Friday, 23 November 2012

Gig review: Rock Sound Riot Tour (w/Billy Talent, AWOLNATION, Don Bronco), Newcastle O2 Academy, 13/11/12

With every passing year, the string-pullers at the ever-bourgeoning Rock Sound magazine (we say bourgeoning, it's been a formidable force in the industry for eons now) manage to outdo themselves in the Winter tour stakes. Their annual showcase soirée is rapidly becoming as much of a staple of the alt calendar as NME's February tour or, ahem, Kerrang's regular rotation of EXACTLY THE SAME BANDS EVERY FOUR YEARS. Fitting, then, that this time around, the blighters have only gone and nabbed one of the finest live acts the genre currently has to offer, and one with a pretty darn stonking new record to boot, and thrown them straight to the top of the bill.

Canada's Billy Talent have been decimating rabid audiences the world over for nearly twenty years now, honing their craft, so the fact that they're bloody brilliant tonight virtually goes without saying. The support, on the other hand, are another matter entirely. Regrettably, due to some highly inconvenient transport hiccups, we don't get to experience the purportedly bonkers Don Bronco but reports from various elated sources speak of 'shredding', 'tunes galore' and, curiously, 'choreography'. Smart money's on these guys being catapulted to stardom in the next two years; catch 'em at a shoebox near you while you still can.

Sadly, Stagecoach North East were not kind enough to allow us to miss AWOLNATION, however. With their delusions of 30 Seconds to Mars-esque grandeur (they even have a logo that reeks of Jared Leto), tuneless guitar thrash-outs, liberal injections of ill-advised keyboard wankery and, Heavens to Betsy, an 80s power ballad the likes of which would make Foreigner cringe (seriously, they even try to make the crowd put their arms around one another and SWAY FROM SIDE TO SIDE... wasn't this kind of ultra-saccharine codswollop outlawed in 1991?), the band sound a complete and utter mess, as if all the ingredients were thrown into the pot and no one bothered to do anything with them. It doesn't help that the sound guy seems equally nonplussed, not really bothering to even try to make anything listenable out of this garbage. The lead singer gets hopelessly lost in the dirge... so much so, in fact, that his between-song attempts at rousing some semblance of interest, or engaging with his audience (man), fall utterly and embarrassingly flat. Hopefully, if tonight is any sign, AWOLNATION will disappear off the face of the Earth before the next Riot Tour rolls around.

In fact, if we didn't have Billy Talent to rescue the show from the depths of mundanity, the future of Rock Sound's showcase may well have been in serious doubt. As it is, we're pretty certain we'll be back here same time, same place next year. It only takes one measly strum of Ian's guitar, signaling the arrival of 'Lonely Road to Absolution', arguably the new LP's best track, to send shivers down every spine in the building and whip the expectant masses into a jubilant frenzy. The band sound EPIC tonight; the hooks catchier, the riffs dirtier and the between-song banter, well... it seems like Ben's been taking a leaf out of the late Freddie Mercury's book, addressing the crowd with a lavish, lovable flamboyance, climbing atop the speakers and surveying the scene before him, strutting, posing and, at the most appropriate times, losing himself in those delectable, guttural screams (never is this more prominent than in debut album classic 'Line and Sinker', during which we start to wonder whether he has any vocal chords left at all).

The set, for the most part, is spot on. There's a smattering of new tracks, all of which are met with open arms by the adoring crowd, a healthy selection from Billy Talent II, including a riotous 'Devil in a Midnight Mass' and, of course, the anthemic 'Red Flag' to close and the still-sodding-astonishing 'Try Honesty' and, get this, 'This Is How It Goes' from the early days. The only real gripe is the (un)healthy injection of Billy Talent III numbers; sure, we can live with 'Devil on my Shoulder' and even 'Rusted from the Rain' but 'Saint Veronica'? 'Diamond on a Landmine'? Filler tracks from a filler-heavy record, certainly their weakest to date, and ones that bring the mood down just a smidgeon. Undoubtedly, the band would've been better served by a few more older tracks but hey, it's hardly as if it kills the show dead. The Newcastle contingent still bay for more and, by the end, leave sweat-drenched, sated and utterly knackered. And that's all we can really hope for, right?

In the main, then, a successful evening from our Rock Sound hosts. With a band of Billy Talent's might and experience, it's hard to go far wrong and tonight's headline performance is a corker of a show. It's a shame we have to endure the appalling AWOLNATION but there's no point in pleasure without a little pain, right? Right.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

The world's worst noise

Following a hook-laden half hour at Bar Loco this evening courtesy of Australia's finest power popsters The Wellingtons, this happened. 'Improvised guitar voice conversation. Through sound.' Quite. One man, his guitar, a bow and a woman wailing. Loudly. And continuously.

The world's WORST noise.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

TV review: Homeland 205: 'Q+A'

205: 'Q+A'

Written by Henry Bromell
Directed by Lesli Linka Glatter

Synopsis: Carrie and Saul try to get the truth from Brody for once and for all as they are holding him captive. Meanwhile Dana gets involved in a messy situation as she goes joyriding with Finn Walden.

Review: And who said television shows needed big budgets, lavish special effects and ambitious action sequences to be successful? Proof positive, if any were needed, that dialogue and chemistry are the cornerstones of any drama, 'Q+A' is an astonishing episode, built almost exclusively around the interplay between Claire Danes and Damien Lewis. While they may have scratched the surface of what made them Emmy winners in last week's 'New Car Smell', here they essentially give a warts-and-all presentation, turning one super-long, extraordinarily well written scene into, and I'll say it without any semblance of hyperbole (okay, maybe a little), a modern masterpiece. Carrie's systemic deconstruction of the self-built walls around Brody is an absolute delight to watch and crucially, it never drags for a second, despite being one of the longest scenes in the show's history. There are other sublime moments in the interrogation room: Carrie picking Brody up from the fetal position after she's broken him down, his phone conversation with Jess, the 'bad cop' moments from a prickly Peter Quinn (Rupert Friend is a superb addition, by the way: give him an Emmy too!) and, of course, the opening shots of a clearly terrified Brody, his legs shaking, his lips quivering, telling us all we need to know about his state of mind. If it weren't for the unfortunate intrusion of Dana and Finn's utterly reckless road trip, which, frankly, strains believability somewhat given what we know about these characters, this would most likely be the best hour of television we're likely to see all year. Unfortunately, these scenes have the undesired effect of wrenching us away from the real meat of the drama, distracting rather than entertaining. For all this is an extremely brave episode in many ways, if only the production crew had been that little bit braver and given us an entire hour set in that one room (Babylon 5's magnum opus, 'Intersections in Real Time', springs to mind here), then maybe we would've seen a perfect score. As it is, Homeland will have to make do with another (9).

TV review: Homeland 204: 'New Car Smell'

204: 'New Car Smell'

Written by Meredith Stiehm
Directed by David Semel

Synopsis: Following a secret debrief from Saul, a stunned Estes authorizes a covert operation to pursue intel recovered in Beirut - but not without putting his own trusted operative in charge. Brody, still reeling from his misadventures, gets another shock when he runs into Carrie at Langley. A casual invitation to bury the hatchet turns into an encounter neither of them could have foreseen. And Dana discovers she has something in common with Finn Walden, the Vice President's son.

Review: Well. As if the show-altering revelation at the climax of 'Beirut Is Back' wasn't enough, the Homeland scriptwriting staff manage to one-up themselves this week with the closing moments of 'New Car Smell', which surely must rank amongst the Top 5 'WTF?!' moments in the show's history, if not number one with a bullet. Instead of tip-toeing around the colossal Brody reveal and keeping us in a perpetual state of frustration for the next half of the season, gnawing at our nails, desperate to see the shit hit Nick's fan, so to speak, Homeland actually pulls the trigger only four episodes into its sophomore season, following some stellar scenes which reunite Carrie and Brody's characters and give Claire Danes and Damien Lewis further opportunities to demonstrate to all and sundry exactly why they won those Emmys. It's a brilliantly underplayed scene, totally out of leftfield, and it catches the viewer completely unawares; kudos to everyone involved for resisting the temptation to indulge in a lil' bit o' foreshadowing. What this means for the show is anyone's guess; to be honest, the story could go in any number of different directions at this point, not all of which are detrimental to the preservation of the Carrie/Brody relationship and hence, the backbone of the series. But let's not dwell on that too much for the time being... fact is, we have another top notch episode here, neatly paced and cleverly plotted. It's good to see decent use made of the perpetually drunk veteran too. The only real gripe is the burgeoning romance between Dana and Finn which, while undoubtedly important from a narrative perspective for future episodes (of course someone, somewhere, will take advantage of this development), feels a little underwhelming when taken in conjunction with all that surrounds it. It's difficult to care, to be honest, when you're faced with the prospect of an explosive Carrie/Brody reunion, and yeah right, as if the Secret Service would allow the VP's son to just go traipsing around A CONSTRUCTION SITE unsupervised with a girl. Uh and huh. (8)

TV review: Homeland 203: 'State of Independence'

203: 'State of Independence'

Written by Alexander Cary
Directed by Lodge Kerrigan

Synopsis: Jessica (Morena Baccarin) is given a chance to impress D.C. high society with her fundraiser for veterans. In spite of an earlier argument, her husband Brody (Damian Lewis) plans to give a speech until Roya (Zuleikha Robinson) sends him to Pennsylvania. Carrie (Claire Danes) returns from Beirut and prepares to deliver her report at Langley

Review: A far quieter episode than its predecessors, 'State of Independence' is, nevertheless, another strong hour, benefiting from a taut, well-structured script and some considered, naturalistic direction (well, in places at any rate). The contrast between Carrie's crushing disappointment at not being welcomed back into the CIA with open arms and Brody's WORST. DAY. EVER could not be more pointed and it's played brilliantly. Claire Danes is simply superb in her scene with Estes and again in the horrifying suicide attempt that follows. In a shrewd move, Homeland's production crew eschew amateur dramatics during the sequence, abandoning underscore and camera trickery to present something painfully believable and, oft-times, difficult to watch. Importantly, it isn't so much Carrie's actual act of pill-popping that forces you to turn away; it's the sadness of all that has come before it, that she would dress up as if to go out on the town, hoping to find someone, something, anything to fill the void, but that she ultimately realises how fruitless it all is. That all of this can be successfully conveyed without the need for a single line of dialogue is testament to the strength of the overall production. By comparison, Brody's sequences don't quite satisfy the appetite as much, if only because of the utter implausibility of it all (and his ineptitude... seriously, offing the guy while you're on the phone to your wife? Really?!) but Monica Baccarin's speech and her scenes with Mike are first rate. And then there's that final, triumphant, moment... the pay-off to end all pay-offs, and it's magnificent. (8)

TV review: Homeland 202: 'Beirut Is Back'

202: 'Beirut Is Back'

Written by Chip Johannessen
Directed by Michael Cuesta

Synopsis: CIA agent Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) takes a risky position. An informant tells her that Abu Nazir (Navid Negahban) will be in Beirut the next day, but David Estes (David Harewood) does not believe the intel. Meanwhile, Brody (Damian Lewis) receives an invitation to the Pentagon.

Review: An episode that fires on all cylinders and pulls no punches. Picking up the gauntlet thrown down by last week's 'The Smile', 'Beirut is Back' offers more thrills, spills and squeaky bum time clenchers than you can shake a proverbial at, throwing Carrie and Saul smack bang in the middle of the action and wasting no time in reuniting Brody's agenda with that of our favourite ex-CIA agent. The juxtaposition between the scenes involving Abu Nazir in Beirut and Brody in the Pentagon is superb, chock full of dramatic tension. And just when you think it can't get any better... the production crew only go and unleash one hell of a battle sequence on us as Carrie loses her mind (well, maybe) and goes scurrying around her informant's apartment. On top of all this, there's another fuck-tonne of scintillating character moments, including Carrie's heart-to-heart with Saul on the rooftop, and that ending, which is, right now, the biggest 'holy shit!' moment since Lost's infamous first flash-forward. A cracking hour of television. (9)

TV review: Homeland 201: 'The Smile'

201: 'The Smile'

Written by Alex Gansa & Howard Gordon
Directed by Michael Cuesta

Synopsis: Carrie Mathison is making progress with her mental health after her Electroconvulsive Therapy. A former asset threatens Carrie's peace. Brody learns Nazir may not be happy with a nonviolent approach. Dana lets a secret slip.

Review: And Homeland comes racing out of the block like there's no tomorrow. 'The Smile' kickstarts year two with one hell of a jolt, putting the pieces firmly in place and positioning the key players in order to set up what will inevitably be a roller-coaster ride of a season. After the insular personal politics of the first year, it's good to see a whole different side to the work of our favourite CIA operatives; the production crew do some stellar work in making the sequences on the ground in Beirut seem believable, engaging and, above all, nail-bitingly tense. None of this detracts from the show's penchant for character, however, and once again, we're treated to some truly beautifully written scenes, particularly between Brody and Jess (the Islam revelation is a long time coming and it doesn't disappoint) and, importantly, Carrie and Esties. While the expediency with which Carrie is back in play does leave something of a sour taste in mouth (and it's why the episode scores an 8 when it could so easily have been a 9), the dialogue and interaction between the two characters in the sequence in which he asks for her help is absolutely top drawer stuff. This is a show at the top of its game with a cast and crew who are deservedly confident in their abilities. Hell, even Dana's material is pretty gosh darn enjoyable. A great start. (8)

Live review: Twin Atlantic (w/Charlie Simpson), Newcastle O2 Academy, 01/11/12

Oh, what a difference the Radio 1 playlist makes. It's surprising to think it in this super-selective day and age, where new music is available at the touch of a button and we can filter any tracks, artists and genres we don't like out of our lives for good, but the airwaves still hold significant sway over the success of our much-loved bands. Get a track A-listed on a major radio station and suddenly, it's everywhere; not only are the musos blasting it through their over-sized headphones on the way to Rough Trade, but now 'the man in the street', the one who 'likes a bit of everything', is whistling it on his way to work and, even more importantly than that, the teenyboppers have taken it to their hearts and plastered posters of the lead singer all over their bedroom walls. Glasgow's Twin Atlantic have recently had the good fortune to discover all of this (working in tandem with a support slot on Blink 182's arena tour which will undoubtedly have helped matters), and now, instead of playing in shoeboxes to 100 or so sweat-drenched devotees, they're selling out Academy venues across the country and receiving singalongs the likes of which would've made Liam Gallagher jealous in Oasis's heyday.

It's a heart-warming experience to see a band who have slugged their guts out over the last few years get rewarded for their hard work with such a raucous reception as they receive tonight. In a set that's 20 songs in length, which is, in itself, highly commendable for a band with one full-length, one mini-album and an EP, there's nary a moment's silence; the crowd bellows back every last word of each of the 12 tracks from 'Free' and, during the lesser-known 'Vivarium' songs, the majority continue to slam face-first into one another, forming moshpits galore and occasionally diving stagewards with reckless abandon.

Twin Atlantic seem genuinely bemused by all of this activity; while their fanbase has been steadily growing in Scotland for some time, this is the first English show they've played to such a large, adoring crowd, and it shows. Sam plays off the audience's seemingly endless energy throughout, slaying his guitar from the onset (he breaks one set of strings during the first song, a blistering 'Time for You to Stand Up') and flitting around the stage constantly; one moment, he's on his knees, unleashing a filthy riff on us, the next, he's atop the drumkit, throwing triumphant poses. And of course, at show's end, following an almighty 'Make A Beast of Myself' (complete with giant balloons! Who doesn't love giant balloons?!), he's in the crowd, having completed a successful dive from the stage, and is shaking all of our hands and lapping up the adoration.

All of this may be an altogether different experience to previous Twin Atlantic shows in Newcastle - Academy 2 last year and the phenomenally manic, sweaty Digital show in 2010 - but it is no less spine-tingling. 'Lightspeed' still sounds gigantic, 'Yes, I Was Drunk' is effortlessly epic, 'What Is Light? Where Is Laughter?' threatens to tear all of our faces off and the mudhole being stomped in the Academy floor during 'The Ghost of Eddie' causes several concerned looks to spread over the faces of the poor, helpless security staff. Inevitably, though, it's 'Crash Land' that provides the evening's most memorable moment, thanks to a beautiful chorus of voices from the crowd which prompt Sam to keep silent for over 50% of the song. It's testament to just how far they've come in the last 18 months and frankly, it's fucking fantastic.

There are plenty other moments we could mention - the tender reworking of 'You're Turning Into John Wayne', the monstrous 'Free', 'A Guidance From Colour'! - but frankly, we're running out of space. Suffice to say, Twin Atlantic were on fire tonight, playing off an energetic, adrenalin-fueled crowd to provide one beast of a show. If this is what Radio 1 playlisting can do for the band, then get the entire album on there pronto. Just, let's leave Charlie Simpson at home next time, all right guys? Sorted.