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Sam reviews: WOTW 2012

by on Jan.04, 2013, under music, Reviews

avatarNo one would have believed, in the last years of the 19th century, that human affairs were being watched from the timeless worlds of space. No one could have dreamed that we were being scrutinized as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Few men even considered the possibility of life on other planets. And yet, across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this Earth with envious eyes, and slowly, and surely, they drew their plans against us.

The Original and Best

Thus speaks Richard Burton’s inimitable, mellifluous voice at the start of the 1978 Musical War of the Worlds, Jeff Wayne’s most famous creation. My mother has eclectic musical traits (a trait I am endlessly grateful to have either inherited or had inculcated) and a copy of this has been in her music collection for as long as I can remember. It may be a dreadful thing to confess, but this was my introduction to H G Wells and was one of my formative speculative fiction experiences. As a girl of primary school age, my initial reaction was one of awe: never would I consider bacteria the in the same way as I had. My mum has been known to tell family friends that my first comment was, “I’ll never put bleach down the toilet again.”

That’s what good speculative fiction should do. Change the way you think.

The sound effects, chilling in isolation and fed through the score until the guitars became gibbering Martian voices while the synthesisers spat blistering heat rays and spread shivering fronds of red weed across the soundscape, remain as effective now as they ever were. The actors and musicians, used to working live in front of theatre audiences and minus the visual extravaganzas now employed, conveyed their roles with conviction and feeling. The depiction of the Thunderchild crew sacrificing themselves and their ship to save the passenger liner is something I can clearly visualise to this day, despite never having physically seen more than an artist’s impression in the album’s accompanying booklet.

I can see an Ironclad warship going down under the irresistible assault of a Martian heatray, because Jeff Wayne’s composition utterly nails it.

Many years later I picked up an album called Ulludubulla Volume 2, which I reviewed at the time. There I said I didn’t see any reason not to update a musical, but overall the album didn’t really work for me. It was not, however, a remake of the original, but a series of tracks inspired by it.

The 2012 reboot

2012 saw a brand new version of this iconic album hit musical theatres and CD/MP3. Richard Burton’s part is now played by Liam Neeson and David Essex’s artilleryman has been given to Ricky Wilson of the Kaiser Chiefs. Justin Hayward’s part is sung by Gary Barlow, who manages to sound like he’s mostly asleep and only doing it for the paycheque. Phil Lynott’s throaty, gargly Parson Nathaniel is now Maverick Sabre with some weird mishmash accent and the beautiful, emotive voice of Julie Covington has been replaced by that of Joss Stone, which is more operatic JCB than concerned but fatally optimistic angel.

The original score has been “updated” with some odd little riffs of electronica and bass, which serve no purpose other than to indicate that this is New! Improved! Hip! and On Trend!

“Hey kids! We know you like dubstep and psytrance these days, so we put in some tweaks just for you!”

Then there’s the script, which has also been altered. There’s an entire additional passage of exposition-heavy dialogue, in which the Journalist explains how the Martians gave up sex and got rid of bacteria. This is, obviously, based on the original work, but part of the joy of the original is that it stands on its own — there is no need to have read the book. When I heard this, I stopped what I was doing and stared at my player. “How in the hell did he find that out? He’s been trudging round a red-weed infested London trying to survive, not conducting scientific research into the mating habits and pathology of the alien invaders!”

I haven’t seen this in the theatre, where they have introduced whizzy special effects. I don’t especially want to now that I’ve heard it. The original didn’t need them, as it was carefully crafted to do without. The 2012 version has suffered from revision and, possibly, part of that is because there are whizzy special effects in the show.

Only one thing stood out as remarkable. Remember I was talking about Ulludubulla Vol. 2? That album starts with an interesting spoken word piece by Papa Ootzie, looking at the Eve of the War from the point of view of the Martians.

“The problem is, of course, the humans,” are the last words spoken in the epilogue, and they sounds suspiciously like a straight lift from the above track.

Unless you are the sort of person who buys things just to have them in the collection, I wouldn’t recommend this version. The original is by far superior in every way, from score to script to performance. Get a copy of that, instead.

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Sam reviews: Ulladubulla Vol 2

by on Feb.25, 2011, under music, Reviews

avatarEvery so often I take a random punt on some obscure album, most frequently these days as a result of hearing something on a computer game.

It was Last.fm that spurred my most recent gamble.

Ulladubulla Vol 2 is a cash-in on Ulladubulla, itself apparently gestated within a PS1 game of which I have never heard.

I’m a big fan of the original musical War of the Worlds. When I was about 5 I couldn’t choose between that, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells or Vangelis’s Spiral as my favouritest things ever (which might say a lot about me). I’m considerably older now, and have a bad trance/dance habit, because it makes the endless hours on the turbo more bearable. When last.fm pitched up the Dario G remix of Brave New World I thought “Hello!”

My take-a-punt limit is around 4 quid, and it works like this: I hear a track I like. I find the album on MP3 download (if it’s not downloadable all bets are off). If the number of tracks on the album I like sufficiently to buy individually is large enough that it would cost more than the album, I’ll take a punt, up to the limit of 4 quid.

In other words, when Ln > A ≤ 4, where L = liked track, n is an integer smaller the number of tracks on the album and A is album cost.

Ulladubulla sneaked in on the boundary at £3.89, with 4 tracks I was sure I liked, one I thought I liked, and 17 tracks on the album.

I tweeted my initial review in realtime, and it went like this:

• Took the 4 quid punt. Papa Ootzie’s opener is creepy in a Stranglers, Men In Black gone really dark kind of way.
• Zube’s Horsell Common & the Heat Ray is Will Smith meets Ghost Dog. Initially I flinched but it might be a grower.
• Oooh. Tom Middleton’s Cosmos re-edit of the Eve of the War has some fat reverb reminiscent of Pendulum’s grabbier stuff. Like.
• N-Trance turns Forever Autumn into a dance track. Not as bad as I feared. Wouldn’t be out of place on a chillout mix.
• Onto Max Mondo’s The Artilleryman and the Fighting Machine. Unconvinced. Needs more effort 2/5.
• There are weird noises in the background that make me think Shaggy is going Bombastic on a Martian. Um. Niche.
• Stephen Murphy’s light-handed approach to the Red Weed is interesting. Layers whimsy over the creeping horror.
• Todd Terry vs David Essex. Wangst turns chirpy cockney. Who’d’ve thunk?
• OMG. WTF has Max Mondo done to Julie Covington? KILL IT WITH FIRE!
• That was the first track I was forced to skip because it was just too awful.
• Hybrid’s remix of The Eve of the War is the sort of track you’d find on WipeOut HD. Before you replaced the soundtrack.
• Stephen Murphy’s Dead London is what happened when Jamie took his magic torch into the 28 Days Later universe.
• Sticking an Alan Parsons-esque piano/drum riff on a track doesn’t make it a remix. The Spirit of Man (Spirit of Dub) gets 1/5.
• Dario G’s Brave New World. Am liking it already. Take THAT traffic queue! I am fixie ninja! Choke on my l33t filtering skillz!
• Ben Liebrand’s remix of the Eve of the War is making me giggle. I don’t think that was the intended reaction.
• OK. Max Mondo’s Horsell Common and the Heat Ray is what got me started on this, so it can’t be that bad.
• And oddly, it’s just meh. Of all the tracks so far it doesn’t really stand out in anyway, good or bad.
• DJ Keltech’s take on same song reminiscent of the final levels of Rez. Multiple layers of implied architecture
• Zube assaults the Spirit of Man and leaves it beaten, broken, bleeding, humiliated and suffering from PTSD in a corner.
• Ulladubulla vol 2: worth the 4 quid, but only because it would have cost 40p less to buy the 4 best tracks (out of 17) individually.

Having listened to the album a few times since then, I’d largely stick with the above (particularly the kill it with fire comment), with a couple of additions.

Although Zube’s take on Horsell Common isn’t as bad as it first sounds, when you are stuck on the turbo in desperate need of distraction you start listening to lyrics. Maybe the effort was doing something weird to my brain but the lyrics to that particular track seem to be particularly offensive, advocating a degree of cultural and xenophobic paranoia so intense I am amazed the Jeff Wayne estate was willing to allow his name to be associated with it. I could be convinced I were imagining it were it not for the fact that (a) I’m not; and (b) the lyrics of Zube’s Spirit of Man remix convey some equally dubious sentiments.

On the other hand, I am more enamoured of Papa Ootzie’s opener, the Eve of the War, which takes a look at the situation from the Martian POV and would make a nice little flash piece:

The problem is, of course, the humans.
Mars is incapable of sustaining life: our efforts to sustain the biosphere are exhausted. The water table and temperature decrease annually, as does our population. The only consequential course of action is the conquest and occupation of Earth, our young Sun-neighbour. The means and methods for this attack are already being realised. A large scale hydrogen accelerator will be constructed. This will launch suspension pods carrying the assault forces…

Unlike some other reviewers, I’m not certain that it is fundamentally wrong to update the original musical with rap and dance tracks. Taking stories and transposing them to a contemporary setting is done frequently enough: why not musicals? I’m less convinced (to put it mildly) by Zube’s attempt to shoehorn an attack by Martians into a rant about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and his take on the Spirit of Man, which seems to be a Daily Wail-inspired rant about peedoes and immigrunts rather than a celebration of human perseverance and determination.

I’m not disappointed in the album, particularly, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have a taste for mash-ups that shouldn’t work but sort of do and four quid burning a hole in your pocket. If I were a sackperson with her very own poppit and a retry button, I would not buy it again.

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Sam reviews: Witching Hour

by on Feb.13, 2011, under music, Reviews

avatarEver since BMX XXX I have paid particular attention to the music used in video games. I’ve got a lot of material in my collection that wouldn’t be there without a combination of video games and the likes of Pandora (I’m currently using Last.fm for the same purpose because UK users have been blocked from Pandora).

As you’ll have noticed, recently I’ve been spending a lot of time on Little Big Planet, and the playlist for LBP2 is excellent. My favourite, by far, is Ladytron’s Ghosts, to be found in the Death By Shockolate level:

Every so often a track has a shape that does something for me that I really need, for whatever reason, at that particular point in time. In the past I’ve developed obsessions over Massive Attack’s Angel, Pass the Hatchet by Yo La Tengo, Yeasayer’s Ambling Alp and many others, from Vivaldi to the Dandy Warhols via Murray Gold. Right now the track that’s doing it for me is Ladytron’s Ghosts.

So much did I like this track that I bought one of their albums, Witching Hour. I was blown away. It is rare that I buy an album and have to comment to Frood that it is just brilliant.

Ladytron’s sound is somewhere on a spectrum that includes Goldfrapp, the Sisters of Mercy, Gary Numan, Depeche Mode, Cibo Matto, the Cult, Jefferson Airplane and Shakespears Sister. The band comprises Liverpool producer and DJ Daniel Hunt, Reuben Wu and singers Glaswegian Helen Marnie and Bulgarian-born Israeli Mira Aroyo.

The two women have vocal styles that both complement and counterpoint one another, with Marnie’s soft but assertive lead underpinned by Aroyo’s more spoken style. The soft-rock electronica ranges from harsh, dark reverb (Soft Power) to the sort of gothic effervescence that belongs running across rooftops with a heavily made-up Brandon Lee (High Rise), with a couple of whimsical diversions (eg Cymk) for light relief. This is certainly not an album you could describe as homogenous. High Rise is a stonking opener while Fighting In Built Up Areas stands out for its relentless pounding and Aroyo taking the lead in Bulgarian, lending interesting architecture from the vocalised sibilants. One of my favourite tracks is Last Man Standing, which has the same shape as bluebells in a sudden downpour on an otherwise sunny day.

It is very rare for me to come across a band I like this much instantly. I expect I shall be acquiring the rest of their discography in due course.

And thank you, Media Molecule, for introducing me. Take note, music moguls: rather than charging a fortune for the rights to use tracks in video games, you should be considering just how many sales will result from people wanting to buy the music.

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