30 September 2009

Om – God is Good

Drag City (2009)

How minimalist can a band get? On its second album recorded by bare bones engineer Steve Albini, the hip-sludge veteran band find its duo halving, in an apparent attempt to find out. But ex-Sleep man Al Cisneros does have a little help from his friends.

Om made their name after the death of stoner doom legends Sleep by doing what they do best: heavy riffs, and lots of them. Self aware if nothing else, their debut was named Variations on a Theme. But post-metal, like any chrono-centric sub-genre, ages rapidly, and what was once cool can soon find itself sounding hackneyed. Just ask Jesu.

Om is aware of this pitfall. The sludgy, repetitive riffing of the earlier albums has fallen by the wayside, seemingly sloughed off as a butterfly might forget its past as a caterpillar. That's not to say this is as bright or beautiful as such description might evoke. In fact this is more of a moth: refusing to draw attention to itself; at home in the must and dusk of the dimmest recesses.

As with your average moth, there is subtle variety and intrigue in current Om's earth-tone and darkness. The songs are shorter than they were on the first pair of Billy Anderson-produced records. Where once was no small amount of trepidation at slogging through another twenty minutes of riffs, there is now a healthy curiosity as to where Om will take us.

That is not to say Anderson is not a great producer (he's sorted Melvins, Neurosis and 7 Year Bitch at their peaks). It's also not to say there is no twenty-minute song on here. Unlike recent albums from Emeralds and James Blackshaw, the epic on this album is not the best. 'Thebes' has a repetitive charm, but its faux-mystical lyrics and vocal reliance on the root note mean it grates if you don't play its game.

The record really picks up on the other three songs. They are a combined fifteen minutes, and the journey on which they take us is far more satisfying. The middle-eastern themes on here, while preferable to High On Fire's Middle Earth aesthetic, are sonically fine while never threatening authenticity. The music generally is fantastic.

Mostly sounding only like Om, and like no Om in the past, there are some nods elsewhere. There is philosophical similarity to recent Earth, in that both bands have sacrificed bludgeon for trance-through-clarity. The sound on God is Good is clean, with a deep mix full of interesting instrumentation. There are even pipe-based moments that could have featured on Ghost's fabulous Hypnotic Underworld, from 2004.

As this decade ends, hopefully more bands take a leaf out of the books of Om and Earth. SunnO))) are certainly carving their own path, but there are too many me-too bands, making like an albatross round the neck of once inventive metal. Noisecore imploded at its peak, like a dying star, a decade ago. Can the post-metal masses please get their coats and shuffle out the door while a shred of dignity remains?

29 September 2009

Future Islands and Ear Pwr

Royal Park Cellar, 13 September 2009

It was just another low-energy Sunday evening in the half-local, half-student Royal Park pub. Few engaged with the balding pool tables, and the karaoke machine thankfully held a dignified silence. But, in the pub's cellar, a number of creative characters were setting about lighting up the evening's too-early dusk with performances that were engaging and inspiring.

After a respectable local opening band (a guitar and cello pairing whose name must have disappeared into the ether), the stage was set for Ear Pwr, based in Baltimore. At odds with its common perception, from The Wire, of a metropolis populated entirely by pushers, users and bent government officials, are a loose crew of exciting poppy noisemakers. Chief among these would be band of the winter Animal Collective, but just bubbling under are Ponytail and – yep! - Ear Pwr.

While the stage may have been set for this pair, they rarely actually stood on it. Setting up their table of machinery and gubbins, Devin and Sarah opted to set the noises, beats and loops running, before dancing, meandering and staggering about the room. It was a creditable performance: there may only have been ten people in the room, but if their energy was in any way diminished, it certainly didn't show. Main vocalist Sarah bounced around while singing her electro-nursery rhymes from their brilliant album, about beams of light, title track's Super Animal Bros. And, err, 'future eyes' – though sadly not the addictively exuberant 'Sparkly Sweater'.

Devin, when he wasn't setting his musical plates spinning, was wrapping the microphone cord around himself, wrapping it around Sarah, providing on-and-off vocal assistance to Sarah, and writhing about on the cellar's rather unpleasant floor. They departed after a brief, and rather thrilling, set (not only were Ear Pwr the support act, but their summer highlight album is only half an hour long), but promised to return in November. At that point, their new EP – and new drummer – should be in place.

Having never heard Greenville, North Carolina's Future Islands (now also based in Maryland) before this evening, I was in for a scintillating surprise. After the childlike, if drug addled, glee of Ear Pwr, trepidation met the headlining trio of thick-set men with synths. By the end of the opening song, your reviewer was an enthusiastic convert.

Future Islands' album, 2008's Wave Like Home, is an intriguing blend of well-written synth songs and super-camp vocals. While it's a solid album in its own right, it gives little indication as to the ferocious talent of singer Samuel Herring. Looking for all the world like Jack Black's stunt double, he also sounds superficially like the camp-heroic Tenacious D frontman. It soon becomes clear, though, that Herring is a singular talent. He rips his own songs a new arse, a combination of Tom Waits' gruff personality, Mike Patton's ever-present air of pastiche, and Henry Rollins' aggression and brilliant shape-throwing.

While self-effacing about his talking prowess, Herring makes for a charismatic frontman, winning the now-full room over with his chat and singing alike. He worked up a furious sweat early, and it's not hard to see why: he sings hard. He reaches deep down within himself, and pulls out a level of vocal intensity not seen since Carla Bozulich brought her inimitable brand of beautiful, guttural fire and brimstone to a Leeds church last year. When he prefaces 'Little Dreamer' with the words 'this was a happy story... but now it's a sad story', you believe him. Especially as he leaves his still-beating heart throbbing away on the floor, for all to see.

Whether the song was 'Beach Foam' from the album, or 'The Happiness of Being Twice', from this year's 'Feathers & Hallways' single, Future Islands never stopped entertaining. The bassist was occasionally inspired in his playing, but both he and the synth player were essentially there to ably back Herring's cabaret emoting.

Future Islands are currently working on their new album. Though both they and Ear Pwr give off an air of piss-take at times, the new material should be interesting, at least. If Ear Pwr can flesh out the faux-naive charm of Super Animal Brothers III, and Future Islands somehow manage to harness the power of their force-of-nature singer in the studio, the next year should belong to Baltimore.

13 September 2009

Ear Pwr

I'm off to see this lot tomorrow. Technically today, in the calendar sense, but really tomorrow. In the sleeps sense. I had meant to review the Ear Pwr album for Fact, but unfortunately didn't get round to it after returning from Iran. Anyway, their album has the same name as this song, and is brilliant, in that high-energy, funfunfun AWK/Captain Ahab/Be Your Own PET kinda way. And it's quite a short album. 16 tracks (some segues) in just over half an hour means you can listen to it before dinner without spoiling your appetite. Boomkat tends to have it cheap, so get it bought.

I found out on Friday that they're playing my town on Sunday. They're only the support act, but it should be an enjoyable occasion. Watch this video to get an idea of what they're about. My only source of trepidation comes from the fact that they appear to be a couple of ironic, cooly-cool coolsters. The kind of people who'd be more at home playing the Faversham, that home of the faux-cool in Leeds. And it'd be a shame if they were super-ironic 80s bandwagon jumpers, as that's totally not the idea I get from their album.

The music is sweet and energetic, and not at all 1980s. It's dance music that rocks, and the singer (called Sarah?) sings with a naive enthusiasm that's really catchy and joyous. So I'd rather the latter description to be the case than the ironic one, but I'm not sure it's possible to be in a band nowadays and not be taking the piss to some extent. Maybe I'm cynical, I don't know. They're from the same area as Ponytail and Animal Collective, so maybe that means something. They're relatively unironic for the kind of music they do. Anyway, hoping to enjoy the gig; hoping the headliner is good; hoping to write it all up at some point. Suspense!

11 September 2009

Oskar – LP:2

Incarnation (2009)

(Another Fact review!)

There is something about that title that doesn’t sit well with me. While Oskar aren’t the first band to name a record as such – let’s face it, we’ve had similar from the likes of Led Zep, Autechre and Dungen – that colon suggests rather too much self awareness. If, indeed, a band can be too self-aware. The cover tips you off, though, of the trio awkwardly positioned on a bleak allotment, bearing instruments fashioned from gardening implements.

This is a sense that remains throughout LP:2. Oskar, featuring a member of Collapsed Lung (of ‘Eat My Goal’ ‘fame’), seems to be a group of crafty industry veterans, keen to show us how good they are at lots of different stuff. LP:2 boasts a range of moods, from wry amusement, through parody, to melancholy. But even melancholy seems to be performed here with an eyebrow so raised it threatens to catapult off their collective face.

And it’s a shame, because there is some real brilliance on here. ‘Paper Cuts’ and ‘Printer Tzara’ offer intelligent calls back to the turn of the century electronica-infused songwriting of the Beta Band, Laika or Anjali. ‘Eden’ is believable in its piano loneliness. ‘Richenbach Falls’, though, sounds for all its good intentions like a ham-fisted approximation of how Carla Bozulich may have sounded, had she been narcotised, bundled in the boot of a car and taken to David Lynch’s club Silencio.

Oskar tread a tightrope, and your writer faces a dilemma. Oskar’s competence at evoking a variety of moods, of composing in many forms of popular music, of performing in numerous languages, should be applauded. There is, however, a subtle, yet inescapable cloud of smugness hanging over proceedings. While it’s an intangible sense, it’s nagging, hindering enjoyment of the album. It’s hard to commit to loving ‘Hi-Beam Blue’, which occupies that space between OK Computer and Kid A, as it’s just another turn on what sounds like a showcase record. I guess now I know why certain folk feel prevented from loving Squarepusher or Aphex.

With the above in mind, then, it’s surprising that the highlights of the album are the most theatrical, high-minded, Newsnight Review, nudging, winking songs of the lot. ‘Some Song’: the very title sends fear shooting through my marrow. But it’s great. The vocal is a monologue performed by actress Sharon Smith, of Max Factory, and it’s funny, convincing and endearing. Similarly, the most conceptually out-there song is ‘Sanatorio’, inspired by Nick Powell’s experience with aged psychiatric patients in Madrid. And it’s lovely. So while the album is nearly torn apart by its eclecticism, that trait bore its greatest fruits.

08 September 2009

James Blackshaw – The Glass Bead Game

Young God (2009)

(Another Fact review!)

Blackshaw, though he looks young, must have been at this for decades. There is some flavour of crossroad meeting, or memo to Mephistopheles, at work on The Glass Bead Game, because it’s otherwise difficult to accept the quality of playing on this record. Blackshaw has taken time to get really, really good at his instrument. I’m sure you’ll have seen some news piece or other mentioning the fact he used to be in punk rock bands. But, phew, he grew out of that juvenile noise.

The knock-on effect of ostensibly growing up is running the risk of blandness. First song ‘Cross’ is a case in point. Lavish in its complex arrangement, a magnificently controlled wordless vocal pipes up that is at once beautiful and disconcertingly reminiscent of that Lloyds TSB ad. Fortunately, the musical whole is so well-constructed that such thoughts are kept far from your mind.

Three of the five (lengthy) songs on here are guitar-led, as you might imagine. They are, as you might also imagine, really rather good. You might, like I did, feel sceptical about such movements as the alleged folk renaissance. Especially if you first hear of a musician between stories about fallen MPs and white phosphorus attacks on Radio 4’s Today programme. But you lose yourself easily in the intricate tapestry of guitar, vocal, violin and cello on ‘Cross’ and ‘Bled’.

Less convincing is relatively brief piano piece ‘Fix’. It sounds rather like one of Richard James’ treated piano sketches on Drukqs, stretched out to nearly six minutes. It’s fair, and strings eventually flesh it out, but the mind too easily wanders during its duration. ‘Key’ is similar in length, but it sees Blackshaw return to the guitar. With the songs getting shorter, and the quality beginning to slightly dip, you may wonder whether that’s it for the album.

Thankfully, that’s not it, by a long shot. ‘Arc’ is the grand statement of the album, and is one of the grand musical statements of this year so far. Like ‘Bled’, ‘Arc’ features an introductory motif that eventually gives way to a largely unrelated song-body. Like ‘Bled’, it works wonders, but on an epic scale. ‘Fix’ was no warning for this stunning, piano-centred, piece. As it builds so subtly, you almost fail to realise the depth of the layers and drones locking in place, intertwining and undulating before your ears. It’s a hypnotic, 19-minute, rush. It’s like vomiting gold, rainbows and unicorns out of every orifice in your head. In a good way.

05 September 2009

DOA – Dead Or Alive

Dir: Cory Yuen, 2006

I was warned about this one. When I mentioned to one friend that I had borrowed the Dead Or Alive film, he solemnly told me it is one of the worst films he has ever seen. And he spends a lot of time watching bad films. He has seen many classics, but also more all-out bad films than a sane human should ever subject themselves to. He likes Old School.

But I knew I was in for a bad film. I have a film rental subscription of the type that gives you better value for money the more films you see. So, in among the Korean revenge cinema and edifying documentaries, I add the occasional guilty pleasure. The two main points in this paragraph are dependent ones: just because one watches a film does not mean one has experienced value; just because a film causes feelings of guilt does not mean it will provide pleasure.

So we have DOA. It's a cheap, cheap film based on a video game. Its cast includes a pro-wrestler, a supermodel and an Australian soap star-cum-telephone huckster. When your resident thesp is someone from My Name is Earl, you know you're in for a rough ride. But who cares, as long as it passes the time, right?

I don't even know where to begin, so let's focus on the good points. There are lots of pretty men and women on show: it is a feast for those who like skimpiness and ripped-ness. The aforementioned pro-wrestler is none other than former WWF champ and old, old man Kevin Nash. It doesn't hurt that he's probably the most self-aware fake fighter out there, has a killer sense of humour and is actually rather a decent actor. As far as wrestlers go, anyway.

There is the occasional snippet of actual cinematic competence, too. Yes, the more eagle-eyed DOA viewer may detect a fleeting good angle here and there. A couple of the fights are well choreographed. We're not talking Yuen Wo-Ping here, but the forest fight and the brawl with the henchmen (and hench-ladies) are both rather good. The scenery, too, is occasionally eye-catching and pleasant. I mean, no more so than, say, a modern videogame, or Sandals ad, but nice is nice. The funniest line is 'thanks, Wellington'. I suppose you had to be there.

I think that's it for good points. Generally, it's a ham-fisted grotesquerie whose lingering butt- and leg-shots give gratuitousness a bad name. The premise of the film is an international fighting tournament, to which only the best fighters are invited. Their invitations appear as soon as they've done an impressive bit of knacking, perplexingly. But DOA admittedly provides many a perplexing moment. But more on that in a bit.

Yeah, the plot is nothing you haven't seen before, as long as you've encountered either a film or a game that involved people beating each other up. It's essentially the world's worst Enter the Dragon. Or the world's worst Best of the Best II. At least, it's the worst example of the form I have seen. And I don't even suggest Enter the Dragon was in any way a classic of the cinema. What it was, though, was a good film that made some sense and featured some fantastic choreographed fights.

There are no fights in DOA that are a patch on any fight in ETD. In fact, for sheer fight quality, you'd be wiser to watch Bolo vs. Those Unfortunate Scrotes on a loop for 80 minutes than this delight. And Kevin Nash, cool as he is, isn't much of a charisma challenge for Bruce Lee. Or the dude with the afro. Or the white dude. But Jaime Pressley does have a nice set of abs. More than Bruce Lee, DOA bites relatively recent flicks Hero and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. There is plenty of (mediocre) wire work in settings such as epic palace exteriors, lush forests and... giant Buddha heads. It's obviously an insignificant speck when compared to the Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou classics.

The biggest crime the film commits is not entirely DOA's fault. The idea of a film in which people get together from around the world to kick each other's faces off is an archaic one. It was fine in the 1970s, and the 80s. It was eve fine when the Streetfighter II game came out. Now, though, we live in an era of mixed martial arts. Since 1993 the Ultimate Fighting Championship (and, for about a decade, the Japanese Pride Fighting Championship) has been pitting actual fighters from around the world against each other in hand to hand combat. So the idea of a ninja fighting a cocky American, or an old man with a white beard competing against a Chinese school girl, is a bit crap. Unless, that is, cinema can use its mysterious powers of 'scripting' and 'editing' to create the illusion of something believable and awesome.

So DOA may not have the best dialogue ever. Or good dialogue, for that matter. It may be cheesier than the Bee Gees... being the Bee Gees. It may even commit the heinous act of dragging – it's bloody 80 minutes – as it goes. But these are not cardinal sins for what the film is trying to achieve. In fact, stupidity should be encouraged in a film like this. No, the crime is to not be as entertaining as its real life equivalent. When you can switch on ESPN and see better, more varied fights, involving more engaging (and ridiculous) characters, your film's sole justification for existing (aside from cash, natch, o cynical reader) has vanished as quickly as DOA ninjas Hayabusa and Kasumi might do.

Still, I bet DOA's better than the new Dragonball live-action film. That one has me in a constant state of shudder.

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