Saturday, July 25, 2009

Music Review: Battle for the Sun, by Placebo

It's every rock/pop performer's curse: bring out one master piece, and everyone expects you to repeat that performance over and over again. Placebo's master piece was called Without You I'm Nothing and it came out in 1998, and ever since, it seems, every album was greeted either with derision or with relief that the band hasn't sunk yet.

Battle for the Sun, the trio's latest release (with new drummer Steve Forrest), doesn't sink either - and some even call it a return to form after the last albums. Personally, I think that Meds was better, but while Battle for the Sun is not as good as it could be, it is still better than most fare out there. The group's style hasn't really changed over the years, built as it is around the driving vocals and guitar of front man Brian Molko as well as Stefan Olsdal's churning bass. The sound doesn't really change on the latest album either - even if on some tracks of this album are more mainstream than alternative/punk, and have had brass instruments and strings added. But the group still knows how to rock, and that's the most important thing: the title track, the single For What It's Worth, Bright Lights and Ashtray Heart are all brilliant.

One problem I have with the album are the lyrics on a couple of tracks, such as on Come Undone. As sharp as they are on most tracks, on some they seem to have been put together with the aid of a dictionary in order to find words that rhyme; the result is a bit like silly, clumsy europop poetry.

Battle for the Sun is one of those albums that grows on you the more you hear it, and despite the straightforward seeming sound, there are enough bits and pieces to discover upon repeated hearing.

Overall, I give the album 3.5 (bordering on 4) out of 5.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Book Review: The Cities of the Fantastic series of graphic novels by François Schuiten and Benoît Peeters.

The Cities of the Fantastic (or Obscure Cities, as they are unofficially called, based on their original French name, Les Cités Obscures) graphic novels are the works of two Belgians, artists François Schuiten and writer Benoît Peeters. The series is set on a continent vaguely reminiscent of Europe, with cities called Brüsel, Genova, Pahry etc. The world is also often called "counter-Earth", and in several novels, passages between our world and "counter-Earth" are shown to exist.

The novels almost always follow explorers, cartographers or urbanists as they explore the mysteries of cities or buildings, only to be confounded by them. Illusions within illusions, manipulations of the individual for the "greater good" of a city or a regime, the effects of rapid urban and technological change on individuals, all these are recurring themes of the novels.

Schuiten being a trained architect, it is not surprising that architecture, and in particular urban architecture, plays a starring role in the books. The Great Walls of Samaris showcases a city made of shifting scenery, in Fever in Urbicand, a giant cube throws the city of Urbicand (and the life of an urbanist) into chaos. In The Tower, a man explores a city set within one seemingly endless tower. In Brüsel, the authors take up the plight of their real-life hometown, Brussels, and the destruction of its history by all-too-rampant modernisation. The Road to Amiliafeatures a zeppelin ride through much of the continent of the Oscure Cities, showcasing the extravagant architecture of a good many of them.

The stories are always highly complex, and not all their mysteries are resolved in the end. The tone is usually rather bleak, happy endings are rare. The world, and the themes, are in the tradition of Jules Verne and other 19th century science fiction novelists (if the books fit a style at all, it would be steampunk). The books' visual style uses many elements of Art Nouveau, while people's clothing ranges from the 19th century to the 1920s (although time doesn't stand still in counter-Earth: in The Invisible Frontier, which tells the story of a nascent fascist empire swallowing its neighbours, clothing and hair styles progresses to those of the 1930s/1940s).

The style of the illustrations varies: most books are told in sumptuous colours, but others use black and white drawings reminiscent of period etchings; one book, L'enfant penchée, utilises both photographs and drawings. The world is presented in amazing detail: every panel seems to ooze with incredible inventions that make the world come alive, and render the fantastic setting utterly believable. It is no wonder that the novels have spawned a cult movement that debates and dissects every invention and every theory voiced in the books.

The journey into the mysterious Cities of the Fantastic began in 1982 with the publication of The Great Wall of Samaris; the latest outing is the two part La Théorie du grain de sable, published in French in 2008 (and not yet published in English). So far, there are twelve official comics, and a series of spin-offs, such as tourist guides, newspapers and audio plays. Casterman, the French editor, has announced for 2009 a new edition of the outstanding The Archivist, a book consisting entirely of annotated one page spreads depicting various cities. A complete list of publications (in English) can be found under Les Cités Obscures on wikipedia.

I can highly recommend these graphic novels to anyone interested in steampunk, in intelligent comics and in discovering utterly believable "strange new worlds" while being thoroughly entertained.

Rating: 5 of 5.

Official website: (in French).

Monday, July 20, 2009

Movie Review: Brüno

The title of Sasha Baron Cohen's 2006 movie, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, at least indicated at a plotline carrying that movie. His latest outing, Brüno: Delicious Journeys Through America for the Purpose of Making Heterosexual Males Visibly Uncomfortable in the Presence of a Gay Foreigner in a Mesh T-Shirt, points to just what the movie is: a series of skits designed to expose the homophobia in much of American culture. Along the way he also showcases parents willing to expose their toddlers to about anything in order to get them into show business; charity PR consultants who don't know the first thing about current world affairs; and celebrities who, when asked to sit on people, are more concerned with their image than with the 'chair people' they sit on. All this is not always done in the best of taste, but it is hilariously funny. Brüno may just be the funniest comedy since, well, Borat.

The movie also leaves you admiring Cohen's courage as you see him chased by an angry mob in Jerusalem, or thrown at with metal chairs while making out with another man in a pit fighter cage.

For me there are two main items where the movie falls short (apart from the minor issue of a missing plot): Cohen doesn't know when to finish a joke - some scenes carry on well beyond their punch line and thus lose much of their momentum. The other criticism that can be levelled at the movie is that Cohen went looking for homophobia where he would predictably find it: in the army, with redneck hunters and conservative Christian preachers. Borat gained much of its social relevance by exposing racism and antisemitism in average people. This type of more subtle observation is missing in Brüno.

Ahead of the movie's opening, the media made much of the fact that in their view, Brüno's antics did more to enforce gay stereotypes than to expose homophobia. Time magazine ran an article on how negative comments on Twitter by the gay community caused the ratings to fall dramatically within two days of the movie's opening in the US. Personally, I have heard very few negative comments by the gay community, and even Germany's usually übercritical Spiegel magazine carried an article that the gay & lesbian organisations in Europe had a generally favourable view of the movie.

Granted, there were a couple of clichés the movie could have done without - such as the various sex devices and gimmicks. However, given the hyperbole dished out by Cohen, I fail to see how people could take Brüno's antics as a real representation of a gay man. And if there are some people who do, well, quite frankly, then the joke is on them.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Book Review: Extraordinary Engines, by Nick Gevers (editor)

Steampuk is a movement that has been generating more and more buzz over the last years. What started out as a literary genre had now branched out into other arts, crafts and lifestyle in general. For those not in the know: steampunk is basically Victorian science fiction by modern authors, much in the vein of 19th century authors like H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, i.e. authors of what was then called scientific romances.

Michael Moorcock is generally credited with having written the first modern steampunk with his A Nomad of the Time Streams trilogy of books. The movement gained momentum, and its name, when cyberpunk icons like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling (authors of the defining The Difference Engine) and K.W. Jeter (credited with coining the term) started turning to the 19th century.

These pioneer steampunk authors not only picked up on the gimmicks invented by their 19th century counterparts (airships, submarines, steamdriven automatons, early computers as the one thought up in real-life by Charles Babbage), but also continued the themes dear to the likes of H.G. Wells: the ever-growing chasm between the classes, the colonisation of pretty much the rest of the world by a few European superpowers, the arms race and the extreme nationalism prevalent at the time, as well as the nascent feminist movement; the underlying message generally being that science mostly serves those in power.

2008 saw the publication of two comprehensive anthologies of steampunk fiction: Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology, edited by Nick Gevers; and Steampunk, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. I will review the latter work at a later date, this article concerns therefore only Extraordinary Engines.

Nick Gevers has assembled in his collection a series of original fiction by some of the genre's most renowned authors, showcasing what the genre has evolved to over the years. The plots have branched out into adventure, swashbuckling yarns and detective fiction; the social message is not necessarily as prevalent as it one was (i.e. the punk ingredient has somewhat left steampunk). All this is reflected in the stories at hand. The most poignant one, Fixing Hanover, by Jeff VanderMeer still picks up on the themes of H.G. Wells as he shows the effects that the arms race and colonisation has on individuals involved in it and those who fall victim to it. Other works include espionage stories on submarines (Speed, Speed the Cable, by Kage Baker), a steam-driven boxing automaton who becomes a working-class hero (in the strong opening story, Steampunch, by James Lovegrove), a satirical take on early feminism (Lady Witherspoon's Solution, by James Morrow); as well as stories set in the future where steam still reigns; the latter sub-genre providing the only true steam-meets-cyberpunk story, The Lollygang Save the World on Accident by Jay Lake. Not all stories are set in Great Britain: Machine Maid by Margo Lanagan is set in Australia and a couple off stories are set in the USA.

Overall, the stories range from good to very good; not one is disappointing; and the collection certainly works as a stepping stone in exploring the steampunk in the works of the authors assembled in this anthology.

Extraordinary Engines: The Definitive Steampunk Anthology, edited by Nick Gevers, is published by Solaris.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

CD Review: UTP_ by Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto with Ensemble Modern

UTP_ is a new album by Japanese composer/musician Ryuichi Sakamoto and German electronic sound artist Alva Noto, a.k.a. Carsten Nicolai. This, their fourth collaboration, was instigated when the city of Mannheim invited the two artists to create an audio-visual performance together with the group Ensemble Modern, one of the leading chamber ensembles performing contemporary classical music.

The result is unlike any of the preceding albums by the duo: their minimalist music rests here on a resonant sound provided by Ensemble Modern's classic instruments. These instruments in turn form a counterpoint to the electronics (such as in the very strong opener attack/transition) or melt with them by adding layers of intricacy, such as on particle 1. The sound is thus richer and more organic than the previous Alva Noto/Ryuichi Sakamoto releases. Overall this is a very satisfying piece of music, not least for the intricate texture that has been constructed here and which reveals its secrets only upon repeated listening.

UTP_ is in some ways reminiscent of Ryuichi Sakamoto's latest solo album, Out of Noise, which was released earlier this year in Japan. Probably recorded after UTP_, it picks up on some of the themes of this album, most notably in the way that chamber music and electronics were mixed.

I stumbled upon UTP_ by accident on iTunes, and googling it returns remarkably few results. I wonder why the release of such a potentially major work of art was treated so low-key by both artists?

Personally, I like the album a lot and can recommend it to anyone interested in electronic and/or contemporary classical music.

UTP_ by Alva Noto + Ryuichi Sakamoto with Ensemble Modern is a Raster-Noton release.

Out of Noise by Ryuichi Sakamoto has been released in Japan by commons.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Movie Review: Terminator Salvation

Yesterday I finally got around to seeing the new Terminator movie. I've been putting it off, mostly due to the bad reviews the movie has been getting in the US and over here. So last night, I expected the worst and came out having quite enjoyed the movie. This left me musing all day why I liked the movie and the critics didn't. I didn't find an answer, but left me with enough arguments to write my own review. So here it goes.

Here's what I liked in the movie: having moved the franchise to the much vaunted Days of Reckoning, the movie does a good job of conjuring up an apocalyptic mood. Rendered in almost colourless hues, with impressive CGI backdrops of bombed out cities, and with the constant threat of machines out to grab the last humans, the mood of despair and paranoia couldn't be better visualised. The action scenes are well orchestrated, and despite what one may fear, not as drawn out as they could be (but it is an action movie nonetheless). They leave enough room for character development, story telling and of course for repeating the message underlying the first Terminator movies (i.e., men and the rise of the machines etc.).

The cast is very strong, lead by the central character of the half-human/half-machine Marcus, played to great tragic effect by Sam Worthington, with great support from Moon Bloodgood, Anton Yelchin, Helena Bonham-Carter and others. The movie, to me, felt more like an ensemble film than did the previous movies, which I thought was a good thing as it did not rely on the "lone hero" cliché.

This brings me to the negative points in the movie. I see two main ones. One is that the director and/or writers obviously felt like kids in a candy store and came up with any machine possible for the CGI guys to implement. Was there really a need for sentient motor bikes, transformers, flying saucers and even machine kraken (though I liked those)? Less would have been more, and might have helped to focus the action on the sinister, skull-headed terminator models, who got pretty much side-lined but were the most impressive of the lot.

The other weak point of the movie: a totally underwritten, bland John Connor. The character which was supposed to take centre stage stays on the side-line, mostly because the writers did not provide him with a background (unlike Marcus, who gets an origin story of sorts). There is no link back to the boy of the previous movies; there is a vague attempt at continuity provided by the voice of Linda Hamilton on tape, but this doesn't really do the job of filling in the holes. There are some good ideas (the prophet who isn't believed, the good soldier who learns to disobey), but overall the John Connor storyline feels rushed and incomplete.

The pregnant wife that the writers plant at his side is treated even worse: she's there, she's pregnant, she utters a few lines - but we do not know where she comes from, how they met etc. etc. . The movie's makers could have created a more credible story line by developing a boy-meets-girl around John Connor, in parallel to the budding Marcus-Blair romance. This would have gone a long way of making the character more approachable.

So, in the end, the movie is carried by Sam Worthington, and while this makes the movie less than perfect, it doesn't make it anywhere near awful. The film delivers intelligent entertainment, and if the writers learn from their mistakes and concentrate more on developing John Connor, then the planned next two instalments should really work.

If this was a starred review, I'd give Terminator Salvation 4 out of 5.