A Place to Bury Strangers, London King’s College, April 6th, 2009

There probably should be some kind of health warning associated with A Place To Bury Strangers. It's not just the fact their stage show apparently flies headlong into the face of the UK Health and Safety Executive's recommendations for the use of strobe lights, it's the sheer complex intensity of their music that's the issue. The fact that I've been listening to them a lot recently (hell, this is the third time I've written about them in the last few months), and a lot of that has been through headphones, there's probably something very wrong indeed happening where my brain used to be. As such, I make no apologies at all for writing entirely subjectively about the Kings College show.

APTBS
This is the second time I've seen the band  in the space of a few months. At the risk of getting all leather elbow patchy, seeing a band like this twice in quick succession is pretty interesting from a critical perspective (and part of the reason I went to see My Bloody Valentine twice in a week not so long ago). I've already been blown away by the sheer visceral roar of their music; my mind corrupted, my eyes and eyes numbed into an ecstatic  trance. This time, I wasn't about to get my self caught up in the frenzy. It was a Monday night, after all.

Once you've been shocked, offended or stunned, once the limits of acceptability have been transgressed, its impossible to be corrupted a second time and whilst the set list was largely the same, tonight's gig had a hugely different dynamic to the band's last London show at the ICA before Christmas. Last time was about being beaten into submission by the bombast, being mesmerised by the light show, this time I was able to start making out the layers, seeing that there's much more at work than just loud noise.

Don't get me wrong, loud noise is still an important part of their sound – they play it as another instrument in a similar way to MBV – but there's more going on. For me, tonight was about a gradual build of intensity, a slow creeping annihilation rather than a blitzkrieg. It was about Oliver Ackerman's twisted guitar noises, about how he inhabits the music on stage, turning from retiring shoegaze/indie popster to dangerously-crazed shaman within the space of their 70 minute set.

A Place to Bury Strangers are about more than just playing songs, they move beyond performance and start getting really physical. The music articulates the angsty, silent inner roar that you feel when you wake at 3.30am. Wow. I'm going to be leaving them alone for a bit. 

Jerry Sadowitz, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, December 14th, 2008

It's taken me over a week to pull my thoughts about the Sadowitz show together. Sure, I've been busy at work, but its mostly because I've been to scared to put my response into the public domain, lest it warrants a typically Sadowitizian verbal punishment beating in response. I've been having nightmares about getting a pre-Christmas midnight visit from a curly-haired Glaswegian with a top hat and a manic stare, but I'm feeling particularly brave today.

SadowitzL181206_243x359

There's been loads written about the shock value of Jerry Sadowitz, the offence he apparently causes, and how its apparently hampered his career over the last decade or so. Anyone getting hung up about the words he uses, the fact he systematically pours bile over almost all the UK's ethnic groups and sacred cows, or the amount of time he spends talking about wanking is missing the point. Tonight's show was a refreshing, life-affirming antidode to the mediocrity of the majority contemporary entertainment.

If you get offended by his show (I saw a splattering of people walk out in tonight's 90 minute show), you really shouldn't have been there in the first place. Sadowitz is the equivalent of the kid that points out that the Emperor is walking around bollock-naked, he's the Iraqui bloke who chucked his shoes at George W Bush, he's the comedy equivalent of a suicide bomber. Offence isn't what his comedy is about – offence is (without wanting to descend into theoretical bullshit) a major part of his comedy technique – he uses it to tear back the conventions and the taboos of our post-Mumbai, post-Baby P, post-Iraq society so we can all see things a little bit more clearly.

Thats not to say Sadowitz is some great philosophical figure – a Sade for the 2008 – although he clearly is a very clever man – his show is much more about knob jokes and belly laughs than it is about learning to live with existential malaise. Tonight's show was also about magic – Sadowitz is a world-class close-up magician and we get a succession of his tricks tonight, but the show was really all about his stand-up. I'm not going to tell you any of his jokes – go see him yourself. 

Yes we get the rants, but we also get an insight into Sadowitz himself – its a pretty personal show, he's obviously someone who cares very deeply, although he'd probably say face-to-face that he didn't really give a fuck.

Sadowitz at Christmas – along with the Pogues at Brixton –  is fast becoming a fixture of 'Christmas in London' (typing that made me feel a little unwell) and long may it continue. He offers the polar opposite of good will to all men. He's more about cutting through the bullshit of fake seasonal good will,  speaking freely and, ultimately a bit more honestly.

Music: The Aliens, Luna

Luna is the follow-up to The Aliens' critically-acclaimed 2007 debut Astronomy For Dogs. It's almost impossible to write about The Aliens (who formed out of the ashes of the Beta Band) without without referring in some way to singer/songwriter Gordon Anderson's mental troubles. On starting to write this, I agonised for a while about whether to make any references to his well-documented problems. Should I let the music speak for itself on its own terms? What relevance do his battles with his inner demons have for his music?

Luna
After a few listens of Luna, its pretty obvious that these battles are pretty inseperable from the music. Anderson, it seems, even encourages us to place his music in that context by referring pretty explicitly to other famously similarly troubled musical souls – what's Smoggy Bog if not a big nod to Syd Barrett? And Theremin could have been a track from Brian Wilson's Smile. The vocal refrain of Billy Jack – 'Tell me when your gonna rest with your mind' is another giveaway But wheras Astronomy for Dogs was a joyus, life-enhancing and uplifting album, Luna goes in an altogether different, albeit still psychedelic, direction. It's tempting to say that its all together too introspective and naval-gazing to be as big a success as the band's first platter.

Whatever the impact of mental illness on its creation, it's a patchy piece of work – a mish mash of fragments and fillers. Tracks such as Dove Returning and Everyone both have the kernels of wonderful, beautiful songs, but they don't seem to have been fully developed, they plod away rather than soaring majestically. The overblown prog-pomp hilarity of Bobby's Song and Billy Jack seem wonderful on a first listen (both at them come it at over ten minutes), but they just aren't strong enough tracks to demand a repeated listen. There are loads of enchanting moments on this album that make you smile, rock out or boogie, but they just aren't consistent enough when you are brought back done by average tracks like Daffodils. The only track that really seems fully formed and ready for external consumption, and in so doing capturing the dizzy heights of the first album is Magic Man.

Anyone who has seen The Aliens' shambolically entertaining live show knows how good they can be and for that reason its probably worth persisting with the album – it might suddenly kick in.. Luna at the moment however, leaves me feeling a little sad. It's certainly got more of a downbeat, contemplative tone that its predecessor, but that's not the reason. It's the underlying feeling that Luna had the potential to be as good, if not better than Astronomy For Dogs. It's that unrealised potential that means Luna is a missed opportunity for The Aliens to produce a truly brilliant piece of work. 

Film: The Baader Meinhof Complex (Dir: Udi Edel)

I have to admit it. I’m a sucker for movies about romantic, well-dressed and just plain fucking cool revolutionary groups. The Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, the Situationists, Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation army; wherever you stand on their politics and the morality of their actions, you have to admit there’s a Robin Hood-esque attractiveness to all of them. Some of them also wore some very cool clothes.

The Baader Meinhof Complex isn’t the first film I’ve seen recently about a terrorist group – I reviewed Steve Macqueen’s Hunger a couple of weeks ago (some I’m probably on a Government watch list somewhere) – but where Macqueen’s film is a profound, sombre picture of a men pushed to the edge, the Baader Meinhof Complex is as much about the sex and the style of the terrorists concerned as it is analysing their substance and their actions.

The film, directed by Udi Edel who also masterminded the controversial, but critically acclaimed Last Exit to Brooklyn movie and Madonna’s woeful Body of Evidence, and produced and written by Bernd Eichinger who last brought us Downfall basically tells the story of the life of the group officially called the Red Army Faction, but became more popularly known as the Baader Meinhof group, after two of the Faction’s leading personalities (Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof).

The RAF (no, not them) saw themselves as a politicial group. History views them as extreme left-wingers – they used the Marx as a starting point and were influenced by, Rudi Dutschke – but really saw themselves as sitting outside the conventional ideological framework, so were inevitably described lazily as anarchists. They saw themselves as kicking against authoritarianism – they’d grown up with the Nazi legacy and were determined to do everything in their power to prevent Germany again falling foul of a similar police state nightmare. They did this through a series of revolutionary actions, mostly bomings of what they selected as ‘legitimate targets’.

The Baader Meinhof Complex only pays lip service to the rights and wrongs of the Red Army Faction’s campaign. Frankly, Eichinger and Edel don’t need to, its been dealt with previously by countless documentaries including this fairly recent one from BBC4. This film is instead about the RAF’s actions, its impulsiveness, its vanity, its glamour – what it did, rather than what it thought. In that sense, its an action movie in the truest sense of the word.

It’s the group’s fundamental vanity, that led to its eventual downfall – something defined in the film as the Baader Meinhof Complex and personnified in it by Ulrike Meinhof’s breakdown. The group became less a band of revolutionaries than a killing machine – jettisonning Meinhof’s theory for the guns and bullets and a love of live on the edge of society.

The Baader Meinhof Complex isn’t as great a piece of art as Hunger, but that’s not the point. It doesn’t offer a critique of the RAF, but an intensely entertaining film. It is slightly longer than it should be, and suffers from some horrendous musical choices (Blowin’ In The Wind over the ednd credits and My Generation earlier on – how cheesy can you get?!), but is definitely worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time.

An interesting article from the Guardian on the cultural legacy of the Red Army Faction, here.

A useful Baader Meinhof resource.

Art: GSK Contemporary, Royal Academy of Arts, London

I have to admit to being a bit confused as to what GSK Contemporary is all about. Is it a cynical attempt by sponsors GlaxoSmithKline to appear cool, edgy and relevant to the new intake of London-based students? Is it an effort by the Royal Academy to shed its image as the gallery of choice for the Daily Mail reader? Or is it something genuinely cutting-edge and artistically interesting. I’m not sure. I think its probably a mixture of all three, with the emphasis on the first two.

Monday probably isn’t the best time to see a gallery at its best, especially not one that claims to focus on the links between ‘art, performance and experimental theatre’, but I was in the area and wanted to try and make sense of what the RA’s latest initiative was all about. I’d seen some adverts and the flashy website, but was frankly a little bit bemused about what the show was trying to achieve. Was it a straightforward ICA-esque contemporary art show? Was is a cool bar/nightclub with a gallery attached? Was it a performance space? The promotion all seemed a little jumbled. Obviously, I had to check it out. Even after going, I’m still not sure.

Arriving at the space didn’t immediately make things any clearer. Once I’d bought my ticket, GSK Contemporary was horrendously signposted; it wasn’t until after wandering round the ground floor for a good few minutes that the real action was taking place upstairs.

As far as I can work out, GSK Contemporary (awful, awful name, who the hell in the marketing department agreed to that one?) is split into two phases. The first phase, called Molten States runs until mid December, with a second, called Collision Course, taking over afterwards. Molten States showcases the work of Olaf Nicolai, Julian Rosefeldt, Rene Pollesch and Catherine Sullivan. As well as functioning as a static daytime gallery, there’s also a shed-load of evening events happening (think Late at Tate, Late Nights at the Whitechapel) with the likes of Bob and Roberta Smith and Martin Creed doing their things.

It was refreshing to see an exhibition in such a large space devoted to contemporary art – and new works by artists that I hadn’t previously encountered. The first work, by Rene Pollesch, is an installation based on a German-language performance that took place on Halloween at GSK Contemporary and seems to be deliberately obtuse and confrontational. Lots of shouting in German. Olaf Nicolai’s mechanical pole-dancer was disappointing – was I missing something or was the piece supposed to be presented in darkness – the main light was on?! Catherine Sullivan’s work – which appeared to have something to do with colonialism (there were grand houses and period costumes that reminded me of Yinka Shonibare’s Turner Prize nominated work) – was also disappointingly complex.

Julian Rosefeldt’s three multi-screen video works were a revelation and the undoubted highlight of the show. I haven’t encountered his work before. The Soundmaker, Stunned Man and The Perfectionist are all meditations on the absurdity of everyday life. They are simple, yet compelling and worth a visit.

My gut feel is that GSK Contemoporary is designed more as a club/gallery – a late night ‘happening’ space (open until midnight on Thursday, Friday and Saturdays) aimed at flogging booze to the monied London art school crowd, rather than a daytime gallery. As such, I’ll be heading back to see how different it all looks after dark – and to check out the Rosefeldts again, of course. It’s got me interested, but I can’t work out if I like it. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

Check out this piece from Art Review.com.

Art: Rothko, The Late Series, Tate Modern

Sunday afternoon seemed the perfect time to check out Tate Modern’s new Mark Rothko show. Heading off to an exhibition of his large scale, meditative paintings is basically the art world equivalent of going to church. You can’t help being inspired and not a little intimidated by the hugeness of his canvasses and his bold repetitions, much in the same way you are when you enter a large gothic cathedral (or massive football stadium, come to think of it). The problem is that everyone else seemed to have the same idea.

It is universally acknowledged that Rothko is a great painter. People that don’t generally visit galleries, or profess any admiration at all for contemprary art – people that would probably run screaming when confronted with a Bruce Nauman or a Paul McCarthy - would most probably be able to identify the large blocks of colour that Rothko worked with.

As such, the Tate clearly has high hopes they are onto a winner with their current high-profile show. It’s certainly has people flocking through the doors so far. It’s not a retrospective, focussing instead on his late works and his ‘works in series’. Whilst there is a respectful amount of space given to a couple of this series – his Black-Form paintings and his Brown and Gray work, for example – the show is built around the so called Seagram Paintings.

In 1958 Mark Rothko was comissioned to paint murals for the Four Seasons restaurant in New York’s Seagram building. The pictures never ended up in the restaurant, but in the Tate’s collection. These are displayed in the present show, together with pictures painted at the same time loaned from collections in the US and Japan.

This Seagram room is stunning. It is dimly lit, to encourage respectful contemplation, and the pictures are hung high on the wall (as Rothko himself demanded when the murals were displayed at a previous retrospective), making them even more imposing. The combination of the vast space, easily the biggest space in the Tate Modern at the moment apart from the turnbine hall itself, and the intensity of his works combine to produce an emotionally dramatic effect.

Given the drama of the Seagram room, its a little surprising that I came away from this visit feeling a little disappointed rather than emotionally uplifted. The hangover probably didn’t help, but the space was just so unbelievably crowded, it destroyed any effect that the Rothkos should have created. Now, I normally put up with a bit of gallery overcrowding (its inveitable when you’ve got a place as fantastic as Tate Modern), but the single most important thing about Rothko is how his work makes you feel. It isn’t about uncovering hidden midden, he isn’t a political artist, his work is visceral and concerned with the sensation created when you are standing in front of the picture. It’s all about the interraction you have with the work in the gallery. If something disturbs that, then the power of the work is lost. That’s what has happened here.

How can they sort it out? Limiting the number of people that can be in the gallery at one time would be a start, if an unpopular move. Tate Modern has been staggeringly successful, but when it starts letting success compromise the visitor experience its going to have problems. Definitely go and see the show, but go first thing in the morning if you want to be truly touched. Otherwise, well, you’ll just be looking at pictures…

Rothko, The Late Series runs at Tate Modern until February 1st 2009.

Film: Hunger (Dir: Steve McQueen)

Hunger is a terrifying film. It’s the debut feature film from Steve McQueen, best known for beating Tracey Emin to the Turner Prize in 1999. It tells the story of Irish republican inmates holed up in the Maze prison, Belfast protesting against not being treated as political prisoners – specifically the highest profile protestor, Bobby Sands. McQueen is an accomplished video artist, and he’s made the move from galleries to cinemas with arguably the most difficult subject matter he could have selected; the Northern Ireland political situation has been covered impressively in the past, and the instinctively physically repulsive nature of the prisoners’ protests isn’t one that lends itself naturally to your local multiplex. You won’t want to bringing popcorn to this one.

McQueen, however, has suceeded in bringing the story of Sands and the protestors to life in an unflinching, yet visually compelling way. In short, the film never pulls away from showing the brutality of the prison officers and their treatment of the prisoners, or the full horrors of the dirty protests and hunger strikes. Since his death in 1981, Sands has been something of a romantic figure in popular folklore, he’s slightly romanticised here (its certainly a synpathetic portrayal), but its also a warts and all picture of a man pushed to the edge of reason.

It’s refreshing to see a film that takes a new approach to cinematography. Visually, its obvious that McQueen has broached the subject matter as a visual artist, every scene is perfectly composed. Impressively, he never lapses into self-indulgence as one might expect from a video artist – the film comes in at an impressively concise 96 minutes, despite one of the longest one-take scenes in cinema history (this is worth the price of the cinema ticket alone – acted by Michael Fassbender as Sands and Liam Cunningham as his priest).

Hunger is terrifying because of its relentless honesty – there’s no airbrushing (although the naked prisoners did look a little too well toned at times!), no distracting sub plots, no smart-arsed conceits. It’s a naked, uncomfortable but gripping film. Anyone with even a passing interest in British or Irish politics needs to go see it.