Friday, 16 June 2017

New Music Friday 16/06

We've reached that time of year when every track released is vying for the crown of song of the summer. This week is absolutely no exception...


Calvin Harris feat. Pharrell Williams, Katy Perry, Big Sean - Feels

Calvin Harris feat. Pharrell Williams, Katy Perry, Big Sean - Feels

It's a couple of weeks until the release of 'Funk Wav Bounces Vol 1' but we already have a fair idea of what the album will sound like, considering all the tracks released so far sound the same despite the long list of collaborators. This is Calvin Harris trying to pull a Blurred Lines, with Pharrell onboard and laidback funk production, but I can't shake the feeling he's trying way too hard to be cool.



DJ Khaled feat. Rihanna & Bryson Tiller - Wild Thoughts

DJ Khaled feat. Rihanna & Bryson Tiller - Wild Thoughts

Listening to this makes me feel really old. I remember when Santana's Maria Maria was first released and now it's been sampled on this DJ Khaled track. And by sampled, I mean butchered. Rihanna gives a half-arsed vocal, Bryson Tiller does a shoddy Drake impression as he tries to woo her, and Khaled himself looks hilariously out of place on the video.



Jax Jones feat. Demi Lovato & Stefflon Don - Instruction

  Jax Jones feat. Demi Lovato & Stefflon Don - Instruction

Demi Lovato should know better than to feature on this dire Latin dance track from English DJ Jax Jones. Her vocal is wasted here, the sort of track that school kids will be dancing to at their summer prom. Stick to Cheat Codes for a decent Demi feature.



The Killers - The Man

 The Killers - The Man

Where do The Killers end and Brandon Flowers begins? The band's frontman has been busy doing solo work for a while and The Man seems to stem directly from it. It's certainly a little overwhelming: all funk bass, overdubbed layered vocals, and synth-rock swagger as Flowers claims "I'm the man" repeatedly. If that sounds cheesy...well...it is, but it's spangly and fun in the best way.



Martin Solveig feat. ALMA - All Stars

Martin Solveig feat. ALMA - All Stars

ALMA is soon becoming an inescapable name. After her brilliant breakthrough Dye My Hair, she featured on a Sub Focus track a couple of weeks ago. Now she's featuring on another dance track, this time from France's Martin Solveig. Her verses are the best part of this track though, bold and glorious with an almost Daft Punk-esque bassline. The chorus drop feels stunted by comparison. 



Coldplay - All I Think About Is You

 Coldplay - All I Think About Is You

Remember last year when Chris Martin claimed that 'A Head Full Of Dreams' would be their last album? And yet here they are releasing new music. "Oh but it's from an EP," I hear you say. That still doesn't excuse it from being so boring.



Shania Twain - Life's About To Get Good

  Shania Twain - Life's About To Get Good

Shania Twain is kind of a female Michael Bublé. Both artists have their 'home' style of music (in her case country) but occasionally break out with a pop crossover hit. This is no That Don't Impress Me Much, but it's a quaint little song of positivity from her forthcoming album 'Now' that feels out of touch with our turbulent times. I just hope the title rings true.



Zak Abel - All I Ever Do (Is Say Goodbye)

  Zak Abel - All I Ever Do (Is Say Goodbye)

Yes this sounds the same as Abel's last track Unstable, but that wasn't quite the chart smash it deserved to be. So, in the run up to the debut album 'Only When We're Naked', why not try again with identical production and some different lyrics? He's a good looking guy with a decent voice but apart from being good at ping pong I'm not sure what exactly differentiates him from the Nick Jonas and Charlie Puths of this world.



Fickle Friends - Glue

Fickle Friends - Glue

Honestly I stumbled across this track accidentally among this week's releases, but Brighton-based Fickle Friends have released a fun synth pop track that's an addictive listen. Sucking on a prit stick isn't advised, but its chorus lyric "Our lips are like glue, I think I love you" is cute and its jangling guitars shimmer in a summery heat haze.



Icona Pop - GIRLS GIRLS

 Icona Pop - GIRLS GIRLS

Paired with Charli XCX, Icona Pop were a huge pop proposition a few years back. I Love It was a smash for its catchy synth production and feisty lyrics. Now they seem to have focused on the former and diminished the latter, in the process losing a lot of their personality. A shame.



Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Phoenix - Ti Amo

Phoenix - Ti Amo

Phoenix's sixth album feels like a love letter to Europe. Something of a concept album, this is a French band singing in multiple European languages while dreaming of a romanticised life in Italy. That explains the title then.

The band have described a dream of Roman summers, of "hyper-light, hyper-clarity" and gelato, which all comes out in the pure emotions at the heart of each song. In fact, it's gelato that's heavily referenced (the track Fior Di Latte, a popular Italian flavour, uses it as a metaphor for sex), but there are plenty of other food and drink references amongst other nods to Italian culture. The album is a bright celebration of Italy, and like gelato it's a light, sweet confection that's smooth, cool, and refreshing in the summer.

That summer is the heat of a Europe in political turmoil. The balm is 'Ti Amo': a sonic haven to remind us of the joys of Europe, of beautiful food, lazy walks along the beach with lovers, gently licking a cone of gelato as the Mediterranean sea laps at our feet.

This imagery is concocted with a pan-European sound, fusing 70's Italo-disco with French laissez-faire cool. Synth-rock guitars, driving beats and video game bloops and sparkles dominate through the filter of vibrant polished pop, falsetto vocals occasionally speckled with auto-tune singing breezy melodies. The intricate sounds of opener J-Boy set the scene, while the silliness of Tuttifrutti (which recalls 'Bankrupt!'s Trying To Be Cool), the erupting chorus of Role Model, and the delicately evocative Via Veneto are all highlights. The aforementioned Fior Di Latte makes for a dusky, sensual slow jam and the shuffling Goodbye Soleil is the essence of cool.

The album is perhaps a little too laidback for its own good, tailing off towards the end. Recorded in Paris to the backdrop of terrorism and a refugee crisis, the political lyrics sometimes jar with the gossamer production. And the title track is lyrically a little uncomfortable: "open up your legs...don't tell me no," coos singer Thomas Mars as he bemoans unrequited love.

Still, 'Ti Amo' takes a dash of Metronomy's 'The English Riviera', a sprinkle of fellow Frenchmen Daft Punk and Air, and a whole dose of sunshine. The flavour is delicious.

4/5

Listen: 'Ti Amo' is out now.



Monday, 12 June 2017

Katy Perry - Witness

Katy Perry - Witness

For all her girl next door appeal, Katy Perry has always been something of a cartoonish hyper popstar. She's had a string of hits before and after California Gurls, but for a lot of us the quintessential image of her remains blue hair, cake breasts, singing to a jelly baby.

Now, in true clichéd form, Perry wishes to be taken more seriously. With Slave To The Rhythm, the lead single from 'Witness' written in the wake of Trump's presidential victory, she coined the phrase "purposeful pop". "So comfortable we're living in a bubble...we cannot see the trouble," she sings, the fizzy-pop production laced with a more grave political message.

Yet that message cannot be sustained across 'Witness'. Musically it certainly has a darker tone than her past material, but it's an album that's lacking in hit singles. It's too hit and miss in its attempts to entertain - and isn't that the true purpose of pop?

Nineties house music has provided the biggest musical influence. This comes through in the deliciously bubbling disco of Déjà Vu, the driving four-to-the-floor beats of Swish Swish, and the syncopated bass of Roulette. There's a sense of tense anxiety in the electro production too that often matches the self-reflection of the lyrics: the crazed drums and saxophone of Power, the emptiness of Mind Maze, or the dark sensuality of Tsunami. Add to that tinges of trap and hip-hop, as well as features from Nicki Minaj, Migos and Skip Marley, and 'Witness' becomes Perry's most sonically experimental album to date, though the general lack of hooks means it also borders on forgettable.

You could argue there's black cultural appropriation here as she courts a 'cooler' audience, something she's been accused of in the past. If anything, though, the inclusion of the homophobic rap group Migos on Bon Appétit has brought her more politics than she bargained for.

Her own proper attempts at bringing purpose to her music often fall flat. For all its sexual liberation, Bon Appétit is little more than an oral sex metaphor ("got me spread like a buffet"), though that's just the appetiser to Tsunami ("don't be scared to dive in deep and start a tsunami"). Swish Swish is meant to be a dismissal of her haters, but in the context of her career it just comes off as a petty kiss-off to Taylor Swift. Elsewhere, Hey Hey Hey is a power anthem for women full of clichéd similes ("you think that I am fragile like a Fabergé"), Roulette explores the dangers of a sexual encounter, and Bigger Than Me sees her reflecting on her position in the world. These tracks, like most of the album, sound too similar to one another in an overly long tracklist full of filler.

Really the idea of "purposeful pop" seems to be Perry reflecting on her own sense of purpose. It's in her ballads that she becomes most pensive and she delivers them well - something she rarely gets credit for. Miss You More is a yearning, wistful track that sees her longing for a past lover, repeating "I miss you more than I loved you" in the chorus while a guitar later wails for good measure. On Save As Draft she considers a breakup in the digital age, while Into Me You See is a clever play on intimacy. Clearly there's a lot of personal catharsis at play in these tracks - more so than revolutionary politics, it seems this was the real purpose of 'Witness'.

3/5

Gizzle's Choice:
* Déjà Vu
* Power
* Tsunami

Listen: 'Witness' is out now.


Saturday, 10 June 2017

New Music Friday 09/06

Most of this week's new releases revolve around albums: Katy Perry, London Grammar, Phoenix to name three. The single releases don't quite match the quality, but there are still some gems to be found...



Lorde - Sober

Lorde - Sober

I don't want to say too much about this because 'Melodrama' is out next Friday, but this is Lorde wholeheartedly back on form. Green Light was a disappointing lead single that took too long to click. But this...it's all coiled sexual tension and muted beats - "but my hips have missed your hips...will you sway with me, come astray with me". With Sober and last week's Perfect Places, we're in for one hell of a second album.



David Guetta feat. Justin Bieber - 2U

David Guetta feat. Justin Bieber - 2U

After the phenomenal success of his 2015 hits, Bieber seems content to simply phone in some features these days. And Guetta's been phoning in mediocre EDM for years now. After the limp verses the chorus drop wobbles in nicely enough, even if the sample chopping seems dated now. This is the basic white girl track of the week.



Sigala feat. Ella Eyre - Came Here For Love

Sigala feat. Ella Eyre - Came Here For Love

This came close for basic track of the week, but Sigala wins points for dragging Ella Eyre out when we all presumed she'd probably been dropped after her terrible debut album. Surprise: she's back offering some decent vocals over the sort of trumpet-led summer beat you'd hear blaring out of your local Vodka Revs.



RAY BLK - Doing Me

RAY BLK - Doing Me

In case you'd forgotten, RAY BLK was the winner of this year's BBC Sound Of competition. Politically, Doing Me is a young black woman asserting herself, its message undisputed: wear what you like, be who you want and don't listen to the haters. That should be broadcast far and wide. Musically though, this feels like laidback 90s to the point of being laborious. It's not exactly a hit.



Pharrell Williams - Yellow Light


Despicable Me gets a threequel that'll probably be half-arsed. Fittingly, Pharrell Williams writes half-arsed theme song that's a sequel to Happy.



Scissor Sisters - Swerlk

Scissor Sisters - Swerlk

Speaking of sequels, Swerlk is basically a sequel to Scissor Sisters' gay anthem Let's Have A Kiki. It's a little repetitive, but it has everything Scissor Sisters do well: spoken word, heavy beats, funk guitars. I can't wait to see the video.



Ibeyi - Away Away

Ibeyi - Away Away

This is so incredibly sensual. The way that tribal beat shuffles along, juxtaposed with the twins' voices blending and merging in and out of harmony, yearning, innocent, knowing. The rawness of the whole thing. Sumptuous.



Susanne Sundfør - Undercover

Susanne Sundfør - Undercover

Sigrid, Dagny, Astrid S. All Norwegian artists delivering fierce pop. Susanne Sundfør, instead, offers a simple ballad. "I wish I had a lover," she sings wistfully over piano and slide guitar, cutting right to the heart.



Julie Bergan feat. Tunji Ige - If You Love Me


Julie Bergan, meanwhile, continues down the synth-pop route. It follows singles Arigato and Blackout and is more of the same: decent pop with tropical synths, dancehall beats and a guest rap from Tunji Ige. Bergan will need more originality if she's to become a pop superstar.



Miley Cyrus - Inspired

Miley Cyrus - Inspired

Miley sang this at the One Love Manchester gig that Ariana Grande put together and now it's released as a new single. If Malibu was inspired by her beau Liam Hemsworth, then Inspired was...inspired by her dad and her childhood: "Thinking about the days coming home with dirty feet from playing with my dad all day in the creek," she sings, "he somehow has a way of knowing what to say." She's gone back to her country roots musically, too, with slide guitars and lyrics of longing. This is unlikely to be a pop smash, but it's a sweet song all the same.



Friday, 9 June 2017

All That @ Lion and Unicorn Theatre

All That @ Lion and Unicorn Theatre

It’s fitting that the first half of this kitchen sink drama revolves around…well…the kitchen sink. We all argue with our housemates about the washing up, that’s a universal truth. But what if those same dish-avoiding housemates are in an open relationship? And what if that makes you question your feelings for your own partner?

All That is a new play from writer Shaun Kitchener, whose work includes writing for British soap opera Hollyoaks. There’s a similar feel here, with serious themes bubbling away beneath a light-hearted yet thoroughly engaging production. Home-owners Taylor (Kitchener) and Riley (James Robert-Moore) are, financial worries aside, in a strong and stable relationship. Cracks emerge, though, when they rent their spare room to a couple in an open relationship – Jamie (Tom Bovington) and Parker (Christopher Cohen). Initially judgemental, Taylor and Riley are forced to face up to some (literal) home truths. It’s quite the clichéd set-up and the narrative is wholly predictable, but it’s an approachable and frank look at gay relationships, breaking down the taboo of open relationships (even though straight couples are never considered here).

What Kitchener does so well is paint the situation in shades of grey. Taylor and Riley are by no means the perfectly settled couple – perhaps they’re naively following heteronormative convention? Likewise Jamie and Parker aren’t necessarily home-wrecking villains, but are perhaps just living an honest life. And when *spoiler alert* Taylor succumbs to the advances of Jamie, it’s arguable whether he was manipulated or if this would’ve happened eventually.

As a result, these characters feel like real people with real problems that we can empathise and identify with, not just voyeuristically judge from a distance. Dialogue is natural and the on-stage chemistry is, for the most part, credible between the flustered Taylor, the suave and mysterious Jamie, and the calmly reliable Riley. There’s plenty of comedy too, predominantly from Cohen’s eccentric “colourful” Parker and Roberta Morris as Taylor’s gossipping best mate who gets all the best lines, delivered with exceptional comic timing. It’s through her inquisitive eye that we really see the others, something that begins with the crude but amusing opening scene. As with her, for many All That will be quite the eye-opener.

And yet Kitchener wisely refrains from lecturing and allows us to make up our own minds. The end may come suddenly, but it leaves no conclusion. For some, open relationships work; for others the very idea is abhorrent. All that matters is each to his own.

4/5

Watch: All That runs at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre London until 10th June.

All That @ Lion and Unicorn Theatre

Photos: Matthew Foster

Wonder Woman - Patty Jenkins

Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman is a turning point in cinema, despite the lack of publicity compared to her male equivalents. This movie is that rare thing: a super hero film fronted by a woman and directed by a woman. Not just that but a damn fine one too. In fact, it's a bloody good action film full stop. And in this day and age, that's gold dust.

For the uninitiated, Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) is Diana princess of the Amazons. Protected on a hidden island, her people vow to fight Ares the God of War when he arises to destroy humanity, should that time ever come. When else could that be but the terror of the Great War? And so the film creates an alternative narrative where it was Diana, along with a US spy (Chris Pine) who turned the tied of the war.

That clash of fantasy and reality worlds, ancient and modern time zones, has potential for thrilling action and humour, and the film has plenty of both, especially with Wonder Woman herself. Gal Gadot plays the role brilliantly: a naive ingenue who's both aggressive and inquisitive. She personifies not only fierce strength, but compassion - it's that heart rather than her physical skill or beauty (stunning though she is) that makes her so wonderful.

The film begins fantastically enough, in the beautiful crystalline waters of the island Themyscira and its matriarchy of female warriors lead by the fearsome General Antiope (Robin Wright, House of Cards). After some exposition we shift to patriarchal, muddy, war-torn Europe for a story that is, for the most part, rooted in reality and it's all the better for it. There's little fanciful rubbish to wade through, just a well-paced story that's far more grounded than the usual whimsical boy fantasies we've become used to. The villains too, experimenting in chemical weapons, are sadistic and terrifying for real world consequences and not super powers. That said, the climactic twists towards the end are a sudden jolt into cartoonish fantasy, shattering the illusion of reality.

What makes this such an entertaining film, though, is the clarity of its action. So many films are full of close-up fussy camerawork and too much CGI, and while Wonder Woman does suffer from the latter, it has distance shots that orientate the viewer and stylish use of powerful slow motion. For once we can lucidly follow every leap, kick, whip crack and sword thrust, which only aids us to get on side. Diana emerges from destruction, parrying gunfire with her wrists, launching into the air to thwart her enemies, all while that screaming musical theme blares out over the speakers. Few action films - female or male led - are quite so empowering.

Of course there are obvious politics here with its female lead, but really it's a film of equality, a clash of heroes and villains both male and female. If anything, that gender stalemate leads to a hugely enjoyable popcorn film that rises above politics to entertain us all.

4/5


Friday, 2 June 2017

New Music Friday 02/06

There's a fair bit to get through in this week's NMF - too many for this post of ten - including some strong album releases deserving of separate posts. Not all of this week's singles are worth your time though: Duke Dumont has released the same single yet again, Snakehips do a great Drake impression, Major Lazer's latest "banger" is not up to scratch, and Foo Fighters should probably just give up. And if you think I'm even touching that Liam Gallagher single....bite me.


Rae Morris - Reborn

Rae Morris - Reborn

It may seem trite to return with a song called Reborn but that's exactly what Rae Morris has done. Regardless, the song itself is a triumph as she marches back to our ears with thumping bass drums and militaristic snares driving beneath hypnotic synth bleeps, woozy symphonic horns and strings, and a dreamy vocal. It's got shades of Scandi cool, there's Björk-like power to the voice, and it rises towards multiple climaxes. Rae Morris is majestically reborn.



Lorde - Perfect Places

Lorde - Perfect Places

Green Light wasn't quite the glorious comeback we expected from Lorde, perhaps partly due to the "incorrect songwriting" as Max Martin apparently put it. Perfect Places, though. This marks the ideal bridge between Lorde old and new. The cold opening beat snaps like that in Team, while the melodies and lyrics seem to spill out over one another, building towards a rush of breathless euphoria and an expansive chorus. In a New York Times interview Lorde claimed that forthcoming album 'Melodrama' revolves around the idea of a house party: “With a party, there’s that moment where a great song comes on and you’re ecstatic, and then there’s that moment later on where you’re alone in the bathroom, looking in the mirror, you don’t think you look good, and you start feeling horrible.” Perfect Places encapsulates that perfectly.



Julia Michaels - Uh Huh

 Julia Michaels - Uh Huh

I had no idea who this was or why she was at the top of the playlist this week, until I googled her and realised she's responsible for that insipid Issues song that's been doing the rounds on the radio. Uh Huh is much more flavoursome, though it starts deceptively with its murmuring verses and acoustic guitar. The chorus stomps in eventually though with a snarky sort of hook. It won't be to everyone's taste, but at least it sounds like nothing else in the charts right now.



Arcade Fire - Everything Now

Arcade Fire - Everything Now

This sounds like Arcade Fire 101 to me. That's not a bad thing though, especially as this was produced by Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter. It's got some funky 70s vibes, a fun little playful flute thing, a sing-along chorus and everything else you could need to have a jolly old time at a music festival near you this summer. It'll probably sound even better with a few ciders down your throat.



Betsy - Little White Lies

Betsy - Little White Lies

Remember Clare Maguire? Beautiful vocal but no idea what songs to put it with? Please welcome her reincarnation: Betsy. There's certainly a familiar tone to the vocal, but there's a similarity with the production too: a desperate need for epic grandeur and a flimsy song buckling under the weight of 'drama'.



Fifth Harmony feat. Gucci Mane - Down

Fifth Harmony feat. Gucci Mane - Down

Everything about this is basic. And I mean that in the proper sense. The production, the melody, the singing - it all feels simplistic, threadbare, minimal-effort, half-hearted. When will these girls just hurry up and get dropped? Or at the least release a Sledgehammer worthy banger.



Olly Murs feat. Louisa Johnson - Unpredictable

 Olly Murs feat. Louisa Johnson - Unpredictable

Old X Factor runner-up employs younger X Factor winner to boost credibility on a Kygo-lite pop song devoid of anything interesting. How predictable.



5 After Midnight - Up In Here

 5 After Midnight - Up In Here

Speaking of X Factor, remember that terrible band from last year that definitely didn't deserve to make it as far as they did? Well now they have a single written by MNEK that samples DMX and sounds like...well...MNEK. I wonder how much Simon Cowell paid him for that.



Peking Duk feat. AlunaGeorge - Fake Magic

  Peking Duk feat. AlunaGeorge - Fake Magic

Well that's a funny name, it must be worth a listen. Ok I'm into this beat. It's building. I can hear some funky bass. This drop best be worth it......YAAASSS!



Beth Ditto - We Could Run

Beth Ditto - We Could Run

Best known as the feisty singer from Gossip, Ditto's solo career began with the sumptuous disco track I Wrote the Book from her self-titled EP in 2011. Since then she's quite literally written a number of books and married her girlfriend. We Could Run is actually the third song she's released this year taken from her forthcoming album (after Fire and Oo La La), all of which return to her rock roots. This features stadium production to match her powerful vocals and an anthemic chorus - part The Killers, part Bruce Springsteen. The music industry could certainly do with some more female rock stars and Ditto is a class act. Welcome back.





Dua Lipa - Dua Lipa

Dua Lipa - Dua Lipa


And so, at long last, after a string of hit singles, Dua Lipa has finally released her debut album. Or is it really an album at all? What does that even mean in this day and age?

The deluxe edition of ‘Dua Lipa’ includes 17 songs, 8 of which are already released singles (the standard edition is 12 songs, 5 of which are singles). This ‘album’, then, is essentially a collection of known tracks with some filler. Is that what albums are to artists these days? We appear to be moving towards two extremes: a Beyoncé release of artistic integrity like ‘Lemonade’ with, arguably, no real chart-friendly singles, or a load of singles with no connection beyond the artist singing them.

Yet the singles on offer here are brilliant, for the most part mixing bright, bold pop production with rock solid hooks, tropical beats and a deep, powerful vocal, all tied together in three minute packages. Hotter Than Hell is the pure fire track that launched Dua to chart stardom; follow-up Blow Your Mind (Mwah) was a vibrant, sassy kiss-off; and most recently she’s teamed up with Miguel for the R&B-pop banger Lost In Your Light. Be The One, though, is perhaps the main highlight – a more subtle take on her sound with yearning melodies over a warm bed of synths and syncopated beats. Acoustic ballad Thinking ‘Bout You rounds out the singles on the standard edition, whilst the stomping Room for 2, the mellifluous New Love and the catchy Last Dance are included on the deluxe edition. Heck, why not throw in her features with Martin Garrix, Major Lazer and Sean Paul as well?

So what’s actually new here? Opening an album with a track called Genesis is fairly hackneyed, but it fits easily into Dua’s oeuvre with its slick harmonies and guitar noodling out of Dev Hynes’ book of production. Garden makes for a downbeat counterpart, as she repeats “are we leaving this garden of Eden?” in the chorus. Later in the album there’s New Rules: an enjoyable listen, but its tropical feel and sassy lyrics are, by this point, almost groaningly typical. It’s indicative of an album that’s already overly familiar to both fans of her singles and anyone who’s seen her live – even the new tracks sound old.

This is by no means a collection of bad songs, its aim clearly to cement Dua’s place in the pop canon. And as a whole, it does neatly sum up the pop sound of the last year. But you'd expect that from an album released at the end of a campaign, not the beginning. And that’s the problem here: ‘Dua Lipa’ is a frustrating summary of the past, not an exciting stamp of future intent. How long will this album be toured and marketed as ‘new’ music? How long until we hear what’s actually next for Dua? And will that just be another single?

3/5

Gizzle’s Choice:
* Genesis
* Be The One
* Blow Your Mind (Mwah)

Listen: 'Dua Lipa' is available now.


Thursday, 1 June 2017

Vixen - Silent Opera @ The Vaults

Vixen - Silent Opera @ The Vaults


It's something of a cliché, albeit a fair one, that opera is an old fashioned and stuffy genre of theatre in need of some reinvention. With this production from company Silent Opera, director Daisy Evans aims to drag opera kicking and screaming into the 21st century, adding a twist of technology to bring the action quite literally closer to our ears. It's to make opera more accessible, more exciting and innovative, and more attractive to a younger audience.

It's ironic, therefore, that in many ways this production does the opposite. The thrill of a silent disco has long since faded, often employed just to keep the noise down after bedtime. Incorporating headphones into an opera performance is simply another gimmick in a long line of pretentious opera productions.

That's not all - this is immersive too! The idea is to bring us into the action, but for the most part it occurs in crowds we cannot see through, in cramped spaces we fit into uncomfortably, and even behind the audience when we're all sat facing the wrong direction. The grubby walls and floors of the Vaults do make for a fitting setting for this clever reimagining of Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen as a fable of homelessness and sexual abuse, but for the most part you're left straining to see as you piece together the threadbare narrative.

Fitting the modernised narrative are new electronic musical arrangements from Max Pappenheim and Stephen Higgins that bring a technological twist to the score alongside the headphones. The cold synthesisers marry well with the atmosphere; by comparison the recorded orchestral moments feel overly sweeping and hyperbolic. Despite the awkward staging there's an intimacy to the use of headphones, but having someone sing right in your ears while they're stood far away (or aren't visible at all) just feels strange. It begs the question: why listen to this intricate and interesting score through tinny, crackling headphones when it could be live?

The singing is mostly excellent. As the titular vixen, Rosie Lomas cunningly manoeuvres between a sweet soprano and jagged aggression to match her diminutive figure, spiky attitude and tail-like matted red dreadlocks. She's matched by the effortless tenor of Robin Bailey as her romantic counterpart. Yet this is a heavily condensed version of the story that leaves no room for character development. Lomas is a striking central presence, but we never really engage with the remaining creatures.

Despite its flaws, this is a brave production. I'm all for embracing the use of technology and inviting new audiences to opera but not at the expense of the music or the storytelling, both of which suffer here from needless gimmicky barriers that simply left me with a headache.

2/5

Watch: Vixen runs at The Vaults until 10th June.

Vixen - Silent Opera @ The Vaults

Vixen - Silent Opera @ The Vaults
Photos: Robert Workman

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Alien: Covenant - Ridley Scott

Alien: Covenant - Ridley Scott


That gory, bloody, chest-bursting birth scene from Alien remains the series' most iconic scene some 38 years after it was released. So, considering Alien: Covenant is an origin story, it makes sense that it would revolve around the idea of birth. It's just this horror franchise is leaning too heavily on the philosophies of existentialism and creationism to truly scare. Can a film really be a philosophical think piece and a monster movie all in one?

Briefly, the plot follows the crew of the Covenant ship on a colonisation mission - a rebirth of sorts for mankind. It's a mix of Passengers and Mass Effect - the crew awake from stasis in a freak accident before following a distress signal to a remote planet potentially capable of sustaining life. It's here they meet David (Michael Fassbender) the android from Prometheus, as well as the titular face-huggers. Things do not go well.

The film has a number of flaws, but the biggest is that it's essentially two films spliced together. As a bridge between the ambiguous philosophising of Prometheus and the tense horror of the original film, Alien: Covenant is the apparently missing puzzle piece forced into the great Alien jigsaw in an attempt to create an origin story that nobody really wanted. It's a film that over-indulges in explanation, developing a theological creationist myth for some scary looking aliens. It's deep and meaningful and unnecessary.

The result is a film that's trying to do too much and it's the pacing that suffers. After a slow start, the second half sees the tension ramping up with a string of Alien tropes that are both tiresomely repetitive and comfortingly familiar: gruesome deaths, bursting chests, and scientists with dodgy haircuts making silly decisions. Yet they're interspersed with Fassbender's android act whose intellectual chit chat breaks up the momentum. Ridley Scott is trying to make us think as much as scare us, but here those emotions feel diametrically opposed. A second casualty of this is the distinct lack of development for the good guys: they're little more than predictable fodder for the aliens, all we can do is guess the order they're picked off. Don't go expecting a hero like Ripley here.

Yet this is a Ridley Scott film after all, so it comes with all the beautiful visuals, creepy sound design and brilliant acting that you'd expect. The latest muse is Fassbender, who plays two androids: David from the Prometheus ship and Walter from Covenant. The film may explore the origins of the aliens, but really it's a film about androids and their relationship with humankind, the relationship between creator and created. As Walter, Fassbender is calculating and robotic, but as David he is a deliciously erudite, slightly campy and elegant presence on-screen. One outstanding scene sees him conversing with himself in an affecting speech about creativity, although how he kept a straight-face during the "fingering" line is beyond me.

With David we have a sort of Frankenstein parallel in which the enlightened monster becomes the creator himself, his godlike lust for power matched by an eccentric love of Wagner and Romantic art. It's a fitting comparison to the film itself: a clumsy amalgam of two very different genres, its horrifying exterior juxtaposed with a mind of philosophical debate.

3/5

Watch: Alien: Covenant is out now.