writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Monthly Archives: April 2016

Attack of the Killer Drones

Drones have been getting a bad press recently, and rightly so: but don’t worry, this isn’t about the type of drone it’ll soon be economically realistic to buy to send on CIA-style missions against the neighbour’s cat. No sirree Bob. The drones I’m talking about are of the musical variety.

There’s a strong tradition of droning in Scottish music of course: it’s an essential element of the bagpipes, as anyone who’s ever walked past a busker on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile can testify (incidentally, what was up with that on Saturday just past? There were, like, two of them doing a duet next to David Hume, and although I’m no expert, they were properly good? No Flower of Scotland or anything!)

Anyway, when I was starting to put together material for my forthcoming (at some point) solo album/vanity project, ‘Songs in a Scottish Accent,’ there were a few people at the top of my list of potential collaborators, and one of them was Craig ‘Harky’ Harkness. Apart from being – at various points – my unpaid (other than the occasional pint) sound and recording engineer, producer, mentor and provider of fun musical facts, Harky is a greatly underrated (especially by himself) musician and composer of interesting noises. One which I have still on my phone is literally called ‘Harky’s Drone-ilicious Comp’ (I think someone else named it for him, as he was too modest to call it anything, typically) which has featured in a fire safety film made by Fife students and now to be shown more widely.

When we first started batting ideas back and forward, Harky – perhaps because he knew of my liking for Kula Shaker – sent me this short piece which he’d put together on his phone, using a shruti box app and, I think, another synth app. The droning of the shruti box – an Indian instrument – the high, wailing, synth, and the positively hypnotic, weird beat he’d added to it, was intriguing to me, to say the least. I saw it as a perfect length for a short spoken word piece.

My more conventional musical tropes were then brought to bear on it. Layering on guitars and keyboard was easy enough – for those of you that are interested, I used my own, semi-acoustic De Ville for the distorted solo – amazing how a clean acoustic signal can be thoroughly dirtied up with the right software. I added a burst of bagpipe sample at the start, as a sort of hommage to my homeland drone. I also have some decent tabla samples, so I built them into a basic beat that complemented Harky’s original percussion. Then I was ready to put some words on it.

The first piece I’d had in mind, called coincidentally David Hume’s Blues, proved unsuitable. That was partly because I’d had so much fun with the distorted guitars I’d have had to shout half the story: but mainly because I couldn’t get the words right. The words I used instead had a strange provenance.

In April 2014, we went on one of our Spanish expeditions, taking in Granada, Ubeda, and Malaga. It was a great trip, but the experience was coloured by my state of mind at the time: my Dad had passed away in January of that year. The small notepad I’d forced myself to take with me, to write something – anything – for the first time in three months, felt like a burden rather than a source of pleasure. All the same, some disjointed thoughts, observations, and images, made their way in. I was under no illusion that any of it might be useable.

After the holiday, the notebook – one of these fake vintage ones you get, with a faux animal skin cover, and unbleached pages that are very pretty, but difficult to write on, especially in a moving bus – went into the bookcase, unread for a year. When I did dig it out, some of the words then got sewn together loosely: it took another year before I looked at them again, tightened them up, and began to see the patterns in them: the Moroccan street-hawker dodging the cops on the Street of the Catholic Kings; the Moorish ruler of the Alhambra, grieving for his kingdom; and, of course, my own sense of loss. The final version owes much to Jane McKie, my poetic mentor (like Harky, also unpaid).

So that’s how the words and music of ‘Leaving Granada’ came together. Hope you like it.







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Suck-Ass Aliens and the Single Malt Molotov: a review of 10 Cloverfield Lane

This blog has a convention of not doing snarky reviews. Frankly, there’s enough negativity out there; and as a fellow producer of (some kindly say) creative stuff myself, I don’t really feel it’s either big or clever to tear up someone else’s work for the sake of a few cheap laughs. Better to be positive and say what you liked about an indie band’s/poet’s/performer’s work, and add a little more sunshine (even if it’s slightly dappled) rather than rain on their parade.

However. When a group of highly paid, highly regarded Hollywood producers, directors and writers get together and between them strain to produce the biggest pile of unintentionally hilarious shite I’ve ever had the privilege to witness in a cinema, then the let’s-be-positive convention goes out the window.

(Spoiler alert: if you intend to go and see this movie and enjoy it as its makers intended, don’t read on. I also give away the denouement of Dead Calm, if you’ve never seen that).

10 Cloverfield Lane starts well. In an unspecified US city, the central character, Michelle, (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is clearing out of an apartment, leaving her set of keys and an engagement ring. She’s travelling light: a small valise, a notebook of dress designs and some needles and thread in a box, and a bottle of what looks like single malt whisky, called something like Lagavulin but not actually Lagavulin – presumably the distillery wouldn’t shell for the product placement. Let’s call it Lagavulin, in the interests of getting this over the line.

Actually, the whole need for this bit of back story about dumping her fiance isn’t properly explained: everything else that happens in the movie could’ve happened if she’d gone down to the local deli for a nourishing breakfast of croissants and Eggs Benedict, before driving north for an out of town meeting. I suppose it follows the tenet of starting at the moment of crisis, but it’s really a crisis more or less completely irrelevant to all the other points of the story. So she gets in the car, throwing the Lagavulin into the back seat for later, and drives north through some pleasant wooded areas for a bit. Then, as night falls and the wearisome dumpee, Ben, calls her to try to talk things through, something smashes into her car and it then tumbles, end over end, into a ravine.

A note here on Michelle’s durability here, as during the rest of the film. She comes away from an accident that, in most other movies, would have ended up with the car exploding in a ball of flame and its occupants (East European hitmen, quite possibly) being chargrilled to medium rare, with nothing more than a couple of scratches and a gammy leg that goes away after a couple of days. Is it because she is a woman, and therefore it isn’t so nice to see her splattered with her own gore in the way that a male action hero would be? Not that I felt the lack of it: just saying.

Anyhoo, when you wake up after a car accident in a windowless cell on a mattress, with your gammy leg support chained to the wall, you would tend to think that either something has gone horribly wrong with what remains of Obamacare, or you’ve been abducted by your garden variety abductor/rapist/torturer and, probably after a bit, murderer of attractive young women. John Goodman appears presently (the character does have a name, Howard I think, but really, it’s just John Goodman) and does little to dispel that first impression for quite some time.

However, he does then indicate he might equally be a conspiracy theorist/survivalist nut who thinks the world outside has ended and that’s why he’s brought her to the bunker. Michelle tries to stab him with the pointy end of her crutch, but this doesn’t go to plan. He tells her he rescued the Lagavulin (also amazingly unscathed) from her car wreck but didn’t have time to bring it in from the back of his own before the Bad Stuff started falling from the skies.

Presently, enter character 3, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), who gives some credence to John Goodman’s survivalist schtick by confirming that he helped Goodman build the bunker, and in fact fought his own way in to get away from the world ending upstairs. A word on this: given that Emmett’s back story is that he’s basically a slacker dude who funked a uni scholarship, why, and in what capacity, would John Goodman employ him to help build an apocalypse-safe survival shelter? I mean, hasn’t he heard of the Trusted Traders Scheme?

Whatever the thinking behind all that, Emmett’s now part of the dysfunctional family hunkered down in the bunker, and there ensues a somewhat tense evening meal, after which Michelle, who’s still not convinced about John Goodman, panels him across the puss with something hefty and tries to make a break for it. Except when she gets to the airlock, there’s a woman who appears to be melting in the polluted atmosphere. So maybe the big man had a point after all.

After Michelle sews up Goodman’s head wound for him – he’s amazingly trusting of her with sharp objects, given she’s already smacked him upside the head, tried to stab him and nearly set fire to the bunker – life settles down to post-apocalyptic normality. The bunker, incidentally, resembles the interior of a 1970s caravan, right down to the tinned food, bad taste furnishings, and a small selection of popular board games. Goodman may be grumpy, paranoid and more than a little domineering, but he does his share of the washing up, and is soon joining in with the Buckaroo.

However, there are still unresolved issues between the three of them: as anyone who’s ever done it knows, sharing a flat with two other people can be tricky, especially if you begin to think one of them may have abducted and murdered a neighbourhood teenage girl after his wife and daughter left him because of his conspiracy-toting, survivalist ways. Emmett and Michelle conspire to find a way out, but it’s tough to kid a conspiracy nutter inside a 1970s caravan and Goodman rumbles them during a portentous round of Trivial Pursuit, shoots Emmett, and starts to render him down in a handy vat of acid he’s kept aside from his Navy days for such eventualities.

Michelle, meantime, has been using her nascent dressmaking skills to create a bio-hazard suit and gas mask out of little more than a shower curtain, a couple of washing up liquid bottles and lashings of sticky back plastic (ok,ok, so it’s gaffer tape, but UK readers of a certain age will get the reference – Val Singleton would’ve been proud of the girl). Goodman discovers this when he pitches up, grizzly beard shaven off, and a glint in his eye that suggests that Ker-Plunk time is over, and now for some less innocent games of Daddy and Little Princess. Fortunately Michelle is now so adept at attacking him it’s not long before he’s down and seemingly out in half a vat of acid, the bunker’s on fire again, and Michelle is off up the ventilation shaft for a second time, heading for the outside world.

Spare a thought for John Goodman. With precious little dialogue given to Winstead’s character, (who nevertheless does a grand job of acting variously appalled, terrified, deeply uneasy, and sometimes just really, really, pissed off) it’s Goodman who has to carry the film, with his blustering performance as a conspiracy theorist/survivalist/child-murdering/Buckaroo player, and he does so with brio, even as he morphs into his last characterisation as the Unkillable Monster Who You Can’t Take Down With Just Half A Vat of Acid. As he stabs wildly into the ventilation duct, roaring ‘Michelle! Michelle!’ you can’t help wondering whether the building regulations on ventilation ducts shouldn’t be tightened up a bit these days. I mean, the number of times they’re used as a hiding place/escape route/ambush position in the movies, you would think the authorities could’ve made it a bit more convenient for people to move about in them more comfortably.

In any event, Michelle escapes, donning her home-made bio-hazard outfit and heading for Goodman’s SUV, only to find that, unlike every other car owner in every other American movie ever made, the big paranoid eejit hasn’t left his keys in the ignition. Just then, the bunker explodes, sending a plume of missing jigsaw pieces, beige cushion fabric, and tinned marrow fat peas high into the air, attracting the attention of the invading aliens.

Ah, yes. The aliens. Look, I may have been a bit harsh on the movie so far, because the truth is, up to this point, it has been pretty genuinely gripping. Some real jump out of your seat moments (the sudden impact of the car smash, particularly) and some nice building of psychological tension between the three players in the locked-box drama down in the bunker. In fact, this whole review might be a minority report: Kate Muir in the Times gave it four stars; ditto the Telegraph; ditto Benjamin Lee in the Guardian. So I may be out of line here.

But it’s like … do you remember Dead Calm? Sure you do. Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman are on a boat out at sea, when they come across another craft which has been crippled and there’s one confused bloke, Billy Zane, on it. Taut, tense and all other words meaning the same thing thriller: creaking of the ropes and planks on deck cranking up the tension, ratchet by ratchet. Great movie, right up until just about the final frame, when Nicole Kidman shoots Billy Zane in the mouth with a distress flare and you see, through a sail, the flare explode in his head and come out through his ears. I mean, through his ears! Which made it 99.99% great taut, tense etc. thriller, and .001% laugh out loud funny. At least for me.

Thing is, in 10 Cloverfield Lane, we’re only about an hour in and she’s done up John Goodman like a kipper, so we need another half hour at least of Escalating Levels of Peril. Which means the aliens have to get themselves involved.

Now. I’m not one of these, ‘them aliens coming over here, stealing our best scenes of escalating levels of peril,’ kind of people. I wouldn’t build a wall to keep the aliens out, not even the genocidal variety we have here. Or ask them to pay for it. I’m all for a good bit of skiffy in a movie. In fact, some friends who don’t actually pay that much attention to what I write these days, but like to show an interest, still ask how my science fiction stories are coming along.

But. Here’s the thing. I want to believe, but the CGI effects team really have to help me out with that? So, for example, when we first see the alien space craft, it’s touring about above the cornfields, morphing itself into different non-aerodynamic shapes as it goes along, in a showy-offy kind of way that puts the implausibility of our humble bumble-bee’s flight in the shade just a bit. Alerted to the exploding bunker, it dusts the area with some Bad Shit like some sort of off-world crop sprayer, but Michelle manages to escape any effects by slipping on the mask with the washing up liquid bottles and holding her breath for a bit.

In fact, for a superior species that’s just taken out – it would appear – the most heavily armed and militarily advanced nation on earth, these aliens seem frankly a bit rubbish at dealing with one woman tooled up with little more than a zippo and a bottle of single malt (of which more in a minute). With the aliens away again, she tries to get into the melty woman’s car. But – what is it with these people? – melty’s only gone and locked it up as well before frantically trying to get into the bunker in the earlier scene, even taking the precaution of putting the alarm on in the face of approaching Armageddon. This is now triggered, attracting the attention of the patrolling aliens again.

More murky CGI effects ensue. The craft has sent down some sort of ground force, which we only glimpse, with Michelle, through the dusty window of the agricultural shed affair she’s hiding out in. The scouting party seems to be both slithery and scampery, scaly, fast moving and of varying size, but despite quickly sussing out there’s one of these pesky humans still breathing in the agricultural shed affair, it doesn’t think of just opening the door, instead flailing noisily about against the walls and roof. Michelle makes a break for it, to the relative comfort and safety of Goodman’s SUV again.

The alien lollops over, but instead of just using the plainly visible door handles, batters itself against the windows a few times, making scary alien type noises. Then the ship appears above, and everything goes to hell in a low-budget handcart.

Applying some sort of suction force, the ground force alien decides the best way to deal with this recalcitrant subspecies is to haul her, in the SUV, up into the spaceship for a closer look. Except, in the gathering dark, what it appears to be hauling Michelle and her car into is some sort of giant aperture, or orifice. Ok, so it looks like a giant alien arsehole. There, I’ve said it, and I hope it’s not just me that had that held that thought at that moment in the movie. It might be that this is some sort of knowing, post-ironic inversion of the usual alien myth about humans being given an anal probe, but the climax of the movie looks like the heroine heading up the alien spacecraft’s back passage.

Fortunately, there’s still that oft-mentioned bottle of Lagavulin in the back. Michelle stuffs the neck with paper, lights it with the Zippo and, with the accuracy of a Brett Lee return over the top of the stumps from deep fine leg, she lobs the single malt Molotov right up where the sun don’t shine. The ship explodes, conveniently zooming off to crash somewhere other than right on top of her, and the SUV equally conveniently breaks her fall, allowing her to walk off with nary a scratch. Not even sure she had her seatbelt on.

Michelle, having survived the survivalist, is the ultimate survivor now. She heads off in the melty woman’s car, presumably without much of a plan at this point, but setting her jaw in a certain way and beginning to resemble Sarah Connor out of Terminator.¬†¬† Just then, the radio crackles to life and tells her the humans have fought back, and recaptured the southern seaboard; she turns left for Houston, heading to join them.

Who knows, maybe they’ve also discovered the aliens’ anal Achilles heel as regards flaming Scotch Sambucas¬† inserted per rectum.



Footnote: props to Vue Cinema, Edinburgh, for extending the film’s experience beyond the doors of the auditorium by having men’s urinals so small, smelly and tightly packed you began to yearn for John Goodman’s toilet facilities instead. I presume that was a temporary installation: I mean, they can’t be like that all the time, can they?







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