25 May 2015

Fantastic Facts #1 | Right Next Door to Hell

Particularly for grown-ups, it’s all too easy to get bogged down in the mundane. Some people go for months only thinking about only work targets and MOTs; big shops, sausages and SIM cards. I’m fortunate enough to have a three-year-old little girl whose endless energy is exceeded only by her curiosity about the world that we live in and all its awesome wonder. This bite-sized series is for her, as a little thank you for reminding me of it.

About 67,108,000 miles from the sun spins a planet that seems to pride itself on being contrary. Once hailed on Earth as “Morning Star” and “Evening Star” due to its brightness at dawn and dusk, and later named after the Roman goddess of love for that same incandescent quality, Venus is in fact the terrestrial embodiment of Hell - the planet Earth as seen through a mirror, darkly.

At around 80% the size of our own blue orb, Venus is often referred to as Earth’s “twin” or “sister” planet, yet almost everything else about it is contradictory. You could visit Venus for a day, yet spend more than a year there as it travels around the Sun faster than it rotates on its own axis – and backwards, too. If you could stand on the planet’s blistering surface and somehow make out the dull, cloud-cloaked orange smudge that is the Sun, you’d see that it rises in the west and sets in the east, Venus’s “retrograde spin” setting it apart from every other planet in the Solar System. 

But then, nobody is ever likely to be able to stand on Venus’s rocky landscape as, even if its sulphuric acid rain didn’t eat away their spacesuits and its deep-sea-like pressure didn’t give them the bends, its surface temperatures are hot enough to melt lead, and would therefore make short work of organic matter. Indeed, even Mercury, who spins a great deal closer to the Sun, can’t match Venus’s 480°c surface temperature, as it lacks the same thick, noxious clouds that trap the Sun’s heat inside the ultimate atmospheric greenhouse. 

Ironically though, it is this very damning atmosphere that reflects so much sunlight back into space, leaving Venus – for all its Hellish qualities – second only to the Moon in the dominance of Earth’s night sky.

20 May 2015

First-hand Fitness #4 | On Independence: Day 660

Sixty days ago I deleted my Runtastic and MyFitnessPal apps from my iPhone, and for the first time in almost two years went about my daily business without painstakingly logging every morsel of food eaten; every step taken; every bar lifted. I was curious as to whether prolonged use of these apps had instilled good behaviours, or actually left me reliant upon them forever more.

Thankfully, it’s the former. All that nutritional information has long-since been burnt into my brain; all those good practices have become part of my daily routine.

Since Day #601 I’ve gained 2lbs and increased my 10-rep bench press (a good yardstick for strength) by 10lbs, both of which are in keeping with my average rate of gain over the previous 600 days (they’re both actually a little better, no doubt thanks to my less strictly-controlled portions over the past sixty days).

And so, whilst I’ll continue to use MyFitnessPal for a strict fat-cutting week of protein and veg every couple of months, for the most part now I’ll be going it alone.

The MyFitnessPal app is free to download from the App Store. Since my 2012 review, it has been updated to encourage weight gain as well as weight loss, depending on your goal. Runtastic is also free to download from the App Store, with the more feature-packed Runtastic Pro costing you £3.99.

08 May 2015

The One-Listen Lowdown #3 | The Magic Whip by Blur

After so many years estranged in the wilderness, I was fretful about what the reformed Blur would sound like. Their 2012 interim single, “Under the Westway”, was a gentle, mellifluous piece that I felt boded well for a more substantial offering, but the unveiling of The Magic Whip’s cover gave me pause. Gone was the band/brand logo that had adorned most of their albums and singles. Gone were the spitfires, greyhounds, 4468 Mallards and flagons that I’d come to associate with their oh-so-English style. Hell, of Blur’s principal audience, only those who work in tattoo parlours are likely to be able to read the band’s name and the album’s title despite its repellent neon glow. All of this novelty, alas, evoked the sense of the troubled Think Tank over and above any of the group’s more acclaimed efforts.

My pause, however, would be brief. With my notepad in hand, fifty-two minutes flew past in a blur of nostalgia and enthusiasm. 

For starters, you couldn’t possibly get a more Blurry song than “Lonesome Street” to open a record. Harking back to the band’s Britpop heyday, Damon Albarn floats a flurry of “Oh-oh”s and “Oh no”s on top of one of Graham Coxon’s baggiest riffs in a long time, the sounds of contemporary city life discernable beneath the indie clamour in a way that instantly evokes “Parklife”. A quick shift of gears, and the haunting “New World Towers” recalls a different era altogether, whilst insidiously laying the foundations of a new one. Its sound may be a perfect fit for the band’s eponymous 1997 album, or perhaps even their seminal 13, but its lyrics are thoroughly 2015 – “Login your name and pray…”

The album’s onomatopoeic lead single is a little disappointing by contrast. Unlike the first two tracks, I’ve already heard it a few times and don’t much care for it. Though I admire Albarn’s gall in writing a mainstream pop song that’s ostensibly about wanking, unfortunately it sounds eerily like its subject matter. De facto title track “Ice Cream Man” is even creepier, its electronic bounce belying what seems to be the tale of a paedo’s outing (“All the lantern men marching down ’til dawn. Morning come, he fall over…”) There’s something infectious about it, nonetheless; its hook is alarmingly alluring.

“Thought I Was a Spaceman” is bleak in a striking, harmonious way, calling to mind favourite tracks of mine like “Strange News from Another Star” and “On the Way to the Club”. The band then turn briefly into Radiohead, delivering thirty seconds or so of music that if you close your eyes, you’d swear you were listening to Thom Yorke and company. But as soon as Albarn starts to croon, “I love the aspects of another city, the representatives are al-ri-i-i-ght. In circulation the snake and the tiger, waking up clean shaven in industrial li-i-i-ght,” they’re indubitably Blur once more, and at the height of their powers. A first-listen standout, “I Broadcast” would have been my pick for lead single.

The Magic Whip only improves from there. “My Terracotta Heart” is the album’s buried treasure; a rare example of a heterosexual male lovesong - and one that finally draws a line under the Albarn / Coxon divide by combining what they each do best. Albarn sings of running out of heart and open road for his erstwhile brother as Coxon plays a gentle, haunting melody. It’s enough to bake any listener’s ceramic heart.

Inspired by a hostage situation in a chocolate shop, “There Are Too Many of Us” is a wonderfully paranoid track that fuses the restless spirit of Modern Life is Rubbish with 13’s grand symphonic scale. Whilst you won’t find any sensible solution to the world’s overcrowding problem hidden in them, Albarn’s lyrics are spiky and distrustful (“Flashing lights advocate it, on the big screens everywhere…”), and, thanks in no small part to farmer/bassist Alex James, the delicately textured music has an epic feel to it that continues to build upon the emotional weight of the previous track.

“Ghost Ship” feels like a bit of a filler by contrast, sounding like so many other non-descript Blur album tracks that it almost feels like a deliberate gag. That’s not to do it down too much though; more leisurely than Leisure, it’s actually a very pleasant, easy listen. It’s followed by a stirring dirge for North Korea’s capital city, Pyongyang. Abounding with beautiful lyrics (“And the pink light that bathes the great leaders is fading, by the time your sun is rising there, out here it’s turning blue. The silver rockets coming and the cherry trees, Pyongyang, I’m leaving…”) and deft musical flourishes, it’s another prime example of how Blur have seamlessly picked up exactly where they should have left off at the end of the last century.

“Lalalala lalalala lalalala lalala lalalala lalalalala…”

The Magic Whip’s penultimate track is probably destined to become its most popular, particularly at gigs. “Ong Ong” is a slow, lazy anthem that you can’t not sing along to. “I crawled out the harbour with recession behind, and now I’m feeling the love of you. So you better get a charge ’til I see you again, you’ll know just what to do…” It’s the perfect pop song for a sluggish, sizzling summer; another should-have-been single.

True to form, Blur leave us with a crushing low in the form of “Mirrorball”. A contemporary answer to “This is a Low” with all the devastating immensity of “Battery in Your Leg”, The Magic Whip’s final crack puts an emotive exclamation on what has to be considered a triumphant comeback.

“So before you log out, hold close to me…”

This summer, as ice creams drip, fireworks explode and MPs are whipped in, The Magic Whip is sure to be playing away in the background everywhere, spreading unease as Blur’s ’90s “modern life is rubbish” philosophy evolves into “modern life is… wrong.” And with the Tories back in charge of the UK, this time unhindered, it’s sure to get a whole lot wronger around here soon.

The Magic Whip is available to download from iTunes for £9.99 or Amazon’s MP3 store for £9.89. Ten pence more will get you the CD too, but if you go down that route you’ll have to either spend another £11.01 to qualify for free delivery or stump up however much Amazon charge for postage and packing these days.

04 May 2015

Film Review | Cobain: Montage of Heck directed by Brett Morgen

They say that you should never meet your heroes.

They’re right.

Academy Award®-nominated Brett Morgen’s acclaimed Kurt Cobain biopic, Montage of Heck, has finally demystified one of my teen idols, humanising him in a way that’s enthralling, if not especially desirable. For years I’ve watched other filmmakers spin theories and try to piece together a picture of the Nirvana frontman from second-hand puzzle pieces that never quite seemed to fit, and read unauthorised biographies that did much the same. I’ve even delved into Cobain’s published journals, only to find the same organised confusion and dejection upon which Nirvana was built and little besides. But throughout my devouring of all this extra-curricular material, the poster image of the long-haired and stubbly-chinned “better looking than Brad Pitt” grunge rocker persisted in my mind; the rock ’n’ roll suicide who burnt out, rather than fading away.

For better or worse, that image is gone.

A number of key elements set
Morgen’s movie apart from the likes of Nick Broomfield’s incendiary Kurt & Courtney and AJ Schnack’s more pensive About a Son, the most obvious of which are his access to Cobain’s music and his family’s (surprisingly substantial) home media library. The latter offers viewers a less fettered impression of the star-crossed star; the former, context, on both a global and an intimate scale. 

Morgen’s selection of Nirvana songs and soundbites instantly transport viewers back through their memories to the early 1990s, making the movie’s drama all the more immediate and harrowing. Yet, placed as they are at significant moments in Cobain’s life story, their lyrics also offer an illuminating view into their writer’s state of mind when he wrote them. Songs that I thought I knew inside-out have suddenly taken on new meaning for me - an unplugged, clearly heartfelt Lead Belly cover now goes beyond the stage, begging real-life questions of fidelity, as Morgen uses it as a backdrop to Courtney Love’s confession to temptation in London; “Serve the Servants” is suddenly as much a proclamation of purpose as it is maturity; “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is less a call to arms, and more an ironic homage to the movie Over the Edge; even the bonkers “Scentless Apprentice”, believe or not, has a point buried in its inscrutable lyrics, as it encapsulates how Cobain saw himself in the eyes of his parents, albeit a little more obliquely than in “Something in the Way”.

Montage of Heck (which takes its name from a 1988 mix tape made by Cobain) is also a technical triumph, dextrously weaving together a variety of media of varying quality to provide a complete multimedia portrait. Ancient voicemail messages, drawings and diaries are blended with high-quality Super 8 film and low-quality VHS through Stefan Nadelman and Hisko Hulsing’s all-new animation, providing the sort of immersive experience that no number of books or second-hand documentaries could ever match. I was particularly impressed with recurring little touches such as being able to watch Cobain’s handwriting appear on the pages of his journal, or see his manic, polarised art morph into spectacular animated set pieces (the highlights for me being Incesticide’s sick cover coming to life, and [presumably] Francis Bean in utero set to the twisted sound of one of my favourite Nirvana B-sides, “Sappy”).

Another strength of the movie is Jeff Danna’s score, which reinterprets and reframes key Nirvana riffs and themes. Most notably, a melodic version of “All Apologies” poignantly underscores Cobains merry childhood capers, while haunting renditions of tracks like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Lithium” underscore his angst-ridden teenage years and early experiments with drugs, serving as a prelude for what’s to come. Watching him with a spliff in his bedroom, strumming away on his guitar as a version of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” that sounds like Eleanor Rigby broils away ominously in the background, is a little like hearing those telling few bars of “The Imperial March” in Attack of the Clones after Anakin’s confession - it creates an almost tangible sense of inexorability.

What warrants the most praise though is not the wider source material or even its spectacular presentation, but Morgen’s incisive cut to the heart of Cobain’s story, which strips away the image of the now almost mythic grunge god to expose a physically and mentally frail – “fragile” is the word that keeps recurring throughout the film - individual, whose professional triumphs flowed from wallowing in insecurities and neuroses that this film lays bare. Indeed, Montage of Heck paints a moving picture of a prodigious but troubled young man who, for the most part, attracts great sympathy despite his never-ending catalogue of poor and selfish choices. Even as he talks of manipulating and stealing from, even taking advantage of, a girl whom his classmates had labelled a “retard”, he speaks with such honesty and dignity that it’s easy to see how he unwittingly - and unwillingly - became the spokesman for a generation.

But as the film progresses, and his life becomes little more than a drug-fuelled orgy with Courtney Love, such poise and candour is harder to find amongst all the silliness and squalor. Particularly as someone who’s had his views on Love coloured by other sources, I was really taken aback by Morgen’s candid portrayal of the skag-addled Cobain in his final year or so of life, which from the clips chosen is hard to reconcile with the loving father depicted in his journals. The press - and indeed the courts, initially - were, quite rightly, quick to chastise Love for her use of heroin whilst pregnant with Francis Bean, but as Montage of Heck creeps towards its inevitable end, it wasn’t so much her that I was silently judging, but the mortal remains of her husband who couldn’t even keep his eyes open long enough to get through his daughter’s haircut. Overall it might have been “six of one and half a dozen of the other,” as my old mam would say, but this film stirred some previously absent sympathy for Cobain’s widow (and not just ’cos she has her tits and/or arse out in most of the home video clips).

Perhaps the greatest praise that I can give to Morgen’s masterpiece though is that, from start to finish, it is a film about the life of Kurt Cobain. Previous films have treated him like Benjamin Button, starting with that legendary death – such a bore - and working their way back from there, whereas Morgen only really dwells on Cobain’s suicide in the final frame, focusing instead on the man as he lived. Bravo.

Whether you are or were a fan of Nirvana or not, this is a film that you have to see, if only to serve as a memento mori like no other; a brutal reminder to us all that it’s definitely better to fade away than burn out.

Cobain: Montage of Heck is available to download from the iTunes Store in 1080p HD for £13.99. It will air tonight on HBO in the USA.

If you’ve watched the film and are wondering who the “interpretative dancer” is in the Reading Festival scenes, check out my old friend Polish* Paul’s interview with him at LeftLion. You may also enjoy his Nottsvana, which tells of how Nottingham helped to shape Nirvanas success.

* Not even remotely Polish. About as Polish as Phil the Greek is Greek