Tag: review

Review: Massive Attack – Mezzanine XXI @ the 02

Mezzanine-XX1-

On Friday I wrote about why I consider Mezzanine to be one of the greatest albums made in my lifetime. In addition, Massive Attack are a truly great live band; one who I’ve seen on over a half dozen occasions and who have never failed to transport me to a magical place with their live music.

For the Mezzanine XXI show, the band said in advance that this would be a re-imagining of the album, with group member Robert Del Naja describing it as a “one off piece of work; our own personalised nostalgia nightmare head trip”. In addition, the band once again collaborated with Adam Curtis, with Curtis compiling the stark visuals for the show. In advance of the tour, he said of the visuals:

“The show tells the story of the strange journey we have all been on over the past twenty years since ‘Mezzanine’ was released: How we have moved into a strange backward-looking world, enclosed by machines that read our data and predict our every move, haunted by ghosts from the past. A pleasure dome that makes us feel safe from the endless wars outside, and plays back stories both of dreams of glory and the fear of others. But in that safe world suspicion and distrust is spreading — like a virus. The air is growing stale. Everyone sees conspiracies everywhere. But maybe suspicion is control?”

The band took to the stage at 2115 and it’d be fair to say there were a few external factors that weren’t in their favour. I’ve already blogged about how the venue right royally fucked up, but in addition two factors played out that did not help the gig at all.  An awful lot of the audience didn’t seem particularly interested in the gig; the audible chatting levels really hindered the experience for many, the Penguin included [I took two particularly loud girls chatting behind me to town with language that was somewhat fruity]. But the chatting was even more noticeable because the sound levels for the first five tracks was appallingly low.

The set started with a wall of guitar noise and a cover of the Velvet Underground’s I Found a Reason, a song sampled on Mezzanine track Risington, establishing both the raw, punky edge the night’s proceedings would have and also flagging up that this would be no ordinary Massive Attack gig. The band then went on to play Risington itself, which baffled plenty who expected the album to be played in its entirety from start to finish. Unfortunately the sound issues meant it fell flat; there was little applause or delight at the end.

The same process – of playing a sampled rock song featured on Mezzanine followed by the album version – was repeated next, with a lively and impressive version of The Cure’s 1015 Saturday Night followed by a disappointing rendition of Man Next Door, as Horace Andy’s vocals sounded flat and the incredible atmosphere of the original failed to migrate into the arena.

Black Milk was the last of the five songs to be played at such a low level of volume that they could barely reach the Penguin’s ears. But the cheer that erupted for Elizabeth Fraser’s first appearance on stage was certainly loud enough; the levels of affection pouring from the audience showed that she’s still held in the highest regard by music fans.

It was the title track, Mezzanine, when this gig really got going. The volume was cranked up, and it was the first of several tracks to receive an extended outro – with heavy guitars – that got the heart beating faster. It was a fantastic rendition and one of the best moments of the evening. An excellent cover – Baugaus’s Bela Lugosi’s Dead – followed, and whilst the original track was unknown to this penguin, it was noticeable from several members of the crowd that this was a very popular song to include.

The band were masked in darkness at the backstage, and never addressed the crowd. Leaving the talking to the music and visuals, it felt strange for them to not even acknowledge the reason we were all there, or to give a skeleton of an idea for how – and why – the show had come together. The band seemed almost awkward about a nostalgia tour – perhaps because of how difficult it was to record the original album, or perhaps because they fear that by looking back they’re somehow undermining their own musical future – but the visuals seemed to indicate that the real point of this show was to use Mezzanine’s appeal as a pretence for speaking about the world we experience in the here and now.

The visuals across five huge screens – spanning the entire stage – were pointed and intentionally provocative. At times harrowing, others comical, the general theme seemed to be that the world has become increasingly bizarre and nasty since 1998, and maybe we should reconsider our approach. There was a heavy emphasis on data and its misuse; Tony Blair and Saddam Hussein made regular appearances, as did children’s toys. Putin and – in particular – Donald Trump perhaps deserve special credits given their number of appearances. The latter’s face was transplanted onto a number of other celebrities, including Britney Spears in her school uniform in her debut video Baby One More Time. Disturbing doesn’t even begin to cover my reaction to that.

Various scenes of war, the destruction it causes and the grieving family members of victims were all shown. In addition, we were treated to a selection of political slogans ‘Brexit Means Brexit’, ‘Stronger, Closer Union’ amongst the most notable, alongside some of Massive Attack’s own messages, including ‘There are no enemies’. The difficulty with these type of visuals is – ironically – they’re so common place in live music experiences [see any Muse or U2 concert for example] that they had little impact, other than perhaps to lessen the connection the audience has with the band. The slogans in particular felt so obvious as to be passé; more A level art project than pioneering political point. In trying to elevate their show into a call to arms, they ended up cheapening the music that brought the fans to the arena in the first place. It’s also a little ironic – as several people pointed out on Twitter – to rail against capitalism and materialism when playing the O2 arena and selling your t-shirts for £30 a pop.

The second half of the set featured some impressive performances. A faster version of Horace Andy’s own track See a Man’s Face was an absolute reggae delight, and Andy also fronted a superb rendition of Angel. Live favourite Inertia Creeps suffered from sound problems – as did all of the tracks featuring 3D’s rapping – as you could barely hear the vocals. The opening notes of Teardrop saw a notable wave of excitement surge through the audience, and the visuals on the screen dropped to simply leave swirling white lights. It was a heavenly moment – the rarest of moments on this night when audience and the band united – and all of the O2 basked in Fraser’s peerless vocals.

The show closed with the operatic Group Four, which musically wowed but vocally struggled as again 3D’s voice barely left the stage. Fraser certainly shone, but it felt like an abrupt way to finish proceedings. The band walked off, and as people prepared a mental list of possible encores, the house lights sprung up.

What you’ll make of this gig will depend largely on your tolerance. Could you cope with the sound issues? Could you appreciate the harsh visuals? Do you mind the band not addressing the audience? I’ve seen Massive Attack enough times to know they’re better than this, but also that this was as much a statement of their art and opinions as it was their music. Certainly the brief snippet of an Avicii cover towards the end indicates that the band have a sense of humour and wanted you to see that this wasn’t meant to be a fluffy experience.

But ultimately this tour was about celebrating an album of tremendous importance to many people, and instead this tour was hijacked for other purposes. Sure we got the songs – albeit in a random order – the samples and the original vocalists, and we got some enhancements with the rocky outros, but we also lost a lot of the feeling that made the album so special. it’s an album of paranoia, isolation and darkness, and it didn’t translate particularly well to huge LED screens and propaganda. There were moments of genius, but there was also a steady flow of people leaving from about the halfway point. All in all, it was disappointing.

5/10

Album Review: Red Rum Club – Matador

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Red Rum Club – Matador 

Have you ever wondered what it’d sound like if the Coral soundtracked a western? Well wonder no more, because Scouse sextet Red Rum Club  (I assumed they’re named after the Grand National winning horse of the 70s, either that or they’re guzzling some weird cocktails) have brought together a collection of indie pop songs that’ll satisfy your curiosity with their debut album.

Matador is a relentlessly fun album that – at a pithy 31 minutes – never outstays it’s welcome. Encompassing a Mariachi sound through its almost ever present trumpets, it’s full of fun and toe-tapping songs. The album comes galloping – quite literally – out of the gates with Angeline, an instantly catchy and fun track that instantly sets the tone for what is to come.

It’s almost impossible to write a review of a band from Liverpool without referencing the proud pop heritage of the city, and throughout Matador there are homages to their predecessors. You can certainly hear the Coral (Honey, but many others as well) and the La’s (TV Said So) and there’s hits on here – perhaps most notably Would You Rather Be Lonely?) that a certain Fab Four would be proud of. But the joy of Matador is that they’re taking the past – with all its familiarity – and giving it a new and playful twist.

The songs are catchy, the trumpet elevates everything and if this is as good live as it is on record then they’re a ‘must not miss’ for the summer festivals. My personal favourite is probably Nobody Gets Out Alive – which feels like a proper western showdown with its ominous bass and dramatic trumpeting – but there are few bad moments here.

Matador is not a lyrically or musically complex album. It probably won’t win any fans at Pitchfork. But sometimes you just need music to be fun, where you can sing and dance along. This is an album that has that in spades.

7.5/10

Track of the Day: Daniel Trakell – Paradise

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Daniel Trakell – Paradise

Australian singer-songwriter Daniel Trakell is releasing his debut EP this month, and Paradise is the third single from that EP. It’s one of those tracks that you really need to give a few listens to.

Paradise falls somewhere on the country music/folk border, perhaps slightly inland on the latter. Underpinned by acoustic guitar with room for some slide guitar and horns, the Paradise it conjures up is one of hills and vast landscapes.

Yet it’s a slightly uncomfortable feeling listening to Paradise, for all it’s Simon & Garfunkel splendour, there remains an apprehension. It is perhaps best described using the impressive dual quality of the vocals, they are both beautiful and eerie at the same time. The song is both speaking of a paradise that is tangible and truly beautiful in the present, but also of a place that has yet to come in the afterlife. As he sings:

While I dream 
I dream of when the days of holding back 
And all this talk can cease 
Oh I dream 
About a place where time it goes to rest 
And we can be at peace 

You can follow Daniel here. Let me know what you think of Paradise (astralpenguinsmusic@gmail.com)

 

At the Movies: Hidden Figures

At the Movies: Hidden Figures

For me, the anomaly at this year’s Oscars was Hidden Figures, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterley: Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women who Helped to Win the Space Race. The film tells the true story of three African American women, Katherine G. Johnson, (Taraji P. Henson) Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) who played a vital role in NASA’s space launch in 1962.

The film’s title, ‘Hidden Figures’ refers to the ‘hidden’ algorithms that Katherine, uncovers, the fact that the women’s achievements were ‘hidden’ and the way in which NASA’s black women were physically ‘hidden’, sequestered in the segregated West Area Computers’ division of Langley Research Centre. But unfortunately, the movie has refused to live up to its title: it has unequivocally not ‘hidden’. It has been impossible to avoid…

And, to make matters worse, it has taken more in Box Office receipts than all of the Oscar Contenders (including La La Land!)

But I don’t want to be completely acrimonious about Hidden Figures because it isn’t all bad! It takes place in Virginia amidst the Jim Crow laws and it plays an important role in shining a light on these three women’s achievements, which might have otherwise gone un-noticed. It is also to the film’s credit that it features a leading trio of black women, aiding in the insurgency against last year’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign.

However, the film itself is anything but an insurgent: it is utterly predictable and riddled with clichés. It begins with an unimaginatively sepia toned flashback sequence in which Katherine’s parents are urged to accept her scholarship to a prestigious school that she would otherwise be unable to afford. This film sits firmly in the ‘inspirational-feel-good’ movie category, complete with a smattering of schmaltzy speeches. The film reaches a particularly low moment when Kevin Costner brandishes his ultimate one liner: ‘In NASA, everyone pees the same colour!’…

But even the cheesiest of speeches can be moving if they are well directed! (Because I’ve just realized that this must be one of the cheesiest speeches from my second favourite movie as a kid. And its fantastic.) But there was hardly anything cinematically interesting about Hidden Figures. And I found myself pretty bored in the cinema…

The film absolutely insists on hammering home its moral messages, resulting in moments that could have been poignant or enlightening, quickly becoming stale and predictable. Segregation rules dictate that Katherine must travel a mile each time she wants to use the bathroom because in her building, the toilets are for ‘whites only’. The first time we see the scene in which Katherine runs to the bathroom with all her papers, balancing precariously on her heels, we sympathize with her and the ridiculousness of the situation. However, after this moment was repeated again and again and again, accompanied each time by a cheery soundtrack (courtesy of Pharrell Williams) I found myself becoming increasingly exasperated with the unoriginality and repetitiveness of the movie rather than the ludicrousness of Katherine’s situation! And throughout the film, I felt as though the audience were completely patronized- every plot point, every moment of conflict or reconciliation was practically spelled out for us- there was no subtlety- it was as though the film makers had completely under-estimated the intelligence of their audience- which is quite insulting…

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I also found the final dramatic dénouement totally devoid of tension despite the film -makers’ best efforts to make it exciting. And it actually started became quite a satisfying cinema activity to try and predict what was going to happen next in the film!

However, the thing I really disliked about Hidden Figures was that it seemed purely tokenistic. I felt that the film focused disproportionately on race and gender, which, for me, detracted from the women’s actual achievements: it was almost patronizing to view their contributions purely through this lens rather than to laud their accomplishments for NASA and the Space Race as commendable in and of themselves.

I recently saw the film Loving, which I felt dealt with racial discrimination and prejudice in more powerful manner. The film tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving who are banned from their home of Virginia because they are interracially married. Rather than placing race at the forefront of the story, the film focuses on their relationship. This gives the audience the opportunity to truly care about these two characters as a couple, rather than simply as victims of racial discrimination. For me, this made the discriminations all the more shocking as they were happening to a real couple that I felt I was getting to know.

I think that Hidden Figures could have been a better film if it had had focused more on its heroines’ passions and ambitions. Perhaps if I understood why they were so excited about solving this particular problem, I might have cared more about them as individuals.

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Despite all my complaints about the film, it does attempt to inspire its audience, which has to be lauded. It tells us that we have the ability to take control of our own lives and don’t have to be dictated to by norms or conventions. Each of the women are able to assert control the moment they decide to be proactive. As soon as Katherine explains how far she has to walk to use the coloured bathrooms, her boss abolishes the segregation rules. When Mary takes her plea to pursue an engineering degree to court, she is successful. And Dorothy, upon seeing the threat of automation on her job from IBM 7090, decides to re-skill (quite timely) and is consequently promoted. I suppose I quite liked Hidden Figures’ melioristic message-that the world definitely can be made better by human action..!

And finally, when the question, ‘Could Hidden Figures encourage more black women to pursue a career in science?’ was posed to a group of black female A-level students, medics and PhD science graduates, responses included, ‘These ladies were unheard of and they are inspirational role models to us. They are glamorous and pretty but they feature in a film because of their intelligence … They make science exciting, a cool thing to do.’ And so, I’ll admit that although I found the film dull, predictable, patronising uninspiring and quite annoying, clearly, not every one did. And perhaps some things are more important than whether or not I enjoyed my 2 hours at The Ritzy last week…

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