Monday, 25 September 2017

REV: Melody Makers documentary

"Melody Makers" is a new documentary film about the magazine Melody Maker, based around the pictures of their chief contributing photographer, Barrie Wentzell. The film was directed by Canadian Leslie Ann Coles, her first full length film in that role.

 After showing in North American US film festivals, "Melody Makers" received its UK première on 24 September as part of the Raindance Film Festival. Coles and several of the interviewees were in attendance for a Q&A session after the film.

After briefly introducing the magazine's beginnings as a trade publication in 1926 for jazz musicians, the film focuses on the period from the mid-sixties to the end of the seventies, more or less when Wentzell worked there and the magazine's glory days, when sales were high, musicians dreamt of being on the front page and the journalists could drive opinions. But the film is also the story of the music of that period, the two being intertwined, from how they championed The Who early on, to Pete Townshend being given his own column because he kept writing in to the letters page so much, to David Bowie having to lend two Melody Maker journalists the money to get back home after a trip to Paris that they had taken to (successfully) catch him away from his management.

Melody Maker were supportive of prog, and many prog artists are among the interviewees, particularly Ian Anderson, but also Sonja Kristina, Alan White, Steve Howe, Chris Squire, Steve Nardelli, and Roger Dean. (The credits at the end thanked Jon Anderson, Benoit David, and Oliver Wakeman, but they don't appear.) Some of the anecdotes will be familiar: Nardelli tells his usual Hendrix story, White his usual Lennon story. Others were novel: Squire talks of the magazine's support for Yes, while Howe talked about being so often on the cover and the difficultly finding interesting clothers to wear for this! Many of Wentzell's photos are of prog musicians, with some nice Yes photos from 1969 and 1972, King Crimson in 1972 and several of Ian Anderson and Peter Gabriel. The soundtrack relates to the music of the day, with a bit of "Close to the Edge" and some Ian Anderson in the mix. The film was several years in development, with many interviews done 6-8 years ago, thus Squire's inclusion.

Alan often tells the story of John Lennon ringing him up to ask him to play the Live Peace in Toronto show and Alan just presuming it's a friend trying to prank him. The bit I hadn't heard before was how Alan's then band were annoyed because they had a gig booked the same night and needed the money, so they tried to persuade him that going off to play with John Lennon would be a bad career move. He disagreed!

While some of the history of the music will be very familiar to the hardcore fan, Coles' decision partway through filming to focus more on the magazine is welcome as this brings fresher perspectives. I believe the project began with Coles meeting Wentzell and it is sort of his story, told by him in interview and well as through his photography. He and Chris Welch, one of the main journalists at the time and known for his writing since (including perhaps the most successful Yes biography), often worked as a duo and we got lots of Welch interviewed as well. Another key Melody Maker figure, Chris Charlesworth, is probably the third most often on screen.

The story of the magazine is, in some ways, of a more innocent age at first, musicians coming to the offices to be interviewed, alone, not accompanied by PR; of journalists respecting musicians' confidences and not reporting on their bad behaviour on tour; of the staff promoting the music they liked, and seeing it as a joint enterprise with the artists to promote good music. Musicians avidly read the magazine themselves and saw themselves through its lens when they got famous. Perhaps press and bands were too in cahoots at times. Headlines were sometimes concocted for publicity. Ian Anderson tells of his horror at seeing a headling that Jethro Tull had splitt up, invented by his manager.

But as the years pass, we hear more tales of excess and money flowing, then egos and drugs getting in the way. The film has something of a maudlin end: it follows a generation of Melody Maker staff who left around the turn of the '80s and they are scathing of the magazine's subsequent direction. The story ends with much lamenting of today's music scene, before a coda about Wentzell's own experience moving to Canada and getting re-involved in music.

Throughout the film, the visuals are mostly of Wentzell's photos. These are lovely to see, although sometimes just there, unconnected to the narrative, shoved into montages. Stand outs include a lovely photo of Roger Waters with his three cats, a photo of a haunted Syd Barrett as he descended into paranoia, a very pretty photo of Yoko Ono, some relaxed photos of Bowie in Paris... there are many. We also get spreads from the magazine, although often moving too quickly to read more than a headline. The best of which is surely: "Robert Fripp... Super Stud?"

 As is the fashion with modern documentaries, there is no narration. I asked about this in the Q&A, and Coles replied that a producer early on had suggested it, but she felt the photos and the interviewees told the story eloquently themselves and she made that choice early on. I don't entirely agree. If I have a criticism of the film, it is that the flow of the story is sometimes lost. There is a tendency in places to go off into lightweight rock anecdote when I wanted to hear more about the publishing world. There was also the occasionally annoying decision made to interleave two unrelated anecdotes, cutting between the interviewees telling these separate stories, which added to neither.

The Q&A after the film included Coles, Wentzell, Kristina and others. Steve Howe had been advertised, but his absence was hardly surprising given the recent and unexpected death of his son, Virgil Howe. Again, there was more lamenting about things today, although Kristina gave a spirited defence of the value of the Internet for promoting music.

In all, an enjoyable film, worth seeing, with great photos, telling an interesting story of music journalism through the period, with some touching moments (like Wentzell's clear affection for Hendrix), if in a few places a more rambling narrative than I prefer.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

REV: Firefly Burning, 17 Sep 2017, London

Firefly Burning
supported by Counter's Creek
The Slaughtered Lamb, London
17 Sep 2017

I think I like The Times' description of Firefly Burning best: "ideal for anybody who wishes Kate Bush were a bit more arty or Steve Reich were a lot more folky". The band have been around for some years now, part art-folk, part avant-pop, reviewed by prog and folk magazines alike. They were playing a pair of dates previewing new material.

First up were Counter's Creek, an instrumental folk trio from Walthamstow on fiddle, pipes and guitar. Not my usual kind of music, all jigs and reels, but good stuff.

Then Firefly Burning. The band are Bea Hankey (voice), Jack Ross (guitars, drum), James Redwood (violin, mandolin), John Barber (synths, gamelan, piano) and Sam Glazer (cello), and all those people and instruments barely fitted on the small Slaughtered Lamb stage. The venue seemed full, so just getting into a three figure audience, I would guess. The band opened with "Beloved" from their second album, Skeleton Hill, and partway through they played "I am a Bomb" from the same album, both having become signature pieces for the group.

But the rest of the set was around seven new pieces from their planned third album, which they'll be recording in October at Aldeburgh Music in Suffolk. I think one was familiar from a late 2016 show, but I had not heard the rest and I'm not certain what details I can remember! Hankey said they have written more lyrics themselves for the third album, exposing themselves more, with songs of loss, hope and love. Their first new piece was "Follow", a similar piece to "Beloved", and partly inspired by the feeling of walking over tactile pavements(!).

A song about a kitsch greeting card was next and showed the fun side of the band. There was a spacey song about the stars, inspired by Hankey's love of dystopian SF, one of my favourites of the new material. Other new pieces included "Lost" and a piece entitled "Call to Me" that interpolated Thomas Hardy's poem "The Voice" with additional lyrics from Hankey. Hankey did all the talking from the stage in between songs and was charming in her explanations of the new material. After sustained applause, they came back to encore with a cover of Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees".

The new material offers the Firefly Burning recipe of Hankey's dramatic and enveloping vocals, harmony vocals by the band, some driving melodies, and unusual rhythmic parts, all within a minimalist/avant-folk atmosphere. The band are great live; I recommend both previous albums and look forward to the third one.

Monday, 11 September 2017

REV: The Reflection Wave One—Original Soundtrack, by Trevor Horn

For someone who has been so successful and working in the industry for so many years, it is perhaps odd that Trevor Horn has never released a solo album before. As he says in one of the video interviews for the special edition of The Reflection Wave One—Original Soundtrack, he wouldn't pick himself as someone to produce. Yet here we are, Trevor Horn's first solo album... of sorts. Following on from Producers/The Trevor Horn Band, Horn steps out from behind the recording desk, although a soundtrack album still keeps him one step removed from your usual solo debut.

What then has coaxed Horn out of his shell? The surprising answer is a Japanese anime series entitled The Reflection, co-created by famed comics writer Stan Lee (co-creator of Spider-Man, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, the X-Men, Thor etc. etc.) and director Hiroshi Nagahama (directed Mushishi, The Flowers of Evil, Detroit Metal City). An initial season of 12 episodes premiered 22 July 2017 on NHK. The show has had middling reviews. I'm enjoying it (subtitled), but I wouldn't make any grand claims for it. The story entails a cataclysmic event some years previously, the Reflection of the title, that has left select individuals as superheroes or supervillains. We follow the protagonists along as they team up to fight the bad guys. The anime itself has a blocky visual style, a reference, I take it, to old comic books. And, indeed, the whole story is a paean to a style of comic storytelling that Lee pioneered. There are, perhaps, only so many superpowers to dream up, so some of the characters are familiar: a key villain is a female Magneto, for example. Others, like Lisa Livingstone, are more imaginative. We're still partway through the series, so no comment yet on how it all fits together.

Within all this is Horn's music, but the music is also part of the fiction. The lead single, “Sky Show”, exists within the story as a 1980s one-hit wonder by a character called Ian Izette, who has now donned a super-suit to fight crime. Trevor Horn 'appears' in episode 4 (voiced by someone else, in Japanese) as the producer of "Sky Show". (On the soundtrack album, "Loneliness and Solitude" begins by replicating this scene in English, with Horn doing his own voice, and his daughter doing her voice.) Another four characters in the show are meant to map on 9nine, the Japanese girl group who sing the end title song.

Along with the anime and a forthcoming DVD release, we have The Reflection Wave One—Original Soundtrack (U/M/A/A Inc.). This is available in a regular form on CD in Japan, released 16 August, but only digitally in the US and UK (it's available on iTunes, but not Amazon). The US and UK also get a digital single of "Sky Show" with three additional songs, which are also available on a limited edition expanded CD release in Japan, that also comes with a bonus DVD with various interviews and 5.1 mixes. Thus, you can get all the music on the expanded Japanese CD in the US and UK by getting the album plus single.

 Let's start with the two songs. "Sky Show", befitting its role in the fiction, is kind of like a less dystopian The Buggles. It has that '80s Horn production sound, distinctly Trevor Horn, with a pulsing rhythm and soaring vocals. But, more so, it wouldn't sound out of place on Producers' Made in Basing Street, a companion piece to Freeway, with maybe a few '80s-isms thrown in. (And the extended version would fit on the extended edition of Made in Basing Street, with added instrumental arrangements/solos.) The similarity to Producers is not too surprising with the return of Chris Braide as a co-writer and on backing vocals. (Indeed, there's a version with Braide on vocals on YouTube.) The song was inspired by the great sunsets, a literal sky show, visible from one of Horn's SARM studios.

The third version of the song on the expanded Japanese CD, or a b-side on the US/UK single, is "unplugged" and, I think, is the same version used within the fiction as the supposed original demo of the song.

 The other song, my favourite piece on the album, is "Future Boyfriends", a more modern style, perhaps representative of the 2017 Trevor Horn Band rather than the earlier Producers. It's a co-write with Simon Bloor and Cameron Gower Poole, two mainstays of the recent band. It's a classic of the Japanese anime end credits theme genre. Up there with "Lithium Flower" from Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. The lyrics are cute and reference the show. It's a good melody, a clever arrangement: a great pop tune. Great vocals by Paget Shand, a little known US singer-songwriter who has her own band as WŸNN.

 "Future Boyfriends" is only the English-language version of the song. The Japanese version that is used in the show is called "SunSunSunrise" and is sung by a Japanese idol group currently consisting of Uki Satake, Sayaka Nishiwaki, Kanae Yoshii, and Hirona Murata. Signed to Sony, they've had a number of top ten singles in Japan and recently sampled Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax" (produced by Horn) for their single "Why don't you RELAX?". 9nine recorded their vocals in Japan, without Horn's involvement.

The Horn soundtrack album just gets you the 89 second version of "SunSunSunrise", as used on the show. For the full song in Japanese, you need 9nine's single release, which comes in multiple variants, although if you've heard the full English version "Future Boyfriends" and the short Japanese edit, then there is not much new on the full Japanese version. Both language versions use an identical backing track. The long version gets you a club break and instrumental section, including keyboard solo.

Although in places the Japanese version is described as a translation of the English, it isn't. There's no relationship between Horn's English lyrics and Kohei Tsunami's Japanese lyrics. This is slightly confusing because Horn's lyrics refer to the series in several ways, whereas the Japanese lyrics don't. Was there a plan to translate Horn's lyrics or just to use English lyrics (as anime sometimes does)? Did 9nine want a single that wasn't so obviously tied to a show? The bigger question is whether we'll see an English-language version of The Reflection and, if so, which version they'll use.

If you get 9nine's single, you get – at least in some versions – two b-sides, "ゆるとぴあ" ["Yurutopia"] and "ケセラセラヴ" ["Que sera, se love"], the latter with music by Kohei Tsunami, the "SunSunSunshine" lyricist. The b-sides are very J-poppy. "ゆるとぴあ" is almost chiptune, with staccato rhyming. "ケセラセラヴ" has a gloriously odd mix of English and Japanese words. My Japanese isn't good enough to fully appreciate either.

To return the soundtrack album, that makes two good Trevor Horn songs, recommended for fans of his work. There's a whole album here though. The score is a score, which means short instrumental cues. Score music is not to everyone's tastes: just get the single if you want the songs.

The track labelled "Main Theme" is the music to the opening credits, kind of a mini-overture for the whole score. This is big, superhero action music, with a scary undertone. In one interview, Horn explains how the good guys get more orchestral cues (mostly written with regular collaborator Julian Hinton) while the bad guys get electronic cues (mostly written with another regular collaborator Jamie Muhoberac), which he thinks might be better. I concur: there's more interest in the electronic cues, like the foreboding "Hear Them Come" (or the more percussive arrangement, "Here Them Come (Again)") or the evil prance of "Reflected". The heroic cues seen more familiar: big, rousing pieces. "From on High", "From Battle to Flight" or "Greater Expectations", for example, could have come from half a dozen other film composers or projects. Which is fine: they serve their purpose in the show.

The pieces were written to clear mood descriptions, which Horn describes in one of the interviews as being very useful. For example, "In a Work of Unreason" is made to be background music. Nice to have, but I'm not rushing to listen to again. Other pieces have a bit more character, like "Loneliness and Solitude" or "The Transition". "I am Alone with Sadness" evokes Jean-Michel Jarre. "Left in a Bleak and Desolate Land" (co-written with Lol Crème) could be on a James Bond score. Some pieces remind me of the Art of Noise, like "In Chaos and Confusion" and "Peace in Blue". "My Daily Life" perhaps get closest to a song structure: you could imagine this with vocals as a Buggles song.

 TL;DR: There are two classic Trevor Horn pop songs here and the cheapest way to get them in the West is the digital single "Sky Show". Hardcore fans will want the whole album.