Friday, 31 July 2015


This is still the silly season, right?

You know what they always said about the Sixties? That if you could remember them you weren't there? Whereas with Eighties, it's those who want to remember them who weren't there. There was not a whole lot to do back then, except to wait for dole cheques to arrive or the internet to be invented. Plus there were only four TV channels, so instead we used to form bands. Some people said they did this as a means of protest against the Thatcherite tyranny which pedagogically imposed itself upon our lives. But I think the real reason was that it was something to do with your hands. For example, I myself had two hands and I was in two bands. It all went something like this...

The best way to describe my first combo might be via the famous Buzzcocks lyric: “We came from nowhere/ And we're heading straight back there.” Fair enough in itself. But we figured we could cut out that whole middle man.

'Liverpool Explodes', a chronicle of punk history in that fair city, had just come out and been read enthusiastically by myself and my pub drinking mates. It recounted a scene built around a central notion, that music was only of any real use as a jumping-off point for daft art projects and Dadaist provocations. So practitioners would endlessly configure and reconfigure into outfits with an absurd and ludicrous name, some absurd and ludicrous stage attire and perform under some over-arching absurd and ludicrous concept. This was to be performed for one night only, then everyone involved was expected to start from scratch again. Any variance from this was, in the parlance of the day, “rockist”. Bands that tried to go on to do a second gig would be met by punk picket lines.

We considered this and decided it was a bit extreme. But only a bit, and that was where we came in. The weak link was clearly that first gig business. Cut that out and you remove even the possibility of a band performing a second. Problem over. So we formed a band with the concept that the less we actually did the truer to the purity of our vision we were. We'd sit around and discuss what sort of band we might be, in the most abstract and conceptual terms we could muster. We'd ponder, for example, the prospect of our having a name. Not, I hope you understand, consider names for possible use. Most certainly not! Instead we'd consider whether considering the possibility of a name was a violation of our most vital principle or not. Then not decide anything. Then buy more drinks.

We weren't, you see, part of the system like bands who had names and instruments assigned to individual members, or for that matter agreement on who those individual members might be. Instead our philosophy was, if you're not doing something you could be doing anything – inactivity sets you free. It was only much later I discovered that, thinking along similar lines, the Residents had figured the way their new album would sound the best would be to give it a release date of never. Everyone was then at liberty to just imagine the way they wanted it to sound. They based this on the Theory of Obscurity devised by N Senada, a Bavarian music theorist who they had made up.

Besides most bands never rise above the level of pub talk anyway, never get as far as all the sweaty business of lugging amps to rehearsals or the writing stuff down involved in booking gigs. So we already had those music-making bands outnumbered. If we kept up the not doing anything, we might be bringing the whole music industry to a grinding halt. Our way was clearly better. Mostly through being easier.

We kept this up on successive Saturday nights for many months. When I think back, it was our earlier work which was the best. In the beginning it was all about the not making any music, and later that just seemed to change somehow…

My second band were formed after I'd moved to Brighton, out of the inhabitants of my student house. You could still get grants in those days, and perhaps reflecting such enhanced purchasing power this time we had instruments. I suppose what I should have done is invite my original bandmates to come down to Brighton and picket one of our sessions. But alas I didn't think of that until just now.

Some of these were even musical instruments - an acoustic guitar, an electric bass, a harmonica and drums. Though by strict definiton the drums were really the pots and pans from the kitchen. And this distinction came to light when the poor soul who had to share the house with us came in to say he was in full support of our musical endeavours, but could he at least have a couple of pans to make his tea with. We complied and left that bit on the session tape. To cut it out would have been commercial.

In fact so far had I come on my musical journey that we even had a name – The Search for Gravity Waves, the title of a Physics textbook which sat on the shelf. We were supposed to take a different name from a different textbook for each different session, but somehow the Search for Gravity Waves stuck. Perhaps it was just too good a name to pass over. Or perhaps we were just too damn lazy to look a bit further down the shelf.

I was chief vocalist and songwriter. I expect we decided that to not be commercial. If it was that, it bloody worked. My material ranged from surrealist imagery to social realism to stuff I'd just made up. We were particularly proud of 'Everybody Does the Washing Up in Hollingdean Terrace', a salute to the excess cleanliness of our humble abode.

Our tracks were played on the local radio. But only because we played them. We talked ourselves into a slot on the student radio station, where we'd play the work of our musical heroes then our own stuff, and defy people to tell the difference. Nobody could. Probably because they weren't listening in the first place. But the point still stood.

Our model this time wasn't Liverpool punk but the Velvet Underground. They hadn't been popular in their day, but their music had later become highly influential. So if we were even more unpopular – and in our case even we didn't think we were any good – then it followed logically we'd go on to have an even more legendary status. We were destined for greatness, that much was obvious.

Now it may be objected at this point that Search for Gravity Waves are yet to achieve greatness. As you might have noticed, we seem strangely absent from Eighties nostalgia shows. But I reckon we still might make it. In fact, now I come to think of it, the pension plan is pretty much dependent on that...

Friday, 24 July 2015


The Haunt, Brighton, Tues 14th July

What happened to hip-hop... sometimes I feel it could break my heart. Pioneering bands like Public Enemy and the Wu-Tang Clan audaciously tore music apart and reassembled it in a different order, to the point where it felt there was no real putting it back together again. They unleashed rule-breaking sonic assemblages which should by any rights have sounded insanely cacophonous but for some inexplicable reason always pulled together.

But all that innovation just led to the likes of Puff Daddy (or whatever he's called this week), rhyming badly about how many consumer durables he either owns or has for sale over some randomly chosen cheesy disco track. It went from the sonic equivalent of graffiti art, colourful unexpected and transformative, to the plain tagging of a wall.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. Nothing is more conservative than a failed revolution. And perhaps it's no different to the Beatles and the Stones “influencing” Oasis. But the result is that I tend to treat hip-hop the same way I do black metal. I love the idea of it, but so rarely do I take to any actual examples I figure I'm better off sticking with the idea.

Cannibal Ox, for example, get labelled 'underground hip-hop' when they are surely the truer inheritors of the great Wu-Tang tradition. Yet as Christopher Dare said in Pitchfork they're in many ways “like a musical negative, an inverse reflection of hip-hop history, full of everything DJ's cast aside, from Sega sound effects to electro-industrialism, gear-work grooves malfunctioning, synthesizers belching, a menagerie of digitalia.”

Like both Public Enemy and the Wu-Tang Clan, they hail from New York and make urban music. Not in the marketing sense of 'made by black people and therefore most likely edgy', but reflecting the urban environment. Their classic, and until very recently only, album 'The Cold Vein' is dedicated to “New York City, the Mecca of Hip-hop” and seems inspired less by music history than by a walk around the city block.

Marshalling the insistent force of repetitive beats may inherently evoke the urban environment, as in the otherwise quite different Godflesh. Pere Ubu named an album 'Dub Housing' after seeing a street on repeat, repetitive beats evoke repetitive landscapes. But as William Burroughs said the city is itself like a real-world collage, things thrown together randomly and ever-shiftingly, and the lyrical logorrhea and sonic assemblage of Cannibal Ox's music takes in both.

'Cold Vein' slips from one line to the next between the social realism of streetwise ghetto tales, grandiosely science fiction images and Marvel comics references, never giving you the chance to catch up. (It's bizarre but not all that unusual for New York natives use both the real and the media image of city equally for inspiration, like one accentuates rather than dispels the other.) Its New York is a “rotten apple... evil at its core” and an Iron Galaxy, described by the somewhat excellently named Sumo Kaplunk as "like a wildlife documentary on the concrete jungle seen from an alien perspective”. The lyrics seem at once stream-of-consciousness surrealism (Vast Aire getting mid-way through one track, commenting he “used a word twice”, and going back to the start with a substitute term) and some fully fledged Burroughsian mythology, released in cut-up and piecemeal fashion.

“Now the environment's a product of me” they rap audaciously on 'Ox Out the Cage' (not alas, a track they perform live), which may be the key to the whole thing. It's like they've got a rhyme to counter every brick and body in the city, and figure they might as well set the lot off at once. A while ago we looked at the way George Bellows’ turn-of-the-century paintings of New York celebrated “the strenuous life”, and however different in style Can Ox’s turn-of-the-millennium music has same spirit to it – the individual in constant conflict between being crushed down by the mighty city and rising up to meet it. They become critics and embodiments of the city simultaneously, and like the city they're describing they're abrasive, overpoweringly forceful and strangely compelling all at once. Picking it as one of his favourite albums, the Guardian's Dan Hancox called it “the true soundtrack for the end times”. And its one of those releases that somehow doesn't stop, you can't imagine listening to and not hearing something new in it.

The alert reader may notice at this point in the gig review that I have not said much about the actual live performance. And its perhaps an irony of hip-hop that it started as a live affair, as a DJ and a rapper performing in a park, but soon became a studio sound. It passed quickly from its 'Hard Days Night' era to its 'Sergeant Pepper'. Part of its collage quality is to present sounds arranged at different levels, your ears assaulted from every angle. While a live PA can have a flattening and blurring effect, like watching a 3D movie without the special glasses. Indeed when their one-time collaborator, and 'Cold Vein' producer, El-P was in town I hummed and hawed over this, and ended up not going.

Their new album 'Blade of The Ronin' seems to have got the thumbsdown from critics, rather witheringly compared by Pitchfork to a new 'Paranormal Activity' sequel. Yet live I sometimes found myself favouring the new tracks, not having a recorded version in my head to hold them against.

On the other hand, rapping is about personality and the interplay of characters, possibly even more than punk. And its surprising how much being able to put a face to a voice has transformed the way I listen to 'Cold Vein'. Vast Aire is like the Chuck D of the band, an unstoppable force, gesticulatingly working the crowd as he spins lyrics. Yet Vordul Mega is less Flavour Flav than hip-hop's Brian Jones, a semi-spectral presence drifting across the stage with half-closed eyes.

I have already squirrelled away my ticket to GZA this Autumn, so expect further reports of live Hip-hop shortly...

Not from Brighton, but the classic album opener 'Iron Galaxy' from a Dutch festival on the same tour...

...and for the sake of comparison the studio version...

Barbican Centre, London, Sat 18th July

With a better claim than most to be the father of Minimalism, any appearance of the legendary Terry Riley is not something to be passed up. You would of course be disappointed if he was promising a programme of his best-loved tracks in note perfect order. But then of course his freeform methods of creating pretty much make that an impossibility from the get-go. Instead he's showing up for Station to Station, a self-styled post-Sixties Happening, where he'll compose a new piece while in situ (titled 'Bell Station III') while on view to visitors. And he'll perform it... well, this very evening. With Riley the unexpected is unsurprising.

And as he walks on he certainly looks the part, an almost perfect double for Robert Crumb's Mister Natural, even pressing his hands together when taking applause. Yet surprise arrives along with the other players. Minimalism normally operated through small ensembles, agile guerilla units against the regimented rows of symphony orchestras. Yet not only do countless players march on stage, they even bring with them a children's choir.

As the baton is passed back and forth between a solo Riley and these amassed ranks, the point of the exercise would seem to be a creative juxtaposition between the two. Yet the two were so different it was hard to even contrast them, it felt like two separate programmes spliced together. Worse, the ensemble's interruptions served to cut against the all-important mesmerising quality induced by Riley's performances.

The ensemble's pieces were palatable enough, the clear children's voices made them feel almost Christmasy (bizarrely enough for a hot July day), but in the twinkly rather than the schmaltzy sense. The best piece matched those freshwater voices against woozy jazz brass, finding a creative juxtaposition within a piece rather than between them. Yet overall they weren't especially memorable. If asked blind to guess their composer I would have suggested Sid Vicious or the guy who wrote the music for the R Whites lemonade ad before ever coming up with Riley.

Riley's solo performances took advantage of their un-ensembled nature to become more free-form, and were most likely semi-improvised. They also meshed well with Austin Meredith's film backdrop which, with its held semi-abstract images, was involving without being attention-grabbing. He swapped instruments for each piece, and for his best number took to what I assumed was an electric organ but discovered later was a synth... well he was playing it like an electric organ. The notes naturally swirled and clustered around the instrument, as if making patterns in the air. It bore a similarity to the classic 'Persian Surgery Dervishes'.

But his raga singing and prepared piano were listenable yet not exceptional. Anyone blind-dating the gig, hoping to catch up with what made Riley so important... well, in all honesty I don't think they would.

It might be overtly romantic to expect the man to still be making music as innovative and captivating as in the days of yore. It might be verging on contradictory to demand something brand new that also holds up against past triumphs. At the age of eighty, the remarkable thing might be he's still producing work at all. And ultimately it doesn't really matter. Riley's longevity was assured a long time ago, and proven more fittingly two years ago in this very venue when two separate ensembles performed two wildly different versions of his classic 'In C'. Musicians often face a dilemma between enabling new work to happen or keeping alive the great compositions of the past. With Riley's indeterminate, unprescriptive scores there's no need for such concerns. Every time someone plays one of his works it will sound new.

Events conspired against my seeing any other Station to Station events. I would have been curious to see Suicide's Punk Mass, keen for Beck and would have loved to see the Boredoms with eighty-eight cymbal players – but alas events intervened. Whether the whole event truly was a Happening or merely a festival trading under a more attention-grabbing name, I'm not really the one to ask. I retain, however, my natural skepticism. Getting to see rehearsals live seems a bit of a thing currently (PJ Harvey was also at it earlier in the year), but feels more like the logical next step from the way everything – including rehearsal tapes – now gets released. But witnessed rehearsals doesn't seem very much to do with the 'no audience' spirit of happenings. I took in two art instillations while at the complex which were notably not just bad but bad in identical ways – gimmickry stuffed with New Age platitudes.

A different performance inside a video instillation in France three years ago. Only excerpts but sounding distinctly better than the night I went to... some classic back-in-the-day footage, just because it would be foolish not to...

Friday, 17 July 2015


Union Chapel, London, Sat 11th July

'The Great Learning' was composed at the end of the Sixties by Cornelius Cardew, then the enfant terrible of contemporary music. Inevitably, an infamous performance of an early version in 1968 (in, of all places, Cheltenham) led to audience uproar. In violation of the sanctity of the concert hall there were those who yelled their disaffection at the stage, only for Cardew to happily defend their right to protest.

He was on something of a mission at the time, and it wasn't – at least not entirely – about causing upset. Stephen Miles has said he “viewed contemporary music increasingly as the occupation of a highly trained elite, completely removed from the experience of the general public. Dissatisfied with this situation for both musical and political reasons... [he] became interested in music that could bridge the gap between amateurs and professionals…. sought to create music that not only was accessible to amateurs, but that could be performed by large groups of people.”

It was created, as described in the programme “for a large number of trained and untrained musicians which includes singing, speaking, drumming, playing stones and whistles, performing actions and gestures, improvising, using conventional and unconventional instruments and other sound sources.” It was less written for the legendary experimental ensemble the Scratch Orchestra than the outcome of his work with them – the teacher was himself learning as he wrote. And indeed, Scratch Orchestra veterans Dave Smith and Michael Parsons are among the ranks in this performance.

Its division into seven “paragraphs” ostensibly comes from its basis in a Confucian text, but as the above might suggest was also a clear attempt at deromanticisation, a rejection of poetic 'verses' or musical 'movements'. Let's take those paragraphs non-chronoligally here, as they seem to fall into two broad groups.

Cardew had already fallen under the sway of American minimalism, and Paragraphs Two and Three are clearly influenced by Terry Riley – indeterminate scores whose aletaory rules grant the performers a great deal of freedom in interpretation. Three is even based around a single note, though A flat rather than Riley's C. In P2 the singers are based in four groups around a single drummer, all passing through the same notation but at their own pace. Echoes, unintended harmonies and resonances thereby pass across the space. The four groups were (as throughout the night) unamplified, using the natural acoustics of the venue rather than the wizardry of the mixing desk. The group nearest me thereby seemed to 'lead', while the effect on others would have been different. (Other performances have encouraged the audience to move about the space as a way of varying the sounds. Alas not practical for a Chapel bedecked with heavy pews.)

I once mentioned how, when I first saw Riley's 'In C' performed, “it seemed not just musically but even politically liberating. People don't have to get with the programme, they're given space to do their own thing - but within loose structures which allow them to play in accordance... The theme tune to a free world, sounding different each and every time it's played.” And that idea, implicit in Riley, is much more out in the open here. The processes which produce the piece are far more foregrounded, far more in your face – its a musical and social manifesto. Plus, P2 in particular is quite savage in tone, quite different to Riley's quiet transcendentalism. John Tilbury comments in the programme on “Cardew's commitment to social music-making”.

It suggests the way collective human activity can mimic the intricate chaotic patterns of nature. Watch the passage of people across a crowded station concourse from a high balcony, or the pattern of dancers at a free party, and its as mesmerising as watching the babbling of a brook.

Paragraph One, the source of the outrage at Cheltenham described earlier, is probably best seen as a cleanser of the palette before the Great Learning proper can begin. Truth to tell it is overlong and repetitive, and I could understand someone finding it muesli for the ears. (Plus, its hard to hear swanee whistles without thinking of 'The Clangers'.) The evening had an early start, and the multiple latecomers may have had the best of it.

Paragraph Four, however, was a game of compare and contrast against One. It was the most Sixties of all the pieces, with its ensemble sat on cushions under mood lighting. (Though some less limber veterans had to be supplied with chairs. The Sixties were a long time ago, after all.) But the particular form of Sixties it took was anti-Sixties. It was the most ritualised Paragraph of all, starting with a single player whacking a cushion, a second joining in on the second beat and so on, passing down the line then repeatedly returning to that origin point. And with its repeated iterations of the word “discipline”, the musical strokes became almost a sonic underlining of this word. With it's keep-to-the-beat rigidity, almost echoing the work songs which spawned blues, it didn't just venerate discipline but seemed an exercise in instilling it.

This insistency felt almost like the antithesis of the Sixties fixation with freedom, perhaps indicative of that point where many attempted to transcend bohemian lifestylism by trading it in for sloganistic militancy. Such a thing was to become as common as sideburns. Cardew himself adopted self-criticising Maoism, disowning the piece and instead taking up self-parodic Socialist Realist music for the masses. (It sounded like this. No, really. It really did.) Of course in retrospect its obvious enough not just that both the blissed-out hippie and the order-spewing cadre fail us, but that they're two sides of one coin that needs throwing out.

However, things are not so simple. For one, that would leave out the sheer sense of delight the piece exudes, the keen awareness of its own absurdity. At the same time as a devotion to discipline is insisted upon, the text is bent and twisted with each iteration, to an almost Dadaistic degree.

And perhaps more importantly, Cardew's later exception to the piece mainly lay in the Confucian text. True enough, in many ways he was doing something classically Sixties, assuming a foreign culture merely reflected his own needs and desires as a Western malcontent. The text could certainly be called reactionary, for reasons which needn't concern us here. (And it probably didn't help the translation came from notorious fascist sympathiser Ezra Pound.) But at the time the key line for Cardew was “they disciplined themselves”. As he said “I see such self-discipline as the essential pre-requisite of improvisation. Discipline is not to be seen as the ability to conform to a rigid rule structure, but the ability to work collectively with other people in a harmonious and fruitful way.” The piece (and 'The Great Learning' in general) transmits a collectivising energy, which creatively counters the let-it-all-hang-out individualism which plagued so much of the Sixties counter-culture. The truth is, Cardew was simply a better communist before formally deciding he was a Communist.

Not entirely by coincidence, the performers throughout adopted a particular stance – somewhere between the demonstrative impassiveness of a Brechtian drama and the trance-state of ritual initiates. It was a long way both from the performative emoting of rock musicians and the professionalised sweatless prowess of classical players.

The programme talks of Cardew's emerging “belief in the power of music not as an abstract and specialised pursuit but as a vital and essential social activity”. And if that's what's coming out of 'The Great Learning', then P4 may well be the most learned paragraphs of all. Certainly the ritualistic element was strongest, perhaps ultimately winning out over the music. With all the Paragraphs a recording wouldn't give you half the picture, they're something you really need to take in live. With P4 I'm not sure it would capture any of it at all.

And yet all this democratising music, all this foregrounding the ritual element, can it really be happening when the audience stands apart? With a ritual, shouldn't everyone present become involved? Wouldn't the swiftest way for us in the aisles to discipline ourselves be to abandon our pews and surrender to the discipline of the performance? Stephen Miles raises the question that it might seem “intended entirely for the performers’ enjoyment, that an audience is superfluous”, only to dismiss it. I'm not quite so aligned. It reminded me of something contemporary but from the more popular music realm – the Soft Machine track

”I still can’t see why people listen instead of doing it themselves
But I'm grateful all the same
You're very kind and I don't blame you
I don't mind if you just watch

When describing this sort of music, people seem to automatically take to the term ‘avant garde’. But really, I couldn’t imagine something less accurate. There's a reliance on drones and held tones, but little of the dissonance so commonly associated with contemporary music. P2 and 3 are really quite harmonious. True the indeterminate nature of the scores make for long durations, which some find challenging. But that's a matter of finding the right way of listening to it, which is less to do with listening – in the sense of mentally minute-taking - than surrendering. It's not like running a marathon, its like basking in the sun.

Above all, it’s not like gazing up at a lofty peak, which you imagine one day you might be able to ascend. It's quite the opposite, as Michael Nyman commented “it seems to recreate music from its very roots”. 'The Great Learning' is really a programme of unlearning, a deconditioning process through which we declog ourselves of all the constraining notions a proprietary society has instilled in us about music-making. Muesli for the ears? No, its tasty and its good for you!

The programme was spread over two evenings. Understandably so, for it runs to nine hours in all. But alas as I had only the time and means to attend one, Paragraphs Five to Seven remain unread for me and so I remain only half-deconditioned. Maybe next time...

P2, though not from the Union Chapel...

Saturday, 4 July 2015


…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


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


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


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.)

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...