Monday, December 31, 2012

"As distant as your former sins"

Manic Street Preachers: 'Postcards From a Young Man' (2011)

I don't believe in absolutes anymore
I'm quite prepared to admit I was wrong
This life it sucks your principles away
You have to fight against it every single day
These are the postcards from a young man
They may never be written or posted again

It's a good job this album was left 'til last. It took me a long while before I could warm to the Manic Street Preachers' most recent album, Postcards From a Young Man, especially after the impressive feat that was Journal For Plague Lovers. By comparison Postcards can't seem anything more than a step back into the sound of Send Away the Tigers, and indeed, just as Tigers proved to be a commercial turnaround for the Manics, so Postcards has been lauded in some circles as being a tremendous return to form. The question is then, what is that form? First and foremost, it's the culmination of a common arc in the life of a maturing musical ensemble - from popular voice resolving ultimately to the personal. It's a matter of the Manics as they are today, the central idea of Postcards being the present and not the past, confronting reality and not idealism with the accrued experience and wisdom of middle age. In an industry and age that demands younger acts and more immediate roads to fame and success, perhaps surviving long enough to write an album based around middle age is itself a revolutionary act.

Postcards is also an album also about distance, particularly that of distancing one's self from the past, from memory and the disappointment of age. The postcards of the album's title track - representations of old media, are left behind, not out of disillusionment or failure, but because an understanding has been reached. As has the comfort and the compromise of middle age, and a less-than-reactionary Nicky Wire claims "I am a happy consumer" in Hazleton Avenue, a love song to a youth of record collecting. Looks to the past on this album are wistful, but not filled with regret; they are those of a life lived well, and a settling reached with maturity. The musical references are themselves ageing - while early Manics would routinely nod towards The Clash, Guns 'N' Roses and Hanoi Rocks, Postcards has hooks that range from classic rock (Cheap Trick, Queen, Elton John), Dad rock (Green Day) and even Waters-Era Pink Floyd (pre-chorus Auto Intoxication) - there's even some late-sound Beatles in here, I swear. It makes for a rather homogenised set of songs, and somewhere in their composition and delivery the old voice of the Manics rarely breaks out, save for an extraordinary couplet in Auto-Intoxication where James Dean Bradfield strains at his leash, bawling: "...disaster isn't coming, it's already arrived / I am so lucky, I think that I survived."

In all of this, Postcards strikes me as a pretty 'up' album. Political songs are rare, and lack the edge of their predecessors. All We Make is Entertainment laments the passing of British Industry and the rise of cheap reality television (whose overnight 'stars' are targeted in album closer Don't Be Evil), and the easy acceptance of this in a post-industrial world. But with an opener to All We Make like this:

  I'm no longer preaching to the converted / That congregation has long since deserted.

...Wire could just as easily be writing about his band in 2012. Postcards works best for me when it isn't attempting to hit big, global issues or even, as is the case above and Internet-wary A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun (which doesn't so much rail against its demons as describe them) such low-hanging fruit. If that sounds odd given the band's age and its not shying from weighty themes in the past, then perhaps that's the distance I also sense in the whole album; what does work here is the personal, the reflective, the greater part of Postcards. Golden Platitudes, the album's closest thing to a slow 'ballad' is another mediation on 'what we were' and 'how we used to be compared to now', and does reference a larger social concern - the lack of 'fight' and passion in Western society - our overall acquiescence, but it comes across better as an intimate song, rather than another raging against a sleeping world.

If the Manics have lost their voice of outrage (and I really don't know if they have - Journal For Plague Lovers suggests they can still match great incendiary music to Richey's lyrics), then they could do worse than drop that stance and go for something more direct and personal. Would it still be Manic Street Preachers? I don't think that's an important question when the distance of this album tells enough of the story well. As I argued in my review of Simon Price's biography, Manic Street Preachers of the second decade of the Twenty-first century are a different band - they have to be, and probably have become this despite themselves. The good thing about this is for them it works just as well. The older, younger Manics have faded into history, but there's life in the band yet. Whether Postcards From a Young Man, the last album before Wire's proclaimed 'hiatus' for the band, proves to be their swansong, then there's enough on this album to satisfy that transition.

Cover story: Why, hello Mister Tim Roth and Polaroid camera, both taken in better days, and in a shot which recalls the covers of The Smiths' albums. Inside it's your actual series of photos sort of related to the topics of the songs, but otherwise it's a reasonably understated presentation.

Videos: Such a long way from the early days that we can now afford to literally sit on the sidelines while Anna Friel and Michael Sheen make chess look sexy:

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Oaken's Twelve: Ori

Besides his name, everything we know about Ori that matters comes not from The Hobbit, but from The Lord of the Rings. In The Hobbit Ori is a non-character, there in name only, and he wears a grey hood.

Drums in the Deep, the Marzabul chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring tells us that Ori accompanied Balin to Moria and survived long enough to chronicle his king's fall and the doom of his people. Ori's writing finishes the fate of Balin, but takes up the story late - he's evidently not in Moria just to chronicle events. It's my conjecture then that Balin took him to Moria for similar reasons to Thorin including him in the Company to the Lonely Mountain - Ori must have other strings to his bow, if you will.

I chose this figure to represent Ori for a couple of reasons: firstly, it is bald (I had it in mind that his remains in the movie scene were similarly hairless), and secondly, it had ample space to add a personal detail - a book for writing in. We know Ori has a good hand for writing, and can write in Elf runes as well as (I assume) Dwarven ones, so the Hobbit movie's assumption, that he is comparably scholarly, is a fair one I think, and it's one I've taken up as well.

But we don't know Ori's age, character or skill at arms. The bow stance gave me room to include the green stuff book and strapping across his chest (there's also green stuff finishing off his beard and right shoulder straps, which are a little unfinished in the original plastic moulding), but all else, as I say, is as much conjecture as Jackson's movie is. I don't think he's a young, nervous, retiring Dwarf (an affectation I think the movie makers heaped on him to ramp up the pathos of his later fate) - but I have no more evidence to back this up than the movie's makers do in creating their version. I do however assume that Ori, present in two attempts to reclaim Dwarf strongholds, has to be more than a mere scribe.

Paint-wise here's the grey cloak as indicated, as well as the described silver belt; plus there's a standard-styled book, rather than a Dwarf-bound one in the movies - I thought that for travelling Ori would be carrying something lightweight and portable, yet robust enough to withstand some rough treatment, so an off-the-shelf volume it is. His ginger beard is, again, informed by the movie. And that's Ori!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Jet and Gerry

In a small and recent series of strange coincidences, the delivery of some of my old toys to the Monkeyhouse has led me to posting these images of a model I once had.

This is labelled simply "Command Module" and is, to my recollection, the last remnant of a larger model I once had - one of the first I made myself (including decals and painting, mind!), aside from the odd ham-fisted collaborative attempt on fighter planes with my brother, and some snap-together Star Trek models (Enterprise, Klingon Warbird, Vulcan... thing) I also had and am only now remembering I gave away, along with a small Wrath of Khan poster, to a Trek-loving friend. No loss to me at the time, but still. Oh, and now I'm remembering that I also had an Apollo 11 lunar module in 1:100 scale, complete with astronauts and Moon surface. I wonder what became of that...?

I digress. I was all ready to post this with the request that if any readers knew what it was and who made it, could drop me a line; only, in a last-minute Googling I found the answer - it's a Martin Bower-designed Gerry Anderson model. See how the pilot, loose from his chair seems to show his scorn for my poor memory in time-honoured style:

In fact, its proper name is Starcruiser1, as detailed further here, and as seen on the box below:

And yes, I did have the rest of the model, though I'm guessing it got lost, snapped off through months of use and positioning around a steadily cluttering late childhood room (I'd have been maybe ten when I bought it?)
I wasn't what you'd call a Gerry Anderson fan, though I did watch my share of Stingray and Thunderbirds, and even a bit of Captain Scarlet as a student,catching up on some furtive childhood viewing. It was bleak stuff, and like UFO perhaps a little beyond my usual viewing tastes (I also found Blake's 7 similarly moribund). But Gerry's works definitely sunk in, becoming part of the background noise of my teen geekdom that, maybe Doctor Who did for others. And so the news that Gerry Anderson died today still saddens me. Supermarionation aside, the model work in his later series was never anything less than excellent for it production values, and I think that Anderson deserves to be placed alongside Ray Harryhausen as a master of bringing the world in miniature alive on our screens.  His shows were fun, moralistic, and for the most part optimistic ventures, and his heroes were not hard to cheer on at all. I feel we may not see much of their like now in a more 'three-dimensional' age of storytelling and programming.

Rest in Peace, sir.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Oaken's Twelve: Gloin Groinson

Or Gloin Gimlisfather if you insist, because in a post-Lord of the Rings book and film world, this is probably Gloin's greatest point of significance in The Hobbit - not that this detail is given of course. Gloin is one of a handful of Thorin's Company who are mentioned in the latter book, however, and the only one of the Company to actually appear in person, representing as he does the Dwarven folk of the Iron Mountains at the Council of Rivendell.

But in The Hobbit Gloin is not a significant character. He's present in the Company with his brother Oin, of course, and the two are unusual for having some of their genealogy at our disposal (many of the Dwarves don't even have a father to name.) That won't help me much with painting this figure though, so I'll press on.

The easy way of tying Gloin and Gimli together of course would have been to select a figure which looked like Gimli and painting Gloin along those lines - ginger beard (as is the movie palette.) It's a route Jackson's movie has taken, and fair enough. Before the casting was announced and promotional images released however, I'd already made up my mind to go in the opposite direction. Which is in part why his beard is golden instead; the other reason why is because of Gloin's other distinguishing aspect - he and Oin are supposedly excellent fire makers. Tolkien describes both as having tinderboxes, and I've added one using green stuff here for Gloin (see inset), marked with a "G" in common/Dwarven runes. The waving, flamelike appearance of the beard picked out in gold is an added bonus.

The rest of Gloin's description - a white hood, is translated in his travelling cloak as well; dulled down a little and lined in grey for a slightly earthier, ashen look. At the final stages I had to decide if I'd weather or dirty up the hemline of this cloak, to signify that he was a Dwarf who had traveled and perhaps faced some contrary conditions on his travels. I decided not to, thinking that it would just be too distracting, and there are few models I've seen where this detail did't look self-conscious and unnatural. I think Gloin is also noted as having bushy eyebrows, and so courtesy of green stuff, they're in as well.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

This Christmas

Last Christmas I gave you Iron Maiden. And the year before you got The Darkness. That was generous, wasn't it?

So this year, to save you from tears, I'm giving you something special...
Winter 1996, when they had the entire country in the palm of their hands. Merry Christmas everybody!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Oaken's Twelve: Balin Fundinson

Balin is a significant member of Thorin's company, not least because he is eldest along with Thorin, is his second-in-command (as such), and develops respect for the outsider Bilbo more readily than his captain does. Balin's story continues between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and it's his fate we and his kinsman Gimli Gloinson discover in the Chambers of Marzabul. As Thorin's tale in The Hobbit speaks largely of the fall of many of his race, so does Balin's in the Mines of Moria.

Tolkien gives a little description of Balin - old, white-bearded, a red cloak, somewhat genial. Because of Balin's later significance as King of Khazad-Dum and his discovery of Durin's axe, I awarded him a nicer, more traditionally-Dwarven looking weapon among the figures, lengthening his beard with green stuff, and giving a lot of thought to his colour scheme, because let's face it: white beard + red cloak = Santa. Not good.

I'm going through John Rateliffe's superb exegesis Mr Baggins at the moment, and while its coverage of the individual Dwarves is as limited as it could be given their vagueness in Tolkien's novel, he does offer some helpful clues for broadening Balin visually. The most helpful is that Balin's beard and hair were initially golden - so a blonde base has been given to Balin's beard here. I've also paled up his complexion to further indicate his age; granted, it could go either way with that sort of thing, but I thought paler skin would look better against whitish hair.

Regarding the cloak, red it had to be, and I see that Ken Stott wears red also in the role for The Hobbit. I experimented with a few different lining colours, including purple (too Christmassy) and grey. In the end it's a simple Bestial Brown (or whatever Games Workshop call the colour now) with variations on brown and grey elsewhere. I like the combination, it's warm and coordinates okay, so the blue sleeve crossing his body I think I got away with. On the back of the cloak is my concession to Balin's regal future and GW Dwarf style - the edging pattern. Games Workshop seemed to be all over this in their LotR Dwarf Warriors, and it does indeed break up a monochrome cloak nicely. Would Balin have had a gold detail as he does here? maybe not - it's a little ostentatious  a little Yuletide, but one thing these figures don't have in their sculpts is allowance for Dwarven bling, and boy do they love their finery - so a gold trim it is. And the axe, while not being Durin's prized weapon, has also been given some fancy detail. Elsewhere there's just a travelling satchel made from green stuff, and we're good to go.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

This Was His Truth...

Music biographies are two a penny – literally, in some dreadful cases. I’ve read a handful of them over the years, and have some still on my list to go through. More often than not they suffer from slack research, limited access to the artists, or a lack of critical distance – I still shudder at the gushing and poorly-disguised hagiography I encountered in a Kate Bush biography read in the nineties. Urgh.

Simon Price’s Everything (a book about Manic Street Preachers) is an exception, however. Price, a Welshman, music journalist of considerable voice and confessed fan seems the ideal author for an act that poised itself in the media at every opportunity from early on; yet suffused as they were with their own manifold, often intellectual and sometimes conflicting messages (Nicky Wire, Price reminds us often, gleefully claimed the band’s right to contradict themselves at will), the fledgling Manics at least needed an understanding music press to deliver their voice. Inflammatory outbursts and shocking photo ops were what the band were known for, but Price sensibly deconstructs Richey’s ‘4 REAL’ self-mutilation and Wire’s frequent crowd-baiting jibes to align both with what he sees as a sophisticated and methodical attempt at broad communication in, it could be added, a media world that still relied on paper, radio and television as its delivery vehicles. Not to mention live performance – the number of concerts Price reports , often seemingly from first hand, is astonishing, and tell a story in themselves; from small-audience early outings in provincial wales, through to a dogged attempt at conquering London and the greater cities, Europe and Asia, and reliably, doomed assaults on a US market. It’s a well-researched and diverting read.

Through this we deal with Price’s initial fervour, his dogged pursuit of the band and all-in fan adulation, his one-on-one interviews with Wire and Edwards, and ultimately his growing disillusionment with the group post-disappearance, post-Everything Must Go. Price’s status as something of a fan confidante as well as a fan himself gives the book a genuine and intimate air, particularly so in the closing chapters of the unfortunate Richey, to whom (along with Nicky Wire) Price gravitates. Throughout the book are essays by price concerning aspects of the band (its lack f US success, their Welshness, their ‘rock’ approach) and its individual members. Wire and Edwards are the clear winners here, each given the lion’s share while James Dean Bradfield is probed from a distance, offering little to counteract his reputation for distance and prickliness itself, and as for Sean Moore, you’ll read of his boyishness, his love of DIY and spending and the occasional nod to his reticence overall, but there’s no mystery plumbed here.

What mystery is plumbed is the nature and disappearance of Richey Edwards – a significant portion of the book which I read over a two-hour car trip and once through, sighed with relief. It’s heavy-going, and Price deserves credit for his balanced approach to the details behind the case, even though the author later reportedly urged fans not to buy the book due to its publishers withholding some of his criticism of the police’s investigation.

But perhaps it’s more a case that the story lies with Richey in chief – his disappearance occurs around the three-quarters mark, and Price’s impression of the band, which becomes more evident and singular as the book progresses. Small asides at the Manics’ seemingly-undeserving contemporaries – the dreary Radiohead, the pretentious Blur, the boorish Oasis and appalling Levellers; Stone Roses are described ironically as “a Led Zeppelin tribute band from Manchester”, and U2 a “conceptual rock band” (a fair point given their mid-Nineties creative slump.) Price’s bias towards early Manic Street Preachers is voiced quietly, tacitly, but it’s there towards the book’s end, the gentle condemnation of a band who the author sees as having abandoned their youthful anger and righteousness for a rock and roll millionaire lifestyle which wouldn’t trouble Guns N Roses with its scandal. Price seems to westle with the task of reminding the reader (and himself) that the successes of EMG and especially This Is My Truth are earned and deserved – clearly there is regret that Richey was not around to share in them, and it’s not a point which Price sticks on for long; but it’s clear to me that the division felt by a good many fans between ‘old’ Manics and ‘new’ Manics is felt by the author too – especially in the proprietorial closing chapters where the newer ‘casual’ fans are castigated for their blundering into an established act’s history on the strength of a best-selling single; Price asking “where were you in 92?” The answer isn’t needed - the question is redundant.

But at the end of the day, this is a splendid book, and by the last pages it’s plain to see there won’t be a follow-up. Rice effectively dusts his hands of the post-Richey Manics in the politest way, challenging them to make good on their early promise of mass appeal, mass influence. Personally, the ten years since this book and This is My Truth (given pretty short shrift compared to its predecessors) reveal the ground the band have and haven’t covered in the interim - in short, they grow, they mature, and they change, to the distress of some fans, while accruing new ones. You’ll not find a better record of the early days than this, at least not until the band themselves take pen in hand.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1910

(In Which your humble blogger races through the final stages of a once-beloved series)

Call me shallow and undiscerning, but when news of the first series of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was released I was genuinely intrigued and excited. At the time the conceit - a superhero army of Victorian fictional heroes and antiheroes, villains and an 'honourary gentleman' in Ms Mina Murray seemed quite audacious - although I knew that if anyone could pull it off and add even more into the mix, Alan Moore was that man. And so he did. League's first series is a riot of intertextuality, and not only spawned a host of imitators (including Marvel's own reinterpretation of their cast in Seventeenth Century guise) but, an earnestly-cast but poorly written movie adaptation and the impressive scholarly career of Mr Jess Nevins, the League's unofficial official annotator.

Despite this and a campy approach to the genre itself, it seemed as though Moore was at pains to play down his heroes. Individually they were all damaged souls, and collectively they barely worked together - the most sympathetic being a monster only just kept in check, the most human being a recovering addict. If Watchmen wasn't Moore's final word on the matter of the super hero (Reader, it wasn't), his subsequent musing on the genre clearly haven't restored his faith in heroes super or otherwise. he's distressingly humanist, reliably defeatist, and as you read further into the series the grumpy old bugger's voice becomes clearer still. League's second serial faced this head-on by eschewing a central villain for the threat of internal collapse - and sure enough, 'Mina's League' as it was later known, was finished by the end of the book. years passed, and Mina and her lover Allan returned League-less, but exploring more of Moore's invented Land of Fiction, the 'Blazing World' in the dense multimedia Black Dossier. Ostensibly a chase through the Fifties, this collection is a marked departure, and is the series at its most frustratingly episodic: once more there's no Moriarty figure, just a sadistic analogue of today's cinematic hero of the hour, and two intriguing additions: a priapic and baritone Golliwog with a language all of his own (whom I came to adore, despite my initial reservations), and Moore's newest import and clear current favourite, Virginia Woolf's Orlando. Time, I feel, has been kind to Black Dossier, but I also fear that never have Nevins' annotations been more voraciously consulted.

Which brings us to the star attraction, now complete and mercifully available at my local library. Weaving its way between the aftermath of League's second series and Dossier, before leading to two post-Dossier volumes, Century  presents in this strip at least a final attempt at a cohesive League with the brief addition of occult detective Carnacki and 'gentleman thief' A J Raffles, plus something of a shadowy nemesis in Oliver Haddo, Moore's appropriated analogue to Aleister Crowley. I have to admit I quite liked the twitchy, somewhat hapless coupling of Carnacki and Raffles, as ineffectual as they are they're really no worse than the old League, in fact they're more than mostly harmless if way out of their depth. The trouble with the new League of course, once more, is their creator's determination to render them impotent. Orlando, who received much adoring attention in the Dossier is revealed to be even more of his/her direct existential self, constantly switching between two self-confessed specialist states - female/male, "f*cking and fighting." S/he is, however, all talk and very little trousers. Which would have worked, had Century's first volume, 1910, stuck to that story. Instead, Moore, swept up in the lyrics of The Threepenny Opera, draws his League into a neat but nasty collision with Brecht's musical melodrama, giving us a new captain to Nemo's Nautilus, and another failure of the League, leading inevitably to a rematch...

To sum up: The first of three volumes is a scene-setter, and less of a re-arranger. There are few seeds sown for the later story here, really, although the fate of Nemo's progeny is a neat inclusion, and the story's setting is novel in itself, not to my mind greatly explored either in SF or speculative fiction.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

"I Really Don't Mind Being Lied To"

Manic Street Preachers: 'Journal for Plague Lovers' (2009)

On the 23rd of November 2008 Richey James Edwards was officially declared presumed deceased. After fifteen years having disappeared without trace his story was never fully resolved, with Edwards' family declining to allow him to be declared dead until this time, and in the case of his surviving bandmates and friends, a percentage of profits from each album being set aside for Richey. 2008's official announcement would prove to bring some closure at last to the tale, or the nest best thing at least, though greatly far from the most perfect closure, of course.

Fifteen years on, the Manic Street Preachers were a markedly different band from their Holy Bible selves: successful, middle-aged, on the perimeters of the establishment of course, but so established in themselves that they have been regarded Britpop survivors, elder statesmen of that era. They had two comebacks, and on the strength of the success of Send Away the Tigers, could have easily stayed the course and plumbed their works for more mainstream adulation. And yet... Journal for Plague Lovers is the result of this catharsis, created as it was from Richey's legacy to his best friend Nicky Wire, a scrapbook of his writings, photos, poetry and lyrics, not recreated, but given life by the surviving band. Some have seen the album also as a tribute to the band's fans, particularly those fans of the late Richey, and in all the project seems painstakingly co-ordinated, mannered to fit the model of the band as they were, rather than as they are. No singles were released from the album, although a video for Jackie Collin Existential Question Time was made (see below) which hits the right notes for me. And that note is 'energy.'

There's something touching also about the relationship between lyrics and performers here. Richey's words   are entirely of their time, and yet written by a twenty-eight year old to have them sung by his forty-something friends is remarkable - it's really as though the years haven't passed. One suspects some cosmetic enhancement went on between lyrics and song, however - there's less of the Gatling gun approach in the lyrics, and overall it appears Bradfield and Wire have had more control over the songs than they may have had with Richey about. The references contained in the words aren't as marooned in the mid-Nineties as they could be - either Richey was more prescient in his writing than you'd grant, or his poems and fragments were simply not that specific to a time and place, or perhaps some judicious editing was undertaken? It's a minor thing. For what it's worth the lyrics are a passing thing for me - maybe it's the state by now of Nicky Wire's writing, but I found that by this album I'd tuned my ears out to the lyrical content and more into how the group were playing together; maybe that's laziness, but it's not to say I don't still sing along.

What does matter is the work in full; Manic Street Preachers re-energised, revitalised. A celebration instead of a commemoration, and I can’t think of a better example of both turning back the clock in the most perfect way possible, nor creating as fitting and devoted a tribute to the work and creativity of a departed friend. As close to a perfect Manics album as you could find. Where did Bradfield find the compositions? Eking out whole songs from scraps of verses, haiku, sometimes repeated verse, and yet the music seems as though it had been kept on ice since 1994. This is the follow-up promised by The Holy Bible, diverted into Everything Must Go, and yet devoid of the treatment (“Pantera meets Nine Inch Nails meets Screamadelica”) that Edwards would have intended at the time – and yet for all that it’s not a jarring anachronism; it’s a beautiful, elegant, sad and loving miracle.

And as it turn out, this marvelous album is also something of a detour. The follow-up will be, promised Wire, something lighter; more poppy, more accessible - so, Send Away the Tigers revisited, rather than another Journal. But for its time and place, its sentiment and its truth, if Plague Lovers had been anything more than a one-off then I might have been suspicious. There are two ways to assuage your audience, sounding like you once did, or sounding like something entirely new. if this is nostalgia (and it's much more than that), then this brief, magical trip into the past was worth taking. It's reminded me of how much potential the early Manics, now outnumbered and outgunned by the mature three piece, was once. And it's a cracker.

Cover Story: To continue the link with The Holy Bible's era, the cover art is another Jenny Saville piece, and was deemed offensive enough to have the album not displayed in Tescoes, Asda, Sainsbury's and Morison's (Bradfield pointed out the hypocrisy of still having lads mags on display in the same shop, but to no avail.) It's a beautiful and arresting piece, striking the tone of the album - diverting, possibly shocking, provocative, but not gratuitous. Inside, if you're lucky enough to have the deluxe edition, reproductions of Richey's scrapbook pages and lyrics. In the standard edition, lyrics and a simple gatefold shot of the man himself.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Oaken's Twelve: WIP it good!

Well, the Premiere is well underway, and it's time to stop stalling and put up an indication of how things are going. So here goes:

I tell you, at this size and in two dimensions, they look... okay. There's lots to do, though, and well before any bases begin to be added. Still, the base colours are there, I've added the names to most so I don't forget who I'm painting (you'd never have that problem with the GW line, which incidentally, can be found in humbling detail here) and, well, I don't think I've seen the end of my Green Stuff. But hey, back in the room, boys!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Oaken's Twelve: Rankin Bass's Twelve

Only three days to go now. Wellington, branding itself as "The Middle of Middle-Earth" is awash with Hobbit advertising, with toys, window displays, banners and all manner of hoardings proclaiming the up and coming world premiere. No pressure then. In less than seven days all previous versions of The Hobbit's company of Dwarves will be that weaker in influence, so before everything closes in for good, here's a last chance to see the most recent version of The Hobbit done as a feature-length film:

Rankin Bass' 1977 animated TV movie is mostly an unknown quantity to me, but what I have seen I've been surprised to discover I don't mind and in places quite like. Mood-wise it's different from the forthcoming trilogy of course, but it's also distinct from the feel of the book. Most importantly to me, though, where it is faithful is in the portrayal of the Dwarves - or their hoods and colours at least. It's cartoonish, to a fault - Fili and Kili are so young they're babyish, and you should see what they did with Gollum, but you can't blame it for having its own aesthetic. I could hope to have the same continuity of character in my models. So here they are, and let Wednesday's premiere roll on...

Friday, November 23, 2012

So We Meet Again, Time Lord...

It's the 23rd of November, and Doctor Who is 49.

Happy Birthday, Doctor. You've been a part of my life now for thirty-three years, and with you I have experienced childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Through you I have made and lost and remade friends, met some brilliant and interesting people, developed critical faculties, a writing and illustrating style (two of those, if I'm honest), created a fanzine and been professionally published, paid and pulped. If I were to be cut in two you'd be in there, somewhere. Perhaps not right at the core, but running a wavy line almost my length, occasionally nearing the centre.

Occasionally of course you've reached the outer of me too, Doctor, because like most things in life I've drifted in and out of love for you. I was a late adopter, mainly due to my parents (and as a parent now I applaud them for their common sense), and then just into my teens watched all of the classic series I could manage without dodging school, study, sunshine and friends. You've never really been that essential you see. And being a 'mature fan' of the series I have the added and slightly ironic experience of being at the height of my fan enthusiasm during the years you weren't on the telly at all - the years from 1990 through to 2004 (with a significant interruption in 1996) to which fandom refers as 'The Wilderness Years'. When you returned in 2005 I was excited, trepidatious, and stoical when I quickly realised you weren't my show anymore, and that was an okay thing, because it looked like you were being made by my generation of fans and had found a new, massive audience. You were in safe hands. But I never really warmed to you in the same way. And that's okay, too.

The great thing about being a Doctor Who fan of a certain age at this point in time is that all of the series' history (except the bits that got destroyed by misguided institutional archiving policy, of course) is open to me. And the Doctor's past - the bits now branded 'The Classic Series' are still where it's at for me.I quite like Matt Smith, I occasionally miss David Tennant, and I barely got to know Christopher Eccleston's Time Lord, but collectively and for reasons beyond some of my fathoming I've found this new stuff doesn't hold a candle to the range and breadth of the early years, which, thanks be praised, lives on as full cast audio dramas, in many cases better, wittier, and more adventurous than their small screen versions.

The new TV stuff? I can almost do without. One day I probably will; it's healthy living and as noted above, I have past form. What endures is the more important to me - the friends, the contacts, and the side interests to where being a fan of the original series took me. So cheers and many happy returns, Doctor Who. You've been, if nothing else, a good mixer.

Yours (for the mean-time)

Jet Simian.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Oaken's Twelve: Moria Cutaway

Perhaps it’s because of the stuttered way I first read The Lord of the Rings, or maybe it’s the Ralph Bakshi movie which left its retelling of the book unfinished, but for childhood and adolescent me the two big and most evocative episodes of the entire story take place within a pretty small geographic area: they are the battle of Helm’s Deep and the Fellowship’s travel through the Dwarven stronghold of Khazad-Dum, the Mines of Moria. Moria especially lingers long in my subconscious because for me, as much for many RPG players of my generation I’d say, it is the quintessential D&D set-up, a party of mixed races and classes groping their way through dark and long-abandoned tunnels rich in history, rumouring untold treasures and teeming with goblins, orcs and worse besides. Within and at the heart of the mines is the chamber of Mazarbul, the records of the various Dwarves who dwelled there, from the great Durin to – most excitingly – the ill-fated expedition of Balin son of Fundin. Its entries describing the gradual but certain annihilation of its last Dwarven residents is riveting stuff, especially in book form, and to lesser degrees with each movie version. What the movies do have that the book doesn’t of course is the visual element, and that’s where my interest was engaged once more, in seeing Moria recreated in Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring.
So here’s a model I made perhaps six or seven years ago while I was still painting GW miniatures and waiting for a decent release of dwarves to tackle. The tableau’s straight from the movie rather than the book, with Balin’s crypt surrounded by the detritus of battle, and the Book of Mazarbul stuck within the dead grip of, it’s assumed, its last chronicler Ori. Games Workshop did eventually provide their own version of this scene, though simplified and a little less cluttered, for their first plastic-only table-top scenario The Mines of Moria, In mine the scale is out a little – the tomb’s a bit too large, but that’s a movie concern rather than a book one anyway (there is no elevated sarcophagus in the book, just a space on the floor where the crypt lies, nor is Ori to be found.) If memory serves then Ori here is made from plastic scrap and green stuff, the model has a card base with model bits to decorate, and if the first appearance of some actually utilised Suburban Archaeology – the sarcophagus being a plastic box I’d found under our house in Dunedin, and a small sliver of rounded shield likely kept inside by whoever the ex-resident RPG player was at the time. The other item contained in the box is still in my Bitz Box and can be see here.

I think I might revisit this model in time, updating the colour of the cover stone (it should be whiter), re-doing the Book and furnishing the inside of the sarcophagus itself, maybe even attempting Balin lying in state. Games Workshop did actually tackle Balin in figure form for their LotR line – a trifle cheeky, perhaps, but theirs is the empowered King of Moria version rather than Ken Stott’s stooping genial version in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (great casting too, I think.) As indicated earlier, I rather think Adam Brown’s version of Ori in the same movie has been retrospectively modeled on the elements of this image, and fair enough. My version is, too, in a way, although quite a different thing from the cinematic Ori. Ah, poor Ori…

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Return of the King

News in the past fortnight that Arnold Schwarzenegger is to return to the role which made his name, that of Conan the Barbarian, prompted a fair amount of commentary on genre blogs and websites - most of it cautiously positive, if a little on the dismissive side. In 2014, the projected year of release for The Legend of Conan Arnold will be 67. Still, if anyone can fill the role that the first, best, Conan movie left us with of an aged king of the Cimmerians, it's Schwarzenegger - certainly it wasn't without trying, but was without success, that Jason Momoa tried last year. Ouch.

Which really just goes to say that Arnold invented the cinematic Conan, as separate from Robert E Howard's literary version as, say, Sean Connery's James Bond from Ian Fleming's. Howard's Conan is lithe, tall and muscular, but in a non-body building way; John Milius and Dino de Laurentis' version of the Barbarian is more about the bulk and the eye candy - the model for the Eighties cinematic barbarian. 
The barbarian was big in the Eighties, as much a reinvention of a previous movie type (the cowboy) as its other Eighties counterparts the 'road warrior', the ninja, and the cyborg. And it wasn't just movies, as the immediate appeal and recognition factor of the heavily-muscled, tanned and oiled Californian-style hero allowed the type to translate to other visual media - fantasy art, video games, album covers and videos, and of course comics. It may be that Milius' Conan was brought about in part by Marvel's line of Conan comics, but of course the baton was well and truly taken up by European titles like Metal Hurlant as well, and in the UK and in 2000AD Pat Mills too the Conan story and his Celtic roots in another direction again, combining the hero with those of Irish legend, Finn and Cuchulain to create Slaine.

Slaine was a genuine offshoot from Conan rather than a poor relation - Mills took great care in his appropriation of British and European folklore and legend, establishing his hero as a 'warped' warrior, capable of a battle frenzy that would transform him into an erupting, swollen, vicious monster in battle, reminiscent of Cuchulain himself. Here he is drawn by the great Mick McMahon, but through his life in the comic the titular hero would g on to be illustrated by some equally great names - Massimo Belardinelli, Glen Fabry, Dermot Power and most notably Simon Bisley, who would use the Seventies styles of Frank Frazetta and Casaro Renato (who produced the poster art for Conan the Barbarian) to nod back at his own influences. Like Conan, Slaine was never realised as a fully muscle-bound mountain of a man, but he sure as hell turned out that way, and arrived at around the same time as that type was being justly ridiculed by such  strips as Carl Critchlow's Thrud the Barbarian, first published in White Dwarf.

Not that there was anything wrong with Thrud - quite the opposite  I loved Thrud from his tiny pea-head to his massive furry boots, his tiny intellect and Critchlow's sharp satire not only of fantasy literature but of the tropes of RPGs. Which sort of neatly brings us to the other Eighties phenomenono, the role playing game. Both Conan and Slaine got the treatment, though Slaine's came much later, and for a while many of the popular fantasy games seemed to begrudgingly attempt to incorporate the Barbarian (and the ninja, for their sins) as a playable class. I never thought it was a great fit, even if Dungeons and Dragons is based largely on trying to fit disparate element together before handing them over to players and DMs to try to establish some final cohesion. I think that outside their own games, the barbarians of the RPGs I played were better off either as NPCs in their own world, or actually in their own game. maybe it was the way we played them as teenagers, but in a popular sense at least there's the real risk of treating characters like Conan as being one-note, and that's maybe why they never hung around for long in the games.

And so too the barbarian of cinema, as much wish-fulfillment to a generation of awkward teens as their more physically-inclined peers. There's something quite universal about the likes of Conan, his place as a wanderer in an untamed world, that befits a cinematic treatment, and indeed a revival. And just as Clint Eastwood was able to return to the western to portray an aged gunslinger brought out of retirement for one final glorious battle, I hope that those behind The Legend of Conan, Arnold included, will be able to do the same.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Everybody Says 'Hallow'

Jack-o-Lantern, Opoho 1997
This morning out of my bus window I watched a young chap walking briskly to work pursued by, I assume, his lady friend teetering along with her arms outstretched, mouth all blood-spattered. Zombie love – ain’t it grand?

I quite like Halloween. Its gradual creep into the local festival calendar has been assured and bolstered by foreign pop culture (TV specials, mainly, it seems), and as a pop culture observance you could find worse things to obsess over. Far from the folklore trappings of All Souls Eve, or the superstition and belief of the dead walking for one evening, Halloween is incongruous fun. Certainly, that’s the spirit in which I attempted to take it in when I was a stripling young Simian, dressing up with the kids next door and visiting a grand total of two houses (each other’s, naturally) for enthusiastic – if not a little self-conscious, games like apple bobbing and pumpkin carving. So nerdy. I might have been one of the few kids in my class at primary school to go the whole hog, but yes, I carved the odd green crown pumpkin and even provided my bewildered classmates with a demonstration at school one year. Off and on over the years I’d have another crack at it, hardly refining my method, but enjoying it all the same, even after university days.

I have no great issue with Halloween in New Zealand, either. Speaking personally, it’s one of the few Celtic traditions which have survived in some form in the modern world, and even though it’s become commercialised and Americanised along the way, I don’t think either of those elements have damaged it the same way that, say, the commercialisation of Easter and Christmas have. Admittedly, seeing displays for Halloween booty jostling shoulders with Guy Fawkes Night gear and Christmas decorations at this time of the year is patently ridiculous, but it’s a small thing to live with, and it seems to me that the easier thing to do would be to elbow Guy Fawkes out of the picture entirely, or move the fireworks to Matariki when it really is cold, dark, bereft of holidays and we’d all appreciate a noisy night out. As a side note I like the slow import of Day of the Dead as well – a local Mexican bar is going all-out on it this Friday and in an impressive charm offensive Hell Pizza are embracing the day as well. It seems to me that Día de los Muertos allows us the opportunity to observe both the pagan and Christian aspects of this season. It’s a win-win.

Halloween in the Southern Hemisphere however makes me feel as though we actually got the better deal season-wise. Yes, the Samhain connection with the harvest cycle is lost, but in a modern sense warmer, lighter nights for kids to go trick or treating makes perfect sense. If someone could explain to our neighbourhood teens that trick or treating isn’t some form of intimidatory entitlement ritual then all the better. Jet Junior’s birthday is about a week out from Halloween, so I expect that as the years go by pirates and Wiggles may make way for Halloween-inspired birthday parties, and if they do I’ll be there armed and ready with a pumpkin and a knife, ready for the fun.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Oaken's Twelve: Jackson's Thirteen

When I set myself the challenge of bringing Thorin Oakenshield's Company to plastic life in 28 millimetres, the original plan was to be well underway before casting was announced or, at the latest, before the forthcoming Hobbit character shots were available. Didn't work out that way. On the other hand, I knew I'd be assessing and reviewing the eventual reveals at some stage, so here I go with a rather belated and facetious review before I've even stumped up my attempts.

Penultimately it comes to the following image: In just over a month Peter Jackson’s version of The Hobbit will be released onto the world, promising visual interpretations of Thorin Oakenshield’s company which will, if the Lord of the Rings’ success has anything to say, become pretty much indelible in the public consciousness. Can anyone now picture, for example, Boromir without seeing him as Sean Bean? Or more potently, Gandalf as anyone but Sir Ian McKellan? In my lifetime I’ve had a version of Aragorn change from a rather faceless (not literally) hooded ranger, to an animation voiced by John Hurt and (unkindly) compared to Tonto, the finally and more recently and, yes, indelibly – Viggo Mortenson. Next stop: the classic greying, ageing, blue-hooded Thorin as played for ever more by Richard Armitage. Granted, a lot of how these figures will rise, fall or remain in the minds of your casual Tolkien watcher depends on the skills of the assembled actors; but then I could tell you about what seventeen years of Judge Dredd as played by Sylvester Stallone can do to the public imagination as well. I digress.

The point I should come to is that as previous posts have attempted to point out, Jackson’s designers haven’t had the luxury or challenge of carte blanch when it came to designing the movie’s Dwarves. Of the thirteen some are pretty well visually described – the main ones being Thorin, Balin, Dori, Bombur, Fili and Kili, pretty much. The others – perhaps Dwalin excluded (we know he’s strong enough to carry Bilbo), not so much, and presented with the real challenge of twelve distinct personalities to convey behind heavy latex and judiciously apportioned dialogue, it’s not surprising that some of the dwarves as depicted here are verging on the very limits of dwarf-ness. Kili is almost beardless (heresy!), Nori has hair that defies gravity as well as belief, and Bifur appears to be part badger, part axe-head, and, reputedly, everything but talk. Ori we could perhaps have had a guess at: in the story hints of his bookishness are all but there, fleshed out post mortem in The Fellowship of the Ring, so a clerical look he has, as much as an innocent again (I presume) informed by his eventual doom in the mines of Moria. Bofur was always going to be free license to any imaginative designer, perhaps his own face furniture tells a story as much as Kili’s, although you’d want to think that with it Jackson’s visual engineers could have foreseen the unfortunate moniker James Nesbitt’s character has since gathered among the online community – 'pedo dwarf'.

There’s a lighter, more comic touch to these dwarves, though – perhaps it’s even cartoonish. The proof will of course be on the big screen. In the mean-time, and not shown in this large image is the gathered storytelling implicit in the Hobbit dwarf designs – chiefly, we’ve become accustomed now to seeing the dwarves not as Tolkien wrote them – unarmed, hooded, carrying little but their wits, musical instruments and a heavy grudge, but as the post-LotR movie environment wishes us to view them. The Jackson dwarves are variously armed and armoured, mostly in a light way (I suspect once the army of Dain Ironfoot is seen we’ll be able to make a clearer distinction), but much more than indicated in the original novel – particularly at the start, the movie dwarves are to varying degrees ready for war. Some (Dwalin, Bifur) already look like veterans, and it’s this form of visual shorthand which intrigues me most. Some of these dwarves will have very few lines – Bifur may not have any, so anything that tells a story, fills in a background or otherwise provides detail is really useful not only in selling a movie in advance (and this should not be underestimated given The Hobbit is over fifty years old and available to be read anywhere in mostly any language already), but in telling its story onscreen. It’s considerations such as this which I’ll be taking into account when I resume my own race against time to complete the Fellowship of Oakenshield before The Hobbit opens properly.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

"I Was Born to Underachieve"

Manic Street Preachers: 'Send Away the Tigers' (2007)

 “I realised that The Manics had lost that element of fabulous disaster... And on this album, we've gone back to source” - Nicky wire on Send Away The Tigers 

And now for the triumphant return, the second second coming? Lifeblood’s fortunes had been mixed indeed – eschewed critically and by the fans for its different sound and introspective mood. By 2007 Manic Street Preachers were an old band, shedding ill-fated solo projects and looking with steely eyes to a twentieth anniversary in a handful of years. Surely after the lacklustre response to their last group effort, the next album would open quietly and fade away slowly? Well, not in this instance. It’s a strange element in the music and life of the Manic street Preachers that confounded expectation runs through their career. Generation Terrorists was not the incendiary monolithic debut the band had hoped to arrive and shorty retire on; The Holy Bible did not achieve its Important Album status by chart success, and the fortune of Everything Must Go is a matter of historical record by now. By 2007 though, you’d be forgiven for thinking the well was running dry after two albums whose reception had been, to put it kindly, ‘mixed.’

Send Away the Tigers was instead a great success, and widely regarded as that elusive thing for an ageing band, the ‘return to form’. Pipped to the number one album spot by fewer than 700 units, its first chart-eligible track, the grand and sparring Your Love Alone Is Not Enough with The Cardigans’ Nina Persson (the band’s first duet since Pretty Baby Nothing) took them back to the number two spot in the UK, and re-launched the group as a credible radio-friendly band once more. Certainly, speaking for myself the results were there. I bought Tigers aware that friends and family who had ‘til then had no opinion (or even awareness) of the band were expressing genuine interest in the single, and this far from Wales that had to mean something (Your Love eventually reached number 20 in the NZ charts), so all was well there. What of the rest of the album though?

Comeback albums are funny things; not as common an industry cliché as “the difficult second album”, but common enough that there’s a commercial imperative built in for any aspiring manager of a downwardly-motivated act to dream of. Send Away the Tigers as a whole for me recalls Green Day's American Idiot (2004), an altogether huger work with longer-lasting impact, but as an example of a return effort with little change to sound other than a renewed vigour, the albums are close. Tigers ups the ante a little, offering more politically-motivated tracks (Rendition, the Clash-like Imperial Bodybags) peppered among the ‘mature’ audience-friendly ones, and overall the efforts speak of Wire’s aforementioned intent to ‘return to the source’. There’s a lot that’s familiar and comforting to the established fan: Lifeblood’s keyboards open the album but are pointedly drowned out by another Adamson-styled guitar intro, and the band’s past works are referenced too – from You Stole the Sun From My Heart finding its way into the lyrics of Your Love Alone to the swinging 6/8-timed Indian Summer, which so resembles A Design for Life that Bradfield and Wire were at loggerheads over its inclusion, and soon after its release a YouTube wag demonstrated just how close the similarity was. Critically and emotionally as well as commercially Send Away the Tigers is a great success, probably well worth the return of the reversed-R cover lettering, I’d say. But for me it’s not a long player, being maybe too familiar, too rehearsed. It’s the sound of a band who knew they always had it in them, but because their past two albums had fared poorly, this return to form strikes me also as something of a shrug of acknowledgement. The hidden track, an unnecessary cover of Working Class Hero (also covered by Green Day for an Amnesty International album) tend towards lip-service. The Tiger burns bright, and where and when it needed to, but the follow up album for me is the big one; another resurrection of the past, but crucially less well-rehearsed, and the better for it.

Cover Story: Finally, a cover with legs. An astute choice, using a professional photographer’s work. This was borne out with the video for Autumnsong which came in two varieties – a label-sanctioned version, and a second pass instigated by the band themselves using the same models miming to the song and directed by the photographer. It’s an attractive sleeve. There, I said it.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

I'll be the Judge of that

This blog is synchronised with that of my good friend Jamas. His review is here!
I've been surprised to discover that the success of the new Dredd 3D movie has meant an awful lot to me. Of course in 1995 I was disappointed, and I didn't even see the Stallone vehicle on the widescreen, but I was determined to see it properly in 2012 - widescreen, 3D, and with company who would 'get' the character and his world. I'm very happy to say that I succeeded there (especially enjoying the company and generosity of the above mentioned Mr Enright). I'm not happy, however, to observe that Dredd 3D was not so lucky, and hasn't succeeded.

The term 'flop' is pejorative, and I don't think it helps movies like Dredd, particularly when critical opinion has been largely very enthusiastic. It's fairer to say that it, like a few other technically high quality, faithful movies, failed to find its audience in sufficient number, which is another way to say it is by no means a bad movie, and definitely didn't deserve its fate of near cinematic obscurity with no hope for world-building sequels. Despite its niche market, B-list star and R18 rating, it deserved better, and hopefully on the home market will get it. Please don't download this movie, folks.

As I indicated earlier, Judge Joe Dredd is a tough hero to film. Aloof, implacable, and visually inhuman, there’s no clinch to his character. He’s less Robocop (whose narrative depends on the once-human Murphy rediscovering his humanity and reinventing himself) and more akin to the original Terminator – ready-made, singularly-driven and determined. An idea driven to an extreme, although not necessarily the extreme. I take some issue with the thesis that Dredd is ultimately a fascist character. An absolute, certainly, but his crusade isn't one of power or control for the sake of personal power; it’s control for the sake of control, or at the expense of the alternative, which is a certain chaos depicted by the nature of Mega City One (and especially as depicted in this movie). You can’t sympathise or identify with such a character, although you can still cheer him on, appealing as Dredd does to a certain repressed, visceral desire for absolute order. In that regard Dredd 3D and Karl Urban is pitch perfect – he’s far from robotic, but he never once cracks a smile, never stops working because the nature of the movie’s metropolis doesn't allow for that; as he says in the movie’s first reel, “it’s all deep end.” So I applaud Urban’s understanding of the role and his take on such a complicated character, as much as Alex Garland’s taking Judge Cadet Cass Anderson as the story’s ‘heart’. Easily and still the human face of the Justice Department, in the movie Anderson’s emotional journey contextualises the character of Dredd as much as her understanding of her place in the ugly reality of MC-1. That she ultimately rejects Dredd’s answer and likely assessment yet completes her training to literally walk away from the ordeal of Peach Trees Block completes her journey, while it’s Dredd’s awarded ‘pass’, granted when she’s well out of earshot, which furthers his. That kind of dynamic, not present in the comics, just further shames the 1995 pairing of Dredd and his female counterpart Hershey (whose equivalent status is more pronounced in the comic as well), and makes me sadder that we’ll not likely see Olivia Thirlby reprise the role or, indeed, see how the Dredd and Anderson relationship develops.

Finally, the villain of the piece, Lena Headey’s Ma-Ma. When I first heard there would be a female antagonist I immediately worried that the script would call for something campy and over the top – Uma Thurman’s Poison Ivy, for example. This wouldn't have been absolutely out of the question for the comic, but wasn't something I wanted to see in a make-or-break movie. The character as written, and Headey’s reading of it, however, is something else. When you see more humanity in her turn as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones then the dead-eyed cold killer of the big screen outdoes all of that. Ma-Ma is just evil, a version of Dredd's inhumanity with a veneer of humanity.

In all, I like this movie more with every passing day, though the two of us had a lot to say on leaving the theatre. With the passing of time things have sunk in a little more. The violence is still an issue; I'm still of the opinion that launching an unfamiliar franchise on such an enormous and significant market as the US behind such a strong rating was hazardous. And I'm not entirely convinced that this level of violence is really true to the strip, which is smarter and as shocking, but in the glory days of the Seventies and Eighties knew when to turn the camera away from the head shots. That said, the gore I feared I'd see was largely implied rather than depicted, and the greatest feeling of unease for me was an eerie and utterly discomforting vertigo-inducing 3D glimpse down the atrium of Peach Trees and into hell itself. The 3D and Slo-Mo effects weren't for my fellow film-goer, but like a lot of other reviewers I was impressed, and didn't see it as being too gimmicky.

If you're at all curious, see this movie. You won't get another chance. And now I worry, as I did in 1995, that for Judge Dredd to have any film future in another re-imagining it may be via a real case of diminishing returns. As far as Dredd 3D goes, however, this was far from the case.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Watch it before Darth Flannel finds out!

A brief update and yes it's come to this, a Star Wars one. Who'd have thought?

Now, as I've been at tedious pains to point out, I've been not a Star Wars fan since 1984, but I need to say that when its makers decide to clamp down on the spirit of sharing and cultural blending that has actually sustained the franchise and enabled it to turn a profit in leans years and flabby, I can sympathise with the fans who might see it as a rebuke against THEIR love of the series and how it can span the borders. So as I say, enjoy this, the third installment of Withnail and I/Star Wars before the dread cohorts of The Bearded One have it blocked, as they did to the wonderful first installment with Uncle Monty*.

(*that is, of course until they can find a way cough!*Robot Chicken* cough! to make it hack!*Family Guy* huck! profitable for them, naturally)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Video Affects - The Smiths, Girlfriend in a Coma

Morrissey is coming to NZ this December. It's kind of a big deal, I guess, with people of my age, added to that the fact Moz hasn't visited these shores in twenty-one years. There's the sense that this time, a bit like The Pixies maybe and Bowie (though we didn't necessarily see that one coming) is a 'last chance to see' sort of gig. Nevertheless, I'm already double-booked, so there we are, and there I won't be, Boo.

I discovered The Smiths late, like most of New Zealand, the late Eighties being (as I see it) the last gasp of our Antipodean six months/two years-behind-the-rest-of-the-world-in-pop-culture factor that led to most of our punk bands arising in the early Eighties and Acid House not really a going concern until 1989 at best. By the Nineties and the arrival of the Worldwide Web, our embarrassing South Seas Bubble would burst, but 1987-1988, The Smiths were a vaguely-known thing to me; the source of obsession by a schoolmate Mark, and of bewilderment by yours truly.

Enter the video for Girlfriend in a Coma, one of their last singles. This is a video that's a signature of the band, is in a big way irrelevant to the song with its scenes from The Leather Boys (as much as their album and single covers steadfastly eschewed images of the band themselves, opting istead for silver screen idols), yet rewards the viewer curious enough to follow up the images (I haven't) - to get to know the band without actually seeing the band. Front and slightly left or right of centre is enigmatic frontman Steven Morrisey in action, and this as far as I can recall, ismy entry point proper to the world of The Smiths. By my second year of university a couple of years later I'd heard pretty much all I could get my hands on, bought their albums and resold them again for ridiculously small fare (but then I had to eat), and having learned a few songs along the way and taken all I could at the time from them, moved on.

But the video was a serviceable entry point for the band, as late as it was to their story. Here's Morrissey at the corners of the frame, singing devotedly to the black and white image of Rita Tushingham, the singer's colour and the footage's monochrome separating the two subjects until the 1:40 mark where Morrissey's face becomes merged with that of co-star Colin Campbell. The rest of the band are absent, as is the case for the other videos from parent album Strangeways Here We Come, and the vdeo says nothing of The Smiths' internal ructions and impending split - in fact, it's business as usual.But it was enough for me. I'd not seen a video like it, in a decade known more for putting musical artists in increasingly narrative or cinematic contexts, here's a video apparently about adulation and worship. Curiously introverted, studied and coy. It started me on a short road of Smiths fandom.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

"We Used to Have Answers"

Manic Street Preachers: 'Lifeblood' (2004) And now the mid-Nineties synth job. Produced by industry veteran Tony Visconti, there’s little redolent of his long-time collaboration with David Bowie here, unless you count the late-era slapped bassline in Always/Never. Instead, the overall sound reminds me more of early Steve Lillywhite, producer of Big Country, a later incarnation of Manic influence The Skids, and certainly album opener 1985 contains a decent likeness of a typical Stuart Adamson guitar fill, but elsewhere is reminiscent also of late career U2 and mid-career Coldplay. Which goes some way to saying that while James Dean Bradfield’s guitar is present, it once again shares the roster with other instruments, namely keyboard washes and piano lines (more Lillywhite), muting the tone and softening the edges.

 Lyrically Lifeblood improves on Know Your Enemy, although there seems a less obvious polemic at work. Nicky Wire described the album as ‘elegeic’, and maybe that’s more apt than first appears, because I sense more resignation than protest in its songs, of offences being commented on after the fact; Emily, Wire’s comment on the usurping of heroine status of Emmeline Panckhurst by the likes of Princess Diana (“So pity poor Emily / You have been replaced by charity”.) We’re leagues away from the inflective of The Holy Bible, and even now listening to the album certain phrases come to mind: ‘domesticated’, ‘middle-aged’, almost ‘dinner party’. Nobody’s nose is going to be put out of joint by this offering – even in 2004 a reference in Empty Souls to “collapsing like the twin towers / falling down like April showers” was overdubbed for the single release.

 If anything, Lifeblood is perhaps a little too homogenous, succeeding in recovering the sense of continuity that its more celebrated predecessors (Bible, Everything, Truth), but the risk run here is that the songs, particularly after the first half of the album, tend to merge rather too well, and as a result the album drifts off to sleep shortly before closer Cardiff Afterlife and its Smiths-styled harmonica wraps things up. The eighties are all over this album for me, from the aforementioned Lillywhite sound (To Repel Ghosts could have come off U2’s October), to the lyrical opening of 1985 (“In 1985, Orwell was proved right / Torville and Dean’s Bolero, redundant as a sad Welsh chapel”) and its nod to the bands who would inspire the Manics’ creation (“Friends were made for life / Morrissey and Marr gave me choice”)

Cover Story: Slick and somehow anonymous. Text is along the lines of Everything and This Is My Truth (which seems apt and sensible after the less than spectacular efforts on Know Your Enemy). Computer-enhanced blood splashed over a nude figure against a white background. The motif’s presented further inside the liner notes, but the shots of the band members posed ‘reacting’ to splashes of red don’t work so well – it looks like it may well be – Ribena spilled on some black and white photos.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Harry Harrison

2012 is turning out to be a really rotten year. Following the recent deaths of Ray Bradbury and Margaret Mahy, this week saw the passing of Harry Harrison, one of the greats, and a real name from the Golden Age of popular SF. Harrison is unique among the writers I discovered by virtue of first coming to my attention through comics. 2000AD ran a series of adaptations of Harrison's celebrated Stainless Steel Rat books through to around 1984's Stainless Steel Rat for President and, as it turned out, the first year of my collecting the comic full-time. In the pages of 2000AD Slippery Jim DiGriz was in the reliable hands of Dredd/Strontium Dog artist Carlos Ezquerra, and so it's his version of the silver-haired rogue that stays with me even now.

In those same pages the letters column would regularly be filled with readers speculating on how they'd cast movie versions of the comic's strips. You could rely on Joe Dredd's tight boots being filled by Clint Eastwood, and for DiGriz the actor of choice was invariably James Coburn, which worked for me after I saw him in The President's Analyst. Nowadays, maybe Clooney?

The role of the Rat definitely needs a light touch, and it seems that this sort of character was what Harrison really specialised in. You can't help but side with this crook, no doubt seduced as you were by the first-person narrative. I definitely was - even seeking out the novel of SSRFP at the local library to check how faithful the adaptation was (pretty much, I concluded), and then following it with the original novel. Perhaps the Silver one will finally reach the silver screen? It's a shame Harrison never saw it happen, I guess.

To my shame, that's almost all I read of Harry Harrison's work, save for another one of his best, Make Room! Make Room! - almost the opposite to the Rat stories. A future dystopia (a friend once observed that there are no future utopian fiction, and I haven't seen anything to prove otherwise) of an overcrowded planet and a desperate and awful solution to world hunger, filmed of course as Soylent Green (I didn't care for the adaptation this time), and of course somewhat diminished by being one of the most spoiled endings of modern SF because of it. The novel is the superior, and I remember how much it affected me, even though a few years' worth of similar stuff in 2000AD should have prepared me well enough.

And so, like Bradbury before him, I feel as though I have a lot of reading to do.  But here's to you, Mr Harrison. Here's hoping that the world you're inhabiting now is every bit as bold and exciting, human and humourous as the world of Jim DiGriz. And thanks for the great stories.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

"Cosmetic / Polemic"

Manic Street Preachers: 'Know Your Enemy' (2001)

"Hello, it's us again" – The Masses Against the Classes

A new millennium has dawned, and Manic Street Preachers have turned ten, seeing in the new2 era with a live concert in Cardiff Arms Stadium, and after the success of the last album (and the group’s first number one in If You Tolerate This) releasing a standalone single: The Masses Against the Classes – a stomping rallying cry to fans who were critical of This Is My Truth’s ‘sell out’ sound. This gesture of goodwill, reminiscent in its verses of Blur’s Movin’ On from their eponymous album was boosted through the dedication of an enlarged fanbase, and turned into a surprise second number one after its release and immediate deletion with no accompanying video. And then…?

Know Your Enemy’s creation doesn’t quite speak from the success of This Is My Truth or Masses. With the band still not making head roads into a larger US market, the risk was seen of the Manics being a UK-only success was real, and so resources for the follow-up were cut significantly. It seems churlish of their record company, especially after a second number one. And yet, this seems to be the story, and perhaps Enemy is a reaction as much to this. Gone are the sweeping panoramic string sections, back is the overdrive pedal; lyrics less concerned with internalised melancholy and longing, and more agitprop and cut-up politics. Overall the sound and approach mark a lo-fi retreat along the lines of U2's Achtung Baby and, again, that crucial self-titled fifth Blur album. The result is perhaps best put kindly as a mix of styles – described by one Pitchfork review as an attempt to write a protest song in every genre. It’s not quite that, but the grab-bag approach is obvious, as are the influences from The Byrds (the uplifting Let Robeson Sing), The Beach Boys (So Why So Sad), New Order (The Convalescent, Intravenous Agnostic), REM (Year of Purification, His Last Painting), early U2 (My Guernica, with a drumbeat recalling Joy Division’s Transmission) and Nirvana (Dead Martyrs). All are good compositions, but strangely not recognisable Manic Street Preacher songs – the mimesis makes the album sound little like anything they’ve done, or were known for – particularly after two very strong chart-teasing works.

It’s this inconsistency which I think plays against Know Your Enemy on the whole, rendering it less cohesive than its predecessors. There’s less to latch onto here. "You Don't Just Sit in a Rocking Chair When You've Built a Revolution" – Baby Elian From the outset the album seems misjudged: Promoted with the questionable decision to play in Havana and a personal press meeting with Castro (Wire has seemingly since recanted) and released in May 2001 – a full six months before the September 11 attacks that would turn global geopolitics completely over and really give the group something to talk about (but who would have known?) If the previous album’s S.Y.M.M and its lyrics (“The subtext of this song / I've thought about it for so long / But it's really not the sort of thing / That people want to hear us sing") were in any way a warning sign of lyrics to come then they were ignored – the Pop-like Miss Europa Disco Dancer stuttering to a profanity-laced conclusion, pop culture names dropped in carelessly. The remainder, the vast remainder of Know Your Enemy is something of a slog lyrics-wise, lazy rhyming and lines that could have done with a second and third pass (and maybe an external eye – even seventeen-year-old me could have told Nicky Wire that T S Eliot’s lugubrious antihero is the weakly-named J Alfred Prufrock, not Alfred J Prufrock.)

It’s less well-wrought than Richey Edwards’ stream of conscious stuff, and sadly Bradfield’s contribution, Ocean Spray (I was astonished in thinking that the band couldn’t have realised that the song’s name is also that of a popular cranberry drink – then gobsmacked when I realised that this is what the song is about), just proves that he’s every bit the lyricist that Nicky Wire is a vocalist. Know Your Enemy seems a long album (the version I have includes The Masses as a bonus track plus a perfunctory Avalances remix of So Why So Sad) but delivers so little. I was off them by now, and hearing snippets of So Why So Sad and Ocean Spray didn’t endear me to check the album out further. The next release would be longer in the making and prove another departure, by which time Manic Street Preachers were almost entirely off my radar.

Cover Story
: After two albums featuring the band members on the front, this one is all text and grit, with nods to the group’s past penchant for stenciled statements on their stage clothes. Inside the lyrics are reproduced as facsimiles of the songbooks they came from – all very verite, but all the more revealing for the typos and formative lyrical ideas.

Here's a thing. Trying to decide which video to feature as a standout or typical track from the album? There is none, so I had to pick two.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Hondo City Justice

When I was a teenager Hiroshima Day pretty much meant one thing: the bomb. A day of reflection and not a little dread about what we'd come to as a civilisation, and what measures our grandparents' generation had decided were necessary to take to end a global war. The fates of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were equally horrific and fascinating in my mind, as obsessed as I was with the Cold War I and my friends had grown up in, and the sci-fi adoption of the atom bomb as both a symbol of technological mastery and annihilation. In all of this, I don't think I considered once that for the nation of japan the destruction of those cities, followed by the surrender of the Empire in the following Month, a new beginning and new identity would rise. The Japan of our grandparents was something to fear - the topic of truly dreadful and despicable stories of wartime atrocity and the ghost of centuries of Yellow Peril scaremongering. For my parents Japan was a different thing again - the place where all our new transistor radios, microwave ovens, TVs and cars were being made. It was a place creating the future, for better or worse if you took into consideration the manufacturers of the West. And then for my generation Japan was the source of new curiosities - ninjas and martial arts, robots, cartoons and crazy sci-fi influences. It was the home of Akira. A fascinating country and people, with a deep and seemingly unfathomable pop culture. It seems somehow inevitable then that the world of Judge Dredd would eventually turn to a future japan, informed, as I see it, by all of the above.

Hondo City is the Japan of Dredd's world, a city that coves the entire chain of islands of modern japan and some parts beyond. Imperial, highly advanced in its technology and irresistibly designed, its Judge-Inspectors had their uniforms designed by Brendan McCarthy, interpreted in strip form by Colin MacNeill in the still-controversial Our Man in Hondo, and then, after a few visitations from the regular roster of artists, they were stream-lined and stylised once more by the pen of Frank Quitely into a version similar but far superior to the one I've done here. Our Man in Hondo is to me a rough story, given an unfunny 'Charlie Chan'-styled omniscient narrative (thinks a peppering of 'honourable's, 'so sorries' and the like), but things got a little better. On the whole though, the Hondo Judge stories which spun off into their own series (Shimura, Hondo City Justice) have struggled to really find their own identity outside of a very hackneyed version of Japanese pop culture. Giant monsters, yakuza, Judges turning ronin, mad science - it's all there, but sometimes it seems that's all there is. Any Dreddworld series needs more than cliche as its basis.
The Hondo Judges do look cool, though. Cooler than Mega-City One's, in fact.