Monday, December 31, 2007

End Of Year Round Up

It's that time of the year again kids! As in, the end of it. So that means I am morally obligated to present you with a list, culled directly from my arse, of the best music, games and whatnot that have crossed my path in 2007.

Normally I'd start off with a TV section, but I haven't actually had a TV this year and so most I've what I've watched has been old stuff on DVD. However I will make a few quick notes:

Biggest Downturn in Quality:
Dr. Who
This years season started and ended with a bang but went through a long lull in the middle. A sad thing to happen to a show that was my favourite for the previous two years running.

Biggest Upturn in Quality:
Lost
This got the biggest downturn in quality award last year, because of the execrable first six episodes of season 3. Fortunately they pulled things right back on track, and it ended up as the best thing going on TV this year.

Best Game
Portal

Bioshock is pretty good too, although I don't know when or if I'll get around to finishing it.

Icewind Dale 2 Award For The Best Game I Bought But Will Probably Never Finish:
Final Fantasy XII
I just can't find the time to sit through all those interminable cutscenes, when the reward for doing so is some frustrating, unfun gameplay. But of course, it's still Final Fantasy, so I constantly think about going back to it.

Best Books:
Neil Gaiman - Fragile Things
Stephen Donaldson - Fatal Revenant

Best Movie:
Sunshine

Best Albums:
Nine Inch Nails - Year Zero
Tomahawk – Anonymous
Shining – Halmstad
Wolves in the Throne Room – Two Hunters
The Dillinger Escape Plan – Ire Works
Boris – Rainbow
P J Harvey – White Chalk

A lot of these I only bought recently, so no posts exist for them yet.

The NIN album deserves special mention, because of Trent's savvy use of the ARG to promote the album and enhance it's concept, which nicely captured the zeitgeist of 2007's global situation.

Best Album That Actually Came Out Last Year:
Isis – In The Absence of Truth

Best Album That Actually Came Out Ages Ago, But Is Still Fucking Awesome:
Nightwish – Once

Biggest Disappointment:
Nothing that came out this year really caused me to wail in dismay, but both Radiohead's In Rainbows and Nightwish's Dark Passion Play let me down a little from the high expectations I had for them.

Trent Reznor Award For The Best Album That Was Supposed To Come Out This Year But Didn't:
In a year when Trent released a new album, a new DVD, a remix album and played three concerts in Sydney it would be bit uncharitable to give this award to him again (although technically I still could, for the Closure DVD), so for the first time ever this award will go to someone else:

Opeth – For the new album and the DVD version of The Roundhouse Tapes.

Most Overrated Band:

Within Temptation. It's Evanescence with Kelly Clarkson singing. Why does everyone love this shit?

Worst Song By A Good Musician Who Should Have Known Better:
Tarja Turunen covering Alice Cooper's 'Poison'.
I was going to buy her solo album until I heard this.

Least Convincing 'Former' Junkies:

Velvet Revolver

Runner Up:
Phil Anselmo

Best Concerts:
This year I was genuinely blessed to attend a truly outstanding concert almost every other month. In no particular order, the following concerts all totally blew my mind:
Tool
Suffocation
Isis
Secret Chiefs 3
Boris
Peeping Tom
Nick Cave and Grinderman

Boringist Concert:

Sunn O)))

Best Onstage Bottling:

Jet at the Big Day Out

See you next year everyone. I.e. tomorrow!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Merry Festivus

Happy holidays everyone, don't expect to see much appearing here for the next couple of weeks!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Close To Euphoria

Collide – Live at the El Ray

A friend once remarked to me that while he really liked Placebo's albums, he felt that they didn't generate quite the energy that the songs required on record and that it would be much better to see them live. I agreed but as it turned out, Placebo are a terrible live band with even more lacklustre on stage than on their albums. Collide's albums have always given me a similar feeling of unfulfilled potential so it's not much of a surprise that Collide's live album is disappointingly tepid.

Collide's albums Chasing the Ghost and Some Kind of Strange are very good but they always leave me feeling that despite the musical talent displayed, there's some subtle failure to make the deep emotional connection that defines great music. I hoped that in a live performance they might remedy that deficiency but once again I must sadly note that in fact, performing live only exacerbates the problem.

There's a lot of good things about Live at the El Ray mind. The setlist is a nice greatest hits collection, and they've very skilfully arranged the purely electronic, industrial songs for an analogue rock band format. However maybe it's because the backing electronics enslave them to a click, or maybe it's because vocalist Karin (I refuse to type the cutesy industrial alternate caps spelling) sounds as though she's either extraordinarily nervous or high as a kite, there's definitely a lot lacking in the performance department, and this is a pity because they're so close to being truly great, and maybe all it would take to get them there is just a bit less stiffness.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Just Remember My Face When I See You In Hell

The Power and the Glory – Call Me Armageddon

Listening, at long last, to the final album in the little package of albums that began by getting me into Converge coincidentally comes at a time when I'm getting a little tired of hardcore. There's something about the earnestness and lack of subtlety that makes it less appealing to me than a good metal album.

Having said that I still liked Call Me Armageddon a lot. Once again these guys are a band that have drunk deep from Converge's well of inspiration (Converge vocalist Jacob Bannon even did the cover artwork), but they do it well and with a few twists of their own to add to the style. Most of the tracks on the album are two minute long volcanic explosions of hardcore brutality with guitars thrashing out the grinding, arrhythmic riffs in the style that Converge made popular aside indecipherably screeched vocals, behind which incredibly powerful drums pummel away like a landslide. The whole effect is one of impressively controlled insanity and it comes as a surprise then that when they segue into the occasional mellow song they display admirable restraint and gentleness.

These guys are a great band who have won me over even though this is not what I am usually in the mood for these days and it's a pity that a quick investigation of their myspace page implies that they may now be defunct.

To Die In Battle Divine

Black Dahlia Murder – Nocturnal

Other than my intentional forays into the music of the genre's seminal instigators, I don't think I've listened to a straight up black metal album for quite some time. As with other genres that espouse a deliberately simplified, stripped back form (punk, industrial) the practitioners eventually got bored and expanded or merged their music with other styles. Every black metal album I've heard of recent years is prefixed or suffixed by a qualifier: ambient black metal, blackened thrash, polka metal and so on.

The Black Dahlia Murder's take on the genre is different again. While the drumming and vocals are clearly black metal through and through and the visual aesthetic of the band is also a fit, the production is so clean and slick that Euronymous probably stirred restlessly in his grim, frostbitten grave when Nocturnal went gold (well, more so than usual anyway) and the catchy, melodic guitar hooks are more the kind of thing you'd find in a heavy thrash band (I'm put in mind of Arch Enemy), than the minimal droning riffs of Burzum. And maybe it's just their hair cuts, but somehow I keep getting a bit of an emo vibe from these guys.

Nevertheless if you're not too much of a purist the result is some damn good ear candy. Can you ask any more from a metal album than brutally heavy rhythms, diabolically wild guitar solos and literate but sociopathic lyrics screamed by someone sounding like a demoniac? The Black Dahlia Murder are a perfect example of good pop-metal; the production is high quality and the songs are as catchy and accessible as anything Jack Johnson ever wrote (but with all those boring fifths nice and flattened!) yet the melodies, aesthetic and energy are all genuinely evil. It's good fun stuff and I'm a bit annoyed that I missed my chance to see them play last month while I was overseas (damn you for ruining my holiday Dillinger Escape Plan and Meshuggah!)

Here's 'What A Horrible Night To Have A Curse' from Nocturnal:

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Nerd Links Day

If your day job involves software at all then you probably want to be reading The Daily WTF, it's fucking hysterical.

But even funnier is Zero Punctuation at The Escapist, easily the best video game reviews I've ever read.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Burn The Spirits Of Cold, That Travel Through My Soul

Opeth – Orchid

And at long last we have finally come to the end of my traversal of Opeth's back catalogue. Orchid is their first album, and my disappointment with their second release Morningrise meant that my expectations were low. Fortunately it turns out that, while Orchid is nowhere near as accomplished as their mid and late period masterpieces, it's still ranks favourably in their oeuvre.

Most of the songs fit into the standard Opeth style. Long compositions formed of baroque death metal riffs alternating with moody acoustic passages. This album differs because there's still some clear roughness to the performances, production and songwriting when compared to later albums, but the passion shines through and delivers a collection of solid, enjoyable metal songs.

Two tracks stand out for special mention. 'Silhouette' is a short piece for solo piano, featuring some very impressive playing by original drummer Anders Nordin, a type of song that they've never done since and which caused me to remark sadly that there's not enough real piano in metal (a wish that was fulfilled in a most satisfying manner recently by the new Dillinger Escape Plan album, but more on that later). Secondly 'Under The Weeping Moon' stands out as one of the best songs they've ever done, most notably for it's moody ambient breakdown in the middle.

Opeth's artful compositional wizardry has always been the first thing that comes to mind when I justify my love for them, but even back in 92 when those skills were still being developed they excel all the same because of their excellent sense of mood. Despite all Akerfeldt's talk of 'evilness' the music as a whole, even the heaviest parts, is laden with a romantic melancholy for which the brutal death metal image is just a façade. The fusion of the genre with such an antithetical feeling is something that no other band I've heard has pulled off. And when you combine that with the writing genius that Akerfeldt later developed, why you have a series of albums made of pure win and metal!

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Sing! My Angel Of Music!

Nightwish – End of an Era

As previously mentioned on this blog, the band Nightwish underwent a drama filled change of lead woman a couple of years back, and in true ghoulish twenty first century media fashion they have documented it on DVD. We don't quite get to see the look on Tarja's face and the tears in her eyes when she realises she's been ditched, but they've recorded their last concert with her (she was fired immediately afterwards) and included a documentary of the last few weeks of the tour, complete with ominous title cards saying 'X days until Helsinki concert...' and full of retroactively ironic statements by Tarja about her perceived future with the band.

The documentary is a little weird for that reason but fortunately the concert footage is fantastic, despite the best efforts of an obviously demented director whose passion for ill advised post production effects (overlayed flames, slo mo, etc.) is remarkable in it's lameness. Fortunately the performance still shines through. In fact, this DVD makes me incredibly sad that when I see Nightwish in February Tarja won't be with them. I'm sure the new singer will do fine but I very much doubt that she'll generate the same stage presence as Tarja displays here.

Nightwish's stage show is full of spectacle: Rammstein style pyrotechnics, huge video screens and all the over emoting of metal and opera combined, but even that is overwhelmed by the power of their music, which rocks and stomps it's way into the category of unbelievable awesomeness and beyond. Highlights include the old school singles 'Wishmaster' and 'Ever Dream' as well as 'The Siren' and their cover of Pink Floyd's 'High Hopes' (both of which I posted as videos in my review of Once). Perhaps best of all their version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Phantom of the Opera', which confirms my long held suspicion that that song was always supposed to be done metal.

I think this disc would probably make a great drinking game. Drink every time one of the other band members visibly snobs Tarja onstage, drink for every shot of a teenybopper goth chick crying in the audience, drink every time Tarja changes outfits and I'm sure the astute viewer could think of more.

Here's 'Phantom of the Opera':

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

1001 Albums Number 16

Billie Holiday – Lady In Satin

This is another one that I've been looking forward to. Even though I'm unfamiliar with Billie Holiday's music she's (in)famous enough to have caught my attention more than a few times in the past.

Although she's considered a jazz singer this album had far more in common with Frank Sinatra's In The Wee Small Hours than say Duke Ellington or Thelonious Monk. In fact on the two albums Holiday and Sinatra perform three of the same songs.

The arrangements are very similar to what is found on Sinatra's albums - sad, swooning strings submissively complement the vocals while other jazz instrumentation quietly keeps restrained time in the background. And, just like with the Sinatra albums, I found these arrangements to be dead boring. Fortunately this isn't as much of a disaster on Lady in Satin as it was for old Frank, as the album is easily redeemed by Holiday's voice.

Where Sinatra cooed pathetically with less convincing pathos than Bumblebee Man from The Simpsons, Holiday's distinctive singing contains genuine depth and the sadness that a life of abuse and drug addiction had given her is inescapable. While I may turn my nose up at many aspects of this album that I normally judge music on (songwriting, originality), it would be incredibly heartless for anyone to not appreciate something so honestly soulful...

Friday, December 07, 2007

There Will Be Cake!

Half-Life 2: Episode 2 and Portal

It's taken a long time but Valve have finally released the next episode of Half-Life, more than a year after the last one. It's a pretty sorry attempt at an episodic release scheme but when the results are this detailed and polished it's hard to complain that they've been taking their time to get it right.

There's not much to say about this instalment that I didn't say about the first episode, as the developers have found a winning formula and with fair reason see no reason to deviate from it. Expect lots of frenzied battles in a wide variety of locales, a spot of logical puzzle solving, and plenty of biffing stuff about with your gravity gun, just like in its predecessors.

While the Half-Life Episodes series has not thus far introduced much in the way of new gameplay, I am very pleased with their main contribution to gamedom: the use of actual real believable characters who look and act like like actual human beings, instead of ridiculous action movie clichés. For once I actually gave a shit about what might happen to the supporting cast during the cutscenes, which is something that I don't recall ever feeling while playing a game before (there were a few games that came close (some of the Final Fantasies, Planescape Torment) but the mechanics of gameplay always ensured that nothing permanent would happen to any of your party members. Yeah, I'm not one of those people who cried when Aeris died. She was pretty boring really...)

Fortunately for the long-windedness of this post the new episode was released in a package with a unique new game, Portal. Using the same engine and gameplay as Half-Life, and loosely set in the same fictional world, the game puts you in control of a sketchily defined character trapped in some kind of research facility and forced to complete a series of puzzles using a gun that creates portals that you can use to teleport from one place to another.

It's a short, clever puzzle game, with a smart but simple plot that is revealed a little at a time as you explore. Definitely worth noting is the game's weird, perverse humour. The player is guided by a sinister, omnipresent observer who's gentle, upbeat manner is belied by the dangerous situations that it's forcing you into (“We regret to inform you that our last statement was an outright falsehood. We promise to always tell you the truth in the future.”) and the game as a whole has a general atmosphere of gleefully sarcastic whimsy that I, and apparently almost everyone else expressing their opinion on the internet at the moment, find delightfully refreshing.

It's great to see a successful, established game developer doing something like this. A short, smart, cheap game that doesn't wear out it's welcome fills a much neglected niche in a market dominated by huge, expensive blockbusters. Also, any game that features the vocal talents of Mike Patton as a gibbering ball of hate is already made of win and awesome.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

When Does Ellen Come On?

Reaper

So I watched the first half dozen episodes of the new TV show Reaper, a decision made irrationally and almost involuntarily based on early reviews comparing it to Buffy. It certainly had a great premise: on his 21st birthday our protagonist, a boring young man named Sam, finds out that his parents promised his soul to Satan before he was born. Now that he's reached the age of majority, he must work off his parent's debt by becoming the Devil's bounty hunter - catching and returning souls that have escaped from hell.

Unfortunately Reaper, at least in the first few episodes, fails completely to capitalise on such a great premise, instead quickly finding a generic formula and falling into a dull routine. This would be tolerable if the writing and acting were sharp enough to keep it entertaining but sadly the show also suffers from a fatal lack of wit. The characters are unbelievably generic, the attempt at a wacky sidekick (a guy who acts out a pretty straight impersonation of Jack Black) might have helped if his wackiness contained a trace of genuine humour, and the less said about the others... well there is nothing to say about them because they're so boring and two dimensional. But the nail in the coffin for the show was the romance, in which Sam pines for his workmate Andi, which over the course of a mere six episodes became so offensively inane that I had no choice but to cancel my bittorrents in disgust.

Sam spends a decent percentage of each episode trying to gauge Andi's feelings for him and/or smooth over the latest misunderstanding that has arisen between them because of his secret other life. At no time does Andi evince any hint of a personality or an opinion of her own, merely making puppy dog eyes when Sam breaks a date with her after work and remaining a blank cipher, both to her suitor and to the viewer, as to what she's really thinking or feeling. If I saw someone behaving this way in the real world I would shake my head and cluck disapprovingly at her cruel and manipulative toying with this poor sap who's quite obviously infatuated with her, but of course that's not what the writers intend us to see. Andi is a perfect example of this peculiar American TV/ Hollywood creation, the artificial love interest: a character (invariably a woman) who exists only to stand in as an example of chaste virtue, and to be used by a primary character to learn a valuable lesson about honesty, or some other fatuous homily. Aside from the obvious crimes against characterisation that this approach entails, it's offensive for two more reasons. Firstly the creepy crypto-chauvinism it implies (the perfect woman is completely passive and virginal), not to mention the numerous opportunities it provides for the writers to massage conservative America's madonna/whore complex (contrast Andi with the women Satan sends to tempt Sam with, who (gasp) have tattoos and make the first move in trying to kiss him). And secondly because of the nauseatingly Disney moral of twue wuv that it's expressing.

But there is a reason that I made it through six whole episodes, and that's because Reaper does have one genuinely great redeeming feature in the person of Satan as played by Ray Wise (who of course we all remember as Leland Palmer from Twin Peaks). Appearing as a distinguished, tanned, well dressed older man, Wise steals every scene with his delicate balancing of the character's cheerful, friendly outer persona and his true nature as the malevolent manifestation of all evil. He is also apparently the only character which brings out any trace of wit in the writers. Sadly he (and the concept) are not enough to redeem the show. I've since shifted my attention to Pushing Daisies, which has it's own problems, but pleases me much more on a moral and philosophical level.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

As Your Attorney, Your Friend, And Your Brother… I Strongly Suggest That You Get Yourself A Better Lawyer

Twin Peaks Season 2 Part 1

It's taken a long time but finally the second season of Twin Peaks is out on DVD, and as it happens there's good reason that no one's too excited about it. The first season was a mere eight episodes, all of them taut with tension and mood. It was buoyed along by a mystery driven plot which, while it couldn't be expected to really go anywhere (this is a David Lynch project after all), kept things moving and interesting. The show's best qualities were its moody setting, colourful characters and infrequent but brilliant black humour.

Sadly things rapidly declined in the second season. The plot threads began to wander and the weird gimmicky characters outlasted their welcome. That said there are still many high points to be found, the unique mood of the peculiarly Lynchian isolated mountain town, where the surrounding forest is home to supernatural creatures both wonderous and diabolical, is still showcased frequently. The season's midpoint climax episode (the unmasking and capture of Laura Palmer's killer) is riveting watching, and scattered elsewhere through the season are many brilliant scenes, most memorably this one, probably the creepiest thing I've ever seen on TV (although I'm not sure how well it will come across in a grainy out of context youtube video):



Sadly, I doubt I will bother to get the second part of season two. With no central plot thread remaining after the mystery was solved the story devolved into pointless wandering. But it's still remarkable to see just how much influence this series had on those that followed it, which ranged from The X-Files to Lost and include many others. These shows are quite clearly the direct successors to this one in atmosphere, style and in their deliberately cruel manipulation of their audiences with mysteries that are never truly meant to be solved (I swear they even reuse half the music from Twin Peaks in Lost).

1001 Albums – Numbers 14 and 15

So we've got a couple of these to catch up on. First up is Little Richard and his literally titled album Here's Little Richard. The style of music is early rock and roll with a swinging boogie feel, but the main focus of the songs is Little Richard's distinctive wailing voice. He's a great performer and there's no denying the energy and showmanship he exudes, but the arrangements that he's put in tend to be predictable and lifeless. Sure, it's hard not to enjoy 'Tutti Frutti', but the rest of the album drags more than a little, save for when the sax gets a chance to blast out a wild, impassioned solo, or when Little Richard gets to unleash a few of his trademark howls.

Next up is Tito Puente's Dance Mania. I generally disapprove of listening to dance music without doing any actual dancing, but in the interests of science I did my best to give this album a chance anyway. The dance in this particular instance is of the latin variety, encompassing subgenres such as cha cha and mambo, and numerous others that I won't even try to pretend I can name. Like all dance music it suffers from an excess of faked enthusiasm, especially in the vocals, when listened to at home on headphones rather than in its intended setting (a busy social environment supplied with psychoactive substances). Nevertheless once I got past that and really paid attention I was impressed by the musicianship, especially of the jazz style horns. There's actually a lot more going on here musically than my initial sneering dismissal of it as Ricky Martin's drunk, abusive parent, and it's certainly not possible to listen to without tapping your foot. In fact, maybe I should try starting latin dance lessons again...

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Random Metal Article of the Day

An article about Californian black metal band Wolves in the Throne Room at Slate. I like to see semi-obscure, interesting bands like this profiled in the mainstream media.

And yes, they are a pretty awesome band. I haven't gotten around to getting their album yet, on account of the options for doing so being slim. In this age of digital downloads mail order feels like a waste of time, and I haven't seen their stuff in the local stores either. I should have spent more time in music stores while I was overseas...

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Random Meme of the Day

This blog am much good English having!

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Friday, November 30, 2007

Whoooooooooaaaaaah Whooooooooooahhhhhh Whooooooaaaaaaaaaah

Various Artists - Forged In Steel

While on a recent music purchasing outing I found myself laden with this free compilation, published by Roadrunner Records. Normally I hiff this stuff in the bin as fast as possible, but my curiosity was stimulated by the chance to actually hear the mediocre mall-metal that the kids are a-hipping and a-hopping to today.

We start out in solid enough territory, with Machine Head's 'Now I Lay Thee Down', a song I have already declared my fondness for on this very blog, and Megadeth's 'Sleepwalker', which doesn't need to be described any further than to say that it's 'a Megadeth song', but definitely a decent listen.

Later on there are a few other bands that I found moderately entertaining. Porcupine Tree, Pain and Daath were all pleasing (the former two reminding me that the genre of industrial metal does still exist), and the last track by Sanctity, which I can't actually remember anything about at all. I guess that means at least that it wasn't terrible.

Most of this shit is pretty dreadful though. At track three we encounter Within Temptation, a band that takes the Evanescence's gimmick, removes even that bands small traces of subtlety and sophistication, and makes up for it with extra shitty rapping.

Things don't get any better from there. Shadows Fall, Behind Crimson Eyes and Stone Sour give me both a belated insight into the dire metalcore that the kids have made popular today and a sense of gratefulness that my aversion to radio and television has thus far mostly spared me from it. To these bands I have only one thing to say: I hope your dad finally gives you that raise in your allowance and gets off your back about succeeding in school. Maybe then you can quit your angsty, crappy kiddy metal metal band and start a better one. Even Killswitch Engage, a band that up until now was my touchstone example of shitty radio friendly metal, come off looking not so bad when compared to these shamelessly commercial appropriations of teenage angst.

Lastly we have a few bands that are just so bad that I can't even be offended by their terribleness, and merely take pleasure in marvelling at just how bad they are. Trivium are a shitty rip off of Dragonforce (or perhaps Manowar) without the decency to inherit their (few) non-sucky elements. Dragonforce themselves also have a song on this disc, which I estimate to be composed of 23% “Whooaaah's” and 76% wank solos, and arranges said elements in such a way to create a song even more gratingly awful than what I've heard of them previously.

As much of a chore as this was to listen to, I'm at least glad to know that by deliberately insulating myself from mainstream pop culture I haven't accidentally missed out on anything truly worthwhile.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

He's A God Now!

Arch Enemy - Rise of the Tyrant

Arch Enemy have blown me away with great live performances twice in a year now, and I've finally gotten around to getting some of their music on record.

At their heart Arch Enemy are a straightforward kick ass thrash band. Rise of the Tyrant bursts out of the gate ferociously and doesn't let up for the full running time of the album (save for a misguided mellow instrumental towards the end that it would be uncharitable to dwell on). The rhythm section hammers away with an energetic viciousness that more than makes up for the fact that we've all heard this kind of thing done many times before, and the raw, exposed (but polished) production gives it a punkish kind of urgency. The first guitar contrasts the thrash with more restrained, classic rock style leads that tend toward the epic and melancholy. A tasteful touch of choirs and synths is added here and there help to keep things interesting. And of course in true thrash metal tradition there's plenty of wild soloing to be found, which on this album evokes the styles of both Slash from Gunners and Terrance from Suffocation (a pairing which is much more successful than you might expect).

As is the order of the day in metal currently political allegory is all over this album, and unlike so many of their peers Arch Enemy actually know how to do a real allegory. There are few overt statements to be found, just smartly ambiguous references to the scenario of the albums title and an inspired choice of audio sample (from the movie Caligula) to open the title track.

Of course Arch Enemy's true point of difference is vocalist Angela Gossow, a petite blonde capable of grunting out death metal bellows with the best of her male counterparts. Curiously enough her voice on the album sounds less brutal than when I've heard her 'sing' live, but it's still fucking impressive! Her guttural howls may be higher in pitch than is conventional for a death metal band but there is something far eviller about this vocal style when it comes from a woman. A guy doing death metal growling is always on some level engaging in testosterone driven macho posturing, but when a woman is forcing such unholy noises out of herself, there's no question that it's all purely in the service of evil and for the glory of Satan.


Here's the official video for 'Revolution Begins':


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Milk From The Flower, Blood From The Dawn

The Smashing Pumpkins - Zeitgeist

Billy Corgan's precisely planned and calculated breakup of the Smashing Pumpkins back in 2000 was done in such a way to ensure that there was little question of a reunion at some stage in the future. The only question was when, and who would be invited back. As it happened Billy only held out for a mere seven years (I always imagine him pacing impatiently in the studio... “I wish I could reform the Pumpkins now...”) and the only other original member to return was drummer Jimmy Chamberlain (yes, the same drummer Billy had with him for all of the music he made during the Pumpkin's defunct period). And indeed, Zeitgeist sets off from the exact spot that their last album, Machina, left off from without missing a beat. The powerful, thundering drum fill that kicks off the album and the killer guitar riff (reminiscent of that of 'Bodies') that it dives straight into immediately reassure the listener that the next fifty minutes of music will be cast from a very similar mould to that of Siamese Dream or Mellon Collie. The odds of Zeitgeist surpassing or even equalling those albums were never good so no one should be surprised that it doesn't rank up there with them, and I would certainly not rate it as high as Adore either (of course my fondness for that album is atypical). The good news is that it's much better than the troubled, awkward Machina, and I'm pleasantly surprised to find that Zeitgeist is a worthwhile listen and a genuine return to form.

I have a few minor criticisms of it however. The cover art, portraying the Statue of Liberty half submerged under the waves behind a red, swollen sun, the Grim Reaper as President of the USA, Paris Hilton and other omens of disaster, would imply that the subject matter of the album would be inspired by the concerns of the world at large today, but it turns out to be just another trip down into Billy's navel (the epic album divider 'United States' would appear to be the most likely track to deal with such themes but Billy's whined refrain “What will they do with me?” shows that no matter where he looks for inspiration, he always ends up talking about himself). This approach has served him well in the past, but the fact is that Billy just isn't as miserable and angsty as he used to be and while that's great for him personally it leaves him with the same problem as many of his peers from the early Nineties grunge era who also found that their anguish was their muse, and the music lacks the passion and intensity of his earlier work. Taking a turn to the political and directing his anger at the outside world worked miracles for Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails earlier this year, and I think Billy missed an opportunity by not thinking along similar lines.

My second complaint is that the album is front loaded with it's best tracks. First single 'Tarantula' is found at track five and is a solid song in a very classic Pumpkins vein. The album begins with 'Doomsday Clock' and '7 Shades of Black', which both rock out like motherfuckers, and track three, 'Bleeding the Orchid', is easily my favourite from the album, with a combination of heaviness and Adore-style romanticism that is probably what Machina was supposed to sound like. Unfortunately such promise is unfulfilled as there's nothing later in the album that comes close to equalling those songs (even if none of it is actively bad).

But by and large Billy's talent as a composer and musician remains solid. The songs found here all play it pretty safe - there's no question that you're listening to a Smashing Pumpkins album and yet it would also be impossible to take any given song and place it with confidence as being in the style of any of their earlier albums, as they've developed their sound just enough so that Zeitgeist is not redundant. Jimmy's drums are as powerful as ever and Billy's return as a master of guitar wankery is most welcome. His trademark wild, squeally solos are as impassioned and unique as ever, especially the one that closes out the album on the otherwise mediocre track 'Pomp and Circumstances'.

It's far from their greatest album but Zeitgeist is certainly better than I'd feared it would turn out to be. Here's hoping they tour Australia for this album so that I'll finally get a chance to see the Pumpkins (in one form or another) live.

Holiday Reading

OK, now I've kind of caught up on things again, so blogging should once more be fast and furious!

While I was away, I also got to read some books:

First up was Noam Chomsky's Understanding Power. He's nuts! He's completely myopic! He wildly overstates his case in every paragraph! Some of his 'facts' are incredibly dubious*! By the time I'd finished the first couple of chapters I was totally prepared to give this book a real bashing, yet somehow by the end he'd kind of won me over. He has some pretty smart, convincing explanations for his apparent prejudice and constant America bashing, and even though I disagree with many of his conclusions, I found the worldview he presented thought provoking and indeed a useful model with which to consider political subjects. My thoughts on it really deserve more space than I have in this multi-book extravaganza post, so they will just have to wait until the next time I read something of his.

* “So in northeast Brazil, for example, which is a rather fertile area with plenty of rich land, just it's all owned by plantations, Brazillian medical researchers now identify the population as a new species with about 40 percent the brain size of human beings, a result of generations of profound malnutrition and neglect[...]” Here's the citation.

I also read Lost in Transmission, by Jonathan Harley, which I really enjoyed. It's an autobiography by the former central Asian correspondent for the ABC (Australia's version of the BBC or TVNZ) and details the years of his life spent living in India and Pakistan, reaching a climax when he reports from the front lines of America's invasion of Afghanistan. Despite it's straightforward prose (obviously written by a news reporter) and modestly direct emotional aspect (obviously written by an Aussie) it captured my attention effortlessly. On one hand there's the political and world events portrayed, which provided a surprisingly relevant counterpoint to Chomsky and in one weird moment of synchronicity, the news (reporting Pakistan's General Musharraf declaring martial law) on TV in front of me. On the other hand there's the personal side of the story, which has numerous aspects and narratives (as any honest autobiography would) and introduced me to the concept of 'teen-creep', the state of living one's life with all the lack of responsibility and maturity of a teenager until your late twenties and beyond. Good thing I don't know anyone like that!

And you'll probably be surprised to learn that I didn't realise for over two months after its release that Buffy Season 8: The Long Way Home had been published. For those not in the know/who don't give a fuck, Joss Whedon has format shifted Buffy from TV to comics and this is the first collected instalment. It's a solid enough effort (certainly miles better than season seven) and Joss takes full advantage of the new medium by upping the epic battles, violence and lesbianism. Yet despite such sound artistic development, it doesn't quite scratch the itch. The dialogue is still great and the plot and characters are developed in a satisfying way, but as with most serialised comic collections the pacing feels terrible. Five months worth of comic issues feel filled with about as much content as a one hour episode of the TV show. Nevertheless I'm still stoked to see Joss continuing the story and I am eagerly looking forward to the continuation of the series and the forthcoming resurrection of Angel.

Lastly I also finished off the recent release Fatal Revenant (make sure you pronounce the title the same way George Costanza says 'prognosis negative'!), the latest instalment of Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant fantasy saga. The series has been a favourite of mine since I was a teenager and I'm still loving it even now. It's been a three year wait since the last book and I eagerly devoured this one (only to find that this has merely replaced one cliffhanger with another that I will no doubt have to wait another three years to read the resolution of) and it cemented Donaldon's place in my list of favourite authors. Fatal Revenant was definitely heavy on exposition and low on action, a flaw I am confident will be remedied in the remaining two books in the series, but even the exposition was still absorbing to read. A little more maturity has allowed me to see past the full on angst fest of the main characters in this series to the beauty of their world that Donaldson has created to contrast it. I really must go back and read the original series again. I'm curious as to what I might get out of it this time...

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Holiday Viewing

So I got the chance to watch a few movies on the plane while I was away. I'm pretty slack at getting my arse to the actual theatre nowadays so it was good to catch up on a few recent releases that I'd missed.

At the top of the list of movies I'm annoyed at myself for missing was Stardust, based on Neil Gaiman's novel. I loved the book, but adaptations of this type rarely go well and the reviews had been lacklustre so my expectations were low. Fortunately it turned out to pretty damn good. While the movie feels free to deviate wildly from the plot of its source material, it faithfully retains the fairy tale spirit and Gaiman's unique style and mood. Plus it features some stunning visuals, proving that expensive CGI can still look good in the right hands, something I'd begun to doubt in this age of overrendered Spidermans and Fantastic Fours. My only criticism would be Claire Danes, who I found quite annoying and who also managed to be out-foxed by the almost fifty year old Michelle Pfeiffer.

Next I finally got to watch
The Simpsons Movie. As much as I loved the show in its heyday, it's recent deterioration left me without much compulsion to catch the big screen version. I'm not sorry I saw it, thankfully it isn't the worthless mockery of a once great comedy that I feared, but I certainly wouldn't recommend it. Sure it's worth a few laughs, particularly near the beginning but despite all the winks and nods to fans there's no denying that the writers lost their spirit a long time ago. Plus, I can't believe they killed Dr. Nick for no reason! Why choose to off one of their best characters (and one that has been around since nearly the beginning), and not one of the lame later additions that have mysteriously hung round for years (Like the “yeeeesss” guy. Does anyone think that shit is funny?)

Next I gave Knocked Up a try. Freaks and Geeks gives Buffy a run for its money as the best thing ever to appear on television, and Judd Apatow has made a decent career in Hollywood following the demise of that show so I had high expectations for his new(ish) film. Nevertheless, I couldn't make it through half an hour of this movie. My hatred for the characters (all of them, I couldn't decide if I loathed the snobby rich girls or the gross slobby guys more) grew so extreme that I had to calm down by watching Transformers. The gentle sounds of explosions and cheesy generic rock soundtracks washed away my misanthropic anger and sent me off to sleep before the movie was half over.

Later on I ended up watching Daywatch, an almost incomprehensible Russian sci-fi movie. Despite the ridiculous plot and overwrought acting I neither fell asleep nor turned it off in disgust before the end so on some level at least it must count as a success.

I also caught 28 Days Later and its sequel 28 Weeks Later. The first film was a perfect example of someone taking a timeworn genre (in this case the zombie film featuring political allegory) and creating something completely new from it without deviating from the established trappings of the style. I loved the first both as an action film and for its unpleasant but affecting insights into human nature. The next film was still quite watchable but lacked all the things that made the first film so good, despite the addition of many scenes of famous parts of London getting blown up and/or attacked by zombies.

Unfortunately my nineteen hour flight back to Australia was movieless, thanks to Qantas' shitty entertainment system being on the blink the whole time. At least that meant that I got through half of Moby Dick.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

I'm Back

Cornelius J. Ferryweather III may have beaten me in the end (but only with the help of his team of black hearted rogues and their gigantic fog machine that bested me in the exotic port city of Dubai!) but the important thing is to reflect on the lessons that we learned along the way. The many uplifting and enlightening experiences that I had on my journey included:
  • Getting grifted by an Indian magician in Singapore airport.
  • Being woken up by soldiers armed with automatic rifles in Singapore airport.
  • Getting grifted by dodgy electronics salesmen in New York.
  • Getting lost in the projects on Staten Island.
  • Getting grifted by strippers in Times Square.
  • Getting detained by immigration in the UK.
  • Enduring the stunning ineptitude of the Emirates ground staff in London.
  • Sitting next to Mr. Elbows McCoughsalot for twelve hours flying from London to Singapore.

But I built a lot of character!

Saturday, November 03, 2007

cucucu

"The Sugababes!" I snarl, slamming my rum and coke down on the bar.

"You simply cannot be more mistaken," says Cornelius J. Ferryweather III with a sneer, "Britney Spears' The Blackening will undoubtedly be the feel good party album of the summer."


"THE SUGABABES!" I roar, lurching unsteadily to my feet and knocking over my barstool as I do so. The bartender tells me that I need to leave, and that he's not going to ask again.

"On lead single 'Gimme Gimme Gimme' Britney channels her recent troubles into fresh artistic expression," Cornelius J. Ferryweather III states in his refined accent, "infusing her trademark bubblegum pop with a mature, earthy sexuality..."


He continues on but I am not listening. I can see the bouncers making their way to the bar, and I know that I do not have much time. "I foresee only one way to settle this...", I interrupt. "I propose a race around the world!!"

"Very well, I accept!" returns Cornelius J. Ferryweather III. "I have no doubt that my zeppelin, The August Queen Victoria, shall see me back in Sydney while you are still struggling across the Sahara in your solar powered hovercraft!"

I have no chance to reply, as I am now being carried out the door. I know not how I shall beat him, nor what perils I may face along the way, but I am steadfast in my conviction that I shall triumph in this race... AROUND THE WORLD!!!!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

...Unless They Some Smart Ass Pawns

The Wire Season One

After watching (and loving) the first season of The Shield, I was more or less obligated to tune into the similar (and even more critically lauded) The Wire. The two shows have strong similarities, both are gritty cop shows set in poor, crime ridden neighbourhoods (The Shield is set in a bad part of L.A., while The Wire takes place in Baltimore, a choice of setting that behoves the creators to make the slightly unusual choice of having an almost entirely black cast). However despite starting from similar places the shows have vastly different approaches to the genre. The Shield poses, explicitly and didactically, questions about concrete issues, mainly the attitude of 'the ends justify the means' with regards to law enforcement. The Wire is far subtler and more philosophical with it's themes, which are presented with a sophistication far beyond that of any other TV show I've seen, even in our current golden age of good TV.


Ten years ago television was the 'idiot box', the lowest form of entertainment. As a kid I was always puzzled by the far greater artistic merit attributed to film, when I perceived them both as moving pictures and could see no reason that one should be greatly different to the other. In a sense I was right. There's no reason that television should not be a medium for intelligent and enlightening story telling, but the fact remains that, with rare exceptions, no one was using it as such for a very long time. Certain shows (Buffy, The Sopranos) turned that around and now series' with long running, complex narratives are common place. Sadly this little renaissance comes at a time when broadcast television' lifespan is coming to an end, with the internet's Sword of Damocles poised delicately over its head. This era will no doubt be viewed in retrospect with a lot of nostalgia when we're all stuck watching the puerile offspring of lonelygirl on youtube or it's successor, and when we do so The Wire will no doubt be one of the touchstone examples used.


There are two halves to the first season of The Wire. In one we follow the fortunes of D'Angelo Barksdale, a rising player in his family's drug trafficking business, and his associates. In the other we watch the police investigation tasked with bringing down the gang's kingpin, D'Angelo's uncle Avon. Despite the dedication of the officers carrying out the investigation the authorities within the police department have little patience for the 'waste of resources' so our main protagonist, detective Jimmy McNulte, balances his time maintaining covert surveillance on the drug dealers while playing politics with his superiors who are constantly pushing to shut the operation down
.

On the plot level there's a lot going on, and while I have always been in the habit of watching Lost, 24 and even Buffy with one eye on the TV and the other on the internet, it's impossible to keep track of what's going on in The Wire without devoting most of your attention to the show, with it's fast paced, jargon laden dialogue and, refreshingly, it's willingness not to spell everything out for the viewer. Even a show like Lost, which has a reputation for keeping people guessing, deals out its mysteries methodically. The viewer of Lost is not meant to actually figure anything out for themselves, all will be explained (if it's going to be) by an explicit, revelatory scene or line of dialogue. The Wire, in contrast, keeps a lot of things, particularly the less important details, implied and unstated. The closing montage of the season is particularly good. Without any dialogue the point of the show is made clear, you can put as many criminals in prison as you care to, but without changing the social situation there's always going to be someone at every level of the organisation ready to step into place and carry on doing the same old thing. Sure, individuals lives and careers have been shaken up or destroyed (and one or two have even been improved), but the faceless institutions of the police force and the drug gangs remain trapped and unchanged in their perpetual war; a war which neither has any real interest in winning.


It's a downer but a great one to watch. The show lacks the gritty realness of The Shield, but makes up for it with artificial but snappy and entertaining dialogue and a plot that is never predictable. More than once I was on the edge of my seat, genuinely concerned for the fate of a sympathetic character (and they're found in both sides of the series' conflict) because the show unfolds like a novel, where plot is paramount, rather than a TV show, where a character's sudden death is more likely to occur because of the actor's contract negotiations than any dramatic reasoning.

To start with my opinion of this show was that it was good, but not as good as The Shield, but the elegant and genuinely unpredictable denouement of the season brought it all together so well that I'll happily concede that the common consensus is correct and this really is one of the best (can't say the best, that's Buffy) things ever screened on TV.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

You'll Go To Hell For What You Did

Radiohead – In Rainbows

Measured in terms of both critical and commercial success Radiohead are probably the greatest band in the world today, and having held that position for some time now they can pretty much do whatever the fuck they want, and so they are. Sitting in a comfortable financial position gives them the freedom to allow people to download their new album for a price of their choice, just to see what happens. I suspect that the commercial aspect of their decision is a little savvier than some might give them credit for. Someone asked me recently why they didn't just charge a fixed price for the album, in the nonsensical economic assumption that if you offer something for free there's no reason that anyone would give you money for it. The fact of the matter is that people now have the option of paying any value at all for the music, from nothing up through to maybe twenty pounds, (at which point you may as well just buy the forty pound hard copy version), whereas with a flat fee they have the choice of either paying the fee or nothing (i.e. getting it off soulseek). It's hard to explain without drawing a graph but my guess is that it will actually be more profitable for them this way. And even if it's not, I'm sure the expensive 2CD, 2LP boxed set will cover costs.

My box set will be arriving in December sometime, but in the meantime we have the first disc worth of material available to listen to. It was nice receiving it completely out of the blue like that, with no early reviews to give you any idea of what to expect. Take that critics! You had to wait just like everyone else!

Radiohead have never done the same thing twice but even still In Rainbows is surprising in many ways. For a start it's easily the most quiet, restrained thing they've ever done with almost no high or low hooks to latch on to. It's an album that's so minimal (especially compared to their earlier work) that it demands careful listening to really appreciate a lot of it. Thom Yorke's distinctive voice is still front and centre but Johnny Greenwood's guitars and electronica are vastly subdued compared to his normal style. Unexpectedly enough this album gives Phil Selway a chance to shine. I've always thought he was a great drummer but in the past he's always been buried by the huge musical personalities he's keeping time for. However the biggest surprise with In Rainbows however is the upbeat, positive emotional vibe of the music. Coming from the most miserable band on the planet and on the heels of Yorke's maudlin solo release it's at least as stunning as their novel distribution model.

In many ways the album is also a bit of a return to rock. The electronic and avant garde elements that have dominated their last three albums are still present but are never anything more than background to the traditional rock elements. Hell, 'Bodysnatchers' sounds like it could have been on Pablo Honey, with it's fuzzed out indie rock tone and Thom's shouted but upbeat vocals. Yet the album as a whole reminds me mostly of Amnesiac, not just because they're both albums that greatly disappointed me, but because of the wilfully obtuse, opaque nature of the songs, especially Thom's voice, which goes out of it's way to confound my melodic expectations in ways that are not necessarily satisfying to the ear. 'All I Need' from the new album reminds me a lot of 'You And Who's Army' from Amnesiac, in the way that an song that I found unsatisfying for most of its length suddenly bursts into a wonderful, soaring piano break segueing to a beautiful outro that doesn't last long enough.

At least Amnesiac contained a few songs that I really liked ('Pyramid Song' and 'Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box') but almost everything on In Rainbows leaves me with this unsatisfied feeling. I can't fault the songwriting, every song seems to have been crafted with great care and skill, but it's so minimal and subdued that it's often hard to appreciate this. I feel as though this is perhaps the bands intention. Just as they are one of the only bands with the power to do something audacious like their record-label-less free download idea, they're also one of the only bands who can make a deliberately obtuse, difficult album and expect people to have the patience to give it time and attention to grow on them. For now I'm giving In Rainbows a tentative thumbs down, as the least incredible album to date (save Pablo Honey which doesn't count) in a spectacular career, but I can't shake the suspicion that it's precisely crafted songs are going to unexpectedly unveil hidden depths some day when I'm least expecting it.

The Tears Of Snow White Sorrow

Nightwish - Dark Passion Play

Replacing the singer of a rock band is always a dangerous proposition for the remaining members. Even if said singer is not a primary songwriter they are still the public face of the band and without them the audience may well lose interest. At one end of the spectrum we have The Doors without Jim Morrison, an endeavour so unlikely to succeed that Ray Manzarek doesn't even acknowledge that they tried it. At the other you have bands that ditched legendary frontmen but still carried on to greater success, for example Black Sabbath without Ozzy or Pink Floyd without Syd Barrett. And of course there are numerous examples of the middle ground, such as Pink Floyd without Roger Waters. In 2005 Nightwish dismissed their singer Tarja Turunen (following a concert in which they, appropriately enough, covered Floyd's (post-Waters) 'High Hopes'). Dark Passion Play is their first album with their new singer Annette Olzon.

Even without the change of vocalist Nightwish would have trouble providing a worthy followup to the superb Once and coming on the heels of a lesser album Dark Passion Play and Olzon might have received a better reception, but unfortunately the new album is a bit of a step down from the achievement of Once.

The new singer is more of a rock singer (where Turunen's style was opera) and to her credit she's capable of a broader range of styles than Tarja was but she just can't measure up in terms of power. Olzon's a capable replacement but there's no denying that something has been lost with Tarja's departure.

Besides the lineup change the music has taken a rockier turn. While the heavy aspects of Once often reminded me of Rammstein the metal aspects of Dark Passion Play are thrashier in a more classic metal vein and give the guitarist and drummer opportunities to shine by showing off their ability to thunderously rock out.

The songwriting is as strong as ever. It's easy to overlook the sophistication behind the sleek, polished pop surface of things, but there's actually a lot to be impressed by in the interleaving of the different aspects of the music (metal guitars, pop rock vocals and the orchestra) and there's some genuinely impressive melodic development and harmonising that you don't see a lot of in popular music. Despite that there's definitely something missing, and I don't think it's just the change of singer. The songs simply don't seem to have the energy to match the high standards of the production and composition. Perhaps it's a little too overproduced for the rock and metal elements to have the strength they need and perhaps they just need more time to gel with their new vocalist.

Of course it would be misleading for me not to note that even though Dark Passion Play doesn't match the high standard of Once it's still a pretty good album. One of it's most notable attributes is the outstanding production of the backing orchestra. This is the most expensive album in Finnish music history, and it shows in the glorious sound of the 175(!) additional musicians assembled to provide the accompaniment. And despite my criticisms of the performance above there are still a substantial number of songs that are pulled off pretty well. 'The Islander' and 'Lost of the Wilds' provide a nice pair late in the album, the first an acoustic ballad, the second an instrumental blending standard metal elements with frenzied bohemian fiddle (a genre mashup that almost always pays big dividends). The singles, 'Bye Bye Beautiful' and 'Amaranth' are almost overwhelmed by their cheese factor but still deliver infectiousness and great chorus hooks. 'Amaranth' in particular was my first introduction to Olzon's voice and while I was at first turned off completely (“Oh my God it's the fucking Corrs!”) I was somehow reeled back in by the splendorous pop vocal line of the chorus. And there's absolutely no denying the brilliance of the opening and closing tracks. The album begins with the quarter hour epic 'The Poet and the Pendulum', which ebbs and flows through five movements of film score orchestra and rocking metal, and ends with 'Meadows of Heaven', in which vocal histrionics are unleashed over a song that puts me in mind of nothing else so much as Pink Floyd's 'High Hopes'. Bringing things full circle...

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Unbelievable Awesomeness Is Suprisingly Believable

So I was looking at this the other day, and it got me thinking about what search terms might bring the Wildebeest Asylum up as the first result on Google. I couldn't really think of any (other than obvious, dumb ones, like my name), but I tried 'unbelievable awesomeness', since that's a phrase I use frequently and one that I thought came straight out of my arsehole. Turns out that this blog is on the second page of results for that term. 'Unbelievable awesomeness' is all over the blogosphere, and I have no recollection of where I got it from.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Ha!

Today's random funny news post has nothing to do with animals or India.

A Norwegian politician advocates legalising illicit music downloads. Enslaved reply by stealing his sheep.

In trve black metal fashion they released the sheep to freedom in the mountains, where it can now forever roam twixt the blackened peaks bathed in the dark light of the frostbitten wintermoon, preserving the spirit of metal within its black unbeating heart.

Friday, October 26, 2007

1001 Albums - Number 13

Machito – Kenya

Given the title (and the explicitly ethnic cover art) I was expecting something very African from Kenya, perhaps even more so than Palo Congo, so I was surprised to find that (to my ears at least) this album sounded about as African as the queen in blackface. This is really just me speaking from my modern presumptions of course, while my immediate association of peppy upbeat jazz is with unfunky white guys, it is of course perfectly correct to say it is an African art form.

Kenya's sound is roughly in the same genre as Palo Congo, but not by much. Where Palo Congo overlays African rhythms with Latin American guitars, Kenya tramples over those same rhythms with super cheesy, upbeat jazz.

But don't think that I didn't like this album, it's actually pretty enjoyable. Yes, the jazz is cheesy, (putting me in mind of kitsch classics ranging from the themes of old James Bond films to that of The Love Boat), but it somehow did more for me than Miles Davis last week. I guess it is at least partly because Machito doesn't make playing relaxed and happy music sound like such serious hard work. The conga rhythms are shoved far further into the background here than on Sabu's album, but they sound just as good as those on Palo Congo when they are allowed their own space.

To my surprise I'm quite liking this genre. Next up, Little Richard.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Sunday Night Goth Piano Freakout

Grinderman / Nick Cave
Live at the Enmore Theatre, Sunday 21st

It's been a few months since a concert came around that I was genuinely excited about, and almost as long since I saw one that truly blew me away. I'm happy to say that both timers were reset by Nick Cave's (or rather, Grinderman's) concert this Sunday past.

I arrived a bit late, just in time to catch the end of the opening act, an antiquated stage magician. It was a cute act and kind of entertaining, but he was no Dr. Octavio.

We didn't have long to wait until Grinderman took the stage, led by Nick Cave sporting an improbable handlebar moustache and featuring three other members of the Bad Seeds, Warren Ellis, Jim Sclavunos and Martyn Casey, who are also following the theme of wild facial hair (Jim and Warren's beards reach ZZ Top proportions). Together they delivered a dirty, bluesy variation on Cave's usual style. Cave himself was, as you'd expect, the centre of attention for most of the show, dancing wildly around the stage with that distinctive, preacher-like way of waving his skinny arms around (his dancing as almost as iconic as the spasmodic flailing of the Yorke Gimp Dance) and leaning out over the barrier to speak directly to the front row of the audience. Cave wears a persona for this band, an angry one that makes appear like a man possessed, but it's done with a wink and a grin.

Grinderman: Featuring some big assed beards

The music was fine stuff, supported by a light show that enhanced the bands Tom Waits-esque vaudeville goth sound, and I was particularly impressed by the raw, improvised feel of the band. Most bands I see these days sound perfectly honed and play every note precisely the way it's meant to be, and play it the same way at every concert. While that's a solid musical achievement I'm still more impressed by a band like this one, where the artists are so familiar and comfortable with one another that they can decide which songs to play off the cuff (a memorable exchange from the later set: Ellis: “What key is this in again?”, Cave: “Uh... somewhere between C and G I think.”, [muffled arguing], Cave: “Must be C, it's an easy one. All white notes.”) and to mess around and improvise within the songs without losing the groove.

Grinderman: Featuring Invisible Nick Cave

Grinderman Setlist (to the best of my recollection, as usual the order is probably a bit wrong):
  • Depth Charge Ethel
  • Get it On
  • Electric Alice
  • Honey Bee
  • Grinderman
  • I Don't Need You
  • When My Love Comes Down
  • No Pussy Blues
The short (forty minute) set was good fun, but in my opinion the Grinderman album is a lesser light in Cave's stellar back catalogue and it seems that this opinion is shared widely among my fellow Sydney music fans, as there was an element of restlessness throughout the set. It was good, but we knew that what was coming would be better. The closer, 'No Pussy Blues', was the highlight for most (although I was more excited to hear my favourite Grinderman track, 'When My Love Comes Down' and Cave's awesome guitar freakout at the end of their eponymous song) and at the end Cave announced “Good night... from Grinderman”.

After a short break a new band took the stage, one that looked remarkably like Grinderman but wearing different coloured suits and without the silver stage backdrop. In his guise as 'Nick Cave solo', Cave is much more relaxed and chatty (even more so than Lemmy was), responding to requests and heckles from the audience. I've never heard a band get heckled as badly as Cave was here (although the audience was as a whole wildly appreciative), perhaps it's because he's an Aussie, and therefore fair game as 'one of their own', or is it just because a lot of his songs are quiet, allowing the drunken idiots to be heard? I remain uncertain.

Nick Cave as Himself (rather than the Grinderman)

This set was the heart of the show and the songs ranged in quality from 'Jolly good fun' to 'Completely fucking awesome'. Some were played straight, some were a little Grindermanized from their Bad Seeds origins, and all were introduced by a amiable and witty Nick Cave.

Red Right Hand

With that distinctive bell tone the band suddenly launches into Cave's signature song. The audience immediately goes wild. This one was played fairly straight, save for some particularly aggressive piano and violin freakouts after each chorus. It was an incredible rendition and a fantastic first taste of a band I've been aching to see for years.

Into My Arms

Cave: “We're going to play a few hits for you tonight. Well, not really hits, but songs that wanted to be hits. They tried their very best... Well, they're all hits to me. If you'd all sing along to this one, [pause] it'd be a hit!”

This one was played straight (save for the addition of the backing band, who kept themselves respectfully quiet behind the piano and vocals), but it's another favourite of mine.

The Weeping Song


Holy shit this was awesome. One of the best single songs I've heard from any band this year. On the album it's a classic, but such maudlin stylings does not necessarily carry over so well to a live setting. They've reworked this one into a huge, stomping, aggro motherfucker of a rock track and although it might not sound like a good idea I can assure you that it was an almost transcendent scream-along.

This video has terrible sound quality and it's not nearly as good a version as what I heard (it's from a year ago), but it gives the general idea:



Babe, You Turn Me On

Cannibal's Hymn


These two tracks from the Bad Seeds most recent album were played pretty much straight, although there was a bit of a country twang to 'Babe' and a bit more stompy rockness to 'Cannibal's Hymn'.

Love Letter

The Ship Song


And these two mellow piano ballads were more or less straight too. They lacked a little energy compared to the rest of the show, which is unfortunate, as on record they're two of my favourites. In an amusing interlude the audience asks Cave to move the organ he played on Grinderman as it's obstructing their view of the grand piano. “Lose the organ!”, “Lose the music stand!” Cave dutifully does so (yelling in mock anger at the roadies “Get rid of it! Get rid of it!”). “Lose the moustache!” someone yells out. “NO!” replies Cave, “It's here to stay. And as for the beard...” (pointing at Ellis).

God Is In the House


The heckling actually became pretty entertaining towards the end of the show. Cave introduces the song by saying “It'd really mean a lot to me, if you'd all sing along with the chorus.” “What's in it for us?” someone yells out. Cave laughs for a while and replies “That's the best thing anyone's yelled out at me for... quite a while.” Another funny moment at the end when the song gets really quiet as Cave sings “...as quiet as a mouse...” and someone ruins the almost dead silence of the theatre by screaming, causing Cave to leap off the piano stool, run to the front of the stage and make angry shushing gestures.

Tupelo

The Mercy Seat

Deanna

Jack the Ripper


The main set finished with four old songs that I'm only partially familiar with (but which were all highly enjoyable all the same), performed in a rocky, aggressive style (even 'Deanna'). 'The Mercy Seat' was particularly intense, probably the highlight of the night besides 'The Weeping Song'.

Obligatory not shitty photo

At most concerts the demand for an encore is fairly perfunctory and lacklustre. On Sunday night the roaring of the crowd was an emphatically heartfelt demand for more.

Lime-Tree Arbour

The Lyre of Orpheus
Right Now I'm A-Roaming
Go Tell the Women

There was a fairly long winded discussion about which song to play to first for the encore. Cave ignored our demands for 'Stagger Lee', considered a few others and then abruptly settled on a straight but nice version of 'Lime-Tree Arbour'. This was then followed by an impromptu rendition of Happy Birthday by a random member of the audience to Jim (the drummer) whose beard had apparently grown another ring on Sunday. 'Right Now I'm A-Roaming' was a nice, light hearted end to the set, except that just as they were walking off, Nick whirls around, says “I almost forgot!” and played a last, final Grinderman track.

My best beard shot

Another brilliant concert. I've been so lucky to see so much great stuff this year (although I wish I'd bought tickets to Grinderman's Saturday and Monday shows as well). Cave is another brilliant frontman, lacking the charisma of Lemmy or Mike Patton but making up for it with huge amounts of infectious energy. I loved the way he would leap out of his piano stool just to wave his arms in exhortation at the audience in between bars for a mere five seconds before returning to start playing again (his excellent musicianship kind of goes without saying). At any rate, who needs charisma when everyone knows that you're one of the finest songwriters alive today?

Cave will be back next year with the Bad Seeds (and a new Bad Seeds album). I can barely wait!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

News Post of the Day

I know this makes me a terrible person but this is the funniest thing I've read in weeks: Indian Mayor Murdered by Gang of Monkeys.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

New Webcomic

Dresdan Codak. It's not updated very often but it has fantastic art and a nice surreal flavour that's very unique. This one is my favourite.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

1001 Albums – Number 12

Miles Davis – Birth of the Cool

Miles Davis is one of those legendary names that has so much respect attached to it that you just assume that he must be as good as everyone says he is. After enjoying Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington as much as I did I was quite surprised to find that I didn't rate this album much at all.

On Birth of the Cool Davis has assembled a large (nine piece) jazz ensemble, with his trumpet taking the lead role, and they play music that reminds me a little of Ellington's Live at Newport album, but a lot busier and more upbeat. My main complaint is that it lacks the almost classical compositional elegance of The Duke.

As implied by the title this album represents one of the starting points of 'cool' jazz, a laid back and accessible reaction to the aggressive and complex bebop movement. Me, I like my music aggressive and complex so it's really no surprise that this leaves me cold while Thelonious Monk blew my fucking ears off with awesomeness. It's by no means bad, but I'm so far removed from it's target audience that it's almost unfair for me to judge it. Plus the infectious peppyness of it all can't help but bring to my mind the dread thought of cool jazz's nightmarish spawn, smooth jazz...

Next up, more African music with Machito.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

From The Fucking Awesome File

I've got Nightwish tickets! Woohoo! Unfortunately I've got to wait until February to see them...

I wish I knew if some good bands were playing in New York or London while I was there. All I know is that I'm missing Isis by about two days.

A Choice From The Gods Is As Useless As The Gods Themselves

God of War 2

The original God of War was one of the best games of 2005. The gameplay was perfectly executed, delivering a visceral thrill as your avatar, the Spartan warrior Kratos, carved a swathe of death and devastation through a fantacised Ancient Greece swarming with mythological demons. The game was enhanced by hugely epic art direction and a decent story which, while no Planescape: Torment, was a cut above the standard idiotic console game bullshit.

For the sequel the developers have changed exactly nothing. Despite being elevated to godhood at the end of the first instalment, the beginning of God of War 2 sees Kratos stripped of his powers and sets him off on a quest largely similar to the one in his 2005 outing: retrieve a magical artifact in order to slay a pesky deity, simply substituing Zeus for Ares as the villain of the day.

The story leaves much to be desired, in the first game Kratos was an interesting character in a tortured anti-hero kind of way, but in this instalment he does little except shout “ZEUUUUUUUUUUUUUS” and threaten to kill people. The art direction doesn't hold up quite as well either, although only for technological reasons. The last couple of years have seen the release of the next generation of gaming consoles and the creaky old PS2 doesn't look too shit hot any more. Even with these shortcomings it's hard to be unsatisfied with this glorious gameplay. Armed with the experience of the first game the developers have streamlined things still further so that there is never a moment not filled with awesomeness as you run from brutal battle to epic setpiece to cunning puzzle. They've upped the 'epic' aspect to ridiculous heights (as usual Penny Arcade say it well) and the boss battles are all absolutely brilliant, beating out even the high standards of the first games' 'giant cyborg minotaur' setpiece. The penultimate battle with the Fates is just stunning.

There's nothing new to see here but it's executed flawlessly once more. There's been a bit of a shift to style over substance but when something is this fucking stylish there's no reason to complain about that.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Reaper's Gale

by Steven Erikson

Steven Erikson's absurdly overwrought epic fantasy series, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, is now on its seventh entry out of an intended ten. Surprisingly he has continued to crank these out at a rate a little slower than one book a year, at a time when his contemporaries have been letting deadlines slip for years, and even flat out dropping dead before finishing their stories.

For those playing along at home the action in Reaper's Gale takes place in the Letherii empire, the same setting as that of book five (Midnight Tides), where a few stray plot threads from the almost completely unrelated sixth book (The Bonehunters) are about to wash up onshore and cause all sorts of havoc. The last two books were heavy with political allegory and real world commentary and Reaper's Gale is no different. Barbarians have conquered the Letherii empire (imagine a hyper capitalistic version of ancient Rome), yet have effected very little change to the lives of their new subjects (save the large proportion of their army that was slaughtered). It hasn't taken long for the Tiste Edur (said barbarians) to be seduced by the wealth and luxury that is theirs for the taking as the rulers of the empire, and opportunistic collaborators amongst the ruling class of the conquered are only to eager to keep the apparatus of their system working. A symbiotic pair of sinister organisations, the Patriotists (a particularly horrifying gang of fascist secret police) and the Liberty Consign (a consortium of powerful business interests) are consolidating their power by imprisoning, torturing and executing anyone who disagrees with them, and justifying the extension of their authority by engineering punitive wars against smaller, weaker neighbouring countries. The conversion of the Tiste Edur to the ways of the civilisation they conquered is fairly analogous to the real world barbarian conquests of Ancient Rome and Ancient China. The observant reader may notice that other plot elements bear striking similarities to those of that other popular epic fantasy series, the daily news.

All the same I find it hard to think of any real life analogue to the Tiste Edur's emperor Rhulad, gifted with a magic sword that renders him unkillable, secretly in thrall to the series' overall villian (The Crippled God, an intriguing character who we don't get to see enough of in this instalment) and driven mad by the deliberate machinations of those who would control him and his power (oh yeah and by the sword's terrible curse). Lets just say he represents big government. Rhulad not so secretly longs for the release of death so he has sent emissaries to every corner of the world searching for warriors who may be powerful enough to finally defeat him. At the end of The Bonehunters two of the series' recurring extreme badasses were recruited into this contest, and Reaper's Gale as a whole is weighted with the portentous promise of the cataclysmic confrontation between the three most absurdly powerful characters in a series known for ridiculously overblown, continent shattering battles.

But we still have to wade through eight hundred pages or so to actually get there, and perhaps Erikson's setup is a little too juicy because while the three characters in question stand around brooding for the better part of the book there are many other plotlines in motion, some of which are more interesting than others but all of which test the reader's patience at times, as we mutter with frustration under our breath “When are we going to get to the fireworks factory!”

It must be said that while Erikson still obviously has the overall arc of the story well set out in his head, the plotting of individual books is starting to get a little befuddled. The Bonehunters started to feel a little like a Robert Jordan book, with characters being shuffled around the map in a desperate bid to hit all of the plot point required of them in that volume. Reaper's Gale is an improvement on this, but is still a step down from the quality of the earlier books. It's hard to not be a little annoyed when Erikson introduces a whole cast of new characters and dedicates a quarter of the book to them only to have the end result of it be that 'X dies, Y mystery is introduced, Z plot thread is dispatched with suddenly and offscreen'. Fortunately when the climax finally arrives it doesn't disappoint, but neither is it any Deadhouse Gates (the series' second entry and the widely agreed high point so far, especially in terms of its stunning resolution). I still have high hopes for the remaining three books in the series, but it is a little disappointing to see a bit of 'middle book syndrome' creeping in for the most recent two.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Still The Same As Yesterday

Opeth – My Arms, Your Hearse

That's right kids, it's time for another Opeth album. My Arms, Your Hearse is the bands third release, coming between Morningrise and Still Life. As you might recall I found those albums a little disappointing compared to the brilliance of their later work, so my expectations were not that high for this one. Fortunately it turned out to be pretty damn good!

Hearse
marks a transition point for this band. On their earlier albums, Morningrise and Orchid, they showed a unique sound and style but it is only at this point that their compositional skill suddenly makes some sort of quantum leap, and the thunderous heavy riffs and mournfully beautiful gentle passages that always populated their songs coalesce into arrangments of perfect proportion and craftsmanship. Martin Lopez' drumming is particularly insane on this disc. He has this brilliant way of alternating and even combining straight up death metal thundering and syncopated jazziness. I may not like this one as much as Blackwater Park or Deliverance, but it's still a fine entry in their discography.

Like Still Life and Ghost Reveries, My Arms, My Hearse is a concept album. The first half of the story has a mood bittersweet and sad, describing a recently deceased ghost watching over his widow, waiting for her to die so that they can be together again. The highlight of this first section is 'When', a nine minute epic encompassing the whole spectrum of this bands' dynamic range. The tone then takes a sudden turn to the horrific in the much loved fan favourite 'Demon of the Fall', in which the protagonist's feelings change to rage and hate, as he sees his love begin to put the past behind her and get on with her life. The album proper closes with the brilliant 'Epilogue', a song unlike anything else done before or since. Sure they've recorded other straight up wank solo centred prog rock instrumentals before, but not something as Eighties as this. I love that Dire Straits-esque organ.

The version I have also has two cover songs tacked on to the end. Their version of Celtic Frost's 'Circle of the Tyrants' is not terribly interesting, it sounds just like what you'd expect of Opeth covering a straight up thrash metal song. 'Remember Tomorrow' (written by Iron Maiden) works a lot better, probably because it's more sophisticated quiet/loud dynamics are a better fit to Opeth.

Another great album from these guys, but not their best.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

In The Interests Of Science

New Scientist finds a link between a stripper's earnings and her menstrual cycle. I'm guessing their next experiment will be to find out if a hooker performs better when she's fertile.

In other news according to Durex Kiwi women are the most promiscuous in the world. *Starts singing the national anthem*

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Bust Out and Make a Mistake I Could Regret for the Rest of My Life

Mammal – Vol 1: The Aural Underground

One of the things I've been quite surprised to learn about Aussie music since moving here is that, at least in Sydney, they love their funk metal. I've seen any number of bands that channel the quirky grooviness of Mr. Bungle or Faith No More, many of them quite good. Mammal are one of the more popular bands of this type, although a more apt comparison of their relatively mainstream style would be to Rage Against the Machine.

You may recall that I've seen these guys live a couple of times, and thought they were fucking great. (They're coming back for a few more shows this year too!) Mammal appear to be fully cognisant of the awesomeness of their live performances, and have therefore made the unusual decision to make their first album a live recording. It's a choice that you certainly can't argue the effectiveness of, as they're a tight act and there's not a bung note or a song not pumping with energy to be found.

As for the music itself, the comparison to Rage is a good one, as they have the same kind of funky but heavy rhythm section backing more aggressive guitar and vocals (even if the singer sounds, ironically, more like Chris Cornell than Zach de la Rocha). The difference between the two bands is in their emotional approach. Rage are full of, well, rage and listening to one of their albums leaves one well and pissed off. Mammal may share some of Rage's political sensibilities but their music is upbeat and rather than dwelling on the bad in the world they express hope and for all the aggression in their music there are also a hell of a lot of exhortations to just dance.