to see the band perform for real, live, in front of me, not to watch something pre-recorded. Perhaps unfortunately, then, eight (indicated with asterices, below) of the sixteen pieces played had video accompaniment.
Two, from 'In Absentia', used the projections from that tour: abstract assemblages of Lasse Hoile images which were atmospheric without attempting to directly illustrate the lyrical content. Two more, from 'Deadwing', were similarly fairly abstract animations (both are provided for home-viewing on the 'Arriving Somewhere...' DVD). All were easy to ignore.
That leaves four new projections accompanying songs from 'Fear of a Blank Planet'. These were rather different, being more like 'proper' music videos for broadcast than mere concert accompaniments. Stylistically similar to the album booklet artwork and still images on the special edition DVD, they seemed to be relevant to the lyrical content, without offering an outright narrative. In a way, I welcomed them as, if they genuinely illustrate the meanings intended by Steven Wilson (SW), they helped me understand the songs. However, I wasn't there to watch TV, so kept my attention on the band as much as I was able.
Aside from the entire new album, Porcupine Tree played one song from 'Signify' (1996), two (two of my all-time favourite Porcupine Tree songs, in fact) from 'Stupid Dream' (1999), one from 'Lightbulb Sun' (2000), three from 'In Absentia' (2002) and three from 'Deadwing' (2005).
That's not quite what I'd expected; recent tours have featured new material, a significant amount from the post-2002 albums, and very little from the older back catalogue. Last September, they played the new material, eight 2002-2005 songs and only one from 1993-2000; I'd expected much the same again, so was very pleasantly surprised (when I read Wednesday's setlist – I didn't arrive at this concert 'cold'). Apart from the final encore, I wouldn't have changed anything.
As usual for a Porcupine Tree concert, the audience were still and attentive – some might say static. A few tried headbanging to complex rhythms, which looked foolish, but otherwise movement was limited to a little head-nodding and foot-tapping. In writing, that sounds awfully sedate, but somehow it wasn't, and I wouldn't have wanted it otherwise – it's a concert, not a party – and there's no question that the audience were fully appreciative. One group behind me was rather... chatty, but beyond being aware of them, I wasn't particularly distracted.
I don't think I'd previously appreciated the full extent of Richard Barbieri's role in live performances. He played keyboards, of course, and his soundscapes both underpinned and rounded-out the overall sound, but there were moments when I realised neither Gavin nor Colin Edwin were playing at all. Conversely, particularly during heavier sections of the new material, SW and John Wesley (Wes) were effectively playing rhythm beneath Richard's lead.
I've said before that I think Gavin Harrison's drumming has been too high in the mix of studio recordings since he joined the band in 2002, so I'd better clarify something I realised during the concert. It's the snares which have been too dominant in the mix of songs from 'In Absentia' and 'Deadwing', but I really appreciated the contribution his bass drum made in propelling the rhythm tonight. I'm no musician, so apologise if I'm misusing the terminology; I mean the 'harsher', 'bright'-sounding percussion has been too clear in the past, whereas I'd overlooked his 'deeper'-sounding drumming.
Though there were times when he had nothing to do, I was struck by how comfortable Wes looked on stage – he's not a stereotypical guitar hero, but in his quiet way, he's a consummate pro.
So; the songs themselves:
This pre-recorded piece was only played briefly as the band came on stage rather than as an extended lead-in beforehand. As such, my mind was elsewhere and I didn't give it much attention; I initially thought it was familiar, perhaps 'Revenant', but I've since checked, and it was an unnamed ambient piece.
Fear Of A Blank Planet*
I don't remember, and haven't heard an unofficial recording yet, but I presume this was the then-unnamed piece which opened concerts on the preview tour last year. Somehow it didn't have the same initial kick of raw power as I recalled, which made me wonder whether I'd view all of the 'Fear of a Blank Planet' material so differently now it's more familiar. I still enjoyed it, of course, and was uncontrollably grinning within moments.
The back-projected video had briefly been shown on the band's MySpace site, but had been temporarily withdrawn following the Virginia Tech murders last week. Now I've seen it, I can certainly understand why, as children with handguns, some shown in a school environment, was a little too close to truth.
It was wonderful to hear this live, not least because I hadn't attended any concerts on the 2000 tour, when it was last performed. Unexpectedly (by me), SW played a rather (visually) attractive acoustic guitar whilst Wes played the electric parts, which meant he took the solo. That was excellent: extended, and distinctly his own rather than a clone of SW's style.
I think this was the first time SW spoke, greeting the crowd and saying that they'd play the whole new album interspersed by songs from the back catalogue "that we haven't played before" [pause; shocked exchange of glances between Steve & I ] "...at least not with this lineup." [*******!]
Again, I was surprised by Wes' central role in the live rendition: he sang the entire choruses, rather than simply backing SW. I'm not sure why. I don't think it added anything special, and it was slightly distracting to hear material I'm still assimilating in his accent and higher vocal register.
This video depicted fragmentary images of young childhood, which suggested to me that the song could be about a member of the 'blank generation' recalling happy, more innocent earlier life.
SW introduced 'Anesthetize' by saying it's "a pretty hard one to play though not the hardest one on the record to play; more of that later". I thought that meant he'd later state which is most difficult, but he didn't.
Wow. I'd had some doubts about this song on the album, but suddenly I really 'got' it – it was sublime, especially the middle section. My highlight of an already wonderful evening.
The Alex Lifeson solo in the first section was played by Wes. I'm afraid the original was better; Wes' version seemed to lack direction.
Hearing it live reinforced my impression that this is really two distinct songs artificially forced together. The end of the second section felt like the natural end of the song, and received corresponding applause (which I joined, as it was deserved!), whereas applause after the third section felt like a formality.
Not my favourite track, from not my favourite album, but it worked very well in the live setting, and was a good choice after an extended period of music unfamiliar to anyone who didn't already have the new album.
Perhaps foolishly, I hadn't realised that the first third of the song is a duet between SW and Richard Barbieri. Until the second verse, the drums were played from tape (reproducing the filtered sound of the studio version), but I'm not sure why the bass was pre-recorded too – it's not as if Colin Edwin was doing something else at the time.
Drown With Me
SW introduced this by explaining the band had recorded but left certain songs off albums, then regretted doing so. The example he cited was 'Stars Die' which, for a fraction of a second, implied they were about to play it. However, that's practically impossible (too many layered vocals) and he went on to announce this b-side from the 'In Absentia' sessions. I'd hoped and expected it to be 'Half-Light', an outtake from 'Deadwing' which had been in the Glasgow set two nights ago, but 'Drown With Me' was okay too.
Like 'Stars Die', the studio version of 'Drown With Me' makes extensive use of overlapping vocals which couldn't be reproduced live. However, the live band does have two vocalists and backing tapes could be made, so it was surprising to hear the whole effect stripped away; apart from during the title phrase itself, I don't think SW and Wes sang together even once. Unfamiliarity with this version may have affected my judgement, but I'm afraid those sections just sounded clumsy and unfinished.
The video depicted an older teenager in cafés, on public transport, etc., which I interpreted as being about a member of the 'blank generation' growing up, entering the mundane adult life of work & commuting and being unable to engage with that either.
I must have been enjoying myself – it's not often that I feel an urge to (discreetly) sing along in public.
For several seconds, I didn't recognise this at all. It's distinctly different to the studio and 1997 live versions, with an unfamiliar drum rhythm. I'm looking forward to hearing it again on an unauthorised recording I happen to know was made, as I didn't really take it in at the time. I liked it, anyway.
One of the things I appreciate about Porcupine Tree is that they don't rest on their back catalogue, but I'd very much like to hear more mid-90s songs reinterpreted in this way.
A Smart Kid
I can't hear this song too often, so it almost goes without saying that I enjoyed it. However, it wasn't the highlight I'd expected it to be. Relative to the overall feel of the concert, it somewhat lacked power, and the normally stunning climactic guitar solo was slightly overshadowed by earlier pieces. It pains me to say it about one of my all-time favourites, but I think other songs could have been better choices within this setlist.
Way Out Of Here*
SW introduced this by saying the final two songs on the album are about escape.
I suspect this was the one they've been struggling to play live. Again, I'm no musician, and the playing seemed flawless to me, yet at one point (I think it was during this song), Richard and Colin abruptly looked at Gavin and grinned, so they must have spotted something I missed.
As soon as I saw the accompanying video, which depicts an attractive goth girl in a railway yard, I thought of a teenage member of the unofficial Porcupine Tree forum who was female, gothy and killed by a train in 2005. I've since discovered it was no coincidence.
I must have been overwhelmed by this point, as I don't recall anything specific about it!
With that, the band left the stage for a couple of minutes, long enough for the road crew to remove SW's keyboard, then returned for the encore:
This has been a staple of concerts since at least 1997 (yes, well before the release of 'Stupid Dream'), so I'd expected it to have been retired by now. Not that I'm complaining – it's always been my favourite Porcupine Tree song, so I was enraptured to hear it. That said, its stylistic difference to the current material didn't quite fit the mood of the evening (perhaps that's why it was in the encore rather than the main set) and, at least this time, I preferred 'Anesthetize'.
Mother & Child Divided*
Maybe I was tired, but this didn't excite me as much as it might; the same sort of material had already been covered stunningly in the main set, so this instrumental felt superfluous. I'm not really complaining; I just mean it was the least memorable part of the evening.
Throughout the concert I'd been hearing familiar songs afresh and gaining a new appreciation, so I genuinely approached this with an open mind. However, it's no use; even with the new arrangement, I simply don't like this shallow, populist song. It's a pity that I couldn't fully appreciate the last opportunity of the evening to be a few metres from my musical 'heroes', as I'd already emotionally disengaged.
And that was it, until my next Porcupine Tree concert. I can't adequately express how much I enjoyed this one.
I'm afraid this review reveals the major deficiencies in my supposed writing ability. I have no problem being analytical and commenting on specific points, but I can't adequately convey my emotional responses to the concert: the excitement of being a few metres from the band (I certainly can't rationalise that), the exhilaration of being immersed in wonderful music played at high-volume,... I don't know; just the sheer ecstasy of the whole experience. I can't describe it, but it's the nearest an atheist can get to a nonexistent heaven (in public, anyway).
I couldn't have hoped for a better setlist, but a 'source close to the band' told me that the band rehearsed three hours of material before the tour – each night's set is about two hours long, so expect some variety as the tour proceeds. In fact, the cue sheets by the mixing & lighting desks suggested 'Trains' had been a possibility this evening.
I'm used to attending concerts in Manchester and Liverpool, so it was a pleasant change to not encounter ticket touts outside the venue beforehand nor bootleg T-shirt sellers afterwards. However, a couple of Roadrunner Records/Porcupine Tree street team members were present, distributing stickers to the departing audience. Let's hope they secured a few converts.
21 April, 2007
Review: 'Fear of a Blank Planet' (Porcupine Tree, 2007)
Porcupine Tree's much-anticipated ninth studio album was released on 16 April, so I suppose I ought to stop enjoying it long enough to write a review.
[Looking for the concert review?]
Actually, I haven't been playing it back-to-back all week (only nearly...). At a little under 51 minutes, it feels short, but it's intense; as soon as I'd finished hearing it for the first time, I wanted a rest, and didn't immediately start again as I might normally.
I could nit-pick, as there were a few tiny details I didn't particularly like, but they were only details and overwhelmingly this is exactly what I wanted from Porcupine Tree: intelligent hard rock with an immediacy which pulled me in from the start, but also a depth that can only develop as I enjoy it repeatedly. There's nothing at all like the execrable 'Shallow' on this album, and the whole composition exhibits a maturity I thought lacking last time.
I want to stress that: apart from minor details, I liked the entire album, from the very first time I heard it. Quite a starting point, which exceeds the patchy 'In Absentia' and 'Deadwing'. Those albums contain some of my favourite Porcupine Tree songs but also almost all of my least favourites, and both took a while to appreciate. Particularly on 'Deadwing', I thought certain songs were 'pop rock' with no greater depth than crowd-pleasing 'fun': "only rock'n'roll" – and I don't like that. 'Fear of a Blank Planet' goes further.
As I said in my review of the preview material at the 'Arriving Somewhere...' concert in Manchester last September, my impression was that this would be the 'heaviest' Porcupine Tree album yet; not so much 'metal' as 'relentless industrial wall of noise'. That seems to have been moderated somewhat, and the studio album isn't so much of an 'in yer face' aural assault.
I think I like that. There's still enough full-on material to satisfy fans of 'In Absentia' and 'Deadwing', and where it's 'heavy', it may be more intensely 'heavy' than ever, but there's also a return to the textured atmospherics of earlier albums. In its initial 'punch', 'Fear of a Blank Planet' may seem like a 'heavy' album, but in hindsight it's not, really. I couldn't offer a precise breakdown of the relative proportions of 'heavy' and 'not heavy' material, but it may be something like 1:3-1:4. The 'heavy' aspect merely grabs disproportionate attention, unsurprisingly.
The album's lyrical content relates to teenage disengagement from wider society. Great; good for them. I'm all for the breakdown of traditional family-orientated collectivism in favour of self-motivated secular individualism.
Actually, that's not what's meant: it's about the 'blank generation': terminally bored 'hoodies' who disengage from the outside world altogether, retreating into an empty, instant-gratification cycle of computer games, prescription drugs and zombified mall wandering. Without wishing to convey a 'message', SW apparently seeks to draw attention to the tendency to live vicariously through an ever-widening range of impersonal technology – mass-media, the internet and gadgets.
That subject is explored most transparently in the title song, but the specific meaning of subsequent songs' lyrics eludes me at present. That doesn't particularly worry me at this stage; frankly, I don't really listen to Porcupine Tree for the lyrics. In general, I get more enjoyment from the vocal rhythms than the words of a new album, and more from the images conveyed by individual lines than from any overall themes, which I might appreciate more as I become familiar with an album.
The topic was apparently inspired by Brett Easton Ellis' novel 'Lunar Park', but I haven't read that myself (yet) and the synopsis I have seen didn't reveal an apparent similarity.
I noticed in a Marillion forum that fans of that band consider this album rather 'cold', but how else could one treat the subject of emotional vacancy? I find this more compelling that wallowing in outpourings of melancholy.
I do have one criticism of the album, but it's of the personnel involved, not the creative content itself, so is relatively unimportant.
The album includes guest appearences from Alex Lifeson and Robert Fripp from Rush and King Crimson respectively, if not respectfully – I'm not an admirer, and featuring what music critics and potential album purchasers could regard as 'prog dinosaurs' was needlessly dangerous. I didn't exactly welcome the announcement that they'd be participating.
Even knowing which guitar solo was provided by Lifeson, I didn't regard it as noteworthy; SW could easily have composed something himself and denied lazy journalists the opportunity to dismissively liken Porcupine Tree to retro 'prog'... stuff. Fripp's contribution on 'Way Out of Here' was pleasant enough but again, not distinctive, and nothing SW couldn't have generated himself.
So why have guest appearences by 'name' musicians only of interest to old-time 'prog' fans, which have the very real potential to alienate more mainstream listeners and critics? It's a bad idea in terms of mass-market credibility, which succeeded musically only because the guests' contributions were unobtrusive to the point of being anonymous. I'd call that a pointless gimmick.
I don't have anything significant to say about every song. There's limited value in my repeatedly stating 'I like this one', and I'm not a musician/musicologist who could comment on technical issues, so I'll just offer a few specific notes. Let's take it as read that I think they're all great!
Fear of a Blank Planet
If any track is reminiscent of the 'Deadwing' album, it's 'Fear of a Blank Planet' itself. However, it's not merely an outtake or continuation, rapidly developing from a (maybe deliberately) familiar feel to exhibit greater depth.
As I said, I don't really understand the lyrics of specific songs yet, but if the video accompanying this song at concerts is an indication, it seems to be about the protagonist wistfully recalling the innocent idyll of early childhood: "life's all ****ed up now; I wish I'd appreciated it more then." Maybe.
This has a particularly rich, layered soundscape, so it's not entirely surprising that Richard Barbieri shares joint writer's credit with SW. I'm not especially keen on lavish orchestral strings in rock music. That's not a criticism, merely my preference, and at least they're real, having been played by the London Session Orchestra.
This is the shortest track, 5:07 long, but actually ends at 4:36, the remaining 30 seconds effectively being an intro to 'Anesthetize'. The track division could have been located differently, but I think the right decision was made.
Yes, the title uses the US spelling, for some weird reason.
Surprisingly, this near- 18-minute compound song, affectionately known as 'The Beast' by those attending last year's preview tour, was my initial least favourite, though that impression was only temporary and relative ('less wonderful' is hardly savage criticism). This was partly because it seemed too repetitive, even rambling, in places, partly because the compilation of three distinct sections seemed somewhat artificial, and partly because I'd had very high expectations.
The initial impression I received in September, and which I unquestioningly assimilated, was that 'The Beast' 'blows away' 'Arriving Somewhere But Not Here' i.e. that I drastically preferred the highlight of 'Fear Of A Blank Planet' to the highlight of 'Deadwing'. Having heard the finished version, I'm less sure, but why would I? They're very different songs and it's not a competition. I like them both.
No matter how many times I hear it, I'm still convinced 'Anesthetize' is really two distinct songs forced together by a cross-fade and linking 'click track'. One is 12 minutes long in two different but complementary parts and, especially after hearing it live, is by far my favourite part of the album. The second is 4½ minutes long, and is fine, but seems musically unrelated to the first (apart from keyboards reminiscent of Pink Floyd's 'Echoes'). Ultimately, it doesn't make a difference if two separate songs happen to be indexed as one, especially as the album is intended to be heard as a coherent composition in the sequence provided, not a bunch of unrelated songs to be heard in isolation. I just wonder why it was done.
Again, if the back-projected video at concerts is an indication of SW's intended meaning, the lyrics seem to be about a member of the 'blank generation' growing up and trying to re-enter the establishment world of employment, commuting, and mundane adult life – and finding herself psychologically unable to do so. Again: maybe.
It's been noticed (and acknowledged by SW) that the riff at 3:52 and thereafter is the same as in live fan-favourite 'Trains', merely transposed to different chords. Now it's been pointed out, I hear it too, but I'm not entirely sure why it'd be an intentional back-reference, even though the first line of the next song, 'Way Out of Here' happens to be "Out at the train tracks...".
Way Out of Here
Er... 'I like this one'. Well, I do, even if I don't have anything to say about it here.
Okay: SW wrote all the lyrics on the album and all the music apart from 'My Ashes' and this song, which is credited as a collective band effort. Unlike 'My Ashes', I wouldn't have known by listening.
Some have said this is the furthest from anything Porcupine Tree have done before, even a hint of a major change in direction on future albums (as if that sort of thing is so planned). I don't see it myself. Though swirling orchestral strings provide a 'Middle Eastern' feel slightly reminiscent of ELO or Led Zeppelin's 'Kashmir', otherwise this is pure Porcupine Tree. It has quite a laid-back pace, but carries a brooding intensity, as if it could explode at any moment.
I could have done without the 'surprise' drumroll at the very end of the song and hence the album. It didn't seem to serve any purpose, and I'd have preferred it to end with the foregoing gentle fade, retaining rather than releasing the tension in the track.
Is it coincidental that much like 'Stop Swimming', the closing track of 'Stupid Dream', the lyrics of 'Sleep Together' could be readily interpreted as being about suicide?
As always, the album production was excellent, though for the first time, it was credited to the whole band rather than SW alone. This may explain two key differences to the foregoing two albums.
Since he joined the band, I've thought Gavin Harrison's drumming to be far too obtrusive on studio recordings, being much too dominant in the overall mix. This time, I wasn't aware of that even once.
Conversely, I was pleased that Richard Barbieri's keyboards & effects were more apparent. The combination of a driving guitar lead underpinned by a rich keyboards soundscape was what drew me to Porcupine Tree in the first place, so I'd been slightly disappointed by the (relative!) diminution of RB's role in the 'metal' 'In Absentia' and 'populist rock' 'Deadwing'; he's expressed dissatisfaction himself. He's back!
Aside from the production, I was also immediately impressed by the album's mastering (a different issue): not too loud, so there's room for dynamic subtlety and even on my very ordinary player there's negligible distortion at high volumes. It seems Porcupine Tree have stepped back from of the loudness war, presumably respecting the fact that their core market tends to be concerned about sound quality (consider the interest in high-resolution DVD-A technology, and criticism of compressed DVD-V), not to mention SW's own preferences. Notably, SW is credited as having mixed and mastered this album himself, whereas 'In Absentia' and 'Deadwing' were mastered by a third-party, Andy Van Dette, who evidently has more commercial 'everything louder than everything else' sensibilities.
To quote SW, interviewed by 'HDTV Etc.' magazine in 2005, if you want to hear it louder, "please use your volume knob".
Note that the album is deliberately not being sold by the band's web store at Burning Shed yet, nor from the merchandise stall at concerts on at least the UK part of the European tour, as the band wish initial purchasers to buy from chart-registered retailers. Once that promotional push subsides, Burning Shed should have copies, but they don't anticipate ever stocking the special edition, which was limited to 7,500 copies worldwide, all already accounted for – one by me.
Whilst the retail edition is a CD and standard booklet in a jewel case, the special edition comprises a CD, DVD and expanded 40-page booklet. The outer packaging, a thick card slipcase, contains:
- the CD and DVD in plastic sleeves, in a thinner card gatefold. The sleeves don't really fit into the gatefold, but that is nit-picking!
- a 40-page booklet containing the lyrics, album credits and extensive artwork. Like the slipcase and gatefold, the artwork features Lasse Hoile's characteristically downbeat photography laid out in the familiar Aleph style by Carl Glover. Lots of pills, empty landscapes, vacant teenagers and TVs tuned to dead channels.
I can't comment on the surround sound mix on the DVD, as I don't have a suitable amplifier system connected to my player, but it contains the PCM stereo mix too, which I can play.
I'd better stress that the special edition comes with a standard NTSC DVD i.e. a 'DVD-V', usable in any normal, modern DVD player capable of 5.1 surround sound output. It is not a DVD-A containing a higher-resolution mix only accessible by a dedicated DVD-A player. There is an intention to release a DVD-A later in 2007, almost certainly with bonus material, but this isn't it
. This is a standard-resolution 5.1 mix of the same six songs as on the main CD (accompanied by still photographs additional to those in the booklet), with no bonus tracks whatsoever.
If you'd expected the 'special' edition to compile all available bonus tracks and high-resolution mixes into one 'ultimate' edition, you must be new to Porcupine Tree.
Easily my album of the year (so far, though I'm not aware of release schedules being due to provide competition in 2007) and a very welcome antidote to Marillion's tired efforts.
[Update 22/04/07: 'Fear of a Blank Planet' reached no.31 in the UK album charts in its first week of release.]
[Interested in the live experience?]
14 April, 2007
Review: 'Somewhere Else' (Marillion, 2007)
Meh. Fifty-two minutes of blandness.
Officially released on 9 April, the pre-order special edition of Marillion's 14th studio album, 'Somewhere Else' reached me on 6 April, so I've had plenty of time to absorb it. However, the following few paragraphs were written immediately after I'd heard the album for the first time. Don't panic about some of it; as I say afterwards, I was mistaken on at least one point, but it's interesting to record my unalloyed immediate impression.
A little like 'Angelina', from the excellent 'Marbles
', this whole album is evocative of a late-night jazz club – very laid-back, very mellow.
I don't like mellow.
This is a downbeat, melancholic album. Downbeat is good; melancholic is workable, and Marillion have proven ability in the area. However, they've always managed to maintain a certain energy before, keeping the music compelling, or at least they've interspersed introspective songs with high-energy rock music. Not this time; it's consistently maudlin. I don't mind B-sides, and accept filler in albums, but where are the catchy A-sides?
I don't expect to fully appreciate an album from the very first time I hear it, but there's usually some immediate spark, something to draw me in and make me want to listen again. I'm deeply disappointed that that didn't happen with 'Somewhere Else'; I've listened to it once, and absolutely the only reason I'll give it a second chance is that it's by a band I've liked before; had it been by a less-familiar artist, once would have been sufficient and it'd go straight to eBay.
Having heard it again, I obviously have to acknowledge that several songs do feature a 'big' rock sound and some relatively high-energy material, notably 'Most Toys'
, but that fact is curiously unmemorable, and the overall feel is more laid-back than I'd choose.
I still think it's an album to appreciate alone in a darkened room, rather than sing along with in a sweaty concert venue with flashing lights (which sounds like a recommendation, but somehow isn't). If that's all this review conveys, perhaps it'll prevent others experiencing the same initial misconception as me, and perhaps they'll enjoy it more from the outset.
That may be the key point: the album failed to satisfy my expectations of it, which might have been unrealistic. I thought 'Marbles' was wonderful in 2004 (and still do); a return to form after a few patchy albums. I'd automatically presumed that 'Somewhere Else' would continue that reinvigoration, without even considering it might revert to something more comparible with the under-impressive previous output.
Even after a week, no single track stands-out as a highlight. Don't misunderstand: I'm not looking for the instant gratification of an empty pop song, and I'd probably recoil from anything a 17-year-old rock fan would consider 'awesome', but it's disappointing that not even one of these songs has, for want of a better phrase, the'wow!' factor.
There are times when I'll put a CD in my player just to hear one or two favourite tracks, even if I don't listen to the whole album. Up to now, every Marillion album has had, at the very least, a couple of highlights like that, but not this one. I quite like 'No Such Thing' and 'Somewhere Else', but I doubt I'd specifically seek them out in that way.
Of the other eight tracks, seven are... okay. I haven't felt the urge to skip them (yet), but they don't really hold my attention.
That leaves only one I actively dislike: 'The Last Century For Man'. I really, really don't need to hear this environmentalist hippie sh*t.
Overall, I'm not sure about the lyrics. I presume the intention was to go for 'simple but profound', but in a few places, the result borders merely trite. "He who dies with the most toys... / is still dead". Deep, or obvious?
So; not a classic, and I certainly don't have a new favourite Marillion album, but not disastrous either, despite my immediate reaction. It's simply... meh.
31 March, 2007
Review: 'The Thirteenth Floor' (1999)
A 'Matrix' clone without the PVC (damn).
That's not an entirely fair summary, but if you were interested by the Wachowski brothers' exploration of layers of artificial reality, this is an alternative take on the same broad concept.
'The Thirteenth Floor' has a slightly dodgy script in places (especially some dialogue), and some of the effects look oddly dated, but the premise is good, and if it hadn't been released only two months after a certain genre-redefining film mentioned above, I imagine this would have been considered an above-average 'B'-movie. As it is, it seems to have been virtually forgotten.
It's undeniable that direct comparison with 'The Matrix' is unflattering. In my initial draft of the foregoing paragraph I wrote "... but the premise is intriguing,... " before reflecting that I couldn't honestly say that; the Wachowskis had already addressed the 'is this reality or a simulation?' issue earlier in 1999, reducing the novelty.
Actually, 'The Thirteenth Floor' is far from being a rip-off or a clone, being an adaption of Daniel F. Galouye's 1964 novel 'Simulacron 3'. It's only the timing of the release that was unfortunate.
Well, sort-of; this fares badly against 'The Matrix' in several other respects: it's pretty good, but not in the same league in terms of screenwriting, direction, acting or production (maybe cinematography), not to mention special effects. Yet that's like comparing haute cuisine with Chinese takeaway, and there's nothing wrong with the latter. I'd definitely rank 'The Thirteenth Floor' above 'eXistenZ', yet another 1999 film about layered reality.
Certain films redefined the standards of presentation in sci-fi films, genuinely advancing the genre. 'Stars Wars' was one, whilst 'The Matrix' was another. It's always interesting to see films made on the cusp of such changes, but that didn't help 'The Thirteenth Floor' critically or financially. Audiences had already seen the next level, so a reasonably respectable film made to the earlier standards just didn't cut it any more. However, that doesn't make such 'transition period' films bad.
The cast were good, if better known as supporting actors than stars; faces one might recognise without being immediately able to place the names. I'm not sure what I thought of their performances – I'd need to see the film again before criticising what could have been simply understatement, and my immediate impression was that they did their best with a flawed script. In places, the dialogue was just plain bad, and characters' reactions to discoveries which shattered their very perceptions of reality weren't credible. Then again, catatonic loss of sanity mightn't have been exactly cinematic.
To expand on my other main criticism from the second paragraph: the special effects weren't great, and not merely because this film's budget was a quarter of 'The Matrix's. Even without 'bullet time' cinematography and wire-work stunts, 'The Thirteenth Floor's effects seemed dated. Key transitional scenes involved a 1970s-style light-curtain (which didn't even seem relevant to the technology), and wireframe in films is so Eighties (yes, I'm being flippant, but it did detract). The digital reproduction of 1937 Los Angeles was impressive and, importantly, unobtrusive, but one can only be so impressed by what amounts to 3D matte painting.
Not that this was an 'effects movie' anyway (thankfully); I mean that those which were used could have been better.
So. Premise: good, if overshadowed by possibly the best Hollywood film of the year (no shame in that). Script: flawed, though not disastrously. That leaves plot, which was... okay. Ostensibly a murder mystery, even a sci-fi noir, the story held my interest for the full 100 minutes. Yet major plot twists were very predictable, and the only real suspense was in how they'd be introduced.
Incidentally, I'd better stress that though 'The Matrix', 'The Thirteenth Floor' and 'eXistenZ' all address the same concept, their stories are entirely different.
Evidently, even writing this review hasn't helped me to decide what I thought of 'The Thirteenth Floor'. I did enjoy it, and intend to watch it again some time. I also recommend it to others, not only because it has been unduly overlooked. It's worth seeing, but no cult classic.
I don't know whether to be proud or ashamed about noticing this, but the apartment occupied by Douglas Hall, the protagonist in this film, seemed remarkably similar to that of 'Blade Runner's Deckard – and it was: both were filmed in the same Frank Lloyd Wright building. I presume this was a deliberate reference, as the core theme of both films is whether artificial entities are 'real'.
Oh, and one scene does feature PVC. So that's okay.
17 February, 2007
Review: 'Blackfield II' (Blackfield, 2007)
After planning a collaboration for some time, Steven Wilson (Bass Communion, Porcupine Tree, No-Man and several other projects) and Aviv Geffen (Israeli pop star) released an album of intelligent pop songs in 2004, under the name Blackfield. The follow-up to the eponymous debut album is cunningly entitled 'Blackfield II' and was officially released on 12 February, though pre-orders from Burning Shed and Headphone Dust were despatched slightly earlier; I've had my copy since 10 February so have had over a week to consider my reaction.
It's likely that most listeners approaching this album afresh (apart from those in Israel) will be Porcupine Tree fans who have never heard of Aviv Geffen. If only for those people, I could describe the Blackfield project as resembling the softer, melodic side of Porcupine Tree; in those terms it's most similar to the 'Stupid Dream'/'Lightbulb Sun' era (and near-totally dissimilar to the 'In Absentia'-'Fear Of A Blank Planet' hard-rock/metal era!). Geffen's unique compositional contribution is in adding an overtly 'pop rock' feel under-represented in SW's other work.
Totally unlike Porcupine Tree music, most tracks on 'Blackfield II' are around four minutes long, though one is just under 3 mins and the longest is 5:13. Though they share a common feel of melancholia (near-suicidal despair in a couple of instances), there isn't an overall theme, and these are ten standalone songs.
Fans drawn to the 'progressive (not 'prog') rock' or 'metal' side of Porcupine Tree have expressed slight disappointment with 'Blackfield II', particularly with the, er, less-than-challenging lyrics. It's probably important to know what one is getting: this is a 'pop-rock' project, and by the standards of the genre, it's above average. Besides, the music easily compensates for the lyrics.
I can't comment on Geffen's other music, but this is about as 'pop' as SW gets. I can't deny preferring slightly less predictable, more challenging material too, but I do like the album. Not even one track feels weak, and I don't feel an urge to skip even one.
Even more than on 'Blackfield', the most obvious performer is SW, though Geffen seems to have been the primary composer. SW wrote (music and lyrics) three* of the ten songs, Geffen wrote five, and the remaining two+ are 'music Geffen, lyrics Geffen/SW'. SW is the lead vocalist on 6 tracks, Geffen on one and they share lead vocals on on three. That, plus the fact that the vocals are lower in the overall mix, which takes the edge off any vocal idiosyncrasies, means that Geffen's relatively strongly-accented, annoyingly quavering voice is less apparent. Sorry, Geffen fans, but I think that works very well.
A couple of people have suggested the album is overproduced, but I don't agree at all. Compared to the stark 'Blackfield', 'Blackfield II' could be described as 'lush', but I like the densely layered soundscape a lot and don't recognise any reason to criticise. The first album probably established expectations of a simpler sound, but if one can get past that preconception (and I can without hesitation), multiple overdubs sound great. Admittedly, the electronic effects on '1,000 People' grab one's attention more than I might have chosen, and 'Miss U' and 'Where Is My Love?' sound a little 'busy', but I actually welcome the relative diminution of the vocals on those two tracks. Initially, I was a little concerned by the frequent use of what I thought was sampled strings, but they're played by a real ensemble, the Downtown Session Orchestra. Not that I quite understand why it matters that they're 'real' – for me, music is about the result, not the process.
Unmistakably the product of the same band, this is a slightly richer experience, which I expect to hold my attention longer. Much as I like the debut album, after the first month or so I've only played it rarely.
[Update 05/12/07: Wrong – I tired of this album very rapidly and haven't played it for months, but I've returned to the first album a few times.]
So; a few thoughts about the individual tracks. Overstating slightly, I could be described as a professional editor, so I'm naturally inclined to spot negative points, which may make my comments seem negative. Please bear in mind that I do like all these songs!
The intro/verse riff of 'Once' *: is extremely familiar – distractingly so, though I can't quite identify where I've heard it before. One almost expects to hear a different voice than SW's.
I want to stress that I do like this, an enjoyable pop-rock song, but it's not exactly groundbreaking. I could imagine it doing well in the pop charts, if it wasn't a little too generic. A quick survey at the Porcupine Tree Forum found a wide range of individual favourite tracks, but not one person ranked 'Once' as the single 'best' song.
Incidentally, it seems a little perverse that a song called 'Once' is being played twice at each of at least the first few concerts on the 2007 tour.
'1,000 People' + is about a pop star's inability to respond to fan adulation. It's a theme other lyricists have covered, and Geffen doesn't say anything new on the subject. I'm assured this is just a slightly inadequate translation of Geffen's original Hebrew lyrics, but that isn't exactly relevant: this rendition has to stand alone. And, in my opinion, it does. Even discounting the words themselves, the interaction of the vocal rhythm and instrumental music is compelling. The French horn, played by Itamar Leshem, is a well-chosen addition.
Speaking of individual favourite songs, this is SW's, apparently.
'Miss U' is the first song to feature Geffen as lead vocalist (the only one on which he takes the lead alone); in fact the first point at which I noticed his distinctive voice at all. The song is very similar to material on the debut album. Apart from the guitar solo/lead out, it's also rather repetitive and perhaps my least favourite track.
'Christenings' * is something of an oddity. It was written and demo'd as a potential Porcupine Tree song during the 'Deadwing' sessions. I'd thought SW had contributed the song to the Blackfield project to be recorded by this band, much like the debut album featured a number of Blackfield renditions of songs previously released by Geffen. Not this time: this is the Porcupine Tree recording, featuring SW, Richard Barbieri and Gavin Harrison (I'm not sure who played bass; perhaps Blackfield's Seffy Efrati, perhaps SW). Weird.
My initial thought was that it was better suited to a Blackfield album, as it's too overtly 'poppy' for Porcupine Tree, but it doesn't really have a Blackfield feel either.
It's inspired by Syd Barrett, apparently, but isn't specifically about him, having been generalised to refer to a generic has-been pop star. Pretty good, but not a highlight of the album.
SW's is the only voice clearly apparent in 'This Killer' (that could be said about most of the album, really), but I suppose Geffen is in the nice harmonies in this nice, melodic song. I'm afraid that's also a slight criticism: I don't really go for 'nice'. The result is pleasant enough, but undemanding. The clichéd 'twist in the tail' of the lyrics doesn't help.
'Epidemic' + is excellent; possibly my favourite track. Oddly, this five-minute song feels like the distillation of a far longer, structured piece, an impression heightened by a hint – only a hint – of Porcupine Tree-style metal-inspired guitar, which itself adds energy and a great sense of menace.
The brief inclusion of a female backing singer (Daniella Pick) near the end is another of the small yet valuable details which I regard as immensely beneficial to the overall result, and which others seem to regard as overproduction.
Something about 'My Gift Of Silence' * grabs me as being more creative than the others, displaying both a complexity and subtlety slightly lacking in other, generically 'poppy' tracks.
I genuinely wrote that sentence 'blind', before checking the album credits and discovering it's a SW composition (music and lyrics). Whatever; it's excellent.
Somehow, the first half of 'Some Day' reminds me of SW's cover version of Abba's 'The Day Before You Came'. Perhaps that's partly why the percussion in the middle section seems misplaced, clashing with the lyrical content and other instruments. Then again, that characteristic is shared by a couple of songs on 'Blackfield'.
'Where Is My Love?' was a bonus track on the European edition of 'Blackfield'. I didn't like it there (and my dislike has increased with time), for its over-sentimental content, repetitiveness and SW's odd vocal delivery (slurred 'r's). This is considerably better, with vocals lower in a richer (denser and more varied) instrumental mix. Shock, horror: I actually like it a lot, especially the guitar-led second half.
That there's a REM track with a similar title to End Of The World is coincidental, but repetition of that line in the chorus in this song is slightly reminiscent of the REM one too. However, that's only an initial impression, and the strength of the Blackfield song soon drives out the comparison. I can imagine this somewhat anthemic track becoming a popular encore piece.
The first few times I played the album, the songs weren't familiar enough for instant recognition, but each time I reached the chorus of this one and suddenly recognised it, I couldn't help grinning in anticipation – I loved it immediately.
That's ten tracks, giving a running time of 42½ minutes compared to 37 for the debut album. 'Blackfield' felt short, but this feels like a decent length, certainly within the range of traditional mainstream albums.
Oh; and for those who discovered this review whilst searching for 'blackfield II lyrics', they're in the CD booklet. At the time of writing, they're only available in the CD booklet, not online. I don't know whether that's deliberate, giving people a reason to buy the CD rather than download.
21 January, 2007
A week of films
Eight days, six films, four at the cinema. I'm slowing down....
'El Laberinto del Fauno' ('Pan's Labyrinth', if you must use the inaccurate, English title – I'm not sure why that irritates me, but really; the film simply has nothing to do with Pan).
A fairy tale for adults? Perhaps, in the sense that classical European fairy tales were thinly-veiled allegories about violence and politics. This was very violent in places; most instances were appropriate in context, though I'm not sure the 'sewing' scene was strictly necessary.
Initially released via arts cinemas in the UK, word of mouth seems to have caught the attention of mainstream cinemas, and the film is still attracting growing audiences (it's already no.114 in the IMDb all-time top 250). I'd be pleased to add to the effect by strongly recommending you see it, though definitely not with children.
'A History of Violence'
I've never been a fan of David Cronenberg. I have absolutely no objections to sex and violence in films, but Cronenberg's use of such elements is gratuitous: the very definition of p*rnography. 'A History of Violence' was characteristic in places (one instance of utterly irrelevant full-frontal nudity was particularly annoying), but on the whole, the story and execution were good, and I enjoyed the film. Though I didn't think it was as insightful as other reviewers have suggested, it's certainly far superior to the standard 'Hollywood' treatment of such material.
'Children of Men'
Alongside 'El Laberinto del Fauno', this is one of the best films I've seen recently. The acting, story and execution were all excellent, and I needn't comment further on them, but I was particularly impressed by the setting: a very credible depiction of near-future Britain, somewhat chillingly matching my own perceptions of where social surveillance and anti-immigrant hysteria are heading. The impression was of the real 2006 world aged into the future. For example, the cars looked slightly different to those of 2006 and featured proximity-detectors with head-up displays, but they looked like the natural progression of contemporary car design rather than being 'futuristic'.
I'm not sure whether non-Brits would quite appreciate the impact of seeing dramatic events in repurposed familiar (to Brits; not tourist-famous) locations. A key sequence depicts military-vs-'insurgents' combat, the results of which have become familiar in genuine news footage from Iraq, but this is in mainland Britain; sleepy Bexhill-on-Sea, in fact.
The film would certainly reward repeat viewings. Many of the background details, if not necessarily advancing the plot, fleshed out the fictional world and were simply interesting. There were also a couple of remarkable continuous shots, which apparently involved substantial technical innovation. In context they were impressive without being obtrusive, but I'd like to study them again.
I'm one of the few people I know who liked Sofia Coppola's previous film, 'Lost In Translation', but this was far less substantial. The use of an Eighties pop soundtrack as a comment on the young queen's 'party' lifestyle might have been a good idea in theory, but it's a rather insubstantial, obvious device, and not really worth pursuing. Similarly, one of the defining points in Marie Antoinette's place in history, being misquoted as having said that starving peasants should 'eat cake', was trivialised as 'tabloid journalism'. Another key moment, her execution, was omitted altogether. Kirsten Dunst's portrayal of the queen as an occasionally well-meaning Californian airhead failed to carry the film, and failed to illustrate whether Marie Antoinette was a victim of her circumstances (as the cited source material apparently suggests) or genuinely decadent. I'm not sure whether I'd even call this 'history lite', and I came away with no greater insight into the person or era; the film just didn't seem to say anything.
Coppola had an unrivaled opportunity to film actually at Versailles; it's a pity more wasn't made of it.
'Paths of Glory'
Stanley Kubrick's 1957 'breakthrough' film is certainly a powerful comment on the ludicrous concept of 'glory' in WWI, in which men were discarded by generals as mere game pieces. It's certainly notable as a Hollywood film which unrelentingly suppresses any hope. However, I'm not entirely sure why it's ranked within the IMDb all-time top 50 – it's good, but not that good. I suppose it's been influential on other films, which might explain its supposed 'must-see' status.
'The History Boys'
17 January, 2007
Review: 'The History Boys' (2006)
I don't know.
I'm sure it was an excellent stage play, but film is a rather different medium, and a direct transfer (rather than translation) of the former into the latter came across as far too contrived. I don't exactly object to cerebral content in films, but this lacked subtlety, and seemed merely clever.
For a large proportion of the film, I thought it drastically too wordy and hence superficial, with incredible (literally, not credible) dialogue failing to convey any real intimacy. A very English apparent sterility, perhaps.
It didn't help that the characters were similarly stylised. I've certainly never encountered eighteen-year-olds so knowledgeable, self-assured or even simply so motivated.
However, as in most of Alan Bennett's writing, one was given isolated glimpses of deeper emotion through the intellectual barrier, and by the end I'd been at least partly drawn in to appreciate the central characters as people. By that point I was was wondering* whether the under-emoted approach hadn't been correct from the start.
Well; almost by the end. Without revealing too much, there were two false endings, which suddenly reimposed the contrived structure and as A. said, schmaltz. I feel the first 'extension' could have been simply omitted without harming the story, and the epilogue probably worked better in the theatre.
Overall, I think I enjoyed it, despite my frustration. I'd have adapted the material very differently (if I had the ability!), turning it from a stage-play-on-location into a 'proper' film. It was disappointing that every aspect of the film could have been portrayed equally well on stage – an opportunity to do more was missed.
That said, I can't work out what I'd do differently.
*: Reading this review, I'd be tempted to tell myself to stop over-analysing and just lose myself in the film. However, that's precisely the point: the very fact that I was consciously analysing it whilst watching is some indication of the film's failure to properly absorb me.
29 October, 2006
Review: 'Insider' (Amplifier, 2006)
That was curiously unimpressive.
The underpromoted Amplifier are one of the best bands I've discovered in recent years. The high-energy yet intelligent hard rock of their eponymous 2003 album was a wonderful introduction, a high standard of musicianship underlying a refreshing playfulness. This was a rare case of substantial music also being just plain fun. It was also a rare example of a consistently high-quality album without weak filler tracks, though I'd isolate 'Airborne', 'Panzer' and 'UFOs' as especial highlights.
Their 2005 'EP' 'The Astronaut Dismantles HAL' was equally good (and 'EP' is understating what was really a 40-minute album). The first time I heard the intro to 'Everyday Combat' inspired pure joy; even just thinking of it, I'm grinning.
So what happened? In a sense, 'Insider' is more of the same (which is a good thing), but there's something... missing. The playing is fine, and the deeply-layered, complex arrangements are undoubtably impressive, but the new material is rather 'samey' and lacks one of Amplifier's earlier strong points, catchiness, to the point of being inaccessible and unmemorable. Experimental technique is pointless unless the music is simply enjoyable. Don't misunderstand: I don't regard 'Insider' as awful, just not so stunning as its predecessors. It's almost as if Amplifier produced enough material for two albums, 'Amplifier' and 'Insider', but put all the excellent tracks on one and all the less-inspired filler, which would be perfectly adequate interspersed by stronger tracks, on the other.
With regret: not recommended.
I own rather more CDs than available shelf space, so I periodically move those of which I've tired into storage. I think I've played 'Insider' five or six times since I bought it four weeks ago (on the release date), but I'm afraid I've had enough, and it doesn't qualify for shelf space at all. Straight to storage. If I hadn't liked (and still like) the foregoing releases so much, I suspect it'd bypass storage too, and go straight to eBay. I'm hoping that I'll suddenly 'get' it when I play it again in a few months time, but I'm not hopeful, and my initial impression isn't much incentive to belabour the attempt.
25 September, 2006
It's the moment for which you've all been waiting: the Sainsbury's christmas stock is now on the shelves.
This weekend just gone was the equinox (nominally), so the solstice must be 91 days away (21 Sept to 21 Dec). That means there's an entire quarter of a year between today and the festival of commerce. I'd have thought the christmas produce would go off sooner than that.
10 September, 2006
Review: 'The Notorious Bettie Page' (2005)
I suppose the significance of Bettie Page in post-1980s popular culture arises from the 1950s photos rather than the woman herself, so there wasn't much to really say about that period of her life.
In fact, in portraying her as an easy-going innocent, the film objectifies her as much as the original magazines did. She doesn't come across as an active participant who understood what she was doing; it seems that if she hadn't happened to be there at the time, the Klaws and John Willie could easily have worked with another model, and if it wasn't for her distinctive physical appearence, Page wouldn't be remembered fifty years later. A failing of the film is that I have no greater insight into whether that's accurate than before I went into the cinema. Essentially, this is the story of the photographs rather than of Page herself.
Aside from the thin narrative and overall lack of substance, the film looks good: casting Gretchen Mol as Page was an inspired decision, and filming in black & white with interludes of hypersaturated colour provides a strong sense of the time. I suppose the very omission of sexuality, which weakens the story, was evocative of 'wholesome' (aka sanitised) 1950s films, too.
Not awful, but not really recommended, either.
2 September, 2006
Review: 'Angel-A' (2005)
It'd be unlike me to recommend a sentimental romantic comedy, but that's precisely what I'm doing.
Luc Besson's penultimate feature film (he said he'd direct ten in the course of his career and, including 'Nikita', 'Léon' and 'The Fifth Element', he's now made ten. I hope he reconsiders.) explores a very simple premise. André, a failed fraudster, is driven to suicide by his debts. At the final moment, when he's already on the wrong side of a Parisian bridge parapet, an angel, Angela, appears and, as the film progresses, tries to teach him to like himself.
The casting was excellent. Jamel Debbouze made a perfect gnome-like Algerian immigrant with 'sad puppy' eyes and Rie Rasmussen, over 6' tall in heels, was suitably inhumanly attractive. André's rumpled raincoat mirrored his personality, whereas Angela's tiny black dress was... startling. That itself was a valuable device, emphasising her sexuality as a metaphor of considerable, apparent yet barely restrained, power over others (which itself can be one definition of sexuality, of course).
Incidentally, there's a stereotype that supermodels can't act, other than as clothes horses. I have no complaints about Rasmussen's performance; I wasn't aware of her acting being acting, which has to be praise.
Ostensibly in very different genres, I suppose there are thematic similarities between this and 'The Fifth Element', and they're both centred on supernatural female leads played by supermodels. As André says, it's easy to talk about inner beauty if you've already got external beauty covered, and 'Angel-A' is even closer to the line between worship and objectification. To be fair, that analysis only occurred to me afterwards – perhaps I'm being more cynical than the film deserves.
Angela is unmistakably a male creation, but arguably that fits the situation. André desperately needs to experience beauty, and this isn't 'It's A Wonderful Life' – André isn't about to respond to familial love, comradely friendships or community spiritedness, and a somewhat homely angel like Clarence really wouldn't get through to him.
The film is set in the most picturesque parts of central Paris, and I suspect the local tourist board are very pleased with Besson. The city does indeed look beautiful, as André gradually realises. Curiously, apart from those people André & Angela specifically meet, the streets are almost deserted, even around major landmarks. The film already acquires a stark intensity from being in black & white, but the empty spaces and lack of human distractions magnify the effect.
A suspension of cynicism is required, never mind suspension of disbelief. It is an obvious film, and the subplots are almost formulaic. For example, one wonders whether Angela really is an angel or just usefully delusional, and the issue is addressed directly. I can imagine that if it caught me in the wrong mood, the film's lack of convolution and darkness might annoy me, but somehow it simply works, and is totally enchanting. I'm not complaining.
22 June, 2006
Review: War Of The Worlds (2005)
That was odd. For a lightweight blockbuster, it was almost experimental, but in my opinion, the experiment failed.
I haven't read the original book, so I don't know whether H.G. Wells took the same approach, but the film describes an alien invasion from the point of view of one man, a New Jersey dock worker with no government or military contacts and hence no understanding of the overall situation*.
In theory, that's a nice idea, and the audience could become immersed in the 'everyman' experience. Unfortunately, the execution doesn't match the concept. The intention seemed to be to focus on character instead of spectacle, whilst remaining led by the visuals. Maybe one can have it both ways, but Spielberg didn't manage it here.
When a significant part of that experience is struggling through fleeing crowds or hiding in a cellar, it's not particularly thrilling, and puts extra pressure on the script/direction. For a superficial Tom Cruise vehicle directed by Steven Spielberg (i.e. written by committee, edited by focus group and lowest-common-denominator all the way) marketed as an 'action movie', that's a problem.
I don't have some snobbish objection to films which solely entertain without challenging an audience to think; visceral, emotional responses are as valid as intellectual ones, and pure entertainment is fine. Yet this didn't entertain. Even by the standards of a modern blockbuster with a skeletal story linking set-piece CGI showcases, the plot is weak and diminished by intrusively unlikeable characters. That doesn't leave much.
*: I think Wells' narrator was a journalist with official contacts, which justified greater exposition. Lacking that, the film struggled.
31 May, 2006
Review: The Double Life Of Véronique (1991)
Two identical women, Weronika and Véronique, lead entirely separate lives in Poland and France.
It's lazy to criticise the Hollywood stereotype, but there are only so many ways one could imagine the US focus group-led studio system developing that concept, and none of them would match the direction taken by Krzysztof Kieślowski.
Typically for a Kieślowski film, 'La Double Vie de Véronique' is strongly character-led and internalised (yet visually intricate and precise – every teabag swirls beautifully). Though there is a clear plot, that's not what the film is 'about'. The narrative is secondary to emotional reaction to events which, taken alone, might seem slightly trivial. Kieślowski doesn't spoon-feed the audience, who need to interpret the characters' motivations and inner emotions for themselves.
This seems to have eluded some reviewers at Amazon, who rated it 'very disappointing' and even 'rubbish', but I strongly feel that reflects the reviewers' mistaken preconceptions and inability to engage with the characters, not a genuine failing of the script, direction or acting.
Far from it. As with Juliette Binoche in 'Three Colours: Blue', it doesn't hurt that I find Irène Jacob physically attractive, but the film heavily depends on her understated performance as the two lead characters, for which she deservedly won the 1991 'Best Actress' award at Cannes.
Actually, much of my earlier review of '... Blue' applies to this film too, especially the first two paragraphs and including the part about not entirely understanding it. The wonderful thing is that that doesn't matter – I'll understand more next time I watch it, which I certainly will. I've read 'La Double Vie de Véronique' described (fairly) as 'transcendent or somnolent, depending on one's orientation'. Clearly I'm in the former group.
26 May, 2006
Review: 'The Princess And The Warrior' (2000)
It's a dilemma. The best films tend to be the unhyped ones, which one can approach afresh, yet one has to hear about them somehow in order to watch them at all.
A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to spot that though I hadn't heard of a film about to be shown on TV, 'The Princess And The Warrior' was by Tom Tykwer, the director of 'Lola Rennt' ('Run Lola Run'), and starred Franka Potente (Lola herself). That was reason enough to video it, and I watched it last night.
Excellent; recommended. It was slower and more introspective than the frenetic 'Lola Rennt', and the gradually-revealed backstories of the lead characters were as important as the plot, but both aspects were very compelling. It helped that both lead characters were likeable, even pitiable, and played by good-looking actors; as a hetero male, I consider Benno Fürmann handsome, and Potente is unconventionally attractive.
The title evokes a fantasy or mediaeval romance, and the DVD cover image screams 'chick flick', but that's misleading. Set in modern-day Wuppertal, Germany, the film's 'princess' is a psychiatric nurse excessively adored by the inmates of her secure ward, whilst the 'warrior' is a damaged ex-soldier. On one level, it is a romance, but is well-grounded.
The visual effects were wonderful, using digital techniques solely to realise impossible shots without making them look even slightly fake or ostentatious effects-for-the-sake-of-showing-off-the-software. One vertical pan over a motorway bridge was a genuine 'wow!' moment (in a good way), and a key scene left me wondering whether Potente really did undergo an emergency tracheotomy for the film. The cinematography was equally good, and many well-framed images would work well as stills. Several scenes used the full width of the widescreen format; annoyingly, it wasn't broadcast in widescreen on this occasion.
Whilst checking a few details for this entry, I see that Tykwer's current project is a film of 'Perfume', the 1976 Patrick Süskind novel. Apparently, the book was, and is, a major bestseller in Germany and achieved underground, word-of-mouth acclaim here in the UK. I thought it was excellent, but curiously all of the friends to whom I recommended it found it disturbing, even repellent. I'm certainly looking forward to the film.
*: The original title is 'Der Krieger und die Kaiserin', but I think Tykwer made the right decision in insisting on the existing English title; 'The Warrior and the Empress' doesn't have the right resonance in English.
20 May, 2006
Review: Stupid Dream reissue (Porcupine Tree, 2006)
It's here. After having been out-of-print for about four years (blame Atlantic/Warner/Lava), Porcupine Tree's most highly-sought album, 'Stupid Dream' is back on sale, as a shiny new remix/remaster.
I'm not going to review the album itself in detail, instead concentrating on the new aspects of the package.
'Stupid Dream' is by far my favourite Porcupine Tree album and the opening track, 'Even Less', is my favourite Porcupine Tree song. Both would easily be amongst my all-time favourites by any artist if I was so anal as to rank albums and songs.
'Piano Lessons' and 'A Smart Kid' are also especially high highlights, but there are very few weak points in the entire composition. Forget 'In Absentia' and 'Deadwing', this is the Porcupine Tree I love.
Maybe it's because of my particular familiarity with the original album, but this is the first Porcupine Tree remix that's been immediately apparent as different to the original. Even in stereo (I haven't heard the 5.1 mix) there's greater depth, with previously unregarded background elements catching my attention for the first time. 'Pure Narcotic' is particularly enhanced, but I'd better stress that these are enhancements, not more substantial revisions. The original material is suddenly in greater focus, but it's still the same material.
The second disc, a DVD-A (playable in any DVD player, but not a CD player, to state the obvious), contains bonus material: two extra tracks, a video, a photo gallery and the album lyrics.
I already had the 'Piano Lessons' video on the 'Stranger By The Minute' CD single, but a number of people have reported that subsequent updates to Quicktime have rendered that unplayable, so it's good to have it back.
The concert photos of the band don't interest me (no criticism, they're just not my thing), and the lyrics are in the booklet, so I don't anticipate visiting those sections of the DVD-A again.
Alongside bonus material, the DVD-A contains the entire album in 5.1 surround sound. There's also a PCM (24-bit high-res stereo) mix for those without a 5.1 player, but rather surprisingly, the two bonus audio tracks are only offered in 5.1, not stereo. My first impression was that this rendered them inaccessible to anone without a surround sound DVD player (my PC's DVD-ROM drive won't even show them). That wouldn't be disastrous, as they were previously released in stereo on 'Recordings', but it's a strange omission and besides, 'Recordings' is out-of-print. Anyone who didn't buy the original edition of 'Stupid Dream', i.e. the target market of this new edition, is also unlikely to have bought 'Recordings'.
However, that's a false alarm: I subsequently discovered that my very basic standalone DVD (standard DVD-V) player does play the bonus tracks through the two speakers of my TV. If that can handle them, I doubt anyone else will have a problem.
[Update 19:00: Those who have equipment capable of playing the 5.1 mix are reporting a technical fault. The DVD-A actually contains two 5.1 formats: DTS, for standard DVD players, and a higher-resolution DVD-A format only readable by dedicated DVD-A players. Apparently, the DTS version of the first bonus track, the full-length version of 'Even Less', cuts out at 11 mins, three minutes before the end. The DVD-A version seems okay, but far fewer people have DVD-A players than DVD players.]
Incidentally, the title menu animation of the DVD-A features a circle of video material gradually eclipsed by a black CD. Steven Wilson (SW) has always resisted comparisons between Porcupine Tree and Pink Floyd, so it's surprising that the eclipse, a motif so closely associated with 'Dark Side Of The Moon' and Pink Floyd's signature visual style, wasn't deliberately avoided.
I've always considered Carl Glover's graphic design style to have been heavily influenced by Storm Thorgerson's work for Pink Floyd, and the new 'Stupid Dream' booklet is no exception. I'm not saying there was the remotest intention to copy it, but I see a similarity to the 'Dark Side Of The Moon' booklet's layout and photography.
When it was first announced that the reissue of 'Stupid Dream' would have redesigned artwork, I was unconvinced that that was necessary, and frankly still am. The only weak point of the original version was the band photo, and that's the only aspect carried across to the new version. However, I suppose the new booklet has greater visual cohesion, the lyrics are readable, and after all, it's SW's album: if he didn't like the old artwork, he's entitled to replace it.
To restate earlier entries: the 2-disc edition of 'Stupid Dream' is exclusively available by mail-order from the band's own web store, Burning Shed. It will not be sold via high street stores or other web retailers, so don't bother to shop around. There is to be a retail edition, containing only the remixed/remastered album on CD without bonus material, but no release date has even been implied. Do not wait – it could be several months away; if past events are any indication, it could even be years. For the foreseeable future, it's Burning Shed or nothing.
[Update 11/7/06: Contrary to the original plan, the two-disc edition will be available via normal retail outlets for a limited period.]
18 May, 2006
Review: The Black Hole (1979)
This was one of my formative cinematic experiences when it was first released. Though a Disney film, with overly cute robots, it's also the first Disney film to have received a 'PG' rating, and my parents may have been slightly misled about its suitability for an eight-year old child. At that age it rather scared me, and I still remember it with visceral unease, but seeing the film was also a landmark event probably determining my subsequent interest in sci-fi (another was reading Robert Westall's 'Futuretrack 5').
In hindsight, it's a very Gothic film, both visually (the cathedral-like spaceship Cygnus, the silent, robed 'undead' and the lighting/colour scheme) and in the overall bleak melancholy. A major theme is the acceptance of death and the aftermath.
Having watched it for the second time last night, over 26 years later, I found that my memory had exaggerated the 'trippiness' of the ending and consequently the fear it inspired (though I recalled the scene leading into it with perfect clarity – and heart-in-the-mouth anticipation). I'd also missed/forgotten the blatent religious imagery of that sequence.
Disney's investment in the post-'Star Wars' sci-fi boom is reflected in the big-name cast, featuring Maximillian Schell, Anthony Perkins, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Forster and the voices of Roddy McDowall & Slim Pickens (who famously rode a nuclear bomb in 'Dr. Strangelove'). At least the first two were probably cast because of their somewhat sinister manner and associations. I've always though there was something creepy about Ernest Borgnine, too.
John Barry's eerie, slightly grandiose score didn't soften the impact on the childhood me, either. One other, unrelated, observation after hearing it again: the music doesn't remotely fit the action in key scenes. I wonder why.
The special effects, in terms of miniatures, matte painting and even CGI were excellent for the time. The IMDb reports that (though clearly influenced by 'Star Wars') they were ground-breaking and nominated for Academy Awards.
Good cast, atmosphere, visual design and effects. To that, I'd add that the overall story and concepts are excellent.
The screenplay, including the script, and the acting drastically undermine the good points. I won't itemise the instances of bad science, but hardcore sci-fi purists would have... problems. The plot is annoyingly abrupt, as if natural development has been compressed to fit the available space and time. A bit like entering a black hole – nah; it can't have been deliberate.
Far worse, the dialogue is hideously stilted and delivered in a seemingly-amateurish manner. Apparently, nearly all of the spoken material was re-recorded after filming, which can't have helped; many lines do sound as if being read rather than really acted.
However (again), that's merely an acknowledgement of the weak aspects, and I do think the story and overall 'feel' more than adequately carry the film as a whole.
So; seriously flawed and far from a classic unless one has a prior emotional attachment, but still worth seeing.
Incidentally, it was slightly embarassing to realise last night that when I was playing childhood games which involved imagining sticks to be guns (precisely the sort of games the spoilsport adult me wouldn't approve of), the image I had in my head was the guns from 'The Black Hole'!
16 April, 2006
Review: 'The Difference Engine' (William Gibson & Bruce Sterling, 1990)
Having completed this a few minutes ago, for the third time since 1992, I still don't 'get' it.
'The Difference Engine' is credited as being the defining, though not the first, mainstream 'steampunk' sci-fi novel, introducing information technology to a historical setting. As such, it is frequently cited as an 'important' book, and not only because the authors are key figures in the cyberpunk genre. However, calling it 'important' isn't quite the same as saying it's a particularly 'good' book, or worth actually reading.
The central premise is that in the novel's alternative history, Charles Babbage succeeded in refining and manufacturing his Analytical Engine (not his Difference Engine, but the latter makes a more apt title), revolutionising the British Empire though the application of mass-produced computing.
In theory, the book's three interlinked stories explore this alternative Victorian London, but though I'm sure it was meticulously researched and thought-through, it fails to capture the feel of the age, coming across as too dry and ultimately superficial. One would hope and expect to be immersed in the fictional culture, but that never happens, and one is kept at a distance.
Having glanced though customer reviews at Amazon, it seems that though few rated the narrative, several thought the book to be an excellent description of Victorian Britain. I don't remotely agree. I can only presume those reviewers are non-Brits who have read few genuine Victorian novels and have limited knowledge of the era. Perhaps the novel provides an adequate semblance for (stereo)typical sci-fi readers, but the wider-read will be less impressed.
The characters are poorly-developed and their actions lack internal consistency; some seem to have been included merely to represent 'types' the authors wished to illustrate. Some of the dialogue is awful. Just as Dick Van Dyke spectacularly failed to capture working-class Cockney in 'Mary Poppins', the novel's characters emit bizarre parodies of Victorian English.
The single element linking the three stories is ultimately tangential and, at the risk of revealing a plot spoiler, is less than thrilling when it's finally explained. If that one factor is ignored (and I found that too easy), one is left with three standalone stories set in a theoretically interesting (but, as I said, under-realised) world. That needn't be a problem, but it means each individual 'novella' needs to be particularly compelling, to draw-in a reader afresh. I don't think that's achieved.
Only for Gibson & Sterling fans, I think, and perhaps for those tempted to make a better attempt at the concept.
5 April, 2006
As I said, I've seen five films at the cinema within in the past fortnight, and one was 'Brokeback Mountain'. The others were:
A Bittersweet Life (2005): This was very superficially similar to 'Oldboy' in that it's Korean, rather violent and tightly focussed on a single character; since the latter was the only other Korean film I'd seen before, I couldn't avoid the comparison. The narrative seemed more straightforward, bordering on derivative, but the ending can be interpreted a number of ways, which means one was left thinking and re-evaluating the experience for days.
Blow Up (1966): A wonderful film about the nature of perception.
Made forty years ago, it's certainly dated (40 years seems startling, though – it's not that dated), but it's 'period' nature is almost added value rather than a problem. In particular, it highlights the aesthetics of the time: at 24 years old, David Hemmings looked remarkably like Terence Stamp (who was apparently Antonioni's first choice for the leading actor), and in street scenes, the camera lingers on (then revolutionary) Modernist high-rise buildings that'd be ignored or considered ugly nowadays.
Sympathy For Lady Vengeance (2005): Though not as novel a story as 'Oldboy' (another of Park Chan-Wook's 'revenge' trilogy), the sheer innovation of the film's execution was fascinating. The use of special effects was particularly striking, in extending shots beyond the physically possible and conveying nuances of the plot and characterisation that I don't recall seeing before. So far as I'm concerned, this is what digital imaging is for.
Hidden (2005): The audience and lead characters are in the same position, of being presented with footage & events and having to interpret them for their/ourselves. As soon as I got home, I rang Helen to discuss it, and it's almost as if we'd seen different films.
Predictably, my view was that the surveillance videos were the product of a dispassionate outside observer, and that the subsequent events followed from the characters' reactions to it, whereas H. thought the videos had been produced by one (or more) of the characters in order to deliberately provoke specific actions. It's the difference between people's own memories and guilt driving their responses to an outside, itself entirely neutral, event, and someone attempting a deliberate act of impassioned revenge.
Incidentally, though I said earlier that the 'shared communal experience' aspect of going to the cinema isn't important to me, the collective gasp at one key moment was delicious.
26 February, 2006
It's in here somewhere...
These carbon-based data storage/display devices are great for most purposes, but books could do with a decent search utility. Maybe in version 2.
I've been reading 'The Science of Discworld' (Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart & Jack Cohen, 1999) this week, which alternates chapters of a Discworld story with chapters on corresponding topics of popular science. Following the 'narrative' from the Big Bang to the evolution of the Earth and life upon it, it's a very readable introduction to key scientific concepts. It has no patience with creationism, but isn't strident about that; arguments are clearly made explaining that there's no reason to think external intervention was ever necessary – not saying that intervention was impossible, but that the outcome can be fully explained without it. There are no gaps where the religious could cry "Aha! That has to have been consciously designed!"
Conversely, comparison of 'Roundworld' (us), which functions according to scientific 'rules', with Discworld, which runs on narrative imperative, highlights humanity's need for stories.
Somewhere in the book there's a good analogy which makes the idea of a soul, able to transcend physical death, faintly ridiculous, but without the ability to seach for the word 'eggbeater' I don't have much chance of finding it again.
Hang on; I have a slightly photographic memory, and remember the passage's relative location: top of a left-hand page, itself the final page of a 'science' chapter... found it!
It is curious that the strongest believers in the soul tend to be people who denigrate material things; yet they then turn their philosophy on its head by insisting that when an evident process – life – comes to an end, there has to be a thing that continues. No. When a process stops, it's no longer 'there'. When you stop beating an egg, there isn't some pseudo-material essence of eggbeater that passes on to something else. You just aren't turning the handle any more.
25 February, 2006
Review: Heavy Metal (1981)
'Heavy Metal' is an animated portmanteau film, eight short stories framed and interlinked by a ninth. It has a notoriously bad script, and didn't fail to disappoint. It seems the concept of an 'adult cartoon' hadn't fully evolved by 1981, and the target audience must have been juvenile stoners for whom nudity and trippy visuals would adequately carry the feeble story. In that sense, it was dire.
However, I rented it for two reasons, both basically just curiosity.
Firstly, I knew that one of my favourite contemporary illustrators, Christos Achilléos, worked on the project. It's probably deeply unfashionable to like his work, as he is best-known for 'swords n' sorcery' fantasy and pin-ups which could easily be described as sexist. Irrespective of whether he 'should' do it, I think he does it well, and I found his images useful anatomical references when I learned to sculpt in the early 1990s. Unfortunately, apart from the iconic poster, he only worked on character design and concept drawings for 'Heavy Metal', which were radically simplified by others before being animated, so no Achilleos artwork appears, merely unrecognisably crude (in both senses...) adaptations of it.
Secondly, I was interested to see an example of late-70s American-style animation, which had broken from the sanitised Disney tradition but had yet to assimilate Japanese anime. Numerous artists/animators worked on the various segments, but I kept spotting references to Robert Crumb's drawing style, or underground comics like the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. This impression was so strong that it has to have been deliberate. Many elements were highly detailed, and a bit grungy – nothing was sanitised or pretty; even the caricatured nude women were earthy rather than conforming to the modern androgynous supermodel ideal. Much of the artwork seemed to have been completed in monochrome, including shading, then overlayed with blocks of colour. The colours themselves conformed to the trippy underground style, with frequent juxtaposition of bluish green, orange and purple. Wild, man.
So, interesting (hence this review), but not really recommended unless you're into the history of animation, or two-dimensional nipples.
13 February, 2006
Review: 'Aguirre: The Wrath Of God' (1972)
The opening scene, of an expedition decending a near-vertical Andean path, was visually stunning, but from then on....
This was rated by IMDb users as one of the top 250 films of all time (no.220), the greatest of Werner Herzog's collaborations with Klaus Kinski, but I really don't understand why.
It could have been an excellent film, but the minimalist production was far too raw and intrusive; the sound production was seriously flawed (disjointed and mismatched), and the practicalities of filming in a South American jungle were too visible. A couple of examples:
In the climactic scene, the movement of the camera clearly indicates that it's mounted on a speedboat. As the camera moves around Aguirre for the reverse angle, the boat's wake is in full view. Considering this was supposed to be a moment of great isolation, and in the 16th Century, this was too much disbelief to suspend.
Even that stunning opening scene featured a rather irregular pan (i.e. it didn't feel like the eye naturally panned down the cliff; rather, it looked like a camera moving on a tripod), and could have been edited much tighter. Indeed, the laxity of editing is another major criticism of the whole film.
It may seem I'm dwelling on technical aspects too much, but that's my point: the technical aspects were far too apparent, and continually interposed themselves between the viewer and the story.
There was very little plot. That's not inherently a problem, but it increases the pressure to make the ambience and characterisation especially compelling. However, the acting was somnambulant, even amateurish – don't look at the camera, you fools!
The sole exception was Klaus Kinski's performance as Aguirre himself, which was too internalised for the context. Sometimes a glance or small gesture can convey a lot, but only if the audience has already been drawn in.
Script: fine. Location: excellent. Performance: poor. Production: crude.
9 February, 2006
Review: 'The Baroque Cycle' (Neal Stephenson, 2003-4)
Neal Stephenson is one of my favourite authors, so I bought the first volume of his Baroque Cycle, 'Quicksilver' within a fortnight of its publication in paperback (I rarely buy hardback novels). Unfortunately, it didn't grab me to the same extent as his earlier, cyberpunk, novels, and the dense references to a historical period of which I knew little were somewhat off-putting. In short, I thought it hard work, even boring.
On the strength of Stephenson's earlier books, I bought the second volume, 'The Confusion' a little after that was released in paperback, but I wasn't quite so eager to start that, and it languished in my 'to read' pile for eight months. I didn't begin it until visiting my mother in December, a period of enforced separation from work & my computer and an opportunity to address something I (then) thought 'heavy'.
That made all the difference. I think I must have read 'Quicksilver' a few pages at a time in the minutes between going to bed (tired) and putting out the light; it didn't really receive my full attention, at a time of night when my mind wasn't exactly receptive, and I wasn't reading enough per 'sitting' to be drawn into the 17th Century world. 'The Confusion' did receive my full attention, whilst I was fully awake, and I was able to devote whole hours to it.
And I loved it. Stephenson's command of language and wordplay was just right, incorporating elements of 18th Century (yes, the century had turned) English in a way accessible to 21st Century readers, yet demonstrating the 18th Century meanings of certain words – I've gained a richer understanding of my own language. The characters seemed to come alive much more than in 'Quicksilver', and I began to care about them, whether heroes, anti-heroes or villains.
Though sold in three volumes, one could divide the 2616-page Baroque Cycle into about a dozen episodes, each containing overlapping threads. Some of these episodes, particularly those focusing on courtly European politics, were rather dry, but others were thrilling action yarns, incorporating street battles in world capitals, acts of maritime piracy and capture of mediaeval fortresses. Some of the set-pieces were as delicious as the opening pages of Stephenson's 'Snow Crash', though a little more subtle than that novel's ninja pizza delivery man.
As soon as I returned to Lancaster, I ordered the final volume, 'The System Of The World'. I finished it this 'morning' (at 03:20...), but I wish I hadn't. More, please!
Most of the lead characters in the Cycle were fictional. Some were ancestors of characters in Stephenson's previous novel 'Cryptonomicon', which was set in the 1940s and the present day. However, more so than in 'Cryptonomicon', several secondary characters were genuine historical figures, and it was fascinating to view Sir Isaac Newton, Louis XIV of France and Gottfried von Liebniz, amongst others, as people, in the context of their contemporary environments.
So far as I can tell (I'm no expert on the period), the books were well-researched. A lot of the events were fictional, but cleverly fit between factual ones. Some placed historical characters hundreds of miles from their recorded locations on certain dates, but in a way that made it clear they were travelling incognito, or that their activities credibly wouldn't have entered the historical record. In some cases, the known actions of genuine people in documented situations were used, but the wider context of the narrative absorbed them well, by introducing rather different interpretations of historical fact.
It was also fascinating to follow social change not in terms of the usual historical indices (monarchs and battles), but by following the motivators: the flows of money and information, including one of Stephenson's recurring themes, cryptography.
I definitely recommend reading the three volumes in reasonably rapid succession, as the events of one had consequences in the next, and it could be difficult to remember the past actions of certain characters, or even recognise a couple of characters at all, if they'd been out of the narrative for a while. The framing narrative of 'Quicksilver', in which Daniel Waterhouse travels from Boston, Mass., back to England, was continued in 'The System Of The World' i.e. all 815 pages of 'The Confusion' were interposed before the original timeline was continued.
Despite a less than promising start: highly recommended.
31 December, 2005
Review: The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe (2005)
As mentioned, I saw this at the cinema last night. It was excellent, not least because two of my minor concerns were unfounded:
- I'd heard (frequently) that the screenplay had amplified the christian subtexts of the book into barely-veiled references. That wasn't the case, and it would be possible to watch the film without even noticing the allegory, as is appropriate. The themes are still there, of course, but no more overtly than C.S.Lewis wrote.
- I'd suspected that Edmund's selfishness would be distorted into a promotion of community/conformity and criticism of individualism. It wasn't; Edmund was just plain selfish and petulant, as in the book.
So, congratulations to the screenwriter(s) for avoiding the imposition of ideology onto the production. Considering that Lewis' stepson was co-producer, I suppose it's not entirely surprising.
The effects, locations and costumes/makeup were excellent, being both entirely believable and well designed. I was particularly impressed by Mr. Tumnus, the faun. The archetype required that he have tiny horns and goat's legs, but he also had goatlike nostrils – a nice extra touch. If I had to criticise, I'd say the animal characters (in particular, Fox, Aslan and the wolves) were over-anthropomorphised, and hence a little too cartoony for my taste; I'd have preferred absolute photorealism. I suppose the chosen approach assisted identification with the characters, an understandable compromise for a child-orientated film (damn; that sounds unintentionally patronising).
I've since discovered the film was 140 minutes long, but I wasn't at all aware of time passing – which has to be considerable praise!
30 December, 2005
Review: Mixed Company (Fish, 2003)
There's something I have to state up-front: Fish's voice was bad at these concerts (Muziekcentrum, Enschede, The Netherlands on 28 & 29 June, 2002); not only is it odd to hear an older voice performing songs made famous by a young voice, it's often quite painful to hear him struggle to sing at all. On the 'Candlelight In Fog' 'official bootleg', similar vocal problems are easily balanced by increased spoken banter with the audience, but that's missing from 'Mixed Company'. Whether his vocal problems disturbed the concentration of Fish and the band, or they were under-rehearsed, the recording includes a few rather severe errors, primarily Fish forgetting the lyrics.
It's rather annoying that highlights of the concerts described by Fish in the CD booklet aren't actually on the CDs; presumably one has to buy the DVD version, 'Fool's Company' to get them.
I've been spoilt by Fish's series of 'official bootlegs', which have been released with the selling point that they're complete and unexpurgated recordings of entire concerts. 'Mixed Company' isn't. It would be fair to call it a 'greatest hits, live' CD set: the highlights of his solo career and time with Marillion. Assuming the DVDs and CDs are aimed at the hardcore fans who will buy both anyway, and assuming that the rest of the concert is on the DVDs, that's fair enough. It's reasonable to collect those tracks the fans will play most often onto the CDs, so they can be played on any CD player – in a car, on a work computer, at home on a decent stereo, wherever. In contrast, the oddities and er, secondary songs (I can't think of a way of phrasing that which doesn't sound pejorative, but I don't mean it that way) could be presented on the DVD, which mightn't be played so often but would receive the viewer's full attention when it is played, justifying the use of the format. As it happens, the DVDs have 12 tracks (plus bonuses) and the CDs have 10, of which six are repeated on both.
However, only having the CDs, I feel a little short-changed; I don't think the CD set adequately stands alone.
Why not buy the DVDs? I've found that I just don't watch DVDs of bands, so they'd be a wasted purchase. I'm not sure why, but I just don't find/make the time, and always seem to watch a feature films instead. I have two Marillion and one Roger Waters DVD that I simply haven't watched, so I'm disinclined to buy more. Unfortunately this means I only bought the 'Mixed Company' CD set, so I'm missing the rest of the show, on the 'Fool's Company' DVD.
In summary, I was distinctly under-impressed, and doubt I'll play this often, if indeed ever again.
[To the people who reach this page via a search for 'fish mixed company
torrent': buy the CDs, you ****ing parasites. 'Mixed Company' is not a freebie to be downloaded, it's a commercial release, and you are thieves.]
26 December, 2005
Catching up with the flow, II
In March, I joined Amazon DVD Rental. At the end of July, I commented on those I'd seen in the first four months. Since then, I've seen:
Romeo Is Bleeding – A film starring Gary Oldman and Lena Olin seemed promising, but didn't quite meet my expectations.
Rollerball – Visually a little dated, and the way the dystopian concepts are expressed reflects the feel of 1970s sci-fi, but it's still a very compelling film. I can understand why it was chosen as a remake project, but I'd have updated the appearence and general feel to 2002 standards without touching the underlying story or even the script. From the well-known critical response to the remake, I doubt that was done, which is a pity, as it could have been good. Whatever; I recommend this, the original.
The Day After Tomorrow – I'd already seen this in the cinema last year, and thought it ludicrous. However, I was in New York a few months later and recalled that the film features some of the locations I visited, so I watched it again. I still think it's laughably implausible (in the details, not necessarily the overall concept) and not even well-written, but to that I can add criticism for reorganising the layout of key buildings and even the very street plan of Manhattan merely for effect. Worth watching on TV if you've nothing better to do, but don't spend money on it!
New Dominion Tank Police – I've been aware of the Shirow Masamune manga for years, though I've never actually read it, so I rented the anime series as a bit of a shortcut. It was okay, but not exactly challenging, and I didn't spot any 'grand concepts'.
Closer – Excellent. A very good story and narrative structure, with characters one cared about (if not necessarily liked).
A Perfect Murder – Why did I rent this? It was nothing special, which was exactly as I'd expect of a Gwyneth Paltrow/Michael Douglas film. Maybe I confused the title with that of a different film, and really intended to add that to my rental list. I wonder which.
Troy – Reviewed here.
Ghost In The Shell – Stand Alone Complex – Disappointing. 'Ghost In The Shell' (both the original manga and the anime film) is one of my favourites, but this TV series merely borrows the same characters in a slightly simplified context, totally ignoring the back story established by the 'parent' works and omitting anything thought-provoking. The fact that the lead character, Major Kusanagi, is depicted in some sort of swimsuit throughout probably indicates the intended 'undemanding fanboy' audience.
Hana-Bi – Good, though it took me a while to settle into the slower-than-expected pacing. Very much an internalised film, and I'm not sure I fully understood important cultural references and motivations.
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind – Surprisingly good (I don't know why 'surprising'; maybe I'd associated Jim Carrey with vacuous manic comedies, which this wasn't) – an odd, but compelling concept, developed using excellent yet understated special effects.
Code 46 – Reviewed here.
Constantine – Reviewed here.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – Somehow I missed seeing this at the cinema. I thought it was rather good; though the sheer novelty of depicting Hogwarts, quidditch, etc. was used-up in the first two of the series, there was still plenty to hold one's attention without special effects burying the plot.
Anathema – Were You There? – I don't particularly like videos of concerts, so I treated this one as if a live CD and simply listened to it, rarely glancing at the screen. In that manner, I enjoyed it.
Throne Of Blood – Not my favourite Kurosawa film. At the time, I thought my inability to engage with his relocation of 'Macbeth' from mediaeval Scotland to feudal Japan was simply due to my over-familiarity with the play. However, I also thought the film was drastically under-edited and hence even less compelling: at each stage I knew precisely what was coming, and it took too long to arrive.
Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones – It may be unfashionable to say so, but I think this is my favourite of the prequel trilogy, despite the dodgy dialogue and acting.
Miller's Crossing – Very good, as much for the cinematography as the acting and slightly frustrating story. Good music, too.
Blood The Last Vampire – Reviewed here.
Wild Wild West – I saw this a while ago at a friend's house, and had been mildly impressed by what I could discern of it between interruptions and conversations. However, the second viewing was less rewarding; another to watch on TV if bored, perhaps, but not one to seek out.
Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle – Not good. The first was insubstantial but fun; the sequel was just insubstantial. Oh, and grossly implausible.
Dolls – It's extremely rare for me to give up on a film midway, but I'm afraid this was such an occasion. The characters didn't interest me, the pace was less than compelling, and I could see where the multiple storylines were heading (I presume). I'm not saying it was a bad film, but I simply lost interest after the first hour and couldn't be bothered to invest more time in it.
Citizen Kane – critically acclaimed as the 'greatest film ever'. It was good, but not that good. I could see that the technical aspects must have been ground-breaking in 1941 and influential subsequently, but the dialogue has dated to an extent that's a little annoying. Still recommended, though.
Oldboy – Reviewed here.
The Manchurian Candidate – the 2004 remake. Good. I must see the 1962 original some time.
Elektra – Reviewed here.
Baraka – I'm afraid this caught me at the wrong time. Every few months, I'm briefly in the mood to watch 'a tour of the planet's natural wonders and humanity's encroachment upon them'. Philip Glass' music for 'Koyaanisqatsi' and 'Powaqqatsi' certainly helps. However, ordinarily I'm too cynical to be preached at, and 'Baraka's music wasn't in the same league, so I returned this to Amazon having only watched 3-4 mins. A poor choice, not to my taste.
Radiohead – 7 Television Commercials – This highlights the value of DVD rental: I was mildly interested in seeing Radiohead's promo videos, but couldn't imagine wishing to do so twice, and certainly not by buying a full-price DVD with a running time of ~30 mins.
Les Diaboliques – Good, though one character's 'feminine frailty' was annoyingly overplayed. I can certainly imagine this having an impact on 1950s cinema goers, and even by the standards of 2005, I wasn't entirely comfortable watching the climactic scenes on my own in a darkened house!
Bulletproof Monk &ndash I must have read something about this and added it to my rental queue, but by the time it actually arrived, I had no idea why I wanted to see it. It's okay, in a lightweight, unmemorable entertainment sense, but nothing special. I'll have to double-check my rental queue, in case there are more of these ill-considered choices.
19 December, 2005
Four quick reviews
I've seen numerous films recently, but want to comment briefly on four:
Oldboy (2003): Top film. I could comment on the excellent technical aspects at length, but the main point to stress is the quality and originality of the story. It's just a damn good film, overall. Presuming you're over 18: watch it.
Oh dear. I've just read at the IMDb that a US remake of the Korean original is 'in production'. That's rarely a good idea anyway, but in particular, I don't see how the central sexual and violent themes could be incorporated into a US film in the current moral environment; it'd need to be an entirely different film, not a true remake. 'Oldboy' isn't as graphically violent as its reputation suggests (unless you happen to be an octopus), but it is an essential element, and a puritan minority would also take offence at the climactic explanation of the whole story.
Nightwatch (2004): Wow. That was stunning. I suppose the nearest analogue would have to be 'The Matrix', in terms of pace, grandiose back story and in being a fantasy action-thriller (not sci-fi). The visual style is similarly impressive, too, though rather darker and 'grittier' than 'The Matrix'. It's in Russian with English subtitles, but the subtitles are part of the presentation, rather than merely a subsequent overlay. They interact with on-screen activity, and some are colour-coded. A nice idea.
Okay, beneath the frenetic action, the plot's fairly simple, and there's little time available for character development, but that's hardly an unusual criticism of the genre and, importantly, one doesn't notice these weaknesses until afterwards.
I'll definitely watch the sequel(s). Ordinarily, I'd be pessimistic about the chances of a Russian film reaching Lancaster, but the cinema was reasonably full, and it seems the screening had been eagerly awaited by the local goth/sci-fi fans, so The Dukes would be pretty much guaranteed a good-sized audience.
Elektra (2005): Utterly disposable. Don't bother.
Chetyre (2005): What the ****...? That was... odd, and at least five people walked out of the cinema – considering it was in Russian and shown at The Dukes (Lancaster's arts cinema) on a Sunday evening, that means about a sixth of the audience (predisposed to er, challenging films) left early. It started very well, with three strangers simply talking in a bar, but degenerated into sub-Lynch weirdness. Something like 5-10 minutes were devoted to a woman simply walking across muddy fields. That could have made a good short film in itself, but in a larger feature, I don't think it worked so well. That'd be my wider criticism: most of the individual shots were 'arty', but the combined effect was of the director trying too hard.
18 December, 2005
Review: 'Stamping Butterflies' (Jon Courtenay Grimwood, 2004)
I picked up a copy of 'Lucifer's Dragon' from the sci-fi display table in Waterstone's Lancaster in 1998, drawn by the intriguing description on the front cover (of the NEL edition): 'The cybershock sensation'. It's one of the few occasions when I've bought a book without prior knowledge of it, solely on the strength of the cover. I did enjoy it, mainly for the pacing and richness of the cyberpunk concepts, but the number and aggression of the sex scenes felt a little juvenile.
I certainly enjoyed it enough to try another by Jon Courtenay Grimwood, and I've since read all of his books except 'neoAddix', which has been out of print for as long as I've been aware of JCG. That's a pity, as 'reMix' and 'redRobe' seem to be the second and third parts of a trilogy. Though the common elements in those I have read are peripheral, and each book adequately stands alone, it'd be good to have a clearer idea of the context and character evolution.
'Pashazade', 'Effendi' and 'Felaheen' form another trilogy, set in the North African city of El Iskandryia; not the real Egyptian city of that name (Alexandria, in English), but a fictionalised version. The Arabesk novels are nominally sci-fi, but that's secondary to the characters themselves, expressed with a markedly more mature style than earlier books. That said, I didn't find them quite as accessible as those earlier books. I suspect some readers would enjoy the earlier, overtly cyberpunk novels but not the El Isk ones, or vice versa.
The next, 'Stamping Butterflies', is somewhere between the two. It's neither a case of a fairly minimalist plot carrying the leisurely development of characters, nor of a fast-paced, wide-ranging plot somewhat overshadowing the characters (without wishing to overstate that distinction in the earlier books, either); characterisation and sense of place are major strengths, but less critical to one's enjoyment than before.
There are three distinct storylines, a chapter of the first followed by a chapter on each of the others before continuing the first, progressing that way until the threads resolve (ooh, nasty mixed metaphor) into one. It's a common style, particularly in cyberpunk, but this is one of the most subtle treatments of that interlacing process I've read: the threads don't run in parallel then merge, they almost bleed into one another and before the reader even notices, they've already combined.
The title is a hint to one overall theme: that tiny actions can have vast consequences in the future. That truism could be considered simplistic, but JCG takes it much further, even reversing it. It's all very quantum.... Also note that this isn't the beating of a butterfly's wings creating storms elsewhere, it's stamping butterflies – violence has consequences too.
I won't provide a synopsis, as I'd recommend you find that out for yourself by reading the book, but two brief points:
One of the interlinked stories has a North African setting, like the Arabesk series, but it's set in 1970s 'real world' Marrakech, and the associated socio-political environment, not the fictionalised El Isk, and there's no crossover to the earlier books.
Another thread could be considered a commentary (though not overtly a judgement) on Guantánamo Bay, Abu-Ghraib and the US practice of imprisoning suspects abroad for interrogation illegal on its own territory. Whilst I thought the confusion of torture, legal & psychiatric visits and bureaucracy exhibited seemed credible, the scrabble for legitimacy seemed less likely (but what do I know of the true situation?).
I found the ending a little anticlimactic. To be trite: the journey is better than the destination, and the resolution of the overarching plot isn't so satisfying as the reader might have been anticipating.
I finished reading the book and drafted most of this entry weeks ago, on 20 October, but was rudely interrupted by a phone call from Warszawa ;) and somehow haven't got back to it until now. Coincidentally, on that same day, I discovered that JCG's new novel, '9Tail Fox', which I hadn't even known was forthcoming, was published. The cover resembles that of 'Stamping Butterflies', but I'm pretty sure that's merely consistent graphic design, rather than an indication that it's the second of yet another trilogy. 'Stamping Butterflies' didn't seem to leave an opportunity for continuation, and felt 'right' as a self-contained, complete story.
11 December, 2005
Review: 'A Hat Full Of Sky' (Terry Pratchett, 2004)
Best Discworld novel yet? Difficult to say; I only finished 'A Hat Full Of Sky' about 15 minutes ago, so my judgement might be impaired. It's certainly one of the funniest, with at least five 'laughing-too-hard-to-breathe' moments.
It's marketed as a children's book, but that does seem to be mere marketing, and there's nothing simplistic or patronisingly childish about the writing. Whilst reading, I wasn't aware of it being aimed at children. I repeatedly forgot Tiffany is supposed to be eleven years old, which might have been a problem but not exactly a criticism, as it may reflect my own preconceptions more than Pratchett's ability to write a young lead character. Perhaps some of the philosophical subtexts were less 'sub-' than usual, but that's fine, and his usual 'stereotypes' trick* worked well.
'A Hat Full Of Sky' certainly is a Discworld novel, even if it isn't categorised as part of the main sequence. Despite Lancre not being mentioned, it's as much a 'Witches' novel as most, and the one character who appears in every Discworld book is in this one too.
*: Pratchett has a trick of encompassing several stereotypes, instantly imbuing a sense of familiarity: the reader immediately knows more about the characters than needs to be stated outright, and the reader therefore defines the characters in his/her own terms, according to his/her own perceptions. However, that's only half the trick – Pratchett goes on to challenge and subvert those stereotypes, saying something new about them.
12 November, 2005
Review: 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' (1988)
I wrote this series of rather disjointed thoughts about The Unbearable Lightness of Being several months ago (July?), but somehow never went back to redraft a coherent review. I don't know when I'll find the time/motivation to do that, so I'll just post it as-is.
I think I'd recommend this film; I did like it, but I wouldn't rate it as a favourite. The acting was good, with a well-known cast looking very young (especially Juliette Binoche). Daniel Day-Lewis looked as self-satisfied as always (to be fair, the character demanded that), and I've always found Lena Olin attractive, but in the cases of both her and Binoche, their attraction is a matter of poise and apparent life experience, so I think both have improved with age. The Binoche of 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' isn't the Binoche of 'Chocolat' or, in particular, 'Three Colours: Blue'. Maybe the character of Thereza demanded a certain gaucheness, but age seems more likely.
In order to get the most out of certain films, viewers need to put in some effort, but there's a fine line between either patronisingly spoon-feeding an audience, with every emotional nuance stated outright, or leaving too much for the audience to infer. Unfortunately, I felt this was to close to the latter. Many of the most important insights into the motivations and thoughts of the characters were conveyed by little more than meaningful glances. One sequence, in which Thereza and Sabine photograph one another, then Franz arrives unexpectedly, was done particularly well, and I think I grasped the intended messages, but the apparent purpose of other scenes eluded me.
Consequently, I could understand how some viewers, perhaps more accustomed to mainstream, plot-led movies (sorry; that sounds patronising!) might find this an unrewarding, boring film – it's more about people than events, and I'd agree that the plot alone is insufficient to sustain interest.
Another potentially negative point: it was 171 minutes long. I doubt the character development could have been compressed much further, but I can't deny that it did feel like nearly three hours.
One reason I chose to watch this film was that I visited Prague in June, but in retrospect it was rather foolish to expect that a film set in Czechoslovakia at the time of the 1968 Russian invasion and released in 1988, the year before the fall of Communism there, would have been actually filmed in Prague. I've since discovered that it was filmed in France (plus Geneva and the USA, for the scenes set there), with artificial backdrops, set dressing (e.g. the distinctive red Prague street signs) and similar locations (e.g. a flight of steps somewhat resembling the Zamecke schody). However, I'm certain that some brief sections, perhaps accounting for a minute in total, were filmed in Prague, presumably without government knowledge of their intended use.
The inspiration for this review was a technical factor: the overall look, primarily dictated by the film emulsion (I think; I know very little about analogue colour grading). Though filmed in the 1980s, the picture quality mimicked that common in the 1970s; in particular, the colour cast seemed a bit too blue, which wasn't entirely flattering to skin tones. I presume it was a deliberate effect, rather than the producer having simply bought a load of old film cheap! I wonder whether it was done to seamlessly integrate footage from a number of sources – those images of Prague, perhaps, and the genuine documentary footage of the invasion. Maybe it was stylistic, for atmosphere, in which case I thought it interfered with suspension of disbelief. Maybe it was totally accidental, or even merely a poor transfer to DVD.
7 November, 2005
Review: 'Blood: The Last Vampire' (2000)
If anyone's tempted to watch this anime film because of the connection to Mamoru Oshii (Ghost In The Shell, Avalon), as I was, there are two points of which to be aware.
Firstly, it arose from a masterclass 'student project' supervised by Oshii; it's not really his film. In the 'making of' documentary, the writer, Kenji Kamiyama (who went on to direct the disappointing 'Ghost In The Shell - Stand Alone Complex' series) mentions that he held down a day job whilst working on 'Blood', and 'pulled all-nighters' to meet deadlines. Considering those circumstances, it looks remarkably professional.
Secondly, it's a technical exercise, integrating the standard 2D hand-drawn anime style with rendered, approaching photorealistic, 3D. Effectively, backgrounds and unchanging objects (e.g. vehicles) are in 3D, with a virtual camera able to interact with them, whilst characters and action are in 2D. It's a valuable technique, which I'm certain will develop, but 'cutting-edge' isn't always 'good', and at this stage of the evolution, the effect is rather obtrusive. Nice try, but....
There are two further consequences of the project's nature.
At 46 mins (including extensive credits) it's an extremely short film. Judging it by the standards of the major studios, I'd expected at least 90 mins, and was astonished when the end of the first act turned out to be the end of the whole film.
The story is extremely thin. There's negligible character development (no, that's inaccurate: there's no character development), insufficient exposition (told you it wasn't an Oshii film) and a skeletal plot. It's enough to hold the technical elements together, but not in itself a reason to watch. Lacking backstory and ending inconclusively, it feels like a short story. Viewed in that context, it's okay, but I hadn't been forewarned so expected more.
The IMDb says that the original plan was to make three films, but only the middle episode received funding. That explains a lot, and is a pity. This fragment could have been the middle of a good story.
I suspect animation students and technical enthusiasts would get a lot from this film, and the story itself is a mere carrying medium. For everyone else: rent, don't buy.
8 October, 2005
Review: Constantine (2005)
If one doesn't expect too much, one can't be disappointed.
On those terms, this was a pretty good film - on those terms.
'Damned with faint praise', eh?
23 September, 2005
Review: 'Tape' (2001)
Sometimes, one can discover a good film, book or album 'cold', knowing nothing whatsoever about it and hence avoiding all hype. It's difficult to believe now, but for me, 'The Matrix' was one; when I first saw it at the cinema, I had no prior knowledge or expectations, so was blown away from the opening shot.
Another, somewhat less extreme, example was 'Tape', a film shown on TV on Wednesday. I hadn't heard of it, didn't know it was on, and only stopped flicking through the channels because I consider Ethan Hawke to be a fairly compelling actor.
It's a rather minimalist film, shot on digital video (hence, it looked more like a TV drama than a typical Hollywood film), set entirely in one motel room, and featuring only three actors: Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard and Uma Thurman. It's based on a stage play, and felt like it. If the camera angles hadn't changed (disorientatingly, on occasion), it could have been a stage play.
The acting was good, and emotions were generally conveyed subtly, but, much like a traditional stage play, it was a little heavy on exposition, and I can imagine some would find it too verbose to be realistic. Then again, it is about a conversation between two old friends, with a third joining them halfway through.
I won't ruin it by summarising the plot, but various themes were explored, such as how much (and little) people change with time, and how perceptions/memories of events differ, a subjectivity which ultimately leaves the audience ignorant of the true story.
If this one 'slipped below your radar' too, I'd recommend it.
18 September, 2005
Review: Code 46 (2003)
I don't remember when I heard about 'Code 46', nor why I added it to my Amazon DVD Rental queue; when it reached the head of the list and Amazon notified me it had been despatched, I didn't even recognise the title. However I came to see it, I'm glad I did.
It adopts the style of sci-fi I enjoy most: not phallic spaceships, distant planets or massive testosterone-fueled explosions (I wish that image hadn't occurred to me...), but realistic people in a realistic setting, realistically living with the implications of certain specific changes in society. In this case, two themes are explored, both related to genetics:
- Human cloning is widespread, and therefore it is possible that two strangers might be too closely genetically related to be permitted to have children. 'Code 46' is the statute regulating this.
- Genetic predisposition to disease, etc., is already of relevance to insurance. In the film world, this dominates daily life. Any significant activity requires 'cover'; for example, if one doesn't have travel cover, one can't travel. If a car's driver doesn't have cover to carry a passenger, the passenger can't get in. The overall effect is that those granted cover have privileged lives, those without are outcasts, reduced to begging at checkpoints outside cities.
There's an element of social control: people receive cover to visit a specific destination for a specific time period, so freedom of travel is somewhat limited, and attempts to subvert the system are punished by withdrawal of cover.
More fundamentally, this is genetics as fate; genetic determinism. If one's genes render one uninsurable for a specific activity, or if one falls in love with someone with excessively similar genes, no amount of ambition or effort will enable one to participate in that activity, or to consummate that relationship. The boundaries of one's entire life are fixed at conception.
Aside from the central themes, additional elements add credibility:
- 'International English' has developed, and assimilated common words from Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish and other languages. It's a nice idea, if a little laboured in execution. I'm sure slang terms would lead such evolution, not more formal ones, and would be integrated better. The language would be a denser amalgam of multi-lingual phrases and grammar, as in 'A Clockwork Orange', not merely standard contemporary English with a few words substituted e.g. 'gracias' used instead of 'thanks' in an otherwise entirely English exchange. Strangely, Samantha Morton (the female lead) adopts a slightly odd, vaguely Dutch/Scandinavian accent. This may be an attempt to indicate that regional accents have been blurred, but if so, why is she the only person speaking that way?
- Ozone depletion has rendered direct sunlight dangerous; anyone having to cross a street in daylight does so at a run, covering his/her head with a jacket. This has caused a fundamental change in society: 'daily' life is conducted at night, and people sleep during the day. Streets are totally deserted during the day, and bustling at night.
- Apparent technological advances are primarily in biomedicine; consumer electronics and architecture look much as they did in 2003, so, thankfully, the film contains no flashy CGI. I have no objection to CGI in general, but it would have been obtrusive in this film. The cinematography itself conveys sufficient futurism, not via CG landscapes but by filming in carefully-chosen ultramodern yet real locations.
The concept of a 'Big Brother' global administration is well developed, into more of a 'Big Mother'. This isn't the standard futuristic dystopia, and one can understand the unpalatable necessity of a central authority managing the genetic 'stock books', regulating peoples lives for the good of wider society (and, to an extent, the welfare of individuals, if not their free will) not for military or corporate benefit. It's not as simple as 'man vs. faceless bureaucracy', as the bureaucracy's motivations are comprehensible and, in theory, justifiable.
There's an obvious parallel with the plot and setting of 'Gattaca', another film about genetic determinism. 'Code 46' also shares the visual beauty of that film, though not the latter's deliberate clinical sterility. In fact, in mentioning 'Code 46' to J., I summarised it as "a less-accessible 'Gattaca'", which somehow failed to sell it to him....
The primary difference is that the plot of 'Code 46' is almost secondary to the people and setting; the viewing experience is far more about emotion and atmosphere. It's about the characters, but not so much what they do as who they are. I've (over-)described the setting, but that's incidental to an exploration of what it's like to live in a world credibly extrapolated from current environmental and social trends. As I said, I find that far superior to shouty people randomly waving guns in generic post-apocalyptic ruins or a galaxy far, far (but not far enough) away.
I don't want to overstate the point, but there are strong resemblances to 'Blade Runner', too. For example, Tim Robbins plays a type of police detective or insurance investigator using virally-enhanced intuition to identify insurance fraudsters, whilst Blade Runner's Deckard uses a more mechanical, but comparable, technique to identify replicants. Plot elements are similar, too (I won't reveal them!), but it's worth mentioning the the directoral approach is very different, and 'Code 46' is not remotely a 'Blade Runner' clone.
Overall, it's a very understated production. Much like 'Lost In Translation', to which 'Code 46' has been compared, not very much actually happens, and even that is at a pace best described as 'contemplative'. If there's passion in the central relationship, it's internalised. The actors have been accused of underplaying their roles and demonstrating insufficient on-screen chemistry, especially Robbins, but that's missing the point: it's not a demonstrative film, and the relationship is supposed to develop within the viewer's own mind. The lack of exposition might annoy some viewers, but one doesn't really need to know the structure of the fictional society or its history; it just is.
One of the extras provided on the DVD is the film's trailer. It's appalling. If you've seen that and decided not to see the film itself, please reconsider. Some trailers reveal the entire plot and best scenes of a film, but at least one can't make that complaint here, as it seems some marketing executive reedited incidental shots from the film, totally out of context, to produce a trailer for some sort of B-movie action thriller, all confrontation and menace. I wouldn't have been interested in seeing that hypothetical film, and I doubt the director would have, either.
Above all, it's not a 'popcorn movie' (thank ****). Fans of 'Star Wars' or Tom Cruise would loathe it. Seriously: I can easily imagine someone hearing that it's a sci-fi film, having preconceptions about how a sci-fi film 'should' be (a big-budget, plot-led Hollywood production addressing the eye rather more than the brain), and being disappointed. This is a British-made film (the casting of Tim Robbins is the sole US element), on a limited (but not tiny) budget, from a writer and director with no background in sci-fi (it was written during the making of '24 Hour Party People'). The sensibilities aren't those of a stereotypical Middle American focus group. Michael Winterbottom is quoted as having wanted to make a film reminiscent of 'Brief Encounter'. Not having seen that film (yet), I can't say whether he was successful, but it does match my perception of its plot and very mannered style.
The soundtrack, by Michael Holmes was good; pleasant without being intrusive. It's pity about the Coldplay track towards the end. It's not that I dislike Coldplay, it's more that a recognisable song – any recognisable song – interfered with the immersive experience of occupying the fictional world, which was more important than the story itself.
In short (too late...), I can't imagine this being many people's favourite film, and it's not mine. I enjoyed it, and would watch it again, but probably wouldn't pay to do so.
10 September, 2005
Review: Troy (2004)
Having watched this last night, I really can't be bothered to expend more than three words in reviewing it (not counting this preamble, obviously):
Lightweight. Throwaway. Yawn.
31 July, 2005
Catching up with the flow
Since I signed up to Amazon's DVD Rental service in March, I've seen quite a few films, quite apart from those on TV or at the cinema. I haven't had time to comment on many, but if only for my own reference, these are the films I've rented from Amazon over the past five months:
Spider-Man 2 – Reviewed here.
Lost In Translation – I'd recommend people rent it, but it's not one I'd buy myself. It's vital to know that it's about the characters, not the plot. Some have criticised the film because "nothing happens", but that's missing the point.
Layer Cake – Okay. I'd watch it on TV, and probably enjoy it, but in hindsight I wouldn't say it's worth paying to see.
Incidentally, the stockings & suspenders used to promote the film are false advertising, and barely appear. Damn.
The Crow: City Of Angels] – Reviewed here.
Requiem For A Dream – Very powerful. Not easy viewing or exactly 'enjoyable', but worth seeing.
Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow – Somewhat disappointing. Many have criticised it by comparing it to modern films, but it deliberately emulates the appearence, scripting and plot of 1930s 'cliffhanger' serials like 'Flash Gordon', and should be judged against those. However, even on those terms, I don't think it quite succeeds.
Resident Evil: Apocalypse – very good.
Body Shots – not great. I was expecting more, somehow, and it's too 'American' for my taste.
Hero – Excellent. I ordered my own copy almost immediately. A truly beautiful production, and an almost fairy tale, though novel, story. Good acting, too.
Run Lola Run – Reviewed here.
Opeth - Lamentations – I don't particularly like music DVDs, but I rented this for the hour-long documentary on the making of the 'Damnation'and 'Deliverance' albums, featuring Steven Wilson. I didn't watch the concert itself.
The Ages Of Lulu – I saw this about ten weeks ago, and barely remember it – not a good sign. It was okay, but I wouldn't really recommend it.
The Last Samurai – Rather good. I might buy my own copy if I see it in a sale some time, as I enjoyed the film and would be mildly interested to see the bonus disc (Amazon DVD Rental treats bonus discs as separate, additional choices, so I didn't order it).
Macross Plus - The Movie – I was told this was a 'must-see' example of anime, but I thought it very ordinary, in terms of story and execution.
Secretary – Disappointing. The idea that those engaged in a power relationship are emotionally handicapped or mentally ill was unnecessary and rather offensive.
Three Colours: Blue – Reviewed here.
Charlie's Angels – As insubstantial as expected, but enjoyable – which is absolutely fine, of course!
Spirited Away – Very odd, but good. I only rented the film itself, but at some point I'll buy my own copy, and watch the bonus disc too.
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! – Somewhat stylised and farcical (that's a description of the genre, not a value judgement). It was okay, but I don't understand why it's generally so highly rated.
Kagemusha – Very good.
Saw – Reviewed here.
The Unbearable Lightness Of Being – Reviewed here.
Three Colours: White – Excellent.
Three Colours: Red – I returned this unwatched since, having particularly enjoyed 'Blue' and 'White', I bought the boxed set of all three films and a documentary disc.
Cypher – Reviewed here.
Cube Zero – Very good; similar to the excellent first film, with better acting and an added perspective on the controllers of the death-trapped prison.
25 July, 2005
Review: 'Cypher' (2002)
There are some things one just can't polish....
I really liked 'Cube', its less-than-wonderful dialogue and acting carried by a stunning concept. The necessities of a low budget also accentuated the claustrophobia without highlighting the fact they could only afford a very restricted set!
However, on the strength of 'Cube', I watched 'Cypher', the next film from the same director (Vincenzo Natali), on DVD last night and encountered the opposite problem. The acting (Jeremy Northam, Lucy Liu) was more than passable (not that the script demanded great emotional intensity) and the use of CGI was good, if a little flashy, but the story and execution were awful. I can imagine that Her Majesty's Plausibility Inspector (what? How could you doubt he exists?) required a period of sedation, even therapy after viewing even minor details.
Aside from the ludicrous central premises, the most illustrative example was a tiny one.
Access to a vast (why so big?) underground data vault was via a lift (elevator) concealed in the middle of a remote field. A camouflaged panel slid aside, the head of the lift shaft rose up like a gleaming missile (no; no other phallic shape suggested itself, whatsoever) and a door opened about two metres above the ground. Steps then slid out. Why not, say, open the door at ground-level?
Magnify that trivial point to a 95-min film, and you understand my overall criticism.
Incidentally, this is the first time I've seen Nigel Bennett in a film, but I recognised him instantly, as he's the star of an ice cream advert shown before every film scheduled at Lancaster's Regal cinema since at least the mid-Nineties; the ad itself has become a local joke, and certainly added to 'Cypher's inadvertent comedy value.
25 July, 2005
Review: Shiver (John Wesley, 2005)
The executive summary: I like this album*. It's not a major departure from Wes' earlier albums (thankfully), and the material isn't the most challenging (to the listener), but so what? Wes' heartfelt delivery is well-suited to his own slightly melancholic rock and his playing is as good as always.
Those discovering Wes via his role as tour guitarist for Porcupine Tree might be interested to know that 'Shiver' was mixed by Steven Wilson and the cover artwork is by Lasse Hoile, but SW isn't credited as full 'producer' (if only because Wes did such a good job in the recording sessions that when SW arrived to work on it, little needed to be done and the entire mixing and sequencing were completed within two days!), nor as a performer. 'The King Of 17' features SW's signature 'as-if-via-telephone' vocal effect, but otherwise little of the album is reminiscent of Porcupine Tree. The opening song, 'Pretty Lives' would fit particularly well amongst the tracks on 'Chasing Monsters'; those who like 'Shiver' are recommended to try the earlier album, and vice versa.
It might sound patronising, but this is a guitarist's album. The lyrics are fine, some genuinely, well, lyrical, but there aren't enough of them! On several songs, the same lines are repeated too often, making good material seem somewhat repetitive. This does a slight disservice to the excellent and more inventive, more varying music.
I'm not going to go through all the tracks, but two brief highlights:
I can imagine 'Star' sounding particularly good live, as a showcase of Wes' writing, voice and playing.
Despite the repetitive lyrics, 'Please Come Back' is my favourite track, from the moment the excellent, melodic (actually, do I mean melodic?) guitar begins.
I first wrote this review within a week of receiving the album, but luckily I didn't get round to publishing it, as, having lived with the songs for a while, my opinions of certain aspects changed, and I've just dumped nearly half of the text! I hope the remnants aren't too disjointed.
*: not yet available from Amazon UK, it seems, but buying direct from Wes financially benefits him more than via a multinational retailer, anyway.
1 July, 2005
Review: 'Three Colours: Blue' (1993)
I saw this a couple of nights ago, and frankly didn't 'get' it. It seemed a little slow and inconclusive. However, it's stayed with me more than most films, and in retrospect I'd strongly recommend it.
It's the story of a woman, Julie, waking in hospital after a car crash in which her husband and daughter died, and the ensuing period of dissociation from her previous life.
As I've implied, not much actually happens, but the way not much happening is depicted, largely from the emotional point of view of the widow, is impressive. It's a very internal film; Juliette Binoche's depiction of, well, not suppressed grief, but undemonstrative, is hauntingly subtle, yet intense. Krzysztof Kieślowski's well-known attention to tiny details was used well to supplement the stillness of Binoche's own remarkable performance. By the standards of Hollywood sentimentality, this could be seen as as sterile intellectualism, but such an impression really is a failing on the part of an audience accustomed to being spoon-fed.
The cinematography is astonishingly beautiful; not only the lighting, colouring and depiction of the locations, but particularly of Binoche, who is absolutely gorgeous throughout, in a purely aesthetic, non-sexual sense (Florence Pernel, though...). All credit to Sławomir Idziak (Director of Photography) for adding visual beauty to Kieślowski's otherwise stark visual narrative.
I've just discovered that Idziak has since worked on such major Hollywood films as 'King Arthur' (dire, but pretty), 'Black Hawk Down' (haven't seen) and 'Gattaca', which I already admire for its unconventional use of colour.
Few of the other technical aspects of 'Blue' are conventional.
Most noticeably, fades-to-black are used to indicate momentous decisions in the middle of scenes, rather than the passage of time between scenes, as is normal visual shorthand.
The music, by Zbigniew Preisner, is only used within the context of the narrative, as Julie hears or thinks of it, or as a surrogate for the otherwise minimal dialogue. It's certainly not just a generic ambience.
The plot, so far as it exists, has many branches and implied subplots, some seemingly irrelevant, few of which are clearly resolved. Indeed, unless one watches the final ten seconds very closely, for the tiny shift in Binoche's expression, one might gain the wrong impression about the outcome of the whole film.
Incidentally, knowing that the 'Three Colours' trilogy relate to the French national flag and associated revolutionary ideals of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality, some commentators have ascribed one value to each film, and claimed that 'Blue' is about Liberty. If that's true, it's a novel aspect: liberation of a woman from her pre-existing life.
However, my understanding was that the bands of the Tricolore don't individually relate to distinct values; rather, the flag as a whole signifies all three, and hence each film might be expected to address all three. If anyone knows otherwise, about the flag and/or the films, I'd be interested.
26 June, 2005
Review: 'Saw' (2004)
I don't like supernatural horror films, particularly the 'slasher' or 'monster' types, so it's perhaps surprising that several of my favourite films are in the psychological 'serial killer' horror genre: 'Cube', 'Se7en', 'The Cell', and now 'Saw'.
Apart from the specifics of the story, 'Saw' adheres quite closely to the conventions and look of the genre; superficially, it could be accused of being a 'Se7en' clone. Yet it's clear that the writer enjoyed defying the stereotypes of standard film shorthand, and the ending is the one I've always wanted to see. This definitely isn't a standard Hollywood movie!
As is fairly usual, the protagonists begin in ignorance and gradually unpick their situation, which means I can't reveal much without ruining it for you. For that same reason, I'd recommend avoiding too many reviews and the IMDb entry until after watching it, as there are too many inadvertent spoilers.
Two men, Adam and Lawrence, wake in a dark, filthy room. They don't know how they got there, nor why they are chained by the ankle to pipes at opposite ends of the room, with the body of a third man in a pool of blood between them. When they discover that they've been provided with hacksaws, not to cut the chains but to amputate their own feet (if they become sufficiently desperate) Lawrence realises they're the prospective victims of a serial killer who doesn't kill; he/she merely establishes situations wherein victims have to mutilate themselves or kill others, or die.
That description implies it's a gory film, but virtually all of the violence itself is implied or off-camera.
Though seemingly an independent production (it cost $1.2 million to make and was filmed within 18 days, but doesn't look low-budget!), 'Saw' features well-known actors, including Danny Glover and Cary Elwes, but Elwes' co-star as joint-lead actor is an unknown, Leigh Whannell (actually, the IMDb says he was in 'The Matrix: Reloaded'), who turns out to have been the author of the screenplay and who also receives a slightly cryptic credit implying he was co-director. His is an impressive performance; no writer's cameo, he plays Adam, at the centre of the entire film.
That might be an opportunity to observe that in hindsight, character development isn't all that great, and even the protagonists remain somewhat two-dimensional. However, 'Saw' is almost wholly plot-led, and the limited characterisation is entirely adequate in that context.
I'd acknowledge that this isn't going to be to everyone's taste, but if you enjoyed the films in the first paragraph, I'd certainly recommend this one.
8 June, 2005
Review: Utz (Bruce Chatwin, 1988)
I'm off to Prague next week, so thought I'd better read something relevant!
Overall, I was a little disappointed, as I remember enjoying Chatwin's 'On The Black Hill' a few years ago, particularly for his understated, yet clear, understanding of the characters. I thought 'Utz' to be rather slight by comparison, almost an outline for a larger novel rather than itself a complete, developed book. Likewise with the characters. Plot twists revealing unsuspected aspects of the characters fell flat, as one hadn't already become accustomed to their normal behaviour. Never mind the unexpected, the expected hadn't been established.
Another factor was somewhat beyond the author's control. 'Utz' was set in Communist-era Prague, and that regime was central to the plot, in particular the perception that it would outlive the protagonist, Kaspar Utz. Perhaps the story would have greater impact if the Iron Curtain was still in place, but subsequent events have made it more difficult for at least me to identify with the unending (and partly self-inflicted) claustrophobia of Utz's life.
I don't want to sound too negative; it's not a 'bad' book and the quality of the writing is well above average. It's just not as good as I'd hoped, and as 'billed'. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, apparently – I don't think I'd put it in that league. In fact, I have a suspicion that it might have achieved that status by happy circumstance.
It was published in 1988; by the end of 1989 the Velvet Revolution had ousted the Communist government. Presumably at the time the Booker judges were considering their choices, Czechoslovakia was major news, so they may have been particularly drawn to a book set there.
The fact that 'Utz' is only 120 pages long might also have endeared it to fatigued judges!
In short: it's okay, but not great. I'd recommend 'On The Black Hill', though.
30 April, 2005
Review: Parachutes (Coldplay, 2000)
Well, that's 42 minutes I'll never get back. I won't compound the error by writing a long review.
Dull. Whiny. No. Just no.
25 March, 2005
Review: 'The Crow: City Of Angels' (1996)
'The Crow' set the standard for dark, violent comic-book film adaptations in 1994 and rapidly became a cult classic, not least for giving Goths an action (anti-)hero. The acting, at least of the leads, and atmospheric production style successfully carried a strong, if rather simplistic story, whilst subplots added humanity. Even if only for the visual side, it's a 'must-see' film.
'The Crow: City Of Angels', though....
I rented it expecting a sequel, and it was billed as such, but beneath the specifics, this was essentially a remake of exactly the same story: a man is murdered alongside a loved one, then returns from the grave, kills his murderers one by one (the ritual element is lost in the second film), and has a final showdown with the murderers' more mystical boss. In the first film the man was Eric Draven, the loved one his fiancée; in the second, Ashe and his son. There is a linking element: in 'The Crow' Eric befriends a child, Sarah, who inherits his cat. In the follow-up, Sarah is an adult, and still has the cat. However, otherwise it could be a straight remake with weaker direction, worse acting and a visibly lower production budget. The IMDb reports that the original version of the film was somewhat different, but was recut by the studio to more closely resemble 'The Crow'; I'd say they went too far, and made a clone.
There's a certain caché in casting both Iggy Pop and Ian Dury, but it didn't really help. The former was just manic and could have been anyone (an actor mightn't have been a bad idea...), whilst the latter was underused. Dury's character had the potential to draw a little humanity out of the lead characters, in much the same way as the policeman did in 'The Crow' – a likeable 'real world' bystander dragged into an outlandish situation, and hence someone to whom the audience could relate.
Somehow, this reminded me of '9½ Weeks' in the sense that it tried that little bit too hard to be 'arty'. In places it felt like a music video, and I could dismissively say that the director, Tim Pope, is better known for such work, but that's no excuse. The director of 'The Crow', Alex Proyas, directed music videos too, before the success of 'The Crow' elevated him to projects such as 'Dark City' and 'I, Robot'.
I'd be mildly interested to hear the rationalisation of why this was made (apart from 'to make money'), and who thought it necessary to release a low-budget remake only two years after the original. I discovered something else at the IMDb: there's a third 'Crow' film, 'The Crow: Salvation', which, for some reason, went straight to video in 2000 and vanished without trace....
20 March, 2005
Review: Alexander (2004)
As I said, I saw this film at the cinema last night. Though this review is probably influenced by the poor circumstances of its showing, I do think my inability to suspend disbelief and be drawn into the narrative was primarily a fault of the film itself.
In summary, I didn't rate the film at all, and rather regretted giving it three hours of my life.
Firstly, its coverage of significant events was less than cursory. For example, there was a jump from Alexander attaining adulthood straight to the climactic battle for Persia some years later, his army having already conquered the countries bordering the Mediterranean. Later parts of the campaign were similarly glossed-over. There was negligible sense of events unfolding, or of any human elements; the audience were just told, bluntly, by a voiceover.
Conversely, certain individual episodes were given far too much screen time, which isn't the same thing as their having been explored too deeply – that's the last thing I'd claim about this superficial treatment of the story. No doubt his actions in the battle of Gaugamela, risking comrades in pursuit of his personal obsessions, conveyed important information about Alexander as a man, general and king, but the interminable battle was a very inefficient way to do so. I didn't time it, obviously, but I suspect this one battle accounted for twenty minutes – a ninth of the entire film – and it felt like no more than a gratuitous action sequence.
You'll notice that I said 'conveyed important information' in the foregoing paragraph, not 'conveyed important facts'. Like 'JFK', a blatent fantasy presented as truth, 'Alexander' was directed by Oliver Stone, and similarly demonstrates a limited respect for historical facts. I don't have a problem with fiction involving genuine people and events, so long as it's clear that that's what it is, but I prefer dramatic yet accurate reconstructions of established facts. Fiction masquerading as fact merely invites contempt.
Much has been made of the fact that Stone took inspiration from a biography by Prof. Robin Lane Fox, who actually appears, uncredited, in the film, but being able to name-check an Oxford historian doesn't mean Stone necessarily listened to him, nor that the screenplay stuck to the verified research.
Angelina Jolie's distinctly Slavic accent was a strange element. Some have mocked her failed Greek accent, but personally I don't think think she was trying for Greek – her character wasn't Greek, and Macedonia neighbours overtly Slavic nations. My criticism isn't of the accuracy of her accent, but the fact that she was the only actor to affect one relevant to the region. The concept of Macedonian characters using Irish accents to distinguish them from Greeks using English accents is a good one (that's the rationalisation, anyway; I suspect a truer reason is that it accommodates Colin Farrell's natural accent), but either all actors should have attempted Macedonian or Greek accents, or none of the actors should have attempted region-specific accents – including Jolie. The way it was used, her accent was merely excessively-crude emphasis that her character was a foreigner.
In fact, though her role probably wasn't immensely challenging, I think Jolie's performance was amongst the better ones in the film. Unfortunately, Farrell was somewhat erratic as Alexander, which was something of a problem in a film focusing on him.
13 March, 2005
Review: Spiderman 2 (2004)
I signed up to Amazon's DVD Rental scheme last week (four DVDs per month for £7.99 is pretty good), and watched my first this evening: 'Spiderman 2'.
It's a fun, moderately spectacular film which I found quite compelling (though I wouldn't say more than 'moderately' and 'quite'). On the other hand, the number of holes in the plot is only exceeded by the annoyingly improbable science. I'm not the sort to obsessively evaluate movie physics and spot miniscule inconsistencies, but these were particularly blatent. To an extent, one could argue that it's just 'a film of a comic', and a loose interpretation of reality is in keeping with the genre, but at least I found it a turn-off.
Surprisingly, the CGI footage of Spiderman himself looked particularly false. I suppose it's inevitable that a figure in a bright red, skin-tight costume was going to look contrived, but it was more than that; there was something not quite right about the ambient lighting and surface opacity, which made Spiderman look like a digital sprite superimposed onto a background – suspension of disbelief was totally ruined.
Dr. Octopus was depicted well, if not quite as I remember him from the comics (a mismatch probably explained by my not having seen a Spiderman comic for about twenty years!).
There's room in a 'comic book movie' for angst, and the concept of Spiderman losing his powers due to psychological problems was promising, but the execution was disappointingly dull. I don't know for sure, but I suspect the same issues were introduced to readers of the comics gradually, the character of Peter Parker/Spiderman evolving over a matter of years. That slow process of character development is obviously incompatible with the time available in two-hour films, and regretably I feel the paraphrasing/compression attempted by the screenplay achieved very limited success.
The "with power comes responsibility" subplot was effective in the first film, but having already made the point then, it felt merely laboured in the sequel.
In summary: fun, but lightweight and ultimately disposable.
13 March, 2005
Review: The Aviator (2004)
I saw 'The Aviator' last night, at The Dukes, and enjoyed it. I didn't know much about the era, so found that interesting, and both the production and acting were good. One minor negative point was the repeated use of an odd lighting effect reminiscent of theatre lights brightening at the start of a scene in a stage play; I presume there was some deliberate stylistic reason, but I'm afraid it eluded me.
If I'd left it at that, I would have come away with an undiminished favourable impression of the film (and Howard Hughes, for that matter). However, as I left, I picked up the Dukes' programme notes (a photocopied page from, I think, 'Time Out'), which argued that it was somewhat superficial, presenting a 'Boy's Own' adventure rather than greater insight into the undeniably darker aspects of the real man's life. Once it was pointed out, I had to agree.
I was impressed by Cate Blanchett's portrayal of Katherine Hepburn (or rather, I liked it; I'm not familiar with Miss Hepburn or her films, so I can't truly comment on the accuracy of the representation), so, if only to remind myself of how the real version looked in the 1930s/40s, I looked her up in the IMDb, which led me on to Howard Hughes' entry, and more specialised sites. These expanded summaries of his biography not only provided details of his later life (of limited relevance to the film, which leaves the story in 1947, 29 years before his death) but highlighted omissions, aspects glossed-over and changed timings.
Concatenating events is a standard technique in making biopics or films of preexisting novels, but it's not one I like, and when a story purports to be true, changing chronologies (and hence emphases) diminishes confidence in narrative accuracy. For example, an early scene shows Hughes hiring Noah Dietrich on the set of 'Hell's Angels' in 1928, whereas they'd really worked together since 1925; trivial in this context, yet it makes one wonder what else is changed, and whether any of the story can be accepted as true. Wider reading also gives the strong impression that the 1947 Senate hearings weren't as simple as 'Hughes vs. Senator Brewster (and hence Pan-Am)', though simplification makes it more confrontational and hence cinematic.
One shouldn't compare such minor tweaks with the gross distortions of true events in 'JFK', but those excesses of Oliver Stone do (unfairly) make one less trusting of Martin Scorcese's 'The Aviator'.
So, having watched the film, I enjoyed it, but having investigated further, I think less of it. Reviewing changes the reviewed.
1 December, 2004
Review: The Village (2004)
Just back from the having seen 'The Village' at The Dukes. I know, I know; the rest of the world probably saw it months ago, but it's fairly easy to predict which films will eventually reach The Dukes, and I prefer to wait and watch films on the biggest screen north of Manchester. I've never understood the need to have or see the latest big thing at the very earliest opportunity.
'The Sixth Sense' and 'Unbreakable' built up public expectations for another M. Night Shymalan film, which didn't seem to be satisfied for some people, but I went in relatively ignorant (deliberately) of the hype, and thought it pretty good. Much of the story seemed rather underdeveloped, but it was well acted and worked well overall. The female lead, Bryce Dallas Howard, was particularly impressive in her first major role.
As one might expect, there are a couple of major twists in the plot, none of which I anticipated by more than a minute or so. I can't say much without spoiling the story, so I'll just recommend it.
Unlike the trailer. I do recall seeing that in June or July, but what I remember of it was a poor representation of the film itself. If you found the trailer off-putting, don't worry: this isn't some sort of 'slasher' horror movie or Blair Witch clone - I wouldn't have gone if I'd thought it was. Conversely, if you liked the trailer and want a horror movie, you're going to be disappointed, understandably.
So, expectations were raised artificially by the very fact this is a film from the writer and director of earlier, highly-rated films, and the trailer could be considered a misrepresentation of the content. That's considerable baggage, and it's hardly surprising people have been disappointed.
It's been rated a mere 6.5/10 at the IMDb. If people were able to judge it afresh, without preconceptions, I'd suggest many would rate it higher. I do.
[Addendum 12/01/06: I saw another Shymalan film last week: Signs. Wow. That was seriously bad. Avoid it, but if you have seen it, don't let put you off seeing his other films.]
14 October, 2004
Review: Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do (Sigur Rós, 2004)
This EP (mini-album?) has been mentioned frequently in a number of music discussion groups I visit. Typical conversations might be summarised as:
"I understand this is different to their earlier albums; what's it like?"
I thought I'd better elaborate on that!
It is indeed 'different'. Imagine Sigur Rós without the lead guitar, without the bass, without the drums, without Jónsi's falsetto voice. The stripped-down remainder is 'Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do'. In other words, this is almost impossible to identify as Sigur Rós material, but once one knows, one might detect (or impose) something of their characteristic 'feel', in music otherwise entirely dissimilar to that of 'Agaetis Byrjun' and '( )'. If you already like the band, there's no guarantee you'll enjoy this. A taste for, or at least tolerance of experimental music would help. It developed from a specific purpose, as part of Merce Cunningham's contemporary dance project 'Split Sides', as accompaniment and inspiration to the dancers rather than the focus of a listener's attention, and is arguably less successful away from that context.
'Split Sides' was made up of two alternative pieces of choreography, costume design, set design and music, the latter provided by Sigur Rós and Radiohead (it seems there's no intention to release a recording of their contribution). The combination of these elements was determined randomly on the night, by dice. The music and choreography were prepared entirely independently; the dancers first heard the music at the premiere (Brooklyn Academy of Music, 14 October, 2003 - hey, that's exactly a year ago!).
Sigur Rós' backing track incorporated recordings of Merce Cunningham's voice, his tap-dancing feet, and the dancers’ footsteps in their Manhattan studio. The band improvised over this live, using two sheet-fed music boxes, a glockenspiel and a 'bummsett' (a homemade percussive instrument comprising eight ballet shoes on a rack), closely watching and hence both inspiring and taking inspiration from the dancers.
The band took the results of the improvisation back to Reykjavik, recording 'Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do' in late November before participating in further 'Split Sides' performances in Paris in December.
The running time is under 21 minutes, one continuous piece indexed into three sections of approximately six, eight and six minutes. I think they work best in this sequence, but were intended to be played in any order.
'Ba Ba' begins with the sound of a musical box, playing slowly, as if powered by clockwork on the point of winding down completely. This is joined and gradually drowned by a simple, repetitive keyboard melody. Once the listener has had a couple of minutes to assimilate the resulting rhythms, further layers of keyboards are added, but before this develops, the keyboards merge to a drone and a more sonorous tone emerges over the original simple keyboard melody and musical box.
By the start of 'Ti Ki', the musical box, now plainly two musical boxes, is (are) in the foreground of the soundscape, accompanied only by the quiet noises of people moving around a room, a subtle 'crackle' which begins to mimic the multiple rhythms of a clock's mechanism as the boxes' notes become increasingly distorted. Some are reversed, others stretched to resemble sustained keyboard notes; the introduction of a simple piano melody halfway through seems a natural progression, though the overall effect is of multiple rhythms rather than a more conventional instrumental piece.
'Di Do' is the only track to feature vocals - interlaced fragments of Merce Cunningham speaking voice over possibly Native American wordless singing, all against a background of industrial white noise/an approaching underground train. This background gives way to keyboards, becoming louder towards the halfway point, even beginning to sound like a Sigur Rós track. Then everything suddenly breaks down into, well, noise - a cacophony of distortion which makes challenging listening. Yet a basic rhythm remains, and the musical box is also audible, as everything subsides, to silence.
I think I like it. Not one I expect to play frequently, but if I'm in a certain mood, or wish to induce it, I suspect this is a piece I'll reach for.
27 August, 2004
Review: Blackfield - international edition (Blackfield, 2004)
I reviewed the album itself in February when it was first released in Israel, so won't discuss it again here, other than to highly recommend it!
Those familiar with SW's work on Porcupine Tree's 'Lightbulb Sun' (but not really 'In Absentia') will notice obvious similarities, though Aviv Geffen's (remarkably similar) style has resulted in drastically shorter, more radio-friendly songs.
The packaging is a digipack with a plastic tray for one disc and a pocket in one arm of the 'gatefold' for the album booklet, which provides lyrics, artist and recording details for the main album alone. I don't always like digipacks, as cardboard is more prone to damage than plastic (and interchangeable) jewel cases, but this is a good example, with a plastic disc holder imparting rigidity to the whole package, and Lasse Hoile artwork throughout (with layout by Carl Glover, another of my favourite designers).
The bonus disc isn't mentioned at all, and doesn't have a tray of it's own. Instead, it is simply slipped into the booklet, unprotected, as if as an afterthought. This has attracted criticism from fans.
Some have argued that this allows the same packaging to be used later for a 'standard' release without the bonus disc, but I'm unconvinced.
Given modern printing technology, the omission of bonus track details from the digipack and booklet can't really be justified on grounds of cost alone; two print runs of, say, 1,000 of version 'a' (with bonus) and 9,000 of version 'b' (no bonus) can't be vastly more expensive than a single 10,000-unit run of version 'b'.
Even a plain card inner sleeve, like that used in the Bass Communion 'Ghosts On Magnetic Tape' album would have seemed less cursory.
It just seems a pity for otherwise excellent packaging to have such a half-hearted finish; the slight extra effort would have been appreciated
Another common criticism is that there are two discs at all, when the main album is only 36:51 minutes long and the bonus tracks account for a further 14:41 (10:40 audio plus 4:01 video). I don't really agree; it's about disparate compositions, not how much one can pack into the disc. The main album is one unit, independent of the bonus tracks, and I'm pleased they were kept separate.
I must stress that the packaging offers no information at all about the contents of the bonus disc, not even track titles. All credits are printed on the disc itself, so whilst it was playing, I had to listen 'blind'. The following comments were made on that basis, without any knowledge of authorship or participating musicians.
'Perfect World' is very good, certainly of the quality and style of anything on the main album. I don't understand why it was left off the album, unless it was judged to not 'fit' the overall composition. It certainly isn't a discarded out-take!
When I first heard 'Where Is My Love?', I presumed it was a cover song; it just seemed uncharacteristic of Blackfield, both in composition (relatively simplistic (only relatively!) and surprisingly repetitive) and delivery. At the same point in each verse line, SW lengthens/slurs the letter 'r' (in 'heart', 'your', and 'stars'), as if attempting to mimic an American accent. Very odd, and annoying.
That I guessed it was a cover of something by a crappy pop/prog band like Rush or Yes gives some idea of how much I like it! No; that's an overstatement. I don't dislike it, it's just not something I'd particularly choose to hear, and I'm glad it's not on the main album.
It was only afterwards that I took the disc out of the player and discovered that it's a Geffen composition. Terrific. Now I'm going to be accused of slamming Geffen. I honestly didn't know who wrote it, and my criticism is genuinely based on the music itself. I don't like it, but I promise that's not because it's by Geffen!
The live version of 'Cloudy Now', recorded by the five-piece band for Channel 24 (Israeli TV's music channel) in late February (that's not mentioned on the disc itself) is excellent, with the clarity and balance of a track recorded live in a studio, rather than in the uncertain acoustics of a concert venue.
Note that the credit printed on the disc is again 'written by Aviv Geffen and Steven Wilson', not Geffen alone. This reinforces the fact that it's not merely a transliteration (as opposed to translation) of Geffen's 1980's breakthough hit, which was unquestionably his own composition - the Blackfield version is different, with a substantive input from SW, and is credited as such.
It's good to have the excellent video of 'Blackfield' on the disc, though to be picky, anyone could already download exactly the same thing from Lasse Hoile's website.
I also noticed that in Windows Me at home, the video was very jerky in the player provided on the disc (fine in WinXP at work), and was much smoother when I played the mpeg in a standalone player (RealPlayer/Windows Media Player).
Did I mention that I recommend this album?
7 July, 2004
Review: Marillion, Manchester Academy, 1 July, 2004
Though I'm very familiar with all of their official albums and have heard over sixty unofficial concert recordings (not bootlegs!), this was the first time I'd seen Marillion live, in person, so I was understandably excited.
The trip from and back to Lancaster, via Blackpool and involving a 25-mile (41 km) cycle ride which got me home by 03:20, is another story, but "many thanks" to Rob and Liz for the lift, and "hello" to Zoë and Alun (not to mention his toasted mother).
We reached the Academy at about 19:45, only fifteen minutes after the doors opened and whilst there was still a significant queue of people waiting to go in, but we didn't join them until about 20:15, during the final song by the tour support band, 'Kid Galahad'.
From that admittedly brief sample of their material, I didn't feel we'd missed much. Theirs was the generic hard/indie rock of a thousand minor-league bands; I'm not saying they were technically or presentationally poor, but I didn't detect the spark of additional brilliance or creativity which might elevate them to being a top band.
I saw Porcupine Tree on tour at the Academy in March 2003 (probably my favourite concert ever), but that was in Academy 2 in the main University Union building whereas Marillion were in the larger Academy 1, a separate building next door. They filled it, apparently; according to Marillion.com the concert was sold out, though I didn't think it was that full. Maybe the front of the crowd was tightly packed, but there wasn't too much of a crush where we stood, about ¾ of the way back on the left.
I'm always intrigued by the composition of an audience, people-watching and spotting band T-shirts before the show. There was a surprising uniformity to the latter: well over a third of the audience seemed to be wearing Marillion T-shirts, but few other bands were represented. Surprisingly, mine was the sole Porcupine Tree top, so far as I was aware. Ages seemed to cluster around late thirties, though I saw a few young teenagers, presumably attending with parents. The gender balance was around 60% male, of which about a third had bald/shaved heads, 33% ponytails, and 33% 'vanilla'. I didn't notice many prog or goth stereotypes, but both were represented.
The stage layout was slightly odd. From the audience, Pete (Trewavas, on bass, for those unfamiliar with the band) was at the front left, with Ian (Mosley; drums) behind him. The drum kit itself meant that I only caught occasional glimpses of Ian's head throughout the show. h (Steve Hogarth; vocals, second keyboards, second guitar) was at the centre front, his microphone stand also holding four maracas and a tambourine. His keyboard was a little to the right. Steve (Rothery, guitar) was on the far right, in front of Mark (Kelly; keyboards) on a raised platform. During the show, Pete and Steve freely wandered side to side, though Steve seemed happiest in his place for his solos, amongst his monitors. Pete was very energetic, running across the stage and, for a mad moment, just bouncing on the spot.
As I'd known in advance, the concert was divided into two sets, the first comprising tracks solely from 'Marbles', the second featuring older material. Perhaps surprisingly, the first set featured the entire retail version of the album, pretty much in order, apart from 'Drilling Holes' being replaced by 'The Damage'. The second set disappointed some, as the chosen songs tended to be from recent albums and conformed to the same rather downbeat feel of the 'Marbles' material, apart from the final two 'live classics', which therefore themselves felt out-of-place.
This was a concert encouraging attentive listening rather than a wild sing-a-long - which suited me perfectly. I attend concerts to see a band and listen to their music; from the moment they appear on stage until the moment the lights go up after the encore(s), the rest of the audience are largely just a distraction.
Thankfully, the audience was very attentive, to a surprising degree, and it was obvious that most were familiar with the new material; there was almost no clapping in the wrong places, except on 'Quartz', which admittedly does end oddly. There was also negligible talking over the music, with one exception. 'The Hollow Man' started quietly, and suddenly the noise from the bar/back of the crowd was very evident; h certainly noticed, and some audience members called for silence. I don't know whether the band decided to abandon it, or whether they'd only planned to play the first minute or so of the song anyway (the setlist posted at Marillion.com doesn't mention it at all), but they segued straight into 'The Party', and regained the audience's full attention.
The lights were good, somehow avoiding the disadvantage of strong colours diminishing visibility, with the contrasting use of white light adding further clarity at key moments. Masked spotlights played patterns over the band members' faces, and picked out individuals in complementary colours, which was an attractive effect. Images from the album artwork were projected onto the backdrop, again with masked lights varying the colours.
Greeted by tremendous applause, Marillion were on stage by 20:45 (five minutes late), beginning with The Invisible Man. I'm not entirely sure why, but h started the show in a business suit & tie, with glasses and slicked-back hair. Perhaps it was a reference to 'invisibility' through anonymous uniformity. By the end of the song, the glasses, tie and jacket had gone.
The sound wasn't wonderful, slightly too much bass vying with over-shrill treble tones. It may have been my imagination, or my ears becoming accustomed to the volume, but the sound did seem to improve slightly after the first song. Overall, it wasn't bad, and I don't want to be over-critical, but I think I'd been spoiled by the wonderful sound quality of the aforementioned Porcupine Tree concert. One specific, and definite, criticism would be that many of Steve Rothery's guitar refrains, which I'd enjoyed so much on the studio versions, were totally lost in the live mix. His solos could have been clearer, too.
Marbles I was next. Though I am going to itemise the full setlist, I don't plan to comment on every song!
The drums on You're Gone sounded less like programmed percussion than the studio versions. Together with a 'freer' guitar sound, this sounded less contrived to be a hit single, and more like a Marillion song.
Angelina isn't my favourite track, but in evoking late-night, laid-back lounge jazz, it works on the album. In a live setting, I'm not so sure.
Marbles II was a great improvement on the album version, being considerably lengthened and including a guitar solo. This seemed to fill the song out in the live context, but I can appreciate the reasoning behind keeping the album version short and evocative of childhood.
This was followed by the first real break in the music, as h thanked the audience for the extraordinary greeting (triggering another burst of abnormally loud applause) and for getting the 'You're Gone' single(s) to no.7 in the singles chart in May. This was a suitable opportunity to mention the next single,'Don't Hurt Yourself', to be released on 12 July. Unsurprisingly, they played that song next.
Fantastic Place contains my favourite guitar solo (actually double-tracked, so a 'duet') on the album. Live, it was indistinct. Despite this disappointment, I enjoyed the rest of the song.
The Damage was the only all-out, upbeat song of the first set, and the first to inspire a visible, collective response from the crowd, closer to that I'd expected from a Marillion audience. That's not to suggest the crowd were lethargic or that the band failed to hold their attention - far from it; they were enthralled.
Neverland, sure to become a long-term Marillion classic, closed the 'Marbles' set.
The band then took a ten minute break. As we'd entered, I noticed a sign mentioning a 23:00 curfew, so by the time Marillion returned, only ~45 minutes remained for a second set comprising (slightly) older songs.
This Is The 21st Century ostensibly might have seemed an odd choice, and not entirely a crowd-pleaser, but it followed the tone of the 'Marbles' material perfectly, and is one of the few 'Anoraknophobia' tracks I particularly like, not least for the accidentally prophetic 9-11 reference (think about it).
Quartz isn't one of my favourites - the mildly clever central premise of the lyrics fails to carry a slightly boring, over-long song, even longer live than on the album.
Bridge/Living With The Big Lie - Much as I like the 'Marbles' material, somehow hearing the start of 'Brave', live, was the biggest thrill for me. One of my favourite bands playing one of my favourite (okay, and commonly-heard) parts of one of my favourite albums, right in front of me, for real, in person. Whee! I've started grinning again just thinking about it.
The Hollow Man/The Party - I've already mentioned the curiously abbreviated 'The Hollow Man', but I was pleased to hear 'The Party', one of the oldest songs of the evening (from 1991's 'Holidays In Eden'), and one I particularly like, yet not one of the 'big name oldies' which might have provided ammunition to critics seeking to write Marillion off as living in the past. In fact, I strongly suspect this was a motivation behind the choice of material for the whole concert: nothing from the Fish era, one from 1989, two from 1991, two (and a bit) from 1994, three from 2001 and eleven from 2004.
The main set ended with an obvious crowd-pleaser, Between You And Me, though that's still a recent song rather than something older, which many in the audience might have preferred.
The Uninvited Guest was a fairly obvious choice for an encore and an outing for h's cricket bat MIDI controller, but he reiterated that they had to obey the curfew and that the next song really would have to be the last of the evening.
Cover My Eyes somehow seemed an odd choice to close the concert, abandoning the audience on a high. There had been a second encore at the the previous show in Wolverhampton, 'Easter' which I'd loved to have heard and which would have been a more satisfying way to end.
The room took quite a while to clear after the show (leaving a carpet of beer cans and plastic glasses) so we had a quick glance at the merchandise stall while we were waiting. Nothing in particular caught my eye; the latest t-shirt designs seem aimed more at a stereotypically 'indie' crowd than the old 'neo-prog' audience; there were no new black t-shirts (which is the only type I'd consider wearing!).
Rob and Liz, who have attended several Marillion concerts, didn't rate this one especially highly, but I suspect that was partly due to their preconceptions of how a Marillion concert should 'feel' and the reduced novelty of having seen some of these songs performed live before. The overall tone was somewhat darker and introspective than I'd expected; this was no lightweight, 'fun' party. Yet that suited me perfectly, and I had an absolutely wonderful time.
30 June, 2004
Review: Unreleased Electronic Music Vol.1 (Steven Wilson, 2004)
As mentioned in April, Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree, Bass Communion, IEM, Blackfield, No-Man, etc.) has released a special album of his more beat-driven electronic music, previously unreleased but mentioned in interviews. Overall, this has several of the elements I like in the Bass Communion and IEM projects, but the inclusion of catchy, almost danceable rhythms renders this more immediately accessible than those albums. I already rate it as one of my favourite non-Porcupine Tree SW albums.
Unfortunately, this review serves little practical purpose; I can't recommend that you rush out and buy a copy, as there are none for sale. The initial batch was limited to 100 copies, which sold out within hours. Demand added a further 250 copies, but they were sold by preorders, and that process closed at the end of May. The first 100 of this second batch has been distributed (hence this review, as I have no.130), whilst those numbered 201-350 should be available (to those who preordered!) in the next couple of weeks. The staggered release is largely because each copy has a unique cover featuring a (real) Polaroid photograph taken by Lasse Hoile for the project. Mine is shown here, whilst David Schroeder hosts a gallery of many others.
'King Of The Delta Blues', a collaboration with Chris Lewis, includes a couple of vocal samples, one presumably of Robert Johnson, which gives a slight impression that this could have been produced by Moby in a really bad mood. A driving, in-yer-face piece.
SW is known to have done some work for TV adverts over the years, but has always declined to state which were his. Presumably the 56-second 'Observer Commercial 1998' was the soundtrack he prepared for a planned TV advert for The Observer, one of the main UK national Sunday newspapers. The fact that it's on an album of unreleased electronic music might imply that it was never broadcast; I don't recall it, though admittedly I don't watch much TV, so mightn't have seen it anyway. It's obviously derived from 'King Of The Delta Blues', so it's interesting to hear them together.
'Dub Zero' isn't a SW composition, but one by Chris Wild, remixed by SW in 1993. It has a dance beat, but retains an unsettling 'edgeiness', rather than being exactly a fun dance track. The dancer would be off in his/her own little introspective soundscape - it's not conducive to a 'loved up' communal experience. Or maybe that's just me.
'The Tobogganist' has a great start, as if a ball is bouncing on a guitar string, faster and faster, then moderating to a rapid yet realistic beat. Very familiar samples from another SW piece (frustratingly, I can't remember which - yet) are added, then, 40 second into the track, a harsh, 'industrial' beat kicks in, overlaid by characteristic SW echoing pings and phone-like tones. Overall, the piece is repetitive, which isn't necessarily bad, though I'm undecided whether it's excessive in this case. The final few seconds are a return to the initial bouncing beat accompanied by the ping, providing a very 'tidy' close.
The first minute of 'Shortwave' is reminiscent of the orchestra-tuning intro of Porcupine Tree's 'Even Less', combined with Vangelis' 'Blade Runner' theme, but again a strong beat asserts itself, adding layered cross-rhythms. Yet there is a strong division between the bass/percussion track(s) and the underlying, slowly undulating ambient choral tone, the first strong Bass Communion reference on the album. Halfway through, an indistinct sample of speech emerges, gradually becoming identifiable as extracts from shortwave radio stations. In the final minute, the ambient drones rise through the rhythm tracks, allowing the end to mirror the beginning.
'Telegraph Commercial 1996' was presumably for another TV advert, which again I don't remember, for The Daily (or Sunday) Telegraph, another major UK national newspaper. Alternatively, this might be just the title SW chose, for reasons of his own!
A variety of voices state letters of the alphabet over a fast, high-energy rhythm, the layered complexity building for 45 seconds before the track really takes off, led by an electric guitar. Then, exactly a minute in, it stops.
Each time I listen to the album, I feel slightly overloaded by this point and need a rest. Most SW instrumental projects wash over a listener and draw one in, but this is far more confrontational.
Another collaboration with Chris Lewis, 'To Wear A Crown' uses microphone/digital crackle as elements of the rhythm; an interesting idea. As with 'King Of The Delta Blues', the title comes from a spoken sample.
The first without a strong rhythm track, all sounds on 'Nuclear Head Of An Angel' were originally generated by an acoustic guitar, including the apparently keyboard tones and a flutelike tone which accompanies the obvious acoustic guitar as co-lead instrument. Even that guitar sounds a little odd in places, as chords are played backwards. The piece ends with an accurate simulation of the wind.
'Nailbomber' features Theo Travis' saxophone in another fast, high-energy piece which could almost be a continuation of 'Telegraph Commercial 1996'. It's quite a contrast to the foregoing track. I'm not sure this abrupt transition really works for me, unlike those on the rest of the album; the sequencing is a particularly impressive aspect of 'UEM v.1'.
Belying its aggressive title, 'Slut 1.4' features trip hop rhythms shifting around a 3D soundscape and over ambient drones, most of which gradually become more shrill and discordant in the latter half, evoking a subterranean seabird colony (?). The occasional use of white noise is an interesting effect, somehow adding depth whilst remaining almost unnoticed itself.
The final track, 'Apres-mortes', builds a layered soundscape of keyboards, a 'brushed' drum track adding a subtle yet rapid (~155 bpm) pulse. That fades out after 8 mins, which wonderfully sets the listener adrift amongst the keyboards. Some of these merge over the next minute into purer continuous drones, fading to silence by 10:20 mins. Beautiful.
Stopping there gives one experience, yet the track hasn't finished - after 75 seconds of silence, there's an IEM-style cacophony of clocks, low-fi keyboard, vinyl crackle and whatever samples SW had left over, including a cough and a ship's foghorn. If the main piece represents dying, SW's chaotic concept of the afterlife is rather scary.
29 June, 2004
Review: Paycheck (2003)
I visited J and Fiona on Saturday, ostensibly to watch a DVD with them, but mainly to just catch up with them after their holiday in Ontario. For some reason, I found the title of their chosen DVD, 'Paycheck', misleading, even discouraging. I think I somehow equated it with 'Phone Booth', a film I have no particular interest in seeing.
Yet some of my favourite films have been those about which I knew virtually nothing in advance, no preconceptions raising expectations to be disappointed, nor plot details revealed out of sequence. It's difficult to believe given the subsequent acclaim, but when I first saw 'The Matrix', I knew absolutely nothing about it, and was totally blown away; I went back to the cinema the very next evening, which I'd never done before, nor since.
'Paycheck' isn't great, but I did enjoy it, and recommend it to others. It's slightly odd that I hadn't heard anything about it beforehand, which rather implies it went 'straight to DVD' here in the UK. If there's any purpose to this review, it's to bring the film to wider attention.
It's a sci-fi film, but not overwhelmingly so; it would be as accurate to describe it as a decent contemporary action thriller directed by John Woo, with the visual style/pacing that implies. It has a '12' certificate in the UK, so is obviously less graphically violent than earlier Woo films.
To reveal much of the plot would destroy the advantage of approaching 'blind', as mentioned above, but merely to set the context: Michael Jennings is a brilliant freelance electronics engineer, played by Ben Affleck (okay, okay; bear with me), hired by international corporations to reverse engineer the cutting-edge products of their rivals. This is obviously top-secret, so each project ends with Jennings' memory of it being erased. After an extra-special job, he finds that three years of memories are gone, including why he forfeited the $90 million paycheck, only accepting an envelope containing trivial items he doesn't even recognise.
If I hadn't known this was based on a Philip K. Dick story, I might have guessed, as there's a very similar feel to that of 'Total Recall', not only in the central premise that the lead character has lost his memory, but in the whole feel of a little man being pursued by an omnipotent corporation, an apparently ordinary person who finds himself extraordinary when pushed. Both films are presented from the perspective of that oppressed character, the audience discovering clues at the same time as the protagonist. As in 'Total Recall', Jennings' main ally is his omniscient former self.
The casting seemed a little odd, particularly the leads, Ben Affleck and Uma Thurman. However, suspension of disbelief was assisted by good costumes. Dr.Porter was a convincing research biologist, not merely Thurman in a labcoat, whilst the 'villain', Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart), appeared entirely credible as a company CEO. Ben Affleck is a little too heavily-built to truly pass as an engineer, but his suit and hair fitted the corporate image well, to the extent that parts of the film had a somewhat 60s/70s feel.
With a small number of specific exceptions, technology and the urban setting seemed entirely contemporary, which is the type of sci-fi I like: realistic people reacting credibly to a small number of high-tech changes in a realistic world. Once a film gets into spaceships, warp speeds and light sabers, I slightly lose interest.
In case I'd missed anything obvious in writing this review, I just checked the film's entry at the IMDb, and see the consensus rating is 5.9/10. I'd give it an 7 or 8, but apparently there are numerous technical errors, particularly in the way handguns really operate (that in itself is an aspect of John Woo's style!), which seem to have ruined credibility for some. Now it's been pointed out, one is particularly glaring, but ultimately doesn't matter to me.
Definitely one to rent, but probably not buy. It'll be on TV eventually, anyway.
3 May, 2004
Review: 'The Human Front' (Ken Macleod, 2001)
An enjoyable novella, very much in Macleod's usual style combining socialist politics and everyday life in a very credible alternative post-1945 history, but the abrupt shift to the introduction of more cliched 'high sci-fi' elements (flying saucers, interplanetary flight, time travel and interdimensional parallel timelines) was a little disappointing. Those first three cliched aspects also appear in his 'Engines Of Light' trilogy (2,3), though are are better justified and mentioned only very briefly in the back story, so are successfully integrated.
The main initial disappointment was the length. Having realised this is a novella, no problem, but it's a bit naughty of Amazon to sell this as "Paperback 208 pages", which certainly implies a full-length novel, whereas the volume contains two independent novellas by entirely unrelated authors - the MacLeod section is really only 90 pages of the 208. The rest of the volume is 'A Writer's Life' by Eric Brown, a story which could have been conceived by H.P.Lovecraft, if he'd been writing about contemporary Yorkshire.
22 April, 2004
Review: Yojimbo (1961)
In my account of the key incident, I mentioned I was on my way to the cinema. The film was 'Yojimbo', shown at the Dukes. A subtitled Japanese black & white film made in 1961, it's unsurprising that I went alone, but to those who have heard of Akira Kurosawa, it's considered one of his best films, so the cinema was about half full; pretty good for a Tuesday evening.
This is possibly the most westernised of Kurosawa's films (feel free to contradict; I'm interested in his work, but have limited knowledge of it, so I'm a little uncomfortable about that sweeping statement!), and is particularly accessible. However, there were elements of the production which seemed stylised, implying that a peculiarly Japanese visual shorthand was being used which might give a greater (or more immediate) insight into characterisation for those familiar with it.
Apart from the 'samurai-with no-name' himself (Toshirô Mifune), everyone seemed slightly caricatured: the obsequious town guard, the old innkeeper despairing about lost values, the grotesque gamblers/henchmen, the giant (literally; the actor had acromegaly) bodyguard, the bestial gang lieutenant, the well-groomed, pistol-armed chief adversary (who had lived away from the town and therefore represented the introduction of alien values into the closed little world), and the two near-identical gang lords.
A primary reason for the Western aspects is that the story is an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's novel 'Red Harvest' and deliberately borrows stylistic elements from US films of the 'wild west' genre. Kurosawa plainly made a convincing attempt to capture that feel, as 'Yojimbo' was itself borrowed (aka plagiarised; there was a court case) by Sergio Leone and remade as the immensely famous 'A Fistful Of Dollars' (1964; released 1967 because of Kurosawa's copyright litigation), launching Clint Eastwood's film career, defining the 'spaghetti western' genre and giving the world the iconic 'man with no name'.
I've read a few reviews of 'Yojimbo', plainly written by fans who rate it as 'a masterpiece' and even 'one of the most important films of the second half of the 20th Century'. Watching it myself, I thought it very good, but not overwhelmingly so - it wouldn't appear on my personal list of all-time greats (if I was the sort of person to think in lists), and I haven't rushed to Amazon to buy the DVD. I don't mean it has dated, but I suspect some of it's impact has been blunted for an audience who has seen the films derived from its influences before seeing the original film itself. I felt the same way about 'Alien' (1979). Having watched several low-budget, low-creativity clones in the mid-eighties before seeing 'Alien' itself in about 1990, that film didn't seem so revolutionary as it might had I seen it first.
One of the most important influences of 'Yojimbo', which I'm proud to say I noted for myself before having it confirmed by reviews, was the amorality of the story. Previously, the western (i.e. 'wild west') genre had been defined by strong and absolute morality, 'good' versus 'bad'. In Kurosawa's town, both warring gangs are equally grotesque, so the audience has no guidance about taking a moral view.
Likewise the samurai's motivation is self-interest; he doesn't mind killing, so long as he's paid, and makes no judgement on which side has greater moral justification. This is no wandering knight administering justice to the needy; he's happy to maim, kill and provoke further conflict merely to drive up the price of employing him in an eventual battle. Crucially, the audience is made complicit in his actions from the very first scene, in which the viewpoint is that of the samurai (ronin, to be pedantic) himself.
Whilst remaining amoral, he stands above the conflict and is safe, but the samurai's one act against injustice (freeing a woman and reuniting her with her child and husband) is almost his downfall, triggering the climactic showdown, itself an act of personal revenge rather than someone doing the 'right' thing.
13 April, 2004
Review: Marbles (Marillion, 2004)
Okay; having dealt with the lavish presentation, does the music match it?
In general, I'd say 'Marbles' is the most consistently satisfying Marillion album of recent years, with fewer (if any) weak tracks than it's predecessors. Yet the converse also applies: while the low points aren't so low, the high points possibly aren't so high. I'm listening to the album for the seventh or eighth time whilst writing this and the music is still growing on me, so perhaps it's too early to say. Right now, I doubt I'd play either of the CDs specifically to hear one particular track, but I am highly likely to play the whole album without skipping tracks, which has to be a recommendation!
I'm pleased to say Marillion have put any stereotypical 'prog' history behind them, and this is very much the band of 'Marillion.com' and 'Anoraknophobia' rather than 'Script For A Jester's Tear' and 'Misplaced Childhood' (which are tremendous too, but Marillion rightfully moved on). However, if length matters, three songs on 'Marbles' exceed ten minutes, and the longest, 'Ocean Cloud' is a high point which should appeal to fans of 'This Strange Engine's title track. Incidentally, it's odd that throughout the post-1988 period, some of the best Marillion songs have been about near-death in water, including 'Estonia', 'Out Of This World', and now 'Ocean Cloud', my favourite track of the album.
Well before the release, I read somewhere that there'd be a similarity to 'Brave', but having heard it now, I think that was empty speculation, maybe wishful thinking, and I don't see the comparison.
Overall, this is a downbeat album. If you want driving, bouncy rock, look elsewhere. Several tracks have the laid-back feel of a late-night jazz bar, and there's a poignancy to even the slightly 'rockier' songs. There's little of the upbeat energy of, say, 'Hooks In You' or 'Deserve', nor the aggressive anthems of the Fish era - there'll be limited opportunities to clap, dance or sing along with this material in concert unless the arrangements are to be substantially changed for the tour. 'The Damage' might be the sole exception, and at 4:35 mins, would have been my choice for release as the single.
'You're Gone' is the single (2, 3), and has a programmed drum track that might improve its commercial appeal, but the general tone and h's delivery are introspective and downbeat (again). Existing fans, knowing what to expect, will probably like it, but I'm unconvinced that this adequately reaches out to the teen-led market of the pop charts. At 6:25 mins, it feels over-long, which is the last thing needed for a single.
Perhaps I'm misunderstanding the marketing strategy. If the intention is to present existing fans with something they'll like, as a 'thank you' for buying multiple copies anyway, this is a reasonable choice. Let's face it: if the band asked the Freaks to buy three mins of silence, a silent remix and the same again on DVD, they would.
Despite my apparent negativity, I do quite like the song. All I question is its value in grabbing new fans - a full-on marketing push might get the single (any single) into the pop charts, but once there, what will 'You're Gone' achieve?
The first track, 'The Invisible Man' begins well, with a synth sound suggesting a rolling marble, but when h starts to sing, the first impression isn't good. For some reason, he sounds out of tune. If an indifferent or hostile listener only gave Marillion 90-100 seconds in which to impress, this opening would do the band few favours. It's not until the three-minute mark that the true beauty of the music emerges, and it's an excellent song.
In a few other quieter moments, h's voice is surprisingly disappointing, displaying a tendency to mumble indistinctly (especially at the start of 'Fantastic Place'). If it's a deliberate effect, it's overused.
I'm not going to review each song in depth, but one observation to close:
'Drilling Holes': Marillion does 'Sgt. Pepper'. There's a distinct feel of 'Day In The Life', both in the arrangement and lyrics. It would be possible to over-analyse and see several direct lyrical references to the Beatles song, but the repeated 'one of those days' in the final verse is fairly compelling, even if the others are coincidental.
12 April, 2004
Review of Marillion 'Marbles' artwork, pt.2
Continued from here, this is the other half of my review of the artwork on the deluxe campaign edition of 'Marbles':
I initially thought page 67 showed a near-sphere of liquid, but on closer examination, it's a shattered marble (which supports the lyrics of 'Marbles III' on the facing page), exhibiting a characteristic glass fracture pattern, not ripples. Unfortunately, I don't think the colour and graininess of the marble itself quite match those of the cityscape behind, so the composite image isn't entirely convincing. This is compounded by the opacity of a glass shard at the lower right and the shadow of the marble on nearby cars, which seem unnatural.
I mentioned Rorschach earlier: p. 68-69 couldn't be a more overt reference to the psychiatric test. So what do you see in the inkblot?
Pages 70-75 (the 'The Damage' lyrics pages) employ a similar technique to that on p.24: certain people have been removed from each scene, leaving their shadows and silhouettes. Whereas on p.24 the silhouette was empty white, this time the silhouettes act as a window to a different, complementary image. On pages 70-71, three people in the foreground of a deep blue railway platform scene have been cut out to show close-ups of yellowish-green marbles against a bright white background (light box?). Could these be the people who have been 'enlightened' by hearing the album? One carried a shoulder bag displaying the Marbles logo - a nice touch. Oddly, five people in the background at the left of the image have featureless faces, like the businessman in the Pink Floyd 'Wish You Were Here' album booklet.
On pages 72-73, the main image is crowded coastal promenade, whereas the view through the silhouettes in a deserted airport concourse - perhaps the route the people took to reach the seaside resort?
Page 74 is a city street, looking up at tall buildings. The colouring is strongly blue again, and also like p.70-71 the 'Marbles' logo appears in red, this time in a street sign/light. In contrast to the tall buildings in the background, the view through the silhouettes (again yellow-green) shows a pedestrian subway (underpass), itself reminiscent of the 'Shot In The Dark' cover.
Finally, p.75 is the portrait of a person sitting at an outdoor café table in bright sunlight. However the person him/herself has been removed, and the view is through to a lamp post at dusk (again tinted yellowish-green).
If there's a relevance to the image on p.76-77, of poppy seed pods against a pure while background, I don't really see it, unless it's an in-joke reference to 'The Opium Den' from 'Brave'.
I don't have much to say about the next eighteen pages, though since eight of them are a list of names and a further three have no images, that's not quite so much of a jump as it initially sounds. The images on the remaining seven pages supplement the lyrics in establishing the atmosphere of the songs, but that's for the listener to discover.
The sheet-metal dome on pages 96-97, could be a partial image of a sphere, and hence another variety of marble, but my immediate thought is of another Pink Floyd cover: the huge metal faces on the cover of 'The Division Bell'.
Having spotted an apparent trend, one might regard the repeating rainbow motif in the 'Angelina' pages (98-103) as yet another Pink Floyd homage, to the famous cover of 'Dark Side Of The Moon'. However, the resemblance isn't otherwise particularly great, so that might be over-interpreting.
Pages 108-109 may be my favourite image: an unmodified photo of marbles lying amongst heavily frosted grass, the glass also frosted to near-opacity by moisture.
Page 111 has the final giant marble, framed within a bandstand. And it's not another iteration of that same marble photo!
The 'Neverland' sequence on pages 120-125 is particularly effective: three very dark pre-dawn scenes linked by a band of artificial greenish-blue stars. The reference to Peter Pan is clear, as Neverland was found via "the second star to the right, and straight on 'til morning". Pages 120-121 show Whitehall from Westminster Bridge, London, UK (not 'England'), black silhouettes against a dark sky. On the left is the Palace of Westminster (aka Houses of Parliament), its turrets again reminding one of the 'Piston Broke' cover. Dominating the image is St. Stephen's Tower, home of Big Ben (which most people now know is the name of the bell, not the clock or tower!). The clock shows the time to be 04:04 - the light level is that of a summer early morning, not a winter dusk, so I'm fairly sure it's not 16:04. I'm afraid I can't specifically identify the building on the right.
The subject of the image on p.122-123 puzzled me for a while, until I recognised the partially lit objects in the foreground as taps (faucets) - it's a view of a large building on a hill/island, seen though the condensation on a kitchen window. Then I read the accompanying lyrics, which mention 'Wendy' standing in the kitchen, dreaming - it might have saved time if I'd read that first!
The final image is a beautiful, though odd, view of sunlight breaking through abnormally dense cloud - in context, this could be a few minutes after dawn.The band of artificial stars has been reduced to a single star at the lower right - an excellent closing image. I'm a bit reluctant to spoil the illusion, but note that the star appears on the cloud, not clear sky.....
The band photos at the end of the book use the same effect as the slipcase cover - marbles held in front of the eyes of mirrored, perfectly symmetrical faces. However, in two cases, symmetry is broken: h's pendent is deliberately off-centre, and Pete's nose is naturally crooked (sorry, mate, but it is!), which has to be reproduced as-is or make him less recognisable.
So; 2723 words to review the packaging without mentioning the music itself. That's a first.
What about the music?
10 April, 2004
Out-floyding the Floyd: review of Marillion 'Marbles' artwork
The latest Marillion album, 'Marbles' has just come through my letterbox. Wahey!
It'll take me a while to assimilate and review the music, and I'm sure several other people will be offering reviews too, so I'll start with a different aspect: the artwork and packaging design. [Update: the music review is here.]
In case people didn't know, 'Marbles' is to be made available in three formats. I have the deluxe campaign edition: two CDs in special packaging. Racket Records (i.e. Marillion themselves) will also be selling the 2CD album in a standard jewel case. These versions can be pre-ordered now, for despatch on the release date of 3 May. If you'd ordered the campaign edition last year, you'd have received it now, a month ahead of the official release.
These editions are exclusively available from the Marillion.com website and live concerts - not standard retail outlets which would want a slice of Marillion's profits. There will be a retail version too, but it'll only be a 1CD subset of the double album, and will be released on 31 May - do you really want to wait an extra month for a lesser version? Buy the full album now, from the band!
My very first thought on opening the padded envelope: it's huge. Whereas a normal jewel case is 142 x 124 x 10mm, the deluxe campaign edition of 'Marbles' is 161 x 157 x 19mm - 13% wider, 27% taller and 90% thicker than a standard CD case.
The outer few millimetres are accounted for by a thick card slipcase, covering a 128-page (128 pages!) hardback book, the two CDs set into the covers. In addition to the usual credits pages, the book includes the song lyrics accompanied by a lot of original artwork. Thirty-two pages are filled by a list of names, from Eivind Aabakken to Zenon Zygmont via me ;) These are the people who supported the recording and promotion of the album by pre-ordering it over seven months before its release. Personally, I feel our faith in the band has been repaid by the quality of the packaging alone, before even beginning to play the accompanying CDs.
There's an obvious comparison to the format and lavish production of Pink Floyd album packaging, especially 'Pulse' and 'Is There Anybody Out There?', but the comparison goes much further: the graphics, as always by Carl Glover for Aleph, seem to draw heavily on the Hipgnosis signature style of Pink Floyd artwork.
Let me clarify that before going on. A comparison can be made, and I comment on points where I see similarities; whether that was the designer's conscious intention is an entirely different matter. I've always thought there is a similarity between the clean visual style and general 'feel' of Carl Glover's work and that of Hipgnosis, but I don't mean to imply that one has imitated the other.
Despite the pithy title, I urge the reader to avoid getting distracted by the Floyd references - they're only peripheral details. I think they're worth mentioning, but they're not the focus of the review.
The slipcase front cover shows a boy holding marbles in front of his eyes, the 'flame' of colour inside mimicking the shape of his eyes. The blue & green of the marbles is somewhat matched by a blue/green filter applied to the entire image, adding a grey-green tint to his hair and the shadows in his skin.
The image has been generated artificially, by mirroring half the photo along the midline of his face, creating perfect, subtly unsettling bilateral symmetry. One minor criticism (a matter of taste, really) from someone who has used this effect very frequently: the mirroring extends to freckles and the fall of his hair. Personally, I find a better result is produced by not mirroring such irregularities, instead cloning the natural positions from the source photo and hence creating a more realistic illusion of a person with flawless facial symmetry under the skin. That said, the vaguely Rorschach or fractal pattern generated in his hair is pleasing and reminiscent of the 'Piston Broke' cover.
The back cover reproduces the same effect using a source photo of a girl. A centre parting reduces the apparent artificiality of the symmetry, though freckles again make it more obvious than I'd choose. However, the marble 'eyes' are very powerful. The marbles in this image seem smaller than those held by the boy, covering only the girl's irises & pupils. Hence, the 'flame' inside each marble resembles the vertical pupil of a cat's eye framed within the outline of her natural eyelids. With perfect symmetry and very odd eyes, the sweet little girl staring intently at the viewer is only nominally human.
There's no text whatsoever on the slipcase, but the matt surface is broken in the centre of the front and back covers by a gloss rendering of the stylised 'Marbles' logo.
The front cover of the book itself is the left side of the boy's face (his left), the spine is the bridge of his nose, and the back cover is the right side of the girl's face - I didn't notice that for a while!
I'm not going to comment on every single image, (but probably most of them), and in sufficient detail to require that I do so in a couple of sittings and in a couple of postings. Here's the first.
The image on pages 10-11 is a good example of partial symmetry: a photo of a mowed field scattered with grass bales wrapped in black plastic (much like the scatter of marbles mid-game), with a giant black marble at the centre. The image is mirrored along this midline, but p.10 isn't quite a mirror image of p.11. The two nearest bales aren't mirrored, an electricity pole only appears on p.10, and the grassed foreground is different on each page. But for the direction of the light falling on two bales, this could give the illusion of a real field with carefully-arranged bales, rather than a post-processing effect.
There's a strong 'Pink Floyd' feel to the image - the 'Atom Heart Mother' cow must have wandered just out of shot. [See what I mean about the Floyd references? I think there's a feel of the AHM cover about this image, but I'm not suggesting there has necessarily been an attempt to reproduce it.]
Pages 12-13 show the plastic and foil packaging of throat pastilles, all already removed except for one, itself a marble. Nice concept.
The spread on pages 24-25, showing a huge bulk goods train apparently passing down the middle of a road, with a white human silhouette superimposed in the middle of the image, screams 'Wish You Were Here' - the colouring and imagery strongly matches that of the Pink Floyd album cover and booklet photography.
I can't work out whether the train really is in the street, or it's a stunning photo composite - it certainly looks genuine, just unlikely!
A 'no parking' sign in the foreground has been altered to show the 'Marbles' logo. I'm unsure whether this adds anything to the overall result; its use on the following spread (p.26-7) as a corporate logo or graffito on a pristine white wall, is more effective.
These two double-page spreads and a third on p.28-9 collectively accompany the lyrics to 'Genie'. Though superficially dissimilar, there is continuity between the first 'crowded' street scene, more open second street scene under a deep blue sky, and the less urban view of a isolated house under an identical sky.
Pages 30-31, an array of marbles in varying focus against a pink-purple background, could have been taken directly from the booklet of Pink Floyd's 'Meddle'.
The image on p.32-33 has the distinctive feel of earlier Carl Glover artwork for Marillion, but I can't clearly explain why. Perhaps it's the use of a crisply-focussed photo of an innocuous but compelling object (in this case, the canopy of a palm tree) superimposed onto a false-colour abstract background.
Pages 34-35 show a view of the sky, looking directly at the sun (representing a marble?), which isn't actually visible, its position only apparent from the pattern of light on the obscuring clouds. 'Obscured By Clouds' - no, I don't think that was deliberate, and I see no visual reference to that album's artwork! An overlain drawing of a flower (a sunflower, I think) links to the visual style of the previous spread. The inclusion of houses on a hill at the lower right of the image is compositionally a little odd, though I suppose it balances the text (lyrics to 'Fantastic Place') at the top left, and somewhat reinforces the lyrics themselves.
Whilst the viewer looks up at the palm tree on p.32-33 and further up at the sky on p.34-35, for the final image of the 'Fantastic Place' sequence, the viewpoint is downwards, at the feet of someone paddling on a beach. Though the whole image is strongly tinted turquoise, the source image has to be from the 'Radiation' photo session - the setting, stance and robe match those of the torch bearer perfectly.
The images accompanying the 'The Only Unforgivable Thing' lyrics (p.38-43) are of typical British street scenes, the lyrics displayed on road signs, billboards and a bus shelter in the characteristic typefaces of those media. The 'Marbles' logo appears again on pages 42 and 43, on a bus stop and billboard, but they fit the setting rather better than the same usage on p.25, as the context is better established.
The crisp (almost artificially so) focus on the lyrics and static street furniture contrasts well with the blurred passing traffic photographed with a long exposure; the result echoes the cover of 'Marillion.com'.
The bus stop image on p.42 shows the 'Marbles' cover image generated from a photo of a different boy. Somehow this rendering doesn't work so well as the one that was chosen for the cover. Conversely, the cover image wouldn't work so well in p.42's mock advert. Good decision.
The giant marble on p.47 has been very effectively inserted into a Californian street scene - the lighting and unifying film grain are very convincing. Look carefully - the marble is the same one as used in the pastille packaging on p.13, rotated 90° anticlockwise and flipped left to right. Exactly the same photo is used again for the vast marble in the crater on pages 64-65.
The artwork of the 'Ocean Cloud' pages (58-63) have a different feel to the rest of the book, being aged b&w/sepia blurred photos with a maritime theme: a coastline seen from a couple of kilometres offshore, a sailor looking out to sea from a ship's deck with a ghostly bearded figure in the foreground, and an indistinct blurred object which might be an aerial view of a ship. The result is reminiscent of Porcupine Tree's 'In Absentia' or something from 'Bass Communion' or 'IEM' rather than being typical Marillion imagery.
Halfway through the book, I'll pause there.
What about the music?
8 April, 2004
Review: 'Model Behaviour' (Jay McInerney, 1998)
I may be the wrong person to review this book. Returning from Wales on Tuesday, I faced a two hour train journey with nothing to read, so my mother lent me whatever she happened to have in the house. If I'd seen 'Model Behaviour' in a bookshop, I wouldn't have given it a second glance, but it's good to try something different occasionally.
I'm not criticising the quality of the writing; the prose read well without being either pretentious or simplistic, and the characterisations were okay. The problem was that the story describes an incestuous world that I neither occupy nor aspire to: the fashion industry (fashion design itself interests me, but not the people and lifestyle), style magazines, cliquey 'beautiful people' and indeed New York (sorry: Manhattan) itself. The locations and character motivations meant little to me; as good a satire as this may be, I have a limited understanding of what was being satirised.
I couldn't call this a failing of the book or author, but to gain the most from McInerney's apparent disdain for this world of empty celebrity, one has to have some knowledge or interest in it, whereas those of us who are genuinely uninterested in the world will have limited appreciation of the book.
7 April, 2004
Review: Life For Rent (Dido, 2003)
I really enjoyed Dido's debut album, 'No Angel' (2000), her ethereal voice combining with unexpectedly complex trip-hop rhythms, particularly on such tracks as 'Hunter' and 'Thank You' (as sampled by Eminem) and carrying lyrics with at least a hint of substance.
'Life For Rent' is far more formulaic; Dido's voice is as good as before, but is the highlight of very ordinary arrangements, typically backed by unchallenging programmed bass, percussion and keyboards. Strangely, the earlier album seems to have superior, and presumably more expensive, production values than the follow-up, with a wider range of (real) instruments and richer layering of the soundscape; even the synthesised elements on 'No Angel' exhibit greater inventiveness than the 'default setting' bass and synth drum tones on 'Life For Rent'. One would expect the record company to invest more in an established artist, not less. Maybe it was an artistic decision to employ a more stripped-down approach, but that doesn't work for me.
The lyrics in particular seem to be the product of songwriting-by-numbers, perhaps even overtly chosen to match the audience demographic. I'd say this album is aimed at middle-class, 18-25 year-old females in boring office jobs. Many of the songs are downbeat, but address slight, ultimately transitory concerns. In 'Mary's In India', Dido sings of 'Danny' missing an ex-partner/relative, but the less-than-tortuous 'twist in the tail' is that she and Danny are together now and everything is okay. Anyone who has returned from a stereotypical package holiday to the Mediterranean will superficially empathise with the narrator of 'Sand In My Shoes', back at work and missing the other party in a holiday romance, yet it's plain that no lasting emotional damage is done, life will go on, and the romance will soon be forgotten - much like the song. The title track (also the second? single) is a very conventional reminder of carpe diem. There's nothing particularly thought-provoking or life-changing about any of these songs.
I couldn't call this a bad album; it's mildly enjoyable in much the same way that a cheap bottle of Californian Chardonnay is entirely drinkable. It's just that there are far better wines and music available - such as Dido's own previous album.
4 April, 2004
Review: Spirals In Hyperspace (Ozric Tentacles, 2004)
This is probably going to be a common comment in reviews of 'Spirals In Hyperspace': if you're already an Ozric Tentacles fan, you'll probably like the new album. The obvious subtext is that this is 'more of the same', and adds little to the band's existing catalogue. It's one of their best, but mightn't draw in many new fans.
In theory, this should be radically different to all foregoing releases, as it's an Ed Wynne solo album in all but name. Of the current nominal lineup of the band, Zia and Seaweed only appear on one track, John only on that same track and one other, and Schoo only on those two plus a third. In terms of writing, three tracks are credited to the band, one to Ed and Merv, and the remaining five to Ed alone. As always, Ed was also the recording engineer and producer, working from his own studio (I think) in Somerset. The artwork isn't explicitly credited, but includes five Erpman doodles by... guess who. Breaking from this trend, Ed doesn't play glide bass on 'Chewier', nor 'spikes' (techno sounds) on 'Plasmoid'. No, they're provided by a totally different person, Brandi Wynne... er, Ed's wife.
Yet the practical impact is less than expected, and this sounds like the Ozrics, merely with shifted emphases. With a couple of exceptions such as 'Zoemetra', the overtly 'Eastern' influences of foregoing albums seem to have been reduced, taking lesser roles in the soundscape. There's also a slightly more 'electronic' feel than before; live bass only appears on two of the nine tracks; live drums are on three. This isn't necessarily a problem, as I like electronic and sampled music too, but the more synthetic approach is worth mentioning. I'll be interested to hear some of these tracks performed live.
'Chewier' is a pretty good entry to the album, and typical of 'up-tempo' Ozrics - keyboard-led, accompanied by fast paced (electronic and 'real') percussion and the usual electronic 'squelches', occasionally joined by Ed's guitar.
The title track and the following two really are an Ed Wynne solo effort, as he played (and programmed) all instruments. This only serves to emphasise Ed's dominance of the Ozrics sound, as one wouldn't know they are other than normal full-band efforts, if not for the the sleeve notes.
'Spirals...' begins as typical of the Ozrics' more relaxed, spacey side. The underlying tempo is fast again, but the (electronic) instrumentation is gentler than on 'Chewier'. However, this is a journey of almost ten minutes, and the route meanders into rockier sections after the midpoint and again at the end.
'Slinky' is still more relaxed, a rich soundscape of ambient tones and wandering stereo effects gradually building until the lead guitar arrives after six minutes, sustaining momentum rather than let the track (or maybe the listener) merely drift off, a real risk considering the trip lasts 8:39 mins.
'Toka Tola' is classic Ozrics material - should be great live. The superficially familiar style is both an advantage and a disadvantage - this could have appeared on any of their albums. It has the ambient keyboard tones, intricate guitar solos, dubby bass, electronic flourishes, and sense that one is travelling through a three dimensional soundscape; in short, excellent music. It's certainly as good as anything they've ever done before - it's just that it, or music so similar as to be almost indistinguishable, has been done before. Does that matter? Nope.
Not that it's particularly relevant, this was the working title of the album.
'Plasmoid' could almost be considered a techno 'song', as an odd electronic noise slightly reminiscent of a dolphin's voice overlays the somewhat funky first minute or so; two minutes in and the clicking becomes more distorted then vanishes in a quiet moment of what could be whalesong. The synths and percussion return, followed by a strong bass beat which gradually accelerates to finish with a return of the 'voice', now sounding as if it might be a heavily distorted human voice.
'Oakum' is already familiar to fans, having been played live since 2001, being released as a fans-only single and appearing on the 'Live At The Pongmasters Ball' DVD and CDs; its inclusion on the album finally provides a studio version to the general public. I don't know whether this is the original 2001 recording.
This is the only track on the album which features the entire band. Knowing that, one can detect a different usage of keyboard 'textures' and a less mechanical feel to the bass - or that might be imaginary. The drumming certainly feels 'real', whilst the introduction of John's flute suddenly highlights its absence for the first two-thirds of the album.
'Akasha' includes guest appearences from space rock pioneers Steve Hillage and Miquette Giraudi of Gong, though I only know that from the sleeve notes and I don't hear anything remarkably distinct from the usual Ozrics sound; I think I noticed a couple of near-direct quotes from earlier albums. It's certainly an enjoyable track, guitars and keyboards wandering in and around a consistent synth base, taking six minutes to build from a laid-back beginning to a climax then dropping back to blend into the ambient start of the next track.
On 'Psychic Chasm', samples and drum programming were provided by Merv Pepler, currently of Eat Static; I'm unsure whether this qualifies as a guest appearence, as Merv hasn't played on an Ozrics album since 'Arborescence', a decade ago!
Following the aforementioned ambient start, the introduction of percussion is particularly enjoyable: an 'ethnic' drum sound fades in, initially muffled but developing a clearer tone as it becomes louder; this evokes a sense of flying above then breaking through a sound-damping layer of cloud, or approaching the drummer down a narrow corridor. After exploring this soundscape for a couple of minutes, a quieter interlude breaks through into a dance environment. The frenetic percussion is very much in a drum'n'bass style, which doesn't entirely match the slower pace of Ed's guitar 'solo', though the result is surprisingly successful. Definitely one for headphones listening: a high-energy, 3D audio trip.
'Zoemetra' takes the Ozrics (well, three of them) back to their signature Eastern style, the acoustic guitar setting the rhythm and feel, carried by a bass line which is very difficult to predict, moment to moment. Ethnic woodwind and interweaving keyboards reinforce the atmosphere. The music itself ends abruptly, the final notes echoing to fadeout, but the final sounds on the album are sampled birdsong - an excellent close.
When I started this review, after I'd heard the album twice but before fully focusing on the individual tracks, I wrote:
I'm happy to acknowledge that connoisseurs of the space rock genre might gain more from this than a casual fan like myself, but whilst it's pretty good background music for other activities, I wouldn't choose to sit and focus my full attention on an Ozrics album for the whole 70 minutes, and this is no exception.
However, that's almost entirely incorrect: having listened to it intently, both with and without headphones, there's drastically more to it than I'd realised, and this is far from just the enjoyable aural wallpaper I nearly dismissed it as.
19 March, 2004
Review: Cold Mountain (2004)
I rather enjoyed this film last night, though it did feel long, at 152 mins. I haven't read the book yet, so can't comment on the quality of the transition, but as a 'standalone' film, I thought it worked fairly well. It certainly wasn't flawless, but nothing particularly detracted from my overall enjoyment. For example, there was little suspense about the eventual outcome, but somehow that didn't matter. It was a bit 'pretty' in places. In particular, Nicole Kidman's makeup, hair and tailoring were a little too perfect.
I'd be interested to hear how a native of North Carolina regarded the accents: of the lead and main supporting actors, Kidman is Australian, Brendan Gleeson is Irish, and both Jude Law and Ray Winstone are British, yet at least to a Brit's ears, they seemed to sustain suitable Southern US accents.
In the last couple of films in which I've seen her, Kidman seems to have acquired a mildly annoying mannerism: a little head shake, perhaps signifying puzzlement, which somehow seems distinctly contemporary Californian (I've no idea why I make that association) and also looks vacuous, somehow . I hope she (ahem) shakes it off. George Clooney similarly displays the same mannerisms irrespective of the roles he plays, and his signature head-tilting and -bobbing really detracts from his performances.
The balance of sound playback in the cinema was good: gunshots and explosions (not that it was an action movie!) were deafening, but that's appropriate, whereas the volume of all other content was about right.
The cast was good, with established names in relatively minor supporting roles, including Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman and, particularly impressive, Natalie Portman.
In a couple of places, the ages of the characters seemed wrong, which was distracting: Winstone's seemingly psychotic main 'henchman' (Charlie Hunnam) looked to be exactly the right age to be in the army, not the home guard. In retrospect, his lines repeatedly referred to this alleged youth, so maybe the character was supposed to be rather younger (mid-teens?) than the actor (twenties?), but that wasn't sufficiently obvious - if that was the intention, why not use a younger actor? Secondly, there was some confusion about the interval between the climax of the film and the epilogue. The sudden appearence of a young girl implied some years have passed, but there was no attempt to make the actors, particularly Kidman, seem at all older.
Incidentally, that pale-but-not-albino (maybe he was supposed to be?) home guardsman seemed to be the film's main incongruity - his bleach-blond hair, mannerisms and phrasing seemed far too modern.
Coincidentally, at the same time as I was watching Richard Brake playing a supporting role in 'Cold Mountain' ('Nym'), he was in the same building 'for real', playing the lead in The Duke's stage production of Sam Shepard's 'True West' in the 180-seat studio theatre next door.
NP: The Flower Kings, Würzburg, 1996
10 March, 2004
Link to review: 'In Absentia' DVD-A (Porcupine Tree, 2004)
Porcupine Tree's 'In Absentia' DVD-A is due out today (though my copy hasn't arrived from Burning Shed yet*...). I may offer my own review after I've heard the DVD, but I know next to nothing about the technical issues of surround mixes and I'm not a musician, so my comments would be purely as a listener. For a more detailed review, try this one at HighFidelityReview.com, which also features an extended interview with Steven Wilson on the project and future plans for Porcupine Tree.
*: Having just checked the Burning Shed site, I see the release date has been moved to 16 March! Waa! Several other retailers have already been despatching it; it's even no.2 in the Play.com DVD-A chart. (Update: 11/03/04: No.1!)
6 March, 2004
Review: Mezzanine (Massive Attack, 1998)
From the album cover onwards, there's something slightly unsettling about this album; the beetle on the cover is sleek and shiny, but also heavily distorted, and when the booklet is opened, is much larger than originally thought; somewhat daunting.
'Mezzanine' has a dark, even claustrophobic intensity I find uncommon in its genre, though as with most of my favourite music, it's something of a disservice to neatly categorise it. The album has all the essential characteristics of trip hop, but I also hear strong similarities to the richly textured prog/ambient production techniques of Bass Communion, Porcupine Tree or Richard Barbieri, which is probably what drew me to the music in the first place. Even the rather ethereal voice of guest vocalist Elizabeth Fraser (of the Cocteau Twins, and whose voice I immediately recognised as having also appeared on Peter Gabriel's 'Ovo') fail to mask a distinct 'edge' to the music of 'Teardrop', neatly setting the atmosphere for the ominous slow-burn of 'Inertia Creeps', possibly the most obviously satisfying track.
Previously, I'd thought Massive Attack were just another drum & bass act, and hadn't paid them much attention; in fact I still find that little of the material on their other albums grabs me, being either too laid-back or too dance-orientated. Unfortunately, the track that most reminds me of those albums, 'Exchange' appears twice on 'Mezzanine', as the fifth track then slightly reworked as the closing piece. Together, they only account for eight of the albums 63 minutes, so that's not too much of a problem. The tempo is slow throughout the album, but apart from on those two tracks, the effect is somehow sinister in its relentlessness, rather than relaxed.
26 February, 2004
Review: Arcadia Son (IEM, 2001)
The IEM, or 'Incredible Expanding Mindf**k' is one of several side projects of Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree, No-Man, Bass Communion), exploring SW's interest in experimental music, specifically inspired by cosmic jazz and krautrock. Overall, the music is almost entirely instrumental, but as one would expect from SW, heavily textured, with odd production effects and samples.
'Arcadia Son' is the second IEM album, but I believe it's the only one currently in print - get your copy while you still can! I'd certainly recommend it, and the first album (simply 'IEM') even more so, if you can find it. However, this isn't remotely easy listening, and has little in common with Porcupine Tree, so fans of that band mightn't necessarily be fans of this; I'd go so far as to say IEM is SW's least accessible project. But excellent.
Four of the eight tracks might be dismissed as novelties or pointlessly weird:
- 'Wreck' - Guitar feedback and sax shrieking, over 'jazz' drums and flute. Just as it seems to resolve into something more coherent, after 84 seconds, it ends.
- 'Beth Krasky' - Simply a 25-second anecdote from Beth.
- 'Politician' - Just over a minute reminiscent of a 70s porn film soundtrack: musak-style keyboards overlaid by heavy breathing and groans; the whole thing played back at irregular speed, as if on a poorly maintained projector.
- 'Goldilocks Age 4' - An extract of a home recording of a child (presumably SW) reading the fairy story.
However, collectively these tracks account for four minutes of the 46-minute album, and the remaining pieces are excellent.
'We Are Not Alone'
is pleasant jazzy instrumental (percussion, bass & keyboards, joined by flute), rendered slightly unsettling by background electronic 'textures' and distortion of the bass track. This is overlaid by speed-distorted spoken vocals. Personally, I'd have preferred them to have been omitted and find the instrumental sections more enjoyable.
- My favourite piece: bongos provide a consistent base (not bass!), over which a flute improvises, gradually joined by bass and keyboard textures. For the latter third of the piece, the flute is neatly substituted with keyboards. This is possibly the most similar to the original 'IEM'
is another cosmic jazz jam, flute accompanied by (kit) drums, bass and keyboard atmospherics, all slightly modified by echo effects and shifting stereo balance, also featuring an interesting wah guitar interlude. This track also appears on the third IEM album, '...Have Come For Your Children'
, but there this 8-min jam is extended to 35 minutes!
'Shadow Of A Twisted Hand Across My House'
is by far the longest track, at over 20 minutes. It begins as a more overt fusion of krautrock drums & bass and a jazz saxophone improvisation. Unsurprisingly, the rhythm is very repetitive (not a criticism!), with very gradual shifts, until the track becomes ambient after 8 minutes: purely electronic, sustained by keyboard drones.
The album notes merely credit "All music performed and projected by the IEM", but some listeners mightn't realise that some (not all!) of the names listed in the the 'special thanks' section were contributing musicians:
Steven Wilson (of course; guitar, keyboards, electronics), Colin Edwin (from Porcupine Tree; bass), Geoff Leigh (ex-Henry Cow; saxophones, flute), and Mark Simnett (ex-Bark Psychosis; drums). Others with less obvious roles are Peter van Vliet (from The Use of Ashes, who have supported P-Tree on tour), Jennis Clivack and Michael Piper.
25 February, 2004
Review: 'Hallucinating' (Stephen Palmer, 2004)
As I mentioned last month, a new sci-fi book has been released recently: 'Hallucinating', by Stephen Palmer.
This book was listed at Amazon as 'print on demand'. I'm not entirely sure what that means, and whether my copy was literally produced for me, in a print run of one. The cover price was certainly rather higher than that of a mass-market paperback.
A more significant question is whether this is a form of vanity publishing, whereby the author pays to have a book released rather than a publisher deciding to release a book purely on its literary/commercial merits. I don't think that was the case here, but 'Hallucinating' certainly seems to be under-edited. There are basic grammatic and even spelling errors throughout (for example 'alot' is used instead of 'a lot') and slang is used inappropriately (e.g. 'stylee' and 'choons' would be fine in dialogue, but aren't standard in third-person descriptive text) and inconsistently.
Particularly in the opening chapter, characters act with unnatural abruptness, which reads like work-in-progress, to be redrafted and filled-out before publication.
Conversely, the closing chapters suddenly explore, in depth, such abstract concepts as the nature of love and the purpose of laughter, which entirely ruins the pacing of the climactic scenes.
A decent editor could have suggested changes, and improved the result.
A central aspect of the book's marketing was that 'Hallucinating' features cameo appearences from musicians active in the 90s festival scene, such as Ed Wynne of the Ozric Tentacles, Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree, and Richard Allen of Delerium Records. No doubt my cursory mention of those names here will be picked up by the search engines and generate a few hits on this page; the book relies on the same effect, and the name-checks are about as meaningful.
The book is set in the years following 2049, so all these musicians are elderly and their roles in the book bear no relevance to their earlier careers. For instance, a lead character meets a member of a Somerset resistance group (don't worry, that makes sense in context), who just happens to be Ed Wynne, but there's no real reason why it needs to be Wynne; had it been anyone else, the effect on the plot would have been identical.
Similarly, another lead character visits a mystic hermit living in a Cornish cave. This oracle could have been anyone, but for no apparent reason, it's Steven Wilson. Worse, this episode is barely mentioned afterwards, and has absolutely no effect on the plot - had these 2½ pages been simply omitted outright, the story wouldn't have been changed.
Richard Allen appears for three pages, again in a pointless digression lasting only for those three pages. Palmer's own website offers a draft of the first 63 pages of the book (try it, you might like it). At the same point in that version, the Richard Allen subplot isn't even mentioned, and the result is identical. Likewise Michael Dog: one page in the book, nothing in the web-published draft; no real difference between the two.
I can't decide whether this is all just self-indulgence or cynical marketing. Either way, it's counterproductive.
Try the sample chapters, and judge for yourself, but as someone who has read the whole thing, I can't recommend it.
24 February, 2004
Review: several albums by Fairport Convention
I discovered Fairport Convention in the mid-90s via the Jethro Tull connection, which was particularly strong at that time. All but one member of Fairport had also recorded and appeared live with Tull in recent years (Dave 'Peggy' Pegg 1979-95, Martin 'Maart' Allcock 1988-91, Ric Sanders 1991, Dave 'DM' Mattacks 1992). Fairport had also supported Tull on tour in 1987 and '88, whilst Ian Anderson and Martin Barre had appeared with Fairport at their Cropredy Festivals in 1987 & '89.
If only to satisfy my curiosity, I tried a Fairport album. I'm sure it was 'Jewel In The Crown' (1995), though until writing this I thought I'd found them earlier than that! I quite liked it, but wasn't immediately overwhelmed. I heard more Fairport material on unofficial Tull concert recordings, so tried another album: 'In Real Time' (1987), and was hooked. 'The Hiring Fair' immediately became, and remains, one of my all-time favourite songs (I mean by any artist, not just Fairport), and I still regard that rendition as 'definitive'.
I gradually acquired a few more albums, branched out to discover Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson (I might discuss them in a separate posting, but for now I'll just recommend them), and saw Fairport live on three occasions. This aspect of my musical education led me to Steeleye Span, Maddy Prior, June Tabor and a couple of other UK folk-rock artists, but 'trad folk' has never done much for me, nor US folk artists; the alleged attraction of Bob Dylan is a total mystery to me.
It would take too long to go into great detail, but the following are (very) brief reviews of those albums I own. I don't have the earliest albums (inspired by US folk of the late 1960s, which I don't like), nor the mid-70s albums (which, from out-takes and concert recordings, I've found not to my taste)
'Liege & Lief' (1969)
Just a classic - one of the most influential albums of at least the half-century. Irrespective of personal taste, the importance of Fairport, and specifically this album, in defining the folk-rock genre can't be overstated.
I don't feel the urge to actually play it very often, though....
''Babbacombe' Lee' (1971)
A folk-rock concept album. That's progressive of them.... Pretty good; not great.
'History Of' (1972)
A good cross-section of early Fairport. I wouldn't normally rate a compilation highly, as it's usually preferable to buy the original albums, but I feel the early albums were patchy anyway, so the exercise of picking out the highlights is worthwhile.
'Gottle O' Geer' (1976)
Rather depressing. Though technically as good as they'd ever been, in terms of creativity, Fairport were dead in the water in the mid 70s.
'Gladys' Leap' (1985)
Not so much a return to early form, more a virtually new band! Though more 'adult contemporary' than what most might call 'folk' (as if labels matter), and lacking the magic ingredients of Denny (RIP) and Thompson, this is a really enjoyable album. Highlight: 'The Hiring Fair', my all-time favourite Fairport song.
Writing this inspired me to play the album again for the first time in several months, maybe over a year. Surprisingly, I didn't enjoy it as much as I remember. I can't decide whether that's due to familiarity, or a shift in my taste, towards, 'darker', 'harder' music.
'In Real Time' (1987)
Excellent; some of Fairport's most popular songs, in a live setting.
Though the album features crowd applause between songs, this material was all played live in the studio, not on stage - the crowd noise, recorded at a festival, was added later!
This is the album generally recommended as a starting place for those new to Fairport; I'd echo that advice.
'Red & Gold' (1988)
Might be called 'Gladys' Leap Part 2', as I can't really distinguish them. In fact, I believe the two albums were re-released as a single package.
This 'more of the same' comment isn't a criticism - they're both very good, and the title track is another example of Ralph McTell writing well for the Fairport sound (just to clarify for those who don't have the album: McTell wrote some of Fairport's best songs, but doesn't play on their albums)
'The Five Seasons' (1990)
Rather disappointing after the foregoing albums, I haven't played this more than 3 or 4 times in years.
'Jewel In The Crown' (1995)
Another excellent album in the vein of 'Gladys' Leap' and 'Red and Gold'. I like it, though only 'casually', as indicated by the fact I originally tried it on tape, and have never bothered to upgrade to CD.
'Old New Borrowed Blue' (1996)
To be pedantic, this album is by Fairport Acoustic Convention - Simon, Peggy, Ric & Maart without DM on drums or keyboards. It's a combination of about 50% new material (almost universally excellent) and 50% a live album of typical Fairport material without the drums.
'Who Knows Where The Time Goes?' (1997)
For me, the point where it all started to go downhill. With the loss of Maart and arrival of Chris Leslie, there was less rock and more introspective ballads. There's nothing inherently 'wrong' with that, and the musicianship is as great as ever, but it's not really my thing.
The result still hangs together fairly well, but I'd say it's the last Fairport album that does (up to now, anyway!): their shark jump.
'The Wood & The Wire' (1999)
They're showing their age on this one! The long-term fans, who have aged along with the band, will probably enjoy this at least as much as earlier albums, but for those of us who are rather younger and approach Fairport from the folk-rock aspect rather than the trad folk/adult contemporary side, this seems a bit too cosy. As with the previous album, the standard of playing is high, and 4-5 of the 14 songs are great, but the subject matter of most tracks does little for me. This is as good as the best albums from many other bands (that I like!), but compared to earlier Fairport albums, it's slightly disappointing.
Last time I saw them, I knew they'd be playing some of this material, so I bought the album, but if I'd attended the concert first, I'm not sure that would have inspired me to buy it, and I haven't felt the urge to hear more.
14 February, 2004
Review: Field Of Crows (Fish, 2003)
It's arrived! I said I was going to wait for reviews and audio samples before buying Fish's latest studio album, rather than buying it 'blind' on the release date, as I have in the past. The fan reviews have been favourable, and it's been encouraging to note that they specifically mention that the aspects of 'Fellini Days' (2001) I disliked haven't been repeated, so I went ahead and ordered a copy from Fish, having not heard the samples after all.
The following review is being written as I listen to the album for the very first time; it'll be interesting to see whether my views change after repeated plays.
A slow-build piece, instantly identifiable as the product of Fish's band. There's a stereotypical 'Scottish' undertone, with a bagpipe-like drone (guitars) and snare drums, which conceptually I don't particularly like, but in practice, it's fine.
Er... I don't want to comment on every song if I don't really have anything to say, and that's the case here! I'll just say I like it. The lyrics seem to have direct relevance to the Washington DC sniper murders of 2003, though I'm sure Fish intended a wider context.
Wonderful! Bouncy, unpretentious rock'n'roll, though not simplistic.
Is the title a pun? Crows are solitary birds, so a field of crows would actually be a field of rooks.
The opening lines:
"It's your decision, it's not up to me, and I've seen it all before got a wardrobe full of cheese,..."
WHAT? Consulting the lyrics in the CD booklet, I see it's "... a wardrobe full of T's,..." i.e. T-shirts. A good reference ('been there, done that, bought the T-shirt') but I like my version. ;)
Twenty minutes in, and I haven't stopped grinning yet.
I'd heard a working version of this before, on a recording of the 31/05/03 concert, and hadn't been overwhelmed, as the lyrics seemed repetitive and the arrangement didn't quite have 'it'. Now it does. The guitar intro grabbed me immediately, and I was held all the way to the big ending, with driving guitar accompanied by horns.
An amateur recording of an unfinished song played in a live setting over a 'tinny' PA makes no allowance for the impact of production techniques 'filling out' the sounds of the instruments, plus the effect of stereo.
'The Lost Plot'
The first more downbeat song, but not a typical Fish maudlin ballad; though in a minor key, it's fast-paced and underpinned by a powerful guitar track, which bursts through to lead the outro.
Another title with a double meaning: a field is a plot of land.
This is one of the (several) difference between this and Fish's previous album: whereas 'Fellini Days' sounded rather thin, as if recorded on a tight budget in a home studio with limited multi tracking, there's a considerable depth to the soundscape on 'Field Of Crows', with several layers of instruments interacting in complex rhythms. These are 'big' arrangements; the addition of a brass section to the band has had a significant effect.
Great music. Not so sure about the lyrics. This is 'just' a joyful, fun song, which certainly isn't a criticism. This is going to be a highlight of the live set.
Thirty-six minutes: still grinning.
Rather reminiscent of 'Sunsets On Empire' (1997). This is the other song I'd already heard (a working version played live, anyway), and I'm glad that first impression wasn't confirmed. In that setting, the lyrics had seemed repetitive, but in the context of the album, that's to leave room for the rich production and layered instrumentation; over-complex lyrics would be wasted.
Okay; full-on Fish melancholia. The late-night jazz club feel is a pleasant rest from the foregoing high-energy songs.
Back to the driving rock songs, though this takes a slightly darker tone than earlier tracks.
'Shoot The Craw'
The start is very similar to 'Pipeline' from 'Suits' (1993), but develops into another standard Fish ballad - not bad, but nothing new; I tend to find these songs interchangeable, and this could have been from any of his solo albums.
Another ballad. This has emerged as a curiously, even disappointingly 'front-loaded' album. Again, it's a nice enough song, and I'm sure I'll come to like it in its own right, but having been built up by the energetic, celebratory tone of the first two-thirds of the album, I'd hoped it would close with a bang. And if you've already heard the album: not that bang!
That's it. Time to play it again. I presume my comments convey the overall message that I really like 'Field Of Crows'. It's only February, but I may have discovered my 'album of 2004'.
Most of the reviews I've read to date have said this is a return to form, likening the album to Fish's solo debut, 'Vigil In A Wilderness Of Mirrors' (1989). In a sense that's correct, having recaptured the catchy tunes and powerful delivery of those songs, but I'd better stress that 'Field Of Crows' isn't particularly similar to 'Vigil...'. Much as I love that album, it does struggle under the weight of Fish's neo-prog background. 'Field Of Crows' is not a prog album. His style has moved on a long way from 1991 (and wandered a bit on the way...), and to quote Fish himself, he's found the 'groove'.
The album receives a general retail release in May, but has been available directly from Fish's own website since December (hence the official copyright date of 2003 despite it not being in the shops until five months into 2004!). I'd always recommend buying direct from Fish anyway, as this provides the greatest financial benefit to him, and he's in a position where that does matter. If added incentive is required, the standard retail version will be sold with a 12-page black & white booklet, whereas that sold via the website and concerts contains a full colour booklet of 24 pages.
Speaking of the artwork, Mark Wilkinson's van Gogh-style painting of Fish in a cornfield (yes, it's a painting, not a digitally-modified photo!) is well-executed and attractive, but the portrayal of Fish as if from 'The Matrix', in black leather and shades, somehow seems trite, like a movie tie-in released just that little bit after the zeitgeist has passed.
NP: Guess ;)
13 February, 2004
Review: Blackfield (Blackfield, 2004)
Having repeatedly listened to the entire album at Walla! *, I really like what I hear, and will definitely buy it when released in the UK. Though the online tracks are in a fairly low-resolution format, with significant digital distortion, the quality is certainly sufficient to showcase excellent music.
Blackfield is a collaboration between Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson (SW) and Aviv Geffen, a chart-topping pop star in Israel. The result could easily be described as a slightly more upbeat, slightly more 'pop' version of Porcupine Tree circa 2000. Following 'Lightbulb Sun', P-Tree followed the 'heavier', guitar-led side of their music into 'In Absentia', but in an alternative reality they could easily have focused on the more keyboard-led, introspective aspect of the 'Stupid Dream' and 'Lightbulb Sun' material: that's Blackfield.
The majority of the ten songs are rather low-key, mainly consisting of SW softly singing to a backing of keyboards and subtle acoustic guitar, but three of the songs switch halfway through, with electric guitars, percussion and 'rockier' arrangements kicking in. On 'Glow', this is effective, flowing into a classic SW guitar outro, but in the case of the otherwise excellent 'Cloudy Now', I can't decide whether the abrupt change to a 'rock' ending works, or just sounds tacked on.
Apparently most lyrics were written by SW and most of the music by Geffen, but that's a little simplistic. Without being familiar with Geffen's other music, I do think this sounds very much like Porcupine Tree, and at least to me, SW's contribution, both as musician and producer, seems to dominate. That's not to diminish Geffen's contribution at all, I simply mean that those already familiar with Porcupine Tree are likely to enjoy Blackfield too; it's not a radical departure.
SW sings lead vocals for most songs, but for even those on which Geffen performs the lead vocals, his voice is passed through SW's signature vocal filtering, so the overall Porcupine Tree feel remains. Incidentally, 'Pain', one of the few songs with lead (verse) vocals by Geffen, is the album's second single, possibly to capitalise on his popularity in Israel. Not that such manipulation is necessary: the first single, 'Hello', mainly sung by SW, went to no. 2 in the Israeli singles chart.
Always a good sign: none of the songs strike me as weak or just fillers. The worst I'd say is that 'Summer' is a little monotonous, so I suspect I'll tire of it rather quickly, and 'Scars' features a distracting overdub halfway through the song which initially made me think there was a fault in playback causing me to hear two pieces at once.
I'm not going to comment on every single song, but one final observation: the opening of 'Lullaby' immediately made me think of 'Chant One' by Bowness/Chilvers (which certainly SW and probably Geffen have heard), or Porcupine Tree's 'So Low', which Geffen has performed live with SW on a few occasions. However, I suppose it's fairly generic.
I understand the album will be available soon from the Porcupine Tree online store at Burning Shed [no; see update], and is already available internationally from a mail order company in Israel [yes, but see this update], but I do think it's a pity that there's no sign of it being available via more mainstream retailers such as Amazon. Established fans would have no problems in finding and buying from specialists, but what about publicising the album to a wider public? Something of a missed opportunity, which I certainly hope will be resolved eventually.
*: Note that the website is entirely in Hebrew, so I needed directions to find the audio samples! This is the route at the time of writing:
- At the lower left of the home page, click on the small 'Blackfield' banner. If the banner is no longer on that page, go here and press the prominent green button.
- Allow the resulting popup window to load fully.
- On the dropdown (drop up, in fact) menu at the bottom right, select the uppermost item on the third menu from the right.
- A further popup will open, and album tracks will play.
[Update 27/08/04: Review of 2-CD international edition]
28 January, 2004
Radical guitar design
Ulrich Teuffel, German luthier (guitar-maker) discusses the evolution of the electric guitar at his website. Some fascinating observations.
I can't say I really like his own guitar designs, though. The 'Birdfish' is seriously odd, and looks too much like a gun for my taste. The 'Coco' is closer to a standard guitar shape, but somehow seems out of proportion, dominated by an over-large body (according to my preferences and possibly over-conservative expectations, anyway). The 'Tesla' reminds me of a mediaeval instrument in its overall shape, yet the detailing strikes me as rather 1980s.
That said, I'm speaking as a non-musician, solely in terms of visual design; it's clear that Teuffel has concentrated on function at least as much as form, and in terms of build quality, materials, ergonomics, playability and sound quality, they're highly rated guitars.
13 January, 2004
Review: 'Microserfs' (Douglas Coupland, 1995)
Having recently read this for the third time, I'm still undecided about this book. It's written in the first person, essentially as a diary, so I'm unsure whether the written style is contrived, being that of the narrator, or whether that's just the way Coupland was naturally writing at the time.
Daniel thinks/writes almost in sound bites: fairly short, self-contained, generally declarative statements which tend towards the observational, occasionally analytical, but rarely experiential. That is, he recounts events, and offers a limited commentary on them, but there isn't always a sense of what the events meant to him or made him feel.
Even when such matters are more directly confronted, again he seems to catalogue his emotions almost as a detached observer, rather than giving an unguarded insight into the 'real' Daniel. Oversimplifying, to say "I felt sad" is merely an assemblage of three words, conveying little about the sensation of sadness, and providing little with which a reader can truly emphasise.
If Coupland has skilfully captured the mindset of an obsessive computer programmer, its an impressive book. However, the same effect could also result from the genuine written style of an inexperienced author, rendering the result merely lucky....
Overall, the story is pretty good. The disjointed plot (after part one, there's a gap of a month, then there's a further gap of three months between the penultimate and final chapters) is an interesting device, which fits - Daniel would have been busy/obsessed with other things during these times, so wouldn't have been keeping a diary - and certainly helps the story progress, which is a particular problem of this type of story. The narrator is so close to the details, discussing the minutiae of everyday life, that the overall plot could be lost unless the pace is 'forced'.
However, my central problem, of finding the narrator somewhat remote, remained a barrier to empathy, including with his family and colleagues. That may have been compounded by my limited familiarity with their setting - the artificiality of techie Seattle/Silicon Valley, a world of bland corporate logos and a sanitised, soulless built environment. They live in minimally personalised generic apartments and work in utilitarian cubicles, so it's hardly surprising that their humanity is masked.
Conversely, in the very drabness of their everyday existence, each character has his/her own pitiable quirk, such as poor self-esteem (intellectual and sexual), serious illness, or age-related unemployment; the overall feel of the book is downbeat. It would be revealing too much to say whether these aspects are satisfactorily resolved.
This is my second attempt at this posting. Somehow, I had two 'Create New Entry' windows open: the one in which I was writing, and another, blank. I closed one - the wrong one. I've retyped whilst it was reasonably fresh in my memory, but second attempts are never the same; my train of thought had moved on.
10 January, 2004
Review: Liquid Tension Experiment 2 (Liquid Tension Experiment, 1999)
Another band sampled because it was mentioned favourably at the PT-Trans discussion group, this album
wasn't quite what I expected. I'd anticipated something fairly structured and 'heavy', essentially an instrumental version of Dream Theater, since the line-up was three members of that band, plus Tony Levin. If it wasn't for the vocals & lyrics, I might appreciate Dream Theater more, so this seemed a safe purchase.
However, it was immediately obvious, and confirmed by the liner notes, that a number of the tracks on the the album were largely the result of jamming. This means that though I certainly can't fault the virtuosity of the playing, a few tracks somewhat lack direction, and my attention wandered a little. That's only partly a criticism, more an acknowledgement of the way jamming works: when it all comes together, it's highly creative and enjoyable, but it doesn't always come together.... One criticism I would make is that there were places where flashy playing failed to mask the weakness of the underlining tune or lack of an over arching composition; as David Gilmour proved, great music doesn't require high speed or intricacy.
Another Mike Portnoy side project, Transatlantic, sounded like a real, 'first-priority' band, producing wonderful music with a sense of fun. This has the sense of fun, and I'm sure the technical achievement was satisfying, but as a listener, I don't think it goes much further than that. Not that it needs to - though my expectation was a little disappointed, I still liked the majority of the album. The longest track, 'When The Water Breaks', is a particular high point.
In summary, it's 'okay', but I doubt I'll play it often.
NP: 'Liquid Tension Experiment 2', Liquid Tension Experiment, 1999
3 January, 2004
Review: 'The Fifth Elephant' (Terry Pratchett, 1999)
I've just finished reading this for the second, maybe third time. It's my favourite Discworld novel, superior because the characters are more three-dimensional, more realistic, less cartoonish.
As I've mentioned before, my taste in fantasy/sci-fi is for ordinary people acting naturally in extraordinary situations, rather than stylised 'high fantasy', 'sword and sorcery' or 'space opera' , with which I can't identify, and properly suspend disbelief. In 'The Fifth Elephant', Pratchett's characters and setting achieve a greater realism than before. The Discworld has matured; having established and refined the conventions, Pratchett can proceed to develop the characters as credible people. In the first few books of the City Guard thread, Sam Vimes is a combination of Humphrey Bogart and Clint Eastwood, and primarily a means to advance the plot. In 'The Fifth Elephant', Sam Vimes is Sam Vimes, an established character rather than an amalgam of stereotypes/pop-cultural references, and a lifelike person with realistic, consistent thoughts, motivations and reactions - a 'proper' literary creation.
That's not particularly a criticism of the earlier books, as they're highly amusing and well-written (and researched - I don't think reviewers sufficiently acknowledge that), but the focus on plot and pastiche of numerous genres (opera, English folk music, fairy tales, Hollywood, etc.) has tended to leave the characters a little understated, perhaps even underdeveloped. I'm generalising, and there are exceptions, but on the whole one is told what a person did and said, and motivations are sketched in, but there isn't always more than a superficial sense of what the person felt, or why they reacted as they did. To use Vimes as an example again, in earlier appearences he responds as 'anyone' of his stereotype would in a given situation, but having added depth to the character, Pratchett is able to make Vimes behave more as a genuine individual, sometimes against type, as the reader has a better idea of how Sam would react, rather than a generic 'anyone'.
Some of the early Discworld novels were adapted into comic strip format, and a couple were made into animated films. It's an obvious development, and presumably successful, but I think emphasing the two-dimensional, comic elements is a mistake, belittling the richness of Pratchett's creation. I'd have preferred to see live-action films, with believable trolls, dwarfs, undead, orangutan, and Death integrated by 'photo-real' computer graphics; more like Peter Jackson's 'Lord Of The Rings' than the earlier animated version. The humour can come from the plot and dialogue, rather than the overall look.
Another distinguishing feature of 'The Fifth Elephant' is that it touches on weighty subjects - racism, cultural imperialism, sexism (superficially) - provoking thought without preaching. Even those who might scorn the fantasy elements of dwarfs, trolls and Ankh-Morpork could appreciate them as metaphors for real ethnic minorities and nation states.
NP: Porcupine Tree, Paris, 11/3/03
30 December, 2003
Review: Jethro Tull/Ian Anderson 2003
Some would say I didn't give Ian Anderson's 'Rupi's Dance' and Jethro Tull's 'The christmas Album' (both 2003) a fair chance, but sometimes I know I won't like something from the very first time I hear it. I also have a lot of experience of other Anderson/Tull albums, so have a head start on judging something new.
I bought 1999's 'J-Tull Dot Com' (DotCom) just because it was Tull, and therefore I was bound to like it. I didn't, and if anything my appreciation has decreased with time. Still, I bought Ian Anderson's 2000 solo album, 'The Secret Language Of Birds' (SLoB) on the same basis, and didn't much like that either. I've since ascribed my dislike to two factors:
- In 1995, IA learned to play the flute 'properly'. Previously, he'd used a non-standard technique to force notes out of the instrument, giving a unique, rough, rock sound which I liked immensely. Subsequently, his style has become more conventional, tamer and 'pretty', which is a huge turn-off for me. I like Tull the hard-rock band, and albums since 1995 have been gentler AOR, even MOR. A 'pretty' flute sound is too close to cocktail jazz, even muzak.
- The single factor that drew me to Tull, far beyond the music, was Ian Anderson's lyrics; in many cases I've received at least as much enjoyment from just reading the lyrics in silence as from hearing the songs performed. Again, the post-1995 albums have been extremely lacking in that sense. 'SLoB' was particularly bad, speaking of a 'lumpy' sea and crows 'bopping' - quite simply poor phrasing. Worse, the lyrics have become sentimental. I'd always valued IA's stance as impartial narrator, presenting situations without any judgement, leaving that to the audience. Now he writes of his own experiences and his own opinions. Fine if one shares his world-view, but I don't. The main problem is that IA is a man in his mid-fifties, with the concerns and priorities of anyone at that age, so I feel Tull/Anderson albums have become by and for fiftysomethings; those of a similar age would get most from them, but I'm 32....
My disappointment with the 1999 & 2000 albums meant I'd decided not to buy any more without hearing samples first, and reading the views of fans whose opinions I respect. There were plenty of unfavourable reviews of 'Rupi's Dance', surprisingly even from 'loyal' long-term fans, but even the favourable reviews spoke in terms of the aspects I'd most disliked in earlier releases. The commonest summary was that 'Rupi's Dance' was very similar to 'SLoB', if not so strong on lyrics (and remember, I'd thought those lyrics were weak). Others spoke of a gentle overall tone, and introspection, which are okay in themselves, but simply not what I want from Tull/Anderson i.e. impartial social observation in a driving, high-energy rock setting.
I didn't solely rely on the opinions of others, of course. The official Tull website offered an audio sample of each track. I listened to each a couple of times, and knew immediately that I wouldn't be buying this album. Some music grows on me with time, but there has to be something there from the start, to lead me on. I found the samples, backed by fan reviews and my views of the earlier albums, more than enough on which to base a purchasing decision.
Having made that evaluation, the decision to avoid the Tull christmas Album was even easier. I'm intrinsically hostile to the very idea of christmas albums anyway - when Tull release an album for Eid, Diwali or the Chinese New Year, perhaps I'll reconsider - and fan reviews were again drastically less favourable than I'd expected from 'hardcore' fans, who tend to be more forgiving than objectively critical. Several commented that the reworkings of 'classic' Tull songs were inferior to the originals (I'd questioned the point of reworking them at all), others criticised the laid-back, jazz arrangements of 'Greensleeved' and yet another version of 'Bourée'. Not that it mattered to me, another frequent comment was the tenuous relevance of some songs to the christmas theme.
I didn't need to know much more; in a year of wonderful music from other bands, I quite simply couldn't be bothered to invest time and money on something I'm unlikely to enjoy.
Oh, and the covers of both albums were spectacularly disappointing: extremely unimaginative, clichéd designs, executed using the default settings of an entry-level graphics package. Could I do better? In all sincerity: yes, without question.
Aside from the new studio albums, Tull released more remasters of the back catalogue. I'm unconvinced of the merit of remastering perfectly adequate releases at all, and will only be buying a few of the remasters to replace those I only ever owned on audio tape, plus the one justified remaster, 'Broadsword And The Beast' which was poorly mastered for the original CD release. I certainly won't be buying any remasters for the bonus tracks as, without exception, all the 'bonus' tracks have been previously released on other albums or box sets; existing fans will already have them all anyway.
That said, I did obtain two remasters this year: 'A Passion Play', a gift given to me for obvious reasons, and 'Songs From The Wood', which was in a bargain bin for Ł2.99.
It wouldn't be a vast overstatement to say the 'Heavy Horses' remaster scandalised some fans. Firstly, there was an error on one track, with a sudden jump in volume; I think that has been corrected for later pressings. Worse, one song was changed. The original 'Moths' has a string accompaniment, but it's missing from the remaster. The official explanation is that the strings track is missing from the master tapes, but assuming that's true, I'd regard it as a reason to re-release the original album version, perhaps with digital tweaking of the mix-down tapes (which should include the strings). For many, that'd be far better than changing the song.
One to avoid.
30 December, 2003
Review: Entering The Spectra (Karmakanic, 2002)
Fan reviews of this hard-to-find solo album from TFK's Jonas Reingold were largely favourable, generally describing it as a heavier version of the Flower Kings; indeed, most members of TFK appear on various songs, amongst other guest musicians. This sounded like something I'd particularly enjoy, so I managed to obtain a copy; it took something like two months for Amazon to order one for me.
Maybe all this had built up my expectations too much, but I found it disappointing. It was much as described, with something of a TFK feel to some tracks, but the comparison wasn't favourable; it was even more bombastic and 'hippy twee' than TFK in places. A high point was 'Space Race No.3', and I've put the album on a few times solely to hear that track, but I don't rate any of the other tracks as more than listenable, and two tracks are awful. I've only played 'The Little Man' and the bulk of 'Welcome To Paradise' once. If they were jokes, I didn't find them particularly funny, if they were serious, they're embarrassing.
30 December, 2003
Review: Dead Air For Radios (Chroma Key, 1998)
After hearing the excellent 'Office of Strategic Influence' album by OSI, I was interested in the music of each of that project's members. I'd already tried, and not particularly liked, Dream Theater, and came to much the same conclusion when I finally heard a couple of Fates Warning concert recordings, but Kevin Moore's 'Chroma Key' was a real find. 'Dead Air For Radios' (1998) is now one of my favourite albums.
On 'OSI', KM provided vocals, keyboards, sample programming and almost all of the lyrics, so 'Dead Air For Radios' naturally has a similar sound, only lacking the almost 'metal' weight of guitars and drums on 'OSI'. I like KM's voice and vocal style; his words aren't simply overlaid onto the music, their rhythm substantially adds to the overall composition. Though not phrased as richly as Ian Anderson's, some of the lyrics of 'Dead Air For Radios' are as thought-provoking as a Tull album; quietly profound without being 'in-your-face' clever. 'America The Video' is a highlight in that regard.
The use of sampled interviews, etc. in some songs is interesting, adding a little contrast to KM's vocals and accompaniment to otherwise instrumental tracks. A couple are less compelling on repeated listening; each time I play the album, I tend to actually play it twice (or more times!), but I've found myself fast-forwarding past the 'counting station' shortwave broadcast (Porcupine Tree used a similar sample on 'Stupid Dream' in 1999) intro/outro of 'Even The Waves' and skipping 'Camera 4' on repeat plays. There are no bad tracks on the album, but for me these elements are the weakest.
Though it doesn't 'blow me away' to the same extent, the second Chroma Key album, 'You Go Now' (2000) is still very good. More overtly keyboard-led and laid-back than its predecessor, with programmed percussion and minimal guitar fills, the result is somewhat gentler, though wonderfully fitting the theme of putting a brave face on loneliness.
26 December, 2003
Review: Unfold The Future (The Flower Kings, 2002)
This was actually a late 2002 release, but I bought it at the start of 2003, so think of it as a 2003 album. I've liked virtually all earlier TFK albums; not every track on every album, but each has had 2-3 outstanding songs I've played repeatedly. 'Unfold The Future' has nothing like that. There's far too much 'freeform jazz' for my taste, and insufficient accessible, riff-led rock; the combination of the two had been excellent on previous albums, but I don't think the balance is quite right this time.
A common criticism is that TFK albums are poorly edited, and at least half of all fan reviews I've read suggest that each of their double albums would be vastly improved by tight editing to a single disc. Ordinarily, I'm unconvinced, since some of their best tracks develop slowly and the very length of the songs amplifies the eventual climax; room to develop and digress is worthwhile. Unfortunately, I wouldn't say that applies to the somewhat rambling 'Unfold The Future', and I do feel tighter editing would have been preferable, also to impose a more accessible overall structure.
25 December, 2003
Review: Belleville Rendez-vous (2003)
Belleville Rendez-vous was BBC2's main early-evening film for christmas day; a French/Belgian/Canadian/British animation with very little dialogue, and that mostly in unsubtitled French. I mightn't have watched it if it hadn't been recommended by Al, who saw it at The Dukes cinema a couple of weeks ago.
It was indeed a compelling film, very well executed. The animation style seemed unusual, having the look of 'traditional' hand-drawn cel animation yet with complex layering, shadows and shifting viewpoints I don't expect from that technique; an evolution of the genre, I suppose. The rendering of water and fire were clearly computer-generated, a mismatch I don't particularly like - one suspends disbelief to enter a 'cartoon' world, and photo-realistic fluids are a distraction.
I noticed from the credits that the film had been constructed by animation studios in France, Belgium and Latvia, each taking a major section of the film. Having read that, I do recall a number of distinct styles, but mainly in terms of setting and lighting; the central characters provided continuity and the overall result was clearly the product of a single imagination, French director and comic-strip artist Sylvain Chomet.
The biggest difference between this and the ubiquitous American/Japanese style of 'cel' (digital, really) animation was the amount of caricature and grotesquery, closer to the political cartoons of a newspaper than a typical animated feature film. Many aspects were massively exaggerated for emphasis. For example, professional cyclists were stick-thin, with bulging thighs and calfs; the French mafia bodyguards were rectilinear monoliths on tiny legs, their shoulders well above their heads, who drove long, low sports cars based heavily on stereotypically French 2CVs; ships had their superstructures and decks high in the air on extremely tall hulls tapering to almost nothing at the waterline; and scenes in a thinly-disguised New York were populated by huge, grossly obese people, including the Statue of Liberty herself.
Although fairly endearing, there was very little cuteness, particularly in the details; elderly women had liver spots, a group of frogs included one deformed, presumably by pollution (which made the fact that the frogs were subsequently caught and eaten even less pleasant), an establishing shot of a dingy tenement building included a blocked toilet, and virtually every character had inhumanly distorted facial features. No-one was physically attractive, most were elderly, infirm, or both. The result was somewhat similar to early Terry Gilliam films, which I found striking in their depiction of squalor; there was something slightly disturbing about the overall effect.
I haven't commented on the plot, partly because I was primarily drawn to the visual and technical aspects and partly because it's a simple, slow-paced story, often wildly implausible, but strongly character-led and easily sustained by an essential warmth. It's a mistake to categorise this as a film for adults or for children; I don't think it's aimed at either, but would appeal to both.
Incidentally, 'Belleville Rendez-Vous' is the title used in the UK, but it's distributed in other territories under its original title, 'Les Triplettes de Belleville'.
NP: Bass Communion, 'Bass Communion II'.
25 December, 2003
Review: To Watch The Storms (Steve Hackett, 2003)
As usual for a Hackett album, I found this very mixed - some tracks I liked immensely from the first play, others I didn't, and still others have emerged on repeated listening. One of the many favourable aspects of Hackett's work is that each time I play one of his albums, the experience is different - I fix on some aspect I'd missed the last time; often that same aspect doesn't sound so special the next time, but that keeps things fresh too!
A one-word review would be: 'eclectic'; the tracklist ranges from homely, almost sentimental, to experimental, via jazz, blues, and 'Come Away' is apparently a mazurka, though the arrangement sounds stereotypically Pacific rather than Eastern European (it's probably the instrumentation). I haven't liked all of Hackett's experimentation over the years, but that's the nature of experimental music, and there are only two tracks on 'TWTS' that I routinely skip: 'The Mechanical Bride' and 'The Devil Is An Englishman'. The former is the only song I'd heard before the release of the album - Hackett has been playing it live for a while, but familiarity hasn't drawn me in. 'The Devil...' is a cover of a Thomas Dolby song, with the consequent disadvantages - it's slightly bizarre without developing the central idea, and features Dolby's signature repetition and eighties rhythm. Hackett's affected upper-class English drawl is amusing, but I've only listened to the whole song a couple of times.
'Strutton Ground' and 'Serpentine Song' are high points, though probably the least challenging tracks, while 'Marijuana Assassin of Youth' has a more visceral, rock'n'roll attraction. The piece which sold the album to me, however, is gleefully whimsical. The only audio sample available at the Inside Out website was the first minute or so of 'Circus Of Becoming': the sombre organ intro giving way to the childlike optigan 'solo', establishing a strong rhythm elegantly modulated as the song itself begins.
I have the extended 'Special Edition', with an extra acoustic track and cased in a hardback book, itself in a thick card slipcase. As always, Inside Out's packaging is excellent, and not sold at a premium price, so I'd recommend the special edition if available. Including the album cover, the packaging features 18 paintings (powdered glass painted onto steel) by Kim Poor, Hackett's wife.
23 December, 2003
Cover bands - not here, thanks.
We've been asked to help promote a Jethro Tull tribute band, by mentioning it at the Ministry. Whilst I intend no criticism of a band I haven't heard, that's an important point - I don't think it's reasonable to ask us to recommend a band without having heard them first.
A more significant reason is that I just don't like the very idea of tribute bands.
Thankfully, their popularity seems to be waning, at least in mainstream venues. Last year, I saw dozens advertised, but only a couple in 2003. I'm sure many are extremely competent, accurately reconstructing the music, appearence and even stage act of their chosen original band, but I have a real problem with the lack of originality. If someone is a musician, I'd always encourage him/her to be creative, ideally to compose his/her own music. Covering other artists' material is absolutely fine with me so long as it's reinterpretation, not meticulous duplication of the original; I don't really see a virtue in direct copying.
In November 2002, I saw the Australian Pink Floyd (APF) in Morecambe. Their light show was pretty good, though budget and space limitations meant it wasn't exactly of Pink Floyd-type splendour! The music was note-perfect; absolutely impossible to fault, and the vocals matched Gilmour's and Waters' voices well enough to convince. It was like listening to the CDs, loudly, in public. And that, I'm afraid, just doesn't inspire me. To hear that wonderful and familiar music, then glance up to see it's not Waters or Gilmour on stage momentarily confuses and ultimately disappoints. I really enjoyed the concert, but there was something... missing. The APF were back in Morecambe a couple of months ago. I considered going, but though I think they're excellent in their chosen genre, it's not one I particularly wish to see again.
21 December, 2003
Review: The Lord Of The Rings (2001-3)
I haven't had reason to mention it in the blog yet, but I design, sculpt and paint miniatures, aka 'toy soldiers' in my spare (ha!) time; okay, I've won awards for it. Because they're in a sci-fi, occasionally fantasy, genre, people keep mentioning the 'Lord Of The Rings' (LOTR) films. To forestall such enquiries about 'The Return Of The King', here's my review:
I haven't seen it, and have no wish to see it. Perhaps when it reaches TV, I'll video and watch it in sections, but there's no way I'll spend time and money seeing it in a cinema.
I really like the book; I can't honestly call it a favourite, as the prose style and dialogue aren't wonderful, but the story itself shines through. I think I've read it all about four times, and dipped into certain sections more frequently. From the first reading, I'd memorised the story, characters, etc.; not to the extent that I could quote Tolkien's precise words (I don't have that type of memory), but nearly.
I wanted to see a film of LOTR, but I mean exactly that - I wanted a director to take the book, and follow it page by page, without deviation.
Okay, that's unrealistic, as editing would be needed for pacing and length, but I'd wanted that to be strictly a process of editing, perhaps removing unnecessary elaboration and omitting events or characters that aren't really necessary to the main story. What I didn't want is the insertion of new events and over-expansion of the roles of secondary characters, which changes the story. I can (grudgingly) understand a need to do that to some extent, particularly to expand the presence of female characters in a very male-centred book, but I feel any changes absolutely, non-negotiably, had to stay within the rigidly-defined limits of the story itself.
I genuinely feel Jackson went too far, particularly in the second film, which was changed from a film of 'The Two Towers' to a film based on 'The Two Towers'.
How could he change the outcome of Helm's Deep? A vital plot point is that the siege is ended by the Ent-led Huorn forest - a mysterious primal force, implying the land itself absorbs and exterminates the orc army. Not a last-minute cavalry charge down a cliff; very cinematic, but simply not what Tolkien wrote. That's the point where I gave up, and realised I have no interest in the third film.
I'd been a bit concerned when I first heard that Peter Jackson was to direct the trilogy, when a magazine interview revealed that he wasn't an especial fan of the book; he'd read it in his youth, but not for several years before taking on the project, and it's not a film he'd always dreamt of making. Presumably to him, and undoubtedly to many of his audience, it was just another fantasy novel, just another sword'n'sorcery film, so any changes didn't really matter. To many, that's probably true, but not me. I like LOTR, but I'm not at all a fan of the wider genre (particularly the style most popular in the 80s, when I was into D&D) - I rather like Michael Moorcock's writing, and his 'Eternal Champion' multiverse is an excellent creation, but the novels of Eddings, Brooks, LeGuin, etc. and Conan-type films bore me rigid.
I watched the first film with a friend who'd been making oh-so-amusing jokes about rings/sphincters, and Jackson's treatment of the material was indeed up its own arse. Though A. was new to Tolkien, he knew I like the book a lot, so I was distinctly embarrassed by the film. I could easily imagine him turning to me after the plodding first half hour, saying "you like this?". No, I don't.
I was deeply disappointed that such a rich story had been rendered merely boring, but at least it didn't directly deviate from Tolkien's narrative. 'The Two Towers' was different. Important events were cut, but worse, totally new ones were invented for no reason. I've already mentioned the changed Battle of the Hornberg, but in the other main plot thread, what the **** was Frodo doing in Osgiliath? It's not a minor point: if Frodo had put on the Ring that close to a Nazgűl at the height of its powers, Sauron would have known his location immediately, and the story would be over.
From what I've heard, 'The Return Of The King' is a good film, though some have expressed doubts about the realism of the special effects (I thought the CGI Gollum was overrated in 'The Two Towers').
But it's not 'The Lord Of The Rings'.
24 November, 2003
Review: 'American Gods' (Neil Gaiman, 2001)
Over the weekend, I read this novel; all 632 pages in about four sittings, which should give a clear idea of its draw.
There's no point in my going into detail, as I'm recommending you read it for yourself, but this is a book which sets out compelling ideas, then explores them in the context of a good story, which is precisely the criterion I find most attractive in a book.
To give an example: the central premise of 'American Gods' is that when immigrants traveled to North America, over thousands of years, they took with them the belief systems of 'the old country', including the stories of piskies, leprechauns - and deities. Conventional so far, but Gaiman goes on: what if that was to be considered literally? That the Vikings took a belief in Thor with them when they colonised North America, and hence an aspect of Thor is still there, personified? So what happened to him after the Norse religion declined to just a mythology? What happens to a god without believers? What do those ex-believers worship now? To be honest, the resolution of these core ideas is a bit disappointing in the book, and could have been taken further, but if a reader takes away fresh ideas and is stimulated to think for him/herself, that can only be considered a success.
One of my all-time favourite books is 'Snow Crash', by my fellow introvert Neal Stephenson. The first couple of pages introduce the lead character as a pizza delivery man in a black high-performance sports car, who habitually carries a pair of samurai swords. Having read those first pages, I could only grin; "A ninja pizza delivery man! Cool!". The book went on to explore aspects of linguistics, ancient history and an interesting variant of virtual reality, all in an excellent cyberpunk story. It was that first page, though, that gave an initial thrill, and hooked me immediately.
'American Gods' has a few of those moments, often when one connects a casually-mentioned aspect of a character's appearance with another seemingly innocuous comment made 20-30 pages earlier, to realise that, say, the down-at-heel electrician one has become familiar with is really Zeus (I don't want to diminish the impact of the instances in the book, so that one was invented).
In his rambling way, Stephen King has the ability to get into his characters' heads, and give a sense of what it's like to be an American. Gaiman's writing doesn't have that unselfconscious ability, which is a minor problem when his characters occupy the same type of small town setting as King's; the comparison slightly interferes with suspension of disbelief, but only slightly.
20 November, 2003
New musical discovery
I've heard a few mentions of a band called 'Pineapple Thief' at Porcupine Tree-related discussion groups. Initially, I though it was an in-joke nickname for P-Tree itself, but I gradually realised that it's a band in its own right, and that the mentions by P-Tree fans were unfailingly positive; someone cited the latest album, Variations On A Dream this morning as his album of the year. I had to follow up that lead. The band's website has audio samples and an online shop offering better prices than Amazon, with free delivery worldwide.
The music itself strikes me as being at the 'pop' end of contemporary prog (i.e. song-based progressive music), with a slight hint of Coldplay but more significantly, a feel combining Radiohead and c.2000 Porcupine Tree. The audio samples certainly led me to order the two most recent albums, anyway.
Give 'em a try.
11 November, 2003
Review: The Matrix: Revolutions
I was at the cinema last night, to see 'The Matrix: Revolutions'. The original is one of my favourite films, but I've yet to hear a good review of this, the second sequel, so my expectations weren't high.
It's a bit of a mess. Certainly spectacular, with a distinct comic book feel. A problem for me is that key scenes looked artificial and studio-based. One of the main things that really grabbed me about the first film was that these were originally ordinary people, doing extraordinary things in basically ordinary locations. It was largely filmed on location, in realistic settings, with an element of, well, dirt making it seem more real. The artificiality of some settings in '...: Revolutions' was probably deliberate, with valid narrative reasons, but that sacrificed realism, and hence made suspension of disbelief harder. For example, Neo's big confrontation with Smith at the end of the film is set in a stripped-down version of the Matrix city - there are streets and buildings, but minimal street furniture and the buildings are just shapes, with minimal details or texture. The rain, though a very nice parallel with the famous cascading green text, somehow doesn't look like real rain. The lighting doesn't seem quite natural, either. This might all make some sense - Smith is in control of a collapsing Matrix, (itself mirroring a disintegrating Zion) and his contempt for the human environment is well-established - he mightn't even know, or care, about maintaining the realistic little details of a street scene, so the Matrix doesn't render them. Maybe. Whether or not it can be justified, it looks a little false. Another unrealistic scene was rather surprising - the closing image of the whole film, a sunrise over a city skyline, just looks totally fake - a yellowish light behind a matte painting. I can only presume it was deliberately artificial, but the reason eludes me.
My first criticism, only a couple of minutes into the film, and sustained throughout, was that the dialogue is bad - trite, cliched, and unconvincing. People just don't talk that way, and compared to its somewhat verbose predecessors, the dialogue of the second sequel was surprisingly poor.
A key element in the success of the first film, for me and many others, was the creation of a fascinating fictional world, and exploration of the core concepts that it raises. I don't think that was adequately sustained in the sequels. 'The Matrix Reloaded' had confused and confusing philosophy, and the motivations for much of the plot were under-explained i.e. characters went off on 'a mission' without adequate understanding (on the part of the audience or characters!) of the reason for the mission. In 'The Matrix: Revolutions', the reasoning was a little clearer, or less relevant, but to an extent it degenerated into a series of set pieces and linking elements, with a rather poor overall story. The interesting conceptual elements were gone, or at least sidelined.
The first film was well thought-through, making good use of existing and novel philosophies to intellectually engage with the audience. The sequel made a bit of a mess of attempting to follow that; having watched The Architect's exposition three times, I still don't really 'get' it, and can only see the glaring holes in its logic and alleged chain of causality - to be fair, in the second sequel, The Oracle does say that The Architect's world view is severely flawed. However, I can only describe the underlying philosophy of 'The Matrix: Revolutions' as a trite reworking of christian mythology, with the Architect as God, The Merovingian as Lucifer (the efforts to stress his role as 'fallen angel' of the machine world and ruler of the Matrix's corrupt/'darker' side are a bit too obvious to take seriously - even his wife is named after the Ancient Greek queen of Hades), and Neo very overtly as a sacrificial christ. The climactic battle in the Matrix is the bittersweet triumph of blind (literally, at one point) faith over the personification of atheism. Somewhat crude, once the flashy presentation is stripped away.
I was a little disconcerted that an extended block of the film seemed a sideline, totally irrelevant to the overall plot, introducing an interesting new setting and character but not really going anywhere. The idea of a limbo between the machine world and the Matrix, controlled for The Merovingian by a separate program entity, The Train Man, and the visit to The Merovingian to bargain for Neo's return, were interesting in certain respects, but had that entire section of the film(s) been omitted, the overall film wouldn't have been very different.
One element I did like, though the implications were subtle (perhaps not even intended!) was the mirroring of the rave/sex scene in '... Reloaded', which strongly emphasises the raw, organic humanity of Zion's inhabitants, with the fetish club of '...: Revolutions', a somewhat dehumanised version (that's not a criticism - perhaps I'll return to this theme in another blog post) of very similar situation.
Still, I did enjoy it; it's a 'big', fun film, and on the most part the 'look' is excellent.
27 October, 2003
Poor little Delerium!
Here's my picture of the year. A surprising choice?
23 October, 2003
It seems I've just exceeded my allocation of 400 tracks played via LAUNCHcast this month, so I get them at low bandwidth, in mono, without the ability to skip those I dislike, until the end of the month. The playlist seems to have shrunk, too, unless it's just coincidence that 3 of the last 5 tracks have been from the same album (Jethro Tull, 'Roots to Branches'), and the remaining two were from the same album (Pink Floyd, 'PULSE').
The alternative would be sign up to the subscription service - high bandwidth, no repetitive ads (which are all US anyway, so utterly pointless in the UK) and unlimited skipping.
But the 'service' isn't available outside the USA, at any price. Thanks, Yahoo!
That said, I still quite like LAUNCHcast. My one criticism is that I suspect there's some editorial bias, with certain, more commercial, artists being 'pushed' more than I'd expect from the preference profile I've established, and non-multinational-label bands being played less than I'd expect if my stated preferences were the sole playlist criterion.
NP: Jethro Tull 'Beside Myself', on LAUNCHcast - lucky I like the song!
22 October, 2003
That's Latin, that is. Means 'buyer beware', and would be advice for those using Amazon UK's 'Marketplace' facility.
In principle, it's a good system, whereby an item's page on the Amazon site offers the new item direct from Amazon at one price, plus an opportunity to buy it from other Amazon users instead, typically second-hand and hence cheaper. The transaction is covered by Amazon's usual terms and secure payment software, and the independent sellers are supposed to offer the same standard of service as Amazon itself; the item should be dispatched within 1-2 days. The main attraction for me is that sometimes a third party seller immediately has an item that Amazon might take 4-6 weeks to find, if ever.
However... the standard of service doesn't always match that ideal. In the last month, one of my purchases was a fortnight late when I sent a reminder e-mail, then took a further week to arrive in poor packaging. Another purchase is a week late, and counting.
The point of this post is that the Amazon pages display feedback from past customers; if I'd realised and read the feedback before buying, I'd have known that both sellers have 'poor/awful' ratings, mainly for delayed dispatching. So, if you're tempted, check the feedback first!
Why Amazon continues to associate itself with such blatantly unreliable sellers is another question....
NP: Jethro Tull, 'This Free Will' (on LAUNCHcast, not the 'Roots To Branches' album)
13 October, 2003
What to write?
William Gibson on why he doesn't write short stories:
"Good ones are to novels as bonsai are to trees. Might as well go ahead and grow the tree. It’s easier to pay the rent with trees."
Good training, though.
NP: Coldplay, 'Everything's Not Lost' (on LAUNCHcast - the first and possibly last time I've listened to an entire Coldplay song. Bland.)
10 October, 2003
LAUNCHcast at Yahoo!
Just found LAUNCHcast web radio (at Yahoo!). I've never really listened to web radio before, due to a combination of having to pay for internet access from home and having musical tastes that aren't exactly compatible with standard radio playlists! I get free better-than-broadband internet access at work, and this station allows a lot of customisation, so I get to hear artists I choose to hear. Importantly, I don't get to choose the running order or specific tracks, so there's an element of surprise, and additional artists are thrown in which I haven't selected, so I get to hear music new to me.
Over-customisation is my main criticism of webzines, etc. A selling-point is that it's possible to have an online newspaper show only stories matching preselected areas of interest, but there's a major disadvantage: missing out on things that the reader mightn't realise he/she would wish to know. If one reads reviews of music, books, films, etc. that one already knows, how can one's taste expand and develop?
If anyone wants to try my playlist, listen here. You may need to sign up to Yahoo! for access.
NP: Godspeed You! Black Emperor: 'Blaise Bailey Finnegan III' (on LAUNCHcast - what other radio station would broadcast a track lasting 17:45, featuring a sampled rant against the US government and legal system?) Excellent track, but I can't play it loud enough at work!
9 October, 2003
By the numbers
I was stuck behind a National Express coach on my way home from work a few minutes ago; slow traffic provided plenty of time to study the company's new (to me, anyway) logo, a prime example of corporate blandness.
A red circle overlapping a larger blue circle on a white background, with a curved 'freehand' white arrow linking the circles. The tail of the arrow makes the red circle 'smile', whilst the upward curve of the arrow is a similar cliche indicating positivity. The arrow links the smaller red circle (you are here) to the larger blue circle (the world), indicating "we'll take you places". The red, white & blue colour scheme reinforces the 'national' element of the UK company.
All very inoffensive, as design-by-committee tends to be, but hardly inspiringly creative.
The typography is quite good on the website (though not 'in the field', on the coach itself), with the word 'National' being as long as the graphic element is wide, and the larger 'Express' off to the side in a welcome break from the obvious.
NP: Sigur Rós, Boston, USA, 15/03/03
7 October, 2003
New Fish songs
Earlier, I was listening to a recording of Fish's 31/05/03 show in Tranent, UK, which included two new songs, presumably intended for his next album, 'Field Of Crows'.
Sorry to say, I wasn't particularly impressed by the unofficial preview. The new pieces, 'Numbers' and 'Zoo Class' sounded very much like tracks from a 'Fellini Days Part 2' album i.e. they have a very similar feel to the 2001 album, which itself seemed to be missing some 'spark' that could have elevated it from 'not bad' to his earlier 'very good/excellent'. A weakness of the new material is an apparent over-reliance on just repeating the title. I really hope it's only because he's still working on the lyrics!
[Update 14/2/04: See my review of 'Field Of Crows'.]
NP: Marillion, Geleen, The Netherlands, 04/05/02
5 October, 2003
NP: Enigma - MCMXCaD
Heh. I have happy memories of this one, which I'm not about to share with the world ;)
I picked up the 'Limited Edition' CD in a sale yesterday. It includes four 'bonus' remixes of tracks from the standard album, but I'm not convinced that they add much to what is already a nicely self-contained package.