I say Summer, but of course, this being Britain, the term needs to be taken with a casserole dish-full of salt. We had a nice July, but August has essentially involved wind (of the meteorological variety) and rain. Still, all the more occasions to lock myself in my room watching off-the-wall movies and listening to demented music.
I've also been trying to diversify my artistic discoveries, so a big shout out to The Tate Modern Gallery for its excellent "Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance and the Camera" exhibition. Troubling and enthralling in turns, with great pictures by the likes of Nan Goldin, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Man Ray, among many, many others; and some excellent insights into modern paparazzi and surveillance cultures, and how they relate to art; it's well-worth a visit and still on until the 3rd of October. It may just be the best "mainstream" exhibition I've seen since the "Sex" one at the Barbican a few years ago.
Much more underground, The Hackney Wicked festival, which ran from July the 30th until August the 1st in London's downmarket, but potentially up-and-coming, Hackney Wick area, was a treasure-trove of street art, free gallery spaces and outdoor music. Surrounded by the area's dilapidated factories, run-down warehouses (nowadays occupied by artists for the most part) and the Olympic construction site, we bobbed our heads to funky Afrobeat, dub-drenched reggae or confrontational post-punk as people meandered in and out of the warehouse galleries where maverick artists were exposing their latest creations. I probably should have explored the galleries a bit better, but the sun was out and it was just as uplifting to guzzle beer to the sounds of hippy chatter and exciting music. An outstanding free event, and one I hope will keep going for years to come.
I also found time over the Summer to volunteer for London Pride, which is always a fabulous event. It was remarkably enjoyable trying to stop people pushing past the barriers along Oxford Street, and the true highlight was walking the length of the route behind the parade waving at the smiling crowds. Apart from some hateful heckling courtesy of the retards of Christian Voice, the usual party atmosphere and good will was omnipresent. Plus, at a club that evening I bumped into Rufus Wainwright!!! Even better (sorry Rufus), a week ago, I met Stephen Fry, got his autograph and even got a message from him on Twitter! Meeting one of one's idols is a brain-defeating experience (I think I managed to gibber some attempt at a compliment at the great man whilst holding out my pen with shaking hands), but he is a true gent (as is Rufus) and a truly wonderful human being. I love you, Mr. Fry!
Finally, it was my friend James French's (a future Turner Prize winner, I am sure) debut show at alternative nocturnal art exhibition Act Art on July the 7th. It takes place in Angel, in the venue that usually houses Goth/Industrial club night Slimelight. Over several floors a wide range of performance artists, painters, musicians, video artists and photographers were given free reign to explore the theme of "Censorship", resulting in quite a few naked people, weird and sometimes troubling installations and some amazing pieces (including James') over three or four floors. Between an overweight man and woman getting messages sewn onto their skin, a naked man being spat on, dead rats lain out in a fridge and a superb rock band performing in cages, my senses got a pretty intense assault during an event that went on until the wee hours before transferring the venue back over to the DJs to round things off at about 6am. Again, I'm looking forward to next year!
I also had the pleasure of seeing Patrick Wolf live for the second time. He may now be NME-fodder, and his music less and less inventive with each passing album, but he remains a top performer, a true beauty and an excellent craftsman of intelligent, sensual pop. Nothing special, but still a great night out. Plus, he played just about every song I wanted, including "Wind in the Wires". Lucky me!
And, of course, amidst all that there's been music, more music, movies and then some more music! Not just music I've been listening to, but also performing! My project with wonder guitarist Chris Gehlen is still going strong, and we should soon be recording a proper in-studio demo. Watch this space...
June was a month of noise for me, so inevitably that has continued. Although, there was a hiatus of blues listening, as I picked up a quartet of cheap compilations by Muddy Waters, Elmore James, Robert Johnson and Lightnin' Hopkins. Compilations are often patchy affairs, but all four produced some of the most electrifying and emotional blues ever recorded, from Waters' stomping electric Chicago sound to the stripped-down old-school acoustic playing of Johnson, via Hopkins' super-fast picking and James' demented slide. The latter two in particular, being less well-known, are real joys to discover, the sheer force of their respective guitar techniques, coupled with heartfelt, raw vocals, easily making up for the sometimes rough sound. Essential listening, all four of them, and I will be going into their music in a bit more detail soon.
In noise, I kept up my unreserved love for Californian duo Yellow Swans. Having started at the end of their career, with January's Going Places being their last-ever opus, I then moved back in time to check out their two previous major releases. But where that masterpiece balanced its raw noise with passages of dream-like ambient and hazy drone, 2006's Psychic Secession (Load Records), is an altogether more ferocious beast! Its very name suggests rupture, a ripping away of the psyche through sheer noise. Sonically, it owes more to the fierce electronic sounds of Kevin Drumm or, at its most extreme, Merzbow, as pure digital screes subsume all else in walls of brittle sound, as on lengthy opener "True Union". It's a 20-minute dark marathon, opening to high-pitched squalling and doom-laden chords, betraying The Swans' debt to dark metal and doom (see their excellent collaboration with Grey Daturas), before suddenly segueing into even more abrasive territory as chattering digital beats propel the track into industrial post-Gristle territory, complete with menacing, Prurient-esque vocals. At the end, the whole piece collapses into a wall of squealing drone. It's strident and driving where Going Places' tracks contained a groundswell of rumbling ambient atmosphere, and surely one of the greatest noise "songs" of all time. The title track (the shortest, at seven minutes) features a ghostly voice at the outset, which is itself then swallowed whole by more feedback and squealing drone, the beats getting faster and harsher, showing that the duo have even picked up some tips from listening to techno or house. Of course, this is electronic music beyond anything even Venetian Snares or Fuck Buttons could contemplate, noise dance for cyborgs at the end of the world. On the final two tracks, both over ten minutes in length, Yellow Swans continue to display their ability to subtly shift between harsh noise and moments of metal-tinged drone; raw vocal aggression followed by drifting atmospherics, even bringing to mind Ben Frost's impeccable 2009 opus By The Throat on closer "Velocity of the Yolk". This flexibility, the ability to constantly surprise as beats drop in and out and vocals pierce the murk before being subsumed again, is what makes Yellow Swans music so arresting.
Psychic Secession may be Yellow Swans' high-water mark, but that's a tough (and I'll admit, tentative) call to make, such is the consistently excellent level of their output (plus, there's just so much of it!), and their second Load album, At All Ends (2007) is no exception. Musically, it points towards Going Places, but where that album suffused all space and consciousness with an instant wave of droning feedback, the noise of At All Ends is more gradual. The opening sounds of the title track even evoke the spacey drone of seminal Japanese drone group Taj Mahal Travellers, as gong-like guitar riffs bounce off some more elaborate soloing, with heaps of reverb making the whole thing sound like it's being recorded in a cathedral. Gradually, stuttering digital noise creeps into the mix, the whole piece building up in layers, until the listener is subsumed by a tornado of raucous squeals and squalls. Late on, "Our Oases" is a slight but dense drone piece that sounds like a Going Places outtake, whilst "Mass Mirage" kicks off with almost Morricone-esque Western guitar before dissolving into planet-sized metal noise of the kind perfected by Skullflower or even Jesu. This again shows Yellow Swans' debt to the metal underground, from Fushitsusha to more traditional acts like Earth and SUNN O))). As such, At All Ends carries a mystical vibe less present in the nasty industrial roar of Psychic Secession. All three Yellow Swans albums I have carry different characters and tones. Delving into each universe, from the ferocity of Psychic Secession, via the cosmic metal of At All Ends, and ending with the blissful walls of sound of Going Places, the ultimate, and melancholic, truth is that we have lost one of the best noise/drone bands of all time.
Where Yellow Swans mainly use synths and electric guitar, particularly on At All Ends and Going Places and hence the comparisons with Skullflower, to generate walls of noise, Illinois native Kevin Drumm plunged headlong into the difficult (some would say terrifying) realm of digital noise on Sheer Hellish Miasma (2002, Editions Mego). Pure digital noise is surely one of the most difficult sub-genres of modern music out there, although sometimes you wouldn't know it, given the close-to-underground-superstar status of Merzbow, who has long been a proponent of hissing, glitching electronic sounds generated on a laptop. Digital noise (at least of the harsh variety, and anything else is liable to be closer to ambient or trance music than actual noise) reverts the genre away from the often melodic or song-structured approaches of a Mouthus or a Wolf Eyes (although harsh digital noise is a component of the latter's sound) and back to what Paul Hegarty described, in his excellent Noise/Music: A History book, as "noise as brutal reduction". Noise is a disturbance, defined by what it is not: melodic, tuneful, tonal, etc. Brutal albums such as Prurient's Black Vase or Merzbow's Venereology fall squarely in this category. And, for long passages, so does Sheer Hellish Miasma. From the brutal crunch of the brief opening track and on into the two lengthy pieces that form the record's core, this album overflows with pure saturation, at ridiculous volumes, an all-out sonic assault. But anyone who knows of Drumm's gentle, haunting drone opus Imperial Distortion (2008, Hospital Productions), will know to expect more than simple sensory assault from Drumm. As the epic "Hitting the Pavement" (20 minutes) and "The Inferno" (nearly 25!) unfold, you quickly detect mesmerising shifts and subtle hints of harmonic grace sliding into the mix, a melodic sense that evolves out of the morass, keeping the listener hooked and even seduced, rather than simply berating him or her with volume, and showcasing Drumm's affiliation not just with power noise, but also with experimental music and the wistful drone of Phill Niblock, whom he covered for Jim O'Rourke's version of Guitar too, for four. Don't let that fool you into expecting something "gentle" (this is a truly harsh album), but closer "Cloudy" lives up to its title, being a quiet ambient wash, like the calm after a beautiful but terrifying storm. Sheer Hellish Miasma is essential for anyone with an interest in noise at its most challenging, but most rewarding.
Sticking to noise, but jumping back a few decades to what technically amounts to the genre's genesis, I've also been indulging in a bit of delirious ear abuse thanks to Les Rallizes Denudes. Properly covering this remarkable and fascinating band would probably take up an entire blog or book, so I heartily recommend you pick up a copy of Julian Cope's Japrocksampler, in which he gives a detailed and suitably admiring history. To keep things short, Les Rallizes Denudes are the brainchild of enigmatic guitar god Takashi Mizutani, who, doubly freaked out by hearing The Velvet Underground's supreme 17-minute freak-out "Sister Ray" in 1968 and the underwhelming result of his one and only studio recording, withdrew from the normal trappings of the music industry, resolving to only release semi-official bootlegs of live recordings of him and whoever happened to be part of Les Rallizes' ever-shifting line-up as they pummeled bone-headed bass lines and moronic drums into the ground by way of wave upon wave of distorted, fucked-up guitar noise. And they've (well, Mizutani has) been doing this for the best part of 45 years! Basically, Les Rallizes Denudes could be the world's greatest-ever rock band.
There is a wealth of great "albums" by Les Rallizes Denudes out there, with the double CD '77 Live being probably the most exhaustive, especially as it includes the band's most definitive moment, "Night of the Assassin", a 12-minute epic (most Rallizes tracks hang around the 10-20 minute mark) that steals the 60s pop bass line of Little Peggy March's "I Will Follow Him", cranks up the volume and then proceeds to smother it in some deliciously nasty guitar saturation whilst Mizutani yelps autistically, seemingly whenever he can be bothered. There are several different versions of "Night of the Assassin" out there, but the '77 Live one is probably the definitive one. Oh yes, the entire canon of Rallizes tracks can probably be listed on one A4 sheet, with nearly every one being reprised and reworked with more guitar mess seemingly ad infinitum.
But one release that rivals '77 Live, perhaps because it is actually relatively different, is the three-track monsterpiece Blind Baby Has Its Mothers Eyes, recently unofficially re-released on Phoenix records. Each track, around 20 minutes long, is slow and doom-laden, ragged metal plodders that stretch that genre's approach back beyond the blues-tinted noodlings it was associated with in Britain and the US, and into dark, primeval territories. Drum patterns are basic, the kind or ur-thump that characterised a lot of traditional Asian music (and demonstrating Mizutani's background in folk music, both international and traditionally Japanese), whilst the bass generally acts as some sub-sonic heartbeat. This moronic foundation serves as a platform for Mizutani to take off, blinding all with his vicious guitar pyrotechnics. Where "Night of the Assassin" is marked by a certain cheeky grooviness that is hard to reconcile with the po-faced Rallizes (all black hair and trousers, and mirror-sized sunglasses), the three tracks of Blind Baby Has Its Mothers Eyes crawl along morosely, sheer noise lacerating the listener's ears via uber-phased solos that Mizutani perversely sustains on the title track, obliterating all other sounds in a maelstrom of terror. It's their most perverse and out-there non-album, and essential for anyone who somehow thinks extreme noise and metal are "recent" phenomena.
As my own projects in music-making continue, I will be spending quite a lot of time listening to such ear-bashing bliss, so be warned, I'll probably soon be reviewing Mouthus' No Canal, Prurient's Black Vase, John Wiese's Soft Punk and Flesh Puppets' Medusa, all essential additions to the noise fan's discography. Fun times!
Hauntology and hypnagogic pop are garnering some debate in terms of a) legitimacy as a genre, and b) the homogeneity of the scenes themselves. At its inset, hauntology was defined by the three prongs of the Ghost Box Records stable, The Caretaker (aka James Kirby or Leyland Kirby) and Mordant Music. The stark differences between the three leave a gulf of interpretations of the styles on display, be it Mordant Music's wonky electronica, the typically English melding of styles by Ghost Box's The Focus Group and Belbury Poly, or Kirby's drone and Philip Jeck-ian vinyl manipulation.
Hypnagogic pop is even more scattered, geographically and stylistically, with the dark dub-inflected drone/folk of Pocahaunted, Grouper or Inca Ore being pretty different from Ariel Pink's twisted pop or Oneohtrix Point Never's New Age-y post-electronica. And where do the kosmische drones of Emeralds, or Indignant Senility's reworking, Caretaker-style, of aging Wagner records, fit in the spectrum of what has been externally (as opposed to the self-definition of rock'n'roll, blues, punk or industrial music) described as a genre? Additionally, the new emergence of a more pop-centric "memory music" in the form of Toro Y Moi, Memory Tapes or Washed Out, and crudely dubbed "chillwave" or "glo-fi", elicits even more objections (after all, these guys are filtering 80s MOR, cheap electro and power ballads on occasion).
In such intriguing and fluctuating musical straits, sometimes you just need to suspend categorisation and just delve into the music. Luckily, in the case of hauntology/hypnagogia (and with Indignant Senility and Inca Ore seemingly closing in on more "British" Caretaker/Burial/Demdike Stare styles, whilst Mordant moves somewhat in the other direction with r'n'b and croonerish textures on his last album, the distinction gets feebler in my opinion), the music remains of a consistently high standard, as two new releases on Olde English Spelling Bee demonstrate in radically different ways.
First up is Forest Swords, the alter-ego of Wirral-based creator Matthew Barnes. Similarly to Californian duo Pocahaunted, the music on Barnes' debut album, Dagger Paths is steeped in the all-encompassing echo of dub. But if the ethnic and multicultural diversity of the UK has brought Jamaican and American (at times tracks are splattered with Far West guitar and mariachi horns) textures to Forest Daggers' aesthetic, it nonetheless remains steeped in the culture of the English North. The vast emptiness brings to mind images of wind-swept Wirral coastline, sleepy former industrial hub cities and the barren moorland landscapes that also traverses Demdike Stare's gloomy electro. Equally, the jagged guitars flit between modern country grit and decayed post-industrial shimmer, whilst thumping bass lines immediately hark back Joy Division's Peter Hook or PiL's Jah Wobble. With the whole lot nicely filtered through a production that has obviously absorbed the rhythmic awareness and driving forward momentum of UK techno and electronica (albeit slowed down to funereal pace), Dagger Paths is a triumphant new installment in the ever-evolving canon of hauntological music.
San Francisco's Joe Knight, who operates as Rangers, proposes on his album Suburban Tours a different take on such genre-bending, with shorter tracks, garish synths deployed up-front and in your face and more hooks and catchy melodies than you could shake a drum machine at. Daring to go even beyond Oneohtrix Point Never's adventures in shimmery electronic bliss, Rangers' music references bombastic 80s MOR and balladry, grinning pop-funk (think Hot Chocolate or Pointer Sisters, even) and "classic" rock in the Eagles/Fleetwood Mac mould. The song titles and LP artwork set a clear scenery to the music, one of bland suburbia, of rambling drives through streets of identical houses, splashes of exciting greenery, teenage kicks and neon lights by the roadside. It could almost be a tribute to Brat Pack-era America, when teenage suburban existence was at the centre of the cultural spotlight, and, unlike some of his peers, Knight thankfully avoids the winking irony of cheap pop references such as the Ghostbusters movies or junk TV. In good hypnagogic style, Knight has approached his past via the post-noise, post-punk present, and the guitars on Suburban Tours crunch and grind, whilst the few vocals across the album are harsh, distorted and murky, like a stoned Dominic Furnow. Tracks warble and wobble aimlessly, deliberately making those crass pop elements seem off-kilter and far-off, and an undercurrent of industrial tension seems to contrast with the sunny nostalgia.
Despite also looking back and sideways to grab at strains of disparate genres of music, Sun Araw's music does not have the same nostalgic taint as Rangers, Ariel Pink or Oneohtrix Point Never. Deeply psychedelic, his latest opus, On Patrol (Not Not Fun Records, 2010) looks resolutely forwards, and heavenwards, a cosmic adventure set to slothful funk, stripped-bare rock and trippy dub. Whilst the gloopy synth haze Sun Araw (aka Cameron Stallones - it appears to be a prerequisite for hypnagogic pop singers/musicians to never go by their own names) will immediately draw comparisons with his contemporaries like James Ferraro, Pocahaunted and Ariel Pink, Stallones seems determined to pilot his distorted, noisy funk into the future via sheer cosmic jamming, and his songs are longer, more abstract and spacier than on his previous, more grounded albums. It's telling that while 2009's Heavy Deeds featured a photo of Stevie Wonder on its cover -thus cementing Stallones' love of abstract funk-, On Patrol's meanwhile displays a holographic police car over a futuristic cityscape. Where hypnagogic pop has so often looked to the past for ways to distort modern music, Sun Araw's music creates an ambiance similar to that of Ridley Scott's seminal dystopian sci-fi classic Blade Runner, all watery electronics and pensive futurism. It has me imagining a weird 29th-century bar, where a teleported Hawkwind have been transported from 1972 in order to jam with the robots from Kraftwerk's Man Machine whilst a mysterious funkster freaks out on bass and a lo-fi, grunge-inspired singer blethers blearily like an urbane Sergius Golowin. Weird, I know, but then On Patrol is weird.
In the world of celluloid, I've been discovering a mini-wealth of low-key, little-known British films that show that, away from the gloss of the Slumdog Millionaires, Harry Potters and other multi-million-pound mega-projects.
And, to get it out of the way, we might as well start with the worst. While Thomas Clay's The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael (2005) is not a bad film, per se, it is frankly objectionable. Having written that, the very fact that Clay managed to make the film, at age 27, and with little financial support, is laudable, and, most essentially, it features some truly stunning photography by Theos Angelopoulos' cinematographer Yorgos Arvanitis. In its subject matter, the film could be defined as part of the British "realist drama" strand that also gave us Ken Loach. But where a lot of "realist" films favour hand-held cameras, natural lighting and energetic editing, the shots in The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael are long and the action slow-paced, with gliding tracking shots that follow the characters as they drift through the grey and glum streets and across the bleak beaches of Newhaven in Sussex. In its grim portrayal of the aimless life of middle England's underbelly, it is stark and troubling. Sadly, the script lets all this down. The character of Robert Carmichael is given central position through the rather pretentious film title, but in truth, until the end, he is but one cog in a sprawling whole, and possibly one of the least interesting characters in the whole film. As such, it's hard to get much of a feel for where the film is going, and with so many secondary characters and hinted-at sub-plots, it loses focus. Sadly, this padding would appear to be a symptom of the fact that The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael is plainly built around two very brutal rape scenes. And whilst one, occurring off-screen with chilling sound recording work, is suitably powerful and disturbing, without cheapening the matter, in the manner of Haneke or Bergman; the other, which closes the film, is gratuitous, over-the-top and unwatchable. The heavy-handed symbolism around the Iraq war ultimately does nothing to save the scene from being distasteful and indeed completely unneccessary. In the end, The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael feels vaguely like a very accomplished but pretentious and gauche student film.
But if Cray's debut was disappointing fare, his second film, 2008's Soi Cowboy, is close to being a triumph. Faced with difficulties getting finances in the UK, Clay headed to Thailand to film this low-key, contemplative comment on the contrasting lives of Thai people and Westerners living in Thailand. An overweight Scandinavian film producer lives in Bangkok with his pregnant Thai girlfriend. They struggle to communicate together in English, as he speaks it better than her. She feels he wants sex too much, but he makes good money, is kind and buys her lots of gifts. He struggles to adapt to life in Bangkok, his corpulence suffering from the heat, and he is consigned to being an outsider in his fiancee's country, maybe even to her. This inability to communicate is captured in long, slow-paced shots of startling beauty, filmed in stunning black and white. Following on from the taut angst of The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael, Soi Cowboy's balance of grace and tension is a relief, showing a debt to such Asian masters of the fine balance of zen and conflict as Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Kim Ki-duk, Pen-Ek Ratanaruang and Wong Kar-Wai. The second portion of the film concentrates on the pregnant woman's brother, who works for a sinister mafia boss and is instructed to carry out a terrible job. This portion is shot in colour, bringing the ferocity of this particular shade of modern Thai reality into sharp focus.
Peter Strickland is another young British film director who has had to look abroad to get his film made, a worrying trend that is set to get worse as the coalition's arts cuts bite, but which was already happening before, as British finance bodies threw their weight behind trying to make the next Four Weddings and a Funeral and took their attention away from more challenging independent works. The result for Strickland was that he was able to make the starkly beautiful Katalin Varga (2009, DVD: Artificial Eye) on a tiny budget in Romania, and still managed to deliver a marvelously troubling and visually arresting film. The superb Hilda Peter plays the title character, a woman from a small Transylvanian village who is thrown out of her house by her husband when he learns their son was actually conceived with another man. Fateful decisions she then takes send her and her son into the depths of the Carpathian mountains on a bloody-minded revenge mission and ultimate darkness. Strickland deftly balances the drama of the pair's journey with enrapturing shots of the rolling hills and dank forests they traverse. As the film progresses, it gets darker and darker, until a truly unsettling climax. A small film, but a triumphant one.
The term "cult movie" is now so ubiquitous that it's hard to really know when a film can truly be called "cult". Do blockbusters like Borat and Star Wars count? Or is the term restricted to little-seen indies? Only rarely does a Donnie Darko-type film, one so unlike anything out there, come along that is so obviously "cult" it cannot be described any other way.
Like Donnie Darko, Frailty (2001), the first directorial outing of famed 80s actor Bill Paxton, has "cult" status written all over it, but will have to wait for the same kind of recognition, possibly because it's a little bit too dark and ambiguous even for fans of offbeat horror/comedies starring Jake Gyllenhaal. In Frailty, Paxton plays an ordinary widower raising his two sons who becomes convinced that he has been given a mission by God to identify, kidnap and kill demons that are taking human form. Whilst the eldest son (and narrator) objects, the youngest becomes convinced of the veracity of the father's claims and of the morality of his actions. From then on, we witness the horror unfold over these boys' lives as the one man who matters most to them and on whom they depend, leads them into a world of murder and paranoia, with several twists and turns before it all pans out. It's thrilling stuff, part moral conundrum, part horror flick, with a masterful (and remarkably understated) performance from Paxton.
It was a delight to finally get my hands on a copy of the legendary Killer of Sheep (1977, DVD: BFI) by Charles Burnett (who shares the same name as my brother, for those of you in need of an uninteresting but odd fact). Long unavailable (pretty much from its initial release until 2007) due to music rights issues, this seminal film has finally got the treatment it deserves, with a loving restoration and, in 2007, a fair amount of fanfare, with critics worldwide lining up to hail its influence and sing its praise. And it's deserved acclaim, as Killer of Sheep is one of the most important American films of all time, and certainly one of the strongest contenders for the imaginary crown of most influential African-American film ever. Rejecting the garish posturing and gangster imagery of the seventies' "Blaxploitation" fluff, Burnett took the realistic route, using a minimal budget and stripped-down script to give an accurate and gritty portrayal (in black and white) of life for poor black families in Watts, a rundown neighbourhood in Los Angeles. Burnett deftly contrasts the varying destinies of the areas inhabitants, but centres his story around abattoir worker Stan, a man so damaged by the poverty and criminality he has witnessed and endured that he has become something of a living husk, unable to feel joy or love, a man who cuts himself off from his wife and children, even as he steadfastly works to keep them from starving whilst resisting the overtures of the local gangsters. Sounds like the stuff of high melodrama, but in Burnett's talented grasp the film becomes so much more, avoiding over-the-top pathos to deliver a subdued, realistic and poetic portrayal of Stan's often wordless struggles (a shout out must go to Henry Gayle Sanders, who plays Stan will dull-eyed resignation and an overwhelming sense of melancholy). Burnett's most intelligent decision was to contrast Stan's life with that of the numerous kids that hang around the neighbourhood, playing games, jumping between rooftops, causing mischief and throwing rocks. Their games are innocent, but they don't go to school. They smile and laugh, in direct contrast to Stan's downcast expressions, but they are surrounded by dust, decay and the hovering presence of gangsters and pimps. It's a stark message, but the film is not defeatist. A strain of anger, of defiance runs through Burnett's work, most prevalent in the blues and soul songs that make up the soundtrack.
Finally, and on a more esoteric note, I found myself gazing in wonder at the beauty of Werner Herzog's Herz Aus Glas (Heart of Glass, 1976), a film that surely underlines the man's status as one of the greatest directors of the period, and even of all time. If Aguirre, the Wrath of God is both bizarre and dramatic, then Herz Aus Glas is like a confusing dream, a dark allegory that had me as baffled as I was enraptured. As always with Herzog, the images, here of fog-capped Bavarian mountains and shadowy 19th century houses lit by candles and fires, are painterly in their composition and lighting, here echoing Caravaggio or Vermeer. The story, oblique and metaphorical, tells of a village where the production of beautiful ruby glass is the sole major export. When the inventor of the glass dies and takes his secret formula with him, the village descends into madness, led by the obsessive and paranoid factory owner. Meanwhile, the local seer's visions become ever more fitful and bizarre, but how do they link to the travails of the factory and the villages inhabitants? Allegedly, all but a handful of the actors were hypnotised before shooting their scenes, and the performances of the villagers are indeed zombie-like in the extreme, every character having a distracted, distant, haunted look as they recite oblique dialogue and wind their way down into folly of the most bizarre kind. Herz Aus Glas is the most impenetrable of all the Herzog films I've seen, but it's Gothic beauty and oddball approach to the art of cinema are uniquely wonderful.
Praise in passing as well to The Piano Teacher (2001) by eternal genius Michael Haneke, a violent and disturbing journey into sado-masochistic impulses, sexual dominance and degrading love; and to Sam Peckinpah's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), a wild and grim western/crime crossover that almost certainly had caught the eyes of the Coen Brothers and Jim Jarmusch at some point. It's surely Peckinpah's greatest achievement, and a cult classic. Both are classics, essential viewing, but I'm not sure I could really do their complexity and accomplishments justice. Herz Aus Glas was hard enough!
One last word on an essential book for all fans of noise, or for people who want to know more about the place, historically, aesthetically and philosophically, of noise and noises in music, is Noise/Music: A History by Paul Hegarty (mentioned above). Do look it up, it's a heavy read, but enlightening and exhaustive.
Bye for now!!