January 2011

[1][Mahler]… codified the etiquette of the modern concert hall experience, with its worshipful, religious character. Opera houses of the nineteenth century were rowdy places. Mahler, who hated all extraneous noise, threw out singers’ fan clubs, cut short applause between numbers, glared icily at talkative concertgoers, and forced latecomers to wait in the lobby.

[1] Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Picador 2007, p26.


“If we want thousands to hear us in the huge auditoriums of our concert halls and opera houses, we simply have to make a lot of noise”.

Sylvian, Fripp and a Stick, pictured not quite yesterday.

Here are two versions of the same song. Now don’t get me wrong: I love David Sylvian. His work with and since Japan is frequently wonderful but sometimes very affected indeed. When he and Fripp got together in 1993 for The First Day (there will be some more detailed chat about this and the other two albums in their collaboration anon) I loved the song Jean the Birdman. There’s a lovely circular quality to the melody line and the Eastern-tinged guitar and Stick lines pick it up in a very… tasteful way, if tasteful wasn’t the single most horrible way to describe something good in the history of criticism. This should have been a huge hit. There’s an Ashes to Ashes thing in the melody somewhere, too.

Live they didn’t seem to break a sweat. as this version shows, but the sight of a smiling Fripp on his stool is a portrait in control and calm restraint. Sylvian looks smooth (I hadn’t seen him play a guitar before) and the other musicians, Michael Brook and King Crimson members Trey Gunn and Pat Mastelotto are as tight as you could imagine. And look at the span of Fripp’s left hand:

Then look ten years later. This is Sylvian, accompanied by his brother Steve Jansen and Masakatsu Takagi. I love the sound of his voice; I love the backdrop and I love the song, but why in the world would you turn it into Rock and Roll Suicide?

Nice in its own way, but it loses all of the advantages the original had, ie. Robert Fripp’s contribution. But I should include two more notes in fairness to David Sylvian:

1. He did a more conventional version with his band, too, but you can go look for them yourself/ves.
2. Here’s a truly marvelous single from the truly marvelous Brilliant Trees album. Pretentious video, though. Has he got a little arty chubby in the first shot? Sorry, by the way, that this looks like it was taped off the telly, but some might say it contributes to its artiness. Not me. It was arty enough already.

Any excuse.

Before two people in particular cause me physical harm for the post below, here are the ones I like. Might I add that apart from The Dark Night and Watchmen I’ve had very little exposure to the original comics. Someone should buy me a copy of V for Vendetta:

1. V For Vendetta

2. Sin City

3. Watchmen (just about)

4. Batman Begins/The Dark Night.

5. Elektra (just kidding)

6. The Crow

7. From Hell is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen.

8. The second X-Men film.

Looking at the list there are some truly awful films there.

I can only conclude that this film got greenlit because it was a comic book, and it leads me to the creation of Lennymogwai’s Law: if a film has an unfollowable script, impressive visuals, looks like a children’s film made for adults and you have no idea how it ever got made, it must be based on a comic book[1].

The checklist is inauspicious enough. Loner hero (James Purefoy), an environment which could be mediaeval, could be post-apocalyptic, huge amounts of blood loss, mud and fire, innocent child to be rescued, Max Von Sydow cameo (is there anything this guy won’t do for a buck? Van Wilder 3? He was in The Seventh Seal, for Christ’s sake. He was Jesus!). Magic, nasty creatures that come out of mirrors to kill your mates? Zombies? Sibling rivalry? All present and correct.

But the bit where he gets down off the cross to which he’s been nailed? I’ve only ever seen that done once (apart from the obvious): it was in a Van Damme, cough, vehicle titled Cyborg. JCVD managed to pull the nails out of the wood using the muscles in the palms of his hands (misspent youth, there, JC?). This film was better. Marginally. Our hero here only had to pull his hands through the bolts, his crucifiers having presumably run out of nails with heads on them. Lucky break, eh? Not as lucky as their failure to put any nails in his feet or take his boots off.

As bad is the bit where he escapes Death (who calls himself ‘Satan’s Reaper’ in case Death wasn’t enough of a job description) by jumping out a window? Can’t Death fly? Can’t He swim?[2] The passengers on the SS Titanic might beg to differ.

Samuel Roukin

Eamon Ryan TD

Anyway, he begins as an evil git, sacking villages and, when running them through with your already bloodied sword might have sufficed, shooting injured enemies while they’re lying in agony on the ground. A man, therefore, for whom human life is cheap and ammo cheaper. Some silly flashbacks tell us he’s a loner, thrown out of his house of many candles by the aforementioned Mr. Von Sydow, then throwing his brother off a cliff for trying to rape someone or other. His brother (Samuel Roukin), by the way, looks like he was played by Irish Green Party TD Eamon Ryan (who quit the government today during the film). My favourite piece of bad exposition is when the late, lamented Pete Postlethwaite tells him “your older brother has given you a command”. Quality stuff. Really puts you in the picture.

Our hero—I’ve forgotten his name—tries to atone for his sins by living in a monastery but gets chucked out of there for ruining the atmos by screaming in his sleep while they’re trying to say matins. He goes on a trip but eventually ends up, several swedgings and a crucifixion later, back home, where he helps his father kill himself (lucky escape for Mr. Von S) and gets on with the business of confronting the evil Malachai (cool makeup), Malachai’s mate the Phantom of the Opera and their brigade of what look to be the bastard children of Orcs and Mitchell brothers. Blah, blah, shadows from his past, blah blah, Freud, blah blah Rosebud.

Malachai, the bad guy with evil written all over his face, played by Jason Flemyng out of Lock, Stock.

The problem with this and more than a few films of the fantasy genre is that its pofaced tone allows the viewer the first bite at slagging it off for being absurd. A filmmaker like Sam Raimi, for example, anticipates the cynical viewer by admitting absurdity and doing the whole thing tongue in cheek. This film takes itself seriously, although the opening shows that perhaps they toyed with the archness of it all before going for it straight. Initially I thought this was a sort of Van Helsing thing, but all it really has in common with that is that the effects are impressive but the film is muck.

By the end there’s only one course events can take and they take it. No alarms and no surprises here, except that it got made at all. Solomon Kane. Cost: $45 million. Worldwide take as of June 2010: $13,972,383. There you go. It really is terrible shite.

[1] For the record, the Solomon Kane series was a collection of stories in Weird Tales magazine, before being remade as Marvel comics in the seventies.

[2] Doesn’t He get a capital letter for His pronoun? If God and Jesus do then Death should. I mean we can prove He exists.

Twenty-one years after its release and a lifetime away from this year’s model (of either Trent Reznor or my good self) it’s time to revisit Pretty Hate Machine, an album which brought the eighties to an end and heavily influenced most of the alternative rock which exploded in the nineties. It’s just been given a thorough cleanup by Reznor, repackaged by Rob Sheridan at great effort and expense and reissued now that Reznor once again has record company support. As Reznor’s about to get bigger than ever, (if this Oscar win comes through[1]) it’s a good time to look at where he began.

Trent from the eighties, pictured with a bloke who probably runs an Office Max now.

For my part, this album soundtracked the winter I spent alone waiting for Christmas to end so everyone would show back up to college and help me waste my time. Although the album seemed to come from nowhere, looking back it’s expensively produced and mixed by some fairly established names[2], the band (Reznor himself, as the sleevenotes famously declare) was the subject of quite a bidding war and a certain amount of money was also spent on getting the lead single into the alternative charts and the album onto the racks and into the Columbia House catalogue. So it was a bit more carefully planned than first appeared.

A CD was a different entity in 1989, oversampling and mastering still quite a young science. The soundstage of the original CD was all right but this version really does justice to the complexity of the content. On tracks like Terrible Lie the individual tracks sound more layered toward the end so that the building cacophony makes sense, while on Something I can Never Have the random sound effects and echoed piano are as unsettling as ever, coming across as if a completely different track is playing just out of earshot. It’s always been clear that Reznor is in control, and even on this early work his vision is clear. Drum sounds and samples are crystalline and give the mechanised kick that has always complemented Reznor’s emotional vocal. The bass frequently sounds much better than an electronic album should, with some impressive subwoofer booms on Down In It and Ringfinger, especially.

What’s also apparent now is how many of the ideas he uses here were developed through the life of the band. The searing guitars at the end of Sin, the early 20th century minimal piano lines and the whispered, anguished vocals are all trademarks by now. What struck me on this listen is how the seemingly directionless mess at the end of Kinda I Want to, a track I’ve always thought of as the weakest on the album, informs directly the instrumental passage of Closer, the song from The Downard Spiral that almost killed the whole thing off. Kinda I Want To seems to feature a selection of drum machine settings, one after the other, as if someone was trying to sell a piece of hardware. Followed as it is by the precision and ratcheting tension of Sin it suffers, and while the remaster clears things up it’s still more filler for me than anything.

The original album cover.

Lyrically the album contrasts the loss of innocence and naïveté (“after you just taught me how to kiss—you”, “I think you owe me a great big apology”, “my moral standing is lying down”) with a seedy, almost Soft Cell-like concentration on fluids (“sweat and Perry Ellis/Just stains on my sheets”; “stale incense, cold sweat and lies, lies, lies”; “I wanna wrap it up and swim in it until I drown”). There’s the Swans, Throbbing Gristle type sacred/profane stuff  presumably from the baggage of his Lutheran background[3]: “this one act of consecration is all I ask of you”; “the Devil wants to fuck me in the back of his car”; “God money, nail me up against the wall”, the entirety of Terrible Lie and Sanctified). It’s frankly all a bit angsty and teenaged, but there’s a hurt tone to much of it that humanises this otherwise industrial or electronic music and somehow makes the angst a little more sympathetic. Close miking helps and the breathy vocal is much further up in the mix. Listen to Down In It, for example: the Pepsi Challenge shows how much the rhythm of the vocal line has been improved by distancing it from the instrumental tracks. It almost sounds like rapping.

It’s the vocal performance on Something I Can Never Have sold me on this band, though. The song is the centrepiece of this album and he was still performing it with the same emotional punch in the final shows of 2009. Although largely piano-based, the industrial noises and rattling drum effects shutting doors in the background (recalling another great band, Joy Division and their producer Martin Hannett) give it a continuity with the rest of the album. The story is clear enough: he’s been dumped and the self-loathing is now moving objects in his house (“I’m starting to scare myself). The self-doubt is matched by the off-time piano line, punctuated with mechanised clatters which only serve to knock the melody off balance. It works perfectly.

Trent, angry onstage in 1992.

Lyrically, though, it’s benefit of the doubt time: is it synaesthesia or just a mixed metaphor when he sings that the “taste of your tears/Echo in my head just like a ringing in my ears”? Whatever the case, the couplet “everywhere I look you’re all I see/Just a faded fucking reminder of who I used to be” sums up the album’s tone of self-flagellation and vies for best line on the album with the opening gambit of The Only Time: ‘I’m drunk, and right now I’m so in love with you”.[4] There’s a coherence to the emotional thump of the album which makes the whole thing effective. The band touring this album for a couple of years made everything much more clattering and violent, but this album is firmly rooted in a dance/electronica hybrid, a sound on which Reznor built his own church (now there’s a mixed metaphor).

The biggest reservation I have about this reissue is the missed opportunity of a deluxe edition. There are dozens of mixes of Head Like a Hole[5] and Down In It, along with some really original and distinct versions of Sin. There may not be more than two or three songs demoed but not included (Now I’m Nothing is especially famous for not having a studio version) and that might make another disc too repetitive, but the solution arrived at, to include a cover of Queen’s Get Down, Make Love at the end of the

Trent (fourth from left) with RevCo: L-R Jourgensen, Chris Connelly, Paul Barker, Trent, Paul van Acker and someone who's not Bill Rieflin.

album, doesn’t work at all for this reviewer. The argument is, I suppose, that it was produced by Hypo Luxa (known to his friends as Alain Jourgensen, with whom Trent escaped on tour the year after he got into the row with TVT records), but surely that means that Reznor’s vocal version[6] of Supernaut, recorded under the name 1000 Homo DJs and at the moment only available on the Wax Trax Black Box, could have made the cut too.

Oh well. I suppose there’s a recession on so one album was enough. For now. Pretty Hate Machine may well have some moments to make you wince at the 1989 version of yourself, but there’s plenty to be proud of. The rerelease reminds us of just how much was already in place on this first outing. No Pablo Honey or With Sympathy[7] then….

[1] And with a couple Grammys in the bag and a miniseries in the pipeline for Year Zero, who’s to say a musical based on The Fragile won’t get him that elusive EGOT?

[2] Flood, Adrian Sherwood and Keith leBlanc (the latter two at least must have been on Trent’s wishlist).

[3] Just like Ingmar Bergman, who was the son of a Lutheran minister, but Bergman never declared his intent to fuck anyone like an animal. He may have slept with Courtney Love, though.

[4] which wins….

[5] I have a CD single with nine versions of it; there are four available versions of Sin and a clutch of Down In Its. That’s not counting the NIN.com website, where you can download the individual tracks and remix them before putting them back up on the site, if that’s the sort of thing that you’re prepared to spend your Transition Year holidays doing.

[6] He went on tour with the Revolting Cocks while fighting with TVT and the track was blocked by the record company. Jourgensen remixed the vocals, claimed it was his own voice, and released the EP. The original Reznor vocal first appeared on the box set I mention above.

[7] the Ministry album Jourgensen famously described as ‘not worth shoplifting’.

Ronnie Drew, the late lamented leader of The Dubliners, was a musician and raconteur who introduced this guide to Dublin called The Dubliners’ Dublin. It’s informative, sure, but works much better as a primer for getting his accent right. This clip ends, as you get the feeling most of the Dubliners’ afternoons did, in O’Donoghue’s shop in Baggot Street.

They are, of course, reciting the pome titled The Workman’s Friend be Jem Casey, as recorded in Flann O’Brien‘s At Swim-Two-Birds. Although the boys are reading the text from cue cards (quite badly, in some cases) you can be sure their hearts and livers were in it.

In the last years of his life Ronnie Drew was supposed to be off the gargle, and the story goes that some bloke asked him what it was he was drinking.

Gin and tonic, he replied. I find it helps me mind my own fuckin’ business.

A darlin’ man. I last saw him, bald as the day he was born from the cancer treatment, sitting at the bar in The Hut in Phibsboro, with what looked suspiciously like a pint of plain porter in front of him. He must have been minding it for someone.

Just in case you haven’t seen it, though, there’s a definitive recitation of the great pome. Eamon Morrissey toured for many years in a one-man show titled The Brother, based on the writings of O’Brien. Here’s his take on The Workmans’ Friend:

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