THE NATURE OF THE BEAST: Understanding New Zealand’s Extreme Metal Scene.

New Zealand has a strong history of punching above our weight creatively, especially when you consider that we have a population of just over four million people. On a global scale we are the same size as the cities of Melbourne and Houston, while London alone is two times bigger than us.  So when one of our own garners international success, we are understandably thrilled and plaster their image across every cover we can print. Of late, Lorde has been the artist du jour, and whether you love or loathe her, she has been impossible to escape.

New Zealand Death Metal band Ulcerate signed to major US label Relapse Records in 2011. Since then, they have amassed some 35 thousand fans on Facebook thanks to a critically acclaimed album and relentless international touring. But you are unlikely to have read about them in any major publications. They are joined by Vassafor, Witchrist and Diocletian as home grown acts with a global audience. Given this track record of bands, it makes the down-playing of New Zealand’s successes within local media all the more glaring. But these are not accessibly cool pop stars. These artists produce challenging sounds that redefine the extremities of music. This has led to misconceptions about the genre. To understand them, I asked some of them about their passion, and perhaps uncovered some reasons why New Zealand’s extreme metal scene has been swept under our cultural carpet.

In Craig Hayes’s excellent two-part documentary for Radio New Zealand entitled South of Heaven, he pinpoints that the first rumblings of extreme metal in New Zealand were heard in Christchurch during the 1980s, courtesy of Bruce Ray’s shop Ace T-shirts. It was also home to Grunt Records, his extreme metal LP importing business. Ray is remembered by Chris Rigby from industrial metal band Dying of the Light as being “a master of publicity” who frequently wrote letters to New Zealand’s music video shows telling them that “they needed to play more real metal.” They eventually listened, and Ray was given his own slot called Metal Primer. “He played bands that were doing things totally different to what we were hearing in New Zealand” recalls Rigby. This new wave of sound encouraged listeners to pick up instruments and form bands, often simultaneously. These initial naiveties lead to “a really interesting sound- really guttural sounding stuff that had a beauty to it.”

High unemployment levels were an issue across New Zealand in the 1990s, and those affected within the metal community vented their frustration accordingly. However, this burgeoning scene was to be short lived. “The 90s started with a hiss and a roar but it was all over by 1994” says Rigby. Another veteran of the New Zealand extreme metal scene Steve Francis of Wellington Black/Thrash band Bulletbelt states that this wasn’t simply due to the “Nirvana effect” either. “The 90s weren’t very kind because by that stage extreme metal bands had become very polished and produced…people lost sight of why they started.” Rigel Walshe agrees. He formed his death metal band Dawn of Azazel in 1997, a time when “there wasn’t much of a scene at all (in Auckland).Initially we had to organise our own shows as there were no venues to perform in.” There was a sense of needing to “rebuild” the extreme metal scene in New Zealand, a task which the community took on with idiosyncratic dedication and passion. The advent of the internet was another watershed moment. Bands had previously relied on an underground network of fans handing out flyers and ‘zines to get their music out into the world. Now they had a wider audience than ever before. Ulcerate formed in 2000, according to drummer Jaime Saint Merat: “Aside from bands forming and dissolving, (the New Zealand extreme metal scene) is essentially in the same state it has always been-a varying ebb and flow of activity, minimal shows, (and) unpredictable show turn outs.”

As an outsider to extreme metal and as a New Zealander something here is ironically familiar. The DIY initiative these bands have towards creating music is a trait that is held dear not just by the general populous, but also by some of our most prolific artists. It was the same attitude shown by Flying Nun, a local record label of considerable international success within its own musical arena. This was largely thanks to it being synonymous with the jangly ‘Dunedin Sound’ of the 1980s and early 1990s. Bearing this in mind, I was interested to see if the success of our extreme metal scene could be accredited to a unifying sound.

The answer was a unanimous “No.” “There is not quite enough history or lineage to warrant a sound just yet. Bands here are a lot more serious and sober, there aren’t that many fun bands, probably because it’s not fun being a band in New Zealand” observes Walshe. Rather than having a ‘sound’ it would seem that for most of those interviewed, extreme metal in New Zealand has an ‘ethos.’ Rigby cites it as being “a number 8 wire philosophy” that encourages bands to be innovative and self-sufficient.  He links this back to one of the formative extreme metal bands in New Zealand, Diocletian, who were inspired by the book “The Might Is Right.” Published in 1890 and written by anarchist Arthur Desmond, “it was originally written as a piss-take, but it became a Bible of the power of the Individual…the aggressive tone of Diocletian was inspired by that book, and if you draw a longer bow, that is the feeling you get within extreme metal in New Zealand.”

Historically, New Zealand’s geographic isolation has been both a blessing and a curse for creatives. This is no different within our extreme metal scene. Joseph Schafer, editor of the influential metal blog Invisible Orange describes the New Zealand metal scene as “a microcosm of the western metal world at large-it’s a country where metal appears to be abnormally popular given (its) population size.” But “the country’s local scene remains pretty isolated”. Despite interest in metal being at an unprecedented high, Schafer says “New Zealand remains deep cut territory….There’s a pack of pretty fierce acts that are trying to find new frontiers of heaviness… To those in the know, New Zealand is one of those places where musicians are really trying to push the boundaries of what metal can be. But I think that art might even be better known in America than in New Zealand.” Closer to home, local music journalist and metal enthusiast Tove Partington echoes this sentiment. “New Zealand metal is raw and pure without over production…it’s almost fashionable [overseas] to like a New Zealand band-obscure is considered cool and rare, and New Zealand is pretty obscure.”

Being “deep cut territory” is seen as a positive by Adam Thomson, vocalist for the brutal death metal band Farming the Population. It requires acts to produce a “standard of quality” while pushing sonic boundaries and has become something of a calling card. “We are really good at embracing new technologies and being forerunners- from splitting the atom to creating amazing music-we push ourselves and compare ourselves to the rest of the world, while people overseas may only compare themselves to their neighbour. Perhaps because we are down the bottom of the globe we look further, and that’s our driving force.”

Someone who is more likely to listen to The Smiths rather than Sepultura could find the unabashed aggression inherent within extreme metal confronting. But to an extent, evoking strong emotions is the point. Rather than ignoring the dark side of life, they wholeheartedly embrace it because it is all part of being a human being. Extreme metal is fearlessly existential. “If you go through life and don’t find something that is worthy of your anger and aggression you need to revaluate your value set” says Walshe. “There’s always something to be raged against, and metal is about taking that aggression and channelling it in a beneficial direction. These are emotions that are within everyone, and if everyone learned how to they could be harnessed in a beneficial manner, it would make the world a better place.”

The music produced is, in a word challenging. Unlike an instantaneously catchy pop song, extreme metal is something you need to almost learn to appreciate. To the uninitiated, the rich tapestry of sub genres can be reduced to being simply baffling and downright scary. Everything is packaged to be impenetrable and indecipherable. This is something that all involved are well aware of. “To Joe Public, it’s all the same f***king noise” laughs Francis. “The aesthetics and vocals of metal are hard to explain to someone who is not into metal. The first and foremost thing will always be the music. But there is a huge element of theatrics to metal. It’s a little like professional wrestling- I am not belittling it in any way, metal is my passion, but a lot of it is about persona and imagery.”

It is the bombastic theatrics of extreme metal-the corpse paint, the imagery, and aggressive vocals- that garner it mainstream attention rather than its artistry. This is something that those within the scene are accustomed to. “We are playing an incredibly marginalised style of music that is definitely not inclusive for the vast majority” points out Saint Merat.  It feels unknown and foreign, which makes it a sensational target. Walshe experienced this first hand in 2005 when the media caught wind of his position as a police constable and found it newsworthy that he was in an extreme metal band. Because how could someone who plays aggressive music about death and destruction have the moral fibre for the police force? This demonising mythology also hinders extreme metal being taken seriously as a form of creative expression, not to mention as a group of productive members of society. Some people would consider fans of extreme metal to be demonic anti-social misfits. But when they take off that jacket covered in band patches and the final note fades, both performers and fans alike go back to their otherwise perfectly normal lives. Complete with professional careers and families. “You’ve got to be a working class citizen just to afford the gear” says Thomson. All involved are quick to dispel the myth of metallers being societal write-offs, and they themselves proved the opposite to be true.

Despite being bellowed with aggression, and despite the gore-soaked popular image, the featured bands’ lyrics were thoughtful and considered. Topics ranged from the infamous Minnie Dean to contemporary societal and environmental concerns. “The name death metal does not do itself any favours” explains Thomson. “It does infer lyrics about death and violence. The difference between extreme metal and metal in general is that metal has a lot of songs about killing people and violence, but in extreme metal the music and lyrics are more sophisticated, the lyrical themes are more intelligible, and that’s not for any mainstream success, it’s because people grow out of being offensive.” While much of extreme metal is intentionally designed to ‘shock’ it does not set out to actively ‘offend’ anyone. “Rap lyrics are more offensive, – they talk about misogyny and gang warfare- and for the majority of them, they are not going to go out and do any of that. It’s all theatrics, but it’s popular, which is why you hear rap on top 40 radio shows” says Thomson.

Unlike pop or rap, conventional mainstream success is not something that is expected or in some cases even actively sought within the extreme metal community. This isn’t out of “juvenile rebellion, just purely because it doesn’t fit any of the band’s approaches to what this is all about” says Saint Merat. Like other communities founded in marginalised music, they are bound by their mutual passion for their genre as well as the opportunity to freely express themselves. So while there is “a sense of quiet pride in local bands that do well overseas, you get respect for gaining popularity and sticking to your guns rather than changing your sound in order to appeal to a wider audience” explains Rigby. Whatever their size, metal audiences are notoriously zealous, an open secret that has been recently reinforced by Spotify crowning metal heads the ‘most loyal fans.’ This loyalty is also translated into transactions. Collecting vinyl and demo tapes is still actively supported within the community, while fans are encouraged to listen to both classic and emerging artists. This lends itself to the overriding sense of support within the extreme metal community.

While the sound of extreme metal is not to everyone’s taste, that doesn’t make its international successes any less culturally valid, and it is a community built on dedication and passion. New Zealand is a nation that prides itself on pushing boundaries, but when it comes to recognising the achievements of a maligned musical genre we shy away-unlike in Europe or in the United States, it would seem. In the eyes of Rigby, there is “room to push it a little further. It wouldn’t hurt to play a Witchrist video, or have Diacletian headline an event like Westfest.” Stranger things have happened.

SUBGENRES OF EXTREME METAL (relevant to this article):
Black Metal:  
employs shrieking accompanied by fast, heavily distorted guitars. Songs are structured to emphasise an atmosphere.
Death Metal:
employs low-tuned, distorted guitars. Vocally, it involves deep growls and screams, while strong drumming is important, with an emphasis on blast beats and double kicks. The tempo is abrupt.
Brutal Death Metal:
a musical subgenre of death metal. It has rapid tempo changes, distorted guitar and bass, as well as deep, guttural vocals.
Technical Death Metal: 
is a musical subgenre of death metal that focuses on the complexity within it’s music-structurally and rhythmically.
Industrial Metal:
Combining thrash metal and hardcore punk with industrial dance music. Metal riffs are mixed in with synthesizers, samples, and distorted vocals.
War Metal: A hybrid of black and death metal with a very fast tempo.

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My picks for Laneway Music Festival 2016:

 

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For music aficionados, summer is especially exciting because it brings a glut of music festivals.  The long heady days lend themselves perfectly to dancing in the sun to your favourite band, discovering new ones, and drinking the odd warm beer in any scrap of shade you can find. Usually music is a purely subjective experience. But the magical thing about a decent festival is that for the duration of it, music becomes not only a celebration of self-expression, but also a celebration of a community. Feeling this collective joy makes the accidental sunburn and inevitable muscle aches the next day completely worthwhile.

An example of one such festival is Laneway Festival. Since its humble beginnings down a ramshackle laneway in Melbourne nine years ago, the teams dedication to offering audiences only the most seminal artists and freshest talent across a variety of genres has never faltered. These steadfast principles have seen the Laneway ethos be taken around Australia and the world, including Singapore, Detroit, and Auckland.  As per usual, 2016 sees Laneway mashing together a myriad of styles that are only otherwise bound by their creativity and talent. However the breadth of sound and bands has reached dizzying heights this year, giving me 33 reasons to go to Laneway.  With less than a week to go until the gates open, tickets are looking to sell out for the fourth year in a row. So for those of you who are dithering, for the sake of readability I will cull my 33 picks down to five reasons to click that “buy now” button.

Beach House (United States):
Dream-Pop darlings Beach House return to New Zealand off the back of two sensational albums released in 2015- Depression Cherry and Thank Your Lucky Stars which were successors to 2012’s pop-scuzz triumph Bloom.

Over the last twelve years, the duo have produced six meticulous albums that each show subtle yet pertinent growth from its predecessor.  Depending on which one you are listening to, the duo incorporate drawn out droning, elegant distortion, and gorgeously breathy vocals that whisper transcendental promises into your ear. 2015’s offering showcases a shift in texture which leads to a more autumnal tone that suits the cohesively secretive sound of Beach House.  As a band whose music oscillates between being dimly luscious and grandly theatrical, their set promises delicate deviations from pop banalities.
Beach House plays the Cactus Cat stage 8.10pm-8.55pm

Grimes (Canada):
Since Claire Boucher adopted the above moniker in 2009, she has been constructing one of the most cleverly bizarre universes around her stage persona. It is a world that embraces the strange, where the multi-referential textures of her sound are translated into a kaleidoscopically surreal aesthetic that delights critics and fans alike with its constant movement and colour.

Grimes’s third album, 2012’s Visions first brought her to widespread attention, with Pitchfork Magazine hailing its lead single Oblivion as “the single of the decade.” It was an album built on breathy, self-conscious vocals intertwined with hazily dreamlike effects, and four years after its release Grimes has metamorphosed yet again with the release of 2015’s Art Angel.

Within its confines, Grimes has shed the quietly meditative songs of Visions and unleashed a cacophony of confidence and frenzied experimentation. Millenials will instantly recognise the glossy pop tropes of their teenage hood that inspires much of Art Angels. But in the hands of Grimes the kooky possibilities of this oft-dismissed genre becomes apparent. Radio-ready hooks, whip snap backbeats, and her sugary vocals are intertwined with Taiwanese rap music, EDM bangers and Bubblegum pop, giving the nostalgic touchstones of this album a psychedelically futuristic edge.  This reworking of pop standards into hyperbolic amalgamations has led some critics to suggest that she is trying to save the genre. But this writer suggests that Grimes is simply trying to get lost in her own rich soundscapes. Either way, her set will be one of the most ecstatically weird ones on the day. Bring your dancing shoes.
Grimes plays the  Mysterex  Stage 8.00pm-8.45pm.

Silicon (New Zealand):
On the international stage, New Zealand has a strong track record of producing kooky musical imports- from the quirkily suited Split Endz to the cooly cult following of The Chills and laconic pop-comedy of Flight of the Conchords.

Lately people have sat up and taken notice of the Nielson brothers, Ruban and Kody, two people I have a well-documented musical admiration for.  They first came to national attention with the rambunctious art-punk outfit The Mint Chicks, however the pair are now working on their individual projects- Ruban fronts Unknown Mortal Orchestra, while Kody is the mastermind behind Silicon.

Over the last few years antipodean musicians have been enamoured with a glitchy electro-disco soul sound- think Tame Impala and, well, UMO. Silicon unabashedly references this back to the future style with his debut offering Personal Computer, but some of the sonic and thematic standards of the genre are rerouted. This  gives the album a distinctly different feel.  The retro synths and angular samples are offset against Kody’s falsetto creating an icily soulful sound. This is fitting considering that Personal Computer was inspired by the increasing trend of digital-only socialisation. By simultaneously embracing and eschewing the digital age, Nielson has created an album that is filled with quietly danceable pensive music that will undoubtedly translate excellently irl.
Silicon plays the Thunderdome 7.40pm-8.25pm.

Thundercat (United States):
As a virtuosic bassist, Stephen Bruner has spent the last 10 years playing in an eclectic mixture of contemporary music’s biggest bands. He began working with punk trash legends Suicidal Tendencies before moving onto the Erykah Badu band. 2014 saw him working with Flying Lotus’s Brainfeeder Imprint while he also worked closely with Kendrick Lamar on his seminal album To Pimp a Butterfly.

Thundercat is the name of Bruner’s solo project, which he has released three albums under- The Golden Age of the Apocalypse (2011), Apocalypse (2013) and 2015’s The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam. On his latest record, Bruner’s textured grooves give his avant-jazz sound a bombastically psychedelic edge-making it ideal for a hazy summer’s day. Thundercat wields the bass with an almost godlike prowess, which means he should be on your to watch list for Laneway 2016.
Thundercat plays the Cactus Cat stage 3.15 pm-4.00pm

 

Vince Staples (United States):
Hailed as “the most exciting man in rap” by Rolling Stone, Vince Staples  was bookmarked as being one to watch long before his breathtakingly focused debut album  Summertime ’06 dropped in 2015.

22-year old Staples first came to international attention for his part on Earl Sweatshirt’s debut album. He immediately impressed critics with the gritty realism of his flow set against corrodingly industrial beats. On the surface the rhymes found in Summertime 06 reflect on the hard-edged world of rap music where fragility fuels bravado and vice-versa, giving it an obvious street appeal. But at its heart it is an album that turns the loss of childhood innocence into something positive and will undoubtedly translate to a powerful live performance.
Vince Staples plays the Cactus Cat stage 5.35pm-6.00pm.

LANEWAY 2016, Silo Park, Auckland, New Zealand line up:

Battles – Baynk – Beach House – CHVRCHES – Courtney Barnett- DIIV – East India Youth – FIDLAR – Flume – GoldLink – Grimes – Groeni – HEALTH – Hermitude – High Dependency Unit – Hudson Mohawke – Leisure – Lontalius – METZ – Nadia Reid – Oscar Key Sung – Purity Ring – QT – REIN – Scuba Diva – Shamir – Silicon – SOPHIE – The All Seeing Hand – The Internet – Thundercat  – Vince Staples – Violent Soho

 

 

An interview with: Tim Heidecker (Tim & Eric)

It was oddly appropriate that my interview with Tim Heidecker began with several calls to the emergency services, courtesy of an incorrect phone number. Heidecker and Eric Wareheim are the cult comedy duo Tim and Eric who revel in absurdism. So the humour in calling an ambulance instead of California was not lost on Heidecker, who when I do reach him, is bouncing on a trampoline with his daughter. “Not even a joke” he laughs breathlessly.

The pair first met in 1994 at Temple University in the United States, where they were both studying film and realised that they shared a taste for the bizarre. Together they have created a bevy of cult TV series, including five seasons of the sketch comedy Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job for Adult Swim. Their madcap antics have attracted an impressive roll call of the who’s who of US Comedy. Ben Stiller, Will Farrell, Jonah Hill, Maria Bradford, Will Forte, Michael Cera and even our very own Flight of the Conchords have been part of the Tim and Eric world. They have also directed their own film, while Wareheim has directed music videos for the likes of MGMT and Major Lazer. This year, they have released their debut book ‘Tim and Eric’s Zone Theory’, and will be wrapping up 2015 with a tour of Australia and New Zealand, aptly titled “Tim and Eric- the ‘Stralia-Zealand Experience.’

For a writer, it is incredibly difficult to describe Tim and Eric’s style of comedy. Most reduce it to ‘Stoner Comedy’ which I believe misses the point of their humour. It is an observation that Heidecker appreciates. “There is a certain level of person who thinks that we must be stoned when we make this- nothing is further than the truth. Or you have to be high to like it. I don’t agree with that cross section of people- I mean it’s on late at night and some people like watching it stoned- that’s totally fine. But that’s not what we are aiming for in making it.”

Alternatively, writers can rely on overly intellectual superlatives to try and make sense of Tim and Eric’s work. Yes it is joyfully free associative and at the Dadaist end of the Surrealist humour spectrum. Yes they could be described as a late-night public access television nightmare perpetually stuck in the 90s- resplendent with poor editing, amateur animation, and excruciatingly awkward characters selling bastardised commodities that shouldn’t exist. Because in their world, everything hinges on horrifically comedic extremes. But regardless of how you describe it, for Heidecker, the aim of their comedy is quite simple: “we try to make everyone laugh and have a good time- “you’re not going to learn anything unfortunately.”What about that life is absurd?” I ask. “Yes you could learn that- that the world shouldn’t be taken so seriously.”

Both Heidecker and Wareheim play a multitude of characters within Tim and Eric. When I ask Heidecker who is his favourite character to play, he laughs. “I don’t want to sound like a dick, but I hate the favourite question. I have so many favourites. In a sense my favourite character to play- and this is going to sound really pretentious- is myself. Because the Tim character is basically myself and there are so many different versions. It’s fun to play different sides of myself. It’s a great outlet for more unfavourable sides of my personality. Everyone has [negative qualities] that sometimes come out when they are driving down the highway or lose their temper. I get to do that for a living.”

When discussing his impending tour, Heidecker muses “It’s hard to talk about [the show] because if you talk about it too much it gives away the jokes. I’ve gotten off the trampoline by the way, I thought that it might be easy talking on the trampoline but it’s not…So basically the show is me on a trampoline for an hour. You observe me, take notes” Heidecker deadpans. He pauses for my laughter to subside. “No no, it’s a mixture of sketches and live stuff. I’d say we’ve got about 70% of the show figured out. We toured it in the States, but we want to tailor it to you guys. We have characters from the show, some new characters. It’s our version of a Broadway play, with stupid costumes. It’s a night of idiocy and foolishness. We are trying to give people the feeling of if our TV shows came to life and beamed out of the TV and onto a stage it would be something like this. It’s meant to drive you insane. You’re supposed to be uncertain about what’s real, what’s planned and how sincere we are throughout it all.”

Fans of Tim and Eric will be able to figure it out for themselves in Auckland’s Skycity Theatre on December 18th.

This article was first published in Rip It Up magazine on September 18th 2015.

 

Exhibition Review: David Bowie Is:

david-bowie-021014

When I was 14, David Bowie had been playing on my Discman constantly for six months and it was beginning to show. Bright blue metallic eye make-up was smeared across my face while my cheekbones and lips were accentuated with silver body glitter. A blue paisley shirt with exaggerated sleeves and collar was tucked into high waisted sky blue flares, and a midnight blue velvet waistcoat completed the look. That Saturday morning I was on my way to see a blockbuster film at Hamilton’s Village 7, and had accessorised my ensemble with the musk of op shop bargains and a jaded glint in my eyes. I had grandiosely decided that the aughties were characterised by a cookie cutter uniformity that left no room for the expression of ‘self’ and all its contradictory facets. At that stage, David Bowie represented a respite from this way of thinking, of being with his ambiguous attitude, style, and music.

Of course as I grew up I realised that the slavish imitation of one’s idols is hardly more authentic than the drones, but my love of Bowie has remained. However, upon hearing that the David Bowie Is exhibition was showing at ACMI in Melbourne, I let out a schoolgirl scream.

David Bowie Is first showed at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2013. Since then, the exhibition has toured around the world and been seen by over 1 million people and counting.   Affectionately known as the V & A, it is an institution that explores the process and the interaction between art and design, and David Bowie Is upholds this interest.  Over 300 items from David Bowie’s personal archives were winging their way to Melbourne, and this collection was going to be added to courtesy of the ACMI curators. My tickets were booked before I had finished listening to The Man Who Sold the World. A few months later and fresh off an early morning flight, I stood at the exhibition’s entrance feeling underdressed and over excited. My gold boots were gleaming in the low lighting as I positively skipped to the front desk and handed the visitor host my ticket.

Constructing a narrative for an ornately constructed artist such as Bowie was never going to be easy. Different aspects of him speak to different people on different levels, and while each of his personas are disjointedly unique, they are all ultimately David Bowie and so one character cannot be put above another.   The V & A have realised the sheer impossibility of pinning down the man formerly known as David Jones, and this is reflected in both the exhibition’s title and opening display. Emblazoned on the wall, Bowie declares that “All art is unstable. There is no authoritative voice, only multiple meanings.” Right from the word ‘go’ the institution is effectively washing its hands of definitively pinning down who David Bowie is. In a postmodern fashion we the viewers (or voyeurs) are left to make up our own minds.

Upon entry, I was handed a set of headphones which provided me with snippets of songs, interviews and observations (including Bowie’s own jaunty tones) as I moved around this deeply immersive, multisensory exhibition that felt halfway between a rummage through a very cool closet and a nightclub. It had a charmingly cluttered layout that showed us everything Bowie had ever been- from Brixton to the streets of Soho awash with drug-fuelled creativity, the walled streets of Berlin and everything in between. This haphazard approach suited the anything-but-straightforward subject, and encourages the viewer to flit from station to station and construct their own notion of who David Bowie is. Presenting the viewer with everything all at once is an overwhelming experience. Costumes, video screens, album covers, photographs, hand written lyrics all jostle for your attention, and for a few minutes I stood dumbstruck by the sheer vibrancy of it all.

Keeping true to the aforementioned themes of the V & A, the exhibition expertly highlights the eras, processes, influences and collaborations that helped shape the many faces of David Bowie. He was inspired by a myriad of cross-cultural references-including Dada German Expressionism, Mime, Kabuki Theatre, West End Musicals and Little Richard. Powerful collaborations with an eclectic range of figures- Brian Eno, William S Burroughs, Klaus Nomi and Kansai Yamamoto also proved to be enriching for Bowie. Like a truly postmodern artist, he redefined all of these ideas to create something that was new but no less powerful. Beyond Bowie, the exhibition also highlights the impact that art, culture, and music has on society as a whole. However, just as the man himself was carefully constructed, so too was this exhibition, and I couldn’t help but note that the David Bowie of the 1980s was largely glossed over save for a few photos and music videos. His acting efforts were also confined to one small room. It was the lithe-hipped, androgynous Ziggy Stardust era that attracted the biggest crowd and the era that David Bowie Is leaned on the most.

Being in the exhibition for around three hours meant that I observed the reactions of other viewers in this exhibition which was simultaneously personal yet communal. Lightning bolts were smudged by tears as punters got up close and personal to their favourite Bowie. Strangers would start singing together and squeeze each other’s hands with excitement. I must’ve had the wobbliest grin on my face seeing Bowie’s jumpsuit that he wore for his 1972 Top of the Pops appearance because a kind attendant offered me a tissue. Fandom in relation to Bowie is an odd thing.  Generally, fans tend to like the artist’s music, as well as who they (believe) the artist to truly be. Bowie is an anomaly. He was completely disinterested in singing songs about his own experiences and presenting an image of authenticity.  But by throwing himself wholeheartedly into each persona he was not only experimenting with aesthetics, form, and a myriad of other reference points, he was also experimenting with a constantly metamorphosing sense of self- arguably something that we all do. It was authenticity on another plane.

David Bowie Is is not without its flaws- some moments are skimmed over, some questions remain unanswered- for example, how exactly did the shy David Jones get the confidence to become one of the most iconic artists of the 20th century? And we are never permitted to see David Bowie the man behind the mask. But feeling so close yet so far away from David Bowie doesn’t detract from the mysteriously feel good charm of this exhibition. David Bowie is exploring possibilities rather than reality.

This article was first published by Rip It Magazine on September 28th 2015.

Heaven Adores You: An Elliot Smith Documentary

elliott-smith

There is a special place in the musical cannon for its tortured artists. Because although mythology and sensationalism surrounds them, theirs is the music that continues to resonate with listeners long after their deaths. Elliott Smith is but one of these artists, and is the subject of a documentary entitled Heaven Adores You.

Initially funded via Kickstarter, this film was always going to be a labour of love for all involved, and is the debut offering from its director Nickolas Dylan Rossi. The best way to describe Heaven Adores You is that it is a love letter written by a fan. Like many love letters, it reverently puts the subject of its affections on a pedestal, and overlooks anything unsightly. In the case of this film and its subject, this could either be a good or a bad thing.

Within the annals of popular culture, there are two distinct images of Elliott Smith. The first is an uneasy star standing on the 1998 Oscars stage performing his song Miss Misery which had been nominated for best song. Lank haired and wearing an ill-fitting white suit, he was both a parody and antithesis of everything Hollywood. Five years later he was in the news again, dead from two stab wounds. Whether or not they were self-inflicted remains a popular topic of discussion amongst fans.

“Maybe we can get past the drama and start to focus on what he created” muses long-time collaborator Sean Croghan, who is one of thirty people close to Smith interviewed for Heaven Adores You, and it would seem that this is the main thrust of the documentary.

Heaven Adores You has been created with every good intention to focus solely on rare Smith tracks and the three cities that shaped him- Portland, New York City, and LA, and it achieves this aim well. Although it follows a chronological order there is no real narration. Instead, the amalgamation of photos, outtakes and interviews gives the documentary a sketchy effect akin to Smith’s music. The man himself is only shown fleetingly via awkward interviews and excellent live footage. Grimly beautiful shots of the aforementioned cities are intertwined with Smith’s tracks to beautiful effect, and will no doubt be savoured by fans.

The problem with this gracefully languid documentary, is that it omits so much that continues to make Smith a pertinent artist, instead falling into the fan-trap of romanticism. Smith’s fragile genius understandably presented as a fait acompli, however the personal struggles that he drew on to create his music are curiously absent. Drug addiction, the pressures of fame, and depression all helped to shape Smith’s lyrics, however in Heaven Adores You these are barely discussed, making the documentary feel impressionistic and lacking in a vital substance.

The merit of this documentary is that it fundamentally sets out what it intended to do. If you are a pre existing fan of Elliott Smith, then it is a must watch for the music alone. Its focus on beauty and art is a noble one, however much is left out in doing so. The overall feeling of this documentary is echoed in Smith’s own lyrics from Waltz #2: “I’m never going to know you now, but I’m going to love you anyhow.”

This article was first published in Rip It Up magazine.

Dylan Moran: Off the Hook

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Dylan Moran first made a name for himself as the misanthropic chain-smoking lush Bernard Black in the cult television series Black Books. As his star rose, solo stand-up performances followed- Monster, Like Totally, and Yeah Yeah. Each one cemented Moran as a truly fantastic comedian with a relentless way with words and acerbically surreal powers of observation.  Off the Hook is his first solo show in three years. Like Noel Fielding earlier this year, Moran has also reached middle age, a fact that has become central to his comedic fodder.

Simply put, Off the Hook is Moran at the top of his game. He regaled an enraptured audience with tales of his struggle with weight, parenting, and being subjected to the hipster ridicule that comes from being middle aged, poorly dressed and just wanting a double shot latte dammit. The perils of being “a jelly baby with a few quid.”  While this isn’t unique territory, Moran made it his own with his highly quotable, elegantly crackpot turns of phrase. His delivery was such that we cannot tell if it is inspired off the cuff ramblings or just scripted to look that way- truly the sign of an excellent comedian.

The wonderful thing about Moran is his power to see the bleakly ridiculous truisms of modern existence. Religion may have been replaced by worshipping at the altar of Apple-but our fear of death remains as strong as ever. Moran likens hitting middle age to being “a slum landlord pacing on the top floor of a condemned building.” This observation is swiftly followed by a Beckettian rant about how we talk about inconsequential things such as rubbish TV shows “because if you are acting like you’re not really alive, death won’t come for you.” In a way, Moran represents the struggles that we all have to gauge meaning in our lives and connection with the world around us, and succinctly one-ups Shakespeare with the quip that life can be reduced to four stages “child, failure, old and dead.”

Despite the heavy subject matter, this reviewer was reduced to tears of laughter numerous times throughout the evening. A special mention must be made to Moran’s erotic parody encore, which needs to be seen to be given justice. A top night by a top comedian.

This article was first published in Rip It Up magazine on August 31st 2015.

Russell Brand is a trew comedian.

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At his show in Auckland earlier this year, Noel Fielding teasingly despaired that his mate Russell Brand had “gone political” before cheekily quipping “actually, it’s the funniest he’s ever been.”

Although cutting, this observation is not without its truth. The last few years have not been kind to Brand as he has made the shift from comedian to social activist. There have been awkward run-ins with the world’s media as well as criticisms of his politicised web series The Trews, his book Revolution and his documentary The Emperor’s New Clothes.  Brand’s latest show Trew World Order is halfway between a political rally and stand-up comedy and he delivered it to 3,965 enraptured people at Vector Arena.

For an hour and a half he relentlessly regaled the audience with his unique blend of humour that can plunge from the highest ivory tower to the deepest depths of blue in only a few words, always delivered with a smile and a swagger. Only Russell Brand can hypothesise a conversation between a gay Adolf Hitler and a macho US Marine complete with simulated masturbation and get away with it. But it wasn’t all bawdy eloquence and distractingly tight pants. Much of this show was about Brand’s desire to tear the world away from the clutches of the rich and powerful (Rupert Murdoch, Donald Trump, and John Key for some local flavour) and to rid the world of social inequality. Community, rather than individualism is the future he tells us. In the past, the media and politicians have made a meal out of the fact that these are not revolutionary ideas, and that Brand himself is wealthy and so surely part of the problem. But Brand is both self-aware and self-deprecating, and spent a good chunk of Trew World Order not only focusing on his detractors, but also focusing on his failings. Replaying cringe-worthy interviews and outtakes he reflected on and analysed himself with incisive humour.

Self- deprecation aside, Brand is also a self-described narcissist, a trait that he “wants to harness for social justice.” A cynic would suggest that the inverse is perhaps more truthful. But then, a cynic would not have stayed after the show and watched as fans clambered to meet Brand, their copies of Revolution aloft, their faces stained with tears as they told him how their lives had irrevocably altered upon reading it. Brand himself appeared equally moved. Whatever you may think about the man his message is admirable, and he delivers it with such charisma, wit and vivacity that you cannot help but take notice.

This article was first published in Rip It Up magazine on October 15th 2015.