Friday 29 December 2017


...the North Laines being Brighton's token alternative zone. (As much as Yuppie Central has an alternative zone these days.) More... in fact more from the North Laines... will follow some other day. As before, full set on 500px.

This being my third go at posting to 500px. And frankly, it's a pile of crud. Despite marketing itself as the place for the aspiring pro (and constantly trying to flog you photo lessons) it can't get the basics right. As mentioned last time, it arbitrarily sets photos into it's own order. You can rearrange them back into your original order, albeit cumbersomely, but then it sometimes just decides to rearrange them back again anyway.

Plus, when you upload it arbitrarily decides you want certain photos to be 'private'. Why you'd want to upload a private photo onto a photo-sharing site on the internet, I'm not sure. But as it won't even tell you which individual photos it's done it to, you have to go through all of them making them public.

Monday 25 December 2017


“The painting depicts a stable.

“The stable is a grotto with curiously shaped stalactites. The light that breaks – or fractures – through the cave is Chib’s red. It penetrates every object, doubles its strength, and then rays out jaggedly. The viewer, moving from side to side to get a complete look, can actually see the many levels of light as he moves, and thus he catches glimpses of the figures under the exterior figures.

“The cows, sheep and horses are in stalls at the end of the cave. Some are looking with horror at Mary and the infant. Others have their mouths open, evidently trying to warn Mary. Chib has used the legend that the animals in the manger were able to talk to each other the night Christ was born.

“Joseph, a tired old man, so slumped he seems backboneless, is in a corner. He wears two horns, but each has a halo, so it’s all right.

“Mary’s back is to the bed of straw on which the infant is supposed to be. From a trapdoor in the floor of the cave, a man is reaching to place a huge egg on the straw bed. He is in a cave beneath the cave and is dressed in modern clothes, has a boozy expression, and, like Joseph, slumps as if invertebrate. Behind him a grossly fat woman, looking remarkably like Chib’s mother, has the baby, which the man passed on to her before putting the foundling egg on the straw bed.

“The baby has an exquisitely beautiful face and is suffused with a white glow from his halo. The woman has removed the halo from his head and is using the sharp edge to butcher the baby…

“The onlookers are struck in their viscera as if this was not a painting but a real infant, slashed and disemboweled, found on their doorsteps as they left home.

“The egg has a semitransparent shell. In it’s murky yoke floats a hideous little devil, horns, hooves, tail. Its blurred features resemble a combination of Henry Ford’s and Uncle Sam’s. When the viewers shift to one side or the other, the faces of others appear: prominents in the development of modern society.

“The window is crowded with wild animals that have come to adore but have stayed to scream soundlessly in horror. The beats in the foreground are those that have been exterminated by man or survive only in zoos and natural preserves. The dodo, the blue whale, the passenger pigeon, the quagga, the gorilla, orangutan, polar bear, cougar, lion, tiger, grizzly bear, Californian condor, kangaroo, wombat, rhinoceros, bald eagle.

“Behind them are other animals and, on a hill, the dark crouching shapes of the Tasmanian aborigine and Haitian Indian…

“Ruskinson’s red face and scream of fury are transmitted over the fido...


“Why is it such an insult, Doctor Ruskinson?” the fido man says. “Because it mocks the Christian faith and also the Panamorite faith? It doesn’t seem to me it does that. It seems to me that Winnegan is trying to say that men have perverted Christianity, maybe all religions, all ideals, for their own greedy self-destructive purposes, that man is basically a killer and a perverter. At least that’s what I get out of it, although of course I’m only a simple layman, and...”

“Let the critics make the analysis, young man!” Ruskinson snaps. “Do you have a double Ph.D., one in psychiatry and one in art? Have you been certified as a critic by the government?”

From ‘Riders of the Purple Sage’ by Philip Jose Farmer

Saturday 23 December 2017


(aka ‘Should We Screw With Star Wars Lore, That Is the Question’. Another Not A Proper Review At All, which includes PLOT SPOILERS, not just for this film but dragging in some from ‘Rogue One’.)

First the confession – I was never that big a Star Wars fan. True, when the original, recently rechristened ‘A New Hope’, came out I lapped it up. But I was ten at the time. Such a long time ago it might as well have happened in a galaxy far away. I later came to put away ten-year-old things. Truth be told, every time I see it top a film poll I cringe.

So, before seeing ‘Force Awakens’ I was convinced it would be terrible. Bizarrely, the film that pioneered today’s deluge of marketing campaigns and multi-media tie-ins did have an innocence at it’s heart, which would not be easy to recapture. Star Wars might have been simple, but it wasn’t as easy as it looked. It soon had a welter of copycats, and I’m guessing only the most obsessive fan could now name even a couple of them. Years down the road? Of course it’s going to end up a mere re-enactment, something which looked like Star Wars but felt nothing like it.

Star Wars isn’t just an adventure story, it’s like it’s made up of adventure story concentrate. If I call the series the Coca-Cola of cinema I’m not actually being snarky. Well, not entirely snarky anyway. Like Coca-Cola it’s about being bright and iconic, about being instantly classic, about the experience rather than the taste. And like Coca-Cola the actual taste doesn’t vary much from serving to serving. The very problem with ‘Phantom Menace’ was that it attempted to rebrand Coca-Cola as a drink for sophisticates. Which it wasn’t, and bringing up the notion just spoilt what taste it had.

So the chief criticism of ‘Force Awakens’, that it was just more Star Wars, is actually not it’s weakness but its success. Yes it does deliver the beats of the first trilogy with slight variants, but that’s the thing that makes it Star Wars. After the prequels it was was like bringing back the old Coke. And the result is probably my personal favourite Star Wars film.

Then, before seeing ‘Rogue One’, I was convinced it would be terrible. It ticked all those boxes which were better left unticked. It’s ostensible purpose seemed to be to solve a continuity glitch. How did the rebels get the plans to the Death Star? A question which no-one has ever asked, so it seemed unclear why we needed a whole movie devoted to answering it.

Plus it was clearly applying the Snyder formulation – more grimdark = more mature = better. Well, Snyder formulation, everything you just said was wrong. We have the news for grimdark. Try to make a more mature ten year old and you just lose the ten year old. How to tell if it’s a Star Wars film... Ask yourself the question “can you feel the Force?” In ‘Rogue One’ only one, quite minor, character uses the stuff despite it supposedly being in and around everything.

And truly, it was strange watching a film tesselate so neatly against ‘New Hope’, as if continuity links had been elaborately yet pointlessly made between ‘The Never Ending Story’ and ‘Game of Thrones’.

But what it really was, was a war movie in Star Wars clothing. In the way you could re-use the sets from a sitcom for a brooding Ibsenesque psychological drama. Characters see themselves as parts of a larger struggle, and are not only willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good but actually die as a result. Rather than leaping from the jaws of defeat at the last moment, because the physical laws of their universe reward good deeds. (Jedi don’t count, as they “go to the Force” or some such, and show back up for cameos.) And as a war movie in space it was highly successful.

Whereas Star Wars draws quite a deep line between starring and supporting characters. Ultimately it’s about family not society, even if its stories are galaxy sized. Its leading characters are treated like royalty, even the once who aren’t actually given titles. Like a cosmic version of the pathetic fallacy, the outer world just exists to externalise their thoughts and conflicts.

Hence when Luke opens a Jedi “school”, for all we see Ren is his only pupil. (Though maybe that was just for the funding applications.) Hence when Poe says to Finn “you must have a thousand questions” he simply replies “where’s Rey?” Hence why, when Rey tells Luke she’s bringing him a message from the Rebellion, he responds “why are you here?” Personal motivation is all that counts. Rebellions are just pegs to hang it on.

When Finn tries a dose of ‘Rogue One’ style noble self-sacrifice, he’s derailed by Rose and told in no uncertain terms “I saved you, dummy. That’s how we’re going to win — not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.” It’s true she doesn’t specifically use the Force, but it’s so consistent with a Force-centred universe. Finn has simply forgotten the place he’s in, and has to be reminded.

So far, so Star Wars. Yet, bizarrely, it comes shortly after Admiral Holdo has sacrificed herself for the greater good! While it’s a direct sequel to ‘Force Awakens’, ‘Last Jedi’, also comes after ‘Rogue One’. And, like a student of two masters, it struggles to find the balance. Tonally it shifts, caught between a levitating rock and a hard place.

Take the introduction of the arms dealers, one per centers who’ve grown rich by supplying both sides. Before this, weapons were either highly significant heirlooms or stuff which just happens to be lying around at opportune moments. Money is just there so we can have a visual symbol of greed; it’s use is accumulating into riches, no-one needs it for living expenses. Now, suddenly, it’s revealed guns and spaceships have to be manufactured and sold.

Sometimes the film seems to be setting up this tonal clash to exploit it. The key line in ‘Force Awakens’, trailered in the trailer, was Han’s “it’s true, all of it”. The key line this time, trailered in the trailer, is Luke’s “this is not going to go the way you think.”

Poe first thinks Admiral Holdo is a gutless coward who’d rather run than fight, whereas in fact she’s brave when brave is called for but also smart when that’s required. Hence his adventurous but uncomprehending plot to go to the place to get the thing with the symbol on it then bring it all the way over there to throw it into the fiery pit at the heart of evil Mordor or whatever it was this time… anyway, that plan… that’s why it goes awry. They get the wrong thing with the wrong symbol, don’t carry it out and make the whole thing worse. A bit like a crazy, half-cocked plan like that would actually work.

Similarly, Rey’s brave plan to bank everything on the good in Ren goes awry. Rey’s parents are just who she thought they were all along. Ren’s claim here might seem suspect, it’s a convenient argument for him to make at the time. But the underground scene, where instead of answers she sees only reflections of herself, suggests he’s telling the truth. 

Contrary to Star Wars, contrary to every fairy story ever, the poor orphan girl isn’t a secret Princess at all. As everything up to now has been to suggest being a Jedi was a hereditary position, this above all things seems deliberately intended to screw with Star Wars lore. (At times it feels like the parallel storylines are channelling ’Force Awakens’ and ’Rogue One’ respectively, allowing us to have both. Yet this structure is set up only to be scuppered.)

But at others the film seems to be being made up from moment to moment. Overall, it feels like, with rival hands from two rival predecessors tugging at the wheel, the car’s going to be careering hopelessly, so they might as well capitalise on that and tell us to hang on for the ride. Necessity becomes innovation, bug becomes feature. As Rey says, you can sense the conflict in it.

I suppose I could finish this non-review by saying I expected ‘Last Jedi’ to be a worthy successor to ‘Force Awakens’ but actually found it terrible. Just, you know, to be neat. But that’s not really the case. I didn’t bother writing about ’Force Awakens’ and did about this film, which says something in itself.

And in fact those arguing the drawback of ‘Force Awakens’ was that it was too neat, too safe, and that this sequel is more compelling…. well, they have a point. Some elements work well, such as the ‘connection’ between Ren and Rey, both assuming they can bring the other over to their side. But ultimately if ’Force Awakens’ worked better ’Last Jedi’ is more interesting. Star Wars may be less classic but livelier for ’Rogue One’ chucking a live grenade in its midst.

Saturday 16 December 2017


This Spotify playlist is guaranteed festive free. Sinister Dada punks the Cravats give us both our title and the accompanying Surrealist sightseeing tour illo. Sights along aforesaid tour include an archetypically melancholic Leonard Cohen strumming a lullaby to an avalanche, Thee Silver Mt Zion predicting Trumpageddon (and, slightly more cheerily, renewal), an unusually reflective Thurston Moore, old-time country pioneers the Carter Family blowing some chewing gum, the Magentic Fields discovering the Book of Love and finding it “long and boring”, and Patti Smith taking on the other wall which divides us. We speak of course of Wall Street. Vive L'anarchie! All culminating in what Can called a "Godzilla", a mighty piledriver riff that just won't quit. In tribute to the sad deaths this year of two Can founders, Jaki Liebezeit and Holger Czukay.

Leonard Cohen: Avalanche
Low: Embrace
Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra: What We Loved Was Not Enough
Thurston Moore: Smoke Of Dreams
Martin & Eliza Carthy: The Elephant
The Carter Family: Chewing Gum
Nick Drake: Know
The Last Poets: Black Wish
The Magnetic Fields: The Book Of Love
Wire: A Mutual Friend
The Cravats: Whooping Sirens
Pink Floyd: Take Up Thy Stethoscope And Walk
Patti Smith: Glitter In Their Eyes
CAN: Bubble Rap

”...but when I get there the scene has been...”

Saturday 9 December 2017


St. George’s Church, Brighton, Fri 8th Dec

After a slightly mixed response to last seeing Eliza Carthy, I was in two minds over seeing this show. Then more recently, when seeing her in a duo with her father Martin, she thrust a flyer into my hand. While saying “I do hope you can come. My father and I never miss an update of your most splendid blog.” I have, I suspect, made some of that up. But it was still enough to make me go.

It was as different to the duo as grand is to intimate. With Martin, the times the two played together you were abundantly aware the sound was doubling up. While the Wayward Band number twelve, with two … count ‘em!, two accordion players. They line up on the back photo of the CD like the amassed servants of some old country house.

They pile into reels, jigs and shanties, lurching and careering to the point you expect the stage to start tipping. But alongside folk they draw on that other pre-rock music tradition. They can sound like a big band pounding out show tunes, even sporting that most un-folk possession a horn section. Their version of ’The Fitter’s Song’ must be the most big band an Ewan McCall song’s ever sounded. Though they wring musical variety from the multi-lineup, and ’Hug You Like A Mountain’ is as plaintive as any folk song you’ve heard.

It becomes a virtuous combination. You get the oomph and pizazz of the big band, but it never evens out the unruly raggedness of folk. Perhaps partly because the big band stuff veers to the more raucous, less refined end of the spectrum. In perhaps my most lowbrow comparison of all time, I was more than once reminded of ’The Stripper’.

It doesn’t sound much like Tom Waits, but has the same ability to punch out thumping beats or serve up killer tines while still coming from left field. The Wayward Band, I suppose I am trying to say, are wayward and band-like.

Official BBC sessions! (No shonky i-phone footage)...

Royal Festival Hall, South Bank, London, Wed 6th Dec

Stockhausen seems to have had something of a penchant for formal structures, with opening piece ’Zodiac’ divided into a series of mini-compositions representing each star sign. This unfortunately gave it a bittiness, and overall it became something of a B feature. The programme explained it was originally written for music boxes, back in ‘74, and only much later reworked for orchestra. (So much later that there’s only ten movements, him dying before he could complete them.) And perhaps it worked better in that original format.

Anyone foolish enough to follow my infrequent forays into contemporary music will be aware I’m a know-nothing on music theory I just jump straight to the more subjective question of how hearing it makes me feel. Happily, then, that would seem about the best approach to ’Trans’ (1971).

A central conceit is that many of the musicians are hidden. You see the amassed string players, holding a tone not much more than a drone, while the brass are invisible to you. The rock music equivalent would be spotlighting the bass player while the singer and lead guitarist still do their stuff. Like a twist on a film, ideally you wouldn’t know that in advance. But even when you do, you cannot help but keep trying to reconcile what you see with what you hear. And that, somewhere between an interchange and a mismatch, seems where the work is set. The brass would rise above the strings but never quite break away from them, as if unable to finish what it built.

In a piece inspired by a dream, the string tone is reminiscent of the high-pitched whine films often employ to signify dream states. But also, with the many players repeating the same single movement like automata, it became like one of those fairy stories where the people of a land are placed in a bewitched stupor.

To which is added the regularly repeating thud of a loom. In a neat piece of sound design, while all the music comes from the stage this seems to break in from outside. To me it became the voice of the spell they were under, not any commanding individual but the crack of the whip made animate.

Individual players would break away at intervals, like a child playing up in class. They’d be looked upon uncomprehendingly by the blank-faced others, before resignedly falling back in line. It was suggested in the programme this was in part a parody of the workaday world of professional orchestras. Indeed, one player brought sheet music suddenly burst into a flurry of expressive playing, only to stop suddenly as the music stand was snatched away from him again.

In a piece set in a world between, it seems significant and appealing there’s no way to label the piece. The visual elements and sound design are significant enough that merely listening would not give you the full picture. The programme calls it “as much a piece of theatre as… a musical composition”, which doesn’t sound quite right. Instead imagine an installation work which is fixed in duration.

...which makes four Stockhausen pieces in recent weeks, of which three were not only extremely inventive but highly distinct, almost entirely different to one another. What little Stockhausen I’ve heard has suggested to me it runs the full gamut, from sublime to unlistenable. But there’s treasures in there, it seems.

Coming soon! Something other than gig-going adventures...

Saturday 2 December 2017


Con Club, Lewes, Fri 24th Nov

This was my third sight of Faust, legendary Krautrock outfit and (in my humble opinion) credible contender for the most important band in the history of everything, ever. 

Hans Joachim Irmler, as seen with the late great Jaki Liebezeit a couple of years ago, is unfortunately absent from the current line-up. But main men Zappi Diermaier and Jean-Herve Peron remain, with Amaury Cambuzat of Ulan Bator, who’s now played with them since 2005. Between three and five additional figures also appear, depending on the track. (One of whom turns out to be Peron’s daughter.)

A typical track – if there was such a thing – sets sail on a mind-melting, metronomic riff, which finds total intensity while still finding the space within itself to move around. Though there’s also a klanking number with… well, numbers intoned over the top in various languages, which reminds you Faust were doing industrial music before there was industrial music. Another starts with caveman chanting and develops with both guitar and bass bowed, creating an unearthly drone. Plus there’s one – though only one – trademark free-noise freakout, with power tools enlisted as instruments.

They play few classic numbers, with the ones they do pick up often radically reworked. A version of ’Mamie Is Blue’ really takes only the chorus chant. While J’ai Mal Aux Dents’, handed to keyboardist Geraldine Swayne to sing, is less agitated and more stripped-down, hyper-compressed funk. Peron claims afterwards they only decided to do it while backstage. My knowledge of post-reformation Faust is woeful, but they would seem to treat more recent numbers the same way. ’C’est… C’est… Complique’ for example is quite a different beast from the CD I bought from the merch stall.

Which seems essential to Faust, who were the arch-antagonists of the formulaic. ’J’ai Mal Au Dents’ simply has to sound stream-of-consciousness, a flurry of nonsense words, just to sound like itself. The band always insisted even the recorded versions which made it to their LPs weren’t definitive, but just snapshots of a work perpetually in progress. Try to put Faust in a box, and they’d shred the thing from inside while simultaneously making music out of it.

As the night goes on, I start to see the double act of Zappi and Peron as a two-faced coin. The upbeat Peron stands upstage, smiling, engaing with the audience, while the silent hulk of Zappi hunches over his drumkit, samples and electronics. Sometimes the elements he introduces seem to take the rest of the band by surprise as much as anyone, as if he’s a disruptive devil clown, the diabolic figure on the other shoulder. Faust were one of the most Dadaist of bands, and like the Dadists it was ever ambiguous whether they wanted to make music or destroy it. In the sleevenotes to ’C’est… C’est… Complique’ Peron writes of their method as “to make intention and hazard match”.

But tonight at least it seems to be Peron’s face flipping upwards. (I’d say the Peronist tendency, but that might be prone to misinterpretation.) It’s more creative than destructive, in fact the experience is ultimately joyous and exhilerating. In a year which took from us all but one of the founder memebrs of Can, it’s heartening to see Faust still firing on all cylinders.

Part of the legendary freak-out ’Krautrock’

The Haunt, Brighton, Sat 25th Nov

If there’s less for me to say about Metz than Faust, that’s partly because I’ve already blogged about the first time I saw them, five years ago. It may be true they also do less than Faust. But then they do what they do so effectively, repeatedly whacking nails straight on the head. Metz are good old-fashioned, no-nonsense noisy punk rock. They make noise, it’s their choice, it’s what they wanna do.

A few extra thoughts since last time…

Their sound is definitely powered by the furious drumming. It’s not in Lightning Bolt territory where they become the lead instrument. But that no-quit drumming heat things up so relentlessly the guitars can’t do much else other than dance on the hot coals.

They rarely go in for instrumental breaks, most songs are short and punchy. But when they do they work so well, with the guitars coming into their own, you wish they’d go into them more often. And this isn’t a bad example, not from Brighton (unusual though that is) but their home turf of Toronto...

Coming soon! Yes, really... more gig-going adventures...

Saturday 25 November 2017


Barbican Centre, London, Mon 20th Nov

Unlike the electronica or expanded (or even multiplied) orchestras for which Stockhausen is most known, ’Stimmung’ is small in scale, featuring six voices accompanied only be each other. But in it’s own way, it’s as legendary as ’Gruppen’. The programme calls it “the first major Western composition to be based entirely on the production of vocal harmonies”.

In the Guardian, Andrew Clements complained 
“Despite its sophistication and influence, [it] now seems a bit of a period piece… as much a product of the 60s as Afghan coats and flares.”

Perhaps there are things which are both influential and period pieces, but it’s still somewhat odd to concede a work is “one of the starting points for the spectralism movement” before tying it so inexorably to joss sticks and lava lamps. Particularly when spectralist composers such as Haas or Dumitrescu are not only still composing, but remain at the top of their game.

But more to the point, while we think more of popular music as epitomising it’s era there’s no reason why contemporary music can’t be as zeitgeisty. And ’Stimmung’ now seems inseparable from the Silicon Chip Spiritualism found in Seventies science fiction, when computers were forever being called Zen. (Or at least the extended Seventies, which allows us to include the piece’s first performance in 1968.) And any resemblance, at least in my lowbrow mind to the conjuration by chanting scene in Planet of the Spiders’ was enhanced by the singers sitting around and being lit by a glowing orb, like some futuristic scrying glass. (Well, a touch of soft stage lights too.)

Each section starts with a singer in turn intoning a single word, which can be a divinity but also a day of the week. Similarly to Steve Reich’s ’Different Trains’, the cadences of the word then determine the section, as the other singers harmonise around it. When the initial singer figures they’re done, they pass on to the next in line.

The sense what we’re hearing is glossolalia for the space age is enhanced when some spoken word sections are in German. (Which seems to be becoming a habit of mine.) I figured at the time that actually enhanced the piece, and you should really be listening to the sound of the words rather than the words themselves. And later, coming across Stockhausen’s Sixth Form ‘erotic’ poetry in the programme, I realised I had figured right.

It’s enthralling to find so much mileage in the human voice, whole sonic spaces thrown up when the six voices all pitch in. There’s the feeling it’s doing something new and strange while simultaneously returning to the roots of music. It’s as if strangeness isn’t foreign and distant but all about us, waiting for us to open up and notice it.

Yet, even though I’ve been known to sing the praises of duration in music, eighty minutes was admittedly too long, particularly for what was essentially a series of miniatures with no underlying structure. As the voices orbited one another I did get lost in it, but before those eighty minutes were up I wanted my way out.

’Cosmic Pulses’ is from Stockhausen’s later period, where everything was organised around two meta-works. This dates from 2006/7 and forms part of the second of them, ’Klang’.

It turns out to be, in a crafty piece of programming, to be ’Stimmung’s polar opposite, a hugely expansive all-electronic piece. If ’Stimmung’ was like Blake’s “infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour ’Cosmic Pulses’ was… well, the name says it all.

Twenty-four electronic loops rotate between eight sensurround speakers set around the auditorium, introduced and phased out one at a time but progressing at different speeds. The programme includes Stockhausen’s score for the piece, a neat and ordered mathematical grid. The piece is anything but.

It starts out like some cross between aliens landing and sets of peeling bells on brown acid, mighty sounds still skittering around the space. As the loops build up it becomes harder and then impossible to discern individual sounds, and the work achieves absolute delirium. As Robert Henke puts it in the programme “when you encounter the work, it’s a vibrant and colourful composition, in no way a mathematical exercise. It is one of electronic music’s great experiences: an overwhelming, visceral, sonic maelstrom in the total immersion of surround sound.”

And speaking of Henke, he provided the accompanying ‘laser art’, projected across the auditorium’s ceiling. Henke concedes in the same programme the risks of “superimpos[ing] any sonic of colour qualities onto the piece.”

But the display is effective through it’s fidelity to the structure of the music. Three laser beams shot from each speaker, varying only in colour and thickness. At the height of the maelstrom they started to splay concentric circles on the opposite wall. The conceptual purity of it reminded me of Lis Rhodes’ ‘Light Music’ installation at the Tate.

And the display underlined what an installation piece this was, irreducible to YouTube clips or home stereo systems. The Barbican were not sales pitching when they said “this is music that demands to be heard – and felt – live.” After the effective but elongated ’Stimmung’ this half-hour composition was like the cake after the sandwiches.

Unlike ’Stimmung, ‘Cosmic Pulses’ is not only devoid of words or human hands, but untethered to any era. Whether it’s a peer into the strangeness of Stockhausen’s head or a genuine glimpse of the immensity of it all I could tell you not.

The Haunt, Brighton, Sun 19th Nov

Before the gig I joke with a friend that I’m seeing the only punk band less musical than Crass. If the Fugs had only performed their exorcism of the Pentagon, never bothering releasing albums or playing regular gigs, they’d be something like Pussy Riot.

And some go on from there to see Pussy Riot as political activists only, which seems to me to drive past the point without even looking out of the window. Much like the Fugs, they were great devisers of memorable images. Their uniform, the colourful home-made balaclava and strap dress combo, combines the assertive, the playful, the DIY and anti-star anonymity all into one. While also riffing on the classic punk tactic of taking images of femininity and twisting them, as used by bands like the Slits and Huggy Bear. Really, sometimes the whole being in a band part of being in a band is the irrelevant bit.

And this matters because images matter, because they can have political effects beyond politics. Party political broadcasts spend little time on the niceties of policy, in the same war car adverts don’t focus on fuel efficiency. Talk to any regular person about politics and you soon see why, it quickly becomes obvious their opinions aren’t based on graphs and statistics at all. 

But while their images seek to establish brands, ours need to stimulate. Pretty much from the off, I felt at odds with the rote sloganising of Trot groups. They were moribund, while the politics I wanted to engage with were about seizing the imagination.

This performance, not really a gig, features Punk Prayer performer Maria Alyokhina, and has been described as “fevered monologues underpinned by real footage and frenetic noise-punk.” She and her fellow performers spit out the story in punchy, slogan-sized chunks, phrases often repeated for effect, against pumping sax and keyboards and a filmshow. (They speak-sing in Russian, with the film translating.)

That’s a description which might strike fear into those who survived the Eighties, when agit-prop made for so much bad art and worse politics. But actually a story we all know well becomes powerful and involving. By accident or design she humanises the story just enough to make it engaging, while presenting it not as a re-enactment but a call to arms. At points their methods are made into a bulleted DIY guide, while the T-shirts state “you could be Pussy Riot”. It has the punkish mixture of antagonising and galvanising.

The polemicisation does mean the performance rattles past questions you might like to ask. What domestic effect did they hope to have, and how do they see that now? Was the collective member who initially commented they’d be “hated” prophetic, or just missing the point? Does any of it translate to what needs doing here in the West? Or is the Punk Prayer inspiration rather than example?

But it’s the performance equivalent of a single, not an album track. (Alyokhina has also written a book, which may go into more detail.) And punk was all about single-like immediacy, coming on as a shock to the system, assuming it was pressing down on a society whose heart had stopped beating.

The Con Club, Lewes, Sat 18th Nov

It’s been five years since I last saw The Men They Couldn’t Hang, though a full thirty-three years since their formation. (Not counting the part of the Nineties where they were out of action.) By now they really should be called The Men They Still Couldn’t Hang. And it may be true they’ve not changed their tune much over the years, remaining in the folk/roots/rock/punk vortice. There’s new songs, but they stick to the style of the old ones.

But here that becomes positive thing. They’ve kept their rough-edged choral singing, added a sawing violin and so retained their ragged singalong unity. Their best-known track, the reflective ‘The Green Fields of France’, isn’t particularly representative. Their sound’s more the opposite of the marching fascist boots they sing of in ’Ghosts of Cable Street’. They’re similar to the Mekons but are less poetic, more immediate and streel-level. They sound, in the best possible way, like an unruly mob. And whose better at rabble-rousing than a rabble?

Their schtick was always about presenting history as something ongoing, not something which had happened but something you made and remade. (A powerful idea in the Eighties, when all was supposed to be so shinily new.) So they’d sing about the First World War one number and the Miners’ Strike the next. Which makes it slightly strange to think that both of those events are now part of history.

But, less than a month after seeing Godspeed and commenting how political music mustn’t get stuck in a timewarp, there’s something appealing about this motley lot’s sheer resilient obstinancy. It’s like that scene in kung fu films where the hero, beset and waylaid by events, has to go back to his master and reorient himself. While everyone else is talking about demographics and chasing trends, let’s me and you stick to something...

’Iron Masters’, not from Lewes...

Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar, Brighton, Thurs 26th Oct

The original Telescopes were a Nineties outfit, associated with shoegaze, signed (inevitably enough) to Creation records, whose output in all honestly I know not. But since 2010 frontman Stephen Lawrie has revived the name. A reformation gig with One Unique Signal was mentioned briefly… very briefly by me at the time.

Lawrie’s mid-gig claim “this is rock ‘n’ roll” was perhaps one of those post-ironic statements. For he’s pioneered a style of ‘shoegaze singing’ where he hunches over the mike, his moving around less dominating the stage and more finding a spot in the melee. The vocals aren’t high in the mix, and are sometimes merely screams. For his part the bassist often sat crosslegged on the floor. The band in general seem uninterested in the subject of the audience, like the event’s more outlet than performance, which is about as anti-rock ‘n’ roll as you can be.

Combined with the thumping noise rock, twin guitarists and bassist locked into metronomic riffs, their individual sounds indistinguishable. It’s like listening to an introverted explosion, full of power yet not pressing outwards. One number is a freeform wail of feedback guitar and effects pedals, like something from the midsts of ‘Tago Mago’.

On individual tracks they ratchet up the intensity to the max, then find that elusive eleven on the dial. But, alas, equipment problems distract from the start of the gigt and they then don’t play for long enough. And this is music which needs to draw on you. First you spy it from far away, as if through a telescope, then it’s gravity takes a slow inexorable hold of you. (See what I did there?) As it was it felt like a taster, leaving you with a feeling of a nail there to be struck but not quite nailed.

The garage psych of support band Has A Shadow should also be mentioned in dispatches. Rather than provide swirls and flourishes, the keyboards punch out the beat. The lines are so insistently repetitive the player could keep her eyes closed throughout, and mostly does so. While squalls of effects-driven guitars swell around her. They use the slow lurching tempos of the Fall, like a lumbering giant staggering drunk, leaving you feeling mesmerically trapped in the headlights of the advancing track.

From Liverpool, with cool freak-out op-art lightshow absent from Brighton...

...and speaking of One Unique Signal...

Sticky Mike’s Frog Bar, Brighton, Sat 4th Nov

Described by Wikipedia as noise rock, and though a mere four-piece (guitar, bass, drums and a Throbbing Gristle-like cornet), with heavy utilisation of multiple effects pedals and justgeneral heaviness this band throws up a big sound.

But the noise tag’s not quite right, for they specialise in those catchy riffs which while bass-driven almost double as melodies. Imagine if New Order had early on decided to abandon songs for stretched-out tracks, free-form at the same time as metronomic. The (very) brief occasions they go in for vocals, they are in that intonatory early New Order style.

Stage presence seems less a concern than it did for the Telescopes. At times they get so busy with effects pedals feet become inadequate for the purpose and they hunch over them heads bowed and hands raised. Individual tracks are long and slowbuilding. All of which adds to the time it takes for the music to draw you in. But draw you in it does…

There’s a spaciousness and a remorselessness to it which reminds me of when films drift slowly around dilapidated buildings. It’s often a feature of good bands that they can drag you into their own timezone, so when the gig’s over the return to the regularly paced world is jolting.

Another light show us Brightonians didn’t get…

Coming soon! Yes, really... more gig-going adventures!

Saturday 18 November 2017


Attenborough Centre For the Creative Arts, Falmer, Sat 11th Nov

Before the review proper, two quite hefty caveats. Factory Floor found themselves unable to perform their soundtrack live as originally intended, through circumstances which may well have been unavoidable. But rather than offering ticket-holders either refund or discount, the venue instead promised a fiver off a future show. None of which I’ve any interest in seeing. I’d have probably still gone had a refund been offered, but that was the thing to do in the circumstances.

Then, only after the film began, did it become clear it was being shown without English subtitles. (Yes, I do know the story. Not the point.) I imagined at the time that must have been an affectation of the band’s, perhaps some notion of ‘authenticity’. But YouTube footage (clip below) shows them performing to a subtitled version. Such shoddy behaviour probably wouldn’t put me off something I really wanted to see, but I’ll be avoiding ACCA for impulse purchases. Fool me twice, shame on you.

Dan O'Bannon famously said “I didn’t steal ’Alien’ from anywhere, I stole it from everywhere”. Similarly, as an early classic of science fiction cinema ’Metropolis’ (1927) hasn’t influenced anything so much as everything. It would be harder to find something, film or visual art, which didn’t bear it’s imprint to some degree. The maschinenmensch (as it’s called without subtitles) isn’t just the poster girl of the film but an icon of science fiction in general. She unsurprisingly featured in the Barbican’s recent science fiction exhibition.

And it’s a film whose meaning is on the surface, residing in it’s images rather than the somewhat haphazard plot. Nevertheless, for the few who don’t know... protagonist Freder, despite being the son of the “Master”, resolves to explore the lower depths of the titular future city. In this way he’s quite an Orwellian figure, a toff who doesn’t plonk flags on distant lands but ventures into the parts of his own society he’d normally be kept away from. Certainly, he explains his motives with “I wanted to look into the faces of the people whose little children are my brothers, my sisters.” And by co-incidence, Orwell’s experiences which came to be written up as ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’, though not published till ‘33, were pretty much contemporary to this.

On the other hand he may just be mindful he’s talking to his father here, for he actually goes to the Lower City chasing a girl. In fact he’s something of an Alice, with Maria his ever-out-of-reach white rabbit. He spends much of his time wandering through a world incomprehensible to him. There’s a repeated motif of him staggering a few steps forwards, magnetised by some new sight, then stumbling to a bewildered halt. He’s beset by visions, which at one point leave him bed-ridden. Only in the third act does he switch into a more conventional heroic role. For most of the time he’s less do-er than witness. And in many ways our reaction, both to city and film, is his.

Let’s pull back slightly, to that much-celebrated opening montage. It’s largely effective because it makes clear ’Metropolis’ is primarily about Metropolis. To paraphrase the Red Queen, all the ways around the city belong to the city itself. The montage suggests it’s less architecture than mechanism, moving to a clockwork order. Later it seems that the cars that cross the high carriageways are themselves part of the machine, stopping as abruptly as it does, like it’s all some life-size diorama. Most of these workings are invisible to it’s population, or at least to the top-dwelling toffs, like the pipes and wires in our homes are hidden from our view. But it’s laid bare to the viewer from the start.

Like that earlier German silent classic ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’, ‘Metropolis’ could be said to use the artifice of cinema to convey the alienation of the contemporary urban environment. The workers are shown as ancillary to their machines, shuffling to and from shifts as if on a production line themselves. Fredersen may be the city’s “Master”, his office holding a commanding view. But it’s so large, it’s doors not just oversize but with handles absurdly high, it’s as if he’s trying to sport a suit too big for him. He issues commands, but is more often taken by surprise by events.

As part of this machine motif clocks, dials, maps, diagrams and numbers are everywhere. And yet there’s also hallucinations, catacombs, cathedrals and an ending borrowed pretty much wholesale from ’The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ (1923). Freder’s frequent hallucinations, rather than being delineated as Hollywood flashbacks would, permeate their surroundings until the whole film becomes a phantasmagoria. The frequent montages enable their spread. Despite the setting characters don’t wear the futuristic tunics we now expect from science fiction but contemporary clothes. They even drive contemporary cars, as if in an achronic dream where realities are jumbled up.

In the famous sequence where Freder takes over a worker’s shift the task (pointing clock arms at alternately lit bulbs) seems less purposeful labour and more fairground game. On release, no less than HG Wells accused it of “muddleness about mechanical progress and progress in general.” But he was forcing his own expectations on the film, then lambasting it for his failure to make them stick.

For, and again like ‘Dr Caligari’, beneath the futuristic surface it’s a self-consciously Gothic story. The workers have their own city “deep below the earth’s surface”. (No, not quarters. Their own underground city.) But beneath those lie the catacombs. And Metropolis is portrayed as but the reprise of Babylon, doomed to relive it’s doom. (The film evokes then plays fast and loose with the Biblical Babylon, but then that tale had become a folk meme long before.) All of which enables the Gothic tropes of the present never truly overwriting the past and the ego never truly overcoming the id, made manifest by the rising waters which flood the workers’ city.

The two collide most clearly in Rotwang, deranged inventor and villain of the piece. He’s the most pro-active character in the film, certainly more than the witness Freder, the so-called Master or the counsellor of inaction Maria. Yet, in a typical paradox, he hasn’t built this city but instead plans to destroy it. His activity he uses disruptively. His house isn’t at all futuristic but like a cottage from a folk tale, complete with pentagram on the door. When Freder is trapped there, it seems to happen more by magic than science. The trapdoor it contains, allowing him to pass between the levels of the city, make him quite a shamanic figure. In some ways his role is similar to the Joker’s in ’Dark Knight’, he arrives late to the film and seems set on systematically wrecking anything and everything around him.

He plans to achieve this, naturally enough, by building a robot duplicate of the saintly Maria – in order to lead the workers astray. The sheer bizarreness of the machine Maria being the sexy one is played up as she dances at the Yoshiwara club, actor Brigitte Helm giving her exaggerated hyper-sexualised movements at the same time as strange jerks of the head. These seem at the same time deeply weird and uncannily prophetic of modern pop videos. (Wikipedia lists videos by Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Lady Gaga as directly influenced by her.) 
The strangeness is perhaps exceeded only by the burning of a bad robot at the stake.

‘Metropolis’ is very much an industrial era film, it’s mighty mechanical parts issuing great flurries of steam stemming from a time where machinery genuinely risked exploding. Whereas the score is provided by electronica outfit Factory Floor, described by Wikipedia as post-industrial. Even their name recalls Factory Records which, as every post-punk trainspotter knows, was named after all the contemporary “factory closing down” signs.

Yet that becomes precisely what makes the soundtrack so effective. It’s a cliché of course to claim electronic music is “about alienation”, but then cliches are often like coins made grubby from too much handling - a little polishing can bring back their shine. But more importantly its ‘haunted machine’ aesthetic contains hints of human voices and traces of more conventional instruments, violins from Venus.

Hollywood devices, such as giving each character their motif, would be worse that useless here. If this soundtrack was a character from the film it would either be the city itself or Rotwang, with his one human and one robot hand. It’s also quite unperformative, frequently unafraid to be repetitive when that’s enough to evoke the required mood. At the end, rather than finish on a flourish it slowly ebbs away, in fact lasting longer than many in the audience.

Alas, however, there’s times where it falls into disco beats. Which are not only intrusive but way too rock video, making the film appear some Gothic dystopian version of ‘Jailhouse Rock’. The end of the second act particularly suffered from these. At which point I feared for the finale, though happily that worked much better.

(Admittedly, I may have baggage here. I endured the period where it was only possible to see this film via the 1984 Giorgio Moroder version, with Freddie Mercury and Bonnie Tyler warbling away over it. Which seemed a worse fate than not being able to see it at all.)

It’s possibly a mark of the effectiveness of the soundtrack that I saw the film so much through it’s filter. (Seeing it un-subtitled may also hold a sway, pushing you away from the plot to see the film as a cascade of images. Even if it’s pretty much like that anyway.) And, perhaps unsurprisingly for our times, that filter filters out much of its political implications.

...and there we might have left it. Yet the film continued to marinate around in my brain. So please consider the rest of this review an optional extra after Factory Floor left the building...

On release, it was not just re-cut but, by altering the inter-titles, rescripted to remove allegedly communist sympathies. While Goebbles lauded the film, claiming it heralded how "the political bourgeoisie is about to leave the stage of history.” Which seems particularly bizarre in retrospect. The ordered, autocratic world of ’Metropolis’ seems to us more a warning of the incoming fascist regime than a commentary on its contemporary Weimar world. Had it been a truly fascist film surely Freder would have deposed his weak-willed Father, and ruled by imposing his will but on the workers’ behalf. Was Goebbles simply engaged in the typical fascist activity of territorial annexation?

The workers are shown to be not just enlisted but themselves destroyed by the forces of production, as much fuel as they are parts. Bad Maria has a point when she says “Who is the living food for the machines in Metropolis - ? Who lubricates the machine joints with their own blood - ? Who feeds the machines with their own flesh - ? Let the machines starve, you fools - ! Let them die - ! Kill them - the machines - !” This in itself is a genuinely communist statement, for all that it’s wrapped up in Gothic trappings. But then how are those workers depicted?

Unsurprisingly the good/bad Marias are included in TV Tropes’ examples of the Madonna Whore complex. (Though, for some reason, bad Maria doesn’t make the cut for Evil is Sexy.) But, at their beck and call of both Marias, the workers effectively take up the same dichotomy. They either sacrifice themselves to the machines (literalised in Freder’s vision) or destroy them in a deranged frenzy, oblivious to the warning that this means destroying themselves.

Crowds are a mass of bodies reduced to a single head. (And someone should really compare Bad Maria’s suggestive stirring up of the workers to Lenin’s speechifying in ’October.’) Class revolt is reduced to brute urges. Could the workers could use the machines for their own ends, or make their own machines more to their liking? Not something which come up.

And how does the film end? With the phrase “HEAD and HANDS need a mediator. THE MEDIATOR BETWEEN HEAD AND HANDS MUST BE THE HEART!” (The film’s capitals.) Fredersen's problem is not that he’s autocratic or exploits the workers, but that he’s remote, unknowing and hence uninterested. But Freder, now he’s visited the workers’ city, can be that mediator. Society doesn’t need reorganising, the body politic just requires pulling together. Now we can all get along.

And for a film with such a strange love-hate relationship to machines, this patented fix is very mechanistic. For the thing to work all the parts need to be synched up. The main machine set, the one we see the workers destroy, is even called the Heart machine – as if one heart replaces another.

So the slightly less exciting answer is that the film is neither communist nor fascist but mainstream social democratic. Yet it was made in a time when communism was still making its presence felt. Revolution was not the threat it had been a decade earlier, but strong workers’ organisations persisted. So the film becomes like a magic spell where the workers rise up only to be assuaged, the more likely for that to be the result in real life. But its understanding of communism is equivalent of mine to German inter-titles – a pidgin communism, inadequate to the point of parodic. It’s seen as little more than the cry for help from the attempted suicide, filtered through some fear of the crowd.

And it’s precisely the engagement with this pidgin form of communism which makes the film so attractive to fascism. Fascism only came to power in countries with strong worker’s movements. It’s in essence a spoiler product for revolution, which must always dress it’s anti-revolutionary essence in revolutionary clothing. Goebbles’ quote above makes that perfectly clear. (Scriptwriter Thea von Hourben later embraced the Nazis, proving how easy was the slippage.)

And those references to the body politic as a metaphor for social cohesion, particularly when phrased in terms of calls to the workers, though here social democratic in expression – they hand some of that clothing to fascism. Having to take up some of the more formal aspects of communism while opposing it’s content, that effectively left fascism without a content. 

As Gilles Dauve commented “It's significant that fascism defined itself first as a form of organisation and not as a program. Its only program was to unite everyone into fasces, to force together all the elements making up society.” A Nazi speechmaker once genuinely said: "We don't want lower bread prices, we don't want higher bread prices, we don't want unchanged bread prices—we want National Socialist bread prices!"

Fascism is the fetishisation of unity masquerading as a programme. And Freder’s well-intentioned interventions in visiting the Lower City, they would help pave it’s path.

The classic montage opening (note, ACCA, with subtitles)…

Saturday 11 November 2017


...this time off Brighton's London Road. This is the second time the full set has been uploaded to 500px, after Yahoo turned out to be a bunch of thieving bastards. Main drawback so far... which seems quite a big one... is that it uploads your pictures in a random order. Previously, I'd numbered the pics before uploading, then deleted the numbers once they were up. 500px seems to delete the numbering itself, which would be fine if it didn't then ignore the order. You can rearrange them yourself, but that's clunky and time-consuming. I tried to Google a fix for this, but only found more people complaining it couldn't be done.

Coming soon! More gig-going adventures...

Saturday 4 November 2017


Brighton Dome, Mon 23rd Oct

After me telling everyone who would listen that Godspeed had reached their apogee through ditching the pseudo-classicism for greater sonic adventurism, they’ve come out with their most classical album yet! ‘Luciferian Towers’ stays on the same post-hiatus roll as it’s predecessors, but seems much more influenced by at least the non-rock music sometimes umbrella-termed as ‘classical’. You can hear Morricone in ’Anthem For No State’ and perhaps even a touch of Gershwin in the title track.

As is their wont, they play a near two hour set which includes the new album in full. Though it’s probably significant that their last two releases have been their shortest. (Forty and forty-four minutes respectively.) To generalise more than a little, much early Godspeed seemed primarily about dynamics so required duration to make it’s moves in. Expansiveness was its home turf. Whereas the new tracks go a lot further in less space, do more in less time.

‘Fam/Famine’, for example, starts with a violin and double bass duet that could come from a recital. But the other instruments slowly pour in, overcoming the distinct melodic lines, like the sea breaching and dissolving a sandcastle. It’s one of the band’s most serene tracks. Though at other points they use more popular music devices, such as locking some instruments in a holding pattern and moving others around them.

The two old tracks of their last appearance is now down to one - ‘BBF3’ off ‘Slow Riot’. And, though the tour setlist seems to have varied a little from night to night, that’s a pattern they pretty much held to. 
Which, to be honest, still seems one too many for me. Pastures new are so much richer, it makes me wonder if they feel obliged to retain at least one of the taped spoken word sections they used to be so known for.

The accompanying film show (projected as they’re always keen to point out, by a full band member) starts with the word “Hope”, passes through industrial, natural and abstract scenes before ending up with riot footage. Which is reminiscent of the “grand demands” which accompanied the new album’s press release. And yet despite such anarchist affiliations, their shows couldn’t be any less like those hardcore or anarcho-punk gigs of old. By chance a friend was on security that night, who confessed afterwards that from a crowd control standpoint the night was such a non-event she nearly fell asleep.

But there’s a reason for that, in fact quite a good one. People are keen to pin many and seemingly contradictory labels on the band – funereal, anthemic, apocalyptic, euphoric – that perhaps we should stop trying to sort them out and see that as the point. As said after the last gig: “You're never sure whether Godspeed's tumultuous sound is of something collapsing or being built up, or even if there's that much difference between the two.”

The late Sixties might have been the last time songs could come over as genuinely insurrectionary - ‘Volunteers’, ‘Five To One’ and all the rest. Even by the punk days, like adulterated street speed, the agitation was already being cut with nihilism. True, corners of anarcho-punk kept up the “rise up” rhetoric. But that just confirmed what bubble worlds they lived in, their sound and fury signifying nothing.

Whereas the music of Godspeed, grandeur combined with ambiguity, perhaps sums up our era. All we can be sure of is that things cannot possibly stay the same, our only certainty the lack of certainty. What happens next we may not know until it’s upon us. As the band themselves said in a Guardian interview: “We're at a particular junction in history where it's clear that something has to give: problem is that things could tip any which way. We're excited and terrified.” 

The gig poster I associate with the lightning-struck Tower of the Tarot, transferred to suburbia. The projected word ‘Hope’ which starts the show is not rendered in the big block letters of the Obamacists’ favourite poster. It looks like it’s been crudely scratched into a wall. The image of it is flickering, tentative.

In another of the aspects of the Sixties which now seems strange to us, musicians were seen as figureheads if not leaders. Whereas Godspeed are almost anonymous, band members entering the stage one by one to add to a slow building drone, playing (as ever) in a circle in near-darkness, exiting without fanfare, never acknowledging the audience. The lyrics, the place from where the rallying calls came to be made, are entirely absent. True there is something post-modern to it all. It seems less new music than setting existing music in new forms, but perhaps some of that is inevitable. It’s tumultous music for tumultuous times.

And if you take to this, part of ’Bosses Hang’ from Glasgow…

…you may like this. The full show from Rennes…

The Haunt, Brighton, Fri 27th Oct

Wire were among the most archetypical of the British post-punk bands; inscrutably cool, rigorously impatient of cliché and the done-before, dismissive of excess, ceaselessly intellectually curious, firing out furiously nonsensical lyrics seemingly plundered from a Dadaist’s scrapbook, passionate and dispassionate in equal measure. We in Lucid Frenzy HQ have been lucky enough to see them three times before, and blogged about them twice.

Now it seems they’ve somehow reached their fortieth anniversary. (Well, discounting a five-year hiatus in the Eighties.) Though they have a new album out, ’Silver/Lead’, such is the breadth of musical ground they cover I figure they must be turning the occasion over to their history. In fact, a post-gig perusal of setlist sites suggest they do play a fair few new songs. Whichever, anyone caught claiming guitar music to be inherently limited should have been forced to attend one of their gigs, the better to taste his own words.

True, such eclecticism doesn’t always pay off. As said of their Albert appearance two and a half years ago, some of the more recent material has shown indie tendencies. Admittedly quirky indie, never descending to the Teenage Fanclub level, but indie nonetheless. At one point frontman Colin Newman proudly introduces a track as from the least liked Wire album, and alas it matches the description. But such moments are exception not rule.

The early tracks are the easiest to spot, short sharp shocks, leaping into action like tight-wound springs set loose. But there’s also two quite psychedelic numbers played back to back, where the guitars somehow manage to sound sharp and phased at the same time.

The main set ends with a powerful, extended riff-driven track, every iteration of it like another layer of sandpaper rubbing at your ears, the punch of hard rock with none of the chest-puffing stuff, before breaking into a freeform freakout as the stage lights dim. But perhaps the significant thing about Wire, in a similar way to the Ex, is the way they can explore so many different styles while still sounding just like themselves. Happy Fortieth!

Not from anywhere near Brighton…

Saturday 28 October 2017


Just in case you missed it up top, this is not a proper review of ‘Blade Runner 2049’ in any shape or form. It’s more a rumination upon two questions, one exceedingly fannish (the great Deckard debate) and the other a bone of some contention in the political blogsphere. (Well, us SJWs have to get our virtue signalling in somehow.) Hopefully needless to say, but tackling both takes us into PLOT SPOILER territory…

Token review bit… Yes, it is a good film. In some ways it bears the same relationship to the original as ‘2046’ did to to ‘In the Mood For Love’, for all that those films are very different. It works as the difficult B-side, digging deeper into questions. Despite being long (over 160 minutes) it’s very well paced and does (kind of) work as a detective story.

And despite looking stunning, it doesn’t just look stunning. The imagery often is imagery, rather than an excuse for another CGI-fest. For example, some have claimed that the statues found in abandoned Vegas are a copy of ’Planet of the Apes’. But that misses the point that the shock of seeing the Statue of Liberty sticking up out of the sand is that one day it meant something, and part and parcel of that shock is it being an original. Whereas the Vegas statues were built to be copies, or – to use a very Dickian word – simulcara.

To start on the Deckard debate, we do need to look back at the original. Most people bothering to read this will know this next para already, but…

This sequel was designed so it might fit both originals. The original original, the one first released, turns out to be in essence a love story. Hero Rick Deckard is able to escape into the wild green yonder with his girlfriend Rachael. Who’s a Replicant (a synthetic imitation human), but then love conquers all. Even, it would seem, plot. 

But in the bleaker director’s cut escape is not an option, those luring adverts for the off-world colonies only taunt, and rather than Rachael getting to live as a human there’s the hint Deckard might be a Replicant himself. (There’s now multiple versions, but that’s essentially the division they come down to.)

Original director Ridley Scott has consistently insisted that original original was only ever a studio imposition, that the second version was always his intention. Then more recently he added that Deckard definitely was a Replicant. Now one of these things is more useful than the other. (In fact when he first said that I confess to shouting at the telly, an activity I normally reserve for Tory MPs and anyone associated with ‘Top Gear’.)

In fact, I suspect he’d been on the convention circuit too long and was merely repeating back to fans what they want to hear. Because fans, forever keen to believe they possess secret knowledge denied to norms, had long insisted this. And the problem with it is that it treats Deckard’s status as something of an Easter egg. Each scene, each line of dialogue should be scoured obsessively for clues, with little consideration of how the answer would affect the film overall. But let’s assume that in art, if the creators want you to know something they’re probably going to tell you. So by the same token, if they keep things ambiguous that was most likely a decision too.

‘Blade Runner’ starts with humans being humans and Replicants Replicants, only to progressively muddy the waters. Tyrell, director of the evil Corporation who makes the Replicants proudly insists "more human than human" is our motto. While Gaff’s parting shot to Deckard (in Scott’s version the last line), speaking of Rachael, is “It's too bad she won't live! But then again, who does?”

Because we don’t. Humans live in a society which dehumanises, which effectively forces them to treat each other as though they’re not human. Deckard wants no part in the Blade Runner business but is forced back in. While at the same time Tyrell is more right than he thinks. The Replicants, the supposed non-humans, are becoming human. Chiefly evidenced in their final battle where Batty, who has been painted throughout as the villain and been shown to kill remorselessly, chooses instead to save Deckard’s life. 

Scott has said of this: “It was an endorsement in a way, that the character is almost more human than human, in that he can demonstrate a very human quality at a time when the roles are reversed and Deckard may have been delighted to blow his head off. But Roy [Batty] takes the humane route.” 

The line turns out to be blurred, the street two-way. So the sequel wisely retains these ambiguities, in fact throws up ambiguities of it’s own. However, does it really match both originals? It’s world is clearly not that verdant green space which the original Deckard and Rachael run off into. It’s a barren wasteland, where only maggots grow and wood is valued like a precious metal. It’s also true that K, the new protagonist is effectively Deckard’s mirror image, a Replicant who starts to suspect he might be human.

Yet, at least as far as the Deckard = Replicant option goes, it firmly follows the original. In fact, those not clued up on these things might miss entirely any suggestion otherwise.

Some point out Deckard doesn’t have Replicant abilities, by which they mostly mean super strength. But there’s no reason why Replicants have to be built to be super-strong, any more than every processing device is built to have bags of RAM. Plus if the plan is to conceal his true nature from him, granting him super-strength might be something of a giveaway. 

It makes more sense to concentrate on his ageing. Short of having Harrison Ford frozen since 1982 on the off-chance of a sequel, they are of course stuck with an older Deckard. In the original we saw with Batty how a Replicant expires. And he doesn’t die like a human, of old age, only faster. He more shuts down. But then like Rachael Deckard would be a special, new kind of Replicant with handwaves allowed. So they could either skirt around that issue, or hint that because of reasons someone might have designed Replicants to mimic human ageing.

As it is, by reintroducing Rachael, they virtually do the opposite. Because this is a rebuilt Rachael, as she was, as only a machine can be rebuilt, the way it was, in contrast to the ageing Deckard. It’s true that Wallace (the wicked capitalist this time) suggests that he might have been set up to get it on with Rachael. But humans can be set up for dates too.

A recurring theme of the film is data, fitting both the techno-future setting and a detective story organised around the search for clues. But the theme pivots to emphasise the unreliability of data; pages ripped from record books, glitches in VR displays, memories which may not be yours.

And that unreliability is associated with the Replicant resistance (more of which anon), particularly with the Blackout – the great data wipe they engineer. But this is itself very much associated with their becoming human. Part of K’s journey of self-actualisation is his developing the ability to lie, when he tells his boss Rachael’s child’s been “taken care of”.

But mostly this ambiguity is associated with Deckard. He’s still alive when he shouldn’t be, living in the abandoned hotel with the glitchy VR. And we’re told quite specifically it was him who covered his child’s tracks.

Which makes his and Rachael’s child a hybrid child, in a plot line oddly mirroring ‘Battlestar Galactica’ a union between human and Replicant. The Replicant resistance don’t want to replace humans so much as insist on their parity, a para-military civil rights movement. So such a unifying child becomes the solution to the whole problem. It might “break the world,” or it could break down “the wall that separates kind”.

K’s accessing the memory of the hidden wooden horse is what leads him on the self-actualisation path, even accessing a name. Ana tells him “someone lived this”, withholding the rather vital information it was her. (The memory is also the microcosm of her life. She has to abandon the horse to preserve it, just as her father has to abandon her to save her.) Yet Mariette later recognises the horse and underground leader Freysa tells him "we all thought we were the child."

Which suggests that Ana slips this memory into all Replicant craniums, as a kind of equivalent to the wake-up code in ‘Humans’. (This works better symbolically. All Replicants can’t be expected to all take the journey to the orphanage, and if they did and hopefully hunted for the horse they’d now find it gone.) When K dies, she experiences from her cell the snow that falls on him, also suggesting some sort of psychic link.

So in brief the answer to the question “is Deckard a Replicant?” is the same as it would be to “does he have African ancestry?” We don’t care, and we’re fighting for a world where that won’t matter to anyone.

For a brief summary of the claim the film has a “women problem”, there’s 
Anna Smith’s piece in the Guardian. Let’s start with Joi, a hologram designed to stop live-alone loners like K getting the blues. (An extension of female-gendered operating systems already in existence, like Siri.) Except, much like K and his orders, Joi overcomes her programming and the two fall in love.

Or does she? Look at little harder, and it’s as deliberately ambiguous as the Deckard debate. There’s a theory that kept apes taught human language were really mimicking rather than absorbing what they were told, fulfilling their role as best they could so as to appease the fruit providers. Similarly K wants not just the off-the-shelf sex toy but for Joi to assume sentience and embark on a genuine relationship with him. She, built to oblige, does just that.

At Forbes, Paul Tassi develops the simulacrum argument. To which we might add Mariette’s line to Joi: “I've been inside you. There's not as much there as you think.”

But how does this relate to the women problem in wider popular culture? At most, by foregrounding it. Which can be a valuable thing to do, but only if you then go on to deal with it. Foregrounding alone achieves little. (Supposing in the original Rachael had a line of dialogue where she said “here I was thinking I was a sentient being who made my own decisions. Whereas as it turns out all I wanted was a he-man to come along, slam me against a wall and tell me how I feel. I am so much better now. Let’s run away together so you can dominate me some more.” That would improve things?)

K does become Joe after a fashion, achieving a form of self-actualisation, even if it doesn’t happen according to the script in his head. Joi, whichever way you read her, is there to encourage this process before nobly sacrificing herself for him in classic girlfriend sidekick mode. And beside K’s antagonist, Luv, Joi is the chief female character in the film. She’s the only female character on the version of the poster above.

Unfortunately, Anna Smith then goes on to generalise from her example, saying “Mariette shows initial promise as a strong character who can give as good as she gets, but she is also a sex worker who is literally used as a puppet.”

Uh, no. Not what happens at all. From her first scene it’s made clear she’s posing as a sex worker to gain info on K. She slips a tracker on him which she then uses to save his life and take him to the Replicant resistance. Who are led by a woman – Freysa. And this is the real point where the critique gets derailed. K’s investigations cause him to believe Rachael’s child is a boy, who he then assumes to be himself. Yet he’s completely wrong-ended when Freysa tells him it’s really a girl.

So when Smith writes “it is worth thinking about whether this is the future we want for women in film”, she’s talking about a future where a woman has a central role. This is the very opposite trajectory to the boy power fantasy of for example Neo in ‘The Matrix’, where the regular guy gets to discover he’s “the one”, a rank which comes complete with a sexy girlfriend sidekick. 

Freysa suggests to K he take out the captured Deckard before he can have intel extracted from him, though it’s clear he won’t be coming back from such a mission himself. K then encounters another Joi copy on a bridge, who is back to default sex-toy mode purring come-ons. Bridges, as a symbol in films, are often associated with suicide. This is the point where he bottoms out, gives up entirely on ever becoming Joe, and is liberated to embark on his suicide mission. He’s only a cog. But he can still choose which wheel to fit his cog into.

(I couldn’t quite tell whether K was there to kind of blindside us as we led into the real story, and the whole film was to set up a sequel around the actual antagonism of Ana and Wallace. But the film fared poorly domestically, which I guess strikes that option out and so we’ll never know.)

But from here things get more interesting. Wallace’s plot is to gain for himself the secret of Replicant reproduction. His ostensible reason for this, “I can only make so many”, is the very reverse of sense. Surely the very point of making machines to populate the planets was that human reproduction is so time-consuming and imprecise? So let’s look for symbolic sense. We see a Replicant created the way a foal is born. Though, displeased at his barren handiwork, he dispatches her. But what if he, the future capitalist who has conquered human society so completely he effectively lords it, is now turning his expansionist eye on the world of nature? (A regular SF trope in recent years. Weyland in ‘Prometheus’ wanted to conquer death.)

What Wallace wants to do is seize the ‘miracle’ of birth from women. That might even explain another strange plot flaw. Everyone’s so excited the child is born while not considering that her mother died in labour, which suggests the ‘miracle’ isn’t quite down pat yet. But what if Wallace’s plan is effectively to make women redundant, to do away with them? If so, what more natural figure to lead the resistance against him than a woman?

Which probably takes us into a pointed debate. Is this a dystopian future where male-dominated science and technology are in effect trying not just to colonise women’s bodies but usurp them, and women are fighting back? Or is it another form of gender essentialism, where women’s main role in society is held to be inherently due to their biology? Whether the film has a “women problem” may be down to the form of feminism you adhere to.

Coming soon! Back with the gig-going adventures...