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Evanescence in their heyday were a stunning band. Enough said. But unrest in the ranks led to Ben Moody, the lead guitarist and song-writer, making a surprise exit in 2003 during the middle of a tour citing "creative differences" which is code for "I hate you all". For me, Evanescence did suffer creatively as a result of his departure and it goes to show the combination of Amy Lee and Ben Moody together were the real driving force behind the band. But as Evanescence continued boldly on, what of Ben Moody? Well he spent a lot of time writing and collaborating with other artists including Avril Lavigne, Kelly Clarkson and Celine Dion (that one shocked me too) before releasing an EP "Mutiny Bootleg E.P." followed by his debut solo album "All For This" in June 2009. But then Moody got back in the band saddle and came back as "We Are The Fallen" - an obvious reference / snub to Evanescence's breakout album "Fallen". Along the way he poached two of Evanescence's members Rocky Gray (drums) and John LeCompt (rhythm guitar) as well as recruiting Marty O'Brien (bass guitar) and American Idol finalist Carly Smithson for the vocals.
==Tear The World Down==
The band's debut, and to date only, album release in 2010 was "Tear The World Down" which performed pretty well in the US, but didn't feature globally, peaking on the US Billboard at 33 and at 6 for the US Hard Rock charts. It was mostly positively met but with some criticism of sounding too much like Evanescence to which Moody's response was "We cannot try to be who we are. If there is some similarity in sound, it's because that genre was created by us". Fair enough. I have to say, that the first few times I heard this album I too was struck by this similarity with Evanescence through the heavy Gothic metal and instrumental influences, but the more I listened to it, the more the band's own identity shone through and it wasn't long before that particular though was banished into the wilderness. This is definitely one of those albums that needs quite a few listens to before it starts to grow on you and then you can't shake it loose. But aren't those the best kind of albums?
"Bury Me Alive", which was the first single released getting to #31 on the main US chart and was also the first song I heard leading to me to actually buy the album, is a powerful opener and really kick starts the album. It's not massively Gothic perhaps with just a few undertones sprinkled here and there, and really is much of a good old fashioned guitar driven metal song, but it has some very catchy fast paced riffs, some interesting instrumental passages reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and Carly Smithson gets to showcase her amazingly powerful and beautiful vocals here. Whilst comparisons with Amy Lee are inevitable she has a distinctive tone of her own and imbues an impressive range of emotion into her vocals that allows her to stand on her own two feet. Lyrically this song is nicely dark too - "Make me feel this love we used to hold, all I see is black and cold, as I try to pull you down to the ground". A very solid beginning.
Whilst being just as passionate but in a slightly more synthesised way is "Through Hell". It has much more Gothic vibes throughout with a fairly creepy opening and eerie chants but again has some incredibly catchy hooks and a belter of a chorus. Once again Smithson's vocals are incredible with her range and the sheer power she can inject and this is another powerful song. The lyrics are also a little sinister which really adds to the atmosphere - "I wake in the night and I pray that I've been dreaming. There's nowhere to hide from this nightmare calling to me. Fear in me, stays in me". Likewise we have "Burn" which keeps the Gothic ambience with a fine balance between orchestral sounds and some spooky yet heavy guitar riffs. Again this is a no-holds-barred type of song with everything thrown at it and Smithson excels again on pure passion alone, as well as being able to produce some slightly disturbing child-like moments, and this is a very captivating if somewhat unsettling song - "Shadows pulling me to lie with you, when the moonlight sings the darkness brings me back to die with you. I'd give it all away to be with you".
"St. John" is another creepy song, making use of some excellent guitar riffs and Gothic undertones running throughout whilst making more use of the piano for the first time. The chorus is particularly sinister and Smithson shows a particular adeptness in instilling a similar creepiness in her own voice which makes for a deliciously disturbing song. This is one of the catchiest and possibly most haunting songs on the album - "So ashamed of waking all my life you failed to keep me safe. My whole world's forsaken, won't let you destroy my faith again". Another tune making more use of the piano is "Without You". This song has a much more medium tempo and relies on an orchestral sound more than the distinctive guitars and shows the band can cover a range of different moods. Still a very passionate song with Smithson once again unleashing on the chorus with yet again another impressive range, this song just feels that tiny bit more about emotional torment and less about anger as seen in some previous songs - "I can define where the well ran dry, I remember every tear I cried, memories of lies, wasted all this time now we've lost it all".
"Paradigm" is another fairly medium tempo track which has a much more equal balance with the orchestral sound and heavy guitars. The chorus again portrays a song more about emotional distress than of unchecked anger but is equally as passionate as many a song gone before but with a more affecting chorus. With some excellent hooks this song will grip, and Smithson's anguished vocals really bring the song alive - "Perfect sky, shadow find my lies, good enough for always wanting mine. Replaced all your love with pain, so afraid to face the world alone". But the band has yet more emotional facets to them, and they have some really beautiful ballads up their sleeves. "Don't Leave Me Behind" is one such tune with a beautiful piano melody to begin and some slow guitar riffs to back up a melancholy orchestral sound. Smithson's vocals are again on point and her vocals are heart-rending at times and this is superbly stirring song - "So afraid of dreaming, the story is repeating, screaming. Monsters, I'm bleeding, I'm losing light in myself. Come back into me, 'cause only you can save me".
"Sleep Well, My Angel" is another such piano ballad and is positively gentle compared to the rest of the album. It's a poignant and heart-felt tune which has a touchingly tender quality to it and is beautifully sung with a moving melancholic quality to it. The song also erupts about halfway through with a dramatic emotional shift that simply mesmerises. Lyrically there is an undeniably emotive poetic quality - "Under the ash and the lies, something beautiful once here now dies, and the tears burn my eyes, as you sit there, all alone. I just want to come home". One of the more orchestral pieces on the album is "I Am Only One" which again is pure emotion and a beautiful song. Sung with heart-breaking intensity this stripped back song is all power. It is very chilled, but is still wonderfully affecting as there is simply nowhere to hide and the emotion just leaks out - "Ever after never came, and I'm still waiting for a life that never was. And all the dreams I lay to rest, the ghost that keeps me, after all that I've become, I am only one".
In a similar fashion is "I Will Stay" which again is stripped back, very slow tempo and all about the emotion. Vocally this is one of great contrasts with delicate singing offset against an impassioned chorus all resulting in another moving song although there is a lot less angst to this song and is simply one of loneliness - "Graceful and loving, tearful and soothing. Can't breathe without you,
there's no life without you here". That just leaves the closing song and I've cunningly also left the best song until last. "Tear the World Down", donating itself to the album title, is an epic finale taking a good minute and 20 seconds of atmospheric build up before igniting into a passionate onslaught. This song just ebbs and flows masterfully throughout with an ever building Gothic vibe, guitars battling against a rampant orchestral explosion and a chorus that is simply stunning. Smithson once again unleashes and this song is a relentless furore and a brilliant way to close out the album - "I've fought another day, lose another chance to break away from all I cannot bear. I suffer through the shame, wishing hope would just abandon me till this is over".
So Ben Moody is man with his fingers in many pies, but it would be hard to argue he's given less than 100% for this album. I think understandable but unfair criticism of a resemblance to Evanescence was given to this album, but even if you can't shake off the similarities that is no reason to discount this album as they are more than original in their own right, and there are worst bands to be compared to, right? Has Moody been able to recreate the magic of Evanescence's Fallen? No, but I didn't think any of the songs were weak or unmemorable on this album and it has grown into one of my favourites with some catchy, often sinister and haunting melodies, a great range of songs, stunning vocals and intriguing lyrics. I'd recommend this album to Gothic metal/rock fans as I can't really fault it, but some may be put off by unintentional similarities with Evanescence. As of yet, there seems to be no album two in the pipeline after four years and counting so my hopes are ever dwindling, but if this is all we ever get from this band it's still a fantastic piece of work.
1. "Bury Me Alive" - 8/10
2. "Burn" - 8/10
3. "Paradigm" - 9/10
4. "Don't Leave Me Behind" - 9/10
5. "Sleep Well, My Angel" - 10/10
6. "Through Hell" - 9/10
7. "I Will Stay" - 8/10
8. "Without You" - 9/10
9. "St. John" - 9/10
10. "I Am Only One" - 9/10
11. "Tear the World Down" - 10/10
Why do I keep watching utterly weird and disturbing movies under the orders of fellow reviewer Mattygroves? It has nothing to do with the secret blackmail material she has of me humming along to a medley of One Direction and Westlife whilst knitting a jumper made from soft, fluffy llama wool - no siree, Bob, not me. I do it of my own free will. So next up we have "The Dentist" (1996) - a film perfectly poised to play on all our inner fears when faced with the unpleasantness of dental hygiene. Just the thought of fillings and root canals is enough to send shivers down your spine, but someone building a whole horror film around it. Yikes - it should be the stuff of nightmares if done properly! Directed by Brian Yuzna who seems to have quite the repertoire of sci-fi horror films under his belt including the highly regarded Re-animator and the creatively named Re-animator 2; Necronomicon: Book of Dead; From Beyond; Dolls, ooh and Honey, I shrunk the Kids...wait that one was only a horror because it starred Rick Moranis...this film should have been in experienced hands.
Now, I will admit I had preconceptions going in to this film that it would be dreadful, but I have to confess (most surprisingly) that in a weird way I actually enjoyed it. One thing you absolutely, categorically must not do when watching this film is take it seriously...not even for a second...for that decision would sign you up straight to the haters camp, but if you strap yourself down into the dentist's chair and wait for the drill to fire up you then once the laughing gas kicks in you'll merrily end up tripping all the way to the likers camp albeit probably just a little wonky from the fumes. So onwards to the plot...yeah this won't take long. Dr Alan Feinstone seemingly has it all, the perfect, gorgeous wife and a thriving dental practice. Upon espying his wife engaged in carnal activities with the pool boy his life and sanity come crashing down as more and more things start to go wrong and so begins his psychotic journey into murderous madness...with dental tools as his weapons of choice. Nobody is safe...
Apparently this film is inspired by the true life serial killer Nick Rex, but this is purely a citation from the ever reliable Wikipedia and a subsequent Google search about this guy ended up in abject failure so I would feel grossly uncomfortable vouching for its authenticity. Despite that, the character of Dr Feinstone is a bizarre but hilarious creation almost hell bent on becoming a decay fighting vigilante through his lunacy. Corbin Bernsen, the actor that played him, stole the show for me by giving it everything he had which made the film all the more watchable (which given the plot / lack of plot in theory should have been impossible). That's not to say there wasn't more ham and cheese than at an annual ham and cheese festival but that for me was the only way the film was ever going to work - with a completely over the top performance. Well, we certainly get that in spades. The rest of the characters, including his wife (Linda Hoffman), a beauty queen with the brilliant name April Reign (Christa Sauls) and her manager (played by none other than Mark Ruffalo), an IRS man (played by the recognisable Earl Boen) and some police and staff members are merely there to pour gasoline on to his growing internal fire of rage and, with the exception of one or two, are mostly there as plot devices to instigate horrible acts of violence and insanity so thankfully you don't really care about their fate, only how they affect the behaviour of Feinstone. I won't give much away, but I wouldn't have wanted to be his wife.
This film certainly deserves its 18 rating with some of the more horrible torture scenes and psychedelic delusions of decay I've witnessed for quite a while (think pliers), and I've seen Hostel. By today's standards they are probably quite mild, but for a 90s horror flick it was pretty ghastly, probably because practically everybody hates the dentist and the thought of any of the horrendous things he did happening to yourself makes your skin crawl which is both fun and disturbing in equal measures. I was particularly disappointed in the lack of maiming drilling incidents though. Some of the murder/torture scenes were quite comical in their ridiculousness whereas others were oddly serious and mildly upsetting which created quite a confusing mix and made you feel like the film wasn't quite sure what it was going for - a psychological thriller or a jokey slasher and it ended up caught in limbo. There were also a few uncomfortable sexual moments where you weren't sure how far things were going to go, but thankfully this film remains tasteful in this respect. This film never felt tense in the fact you were worried about anybody's welfare and it became more about witnessing the fascinating decline of Feinstone's sanity and his ever increasing levels of depraved behaviour but the soundtrack was very obviously pushing for terror with scary, atmospheric orchestral pieces during his heightened levels of rage and psychedelic hallucinations so again this film was a tad muddled. Feinstone himself had a love of classical and operatic music and Puccini was actually more effective in some places at creating disturbing scenes than the original soundtrack.
One slight issue with this film was the pacing which again added to the film being caught in two minds. It was oddly slow to get going after Feinstone's initial "snapping" moment when he witnessed his wife doing unspeakable acts and then for almost a further 45 minutes we are given a very slow burner as the cracks appear in his inner psyche whilst subjecting us to rather excruciatingly dull scenes of setting up appointments and giving patients dental treatment which was clearly supposed to take us on a gradual psychological journey into crazy town but alas wasn't the most engaging storytelling of all time. This kind of build-up suggested Feinstone's spiral into madness was the focal point for the film especially as we were privy to his insane internal musings, but then the homicidal mayhem kicked off and it all changed into pointless and brutal violence which appeared to be for pure horror and gore purposes which sort of ruined all the foundation laying for the character before. He went from mesmerizingly unstable to a complete loony in a very short space of time and the abrupt increase in pace wasn't enough to wipe out the previous snail's crawl. Gore is often very humorous and the source of a few cheap laughs due to the lack of realism, but that wasn't the case here - it was just really cringe worthy and slightly nauseating.
Now despite the genuinely horrific elements to this film, I did get the impression the director was trying to make this into a tongue-in-cheek and darkly comedic film and in parts this was rather successful. The detectives investigating a series of robberies stumbling in to Feinstone's path failed to notice anything amiss despite glaring signs and sort of reminded me of the bumbling constabulary from Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing in their buffoonery. They were a caricature of the police and clearly only there for humorous intent although they were too weak to be all that funny. Secondly, and more successfully the script was unexpectedly cleverly written with some absolutely cracking one-liners that elevated it above the dross you might have been anticipating from the premise:
"Decay is always busy, so we're always busy."
"You don't know what it's like, the discipline, the long hours, the lack of respect in a world that goes on ignoring dental hygiene!"
"I am an instrument of perfection and hygiene. An enemy of decay and corruption. A dentist. And I have a lot of work to do."
"Much worse than I thought Marv, the decay is out of control. It's gone right through to your soul."
"Because he's a dentist and they're capable of anything. Didn't you know, dentists have the highest rate of suicide."
It was the dry and deranged delivery of a lot of these lines that actually made me laugh out loud almost turning Feinstone into some kind of plaqued crusader and although again this felt like genres were becoming confused it added some credibility to the film.
So, all in all "The Dentist" is not particularly a good film, but it has good bits in it and is mercifully short at about 1hr30mins. It is a confused mess not knowing whether it is going for all out horror or trying to be a clever psychological dark comedy and in the end achieving neither. There are moments that work for me and evoked certain feelings identifiable as enjoyment, notably Corbin Bernsen's delivery of some brilliant one-liners which were enough to make me titter on occasion, but there is just such a pointlessness to the plot given the exploration into Feinstone's psychological breakdown was just abandoned that there really was nowhere to go. Don't even get me started on the ending which was just a train wreck...rather worrying somehow spawning a sequel. The gore is genuinely unsettling and grotesque at times with scenes that may well make you feel mildly ill but almost certainly will make your skin crawl which on a certain level is fun since the only reason to watch a horror movie is to feel disturbed, but there aren't any thrills to go with it so you just feel kind of grossed out. It also may well put you off dentists for the foreseeable future which is not good for the state of your oral hygiene. I'm not sure if I can recommend this film beyond mindless entertainment, even though it is surprisingly watchable with a morbid fascination into the disassembly of Feinstone's mind, as there is simply no point to this film beyond those of the sharp end of his dental instruments of mass destruction. This film will probably divide people, those that like dark comedies will probably appreciate it, but I suspect purist horror fans will just find it silly.
Well it's the New Year and with the concept of turning over a temporally inspired new leaf just a fuzzy memory I'm back to my old ways and foolishly listening to fellow reviewer Mattygroves for my choice of film viewing pleasures (I do use the term pleasures very loosely). Anyway, rather aptly this latest miscreation comes in the form of the 1987 horror flick "Bloody New Year" directed by a little known director Norman J. Warren for whom this film seemed to be his last main feature production. That may be telling in itself. Whilst there is indeed an allusion to the New Year in this film rather sadly the opening third of the title is disappointingly absent, so fair warning, if it's a bloodthirsty slasher thriller along the lines of My Bloody Valentine you're after this isn't going to be it. Not by a long shot. If it's an 80s cult classic seemingly overflowing with drug inspired insanity...well this isn't it either. But hey, getting warmer. If it's plain old stupid you want complete with a nonsensical plotline then you've come to the right place. Just make sure you have an exit strategy as getting stuck there is a sure-fired way to go insane.
So let's rattle on with the "plot" so we can get to the good or bad stuff, depending on your perspective. Five friends, those "teenagers" that are so obviously played by 20+ year olds, are spending a lazy day on a beach before moving on to a fun fair. Naturally, a nasty group of murderous biker type dudes are tormenting a poor girl on a waltzer who is spectacularly rescued by this group of friends, so the next logical step is to escape and hop on a boat, only to get annoyingly and damply marooned on a mysterious island. Thankfully the Grand Island Hotel is the first building they come to which can offer warmth and dryness but it is strangely deserted. Thinking nothing of the emptiness and weird Christmas decorations still adorning the place the friends wander around which is when things take a terrible turn for the worse and they all become seriously imperilled. Like, seriously, I can't emphasize that enough. It's not bad enough that the hotel starts doing crazy stuff; they also have to contend with the trio of violent bikers that still want their revenge for the waltzer incident. Can anyone survive the spooky goings on in this hotel and when all is said and done do we really care?
So, we have a strange little "horror" movie from the 1980s here with a hankering to both take itself seriously with genuine attempts to add credence whilst systematically destroying itself with ever increasingly dumb moments of supernatural lunacy. I'm going to try not to be too spoilery throughout this review but I'm probably going to find it hard not to mention some of the more ridiculous moments so I might give some surprises away. Oh who am I kidding, the chances of anyone watching this movie and caring about that is slim to none...and slim has left town. Rather than sticking with one form of horror cliché like say a knife wielding maniac, this film decides it might as well go the whole hog and try out practically every conceivable scare tactic like an alarmed fortune teller...if she was any good she'd have seen it coming ergo have no need for alarm; ghostly figures stalking the halls or in mirrors...boring; inanimate objects doing deadly things...axes always solve that pesky problem; monsters...bought the T-shirt; zombification...so 2013; disembodied laughter...ventriloquism is clearly making a return, or being sucked through walls to God knows where...anywhere is better than this film...I could go on but I feel you get the picture by now. Frankly it's all a horrible mess, without much blood to improve things, and without a genuine scare in sight.
You always know when you're supposed to be scared, regardless of success (which for me was a steady zero), by the somewhat limited soundtrack. There's some actually fairly decent music at the start from the band Cry No More that did all the songs for the film which is a pleasant rocky pop style that is very definable as originating in the 1980s, but they are used so fleetingly throughout you'd hardly even know they were there. Instead we are constantly bombarded by the same few chords from a synthesiser keyboard just shuffled around and so obviously played by a llama dosed up on narcotics either involving just a single hoof for the more subtly "atmospheric" moments (you know when people are being watched from beyond the trees), or double hooves for the seriously dramatic moments (i.e. flying netting attacking people). Still, the setting had some potential to be a bit creepy - lots of trees with perfect hiding places for scary monsters on an isolated island (filmed on the rather picturesque Barry Island in Wales) and an empty hotel, but doing it mostly in daylight and being surrounded by Christmas decorations kind of killed the mood for me. So, despite the music being rather obviously from the 1980s, does this film successfully avoid falling into the usual trap many films from this decade fall into?
Nope. The usual terrible mullets, drab jumpers and unflattering jeans are fully on display for all to see and laugh at. Ah well, at least we can get a few titters from that if nothing else. Even the acting feels very obviously from the period. All the actors are slightly on the posh side with some lovely elocution, though to be fair are actually all mostly competent, albeit with the emotional depth of a paddling pool. They're fine when their just joshing around or being all inappropriately horny, but show a distinct lack of capacity for caring or an extremely rapid rate of recovery when the mortality rate starts to increase. At the other end when moments of extreme terror or tragedy occur the acting goes so far the other way the shrill screams from Janet, the simpering wimpy one, mostly just grate on the nerves and the displays of emotional torment feels like an Oscar is being sought after. It's all just a bit bizarre and leaves you a little discombobulated from the breakneck change from weird nonchalance to disproportionate hysteria. I think the dialogue (or lack of - Janet: "Maybe if we stay here and be very quiet then they'll leave us alone" - what planet are you living on dear?) and direction is probably a huge contributory factor to this lacklustre state our actors find themselves in whereby everything leads to the film trying to show off the special effects (we'll get on to those later) and produce scares instead of actually leading anywhere towards a sensible plotline with proper character development prospects.
The real trouble is, as is often the case, the characters are mostly unlikeable and therefore expendable. Which is fine if they're in a slasher movie and we want hilariously gory deaths, but for a film that is trying to achieve...well I suppose psychological disturbances...the deaths are wholly unsatisfying and just plain ridiculous and so completely mismatched it just makes for befuddlement more than anything else. They all commit the cardinal sin of somehow missing the glaring sign that says "Danger! Keep Out" in amongst the horse skull and barbed wire which would have saved them a whole load of bother and frankly from then on they got what they deserved. Rick, played by Mark Powley who you may recognise from Casualty, was the alpha male of the pack, but thankfully was not arrogant so was easily the most likeable of characters. His girlfriend Janet (Nikki Brooks) was annoying with her constant screaming but apart from that was not much more than a pretty face. Tom (Julian Ronnie) was fairly forgettable as the dull beta male with the grumpy pants girlfriend Lesley (Suzy Aitchison) who was also a nerve grater. Then there was Spud (Colin Heywood), the poor chap that couldn't seem to get a girlfriend (probably due to his personality) and Carol (Catherine Roman), the American recently rescued damsel in distress who he had such high hopes for. Yawn, live or die, I don't care. Suffice it to say, none of these actors have gone on to have stellar careers.
Another huge flaw in this film is the plot just makes absolutely no sense at all. The explanation drummed in to us is it's a scientific experiment by the government in 1960 that sent a plane carrying a weird time device involving mirrors and other clever things that unfortunately crashed on the island breaking the device and therefore shattering time itself so the island got stuck in a weird time warp...or something. Fantastic. That explains the 1950s getup, but not really how this would lead to demonic possessions, zombification, monsters, poltergeist activity, boring ghosts and basically any other supernatural stuff you can come up with. I guess if you want any chance of getting through this film and keeping your dignity just give up expecting a cohesive plot and instead roll with the punches as they fly at your face since it's the only chance you'll have of finding the absurdity of it all even remotely enjoyable. There is absolutely no intended humour in this film, it's all supposed to be a bit bleak one would imagine, though the failure of the actors to humanise their characters puts a stop to that. However, unintentionally is a different matter entirely and the best chance of getting any laughs from this film, other than the dodgy 1980s style, is through the "special effects".
Some of the special effects were better than others, although all were fairly obviously done on a low budget but they were not as bad as they could have been. We do get a tiny bit of gore for our delectation, hence validating the Bloody part of the title to a certain extent but this is mainly involving an elevator and a loss of an arm, and a zombie / shotgun / loss of arm both which were laughably unrealistic. Apart from that we have some pretty odd moments that seem to have been decided by a random word generator such as footprints appearing and disappearing in the sand which were so poorly edited together it was obvious the camera just couldn't stay still enough to make it work. Add to this a ridiculous looking zombie and monster, a head being twisted around just like the Exorcist, being sucked through mirrors and walls, a weird exploding plaster cast mannequin that was meant to be a person plus plenty of jumping scenes where the poor editing is exposed and it's not looking good. On the flipside there were some surprisingly good scenes. One involves Carol wandering about by herself in a neighbouring house when she opens a door only to set loose a terrible snow storm. Rather than attempting to leave the house or closing the door she willingly traps herself in another room as the snow comes and gets her complete with the cries from screaming children, some cats and...a wolf? Ignoring the fact any sensible person would never have let it get that far this scene was not bad for tension. Likewise another scene in the kitchen involving flying plates, knives and a man face planting in a giant oil cooker complete with an expulsion of gas when it was done with him which then rather excitingly went on to reverse time to fix all the broken crockery (but with nothing doing for the poor dead chap). Then again, playing a film backwards probably isn't all that hard.
So that's all folks, this really was a film trying too hard to be clever instead of just doing the basics well and it just ended up a hodgepodge of movie clichés devoid of any real scares with its only saving grace the ridiculousness of the special effects and nonsensical plotline which allowed for some unintended laughs. It wasn't completely unwatchable, but you really couldn't take any of it seriously, so I think the only reason to watch this film would be to mock it mercilessly. It's also damn nigh impossible to get hold of on DVD (not that anyone in their right mind would want to) so if you really want to see it you can find online streaming (http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xq3tpn_bloody-new-year_shortfilms). Only recommended if you're extremely bored and in the mood for eviscerating a movie.
Young Guns are a home grown talent from High Wycombe who have been active since 2003, and started releasing studio albums beginning in 2010 with "All Our Kings Are Dead" which did okay peaking at #43 in the main UK album charts and #3 in the UK Independent Album Charts but I personally rated it very highly. Next up is "Bones", the album I will be reviewing, released in February 2012 which performed better on the UK albums peaking at #19 on the main chart and #2 on the rock chart but then went and did an amazing thing with their single "Bones" reaching #1...yes you read me right...#1 in the US on their main chart. In the UK? It managed a pitiful #130. How queer (although it could have something to do with the single being used as theme music for WrestleMania XXIX). So, the best way to describe Young Gun's music is melodic alternative rock and the band consists of Gustav Wood (lead vocals), Fraser Taylor (lead guitar, rhythm guitar), John Taylor (rhythm guitar, lead guitar), Simon Mitchell (bass guitar) and Ben Jolliffe (drums, percussion, backing vocals).
So, is "Bones" an improvement on their debut album? Well, in some ways yes, and in others no. Allow me to elaborate - for me there are three absolutely stunning songs on this album which show great strides in their music progressing rapidly from their first very decent studio album, but as a result the rest of the tracks, which would have been good in their own right, now pale in comparison and feel a little safe in contrast. So I would say that while "Bones" has the best tracks Young Guns have composed to date "All Our Kings Are Dead" is a better all-round album. I may be unfairly setting my expectations too high but I find myself forgetting the other tracks in favour of the standout ones. The album kicks off with "I Was Born, I Have Lived, I Will Surely Die" which is a fairly fast paced, catchy tune with good sing-along properties about it. The guitars are a bit messy and chaotic but there are very melodic passages that allow for intriguing changes in the tempo. Wood puts in a good performance with pretty aggressive vocals mixed in with a few moments of vulnerability making for an interesting contrast. Lyrically it is almost a tale of never giving up which is almost at odds with the mood of the song - "Every day is a chance to change the story. Don't run away, take a shot, give it everything you've got. Without pain, tell me what's the point in glory?". A good opening, but not the most memorable of songs.
"Learn My Lesson" was the first single released and is very similar to the opening track with chaotic guitars interspersed with some fine standalone riffs, whilst still maintaining a melodious, catchy chorus. Again it will probably get you singing along without being all that memorable. Wood once again shows his smooth rock voice off in style, but the range is mostly on the angry side so there's not much variation. The lyrics are dark in places though which does make you stop and think - "Boarded up all the doors and I swallowed all the keys. I'm still haunted by all the things I'll never be". Their third single "Dearly Departed" suffers a similar fate. It is another up-tempo song with a pretty catchy chorus and slightly crisper guitars than the aforementioned songs but again is in a very similar style. To be fair the melody of the guitars is stronger and there is a bigger breadth of emotions that allows Wood to show off his range marginally better but I feel like this song is still just a bit restrained and I feel a darker melody would have suited the lyrics better - "I'm bruised but I'm not broken and I know at least I know where I am on my own. I wanna be the last thing that you see, be my dearly departed".
"Towers (On My Way)" was the fourth single released and I have to say it still in the same tempo as all the previously mentioned songs. Again it is a pretty aggressive song, with not much emotional range beyond anger which does however allow for a very passionate performance by Wood who does have an excellent rock voice. It is once again catchy with some striking guitars but again just doesn't push the boundaries and so isn't one to stick in the memory and again I feel the intriguing cryptic darkness of the lyrics just gets swallowed up in the music - "I walk then I crawl, I'm thankful to be moving at all. Considering all the places I've been on the way, some people build towers, I just dig holes". I'd like to say something new, but with "Brother in Arms" I simply can't. It's catchy, it has good guitar melodies...it's safe. I'm not saying it's bad at all as it is a nice song to listen to, it just sounds suspiciously like songs gone before. Wood still puts in a great performance and there is perhaps less anger replaced with more passion in this one, but it still just blends in and again I feel a profounder meaning in the lyrics is once again a touch lost - "Brother in arms, together we, spill our blood, on foreign streets. Worlds apart, and in too deep, my brother in arms".
On to "Headlights" next...and alas, poor Yorick, it's much of a muchness with this one. There is definitely a slightly more emotional edge to this one, and the tempo is a tad slower plateauing at the end but the final result is the same with a nice, catchy song to listen to but becoming forgettable as soon as it ends - "Through my fingers everything was monotone and weak. Now all the colours bring me to my knees. I was so afraid of repeating myself that I never said anything at all". I'll let those lyrics do the talking for me. Thankfully the band do show off their softer side on this album to finally bring about some genuine variation and it firstly comes in the form of "A Hymn for All I've Lost" which is a beautiful piece stripped back to subtle and haunting guitars with a very affecting vocal performance by Wood...but it's only 1 minute and 6 seconds long. Argh! I guess it was supposed to represent a hymnal effusion but I would have loved a full length song so it was a bit disappointing when it ended so abruptly - "Where do I fit in when no matter where I stand I still fall? I'm on the outside looking in".
"You Are Not" was the fifth single released, and this carried on from the good work of "A Hymn for All I've Lost" as a beautiful and emotional slower tempo song. Wood showcases just how much of an emotional range he actually possesses with a powerful performance here to really bring the sad lyrics to life - "Lonely, lonely hard to shine. When they don't notice you at all, sink further every day". This one is finally a more memorable track as it breaks the chains the band somewhat tied themselves down with. There's no denying when they set their minds to it, musically Young Guns have a lot of talent as they illustrate with a random instrumental interlude cleverly named "Interlude" which is a lovely, atmospheric piece that build on delicate strings to an outstandingly melodic guitar solo. Now before I put you off completely by making out this album is too samey, I've left the best until last and here are the three amazing songs on the album which I think pulls it out of the fire and transforms it into a great album.
First up is their mega hit in America - "Bones", their second single released. This is everything you want from a rock song - an incredibly strong, smooth and catchy guitar melody with plenty of aggression and anger matched by some excellent vocals from Wood and a very grabbing chorus plus some wicked guitar solos. This song has excellent tempo ranges building up to an explosive chorus and it's just a shame more songs didn't follow this template. "We're all architects of our own private hell. No one can hurt us like we've hurt ourselves". Next up is "Everything Ends", a track with a much slower tempo, which is one of my absolute favourites off the album. The guitar melodies are beautiful and the meaning of the song is so poignant that the emotion just shines all the way throughout. Wood again puts in a stunning vocal performance when he brings out his softer side and I get goose bumps listening to this one - "I had a conversation with a dying man. Till I pass it by, your love becomes an eye, the worst path to follow, swallowed by the sea. You said 'So? Enjoy it while you can'.".
That just leaves "Broadfields" which is a stunning way to close out the album. It is a complete departure from all the other songs with an acoustic, darkly atmospheric, yet tragic vibe to it. It begins slowly, building up to a deeply haunting and moving chorus which just teases the extent of emotion bubbling away in this song, before exploding towards the climax of the song with an incredibly impassioned outburst. The band, especially Wood, really let themselves go and ride a tumultuous rollercoaster which is impossible to not to feel. "I let my heart break in the Broadfields. It's the look between the fences, my hand unto the bridge. I swore that I would understand the whispers in the trees". So we get a mixed bag with this album that makes it quite hard to rate. With the exception of three awesome songs and a few creative pieces, the rest of the album kind of blurs together and makes the songs hard to distinguish between each other. Whilst being very fun to listen to with good sing-along properties they simply don't leave a lasting impression. However, the three awesome songs are so brilliant they alone are worth buying this album for. I think I would have rated this album 3/5, but these songs elevate it up to 4/5 - this is a band capable, but not having found the right balance yet to get that perfect album together, but I will certainly look out for more of their work in the future.
1. I Was Born, I Have Lived, I Will Surely Die - 6/10
2. Dearly Departed - 6/10
3. Bones - 10/10
4. Towers (On My Way) - 6/10
5. A Hymn for All I've Lost - 8/10
6. You Are Not (Lonely) - 8/10
7. Brother in Arms - 6/10
8. Learn My Lesson - 6/10
9. Everything Ends - 10/10
10. Interlude - 8/10
11. Headlights - 7/10
12. Broadfields - 10/10
Anyone that has seen QI (Quite Interesting) on the BBC or through the cagillion repeats on Dave will know what a fascinating, funny but frustrating show it is. The premise is a simple one - Stephen Fry is the quizmaster and four panellists (one who is always comedian Alan Davies) try to answer questions for points which can be misleading, really bizarre or, despite seeming blindingly obvious e.g. "how old are you?", have bizarre answers (apparently due to regeneration of cells a human body at most will probably be between 11-15 years old...so there). The most amusing thing about this show is how good answers receive positive points but bad/wrong answers receive negative points, with the worst possible answers to a question being accentuated by the infamous klaxon sound and the knowledge you've just cost yourself 10 points. Sometimes panellists actually aim to get the klaxon just for a laugh, and often questions are just used as a platform to throw in some jokes and amusing anecdotes and so this show is an excellent mix of fun trivia and comedy.
==The Board Game Rules==
So, to make a little extra cash the show has released a board game, cunningly named "QI the board game" which I jumped at the chance to buy. Just as the concept of the show, despite the trickiness of the questions, is simple, so is the board game. This is a game for 3-6 players each with a different coloured QI marker which will travel around the chequered board of 63 squares starting in the centre on 0 points. Leading away from the centre along the row each square goes up by a point in one direction and down a point in the other indicating the number of points a player would have if they were on that square, and each row above and below goes in alternate directions around the board. The majority of the squares are yellow, green, blue or red which refer to the colour of question booklets which the questions are read from, and in addition there are scattering of other squares including Roll Again (2), Miss A Go (2), Chance (4) and Game Ends (2). The game only ends when somebody lands on one of the Game Ends squares which are the equivalent of +31 points and -31 points and the winner is the player that has the most points at the time.
So, how do the pieces move around the board? As I mentioned all the pieces start in the centre on 0 points, and before the game starts all players roll the three dice with the player getting the highest total assuming the first quizmaster role. They then roll the three dice, coloured white, red and blue again and advance their piece forward by the number on the white dice. Assuming they land on a yellow, green, blue or red square they grab the appropriately coloured question booklet and proceed to read out the question number based upon the three dice results in the order red, blue and white which leaves a total number of 216 different possible combinations per booklet so a grand total of 864 questions available for this game. If the current quizmaster lands on a Chance square they pick up a card with something helpful on it (only 1 to be held by any one player at a time) and their go ends, if they land on a Miss A Go square likewise their go ends and the person to their left becomes the new quizmaster or if they land on Roll Again they simply roll the dice again and advance forward even further on the board resulting in one of the other options recurring.
All the answers to the questions are in a multiple choice format, with either a choice of three possible answers or a Yes/No/True/False response. All of the other players will take it in turn to give their answer, which could simply be a pass if they're too chicken, and if they are correct they will advance forward 3 spaces. If they are wrong they simply stay where they are...unless the klaxon comes into play and this is where the game really begins to take off. Every player to the left of another gets the chance to challenge that player if they think their answer was wrong by hitting the klaxon (a mobile, battery operated giant red button which does look like you might be setting off a nuclear missile in North Korea if you push it) which recreates the blaring alarm identical to that from the TV show. Once every player has submitted their response, if a challenging player was right to buzz in and the other player was wrong, then if that wrong answer was marked in the booklet as being a klaxon answer that player must go back the number of spaces specified in the booklet. However if the challenging player themselves was wrong and hit the klaxon answer they are then subjected to that penalty. You can only be penalised for guessing the klaxon answer if you were challenged or were the challenger so therein lies the risk and rewards of the klaxon.
If a player seems to be galloping ahead of everyone else on their way to certain victory the Chance cards can throw a spanner in the works giving the holder the ability to swap positions with another player on the board at any time, to add 6 spaces to their roll die, to make another player go back 6 spaces or to force another player to take their klaxon penalty for them. Since a player can only have one card at a time, these must be used wisely, for example you wouldn't want to send a player back 6 spaces if they would then be so negative they land on a Game Ends square and you weren't currently in the lead. That would just be silly. So, whilst the rules are hopefully simple enough the questions are anything but and to have any hope of actually knowing the answers outright, or in fact even having an educated guess, you'll need some seriously obscure knowledge, just as panellists on the show do. For all normal people that don't have a weird trivia repository stored in a vault in their brain you'll just have to guess and hope that you can spot the devious klaxon traps laid down by the evil quiz writers.
==Playing the Game==
This game is a lot of fun to play, but can also be highly frustrating (just like the original show) which in a weird way only adds to the amusement. Less players seems to make for quicker games as you'd expect, but some games are over pretty darn quickly depending on the way the die fall and what kind of mood Lady Luck is in and likewise others can drag on for over an hour if the chips don't fall neatly. There are two ways of playing it really - high risk or low risk. If you go down the low risk route and avoid using the klaxon you will simply crawl forward relying on fate and will be susceptible to other challenges and Chance cards, unless you are a fountain or knowledge. You will still be susceptible to the same old dangers playing a high risk strategy, but you can be very damaging to the player on your right if you opt to employ a klaxon assault on them so choosing where to sit around the board as part of a plan comes with knowing the mentality of your opponents and is something to consider. Yet despite this being a game of "knowledge" and answering questions the majority of the game does rely mostly on luck as far as I can tell such as what squares you land on at what time, how lucky individual players are at actually guessing questions right, as let's be honest most people shouldn't be knowing the answers outright, and choosing their klaxon moments and whether people have managed to pick up a highly useful Chance card at an appropriate time.
The trick seems to be in gaining insight into the craftiness of the questions and working out which one is likely to be the klaxon answer, which is not always an easy thing (but in my experience the player with best reasoning and logic seems to prevail), thus ensuring that you at least don't go sailing back up to 15 squares through outright stupidity. Here's an example where actual knowledge could trip you up:
When was Winston Churchill first elected prime minister?
Now you may well know he was Prime Minister during the war so you think of course - 1941 as 1931 is too early. But no! He wasn't elected - he just became the party leader so the answer is 1951 and if you were so stupid as to go for 1941 well then minus 15 points for you (if you were challenged). At least that kind of question you have a shot at having an educated guess. Something like the following leaves it entirely up to the Gods:
True or False: Houseflies hum in the key of F major?
...and why would you even want to know that? Despite most of the questions being useless trivia you do learn some interesting facts which at the very least you can use to impress people at awkward social gatherings.
So, it is also pot luck as to what questions you get asked and on some games they may fall in your lap and you get a higher percentage right than usual due to educated guessing and find yourself advancing forward at a canter and in others you can't buy a right answer and slip down the ladder of obscurity towards certain humiliation. There is however a certain life expectancy to this game given the finite number of questions available but you'd have to play an awfully large number of times to statistically hit them all. Rather interestingly though in my experience, in just one game we often hit upon the same question more than once and had an obscene number of 6's thrown for the red dice so always found ourselves in the high end of all the different booklets. We also couldn't land on a yellow square to save our lives so things were a bit skewed and didn't feel particularly random. We were even beginning to suspect loaded dice. That just proves that probability works fine...in theory...but you may hit upon a lot of repetition the more you play this game which is one annoyance, but this is purely down to chance so is impossible to avoid. Also, if you leave it long enough in between games and play with lots of different people you may well forget a lot of the questions and answers and this repetition won't matter so much.
So, as you'd expect this board game can't really capture the atmosphere of the show and is nowhere near as funny or silly since the questions are restricted to multiple choice and not forcing people to pluck answers out of thin air or tell jokes. The real entertainment comes from the reactions of people when they are sent flying backwards after an unfortunate klaxon incident and they have to start clawing their way back through blood, sweat and tears and likewise when some sneaky individual that was doing very badly can simply swap with the leader and unfairly top the pack despite having no knowledge of quite interesting things. Sometimes a game can drag on a bit and a modicum of tedium sets in when people keep getting close to the end and then lose a flurry of points (though from the other players' perspectives this keeps the game alive) and on other occasions it's over far too quickly, but you'd expect to get a fairly balanced game the more times you play although this relies a bit on the number of players so I've always found this game a good laugh every time I've played it as well as learning the occasional interesting bit of useless trivia that will probably never help me in any aspect of my life ever. I'd recommend this for fans of the show, but it is possibly a bit too reliant on luck despite it being question based with not enough strategy other than appropriately timed klaxons and Chance cards to nobble the opposition and as a concept is possibly a bit too simplistic for hard-core board gamers so non-fans may not enjoy it as much.
I don't want to be the harbinger of bad news, but there's this secret I've recently learnt. Magic isn't real. Which also means Harry Potter wasn't real. Noooo! Anywho, just because it isn't real, doesn't mean it can't be a source of brilliant entertainment which I discovered when I was gifted the three series box set of "Dynamo: Magician Impossible" for Christmas. I've always enjoyed magic and illusionism probably because you know it isn't real, but it's amazing how your brain can be fooled, and then you get that urge to solve the mystery. I'll be honest, I'd not really seen anything of Dynamo before I got this box set but I'd dabbled a bit with Derren Brown and David Blaine to a certain extent. I think they are all quite different at what they do though, so difficult to compare - whilst Derren Brown is arguably the top UK star his act veers much more towards mentalism and illusions which whilst astounding is quite different to Dynamo's act. Likewise David Blaine, who used to perform street magic but then moved on to endurance tricks is now very different, but I always found his act a little weird and not something I enjoy a whole lot, but Dynamo's own brand of street magic is absolutely brilliant and has my jaw dropping so much I convince myself I've developed tetanus at times.
So, who is Dynamo? Well, he was born Steven Frayne in Bradford 1982 and freely admits in his show to not having the easiest of upbringings suffering from Crohn's disease, bullying and the struggles of being raised by a single mother. He also reveals it was his grandfather that first taught him magic when he was 12 and from then on he had to work hard to get his magic out there on the streets and make a name for himself. YouTube and other media sites were the perfect platform for him, and his magic went viral affording him the chance to make numerous media appearances and release several DVDs before hitting the big time and getting his own show on Watch "Dynamo: Magician Impossible". I don't want to do him a disservice but, and I'm sure this is due to Crohn's disease, he cuts a slight figure at 5ft6 and a mere 8 stone (I'm 5ft7 and weigh about 10½ stone and I'm not exactly fat!) but this can be very advantageous for a lot of his tricks. He also has some beguilingly bright blue eyes which probably also help with the bewitching of innocent, unsuspecting folk. So...on to the show...
==The DVD Box Set==
Rated a 12, the box set consists of three cases each housing two DVDs - the first containing the opening three episodes of each series and the second containing the final episode plus some bonus content. My only criticism about the formatting of the episodes is that because it was created on a channel with adverts there are lots of "Coming Up" scenes in each episode which could have been edited out but that is probably me being pedantic. The DVDs are all very simple with just the option for playing the episodes / bonus content plus turning on subtitles so as seems to be the case with Dynamo he lets his magic do the talking for him without trying to turn everything into a flashy extravaganza. Currently selling on Amazon for around £17 for three series you are getting them at an absolute steal.
Series 1 starts off dramatically enough with scenes of Dynamo walking unaided across the Thames. Impossible? Apparently not. You have to wait until the end of the first episode for those events to unfold but by now you already know you are destined to witness some amazing stuff. The series is divided up into 4 episodes each of around 43 minutes worth of footage and they all follow a pretty familiar pattern whereby in each episode Dynamo, the narrator, starts off dabbling with the small but cool stuff intertwining celebrity meetings with those of random people with stunning acts of street magic, before ending the episode with something particularly jaw dropping and leaving you thoroughly wanting more. So what kind of magic are we talking about? The range is rather ridiculous from lots of neat card and coin tricks as you'd expect for street magic, but then it goes up to a whole new level to putting mobile phones in bottles; mindreading; finishing off tattoos; swapping things without seemingly touching anything; identity theft by changing the name and number on a card; pulling a necklace out of an enclosed counter in a store by simply reaching through the glass; pushing a coin through a table...the array of sneaky little tricks is just astounding, and often appearing very impromptu using things that seem very unlikely to have been planted or tampered with.
Dealings with celebrities is another thing entirely though as the need to impress is ratcheted up a notch though I will try not to spoil too many of the brilliant tricks. In this series Dynamo messes with people like David Haye making himself impossible to pick up, Ian Brown with levitating guitars, Rio Ferdinand with a bizarre window trick, Matthew Horne, journalist Emma Cox involving a scary blindfold trick, Natalie Umbruglia with magic butterflies and the drummer Travis Barker with a heart stopping moment. He also travels around the globe to places like Miami and Austria dazzling other nations with his unique brand of magic. The big finale to the series involves totally flummoxing and possibly traumatising Scott Mills for life which is hilarious to watch. Without giving too much away you simply watch what happens knowing full well that none of it can possibly be real without defying the laws of physics but not having the faintest idea how it is done which leaves you with a genuine sense of wonder, which is a hard thing to achieve in this day and age of special effects. In this case simplicity is key as you are more inclined to believe what you just saw despite your brain screaming at you resist Dynamo's charms.
The bonus content for series 1 is basically a 30 minute interview including unseen footage where you get to hear a lot of musings from Dynamo (though naturally he reveals nothing of the secrets behind the tricks) as well as various friends and family members which offers up some amazing insights into the way his mind works and his brand of magic, especially about how he wanted to make sure it was modern and accessible to people and as spontaneous as possible. He also gushes about his beloved Bradford and gives a heartfelt thanks to all the viewers and supporters he has making him come across as a thoroughly genuine and likeable chap. Definitely well worth a watch.
Series 2 follows the exact same format as series one with globetrotting, celebrities and Dynamo's narrative, but with a whole new bag of tricks for our delights. Aside from the usual head scratching coin and card tricks and mindreading shenanigans we get a lot of tricks surrounding extreme heat and the cutting up and putting back together of various things as well as such things as producing photos from a seemingly blank canvas. The big events in each episode are just as breath-taking as the first series if not even better with some flawless levitating, disappearing cars, walking down walls and some outstanding predictive work which leads to Dynamo winning a lot of money for a teenage cancer charity where he also takes on a journey through a hospital to promote awareness. Whilst the first series had a really personal touch to it, this one becomes much more emotional when Dynamo suffers the loss of his beloved grandfather who he lived with since he was 15 years old and inspired him to get into magic and rather than shying away, he lets us in to his grieving process as he tries to reconnect with magic in a place where nobody knows him, Rio de Janeiro, and the second episode especially is surprisingly moving in places.
This series finds Dynamo meeting up with a lot of different people from a lot of different backgrounds and his exploration of remote places in the world become a bit more of a focal point and through his narrations he tries to give a fair and balanced account of each place he visits by showing all the different faces they have (not just the pretty ones) with a look at their natural beauty as well as any hardships they face which gives the show a whole new dimension, one which I particularly enjoy as well. As a result of travelling to faraway places, including Las Vegas, which is quite simply the perfect place for someone like Dynamo to flourish, and LA, the celebrity count for this series is reduced, but we still get to see the stunned reactions from such people as Damon Albarn, with a particularly disturbing body manipulation trick and Phillip Schofield and Holly Willoughbooby - I spelt that wrong, I meant Willoughby - on This Morning.
The bonus content for series two consists of a 20 minute interview with the usual unseen footage and interesting insights plus a quick-fire 5 minute Q&A session which is pretty funny and shows off a bit more of Dynamo's charismatic personality and this one of definitely worth a watch even if you can't be bothered with the interview, which again, reveals nothing of the mystery of his magic.
Series 3 mixes things up a bit more, whilst again following the tried and tested formula of the first two series. Trips around the world include Ibiza, South Africa and New York which are all so different from each other and give Dynamo a chance to flex his magic muscles to very different people, but all ending up amusingly with the same reactions. Dynamo seems to have a real lust for exploration by this third series and his wonderful adventures in South Africa, venturing into the dangerous neighbourhood of Hillbrow despite warnings, compared to the dangers of being in New York with a hurricane hitting it full force make for some pretty exciting episodes and also show off the good side of human nature in areas stricken by adversity which is a nice sight. The celebrity count is back up with this one including Keith Lemon being Keith Lemon, Jessica Ennis-Hill being at the sharp end of his magic, Samuel L. Jackson being so totally gobsmacked he is completely unable to even offer up a profanity and David Coulthard being given the ride of his life.
Once again, Dynamo delivers on the magic front (kind of the most important thing) and it is easily up to the same standard as the first two series, but once again there is a subtle increase in the complexity of some of the stunts allowing Dynamo to somehow up his game even further and do things bigger and better than the first two series. Consider turning a fountain to ice and not only guessing correctly the record chosen in a record shop, but swapping that record with another chosen one in the blink of an eye without being anywhere near it as a couple of examples of things that are seen but still can't be believed. This guy in my opinion is a genius at what he does. Then, the expected final episode climax comes along and it's rather impressive involving Dave and Lisa from the Capital Breakfast Show. Suffice it to say, this trick was so random with so many variables that could go wrong it is hard to imagine how it could have worked...but of course it did. Just sublime stuff the whole series.
Once again there was very limited bonus content on this DVD, with just another 20 minutes or so of mostly unseen footage with a little bit of interviewing thrown in, I feel at this point they could possibly have tried to be a bit more creative with the bonus material so I wasn't overly bothered by this one.
So, for fans of magic and illusion, if you haven't checked Dynamo out you simply must. There's a reason this show has been BAFTA nominated and won the Broadcast Award for Best Entertainment Programme several times - the production is slick, getting progressively better as the series have gone on and the script is very well written with an interesting slant on delving into the roots of different locations. I should also mention the music which features heavily throughout all the series carefully chosen to match the mood and culture of the places Dynamo finds himself in ranging from darkly urban to exotic strings to jazzy and soulful. Dynamo has such an unassuming and down to earth way about him, but the way he engages with people, both celebrities and the great unwashed, is fascinating to watch as he is so beguiling and ensnares people in his thrall effortlessly with his enigmatic charisma and general affable way about him. As the blurb says this is "the story of an ordinary boy from Bradford living an extraordinary life!". The best part of the show is people's reactions which run across a whole spectrum - some laugh, some scream, some are stunned into silence, some express their disturbance through expletives, some run away in a jumping fashion but they always seem very genuine. It's always nice as well when you see the childish delight from kids as you get a nice warm fuzzy feeling that the world isn't all bad.
Now obviously there will be sceptics out there (but frankly we should all be sceptics - we've already ascertained, it's not real!) but these tricks are honestly so hard to deconstruct - normally at the very least you can come up with some complex explanation involving wires, prosthetics, duct tape, mirrors or corrosive chemical compounds, but I can't even hazard a guess for a lot of these which is what makes Dynamo so good. There are also very few repeats across the series, and if there are some they always seem to have a new twist to differentiate them. Sure there are going to be times when people are in on it, you only see the camera angles and crowd reactions they want you to see, there are clever props and you only see the tricks that work, but to achieve the maximum enjoyment factor you're better off simply not trying to work it out and just sitting back and enjoying the joy of the mystery. Unless of course for you the thrill is picking each trick apart then you can set yourself a real challenge. I really can't recommend this highly enough - it is entertainment at a mind boggling level with a real personal edge that lifts this above your average magic act and unless you are a hater of illusionism I can't imagine anyone not liking this.
Browsing the Kindle Store on the prowl for a new read I discovered the most popular book amongst other Kindle readers at the time was "Poe" by J. Lincoln Fenn and figuring from the name alone it would probably have some kind of creepy, horror undertones a la Edgar Alan Poe I thought what the heck and purchased it for £3.99 before getting stuck right in. Within mere moments of beginning to read I felt I was potentially already onto a winner with the attention grabbing scene setter of a mysterious man waking up in a morgue having been pronounced dead hours ago. So many different possibilities run through your mind, and as the story whizzes back 24 hours earlier (to Halloween I might add) all you can do is sit back and enjoy the ride as it unfolds. So, we learn that the poor misfortunate (or fortunate when you think about it) chap waking up in the morgue is a 23 year old college dropout called Dimitri Petrov, a loner type ever since his parents were killed in a car crash, who finds himself working at the local newspaper in the town of New Goshen writing obituaries. Way to channel in to his morbid side.
His one spark of light in an otherwise bleak life comes from Lisa, the telephonic provider of scoops on the recently / soon to be departed from the local nursing home where she works whom he hopes to get friendlier with. Their paths finally cross when Dimitri is granted his first proper assignment for the paper to sit through a séance at the notoriously haunted abandoned Aspinwall mansion on Halloween to see what craziness might follow and Lisa decided to crash the party. It all seems to be going okay if you ignore ghostly possession and sensory reminders of the past, that is until Dimitri somewhat blows it by falling down a well and dying which generally puts paid to most dates. Cue waking up in the morgue and re-joining the present. Things then start to take a dramatic turn for the worse as it seems supernatural forces have been awakened when a mysterious ghost called Poe (named by Dimitri in deference to Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart") begins to haunt him with visions. Added to that Lisa has her own problems with her brother Daniel that could get in the way. As Dimitri begins to unravel not just his own past, but more sinister events involving Aspinwall, just how is everything connected, and can Daniel solve the mystery Poe is teasing him with or will he succumb to the increasingly dark forces that begin to rock New Goshen to its core?
"Poe" is a fine example of how to mix light with dark to find the perfect balance and what we end up with is a rather engaging modern day Gothic tale. Written from a first person perspective, the characterisation of Dimitri is excellent, with his humorously sarcastic, cynical and often tongue-in-cheek take on things he's just the kind of leading man I like. Lisa, the leading lady is also another superb character with a no nonsense, sarcastic and feisty attitude, but big moments of vulnerability, which they both share in fact, makes her extremely likeable and you find yourself inescapably rooting for both characters which is always important when said characters are being placed in mortal danger as quite simply if you don't like them, you don't care what happens to them which leaves a rather flat feeling. In this case though, your fear for their well-being certainly aids in ratcheting up the tension towards the business end of the book which is a job well done by the author. There are a sprinkling of other small, but surprisingly well developed characters which are often a source of amusement with their interactions with Dimitri, but for the better part give a great grounding in what town life must be like in New Goshen.
For me the book moves at the perfect pace - a little time at the beginning is devoted to setting the scene, but done so already enshrouded in mystery after the opening prologue and told through the richly descriptive narrative of Dimitri so there is never a dull moment. His tone has such an engaging style that even talking about things such as rifling through some old drawers of his parents garners interest. Amazing. Once the scene is set, the mystery begins to bubble away with nicely placed discoveries to keep things moving, some spooky glimpses of the past through visions and then some clever little twists to keep you guessing. Then the pace picks up as the pieces of the jigsaw begin to fit together heading towards a pretty exciting finale which kept me a little on tenterhooks the whole time, as with a new author that you are not familiar with you don't know if you can trust them to be nice or mean at the end of a story. I won't say which way this one went, but suffice it to say I was certainly not disappointed by the ending.
What really charmed me though was the fact that because this book was written with such a subtle but humorous style I was completely caught unawares by some pretty dark turn of events as I had rather been lulled into a false sense of security and I really enjoyed this shock to the system, but likewise on the flipside this humorous slant also took the sting out of some of the more grizzly events (which aren't overly graphic you fainthearted people will be pleased to know) and as I said before I felt the balance between the two was just right to allow for the horror and thrills to come through but without causing overwhelming alarm thus allowing this book to appeal across many different genres rather than being pigeonholed into just one. We've got the drama, the horror, the humour, the supernatural, the mystery and the romance all rolled up into one fine tale so there's plenty for everyone (although the predominant genres are probably supernatural horror and mystery).
For me the mystery element was the most intriguing part of the story as who doesn't love the chance to don a deerstalker and try to solve one and I felt the clues were there to guess past events if you really wanted to put some effort in, but there were still things that were impossible to guess so I felt I was always a step behind trying to catch up which kept me wanting more. I do enjoy a good ghost story as well and in this case it added an extra dimension to the story by providing another thread to the overall mystery that needed unravelling, plus ghosts can be pretty scary in stories, and if they're not being scary they're usually an untrustworthy bunch and I for one really appreciated this supernatural addition. The horror side of things was also incredibly well done with some genuinely chilling moments from the supernatural, but also on a very human level where there is one tragic element to the dark story unfurling that is horrifying from an emotional point of view which really adds credence to the story and keeps you firmly in its grip with no room for escape. There is also a sweet side to this story to counteract the ever increasing darkness with the romance element giving the characters extra motivations and again really making you root for them.
So as debut novels go, this is a corker recognised so by the author winning the "Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award" for 2013...an award I must confess to never hearing of before but it sounds impressive nonetheless. Extremely well written from a fascinating perspective, this is a well thought out and well executed novel with great characterisation and an excellent mix of humour in with some genuine horror, albeit never quite strong enough to make you want to hide under the duvet surrounded by kittens. The ending, whilst mostly conclusive left a small window of opportunity for a sequel if the author so desires it, but either way I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for more stories by J. Lincoln Fenn as if this one is anything to judge by, ensuing stories won't disappoint. A thoroughly recommended read, and an up and coming author to watch out for.
It was high time we needed to buy a new fridge in the Jewell household as our current one was just not efficient anymore and was getting seriously overworked. Currys is such a reputable company in the sale of household white goods and other electrical equipment that we decided to buy a sparkling new Hotpoint fridge from them (via their online website) since they were offering pretty good deals at the time but it was at this point that things started to go wrong with a tale of three villains. The worst of the villainy came from our local Bracknell Currys store, but their online website and suppliers Indesit and their (un)helpline were not blameless either, but I feel this review is mostly about the in-store customer service we received hence placing it in this offline store category. First things first though, a little more about Currys PC World and how they rate as a shop in general (at least in Bracknell). So they do pretty much offer the whole shebang, you can get washing machines; washer dryers; tumble dryers; dishwashers; fridges; freezers; fridge freezers; cookers; hobs; microwaves; toasters; kettles; irons; hairdryers; fans; heaters; vacuum cleaners; steam cleaners; TVs; DVD/Blue-ray players; digital set top boxes; gaming consoles; cameras; memory cards; binoculars and telescopes; phones; radios; music players; satnavs; broadband; computers; printers, and computer accessories. That's a lot for one store! Obviously though there can only be a limited number of items from their repertoire in-store which means even if something is on their website it is not guaranteed to be available to see onsite and mostly just the more popular items seem to be on offer.
Currys do provide a fairly extensive range of products with well-known brands for a good range of prices so can just as easily splash the cash or go budget especially taking advantage of frequent sales depending on your needs so this is the kind of store for the average Joe, though for more specialist products that may need a more expert hand this many not be the store of choice as there are some doubts about the training and expertise the roaming staff seem to possess. Personally, I feel that unless you are after a product you really want to see and possibly have a fiddle with, you'd be better off buying via their website to avoid the disappointment of it not being in stock and take advantage of the home delivery option (especially for bulky items that you don't want to be lugging about). Home delivery for purchases made in-store are subject to the same timeslot system as online so even if you buy a purchase, with home delivery you may well have to wait several days before receiving your good, so if it's an emergency buy you may have to make your own arrangements if you want to pick it up immediately.
Our first experience with the Bracknell branch of Currys PC World came when my sister was looking to buy a new laptop but not being the most technically savvy she wanted me to come along and offer my slightly better knowledge. We had a little browse and noticed a couple of potentials but it took quite a while to grab hold of an assistant to help. When we explained our requirements about being able to run a memory hungry specialised piece of software it became slightly obvious that they didn't necessarily know which would be the best model for us (i.e. they were clueless and had never heard of the software) and that we probably had a better idea than them (we felt they may have been trying to upsell us to more expensive models...hmmm). Also, rather patronisingly, the sales assistant having discovered neither of us had used Windows 8 before offered up the challenge of working out how to switch off the computer for a reward of a free 6 month insurance package only to be rather taken aback when I did it straight away. It's not exactly rocket science. When we decided upon the perfect model, lo and behold it wasn't in stock. On to our second choice - one left. Plumping for it, it took a good twenty minutes to locate as it had mysteriously disappeared in the bowels of the warehouse only to come out in opened packaging plus it had obviously been used as a display model since it was already set up with a user profile. He tried to blag his way out of it, saying it must have been set up in error alongside another one so was put back and was still brand new despite its dustiness, but feeling uncomfortable we declined and ended up buying a laptop online elsewhere after more time to deliberate. Score none for Currys.
So on to the fridge debacle. Having plumped for our Hotpoint fridge (which unbeknownst to us was actually supplied by Indesit) via the website the whole procedure was pretty smooth until trying to select a timeslot for delivery at which point gremlins overtook the system and always reverted you back to that same page no matter what button you pushed. Thankfully a call to their helpline operated by a most helpful individual allowed them to manually set our timeslot which was the last good thing they did. On the day of the delivery we received a phone call announcing their imminent arrival and our fridge was delivered with no problems (albeit with no obvious protective packaging either). Following their instructions we waited the appropriate time to allow it to settle before switching it on then waited for the coolness to commence. The next day...no coolness. My father, being an electronics engineer guessed the problem was a failed compressor and wanted to take it back to get a refund and a replacement as we were now without a fridge.
Phoning up Currys' helpline to ascertain the returns procedure proved impossible as all routes led to Indesit's own helpline (an irritating automated service) which resulted in telling us we'd need an RA number to get a refund and in order to get one of these an engineer needs to check the machine...the next available time being in 5 days' time. So we'd be left without a fridge for a minimum of a week due to their shoddy merchandise. Their next astounding piece of advice was to contact our local Currys to see if we could take it back to them (still impossible since all calls lead to Indesit). Driving in to the Bracknell branch we were told that yes, we could bring the fridge in and get a refund...liar liar pants on fire. Doing just as we were told, we brought the fridge in at least being given assistance to get it into the store and then we were allowed to select a replacement that was all packaged and paid for. When it came to refund time we were then met with an immovable wall of insulting disbelief as the deputy manager at first didn't believe that there was anything wrong with it and that we should wait at least 48 hours for it to reach its cool temperature. Dad, the electronic engineer told him "poppycock" or words to that effect. We were then informed that an engineer needed to see the machine to get an RA number so a refund wasn't possible so now we'd paid for two machines (not great if you are very short of funds). We were also told that the machine had to be tested at our location and that we would have to take it back home. As a gasket was very nearly blown they finally relented and told us they'd get an engineer to check it out in-store and get back to us with a phone call within a few days...
...which never came. Eventually phoning up the Indesit helpline to confirm an engineer had seen it we then went back to the store where the deputy manager apologised and informed us that the paperwork was ready to give us a refund...if only they had a working pen. After establishing there was no working pen in-store we provided them with a pencil and got the ball rolling...as far as them phoning up their appropriate department to discover they couldn't get this ever vital RA number because the engineer, who had confirmed it was indeed a compression failure, had not done it at our residence but in-store so yet again no refund was possible. The next to useless manager was called, and recognising that a serious eruption was likely to occur thankfully yielded and gave us the refund without this seemingly essential RA number and we went off on our merry way with our fully functioning BEKO fridge vowing to avoid Currys like the plague from here on out. So that was at least an hour wasted on the phone with 4 different calls at our own expense trying to sort a return out, an hour wasted in-store the first day arguing about getting a refund an another half an hour wasted on the second day actually securing the refund. All in all, Currys put up a bad show on this occasion.
So, two attempts to buy things from Currys and two bad experiences. I can't say for sure that they are terrible at sales and customer service but it sure looks that way. In the Bracknell branch, the staff are difficult to get the attention of, don't exude a well-trained aura and were a little heavy handed with their sales technique (perhaps pushing for commission?) with one being a little patronising towards two girls trying to buy a laptop. The managers seemed weak and ineffectual when it came to returning our very defective fridge and caused a lot of unnecessary aggravation with their lack of communication and zero understanding of how their own silly procedures work. Their website was also glitchy, but on the bright side their prices and range of products were pretty good and the delivery was a smooth procedure despite the faulty equipment and if I ever decided to buy from them again I'd cut out the store and just do it online to save dealing with them in person. Still we do now have a working fridge out of it (not through Indesit this time) but we'll see how long that lasts as I'm not feeling a whole lot of confidence...it may have just been an unlucky experience but I wouldn't recommend dealing with Currys if there are other convenient stores selling your products as you won't be able to count on decent customer or aftercare service.
Quantum mechanics is a proper mind-bending prospect. From first, second, and even third glance it seems to make no sense, appears illogical and also feels a lot like science fiction. From my past investigations into the mysterious subatomic world all I got out of it was something about a cat being both dead and alive at the same time and became horribly bogged down with curious terminology like quantum entanglement, quantum superposition and the uncertainty principle. Trying to get my head around even the most basic of these ideas has often lead to weeks incapacitated in bed from crippling headaches and panic attacks but I was determined to get a better understanding one way or another and found a new, less scary looking resource to hopefully help me on my way in the form of the book "Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed (2003)" by Jim Al-Khalili. I figured if a book devoted entirely to making the complexities of the quantum world understandable to people like me with little understanding couldn't help then I would simply have to admit defeat.
So, a little more on Professor Al-Khalili's credentials if we will to make sure we're not being diddled by a science hawking charlatan on this widely debated topic: so he's an Iraqi-born British theoretical physicist who became a leading expert on mathematical models of exotic atomic nuclei...oookay; he seems to be widely published and has picked up many fellowships and awards including the "Royal Society Michael Faraday Prize for science communication" and the "Institute of Physics' Public Awareness of Physics Award" and was given an OBE in 2008 (well he has the Queen's stamp of approval); and most importantly he is currently the Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Surrey (my old university, yay) not to mention he's a bit like Brian Cox trying to make science more accessible to the layperson with many TV documentaries and appearances on TV shows under his belt like Horizon, Bang Goes The Theory, Tomorrow's World to name but a few. I think it's safe to say we can trust him...
So on to the book which I have to say is written with a very nice, conversational and personal style with a few drops of humour and the odd flair for drama here and there to keep what could be a very dry and heavily technical subject quite engaging throughout. There are plenty of diagrams, quotes, real world examples and even a poem thrown in (apparently quantum mechanics is beautiful). Professor Al-Khalili sets his mission statement for the book out very clearly in his introduction where he captivates straight away by hamming up the mystery of the quantum domain due to its counterintuitive nature despite the fact it has an undeniable mathematical accuracy allowing for precise predictions in all kinds of situations and finally lays out clearly that, despite having his own clear views on the subject, he wishes to maintain a neutrality that will allow all different perspectives to be challenged to hopefully allow for a better overall understanding. The first chapter starts with the very well-known double slit experiment and is the perfect way to ease us in to quantum mechanics whilst revealing what is so devilishly enigmatic about it.
So for those that don't know the experiment begins by shining a light (a wave) on to a screen that has two thin slits in it leading to a second screen that can display the interference pattern of the light which will look like light and dark bands depending on how the light emerges from the slits by merging, overlapping and spreading out. So where the peaks (or troughs) of two waves merge together they will create a more intense light hence a light band will appear on the second screen, and where the peak of one wave meets the trough of another they cancel each other out and produce a dark band. Taking a similar experiment with sand falling through two slits we end up with a different result with two piles forming under each slit as the sand had to fall through one or the other slits with no interference to spread them out since sand behaves as a particle. So far, so good? Now, if we repeat this experiment with atoms being fired into slits and appearing on a second screen we'd assume that it'd behave as a particle since they are just tiny entities. Taking one slit first, we end up with a pattern more or less opposite the slit so the atoms have behaved as a particle. Phew. But fire atoms at two slits...well it all goes to hell in a hand basket. The atoms no longer behave like a particle, but end up displaying the hallmarks of wave interference and spread out in the same banding fashion as light waves indicating that the atom must have gone through both slits at the same time. Impossible! However, if you add in a detector to observe each atom, it appears to only pass through one or the other slit and produces results just like sand with two bands opposite each slit and thus acts entirely like a particle almost like it is aware it is being spied on. Screw you atoms!
So now the book has left us in a state where we are forced to dismiss all preconceptions about the world as we know it and try to have an open mind about what is to come which is unfortunately horrendously counterintuitive at times. The book proceeds along on a fairly logical journey in exploring this bizarre topic firstly by taking a step back and looking in to the history of how quantum mechanics, or physics, came to be by looking at the origins and the contributions of the key players starting with Max Planck (considered one of the founding forefathers) and his constant, Einstein (if it makes you feel any better he couldn't really get his head around much of this stuff either), Niels Bohr and Louise de Broglie. This second chapter was most informative and helped in really appreciating just how far quantum mechanics has come from old world views, but it really doesn't help in general levels of understanding. From here on out you have to simply accept that nothing the book covers is going to be simple and that frustration is inevitable, even though a real effort has been made to make things as comprehensible as possible.
Next we are lead through the complex ideas of "probability and chance" and are introduced to the idea of "determinism" i.e. if we know the precise position and state of motion of every particle in a system then, based upon Newton's laws, we can predict how these particles will move and interact and get a view of the future. Thankfully this is not possible but for the simplest of systems so if you're worried that fate is out of your own hands and everything is predestined don't be. This then leads on to the idea of "chaos theory" and the "butterfly effect" but then we see how it's all so different in the subatomic world with "quantum unpredictability" where the best that we can do is assign probabilities to where e.g. an electron will be by introducing the concept of the wavefunction i.e. detailing the quantum state and behaviour of a particle (when we're not looking at it). Next up is "Heisenberg's uncertainty principle" which states we cannot know both the precise position AND momentum of a quantum particle at the same time so we can never possess complete information. I'll be honest, at this point things were already getting a bit tricky to get one's head around and we've only just begun to scratch the surface...
Next up is the idea of "superposition" which is basically the interference caused when two waves hit each other resulting in a third wavefunction meaning that the atom can be in both multiple states and multiple positions at the same time. Ah man - now I'm officially foxed! This is supposedly enough to understand the double-slit experiment - it is not an atom going through a slit (although it is) but in theory the wavefunction which can go through both slits at the same time causing a superposition between the two new wavefunctions that exit the slits hence the interference and changed probability distributions (light and dark banding). Yes, it all makes sense now...but not really. It all pretty much just becomes a technical nightmare from here onwards spanning such topics as quantum entanglement and non-locality, quantum chaology, Schrodinger's cat example, decoherence, quantum spin, the atomic nucleus, antimatter, quantum tunnelling, quarks, quantum theory of light, string theory, black holes - OVERLOAD ALERT. The book finishes up with practical uses gained from the understanding of quantum mechanics such as the ability to make CDs and DVDs, the microchip, laser fibre-optics, tools in medicine such as Nuclear Magnetic Resonance and Positron Emission Tomography, and the future for atomic engineering and nanotechnology (it's all gone a bit Star Trek) as well as all the modern day experiments further advancing the field, especially to do with quantum computers, although this book was written over 10 years ago and so there may well have been many advancements since then and so some of this book may eventually become a little outdated.
So this is not a book for light reading, you a) have to be interested in science-y, geeky stuff and 2) have to be in a receptive state of mind during your perusal or it will be a fruitless exercise. This is also a book that requires many, many breaks to take in what you've just read so I found myself just reading it a chapter at a time and hoping for successful assimilation (with mixed results leaving me often feeling frustrated). I like the way the book is structured throughout as if you have something in particular you want to learn about you should be able to find it with very few difficulties, though that's probably where the lack of difficulty ends. The best thing about this book is the fact it is so very clearly aimed at the layperson (though assuming a certain level of intelligence) and the harder concepts are broken down into accessible diagrams and real world examples like imagining police searching for a burglar based upon the likelihood of his location due to his pattern of crimes, or a jewel thief defeating a very sophisticated security system (something I'm sure we've all dabbled with at some point in our lives) and there is very little hint of the scary mathematics that can be derived from this field so this book offers up as much chance as any of getting to grips with this subject. Even better still, the mostly unbiased nature of this book explores all the viewpoints from different schools of thought from the traditional Copenhagen to the Broglie-Bohm interpretations and it's nice to see that even the experts in this field are still grappling with vast areas of this confuzzling topic so at least I'm not the only one.
As a resource, I found this book quite enlightening and now feel slightly more at ease with some of the more basic concepts which was my main aim, but this is an amazingly comprehensive book spanning across practically all areas of the subject from the history of the field and the raging ongoing debates from different schools of thought, to trying to understand the fundamental building blocks, to practical uses and on to the future and whilst I was reading the book I felt at the very least a vague understanding of most things I read, but if anyone asked me to explain what I'd read just 5 minutes ago my answers would be very limited as the subject matter is just too complicated and most of what I read simply evaporated into the ether without being successfully absorbed into the old grey cells. I feel that there is certainly an information overload and perhaps from one perspective in trying to help us poor, suffering novices battle against such intense brain mashing bafflement there was just too much information to have to sift through, but on the other hand you can dip in and out of this book focusing on just one topic at a time and the straightforward nature of the book in trying to strip out overly technical elements certainly helps. I'd recommend this book for giving you an overall understanding (or at least awareness) of basic concepts and a sense of the field as a whole, but it won't make you into an expert overnight as much of what you read will probably, though I can't speak for everyone, just go over your head.
Everyone needs a way to wake up in the morning whether it be cock-a-doodling roosters, a Wallace and Gromit style pulley operated morning bucket of water to the face or a plain old traditional alarm clock. All the electronics in this here day and age such as smartphones and music players also require their internal batteries charging up on a regular basis. Here's a thought - wouldn't it be amazing to have these two completely unrelated concepts rolled in to one? Hang on a tick, TDK seem to have done just that with their TAC4525 Dual Charging Alarm in what is effectively an alarm clock and charging docking speaker system rolled in to one. Problem solved. Okay, so it's not a real problem and is really just another completely unnecessary gadget in the world masquerading as an excuse to splurge on more Apple related accessories, but it's still surprisingly useful in many situations and certainly not the worst thing to own in the world. The original RRP for this system seems to be £69.99 which is quite pricey really for what is basically a multi-purpose alarm clock but you can get it for as low as £23.86 from such places as Amazon.co.uk which turns it into quite a bargain.
==So what do you get for your wonga?==
* This system is fairly compact considering it features a charging port and dual speakers at 20cm (H) x 20cm (W) x 9cm tapering to 5cm (D) as the system rises in height. Also included in the box are the operational manual and the AC power plug and that's your lot.
* At the front of the docking system there are the two speakers with a hinged connection in between for an iPod / iPhone meaning those with bulkier protective cases can still fit in. At the bottom are large volume control buttons, a sleep button and a Set Time / Sync button either side of the large digital time display screen which also displays the other functions when they are in use.
* Along the top of the system is the Power button; a Source button to choose whether you receive input from the radio, a device connected to the line-in jack or your iPod/iPhone; an FM presets button to cycle through 5 stored radio frequencies; two alarm buttons with a snooze/dimmer button in between, and the usual range of track control buttons including play/pause and skip forward and backward.
* On the back is the extra USB charging port, the AC power input, the wire aerial and the line-in jack.
* On the underside of the system is the space for three AAA batteries to be used as an extra power source to take your docking system out and about with you.
==Setting up your system==
You can use this system as a standalone device without the need for an Apple device (although the point of buying it without one of these in mind would remain a mystery) which means you can set the time and preset radio stations through the device itself and simply use it as a clock alarm and radio. This however is a fiddly business (especially if you lose the manual like I foolishly did) involving pressing and holding buttons many many times and is alas not the most intuitive thing in the world and took me quite a few attempts before I successfully set the clock, alarms and figured out how to tune and save radio stations. For me, the best way of setting up the system is to actually do it through your iPod Touch/iPhone via the TDK Alarm Clock App which is designed purely for this kind of device. With your iPod/iPhone plugged in you can automatically set the time on the docking system by simply hitting the Set Time / Sync button which is handy, but unfortunately only does it to the minute and not the second, so you may have to sit there waiting for the minute to change and trying to synchronise as quickly as possible, although you will of course then be a few seconds out at best, but that's as close as you're going to get unless you have the reflexes of Superman. Oh, and this also overwrites any settings that you previously had saved on your docking system manually with whatever is on your iPod/iPhone such as the radio settings which go back to the default of 87.50MHz. Argh. You have been warned.
So, resorting to setting everything up via the App there is firstly an Alarm tab which will allow you to set one or both alarms depending how much help you need waking up with the start time, the source (iPod/iPhone, Radio or Buzzer) and the Volume and then you can press Sync (whilst your phone is attached obviously) which will automatically change the settings on the docking system. The next tab on the App is the settings section where you can sync the clock time here rather than pressing the button on the device (which is safer and should prevent overwriting of other settings), you can set how you want to view the time as either a 12hr or 24hr clock, set the sleep timer and choose how bright you want your display with the 7 level dimmer scale. Basically these controls are identical to the ones available on the device itself, but just another (perhaps easier) way of controlling things.
The final usable tab is Audio which is where you can view your iPod/iPhone music playing, although controlling it via both this App or the docking system seems limited to simply playing, pausing and skipping tracks in both directions so any settings like shuffle, repeat etc. needs to be made either through the iPod or the music App on the iPhone; you can view and set the FM radio stations which requires spinning the radio dial round until you hit on the frequency you want then dragging it down to your chosen preset number (much easier than through the docking system), or view and control any auxiliary audio device you have plugged in via the line-in jack although I haven't yet come across a suitable device with such a connection myself, though I'm sure for all the technical aficionados there are plenty out there, and personally I think another USB connection could have been better rather than a line-in jack as most of my external devices such as my MP3 player utilises a USB connection, but ah well you can only work with what you're given.
==So how well does it work?==
As I mentioned you are somewhat limited to only having 5 possible preset radio stations, though I can't think of many situations where you would need many more, although it is not the easiest thing to set up without the instruction manual, and I would definitely recommend doing it via the App rather than the docking system itself for ease. The reception though I have found to be excellent and the quality of all the radio stations I've tried has rung through very clearly indeed once you get the aerial in a good spot, including XFM (104.9) which I usually can't pick up in my area without clutching my aerial whilst hanging perilously out the window secured only by my bed sheets so I am very impressed with this aspect. Flicking through the presets is a doddle either by simply pressing the FM presets button on the docking system or simply going under the Audio tab on the App and choosing your station. Finding stations that are not preset however is a pain when using the radio dial as it seems to have a mind of its own shooting all over the place so presetting is key in avoiding frustration.
===2. Alarm clock===
This system works very well as an alarm clock offering up numerous ways to wake up. Firstly you can set two different alarms from different or the same sources depending how adventurous you are for whatever purpose which originate from your iPod/iPhone, the radio or a slightly irritating buzzer which is an ever increasingly noisy beeping noise that will certainly get you out of bed, although rather in a huff I'd wager. Once an alarm has explosively broken the silence and caused unwelcome consciousness to reassert itself you have the option to simply turn it off or hit the snooze button which will turn the alarm off for a default of 10 minutes. For a laugh I set both alarms for the same time from different sources to see if I could cause some cataclysmic event to occur but basically only the first alarm kicked in. Making it so they clash a minute apart means the second alarm actually cuts in to the first. Good to know? Who knows? Any which way you look at it, you can easily use this device to tailor the way you wake up in the mornings through your choice of music whether it be your own or a radio station, at whatever volume you prefer or torturing yourself with an irritating beeping noise, or perhaps even a tried and tested combination of all of the above.
One option on the App is to use the "Alarm without Dock" which basically then just turns your iPod/iPhone into an alarm clock (obviously there was already this functionality available but this App is way more advanced) without the need for the docking system, but then you are limited to the speakers of your chosen device. By doing this though for some reason you suddenly gain more control over everything from setting your backgrounds for the display page, setting how dim the night display can become, setting the nap time anywhere up to 23 hours and 59 minutes and likewise a sleep timer with the chance to listen to the ambient sound of waves or rain to soothe you into slumber. Also, under the two alarm settings along with all the usual settings you can suddenly choose the days of the week you wish the alarm to sound on with repeat occurrences, set a specific snooze time and also trigger a text reminder to pop up with a message of your choosing, presumably to remind yourself to do something that day or give yourself a pep talk to make it through another torturous day at work. By simply reconnecting your device back to the docking system the two will begin communicating again and all the settings you changed whilst the docking system was persona non grata will remain in place, but in order to adjust the deeper settings like nap and sleep times you will have to forget the docking system for a while which seems a bit weird and overly complex but there you have it.
Also, if you can't be bothered to set the alarm and simply want a quick nap there is this option on the App on the main page which simply sets a timer for 10 minutes for you and wakes you up with the buzzer, which you can then turn off or hit the snooze button to repeat the cycle. Not only can this device be used as a waking aid however but through the App and to a certain extent the docking device it can also be used as a sleeping aid. By simply using the sleep button on the docking system itself you can listen to your own music or a radio station and set the sleep button between 10 and 90 minutes in 10 minute intervals and drift off if this is a preferred method. However, you cannot seem to set sleep mode via the App itself particularly well as you seem limited to 10 minutes and if you cancel, it stops playing. Under the main page of the App where you simply see the display of the time and date you can also hit a Night button which dims your display making your docking system less intrusive at night or you can choose "Sleep to night sounds" under the Timer option which sets a timer to turn the sound off after 15 minutes amidst the sound of the ocean tide coming in on the beach with chirping birds...personally I do not find this sound relaxing at all and know I could never fall asleep to it, but this may well work for some people so is a nice extra, although you only have the choice of one sound so they could have included a bigger selection.
As a charging device what can I say? It works. Plugging my iPhone in takes the same amount of time to charge it up as plugging it in directly to the mains, with the added advantage that I always remember to charge it up now as I'm reminded every time I set my alarm for the morning, and then it's always the first thing I see in the morning so I never forget to take it out and about with me which I have often done in the past which is a very frustrating thing to do as you imagine all kinds of text messages and missed phone calls coming throughout the day...inevitably totalling zero when you actually return home. Having the second USB charging port at the back is also extremely handy for me as I have my own separate MP3 player which I usually charge up through my laptop and now I don't have to randomly turn that on anymore and can simply insert it into my docking system, so this is very useful for any device you have that uses a USB connection to charge up, and again spotting it in the morning means I'm less likely to forget through the debilitating sleep deprived blurriness of new found consciousness.
===4. Playing music===
As a method to blast your music out with a much louder and better sound quality than possible with your iPod or iPhone this docking system works very well. Obviously designed to control an iPod or the Music App on the iPhone it is simple to simply plug either device in and use it as you usually would, just with the sound coming out of the speakers instead of headphones or each device's own speakers. Controlling tracks through the App or using the system own controls is limited to basic functionality of only simple skipping and pausing which is a bit of a drawback. If you decide to use other media to play audio files, for example You Tube or Spotify, then you can indeed also hear the sound through the speakers, in fact I believe this docking system simply transfers any sound to the speakers so running any application that produces sound will be heard through the speakers, but you will only be able to control this method of playing music through whatever software you're using and not the TDK App or docking system. For me, the sound quality this docking system produces is excellent - very crisp and clear with a great range of volume (the end extreme even being a little too loud for me) and a nice bass level. As a way to transform your personal music device into a more public one this means, for example, something like entertaining guests with a large selection of no doubt eclectic music from your personal library is made simple and I'm sure there are many other applications out there as well.
So, if you look at this TAC4525 dual charging alarm, at first glance it looks like an alarm clock that has been pimped out with some speakers, but there are a lot of hidden facets and functionality that make it surprisingly useful with the extra charging port at the back, the hinged connection to make fitting puffed up devices easier, App control with some nice accessories like soporific night sounds to name a few. It may take a little bit of setting up and getting used to issues of synchronicity between your Apple device and the system itself, and learning which functions are better run via the system against the App may require a bit of trial and error, but once you've got it all down this really is a nice, useful alarm clock complete with handy accessories. I believe my version of the product must be an older one as the product information in most of the current retailers state a slightly larger frame and a hidden handle for portability somewhere which is absent from my own system but otherwise everything else remains seemingly unchanged. I've not really had call to try the system on battery power making this mobile charger mobile as I primarily use it as an alarm clock so have it constantly plugged in on AC power so I can't really comment on how good this feature is, but nonetheless useful for portability outside and as a backup in a power-cut so you'll need new excuses for work tardiness.
Is it a must have product? Nah. Is it worth full price? Probably just about but If you can get it for a bargain price it will be much more worth your time. I'd recommend giving it a whirl if you need an alarm clock, enjoy listening to music and are already a sucker for Apple products but if you have less than three hits there are probably cheaper solutions out there.
Young Guns, hailing from High Wycombe just up the road from me, are a relatively new band on the scene even though they've been together since 2003, effectively kick-starting their career with the release of an EP "Mirrors" in 2009 and going on tour with, also very similar in style, the band Lostprophets (a band who are now monumentally dead to me given the vile revelations surrounding the lead singer Ian Watkins). The band consists of Gustav Wood (lead vocals), Fraser Taylor (lead/rhythm guitar), John Taylor (rhythm /lead guitar), Simon Mitchell (bass guitar) and Ben Jolliffe (drums, percussion, backing vocals). After touring for a while the band released their debut studio album "All Our Kings Are Dead" in 2010 featuring "Weight of the World" originally from "Mirrors" which admittedly didn't make a huge impact on the UK album charts peaking at #43 but actually faring better on the alternative rock and indie charts peaking at #3 for both so the rock scene was starting to take notice of them, although only two of the five singles released even charted and that was on the alternative charts only, so as of this point they were very much in the shadows.
Since then they have released the album "Bones" in 2012 (hopefully with many more to come) which did better peaking at #19 in the UK main album charts and #3 and #2 in the UK alternative Indie and Rock charts respectively but still with no success in the main singles charts. However I first came across them, rather bizarrely considering they are an English band, via them being hyped up by another one of my favourite bands from Canada, Parabelle, who were raving about their latest single "Bones" which did spectacularly well in the US getting to number one on the main charts whilst only peaking at #130 in the UK. You what? Still, one listen of their single "Bones" was enough for me to know I had a great chance of liking this band, so I dived right in to their first album "All Our Kings Are Dead" as I feel it's always best to get to know a new band from their humble beginnings.
==All Our Kings Are Dead==
I'd best describe this album as hard but melodic / atmospheric rock, occasionally slipping into full on metal. Gustav Wood has an excellent rock voice, very smooth and powerful capable of being quite growling on the angry end of the spectrum and full of affecting emotion at the other end. This is very much a guitar lead band, albeit occasionally dabbling with a more synthesised / orchestral sound, with some amazing melodies and catchy riffs but always on the angry or dark side - just my kind of thing. Their opening track, the second single released, "Sons of Apathy" is a cracking opening with electrifying guitars, and an almost anthemic quality to it with a chant for the chorus. It's pretty raw and intense with a pleasing bitter undertone to it matched by the powerful vocals but it also undergoes changing tempos throughout to cause a constant ebb and flow. Lyrically, there is something a little poetic and surreal about the proceedings which stirs up the old grey cells with intrigue - "My father was an oak, the earth moved when he spoke. My father conquered seas, but was not there for me".
"D.O.A" has a very similar feel to it, again with an equalling intensity with the guitars and vocals as well as another somewhat anthemic chant for the chorus. Here however the guitar melody is a bit more obvious and there is a bit more emotion to the song as a whole whilst still maintaining a dark edge and this one is ultimately slightly catchier. The lyrics are again rather cryptic and open to interpretation but I get a vibe of a subtle slight on society's seeming decline into an apathetic state where trivial matters take on the utmost importance and vital issues are ignored - "Neon and silhouettes, stare at the light and not yourself. Seems we don't bury our dead. We watch but we don't learn, entertained but unconcerned, and unaware". Another fairly up tempo and catchy tune is "Crystal Clear", the third single released, which still had rip-roaring guitar melodies but is a lot less dark with a more optimistic air to it. Vocally it is still an explosive affair but lyrically this is definitely the kind of song that could be used to find the motivation to kick yourself into gear with a much more obvious meaning throughout - "It's crystal clear to me that I've been killing time. Nothing's going to stand in my way, no I'm not done, even if the sun sets I will start a fire to change your mind".
"Weight of the World" was the fourth single released and is a much more toned down song with a medium tempo and a more emotional slant but still has some brilliantly melodic and catchy guitar riffs. Noticeably in this song is the absence of all traces of anger being replaced by a more tragic symphony with elements of despair and defeat emanating throughout and vocally Wood uses much softer and gentler tones. Lyrically there is an undercurrent of sadness that makes this quite a captivating song - "Maybe it's gravity that pulls her to my chest. Not the fear that she is the source of what little strength I've got left. I don't wanna know, 'cause I'm so scared. It's not gonna get easier than this because it's too much to bare my darlin', the weight of the world". Another dark song is "Winter Kiss", the first single released. This one has a slightly orchestral feel to it with an eerie intro and a generally creepy vibe throughout that almost feels gothic at times. I love the sinister guitars and vocally Wood adds a desperate quality that fit in perfectly, not to mention the spookiness of the lyrics - "I want to sleep, but I hear voices, I hear them calling out to me. This winter kiss has left me poisoned and I will never be the same again".
"Endless Grey" is a simmering, atmospheric song that slow burns to an intense chorus with Woods adding a strangely detached quality to his vocals. Another medium tempo tune, once again the guitars are at the forefront with some stunning riffs and dark vibes and this song is lacking any real anger instead with just a depressing downward spiral taking hold - "While my heart collapses like old clay, heed my warning, stay away. All of my colour is bleeding away, so now you watch me fade into the endless grey". This song certainly doesn't have the same instant impact that some of the more intense ones do, but it's a grower and soon becomes one of the more memorable on the album. One of my favourite tunes on the album is "At the Gates" which I feel has a heady mix of darkness, drama and despair with some epic guitars especially towards the climax of the song. This song is very atmospheric enhanced by a subtle use of the synthesiser to create the eeriness and Wood once again rises to the challenge matching the ever changing mood of the song with panache including some highly emotional parts. Lyrically once again darkness wins out - "So I'll stand at the gates screaming "I am not afraid". But there's no-one listening to me. I know I'm to blame for my hands amongst the flames, I just want to feel alive."
Sticking with the slightly creepy, dark theme is "Stitches" which again is unsettlingly moody. Once again there is a gripping melody and somewhat furious chorus as seems prevalent throughout the album as a whole and this one is another massive favourite of mine. Once again there are some epic guitar riffs, possibly becoming a trademark for the band, that fluctuate in intensity but maintaining a high level of passion right through. Wood really delivers in this song pushing things to the extreme with some equally impassioned vocals and lyrically once again the band excels with some affectingly visceral verse - "Every hour is a season, every minute lasts a day. So I sit here picking stitches, 'cos I find comfort in decay. How I long to fill my lungs.". The band however is capable of some slow tempo songs, although I wouldn't describe them as ballads. "Meter & Verse" is one such example with very gentle yet emotionally charged guitars (although they do pick up the pace later) and one of the more sensitive vocal performances from Woods. Despite still having dark undertones this is quite a sweet song albeit in a twisted way with some pretty self-deprecating lyrics - "She sees me as an eagle though I am just a crow. She sees me as a diamond though I am just a weathered stone." - the band show a softer side to themselves with this one.
Likewise "Elements" is of a much slower tempo to begin with but is not quite as memorable or captivating as "Meter & Verse" but is still a pretty passionate song. The guitars pretty much take centre stage and the message gets a little bit lost as the guitars become more and more intense and the original sense of displacement is replaced with a slightly disparate and unbefitting sense of anger through both the music and the different emotions Wood exudes. Still the hooks are there and it is a catchy song, but just not as mesmerising as some other songs and the lyrics also have less of an impact - "It's twenty below that I don't feel the cold, anymore. Though the elements conspire to drain me of desire, I move on". In stark contrast "After the War" whilst on paper seems to follow the same pattern with a slow tempo and gripping emotion making way for an ever increasing intensity through both vocals and music, the balance is spot on with this one and the message from the song, one of the nightmare of war, becomes more vivid as a result - "So join me in this pale moonlight, swear that we won't lose the fight. Dig deeper into the sand, and always swim against the tide. We swear an oath to those who've died we will never forget". Another genuinely touching song.
That just leaves "Beneath the Waves" the 7 and a half minute masterpiece to close out the album. Just as the opening track was, this is another explosive, sinister and raw song with crunching guitars intermingled with sporadic moments of respite. The angry guitars eventually come to rest...or so you think as when it seems they have almost faded to black they erupt back into full force for one last attack. It is not the catchiest song on the album but certainly contains all the passion the rest of the album holds in spades and is a fitting way to sign off. There is some fine imagery at work here with a good old drowning metaphor in play - "The oceans rise to break the bow and I find peace within the sound of water rushing in. So bid farewell to all you know, take your place way down below, we'll sleep beneath the waves". So as debut albums go "All Our Kings Are Dead" is simply brilliant without a single duff track to mar things. It is moody and atmospheric, sometimes sinister, sometimes touchingly emotional but through and through a way to showcase some seriously captivating guitar riffs and melodies and something I think all rock and metal fans would enjoy. A sadly unknown and highly underrated album, but hopefully the success of their second album will allow this one to see the light of day. Recommended times infinity.
1. Sons of Apathy - 9/10
2. Crystal Clear - 8/10
3. Meter & Verse - 9/10
4. Weight of the World - 9/10
5. D.O.A - 9/10
6. Stitches - 10/10
7. Winter Kiss - 10/10
8. Elements - 8/10
9. After the War - 9/10
10. Endless Grey - 10/10
11. At the Gates - 10/10
12. Beneath the Waves - 9/10
After a trip down memory lane with "The 7th Guest" it was inevitable that the lure of its sequel "The 11th Hour" would be too strong and as certain as the Pope is Catholic I found myself inextricably pulled back into the deeply disturbing world of Henry Stauf and his supernaturally evil mansion. "The 7th Guest", released in 1993 by the company Trilobyte, was in some ways a trailblazer of its time as one of the first games to be circulated on CD-ROM, contain video clips of live action instead of pixelated characters and to use a large number of pre-rendered 3D graphics to make for a much more realistic playing environment, not to mention the adult content giving it a 15 certificate. As successful as "The 7th Guest" was with sales of two million+ copies amidst critical acclaim the much anticipated sequel "The 11th Hour" (1995) somewhat surprisingly bombed in equal measure, despite winning a few awards here and there. For me, "The 11th Hour" took the concept and essence of "The 7th Guest" and tried to make everything bigger, bolder, more challenging and darker with such adult themes as to bestow an 18 certificate upon it. But in trying to outdo its predecessor it pretty much ended up a confused mess. Still, this game is not as bad as the critics and sales suggest and I enjoy playing it even if it has the capability of creating ridiculously irksome hair-pulling frustration at times, though I fear it only has a very niche fan base.
==Setting the Scene==
With the events of the night in "The 7th Guest" now some 60 years in the past, the old spooky Stauf mansion in Harley-on-the-Hudson has remained abandoned until the present day (set in 1995). Through an extended opening cut-scene we learn that Robin Morales is a producer for the TV show "Case Unsolved" and began an investigation there to gather background information into a series of gruesome murders and unexplained disappearances for an episode until she too became one of the disappearances. Carl Denning, the star of "Case Unsolved" and Robin's ex-lover is frantic with worry and when he receives a mysterious package in the form of a Gamebook PDA with a recorded message of Robin begging him for help and scenes from the mansion, Carl leaps onto his motorcycle, heads to the mansion that he instinctively knows how to find and after the Gamebook assists him, steps inside...and so it begins...
After the cut-scene has finished (which you can skip by right-clicking your mouse if at the beginning before clicking on the skull you type PP - how obvious), assuming you've played "The 7th Guest", you find yourself back in familiar territory with everything about the mansion looking exactly the same if somewhat now in a wretched state of disrepair after the splendour of the past. The concept is the same as before, you must search through each room using a basic point and click method looking for challenging puzzles to solve in return for snippets of the story to be revealed to you, only this time, unlike with "The 7th Guest" where you simply see ghostly echoes of the past, now we learn about the story through movie like sequences displayed through the Gamebook, your guide throughout the whole process via text and a disembodied female voice. The soundtrack is the same as from "The 7th Guest" utilising music from George "The Fat Man" Sanger and Team Fat which does create a lot of spooky atmosphere and is a real plus for this game.
In addition to puzzle games, there is now also a treasure hunt style challenge, whereby cryptic clues (very much in the style of newspaper cryptic crosswords) point to objects lying around the mansion, some which will reveal more story snippets, others to simply bamboozle you or scare you with unexpected animations occurring after clicking such as chopped off fingers running around or alien like monsters exploding from toothpaste with gross sound effects. The revealing of the story seems to work in stages - as you work your way around and collect the story snippets you will find you solve an ultimate puzzle or clue to connect everything and then you get the snippets shown to you in a much more cohesive series of movie scenes, which can go on for quite a few minutes which is fun the first time you play the game, but if you play again you have to sit through it all with no way to skip that I've found which is a bit of a flaw and makes it all a bit tedious, so repeat playability in this respect is not ideal.
The navigation round the house unfortunately is much the same as "The 7th Guest" where if there is a choice of rooms you have to click to an invisible junction point and then again in your chosen direction so you may have to click a handful of times before you can get to where you want to be which can be a bit unwieldy and tedious and often walking up or down stairs or through disused wall space in the bowels of the house purely for dramatic effect is a bit dizzying an unnecessary despite a spooky atmosphere. In a rip-off...I mean homage...to Cluedo some of the rooms also contain secret doors or loose floorboards that will lead you directly to other rooms, but I would always forget which secret door led where so using this would often lead to severe hindrance. However, as in "The 7th Guest" there is a map which will let you know which rooms are currently available to enter across the multiple floors and which ones you have successfully completed (solving enough puzzles and clues will allow new rooms to unlock) and lo and behold if you click on the map in any available room you will navigate right to it saving a whole lot of time and making everything else I just mentioned moot. Hurrah! Bad news though - this functionality only becomes available once you've completed the game once. Boo. Also, it's worth mentioning that whilst walking around if you click the right button on your mouse you will skip the travelling time and simply end up at your location, but this is a messy business so map navigation still seems the best solution to your travelling woes...assuming you've already completed the game...hmmm...
There is also a help option in the Gamebook which you can click on for assistance in solving the cryptic clues which also gives hints and instructions for any puzzles you are actively working on that progressively give more and more away the more times you click on it, so to maintain your sense of satisfaction in your own mental prowess best to use this only as a last resort. Whilst seeking help on a puzzle, when you hit Help for a third time you will be asked if you want the mysterious disembodied female inhabiting the Gamebook to solve it for you enabling you to simply skip puzzles you are stuck on without consequence. Quite lame really but obviously added to the game by the developers to stop you getting permanently stuck on the game. Bah - I'd rather spend hours on one puzzle alone (which I frequently did) rather than admit defeat! Other options during gameplay include being able to save your progress in a choice of 10 slots (very necessary during times of extreme vexation) or load a previous saved game so if the frustration proves too much at any time you can bail and not lose any of your progress.
Now on to the puzzles themselves which are very much trying to emulate the style from "The 7th Guest" but with an obvious attempt to make them harder and possibly more interactive with a few more where you are vying against Stauf himself. This is the element of the game I liked the most as I've always loved puzzle solving and one of the reasons I go back to playing this game on occasion (though this is probably the first time in about 12 years I've played) is the challenge these puzzles provide. There were 22 puzzles in "The 7th Guest" and only 19 I believe in "The 11th Hour" but there were a hell of a lot of riddles to solve and objects to find numbered at 42 which makes "The 11th Hour" massively more time consuming and enormously more frustrating than "The 7th Guest". Pretty much every object in the whole of the mansion can be actively looked at and if you click on them and they weren't the object you were looking for you would get smacked with a cutting insult from Stauf, much like wrong play would get you in "The 7th Guest" - "I can see why you'd make a good anchor. All that dead weight between your ears!", "I took a picture of your brain. But it hasn't developed yet".
But, without having solved a riddle given the huge number of objects to click on trial and error would lead you to so many insults (often repeated) that you may be tempted to track down the game developers one by one and commit terrible acts of torture on them involving spatulas and corkscrews. So really, you have to solve the seemingly endless riddles to have any chance of preserving your sanity and even then there are often multiple objects that could be the solution to the clue. To make matters worse you have to have a good memory to remember where you saw them, then you must trawl all over the mansion to find them...all possibly just to get another riddle. Argh! I would say the treasure hunt wasn't a completely terrible idea as I love cryptic clues and enjoyed this element, there were just too many riddles to solve and some moderation might have been better. Still, with the help facility you would never have a problem solving these clues and they did range in toughness from simple anagrams to having to use the letters on a telephone keypad and decoding numbers into a message or utilising roman numerals so there is a real cerebral challenge on offer which I quite enjoyed, especially the sense of satisfaction you get when you solve each riddle. Likewise, the toughness of the puzzles themselves varied - some of them I had no difficulty solving within about 3 minutes, but other left me cold for hours and they were almost too tricky, but I'm never one to admit defeat so I have probably wasted a good 15-20 hours on this game (though that is possibly my stupidity more than anything increasing playing time).
The trouble with many of these puzzles were in the developers' attempts at making them look good, they made them horribly over animated and thus it often took an age to move puzzle pieces around whilst you waited for the graphics to kick in and swishing noises to load which was incredibly frustrating and probably meant each puzzle could take double the time to complete than with a simpler design. There were some classic puzzles here, for example a sliding picture puzzle where you have one gap to move blocks around in order to complete a picture, plenty of chess games, and then some downright weird ones involving cash registers and dinner plates. As I mentioned before, the developers also created 5 strategy games where you have to play against Stauf including a mouse trap, Connect Four which was in fact Connect Five, and a horrible Beehive puzzle involving capturing more hexagonal cells in a beehive than Stauf which was in the same vein as the rotten Infection game from "The 7th Guest" which had scarred my childhood. Thankfully this one was nowhere near as hard to solve. The furniture puzzle requiring you to remove a block of 4 represented by a piano out from a grid with only two spaces going with a table, 4 chairs and 4 loungers blocking the way was by far the evilest puzzle and I agonised over this one for days before finally solving it which somewhat takes the fun out of it. All in all there was a good variety of puzzles, some more challenging than others, but they were laid out across a whole spectrum of hardness with some falling at the end of too easy and some at the other end of too hard with very little in the middle. Not to mention the overdeveloped nature of their aesthetics making playing them a maddening experience at times.
Now despite the 18 certificate I was 15 when I played this game the first time around (really what were my parents doing?) and will attest to the fact there were indeed some very adult themes going on but not bad enough to traumatise me. Whilst "The 7th Guest" got away with mixing puzzling with live footage from a ghost story as they were just spectral spectacles, having a modern day tale in "The 11th Hour" just felt weird and the two didn't at all mesh well together. Taking the story as a separate entity it started off interestingly enough, a creepy town with creepy townsfolk hiding a big secret that an interloper stumbles across and placing herself in obvious danger, but as soon as the mansion becomes involved it all gets very silly and not scary at all, and the ending has got to be one of the most bizarre of any game I've ever played. The acting wasn't great and quite over the top at times, and the whole production really seemed to suffer from a lack of direction as random characters, including Stauf himself, popped up and did crazy things, presumably under the influence of the mansion. Apparently, the footage was supposed to be even more adult than it was with sex scenes and such the like but the content was toned down which again suggests being caught in two minds.
At the end of the game when all the puzzles are complete you have a choice of three doors to get three different endings, only one will work out well for Carl which I guess is the "correct" ending, but to be frank I don't think you'd particularly care which ending you choose as I for one didn't give a fiddlers about any of the characters so their fate was of no concern to me. In theory you can save just before the last puzzle and try all endings if you can be bothered, which I did do the first time round, but it's really just a case of salving your curiosity. So, whilst I personally found "The 7th Guest" to be an enjoyable mix of puzzling and spooky ghostly goings on, "The 11th Hour" in its attempts to make everything bigger and better took a massive step backwards and failed to live up to the hype of the first game rather epically. The one saving grace for me was the challenge of the puzzles and the satisfaction when you defeat them, but some were too easy and some were too hard so even that wasn't ideal. The concept of telling the story in such a manner still holds merit for me, but it was so badly written and executed in this game it went a long way to ruining this game. So for those that have the patience of a saint and enjoy puzzles and riddles or liked "The 7th Guest", I would recommend this game for a bit of a challenge if nothing else, otherwise avoid like the plague as you may end up bald at the end through all the hair pulling.
* Once you've completed the game you get a new option on the menu - Map - which allows you free access to everywhere in the mansion, plus you can then watch all the clips from the game together as a complete movie if you feel an urge to sit through it all again. I didn't.
* You can watch "The Making of the 11th Hour" which is broken down into "Inside Trilobyte", "Writing the Script", "The Technical Breakthrough", "Trailer", "Designing the Graphics", "Who is Henry Stauf?", "The Music" and "Shooting the Movie". These are all no more than 5 minute documentary style clippings with interviews from the game developers and actors with insights to behind the scenes action, plus you get a chance to play tracks from the soundtrack under "The Music" option.
* Clandestiny Trailer - exactly what you'd expect, a trailer for one of Trilobyte's other games "Clandestiny" set in another spooky location, sheesh what is it with these guys and creepy digs, a Scottish castle. I've not played this game, but it looks to be very much more in the style of the original Broken Sword game with a cartoonish quality to the graphics. I'm sort of tempted now to try this one...
Still on a rampant campaign to recapture my long since departed youth via the medium of childhood computer games I finally set about playing one of my absolute favourites and that was "The 7th Guest" from 1993 made by Trilobyte and designed by Rob Landeros and Graeme Devine. For scenes of horror this game was given a 15 certificate, but I recall being a mere 13 when I played it (negligent parents?) and it never did me any harm, although coincidentally and in a quite unrelated fashion I developed an unhealthy interest in the macabre soon thereafter which has pretty much stayed with me for life. "The 7th Guest" is a very simple game to operate being of the point and click variety, but in a whole different style to the usual bunch from the 90s whereby the game's complexity actually comes from a wide array of puzzles to solve of differing levels of difficulty rather than the usual plodding about combining various ill-suited items like a ball of wool and jar of honey together in order to trick old grannies into giving up their knitting needles and such the like.
So, to set the scene, it's 1935 when a drifter named Henry Stauf arrives at the town of Harley-on-the-Hudson and promptly murders a woman. So not cool. He then starts having dreams of carving dolls, which he turns into a reality by selling to the local children. Another vision calls for him to build a spooky mansion (I don't know if the vision dictated the level of eeriness or if it was personal taste but the mansion ended up properly spooky nonetheless); meanwhile the children buying his dolls all begin to succumb to a mysterious virus one by one. Cut to the present time, whenever that may be, as we, an unknown person known only as "Ego" begin to explore the mansion for some intangible reason. Solving puzzles unlocks ghostly scenes from the past and the events of one night at the mansion become all too clear. Stauf had invited 6 guests to stay, offering them their greatest desires if they can solve the puzzles he sets them and finally deliver "the 7th guest" to him, a young boy called Tad that had sneaked in to the mansion on a dare from his friends. What fate will befall the 6 invited and 1 uninvited guest as they find themselves caught in Stauf's evil web and begin to turn on each other with deadly consequences? But, are events really as set in stone as they first appear?
As horror stories go, there is nothing amazingly original about this one - spooky mansion, supernatural forces yada yada but there was something very charming about the way it was told through this game, with an opening cut-scene narrated as a storybook, a few dark poems scattered throughout and real actors portraying the various roles of the 7 guests: Martine Burden (ex-singer), Hamilton Temple (magician), Julia Heine (bank worker), Brian Dutton (shop owner), Edward and Elinor Knox (aged married couple) and the mysterious Tad. The clever way the characters begin to conspire more and more darkly against each other as their self-interest begins to takes over is tried and tested formula and really sets up the grim atmosphere to this game. The design for the mansion was one of disrepair for the most part but still styled in the 1930s with amazing attention to detail and the scenes from the ghoulish past were all fantastically realistic with fabulous outfits and those very posh haughty voices that only the upper class could muster. The acting, if somewhat over the top at times (albeit necessary to demonstrate the ever growing hysteria of the situation), was of a surprisingly high standard and really helped give the game a very professional feel to it and helped bring the story to life in a creative way.
Now, Henry Stauf is not a nice man, not nice at all, and as Ego you are constantly plagued by his taunting barbs throughout so if you struggle with issues of low self-esteem this is not the game for you ("Feeling looooonely?","Ooh...bad move.", "Don't take all night!"), but really it is just a highly amusing element to the game and further emphasises the villainous nature of Stauf who evokes some seriously negative feelings towards himself as the man you love to hate. There are plenty of other darkly humorous elements to this game, with quite a few interactive items to click on and random surreal flashbacks that serve no purpose other than to disturb, for example making inappropriate sex noises in the bedroom, a gramophone unleashing a creepy song by Stauf or having a man with a scooped out skull trying to put his brain back in. Yikes! There are also spooky little moments with scared and lost children crying out for their mommies so there are some genuinely unsettling things however all these little oddities don't quite fit in to the main plot as they are purely in for scare tactics, but they are fun nonetheless.
The actor that plays Stauf - Robert Hirschboeck - has a brilliant voice to play such a maniac with simmering sarcasm, a fittingly evil laugh and bursts of uncontrollable rage and again you may well find yourself a tiny bit on edge at times with this constantly creepy atmosphere surrounding everything, especially with the amazing soundtrack, composed by George "The Fat Man" Sanger, that can kick in at any given moment sometimes with nothing but a wispy fluttering, other times with tension building subtlety and also occasionally with heart-stopping gothic intensity a la angry orchestral strings at a rapid tempo. Other tunes are much more pleasant (if somewhat bonkers in a jazzy sort of way) however so you won't feel like you're about to have a heart attack all the time, but it can change without warning and is a stunning addition to the game. The 2nd CD-ROM disc in fact contains a long track consisting of the complete soundtrack at nearly 30 minutes long, but you can check it out on YouTube if you fancy:
==The Gameplay and Puzzles==
Now, onto the main course and that is the puzzles themselves. The opening menu is straightforward - load a saved game or start a new one. The gameplay, as with most point and click games is a doddle - as legally blonde Elle Woods might say "Point and Click" oh wait no...that something about bending and snapping. However, movement around the house is very inflexible as each route to a room is mapped out and you often have to click to an invisible junction en route to your destination before clicking again on your chosen room / new direction which can involve as many as four clicks to get where you want to which can be very annoying. Likewise within a room you are mostly limited to moving round at 45 degree angles everywhere so a bit of patience is required. When it comes to the puzzles themselves the puzzle control is as good as your mouse control, so if you have steady hands the puzzles are easy to play with a rolling eyeball for your cursor. You'll find that at the beginning you do not have access to many rooms, these will only become available as you solve active puzzles and begin to reveal the glimpses of the past, but in your menu option there is a map which will reveal the newly activated rooms so you can easily keep track of your game progress. In the library there is also a book that will give you hints about each puzzle that you are working on. If you visit this book three times it will solve the puzzle for you, but allegedly there is a consequence to using this too many times...though I never discovered one.
As a child I remember being horribly frustrated a lot of the time by them, but enjoying a great sense of satisfaction when I solved each puzzle, especially since there are no rules for the puzzles, you have to figure out what to do by yourself (unless you cheat in the library). Some 15+ years later and rather alarmingly I remembered how to solve probably about 70% of them and raced through those in about 20 seconds flat without breaking into a sweat. Good for nostalgia, but it shows that the playability loses something with repeat visits. One of my favourite puzzles is when you need to copy Stauf on the piano as he plays a tune with an extra bar each time which is fun as it tests your memory and you get to hear a nice tune. One of the worst is the maze which is so easy to get lost in I'd recommend actually sketching it out. There were a fair few puzzles that still temporarily flummoxed me where there was only one route to victory and logic was essential, so there is a good variety of difficulty levels to keep you on your toes and I also came face to face with my arch nemesis from my childhood, that one puzzle I could previously never solve which has haunted me ever since and that was the "Infection" puzzle designed by Satan himself. Could I find some closure after all these years of pain? Stay tuned. So, what kind of puzzles to test the old grey matter are we looking at here? Well you've got a maze, sliding puzzles, chess games, word games, memory puzzles, card games, open and shut case puzzles - a whole cache of cerebral confuzzlers to confound the senses...or maybe just to baffle you for a few minutes. As I said some are easier than others but with a bit of patience they can all be solved apart from that blasted "Infection" puzzle.
==Mildew82 does battle with the "Infection" puzzle==
So yeah, determined to right this past wrong I cracked my knuckles and began battle with the computer. The game is simple in concept, and apparently is based upon the Ataxx board and video games whereby you have a virus cell on opposite corners of a 7x7 grid and you and your opponent (the computer) take it in turns to move any one of your virus cells either one or two blocks in any linear direction including diagonally. If that cell lands adjacent to any virus cell of the opposition it will invade and consume them all. The winner at the end is the one with the most virus cells left when all the blocks are full. Sounds easy enough, right? Wrong! The computer is devious and psychic and this puzzle just hurts. But the moral of the story is perseverance pays off, and after a minimum of 30 attempts (might be closer to 50) and over the course of three days (I did go to work during the day honest) and with too many changes in strategy to bear thinking about I finally did it. With the infuriated cry of "NO!" from an enraged Stauf and an equally joyous exclamation from me I had finally defeated the "Infection" puzzle and can now die happy.
So that is The 7th Guest - a game that may be a bit confused as to whether it is a horror game or just an excuse to play some puzzles but it is darkly atmospheric with a taunting omnipresent evil spirit to torment you alongside an intense soundtrack, it has a decent if somewhat clichéd plot nicely acted out with real actors albeit with a slightly abrupt and odd ending and some genuinely challenging puzzles along the way. Fortunately the graphics hold up well too, with lots of fine detail and clear puzzles so it is just as playable as it was in the early 1990s. It is still easy to get hold of and pretty cheap at less than £10 depending where you get it from, although such old discs will probably have to be run through an emulator like DOSBox to make them playable on modern PCs, but I think that is excellent value for money. On a second play however you will probably find this game very quick and easy to master, with the exception of maybe one or two of the more devious puzzles, but overall this is a really fun game to play with a touch of the macabre about it, so for those nostalgic gamers and those that enjoy a good puzzle challenge I can highly recommend this game.
On a seemingly never-ending gaming nostalgia trip from the 1980/90s I found myself purchasing a copy of a game I'd long since forgotten about until a synapse misfired and it came to the forefront of my mind and that was the 1995 game "Flight of the Amazon Queen" for £14.99 (which is possibly a little on the expensive side, but it seems in quite limited supply). This game is your typical 2D point and click PC game, think Broken Sword / Monkey Island / Indiana Jones, but its unique selling point is the fact it rather intriguingly pays homage to the popular adventure serials of the 1940s - these were the movies split into chapters shown before the main event at a cinema for a week finishing on an gripping cliffhanger of extreme peril that would draw the crowds back in the next week to continue the saga. Apparently they covered such things as comic books like Flash Gordon, Superman, Batman, the Green Hornet; science fiction; espionage; Westerns, and jungle adventures which is what Flight of the Amazon Queen seems to most resemble.
==Setting the game up==
So just for a laugh, these are the minimum system requirements to play the game:
* MS-DOS 5.0, Windows 3.1+
* 486 DX33
* 8MB RAM + 10MB hard disk space
* Double speed CD-ROM drive
* Sound Blaster compatible sound cards
* Microsoft compatible mouse.
Ha! How computers have moved on when we're dealing with MB and not GB. I tittered away, but soon discovered my computer was in fact far too technologically advanced to handle playing this game which brought an abrupt halt to the hilarity proceedings. But, fortunately you can download free DOS emulators which will allow you to run old incompatible DOS games and I used one called DOSBox from sourceforge.net (http://www.dosbox.com/download.php?main=1). To get your game running simply install and open your DOSBox window, save the files from your Flight of the Amazon Queen disk onto your hard drive and then type in the following commands into the DOSBox window:
1. mount C C:\Users\Mel\Downloads\FOTAQ\ENGLISH (replace with your location)
Then your game should open in a new DOSBox window and be completely controllable with your mouse. If you have no sound and get subtitles instead then from your DOSBox window run the first two steps followed by SETUP.exe which will allow you to test and save your settings and then when you do run QUEEN.exe it should read the settings from your hard drive and always work (it would be rubbish to play the game without sound). You will have to repeat the process of running the QUEEN.exe file each time you open your game again, but thankfully you will be able to save your progress and pick up from where you left off each time.
==Flight of the Amazon Queen==
The year is 1949 where we first meet Joe King, pilot for hire, in a spot of bother in Buenos Aires after a date with a woman that happened to be the girl of a mobster leads to him tied to a post next to a ticking bomb. Assistance from his co-pilot and friend Sparky saves his skin for what probably isn't the first time allowing this ladies' man just enough time to pick up Hollywood A-lister actress Faye Russel for whom he managed to secure himself the prestigious gig of transporting to the Amazon jungle beating his fierce rival, Dutchman Hans Anderson to the punch. Unfortunately Anderson had other ideas and trapped Joe with every intention of stealing the gig from him. But with amazing cunning and wile Joe escapes in time to defeat Anderson and regain the honour...only for a freak storm to cause them to crash in the jungle. Uh oh! With a furious Faye Russel on his hands Joe must find a way to rescue them, only for things to worsen as it appears strange things are afoot in the jungle at the hands of mad scientist Dr. Frank Ironstein and his secretive experiments. Joe finds himself embroiled in the hunt for a kidnapped Amazon Queen - can he defeat evil Ironstein and escape the jungle or will Ironstein succeed in his evil scheme for world domination?
The gameplay is absolutely no different from any other 2D point and click game. You have the usual type of commands which you can select before applying to a person or object: Open, Close, Move, Give, Look At, Pick Up, Talk To and Use which pretty much covers all basic human requirements for adventuring, and an inventory to store all your ill-gotten gains and pilfered items. When communicating with other characters you simply have a list of dialogue to choose from with the click of your mouse. To navigate around you again simply use the click of your mouse either to select an object on screen or on to a path leading off screen to a whole new location. You also have a journal for saving and opening old entries of your game plus adjusting settings like turning music, subtitles and speech on/off plus setting the volume and another speed setting for something I cannot figure out that seems to have zero effect whatever you set it to. So that's it, the rest of the game is just a case of swishing the mouse around to locate items of interest and then using your astounding levels of logic and intellect to figure out what to do with these objects in order to save Joe and by proxy the world.
Naturally, for such an old game the graphics can only be considered poor at best by today's standards, but at the time they were more than passable, and there is a wonderful breadth of characters created, easily 35+, that all have their distinctive traits and quirks, and some close up cut scenes during major plot developments that have a detailed, cartoonish quality to them takes you away from the often weak, pixelated quality of the main scenes. The sound quality again wasn't brilliant by today's standards, but there were some fun musical compositions indicating the different atmospheres of various locations (although the tune playing at the Pygmy village gets a tad annoying and very repetitive and may invoke the odd tic here or there) ranging from jolly to ominous which gave the game a lot of energy, even when you as a player were floundering and hopelessly lost as to your next move. Fortunately though, as with most point and click games all it takes is something like hoovering up a load of bees or using a glove puppet on a molten hot disc and you're back on track.
Something that was particularly good though were the voice-overs breathing life into the characters, and I thought I recognised one which was confirmed later in the credits, and that was Penelope Keith playing a guardian of a temple which was a groovy surprise. Some of the voice artists were highly entertaining and clearly versatile given the number of different and varying characters they portrayed, particularly Enn Reitel who played the seriously Dutch Hans Anderson (picture Goldmember from Austin Powers to appreciate the full Dutch-ness) and certainly helped to detract away from the noticeably basic graphics which helped to make what could have been dull but necessary interactions between characters a more gratifying experience. Another fun element about the characters were they weren't just limited to Homo Sapiens, you get a good helping of chimpanzees, a gorilla, a dog and a sloth to interact with and there's some even weirder creatures lurking towards the end of the game but I won't ruin that surprise.
One slight criticism is the plot itself is, though despite as a movie script being exciting and fun (if not entirely realistic with a good dollop of science fiction thrown in which was all the rage for those 1940s serials), that as a video game script it was not particularly full of mystery or intrigue as it was clear what needed to be done with a couple of simple quests to follow...really it was just the actual doing of it that was tricky and often frustrating with the usual assortment of unrelated and random objects as your only resources. This, in some ways, is a good thing as you have a better chance of figuring out things, but on the other hand you don't have to particularly wrack your brains (although a certain amount of lateral thinking is required for some situations you find yourself in) and eventually trial and error may get you the same result as actual logic. There also weren't any real puzzles to solve which is an element I do enjoy in point and click games, with the exception of one at the end which I somehow bumbled my way through accidentally without knowing how I solved it so again you can blag your way through to the end which takes the shine off things a bit. Still, when you get to certain points in the game where cut scenes play out this does resemble much more like a movie and rejuvenates the storyline. I will say the climax to the story was a bit easy and the lack of being able to do anything wrong resulting in deadly consequences took away some of the panic and drama that a real movie would have had, but you can't have everything.
All in all, whilst being a part of the point and click legacy of computer games, this one is probably more unmemorable than some of the bigger names like Monkey Island, Simon the Sorcerer, Indiana Jones, Broken Sword etc. but it is just as playable and fun as they were with an enjoyable storyline showcasing a nice parody of the movie serials of years yonder, although perhaps lacking in complexity a little. Graphically and musically it was also perhaps a tiny bit behind its peers, although there were some decent cut scenes, but the voice-overs and brilliantly constructed characters certainly made up the shortfall. I would only recommend this game if you are a fan of the 1990s point and click games, but it wouldn't be the first on my list and I certainly wouldn't recommend paying as much as £14.99 for it as this is definitely too much for what you get (probably about 6 hours of actual gameplay depending on your object combining skills) so I'd suggest as far as nostalgia goes it's worth it, but get it at a bargain price.
When visiting Salisbury you will more likely than not want to visit the cathedral, a rather prominent landmark with some stunning architecture and a daunting spire. The cathedral is located on The Close, the immediate area (an acre and a half) surrounding the cathedral where all the clergy, the craftsmen and servants working at the cathedral lived nearby for convenience. One attraction situated on The Close is Mompesson House which was completed in 1701 for use by Sir Thomas Mompesson who was the MP for the constituency of Salisbury at the time. The house has a distinctive Chilmark limestone facing reflecting the classic Queen Ann style of the late 17th / early 18th Century and was actually constructed by Thomas' own son Charles Mompesson. The house eventually passed hands to the Longueville family, then on to the Townsend family from 1846-1939 (including the artist Barbara Townsend who lived there for her entire 96 years on planet earth give or take). Next cometh the Bishop of Salisbury Neville Lovett who lived there from 1942-1946 until finally the National Trust took over in 1952 where it has remained ever since.
You may not find getting to The Close all that convenient as you'll have to expect a little walk depending on how you arrived at the city, but fortunately the surrounding area leading towards the historical city is very pleasant with the two rivers Avon and Nadder flowing around and if you follow signs for the cathedral you'll end up on The Close with little fuss. If driving in, it is recommended parking at one of the main city centre care parks (long and short stay ones available on Old George Mall or Crane Street) or you can use the park and ride facilities ((Wilton (A36), Beehive (A345), London Road (A30), Petersfinger (A36) and Britford (A338)). Public transport includes buses, coaches and coming in to Salisbury station by train but these will all leave you a good 10 minute walk however you will receive a discount voucher for use in the tea room if you can prove use of this method of environmental friendliness so that's a bonus.
The house, garden and tea room are open from mid-March to early November (as of 2013) from 11am - 5pm every Sunday-Wednesday with Thursdays and Fridays (apart from Good Friday) being closed.
Type | Standard | Gift Aid
Garden | £1 | N/A
House & Garden (Adult) | £5.50 | £6.10
House & Garden (Child) | £2.75 | £3.05
House & Garden (Family)| £13.75 | £15.25
House & Garden (Group Adult) | £5.10 | N/A
There are several reasons that you may wish to visit this house. One is if you have an interest in periods of history and enjoy immersing yourself in riches of the past and the other is if you're a fan of Jane Austen, in particular the 1995 Emma Thompson adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. As a member of the National Trust I love strolling round historical houses as a way of escapism so I probably would have visited this house anyway since I was in the area, but the knowledge that this house was used for filming scenes set in Mrs Jennings' townhouse from awkward meals at the dining room table to poor old Kate Winslet as Marianne spectacularly bursting in to tears at the cruel treatment of Willoughby in one of the bedrooms was the deal clincher. Hoping maybe for a chance to recognise some of the rooms in the movie the first step was to actually find the place which is pretty easy once you're on the Close as you simply need to find some impressive looking black wrought iron railings with a giant, black, rather obvious NT sign affixed as well as an ornately twizzled entrance gate pointing you towards the front façade of the house and onward to the magical doorway catapulting you into the past...
As you pass through the gateway to another time you first enter a rather exquisite looking entrance hall with some lovely artwork, a wonderful plasterwork ceiling and intricate plaster wall designs possibly to soften the blow of having to part ways with the entrance fee (unless you are an NT member) and any guidebooks you may wish to purchase. From then on you are free to explore the house as you wish, but the recommended route is through the dining room, up the rather handsome oak stairs to the upstairs rooms then back down to the library hidden cunningly under the stairs. There are in fact only 6 rooms (at least that's what my slightly dodgy memory is telling me) and it doesn't take much time to navigate the whole house but there are a lot of antiquities and items of interest to take your fancy and certainly give you pause in each room, as well as some information sheets and stewards on hand to garner extra information on top of what's in the guidebook (assuming you snaffled one) if you so desire. I personally found chatting to the stewards the best way to learn about the place and special items on display as they were an enthusiastic, knowledgeable bunch with the inside scoop.
So whilst there was very little on the actual inhabitants of the house from years yonder, with the exception of a little on the Townsends (in particular Barbara Townsend, who has many a painting on display around the house) this house seemed more a vessel to showcase some antique furniture, longcase clocks, English porcelain, art and apparently some "drinking glasses of national importance" whatever that may entail. Many of the rooms have some fabulously detailed plaster ceilings and wall designs and some sparkling chandeliers to captivate, and it is a very aesthetically pleasing place to walk around. The first room is the dining room, easily recognisable from the film which is a spot of fun, which is nicely laid out from perhaps the 19th Century with a spotless table with the appropriately fragile looking china, candles galore, cutlery and a pineapple centrepiece alongside a rather magnificent looking cabinet full of some quality looking porcelain figurines, some which may tickle your fancy. There is another cabinet upstairs in the drawing room which contains similar porcelain this time in the shape of plates and goblets as well as a few more figurines but is stored in one of the more collectable items the mahogany Draughtsman's bookcase from 1727 - 1760...so pretty old then...but amazingly sturdy and in fine condition compared to most of the tat manufactured in this day and age that lasts only a few years before bits start dropping off. A lost art, perhaps?
There are plenty of other important pieces of 18th and 19th century furniture to look out for as you stroll through the drawing room, the two bedrooms and the little drawing room including Rudd's toilet table (not multitasking in the way it sounds) in one of the bedrooms which has many a hinge and folding parts probably designed for the 18th Century courtesan Margaret Caroline Rudd and you must stop and take note of the Turnbull collection of 18th Century drinking glasses (of national importance) in the little drawing room for they are rather entrancing with some of the wine glasses having designs engraved on the glass to indicate what drink should be added like apples and barley as well as highlighting changes in glassware manufacturing after the dramatic Glass Tax of 1745 was introduced. State rulers really will steal from all areas of life. The little drawing room also has a more modern feeling about it as it has been left with many remnants from Barbara Townsend's time spent there including an easel and paint palette and the flowery décor and here you can learn a little about the Townsend family if you so wish. The little hidden away library is also of interest as it was a room that escaped refurbishment when the house was being overhauled and changed purpose over the years before settling on being a library. I believe the current style is from the 1950s so relatively modern and whilst it is small, the steward at the time had a breadth of fascinating information about the books themselves (often going off on a tangent) and this became one of the standout rooms because of it.
That's that then, probably taking you no more than 45 minutes to visit the house and you then get to step into the rather lovely garden (at least when the sun is shining and the birds are singing), with wild looking flower borders surrounding the square lawn and an ivy riddled pergola creating an interesting effect at one end. There is also what looks to be a disused old lavatory in one corner - historical value, perhaps...cultural and aesthetic value, none. There are a few benches to sit on, probably easier to procure one when visiting off peak and they make the perfect place to sit and reflect for a while or to catch your breath if you've over exerted yourself. Next to the garden is also the tea room where you can inevitably get yourself a lovely cuppa among other beverages plus some light snacks and lunches like salads, sandwiches, scones and cakes. Resist if you can. So whilst you can probably only make your experience last a couple of hours at the most, it is a very relaxing and interesting place to visit both indoors and outdoors, though I'm not sure how captivating it would be for children, and you certainly get your money's worth which is pretty cheap considering the historical merit the house has to offer and for those that may have enjoyed Sense and Sensibility you may get some extra pleasure from recognising filming locations from the movie. Possibly not a place to go out of your way to see by itself, but if you're in the area it's well worth popping in for.
==Other potentially pertinent information==
* The garden and tea room are on well paved and flat surfaces so are accessible for wheelchair users, and in fact even though the front entrance to the house has stairs there is an alternative route for wheelchair users to access the ground floor, although unfortunately there is no way up to the second floor. Wheelchairs are also available for loan.
* Pushchairs are welcome and baby back-carriers are fine, and you can even hire front and hip carrying slings and seats.
* Induction loops are available.
* Children's, Braille and large print guides are available.
* I've been reliably informed there are toilets at the property but I never saw them so if they do in fact exist they may be a struggle to find.
* There is no shop but the separate National Trust Shop is 50 yards away.