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)