Thursday, October 28, 2010

Otter in a Can

Some of my more regular readers may know that for the past year or thereabouts my attention has been taken up by many things domestic and creative, and deputy chief among these is this chap here, Albert Otter. I’m delighted to announce that after eight months of evenings and occasional weekends wrestling with a pretty new medium, my illustrations for David Haywood’s wonderful story The Hidden Talents of Albert Otter are now on the eve of publication. The book is rit, the pics are drwnd. I have enjoyed a sleep like no other for a good week or so now.

The project was long in execution and had some build-up. I initially contacted David through his blog after his call for an artist for a previous project, on which we made some headway before the very early arrival of Jet Junior meant my complete attention and energy were needed elsewhere for the foreseeable future. That illustration project went no further, and in the interim David completed his second book, the scurrilous and outrageous NZ Reserve Bank Annual 2010. I missed the Parliamentary launch but gate-crashed his setting up for the signing at Arty Bees to say Hi and (hopefully) reconnect as things domestic had settled down considerably. Gracious and welcoming as ever, David offered me a copy of the book and said he had a new project in mind and would I be interested? A few days later he revealed it was to be Albert (of course it would be Albert!), and we set to work, gradually planning the look and feel of the book.

David was initially interested in an Oliver Jeffers approach (though not a slavish copy of course), while I’d imagined something Beatrix Potter-ish. I think we struck a happy medium, and in the event David’s feedback throughout has been positive, helpful and insightful. Readers of David’s blog will of course know that his home is among those in one of the worst-hit areas of the Christchurch quake zone, so his patience and encouragement are, in my opinion, absolutely heroic. And now, scarping on the good side of a deadline the book is done – hooray!

For a better look inside I urge you to visit the preview pages at Public Address Books.
More details on availability are there.

Thanks to David and his family and of course my family for their patience and stoicism over the last eight months, and to those generous friends who’ve already put orders in!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Talkin' Eds - Brave New World (2000)

Iron Maiden have reformed, and it’s an interesting thing. Most band reunions take place over a short space of time and are generated around a particular event – a tour, a Best Of album or perhaps an appearance borne from other media – say, a movie appearance. Maiden’s is different, as much as the band itself are different to many about at the time or since. Bruce Dickinson has had a pretty good solo career, and Adrian Smith too has enjoyed collaboration with other musicians and the chance to flex his considerable talent; but over the time of their respective absence from the main band things have changed. The band has got older, the brand itself has aged and music – heavy metal in particular, has evolved. Blaze has come and gone. All of this is evident and has been covered in previous posts, but what bears repeating from those for me is that the writing of Steve Harris, to date still the core and main writer for Iron Maiden, has also changed. His compositions – never simple in the first place, have by and large lengthened, involving fewer tricky time changes and more slow-build; his lyrics have moved on from the Hammer Horror stock of the past and embraced the subjects of a maturing man. There’s much more of this to come over Maiden’s most recent (last?) three full studio albums, but for the moment the band’s ‘comeback’ album has the unenviable challenge of acknowledging the past, and marking time as it looks to a future with the biggest line-up it’s ever had.

I love the fact that despite Smith’s return Maiden have retained Janick Gers. It seems only fair – in 2000 he’d already served more time than Smith had in years and only two albums shy to equalise him. Like Smith he’s had a hand in writing and composing too, significantly changing the sound of the band. Brave New World is as much a product of Gers’ time in Maiden as any of his previous records, although it seems the dynamics of three guitarists on stage at once are themselves a developing thing for live Maiden. Early shows for the reunited band carried reviews that reduced Gers to backing guitar, or class-clown with his now trademark antics of throwing his instrument and dancing with it to fill in the gaps as it were. On the album however the roles change.

Brave New World does open on a tease, mind. The Wicker Man is one of a small number of traditional Maiden songs, and you’d be forgiven for thinking its position in the track listing is as Trojan Horse – all the old Maiden hallmarks are there: fast pace, sing-along chorus, horror movie trappings. It’s a cheat though – Harris’ “Your time has come!” catch cry isn’t directed at the song/movie’s unwilling sacrifice, but the band’s new audience of young listeners accrued in the previous decade and seemingly entering this new millennium at the height of their potential – “hand of fate is moving and the finger points to you/ He knocks you to your feet and so what are you gonna do?” After ten years of railing against a changing world around him Harris is passing the baton to the next generation.

From there on Brave New World settles in, an exploration of the musical developments of the past three albums, with the essential reinjection of two of its greatest assets. This is a good album, and one from a band who know what they are, confident in a very strong fanbase (particularly in Europe and South America, who would be repaid the debt in the monumental CD and DVD Rock in Rio the following year). The songs have greater space and less gallop than Classic Maiden, but are the stronger for this, I think. Oddly, it’s the fillers – The Mercenary, The Fallen Angel and possibly The Wicker Man, which evoke the band of old and stand out as being a little less than the maturer efforts of, say, Blood Brothers and the album’s title track. At risk of repeating myself, the album does slow somewhat towards the end – Iron maiden seem to have an issue with album length and often err on the side of too long. Perhaps it’s the newer slow-build approach that affects the last three tracks, but each of them The Nomad (clunky beginning and dodgy lyrics but a beautiful instrumental section), Out of the Silent Planet and The Thin Line Between Love and Hate show that there’s still time for the band to look again at track arrangement. For the most part the albums are better paced from here, though this is by no means a poor effort. It’s a great return to form, and in that, not an entire return at all, which is all the better.

I bought the previous compilation CD Best of the Beast after chancing across the band performing The Wicker Man on Top of the Pops , of all places. It’s a mimed playback, alas – a far cry from the ragged and punchy live band debut of years ago, but it did the job. The band were older, Bruce had cut his hair and divested himself of the studded gauntlets of his heyday, but my partner and I were suitably impressed.

Cover Art
If you look carefully there’s the ghost of Derek Riggs in here somewhere – or rather, the ghost of his Eddie, the remaining (and apparently unauthorised) use of an earlier mock-up cover he’d done for the Wicker Man single. I’m not enthralled by this album cover, mainly because it’s just not an Iron Maiden cover – it’s static, scenic, and Eddie’s once again pushed to the background. The days of the band mascot being the star feature are now gone. On the back the boys stand in a field of weather balloons (used in the official video for The Wicker Man here). Ooh, haven’t they aged well?

Album tracks
The Wicker Man (Rock in Rio version - non-album intro!)
Ghost of the Navigator (Rock in Rio version)
Brave New World (Rock in Rio version)
Blood Brothers (Rock in Rio version)
The Mercenary (Rock in Rio version)
The Dream of Mirrors (Rock in Rio version)
The Fallen Angel (live in Argentina)
The Nomad (fan video using Hildago footage)
Out of the Silent Planet (album version, official video cuts off the intro)
The Thin Line Between Love and Hate

Friday, October 15, 2010


My discovery of Tolkien was chiefly through my brother. Like a lot of younger siblings I suppose, I idolised my elder ones – him in particular, and spent many of my earlier years hanging on his every word. Things changed, as they inevitably do when we both became older and in turn desired more personal space, literally and figuratively. But for five or six years we shared a room and lived in each other’s heads, after a fashion. Second-hand I learned about machines, history (wars, mainly), school ground politics and the exploits of his friends (who all seemed so much more daring and clever and funny than mine). I learned about which music was best and what happened in movies I wasn’t allowed to stay up and watch, and in the dim orange bedside lamplight of our room I learned scarier things too. The "Bomb" that mankind had made which could destroy anything, but couldn’t be disposed of itself (“you couldn’t even shoot it into space”), and of course I was told the story of The Lord of the Rings.

This is the edition we had at home – bought, I think, by him as a school prize in third form. The cover drew me in, seemingly infinite in perspective and possibility – a window into a mountainous and green world framed by arching trees, with strange creatures (Gollum?) playing among their roots. The potted version of the story I was told had Gandalf the Wizard, a Hobbit called Frodo and a creature called Gollum who plotted secretly to himself to steal back the Ring, and a cool Elf called Legolas. And it had Orcs “evil things like goblins, but with faces like a mix of men and animals”, and their shadowy overlord “Soaron”, the real Lord of the Rings who watched over everything in a tower on the other side of Middle Earth. Expressive gesticulating hands casting shadows over the bedroom walls, and increasingly hushed tones after the lights went out; somehow it’s this version which has stayed with me – gripping, imaginative, as full of possibility as that book jacket, far more than the book I eventually read and read again, or the film adaptations I watched. None of them conveyed the same mystery or creepiness or heroism that my brother was able to over those summer nights, not long before we’d move into our own rooms and everything would change again.

In times to come I’d be relayed more stories – synopses of whatever he’d been watching – Monty Python, Rocky Horror, The Who’s Tommy, and after that his D&D games with some of those self-same schoolmates (God how I envied him!) All of them eventually discovered by me in time, but somehow diminished with it. First time is always the best, and so many of them never lived up to those early lights-out re-tellings. I still think he's one of the best storytellers I know, and so this post is for him.

Happy birthday, big brother.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

(Another Very Special) Talkin' Eds - Viral XI!

As mentioned earlier, Virtual XI was a real disappointment to me, featuring some poor song choices, particularly in light of some stronger songs preceding the album in the single Virus and a couple of original B-Sides from The X Factor. Angel and the Gambler kills the album early from its length, and the whole virtual reality inspired name dates it even for 1998. So with no more ado, I present: Viral XI!

No more football theme - this album really has eleven tracks!

And a Derek Riggs cover (taken from the poster for Futureal)!

Angel and the Gambler is still here, but shorter!

Album Tracks

Judgement Day
Lightning Strikes Twice
The Angel and the Gambler (single edit)
The Clansman
When Two Worlds Collide
The Educated Fool
Justice of the Peace
Don't Look to the Eyes of a Stranger
Como Estes Amigo