27 October 2006

Extras: Series 2
So, the series finished with quite the whimper last week, despite a brilliantly minimalist performance from Robert DeNiro. It seems to me that Ricky Gervais tends to watch Curb Your Enthusiasm to see what he can nick, and repackage for his own show. And I don’t mean that in a nasty way, just that he seems rather ‘inspired’ – sorry, inspired – by Curb.

We have the character of Barry (Shaun Williamson) who, to me, seems like an extended meditation on the little story arc where Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander (who played George Costanza) guested on Curb, playing himself, and articulating his annoyance that he was typecast, which was a waste of a man as prodigiously talented as he.

However, as he got into his inevitable arguments with David, especially about how he was nothing like George in ‘real life’ (a complex and confused term when it comes to this style of hyperreal comedy), he was reduced to the petty, chubby, balding archetype that characterises both George and Barry.

Of course, one key difference between the character of ‘Jason Alexander’ (as he appeared in Curb) and Barry is that of success; Barry is viewed as unsuccessful in life, a man who has had so little TV work post-Eastenders, that he has resorted to moonlighting as a roofer, and doing odd jobs. Jason, on the other hand, is a former star of one of the biggest TV shows in US history. He’s pretty set for money.

The other would be their roles in the respective programmes. Jason is there to reiterate how closely George was based on Larry; I’m unclear of the level of causality here, but the similarity seems to extend to Jason as well. So we have scenes in which Larry and Jason get caught up in argument about such trifling matters as who should go to whose office for the next meeting; both acting like real life avatars of George.

Conversely, Barry’s character seems to exist in Extras as a counterpoint to Gervais’s Andy Millman. Both are overweight, quite ugly, and in their forties. However, whereas Millman is on a constant search for dignity and nobility in his extra work or, this series, his sitcom, Barry seems content to wallow in mediocrity and self pity.

In terms of guest stars, this series has had almost too many. Excellent were Keith Chegwin, Stephen Fry (in a wonderful, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, bathroom scene) and Richard Briers. Daniel Radcliffe and Orlando Bloom had good lines, but seemed to be trying too hard. Coldplay’s Chris Martin was decent, though too self-aware, and I’m uncomfortable with the parody of 'rock star on a show to pimp his band' when that was precisely what was happening in reality.

Of definite note was the cameo, near the close of the series, of Sir Ian McKellen who, while acting to a traditionally high standard, seemed rather a forced presence.

Of course, he was necessary as the homosexual director (and the downfall of that episode was the fact that it was predicated on homophobia – I thought Millman was supposed to be a decent bloke), but his actual character seemed to be a photocopy of Patrick Stewart at the end of the first series. He echoed the Stewart template of ‘I’m a posh actor who everyone loves, but really I’m a bit stupid’ to a tee; a tad too obvious for my liking.

The upside to the cameo was there, though, and was very smart; if a tad subtle. What I enjoyed about his character was the insistence that acting was all about pretending to be a character you were not, as he cited the fact that he was not actually a wizard called Gandalf. That, in itself, would not have been so funny, but I loved its nod to the abysmal (in the show) performance by Chegwin, which he attempted to excuse by saying ‘but me sister isn’t dead’.

While in that opening episode, Millman could look at such a comment as indelible evidence that his guest star was rubbish, the exact same sentiment coming from such a respected thespian as McKellen must have been troubling for the protagonist. So it was a shame that the rest of the episode descended into ‘I’m not gay’ jokes.

11 October 2006

Live Review: My Morning Jacket, 23rd August 2006

Manchester Academy 2. Support: Richard Swift.

So I finally went to another gig. It had been a while since I was last in Manchester, so I enjoyed the return to the Cornerhouse* café (I love that place, and there is nowhere that good in Leeds. Fact); brought back memories of my university days, when I would go to watch a film at least once a week.

We also went to a curry house, specifically Shere Khan. I had a decent enough, if overly tomato-drenched, lamb madras. That’s one thing I did woefully little of, when living in Manchester; I lived in a city that boasts a ‘Curry Mile’, and I had about three of the things while I was there.

And on we went to the venue. In my day, it was Manchester Debating Hall, where I saw Tomahawk (and missed what should, in hindsight, have been excellent support bands Dalëk and Ex-Girl) and, supporting Mark Lanegan, a Masters Of Reality line-up that featured Josh Homme on guitar and Nick Oliveri on bass. Apparently that name wasn’t cool enough, so the hall now bears the less charismatic nomenclature ‘Academy 2’.

As per usual, getting into the actual venue was an adventure. For whatever reason, the front door was a no-go, so we entered through the side and snaked through corridors until we had to submit our whole tickets (not merely the stub for these ‘security’ workers) and ‘hit the hall’, as it were.

In the closing stages of his support set was a young man who, though he went by the name ‘Richard Swift’, looked from a distance to strangely resemble the Yorkshire Ripper. Thankfully, it was just really his slightly afro-ish hair.

Aside from that claim to infamy, there was little to pen a missive to one’s relatives about. Piano-driven, retro-for-the-sake-of-it, songs that I’m sure would go down well in the middle of the afternoon on Radio 1, or a church jumble sale, but nothing you’d really choose to listen to.

Swift had a decent enough voice, a mix of the low and a touch gritty while also being strangely nasal. It put me in mind of Richard Hawley, which is not good when one considers:

1. Hawley’s voice is lower and grittier.
2. Swift had nothing to compare to Hawley’s excellent ‘The Nights Are Cold’.

Anyway, he soon finished in a blaze of mediocrity; nudging and winking through what sounded like a Billy Joel cast-off that featured one of those keyboard vocoder deals. It was a thousand times less cool than ‘Living on a Prayer’, and the only redeeming feature was the keyboardist dancing like Jimmy Somerville.

After a brief wait, the headliners came on, and I was very pleasantly surprised. Pre-gig, I had been anticipating rather a laidback performance from those the lazy would compare to Neil Young; to be precise, I was expecting the kind of set that would be great for a blissed-out summer day, lying on a field, rather than the stinky Academy 2 on a rainy, cold evening.

I should have probably paid more attention to their last album which, when I heard it, wasn’t quite up to the At Dawn standards, and had me switched over to the superior sounds of the Great Lake Swimmers. But I digress; this set began in a surprisingly rocking style, and I loved it.

Of especial note is their drummer, apparently one Patrick Hallahan, who plays with such sustained enthusiasm and power that the observer cannot help but be caught up in the passion of the moment. I recognised few songs (on record, I have a definite preference for their more melancholic moments), but that mattered little in the live context.

Sadly, this high was not to last. As the old saying goes, the band played on. And on, and on. Whether this is a reflection of their catalogue, or simple fatigue, I am not sure. What I do know, however, is that boredom set in.

Eventually, the band left the stage and, although I enjoyed the show overall, the feeling of relief was strong. Knowing the band would return for an encore, I hoped that brevity would save my soul – and the band’s esteem.

My Morning Jacket being the band they are (a throwback to a simpler time, when rock groups played for hours, and a decent show could be measured in beard growth over the course of the performance), my hopes proved to be an exercise in futility.

By this stage of the night, I had turned off. What had begun as pleasant surprise (and rocking!) was now a war of attrition between band and yours truly; I had been waving the white flag for quite some time. In short, the encore was about half the length of the set proper, and even the drummer, that accurate barometer of MMJ show quality, was flagging massively.

No longer buzzing with the enthusiasm of the first stage of the show, he was now merely drumming, and not in a particularly enthusiastic manner. It’s a shame, as this show had very real potential.

What little banter there was from the stage was enjoyable, as singer Jim James meditated on the church across the road from the University, and the common power of all religions to scare you. If only the music was as concise; my associate in attendance of this concert made mention of a time he saw the band, early one day during the Leeds Festival, and how good they were.

I can only imagine it was a great set; the lazy midday August sun would be a fine partner to the band. And so would the thirty-minute time limit on those opening bands.

* As far as I’m concerned, the greatest cinema I’ve been to. It boasts four screens, independence, with separate bar, café and gallery. And a pretty boss magazine/book shop.

09 October 2006

HERO'S 2006: Middleweight & Light Heavyweight Tournament Final

Given that I had so much fun writing up the Pride show a few weeks ago, I thought I might as well do the same with their Japanese Mixed Martial Arts competitors - Hero*s. The latter company was near the end of two tournaments, at Middleweight (154lbs) and Light Heavyweight (187lbs) - the semi-finals and finals of both tourneys, as well as selected other fights, would all be on the one show. So, without further ado, here we go.

October 9th, 2006
Yokohama Arena
Yokohama, Japan
Doors Open: 14:30
Fights Start: 16:00

Antonio Silva (FIGHT CO.) vs. Georgi Kaisinov (Marupro Gym)

Antonio Silva has a very large face. I proper would not mess with him ever. Feeling each other out. Russian on the offence. Quite messy, but hard hitting stand up. And a biiig left hand from Silva drops the Russian like A-level Chemistry – a left hook staggered him, and it was one of those slow-mo knock outs after just a couple of minutes. Guess we’ll be seeing Silva again.

Sweet, ‘Creeping Death’ on the Tokoro pimping video.

Ken Kaneko (Freelance) vs. Hideo Tokoro (Reversal Gym)

Ken out first. Can’t really go wrong with ‘Axel F.’ Tokoro makes like Ultimo Dragon and trips on his way out. I hope that’s not an indication of the fight to come. Ken in fast, with a guillotine attempt, Tokoro deals with it and goes for side mount. Gets it after a short struggle. Rolling about, quick arm bar attempt by Tokoro. Another juji gatame attempt gets Tokoro the win by tapout with 3:10 remaining in the first.

Even Better. ‘Enter Sandman’ for the Calvancanti (or ‘JZ Calvan’, according to the show) video.

Middleweight Tournament Semi Final:
Gesias Calvancanti (American Top Team) vs. Rani Yahira (Ataida Jr. Jiu-Jitsu)

Yahira jogs out to the ring; obviously does not want to waste any time. Without the frenzied rope-shaking, this is only a .3 on the Woyyah Scale. JZ (rather that nickname than J-Lo) with flags and entourage for the traditional excellent Brazilian intro. Err, wowowow. Quick scuffle, with Calvancanti stuffing a takedown attempt, a few seconds of messing around and Calvancanti gets the guillotine choke very, very quickly. I guess he’s winning the tournament.

I swear, we've had about four minutes of actual fighting at this stage.

Middleweight Tournament Semi Final:
Caol Uno (Wajyutsu Keisyukai Tokyo Headquarters) vs. Ivan Menjivar (Tristar Gym)

This should be a very nice fight. I just hope Uno has upped his skills a bit, because the 2006 model hasn’t impressed me too much. Menjivar with the glasses – guess this makes him the real fight professor, yukyukyuk.

Big pop for the start of this. Nice bit of kickboxing to start, and Uno decides to stretch for a bit. Clinch, and Menjivar gets the better of the punching. Uno fires back, and they clinch a bit more. Every time Uno really tries anything, Ivan just unloads. Uno takedown attempt goes nowhere. Long clinch, and Ivan throws sporadic knees. Solid left kick to body from Uno, and a spinning kick misses. Ivan low kick sends Uno off balance, but he stays up, and this has been a decent K1 first round. 10-9 Ivan, if I must.

Ivan high kick, and Uno responds with a kick that gets caught. Uno gets himself free, after a struggle and a lot of hopping. They are laying in the shots now, as Uno catches Ivan’s leg. Again, kicker gets free. Decent, decent kicks from Uno are the difference in this round thus far. Uno kick caught again and Ivan counters with a spinning back fist that goes nowhere. Lots of clinching, but not much really happens in the clinch – Ivan gets the better of that by virtue of throwing some knees to the chest at least. They finally hit the ground, and Uno has Ivan’s back. Ivan stands up with Uno on ion his back, and they go down again. Quickly back up. Ref chats with Ivan in the corner. They restart, but it’s the end of the round. Second round Uno, and he ends up with the decision.

Light Heavyweight Tournament Semi Final:
Kestutis Smirnovas (Audra Gym) vs. Yoshihiro Akiyama (Freelance)

Let’s see if Smirnovas can make the most of his wildcard position - he lost to star Kazushi Sakuraba in the last round, in a very controverisial fihgt. Sadly, Sakuraba could not continue in the tournament due to a brain condition that is now hopefully under control. I am informed that he’s entering to Nobuhiko Takada’s old theme tune, but the rhythm sounds more like ‘Electric Head part 1: The Agony, by White Zombie. As the music kicks in, it gets less White Zombie, it has to be said. Akiyama wins the theme tune battle with ‘Time to Say Goodbye’ by Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli. Yes I am a big softie. Smirnovas looks dangerous, and we get a shot of the inordinately beautiful female commentator. Akiyama sheds his gi, and we’re ready to go!

Smirnovas staggers Akiyama with a punch, and these names aren’t easy to shorthand. Ten minute round, eh? Lots of feeling out. The occasional low kick from Akiyama and the odd one-two from Smirnovas. Smirnovas catches a kick from Akiyama, but then just staggers. Smirnovas, expecting another low kick, ducks into an Akiyama right high roundhouse, then quite literally falls for a one-two punch combo. Small bit of Akiyama ground and pound ends it in a frenzy, after an uneventful first three minutes or so.

Light Heavyweight Tournament Semi Final:
Melvin Manhoef (IT'S SHOWTIME) vs. Shungo Oyama (Freelance)

Manhoef is never getting beaten on the pimping video stakes, as his soundtrack is no less than the classic ‘Holy Wars’ by Megadeth. God I love that song. Based off the theme tunes for the entrances, Manhoef is going to steamroll in this one. Can Oyama avenge the beating he took at Hero*s 4?

Time out just as the bell starts the fight. Weird. Start proper, and Oyama throws a decent low kick. There have been about two strikes in the first minute, but Manhoef sees to that. He avoids an Oyama takedown, and just EXPLODES on Oyama. High kicks, punches – he’s going nuts. Oyama dropped with punches, and it seems the ref stopped it before Melvin could unleash a stomp. It will take a lot to stop Manhoef tonight. Oyama is hurt, possibly from when a missed roundhouse dropped onto the back of his head on its way down.

Middleweight Tournament Reserve Bout:
Kazuyuki Miyata (Freelance) vs. Ian James Schaffa (Five Rings Dojo)

So, if Tokoro is ‘Humble Hero’, Uno ‘Fashionista Hero’, Sudo is ‘Showboat Hero’ and Yamamoto ‘Badass Hero’ – does this make Miyata ‘Hero With Insane Pecs’? It’s either that or Family Man. They hit the floor, and Miyata gets on top quickly. Throws plenty of punches, but nothing looks overly dangerous. I say that, but then they have a cut time out, so there must have been some decent connection. Miyata does have a solid chest, it has to be said. After a minute or so, the time out is permanent.

Light Heavyweight Tournament Reserve Bout:
Carlos Newton (Warrior MMA) vs. Tokimitsu Ishizawa (TEAM JAPAN)

It is so good to see Newton again; my fandom of him is just silly. He’s looking slightly big, it has to be said. After a few seconds of circling, Newton hits a gorgeous uppercut, and Ishizawa heads earthward. He gets another in as Ishizawa is falling, and ‘Ka Shin’ is out after half a minute. He even tries grabbing Newton’s leg, he’s that out of it. Positive return for Newton, but we can’t really tell much from it, other than he has decent hands. Sure, I didn’t get any Newton grappling magic, but certainly not about to complain. Now he’s ready for a proper opponent.

Don Frye (Freelance) vs. Kim Min Soo (RINGS Korea)

I get the feeling the Kim Min Soo prayer before entering the ring was more a hope he doesn’t get Takayama-d more than anything else. Don Frye looks, now more than ever, as though an old carny fighter stepped into a time machine in 1904 and came out today. I love it. Lots of acrimony during the stare down, and I don’t know what that was about.

Very quick, nervous striking to begin. Surprisingly even striking belies Frye’s composure compared to Kim looking terrified. Kim ends up committing to an attack, and gets a takedown, not much happens, and they are stood up. Frye is warned about something. They restart, and end up hugging in the corner. Kim with another takedown and mount. Ground and pound is largely stifled, but Frye is under pressure. Kim channels Macho Man Randy Savage, as he goes for a double axe-handle. Round ends, and Frye is a marked man.

Second round, and it is more of the same, though Frye looks a tad more focused. I suppose that’s because his corner told him off during the break. Kim has him in the corner again. Ref shouts for action a couple of times, ad they are separated. Frye has been slyly throwing leg kicks through the fight, and they finally seem to be taking a toll. Kim drops, Frye gets on top, and the fight is stopped. He’s proper out. Ah, replay shows he got smacked hard in the side of the head. That’ll probably send you down.

Middleweight Tournament Final:
Caol Uno (Wajyutsu Keisyukai Tokyo Headquarters) vs. Gesias Calvancanti (American Top Team)

After the disaparity in how long each man has fought tonight, combined with overall recent form, this has to go to Gesias on paper. Uno heads to the ring with determination all over his visage - but will it be enough?! We get an NWO entrance from the Brazilian crew, as Calvancanti’s entourage gesture to the entrance before he comes out. Gesias is the picture of confidence here, and I don’t blame him one bit. I hope, for his sake, that he does not get too complacent. We get the anthems, and this is really classy. I love the Brazilian national anthem so much.

Excitement! Uno is throwing all manner of kicks, from roundhouse to axe, but JZ is avoiding easily. They clinch, and Uno is bullied into the corner. Back into the centre, and it is not JZ throwing the kicks. Clinch again, a knee from Calvan, and they get broken up for not doing enough. JZ really gets aggressive and, after a decent connection or two, really smells blood. Uno goes down, JZ on top. Uno defending well, as the crowd swells in a passionate chant of his name. JZ has his back,and they get to their feet in that position. Broken up again. Uno spin kick, but he goes down and starts getting pounded again. Defends well, but Calvancanti is all over him, and the round ends. Advantage in this round clearly goes with the Brazilian.

Lots of clinching to begin the second, and Uno is throwing little punches. JZ with a big takedown, and he’s going for side control. Switches to mount, but Uno is slippery. JZ gets guillotine position, but lets it go. Uno throws a low kick, but it’s too little too late. Just avoids a JZ rush, but then gets taken down. JZ on top, but lets Uno up again. Smart move as he then throws good punches, and throws Uno down. Big slam from JZ, and he’s just doing what he wants. Mounts Uno’s back, and throws grounded shots from behind to finish. I’m surprised it went to a decision actually. Calvancanti with a majority decision? Madness – that was a clear win.

Light Heavyweight Tournament Final:
Melvin Manhoef (IT'S SHOWTIME) vs. Yoshihiro Akiyama (Freelance)

In the absence of any injury, therefore ruling Newton out of the tournament, I am very much rooting for Melvin here. Make it so, Manhoef! I am shamed by my lack of recognition of the Dutch national anthem; I’ve seen too many world cups for that to be the case. At the same time, my guilty pleasure for ‘Time to Say Goodbye’ increases.

Manhoef is like a dervish, as he whirls around the ring throwing punches and low kicks. Akiyama does well to survive the frenzy for a minute or so, and they hit the ground. Back up to the feet, and Manhoef sort of has Akiyama’s back. They go back to the ground, Akiyama gets himself in a decent position, and gets with the arm bar. It’s sunk in well, and the Manhoef tap is only a matter of time. The short fight might have been a disappointment, had it not been so exciting. Hero*s gets another native champion. Final was actually reminiscent of the Don Frye vs. Tank Abbott confrontation from a few years back.

After the fights, the winners get some very nice belts (Akiyama even gets a white strap on his, to match his gi... coincidentally enough), and the losing finalists get commiserated. Poor Uno comes out with a pack on his shoulder that is so big, he looks like a high school American Footballer. Oh, you lie, there's a third place match?

Light Heavyweight Tournament Third-Place Bout:
Kestutis Smirnovas (Audra Gym) vs. Shungo Oyama (Freelance)

Bloody third place match! Feeling out from Oyama and Smirnovas, neither of whose hearts really seem in it. And it’s not hard to see why. After a lot of nothing, Oyama suddenly catches Smirnovas with a punch, who goes down, and it’s quickly finished. Damn, they’re really going all out in avenging Sakuraba, eh?

08 October 2006

Wolf Eyes - Human Animal (2006)

This album is really seedy and it literally just sent shivers down my spine. Ominous and grim, it’s the opposite of Burned Mind. The devastation, as opposed to being constant, is threatened. And it plays with the mind. What started off as some exercise in darkly ambient sax-skronk has mutated, Tetsuo-style, into a disgustingly compelling Enemy of the Sun for 2006.

There is noise on this record, but not of the obliterating kind that the listener gives himself up to. Instead, it’s occasional, and horrible, noise. High pitched squeals, electronic screams that segue from one song to the next.

Except they’re not really ‘songs’ per se. More just separate steps on this journey into madness. Sparse and sordid, it’s like marching through black radioactive waste while buildings burn in the distance. This is where the Enemy of the Sun comparison comes in. That album was a rather sparse, and incredibly dark, move from Neurosis. Very sludgey, it relied on sharp dynamic twists on its dank, marshy musical road, to offer dynamic thrills and discomforting atmospheres.

While the overall sound of this album is not in your face, it’s constantly in your mind, having wormed through your ears and into the cerebrum. The music gives off an incredibly uneasy atmosphere. So much so, in fact, that when it gives way to the raging noise of aptly titled closer ‘Noise Not Music’, the feeling one encounters is actually one of relief.

I suppose that’s the true meaning of ‘catharsis’, a word that has been all too raked over the coals in the past decade or so, when it comes to the medium of music. One would hope releases such as this free the term from the clutches of Korn, or Limp Bizkit, in which it has been imprisoned for the last decade.

The strangest thing is that, despite how unpleasant a listening experience it is, there is an overriding, visceral feeling – more of a knowledge – that this is probably the album of the year in a strange way. In the same way that Tomorrow Never Comes, by Xinlisupreme, was to 2002.

That’s not to say this album is particularly similar to the Fat Cat cult hit. There is no parallel for the latter album’s beautifully disconnected single, ‘All You Need is Love was not True’, for a start. There is, however, that similar general feeling that this album is a very necessary aural ugliness to provide a dynamic counterpoint to all the immaculate production doing the rounds nowadays. A wake up call, if you will.

This is not an album I’ll be sticking on before heading out on a Friday night. It’s not an album I will be sticking on much at all, to be honest. But that’s fine. In that sense it really is the successor to the Xinlisupreme, Enemy of the Sun and Swans' Filth.

Won’t be listening to it too much; doing so would be to dilute the impact anyway.
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