Monthly Archives: February 2013

Album Review: Foals – Holy Fire

Foals can be a hard band to love.  Across the Oxford quintet’s three-disc oeuvre, they’ve made it abundantly clear that they are more than capable of nailing a variety of sweet spots, from punk-funk collages (‘Blue Blood’) to throatily furious rockers (‘Inhaler’), and of course, majestic, slow-burning groovers (‘Spanish Sahara’, ‘Late Night’).  Clearly, Yannis Philippakis and co. can bring the tunes when they want to.  And yet, I can’t quite bring myself to fully embrace them.

The underlying problem for me, personally, is the impression that these guys take themselves a little too seriously for their own good.  Ambition and high concepts are always to be encouraged, but when such big themes are dealt with in such a no-nonsense manner, Foals do tend to come off as decidedly po-faced on occasion.  They can certainly be gripping company, but they still haven’t found a happy balance between sonic intrigue and emotional potency.

That said, it hasn’t stopped them from writing some of their best material yet for album number three, laying strong foundations with a muscular opening salvo.  First single ‘Inhaler’ builds around tightly-coiled, falsetto-laced verses, before rearing up with a monster of a chorus: its crushing guitar line smashing into the mix like a battering ram as Philippakis screams “I CAN’T GET ENOUGH SPAAAAACE!”  It’s a moment of sheer reckless ferocity, and one which makes the listener wonder why the group attempt such material so rarely.  ‘My Number’ positively bounces with exuberance; its sweet, supple refrains of “I feel / I feel the love” all the richer for their candour, while its arrangements sound locked-in yet pleasantly sparse.

As always, Foals‘ true strengths are to be found in their rhythm section, and here, drummer Jack Bevan and bassist Walter Gervers have plenty of wonderful opportunities to showcase their talents, not least on the moonlit, Pink Floyd-ian odyssey of ‘Late Night’.  The production, too, finds a nice middle ground between the glossiness of the band’s previous work and a rawer, fuzzier tone, and tracks such as ‘Bad Habit’ (whose central guitar motif sounds amusingly similar to that of The Temper Trap’s ‘Sweet Disposition’) find the group stretching eagerly towards the stadium circuit.

Holy Fire is certainly a lot leaner and more consistent than 2010’s Total Life Forever, which was so overbearingly top-heavy that I could never really get much further beyond ‘This Orient’ without completely losing interest.  This effort is certainly more focused and less meandering, but a handful of tracks do sound a little undercooked.  Take ‘Everytime’, for example.  Although based around a perfectly strong hook, its potential is never fully realised, sporting a chorus which fails to upshift gears as a host of elements are lost in an all-too-tempered mix.  It’s moments like these that Foals’ seriousness sours proceedings.

The other big issue I – and many others – have with Holy Fire lies with its lyrics: Philippakis has become a little too prone to indulging in stale metaphors and overblown sentiments.  His love for the mythological could have provided fertile ground for some rich imagery and magical storytelling, but instead, he too often retreats into bland portents such as “I know I cannot be true / I’m an animal just like you”, which sours the growl-and-grind of ‘Providence’ to the point of frustration.  This kind of shortcoming is rendered all the more painful when you consider a track like ‘Moon’, which is quite possibly Holy Fire‘s strongest moment.  Philippakis’ lyrics may remain a little dubious in isolation, but when partnered with such a breathtaking atmosphere of delicate sounds and haunting textures, his bluster finally coalesces to form a strange kind of sense.  If only he’d taken more risks such as this, rather than settling for the all-too-broad sentiments of ‘Providence’ and ‘Out Of The Woods’, then perhaps Holy Fire would fit together better as a whole.

There’s nothing truly intolerable about this record.  The musicianship is definitely stronger than ever, with the band’s craft honed and sharpened this time around, and yes, this album does house some cracking numbers.  However, though some might balk to hear it, Foals still haven’t procured true greatness.  Instead, they lurk tantalisingly at the fringe of the big leagues: stomping, straining, and making impressive sounds, but ultimately, lacking that subtle spark to propel themselves any further.  Perhaps if they loosen up a little, and wrangle a more emotionally visceral approach to their art, that mantle may be within their grasp next time around.  For the time being, we have Holy Fire: a strong, admirable record, but one a little too patchy to fully realise the group’s ambitions.

7/10

“And all the birds fall out of the sky in two by twos / And my teeth fall out my head into the snow.”

25/02/13

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Film Review: Warm Bodies

As Shaun Of The Dead has shown, everybody loves a good rom-zom-com.  And as the all-devouring Twilight franchise conversely proved, that fondness isn’t quite as ubiquitous in the wider world of ‘undead’ romance tales.  Nevertheless, it would seem that filmmakers everywhere are still capable of finding enough fresh blood in this topic’s veins with which to make new instalments to the canon.

Jonathan Levine is the latest to try his hand at an undead love story by adapting Warm Bodies, the sleeper-hit novel by Seattle author Isaac Marion.  I haven’t personally read Marion’s novel, but I have heard that it’s a little more cutting than its big-screen interpretation, featuring more (ahem) mature themes, as well as a rather more ambiguous ending.  However, while Levine’s Warm Bodies isn’t as consistent or emotionally sharp as his previous outing (2011’s 50/50), it remains a fairly strong slice of zombified entertainment.

The plot is sturdy in its simplicity: an unspecified apocalypse has swept the United States of America, and the surviving humans have taken refuge within a huge walled city.  Outside the perimeter, zombies prowl the decaying landscape, spending their afterlives groaning, eating whatever brains they can find, and generally being bored stiff.  A teenage noggin-nibbler (Nicholas Hoult), who ends up taking the handle “R”, pines for a change of pace, which happily comes his way in the form of human lass Julie (Teresa Palmer).  When a small group of human dispatches are ambushed by zombies, R finds himself chewing the brain (and thus ingesting the memories) of Julie’s boyfriend Perry.  Consequently, he falls in love with the young lady, and takes her back to his ‘lair’, sheltering her from the other mindless drones keen to feast on her cerebrum.

From there, it’s a wonderfully off-kilter take on the classic ‘winning-her-heart’ formula, with a few curveballs thrown in its runtime.  The overall delivery is delightfully sweet and simple, playing up the awkwardness of Marion’s bizarre scenarios, and serving up some knowing winks to zombie folklore with some snappy dialogue.  Rather than succumbing to moody posturing or gothic melodrama, Levine keeps things light and breezy for the bulk of the film, making for a surprisingly identifiable central relationship, weighted with a delicate pathos.  That, and a pretty solid soundtrack.

Hoult and Palmer both flower in the two lead roles.  Given that – hey – one of them’s playing a dead guy, they don’t exactly sparkle with chemistry, per se, but there is definitely a warm, easy presence between the two leads which lends the film a tender charm.  The laughs in their romance are pleasingly understated, with R’s more humanistic voiceover giving some real depth to his groany physical manifestation.  Special mention should also go to Rob Corddry, who is a riot in the role of fellow zombie M.  With his deadpan (pun kinda intended) delivery, he secures a lot of Warm Bodies’ biggest laughs, providing a welcome shot in the arm to the film’s funny bone in choice moments.  It’s a shame that the same sense of fun didn’t rub off on John Malkovich, who plays Julie’s militarist father so straight that he ends up feeling as flat and lifeless as his zombie adversaries.

Beyond Mr Malkovich, however, there are several more itchy issues which do sour the overall effect of the film.  The antagonistic forces – an unruly clan of skeletons, given the unfortunate label of ‘Bonies’ – are rather poorly realised, both conceptually, and visually.  The latter issue becomes more of a gripe, to be honest, with some incredibly ropey CGI work marring some otherwise rather menacing showdown sequences.  In addition, Warm Bodies sags in pace lethargically from time to time, due to its relatively laidback narrative arc, and the re-jigged ending does come off as a little bit tacked-on.

Warm Bodies is not a masterstroke of comedic dynamism, nor does it boast a top-drawer structure.  What it is, however, is a witty, affable, and – yes – warm slice of popcorn entertainment.  Give it a chance: you may find yourself enjoying it more than you’d anticipate.

It’s nothing remarkable, and it’s a little limp in parts, but Warm Bodies does present a surprisingly likeable love story, with its two superb leads weaving a delightful charm.

6/10

Live Review: NME Awards Tour 2013

O2 Academy Birmingham, Birmingham, 16/02/2013

Lineup: Peace – Palma Violets – Miles Kane – Django Django

I’ve been to a number of gigs in my time, but thus far, I’ve encountered few audiences as raucous as the crowds of Birmingham on a Saturday night.  My friend Jake and I found ourselves squeezed just behind the barriers of the O2 Academy, right in the ominous glare of the stage-right speaker stacks.  The crowd was already buzzing with jittery energy: given that this was an NME Awards show, it was mostly made up of teenagers, but there was also a fair amount of older faces noticeable in the mass.  Jake and I suspected that the diversity of the audience was largely due to the headlining presence of the wide-reaching Django Django, balancing out the younger fans of the fiery noise-pop of Peace and Palma Violets.

At about seven-thirty, the grungy longhairs of Peace lumbered onto the stage to hysterical cheers.  Within five minutes I was already drenched in (what I can only hope was) beer, swept up in a swelling wave of clamouring bodies, and my right ear was screaming in protest.  The Birmingham group’s guitar-glazed sounds were quite simply roaring down from the speakers, which provided a terrific, clangourous timbre for the likes of ‘Wraith’ and ‘Bloodshake’.

New songs from their forthcoming debut album In Love were present in their short-but-sweet opening set, with one particular newbie’s pounding chorus finding frontman Harrison Koisser repeatedly screaming “I’m so beautiful!” as we all pogoed away.  But the deal was really sealed with their penultimate offering of ‘California Daze’, which had the venue rattling as mounds of fans surged and shoved their way to the front.  Peace left the stage to wild applause, with guitarist Douglas Castle slinging his guitar over his shoulder to smash onto the stage in an earsplitting explosion of feedback.

If such a rousing performance set the bar for the rest of the acts to follow, Palma Violets were well and truly up to the task.  As three quarters of the band strolled on with a silent confidence, Chilli Jesson bounded onto the stage with a demented energy, hoisting his bass guitar onto his person while panting “this is a fucking good crowd!”  For the thirty-odd minutes that followed, Jesson was a frantic ball of vitriol: howling his throat raw, clambering onto the drumkit, and thrashing his way around the stage, with his impressive fringe flashing back and forth like a whip all the while.

I must say that I was kind of sceptical towards Palma Violets prior to seeing them live: I always try to take “Great British Guitar Band” flag-bearers with a pinch of salt.  But seeing them perform in the flesh, the hype was well and truly justified.  True, their songcraft is far from revolutionary, and the lyrics of ‘14’ and ‘Rattlesnake Highway’ aren’t going to inspire any poets anytime soon.  But hell, as entertainers, they tore the roof off, and not just figuratively: some of the technical equipment came loose from the venue’s ceiling midway through their gig, and was left dangling over the audience until the techies came along to patch it up after their set.

Palma Violets’ set was a hoot, through and through.  Sam Fryer’s crunching guitar sent an electric current through the audience, who responded in kind by sending at least (and this is no exaggeration) twenty crowdsurfers to the front, each of them promptly escorted away by the increasingly exasperated security guards.  At Jesson’s gleeful whoop of “let’s get a circle going!”, swirling craters sprouted in every direction; and believe me, few things can touch the euphoria of bellowing “I wanna be your BEEEESST FRIIIIEEEEND!!!” along with three-thousand other half-drunk indie-lovers.

The Violets were almost definitely the highlight of the evening, although the rowdy males and screeching females in our immediate orbit suggested that Miles Kane was the act everybody had been waiting for.  It’s a shame that I’m personally not too big on Miles Kane’s brand of modish lad-rock, because his set didn’t really click entirely with me.  But fair play to him, the guy is definitely a crowd-pleaser.  He – and much of the audience – had a whale of a time, and the likes of ‘Inhaler’ and ‘Quicksand’ were rousing enough to have me bouncing along with him.  (Plus, kudos to the guy for performing for forty-five minutes straight in leather trousers and a buttoned-up white coat.  He was lucky he didn’t end up drowning.)

After Kane and his backing band left the stage to mass hysteria, a lot of the audience around us shifted and began to head to the bar, confirming my thoughts about Django Django’s reputation in comparison to the other acts.  But when the lighting dimmed and the four-piece finally arrived in their hand-painted uniforms, the crowd quickly filled up again, even if the group were easily the least-enthusiastically-received act of the night.

It’s a shame, really, because they put on a great show.  Despite the first third or so being dampened by sound issues (‘Hail Bop’ and ‘Storm’ were reduced to onslaughts of cacophonous noise), Django Django eventually transformed the O2 Academy into their own kind of rave.  The drums in particular were powerful enough to leave us gasping for air, and the likes of ‘Waveforms’ and ‘Love’s Dart’ were elongated and warped into spaced-out vistas of dustbowl disco.  It all gelled into a fantastic, charismatic production, which definitely worked its magic with me.  I’m a big fan of the group’s 2012 debut album, but on record, the songs can sometimes come off as overly-polished and bereft of any gutsy vigour.  But live, the group certainly get moving and shaking, with Tommy Grace in particular exuding an aura of fun with his huge grin and bouncy demeanour.

Best of all was ‘Default’, whose INSANELY cool riff had just about everybody stamping about recklessly.  Finally, following the tight atmospherics of closer ‘WOR’, Vincent Neff yelped “we’ll see you again soon… maybe!”, and the group skipped offstage.  The roadies arrived to untangle cables and pass out setlists, and we were all left to bask in the warm afterglow of a fantastic wash of music in a sea of crushed plastic cups.  A bloody good show: one which provided value for money, and then some.  Electric.

Setlist

Django Django

Introduction // Hail Bop // Storm // Firewater // Waveforms // Love’s Dart // Skies Over Cairo // Default // Life’s A Beach // WOR

17/02/2013

A Tribute to Butterflies On Strings

“When I dream / I dance the line / Between a great idea / And a waste of time.”

Considering the sheer size and span of the music industry, I doubt that many people (in the greater scheme of things, at any rate) are aware of Butterflies On Strings.  But it might be safe to assume that most of you reading this post knew of them to some degree, and perhaps also that they disbanded on the 22nd January this year.

It always sucks when a band you love calls it a day, and although I wouldn’t go as far to say that Butterflies had the same impact on me as, say, Arcade Fire or Radiohead, the fact that the group came from the same place as me (temporally, geographically, sonically, whatever) made my ties to them a little more personal.  Although they were predominantly London-based for much of their career, the roots of the band lay in the southern town of Basingstoke, where I spent most of the first eighteen years of my life growing up.  Every few months, the group would perform gigs in the area (which were usually marketed as “homecoming” performances), and they were regular staples of the 100% Tent at the town’s annual music festival, Basingstoke Live.  They even dedicated a song to this “brown box of a town” in the form of fan favourite ‘A Boy Named Crow’.

In this sense, then, I guess you could say they were a “hometown” band.  There are countless people out there (especially budding musicians) who have followed these kinds of groups through their teenage years.  You’ll go see a friend troubadour perform live at a dingy venue or bar one weekend, and from there, you’ll discover a whole host of other groups and artists that you never even knew about, all of them originating from your own backyard.  Even if a good percentage of them are rather shonky in sound, it’s always inspiring to see your peers actively making music, performing to crowds, and having a good time with it.

I first discovered Butterflies when I set out to see my friends in The 4:20 perform at The Bang Bar one evening in 2010.  After liking what I heard, I started to look for their name on posters and Facebook events, to see when they’d next crop up in Basingstoke.  In total, I must’ve seen Butterflies perform at least eight times in the last few years, and I’d almost always see them with my close buddy Matt Fryer.  Over the years, our fandom grew: we sang along with the lyrics at every gig we went to, bought their new EPs as soon as they were released, and even struck up conversations with frontman Allan Harrod a couple of times.  They’re great guys who made for great company, on-stage and off.

What really cemented the link, though, was their sound.  Say all you want about shiny guitar-pop (or “post-pop”, as they coined it on their website): it might not be particularly earth-shattering or visionary, but when it’s properly formulated, sometimes it provides all you need.  I still find it striking how a relatively simple pop song can be so life-affirming when you need it most, and Butterflies had a whole bunch of songs of that calibre, and I’ve returned to each of them time and time again.  Their brand of breezy, harmony-heavy indie-rock still resonates with me today, no matter how much obscure electronica and art-rock I can claim to follow.

No, Butterflies weren’t a group to change my life (or anyone’s life, really), but the bulk of their recorded oeuvre definitely soundtracked a good portion of the back end of my teenage years.  Perhaps part of it can be put down to simple nostalgia, but these guys perfectly encapsulated a lot of what I was feeling at the time of living in Basingstoke.  Like me, they sounded ambitious but restless, and maybe a little jaded, but they delivered their sentiments with such a euphoric supply of sweet melodies and driving rhythms that they were just the elixir Matt and I needed on bored weekends.

The Butterflies have left me with a great set of memories.  Along with that handful of EPs and singles, there are a fair few photos and live videos clogging up my laptop’s memory; I own two group t-shirts (one of which Allan gave to me for free the last time I saw the group perform live); and I still own a couple of posters and setlists which Matt and I swiped from their 2011 performance at The Baker’s Arms.  Also, thanks to them, I picked up the guitar again, started a few new friendships when I saw them live, and explored the haunts of my hometown further.  Their sounds have even accompanied me since I left Basingstoke to come and live in the pastures of Warwickshire.  ‘Sweet Years’ has been a favourite companion on the walk home through the glittering lights of Leamington; ‘Keep Our Heads’, for all its bittersweetness, always raises my mood; and ‘Frosted Houses’ reminds me of arriving in halls at Warwick University back in October 2011.  I was nervous and racked with worry, but comforted by the fact that I’d brought a few friends from home with me in some regard.

Of course, I’m saddened that they’re no longer together as a band, but I wish each of the members the best of luck with their future prospects.  As for their own own modest legacy as a band, the lyric at the start of this article is from old favourite – and frequent live opener – ‘Burning Slowly’ (available on the A Boy Named Crow EP).  If Allan’s words were rooted in reality on this particular occasion, then I’d strongly agree with the first assessment.  Butterflies were full of great ideas, and the band itself was a great idea.  They will be missed.

To hear the entire catalogue of Butterflies On Strings for free, check out their website.

Album Review: Everything Everything – Arc

A significant number of people – critics and everyday listeners alike – seem to be quite fond of likening hardened indie group Everything Everything to Radiohead.  It’s a comparison which has only increased in regularity since the arrival of Arc, the Manchester-based four-piece’s second album.  True, both bands are known for tinkering with the particulars of what rock music is capable of, and yes, an argument could be made over the notion that Arc shares musical and thematic DNA with the likes of OK Computer and In Rainbows.  For fresh evidence, check out the piano coda of new song ‘The House Is Dust’, or the smooth production gloss which graces much of what’s on offer here.

However, for me personally, in Everything Everything, I find a closer resemblance to Bloc Party.  Here we have another modern British group working to expand the musical template of the indie genre, similarly concerned with the state of modern life (and all the dislocation it engenders), and fronted by a singer prone to high-pitched fits of yelping.  (If only for levity’s sake, I’d like to paraphrase my sister here, who likened Everything Everything frontman Jonathan Higgs’ voice to that of a turkey.)  To take these similarities further, Arc is cut from the same cloth as Silent Alarm: a jittery, panicked construct whose authors have taken a glimpse of what the future holds.  And they’ve decided that they don’t like the look of it all one bit.

It’s difficult to generalise Arc in terms of theme, given Higgs’ taste for eclectic lyrical leaps, but by and large, he’s become stricken with future terror.  What kind of state is our society in, and for that matter, what state will our children find themselves born into?  Cello-cradled ballad ‘Duet’ sets a precedent for the album as a whole, as Higgs is found genuinely helpless, crying “I don’t want my children in an endless race!”  Much of Arc is racked with worry and riddled with guilt, backed by colourful arrangements which can be as brooding as they are intoxicating.

It roars out of the stocks with the furiously strong one-two punch of ‘Cough Cough’ and ‘Kemosabe’.  The bruising thump of the former drops the listener nicely into the latter: one of the album’s highlights with its yelpy energy, sounds of shattering glass and its slashes of grinding guitar.  Through both cuts, it’s clear that Higgs is still a man on the edge: fidgety, fearful, yet also a very wry observer.  Clearly, his bizarre, dry sense of humour and chaotic imagery have carried over from the itchiness of 2010’s Man Alive.  The band themselves have tightened their sound, while also maintaining their inventive spark.  Michael Spearman’s headspinning drum patterns have become something of a driving force, able to mould the shapes and moods of the tunes they accompany.

Yet for all its intrigue, it must be said that this particular Arc is slightly inverted: it does sag in its midsection.  Not for any particularly weak songcraft, but simply for the fact that several tracks don’t quite maintain the oomph of the opening and closing stretches of the album.  After such a fiery opening salvo, Arc becomes a little too fixated with mid-tempo numbers, and it’s not until the stunning apex of ‘Radiant’ that the album receives a much-needed shot in the arm.  And indeed, while their left-field envelope-pushing is something to be cherished, there are moments when coherence does seem to suffer.  ‘Choice Mountain’, for instance, does flower at its climax, but it doesn’t quite piece itself together convincingly, with Higgs’ animal-based musings a little too barmy to fully resonate.  Compare it to ‘Torso Of The Week’, which is forged from what sounds like about six disparate segments.  By all logic, it should be groaning under its own mishmashed weight, but somehow it makes its own warped sense, with each of its components neatly gelling to form a strange – and pretty bloody good – compound.

Thankfully, the group do have a good handle on quality control, and for my money, the worst that can be levelled at Arc is that some songs aren’t as interesting as others.  Everything Everything remain fascinating figures with their strange alchemies: ‘Undrowned’ features a near-stream-of-consciousness drone over queasy ribbons of guitar, while ‘Armourland”s stop-start jitter peels away to reveal a blissed-out chorus of falsetto crooning.

But it’s when the group strip away all the intricacies that Arc properly finds its heartbeat.  ‘The Peaks’ achieves a transcendant poignancy with little more than a soft lead piano and Higgs’ most powerful vocal yet.  “I’ve seen more villages burn than animals born,” he croaks, genuinely sounding as if there are tears streaming from his sunken eyes.  The album could easily have ended here, with its most devastating (and arguably, its best) composition, but instead, the team deliver the ultimate curveball, capping everything off with ‘Don’t Try’: possibly the catchiest song they’ve yet recorded.  Its effervescent swell ends Arc on something of a bittersweet note, and while it’s hard to assess it in light of the twelve previous songs, it’s a rousing, beautiful article in itself, and sure to lodge itself in your brain for days afterwards.

So, where do Everything Everything find themselves in Arc‘s wake?  Still slightly distant: their bravura complexities are still more fascinating than they are affecting.  But they are opening themselves up; becoming more emotionally direct with each step they take.  Arc isn’t quite a masterstroke, but it definitely proves that Everything Everything are capable of realising one yet.  For now, we have a terrific and frequently touching sophomore record, and one which proves that these guys are here to stay.

8/10

“If it’s gonna happen let it happen now!”

02/02/2013