Friday, 27 December 2013

Best of 2013: Yeezus

Album of the Year: Kanye West - Yeezus

Those who compared West's left-turn with Yeezus this year to Radiohead's uncompromising career reinvention post-OK Computer are only half right. The Brit icons' change in direction, whilst undoubtedly alienating some early acolytes, won them both a greater degree of admiration amongst critics and new fan-bases within avant-garde circles. It helped transform them from a musically-accomplished and respected rock band to a genuine unit-shifting phenomenon, penetrating everything from video games to the BBC philharmonic.
Whilst it is demonstrably true that West shares the same high-art ambitions, he is unlikely to ever gain the same level of acceptance from the arbiters of culture. What's more, by eschewing his trademark, seductive ostentation for conceptual austerity and deliberate sonic ugliness, he's begun to haemorrhage listeners to other luminaries of the introspective hip-hop landscape he largely created (hello Drake). His relative lack of success might have something to do with genre: whereas alternative rock tends to be receptive to even the most egregious of highbrow pretension, rap music (or at least the mainstream) and its audience doesn't yet know how to process the performance-art eccentricities now being practised by its brightest star.
 But then, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Kanye West has always been a musical outsider, albeit one who somehow managed to make pop crowds want to be a freak like him. Yeezus feels like a major statement from this newly-liberated artist, comfortable enough with his own proven talent to switch off the smoke and mirrors and force us to look at his wart-ridden flesh. Lyrically, he delineates and deepens the contradictory persona we've all come to find so oddly fascinating: a man aware of his heritage as an African-American, and accustomed to bumping his head against glass ceilings, but with all the petty arrogance and sexual double-standards one comes to expect from wealthy male patriarchs.
 Every track instantly sears itself onto the memory, West packing in an extraordinary number of highlights given its very brief duration. There's the glam-rock rhythm track swaggering through 'Black Skinhead', the itchy, agitated beat in 'New Slaves' blossoming into a full-blown, Frank Ocean-assisted soul coda, and West's disembodied duet with the ghost of Nina Simone on the utterly fantastic 'Blood on the Leaves'.
 West has crafted a Notes from the Underground for hip-hop heads. It isn't often pretty, but it's frequently beautiful. (Nick Pierce)

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Best of 2013: Music Pt.3

Burial - Rival Dealer

It's another case of evolution not revolution on the latest release from production-genius William Emmanuel Bevan (aka Burial). Although only an EP, clocking in at just under half an hour, it somehow contains an audiophile's treasure trove of riches requiring many weeks to be properly absorbed and obsessed over. The basic Burial sound remains: vinyl crackles, ghostly vocals alternating between the melancholic and the ominous, beats that rumble under foot like a passing subway train. But this time out, Bevan has opted to add a few dashes of colour to his typically monochrome palette: 'Hiders' reveals its New Wave melody when the candy-stripe synths and motorik beat kick in, whilst 'Come Down To Us' leaves behind its gorgeous Weeknd-channelling beginnings to become a full-blown pop ballad.

At the end of the record Bevan drops in excerpts from Matrix co-creator Lana Wachowski's touching acceptance speech for the Human Rights Campaign's Visibility Award, discussing her gender reassignment and desire to be true to herself. Much like the unmistakeable, sui generis music of its creator, the ultimate message of this mini-masterpiece is a celebration of self-acceptance and self-expression. (Nick Pierce)

Oneohtrix Point Never - R Plus Seven

Daniel Lopatin, aka Oneohtrix Point Ever, features heavily in Simon Reynolds’s 2011 book Retromania, which compares his cut up and collage techniques with those of France's music concrete pioneers. This technique arrives at its zenith on R Plus Seven, a gorgeous yet divergent record, more tangents than regularity. Whilst thematically everything is tied together by soft synth pads and Enya-alike vocal samples, individual sounds and melodies disappear with no warning to be replaced by something completely new. Whilst at first this can be distracting, repeated listens reveal a dense dream-like world entirely bereft of convention. Like his partner, Ina Cube (aka Laurel Halo), who appears elsewhere on this list, Lopatin is not comfortable resting on his laurels (pun not intended), instead preferring to build bizarre and beautiful soundscapes, dazzling yet still comforting. R Plus Seven deserves its place here as a pioneering effort. (George Bate)

El-P and Killer Mike - Run the Jewels

The dynamic duo heavily teased on Cancer 4 Cure and R.A.P. Music finally came together this summer for a half hour of serious power rap. Whilst not quite as consistent in greatness as Kanye’s foray into so-called ‘alternative hip hop’, El-P’s production here is an impeccable reminder of who came to the game first, with his paranoid rhymes finding an equal in the charisma of Killer Mike’s Southern flow. The way the two complement and contrast throughout the album’s runtime puts similar pairings to shame, though it would have been nice to have a few moments of Funcrusher Plus level venom thrown into the mix – Run the Jewels is perhaps El-P’s most accessible record, but at times it feels as though he might be holding back as a result. That said, “Sea Legs” easily stands toe to toe with “Black Skinhead”. (Tom Dunn)

Disclosure - Settle

Disclosure were the group which spawned the most cringeworthy newspaper articles this year (I'm looking at you Guardian), as writers attempted in vain to keep up with a zeitgeist which had long since left them behind. Far more interesting than reading Alexis Petridis's "down with the kids" shtick was their actual debut record, which despite it s "deep" house (oh but is it "deep" house? Who knows? More importantly, who cares?) sound is also one of the slickest, most well written pop albums of recent years. Choosing guest vocalists on their own merit rather than for their star status, here Disclosure curate a work with an incredibly wide appeal; from casual pop radio listeners to wide-pupilled club kids, Settle’s very British allure seems to have infested every corner of the nation and beyond. (GB)

The Knife - Shaking the Habitual

As the title suggests, Olof and Karin Dreijer Andersson’s latest record makes clear that the decompressed, ambient sound of Tomorrow In a Year wasn’t just a fluke, instead building upon it and eschewing the shriller techno pop last seen on Karin’s Fever Ray. Often arresting – and very occasionally too aloof for its own good – Shaking the Habitual is the duo’s vastest, and to my mind most accomplished album yet. Alternately sweeping and machine-gun like, at times this full-frontal attack on neo-liberalism can come off as rather po-faced, and in the case of “Fracking Fluid Injection” there’s such a thing as overstretching the point, but highs like “Full of Fire” and its gender-bending message, alongside the record’s bundled “End Extreme Wealth” comic, more than make up for any misfires – sonic or soap-box. (TD)

Fuck Buttons - Slow Focus

Whilst previously solid if occasionally uninspired in its output, Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Powers’ Fuck Buttons project really came into its own on this third record, rejecting their previously crystalline soundscapes in favour of something black as tar and full of menace. Yet the somewhere deep beneath the gloopy sounds the DNA of Tarot Sport is still apparent, and whilst Slow Focus is unlikely to see any of its tracks backing the next Olympics, its heaving bass and synths see the two continuing their work as builders and experimenters, crafting work that is immediately evocative and rewarding. The initial hammering of “Brainfreeze” makes way for ‘The Red Wing’ and its neon sleaze, as Slow Focus works it way through something at once visceral and cold. Tellingly, while the London 2012 Opening Ceremony found place for “Surf Solar”, it’s Channel 4’s return to gritty, innovative TV as part of its ‘Born Risky’ campaign that seeks out the darkness of “Hidden XS”. (TD)

Prurient - Through the Window

Dominic Fernow has been making a cacophony of all sorts of different types of music (with plenty of different monikers to boot) since his first releases in the late 90s, but always with a focus on the darker end of the sonic spectrum. It's this darker focus that makes London's Blackest Ever Black label a natural home for the misanthropic American. His first release for them sees a more ambient take on his Prurient alias, all pulsating keyboard motifs and regular kickdrums in place of pummelling white noise structures. As with much techno the strength here is in the glorious repetition; Fernow finds something darkly wonderful and sticks to it. Releases as Vatican Shadow later in the year saw Fernow operating in a more "business as usual" kind of manner, but Through the Window is now the standout release amongst dozens, if not hundreds, of Fernow recordings. (GB)

Justin Timberlake - The 20/20 Experience Part One

Justified and FutureSex/LoveSounds are quite rightly considered two of the best pop records from last decade, so the fact that Justin Timberlake’s comeback manages to hold its own against those two behemoths is no small feat. Whilst the radio debut of “Suit & Tie” hinted at a more soulful direction for JT and Timbaland, this compact single betrayed the sheer expansiveness of the full record to follow; every track on The 20/20 Experience Part One is a suite in itself, switching keys, changing in mood or dropping heavily distorted sounds and samples before confidently veering off somewhere else. Carrying a real sense of space and sexiness, The 20/20 Experience Part One was easily one of the year’s most soulful records, and should have remained as a one-off. (TD)

Machinedrum - Vapor City

Machinedrum has said in recent interviews that he envisioned his latest record as a walk through a dystopian city (Will Self would be proud), with each track representative of a different sector within that metropolis. The cover image to Vapor City is a visual rendering of that place. It seems that the residents of Vapor City are fans of an interlocking series of related high-BPM electronic subgenres, with juke, jungle and drum'n'bass all playing a part in their soundtrack, and an overlaying of Machinedrum's highly polished sheen and texture binding everything together. Standout track "Gunshotta" sounds like a lost classic hiding somewhere in DJ Hype's record bag, whereas other more ambient pieces come directly from Burial's school of atmosphere; "Vizion" could almost have been copied and pasted from Untrue, but it's no worse off for it. Elsewhere in Machinedrum's busy 2013 schedule he found time for a BBC Radio 1 essential mix and one of the most interesting and cohesive mixes of the year in his Resident Advisor podcast. (GB)

All that remains is our album of the can get up to speed with almost all of our choices for the year with the Spectrum Best of 2013 Spotify playlist.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Best of 2013: Music Pt.2

Jai Paul - Jai Paul (leak)

Despite this being only an unofficial leak, possibly taken illegally from Jai Paul's laptop depending upon who you believe, we felt like it was strong enough to warrant an inclusion in our list. Jai Paul has only released a frustratingly scant amount of music since his fantastic 2010 debut BTSTU, so this collection of 16 songs was enough to set the internet ablaze when it finally dropped. All clattering drums, cheap synths and endearingly raw production, this collection revealed that Jai Paul is indeed the laptop auteur that we hoped. All sort of weird audio effects abound on this rag tag collection, but the strength of the songwriting really shines through, half Prince, half J Dilla, all entirely fresh and original. We can only hope that an officially release will at some point see the light of day. (George Bate)

My Bloody Valentine - m b v

When Kevin Shields declared that My Bloody Valentine’s third album was “¾ done” back in 2007, we perhaps should all have released we’d be waiting another 6 years for the final thing - that initial three quarters had already taken over a decade to lay down on tape, with the band struggling to build upon their prior creative achievement. Loveless is, to my mind, one of those rare, timeless records that defy the period they were made in, and yet whilst it carries a far more urgent, raw sound than its ethereal predecessor, mbv is just as transcendent. Reading the production history of mbv could have been a bit like peering behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain, with only the opening belter of “She Found Now” being a completely new recording - everything else came together in a piecemeal way - but the cohesiveness of the final record nullifies any such qualms. Shields himself has acknowledged the debt the record owes to Drum and Bass, with many purists balking at the notion. Such naysayers would do well to ponder if anything could top “Wonder 2” as the final note to one triumphant return. (Tom Dunn)

Vampire Weekend - Modern Vampires of the City

With their third and easily their greatest studio album thus far, Vampire Weekend have proven themselves wised-up survivors of the late noughties fashion for preppy indie pop by making what could prove to be our generation's Pet Sounds. Emulating Brian Wilson's decision to break away from the youthful naiveté of the Beach Boys' early surf-rock chart-toppers by incorporating more sophisticated arrangements and a sad-eyed emotional maturity, principal songwriters Ezra Koenig and Rostam Batmanglij touch on themes of faith, love, and quarter-life crises whilst remaking genres like reggae, rockabilly and chamber-pop in their own image.

Koenig's highly literate lyrics rival Dylan in their combination of richly evocative detail and borderline impenetrable smartassery, whilst the tunes range from sublime to infectious. This sounds like a Vampire Weekend album for a new and more sober era: as Koenig et al realise, young people these days are probably screwed, but that doesn't mean they're ready to give up on life just yet. (Nick Pierce)

David Bowie - The Next Day

It’s nigh-impossible to separate the album The Next Day from the meticulously planned hype campaign (or, for the more cynically inclined, highly manipulative gimmickry) surrounding it, and I wonder how much merit the album will hold for people first listening to Bowie’s complete discography in a decade’s time. Nevertheless, the brilliant reveal of “Where Are We Now” - presenting a crag-lined, melancholic Bowie so sympathetic to the rumours of frailty and doom – was one of the year’s stand-out pop culture moments, only enhancing what is surely the record’s highlight with a well-timed sleight of hand. What actually followed was an energetic – if not overly adventurous – comeback, showing that Bowie was just as lively (and image conscious) as ever, whilst reminding us all that guitar pop can still have a soul.

And then he ruined it all with a Louis Vutton ad. (TD)

Drake - Nothing Was the Same

I was already coming round to Drake last year, following his collaborations with The Weeknd on Kiss Land, but this year’s Nothing Was the Same cemented my appreciation for him. 2013 – rather short-sightedly – has frequently been hailed as the year ‘rap’ and ‘gangsta’ divorced, with the increased soul-searching on the part of MCs supposedly unearthing some prior unknown heart in the form. Nothing Was the Same then is refreshing in its comfortably direct arrogance, offering the best radio rap of the year, as Drake finds the charm his voice previously lacked. And with few other contenders entering the arena, he pulled in an eager audience let down by Jay-Z’s comparatively bloated effort. (TD)

James Blake - Overgrown

Overgrown, over-earnest? Perhaps, though this year’s Mercury Music Prize winner was so much more than kitsch mawkishness; Blake's impassioned vocals may be an acquired taste, but his dubby piano instrumentals are impeccable, at times maddeningly addictive in their propulsion. The album was largely inspired by his girlfriend and muse Theresa Wayman, singer and guitarist in US band Warpaint, and Blake's paeans for her were enough to seemingly inspire similar feelings in the usually hardened RZA. Raps about squids, quids and newborn kids aside, even this bizarre track was not without its merits. The announcement this month of a new Radio 1 show helmed by Blake was another bung for the piano-dubstep wunderkind. (GB)

Darkside - Psychic

In recent months, as a solo artist, Nicolas Jaar has carved a reputation for himself as something like the James Joyce of house music, his radio and online mixes quoting musical sources and snatches of dialogue from a remarkably diverse array of genres, performers, and periods. His side-project with Brooklyn multi-instrumentalist Dave Harrington proved to be quite a different proposition, sneaking off the dancefloor altogether and heading out into the cold, lonely night.

Gone are the unpredictable, precocious changes in direction, replaced by a sustained exercise in conjuring a cinematic, noirish universe. The drone interludes and scuttling beats could form a soundtrack to the best David Lynch movie never made (at least not yet...), but Harrington's mellifluous guitar parts bring unexpected warmth, like gusts of hot desert air blowing suddenly down an empty main street in the early hours of the morning. If you like your electronica atmospheric and adventurous, then Psychic is the lost highway you'll be wanting to travel. (NP)

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Push The Sky Away

Nearing his sixties might not have exactly mellowed Nick Cave, but it does appear to have prompted him to relinquish some of the imposing and unapproachable grandiloquence of old. His fifteenth studio album with the Bad Seeds is his most introspective since 1997's The Boatman's Call. But whereas that career milestone concerned his heartbreak from an abortive love affair, Push The Sky Away sees him addressing his own steadily advancing age and ultimate obsolescence in voyeuristic, sometimes uncomfortable detail.

In his lyrics, Cave draws on motifs of mermaids and crashing waves to evoke his seaside home of Brighton and contented domestic existence with wife, former model Susie Bick. The Nick Cave we meet in this landscape is a surprisingly moving one, clearly regretful about his vanished youth as a firebrand rocker, but happy and perhaps a touch bemused by the sedate life he has been gifted. The words are mainly more elliptical and attenuated than the prolix wordplay of past classics like 'The Mercy Seat' and 'Red Right Hand', as if language itself is breaking down and becoming another victim of the entropy he depicts. But then, just when we're starting to think that the old Cave is vanishing before our eyes, the band launches into the climactic 'Higgs-Boson Blues', the latest in the Aussie's great tradition of phantasmagorical odysseys, encompassing everything from Christian mythology to Miley Cyrus. (NP)

Arcade Fire - Reflektor

Let's get the negatives out of the way first: as a double-album Reflektor can sometimes feel bloated and indulgent, with several of the tracks outstaying their welcome by a couple of minutes. But on the plus side: it's a new goddamn LP from Arcade Fire, the best rock band to surface from across the Atlantic in years, and they haven't sounded so vibrant or hungry since their 2004 debut, Funeral.

Recruiting LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy on production duties seems to have worked wonders for their creative juices. Alongside some more of the usual winning anthemic odes to disenfranchisement, they drop some sweatier, disco-bound cuts throbbing equally with 'Billie Jean' bass and existential urgency, such as the title track, eight of the best and most compelling minutes of music I've heard all year.

Taken as a whole Reflektor lacks some of the cohesion and sense of purpose one might hope for from a band at the height of their powers, but makes up for it with unfashionable sincerity, barnstorming melodies, and a newfound sense of playfulness. When it works, it is nothing short of astonishing. (NP)

We'll return with Part 3 tomorrow, but you can get up to speed with almost all of our choices for the year with the Spectrum Best of 2013 Spotify playlist.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Best of 2013: Music Pt.1

We began the year with Justin Timberlake swaggering onto YouTube in a tux, and ended it with Beyonce quietly releasing a 17 video visual album on iTunes, as the music industry sought out new tactics to stay relevant in an internet world. Whilst the results were perhaps more novel than groundbreaking (though Sasha Fierce's little trick might just prove to be a game changer ahead of 2014), there's no denying that between the comebacks and the 'cloud', 2013 was the year when music regained a sense of theatre - something that brushed off the mainstream and found its way into more alternative releases in sometimes surprising ways (hello Jai Paul!). All told, it's been an exciting year.

This post is the first in our look at the year's best music, and first in our extended 'Spectrum 2013' series - enjoy.

Gesaffelstein - Aleph

There is a fantastic shot of Gesaffelstein at a recent Pitchfork gig in Miami, the Parisian producer impeccably turned out in a three piece suit, cigarette in hand, with a bottle of Jack Daniels casually nestled amongst his equipment. It's a stark contrast to the music the man born Mike Levy makes; all neon synthesisers and eerie squelches that wouldn't be out of place on Cliff Martinez's Drive soundtrack. There's a thematic consistency and sense of style to Levy's work, which is surely what drew Kanye West to enlist him to work on his fantastically horrible Yeezus. A similarity extends beyond the two records, not only in their EBM beats but also between the cover art, both released in transparent cases without sleeves, overlaid by sparse designs. If you enjoy West's music in 2013 but have an issue with his general vileness then perhaps Aleph is the record for you? (George Bate)

Toro Y Moi - Anything in Return

Chaz Bundick was unfortunate enough to enter the popular consciousness at the same time as a number of other similar, but less substantive, artists in the "chillwave" explosion of a few years ago. Fortunately for Bundick his talent keeps on shining through, not only in his releases under the Toro Y Moi moniker, but also in his extremely varied work as Shades of Chaz and Les Sins. It's of no surprise then that Bundick seems to have proven to have the most staying power of all of his contemporaries. There is depth too; his lyrics of mid 20s career frustration add a sense of unease in contrast with the joy of his music, epitomised by Bundick’s lyric on Blessa: “I found a job, I do it fine. Not what I want, but still I try”. A stonking 2013 live show was more evidence of Bundick's talent. (GB)

Laurel Halo - Behind the Green Door EP

Laurel Halo was much talked about in 2012 for her debut full length record, Quarantined, released on Kode 9's Hyperdub label. On Quarantined, Halo combined a slowed down, less beat-heavy version of her usual production with her own acquired-taste vocals. While some listeners raved about it, others found the record embarrassingly weak. Behind The Green Door was a much more consistent affair, yet another standout EP of Halo's dense organic techno. Always one to confound, Halo filled this EP with a series of cuts which almost trip over themselves with a sense of their own propulsion, each element of the music somehow not quite fitting with any other, yet still feeling complete as part of a whole. A sense of unease is present throughout, yet these four tracks still feel hypnotic and endlessly addictive, each new listen revealing something hidden deep within the mix. Another album followed this excellent EP, moving Halo's sound on elsewhere, but not quite matching this all too brief release for sheer allure. (GB)

Mount Kimbie - Cold Spring Fault Less Youth

Since the release of the wonderfully whimsical Maybes EP in 2009, Mount Kimbie have cut an odd pose at the more twee end of UK bass music (yes, UK bass music has a twee end, even if it consists solely of Mount Kimbie and James Blake). Here on their sophomore record they abandon that scene almost entirely, bringing in singer/songwriter Archie Marshall, aka King Krule/Zoo Kid, to provide vocals alongside their own. Guitars are also in, largely replacing the sampled sounds and electronic bleeps and bloops that previously formed the melodies in their productions. Elsewhere, the frenetic percussion is matched by jazzy basslines which in turn complement Marshall's snarled and spluttered vocals far better than the backing on his own 2013 debut. Another fine effort from the London pair. (GB)

Maya Jane Coles - Comfort

Maya Jane Coles has for some time been one of the biggest DJs in the world, regularly featuring near the top of lists by the most influential electronic music media sources. This was the year Coles stepped from outside of the booth and into the limelight with her excellent debut album Comfort. Taking cues from the house music scene in which she has made her name and combining them with pop sensibilities has proven, as for Disclosure, to be a great move for Coles. The record has opened up an entirely new sphere for its young and talented creator. A much-discussed BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix and a storming Ella Fitzgerald remix have proven to be the cherries atop the cake in another stellar year for Maya Jane Coles. (GB)

The Haxan Cloak - Excavation

Bobby Krlic could never be accused of looking on the brighter side of life; his second record as The Haxan Cloak is intended as an exploration of the idea of death and what comes after, the title of standout track "The Drop" being a reference to the sudden final fall into non-existence. Alongside recent records from Raime and Lustmord, this album forms the forefront of a seemingly buoyant (how ironic) UK dark ambient scene. In a recent interview with Resident Advisor, Krlic revealed that he had used no electronic instrumentation on Excavation, instead using his equipment to process the sounds of classical instruments, confounding one member of the London Symphony Orchestra apparently unable to work out how he had managed to coax a particular note from his cello. What this record lacks in cheer it certainly makes up for in moments of spine-tingling, sinister beauty. (GB)

These New Puritans - Field of Reeds

To label These New Puritans a band requires a definition of the term so loose and broad as to be practically visible from space. Essentially, it's the name given to a series of highly disparate musical projects masterminded by self-confessed perfectionist Jack Barnett. Whereas the previous release, Hidden, was an imposing, overwhelmingly metallic affair of post-punk squall and dancehall horns, if one were to assign a few kindred elements to Reeds, in ironically new-age fashion of course, it would be wood, earth and water.

Taking his cues from Eno's concept of ambient music, which should shape itself to an environment in order to enhance the experience of it, Barnett builds an imaginary pastoral landscape, apparently inspired by the Thames estuary near their hometown of Southend-on-sea. Often the core 'members' do not even play the instruments heard. Barnett, like some mad, maximalist, indie-rock version of Kanye West, is unafraid to incorporate as many incongruous components as he can get his hands on; so we're treated to lush vocals from Portuguese 'fado' singer Elisa Rodrigues and the first commercial usage of the magnetic resonator piano. As one would expect from its watery inspiration, Reeds is a largely placid and stately affair, its mellow surface only occasionally disturbed by a few rumbling krautrock stormclouds. It might recall the classically-informed arrangements of noughties Radiohead, and the bucolic experimentation of Talk Talk and Can, but really Field of Reeds sounds like nothing else except itself. And honestly, in 2013 how many albums can you say that of? (Nick Pierce)

Death Grips - Government Plates

In terms of ideological intent, Death Grips can perhaps be compared to early 80s punk projectiles like Black Flag: all inchoate, unfocused rage and mythologizing of self-destruction. But sonically they often strike me as the worthy successors of Aphex Twin (or at least the Aphex Twin of the Richard D. James Album and notorious 'Come to Daddy' single), consistently burying the needle with concussive, beat-dominated instrumental scribbles, and nightmarish vocals. Most of the tracks hit like homemade nail bombs, chucked through your browser window and detonating their payloads of heavily-compressed samples in no more than a couple of minutes each.

But there are also moments of unexpected prettiness: The banshee howls in the choruses of 'Birds' are repeatedly exorcised by a jaunty, gently glowing guitar riff, whilst 'Whatever I want (fuck who's watching)' veers magically from synth-illuminated neon psychedelia to an extremely slow-tempo drone come-down. (NP)

Jon Hopkins - Immunity

For someone who once had a hand in producing Coldplay (as Brian Eno's understudy no less), Jon Hopkins makes terribly interesting music. His exemplary work as a sound engineer and on film soundtracks is evidenced here by a series of writhing atmospheric textures, somehow formless yet full of substance. There are plenty of found sounds and audio created by unconventional methods on this record; the album begins with the sound of Hopkins opening his studio door. Supposedly there is also the sound of him drumming with salt shakers. All of the processing was done on analogue equipment, a trend we have seen amongst other producers on this list. This is surprising since everything on the record sounds so unreal, so android. It wasn't enough to win Hopkins the Mercury Prize on his second nomination, but I doubt very much whether he would mind. (GB)

James Holden - The Inheritors

James Holden has always been something of an enigma, producing bizarro techno made to confound minds, but often playing largely commercial crowd-pleasing DJ sets that contrast completely with his personal output. The Inheritors sees Holden continue his journey further into the realm of eclecticism with a jazzy, organic take on techno. The album was largely created on a single modular synthesiser, adapted to use with software written by Holden himself, his skills gained as an Oxford mathematician no doubt of some help in whatever experiments he is cooking up in his sonic lab. At times this album is punishing in the sheer number of directions it takes (sometimes all at once), at others it's haunting and beautiful, a fact acknowledged by Holden himself in his track titling (see "Some Respite"). Appropriately enough this was released on Holden's own Border Community label; whichever borders Holden finds himself at he's sure to be pushing them down. (GB)

Part 2 hits on Christmas Day (Merry bloody Christmas!), but you can get up to speed with almost all of our choices for the year with the Spectrum Best of 2013 Spotify playlist.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Woody Allen But Were Afraid To Ask: The Top 10, Part 2

5. Crimes and Misdemeanours (1989)

Any second-rate critic can tell you that there are two dominant and conflicting creative impulses that have motivated Woody Allen over the years: the desire to be taken seriously as an artist, and the irrepressible, face-saving urge to goof off. In this critically-lauded crime drama Allen finally found a way to reconcile the two, and the result is one of his most penetrating, painful works, and a fairly definitive insight into his pessimistic philosophy of life.

  There are two plotlines which run along together, rarely overlapping, but frequently commenting upon and qualifying one another. In one, Martin Landau plays an affluent opthalmologist, plagued by a mentally unstable woman with whom he has been having an affair. Terrified that she will expose him and destroy his comfortable life, he grapples with his conscience as he contemplates employing his criminal brother to murder her. In the other, lighter story, Allen portrays a rather less successful documentary filmmaker by the name of Clifford Stern, hired to make a movie about a jackass comedy producer, Lester (a brilliantly corny Alan Alda). To his chagrin, and despite his many romantic overtures, Lester's assistant producer, Mia Farrow, with whom Clifford is in love, starts to fall for her idiot boss.

  Although the murky subject matter might lead one to expect something as melodramatic as Manhattan Murder Mystery, it is the film's total refusal to conform to screenwriting conventions of moral comeuppance that makes it most indelible. With a masterful balancing of sad comedy and banal horror, Allen leaves us with a chilly reminder that the universe is not only a deeply unfair place, but utterly indifferent to our projections of right and justice.

4. Bananas (1971)

Few comedians have the imagination, the consistency or the chutzpah to pull off what is essentially a feature-length sketch show. With this scattershot political/social satire, Allen did exactly that, and the result ranks alongside the best work of Mel Brooks and Monty Python in poking fun at sacred cows and cultural iniquities without ever abandoning the irreverence intrinsic to their charm.

  The opening section now looks like a rehearsal for Annie Hall and the relationship comedies of his 'maturity', examining the brief, awkward tryst between blue-collar schmuck Mellish (Allen) and activist Nancy (Louise Lasser, Allen's one-time wife). Mellish, in a moment of lovesick insanity, departs for the fictional 'banana republic' of San Marco, where he ends up serving as an unlikely revolutionary fighter, and being installed as the head of a new and increasingly corrupt regime. From here on out, Allen trains his stand-up honed, rapid-fire sensibility on the evils of dictatorships, and the moral hysteria and hypocrisy of the USA. Sure, the humour is broad, and sometimes reliant upon crude, dated stereotypes, but it remains hilarious from start to finish.

3. Manhattan (1979)

What's left to write about Allen's symphony to his birthplace? It's the visual highpoint, the cinephile's choice, the best NY tourist advert ever made. Whilst Scorsese's 70s output plumbed the bowels of a city on the verge of abject despair, Manhattan keeps its eyes fixed on the skyline, madly in love with the lights. If you're in need of evidence for the importance of the cinematographer's art, the way such a master craftsman can transform the raw material of reality, then take Allen's ode and Taxi Driver, both nominally set in the same metropolis, compare and contrast.

  Of course, any film so preoccupied with looking permanently gorgeous could come off as shallow. It's fair to say that Manhattan is more detached from the fumbles and foibles of lived human experience than most of Allen's movies - here the camera maintains its distance, gliding over all or framing its characters' heartaches in photogenic wide-angle shots. But to fault Manhattan for its immaculacy is to miss the point: this is Allen's shot at constructing a post-modern New York mythic, a fallen paradise where even the sidewalks gleam, and happiness is always outside the natives' reach, no matter how much they twist and turn to find it. And as viewers, just like the characters themselves, we find it almost impossible not to fall in love.    

2. Annie Hall (1977)

Richard Curtis, take note: this is how you write a rom-com. Allen's bittersweet tale of stand-up comic, Alvy Singer, reflecting on his failed relationship with the eponymous heroine, is surely the blueprint for aspiring screenwriters everywhere. You'll struggle to think of another example of the genre that more effortlessly balances both essential elements.

  The fact that it's hilarious won't come as a surprise: already heated up by a series of deliriously unhinged satires and parodies, by this point Allen's funny bone was practically shooting sparks. Over its tight run-time, little more than 90 minutes, he rattles through more inspired ideas, throwaway gags and set-pieces than Judd Apatow has managed in a half-dozen bloated cinematic offerings.

  More importantly, Allen ensures we care about the lovers. They're not the airbrushed mannequins of The Notebook, a waxwork representation of romantic love, nor the emotionally-challenged kidults of Knocked Up. Amazingly enough, they are real, interesting, funny, smart people. I don't mean to keep kicking Judd Apatow, but honestly, watch Annie Hall and then stick on one of his edit-room dodgers: it's like having lunch at a Michelin-starred restaurant and dinner at McDonald's. Apparently, this rom-com business is much harder than it looks...

1. Hannah and her Sisters (1986)

Allen has remarked that it was Diane Keaton's radiant performance in Annie Hall that taught him the importance of giving a full interior psychological life to his female characters - a vital element that he feels was lacking from his earlier efforts. If this is true, then we have Keaton to thank for the subsequent development of one of modern American cinema's finest creators of rich, multi-layered roles for women. In Hannah and her Sisters, Allen's sensitive, compassionate screenwriting reached its zenith.

  A chamber drama spread out over a 24 month period, it follows the changing fortunes of three Manhattan sisters and their respective partners as they cheat, bicker, and break apart. The inclusion of veteran Swedish actor Max Von Sydow as one of the sisters' husbands is the giveaway: this is Allen's attempt at emulating the female-centric Kammerspiel of Ingmar Bergman. By keeping their clear-eyed view of everyday human solipsism and weakness, but imbuing the drama with his own type of dizzy warmth, Allen rivals his idol's achievements without succumbing to slavish impersonation.

  It could serve as an epitaph for Allen's entire career and the inimitable worldview it has established: the endless, sometimes exasperating marathon of sex, love, death, and life. Only it's still too soon to call time on his 50-plus year legacy just yet...

Monday, 2 December 2013

Catching Fire Review

Gary Ross’s adaptation of The Hunger Games wasn’t just a two fingered salute to all of the other half-baked teen fiction adaptations that have dominated multiplexes in recent years, it was also a refreshingly well realised science-fiction yarn, playing straight the concept behind The Running Man to highly satisfying effect. Yet with Gary Ross out and I Am Legend’s Francis Lawrence in – alongside one hefty box office shadow – Catching Fire could have easily played it safe and done another New Moon, reeling in the cash with nary a modicum of its predecessor’s ingenuity. Thankfully, this second feature in The Hunger Games trilogy is just as imaginative, whilst swapping out some of the atmosphere in favour of a far slicker, fast-paced machine.

Picking up right where we left off, previous Hunger Games winners Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence)and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are now residents in District 12’s Victor’s Village, forced to live out their sham relationship for Caesar Flickerman’s (a deliciously camp Stanley Tucci) reality-TV-cum-celeb-gossip TV channel. Yet whilst the Capitol aims to distract from the violence of the Hunger Games by avidly following this false romance, in the Districts, civil unrest bubbles in the wake of Katniss’s defiant acts in the Games. Yet with the 75th anniversary of The  Hunger Games (and, in turn, the failure of the latest uprising) allowing for special conditions to come into play, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) aims to quell any further rebellion by forcing Katniss and Peeta to play again.

Initially, Beaufoy and DeBruyn’s script comes across as more than a little hammy in its repeated appraisals of love and loneliness from the plot’s central love triangle, and whilst Liam Hemsworth does a stand-up job it’s hard to care about someone who’s so obviously on the periphery. However, once we’re back in the company of Woody Harrelson and newcomer Philip Seymour Hoffman, things quickly pick up, and the film is allowed to breathe. The original Hunger Games took its time in letting the titular event unfold, effectively capturing the isolation and boredom that would come along with being stuck in a forest for days with no one to talk to beyond your imminent killer. In contrast, the portrayal of the 3rd Quarter Quell is here far more conventional and swift, instead building up a strong set of supporting figures in Jena Malone, Sam Claflin et al ready for the ecisive events of the next two films.

Yet unlike other ‘middle’ features, Catching Fire does far more than merely move the pieces in play from Point A to B – by the time the end credits appeared, I was clamouring for more. Catching Fire might lose some of the sense of authenticity found in the best moments of its predecessor, but it makes up for it with a far greater sense of adventure and excitement. So long as Mockingjay doesn’t buck the trend, it looks like The Hunger Games might be the first epic film series in a long time that lives up to all of its grand promises.