Monthly Archives: April 2009

Flash Gordon, Queen and the Art of the Rock OST Pt.1

 

This is a recent article PM wrote for The Quietus. It’s great. Part 2 tomorrow, and then BRIAN MAY’S RESPONSE TO THE ARTICLE on Monday. I know.

Just a note, the DVD timings refer to the standard DVD release of the film, which you can get here if you want to follow along.

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When, in 1980, Queen were commissioned to soundtrack a high-camp movie adaptation of Alex Raymond’s comic strip Flash Gordon, few would have expected it to be quite such an accomplished work. Indeed, even fewer thought it was worth considering as a proper Queen album, with only two of its tracks featuring a Freddie Mercury vocal. What separates this work from other soundtrack recordings is its relative complexity compared with much popular music, and its relative simplicity and clarity of expression compared with most action film scores. The OST holds an interesting place in Queen’s back-catalogue as well; at times more bombastic, at times subtler than anything else they recorded. Leitmotifs are established for both character and emotional state (in a manner not too dissimilar to later Wagner works), subjected to tweaks to denote changes in mood. And, best of all, Queen remember that they’re a fucking rock band. And they fucking rock.

The Flash OST is a bizarre and hypnotic work when considered in isolation, well worthy of stoner devotion reserved for the likes of Piper At The Gates Of Dawn or the cool, modern appreciation of Morricone. It bleeds atmosphere and poise, but is not adverse to hilarity, even becoming hysterical at some points. A fine blend that is never too self-conscious or over-complicated. But married to the images that Mike Hodges provides, the work becomes an accomplished, slick and instinctive whole. Beginning with the main musical themes and continuing through similarities to operatic convention, it is a cohesive whole.

flash-back

Thematic Developments

The film itself and its archetypes lend themselves totally to a soundtrack such as this. High-camp it may be (and intentionally so), but the only way to convince with the soundtrack is to play it totally straight, and Queen’s almost-prissy accompaniment to scenes of ridiculous spectacle and sci-fi gaudiness is supremely intuitive. Take the hero’s main theme for example; a pulsing and powerful exposition with effective and camp interjections of “Flash!”. Following that, Brian May’s signature sound and some homophonic rhythmic trickery complete the ‘song’, such as it is, but it’s the initial piano-bass-drums throb that makes the most thematic impact. Simple it may be, but it echoes the menace of Williams’ Jaws and a serves as a blank canvas with potential for infinite elaboration.

‘The Love Theme’ is possibly the most sophisticated example of the leitmotif throughout the OST. Quietus scribe, Jimmy Martin, from London experimental band Teeth Of The Sea, has more insight than most into the instrumental sections of Flash Gordon, having performed the soundtrack as a whole, and suggests ‘The Love Theme’ contains depths not usually present in Queen’s material. “The love theme is an example of a deftness of touch which people often forget about in the oeuvre of Queen” says Jimmy, and he’s totally right. On its first hearing in Dr. Zarkov’s space capsule (00:15:39), ‘The Love Theme’ is basically a psychedelic and melancholy series of synthesizer chords. As Flash and his love Dale Arden’s fingers intertwine, we see the earth rotating through the capsule window, in a perfect match of milieu and musical mood. It soon escalates into a light gallop as Roger Taylor’s drums signal the capsule’s approaching the planet Mongo, but the chords persist, reacting very little to the newly-imbued rhythmic direction.

When ‘The Love Theme’ returns later on (00:32:11), Flash is on the verge of being put to death and Timothy Dalton has hilariously just called his girlfriend a bitch. Again, the mood becomes almost hallucinogenic. Dale circles the strung-up, almost-naked Flash, and they talk about their whole predicament being nothing more than a dream. Again, rhythmic direction signifies impending development. In this case, the regular drum beats are diegetic only and come from Ming’s masked henchmen, signalling Flash’s imminent death. That the theme is constantly threatened by rhythm is indicative of the clever understatement Queen employ in their thematic developments.

The most sophisticated use of thematic gesture sees Queen combining two already-established themes. The ‘Battle Theme’ (01:28:23) is one of the defiantly rock moments on the OST, but slots in both the guitar motifs from the original Flash theme (to establish his presence and heroics) and the theme for Vultan (Brian Blessed as a constantly guffawing winged tit) and his flying soldiers. The rock tempo and aesthetic is established by Roger Taylor’s drum intro and Brian May takes care off the riffing, but atop it sits the synthesizers of Vultan’s army and neatly interjected segments of the ‘Flash Theme’. It is the film and the soundtrack’s most triumphant moment, both compositionally and for the way it evokes the recklessness of a load of semi-clad flying beardies attacking a spaceship.

More tomorrow…

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Morton Valence – Bob And Veronica Ride Again

Morton Valence – Bob And Veronica Ride Again (Bastard)

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Morton Valence‘s debut album is immediately reminiscent of a distinctly British strain of urban chronicling. The likes of Darren Hayman and David Gedge have long since torchbearers for the intricate description of the ordinary and its seedy undercurrents, so this boy/girl duo have something of a template to work with and innovate from. At the outset they’ve made this a complicated process by adhering to an arching narrative concerning the relationship of the titular Bob and Veronica, but for the most part it doesn’t get in the way for some lovely and equally aloof pop moments.

The mournful Hang It On The Wall sees Bob croon his woes both physical and emotional – it’s not the lyrics themselves that make this beautiful, though, it’s when he starts shouting them. Gentle Galaxie 500-esque chord progressions from singing organs provide excellent warmth, and it’s needed by the time Bob and Ron start to bicker. Their exploits might be emotionally confusing, cool even, but they’re always delivered with poise that will resonate with those who’ve, y’know, felt a emotion or two. Even better, the apocalyptic (and strangely-titled) “I must go,” said Veronica, “but I will always come back” sees affairs ramped to their highest point, an innocent enough Just Like Honey intro eventually erupting into delirium, a cacophony of bruised instruments and yells.

With Bob And Veronica Ride Again, Morton Valence find that balancing extremes works tremendously well with an emotional story like this. Tension escalates like the protagonists’ feelings throughout, and the releases are sometimes spectacular. While the concept of the whole can be tricky to follow with the mire of psychological intrigue muddying the waters somewhat, but this duo have emerged beating their chests and screaming things that should be whispered.

Bob And Veronica Ride Again comes out on BASTARD RECORDINGS on May 4th. How good is that?! More. Read this review at Drowned In Sound, here.

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Blue Roses – S/T

Blue Roses – S/T (XL)

blue-roses-st

That Laura Groves is only 21 years old at the time of writing makes her debut album under the Blue Roses banner remarkable. The superficialities of her rise to prominence read like those any number of disenfranchised, brave and un-encouraged girls; a country upbringing, impeccably quirky influences and borrowed equipment and voices, but a dazzling desire to escape whatever ‘trappings’ are often associated with young female performers in their press releases has made this self-titled record something of a loner in its triumph.

Delicate rubati, orchestrated strokes of emotional highlighting and Groves’ voice itself provide endless bafflement, excitement and gentle exhilaration. The final phrases of Coast evoke storms building on the high seas and, because Groves sees lyric and note as a most inherent intertwining, we hear misty strains of shanty accordion. Details, maybe, but ones that are indicative of consummate writing, encompassed with watertight thematic and musical interaction.

The voice will no-doubt see comparison to Joanna Newsome while the album is critiqued, but there’s an expansiveness that Groves has that Newsome can’t challenge. Where Newsome has the more elaborate orchestration and labyrinthine construction, Groves has the emotional trump in her delicate delivery. She doesn’t even sound that much like her. No more laziness please, press peeps. Besides, Groves’ auto-harmonies lift her voice from pretty to spectral, almost gaudy in their histrionic, triadic excess, but reigned in by centred melodies.

Instrumentally Groves displays an affinity for quirkiness of timbre, but not an overreaching, self-sabotaging desire for wackiness. There’s no “ooh, check my Bolivian anal flute”, more a considered ear bent towards creating the correct atmosphere. It’s a sly multi-faceted approach, but one that means the accessibility of pianos, guitars and strings are given real legs for walking by the addition of instinctive extra instrumentation, from the kalimbas of single Doubtful Comforts to the gentle bleeps of warm synthesizer on I Am Leaving Now.

Indeed, for an album that relies an awful lot on its quirks and corners of interest, Blue Roses manages to retain an admirably humanist core. It seems that Groves has written these initially for sparse performance, but elaborated on her bases to make the compositions very beautiful, involving and unabashedly romantic affairs. For the listener, it’s heartening to see this much care being taken over popular songs – surely the upshot will be worthy attention being lavished upon Groves from now on.

This was out Monday. PM was on holiday, alright? GIVE US A BREAK, DIV! More music here.

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Castrovalva – S/T

Friends, lovers, we’re back. Holiday was ace, thanks. Did you know Peter Hook has posters all over Valencia?

Castrovalva – S/T (Brew)Castrovalva

This mini-album from Leeds-based ‘experimental’ (if ever a catch-all term was overused, this is the one) rock duo Castrovalva has the entire requisite energy, spasm and verve to align them with their chief influences. Lightning Bolt are perhaps a slightly-too-obvious reference point for clueless press, but one that provides a template for the band’s aim. While they have the aforementioned requisites for this supposed ‘experimental’ rock genre, do they have the other, oft-unassailable factors necessary for success?

At points, this self-titled thrash anarchy is beautifully taut and well-rendered, but the experimentation (as we might term it) could be more frenetic and intuitive. This pair are definitely the product of much gruesome research and rehearsal, but their improvisational impulses might not be as honed yet as they might be. When a groove is established it seems more often than not to be one that could have been dreamt up in the cotton fields, but played at disgusting volume. Furthermore, any tweaks of meter are strictly simplistic extensions of the bar rather than the instinctive accelerations of, say, Castrolava’s labelmates Kong.

When they do reach their zeniths, like on the furious, chugging Bison Scissor Kick, it’s entertainment and reflex boiled down to bare brilliance. More of this might result in the worthy exorcism of ‘the riff’ as a concept for Castrovalva, and the rewards will be all ours to analyse and enjoy.

This will arrive on download and physicaload on May 5th, via Brew. More.

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Levelload – I’ve Been Thinking

Levelload – I’ve Been Thinking (Flightpath)

levelload

Lauded by the likes of Simon Le Bon… why continue? Ah well, Levelload at least have a certain adherence to pop structures and knack with an atmospheric tremolo chord to prop up this burst of sugary Hives-esque angularity. The Japanese vocalist Mariko Doi follows in the footsteps of her country folk by treading a dicey line between dollyish sweetness and impish fury, while her compadre Tony Wade seems content to mangle his guitar into shapes Love Is All would love to add some humanity to. There’s not the innocence of Deerhoof, rather the stony-faced mischief Devo at work here.

Apparently being released in Britain for the first time (they’re megastars in Japan or something, like Puffy AmiYumi without the kitsch), it’s of no consequence whether they make it or not. They’ll always do well elsewhere. On the strength of this one cut, though, it’s hard to tell whether pop domination might ensue – we could equally shrug our collective shoulders.

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I’ve Been Thinking is out on May 25th. More here.

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Acid Mother’s Temple & The Melting Paraise UFO – Interstellar Guru And Zero

Acid Mother’s Temple & The Melting Paraise UFO – Interstellar Guru And Zero (Homeopathic) amt

If there’s one thing Kawabata Makoto need not worry about, it’s disappointing his audience. Have you seen the people that see Acid Mothers Temple live in their myriad formations? These people live for weirdness. Hand them a Hawkwind album and they’ll say “hmm, I see what you mean, but there’s only two tracks over eight minutes…”, or complain that it’s too tonal. With Interstellar Guru And Zero, Makoto and The Melting Paraise UFO (the latest incarnation of the many-momikered collective) fans will have plenty to smile about. A largely atonal mash of electronics and Makoto’s guitar is the sole content of the first track, and it clocks in at a shade under 19 minutes. The second and final track is a more blissed-out, chordally strident and longer version of the first, clocking in at 39 minutes.

But this is such a safe brand of quirkiness. AMT have not always reverted to wool-over-the-eyes tactics, and it’s a shame that they could be doing so here. The trap that Makoto and his fans fall into here is to be blinded by sheer length and grandeur. Both of these compositions suffer from lack of discernible development and monotony. Experimental scholars might protest that such statements might come from the kind of person that would dismiss certain musics as ‘just noise’, but this would be to miss the point totally. Noise can evolve, noise can batter into submission when balanced by relief, noise can physically affect. Kawabata Makoto knows this, but on Interstellar Guru And Zero he opts for the easy way out. The only real evolution comes on the first track, Astral Projection From The Holy Shangrila, when the mash becomes just about worn and we are delivered into a more sedate restatement of the opening acoustic strum.

Makoto’s genius lies in offering the merest hint of development over epic structures, just enough to keep a listener’s interest. Over the course of those structures, the changes become more noticeable (the process could be likened to becoming accustomed to the dark), and it becomes, literally, cosmic listening. It can be pretty far-out. Previous triumph Pink Lady (You’re So Sweet) is AMT at their strongest. An inviting first riff, manipulated in meter and tempo, daubed in noise and take to hell and back over the course of an hour. Not Interstellar Guru And Zero. The intellect has fallen from this release, but will be seen as a worthy addition by those that privilege uncontrolled weirdness and sheer grandiose scale over the smart deployment of those elements.

Have a listen here. Promo was late, this is already out. This review, however, can also be read here.

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The Phantom Band – The Howling

The Phantom Band – The Howling (Chemikal Underground)

phantomband

This perky slice from The Phantom Band’s middling debut is symptomatic of the band’s overriding dynamic. Corners of excitement occasionally sharpen and become interesting, even thrilling, but the simplicity of the padding around those corners renders the whole effect somewhat muted. There’s enough Saloon-style melodic grace to endear the ear, and some kinetics reminiscent of The Early Years, but this is a tune with room for only so much repetition. It comes down to a matter of edition.

The buoyant carriage of the beat during the verse sections is admirable, but can it sustain a full six minutes? An edited single version certainly suggests that maybe it can’t, feeling much better-organised and succinct than the sprawling original (also included, lucky you!). Ultimately, it’s an excercise in maintaining that bouyancy that works on the whole, but only when concentrated and tweaked for maximum impact.

Hear here.

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