Friday, April 04, 2014

A Perfect Circle - Mer De Noms - 2000

It's been one of those days, so this won't be too long a post. I want to wrap up the week with A Perfect Circle's first album, "Mer De Noms," from 2000. It's a vicious, moody blend of art-goth rock and heavy metal. It's like The Cure, The Smashing Pumpkins and The Sisters of Mercy were all stuck into a blender.

So, Billy Howerdel, the main musician behind A Perfect Circle, was a guitar tech for The Smashing Pumpkins for a while, as well as Tool, Nine Inch Nails, Fishbone, Guns'n'Roses and others. It was on those gigs that he made friends with Maynard James Keenan, Tool's vocalist. When Howerdel was crashing at Keenan's house, he played some of his demos for him, and the band was formed. They added a number of other musicians, including former Failure guitarist Troy Van Leeuwen and former Primus drummer Tim Alexander, although Alexander was replaced with Josh Freese early on in the recording process of the first album, "Mer De Noms."

The album was a big hit, the highest ranking debut for a new band on the modern rock charts. The video for the first single, "Judith," was directed by David Fincher. They opened for Nine Inch Nails for a while before launching their own tour.

You can definitely hear elements of other bands, but A Perfect Circle are truly different than anything else out there. The two bands that draw the most obvious comparison are Tool (which is mostly just hearing Maynard in both bands) and Failure (in terms of guitar textures and approach), but "Mer De Noms" stands out in that the album is willing to shift from heavy metal to acoustic melody and back as much as it pleases. For example, the second single, "3 Libras."

Maynard joked around that people who were Tool fans had some adjustments to do listening to A Perfect Circle, because he was "actually singing." It's a gorgeous album, and while the follow up, "Thirteen Step," had some great stuff on it, it wasn't as strong on the whole. They also put out "eMOTIVe," which is mostly cover songs, and is also worth listening to. There's been rumors of another album at some point, but we'll see. We're also still waiting for a new Tool album...

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Shallow Grave - 1994

Obi-Wan Kenobi and Doctor Who fight over how to get rid of a dead body in their apartment, and what to do with all of the money found on said dead body.

There, I've just sold you on "Shallow Grave." Post done.

... You're still here? Fine.

"Shallow Grave" is a 1994 film, the first from director Danny Boyle, that tells the story of three people - Christopher Eccleston (aka The Ninth Doctor), Ewan McGregor (aka Obi-Wan Kenobi) and Kerry Fox (who never really took a genre busting role) - who share a flat in Edinburgh, but need to take on a fourth roommate in order to pay the bills. They interview people and eventually choose this guy to be their new roommate. Not long after, they find him dead. And in his room, they find a suitcase full of cash.

I really don't want to tell you more about the plot that this, because to do so would be to spoil the fun of the movie. It's a dark comedy, or a thriller with comic elements, whichever you like. It's the first major film role of Ewan McGregor, and he and director Danny Boyle would go on to make "Trainspotting" a few years later, and that would vault both to superstardom.

The film is gorgeously shot, and it was a big hit in the UK, although it didn't really make it's way over here until Trainspotting was hitting, and by that point, everyone knew that Boyle and McGregor were going to be big things. It moves at a mile a minute, and it shifts tones quick and crazy. It's also wildly macabre and gets very dark, so you have to be prepared to roll with the punches. But it's a film I absolutely love, and you'll get a kick out of it.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Buffalo Tom - Big Red Letter Day - 1993

Back in 1992, I got my first job. I was a carnival barker at Peony Park in Omaha. Unlikely, you say? Maybe. But true nonetheless. I worked in the midway at Peony Park, manning the darts game, the milk jugs, the skeeball machines and, my favorite, the ball toss. It was a crazy summer. I learned how to juggle. I found out the age of consent in the state of Nebraska. (No, not for me - my boss was dating one of my coworkers, and they needed to know it. They were within it.) I ended up seeing a few minutes of Primus, and a few minutes of The Smashing Pumpkins, both of whom were playing the Pavilion inside of the park. I overcame my fear of rollercoasters, by having to stick my arm and leg out of one near the top of the thing. (What? I'm still alive. And I was doing it on the orders of my boss, who was up there with me. We were attempting to get the car unstuck. We ended up doing this a dozen times. Yes, I'm aware how wildly unsafe this is now, but back then, I was young and invincible, at my first job, and scared shitless that if I didn't do what my boss told me to, I'd get fired.) I ended up not doing a whole lot and not getting paid a whole lot to do it, but it kept me busy for the summer.

But the guy who was my boss ended up lending me a tape from this band I'd never heard of called Buffalo Tom. The album was "Let Me Come Over." There were a number of great songs on "Let Me Come Over," including the song "Taillights Fade" which made it on one out of every four mix tapes I made until I was out of college, but the album had a number of songs on it that just didn't connect with me. That would all get fixed with "[big red letter day]," the follow-up album.

"Sodajerk" was the first single off of it, and apparently a lot of people ended up hearing it on the show "My So-Called Life," which I never watched. The album is a lot more varied than "Let Me Come Over," shifting from rock to melancholy and back. It was an album that was best listened to on summer evenings, right as the sun had disappeared beyond the horizon, but the orange glow was still lingering in the clouds overhead. It's an album where I love all the songs on it, and that's certainly saying something.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Bloc Party - Silent Alarm - 2005

Debut albums can be tricky things to crack. Some people make explosive debuts and never do anything good again. Some people make terrible debuts and then get it right in their third or fourth try. Some people make debut albums that establish a sound they never veer from. Some people make debut albums and immediately change tact on their next one. And some people win giant accolades with their first album, then try and make sure they don't fall apart. Bloc Party mostly just made a great first album that people in England went nuts over, and only made a minor splash here.

"Silent Alarm" is Bloc Party's first album, and the band has gone through a number of rough patches since then, with an extended hiatus as the lead singer, Kele Okereke, putting out a solo album. There were even rumors that he was being replaced by the rest of the band, although those rumors never turned into something tangible. They put out "Four" in 2012 and then apparently decided to go back onto indefinite hiatus. They seem to be a band that teeters on the edge of implosion at any moment.

My first exposure to Bloc Party was season 1 finale of "How I Met Your Mother." That show just ended last night, after a 9 season run, and the ending was pretty divisive, but I really liked it. They've always had a good sense of music placement. Here's that scene from the end of season 1 for you, to remind you.

That's "This Modern Love" in the background. After watching it, I immediately went to the internet to find out who had made such a gorgeous guitar melody. And then I bought "Silent Alarm" immediately after.  And I've been listening to them since.

Bloc Party make angular rock, semi-post punk, with jittery guitar lines, and sometimes they write songs on the verge of heartbreak, and others on the verge of righteous anger. Softer songs like "This Modern Love" and "So Here We Are" stand in sharp contrast to the blasts of "Banquet" or "Helicopter."

They've made great albums with lots of amazing songs, but none of them have been as consistently amazing as "Silent Alarm." If you only get one Bloc Party album, start here.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Night Watch - 2004, Day Watch - 2006

Even if director Timur Bekmambetov never returns to finish this trilogy, "Night Watch" and its sequel "Day Watch," are two of the most visually arresting urban fantasy-horror films ever made, and they launched a director whose talent cannot be ignored (even if he sometimes slums it with things like "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter").

You've never really seen anything like Night Watch before - it's almost as though Tony Scott and Tim Burton had a directing child. Bekmambetov paints in gorgeous colors, brilliant and vivid, lush gardens of visual delight, but also moves through them with a stop-start rhythm that can be a little jolting your first time through. The two films are a mix of fantasy and horror, stories set in modern Russia. And the special effects, oh lord, the special effects.

See, Bekmambetov wanted to do special effects, but he wanted to do them his way, so he actually founded a special effects company in Russia, to set the tone and do the primary visual effects for his stuff. (He started as a commercial director, like many amazing directors.) So you will see things in Night Watch that you have never seen before. Like someone's head turning transparent and leaving only the veins and arteries visible inside of it. Seriously, this is the kind of thing he does.

Night Watch is based on a series of Russian urban fantasy novels from Sergei Lukyanenko, with the first movie fairly closely lining up with the first two parts of the first novel and the second movie Day Watch actually being based on the third act of the first novel as well. The novel series is a pentalogy and the fifth book, "New Watch," is actually coming out here in the states this month. (The books, in order, by the way, are "Night Watch," "Day Watch," "Twilight Watch," "The Last Watch," and "New Watch.") Keep in mind, the movie does take some liberties with the source material, but that's par for the course for Bekmambetov's adaptations. He changed so much of "Wanted" from the graphic novel to the film that the two aren't even in the same state, much less the ballpark. And there's talk of a Wanted sequel, although it seems like that project is in the are-they-or-aren't-they state more often than a Schrodinger cat.

The premise of Night Watch is that in ancient times, a group known as The Others (who are sometimes interpreted as angels and demons) cause a great battle with man caught in the middle. Eventually, a truce is struck and both sides form their own special army to keep an eye on the other. The light side forms the Night Watch and the dark side forms the Day Watch. And that balance has held for centuries, but now things are going to get complicated. The story features witches, shapeshifters, vampires, curses and more...

Make no mistakes about it, Night Watch and Day Watch can be somewhat convoluted. The stories are full of twists and turns, there's a lot of characters, and while you should be watching it subtitled, there's a lot going on at any given moment, so you may need to watch some scene multiple times, to pick up everything that's going on.

You probably should watch the two of them as a pair, as they really are two halves of one film. I was originally just going to write about Night Watch today, and then I realized the more I thought about it, the more sense it made to just treat the two pieces as one whole (like Tarantino's "Kill Bill" for example) because either half by itself will leave you a little unfulfilled, but watching the two will give you a full sense of the whole story.

I leave you with the two trailers, Night Watch and Day Watch. (Oh, also starting this week, I'm going to just be doing this blog five days a week - I'm going to take Saturdays and Sundays off so I can get ahead a little bit, and not be scrambling so much. I figure it'll still give you an endless cavalcade of things to be getting your enjoyment on with.)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

City On Fire - 1987

Not a lot of people stateside have seen "City On Fire," the 1987 film from Ringo Lam starring Chow Yun-Fat, which is a pity. I've often been surprised that Ringo Lam's movies haven't gotten more recognition over here, especially the ones starring Chow Yun-Fat, but in particular, I've always been especially astonished that more people haven't seen City On Fire, because most people I know have seen the film it "inspired" - Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs."

Don't get me wrong - I love Reservoir Dogs as a film, but after seeing City On Fire (which I did see after Dogs), I was a little astonished how much of the movie is lifted wholesale. Let me tell you the basic plot of City On Fire and see if it sounds at all familiar.

Chow Yun-Fat is a cop, who is tasked with infiltrating a bunch of jewel thieves. He's been chased by cops, most of whom don't know he's an undercover cop. And he starts to bond with the very gang of thieves he's meant to be infiltrating. Then things go horribly awry.

There are a lot of differences between the two movies, but the two are alike enough that a guy on YouTube created a 10 minute film called "Who Do You Think You're Fooling?" which shows how strikingly similar the two movies are, down to overlaying large swaths of Dogs' dialogue over City On Fire. In fact, it's almost as if the two movies fold together to make one big movie. (A lot of the things that are related in Dogs are the events that actually happen in City.) But both films eventually come to the entire same last act - a bunch of criminals attempting to figure out what went wrong, and who the cop that's infiltrated their group is.

Regardless of how much of the movie is lifted wholesale, City On Fire is a great Hong Kong film that isn't from John Woo (but still stars Chow Yun Fat, who is one of those actors I will watch in just about anything...) and is absolutely worth your time.