Monday, 11 April 2011

March on my iPod!

Cuts, cuts, cuts and more cuts. It seems the two words that have dominated just about every discourse in the press and media over the last month have been "cuts" and "Libya", with a brief hiatus to say "Japan" and the odd "deficit" thrown into the bargain.

The dynamic is now assured and exhaustingly familiar: the Tories' and their Liberal puppets' formula is this: "we inherited this awful deficit from those Labour bastards so now we have to cut (and -whisper it!- privatise)." Labour in response howl "actually I think you'll find the deficit was caused by the global economic collapse but we need to cut but we don't like the way you're doing it and you're a bunch of bastards right back atcha!". In both cases, it doesn't make for a very edifying debate, even when the odd trade unionist, journalist or member of UK Uncut argues that cuts aren't needed at all and is promptly patronised into submission.

But there always seems to be one question that never gets asked when the three major parties waffle and argue about how we need to cut the deficit, but that I can't get out of my mind: why do we need to do this? I'm not being facetious; I truly don't see what the argument is.

If you're running a household and you rack up a load of debt, I get it, you need to pay it back. If you don't, your house or TV or whatever will be repossessed by whoever lent you the money, usually a bank. But I'm pretty sure HSBC or the IMF can't repossess Britain in its entirety. Besides, Britain's debt has been as high as or higher than it is now for 200 of the last 250 years. I get that the deficit is not the same as debt. It's that our rate of interest is going up. Again, the first word that pops into my head is a rather juvenile "so?". "We don't want our children to be lumbered with this debt" Danny Alexander said on Question Time two weeks ago. I know it sounds callous, but why not? Our parents lumbered us with one. And theirs did it to them. Britain has been in debt for centuries and we've done alright. The crux of the matter to me is that the penalty for having high levels of debt seems opaque at best. Debt is bad, fine, but how bad? People will point to Greece and Portugal, but our economies are not comparable. Britain produces more, exports more and sells more. Businesses will always want to be based here.

In the context of such opacity, the argument for investment rather than cuts sounds convincing. Investing further in young people, the arts and employment would generate wealth, it seems obvious. If everyone is austere, then no-one's spending and no-one's making any money. I'm not saying don't cut waste (the NHS needs to be looked at, though not in the hideous, privatisation-ary way the Coalition is going about things), but what is happening now seems wholly unjustified. And proper, fair taxation is fundamental, and seriously lacking. Boris Johnson can demonise UK Uncut all he likes, the fact is that the banks, even those we bailed out, are awarding their hierarchies massive bonuses even as their actions are causing people to lose their jobs and benefits; and people like Philip Green continue to evade millions of tax whilst being wined and dined by Cameron and Osbourne. In the context of these ill-justified cuts, that is nothing short of sickening.

Politics, especially when it is affecting the livelihood of millions of people, is about explaining why what you, as a politician, are doing will benefit the country. In that respect, the coalition is failing overwhelmingly.

Phew! Meanwhile, in a much nicer world, an early contender for album of the year popped into my consciousness in March, in the form of Canadian dronester Tim Hecker's new album Ravedeath, 1972 (2011, Kranky). Hecker has long been on my radar (notably through Fantomas Parastasie, his wonderful collaboration with Aidan Baker, of Nadja fame), but this has been my first full solo Hecker album. And what an album! Essentially, there is nothing new here, it's familiar post-Cluster electronic drone, but few albums has the atmosphere of Ravedeath, 1972. The cover image of a piano being tipped off a roof is hugely evocative, and expresses a sense of tumult that would appear to be raging between Hecker and his art (and music itself), something reinforced by track titles like "Hatred of Music" and "No Drums". It appears that Hecker is grappling with the notions and precepts of ambient drone, notably its arrhythmic nature and lack of overt lyrical references. As such, Ravedeath, 1972 is dark and haunted, a secular meditation mass akin to the early, pagan works of Klaus Schulze (think 1973's Cyborg, with synths). Recorded mostly live in an abandoned church in Rekjavik, ably assisted by the Australian master of austere ambience, Ben Frost, Ravedeath, 1972 is a stirring work of modern electronic drone.

Also released in March, but remarkably different, was Super Great Love by electronic "supergroup" Evil Madness (2011, Editions Mego). Evil Madness is made up of 5 Scandinavian drone/electro/glitch/noise veterans (Jóhann Jóhannsson, BJ Nilsen, Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson, Pétur Eyvindsson, Helgi Thórsson) who are clearly having a blast by throwing off their austere shackles and revelling in some good, floor-pounding disco! Mind you, this is not the disco of Donna Summer or Barry White, but rather the faster-paced italo disco of the eighties. And, these guys being who they are, the sound here has a glitchier, more angular edge than the smooth grooves of properly vintage disco. But with track titles like "Divine Sensual Love Fantasy" and "Sexy Feeling All Year Long", and soaring synth lines over motorik, driving beats, there is no escaping the fact that this is music to dance to with a smile on your face. If the album has one flaw, it's that, by also having a very metallic, artificial feel, it does at times drift close to pastiche rather than a proper genre exercise. But such moments are rare, and with its mixture of stark electronic and relentlessly hook-laden beats, this is a great album to put on as we gear up for party season

Much darker was a proper obscurity I discovered almost purely by chance, guided by my love of all things Wolf Eyes and Hair Police (whose Mike Connelly is a smashing chap, if an e-mail is anything to go by). Trawling through the countless side-projects of the core members of both those bands, I stumbled upon one that caught my eye simply because of its outlandish cover art (which you can judge for yourself on the left). Who is this weird black dude with eyes on the palms of his hands, standing in the dark? Why does he look awed and scared at once? Is he a preacher? A prophet? A dope-head? The album title, Father Son Holy Ghost (2010, AA Records) reinforces the oddball spirituality of the image, and the band's name, Toxoplasmosis only served to add to the sense of weirdness. Toxoplamosis is a duo, made up of 2/3rds of Wolf Eyes side-project Demons, namely Nate Young and Alivia Zivich, and they plough a similar dark, post-noise furrow to Demons, with references to the occult, horror movies and warped spirituality. This is enhanced thanks to pretty murky sound in which Zivich's distorted organ and Young's guitar combine to create a swampy tapestry of deadened drone, which wouldn't sound out of place on a Wes Craven soundtrack. But there is also an ethereal, even cosmic, undercurrent to the dark nightmares, bringing the music of Father Son Holy Ghost closer to the realms of such giallo soundtrackers as Goblin, or the creepy ambient prog of Popol Vuh's Nosferatu soundtrack. It's a compelling debut, strong on atmosphere and imagery, and one that promises to elevate Toxoplasmosis beyond the status of mere side-project.

Remarkably, whilst a lot of different albums were given a whirl on my battered old iPod, it was a single that most defined the month for me: 2003's "Pass This On" by The Knife. Whilst much of what the Swedish synth-pop duo does is forgettable, this tune, from their Deep Cuts album, has latched itself to my brain, aided by this wonderful video:

It features Swedish drag artist Rickard Engfors miming to the song in front of a bemused and even hostile audience of junior football players and managers. At one point, a boy, played by The Knife's keyboardist Olof Dreijer himself, gets up and dances with Engfors, freeing the rest of the crowd up to come and join in. It's simple yet touching, and the presence of the usually-elusive Dreijer in such a key role seems deliberate, especially when you consider the lyrics, in which singer Karin Dreijer (Olod's sister) seems to be relating statements made to her about Olof, possibly from gay men. There's a sexual ambiguity and tension throughout the song and video, in which gender roles are masked and blurred (Engfors is a man, miming a woman's voice and being flirted with by Olof). In many ways, "Pass This On" is just a pop tune, but it's a good example of the emotions and sentiments that can be created in pop, even as people are grooving on the dancefloor.

It was the 25th anniversary edition of London's excellent Lesbian and Gay Film Festival this year, and I got the chance (thanks to my friend Scudder) to go down to the BFI to see Les Amours Imaginaires (Heartbeats), the sophomore film by Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan, who received rapturous acclaim in 2009 for his debut, J'ai tué ma mère, made when he was still in his teens. Les Amours Imaginaires demonstrates the immense talent of this remarkable young director, as it is confidently directed, features some witty, amusing dialogue, and wonderful camera work. I found myself struggling to believe that Dolan is only 21, such is the bravura of his oeuvre. Such style and literary accomplishment makes up for the lack of a meaty plot (it's a musing on the perils of love told via the classic "a guy and a girl fall for the same man" routine), and this is a typical art-house film, in which much of the emotion and tension are generated through dialogue and lingering shots of faces, as opposed to overt action. It's not a perfect film, by any means, with an overdose of "pointed" music (Bach during four sex scenes that all mirror each other, really?) and far too many slow motion shots. But Dolan is so young, and so dizzyingly talented, you want to forgive him his naivity and pretension. After all, he can only get better, and the bar has already been set pretty high.

Completely shallow, but perhaps more fun, in comparison is Terence Fisher's seminal 1958 film Dracula, which I finally got to see, after many years searching, thanks to Lovefilm's freeview scheme. So thanks go to them. This Hammer classic is considered one of the definitive recreations for film of Bram Stoker's legendary gothic horror story, and is often erroneously credited with being closest to the book's plot, which I can categorically state it isn't. But in terms of how it redefined the character of the vampire count, focusing on his powers of seduction rather than his cruelty (as, say, Murnau did in Nosferatu), the influence of Fisher's film is undeniable. Christopher Lee is tremendous as the cool, elegant and handsome Dracula, who first thwarts Jonathan Harker's attempt to dispose of him before taking flight to Harker's hometown and spreading fear and death amongst his nearest and dearest, whilst always turning on the charm for the ladies. There are several unforgettable moments, and the film's combination of mild gore and heaving bosoms would revolutionise the horror genre, catapulting it into the mainstream and making Hammer a worldwide brand in the process. And stealing the show entirely was the magnificent Peter Cushing as the vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing, in one of the Star Wars star's greatest ever performances. Admittedly, Dracula hasn't aged very well, but as a piece of camp history, it's an important artefact of a strange time in British cinema.

British cinema, of course, was not all about cheap high camp and gothic horror, of course, and one of this country's most iconic, essential directors was the late, lamented Derek Jarman, who gave us such magnificent films as Sebastiane, Jubilee and Edward II. Jarman's films were often noted for their considered use of historical subjects as a way of commenting on his own society, and the trials, injustices and conflicts that people have to face, notably the LGBT community. But far from being simply a "gay" director, Jarman was a cinematic innovator, whose visual flair was matched only by his audacity. Most arresting, difficult and, ultimately, overwhelming of his films was his final one, Blue, released in 1993, mere months before his untimely death from AIDS. The virus had rendered him mostly blind, his normal vision replaced by a blue haze, and it is this that he recreated for the film, which consists of a single, 75-minute frame of azure blue, over which Jarman narrates his reflections on his life, his disease, and how society views him and others like him. Ever the poet, Jarman's musings are alternately thoughtful, defiant, scathing and cynical. Featuring participation from Tilda Swinton, Nigel Terry and John Quentin, and an amazing score performed by members of Coil, as well as tracks by Satie and Momus, it’s a bleak, naked and hallucinatory journey into a deeply thoughtful, poetic mind, and one of the most emotionally powerful and harrowing films you are ever likely to see.

The closing lines say it all:

In time,
No one will remember our work
Our life will pass like the traces of a cloud
And be scattered like
Mist that is chased by the
Rays of the sun
For our time is the passing of a shadow
And our lives will run like
Sparks through the stubble. I place a delphinium, Blue, upon your grave.

Lars Von Trier is another director who likes to push boundaries, although usually those of good taste and the ability to shock. 2009 saw the controversial release of Antichrist, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe as a bereaved couple who travel to a remote cabin in the woods after the death of their son, who, in the opening scene, fell out of a window whilst the couple was fornicating. The woman (simply referred to as “She”) is –understandably, you’d think- grief-stricken, and “He”, being a psychotherapist, believes that taking her to these woods that she so fears will help her get over her trauma. Instead, the exercise devolves into violence and brutality, as inner demons surface and the pair’s grasp of reality because skewed… There are moments of brilliance peppered throughout Antichrist, such as the frightening encounter between “He” and a talking, disembowelled fox; or a tense, brutal chase scene that is pure psychological horror. The photography is stunning, the dark, humid forest closing around the characters like a ghastly shadow, and the use of sound is perfect. But after it was over, all I could think was “why?”. There seems to be little point to Antichrist beyond the shocking violence, and charges of misogyny on Von Trier’s part are not too undeserved (although you could argue that point until the cows come home. I find it hard to believe that even a bereaved couple could descend to such pits of horror just by isolating themselves, and it seems Von Trier couldn’t really decide whether he wanted the film to be a psychological study with dark undertones, or something more in the vein of an over-the-top horror shock-fest. Antichrist therefore ends up being neither. It’s definitely worth seeing, for it is impossible to feel indifferent when watching it, but it comes across as more an exercise in excess than a really potent, relevant work of art.

But, if I had to herald the film that –along with Blue, and in some ways rather similar- really touched me this month, I would have to point to the wonderfully bizarre memoir in film that is My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007). I say it’s like Blue, but only in that it is one man’s confessional, delivered in his own voice and in a deeply personal style. But where Blue is a stark confrontation of death and disease, Maddin’s opus is a strange tribute to a city, Winnipeg, Manitoba in Canada, where the director was born and still lives, in the shadow of his domineering mother and the city’s unique history. Like the equally wonderful Of Time and the City by Liverpudlian Terence Davies, My Winnipeg takes the reality and history of its subject-city and uses this as a basis to explore personal issues as well as comment on the singular psycho-geography of this snowy, dark town. Maddin does not gloss over Winnipeg’s darker side, with some hilariously bleak stories and touching historical critiques punctuating the narrative of his weird mother-son relationship and the recurring theme of trying to leave Winnipeg, but never actually getting around to doing it. All this is filmed in glorious black-and-white, with the excellent Ann Savage surrogating as Maddin’s mother. My Winnipeg is one of the most surreal, indefinable films I’ve ever seen, and for that it deserves ample recognition.

So, another month, another moan at the government, another set of great musical discoveries and another slew of wonderful cinematic treasures. Not all perfect, but then, nothing ever is perfect, but that’s what gives life its flavour.

Speaking of glorious imperfection, the third edition of my radio show, Noise In The Ether, is up on Samurai FM. Enjoy!

Downloadable version:   meakusma pres. Noise in the ether #3 at by meakusma


-J Phimister