Sunday 31 March 2013

The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1974)
The last of Hammer's Dracula movies is another gimmick flick, this time attempting to cash in on the martial arts craze via a collaboration with Shaw Brothers. I've enjoyed the installments from the Mr. Vampire series that I've seen and I've been curious about Hammer's take on oriental vampires for a long time. As it turns out, this is a film that is both less and more than the sum of its parts. Much of it is incredibly hokey - the vampires' make-up, behind their golden masks, is ridiculous and so is that of their undead armies. There are several scenes of half-naked women lashed to planks in the vampires' tower and tortured which are cheaply exploitative - but this is nothing new for Hammer, with its long legacy of heaving bosoms and ever plunging necklines.

It is very far from being Hammer's finest film, and in some ways from being especially good at all. And yet...there's Peter Cushing, old and frail but still gallant and driven as Van Helsing. As ever,  he is worth the price of admission himself, but that's not all, either. There's a certain thrill to seeing this most faux mittel-European of franchises breaking new ground. The massed fight scenes are genuinely thrilling to watch. There are moments of bleak, ominous atmosphere. The Chinese clan who get Van Helsing to help them fight the golden vampires are genuinely likable. It seems as if Van Helsing helps them very little, but there is a knock-out final scene between him and Count Dracula - how one wished Lee had been persuaded to don the cape and fangs one more time for this last clash of titans!

Percy (1989): a movie review

Percy (1989)
This is a sensitive, leisurely portrait of a misfit. Percy is a young man who has lived a sheltered life ever since his father's death. Blaming her husband's untimely (and undignified) demise on his dissolute ways, Percy's mother has raised her son to be an innocent, naive and shy young fellow. He takes the taunts of his neighbours and colleagues without a murmur, is unable to express his true feelings to a childhood friend who announces she is getting married and gradually lapses into an elaborate fantasy world of lush music and courtly ballroom dances.

He is less impractical when it comes to his job as the accountant in a Unani pharmacy, unearthing and exposing a colleague's pilfering. The colleague is fired and vows revenge.  Meanwhile, Percy joins a group of music lovers who gather in a hall to listen to records of classical music. It seems like a chance to finally reach out to other people, but mainly it provides an outlet for his otherwise stunted emotional life. Some of the most moving scenes in the movie simply consist of the gawky Percy in his father's oversized suits, head thrown back in ecstacy, wallowing in the luxuriant emotionalism of high romantic orchestral music.

What work less well are the flashbacks, where Percy sees his own younger self manifest in front of him, or the sequence where the ghost of a dead friend turns up in a public toilet to reproach Percy for becoming such a pushover. They do have emotional weight, but they feel a little ungainly when stacked against the unselfconscious naturalism of the rest of the movie.

Things eventually come to a head, with Percy out of work and roaming the streets of Bombay, trying half-heartedly to sell snacks prepared by his mother and usually just hanging around, feeding pigeons, staring listlessly around himself in a park or by the sea, unable to connect even with his two main sources of release - the music group and his own terpsichorean fantasies. He is a man adrift, and the movie doesn't pull its punches in showing us how little space the world has for an innocent abroad.

This was one of the most emotionally resonant and authentic movies I have seen in a long while. Not a box office-targetted potboiler, it isn't exactly what I'd call an art film either, although that is the usual classification in India. Instead, it's simply an honest, empathetic piece of storytelling, keen in its observations of human nature and the settings in which it takes place. It makes great use of the various interior and exterior settings, making the many faces of an Indian city (Bombay in this case) an additional, implied character in the film, from the confined yet nurturing home Percy and his mother live in, the old colonial buildings of the colony they live in and the sanctified halls of the Parsi temple to the crowded streets where Percy always seems like a man alone, the shabby little office which is his one arena of effective adulthood. It's also something of a nostalgic element to anyone who knows how much the face of urban India has changed since 1989, perhaps even more so for natives of Bombay, such as my friend Suresh, who recommended this to me.

This movie is part of a whole series of DVD releases of films in various Indian languages called 'Cinemas Of India'. The picture and sound quality were both excellent, especially considering Indian manufacturers' uneven track record, and the subtitles were also good, with one lapse where the dialogue 'Grieg's Piano Concerto' is rendered as 'week's piano concerto', a perhaps forgivable lapse (although I do wish a listing of all the music heard in the film could have been provided as a pointer for viewers less familiar with western classical music, for whom it might have served as an excellent starting point for exploration). I don't usually provide shopping links on my blog (except to books containing my own stories, before you rush to point out the obvious), but this film really deserves to be more widely seen and here's where you can order a copy.

Thursday 28 March 2013

How My Friends Must Die

Most of you still have time to die young
If you don’t hurry up, you’ll have to die
Which is neither here nor there
So hard to find a hook for the eulogy
Unless you were doing something
Specific and noteworthy with your life
Otherwise I’ll have to lapse into platitude
‘Cut down in the midst of life’, ‘his race half run’
‘Taken in her prime’ ‘Her best years barely begun’
It sounds so weak and there is no Bardic crutch

So please, my friends, if you love me well
Die now
Or live interestingly

Tuesday 19 March 2013

Doom from the tomb: Dying Embrace's 'Era of Tribulation'

This one’s been a long time coming.

What can a compilation of demos, EPs and one full length recorded, often on very primitive equipment, a decade and a half ago, mean to us today? Is it just a piece of nostalgia for the early days of Bangalore’s metal underground? Something mainly meant for the obsessive completist? Not really, not when the songs stand on their merits so definitively. Music isn’t necessarily an evolutionary continuum, and while the material on ‘Era of Tribulation’ isn’t always the best recorded or produced, the songs are far from dated or obsolete.

Dying Embrace’s early years saw a trajectory from straightforward death metal influences into a death/doom hybrid, but the transformation was not a radical one, as can be seen from the first track on the compilation, ‘Blood Rites’, written when the band still went by the name of Misanthrope. The opening riffs are already firmly in slower, doomier territory than a pure death metal band would venture into and the one-two assault of Vik’s unearthly growl and Jimmy’s supple, assured riffing is already firmly in place. The lead guitar work is more reliant on dive bombs and whammy bar abuse than would later be the case, but it’s obvious that Dying Embrace entered the songwriting game at a very high level of assurance and skill. In fact, this song and ‘Cromlech of Hate’, which has more uptempo sections among the doom-deah trudge, hold together so well and create such a pervasive atmosphere of sick dread and foreboding that I wonder if there are more songs from the early years that were never recorded, and how they would hold up if they were resurrected today. The rhythm section isn’t especially clear on these early songs, but David’s drumming is clearly both heavy and groovy while Jai nails the bottom end of the sound.

I don’t know what the DE squad were drinking or smoking when they wrote the songs that make up the ‘Grotesque’ EP, but I hope they’ve preserved some of it in a cellar or basement hydroponic installation somewhere and are willing to share. To call these songs a leap in everything – songwriting, originality and musicianship – might seem to belittle what went before, but these songs are just that good. Jimmy gives free rein to his epic, melodic influences on ‘The Passing Away’, a song that has to be experienced live to fathom its fullest depths, but still makes a great showing here with wailing, bereaved melodies soaring over implacable arpeggio and a snaky, menacing bassline. The solo is a watershed moment – it’s pure classic rock melodicism, and it still fits perfectly into the song. ‘Grotesque Entity’ slinks in on a plucked melody with shreds of phased and then heavily distorted guitar evoking a 70s horror movie theme song. It then moves into possibly my favourite DE riff, a vast, elgiac musical motif that positively drips with morbidity and doom. Vik’s vocal approach on these songs open out into a more raspy high end in addition to the grunts of the ‘Misanthrope’ EP and the better (but still not that great!) recording quality lets us hear just how tight and propulsive the drums really are. ‘Oremus Diabolum’ brings this landmark set to a close in fine form with a mid-tempo intro that segues into a slow, off-kilter melody built that paves the way for more doomy riffing overlaid by a variety of uncanny vocalizations. The contrast between the almost traditional doom riffs and the over-the-top extreme metal vocals was what struck me most about the band the first time I heard them, and it’s a combination that hasn’t lost its confrontational yet fascinating quality. About halfway through, the song settles on a gloriously old school melody that would not have been out of place on a Black Sabbath or Pentagram song, interspersed with bluesy wailing on the lead guitar. Like the other songs on the EP, ‘Oremus’ moves seamlessly between sections, taking the listener on a well-rounded musical journey into the inferno. 

The next 6 songs are from the band’s first, and so far only, full-length, ‘Serenades of Depravity’. I remember borrowing this tape from a friend and being both confused and fascinated by how the band blended riffs and melodies that would not have sounded out of place  on a Candlemass album with death grunts and growls. Remember, this was when most metalheads in town were mainly into NWOBHM and thrash and full-on growling still kind of scared us, and double bass drumming was something the drummers we jammed with only dreamed of aspiring to. Historical context aside, the album picks up where the preceding EP left off with the dark, sluggish riffing on ‘As Eternity Fades’ conjuring vivid end-time visions emphasized by Vik’s crazed vocals. ‘Spawn of the Depths’ is a fitting paean to evil best left buried and continues with the trend of killer melodies spewing from the band at this point, memorable and tuneful but undeniably sick and morbid at the same time. ‘Dagda – His Time Has Come’ is another stone cold classic with its majestic riffing and stately pace conjuring a vivid Samhain nightmare. I tend to rate metal bands by their ability to conjure an atmosphere even more than their chops, and this song can make the inside of a Bangalore pub feel like some wild place where dark Celtic rites are being carried out. The instrumental ‘D.T.s’ lets the band strut their stuff with a more thrashy vibe. It leaves room for both Jai and David to show that they aren’t just make-weight band members but fine musicians in their own right. ‘Degeneration’ ushers us back into the darkened halls of the damned and doomed, weaving a nightmare vision of insanity. After a drawn-out doomy build-up, this song takes us back to DE’s death metal roots with growly verses over faster riffs, although the tempo does shift back to the lunatic lurch of the opening at opportune moments. The closing instrumental track, ‘Elegy For The Damned’ lives up to its name and brings the album to a deeply satisfying conclusion. 

The last three songs, constituting the ‘Dying Embrace’ demo are re-recorded versions of the ‘Grotesque’ tracks. This time around, marginally improved recording lets you pick out more nuances in the music, especially the bass work. If you’re listening to this music for the first time, I suggest you skip forward to these versions of the songs first. 

So there you have it. Music that sounds as fresh and immediate now as it ever did, at least partly because it was always ‘primitive death/doom’, always a style and a mood unto itself with no regard for the fleeting trends of the metal mainstream. DE’s commitment to its own vision is finally gaining something like the recognition it deserves and I hope this excellent re-issue from Armee de la Mort (best experienced as a vinyl LP in a glorious gatefold sleeve) will pave the way for a wider awareness of the garden city’s finest and first doom patrol, as well as new releases from their rejuvenated line-up. 

Visit the Armee de la Mort/Legions of Death site

Listen to 'Grotesque Entity':

Monday 11 March 2013

It’s alright, my heart is forever with the dead
Down beneath the sod where they
Slowly subside and feed vegetable life or
Fossilise and everything else that implies
In the air, in the soil, in water as ashes
Dispersed into the fabric of everything
As everything is when it breaks apart
My heart is forever with these
Upstream towards the end
Chasing the currents of life on the
Race towards death, it’s alright.

Saturday 9 March 2013

Even better than the real thing

Cut-out of a policeman installed by the Bangalore Traffic Police on Lavelle Road.

Tuesday 5 March 2013

playing catch-up?

I've been at an impasse lately. I have a few story ideas, but I am unable to bring myself to do anything more than hack out a few desultory paragraphs. It's possible that these are simply not very good ideas, or that I'm in a fallow phase. However, I think it also has to do with trying to figure out why I am writing fiction. This quote by Anais Nin, shared by Theodora Goss on her Facebook account, may have answered my question at one time, not too long ago:

"Why one writes is a question I can answer easily, having so often asked it of myself. I believe one writes because one has to create a world in which one can live. I could not live in any of the worlds offered to me — the world of my parents, the world of war, the world of politics. I had to create a world of my own, like a climate, a country, an atmosphere in which I could breathe, reign, and recreate myself when destroyed by living. That, I believe, is the reason for every work of art.” ― Ana├»s Nin
Then there's this:

“I think every work of art is an act of faith, or we wouldn’t bother to do it. It is a message in a bottle, a shout in the dark. It’s saying, ‘I’m here and I believe that you are somewhere and that you will answer if necessary across time, not necessarily in my lifetime.’ ” --Jeanette Winterson.
Winterson's quote makes a lot more sense to me today. Nin seems to live in a suffocating, solipsist wardrobe of fancy; Winterson suggests an equally isolated position, but only as a starting point to an act of communication. But they both suggest that creative motivation is a fixed, stable thing. And that's why I've been increasingly fascinated by this blog post by M. John Harrison: 

Sometimes a writing problem will begin to resolve itself when you recognise that you haven’t been acknowledging pivotal events in your life. You’ve changed without knowing it. You were looking in the wrong place for solutions because you were looking in the wrong place for yourself. This recognition, however, doesn’t provide automatic or short-term relief. It’s unlikely to be a professional solution. The problem of writing is always the problem of who you were, always the problem of who to be next. It is a game of catch-up, of understanding that what you’re failing to write could only be written by who you used to be. Who you are now should be writing something else: what, you won’t know until you try.
I'm  not the same person I was and I'm not, perhaps, trying to communicate to the same notional other. One thing's for sure: I can't keep writing the same things in the same way forever. So I need to catch up with myself and ask him what the fuck he wants to write.