Great Albums. #1 Holy Fire~Foals

Foals’ third studio album starts how it means to go on with the four minute instrumental “Prelude“. Like the album as a whole, this track leaves me with one word: intriguing with hints of darkness and tribalness, something the group experimented with in the studio: “At one point we even made these poor studio interns collect bones. We were inspired by voodoo, these Haitian rhythms. We collected some ourselves, from butchers in Willesden High Road. Mainly cows, I think often they had gristle and cartilage on them, mainly cow and occasionally sheep. We had to order these big pots because one of the shoulder blades was too big! We boiled the flesh away so we could use them as percussion! We wanted to get primitive!”. The track grows in intensity as it goes on, with the first of many riffs that border on the sexually pleasing. It’s a perfect tee-up to the second track on the album, “Inhaler“, like a magnificent pass leading up to a wonder-goal. Inhaler could have it’s own essay, it probably should have its own book. It’s not only only a great song in the context of the album or Foals as a band, it’s an all-time great, definitely in my top 5. The opening sounds reverberate around your head cosmically in a strange sensation, before Jack Bevan’s powerful drumming shakes the listener out of this surreal trance. Yannis Philipakis’ vocals are really at the peak of their powers, particularly in the choruses, described as a “satisfyingly gruff roar”. The song’s atmosphere is really intense and angry, as is a lot of the album, which means the choruses have a great impact, Yannis is almost screaming “I can’t get enough space!”. The lyrics too add to this feel of irritation and anger towards someone or something, as Yannis himself told NME “[Inhaler is] about feeling under attack. I tapped into that feeling of rush-hour claustrophobia, wanting to scream everybody away and gain space for myself”. Foals return to their usual melodic “poppy” style on track number three with “My Number“. If I had to pick a tune that best represented Foals as a band, this would be it, an upbeat song with extremely catchy melodies. It really is an indie anthem and the lyrics are quite upbeat, moving on from a former lover, and was once a song I would listen to religiously everyday. There is a real sense of optimism about My number, something that may be indescribable and valuable on a personal level. Mike Driver of the BBC, argues the same about this strong opening to the album: “Holy Fire’s lead tracks, Inhaler and My Number, comprise tone-setters for this slickly realised set, which focuses on instant-click compositions over consciousness-creepers. That both sound enormous may have everything to do with Alan Moulder and Flood’s production – and if not, their presence can’t have hurt”.

The next three songs take the intensity and excitement down a notch, but add to the album as a textured, diverse piece of art. “Bad Habit” is halfheartedly melancholy and feels a bit self-pitying in regard to it’s lyrics, although there are the usual brilliant melodies. But the song just seems to lack that edge, that bite that is customary to Foals songs, as Mike Driver concurs: “It lacks the singular spark that makes this band’s best cuts stand boldly from the crowd”. As does “Everytime” to some extent, although the riff in the chorus and effectively subtle use of a banjo make it mercurial in some aspects. However the repetitive lyrics seem to decrease the impact of this great production. “Late Night” benefits from having been on a Sky Sports advert recently and therefore I had heard and admired the rhythm guitar riff. The track slowly builds, with that intriguing riff a constant, added to some brilliant vocals from Yannis making for a mystifying listen.

The album picks up more with “Out of the woods“. Some tribal percussion, almost steel drum-like, and some feminine backing vocals create a blissful, heavenly atmosphere, as the lyrics also perpetuate “it was just a dream, the most beautiful place I’ve seen”. This is essentially contrast to the dark connotations of what “the woods” represents and the delight of the protagonist to be out of them is evident: “Never felt better than when I’m on my way out of the woods”. “Milk and black spiders” is one of the albums occasional misses and will probably lose the battle with the skip button, even then it is by no means offensive to listen to as the end of the song is once again a crescendo of different influences, again including steel drum-like sounds, but again it does suffer from the irritatingly repetitive lyrics and a certain nondescript feeling.

The album roars back into life with the monster track “Providence“. The three opening notes echo like they have emerged from the depths of Hell, leaving a distinct sense of foreboding. Everything on the track is slick and well timed, a sign of excellent production, and this time the repetitive lyrics reinforce the motif of animalistic behaviour and tribalism: “I know I cannot be true, I’m an animal just like you, Oh I’ll bleed just a little bit too, oh I’ll bleed just like you”, This and perhaps inhaler, are for me, the epitome of Holy Fire, making the listener really feel an anger and darkness from deep within. The epic ends with a two-minute drum solo, the best I’ve ever heard in terms of quantity and pace. This is where the excitement really kicks in deep, with Bevan’s epic drumming dying off for only a second, then roaring back in an awe-inspiring and electric manner. Providence is a magnificent, thrilling rock song, which we see more of in Foals next album What Went Down.

The album slowly fades off with “Stepson” and “Moon”, two quiet album tracks, which have to be listened to a few times before the listener can appreciate them as part of the larger context of the album. If anything they add a contrasting calm to the thrill-a-minute monster that comes before them.

Overall this album is seen as Foals’ coming of age masterpiece, more than fulfilling the promise of earlier albums “Antidotes” and “Total Life Forever”. This is a confirmation that Foals’ are one of the biggest and best bands in Britain, of which now there is no doubt after the follow up of Holy Fire with What Went Down. The flames of future success are burning bright because of Holy Fire

 

 

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Great films: #1 Apocalypse Now

The greatest of them all?

The hype for this renowned cinematic masterpiece was almost too much for me before I watched it. Having just read it’s source material, Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, my expectations were massive. It did not disappoint. Brutal, awe inspiring and terrifying, this is truly the pinnacle of film in an age where CGI was not commonplace like it is in today’s films and it’s production was about as difficult as its possible to conceive. Delving deep into the Philippine jungle, Francis Ford Coppola is somehow able to conjure a masterpiece amidst the chaos of Martin Sheen having a heart attack, Marlon Brando being overweight and the film itself being massively over budget. The cultural impact from this leviathon of film will endure.

The basic plot of Apocalypse Now in as few words as possible is this: captain Willard is tasked with the confidential mission of tracking down colonel Kurtz, a rogue commander who’s formed his own army deep in the Vietnamese jungle. The squad of an army patrol boat are also tasked with escorting Willard to his destination. As the journey goes on, the psychological effects of the jungle and war begin to take their toll.

The epic starts as it means to go on, a montage of explosions and fire destroying nature, which will be a main theme throughout, ominously serenaded with the incredible Doors song “the end”. This could foreshadow what we are about to witness, the metaphorical “end” of society as we know it and all it’s morality, through the Vietnam war that irreversibly altered it. As the sound of a Huey is effortlessly blended into that of the ceiling fan in Captain Willard’s claustrophobic Saigon apartment ( a magnificently simple use of cinematography) we see the ensuing mania Willard himself is under, throwing himself round his room in a strange, psychedelic introduction to our protagonist and the movie. Willard presents his problem to us that “When I was there(home) all I could think about is getting back into the jungle”. I think The Hurt Locker can be linked to this, as a key element of that particular war film, also an absolute epic, is the main character William James, a bomb disposal expert, almost need for war, commenting  “War is like a drug”. Despite surviving a gruelling tour, once James returns home to the mundane domesticity of life with his family, he cannot wait to return to combat and the film ends on him starting a 365 day tour. It seems this is the case for Willard too, who is extremely restless waiting for a new mission. This sadly is one of the many enduring legacies of the Vietnam, thousands of young men’s lives reduced to nothingness and nihilism. As Apocalypse Now demonstrates, this really was the definition of a sado-masochistic war, with the only results being the rape of an entire country and the destruction of an entire generation of American men.

Although the whole film is seared into my mind like a cherished memory, there are three scenes that stood out to me:

The ride of the Valkyries: “That” explosion  Apocalypse now

Out of all the film’s scenes, this is probably the most stereotypical of a Vietnam war film. But even then, this is special. The set piece excellence required to pull this off is beyond measure in my mind. The sight of the helicopters on their way to destruction is ominous and is reminiscent of a swarm of small black insects in their way to wreak havoc. Although we’ve been introduced to the god-like character of lieutenant colonel Kilgore in the previous scene, here we see him in his manic peak, leading his men into battle like Achilles. What makes the scene more surreal is the Motivation behind it as Kilgore stated in the previous scene, that “Charlie don’t surf” and the beach they are taking is seemingly for the purpose of fulfilling Kilgore’s love of surfing. As the Air cavalry make a bee-line for their target, more incredible cinematography is shown, the helicopters black dots against the brilliant peach-orange and pink skyline as some fairly lucid music plays with siren like wails. Around a mile out from their destination, Kilgore informs Lance that he plays Wagner’s “ride of the Valkyries” of which the scene is named after, as it “scares the shit out of the slopes”. The operatic score is so fitting and again so unlike anything in other Vietnam movies. As the helicopters process to demolish the village, huts, bridges and Vietnamese are blown apart in an awe-inspiring show of force. Kilgore and his squad remain in complete control throughout, communicating to each other positions of enemies and facing no real problems. That is until a Vietnamese woman throws a grenade into a helicopter carrying the wounded and the ensuing carnage leads Kilgore to declare hypocritically “fucking savages”. This is representative of the American mindset of the time in that the inhabitants of the country they are destroying are considered savages, whilst they commit such atrocities as My Lai. Despite Kilgore’s narrow-mindedness, he is still a man who you would to lead you into battle and the adoration he inspires from his soldiers is evident, certainly one of the most memorable and charismatic movie characters, alongside Tyler Durden and Mia Wallace. As the helicopter sets down, the brilliant yellow flares linger like mist and Kilgore orders his men to “surf or fight” which is still slightly humorous in the midst of a war zone. The fighter jets then roar in and deliver a monumental explosion, surely the best and most recognizable in the film, the peak of a crescendo of destruction and brutality as a whole section of nature is obliterated in the orange death-cloud of napalm. What follows is again one of cinemas most famous moments, with a line that wholly encapsulates his character: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”. Kilgore then delivers a great monologue about napalm, and “the smell of victory”. But this is a parting speech and the last of the so called ‘traditional’ warfare that we will see. From here on out the fighting will be sporadic and uncalculated, and the battle will be more psychological as Willard and his men journey further down the river and further away from civilization, towards the mythical figure of Kurtz.

The gates of hell: arrival at the Do Lung bridge 6362433242171365991008470724_Do Lung Bridge 2

Of the films many allusions to great mythical works, the references to Dante’s inferno in this scene are most obvious and suitable. The setting is one of seemingly inevitable damnation, as the Do Lung bridge, the last army outpost, and as Willard says “beyond it lies only Kurtz” and also the edge of civilisation itself. The bridge represents the gates of hell, and a scene of horror and anguish greet the patrol boat, animalistic calls of pain and torment. A large group of soldiers try to swim aboard the patrol boat, clambering and fighting pathetically for a chance of salvation, a clear reference of the fifth circle of hell in Dante’s inferno, where the wrathful fight each other at the surface of the swampy waters of the river Styx. It is also a metaphor for Charon, the ferryman of the underworld, who ignores the screams of the souls desperate to leave the world of the dead. An ominous cry of “You’ll get what you deserve” foreshadows the end which will meet nearly all of the crew and signifies they are about to enter hell itself. As Willard journeys ashore to find fuel, ammunition etc., he instead finds himself in a place devoid of all military authority. Indeterminate voices scream all around, Vietnamese, American, who knows, but it highlights how the further down the river the crew get, the more chaotic and wild it gets, to a point at the Do Lung bridge where the ability of the U.S military to ensure their routines are followed, is virtually non-existent. The viewer gets the distinct feeling that beyond the bridge lies only darkness, beyond any glimpses of Western civilisation, which links into the final scene I want to talk about.

Arrival at Kurtz’s compound 1979-Apocalypse-Now-07

The finale of the masterpiece is no disappointment. Despite the prelude and allusions to the horrific nature of Kurtz and his group, it pales in comparison to the visual shock we witness on arrival at his compound. A mass of natives, in white war paint, deathly still, holding spears, is the surreal sight we are greeted to. The colour is one of the most striking features of this scene, the vibrant oranges and yellows combining with the abundance of green foliage to create an immersive sense of fundamental and rudimentary nature. In addition to this, the presence of Buddhist statues is a warning to the crew and a menacing one at that. Tigers, a symbol of the jungle, are a metaphor for how far removed Willard now is from his perception of civilisation. Further horrors adorn the temple steps, naked bodies, decapitated heads, symbols of Kurtz’s brutality. If the Do Lung bridge was the gates of hell, then we are truly in hell at Kurtz’s compound, a place so blatantly beyond the realms of morality. The movie hits you with this with such brutality that it leaves a lingering sense of awe and fear, and is truly a worthy version adaptation of it’s source material, the heart of darkness, in it’s exploration of human behaviour, how far human evil can go and the hypocrisy of imperialism and the madness that comes with it, as Kurtz is a victim of American imperialism into the jungles of South-East Asia, a victim destined to never return.

The cultural impact of Apocalypse now is invaluable and it’s affect on film-making may never be truly realised. A visually striking film, it’s rich cinematography is the cornerstone of its enduring legacy and one that only gets more impressive and spectacular with every watch. Out of all the Vietnam war films, this is the most brutal and realistic in presenting the evil and destructive nature of war. In fact, it may be reductionist to call this simply a war film about Vietnam, instead it is a complex film with an incredible amount of complex themes, with multiple layers of cultural allusions and subtext.

For me this the pinnacle of film with Francis Ford Coppola crafting the defining film of an era with the expert tools at his disposal. Quite simply this is the best film I have ever seen.