Thursday, July 24, 2008

I'm Like A Dog Chasing Cars! I Wouldn't Know What To Do If I Caught One!

The Dark Knight
directed by Christopher Nolan

I've been listening to all sorts of stuff recently, but there's nothing that I really have a lot to say about (except that TID are really good. Go download their album. It's free!), so this week we're going to take a rare detour into the world of film.

I very rarely actually go to the theatre nowadays, and considering what a fiasco I had getting there it's no wonder why. Most of the problems I had, as with most of the problems in the world today, were the immediate and direct fault of the Catholic Church. As you may or may not be aware, last week large portions of Sydney were closed down to facilitate the arrival of many hundreds of thousands of the gullible, simple minded and deluded who were here to see their favourite rotten old ex-Nazi and his cadre of kiddy fiddlers.

Quite aside from the personal inconvenience it caused me, I find it appalling and offensive that the NSW government is willing to close down half the city, attempt to suspend our right to free speech and spend literally millions of taxpayer dollars for the sake of the Catholic Church, who for all the people who seem to have forgotten, were the nice chaps behind the Crusades and the Inquisition, not to mention their general bigotry, the paedophilia and their consistent opposition to reason and progress throughout modern history. Attention Australian government! These people are not our friends! They are in fact one of the most corrupt and vile institutions in Western history! Please remember this next time!

So anyway all this meant that getting out to Bondi Junction was a total ordeal, as the entire central city was turned into some kind of neutered, conformist carnival, filled with roaming packs of teenagers alternating fascist style chants of “Aussie aussie aussie” and “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus”, and singing that godawful fucking 'Jesus loves me yes he does' song. And of course the additional strain on the public transport system meant that the trains broke down and I was stuck in Martin Place station with these people for a quarter of an hour. (In a typically droll piece of public transport organisation we were told after 15 minutes that the train wasn't coming and we should catch the bus, at which point everyone dutifully files out of the station only to hear an announcement that the train was fixed and was arriving in one minute.) It's enough to make you want to go Varg Vikarnes styles on the Sydney cathedral.

I arrived fifteen minutes late but of course, that was no problem. Having not been to the movies for so long I was surprised to learn that nowadays they run a full half hour of ads before the film actually starts. I can't believe that these fuckers get away with that, but I guess with margins being so slim for the cinema business nowadays they really have no choice.

So with all my bitching out of the way I can happily confirm that The Dark Knight is actually a damn good action movie. Perhaps a little long, and with some unfortunate cuts required for its PG13 rating, but otherwise unassailable.

Having not seen Batman Begins I had no expectations for this particular iteration of the franchise, and with relief I note that it has nothing in common with the retarded camp of the Joel Schumacher movies. It does share the Frank Miller inspired grimness of the Tim Burton films, but Burton's characteristic cartooniness has been removed to create a far more realistic tone (relatively speaking that is, in typical action movie fashion people still crash through glass windows, dive through explosions, get shot a couple of times and still manage to walk away afterwards). Gotham City is not so superficially gothic this time around. The demented baroque and art deco nightmares that populated the city in previous versions are gone, leaving cold, grim skyscrapers that somehow end up feeling more gothic than the cartoony buildings they replaced.

The story is familiar territory for anyone who's been exposed to Batman in any of his prior media incarnations. The villains used in this particular instalment are Two Face and The Joker, and while nothing really happens that hasn't been done before the plot is smartly executed, unafraid of complexity and subtlety and not at all predictable. As an action movie it works well too. Despite having enough intelligence in the plot and thoughtful character interaction there's a huge action setpiece every half an hour or so, each of which contains at least one moment that caused my inner fourteen year old to grin his head off and say “That was fucking cool!”.

The papers over here have been full of the predictable posthumous overselling of Heath Ledger's performabce, which needs to be called out as the knee jerk hysterical media overreaction that it is. “Oscar-worthy” they're all screaming, as if this was Shakespeare and not just a decent action movie, and as if anyone with a brain actually gives a shit about the Oscars, that sad tepid one night of the year where the brain dead pillocks in the movie industry make a misguided attempt to raise their artistic consciousness to the level of 'middle brow'. Having said all that Ledger's portrayal of the Joker is genuinely great. Even in Tim Burton's version the Joker wasn't a terribly threatening villain, as his comic nature tended to overshadow any potential menace he could provide. Ledger's Joker on the other hand is one of the most memorable villains to enter filmdom in recent years. Even aside from his hideous facial deformaties his grotesque hunched shuffle and disgusting lip smacking make him truly repulsive. Also his humour isn't overdone; this Joker is first and foremost a frightening psychopath, and although he's still consistently funny, it's very much a twisted, dark and violent kind of comedy. I loved this scene:

although it was better in the movie. I'm sure there were a few more seconds of the Joker muttering away about his magic trick that made the joke.

Other members of the cast deserve mention too. Christian Bale makes a great Batman. In previous versions Batman came across as being almost as fucked up and insane as the supervillains he battles but while Bale's Batman is still a man driven by an unhealthy compulsion he's more human, more sympathetic and more heroic than the Frank Miller inspired psychotics that populate other versions of the story. I also really liked his portrayal of Bruce Wayne, who's makes great comic relief as an apparently over privileged nincompoop. It makes for a far more convincing cover for Batman's secret identity. Maggie Gyllenhaal was very good as the love interest too, she was given a little more substance and personality than the standard damsel in distress, even if she did ultimately end up playing that role (and that she's far too cute to buy as a cop).

It must be noted that The Dark Knight is depressing as hell. On one side the plot is anchored by the tragic story arc of Two-Face, who goes from being a symbol of bravery and hope to becoming an insane murderous monster, and on the other we have the Joker, who is presented as a cypher with no backstory or motivation, an unavoidable consequence of Batman's attempts to do good in the world. If the universe itself will react to the presence of a truly selfless hero by creating a supervillian with an equal and opposite capacity for evil then it seems that the thesis of the film is that the world is a cruel, hopeless place and that any attempt to altruistically improve life for your fellow citizens will only cause a backlash that will make things worse because deep down, people would rather have the freedom to be selfish themselves than see the selfishness of others be punished. However the film fortunately throws in a few moments of redemption towards the end, providing just enough counterpoint to offer hope, but not enough to change the fact that this is one huge downer of a movie.

It's not high art, but The Dark Knight is far more intelligent than the clichéd pabulum that generally passes for action movies nowadays, and that's refreshing. The film has done very well financially on its opening week and it's being spun by the media as being totally attributable to Heath Ledger. Not to undersell his performance, which again is as great as the reviews are all saying, but I'd like to believe that the reason that it has done so well is mostly because it's a well made, intelligent movie. Compare it to the insultingly stupid, lowest common denominator films that it's competing with. Which would you rather pay $17 to see, a smart, well acted movie with a bit of depth, or You Don't Mess With The Zohan?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Years in Music

I've had surprisingly little 'home in front of the computer' time this week, so in lieu of writing a real post I'm going to participate, slightly tardily, in this meme that has been floating around in which you pick an album for every year that you've been alive. The exact criteria for the choices are left quite vague, so I'm approaching it with the idea that I'll pick the album that is most closely associated with that period of my life.

That said, for obvious reasons it's a bit hard to do so for my pre-teen years. In fact it's almost impossible to pick anything at all for the first few entries, since for most of the early Eighties it's hard to even find albums that I've even heard for some years. So my first pick is Flash Gordon by Queen. I've never heard the album, but I sure loved that title track when I was 10. “Flash! Aah ahh!”

This is the only year out of the twenty eight that I'm genuinely at total a loss to pick anything for so I'm going to go with Nick Mason's Fictitious Sports, even though I've never heard a second of it, just because I always liked that guy.

In contrast 82 is actually an easy one. Dire Strait's Love Over Gold was the first album I ever fell in love with. At the age of two I probably wasn't that fussed about it, but I really got into it once I turned five!

Pink Floyd - The Final Cut. It wasn't until fifteen years later that I actually heard it, but as covered previously here I still have a soft spot for the Pink Floyd album that everyone else hates.

This is another tricky pick due to scarcity of decent music that I'm familiar with from 1984, but I'm going with Metallica's Ride the Lightening, even if I don't think I've ever listened to it once all the way through. Eighties metal deserves to be namechecked at least once on this list.

Again I'm going to go with Dire Straits. Brothers in Arms has always felt like the quintessential Eighties album to me, which is perhaps a little strange given that it's a throwback to Seventies stadium rock in the era of new wave and synthpop, but it sure got played a lot around my house.

It would be remiss of me to leave Coil off the list! Horse Rotorvator is certainly not my favourite album of theirs, but it's far and away the best thing I could find for 86.

I'm going to reprise 1983 here and go with Pink Floyd's A Momentary Lapse of Reason. Yet another album that everyone hates, but that I grew to enjoy before I was told that I wasn't supposed to like it.

And just as it would be unjust to forget Coil, it would also be unforgivable not to mention Skinny Puppy, one of the few good things to come out of a wretched musical decade. Again, VIVIsectVI is one of my less liked albums of theirs, but it's still the best thing I could find listed for a crummy year.

The Cure's Disintegration. It would probably be more honest to pick NIN's Pretty Hate Machine, but that band is going to pop up a lot later, and Disintegration's unbelievably depressing mood made a pretty huge impression on me when I first heard it, ten years after its release.

I'll go with Skinny Puppy again. Too Dark Park actually does happen to be my favourite album of theirs.

There are albums that meant more to me that I could pick, but Nirvana's Nevermind is, to me, the quintessential Nineties album, and provided a pretty consistent soundtrack to my high school days.

Pretty much the last year that I had any trouble picking an album for. Nine Inch Nail's Broken is a great album. But not that great.

I wanted to pick Einsturzende Neubauten's Tabula Rasa, or Nirvana's In Utero for the sake of diversity, but who am I kidding? I love Tool's Undertow to pieces. Even if they far surpass it in many ways on later albums, it has a raw dirtiness that I still return to often.

This was a really fucking great year for music. Nirvana's MTV Unplugged, Jeff Buckley's Grace and Mayhem's De Mysteriius Dom Sathanas are all worthy candidates, but are all comfortably eclipsed by NIN's The Downward Spiral, an album which has all kinds of special significance to me, and which I've blathered on about in this blog many times before already.

The Smashing Pumpkin's Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness hasn't aged that well, but it was both ubiquitous and universally adored (see what I did there) for a good long time in the mid Nineties.

Nick Cave's Murder Ballads. Great album, although one I didn't come to until quite recently. I'm really only picking it so that I don't have every Tool album somewhere on this list.

Radiohead's Ok Computer. I didn't actually get this one until the next year, but its morbid paranoia made an unfortunately appropriate soundtrack to my last years of high school.

This is the point at which I can actually start doing this list properly, as it wasn't until this year that I became a real music geek. The soundtrack to this year for me was actually Ok Computer and Mellon Collie more than anything else, but Marilyn Manson's Mechanical Animals was a pretty constant companion too (honourable mention also goes to The Smashing Pumpkin's Adore and PJ Harvey's Is This Desire?). Can you tell that I was a miserable teenager that year?

A total no brainer. I must have listened to NIN's The Fragile at least three times a day for a year after it came out. I still remember skipping uni classes to go and buy it the day it came out. And hanging around in the record store for about an hour the day before because they were playing it on the PA.

A Perfect Circle - Mer de Noms. More fun memories associated with this album, such as coming home totally shitfaced from one of those fun Uni mid afternoon booze ups to find that my friend had left this album in my room for me. When I woke up the next morning I remembered nothing about what it sounded like, only that at the time I was listening to it I thought it was the most incredible thing I'd ever heard.

Tool – Lateralus. How could I pick anything else? Not just the soundtrack to that year, but to most of my life since...

I'm pretty sure we listened to Korn's Untouchables and System of a Down's Steal This Album a lot more, (and we definitely listened to Cripple Mr. Onion's album even more still, but it was a year or two old at the time) but Boards of Canada's Geogaddi always brings to mind all the times we sat in the sun chilling out and drinking Summer Ale. It felt like we did that a lot back then, even though it was barely ever sunny in Christchurch, and I was hell busy with my final year of Uni.

Massive Attack's 100th Window would probably do as well, but Radiohead's Hail to the Thief lived in our kitchen stereo for most of the year and got played probably twice a day at least (once by Barnes, once by me). It must have driven our other flatmates nuts.

There were many far better albums released this year (Nick Cave's Lyre of Orpheus, Dillinger Escape Plan's Miss Machine and Isis' Panopticon come instantly to mind), but Velvet Revolver's Contraband got a hell of a lot of playtime from me this year, and is fairly strongly associated with an old girlfriend as well. I sure wish I could pick a better album for this year, but this is the actual honest choice.

I blame Meshuggah's Catch 33 (along with Miss Machine and Panopticon, but they came out the year before) for turning me from a relatively middle of the road hard rocker into an unredeemable metal troglodyte. Damn you brutally heavy, technical music!

This was the year I moved to Australia, and Tool's 10,000 Days was the soundtrack to the three months of pissing around it took me to get here. Few albums are as strongly associated with specific times as this one is for me.

I'm a bit torn here. Musically I think of this as the year I got turned on to Nightwish, so I could list Dark Passion Play, but the truth is I like Once a hell of a lot more, and even if the music didn't do quite as much for me Nine Inch Nail's Year Zero is the obvious choice, both for the innovative way that Trent Reznor used the internet as his liner notes, and for how the album concept reflected world events of the last five years so well.

Opeth – Watershed. See my post of a few weeks back. This album still fucking rocks!

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Unthemed Weekly Music Roundup

So I've listened to a whole bunch of shit this week, and all of it seems worth commenting on, even if none of it really grabbed me enough in a good or bad way to write a full post about.

Ambient Noise Madness:
Black Boned Angel – Bliss And Void Inseparable
Vargr – Northern Black Supremacy

This week I also became reacquainted with Black Boned Angel, who I'd heard before and really liked but never acquired until now. Black Boned Angel is a solo project of one Campbell Kneale, a Wellingtonian, who also records as Birchfield Cat Motel. In the Black Boned Angel incarnation his music is dark, avant-garde ambient, a genre that I used to love but which I have neglected in recent years. Bliss And Void Inseparable is an hour long piece that lurches unnaturally from one moody, disturbing piece of creepy noise to another, and if you're into that sort of thing it's pretty good.

I stumbled across Bliss and Void Inseparable while purchasing Vargr's Nothern Black Supremacy, which bridges the gap between my old and new listening habits by taking ambient industrial and infusing it with a gritty dose of black metal. They do so by taking the BM genre trappings, gurgled vocals, tremolo guitar riffs and blast beat drums and cranking up the murkiness of the production, reducing it all into a distorted wash that blends in perfectly as a backdrop to the industrial noise. The two genre's really do make a surprisingly good match, not just because the sounds mould together so well, but also because they share a few aesthetic and philosophical principles, such as their charming fascination with fascist imagery.

1001 Albums:
The Beatles – A Hard Day's Night
Jacques Brel – Olympia 64

I quite liked With the Beatles which I listened to a month or so back. The songs were nothing special but they performed with a youthful vigour that surpassed any other similar album I've reached on this list so far and introduced the rawness and energy that characterises rock and roll in my mind and is lacking from the likes of say the Everly Brothers. A Hard Day's Night in comparison was a little bit of a disappointment. Perhaps it's just because I've been exposed to these songs literally since the day I was born, as an inescapable part of the pop cultural atmosphere, but the whole album just breezed right past my ears and left little impression.

Jacques Brel on the other hand is a total revelation. I've never heard of him before but in his native France (well, actually he's Belgian, but his musical career was based in France) he is considered an influential singer songwriter. I'm at a real loss as to how to describe his music. It certainly fits into no category I can think of, although iTunes has classified it as 'caberet', and that's as good a guess as any. Brel sings accompanied by a sprightly orchestra which includes plenty of accordion and piany (as opposed to piano!), giving it an definite French character. I guess superficially you might compare this album to those of Frank Sinatra, in that it's a single male vocalist backed by an orchestra which acts in a purely supporting role, but Brel's vocal quirks and dramatic, bitter delivery put me in mind of Mike Patton more than anyone. Brel is clearly a big influence on Patton, at least when he's in crooning mode. And I almost forgot to mention, this album is really good! I love it even though Brel's best quality is supposedly his lyrics and I can't understand a word of it, as it's all in French.

One other random chain of influence. British singer songwriter Scott Walker was heavily influenced by Brel, covering him often. Walker's 2006 album The Drift is one of the albums Mikael Akerfeldt has been citing as an influence on the latest Opeth album. Coming from such a far flung corner of the musical map I'm totally surprised (but also delighted) by just how relevant this guy is to the obscure corners of metaldom.

Sigur Rós - Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust

Sigur Rós are one of the few upbeat, happy bands to make serious inroads into my music collection, which in general resembles a grim nightmare world of hatred, despair and violence. I was a little disappointed with their b-sides album Hvarf/Heim that was released last year, but didn't think too much of it since their last two real albums (() and Takk) were so damn good. Sadly their new album with the nonstandard character filled title too long for me to be bothered typing out again disappoints in a similar way to Hvarf/Heim. At first I wondered (as I often do) if perhaps I haven't stuck my head so far out into the world of extreme metal that I've lost the ability to appreciate music without blast beats, vocals howled by a madman and lyrics about strangling people with their own intestines, so I made a point of listening to Ágætis Byrjun, one of their earlier albums, again and found that I still thought it rocked. By this highly scientific method I have proved that it is indeed Sigur Rós that have started to suck, not me.

Upon consideration I've decided that the thing that's changed about them is that their older albums had more flavour to their emotional landscape. While their main angle has always been prettiness, twinkling piano and uplift, on earlier albums it was leavened with moments of melancholy (and on () even heaviness) but they seem to have discarded these shades of subtlety in recent years. On this release the climactic, soaring conclusion to 'Ára bátur' (backed by the London Oratory School Choir) would on an earlier album have been the triumphant, redemptive centrepiece of an emotional journey that visited a variety of moods, but in this case is just the point where they crank things up from 'really really happy' to 'super extra fucking happy'.

On the other hand these guys are touring here next month, and I am still looking forward to it.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Wake! Lift!

Rosetta – The Galilean Satellite, Wake/Lift and Live at Hermann's Bar 21st July

Over at I'm the Most Important Fucking Person in the World they've been running a series on bands that sound like Isis/Neurosis/Cult of Luna, as a response to and criticism of the particularly lazy way that the metal music press like to dismiss such bands as 'just another Cult of NeurIsis clone'. Rosetta would be a perfect candidate for their series, as their sound is quite unashamedly derivative of Isis and Neurosis (and in fact, Aaron Turner, vocalist of Isis, designed the artwork for The Galilean Satellite), but who cares how much they fit into an oversaturated genre when their music is so fucking great?

From their progenitors Rosetta borrow the long track lengths, raw, shouted vocals, a slow cycle of build and release and use of alternating gentle interludes and heavy climaxes. The more unique elements that Rosetta display are dense and frequent use of ambient electronica, an enveloping, spacey sound and a positive, uplifting vibe. Not just the electronics, but also the full sound of the instruments create a much richer soundscape than say Isis, who tend to be somewhat sparse and (at least until their last album) somewhat more purist in their adherence to a standard rock format. Rosetta also have a more uplifting, at times even joyous, emotional vibe to their music, which is a nice point of difference to their post-metal contemporaries and indeed to metal as a whole, which of course tends to be melancholic, when it's not downright depressing.

Rosetta have two full length albums out (as well as a few EPs which I haven't heard). Their first, The Galilean Satellite, is the more conventional post-metal record of the two. The songs are all roughly between ten minutes and a quarter of an hour long and are leisurely arranged, allowing plenty of time for the gradual cycling from peaceful acoustic and ambient passages to the heavy climaxes where they indulge in the genre's signature sound, lumbering riffs belting out a wall of crushing distortion. And of course, it's a concept album. This one is about a man who forsakes the company of his fellow humans and begins a life of isolation on Europa (one of Jupiter's moons, hence the album title), but eventually realises that he can't live without human companionship and returns to Earth. It might sound a little cheesy, but simple stories work best as album concepts and this one is well serviced by articulate lyrics and a powerful delivery. The Galilean Satellite also comes with a companion disc of purely ambient music and while it's a perfectly good album in it's own right it's actually meant to be played synchronously with the album proper. It's very a cool idea, even if Neurosis did do something similar a couple of years back.

Wake/Lift is their second album, and it shifts gears slightly by tightening up the arrangements and putting more focus on melody and riffage at the expense of the ambience, which is neither a bad nor good thing, just a difference. By and large the two albums are pretty similar, and they both rock out something wicked so I'd be hard pressed to pick a favourite.

Now I would never had heard of these guys, but they happened to be doing an Australian tour last month; unusual for an overseas band with so little exposure but most welcome all the same. Fortunately a half page interview in a local free music rag caught a friends eye and after a quick look at their myspace page I was sold.

The gig was at the dark and pokey Hermann's Bar, on campus at Sydney Uni. I was curious to see what kind of crowd a band like this would bring in (if any) considering the relatively sparse attendance for Isis last year. I was heartened to see that there at least was one, and as you'd expect mostly comprised of shy young men dressed all in black, some trailing bored, disinterested girlfriends.

There were three opening bands, and we arrived just in time to see the first close their set with a Celtic Frost cover. Following this mysterious, unnamed band were The Surrogate, from Brisbane who were an easy fit with the headliners in terms of sound and style. They were pretty fucking good too, with a lot of fine technique on display from all four musicians. Their drummer was especially impressive, handling primary vocals while playing. They performed with tons of guts and were very well received. The only bad thing I can say about them is that their guitarist didn't wash his hands after he uses the bathroom.

The final opening band did not go down so well. In fact I felt a bit sorry for them, as after the enthusiastic applause that The Surrogate invited they received total silence at the end of each song. I don't remember their name, which is perhaps just as well because I wasn't very impressed by them. They sounded about halfway between Converge and Parkway Drive: screamy hardcore stuff. The singer did have a good strong voice, but I thought that their songs were kind of straightforward and boring, and their performances lacked the fire that that style of music really needs.

Finally Rosetta themselves took the stage. They were plagued by technical troubles to start with, including no vocals for the first song, and a muddy mix that rendered their spacey wall of sound mostly into a dull roar. Such things are to be expected at a rock show though and Rosetta compensated admirably with an impassioned performance. It's been a while since I had the opportunity to go to a smaller gig, where you can get right up and close to the band (close enough to get a bit of a shower when the vocalist went nuts on the climaxes), and the audience is well behaved but appreciative.

Hopefully it wasn't too expensive for them to come all the way over here and play. I'd love to see them again soon!

Here's the only video of them on youtube, or at least the only one I could find:

We were a much better audience than those guys by the way.