09 January 2018

Zeal and Ardor - Devil Is Fine

I don't even know what to make of this. But I stand corrected. In my last post, I suggested rock music (though still occasionally very good) didn't really have anything new to say. I was wrong. Take "Come on Down", a track by Zeal and Ardor, which seems to pretty much be a gentleman by the name of Manuel Gagneux: playtime music box melodies in battle against black metal riffs, before an amnesty is called, and the chimes and axes actually duet, matching melodies as we all hold hands and sing along.

Gagneux is Swiss. Given that the only other Swiss metal supremo I know of  - Tom G. Warrior - is equally forward thinking, it makes sense that this should be mind-bendingly good. Props to the excellent Kim Kelly, whose article in Noisey made me first aware of this band. But what a shame on me that I took so long to put that reading into action. I have been pondering what could be my album of the year for 2017. Many albums have struck me as good, but literally none stood out as a proper contender. 

On my first listen, admittedly, Devil Is Fine is striking me just so: right in and between the ears. "What Is a Killer Like You Gonna Do Here" is satisfyingly Nick Cave "Red Right Hand" or Tom Waits in its mock-menacing gruff shuffling. There are three brief numbered "Sacrilegium" tracks, respectively thick-synthy, music boxy (very reminiscent of "Frosti" from Björk's best album Vespertine), and a bit Plone. Remember Plone? No? Well they were good. Very melodic Warp Records chaps.

But listen to "Blood in the River": chain gang harmonising about how "a good lord is a dark one... the one that brings the fire", before the hyperspeed black metal guitar howl and blast beats rampage into the mix.

Remember a few years ago, when the music hipsters who aren't into metal got into Deafheaven as their token metal band because they sounded like an emo band playing black metal, and... didn't really do anything different with it? Zeal and Ardor is what happens when you do something different with black metal, to a degree I've not heard since the glory days of Ulver and Arcturus. It lacks the sense of utter evil that you get in a Deathspell Omega album, say, but that in itself is rather refreshing. Very pleased with this; let's see what multiple listens do for me.

P.S. I know this was technically 2016, but I'm counting it as 2017. Pretty sure that's what it says on my CD. I'm behind the times, but what's new?

08 January 2018

Algiers - The Underside of Power

Stay calm, throughsilver; just write. Write, without proclaiming your need to do so. Just write about the album you told Dunc to buy, without having heard it yourself. That was a good recommendation: you just knew it was exactly what he needed to get on this trip to the UK. You can name this article about it and remove any suspense from this opening paragraph. That's it; write some initial thoughts as you have your first listen to... Algiers! The Underside of Power.

Ahem. So yeah, because I am still planning to write up my Albums In The Years, uh... 2013 to 2016 before doing last years best rekkids, keeping it chronological, I will get around that by just doing posts about the goodies. And I decided to do this one before I had even heard it. That's just how confident I am in my choices. The title track is pretty much classic soul, but a bit garagey. But it works; it really cooks. The singer, Franklin James Fisher, is the main reason for this, as he has a great voice. It's good and thick, drips with attitude, and he's got tons of fire when the occasion demands. That's right: you can weigh fire by the ton.

The hacks call Algiers post-punk, but I don't understand why, beyond the simple fact they are making music now, and we exist in a time after punk. "A Murmur. A Sign." is moody, pleading, as Fisher emotes over Stranger Things synth stabs. Straight after that is what would be a gorgeous piano ballad even without the layers of atmospheric sound adding depth to the mix that simmers beneath more great vocals that in this case are actually a little reminiscent of Holly Johnson. And then the propulsive beats, looped choral snatches and panning gang vocals of "Cleveland". It's brilliant.

I'd be happy for "Plague Years" to go on forever, a cold, wordless atmosphere piece of megaphone vocal loops, synth stabs and one hell of a beat. One of the collection of genres Wikipedia attributes to Algiers is industrial, and that one is pretty accurate. But even then, only in places. "Hymn for an Average Man" is two bluesy piano chords at its heart, joined at various points by disorienting, snaking piano and bass lines, and once more that fantastic voice. No Nine Inch Nails or Throbbing Gristle in this one.

"Bury Me Standing" (the titles are great, too) is more atmosphere, going all Sin City as saxomophones alternately hoot ominously and belch feeedback before giving way to the relative epic (over five minutes!) "The Cycle/The Spiral: Time to Go Down Slowly", more fast paced - a last burst of energy before the end. Really simple but effective lead guitar on that one too. Rock may not be reinventing itself any more, but as long as there are bands like Algiers, it'll at least be interesting.

01 March 2017

Harold and Maude

Hal Ashby (1971)

I've been on this seventies movie kick of late. I don't know why: I just tend to obsess about certain things at certain times, and make them "projects". I see very few of these projects through to completion, and write about fewer still. But that's the context.

Even though it was feted by all the "best of" lists I perused, something about Harold and Maude put me off. It wasn't a paranoid, political thriller. It didn't have car chases. It just didn't really seem like one of those great seventies auteur films. Plus, the title kind of made me think of Terry and June - not especially glamorous.

However, perusing Netflix, I hit upon one of those scenarios in which you can't agree on what to watch, so just plump for a choice that is least likely to annoy both parties.

I was really impressed. A very dark comedy about a 22 year old rich boy who gets romantic with a 79 year old woman who lives in an adapted train carriage, H&M (wait...) surprised me with the modern tone of its humour. Harold's constant staged suicide attempts, and the blase reaction of his super-posh mum, who has seen it all (played excellently by Vivian Pickles) put me in mind of Tim Burton or Wes Anderson, with their respective fondness for soft-gothic ennui and dysfunctional family units. They are no doubt massively influenced by this.

Also influenced is Ricky Gervais, surely. The awkwardness (the poor girls he meets on the "computer dates" his mum sets him up on bear witness to the "suicides", without Pickles' conditioning) is exquisitely drafted, and the very odd couple dynamic influential (Maude loves the odd side of life that she overwhelms Harold's rejection of society; they meet as funeral interlopers). On top of that, Gervais used Cat Stevens' "Tea for the Tillerman" as the theme for Extras. That song is one of many excellent Stevens/Islam pieces soundtracking the film.

Though Maude embraces life with all its eccentricities, she makes it clear from the outset that 80 is a good age to die. Just as Harold falls in love with her, she overdoses on her birthday. Such events in a comedy can be handled badly, but director Hal Ashby and writer Colin Higgins deal with it excellently, both in terms of how it plays out, and in Harold's reaction. The audience is initially led to believe Harold  - stricken with grief - commits suicide. However, he is merely ditching his car (a Jag modded to look like a hearse) as a presumably symbolic sloughing off of his old life, as he embraces his future for the first time.

10 February 2017

Interval time

I may or may not have mentioned that I aim to catch up on my evidently not-missed albums of the year lists. Because compulsion dictates a tag-based view make chronological sense, I shan't cheat and start with the albums of 2016.

I'm going to cast my mind back to those halcyon days of 2011 and attempt to invoke in this decrepit 36 year old self the thoughts and feelings of me aged 31. Clearly, I can't avoid a level of hindsight (or nostalgia), but I'll try to make it as honest as possible.

Because I am catching up on writing, the blurbs for each record will probably be longer than for previous albums in a year countdowns: I hope you'll forgive that (and indeed this) indulgence. I just wanted to explain what I am doing before otherwise anachronistic writing started appearing.

While you wait, please do spend some time reading about Mark Fisher, aka k-punk.  He was a most excellent writer, on blog and otherwise, and I this morning found out that he passed away a few weeks ago.  Chalk that down to my being out of the loop. Here's his blog. I've not actually read his books, but I will do. It's upsettingly funny how motivating a factor death can be.

Just being reminded of him makes me want to improve my writing, certainly the intellectual level. As my mum would say: "'I want' never gets". Let's see if I can be an exception to that rule, hey. Just please come back to me after reading k-punk...

06 February 2017

Australian Open 2017

You may have guessed that it's been a while since I last wrote about tennis. I'm sure a lot has gone on since then. Let's see...

  • David Nalbandian retired. And then cheated death. Why did I focus on his shitness back in 2008? Why am I leading with him now? No idea. 
  • Novak Djokovic went from one major title to 12. He won 11 majors in the gap between my tennis blogging! That's obscene. 
  • Andy Murray even won some stuff. Three majors and two Olympic titles. Including two Wimbledons. That's not bad at all. Almost as many majors as Jim Courier! And he's currently number 1 in the world. Fair play. 
  • Makiri Watch: I... think she retired? She got to top 10 in 2013, which is pretty great. She had a baby in 2015, and doesn't seem to have played since. I should pick another plucky underdog to watch. Any ideas?
  • Tipsarevic Watch: He's still rocking! Yes. Just outside the top 100 from a high of top 10, but he's still in the mix! Sort of. But hey, he was 686 in may 2016. At 32, I don't see him going too much longer, either. Ad he's not been as far as a major fourth round since January 2013. Dang. This is what happens when my support of these players drops off!

And, just after that previous blog, we bore witness to the greatest tennis match I've ever seen. I'm not even kidding. Thanks to rain stoppages, Federer and Nadal played for seven hours, on and off (4:48 actual play time). Nadal won this epic encounter 6–4, 6–4, 6–7(5–7), 6–7(8–10), 9–7. 

As you can see, though it was super close, Nadal's sets were won by breaking, rather than tie breakers (my memory ain't what it used to be, so there may have been broken serves in those middle sets; they weren't deciding).

Since then, Roger got very old, and Nadal got very knackered. Djokovic and Murray became the undisputed top two (Novak arguably the top one, out on his own, until his motivation seemed to evaporate, halfway through 2016: Murray caught a stalled Djokovic in the rankings, rather than the two battling tooth and nail for supremacy).

So we get to the first major of an intriguing 2017 season. Novak was the first of the biggies to exit, doing so in round 2, against Denis Istomin. Weirdly, that was his earliest exit at a major since the last time I wrote about tennis on this blog. Spooky! Istomin, to his credit, didn't immediately implode, going out in the fourth round to the sort-of-great Grigor Dimitrov.

Clearly that made Murray the favourite (though he was number one seed going into this, Djokovic's history at the event is fucking miles better). He capitalised on this by doing an Istomin, and getting kicked out in the fourth round, at the hands of Misha Zverev (who also eliminated John Isner).

Though the field still contained loads of dudes who were pretty young and very dynamic, they all got beaten by the quietly resurgent crafty veterans: Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. Well, damn.

On the way to the final, Rafa put out Gaël Monfils, Wimbledon finalist Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov (Monfils and Raonic being seeded higher than Rafa); Roger eliminated the higher-seeded Tomáš Berdych, Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka.

The final was the first either man has had in, let's say ages. 2013 for Federer, I think. Nadal won the French in 2014. They had gone from pretty much meeting in every final (Nadal usually winning) to barely featuring. It had seemed the sport was passing them by. Sure, they got a lucky draw with other players eliminating the top two seeds, but they personally accounted for 3, 4, 5, 6, 9 (that was Nadal himself) and 10. That's a pretty good indicator that they still have a lot left.

As you'll know, Federer won it in five sets: 6–4, 3–6, 6–1, 3–6, 6–3. It was weirdly back-and-forth, as you can see. Federer looked super sharp in the first. It looked like Nadal had his number, reducing his unforced errors in the second set, but Roger thrashed Rafa in the third. It was mad. To be honest, though, it didn't end up feeling very close. Federer's stronger serve meant he often aced his way our of trouble, and won very comfortable games on serve, while Nadal scrapped for everything, as he always has.

While I wanted Nadal to win, if anyone were to top him in the final, I am happy Federer was the one to do it. I'm pretty intrigued as to whether this was a blip in the grand scheme of things, a last hurrah, or whether it will inspire the pair to more greatness this season.

31 January 2017

UFC on Fox 23

As with every other topic on this beloved planet, I've not written about the fights in a while. If memory serves me correctly, there was a half-finished article about Anderson Silva being an annoying showboat, in his phase of clowning dudes who he felt beneath him. For five rounds. Without knocking them out. You tell 'em, Anderson! Anyway, that was at last a decade ago, and he went on to be better than ever, then lose two calamitous title fights to Chris "Default Setting on Create-a-Character" Weidman, snap his leg in two, and come back in a hilarious scrap with everyone's favourite crafty veteran, Nick Diaz, only for both to fail drugs tests. Not long ago, then.

Every time a massive fight card came along (and let's face it - I've hibernated for the rises and falls of GSP, Lesnar, Rousey and the genesis of Conor MacGregor. But it's all good. I've returned in time for... *checks info* err, UFC on Fox 23! Right? Right. 

So, what do we have here. Main event was Valentina Shevchenko, who I assume is no relation to Andriy (she was born in Kyrgyzstan rather than Ukraine) facing off against Julianna Peña. Julianna Peña, I have to say, was a bit of a dick in the pre-fight promotion. I don't know if she was trying to channel Conor Mac, hates Valentina or just wanted to rouse some enthusiasm in the card, but she was rather arrogantly telling us in detail exactly how - and how brutally - she was going to beat up Shevchenko. If you're a UFC vet like me, you'll remember the most amusing time someone predicted such a win. Yeah, drink that in for a moment. 

While this wasn't as amusing, Shevchenko made Peña eat her words by tapping her out to a second round arm bar. What made this more satisfying was the perception among many that Shevchenko was merely a kickboxer, and if the wrestler Peña would be able to take the Kyrgyz down, she'd use her superior grappling skills to earn either a ground and pound stoppage or a submission of her own. 

Not only did Shevchenko win in the grappling, but she also got the better of the takedowns, earning some smooth trips in the clinch. At the times Peña managed to get top position, her striking was neutralised and she only succeeded in passing her arm to her opponent, who quite gladly hyperextended it. 

That led to an awkward post-fight confrontation where Sheva started out addressing current champ Amanda Nunes (wearing quite the most unfortunate hairdo - pictured) with respect, but soon degenerated into wince-inducing second-language trash talk. 

Also hapless on this night was hometown boy (this show was held in Denver, where he grew up) Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone. I like Cerrone: he seems like a sound bloke, he likes to fight regularly, and he gets up to all kinds of adrenaline-fuelled extreme sports in his spare time. He's also a lightweight who has been enjoying a lot of success at welter, having recently beaten such stalwarts as Rick "Horror" Story and Matt "Matt Brown" Brown.  

Until this past weekend, that is. Jorge Masvidal has also been making a name for himself in the welterweight class, though perhaps Ross Pearson and Jake Ellenberger aren't quite as impressive mounted heads on one's wall as Story and Brown. 

Maybe with this in mind, Masdival set about really doing a number on Cerrone. While "Cowboy" usually likes to take the centre of the Octagon and dictate the pace, Masvidal took him out of his comfort zone by peppering him with combos, walking him down and generally being a tad quicker to the punch. Saved by the bell in the first round after being floored and swarmed, Cerrone made his exit quite early in the second, after Masvidal followed another knockdown with some pretty brutal body work. Well done Jorge. 

I suppose I had better mention my favourite heavyweight mixed martial artist ever: Andrei Arlovski. This eastern European wasn't quite as fortunate as Shevchenko, as he got quite quickly despatched by the younger, bigger Francis Ngannou, from Cameroon. Andrei apparently said he wouldn't have picked Ngannou to have a scrap with, were it up to him, and you can see why. Arlovski tends to do well when opponents try to match his finesse; if he can stick and move, he has enough cumulative power to get the win. However, his chin isn't the best, so if he gets clocked by a quick-punching banger, he won't really be able to deal with it. 

And so it was in Denver. Ngannou gets a big scalp in his search for the title, and Arlovski's future is somewhat in doubt, aged 37 and having come out on the wrong end of his last four tilts. Andrei had a nice comeback in 2014-15, after everyone had written him off, so he's shown veteran presence. Maybe now is the time he'll finally hang up the fang-shaped gum-shield. 
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