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If you haven''t heard of Breaking Bad, then you must have been lost in an underground labyrinth for the past 5 years or so. Breaking Bad is one of the finest TV shows in ages, and has been garnering praise and a fan-base that started out as a cult show and is now one of the most talked-about pieces of TV.
Once-great but now mundane, Walter White is a brilliant chemist with a painfully ordinary life. Several misguided decisions have dumped him teaching high-school chemistry, while his academic peers have gone from strength to strength. When diagnosed with terminal cancer, he struggles to come to terms with how he is to pay for his treatment without medical insurance, and how his family will cope on their limited income. Witnessing his brother in law, Hank, in action on a raid with the drug enforcement agency, he sees the enormous amounts of money to be made from the illegal narcotic trade. Turning his chemistry expertise to the creation of methamphetamine (and recruiting the help of unlikely meth user and former student of his, Jesse Pinkman) his life spirals even further out of control as he attempts to lead a dual existence of mild-mannered family man and the newest player in the criminal underworld....
This show has everything. From tension and excitement to bold, almost surreal direction, great writing, moral exploration and even humour - some of which is so dark it surprises me just how this got made in today''s climate of safe homogenity. Leading actor Bryan Cranston plays the flailing Walter White brilliantly, putting the character across as a sympathetic monster, while his idiot/occasionally brilliant sidekick Jesse Pinkman is played just as well by Aaron Paul. The supporting cast is just as excellent, with the ensemble playing a perfectly ordinary set of weirdos with their own issues and pressures.
Played out over six seasons of varying length, this modern day western/black comedy/thriller thing is fantastic, with the pressure mounting like a volatile chemical reaction waiting to blow out of its container in multiple directions. It also doesn''t pull any punches with the portrayal of the criminal world either, with some brutal scenes of gang-related violence, the degeneration caused by meth use and the precarious lives led by those on either side of the law. If I have one criticism, it''s that the pace of the show drops a little in the middle series. Season one was created during the writer''s strike, and consists of a mere 7 episodes, giving the story less time to breathe but is all the punchier for it. I''m currently half way through season 3, which is 13 episodes long, and while the writing is consistently good, it occasionally slumps a little where it could do with being trimmed a bit. But never mind.
For once, the hype is deserved. If you haven''t seen this, please do. And it is NOT suitable for kids.
I like chocolate, from time to time. But then I''m one of those people that tends to go by the rule "if something''s worth doing, it''s worth doing properly". That extends to food and drink, as life is too short to put up with lousy wine or single malt (or, heaven forbid, a blend) that tastes like paint stripper.
This is the yardstick by which the majority of chocolate falls down. I don''t have much of a sweet tooth, either, so most of the stuff on the supermarket or newsagent shelves isn''t going to win me over. Most of the chocolate bars are pretty lousy - Mars Bars are grim, so is Twix, Cadbury''s ain''t all that and I''m sure Wispas are nice mostly because those bubbles in it are caused by vacuum injected nostalgia. And Yorkie bars aren''t much better.
Yorkie bars always reminded me of building blocks for some reason, and get one on a cool day and it might just crack your teeth as if you were munching on the former. The chocolate is also horribly greasy, and overly sweet. In fact I''m pretty sure there''s very little cocoa bean content in there. Give me some 70% Green and Blacks any day.
It''s also packaged in a really annoying piece of post-post-modern-ironic-misogyny-but-not-really. The ''it''s not for girls'' has been challenged by Snickers, which tells consumers to ''get some nuts'' implying that it''s made with testicles. Which is probably true. Girls are supposed to be more susceptible to the pleasures of chocolate than men, so it''s a fitting tag-line. Any chocolate aficionado wouldn''t approve of it, whether male or female.
Not very good. Only get if your glycaemic levels are down to coma inducing levels, as it''s preferable to drinking Coca Cola
Along with Fleetwood Mac''s ''Rumours'', this is probably one of the most direct and raw ''break up'' albums ever recorded. Recorded throughout 1975 as his marrriage to Sara disintegrated, Dylan did what he did best and shoved all his emotion onto record. After being the darling of the music press in the 60s, the 70s hadn''t been to kind to him, and ''Blood on the Tracks'' was a fine return to form.
Some of Dylan''s most memorable songs are on here. ''Tangled Up in Blue'' opens the album, featuring Dylan''s often imitated style of downbeat singer/story-teller chucking in lyrical mysteries in between the obvious, all over a pretty bit of folk fingerstyle. It''s an innocuous start, as later on his frustration comes out full force on ''Idiot Wind'', a scathing attack on his ex-wife-to-be''s inability to grasp his point of view - with a rare concession of his own equal inability slipped in one verse. It''s a touch of modesty that saves the song from being downright nasty to just plain uncomfortable (in a good way)
One of my favourites on here is ''Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts'', which is a real country pastiche that is a full on saga in a song. His lyrical imagery is at its strongest here, as he recounts the mysterious circumstances of a bank job, the death of an oil magnate, an implied love triangle and one of the most dashing heroes never seen - the Jack of Hearts. Attempts to take the lyrics and build them into a screenplay have been maded and abandoned over the years, which is a shame. Whenever I hear it I can immediately visualise Robert Redford as the Jack of Hearts, Claudia Cardinale as Lily and James Garner as Big Jim, surrounded by bodyguards Lee Van Cleef and James Coburn. It''s the best western never made, I reckon so...
After a hurricane of emotion, it ends with ''Shelter from the Storm'', which hints at the author finding solace in the home, and perhaps arms, of another woman. His anger abated, it only makes me think of how on earth his ex-partner must have reacted to it all upon hearing it along with the huge audience that sent it to number one on the charts...
''Blood on the Tracks'' is lauded as one of his best albums in numerous ''best of'' lists. For once they''re right - it''s up there with ''Blonde on Blonde'' and ''Highway 61''. Essential for all those interested in Zimmerman''s work
Very often an artist or band will have ''the one'' stand out in their discography as the peak of their work, lauded by critics as the best representative of their sound and style. Whether it be Ziggy Stardust, Dark Side of the Moon or Nevermind, fans often agree that these ''classics'' (although they are often excellent) aren''t always a fair representation. ''Aqualung'' is the Jethro Tull album that often springs to the front when their name is mentioned, and while it is a damn good record, it''s not my favourite pick of theirs.
I''ve never really seen Jethro Tull as a prog band, even though they''re often lumped in with the likes of King Crimson or Yes. Apart from lengthy experiments of ''Thick as a Brick'' and ''A Passion Play'', most of their albums are an odd hybrid of folk, classical, blues and jazz-flavoured rock, before going all electronic and then generic rock in the 80s (a turn for the worse IMO). My favourite albums of theirs - Stand Up, Heavy Horses, Songs from the Wood - definitely lean towards their more folk oriented side. ''Aqualung'' has these elements, and is usually labelled as a ''prog rock concept album''. I disagree. It has a theme running through it, in that it''s Ian Anderson''s grappling with organized religion, its hypocrisy and his own interpretation of the Christian message, but he has always denied its being a concept album.
Musically it''s very memorable, with tracks like ''My God'', ''Wind Up'', Locomotive Breath'' and the unforgettable title track lodging in my brain upon first spin. Martin Barre''s electric guitar riffing is some of the heaviest he produced, but is perfectly balanced with the light and shade dynamics of the acoustic parts and the quirky keyboards of John Evan.
Lyrically it is powerful stuff. It caused something of an outrage at the time, with its lyrics concerning the homeless, perverted tramp ''Aqualung'' of the front cover fame. Its lurid description of his sorry state at first seems mocking, but on closer examination it''s evident that Aqualung''s position is much a fault of the ''Christian'' society in which we live. Downtrodden, forgotten and unloved, the outcasts of our population are forgotten in a sea of moral hypocrisy.
Anderson himself has stated in numerous interviews that he supports the C of E in his own way, playing benefit concerts each Christmas at local churches to raise funds for them, and describes himself as almost a pantheist. With this in mind, it makes the album a more interesting and deeper experience - this really is the detailing of his intellectual and spiritual struggle to come to terms with the Christian message and what it truly means to him... and perhaps the listener as well.
A great rock album from an odd band in top form. Just don''t stop here though - Stand Up, Benefit, Thick as a Brick, Stormwatch, Heavy Horses and Songs from the Wood are all equally worthy in their own ways.
The last decade or two have not been kind to Metallica. Ever since they released the ''Black'' album in 1990, they''ve been on a downward spiral to becoming an easy target for ridicule in the rock community. ''Load'' and ''Reload'' albums sold well but didn''t impress, as they were overly bloated and their new sound failed to impress new and old fans alike. Then Lars Ulrich discovered Napster and had a massive tantrum about illegal file sharing, and they came across as petty and money obsessed. 2003 was the time for them to take stock and deliver a powerful metal record.
Oh dear. It didn''t happen and we got St. Anger instead. When I first heard it, the thought that lingered was ''why did Lars Ulrich swap his drumkit for a load of dustbin lids''? I wasn''t the only one to notice. This record has the most dreadful sounds to it. Of course heavy metal isn''t supposed to sound like the Beach Boys, but this sounds abysmal. Oh and what''s the point of having one of the best lead guitarists in the genre if he''s not even going to bother turning up to the sessions? Overly indulgent solos are bad, but a total absence of melodic guitar parts is just a nonsense. I guess they were going for a harsh, ''nu'' sound, but it doesn''t work.
For more information on the implosion of the biggest metal band on the planet, see ''Some Kind of Monster'', the film released at the same time that shows the band in a very poor light. This album is just as dim
Heavy metal, and rock in general, really was in the doldrums in the 1980s. The old guard had either run out of ideas, died or split up, and the overwhelmingly popularity of poodle-rock or hair-metal bands had reduced the genre to a joke. However, Metallica refused to bow to the trends of huge hair, eyeshadow and rubbish songs, and made sure they put a lot of sonic muscle into their expertly crafted metal. Their third album, ''Master of Puppets'', demonstrates this excellently.
Sinister Spanish chords that open the album on ''Battery'', making it sound as though the listener is on their way to an Old West gunfight from which they won''t return. It doesn''t take long for the band to kick into a thrashy groove that gallops and thunders along in a way appropriate to the title. The title track follows on, and its bludgeoning riff is one of the most memorable in metal.
It''s not all out-and-out heaviness though, and there''s a strong sense of melody on instrumental ''Orion'', which features a waltz-timing halfway through, of all things.
Predominantly written by bassist Cliff Burton, Master of Puppets shows the band coming of age. It''s angry, thoughtful, passionate and deftly constructed and played with ferocity. Tackling themes such as cocaine addiction, mental breakdown, the banality of warfare, it''s not one that''s necessarily going to be the most life affirming on the surface, but its timeless power is cathartic. It''s also massively influential, making its mark on heavy metal on the likes of Pantera and Machine Head.
This can be found on Amazon for a few quid on CD. There are a few different versions, such as the high-fidelity 45rpm double vinyl set, which is for uber-fans only.
Titanic crashed into an iceberg in 1912, killing over 1500 people and was a genuine tragedy. Then in 1998 a disfigured effigy of its memory crashed into the Oscars taking about 1500 Academy Awards with it, and I''ve never understood why. It probably has something to do with money changing hands.
Since I only have 500 words to review a 3 hour film, I''ll have to be succinct. The plot is the Titanic, a huge ocean liner that wasn''t fussed over as much as the Olympic at the rime in real life, sinks on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic with tragic results. That''s about as far as historical accuracy goes for this film, as the majority of it revolves around an implausible, cheesy cliche-fest of poor-little-rich-girl Rose (Kate Winslet) being all mopey about her arranged marriage to Bryl-Cream drenched panto-villain Billy Zane (Billy Zane) and eloping down to steerage with Jack (Leo DiCaprio). Cue most ham-fisted love story in recent memory, until it was trounced by the really bad one in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.
Anyway, James Cameron can''t direct drama, only dramatic scenes of stuff blowing up and sinking and so on, which he did very well in the Terminator films and Aliens. Yet somehow he even bungles the sinking of the ship, which should be all full of suspense and tragedy in its own right, but no let''s sling in a gunfight and a chase through the water-logged bits below deck for good measure, eh?
It also pours copious amounts of fuel onto the conflagration of myth surrounding this disaster. J Bruce Ismay is portrayed once again as an overly ambitious coward (evidence suggests not and he was a convenient scapegoat), steerage class are shown to be locked in below decks (never happened), and the portrayal of Officer Murdoch is an insult.
If there''s any joy to be wrenched from this horrible movie, it''s watching Billy Zane giving it enough ham to fill 3000 BLTs, with veteran baddie David Warner being all growly and menacing in his own inimitable way.
I recall reading that the unprecedented box office success of this movie was because teenage girls watched and rewatched it in droves, just to ogle Leonardo DiCaprio.
This whole movie takes the 1912 tragedy and urinates on its legacy with big, dumb tacky Hollywood effects and scripting of the worst kind. And that''s before we''ve even gotten to the deli-counter sizes cheese overload that is Celine Dion''s ''My Heart Will Go On'', one of the most nauseating songs of all time, inflicted on us via a pan-pipe arrangement throughout the film soundtrack and than unleashed on us in full force at the credits.
So, worth a watch then, if want to see just how misguided a blockbuster can be.
Die-hard Jethro Tull fans (who always refer to them as 'The Tull'), of which I'm met a strangely large number over the years, have the weird habit of implying that 'Stand Up' is the first 'proper' Jethro Tull album, even though it's their second. For some reason, the blues-rock of their debut, 'This Was', doesn't count. Hmm. If this is the second album released by Jethro Tull, then I think it's fair to say that it isn't their first.
Anyway, 'Stand Up' is markedly different from their debut. With the departure of guitarist Mick Abrahams, the band veered away from the straight-forward blues rock that dominated the first LP, and moved into more folky/Celtic/classical/jazzy/weird-tramp-rock that perhaps suited them better - it certainly sounds more like their signature sound. Yes, the flute is still there, but there was always more to this band than wild-eyed, hopping-mad flute-toting Ian Anderson, which included surprisingly good albums as well as some spectacularly naff ones.
Listening to it in context, although there were a raft of emerging psychedelic hippy and blues-rock groups from the UK at the time, Jethro Tull really didn't sound like anyone else, and it wasn't just because of the flute, which sounds already much better in Anderson's hands. Chucking in traditional folk influences with jazz-oriented messing about and peppering it with mandolins, which hadn't really been used that much before by rock groups, gave them an edge. And Ian Anderson's voice, love it or loathe it, is one of a kind, coming out of the speakers like a real eccentric imparting his wit and wisdom. Martin Barre's guitar style is somewhat subdued, and also quite fiery when the mood takes him. This is an album of nuanced dynamics, of light and shade.
Opening track 'A New Day Yesterday' reminds me of the Beatles' 'Come Together' for some reason, with its brooding riff and funky beat, albeit a bit heavier in clout. 'Bouree' sees the band do Bach, and it's not as wretched as the idea may sound. It's a soft bit of folky pop - I wonder what the Classic FM audience would make of it?
'Fat Man' sees Anderson eschewing the trappings of wealth as well as adipose tissue, putting forward the idea that it's better to travel light, move fast and enjoy the free air, with a sprightly rhythm that is totally fitting- a sentiment I can fully agree with. I've never looked much into the history of the band, or watched any interviews with Anderson, as it might shatter the illusion I have in my head that he is some sort of roving Tom Bombadil/Pied Piper type, roaming the world peddling weird stories and songs about the environment.
'Nothing is Easy' harks back to their bluesier origins, with Martin Barre holding his own against the blues players of the day. 'We Used to Know' also has a blues swing to it, but delivered in a folkier format. They're wearing their influences on their sleeves, and why not.
Before moving into big concept albums and ones that are just a bit dull, this album shows that Jethro Tull were capable of delivering a set of well played and mostly well-constructed songs that gel well together. It wasn't until 'Songs from the Wood' that they realised that their folk-leanings were their strongest asset. True, the flute and hippy-ish vibes can come across as quaint, almost fey and flimsy, but it gives the band a truly unmistakable character. Not being bland and generic is an asset in my ears, though.
The artwork is great as well, the etching-style of the cover wonderfully evoking the rustic, ramshackle sound of the band. Opening up the gatefold vinyl version, there's a daft little play on words as pop-up figures of the band literally stand up as it hinges. The CD has an extra 4 tracks tacked onto the end, all of which are fitting in with the mood and theme of the album and don't jut out annoyingly like some bonus tracks can do. 'Living in the Past' is a fairly famous song of theirs, which also turns up on the compilation of the same name which is a good introduction to the band, and 'Sweet Dream' features some cool ominous chords and orchestration that teeters on bombastic. And the super-mega-duper-awesome deluxe version has a whole bunch of live versions added on an extra disc. I can't possibly comment on this though, as I've never heard it.
Given Jethro Tull's notoriously patchy output, this is one of their better albums, and for me is a keeper. While 'Minstrel in the Gallery' and 'Passion Play' bored me, and 'A' and 'Under Wraps' were just disgustingly misguided and ill-fitting, 'Stand Up' is a remarkably solid and respectable album that I've returned to several times, though I don't rank it quite as highly as 'Aqualung', 'Heavy Horses' or the sublime 'Songs from the Wood'.
I have to confess, I rather like prog. That's an admission that will have me resigned to the naughty step of most music critics' houses, but I don't really care. I'd rather listen to Pink Floyd than the Ramones, and I have a soft spot for Opeth, Porcupine Tree and, scarily, even some Yes. But Emerson, Lake and Palmer are a step way too far for me.
Looks are misleading. When I found a copy of this in a charity shop, the album cover stood out above all others. I love the work of H R Giger, its fusion of weird biomechanical technology and horror is one of a kind and immediately exudes darkness, discord and a feeling of discomfort. Sadly, the music inside didn't match, which only added more to the sourness of the whole experience. It's a brilliant record sleeve, but after hearing the contents it was definitely bound to be framed and hung on the wall, rather than to sit on the shelf and be played every now and then.
A swift bit of research shows that this record turns up on both 'best of' and 'worst of' album lists on the internet. Anything so divisive is naturally of interest to me, so I had to hear it. It opens with a mundane cover of 'Jerusalem', before slumping into 'Toccata', which is replete with all the annoying bits that smear prog with a big dirty brush. It's completely directionless, overly long and no doubt fiendishly difficult to play. Lots of jarring stop/start bits in weird time signatures? Yep. Crashing chords? Got those too. And can I remember anything about it? No.
There is, however, a slight reprieve in all of this. 'Still... You Turn Me On' is a surprisingly pretty piece, with Greg Lake's vocals taking on a lilting quality over this well-penned ballad. It earns the album one more star, and now that I've written off the album as a whole, I might just download this one song from Amazon. And the bonus track 'Lucky Man' that turns up on some copies is also very nice, with folk-pop overtones and some enchanting Beatles/CSNY style harmonies throughout, and tells the tale of a man gone to war for all the wrong reasons. I'm beginning to think that I would have liked them a lot more if Greg Lake had been the dominant force in the band, rather than Keith Emerson's bombastic keyboards.
'Benny the Bouncer' is horrible. It sounds like Chas and Dave recounting a tale of the Kray brothers' antics.
Spinal Tap once had the prescience to utter "there's a fine line between clever and stupid", and that line can be seen very clearly on side two. Taking up the side is a 20+ minute suite called 'Karn Evil 9', which is a very cool title and I expected something really doomy and befitting of the Giger artwork. I was wrong. What it consists of is lots more pretentious, jarring and seemingly calculated bits of keyboard wizardry that out-Wakemans Rick Wakeman. It's no doubt massively difficult to play, but it's also massively difficult not to reach for the off switch. The piece is supposed to recount some sci-fi saga about how the world has become decadent and people have sex with circus donkeys and the computers have taken over but then the humans win but maybe not and good and evil are now purchasable commodities... This is the most po-faced prog nonsense since the spoken word bits of Hawkwind's 'Warrior on the Edge of Time'. Admittedly, there are some moments in here that sound like they might just be going somewhere, but then it all falls to bits again. There's no doubt that this band can play, but this is a self-indulgence too far. But then what does one expect from an album that takes its title from 70s slang for oral sex?
No doubt the ELP fan brigade are going to track me down and run me over with a Tarkus-style armadillo tank for this review, so I will apologise if I offended anyone by slating this 'classic' album. I did try. I listened to it all the way through, and didn't like it. Then I listened to it again, and liked it even less. Now I'm going to have to listen to 'Wish You Were Here' to re-instate my faith in the genre.
Summary: great sleeve with brooding, dark artwork; limp, rubbish record within. Sort of the inverse of Black Sabbath's 'Paranoid', then.
Black Sabbath's early albums were derided as complete rubbish by the mainstream music press when they were released, only to become talked about in hushed, reverent tones in rock music circles as the foundation stones of all things heavy metal. And while Sabbath ended the 70s spluttering and stalling, 'Sabotage' is the album that is all too wrongly lumped in with 'Never Say Die' as an underwhelming record. To this I say stuff and nonsense; it's mostly great.
Side one does no wrong. From the crashing sounds of 'Hole in the Sky', it's an up-tempo take of the doom-laden science fiction that popped up on their earlier albums, with Ozzy bellowing his lines over the trademark Tony Iommi guitar riff. It then segues suddenly into 'Don't Start Too Late', which feature's Iommi's ability to un-plug his guitar but keep things atmospheric, with wiry acoustic lines scuttling out of the speakers and onto the floor like creepy sonic spiders. This is all of course to lull the listener into a false sense of security, as track 3 smashes the listener of the head with their most ferocious song ever. 'Symptom of the Universe' is a monster of a song, sounding like an artillery bombardment FROM SPACE. Bill Ward's drumming is excellent here too, cascading the song with fills and rolls and crashing cymbals. Live footage of him playing the song is astonishing, as he looks like an uncaged bear rather than the gentle Brummie who happens to play jazz drums in a metal band. It then lulls, weirdly, into a Latino-style jazz number, and once again all is quiet and subdued. It's like the heavy metal version of the 'Surprise Symphony'.
Closing the side is 'Megalomania', one of my favourite songs in their catalogue and a menacing, brooding epic with so many layers it'd need a degree in stratigraphy to get through them. Geezer Butler's bass guitar flits and rumbles around, with Ozzy sobbing then seething his lyrics about mental degradation and a desire for isolation. Clocking in at nearly 10 minutes, it's the second of three epics on this record. There's a rare live version on their 'Past Lives' double disc set that is also worth a look to see how they handled it on stage.
Flipping it over though, and it becomes distinctly wobbly. 'Thrill of it All' is... OK, but it's more in line with their more straightforward 'rock' sound that featured on subsequent albums 'Technical Ecstasy' and 'Never Say Die', which disappointed fans of their lumbering, apocalyptic sound that they had made their own. Two real clunkers then turn up - 'SuperTsar' is not only a naff play on words, but a naff song, with the only vocals being a supposed Gregorian/Russian style choir over the top of things, which just doesn't work. 'Am I Going Insane (Radio)?' isn't much better. While themes of madness and mental anguish had turned up in their works before (Paranoid, Cornucopia), this one seems a bit limp in comparison, lacking the darkness that is really needed when dealing with the topic of mental collapse. Oh, and the '(Radio)' bit of the song title is an uncharacteristic bit of Cockney rhyming slang, which confused northerners for ages who thought that it was a special 'radio' edit of the song.
'The Writ' puts thing right, though, and is another lengthy epic. Not quite as dense or powerful as 'Megalomania', it sees the band spitting venom at management/lawyers/record label suits, as they felt as they'd been cheated of royalties they deserved. A familiar story with a lot of bands, and as a snarling stab at the targets of their vitriol it's pretty good as Ozzy demands of them 'Are you Satan? Are you man?'. As an album closer, it's a strong one and does some good in making up for the weaker earlier tracks.
Except it might not be the album closer, depending on which version you have. Tacked onto the end of some copies is a silly little song called 'Blow on a Jug', which is Ozzy and co. messing about on a piano and singing about, well, blowing on a jug. It's very short, recorded at very low volume, and I wonder why it's there at all. Maybe they felt that nobody thought they had a sense of humour?
'Sabotage' sits very well with its arguably better but similar sounding 'Sabbath Bloody Sabbath', their previous album. More experimental and sophisticated than their first four records, they see the band willing to expand their range and sounds, with mostly good results. It's a shame that the success rate couldn't be sustained - booze, drugs, volatile and unreliable characters all in the same band wasn't going to lead to a formula that could last forever, at least not in the same guise. Ozzy remained to do two more albums, 'Technical Ecstasy' and 'Never Say Die', which aren't really bad, they're just not that good. 'Sabotage' marks the end of the period where the band could really work as a unit.
This can be picked up on Amazon for about £5, which is pretty reasonable I'd say. If you like Black Sabbath, then there's not too much wrong with this one; just don't expect it to be 'Master of Reality'
Despite my taste for fantasy based RPG video games, I've never really been too much into fantasy, for two main reasons. First, my introduction to fantasy was Tolkien, and after being spoiled rotten by that every other author seemed to pale into insignificance next to the enormity of his works, and second, a lot of it doesn't seem to be fantastical. So at first I wasn't too bothered that I hadn't seen HBO's enormous spend-a-thon, but I borrowed the first season and after watching it, found myself compelled to watch the second. And the third.
Set in the world of Westeros, it's an amalgam of all sorts of places and people that will be strangely familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in medieval history. This is one of the gripes that I have with it - I said that a lot of fantasy isn't fantastical, and clearly the creators (and presumably author of the original books, George RR Martin) have drawn upon real historical events and antiquities throughout. The main plot is the Wars of the Roses (York vs Lancaster, Stark vs. Lannister? *cough*), with err, Hadrian's wall and the Picts, Mongolian/Ottoman eastern nomads, 'wild' northmen (Vikings) and lots of Tudor-esque backdrops. OK there are frozen zombies, bits of spooky black magic and BIG hints about dragons thrown in, but this isn't really all that strong in the imagination department when it comes to cooking up the wild and weird. The creator's forte lies within his ability to weave a complex web of feuding houses, familial ties and oaths that are tested, and plot and counterplot being unleashed in a scheming world of duplicitous politicians.
Truth be told, it didn't grab me at first, and took several episodes to get into it. This is probably due to the large cast of characters and scant introduction to events and places. The first few episodes were a little bit confusing, with plenty of moments where my wife and I were asking each other "uhh, who's he again? Is he a Stark? Whasshisname? Where's that?". By the time we'd finished the season though, it was fairly well ingrained, but it might be worth watching twice just to get all the relationships and balances of power that this series includes.
The story opens with Ned Stark (Sean Bean), one of the lords of the northernmost of the seven major noble houses that are ruled over by one king, being asked to become the 'King's Hand', a position of importance as the major civil servant to do all the king's work, of which there is a lot. The current king, Robert Baratheon, seems to have more interest in getting drunk and going hunting like a heavily stereotyped Henry VIII, and all the boring kingly duties can be done by Ned. An honorable and good man, Ned struggles to come to terms with all the backbiting and double-crossing that goes with the job. Unsure whom to trust, he makes a discovery about the real origins of king Robert's heir, the utterly loathsome Joffrey, and his sense of honour vs. honesty will have dire consequences for the whole kingdom should he voice these truths...
BUT there's loads more than that. The whole thing is riddled with sub-plots and side stories that intertwine. For example, there is tension between Ned and his wife, the upstanding Kat, as she does not wish to see her family move to the south. Then there's Ned's illegitimate son, Jon Snow, who is despised by Kat and is sent to join the Night's Watch (the Roman soldiers on Hadrian's wall that keep all the zombies and thugs at bay), and is sent careering off into a whole big tangent of a story of his own. Then there's the real heiress to the throne, the girl with the unpronounceable name and the dragon eggs who looks to raise an army and claim it back, even though she's 2000 miles away... Attention to detail is a laudable trait in writing, and this often teeters on the edge of losing itself. The sheer number of threads and characters is probably the biggest problem with this series. Unless of course you have a problem with nudity, sex, violence and lots of bad language. If you do, then DO NOT watch this, it's about as safe for work as any website ending in ".xxx".
There's been a fair amount of flak aimed at this series for the above reasons, but I'm not so sure that it's all warranted. If you're going to portray a world that is dirty, dangerous and morally ambiguous, these are all things that need to be in there. The soldiers (of which there are lots) swear like, well, soldiers. And they do soldierly things, like decapitating or gutting foes with swords and axes, which has never been a glamorous business and shouldn't be sanitised, even when it is all make believe. It's been decried as denigrating to women, as a lot of the cast engage in what has been dubbed 'sexposition', as the use of whore-houses by the characters is common. Or, that the female characters are weak and ineffective courtly ladies - this I would challenge, as Cersei Lannister rivals Lady Macbeth for her scheming abilities, Kat Stark isn't afraid to stand up for herelf and her daughter, Arya, is probably the gutsiest of them all, being played out like some sort of Tudor Natalie Portman from 'Leon'. And again, anyone who has studied medieval history will be aware that the knightly and noble classes were usually far from the distorted ideals thrust upon them by the Victorians; here the majority of them are most definitely in the self-serving, hypocritical camp. And in case that isn't enough apology, then remember, this is a fantasy world with made up people and society, not some mirror or commentary on current or past social mores. Even if it were, frankly I'd still find TOWIE or Big Brother far more degrading to portrayals of women, men and their relationships. And that really is all for real, sadly.
I digress. Back to the show.
The dialogue lurches from leaden to snappy, and having just finished the second series, I think the writers were finding their feet with this one. However, the casting is great. On the side you're supposed to root for, Sean Bean does his thing as 'honorable chap mired in dishonour', Kit Harrington is believable and likeable as the self-exiled bastard son who has inherited his father's honour but not his mother's love, and Maisie Williams is excellent as wild but streetwise Arya Stark. On the opposite side of the fence, Jacl Gleeson is brilliant as the utterly loathsome Joffrey, Lena Headey as his mother Cersei who is a mental mix of sweetness and venom, and Peter Dinklage turns out a great performance as the funny, clever and morally ambiguous Tyrion Lannister, and is by far the most charismatic, winning the audience over and stealing scenes left, right and centre.
In all, I found the whole thing a compelling, almost cartoonish watch, with the plot twisting and keeping me guessing as the characters and events threw up obstacles and schemes. The sets are stunning as well, with an exacting level of detail - the geek in me even was given a treat in spotting the characters drinking from glassware clearly based upon Anglo-Saxon finds, and early medieval style drinking horns. Filmed all over the world, the scenery of Westeros is Ireland, Scotland, Morocco, Iceland... it's as gorgeous to watch as the panoramic shots of New Zealand that created Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings.
If you're looking for something to fill the void after the epic feasts that were Lord of the Rings or 'Rome', this bridges that gap nicely. As I said, this isn't for the easily offended, and I certainly wouldn't recommend it for younger viewers due to the strong nature of the content. Also, be prepared to be in for the long haul, as they're starting production on Season 4.
Winter is coming, but this box set might help to while away the dark nights. Just don't take it too seriously.
Somehow, I've been around on dooyoo long enough to rack up 199 reviews, and since we count in base ten it seemed in keeping to do something a bit different for my 200th piece. If the news is anything to go by, we've never had it so bad since the bankers and politicians cocked everything up in 2008 and the economy is skidding off the rails into more woe and misery. Except for said bankers and politicians, of course, who have massive stacks of cash hidden away tax-free in the Cayman Islands. For the rest of us, making our money go further has never seemed so important. A wise person once said to me that you never really own any money, you just look after it for a while, so here are 8 of my tips to help our monetary pets last a little longer in these days of poverty stricken gloom.
1) Want it. Need it?
Advertising and marketing bods have known for a long time that our desires far outweigh our needs when it comes to deciding to part with our cash. Whenever I am confronted with anything for sale, I always ask myself the same question - "do I really need this?". Basics like food and petrol answer in the affirmative quickly, but a lot of other things are superfluous. If the answer is no, and I simply want the thing in question, then I weigh up how much I want it, and how much I'm willing to spend. Staying smarter than the marketing suits that want to sell you the latest iThing, fad diet or useless junk can be a bit wearing especially as we're battered from all angles by their adverts - I find the easiest way to combat this is to turn the TV off and read a book.
2) See a penny, pick it up...
... and put it in a jar. If I see even a penny lying on the pavement, I will pick it up and stash it away. Some people would find doing such a thing demeaning or even embarrassing, or dismiss such an activity as not worth their time. Some simple maths makes a nonsense of such a notion. It takes about 2 seconds to pick up a coin, so even if it's one penny, that means you've earned a penny for 2 seconds of effort. Let's translate that into an hourly rate: there are 3600 seconds in 1 hour, so that equates to 1800 pence per hour, which means it's a minimum rate of £18 per hour. True, it doesn't happen very often, but two years ago I found a grand total of just over £21 in loose change lying about on the streets, which I saved up over the course of the year, which bought a nice dinner for two in a restaurant. Who says there's no such thing as a free meal?
3) The early bird catches the worm...
...but the night owl stoops on the bargains. Shopping late, if you can do it, is a very easy way to save a huge amount on your weekly shop. I'm quite fortunate in that I live very close to two big supermarkets, Asda and Morrison's, and can nip out at a moment's notice to get groceries. At certain times of day, the staff with the yellow discount stickers will do their rounds, vastly reducing produce that is coming to the end of its sell-by date. Most times, this produce is absolutely fine for a few days after the date has expired, and I often pick up fruit and veg that is perfectly edible for a fraction of the cost. And even if it is just about to turn and there's more than I can feasibly use at the time, I will sling them straight in the freezer for use at a later date. The other day I picked up 4 x 300g bags of chopped carrot and swede from ASDA for 4p each, and turned the lot into a tasty winter soup. The bakery section is also a good place to visit at about 9:30 pm, with loads of reductions to be had. Same goes for the dairy isle, where pots of cream are reduced to about 5p per unit, which I chuck in the food processor and churn into butter (making butter is dead easy - there are tutorials on youtube on how to do it). I can't remember the last time I paid full price for bread and butter.
4) Live for the (O2) moment
If you have an O2 contract phone, their O2 Moments app thing is great, with loads of reductions or 2 for 1 style offers to be had, from shopping to eating out and entertainment. The offers tend to be found clustered in cities though, so if you're not near a big town or city it can be a bit useless. I live not too far from Sheffield and Lincoln though, so quite often my wife and I take advantage of the restaurant deals when we want to eat out. WH Smiths also turn up on the moments list of offers as well, and seem quite keen to chuck free stuff at you without having to make a purchase at all.
5) Waste not want not
This ties into no. 3. The amount of food (and therefore money) that is wasted by dogmatically sticking to sell-by dates is ridiculous. With cut-price bargains to be found in the supermarket, using this produce is easy with the help of the freezer, blender and more traditional preserving methods. Got a load of root vegetables that are looking a bit sorry? Blitz them into soup or stock, and freeze the excess. Loads of food is also suitable for home freezing, even though the packet may not indicate this or indeed say otherwise.
6) Charity begins and ends up at home
Charity shops are a great way to pick up some bargains, if you have the patience to rifle through the trash to get to the treasure. Clothes, CDs, books and films of good quality can all be found for next to nothing at these places. About 20% of all my CDs have come from charity shops, with hardly any being scratched or unplayable. True, most of their stock is usually rubbish, but my last find among all those horrible Westlife albums was Fleetwood Mac's 'Rumours' for 50p.
OK, this might be a bit extreme for some, but I love foraging. We're lucky enough to have a wood burner and an open fire in our house, so fallen branches or unwanted wooden pallets usually end up in the back of my car and on their way to our wood basket. There is also an abundance of fruit to be had in the summer and autumn, with elderberries, blackberries, plums, pears, cherries, apples and sloes all readily available. Most of what I forage goes either into jam, chutney or homemade wine. Doing a quick bit of calculation, my blackberry or elderberry wine costs about 10 p per bottle, and tastes rather grand (when I get it right). Jam costs a little more, but both are ways of procuring large amounts of preserves and booze for hardly any cost at all.
8) The internet (now in delicious mobile form!)
The net is great for saving and making a bit of money. Obviously there's dooyoo, which is great for generating those Amazon vouchers and finding best deals, and there's a wealth of other money saving advice out there, such as moneysavingexpert.com, vouchers for free items, etc. Amazon is also a good place to sell second hand books, CDs and DVDs, with free listing and easy to use selling tools. Shopping around also pays, especially when it comes to things like insurance, train and air tickets, and energy providers. Those irritating adverts full of fake Italian opera singers and CGI meerkats might put some people off, but they really are worth a look. A separate email account and a fake phone number are worth having when using these sites, so that when they try to harvest all your details you're not immediately bombarded with cold calls from some lousy call centre in Slough from insurance companies you've never heard of.
None of these tips is going to save you a fortune, but I find they do free up money that would otherwise have vanished unnecessarily, and hopefully some of them can even be kind of fun, if you're into collecting blackberries and fermenting the hell out of them. Maybe that's just me though...
Sometimes, a good band will put out a naff record, even though everything seems to be going well for them. And sometimes they'll do the opposite, and defy all the odds and come up with a blinder. Fleetwood Mac's 11th studio record is just that, and is one that is probably going to be found in the music collection of every other household it was such a success.
I doubt that the band had any inkling that come 1976, they would lay down the tracks for what would become one of the best selling albums of all time. Given that the band was a fairly volatile concoction of two couples, both of whom had just split up, and founding member Mick Fleetwood was also getting divorced, it's remarkable that they even managed to work as a unit. If accounts of their entourage are to be believed, a metric shedload of booze and drugs may have helped them muscle their way through such things to get some songs recorded.
But what songs. Although the majority of them have been played if not to death, then at least onto life support, by unimaginative radio DJs, it's easy to see why. While the blues purists would decry this album as nothing short of heresy, since it doesn't have original blues guitar champion Peter Green on it, it's fair to say that this incarnation of the band had evolved beyond their original British blues origins. With relative newcomer Stevie Nicks adding a second helping of female vocals to the lineup, they also recruited a great songstress in her own right.
'Rumours' has often been called (by people on the internets - I can't cite them so sue me) as the ultimate break-up album. Every song on here is devoted to love, relationships, sex, heartbreak and moving on. Opener 'Second Hand News' lets us know right from the off that this is an album born from turmoil. As Lindsey Buckingham declares 'I know, there's nothing to say/Someone has taken my place', we know that this is probably not the best record to listen to if you've just been dumped. Or maybe it is, I'm not sure I've never tried it - it might be quite cathartic.
The songwriting here sees the band firing on all cylinders. 'The Chain' is haunting, and constructed in a very unusual way, with 3 part harmonies delivering the first verses, followed by *that* riff that is now synonymous with Formula One coverage, and the main refrain of the song coming in at the end. Makes a change from the predictable verse/chorus/verse/chorus/solo/chorus/fade bollocks that blights so many hit songs. Anyway, there's more. 'Dreams' is a typical Nicks song, all dreamy and delivered in her unique ethereal voice, and later covered much less interestingly by the Corrs. 'Go Your Own Way' has been well-cooked by excess radio coverage, but it's still a great up-tempo song that carries the heartache with all sincerity.
The album as a whole works as a unit, even though it is made up of a number of monster hit singles. While most of us will be familiar with 'The Chain', 'Go Your Own Way', 'Don't Stop' and 'Dreams', it is marked out by the appearance and interplay of the three vocalists. Listening to them all in order, it pans out like some sort of demented love triangle; Lindsey Buckingham's 'male' compositions are basically all 'go away, I'm not interested any more', Christine McVie's include the open-hearted, softer ballads 'Songbird' and 'Oh Daddy', and Stevie Nicks flits between wronged woman, love-struck immaturity and the devil in a black dress. She unleashes her man-eater side on final track 'Gold Dust Woman', a murderous ballad seemingly both about coke addiction as well as breaking a man's heart, just because she can. Whether or not they intended it to work as such a performance piece is unknown, but it adds a whole new spin on things. This one is greater than the sum of its already considerable parts.
The album sleeve gave us all the clues before the needle even hit the groove though, as she whirls around Mick Fleetwood in her Welsh witch 'Rhiannon' persona. And I've only just noticed the massive pair of, ahem, 'balls' strategically located under Fleetwood's crotch, while he gazes upon her sporting a look somewhere between fascination and indifference. What's that line from 'When Harry met Sally' - 'boys and girls can't be friends because the sex thing always gets in the way'. Could've been a tagline for this album.
There is one fundamental flaw with this album though, and that was the band took the unwise decision to relegate the best song recorded during the session to a mere b-side. 'Silver Springs', a gorgeous Nicks-penned ballad was intended for the collection, but didn't make the cut for some bizarre reason. Personally I'd have chopped out the slightly naff 'You Make Loving Fun' and replaced it, but some later versions now include this in its rightful place at the heart of the album. Given that it sways and swells and crashes like the surges of a new and tumultuous relationship, it culminates in the best line of the whole album - "You'll never get away from the sound of the woman that loves you". A truer line has never been written.
Crystal-clear production is also worthy of note, capturing everything that the band plays perfectly and presenting it in a marvellous way. There are a few benchmark albums by which I judge others, merely on their clarity, mastering and production. This is one of them, along with Love's 'Forever Changes', Led Zeppelin IV and the 'Black' album by Metallica. Good production can make a good album sound great; here, it makes a great album sound world class. If only albums were created in this way today, rather than via the retarded 'everything up to 11' approach to mastering...
Available almost everywhere, 'Rumours' is one of the 5 best selling albums of all time, so picking up a second-hand copy should be relatively easy. I found mine for 50p in a charity shop. Bargain.
Palm oil is crap. It shouldn't be, but it is. It's become one of the most ubiquitous ingredients in our western supermarkets, shoved in everything from bread to shampoo, due to its stability and manifold applications. This sounds great, but since enormous areas of Indonesian rain forest is being slashed and burned to create palm plantations with the sad and inevitable consequences that come with it. Finding everyday products that don't include ingredients sourced from such grim activity can be a bit of a problem, partially due to their scarcity but also because they are generally more expensive, but when it comes to peanut butter, this is a winner on all fronts.
I picked up a kilogram bucket of this peanut butter from Holland and Barrett the other day for just over £5. Meridian pride themselves here on not only creating their product without the use of(and almost certainly real) bogeyman of our diets - sugar. Weight for weight, this is the best value peanut butter that I can find at the moment.
So how does it taste? It's a little bit different from the usual varieties, as its only ingredients are peanuts and the oil derived from them. It's quite claggy and rich, so not much is needed on a slice of toast to make it go far, and added to curry I find it makes a brilliant satay style sauce. A kilogram is quite a lot though, and it does say to eat it within 3 months of opening, but I doubt it will go off before the use by date (not much ever does, I regularly ignore the little numbers and follow my nose with no bouts of e-coli...yet). Stupidly, I managed to spill peanut oil all over the place on first opening the pot, as the oil separates quite readily. It does say this in clear writing on the lid, so it's my own fault. Giving the contents a quick stir quickly blends the two parts back together.
I love this stuff. It smells, feels and tastes different from the overly processed stuff that clogs up the supermarket shelves. The lack of sugar is a welcome change - I don't really have a sweet tooth at all, so it's nice to find something that doesn't have those empty calories. It's high in protein, so is quite filling and makes for a good post-workout snack to boot.
The only hesitation I have about giving a totally glowing review is I don't know what the price would be if not on offer. Holland and Barrett aren't exactly noted for their low prices, so whether it will be possible to buy this stuff regularly on our budget is hard to say. For the time being though, I'm going to have another orangutan-friendly bagel.
Currently available from H&B's website for £5.99 per 1000g, or in their high street stores. If you like peanut butter, I recommend getting some of this stuff now.
PS Needless to say, this isn't going to be suitable for those with peanut allergies, although that might be about to change given the recent good news that such things might be curable.
Attempting to shop responsibly is one of my pet hobbies, for a couple of different reasons. First of all there's the fairly obvious ethical standpoint that says"yes we should treat the world properly and not buy products from unscrupulous companies that employ slash and burn policies or get 3rd world babies addicted to infant formula", but also from a purely selfish point of view to break the monotony of shopping into a more challenging task. Couple an ecological conscience with a desire to eat healthily, not waste food OR money, and shopping can go from challenging to just downright masochistic. I guess I'm borderline the latter when it comes to avoiding the easier options out there.
Whole Earth pride themselves on the fact that they don't use unsustainable palm oil in the production of this stuff, which is a lot more than can be said for the rest of the range of peanut butter out there on the shelves. It seems to be a vital ingredient, but none of the others seems to be willing to source their palm oil from plantations that haven't been created by bulldozing thousands of square miles of Indonesian rain forest. If you're not aware, palm oil is in pretty much every type of consumer product on the supermarket shelves, from biscuits and soap to bread and shampoo. It's a major source of finance to the far east, but comes at a hefty price. I'm not going to lecture anyone about it here, but if you're interested it's a quick Google search away.
This peanut butter is the most expensive on the shelf at our local supermarket, but it is sometimes on offer, either reduced in price or on a multi-buy deal. Either way, it's going to cost a few quid for a jar, but then it's not as rough a deal as it sounds. This peanut butter is very thick and rich in flavour, so not much is needed to get the desired effect. I a level teaspoon is about right on a slice of toast.
Its ingredients are simple, with no added crud. Just 97% peanuts, a dash of monkey-friendly palm oil and a pinch of salt. It's packed full of protein, and all the other goodness that comes from nuts. And there's no added sugar AT ALL which is brill, cos I'm fairly convinced that refined sugar is basically just poison anyway.
They also have a few promotions on, including the current one of win a toaster or two. I haven't won any toasters, but then I already have one so I'm not that fussed. If I didn't, then I'd be significantly less inclined to buy this stuff, as toast is the ideal platform for peanut butter - preferably combined with jam and some banana, served with a cup of tea. Go on, try it. You know you want to.
It's also remarkably good in curry or even stir fry, thickening it up and adding a bit of texture and a nutty flavour to it, great for satay curry and the like. We've also used it to make peanut butter ice-cream, cake and biscuits, and since it doesn't really go off it's a pretty useful thing to keep stashed in the cupboard. They also do a smooth variety, but I'm not so keen on it. Unless it's got one of those yellow cut-price stickers on it.
Somewhat needlessly it does give an allergen warning on the side. No prizes for guessing what it might contain.