Albums of 2012 pt. 4 - Pernice Chyche - A

If Pernice Chyche got a lot of stick for her self-titled debut album, her fans seemed to take the brunt of the scorn. Here we had a phenomenally successful album of beautifully sung and meticulously arranged torch songs, and the critics couldn't stand it. But, having laid her soul bare for all to see on her songs, the worst they could do was simply repeat her words. So instead, they attacked her fans with gleeful and upsetting fury.

One particularly hateful publication insisted that it was less shameful to admit to being a paedophile than it was to admit to being a Pernice Chyche fan. The snide didn't get much worse than that, but the rest was just as upsetting in its mindless uniformity. Time and again it was insisted that there's no real substance to Chyche's music. Across the the reviews, the words “emperor's new clothes” appeared more than the words “Pernice” and “Chyche” combined.

Others conceded that, if there was substance to her music, then those who called themselves fans were shallow perverts only really interested in her appearance. The defining argument, though, was that Chyche's voice is so perfect it's bland. A soothing, shallow, insipid balm for the masses, one bloated cultural commentator insisted that Chyche could sing the phone book and still sell millions of albums.

Unable to accept that something popular can be excellent, Pernice Chyche was proclaimed far and wide to be a walking example of everything that's wrong with music. Her pristine sound was declared to be the death of vibrancy and relevancy, and as a result it was decided that she was a terrible human being for daring to unleash her “beige blanket” upon the world.

Well. I don't think anybody was expecting what came next.

A ten-disc album with a plain yellow cover simply called A was released without any fanfare or press-releases (and at a budget price).

All who heard A in its first week of release were amongst the first people to hear it. Nobody had heard any advanced tracks, nobody had read any pre-release material. Everybody approached A with fresh ears – if not necessarily with open minds. The critics, of course, sharpened their knives and looked forward to the feast.

And what they got was Pernice Chyche singing the phonebook. At least, chanting all entries under the first letter of it, with no musical backing save for a single, violently bowed violin halfway through disc six and four successive beats of a snare towards the end of disc nine.

Pernice Chyche has since come forward. She didn't accept any interviews and she didn't perform any shows. The extent of her public interaction didn't stretch beyond three words: “Expect 25 more.”

So it seems that, either over the next 25 months or the next 25 years, Pernice Chyche really does intend to sing the phonebook cover to cover.

Of course, the critics were baffled. Cornered, they just upped the severity of their attacks: “Bloated”; “Pretentious”; “Stupid”; “Asinine” and, bizarrely, the old “emperor's new clothes” cliché was trotted out once more.

But how did the public react? Negatively and, if possible, with even more vitriol than the critics.

So Pernice Chyche may have sabotaged her own career, but it's deliciously satisfying that she so brutally proved the critics wrong.

And, as far as I'm concerned, by transforming into the kind of artist who could curate Meltdown rather than play at the Brits, she'll always have the last laugh.

I do wonder, though, what she'll call volume two of her phonebook opus. Her debut album's b-side and rarities collection was already called B.


Albums of 2012 pt. 3 - Pulse Wrist - Majestic Cocktail

Majestic Cocktail struck such a chord with me that, since its release, I think I've read absolutely every existing review that happened to have been written in English. Frequently, this was an act of masochism on my part, as many of the reviews didn't have a single good thing to say about the album. But it's funny. Those who poured scorn upon the album highlighted exactly the same things as those who praised it. Horses for courses: for some “ironic detachment” is to be praised; for others it's unforgivable. Some people seem to really dig retro-revivalism, whilst others choose to view it as shameful weakness.

All reviews, though, be they positive or negative, were ultimately frustrating for exactly the same reason. Every single one of them missed the point, proving that good copy is no substitute for good research; and that critics will write furiously in the face of fact if it will make them appear discerning.

When presented with an album called Majestic Cocktail by a band called Pulse Wrist – an album full of tinny gated drums, trebly guitar solos, barely audible bass and screamed vocals – it seems that everyone immediately decided that this was an exercise in “irony” by a bunch of “hipsters”. The images of the band – all leather straps, studs and perms – and the fact that they didn't even get their own name right on the cover - only served to confirm this notion. For some this was manna, for others it was a red rag. Pulse Wrist stepped  into the daylight in the dual roles of lambs to the slaughter and flavour of the week. Never have the words “emperor's new clothes” been written with more frequency and with more wilful ignorance.

For the truth is, Pulse Wrist don't purport to be a band from the 80s, they are a band from the 80s,  trimmings and all.

That they released a string of albums between 1981 and 1985 seems to have escaped everyone. Of course, by no means were these albums well-received by press or public, but still, they existed. And with such names as Viking Metalstorm, Pendle Bitch Trials, Spitfire Love Throttle and Hammer Be Thy Name, I'm genuinely shocked that not one person seems to remember their existence. Seriously, not a single review so much as alludes in passing to their 80s heyday. Surely the names alone should have rung a bell somewhere? And does nobody remember ever having seen Pulse Wrist live?

The truth is, in 1985, just as they were about to embark upon their first ever US tour, under mysterious circumstances all five members of Pulse Wrist – along with their producer – suddenly and simultaneously entered a comatose state. It's not clear as to why this happened; the liner notes don't reveal much. Perhaps their tour bus overturned, or maybe a shared experiment in chemical mind expansion went awry. In any case, they collectively regained consciousness late last year, and it's my understanding that they headed into the studio the second they'd coaxed their limbs from atrophy with the intention of rocking out like it's 1985.

So if Majestic Cocktail sounds like it's made by people who haven't heard any music since 1985, that's because it is made by people who haven't heard any music since 1985. None of what you hear is at all contrived. This is genuinely how they think music should sound. This is music made by ardent devotees to the church of rock who have never heard Metallica, Nirvana, Radiohead, Pearl Jam or The White Stripes. As a result, despite being some 25 years out of date, there's a strange and unique freshness to Majestic Cocktail.

Which is why, despite the fact that 80s hair metal does basically nothing for me, I can't help but love Majestic Cocktail. I hear it and I wince; but I also hear a sincere innocent passion that's all but lacking in the vast majority of modern music. In a world where the default stance is ironic detachment, Pulse Wrist could be a genuine force for good – a reminder that there's more to life than sneering cynicism.

And that they were either ripped to shreds or praised for all the wrong reasons I think says it all.


Albums of 2012 pt. 2 - Dirk Brick - Music Is Better One Note

Few genres seem to attract a greater number of purists than the One Note Music scene, and Dirk Brick has always been a dark horse amongst their midst. The consensus seems to be that, if the song contains anything beyond a single sustained note coupled, at a push, with monotonous singing, then it just ain't ONM. It's drone.

Indeed, there are some who insist that even vocals are taboo. The really hardcore purists, though, are those who insist that true ONM contains but one note per album. I can see the logic behind that approach, but its lead to the likes of The Filing Cabinets and James James James Jeans James; both of whom have utterly impenetrable back catalogues comprised of hundreds upon hundreds of albums, often recorded and released at a staggering rate of up to ten a day. With no vocals or variation, approaching their work is a truly daunting task for a newcomer to the scene. Where to begin?

Dirk Brick has long been ostracised by the ONM community. He's never used vocals, but even more controversially, he's used instruments that lack a keyboard interface and a digital soundboard. Strings, woodwind, brass – the idea that tonal variation might result as a consequence of human infallibility is too much for the more hardline members of the ONM scene to take. His iconoclastic approach has resulted in him being labelled as the purveyor of “ONM music for people who don't like ONM music.”

But I've never seen that as a bad thing. Why shouldn't there be a warm and friendly entry-point into a genre whose deep, meditative rewards are hidden behind an impenetrable veil of cold mechanical alienation?

His latest album, though, will doubtlessly lose Brick what few supporters he had remaining within the OMN scene. However, it may also be his masterpiece.

For Music Is Better One Note, Brick spent a few years walking the earth with a tape recorder on a global search for monotonous drones. By the roll of dice he settled on a key – E – before obsessively collecting and compiling a deep sound collage of flushing toilets, distant traffic, lowing cattle, humming machinery and Schyyvyetchyan chanting.

The objections from the ONM scene were predictable. Up to 72 instances of notational variation were highlighted by one particularly obsessive critic; but the bulk of the criticism was directed at Brick's tendency to allow for layering of sounds. It was pointed out that, at some points, Music Is Better One Note even comes close to forming chords.

So whilst what little respect he might have once harboured amongst the ONM scene is now effectively destroyed, Brick need not worry. True, his peers will no longer give him the time of day, but it's their loss. The rest of us have this beautifully sustained piece of tonally rich drone which creates a listening experience akin to ambling through a benevolent Experience Machine.

Newcomers to the ONM scene would do well to lose themselves in these sounds before attempting such harsh epics as The Filing Cabinets' Morse Code Sounds. And for providing a gateway for the curious drone-enthusiast who feels that Oren Ambarchi has become too maximalist, the ONM community should be eternally grateful to Dirk Brick.


Albums of 2012 pt. 1 - Cassandra “Seismic” Lifestone – Bury Me With Myself: The Internment Project vol. 1

I used to write exhaustive lists of my 20+ favourite albums of the year. I don't do that any more, but last year I quite enjoyed highlighting a few releases that did not appearon a single other end of year list.

So I'll do that again!

You'll have doubtlessly heard each of these albums many times, as generally without exception they've been pretty ubiquitous. It's strange, then, that I haven't seen a single one of them on any “best of 2012” list so far.

I know it's just oversight, but nonetheless, I'm here to redress the balance.

Albums of 2012 pt. 1 - Cassandra “Seismic” Lifestone – Bury Me With Myself: The Internment Project vol. 1

The argument that “guitar music is dead” has been going on for so long that it now appears to be taken as fact. Cassandra “Seismic” Lifestone is, of course, famous for owning the largest collection of guitars in Blakeney. Nobody who's ever heard her Seismic Shift will ever forget the gleeful cacophony unleashed when she allowed 300 children from schools across North Norfolk to go nuts with her collection. In her role as curator, she captured something so atonally chaotic that the results could apparently be heard from as far away as Holt. It was only right that she should hence take on the name of the innocent beast she helped to create. From that day forth until her dying day, she'd be “Seismic” in name and nature.

Despite living on the tough streets of Blakeney, few would have expected her end to come so soon. The only blessing is that Lifestone got to choose the manner of her own demise.

So incensed was she at the news that her precious guitar music had died that Lifestone apparently refused to leave her house for days. When finally she did emerge her first act was to visit a local artisan with a strange commission. He was to melt down her entire guitar collection – all 300 of them – and forge a fully-functional coffin out of the molten remains.

Lifestone had herself buried in that very coffin amongst the bleak marches of Blakeney. Only one person knew of her coffin's location (the same local artisan), and shortly before finally sealing Lifestone in, she handed him an envelope, which he wasn't to open for a month.

A month passed, and the local artisan (who obviously wished to remain nameless) opened Lifestone's envelope to find a very detailed set of instructions. There was a link to an online cloud storage site from which the artisan downloaded a file. The file would become the album (Bury Me With Myself), and the instructions concerned steps the artisan should take in order to distribute her swan song.

Bury Me With Myself: The Internment Project vol. 1 is essentially a set of field recordings from Lifestone's first week of burial. She had her mobile with her down in that coffin, and for about an hour a day, she would record her breathing. This sound file would then be sent to a mysterious contact who would, at the end of a week (when it could be safely assumed that Lifestone had expired), edit her increasingly strained breathings into this: a claustrophobic 30 minute soundscape that is to act as a eulogy for the guitar music she loved so much.

It's not an easy listen, as towards the end we're essentially listening to Lifestone's death rattles. However, the ironic sense of humour she demonstrated on her Upside Down Spit series is very much alive and present. The biggest joke, of course, is the air of finality surrounding a piece so playfully labelled as “vol. 1”. But there are also laughs to be had at the notion that the sonic funeral for guitar music itself should not contain a single guitar sound over the course of its half-hour runtime.

At a push, you might label the rapping sounds that come early on – presumably Lifestone desparately hammering on the coffin surrounding her as she regretted her decision – as “guitar music”, seeing as she's ostensibly pounding on guitars. But at no point is a single string plucked or a single chord strummed. The irony is delicious.

The mysterious producer has not yet come forward and the local artisan remains nameless – and doubtlessly things will always be that way, as both are sort of complicit in manslaughter. But what remains is an uncomfortable and tragic halting dirge which should be of comfort to the cohorts of former guitarists across the world as they lay their instruments to rest for good.

Guitar music is dead. And, thanks to Lifestone, it's now also quite literally buried. There will be no more guitar music. It's fitting, though, that it should have had such a noble and poignant send-off.


The 4 Best Musical Moments From Christmas Films

I love films. I love music. I love Christmas.

When the three come together, nirvana.

Here are my four favourite instances of three-way wish-fulfilment.

4. Christmas Is All Around Us (from Love Actually, 2003)

I know you're not supposed to like this film; and as for the song itself, well. You're supposed to hate it. Even if you love the film, you're specifically instructed to hate the song by the very man who sings it. But I love it. And that's partly because of the very man who sings it. The immortal Bill Nighy plays Billy Mack as an identikit washed-up 80s has-been who's somehow infused with a slurry David Bowie charm, and the results I find irresistible.

But even though there is much Billy in Love Actually beyond this song, I still can't help but enjoy his version of Love Is All Around Us. But Billy's cover has a sleazy bar-band drawl to it, a sexy Robert Palmer video and those vocals. Plus, it comes right at the start of a film that commences right at the start of the Christmas season.

As Billy finally gets the line right - “Christmas is all around us”, we're shown a montage of Christmas trees across London with the subtitle “5 Weeks Before Christmas”. That, right there, sends shivers up my spine. I now associate this song with the arrival of my favourite time of year.

3. O Holy Night (from Home Alone, 1990)

Kevin McCallister's been left home alone whilst his family's jetted off to Paris for Christmas! At first he does what anybody in his position would do at the age of eight – he eats ice cream and watches the films he's not usually allowed to watch. But then he – wait, you've seen Home Alone. Of course you have. You know what happens. He learns a few lessons about responsibility, acceptance and the importance of family. And then he repeatedly attempts to murder a couple of petty criminals.

Kevin goes to a church on Christmas Eve, where a choir service is taking place. There he sees the terrifying Old Man Marley, previously assumed to have murdered his family. It soon becomes apparent that Marley is just a sad and lonely old man who's fallen out with his son and misses his granddaughter. She's singing in that very choir, and they're singing O Holy Night. I believe it was the first time I ever heard that most spellbinding of songs. It makes for a beautifully touching, quiet and poignant moment before the onset of the hilarious ultraviolence. And doesn't it just look so much better when filmed with a shaky camcorder on an old television screen?

2. What's This? (from The Nightmare Before Christmas, 1993)

Jack The Pumpkin king is bored of the same-old Halloween routines, so he goes for a walk. He stumbles across a clearing in the woods, which we're informed is the place where all holidays originate. A circle of trees, each with a symbolic door cut in the front; he falls into Christmas Town.

Up until this point, The Nightmare Before Christmas has been dark, gloomy and monochromatic. But everything in Christmas Town is bright, warming and colourful. It's a trick Tim Burton uses frequently to signify a shift from the normal to the fantastical, but never is it more effective than in The Nightmare Before Christmas – most likely because, in this case, the “normal” is pretty fantastic to begin with.

Jack's childlike wonder at experiencing Christmas for the very first time is utterly enchanting, and his complex feelings are encapsulated perfectly in three exuberant minutes. Jack is overwhelmed. He's confused (“The children are throwing snowballs instead of throwing heads”), but he knows that he likes what he sees. He likes it a lot. It's exactly what he's been looking for. And he wants it for his own.

From here, of course, the film gets better and better, but its central conceit is that you can't bottle or define Christmas. It's a wonderful, wonderful vibrant festival of values, ideas, traditions and ceremony that means vastly different things to everyone. And at no point is that feeling communicated than during Jack's reaction to seeing Christmas for the very first time.

Had you come from a scary land in which life itself revolves around frightening people, just how would you react upon experiencing Christmas for the first time?

It's to Danny Elfman's credit that he manages to explain, in impressive depth, the wave of emotions that would invariably rise in less than three minutes of music. By the end of the song, Jack is so excited that he's almost violently happy.

A hardened cynic who would like to remind themselves of how utterly life-affirmingly brilliant Christmas used to be would do well to take-in this scene once more.

1. Put A Little Love In Your Heart (from Scrooged, 1988)

Is the birth of Christ the Greatest Story Ever Told? Christ, no! I'd argue that Dickens's A Christmas Carol takes that biscuit. It remains one of only three books to ever make me cry, and no matter how many incarnations I see – whether Scrooge is played by Patrick Stewart, Michael Caine, Kelsey Grammar or Scrooge McDuck – the tears of almost unbearable happiness never fail to fight their way from the back of my throat to the corners of my eyes. The idea that it's never to late to start doing good is truly beautiful.

But I doubt that any interpretation of Scrooge packs more of a devastating punch than Bill Murray's turn in Scrooged. As Frank Cross, he is Bill Murray, and he appears to treat the whole thing as a joke. But then comes the denouement – his realisation that it's not to late to change – and his impassioned monologue, clearly delivered straight from the heart, is unbelievably powerful. “It's Christmas Eve!” he cries. “It's... it's the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we... we... we smile a little easier, we... w-w-we... we... we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be!”

And what follows is an apparently impromptu rendition of Put A Little Love In Your Heart, which sees Bill breaking the fourth-wall to conduct the audience's singalong.

Some might see this moment as manipulative, cheesy, corny. I don't. During those closing credits, it actually feels as though the world could be a better place.


The Amazing Mr. Bickford (1987)

Admittedly you're losing a lot of the effect if you watch it without the No-D glasses supplied with the VHS, but still this is freewheeling psychedelic animation that will disturb, enthrall, nauseate and make you feel very, very hungry.


Well Well Well!

 A new album from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds next February!

If you pause this video at 3:15 you can even read some of Nick's lyrics three months in advance!

I would pay good money for that notebook.

Jesus, I would pay good money just to be allowed to flick through that notebook for five minutes.

Easy Money, Nick!

Found Footage Horror - Addendum

By some freak coincidence, not one week after I wrote about found footage films, the Guardian Guide opens with a similar denouement.

Yeah, that's right. I read the Guardian. Can you tell? You can, can't you? I'm going to stop soon, though. Two reasons. First of all, if you read it online (which often I do), then the temptation to scroll below the line is far, far too great. And you really do get the worst people in the world down there. Scroll below the line on the Daily Mail's website and the worst you can get is that people will agree with the article. But below the line on the Guardian's site you get people vehemently taking issue with such stories and comment pieces that should be sparking rage and uprising in an upwards direction: “People are starving to death in Britain!!!”/”Oh Boo-fucking-hoo, I see they can afford their Sky subscriptions”, that sort of thing. And when they can't find anything to attack in the substance of the article they'll attack the writer. When they've no material for an ad-hoc attack, they'll go for the “typical champagne-socialist hyperbole” line. They're the worst people in the world and they prove that the country and, quite certainly humanity itself, is doomed. Because when we're presented with the sort of material that should make us question our government's motives, we instead choose to attack the writer's grammar. If it's unhealthy to lose faith in humanity, then reading the Guardian is very bad for your health.

The second reason why soon I intend to stop reading the Guardian (let's say, after Christmas) is because they appear to have declared war on rock music. I've no idea why they've done it, but they have. Every time they write a feature on a new or existing guitar band (which they seem to do every single week), they always seem to kick-off their piece with a caveat concerning how remarkable it is that a guitar band even exists in this day and age, when rock music is dead. Their review of the Leeds Festival openly stated how strange it was that guitar bands could still fill lineups. With shocking lack of self-awareness they described it as being like an alternative universe – as if they haven't yet grasped that there's a whole world out there.

Actually, the Leeds Festival review (which might even have been a Reading Festival review) was particularly irritating in that it described Graham Coxon as being “now officially better than Blur”. Officially? I must have missed that press release.

Then there's the flip-side. Every time they cover electronic music (coverage which has more than a whiff of “right-on” Nozin' Aroun' about it), their copy will, without fail, contain an approving reference to how guitar music's been abandoned in favour of this glorious new noise. Simon Reynolds (tedium itself) had a big piece about the rise of EDM in America. Rather than scoffing that America's just “discovered” music that's existed for two decades (and removed every trace of a black face in the process – USA! USA!), sanctimonious Simon instead lamented the continued existence of “irrelevant” rock bands.

Simon, Simon, Simon! Something that means so much to so many millions of people all over the world can't be “irrelevant”. It just can't! It just can't.

I realise that I referenced a lot of articles there without linking to a single one of them. You have to understand that, in this case, sourcing a link would create the temptation to tread through that sludge again. Why would I do that to myself?

Yes, so through sucking all the joy from that which means so much to me; and through making me feel ashamed to be part of this species – I suppose the Guardian's very bad for my health. I might give it up in the New Year.

But I read it the other day, and it opened with quite a fascinating look at found footage films.

It reminded me of that thing I wrote last week! And it made me realise a few things that, previously, I'd overlooked:

1. The genre wasn't invented by The Blair Witch Project. That honour belongs to 1980's Cannibal Holocaust.

2. The genre gave us 1994's Man Bites Dog – one of the most disturbing films I've ever seen that also manages, somehow, to provide a few laughs. So there's that.

3. (REC) also uses this device, and (REC) is bloody horrible in the best way possible! So there's that, too.

4. Paranormal Activity is a thing and is something of a phenomenon in the horror genre. I've not seen it myself, so I can't comment much. But it takes the defining trope from this sub-sub genre (the “found footage” part of it) and tweaks it a little to make it interesting once more. The camera's static, for a start. That must count for something. Whether it can count for something in three sequels and counting is another matter.

5. Some films that aren't horror films are using the same device. Based on watching the trailer alone, I had no desire at all to see End of Watch. Now that I know that we're supposed to accept that the whole thing was captured on film by a bystander determined to show “how this thing went down”, well. I think I'll just pretend the film doesn't exist. Just like I do with The Human Centipede. What Human Centipede?

That's all.


The Cabin In The Woods (2012); A Night In The Woods (2011)

Oh this is interesting.

No, really, you'll like this.

You know how often I lament the state of modern horror on this here blog? This here blog which you're reading, right now, as we speak – so to speak?

Well. Tonight I watched, back to back, two films; both horrors, both made in the last year or so.

One of them relied upon established tropes, the other used ides which, whilst by no means unique, remain relatively novel.

One of these films was boring to the point of being appalling. The other will likely be considered a masterpiece within the year.

For a bit of late November fun, see if you can guess which is which!

A clue: The answer is very interesting.

Ahem, both films involved misdeeds and miscreants in the woods. One involved a Cabin In The Woods. It was called The Cabin In The Woods. The other involved three young people spending A Night In The Woods. It was called A Night In The Woods.

Let's look at The Cabin In The Woods first.

I'll get it over with now: It's this one which I anticipate will be considered a masterpiece within the year.

Remember Scream? Of course you do. The appeal of Scream was in how it played with the various tropes of horror in order to create something that was at once thrilling and self-referential. It was good. In retrospect, though, if you take away the trimmings you're left with pretty standard slasher fare.

The Cabin In The Woods is similar to Scream in that it takes all the standard horror tropes and uses them to create something that, on first viewing at least, is unlike anything you've ever seen before.

OK, maybe you'll have seen lots like this before. But, if you watch this without knowing much at all about the plot, I don't doubt that you'll be surprised repeatedly by the places it takes you. Just when you think that you've got the film pinned, something else happens that serves to raise the eyebrows further.

It's simultaneously a celebration of where horror's come from and an exploration of where it can go. I don't want to write too much about it because a lot of the love lies in not knowing what comes next.

But I will say this: I recently watched 2001: A Space Odyssey again. That film has three possible “types” of scene. Either there's dialogue, or there's music or there's silence.

I've come up with three similar “types” of scene for The Cabin In The Woods. Either it's hilarious, terrifying or awesome.

And when I say awesome, I do, to some extent, mean that inspires awe. But to a greater degree, I wish to use that word in the American sense. The last half hour of The Cabin In The Woods is awesome in the same way the lobby and bullet-dodging scenes from The Matrix were awesome.

But would the film still be great on a second viewing? Yes. You'll notice more. And that's why I believe it will be considered a masterpiece within the year. Once the initial love's died down and people realise that it's still brilliant, well. That's when the real praise will be ripe for the heaping.

Or, at the very least, it will be considered a cult classic.

And then we come to A Night In The Woods, which was just awful.

I became aware of this film on the really quite excellent Folk Horror Review blog. From the trailer, it looked like a British spin on The Blair Witch Project. In actuality, it's The Blair Witch Project stripped of everything that makes it worth watching.

The “found footage” sub-sub-genre may only be about 13 years old, but everything that could possibly be done with it had already been done by 1999.

I understand the appeal. When things are shaky and grainy, the horrors look more real. But one question will always arise which serves instantly to destroy the suspension of disbelief that's necessary to subscribe to any horror film: Why are you filming?

Well, usually the question's one of why are you still filming. In A Night In The Woods, though, it's unclear as to why they were even filming in the first place.

Worse, the appeal of The Blair Witch Project was less in the novelty and more in the graininess. Through being so ugly, it felt real. A Night In The Woods, though, is filmed on a digital camera. So too is every film these days. As a result, it ends up looking just like every other film but with inferior camera angles.

It follows the misadventures of three friends: Brody, Kerry and Leo. American Brody spends the first half hour guaranteeing that nobody who watches this film can possibly like him. He's snarky, sarcastic, humourless, clingy, creepy and, in the first five minutes, asserts American superiority over Britain using the medium of Stonehenge. Twat.

It's Brody who films everything. And, fair enough, he's told off repeatedly for filming everything, and a later exposition scene – as clumsy and shoehorned as it is – serves to offer a possible explanation as to why he might be filming – but it doesn't help. Sometimes he holds the camera at arm's length away from him and keeps it perfectly still. Other times he rests it on a rock and just keeps it running, perfectly framing an important conversation. Why?

The problem is, had they dropped the found footage conceit, they would have something which, if by no means remarkable, might have at least been worth watching. The setting, you see, is beautiful. Bleak, rain-splattered Dartmoor, with all its gloomy prisons, standing stones, crows and mossy trees. The first half hour, spent exploring the landscape, is stunning. At one point it's filmed using infra-red during the day, making the already breathtaking landscape look strangely alien. In fact, mute the first half hour and set it to a Richard Skelton soundtrack and you might be onto something.

Though it says a lot about the poor quality of a horror film set in the woods when it actually makes you want to go camping. After having watched Jaws, you'd take a desire to swim as a testament to the film's failure, wouldn't you?

A Night In The Woods, had it been successful, would have left me scared of the dark. Instead, it left me wanting to spend a night in the woods. Make of that what you will.

The final hour is spent in darkness and it's almost identical to the final hour of The Blair Witch Project – rustled tents, night-vision, lots of running through the woods. Nothing you haven't seen before, even if you've only ever seen it once before.

Christ, people shouldn't bother with the found footage conceit anymore. It was dated within an hour of The Blair Witch Project's release.

So there you go. Rely on standard horror tropes and I'll applaud. Try something relatively new and I'll describe your work as awful.

There's no pleasing me, is there?

Or perhaps the secret's in the writing? The Cabin In The Woods is written by Joss Whedon. He knows what he's doing.

I've got it. If horror is to have a future, it needs good writers.



The Lancashire Witches

I picked up my copy of The Lancashire Witches in a Manchester branch of Oxfam. Although it appeared in the classics section, I initially supposed it to be a product of the Dennis Wheatley school of 20th century occultsploitation trash.

I bought it anyway. Partly because I've always been attracted to the idea of dark Sabbaths on Pendle Hill, but also because I'm exactly the sort of person whose questionable interests were ripe for exploitation by Wheatley and his ilk.

I was surprised to learn that William Harrison Ainsworth was not a contemporary of Wheatley. Rather, he was a contemporary of Dickens and Thackeray. He appears to be remembered by few and read by even fewer.

The Lancashire Witches is the only one of Ainsworth's 40 novels that has remained in print since it's initial 1848 publication. Wouldn't it be wonderful if here we have a forgotten masterpiece from a forgotten genius whose visionary style easily matched – nay, surpassed – that of Dickens?

Sadly, no. I hate to say it, but the reason Ainsworth is arguably all but forgotten might have a lot to do with the fact that he really wasn't very good at writing.

If you want a harrowing account of the accusations of witchcraft that made life a living hell for the innocent women of Pendle exactly four hundred years ago, look elsewhere. In The Lancashire Witches you'll find little to love beneath the stodgy mire of purple prose and class-based snobbery.

Really, I'm amazed I managed to persevere with The Lancashire Witches. The first 15 pages or so were utterly dreadful. Ainsworth enjoyed drowning his readers in overwhelming dumps of information. Not content with overloading his paragraphs with socio-economic explanation, he also has his characters greet each other with long-winded exposition.

Witness this sterling example of naturalistic dialogue:

“Night is approaching,” cried the tall man in the velvet mantle impatiently, “and still the signal comes not. Wherefore this delay? Can Norfolk have accepted our conditions? Impossible! The last messenger from our camp at Scawsby Lees brought word that the duke's sole terms would be the king's pardon to the whole insurgent army, provided they at once dispensed, except ten persons, six named, and four unnamed.”

717 pages of that would be bad enough, but it gets worse. That's just how the nobility speak. Anybody who isn't rich or good looking is cursed to speak in some downright insulting dialect which comes across as an approximation of no language ever spoken by anybody, ever:

“Ey knoas neawt abowt him, lort abbut, 'cept that he cum to Pendle a twealmont agoa...boh ey knoas fu weel that t'eawt-cumbling felly robt me ot prottiest lass i' aw Lonkyshiar – aigh, or i' aw Englonshiar, for t' matter o' that.”
You get entire pages rendered unintelligible by that condescending literary device. Worse still, things are seldom “said” in this book. Rather, they're cried, observed, pursued, muttered and, at a particular low point, vociferated.

But beneath all these crimes against writing, does there lie a bloody good story just waiting to be unearthed by those with fewer literary neuroses than I?

Very, very nearly. Once things get going, The Lancashire Witches almost draws you in. The opening scenes, in which a curse is cast upon the Demdike name for all eternity, is marvellously gloomy. Also early on comes a brutal and rather upsetting account of a trial by water for a young maiden.

But the more the book progressed, the more I started to feel nauseated. The Pendle “witches” were not, of course, witches. They were innocent and misunderstood women persecuted by a misogynistic patriarchy and a merciless careerist judge.

The Lancashire Witches, though, is not a historical novel. It's a romance. In this book, witchcraft is a very real force. Therefore, the misogynistic patriarchy, though presented in a less than flattering light, really is portrayed as ultimately acting in the best interests of good Christians everywhere.

It's also the case that pretty much every woman who turns out to be a witch is suffering from some kind of deformity. And, of course, generally without exception they speak with the aforementioned ludicrous “dialect”.

Frankly, the idea that the wrongfully persecuted might have had it coming is such an offensive idea that maybe the work of Ainsworth is best forgotten after all.

Oh, but don't feel bad for him. Reportedly, on completing The Lancashire Witches, Ainsworth was paid £1000 and granted full copyright of his work. In today's money, that's roughly £78,600.

So whilst he's perhaps to be denied immortality, it's probably safe to say that he had a good innings.

If you want to read The Lancashire Witches, it's available as a free e-book from Amazon.

I cannot stress this enough, though: I wouldn't recommend it.


The Eccentronic Research Council - 1612 Underture

Today we listened to the 1612 Underture by The Eccentronic Research Council on the way home.

There, one of the nicest things that's ever been said to me was said to me.

I've checked, and it is allowed to repeat compliments when said comments might not be taken as compliments by others.

I was told that this album is what it would sound like if my very existence were set to music.

So I suppose that, right there, here I have an album of the year by default.

But even without that personal touch, here we have glorious gobby Northern poetry as recounted by Maxine Peak set to an addictive atmospheric soundtrack of analogue synths and windswept field recordings.

And it's a concept album about the Pendle witches with a delicious album cover by Andy Votel.

And it has a song about the A666 – the road to hell/the road to Bolton – down which we drive every time I go to visit my dad.

And it contains such choice meaty cutlets as “We took photos with Apples, modern magic on a monthly tariff” and “Curse the smiling bus driver for being an abnormality of his profession”.

And it contains a three part, eight minute epic which opens with the wind and the rain and ends up sounding like an even blacker electronic Sabbath.

And it contains Another Witch Is Dead – apparently a traditional arrangement, here it's been re-imagined into an irresistible and sexy-as-hell hauntological disco smash.

So yes, this might well be my album of the year. Choice pick!

I might have uploaded a download link, but they've just started following me on Twitter and, as such, they could very likely press charges.

So instead, here's a link to a place from which you can BUY IT. WITH MONEY.

Worth every penny, mate!

I had nothing to do with the creation of this video. I just embedded it, sir!


Haunted Weekend Of Scary Peril

Dispatches from our Halloween party.

Here's yesterday's luminous ghost in his glowing form. We've still not quite got to the bottom of his mouth.

Here's a Black Mass altar we had set up.

Our Halloween costumes. Alex, on the left, is supposed to be the Slender Man and looks amazing. On the right is someone who's supposed to be Manuel Calavera from Grim Fandango. What a loser! Looks nothing like him. At this point it must be mentioned that she who is stood to the left is to take credit for every single photo you see here before you today. Shower her with praise right here.

And here's the end of the mystery, the moment for which you've all been waiting. When droning on about the English Book of Magic, I mentioned that I'd made another purchase in The Works but didn't give specifics. Well, I bought ten ghost-shaped sky lanterns. OK? The intention was to create a grave flotilla at the strike of midnight during the Halloween party. Conditions, though, were too windy. One made it to the sky, three perished and six are just sat there all listless in the utility room.

Some other time.


A Haunting of Ghosts

What's the collective noun for ghosts? We'll just assume that it's “haunting” and leave it at that.

Here are some pictures that were taken earlier today; during the last afternoon of what was, to all intents and purposes, the Halloween Weekend.

Our house is always full of ghosts. However, over the past few days, the collection has grown somewhat.

First, here's a picture of the pumpkin I carved – Lumpkin – in his natural habitat: overseeing the washing line. He looks a little bit like a troll, I know.

Here's a detail from the Garland of Ghosts. For the sake of supremacy, let's pretend I crafted them myself.

This guy was a gift. Wire him up to the natural grid and he's illuminated. Now, I want the opinion of anybody who's in any position to give it: What's going on with the bottom left hand corner of his head? There's a lump of some kind. To me it looks like his mouth's protruding in an “ooo” shape. Or perhaps he's sticking his tongue out? I can't be sure.

Here it is, my collection of ghosts. They're not individually named because I don't want to give anybody cause to think of me as a serial killer/disco mystic.

The twins converse with one of the luminous red ghosts here. The twins are interesting in that they both sport those fabulous capes and, should you tug them down from their chain links, they'll climb their way back up; chattering as they go.

That big guy, I think he was the first ghost I acquired. The little one before him is my pride and joy: A gift from America. I've arrived at a fantastic period of my life in that people periodically gift me with either ghosts or robots. I'm told I'm very easy to buy for, long may it last. The plastic candle to the right is a new acquisition. It cost a pound and, when you insert two AAA batteries, it flickered pathetically. It's stopped working now and will never work again, but I'm keeping it for the ghosts. I mean, just look at them.

The gaggle, here. Front and centre is the only ghost I own who doesn't look delighted to have transcended the mortal coil. Hiding behind him is a wax ghost candle I cannot bring myself to light. To his right a pair of salt shakers, one of which is black. Another gift, they remind me of a story I read when I was about eight. It was about a lonely ghost who lived in an attic. He had a rusty ring of keys which he could jangle to unlock any door he wished to enter. This ghost eventually turned black, a fate that befalls any ghost who spends too much time in the sunlight. The black ghost doubles, then, as a salt shaker and a warning for any ghost who wishes to sunbathe.

The stuffed ghost at the back, I'm ashamed to say, I liberated from a charity sideshow game. There was a man who said he could guess your age. You paid him £2. If he couldn't guess your age, you got to choose a prize from a boxful of goods at his feet. I took him up on his wager when I spotted the ghost. He said 24. I'm 25; so without a further word from either of us I snatched the ghost from the box and minced away.

I was later informed that he had given himself a year's bracket on either side of the age he was to guess. As a result, in saying 25 he had actually won the wager; which means that I'd inadvertently stolen a ghost from charity.

I don't feel bad. Had said ghost been sat on some white elephant stall I probably wouldn't have paid more than 20p. But for this guy I exchanged £2 and my dignity. The charity came out on top, no matter how you look at things.

This is the friendliest, happiest ghost I own. When viewed from outside it looks like he's waving at you. I realise that a good blogger would have taken a picture of that prospect, but it was raining and I'm not a very good blogger anyway. And besides; what have you done for me lately?

This one's made of gingerbread and was delicious.

This one's part of a trio of grim grinning ghosts; all of whom glow in the dark. In this picture you can also see more of the garland of multicoloured luminous ghosts as referenced above.

This one has space for a tea candle, and in our last house was attached to an in-built pulley system to achieve a unique “ghost mechanism”. He bobbed up and down when you pulled on a string.

Finally, here's my winning hand: A committee of ten foam ghosts for which I'm yet to find a use. With their sorrowful eyes and lack of mouths they're by and far the spookiest ghosts I own.

Before I die, I wish to open a museum of ghosts somewhere bleak and windswept. What you're seeing here is the genesis of my collection. It's too early to describe it as an “unhealthy collection”, but give it another year or so and you might be on to something.


The Dictator (2012)

"Why are you guys so anti-dictators? Imagine if America was a dictatorship. You could let 1% of the people have all the nation's wealth. You could help your rich friends get richer by cutting their taxes. And bailing them out when they gamble and lose. You could ignore the needs of the poor for health care and education. Your media would appear free, but would secretly be controlled by one person and his family. You could wiretap phones. You could torture foreign prisoners. You could have rigged elections. You could lie about why you go to war. You could fill your prisons with one particular racial group, and no one would complain. You could use the media to scare the people into supporting policies that are against their interests. "


Are You Desensitised?

I believe you know what I mean by desensitised.

When reading or watching genre fiction, you come across some really awful concepts with shocking regularity. Murder, torture, madness; torment at the hands of all manner of monster and an overdose of disgustingly horrific ways to die.

We take it in our stride, these days. But it wasn't always this way.

I must have been six when I first saw the box-art from Carrie. It was when they still sold VHS in HMV. Those wide-eyes staring from a blood-soaked face, I was horrified in the truest sense of the word and suffered many a disturbed night's sleep.

Waking, too, was transformed into a harrowing experience when, at a young age, I saw that horse's head scene from The Godfather. All of a sudden, the bright light of morning offered no reassurances. For a while I was terrified that I'd find a horse's head in my bed upon waking.

Now, though, I find I'm rarely scared by what I see or read in fiction.

Of course, I'm frequently disturbed. I found the remade from China Mieville's Perdido Street Station quite hard to take. And, more recently, the trans-time mutilation in Looper has been plaguing my mind with images I'd have rather not seen.

I suppose I'll only be truly desensitised when I cease to be disturbed by the things I come across in fiction. At the moment, though, it's quite rare that I should be scared by anything.

I don't believe I've ever found myself scared by a book. Nothing in the complete works of Poe, Lovecraft or M.R. James was enough to make me refrain from sleeping in the dark. Films can still be scary, but, again, it's a rarity. Not since [rec] have I been properly scared by a film. Of course, you could attribute this to the laziness of modern horror, but were that truly the case, then the classics would surely render me paralysed with fear?

It's not the case, though.

Can films or books still be scary? Of course they can. It's just that they will never scare people in the way they used to. And I know why.

It's video games. As an art-form they're still very much finding their feet, but their worthiness as a medium lies in the interactivity – that which happens doesn't just affect a character. It affects you.

If horror fans really want a visceral experience, it's likely that they'll find no finer chills than in the world of video games.

This notion was hammered home in a short sixteen minute burst of gruelling terror this very evening.

Slender is completely free and might just be the most frightening piece of fiction I've ever encountered in any medium.

Whilst playing it, I felt a rare feeling in my chest – exactly that which I've been missing in my explorations of films and literature these past few years – a delicious mixture of wariness, anticipation and lovely, lovely fear.

I won't say too much about it, because the fear of the unknown is what gives this game its devastating chops. But I will say that it's simplicity itself – just you, a torch, and a seemingly empty forest in the dead of night.

It's wonderfully atmospheric and creepy as hell. It mixes psychological scares with visceral fight-or-flight run-for-your-life punches to the gut. Everybody seems keen to describe that which is frightening as being potent enough to cause you to soil yourself. I'd say that Slender is so scary you might vomit.

It says a lot about the fearful potency of something when even the readme file's enough to fill you with a sense of wary foreboding

Slender can be downloaded for free from here. Do so now. Then turn the lights off and prepare to spend the next fifteen minutes in a state of sustained abject terror.

Then spend the rest of your night reading up on the slender man mythos. Then spend the rest of your life living in fear.

The Book Of English Magic

The Book of English Magic is perhaps worthy of the definitive article in its title. Written by Philip Carr-Gorman and Richard Heygate, this weighty 2009 tome takes it upon itself to cover pretty much everything that has anything to do with magic in England.

I don't quite know what I was expecting from this book.

I got it from The Works. You know The Works! They sell the sort of books that would, otherwise, be clogging up a warehouse.

What brought me to The Works? Providence. But what made me refuse to leave before having bought something?

Was it magic?

Maybe. Or maybe I was just really attracted to the cover.

What would have been nice would have been a detailed history of magical practice in England. Instead, here you have a vague and sweeping history of far too much with far too little focus or detail padded out with practical advice for those who want to learn more.

So, I suppose it's an excellent starting point for those who are interested in the world of magic but too frightened to speak to a witch.

The chapters on Dr. Dee and Aleister Crowley were engrossing enough but frustratingly lacking – at the very least I've identified two areas there in need of further investigation. I was also pleased to learn that the conclusion I've reached in regards to the Tarot is a generally accepted conclusion. And I arrived there myself, through personal experiment and exploration! For one glorious moment, I felt like a gnostic.

The problem for me, though, was twofold. First of all, the tone used was such that I found it hard to devote my attention to numerous chapters. Airy and wistful; I'd have preferred something more scholarly and impartial. Second of all was the amount of practical information and advice offered throughout. You can learn how to do everything: From dowsing to scrying.

Now, don't get me wrong. I've no problem at all with those who practice magic, and I like to think of myself as having an open mind on the existence of forces beyond our scientific comprehension. Hell, I even had a bit of fun exploring the numerogical implications of my name. For what it's worth, it was right on the money. I'm a Seven!

It's just that, were I to sit beneath the Hogwarts sorting hat, I believe that I would immediately find myself placed in Ravenclaw. I much prefer to read and learn about things over actually doing things. Those nasty Slytherin and self-righteous Gryffindor types can keep their Quidditch trophies and their invisibility cloaks. I'll be in the library, wrapped up in books, engrossed in the History of Magic.

So an instruction manual such as this was never going to be of much use to me. As a reading list, though, it seems like it might come in handy.

Was it worth paying so much for a reading list? Hey, we're talking The Works, here. It cost me £1.99.

And, besides. On the same trip to the same shop I picked up something so beautiful that I don't care a hang for having blown so little on something of such disappointing substance.

About which more later.


Death Line (1973)

Here's one I've been wanting to see for some time. Since – oh, I don't know – probably since I read a gushing article about it in a book left in the bathroom by my then-flatmate. I can't remember the name of the book, but it was a pretty insufferable collection of tragically iconoclastic essays concerning various aspects of British cinema. There's “celebrating the less familiar” and then there's “hey, let's stubbornly pour scorn upon anything that's beloved of more than ten people”. This book unfortunately went for the latter approach on far too many occasions, which might explain why I never deigned to remember the its title.

I'm an awful fickle rat sometimes.

But Death Line. Death Line.

They were right on the money when it comes to Death Line.

I know I moan a lot on this site about the state of modern horror. Death Line, though, takes pretty much every single one of the tired tropes about which I'm so fond of complaining and demonstrates how to treat them in such a way as to make a film that's oh so much more than a sum of its parts.

It's about a dying tribe of cannibalistic inbreds who live in the “rabbit warren” that is the London Tube. Trapped beneath the rubble after having been abandoned in the wake of a cave-in, it's implied that life is bleak, damp yet ultimately quite touching underground. Though they've all but lost language, they still communicate; and that they cling to such customs as defined clothing for men and women and even burial rites makes this film, on one level, a subtle exploration of what makes us human.

Only emerging to feast on the flesh of the living, it's likely that their existence would have continued unnoticed but for two reasons. First of all, their last remaining pregnant female just died. Second of all, they made the mistake of choosing, as their prey, one James Manfred – gentleman, pervert, OBE.

Being an OBE, not only does his death invokes the involvement of MI5 (a marvellously creepy cameo from Christopher Lee, above), but it also forces adorably lazy Inspector Calhoun to actually do his job for a change.

Played brilliantly by Donald Pleasence, Inspector Calhoun appears to be the reason as to why so many people rate this film so highly. In that you can tell that, at any given moment, he'd much rather be sat alone with a lovely cup of loose-leaf tea, he's wonderful and strangely cuddly despite his caustic chronic grumpiness.

There's a very long scene in which he and his second in command outstay their welcome in a grotty little pub – getting hammered and eating sausages whilst playing pinball and being really quite rude to the ever-tolerant barman. It contributes precisely nothing to the plot but goes in a long way to explain the appeal of this film: Death Line doesn't appear to take itself at all seriously, but with its fully-drawn characters and carefully considered cannibals, scratching beneath the surface reveals fathomless depth.

The only downside is the American – the eternally dour Alex Campbell, whose character doesn't seem to stretch too far beyond “student”. He's boring and almost threatens to ruin the fun for everyone else, but even he's saved thanks to his really, really lovely girlfriend and the gorgeous book shop in which it works. Wall-to-wall Penguin paperbacks and a big poster of Dickens? If I'm good, that's probably where I'll go when I die. The tea will flow like rivers, and there'll be a really comfy chair in the corner.

Region 2 DVDs of Death Line are surprisingly hard to come-by, but this is one I want to own forever and never give away. It's this close to entering my beloved pantheon of horror alongside The Wicker Man, Eraserhead and Evil Dead 2. I'm almost certain that I've found a new favourite here.


We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

We Need To Talk About Kevin tells the story of a high school massacre from the perspective of the killer's mother.

Does that sound like the sort of thing you'd like? Then read the book. Lionel Shriver's novel approaches its subject matter with a chilling restraint. Lynne Ramsay's film adaptation, though beautifully shot and brilliantly performed, ultimately comes across as little more than a nuanced remake of The Omen.

It's worth watching for two things. First, the haunting soundtrack which blends scratchy blues with a strange mix of ethnic instrumentation and industrial droning. Second, the incredible career-best performance of Tilda Swinton.

Swinton is fantastic throughout. She doesn't say much, but she exudes the sort of sadness that you can almost feel as a pressing weight on your chest and stomach – an all-encompassing grief that manifests itself as debilitating fatigue and nausea. Her Eva radiates an unbearable pity which makes the whole film emotionally draining.

But that's part of the problem. We aren't exactly supposed to pity Eva.

In the translation from the page to the screen, we are inevitably robbed of many things. Most obvious is Eva's narration. And, as a result, we also lose a delicious slice of ambiguity.

Eva has a son called Kevin. Kevin is an insufferable monster. But was he born this way?

The book insists that he was indeed born a monster. However, there's the subtle implication that Eva simply didn't lavish him with a sufficient amount of love, patience and attention to prevent his inherent mental health problems from developing into full-blown nihilistic sociopath psychosis.

The film, on the other hand, quite explicitly implies that, despite Eva's best efforts, Kevin was just a bad egg. He was always going to do what he ends up doing.

And that's really quite hard to take. It reduces what is supposed to be an intriguing and gruelling exploration of the nature/nurture debate into the realms of quasi-supernatural horror.

Also, halfway through the film, Kevin grows up and is suddenly played by Ezra Miller. This is the first time I've ever seen Miller in anything, so I'm in no position to assess his chops as an actor. His Kevin, though, just feels wrong. Of course, Kevin is supposed to be an amoral superior husk. But is he really supposed to be so irritating?

In any case, I'm sure he's not supposed to be so attractive.

So yes. Read the book. Apart from anything else, it fills in many, many plot holes concerning “the incident” and even manages something of a happy ending.

At least, it manages a poignant ending which, thinking about it, sort of makes me want to stop living. The film, though, ends in such a way that seems specifically designed to troll those who like closure.


DC Ghosts!

I think the entire run of DC's Ghosts comic has been uploaded to the amazing Cover Browser website.

I've not read any of these comics and, in all honesty, I'm not sure if I'd like to. The best of these covers present a chilling and complete story in one beautifully drawn tableau. How could the full stories do anything but disappoint?

Below are my favourites, presented without further comment. With just a brief glance you can see exactly what's happening and, in many cases, the implication is bloody terrifying.