Saturday, 4 July 2015

THE LENS OF LUCID FRENZY FINDS MORE BRIGHTON GRAFFITI...

…this time in the London Road/ Lewes Road area of town. Some of these snaps have been in the can for a while, so the work's most likely not up any more. This stuff doesn't seem to stick around very long. As ever, full set over on Flickr.







Coming soon! Probably more of this sort of thing. (Well it's finally got warm outside. You don't really expect me to sit indoors writing more nerdy blog posts, do you?)

Friday, 19 June 2015

HANS JOACHIM IRMLER + JAKI LIEBEZEIT (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

The Hope + Ruin, Brighton, Wed 17th June


Happening to walk past the venue earlier in the day, I found they've recently placed one of those old-fashioned long white name strips outside. So the names Irmler and Liebezeit were spelt out to one of Brighton's busiest streets. And of course most simply trudged straight past. While to those of us steeped in Krautrock lore those lengthy, foreign-sounding and entirely unprepossessing names couldn't seem more enticing. However much it might sound like hyperbole the bands they stemmed from, Can and Faust, were credible contenders for the most important band in the history of everything, ever.

How could you sum up the appeal? The nearest I could manage, at least for comics fans, would be when Marvel and DC staged the Superman and Spider-man team-up. It's not just two greats, its two reality systems coming together. Liebezeit drummed with Can, Zen masters of metronony who could take a groove to trance states. Meanwhile Irmler played home-made keyboards plus any number of other invented or extemporised instruments in a multitudinous collective who brimmed with deranged invention. Like the Velvets, they could coin and discard musical styles and ideas which later bands would build careers around. While Can's method was to boil music down, Faust's was to rip it apart. While Can's credo was less is more, Faust's was that more could be more too. Put them together, I wondered, and what do you get?

The result is perhaps closer to Neu!, the third great Krautrock band, than either outfit they were in. There's the same sense of music as a serene, gliding force, as if untroubled by gravity. As is always the distinction between great and merely good musicians, what they did didn't seem impressively hard so much as infectiously easy. You felt they could have continued playing for hours without breaking a sweat or furrowing a brow. You felt like anyone else cold have got up and joined in, just through getting swept up in the sheer joy of it.

While drums often merely provide the base line for other instruments to jump up and down on, here neither instrument led. When I saw Irmler earlier this year, accompanied only by a woman drawing, I didn't feel it that engaging. Yet give him another musician to spark off and the magic is soon unleashed.

Liebezeit played ostensibly simple patterns, but subtly shifting throughout. Jah Wobble has compared his playing to a man running, and for all its marshalling of the power of repetition there's something very organic about it. Rolls often kick off with a lift, throwing the emphasis on their beginning. Rather than dominating Irmler would often pass through sections of tone and washes, like colour fields. Only for the last number did he – literally and metaphorically – pull out the stops for some powerful surges.

Sometimes you get the feeling people come out to see great musicians from past eras just to say they've seen them. It's like a form of commemoration. Not this time. In the small but crowded Hope, the mesmerising set went down a storm. What are Irmler and Liebezeit doing these days? More of what they've always done. If that's not inspirational, I can't imagine what is.

My starter's guide to Krautrock is here..

The same tour but from Glasgow...



Coming soon! Speaking of less is more, expect more of less soon...

Saturday, 13 June 2015

A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT/ MAD MAX: FURY ROAD

Film reviews are like buses. You wait for ages then two come along at once

A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT


Reader, if you're here to simply ascertain whether you want to see this film or not, you may wish to stay wary of PLOT SPOILERS which lie in wait below. There is, however, a swifter means to achieve your end – simply scan the page and check out some of the stills. The film's very much a mood piece, with a strong aesthetic and some quite stunning black-and-white photography – somehow connecting classic cinema with stylish art movie. If those stills appeal, most likely the film will too. If they don't, you're probably better off following your taste buds elsewhere.

With a film self-styled as 'the first Iranian vampire western', its no surprise for it to frequently be described as surreal. However, a more accurate word might be uncanny. Take the central image, captured in the poster, of the vampire in her chardor. It's simultaneously jarring and fitting, a spooky echo of the vampire's black cloak, lacing the usual associations of compliance and confinement with undercurrents of menace and mystery. It's not an image you find you can file and put away, it stays, it haunts you. Her sinister presence, glidingly stalking the streets, is accentuated halfway through when she starts... yes... skateboarding. It's absurd, it's laugh-out-loud funny. But crucially, it stays spooky.


Filmed on location in California with an all-Iranian cast speaking in subbed Persian, it creates a similarly strangely indeterminate mood. This is furthered by it being shot in black-and-white, which always tends to work as a distancing device. You're quite literally never sure where you are. And temporally its equally indeterminate, flatscreen TVs existing alongside classic cars and vinyl record players. The standard recipe for the surreal is the juxtaposition of the familiar with the unfamiliar, epitomised by Dali's lobster telephone. But here both elements are defamiliarised, like one exoticness rubbed up against another. The result is that all figures look lost in the terrain.

Director Ana Lily Amirpour is herself an Iranian brought up in the West and now living in California, so we may be seeing things through the prism of her eyes - a film about outsiders made from the perspective of an outsider. She's said of the setting:

“It’s not Iran, it’s like a fairy tale world, it’s universal. It’s like any town where there’s corruption and there’s secrets and there’s loneliness and people that got dealt a shit hand. They’re searching for something in this loneliness. I mean, that’s what I am and that’s why I made the film. That’s all I really know. I don’t know how everyone else feels.”

(At one point the chardor-clad titular Girl is asked where they are and she replies “Bad City”. The questioner seems familiar with the name. Yet several reviews and even the Wikipedia entry went on to literal-mindedly declare this the official name of the town. Which seems to me mistaken. It cuts against that all-important state of indeterminacy. The term could as easily be a nickname and its allegorical nature, akin to calling a city Babylon or Mahogany, is the point.)

Reviews as frequently cite the Iranian New Wave as an influence, but the New Wave it recalls more is the French. Americana is framed in a way which it never could be from inside, while the screen exudes coolness and composure to a degree Hollywood could never match. Arash, the other lead character, has a studied rocker look which echoes Michael's channelling of Humphrey Bogart in Godard's 'Breathless' (compare them below). Actor Arash Mirandi is now being called by almost everybody the Persian James Dean.



Given the prominence of the chardor, and scenes such as the one where the Girl kills the bullying pimp Saeed, some have been keen to find a feminist message in the film. Certainly her motivation is partly to rescue the prostitute he mistreats, and the scene must rank as one of the most barely symbolic of all symbolic castration scenes in cinema history. And her very presence often seems accusatory, a sudden black-clad appearance.

Yet, confessing at one point she's done “bad things”, she seems like judgement without the justice. She does seem to have a rule only to feed on bad men. Yet her morality seems much like the Gemma Arterton character in 'Byzantium', walking the streets of Bad City at night is an occupation likely to lead to situations where 'bad' and 'men' run rather easily together. The otherwise superfluous scene of her feeding off the homeless guy seems there to suggest that she needs a meal of an evening as much as everyone else - and needs a good reason not to make you her victim rather than the other way around. At another point she mimics a potential victim's movements, like a cat playing with a cornered mouse.

Similarly, the scene where she frightens a young boy seems creatively ambiguous. While she could be trying to frighten him onto the straight and narrow, she could equally be looking for a weakness which would allow her to make him a victim. Besides she leaves town rather meekly on Arash's instruction, which would be an odd scene to include in an avowedly feminist film.

Rather than having a political message about reclaiming the night, the film is probably more existential. Characters encounter one another on empty streets and try – and normally fail – to size each other up, in a way reminiscent of the existential concept of the Other. It is of course very often women who are characterised as 'otherly' in this way, and the Girl makes a classic example. Through staying silent, she allows Saeed to project his own prejudices onto her, assuming she's yet another prostitute. Notably, she never gives away her name. (I kept misremembering the title as ”She Walks Home…”, but its the less personalised, more distanced ”A Girl Walks...”)

And yet while we learn neither her name nor her backstory we do see her at home alone, dancing like no-one's looking, without her chardor. We even see her in the tub, surely the most un-vampiric of all activities. The one way the 'crusader' element of the character works is that the chardor is something like a superhero costume, like Batman striking dread in the hearts of criminals. And the girl inside the costume is something more vulnerable, more human.

The nearest we get to a self-description is when she goes to see the prostitute, Atti, and gives her the watch she's purloined from Saeed – confirming he's dead. Asked who she is, she's unresponsive. But with everything she then says to Atti in description of her - that she is growing older, that at one time she imagined she could escape this life, that she has since forgotten to hope – she is describing herself as well. Notably, both women have maps on their walls – signifying a will to escape. Amirpour has said the film's “really a story about battling loneliness. And vampires are the loneliest.”

And all this talk of existentialism, it's probably a way of saying the vampire western is at heart a love story. All the supernatural elements are merely there to amplify this. Even the Girl's age signifies that she's been young for the longest time, like some dark sibling to Peter Pan, adding more pop star posters to her wall as the decades passed. And her mysteriousness, her meaningful silences, the sense she's possessed of strange powers - that's pretty much how girls seem to a teenage boy.

When she meets Arash on the street he's off his head and lost, on his way home from a party. It was fancy dress and, in a typically witty inversion, he's gone as Dracula. Finding her (naturally enough) cold he wraps her in his cloak to warm her. It's a reversal of the classic Dracula lunge, when he is if anything the one in danger. The goofy costume becomes the ironic counterpoint to his inner goodness and, rather than making him another victim, she takes him home like a stray.

(Some reviewers have described Arash as a drug dealer. Yet while we do see him selling drugs at the party he's simply helped himself to Saeed's stash to get over his cash shortage. He doesn't even charge the girls for the pills he gives them. Clearly when they then insist he takes one himself its his first time – hence he has so strong a reaction. Rather than making him cocky and strutting like the coke-sniffing Saeed, drugs make him helpless and child-like.)

Its their encounters, not the Girl's vampire attacks, which are the crux of the film. The most trite, most cliched scenes from any movie here become the most memorable. On their dates they stay awkwardly yet meaningfully silent, standing before pounding oil derricks or roaring diesel trains. They communicate mostly by playing music, at the age where it feels more natural to put on a record than speak your mind. Notably all the music in the film is diegetic, played by characters within the film. The characters wrap themselves up in tracks like garments, the music working something like the thought balloons in comic strips.

They're at the age where you become aware the self can only have meaning by relation to the other, and so the existence of the other is a necessity – they have to be there just for you to be you. And yet the other seems inscrutable, remote, removed. Even love is ambiguous, whether its a means to bridge the divide or whether it just heightens the problem. The basic elementary question of how one person related to another becomes foregrounded, raised to a fever pitch.

The significance of possessions is also tied up with this. When asked by Atti if she's a thief, the Girl replies no. Yet several times over we see her takes her victims' belongings, and in this very scene she has Saeed's. However at no other point does she lie, and it doesn't sound as if she's doing so here. For here possessions have no exchange value (only Saeed is seen dealing in money), they're more tokens of identity, the way a crown bestows regalness or a badge authority. And transference of objects transfers this power. Yes, the Girl takes Saeed's expensive watch but only to give it to Atti, to symbolise she can now control her own life. Saeed takes Arash's car, ostensibly as payment for his father's debt, but clearly to belittle and disenpower him. Even Arash steals some earrings from a rich girl he has the hots for, but gives them to the Girl, piercing her ears and attaching them himself. They represents the transfer of attraction.

That other great staple of young love stories, the generation gap - here its more of a generation rupture. Arash's father becomes angry when he hears he has been with the Girl, an absurd burst of morality from a man so fixated with prostitutes. But its best captured in the role-reversal scene where Arash throws him out the house for bad behaviour. This sets up events which cause him to forcibly attempt to inject Atti with drugs, then be killed by the Girl in her defence. Coming to realise this as they drive out of town Arash stops, gets out of the car and paces. She has killed the pimp to liberate Atti and the father to protect her, but in so doing liberated Arash instead. He then gets back in the car, silently puts on a tape and drives off.


It would be tempting to take this acceptance and see the story as redemptive, as about a killer of men who instead learns to love and make a life with one. Yet this ignores the crucial theme, running right through the film, of addiction. Arash's father is addicted to smack and prostitutes, Saeed literally to coke but more generally to power and dominance. Even the young boy is always popping sweets. While for Arash and the girl, their addiction is one another. In this way she doesn't abandon vampirism for love, their affair is more a mutual form of vampirism. The love scene where she first takes Arash back to her flat, where they simultaneously devour and offer themselves to each other, spells this out with images.

Seen in this way the ending is characteristically ambiguous. They're less making a new life outside Bad City, a place which doesn't seem likely to be festooned with labelled exit routes, than they are swapping one set of addictions for another. (In Arash's case, life with the father versus life with the Girl.) Perhaps they are simply removing all that's extraneous to be left with their primary addiction. It's teenage romance in its purest form, looking for your reflection in another's eyes.


And from the ridiculously sublime to the sublimely ridiculous... (We don't just throw this show together, you know.)

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD
Once more with the PLOT SPOILERS


Let's start this review the way the film does - by cutting to the chase. This belated yet gazumping entry in the Mad Max series does exactly what it says on the lid. Which is to say there's a guy called Max in it and it's mad. It's an almost continuous white-knuckle ride, frothing with deranged invention. In the Guardian Peter Bradshaw called it “Grand Theft Auto revamped by Hieronymus Bosch”. Personally I'd have gone for “an ultraviolent 'Wacky Races' filtered through punk and surrealism”. But either work. There's images which genuinely almost reach Bosch levels, delirious and compelling.

In one scene some of the characters handily supply their motivation in a single word. As most of them share the same motivation, there's really only two words to learn. Yet what might seem risible is actually the way to go. When action films make feints to characterisation, in the English Lit sense of the term, the result is usually neither/nor. It's like interrupting a roller-coaster ride for a psychobabble feelgood session. Here there's no pretence there's any hidden depths to the characters, everything happens on the surface.

Significantly director George Miller chose to storyboard the film rather than script it, working with the comic artist Brendan McCarthy – regarded (at least by me) as one of comics' most singular visionaries. Miller's commented he wanted a film comprehensible to foreign audiences even without subtitles. (Perhaps just as well, for my middle-aged ears lost much of the dialogue to those roaring car engines.) You read the film via the look, the style, the images. The way you'd read a comic strip. Or, for that matter, look at a Bosch painting.

...but here we go off-route from the standard reviewing highway to focus on Stephen Maher's piece in Jacobin. Which I found after Jack Graham commented on it, and like some shameless groupie I found myself mostly agreeing with Jack's correctives.

In this post-apocalyptic setting, does the villain Immortan Joe represent a return to the pre-civilization world of the patriarchal tribe, while Max and his mates keep the flame of civilization flowing? In short, are we being told our world can be down but never out? Its true, labour power (as opposed to the looting of predatory gangs) is largely absent from the film. As a natural resource being hoarded by Joe, water is simultaneously scarce and abundant. There doesn't even seem much reason for him to be keeping alive those ragged peasants (alas another passive mass in a multiplex movie), other than to demonstrate his tyranny.

Yet Maher also foregrounds “the battle cry of Joe’s escaped wives: 'we are not things'.” Which seems selective, for their other quote, “who broke the world?”, hangs just as heavily over the film. With the machines largely gone, remaining merely as a residue, it's people who have become both machines and their fuel. Women are farmed for baby milk, Joe's wives kept in a vault of a room like prize jewellery. But the pallid flesh of Joe's War Boys is also shown manning the dark cogs of the lift to his Citadel, human grease to the gears.


You could tie yourself in knots trying to figure what the social system represented is. Patriarchal tribalism? An all-commodifying neoliberalism, in which this is our future even if you take ecological disaster out of the equation? Primitive accumulationism? (Probably the most likely answer, but hardly a multiplex movie staple.) Or some other thing? All these answers overlook that this is a film composed of images. And the images are of divine right and the machine age coexisting. They're deliberately juxtapositional, tourist viewfinders pressed into service as security devices. But the point is that they can and do fit together.

And Joe's sermon to his flock? “Do not, my friends, become addicted to water. It will take hold of you, and you will resent its absence!” This may be a singularly British response, but its hard not to think of one of George Osborne's budget statements about austerity. Joe bears a remarkable resemblance to Bane from 'Dark Knight Rises'. (Check 'em out below.) And like Bane's Gotham, there's an ambiguity to his domain. But its horror resides in its recognisability.



Maher is on stronger ground when he criticises an anti-patriarchy that confines itself to escape from a harem. When Joe points to a pregnant wife on the run and cries “that's my property!”, its hilariously monstrous. But it's as archaic as the chastity belts we see them remove. It bears little relation to patriarchy as we find it, you can't imagine someone saying anything like it in the Western world today. (Though of course what's unsayable isn't necessarily what's unthinkable.) Joe contrasts with someone like the 'Gotham' villain the Ogre, a charismatic metropolitan who seduces women back to his pad, then chillingly makes them into his possessions. Of course its heightened for the sake of the drama. But his behaviour is connected to a recognisable real-life type, the possessive boyfriend, while Joe is simply a panto menace unmoored to our lives.


Maher says sardonically of Max “with the collapse of society, our only hope resides in the individual... the lone hero”. Yet in his narration Max comments “it was hard to tell who was more crazy... me... or everyone else”. In the early stages of the film he's a classic example of a man without a mission, floundering and getting himself captured as a result. The ghosts he sees of relations past don't spur him on to fight for justice in a barren land, they beset him. At all the wrong times. And it remains a singular feature of the film how Tom Hardy's Max is so un-matinee idol. True he repeatedly performs the actions of the hero. But there's no pithy one-liners, no victory-through-handsomeness close-ups. He seems mad in the more common sense of the word, rather than the righteously vengeful.

The word which strangely seems to be missing from all this is 'family'. I'll take Maher's Jesus comparisons and counter with a Dad. Max is more the reluctant father who steps up to do his duties. He and Furiosa become honorary parents to Joe's escaped five wives, the family unit held against the tribal horde. The escape scene where Furiosa drives as he lies astride the bonnet, pouring petrol into the tank, seems their bond in microcosm. (Is it pushing it too far to point out their initials also stand for Mother and Father? Probably, but I seem to be saying it anyway.)


Maher rightly calls the film “a classical Hollywood western”. As much as his comparison of 'The Searchers' it recalls Ford's 'Stagecoach', the lone coach trying to keep to the straight line against the amassed, whooping Indians. But it as often, and perhaps more inventively, appropriates the tropes of sea-battle cinema. In this dried-out world, the desert has become the new sea. The cars almost have sails, which amass on the horizon. When they arrive they torpedo Furiosa's tanker with harpoons like whale hunters, swing aboard while its still in motion like pirates. While a prisoner, Max is tied to the front of a car like a human figurehead.

And another sea battle trope is the symbolic association of the Captain with the ship. While Max commandeers other vehicles at numerous points, Furiosa sticks firmly behind the wheel of the tanker. (Only abandoning it for a motorbike when she's considering going off-quest.) As the tanker is pierced in the battle, she is stabbed in the side. To aid their escape, Max has to both pour gas in the tank and give her a blood transfusion. In a film which avoided computer graphics wherever it could, her metal arm necessitated it's use in almost every scene she appears. So why include it? To underline the symbiotic relationship between her and her vehicle.


And associated with this is the hiding of the five wives in the hold. This is partly to get the film off to the required running start, bypassing explicatory and redundant scenes of how Furoisa got them out or decided to risk the run. But also the belly of the tanker is by association her belly, and when they emerge – the first time in the film we see them - it's a symbolic birth. (One emerges already impregnated by Joe, as if born pregnant. But this merely underlines the symbolism by irony.)


When Max first sees the five wives they're hypersexualised, washing themselves while wearing very little – the subject of a myriad model photoshoots. They're played, more or less, by models, so there's little point in pretending they're not used as eye candy. But their presence, after both a battle and a sand storm, is also incongruous. They're equally like water nymphs, spirits seemingly appearing out of nowhere. Of course, as has to be established by repeated cut-tos, their honorary father Max has to react merely to the incongruity. (He's puzzled, get it? Puzzled.) But if we're invited to see them sexually, we also see them his way. If they're models they're Marilyn models, with an innocence to them.

The conceit is that the harem has offered them a paradoxical kind of protection from the outside. The big bad world, which has rubbed itself all over Max and Furiosa, hasn't touched them yet, however often Joe got his grubby hands on them. Furoisa tells them this explicitly. Seeing what's around her, one repeatedly toys with the idea of going back to the devil she knows.

In this way they can be as innocent as children, even as they're themselves bearing children. They wear white. Some have semi-angelic names like the Splendid Angharad. They can believe they're going to the Green place, they can pray, they can disdain killing. Unsurprisingly the Green place itself turns out to be long despoilt. But they pick up and keep the bag of seeds given them. In effect, they are the Green place of the film. The answer to “who killed the world?” is of course the same as to “who killed the Kennedys?” - we're all implicated. So its asked by the most clear-cut representation of the next generation.

It can at times involve fuzzy logic. At one point Nux, a War Boy gone to their side, points to a tree. He doesn't know what to call it, despite widespread foraging in this wasteland he's not seen one before. Yet faith in the Green place means the Wives do, even if they've never been to the non-existant place and have previously had less cause to see one than him. Nevertheless its a paradox which perhaps rests on an inherent feature of polygamous patriarchy, which almost inherently blurs the distinction between wife and daughter.

However, Max and Furoisa's job isn't just to deliver this cargo. They start off as hope without agency allied with agency without hope. But the trip mixes the two up, the Wives aiding more and more in their own rescue. One even gets a putative boyfriend in Nux, they grow up fast in these parts. While those with survival skills start to see something to survive for. Like all road trips in films, this is part pilgrimage.

If there's been a lot of talk about the sexual politics of this film (improbably reaching the pages of the Daily Mail), you are frankly best off forgetting all of that. It does worse than getting in the way. Championing the film as some kind of feminist manifesto undoes what is otherwise it's best and boldest move, the way Furiosa is simply assumed to be a strong and capable character with no further explanation considered necessary. In the New Statesman, Tracy King titled her review 'No, Mad Max: Fury Road is not a feminist masterpiece (but that’s OK)'. And it is. Once you start to prod and poke at them the politics aren't all that progressive. In many ways they're reactionary. But it was ever thus. Instead focus on what the film is good at. Instead think of 'Wacky Races' crossed with Hieronymus Bosch...

Saturday, 6 June 2015

TRICKY/ TINARIWEN (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

TRICKY
Corn Exchange, Brighton, Sat 24th May


If Tricky's still best known for trip-hop via his debut LP 'Maxinquaye' (1995), its true to form for him when that album scarcely gets a look-in tonight. (Contributing precisely one song, 'Overcome'.) His own opinions of the genre may, ironically enough, be summed up by one of its other tracks - 'Brand New You're Retro'. Feeling it quickly became branded, he complained of going to the cinema to find all the ads had been given quasi-trip-hop soundtracks. (“That was the end for me. My music had become McDonald's and I had to run away from it. I could never make another album like 'Maxinquaye'.")

Of course, as ever, to fit those cinema ads the sound of trip-hop was twisted as much as it was stretched. Though the description of it as a “cooler, late-night vibe” comes from Massive Attack's 3D, this ignores the important early influence of Gary Clail and Tackhead, colliding post-punk and dance at high impact. Alas the edgier, more disortienting side of the style soon got edited out for a slightly beatier version of chill-out. Yet 'Maxinquay' in particular was characterised by murky beats and slurred vocals, as if punch-drunk by life. Six-and-a-half minute songs about being sectioned don't fit the standard definition of chill-out.

Tricky also has a strange overlap with the other great genre of that era, grunge, even covering Nirvana's 'Something In the Way'. Like Nirvana, many of his tracks sound like they might once have been clean and anthemic, but fell into a disorienting fever dream before they could be released.

But 'Maxinquay' was, in its own weird way, ornate – in the way a collage artwork can juxtapose so many elements it builds up into a kind of sensory overload. In fact, the cover art - a collection of corroded surfaces, often covered with graffiti or the residue of layers of torn posters - was a kind of collage. (“Let me take you down the corridors of my life”, was perhaps the key lyric, like his mind was a labrynthine delapidated mansion even though when he wrote those words he probably lived in a bedsit.) It marshalled the insistent power of repetiton, but normally the 'artificial' repetition of samples on repeat, not the 'natural' samples of re-struck chords.

Whereas here everything which isn't strictly functional is discarded. The music's boiled-down, lyrics often reduced to a few repeated phrases. And the rock-totem guitar becomes a prominent instrument, with as many tracks riff-driven as beat-based. There's more Link Wray to it than there is Massive Attack. And, always a contrary bugger and averse to being labelled a black artist, it may be part-wilfulness on Tricky's part to be taking up so white a style.

Then two-thirds through an already intense set, he summarily dismisses his co-vocalist. (Who had previously seemed to be doing most of the work.) And things grow more intense still, like we'd already taken the mixer out of the spirits and now start on the neat alcohol. He skitters across the stage like a twitching spider, clutching at his clothes, a mike in each hand, head jerking between them.

The length of tracks seems not just sprawling but almost arbitrary, at least in the sense of developing as compositions. 'Vent', just over three minutes in the studio, stretched to forever. It has more of a ritual element, like the drums in voodoo the purpose of the track is to install some trance state upon everyone, and it'll keep going until it gets there. Which is probably another way of saying the tracks are tracks, in their purest form.

It's only the second time I've seen Tricky, and with many years between, but there is the same weird energy to things. He occasionally speaks to the audience, even thanks us for showing up, but mostly seems lost to some private episode, frequently turning away, at times not even thinking to hold the mike to his mouth. (“On my own again” becomes a repeated lyric.) It can sit strangely with a Saturday night crowd, large numbers of whom look dressed to go clubbing later. (And there was, alas, no shortage of audience wankers.)

It is, saying it can't be avoided, much the same weird energy you can feel radiating from a crazy guy in the street. But equally Tricky has often said he finds a fixation with his mental health be racist, and perhaps it is the cultural equivalent to the way higher numbers of black people get sectioned. He's often at pains to point out “on stage I'm a different person, very aggressive, very tense... I shake my head and the little lights start blurring, so I'm having trips and dreams. It's almost speaking in tongues.” There is of course a world of difference between being able to channel some force and having your life overwhelmed by it. Dali famously said “the only difference between me and a madman is that I am not mad”. And that difference is important.

There are those who dismiss trip-hop, and all who sailed in it, as some Nineties fad. Like Blairism, something which just seemed a good idea at the time. And yet Tricky's still here, unbound to the sound he sprang from, and as strange and intense as ever.

The afore-mentioned 'Vent', though not from Brighton. There may not appear much to look at in this clip. But there often isn't with Tricky gigs. They go in for mood lighting, in the main...



TINARIWEN
Concorde 2, Brighton, Wed 27th May


In one of his last ever interviews, the late great Captain Beefheart explained his reason for relocating to the desert – he found it “subtle”. His was not always an easy mind to guess. But what I think he meant was the place that looked to the outsider like a featureless expanse was, to the attuned eye, anything but.

And the desert blues of Malian band Tinawriwen (the name meaning “deserts” in their Tuareg language) seems similar. It's not as dynamic as conventional rock music, pretty much eschewing breaks and bursts for a continuous flow, one section blending smoothly into the next. And if a river metaphor seems to be shaping up there, let's pursue it. The surface of their tracks isn't always lively, they proceed at a measured rate and can appear placid. Something accentuated by the way both main set and encore were given a slow incline, starting with steady chant and a solo acoustic guitar respectively. But the longer you listen, the more you feel undercurrents are starting to hook you. The choral vocals, the guitar lines first seem mantra-like in their repetitivenessm but start to sound more intricate and interwoven as they progress. (I am not sure how many rivers there are in the deserts of Mali. Just go with it, okay?)

And in fact I later discovered this passage from their website bio:

“The desert is a place of hardship and subtle beauty, a stark world that reveals its secrets slowly and carefully... For Saharan blues band Tinariwen, the desert is their home, and their hypnotic and electrifying guitar rock reflects complex realities of their homebase.”

Not to over-generalise about the music of a continent, but John Peel once said of Zimbabwean band the Bundhu Boys that their music seemed to be coming up from the ground and passing through them. Similarly, rather than unleashing a barrage of power chords, Tinariwen seemed linked to some ceaseless energy source. You felt they could have played two or three times as long, had they been someplace which could accommodate.

Of course it's possible to be cynical about the whole 'world music' industry. It often feels like people are liking the sort of thing they think they should like. It can suggest rich hippies listening to their expensive steroes, and convincing themselves the process attunes them to the Global south. (The Dead Kennedy's famous “ethnicy jazz to parade your snazz.”) But one cool thing about Tinariwen, and perhaps desert blues in general, is that it's not music which is particularly interested in 'authenticity'. Though the drummer slaps traditional African drums, the rest utilise electric guitars. (Founder member Ibrahim Ag Alhabib allegedly built his first guitar, after seeing one in actionin a Western film.) They cite as influences the folk music of Mali, but also Arabic pop, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley and (ulp!) Dire Straits. And seeing them in a rock venue like the Concorde, not some sedate arts centre, feels appropriate. First and foremost, they're a great live band.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY/ LAURIE ANDERSON (BRIGHTON FESTIVAL ATTENDING ADVENTURES)

THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY (WITH LIVE SOUNDTRACK BY CAT'S EYES)
Brighton Dome, Fri 22nd May
This review does contain some PLOT SPOILERS


Before the internet showed up and started recording everything, the fallibility of human memory was almost a creative act. Perhaps you saw some Seventies pseudo-arty piece of erotica shown on BBC2, and over the years your memories of it morphed. So hard was it to see something so ephemeral as a film back then, perhaps you only saw some stills from it, and resorted to imagining what it might be like. It's less that your young mind read more into the film than it was carrying, it's more that the atmosphere of the film and your memories of it ferment over time, acquire a significance which comes to await being pinned to something. Like a dream which stays with you, even though you're never sure why or what it might mean.

Given this, going back to watch the original film is obviously a mistake bordering on category error. It won't add anything to a memory that was only built up subsequently, the film itself can now only undo it all – like pulling the foundations from a tower. One solution, perhaps, is to try and remake the film as you remember it. Which is pretty much what director Peter Strickland is doing here. The Seventies pastiche credit sequence recalls the one for his previous film, 'Berberian Sound Studio', but perhaps here the conceit's enlarged to the whole film.

The programme quoted him as particularly keen to channel the films of Jess Franco, which “struck me as being incredibly rich in atmosphere, intensity and sexual fever”. It notably recycles many of the tropes of Seventies erotic cinema – the inherent kinkiness of lesbianism, assumed to overlap with sado-masochism, the near-hysteric mentality of women – with just enough framing that we know not to take all this entirely seriously. (The audience frequently laughed out loud, though even the absurdest moments are presented deadpan.)

With it's pointedly indeterminate setting in time and place, it could be set in the Seventies, or as easily not. It has the same stilted, distanced feeling of the era, as if the actors are presenting rather than inhabiting the characters. (Often a side-effect of dubbing, though English-language films can have much the same effect, such as 'Picnic at Hanging Rock'.) The central characters, Cynthia and Evelyn, seem to inhabit the same hermetic dream-world, inside which they are either free to pursue their obsessions, or constrained to the same. In fact those central characters are pretty much the only characters, bar a saleswoman, a distantly-glimpsed neighbour and some public talks. (Where some of the audience are quite visibly dummies.) Their cloistered world contains not a single male character.

It's mentioned in passing that Evelyn owns the big house they live in, though she seems to have no job to speak of. While you could speculate over the source of her masochism, the film doesn't seem to encourage this. Its more presented as something she chooses to indulge. She even refers to it at one point as “a luxury”.


The conceit of the film is that Evelyn, ostensibly the masochist of the relationship, is calling all the shots. And Cynthia becomes wearied by the way her life has become so scripted. (In quite a literal sense, she's given cue cards to read like an actor.) Notably, however, if it is Cynthia who has what Hollywood screenwriters would call “the arc” the film starts off with Evelyn and effectively stays with her throughout. Almost every scene, even the ones where Cynthia breaks down under the burden of bossing, are hers. To quote Strickland from the programme again: “The most essential aspect of the film is its dreamy, post-orgasmic flow. One feels as if the film itself is a spell that Evelyn is under. Being under the spell is what she's addicted to.”

Sixties and Seventies culture perhaps became obsessed with the way we live out roles. (Pinter's 1962 play 'The Lover' has many of the same elements.) But perhaps it could never quite decide whether they were liberating or confining. The Situationist writer Raoul Vaneigem railed against roles as an aspect of modern alienation. (“Roles are the bloodsuckers of the will to live. They express lived experience, yet at the same time they reify it. They also offer consolation for this impoverishment of life by supplying a surrogate, neurotic gratification.”) While glam rock embraced them about as fully as can be.

And the recurrent and title-supplying motif of the moths, prevalent enough that they get their own section of the credits, exists to exemplify this. In the film it's both a metamorphosing creature capable of taking shining flight and a pinned and labelled specimen on the wall of Cynthia's study. Yet while Cynthia seems happiest pulling off her wig and peeling her false eyelashes, the film ends with the roles still in place. Her breakdowns against the script just become part of the script - another cycle set on repeat. Like the punishment chest Evelyn insists on being locked in, what makes roles confining ultimately makes them inescapable.

Cat's Eyes are Rachel Zeffira and Horrors singer Faris Badwan, not names I can claim to be familiar with. (Though Badwan was recently controversial for decrying the vote.) It's effective enough. Classical instruments are marshalled into producing rich and leisurely Europop, wafts of choral vocals passing like white clouds in the sky, so sweet it almost tips over into sinister. It matches well enough the spell Evelyn is under.

However, it's not staggeringly memorable and unlike Goblin's 'Suspiria' seeing it performed live doesn't add much. Indeed, in one sense the live setting may even distract. For long periods Strickland uses only ambient sounds – the creak of cupboards, the click-clack of bicycle wheels. At first, there's a structural reason. We enter the film with the roleplaying up and running. Consequently we believe Evelyn may actually be a bullied maid to Cynthia, so the initial note that's struck must be one of realism. However, the soundtrack and the ambient sounds then intersperse through out. Doubtless, the contrast allows each to enhance the other. But there also seems a way in which Strickland is actually employing two soundtracks, keeping the ambient sounds running until we find a musicality in those creaking cupboards.

Yet when the soundtrack is played live it creates a strange reversal of the diegetic and non-diegetic, we see the actual strings being struck but with the 'natural' sound of the cupbaord door being closed there's only a representation projected onto a wall behind them. It can weight what should really be a balance.


'Duke of Burgundy' is perhaps eclipsed by Strickland's two previous films, 'Katalin Varga' and 'Berberian Sound Studio'. But it is certainly well worth seeing, if not necessarily waiting for the soundtrack's next live outing.

LAURIE ANDERSON: ALL THE ANIMALS
Brighton Dome, Sunday 24th May


Four years after her last Brighton festival appearance, Laurie Anderson is back with an assemblage of her stories about animals. At which point you may well ask – animals, why them? A clue might come from an early comment on having read 'Wind in the Willows' as a child, and the oddity of a six year old reading about “eccentric gay bachelors”. The point being that Grahame's fully anthropomorphised animals are really only displaced humans. Whereas her interest is in things between, with one forepaw in human culture and a tail flicking back into the animal world. Hence all the tales of teaching her dog to play keyboards, it going on to headline a lot of animal rights benefits and all the rest.

Which may explain both why animals are so popular with children, and why they are such a staple of fables. And Anderson's conception of stories is basically fables in more modern dress. Her conceit may even be that animals and fables become analogies for one another, as representatives of the indeterminate. In one tale Adam and Eve are morphed into a yachting couple who moor on an island, and the snake offers no apples but instead tells Eve stories.

Her measured, melodiously deadpan delivery leaves you constantly wrongfooted as to how to take things, as she shifts between anecdote, surrealist non-sequiturs and philosophical aphorisms. Did she really do a concert for dogs in Sydney harbour, and did curious whales show up half-way through? Perhaps, she's done stranger things. But the literal truth of the stories doesn't seem to matter much, even for the ones which might actually be true.

The key image may have come early on. Before the earth was created, flocks of birds swarmed the air with nowhere to land, endlessly forming and reforming different shapes. But when one bird dies they have nowhere to bury him, so his daughter inserts him in the back of her head. Then began memory. Memory and the earth thereby become conflated. Each gives you a reference point, they're ordering devices. But ordering devices associated with myth's classic Fall moment – awareness of death.

And Anderson's accumulated stories become like the murmurations of those birds. It's an image remarkably similar to the one in 'Landfall', of her belongings floating in her flooded studio after Hurricane Sandy. As the show moves on things don't develop so much as accrue, images and themes sparking off one another. The earth's gravity never quite takes control. Like the daughter bird, there's no path laid our for us. The show's not about dispelling nuggets of feelgood wisdom or giving you new ideas about the world. It's more like getting a personal trainer for your imagination, making you more alert to associations, sharpening your antennae.

Not unrelatedly absence was also a key theme. There's lists of all the animals who have existed over time but are now gone, there's the Hebrew alphabet kicking off with a silent letter to represent all that can't be said. (I have no idea whether this was something she made up or not!) It suggests these epigrammatic tales are themselves incomplete. They're there largely to hint at larger things, even if its up to us what those larger things might be.

Like the daughter bird, the show is so reliant on us doing so much of the work the glass of water can feel half-empty as easily as half-full. This show worked better for me than her previous Festival appearance. Perhaps I was more keyed in to what to expect, or perhaps the experience is so subjective it may simply be down to what mood you're in on the night.

Something she didn't do at all in Brighton, from Buenos Aires...


Coming soon! More of this sort of thing...

Saturday, 23 May 2015

'SHINE BACK AT THE SUN' (ANOTHER SPOTIFY PLAYLIST)


Another Spotify playlist for those who care to listen. A grab-bag of stuff I've been listening to lately, and ocassionally even writing about on this blog. 

Including, but not limited to, Slint sounding fragile yet expansive, one of the most minimal Can tracks ever (which by Can standards is saying something),  Goblin getting infernal, Alternative TV having an existential crisis, a track by Swans and a track about swans. We don't just throw this show together, you know..

Bob Dylan: No More Auction Block
Slint: Washer
Arab Strap: Phone Me Tonight
Can: Desert
Goblin: Opening to the Sighs (Originale)/ Sighs
Tricky: Bad Dreams
The Fall: Who Makes The Nazis? (Peel session)
Big Bill Broonzy: Letter to My Baby
Dock Boggs: Pretty Polly
Pentangle: Rain And Snow
Fucked Up: Royal Swan
Tom Waits: Bad As Me
Gomez: Shitbag/ Steve McCroski (Radio One session)
Swans: A Little God In My Hands
Alternative TV: Lost In Room

”Facing the sky as the ultimate sum
Of the lives that it chose to survive
And shine back at the sun
To take the world between your bill
To leave enough and have your fill
To leave the water but drink the milk
To be a royal swan
To spin the wool with silk
To be a royal swan”

Saturday, 16 May 2015

THE POP GROUP/ SQUAREPUSHER/ ANNA CALVI (GIG-GOING ADVENTURES)

THE POP GROUP
The Haunt, Brighton, Tues 5th May


When frontman Mark Stewart launches the set with the words “we are all prostitutes”, the title and opening line of perhaps their most classic number, it might signal a statement of intent. Last time round it had been the set closer. Clearly, this won't be a night for messing about.

But it might also suggest a deeper purpose. The last gig had been built around the 1980 album 'We Are Time'. This time its all about the brand new release 'Citizen Zombie', and they're getting the known numbers out the way. Indeed, the title track is the very next to be played. Though it was somewhat controversially pitchforked by Pitchfork, from where I'm standing this makes for a better gig. The fresh songs dominate the set and make the band sound... well, fresher. They seem to run the gamut from quite bouncy numbers to the sinister and discordant. (Stewart back-announces one recited vocal piece as “a bit weird, that one”. And coming from him…)


I said last time round that the curse that befalls bands is that they get better, and that their incendiary yet disorientating blend of syncopation and dislocation could easily suffer from such a fate. But possibly they have got the better sort of better, from the days they were channelling some force they could barely control. Yet they're still not too accomplished, if things are no longer right on the edge of chaos they're still closer to it than today's health and safety regulations normally allow.

I even take to fancying they sound less like a reunited band getting back in the saddle than a band taking their next step – like they'd just been timewarped from 1980 to now, and were picking up where they left off. With typical impassioned hyperbole, Stewart was recently insisting to the Guardian that today's bleak times were precisely the reason to reignite things: “We always wanted to be a pop group...We’re getting right into the belly of the beast. And this is the time to be there.”

And seeing them live you could almost believe him...

The afore-mentioned 'We Are All Prostitutes' not from Brighton but... well, you'll guess where. Still ringing true today...



SQUAREPUSHER
Brighton Dome, Fri 8th May


The only way I can think to describe electronica artist Squarepusher (aka Tom Jenkinson) is that he's to dance music what modern jazz was to trad. He twists, turns and distorts the beats into near-unrecognisable shapes, marshalls them into unpredictable compositions. And yet you feel at the heart of it is someone who loves old-style dance, loves the feeling of surrender to wave after wave of pummelling beats like a blissful form of drowning, someone who's remaking it his way than someone arriving with lofty notions to improve it. It remains dancey throughout. ('Modern dance' might even be a better term than klunkers like 'intelligent drum'n'bass'. But it would make everyone think of Pere Ubu so it isn't much good.)

The result's like a cross between an arcade game on mind-altering drugs and the music of the spheres, a pretty virtuous combination indeed. The beats are so heavy you feel as much as hear them, while the visuals are keyed by the music (by some electronic process I don't profess to understand) – so are in perfect time and give a perfect synaesthesic experience. The overall experience is mesmerising.

Last time I saw Squarepusher, in this very venue some seven or eight years ago, he seemed able to play bass and keyboards simultaneously. This time his bass stood propped up behind him like Chekhov's gun, with everyone waiting for it to go off. And yet I think the set sounded better without it. Jenkinson more or less started out as a bassist, and is an accomplished player. But he's almost too accomplished, the virtuoso playing can bring back something I hoped dance's beats had buried – muso-ness. The bass could make it jazzy in all the wrong ways. While with pure electronica it all sounds... purer somehow, more unearthly, more difficult to grasp.

In fact he only picked the thing up for the encore. Shorn of the fencing mask he'd sported for the whole of the main set, he first picked out idle notes as if mucking around casually at home. They only slowly built up into a fuller, more textured number, much more leisurely than the frenetic force of before. He mostly played notes so high-register I thought he must have switched to guitar, and needed to be told otherwise afterwards. After the sheer sonic shock of the main set, after which almost all the audience were on the feet, it was perhaps a strange sidestep. But the music was effective and demonstrated the variety of sounds he's capable of.

This is from... well, for once the actual gig...


ANNA CALVI
Brighton Dome, Sat 9th May


Anna Calvi must be one of the most theatrical performers I've seen lately, and I write that as someone who was only recently at Marc Almond. She purposefully strides on stage after the rest of the band, and finishes the gig with fans throwing flowers to her. She remains slightly aloof, rarely speaking. Despite a slightly alarming resemblance to Simmonds from 'Agents of Shield', with her trademark tied-back hair, scarlet lipstick and flamenco outfits, and her equally distinctive voice she's very much a self-identifying star.

At the same time she's just as much a guitarist, strapping on at the start of the gig then keeping it to hand throughout. As someone known to reject the very concept of guitar solos as pointless busywork... well truth be told, at times I found them too excessive, but mostly coped with them surprisingly well. They seemed expressive rather than merely flamboyant, connected to the rest of the music rather than interrupting it. The guitar became her voice when her voice wasn't being her voice.

She often plays in the interchange where rock'n'roll meets country, the twangy, trebly echoey sound of 'Ghost Riders in the Sky'. And in general the music manages to keep a foot in rootsy without ever sounding regressive or constrained. She even manages a Bruce Springsteen cover without losing me, something I would have previously thought impossible. Overall the music can hone in on quite small sounds, then break into explosive bursts. The woman to her (stage) right bustles between a bewildering array of instruments, squeeze-box, xylophone, scraping a bow across a cymbal...

It's impressive, it's never short of invention. And yet, for all that its brimming with passion, somehow there wasn't enough heart to it. You can admire it, you can like it, but can you love it? To quote my thoughts on betterness in full from that old Pop Group review:

”The curse that normally befalls bands isn't that they get worse but that they get better. They become tighter, more professional, and lose the looseness – the unstable elements that had made them so idiosyncratic and unpredictable.”

Some of those present who'd seen her before did suggest she has got better in this way. Though she could have been born better for all I'd know. All I can say is betterness beset her that night.

Embedding disallowed but follow this link for actual gig footage.

Coming soon! More of this sort of thing...