Fuel for flaming youth
Wire, ‘Chairs Missing’, 1978, 3/5

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Wire had the same musical impact in the late 70s as the Velvet Underground did in the late 60s. At the end of both decades, musical revolution was in the air but these two bands, despite being more revolutionary than their contemporaries, slipped under the radar. But to coin an old saying, everyone who did listen to them formed a band.

Both bands stripped rock of the blues/rock ‘n’ roll templates the 60s rockers and 70s punks still followed, creating fresh new sounds that sounded years ahead of their time.

Wire, for instance, stood out from their slogan chanting, spiky haired counterparts. For one thing, they were older, middle class and from art school. On their first album, Pink Flag (which came out in 1977 along with the Sex Pistols and the Clash), the instruments sound raw and minimal with most of the songs clocking in under two minutes. It’s like a proto-hardcore record, with a few catchy art pop songs thrown in.

Their second artier album, Chairs Missing (released 1978), still blisters the ear but sounds more developed. It’s as if the band had blown all their steam on the first album, leaving room to experiment. To my ear, the second batch doesn’t stand out as much as Pink Flag. However, they’re still cracking songs.

Some rock, like ‘Mercy’. Some amuse, like ‘I feel mysterious today’. Some even haunt you, like the softly atmospheric ‘Heartbeat’.

Raw and challenging, Wire’s original brand of art-punk still sounds sharp and inventive today. 

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, 2013, cert 12A, dir Peter Jackson, 2/5

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Seen 01/01/14 

I’m conflicted about the Hobbit films. Firstly, there’s the overreliance on CGI. It’s even used to animate characters where in Lord of the Rings, make-up was used. CGI was less noticeable in Lord of the Rings, and Middle Earth felt more real. It’s used so much in the Hobbit and the action sequences are so over the top, it’s like sitting through a video game.

Secondly, so many new plotlines and characters have been added to the story just to stretch it into a trilogy. Do we really need the hunting orc pack plotline to add more drama, or the beginnings of an elf – dwarf romance for extra emotion? Furthermore, although it’s nice to see details from Tolkien’s other books like Radagest the Brown, he is not crucial to the story. New stuff was added to Lord of the Rings, but a lot was also sacrificed to keep the story tight, and it’s all the better for it.

However, perhaps I’m acting (as my fiancé put it) ‘hoighty-toighty’. My personal opinions on CGI and book adaptations aside, this was still an enjoyable action-packed adventure with lots that was done well.  

For instance, I was unimpressed by the CGI of Smaug the dragon in the trailer. I was blown away by him in the film. The scene where Bilbo and Smaug meet really does justice to the book. In fact, the film does a lot of justice to the book, and is no doubt another passionate tribute to Tolkien’s work. 

'A Field In England', 2013, cert 15, dir Ben Wheatley, 3/5.

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Seen 01/01/14

Ben Wheatley is the most interesting British director to appear in recent years, and this is his strangest work yet: but in a good way, and it proved that there aren’t enough films about the English Civil War.

As Wheatley pointed out, the war in the 1600s was a radical point in English history, for it ended with the beheading of a king and the overthrow of the idea that royalty was God-given. So what better period for a radical film?

The film has two halves. It’s a good period film with archaic but nevertheless colourful dialogue and gritty historical details, like dirty costumes and pox. At the same time, it goes as far out there as British psychedelic filmmaking can go, with visuals and events that will leave your mind blown and bewildered.

As far as plot goes, three deserting soldiers and an alchemist’s assistant (Reece Shearsmith) are commissioned by another sinister Irish alchemist (Michael Smiley) to dig up some treasure in a field. A lot of scary, hallucinogenic stuff happens, during which you’re never sure if the supernatural is involved or not. Nothing is helped by the magic mushrooms the characters accidentally eat.

One interviewer claimed it was a cross between Witchfinder General and 2001. This is slightly accurate, but it’s still unlike either of these films or any others. It’s the most original British film in recent years, grounded by impressive and convincing performances that portray historical characters as real people trapped by events beyond their control. 

'Sightseers', 2013, cert 15, dir Ben Wheatley, 3/5.

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Seen 21/07/13

Having seen all of director Ben Wheatley’s films apart from his latest offering, the 16th century mushroom trip A Field in England, I can safely say I’m a fan. Until I see A Field in England, which I’m eagerly looking forward to, Wheatley’s previous creation Sightseers has been his most enjoyable.

Down Terrace was an entertaining black gangster comedy debut but nothing new. Kill List was a brutal thriller masterpiece, but perhaps too brutal. Sightseers combines Wheatley’s brutality and humour in a way that doesn’t savage viewers and remains unpredictable while still exploring familiar film territory.  

The familiar aspect of the film is that it’s about star crossed lovers embarking on a soul searching road trip, which swiftly turns bloody. Think a British version of Badlands with jokes, where the characters aren’t James Dean lookalikes but Northern caravan pullers longing to see such sights as the Keswick Pencil Museum.

Lovers Chris and Tina (played perfectly by Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, who both wrote the film) have their charms and flaws to amuse and frighten us. Chris is a ginger bearded caravan fanatic who claims he is on a sabbatical across Northern England to write his book. He wants to bring along his new girlfriend Tina, to get her away from her overbearing mother and show her his world. But the trip doesn’t go smoothly, and the pair of misfits react in comic but violent ways.

Quirky, dark and tragic, this is the best that British comedy should be.  

The 5 most extreme albums I’ve ever listened to.

As a lover of noisy music, I have come across a few hair raising records in my time. But there have been a handful that have freaked me out enough to make me feel ashamed of admitting I enjoy them.

Now there are people out there who listen to more extreme music than I do, and may dispute this list. I can assure you, this is all a matter of opinion but if you’re prepared to battle it out for most intense music lover, I’m willing. To further clarify, this is not a list of the heaviest music either. Anyway, without further ado for anyone who’s interested, let’s plunge into the depths of the sickest musical depravity to assault my ear holes.  

 5. BIG BLACK: ‘The Rich Man’s Eight Track Tape’, 1987

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Before Steve Albini hurt our ears with his own hellish brand of recording engineering, turning up the noise for bands like the Pixies and Nirvana, Albini fronted his own band in 1980s Chicago, whose sonic assault dwarfed even the demented efforts of said bands.

Big Black were three young men with guitars and a drum machine. The industrial din they created on this compilation CD, consisting of one album and two EPs, is so brutal it resembles black metal in places, complete with Steve’s sneering yelps.

While Big Black are not as heavy as other extreme music masters, they surely beat most through sheer nihilism. My favourite track, ‘Kerosene’, is a typical example: a 6 minute relentless epic of a man so bored he contemplates setting himself on fire.

 4. THE BIRTHDAY PARTY: ‘Junkyard’, 1982

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Another figurehead of the musical macabre, Nick Cave, cut his chops wailing nightmarish, surreal lyrics for the appropriately titled post punk outfit the Birthday Party.

 The rumours surrounding this band are legendary: drugs, car theft. You name it. Such madness is reflected in their work, especially on my fave track ‘Dead Joe’, which has an unhealthy obsession with car crashes. This song, along with the rest of the album, is a violent cocktail of jazz, shredding guitar, growling bass and Cave crooning and shrieking about death and other things you’re not sure about but scare the hell out of you.

I think the scary thing about this album is that the band like to do away with any certain song structure, so the songs are mostly crazed, unpredictable noise. Yet there is arguably fun in this decadent madness, if you like this sort of thing.

3. METZ: ‘Metz’, 2012

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 As you’ve noticed, most of the albums in this article are from the 80s. When I was younger, I used to bemoan the modern state of music, complaining that it will never again achieve the sonic daring that artists of that glorious decade had: until I heard these guys.

I was excited from one review of Metz, comparing them to Nirvana and Public Image Ltd, two other favourite creators of extreme albums. But when I got my hands on a CD, I was surprisingly disappointed. None of the band’s songs really stuck out compared to the works of the other bands you’ll read here. Nevertheless, what the album lacks in memorable songs, it makes up for in noise.

You can make comparisons with Big Black: an industrial, sparse approach to musicianship with shouting vocals barely heard over the din. But Metz are scarier. Much scarier. At least with Big Black you can sometimes hear what they’re angry about and their songs have rhythm. Metz have set out purely to assault your hearing for no credible reason, and its good to hear music still being produced like that.

2. NAPALM DEATH: ‘Scum’, 1987

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Admittedly, my journey into the world of grindcore has only scratched the surface. I know there are a lot scarier bands of the genre out there, but as I’m not a massive fan of grind anyway, I don’t feel inclined to check them out right now. Nevertheless, I still find it fun to listen to, even if it’s the musical equivalent of being beaten around the head, and I marvel at the musical daring going into it. 28 tracks over just half an hour of the most brutal, angry music you could hope to listen to. The vocals, the guitars and drums are all played for sheer relentlessness rather than musicianship. However, the fact the notoriously short songs (‘You Suffer’ is just over a second long) are played just for intensity does get boring by the end. Nevertheless, if you actually look up the lyrics that are being unintelligibly growled at you, you’ll find some of the most directly political lyrics in metal.

 1. THE BUTTHOLE SURFERS: ‘Locust Abortion Technician’, 1987

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For a while now, this still ranks as the weirdest record I’ve ever listened to. It’s as if a bunch of people sat down one day and decided to make the most insane record anyone could make. I mean, imagine recommending the titles of the band and album alone to someone.

 I think it’s worth a listen for anyone, whether they enjoy fucked up music or not, just to witness the depths of sanity music can sink to. There are some good heavy riffs you can rock to, even a parody of Black Sabbath’s ‘Sweet Leaf’ in the epic opening track ‘Sweat Loaf’, and ‘Human Cannonball’ is the one track which can be classed as a standard punk song. The rest of the album makes no sense at all. There are sounds and remixes of sounds which you just can’t place. This album will have you soiling your pants either out of laughter or terror.

As an example, allow me to describe the closing track: ‘22 going on 23’, which I think sums up the nightmarish hell of this album nicely. Doom-laden guitar and drums with storm effects and mooing noises are played over a recording of a phone-in on a radio station, where a woman confesses how much her life is ruined due to an incident of sexual assault.

Even if this track seriously pushes the boundaries of good taste and decency, I still enjoy the song. I can still rock to it. It’s my favourite off the record. Why? I’m really not sure. Why do I like any of these records if they’re so unpleasant to listen to? Maybe I just like music that pushes acceptable boundaries of the form, or reflects the dark side of human nature. Or maybe I’m just sick. I still think this music has a place. We can’t just have nice music all the time. It would get boring, surely?

'The Returned', ('Les Revenants'), French, 2012-, Channel 4 (originally shown on Canal+ in France), dir Fabrice Gobert and Frederic Mermoud, 3/5.

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The review I read of this described it as a ‘French zombie drama.’ I can only assume that, due to its subject matter of the dead rising to life, they were lumping it with the current zombie fever in the media, because I’ve seen the first episode and so far there are no signs of the half eaten undead we’re used to seeing charging across our screens. In fact, stylistically this new continental drama is as far away from a zombie flick as you could get. It is more akin to a ghost story.

One evening, in a small French town in the middle of some beautiful mountain scenery, a teenage girl wakes up after a bus crash that killed her eight years ago, walks home and freaks the hell out of her family, bringing on some brilliant emotional performances. An old man is disturbed by the return of a young woman who he has in pictures around his house. His carer is followed home by a creepy boy, who takes up resident in her flat without saying a word. The carer also bumps into a young man looking for a girl called Adele who used to live in her apartment.

I am intrigued. It reminds me of Twin Peaks, with its sleepy town setting that already holds dark secrets before the weird stuff happens. Nevertheless, it’s refreshing to see a supernatural show that isn’t American and is actually a realistic and moving portrayal of people facing the unexplained.

Mudhoney, Meat Puppets, Metz, Saturday 8th June 2013, HMV Forum, London.

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Mudhoney were part of the original 90s Seattle grunge scene that made bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam famous with the current generation of dissatisfied youth. Mudhoney stand out from their peers, not just because they never had a multi million hit but because they have stuck solidly to their underground roots and punk garage sound throughout their twenty year career. For one night at the HMV forum in London, they were joined by other American underground legends the Meat Puppets, noisy young bloods Metz, and hoards of excited fans.

Unfortunately, due to bad navigation of the Underground, I missed Metz’s performance, which I was looking forward to even if I’m not a huge fan of their recent debut album. If their music is anything to judge by, their performance was terrifying.

But I saw the Meat Puppets and it was a thrill to hear the three songs they performed with Nirvana at that legendary MTV unplugged session, since they are the only songs I know well. The Puppets were still impressive with their onslaught of psychedelic folk punk, their solos going on for decades.

Then Mudhoney came, and I no longer cared that I missed Metz. The arena came alive. The floor bounced and sweated and shouted with joy as Mudhoney, with snarling riffs and sneering vocals, blasted through offerings of their latest album Vanishing Point and grungy classics like ‘Touch Me I’m Sick’, delivering the best of sick, twisted, ball shattering rock ‘n’ roll. The best fun I’ve had in a while. 

'Come And See', ('Idi I Smotri'), Russian, 1985, cert 15, dir. Elem Klimov, 5/5.

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Seen 09/06/2013

The title is a dare. I dared to see this film, and it’s been a while since a film has left me emotionally numb, and yet convinced that I’ve seen a masterpiece.

The story is familiar. A boy named Florya joins the Soviet army in the forest during World War Two. We are misled for a while, as Florya meets a girl named Glasha and they hide in the woods from the war, enjoying the nature in some beautifully shot scenes. Then the horrors of war are thrust upon them, and the scenes of nature and humanity combined turn urgent and horrific, as the children struggle through a bog, Florya convinced that his family are safe on an island in the middle.

The events that follow are moving but small scale. Then Florya bears witness to a German squad destroying a Russian village. This is one of the most relentless and horrifically accurate war scenes in cinema, for the horrors presented mirror real events committed frequently according to statistics in the film.

Come and See is a gruelling emotional experience, not just for its presentation of suffering but for its incredible performances and scenery. A tone of menace and strangeness is also maintained through its soundtrack and hints of surrealism. Florya’s face physically ages the more horrors he sees. Besides the fact that this will be unlike any war film you will ever see, Come and See is powerful for its message. Most war films get it wrong. People, not soldiers, are the real victims. 

Alien: The Stage Adaptation, Paranoid Dramatics, 1st June 2013, Leicester Square Theatre, London, 3/5 stars.

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Ridley Scott’s Alien is one of the most impressive and suspenseful of sci-fi horrors. It is also a great vessel for comedy, as proven by the new non-profit company Paranoid Dramatics, as they took their version of Scott’s classic to the Leicester Square theatre in London.

It is fitting that a horror story with a monstrous metaphor for disease was chosen to raise funds for the Gullain-Barré Syndrome charity. Gullain-Barré syndrome is a neurogenic condition causing paralysis and in worst cases death. Half of the proceeds from the event went to this cause, while the other half went to the Dorset group’s venue in Wimborne Minster. Despite the serious motive behind the fun, the performance was still a riot for all Alien fans, most of who must have been in the audience.

As for the performance, I only realised it would be comic when I read the light hearted blurb on the theatre website, revealing that the show would be performed by Dorset bus drivers. Although I was disappointed there weren’t as many jokes as there could have been at the film’s expense, the humour rose from deliberately flat acting and that the actors delivered lines in their Dorset accents. The props were certainly not H.R. Giger standard, but this added to the gloriously amateur feel. The audience loved it, frequently cheering, giggling and gasping in horror at this sci-fi pantomime. Overall, the amount of effort put into the props, the effects and the cheesiness made for an enjoyably silly afternoon.

For more details on the production, see this site:  http://www.alienonstage.com/ 

‘A Serbian Film’, (‘Srpski Film’), 2010, cert 18, dir Srdjan Spasojević, 2/5.

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Seen 30/01/13 

Ultimately, this is a horror film about porn, suggesting that beneath its cheeky, trashy facade lurks the darker side of human nature.

According to the director, this is also about the literal rape of the Serbian national identity. The horrors depicted reflect local war crimes that the film’s creators grew up watching on the news. Spasojević also claims to be challenging censorship, especially in Serbia, which suffers the aftermath of a communist regime and where there is little government support for the film industry.

Luckily, the film is not just about controversy. The worst of the sexual violence the film is notorious for is suggested, though be prepared for lashings of gore and nudity. The film aims for suspense and menacing atmosphere rather than just all-out extremity.

There are good performances too. The protagonist Milos (Srdjan Todorovic) gains sympathy as an ex- porn star who goes back into business for his family, but is manipulated by his new mental director Vukmir (Sergej Trifunovic), who believes art lies in filming real acts of perverted violence, and forces Milos to become a victim of his demons.

Although a film depicting sexualised violence as a comment on the worst of human behavior is nothing new, this film works as a dark, surreal thriller, reminding me of Ben Wheatley’s 2011 British horror ‘Kill List’ (in which a man confronts his shady past to support his family) and Cronenberg’s ‘Videodrome’, in which reality and film combine. As a directorial debut, this film packs a punch.