Monday, 12 December 2011

The Best of 2011

Well, here it is again: my top tracks of the year. And what a selection! Taking in a truly diverse cornucopia of rock, pop, metal, electronica and even classical from as far afield as Japan, North America and Europe, this is a snapshot of what's been sticking in my head this year. My tastes are so catholic there's bound to be something for everyone! I've also been listening to a lot of mix albums recently and so I've tried to sequence the tracks so they flow together as seamlessly as possible. The selection can be downloaded here - I hope you enjoy it.

1. Within Temptation - "Why Not Me" from the album "The Unforgiving"
This brief but potent spoken-word intro starts our selection with a bang.

2. Asp - "Wechselbalg" ("Changeling") from the album "Fremd"
This balls-to-the-wall melodic rocker is one of the most accessible moments to date from the German goths.

3. Martyn - "Popgun" from the album "Ghost People"
Probably the standout track on the Dutch dubstep maestro's eagerly-awaited second album. Anyone who can seriously say that this insanely funky tune doesn't make them want to shake their booty must either be deaf or have limbs made of lead.

4. Royz - "Still" from the single "Alpha"
Boasting one of the rubberiest basslines you are ever likely to hear, this track comes from what is, remarkably, only this young band's fourth ever release. For a band to be producing material of this calibre this early in their career, and to hide it away on a B-side, no less, is nothing short of astonishing.

5. Thursday - "Magnets Caught in a Metal Heart" from the album "No Devolución"
The New Jersey veterans finally transcend "emo" to come into a unique and fascinating style that is wholly their own.

6. Kaya - "Ophelia" from the album "Queen"
Forget Kylie, Gaga and Madonna: the greatest, most beautiful, most heartrending electropop song of the last decade is by a Japanese man in a fantastically elaborate Rococo dress.

7. Christina Lawrie - "Moment Musical No.2" by Sergei Rachmaninov, from the album "Piano: Rachmaninov/Vine/Brahms"
The young Dundonian pianist brings a remarkable deftness and lightness of touch to the Russian maestro's finger-busting masterpiece.

8. Heretoir - "Graue Bauten" ("Grey Buildings") from the album "Heretoir"
Next-gen German "blackgaze" heroes turn in a shattering work of heartbreaking melancholy.

9. Silverstein - "In Memory of..." from the album "Rescue"
The Canadian rockers fail to transcend emo but confirm themselves once again as masters of the form with this anthemic tale of tragedy.

10. Dir En Grey - "Lotus" from the album "Dum Spiro Spero"
The Japanese luminaries prove once again that they are one of the best bands in the world with this incredible chunk of art-metal which adroitly marries beauty and brutality.

11. The Gazette - "Pledge" from the album "Toxic"
The biggest visual kei band in the world moisten the eyes of teenage girls the world over with this gorgeous, heartfelt winter ballad.

12. Lou Reed & Metallica - "Pumping Blood" from the album "Lulu"
The thematic denouement of the year's most surprising collaboration. The final two-and-a-half minutes, where the titular character meets her fate at the hands of Jack the Ripper, is one of the most harrowing musical experiences ever committed to tape.

13. Prurient - "Palm Tree Corpse" from the album "Bermuda Drain"
Without a doubt the most spine-chilling moment on the cult noise artist's first foray into more "traditional" electronica.

14. Aicle - "Hirari" ("Nimbly") from the album "Ark"
When you're feeling down, bring back the sakura season at the flick of a switch with this insanely catchy, sugary pop-rock nugget.

15. Lynch - "Mirrors" from the single of the same name
An absolute piledriver of a song from the Nagoya rockers who justly secured a major label contract in 2010 after years in the underground.

16. Within Temptation - "A Demon's Fate" from the album "The Unforgiving"
The indescribably epic finale of the Dutch symphonic metallers' supernatural vengeance concept album, which came complete with its own comic book series.

17. Ólafur Arnalds - "Ágúst" from the album "Living Room Songs"
Written and recorded in just one day and streamed live from his living room, this elegiac chamber piece is a reminder of why the young Icelandic composer is held in such high esteem.

Friday, 5 August 2011

I love "Bram Stoker's Dracula" and I am not ashamed

The other night I fished out my battered VHS copy of Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (or, as I like sometimes to call it, "Barn Stormer's Darcular") and watched it again. In my opinion, the film (which astonishingly is nearly twenty years old) has held up remarkably well, and really is cinematically excellent. The combination of Coppola's direction (let us not forget this is the man who made the Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now), a rash of A-list acting talent including Gary Oldman (whose stellar performance powers the film along), Anthony Hopkins, Richard E. Grant, Cary Elwes and the utterly gorgeous Winona Ryder, lush cinematography, fantastic special effects, freakish Lynchian dream-imagery, stratospheric production values and one of the best scores ever written (by Wojciech Kilar, who scored some of Polanski's early work), go together to create a modern classic.

Image © 1992 American Zoetrope

Sure, the film has its detractors - and, to be fair, it has its flaws, not least among them Keanu ("Canoe") Reeves as Harker. His English accent is pretty much flawless - but he concentrates so hard on it that any small amount of acting prowess he may actually have had goes completely unused. He is literally like a lump of wood. The whole production also looks very studio-bound, doubtless because it is (there was no location work at all). But the film is superbly paced, constantly changing location and edited into lots of short, punchy scenes which keep the viewer gripped throughout, and is, by all accounts, very true to the book. I have never actually read it, but intend to correct this oversight in the near future.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Dream 10/05/11

I went to have my hair cut by my favourite hairdresser who was young, petite, pretty and blonde. When I got there the tiny salon was filled with a whole Asian family and I thought I would have to wait for ages, but she said she'd serve me first as they were only her (presumably adoptive) family, and she shooed them out of the salon and told them to come back later. Halfway through cutting my hair she started kissing the back of my neck, and I reached up to touch her face, turned round and kissed her tenderly on the lips, whereupon I immediately felt terribly guilty. She told me she was in love with me and how she'd gone out on an enormous bender the night before with a friend who had just split up with her famous fiancé, and because she - the hairdresser - was so lovesick for me, she'd got totally plastered and depressed and had ended up sleeping with some random guy and had got pregnant, but she promised she'd take care of that. I ended up going to dinner at her family's house, where we were sat next to one another and she kept touching me under the table.

Then we went to a house party where I found myself in the kitchen with a whole bunch of rich artists, and felt very uncomfortable. One of them kept fussing over a pot plant, worrying that the hosts would discover he'd killed it. As we were about to leave, I found a laptop on which was playing a movie trailer depicting the precise events she claimed had happened the night before.

She ended up going to America and so I went there on holiday with my dad to see her. We drove down the freeway into the city and visited a colossal Toys R Us where my dad insisted, wholly uncharacteristically, on buying a mountain of toys for the kids back home. Then we met with the hairdresser, who was waiting for us with her luggage on a vacant lot next to a lockup garage. I helped my dad get a massive green truck out of the lockup and when he started it up it lurched and nearly ran over her luggage. We all drove back in the truck to our hotel, and in our suite she and I started watching a three-video box set of a Lifetime Original true-crime drama series about a cop hunting some kid who had murdered his entire family, during which I fell asleep and dreamt that I was a character in the show.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Dream 21/03/10

Everyone from work had gone to a conference in a country house hotel. One day it was raining and one of my colleagues went out for a walk in the woods with the woman I fancied and whom I wanted to see, so I followed. Once through the woods we came to a rundown cottage which had a café upstairs. I went up and my colleagues were there, so I sat down next to the woman I fancied; but so was my Gaelic teacher, who was sharp with me on account of a snide remark I had made about her class on a feedback form, and when I turned back the woman I fancied had got up and gone downstairs. Somebody told me she'd been saying "I want him to kiss me," so I followed her to a downstairs bedroom where she was sitting on the floor. I sat down next to her and we each put a piece of chocolate in the other's mouth before sharing a long and passionate kiss, a trick she had learned in her youth.

Later she had a shower, and allowed me to watch while she was dressing. Whilst doing this, she was telling me something really important, but I couldn't hear her properly. It was either that she was leaving her husband, or that she was pregnant, or both. I knew that if she was pregnant it couldn't be mine because I had never slept with her, but if she was leaving her husband I wanted her to be with me instead, and I got frustrated because she wouldn't repeat what she had said. Soon everyone had gone and we went out into the back garden, which had overgrown vegetable patches and a dilapidated shed. There we were suddenly attacked by a pack of wild dogs and retard children beating us with large sticks. We managed to escape and ran back out the front where a colleague had pulled up in his car. Before she got in and they drove off, I tried to talk to her again but she still wouldn't repeat what she had said.

The next morning I knew she would be at the cottage again for a meeting with the management and I went there early so I could speak to her when she arrived. When she got there I cornered her in the kitchen and tried to get her to tell me again what she had said, and she was just about to when the management arrived and she was called away to a meeting in the café upstairs.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Portrait of a girl I used to know

Walking down the street the other evening I did a double take upon seeing a lassie who looked just like this girl called Ruth* that I used to go to church with. It got me to thinking about this girl for the first time in years. Now Ruth always seemed a little weird. To start with, her parents were ancient. I always assumed she was adopted, because her mother no way looked young enough to have borne her naturally. Then there were her clothes. Now Ruth was a grade A student, fearsomely intelligent, and probably a genius - I believe she now has a PhD - and, like many of that ilk, was both socially and sartorially inept. She was in her late teens when I was at the start of mine, but she always dressed exactly like an old maid. We're talking seriously antiquated garb here - frilly blouses with ruched collars that buttoned all the way up to the throat, and ankle-length, pleated, floral-patterned skirts. Plus she was hopelessly myopic and wore coke-bottle-bottom glasses with those petal-shaped frames that were still just about in fashion at the end of the 1950s. She was very tall and had long, slightly curly hair that always looked rather straggly, as though she couldn't be bothered to style it. Worst of all, she was a physicist, which meant that she was obsessed with stuff like quantum mechanics, but was unable to hold a conversation about pop culture.

Years later, I was amazed when my mother told me that Ruth had been sweet on me. I was certainly never aware of it at the time. Ruth was no great beauty, but she could probably have looked fairly decent if she'd ditched the 50s specs, styled her hair, and stopped dressing like a 70-year-old woman. But she still wouldn't have snared my attention unless she'd developed a bit of attitude and stopped simpering all over the place. Meek, submissive girls have never done it for me - I've always been attracted to bold, assertive women who know who they are and what they want. I was even more dumbfounded when my mum went on to tell me that Ruth is now married. I can't imagine how that happened - either she significantly smartened up her act when she got to university, or she met a guy who was just like her... what a thought!

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent... and the guilty.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011


The other night I watched the New York Metropolitan Opera's 2008 production of Richard Strauss's Salome on DVD. I've been getting into opera for a little while now but this was a far cry from the bel canto stuff I cut my teeth on. It's also the first time I've ever listened to anything by Strauss - and what a place to start! This adaptation of Oscar Wilde's scandalous play is so much more than "just music"; the word Gesamtkunstwerk could have been coined for it. The music is dark, dense and dissonant, the leading role makes incredible physical and mental demands on the singer, and the opera's conclusion is just as shocking, and emotionally devastating, as when it premiered in 1905. The Met's production is stark and relatively minimal, letting nothing detract from the performances - and what performances they are. Surely few can ever have handled the lead role with such aplomb as dynamite Finnish soprano Karita Mattila, who dominates the stage for every second she is on it.

Whilst it may seem almost impossible, in light of its content, to believe that this work was written and first performed at the beginning of the last century, in other respects it is clear that the play, with its heady brew of religiosity, eroticism and self-disgust, could really only be a product of the Victorian era. Were Wilde alive today, he might be seen as a bit of a dandy; in his day, he was a dangerous subversive. The powers that be, and the literary establishment, were terrified of him because he represented a kind of liberation for which the world was simply not yet ready - and yet his ideas were perfectly in tune with other cultural and scientific advances of the era, notably the psychoanalysis of Freud and his contemporaries. Salome retains the power to shock both because it is peopled with archetypes and because it speaks to deep-rooted anxieties and desires we all share, but often dare not name.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011


I went to see the seminal Seefeel last night at the fantastic new King's Place arts centre in King's Cross, a towering edifice of glass and steel with a vast atrium inside, an art gallery and two concert halls. The band have just released their eponymous fourth album, which is their first in almost fifteen years. They were famously the first band with guitars to be signed by cult electronica label Warp, and are essentially a live outfit with a rock setup, though the music undergoes digital processing in real time. The band now features a new rhythm section in the shape of bassist Shigeru Ishihara (aka DJ Scotch Egg) and former Boredoms drummer Iida Kazuhisa.

Seefeel's music, especially their recent work and especially their live show, can best be described as a cross between shoegaze, doom metal, dub, hip-hop and glitch.
Sarah Peacock's looped, wordless vocals bear the unmistakeable influence of the Cocteau Twins' Liz Fraser; and while the pummelling sheets and shards of guitar feedback, the massive, shuddering bass and high-intensity, watertight drumming are almost overwhelming, they leave room for the all-important ethereal melodies.

The set was almost ridiculously short (fractionally over an hour), with no support bar an anonymous DJ, and no encore. But I didn't feel particularly short-changed, as I don't know if I could have managed much more at that punishing volume. I went up to the stage at the end with the other gear geeks and got a peek at the band's equipment as well - a baffling mountain of effects pedals, laptops and drum machines. Seefeel are an institution and no-one else sounds like them. Do yourself a favour and check out their albums for Warp, Succour and the new one. And if you're able to catch them live on their forthcoming tour, don't miss it - it's an awesome experience.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Dream 07/01/11

It was the last day of school and we were all supposed to be going on a trip so everyone gathered outside the gates and piled their stuff up against the wall. I put my umbrella and coat there too and went off to find my mates, but then it was announced that the trip was cancelled and we could all go home, so I started looking for my coat, but couldn’t find it and became convinced that someone had nicked it. But eventually I found it with my mum, who had come to remind me that I had to meet her later at a restaurant for a big family party to which everyone was coming. Promising her I’d be there, I jumped on a bus, which was packed and was curiously being driven by my old mate from work, Pete. But he didn’t stop at the right stop and went right on to the end of the route, and everybody on the bus was irate, including me, as I realized I would have to walk about a mile back to the restaurant.

For some reason I seemed to have lost my shoes and socks, and the streets were littered with broken glass because there had just been some kind of parade. A wooden fence ran alongside the pavement and I found a gate in it which was ajar, so I looked through and saw it was the grounds of a ruined castle which had been turned into some kind of tourist attraction. It was grassy, so I decided to go in and walk along the inside of the fence. I found I was on the battlements and had to jump down from several walls, until I got to one which was too high for me to jump so I had to go down a long grassy slope which led to the main courtyard of the castle. I tried to leave, but two heavies barred the gate and told me that I had entered the premises illegally and if I wanted to leave I would have to pay the £23.50 admission fee. I explained what had happened, then tried to argue that they should have secured the site better, but all this fell on deaf ears so I decided I’d better just pay it so I could get away. The site was closing and I had no cash so I had to go back with one of the heavies, who was the manager, to his house, which was in the grounds, where he kept the credit card machine. But once we got there he got distracted by his baby son who was crawling around on the floor and I was able to slip out without paying.

The gates were now unmanned so I was able to get out and run down a grassy slope and found myself in a park. I ran through the park and back onto the street; I knew where I was now and that it was not far to the restaurant. But the streets had not yet been cleared and I got a bit of glass stuck in my foot, but I pulled it out and managed to limp to the restaurant just in time for the party.