Sunday, 24 March 2019

Reviews on Blank Slate

I've recently joined the Blank Slate team to write album and concert reviews. You can read the first three here, here and here. Next up: Colossal Squid and Dextro at The Cluny this coming Tuesday.

Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Review of 2018

Rival Consoles: Persona (*****)
Kikagaku Moyo: Masana Temples (****)
Jonny Greenwood: You Were Never Really Here (****)
Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto: Glass (****)
The Soft Moon: Criminal (****)
Thom Yorke: Suspiria (****)
Spiritualized: And Nothing Hurt (****)
Suuns: Felt (****)
Johnny Jewel: Themes for Television (****)
Mint Field: Para de las Luces (****)
Grouper: Grid of Points (****)
Perfect Circle: Eat the Elephant (****)
Infinite Music: A Tribute to La Monte Young (****)
Black Label Society: Grimmest Hits (****)
Jon Hopkins: Singularity (****)

Live Music
MONO/ Jo Quail at The Cluny, 04/10 (****)
Mogwai at Northumberland University, 01/02 (****)

Phantom Thread (****)
Roma (****)
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (****)
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (****)
Avengers: Infinity War (****)
Bad Times at the El Royale (****)
Leave No Trace (****)
I, Tonya (****)
You Were Never Really Here (***)
Annihilation (***)
Suspiria (***)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (**)

Evil Genius: The True Story... (*****)
Making a Murderer: Season 2 (****)
The Staircase (****)
Inside No. 9: Season 4 (****)
The Sinner: Season 2 (****)
The Innocent Man (****)
Louis Theroux: Altered States (***)
A Very British Scandal (***)

Stefan Zweig: The Post Office Girl (*****)  
Haruki Murakami: Killing Commendatore (*****) 
Iain Banks: Stonemouth (*****)  
Haruki Murakami: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki... (*****) 
Douglas Adams: The Hitchhiker’s Guide... (second reading, *****)  
Stefan Zweig: Beware of Pity (****) 
Philip K. Dick: Flow My Tears... (second reading, ****)  
Haruki Murakami: Norwegian Wood (second reading, ****) 
D.H. Lawrence: Lady Chatterley’s Lover (****)  
Mark Frost: Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier (****) 
J.G. Ballard: Super-Cannes (***)  
Francois Mauraic: Therese (***) 
Mark Frost: The Secret History of Twin Peaks (***)  
John Grisham: The Firm (second reading, ***) 
Hunter S. Thompsons: Hell’s Angels (***)  
Philip K. Dick: In Milton Lumky Territory (***) 
Philip K. Dick: Ubik (***)  
Douglas Adams: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (***) 
Tennessee Williams: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Other Plays (***) 
Vladimir Nabokov: Pale Fire (***)
Mark Z. Danielewski: House of Leaves (**)

Saturday, 6 October 2018

MONO at The Cluny, 04/10/2018 (with support from Jo Quail)

MONO setlist:
01. Flood
02. Death in Rebirth
03. Nowhere, Now Here
04. Breathe
05. Sorrow
06. Halcyon (Beautiful Days)
07. Night Ends
08. Ashes in the Snow.

Jo Quail

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Sicily, 2018

Duomo, Taormina

Isola Bella

View from Castelmola

Temple of Concordia, Agrigento

Villa Romana del Casale, Piazza Armerina

Mount Etna

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Review: Mogwai at Northumbria University, 01/02/2018

Mogwai played an enjoyably noisy show at Northumbria University this week. The Glasgow band played a career-spanning set, ranging from early pieces such as ‘Ithica 27/9’ and ‘Mogwai Fear Satan’ to new album tracks such as ‘Party in the Dark’ and ‘Every Country’s Sun’.

Mogwai have now been around for over twenty years, and even if some of the newer tracks (such as slightly pedestrian opener ‘Crossing the Road Material’) are somewhat eclipsed by the earlier ones, they still know how to structure an entertaining live show.

Moody mid-period pieces such as ‘I’m Jim Morrison’ and ‘Rano Pano’ stood up well, and helped to bridge the gap between the slow-building majesty of ‘Helicon 1’ and the more immediate new material.

After a very brief break, 2003’s ‘I Know You Are…’ proved an effectively subtle lead-up to the noise immolation of ‘We’re No Here’. And then they were gone in a cloud of dry ice, leaving the audience to stumble out with the feedback still ringing in their ears.


01. Crossing the Road Material
02. I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead
03. Party in the Dark
04. New Paths to Helicon, Part 1
05. Ithica 27/9
06. Rano Pano
07. Battered at a Scramble
08. Every Country’s Sun
09. Don’t Believe the Fife
10. Remurdered
11. Mogwai Fear Satan
12. Old Poisons

13. I Know You Are But What Am I?
14. We’re No Here.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Review of 2017

Max Richter’s Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works (*****) fused neo-classical instrumentation, ambient sounds and sampled dialogue in a compelling manner. Norwegian band Ulver performed another creative volte-face to deliver a consistent set of electronic pop songs in The Assassination of Julius Caesar (****). Noise musician Ben Frost had a busy year with the release of the Fortitude soundtrack (***), the Threshold of Faith EP (*****) and its accompanying album The Centre Cannot Hold (****). Neil Young’s demo album Hitchhiker (****), recorded in 1976, proved that understatement is often a virtue, while Mogwai delivered their strongest set in some time with Every Country’s Sun (****). Kikagaku Moyo contributed further psychedelic noise on Stone Garden (****), while Brian Eno’s most immersive ambient piece in some time came in the form of Reflection (****).

Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross recorded an effective cover of John Carpenter’s Halloween (****), alongside Nine Inch Nails’ Add Violence EP (****). NIN’s classic 1990s releases Broken (*****), The Downward Spiral (*****) and The Fragile (****) were also re-released in ‘definitive versions’.

There were decent electronic efforts from Four Tet: New Energy (****), Teen Daze: Themes for Dying Earth (****), GAS: Narkopop (***), Bonobo: Migration (***) and Bicep: Bicep (***). David Bowie’s archive yielded the fantastic Berlin-era boxset A New Career in a New Town (****) and 1974 live recording Cracked Actor (***). Pallbearer delivered a fine album, Heartless (****), while Public Service Broadcasting explored Welsh mining history with Every Valley (***). Slowdive returned after a long absence with the self-titled Slowdive (****), and Steven Wilson embraced the mainstream with the somewhat underwhelming To the Bone (***). David Gilmour and Dextro both delivered live albums: Live at Pompeii (***) and Live at The Cluny (***) respectively.

The return of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks led to the release of three separate soundtrack albums: Angelo Badalamenti’s haunting Twin Peaks (Limited Event Series Soundtrack) (****), sound designer Dean Hurley’s atmospheric Anthology Vol. 1 (****) and the more uneven Twin Peaks (Music From The Limited Event Series) (***). Further Twin Peaks soundtrack material could also be found on Johnny Jewel’s sparse, bittersweet Windswept (****) and Uniform’s unrelentingly aggressive Wake in Fright (***).

Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s Blade Runner 2049 (***) score didn’t quite reach the majestic heights of Vangelis’ original Blade Runner soundtrack, but still contains some fine work (especially when you skip the superfluous vocal tracks). Contrarily, Kyle Dixon and Michael Dixon’s synth soundtrack to Stranger Things 2 (***) might have benefitted from some of the 1980s pop and metal songs used in the show.

I attended live Newcastle shows by Einsturzende Neubauten (***) and the Australian Pink Floyd tribute act (***), but was very sorry to miss Sigur Ros’ concert in Glasgow due to ill health.

Paranoia and dread were potent driving forces in It Comes at Night (****), which features strong lead performances from Joel Edgerton and Christopher Abbott. Armando Iannucci's satire The Death of Stalin (****) was as terrifying as it was amusing, with fine performances from an all-star British and American cast. Blade Runner 2049 (****) effectively evoked the atmosphere of Ridley Scott’s original film and featured some fantastic visual effects, although there were perhaps too may action scenes and a rather hammy performance from Jared Leto. Michael Keaton was in fine form as McDonald’s guru Ray Kroc in the entertaining The Founder (****), while Jennifer Lawrence undertook one of her most challenging roles yet in Mother! (****).

Lady Macbeth (****) was a tense re-telling of a novel by Nikolai Leskov, filmed in the north east of the UK, while Rachel Weisz starred in the more lavish period drama My Cousin Rachel (***). Natalie Portman was effective in Jackie (***), while Fences (***) suffered a little in translation from the stage. T2 Trainspotting (***) had some interesting things to say about memory and nostalgia, but suffered from some predictable plot devices and an ugly soundtrack. Manchester by the Sea (***) and The Levelling (***) were both reasonably gripping family dramas.

Logan (***) brought the Patrick Stewart-era X-Men franchise to a violent-but-poignant end. The divisive Star Wars: The Last Jedi (***) was entertaining in parts but also overlong, with a reliance on unnecessary sub-plots and CGI critters reminiscent of the atrocious prequel trilogy.

I didn’t find much time for drama this year, although my reviews of Hedda Gabbler and Playing Up 4 at Northern Stage can be found on this blog.

Twin Peaks: The Return (*****) was unpredictable, baffling, infuriating, amusing and at times genuinely terrifying; David Lynch has raised the bar once again. Netflix's The Sinner (****) was a disquieting and absorbing drama exploring repressed memory, while the BBC's Line of Duty (****) was as tense as ever in its fourth series. Stranger Things 2 (***) was an enjoyable sequel to the first season, although not without its flaws. The Handmaid's Tale (***) effectively brought Margaret Atwood's dystopian vision to life  at a time when its lessons particularly bear repeating  although there were a few curious diversions from the source material. Game of Thrones (**) seemed on something of a crash-course this season, with very questionable plotting and some lacklustre performances, although it remains an effective spectacle at times.

I have a tendency to neglect contemporary writers, but I found Michael Finkel's The Stranger in the Woods (*****) fascinating: an account of Christopher Thomas Knight's extraordinary 27 years of solitude in the North Pond area of Maine. I thoroughly enjoyed George Orwell's meticulously written Down and Out in Paris and London (*****), which has aged much better than The Road to Wigan Pier (***). The Revised and Updated 2016 Edition of Nicholas Pegg's The Complete David Bowie (*****) is the most thorough guide to a musician's work that I've ever read, while Oliver Sack's Musicophilia (****) is an accessible, anecdotal study of the effect that music can have on the human brain. Margaret Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale (****) has possibly never seemed quite as relevant. The world is a sadder place without the wit and (hard-earned) wisdom of Carrie Fisher, as displayed in Postcards from the Edge (****). Nic Pizzolatto's Galveston (****) is a dramatic, noir-flavoured novel from the creator and writer of HBO's True Detective, while Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House (****) manages a palpable sense of atmosphere in its brevity. Kazuo Ishiguro was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature, and The Remains of the Day (****) is a successful period piece with a strong narrative voice. The surreal nightmares of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere (****) and Philip K. Dick's Minority Report: Volume Four of the Collected Stories (****) kept me sane while I was recovering from surgery. Finally, I enjoyed re-reading Henrik Ibsen's Four Major Plays (****) and Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire and Other Plays (****).

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Ridley Scott: Past, Present & Future Visionary Exhibition, The Word, South Shields

The Word in South Shields is currently home to a Ridley Scott-themed exhbition, 'Past Present & Future Visionary'. Degree students from the Cleveland College of Art and Design have recreated props and costumes from Alien, Blade Runner, Gladiator and more.

 Alien display

 Replica Ripley jumpsuit


Signed script and alien egg



 Blade Runner display

 Deckard blaster

 Voight Kampff machine

J.F. Sebastian costume

The exhibition runs until the 2nd of May. Entry is free.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Review: Hedda Gabler, Northern Stage

Audience members are warned about loud gunshots upon entering Northern Stage for the current production of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler; they are also warned, by means of an added subtitle, that ‘this is not a love story’.

A bare table and chairs sit in front of large, tarnished mirror panels which reflect and distort the action on-stage. Insistent drums, synthesized squeals and discordant piano announce the entrance of the cast, as maids prepare for the arrival of Jørgen Tesman and his recent bride, Hedda Gabler.

Ed Gaughan gives a wonderful performance as Tesman, the shambling, earnest academic who yearns to satisfy his demanding wife but whose mind is focused firmly on Dutch cottage industries. Victoria Elliott is also strong as Hedda, strutting around in a dressing gown as if at a ball, manipulating her companions as a means of escape from the tedium of married life.

Electric drones and red lights signal the start of ‘rage reveries’ in which Hedda vents her frustration at those around her: Donald McBride’s scheming Judge Brack, Rachel Denning’s nervous Thea Elvsted, the oblivious Tesman and his tiresome devotion to his ageing aunts. It is the return of Tesman’s reformed rival Eilert Lövborg (Scott Turnbull) to the town which gives Hedda her chance: in a world where women are refused control, she plots to take charge of Eilert’s destiny. Equating destruction with the beauty she seeks, she perpetuates his undoing and casts his manuscript into the fire.

Unfortunately, the production comes to a disappointing end when Hedda rises from the dead to heckle the rest of the company, tearing off her corset to reveal the slogan ‘Knowledge is power’. The abrupt ending of Ibsen’s play, where Brack, Tesman and Thea are left in total confusion at Hedda’s brutal suicide, is much more subversive: like Iago, she will never speak a word from that time forth. Neither logic nor insanity can explain her actions.

Hedda Gabbler runs until Wednesday 8th March. Tickets are available here.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Review: Playing Up 4, Northern Stage

For its fourth installment, Playing Up relocated to Northern Stage for a sold-out performance of seven short plays. It may have been trying to snow outside, but the audience was treated to an infernally hot auditorium. But the play’s the thing…

Jane Pickthall’s ‘Bingo Wings’ came first, in which pious vicar Peter (Richard Gardner) and slightly lascivious bingo caller Graham (Kevin Gibson) compete for the attention of their waning crowds. The performances were slightly hesitant, but the play featured some humorous turns of phrase and drew a good reaction from the crowd.

Patrick Robertson’s ‘Ganymede’ followed, and was the highlight of the evening. Actor Francis (Colin Jeffrey) receives a visit backstage from his friend Gary (a subtly nuanced performance from Alex Blenkey) after a performance of As You Like It, and the two discuss changing views on gender and sexuality from the ‘fluid’ Shakespearean period to a more ‘defined’ modern world. These were interesting characters, well established during this short performance, and I wanted to see more.

From the theatre to the modern office environment: Chris Wilkins’ ‘Cow Juice’ began as a convincing portrait, featuring stand-up meetings and ‘scrums’, but veered close to farce in its later stages. Myopic middle-manager Hurn (Chris Iddon) terrorises his office juniors while attempting to curry favour with his superiors (a convincing performance from Zoe Hakin as Bridget). Wilkins’ ‘Smile!’ was one of the highlights of the previous Playing Up, but at times this play felt like an excuse for the actors to shout and swear. However, the performance generated an enthusiastic response from the audience, and the withering manner in which consumers were defined by their supermarket milk preferences was highly entertaining.

The second half began with Sharon Zucker’s ‘A Moment’, in which Alice (Sara Jo Harrison) celebrates her female attributes (‘Her Breasts’, portrayed by Donna Tonkinson). I had reservations about the premise, but the play turned out to be a moving tale, beginning with a retrospective history of shared experience (Alice’s body developing physically as she progresses emotionally through puberty to adulthood, motherhood, and towards marriage). The play then shifts to a Miami bar, where Alice is faced with difficult choices.

Lewis Cuthbert’s ‘Chad’ featured a committed performance from David Parker as obnoxious former child star Chad Schweizer, star of the ‘Geek-O-Tron’ and ‘Weenies’ series. Perhaps more of a straightforward satire than some of Cuthbert’s earlier work (although given Parker’s Woody Allen-esque delivery, there were still plenty of neuroses on display!) The play’s reliance on pre-recorded voices was a little alienating, but the main character’s frantic dialogue was warmly received. 

Next the evening took an unfortunately ugly turn with Katie Ann Hunter’s ‘Misophonia’: a grotesque piece about a new mother suffering from a fear of certain noises, as well as apparent post-natal depression. This short play led predictably from sleepless nights and domestic arguments to infanticide. A facile piece of writing which did not explore the complex issues involved, opting instead for archetypal characters and distorted wailing noises. I'll stick with Eraserhead.

And finally, modern airport procedures in the post-9/11 era: John Harrison’s ‘Scanners’ allowed the audience to eavesdrop on the egregious jobsworths at a baggage check-in department. I’m sure that anyone who has travelled by air in the last 15 years can relate, although this apparently under-rehearsed piece lost its way when one of the actors forgot their dialogue.

Playing Up 4 benefitted from Northern Stage’s technical support (the sound was noticeably better than at Playing Up 3), but the quality of the writing was variable on this occasion. Perhaps some more time rehearsing would also help matters, but when Playing Up is good, it is very good indeed.