+++*

Symbolic Forest

A homage to loading screens.

Blog : Posts tagged with ‘review’

Scenery

In which we discuss “Halting State” by Charles Stross

This month I have mostly been reading: Halting State by Charles Stross, a near-future techno-thriller set in an independent Scotland, ten years or so from now. It’s a very good book; I recommend it; full of where-tech-might-be-going extrapolations. When reading it, though, I couldn’t help thinking: I have a bit of an advantage on the average reader.

It’s set in Edinburgh, you see, where Stross lives and where I used to live; and just about all the locations in the book are real locations. There’s the city mortuary, for example; an inconspicuous 1970s flat-roofed building built of dark shiny engineering brick, at one end of the Cowgate. I can picture it exactly in my head, because I spent four years in the university buildings which overlook it. The characters retreat to the pub over the road from the mortuary: when I was a first year, we’d go in there every Friday afternoon.* A few years later, on my way to work, I used to walk past a flat that gets raided by the police near the start of the book; and I always wanted one of the little houses in the Colonies where one of Stross’s protagonists lives.

I’m sure it’s a very good book even if you don’t know all this; but if you don’t, you probably won’t realise just how well-researched it is. Every location is realistic, because every location is real; and the science fiction becomes real too.

* all Edinburgh residents will have noticed a small geographical mistake in that section, actually: he gets one of the street names wrong.

Low

The band, not the album, not the feeling

Last night: we popped up to The Sage, Gateshead, the first time I’d ever been to a concert there. To see a band which has been on my “second-favourites” list for a few years, but who I’ve never really been a fan of. Low. The audience was a strange mixture: lots of former indie-boys now in their thirties, and a good supply of men with long hair, glasses, and bristly Vollbart beards. We spotted, in the audience, the waitress from the Side Café in Newcastle, a very good café which I’m sure I’d written about on this site before; but I can’t find any such post anywhere. Ah well; it’s a very good cafe, and I even have a photo:

Side Cafe, Newcastle

My first thoughts about the venue itself: it seems very big from the outside, but Hall Two, in which the bad were playing, is tiny. An octogon, much taller than it is wide, with two rows of balconies from which you could, if you wished, peer down at the band from a great height. The balconies are in the round, which singer Alan didn’t like – “it’s like having an angel on your shoulder,” he said. He doesn’t do banter, which led to long silences between some songs whilst he fiddled with his pedals and feedback equipment, a pair of miked-up monitors behind him. “Play more new songs!” shouted the audience. “Play more old songs!” “Play songs from in the middle!” “Play songs in the order on that piece of paper in front of you!”* “Can anyone else hear … voices?” replied the taciturn Alan.

They’d been preceded by The Helio Sequence, a drummer/guitarist duo from Portland, who had never been over to Britain before. They were rather chattier. “Hello, Newcastle!” shouted their singer-guitarist. “They told us not to say that. ‘No, no whatever you say, not Newcastle, this is Gateshead.’ So I thought I’d say it anyway.” Their music was good,** but what really struck me was: how much their drummer, Benjamin Weikel,*** enjoys himself whilst playing. He is the absolute antithesis of the famous Charlie Watts: flailing around and bringing his arms up high, a joyous and broad smile on his face.

Low are on an album-promoting tour; but, as per the requests, they did indeed play a good mixture of old and new songs – the oldest I recognised being “Lion/Lamb” from their late-90s album Secret Name; but as I don’t have any of their earlier albums, there may well have been older songs I didn’t know before. They really are a beautiful band to hear live, singers Alan and Mimi harmonising beautifully together, supported by a tremendous wash of noise from the two intruments, guitar and bass guitar. With those alone they can fill the space entirely with sound. Before the gig, regular reader and commenter Kahlan asked me what sort of music they play. Now, I hate genre-classification anyway; but I was stuck for words to describe them. They turn a minimalist collection of instruments – Mimi’s drumkit consisted solely of two drums and two cymbals**** – into a grand swell of mind-filling sound. I went away with my ears ringing and a smile on my face.

* which, I think, came from one of the angels over his shoulder.

** K already has two of their albums anyway, so she already knew this.

*** a sometime member of Modest Mouse, according to the ever-trustworthy Wikipedia

**** plus a few other hand-held things like tambourine and sleigh bells. Sadly, despite having the sleigh bells with them, they didn’t play my favourite Low song, “Just Like Christmas”.

Cutthroat

In which we go all grand guignol

Before going off on holiday, we popped down to York to see Sweeney Todd, the new Tim Burton version of the Sondheim musical. It contains, as you might expect from a Tim Burton film, a lovely, dark, damp and grimy version of 19th-century London, albeit one with a rather anachronistic Tower Bridge opening near the start.*

I’m not normally a fan of musicals, but I rather liked this one, despite feeling slightly ill by the end at the amount of blood spurting around in best grand guignol style.** I loved Sacha Baron Cohen’s performance as a barber-showman with prominant genitalia, and I even guessed the ending twist (although not the direction it would be coming from). He’s a very good mechanic, too, Sweeney Todd, knocking up a mechanical barber’s chair overnight; I never did work out where he got all his pinions from. And as Mrs Lovett explained how all the blood and waste was poured down into the sewer, it occurred to me that back then nobody would have noticed anyway. Back then the sewer was the River Fleet, which daily ran red with blood and offal from Smithfield Market upstream.

Above all, though, the film reminded me of one of my favourite books, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark. On a superficial level: the almost constantly dark and smoky London of the film reminded me of Lanark‘s fictional and Hadean city of Unthank, with its constantly dark skies. Moreover, though, it was the film’s sense of alienation, between rich and poor, between ruler and oppressed, which made me think of the book.*** Todd’s alienation and disconnection from the London population, caused by his unjust transportation to Australia, lead directly to his sociopathy and psychopathy. It echoes the defining line that isn’t actually in Lanark**** but which sums up much the themes of that novel: “Man is the pie that bakes and eats itself, and the recipe is separation.”

* it wasn’t built until about 90 years after Todd was supposedly around, in most of the versions of the story which give him a date.

** “It looked more like paint,” said Mystery Filmgoer afterwards, laughing. “It was too brightly coloured, more like the blood you get from superficial cuts – arterial blood is darker.”

*** Some of the lyrics also echo George Orwell’s famous quote about “a boot stamping on a human face forever”.

**** The line never appears whole and complete as I’ve quoted it here, but fragments of it are repeated many times through the book.

I’ve Liked You For A Thousand Years

In which we like Scott Pilgrim

The latest book in Bryan Lee O’Malley‘s Scott Pilgrim series, Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together, has been out in shops for a month or so, now. And it is, as expected, an excellent book. As it says on the back-cover blurb:

“Now with more kicks, punches, rock & roll, subspace, half-ninjas, experience points, samurai swords, girly action, and laughable attempts to seek gainful employment”

If you’ve never read it before: Scott Pilgrim is a graphic novel series, 2/3rds published so far, about a 20something Canadian slacker with a mysterious American girlfriend – who has seven evil exes, who all have to be defeated in top-notch video-game style. In the meantime he has to deal with his own exes, everyday life, and (in the new book) his girlfriend’s own feelings about relationships. She is, incidentally, a rollerskating rapid-response courier, who has learned the trick of shortcutting through other people’s dreams.* Which is how Scott initially meets her.

They intermingle reality and fantasy with a lovely deftness. Defeated villains disappear in a puff of smoke and a shower of coins – although sometimes barely enough money for the bus ride home. The realistic universe is punctuated by save points, extra-lives, and RPG-style bonus items. Alongside the fantasy, though, there’s a subtle take on the character’s feelings, emotions, and motivation, all of them entirely realistic. As I said, a lot of the new book is about the mysterious Ramona’s own emotions, completing the second half of a pun that begun all the way at the start of the series.

You don’t need to understand that, though, to enjoy the book. I’m sure there are plenty of other subtle references, to other worlds, that I’m not spotting myself. I really hope the rumoured Scott Pilgrim movie makes it into production, because despite the fantastic elements, the books are a wonderful slice of life.

* Other people’s dreams being the “subspace” of the back-cover blurb.

Review Time (again)

In which we get down with the youth of today

Having written that big review of Indietracks the other day, I’d almost forgotten to mention the gig I’d been to the day before: Patrick Wolf, at the Middlesbrough Institute Of Modern Art, a venue so stylish they insist on only ever being referred to in small letters: “mima”.* You could argue that it’s been done, but never mind.

The venue itself is a large, glass-fronted edifice in Centre Square, opposite the victorian Town Hall. The gig was held right by one of the windows; and as we were walking round the building trying to find the queue, other gig-goers were impressed they could see the crew setting up. “I saw Patrick Wolf!” one screamed. “With my EYES!”

Patrick Wolf is fashionable at the moment – popping up on the NME’s Cool List and Albums Of The Year** – so there were lots of Fashionable People in the audience; or, rather, lots of teenagers of the sort who think the NME’s Cool List is important. Plenty of tight trousers, and emo hair. Mr Wolf outdid them all, though, turning up onstage in a blue gingham outfit which looked vaguely like a Tyrolean barmaid’s costume, glitter covering any and all exposed skin, and artfully-tousled yellow hair dangling over his left eye. The careful placing of the hair didn’t last long, though; by the fifth song it had been pushed out of the way so he could see properly.

His music’s good, though. His singing voice makes me jealous of its strength, and he makes melodic, synthetic, original landscape-based pop. He deserves to be where he is, in fact, in the press and on the telly, because he’s very good at what he does, and there’s noone else really doing it.

* Even on all the road signs round the town. This gig, too, was K’s idea to attend.

** And popping up on Never Mind The Buzzcocks tonight, which is probably slightly less fashionable.

Review Time

In which music and trains make us happy

Every month I promise myself to start Blogging Properly again, and every time I’m tired.

I still haven’t mentioned much about last Saturday: a mysterious midwinter pop festival, somewhere on a train between Ambergate and Pye Bridge.* We arrived early, and lurked around the railway station warming our hands by the fire.

First band. The Deirdres are some of the most enthusiastic people I’ve seen on the stage for a long time; they haven’t become cynical enough to hide their enthusiasm yet. They bounce about between different instruments, fight over the percussion, banter with each other and put themselves down, but their joyfulness comes through in the music. They’ll accidentally start Demo Mode on their Casio and apologise for it sounding better than they do; and Russell Deirdre has a picture of a steam train on his glockenspiel case, which has to be a good thing.

Second band. The Poppycocks have applied a lot more polish to their work, and have turned the amps up a bit whilst the audience weren’t looking. They’re bright and cheerful, with a hint of 1960s bubblegum and brocaded jackets; and waste no time getting The Deirdres to work on a few organised dance moves. “This song’s called The History Teacher, it’s about, er, a history teacher … so maybe for this one your actions can be books, turning pages, things like that.” Miles Poppycock had a badge on his lapel that he’d snaffled from somewhere around the railway station. Finding myself stood by him later on, I sneaked a quick look: it said “I’ve been on the Santa Special!”**

Headliners: The Icicles had come a long long way, indeed, so much so that everyone in the audience was invited to sign a Christmas card for them. As we were lurking around the gig early (see above), we got to sign it first! So if any Icicles are reading this, we’re the couple who had plenty of space to write long messages like “Thanks for coming so far”.*** Their tour manager, on the merch stall, is a very friendly chap too. We walked off the train into the empty marquee, to find them in place and almost bursting to play. “Do we just start? Is anyone else coming?” “Nah, everyone else is staying on the train,” I said, and after a few seconds’ confusion they kicked into their first track.

As for the music: it’s the sort of thing that I’d never say no to, sweet vocal harmonies over jangling guitars, and good enough for me to buy the albums straight after the gig. The song about Gretchen Icicle’s cat***** was a bit too sweet and romanticised, at least if her cat is anything like mine, but you might call it a kind of romantic lullaby. I wanted to mention the music first, because every other review of the Icicles probably mentions their matching and home-made stage outfits first – in fact, I enjoyed myself during the first two bands by spotting members of the Icicles, by spotting the hems of their stage outfits peeking out under their winter jackets. That’s not important, though – it’s important as part of the experience,****** but not compared to the music. The whole experience – dark winter cold, the 1950s steam train, the fire-lit footplate – gives the festival an amazing atmosphere; but the music is what we were there for.

Other people who were probably there: The Autumn Store, and this chap on Flickr.*** I was planning to take the camera myself – but discovered too late that all my batteries were dead. Arse.

* It was K’s idea to go. Thank you!

** This is a British railway museum, and it’s December. Of course there’s going to be a Santa Special.

*** Or words to that effect

**** I checked very thoroughly to see if he’d caught either of us in the background anywhere. He hasn’t.

***** I was a bit misled, as I saw a song called “Gedge” on the setlist and thought: “ooh, a song about The Wedding Present.” But, no, Gretchen Icicle’s cat is named after David Gedge instead.

****** The Deirdres, too, had themed stage outfits, customised appliqué t-shirts with their names on; and they make them to sell to the fans, too. The Icicles sell badges made from their fabric offcuts.

I Love You, You Imbecile

In which we like Swedish music

Why is it that Sweden has so many good bands? Why is it, in particular, that it has so many good indiepop bands? I don’t understand it. It’s a shame more of them aren’t better-known in England; I wish I knew more about them, to tell you about them. I’m sure Dimitra could compile a list of 103 excellent Swedish indiepop bands who started in their teens and have only ever released on vinyl,* but I can’t, and I wish I could.

I’m almost tempted to start posting “Obscure Swedish band of the week” on here, though. Recently I’ve been listening a lot to the latest Pelle Carlberg album, In A Nutshell,** which is very very good, and very very catchy; cheerful tunes and sharp lyrics. When someone comes up with song titles like “I Love You, You Imbecile”, how can you not love their writing in return? Not to mention “Clever Girls Like Clever Boys Much More Than Clever Boys Like Clever Girls”. And, as for the catchiness, I’ve been loudly singing “Middleclass Kid” to myself all morning. Go out there and listen to him, because he makes intelligent, witty, and extremely listenable records.

* I’m exaggerating. Sorry, Dimitra. But not by much. I did have one band in mind that she’s told me about in the past, a teenage brother and sister I think, but I’ve completely forgotten everything she told me other than that they were very very good.

** Which K told me about. Here’s your footnote!

Aging on the balcony

In which we are the oldest people in the audience

Mike Troubled Diva recently wrote about how it feels to be middle-aged at gigs, and suchlike. I’m not middle-aged yet, but I know how he feels, because on Saturday night I went to my first gig in ages, at Leeds Met SU. It felt like: I was the only one there over 25.

We hid up on the balcony, with a small crowd of other late-20s people, and watched. Sometimes I wasn’t watching the band as much as I was watching the frenetic crowd, moshing away. They were here to see a local band, Hadouken!,* who (if you believe the NME) are part of the New Rave scene. Personally, I think the NME is only ever interested in puns on “New Wave”, but there you go.** I might not believe in the existence of New Rave as a genre myself, but the crowd definitely seemed to. The crowd of 17 year olds were wearing outfits last seen in 1989, and covered themselves in heavy trees of glowsticks. After a few minutes they started to get bored,*** and threw them all at the stage; or broke them open to drip and spray each other with luminous toxic goop.

The band themselves: well, they were energetic. Rapping with guitars, and very very loud. It definitely got me bouncing; but when my own attention span occasionally started to fade, I began to wonder: does “rapping with guitars” really deserve its own genre name? And whatever did happen to Baxendale, anyway? But then, I started bouncing again.

* the exclamation mark is part of the name, I think.

** Hands up who remembers the NWONW scene!

*** “I don’t know, kids today, no attention span at all…”

Ovines

In which we become scared of fields

“That’s two hours of my life that I’ll never get back,” said one of the women in front of us, as we left the cinema* I thought she was being slightly unfair. The film had only been 87 minutes long, after all.

Besides, I’d rather liked it. We’d been to see Black Sheep; it was, like me, rather silly; but played very straight all the way through, which is always the best sort of silliness. The implausible B-movie science was glossed over, and the actors put on their Most Serious Faces as they fought to defend themselves against mutant killer zombie sheep.** Some of the characters were caricatures, and some of the foreshadowing was very obvious indeed, but sometimes, in this film, that’s the sort of thing you want to happen.***

One thing did puzzle me: why, when all the sheep in all the fields started to become blood-crazed man-eating carnivores, did noone really seem very surprised? Now, for the hero, it’s explained: he suffers from a fear that one day sheep will do exactly that. But all the other characters also behave as if it’s a normal, everyday crisis, something they’ve been expecting all along. Maybe everyone in New Zealand is like that. Maybe everywhere though the islands, at the back of people’s minds, is the thought: one day, the sheep will start fighting back.

* “We” being, of course, me and Mystery Filmgoer as usual.

** These were Modern Biological Zombies – not dead, just rather ill; which does make them rather easier to despatch, with none of this “you must remove the head or destroy the brain” trickiness.

*** When you see a big, round, deep hole, with a sign next to it that says: “Warning: Offal Pit”, you know what’s going to happen later on.

Harry Potter And The Are We Nearly There Yet?

In which the end of a series is within sight

No, not the book. As I reviewed film number four for this blog, back in 2005, I thought I may as well review the fifth one too. I still haven’t seen any of the earlier films.

It fits in well with something I said about J K Rowling’s books recently: I parenthetically accused them of being big, baggy and badly-paced.* The film of Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix isn’t, though. It zips a lot. It’s as good a faithful film treatment as anyone could have done: it cuts out an awful lot of unnecessary excess baggage without losing much at all of the main story. The book of the film of the book (should it exist) could well be a far better read than the original.

JK could learn from some parts herself. Without spoiling too much: the school is taken over, in a way, by direct “state” control. The Ministry’s representative issues constant diktats aimed at blocking resistance from the children and staff. In the book, it’s handled like this: the notice is pinned to the wall, and then the children discuss the awful effect it is going to have on the plot their lives, for a few pages. In the film: the notice is pinned to the wall, with children around looking gloomy. Close up on the notice, so we can read it. That’s it. We know the effects it is going to have; we don’t need to have it all spelled out for us.

A lot is taken on assumption in the film, though. There is no world-building, at all. You have to know where you are, and what is going on, because nothing is explained. Why does the Ministry have a room full of dusty glass orbs? Where do they come from, and what are they for? You’re only going to find that out if you read the book. The Ministry itself was a far cry from the endless edifice of the book: it seemed to be limited to two or three sets,** no doubt for sensible budgetary reasons.

So: better than the last film, and surprisingly good. I’m still wondering how you order a phoenix, though, especially as there’s only one of it.*** If I ever get into any trouble like Harry, I’m going to rely on a little-known but powerful secret society of vigilante lexicographers: The Alphabetical Order. And one thing that had me puzzled for a while: the voice of the Ministry’s lift. I was sure I recognised it: probably from something on the radio, as it was a radio comedy kind of voice. It turned out to be someone called Daisy Haggard, who has been in an awful lot of good things I’ve seen on the telly over the past couple of years.

Right, now I’m off to print out sheets of sticky labels saying “Harry dies at the end!” to stick up around town in the morning. I’m not really bothered what happens at the end of the series myself, and I have no idea if he dies or not; but if I do that tomorrow morning, it’s bound to look plausible.****

* The Plain People Of The Internet, in chorus: Like this post, you mean?

** Although, to be honest, I can’t remember if as much of the book’s action takes place in the Ministry’s main foyer as the film’s seems to, and I’m not going to look it up. I did enjoy the foyer’s architecture, though, because it reminded me of original Underground Group architecture.

*** I can’t seem to find any reference to there only ever being one phoenix at a time – myself, I remember reading it in The Box Of Delights, which isn’t exactly authoritative.

**** I’m not really going to do it. But it’s a very tempting idea.