Tuesday, 31 December 2019

2019 Reading

  • Chil Rajchman: Treblinka: A Survivor’s Memory *****
  • John Grisham: The Innocent Man *****
  • Philip K. Dick: Confessions of a Crap Artist (second reading) ****    
  • David Lynch & Kristine McKenna: Room to Dream ****
  • Dorian Lynskey: The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 ****
  • Elie Wiesel: Night ****
  • W. Somerset Maugham: Of Human Bondage ****
  • George Orwell: Homage to Catalonia (second reading) ****
  • Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle ****
  • John Grisham: A Painted House ****
  • Haruki Murakami: After the Quake ****
  • P.D. James: The Children of Men *** 
  • Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 ***
  • Graham Norton: Holding ***
  • George Orwell: Keep the Aspidistra Flying ***
  • Ian McEwan: The Child in Time ***
  • Arthur Koestler: Darkness at Noon ***
  • Philip K. Dick: Mary and the Giant (second reading) ***
  • Dashiell Hammett: Red Harvest **
  • Albert Camus: Exile and the Kingdom **

Sunday, 29 December 2019

2019 in Television

Television of the year, 2019:

  • Chernobyl
  • Tell Me Who I Am
  • Star Wars: The Mandalorian
  • The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance
  • Louis Theroux:
    • The Night in Question 
    • Mothers on the Edge
    • Surviving the Most Hated Family in America
  • Line of Duty: Season 5
  • Unbelievable
  • True Detective: Season 3
  • When They See Us
  • The Devil Next Door.

Honourable mention:
  • David Bowie: Finding Fame
  • The Last Czars
  • Stranger Things: Season 3
  • Game of Thrones: Season 8.

In a strong year for historical dramas, HBO’s miniseries Chernobyl was an atmospheric piece of filmmaking that managed a balanced portrait of tragedy and institutional incompetence. (Its occasional liberties with historical accuracy were disclosed and justified in the epilogue.) Meanwhile, Netflix dramatised the 2008–2011 Washington and Colorado serial rape cases in Unbelievable; and the streaming service also released When They See Us, which was based on the 1989 Central Park jogger case.

Tell Me Who I Am was the year’s strongest documentary: a British film about Alex Lewis’ amnesia, his complicated relationship with his twin brother Marcus, and the final shocking revelations about their childhood. Louis Theroux made three more documentaries about sensitive subjects on the BBC; and the bizarre court battles of suspected concentration camp guard John Demjanjuk were documented in The Devil Next Door. (Demjanjuk’s court appearances had already been discussed in some depth in 2018’s more satisfying The Accountant of Auschwitz, about Oskar Gröning.)

2019 saw the reboot of Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal via the prequel series Age of Resistance: a bold undertaking that expanded on the show’s mythology in an inventive manner, while maintaining the dark tone of the 1982 film. Later in the year, the Star Wars saga launched its first live-action series The Mandalorian, which follows the adventures of a bounty hunter in the period following the events of the original trilogy. The series maintains a restrained Western-flavoured tone, while expanding on the universe but staying respectful to its core elements (a feat that The Rise of Skywalker catastrophically failed to achieve).

BBC police drama Line of Duty entered its fifth series in a typically bold manner, but was ultimately a little dissatisfying. Disillusionment with the last season of HBO’s Game of Thrones has been well documented, but the show did manage one final spectacular battle in the episode ‘The Long Night’. True Detective returned, and while it failed to match the quality of its first season, the third instalment was a significant improvement on the second one and more in keeping with the original tone.

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

2019 in Film

Films of the year, 2019:
  • Once upon a Time in Hollywood
  • Us
  • Burning
  • Doctor Sleep
  • Midsommar
  • In Fabric
  • Joker
  • Marriage Story
  • Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile
  • The Favourite.

Honourable mention:
  • The Dead Don’t Die
  • El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie
  • Toy Story 4
  • Avengers: Endgame.

David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard both explore the darker sides of the Hollywood film industry. However, Quentin Tarantino’s Once upon a Time in Hollywood is, in many ways, a heartfelt homage to his childhood in 1960s Los Angeles – and the prevailing sense of innocence before Charles Manson dominated the headlines. Being a Tarantino film, it’s not short of dark humour or violent scenes, but for the most part it is a restrained portrait of a specific period in time – and one that adopts a refreshingly respectful attitude to its historical characters. 

There is nothing retrained about Jordan Peele’s Us, in which a family is terrorised by their twisted doppelgängers, but the film is a thrilling exploration of duality and oppression (which also manages some surprising belly laughs along the way). However, there is little relief to be found in Ari Aster’s Midsommar, in which a young group of friends take part in an ancient Swedish festival of an increasingly sinister nature. The film chooses an original setting in which to explore a disintegrating relationship. And the damage that divorce can do to a family is explored in the surprising Marriage Story.

South Korean filmmaker Lee Chang-dong adopted Haruki Murakami’s short story ‘Barn Burning’ into 2018’s Burning, which was released in the UK this year. Despite relocating the Japanese story to Korea and making the characters younger, the film establishes a very Murakami-esque sense of mystery, and maintains a subtly disquieting tone throughout.

It’s unlikely that Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep will be discussed and analysed for as long (and in the same depth) as Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, but the film addresses the conflicts between Kubrick’s film and both of Stephen King’s novels in an inventive manner. The members of the cast all turn in fine performances, and the cinematography effectively evokes the original film’s atmosphere while managing to achieve something unique.

While Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman was a profound disappointment, Todd Phillips revisited the themes of King of Comedy and Taxi Driver for a very different kind of comic book movie in this year’s Joker. It’s not without its flaws, but Joaquin Phoenix gives a fantastic central performance – and the film offers a refreshing contrast to the market dominance of Marvel.

Meanwhile, Peter Strickland delivered another effective giallo homage in the form of In Fabric – a darkly comic satire on mass consumerism about a haunted dress from a mysterious department store.

Sunday, 22 December 2019

2019 in Music

Albums of the year, 2019:

  • Russian Circles: Blood Year
  • Kankyō Ongaku: Japanese Ambient, Environmental & New Age Music. 1980–​1990
  • Hammock: Silencia
  • A Winged Victory for the Sullen: The Undivided Pair
  • Brian Eno: Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks (Extended Edition)
  • Hildur Guðnadóttir: Chernobyl (Music From The Original TV Series)
  • Earth: Full upon Her Burning Lips
  • Chromatics: Closer to Grey
  • Iggy Pop: Free
  • William Basinski: On Time Out of Time. 
Honourable mention:
  • Rosetta: Sower of Wind E.P.
  • MONO: Before the Past E.P. 
  • Sunn O))): Pyroclasts
  • Teeth of the Sea: Wraith
  • Dark Morph: Dark Morph.

2019 has been a very strong year for ambient music, with both Hammock and A Winged Victory for the Sullen releasing serene new masterpieces. Brian Eno’s landmark 1983 Apollo album received a long-overdue rerelease (in time for the 50th anniversary of the moon landings), and he re-entered the studio with Daniel Lanois and Roger Eno to record a respectable companion piece entitled For All Mankind. Meanwhile, Spencer Doran curated an outstanding compilation of Japanese ambient music from the 1980s: Kankyō Ongaku.

This was also a strong year for instrumental guitar music, with Russian Circles releasing their most aggressive album yet: Blood Year. Earth returned with the majestic and psychedelic-flavoured Full upon Her Burning Lips. MONO celebrated their 20th anniversary with a slightly disappointing new album (Nowhere Now Here) and a furious live E.P. (Before the Past).

Chromatics released more of their trademark icy ballads on Closer to Grey, but there is still no sign of the long-awaited Dear Tommy. Iggy Pop followed 2016’s Post Pop Depression (which revisited his Berlin era) with the sparse and lightly jazz-flavoured Free

One of the strongest components of HBO’s Chernobyl series was Hildur Guðnadóttir’s disquieting soundtrack, and its dark textures work just as well in isolation. Sunn O))) returned with two impressive new albums (Pyroclasts and Life Metal), while on the more minimal front William Basinski released On Time Out of Time.

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 (****).