Thursday, 11 June 2015

When Hackney Becomes Hackneyed: Or Why Jamie XX's Solo Debut Isn't Any Good

Xylophones and steel drums have rarely been known to cause arguments, but the debut album from Jamie Smith, more commonly known as Jamie XX, features both heavily and has been the cause of much debate in the music press since its release just less than a fortnight ago. Whilst it has engendered gushing reviews in some quarters (Pitchfork, Consequence of Sound) in others it has provoked derision (The Quietus, Resident Advisor). The Guardian has even seen fit to write an article analysing various reviews and questioning whether this divisiveness is the result of musical snobbery. The battle lines seem to be roughly drawn with media outlets more commonly associated with electronic music on the against side, and those not on the for side. Given this divide, questions regarding authenticity and populism immediately arise. However, I thought that more analysis of the music itself may help us understand why the record has split opinion so conspicuously, and why in particular the electronic music community has not been in favour.

Jamie XX came to fame in 2009 as the drummer and percussionist of The XX, a band whose sound is heavily rooted in the guitar, though not necessarily in the traditional sense. The minimalism of The XX, where moments of quiet and silence are abundant and instruments are given plenty of room to breathe, is very much in contrast to the majority of guitar music that has enjoyed popularity since the onset of rock & roll. This said, we didn't really see the more electronic side of Smith until later, with the release of his collaboration with Gil Scott-Heron We're New Here, in 2011. It makes sense that his solo debut is informed heavily by the work with his bandmates, and the problem is that the record is ensnared by many of the pitfalls that indie musicians often encounter when dealing with the world of electronic music.

The problems become plain on the opening track, Gosh, which features clattering breakbeats and bolted-on UK MC samples. The track plods along unoffensively without much happening for the first half of it's running time, the first couple of minutes surely forming just the build up to something more interesting. What we get instead is the cheesiest searing synth line that could possibly have been mustered cutting through the mix. Electronic music is rarely about melody. Primarily it is about rhythm and sound design, and electronic producers generally eschew traditional melody leads as they can often sound mawkish in context. That's the issue here - it's clearly designed for some hands-in-the-air festival moment but unfortunately it's just as likely to induce cringes as euphoria. This is similarly true of Obvs, a track which trades on Smith's signature steel drums and proceeds with all of the poise and restraint of a child with a Casio keyboard in a music lesson. Acknowledging that a track relies heavily on your trademark gimmick by naming it Obvs does not make it any less self-parody either.

Mid album interlude Just Saying deals in faux-emotional ambiance, and is the encapsulation of the trouble with much of the album; everything is just too obvious. There is no subtlety. Electronic music generally holds something in reserve and doesn't pull so conspicuously for the heartstrings, everything here is in contrast so schmaltzy.

From here we progress to Stranger in a Room, featuring Smith's bandmate Oliver Sim. Lyrically the song assumes the trope of it's title, a tale of a lonely sexual encounter on a night out. It's as if Smith uses devices like these to reinforce his club credentials, cheekily stealing cliched aspects of dance music culture without really engaging with it fully, bolting simple melodies onto electronic instrumentation which is never used to its potential.

Loud Places works similarly, but steals a vocal line wholesale from Idris Muhammad's 1977 track Could Heaven Ever Be Like This. It's not that sampling in itself is bad, it's a fundamental part of electronic music. It's just that the use of the sampler is supposed to bring something new to the original sound, to draw out some aspect that wasn't so obvious or to place the sound in a new context. Instead Loud Places depends almost entirely on the vocal, something that can also be said for the better parts of I Know There's Gonna Be (Good Times), the rap on which is so appalling it's not even worth mentioning.

Elsewhere much of the album sounds paper thin. Much has been written on various forums about the lack of dynamic range (an important aspect of electronic music, particularly in the club) in Smith's music, but there are places where there actually appears to be something of a mastering problem. Although SeeSaw is a well written track, there is a horrible crack and clatter on some of the drums which partly spoil its enjoyment.

The strongest moment comes on the previously released Sleep Sound, whose shuffling drums and strange melodies recall Smith's contemporary Four Tet (aka Keiran Hebden). It's a shame that there are not more moments on the record like this, as In Colour could really have done with some more Hebden-style weirdness.

Other recent album's like Caribou's Our Love which have referenced rave and UK dance music from a more "indie" perspective have been far more successful because they have brought something new to these kinds of ideas. Our Love had for more variety. It was pretty, but did not aim solely for mushy prettiness, instead also looking at some of the darker sides of love and dancing. It also featured much more sonic variety.

It strikes me that the negative reaction of the electronic music community to In Colour is because they believe a cynicism is at play here. There is no doubt that the record will be extremely popular, and the references to rave and dance culture will somehow give it more of a cool edge. It's unfortunate that Smith has chosen to take on some cliches without really bringing anything new to the table. It's not that there is anything wrong with being derivative, but it's better to be derivative of the more interesting parts of a culture. To me this isn't so much appropriation as it is inauthentic.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Opinion: Why we cannot allow Islamic State to be referred to as such

A somewhat ponderous exploration of the connotations of the word "Islamic" in Islamic State.

There is so much wrong with the way we think of and refer to the group we know as ISIS or ISIL, even in our most forward thinking publications. A thought has grown on me over the past couple of months and has now lodged itself firmly in my brain; that we should not allow ISIS to be considered on the terms by which it defines itself, and that ISIS is simply a mafioso organisation operating under the vaguest of religious pretexts.

If, as ISIS wants, we conflate its existence with Islam, we are not only playing into the hands of the group itself, but also the organisations and individuals within our own countries that would use ISIS as an excuse repress the rights and freedoms of those in the Muslim communities among us. If we begin to consider the true purpose of the organisation (ie the consolidation of resources and power to a group of amoral gangsters) we can start to understand why it is in the group's interest to associate itself with Islam.

The primary motivator for the religious connotations the organisation chooses to attach to itself is quite simply recruitment. We know from our experiences with inner city gangs in this country that such groups generally arise where there are young men who feel powerless and oppressed, whose maligned existence stands little chance of improvement through the normal and lawful channels within our societies. With the vilification that we have allowed to exist against young Muslims within the western world, is it not likely that a percentage of these men will find themselves disillusioned, rudderless? Does that not then also make them an excellent resource for an organisation which claims some affiliation to their kin, to the very thing that we have allowed to be used to mark them out for castigation in the first place? We even see that some of the very men previously found within inner city London gangs now find themselves among the ranks of ISIS. The association of the group with Islam also perpetuates these conditions, as a result of the Islamophobia of the right wing press' reaction to the atrocities carried out by what it sees an Islamic organisation.

The oppression of Muslims by the peoples that now find themselves among the powerful “democratized” nations goes as far back as the crusades, and has a much more recent history tied up multi-fold with the aims of the capitalist machine. Not only were these people oppressed as a result of the battle against the communist Soviets in the 80s, but their homelands' abundance in oil results in a power struggle that continually propagates war and conflict in the middle east (sometimes under the pretext of the existence of weapons of mass destruction). We know that ISIS has been extremely keen to take control of oil resources where possible, so surely it is not much of a stretch to draw parallels with the South American cartels whose declining drug businesses are now causing them to attempt illegitimate control over oil supplies.

The attempts to control the distribution of oil is not the only thing that ISIS has in common with these cartels. The drug connection should have also become clear since the surfacing of reports of large quantities of drugs being found in the possession and homes of ISIS members. In addition, Syria is a perfect route for the smuggling of drugs into the west from the opium and cannabis fields of Afghanistan, Lebanon and other countries within the region. Remember that opium production in Iraq increased significantly as result of farmers attempting to make ends meet in the wake of the most recent war there. How apt would it be if ISIS could not only acquire funding through this channel, but also proliferate the supply of substances which are known to cause harm within the very western democracies that they profess to hate and which created the conditions for the existence of ISIS in the first place? How strange that they should supply us with harmful substances derived from plants which we associate with our war dead, the burning of images of which (by a very small percentage of Muslims) have become such a controversy in this country.

Perhaps thus far this has been somewhat rambling, but allow me to draw us back to my key contention that it is in the interests of the gangland organisation known as ISIS to ostensibly align itself with Islam. Another of its key motivations for doing so is the pretence of legitimacy and justification that it hopes this will provide it with. Just as the group's attempts to claim itself a state lend it a kind of false and flimsy authority, so does its self-identification as Islamic. In addition to this, the group can use their intentionally warped interpretation of the teachings of Islam to exorcise power over populations within their area of control. Whilst ISIS may claim that its brutal executions are their enforcement of Islamic law, what they are so obviously really about is striking fear into the hearts of those who would seek to oppose them. Their strict “interpretation” of Islam is just another tool of oppression. Where once western governments sought to exercise influence for their capitalist religion, now ISIS does so ostensibly for its own. Where we once deferred all criticism to the influence of the market, which can not and should not be controlled, now they refer to the power allotted to them by God himself, which therefore is not to be questioned.

We might speculate as to what degree members of ISIS really do believe in some warped form of Islam. Perhaps if some of them really do then it serves to justify in their minds the terrible atrocities which the group is responsible for. Can this be in some way compared with the Catholic identity assumed within other mafioso traditions? If, as I suspect, many of them do not truly hold the existence of their particularly barbarous God to be hard truth, then it is within their interests to allow their enemies to believe they do. Who wants to fight against a man who believes that God's will is behind him, who is more than willing to die for his cause? It must be somewhat odd if these men do truly believe in the omniscience of their God and their acting out of his bidding that we have not seen the suicide bombings associated with those who do hold that particular belief.

If, as I hope I have briefly set out above, it is the case that it is in the interests of the group to be identified as Islamic then we should attempt to dissociate the two because it does serves their true purpose, and also because it is a patently false image of Islam that they project. Not only this but it also leads to the further persecution in our own nations of a minority that is already suffering much.

Perhaps then we should come up with a new name by which to refer to ISIS. Might I suggest something along the lines of the Organised Criminals in Iraq and Syria (OCIS)?

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Spectrum's Best Albums of 2014, Part Three: Number One

And we're there... our number one record of 2014.

Run The Jewels - Run The Jewels 2

It's difficult to decide whether the explosive collaboration between El-P and Killer Mike represents a leap forward in rap music, or an anomalous, brilliant throwback. The production is inarguably very 2014, but the philosophical approach behind it feels much older, one might even say constitutive of hip-hop's very origins. It's there in the cameo from Rage Against the Machine's Zack de la Rocha on the blistering, mosh-pit-enabled 'Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck)', which dusts off a shouty relic from one of rap's future-pasts, and coolly repurposes him for modern sonic warfare. And it's there in Killer Mike's angry, justifiably paranoid verses on 'Lie, Cheat, Steal'. These two luminaries of alternative hip-hop have gone back to the well, and brought forth the political heft from a bygone era, when rap didn't see sincerity or polemic as problematic, to offer a rejuvenating essay on the black experience, the working-class experience, and the goddamn human experience, in Obama's America. Nick Pierce

Monday, 12 January 2015

Spectrum's Best Albums of 2014, Part Two

You know the score. Our album of the year to follow shortly.

Andy Stott - Faith in Strangers (Modern Love)

Andy Stott's 2012 album Luxury Problems garnered about as much success as record ever could in the dark world of dub techno. The follow up is an astonishing piece of work that also features Stott's childhood piano teacher, Alison Skidmore, on vocals. In stark contrast to his monochrome previous effort, Faith in strangers displays a much greater breadth, drawing on elements as disparate as techno, dubstep, ambient music, post punk and US trap. That might sound like too many ingredients for one broth, but the result is as consistent and complete as it is varied. Particular standouts include the haunting title track and the spine tinglingly brutal Violence. Stott and Skidmore have created a murky, grime-encrusted, but beautiful world, where subtlety and power exist in equal measure. Reviews of Luxury Problems described an artist creating his definitive statement. Faith in Strangers finds Stott crafting an entirely new one. George Bate

Caribou - Our Love (City Slang)

When Dan Snaith released Jiaolong under his DJ alias Daphni in 2012, his journey from psychedelic indie popper to dance floor mover was complete. But Our Love is designed to do so much more than just encourage toe-tapping, it aims to pull at the heartstrings as well. Snaith has said that in terms of creation this was the simplest Caribou album he's made yet, and whilst that may be true, thematically it's as nuanced as ever. Snaith explores the full spectrum of human love, the good, the bad, and the ugly, all through the reflection of a disco ball hanging from a club ceiling. Granted, musically it's very much derivative; the title track itself could almost be a cover version of Inner City's Good Life, and I swear that Back Home is just a dance version of Damian Rice's Cannonball. But who cares when it's so multicoloured, so fun? GB

Gunnar Haslam - Mirrors and Copulation (Long Island Electrical Systems)

Over the past few years, Ron Morelli's L.I.E.S. (Long Island Electrical Systems), has become a reliable source for really weird dance music. Whilst the majority of Morelli's own output has come in the form of dark, almost beatless sketches on Dominic Fernow's (aka Prurient/Vatican Shadow) Hospital Productions, music on L.I.E.S. has spanned the continuum between filthy acid techno and blissed-out ambient material. Gunnar Haslam's second full length falls squarely in the middle of these two ends of the spectrum, featuring calm passages interspersed with beguiling cyclical bangers made with only the minimum of components. This is simple music, but it's done so thoroughly well. The album has a distinct sci-fi feel, but any track could have been made with equipment available twenty years ago, giving it a completely timeless feel. Equal parts intense and soothing, this is a joyous journey from start to finish. GB

Tycho - Awake (Ghostly International)

The cover for Scott Hansen’s most recent record is the perfect visual representation of the music contained within; all vivid colours and calming notes, basic elements conjuring up the most beautiful of marine sunsets. It can come as no surprise then that the San Franciscan is also a graphic artist who designs his own album sleeves. Building on from 2011’s Dive, and also issued on US independent Ghostly International, Awake is the first record that Hansen has recorded with the aid of a three-piece band. The result is meticulous, with dozens of picked cyclical guitar melodies weaving themselves in and out of gorgeous synth tones, glistening like calm waves in the sun. It’s hard to find a standpoint for this kind of music, though perhaps there are elements of Explosions in the Sky’s post rock, seen through rose tinted glasses, or The Field’s bright electronica. Blissful, sweet but never saccharine, Awake is the bright sound of those kind of summer days. GB

Perc - The Power and the Glory (Perc Trax)

It's something of an odd thing to say, but Perc's new record of savage industrial bangers is actually quite political. Case in point is David and George, a nod to our esteemed Bullingdon club leaders, which sets a deranged maniacal laugh over a static-suffused beat. It was also in the name of his 2012 EP, A New Brutality surely being a reaction to austerity Britain. Ali Wells has spoken about this at some length, and whilst he denies that his reaction to reading something unpleasant in the newspaper is to go home and make furious neck-breaker, it's undeniable that his political viewpoint somehow informs his work. If going out and listening to house music is a fantasy escape from 9-5 drudgery, then surely this kind of music provides a much more real catharsis. GB

Todd Terje - It's Album Time (Olsen)

Todd Terje aka Terje Olsen packs more than a few influences into the 50 or so minutes of his debut album, the aptly titled It's Album Time, which collects the choice cuts (Strandbar, Inspector Norse, Swing Star Parts 1 & 2) of his output from the past few years and places them in the context of other, newer productions. The Norwegian originally began training as a pianist but dropped out of music school due to the lack of jazz on the curriculum, and there are elements of lounge jazz on display here as well as house, disco and synthpop. The key thing which ties this album together is a real sense of fun; Terje is a perennial joker – even the name he releases under is a wisecrack on the name of classic house producer Todd Terry. That's not to say that the album doesn't have a sensitive side, which comes in the form of the tender Robert Palmer cover Johnny and Mary, featuring Bryan Ferry on vocals. Elsewhere though it's largely joy, house pianos and fluorescent arpeggios. GB

Jon Hopkins - Asleep Versions (Domino)

Since the release of 2013's excellent Immunity, Jon Hopkins has released a steady stream of re-workings of tracks from the record, the diversity of which has been testament to the range and depth of the source material. We've had club ready efforts from the likes of Objekt and Karenn, and poppier work from Hopkins himself in collaboration with Purity Ring. Now we get an EP length suite ostensibly designed to help the listener fall into a state of sleep. As relaxing as this little gem is, it's not going to be sending anyone into a slumber any time soon, there is simply too much gorgeous soundscape on offer. Longtime collaborator King Creosote is on hand to lend cherubic vocals to the gorgeous Immunity, as is Raphaelle Standell for the blissful Form by Firelight. The transformation of the source material is absolute; whilst some elements are still recognisable, the tracks are completely transfigured from the glitchy, energetic originals. For the most part Hopkins removes the elements of threat that were sometimes present in some of the album versions of these tracks, the only exception being the not-quite-ominous drones and Ben Frost-esque whines at the start of Open Eye Signal, which are soon swept away by more dreamy tones. This EP is yet further confirmation of Hopkins' status as a masterful sound architect. GB

DJ Dodger Stadium - Friend of Mine (Body High)

Don't let the slightly daft names of DJ Dodger Stadium members Jerome LOL and Samo Sound Boy fool you; their take on gospel-tinged house is gorgeous and affecting, it just so happens that the Body High label owners also have a sense of humour. The first track proper, Love Songs, sets the tone, placing a repeating lovelorn vocal over the top of warm synths and ratcheting snares to mesmerising effect. Overall it's not too dissimilar to the kind of house that was coming out of France between the late 90s and the early 2000s. It's a formula that the duo repeat time and again (1: longing diva vocal, 2: nice chords, 3: big drums), without ever making it outstay its welcome. GB

Marcel Dettman - Fabric 77 (Fabric)

The expectations are always going to be high when a hugely lauded DJ like Marcel Dettmann steps up to the decks to helm an instalment in the Fabric series. As a long-time resident at Berlin’s Berghain, Dettmann has been at the forefront of techno DJing for many years now, and has released two albums and dozens of EPs, mainly on the club’s in house label, Ostgut Ton, and his own imprint, MDR. Whilst his own productions are tough and austere, the selections he makes for his mixes carry something more of a warmth, a playfulness even, qualities unusual for this type of functional music. Dettmann’s mastery of peaks and troughs is evidenced throughout, with particular highlights including Answer Code Request’s ecstatic Transit 0.2 and the deranged pummelling BB 1.0 from Berghain accomplice and sometime commercial lawyer Norman Nodge. Fabric 77 takes the most sombre of techno and makes it fun. GB

Swans - To Be Kind (Mute)

Over the past couple of years, Swans have given new meaning to the musical phrase 'American primitive'. For one thing, their music is clearly indebted to the blues tradition (particularly its darkest manifestations), counter-intuitively using the all-encompassing, muscular sonic assault of noise rock to conjure the same visions of loneliness, longing, and spiritual fragility evoked by Leadbelly and Howlin' Wolf. For another, frontman Michael Gira is obsessed with the atavistic: seemingly envisioning music as a means of sandblasting off the layers of sedimented sociality to return to that in us which is basic and animal. That he does so without straying into repetition, with great variety and unwavering commitment, is deeply impressive, and just one hell of an enthralling listen. Nick Pierce

Livity Sound - Livity Sound Remixes (Livity Sound)

Whilst it's always the Hessle Audio crew whose productions get more attention, in my opinion it's Livity Sound boys (Peverelist, Kowton and Asusu) who do the sound they share in common, an odd combination of techno and Bristol's bass/dub heritage, better. This remix LP follows on from, and improves upon, the collective's compilation of originals from 2014. Livity Sound's material is ripe for remixing; whilst there's plenty of space in it, it's also sonically rich so there's plenty of scope for rhythmic rearrangement whilst retaining the overall texture. Overall, the remixers tend to nudge the tracks more towards more standard rhythms than those found on the more syncopated originals, which is no surprise given the names involved, such as UK techno stalwart Surgeon and Long Island Electrical Systems boss Ron Morelli. Whilst the tracks on display here are obviously meant to be heard in a DJ mix context, what is surprising is how well they function both for stand alone listening and as a suite or album. A release you can get your teeth into. GB

Francis Harris - Minutes of Sleep (Scissor and Thread)

This record might come as a surprise to anyone who knows Francis Harris from his earlier tech house guise Adultnapper, but the past few years have caused a sea change in Harris's life as well as his music. Harris lost his father several years ago, an event which led to the less dancefloor focused Leland in 2012. In the intervening time, he also lost his mother leading to the even more introspective Minutes of Sleep. This record, arriving on Harris's own Scissor and Thread imprint, sees him bringing contemplative downtempo jazz to the table, sometimes combining it with the house he made his name with, by combining the mournful horns with Theo Parrish-esque rhythms. It's an astonishing piece of work, sad without being depressing, grieving yet warm, and forms an excellent tribute to Harris's parents. GB

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Spectrum's Best Albums of 2014, Part One

Although we're almost a fortnight too late, we at Spectrum have finally gotten round to compiling a list of our favourite albums from 2014 and scribbling down some words about them. This year we present the bulk of our albums in two parts, and in no particular order. A separate piece on our favourite album of 2014 will follow. I would say that we've stretched the rules to include a couple of mix CDs and a compilation, but there were no rules in the first place so that would render that null and void. In addition you might note how many lovely independent labels are represented this year. Enjoy!

Flying Lotus - You're Dead (Warp)

Those who mourn the passing of jazz-fusion will surely find something to console them in producer-extraordinaire Steven Ellison's latest LP, a multi-coloured meditation on the nature of death. It's way more fun than its subject would suggest: we're treated to more of the shimmering, harp-inflected instrumentals cribbed from Ellison's great-aunt, Alice Coltrane, alongside keyboard freakouts from Herbie Hancock, heavenly r'n'b chorals, and a show-stopping bit of verbal pyrotechnics courtesy of Kendrick Lamar. It's like there's a party at the mouth of the grave, and everyone's invited! Nick Pierce

Wild Beasts - Present Tense (Domino)

Mostly gone are the wild yelps and screeching falsetto of Wild Beasts of old, but they're still cutting rather odd figures. Four albums in the boys from Kendal are still exploring class, bizarre sexuality and masculinity in their own idiosyncratic way. I wouldn't say they've ever exactly lacked in sensitivity, though every lyric has always felt like it was steeped in so many layers of irony it was almost impossible to tell whether they were being earnest or not, cruel or kind. Things are much more straightforward on Present Tense, as the title of Simple Beautiful Truth gives away. If on Limbo Panto Wild Beasts were fighting and fucking (or is that watching others fight and fuck?), then perhaps this is where they've become somewhat tamed, with songs about love and comfort. The best moment arrives on , when Tom Fleming intones deeply about “a godly state, where the real and the dream may consummate”. Quite. George Bate

Pangaea - Fabriclive 73 (Fabric)

Of the three Hessle Audio co-founders, it's usually Ben UFO that's considered to be the most skilled on the decks. This by no means indicates that Pangaea and Pearson Sound are somehow lacking in this aspect, rather it is a consequence of the fact that their contemporary has chosen solely to focus on spinning records rather than releasing his own productions. Were any evidence needed of this, exhibit A would be Pangaea's Fabriclive 73, on which he deftly brings together a wide range of tracks from across the techno and bass music spectrums, and makes them feel entirely his own. Although it's still resolutely dark, Pangaea manages to bring a buoyant energy to the mix that wouldn't usually be found when mixing tracks of this type. Set your dial to bounce and beef your kickdrums to eleven. GB

HTRK - Psychic 9-5 Club (Ghostly International)

Not since the times of Portishead has darkness sounded quite so erotic. HTRK deal in a moody kind of electronic minimalism, the songs on this record rarely consisting of more than a drum machine, few ominous synth lines and chanteuse Jonnine Standish's smoky but still silky smooth voice. Standish's vocals, whilst not always decipherable, express a frustration at the everyday drudgery that most people endure through work (their previous album was entitled Work (work, work)) and concerns about the expectation of body image (The Body You Deserve) in modern day society. The dark mood also reflects the bassist Sean Stewart's suicide in 2010, which brought about the remaining pair's move back to their native Australia from London. In the wake of this awful tragedy, HTRK have produced a beguiling record which reveals more of its simple yet labrynthian world with every listen. GB

Cut Hands - Festival of the Dead (Blackest Ever Black)

Whether its in terms of experimental sounds or shocking taboos, William Bennett has been pushing boundaries for well over twenty years. As part of power electronics group Whitehouse, Bennett and his cohorts turned the speeches of sexual abuse victims into what?...Music? Art? Social commentary? Bennett has been accused of misogyny and racism in his work, although it could be said that his penchant for approaching controversial topics inevitably leads to misrepresentations. His Cut Hands project is a ferocious attempt to explore vodou traditions from Haiti and polyrhythmic African percussive music. It is perhaps odd, but fitting, that through these explorations Bennet has found himself playing shows alongside the leading lights of UK industrial techno, his experiments as Cut Hands certainly share a brutality with that genre. Festival of the Dead is the culmination of several releases on Blackest Ever Black and finds Bennett pushing his music to its logical conclusion; harrowing, visceral and completely thrilling. GB

Polar Bear - In Each and Every One (Leaf)

Whereas FlyLo brought jazz to electronica, Polar Bear now seems intent on bringing electronica to modern jazz, and the results are mostly enchanting. With its sparsely deployed use of horns and saxophone, nervous, jittery rhythms, and alternately glacial and fiery atmospherics, the album bears a peculiar resemblance to Radiohead's Kid A. It's nowhere near as good of course (what is?), but in its smaller, humbler way, it offers a similarly alluring landscape to get lost in. Nominated for the Mercury Music Prize - but don't let that put you off! NP

Pinch and Mumdance - Pinch B2B Mumdance (Tectonic)

This mix CD, out on Pinch's Tectonic imprint, is the sound of UK club music being bent completely out of shape, bastardized into mutant sounds interspersed with seconds of silence. Whereas most club music sticks to standard four to the floor kicks, the patterns here are almost unrecognizable, unconventional and exciting. Mumdance recently started a new label with longtime collaborator Logos in order to put out “beatless club tracks”, and that can come as no surprise to anyone who hears the selections on offer here, whose elements generally combine the more experimental end of grime, the nastier sounds found in industrial techno and the type of bassweight usually found in dubstep. Across these 19 tracks, Pinch and Mumdance lay down the sound of a strange electronic future, where all forms of UK club music (and this does have a strictly UK flavour) breed to form something entirely new, a freak child that nobody can control. GB

The Jezabels - The Brink (Play It Again Sam)

Although The Jezabels have made a name for themselves in their native Australia, peaking there with their latest at number two, they're yet to make much of an impact on British or American shores. This is surprising considering they deal in the kind of epic emotive synth-infused rock songs that might be written by The Killers or Kings of Leon, were those bands not so distinctly dull. Singer Hayley Mary's gorgeous vocals are always the focal point, although that's not to say that the rest of the band is in any way lacking; all four members are vital components in making every single mile-wide chorus soar. There's nothing particularly original about the stadium-sized anthems on show here, but there doesn't need to be when they carry so much charm. GB

St. Vincent - St. Vincent (Loma Vista)

In the immortal words of Zoolander's Mugatu, St Vincent is 'so hot right now'. At a time when guitar music seems more out of orbit than ever, it's bracing to have a talent such as Annie Clark re-tune our cultural satellite to the simple, infinite pleasures of a guitar riff impeccably executed. But she's no mere nostalgia act; in her own eccentric way, she's the voice of the present. Where previous generations of rock heroes ventured into electronic music as if it were foreign territory, it's clear that Clark is a native, and her songs' kaleidoscopic, unselfconscious instrumentation reflects how at ease she is in her aural - and commercial - surroundings. The throne on the cover doesn't lie: fame has always been St Vincent's birthright. NP

Head High - Megatrap (Powerhouse)

In a clouded, anonymous world, Shed is one of techno's most canonised stars. But the man whose mother calls him Rene Pawolitz remains frustratingly obtuse, confounding interviewers at every turn. Really though, there's no need for Pawolitz to open himself to the media when the intention is abundantly clear through his productions; all he wants to do is get the dancefloor moving. This 9 track release under his Head High moniker is the perfect evidence of this; ranging from the spine-tingling to the brutal, Pawolitz pulls out every trick in the book in order to please the clubbers. Whether he's employing the standard house and techno four to the floor drum pattern or something more syncopated, every single sound, from the beefy kick drums to the airy synths, is tuned for absolute maximum impact. This is escapism on wax. GB

Ben Frost - A U R O R A (Mute Records)

Whereas Ben Frost's previous work was created mainly using conventional instrumentation (field recordings of wolves notwithstanding), A U R O R A was made almost entirely on his laptop whilst working far from the Australian's current Iceland base, in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and fleshed out with the pummelling sounds of ex-Liturgy drummer Greg Fox. On the record, Frost lays out sheets of crackling white noise, pulling melody out of pure dissonance, some semblance of order out of chaos. The sound isn't too dissimilar to that of regular collaborator Tim Hecker; whilst the individual sounds you're hearing are nasty and aggressive, they coalesce into something beautiful, far greater than the sum of their parts. If there was any doubt that this laptop-birthed record could be converted for the live setting, Frost and Fox's storming live show proved otherwise. Who ever knew the hissing sound from your untuned TV could sound quite so good? GB

Dalhous - Will To Be Well (Blackest Ever Black)

Whilst it's not the breeziest of affairs, Dalhous's second long player is still probably the least ominous thing to come out so far on London's Blackest Ever Black, an aptly named label known for putting out releases across the genre spectrum, with one thread in common - their stark grimness. Not for the first time Dalhous draw influence from the work of oddball Scottish psychiatrist R D Laing, naming tracks after aspects of his work and personal life. The record is touted as a musical exploration of mental health states, and it isn't too much of a stretch to see why. The blurred green textures on the cover are a perfect accompaniment to the most organic electronic music you're likely to hear this year, all indistinct synth sweeps and fuzzy beats. The duo's processing techniques are central to this - often they'll run sounds through multiple pieces of equipment, playing their music in the open air and recording it along with whatever else happens to be out there, achieving a warm but not entirely benign haze similar to that found on worn cassette tapes. The end result is not unlike Boards of Canada; beautiful soundscapes that bring to mind images of strange worlds not yet discovered. GB

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Spectrum's Best Films of 2014 (No.10-1)

10. Ida (Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski)

For a film about crises of faith, orphans, and the long-lasting, submerged repercussions of the Holocaust on ordinary people, Ida is perhaps most remarkable for its accessibility. This is certainly borne out by the box office figures, which show that this low-key, Polish-language drama has been a modest yet surprising hit in both the US and the UK. Ida, a young nun coming of age in 60s Poland, is tasked by her mother superior with visiting her earthy, strong-minded aunt in the outside world to test her commitment to her calling, and embarks on an odyssey into the recent past and the revolutionary, jazz-saturated present, where she gains her first experiences of grief and sexual love. Despite its weighty themes, the drama unfolds without bluster: like the inscrutable Ida, it says little yet speaks oceans. Nick Pierce

9. Leviathan (Dir. Andrey Zyvagintsev)

Movies that try too hard to capture the state-of-the-nation, or offer political critique of the prevailing regime, are often in danger of quickly feeling dated and irrelevant. Leviathan, the latest troubling melodrama from director Andrey Zyvagintsev, brilliantly circumvents this problem by couching its very bitter satire of Putin's Russia in biblical parable. Nikolay, a car mechanic in a remote coastal region of the country, is a modern-day Job, beset by malevolent forces beyond his control: principally the corrupt local mayor, who uses his administrative influence, connections to the orthodox church, and outright intimidation, to acquire the land that Nikolay's family inhabit for his own self-aggrandising ends. Leviathan is very dark, but it is also surprisingly funny, especially in the scenes featuring Roman Madyanov as the grotesque, drunken mayor, who appears almost as crushed and ruined by his activities as his victims. It is a bracingly full-on, and glacially beautiful, illumination of the cronyism and criminal elite that have poisoned modern Russia, and, in a broader sense, a moving retelling of the age-old story of the little man being swallowed by a bigger fish. NP

8. Mr Turner (Dir. Mike Leigh)

Is there any film genre more afflicted with banality than the biopic? Generally lacking in any narrative purpose beyond a trite cataloguing of the 'key events' in a given figure's life, they quickly assume the character of a child's clumsy attempt at storytelling: 'And then this happened and then this happened and then this happened.' More often than not, they have all the fresh insight and substance of a dramatized Wikipedia entry.

Leave it to Mike Leigh, then, a director renowned for recreating the mess and the disarray of real life, to pump rude blood through the biopic's withered veins. His passionate, and typically compassionate, treatment of the life and times of J.M.W. Turner, leaves in all of the failings and filthiness that lesser biopics timidly expunge. Much like the great artist himself, in painting a masterpiece Leigh is unafraid of getting his hands dirty. Consequently, the world in which we are immersed escapes the dressing-up-box atmosphere of most historical recreations, to become a place that we can practically smell. During the course of the film's meandering, but consistently engrossing 2 1/2 hour running time, and Timothy Spall's career-best performance, we are given glimpses of Turner the scoundrel, Turner the genius, and Turner the dying animal, Leigh wisely emulating the shifting, indistinct seascapes for which his subject is best known today by never allowing us to think that the irresolvable majesty of such a remarkable human life can come fully into focus. NP

7. Two Days, One Night (Dir. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

Just when one started to suspect that the Dardennes brothers had begun to repeat themselves, releasing a series of kinetic moving portraits of lives lived precariously on the economic fringes to solid but diminishing effect, they find a renewed sense of urgency and purpose. Remarkably, they do this without really departing too far from what has come before: once again, Two Days, One Night is a small, perfectly-formed, and laser-focused account of one weekend in the life of Sandra, a factory employee at a solar-energy panel plant in a Belgian industrial town, given 48 hours by her callous bosses to persuade her co-workers to forgo their annual bonuses so that she may keep her job.

But the Dardennes revive their formula by seizing upon a concept that allows them to illuminate the iniquities of our post-crisis capitalist age, where the have-nots have been turned against each other in order to distract attention away from the wider economic system, and by casting the phenomenal Marion Cotillard in the lead role - a coup that enables the brothers to create indelible cinema simply from the storm of barely-repressed feelings that pass across the emotionally-unstable Sandra's face. The final result: the Dardennes' best film, and one of the most impeccably-crafted and socially-relevant of the entire year. NP

6. Her (Dir. Spike Jonze)

What could easily have been Lars and the Real Girl for the smartphone generation circumvents any possible awkwardness by making clear just how much more permissive Theodore Twombly’s (a disarming Joaquin Phoenix) society is toward his budding relationship with the complex, adaptive OS Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Of course, as much as Spike Jonze’s sci-fi drama is an exploration of love in the digital age it is, more impactfully, an honest portrayal of the expectations and fears we bring to any relationship entered without reservation. Carrying its soul on its sleeve, Her polishes up many of the thematic concerns seen in earlier projects like I’m Here and Where the Wild Things Are, as Jonze’s characters work within the confines of society around them to simply try and be. Impeccably dressed (both the sets and the cast), this is an assured vision of the future, and refreshing in its hopefulness for tomorrow. Tom Dunn

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Dir. Wes Anderson)
With his latest feature, Wes Anderson seems to have finally found a subject that suits his vision. Whilst in the past, when applied to stories of dysfunctional family dynamics, I've found his fussiness and pedantic overemphasis on style to be exasperating, here it marries perfectly with the movie's similarly preening hero, Gustave H, concierge of the eponymous establishment. Channelling the meticulously-constructed golden-age Hollywood comedies of Ernst Lubitsch, Anderson spins a yarn about H and his put-upon lobby boy, Zero Moustafa, speeding breathlessly across a heavily fictionalised pre-war Europe to absolve Gustave of a murder he did not commit. It is genuinely hilarious, and gorgeous to look at, without ever letting Anderson's impulses as a stylist override its enormous heart. NP

4. The Wind Rises (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

When the magisterial swansong of celebrated veteran animator Hayao Miyazaki was released at the beginning of the year, what should've been heralded as a bittersweet cinematic event was instead tarred in the Western media with accusations of letting Japan too easily off the hook for its actions in the Second World War, which forms the backdrop and part of the dramatic impetus to The Wind Rises' biographical account of the early life of Jiro Horikoshi, gifted engineer and designer of the legendary Mitsubishi A6M Zero aircraft used by the nation's military during the conflict.

Much of this controversy strikes me as being deeply dubious, not to mention culturally biased: so ingrained in us in Britain and the USA, as victors of that war, is our sense of righteousness, that we seem to expect Japan to explicitly and contritely address its culpability in every work of art that broaches the subject, whilst the US, for instance, hardly applies the same principle; how many Hollywood WW2 movies, for example, mention the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Answer: not flippin' many!

But more to the point, Miyazaki's final feature is far more than the humble apology that some obviously expected it to be: it is an impassioned conflation of the life of a visionary with the life of his country, told with the sensitivity, vibrancy and visual dynamism we have come to expect from Miyazaki when he is firing on all cylinders. Within, he offers a rich and stark reflection on the costs of vaulting ambition, and remains ambivalent about the artistic vocation and his nation's recent history, right up until its deeply moving conclusion. Given the generic, resolutely infantile quality of most mainstream animation, it is hard to think of a creative force who will be more sorely missed. NP

3. Boyhood (Dir. Richard Linklater)

After last year’s Before Midnight, it was beginning to look like Richard Linklater was at risk of falling into terrible self-parody, the series that earned him worldwide acclaim finally stumbling into the clich├ęs and faux-pas it had circled warily in the earlier Before Sunset. Thankfully, there’s none of that sniffy pop-intellectualism to be found in the superior Boyhood. Filmed over an eleven year period, this coming-of-age drama paints an impressionistic picture of Mason Evans (Ellar Coltrane) and his family, reconvening with them at key points in their lives as they grow and change. Watching Mason shift from wide eyed sprog into a gregarious young man over the course of two hours is mesmerising – in no small part helped by the clear development of Ellar’s acting ability as he in turn finds himself throughout production – but it’s the film’s final double-punch that leaves a lasting impact: Mason may have finally achieved independence at the age of 19, but we’ve watched his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) painfully struggle to adjust to the next 20 years in parallel with Mason’s own formative years. It remains to be seen whether or not Boyhood, technically made prior to Before Midnight, points to a still stellar career for the filmmaker, or is instead a signal to change. TD

2. Nymphomaniac (Dir. Lars Von Trier)
If recent news stories are to be trusted (and few things involving Von Trier are to be taken at face value), then we might be seeing a reduced output, or even a complete cessation of activities from the Danish troublemaker in the years ahead. If this is to be so, and all fans of challenging, arthouse cinema should hope it is not, then at least Nymphomaniac will serve as a fitting magnum opus. It touches on many of the themes that have preoccupied Von Trier, especially the paradox of an individual finding both freedom and destruction in defying society's taboos, only this time writ large on a two-part, five-hour canvas awash with blood, tears, and semen. The picaresque tale of a middle-aged woman looking back on her life-long, life-endangering flirtation with sexual and ethical boundaries, it also doubles as a portrait of the artist from whose psyche it has escaped: alternately sincere and impish, shot through with contradictions, and gloriously, shamelessly button-pushing. NP

1. Under The Skin (Dir, Jonathan Glazer)

It took Jonathan Glazer an entire decade to follow up 2004's Birth with the bizarre, haunting and sometimes darkly comic Under the Skin. That Glazer spent so much time considering how to loosely convert Michael Faber's 2000 novel shows; everything is so thoroughly well considered. The film follows Scarlett Johansson's extraterrestrial humanoid as she travels across Scotland, quite literally consuming any men whose lecherous gazes happen to fall her way. To me the film's central motifs are the ideas of consent and consumption, the scene in which Johansson wanders round a busy Glasgow mall looking for victims, dozens of shoppers unwittingly making up the film's extras, is therefore key. By no means though are these the only themes which are explored. As with Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which this film clearly owes a debt to, Glazer is happy to leave the audience guessing as to what the questions are, nevermind the answers. Words may serve to make observations on this film seem definitive, but its main strengths are in its ability to keep the viewer guessing, and its openness to interpretation. Really, the depths of Glazer's curious triumph can only be fathomed by viewing it. George Bate

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Spectrum's Best Films of 2014 (No. 20-11)

20. The Double (Dir. Richard Ayoade)

Whilst sorely lacking the spirit that made Submarine such a rollicking debut, Richard Ayoade’s sophomore effort is still clearly the work of a genuine voice in cinema. The Double takes the core conceit of Dostoyevsky’s novella and fuses it with the bureaucratic nightmares of Terry Gilliams, to great effect. Genuinely unnerving when it’s not pitching for gallows humour, this tale of dual souls is almost entirely carried by Jesse Eisenberg, whose self-regarding doppleganger James is just as strongly played as the more obviously ‘Eisenberg’ protagonist Simon. Hashed out in a world of clunking pipes, jaundiced yellow smoke and tinny Hawaiian ditties, their symbiotic relationship is far more complex than first appears, resulting in a climax just as murky as the streets beyond their apartment. Like Submarine, The Double is at times too referential for its own good, and it wouldn’t be hard to argue that either feature is more of a cinephile’s gimmick than it is a self-contained work. Yet Ayoade’s clear understanding of iconic personalities like Truffaut et al is apparent on screen precisely because the man is capable of executing cinema with character. He just needs to make it wholly his own. Tom Dunn

19. Nightcrawler (Dir. Dan Gilroy)

Nightcrawler is not a great film, but it is a good film that contains a great character. It is the blackly comic story of Lou Bloom, a loner who discovers a knack for obtaining gruesome footage from crime and accident scenes in night-time LA and selling it to cable news stations. The jabs at how the media preys on public fear and morbid curiosity to inflate ratings are more than a little broad and obvious, and the last act is marred by a descent into silly car chases. But as Lou Bloom, Jake Gyllenhaal turns in a genius performance that already feels like an iconic anti-hero for our times: a ruthless, ghoulish manipulator, prone to spouting careerist platitudes ripped straight out of a particularly nauseating LinkedIn profile, and more at home behind the barrier of a digital screen than he is face-to-face with another human being. Nick Pierce

 18. Gone Girl (Dir. David Fincher)

It’s difficult to get too involved in praising David Fincher’s latest belter for fear of giving the game away entirely. This examination of modern marriage begins with the disappearance of Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) on the morning of her fifth wedding anniversary; a crime investigation quickly developing around her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) – the prime suspect in her possible murder. What follows takes all of the complications of a long-term relationship; trust, perception, dependence, and dials them up to eleven. The result is a blackly comic fable for our times, and proof that Rosamund Pike desperately needs a better agent if it’s taken her this long to shine. TD

17. A Touch of Sin (Dir. Jia Zhangke)

Like the crazy bastard offspring of Thomas Hobbes and Quentin Tarantino, Jia Zhangke's A Touch of Sin uses stylised comic-book violence and B-movie genre trappings to target the iniquities of present-day China. The four loosely-connected stories, filled with bold, bloody imagery and whiplash pacing, range over wide geographical and thematic terrain, tackling the struggles of unionised workers, the plight of marginalised women and youngsters, and the murderous sprees of sociopathic criminals. As with Russia in the similarly angry Leviathan, the superpower is vividly exposed as a moral jungle, where all men must become the prey or the predator. After seeing these films, it's impossible not to ask: where are the British and American dramas addressing the ills of our Western governments with such clarity and vigour? NP

16. Venus in Fur (Dir. Roman Polanski)

Six decades into his filmmaking career, Roman Polanski shows no signs of running out of energy or ideas. Mathieu Amalric plays a self-satisfied director, searching for a lead actress for his stage adaptation of the eponymous work of 19th century erotic fiction. When a mystery woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) shows up at the empty theatre where the director has been auditioning for the part, he initially thinks that he might have found his muse, but soon suspects that she has altogether more sinister designs upon him. It is obvious that Polanski cast Amalric partly because of his resemblance to the director as a younger man - appropriate enough for a film with such an autobiographical feel, deconstructing his perennial fascination with women, sex, and the feminine. But Venus in Fur is also a masterclass in how to translate a dialogue-heavy stage play into cinema, with Polanski displaying a near-Hitchcockian mastery of how to place the camera to build suspense and tell a story. NP

15. Inside Llewyn Davis (Dir. Joel and Ethan Coen)

There’s a strong argument for the Coen Brothers’ finest works simply being the same film made over and over again. Inside Llewyn Davis joins the ranks of Barton Fink and A Single Man as the latest in Joel and Ethan’s farcical explorations of biblical suffering in 20th century America, as the titular folk singer struggles to make his way in Manhattan’s clubs and bars on the eve of Bob Dylan’s breakthrough. There’s perhaps only so many times we can watch characters look on in resignation as the universe conspires against them, but, like O, Brother! Where Art Thou?, Davis’ story is charged with quality song writing to temper all of the Beckett-by-ways-of-the-Stooges, and standout moments like the ‘Please Mr. Kennedy’ recording scene ensure that this is still top-shelf Coen. TD

14. Winter Sleep (Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan)

For those new to the work of acclaimed Turkish auteur Nuri Bilge Ceylan, his Palme d'Or snatching latest is definitely not the best place to start: among his most challenging films to date, its languidly-paced depiction of an arrogant retired actor turned hotel proprietor locking horns with tenants, a sister, and a young wife, who all treat him with barely concealed resentment, is a hardcore art-house excursion into forbidding exterior and interior landscapes. It is not the equal of Ceylan's previous release, the masterful Once upon a time in Anatolia, but it has many of the same strengths: uniformly excellent performances, uncomfortably insightful and recognisable dialogue, and a clear-eyed fascination with the gap between who we imagine ourselves to be, and who we really are. NP

13. Exhibition (Dir. Joanna Hogg)

Experimental filmmaker Joanna Hogg's chilly, austere, yet dryly comic depiction of middle-aged marriage is as formally bold as it is cringe-inducingly unflinching. In terms of story, this is about as low-key as it gets: a contemporary artist couple (played by actual conceptual artist Liam Gillick and former Slits frontwoman Viv Albertine) put their London house up for sale, only to find that the strain of moving brings their career frustrations and personal resentments to the fore.

Hogg's work is an acquired taste: some will probably dismiss Exhibition as a wearisome formalist exercise about insufferable metropolitan wankers, but I'd defend it as an alternately satirical and anthropological look at the neuroses of the chattering classes, and as an uncommonly candid dissection of conjugal friction. What's more, the fact that the narrative is almost entirely confined to the interior of the house means that it serves as a sharp commentary on the changing face of modern central London: no longer so much a living city as an enclave of the wealthy and the out-of-touch, trying vainly to maintain a hermetic separation from the mess of reality. NP

12. Frank (Dir. Lenny Abrahamson)

Lenny Abrahamson returns to Spectrum’s Top Films for the second year running, following up last year’s What Richard Did with a thematic 180 in Frank. Ostensibly based on Chris Sievey’s cult Sidebottom figure, this fictional tale of a band on their way to SXSW sees Frank (Michael Fassbender) reinterpreted as a rather more ambiguous figure. Hailed as a genius by his fellow band mates, the ever-masked musician becomes an obsessive pet project for new keyboardist Jon (Domhnall Gleeson), who sees in Frank the keys to unlocking his own commercial genius. A surprisingly astute rumination on the myth of creativity, Frank may have strayed a little far from the punk edges of its inspiration in favour of modish twee turns, but in doing so makes the film’s late-game revelations all the more tragic. TD

11. Maps to the Stars (Dir. David Cronenberg)

A fitting companion piece to his previous collaboration with Robert Pattinson, Cosmopolis, David Cronenberg’s latest American nightmare puts Hollywood firmly in its sights – and, in light of the recent Scott Rudin / Amy Pascal scenario, seems far too accurate in its execution. Agatha (Mia Wasikowska in fine, fear-inducing form), a severely scarred woman, has come to Hollywood to find her place among the stars, pulling a favour from Carrie Fisher after flattering the actress on Twitter. Her introduction to a world of total amorality and egomania – embodied in the hysterical Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) and drug addict child star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) and his family – would be utterly heartbreaking, were it not for the fact that Agatha clearly has form in this environment. Shot in the same disquietingly sterile way as that earlier ode to capitalism, Maps to the Stars paints Hollywood as a claustrophobically incestuous machine that would sooner eat itself whole than search for salvation. TD

Stay tuned for part deux of Spectrum's countdown of the best in cinema 2014 had to offer...