Thursday, December 3, 2009

Perfect Albums: Best Albums of 2000 - 2009

As the decade comes to a close, it's time to look back on what really mattered the last ten years: the music. Here is my list of the Top Five albums of 2000-2009:

5. Isis – Oceanic - 2002

This album defined “heavy” for me for the ‘00s, both in terms of its sound and its emotional content. While blurring the lines between Doom Metal and the still developing Post Metal, “Oceanic” is a concept piece (much like every other Isis album) that tells the story of a man close to complete emotional numbness. He then meets and falls in love with a woman, but over the course of the story finds out she is sleeping with her own brother. The shock of this drives the man to kill himself by walking into the ocean and surrendering himself to drowning. Pretty heavy, right? Not nearly as heavy as the music.
Isis perfected their song style with “Oceanic”, tightly defining their building quiet to loud to extremely loud to quiet again structure. There are dramatic build ups to some songs and multiple movements and changes to others. They even utilize female backing vocals on some of the songs that add a haunting feel to Aaron Turner’s deep bellowing.
Put simply, while others (Mastodon, I’m looking at you…) did very well to challenge the originality and mastery of this album in the ‘00s, “Oceanic” remains the absolute greatest Metal album of the decade for me, with countless listenings spent on it. While Isis’s career before this was stellar, this album marks a strong change that carried them through the following years and that will hopefully continue far into the future. As good as Isis’s albums have been since “Oceanic” ( this year’s “Wavering Radiant” might even be album of the year if it weren’t for a release from some friends of theirs) ,their solidified style began here.

4. Les Savy Fav – Go Forth - 2001

I doubt I would give half the shit I do about modern Indie Rock if it weren’t for Les Savy Fav in general, and this album in particular. One part Talking Heads, one part Fugazi, one part bravado, one part melodic catchiness, Les Savy Fav perfected their sound with this album. 1997’s “3/5”was a solid punk rock start for them, 1999’s “The Cat and the Cobra” started to show the frantic sound they were developing for themselves, 2000’s “Rome Upside Down” EP served as the herald piece to what was coming (imagine “Rome Upside Down” as the Silver Surfer to “Go Forth”s Galactus), but it was 2001’s “Go Forth” that will undoubtedly serve as the pinnacle of their career.
Clever lyrics that knock you upside the head with their descriptive storytelling, sharp guitar stabs, driving bass lines, and incessantly rhythmic drumming make for a perfect rock album. Each song is a little concept, a self contained story told with enough energy to power a city. Les Savy Fav also holds the award for greatest live act of the ‘00s as I saw them twice in support of this album. Holy shit, you would not believe how awe inspiring and fun this band is to see live with the endless antics of lead singer Tim Harrington making it impossible to look away. Every other band I saw for the remainder of the decade was held to the scrutiny of Les Savy Fav’s live act, and all failed (although there were a few close calls). While 2007’s long overdue “Let’s Stay Friends” is a well rounded development of their style, “Go Forth” stands out in a flawless rock n’ roll career. Let’s hope there’s more of this to come.

3. DangerDoom – The Mouse and the Mask – 2006

This album has four great things going for it:

1.) Producing from the always inventive Danger Mouse
2.) MC-ing from the always jaw dropping MF Doom
3.) Endorsement, themes, samples and new material from the always entertaining Adult Swim animation block on Cartoon Network
4.) A stunning array of Guest MCs including Talib Kweli, Ghostface Killah (whose 2006’s Fishscale came close to making this list), and Cee-lo (whose incredible work with Danger Mouse in Gnarls Barkley deservedly ruled the hip hop and pop worlds of the late ‘00s)

All I knew about this album when it came out was that it was an Adult Swim (who are responsible for the greatest television of the ‘00s, and who I remain fiercely loyal to) related Hip Hop album that they were dropping. Two of my favorite things put together! I needed no further information. I had heard Danger Doom’s unique mash up of The Beatles’ White Album and Jay-Z’s Black album, but this was my first introduction to MF Doom and my strong love affair with the underground MC and producer began here.
MF Doom owns the market on clever rhymes, and there’s no exception of his stunning humor and quick wit on this album. Danger Mouse’s beats are some the greatest of his career and inspire endless head bobbing. Most of the songs pull inspiration from Adult swim’s stellar line up of hilarious shows at the time. Audio samples and references to Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, Harvey Birdman, the Brak Show, Family Guy, Perfect Hair Forever, Futurama, and Sealab 2021 are slipped in throughout the album. It even features new and hilarious material from the cast of Aqua teen and Space Ghost.
Some people might consider this simply a novelty record, but it’s far from it. It’s a perfectly crafted Hip Hop album that helped strengthen the popularity of underground Hip Hop in the late ‘00s . It never loses its charms and it stands out as one of the best works of both Danger Mouse and MF Doom’s respective careers. I could swap out any of MF Doom’s 2000-2009 work under any of his pseudonyms, and they could all take the place of this album on this list, but The Mouse and The Mask is where it all began with me for him, and the added dynamics of Danger Mouse’s production and Adult Swim’s contributions make this a fun stand out.

2. Broken Social Scene – You Forgot it in People – 2002

I don’t even know where to start on this album. It’s easily one of the most beautiful compositions created in the last ten years. Every song feels as if it’s recorded by a different band, yet they blend seamlessly into each other. This observation is not off base as at the time of this album’s recording, Broken Social Scene consisted of 19 members and each track was recorded with different arrangements of that ensemble. The result is a towering indie/baroque rock masterpiece.
Sometimes its rhythmic and moody rock n roll. Sometimes its light hearted. Sometimes there’s a full string section. Sometimes there’s horns. Sometimes there’s singing. Sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes it’s moving. Sometimes it’s gritty. It’s always passionate though, in a very real way. Each song, even the few instrumentals, get a lot of feeling across without being heart breaking or distressing. Not one song on this album sounds like its predecessor which makes for a strong audio adventure through different sounds and styles. Each voice given and instrument played is given with the utmost talent and abiltiy.
I can’t say enough good things about this album, and I listen to it often as several of its songs are now synonymous with different parts of my life in the ‘00s. Their album before this is a great slice of ambient instrumentals and the album following it, the self titled “Broken Social Scene” pushes their varied and erratic recording style even further, but their ultimate stroke of genius will always be “You Forgot it in People”.

1. Converge – Jane Doe – 2001

It’s really hard to imagine a more perfect record than “Jane Doe”. It’s not only the best album of the ‘00s, but it’s my favorite album of all time (although admittedly, Wu-Tang Clan’s “Enter the 36th Chamber” comes close). From the first second of this album, to the very end of the over 11 minute closing track, “Jane Doe” is not so much a contemporary Hardcore album, it’s an assault intended to destroy you. This album wants your blood and bruises and it often feels like it leaves some after each listen.
In the ‘90s, Converge had solidified itself as an inventive and dedicated band with amazing albums that sound a little like Slayer if they were tougher. “Jane Doe” changed something for the band. They stripped down from 5 to 4 members, enlisted their permanent new drummer Ben Koller, and created a sharp and dedicated direction for the band. They were no longer straight forward Hardcore music makers, they were innovators, leaving unique and lasting impressions on the Hardcore, Punk Rock, and Heavy Metal communities.
“Jane Doe” remains a 12 song breakthrough which shifted both the influence of their following 3 albums (2009’s “Axe to Fall” undoubtedly sneaks by the previously mentioned “Wavering Radiant” by Isis as album of the year) and continues to inspire new generations of metal and hardcore groups. Try as they might to mimic Converge’s style, it is impossible to duplicate. “Jane Doe” is an overpowering collection of Jacob Bannon’s junkyard dog like screams into the microphone, Kurt Ballou’s endlessly impressive brutal and atonal guitar riffs, Nate Newton’s bellowing distorted bass lines and back up growling, and Ben Koller’s impossibly fast, grinding drum fills. Can’t understand all the lyrics? Not important. Just feel the pain and loss that comes though the vocals and the anger and resolve that comes from the music and you’re set. There’s never a bad time to listen to this album, it’s energy will do ceaseless wonders in inspiring you. I probably listen to this album at least 3 times in its entirety a month, or any time I need a good recharge or a kick in the ass.
There are no throw away tracks on the album and each song bleeds perfectly into the next. The almost four minute entirety of the back to back songs “The Broken Vow” and “Bitter and then some” takes you from feeling like you’re being drowned, only to give a 1 second moment of false security before it lets you come up only to receive a sharp punch to the face. I urge you not only to listen to the masterpiece that is “Jane Doe”, but experience it. Be careful, however, as It absolutely seeks to destroy you.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Man Who Fell To Earth

When I was about 11, the next door neighbor to my parents gave me a whole grocery bag full of cassettes that he had obtained while growing up and living in England for many years. He knew I was way into music and had a strong penchant for classic rock music, amongst others. There were countless copies of favorites from the likes of AC/DC and Queen, but included in the bag was a tape of collected David Bowie songs. Having seen the video for “Let's Dance” countless times while growing up, and loving the shit out of it, I was excited to sit down with a wider assortment of songs. What came from the speakers was so infectious, so riddled with rock pop hooks and sonic experimentation, so moving and brilliantly written, I rushed out immediately and horded all I could find of his work. After recently filling some holes in the collection, I decided to offer a breakdown of his stellar body of work.
With a career that produced twenty four albums over five decades, David Bowie's music catalog is staggering, both in it's creativity and it's originality. Every album is different from the last, and each one is a masterpiece in it's own right, with maybe only a few lags along the way.
The point of this album by album essay is to disprove the myth of a David Bowie “best of” mix, because it is impossible. A David Bowie “best of” compilation should consist of at least twenty two discs, as just about every complete album offers the best of Bowie's incredible music writing prowess. Here now is a brief dissertation on each one of David Bowie's undeniably brilliant albums. It should be noted that in every case I am reviewing the Rykodisc re-releases of each album, as they included bonus material not found on previous LP and CD copies. These usually include Soundtrack contributions (of which he has many), B-sides to singles, previously unreleased songs, and alternative mixes and demos of album tracks. Prepare to behold the impressiveness of David Bowie's musical career.

David Bowie - 1967
Seemingly inspired by fellow beginning British band Pink Floyd, but sounding more like a Syd Barrett solo album, Bowie’s self titled first release is Folk Pop music at its oddest. The lyrical content is riddled with aloof silliness (in a fun way, not annoying), and some of the songs come off as some of the strangest pop songs you’ll ever hear. It’s an album marked by lightheartedness and whimsy, and while there aren’t much of the scoping concepts Bowie would create for later albums, the fun and instant vision of each song is enough to keep you entertained. It’s also funny to think that this album began Bowie’s illustrious career as it has a sound he rarely visited again until much later on.

Space Oddity - 1969
While instrumentally still sounding folk inspired for most of the album, Bowie brings it to a sonic level and many regard this as the first true Bowie album, the one that actually set the tone for his career. With the addition of electric guitar and high concept lyrics, this album possesses some of Bowie’s first masterpieces such as the titular “Space Oddity”, as well as “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed”, and the epic “Cygnet Committee” which featured his first huge drawn out concept piece about a modern day messiah who is eventually destroyed by the people he originally rallies. The concept of character pieces and contained stories presented as songs are introduced on this album, and if Bowie’s career ended here, I think he would still go down in history books with how good this album is. The song “Space Oddity” alone is enough to solidify him as a songwriting genius, whether it be interpreted as a straightforward tale of a space explorer’s journey into space and his eventual isolation and loss of communication with his home planet, or as an allegory for drug use. David Bowie’s true genius began to first flourish here.

The Man Who Sold The World - 1970
This album marked a bold direction for Bowie, as it leaves more of his folk beginnings behind to pursue a heavy sound inspired by Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Some songs are odd and more playful, still in the vein of Pink Floyd. Some are bluesy and heavy guitar driven, much like the Led Zeppelin songs of the time. Some are looming and dark like Black Sabbath songs. Some, however, are strikingly haunting (the chilling titular track “The Man Who Sold The World” and the Nietzsche inspired “The Supermen” being good examples of this). It marked the beginning of some of Bowie’s more Hard Rock driven guitars that helped carry him through to the mid seventies and was a great achievement for his catalog of albums.

Hunky Dory - 1971
Seemingly written as a self-rebuttal to the “The Man Who Sold The World” album, "Hunky Dory" acts as a piano driven pop-ish album to counterweight the heavy rock n’ roll of his previous release. The sounds of these two albums combined solidified the tone of the coming Ziggy Stardust years. Featuring some incredible stand out songs (The hook-y “Changes”, the pop driven maliciousness of “Oh, You Pretty Things”, the moving and brilliantly written “Life on Mars?”, The acoustic riff centered “Andy Warhol”, and the rocking Velvet Underground-esque “Queen Bitch” are prime examples), this album is a solid and slightly more laid back approach to the evolution of the Bowie sound.

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars – 1972
Arguably his best album and indisputably one of his finest, “Ziggy Stardust” is a perfect rock n' roll record with not a single misfire in the eleven original tracks. It is highly significant to Bowie's career as it is the first record he released to have an album wide linear concept and story, one that begins in the first track and ends in the last. The album follows the tale of an alien come to earth, Ziggy Stardust, who has five years to bring his vision of love and peace to Earth and stop it from destroying itself by creating a band, the Spiders from Mars, to help spread his message. He ultimately ends up doing himself in and failing his mission as he slips into the drug and sex excesses of the human rock n' roll world. Taking some of the energy and over the top originality he would induce into the impressive live show of the album and it's story, it is a super sonic loud, undeniably catchy album that without a doubt is one of the best of his astounding career, and features career defining excellence such as the powerful “Rock n' Roll Suicide” or the smooth “Soul Love”.

Aladdin Sane - 1973
While it lacks a cohesive tale like “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust”, Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane” is still a concept album in the sense that every song is tied together by its source of inspiration. Aladdin Sane was a new character and persona for Bowie on this album, but he described him as “Ziggy goes to America”, and he still performed most of the live shows on the tour for this album as Ziggy Stardust. The “Aladdin Sane” album draws its inspiration from Bowie’s first tour of America which he did for the “Ziggy Stardust” record, and he used Ziggy’s alien perspective to write songs for this album while on the tour. Each song is inspired by a different city or region of the U.S., and the original LP sleeve lists these sources of inspiration next to the name of each track. It contains some of Bowie’s most beautiful arrangements to date, some of his loudest rockers, and '50s style rock and doo wop . The striking cover image has become synonymous with Bowie and his elaborate fashion sense of the early ‘70s, and the songs mirror that effect. Easily in the top three of my personal selection of favorite Bowie albums, “Aladdin Sane” is a force to be reckoned with, as each listen dares you to accept how good it is and holy shit, is it good.

Pin Ups – 1973
“Pin Ups” is one of Bowie's more fun albums, as it's not his material. An album of all cover songs from the 1960's, Bowie gets to take a shot at some of his favorites from artists ranging from Pink Floyd, The Yardbirds, The Who, The Pretty Things, The Kinks, and more. The Rykodisc re-release even has bonus tracks featuring an exceptional cover of Bruce Springsteen's “Growin' Up”. Bowie's interesting interpretation of each of these songs makes for an entertaining Rock and Roll experiment, and even sometimes returns him to his earlier playfulness found on his Self Titled first release.

Diamond Dogs – 1974
Possessing some of Bowie's most moving material to date, 'Diamond Dogs” is a return to concept pieces as it is an album based on two ideas collided together. Bowie used some of his material for an unfinished musical adaption of George Orwell's incendiary novel “1984” and mixed it with the concept of life in a post apocalyptic city that has slipped in urban decay and chaos. The three song suite of “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise)” remains one of the grandest highlights of Bowie's career, along with one of his greatest singles, “Rebel Rebel”. The album's descriptive content of downtrodden youth and sometimes raw guitar style served as inspiration to the developing Punk movement, and some of it's songs have a funk and R&B flair that show original flirtations with what Bowie would soon call his “Plastic Soul” period. A political concept piece with emotional delivery, moving vocals and descriptive lyrics, “Diamond Dogs” somehow manages to stand out in a solid career of often flawless and incredible albums, and not just because of the shocking wrap around cover which features a terrifying illustration of the lower half of Bowie's body being that of a dog's (the original pressings of which portray Bowie's creepy dog dick, but this was sadly and puritanically air brushed out for wide release).

Young Americans – 1975
With Bowie's silky smooth vocal work, choir-sh background singers holding up the choruses, funk guitar riffs, and saxophone solos aplenty, it's no wonder that the Philadelphia soul inspired sound on this album got David Bowie a performance on the popular show of the time, “Soul Train”, and was one of the few white performers to do so. There's outstanding white boy soul all over this album, and plenty of funkiness to match. It's a wild departure for Bowie, but the sudden shift in his sound rewarded him with two of his most successful singles, “Young Americans” and “Fame” (which was co-written by John Lennon who also performed vocals on the song) and highly enjoyable album cuts like the mesmerizing “Win”. Actually, two of the era's best offerings, “Who Can I Be Now?” and “It's Gonna Be Me”, weren't released on the original album but are included on the Rykodisc re-releases and are even more exceptional than some of the album cuts. “Young Americans” is a standalone in his repertoire, as only certain elements remained for continuing albums, but his experimentation into the Philadelphia Soul sound, his interpretation of which Bowie called “plastic soul”, proved successful and produced a very smooth album despite his severe developing personal problems.

Station to Station – 1976
While Bowie was touring for the “Diamond Dogs” album, it began to be known that he was becoming more and more involved in heavy cocaine use. In '75, with his coke abuse growing, he decided to move to Los Angles for two years. He also at this time began filming for the emotionally solemn but beautifully made sci-fi movie “The Man Who Fell To Earth”, which had Bowie in the film's lead role, a part that director Nicolas Roeg warned would stay with him for a while. These three events in Bowie's life resulted in living in a depressed and terrifying cocaine driven mental state for two years which resulted in mounting paranoia, horrifying hallucinations, obsession with the occult, and extreme weight loss. During this period, Bowie created one of his most eccentric characters, The Thin White Duke, as inspiration for a new album he was working on. The album, “Station to Station”, is an incredible result of Bowie's two year self described “psychic terror”. Turning his own cocaine fueled emotional detachment into inspiration, the Thin White Duke character is self-described by Bowie as “a nasty character” and an “amoral zombie”. He's a man who feels no emotion, only stark depression and slick superiority to all around him. Although trying with all his might to be moved by the highly emotional output he displays on the album, The Duke is “ice posing as fire”, feeling nothing from the heartbreaking lyrics he is vocalizing.
“Station to Station” as an album is an incredible representation of Bowie's distraught Thin White Duke character, and it's sometimes choppy guitar work and funk driven rhythms accurately reports on his cocaine abuse, not to mention the lyrics on the album that directly reference it. Although only six songs in length, “Station to Station' is an incredible album and features exceptional work. The title track is an evolving ten minute rock track, layered in several parts. “Golden Years”, originally written by Bowie for Elvis, who turned it down, is a smooth and affectionate single. The seemingly hymn inspired “Word on a Wing” is haunting in it's music and performance and feels like the Duke begging to reclaim any human connection, even religion. The anthemic “TVC15” can easily be found to draw inspiration from Bowie's work on “The Man Who Fell To Earth” movie. “Stay” is a driving mix of funk and rock, and it's tones of sexual conquest are to serve as an insight into the Thin White Duke's shallow attempts at romanticism. The album's closer, “Wild is the Wind”, is a cover of a song previously recorded by the likes of Johnny Mathis and Nina Simone and is a powerful song that features some of the most moving vocal performances of Bowie's career. Although there's plenty of affection and emotionality to the album, Bowie later claimed that “Station to Station” was "devoid of spirit ... Even the love songs are detached, but I think it's fascinating.” It serves as a highly transitional album, closing the chapters of Ziggy Stardust and Plastic Soul, and ushering in the career defining work he was soon to create. The album's cover is the first of two to feature a still from the exceptional “Man Who Fell To Earth” film, in which Bowie's character, Thomas Jerome Newton, perfectly encapsulates his own persona at the time, as well as the work he did on “Station to Station” and the soon to follow “Low”.

Low – 1977
After his turmoiled years in Los Angeles, Bowie decided to dry out from his cocaine abuse and seek inspiration by moving to a new city, Berlin (although most of this album was recorded in France). What resulted is whats referred to as the “Berlin trilogy”, Bowie's next three albums. Infused with new sorts of creative inspirations such as the German experimental electronica of bands like Kraftwerk and the more improvisational Neu!, and mixed with his latent depression and still occasional drug abuse, the title of “Low” is an accurate depiction of Bowie's mood at the time of recording. The “Low” album sounds like a robot trying to fall in love, a barren entity trying hard to become emotional again. With help from new friend and musical accomplice Brian Eno, and featuring clever production from long time Bowie producer Tony Visconti, “Low's” often emotional lyrics are paired with electronic bleeps, synthesizer accompaniment, and robotic drum recording. Visconti used a harmonizer to make all the drum work on the album sound like mechanical steam presses. Featuring both emotionally stirring and depressingly estranged lyrics, the album's first seven songs (the entire side 1 of the original record release) are a catchy but moody electronic rock and R&B experimentation into new directions for Bowie. The last four songs (Side 2) are longer, haunting instrumental pieces, some of which are residual work Bowie originally submitted for the soundtrack to the moody “The Man Who Fell To Earth” film in which he starred and where the cover artwork comes from, but the songs were denied by the film's director who wanted a different musical direction for the movie. Every song on the album is a masterpiece and far ahead of it's time, and the Rykodic re-release features unreleased material including an outstanding and somewhat spooky instrumental, “All Saints”, not previously heard. Widely considered as influential and among the top three in my selection of favorite Bowie albums, “Low” is as chilling and infectious a record now as it was when it was originally released.

“Heroes” - 1977
The second installment of the Berlin Trilogy, “Heroes” is the most fitting release with that title as it is the only one of the three completely recorded and produced in Berlin, about 500 yards from the Berlin Wall, in fact. Possessing a more upbeat and positive tone than “Low”, it’s somber predecessor, “Heroes” still follows the formula of the album before it as the original LP release had one side of shorter vocalized songs, and a second side of longer instrumentals. To me, “Heroes” is the first post-punk album, even though it was released the year punk was fitting to explode in the way of the Ramones in the U.S. and the Sex Pistols in the U.K.  With its creative guitar producing and more dissident rocking rhythms, you can hear a tone being set that bands like Killing Joke, The Chameleons, The Smithereens, The Smiths, and Television would follow years later. The first five songs form a perfect record side. Each song is an astoundingly innovative and well written rock and roll song, including one of Bowie’s more popular singles, the titular “Heroes” which tells the tale of two people falling in love at the Berlin Wall. The remainder of the album are beautiful arrangements of interesting and moody mostly instrumental music. An absolutely fantastic album, “Heroes” is a stand out recording and should be considered one of the best releases of the time.

Lodger – 1979
I consider “Lodger” to be Bowie's return to being Bowie, both as he was before the seminal “Berlin trilogy” began, and how he would be for the next ten years. Ditching the whole second side of instrumental tracks that were present on the previous two releases, “Lodger” is Bowie's return to Rock pop accessibility with inventive producing and recording tricks that add odd atmosphere to an album of solid hooks. Brian Eno's touch is noticeably not as strong on this release as the previous two, due mostly to a wavering in the creative synchronism he and Bowie previously shared. “Lodger”s first side are all songs designed around the theme of journeying or traveling. Beautiful vocal performances, almost ambient rhythm guitar work, and clever producing techniques and effects make the first half of the album a wonderful trip to musical styles from around the world. Side two returns Bowie to his pop rock roots, with harsher and more insidious tracks with sardonic comments on Western culture as their theme, but all with undeniable “hit single” flair that makes their jagged hooks unforgettable. (Iggy Pop fans might also notice that Bowie's “Red Money” on this album possesses the same music as Pop's “Sister Midnight” but with different lyrics, as Bowie produced Iggy's first two solo albums while working on his Berlin Trilogy). “Lodger” sets the tone for what Bowie would bring in the 80's and closes out the inspirational “Berlin Trilogy” beautifully. Some of Bowie's best tracks are on this album and it remains one of his most underrated.

Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) – 1980
“Scary Monsters” continues the trend laid out by “Lodger”. Featuring Bowie’s hardest edge to date, “Scary Monsters” is an erratic rock and roll album that bids farewell to his evolving 70’s personas as well as his troubles of the decade, and it further establishes what he would become in the 80’s: a schizophrenically optimistic and bleakly sardonic pop rock hit machine. “Scary Monsters” features sometimes disjointed guitar riffs, a lyrical leaning towards the supernatural, and a brief return (and a seemingly not so fond farewell ) to his Major Tom character originally created for 1969’s “Space Oddity”. The striking appearance of Bowie from both the album’s cover and the revolutionary music video for its incredible stand out single “Ashes to Ashes”, reflects the beautiful but odd sound of the album. With “Scary Monsters”, Bowie can be completely credited for ushering in the success of New Wave music, as it was a forerunner of what would soon dominate the radio airwaves.

Let's Dance – 1983
“Let’s Dance” ushers in a whole new era for Bowie, as it starts his pop rock domination of the 80’s. Developing a more accessible sound, Bowie created a pop music masterpiece with this album. It contains some of the most brooding and insidious pop music writing ever heard on an album of its nature. Some songs are upbeat post-disco, some have flairs of reggae, others are dark rock tunes that stab like a knife. Bowie enlisted popular blues rock guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan to provide the sharp, stabbing lead guitar work, and it supplies the album with incredible rock-ability to match the moody dance-abilty of Nile Rodger’s slick producing. Just about every track is a catchy stand out, not excluding the titular “Let’s Dance” which I regard as one of the best pop songs of the 80’s, if not all time. Bowie’s cover of a song he co-write and produced for Iggy Pop, “China Girl” remains a sinister stand out track, and I could listen to the bruise black and almost malicious “Criminal World” for days on end. “Let’s Dance” remains an upbeat pop rock masterpiece, even though some less pop music friendly Bowie fans regard it as an attempt of his to commercially cash in.

Tonight – 1984
With “Tonight”, Bowie continues his journey into 80’s pop music, but this time falls short of the almost epic “Let’s Dance”. That isn't to say “Tonight” is a terrible album by any means, far from it. It's actually quite enjoyable. “Tonight” sort of ends up coming off like “Let's Dance”'s lite rock cousin, and continues his developing '80s pop centric trend. There are certainly some standout tracks, like two more cleverly re-imagined Iggy Pop covers (Including the titular “Tonight” which Bowie infused with a reggae sound and backing vocals from Tina Turner), and the infectious pop rocker “Blue Jean” amongst others. The CD re-release features some of his solid movie soundtrack submissions that were released separately at the time such as the biting “This is Not America” or the smooth “ Absolute Beginners. It may not posses some of the edge that “Let's Dance: has, but it creates a solid, slightly more mellow, but always creative '80s pop listening experience.

Never Let Me Down – 1987
Some regard this as Bowie's worst album, but I'm inclined to disagree. “Never Let Me Down” is his ultimate endeavor into pop music. This album is completely designed to appeal to a broad audience and get good chart placement, and that's where the merit lies here. “Never Let me Down” is not a bad album, it's just not a great BOWIE album. If this exact album was made by anyone else, like Robert Palmer or someone like that, it would be revered as a solid late '80s pop album, but because it seems so out of character for Bowie, it gets labeled as a bad album. It's not great by any stretch of the imagination, but there are some pretty good synth-heavy pop singles on this album, and its certainly worth a listen every now and then. Bowie himself has grown to hate it and considers it his least creative album he's done. While that may be true, he still gives stellar vocal performances and delivers with straight catchy pop tunes. It would have been a pretty solid album if it was made by anyone else.

Black Tie White Noise – 1993
Oh man. Even though he had taken a six year break from recording as just himself, and had a luke-warm stint as a front man for the more punk inspired band Tin Machine, the time off did not seem to yet break Bowie's habit of trying to make ultra accessible popular albums as he had started about nine years previously. Bowie said he simply felt uninspired for most of the '80s, as he had quit hard drugs for the most part, and was trying to get himself together. The work put into collecting himself seemingly distracted his creativity for a while, and I believe this album marks the end of that streak. It's not without it's solid singles, however. The “Black Tie White Noise” title track remains a powerful comment about race inspired by the L.A. Rodney King riots, and the catchy “Jump They Say” provided a moving way for Bowie to pay tribute to his schizophrenic stepbrother who had committed suicide. Despite it's shining moments, it's a mostly weak attempt at returning his name to music by being inspired by the popular early 90's dance music trends and doesn't quite yet return Bowie to his proper track of creativity.

Buddha of Suburbia – 1993
Released the same year as “Black Tie White Noise”, “Buddha of Suburbia” is an album inspired by the BBC TV mini series based off a book of the same name. Only the titular track on the album actually appeared as part of the soundtrack to the show, with the rest of the album being all new music Bowie wrote later as he scrapped what he submitted for the soundtrack and wrote all new material for the album release, keeping all of it in the vein of the show which featured a story that heavily referenced pop culture and the condition of London. The album marks some creative progression from it's predecessor but still doesn't bring Bowie back to the status of his previous masterpieces. Part Cure album, part Jazz album, part instrumental rock album, “Buddha of Suburbia” gets Bowie headed down the right path once again, just don't doesn't bring him to his final destination.

1.Outside – 1995
In a surprising return to his high concept originality, Bowie dropped the astonishing “1.Outside”. The album could easily pass for a Nine Inch Nails release, as it pulls most of it's musical roots from Industrial music, but there's far more going on here than your average mid 90's industrial album. “1.Outside” is Bowie's first concept album in a while. It tells the tale of a dystopian CyberPunk version of 1999 where “artists” murder people and brutalize their bodies as “art”, and the government has created a new investigative branch to determine in each case if this it's considered “art”, and passable, or if it's “trash” and just boring old murder. The album is written form the perspective of several people involved in the story, including the victim of one of these “artists”, the murderer, and the investigator sent to crack the case and determine the validity of the murder's “art”. Each song is schizophrenic in a sense, as all have undeniable almost pop hooks, yet these are laid down over industrial style rhythms and sometimes almost jazzy guitar work. The album also marks the first time the influential Brian Eno returned to work with Bowie since the career defining and highly inspiring “Berlin Trilogy”. “1.Outside” remains a highly remarkable album and it's always guaranteed to be an interesting listen as there's so much going on in each track. Bowie did great work in returning to his more inventive and adaptive musical qualities.

Earthling – 1997
Shedding the similarity to Nine Inch Nails, Bowie's next album seems closer to a Prodigy release. Inspired by the prevalent rave culture of the late 90's, “Earthling” is a crazy jump into fast drum break sampling and bombastic synth and guitar rhythms. Overall, “Earthling” is a good album. The usual solid vocal work from Bowie, and a new, interesting musical direction to go with it. It might be far from his best, but it's still a pretty enjoyable listen, even if you don't make it out to the sweaty rave clubs this was meant, and popularly was, to be played in.

Hours – 1999
“Hours” starts as a pretty boring album until you get four songs in and then BAM! You found you were just taken on a ride, a ruse if you will, to keep you off guard for the rocking moodiness of the rest of the album. Featuring a lot of music originally made for the video game “Omikron – The Nomad Soul”, “Hours” kind of goes all over the place in terms of it's style and inspirations. It's certainly much more mellow than it's predecessor, but it still packs it's rock n' roll punches. Not necessarily staggering in it's creativity, its still a decent and slightly more mellow attempt of Bowie's to mature.

Heathen – 2002
“Heathen” is Bowie's best album since “1.Outside”. In a sort of return to the “Space Oddity” and original “David Bowie” days, “Heathen” has a slick acoustic feel with sharp jabs of wild electric guitar and atmospheric synthesizer on top. It shows that the style of his original material has not aged at all, and feels as cutting edge now as it did then. Every track is smooth and occasionally creepy feels like it could be used in a David Lynch movie (although “I'm Deranged” from 1.Outside already was used in Lynch's “Lost Highway”) with “Sow Burn” being not only really goo stand out track, but a fine example of this. The album even contains an exceptional cover of “Cactus” by the Pixies. One part his earlier work, one part Sonic Youth inspired structured dissonance, one part creepy moodiness, “Heathen” is a sharp return to greatness for Bowie.

Reality – 2003
Continuing his inspiration of his earlier work, “Reality” digs back as deep as “Heathen” and seems to re-imagine his original self titled album years a bit. It's the most playful Bowie has been on an album in years, even though it touches on occasional self depreciating themes like growing old, and most if it is catchy as hell. It's certainly a tad more mellow than the more rocking “Heathen”, but it doesn't feel tame by any means and his fascination with reinvisioned cover songs continues with a sharp cover of “Pablo Picasso” by the eternally enjoyable Modern Lovers . It's his last album to date, and if it's his last for good, then it's certainly a good note to go out on, but I feel like Bowie has at least one more good album in him and I hope we get to see it one day.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Star Trek. Greatest Film Franchise Ever? (Part III)

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country - 1991

This was the first Star Trek movie I got to watch in the theaters when I was a kid. You have nooooo idea how excited I was to see this movie on a huge screen in front of me. My previously mentioned Grandma took me right after school the day it came out. It was incredible. I loved every second of it. It had a shit ton of crazy space action and plot filled with twists and intrigue. I was aware of the press at the time which said it would be the last original cast movie, and even then I thought it was a good farewell. It wasn't until later I came to find that although it was still a great movie and an excellent entry into the Star Trek film series, it was not without it's flaws.
The whole movie is a huge allegory for the Cold War and it's demise. The Klingons (the Russians) are out of financing and a terrible industrial disaster (Chernobyl) requires them to call on the assistance of the Federation (America). What follows is a two hour morality play in which characters have to deal with their own paranoid prejudices in order to work together to achieve a common goal: the end of political fighting and distrust between the two sides (the film was made soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall). That's where the film takes it's surprising turn.
Look, I don't mean to get all "fanboy” about this, but I do have a major quarrel with some character choices in this movie. Specifically in the case of James Kirk. For the sake of the story, he is turned into a highly prejudiced bigot which is literally the exact opposite of everything this character has ever been. Kirk, ever since the original television show, has always been strongly portrayed as a person of empathy, intelligence, and humanitarianism. He fought many times against prejudices and hatreds on the show. Granted, I understand his son was killed by Klingons in the third movie, but Kirk always seemed better than that, more enlightened than to just suddenly take on harsh prejudices. And that's the thing. He doesn't possess this attitude in ANY other episode of the show or movie. He's just suddenly given this view to assist the story. It's kind of weak. Sadly, the movie was released right after the death of Star Trek's creator, Gene Roddenberry, but he was reportedly very displeased with Kirk's sudden latent bigotry, even though he learns the right lesson in the end.
I could complain about minor things here and there, including a few “not so great” performances from new cast members, but all in all: not a bad film. Great suspense, Great action sequences. It simply has a few gaping flaws.

Star Trek: Generations - 1994

The first unnumbered Trek flick, and the first one that focuses on the Star Trek: The Next Generation crew. I loved that show when I was younger, but man. The older I get, the lamer that show seems. Every episode is long and drawn out and there's almost none of the rich social commentary the original series possessed. Its RRREEEAAALY bland. Total "ho hum", an hour at a time. Sure, there are a handful of standout episodes, but blegh. It has nothing on the original. As a bonus, the film starts in the original crew time setting and transitions into the next Generation era. Due to crazy time shenanigans, Kirk manages to make it into a lot of the movie, only to suffer a hero's death. Also, Malcolm McDowell plays the villain so you know you're getting a solid, quality movie.
Not a bad movie at all. Very enjoyable, decent action, and a shitload of Kirk, how can I complain? Parts of it sort of drag on, but the complaints are outweighed by the enjoyment. Not bad at all, for a fucking "Next Generation" movie.

Star Trek: First Contact - 1996

This movie OF COURSE features the ultra popular, way over used Star Trek villainous species, The Borg. The Borg are the “Venom” of Star Trek. Much like Venom, the inexplicably popular Spider-Man villain, The Borg are unnecessarily popular given how lame they are, and this movie is chock full of them.
All in all, it's not terrible, but it is waaaay forgettable. It has more lame ass Borg than you can shake a stick at, and it featured the shitty looking new Enterprise, The NCC 1701-E. James Cromwell is great as always as Zefram Cochrane, the inventor of the warp drive (yea, more time travel shenanigans), and his inclusion in the film is a nice shout out to a great episode of The Original Series, "Metamorphosis", where Cochrane originally appears. Again, it's not a bad movie, but its pretty forgettable as soon as you finish watching it.

Star Trek: Insurrection - 1998

Not enough happens in this movie. It sucks sooooo bad. Skip it. Not even worthy of a neat picture to go with this write up.

Star Trek: Nemesis - 2002

Too much happens in this movie. It sucks sooooo bad. Skip it. Not even worthy of a neat picture to go with this write up.

Star Trek - 2009

Hooooooly shit! Who saw this coming? After how awful the last few Star Trek movies were, Paramount took a shot at rebooting the series with a film set in the Original series time setting. The movie is the supposed story of how Kirk meets Spock and the original crew, and how Kirk becomes Captain of the Enterprise.
The movie ,while staying faithful to the source material, does create a continuity separate from the Original show and film series so at first I was a bit nervous about that. Know why this shit rules? Because it acknowledges the previously established continuity, recognizes that it exists, and then starts a new, similar but different and updated time line. It's brilliant! This way, we get all new exciting Trek, with out any of the “hey, that changes continuity!” hang ups from fanboys like me. It's a perfect solution. They took away my only complaint with the movie, which was just nit-picky problems with the continuity. Having old Spock and Nero from the old continuity create a new time line by traveling back in time was a great way for the movie to create its own Star Trek universe while satisfying scrutinizing die hard fans.
The directing is sharp as well, and the performances? SPECTACULAR! Everyone does a great job of being inspired by their character's original performer, but no one mimics or entirely copies them. Some of the changes made in this department are even for the better, such as the updates made to Captain Christopher Pike, the Captain of the Enterprise before Kirk. Pike was a mopey baby in his only episode of the show, “The Cage” (the show's first pilot episode , most of which was cut into the two part episode “The Menagerie” later in the series).
All in all, what was made here is a perfect Trek film, similar to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It's completely accessible for non-Trek fans, and gives plenty to viewers who are fans. It's impressive to look at and action packed, and it never skips a beat or lags. I was hesitant at first, but this truly has become one of the greats of the Star Trek film series, and with everyone signed on for another one, I can only hope they create their very own astounding piece of the film franchise that lasts for a long time.

Until next time!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Star Trek. Greatest Film Franchise Ever? (Part II)

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock - 1984

All right, look: Star Trek III is a little hard to defend at times, but it is far from the worst the film series has to offer. The second part of what ended up becoming a story trilogy, the movie picks up right where the last one left off. The Enterprise crew is headed home to Spacedock, and on the way they find out that Spock has left an imprint of his mind in Dr. McCoy's brain. Spock's body was left behind on the now forbidden new planet “Genesis”, created by a detonated Genesis Project torpedo in the last movie. They decide to leave Starfleet in the dust, hijack the Enterprise and travel back to planet Genesis to merge Spock's mind (in McCoy's body) and his body in an effort to bring him back in a Vulcan ritual. Along the way, hijinks ensue.
Not exactly the world's greatest plot, but it's not terrible. That's pretty much the tone of this movie: just right. It's not too great, not too crappy, enjoyable enough, but far from mind blowing. It was Leonard Nimoy's (Spock) first film directing gig, and he actually performs well. (and hey, say what you will about 3 Men and a Baby, but he directs that pretty well too). The only things that make the film suffer are some lags in the story. Not a terribly big deal, but they do slow the speed of the film down a bit. It's hard to explain, but some parts of the movie just don't....feel...quite right. Also, it shows a lot of the crew in their casual, non-uniform attire and the movie does that awesome thing where '80s movies tried to predict what fashion would look like in the future, which back then always meant that the future would look like a more endowed 80's. Everything is leather with crazy design, or way shoulder-padded. It just looks funny.
The film has plenty of memorable and way entertaining aspects as well, including Christopher Lloyd's portrayal of the villainous Klingon Commander Kruge. The standout scene to me has always been the point where McCoy, confused by Spock's mind infecting his own to the point where he acts more and more like Spock himself, goes to a Starfleet dive bar full of alien clientèle and tries to hire a ship to take him to Planet Genesis. The resulting conversation he has with the freakish would-be pilot of the forbidden voyage is just fucking hilarious. The film ends on a heartwarming, positive note, but not before it puts you through a share of heartbreak, as a member of the cast is killed by Kruge's men and the original Enterprise is destroyed.
Again, not bad, but far from the best of the series.
Speaking of far from the best:

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home – 1986

So I’m going to come right out and say it, and I realize I’m in the minority on this one, but Star Trek IV is the worst of the first six movies, the ones that feature the original cast. Seriously. Without a doubt, it’s the worst out of them. It’s not unwatchable, and it’s not a too bad a movie, but it is a pretty bad STAR TREK movie. Allow me to explain.
The second Star Trek movie directed by Leonard Nimoy, The Voyage Home is the third and final installment of the Star Trek movie Trilogy that started with the Wrath of Khan, goes through Search for Spock, and ends here. The film picks up where III left off, the Enterprise has been destroyed and  Kirk and the crew (including a newly resurrected Spock thanks to Planet Genesis’s life creating formula and a Vulcan ritual) has taken its hijacked Klingon Bird of Prey for a brief sabbatical on planet Vulcan where they decide to return to Earth and face the charges for the crimes they committed in Star Trek III (hijacking the Enterprise). Meanwhile, back at Earth, a way awesome looking and sounding alien probe is communicating a message that no one understands, and as it receives no answer, the probe fucks shit up for everyone on Earth and in space around it. Kirk and the crew intercept the message and realize it's meant for Humpback Whales, a species long extinct on Earth. The crew, with their stolen Klingon vessel, now have to sling shot around the sun (a method used in the original series TV show) to travel back in time to Earth in 1986 to find and bring back Humpback Whales to the future so they can communicate with the probe and it stop it from kicking the shit out of everything.

So there's a very obvious message to the movie about conservation and wild life protection, and I wholeheartedly agree with both and certainly enjoy their inclusion. Where this movie drops the ball, is in the fact that like 20 minutes of it is actual Star Trek-y Sci-fi-ness while the rest of it is like an hour and a half of these out of place characters farting around in 1980's San Fransisco while making dumb “look at how craaaazy the 80's are!” jokes. The dialogue between Kirk and Spock in this movie is ridiculous, and everyone else is made to look like a bumbling goon. I get that they're from the future and they're now in a setting that's way outlandish to them, but seriously? Scotty picking up a mouse on a Macintosh and talking into it makes me roll my eyes every time. This guy reads Technical Journals for fun and is obsessed with tech. You're telling me he doesn't know what a computer from 1986 looks like? It's like saying you love cars but have no idea what a Model T is. Plus it makes him look like a total putz.
This was the most accessible and successful Star Trek film to date, but it barely feels like one. Put simply, it's crummy. It's just a lame, slowly dragging two hour joke about how shitty the 80's are with a message crammed in. Also, there's what I perceive as a glaring error in the film. Star Trek IV starts right after Star Trek III, yet there's not a single mention of the pretty big event of Kirk's son, David, being killed in the previous movie, which to these characters was about 3 hours ago. Not only does Kirk not mention it in the whole movie, but he forgets it enough to crack dumb jokes about the past for two fucking hours and fall in love with a Marine Biologist from the Eighties. Way to honor your freshly dead son. Just seems weird. Kirk either had hardcore denial, or the script writing was a little off.
I don't want to go out on a bad note, as I believe there are no bad movies in the series of the first six, but there are some that are pretty weak and this is one of them. Regardless, there's some high points. The message of it is as important now as it was when the film was made and drives you to take a look at the human abuse of Earth and its fellow inhabitants, so fair enough. You can't say it's without heavy handed sci-fi allegory. Kirk and Spock have a pretty memorable encounter with an excessive representation of a “punk rocker” while riding a bus, in which Kirk can't stand the “damn noise” the guy is blasting out of his boom box. It introduced us to the new Enterprise NCC-1701-A, a new build of the previously destroyed Enterprise that looks just like the old one, but this one has a fancy “A” painted on the hull after the NCC-1701, so you know its new and different. Also, it features that previously mentioned bad ass alien probe which looks and sounds terrifying.
Not a bad flick for the light of heart or the inexperienced Star Trek novice who needs an easily accessible starting point, but it's easily my least favorite of the first six movies.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier - 1989

So you liked directing two Star trek movies back to back, Leonard Nimoy? Well BOOM, step aside because here comes William Shatner himself to take a crack at the next one!
I'll say it right now: Shatner got a raw deal on this one, and this movie is better than you think it is. You know why it's better than you think it is? Because it is FUCKING IMPOSSIBLE to say you are a fan of the original television series, but not this movie, as this movie takes every single last element it can from the actual TV show. Simply: Star Trek V is the only movie in the whole franchise that actually FEELS like an episode of the original series.
Think about it. Every single aspect of that movie is taken right from episodes of Star Trek. Character driven goofball comedy moments. Small budget visual effects. An intergalactic incident requiring diplomacy. Hijacking attempts on the Enterprise. Crazy aliens. Introspective character moments. Far reaching, desolate locations. A villainous space god. It's all taken right from the show and put together! Seriously, go back and watch an episode of the Original Series, then watch Star trek V, and you'll say “Holy shit, there's almost no difference!”.
Where Shatner gets a raw deal on this one is due to two key points. For one, with the low budget of the last Star Trek movie (because most of it was just set in San Fransico in the 80's and there wasn't a lot of crazy sets or special effects required), Paramount figured they could do the same for the next film. Visual effects suffered because there wasn't enough money to back them up. Secondly, while the script is an awesome tribute to the Original show, the material felt dated and cheesy to most in the late eighties. It's still shot really well, and is really not a bad first attempt at directing at all. There are a few plot points that are a little iffy. I'm not sure I'm into Sarek having another child with another woman before Spock all that much, but overall it's not bad. It's also kind of a good send up of religious Evangelicals.
To summarize: This movie is WAAAAY better than you think it is. Go back and watch it again, and just let yourself be entertained by it. I think you'll find it feels like decent, enjoyable classic Trek.

Part three coming soon!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Star Trek. Greatest Film Franchise Ever? (Part I)

So let's talk “Star Trek” for a little bit.
It's indisputably one of the greatest science Fiction shows in television history, if not the greatest itself (it's certainly my all time favorite). Some people look over it for it's lack of high budget special effects and because one episode featured an admittedly lame looking fight with Kirk and a guy in a big Lizard suit (it's called a Gorn, respect it!), but that show featured some of the greatest science fiction writing of all time. Some episodes are hopeful glimpses into the future, some are terrifying glimpses into the future. Some are morality plays, others are character driven comedic romps. Some are clever, some are silly, but the show was always fun and always high concept. The show actually constructed my moral compass when I was young and showed me what humanity could be like at its greatest.

After the show ran it's original three season course, it blew up in popularity in syndication and in the late seventies, a second series was considered. With the success of Star Wars, a second option was brought to life: to bring Star Trek to the box office. A total of 11 Star Trek movies have been made and I think that most of them live up as not just good Star Trek movies, but great films that can be enjoyable to anyone. What follows is a little breakdown of each and a glimpse of what makes each of these movies great (or in some cases, pretty bad), told in three parts. Most of these movies are over 20 years old, so I feel silly saying there are some plot spoilers, but I might as well since some of you might not have seen these or heard any of the thousands of pop culture references to some of their plot particulars (although, I do leave one out because I think it's such a good plot device, I want you to be surprised by it if you ever see it). Onward to the first blog in the series:

Star Trek: The Motion Picture – 1979

Based off an unused script of the pilot episode for the proposed second Star Trek TV series and obviously inspired by the original Star Trek episode “The Changeling”, the plot for this movie is one of the greatest Science Fiction stories ever told, and yes, I stand strongly by that claim. To boil it down: an immense alien construct is heading towards Earth and the newly refitted U.S.S. Enterprise and its original crew must go on a special effects ridden journey to stop it. Inspired by technology actually sent into space in the early seventies, the twist at the end is pretty fucking surprising when you think about it, and is the very thing that makes it a cerebral sci-fi classic. (I'm not saying shit about it here in case you haven't seen it. If you haven't yet, you really should, I think you'll be impressed by the twist near the end). It's high concept sci-fi at it's finest. It also has what should go down as one of the most terrifying scenes in film history when it shows what can happen when the transporter fucks up while beaming people up. It's also nifty for showing us an updated look for the nefarious alien race, the Klingons, a look which varied greatly from their appearances on the original show and which has been used ever since. (it's also fun for us nerds to imagine and fictionalize how this change took place as it's never officially explained in Star Trek canon, only touched on in expanded universe books and comics.)
All of the cast you know and love from the show are there, including some new characters (as an added bonus: one of these is the son of a character from my all time favorite episode of the original show, “The Doomsday Machine”), and it does a great job of showing what the beloved original crew members have been up to since we last saw them on the television series.
This movie irritatingly gets panned by fans and critics alike as being very weak as the original cut was very long and slow and therefore considered boring. I think a part of this is due to the fact that all of a sudden, Star Trek had a Hollywood budget, and they wanted to show you that by creating loooooooong shots of the U.S.S. Enterprise flying around in a big alien construct in an effort to legitimize themselves for all the stuff they couldn't do with their shoestring budget on the TV show. An effort, in a way, to say: “Hey, check out all this cool shit we couldn't do on the show! Isn't this awesome?”. To me, it adds to the paranoid atmosphere of the film (as most of the film is shot strictly on the command bridge of the the Enterprise as they attempt to explore and explain what is actually around them in space) and shows the scope of the alien entity the crew is encountering, while to others it makes the film long winded and boring. The “Director's Edition” of the film, made for the updated DVD version release, fixes some of these problems by trimming down some shots and using some CG touch ups to make some scenes and effects in the movie look that much better. I suggest this be the version of the film you see if you haven't watched it yet, but the see the movie in any format you can, regardless. It is a highly recommended, and unfairly criticized, sci-fi classic.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – 1982

Boom. You want action? Here you go. Were you bored by the cerebral sci-fi exploration of the first movie? Fine, it's gone. Want a more direct reference to the original television series? There you are. Want to see a bunch of shit explode in space? Here's a fucking fistful of it.

After audiences complained that the first film wasn't action-packed enough, Paramount Studios decided to take one more crack at Star Trek as a film franchise and new director Nicholas Meyer singlehandedly saved it. He made style changes that stuck with the rest of the films featuring the original cast, including updating the crew's uniforms and the ship's interior appearance to feel more militaristic and submarine inspired. With that concept, he delivered the most action packed Star Trek film to date and it is, without any doubt whatsoever, the best of the film series. It's my second favorite movie of all time and was actually my first ever encounter with Star Trek when I was about 6 years old. My dearly departed, and deeply missed, Grandma on my Mom's side had the VHS tape (she actually possessed all of the films on VHS as well as several episodes of the original series) and was a huge fan of the Star Trek franchise. When I was a kid, I thought the box on the tape made the movie look cool so one day when I was visiting, I asked to watch it. She put it in for me, my head exploded over how great it was, and we formed a tight bond as not only family members, but fellow dedicated Star Trek fans, and I will always be grateful to her for that. (She also let me watch Jaws for the first time. Again, my head exploded from an overload of awesome, but that's neither here nor there).
Star Trek II is a direct sequel to a stand out episode of the original television series, “Space Seed”, in which Captain Kirk and the crew of the Enterprise first meet the genetically modified evil genius Khan after they find him in suspended animation on a ship floating in space from the past (which is actually our present). Khan tries to hijack the Enterprise, Kirk bests him, and Khan is left marooned on a planet (Ceti Alpha V) with no chance of escape as punishment. Way awesome episode. Star Trek II picks up with the crew of another ship finding Khan, and Khan hijacking their ship to get his revenge on his now mortal enemy, James Kirk. What proceeds is a two hour fuck fest of some of the most quotable dialogue and astounding space action ever filmed. It even manages to retain good science fiction concept, as well as moral challenge, in the way of “The Genesis Project”, a device that can be used as both a humanitarian means of creating life and habitation prospects on lifeless planets and moons, or a weapon to erase pre-existing life on planets and moons, depending on who is in possession of it. The film climaxes with the death of Spock, the beloved half Human, half Vulcan (alien race, for those not in the know) science officer of the Enterprise who executes his alien race's flawless logic thinking patterns and sacrifices himself for the good of the whole ship. (No complaining, I warned you about this at the beginning. Plus, the title of the third movie fuckin' gives it away anyways.) Admittedly, when I was a kid, I would cry at this scene. It's some really sad shit, don't patronize! For long time fans of the series, you felt as much a friend to Spock as Kirk does when he watched his close friend and companion die in front of him. Pretty powerful scene.
Point being, it's one of the greatest movies ever made, and it saved the franchise leading paramount to go for another movie, and we'll talk more about that soon.

Coming soon: Part II

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Perfect Albums: The Shape Of Punk To Come

I’ve experienced two music related, life altering moments while riding the Long Island Rail Road in New York. The first was when I had just turned 14 and I heard Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown” for the first time. One of the all time Seminal moments of my lifetime, but we’re not here to talk about that, we’re here to talk about the second instance.

This time, I was 15 and my family and I were back up visiting my home town (Farmingdale, Strong Island!!!). I was riding the train back from NYC and decided to put the new album I had just picked up in my portable CD player (yea, this was back in the 50’s when people listened to music in disc form, before they invented these future boxes the size of business cards that play 80 years worth of music. What a time to be alive, I tells ya. You kids don’t know how good you have it these days. Is it time for my sponge bath yet? Where's my Metamucil!?). I didn’t know it as I put the CD in the player but I was about to get the absolute shit kicked out of me through my ears.

The back story here is, I was way into punk rock, but specifically only really liked older 80’s and late 70's punk rock of all varieties. LA hardcore, NY noise punk, Midwestern post-punk, British Mod punk. It didn’t matter what type or sub genre it was, the common thread is that it was all from the 70’s and 80’s, when these bands still sounded fresh and dangerous. The early 90’s and its grunge explosion of garbage literally fucking killed punk rock for me, so I was always trying desperately to find new punk bands that felt the way older bands did: perfect. While there have been a handful in the last ten years or so, they are few and far between for me. Anyways, I used to get any Punk Rock compilation CD I could, to see if I could find any hidden gem of a band that worked for me. Epitaph Records had just put out their Punk-O-Rama 4 comp (I had all the previous collections) and it was the first time they put songs from their Swedish subsidiary, Burning Heart Records, on the mix. On it was a song called “Summerholidays Vs. Punkroutine” from a band I had never heard called “Refused”, who hailed from Umeå, Sweden. It wasn’t a fast or heavy song at all, it had less of a Black Flag feel, more of a Punk Mod-ish, almost Indie Rock quality to it like a song by Wire, The Jam, Television, or Dream Syndicate. I liked the song a lot, but it wasn’t my usual style. It didn’t bark in my face the way Black Flag or The Descendents did. It always stuck in the back of my head though, and I would hear it often as I listened to the Punk-O-Rama mix In following weeks. I began to find that it was very clever, very unique. Over time, it became my favorite song of the compilation. The very night before we left to visit our old NY stomping grounds, I was watching 120 Minutes on MTV (back when they still aired it, as they still should now) and a really odd music video started up with guys running around a building in animal suits. The credits in the lower corner of the screen listed the band as “Refused” so I perked up to see what other songs they had to offer other than the one from the Punk-O-Rama CD I had heard. What I proceeded to watch/listen to was a personal revolution. The song, “New Noise” was the fucking loudest, noisiest, heaviest thing I had ever heard in my life. The guitars were smothering, the drumming was borderline violent, and the vocals felt like a cheese grater against my face. I had heard some pretty heavy music in my life, but this song felt like an all consuming tidal wave. It had more energy than a song cold possibly know what to do with. I couldn’t get it out of my mind the whole next day on the plane ride to New York and the first chance I got to break away from my family and hop a train to the city to do some record shopping, I took it. I forget if I grabbed it at my beloved “Sound and Fury” or the Times Square Virgin Megastore as I picked up some stuff from each.

So here I am on the train ride back to my Aunt’s house and the first album I decide to pop in for the ride home is Refused’s third album “The Shape of Punk To Come: A Chimerical Bombination in 12 Bursts” (how fucking awesome is that title?), which had the two songs I had already heard from them on it. What I heard kicked the shit right out of me. The concept and execution of this album was so radical to me. It was everything I had ever wanted music to be, and here it was, right between my ears. It was the first contemporary hardcore album I had heard. The album was so heavy, It was the first time I ever described music as making me feel like I was drowning. There are parts of this album that smother you and don’t let you up for air. The last 40 seconds of the third Track, “Deadly Rhythm”, was the most unrelenting, suffocating thing I had ever heard at that point.

The album featured immensely heavy and fast guitar work, weird electronic breakdowns between songs, blistering drumming that had more roots in jazz than it did in punk or metal, absolute visceral screaming from beginning to (almost) end, leftist political quotes and phrases, jazz samples, an acoustic last song (which feels like the kiss and hug an abusive husband would give his wife after he finished beating her with how heavy the rest of the album feels), as much anti-capitalism as a Rage Against The Machine album, and an 8 minute song in three parts that initiated my love for long, building, dramatic heavy music in the vein of Isis, City of Caterpillar, Pelican, Neurosis, Sunn O))) and even Post rock bands like Godspeed you Black Emperor! and Mogwai . It is the oddest, most eclectic and most political hardcore album ever made and when I heard it the first time, it just about knocked my head off my fucking shoulders. My appreciation for the world’s loudest, heaviest, and most smothering music began here. It started my love affair with bands that have become my all time favorites, such as Converge, Cave In, Botch, Isis, Blacklisted, Trap Them, Burnt By The Sun, Disfear, Modern Life Is War, etc. It's heavy riffs got me not only into modern hardcore, but it's inspiration, heavy metal (and it's many sub genres) itself. My deep affection for heavy began right here. I was never the same. When I used to wear glasses I would constantly almost break them as they would repeatedly fly off my face as I would flail around while lip synching and pretend shouting to everything Dennis Lyxzén screams on this album

After making “Shape of Punk to Come”, Refused broke up and splintered off to start new projects that are still incredibly good, but could never possibly touch the legacy this album leaves in my eyes. It’s good they split up, honestly. I fear that they would never had made anything as complete and revolutionary as this. It is heavily revered in the hardcore community as one of the genre’s seminal albums and Refused remains one of modern Hardcore’s most beloved and most missed bands. They had two albums prior to this, both exceptional, but their Masterpiece is “The Shape of Punk to Come” which proved to be an accurate title for me as every aggressive album I’ve heard since, I’ve had to measure to this one. It set the tone for me and created a love affair with audio heaviness that will undoubtedly last the rest of my life. It’s been 8 years now and this still remains a perfect record for me, and while I have plenty more now that exceed it on my “favorites” list, it will always be my first love, the first perfect album that started it all and led me to some of the music I cherish now. If you haven’t heard it, get a copy. Hopefully, it will become as revolutionary and incendiary to you as it was to me.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Can you fly, Bobby?

Robocop - 1987

It's the film my Blog's name comes from, so it seems like just as good a place to start as any. (Although, that line was also used in the endlessly entertaining arcade/console video game “Smash T.V.”)

To fully understand my appreciation of this film, we should go back to the first time I saw it. When I was about eight years old, I was already deeply in love with Science Fiction. Anything that had anything to do with space, aliens, robots, or the future, I was deeply in love with, and made curious by. Therefore, when I saw an ad on TV for that night's prime time movie, and it had a police officer walking around in a fucking robot body, the concept was so incredible to me, I could barely stand it. I asked my Mom to record it for me (it was airing on a school night, past my bed time) so I could watch it the next day. When my parents saw the kind of shit that happens in Robocop (and keep in mind, this was an already edited for TV version of the ultra violent film), they decided there was no way my eight year old ass was going to see this movie. They didn't want to disappoint me either, so they came up with a novel idea. They edited down an already edited for TV version of a rated R movie so that I could see it without all that adult content. There was a problem, they weren't too great at manually controlling the record feature of the VCR. What I was left with, was literally an approximately 25 minute, poorly edited version of Robocop. It made almost no sense as virtually every major plot point in that movie is riddled with violence and was therefore cut out. The narrative was all cut up and crazy and Robocop only ever fired his gun at a lifeless practice target, a huge bi-pedal robot, and baby food bottles, never people. It would jump around and show people a little bloodied up, but it wouldn't show HOW they got bloodied up. It was just confusing.... and one of the greatest things I had ever seen. Who cares if it didn't make sense!? It was a huge badass robot walking around and saying cool shit. Luckily, I managed to get the kid-friendly movie adaption comic book of the film and that helped me understand some of the key plot points that my movie version skipped over for twenty whole fucking minutes at a time.

It's remained one of my all time favorite movies since then, and it's evolved into something completely different than an awesome, super violent movie where a robot shoots people (I eventually saw the full version). The older I got, the more it stuck with me. There's something very human about that movie. The cyberpunk style extreme violence is the “Hollywood” aspect of that movie, but there are points that movie makes that have stuck with me since I was a kid. For example, consumerism and advertising will one day numb us and seem even more important and exciting then the actual world news. Also, corporations do not care about people, only what they can do make their business more financially successful. They are soulless, just as soulless as OCP's ED-209, terminating humanity without a concern. Poverty and crime rise in the streets as the rich get richer and a find a way to profit of the misery of the down-trodden.

What gets me about this movie, is that the main drive of it doesn't make it an action movie at all, which it constantly gets billed as. Robocop really is postmodern science-fiction at it's finest. Robocop's real struggle in this movie, is the retention of his “soul” and personality in a body that has transformed into a company's technological concept of the future. He is man literally fighting his own machine. There's something overwhelmingly human about it. Don't get me wrong, it works fine as an awesome, entertaining, violent Hollywood extravaganza with plenty of excitement and quotable lines out the ass (the overwhelmingly, and at times sickeningly, villainous Clarence Boddicker provides 80% of these, the Benny Hill inspired television personality Bixby Snyder provides the rest: “I'd buy that for a dollar!”), but Robocop packs a little more punch than that. A little substance to go with the style. I've always appreciated that, especially as it introduced tones to me as a kid that later made Philip K. Dick interesting to me, as well as stories like the Dick inspired “Blade Runner” or “Ghost in the Shell”. The futuristic, deeply philosophical (and admittedly leftist) writing of Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner and the awe-inspiring, stylized directing of Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall? Seen that shit? Just awesome. Yet another of my favorite 80's movies. Also based of a Philip K. Dick short story) provide a level to this movie that I think is often missed by a sizable portion of those who see it. It has remained one of my favorite movies since I was eight, and remains so as I get older due to it's philosophical take on the modern Sci-Fi story.

The sad part is, the point was lost even further when Robocop eventually became
something the movie strongly detested: a brand name. A product. A manufactured advertisement to sell goods to children, especially when that awful TV show re-imagining directed at kids came out where it totally missed the point and put Robocop in a show that felt like “NYPD Blue” meets “Alien Nation” meets Saturday morning cartoon. He fought ridiculous Batman Villain-esque oddities like “Boppo the Clown” and “Pudface”. Ugh. It was gross. Those toys were WAAAY badass when I was a kid though, holy shit. That much is undeniable. I had most of the figures and Robocop's sweet OCP cop car. Had Robocop comics coming out of my ass too. It was was awesome, even though looking back now, I feel abused and misguided given the original film's weight-y subtext. I guess everything becomes a product eventually...

Additional Points:
1. Robocop 2 is actually not as bad as you remember it being. Based off a script written by the used-to-be-talented comic book writer Frank Miller (before All-Star Batman fell out of his ass and he decided that publishing it was a good idea), the movie keeps the focus on the Detroit down-trodden, by getting them all addicted to a cheap, highly addictive drug called Nuke. It might not pack the same philosophical or emotional punch that the first one does (although scenes where Robo comes in contact with his former family are pretty heavy), but it's still a good sci-fi action flick with clever jabs at the media, corporation again, and a potential future culture. Frank Miller plays a bit role as a drug chemist, and later penned what was his original version of the Robocop 2 script for a totally bitchin' comic book series published by Avatar Press. Miller was always upset with the treatment of his script as it was cut down and re-edited, and he gave himself his own chance to present the story as he intended. If you get a chance, check it out. It's collected in a nice, convenient trade paperback form.
2. Robocop 3 is actually worse than you remember it being.
3. I met fucking Robocop. No lie. When Robocop 2 was coming out, the Blockbuster Video store near where I lived on Long Island cross promoted. They had a guy in a fully functional, 100% accurate, awe-inspiring Robocop suit. I was like, 9 or 10 years old and I got to meet fucking Robocop. I got to go up to him and shake his hand and no shit, he said “Stay out of trouble” to me. It was awesome. I totally have the pictures to prove it. If you're ever over my house, just ask and you'll see.