The Zero Hour

Reviews, rants and oddities on video game and film culture.

Music Monday #4: Howling Bells – Self Titled

I’ve never really been sure why, but I’ve always been drawn to bands with female vocalists, which would probably explain why I’ve so heavily endorsed Metric and Yeah Yeah Yeahs in the past couple of weeks. Whilst I can’t exactly give a straight answer to why, I think it partly leads into the vocal style, I tend to find that you can get more emotion out of a female voice than you can a males. I’m not saying male voices are devoid of emotion, in fact I’m sure in future weeks we’ll see many cases that are the opposite, but for now, let’s talk about Howling Bells.

Howling Bells are a band who like a lot of bands of the period, never quite managed a level of huge success. They came close to it, having toured with Coldplay, critical acclaim and being pick of the week on many radio stations, but it never translated to number 1 albums. Maybe they never will have a gold record and maybe their best years are now behind them (Their 3rd album, The Loudest Engine, whilst enjoyable, didn’t have the magic of the previous two albums), but they are a fascinating, unique band who hold a very special place in my heart.

Formed in Sydney and originally as “Wakiki”, peddling a pop rock sound, the band were dis-satisfied with their sound and decided to change direction, and this involved a big name change to Howling Bells. The making of their first album really kicked off after sending demos to Coldplay producer Ken Nelson, who wanted to work with them in England, this meant the band upping sticks and moving to Liverpool, but there was a catch. Nelson was working on Coldplay’s X&Y and the band spent 10 months waiting for him to become available after X&Y sessions ran on. The unhappiness in the band, stuck in the UK during the cold winter and the delay in production, began to seep into their sound, creating a strange mix of country, gothic blues and indie rock and it suits the vocals, coming across as part Bronte novel, part twin peaks, part PJ Harvey.

So you’d expect this strange mash of styles to be a mess, right? Wrong. It’s a beautiful album, Juanita Stein is possibly one of the best vocalists out there, and it’s her voice and lyrics that lift songs like Setting Sun and The Night Is Young to another plain. Setting Sun especially is a particularly stand-out track, its slide guitars and build-up give the sense of floating as it creates this psychedelic crazy chorus. And then we have Broken Bones, where her feather light falsetto keeps the track feeling bouncy and breezy and even youthful.

For all its gothic twang, the album does have this element of child-like playfulness. Velvet Girl has this one line of teenage ambition that, excuse the pun, completely struck a chord with me. “I’ll be your velvet girl/we’ll leave this town/and change the world” and right there, you have this simple line that feels silly in the eyes of grown-ups, but for an impressionable young teenager, it was just inspirational. That said, in my honest opinion, the album is at its best towards the end when it grows up in a sense. In The Woods is possibly one of the most heart-breaking songs I’ve ever heard, it’s got whispering intimacy against what seems like a magical backdrop and boy/girl vocals sharing each verse like airing their problems out to the world. And the chorus delivery “I can’t run away/from myself/like yesterday/and I/I’ll change my ways/someday soon” is acknowledging their problems, but being helpless to change them, it’s so startling and haunting that it sticks in your mind.

And then the album ends with I’m Not Afraid, which feels like the soundtrack to some kind of Wild West Wasteland, being lost and confused, but strong about what’s coming next. And that’s kind of a nice message to end on, don’t you think?

Key tracks

– Setting Sun
– In The Woods
– The Night Is Young

Music Monday #3 – We Are Scientists: Brain Thrust Mastery

We Are Scientists have always been one of my favourite bands, and they’re one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen, they have this energy to them, they crack jokes and they write really great pop songs. But despite this, they are a very strange band. A lot of people getting into them would be tricked into thinking they’re a kind of novelty act, and a quick trip to youtube where they have the hilarious web-series, “Steve Wants His Money” or any of their music videos would give you that impression. But look past them being attacked by bears, double dating with dogs and coming up with “radio porn” and you’ll notice that actually, their humour rarely comes up within the actual music, they just make brilliant indie pop-punk tunes, like Weezer used to do before Rivers studied musical theory.

Of course, whilst I could compare them to Weezer, I don’t think it would be appropriate for the album we’re going to discuss, their 2008 album Brain Thrust Mastery (which maybe their 3rd or 2nd album depending on who you ask, there’s kind of a dis-owning of their self-released debut). When putting together the album, Keith Murray, the bands guitarist and lead vocalist stated that it was a more studio effort than their previous album, With Love and Squalor, which had been designed to play live. And it really shows. With Love and Squalor was essentially a giant bomb to get them noticed after their debut got them nowhere, Brain Thrust Mastery was to be the thing that would take them into the big leagues with their friends Editors and Arctic Monkeys (There’s a great Arctic Monkeys Brit Awards speech where Keith accepts on behalf of Arctic Monkeys, ironically it’s probably the closest WAS will get to that). It didn’t really happen despite the big push and support of Radio 1 DJ’s, although it’s lead single, After Hours, is probably the closest they’ve gotten to a hit single, after being featured in video games and the movie “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist”. After Hours is probably the simplest track on the album, it’s insanely catchy and pretty much loops the same riff throughout the track, but it does show off the added instrumentation that We Are Scientists decided to add to create a bigger, more unique sounding album.

It feels inherently different than With Love and Squalor, musically and lyrically, it feels more emotionally darker, whilst WLaS had aspects of self-loathing, against a more musically vivid background, it takes a force of its own. The impression this album gives me is like the fall-out of a party gone wrong, or the dogged nice guy. Let’s See It has a chorus of someone begging for forgiveness and lying to someone else and himself. “You know I wouldn’t say/something I didn’t mean/how many times must this be repeated/before you believe it” and Ghouls and Tonight, possibly the albums highlights just out right exclaim that “We all recognise/I’m the problem here” and “I end everyday trying to think my way out of my life” But it adds to the music and the emotion, when the guitars, plugged up with delay and distortion come into effect mid-way through the track, it hits you like a ton of bricks and you can feel the angst and the loathing in there.

So Brain Thrust Mastery, word salad name, kind of a word salad album. It takes We Are Scientists out of their comfort zone and they embrace it and have fun with it. I think that it’s definitely more of an “album” experience than their other efforts, and whilst it loses the energy in some places, it makes up for it in style. And maybe it makes it less accessible, but We Are Scientists always have an ear for a good melody and this is no exception and it’s a really brilliant album to listen to, so go check it out.

Key tracks

. After Hours
. Tonight
. Chick Lit

Wrath of the Titans

You won't feel the wrath, you might feel boredom though...

Confession time. I’ve not seen Clash of The Titans, the 2010 poster-boy for post-production conversion 3D with Greek gods and that bloke from Avatar, usually that term’s reserved for absolute movie classics like Citizen Kane, but Clash Of The Titans was a classic…right? Oh, apparently it was a mess and was a pretty terrible movie, but clearly enough people didn’t get that message and a sequel was made. So, have the film-makers learned from their mistakes? Well, it’s kind of hard when Warner Bros replaces them for budgetary reasons…

Doing the research that I usually do for a review, I found out that a lot of the creative team behind the first one were sacked for cheaper alternatives, (it was developed with a smaller budget than the first) at the expense of quality. Louis Leteerier, the original director, was replaced by Jonathon Liebsman, who directed classics such as “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning”, “Battle: LA” and he’s taking the helm of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot…so basically, judging on the quality of those, that movie’s screwed. The long and short of it is that I’m saying his track record isn’t particularly great, so will Wrath of the Titans join that list of “It’s not great”? Oh boy, does it…

The one thing I was worried about entering this movie was the fact that because I’d not seen the original, I’d miss out on perhaps plot and character development. The plus side is they sum up the first movie within about 3 cave paintings and a voice over from Qui-Gon-Jinn, in the opening 2 minutes and there’s a couple of references to the events of it, but it’s glossed over for a new tale, which in all honesty never feels like it begins or ends, within the first 5/10 minutes. We’re introduced to characters, given tons of clunky plot exposition and Zeus is betrayed and kidnapped by Voldemort. No seriously, Ralph Fiennes is in this movie, but he looks incredibly bored and doesn’t emote at all. I wanted pure grade ham, this is the man who literally danced over Harry Potter’s dead body in the last Harry Potter movie, but instead it was just a rotten pork chop from him and all involved. Not that the script gives anyone a lot of room to actually create memorable character, they just exist to either fuel the “plot” or just for the sake of having that type of character in there. For example, we have Rosamund Pike as Queen Andromeda, and you’d think “Female action queen who goes into battle” plus with Pike’s acting chops, we’d get some kind of strong female character that would probably make Katniss Everdeen look like a snivelling wimp, NOT IN THIS CRAPPY MOVIE! If you want strong female characters, go watch The Hunger Games, Andromeda literally does nothing in the whole movie. Actually, if you just want to watch an enjoyable movie, go watch The Hunger Games, I can’t recommend that movie enough. Andromeda’s personality is based around two things. First, she is a warrior. Second, she is a female. Neither of those things are really brought to any attention and she just tags along for no real reason, doing very little. Even Bella Swan had more personality and she was as interesting as a block of wood.

Also, why is Sam Worthington acting in his native Aussie accent? this is accent Greece, I can understand everyone else’s classic English, because that’s just default “fantasy accent” but god-damn was that out of place. Although he was just generally pretty dull and to probably busy chasing the almighty dollar to care (Has he done anything else outside this series and Avatar?). There are side characters that are at least slightly fun, but like a lot of things on show here, they feel out of place and just make the tone just loop around all over the place. It can’t decide whether to be a gritty action movie, character motivated piece, or an adventure movie, and it’s clear the writers don’t know either. Characters announce their motivation or clunkily (it’s a word…) announce who they are to people who know that. I don’t walk up to my brother and go “Hello my brother,” why does Zeus? And there’s another line that bugged me where an older woman is fixing Perseus up after an opening battle that makes no fucking sense and says, and I quote; “You said you wanted your son to grow up as a fisherman, not a swordsman” And I’m just sitting there thinking, why does she need to tell him this, he knows this. In fact, we’ve already seen the child out fishing and seeming like he enjoyed it, there is no need to announce what he wants for his son, because we’ve already established this through the visual act.

And then we move onto the “plot”, which is essentially just a 2 part television plot. It’s literally “Perseus goes to rescue Zeus, fights Kronos” THE END! And that’s literally the movie’s storyline in a nutshell. I don’t have a problem with simple plots, but in order for them to work, you need good characters to keep you interested and immersed in the world, but there’s none of that here and I was just bored. There’s interesting backstory in the Greek mythology regarding the titans that is just never gone into. The entire budget has gone on the CGI, which mind, you is pretty impressive, but as stated without characters, without a decent plot, it’s all mouth and no tunic, which isn’t a nice image, now that I think about it…

BRAIN BLEACH, PLEASE!

So Wrath Of The Titans is essentially a wasted effort, it’s confused, it’s clunky, it’s poorly paced, the acting is terrible and not given any time to develop, which is at its heart, a real shame when you see the cast involved in this, and It’s held together by a loose plot based entirely on spectacle that honestly makes little sense. It’s quickly trot to make a quick buck, it’s really apparent and it is not worth your money. Least we know Hollywood movies can’t get worse this month…

Oh wait, Battleships out next week? ****

Music Monday: #2 – Metric: Grow Up and Blow Away

Like last weeks selection, this album is another female fronted indie-pop gem, however I can easily just say that’s where the similarities end. Whereas Show Your Bones showed a band simultaneously growing together and tearing themselves apart, both musically and as people, Grow Up and Blow Away is the sound of “what could be”. Metric, when making this album in 2001 were only barely a band, consisting pretty much solely of Emily Haines and James Shaw and when compared to their later efforts like the punky guitar orientated Live It Out or the anthemic Fantasies, it shows that this is a band who are still coming to grips with who they are and what they want to do. In a way, you could say this is their childhood or teenage album, full of wonder and angst, debating what it’ll one day be, and feeling like a journey in 40 minutes, starting from teenage dis-satisfaction (Grow Up and Blow Away) to ending pondering whether it was all worth it (London Half-Life). You could argue that this album in fact allowed them to grow up and blow away themselves.

Of course, I can’t really talk about this album without mentioning its history. Originally recorded in 2001, it was delayed for years by their record label, despite having used tracks for promos. However, Metric are never a band to stay still and they eventually got sick of waiting and recorded a new album with their new sound on a different label and so Grow Up And Blow Away was lost until 2007, by which point, the band had already released two albums, but fan dedication and Metric’s current label buying the rights meant it could finally get released, albeit with a slightly altered track listing. And it’s this 2007 version we’re going to be talking about.

Now on a personal level, this was the first Metric album I bought, which I picked up around late 2010 at an indie record store, mostly because I liked the cover. And I’ve since bought all their albums, but like some other bands I’m fond of, whilst I love all their albums, I seem to continue to have a soft spot for the album that introduced me to them, and in Metric’s case, its this one, it’s clearly the most laidback, stripped down album they’ve ever done (Oh, I wonder why…) and for some reason it just stayed with me more than the others. Was it good timing? Grow Up and Blow Away, along with a couple other albums (which I’ll probably talk about some other time) seemed to soundtrack this turbulent period I was going through and it just seemed to kind of fit in ways that I can’t think many other albums have. I guess in some ways I felt I could relate to lines like “Somebody put me back in school/I forget everything I used to know” and the disillusionment of the youth showcased in the title track, “If this is the life/why does it feel so good to die today/blue to grey/grow up and blow away”

But enough about this and on to the album. Here is an album chock full of some of the best pop songs you’ll ever hear, all range from beautiful, such as the bitter The Twist and the reflective London Half-Life (which I used to make a short film a few months back) to catchy, such as Raw Sugar and On The Sly to even slightly sexy, like Hardwire. Emily is a really talented singer-songwriter even in this early stage, and from listening to her lyrics, it’s clear Metric are natural successors to No Doubt, Blondie and all these succesful female fronted groups, and that they must have influenced artists that came after, I doubt without Metric, we’d have bands like Paramore, Best Coast, heck even the succesful comic series Scott Pilgrim drew inspiration from them. And with their 5th album, Synthetica due out later this year and with every release the band getting bigger and bigger, it’s nice to have this small intimate record of just two people, making music that sounds innocent, yet cynical, and dreaming of bigger and better things. It’s lucky we even got this album at all in the end, and it at least it gives us an interesting tale, and an excuse for hipsters to tell people “Yeah, the first albums good, but it’s not as good as the FIRST album,” Not that I’ve ever done that…

Key tracks

. Grow Up And Blow Away
. The Twist
. London Half-Life

Music Monday #1: Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Show Your Bones

So this is a new thing I’m kind of testing out (you may remember I reblogged a thing about possibly expanding “Posting a track on Mondays and calling it Music Monday) Every Monday (maybe), I’ll write a little something about some of my favourite albums, post links to key tracks from it and just generally be all “This is really great” Maybe some weeks, it’ll be something different, like an artist spotlight or something, I don’t know, this isn’t really a music blog. (Also, submissions and suggestions are welcome)

Week #1: Show Your Bones – Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Released: 2006

There’s something really magical, surreal and in some ways mystical about Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They’ve released 3 albums so far, Fever To Tell, It’s Blitz!, and in between those, Show Your Bones. Each one is a really very different experience. Fever To Tell is essentially a giant punk jam; simple structures, hard riffs and vocalist Karen O screaming like a banshee. Show Your Bones is more spiritual and developed, with an addition of acoustic backing and Karen reprising her more soulful vocals of Maps. And It’s Blitz! is an all-out 21st century disco stomper. I really love this band, and I love all 3 of their albums, but the one that stands out to me the most is easily Show Your Bones.

First of all, a confessionOn my first listen of SYB, I wasn’t blown away by it. I liked it, don’t get me wrong, but I’d already heard the other two and they have an immediacy that Show Your Bones just doesn’t have. Yes, Gold Lion is a really good grabbing opening number, but to follow it up with what are almost twee indie pop songs seemed strange after Fever To Tell. But on the second or third listen, it hit me and it immediately just soared above the others. It’s got this incredibly mystical quality to it. For some reason, when I listen to this, I think of nature, I think of woodlands and weirdly, I also think of witchcraft. On Fancy, which may be the heaviest song they’ve ever done, it breaks down into Karen O doing what sounds like incanting a spell whilst Nick Zinner’s guitars wisp around her in this psychedelic moment before breaking back into what they do best, pounding riffs like they’re pounding heads.

But Fancy aside, this album is a lot subdued, emotional and passionate. Whilst there isn’t a track as beautiful as Maps, there’s about 4 that come pretty close, and it’s the extra instrumentation that allows this to be possible, acoustic guitars, slight synth layers just give the album a bigger feel and make a track like Dudley or Turn Into just incredibly beautiful pieces of work. To be honest, it surprises me that only a little amount of quirky indie movies (you know the type) have used tracks from this album, it’s tailor made for soundtracks, I can imagine Turn Into playing towards the end of a movie, I can see Cheated Hearts over a scene of youthful energy, Fancy or Phenomena over someone losing their shit. Ok, so Gold Lion was used for an iPad advert last year, but sssh, that doesn’t count.

Anyway, whilst Fever To Tell and It’s Blitz are about the urgent and the immediate. Show Your Bones is layered, deeper and a more satisfying album if you give it the time it right fully deserves, It’s indie-pop at its finest and that’s why I’ve picked it as this weeks album.

Key tracks:

Fancy
Dudley
Turn Into