Monday, 20 December 2010

The Best Of 2010

I’m exceptionally proud to present the return this year of my annual year-end best-of list. Lovingly compiled and painstakingly sequenced by yours truly, this is the definitive selection of the tracks that have been floating my boat this year. As usual, it’s an eclectic, international mix: there’s sweet pop and next-level indie rock from Japan; epic, literate, melancholy metal from the United States; uplifting, euphoric trance from the Netherlands; a tragic tale of heartbreak from the highlands of Scotland; chilling mediaeval industrial from Germany – and more. There’s also the sound of a couple of bands most thought long past their prime coming back with some of their best ever material. In short, there’s something here for everyone with a musically open mind. The selection can be downloaded here. As ever, please feel free to comment!

1. Magnetic Man - "Flying Into Tokyo" from the album "Magnetic Man"
This gorgeous, filmic string instrumental was the most interesting and refreshing track on the dubstep supergroup's debut album.

2. DaizyStripper - "Trigger" from the album "Birth"
The indie visual kei band released not one, but two debut albums on the same day and this uplifting, propulsive pop-rock track is a definite highlight.

3. Kamelot - "Hunter's Season" from the album "Poetry For The Poisoned"
Epic, melancholy metal with amazing, cryptic lyrics which expertly balances melody with brute force.

4. Armin van Buuren & Sophie Ellis-Bextor - "Not Giving Up On Love" from the album "Mirage"
The "Groovejet" star returns after years in the wilderness with this standout cut from the King of Trance's new solo album.

5. School Food Punishment - "Butterfly Swimmer" from the album "Amp-Reflection"
Amazing, futuristic dance-rock from Japan, which sounds programmed but is, astonishingly, all played live.

6. Alan - "Kaze ni Mukau Hana" ("Flower Facing The Wind") from the single of the same name
This huge, Disneyesque ballad, sung by the velvet-voiced Tibetan pop star, is the theme song from an epic samurai movie.

7. Norma Jean - "Falling From The Sky: Day Seven" from the album "Meridional"
More cryptic, literate metal, the mellowest and definitely the most intriguing track from this great band's new album.

8. The Bug - "Skeng (Autechre mix)" from the compilation "Ninja Tune XX"
Futuristic dancehall reworked by the IDM legends into something cold and utterly inhuman, this is one of the most chilling things you are ever likely to hear.

9. Heimataerde - "Gloria Et Morte" from the album "Unwesen"
The Templar-obsessed German mediaeval industrial act return with this dark and haunting track from their new masterpiece.

10. Roger Shah & Signum - "Ancient World (long haul flight mix)" from the compilation "Magic Island Vol.3"
Pumping, hands-in-the-air trance with some of the most euphoric melodies of the year, this will take you right back to the summer.

11. Dàimh - "Mo Mhàili Bheag Òg" ("My Little Young Màili") from the album "Diversions"
This absolutely heartrending song from the Gaelic folk supergroup is narrated by a soldier awaiting trial for the murder of his wife, having accidentally killed her in the mêlée when a squad of soldiers came to arrest him.

12. Ash - "Insects" from the album "A-Z Vol.2"
One of the very best ever songs from the Northern Irish indie rockers, who this year released a new single every fortnight.

13. Korn - "Oildale (Leave Me Alone)" from the album "Korn III: Remember Who You Are"
Another blistering return to form from the Californian nu-metal pioneers, who went back to basics on their raw and cathartic new album.

14. LM.C - "Bokura no Mirai" ("Our Future") from the album "Wonderful Wonderholic"
Wonderful, epic, heartbreaking, beautiful pop-rock from the visual kei duo featuring guitarist Aiji, late of the sorely lamented Pierrot.

15. 9 Goats Black Out - "Heaven" from the album "Tanatos"
One of the most gorgeous, otherworldly visual kei songs ever written, this seven-minute monster captivates from beginning to end.

16. Hans Zimmer, Geoff Zanelli & Blake Neely - "Honor" from the album "The Pacific"
This rousing, deeply emotional piece for brass and strings was the theme for the acclaimed TV series about US operations in the Pacific theatre during WWII.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Some of the many weird things about visual kei

OK, so I've been into this visual kei stuff for quite some time now and I'm still getting my head around some of the really weird things about it.

1. They all look like chicks. The aesthetic is meant to be "androgynous" but to me, that means you can't tell whether they're men or women; you look at these guys and they just look like women. That's not androgyny, people.

2. The concept. Every band has to have a "concept", and all their looks, lyrics and music are supposed to stem from this. Why? Why can't they just play music? Why can't they write about whatever they want, whenever they want?

Everything is released in multiple editions. Now in the West, you'll often see two CD versions of an album, one of which will be more expensive and will usually include a couple of bonus tracks and a DVD featuring a few promo videos and/or live clips. In Japan, it's not just albums, but singles as well - and often there are three different versions. It's not just the majors that do this, either - the indies have got in on the act as well.

Singles still sell in Japan for the simple reason that they are always new material. The idea of releasing tracks as singles that have already been released on an album, like they do in the West, is incomprehensible and anathema to the Japanese. Why would you? (I have to say I'm with them on this one.) So for instance, you'll get a single with two tracks, released in three editions: the first will include a DVD featuring the promo video ("PV") for the lead track; the second will include a DVD with a PV for the other track; and the third ("regular") edition will be CD only, but will have an additional track. So if you're a "real fan" of the band and you want both the videos on DVD (rather than just watching them on YouTube), and the extra track, then you "have to" buy all three versions.

Then they'll do this with the album as well, filming PVs for two non-single album tracks for the DVD versions, and putting an extra track on the third version. And people will buy them all! Me, I don't give two hoots about music videos or bonus DVDs, so I like this arrangement - I just buy the regular edition; it's cheaper and has an extra track.

4. Engrish. Not only will you get single words of English dropped randomly into song titles and lyrics for aesthetic effect, you'll get entire songs written in what is basically gibberish, where the guy has thought it would be über-cool to write a song in English even though he clearly can hardly speak a word of it. Then there are the appalling liberties taken with case and punctuation. Because the Roman alphabet is so novel to the Japanese, they just switch between lower and upper case as they please, inserting random punctuation wherever they feel like it...

5. Tags. Which leads me on to the thing I get most irate about - the absolutism that the fans have about this. They insist on tagging the files in the exact same manner in which the song is written on the sleeve (wonky capital letters and all), and woe betide you if you write it different. The people on Last FM are the worst culprits for this, even going so far as ordering people to retag their files.

6. The major labels. In the West, when a band signs a major label deal, their fans brand them sellouts. In Japan, they rejoice. "Going major" is a cause for celebration and is what every band is working towards from day one - and every indie label, because unlike in the West, the band doesn't leave their old indie label and sign a new contract with the major; they remain signed to the indie, who basically license them to the major label, making a fat fee in the process.

Another weird thing is when a band goes major, their career starts over from scratch; even if they've recorded like five albums, the major label will never make any mention of this - it's like it never happened. Their first album for the major is their "first album", period. And what's more, they make a really big deal out of how many releases the band has had ("Ayu drops her 34th single!"), as though pumping out "product" is the name of the game.

7. The specialist vocabulary. English words take on bizarre new meanings in Japanese. For instance, a gig is known as a "live" (because, presumably, the band plays live). This is a textbook example of wasei-eigo in action. Then, if a band is sufficiently popular, they'll get to play "oneman" lives - where they play without a support act. What gets me is that western fans insist on using this terminology as well. "Live" is not a noun of English, people!

8. Their gigs have names. I can understand a tour having a name, but in Japan, the individual gigs, especially one-off shows, have names as well. Why?

Monday, 11 October 2010


I've recently moved back to Croydon after five years or so of living in Wimbledon and I've already noticed some weird things about it. Technically, Croydon is part of London (it was incorporated in 1965), but it sure doesn't feel like it. For such a big place, Croydon has a peculiarly parochial, small-town feel (much, as I'm led to believe, like Kingston-Upon-Hull). One of the possible reasons for this is that Croydon grew out of Surrey, not London, and has been a town in its own right, with its own distinct identity, for hundreds of years. People seem never to be able to leave. My new next-door-neighbour (himself not a native Croydoner) is well acquainted with several people who were in my class at school - people who grew up there and have lived there all there lives, or, in some cases, even gone away to university and then come back. Now I'm not saying there's anything wrong with Croydon really, but I can't imagine spending my whole life there.

Perhaps the weirdest and most disconcerting thing is the way people look at you. There's an unwritten rule of etiquette in London that you notice people, but you do everything in your power not to
let on that you've noticed. In fact, the more noticeable the person is, the more effort you make not to let on. To do so is considered terribly bad form. The maximum length of time you will look at someone for is about half a second. In Croydon this simply does not apply. People's gazes linger for seconds at a time. Some people blatantly stare at you as if you have two heads (like the teenage girl in Ikea yesterday with a bizarre bush of hair who gaped at me for ten whole seconds like I was a Wild Man of Borneo). People will even turn around at the sound of your voice, even when it's patently obvious that you're not addressing them. In London, unless you're absolutely certain that you're being addressed - and sometimes not even then - will you turn around. I'm tempted to start asking people if I can help them, but I doubt they'd get it. Perhaps I should just start staring right back.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

I'm the sort of person who gets called a "faggot" on Lambgoat

If you fancy a laugh - and are not easily offended - you should log on sometime to Lambgoat, a news website for hardcore and metal music that prides itself on its "reviled forum", click on any news story, and read the comments. Even better if it's a story about somebody dying. It all probably started with a couple of knuckleheads dissing everyone who didn't like tough-guy hardcore, but now the site has a reputation to uphold, and anything is fair game. Anybody and everybody from the most brutal genres of music imaginable are dubbed "faggots" at every opportunity; cheesy puns and rejoicing are made over people who have recently, tragically died; and death is wished on innumerable bands, usually in the form of a "van flip". Woe betide any band who has their gear stolen, or who then commits the cardinal sin of putting up a Paypal link that people can donate to! It's all deeply distasteful, but often side-splittingly funny.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

A Picture Of You

I’ve got a picture of you somewhere in the back of my mind. Earlier that day, in the park, you wore a long, cream-and-purple woollen scarf wrapped around your neck, and a matching hat pulled down to your eyes. You were bundled up against the cold, and as you stood watching the birds in a nearby tree you smiled, and your breath smoked away into the chill air. Now you’re standing at a floor-to-ceiling window on the eighteenth floor of a hotel, smoking a cigarette as you look out at the night. You’re wearing a red silk dressing gown and your blonde hair hangs loose around your face. In the Potsdamer Platz, the trees are laden with snow, and lights blink silently on the roofs of buildings as taxicabs flit through the streets like ghosts. Just for a moment, I think you see me; then he appears, a shadow at your left shoulder. He puts his arm around you, and you turn and disappear, back into the darkness.

Queen Of The Desert

In her dark eyes there's the whisper of the desert
In her curls the heady scent of jasmine blooms
In her tears the taste of a long-sought-for oasis
The memory of dusty silent rooms

At her touch the serpent and the scorpion slumber
Her voice is music sweet as sighing strings
The silver coins that form her headdress tinkle
And onyx glisters in her golden rings

She reclines on carpets woven by her fathers
In tents with her herds dotted round about
And her men, their faces swathed in white scarves
With scimitars drawn stand silent guard without

Your laugh disarms, your voice charms and beguiles her
She hangs upon your every tender word
She silently yearns to surrender and be held
But love's a luxury that she cannot afford

Brighter than the lustre of the hardest diamond
Brighter than a thousand desert moons
Her empire stands upon the river delta
And stretches far beyond the furthest dunes

But when it all is gone she'll choose
The serpent's burning kiss upon her breast
And inside this stone sarcophagus she'll wait
While the dust of ages settles on her face.

Friday, 1 October 2010

A Woman's Body

The parts of a woman's body
that inflame my greatest ardour are not
those you might expect;
nor those of cliché.

The line of her jaw
or the small of her back,
or the soft flesh of her upper arm
peeking from a short sleeve,

Can send through me an electric charge
and make my heart pound loud;
The more seductive because
no attempt is made to hide them,
nor thought given to that they are displayed.

Thursday, 1 July 2010


After years of refusal, a couple of weeks ago I finally crumbled under the pressure and got myself a Facebook account. I've had a Space for years but have never been the least bit interested in its "social networking" aspect, choosing instead to view it exclusively as an easy and free way to distribute my music. In actual fact, when I first discovered MySpace, I had thought that it was solely for musicians to use to promote themselves. Imagine my horror when I discovered that there were hundreds of millions of "ordinary" people on there too, with no appreciable talent of any kind, using it to illiterately broadcast to the world every banal triviality that happened to pop into their heads.

When Facebook appeared on the scene, an immediate generation/class gap opened between the adults/middle classes, who used Facebook, and the kids/chavs, who used MySpace (and then there was Bebo, for those for whom even MySpace was too intellectual, but we won't even go there). But I shied away even from this, deciding that it was better to have a handful of friends in real life whom one actually met face-to-face, and went for real drinks with in real pubs, than 500 "friends" most of whom you probably didn't even actually know, and wouldn't like even if you did; and besides, even Facebook seemed to suffer from a sort of debilitating infantilism, with its litany of superpokes, time-wasting games, throwing dead sheep at one's friends, and other such nonsense.

When, a year ago or so, I realized that I had somehow accrued a circle of actual friends - who were asking why I wasn't on Facebook - and was actually interested in what they were up to, I started getting my fiancée to add them to her page, but eventually she got so sick of this that I caved in and got my own account. In the first week or so, many hours were lost tracking down people I hadn't seen in years, seeing what my friends were up to, writing about what I was up to and generally trying to get my head around all of Facebook's various features - and the etiquette of its use.

One of the nice things about it is being able to hide from your news feed the people who write loads of stuff you have no real interest in. The downside of this is, of course, that other people can hide you too, and you have no way of knowing whether they have done so. The irritation comes from realizing that you could be blindly posting your thoughts away into the ether, with the possibility that not a single person is actually looking at them. It becomes disconcerting and, ultimately, dispiriting when no-one comments on what you are writing - so much so, in fact, that I've already pretty much given up and rarely post anything on there anymore.

The verdict? Facebook is all right. Most of what's on there is rubbish, but it's pretty useful if, as I do, you have lots of family or friends who live far away and want to feel a bit more connected to them. The novelty soon wears off, however.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Yasmin Levy

I went to see Yasmin Levy last night at the lovely Cadogan Hall. Levy is an Israeli-born singer based in Spain who sings in Spanish and Ladino, the language of the Sephardic Jews of Spain - now severely endangered with only 150,000 speakers. Her music combines the raw emotion of Ladino traditional song with the passion of flamenco, incorporating Middle Eastern, Turkish and - on her new album Sentir ("To Feel") - jazz influences. Blessed with sultry good looks, great stage presence and possessed of a simply astonishing voice - deep, smoky and powerful - Levy is now a genuine star of world music.

Photo by Ali Taskiran
© 2009 World Village

She took to the stage looking stunning in a fantastically gothic black and red flamenco outfit, surrounded by her five-man band in uniform red shirts and black trousers, and proceeded to wow the sold-out crowd with an hour and a half of absolutely fantastic songs. This is music that comes straight from the heart, that speaks of yearning and longing even if you don't understand a word of the lyrics. Some aspects of her performance seemed self-consciously mannered: the slow-motion flamenco moves; the rambling between-song monologues; the mawkish duet with a recording of her dead father; the dismal attempt to lead the predominantly white, late-middle-aged audience in a singalong during her Spanish cover of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah (disparagingly described by one critic as "superfluous"); the truly weird, shuddering vocal style in the copla (popular traditional) song La Hija De Juan Simón ("The Daughter Of Juan Simón") - introduced by Levy as "the saddest song ever", it's about a gravedigger who has to bury his own daughter - which is obviously meant to evoke heaving sobs but came off simply as melodramatic (the version on the album is more listenable). But hey, maybe it's a Spanish thing, and in any case these are purely cosmetic complaints, none of which can detract from the quality of the music.

Sadly, she didn't perform Porque ("Why"), for me one of the undisputed highlights of Sentir (it's recorded on the album as a duet with gravel-voiced Greek diva Eleni Vitali, but I feel sure she could have carried it on her own), but I wasn't too disappointed, as she performed her signature song Nací En Alamó ("Born In Alamó"), also sometimes known as "The Gypsy's Song" and originally written and recorded for the French film Vengo. It is one of my all-time favourite songs and simply has to be heard to be believed.

When, during a couple of uptempo numbers towards the end of the night, she finally cut loose into some proper flamenco dancing, her sexy moves set pulses racing among the late-middle-aged males in the audience. I must confess that although she's a good-looking woman I didn't actually find her that attractive, perhaps because the more I looked at her, the more she reminded me of my company's "bubbly" former head of sales. Although at the end of the gig I heard one couple saying that they couldn't take their eyes off her, for more than half the set my attention was fixed on her band, who were uniformly excellent and a truly international bunch - Scottish and Indian guitarists, one of whom also played mandolin; an English double bassist; an Armenian reeds player who received some of the biggest applause of the night for his frenetic soloing on the duduk; and on percussion, Levy's Israeli manager - and husband - Ishay Amir, who sat on and played what can only be described as a large wooden box.

Levy left the stage to a standing ovation but she loses points for charging £15 for CDs at the merch stall - presumably at a posh venue like Cadogan Hall they figured they could get away with it, selling to people who have no idea how much CDs are worth. It's a measure of how impressed I was with the evening that I'm going to buy one - but I'm going to do it on Amazon.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Inspector Chang

I finally finished a screenplay treatment for my story Zach which I wrote about here and I've been getting some people on the movie team at work to have a look at it for me. Anyhow, it got me to thinking about another character whom I created many years ago and plan to revive in the future - Inspector Chang.

This character, who
was, in essence, a pulp superhero, was one of my first forays into writing original fiction. I created him, together with a black American kid called Rayner Enyong, when I was at school in Africa. The character, or at the very least many of his exploits and the grotesquely over-the-top, grand guignol violence in the stories, was heavily inspired by a supremely trashy pulp action-adventure novel Rayner and I read, which was part of an ongoing series featuring a character named Richard Camellion, the "Death Merchant", a brutal mercenary who spoke in corny one-liners and was a health freak who drank milk and ate raisins.

Chang, despite being ostensibly a New York City Police Department detective inspector, obviously worked - for reasons I cannot now remember or explain - under the auspices of the CIA or some other such clandestine organization, as he was forever being sent round the world, James Bond style, to battle some criminal syndicate or terrorist group or other, most of which were doubtless inspired by the evil Cobra organization in G.I. Joe. Chang was a martial arts master who had been trained from childhood by a semi-mystical order of Buddhist monks, the Silver Star, to be an unstoppable killing machine.

Rayner and I even attempted to write a Chang novel and, a few years later, before we came up with the story that would form the basis of Zach, my friend Bill and I tried to write another one called Rubber Nails And Glass Hammers. It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, not much better than the original stories, but it did give me the confidence to believe that something could seriously be done with the character.

In my new Chang reboot, the action is transposed to 1930s New York, where Chang is a brilliant young police detective who has had to confront both racial prejudice and corruption to rise in the ranks. When a sinister series of slayings grips the city, Chang's investigation leads him to suspect that the Silver Star may be involved - and that they may not be everything he believed them to be. Don't hold your breath, though - it won't be going into production anytime soon.