Monthly Archives: March 2013

Album Review: Atoms For Peace – Amok

Just to clarify for anybody who’s still unsure, the sounds Atoms For Peace lay down on Amok are nothing like Radiohead grappling with a Red Hot Chili Peppers riff.  Although the ‘supergroup’ does contain Thom Yorke and Flea as key players (alongside Nigel Godrich, and aided by percussion work from Joey Waronker and Mauro Refosco), the jams which form Amok are much less loose-limbed than your average helping of slap-bass wankery.  Instead, Amok offers twitchy collages of electronic noise.  Live instrumentation has been chewed up, polished with a mechanical sheen, and snapped into place over clickety-clackety laptop beats.  It all sounds very manufactured and production-heavy, unsurprisingly so given the time that went into creating this record, and it’s certainly an interesting development when considered alongside Thom Yorke’s recent projects, from The Eraser‘s haunting apparitions to The King Of Limbs‘ enveloping ambience.

When taking stock of Amok in relation to these previous releases, many have praised the warmth and relative accessibility of this album, but personally, on a lot of the tracks here, I’m finding it difficult to really locate the heart beneath the beats.  There’s no denying the strength of the musicians in play here, and all bring their own cards to the table, but the compound that has ultimately been harvested is a difficult one to completely embrace on an emotional level.  It’s certainly an album to admire for its ambition and obtuse angles, and it never quite threatens to drown the listener completely, but Amok is a very tightly-wound creation, and its glassy intensity sometimes feels more intimidating than it does inviting.

That said, boy does it pack in some tunes, among which is first single Default, making an early bid for album high-point.  Yorke’s falsetto is pitched at its most refined, as he coos earwormy sentiments over slick, amorphous beats, before a distorted keyboard strain rises during the chorus like a slowly revolving disco ball.  It’s the closest thing the album gets to a properly danceable track, although there are plenty of other pitch-black bouncers up for grabs on here, too, from the muffled propulsion of Dropped to the slinky web of Judge, Jury And Executioner, with the latter adding a nice change in pace with its acoustic twangs.

In terms of quality, Amok is pretty consistent, although that’s possibly because there’s very little variation in sonic palette spread across much of the album.  Each song is built from a skeleton of tinny polyrhythms and beefy bass runs, bedecked with smart, silvery guitar lines, or cold splashes of synthesiser.  The upside to such a focused template is that if you fall in love straight away with the ghostly textures of skittish opener Before Your Very Eyes, it’s probable that you’ll find much of Amok to your liking.  However, if you’re not quite sold, there’s little variation in here which will convert you, aside from the occasional flash of colour in a brief keyboard hook or a particularly potent groove.

Ultimately, the sound of Amok is kind of reflected its artwork – a disconcerting, black-and-white depiction of Hollywood under apocalypse.  Accordingly, the music proffers drama and tension, but it’s rendered tightly within grey, rigid boundaries.  The textures on here are all impressively crafted, and the swirls of noise are hypnotic in their fluidity, but it is a shame that with its emotional foundry relatively untapped, Amok lacks the visceral power one might have hoped for.  I may be missing the point, of course: perhaps this album is intended to sound claustrophobic and dystopian.  But even if that is the case, it doesn’t make it any easier for me to dip into its slippery, amorphous swell.

7/10

“A penny for your thoughts, my love”

21/03/2013

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Winter Roundup

It’s time to confess: my time management skills are diabolical.

Over the past two-and-a-bit months, I’ve fallen far behind the curve on this blogging malarkey.  Since the curtains were raised on 2013, countless films that I’ve wanted to absorb, and stacks of albums that I’ve wanted to put to my ears have eagerly made themselves available.  Unfortunately, though, this year has decided that it’s going to be crazily stressful, and as a result, I’ve not been able to soak up half of the amount of new releases that I’ve wanted to so far.  And, to really rub salt into the wound, I’ve had even less time to focus on the art of Quotesponging for a while.  I could reasonably argue that this is due to overbearing university work, but really, that’d be dealing in half measures.  Truth is, I can procrastinate like a bastard.  And series three of Breaking Bad is really, really good.

So, apologies for being very slow this year thus far, and for missing out on full reviews of many of 2013’s early big hitters.  Still, better late than never, I suppose, so to tidy up some loose ends, here are a handful of condensed reviews for films which I didn’t manage to fully address earlier this year.  Also, given that each of these films was rather helpfully Oscar-nominated in at least one field apiece, they are still arguably relevant enough to be granted listing on this here blog.

Life Of Pi

(Ang Lee, 20th Century Fox, 2012)

My ‘Big Summer Read’ of 2012 was Yann Martel’s beautifully-sculpted tale of a young man and the sea (and his tiger, and his assorted faiths).  Screenwriter David Magee wrung a tight, respectful screenplay from Martel’s prose, and with Ang Lee’s keen visual eye watching over all, Life Of Pi was able to make the leap from page to screen with considerable aplomb – not to mention a hell of a lot of guts.  Technically flawless, watching this film is like leafing through an eye-popping picture book, with its visceral dazzle matched by a platform for interpretative weight.

Major props should be given to Suraj Sharma, whose performance as the teenage protagonist serves as the perfect anchor for such an ambitious project.  Sharma’s brave, expansive portrayal of Pi – and his interaction with a (staggeringly-rendered) CGI beast – adds a fierce humanity to what could have been an unwieldy disaster.  Even though it still does lack the intimacy and some of the wilder touches of Martel’s novel, Lee’s Life Of Pi is refreshing and bounteous enough to leave me more than satisfied.  Here’s to thinking big.

8/10

Django Unchained

(Quentin Tarantino, Columbia Pictures, 2012)

Whatever your stance on the mouthiest director working today, there’s no doubting that Quentin Tarantino’s films always have the power to jolt.  In light of the media firestorm surrounding his latest venture, I went into Django Unchained expecting something nuclear, especially in the wake of the marvellous Inglourious Basterds (which remains my favourite ‘tino film thus far).  And yet, I couldn’t help but walk away from Django Unchained with a slight feeling of anticlimax.  It’s certainly a great film, packing in some top-notch characterisation and more than a fair helping of badassery, but there was something about it which left me wanting more – even if criticisms have been levelled at its indulgent runtime.

It boasts an intriguing set-up, heralded with some of the auteur’s finest creations yet: the intensely likeable Dr. King Schultz (Tarantino could well have earned the Oscar simply on the basis of conceiving of a bounty-hunter-cum-dentist), the disquietingly charming Calvin Candie, and of course, the title hero himself, whose arc soars above the entire thing, ending with one of the best final kiss-offs this side of Robert Mitchum.  Even Tarantino’s appalling cameo ended with him getting blown to bits, so that’s got to be appreciated.

But for all of its strengths, Django Unchained still doesn’t quite sit as comfortably with me as the majority of the director’s previous works.  Naturally, it’s a very wordy film, but with the exception of the paralysingly tense dining-room scene, there are few which I can really pull out which I would happily add to my top ten Tarantino moments.  For all its panache and vigour in choice sequences, there really is no avoiding the fact that Django Unchained is something of a mess.  Still, with supreme performances from DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson and of course, The Waltz, what an enjoyable mess it is.

7/10

Lincoln

(Steven Spielberg, 20th Century Fox, 2012)

Despite scooping surprisingly few baldies at the Oscar ceremony in February, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is a towering achievement which finds its sexagenarian director back to his assured peak.  Although it does creak from time to time with its dialogue-heavy framework, this kinda-biopic is kept well-oiled with deft humour and an intimate, profound portrayal of a number of crucial players in Abraham Lincoln’s inner sphere.

True to its title, Lincoln is very much grounded in characters rather than in actions, even if a pivotal moment for the United States Constitution rests at the crux of it all.  We are given a warmly human account of the President himself, with all his well-bottled personal troubles examined under Spielberg’s steady gaze, perhaps best demonstrated in Daniel Day-Lewis’ one-on-one scenes with Sally Field.  Both deliver masterful turns, with Field’s blistering anguish set at odds with her husband’s tempered aura of calm.  Tommy Lee Jones and James Spader add some spiky flavours to the mixture, with the former bagging some of the best lines of dialogue we’re likely to hear all year as he spits pithy insults at the Democrat party’s blithering gaggle of stiffs.

True, Lincoln can be a bit of an exhausting experience to sit through: it’s very dense and from time to time its magic does clam up with a few pacing issues.  But on the whole, it’s a majestic, impressive feat of filmmaking from a talent we’ve come to miss in the last few years.  Flanked by a heavyweight cast, and with John Williams and cinematographer Janusz Kamiński providing that extra sparkle, Spielberg is still going strong.

8/10

Wreck-It Ralph

(Rich Moore, Walt Disney Animation Studios, 2012)

It’s not perfect, but Wreck-It Ralph is one of Disney’s best offerings of recent years, if only on the basis of its concept and breathtaking visual flair.  Heavily – but pleasantly – indebted to the bubblegum videogames of yesteryear, Wreck-It Ralph is filled with witty humour and in-jokes, but mercifully, it never sags into obsequiousness, instead bringing its own flavours of fun to the table as well, embodied in a plethora of endearing characters.  The title character is an entertaining and surprisingly heartfelt lug, given life by John C. Reilly’s wearied tones, and even Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) isn’t as annoying as the trailer would have her seem.

When it comes to plot and structure, it does become overly zippy, occasionally feeling as though the filmmakers felt overwhelmed by the amount of options open to them on such a project.  As a result, they’re left unsure of which way to turn, and the second half of the film does career through countless avenues rather haphazardly.  Nevertheless, it’s hard not to be charmed by the clear enthusiasm and heart that was obviously poured into this film.  Bright and bonkers, Wreck-It Ralph is a breath of fresh air to the realm of family animation, even if it didn’t quite bag that statue.

7/10

Argo

(Ben Affleck, Warner Bros., 2012)

Who’d have thought that the man once known for the bomb that is Gigli would go on to direct a Best Picture winner?  Stranger things have happened, of course, but Ben Affleck’s transformation from pesky pretty boy to Hollywood heavyweight is enough to prompt a good eye-rubbing.  In light of Argo, his directed productions so far resemble well-played moves in a greater game: 2007’s Gone Baby Gone garnered the attention, and 2010’s The Town cemented Affleck’s chops as a man with a rapidly ameliorating skill set, with his credits including director, writer and actor.

However, it’s with Argo that Affleck has made his claim for greatness, and the world has responded loud and clear.  Although it’s still a criminal oversight that he was snubbed a crack at Best Director, Affleck’s third feature has achieved a type of crossover appeal, grossing five times its budget as well as receiving plaudits up and down the award tables.  It’s easy to see why, considering the engrossing and distressing circumstances of its subject matter, alongside its remarkable power to entertain.  Argo is not only nail-bitingly tense, it’s also frequently hilarious, poking fun at the (true-to-life, lest we forget) ridiculousness of the fake-film scenario in which the CIA invested their final hopes for the salvation of six American hostages.

The concept and performances are initially what hook you in, with Affleck (and his dashing ’70s beard) supported by a tight collection of greats, including the ever-reliable Bryan Cranston and Alan Arkin’s gleefully impudent film producer.  But what really lodges in the mind is Affleck’s technical assurance.  Argo is studded with ambitious set-pieces and reconstructions, some of which will have viewers blown away at their construction and execution.  Special mention should go to the opening assault on Tehran’s United States embassy.

Yes, it eschews some of the smaller facts and a fully authentic feel for that big, sweeping ending, which probably didn’t pan out the way it does onscreen.  But, hey, although it does resemble one at times, Argo doesn’t outright claim to be a documentary.  Instead, it offers up an exhilarating, cathartic experience, laced with political truths and one big confirmation: Affleck the Director has well and truly landed.

9/10

17/03/2013

Album Review: Palma Violets – 180

2013 is still young, and so step forth Palma Violets, this year’s model for British guitar music’s “Great White Hopes”.  Not that guitar music ever needed saving, really, but hey ho, we do like to get excited.  And Palma Violets certainly offer up a rousing package, already renowned for rackety live shows, a sense of fiery optimism, and of course, their debut single ‘Best Of Friends’.  NME’s Song of 2012 still stands as a delightful hoot: led by Chilli Jesson’s howling earnestness and some smashing garage riffs stirred with a lo-fi, psychedelic organ, it made for a promising taster for the group’s debut album.

Inevitably, that unavoidable cloud of hype hangs heavy over 180.  As if to capitalise on a supposed peak in their momentum – which, to be fair, isn’t always a bad thing – it sounds as though Palma Violets have thrown their debut into the world rather hurriedly.  180 hangs together like another of those twelve-track rattle-’em-off debuts which all bright young things seem to open with, usually with a sneer of “this is our sound, deal with it.”  So, what we have are twelve tunes which mostly run with the template hinted at with ‘Best Of Friends’: scratchy, amp-popping waves of Clash-indebted rock’n’roll, buoyed by some smoky organ patterns from keyboardist Peter Mayhew.  180 is an immediate, direct record, which admittedly does sound like the kind of EP you’d buy after a friend’s performance in your local bar.  Such raw appeal is exactly the point with these guys, but through it all, one does sometimes wonder what it is that elevates them beyond the standards set elsewhere.

Well, give them their dues: the members of Palma Violets have buckets and buckets of enthusiasm.  All four invest their thrashes with such vigour that no matter how rudimentary and ramshackle these numbers are, there’s a visceral thrill to be gleaned from hearing them in all their rags and tatters.  ’14’ isn’t going to change anybody’s life, but there’s something indefinably sweet about its repeated refrain of “take me home”, whereas ‘All The Garden Birds’ glows with light, singalong melodies and a towering central hook.

Alongside such moments of joy, though, their straightforward scrappiness does occasionally get the better of the group, to the point where some songs travel beyond obviousness to sounding simply throwaway.  Palma Violets‘ simplicity may be integral, but there’s something tiresome about the likes of ‘Rattlesnake Highway’ and ‘Tom The Drum’: for all their rough-and-tumble, they can’t help but sound like hastily-cobbled paint-by-numbers riffers.  ‘Johnny Bagga’ Donuts’ fares a little better, packing in a 60s-indebted swirl of noise, but in all honesty, the song itself isn’t as memorable as its rather crazed title.

Instead, 180 shines best when fuelled by the heart rather than the hands.  ‘Last Of The Summer Wine’ is the best thing on offer here, opening with a striking ascension from that swoonsome organ, before it flowers into a charming jangle that revolves around a stupidly catchy chorus.  This track, along with ‘Best Of Friends’ and ’14’, prove that Palma Violets are at their strongest when they fill their sounds with a joyous emotional clout.  Rather than attempting to embody old-school swagger, they’re much more proficient at the life-affirming squalls of noise and passion that those singles dispense with such verve.

The question that remains is where can they go from here?  You never know, they could always surprise us with a follow-up that completely reinvents them as genre-mashing, convention-trashing heroes.  However, on the evidence of 180, I can’t help but worry that in a year or two, they’ll be trampled in this fickle industry’s search for the next big thing.  Palma Violets write perfectly catchy hooks, and know how to get people moving, but is their sound really built to last?  Only time will tell, I suppose.

6/10

“Over and over and over again, I’m going again.”

12/03/13

Album Review: Post War Years – Galapagos

I must say, I was quite excited to clamp my ears on the sophomore release from Leamington-based future-poppers Post War Years.  For one thing, they played at my university’s Summer Party 2012, which got me tuned into their earlier work, and for another, recent single ‘All Eyes’ has been bouncing off the walls of my brain for the past month or so.  It’s the song that Galapagos announces itself with, and it’s easily the hugest – and best – thing on the album.  Slinky keyboard arpeggios drip all over glistening guitars in the noirish darkness, before a distorted vocal wail kicks off a cavernous drop into a stomping, post-punk rave.  It’s nothing which drastically pushes the musical envelope, but I dare you to defy the swag of that final, weaving refrain of “you have all the time in the world”.

With the gauntlet already thrown by its opener, it must be said that the rest of Galapagos does struggle to surpass such heights during the rest of its runtime.  There are certainly enough ideas and quirks fizzing around Post War Years‘ sonic template to ensure that boredom is never on the cards, but after the glittering coda of ‘God’ has faded away, one still isn’t quite sure just what kind of band these guys are striving to be.  They wear their influences well, with echoes of Animal Collective, MGMT, and occasionally shades of Wild Beasts audible in their DNA, but across these ten tracks, a distinctive identity for this particular group never fully emerges.

That’s not to say that this is entirely to Galapagos‘ detriment, given that it does boast a clutch of impressive tunes and textures.  ‘Glass House’ bounds off the back of some squelchy synths into a fun chorus, and ‘Growl’ features a crunchy, off-kilter guitar melody which adds a nice spice to the exultant tug of the song.  But by trying to incorporate such a wide range of elements into its make-up, the album never settles, instead darting in a number of disparate directions in search of a niche.  There are still signature elements in place on most offerings here (including those sumptuously glossy guitars and driving rhythms), but for the most part, the listener is left trying to keep up in such an ever-swirling landscape.

Galapagos is an album which is intriguing to examine, and it certainly provides enough colours and left-field choices in its runtime to keep listeners interested.  To their credit, their scatter-gun approach does work well from time to time, as on the giddy rush of ‘Volcano’ or the eighties thrum of ‘The Bell’.  However, perhaps in reflection of that (rather unnerving) album artwork, it’s also slightly confused, and perhaps emotionally muffled, just like the face of the figure staring out from the cover.  Having now seen the group live, I’ve seen the everyman charm and fun which goes into their performances, but it seems to me that some of this has become slightly lost in the translation to studio recording.  Galapagos is a solid listen, and will provide you with some good tunes to chew over, but Post War Years have yet to stake their own personal claim in the music realm.

6/10

“You have all the time in the world”

01/03/2013