Friday, 30 October 2015

The State vs John Hayes @ The Kings Head Theatre

The State vs John Hayes @ The Kings Head Theatre

With the popularity of Orange Is The New Black, there’s certainly an appetite for stories set in female prisons. But Piper, Alex and co. wouldn’t stand a chance against John Hayes.

That’s right. John Hayes. Male. In this one woman play from Epsilon Productions, Lucy Roslyn plays Elyese Dukie, a female prisoner on Death Row suffering from multiple personality disorder. Or maybe it’s actually John Hayes in the body of a woman? Or any other of the personalities in the story of her life? We’re never really sure if she’s addressing us, or the audience inside her head. With her masculine gait and androgynous looks, Roslyn has cleverly created a character that represents every inmate, every gender and every sexual persuasion based on research into real female killers, lending the play a deliciously chilling authenticity. It’s also what makes her such a frightening yet strangely alluring figure.

Through extended monologue she explains her past, her present and her future. It’s a disjointed and fragmented tale that is often difficult to follow, though that only feeds into the notion of the character’s psychiatric imbalance, mirrored by subtle changes in lighting. Ultimately it’s a story about love and the lengths some people will go to, even changing their personality. But was that really a conscious decision? What really drives someone into psychopathic territory?

The story itself is less important than the incredible performance of Roslyn. As she notes herself in the programme, can you be ruthless and compassionate at the same time? It’s a question that’s at the heart of her performance, a performance that utterly embodies this character. She’s charismatic, charming, endearing, dangerous, unpredictable and delves into dark comic territory with a wicked smile. Most of all she is more human than monster. Somehow her delivery makes us sympathise with a psychopath as we sit transfixed and daren’t move out of fear, fascination, or worse – attracting her own steely gaze and the powerful force for good and/or evil in those dark brown eyes.

The State vs John Hayes is a truly captivating and provocative hour long show that’s far too short – we could easily spend more time in the company of Elyese Dukie. Perhaps, though, that’s the point. On Death Row life is cruelly all too short for those who society deems worthless. It’s left to us to decide if we agree.


Watch: The State vs John Hayes runs at the Kings Head Theatre until 22nd November as part of the #Festival45 of new writing.

The State vs John Hayes @ The Kings Head Theatre

The State vs John Hayes @ The Kings Head Theatre
Photos: Jemma Gross

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Seinabo Sey - Pretend

Seinabo Sey - Pretend

Now is not the best time to be releasing new pop-soul music. Adele The Almighty has returned and is breaking even more records left, right and centre, and that’s before her next album is even released. But there is another pop-soul artist more than worthy of your attention: Sweden’s Seinabo Sey.

You may even have heard of her already, thanks to the remix of her track Younger by a certain Norwegian DJ, Kygo. Younger, in its original form, is the opener on her debut album ‘Pretend’, providing a suitable introduction to her upbeat crossover sound as well as her rich, husky vocal that’s heavy with emotion.

If there’s one thing this singer can do, it’s apply her vocals to a whole range of styles. The title track has a dramatic, electronic pulse akin to V V Brown or Neneh Cherry; both Hard Time and Easy feature throbbing hand-clap beats reminiscent of Adele’s Rolling In The Deep and Michael Jackson’s They Don’t Really Care About Us; whilst Words is all frantic string stabs, whirling piano and hypnotic percussive beats; and Who is a vibrant take on funk. Throughout the album, there are elements of pop, soul, disco, gospel, R&B and more. You’d perhaps expect nothing less from someone from Swedish-Gambian descent – her music pairs the nagging melodies of the former tradition, with the rhythmic percussion of Africa. There’s certainly more warmth here than your typical icy cool Scandi songstress.

The mix of styles and genres makes for some exciting tracks, but they’re interspersed with some pedestrian pop. Poetic for instance will please fans of Emeli Sandé, whilst Sorry is a weary yet forgettable ballad and Still revolves around Ed Sheeran-esque guitar lines. You is the pick of the ballads here, with its raw and emotive use of vocoder, whilst closer Burial (a response to her father’s death) makes a grand and personal statement.

Still, Sey is at her best singing forceful, punchy, experimental tracks and that’s not quite sustained here. There’s certainly potential for a boundary pushing artist to break out, but for now a little more focus in her sound is required to iron out the inconsistency.


* Pretend
* Easy
* Words

Listen: ‘Pretend’ is out now.

Invisible Treasure @ The Ovalhouse

Invisible Treasure @ The Ovalhouse

It’s always a slightly concerning sign when you’re sent “tests” to do before a theatre show. In the case of Invisible Treasure from production company fanSHEN, we were sent some optical illusions and a personality test. Presumably these were to get us “in the mood” for the production to follow, but in reality it seems like little more than a gimmick.

The show itself is…not really a show at all. We’re ushered into a white box of a room that provides the space for this “immersive theatre project”. The carpet is soft, a series of circles are cut out of it, coloured rectangles litter the walls, and a huge, seemingly omniscient, fluffy bunny sits ominously in the corner. A screen dictates instructions for each videogame-like level and it’s up to the audience of strangers to interpret these and perform certain tasks. These include feeding creatures projected on to the ceiling, stopping a noise, and dancing to different styles of music. All seem designed to ensure we lose our inhibitions and make fools of ourselves.

The best are those games that involve group participation and collaboration. One “bonus round” had us standing in shape formations from a circle to a star and it was up to us to arrange and organise ourselves. For others, though, the instructions were far too obscure and with little visual or aural feedback it was unclear exactly how to progress, no matter how relaxing the music was.

Also unclear is the point of it all. It’s meant to explore the ideas of teamwork and individual agency, but it all feels too vague and never gets to grips with any one theme. Moreover, how is this theatrical? Where is the performance? Or are we meant to be performing in our own bizarre show?

On exiting the box in the show’s final stage, the outside is covered in questions and we’re invited to inscribe our answers with marker pens. These vary from the heavily loaded (what can we do collaboratively that we can’t achieve alone?), to the philosophical (who is the rabbit?), to the open-ended (what next?). Indeed, what next? Clearly we’re meant to go away and think about our time in the box with the rabbit, to consider how we live our lives, our very existence.

Me? I went home for a cup of tea.


Watch: Invisible Treasure runs at The Ovalhouse until 14th November. 

Invisible Treasure @ The Ovalhouse

Invisible Treasure @ The Ovalhouse
Photos: Cat Lee

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Spectre (2015) - Sam Mendes

There are two James Bonds. The first is the wise-cracking, woman loving, silly gadget using, evil villain beating, eyebrow raising hero that holds his licence to kill with a large dose of campy eccentricity (thank you very much indeed Roger Moore *cough*). The second is the cold, brutal killing machine we’ve come to recognise in Daniel Craig’s more recent films – his licence comes with a heavy burden. After all, Bond is a spy, a killer and a misogynist – if anything he’s a likeable anti-hero who travels to glamorous locations to do a very un-glamorous job.

The opening of Spectre epitomises this latter Bond – a sequence set in Mexico City where he lures a woman to her hotel room before promptly leaving her to pursue his target, culminating in a violent mid-air fight over the city. This is a man who uses others in order to do his duty and as the Día de Muertos festival symbolises, it ends in death. It’s followed by Sam Smith’s quietly intense yet romantic song Writing’s On The Wall that certainly reflects the inner turmoil of Craig’s Bond as he’s continually haunted by his past, a theme mirrored by Thomas Newman’s orchestral score as well as the film title itself.

With this film, though, director Sam Mendes has amalgamated the two Bonds – the harsh realism of twentieth century Bond with the gadgets, women and megalomaniac villains of the past. It’s as if he’s trying to create the ultimate Bond film. But didn’t he do that already with Skyfall?

Together, the four Craig Bond films create a homogenous narrative arc, not only in plot but within the Bond canon. Casino Royale remains the high point as it tore up the rule book, but film by film Bond has been pieced back together – psychologically and structurally. Skyfall created a clean slate with the introduction of new characters, but Spectre now feels like a step backwards – it’s the most formulaic Bond in years.

It begins with that exciting opening, before introducing all the classic elements: awkward meetings with M (a stern Ralph Fiennes), gadgets from Q (the ever likeable Ben Whishaw), a bulky evil henchman (a mostly silent yet imposing Dave Bautista with shades of Jaws), car chases, snow chases (though minus skis), a train sequence reminiscent of From Russia With Love, and plenty more links to the past. Most of all there’s the base of Christoph Waltz’s Oberhauser, with architecture and colour palette that’s ripped straight from 1962 – a fun throwback to the past but without straying into camp. Here we finally have a supervillain worthy of Bond, cleverly tying up the loose threads from the previous films into a satisfying conclusion. Initially introduced in suitably shadowy silhouette, you can’t imagine anyone but Waltz playing this role: weird, frightening and sadistic. He even has a pet cat. He’s also not the only villain, with Andrew Scott revelling in his role as the scheming Denbigh, though his story feels secondary to the main thread.

Spectre is often a thrilling retro ride with all the quips, glamour and tense action you’d expect, but it’s also somewhat predictable and doesn’t advance the formula it adheres to in any meaningful way – with its female characters in particular. Naomie Harris’ Moneypenny is disappointingly stuck behind a desk after such a spectacular introduction in Skyfall; Monica Bellucci is woefully underused as mere sex object; and Lèa Seydoux doesn’t quite convince as a suitable love interest, though as a counterpart sultry killer she excels. Craig, though, continues to be an alluring presence, pairing machismo with elegant style and adding in a few more comic quips than before with a wry, charming smile. By contrast, Mendes’ directing feels a bit by-the-numbers: subtly stylish, yet lacking the standout shots and artistic vision of Skyfall. Thankfully Tom Ford provides plenty of style in Bond’s outfits – doesn’t every man dream of being dressed by him?

There’s a slight sense of disappointment with Spectre, then, despite it being an excellent spy thriller that moves slowly but ultimately satisfies. But then, this was never going to live up to the hype of the most successful Bond film in history. What remains is a worthy entry in the series and a fitting end to this particular story arc.

So where do we go from here? Can Bond move with modern times – can he be black, gay or even a she? Or does Spectre prove that Bond will always have a foot in the past? If there’s one thing there shouldn’t be in the next film, it’s Daniel Craig. He’s created a superb Bond that is a true embodiment of the character, a Cold War relic who’s equally an essential figure in modern cinema. It will certainly be a tough job for whoever comes next. Yet Spectre brings us neatly full circle. After this, it’s finally time for some fresh blood.


Watch: Spectre is out now.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Titus Andronicus @ New Wimbledon Studios

Titus Andronicus @ New Wimbledon Studios

As one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest and most violent plays, it’s all too easy to play on the darker tones of Titus Andronicus. Yet Arrows and Traps have strayed so far into “edgy” territory that their production is a total cliché.

Empty, minimalist staging? Check. Modern rock soundtrack? Check. Scaffold set? Check (it’s even placed too far back, obscuring the audience’s view). Fringe theatres may be small and compact, but the black box of the New Wimbledon Studio should be used as a blank canvas, not a backdrop.

Further, the setting is a confused mix of Roman military might and a dystopian future; in total it bears more resemblance to The Hunger Games than anything. This is clearly an attempt to make the play more relevant to a modern audience, but the result is a jumbled tone. The opening political battle is accompanied by clever use of video, but this is then underused in the remains of the play; soldiers are trained by Titus using Wii remotes in one particularly odd scene; and Young Lucius sends arrows on a mock Facebook that’s meant to be political satire but just comes off as a bit silly. Juxtaposed with militaristic movement and sword fighting, the production never hangs together as a coherent whole.

This lack of lucidity extends to the acting. On a basic level some lines are garbled, though Cornelia Baumann stands out as Marcia Andronicus for displaying excellent diction. By contrast, Spencer Lee Osborne goes too far with an overwrought and over-enunciated delivery as Aaron, though he clearly revels in the character’s Machiavellian playfulness. Then there’s Remy Moynes’ Lavinia who speaks little at all but delivers a touching performance. As the main players, Elizabeth Appleby’s Tamora and Matthew Ward’s Titus lack stage presence, Ward especially either whispering or shouting his lines. And Annie McKenzie’s Clown is given a more prominent role as she shuffles around the periphery with her pigeons, but the character makes little sense in the context of the play.

It’s the blood that most people remember, but here the company struggle with the balance between horror and humour. The po-faced, overly-serious speeches of the first few acts eventually make way for an amusingly gruesome end that lacks the dramatic intensity the earlier scenes lead towards. The final pie-eating scene soon descends into a pantomime of blood, death after death littering the stage with bodies. Rather than a darkly comic revenge plot, this Titus just feels a bit daft, lacking originality and sophistication.


Watch: Titus Andronicus runs at the New Wimbledon Studios until 14th November.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Adele - Hello

Adele - Hello

“Hello…it’s me”.

It’s such a striking opening to a song. And not just because of its obvious meme power. Immediately it puts the singer on the back foot, apologetic, exposed. In one short sentence, Adele has drawn us into the song, and the start of a new album cycle.

The real power of Adele’s songwriting, as this one phrase exemplifies, is its simplicity. Just as she herself shuns the limelight and fame, her lyrics too remain grounded in reality. We can all relate to her songs, we can read into them our own experiences. Hello is no different. “Hello from the other side”, she calls in the thunderous chorus. But what is the “other side”? The other side of a relationship? The world? Life? Is this a song about a breaking relationship? A friendship? A death? That’s not for her to answer. Adele delivereth and we doth receive.

At the essence of Adele’s sound is a balance between delicacy and power. That opening lyric immediately instills a sense of intimacy before the lofty, sweeping chorus melody that’s as cinematic as anything she’s sung before. Greg Kurstin’s subtle yet pop production matches this, gentle piano chords making way for a richer texture that gradually layers in tiny moments: the muted beats; the hushed backing vocalists; the way the drums launch us into the final chorus; those declamatory church bells; the way her breath catches in her throat after the final note. Through its construction and performance, it is quite simply a beautiful pop song.

Then there’s the video. Directed by Xavier Dolan who’s 2014 film Mommy was a critical success, its sepia tone and soft focus emphasise the theme of reminiscence, as well as literally showing Adele in a beautiful light. More so, it eschews the obvious sense of drama in the song, telling a moving love story that supports the song – what every good pop video should do. Just don’t mention that horrible flip phone…

Hello, then, is the pop song that every other artist who’s released a song in 2015 wishes they’d written. The countdown to ‘25’ begins now.

Hello Adele. It’s good to have you back.


Listen: Hello is out now, ‘25’ is released on 20th November.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Pentatonix - Pentatonix

Pentatonix - Pentatonix

There’s no denying that Pentatonix are phenomenal a capella singers. But more so, it’s their arrangements that set them above the competition. A capella singing thrives on cover versions and Pentatonix have excelled, from their breakthrough viral video of Gotye’s Somebody I Used To Know, to Internet smash Daft Punk. Their arrangements are filled with little touches, flourishes and crunchy harmonies that are nearly always smart and inventive, whether singing a song relatively straight or turning it on its head. These sorts of arrangements are successful because they take the familiar and twist them into something unique, a skill that the five-piece have thrived on.

However, Pentatonix have their sights on something higher: pop success. And that seemingly requires two developments in their sound: songwriting and production.

So let’s revise that opening statement: Pentatonix are phenomenal a capella singers and arrangers, but their songwriting needs work. Increasingly their EPs have contained more and more original songs and ‘Pentatonix’ – their first full album – is almost entirely original material. Where their covers are reimagined versions of popular hits with recognisable hooks, they don’t have that luxury with original songs. No matter how interesting the arrangements, or how novel it is hearing original songs performed vocally alone, it’s difficult to hear these sorts of songs in the charts.

It’s not helped by the dated sounds and clichéd lyrics. Opener Na Na Na might be catchy, but it’s based around a nonsense lyric. The laidback feel and jazz harmonies of Can’t Sleep Love and doo-wop Misbehavin’ sound old fashioned. And whilst Sing may be the group’s statement of intent, lyrics like “Sing it out as hard as you can / Make ‘em here you from L.A to Japan” and “Sing it with your hands in the sky / Light it up like it’s the 4th of July” are Disney levels of nauseating (Katy Perry reference notwithstanding). This isn't the cool singing group many have grown to love.

Luckily the second half of the album is an improvement as it moves into darker, more contemporary territory (even if Cracked sounds like a cover of Ed Sheeran’s Sing). Ref and First Things First have more of an R&B feel, whilst the syncopated rhythms and finger clicks of Rose Gold are reminiscent of a more spectral futuristic sound. Water sees Kirstie (the group’s only female) taking lead vocal in an edgier, more percussive arrangement. And New Year’s Day is a euphoric stunner. Light In The Hallway is the real highlight, though, proving that a relatively simple ballad arrangement sung with haunting harmonies is often most effective – something the band surely discovered from their own Run To You. The yearning “goodnight” lyric is sublime.

The group have still managed to sneak in a cover, this time Shai’s If I Ever Fall In Love (also covered by East 17 and Gabrielle as If You Ever). They’re joined by Jason Derulo, though his inclusion is unnecessary beyond an impressive falsetto note (he doesn’t even sing his own name). The deluxe version of the album additionally includes covers of Jack Ü’s Where Are Ü Now feat. Justin Bieber and Major Lazer’s Lean On, two of the best covers the group have delivered in some time.

So what about production? In their pursuit of chart success, the group have gradually polished their recordings more and more. In this album, their voices feel more over-produced than ever before, given a glossy coating and wrapped in reverb. It sounds far less intimate and far less like they’re actually singing together in a group. And isn’t that the whole point of a capella singing? Watching the group perform live is still the best way to experience their music.

Whether Pentatonix have achieved their pop agenda remains to be seen, but on the evidence of this debut album they’re certainly well on their way – they’ve cornered their niche and could well start a revolution. Equally it proves they’re more live singers than recording artists.


Gizzle’s Choice:
* Water
* New Year’s Day
* Light In The Hallway

Listen: ‘Pentatonix’ is out now.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Demi Lovato - Confident

Demi Lovato - Confident

Is there anything more annoying in pop than an incredible single followed by a disappointing album?

Pretty much sums up Demi Lovato's career.

Give Your Heart A Break. Heart Attack. And now Cool For The Summer. It's an exceptional pop song. But then, you'd expect nothing less from Max Martin and Savan Kotecha. The coquettish sexuality that's not overplayed. The breathless vocal delivery. The reminiscence of Katy Perry's I Kissed A Girl. The way the guitar unexpectedly launches in before the chorus. The vocal swoop on "body tyyyyype" that's like a musical slut drop. This song is far more than cool for just the summer.

But then you listen to the rest of the album and it's all PIPE DOWN DEMI.

There is only one volume for Demi Lovato's vocal and that is LOUD. This is fine when delivering edgier pop punk, but not every chorus has to be shouted. Even the Christina Aguilera ballads Stone Cold and closer Father just descend into nasal wailing. It leads to an album that is a relentless bombardment of the ears, despite an impressive vocal range. It's a shame as the album's sentiment is meant to reflect overcoming her past struggles of depression, drug abuse and an eating disorder, but whilst she displays plenty of passion, she's unable to tap into this with any vocal subtlety.

This would be more acceptable if the pop songs were up to scratch. They're not. Confident provides a brassy (literally) opener with Kanye-esque swagger, but elsewhere Old Ways has a non-chorus straight out of 2014, Wildfire is far from Ryan Tedder's best work, and the remaining tracks are largely overwrought power pop but without the hooks. That's before she takes a jolting turn into trap with Black Widow Kingdom Come featuring Iggy Azalea and Waitin for You featuring Sirah. It just feels out of character - the hip-hop style should be left to fellow Disney star Selena Gomez.

'Confident' is a disappointing album, then. Lovato has far more personality than so many popstars, but yet again she's unable to translate that into an album of actual bangers as opposed to just banging on. She should've written a song about mugs.


Gizzle's Choice:
* Confident
* Cool For The Summer
* For You

Listen: 'Confident' is out now.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Sicario (2015) - Denis Villeneuve

Sicario (2015) - Denis Villeneuve

Sicario is probably one of the best, most tense thrillers of the year. Any film that has its audience on the edge of their seats during a traffic jam surely deserves praise.

The premise is fairly straightforward and familiar to fans of director Denis Villeneuve. FBI Agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is sent to work as part of a government task force investigating drug cartels along the US-Mexican border. After leading a SWAT team that discovers dead bodies lining the walls of a home in Arizona, she is compelled to uncover the perpetrator and agrees to join those fighting the war on drugs along the border.

And so this brutal, bloody film goes. Except it's not quite that simple. Heading up the new team is the swaggering special agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) who certainly doesn't mince his words; and the mysterious Alejandro played with quiet menace by Benicio Del Toro. The operation is all kinds of shady, with neither man explaining their methodology to Kate with any sense of clarity. These men fight dirty in a world of guerilla warfare, ambiguous loyalty and shockingly gruesome violence. Is it even lawful?

That's the million dollar question, but this war on drugs forms the skeleton on which the real meat of the film hangs: Kate herself. She is our eyes and ears in this film - when she asks her leaders what's going on, she speaks for us all. Through her idealistic view we witness the events of the film, we question what she questions and, in the end, when she is forced to sign legal papers, we too are expected to be complicit in the events of the film.

Further, she is the only major female character of the film, a woman in a world of masculine bravado. Does this make her a strong character? She certainly eschews the usual female tropes: she's an excellent soldier chosen for her talent, she's not concerned with her appearance and she's more than happy to hang out with the lads. And despite some bold performances from her male cast members, Blunt holds her own delivering confidence and vulnerability in equal measure.

Or perhaps the film is anti-feminist? Why exactly did this task force invite a woman along for the ride? Do they think that, as female, she is weaker and easier to shock? Her sexuality and her loyalty to the law are certainly seen as a weakness used against her as, in the end, she is overbearingly manipulated by men. It's just another layer of ambiguity in this thought-provoking film.

More than anything else, though, Sicario is worth seeing for the cinematography of Roger Deakins, accompanied by the deep rumbling score of Jóhann Jóhannsson. Yes there is tense action here, the film's climactic battle shot through disorientating night vision reminiscent of Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty. But it's the quieter moments that impress: the bleak desert vistas; the overhead shots of the maze-like Mexican streets; the stunning use of light, shadow and silhouette. One shot in particular stands out: the soldiers filmed in silhouette sinking into an unknown horizon. It's a shot that sums up the danger and mystery of the film, the descent into a dark, murky underworld. Is this really suitable for a woman?


Watch: Sicario is out now.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

The Martian (2015) - Ridley Scott

The Martian (2015) - Ridley Scott

What is it with Ridley Scott and stomach surgery in space? Alien had the infamous birthing scene, Prometheus had a self-abortion, and it's barely ten minutes into The Martian before Matt Damon's Mark Watney is performing surgery on his stomach.

That's after he's left all alone on Mars when the other members of his expedition crew escape a heavy storm assuming him dead. How will he survive? Provide food for himself? Contact Earth for rescue? In his own words: "I'm going to have to science the shit out of this".

And that's exactly what he does. Whether growing potatoes on a hostile planet, repurposing communications technology, or a seemingly ludicrous escape are scientifically possible will be far beyond the majority of the audience. For the most part, The Martian feels more like an extended advertisement for the remarkable technological advancements and bright minds of NASA than an actual narrative driven film. Most dialogue comes from Watney's video diaries and narrating his own actions, paralleled with those on Earth planning his rescue. There's little tension, a lot of science, and it's a long while before anything goes life-threateningly wrong.

Suspend your disbelief, though, and there's a decent, enjoyable film here. Once the rescue mission is underway there is some gripping action, though with Watney's happy-go-lucky personality there's little doubt he won't make it.

But this is a Ridley Scott film, so there must be more to it, right?

Wrong. This is actually just a simple blockbuster, perhaps in answer to the overly complex and philosophical Prometheus. It's a very enjoyable one for sure, beautifully made with a superb cast of recognisable faces. The cinematography is also stunning, juxtaposing the claustrophobia of living in a space station with awesome vistas of the dusty, desolate Mars. A minimalist score from Harry Gregson-Williams adds to the ambience, whilst diagetic disco music provides comic relief.

Yet this could have been a study in loneliness, but the film never delves into the psychology of a man left to survive on a planet alone. Damon's botanist is seemingly too cheerful, methodical science taking over the human mind. We never glimpse him missing his family, or the experience of his family themselves. And although Damon is a likeable leading man, the script never allows his performance to transcend the film.

The Martian could have explored the inner-turmoil of a Captain dealing with leaving a crew member behind, debating the possibility of mutiny. Instead, Jessica Chastain's Melissa Lewis is sorely underused.

It also could have looked further into the international community joining forces to save a man lost in space, but instead the film shies away from politics.

What we're left with, then, is a film that's not as psychologically interesting as Moon, without the emotional pay-off of Apollo 13, even if its science appears more plausible than Interstellar from which the main players are stolen. Unusually for Scott, The Martian is an interesting, entertaining yet shallow film. For fans, the stomach surgery will have to suffice.


Watch: The Martian is out now.

Petite Meller @ Heaven

Few French popstars are able to make it in the UK charts. Aside from dance artists like Daft Punk, Justice, Madeon and *shudder* Guetta, the only French singer most people can name is Edith Piaf.

Petite Meller is set to change that. Arriving via Africa ("my inspiration"), she delivers catchy electro-pop with a large dollop of ethnic drums, flutes and dance rhythms. This is probably the most successful African-pop crossover since Paul Simon's Graceland.

Her purposeful cultural appropriation is all part of the artistic vision. She's joined onstage by three African instrumentalists, which only highlights her whiteness, her waif-like, elfish charm. Dressed in tiny outfits with huge hats and childlike make-up, her cutesy image is oddly sexual as she squeaks breathlessly through each song, though you get the sense this covers some steely determination. As her repeated calls for lighting changes prove, she is a woman in charge of her own aesthetics. The visual melting pot is left for the audience to decipher.

More so, this results in some great pop that's refreshing amongst charts full of Americanised polished bangers. Yes there are elements of disco, 80s electro and computerised bleeps, but it's joined with jazz saxophone, African flavours and a sense of chic sophistication. So far, she's riding predominantly on the success of breakthrough hit Baby Love, with its video that seems more like a Comic Relief advert. Yet the remaining tracks in her short set continue the utter joy of this song, latest single Barbaric in particular as she's joined onstage by some elderly dancers from the video. Far from misguided cultural appropriation, the gig is a night of inclusiveness where young, old, black and white join together to simply enjoy some pop music.

And despite not having the strongest of vocals, Meller herself exudes charm, style and boundless aerobic energy. An infectious performer who radiates happiness, she just might make it over here yet.


Thursday, 15 October 2015

Selena Gomez - Revival

Selena Gomez - Revival

If previous album ‘Stars Dance’ saw Gomez maturing from her Disney days (if you can call a string of forced Rihanna-esque sex jams “maturing”), then this new album sees her reaching actual maturity. It’s title, ‘Revival’, is a fitting one – Gomez has finally shed her cutesy image, left behind her relationship with Bieber, and been reborn as an R&B-pop star. Just look at the cover art.

Of course, many will still read into the lyrics. It’s almost too easy to do so: “I feel like I’ve awakened lately, the chains around me are finally breaking”, she sings on the opening title track, whilst album highlight ‘Sober’ revolves around the chorus “you don’t know how to love me when you’re sober”, perhaps a nod to Bieber’s not-so-squeaky-clean reputation. Equally, the album is simply full of great pop songs. Gomez is above pointing fingers, it’s about time everyone else caught up.

‘Revival’ is a darker, more sensual affair than Gomez’s past material, as lead single Good For You exemplifies. She’s clearly been listening to plenty of Drake and The Weeknd (hasn’t everyone?), lending a strong hip-hop feel to the track even without A$AP Rocky’s rap verse. Fittingly, there's a misogynist argument that Good For You is less empowering and more yielding to a man (the repeated "I just wanna look good for you"), but there's just something heart-stopping about the lyric "syncopate my skin to how you're breathing".

Sonically, then, ‘Revival’ is still following trends rather than creating or subverting them. Kill Em With Kindness, for instance, is a fairly generic club track with obligatory whistle motif, whilst the likes of Me & The Rhythm and Survivors are polished and easily likeable if nothing new.

The key difference with this album, though, is the assistance of some major pop talent on almost every track. Stargate return after they produced her last big hit Come & Get It; Max Martin, Mattman & Robin and Benny Blanco all offer some input; whilst Rock Mafia and Hit-Boy bring a harder edge to the production. The result is a far stronger offering than Gomez’s previous albums. Yes there’s an obligatory ballad in Camouflage in which she offers some Disney-esque vulnerability, and closer Rise is literally preaching to the audience (“make your higher power proud”) though its staccato groove and gospel choir make for an intoxicating mix. But then there’s the percussive finger-clicks of Hands To Myself and its knowing “I know I could but why would I want to?” lyric. There’s the twisting, sinewy sounds of Same Old Love. There’s the Latino fire of sex club jam Body Heat and the yearning nocturnal sensuality of sex club jam Good For You. And there’s a brilliant pop single in Sober that pairs a soaring melancholic chorus with a heavy beat and plenty of shouty “heys!”.

You may have disregarded Gomez back in her Disney days. You may have disregarded her last album as wannabe rubbish. But with ‘Revival’ she’s finally hit the jackpot. And if she’s following Britney’s trajectory, there’s still plenty more to come.


Gizzle’s Choice:
* Hands To Myself
* Sober
* Good For You

Listen: ‘Revival’ is available now.

Friday, 9 October 2015

New Pop Roundup

It's been a while since I've done one of these and I'm sorry - the doors to Q4 have now been opened and a load of new big releases have hit our ears at once. There's the addictive Ed Sheeran diss track from Ellie Goulding (and another she's just released); there's Gaga covering Chic for Tom Ford; there's that dire Little Mix song that sees them living in a Motown past; and there's the appalling Naughty Boy & Beyoncé collaboration that not even she seems to give two sh*ts about. There's also Sam Smith's Bond theme that's really quite good (don't @ me).

But let's forget those and focus on some lesser-known tracks you may have missed that are worthy of your precious time...

Olly Murs - Kiss Me

Olly Murs - Kiss Me

Yes, ok, Olly Murs is hardly "lesser-known". But this track is out today and it's his best track in a while - even if it's a total rip of Nick Jonas. All we need now is a Tinashe remix...

Listen: Kiss Me is out today.

Tinashe - Player (feat. Chris Brown)

Tinashe - Player (feat. Chris Brown)

Speaking of which, Tinashe also has a new single out. Is this her best? Not quite - debut album 'Aquarius' was full of great R&B tracks (Bet and 2 On especially), not that too many people took notice. Player isn't quite a game-changer, but it indicates a more pop-focused sound that should bring a much wider audience. And don't fret - there's a version that thankfully omits Chris Brown's verse.

Listen: Player is out now.

Daughter - Doing The Right Thing

Daughter - Doing The Right Thing

The icy guitars may shimmer, the beats may clatter, and Elena Tonra's gentle vocal may haunt, but it's the raw storytelling at the heart of Daughter's sound that is so arresting. Doing The Right Thing, the band's first single since debut album 'If You Leave', is no different. "But she isn't coming back for me", Tonra sings of her mother, "she's already gone". Fittingly, the music is intertwined with a heart-wrenching, captivating video. Devastating.

Listen: Doing The Right Thing is out now.

Noonie Bao - Pyramids

Noonie Bao - Pyramids

Sweden's Noonie Bao first broke through in 2012 with Do You Still Care, but has since worked predominantly as a songwriter for the likes of Avicii, Clean Bandit and Tove Styrke. Now she's emerging on her own once more, Pyramids exemplifying her quirky, punchy, catchy style that's so far been criminally underrated. She's certainly strong enough to go it alone.

Listen: Pyramids is out now.

Erik Hassle - Natural Born Lovers

Erik Hassle - Natural Born Lovers

Another singer who's gone underrated outside of his native Sweden is Erik Hassle. Funky, summer jam No Words certainly boosted his profile this year, but the nightmarish R&B-pop of Natural Born Lovers is slick, sensual and a bridge to the darker, spectral sound of his previous work. 

Listen: Natural Born Lovers is available now.

Kyla La Grange - So Sweet

Kyla La Grange - So Sweet

Kyla's last album, the spectral electro of 'Cut Your Teeth', finally brought her music to a bigger audience. Or was that the Kygo remix? Either way, she's now returning with a stomping electro-pop track that should see her blooming into the popstar she was born to be.

Listen: So Sweet is out now.

Annie - Cara Mia

Annie - Cara Mia

Later this month Norway's Annie returns with a new EP produced by Richard X, from which Cara Mia and the Eurodance-tastic Dadaday are taken. The former is perhaps a little subdued, but it's a slow-burner that will soon weedle it's way into your head. Also, the artwork is quite something.

Listen: 'Endless Vacation' is released on October 16th.

Alexx Mack - Sunglasses

Alexx Mack - Sunglasses

Another artist with a new EP out is L.A's Alexx Mack - 'Like We're Famous' is out today. Sunglasses is the lead single, a sugary rush of synths and earworms, but its 80s electro sound is given a funkier spin on Bad and Retro Romance. From these tracks, let's hope Mack becomes more Gaga-superstar and less Betty-Who-fade-into-obscurity.

Listen: 'Like We're Famous' is out now.

The 1975 - Love Me

The 1975 - Love Me

Love Me sounds more like a Red Hot Chili Peppers track from 1995 than the work of Manchester's The 1975. Yet this is the sound of the band taking a risk, their jangling funk guitars now sounding abrasive against horn stabs and electronic wobbles in a stark soundscape. It stomps, it wails and it's all sorts of brilliant.

Listen: Love Me is out now.

Anna Of The North - The Dreamer

Anna Of The North - The Dreamer

'The North' in question is, of course, Scandinavia (Norway specifically). And as the title suggests, this is dreamy, evocative and atmospheric. That may just seem like typical Scandi-pop, but once the beat kicks in the pulse quickens into spine-tingling thrills. "It's not about you anymore" she chants, gaining uplifting strength with each repetition.

Listen: The Dreamer is out now.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

Rudimental - We The Generation

Rudimental - We The Generation

If there was one major criticism levelled at Rudimental’s debut ‘Home’, it was the repetition of their formula. Nobody wants an album where every track sounds the same. Creating a sound is to be commended; rinsing it to death, not so much.

Two years later we have follow-up ‘We The Generation’, an album that fails to live up to the ambition and grandeur of its title. Distilled down, Rudimental’s music essentially consists of drum and bass breakbeats, soulful guest vocals, and lots of trumpets. That’s as true now as it was before. It’s not long into opening track I Will For Love that they’ve ticked every box. Eighteen tracks later and it feels like those tick boxes are more like a noose around the band’s necks; for the listener it’s a time machine back to 2012, when breakthrough hit Feel The Love was omnipresent and the Olympics were in full swing. The only thing missing is Emeli Sandé.

Geejam Studios in Jamaica seems like the perfect place for Rudimental’s laidback vibes and trumpet calls, which now have a touch of reggae cool about them. It’s also the perfect location for these sun-dappled, alcohol-soaked summer anthems, though arriving in October you can’t help but feel they’ve missed the boat. Still, for anyone looking to recapture the warmer months, there are some incredibly polished tracks here – vibrant, energetic and infectiously rhythmic. The likes of I Will Never Let You Go and Love Ain’t Just A Word are as strong as any of their previous singles, even if they sound too familiar. The band may have their limits, but they undeniably work well within them.

It takes their vocal collaborators to force them out of their comfort zone – some more readily than others. Anne-Marie may not have appeared on ‘Home’, but she’s since toured with the band and finally features on a variety of this album’s tracks: from the pulsing 90s house of Rumour Mill, to the pop funk of Foreign World, and the subdued, Naughty Boy-esque ballad All That Love. More successful are the tracks with Ed Sheeran (the guitar-driven Lay It All On Me especially), Lianne La Havas (Needn’t Speak tackle bossa rhythms, whilst Breathe brings a disco flavour) and the late Bobby Womack (New Day adds an old school rhythm and blues feel to the typical horn stabs and frantic beats). MNEK reappears from the last album, delivering a house track whose influence is far more his own than that of Rudimental themselves. And of course there’s a track featuring Ella EyreToo Cool - which sounds like an Ella Eyre track, thereby sounding like a Rudimental track. How meta.

The result is an album that’s inconsistent and not always coherent. There are tracks here that sound like Rudimental-by-numbers with a guest vocalist tacked on. And there are tracks that sound more like the guest vocalist alone, with Rudimental’s name tacked on. Mostly, whilst the band do experiment outside of their safety zone, the risks don’t always pay off. Are Rudimental producers for other artists? Or artists in their own right? And will they forever be stuck in a time warp? These are questions that ‘We The Generation’ fails to answer.


Gizzle’s Choice:
* Never Let You Go
* Rumour Mill
* Lay It All On Me

Listen: ‘We The Generation’ is available now.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Janet Jackson - Unbreakable

Janet Jackson - Unbreakable

Has Janet Jackson ever sounded so much like Michael?

Vocally at least, she’s taken on a deeper timbre that sounds eerily like his voice, with short breaths and inflections as if genuinely channelling his spirit. Musically, though, she’s always been in her brother’s shadow, never quite gaining that marriage of popularity and innovative production. Even with Michael gone, that remains the same.

In many ways, though, Janet has always been the more progressive artist and ‘Unbreakable’ proves that she still has the capacity to surprise us. That said, this album is rooted firmly in the past – thematically and musically. There’s a faint narrative here of key moments in her life – her successes, her failures, her private life – and how they link in with social and political issues. “I had this great epiphany”, she sings at the end of Shoulda Known Better, “and Rhythm Nation was the dream, I guess next time I’ll know better”. It’s followed by the beautifully touching After You Fall, clearly inspired by her brother’s death.

For the most part, ‘Unbreakable’ is a reflective album and it’s in these quieter moments that Jackson’s softer side emerges, with a vocal laden with emotional weight. Her music has always had a tension between her up-tempo dance tracks and her sexy slow-jams – the latter sound appearing on the already dated No Sleeep featuring J.Cole – but the quieter tracks exemplify the maturity at the heart of ‘Unbreakable’. Far from the naïve, youthful dreamer she used to be, you get the sense that Jackson is a wise, hardened woman who has overcome adversity to become, on the penultimate track, Well Travelled. ‘Unbreakable’ is her story.

Fittingly, then, this is musically something of an anthology of her past, covering the many genres she’s experimented with and somehow managing to sound simultaneously retro and modern. Tracks like Missy Elliot collaboration BURNITUP, No Sleeep and the soulful R&B jam of a title track all sound about ten years out of date, but there are some slick, sexy dance tracks here that fit nicely into modern tastes. Dammn Baby is Jackson in typically sexual mode accompanied by trap beats; The Great Forever takes a darker turn with its menacing bass and haunting vocal harmonies; and Night is all warm, funky synths, guitars and piano that subtly hark back to 90s hit Together Again. That Jackson has reunited with songwriting/production duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis is totally apparent in the confidence brimming from almost every track.

Dream Maker/Euphoria heralds the start of “Side 2”. Here, the album is a more experimental affair, influenced by a wide range of genres: from the R&B pop of 2 Be Loved, to the stark synth-rock sound of Take Me Away, the guitar-led ballad Lessons Learned, the minimalist finger clicks of Black Eagle, and the glorious World sounds of Well Travelled (that should’ve ended the album, rather than the jaunty Mo-Town funk of Gon’ B Alright). Jackson is pushing boundaries like she hasn’t for years, but whether she now has the popstar clout to deliver these tracks is another matter entirely.

“Am I done? Thank you”, she questions in the album’s final moments at the end of Gon’ B Alright. Part glimpse into her recording process with Jimmy Jam (we are literally jerked out of the dreamworld of her music back into cold reality), it perhaps also heralds the end of Jackson’s career. ‘Unbreakable’ neatly ties together her past, proving her indomitable spirit and solidifying the building blocks of her career and reputation. To progress from here may be a step too far.


Gizzle’s Choice:
* The Great Forever
* Shoulda Known Better
* Night

Listen: ‘Unbreakable’ is available now.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Duke Dumont @ Koko

Duke Dumont @ Koko

When is a dance act actually a pop act?

No, this isn’t a joke in need of a punch line. Looking at the charts today, it’s a legitimate question. Dance music is having something of a renaissance at the moment, with the likes of Calvin Harris, Sigala, Sigma, Kygo, Disclosure and Duke Dumont all hitting the charts. Yet when dance music is aimed squarely at mainstream pop audiences rather than rising from underground club scenes, is it really dance music in the same way? Or is chart-friendly EDM becoming a genre in itself?

It’s a debate that Duke Dumont is in the centre of. Back in 2013 he hit the top of the charts with breakthrough hit Need U (100%) featuring A*M*E, and followed it up last year with another number one (I Got U) and a number two (Won’t Look Back). Current single Ocean Drive is sure to follow suit. There’s no doubt these tracks sound like dance music, but they’re also pop bangers geared towards mainstream tastes. The British producer’s style merges 90s house, deep house and tropical house – basically everything that’s popular in dance music at the moment – into short, easy to swallow three minute packages. It’s vibrant, colourful and bass-driven, with heavy beat drops, vocal samples and catchy hooks. Essentially, it’s pop music.

Yet, at this one-off gig in Camden’s Koko, it seemed he was trying to distance himself from his pop breakthrough. Spunking his load far too early, he opened his set with Won’t Look Back followed by Need U (100%) – his two best songs – before settling into a dance set of space-age synths, bleeps, bloops and monotonous beats. Perhaps he’s craving credibility as a dance artist, but this extended dip in his set lost momentum and only served to highlight the pop power of his hits, a fact cemented by his final three tracks: a remix of Haim’s Falling, followed by his other two singles. Of course, he’s yet to release a full album, but if it follows the sounds of this gig it could well end up a mixed bag.

There’s a further issue in this debate though: when is a gig actually a club night? Dumont’s performance was essentially fist-pumping from behind a set of decks before a backdrop of psychedelic visuals and some great lasers and lighting. But does this really constitute a gig? For much of the middle portion of the night, his set was essentially background music to the dancing, drinking and conversations of the crowd, that incessant pumping fist his only interaction. The lack of featured singers not only accentuated a lack of “live” elements, but also a lack of personality. Who is Duke Dumont? After this gig, we still don’t know.

All this isn’t to belittle either genre. There is great skill in mixing and DJing; likewise it takes talent to write a pop hook. Duke Dumont seems to have both – few songs have the power to whip up a crowd like Need U (100%) – but here he operates in neutral middle ground. Dance fans will scorn his courting of mainstream tastes; pop fans will tire of the lack of personality. If Duke Dumont can favour both sides, he could be on to a winner, but that time is still yet to come.


Listen: Current single Ocean Drive is available now.