Wednesday, September 27, 2006

DVD Review

Lord of War (2005), dir. Andrew Niccol

"For as long as I can remember I always wanted to be a gunrunner!"

If Martin Scorsese had directed a film about a guiltless gunrunner called Yuri Orlov it might have started something like that. Moral responsibility? Who cares? This is a film, entertain me!

At the outset Orlov claims that he is not going to tell us (the audience) a pack of lies to make us like him, he says, "I'm just gonna tell you what happened." This is a problem. When first person narration is done well, the film reflects the character. Unfortunately, Niccols makes Orlov too transparent a narrator for this to be the case. Niccols seems more interested in the statistics he litters the film with than he is in creating a compelling story to put them in. For that, you need characters and their lies; this film has too many facts.

What Lord of War amounts to is an interesting political lecture on the business of gunrunning, though Mark Steel would have certainly included more jokes. For a supposed satire the film is surprisingly dry. I think I laughed twice. Dr. Strangelove doesn’t pull any punches and it’s hilarious as a result.

A major problem is that Niccols doesn’t seem sure where he stands on the issues his film addresses. He never allows the viewer to indulge in the sense of fun and gleeful indulgence Orlov’s job allows him. Nor, when it comes to delivering him his inevitable comeuppance, does the film have any satirical bite, seemingly, for fear of turning off the casual Friday night audience. In that respect Lord of War is similar to Niccol’s biggest success to date, The Truman Show. The sense of an interesting idea that falls short in execution is fast becoming a Niccols trademark.

There is a really good film about this subject waiting to be made: a darker more incisive film than Lord of War dares to be. Mark this one up as a missed opportunity.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Album Review

Black Holes and Revelations, by Muse

Epic sounds, prog rock influences, excellent musicianship and beautiful production. Given the current trend toward simplicity and ‘keeping it real’ this album dares to be different, which is to be admired. However, there is still something missing… and I think I know what it is.

Any album this BIG – Bellamy’s expansive guitar work, souring lead vocals and multi-tracked vocal harmonies – is bound to invite comparison to the kings of rock theatricality, Queen. Black Holes and Revelations offers a glimpse of what Queen might have sounded like if their obsessions had been death, Christianity and 6th form politics, opposed to bicycles, good old fashioned lover boys and whatever it was Bohemian Rhapsody was about.

Queen never took themselves too seriously whereas Muse often do. Bellamy’s lyrics are not oblique or articulate enough to forego a smattering of light-heartedness, as evidenced on Muse’s previous album, Absolution, which reached for a dark, introspective, Radiohead vibe, but settled on a naff, whiny, teenage false start. How can you be so serious when you have so little to say?

Thankfully, Black Holes and Revelations is not nearly as grey as Absolution, and, unsurprisingly, it is when hints of colour creep into the mix that the album shines. Black Holes ups the anti on all of Muse’s previous efforts by exploring avenues of musical style they had not previously ventured into.

Track one is Take a Bow, little more than an overblown and overlong introduction. It builds towards… not a lot, and just to further emphasise the fact it fizzles out into static at the end. This track stands alone as a typical Muse opener, seemingly wanting to invoke the apocalypse through volume alone.

Then we get the good stuff. First up is Starlight, a conscious attempt on the part of the band to make a radio friendly single, and in that aim they were successful. I have heard this track described, not inaccurately, as Keane-like: it is driven by a catchy piano hook and love song-ish lyrics, but black holes, spaceships, and guitars elevate it. The next track is Supermassive Black Hole, the album’s lead single and probably its best song. Sung in falsetto, evoking Prince, this is "proto-rock robot funk" of the highest order. Map of the Problematique is enjoyable Depeche Mode sounding Goth-pop, and Soldier’s Poem is a pleasant little ditty, the only quieter song on the album.

The second half of the album is much weaker and contains few highlights, the only standout being the electronic stomp of City of Delusion.

Undoubtedly the album’s centrepiece and the moment it builds towards is Knights of Cydonia, which encompasses all the things the album does well, along with all the elements it does not do well. The good: the ‘Knights’ the title refers to are the four horseman of the apocalypse, and Cydonia is an area on the surface of Mars. This exhibits a wholly appropriate sense of the absurd. But then you have the bad: Queen styled multi-tracked harmonies, which build to a riff Brian May would have... got rid of.

Far from a bad album, but not a classic either, a nine point score in NME had me expecting more. That said, I think I would rather have a dozen Muse-a-likes reaching for the stars and falling short than listen to Arctic Monkeys ramble on about stuff that reminds me just how dull this planet can be.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Music Album

Deltron 3030, by Dan the Automator and Del the Funky Homosapian

Why rap music done properly is THE musical form of the 21st century.

In a world moving so fast it seems apt that lyrics be delivered with the same rapidity, pulling inspiration, imagery and ideas from everywhere – science fiction, theology, politics, comic books, astronomy, computers… creating something original in the process.

Quick fire words. One after another. Uncommon combinations of an unexpected variety. Rules broken. New laws made. No morose over-analysis or self-important statements. Just ideas. A great thought passed over and on and onto the next one.

Samples too are another way of juxtaposing and bringing together all manner of sounds and images: "Two turntables and a microphone!"

All played over heavy drums and bone-rattling bass: space age sounds, lasers, bleeps, echoes, drones, loops, noise, scratching.

"Sonically sparking brain cells till they’re sparkling"

The ultimate in post-modernism.

A reminder of how much stuff is out there. A galaxy of potential contained in a few bars.

Less of a music album, more a sonically produced film experience.

Positive Contact indeed.

Monday, September 04, 2006

V Festival 2006 - Chelmsford

First written on Monday 21st August 2006 and revised subsequently

The aches and the pains will fade with time and the music and my appreciation of it will only grow.

My overall feeling at the minute, having just returned from the festival, is one of fatigue: tiredness bordering on exhaustion. Part of the festival experience I did not anticipate was the way it doubles as an endurance test. You want to do as much as possible but you need to stay cogent enough to enjoy it and make the most - it’s a tricky balancing act - one that Joe and I managed perfectly.

Saturday 19th August 2006

It was all about Saturday. Saturday was when all the main acts where on. We got into the arena at about 1 o’clock, had something to eat, got some drinks, then headed to the front of the main stage where we stayed all day. “Want to be at the front for Radiohead, Beck, and Bloc Party?” “Hell yeah! I’d even suffer through The Magic Numbers!”

First up were The Dead 60, an entertaining warm-up. The best bit: when one of the band started playing their guitar with a drumstick. Tap-tastic!

The Divine Comedy were a welcome addition to the list of bands I knew I wanted to see. Neil Hannon played his role perfectly, fronting a musical mixture of mythology and the mundane while exuding a quiet Irish charisma that made the whole crowd smile.

Next up were The Magic Numbers, who are pushed as champions of the kind of sunny, warm vibe The Divine Comedy ease. Not even in the same league. They played a limp and lifeless set and lacked any kind of stage presence doing it. How does a band this bad get so big? Also, I know this is supposed to be a ROCK festival, but given the mild mannered image they try to permeate the front guy’s frequent swearing grated.

Bloc Party

Silent Alarm was one of my favourite albums of last year. Bloc Party were without a doubt, the most interesting band to emerge from the glut of indie rockers who came of age in 2005. Their live performance didn’t disappoint.

The band’s main source of energy stems from their drummer and his peerless 1000BPM style: as expected, his was an exceptional performance.

What I didn’t know about was their impassioned, energetic front man, Kele, who worked an already enthusiastic crowd into a frenzy. I shouted myself horse singing along and cheering, and was close enough to see the massive smile on his face, loving every single second, totally in tune with what his people wanted.


“Where the guitars at?” A crowd favourite, no doubt. Not my cup of tea but as far as doing what they do their performance was faultless, and being involved in a crowd clearly enjoying it all - seemingly every person there knew all the words to their songs - made the performance much more enjoyable than I thought it would be.


Fantastic! I love Beck. This really was a show. Fun, fun, fun. I smiled all the way through this.

Listening to Beck live for the first time I was reminded of listening to Beck on CD for the first time. There is an experimental, genre-blending playfulness at work, something he carried even further on stage – who else would think of turning Sexx Laws into a slow soulful jam – it takes some getting used to, but by the end of his set he’d won the whole crowd over.

The performance didn’t begin with the band playing their instruments and Beck singing live – no, that would be far too obvious – it started with a set of puppets, made to look like Beck and his band, ‘miming’ to a playback of Beck’s breakthrough single, Loser. Then the band took to the stage and took up the song - the puppets remained, continuing to mimic the band.

What followed was a carnival of music, touching on more musical genres than I care to name. His band, dressed in all manner of retro-hipster clothing, provided the perfect backdrop and backing for the Hip-Hop-Jazz-Folk-Electro-Pop-Prince of weird do what he does best.

They started by playing the high-octane, up-tempo chart-hits, the sun almost departed, this was the moment that felt most like being at a ROCK show, largely due to the HUGE bass on most of the tracks. Crazy dancing guy provided a focus and seemingly boundless energy.

Then Beck strapped on a harmonica, grabbed his acoustic guitar and slowed everything down, playing a few highlights from his album, Sea Change.

A playful dinner table romp through Clap Hands followed, then Beck and the band left the stage.

At this point Beck had the crowd watching a recorded video of his puppets, pretending to be the band, acting all manner of infantile, it was enjoyed by all: Baudrillard would have been proud.

They came back on then went off again, twice more before the end of their set, changing guises each time they did. But Beck saved his best for last. A CLASSIC rendition of a classic track from Odelay - I was stunned at how well the band performed this track live, different parts to it, and drum breaks, and everyone totally in sync throughout… even with the crowd participation.

“C’mon, say it with me now… WHERE IT’S AT!!!”


The best band on the planet. Magic from start to finish. I’m going though the light gate – “I said more power dammit!” Their set took me someplace else for the duration. I’m not sure where it was but I know I can’t wait to visit again.

I have relatively little to say about Radiohead without resorting to over-abundant hyperbole, and I think I just pulled that card for Beck, anyway. Their performance was fantastic! I suppose the highest compliment I can pay is to say that I don’t have words enough to even begin to attempt to describe it. It was all about the performance and the experience of seeing and hearing the music in that moment from as close to the main stage as it was possible to get. Amazing!

Sunday 20th August 2006

Faced by a choice of bands neither of us had heard of we went for a band called Dogs. When in doubt go for the band with the best name. Choice made. Black suits, black ties, white shirts: an indie-punk band in the same vein as The Libertines, but lacking some of their sophistication. They ran through a loud, repetitive set. It was pretty good.

Lilly Allen drew a BIG crowd, or so it seemed, in the confines of a tent. We were stuck at the back. She played some enjoyable pop music. She was followed by Bic Runga, who was mostly enjoyable. No doubt she has a strong voice, but the songs were all a bit too similar, and the compositions a bit too ‘thin’ for my tastes.

Paul Weller

Showed the young wiper-snappers exactly how it’s done. Energetic and powerful, driving the crowd in a way no man his age has any right to. A Town Called Malice was the only The Jam song he played and it got the response you would expect. His set started well and got better and better and better. Seemed like a top geezer as well putting the decidedly weak Hard-Fi, who preceded him on stage, to shame. “C’mon, lets have it then!”

Then, back to the tent to see Rufus Wainwright. Very powerful voice. Good acoustic guitar and piano playing. Excellent version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah in duet with his sister.

Groove Armada where the final headliner. The crowd was crazy for this. Loads of energy. Good visualisations The kind of music that prompts lots of movement. I sweated my ass off. “Make some noise!” Believe me, everyone did. A great way to end my first festival experience.

The Mark Steel Lectures: Charles Darwin

I daresay most people are already familiar with the basic story of Charles Darwin. Watching the Mark Steel Lectures recently, the show filled in some interesting details I hadn’t encountered before. I thought I’d share some of them here:

Charles Darwin was born on the same day as Abraham Lincoln, February 12th 1809

Darwin conducted his primary research and devised his theory of evolution and natural selection during the five-year voyage of the HMS Beagle.

He did not become the ship’s naturalist until several months into the voyage. Initially Darwin was appointed the unpaid position of gentleman’s companion. Social stipulations of the time dictated it was not proper for people of different social standings to converse with one another. One such divide fell between crew and captain; the captain could give orders but not talk on serious matters – such as politics and religion – with any of his crew. FitzRoy, Captain of the Beagle, invited Darwin onto the ship so he would have someone to talk to.

When it was revealed that Darwin devised his groundbreaking ideas during his time spent onboard the Beagle, FitzRoy was rapped with guilt, knowing, had he not invited Darwin onto his boat, the world would have been spared the horror of his theory of evolution and natural selection. FitzRoy took to running around London with a bible shouting, "this is the truth, this is the truth!" He subsequently committed suicide, slitting his throat.

Darwin himself had anxieties concerning his theories. Petrified of changing everything about the way everyone thought about the world, he went 25 years without showing his findings to anyone. This time was spent buried in research, plugging every hole he could fathom, knowing his writing would be scrutinised and attacked from every conceivable angle, almost wanting to find fault.

In 1858 two major events happened to prompt him to publish his work. First, his 10-year-old daughter died, which signalled the death-knell of his Christianity. Second, he received a letter from a friend asking for advice about how he should act on findings not dissimilar to Darwin’s own.

When he approached his publisher with his earth-shattering papers the publisher was disinterested, unable to see a commercial market. He told Darwin what people were interested in nowadays was Pigeons: "you should write a book about pigeons."

The Origin of the Species was published in 1859. The Descent of Man followed in 1878.

"Darwin’s genius was to look at the same world as everyone else and see something completely different."

However, I must stress that Darwin’s theory of evolution is only a theory, and not necessary true.