Sunday, March 29, 2009

Review: DM Stith - Heavy Ghost (Asthmatic Kitty)


Forget tincture of henbane or other such homeopathic nonsenses. As far as I know, there is but one universally agreed and empirically proven method of inducing witch-hood: you must first fetch yourself to a local churchyard, preferably on All Hallows night, then you walk widdershins thrice round the church. You should find, crouched athwart a tombstone, the Devil, most likely in his cankerous black frog form (try again if he’s not there. Any multiple of three ought to work). Close your eyes and kiss those puckered amphibian lips, and Bob’s your... well, in fact he’s no longer your uncle but a happy reminder of the mortal world you’ve just left behind. Old Nic has transformed you into a weird sister, no strings attached. For the rest of your natural life, you'll enjoy trouble-free naked cavorting with the Great Goat himself, drinking the blood of virgins whenever you’re in the mood and generally having amazing witchy larks. One word of advice: steer clear of any local folk who invite you to their barbecue.

The real centrepiece of a witch’s life, leaving to one side for the moment the business with the broomsticks, is the coven, which is really just a chance for you to let your copious and surely jet-black hair down. As with weddings or Bar Mitzvahs, the difference between a desultory gathering and a hot diabolical shindig often comes down to the tunes. Many's the virgin about to be rent by the Knife of Kris who's suddenly had to halt proceedings to get Girls Aloud off the stereo. Avoiding such faux pas is all important to a well-done blood rite. And that’s where Heavy Ghost comes in.

Perfect for any self-respecting middle-class sacrificial rite or suburban satanic mass, Heavy Ghost is a lurid and sulphurous album brew, rich with the tang of forgotten magiks. You can practically taste the eye of newt.

Twitching the strings at the centre of this antic puppet-show is DM Stith, an acolyte of Sufjan Stevens. Stith has clearly learnt at the feet of his master. But Stith takes Steven’s sacred patterns and inverts them. He’s more the mysterious gardener coaxing and training the tendrils of his organic sound until you’re listening to a wall of hawthorn festooned with poison berries, the nests of strange birds with human voices and impossibly thorny branches. Seriously.

DM Stith's sweet voice hangs entranced at the centre of these songs and keeps them from flying off into chaos. "Heavy Ghost", for instance, is a messy bricolage of voices that knit together creating drifting clouds of harmony and sunshine, flying free in the way only messy bricolages can. "Braid of Voices" shows the trick, or the art, to best effect: minimal song structure, numinous chords, reverent chanting, building up wizard-you-will-not-PASS-style, before winding away into a scary nowhereness. It's The Drift reimagined by Jeff Buckley. (The resurrected corpse thereof).

If you like Radiohead's “We Suck Young Blood”, you'll like this. It has all that song's claustrophobia and stem-wound complexity. Also the airlessness and lack of obvious feeling. What's powerful here comes mainly from the sense of a spell cast; once it's all over and you're back blinking in the daylight, you can’t quite remember the structure of the experience. Then you notice you've been expertly eviscerated.

If this doesn’t go down a treat at your next vampires and vicars party, you’re probably just a human.

More information on Heavy Ghost here.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Video: Fever Ray - If I Had A Heart (2009)

It someone seems wrong to describe oneself as a "fan" of The Knife. God knows, we absolutely caned their last two albums of bone-chilling hardcore horror techno pop (that's right), with Silent Shout being my album of 2006 (at the gym, it was a headphone tonic to all that aspirational house they pump in to really make you "go for it!"). It struck me as formally perfect and terrifying with it, much like the electronic wails which play over the opening credits to The Shining: somehow and at the same hugely addictive and massively bowel-loosening. I'm fairly sure this some our their pitch-shifting effects are outlawed by the Geneva Convention. But a fan? Seems like the wrong word. Maybe acolyte?

Anyway, singer Karin has a new project called Fever Ray. An album review will follow if I can get hold of a copy; in the meantime, here's the video for the single. That still is so Knife perfect it's almost a cliche. Still, I'm keeping the lights on tonight.

Ever Since Darwin

Here's my latest article for Orange Travel. The brief was to survey some of the stranger species discovered since Darwin's day. I had a slightly more esoteric list, which included the rather marvelous megamouth shark, but unfortunately we were limited to photos we could source from AP.

How many different species of animal and plant are there?

Astonishingly, we’re no nearer an answer today than we were when Charles Darwin attempted to explain the amazing diversity of life 150 years ago.

It’s estimated that there are an amazing 5-8 million species of beetle alone, with new species discovered every day. And it’s not just beetles. Scores of new birds, reptile and even mammals have been discovered in just the last decade. Darwin would have been awestruck...

To celebrate the great scientist’s bicentennial year, we take a tour of the planet and meet just a handful of the weird and wonderful new species discovered and named in the last 100 years.

From a hauntingly beautiful wild cat and a shrew with an odd nose to a dragon with gruesome feeding habits, find out what amazing species live where - and how to see them in the wild.

1. Komodo dragon

What is it? The largest living species of lizard, the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodensis) is a huge monitor first discovered by western science in 1910. It grows up to three metres long can weigh as much as 70kg.

Where does it live? These almost prehistoric creatures live on the island of Komodo and some neighbouring islands in Indonesia where they are the largest predator.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): In 2005, a team of researchers discovered that the dragon’s bite was poisonous. As if that wasn’t enough, the dragon’s saliva also contains a bacterium which causes septicaemia; if the prey should survive the initial ambush, the dragon will simply wait for it to die of the resulting infection.

2. Grey-faced sengi

What is it? Discovered by motion-detecting cameras in 2005, the grey-faced sengi (Rhynchocyon udzungwensis) is a previously unknown – and unexpectedly large – species of elephant shrew and one of the handful of new mammals that get discovered every year.

Where does it live? This odd-looking creature (its Latin name means “snouted dog”) was found living in a small village community by scientists in the high-altitude Ndundulu forest in Tanzania’s Udzungaw Mountains.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): Elephant shrews are very hard to see, being both incredibly wary and highly camouflaged. They build special pathways through the forest which they patrol looking for insects, using that long snout as a sense organ, and down which they dash if threatened.

3. Yeti crab

What is it? The oceans, which cover over seven-tenths of the earth’s surface, continue to reveal bizarre new species. This shaggy crab was discovered by a Californian team diving in the South Pacific Ocean and was quickly dubbed the yeti crab (Kiwi hirsuta) due to its covering of blonde hairs or cetae.

Where does it live? The yeti crab was discovered by submariners some 900 miles south of Easter Island at a depth of more than 7,000 feet.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): The crab, which looks more like a lobster, lives on hydrothermal vents near to the mid-ocean ridge. It is thought that the crab, which feeds on green algae and shrimp, uses its extraordinary covering of hairs to filter out the poisonous minerals being continually belched out of the vents.

4. Golden-mantled tree kangaroo

What is it? First described by scientist Pavel German in 1990, the golden-mantled tree kangaroo (Dendrolagus pulcherrimus) is named for the colouration on its shoulders. This adorable creature leaves in the mountain forests of Papua New Guinea - a habitat thatʼs shrinking every year.

Where does it live? In the Torricelli Mountains of Papua New Guinea and the nearby Foja Mountains in Indonesia.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): Newly discovered animals are often at risk of becoming extinct before they can be fully described by science. This highly specialised animal lives in the trees in high mountain regions and was previously much more widespread. Itʼs now confined to two small regions, making this perhaps the most endangered of all marsupials.

5. Bornean clouded leopard

What is it? “Scientists Discover New Beetle” is not exactly headline news. But the discovery of a new species of big cat? That’s a big deal. Although long known to local tribes, western science first heard of this cat’s existence from a tantalising description by a French naturalist in the 19th century. But it wasn’t until 2007 that existence of the Bornean clouded leopard (Neofelis diardi) was finally confirmed.

Where does it live? It keeps itself to itself in the deep tropical forests in Borneo and Sumatra.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): The Bornean clouded leopard has a local name which means “tree branch tiger”, suggesting that this immensely secretive feline is a skilled climber. It’s also effectively camouflaged in the dark undergrowth of the forest.

6. Nectophrynoides sp.

What is it? This fantastically-coloured toad is the most recently-discovered animal on our list - so new that it hasn’t yet been given a scientific name yet. It belongs to a genus of toads that are found only in Tanzania. It has a distinctive “plink” call that can be heard echoing throughout the valley it calls home.

Where does it live? This particular genus of toad all live in the jungles of the South Nguru region of Tanzania, with this species being further restricted to a single valley.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): All the toads of this genus have one characteristic that distinguishes them from other toads. The females are viviparous, which means they give birth to live young, making them the only toads in the world not to lay eggs – an advantage when there are plenty of egg-eating predators around. This particular species is covered in glands, bumps and assorted protuberances. Why? To date, no-one knows.

7. Swimming batfish

What is it? Discovered in 1958, the swimming batfish (Ogcocephalus darwini) is a kind of angler fish that makes its living on the ocean floor, feeding on fish, crustaceans and polychaete worms.

Where does it live? Darwin would have kicked himself – the swimming batfish was discovered in the waters around the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific ocean.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): Despite its name, the swimming batfish is not a good swimmer. Instead, it uses its spiny pectoral fins to walk on the ocean floor. Like other angler fish, the batfish dangles a lure to catch its prey. But, instead of using bioluminescence like its cousins, the batfish secretes chemicals into the water which many smaller fish find irresistible.

8. Samkos bush frog

What is it? First described by a team of scientists in 2007, the Samkos bush frog (Chiromantis samkosensis) is a new species of moss frog known from only a single specimen. The frog’s appearance is down to its translucent skin, through which it’s possible to see its green blood and turquoise-coloured bones.

Where does it live? In the remote Cardamom Mountains of Cambodia.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): Very little is known about this frog. It’s quite possible that it’s already extinct because its habitat is under threat from local road building. Frogs like this one are able to breathe through their skin, which must be kept moist at all times, else they will suffocate.

9. Lepilemur seali

What is it? Even though primates are our closest cousins, new species are still being discovered. Lepilemur seali is a brand new species of lemur, first described in 2005 by veterinarian David Louis and yet to be given a common name.

Where does it live? All lemurs live on the island of Madagascar off the eastern coast of Africa.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): Lemurs belong to an ancient family of primates called the prosimians. They arrived in Madagascar while it was still attached to the African mainland. When the island split around 160 million years ago, the lemurs were left in isolation to develop into hundreds of separate species. It’s thought their name derives from a Latin word meaning “spirits of the night”; if you look into their huge and haunting eyes, it’s easy to see why.

10. Smoky honeyeater

What is it? Proving that new species of bird are being discovered every year, the spectacular wattled smoky honeyeater (Melipotes carolae) was among a number of new species unearthed in 2005 by a team of researchers trekking in Western New Guinea (the Indonesian territory of Irian Jaya).

Where does it live? In the remote forests of the Foja mountain range in Western New Guinea, at altitudes of above 1,000ft.

Evolutionary Selling Point (ESP): Honeyeaters are a large family of birds similar to hummingbirds. Both families feed on the nectar of plants, though the honeyeaters are yet to master the art of hovering. Males of this are able to flush its distinctive wattle as a way of attracting the opposite sex.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Dark Night of the Soul

The Grey Album was a riot, no, but I can hardly say I loved it all that much. I'd rather not listen to that much concentrated Jay-Z, thanks, even when he is backed by the Fabs.

But the sheer transgressive thrill of it! I'm game for anything that samples The Beatles creatively. And then, of course, there was the record's sheer unobtainability, back in those far-off days of 2004 when downloading a samizdat album was still something of a thrill, like being part of a select club, rather than these days when you can get any album you choose over the interwebs. A mash-up of a record that could never get released featuring a band whose governing interests are still highly suspicious of anything digital. Delicious!

And now, oh Goddess of Irony: Danger Mouse, the creative brains behind The Grey Album, seems to fallen foul of EMI and those 19th century copyright laws again, for who knows what reason. I don't propose discussing the byzantine byways, cul-de-sacs and dead-ends of licensing and copyright and clearance law (for that, HearCanal drops regular and well-formed thought packages). But the new record currently languishing in limbo, Dark Night of the Soul, sounds, to these irretrievably rockist ears, like a far richer listening experience than The Grey Album ever was. And it's looking like it might never be released! W00t! Go EMI! Etc.

Dark Night of the Soul seems to be the work of Danger Mouse, Sparklehouse (whose name I can never hear without hearing the japanese music journalist in Meeting People is Easy misnaming them Sparklyhorse. An improvement...) and, of all people, David Lynch, plus a host of collaborators, including Iggy Pop, Frank Black, Flaming Lips, The Shins and more. Sparkelhorse and Dangermouse look after all the music, Lynch after the photography that accompanies the project. At this point, some unspecified dispute led to the album being mothballed. That hasn't stopped the team behind Dark Night releasing the album; except that now it comes with a blank CDR scrawled with the legend: "For Legal Reasons, enclosed CD-R contains no music. Use it as you will."

At which point, eyes roll heavenward, fists bunch and a small amount of blood leaks from the mouth as the thwarted listener contemplates the far-sightedness of EMI, a company finding ever more dispiriting ways of trashing its brand. OK, in the spirit of fairness: the artists might be spitting the dummy over some trifle that's currently opaque, though one suspects not. Whatever. The album sounds fantastic.

I know this because the whole thing is available for your listening pleasure at NPR's Dark Night of the Soul listening pages, though who knows for how much longer. There are some dustily beautiful songs here, woozily padded with that gauzy starlight that illuminates Dangermouse's best productions, with thick black forest harmonies and sepia-coloured songs from The Shins and Jason Lyttle and The Flaming Lips.

Enough yakking from me. Go listen.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Review: Gui Boratto - Take My Breath Away

First things first: what a terrible cover. I really ought to apologise: there should have been some kind of warming before I foisted it so carelessly upon your undeserving eyes. Is that really the image I want curious visitors to see when they first alight here, blinking in the strange new light? I'm sorry.

Secondly: yes, yes, you've got me; I’m quite aware that I’m stalling, thank you, that this dust cloud of verbiage is the equivalent of endlessly rearranging the stationery so that I might avoid describing an album that achieves most of its effects by the exciting way it makes nothing happen. But what words would adequately describe the sensory pleasure that comes from following a melodic line meandering microtonally across an unwavering harmonic bass? Certainly not those words: ‘pleasure’, ‘melodic’, and ‘harmonic’ would all require extensive annotation, footnoting and hedging if they weren't to be flat-out misleading.

Let’s agree that the project of trying to describe Gui Boratta, a Brazillian DJ who specialises in a kind of rusted hi-gloss pop tech (cf. an airbrushed Japanese painting of a crying cyborg; The Tragical History of R2D2, perhaps, the Loneliness of the Long Distance Galactic Satellite, WALL-E’s difficult teenage years) is misconceived from the get-go, especially when you could just download the album from your download store of choice and decide for yourself. Wait, that was defeatist.

It was easier to describe Boratta’s debut album, Chromophobia, since it had something close to songs and, as any fule no, songs can be captured and pinned (have you ever tried making an insect collection? The saddest part is that the magnificent irridescence of the butterfly or the beetle fades when you kill it. There's a moral in there somewhere). It was lovely. So it didn’t have the unbelievable, frictionless surfaces of The Field’s From Here We Go Sublime or the fantastical ormolu of Booka Shade’s Movement. It did have “Beautiful Life”, what Dave Pearce would call a dance anthem but what I would call a deliriant, the feeling of too much champagne, the lusty fizz of anticipation made into music:

Take My Breath Away doesn’t really scale those heights, but "No Turning Back" kinda roars. Much of the album reminds me more of Efdemin than it does the previous album, which is a very good thing. Thrill! As a shower of synth lines fall like rain. Wow! As your ears are buffeted by a pressure wave of overwhelming bass. Swoon! as the microchopped vocals say something incomprehensible and sad. Sway! As the tension builds and is released by the asymptotic convergence of melodic lines in headphone space.

No it won’t do. The nonsense is creeping is creeping back in. This is a techno album, not the solution to a quadratic equation. It’s as good as the first album, possibly better. But, all in all, it’s quite different. Ultimately, it’s pretty good. Will that do?

[Editor's note: that was a guest post by Arela Dew. She won’t be coming back]

Friday, March 13, 2009

Some short notes on the cover of Swan's White Light from the Mouth of Infinity

A little rabbit-boy stands looking lost in his sunday-school finery, wielding a carrot and all alone in a queer landscape. He appears to be standing in a bloody heart. What on earth is going on here? And more importantly, what does the music sound like?

This beautifully mysterious cover for Swan's awesome (in every sense) White Light from the Mouth of Infinity may not be a design classic. But it has that strange property of getting odder the longer you look it. Is that carrot food? Or a weapon? What's with the heart? Why is he dressed like page-boy? It’s a wonderful—and unsettling—example of a band using a painting by a contemporary artist to disorientate their audience and confound expectations.

Swans first took flight in the no wave movement that slithered out of New York in the late seventies. They were uncompromising brutalists: their music was punishingly loud to the point of unlistenability. Legend has it that people would throw up at the sheer sonic bombardment. Swans did it before My Bloody Valentine and they did it louder.

Swans was Michael Gira, now the head of Young God Records. He was the entranced shaman at the heart of their sound, flinging nihilist chants on tracks with one-syllable titles like “Cop”, “Thug” and “Fifth” and (later) more family-friendly titles like “Raping a Slave” and (my personal favourite) “Public Castration (is a Good Thing)”.

If Swans had continued occupying this fetid niche, they would have gone down as a footnote, an extreme but ultimately unpleasant milestone in the history of the American underground. But Gira had realised that extreme volume and battering music was dead-end. He had an artistic ambition that couldn’t be contained by one-dimensional sturm und drang of his band and so he began to take steps toward a new dimension.

So, with a new partner and amanuensis in the shape of the mysterious Jarboe in the band, he began stretching and tearing at the template, mutating Swans into something deeper, allowing ancient folk and cracked blues to seep into the songs. Gira’s, meanwhile, voice was evolving into something compelling, stentorian and mile-deep, with Jarboe’s witchy ululations interleaving with and leavening his baritone.

So successful was this evolution that they signed with a major label, releasing just the one record. Unsurprisingly it was not a success. Gira learnt that lesson that Swans’ evolution shouldn’t be about grasping for some kind of popular acknowledgment. Freed from this anxiety, the two best records of Swans’ career swiftly followed.

So that’s the potted history. What about the cover? The history tells us that Swans were at a crossroads — their previous songs had been about death and paranoia and self-loathing and doom and despair and all things gothically awful. Not a million miles away from Nine Inch Nails or Tool today. But this cover says something has changed.

Compare to their previous covers. Filth gives me nightmares, Cop is striking and spare, while Children of God hints at the pagan or animistic influence that was seeping into their sound.

But it’s the White Light cover that really shows that Swans had arrived at a new and coherent vision. The songs had slowed. Some were even ballad-pace, even if they were filled with Gira's unremittingly bleak poetry. But something mythic or archetypal had crept into their songs. Some wit appeared. And this cover perfectly sums up the ambiguity. It’s sort of sweet and scary, like a myth or a fairy-tale too horrible, or at least too odd, to tell to children, some image dredged up from a dyspetic's insomnia.

The painting is by Deryk Thomas, a Scottish-based painter whose website features some more straight-forward fairytale paintings such as “No Use Crying”.

Here’s what he says about his work for Swans:

I still get letters from Swans fans wanting to know if I'm a real person or just someone made up… 'Deryk Thomas of Edinburgh' is a real person and yes surprisingly I'm still alive and working

I produced the Swans album art in the early 90s. Swans were a colossally great group and I was a real fan of their music… I recall sending a drawing of a little rabbit to Jarboe sometime in the late eighties… It was a small sketch for something I was formulating, provisionally called “Ups and Downs in Toy Town”… I got a call from Michael Gira saying that he liked the image and wanted to use it for their next album cover… He then wanted to expand on the original piece… Thus bunny becomes bunnies and then bunnies become fireballs … I did a lot of artwork for Swans… and I know that many of the unused images ended up on sundry rogue websites and the like… That is very annoying, as many of those drawings I really dislike… and that's been the only stuff on the web, I believe,

I still enjoy looking at this image, because it was so completely simple. The original sketch was just that: a motionless bunny in a big green field and a big blue sky… the viewer has little to look at and so hopefully begins to consider the rabbit and move into some inner place… There's a lot of feeling there in the blankness for some reason… And I like the title Michael gave it… He's a very humorous man… curiously at one with his excessively astute ontological exactness… In Edinburgh, Swans nearly killed their audience with the extremity of their volume… that's an honest fact…it's no joke.

Although the very mysteriousness of this cover is what makes it so compelling, there's a clue to where the story goes next on the cover of Swan's follow-up album, Love of Life, where our rabbit friend has been joined by an identical companion. Their carrots now droop sadly and their heads blaze as if dipped in oil. No, I've no idea what it means either. But it's an arresting indeed beautiful image.

(Full disclosure: I may find this sleeve personally unsettling because of an early encounter with the B&W comedy Harvey, about the man who’s accompanied everywhere by a six-foot invisible rabbit. As a child I found this idea intolerable. It still gives me the willies.)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Being Human: A ghost, a werewolf and a vampire walk into a bar. No, really.

Something wicked comes to the Yes household. Normally of relaxed disposition, we've taken of late to sleeping with the light on, keeping up a constant stream of nervous chatter. Anything that'll keep at bay the silence, into which can creep the awful question: oh god what's that in the loft?

Once, in more innocent times than these, I would have ventured into our loft’s depths without a second thought. But those times are passed. Now, shadows scuttle from the corners of our dark-adapted eyes. Surely that was too large to be a rodent? It's possible that our new tenant is some foul Summerian spirit, biding its time in our roof before it seeks out some poor prepubescent for a spot of head-turning. I could live with that. But I suspect I know exactly what's causing the Fear. Behind that wardrobe with the fur coats and surrounded by the corpses of fatally curious pigeons, lies a glowering and maleficent set of DVD box-sets, nine complete seasons, each in bulky old-school packaging. This is Shana's collection of the complete Buffy the Vampire Slayer; and it scares the living crap out of me.

All of which is a belabouring of the point that I never really watched Buffy; my loss, I fully appreciate. With more arcs than Gaudi’s balconies, the show was a super-stylish example of just what TV can do when given the better part of a lifetime in which to unfold. But it always struck me, from the handful of episodes I did manage to catch — and here I run the very real risk of excommunication from my own home — that the tone of the show was less Shining, more Dawson’s Creek with more fangs. In other words, for all of Buffy's vaunted charms, on the whole, it was content to leave bowels unloosened.

Ultraviolet, on the other hand, knew a thing or two about sphinctural declenchment, and when a show can scare, or even just deliver chills, you’re more likely to cut it some slack; necessary when your lead actor is Jack Davenport. The show followed a secret branch of the security services dedicated to hunting ‘Code Five’ (vampires to you and me, although the word is never used). Shows like this have to earn their believability by playing or tweaking with the rules of the vampire game, dismissing all those other vampire books, films and shows as just entertainments, as fabrications or distortions, whereas this, this is the truth. Ultraviolent pulled off this trick brilliantly, so that instead of stakes to kill vamps, we had guns that fired carbon-tipped bullets and were fitted with special cameras to distinguish between humans and ‘the leech’; their gas grenades contained Allicin, the active ingredient of garlic; local paedophiles would be revealed as vampires; and so on.

All of which brings us neatly to BBC3’s Being Human, a show that seeks to split the difference between the rites of passage drama of Buffy and the spooky procedural of Ultraviolet, between being frightening and being interested in characters; Henry James meets Rentaghost. It’s unashamedly high concept: a werewolf, a vampire and a ghost share a flat in Bristol: Fiends, if you will. It's brilliantly written by Toby Wodehouse: funny, touching and shocking.

Our protagonists aren't merely monsters. They’re people too, trying to come to terms with what they see in the mirror (or what they don’t see, in Mitchell’s case). They are:

George, a geekily bespectacled hospital porter and all-round nice chap, moonlighting, as it were, as a werewolf. Played to neurotic perfection by Russell Tovey, George is always trembling on the edge of a mild hysteria after being an attack in Scotland left him with the alarming habit of turning into a ravening wolf every month. He tries to keep this under wraps by keeping away from friends and family.

Mitchell was recruited to the parasitical ranks during the Great War and is evidently a superstar vampire whose exploits are still talked about among undead communities (Deadbook?). But now he’s desperately trying to go straight. Guilty secret: he had an affair with George’s old sweetheart; a forgivable act if not for the fact that he killed her and turned her into a vampire: the treachery trifecta. Mitchell is drawn irresistibly to flesh and blood, and flesh and blood reciprocates: he’s played by a delectable Aidan Turner.

Annie. A bit of a bubblehead, Annie is neurotic, scatty, lovable and deeply dead. She’s still very much in love with her fiancé Owen, which is problematic because A) he happens to the landlord of the house into which George and Mitchell move and B) he’s a really a villain who’s found a new woman with indecent haste and C) because she’s dead.

Within this ménage mort a trois, the show can wittily explore a whole range of themes: George’s unwillingness to let anyone get close to him in case he hurts someone during a change, or what it means to struggle with addiction (Mitchell), or what it is to be alone. It's often more like Alan Bennett than George A Romero. There are so many great scenes: George’s experimental transformation in his house to “Smack my Bitch Up”, Anna practicing her ghost lines in a mirror, the scene’s with the avuncular head of the vampires, Herrick, who seems to be plotting some awful final solution, Mitchell’s tussles with George’s ex, Lauren, who’s now a fledgling Vampire unaccustomed to the rhythms and requirements of blood-sucking. Props also for Herrick’s creepy number two Seth, a manc vampire with maturity issues, and Nina, the ward sister who starts to fall for George, much to his consternation.

It’s often genuinely scary. The moments where the lead’s true natures irrupt into their daily lives are always shocking: George's meeting with the creature that turned him or his first encounter with Mitchell; Nina’s sanguinary revenge on Mitchell at the end of episode one; how Anna really died.

This first season built to a spectacular ending with shades of The Road and Happiness and 24 Hour Party People (oh yes), even if the coda wasn’t quite the surprise the editing evidently thought it was. Anyway, a second season has been commissioned, which means there is a reason to watch BBC3 again in the near future. (Eight episodes too!)

In the meantime, does anyone know a good exorcist?

Random walk

I don't know about you, but I find it nigh on impossible to resist the temptation to skip tracks on the iPod until something I know and like comes on. Which means I keep failing to pay attention to new tracks, and thus the pool of songs I do like gets no wider.

So, in an effort to rectify, here's a random walk through my iPod where I've actually, like, paid attention to the songs. Only the first 20, mind — I’ve got work to do...

1. 2000000 – Modeselektor, Happy Birthday

“Deux zéro zéro zéro zéro zéro sept”, raps the French fellow, in French (quelle naturellement). But Modeselektor are very much German, beloved of Thom Yorke and mentastic gurners everywhere, and quite possibly the most exciting electronic band in the world. The duo have an incredible knack for supercrazy, superstupid beats, flipping manically from spastik break-beat to grinding techno in the space of a few lunatic bars. So, despite the fact that I haven't the faintest idea what the fellow’s rapping about with such frenetic abandon, this is a thrilling start. Can we keep it up?

2. Sea of Sand – Guy Gerber & Shlomi Aber

A bog-standard beat — not the most promising of beginnings; but then, this being a minimal tech classic, what else would you expect? Gradually, though, little whirlpools of sound start interrupting and smearing across the beat, and little riffs and gaseous loops waft across your cranium. Once the whole contraption's in motion, it’s a joy to behold. You know how William Poundstone once pointed out that to run a self-assembling universal Turing machine using Conway’s cellular automata, you’d need a grid as big as a galaxy? Well, this song is that grid.

3. Meadow –Thomas Brinkman

Yeah, OK, so we start with a morass of little clicks and crickles, standard laptronica and... HOLD THE PHONE… who’s this stentorian dude? “Up north there is a meadow”, he intones with more reverence than a meadow typically warrants, while the music drones menacingly over the gurgling sound of a waterfall. At 1.45 something new threatens to happen but decides against it. Most of the drama here comes from the wide dynamic range, as startling synthetic gurgles, whooshes and other unexpected sonic events keep breaking the clicky reverie. And then, at the three minute mark, comes a Depeche-y beat, and the whole thing goes downhill gently, although odd little guitar riff-clanks remind me of Young Gods. Nice cloud-break at the end.

4. Broken Promises – Quiet Village, Silent Movie

Taken from the wonderful Silent Movie, this could almost be the queasily lush start to some lost Isaac Hayes masterpiece. The album doesn't seem to getting as much suction as it might out there in the real world. Too exotic? Not beige enough? Whatever: superfantastic.

5. Heart of Heats - !!!

This takes me straight back to the Playground Weekender in NSW, at which !!! were the undisputed highlight. They were an unbelievably funky giant octopus except with as many heads as arms. Or half as many arms? The overdriven or overcompressed bass really makes the song.

6. I’m in love with the Night – Dawn Landes

I largely defer to this man. Love the “Falling” tremelo'ed guitar. She’s got a lovely lilt to her voice too – reminds me of Laura Cantrell’s, always a good thing.

7. Young Bride (Cassettes Won’t Listen remix) – Midlake

Compared to Erol Alkan’s magisterial rework of Roscoe, this, to my untutored ears, is bland in the extreme, if you'll pardon the oxymoron. Reader, I skipped it.

8. What’s the Excuse this time? McAlmont & Butler

The partnership of Bernard Butler and David McAlmont was big news in the early Britpop years, before deadening dadrock ruled the roost and a pop savant with unabashedly orchestral pop leanings and a heroically flamboyant Prince-channelling androgyne suddenly couldn’t get arrested. But, by and large, these are still fabulous songs, songs I'd love to hear get covered, resurrected. How about Amy Winehouse doing a version of “Yes” as a comeback single?

9. 2 Nocturnes, Op. 37//ii G – Frederic Chopin

Supremely lovely piano song, with a central descending phrase that reminds of something I can't put a name too.

10. So Haunted – Cut Copy, In Ghost Colours

Love the transition from skinny-trousered rock band verse to neon ultra-chorus. Glorious.

11. Ecstasies in the Open Air - Sir Richard Bishop

A blissful instrumental mostly played on acoustic and electric guitars with some lovely synths burbling away happily. Vaguely Beatles-y – you could imagine this being composed halfway up a mountain in Rishikesh.

12. The Wrong Coat for you, Mt. Heart Attack – The Liars Drum’s Not Dead

I can barely get my head round the bonkers concept the liars employed on Drum’s Not Dead. Or, I should say, I can scarcely credit the chutzpah. Two characters, Mt Heart Attack and Drum, er, battle it out and have adventures across the album. This is one of the lovelier cuts; submerged and faintly disconcerting, illuminated by the deep ocean flare of that subaqueous, ever-descending riff.

13. Boutique – Andy Stott – Merciless

Again with the dull techno! Enlivened a little with some classical piano flourishes, but still. Would sound better in a club, for sure, but I'm not in a club innit.

14. After the Flood –Talk Talk – Laughing Stock

This is how it should be done. Brushed drums; spectral organ chords; the patter of rain; the quivering, Reich-like harmonica; the distant squeal of guitar; Mark Hollis at his most ecstatic. Ten-ish minutes of pure bliss. Whenever I get tempted to write about one of the very greatest albums ever made, I remember that Nick Southall has already said everything that needs to be said.

15. Where We At – Henrik Schwarz/Ame/Dixon

This track has been lionised elsewhere: three scene superstars, a brilliant monologue cum rant over a stately glide through its many movements, and therefore it reminds me a bit of Underworld.

16. Hafssol – Sigur Ros – Hvarf/Heim

The DVD is an overwhelming experience, like pretty much everything else about Sigur Ros. They exist to be oceanic; and this song obliges with its vasty deeps and joyous expansions.

17. Supernatural Superserious – REM – Accelerate

A return to the charts for REM — but a return to form? A return of the block chords of Monster. Is that what anyone really wanted? Overmastered too – it really was much the loudest track in the list, along with Cut Copy; but that’s hardly a surprise – you never really got the sense that REM were all that wedded to sonic superbity, or that they wouldn't bow to the current trend for mixing hot just to get the damned thing on the radio. That said, a pretty good tune. Goes a bit cack at the two and a half minute mark.

18. Sleeping Beauty – Patrick Watson

Sounds like the start of Radiohead’s Nude, all gorgeous sonic foam and bubble, before an arpeggiated pattern cranks up and Patrick’s vocals float over a hothouse of strings, strange whale feedback.

19. Past the Long Black Land – Colleen - Les Ondes Silencieuses

Using ancient and half-forgotten instruments, Colleen creates a very spare sound-world with just some wheezing strings and the plucked harpsichord alike she’s playing. It’s haunting, exceptionally sparse and finally moving. Just don’t put it on at a party.

20. Necessary Evil – Edgar ‘Jones’ Jones

A fitting note on which to end, a tight little soul shake-down with Jones battling a whole battalion of backing singers and a strutting sax ripping up the place. Police siren too! Always good.

Review: Peter Broderick - Home

A sonic cathedral of sound? Please: Listening to Peter Broderick's latest album Home is like watching Alan Ball's totemic plastic bag fluttering around Chartes.

In other more straightforward words, it's really a quite captivating experience where songs are often built on precisely stacked harmonies, guitars describe stately arpeggios, Broderick sings of the sky and stats and snow and nature, and washes of subtle instrumentation sketch a twilit mood, expansive but still.

It's a serence experience. The only downside? I can't remember a thing about it when it's finished. Two possibilities: A) it's a serene experience, immersive and narcotic, where the way songs shift and blur track by track is half the point.

Or B) the songs are a bit dull.

I'm feeling generous, so let's go with A.

Update: He doesn't sing of stats. He sings of stars. No-one in their right mind sings of stats. "Your beauty is an outlier on a standard distribution curve" has none of the makings of a classic lyric.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Review: John Surman - Coruscating

John Surman is a new name to me for the very simple reason that he's an improvisational saxophonist and, being a busy man about town, I perhaps haven't devoted as much time as I might to improvisational saxophony. If I'm honest, I suffer, or at least suffered, a terrible prejudice that free jazz = tuneless skronk, or at least ≠ a good time, especially if the instrument thusly abused is a saxophone.

That's my loss, since Coruscating is a quite amazing record, more composed than freewheeling, a union of rich chamber music and Surman's ethereal reed playing.

"For The Moment" is typical of the quite ravishing trick Surman's mastered here. He starts with a formal structure, a classical scaffolding upon which his phrasing can get asymptotically closer to free jazz before suddenly veering away to illuminate a new facet of the structure. That's right: aymptotically.

It's sensational stuff, which is not something I'd be saying about free jazz. Here's another sentence that strikes my protesting fingers as highly unlikely but that they're compelled to type: even the fretless bass solos on the album are captivating.

The Other Hand by Chris Cleave

As you can see from the picture on the left, the major impediment to buying, let alone being seen to read, The Other Hand by Chris Cleave is that cover: it's fantastically awful, resembling a self-actualisation manual or a lachrymose memoir about how the author was kept in a cupboard as a baby, boo hoo. What's worse, I seem to have bought a special Waterstone's-only cover. The paperback in Amazon has much the better cover; and don’t let’s even mention the American version. But with that spleen-venting out of the way, what's it actually about?

I'm not allowed to say. The blurb goes to some length to convince the potential reader that we're talking about a once-in-generation story about which nothing can be revealed. Sceptre, the publishers, have tried to insist that reviewers refrain from giving the game away. On the inside cover, we have a personal letter from Cleave's editor, saying that this is a truly superb and original novel, comparable to Cloud Atlas, Schindler's List and Life of Pi. That trifecta had me snagged.

The novel is narrated in alternate chapters by Little Bee, a Nigerian refugee who's spent the first two years of her English life in a refugee centre. She's fled the obscene event that's killed her family. Finding out the true name of this horror gives the book it's narrative drive. Coming from the opposite end is Sarah, a magazine editor married to Andrew, an op-ed writer suffering depression. Somehow they're connected to Little Bee:

"It started on the day we first met Little Bee, on a lonely beach in Nigeria. The only souvenir I have of that first meeting is an absence where the middle finger of my left hand used to be. The amputation is quite clean. In place of my finger is a stump, a phantom digit that used to be responsible for the E, D and C keys on my laptop."
That paragraph gives some indication of the mastery with which Cleave set the story in motion. He voices Little Bee beautifully and uncondescendingly and threads her story with Sarah's beautifully. There are some amazingly powerful scenes. Andrew's funeral at the beginning of the book is unbearable, the unendurable tension of the original beach scene (not dissimilar in effect to Ian McEwan's Enduring Love and that bravura bit of business with the balloon), the pivotal Batman disappearance scene in Richmond Park; the final reckoning on another African beach: all these are written with a flinty prose that stays out of the way of the story's lurching momentum.

I'm not at all sure that the hype does this novel any great favours. It's not remotely like the books it's been so compared to. But it is a very tense book, intensely cinematic. Clearly I’m going to have to read Incendiary now (in which the old Arsenal stadium is blown up by terrorists. Bloody Al Quaeda: can’t they do their research?)

Principium Amicitias

Bernard Shaw said he'd swap all the existing paintings of Jesus for a single photograph. The next best thing would would be an authenticated portrait of William Shakespeare, painted from life. Lo and behold, a new portrait that seems to have been hanging on an Irish family wall for the last four hundred years has just come to light.

This golden-skinned chap sure makes a change from the somewhat misshapen fellow we'd got used to from the cover of the first folio. And it makes an Englishman's heart swell with misplaced pride to know that the world's greatest playwright was clearly a bit of serious ruff.

I apologise.

UPDATE: Charlotte Higgins isn't convinced.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Midlake - The Trials Of Van Occupanther

I've been listening to Midlake's second album The Trials Of Van Occupanther for months now, to the exclusion of just about anything else (other albums, food, basic hygiene). Let me say right away that the album is jaw-droppingly brilliant, like a smooth hit of a new drug. So notice is duly given that this post is less a considered appreciation full of learned comparison and cool analysis, and more a dribbling fan letter. Apologies are offered.

Trials is the Texan band's second album after the less-than-overwhelming Bamnan and Slivercock. That album’s name alone had suggested an overweening commitment to the whimsical, an impression the music confirms, its studied psychedelia getting pretty tired over the course of an album. Lazy comparisons to The Flaming Lips were thrown around by critics; but lazy Flaming Lips is closer to the mark: Bamnan is free from the emotional punch of peak Lips. But there are some faint presentiments of the story-telling ability that lifts Trials free of the pack.

It's clear from the first track that the band have undergone a collective Great Leap Forward. The music has moved into a kind of turbo-charged combination of AM rock and recondite folk, the vocals now stacked and smeared like classic folk rock. From their studied rustic image (few moderns bands can pull off being so comprehensively bearded) to the fact that all of Midlake sing, their voices interweaving around serpentine melodies and thrilling harmonies. Listen to the track Branches and the LA version of Radiohead's I Will; each song stacks it harmonies like a madrigal.

But it's the lyrics that set the album apart. Something is not quite right in the rural idyll of the titular Van Occupanther. His ruritanian community seems to be facing an impending, possibly ecological, catastrophe. In fact, this disaster may have already occurred, leaving Van Occupanther the only survivor – a fact that he is either unaware or in denial of (see also the Martin Amis story “The Immortals” from Einstein’s Monsters.)

While the sound may be a souped-up folk-rock, ringing many familiar bells, the lyrics touch on none of the American mythos of, say, Dylan or The Band. Trials is connected to the Americana tradition only in the most oblique or occluded sense.

Check out the central lyrics to the slashing, urgent Roscoe (which also happens to be the best song I’ve heard this year):

The village used to be all one really needs
That's filled with hundreds and hundreds of
Chemicals that mostly surround you
You wish to flee but it's not like you
So listen to me, listen to me

Oh, oh, oh and when the morning comes,
We will step outside
We will not find another man inside
We like the newness, the newness of all
That has grown in our garden soaking for so long

Whenever I was a child I wondered what if my name had changed into something more productive like Roscoe
Been born in 1891
Waiting with my Aunt Rosaline
These lyrics have a sinuous and insinuating melody, and the chorus is defined more by its sudden vandal slashes of guitar than by its structural position. There are plenty of other equally good songs. 'Young Bride' is a ruritanian stomp - the wonderful video shows the protagonist escaping from her stifling family life to a snowy fantasia of 'frozen lakes, snowshoes and hunters'. The title track is a hopeful mantra, only varying at the very end. The final track is 'Head Home', where the sense that they've channelled the spirits of Fleetwood Mac is strongest. The harmonies glisten and the guitar solos are fuzzily wonky. And check out the lyrics:

Bring me a day full of honest work and a roof that never leaks
I'll be satisfied
Bring me the news all about the town
How it struggles to help all the farmers out during harvest time

But there's someone I'd like to see
She never mentions a word to me
She reads Leviathan
The music and massed swell of voices drops out on that final line - what it means is beyond me: is the reference to Hobbe's manifesto about the need for a strong man to lead significant? Search me. The line is immediately followed by the key line: "Think I'll head home".

Album of the year so far…

Friday, March 06, 2009

Justin Timberlake - "My Love"

Why? Do I need a reason?

OK, fine: because it's Friday, and because I need a break from the logorrhea that's afflicted me lately, I thought I'd post my one of my favourite videos of the last few years. This is the full version of Justin Timberlake's "My Love" complete with jammed-sounding intro with Timbaland doing his thing (rather more successfully than T.I. later in the song, which is saying something given their respective reputations as rappers).

Anyway, it's still a great song, even if one or two of the lyrics veer a tad close to the wince-making. Mainly it's all about the dancing, which looks supercool (at least to this rhythmically-challenged soul), especially as the vid starts strobing between the black and the white backgrounds. At the end, the camera does almost a vertical 360 around Justin, which makes the intricate moves he's making in the air look mental (Sorry, I'm just not tooled up with the latest critico-theoretical language used to describe dance). Ahh thank goodness: the weekend just arrived...

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Kanye Baby!

Everyone's favourite rapper Mr Kanye West was at the Opera House on Sunday night; or, to put it more accurately, Mr Utzon's vast but vanilla interiors were transformed by a glittering riot of fedoras, sharp white suits, feathered hats, shades; the whole place was like a demented Hype Williams video. (And to think I'd chosen the Mahler and Mozart double-header to get loaded. What was I thinking?)

So anyway, I went down thanks to a handy invite from the lovely people at Universal records, and took my seat among the seats reserved for the industry. I know this, because we were just about the only people who don't shake our collective tail-feathers the moment the beats begin. Too cool for school, I suppose, which is a shame because I wanted to GET UP ON IT.

After a small eternity, things started to happen. A dozen elegant string players from the Sydney Symphony took their seats in the bleachers, led by woman in white who was later introduced as Kanye's musical director. She played like a demon and, when not fiddling up a storm, spent the rest of her time exhorting the crowd to lose it. With a line-up rounded off by turntablist extraordinaire DJ A-Track, and two superb backing singers who provide all the vocal samples, the sounds was as rich and deep as any hip hop show could be.

After a tantalising overture of Diamonds Are Forever, Kanye himself appeared in white-rimmed shades, black gloves, and a neckerchief mask, looking like a Hamas Michael Jackson. The sound started out muddy, the strings and rhymes submerged beneath the awesome bottom end. But after that, everything was frikkin' amazing...

Some highlights: Gold Digger. The DJ begun this with the barrel house blues of the original Ray Charles track - but no-one was fooled; and no-one remained seated, especially after those heavyweight quarter beats at the start were teasingly elongated over four machine gun bars before the rasping clavichord melody kicked in. (At least I think it's a clavichord... Similar to Superstition...Answers on a postcard)

The string medley of Bittersweet Symphony and Eleanor Rigby. Delicious...

Jesus Walks. This song is already tre intense, but this time the string section ratcheted up the tension, providing the staccato stabs of the original.

Roses. I swear to God: EVERYONE knew every single word. There's something surreal about being in the Opera House and hearing thousands of people chanting "Bitch, are you smoking reefer?" Something very cool about it too. See also: the bit when everyone growled along with "My grandfather trying to pull it together. He's strong".

Kanye's between-track chatter is both jaw-droppingly boastful and winningly cheeky. He plays a few verses from a bunch of his own productions - Jay-Z, Ludacris, etc - and then says "I did these. You thought I was just about the tunes? These are MY beats!" And how's this for ego: "I don't really know how to say this.... but I'm a big deal". Cue deafening applause.

Gone. Another chance for the string section to show their chops.

And not forgetting the section in the middle where he played along with some classic tunes. First up was Al Green's Let's Stay Together, followed by Rock With You by Michael Jackson. The third track...? In fact, it was Take On Me by A-Ha, complete with Kanye dancing about like a happy tool, and the DJ dropping out the beats for the ecstatic crowd to provide the chorus.

"They said I couldn't bring hip hop to the Opera House".

Boy, were they wrong.

Finally, here's me and the peeps from Universal and iTunes:

Susan Greenfield's House of Epical Nonsense

Professor Baroness Susan Greenfield is the Director of the Royal Institution and is well known for her books and TV series about neuroscience. And yet, despite such impeccable bona fides, she's all too willing to talk a rare species of balls.

Greenfield’s area of expertise is synaptic pharmacology, and on that subject at least, she knows whereof she speaks. You can be sure that it's a field advanced by carefully controlled and refereed studies. Yet from time to time, she abandons the scientific method, with its near-pathological tendency to hedge, and wades into the latest tabloid panic, telling editors everything they want to hear: "Top Scientist Says Stroking Puppies Causes Autism".

The Spectre of Social Networking, Yesterday

She first came to my attention when she embarked upon a crazed Jeremiad against the legalisation of cannabis. At this point, I should say I’m making no claim one way or another about legalisation. I think her Guardian essay would have been just as damaging if it had been in favour, since it is comprehensively riddled with non-sequiters and tortuous semi-logic. Her thesis consists largely in trying to convince us that alcohol is not all bad, certainly not when compared to the evils of cannabis. What, for instance, are we to make of the following blithe assertion:
"Alcohol has a range of non-specific actions that affect the tiny electrical signals between one brain cell and another; cannabis has its own specialised chemical targets, so far less has a more potent effect."
That’s not science or argument as I know it, that's an all-but-meaningless assertion. But Greenfield has barely begun. Watch as a veritable county fair of aunt sallies are set up only to be expertly — if not stylishly — demolished:
"If cannabis were 'just the same' as alcohol and cigarettes, why are people not taking those already legal drugs for the much-lauded pain-relief effects?"
Who's saying they were 'just the same'? Isn’t part of the point that cannabis is thought to be less harmful than alcohol and cigarettes? And hold the phone: people don’t drink for alcohol’s pain-killing effects? The best that can be said about that is that the burden of proof rests squarely with Greenfield. Then there’s this syntactical train-wreck:
"Even the most loony of liberals has not suggested tolerance for morphine or heroin abuse, because they are prescribed clinically as potent painkillers. And think about it: if cannabis brings effective relief from pain, then how does it do so? Clearly by a large-scale action on the central nervous system."
That sentence has to be read twice to be understand, even though reading it once was painful enough. Greenfield clumsily tries to close off the argument’s closed off by using the word ‘abuse’, since plenty of people, and not just the ‘most loony of liberals’, would tolerate regulated morphine or heroin ‘use’ if it meant that crime fell. That second clause is also ambiguous. I assume she’s saying that no-one’s making the analgesic argument. But she could just as well be saying that no-one’s suggesting tolerance precisely because those drugs are prescribed clinically. And then her second argument is far from the clincher she thinks it is, unless she believes that the threat of any ‘large-scale action on the nervous system’ is enough to terrify us into abstinence; and if that’s the case, then she ought to be arguing for the banning of horror films or roller-coasters, since adrenalin also causes a “large-scale action on the central nervous system”.

But those two sentences were models of limpid prose compared to this monstrosity:
"Further wishful thinking is that, because cannabis doesn't actually kill you, it is OK to send out less negative legal signals, even though the Home Secretary admits that the drug is dangerous. Leaving aside the issue that cannabis could indeed be lethal, in that the impaired driving it can trigger could well kill, there is more to life than death."
The retinal discomfort caused by those opening four words is only somewhat relieved by the comedy of the closing seven. But, to give the Baroness her due: there is, indeed, more to life than death.

Remember, this is the Director of the Royal Institution we’re talking about. She has no business sounding like a second-rate Littlejohn, throwing factoids at the well and hoping they cohere. Mud-flinging can, of course, be effective. But tyou should at least check for signs of internal contradiction. Despite her repeated insistence that the effects of cannabis are massive and powerful and long-lasting, she also finds herself saying:
"The effects on the brain in real life are most probably subtle and therefore hard to monitor."
Now she tells us. Now for all I know, any one of her arguments, such as they are, might be true. Perhaps all of them are. As I say, I’m not arguing the toss one way or the other. The problem here is simply being able to discern an argument. When the prose is this bad, you keep having to peer through the fug, hoping a train of thought might emerge. A style of writing this clunky and scattershot can't help but suggest a style of thinking in similar disarray.

Now, this first-class mind and science explicator non pareil (not to mention unelected legislator) has now turned the logical engine of her mind toward a new and more existential threat that’s reared its incorporeal head. Fortunately, the good professor is ready to smite this beast. Have at thee, Social Networking:
"[Experiences of social networking] are devoid of cohesive narrative and long-term significance. As a consequence, the mid-21st century mind might almost be infantilised, characterised by short attention spans, sensationalism, inability to empathise and a shaky sense of identity."
Well, in my most Pooterish moments, I could entirely agree with her. But I recognise I'm ignoring the evidence of controlled studies or the anecdotal evidence of those entirely well-adjusted minds of those friends who regularly blog, twitter, facebook (hey it’s verb) and the like, without seeming to lose their identity.

If Baroness Greenfield wants to make pronouncements outside her field, that’s up to her. But as director of one of the world’s greatest scientific institutions, she should, at the very least, be making it her mission to defend and explain the scientific method. And that means citing refereed evidence. And, in this case, the evidence seems somewhat more sceptical than her about the dangers of social networking. If the worst that can be said about a technology is that it might make you a bit more like Stephen Fry, I think we can relax. And let's not get our science from self-appointed panjandrums with axes to grind.

Ben Goldacre on Greenfield

Review: School of Seven Bells - Alpinism

March is here! I love this time of year, when you can just sense Thomas’ “force that through the green fuse drives the flower” starting to build.

We visited the Victorian dinosaurs at Crystal Palace the other day. The park had been overseen by Richard Owen, arch anti-Darwinist and the man who first described the reptilian fossils that were pouring out the new world as “terrible lizards”, or dinosaurs.

But in the middle years of the 19th century (the park was designed as a companion to the Great Exhibition), not a great deal was known about how to reconstruct from the fossils how the living creatures may have appeared. The solutions were creative. Only have the head of a great sea reptile? Then hide the body by having its head poke terrifyingly from the water. Don’t know what the head of the dinosaur looked like? Face the model away from the audience. Most notoriously, they placed iguanodon’s thumb spike on its snout. Also apparent is the common presumption that the dinosaurs were akin to slow-moving and cold-blooded reptiles like the crocodiles, dragging their bellies and tails on the floors, rather than the highly active, often bipedal, poikilotherms they were, typically holding their tales aloft for balance. It’s not just dinosaurs. There’s a marvellous giant sloth (Megatherium), some colossal Irish Elk and some very odd-looking pterodactyls.

I’m rambling. What I wanted to say was this: it was a beautiful cold blue day. Exactly like a day in Autumn in fact. But instead of the melancholy of encroaching winter, there’s the excitement of approaching Spring, when the trees will “begin afresh, afresh, afresh”.

Goodness, I'm still rambling. What I really wanted to talk about was School of Seven BellsAlpinism. Here’s another band doing exciting research with drone dynamics, rather than just slavishly shoe-gazing. What does Alpinism sound like? Like the better bits of Golden Palominos’ album Pure. Like My Bloody Valentine with, like, audible lyrics and fantastic singers and harmonies. Like Imogen Heap, if her attempts to rock out weren’t somewhat embarrassing.

First song “Iamundernodisguise” sounds precisely as I always wish Ladytron would but never do. “Face to Face on High Places” has a chorus riding upon a truly swooshsome wave of noise, as does “Half Asleep”, even if the latter's chord sequence is hardly original. “Wired for Light” judders forth on a squealing middle-eastern figure (a la “Galvanize”), mixing winsome melodies with wide galactic spaces before ending in a blissful vocal round. It's delectably dreamy.

After that, the album loses some spark, and starts trading noise for nice, rarely a smart move: they start sounding like a second-rate Garbage. But, even if only for the first handful of songs, they make a joyful noise unto to the creater.

Happy March!

Monday, March 02, 2009


... seems to have turned into some kind of music networking site has archived some pieces I wrote for them back in mists of time. Since you've expressed an interest (though I may just have been confused by an echo), I will republish them here in all their questionable glory:

My Vitriol - Finelines

Black sheets of rain, jagged beds of metal, stormy seas of noise, the perfect synthesis of Nirvana's raging punk psychosis and the amorphous body-throb of My Bloody Valentine. This is the sound of Finelines, at least in My Vitriol's finely-cheekboned head. They're not far off. But making that elusive beast the rock classic is easier said then done. Chuck in a few fillers toward the end and no matter how many operatic planet-straddling monsters you started off with, chances are you've fucked it.

One argument against My Vitriol says that Muse have cornered the market in theatrical spleen-venting, leaving the thrilling but retrograde guitars of opener "Alpha Waves" looking well eighties. Possibly, but with Som Wardner's unerring ear for a melody and the burning metal guitars giving it perpetual crank and bend, it's the Devonish geezers that end up looking redundant and silly.

Check "The Gentle Art Of Choking" for an intro that could almost be Ash were it not so adrenalised, for stunt guitars that wheel and stall then before spinning to high-altitude safety. The same goes for 'Cemented Shoes', only with more of above. A useful point of reference is Sugar's hi-trauma mini-album Beaster: pain alchemised to pop gold, claustrophobic, unstinting, brutal, beautiful.

It may well be too long and it might stick to its blueprint a little too faithfully, but singularity of vision can hardly be criticised on a debut record. Finelines is a black-hearted but coruscating journey at speed.

Funny thing is, I can't remember a single thing about this record. Also, I suspect I may not have known what "coruscating" meant.