Sunday, 17 May 2015

Recent Gigs Part One: Super Furry Animals

In an unofficial '90s revival I've recently been to two cracking gigs at my fave venue, Gloucester's ever-groovy Guildhall, starting with a mid-week excursion into the wild and wonderful world of Welsh wizards the Super Furry Animals. The Super Furries were probably the quintessential festival band of the 1990s and even managed to bother the charts occasionally with their resolutely odd take on Britpop. ( They'd probably hate to be labelled as such but they were definitely the wierder alternative to the likes of Blur and Oasis back in the days of  "Cool Britannia". ) I've got a couple of their albums and always meant to see them live but never managed it so, when they announced they were doing a warm-up gig for their first tour in years at the Guildhall, it was a must for me... and for about 400 others who packed out the venue.
 There was no support band, only a DJ spinning some bangin' choons ( as I believe they're called ), and there was a buzz of excitement as we waited for the boiler-suited band to appear ( above is a pic of them backstage just before the gig started ). This tour was based around the 10th anniversary re-release of Mwng, the band's ground-breaking Welsh language album, so I wasn't sure what kind of gig to expect. Was it all going to be songs in Welsh that I didn't know? Not that there's anything wrong with that but I was hoping for one or two familiar tunes I could sing along to...
I didn't need to worry: SFA came out to rapturous applause and proceeded to play half an hour of hits  -  ( Drawing ) Rings Around The World, Do Or Die, God! Show Me Magic, Bad Behaviour, Demons and Northern Lites  -  wow! All perfectly-formed, slightly off-centre nuggets of pure awesomeness; all Number One hits from an alternate universe where great tunes, melodies, lyrics and strangeness combine to keep this world's usual factory-farmed pop at bay. Then the slightly-creepy cover of Mwng ( a pipe-smoking, bearded animal skull ) was projected onto the backdrop behind the band, signalling the next stage of the two-hour set.
In contrast to the psychedelic pop of the previous songs, the Mwng material was predominantly melancholy and more stripped back, with excellent use of a two-man horn section ( ooh, er! ) and highlighting Gruff Rhys's plaintive, heart-on-sleeve vocals. Unsurprisingly he gave an absolutely beautiful vocal performance in his native tongue  -  I've got no idea what he was singing about but the pure emotion of it all shone through like a ray of sunlight. After barnstorming versions of Hometown Unicorn and Ice Hockey Hair ( yay! ) we were into the home stretch and things got more and more raucous and surreal...
The set closed with huge singalongs Fire In My Heart and Mountain People, the band left the stage... and the famous SFA yetis, reborn for 2015, stomped back on for a final, pounding surge through protest anthem The Man Don't Give A Fuck. The fairly restrained Guildhall audience went absolutely nuts for this one, the whole venue shaking to the repeated, expletive-laced blitzkrieg of the chorus. And then it was all over and I drove home with Ice Hockey Hair still ringing through my head, knowing I'd just seen one of the best live bands ever. SFA OK!
Next time in the '90s revival slot  -  solo gigs for EMF and Wonder Stuff frontmen...

Thursday, 7 May 2015

UK Election Day 2015

This may be cheating but I'm going to re-post something I wrote 5 years ago on the eve of the last UK election. You know, the one that left us with the ridiculous coalition government who've spent the last half a decade cutting services, inspiring civil unrest and leaving the back door open for Farage's xenophobes. Yeah, them...
As I said, I'm revisiting that post because, sadly, things haven't really changed in the last 5 years... except for the fact that the biggest threat to this country may not now be Dalek Dave but a certain beer-swilling, "man of the people" Little Englander...

This is a public service announcement ( without guitars )

Please vote today. This could be one of the most important elections in many years so please don't waste your hard-won right to vote. Please vote with your conscience and don't be swayed by others, no matter how well-intentioned. And don't listen to biased, uninformed bloggers...

But for God's sake don't vote Ukip ;-) 

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Avengers: Age Of Ultron

It's here at last  -  the age of The Age Of Ultron, the next step in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the sequel to The Biggest Super Hero Movie Ever ( TM )  -  so what's it like? Well, it's pretty good actually. ( How's that for an incisive critical appraisal? )
The movie starts at a gallop with our heroes busting up the castle stronghold of evil Nazi throwback Baron Von Strucker ( who gets one of the funniest lines in the film ) and attempting to recover Loki's sceptre, which happens to contain yet another Marvel Universe McGuffin, the Mind Stone, one of those pesky Infinity Stones which will no doubt cause all sorts of problems in future movies. ( I still think of them as Infinity Gems as they were named in the comics but I'm old-fashioned like that. ) From this almost-generic scene the various plot threads spin out  -  Tony Stark likes the look of Strucker's AI experiments and thinks nicking the tech to create an army of police-bots is a neat idea
( it isn't ); embittered, super-powered twins Wanda and Pietro Maximoff are freed in the chaos to plan revenge against the West in general and Stark in particular; and an unlikely romance begins to blossom between the Black Widow and the Hulk.
It will come as a surprise to absolutely nobody that Stark's plan for "a suit of armour around the world" to protect us from intergalactic menaces like the first movie's Chitauri is a spectacular failure, resulting in the genesis of Ultron, this installment's Big Bad. The metal maniac quickly decides, only seemingly moments after his "birth", that the human race don't need defending, so much as wiping from the face of the Earth, starting with his "father" and the rest of the Avengers. Cue many, many action scenes...
Now, don't get me wrong, a lot of this is great fun and very exciting but at times AOU almost strays into Transformers territory, with lightning-fast cutting and multiple points of view making for a lack of focus in some scenes. With more than the usual burden of expectations placed on any movie sequel it seems that Joss Whedon has lost some of the clarity of the first movie. And, as in the first movie, there's quite a flabby middle section. ( I know... there's no need to get personal, is there? ) But on the plus side...
The new characters  -  Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch and the long-awaited Vision  -  all add interest and a level of unpredictability which shakes up the Avengers status quo in a very welcome fashion. Paul Bettany's Vision receives the least screen time but probably has the most potential. I'm hoping for a lot more from this enigmatic character in the future. The Widow / Jolly Green Giant romance is quite touching and gives Mark Ruffallo a real chance to shine. In fact, Whedon ensures that all the sprawling cast of main characters get their time in the sun, with Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye far better served this time around. And there are a ton of cameos from MCU regulars like Sam Jackson, Cobie Smulders ( love that name! ), Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle and even Hayley Atwell. Plus the inevitable Stan Lee in possibly his funniest appearance yet. And then there's the big bad robot himself:
James Spader absolutely runs away with the movie through his voice performance alone  -  not an easy task when the likes of Robert Downey Jnr and Scarlet Johansson are up there on the screen. From his first appearance as a walking scrapyard, slowly gaining sentience, to his marshalling endless legions of Ultron-bots to swarm over the Avengers, Ultron is the quintessential super villain  -  intelligent, sarcastic and witty, nearly always one metal step ahead of his foes and never quite tipping over into AI insanity, but always delivering his lines in Spader's purring, mocking tones. A worthy successor to Loki and definitely one of the best and most believable villains yet to stalk the MCU.
While inevitably not feeling as fresh as its predecessor, AOU is spectacular entertainment and sets the scene for future Marvel movies, from the passing reference to Wakanda ( home of the Black Panther ) to the final scene appearance of a certain mad Titan. And, with the traditional-for-the-comics roster change now introduced into the movie ( "The Old Order Changeth!" as Stan would say back in the day ) the future's certainly looking interesting for Earth's Mightiest Heroes...

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Herb Trimpe

I was sad to hear tonight, via Kid Robson, that ace Bronze Age comic artist Herb Trimpe has died at the age of 75. Herb was, for me, the definitive Hulk artist but he was, of course, far more than that. A very gifted artist and, by all accounts, a lovely guy too, Herb will be missed by his fans and, above all, his friends and family. My condolences to them at this sad time. Above is a scan of one of my favourite Trimpe issues of The Incredible Hulk, number 140 ( June 1971 )  -  "The Brute That Shouted Love At The Heart Of The Atom", a very groovy tale from firebrand writer Harlan Ellison, featuring ol' Greenskin's adventures in a sub-atomic world and highlighting Herb's exciting and expressive style in all its Kirby-esque glory.

RIP Herb Trimpe
( Check out some wonderful reviews of Mr. Trimpe's work at this long-lost blog. )

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Cornish landscapes

Recently we spent a week down in our beloved Cornwall and, although the weather was mostly awful, I managed to get a few half decent photos  -  or as decent as my phone can capture. I often wonder if it would be worth investing in a proper camera again.( Our last one was stolen when our house was burgled a couple of years ago and was never replaced. ) Camera phones are obviously handy for quick snaps but my Samsung in particular is not great on picture quality. Anyway... here are a few lovely Cornish landscapes, starting with Lizard Point above, mainland UK's most southerly point. We always see seals basking in the waters here but this time we were lucky enough to see the most seals we've ever spotted in the wild in one day. No pictures of said aquatic beauties  -  you'll just have to take my word for it, Dear Reader :-)
Here are Sarah and James posing in front of the Lizard Lighthouse. ( That's some bad hat, Harry. ) We went on a very interesting tour of the lighthouse, learning about its history and present day use. We also heard that author JRR Tolkein once stayed here and was very taken with the lighthouse. Our guide said that this structure, with its two towers, may have been the inspiration for Mordor's own twin monuments... but I think that's probably as much in the realms of fantasy as Middle Earth...
 Here's the beautiful lighthouse lens.
And the lighthouse itself...
And a few more shots of the Lizard coastline...
 The slipway below is at nearby Church Cove. Looks a bit steep :-)
 And these last few shots are from windswept Mullion, just down the road from where we were staying.
 Even though our holiday was slightly spoiled by about three days of constant wind and rain, plus a nasty bout of food-poisoning for me, it was worth it for the times the weather lifted and we managed to get out and about in such a beautiful lansdcape. A windswept, rugged Cornwall still beats a lot of other, more manicured, holiday destinations in my book...

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