27 April 2007

A Miniscule Thought on Listening to Botch

Today, finally, I bought the Botch DVD. Named 061502, after the date on which this live set was performed, it is a surpringly professional sounding piece of work (let us take a moment to remember the shit sounding DVD that came free with Miss Machine by Dillinger Escape Plan). I don't want to bang on too much in this post, so The End Of Metal and Bitter Young Men themes will have to wait til later. Sorry. And yes, they are actual things I plan on writing.

The point here is that, historically, my favourite Botch tune has been 'Man the Ramparts'. It's pretty demented and is the last song proper on their magnum opus We Are the Romans. The major attributes of this one are the killer riff it kicks in with, the even more killer riff it ends with, and the five or so minutes of Gregorian chant-inspired harmonies sandwiched in the middle. Shouldn't work, but it does. I get lazy; like to have musical shorthand. For example: someone asks me what my favourite album is, it's Through Silver in Blood. Favourite Poison album: Flesh & Blood. My favourite something else: something to do with blood, I suppose.

Anyway, fave Botch song was always 'Man the Ramparts'. As someone who increasingly judges the quality of music by how much it makes me rock (or, conversely, how close it gets me to tears - only three songs have ever pushed me over the edge, disappointingly enough), I like the fact that the post-Gregory return has me rocking in a way that Status Quo could only pretend to do all over the world, and way more than Def Leppard ever did, despite their continued promises in early 1992. The last couple of years, though, have seen a sly change take effect.

See, the song 'C. Thomas Howell as The 'Soul Man'' has been creeping up on me. It all started when I innocently put it on a minidisc compilation in about 2004. The main facet of the song that hooked me initially was the oddly emotive backing vocal that crept in near the end of the song, ridiculously low in the mix and sung in total deadpan. The fact that it was ostensibly clean, melodic, singing set it apart from the rest of their work at that time. Obviously that was way superceded by the gorgeous (and gutting, seeing as it was on their swansong) 'Afghamistam' (not a typo! All the songs on that E.P. were named for countries, but with the letter 'n' replaced by 'm': 'Japam', Framce' etc).

Where was I? Oh, the song. Yeah, it certainly hits the Noisecore buttons of stop-start dynamics, weird rhythms, and anger; there's just more to it than that. Like Coalesce, Botch is certainly no fan of the hardcore scene, specifically the straight edge element. They let us know all about this with a bile-filled set of lyrics condemning messages that are drowned out by metal noise anyway (ironically, these lyrics are similarly drowned out/hard to figure out. Intentional?). The song on the DVD is prefaced by a dedication to singer Dave Verellen's 'straight edge friends'. I always hated scenesterism in Leeds, so maybe that's why I like this so much. What I know for sure, though, is that the explosion back into action, after everything has dropped away leaving just a bassline, is a wonderful catalyst for chaos - both physically and psychically. The juxtaposition of this closing madness with the oddly restrained backing vocals is the icing on a beautifully deranged cake.

So there we have it: a changing of the guard, as it were. Obviously I still love 'Man the Ramparts' to an insane level, as well as something less obvious, like 'Hives' off their debut album. Who knows, maybe 'Afghamistam' is my favourite Botch tune after all that...

26 April 2007

Seeing Bob, part two.

Set List

Bob Dylan, 14th April 2007
Sheffield Hallam FM Arena

Saturday the fourteenth of April marked the second time I saw Bob in concert. It was blatantly really good, but with conditions here and there. Because I like to think about the context of gigs as much as the sets themselves, I’m going to spend a little while on what preceded the show proper.

While last time I got a lift to the venue, we went to pubs and excellent Italian restaurants (Leoni’s in Manchester: lovely calzones), this trip was less luxurious, though it certainly had defining moments of its own. For the most part, this was the trip in which Lady Luck was smiling on our trio of Dylan fans. We got a train to Sheffield, but the views were nice (when not travelling through Barnsley) and I got my friend to call in a favour after he availed fellow travellers with the football scores; a near-pensionable couple on our side, we got off a stop early – Meadowhall – and got a tram to the arena.

We figured this would come in handy for the post-gig rush; we did not want to miss the scandalously early last train to Leeds (given that it was due to depart at 2220, there was an outside chance I could hop on the last train home from Leeds). We made great time: not sure which tram platform to stand on, we went for the nearest. The tram came in a minute or so, and we were asked by a smarmy man in shades how to get to the arena. We grudgingly helped him, but were amused greatly when he failed to leave the tram at the right stop. Maybe he thought we were working him. Maybe we should have.

With plenty of time before doors were due to open, we went to a tacky theme ‘restaurant’ for watering and big screen football (sadly, Manchester United won). The place itself, I think it was called the Broadway Roadhouse or something equally ridiculous, was a veritable Aladdin’s cave for those who were searching for stuff to be facetious about. The uniforms were a source of near-constant amusement (although I did suggest that I’d dress everyone in pink chaps if I was in charge), and the menu was out of sight. For some reason, Chinese food was under the ‘San Francisco’ category, and Italian was ‘Chicago’. Yes. America is the only place in the world, even in Sheffield.

I also didn’t have to pay for my round, which was a definite boon. The ginger idiot behind the bar seemed amused (certainly confused) that I ordered a chocolate milkshake. So amused, evidently, that he laughed all thoughts of money out of his student head.

Anyway, we found the arena easily enough: the door we needed was nearest to us, as was the entry gate in the arena. After getting hot dogs in (without a doubt very suspicious, but about a thousand pounds cheaper than those in the Roadsteak Broadhouse), we found our seats. Those seats weren’t quite the ‘on the floor, nearer the front than the back’ golden boys of the last time I saw Dylan. They weren’t bad though. We were sitting in the permanent seats round the side and closer to the stage than not; he was about ten o’clock from our view.

I don’t think I’ve had a seat for a gig since the last time I was at Sheffield Arena: for Metallica in October 1996. Actually, I technically had a seat for the last Dylan gig, but that was just on the floor anyway. I ended up standing for both of those anyway. This would be different, though, as our vertigo-inducing situation rendered the idea of getting up and dancing quite impractical.

Making good time, we were seated by the time that bizarre biography opening tape came on. Shortly afterward, Bob Dylan and his band entered the stage. We actually had binoculars for this gig, so I was able to view the band up close at certain points, albeit through the wobble-emphasising zoom. Decked out in a grey-blue jacket and smart black trousers (as well as his cowboy hat, natch), Dylan alternated between playing guitar (the first part of the set) and keyboard (latter part, essentially).

Pre-gig (as with last time, there was no opening act), I was told that slight tardiness would matter little, as he had apparently been opening with rather a rubbish song. ‘Cat’s in the Well’, from Under the Red Sky (1990). I can safely say I have never heard that album, even if it was released the year after the really rather good Oh Mercy.

It was quite fortuitous that we were punctual, then, as he opened not with ‘Cat’s in the Well’, but the infinitely more promising ‘Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine’. The latter is off my personal favourite Dylan album (I like Blonde on Blonde? The world reels in surprise), and was enjoyable enough, if rather far from life changing.

The set overall was not something I was overly familiar with. The last time I saw him, being between albums, was something of a ‘greatest hits’ set, and was awesome for it. This, being less than a year after the release of Modern Times, was obviously in support of that record. Having not heard that record, this wasn’t quite a sing-along experience. In a way that was pretty cool, as it meant I’d be judging the performance on its own merits, rather than the wonderment that he’s playing my favourites.

With that in mind, this set was something of a mixed bag. There was a period about halfway through where it dragged a bit, as they played ‘The Levee’s Gonna Break’ and ‘Spirit on the Water’. The former was a memorable performance, though it settled comfortably into the Dylan boogie-blues template like an old man into a warm bath. This passage, while entertaining enough, was a bit creaky, and the songs a bit longer than ideal.

By this point, six songs into the set, the placement here of ‘Highway 61’ was a masterstroke. Not only should it have been instantly familiar to anybody present, but it rattled along at such a pace that, if the band was an old train, the screws would be gradually shuddering out of their holdings. This aged band was rocking out at a fair whack, and they did justice to a classic.

The next group of songs was a nice mix of eras, and admittedly largely new to me. For some reason I have never heard Another Side of Bob Dylan, so the re-jigged ‘My Back Pages’ fit in well with the likes of ‘When the Deal Goes Down’ or ‘High Water (for Charlie Patton)’. As I said earlier, the last time I saw Bob was a treasure trove of favourites, so my wants for this show were little. It was boon beyond boon, then, that the twelfth song was my all-time favourite Bob song: ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’.

He played this magnificent composition when I saw him in Manchester, and I enjoyed it far more this time around. That can partially be explained by the changes the song has undergone in the forty years since it was first released. The primary change is the new descending motif the song has been given as punctuation, to telegraph the start of the song and to bridge to new verses. Not knowing the changes made when I saw him in 2005 (and the fact that Bob obviously sings with different delivery to how he did in 1966), it took a while to even recognise the song. It was somewhere just before the first chorus that it finally twigged.

Thankfully, the conditioning that was the first time I heard this played had worked, and I recognised the classic immediately this time around. I was jazzed once more and, again, that joy of repetition built within me through verse after verse, one stanza after another. That new bridge worked well, now that it was expected, and the whole thing was a triumph of bristling kinetic energy, momentum building until it destroyed everything in its path.

Bob didn’t even try following this with another upbeat song; surely he realised that literally no rock ‘n’ roll Dylan song could follow it. Instead he reached into his modern day song book (or at least his Modern Times song book) and bestowed a gorgeous performance of ‘Nettie Moore’ onto the gathered appreciators.

I obviously didn’t know this one before it aired on this night, but that mattered little due to the beauty on display. Indeed, one of my companions remarked that I would be severely disappointed now with the studio version of the song, given that it was so vastly inferior to the live arrangement. Dylan tempted slight, subtle chords out of his keyboard, while the rest of the band restrained their rocking tendencies. This was this sets equivalent of Manchester’s ‘Girl from the North Country’, then.

‘Summer Days’ gave way to another excellent performance of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, and that was it for the set proper. When he returned, two encore songs were played once more. While I do have a problem with the encore in general, I’ll allow it for Dylan: he probably needs the rest. The first of this final brace was ‘Thunder on the Mountain’, another new one to me. It was pretty good, and the first time I heard that Alicia Keys reference.

Thankfully, he finished once more with the beyond excellent ‘All Along the Watchtower’. To be quite honest, I have said all I am willing to say about this particular generation of the song in my last review of Bob. Rest assured it was just as good this time, if not better, and my elevated position led to a lesser degree of rocking out, but that was compensated by a greater level of awareness of the arrangement, and just how much Bob was pouring into it.

Overall, the Sheffield set was, by its very nature as a record-supporting set, inferior to the Manchester gig. I wasn’t expecting the world from this one, though (as the last set had almost everything I could have asked for). With the pressure off and anything enjoyable being a bonus, I was very pleased. The set was perhaps a tad Modern Times-heavy, but it is refreshing to see such an established and revered musical figure have such faith in a new album. Perhaps more importantly, those classics he did play were arguably better than when he had played them last time round.

The journey home was quite something. In brief, we got on a tram that turned out to be going away from Meadowhall. We got off at the next possible stop (no mean feat, given how packed our carriage was with ugly Sheffield men) only to rush back on upon realising we might as well stick with the tram to Sheffield and get our last train from there. Cue a sprint to the railway station, and onto the platform, only to find out that our train was going to be delayed by three quarters of an hour. Gutted, but not to the level we would have been if our waiting had been carried out in the grounds of the closed Meadowhall shopping centre. Still, this was slight inconvenience given how enjoyable, and lucky, our day was overall.

20 April 2007

Live Review: Pelican, 18th April 2007

Leeds Cockpit. Support: These Arms Are Snakes

Boo. We missed most of the support act (allegedly the second band on, and they were finished by twenty to nine?), which gutted us immensely; they were the main reason we bought tickets. What was doubly gutting was the fact that what we did see was excellent. What was a fine slab of Jimcore last time out had been replaced by frazzled, overwhelming noise, as the vocalist skittered and flew around the stage. All the while a white noise and sub bass torrent was drowning all around it. This was good noise, a sense of the rib cage rattling, the lungs filling with some kind of bizarro-tar that replenishes the soul. It had been far too long since I had felt this, felt the vibrations ripple up my entire body in an ecstasy of sound. And then, all too soon, it was over.

I was well gutted; not only because we had missed most of their set, but because it also seemed numerous times more intense than their December set.

We were left with only the prospect of hippy-metal heroes Pelican. My history with their recorded oeuvre was not especially positive; their albums range from nice-but-bland to rubbish aural wallpaper. That their music becomes exponentially better the louder it is played, though, semi-filled me with optimism for this show.

When the band entered the stage, my optimism was rewarded. Not massively so, but rewarded nonetheless. Much has been made of the current ‘post-metal’ scene, wherein everybody tries to sound like Neurosis and Earth, but Pelican aren’t even a part of that. Not really. They sound like they should be included with the scene: their songs are long, rolling and quite dynamic; they are on Hydra Head records, home of cool metal bands (though that status is being thoroughly challenged by Crucial Blast); they have referred to themselves, largely due to their instrumental nature, as ‘metal that non metal fans can listen to’.

And if all of that wasn’t enough of a turn-off, the truth of the matter seems more to be that the band consists entirely of old school rockers pretending to be a cool post-metal band. One of them looks weirdly like Varg Vikernes (a.k.a. Count Grishnakh, who’s currently serving a life sentence for killing a rival black-metaller), and one of them sort of resembles a malnourished James Hetfield. And let’s face it: a scary amount of old school rockers look like a Hetfield that has suffered various maladies. He also reminded me a bit of Klaus Meine from the Scorpions. When the band rocked out, which they thankfully did quite often, they synched and all I could think of was Status Quo. So, not cool then.

Still, the music was there and it was good. Anybody familiar with this post-Neurosis generation will know what to expect: Isis, but a little less exciting. Perhaps that is a tad harsh, as it takes a lot of nothing to be less exciting than Panopticon, but I digress. The songs were generally of a decent length, and usually started out slowly, before kicking into a riff-groove in which they tended to remain until the band stopped playing.

Initially this was slightly awkward, as I was too aware of the performance rather than feeling the music that was filling the venue. The band played loudly enough that the simple fact that they were riffing allowed me to coast through the ostensible falseness of the whole thing, the formulaic construction of the music and the annoying blokes next to me. But something didn’t feel right – it was all too mannered.

What was really weird is that I seemed to be experiencing a different gig to everyone else – or at least the band. The main talker (obviously not the lead singer, but the spokesman, as it were) made numerous mentions of how ‘you guys are always great to us’ or ‘we always have great gigs in Leeds’. Perhaps I have a different idea to them of what constitutes a ‘great gig’, as nobody seemed to even be dancing. Do people sleep at the average Pelican gig? Do they walk out, or bend the guitarists’ fingers back as they try to play?

Even weirder was the fact that I eventually had a really good time. Maybe it was the amount of time I had spent watching the band, rooted to the spot (I was admittedly sort of swaying – there really isn’t much in the way of dancing one can do to this music). Maybe the music got a lot better. Maybe I just got used to it but, whatever the reason, it really started making sense.

There was a lovely little period of time where the awareness left me and I sunk myself into the groove, into something of a trance state engendered and encouraged by the warmth of the venue, the music that was rolling and breaking like so many waves, and the fact that I was getting quite tired. Due to the latter fact, this period was eventually succeeded by a tiredness that articulated itself in the form of yawning, slight annoyance and a desire to go home. Before that, though, I loved it. There was one song in particular, I think it was called ‘Lost in the Headlights’, that signified the beginning of this positive stage in my appreciation of the set.

I synchronised with the groove, my mind filling with colours and feelings as I rocked with the rhythm of the music, the ebbs and swirls, and it really started to make sense. The last song, too, was great, as high-note droning gave way to massive feedback that subsided into very heavy music. It was rather a shame it was an encore, because I can’t stand the things. That period between main set and encore is the musical equivalent of the fans pleasuring the band until they splurge another song or two. It makes me feel dirty.

Anyway, the set ended up being a very positive thing, though no compensation for missing the lions share of These Arms Are Snakes. That I enjoyed the headliners more than I expected makes me want to catch isis when they roll through town, as they should be louder and better. After a couple of drinks, I bumped into a fellow gig attendee on the train home, and I convinced him to go see Isis too. He confirmed that These Arms Are Snakes were on at eight. That sucks.

Live Review: These Arms Are Snakes, 5th December 2006

Leeds Cockpit. Support: no idea

I’m terrible when it comes to gigs nowadays. Too many pass my by due to my indolence, from Down and Dungen to Tool (with Mastodon in support). I, after a lot of soul searching, passed up Neurosis in London in favour of seeing Genghis Tron, here in Leeds. And when I got to the latter gig, at the Fenton, it had apparently sold out. Bands get booked into the wrong venues – Genghis Tron playing the Fenton is insanity. This gig caught me by surprise and, while I was close to lazing it out, I decided to go.

These Arms Are Snakes belong to a genre I hereby christen Jimcore. This nomenclature is shorthand, in honour of my friend Jim, given to those bands that don’t seem to belong to any other genre. It’s that kind of music with roots in punk rock and hardcore, but that has branched out into more ‘rock’ territory, with angular riffs and occasional electronic sounds added to it.

Bands like At The Drive-in and The Refused were Jimcore, and I suppose the progenitors of the genre were Fugazi. Anyway, it’s code for those bands that, when I hear them, I know Jim will like. I think some people would refer to these bands as ‘Post-Hardcore’, but that’s just a silly name, and there’s enough post-stuff happening anyway. Propagandhi got pretty Jimcore on their last album too.

Being now officially in my late twenties, I am too cynical to watch support acts that I have not specifically gone to the gig to see; the openers on this night, then, remain a mystery; not that I care. We turned up just in time for the headliners to make their way to the stage and I was pretty stoked, even if These Arms Are Snakes have a history of slightly disappointing me.

Not that they are not a good band, because they really are – it’s all about context. Back in the day (‘the day’ in this case being seven years ago) I got into Botch, and they were brilliant. One of the key acts in the late nineties ‘Noisecore’ movement (the brief musical trend that I consider my own), they were intensely heavy, structurally daring, musically extraordinary and – like all Noisecore bands – seemed to hate the scene trappings of both metal and hardcore.

Like most Noisecore bands, they didn’t last into this decade and left little other than fond memories. Naturally, I was excited to hear that bassist Brian Cook was in another band: These Arms Are Snakes. To add to the pressure, their debut EP, This is Meant to Hurt You (yeah, quite an emo title) came just after peers Cave In had disappointed fans with major label debut Antenna; the punk rock media had decided that ‘if you were disappointed with the new Cave In, you should get this’.

That was a deadly game, as we were only disappointed with the last Cave In because the prior album, Jupiter was such a work of remarkable beauty. If this new band was anything less than stellar, only disappointment could result. And there you have it, disappointment resulted.

Time passed and their debut full length, Oxeneers or The Lion Sleeps When Its Antelope Go Home dropped in late 2004. I was very impressed after a few listens, as it merged hardcore rock delivery with less barking vocals, a subtler sense of dynamics and the odd musical surprise (Cook doubles up as pump organist, apparently). More to the point, it had some mean riffs; I didn’t even know if Cave In were still a band at this point.

Fast forward to 2006 and new album Easter is potentially better still. The angular guitars have been rounded out to more of a Sabbath-inspired groove, like Comets On Fire but less bound to the past.

The gig itself was good, even if the crowd was as dumb as I have come to expect. Most of the attendees didn’t seem like they knew what the band even sounded like before they bounded onto the stage. I expected, what with history in bands like Botch and Kill Sadie, more of a hardcore/punk rock turnout, but they were absent, their places filled by clueless students. Perhaps These Arms Are Snakes Have sold out or something. Well, they haven’t sold out that much as they are technically playing the Cockpit’s little sibling room, the Rocket.

The band kicked off with ‘Mescaline Eyes’, the opening track on Easter and I loved it from the start. The riff rides on such a gargantuan groove, such a gap between notes, that it is impossible to resist rocking out to it. Well, that’s what I thought, but the people around me seemed resolutely unmoved. The moron in front of me even held his hands over his ears for a moment after a particularly dramatic kick-in.

This audience apathy seemed to take its eventual toll on the band. Vocalist Steve Snere, who would apparently flail around like a madman, mock-hanging himself with his belt and generally flying about the stage on the next time they would play Leeds, tried engaging in stage banter, which got increasingly passionless as the set progressed. His dancing, though cool, lacked the drama I am informed it had when they supported Pelican in a sold-out ‘big room’.

Still, the material was performed well enough that I had a great time (save my annoyance at the rest of the crowd), and dancing was done in small pockets of the room. Both albums were well represented, but it seemed as if the band left the stage a tad early; possibly sharing my vexation at the sheer lack of atmosphere in the Rocket. Not much more to say on the subject, really. It’s a shame we missed their set the next time they played – to a packed, allegedly bewildered, house.

18 April 2007

Interesting Times in MMA

I’m not sure where to start, really. The first thing I saw this week was the farewell to arms of Dream Stage Entertainment. Pride really seems to have taken the purchase by the Fertitta brothers to heart, because there was no sense at all of Pride’s continuing to be a fight company in the future. The tone throughout was incredibly sombre, as though – like Boyz II Men said – they truly had come to the end of the road. I wonder how fighter moods will change when the first Pride International Holdings LLC shows get underway; one would hope the sense of tragedy was merely to humour the departing President Sakakibara.

As a Western MMA fan, the idea that Pride and UFC are now under the same umbrella has great potential for working out whom is the best at each weight, and just in terms of seeing promising fights. Still, I can’t help but feel bad for the Japanese fans. One of their key promotions has been bought out, and seems as though it is on the verge of being stripped for parts. What was once the clear best heavyweight division recently lost Mirko Filipovic and now Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. In terms of how much of a blow this is, they were not only two of the top three Pride heavyweights, but of the world top three.

With that said, it was exciting to see Rodrigo turn up in the Octagon the other day. He is one of my absolute favourite fighters, is still relatively young, and has sufficient skill to bother anybody on the ground. (Incidentally, it is interesting that the company is also advertising Fabricio Werdum as appearing on their cards – all other heavyweights need to brush up on their grappling or else learn the best time to tap.)

I do wonder how many of these masturbatory episodes of ‘BIG NEWS’ Dana White is going to put the audience through, though. Knowing the Fertittas own everybody, there is little surprise when a Pride veteran is wheeled out in front of the baying herds; especially when a lot of these fighters are not well known to the aforementioned herds. Fortunately, Nogueira is six foot three (so he looks the part even in street clothes) and speaks English well (so the drunken hordes are less likely to boo during interviews), so this session went swimmingly. One hopes this is the end of such unveilings, though, as the returns will undoubtedly diminish in a hurry.

Anyway, the Pride heavyweight division, once a gleaming rocket ship of quality and variety, is now a charred wreck, the occasional mutant skulking out of the shadows with smoke radiating from its shell. I exaggerate, but the matches on this card had star power more befitting Cage Rage or even Hero*s.

The most intriguing fight on paper turned out to be the most enjoyable to watch. James Thompson performed his usual routine of terrifying his fans while flailing away in his inimitable style. Thompson runs the risk whenever he utilises such strategy of getting sparked out by a stray opposing fist. When the fists in question belong to such a seasoned brawling veteran as Don Frye, the worry increases exponentially. While it is most definitely true that Frye is certainly… older than he once was, he seems not to be losing power, and speed is not an overly important attribute in this kind of fight anyway.

The pre-fight festivities were arguably as entertaining as the fight proper, and that is meant as no slight. The preceding video package had marching band music befitting a superhero from the nineteen fifties: perfect for someone like Frye. Thompson started his march down the runway shuddering and vibrating, as ever, as though he had licked both forefingers and stuck them in plug sockets. Say what you will about his lack of finesse, few fighters appear as intense as James Thompson.

The stare-down, too, was something to behold. The two seemed fit to burst with mutual animus as they ground their foreheads against each other, eyes locked and jaws jacking, mouthing what were presumably the polar opposite of sweet nothings.

The fight itself was as wonderfully chaotic as one would hope. There was the slapstick opening of Thompson charging toward Frye, only to get plonked right on his arse; there was a brief re-enactment of the Frye-Takayama backstreet-nose job (and backstreet- other forms of reconstructive surgery), though thankfully more brief. At one point the chaos temporarily abated as Don Frye demonstrated some admirable top control. The fight was odd in its swings to the ground and back to the feet.

It was in familiar territory, on those feet, where the fight came to its ultimate end. Those familiar with Thompson’s pugilistic oeuvre will know the scene well, as the fatigued Bristolian was swinging those massive arms for all he was worth. The result was somewhere closer to Thompson’s fight with Yoshida than Frye’s fight with Le Banner: Thompson was punching and punching, and Frye was eventually stopped. What is interesting is that, for all his weight and muscle, it takes a lot of shots for Thompson to drop people; this was not the clinical assassination Le Banner delivered.

The biggest story coming out of this show was not the heavyweights, though (even if Butterbean did win a match via submission to keylock). It was the further adventures of one Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou, as he followed his dramatic knockout victory over Antonio Rogerio Nogueira with a dramatic knockout victory over Ricardo Arona. While I like to resist the hype of bandwagoneering, this is quite the achievement. Judo champions with heavy hands, who train at Team Quest, should be feared. Given the impressive takedown defence and the fact that, off the top of my head, the only other man to have beaten both Nogueira and Arona is one Mauricio Rua. I am not about to declare him the future of the weight class, but Sokoudjou is moving in high circles indeed. I eagerly await the next development in this man’s career.

Another fighter who saw another win on this card, albeit to infinitely less surprise, was Shinya Aoki. On the surface, it seems as though – after rolling through the likes of Hansen, Kikuchi, French and Black – he had paid his dues; that this fight was something of a Gilles Arsene (though not exactly, as Sakuraba took way too long to find the win in that fight). The submission here was quick and deadly, and one hopes this is a mere tune up for what has to be a firmer test, in the lightweight tournament that begins next month.

Speaking of master grapplers who inhabit that limbo betwixt light- and welterweight, this past week saw what has to be the crowning achievement of Matt Serra’s career. While I have gone on at length in the past about my fondness for the underdog, Serra vs. St. Pierre transcended that. See, Matt Serra (along with Randy Couture and Carlos Newton) is one of the fighters I took a shine to when first getting into MMA.

I thought his was a name to be consigned to history. Then TUF4 rolled around and my favourite took the series championship in a tight fight, and booked himself into what even I saw as certain defeat for the Renzo Gracie protégé. What happened when the two finally hit the Octagon was unbelievable.

Before the fight, I entertained an outside chance of Serra getting a takedown and then being well-placed to hit a submission, Aurelio-Gomi I style. The eventual chase knockout was something I am not likely to forget in a hurry, and respect really does to out to Serra for working on his stand-up so effectively. To think that, after GSP rampaged through Trigg, Sherk, Penn (well, perhaps ‘rampage’ isn’t the most apt verb in that case) and Hughes, it would be Serra who stopped him – and in such dramatic fashion.

I’m not about to pretend that Serra is as potentially a dominant as Hughes or GSP seemed they were/would be, but this is a definitely deserved moment in the sun for the veteran. Like Couture as heavyweight champion, the scene just got a lot more interesting as theoretically very many people might now be the next champion. Hughes looks likely to get another shot, and is likely to be successful if he does. As for St. Pierre, he is ever the gentleman (note to Tim Sylvia: this is how you lose a fight without losing fans) and, at just twenty-five, seems destined to be reunited with his belt at some point in the near future.

I made my DSE eulogy in the last issue, but it would be remiss of me to finish this article without a farewell nod to arguably the most entertaining epoch of MMA seen thus far, and indubitably the most epic. Here’s hoping the promotion does not flounder under new ownership, because the name certainly deserves to live on in opulence. While the heavyweight raids take a toll on the fight cards, the impending lightweight tournament fills me with optimism, especially as it reminds of the classic ninth Bushido show.

Pride is dead! Long live Pride.

16 April 2007

Seeing Bob, part one.

Set List

Bob Dylan, 16th November 2005
Manchester Evening News Arena

I finally got to see Bob, and what a show it was. My journey of getting into Bob was a long and awkward one, but has ultimately led to enlightenment and much enjoyment. When I started university was when I first decided to buy some Bob. My best friend thought he was the best thing ever, so I’m surprised I didn’t make the attempt sooner. I suppose I’m just stubborn. So I went into the student union CD shop and walked out with a copy of Blonde on Blonde.

I didn’t get it. I appreciated it, but didn’t actually like it. One song I warmed to before others, which was the masterful ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’. I ended up sticking it on a ‘Sunday Morning Chill’ compilation for those lazy student days, and my love for that song grew.

Time passed, and university finished. I was of the opinion that Dylan was really good (I had copied the Bootleg series, Biographs and the Free Trade Hall concert off the friend from paragraph two, but rarely listened to them), and also that he wasn’t one of my favourites.

The intention to get into more Dylan was there, though. I would buy special Dylan issues of magazines, and for one birthday received a copy of Blood on the Tracks. Listened to it, and my appreciation grew, though to be honest ‘Tangled Up In Blue’ was always a song that stuck out to me as great. I was warming to the man.

* * *

Everything then seemed to happen quite quickly. One of my Dylanite friends asked me if I was interested in seeing Dylan in Manchester. Not being an idiot, I agreed, on the basis that it would at least be a good night out. I did love the mythology of Dylan at this point, and seeing him would be quite the event.

The Scorsese documentary was screened on BBC2 and while I caught only the final forty minutes, I was sufficiently hyped for the gig. I then decided to pick up as much Dylan as I could, to make the most of the event. I tracked down the golden era of albums from the 1960s, and already had copies of Time Out Of Mind and Desire, so went with 1979s Slow Train Coming and the Daniel Lanois-produced Oh Mercy, from 1989.

From here, I carried out some research and compiled what seemed to be standout tracks from ’lesser’ albums and immersed myself. Listened to CDs, MDs, and logged over two-hundred-and-fifty plays on the computer.

Of course, one can never truly be ready for a Bob Dylan concert. Seeing the Pixies, for example, involves listening to their four albums and the knowledge that there are certain ‘hit’ songs they will definitely play. No such luxury with Bob, who has many more albums, and is prone to play just about anything from his biggest hits to obscure bluegrass songs.

There is also the legendary warning that is proffered to any Bob virgin: ‘Even if he plays a famous song, you won’t recognise it’. Described variously as ‘evolving his songs over time to suit the Bob performing them’ to ‘butchering the classics’, there was a definite trepidation as it pertained to the thought of knowing what he’s playing. However, I figured I was as ready as I could be.

* * *

Anyway, the day arrived, I met up with my crew, and we went to the arena following some pub time and a rather nice Italian meal. Finding the arena was a cinch – I had spent some years in Manchester after all. However, finding the seats was an altogether different matter. We got pointed to our seats; well, we were shown a dark corridor. My associate and I wandered down some stairs, and the arena was plunged into darkness. Lost in concentration trying to find the seats, I nevertheless heard a voice-over recount Bob’s various successes and, lo and behold, the man himself was on stage and flying through an energetic version of ‘Maggie’s Farm’.

Quickly, we sidled to the edge of a seating block on the floor and not too far from the stage. Well, I could make out which one Bob was, and what his suit was like – good enough for me. The song itself was grand, and a positive start to what would be a ‘best of’ set, what with his last album being released some four years previously.

It seemed as though the majority of his songs had been dropped into an upbeat twelve-bar-blues blender and come out somewhat homogenised, but as long as the songs were largely recognisable I didn’t mind. I say that because there were some issues with recognition throughout the set. Amusingly, the intro and first verse of a lot of songs were periods of doubt, wherein the audience attempted to discern what was being played. The ovations, erupting a couple of minutes into a song, as opposed to right at the start, were amusing – almost reminiscent of the delayed applause that characterised Stars in their Eyes performances back in the day.

The other big change to songs was the vocal delivery. However songs had been sung in the past, they were all now delivered in Bob’s inimitable, short of breath, croak. Some people complain about this, but it’s not as though he was the most classically brilliant singer in the first place. Also: the man is in his sixties – he is bound to sound aged. The litmus test, rather than ‘does it sound like the album?’ should be ‘does it work in its new arrangement?’ And it does. Besides, I’ve always been of the opinion that if people want to hear something identical to a studio album, that they should listen to the studio album.

So a song like ‘Lay, Lady, Lay’s vocal is changed totally. Rather than a relatively smooth delivery, informed by Dylan’s years of listening to country and bluegrass, the romance is strained and awkward, as indeed a sixty-four year old Dylan would be likely to in real life. Rather than the classic song being besmirched by this old man on a stage, it works perfectly as a microcosm of the changes Dylan has been through in the decades since the song was released. The songs age with the man, which would be compelling in itself, even if the songs weren’t as well performed as they were.

Shortly after this, we were treated to something of a Blonde on Blonde section: ‘Most Likely You Go Your Way and I'll Go Mine’ and ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again’, two awesome songs with awesome titles, separated only by ‘Million Miles’ (itself taken from Bob’s best album since the seventies, so it’s all good). ‘Stuck Inside of Mobile…’ was the crowning moment of the set proper for me. While my favourite Dylan song for a good half decade prior to this, recognition took shamefully long. There was a newly-composed riff to introduce the song as a whole and each stanza specifically, it was all slightly sped up, and of course the clarity of enunciation that is so important to the song was rather modified.

I’ll be delving deeper into the song in Part 2 of me seeing Dylan, but rest assured I loved it to an absolutely mighty degree. While it took a couple of minutes for me to recognise, this was an occasion in which a songs sorta-epic length was fortunate. The length, and the rolling format of the song, means that whenever you listen to the song it’s a treat. In the live arena, with the atmosphere all abuzz and the players providing their own personal ignition, this tune is something else entirely. Contrary to a bizarrely widely-held belief, seeing Bob is not some lethargic nostalgia trip in which all concerned take it easy. This was as sufficient evidence as any to refute that error. While perfunctory seating was provided, we were positioned on the floor, and seating was far from our minds. Already on my feet, I was rocking out massively for the duration of this song. I was literally rocking out.

Also rocking was his performance of ‘Highway 61’, but the show wasn’t just about turning up the tempo and boogieing away. The night’s rendition of ‘Girl of the North Country’ was a thing of beauty, shimmering in the night in a manner more spectacular than the Freewheelin’ original. The song tonight rested gently on a glittering arpeggio while the night sky was suggested by the dark blue stage lightning. A triumph of atmosphere and emotion, the song brought the mood down gently before ‘Highway 61’ exploded into action.

The encore consisted of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ‘All Along the Watchtower’. The latter was a truly great moment in my concert-attending life. The performance was great (more in a bit), but the thinking I did while it was playing blew my mind. Jimi Hendrix is one of those near constants in my life: he was pivotal in that time when you’re fifteen and the music you discover is a portal to an unknown world, a world of excitement, fear and limitless possibilities. And drugs. When you’re fifteen and ‘old music’ suddenly starts sounding really good – timeless – the window in your cultural mind wakes up and the spectrum of art shines in.

Hendrix – way more than The Doors, Marley or even Dylan at that time – was the most important figure in that phase of my life. ‘All Along the Watchtower’ was the most significant of his songs to me, too. This was partly because of the effortless genius of the whole thing, but partly because, as track one on The Ultimate Experience, it was the signifier of a new day; the moment of clarity.

Jimi is an eternal figure to me, inordinately brilliant, and dead a decade before I was born. ‘…Watchtower’ is the epitome of his genius. And here I was, watching the man who actually wrote the song, performing it live in front of me. It was such a moment of realisation, of music history being represented on the stage, but living and breathing. Mind-blowing as that was, the musical time tunnel opening up in front of my very eyes and chronology blurring into the abstract, this history was also rocking massively.

As mythology has it, Dylan said the song belonged to Jimi after hearing the cover. Be that as it may (and the song is arguably the best cover of anything ever), it’s not as if Bob decided to lift the Hendrix arrangement. The crashing, scintillating riff that opens the song has not augmented the Dylan version, nor has the mid-song tripped out ‘tuning bit’. The pension-age Dylan certainly doesn’t scream how the hour! Is getting late! No, this performance is the original John Wesley Harding arrangement, but electrified to the point of frying, the songs fizzling eyeballs popping out of their sockets.

Again I rocked out massively, and it’s not as though ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ wasn’t a brilliant lead-in song. What an encore that was. And, Bob being Bob, the night was over by half past nine and I got home in record time. Bonus! This wasn’t the greatest gig I ever attended, and of course Bob is almost ancient, but there were moments of true brilliance that I am never likely to forget.

* * *

Next up: the Bob gig I attended this weekend! Most of it's already written, so it should be pretty soon...

15 April 2007

Is Spam Always This Good?

This morning, I found myself on one of my semi-regular spam deletion missions (obviously a lesser email provider than the solid Gmail), and curiosity led me to open one of these unsolicited emails. Imagine my pleased surprise, then, as I found compelling prose within. And pictures of 'whores', but check out the prose:

What strikes me now as the most wonderful proof of my fitness, or unfitness, for the times is the fact that nothing people were writing or talking about had any real interest for me. Only the object haunted me, the separate detached, insignificant thing. It might be a part of the human body or a staircase in a vaudeville house; it might be a smokestack or a button I had found in the gutter. Whatever it was it enabled me to open up, to surrender, to attach my signature. To the life about me, to the people who made up the world I knew, I could not attach my signature. I was as definitely outside their world as a cannibal is outside the bounds of civilized society. I was filled with a perverse love of the thing-in-itself-not a philosophic attachment, but a passionate, desperately passionate hunger, as if in the discarded, worthless thing which everyone ignored there was contained the secret of my own regeneration.

I can only assume this has been lifted from a novel but, not being well read, I wouldn't know from which exactly. I think Russ made mention a while back about spam making him come to the conclusion that his literary ability paled in comparison, and here we are. I have no idea what the 'signature' stuff is about, though...

12 April 2007

R.I.P Kurt Vonnegut

I had been meaning to read Harrison Bergeron for a while now, and never did finish Slaughterhouse 5.

It's kind of a kick in the pants that it takes something like this to motivate someone like me to do something like read. So won't you all join me in a toast to the great author (so I'm told) and read Harrison Bergeron.

Still, I imagine he's enjoying that 'eternal bliss' up in Heaven.

08 April 2007

Pride 34 Hyper-Caffeinated Play-by-Play

OK, I woke up about an hour after this was due to start. First thing I saw was what turned out to be the closing moments of Nakao-Drago. I was concerned that I had missed a lot, but apparently not; I'm told that was the first fight. Anyway, Nakao won that withwhat looked somewhere between a neck crank one of those weird New Japan side choke things. I wouldn't know. Anyway, Drago disappoints me.

Next up was Butterbean vs. Zuluzinho. Mention was made in the video package of a Monsters Grand Prix. Hopefully they just meant this fight, because that is not what I need to contemplate when I've just woken up. Anyway, there was a brief bit of brawling, Zulu got a takedown, Butterbean reversed it in a scene reminiscent of two giant tortoises tryig to grapple, and side cotrolled him for a while with the ocasional punch. Bizarrely, Bean won it pretty early with an arm lock I'm not sure of the official name for. Elbow was vertical past the head, arm was bent pretty much double. Sorry.

Galesic - Takimoto has been happening while I've been typing. The sacrifices I make. This has seemed pretty cool, actually. Zelg seems to have had the best of the striking, with Takimoto slightly more successful initially on the ground (then some Galesic GnP). As expected, then, but both are back pon de feet. The two were trading, Takimoto obv got dropped. Some 'soccer kicks', but Galesic now in guard. Takimoto busted open. Centred on the ground. Takimoto with kinda open guard, controlling arms. Switches to an armbar attempt, some rolling about, Taki in side control, wins with armbar.

Uh-oh: Yvel. Here comes trouble. Opponent is indeed Shoji; they showed footage of him getting knacked by Semmy. Bloody hell, Shoji is only just coming out? That Yvel entrance took too long. Might have to make more coffee at this rate.

Early days, and Shoji in Yvel’s guard. Whoa, I must have blacked out for a while, because we now have an ankle lock battle! Has Yvel been replaced by Valentijn Overeem or something? Yvel gets narked with that and surges into action with some surprisingly effective ground and pound. That’ll be a stoppage in the first then. Yvel helps up a limping Shoji because everybody is nice today. Seriously, you should have heard how pleasant Esch was about Sakakibara. The whole world thanks him, apparently.

Awesome. The camp marching music signifies the impending presence of no less than Don Frye. This song is seriously excellent; it’s like he’s a superhero from the black and white age. OK, James Thompson is second out and he still looks like he’s being electrocuted, thankfully. That was possibly the best staredown I have ever seen. There was jawing, that strange near-headbutting that’s more of a violent head-rub, everything.

They steam out at each other and Thommo falls. The world’s most lethargic ground and pound allows him to get back up and we get a brief re-enactment of Frye-Takayama. They get separated, Thommo with a takedown and side sorta-control. The action slows. They get back up and the pace has definitely dropped. They go back down. Frye impressive with the control. Guillotine attempt from Selleck. Thommo gets out and is on top. Jimmy transitions from decent punches to teeing off for all he’s worth. Frye technically remains on his feet, but really takes a breather by leaning on the ropes. Few are bothered by that. Thompson just keeps punching and eventually the fight is stopped. After the initial animus, the two kiss and make up. Sadly not literally. News-that’s-not-news: Thompson does not punch as hard as Le Banner. I have to admit I really liked this one; I was proper cheering away by the closing stretch.

'I won't let that happen again', Frye apologises to the crowd. If only I could believe you, Don! He does give credit to 'this big bastard', though. 'The only happy people on the planet are for[sic] Britain'. Frye over-estimates his import to international self-esteem, and Coleman tells him he's a star. Thommo starts banging on about how Frye is his MMA hero (that explains a lot), and it's all very emotional.

Intermission signals more coffee for me. Aiming for a level of hyper-caffeination here. Oh, how I have missed the summer morning sun. Excellent, Takada and Sakakibara promos have happened, and we get a guest appearance from Tiger Mask Sakuraba! This is going to be the great fighter parade I had hoped for, as Tamura rocks up to the ring. What… they’re going to fight? I wish I could understand Japanese. Maybe they’re just solemnly reminiscing. No idea what that was.

Aoki up next, and I imagine this is going to be a quick submission. Prove me wrong, Brian!

Brian jumps into Aoki, gets caught, taken down, Brian punching from Aoki’s guard. Jumping knee attempt taken down, Aoki now on top. Brian reverses positions, but gets caught in an armbar! Quick submission it is (1:33).

Oh shit. Sokoudjou gets 808 State soundtracking his video package, which is just marvellous. The first minute is tentative kickboxing, and Sokoudjou defends the takedown well. Oh you lie! Sokoudjou knocks Arona down with a right uppercut, goes for a bit of GnP and kicking, but ref waves him off. Unbelievable, and in less than two minutes. Sokoudjou with another massive upset.

Footage of Fertitta press conference, and seeing UFC action on a Pride show is surreal. I know, I’m naïve and old fashioned. It’s still weird, in a good way. The Monson entrance is a tad more traditional mixed martial artist than the pre-Silvia fight excellence. Fujita with the Pride theme and, swept up in the moment, I now want him to win. I’m fickle, I know.

After a feeling-out process, a Monson takedown is defended, but he ends up with Fujita’s back, while on the feet. Gets the takedown, but Fooj reverses it. A bit of inaction (I assume so, wasn’t really paying attention. Apologies), and restart on the feet. Four mins gone. Fujita trying for a one-punch finish, but is defended against. Monson with another TD attempt; Fooj on top, north-south. Monson scrambles, gets Fujita’s back. Hammerfists. Fujita defending the rear choke. Monson is tenacious, and apparently sinks it in (dodgy camera angles). Fujita taps and UFC wins. How symbolic.

Seemingly everybody who was ever in Pride is in the ring, and the people Dana likes are cutting promos. I have to admit that I am slightly moved when Sakakibara faces the assembled fighters and says ‘thank you for everything’. At times like this I still wish Pride was on good terms with Inoki. Quite emotional, all things considered, and I was pleased to see people like RandleMAN, Ze Mario Sperry and Bustamante knocking about.

06 April 2007

Pride 34 Preview

Well, I’ve already done a ‘best of times, worst of times’ intro, so I guess we now go with the fall of the Roman Empire. A few short years ago the greatest fighting promotion in the world, Pride got poisoned by the lead water pipes of alleged Yakuza involvement and, slowly, what was once the most celebrated, extravagant MMA promotion of them all became inexorably moribund.

Of course, Pride FC is not going to die per se. If anything, it is now subject to its most stable financial backer in its decade of existence, the Fertitta brothers. However, there is a definite feeling that this is the end of an era. Though we are also on the verge of a new, potentially heart-stopping, era in terms of dream matches becoming tangible, the Pride of old is gone.

Pride 33, in Las Vegas, was a stunning show that belied the true trouble the drowning promotion was in: it was a night of great fights, massive upsets and excitement. If only that was the swansong for Dream Stage Entertainment.

As the DSE-produced Pride splutters to its final demise, viewers are given Pride 34. An illustration of how things have changed in the fight world could not be starker. After Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira was seen sitting with Dana White at the ninth Ultimate Fight Night and Mirko Filipovic already fighting in the Octagon, the Pride heavyweight division has encountered a turning of the tables.

The Pride FC website mentions four heavyweight fights for this card, one of which being the epoch-defining Pride/UFC collaboration fight: Kazuyuki Fujita vs. Jeff Monson. This would seem not to be quite on the scale of fantasy matches such as Fedor Emelianenko vs. Tim Sylvia or Andrei Arlovski vs. Nogueira.

Though it lacks the sense of occasion such a fight should bring, this meeting should still be engaging on its own terms. Both are very physically strong fighters with decent wrestling and very heavy hands. Fujita has a definite chance if he can secure an early takedown and carefully pound (if that’s not an oxymoron) to stoppage from the mount. Otherwise, the fight seems to be all Monson.

I see Monson being slightly more accurate on the feet, even though his reach seems to be in the negative region. If ‘The Snowman’ gets a takedown on his terms, then Fujita is not likely to have sufficient submission defence to prevent the American 2005 champion of the Abu Dhabi World Tournament from doing what he wants. While Monson might connect with Fujita’s face in the way Wanderlei Silva did last July at Critical Countdown Absolute (or Fujita somehow controlling Monson for a decision), the theoretical money here is going on Monson by choke.

The heaviest fight on the card lumbers into view as Wagner ‘Zuluzinho’ da Conceicao Martinstakes on Eric ‘Butterbean’ Esch: a grand total of seven hundred and forty pounds in weight, apparently. Not the most thrilling proposition to this fight fan, Esch is likely to knock out the Brazilian giant. While grudging props go to Zuluzinho for certainly not shying away from definite losses in the past (his last two Pride bouts were against Rogerio and Fedor), he is not the most skilled fighter. He is unlikely to ground and submit the American, most known for Tough Man contests and concussing Johnny Knoxville, and I predict a short, painful night for the Brazilian, capped off with unconsciousness. The victim of that last bit might just be me, though.

Slightly more credible is the meeting of Don ‘Magnum P.’ Frye and James ‘The Debt Collector is a Better Nickname than Colossus’ Thompson. This is likely to go longer than the Butterbean fight above, but no less brawly. Frye is a bit of a legend in the sport, and another total gamer: he took on Jérôme Le Banner in a K-1 rules match in summer 2002, even though his destruction was almost certain. That was quite the knockout. Around that time, he took part in the famed head-punch-stravaganza that was his bout with Yoshihiro Takayama. Frye took that one, along with the features off Takayama’s face.

Still, time waits for no man, and Frye is now two-hundred-and-eighty-five years young (or perhaps forty-one, depending on one’s sources). In the opposite corner stands Thompson, centuries younger, inches taller and about twenty-five pounds heavier than Frye, with a very angry look on his face.

Thompson has had recent mixed fortunes to an almost unbelievable extent. Making his name getting knocked out in seconds by Aleksander Emelianenko, he rebounded with a few easy wins. A loss in a war against Fujita signalled a losing streak that was only stopped when he ended up smashing Hidehiko Yoshida in frankly surreal fashion. And then he lost in under a minute to Butterbean. Thompson, then, stands on the pantheon alongside luminaries like Kevin Randleman, as a figure who can win and lose any fight. Granted, that applies in a sense to everybody, but really: bet on Thompson to win and he will lose. Bet on him to lose, and he will astound the odds makers.

Unless one of this pair has been engaging in super secret submission training (or, in Frye’s case, bathing in the blood of virgins in order to reverse the ageing process), this fight is likely to feature a lot of punching. Then more punching, until Don Frye either tires or loses consciousness. However, this being a Thompson fight, we apply the relevant Bizarro Rules, and Frye gets the nod, by the aforementioned KO/tiring.

Deserving less words is the meeting of Yoshihiro Nakao (in a nutshell: kissed Heath Herring, and bored against Kazuhiro Nakamura) and Edson Drago (looked like an unstoppable killer until he fought someone decent, in Pawel Nastula, and got handled with ease). I can only imagine that, aside from necessity being the mother of invention in booking this card, this fight is going to be a showcase for the fists and knees of Drago. One can but hope.

With the one particularly engaging fight of Wanderlei Silva vs. Igor Vovchanchyn now being off the table, there are three remaining confirmed fights.

Most intriguing of these is Ricardo Arona vs. Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou (or just SOKOUDJOU, according to the Pride site). Sokoudjou rose to renown after he blasted Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (reminder: a trained amateur boxer who had never been knocked out in professional MMA competition) into unconsciousness in twenty-three seconds. He litmus test of Sokoudjou’s ability comes in the form of another Brazilian light-heavyweight, even more known for consistency than Nogueira.

Arona routinely gets accused of being boring, which is a tad unfair. He was right to be cagey against Wanderlei Silva, but otherwise he has brutalised Kazushi Sakuraba, dominated Alistair Overeem and just came up short against Quinton Jackson in a very compelling fight. Arona is a man who wrestles well, and knows how to use his weight effectively. It would be nice to see his killer instinct more often; perhaps this fight will be the time.

After a feeling out period in which Arona will desperately be trying to avoid the fate that befell his compatriot this past February, things could get interesting. Arona would traditionally go for a takedown when warmed up, but once down there, he might want t be careful. Not to predict an upset here, but Sokoudjou is a national champion at judo who currently trains with Team Quest. While Arona definitely has the edge in experience and in winning big matches, the man from Cameroon may prove something of a spoiler once more.

Shinya Aoki is booked to face Pride debutant Brian Lo-A-Njoe. Little is known by me about Dutch Lo-A-Njoe, other than he is a kick-boxer who won his last fight by choke. He also got choked out by Genki Sudo back in 2001. That would suggest he has either improved his grappling game in that time, or that one Oktay Karatas isn’t very good.

What is known is that Aoki is inarguably one of the deadliest submission artists in the lightweight division (and technically a 170-pounder, as opposed to Lo-A-Njoe’s 155 lb status). It is possible that Lo-A-Njoe might knock Aoki out in this year of upsets, but Aoki hasn’t been knocked out in years. Add to that the fact (made up by me, just now) that good MMA fighters who grapple tend to submit less good MMA fighters who kick box, and this is all Aoki.

Rounding out this rather underwhelming card is Makoto Takimoto vs. Zelg Galesic. Galesic, as those who familiar with Cage Rage will probably tell you, is pretty handy, having ended his last five fights in as many minutes, largely by strikes. Takimoto is coming off two losses, and his best win has come against Dong Sik Yoon (unless you count Sentoryu as a ‘good win’, as opposed to ‘victory column free gift’). I was a tad down on this at first, but it could be entertaining. Can Takimoto’s judo skills undo the striking ability of the Croatian middleweight? Not likely, admittedly, but this is probably the dark horse fight of the card.

So that’s that for Dream Stage Entertainment, and for the active presidency of Sakakibara-san. Let us never forget how he remarked that the pummelled, inhuman, visage of Sakuraba after his beating at the hands of Arona was somehow a good thing. In the light of that, the constant enquiries from Dana White about whether pasty hopefuls ‘wanna be fucking fighters’ is suddenly music to the ears.

All that remains now is for us to take a moment to reflect on our favourite Old Pride moments. That Bushido 9 tournament was something else: made us all believe again, yeah? Or the wicked first Nogueira-Herring fight; what an epic display of superior skill against near-infinite guts that was. It’s sad that what was once an event to be eagerly awaited (even if there was the odd Giant Silva or small native pro wrestler on cards) has been reduced to a card of fights that may or may not be some cop, on a par with 2 Hot 2 Handle or something.

Whatever the future holds for Pride, we will always be able to look fondly back on what once was (with the added bonus of rose tinted spectacles!). One thing’s for sure: this is likely to be an emotional show at the very least, as the Japanese public sees Pride handed over to the new Pride International Holdings LLC. At least Takada-san will be sticking around. Will he be hitting gigantic any more drums while in his pants? Who can say, in this brave new world of MMA.

05 April 2007

Memories of Kerbdog

Last, ooh... Saturday, saw the ten year anniversary of my purchasing On the Turn by Kerbdog. In the grand scheme of things, the album is just another one from a forgotten nineties rock band. Kerbdog were an Irish quartet who were signed to Fontana/Mercury at an early age, and released their eponymous debut in 1994. At some point between then and 1996, one of their guitarists, Billy Dalton, left and the band continued as a trio. They got close to the top forty with one or two singles from the Kerbdog album; I guess the biggest one was a tune called ‘Dummy Crusher’ (actually got to #37).

They sounded superficially rather like Metallica did at that stage (growly singing, meaty riffs), just not as good. The songs were energetic and much of a muchness: fine for live performance, for which the tracks had been written in the first place. They started out with little in the way of expectation and, by their own admission, apparently just wanted some beer money.

I first happened upon them in late 1996. As a regular reader of Metal Hammer magazine, I noticed that the mag was fond of Kerbdog, and eagerly awaiting the release of their second album. Like the second Machine Head1 album, On the Turn was due to be released in the latter period of that year, but eventually snuck out in late March 1997. The Machine Head album, The More Things Change…2, was delayed because Robb Flynn was a perfectionist in terms of how the mix sounded. I think Kerbdog’s album was finished and they were just jerked around by their label; it does actually say 1996 on the case.

Whatever the case, I first heard one of their songs on cable music channel The Box, of all places. It was lead single ‘Sally’ and, though I only caught it once or twice (who’d have thought Kerbdog weren’t as popular among phone-in requesters as Spice Girls?), the band definitely had my attention.

The pivotal moment in my history as a Kerbdog fan came with the advent of a free cover-mount Metal Hammer CD. Killing Cuts vol. 1, I think it was. Spring 1997 was a great season to be a teenage rocker, and the CD reflected it. Nestled alongside such Hammer favourites as Entombed and, err, Bodycount3, was Kerbdog. Specifically, a song called ‘Pledge’.

The band had released three singles by this point (and ended up releasing no more, ever), and this was simply an album track, but I was so impressed that I knew I was buying the album on the release date. I was excited for it in a way that I so rarely am nowadays, especially for albums by bands I am not already a major fan of. I blame the internet.

Back to the song: it had solid, heavy-but-melodic, riffs (at one point seeming to quote the intro to ‘Ace of Spades’)4, and the singing was pretty cool. The chorus was the point when I started really being impressed, though; it captivated me with a deceptively simple vocal melody/backing vocals combination (one device singer Cormac Battle seemed very fond of was singing a line and holding the last syllable for the duration of the next line). The love was complete after the second chorus, when the middle eight struck and I was introduced to the gorgeous harmonies that, again, would prove cornerstone to the Kerbdog sound. It turned me on, and I couldn’t wait for the end of March to roll around.

…And roll around it did. I steamed over to the local HMV, in a hyper-excited mood, and found it for a penny under a tenner. Chuffed, I also got the debut EP from then-relatively unknown California funk-rock group (though way better than that label implies) Incubus. That year March 31st was a more pleasant proposition than its 2007 equivalent, a fittingly summery day that complemented my purchases perfectly.

I’ll refrain from going into detail on the album right now because I have a 1997 top twenty in the pipeline for some point this year. I will say this, though: while the first half of the album is markedly better than the second, each song has something to recommend it. The finale, the seven minute ‘Sorry for the Record’ may be the best thing on there.

For the most part a slow song filled with regret (‘…in an air of self disgrace / my mouth is dry despite your wine’), the tempo picks up halfway through for a wondrous passage of exquisitely tight vocal harmony. And I mean of a level way beyond Alice In Chains5 and not seen again in rock til Lift To Experience turned up in 2001. This segment subsides, its existence all too fleeting, and gives way to a gradually increasing reverberation of noise. Initially just a louder-and-louder replay of the existing riff, the static builds and relents into feedback. In a nice touch, the feedback decays, the disc finishing with Cormac’s disembodied voice, a ghost in the machine, reciting the opening line of the album.

As with a lot of my favourite albums, this one took a while to really establish itself in the pantheon. Reasonably similarly-styled albums came and went, some (by NOFX and Kilgore) built their own momentum while others (Life Of Agony, Second Coming, Liberty 37) left with not much to say. On the Turn stands on its own, a strange mix of Beach Boys harmonies, gigantic guitars (and I mean way heavier than Metallica or Megadeth were selling at the time) and a strange sense of underground crunch.

When Metal Hammer (specifically Dan Silver) reviewed the album, references were made to D.C. hardcore, while a regular journo referent of the time for them was Minnesota’s Hüsker Dü. Personally, I thought they sounded more like a much heavier Sugar (who I was exposed to just after getting into Kerbdog); like if Copper Blue had reason to be released through Roadrunner or even Amphetamine Reptile, rather than Creation6. Battle’s vocal timbre was oddly reminiscent of Mould, even down to that slightly nasally-congested delivery. Away from the harmonies, and the Hüsker Dü comparisons seemed more apt: Battle sang with a passion that sent him more often than not into screaming territory.7

Hmm, I’m reviewing the album again. Rest assured, I love it, and likely always will. As well as being a ferociously emotional album with riffs and vocal harmonies that outstrip anything from Cheap Trick to the Wildhearts, it reminds me of being sixteen; of summers days and that joy of discovery.

* * *

It didn’t end well for the band. Due to the delayed release of the album, their promotional tour came and went before the album hit shelves. They didn’t tour again before getting dropped by the label in late 1997, then splitting. They were one of the key bands whose lack of success annoyed me intensely, even though they were a touch too heavy for the mainstream (which admittedly was coming out of the Britpop doldrums, what with the second Supergrass album, the self-titled Blur one - better than what preceded, at least - and OK Computer), and Radio 1 had long ditched their rock show.

Battle (along with Kerbdog drummer Darragh Butler and new bassist Mick Murphy, who filled Colin Fennelly’s shoes) returned in late 1998 with ‘No Worries’, the debut single from new band Wilt. Post-Kerbdog depression was reflected in the ensuing albums songs (such as ‘Peroxatine’), despite protestations that ‘nothing is important / everything’s all right’. While brimming with catchy pop rock gems, Wilt overall seemed a tad deflated, beaten down by the stresses of getting messed around by an uninterested major label (come on, even in Metal Hammer, the album only got a quarter-page ad somewhere in the back of one issue).

After a couple of years and one more album (My Medicine, 2002), Wilt faded. Kerbdog actually reunited briefly in 2005, but the scattered shows either flew under my radar or were in Ireland at a time when money was too tight for me to mention (and if they play again, I will most definitely make the trip).

Whether I end up seeing them or not, I’ll always have this album. It’s served me well this last decade, through the bad times and the good. I just thought it might be nice to take a moment to remember this classic album that, to paraphrase Bill Hicks, has enhanced my life over the years. If, by any chance, someone ends up getting into the album from this (doubtful), or it warms the heart of any band members/fellow fans (even more doubtful), then it’s worth the time spent writing. And if not, just sifting through these memories has been a joy in itself.

Download: 'Pledge'

1 A band who also debuted in 1994, though to more of a fanfare.
2 An amusing title in hindsight as, the more Flynn had messed with the superficial sound of the instrumentation, the more it stayed with the gruff urban-metal template the debut had popularised.
3 Surely you remember Ice T’s rap metal band. The included song, ‘I Used to Love Her’, is actually worth hearing.
4 The album was produced by GGGarth (known for the Rage Against The Machine debut), so this had metal-heavy guitars that came without sacrificing the pop accessibility.
5 Save, perhaps, the heartbreaking ‘Rotten Apple’, off Jar of Flies (1994).
6 Incidentally, I just did some research on Battle, and it transpires that this is his favourite album ever. That explains that, then.
7 OK, maybe there is also a touch of Helmet in their sound.

02 April 2007

Film Review: 300

Director: Zack Snyder
Year: 2006

I like a variety of films. I like film adaptations of comics and graphic novels. This film, though…

And I don’t really know where to start with it, either, as everything that could be wrong with this film is wrong with it. Perhaps I should take a look at 300 in the many different ways it can be viewed, beginning with the least relevant and ending with the most offensive crimes against art, entertainment and taste.

300 fails as a historical document. This almost goes without saying, but I would hate for any of the millions of this films viewers to take it particularly seriously. I mean this in terms of the Spartans allegedly fighting for freedom and truth, against the ‘barbarians’ of the east. This essay deals with the historical inaccuracy of the film quite nicely: ‘Orientalism (and Fascist Aesthetics) for Beginners’. Anyway, the gist of it is that the Spartans were a pretty fascist bunch; little to do with the democratic Athenians, and to pretend such an empire as Persia’s could have existed based entirely around slaves and barbarism is insane.

300 fails as a graphic novel translation. This is quite an odd indictment because, for the most part, it is in complete thrall to the graphic novel it is named for. The script features many lines lifted directly from speech bubbles, and some of the camera angles are semi-live action takes on art panels. Interestingly, where the film deviates from the book, it fails so spectacularly as to hurl itself down that bottomless pit they have in Sparta.

First and foremost in the ill-advised cinema-only moves is the reduction of Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) to a piece of Hollywood stereotype tat. In the comic, she is as hard-nosed as Leonidas (Gerard Butler); early in the film, she is the one who gives the nod to drop the Persian messengers into the pit. Somewhere along the line, though, she softens up. She gives Leonidas a keep-sake in a moment of out-of-character sentimentality. Most worryingly, she is very willing to submit to the sexual desires of some scheming politician (Dominic West) who was shoved into the story.

Gorgo gets her ‘revenge’ in the form of outing Scheming Politician as a traitor in the most ridiculous added scene in the film. Deciding the screenplay was lacking in filibusters, Gorgo addressed some old Spartans in a painfully contrived bit of fluff. Shortly after essentially being raped by Scheming Politician, she is able to smirk through a rousing speech that seemed to serve no purpose at all. Most amusing is the death of Scheming Politician in this scene; his wallet releases golden coins as his corpse hits the floor. And those coins bear the head of Persian king-god-emperor Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro)! Seems he should have done a bit more scheming, like perhaps leaving money at home if it had Xerxes heads on it.

Missing was the detail of deformed Spartan turncoat Ephialtes (Andrew Tiernan) attempting suicide when it became apparent he wasn’t suitable for the phalanx. Admittedly, his survival after apparently dropping off a cliff was rather surprising, but that’s nothing on what was allowed into the film (more on that later).

(Not all changes were negative. Thankfully, a rather embarrassing sequence in the book, wherein mighty leader King Leonidas starts punning on names of his soldiers (‘Stumblios’ – hilarious) is stricken from the record. It was pointed out to me that the stanza in the comic served to show, as he beat up a few of his own soldiers, that Leonidas values Sparta over individuals. Sure, but the very fact that he is willing to lead three hundred of his best soldiers into certain death is sufficient evidence of that.)

I should probably point out at this stage that I wasn’t all that enamoured with the book in the first place. It won Miller an Eisner award, but that tells me either that the book came out in a poor year, or the award was more of an ‘it’s Frank Miller’ kind of thing. Perhaps Dick Hyacinth can fill me in. The book was fair enough, but very basic. The art was the most impressive thing about it, and the propaganda worked because it was blatantly just that.

In the medium of the graphic novel, it is clearer that what the reader encounters is simply the retelling of the story, as ordered by Leonidas and embellished to a degree one would expect of something that was created to glorify Sparta. However, a piece of work that just successfully walks the tightrope in its original form plunges to its doom when placed in another medium for which it was not originally intended.

When the action is in motion, and cameras place the audience in the heat of the battle, the emphasis moves from ‘tale being told’ to ‘document of what happened’, over the top narration or no. People wonder why certain graphic novels should never make the jump to film, and this evinces that feeling nicely. Sin City worked because the source material was so film-inspired, had such kinetic artwork and actually documented the events of the piece.

So we’ve established that the film is historically fraudulent, and that it is a poor translation of a book that wouldn’t have worked as a film in pretty much the best case scenario. Anyway, benefit of the doubt and all that. Perhaps it works as an over the top film on its own merit. Unfortunately, and most heinously…

300 fails as an overblown piece of Hollywood schlock. Yes, the worst crime perpetrated by this explosion of Miller and Snyder’s psychological semen onto the formerly silver screen.

The two real problems with this film, in and of itself, are somewhat intertwined. The first is the lack of peril. Anybody who knows anything knows that the art of telling a good story is in the peril facing the protagonists. And also conflict, but that usually manifests as peril anyway. When trying to suggest the fascist kiddy-fiddling Spartans are fighting for the last vestiges of truth and honour in an otherwise chaotic world (awesome, Al Qaeda say the same thing), it might be pertinent to get the viewer to invest emotionally in their struggle.

Painting the Spartans as a bunch of muscle-bound, sarcastic pricks with bizarrely quick minds for dry one liners (the latter a fault of Miller’s) is not the way to do that. Most of the film is spent telling us that the Spartans cannot lose. Leonidas can speak all he wants about their impending doom being a lesson for Greece, but if we don’t see anything to back that up, it’s just hot air.

So when battle commences, the Spartan phalanx tears through the initial grunts, and that is to be expected. However, one would have thought an armoured rhinoceros (not part of the Persian army then or now) might cause them some damage. Apparently not, as a finely aimed spear throw causes it to die, ineffectually, and its carcass stops skidding through the dust a few centimetres away from the Spartan shields.

The biggest crime against drama is when the Immortals head into action. They get bigged up as the proper wrecking crew of the empire’s army (‘one hundred countries’, let’s not forget). They wear excellently dehumanising silver masks and they really look the part; like Satan’s own band of ninjas. They start ‘fighting’ and just drop without much of a struggle. I don’t buy the ‘well, they should have waited til we were more injured’ excuse. It’s just a massive anticlimax and lack of danger for the duration of the film. And the fighting, while adequate, is largely disappointing: Leonidas’s run of solo fighting is somewhere below that of Optimus Prime in Transformers: the Movie on the list of one-man heroic rampages.

Most bizarre, apart from the complete lack of threat facing the Spartans, is the collection of mutants and monsters in the army, as though Asians are somehow sub-human. That the Immortals wear masks at all is a mystery when, as one loses his face-wear, they seem to have grey reptilian faces anyway. Then we have film-only confections like that strange mutant giant who duels with Leonidas for a minute (and why are 99% of deaths in the film picture-perfect decapitations?) and the even more bizarre – like, ripped straight from the ROM of the Doom video game. Seriously, there is a gigantic monster with blades instead of hands whose only job seems to be to assassinate generals who disappoint Xerxes. Word of advice to king-gods everywhere: send these blokes into battle. He’d have killed three hundred Spartans on his own.

All of which brings us to the king-god in question: Xerxes. Was it necessary to turn him into a shaven-headed RuPaul? He minces around most of the time like he’s misplaced his Maybelline, and seems to just fancy Leonidas. I have nothing at all against camp dudes, but that would be low on my list of necessary attributes if I was to create a threatening, barbaric king-god who was taking over the world. And Leonidas can accuse him of ‘hubris’ all he wants, but if I was nine feet tall with a voice several octaves lower than Phil Anselmo, I’d probably think I was at least a demi-god.

That said, the film isn’t all bad. There are times when the visual aspect reaches the lofty expectations promised by the trailer (has there ever been a trailer so much better than the film? It had Nine Inch Nails on its own mini-soundtrack, too), like when the storm of the gods is wreaking havoc on the Persian navy. That was pretty damn awesome. The Spartans themselves were in pretty good shape too, even if one or two of them reminded me of pro wrestler Triple H (again, there is no sense of peril if all Spartans tower over 99.9% of their enemy). Headey is properly beautiful, even if I spent a lot of the film trying to remember from where I know her name.

And I say all this as a fan of comic films in general. I loved Batman Begins, X-Men 2 and Akira. I have no issue with senseless violence or campfests; I have watched enough UFC and fake-fighting in my time, as well as spending enough time in gyms, that this negativity is not borne out of any Guardian-esque, pencil-necked embarrassment at seeing burly men in their pants. No, this film is just complete rubbish.

All in all, this was a pretty dismal failure on all fronts. What is most frightening is that this debacle occurred with Frank Miller on board as Executive Producer (I don’t know how hands-on he was, but he must have at least given it the nod). Director Zack Snyder’s next project is a translation of graphic novel classic Watchmen, which is an infinitely more complex book, and one whose success is even more tied to its original medium. And that’s going to be without its creator Alan Moore on board in any fashion. As bad as this was, I live in dread of that one.
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