Reviews Archive

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LIVING THE ASTRAL DREAM (FOR ALL MANKIND)

For All Mankind is an 80-minute movie compiled entirely of NASA footage documenting the 12 American astronauts’ endeavors to the moon.

‘What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties… in apprehension how like a God!’

Tonight I had ‘a moment’; a moment that took me away from a material world encumbered in scandal, conspiracy, greed and indifference; to an awe inspiring era where astral aspirations became the living dreams of inspirational heroes.

For All Mankind is an 80-minute movie compiled entirely of NASA footage documenting the 12 American astronauts’ endeavors to the moon; from Apollo 11’s first historic landing on 20th July 1969 to the final moon mission of Apollo 17 on 11 December 1972. Between them, these men spent 170 hours on the moon covering over 60 miles, planting six flags, and bringing home 880 pounds of soil and rock, and over 30,000 photographs.

This seminal footage features thoughtful and reflective quotes from the astronauts who undertook these adventures. The soundtrack is Brian Eno’s ‘Apollo’ album. An Ending (Ascent) is one of the most ethereal pieces of ambient music I have ever heard; haunting and majestic. This dreamy combination of sound and vision is so clear and vivid that I could easily believe that I was there. During my moment, I was there.

‘You get sweaty palms and your heart starts pounding. It was like the big game was about to start’, says a voice, as a trio of astronauts are being secured in their space suits and composing themselves for the big show. There is trepidation and tension in the air. In the background is a large poster with a smiley face; ‘have a nice day’. One of the crew is lying down with a towel covering his visor; blanking-out his surroundings.

They receive the call to proceed to the spacecraft and make their way up the slow, endless elevator to the top gantry. A breathtaking view awaits; the low sun is casting an imposing shadow of the space craft across the desert; the crew are merely small black dots next to this behemoth spacecraft. ‘I just stood around and waited until they strapped in. There was a kind of a strange quiet. You look out and you can see the large part of the state, and ocean, and this… this thing… out here. You have the feeling that it’s alive’.

Countdown commences, ‘It won’t fail because of me…’ The rocket blasts off, travelling at seven miles per second. ‘It feels just like it sounds… There’s a moment, a spring release, a complete release of tensions. To feel all that power being precisely directed… At last, I’m leaving the earth; I’m destined for the moon’.

Soon Apollo is in earth orbit. The crew unbuckle their straps and experience the zero G, ‘I was getting the impression that this was such an amazing thing, that I’m going to forget these things. I’m going to lose this image and it’s going to be quickly replaced by another’.

We see images of the earth below. ‘In Africa there are a lot of Nomads out in the desert. You see the fires from all of these… you realise the broad areas that you’re looking at. Each of those little dots represents people – other humans out there in the environment that I would consider stranger that the environment they might think about, here’.

One of the crew members prepares to go EVA. ‘There are no boundaries to what you’re seeing. It’s like having a gold fish bowl over your head, which gives you unlimited visibility… It’s as if you’re out there without anything on’. He is floating over the earth; it looks so peaceful and majestic. ‘There’s a total and complete silence in that beautiful view; and the realization, of course, that you’re going 25,000 miles an hour… You are a representative of humanity at that point in history; having that experience, in a sense, for the rest of mankind’.

He receives instruction for mission control to return to the craft. Preparation begins for the three-day journey to the moon. They will reach speeds of 6000 feet per second; faster than any human being has traveled before. There is nothing else to do but sit back and enjoy the interstellar ride.

The crew have a portable cassette player. ‘Fly me to the moon, let me play among the stars…’ Ground control appears to be caught up in the moment too. There is a playful atmosphere as the crew perform to the camera; filming zero-G antics and mealtime preparation. ‘ You’ve got to stick it somewhere so it doesn’t float away’.

What goes in must come out, eventually; ‘For the feces was a bag. You put this bag in the right position and you go, but the only thing is that nothing goes to the bottom of the bag… Everything floats!’.

Television pictures begin beaming across the globe, showing the people on earth a unique view of their home from space. ‘What I keep imagining is that I’m some lonely traveler from another planet. Would I land on the blue or the brown part of the earth?’

‘When you’re out there in this little command module you see the risk you’re taking because you realise that if the glass breaks or the computer stops working you’re not going to get back. You have time to contemplate this, you have time to think about it and you have time to run it through your mind different times.’

The lunar bound crew play the music from Arthur C. Clarke’s2001: A Space Odyssey. All of a sudden the music and pictures abruptly cut out and alarms start sounding. ‘OK Huston, we got a problem here… We had everything drop out’. An oxygen pump is venting vital supplies into space. Huston and the crew frantically collaborate to fix the issue in a chaotic and frightening period that must have felt like forever.

A solution is found and normality is restored; the mission resumes. This was a bitter taste of how quickly things can go wrong; how fragile they are in space. It is hard to believe that the complex on-board computers of the Apollo craft are no more powerful than the mobile phones from the 1990’s.

‘One of the things about a lunar trip is that you don’t pass anything on the way… That lack of way points has the effect of making it magical and mystical…’ Apollo is approaching the moon, bound for the dark side; it looms, foreboding and hostile. Appearing below the large prominent moonscape is the small, insignificant looking earth.

‘It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.’

Two of the three men prepare for the decent to the surface in the lunar module. One of the crew will remain in the command module. The countdown to separation commences, ‘I wanna go with them so bad I could taste it’. The lunar module departs. ‘You’ll never know how big this thing gets when there’s nobody in here but one guy’. The lunar module drifts away leaving the sole crew mate to contemplate; ‘I wish the damn thing could hold three people!’

The big moment arrives. This is what the mission is about – the culmination of billions of dollars to cover millions of miles. There is an initial sinking feeling of not recognising any of the landscape; a feeling of being lost. As the craft gets closer to the surface, its shadow is visible in the distance, growing as the module closes. They soon touch down. ‘The eagle has landed’.

I watched the images that I have seen countless times; Armstrong climbing down the ladder to take those first steps. Buzz Aldrin, who had bet five hundred dollars that no one would remember the words of the second man to touch down on the moon, says, ‘That may have been a small step for Neil but it was a long one for me’.

‘The moon is essentially grey; no colour. It looks like plaster of Paris; like dirty beach sand with lots of footprints in it – bland in colour, but majestically beautiful’. Caught in a moment if their own, hopping, skipping and jumping on the lunar tundra, the two astronauts engage in a sing-song ‘I was strolling on the moon one day, in the merry, merry month of May…’ They were human after all. ‘We were the only two there… we felt an unseen love… we were not alone’.

If I were religious, I would be thinking I was witnessing all of Gods creation; the carrying out of God’s work. I am fortunate not to have such a sterilised perspective. Caught in the moment, I am feeling what it is like to be a mortal man away from his natural element. I feel the fear, anxiety, excitement, awe and disbelief.

I feel alive on a dead, lifeless landscape; an eerie charcoal expanse where grains of dust have remained untouched for billions of years. Above me is the cold, endless skyline of space. Visible on the horizon is the living, breathing pale blue dot; mother earth.

I feel an impossible longing to witness the pure beauty and tranquillity of moon for myself; to see the earth through my own eyes; to put into perspective our place in the universe – how small and insignificant we really are. One thing is certain, humankind is far from being the centre of this intimidating universe.

‘Tranquillity base… you are cleared for take-off’. In my moment, I experience the feeling of leaving behind the lunar peace and tranquillity; bound for disorder and chaos ‘That’s our home. That’s where we lived; explored the mountains and the valleys… You leave it with the same feeling and awe that you left the earth with’.

In appearance, the moon is grey and baron. On the surface, however, the moon has an indescribable emotional presence. ‘Man did not reach out and touch the moon by the grace of God, but by harnessing the vision and integrity that has driven our species for millions of years, and will continue to drive us to the stars and beyond’.

‘We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained and new rights to be won. And they must be won, and used for the progress of all mankind’

For All Mankind Trailer from Cinefamily on Vimeo.

 

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SIXTEEN SHADES OF CRAZY – RACHEL TREZISE

‘Sixteen Shades of Crazy’ is a very well written book about people who live in the valleys - and aimed at people who want to escape the valleys.

WARNING: May contain traces of bias and distain.

Rachel Trezise’s ‘Sixteen Shades of Crazy’ is set in the remote South Wales valleys village of Aberalaw, centred around the lives of Ellie, Rhiannon and Sian – three WAGS of a wannabe punk band called ‘The Boobs’ – whose lives are about to change forever when a drug-dealing Englishman named Johnny arrives at the village – where nobody ever arrives and nobody ever leaves.

Ellie is the rivulet through which we gain the greatest perspective of valleys life; an aspirant music journalist who dreams of one day leaving the valleys – a desire often trodden-on by Rhiannon. Ellie becomes infatuated with Johnny; he is someone with whom she can at last discuss politics and culture.  She begins to re-discover pieces of her former self – a lost identity that the valleys had sucked the life out of long ago.

You’d have to have survived, or escaped the South Wales valleys to appreciate the startlingly accurate scene that Rachel Trezise paints in ‘Sixteen Shades of Crazy’; a colourless socio-cultural backcloth that is out of touch with the modern world; a festering pool of bigotry, racism and resentment of anything, or anyone deemed nonconformist.

More evident than Trezise’s apparent odium for the valleys is the recurring feminist spin – the men in this book are all bastards (except Marc who is punished for it by being coupled with a gob-shite). The feminist undercurrent emerges quite early when Trezise remarks that women wear the trousers in relationships because valleys men are, ‘too dozy for domestic altercations’. She’s right, though; there are new-born baboons more Machiavellian than most valleys boys.

Periodically, I found ‘Sixteen Shades of Crazy’ to be a little too close-to-home – and not just the bit where Ellie reveals to Rhiannon that she knows when Andy wants sex because he brushes his teeth with an electric toothbrush. The abrupt familiarity of the characters sometimes made my skin crawl; I felt like an atheist reading the Bible in church to reaffirm his raison d’être.

‘Sixteen Shades of Crazy’ is a very well written book about people who live in the valleys – and aimed at people who want to escape the valleys. This may be a bias opinion on my part, but twenty seven years of living among the same stereotypes and self-parodies found in Trezise’s book does that to a person – just like it did to Ellie.

If you want the tenacious perspective of a writer who has lived in the valleys, buy ‘Sixteen Shades of Crazy’. If you want to be hoodwinked into believing we all wear Dai Caps, sing a lot and find jobs that match our surnames, buy How Green was my Valley.

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IMELDA MAY AT THE COLSTON HALL

Imelda May live at the Colston Hall in Bristol,17 February 2011.

Bristol’s Colston Hall is a tale of two centuries. Firstly, there is the modern lobby and adjoined café where cubed seats and glass tables cling to the walls like a forgotten game of dice. In a masterstroke of artistic modernity there weren’t enough cubes for the restless latecomers who had no choice but to loiter and form orderly queues just for the hell of it. On the ground floor a jazz singer battled against the wash of sound checks and arithmetic that filtered through the walls of the auditorium – ‘one-two one-two…rubber duck…’  Sympathetic clapping grew more lacklustre as it spiralled up each level. On the top floor, as if dragged by the tide of a Mexican wave, we gently applauded what we hadn’t heard.

In contrast to its modern foyer, the entrance to the Colston Hall arena is like stepping through a time warp. The worn wooden seats had stories to tell and the panelled balconies glistened with thick gloss; layers peeled in places to reveal a more colourful past. The assembling audience was a charismatic array of period pieces and slick-backs. I hadn’t seen so many casualties of leopard print and Brill cream since the local feminist alliance boycotted Teddy Boy Tuesday at the Pontypool Workingman’s Club.

The supporting act was rock’n’roll home-boy  The Real John Lewis, “No toasters, here!”.  Either Gremlins had been let loose on the soundboard or the sound guy needed a good dapping. Regardless,  Johnny Bach didn’t skip a beat; always at ease and engaging the crowd  between pacey numbers, coupled with irreverent bursts of down-to-earth character from ‘across the bridge’. In our beloved Wenglish mother-tongue, Johnny Bach modestly announced that there were, “see-deez for sale in the foya” (sic), before dropping in a John Lewis iPad gag, and then bursting into a playful medley.  As momentum reached full pace the thick sea of slick-backs and throw-backs rocked and applauded. The Real John Lewis acknowledged the hall after the final song -and with a bow, exited stage-right. Live is where the rockabilly heart is!

At around 9pm Imelda May graced the stage. She looked like the femme fatal that film noir had forgot, sporting her trademark blonde curl, an Elvis printed dress and red high-heels. Her powerful voice punched the air as if celebrating liberation; between songs, snappy wit and lush Dublin tones passed sweetly through her cherry red lips. The set featured most of the tracks from the ‘Mayhem’ album, a few songs from ‘Love Tattoo’ and some rockabilly covers. ‘Kentish Town Waltz’ induced gentle sways while ‘Johnny Got A Boom Boom’ and ‘Big Bad Handsome Man’ had us stomping the Colston floorboards for all they were worth.

The ninety minutes of high octane rockabilly blues and sensual soul flew by like a bullet train. For the encore Imelda effortlessly belted out an Elvis Presley number followed by a rockabilly version of Tainted Love which was simply sublime. The biggest ovation of the night came during the band introductions when someone from the back row shouted, ‘what about Imelda May?’  You can add modesty to the growing list of May’s endearments.

To tell the truth, if anybody had asked me what I thought of Imelda May prior to the release of ‘Love Tattoo’ I would have claimed to know little about virulent strains of tree disease. I’m not generally interested 1950’s rockabilly music but May’s contemporary touch has transformed the rockabilly sound into something more modern and accessible – while retaining the roots and echoes of yesteryear’s pressed vinyl.

Over the years Imelda May has stuck firmly to her guns in terms of musical direction by refusing to bow to the expectations of record labels eager to groom, mould and market her into a different product; I respect her for doing so. The fact that this endearing Dubliner was not featured among any of the Simon Cowell’s cash-converters at the recent Brit Awards is the most telling evidence yet that the British music industry is robbing us all blind.

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THE ORB & DAVID GILMOUR – METALLIC SPHERES

Post-rave day-trippers team up with prog-rock Godfather.

David Gilmour and part-time Orb turncoat, Martin “Youth” Glover had initially joined talents to collaborate on a version of Graham Nash’s Chicago for a charity project in late 2009.  During the subsequent recording sessions and remixes at Glover’s house – in the company of The Orb’s Alex Patterson – the collaborators became increasingly immersed in the music and went on to record an entire album called Metallic Spheres.

Metallic Spears harks back to the old school concept albums of the 70’s; consisting of two ‘sides’ – the Metallic side and Spheres side. It measures in at roughly 20 minutes each side – roughly the same length as a slice of vintage vinyl.  Each side is composed of five conspicuously intertwined ‘movements’ that will no doubt throw the mp3 generation into shuffles of confusion because there are no individual tracks to download. The movements are so seamlessly melded together that the CD version plays like one long, pleasing opus – with no obvious bridges that separate movements or sides.

The Metallic Slide side of the album features lush guitar layers trickling through oceans and forest Foleys to a hypnotic groove that gradually evolves into a voyeuristic journey through time and space. The coherent drum beats fade away into the void leaving the Floydian strings of David Gilmour and playful samples of Alex Patterson to ebb and flow between Martin Glover’s haunting swells and chords – that sound remarkably similar to the late Richard Wright in places.  It is difficult not to draw comparisons between Metallic Spheres and Pink Floyd; with the latter part of the Metallic Slide falling into the ‘Echoes’ category.

The Spheres side of the album has a more tribal and purposeful timbre. Gilmour’s breathy strums gradually sink deeper into the resonant mix to be replaced by subtle layers of angelic vocals – that could have easily been plucked straight from Pink Floyd’s Live in Pompeii. In contradiction to the Metallic side, the rigid drums carry the momentum through to the end where a concluding symphonic arrangement builds to a crescendo fit for an Olympic closing ceremony – complete with double-decker busses, flying pigs, and a trippy laser show.

A big selling point of Metallic Spheres is the voice and guitar of Pink Floyd: David Gilmour. Such is his style that he only needs a single string to exude poignancy and mood. On Metallic Spheres, Gilmour’s sublime notes weave themselves soulfully in the mix; reverberating across the sound waves like whale song in a deep, blue ocean.  This is signature David Gilmour: simplicity over complexity; understated and sensational. The album does feature some of his recorded Chicago vocals, which is my only criticism:  David Gilmour can hold a note; it’s just a shame that on Metallic Spheres he doesn’t.

Metallic Spheres is arguably the warmest album that The Orb has produced this century. David Gilmour effortlessly utilizes his electric and lap steel guitars to complement the mélange of beats, chords and rich samples. Alex Patterson’s transient dubs and samples, combined with Martin Glover’s expansive chords, wraps the listener in a blanket of tried and tested ambient house that drifts across meandering cosmic landscapes, lush terrains and audible pools not too distant from Vangelis or Jean Michael Jarre.

This coalition of the ages between Gilmour, Patterson and Glover is a very pleasing and rewarding journey, but it is best suited to the genre enthusiast.  It is unlikely that anyone who tunes in to watch cheesy karaoke singers murder good songs in front of an X-Factor audience is going to be moved by Metallic Spheres.  For anybody who thinks that The Orb is the new Blackberry phone, or that Pink Floyd is a two-for-one cocktail, my advice would be to stick with the mainstream and buy the latest Scouting for Girls album. For ambient explorers and acid refugees, Metallic Spheres is a dreamer’s tangerine dream.

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MORECAMBE COMES TO THE NEW THEATRE

Bob Goulding (Eric) embarks on a reminiscent journey through the Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise legacy.

During their Christmas Special of 1977 Morecambe and Wise pulled in a record 28 million viewers – not bad for a tall man with glasses and one with short, fat hairy legs.  From the floodlights of the stage to the magical goggle-box these snappy jesters warmed the hearts of a nation with their effortless chemistry and clean humour. Megastars, with titles, wanted to appear on the Morecambe and Wise show; even John, Paul, George and ‘Bongo’ wanted in on the action – that’s how meteoric Morecambe and Wise were.

I wanted to go and see the Morecambe and Wise show but I wasn’t allowed to cross the Severn Bridge on my own after dark – not until I’d turned five, anyway. But by then it was too late. Eric Morecambe had passed away and the nation had lost its sunshine – Ernie had lost his rudder.  Even to this day I still rate Eric Morecambe as one of the greatest comedians of all time.  He was such a naturally gifted entertainer; quick witted and even quicker with an ad-lib.

Part of the fun of Morecambe and Wise was to see reputable actors, composers and singers be reduced to giggling wrecks during the plays what Ernie wrote, or bear the brunt of Eric’s irreverent jokes.  The ‘Andrew Preview’ sketch, “in the second movement, not too heavy on the banjos!” still reduces me to tears of joy – “I’m playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order”.  It was simply unheard of for leggy BBC newsreaders, Shakespearian thespians and music megastars to be made fools of in such a way.  It was also a privilege.

When I discovered that Bob Goulding was portraying my favourite funny man I was quite dubious. But upon further investigation I discovered that he was heralded by some of Eric’s closest friends and family – and if you squint long enough to get funny looks from passers by he is a dead ringer for a young Eric. Bob Goulding had been told this most of his life and envisaged his stumbling upon a pair of thick rimmed spectacles as a premonition. Golding approached his friend, Tim Whitnall, to write the definitive bioplay about one half of, “the most illustrious and the best-loved double-act that Britain has ever produced”. He did just that.

Upon arriving in the afterlife through a curtain Eric finds a sofa (so good) and a trunk which he opens to find a ventriloquist dummy of Ernie Wise – you still can’t see the join.  Helping himself to a drink – “Johnnie Walker, I know him well, makes you see double and act single” – Eric embarks on a reminiscent journey through his life.  He recalls the numerous childhood talent contests, where he and Ernie first met, the working men’s clubs and seedy provincial theatres – and the dreaded Glasgow Empire where comedians sink or swim. It is sometimes difficult to keep pace with the busy script and commendable energy coming from Goulding, but he seems content to leave the audience remain asleep for the first ten minutes – it’s not a bad audience, considering they fell off the back of a lorry.

There was no scandal in Eric Morecambe’s life – no affairs, drinking problems or quarrels, but his life was enough of a rollercoaster ride without them; from being invalided out of his National Service as a Bevin Boy due to a heart defect, to the disastrous television debut that set the partnership back years – where one reviewer defined the television as “the box they buried Morecambe and Wise in” – to the death of his beloved mother and the heart attacks he suffered in later life.

Well placed amid the rolling gags and one liners are tender moments where Eric speaks candidly of his friendship with Ernie and love for his mother. Goulding keeps the impersonation restrained and can clearly act his way out of a brown paper bag; portraying several characters with as much ease and confidence as the central role. He appears so at home with being Eric that one can’t help feeling for the figure on stage – like he had been spiritually repossessed.  There was not a dry eye in the house during the concluding scene where Eric performs one last number, tenderly kissing Ernie on the forehead before gently placing him back in the trunk – an end to over forty years of sunshine and laughter.

Morecambe is an extraordinary solo performance commemorating the 25th anniversary of his untimely death.  Bob Goulding is fantastic and grabs Tim Whitnall’s sharp script by the scruff; flawlessly willing the jokey John Eric Bartholomew into existence. With just a simple ventriloquist dummy Goulding skilfully manages to project a close companionship. Even Goulding would agree that it is not a perfect impersonation – Eric was one of a kind – and can be looked upon as more of a warm-hearted tribute.

But the shades of Morecambe that he does breathe to life are enough to induce a warm, fuzzy feeling.  Deciding to spend an evening with Morecambe turned out to be a wise choice after all.  It was a superb appreciation of the Eric Morecambe (and Ernie Wise) legacy; funny throughout and poignant in the right places – but, most importantly: “Rubbish!”

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RAMMSTEIN ROCKEN! RAMMSTEIN BRENNT! – SONISPHERE 2010

Fire, flames and foam ejaculation! Rammstein rocked! Rammstein burned!

Rammstein sure know how to make a grand entrance! A German flag covering the entire stage drops to ground revealing the band, fronted by the surly looking Till Linderman – resembling a more carnivorous and satanic looking Frank-N-Furter; wearing a red leather apron, a hair net, and a red feather scarf. The inside of his mouth is glowing with a bright white light. He looks unnerving as he opens his mouth wide.  The intense ‘Rammleid’ pummels the crowd into frenzy during which the demonic Linderman chants ‘Rammstein!’  The combination of his resonant growls and the overpowering thrashes of guitar during ‘B******’ left me stunned – as if an invasion force had cornered me inside a phone box and violated me with a hand grenade. Not being able to understand the lyrics made the songs seem even more sinister.

Even without the hair net and other apparel Till Linderman looks like a hit-man employed by Hell to take out Death for being soft. The unsettling gaze in his eyes is that of a man who is clearly at home with being unhinged; the Dark Knights’ darkest nightmare. Linderman’s intimidating bass voice sends shock-waves across the field whilst he beats his fist (the ‘Till-Hammer’) furiously onto his thigh.  In Rammstein tradition fire and flames engulfed the stage.  During ‘Feuer Frei!’ Till and his ‘axe-men of the apocalypse’ breathe flames from their mouths.  For ‘Benzine’ Linderman sets a ‘stage invader’ on fire with a flamethrower – he looks to be enjoying it too much.   More pyros and flames whip the crowd into euphoria as Rammstein powers through favourites such as ‘Links234’, ‘Sonne’ and ‘Pussy’ – where Till straddles a giant penis that ejaculates foam into the audience.

During ‘Liebe ist für alle da’ Linderman drops Flake into a steel tub, filling it with molten ash poured from an elevated platform.  Flake is resurrected wearing an all-in-one LED suit.  He plays the keyboards for the rest of the show while rhythmically marching on a treadmill.  A definite highlight of the show was during ‘Fish’ where Flake sails the crowd in an inflatable dinghy. Along the way he collects a military hat and a Union Jack.  A stowaway from the crowd jumps on board before being ejected.  During Flake’s sailing Till Linderman stands at the back of the stage with one and behind his back; stern and statuesque as if overseeing a particularly bloody invasion.

The performance was too much to take in at times with the imposing Linderman and his dark minions conjuring up a furious wall of sound while Hell, fire and flames danced around them. In an ironic twist, the Rammstein machine drove 50,000 dumbfounded Brits to chant along in their mother tongue during a weekend that was supposed to celebrate Brit legends Iron Maiden’s homecoming. This was an earth-shattering display of German engineering; surreal, unsettling, and sensational. The only time Linderman addressed the crowd was to say ‘thank you’ at the end. With his assertive tones it sounded like a threat to burn all of our eyeballs out with a soldering iron.   Rammstein rocked! Rammstein burned!  I’m still feeling the aftershock.

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SONISPHERE: A FUCKING ROCK FESTIVAL!

Sonisphere rocked Knebworth with an astounding array of acts taking place over three days.

Already an established travelling circus in Europe, Sonisphere has elevated itself to one of the premiere summer rock festivals in the UK, threatening to surpass better established venues like Download in sheer vision and scale. Not bad for a festival still in its infancy.

The Sonisphere arena consisted of two stages positioned either side of a field barricaded by food stalls that pretended to serve what was written on the tin. Among the varied clothing and camping stalls was a shisha smoking den, a tea room, a coffee and cake shop (no, not ‘that’ type of coffee and cake shop) and an oxygen bar. If nothing on the main stages sounded appealing – even after a good puff and a draw of air – there were other acts to be found hiding in the many sponsored tents that were scattered around including comedians and performance artist – I’m sure I saw flaming horses at some point.

From asexual fashion victims Placebo to Prodigy pretenders Pendulum there was something to suit every taste, and then some.   Europe fanboys basked in washed-up nostalgia, while Turisas and Apocalyptica brought a cultural flavour to the weekend.  The music came thick and fast at either end, sometimes feeling like a relay race.

Such was the astounding volume of acts and performers that it was simply impossible to have crammed them all in.  Among my notable highlights were Terrovision who reminded me of why I liked them so much in the 90’s – and had me asking myself why I had forgot them in the noughties – and 60daysofstatc, who sounded as if they were from another place and time.

I suspect Gary Newman and Alice Cooper of being the same person; dentures with differing hair pieces. Both were on good form for their collective ages. Irish metal-heads Therapy? persevered in front of a supportive crowd, enduring two power-cuts during the opening song ‘Knives’. It is an injustice that Therapy? weren’t given one of the main stages because they could have filled the Bohemia tent over ten times its capacity.

Rammstein sounded like a savage invasion, enticing fifty thousand Brits to chanting in their mother-tongue.  It was a spectacle that nearly overshadowed the mighty Iron Maiden on their homecoming. Nearly! Old skool guitar licks came thick and fast as the legendary Maiden demonstrated what a good rock show is, was, and always will be as long as they carry the baton.

It was strange to be heading home and seeing ‘normal’ people dressed in colours buzzing about the service stations.  Part of me didn’t want to re-adjust to what normality was after the euphoria of Sonisphere.   But there’s always next year.  I would definately encourage friends, rockers, and metal-heads to carve Sonisphere in their calendars for next year. I’ll definitely be seeing you there!

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TENNANT & LOWE TO A CARDIFF BEAT

The torch-bearers of sophisticated pop-art showed no signs of being boring in Cardiff.

Planted in the centre row of a sell-out Cardiff International Arena, I surveyed the room expecting the stands to be awash with mardi gras rainbow colours, and jubilant screaming queens with pointed hats. Instead, I found myself amid a diverse collective ranging from 80’s Hawaiian shirted throwbacks -- recapturing their novateur vogue days – to fashionable indie-intellectuals – here to appreciate the tongue-in-cheek passé chic.

The show opened with the giddy 80’s hit ‘Heart’. Tennant and Lowe emerged from between two walls wearing head-cubes that looked ridiculous enough to be cool. Two backing singers, also with cubes for heads, played on a fake keyboard -- an affirmation of the duo’s reluctance to feature ‘real’ musicians on stage. ‘Heart’ playfully bridged into another frothy love affair ‘Did You See Me Coming?’ after which, Neil addressed the Cardiff crowd, introducing a mish-mash of ‘Can You Forgive Her?’ and ‘Pandemonium’.

As one would expect from Tennant and Lowe, there is always room for a political reference. ‘Building A Wall’ sees a toing and froing between Chris and Neil, ‘Protection! Prevention! Detection! Detention! There’s nowhere to defect to anymore!’ The songs climax harked back to Pink Floyd’s ‘Wall’ concert with the demolition of a wall. Rather fittingly, ‘Go West’ maintained the politische fragen -- this time with a Soviet twist. Video projections featured iconography relating to the fall of Communism. The whimsical arrangement of ‘Go West’ was a noticeable highlight -- consisting of a new ‘Paninaro/Opportunities’ arrangement with Chris on electric drums.

The upbeat momentum continued with an obliging fan-boy jolt: a previously unperformed coupling of ‘Two Divided By Zero’ and ‘Why Don’t We Live Together?’ complete with dancing New York skyscrapers and a snappy Disco tease of ‘Opportunities/In the Night’ -- allowing Chris to take centre stage for a jig that received the most rapturous applause of the night. ‘I was faced with a choice at a difficult age…‘ was the tie-in to ‘New York City Boy’, conjoined with a pleasing rendition of ‘Always On My mind’.

A verse of ‘Closer To Heaven’ juxtaposed into a revised version of ‘Left To My Own Devices’. It lacked the orchestral flourish of the Introspective original but was busy enough not to need it. A laconic piano solo by Chris – and a rare smile – signalled a change in mood. Trademark Pet Shop Boys melancholy ensued with a rare treat called ‘Do I Have To?’, a bitter-sweet ballad about being involved in a love triangle.  Neil, now in a tuxedo, is accompanied by two ladies in red ball gowns dancing the Tango – head-cubes still in place.

‘King’s Cross’ reflected the feelings of despair in a world where no one listens, or cares; the end of the line where hopes and dreams are crushed – pertaining as much to today’s Con-Dem Nation as we as the icy thumb of Thatcherism. ‘The Way It Used To Be’ aroused the mournful despair felt when enduring adulterated love; a male dancer’s stirring routine effortlessly foretold the emotional turmoil. Brooding reflections continued with ‘Jealousy’, featuring a passionate pas de deux of a disintegrating relationship that climaxes into a violent dissolve. Tennant’s asexual twain resounded the worldliness of someone who understands what it feels like to languish in reflective solitude.

The tempo shifted up a gear as the dramatic drumbeats of ‘Suburbia’ lifted the crowd. ‘Suburbia’ was the song that hooked me to the Pet Shop Boys’. It tells of the rotting and decaying suburban world hidden behind plush picket fences and its chorus remains as infectious and timeless as ever. For ‘What Have I Done To Deserve This?’ Neil performed a duet with a posthumous Dusty Springfield; appearing as a backdrop on the great wall, “Tonight we remember Dusty Springfield,” he exclaims. ‘All Over The World’ is turning out to be a crowd anthem, but why the boys felt the need to squeeze in a cover of Coldplay’s ‘Viva La Vida’ among a gay disco-come-euro-pop mélange featuring ‘Sea Vida E’, ‘Discoteca’, and ‘Domino Dancing’ I’ll never know. Regardless, they stamped it as their own.

Neil Tennant’s mournful reflections layered over Chris Lowe’s power-pop beats don’t come any better than ‘It’s A Sin’. Its double meaning addresses inner conflict and guilt; be it religion, sexuality, or a troubled past. It would have been an unforgivable sin to not have performed ‘Being Boring’ during the encore. They didn’t disappoint. As the swirling chords ascended I was taken back to teenage parties, ‘in rented rooms and foreign places’ with dreams of leaving loved ones behind to go in search of fame and fortune.

The last song was the Disco version of ‘West End Girls’ remembering London amid the neon colours of Leicester Square, Soho, and the West End -- voyeuristic worlds where, ‘No one knows your name’. It was a fitting end to a celebration of the duos lasting legacy. Neil Tennant’s voice – as good as ever -- contained no notions of masculinity or femininity, but somehow managed to express euphoria and wry nihilist romanticism that was more impassioned than the most powerful of vocalists.  To me, the Pet Shop Boys are the forefathers of simplicity, elation, and melancholic despair; tackling personal issues such as alienation and escapist fantasy, self-acceptance and broken relationships, unrequited love and secret affairs. Matters of the heart  are intertwined with affairs of the mind; employing art, culture, history, literature and politics to a disco beat.

There was a youthful exuberance that came across in Tennant and Lowe tonight; these cool uncles certainly haven’t chosen to slow down or to rest on their laurels -- nor have they resorted to churning out lazy renditions of tired classics in order to please the unappeasable pop culture. The emphasis of this tour is geared more towards euphoria than cultural avant-garde. Having exhausted them on the last set of tours, the boys have omitted all songs from their previous two albums – Release and Fundamental – along with expected chart hits which cleared room for some older novelties.

For all their theatrical indulgences there is never a trace of ego, pomp, or pretence to be found in Tennant & Lowe -- in the music industry, that is an irony in its self. The Pet Shop Boys are a band with nothing left to prove. Tonight, if front of an appeased Cardiff crowd, these torch-bearers of sophisticated pop-art made a point of proving why they’ve both made such a little go a very long way.

‘Pandemonium (Live at the O2 Arena)‘ is available on Spotify

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BALLROOM STAND UP: THE ABSENCE OF COMEDY

Tonight, four comedians took to the stage and killed the art of comedy before my very eyes.  Still, you've got to see the funny side, haven't you?

I hadn’t been to a stand-up comedy show in ages –the last time was to see a guy called Eddie Izzard. The King’s Head comedy night in Crouch End, London – where I’ve drank my way towards forgetting several New Years – hosts a comedy night on a Thursday, and is still on my ‘to do’ list. On one particular Thursday I would etch an entry into my ‘not to do’ list while attending a comedy night some 170 miles and a bridge away from Crouch End at the cosy Ballroom of The Beaufort Theatre. At least it was a Thursday.

A fiver can get you a lot of satisfying things, but what it can’t buy you is two hours of your life back. Comedy night sounded like a good idea at the time. It was only a fiver for a ticket and the chosen venue was at the nearby theatre where I used to work; the theatre where I spend a year charming the work colleague that would become my girlfriend – and still is. We arrived at the ‘comedy night’ and took our seats amid a sold-out crowd of 20 Tesco shelf stackers. A few minutes into the first ‘comedy’ act, it became apparent that we had been lied to from the outset and I have given serious thought to filing for compensation under The Trades Description Act.

For two hours we were bombarded with crass and dated material from the well worn, cider stained pages of ‘Toilet Gags for Dummies’. The only thing that made me sit up and take notice during the entire two tortuous light years was when The Buzzcocks was played during the interval. Who would have believed that a Canadian could do sarcasm better than the British natives that crafted it – a yardstick of how dismal the other acts were.  He was commenting on the fact that the January snowstorms had almost led him to buy a scarf. He was by far the best of the bunch; likening Canadians to the Welsh because we always fail to get into cup finals, we are nice, and we live next door to a country we hate. His jokes, though, were buried a long time ago alongside British politics – but at least he didn’t resort to using any exhausted Thesaurus entries for genitalia in order to get cheap sympathy laughs – unlike the next guy.

The most cringe-worthy of the questionable comedians – and the only Welsh one to add insult to the festering wound – struck the evening death-blow by dropping his trousers.  This summed everything up quite aptly: his act was totally and literally pants; at least Max Boyce had a leek to show him up. Then there was the compare from Bristol. There’s a fine line between having a laugh with the audience and being an obnoxious twat; he had obviously snagged his Bristolian bollocks on that fine line. If he was actually cutting and cleaver with his words it would have been funny, but audience retorts shouldn’t get the most laughs – and at the compares’ expense. Normally, hecklers are a pain in the arse, but in this instance they provided the bulk of the entertainment – only in the Valleys could this happen.

So, what do you get if you take a Bristolian troll, your average Canadian, a Welsh odd-ball, and give them free reign with a microphone? For the love of Zeus don’t look for the punch line. Go to your local Wetherspoons and watch some of the tanked-up locals instead – you’ll piss yourself laughing!