Me and everyone I know are sitting on a stone,
We’ve figured out the basic stuff; our speed and mass are known.
All the things we can’t explain; file ‘S’ for ‘Supernatural’,
If this offends the pious folk; file it ‘F’ for ‘Factual’.
It’s a freezing, endless ocean beyond our cosy land,
And everything we know is balanced on this grain of sand.
The smiles, the tears, the good and bad, every win and fail,
It’s futile, fleeting, mortal stuff (on the universal scale).
If there’s a god who made this all, what makes you think he’d care?
We’re such a tiny little part of everything that’s there.
But if he does I’m sure he wouldn’t want us looking down,
Look up; see almost everything just waiting to be found.
Adam Vaughan Barrah 2011
This is my first blog post in absolutely ages, and I’m afraid it’s an old review from last year (oops) of Exit International. I think this appeared in the South Wales Echo. I will be adding some new stuff very soon, I promise. I intend to complete my ‘Perfect Sci-Fi’ mission among other things.
Barfly, August 21
TWO bass guitars and a drummer are all, it seems, you need to be a rock band.
Consider the facts: The Fender Jazz bass is the sexiest of all instruments, its size and weight suggest virility and stamina, it’s shape is hypnotic to women and it looks like you could use it as a weapon on an ancient battlefield.
Exit_International obviously realised these things, eschewing the traditional approach to guitar-driven alt-rock. You don’t need a guitar when you have eight strings of savage fuzz and abrasive white noise.
E_I are warming up tonight for Reading Festival next weekend where they will be playing the BBC Introducing stage on Sunday evening. The band are on searing form. Bass players Scott and Fudge tear up the stage, drummer Adam propels the band through incendiary punk drive, suffocating sludge and murderous staccato. Chainsaw Song is my personal highlight, a disgraceful grind with dirty great hooks for hanging slabs of uncooked meat on.
It has been a steady rise for Exit International. Their EP, Sex w/Strangers, produced by Carl Bevan received much praise from the alternative rock press and they have played high profile support slots for the Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster and King Blues. Their upcoming slot at Reading Festival could be their greatest moment so far.
Exit International have a brutal and intense approach to rock and a blistering live show that may prove them to be another classic Welsh band.
MY PERFECT SCI-FI
“It is dark and foul tempered, the characters are troubled and unhinged, the world is choked with smog. There is no real happiness for anyone in the story and the end leaves us guessing.”
FURTHER to my previous introduction post (see below), here is my first selection of ‘perfect’ science-fiction films:
In this sequel to the tense and claustrophobic thriller, Alien, Sigourney Weaver’s character returns. While the original film was essentially a horror movie in space, the sequel is an all-out action flick, the film’s tagline, ‘this time it’s war,’ says it all. James Cameron took the original idea, added soldiers and more aliens and pitted them against each other in bloody warfare.
The unforgiving world on which the action takes place is beautifully imagined. This barren land of howling winds and lifeless rock is in the process of being ‘terraformed’ (made habitable) by human colonists who live in a vast facility. As a youngster watching this film (while my parents weren’t looking) I was totally consumed by the terror of the aliens and utterly convinced by the high tech spacecraft and weaponry. I think I have seen this film maybe 50 times and I never enjoy it any less, it is flawless.
The subtext in Aliens suggests the methods by which human civilisation of the future governs itself, and manages to reach out to the stars. The gigantic Weyland-Yutani corporation is an all-powerful commercial entity which controls all known worlds, colonises new ones and fields the ordinance of future armed forces in order to police them. It is a future which is not hard to believe considering the vast capital which would be needed to attain the level of technological advancement shown in the film.
Ghost in the Shell (1995)
This moody and immersive animation from the Manga studios is set in the near future in a world best characterised by the cyber punk movement. The film follows the adventures of a counter-terrorist organisation, called Section 9, in the high-tech Newport City, Japan.
Section 9 is concerned with cyber crimes, its star players are human agents with almost complete cyborg bodies. Enhanced physically and mentally, the cyborg police of Section 9 can exceed the restrictions of the unmodified human body. They interact with computers and a futuristic version of the internet in 3D, virtual environments via direct cranial inputs on the back of their heads.
Ghost in the Shell challenges the idea of the soul, of sentience and humanity. The main character, Motoko Kusanagi, questions her own humanity, wondering if there is anything organic left in her body at all and the ramifications this could have against her own perceived notion of sentience. This film also shows us a highly believable world, immersing us in an environment both recognisable and fantastical; Japanese slums and markets exist in the same world as high tech buildings, vehicles and technology.
Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of this film, as with many Manga science fiction productions, is the emphasis on technology. The script is careful to explain the tech that the characters use, often this can slow the plot, but as a tech-head I love it. Thermo-optic camouflage, virtual reality internet, cybernetic enhancement and lashings of devastating weaponry are just some of the ideas explored in depth by the movie. All of this leads to a sparklingly detailed environment as a backdrop to a rich story played out by great characters. This film is probably the most perfect science fiction film I have seen, the freedom of possibilities allowed by animation and the cinematic feel provide for immense enjoyment.
If you like this film I would suggest reading the William Gibson books, especially Neuromancer and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Gibson is credited as being the godfather of the cyber punk genre. He coined the phrase ‘cyberspace’ and showed us the possibilities of the digital age when computers were still little more than simple calculators.
Blade Runner (1982)
A young Harrison Ford stars in Ridley Scott’s visionary film. Again dealing with the validity of artificial intelligence, Rick Deckard is a Blade Runner, a police operative charged with the hunting down and destruction of replicants; bio-engineered robots designed to look and act exactly like humans, and which are almost indistinguishable from the real thing.
The Earth depicted in Blade Runner is a densely populated hell where endless cities choke the world and few real animals are left alive, although synthetic animals are common. It is a dark, polluted film which again questions sentience. Deckard identifies replicants by subjecting them to an emotional test, measuring unconscious reactions to situations designed to provoke. Supposedly, replicants do not have emotions, but their creator theorises that the artificial intelligence of a replicant may eventually develop emotions comparable to those of a human.
As well as exploring the issues raised in the novel from which this film was adapted, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Phillip K Dick, Blade Runner also created a world that inspired future generations of science fiction writers/film makers. The bustling districts, steeped in pollution fog, are contrasted by the clean, spacious halls where Deckard meets the rich designer of the replicants. It is a future which we can almost grasp, not far removed from our own.
The style of this film is what puts it on my ‘perfect’ list. It is dark and foul tempered, the characters are troubled and unhinged, the world is choked with smog. There is no real happiness for anyone in the story and the end leaves us guessing what happens next and wondering if Deckard is even human himself.
Stay tuned for more of my perfect sci-fi films
“These sort of films reveal it is not skin colour, religion or culture that pushes us apart, but simply that a condition of ‘us and them’ is the only prerequisite for hate.”
I AM on a mission to boldly watch the ‘perfect’ science fiction film. It has to be a film which has it all; great characters, gripping story, thought-provoking ideas, stunning effects and entertainment piled on thick.
Science fiction can be a much maligned genre. Like horror, its creators can fail to achieve the same critical acclaim as their mainstream counterparts. ‘Serious’ drama can be seen to tackle important issues, evoke strong emotions, reveal hidden worlds and influence public opinions. Science fiction can do these things and more. By showing us unreal, imagined situations it can force us to evaluate our ideals.
Our prejudices to each other’s races and cultures are questioned when introduced to the idea of interacting with a culture from beyond our own world. Do we band together with our enemies to face an alien threat? Do we share racial prejudices with those we formerly hated towards the visitors? What does this say about the disposable nature of our judgements, easily refocused on a new scapegoat? These sort of films reveal it is not skin colour, religion or culture that pushes us apart, but simply that a condition of ‘us and them’ is the only prerequisite for hate.
The definition of humanity is questioned when introduced to the idea of artificial intelligence. Can a machine have rights? When does it become immoral to turn a computer off? What does it mean to be sentient? If a machine is aware of itself does it qualify as having a soul? Ideas such as this can help us define what we are and what it means to be human. Perhaps the ancient philosophy, ‘I think therefore I am,’ is the answer to this question.
Not only can science fiction provoke debate upon important issues it can also show us our own possible future, it can scare or inspire us. Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick showed the world a believable future in the film and novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey. This helped motivate public opinion which convinced the US administration to increase funding for NASA. It showed people that it was not only important for us to reach out into space, but also that it was our destiny. The post-apocalyptic visions of Mad Max or Akira are a warning, they follow the current curve of our destructive society to its unthinkable but believable apex.
However, perfect science fiction films don’t just challenge our preconceptions, they also entertain. They must be believable, within context, they must have strong characters who we care about and there must be a storyline which gives us unexpected twists and peril. We expect science fiction to show us pearls gathered from the limits of imagination; new worlds, fantastic vehicles, explosive battles with fantastical weapons, technology beyond our own and even the idiosyncrasies of mundane life in a technologically advanced society.
Some of the films which I would tag as ‘perfect science fiction’ weren’t created on huge budgets, this is not a requirement of perfection. Believable worlds which stand the test of time have been fashioned from inspirational and resourceful thinking rather than millions of dollars spent on CGI.
The backdrops and the technology of the original series of Star Wars films were built by talented modellers, the films still capture your imagination today, immersing you in a world which you can fully accept as realistic. In fact, models are still used often today, many directors accept that a model will always add a dimension of believability which CGI cannot.
Other films on my ‘perfect’ list don’t overtly tackle issues or convey a didactic message, often they are just explosive action films which keep the excitement rolling in on waves. Who can deny the ultra-violent sci-fi of the 80s? Predator, Aliens and Total Recall helped define their genre and inspired millions.
In following posts I will list the films which make it onto my list. In no particular order, these are some of the films which come close to perfect. These films may or may not have been massive box office hits, but they are films that shocked and disturbed, films that made us laugh or cry, films that showed us what could be. This is to be a selection of the absolute classics.
Jeremy Ellis at the CAI. My review of this gig has been submitted for the August issue of the Miniature Music Press. This guy really takes the piss he’s so talented.
An edited version of this appeared in the Miniature Music Press, May edition, as they (rightfully) wanted me to tone it down a little. I think this was mainly because I slagged off the venue a little. Support ‘band’ Smokin’ Aces tried to seek me out in rage, unable to accept the frankly conservative version of my critique. If only they had seen the original review… well here it is:
Henry’s Funeral Shoe/The Irascibles/Smokin’ Aces
St David’s Hall, April 27
by Adam Vaughan Barrah
IT’S all a bit civilised at the Level 3 Lounge, St David’s Hall. Penguin bar staff serve twinkling glasses to Guardian readers. There is intelligent music critique over glasses of gin and tonic. Henry’s Funeral Shoe don’t belong here.
‘We’re not used to this kind of thing,’ admits singer/guitarist Aled Clifford, ‘we’re a dancing band.’ The heavy blues two-piece from south Wales would be more at home in a sweaty room full of bouncing maniacs with alcohol dripping from their pores.
Thankfully, the high number of cardigans doesn’t deter the band from letting loose. The brothers Clifford attack their instruments like they hate them. Brennig, the drummer, is a tornado of perspiration, Aled croons and screams, wrenching raunchy riffage from his battered guitar.
It’s a balls-out, swaggering blues rock hellfest, but the venue presents us with a museum exhibit to be discussed by sex-starved intellectuals. HFS are young, brutal proof that blues is not only alive but it wants to steal your car and go on a drug-fueled road trip with your girlfriend.
Support act The Irascibles lack in adrenalin compared to HFS but they kick out an enjoyable set full of genuine soul. However, opening act Smokin’ Aces, seem terminally bored. Singer Clare Cunningham tries to put on a show but her band engage with the audience the same way a rabbit engages with headlights. ‘I’m at the top of my game on the highroad to fame,’ she bleats. Fame rhymes with lame.
Review of Sir Paul McCartney
Millenium Stadium, Cardiff, June 26, 2010
Parc Hall, Cwmparc, May 22
As appeared in the South Wales Echo
A TOWN hall insulated by sheep, nestled in the Rhondda valley is an unexpected venue for the final tour date of a pop sensation — but, playing to a modest audience, second on the bill to a local teenage band, did not appear to faze The Pipettes.
Their Phil Spector-influenced girl group sound and polka dot dresses scored the band a string of hits in 2006. Even with lyrics about one night stands they had an innocence more charming than the lascivious Girls Aloud, warmer than the Sugababes’ urban cool.
The Pipettes, like Dr Who, have regenerated. The polka dots are gone, they’re down to two vocalists and the sound, which gave smiling teenagers a taste of the 60s, has time-travelled a decade or two. Also, like Dr Who, the Brighton band have a Welsh flavour.
Cardiff-born Gwenno Saunders and sister Ani sparkled like diamonds on stage, their charisma and the irresistible beat had the seated audience dancing within a song or two. Classics like Dirty Mind and Pull Shapes were delivered with a shining joy which could make Gordon Brown smile.
The bulk of the band’s set showcased new material from the forthcoming album, Earth vs. Pipettes which has a shimmering funk flavour. The fun is still there, the retro dancing remains but the sound, like the girl next door you grew up with, has become more interesting with age.
The night fever heartbeat of Stop the Music and the streamlined disco pounce of Our Love Was Saved by Spacemen have a slick sound like ordering cocktails from a sun lounger by a hotel pool in the 80s. The Pipettes now glimmer with class but have kept the loveable warmth of emotion. It was a perfect performance of shiny pop by one of Britain’s most unique acts.
Surfer Blood, Man Without Country
Clwb Ifor Bach, May 6
SURFER blood have been washed up on our shores by a tidal wave of acclaim following the success in America of their debut single Swim. Many of the huge crowd here in Clwb Ifor Bach tonight have likely been listening to illegal downloads of the band’s home-made album, Astrocoast, and the venue is dripping with eager expectation.
After several changes to the schedule, Man Without Country are the sole support act tonight. The club’s sound system is pushed to it’s limits by this band’s synth-heavy nu-gaze sound. Sweeping hi-tech noise, littered with dancing arpeggios is anchored around blistering live drums and melancholy vocals. Man Without Country are sure to delight those with a more maudlin taste.
By contrast, the main act tonight follow a more traditional rock band formula. Surfer Blood have obviously been listening to the Pixies and Pavement and fall neatly between the two. They are perhaps more radio friendly than the latter and noisier than the former, but with huge melodic hooks you could catch a whale with.
Launching into chaotic fun from the start, singer John Paul Pitts climbs straight up onto the bass drum while his band swing their guitars, bathing with abandon in the shark-infested ocean of noise they create. Guitarist Thomas Fekete plays his guitar with his teeth (with reasonable success), uses a drumstick as a bottleneck slide and even joins us in the audience during one of the songs. It’s all very light-hearted and obvious this young band are having fun with their success.
Surfer Blood may sound a bit old-fashioned in a world where MGMT are producing super trendy soundscapes, it’s all very 90’s but the band’s songs definitely float. The reverb heavy wash of Twin Peaks is punctuated with aggressive guitar chords and pounding surf-beat drums. Take it Easy rides peaks and troughs of alt-rock, through the cheeky Beach Boys style guitar in the verse to a charming chorus lull.
Despite being a little derivative of their influences, Surfer Blood are producing noisy pop that is as addictive as nicotine and as sharp as a great white’s teeth. There is no escape from them, they will take you on a white-knuckle ride through the brine and deposit you back on the beach when they are done with you, and not a moment sooner.
WHEN you do maths in school and the teacher tells you to show your workings, well this is what I am doing here; showing you my workings. These are the rules I follow when writing about music. I’m not saying I am some kind of guru, I was giving someone who wanted to get into music reviewing some tips the other day and I thought it’d be nice to post them up.
1- Never use clichés. Clichés are for people who have no imagination. Find a new way to describe something. Avoid saying things you are used to reading in print, things like; ‘avoid like the plague,’ or ‘as loud as hell,’ ‘you could be forgiven for thinking…’ I have read that last one in at least three music reviews this month.
2- Give it some atmosphere. Try and convey the atmosphere of the gig. It doesn’t have to make sense, you are trying to describe an abstract thing so it’s alright to be a bit abstract, but…
3- Don’t show off. Yes, you know some long words, and sometimes long words can be economical or evocative, but why use a long word when a shorter one does the same job? There is nothing worse in my opinion than flowery, prosy crap. It’s boring to read and it just indicates that the author is writing for themselves not for the reader. Don’t try to be clever or funny, this should come across naturally in a well-written piece.
4- Have a good first line. Keep the first paragraph short and punchy with a good joke or a nice insight. You want something that keeps the reader going, something original and insightful. I have given up reading alot of news articles or music reviews because I just couldn’t be bothered.
5- Keep it short. The above rule applies to the rest of the review also. Every paragraph should do a job, every word should be chosen wisely. It should be concise and to the point. Find shorter ways of saying the same thing. Sub editors at newspapers or magazines will only have a limited amount of space to print your piece so if it’s waffly or overlong then they’ll just end up cutting it. Stick to the word count and say as much as possible in as few words as you can.
6- Don’t be scared. If a band is rubbish, say so. There’s nothing more constructive than a bad review. I have agreed wholeheartedly with the (few) bad reviews our band has had. A proud band who thinks they are amazing and argues against bad reviews will never progress. You have sat through their gig trying not to go to sleep, it’s a hour of your life you will never get back, you represent the opinion of the audience. That said, don’t be harsh just for the sake of it, unless you have got a really funny line that makes you look good.
7- Start composing the review in your head while you are there. By the end of the gig you should already have a few ideas about what you want to say. Don’t use a notepad, you’ll miss half the gig while you are scribbling down stuff that you’ll probably never use. Information like band member’s names can be found on their Myspace pages or websites. If you haven’t got a good line to work around, talk to some people, your friends or members of the band after the gig and see how they describe it. Steal their ideas from them and make them better.
8- Try not to compare a band to other bands. I do this sometimes because it’s a good short hand to describe a band quickly, but most of the time it’s inaccurate. Try to describe a band’s sound in your own words, again, this is an abstract thing to describe so you can be a little nonsensical if you like.
9- Talk to the bands after the show. If you’re not doing this, you’re not doing your job properly. You’ll pick up valuable information from them, bands always have interesting back stories. Create a narrative about them. Maybe the drummer used to be the bass player, or maybe some members of the band are in other bands. They’ll tell you what music they like and this will give you more of an insight into their sound and help you better understand what they are doing.
10- Be informative. Make sure that you don’t just fill the review with descriptions and jokes. Tell the reader what they want to hear. Where are the band from? Who are the members? Do they have any other gigs coming up? Have they worked with famous producers or musicians?
11- A full stop is the single most effective tool you have. Somebody else said this and it is the most important piece of advice I have ever heard. It aids clarity, breaks up long, confusing sentences and makes everything flow much better. Don’t try to put too much into one line, break it up and reword stuff so it comes out clearer.
12- Never pay for anything. If, like me, you are still trying to make a name for yourself, you’re probably not going to get paid, so why should it cost you anything? Never pay to get in to a gig, make sure you phone the promoter or the band beforehand and get your name on the guest list. Ask for free CDs or merchandise.
13- Break the above rules. If it makes your piece better then do not hesitate to break any of these rules.
I’m sure there’s lots of other things I could say, I’ll probably rewrite this at some point. Please post your thoughts and add to my rules if you have anything you think is useful.