Monthly Archives: October 2012

Album Review: Tame Impala – Lonerism

Psychedelic music has a knack for dividing the opinions of listeners, but Australian oddball Kevin Parker has struck just the right balance of poppy and proggy ingredients for the second album of his Tame Impala project.  Lonerism merges ingredients of old-school pop music with a spacedust kick, mixing both styles to concoct a stunning, widescreen sound which fizzes and glitters in all the colours of a Raymanian rainbow.

Where 2010’s Innerspeaker was more direct in its throwback to the sounds of the ‘60s, Lonerism seems to draw from more modern artists in addition to taking influences from the mind-bending prowess of groups from the aforementioned era.  Fans of The Horrors and The Flaming Lips will find much to appreciate here, and synths are now generously splashed across the soundscapes to add fresh shades to Tame Impala‘s already-considerable spectrum.

Such is the strength of the musical alchemy on display here that Lonerism never dips below enthralling.  The opening moments of Endors Toi sound like engines cycling up in preparation for some extreme astral travelling, but Parker never lets the scales tip so far that things become too strung-out or stodgy.  Instead, he anchors the music with strong, joyous hooks, keeping his feet on terra firma even as he lets his mind roam the clouds.  For a case in point, check out the bass riff that struts through the chaotic carousel of Apocalypse Dreams, or the “she remembers my name” refrain of Mind Mischief, which recalls a Revolver-era Beatles after a particularly acidic binge.

Lyrically, Lonerism explores what is promised on the tin.  The album deals in themes of isolation, alienation, and perhaps even a sense of helplessness at times.  In clumsier hands, this melancholic fixation could have completely capsized Lonerism‘s light touch, but thankfully, Parker never succumbs to mere snivelling, instead imbuing his vocals with a poignant sense of wide-eyed vulnerability.  At one point, he lets out a sigh of “but I don’t really care about it anyway”, yet it sounds like an attempt to convince himself as much as his audience.

The lyrics themselves are strong for their simplicity, and can be genuinely affecting in places, but ultimately, Lonerism is very much an uplifting listen.  Parker’s lyrical despondency presents the listener with a companion with whom to explore this trippy light spectacular, and as the album approaches its central sequence, it all congeals wonderfully.  Why Won’t They Talk To Me? is a towering, multi-harmonised gem, and the chorus of Feels Like We Only Go Backwards is so euphorically bittersweet that it’ll refuse to budge from your mind from the first listen.

Glazed with a busy-yet-digestible production scale (which bears the mark of Dave Fridmann’s mixing skills), this is music as vibrant and adventurous as anything else you’re likely to hear this year.  Whether you’re a fan of pop, psychedelia, rock, or even if you just enjoy a good hook when you hear one, put some time aside for Lonerism.  It may well be a late contender for that coveted album-of-the-year title.

9/10

“It’s a hypnotist’s arm, and it works like a charm.”

26/10/2012

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Live Review: Grizzly Bear

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, 21/10/2012

Support: Villagers

Only a few short months ago, I was sat crammed into a tiny (and uncomfortable) wooden chair in the Butterworth Hall hunched over my Film Studies exams.  Last night I got to have a much more positive experience by watching one of my favourite bands perform onstage there.  Swings and roundabouts…

Even though me and my friend Katie were perched up on the balcony, we had a great high-angle view of the stage as Villagers got the evening started brilliantly.  I was completely blown away by the Dublin group, having never heard their music beforehand.  The gutsy bellowing and fiery passion of Conor J. O’Brien was akin to standing in the wake of a hurricane, especially on such frenetic performances of The Bell and The Waves.  Villagers did such a sterling job, they left to tumultuous applause, and the night almost took on a battle-of-the-bands quality as I began to question whether or not Grizzly Bear would be able to top such an opening.

As it turned out, the Brooklyn band put in a much more controlled performance: less moody and atmospheric, but with a charged sense of drive and theatricality.  After the thunderous Speak In Rounds, several rows of lanterns (resembling golden, glowing jellyfish) floated up and down at the back of the stage, pulling their own freaky shapes during the funky thump of Cheerleader and a lovely rendition of Gun-Shy.

Although there were a few issues with sound (something I’m told is a common problem at Butterworth Hall concerts), the lighting of the show was a performance in itself: watching the spindly figure of Ed Droste cavorting around the stage in explosions of retina-singing light was quite something.  But the leader of the pack for the night was clearly Daniel Rossen, whose guitar acrobatics were as nimble and impressive in the flesh as they sound on record.

Set highlights included the grandiose light spectacular of the explosive Sun In Your Eyes, and the performance of Ready, Able, which ended in an electrifying final minute of perfect interplay between the band members.  After the encore of the slow-burning Knife and a stripped-back version of All We Ask, I was left with a warm feeling of contentment.  It’s a shame we couldn’t get standing tickets, but Grizzly Bear put on a solid show, and I now have a new band to follow in Villagers.  All in all, a pretty cracking evening!

Setlist

Villagers

Set The Tigers Free // Home // The Bell // Becoming A Jackal // Nothing Arrived // My Lighthouse // The Waves // Passing A Message // Earthly Pleasure

Grizzly Bear

Speak In Rounds // Adelma // Sleeping Ute // Cheerleader // Lullabye // Yet Again // Shift // A Simple Answer // Gun-Shy // Ready, Able // I Live With You // Foreground // While You Wait For The Others // What’s Wrong? // Two Weeks // Half Gate // Sun In Your Eyes.  Knife // All We Ask.

22/10/2012

Album Review: Grizzly Bear – Shields

Grizzly Bear have had to up the ante considerably this time around in order to match expectations following the sonic wizardry of 2009’s Veckatimest.  For that album, the Brooklyn four-piece cracked a winning formula of cascading harmonies and subtle guitar melodies, bolstering their chamber-pop aesthetic and bringing them to the eyes and ears of a much larger audience.  It’d be hard for even the grumpiest of listeners to deny the perfection of the likes of Two Weeks’s starburst swoon, or the maddeningly addictive While You Wait For The Others.

The question is: where to from here?  And it seems that Grizzly Bear themselves have thrown away the map and struck out for new territory.  If Veckatimest was the soundtrack for exploring a leafy, sun-dappled island, Shields is a much stormier – and murkier – affair.  They haven’t cloaked themselves entirely in shadow, and patches of sunlight still drizzle through their songwriting, but from the off it’s clear that the band have toned down the dreaminess a couple of notches.  Sleeping Ute comes crashing into consciousness with gnarled guitar riffs, tumbling drums and Daniel Rossen’s despondent wail of “I can’t help myself”.  It’s an instant statement of intent, and one of the most electrifying things they’ve put together yet.

Admittedly, Sleeping Ute marks the farthest the group stray into heavier waters, but the album remains troubled and keyed-up throughout, until the jazzy psychedelic soup of Sun In Your Eyes: an adventurous closer which ends Shields on an explosive note – albeit a tasteful, controlled one.  There’s little to be found along the way as instantaneous as the likes of Southern Point‘s freewheeling joie-de-vivre, but though the corners are a little blurrier, the band hasn’t lost its sense of playful charm.  Speak In Rounds chugs like a locomotive in the manner of Arcade Fire, and Gun-Shy twinkles with delicate guitar swoops and a surprising synth motif.  Elsewhere, Yet Again is arguably the strongest of the entire set, churning from a cloudy, simple opening into wonderfully cacophonous waves of instrumentation.  Gilded by Chris Taylor’s tasteful, blurred production and propelled by Christopher Bear’s booming drums, it’s a majestic five-minute odyssey.

Unfortunately, though most of the cuts on here will enchant and surprise, the album is something of an inconsistent listen.  It’s not aided by the fact that the vigour of Yet Again is lost almost instantly on The Hunt.  A pleasant, cavernous ballad in itself, The Hunt is fine on its own merits, but it goes on to set up a slow descent into the album’s two weakest moments – A Simple Answer and What’s Wrong?.  Both meander for far too long, without making nearly enough of an impact to justify their length.  Thankfully, the pace picks up once again as the album draws to its sweeping, dramatic close, but it does derail the nicely-building momentum of the first half.

Still, the bulk of the album makes up for this temporary dip in quality, and on this form, Grizzly Bear can retain their title as one of the strongest and most interesting groups working today.  While it probably won’t be embraced as universally as Yellow House or Veckatimest, Shields can be regarded as another success for the band.  With their horizons now expanded further and their dynamic appeal still intact, it’s exciting to speculate over where they might tread next.

8/10

“Come get what’s lost, what’s left before it’s gone.”

20/10/2012

Film Review: Looper

“Mindblowing!  Game-changing!  The new Matrix!”

Why have some people felt it necessary to burden Looper with such ridiculous levels of hyperbole?  In the months leading up to the release of Rian Johnson’s third film (also marking another crackling collaboration with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who can surely consider himself well and truly A-Listed this year), the steady escalation in the numbers of critics fuelling the tidal wave of anticipation left audiences everywhere genuinely expecting something an event: a film of such magnitude that its shockwaves will reverberate through the science fiction genre for years to come.

As it happens, Looper is nothing of the sort.  That’s not to say it’s a bad film or an anti-climax, but it’s definitely not up there with The Matrix in terms of breaking fresh ground and expanding the parameters of what good sci-fi can achieve.  In truth, Johnson has taken familiar elements from other films and bound them together into something which still feels fresh and original.  There are shades of Blade Runner and The Terminator, and a sprinkling of Akira’s DNA, but these references are made respectfully.  Instead of becoming overbearing, they serve to enrich the whole rather than distracting from the film’s integrity.  So no, it’s not completely original, and it’s not going to blow your mind, but it’ll definitely entertain and intrigue you like little else released this year.

The film is set in 2044, at a time when the world is in a state of spiritual and economic collapse.  As the 99% suffer in a poverty-stricken landscape, Joe (Gordon-Levitt) lives a comfortable-but-lonely life, escaping his isolation with the help of an eye-drop drug and driving flash cars.  He can afford such commodities by working as a ‘looper’, a hit man who kills and disposes of victims sent back in time from 2074, when organised crime syndicates have a firm monopoly on illegalised time travel for their own purposes.  But in order to tie off any loose ends, a looper will eventually find his future self sent back as a target.  After execution, the looper is rewarded in gold bullion as a retirement payment, and given thirty years of life until being tracked down and sent back in time for execution.  The consequence of failing to execute a target is a death sentence.

When the day finally comes for Joe to kill his future self, he hesitates, and his older incarnation (Bruce Willis) escapes, forcing both men to go on the run.  Both Joes now have their own agendas: Young Joe must find and kill his future self in order to escape the clutches of the mafia, and Old Joe attempts to track down and assassinate a child who will grow up to become a kingpin of the underworld in 2074, called The Rainmaker.  (If all this sounds very confusing, the film explains this much better than I do.)

With such an exciting concept under its belt, Looper could easily have become a film lost to a nightmare of its own making.  Thankfully, though, Johnson doesn’t dwindle for too long on the twisty subject of time-travel, and while it may grate on some viewers that the paradoxes are never fully cleaned up, it’s a mercy that Looper doesn’t turn into a torturous head-scratcher.  Instead, the film becomes a journey exploring the conflicting interests of both versions of Joe, and the emotional core of the story certainly isn’t papered over as both protagonists find their moralities tested.  Young Joe has to confront his own mortality head-on, while Old Joe finds himself dislocated when his previous existence is torn away.  With his character mourning for a lost love and on a self-appointed mission which he finds nigh-on impossible to undertake, Willis is given one of his best roles in years.  Delving beneath that steely exterior, Johnson explores the dark heart of a tortured individual, most particularly in one sequence halfway through the film, when Old Joe performs a horrific act which most would consider totally irredeemable.  The sight of Old Joe buckling as he begins to register the cost of his actions is incredibly powerful, and the result is one of the most arresting scenes of the year.

The first half of the film is close to perfect, and delivers everything you could hope for from the trailers.  The exposition is kept lean, the action stylish and well-paced, and one particularly gruesome set-piece involving Paul Dano’s looper lends a real sense of danger to the film.  Yet it seems that a lot of people (including some of those with whom I saw the film) have left the cinema feeling underwhelmed by the ending.  True, the second act does downshift to explore a more intimate scenario, set on a farm owned by Emily Blunt’s Sara.  More details are layered into the plot and the action is left behind, and while this gives the characters more space to breathe, a slight sag is still felt after the explosive first hour.

The second half of the film is still very good, with more new flavours introduced in the form of a telekinetic threat.  Some might find a particular element of this segment more ridiculous than deadly, but it’s proof of Johnson’s admirable ambition and conviction that he manages to make the outcome more disturbing rather than frivolous.  The formidable action resurfaces in the final act, and although there is a twist which many people will see coming, it is handled with real pathos and caps the film satisfactorily, bolstered by some great acting.  Gordon-Levitt thoroughly convinces as the younger incarnation of Willis, right down to every tick and jaw-clench, with the illusion assisted by some smartly-rendered prosthetic work.  Elsewhere, Blunt delivers in spades as a counterweight to the male-dominated universe, with Sara’s vulnerability kept in check beneath a strong, independent attitude.

It’s far from faultless, with a couple of missed beats here and there, and as mentioned, the time-travel paradoxes themselves will baffle more than a few viewers.  And although the action sequences are never less than exciting, there are moments when some of them feel a little short-lived.  Johnson’s deft writing has kept things tasteful, and it’s good to leave some moments to the imagination, but there are a few points in the film when you kind of wish he’d let a scene linger for a little longer before the dust settles.

Ultimately, though, despite what all the hype would have you believe, and despite all those action cues and set-pieces, Looper is a slow-burner.  You might leave the cinema feeling a little disheartened at first, especially given the way the pace of the film cools off after its jam-packed opening.  But it’s in the (hours / days / weeks) afterwards that you’ll slowly realise what a profound effect the film had on you.  Tiny ideas will slither into your head; you’ll remember small, intriguing nuances and little moments of revelation.  Visually striking, absorbing and with countless talking points, Looper is brave, ambitious film-making, which doesn’t rewrite the rulebook, but it does weave its own magic nonetheless, like all good sci-fi should.

8/10

Johnson’s third feature-length is a remarkable picture sparkling with life.  Put the hype and logic to one side for a moment, and you’ll find that Looper is a savvy, intelligent thriller equal to the sum of its parts.

14/10/2012

Album Review: Bloc Party – Four

Of all the indie-rock bands that emerged in the early noughties, Bloc Party seemed like one of the few destined for genuine longevity.  While most of their competitors were content to go with the flow, soundtracking messy nights out amid bouncy, optimistic indie-pop, the London group were more concerned with exploring the darker side of modern living: the desperation and danger beneath the brave faces and glossy surfaces.  Silent Alarm was a towering debut which worked so well because it genuinely resonated with its audience, musically captivating listeners while also giving voice to the dejection bottled up inside many of them.  Yet despite the considerable heft of their music, Bloc Party still fell into that classic trap of the indie world: being unable to escape from the shadow of their debut.  Their subsequent albums aren’t without their fair share of classics (it’s hard to deny the likes of I Still Remember, Talons and Waiting For The 7:18), but the group haven’t quite turned heads like they did in 2005.

But now, following a four-year hiatus, they’re back to prove that there’s life in this party yet.  And with Four, that point has definitely been proven.  After the processed textures of 2008’s Intimacy, Four finds the group reconnecting with the sheer thrill of a back-to-basics live attack.  Excesses are stripped away and replaced by the return of garage-rattling guitars, while their previously well-polished edges are roughened by the inclusion of studio chatter and an unfussy production tone.  In addition, the break seems to have recharged the band’s mojo: there are moments of real chemistry oozing through more than a handful of songs on here.  Lyrically, Kele Okereke still suffers from the occasional stumble, but during the numerous ballads on offer here, he sounds much more comfortable – and indeed, honest – as a songwriter than ever before.  It takes real skill to make lyrics as simple as “I am yours now / Respectfully” sound genuine but not saccharine.  And yes, he can still bellow like a bastard when he wants to.

First single Octopus strengthens with repeated listens, sounding akin to a less fiery, more wiry cousin of Banquet, and the Strokesy shuffle of Real Talk exhibits some of Okereke’s finest falsetto work to date.  The wonderfully breezy V.A.L.I.S., meanwhile, is as poppy as anything the group have ever written: all handclaps, sparkling melodies, and a delightfully simple yelper of a chorus.  Elsewhere, however, the springy indie flavours are moved aside to favour a much more aggressive sound.  Okereke and guitarist Russell Lissack crank their amps numerous times here with pent-up fury, channelling their forces into snaking riffs (So He Begins To Lie) and punishing walls of sound (3 x 3).  Several of these heavier attempts are pulled off surprisingly well, with all members uniting to wield destructive power in Kettling’s crunching cataclysm.  Unfortunately, things don’t always work out quite so well.  Coliseum attempts to weld a Grounds For Divorce-esque blues opening to a thrash which borders on metal, resulting in an unpalatable mess, while closing track We Are Not Good People reaches for a final two-finger salute, but ultimately fails to convince.

Still, beyond a handful of weak individual songs, the biggest gripe with the album is that it’s the only Bloc Party record so far which feels as if it has no real agenda to set, nor a focus point to circle.  After exploring despair in the face of modernity (Silent Alarm), paranoid dislocation (A Weekend In The City) and the ins and outs of relationships (Intimacy), Four is by far the band’s least cohesive album, in both style and sound.  Sure, it’s fair enough that the band can make an album in which they cut loose and see what comes naturally, and taken independently, a good selection of these songs are fairly strong contenders in the band’s canon.  But in the wake of such purposeful records, this one can’t help but feel a little unsubstantial and scattershot.  Don’t be completely put off: Four is a good album, it really is, and it makes for an engaging listen.  If this review were to employ a ten-figure rating system, then this record would nicely crack a solid seven; but as it stands, it’s just a little too uneven to merit four-out-of-five.

3/5

“You gotta show me the way!”

26/09/2012

Film Review: Brave

Originally published on The Andy Gaudion Blog: http://andygaudion93.wordpress.com/2012/08/15/michael-perry-reviews-brave/
After Pixar concluded their majestic Toy Story franchise in 2010 (well, hopefully it was the conclusion…), they were the unquestioned masters of the animated realm.  Boasting a string of classic movies which stood among the best ever put together – animated and otherwise – they had viewers young and old alike eating from the palms of their hands / fins / paws.

Then, along came Cars 2, and there was a shift in the balance.  Their first critical (if not commercial) misstep, the general consensus is that Cars 2 is nothing but a disappointment, and born from a film which didn’t really warrant a sequel anyway.  Suddenly, all sorts of doubts were thrown up: now that they’ve been bought by Disney, have Pixar sold out?  With a release date for Monsters University now slated, and rumours of Finding Nemo 2 spreading through the grapevine, has creative motivation been pushed aside to make way for a more money-centric objective?  These concerns have weighted Brave with a huge responsibility: Pixar have to prove that they’ve still got the mojo – they need to tighten their hold on the animation throne which is under threat from the gradual rise of DreamWorks.

Thankfully, though, Brave just about pulls it off.  Pixar have taken more chances on this one, with the narrative following their first primarily-human cast.  In addition, it’s their first film led by a female protagonist, and they have adopted a genre new to the studio personally, if not to their mother company: the fairy-tale.  However, Brave isn’t quite as adventurous as it seems to be on the surface.  Yes, it’s a film which is distinct in their catalogue, but it never fully delves into dramatically different territory, keeping the key components of their much-loved repertoire in place, and adhering to many of the conventions of a traditional Disney fairy-tale.

In the highlands of Scotland, the free-spirited, fun-loving Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) feels restricted by the wishes of her conservative mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson).  Elinor makes arrangements for Merida to be betrothed to one of the valley’s esteemed warriors, but Merida wants to take control of her own destiny.  Going against the grain of a traditional princess, her desires include practising archery, climbing mountains and chasing rainbows: none of that matrimony malarkey.  When the men of the land compete to win Merida’s hand in marriage, the tension between mother and daughter finally comes to a head.  From there, a dark dealing with a witch prompts a literal transformation, and without spoiling too much, Merida must find a way of bringing her mother back to her.

The tale begins fantastically, with a wonderful prologue featuring a young Merida as she receives her first bow.  As ever, Pixar’s visuals are truly breath-taking, with painstaking attention to detail bestowed upon both the scenery and the characters.  Pixar’s Highland-based heroes are brilliantly designed: colourful, expressive, and crucially, relatable.  Merida is one of Pixar’s finest leading characters: a feisty, flame-haired pixie with a believable vulnerability nestled just beneath the surface.  Kelly Macdonald does a terrific job, delivering a vocal performance which simply radiates fun and energy.  Elsewhere, Billy Connolly shines as King Fergus, a huge one-legged softie who keeps the humour levels nicely balanced with his buffoonish antics and playful jibes.

The first half of the film is a delight, as we get to examine the deftly-drawn relationship between mother and daughter, with both arguments given consideration.  It’s one of Pixar’s more mature touches: the ability to weave in elements suited to older and younger generations, and it’s a well-written, big-hearted and very human story.  Unfortunately, there are a couple of moments when the film stalls.  By and large, Pixar’s spin on the fairy-tale genre is delightful and fresh, but when the inevitable moralising arrives, it’s a little muddy and threadbare.  The final act, too, doesn’t entirely gel: it’s all a bit of a whirlwind rush with little time to catch one’s breath, and as a result, the emotional pull of the climax suffers.  There are also minor niggles: the will-o’-the-wisps are intriguing additions which could have done with more exploring, and likewise, the antagonistic force of the narrative feels like something of anafterthought, crying out for more space to breathe.

But there is always enough of that magic Pixar dust sprinkled about to just about keep it all in check: a lovely fishing scene set during a golden sunrise; an immersive world splashed with colour (main case in point being that wild, wicked hairdo); and Merida’s younger triplet siblings, who look set to be the groan-inducing infant comic relief, but who in fact hold their own amid the action – their mischief charming rather than irritating.

As Pixar offerings go, Brave can be comfortably ranked alongside A Bug’s Life and the original Cars: a film which may not quite compare with emotionally-fulfilling masterpieces such as Toy StoryUp and the like, but still a beautifully made, inventive piece of work, shot through with warmth and humour.

4/5 – Brave might not be as courageous as its title implies, but it’s certainly strong enough to show that when Pixar have the right tools, they can still make animated movie magic.

15/08/2012

Film Review: The Dark Knight Rises

Originally published on The Andy Gaudion Bloghttp://andygaudion93.wordpress.com/category/guest-posts/

One of the hundreds of online fan-made posters for The Dark Knight Rises summarises Christopher Nolan’s Batman cycle in three phases: begins, falls, rises.  After the gothic noir of the origin story (Batman Begins) and the chaotic crime epic (The Dark Knight), Nolan has set both the Caped Crusader and himself a pretty hefty challenge to rise to for the final lighting of the Bat-signal.  Rarely has a film had this level of anticipation fastened to it: in the wake of a towering sequel which broke the boundaries of what comic-book films could achieve, the hype and expectation burdened upon The Dark Knight Rises was enough to leave cinemagoers buzzing with countless anxious questions.  Will it tarnish this otherwise-perfect series?  Will it be too overcrowded?  Will Catwoman fit into this world?  Will it be better than The Dark Knight?

But at last, it has finally been released, and the story of Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne is done.  And audiences everywhere can breathe a collective sigh of relief: it’s a blistering, thrilling, glorious conclusion to a much-loved series.  Nolan has been slowly honing in on a masterful filmmaking formula over the last few years, and The Dark Knight Rises is yet another gem to add to his already-gleaming catalogue.  With his directing skills stronger than ever (action sequences are now much clearer and crisper than the dizzying fights of Batman Begins) and with a head-spinning array of ideas and possibilities corralled into a cohesive, intelligent thrill-ride (big props to Jonathan Nolan and David S. Goyer), Nolan bows out of Gotham on a high note.

If you don’t mind (and you probably won’t at this late stage), I’ll try and leave out exposition and lengthy synopses, because I think everyone’s tired of re-reading the story so far after countless other reviews, articles and the like.  Besides, it’s now August 2012, so only those dwelling under rocks will be unfamiliar with Batman’s arc.  Suffice to say, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) isn’t in the best shape, and nor is Gotham once the masked terrorist Bane (Tom Hardy) rolls into town, intent on bringing the city to its knees.

As with most finales, the scope has been widened, the stakes raised, and the scale enlarged to end proceedings with a bang.  The team have returned with a story which picks up where The Dark Knightleft off, and several threads from the previous films have been consolidated, lengthened, and neatly tied up.  Bale is definitely centre-stage this time around, as Wayne’s story is brought full circle.  The film does a great job of exploring the tortured psyche of the tragedy-stricken hero, with both sides of his character investigated.  Bale’s performance here is his strongest in the series, as he invests Wayne with a poignant vulnerability as he undergoes his most exhausting journey yet.  It’s a real tightrope act, with Bale just about managing to remain the central focus of the film, even with such a strong supporting cast and while facing off against such a monstrous adversary.

The rub with playing the villain in this film is that expectations have been raised to skyscraping levels after Heath Ledger’s masterful turn as The Joker in The Dark Knight.  Tom Hardy was always going to have a mighty shadow to try and escape from, but a number of critics have dismissed his Bane – muscular, logical and ruthless – as disappointing in the wake of Ledger’s anarchic, cackling clown.  But this is ridiculously unfair.  Both villains are separate creations with different character traits, methods and backgrounds (both in the film universe and in the comics), and should be treated as such.  Comparing one to the other is kind of ludicrous, especially since within their own roles, both actors deliver to the best possible standard.  Yes, Heath Ledger was a truly exceptional actor.  But then, so is Tom Hardy, and the Bane of this universe is absolutely terrifying.  Working from behind that creepy (but cumbersome) mask, Hardy pulls off a fantastic feat with simply his eyes, body language and that voice: an unsettling, croaky tone which bubbles over with confidence and malice.  And yes, it’s understandable!  Okay, there are times when a line or two is indecipherable (I’d argue that the placing of Hans Zimmer’s otherwise-wonderful score slightly too high in the mix plays some part in that), but for the most part, Bane’s voice reverberates with a booming menace.

And he’s surprisingly charismatic, too.  One of the film’s best scenes focuses on a furious tirade from Bane as he stands astride a familiar-looking vehicle, making his plans clear as he raises his own army in the battle for Gotham.  Even behind the mask, the anger, disgust and traces of a sick, facetious pleasure punctuate every syllable and gesticulation.  And in the fight scenes, too, he is as intimidating as he looks.  There is one moment in particular when Bane completely lets loose in a rapid-fire flurry of fists, and it’s a truly horrifying sight as the behemoth smashes through concrete and more while snarling like a wild animal.  This time around, you genuinely fear for the people of Gotham, and for Batman in particular: as comic-book fans would put it, Bruce Wayne should watch his back.

As for Anne Hathaway, let’s just say that all those who balked at the thought of her portraying Selina Kyle are probably wiping egg from their collective faces right now.  And yes, I was among those naysayers.  But stab me with a sharpened heel, Hathaway’s performance is absolutely wonderful, with her character (the title ‘Catwoman’ isn’t actually used once during this film) capable of holding her own against the big, brutal boys of Nolan’s Bat-verse.  She lands in this world on two nimble feet, bringing with her several crucial ingredients for this incarnation of the ambiguous Kyle: humanity and humour.  The final creation is a cat burglar who feels authentic and believable.

She almost steals the show, but not quite.  Everyone is given time to shine here: Gary Oldman remains pitch-perfect as the weary-but-resolute Commissioner Gordon; Morgan Freeman enjoys an expanded role as Lucius Fox (more integral than he’s ever been in this saga); and Joseph Gordon-Levitt gets to sink his teeth into one hell of a role as the young, idealistic cop John Blake, who has a character arc so juicy that one almost forgets that he’s only just been introduced into the series.

Of course, what with this being the final episode of the trilogy and all, emotions run high.  Anyone who argues that Nolan can’t hit viewers where it hurts (the tear ducts) might want to reconsider their arguments: there were about half-a-dozen moments in the film where things got more than a little misty for me.  A good number of those belong to Michael Caine, who pulls on the heartstrings something awful on at least four occasions, most achingly so early on, when Alfred recalls his saddened trips to a particular café.  And some pretty dark depths are plumbed in the story, with Bruce Wayne reduced to his lowest ebb and Gotham precariously positioned in the hands of a seemingly indestructible, tactical enemy.  Unlike the breezy (but no-less brilliant) Avengers Assemble and the competent-but-underwhelming Amazing Spider-Man, here you get the impression that things really could go catastrophically wrong.  Gotham might just be reduced to ashes after all.

But it’s not all tears and fears: as with its predecessors, The Dark Knight Rises never loses the light completely, with witty barbs and dry quips sprinkled throughout the darkness, most of them courtesy of Hathaway, who can spark one-liners as deftly as Kieran Culkin’s Wallace from Scott Pilgrim.  And thankfully, the light touches of comedy never overbalance the tone, seldom spoiling the mood or flow of the scenes they accompany.

This is crucial, because as with the previous films, the emphasis is firmly on making this realistic, and everything feels organic to the tone of the trilogy, while also feeling relevant to modern climates: economic collapse, terrorism and fears of impending apocalypse all inform the film’s action.  It also helps that Nolan isn’t that keen on CGI, and as a result, the special effects are never short of breathtaking, lending the action sequences a real sense of high-stakes urgency rivalled by few other blockbusters.  Football stadiums erupt, bridges crumple and huge-scale chase sequences are orchestrated, with the latter moments seeing Batman piloting a high-tech (and pretty freaking cool) new toy from Fox’s funhouse.

Perhaps inevitably, there are flaws.  There are a fair number of plot-holes which have the potential to nag away at you for a while, and personally, I would’ve liked to have seen further exploration and characterisation of Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) and Peter Foley (Matthew Modine), whose stories are engaging, but feel lacking in places.  But then, with the film already spanning a bum-breaking one-hundred-and-sixty-five minutes, it’s understandable that some of the finer points have been left aside.

So no, it’s not quite perfect.  But let’s leave it to the forum fanboys to make mountains out of these molehills.  The bottom line is this: I haven’t seen a film as exciting as this in quite some time.  With outstanding performances all around, some genuinely heart-racing action sequences and a potent emotional punch, Nolan has concluded his trilogy in true style.  Have no fear Mr. Gaudion – it’s the finale Batman deserves.

5/5 – Sure, it has its inevitable flaws.  But The Dark Knight Rises is a triumphant rollercoaster ride which ties the trilogy together with a hugely satisfying finale.

06/08/2012

Album Review: The xx – Coexist

They might not have been around for all that long, but the members of The xx have had more to deal with in the first few years of their careers than anyone could have anticipated.  After the release of their first album in 2009, they found themselves in the full glare of the music media spotlight with a (thoroughly deserved) Mercury Prize win in 2010.  Along the way, they lost a band member, and one of the remaining three musicians became involved in all sorts of lucrative production and remix projects.  Add to the list of duties all of those DJ spots, having to accommodate a rapidly expanding fanbase, and the fact that their music has been peddled on countless television shows and adverts, and you can’t help but worry for the group.  From such shy, intimate beginnings, how can they hold up against the ridiculous levels of expectation for album number two?

The thing is, their debut wasn’t exactly instantly ground-breaking.  Rather, it felt more like a secret between the band-members which was accidentally spilled into the outside world, where it slowly found its way into the hearts of thousands of listeners.  The subject of heartbreak is not exactly a fresh topic, but The xx cater to a different kind of sadness than most.  Rather than documenting messy break-ups and melodrama, theirs is music for the broken bedroom: to soundtrack the isolation of a crowded dancefloor; the poignancy of the lonely train ride home.  Considering both their deft handling of such a subject and the ethereal, indie-meets-post-dubstep sound with which they dress it, it’s not surprising that they strike such a chord.

Immersing yourself in their – distinctly nocturnal – world for the first time is like clutching at smoke.  Reverb-laced guitar lines glisten for a few seconds before vanishing into the darkness; the shuffling beats refuse to stay in focus for too long; and – particularly on Coexist – song structures are slippery and occasionally hard to follow.  Their sound might be skeletal, but don’t be fooled: there is substance to be found.  On its glossy surface, Angels may sound like a paean to the heart-swelling capabilities of romance, but listen to the sound of that underwater guitar combined with Romy Madley-Croft’s panda-eyed sighs, and it could easily be interpreted as despairing rather than exultant.  It recognises the futility of love and the pain of potential loss, or as Madley-Croft puts it, “like dreaming of angels / and leaving without them”.

In the months leading up to this album’s release, the band began listing various rave-flavoured music on the Internet as inspiration for new material.  We all started to expect that this would result in a more dance-oriented sound, pushing The xx further into the nightclub.  However, this isn’t the case: the musical lynchpin of the group, Jamie Smith, has rejected the beefier styles of his recent projects in favour of more subtle textures.  On Coexist, the beats are sparser, the atmospherics mistier.  Occasionally he dabbles in new territory (steel pans, house piano, strange wailing effects), but for the majority of the record, he remains in the shadows, continuing to supply a crucial canvas on which Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim can add colour and dimensions.

And in their twinned vocals, there is a very faint sense of an increase in confidence present in this record.  If xx was the sound of wide-eyed naivety in the face of love’s first flush, on Coexist there’s a sense of hurt underpinning those hushed whispers.  They’ve been bruised on their journey, and it’s clear to hear on songs such as the prowling Fiction, where desperation threatens to seep through the cracks in Sim’s voice.  Their vocals have matured ever so slightly: there’s a little less trembling nervousness and a little more surety this time around.  Lyrically, the two conjure up some universally arresting images of strained relationships, although admittedly, there are a handful of moments where they fall into the trap of being slightly too vague.

That said, when they get the balance right, the results are devastating, especially with the arrangements as naked as they are.  And believe me, this album takes the idea of ‘stripped-back’ to a whole new level.  Listening back to xx after Coexist, it’s surprising to hear how busy it sounds by comparison.  Of course, both albums have minimalism as their mantra, but there’s little on display here as instant as, say, the mistily entwining guitars of Crystallised, or the shuffling pangs of Islands.  Comparing the two records, xx sounds much spikier – poppy, even.  Coexist flows by fluidly with a minimum of fanfare or fuss, with several of the songs during its second half almost seeming to melt into one another.

That’s not to say it’s an impenetrable listen.  The xx have an ability to fleck even the most desolate of soundscapes with moments of striking beauty.  Tides recalls the short sweetness of VCR, and throws in a rolling bass groove.  Elsewhere, Chained features a painfully direct closing refrain of “we used to be closer than this”, and the aching confessionals of Missing are pierced by a sharpened guitar which cuts like glass.  Prepare to feel your heart in your mouth on numerous occasions this time around, as Madley-Croft and Sim reflect on happy relationships turned sour by simple, fatal mistakes.  To borrow a lyric from the thumping shimmer of Our Song, The xx still “know all the words / to take you apart”.

The big question is: does Coexist match the band’s astonishing original album?  It’s a tough one to call at this point.  As distant and detached as it may seem right now, time could reveal more to Coexist: perhaps a few years down the line, we’ll be viewing this as their masterpiece – a baby-step towards something even more beguiling.  But for now, xx grips the strongest.  That said, Coexist is a beautiful record, which shows the group delicately refining their sound.  They’ve proved that they can move beyond an exquisite debut, and now they’re carving their own mysterious path through this troubling world.

4/5

“If someone believed me, they would be as in love with you as I am.”

15/09/2012

Album Review: Hans Zimmer – The Dark Knight Rises OST

Originally published on The Boar online: http://theboar.org/music/2012/aug/23/dark-knight-rises-ost/

There are no two ways about it, really: The Dark Knight Rises is the biggest film of the year. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy has finally come to a triumphant close, and credit is due for all involved after ending the franchise in such spectacular style. Of course, two of the biggest contributors to the series have been Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, whose orchestral scores for the trilogy have not only served and complemented the films, but have also enriched them: they are as much a part of the Batman universe as the characters themselves. A case in point: the two-note Batman cue has become as iconic as the man himself.

For the soundtrack to the final instalment in the franchise, full compositional duties were left to Zimmer, with Howard moving on to other projects. Across the fifteen tracks arranged here, the central concerns of the film’s narrative shine through: on nearly every track one can discern the push-and-pull of dread and hope, of menace and valour. After a brief and ominous opening piece, the glacial strings of On Thin Ice establish a wintry, haunting atmosphere heavily laden with the sense of approaching doom. Even if you haven’t seen The Dark Knight Rises, you’ll be able to pick out moments of despair, of grief, and of triumph. Shorter, more restrained segments such as Born In Darkness and Death By Exile add further tension amid the more explosive action cues, with the jagged meters and twisty structures of tracks such as The Fire Rises sounding as chaotic and malevolent as the scenes they accompany within the film.

Zimmer has also kept continuity in mind, with signatures of Batman Begins and The Dark Knight incorporated into the mix here as well. The sense of continuity these moments bring is suitable, given that the trilogy has indeed come full circle, though the momentum falters slightly in the middle of the record, as one begins to wish that Zimmer would occasionally change tack a little more often (as he does on the throbbing synthesisers of Underground Army, a superbly unsettling track which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Cliff Martinez’s soundtrack for last year’s Drive). Still, the familiar cues and themes are interwoven with enough new flourishes and tweaks that the whole still manages to engage and excite for the most part. What is arguably the strongest collision of old and new scores arrives in the form of Why Do We Fall? – an electrifying track which colours a pivotal moment for Bruce Wayne.

Imagine The Fire and Rise are the two biggest – and longest – suites on the soundtrack. Both are suitably thunderous, heart-in-mouth compositions set to the film’s climactic final trials and battles. Both are brilliant, although the most impressive moments are found in the songs in which Zimmer gets to try new tricks. Mind If I Cut In? is sparse, slinky, and playfully ambiguous: the perfect theme for Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle. But the real highlight is the theme constructed for Tom Hardy’s chilling terrorist behemoth, Bane – a four-minute piece entitled Gotham’s Reckoning. The murky, urgent horns that open the track are soon joined by a spine-chilling brass motif, which recalls the signature arrangement from Jaws as it resurfaces repeatedly throughout the song, always dripping with menace. Bursts of percussion crackle like thunderclouds, before the tension explodes in a deliberate, upwards surge of strings, horns, brass and crashing drums. It’s horribly claustrophobic, and completely genius: the perfect sound for one of the big screen’s most intimidating villains.

Several of the songs on offer do lack the emotional wallop of their parent scenes: without Michael Caine’s watery eyes, Nothing Out There doesn’t quite tug at the heartstrings as well as it does during the film (although to be perfectly honest, that’s no big shock). However, criticising a soundtrack for providing a different experience to its film feels inappropriate. The soundtrack was made to accompany the film, and within that context, it works wonders. What we have here is a product which plays it part within the film perfectly, and which, when considered as a standalone article, is also an engaging, heart-racing creation in its own right. A must-have for Batfans and Zimmer buffs alike.

4/5

“Boy, you are in for a show tonight, son…”

23/08/2012

Album Review: Alt-J – An Awesome Wave

Originally published on The Boar online: http://theboar.org/music/2012/jul/9/awesome-wave/

Even after seeing Alt-J perform as a support act a few months ago, I never thought I’d get around to buying their debut album on its eventual release. Let alone, that I’d give it five stars. But in the world of music, surprises await even in the unlikeliest of places. On the surface, the assembled members of Alt-J look like another of the countless indie line-ups which have come scrambling out of the woodwork in the last decade or so. Their image consists of a familiarly awkward look: twitchy, and perhaps carrying a couple of quirks up their sleeve, but suggestive of thrills which are nothing beyond lightweight. Well, when I finally got around to buying An Awesome Wave, I was pleasantly surprised. The more I listened, however, the more that surprise turned into astonishment. Because this record is more than good: it’s amazing.

The sound concocted by the Cambridgeshire-based four-piece has clear influences, though the overall effect never sounds anything other than fresh. Most visibly, the beats and samples the group utilise link them closely to electronica artist Four Tet: witness the main arrangement of the album’s skittering centrepiece Dissolve Me. Elsewhere are shades of In Rainbows-era Radiohead, the minimalism of The xx, and equal smatterings of hip hop and folk. If this sounds messy on paper, it sounds miraculous through the headphones: brimming with invention, earworm melodies and enough ticks and nuances to ensure a shelf-life considerably longer than the sounds of their art-rock contemporaries. And while these points of reference are never far off, the end product is very much its own beast.

I’ve made my own personal love for albums-as-albums clear in the past, and An Awesome Wave fits this bill with aplomb. This record signposts its own requirement to be listened to as a whole by featuring three interludes and an introduction, and these are no meagre pieces of filler. Each serves as a perfect evolutionary bridge between the songs bordering it. Just listen to the way the ominous a cappella harmonising of Interlude 1 seamlessly leads into the thrumming, deeply sensual waters of Tessellate. As implied by its title, this is an album which flows, and flows well.

In a group of eccentric-looking (but undeniably talented) oddballs, Joe Newman’s voice is the oddest of them all. Croaky, mumbling and prone to the occasional yelp, his vocals are unusual to say the least, and will likely be the deciding factor in whether or not you’re sold on this album. You’ll either find yourself hypnotised by the way Newman softly croons obtuse lyrics like a nasally Thom Yorke, or be so put off that you’ll chose to end the album early. Lyrically, too, he delves into strange territory. “She may contain the urge to run away so hold her down with soggy clothes and breezeblocks,” is the command opening the propulsive, shape-shifting second single (possibly the only song which can be listened to in isolation without losing any of its clout). Eschewing traditional love song platitudes in favour of something much more disturbing, the song ends on a chilling note as multiple harmonies criss-cross each other, blending “I love you so” with “I’ll eat you whole”. Things are just as menacing elsewhere. “Bite chunks out of me,” Newman groans over the addictive, seasick pulse of Tessellate, with the group keeping things sparse and restrained to swell the unease.

But all the peculiarities can’t mask the fact that this music contains some serious muscle. An Awesome Wave packs a serious loud-quiet dynamic which is consistently surprising. The wonderfully atmospheric Intro is utterly gripping from the off: cool, powerful, and a tantalising glimpse into what’s in store. From there the album keeps the pace controlled with forays into sci-fi-folk (Interlude 2, Matilda) and warm balladry (Ms) as it builds towards a triumphant conclusion. The group really show their steel in the crushing heaviness of Fitzpleasure, and after a final interlude, the album reaches its glorious crowning moment in the haunting, devastating Bloodflood. It all concludes with the almost-oriental sway of Taro, although hidden track Handmade awaits as the album’s delicate sign-off.

Some listeners will frown on this album with cries of “pretension”, and I’m sure there’ll be a fair sum of people who completely disagree with a five-star rating. An Awesome Wave doesn’t sound effortless at all: it sounds precise, carefully constructed and colourful in its arrangements. And while there is an argument that music can sound too stodgy and overthought, here that notion is beside the point: whichever way you look at it, there is no ignoring the effort that these guys pour into their sound. Constantly pushing the envelope, An Awesome Wave is an album both different and thoroughly decent.

Don’t tune in expecting a ground-breaking, life-changing classic which will stand among the best in your record collection (although it may well do so). Instead, try to approach it with an open mind, preparing to give it a few spins before the magic is unlocked completely. And I strongly urge against cherry-picking a few songs to sample before you decide to give the whole thing a listen. Dive into it headfirst: make your own opinion by playing it in its entirety from start to finish, Intro to Handmade, and preferably not just as something to listen to in the background. You’ll either listen to it and love it, or listen to it and hate it. But whatever you do, listen to it. Don’t let this wave pass you by.

5/5

“Triangles are my favourite shape.”

09/07/2012