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 (****).