21
Oct
17

NETFLIX REVIEW: Star Trek: Discovery, Episode Five

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Mainstream media has been going through the rehash, reboot, recycle phase for many years now, but you can make excuses for Star Trek as a franchise that’s been ongoing in some form or another for over five decades.

A proper, canonised addition to the universe set before the original series, Discovery has so far received mixed reviews.

Released weekly by Netflix as they continue to experiment with formats, episode five, ‘Choose Your Pain,’ might have ended up being somewhat of a make-or-break for the series.

Spoilers follow (TW: sexual violence)

The episode follows two strands, one pure Trek that tells us a lot about a lot of the crew. The other is an example of the series’ darker edge, lurking under the surface before but now becoming impossible to ignore.

The former storyline finds Michael Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) finally losing patience with the abuse of Ripper, an alien life form the crew have been using to navigate across seemingly impossible distances. Ripper is showing signs of wear and tear, and Burnham is concerned for the his well-being. She clashes with acting captain Saru (Doug Jones) when he demands they keep using the drive despite Burnham’s warnings. Together with science officer Stamets (Anthony Rapp) they rebel without quite amounting to a mutiny, to protect Ripper but still achieve Saru’s.

The latter story is something else entirely. Saru is acting captain because Captain Lorca (Jason Isaacs) is kidnapped by Klingons and thrown in a cell with, of all people, classic original series character Harry Mudd (Rainn Wilson).

It really is an episode of two halves, and that’s what makes it so frustrating. Burnham and Stamets bonding over the same problem albeit with completely different motivations rounds out Stamets’ character beautifully from the uptight prick that slated Burnham on sight earlier in the season. Rapp’s performance as Stamets is pleasantly underplayed and the reveal at that he’s gay lets Star Trek keep pushing boundaries the way it always has.

It’s within this part of the plot that problems begin. Cadet Tilly (Mary Wiseman) is one of the best things in the show, but this episode makes the bizarre choice of letting her drop not one, but two f-bombs, a Star Trek first. The series claims to be rated 12 on Netflix, but between this f-bomb, an s-bomb elsewhere in the episode and the quite astounding amount of unpleasant violence, it’s hard to see how that was achieved.

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On the Klingon ship there are a whole load of grim events. The episode is titled after the Klingon approach to torture, wherein the prisoners have to decide whether to take the beating themselves or nominate their cellmate. Mudd (who it must be said, Wilson manages to lend subtlety to, reminiscent of the character’s history without being a cartoon or a ripoff) obviously always lets others take the fall.

Even in the movies, Trek was never really this brutal, and it only gets worse as the episode goes on; Lorca’s damaged eyes get assaulted, it’s all but outright stated that a female Klingon has been repeatedly raping an Ensign in the same cell, and it all culminates in an explosively violent escape.

What has happened to the mainstream film and television industry that means that everything has to now be dark, regardless of whether that makes sense? Even on its worst days Trek has been a beacon of hope, a future with utopian ideals, unity, acceptance. Even as it told the story of decades-long, intergalactic wars it didn’t need to resort to f-bombs, torture and rape.

Stamets, Burnham and Saru have the kind of moving, powerful philosophical conversations that have been associated with Trek since its earliest days, while Lorca swans off to commit some casual murder. Where before it seemed like the early episodes were a long setup for a different perspective on the same universe, this was the first time that it flat out stopped feeling like Trek any more.

The first four episodes had some dark tones to them, but remained on the right side of the barrier for violence and language. Hopefully there’s still room in the remaining ten episodes for this to be the exception rather than the rule.

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25
Sep
17

NETFLIX REVIEW: GLOW

What a strange time it is to be a wrestling fan. Simultaneously at a peak of visibility but nowhere near the cultural phenomenon it was in the 80s and 90s, wrestling is simultaneously cooler and more niche than ever.

Bravo Netflix, then, for having the gall to take a shot at making a wrestling show. Kind of.

Precious few will remember the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling promotion’s brief existence in the mid-1980s; a trashy, poorly made and low-budget show, it briefly appeared on cable before sinking without trace, the brainchild of former WWA announcer David B. McLane.

Apparently, while spitballing ideas for another show with a feminist thrust, the story of GLOW caught the imagination of Orange Is The New Black creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch.

GLOW though, is not a direct adaptation. The names aren’t even the same – this is not a true-to-life story of David B. McLane by any stretch.

Instead, the wrestling TV show is used as a setting the same way a women’s prison was in OITNB. The characters and stories are all original, with their wrestling characters mostly copies of their forebears.

Alison Brie of Community stars as Ruth, a down-on-her-luck actor who’s out of money and opportunities when her agent tips her off about GLOW. Her best friend, Debbie, is a retired soap star stuck in a tepid marriage. Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), a cult movie director trying to rebuild his reputation, takes on GLOW as a project on the condition that his passion project gets made by the same producer, Bash (Chris Lowell).

Ruth is not the most sympathetic of protagonists, but Flahive and Mensch have shown themselves to favour characters painted with shades of grey rather than black and white hats. Sylvia may be even worse, a pervert, a cokehead, a hack, but somehow is the soul of the show. Gifted with so many of the best lines in the show, he comments on the action almost like the only reasonable person in the room. But with a liberal streak a mile wide and a stack of principles he occasionally chooses to honour, he’s not just entertaining but possibly one of the most well-rounded characters to appear in a television programme in many years.

The show is not for the faint-hearted; the language is more colourful than a Pride parade, the sex scenes grimy and unglamorous, the drinking and drugging plentiful. It also touches on some very dark themes, particularly hard-hitting female ones that a show made by Hollywood’s typical cadre of white guys would either ignore entirely or mishandle appallingly.

It’s not even really a show for wrestling fans. The industry is treated with a surprisingly high amount of reverence and respect, sure. A number of actual wrestlers show up – Awesome Kong has a recurring part and shows pretty impressive comedy chops, John Hennigan, Joey Ryan, Chris Daniels, Frankie Kazarian and bizarrely Alex Riley all have one-shots. Perhaps most surprisingly, Carlito and Brodus Clay appear in multiple episodes as part of a traditional wrestling family in the Anoa’i mould.

However, the show also doesn’t talk down to the audience inevitably drawn by the pro-wrestling content. The gym the ladies train at is called Chavo’s, after Chavo Guerrero Jnr. who served as a consultant for the in-ring scenes, and there’s some fun dialogue using wrestling insider terms without deigning to explain to the uninitiated what a face, heel, gimmick or selling are.

It’s already been renewed for a second season, and with a clutch of story threads left dangling after the finale, if you haven’t already, take this chance to binge on season one.

24
Sep
17

MUSIC REVIEW: Three Headed Monkey – I Can’t Win On My Own

Preston’s local music scene has been punching above its weight for years, and one of the key reasons for that is Alan Gillhespy.

As well as heading up Nirvana tribute act the Pat Smear Test, he produces local talent, organised the Harvest arts festival and fronted Go Around Captain.

From the ashes of Go Around Captain come Three Headed Monkey, but despite featuring some of the usual suspects it’s an altogether different sound and a different band. Four compact, weighty anthems with  outsized hearts, it’s a searing, confident debut.

Thanks to a gleaming, thick mix by Chris Clancy, the guitars and drums sound thick and crisp, far more muscular than you’d expected a local band to achieve.

Gillhespy may have a penchant for comedic song titles (previous entries include ‘Prise Ballz,’ ‘Peter Jones Wants A Four-Minute Egg’ plus this EP’s ‘Doors Are Fart Scissors’ and ‘C!£@stipation’) but his lyrics skew towards the sincere, with a whiff of prime period Idlewild about them.

Agile riffs battle for attention with soaring, emotive hooks (‘Forgive yourself/I can’ Gillhespy croons) and  a thudding rhythm section. Song wise, it’s a revival of the lurching, segmented compositions that characterised the British post-hardcore scene at the turn of the millennium.

With melodies this strong and music this tight, if there’s any justice Three Headed Monkey will expand out of the North West until the whole country takes notice.

24
Sep
17

THEATRE REVIEW: The Time Machine

Seen 17th August 2017 at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine has been through countless iterations and interpretations since it was first published in 1895, but this latest one may top them all.

Adapted by Laurence Owen and Lindsay Sharman for the Fringe and touring the UK in 2018, it’s a one-hour two-hander which puts a welcome new spin on a property already woven into the fabric of sci-fi history.

The show takes the form of a production for the fictional Radio Woking fifty years ago or so. Owen plays the erratic voice actor and creator, Sharman the uptight producer and Foley artist.

Over the course of an hour, the story is told through the lens of Post-War Britain via Freud and radical socialism, with a few outstanding songs and Theremin to boot. It’s a cheerful, inclusive adventure that’s by turns funny and tragic and everything in between.

For those unfamiliar, the story in the play (within the play) is of a mysterious scientist in 1890s London, who creates a time machine and invites a group of colleagues – a silent man, a Marxist, a tabloid journalist – to hear a by turns fantastical and terrifying story of the future.

Both stars weighed in on the writing of the music and the script, but Owen gets the lion’s share of the glory. A gifted voice actor, he impresses early on with ‘Stuff and Nonsense,’ an overture of sorts that finds him leaping from persona to persona, questioning his own protagonist’s narrative. Sharman unfortunately has a lot less to do on stage, but nearly steals the show with a very brief romantic subplot and some fun sound effect gags.

As well as the bigger, sweeping sci-fi epics in the soundtrack, it’s littered with fun gags like The Who Sell Out-style toothpaste adverts and a fictional, novelty pop hit in the style of ‘Monster Mash.’

Audio of the radio play within the show (not to be confused with a recording of the show itself) can be found here, but to get the real experience you must see it live when The Time Machine tours next year.

Familiar enough to be cozy, out-there enough to make well-trodden ground fun again and edge-of-your-seat suspenseful, you’re unlikely to spend a better hour in the theatre soon than The Time Machine.

22
Jul
17

RIP Chester Bennington

We are living in a time when awareness of mental health is at an all-time high. More people than ever are opening up about their mental health issues while others are increasing their own awareness of depression, taking mental health problems more seriously as illnesses that cannot be helped.

Every life lost to mental health as things finally start to improve at a noticeable rate is all the more tragic when the world may be an easier place to exist in a few years down the line.

One of the lives claimed by suicide this past week was Chester Bennington, vocalist of Linkin Park, found dead on the 20th July 2017.

Linkin Park hold a quite bizarre place in the music world. Writing for RockMidgets.com in 2007, I once described Linkin Park as being the Bon Jovi of nu-metal; prettier boys than their peers, with more family-friendly lyrics and poppier production.

Nu-metal, for those playing along at home, was a strain of metal that emerged as grunge returned to the underground. Characterised by drop-tuned guitars, angry lyrics that appealed to teenagers and (most of the time) there being a DJ and/or rapper in the lineup, it was a genre that would dominate the charts for a few years.

But Linkin Park had one more thing in common with Bon Jovi – they’re survivors. Nu-metal was never a genre that commanded the same kind of respect as grunge or punk or even glam, but even by the standards of their own times Linkin Park were disrespected. Yes, these six lads were seen as lacking in credibility when compared to Limp Bizkit.

Yet as the Stainds and the Taproots and the Alien Ant Farms of the world fell by the wayside, Linkin Park simply refused to stop selling out stadium tours even as record sales dropped.

Not that any of this mattered to me at the time. I was 11 when Hybrid Theory (2000) came out, and I remember getting the CD for my birthday. I’d been raised on my dad’s music, so I was familiar with the rock pantheon and was a Beatles obsessive. Linkin Park were the first band that were mine, all mine.

As I transitioned from classical guitar to rock when I got to secondary school, it was a Hybrid Theory songbook I practised from (in the wrong tuning because I didn’t know much theory at the time). I had a hoodie with the album cover on it.

Linkin Park were mesmerising to a generation of mosher kids, and the charismatic centre of that was Chester Bennington. Startling to look at with flame tattoos on his wrists, spiked, blonde hair and a banshee howl of a singing voice, he was the face of the band from ‘One Step Closer’ onwards.

Hybrid Theory in truth will be the largest part of Bennington’s legacy. Criticised constantly since it came out for the banal and juvenile lyrics, that didn’t stop the album going diamond. A generation of kids grew out of those lyrics, but could never quite shake the stadium-sized hooks of ‘With You’ or ‘Runaway’ or the ever-lampooned ‘Crawling.’

Even that music video gives an indication that Linkin Park may have been a touch underrated as a group, depicting a girl in an abusive relationship choosing to walk away from it. Compare that to the carnival horror of a Slipknot video or the skateboard buffoonery of a Limp Bizkit atrocity.

Hybrid Theory remains the biggest selling nu-metal album of all time, and the best-selling debut of any artist this century – the press could laugh all their wanted, but Chester Bennington was laughing all the way to the bank.

None of their subsequent records captured the public’s imagination in the same way. In some ways it’s understandable – the three-year wait for Meteora (2003) failed to justify its minimal progression from its predecessor. Four more years passed by before the alt-rock angst of Minutes To Midnight (2007), an album with a mortal determination to remove anything that made the band remotely interesting.

With a smaller public spotlight than before, though, the band began to spread its wings again. A Thousand Suns (2010) was a concept album about nuclear annihilation; dark but resolute, political and painted in shades of black and chrome, its harsher digital edge failed to break a million in sales, and it deserved better.

On its follow-up, Living Things (2012) they threw colour back into the mix, resulting in their poppiest record yet, and their strongest batch of hooks since Hybrid Theory.

I spent these twelve years defending Linkin Park at every opportunity. Even I could see their faults from an outsider’s perspective, but they’d been mine since I was a kid, dammit, and I was never going to let them go.

Even I was disappointed with the sterilised riffs of 2014’s The Hunting Party; by the time One More Light came out in May, I hadn’t got the bandwidth to invest in it. What a terrible fan I now feel like.

Somewhere, the millions of people who bought Hybrid Theory will most likely now be dusting off those baggy jeans to honour Chester.

I’ve read enough articles and seen enough documentaries to know that Chester Bennington has saved lives through his music.

Unfortunately, he now shows us once again what Robin Williams did; that millions in the bank, a family that loves you, a world of adoring fans and a creative outlet sometimes still isn’t enough to save people from depression. So I say again.

Thank-you for waking up today. Thank-you for existing. People care that you’re around. And if things are getting too difficult for you, call whichever number:

UK – I have never heard a bad word said about Samaritans – dial 116 123 from any phone.

US – National Suicide Prevention Hotline can be reached on 1-800-273-8255.

If you’ve given Hybrid Theory a spin and want to hear more of Chester’s work since the news broke, here are ten of the best Linkin Park songs from post-2000.

1. P5hng Me A*wy feat. Stephen Richards (Reanimation, 2002) – On the stopgap remix album Reanimation, Mike Shinoda mixed in new harmonies by Taproot’s Stephen Richards with Bennington’s previous vocals.

2. Somewhere I Belong (Meteora, 2003)  – Included only for sentimental reasons really, because I can so vividly remember watching the documentary about the making of this video.

3. Lying From You (Meteora, 2003) – With a bit more grit in their production style, Linkin Park could’ve been a contender in heavier circles; this riff is colossal and Bennington’s scream is put to great use.

4. One Step Closer (Live in Texas, 2003) – Linkin Park could be hit and miss as a live act, but one of the best choices they ever made was in flirting with the remix version of ‘One Step Closer’ when closing gigs with it. It also features, of course, Chester’s most iconic lyric – ‘shut up when I’m talking to you.’

5. The Little Things Give You Away (Minutes To Midnight, 2007) – On a largely weak album, this closing track showed the limitless possibilities of layering Chester’s voice on top of itself, as melodies and countermelodies twist gracefully over each other.

6. QWERTY (Songs From The Underground, 2008) – Often bootlegged at the time but never included on a studio album, ‘QWERTY’ is one of the band’s heavier moments.

7. The Catalyst (A Thousand Suns, 2010) – You could fairly argue that there is more ambition wrapped up in this one song than in the entirety of the band’s prior career; it’s a six-minute odyssey.

8. The Messenger (A Thousand Suns, 2010) – Sometimes simplicity is the way to go, and the lyrics to ‘The Messenger’ may not be anything particularly deep, but they speak in universal language to those needing hope in difficult times.

9. Victimized (Living Things, 2012) – Nestling in the band’s softest record was this perverse little treasure, with some of the most serrated vocals Bennington ever recorded.

10. Rebellion feat. Daron Malakian (The Hunting Party, 2014) – Although Bennington and the band would collaborate with other artists frequently, it’s a shame there was never much opportunity for him to work with a filthier band; your Machine Heads, say. Malakian, late of System Of A Down, adds his unique crunch to this track and it shows how well Bennington’s vocals could have slotted in elsewhere.

07
Jun
17

MUSIC REVIEW: Roger Waters – Is This The Life We Really Want?

 

The only consolation there has been for a music hack as the entire universe has descended into horror was ‘well, maybe we’ll get some great art out of it.’

Creativity thrives during times of strife and Roger Waters, Pink Floyd bassist and socialist firebrand has stepped back into the spotlight.

A political songwriter for some five decades, on Is This The Life We Really Want? Waters is perhaps the most political he has ever been – couple that with Nigel Godrich producing and you have a pretty great setup.

Is This The Life We Really Want? isn’t going to change anyone’s mind about solo Waters – his acquired taste vocals still flip between sullen murmurs and that soaring, animal yowl. At times the record seems to be deliberately obtuse – all over the album are his hallmarks both with and without Floyd.

Glass smashing, stereo trickery and dial tones are all hangovers from The Wall at the latest; the sound of channel hopping on an analogue television is definitively Waters himself.

Musically, there are flashes of Floyd everywhere – ‘Picture That’ is a fairly shameless retread of both 1971’s ‘One Of These Days’ and 1977’s ‘Sheep,’ despite lyrics shot through with modernity. On the title track, electric guitars sound like they were played, windswept, on a clifftop as ‘Greenland falls into the ****ing sea.’

If you are a Floydian that never discovered the delights of Radio K.A.O.S. then this record is for you. Godrich leaves the mix as dry as possible, and allows the instrumentation to speak for itself – which when you have access to orchestration, as on teasing opener ‘Deja Vu,’ makes the scope even more cinematic. Even the drumming – taut, blunt, abbreviated – sounds like it’s being played from inside a coffin that’s already underground.

Against all logic and reason, there is some genuine compositional growth here, though. The title track and ‘Bird In A Gale’ show some sort of weird trip-hop influence; the former is disquieting and in places genuinely terrifying, the latter might actually be groovy.

Outside of ‘Wait For Her,’ which is a genuinely moving, gracious love song based on a translation of the Kama Sutra, nobody is safe from the spotlight of Waters’ rage.

You don’t need a degree in political science to understand what ‘The Last Refugee’ is about.

Donald Trump as a target is easy and inevitable, but both barrels are aimed at pretty much everyone. Religion gets a taste (‘If I had been God/I would have sired many sons/and I would not have suffered the Romans to kill even one of them’), 1%ers (‘Sold for my kidneys, sold for my liver/…There’s no such thing as being too greedy’) and of course, war (‘We chose The American Dream/and Mistress Liberty/How we abandoned thee.’)

Perhaps the most harrowing lyric on the album comes at the end of the title song, across the lyric booklet from a defaced photo of Nigel Farage. ‘Every time the curtain falls on some forgotten life/It is because we all stood by silent and indifferent/It’s normal.’

With twenty-five years since he last released any original rock material, you can’t really call it a return to form. But if we get nothing else from the twisted state the world is currently in, we got one more go around the block from one of music’s all-time greats, and a pretty great one at that.

20
Apr
17

MUSIC REVIEW: Drake – More Life

 

Under a year since Views, Drake returns not with a mixtape, album or EP, but a so-called ‘playlist.’

What that means only Drake knows, but the low-stakes attitude makes More Life one of the most satisfying entries in his ever-growing catalogue.

Lyrically there are still occasional acknowledgements of Drake’s paranoiac worldview, most notably on ‘Madiba Riddim’ – ‘I can’t tell who is my friend/I need distance between me and them’ – but even there he adds ‘God knows I’m trying.’

Over a beat that sounds like a doomsday clock, ‘Lose You’ acknowledges his earlier emo-rap – ‘When do all the things I mean from the bottom of my heart start to lose meaning?’ ‘Can’t Have Everything,’ meanwhile, ends with a real answerphone message from his mother trying to shake him out of his negative attitude.

Outside of these moments, More Life is upbeat, generous and delightfully playful, showing Drake’s skill as a curator. It’s also crafted with more care than it wants the listener to perceive, moving stylistically across its 81 minutes backwards through Drake’s career from the modern experimentalism to the late-night, chillout beats of his early days.

Giggs and Skepta show up multiple times each, and on the surprisingly convincing grime of ‘No Long Talk’ Drake observes that he’s got ‘love for the West End.’ On ‘Gyalchester,’ he criticises millennials slyly through the line ‘tat on my ribs like I don’t know what permanent is.’ It gets embarrassing on ‘KMT,’ but weirdly it’s Giggs rather than Drake who sounds more ridiculous.

‘Madiba Riddim’ and especially ‘Passionfruit’ are simply irresistible dancehall pop, light, airy and flecked with club sweat, while the album is crammed with guest spots that elevate proceedings without stealing focus. Kanye West shines on the gospel-tinged ‘Glow,’ as does a melodic cameo by Young Thug, debutante singer Jorja and even 2 Chainz doesn’t ruin everything.

It may be overlong and a little patchy, but Drake in good spirits is something we’ve never really had before, and in its own bizarre, low-key way, More Life is a treasure.

 




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