Tuesday, 30 June 2015
It all began with the Foo Fighters.
Or rather it didn't. When the band dropped out of headlining after Dave Grohl broke his leg, they left a gaping hole. Azealia Banks later followed suit, indicative of a disappointingly lightweight line-up. Has Glastonbury finally lost its edge?
It's arguably too big, making it impossible to please its varied hordes of festival goers. Yet in many ways the Eavis' are behind the times as they remain staunchly wedded to rock music. When hyped secret gigs are taken by niche bands like Drenge and Wolf Alice, or rockers way beyond their prime like The Charlatans or The Libertines, you know the barrel is being well and truly scraped. This is more a comment on the state of the music industry as a whole: there simply aren't any decent rock acts worthy of the Glastonbury headliner slot.
Whatever you may think of Kanye West, then, it was a step in the right direction towards greater and much needed diversity beyond straight white male rock. That said, it was hardly an enjoyable set. After the grand and dramatic opening of Stronger under a low ceiling of lights, the energy soon dipped as West's ego took over: the music was self-indulgent, the stop-start nature felt more like a dress rehearsal and the stage was empty with a lack of special guests, as his angry and misogynistic music swept like a wave over the crowd. That said, this is Kanye West - what else can you expect? Love or hate him, his performance was one of the most talked about moments of the festival, his name certainly living up to the billing. Sure, his rendition of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody was criminal, but when he spat at the audience "I'm the biggest rockstar on the planet" he wasn't far wrong.
If Saturday was the night where hip-hop took over Glastonbury, it was started by Pharrell Williams in a mixed set that was at times uncomfortable. He's undoubtedly got a string of incredible hits, but he's clearly more producer than performer. Worse, his obsession with "beautiful English girls" reached a sickening peak as a line of teenage girls were invited on stage for the N.E.R.D classic Lapdance. Yet when penultimate number Happy was similarly accompanied by a line of children representing his newfound family-friendly status, it was a bizarre juxtaposition. The final, revolutionary chants of new single Freedom were wholly unnecessary.
It was the Chemical Brothers who truly proved a dance act should have headlined this year (after they headlined the Pyramid Stage back in 2000). Whilst rock zombies The Who were performing on the Pyramid Stage, the real party was on the Other Stage as the DJs' acid beats and trippy visuals whipped the crowd into a frenzy of flares, fireworks and raving, ending the festival on a huge high that no current rock act could compete with.
Of the bands who performed, a sweaty secret gig from Bastille provided an early highlight; Everything Everything played tracks almost entirely from their new album yet still managed to please the crowd; and Alt-J provided an awesome blissed out wave in the Sunday sun. On the flip side, Catfish and the Bottlemen brought the rain on Friday, whilst Motorhead grunted and riffed on Ace of Spades for an hour.
On the pop end of the spectrum, it was Years and Years who triumphed. King remains the song of the year and their performance set the John Peel tent ablaze. That said, they had stiff competition from Glasgow's Prides, whose powerhouse performance delivered bright, bold electro-pop melodies - Chvrches meets The 1975.
Elsewhere there were still plenty of highs. On Friday, Lonelady brought scratchy punk-disco to Williams Green, Jungle brought sunshine to The Other stage, Chet Faker provided glitchy beats in the John Peel tent and Mary J Blige was really over the drama on the Pyramid Stage. Later, Mark Ronson's set dipped in the middle with the focus on his new material, but the mood changed once he was joined by Boy George for a sing-along of Do You Really Want To Hurt Me, followed by Valerie with Amy Winehouse's original vocals.
Saturday saw regular festival crowd-pleaser Frank Turner bursting with charisma, despite the hungover morning audience, and French-Cuban twins Ibeyi haunted the Park Stage with beautiful chants and harmonies. That same stage on Sunday was the platform for multi-instrumentalist Jack Garret who impressively layered spectral garage beats, impassioned soulful vocals and rock guitar; he was followed by Rae Morris whose delicate vocals and gentle delivery lacked a little edge. In the evening, the sumptuous vocals of Lianne La Havas melted over the John Peel audience, but the lack of screens at the West Holts stage hampered FKA Twigs, who was unable to translate her mesmerisingly visual performance to a festival stage.
Then there was Lionel Richie, visibly overcome by the audience reaction. Navigating the crowd, however, was quite literally hell - like Dolly Parton last year, it's always the fun, cheesy acts that draw the biggest audience.
And how did Florence + The Machine fair stepping into the shoes of Dave Grohl? Fantastically. Despite skipping around the stage like an excitable puppy, Welch stepped up her game for the headline slot and capably proved her critics wrong. It was at times a little flouncy with the emphatic interpretive dancing but the hits were there amidst an ecstatic performance. As the first female headliner since Beyoncé in 2011, she showed that women can be strong headliners too - more of this please. Whipping her top off at the end was one of this year's iconic, feminist moments.
And it's the individual moments that will be remembered most above the bland rock that predominated: Mark Ronson's Uptown Funk; Years and Years singing King; the audience chanting for Pharrell's Happy; Kanye West hovering over the audience in a crane; and the Chemical Brothers dropping Block Rockin' Beats in a whir of strobe lighting. These are the memories that will endure from 2015's festival through the inevitable rain and mud - isolated highs in a weak line-up that failed to really satisfy.
Tuesday, 23 June 2015
If there's one word to describe Tove Styrke's second album it's empowering. Opening track Ain't Got No... immediately struts in with more sass than a finger click, all stomping beats and electrifying synths. No wonder Uma Thurman's character in Kill Bill provided some inspiration for the album title.
From there, 'Kiddo' consists of a number of feminist anthems. The album campaign began with the percussive and punk-influenced Even If I'm Loud It Doesn't Mean I'm Talking To You; this was followed by EP 'Borderline', its title track a reggae infused song against the patriarchy ("I live my life in shackles but I'm borderline free"). That mindset certainly continues on the full album.
Best of all is lead single Ego: tropical beats and breezy synths underpin the yearning chorus lyric ("I wanna love you but you're making it impossible"), sung with breathy exasperation. This is more than just simple pop music.
It's this feminist attitude that sets Styrke apart from the usual Scandi-pop, with lyrics that are personal, candid and empowering. The production follows suit, with a strong reggae influence that distances her from most Swedish electro pop. Ain't Got No... and Snaren might begin the album in squelchy electro fashion, but tracks like Burn and Borderline almost sound like Rihanna tracks. Brag, meanwhile, is bright and syncopated in all the right ways, and Number One is a radio friendly slice of sunshine.
That's not to say Styrke can't do darker electro pop: the pulsing Samurai Boy or the evocative Who's Got News for instance. At times, though, 'Kiddo' doesn't quite feel stylistically cohesive and the feminist manifesto loses steam in its frothier moments.
Yet this album marks a fresh start for Styrke as she finally embarks on global success outside of her native Sweden. Judging by the strength of this album, she's certainly ready.
* Number One
Listen: 'Kiddo' is available now.
Monday, 22 June 2015
Forget All The Lovers, this was a day of all the Hits. That's Hits with a capital H. But you'd expect nothing less from a bill that includes Kylie, Chic and more.
There are exceptions to the rule though. It all began with newcomer Secaina Hudson, whose garage and house influenced beats were a little out of place so early on the main stage. Despite a slightly weak vocal, the dance rhythms packed a punch and her "refix" of Madonna and All Saints (Frozen Shores) provided some well known hooks.
Later there was Grace Jones. Whilst she may be a household name, her music is far from mainstream. But then, she probably doesn't give a sh*t what you think anyway. This was her own personal 'best of', bringing avant garde flair to an otherwise pop-tastic day. With more costume changes than Kylie, she emerged from backstage between each song in a new iconic headpiece, practically nude besides white tribal paint. For a 67 year old, she has the body of a goddess, sweaty nipples et al, singing whilst hula-hooping. Amazing. She's certainly a controversial and provocative figure, but that's why she has such a dedicated fanbase - even if her bizarre mix of gospel, soul, electro and rock styles didn't quite fit the theme of the day.
It was Years and Years who early on set the tone of the day. King is undoubtedly one of the biggest hits of the year; its tropical synths and anthemic melodies brought most of the audience to their feet. There's plenty more to this band though, with tracks like Desire, Take Shelter and current single Worship hitting all the right notes - forthcoming album 'Communion' is sure to be essential when it's released next month. Frontman Olly Alexander may not have the strongest live vocal, but he more than makes up for it with energy and boyish charm, though piano ballad Memo provided a beautiful moment of calm amongst the uptempo beats.
And so from Radio 1 to Radio 2, we then had Mika play...all the hits? Starting the set with Grace Kelly - his biggest track - may seem counterintuitive, but from there he played a whole string of forgotten hits like Love Today, Big Girl, Happy Ending and Relax (Take It Easy), even if these are all from his debut album. His brand of fluffy colourful pop may be forgettable a few years down the line, but he remains a vibrant live performer with a surprisingly powerful vocal and the enviable ability to effortlessly entertain a crowd.
If you're after hits though, Chic and Nile Rodgers have countless. Their two vocalists capably belted and riffed their way through a huge back catalogue of both Chic tracks and those written for other artists, whilst Rodgers himself jangled his way through them all on funk guitar. It's an instantly recognisable style, though after a lengthy set of extended tracks they do somewhat blur together as one. Yet few artists are capable of inducing such sexy grooves, and few frontmen are as cool as Rodgers. When the stage was filled with backstage crew and fans, it was merely an extension of the main audience, everyone coming together in dancing joy.
Yet most of the crowd were here to see Kylie, and the Queen of Pop (sorry Madonna) did not disappoint as she, fittingly, began her set wearing a crown. It set the tone for a camp, fun performance that was essentially one long party. She sure as hell knows how to put on a show, whipping the crowd into a frenzy with a whole load of hits coupled with visual spectacle - dance routines, bright costumes and a massive glitterball. What really struck, though, is her down to earth nature: she may be a superstar but she exudes warmth and affection, adoring her fans almost as much as they adore her.
Really, Kylie was all of the other acts put together: a performer with an extensive back catalogue of frothy pop hits, who values aesthetics as much as music and remains relevant to a young audience as much as her old school fans. You couldn't ask for a more appropriate headliner.
Saturday, 20 June 2015
The Queen of Spades may be infrequently performed - this being ENO's first production in over twenty years - but Tchaikovsky's distinctly Russian Romantic style is immediately apparent from the overture alone. His orchestration is richly coloured, with brilliant melodies and sweeping melodrama. It makes for a fittingly glorious score for conductor Edward Gardner's last opera as Music Director at ENO.
Yet Director David Alden's production is cold by comparison. Set design employs an odd mix of visual styles that don't mesh together. A bland opening backdrop eventually makes way for a grimy, decaying setting bathed in a sickly yellow hue that just feels unfinished. It's decorated with gargoyles and chandeliers for a sense of antiquated Gothicism that undermines the otherwise modern setting.
The costumes follow suit, ranging from Cold War military uniforms, to a groovy 60s colour scheme. Fittingly, the chorus numbers are mostly static, yet this dissolves during the Ball scene into cartoon costumes, terrible dancing and rampant sex. It's bizarre, grotesque and jarringly comical.
Aesthetically, then, this production is a mixed bag, its best moments coming from Wolfgang Goebbel's stark lighting design and some spooky video projections that bring a welcome sense of the fantastical to this dark drama.
A lack of chemistry between the principals doesn't aid the frosty tone, but there are some exceptional individual performances. Giselle Allen makes for a dramatic Lisa, but it's Peter Hoare who excels in the lead role of Hermann - his bright, ringing tenor has sublime control in the upper register and, by the end, he truly sings with every ounce of strength. Best of all is Dame Felicity Palmer as the Countess: withered and vulnerable, yet eerily dominating and frightening.
Ironically the most arresting musical moment comes from the unaccompanied male chorus in the opera's denouement (a stunning, haunting piece), yet this production marks a rare chance to hear Tchaikovsky's score conducted by Gardner in one last hurrah.
Watch: The Queen of Spades runs at the Coliseum until 2nd July.
Friday, 19 June 2015
There are few musicians who could make a long-awaited return to music collaborating with some of today's hottest artists, having not had a major hit since the mid-80s. Giorgio Moroder is one of those people. Some assistance from Daft Punk has certainly aided his cause, but his pedigree speaks for itself.
In many ways the Italian producer is the grandfather of modern pop, having popularised the synthesiser in the 70s and simultaneously launched the disco career of Donna Summer with I Feel Love. Without Moroder...well, guitar music might still be a thing.
There's no such revolution here, but then this album isn't called 'Déjà Vu' for nothing. In many ways this is an album that celebrates the past - and not just with the typically funky disco style that Moroder pioneered. One highlight is a cover of Tom's Diner with vocals from Britney Spears - one of the best tracks she's done in years - whilst at the centre of the album is 74 Is the New 24, all pulsating Pet Shop Boys-esque synths.
Yet for the most part, 'Déjà Vu' repositions Moroder as a relevant producer for today. That the title track features vocals from Sia says it all - it's a gloriously uptempo track with a touch of nostalgia from today's most popular songwriter. Elsewhere the collaborations range from big names to upcoming stars. As well as the aforementioned Britney and Sia, there are features from Kylie Minogue and Kelis - the latter providing her unique husky vocals to Back and Forth.
At the other end of the spectrum there's the punky Diamonds with Charli XCX, the more evocative Don't Let Go with Mikky Ekko, and the dramatic Wildstar with Foxes. The relatively unknown Matthew Koma provides vocals on the fun and squelchy Tempted and, retaining his Euro roots, there's a remix of I Do This For You from Sweden's up and coming Marlene. Each track has a flavour of the vocalist, but as a whole the album is Moroder disco through and through.
With the resurgence of disco over the last couple of years, it's no surprise that Moroder has made a return. What is surprising is that he's created an album that not only celebrates his heritage but is utterly relevant to, as Kylie sings, Right Here, Right Now. Clearly 74 really is the new 24.
* Déjà vu
* Tom's Diner
Listen: 'Déjà Vu' is available now.
Thursday, 18 June 2015
Jurassic Park was the first film to really scare me. In that dark cinema, I spent most of the film with my head in my mum’s lap trying to hide from those damn Velociraptors in the kitchen. Still, I was only six.
Now, over twenty years later, we’re after bigger thrills. And so are the attendees of Jurassic World, the dinosaur theme park that’s now finally open. What better way to achieve this than by creating a brand new dinosaur, the Indominus Rex?
It all begins with cinema’s most irresponsible parents, who send off their two sons to the park to be looked after by their aunt Claire, the operations manager of the park who proceeds to leave the kids in the incapable hands of her assistant. But then, this is a film all about irresponsibility: scientists playing at God by messing with genetics, and a woman failing to keep control over her park or her family. However much humanity may try, we cannot control nature – unless, of course, you’re Chris Pratt.
The plot, then, is utterly silly with gaping plot holes bigger than a T-Rex’s jaw span. How this theme park was allowed to exist without basic safety measures is incomprehensible. Then again, the Jurassic Park series has always been more of a thrill ride than a serious scientific exploration and Jurassic World is more of a family film than ever. Having Chris Pratt as the lead only cements this, his comedic tongue-in-cheek acting style suiting the film’s tone even if he’s mostly reduced to macho action hero. Too often the action implausibly stops for some sort of quip when there really should be a little more urgency, yet this is a fun piece of blockbuster all-round entertainment that’s far from realism.
It might be mindless, but it’s equally tense, seat-gripping stuff. The usual set of raptors and a T-Rex are already suitably frightening, let alone combining them into the powerful Indominus Rex. The dinosaur might be a make-believe monster whose genetics conveniently advance the story, but it still allows for some exciting (if predictable) set pieces. It’s a rollercoaster ride fitting of any theme park.
Above all, though, this is a film about nostalgia. Jurassic World is, quite literally, built on Jurassic Park. When the two boys stumble upon the old Visitor Centre, its T-Rex skeleton now a crumpled heap on the floor, it’s a powerful moment for those of us who grew up with the previous three films. Many ideas from Jurassic Park are repeated here, including some specific shots (the two boys in the gyrosphere obviously parallels the two children from the first film being attacked by the T-Rex in the jeep), though it certainly helps to bring the series back to its roots whilst kickstarting it for a new generation. When the camera pans over the island and its majestic inhabitants to the sound of John Williams’ glorious theme tune, Jurrassic World still has the power to wow.
Watch: Jurassic World is out now.
Wednesday, 17 June 2015
In his American Idol audition, Simon Cowell admitted Adam Lambert was a “good singer” but described him as “theatrical”. Isn’t that what you want from a popstar – a performer? None of this boring singer-songwriter “real music” rubbish.
It’s curious, then, how Lambert’s success in the US hasn’t translated to the UK. Fronting Queen has certainly helped his cause (incidentally, he sang Bohemian Rhapsody in that first audition) and given him more exposure. ‘The Original High’, his third album (released on Warner Bros rather than RCA), is his real introduction to our shores and presents him as a popstar through and through.
‘The Original High’ has been executive produced by Swedish godfather of music Max Martin and producer Shellback. It’s not the first time these three have worked together – Martin and Shellback previously produced power ballad Whataya Want from Me on Lambert’s debut album and the almost Robyn-esque synthy single If I Had You. Now, producing a whole album has enabled the trio to work together to create a cohesive pop package fit for 2015.
Lambert hasn’t eschewed his rock past though. Brian May features on Lucy, a Dirty Diana-esque femme fatale track with an urgent chorus and screeching guitar solo. Equally, there’s another feature from recent Swedish sensation Tove Lo on Rumors – a track that’s not only representative of the synth-heavy electronic production of the album at large, but pairs Lambert with an overseas success and allows him to ride her wave.
Lead single Ghost Town certainly blends the two styles, opening the album with jangling guitars before lurching into a pulsing electronic chorus complete with obligatory whistling. The title track has a similar dance feel, albeit with a lighter, funkier tone. Another Lonely Night may begin as a gentle piano ballad, but soon jerks into a throb of synths. And Underground takes cue from modern R&B for its simmering beats and finger clicks. These tracks are all symptomatic of an artist searching for his place in today’s charts, covering all bases yet succeeding every time – owing largely to his exceptional vocal ability.
What holds the album together is Martin’s hook writing. Every track is a certified banger, equally relevant to 2015 and Lambert’s career. This extends to the bonus tracks on the deluxe edition; the bouncy These Boys is likely not included on the main album owing to Lambert’s sexuality. By the end of the album it does feel like overload: tracks like Things I Didn’t Say, dance track The Light, and Heavy Fire would all be main singles on any other artist’s album, but here lose some impact. That’s merely testament to the high quality pop on offer. ‘The Original High’ is essentially Lambert’s equivalent to ‘1989’ from Taylor Swift – both albums raised the stakes for each respective artist, albeit with a helping hand from everyone’s favourite Swede, Mr Martin.
* The Original High
Listen: ‘The Original High’ is available now.
Monday, 15 June 2015
The last we heard from Active Child (aka producer Pat Grossi), he was releasing his ‘Rapor’ EP back in 2013 with features from Mikky Ekko and Ellie Goulding. Their inclusion hinted at a greater pop sensibility beyond 2011 debut ‘You Are All I See’ whilst maintaining the trademark lush electronic production, falsetto vocals and harp glissandi.
That doesn’t seem to have carried on to second album ‘Mercy’. Sure, those trademark features remain, but for the most part this feels too lightweight. Beyond a handful of tracks, the album’s ten tracks slip by without leaving a lasting impression. Collectively, there’s an overall mood of delicacy, nocturnal longings and slinky, sexy affairs, but too often the music comfortably sits in the background. Like Grossi’s fragile vocal, the music is just too restrained – at times alluringly pained and vulnerable, at others almost too scared to make an impact.
1999 is a relaxed opener, with its gentle piano and bass guitar patter, but besides some harp arpeggios the track barely develops over its four minute length. The same can be said of some later tracks: the title track focuses on a warm groove but lacks impetus; the dramatic contrasts of Lazarus fail to provide a hook; and closer Too Late too easily allows the album to drift off into the ether.
Compared with Grossi’s past material, there’s a greater influence of R&B on ‘Mercy’ – the strongest and most memorable tracks are those that take this to heart. The best of these is Never Far Away, with its slinky groove and funk guitars combining with slick production for one hell of a sexy track. The softly pulsing These Arms takes a similar tact, though it’s Stranger that takes us closer to dance territory without quite providing a satisfying, punchy breakdown – typical of Grossi’s sense of restraint. By contrast, the acoustic Darling is too sweet to stand up to the album’s general sense of dark melancholy, and the interlude Midnight Swim is an interesting, if unnecessary, experimentation. More tracks like Temptation, all yearning melodies and softly textured beats, would be welcome.
As it stands, ‘Mercy’ faces similar criticism to its forbear – a slightly frustrating listen that doesn’t quite live up to the potential of its most successful moments.
* These Arms
* Never Far Away
Listen: ‘Mercy’ is available now.
Friday, 12 June 2015
Writer Stephen Wyatt has had a successful and award-winning career in radio drama, with over twenty original radio plays under his belt. That’s clear to see watching Told Look Younger. It might be dialogue heavy, but it’s particularly well written, with well-rounded, natural and believable characters, and plenty of witty humour. There are even some fourth-wall breaking dramatic references.
Visually, however, the production is repetitive, but that all ties into the structure. Divided into three paralleling acts that set up contrasts and comparisons, we follow three gay men in their 60s as they meet for three dinners to discuss developments in their individual relationships. The set up remains the same in each instance, with subtle visual changes just enough to keep us interested, but our focus is very much on the dialogue. Hilariously, Simon Haines plays The Waiter in each act, managing to find plenty of humour in repeating similar lines in various guises.
The love lives of older gay men is not a subject usually written about, but Wyatt presents an honest and open look at relationships. Here are three men struggling to remain relevant in a modern world forever changing around them – a world of tragically ending partnerships, younger models and online hook-ups. The play explores ideas of what older gay men may want from a relationship and what their expectations of love might be. There’s the naïve and bumbling Oliver (Robin Hooper) who seems wedded to his research work; the grouchy, outspoken and often vulgar Jeremy (Michael Garner) in an open relationship with his long-term partner; and the suave, softly spoken yet eccentric Colin (Christopher Hunter) who intends to marry his recently met nineteen year old boyfriend – much to the horror of his two friends. By seeking out men less than half their age, are these older gentlemen looking for love in the wrong places? Is lust enough, be that based on money and/or sex? Can older men still expect a fairytale ending or should they settle for less?
Told Look Younger is a play that poses these questions and expects the audience to find out the answers for ourselves. If there’s one major constant, though, it’s that of friendship. Perhaps these three men have found what they need in each other: no matter what we go through in our lives, it’s our friends that keep us going. Is companionship stronger than love? This play may have niche appeal owing to its subject matter, but that core question we can surely all relate to.
Watch: Told Look Younger runs at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 4th July.
Wednesday, 10 June 2015
For some, Muse’s 2012 album ‘The 2nd Law’ was a welcome change of pace. Tapping into the 2012 musical zeitgeist for bombastic Bond themes and dubstep wobbles, it saw the band trying something new and proving their ability to adapt their sound to any genre. For others it was m-m-m-m-m-madness. At the very least, the new songs didn’t rock as hard when performed live.
‘Drones’ is for those fans. In many ways it’s a return to form, if somewhat predictable.
Opening with the staccato jabs of Dead Inside, it’s clear that guitars are back at the forefront of the band’s sound. Short, simple riffs are the order of the day, sometimes even overwhelming Bellamy’s formidable falsetto. Psycho, for instance, eschews any electronic influences for a strutting rock track of screeching guitars and simple chord progressions, whilst the pairing of Reapers and The Handler at the album’s centre is just pure sucker-punching guitars (with a few Muse-isms for good measure). Later, Defector takes a more psychedelic route, though its riffs are no less dazzling. In many ways, there’s a similarity with their label-mates Royal Blood and their penchant for punchy riffs. ‘Drones’ re-establishes Muse as a rock band first and foremost – few bands can rock as hard as them.
There remain dapples of trademark electronics. Mercy is one of the Muse-iest Muse songs to exist, with its roaring guitars, striking piano chords, simmering synth arpeggios and a soaring sing-along chorus. Revolt, towards the album’s conclusion, is a lighter affair; it’s followed by Aftermath that’s (appropriately for its name) a more sombre, Pink Floyd-esque power ballad that showcases Bellamy’s traditional songwriting abilities. As a whole, the album doesn’t quite stand up to the band’s past material, missing the scratchy metal sounds of their earlier work, but it certainly repositions them as the UK’s premiere rock act.
Of course, this wouldn’t be a Muse album without some classicism and weirdness. The Globalist is a ten minute epic that travels from Morricone-esque cinematic strings and whistles, to blazing guitars and dramatic choirs, to grandiose piano that almost references Elgar’s Nimrod. It’s followed by the title track: Baroque vocal counterpoint that wholeheartedly shows off Bellamy’s vocals. It feels tacked on as an afterthought, however.
Most of that trademark weirdness comes in the lyrics, not to mention two skits entitled Drill Sergeant and JFK. Lyrically, this is just as lofty, scientific and bizarre as usual – in fact it’s a concept album of sorts about a dystopian society of robots, exploring governments, technology and revolution. Sure thing Matt.
‘Drones’ then sees Muse returning to what they’re best at: confusing and delighting in equal measure. It might be predictable, but thankfully some things never change.
* Dead Inside
Listen: ‘Drones’ is available now.
Thursday, 4 June 2015
‘In Colour’ is proving to be one of the most divisive albums of the year. The debut solo album from Jamie xx (aka Jamie Smith), best known for his work with band The xx as well as various remixes, it has been hailed as a masterpiece by much of the music press. Dance aficionados, however, have ripped it to shreds.
It’s true that ‘In Colour’ is somewhat derivative. Smith has been heavily influenced by dance music from the 80s and 90s – there are clear elements of jungle, trance, garage and house in much of the album. Opener Gosh, for instance, feels like a typical jungle track featuring repetitive clattering beats and an overused vocal sample – that is until the introduction of a single synth line later on. Elsewhere the album is trance-like to a fault: the appropriately titled Sleep Sound, or the noisy industrial Hold Tight.
Yet this isn’t really an album of dance music for dance music fans. The tempo is too relaxed, the production is too clean, the beat and bass drops never hit home. Instead this has been carefully crafted to take typically underground styles of dance music in a new direction, one that’s arguably more tasteful and commercial. It’s the sort of dance album you won’t actually be listening to in the club, though it’s no less euphoric. For some, ‘In Colour’ is empty and soulless; for others it’s delicate and polished. After all, the same sense of minimalism here has been praised by fans of The xx – now that’s simply been applied to dance music.
Is making dance music more palatable necessarily a bad thing? It’s been the main criticism of the album, but is that not how music develops? Taking one genre and making it appropriate for a different audience?
To that end, those tracks closer to the pop/commercial end of the spectrum are the most successful. Lead single Loud Places, with bandmate Romy, is a heady tune of shimmering production and lush vocal harmonies, destined to be one of the top songs at festivals this summer. It’s followed by I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times) that puts a reggae spin on Smith’s style and features vocals from Young Thug and Popcaan (and some questionable lyrics). Romy also features on the hypnotic SeeSaw, whilst fellow bandmate Oliver Sim features on Stranger In A Room that includes the band’s typically reverbed guitars. Girl eventually ends the album on a woozy, mesmeric note. The more you listen and the further into the album you get, the better it sounds.
It’s notable, then, that the best tracks also feature Smith’s xx bandmates. That doesn’t necessarily bode well for a solo album, but like The xx he’s created a body of work that’s divisive and could well be tipped for the Mercury Prize. After all, he’s got ‘xx’ in his name for a reason.
* Loud Places
Listen: ‘In Colour’ is available now.
Tuesday, 2 June 2015
It’s fitting that Paul Miller, Artistic Director at the Orange Tree Theatre, should end his first season with a piece of new writing. The success of Pomona, Little Light and The Distance (for example) have all contributed to an eye-opening season for the theatre. buckets follows suit.
The first full-length play from writer Adam Barnard, buckets is quite the philosophical thinkpiece. His subject: death. The internet is filled with bucket lists – 100 Things To Do Before You Die etc – but if our lives can be considered buckets in which to pour experience, how best to fill them?
For such a grand and serious subject, Barnard takes a light-hearted approach that plays with form, tone and our expectations. As if looking through a prism, buckets consists of thirty-three short, separate yet thematically-connected scenes that explore life and death from multiple angles, some more weighty than others. Some are just a handful of lines; others more fully-fledged scenes. Further, the script isn’t divided into individual characters but presented as simple text – it’s down to the interpretation of the director and cast to delineate lines and suggest characterisation. Yet whether we’re watching a popstar visiting a terminally ill patient, a girl contemplating suicide or a metaphorical comparison between life and the video game Minecraft, Barnard’s quirky and modern script ensures that throughout this is warm, funny, endearing and moving in equal measure. Eventually he pushes the boundaries into fantasy: in one scene entitled Terms And Conditions, the play veers into science-fiction in its loftiest and most challenging moment.
This is, then, a highly conceptual piece. To that end, director Rania Jumaily has done a wonderfully creative job of bringing the text to life. She plays with our expectations for both profound and comic effect, with actors playing roles not specific to their gender or age. The staging is necessarily simple, almost a workshop style, but an excellent ensemble performance sees the cast create a whole series of relatable and sympathetic human characters that transcend their metaphorical purpose.
Indeed the play itself is something of a metaphor. Divided into a series of moments, memories even, it constantly delivers the unexpected. It's not always a success, but its exploration of some deep questions is more than the sum of its fragmented parts. It is life-affirming and upbeat, thought-provoking and moving. Watching it should definitely be on your theatre bucket list.
Watch: buckets runs at the Orange Tree Theatre until 27th June.
Images: Robert Day
Monday, 1 June 2015
Listening to 'Lungs' is a reminder of what an exceptional debut it was for Florence Welch and her machine. It's also a reminder of everything this new album isn't.
It's a cliché, but 'Ceremonials' was a difficult second album, dialling everything up to eleven in the pursuit of 'epic'. It's no wonder this third album has been four years in the making and demanded a change of sound. Yet in the process, Welch has lost everything that made her unique. 'How Big How Blue How Beautiful' sounds empty.
To find this new sound, Welch has employed producer Markus Dravs, whose work includes Björk's seminal 'Homogenic', as well as the likes of Arcade Fire and Coldplay. Anyone hoping the album may reach these dizzying heights will be disappointed.
With Welch becoming a festival favourite, this new album aims to replicate that live sound. The predominant instrumentation is a typical rock band set-up, with the odd smattering of glittering percussion and horns - Fleetwood Mac are an obvious influence. Fittingly, Welch's vocal is often deeper and punchier. At times the album sounds evocative and cinematic: the lengthy title track for instance and its extended brass outro, or the shifting sounds of lead single What Kind Of Man. On ballads like Various Storms & Saints or the bluesy Long & Lost, her voice is gentler above sultry guitar and strings. Tracks like this stand out above generic indie rock fair like Ship To Wreck or Caught, or the meandering atmosphere of St Jude. At least Mother ends the album on a stand-out psychedelic note, but this is overall a raw, rock-inspired album that sounds more American than British. There's not a harp to be heard.
There's only so much a producer can do, however. The songwriting just isn't good enough, with much of the album passing by without leaving an impression. It seems that Welch has forgotten how to write melody over the last four years; as such this third album is lacking the anthems she's known for. She tries on Third Eye, but it's no Dog Days Are Over. This might be acceptable if the album were more intimate or personal, but lyrically this is the usual lofty rubbish with a sound that's different but no less expansive. In trying to reach new heights, Welch has her head up in the clouds.
How big, how blue, how disappointing.
* What Kind Of Man
* Long & Lost
Listen: 'How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful' is available now.