FILM REVIEW: Eraserhead (Lynch, 1977)

Pipes, holes, void, semen, pus, heat, shadow, mud, erasers. These are just a few of the ingredients fermenting inside David Lynch’s brilliant and disgusting surrealist masterpiece Eraserhead. Where to start with a review for this film? A technical breakdown of its qualities and flaws doesn’t really seem appropriate SO instead let’s go on a brief and bloody journey through some of the things that make this movie so intriguing.

Contrasts…Eraserhead is full of beautiful hazy soft focus and lighting but its images are harsh and industrial. It demands repeated viewings to be fully understood but actively repulses the viewer away from watching it.

Broken bodies…perpetual disgust at the oozing squishy and soft nature of everything INSIDE like all the doors opening and closing and all the pipes and orifices that we enter through and emerge out of with the camera. I wonder if Lynch is trying to make a point about how technology distances us from our bodies?

Daring imagery…all the Lynchian themes are here even at this early stage: sex, fear, dreams. The neighbours face emerging from darkness. Jack Nance silhouetted against a cloud of dust or maybe stars. The lady in the radiator singing adorably while limpid foetuses rain down on her head. All sublime.

Religious tones…the mother is Mary, the baby (if we can call it that) is wrapped up in blankets like some kind of twisted nativity…the dog puppies suckling their mother at Mary’s parents house…

Classic surrealism…the influence of someone like Bunuel is very evident here, before the Lynch style developed and absorbed swathes of genre like noir and crime and mystery. And I get shades of Samuel Beckett, particularly Endgame, from the minimal and claustrophobic atmosphere, too…

Eraserhead is Lynch in his foetal state: everything that has made his movies so wonderful and twisted and unique over the last forty years is clearly on show in this debut, as fresh and sticky as a newly born baby. Second only to Mulholland Drive in concept and ambition, I think this is Lynch’s most poetic and most ambiguous film, and one that deserves to be endlessly dissected. I’m equal parts excited and terrified to return to it.

9.7/10

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FILM REVIEW: Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Kubrick, 1964)

The blackest of black comedies conducted with the straightest of faces, Dr Strangelove is a bizarre and surreal movie very much unlike anything else I’ve seen from Kubrick. There are the same meticulously crafted shots and the same visual attention to detail, but nowhere else was he as viciously funny as he was here.

Sharp as a knife point in its satire of the testosterone-fuelled political war machine, Dr Strangelove takes the bleakest imaginable subject matter and spins from it an elaborate web of absurdist idiocy. There are countless moments of comedy gold here, from the overly polite telephone conversations between the President and the drunk Russian ambassador to the bumbling misunderstandings of RAF commander Peter Mandrake.

This film is proof that comedy can be as sharply critical as any multi-hour tear jerker (Schindler’s List et al), and can make that criticism deliciously fun at the same time. Peter Sellers’ performance as the completely ineffectual president of the United States (alongside his dubious and only half-heard communication with the Russians) also strikes an increasingly relevant note in the era of Trump.

8.8/10

5 Timeless Albums That Turn 50 This Year

The year 1968 was an incredible one for music. A year on from the summer of love and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, many of the best artists from the psychedelic ‘60s were taking their music to new and fascinating places as the hippy movement reached its peak. In this article, we’re taking a look at five albums that are celebrating their 50th birthday in 2018, and why these records have stood the test of time.

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1.) The Jimi Hendrix Experience – Electric Ladyland

The 1960s was a decade that spoke the language of the guitar, and nobody was more fluent than the legendary Jimi Hendrix. Electric Ladyland is the finest hour in his all-too-short discography, which was brought to an end when he overdosed on barbiturates and died at the age of 27. This album features countless all-time classics like ‘Crosstown Traffic’ (two of the most perfect minutes of rock music ever recorded), ‘Gypsy Eyes’ and ‘All Along the Watchtower’. Then there’s the absolutely epic ‘Voodoo Chile’, in which we can hear Hendrix writing himself into rock music mythology right before our very ears: ‘Oh the night I was born, lord I swear the moon turned a fire red…” Electric Ladyland oozes virtuosity, confidence and raw sexuality from its every note, even fifty years on.

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2.) The Velvet Underground – White Light / White Heat

No artist from the 60s was as influential as The Velvet Underground. This is a band that were relatively unknown when they debuted in 1967, but in the presiding 50 years their experimental and noisy songs have been a blueprint for generations of forward-thinking rock musicians. White Light/White Heat is their weirdest and darkest album as well as my personal favourite – it features scuzzy, lo-fi rock songs about heroin, orgies, and a lobotomy, as well as ‘The Gift’, in which an entire short story is read aloud to music. And to top it all off is the infamous ‘Sister Ray’, a controversial, 17-minute noise rock freak-out that is pure, uncensored chaos. The Velvet Underground were always torn between the musical interests of their two primary songwriters: the experimental John Cale and classic popsmith Lou Reed. But on White Light/White Heat, they found the perfect balance of beauty and filth, and created an experimental rock album for the ages.

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3.) The Beatles –   The White Album

The Beatles wrote and recorded much of their classic White Album – officially titled just The Beatles – while travelling in northern India. The group flew in to Rishikesh to visit Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a guru who taught them the practice of transcendental meditation. It was a trip intended to creatively recharge the group and bring them closer together, after they had burned out on touring and the music industry in 1966 and ’67. And though it did prove a fruitful period creatively, it also highlighted the growing division between the bands four members: McCartney, Lennon and Harrison wrote many of their songs separately, and the results were then compiled into one huge double album, thirty songs long. It’s for this reason that The White Album, as brilliant as it is, often feels quite uneven – there are timeless classics like ‘Dear Prudence’, ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and ‘Helter Skelter’, but there are also throwaway tunes like ‘Rocky Racoon’ and ‘Piggies’ that mostly serve as filler. In the end, you have to take the good with the bad and appreciate the whole for the brilliant, indulgent mess that it is.

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4.) Van Morrison – Astral Weeks

Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks is one of the most gorgeous albums ever recorded, but it’s a bit of a difficult record to pin down. Stylistically it is somewhere in between folk, jazz and soul, but its winding songs have an elusive, dreamlike quality. They feature strummed guitar, bass, violin, flute and many other instruments, all combining in semi-improvised harmony. Van Morrison’s wild scat singing style binds it all together, as his voice latches onto words and notes and spins them in dizzying patterns. His lyrics are poetic and difficult to make sense of, but always beautiful: “From the far side of the ocean / If I put the wheels in motion / And I stand with my arms behind me / And I’m pushin’ on the door…” Astral Weeks is the definition of a cult classic, and its stature has only grown over the course of the last 50 years. Today, it rightly takes its place among the greatest folk albums ever recorded.

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5.) The Mothers of Invention – We’re Only In It For the Money

Many bands and listeners were swept up by the idealistic views of the 1960s, but Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were not among them. We’re Only In It For the Money is an album that tears down the hippy subculture, and its naïve belief that love, drugs and tie-dye t-shirts could change the world. The cover of the album is a parody of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper, featuring the band members posing in frilly tutus. And the songs, likewise, miss no opportunity to skewer the long-haired stoners flocking to San Francisco and Woodstock: on ‘Who Needs the Peace Corps?’, Zappa sings “Every town must have a place where phony hippies meet / Psychedelic dungeons popping up on every street.” We’re Only In It For the Money is a surreal, satirical concept album that feels very much of the 1960s, but its quirky sense of humour and playful songwriting have allowed it to stand the test of time.

ALBUM REVIEW: Milo – Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!?! (2017)

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This right here is something special. Underground rapper Milo has been training in the hip-hop dojo for several years now, tempering his unique brand of comic-philosophic rap music. But Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!, his fifth album, finds him ascending to a new power level entirely.

Milo has always been an abstract and very poetic lyricist, but on some of his earlier material, particularly A Toothpaste Suburb, he sounded like he was trying too hard to impress. This is a man who would regularly namedrop philosophers and obscure authors like Schopenhauer or David Foster Wallace, and for every line that came across as inspired, another felt obtuse and (dare I say it) somewhat pretentious.

On Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!?!, Milo earns every allusion as he rises to the stature of mystical prophet MC, spinning mind-bending wordplay around beautiful, spacey production that brims with confidence. This is the tightest, densest, most poetic batch of lyrics I’ve heard from any rapper in years, with line after classic line that has me reaching for the rewind button.

Musically, Who Told You to Think??!?!?!?! is an atmospheric blend of jazz rap and cloud rap, with some sprinklings of boom-bap and Shabazz Palaces futurism. Each track (many of which were self-produced) reverberates with gorgeous keys, crispy drum hits and melancholy bass, always leaving plenty of space for Milo’s vocals which are placed front and centre in the mix.

This lends the album a strong sense of space and clarity, inviting the listener to pull some of Milo’s cryptic lyrics apart. Try these: ‘Autodictate my didact and map it to black noise / Say the target audience is mothers of blond-headed black boys’, ‘Seen his hands fasten round the hilt of that rusted ruby scimitar / Speaking time-tested codas / Who them other rhythm wizards are?’

Milo’s words have a newfound sense of purpose here, which grounds much of the esoteric imagery contained within them. This is particularly the case on touching personal tunes like ‘Note to Mrs’ or ‘Take Advantage of the Naysayer’, where he raps about his wife and father respectively. Elsewhere, he’s content to spit dizzying metaphysical boast raps: ‘The most understated mage / Flow monotone, how you sublimate the rage?’

It’s this confidence that really sets Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!?! apart from Milo’s earlier work. His performances throughout the record are so sharp that whenever a guest MC appears, I find myself waiting in anticipation for Milo’s next verse. Said guests still manage to hold their own, however, particularly Elucid and the enigmatic Self Jupiter.

The only complaint I have for this record is simply that I want more of it. 42 minutes isn’t short by most standards, but when what’s on show is so fearlessly creative, it seems to fly by every time I put it on. I’ll happily devour any EPs and leftover tracks Milo has cooked up from this record, and am eagerly awaiting his next project.

Who Told You to Think??!!?!?!?! is the kind of album that I follow music so closely for. The kind of record that finds a promising artist emerging with a unique and engaging voice, fulfilling their potential in the process of creating something truly new. It’s my favourite album of 2017 so far, and probably my favourite hip-hop album since To Pimp a Butterfly. Yes, it’s really that good. I hope everyone who reads this gives it a listen.

9.4/10

FILM REVIEW: Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957)

A mesmerising expose of war’s unseen atrocities.

Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory is a searing and utterly relentless look at the intricacies of justice and power. Beneath its surface level of delicate and highly crafted conversations there bubbles a furious political anger of a kind we don’t often see in Kubrick.

Full Metal Jacket and Dr Strangelove are political movies, of course, but the former is a much more personal portrait of the horrors of war, while the latter mounts its attack with acidic satire. Paths of Glory, on the other hand, is an ambitious, top-down look at how persuasion and manipulation are the real weapons of power, not rifles.

In this respect it proves infinitely more horrifying than watching hordes of soldiers being torn to shreds by gunfire. The cold, detached manner in which human lives are weighed as percentage casualties, the General placing greater import on earning medals than the lives of his men…this is the bureaucracy of mass murder, and it is terrifyingly real.

There is an almost Kafkaesque quality in the way Paths of Glory portrays its characters as fruitlessly combating systems of power and law. The trial scene in particular is chilling to watch: a brutal cocktail of fear, misdirection and complete chance culminating in three men’s fate being awfully sealed.

Some war movies appeal to our sense of pathos by showing us the bloody reality of the front line and the trenches. They’re well within their right to do so: these are things which have to be seen to be fully comprehended for those who weren’t there.

But Paths of Glory is perhaps more horrifying than any of these movies in the way it reveals the unseen atrocities of war. It resists sentiment until its very last scene, in which one single moment of devastating emotional catharsis brings the movie to a rapturous and ambiguous end. I had to pick my jaw off the floor.

To me, this is Kubrick’s best film outside of 2001. It is not quite as visually daring and composed as many of his lauded classics, but Paths of Glory is sharp, nuanced, and economical, never putting a single foot out of line.

9.3/10

FILM REVIEW: After Hours (Martin Scorsese, 1985)

Good morning, Paul.

Scorsese proves himself a master puppeteer of the unconscious with After Hours, his batshit insane, hilarious and genuinely horrifying descent into a dream/nightmare New York, filtered through the eyes of word processor Paul Hackett, who is having a really, really bad night.

What begins as an offbeat comedy quickly devolves into madness. Logicless, liminal moments of horror and hilarity rub up uncomfortably close together: Marcy recounts being raped, and then tells Paul about her ex-boyfriend’s Wizard of Oz obession. A phallic zoom+pan into a telephone as the prospect of sex appears hints at the movies impending dive into the psychological deep end.

But that’s just the beginning. Like many bad dreams, what starts off as a mundane and jumbled assortment of half-coherent moments becomes an avalanch of fear and insecurity. Suddenly, Paul finds himself on a delightfully inescapable dream-quest to do one simple thing: return home.

What is really intriguing to me about After Hours is just how carefully thought out all of the psychological elements are. It feels like there could be a whole second movie made to tell the story of guilt, repression, fantasy, abandonment and ice cream trucks which bubbles below the surface of After Hours.

And the real-life, working mechanics of dreams are captured so perfectly, too. After a scene in which Paul experiences a strong feeling of guilt, there’s a brilliant moment in which he tries to jump the barrier of the subway and gets caught by the guard. It perfectly illustrates the banal and anxious way that feelings like guilt really operate on the subconscious.

Scorsese and editor Thelma Schoonmaker go to great lengths to recreate that feeling in the film’s visuals, too. The roaming camera and subtly disjointed editing create an uncomfortable feeling of instability. And quick-cut moments like a pair of keys suddenly dropping to Paul out a window are jarring, maintaining an atmosphere of constant tension even during moments of levity.

It all comes to a rapturous, screwball climax in the film’s unpredictable last half an hour, leaving you rubbing your eyes in disbelief as the credits roll: did that really just fucking happen?

Much like The King of Comedy before it, I think After Hours is criminally underrated in Scorsese’s filmography. This is an ambitious yet hilarious psychological drama that has none of the codified twists and turns we associate with the genre (thats you, Shutter Island). Instead, After Hours is another unique and unforgettable film from one of cinema’s greatest living directors.

9.6/10

CLASSIC REVIEW: Pixies – Doolittle

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From 1988 to 1991, the Pixies put out four albums, at a rate of one a year. Then they broke up. In terms of sheer density of quality, their output is staggering: each of these albums has been called a classic, and each one pursues a different, singular take on the band’s sound. Their crowning achievement is Doolittle, their second album, which took the modus operandi of their debut and applied it to material even darker, stranger, and more mysterious. Conceptually, the Pixies arrived fully formed – their disjointed, dynamic, surrealist take on garage rock was fully evident on Surfer Rosa – but it was only on Doolittle that their execution comprehensively matched their ambition. Here, their dynamism was given room to breathe with greater recording fidelity, and their penchant for surrealist lyrics took on a new cohesive significance.

Doolittle is an album about communication; between animal and human, man and woman, artist and listener. To get there, it surveys surrealist cinema, roman mythology, and the Flintstones. In Spanish. If it’s range of cultural reference can be baffling, that might just be the point, because the Pixies are a band who thrive on contradiction and tension. Some of their greatest, most accessible pop songs have been followed on albums by short blasts of punk aggression, and the songs  themselves are delicate high-wire acts constantly teetering between harsh and soft, loud and quiet. At any moment, they feel like they could spill from one to the other. Take, for example, ‘Dead’, which opens with pounding drums and lurching guitar feedback while frontman Frank Black sings stuff like “you get torn down, I get erected”. Then, for exactly 12 seconds, it sparkles into a bouncy, major-chord chorus before being swallowed up by guitar noise. ‘There Goes My Gun’ pulls the same trick but inverted, stretching out that bouncy, major-chord chorus into the whole song and cutting short moments of dissonance into it. These songs, each only a couple of minutes long, demonstrate the ease with which the Pixies swallowed up and spat out, disfigured, the remnants of traditional rock music song structure.

This irreverence for tradition manifests itself also in the albums most pop-leaning moments. Songs like ‘Here Comes Your Man’ and ‘La La Love You’ are played with a knowing irony and tongue firmly in cheek, but they turn hipster bait into something entirely more interesting by being, at the same time, bloody great pop songs. ‘Here Come Your Man’ has the kind of perfect plinky-plonky cheese that makes for classic karaoke, while the latter song features guitarist Joey Santiago, voice dripping with sarcasm, doing his best crooning Morrissey impression and founting about love, sex, and his ‘pretty baby’. At the start of the song, he unassumingly instructs you to ‘shake your butt’. He’s joking, but you want to do it anyway.

Elsewhere, Doolittle proves considerably darker. Opener ‘Debaser’ is a song about Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel’s surrealist film Un Chien Andalou, a disjointed assault on the eyes that remains just as shocking today as it was in 1929. The film’s most famous shot was also its mission statement, in which a woman stared blankly into the camera while her eye was sliced open with a razor blade. Black, in the songs chorus, shouts that he’s “slicin’ up eyeballs”, but what he’s really slicing up is eardrums, because the song, and the album as a whole, can be considered as the musical inheritor of everything Un Chien Andalou stood for. It’s the point where twisted romance meets lyrical surrealism, where animal desire meets human intellect, transforming the language of rock music into a kind of primal communication which proves most affecting when it transcends lyrics entirely. Take, for example, the moment in ‘Debaser’ when Black breaks down into maniacal laughter just as the bridge brings the song to a moment of  brief calm. It’s perhaps the most spine-tingling moment on an album full of spine-tingling moments.

Another highlight is ‘Hey’, which bends its western-tinged riffing around a wonderfully wormy baseline to compellingly sleazy effect. The song touches on the albums theme of communication (or lack thereof) through the lens of a man and a woman, attempting to flirt, but conveying their emotions with all the subtlety of two gorillas shouting at each other: “‘UHHH’ said the man to the lady. ‘UHH UHH’ said the lady to the man”. It’s a moment that manages to be funny, slightly disturbing, and intensely serious at the same time: in this respect, it couldn’t better represent Doolittle as a whole. It’s also an example of the effortless chemistry between each band member, how they complement each other’s strengths without any one instrument taking the spotlight.

The Pixies created something unique with Doolittle. They were smart, funny, primal, angry, and silly all at once, and in this mess of contradictions there was something new, something rock music had never seen before. It’s no surprise then, that swathes of bands followed in their wake. Kurt Cobain famously described “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as his attempt to ‘rip off the pixies’, but their influence has trickled down into all kinds of places. You can hear it in Deerhunter’s anxious punk melody, the Dismemberment Plan’s scattershot neuroses, the Flaming Lips’ psychedelic surrealism, and countless other places. It was the lightning in a bottle that drew a line under everything that had come before, and then bounded forwards into new, unexplored territory. With the Pixies now back together and working on new material, it remains to be seen whether lightning can strike twice. But whether or not it does, Doolittle remains, as wild and untamed as ever, and ready to slice up our eardrums all over again.

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