Sunday, April 19, 2015

Happy Birthday to Me, Squashed Tomatoes and Pee

My weekend has been chilled and uneventful - just how I like it.

So, I'd like to tell you what I did for a while today, that was very positive and was possibly the best thing to happen on my 53rd birthday (even better than the curry, the sex, the drugs and the dancing girls), but first a preamble:

I've been suffering from severe depression for best part of a year now, but the last six months haven't been at all good and as any depressed person will tell you we hide it extremely well. Well, things got really really dark around February and I needed to do something positive or I might have become yet another tragic statistic in oh-so-civilised 2015.

I've had lots of things I'd like to talk about or even to tell you lot, but it never seemed to be the right time, or it seemed like I was being too negative, or it's not time or I chicken out or ... you get the picture. I have several unfinished pieces about how fucking depressed I've been; how suicidal I felt and all the time I stare at the finished words and think, 'fuck me, they're going to have me sectioned for my own safety'. My crappy lungs, dodgy back, wonky shoulder, wanky publishing company; woefully inadequate printers, distributors, unhelpful helpers thrust upon me - the list of woes is so long and so ... almost far fetched... I just didn't want to remind myself while making everyone else think I was fishing for sympathy or trying to be the centre of attention - being depressed does that.

I could tell you stories about paranoia - there are two kinds I've experienced: drug induced paranoia and the kind caused by depression. The best way of describing them is the former is a mild cheddar, the latter is a 3 year matured with more flavours than a sushi bar.

Anyhow, lets get on with this now it's gone midnight. 

I was out walking the dogs one day towards the end of February and I had the seed of an idea. That seed germinated into a narrative, which grew into a few hundred words and then into a few thousand; all the time I was aware that my personal creation process tends to be fragile at best and usually only needs the slightest of distractions for me to discard an idea or leave it for a rainy day that never comes.

So I was molly-coddling this one; it was cosseted and caressed and kept safe from the alliteration monster and because it was a mild March I got the chance to do what I love doing - writing in the garden. The few thousand words turned into 10,000 and still I defied Phil Hall logic and didn't tell a soul - not even the wife. The 10,000 clicked over to 15,000 and then eventually to 18,456. I saved the doc, went to the pub quiz and told everyone I'd been writing a story and that now, on the verge of 20,000 words I decided to tell them because once I pass this specific landmark figure there's a 90% chance I'd finish it.

A week later I had written ...
... 18,456 words. 

I'd put the kiss of death on the project. I just knew that was it, another shelved idea that never came to fruition (for me finishing something is as good as having something published, I've been published loads, I've only finished 7 big projects). The day I gave up on it was the day I thought my way out of the hole I dug myself - something my brother-in-law would be proud of me for doing - it was hard work, but once the idea reseeded itself everything started to slot together nicely.

That was nearly three weeks ago and since then I've spent a lot of time each week working on it. Today I reached an important landmark - 40,000 words. It is now in novel territory, it's no longer just a short story or novella. I am also aware this is a first draft and that it'll only be about 47,000 words when said draft is finished. I'm already identifying areas that need fleshing out, rewriting or clarifying. 

It has a title and a beginning, middle and I'm on the end right now. It might be a load of shit. I don't care. I'm going to finish it because I think it's a unique idea. It started as a story for kids; with some tough editing it might become that again, but the point is while I don't feel much happier in myself, this project is helping me rediscover some of my self-esteem and its been a fucking blast.

What's it about?

I'm not going to tell you.

I will say it's set in Leicestershire; it involves an enormous amount of Victorian history and railways. It involves 147 missing children and my love of mushrooms became my own personal Jesus. Oh and appearances can be deceiving. I can't pin a genre on it at the moment either, just to confuse the issue.

That's all you need to know. 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Culture Dump #2 - Charterhouse Blues

I've been reading a biography of Peter Gabriel. Before I touch on that, I want to say that a few years ago I read the official biography of Canadian rock band Rush. It was possibly one of the most boring biographies I have ever read. Rush's members are all really dull. They didn't take drugs; they dabbled in libertarian politics, came from good middle-class families and probably all pay their taxes. Hotel rooms are probably tidier when they leave than when they arrived. It was that exciting.

So, when I started to read Gabriel's story, I expected the first half of the book - about his time with Genesis - to be jam-packed with tales of picnic hampers, public school hijinks and jolly japes and wheezes with a smattering of the distasteful Jonathan King thrown in for good measure. I expected the book to rival the Rush book for edge of the seat excitement. Strangely, I wasn't disappointed; the fact that the three public school members of Genesis thought of extremely middle class Phil Collins (from Chiswick - bastion of middle class London) and Steve Hackett (from Pimlico) as 'common' (my word not the biographer's) pretty much epitomised what to expect. Gabriel's wedding took place at St James Palace if you need another example.

Yet, they were surrounded by all the glitz and glamour of the 1970s. They rubbed shoulders with most of the greats and were arguably influential to some, better known, performers. They still had hampers and didn't take drugs (Mike Rutherford allegedly inhaled occasionally) and were thought of as 'serious' or 'rich kids' depending on where you stood. But the book is good and it does so much more than just paint a picture of rich toffs breaking into the British rock scene. It also reinforces the now growing belief that Genesis keyboard maestro Tony Banks is a cock.

I discovered Genesis through my brothers. They were hooked on them almost from the moment Trespass came out. In the days before the Internet, word of mouth was your best advertising campaign and living in Daventry, we were pretty much removed from the world. Yet my brothers were treated to a succession of top bands at odd venues, like pubs in Staverton and Watford Gap or Wollaston or Rock Street school in Wellingborough (apt that). They saw Genesis, Yes, Jethro Tull, Stray, Atomic Rooster, Steppenwolf and a host of 1970s rock monsters at the unlikeliest of places, but this became the music for them in the 1970s and as a pre-teen I was subjected to most of it.

Harold the Barrel was probably the first Genesis song I became aware of. It was something my parents sang along to at the end - it was a jaunty, eccentric typically Genesis ditty about a suicidal young man on the ledge of a building getting ready to jump. It was the line about there being a man here from the BBC that always got them going. I, it seemed, had rather hip parents.

Unlike, say 'Touch Me' by the Doors, the first single I ever bought because I got hooked on the organ line, Genesis permeated into my life rather than exploded. Being subjected to Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd et al during my formative years made me a fan by default rather than choice (which is why I embraced electronic music in the late 70s, because I felt it was my first musical choice).

I didn't start getting into Genesis until Peter Gabriel left. I didn't know he'd left because I was 13 and I was just discovering The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Where this album polarised many fans, it was the gateway for me to really start to listen to their back catalogue; not as background music, but as my own entertainment.

My untrained, musically deaf, ear didn't see much difference after Gabriel left. The music was still there and Phil Collins seemed to handle the singing duties as well as his predecessor. For me 1976 was a great year - fantastic summer, not a care in the world and bookended by A Trick of the Tail and Wind and Wuthering. I had notched up a few live performances as well. Genesis were my favourite band in the world.

But even by the time And Then There Were Three came along, I'd discovered bands like The Stranglers, been to see David Bowie on his Stage tour and started to discover there was more to music than 9/8 time.

A series of less and less inspiring albums followed, yet during the 1980s, despite listening to more of anything else than Genesis, I doggedly claimed they were my favourite band. I continued to see them live and even these became less enjoyable, because they were doing less of the music that got me into them and more of the commercial shite that had made them megastars in the USA. By the end they had a fifteen minute medley of old stuff to appease the die-hards.

The last proper album, back in 1991 - We Can't Dance - had some fleeting moments, but you could gauge how much it meant to me by the number of times I played it. Genesis had stopped being even one of my favourite bands by then.

That's not to dismiss all the good stuff they did. Or how much more important, musically, the Gabriel era was and how, now many years later, it seems that getting rid of Steve Hackett was the final nail in their prog rock coffin. Despite reading about the tensions in the band because of their need to write music as equals, it appears when it was Gabriel, Banks, Rutherford, Collins and Hackett they wrote and played brilliant songs - the sum of all of their parts; once you took the two fantastical elements from the band they became anodyne. That's not to call Steve Hackett dynamic - he's anything but; he did continue the eccentricity in the mix when the fantasist - Gabriel - left and when Hackett left they lost the ability to bridge sections effortlessly. The three remaining members might have liked their new 'punky' direction, but they lost the 'class' they had and the tensions between Hackett and two of the other core members over the years - specifically Tony Banks is now pretty clear.

Banks took on the role of the musician in the band. His grandiose pieces all seemed to fall flat without a coherent classical guitarist and Rutherford, the weakest songwriter of the combo was reduced to rock riffs and fiddly bits he couldn't replicate live. Recently, in a retrospective documentary about the band it was clear that Banks is tolerated by Gabriel and Hackett and even now, despite being arguably one of the richest members of this uber-rich bunch of musicians, he's still bitter that he was never anything more than the keyboard player.

This is weird, I initially set out to explain why I liked Genesis and what was great about their music, because there are probably two full CDs of their music that you could keep to play a lot. A CD and a half of the stuff up to the band becoming a trio and half a CD of the things they did that were good after. The thing is you cannot compare Selling England by the Pound with Abacab or The Lamb with Duke - some of the musicians are the same, but the band is playing a different tune.

For me the test of time is the best gauge. Over the last few weeks while I've been working on other projects, I've played the back catalogue and in many ways listening to From Genesis to Revelation - the first Jonathan King produced pop album is more enjoyable than listening to the eponymous Genesis. Trespass is a work of raw genius compared to Invisible Touch. Foxtrot is a behemoth in comparison to We Can't Dance. Nursery Cryme is better than Wind and Wuthering, despite my love of the latter. Only A Trick of the Tail sits alongside the Gabriel era - arguably because most of the music was written while they were touring The Lamb and because it needed to be a Genesis album and not another band with the same personnel.

The old stuff, while under-produced because of the technology available, is visceral and raw, despite the fanciful musicianship - there is an element of punk in it long before punk got going. The Knife is a rock song with an edge and an anger that would never show itself again as raw and obliquely Gabriel was writing a lot about the underlying malcontent in the country. Yes, people think about Genesis songs as being stories of funny men, disappearing animals and lawnmowers, but they were incredibly subversive at times, with songs that showed Britain how Britain looked to an outsider. My favourite album - Selling England by the Pound - was released at a time when the country was up shit creek with a chocolate paddle, it pretty much is a satirical dig at the country from inflation to criminal gangs; but there's a song about a lawnmower and his funny walk and one about going to the cinema so people don't think about subtexts in their songs.

I believe Collins kept some of Gabriel's rhetoric, the problem was that Gabriel despite being of privileged background is something of a socialist where as Collins is a Tory; therefore Collins' songs tended to be whimsical rather than charged with an underbelly of truths.

In conclusion; they don't deserve to be maligned, at least not until they started pandering to Rock FM in the USA. The albums directly after Hackett's departures are better than the ones that concluded their career; the decline wasn't so much a decline as a change of direction that alienated the people who put them where they were. I didn't like it and many others also thought it was a bad move, but ultimately if you buy a ticket to a football match it doesn't give you the right to manage the team. Bands do what they want, by and large, not what their fans want and how could you ameliorate such a thing?

I like most of everything Pink Floyd has released, but people will tell you they didn't do a good album after Wish You Were Here or maybe The Wall. People hate the last Zep album and pretty much ignore the existence of Coda. Yes haven't done a decent album in 10 years and have produced probably a double album's worth of good material in the last 30. Just because I grew up with a band doesn't mean they will grow with me in the way I desire. My brother loves later Genesis and will argue that much of it is better than Gabriel era; I could deride that quite easily, but it's a matter of taste and that's what makes critics no better placed than Fred Bloggs in the street: you listen to what you like, if you don't like it you don't listen to it, there's no point in telling people they're wrong because they think something is better than something else - this is music, there is no right or wrong.

That said, I could probably go the rest of my life without listening to any Genesis from 1978 on and not miss it. I couldn't say the same for the music between 1969 and 1977.

Culture Dump #1: Shameless Praise

On my own personal Tmblr account I'm subscribed to a number of blogs that are related to actors in a US TV show. I also follow a few of them on Twitter. This is pretty blatant admiration from someone who professes to abhor getting involved in all the fake platitudes that the Internet has morphed into (apart from when it lies or is pernicious, of course). It's not that I want to know the intimate details of these peoples lives; I just do it to keep up to date with stuff that's happening in and around the show they're in.

It started with Jeremy Allen White, a young American actor charged with filling some big shoes. The shoes were those of the character Philip 'Lip' Gallagher. Now, anyone who watched TV in the first decade of the 21st Century will have noticed a show called Shameless - even if they didn't watch it or thought it was a documentary.

Shameless introduced us to James McAvoy, Ann-Marie Duff, Maxine Peake, Dean Lennox Kelly, Jodie Lee Latham and a bunch of others. It started as a gritty dramedy, which because of its success saw just about every interesting character leave to explore new and better horizons. McAvoy is Professor X, Duff one of our best stage actors, Peake is probably a Dame in the making, oh and there's David Threlfall, the titular Frank Gallagher - one of our best character actors playing a drunk, drugged out waste of time and space and holding the show together when it became a parody of itself.

The problem with Shameless was - as I said - its popularity and the fact that once an actor gets attention he wants to move onto bigger and possibly better things. With hindsight (and that's a TV series I might get around to talking about one day), Shameless was lucky to have kept Threlfall, because the A list actors involved were unlikely to stick around playing gutter trash for very long.

However, in the USA most actors get signed up for seven series at the outset. If it goes past five seasons then there's a renegotiation of the salaries; to pull out of a series, especially a popular one to go and do something else, tends to cost a lot of money, so it's rarely done. So when Paul Abbot - the man who created Shameless - sold it to the USA, he knew there was a better chance of him being able to tell the story he wanted to tell in the UK but was unable to because of actors' departures.

The first season of Shameless (US) was a carbon-copy of the first two series from the UK, even down to the shagging scene in the kitchen, between the two stars the show was really about - Steve and Fiona (McAvoy and Duff in Manchester and Justin Chatwin and Emmy Rossum in Chicago). We watched with some mild amusement, it was interesting to see how it transposed from a council estate in Manchester to a project in east side Chicago. The belief in this household was it could never quite achieve the anarchy of the British series; this was, after all, a US TV show and even if it was on cable it was never going to be as ... 'shameless'.

That was where we went wrong and that was how, by the end of the first season, we had become hooked on an almost word for word remake... Except, while the scripts were the same-ish, the situations were developing in an altogether different way.

There were differences; Frank's love interest, Sheila, was introduced immediately. There has been less focus on Monica Gallagher (although she's not been ignored) and Kev and Vee were less... abrasive and dodgy, but no less sexual and, well, they were still dodgy. The interest was generated mainly by seeing how far they'd push the source material - how shameless they would be.

Now we just finished the fifth season. The cast in the first series is essentially the same. There are some new additions and some minor departures, but the Gallagher clan is still intact and that is one of the main reasons why Shameless (US) has grown to be my favourite TV show.

We gave up on the UK version around series 5 or 6. It had changed focus to the Maguire family presumably because most of the actors playing Gallaghers had left and as I said, it became a parody, preferring to focus on out-and-out comedy rather than the social humour and outrageous scams. The Maguire family is the Milkovitch family in the US version - they are important, but they are, with the exception of Mickey, supporting cast, adding to the rich tapestry that time has allowed them to create.

We started with Frank, Fiona, Lip, Ian, Debbie, Carl, and Liam and they were still there at the end of the latest series, although Lip is now on the verge of fulfilling the potential anyone who watched the UK version knew he was capable of. Fiona is married, but that is a statement that says a lot but doesn't really convey the complexity of her character. She has become a bit of a slapper, but for all the wrong reasons. Series five delved into the subtext of 'father issues' and it's clear that while Fiona despises hers she needs one.

Carl is in prison - juvie - after bodging a massive drug deal for his new 'employer' and he's not yet 15. Debbie is pregnant and she is just 15. Ian is bi-polar and as mad as a box of frogs; he would also make an unbelievable Joker in a Batman film. And there's Liam, the eternal 3 year-old mixed race child, who doesn't appear to have aged a day in five years (that would be my one criticism of the realism in this series, unless it's a joke; which I wouldn't put it past the makers to try).

Oh and there's Frank Gallagher. William H Macy doing a character that is a million miles away from any character you've ever seen him as before. Remember Fargo? Well Macy in Shameless is the complete antithesis of that anally-retentive criminal 'mastermind'. He's a drug addled, alcoholic with a new liver, a new daughter (who he was only vaguely aware existed) and he makes Threlfell's Frank look like the comedy foil he became. Macy is not the stand out actor in this series, there are at least two people who act him off the screen every week, yet he commands this show like an emperor. He is an evil, despicable, heartless piece of shit who would literally send his own kids up the river for a joint, yet like Threlfell's Frank, you just love him.

At the end of Series 5, Frank had returned to Chicago after a brief hiatus away with a terminally ill doctor he was introducing to the delights of crack, crystal meth, pot and alcohol. She wanted to go out in a blaze of disrespectful glory and who better to show he the ropes. Except, after five series of watching this heartless degenerate fuck up the lives of everyone around him; he fell lock stock and barrel for something that was only going to be temporary. Frank has a heart, you just have to work in mysterious ways to find it.

It is almost impossible to convey just how brilliant this series is; the outrageous set pieces devised are superb, only to be out-outlandishly bettered the next time around. Yet, the real theme of the series is about survival. This is, in many respects, I would imagine parts of the poorest areas of US big cities to be like - dangerous places, but also places full of love and hope and fun and taking the opportunity when it comes along because that is the American Dream in this part of Chicago. It also paints a slightly horrific picture of what the most deprived areas of the USA could be like; Shameless doesn't cross into territories such as gangs (very much) and organised crime (although it exists). The Gallaghers exist in a world where they fit into it and have a place to play, but they are also the house down the street from The Wire. Or the people who live in the dodgy area behind the Soprano's strip joint. They are the people in the background in Dexter. The stars of Shameless are the people who tell the story that happens while everything else is happening.

One of the selling points for me is how 'every action will have a consequence'. The series is cleverly written; it isn't just a 12 part spotlight on scum every twelve months; there is a deep plot running through it; it has things that happen that seem to be of no importance that will come back and haunt a member of the clan for some reason or another. nothing happens in this series without it coming back to bite you on the ass.

That brings us back to Lip - for me this series has become about him, not Fiona or Frank. It is the story of an extremely clever young man who is something of a freak within his own neighbourhood because of his potential. There is no resentment, just mocking and good humour from his peers. it's like they hate him for being clever but, by God, they want him to get away from the hell hole they live in and that's where this series really works - there is a genuine humanity about it. Lip is at university; he's struggling and doing Gallagher things to get ahead, yet he's spotted as a bright and potential brilliant talent and that is a theme that has pushed on slowly through the five seasons to the point where he is beginning to realise that his future is away from his family and neighbourhood - but maybe only for a while.

There is the final element for me that makes Shameless excellent drama and not faux-fact. There is a fantasy element in it - not Game of Thrones or Snow White fantasy, just a knowledge that one episode in each run of 12 will have something that defies belief; has something happen in it that you have to stop and think about. And when I say 'fantasy' I don't mean fantastic I just mean unrealistic, yet in the context of all the shit that these people face, it is deserved. What do I mean then? Well; Frank's liver transplant was by accident - almost - without it he would be dead. Lip's relationship with a lecturer is feasible but also slightly 'wow'. Something happens in each series that has you thinking its a scripted drama rather than an improvisation.

It's been shown on ITV2 now for four seasons and it is the kind of program that deserves a prime time slot on a bigger network; it is so good if people watched it they would be hooked and as a result you will find yourself thinking, "I really can't believe they just did that!" a lot.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Gig Review - North Atlantic Oscillation

"Light makes soft shadows hurt like teeth
Wherewith to crack our almighty seed"

I've never professed to even half understand what all the words to this band's song mean, but singing it at the top of my lungs in a shitty venue is something fans of bands will completely understand. You're there, wherever 'there' is and you are, to quote the famous Sledge Sisters - Lost in Music.

You also do not expect a band with this mob's ability to be playing a venue that looked like an afterthought in urban regeneration. The Custard Factory sounds like this impressive happening place and then you discover that it is, like a lot of gig venues, in Digbeth or Little Dublin as it is often referred to by the locals. Digbeth is seriously like being transported back in an episode of Life on Mars - there are places there that look like they haven't had a makeover since Harold Wilson was PM; I half expected to see pre-decimalisation money and 52 year old men who look like octogenarians.

There is this place in Leeds, where the Thought Bubble comics festival culminates. It's at the Docks - an odd place considering Leeds is essentially landlocked and nowhere near a coast - and it isn't actually in the main part of Leeds City centre, so therefore it is in one of those satellite districts that really appear to struggle to bring people to unless they're actually going there. I'm not suggesting The Custard Factory is even remotely comparable, but it has the same feel. This is a place that had lots of money - urban regeneration - thrown at it to make a 'precinct' in an area that is adjacent, but not in, the city centre. Nothing was open. it was a Thursday night and there were none of the shops open; no restaurants and what appear to be flats all built around it look like they have just one single resident. It looks like a reasonable idea gone bad and dying on its feet.

The Oobleck is the only place that appears to have any life and as we had a couple of hours to kill before NAO went on 'stage' we looked for a pub. We gave up looking for a decent pub - we found four; two were shut, one was an Irish themed Irish pub and the other sold Hobgoblin and lots of lager, so we gravitated back to the venue and it just screamed at you that they're struggling to stay open. It's been there a few years apparently and has, it seems, a rep for putting on metal and heavy rock bands, so NAO were an odd choice in many ways. The problem with the place is it doesn't quite seem to know what it wants to be. Spread across four floors, the ground floor has a Tapas/library chic that is spoiled by the general disarray; the first floor appears to be an extension of the Tapas eatery and just looked a little grubby. The third floor was like one of those odd foyers you found in 1970s night clubs and given the decor - horrendous wallpaper; plastic covered bench seats and a waiting room feel with its access to the toilets and unused bar (complete with padlocks and unused shit from the other floors) said to me that the owner had lost his enthusiasm for the place.

The gig room was roughly the same size as the ground floor but without staircases intersecting it; it was oblong with a bar at the end that also looked like they only catered for cider drinkers, dodgy lager-wallas and some fruit juices; I've been to wedding receptions in tents with better selections at the bar. It is an oblong room and not extraordinarily wide, so whoever devised using this room as a gig venue should obviously have put bands at one end, not in the middle so that mixing the sound becomes more of a hit and miss affair than an exact science. But this, to me, was why I'd be surprised if this venue is still operating in 6 months - the people who run the place don't seem to understand it. There's this basement in Shoreditch that puts 'biggish' bands on all the time; it reminds me of a lot of the shit holes I've seen bands in over the years, places that are so dirty they're almost sterile. This venue we were at last night had that unwashed tables, sticky balcony and general grubbiness you associate with OCD nightmares; it also had the feel of a place that is slowly winding down. Not a good venue and this was compounded by the 31 people in the audience (of which we estimate nearly half of these were probably friends, support band members and staff). I do not believe for a second that the piss poor turn out had anything to do with North Atlantic Oscillation; it might have had something to do with the fact this gig was originally scheduled for four months ago and had to be cancelled; it might have more to do with the fact it's just not a good venue in an area that would look as dodgy as hell if there were any people there.

Oh and it isn't helped by the fact that they have house and disco music blasting out on the ground and first floor, so everything fights everything else. The toilet was like a small cupboard and we couldn't find a second one, so this broom room catered for all the men in a venue that looked like it catered more for them more than anyone else (apart from maybe the 70s themed 3rd floor of nothingness).

It has to be said that Baltimore Gun Club - the support band we saw - weren't that bad and there was a grind-core-Cocteau Twins kind of mesh going on; however they appeared to overrun by about ten minutes which suggested to me that it had curtailed NAO's set because of the curfew. Why the venue has a curfew is also slightly puzzling - perhaps the single resident in the flats is a curmudgeon? This rather soured my feelings towards BGC; if you want to piss an audience off who haven't come to see you what you do is overrun and try to sell your CD at every opportunity.

Then there was Sam, Chris and Ben, setting up their equipment, struggling with the mix and I'm just looking at my watch because we're running out of valuable music time. And then... it was August... They played tracks from Grappling Hooks, from Fog Electric and the rest of the set from the new album - it was a good mix.

I've seen some of my favourite rock bands over the years and always in massive auditoriums or halls and never close up and personal; the good thing about Birmingham gigs is that Brummies seem so disinterested in great music you get to stand right in front of your heroes. It happened a decade ago with Shack; in an audience of about 30, I got to stand right in front of the Head brothers and really experience one of the best indie jangly guitar bands ever. This was in many ways better because there were so few people there, I crept closer to the band and the closer I got the more it became MY PERSONAL GIG.

However, it was lacking an atmosphere; it lacked the response from the audience to generate the need for an encore; I felt like I was leading the appreciation and that didn't bother me. I'm old and falling apart but I can still groove like a granddad on amphetamines, albeit weak ones that won't allow me to do myself a mischief or pull a muscle.

There were so many disappointing things, North Atlantic Oscillation was not one of them.

I saw how in many ways Chris Howard keeps the band together - he's the bassist (and the man who got Sam Healy into prog) and he's the jam between the bread that is Sam and Ben Martin - the drummer who hits drums like they've offended him. Five or six years of playing together has obviously made them a tight unit that covers for each other and they obviously all really like each other - I've seen bands who barely speak to each other on or off stage - and they watched the support act, which I think rates high.

Having never seen the band before, I had the chance and sacrificed it for beer, there was a slight confusion in my old addled brain. I initially confused Ben for Sam, because the former has the poster boy looks and tends to be the prominent one in press photos and it would appear there's more information about me on line than you can find about any of the band. So imagine how crushing it could have been when I shook Ben's hand and thanked him for my favourite album of the 21st century - not an NAO one, but the Healy solo - only for him to point out Sam standing about ten foot away from me. I was so embarrassed. It's a bit like me, as a Spurs fan, mistaking man of the moment Harry Kane for, I dunno, the Spurs tea lady.

At the end of the set, I got the chance to do something I've never been able to do with favourite bands in the past. I talked to them, specifically Sam who seemed genuinely pleased to meet both Roger and I; we have been huge supporters of the band and it topped a great night to realise that you are appreciated. Sam and I talked about the Wolverhampton gig in 2011 where we chose to sit in the bar rather than go and listen to this 'support band', this segued into our mutual love of Talk Talk and how, the only time I ever saw my favourite band of all time, I booed them off stage. I get the impression I could talk for hours with the man about music and we could startle each other with our interesting and diverse music tastes (either that or we'd both like all the same bands and we'd have to talk about Scotland or Ireland or the sea).

It would appear that missing or deriding support bands is the gateway drug to becoming addicted to them in the future.

In conclusion; it was a curate's egg of an evening. The venue was rubbish - sorry, but it was. It was easy to find which was a blessing and we also got free parking. The band were excellent, even if Sam's vocals were lost in the mix at times and the room was acoustically akin to a showbox. They played almost all the songs I would have wanted (no Mirador - I can live with it), but frankly they could have played their entire back catalogue and I would have willingly stood there and enjoyed all of it, despite the protestations from my lower back.

Rumour has it that Mr Healy is working on a second Sand album; if this is the case I'd like to see him tour his solo stuff, but at this specific moment in time I have seen my favourite band du jour and can die happy.

NAO: 9 out of 10
Venue 1 out of 10

NAO would have got a 10 if the venue could have offered them acoustics and space and people and decent beer and ...

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Film Review - Monsters: Dark Continent

Monsters: Dark Continent

Gareth Edwards' Monsters is my favourite film of the 21st Century. No ifs or buts, I think it achieves so much in an unbelievably understated way. It is in many ways the best science fiction/alien invasion movie ever made because there is something inherently more believable about Monsters than something arriving in a space ship, looking like John Travolta, and enslaving/destroying the planet earth.

And, of course, Monsters wasn't referring to the giant octopus-like, largely benign, aliens, but the people - the humans - who were the real monsters. From the opportunistic ferryman to the pretty much dislikeable lead actors, there is barely a glimmer of humanity between any of them... except, as the film progresses the two main 'stars' are changed by the events around them; it's like they not only discover each other, but a little of their ability to be human beings again. Of course, the wonderful allegory of Monsters is the fact the actual 'monsters' are just a backdrop to the horrors of people and they appear to just be searching for a reason to exist on this god forsaken shit-hole that is earth. Plus there's the utterly splendid soundtrack by Jon Hopkins.

I can understand why Monsters is seriously derided among geeks and fanboys, it doesn't have much action in it and it's a hybrid road movie cum love story - as I said the monsters are immaterial to the actual narrative, they just perfectly juxtapose the events taking place around them.

The idea of a Monsters sequel appealed to me as soon as I heard about it. Considering Monsters cost about $50 and made millions you could almost see a franchise growing out of it, but only because of some monstrous film exec; yet I somehow had the feeling that if Edwards was producing it, it would keep a sense of what it was really about. The early clips for Dark Continent simply moved the action from Mexico to the Middle East; the trailers featured glimpses of new-look monsters; super giants compared to the ones down Mexico way and it seemed to be focusing on something that was only fleetingly touched on in the first film - the fight against the aliens - which has been a vagary of both films because it is clear that the aliens appear to have no malicious intent, they just exist and things get in the way.

Here's where it gets a little too clever for its own good. The action is set in an unnamed Arabian country, probably Iraq, and follows the mission of a team of Detroit-based US 'squaddies' as they attempt to recover four MIA colleagues. The twist in the tale is while these US soldiers are there, the locals don't want them and therefore they have as much trouble dealing with suicide bombers, terrorist attacks and insurgents as they do from the lumbering and benign aliens.

Naturally, as with the first film, this wasn't about the monsters, but about the 'monsters' that make man tick. It is made clear almost from the word go that this squad of troops are a bunch of worthless twats who have a loyalty to each other but not really to their flag. This is because they live in Detroit, which is now just a ghost city forgotten about by everyone else; except one of the team is a little more sensitive, because he was alienated as a child and grew up in the same hostile and unfamiliar environment, but without parents...

Over in 'Ragheadland', the staff sergeant is a mean son-of-a-bitch who wants to go home to his wife and daughter but they don't want him any more because he's become this obsessed nutter-bastard monster and his #2 is a black man with a chip on his shoulder and all around them are shouty angry locals who are not given subtitles to enforce the feeling of isolation and lack of understanding...

Has the allegory been hitting you around the head enough yet? Because that is what this is; it is bashing you into submission with allegory and it loses sight and focus of everything else as a result.

But wait, there's more... With the subtlety of a zombie apocalypse the 'main' protagonist, the guy with his own trailer-load of allegory weighing him down like a millstone realises that he has more in common with the monsters than the mad angst-ridden bastards he's surrounded by - except most of them are wiped out by terrorists in a scene so telegraphed they should have had signs up saying - ENEMY ATTACK IN 30 SECONDS. You knew this because for the first time in the film all of the angst-ridden angry bastards were having a laugh and admiring the fucked up alien life out-running their RVs.

Then there's the Bedouin interlude where not-so-angst-ridden is given a lesson in why life is sacred while having his own personal alien light show just to HAMMER HOME THE ALLEGORY.

Then there's the acting. There are some fine British actors on show here with credits worth praising: This is England, Skins, Misfits, Fortitude, Game of Thrones alumni all appear and they all SHOUT A LOT in bad American accents and try to impress upon us what bad ass mutherfuckers they are and how they've really struggled to become bad ass mutherfuckers and ... FFS STOP IT NOW!!!

I cannot think of much in its two hour length that can redeem it. Monsters: Dark Continent was an ill-advised, badly made pile of SHIT.

For starters it doesn't actually need the monsters in it; they served no real purpose as most intelligent people outside of Jesusland are probably more than aware that a lot of US GIs are wankers, arseholes and likely to be into shoot, slap and kill first and ask questions later than being caring understanding types and probably make as many enemies as they do friends. I'm sure the same can be said about most soldiers.

Setting alienated US soldiers in a hostile environment is pretty much a staple diet from Hollywood, with at least one every two years singled out for Oscar attention - this year was that sniper film that just glorified death the American way. Why this was needed to be Yanks and therefore get everyone to put on fake accents is something that mystifies me - perhaps the director wanted to make a point?

The monsters were great and varied and not on screen for long enough and ended up being background screensavers and an excuse to drop bombs; their potential was completely lost and was substituted for a chance for some British actors to chew scenery in their best Hugh Laurie House voices. It just took the original and instead of making the action bigger and bolder, it just gave us a bigger bunch of characters who all deserved to die.

I now understand how and why this didn't get a theatrical release and slipped out on DVD without any fanfare or mention. It is a dreadful film with no redeemable qualities; some unbelievably bad acting and no idea what it was trying to say, because the story or the possibility of a story got lost in ALL OF THE SHOUTING!

2 out of 10 (and that was for the alien monsters who acted everyone else off the screen)

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Album Review - Steven Wilson/Hand Cannot Erase

Hand. Cannot. Erase.
Steven Wilson (& friends)

Ha ha. Ha fucking ha. Ha ha ha ha ha. Fuck you progladytes. FUCK YOU! Ha!

Steven Wilson, wherefore art thou?

I so wanted to call this review Arse. Cannot. Inhale.

I so expected this album to be unmitigated bottom junk.

I deliberately and publicly have stated that I will illegally download this album and that's exactly what I did. I did this because it was obviously going to be a pile of shit.

Therefore, the fact I'm so fucking gobsmacked that Wilson or SW (as us PT fans like to say) has returned to his pedestal in my musical hierarchy that I'm considering having a wank a day for a month. It was almost like he did this album deliberately, just to please me and, hopefully, the progladytes and prognista will be so appalled they'll eat themselves in an orgy of dull porn (and stale crackers).

Poncey title. Awful cover. Very iffy pre-release snippets. I was (and I'm not terribly proud of this) almost rubbing my hands together in glee at the prospect of meltdown in the SW fanboy circles as SW delivered an album so bland, insignificant and un-prog-like, it could have been by one of the Gallagher brothers.

Over the years, Porcupine Tree have been the closest thing to 'proper prog' music I've strayed towards. I don't think of Kscope - the predominant record label in my life - as being a prog label, they just have most of today's 'new prog' bands signed to them. To say North Atlantic Oscillation are a prog band is to say Will Young is a hip hop superstar. While I'm sure Mr Young can do a fair impression of hip hop, he's not going to take on NWA just yet. The point I'm attempting to make here is that while Hand. Cannot. Erase. has prog elements in it - mainly Yes this time - they're not at the forefront of this utterly stunning piece of work. It's like he starts with a prog song to lull you into a false sense of security.

Oh and yes, you did read that correctly - I said, 'utterly stunning piece of work'.

SW is influence driven. There's nothing wrong with that as there's nothing new under the sun. I can hear the influences in this album, but they're obscured more. He's not strode into the studio with a Robert Fripp head on (possibly a Steve Howe one though) and produced an ode to Crimson; more like he's sat in the sun and allowed all the influences to go runny, then thrown himself into a freezer so they'd just all congealed; like taking all of the elements of something and throwing them into a blender and seeing what comes out. H.C.E is unique in it has good tunes played hard and great tunes played soft - it is a musical mish-mash of an album, more indie than anything else, but with head nods to hard rock and most telling for me many of his own side projects. I heard elements of Blackfield, No-Man, Bass Communion and, of course, Porcupine Tree were in here as well. In fact, many of those hidden influences were obviously Steve's own.

I like to think Insurgentes is the best solo album, but that might be because it's just a Porcupine Tree album. Grace For Drowning also has far more immediate songs on it, but that was the bridge between Insurgentes and The Raven That Refused to Sing, which I, amazingly, have grown to like. H.C.E is, in my truly humble opinion, the first truly solo Steven Wilson album. Not solo in musicians, but solo in I believe these are his songs - his catalogue of ideas he couldn't shoehorn into some other project and that could be why the influences are harder to spot.

What of the album? Home Invasion: Regret #9 (two songs seguing into one) is possibly the best thing SW has written in the 21st Century. It's a thunderous prog/classic rock song in several parts (presumably for those progtastic progladytes) with Hammond's organ throbbing in the background like some phallic sentinel and a gutsy guitar Keef would have proud of. Opening track First Regret: 3 Years Older is another that benefits from repeat listenings and the closer Happy Returns: Ascendant Here On is like Talk Talk blended with Opeth with that SW signature through it like a bright red Blackpool in a stick of rock.

The title track is pure indie and Perfect Life, which I believed I would grow tired of as quickly as a Go Compare advert has actually grown on me and is very much one of those gentle highlights he is so good at helping deliver on No-Man albums. I have had an about face with this track from the initial hearing, but that might be because it fits into this album like a lost jigsaw piece.

Then there's Reunion which my mate thinks sounds like an homage to Kate Bush, but I think is just Wilson working with a slightly different pallet - using something new to put across an old point. It was a track that I struggled with at first, but now... Isn't that the best thing about good albums; the ones that make it difficult for you to appreciate them; they end up being the better ones.

Oh and about that illegal download - I ordered the album almost immediately; which I think is the kind of illegal download that SW probably has no problem with. This comes out on March 3.

If the album is about that London woman who lay dead in her flat for three years without being discovered then I don't really think it conveyed that. I like to think the title is a reference to SW's past: it's all there and can't be wiped out, so let's go some place new.

8 out of 10

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Glass Onion 2015

It's been nearly four years since I last posted up the best of my vegetarian repertoire, so what better way to bring it back with two seriously excellent vegetarian (not vegan) additions to my oeuvre.

For the last two years I have been honing something involving roasted veg, whole grains and cooked cheese and I eventually came up with one of the most complicated and convoluted plates of wonder you'll eat in a long time.

This has the imaginative title of Cous Cous (so good they named it twice) with roasted vegetables and haloumi.

This is one of them recipes that requires common sense and imagination. The roasted veg isn't cast in stone, you can use whatever floats your boat; so if you like roasted Brussell Sprouts then good for you (just don't come near me).

I have taken a number of photographs to help you (now that I have the technology for this sort of bollocks), they'll be posted somewhere in this...

Start with:

A flame proof dish full of vegetables - here you have: butternut squash, red and green peppers, onion, garlic hidden away at the bottom and most importantly quite a few cherry-styled tomatoes. Glug some decent olive oil over this and some sea salt and black pepper.

This needs to go into the oven at about 150 degrees for between 90 minutes and two hours.

While this is cooking, weigh 200g of cous cous and stick into a Pyrex bowl with: a teaspoon of paprika, a teaspoon of vegetable stock powder; ½ teaspoon of chilli flakes, ½ teaspoon of garlic granules and 2 teaspoons of black/brown mustard seeds.

Also, prepare some beans: I've discovered that green beans and broad beans work best. I also would wholeheartedly recommend buying frozen broad beans because they are simply better, cheaper and more convenient. Fiddly thing: skin the broad beans, the light green husks are tough.

Meanwhile, prepare some mushrooms. You can do one of two things here; you can chop a quantity of mushrooms and mix with chopped onions to make a duxelles; or you can fry the mushrooms about five minutes before the rest is done.

Season the mushrooms and put them in with the roasted vegetables to keep them warm (don't oven roast mushrooms, they just don't work very well).

Chop the onion, fry the mushrooms and boil some water. Now, take some sunflower and pumpkin seeds (or alternatively chop some nuts) and when the onions are softening, add the seeds.
Add 250ml of boiling water to the cous cous; stir vigorously and then cover with a tea towel and set 5 minutes on a timer.

Mix the bean, duxelles and seed mixture into the cous cous at the five minute stage. Grab a bunch of coriander and chop some leaves. Put this in about 20 seconds before you dish up.

Cover over with the tea towel again and shove in the microwave. Take a pack of haloumi (not thallium) and split into half and season with lashings of paprika; add a glug of olive oil to the pan and fry the cheese!

Microwave the bowl of cous cous mixture for about 30 seconds - just to ensure that everything is thoroughly hot and then on heated plates begin to dish up.

Once you've taken all of the roasted vegetables out of the dish and placed them on the plate, there should be an olive oil/vegetable juice mixture left - tip this into the cous cous mixture and mix in.

Mix in your coriander and plate up, ensuring you can mix the veg and the grain together however much you want.

You can use all manner of vegetables; you can use paneer instead of haloumi, or quinoa, buckwheat or whatever takes your fancy. It is just really delicious.


Recipe #2 is my version of a kofta.

I have continually had little success cooking with gram flour, but I don't give up. My koftas are often stodgy or doughy, never fluffy and light. So I sat down and thought about it and this is what I came up with:

Take about four heaped tablespoons of gram flour and place in a bowl; add coriander spice, cumin, salt, cinnamon and about 10 raw cashew nuts ground roughly. Mix together and then add a small onion finely chopped.

If you have a mini-blender for spices, then blitz a thumb of ginger, 3 garlic cloves, a seeded chilli and some salt and then add this to the mixture. Grate approx a 4oz slab/chunk of squash or pumpkin and thoroughly mix all the ingredients.

Take approx 2oz of lentils (red preferably) and put just enough water in to cover and set to cook. 15 minutes later you should have an orange mush, much the consistency of pease pudding. Add this to your gram flour and vegetable mixture. Add some bicarbonate of soda (½ teaspoon), plenty of salt and black pepper and a little more gram flour if you think the consistency is a little too 'wet'.

You will have something the consistency of very thick porridge. Put about 1cm deep of oil into a small frying pan and heat; place teaspoon sized balls of the mixture into the hot fat, turning every 20 seconds of so, so that they keep as round a shape as possible.

When they are golden brown take off the heat and place on greaseproof paper or kitchen paper towel to drain off any excess fat.

You can eat these as a mouth-sized bite or mix with a Malai sauce (creamy curry sauce with cloves, cinnamon and coriander) - they keep their shape and consistency very well considering how light and crispy they are.

You can use all manner of vegetables - Indian or local from carrots to doodi or bitter gourd and pumpkin (in the autumn) works exceptionally well.

These also work as alternatives to falafel and go extremely well with salad.

And that is that as they say. I'm going to go and do something illegal...