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.

Friday, October 12, 2007

1001 Albums – Number 11

Sabu – Palo Congo

After a solid diet of early rock and roll and jazz, we take a little diversion here into latin music, or more properly, Afro-Cuban music. While about half the tracks are upbeat, fun latin numbers, the rest are based around traditional African drumming with strange (to my ears), wordless vocals.

I actually really like this album. It has a truly alien sort of quality about it which I attribute to it's roots in genuine traditional African music, rather than the commodified tripe they call world music nowadays. The percussion is really impressive. Even those of us conditioned by prog metal drummers pushing the envelope in any way they can can't help but be drawn in by the pulsating polyrhythms on display here.

My favourite track is 'Choferito', which is one of the fun latin songs and which I love for it's kookily slurred vocal line.

Next up, Miles Davis.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A Good Day!

Today marked the release of:

  • Big Day Out tickets for Sydney
  • Half-life 2 Episode 2
  • The new Radiohead album

My internets have been very busy!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Sunday Night Bogan Rampage

Motรถrhead
Rose Tattoo

Live at the Enmore Theatre, Oct 7th


I must admit that I'm not at all familiar with Motorhead's work. In fact, the only song of theirs that I would even recognise is the inescapable 'Ace of Spades' (which pops up in the unlikeliest places...). Still, they have a reputation as a great live act and Lemmy is over sixty, so it's possible that this may be my only chance to see them.

I was told to expect a diverse crowd and that's certainly what I found. There were a large number of the expected bikers, bogans and metallers, but they were surprisingly enough balanced out by all sorts of punks, goths, emos and even a few normal people, who stood out like beacons in the night with their non-black t-shirts and blonde hair.

Rose Tattoo

The openers were Airbourne (who I completely missed) and Rose Tattoo (who I didn't). I'm not sure if I'd ever heard of Rose Tattoo before I moved to Sydney so for those who need filling in they're basically the Aussie equivalent of Motorhead. They maybe have a little less of the punk and a little more of the Seventies rock than the headliners, but it's a pretty solid comparison, as both bands are populated by aging, leather clad rockers. Rose Tattoo's set was pleasing enough and a passed the time well.

Apparently Lemmy sets his mic pointing down like that so he doesn't have to see the audience.

We didn't have long to wait until Motorhead took the stage. Their set was a decent ninety minutes and while it started out a bit tepid the band slowly but steadily cranked the intensity (and the volume) right up until the end, when they blasted out a nice three song encore which included, of course, 'Ace of Spades'. The moshpit started out pretty much non-existant, got rowdy about four or five songs in when they pulled out 'Killers', and steadily got messier and messier, in the way that only moshpits full of tanked forty year old bogans can, until the last song when a brawl erupted over a drumstick thrown into the crowd. As for the volume, Motorhead are supposedly the loadest band on earth and while I was wondering what the fuss was about at the time, it turned out that they start at a reasonable level and only gradually increase the volume so that even though it didn't sound loud at the time my ears are still ringing now!

Hey look a decent photo!

The star of the show in terms of flashy musicianship was the drummer, Mikkey Dee. He had his five minute drum solo in the spotlight, which was actually pretty cool (and I usually hate long drum solos, thank you Neil Peart) but even besides that he was an absolute machine the whole way through. Of course the real star of the show was Lemmy, who is a living rock legend. He may not have Mike Patton's showmanship (during his actual performance he seemed kind of bored a lot of the time. Maybe too much booze and not enough speed today...) but his casual, affable nature (he actually had conversations with people in the front row) gives him a different sort of charisma, an understated kind that is unspoken but supported by the weight of his reputation as a honest to god rock and roll motherfucker. His stage banter didn't seem at all premeditated and he even seemed genuine when he thanked the audience. He truly is one of the greatest rock and roll frontmen ever.

My phone really likes the colour purple.

This gig won't go down as one of the best I've seen all year, but I am very glad that I did go, both just for a fun night out and also so that I can now say that I've seen Lemmy in the flesh.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Pet Peeve

Pet peeve of the day: the term 'neo-classical metal'.

I first noticed the term when it was applied to Dragonforce. As far as I can tell it's used only to infuse cheesy metal bands with more importance and respectability than they deserve. What it technically means is that they use 'classical' instruments such as piano, and that they steal riffs and motifs from classical music. In every other respect, it's indistinguishable from normal metal.

It's all total bullshit. Firstly, a piano is no more a classical instrument than the guitar, they've both been rock music staples since the beginning of the style. Secondly, just because you're playing rock music with an orchestra doesn't make it classical.

Also, the actual music that they appropriate is usually Romantic rather than classical, I'd let that slide because they're just using the colloquial definition of 'Classical', but it brings me to my main complaint, that there already is a genre existing called neo-classical, which refers to the music made by composers such as Stravinsky and Shostakovich which reversed some of the trends of Romanticism and returned in some ways to the styles of the Mozart/Beethoven era.

Attention Metal Heads!
Just because your song has a piano in it does not make it classical!
Just because your song has a violin in it does not make it classical!
Just because your song has a long elaborate wank solo in it,does not make it classical!
Just because your song is written in a diatonic scale does not make it classical!
If the London Symphony Orchestra got Yngwie Malmstein to wail along with them on a Wagner tune, would that make it a metal song? No! Of course not!

Every band listed on the wikipedia page for neo-classical metal could be more properly classed as some other brand of metal, usually power- or prog-. The term itself is simply an attempt at pretention, with no real meaning.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

In Every Night There Is A Different Black

Burzum - Filosofem

Filosofem
is Burzum's most highly regarded album, and it also happens to be the first Burzum album that I've genuinely enjoyed.

It's not actually much different from his earlier albums. Varg is the king of trve black metal and this is one of the albums that define the genre. The production on every instrument is tuned to produce the ghastliest sound possible; the guitars are a wall of lo-fi distortion that borders on static, only just coherent enough to give definition to the tritone heavy leads that propel the music. Varg's vocals are, as usual, whispered in an unholy gurgle. You don't need the Norwegian legal system to tell you that this guy's fucking crazy. Insane drumming is perhaps one of the only defining characteristics of black metal that Burzum does not usually feature but on 'Jesus' Tod' (track two on this album), Varg records some of the most impressive drums to be found in Burzum's discography. It merely consists of a single simple figure repeated throughout the song, but it's a fucking mean one and it's full of driving energy.

The low point of the album is the obligatory ambient track 'Tour Around the Transcendental Pillar of Singularity', which is just as wanky as the title leads one to expect. It's actually a decent song, but runs for twenty five long minutes with little development to justify such a long running time. I'm sure it's intended to be meditative, but I don't listen to black metal to achieve inner peace.

None of this is at all dissimilar to any of Burzum's three earlier releases. The reason that I find this one so much more engaging than the others is probably because of it's cohesive and well expressed sense of mood. The cover art sets the tone, a woman blows a traditional fluted instrument against the backdrop of a lonely Scandinavian forest, and the music paints a complementary picture. It's hard to explain but despite the evil tone of the music (and the evil person who made it) Filosofem evokes not so much imagery of violence but more the beauty and mystery of the natural and supernatural worlds. It may have been made with the latest in heavy metal production technology but this album feels like it is invoking something very old.

Such a feeling can be appreciated as a unique insight into the mind of a very disturbing person, but if you can divorce your understanding of the music from the person who made it, Filosofem's weird beauty stands pretty well on it's own.

Friday, October 05, 2007

I Can't Do This Anymore

24 Season 6

I think I've finally gotten a handle on the politics of 24's writers. By and large they're liberals, there's handwringing aplenty to be found in the early parts of this year's storyline about the erosion of civil liberties and the injustice of racial profiling, but they sure ain't the kind of limp wristed, pussified bleeding hearts who wouldn't take to a suspected terrorist with a hammer and a length of electrical cord if it could stop a nuclear bomb going off! Despite the often unpleasant fascination of the show with torture, earlier seasons delivered a lot of good, somewhat realistic action and a compelling plot. However after five years they seemed to have drained their small reservoir of decent ideas and season six contains little good to offset the offensively authoratarian concept behind the show.

Last year ended on a cliffhanger as our hero Jack Bauer was being shipped off to a Chinese prison. This season begins as Jack is released after two years of torture. His haggard, haunted appearance gave me hope that they had found something interesting to do with a character who had became a disturbingly fascist caricature of an action hero, and in an early scene Jack is unable to go through with the torture of a terrorist (despite the literal nuclear bomb ticking away at every ad break), turning away and saying “I can't do this anymore...” Sadly this promising direction is quickly discarded (the writers are quite open about the fact that they make the story up as they go along) and before long Jack is unhesitatingly putting the thumbscrews on to his own brother. The torture scenes are thankfully fewer in this season, between the 'torture your own brother with your dad watching' scene in this series and the 'torture your own girlfriend' scene in the last one the writers have pretty much exhausted the possibilities for pushing that envelope. Unless maybe next year Jack ends up having to torture himself.

As usual the main storyline is padded out with plenty of lame romantic and personal subplots which go nowhere and stretch believability. (Yeah, don't worry about the fact that downtown L.A. just got nuked, now is the perfect time to discuss your marital problems!) At least no one had a baby this time. Why they continue to include this crap is beyond me. Even fans of the show loathe it.

Sadly the primary plotline is not much better this year. They've done the 'swarthy terrorist with a nuke in a suitcase' angle a few times now and it's getting tired. (My suggestion for next year is Tim McVeigh style domestic terrorists. Maybe make them Christian fundies as well. That ought to push a few buttons!) The international intrigue towards the end of the season made for an improvement, but it still lacked in the execution. Frankly this season was actually quite boring to watch.

As I watched the show I noted down a list of specific good and bad things that I noticed. There turned out to be quite a few of them and I'm lazy so I've just put them into a pair of bullet pointed lists. Beware of spoilers:

Bad things:
  • They can't be bothered with a scene of Jack explaining to everyone how he escaped from the terrorists but this is supposed to be in real time so when he shows up everyone just says “Oh hey Jack, good to see you escaped certain death”. It seems more than a little cavalier after the tearful goodbyes when they sent him off to die.
  • It's going to be hard to top this season next year in the death and destruction stakes, considering that four episodes in they nuke L.A.
  • Jack pronounces nuclear 'noocular'.
  • “Send them back to CTU, they'll be safe there.” Yeah right, over the last six years the only place less safe has been standing next to the president.
  • America would never elect a president so bad at reciting dramatic speeches.
  • They've more or less stopped caring about the real-time gimmick that originally was such a big deal about this show. The only time I noticed it this year was when I realised that two characters must have been fucking for forty minutes.
  • I'm always a little disappointed at the lack of motivations in the terrorists. They're always one dimensional 'We hate America! Bwahahahaha!' types. A little more detail could make things so much more interesting.
  • Funny how an explosion will knock over a bad guy ten minutes away but not a CTU agent just round the corner.
  • If I was as unhelpful and obstructive at my work as the people at the counter terrorist unit are I'd be fired within a week.
  • The country that the terrorists come from is never named (leading to stupid things like the President saying “Get me the ambassador for Assad's country”). I think we can safely assume they came from Dukkadukkastan.
  • The terrorists' plan relies on the US president being a fucking idiot and lashing out at Middle Eastern countries more or less at random. Plot twists pulled straight from today's headlines!
  • Poor Jack. No sooner does he defeat the terrorist boss in hand to hand combat and retrieves the nuclear bombs, but he barely has time to make a sigh of relief before the Chinese bad guy rings up and informs him that they've kidnapped his girlfriend.
  • Jack becomes a suicide bomber!
  • Jack is the only person alive who can overhear cellphone conversations.
  • Obligatory computer nerd angst: The autistic guy who can hack into anything. Uh, I don't think that's how computers or autism work...
  • The writers seem to have a bit of a virgin/whore complex. Every woman who has sex on the show invariably turns out to be evil.
  • They blew some guy's face off just so he could come back next season with an eyepatch.

Good things:
  • The chick who plays Nadia is hot.
  • That's it.

And yet despite all that bullshit, I have a disturbing feeling that I will watch it again next year...

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Running the Gauntlet Again and Again

The Blinding Light - The Ascension Attempt

I bagged The Blinding Light's EP a few months back, and I actually feel a little bad about that now. It's one thing to unleash the snark at a substandard release from a bunch of coasting self satisfied millionaires who are capable of far better, and another to do the same to an independent, neophyte band. In the future I intend to apply a more biased double standard.

Even having said that, I did like this album more than the Glass Bullet EP. It's still the same sort of music, similar to Converge but without that band's flair for combining punishing brutality with original songwriting. (Although it must be noted that even though The Blinding Light suffer from the comparison to their forebears they do approach the same level of raw intensity.) On The Ascension Attempt they have more room to try different things, and they have some nice groovy breakdowns and restrained, moody interludes. The heavy stuff is actually pretty catchy and has a lot of grunt too.

However when all is said and done, I'd still much rather listen to Converge.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

1001 Albums – Number 10

Thelonious Monk – Brilliant Corners

So far the best thing I've gained from listening to these albums has been a bit of an introduction to mainstream jazz. Some of it hasn't worked for me but mostly it has been very worthwhile and we can now add a second name to the 'pretty damn awesome' list (after Ellington).

On Brilliant Corners Monk assembles a small jazz ensemble: drums, bass, sax, trumpet and Thelonious himself on piano in order to play some baffling, complicated music. At first it seems like standard cool jazz. The mood may be warm and intimate but before long you'll notice the continued intrusion of deliberate dissonance and arrhythmia, so gracefully composed that it almost doesn't register as such to one's ears.

The centrepiece of the songs is Monk's piano, although the degree of this focus ranges between songs. 'I Surrender, Dear' is a solo piece for keys, while all the other songs break the seven minute mark and give ample attention to the rest of the band.

As both a performer and a composer Monk is something special. His style is based around an aggressive, staccato way of stabbing the keys in a deliberately counter-rhythmic way, and his melodies have a noncommital relationship with tonality. The miracle of his music is that despite such a difficult approach the result is still upbeat and easy to listen to while also being rewarding to the careful listener. Definitely a keeper.

Next up, Sabu Martinez.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

October

The next month looks pretty damn good for new music. Nightwish has a new album out, Serj Tankian's solo album will be released and in early November there's new Dillinger Escape Plan. Opeth will put out another live DVD, one with a setlist that I once saw in a wet dream.

And if that wasn't enough (you read it here tenth!) Radiohead has just announced, completely out of the blue, that their new album will be available online next week. And without a record label to dictate things they've set the price at 'whatever you feel like paying'.

Monday, October 01, 2007

New Blogroll Additions

Back in the early days of this blog I bemoaned the lack of other blogs talking about the same kinds of music that I like. Well times sure change and now there are tons of them. Here are a few recent discoveries:

Aversion Online
Metal Runs in My Veins
The Metal Minute
Heavy Metal Librarian
Blonde at the Bar, hey wait... how'd that get in there?