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So here we are, Jeff Wayne's musical version of The War of the Worlds has been remastered and re-released again as a deluxe enhanced CD version and a generation of youngsters that became entranced by this epic musical interpretation of H G Wells' classic novel can now own an updated copy.
I was probably around seven when I first came in to contact with the original. My uncle had the gatefold vinyl edition, complete with artwork booklet. Somehow it wound its way to our house, and I can remember my sister and cousin listening to it one sunny afternoon. Before long I was hooked.
The album begins with Richard Burton's familiar commentary setting the scene, leading into 'The Eve of the War', with its trademark entrancing synthesizer beats. This track begins as the rest of the album continues; with regular narrative interrupts interspersed throughout each song.
A seamless transition in to 'Horsell Common and the Heat Ray' brings the listener to the first sighting of the Martians, enveloped by Wayne's hypnotic, pulsating baseline. As the track slowly builds, a synthesised wall of unearthly sound grows to bring a sense of urgency and foreboding as the Martian heat ray is first used to deadly effect, culminating in Wayne's rasping, buzzsaw guitar riff.
Leading in to 'The Artilleryman and the Fighting Machine', after a bit of seriously cheesy dialogue from David Essex (the Artilleryman), the tempo speeds up a notch and the funky synthesisers take the lead, with a kaleidoscopic assault on the senses. It's here that we first hear the chilling war cry of the Martians; 'Ulla!'. I defy anyone who first heard this sound as a child over three decades ago to not experience more than a slight prickling of the neck hairs after hearing it once more...
As Burton's Journalist realises that his wife is in danger from the Martian fighting machines, we launch in to 'Forever Autumn', the most familiar song from the album. Justin Hayward's vocals provide an intense yearning and it's not hard to realise why this track became a Top 5 single in its own right; it is Progressive Rock at its finest.
Finishing the first CD is the track 'Thunderchild', centering on a warship which valiantly destroys one of the fighting machines, before being mercilessly destroyed by the Martian heat ray. It seems the hope of all humanity is sunk with the loss of the warship; indeed the journalist is resigned to admitting that 'the Earth belonged to the Martians'.
The second CD opens with the atmospheric and snappily titled 'Red Weed (Part 1)', replete with a suspect pan-pipe intro. Throughout this sparse, almost clumsy medley of synthesized 'ditties' the listener is implored to imagine a world covered in the Martians' imported plantlife while being serenaded by Rolf Harris with his wobble board. Ok, Ok, joking aside, despite being an essential part of the story this is a track to endure rather than savour.
In 'The Spirit of Man' the Journalist happens upon a Parson (Phil Lynott) and his wife. The Parson has become delirious and is questioning his faith; in their dialogue underneath their ruined house the suggestion is that religion will provide neither comfort or deliverance from Mankind's impending destruction.
The dreaded pan-pipes and wobble-synth return in 'The Red Weed (Part 2)' as the Parson is dragged away to his death and the Journalist observes the Martian feeding machines. Again, the less said about the music here the better, but the story must go on...
'Brave new world' is David Essex's turn for the limelight. Unfortunately this track sounds like some dreadful stage musical piece, far too upbeat in tempo as David Essex's Artilleryman's dreams of relocating the human race underground...... Not for the first time, Burton's stoicism provides an ideal foil to Essex's willful exuberance.
The familiar synth and string arrangements from the first half of the album are reprised in 'Dead London' and why not? Here the listener discovers the Martians' Achilles heel.
The abrupt end to the story is polished off by two Epilogues. The first carries an upbeat melody full of hope and expectation as Humankind looks to rebuild and the listener is treated to Burton's final commentary. The second involves some dialogue from a NASA mission to Mars. What is that all about? I find it utterly ridiculous that memory of Mankind's near destruction at the hands of the Martians has seemingly been wiped from memory in less than a century.
Forget everything Hollywood has done to ride roughshod over H G Wells' story; short of reading Wells' book, Jeff Wayne's musical version of The war of the Worlds provides a stunning interpretation of a classic story; often cheesy, frequently catchy but always compelling. Wayne and his writing team (consisting of his wife and father) have taken some serious liberties with H G Wells' original story, but in light of the dreadful savaging at the hands of Spielberg et al, we should be thankful for small mercies.
The dialogue interspersed throughout the album often divides opinion. That it is undeniably cheesy is without question. David Essex, as the Artilleryman is guilty of sounding initially like a chided schoolboy and Phil Lynott's Parson's anguished cries are bordering on the ridiculous. Some may see it is merely a mild embarrassment, others as a compelling reason to listen to the piece encapsulated within a large set of headphones. That said, Richard Burton remains untouchable throughout, providing measured, assured, grounded respite from the aural carnage set about him.
Even the album artwork mirrors the confusing, sporadic joy of the music, as the various paintings and illustrations by Peter Goodfellow, Geoff Taylor and Michael Trim range between the supreme and the downright gaudy.
So, should you buy Jeff Wayne's musical version of The War of the Worlds? The reason I indulged myself is that I found it for five pounds from HMV.com and at that price I just could not help myself. Men of a certain age who, like myself, were exposed to the original in the Seventies will likely fall in to two camps. You will either love it or hate it. That it is cheesy and, dare I say it, a bit nerdy is undeniable, but it is one of the most compelling musical works of its time. Having just written that, I just can't remove from my mind the image of Alan Partridge marching through the Linton Travel Tavern and reciting the classic line 'the chances of anything coming from Mars...'
Last summer the Northers family embarked upon an adventure. We decided that we would have a week in a gite in the Dordogne. Only instead of flying we chose to drive there and back, visiting a number of campsites along the way. Ok, so we haven't walked to Macchu Pichu or 'found ourselves' in the Far East, but considering we have a five year old and a seven year old, we couldn't just drop sticks and fly off to Outer Whereistan or anything. This review is all about the second campsite that we visited on the way down to our gite.
As we were staying inland for the main part of the holiday, we decided we would hug the coast to an extent on our journey southwards. The second leg of this route involved a six hour drive from near Le Havre to a campsite to the southwest of Nantes; Camping la Renaudiere
A few months beforehand we began to plan our route. We decided that to get from Dunkerque to our gite which was about 15 miles to the east of Bergerac would require two stops. Using googlemaps as our trusted mapmaker and timekeeper, Nantes was selected as it was roughly equidistant between Bergerac and Le Havre. A quick online search of the local campsites threw up a number of websites including La Renaudiere. The deciding factor was the fact that the campsite was situated just a mile and a half from the beach.
What intrigued us most about La Renaudiere was the complete lack of English on the website. Most French campsites have a button you can press which magically translates the whole site, not so in this case. The website itself is very well presented, with smooth navigation, many photos of children enjoying themselves and a nice aerial shot of the whole site.
After deciding that this campsite would be ideal for us we left a message on their online booking form outlining our intentions. An email reply was quickly sent back the next day to tell us that they had provisionally booked the pitch for us to confirm in writing. We promptly sent off a letter (thanks google translate) to confirm the booking. And that was that. No deposit, no money up front, all done the old fashioned way. I suppose making people write a letter rules out timewasters. We didn't mind writing a letter at all, in fact it made the whole process a lot more personable, even if we struggled with the language a little.
Upon arriving at the campsite after a lengthy seven hour drive which included numerous toilet stops and a half hour for lunch, we were greeted by a very friendly receptionist who took down our details and briefly described the site amenities. Throughout our stay at Camping la Renaudiere we attempted to speak French; I find that if you make the effort then people will respond to this and not treat you like an imbecile. Sometimes you can get an individual who can be a bit gauche (you are in France after all), but if they want to give you a hard time its time to bring out the disarming smile and attempt a few gallic shrugs.
Remember I mentioned that the website was all in French? Well, it didn't take long to realise why. We were the only English people there, in fact we were the only foreigners there! At first we were met by bemused stares from some of the natives, but after a few 'bonsoirs' and 'bonjours' all was fine and we all settled down to enjoying our stay. As usual it's the kids that prove the best at breaking the ice and the international language of playing brought our children and our neighbours' children together.
As far as amenities go, I would say the shower blocks are a little on the old side. There was no problem with the hot water and they were perfectly clean, it's just they were a little tatty in places. The washing up facilities were functional and clean. The campsite has a playground which was well maintained and had a safety fence and the swimming pool was very good with a couple of lifeguards on patrol at all times.
Our pitch had a water tap and an electricity point (not required) and was situated within a copse of trees, which provided some welcome shade and made sure that our tent did not get too much direct sunlight. The ground was firm but easily penetrated by all of our tent pegs, so no problems there. The size of the pitch was more than adequate, allowing us to fit a family car and a large tent and still have some space for a table and chairs.
For entertainment the campsite offers a number of activities including pony riding, magic shows, barbecues and a disco. Thankfully the disco is only on twice a week. Being France, as soon as people have had their evening meal, the national obsession with Petanque takes over and a good portion of the campsite is devoted to a number of competitions each evening.
All in all we had a very enjoyable stay at Camping la Renaudiere. If you like a campsite off the beaten track and don't mind being in a distinct minority I fully recommend it. Our stay cost us around 25 euros a night which we thought was quite reasonable.
After a seven year hiatus I decided, during the summer, to dust down the old footy trainers and join some of my work colleagues out on the astroturf. After meeting 'the wall' only a few minutes in to my torturous return three things were immediately apparent.
Painful truth number 1: You are no spring chicken anymore...
Man alive! It wasn't that long ago was it? I picked an insanely hot day for my return and now I was paying the price. There I was an unfit old man, feeling older by the second, being buzzed by a hoard of toned twenty somethings, like so many ghosts from my footballing past. I got through the session somehow and felt the pain for the next two days. I had done the hard part though, the cobwebs were well and truly dusted off, it was all gravy from here on in...
2: I can haz skillz??
Woah. Athletes when they hit the wrong side of 30 have to start accepting the fact that their skills are now on the wane; welcome to the painful, inexorable, inevitable decline of the professional sportsperson. In (almost) the same way it was immediately apparent that those seven years away from the game have taken their toll. That searing turn of pace? Gone. The sliderule passes? Gone. That keen eye for a goal -surely you haven't left me? Gone. Ok ok, I was never Maradona's stunt double or anything, but you get my drift...time is a cruel leveller.
3: These boots weren't made for walking...
Neither were they any good for playing football. Somehow over the last seven years my feet have gone up a size and my trusty old Adidas trainers badly needed to be replaced. This is where the Adidas Absolado PS TRX Astro turf trainers come in. I needed a new pair of astroturfs and quickly.
You can spend a little or a lot on football kit and you spend your money and you take your chances. Personally I struggle to see the value in the higher end types and I wasn't entirely sure that I would still be playing in six months time, so I had to look at the lower to mid price range.
A quick look at the Newitts.com website one lunchtime and I had found the Astroturf trainers that I wanted. The price was good too; thirty pounds with free delivery. I normally devote a bit of time to ensuring that I get the best price whenever I shop online and at the time this was the best I could get.
How do they look?
My absolados were delivered within a couple of days and I was finally able to see them in the flesh. I have a soft spot for Adidas and I wasn't disappointed in the styling; these are good looking boots. The synthetic leather (who are they trying to kid) upper part of the boot has a matt lustre to it that has not diminished even after about nine months of weekly use. In this case the manufacturer's claim of lightness and durability is easily fulfilled. The usual Adidas three stripe design adorns the boots, with the main colour scheme consisting of black and red. I think these boots have a stylish look to them without being too showy; I deliberately chose boots that were predominately black as I think coloured boots despite being more commonplace these days are a bit pretentious.
How do they feel?
The soles of the boots are pretty hard to the touch, which concerned me at first, but when you are playing, the cushioning is just right, and they are very comfortable. I used to have a problem with losing a layer of skin the size of a ten pence piece due to the friction of playing in some old trainers. To avoid this I had to apply copious amounts of Vaseline to the ball of each foot. My Absolados are so comfortable that I no longer need to do this. The write-up for these boots waxes lyrical about an "EVA insole for comfort", an "adiPRENE insert in heel for comfort and shock absorption" and a "Pre-moulded EVA midsole for optimised comfort and cushioning". Whatever you want to call it, these are the most comfortable things I have played football in.
How do they perform?
I have played through the summer and right through the winter (so far) and have not had a single problem with performance. I can turn with complete confidence, with the grips giving plenty of traction, even in the wet. Since I first played in them, my Absolados look almost new; there is no scuffing, or stitching coming away. Neither is there any reduction in the comfort experienced when the boots were brand new.
Would I recommend the Absolados?
Definitely. For thirty pounds I have got a good looking, comfortable, effective pair of Astroturf trainers that have proved to be both durable and reliable, for thirty pounds or thereabouts you can't go wrong.
For those of us out there that are old enough (ahem) to remember the golden age of 8-bit gaming, 'Dark Spire' opens a portal back through history to the eighties and the popular Role Playing Games (RPGs) of the day. For those in the know, what we have here is a modern day 'Wizardry'.
*** Nostalgia ***
I can remember getting a Commodore Vic20 for Christmas and being particularly intrigued by a game called 'Dark Dungeons'. The game started off with a character generation; a randomly generated set of qualities, with a numerical value assigned to each one. Words like 'dexterity' and 'stamina' were quite alien to this seven year old; my father was not going to divulge their meaning, that was for certain. A near-useless instruction manual accompanied the game and you were pretty much left to die a grim death at almost every corner, helplessly waving a shoe at a rather mean looking basilisk.
Doesn't sound too impressive does it? The thing is, among the meager graphics and basic sound effects, there lurked a sleeper; after some perseverance the game became interesting, then compelling and soon downright addictive. This was my first experience of the RPG Dungeon crawler genre and little did I know that this type of game would pop up over the next few decades on numerous game platforms along the way. When I first picked up and played Dark Spire there was a serious case of déjà vu; the sparse instruction manual could almost have been written by the makers of Dark Dungeons or Dad himself. I was instantly flung backwards to my earlier travails on the old Vic20 such is the enormous retro factor apparent in this gem of a game.
So Dark Spire is harking back to the 'good old days' of the eighties when we ran home from school eagerly anticipating playing on our home computers. With the continuous sniping between Commodore afficionadoes and Sinclair devotees and confused Johnny-in -the-middle BBC owners the order of the day, the one constant we could rely on was that games ruled.
If you don't remember computer games from the eighties, let me paint a picture of programmers earnestly squeezing every scrap of performance out of machines that had no more than 64k of RAM. The Vic 20 itself only had around 3k of RAM. 3000 bytes; about the size of a short email. No flashy graphics, no voice overs from Hollywood Z-listers, just pure, distilled playability. As I devoted much of my spare time to Dark Dungeons so many years ago, so I have come full-circle and find myself drawn towards Dark Spire, having lately eschewed all other glossy over-produced titles that the Nintendo-DS can offer.
*** What's it all about? ***
The general premise behind Dark Spire is the familiar story of a sorcerer, Tyrhung, who has stolen a powerful necklace from the Queen and you have been enlisted to retrieve it. Tyrhung is holed up at the top of the Dark Spire and so the quest begins...
First up is character generation, where the player has to choose a band of four comrades, choosing from humans, dwarves, elves and halflings. From this list of races the correct balance of warrior, priest, mage and thief must be chosen. A series of random number generators then assign levels of skills in a number of different characteristics. The warrior needs no explanation, priests have a mostly support role within the group, mages are the offensive magicians and thieves are essential to pick locks and open the many treasure chests that litter the Spire.
After some basic training and buying a few weapons, armour and supplies, our intrepid explorers can embark upon their first tentative footsteps in the Dark Spire. In my first foray in to the Spire a group of four confident, well trained individuals entered and after just a few steps were promptly routed by a group of giant mushrooms. Two of my group were dead and had to be carried back to town by the remaining members of the team who were just about clinging to life.
This is where it becomes apparent that The Dark Spire is HARD. This is a difficult game; learning the basics is an attritional process as the user is basically left to figure it out for themselves. This is where this game will quickly divide opinion. Anyone expecting a hand-holding 'on-rails' adventure will be blown away by the complexity, the variety and the open-ended nature of The Dark Spire.
Progress is slow and often painful at first, but as you learn how to fight the many denizens of the Spire, treasure is accumulated and experience points (EP) attained for every kill. Treasure can be used to acquire better weapons and equipment and EP gained can be used to upgrade each character's abilities. Soon your brave party can handle the myriad groups of goblins, mushrooms and flying bats on the first floor of the Spire without any problems as some bitter grudges are evened out.
Combat within the game is very familiar to those experienced in Dungeon-crawling RPGs. Everything is turn-based, so each character has the choice of attacking, running, casting spells or hiding. A seasoned campaigner will know the right time to use all of these options as they ascend the Spire.
The graphics within The Dark Spire are nothing to write home about. That's the idea, you see, as Atlus, the game's developers wanted to hark back to the early RPGs. Your intrepid band of adventurers creep around the Dark Spire in the first person and any enemies or tasks faced are seen in the top screen, with commands and dialogue in the bottom screen. What graphics there are within the game are smartly presented and each creature you encounter is drawn well, but there is no animation to speak of.
A neat little bonus aspect to the game is the wireframe graphics mode. At any time during the game the user can switch to 'Classic mode' whereupon the dungeon is transformed in to a basic black and white wireframe, with an 8-bit version of the in-game music playing throughout. Younger users will no doubt view this aspect of the game with bemused suspicion, I mean why make the graphics worse?! The old-hands amongst us, however, will crack a smile and then play a significant portion of The Dark Spire in Classic mode just to remind themselves of the 'good old days'.
The 'universe' within the game is diverse, with a host of different creatures to encounter and dispatch in an ever varying number of ways. The scope for dying a horrendous death never diminishes, as the strength of your would-be foes increase as your heroes' skills improve. It does not take long before you realise that this game is not simply a procession of nasties for you to dispatch. Oh no. There are numerous puzzles to solve along the way, some of them crucial to progressing and ultimately completing the game, some of them not so. A number of quests also whet the appetite, where the adventurers have to fulfil a task for treasure and EP. The tasks involved here often require a serious amount of brainwork and only add to the experience as completing each quest is very satisfying.
*** Final Opinion ***
So who will like The Dark Spire? Let's be under no illusion, the game does not welcome the user with open arms and a significant number of gamers will be put off by the level of difficulty and retro feel. BUT, anyone who is willing to invest a bit of their time familiarising themselves with how the game works will recognise The Dark Spire as a deep, varied and accomplished game. This is old-school RPG action at its very best and I commend to you one of the best titles to ever emerge on the Nintendo DS.
It's over fifteen years old, dog-eared and stained by cat vomit (thanks Kizzy) but my copy of Nick Cave's 'And the Ass Saw the Angel' takes pride of place on my bookshelf. If you are a fan of Nick Cave, you may or may not be aware of this, his first novel, but as you are indeed a fan, you owe it to yourself to hunt this modern masterpiece down at the earliest opportunity.
Speaking in a deep-south first person narrative drawl, the main protagonist in this story is Euchrid, a backward mute son of an abusive drunk mother and an uncaring, obsessive god-fearing father with a penchant for setting cruel, sadistic traps for various animals unfortunate to cross his path. It comes as no surprise that this upbringing moulds the young Euchrid in to a reclusive, bitter introvert who is both spurned by his parents and loathed by the majority of the townsfolk, the fanatically religious Ukulites.
This book is immense; a sprawling, fetid account of one boy's ascension from despised, unwelcomed spawn to that of town pariah and his eventual act of retribution upon the town and people that so failed him. Cave's ability to find a connection with the reader, leading to an inescapable feeling of empathy with Euchrid, the most anti of heroes within this dark, depraved cess-pit of a novel is matched only by a mirrored ability found in his song-writing.
As Euchrid grows older we see the arrival of Beth, the daughter of a local prostitute who dies in childbirth after being savagely beaten by the locals. Beth is taken in by the Ukulites, who regard her arrival as some sort of miracle. It is Euchrid's obsession with Beth and her elevation to saint-like status among the Ukulites that form the prelude to the main body of the book and its gruesome finale.
Cave's writing style seems to resonate with that of his songs; shot through with that characteristic southern American drawl, it really is hard to believe that Cave is Australian. Couple this with the regular biblical references and dialogue, then you almost have a hard copy of 'Henry's Dream', the album Cave released around the same time as this book.
So who is going to enjoy 'And the Ass Saw the Angel'? If you are at all interested in Cave's music, then it's obviously one to look out for. Those less familiar to his work should tread carefully, this is brutal, grubby, challenging writing, transporting the reader far away from any comfort zone. But the rewards are great, as a window in to a world of religious cults and deep-south depravity is slung ajar; the constant biblical ramblings of Euchrid's father and the mute commentator's repugnant trophy box, within which he keeps his own scabs and other bodily leavings, are just two examples of what is on offer.
Nick Cave, in my experience, divides opinion almost like no other; which side of the rusty barbed wire fence are you on?
My top ten singles? OK, here we go:
1 Love will tear us apart by Joy Division
This dark, brooding anthem was surely destined for greatness, but the tragic circumstances surrounding its release have propelled it to a position in music history that many aspire to but precious few realise. As they were about to tour America for the first time, 'Love will tear us apart' was released by Joy Division and then Ian Curtis committed suicide. In an instant, one of the most innovative, promising, ground-breaking bands of the moment was torn asunder. This great piece of work seems to have become an allegory for Curtis' short life, almost capturing in essence his problems with his marriage, his epilepsy and inner-demons. The band members claimed to not have seen the warning signs, but in hind-sight they were there, writ large among the perfect lyrics and sublime sound of this most captivating record.
2 Imagine by John Lennon
A beautiful, fragile, earnest song with a message so simple and obvious, yet so far out of reach. A song that espouses a level of togetherness, cooperation and peace on a global scale that can only possibly be realised in a dream or a song, much to all our detriment. A song for dreamers by a dreamer; and he's not the only one.
3 Golden Brown by The Stranglers
Is it about heroin or is it about the carnal delights experienced at the hands of a mysterious woman? It works on both levels, neither of which I could hope to relate to when I first heard this record at the age of eight. At the time I was struck by that fantastic oscillating harpsichord sound and the underlying double base. Over time I gained a greater appreciation of the whole piece and it will be forever regarded by myself as a perfect piece of music.
4 Enola Gay by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
A brilliant piece of pop music that achieves that most elusive of goals: combining an interior of savage political protest while maintaining a beautiful exterior of shimmering aural perfection. Enola Gay was the mother of the pilot who flew the first atomic bomb drop over Hiroshima in World War Two. His touching tribute to her was to name the plane he piloted on that fateful day after her. Personally I would never be able to come to terms with being associated with a single act that snuffed out the lives of 100 000 people, many of them women and children. A song that simultaneously lifts me and depresses me every time I hear it. The hairs that raise at the back of my neck every time I hear this song are borne of both wonderment at man's capability to produce a piece of beauty as well as loathing at how absolute power can be so cruelly abused.
'Enola Gay -is mother proud of little boy today?
Ah ha this kiss you give, it's never ever gonna fade away'
5 No surprises by Radiohead
An enigmatic, dark anti-song that defied logic to chart at number four when it was released in 1998. 'No surprises' is Radiohead at their very best: innovating, expanding horizons; all this and more while creating a four minute masterpiece. This song is railing against modern life and the very suggestion that we are at the mercy of unthinking and uncaring anonymous suits and there's not a damn thing we can do about it. Even the prospect of suicide at the invisible hands of carbon monoxide is likely to pass unnoticed as the protagonist contemplates becoming a mere statistic. Breathtakingly beautiful with the child-like xylophone intro which leads through to some awesome guitars and synthesizer overlaid by languid, touching, heart-wrenching lyrics.
6 All along the watchtower by The Jimmy Hendrix Experience
The greatest cover version ever. I admit to being unaware up until a few years ago that this was originally written by Bob Dylan. Hendrix took a great folk song and worked his unique brand into the piece to transform it in to an epic single that so surpassed the original that Dylan to this day paradoxically performs his cover version of Hendrix's cover version of his own original song. Full of biblical references, and appearing to mirror the turmoil and upheaval of the late sixties, 'All along the watchtower' has provoked many a debate about its true meaning, but what is indisputable is that Hendrix gives us a masterclass in the art of playing a guitar; that he played a right-handed guitar upside down only adds to the mystique of this most enigmatic of musicians.
7 Hurt by Johnny Cash
Released two months after his death to critical acclaim, 'Hurt' is a cover of a Nine Inch Nails song, taking a regretful, bitter yet beautiful song and elevating it to a different plane. Reworking a song about losing a lover through betrayal, Cash subtly transforms the track in to a regretful appraisal of his treatment of his late wife. Cash brings unintentional extra gravitas to the song as his voice is affected by a serious bout of pneumonia from the late nineties. A truly remarkable song that knocked me for six the first time I heard it. It still does.
'What have I become, my sweetest friend?
Everyone I know goes away in the end.
And you can have it all, my empire of dirt
I will let you down. I will make you hurt.'
8 Crash by The Primitives
The Primitives sprang out of obscurity in 1988 with 'Crash', a perfect example of bubble-gum pop. With the release of their impressive debut album 'lovely' the Primitives promised so much; that they promptly disappeared back in to obscurity with all that promise unfulfilled was as disappointing as it was shocking as they had every chance of being something special. Many other bands have shot in and out of the big time as quickly as the Primitives but few have left us a song as flawless in workmanship and peerless in widespread appeal as 'Crash'.
One note of caution: a remix of the song was released in 1995 for the Dumb and Dumber soundtrack cd. What was once a spectacular masterpiece of pop music had all of a sudden been bastardised in to a shocking parody of itself with some dreadful additional guitars, organ and percussion. The original band members had nothing to do with the additional material; a crying shame.
9 Superstition by Stevie Wonder
I can remember 'I just called to say I love you' being at number one some time in the early eighties for what seemed like an eternity. I recall looking at this middle aged old blind guy and wondering what all the fuss was about. Looking back it was plain to see that Stevie Wonder had left his best days far behind him and was content to roll out this bland, turgid rubbish. It was only after hearing 'Superstition' by chance on the radio some years later that my preconceptions were to be blown away by this work of genius. The clue is in the name, Stevie Wonder's masterpiece is simply about superstitious fables, yet the genius lies in the killer bass beat and funky guitars. Combine these with Wonder's perfect vocals and you have a timeless classic.
10 Regret by New Order
Released via London records in 1993 after the tragic collapse of Factory Records, Regret seems to be simultaneously allegorical in its retrospective appraisal of the life and times of the ill-fated record label, and basking in the delight of new-found love. Leading with a killer riff and Hooky's signature bass, Bernard Sumner's vocals seal the deal: this is New Order at their best. We didn't know it then but 'Regret' was the beginning of the end for New Order; this was a last hurrah for the band that gave us some of the best singles of the eighties and a legendary body of work, which has been the inspiration for many a band that formed since.
So there we have it. My top ten singles. Some dark stuff in there for sure, reflecting my penchant for music that is downbeat and seedy. There are some truly uplifting, life-affirming songs in there as well though; perhaps I'm an optimist at heart. There are four songs by dead guys which leads me to wonder if we cherish their memory and achievements more because, for different reasons, they were cut down in their prime before they became long in the tooth. I firmly believe that musicians, with few exceptions, give us their best work when they are hungry, ambitious and out to make a difference. Finding yourself floating in a guitar-shaped swimming pool, sipping cocktails, is not the mother of musical invention...
Disclaimer: slightly rud(ish) play on words in this review. Sorry.
I've seen a number of people post their list of bugbears, evildoers and problems with the world at large in to the imaginary room 101. I will probably talk about a very mixed bag of things, and no doubt offend some people along the way, so I apologise in advance. It seems the process is a great way to vent some spleen, and I reckon it looks like good therapy, so here goes:
*** People jumping the queue in the road ***
You are in the car, driving down a dual carriageway, then you are made aware that in the distance two lanes narrow down to one. MOST people calmly pull in to the left hand lane and politely queue and wait to get through the bottleneck. This, apparently, is not acceptable to a few individuals who regard it their right to glide down the outside lane and then barge in right at the point when the lanes merge. These people obviously regard themselves to be far more important than the rest of us, where in fact they are nothing more than selfish, rude, arrogant morons. And don't try and suggest that if everyone would fill both lanes and merge one by one it would work perfectly, it's not going to happen is it?
*** Psychotic motorcyclists ***
I know a number of past, present (and future) motorcyclists and they are perfectly nice people UNLESS they find themselves on top of a motorcycle, whereupon some of them transform into dangerous, rude and arrogant road hogs. There are a few motorcyclists who stick to the speed limits or thereabouts, who don't relentlessly tailgate me until they find a split second to overtake at breakneck speed and who don't make me a little nervous while they zip around and to them I apologise for lumping them together with their more insane brethren who seem to relish dangling their man-bits above the jaws of death every Bank Holiday Monday.
*** Non-entity celebrities ***
The modern scourge of our society. I am sick of morons out there that make a huge amount of money despite having no talent. And the depressing thing is WE LOVE IT. Not all of us, obviously, but the only reason the likes of Jordan and Jade make/made their money is for some reason people want to read (or fawn over bland, self-aggrandising photographs) about how they are transforming their lack of talent in to huge mountains of cash. I really don't understand it. "Oooh Northers, you're just jealous' I hear some of you say. No. I am resentful, not jealous; lots of celebrities with obvious talent out there earn a lot of money and I say good luck to them. Finally to those that say Jordan is a good role model and is a very shrewd businesswoman, I ask you this: would you want your daughter to do what she did to get famous? I didn't think so.
*** Jumpers round shoulders ***
It's early spring. Too cold to wear a t-shirt, too warm to wear a jumper. I know, I'll drape my jumper around my shoulders and secure it by loosely knotting the arms around my neck. Don't I look cool, sauve and sophisticated? No. You don't. Not for a second.
*** Private number plates ***
Don't understand it. Not one bit. Why waste a few thousand pounds on a number plate that vaguely spells your name? Hmm... Saw a R11CKY the other day. Nice. Funny how no-one buys things like TO55ERR or YD10TIC despite how apt they might be...
*** Smoking near food ***
You are just about to start eating and someone lights up right next to you. Thankfully it doesn't happen nearly as much as it used to, but every now and then it does and I think it's disgusting.
*** Missing 't's, 'h's, ***
There are many different accents to be found within this intriguing nation of ours and I can honestly say I don't dislike any. I think it's great that you can drive over a hill it seems and get out of the car and listen to a completely different dialect. Brilliant. What I can't abide is the moronese that seems to be sweeping the nation. Words like 'nuffink', saying 'free' instead of 'three' to give but two examples. Ugh.
*** Needless killing ***
We are at the top of the food chain, so I frequently assert my dominion over the animals by eating them. As long as an animal is not endangered and as long as we can eat a good amount of its body and not waste much, then I say go ahead and eat. I don't have a problem with people hunting, even posh nobs, as long as they eat what they kill. Bizarrely it's the little creatures that I find myself defending, such as moths: they don't eat your clothes, just leave them be. People tend to squish first and not ask questions later, a big shame for me.
*** Bad manners ***
As the old adage goes, they cost nothing and often mean the world to people. 'Please' and 'thankyou' are two of the most under-used words in our language. I would put those alien to common decency and simple manners in to Room 101.
*** Barbecue fear ***
I love a good barbecue. Who doesn't? Believe it or not they DO actually cook food. There really is no need to roast all your meat in the oven for half an hour before whacking it on the barbecue 'just to finish it off'. I have seen it done. I once had to cook for some people who would not eat until everything was coated in carbon. Honestly. Every sausage looked like spent nuclear fuel when it finally came off the grill. (Mine didn't. I ate my fill a full twenty minutes before everyone else). Barbecue-sceptics: in you go!
*** Teenagers who won't smile in photos ***
When I were a lad (cue wavy lines) I smiled in photos. I still do. You are having fun aren't you? The current vogue among those of a certain age these days is to stare in to the lens and try to affect the most gauche visage possible. It annoys the bejeezus out of me. Lighten up.
There. I've done it. I have to say that feels a little better, and I could have gone on all day, but I thought I would end it there. I now expect to get relentlessly flamed by vegetarian teenage jumper-round-the-neck wearing motorcyclists. Have at me boys....
Empire of the Sun, the latest project from antipodeans Luke Steele, formerly of synth-pop outfit The Sleepy Jackson and Nick Littlemore of dance combo Pnau comes to these shores riding a wave of hype sufficient to see the duo regarded by many as the The Next Big Thing of 2009. The lustre of "Walking on a Dream' wears remarkably thin all too quickly however, as the duo's debut suffers from a crippling superiority complex.
--- Standing on the Shore ---
A beguiling synthesized beat overlaid by nasal vocals which ape early eighties Prince. It would be a great start until the chorus kicks in, hamstrung by some cheesy female lah lah lah. A rippling guitar hook almost redeems the song until the chorus wrestles defeat from the jaws of victory.
--- Walking on a Dream ---
Truly majestic with a twinkling piano, serenaded by deliciously languid vocals, 'Walking on a Dream' is an unbelievably uplifting and life-affirming track and could rightly be considered a stand out track for 2009: 'We are always running for the thrill of it / Always pushing up the hill searching for the thrill of it'. Listening to 'Walking on a Dream', expectation grows as this is a truly outstanding piece of music.
--- Half Mast ---
Evokes memories of David Bowie's 'Ashes to Ashes' until the burping vocal does its best to alienate the listener. A prissy 80's synth beat chirps its way through the track, leading to an unexpectedly abrupt but nonetheless well-received end.
--- We are the People ---
After the disappointment of the previous track, 'We are the People' is a song that desperately tries to rekindle interest. Opening with a strumming acoustic guitar supported by a dreamy synthesized beat this uplifting track finds some redemption, particularly with the chorus containing a dreamy wail.
--- Delta Bay ---
Screeching guitar met by a strange voice which has been overly tampered with electronically to such an extent that Steele's vocals are almost unrecognisable. Hmm... A strangely irritating track that makes you wish these guys would take themselves a bit more seriously...
--- Country ---
A good start, with twinkling acoustic guitars, flanked by an oscillating synthesizer. As we venture further in to the track it unfortunately sounds like hurried days spent at the local shopping centre hijacked by myriad South American pan pipe bands.
--- The World ---
Blighted by ridiculous high-pitched wailing vocals, with an indulgent string sound which quickly gets drowned out by the vocals taking a turn for the worst. This is an expansive, ambitious foray into some sort of camp variety performance which conjours up an image of feather boa-clad Elton John wannabes playing to a non-existent nightclub audience.
--- Swordfish Hotkiss Night ---
More burping vocals. They really are trying too hard, with Steele attempting a dreadful rap drawl in spite of a tense, jerky hip-hop track that almost saves this disappointing mid-album filler track.
--- Tiger by my Side ---
Woah. I can barely force myself to write anything about this track. It is as dire as it is outlandish. We have hit a low point here.
--- Without You ---
'Walking on a Dream' closes with the cheesy 80s school disco slow-dance that is 'Without You'. A sprawling almost never-ending exercise in mediocrity.
I tried to like this album. I really did. But in the end I had to admit defeat. This record flatters to deceive and fails to deliver given the hype that has followed Empire of the Sun lately. In my music collection I have many great albums which I had to persevere with before I realised that I was listening to something special. 'Walking on a Dream' does not fall in to this category; it is no 'listener'.
If you distilled the most banal essential oils from a mashed up Prince, David Bowie and Elton John you would come some way to describing this first offering from this supposed 'super-duo'. This record came to us dripping with promise and expectation, but ultimately falls way too short, leaving the inescapable feeling that this freak-fest is a one trick pony surrounded by so many asses.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs are here with their third full-length album, having emerged from the cocoon that was 2006's critically-acclaimed "Show Your Bones" as a fully-formed sonic dance punk outfit. The band have grown wings, flying high as the familiar, essential, stripped-down style of before is bolstered by a new-found synthesised sound that marks a diversion from previous offerings.
Karen O's vocals are instantly recognizable, as are Nick Zinner's buzz-saw guitars, but what grabs the attention are the dirty, fuzzing synth riffs creeping round each track, infecting the album with a delicious electronica not witnessed before from New York's acclaimed three-piece. Brian Chase's percussive bombs keep dropping; all that was great before has been retained, but this record bears witness to an ever-improving and evolving band.
--- Zero ---
The first single to be released from the album, "Zero" comes screaming out of the sun, strafing the listener with a surprise sonic assault that lays the tone for the rest of the album. That surprise synthesizer sound is the first thing to hit the listener. This opening track is a message of intent; and the cruising, buzzing electronic sound nestled at the centre of this opening track is as enigmatic as it is original.
--- Heads Will Roll ---
Begins with a cruising synth, leading in to Karen's stark, stripped-down yowl. As the drum beat kicks in, the whole track comes together, leading in to a shimmering whispered chorus, flanked by grinding guitars and twinkling piano.
--- Softshock ---
On first listen to "It's Blitz" this track is perhaps the most memorable, for all the right reasons as it is a triumphant piece of music. Think John Carpenter's score on "Assault on Precinct 13" laid over the feedback-derived hook from "Idioteque" on Radiohead's "Kid A". For the chorus a pulsing synth drawl is pierced by yearning vocals giving us three minutes and fifty three seconds of sheer genius.
--- Skeletons ---
A promising start; pensive creeping synth backing, sparse yearning vocals, the meat has been rasped off and we are down to bare scaffolding sufficient to sustain the song. Things are looking up. Then it happens; somewhere along the line someone had the terrible idea of slotting in some sort of Irish flute sound which evokes the worst memories of watching a matinee of Titanic, with Clannad getting all celtic two rows behind you. Disappointingly incongruous to the rest of the record, "Skeletons" misses the mark.
--- Dull Life ---
A deliciously empty intro with a thin, twinkling guitar leaping in to a scaling shriek from Karen O, with a throbbing percussion support. Barbed rasping vocals are found in an explosive chorus, as mysterious whispers underpin the whole track. This is a story about betrayal and Karen oscillates between restrained, reflective anger and the full blown fury of a cuckolded bull rhinocerus. Breathtaking.
--- Shame and Fortune ---
The familiar vocal yowl, backed by a grinding guitar riff. As the drumbeat kicks in the rest almost reluctantly follows. The guitar lead carries the rest of the track through with a piercing, rasping effect. The lyrics seem to be toying with an admirer's feelings in a track oozing vengeance:
'Shame is soft and safe
Lose when I play your game'.
--- Runaway ---
Backed only by a simple piano sound, Karen's lyrics are strong enough to pull the song through to the orchestral heart that eventually follows, culminating in a brooding, deep sound. We are in the mellow body of the album with a more pensive, Ms. O. After the torment of the preceding track, redemption is the key in an epic work of art:
'Run, run, run away
Lost, lost, lost my mind
Like you to stay
Want you to be my prize'.
--- Hysteric ---
Illuminating the second half of the album, "Hysteric" is a hauntingly beautiful love letter containing a stunning chorus ending in a delicious moment of epiphany:
'Flow sweetly, hang heavy
You suddenly complete me'.
--- Dragon Queen ---
Chase's percussion leads the song as a jangling guitar soars over an eccentric synth track which evolves in to a chorus featuring Karen's lyrics which have been mashed through enough electrical circuitry as to sound almost unrecognisable, evoking memories of New Order's Bizarre Love Triangle.
--- Little Shadow ---
The album closes out with a subtle, reflective, deliciously confused track giving us a mixture of longing and regret. Whilst not spectacular in any way, this is a very effective non-finish to the story as there remains the feeling that there is unfinished business here.
It's hard to pin down "It's Blitz". At times it is deliciously, darkly inhuman, almost as if it were crafted by a sentient machine. This is no bad thing, as occasionally this record reaches dizzying heights on the back of the inorganic influence that the new-found synthesised feel affords. Conversely, the record is regularly lifted by Karen O's lyrics which provide an emotional antidote to the masterfully vacant programming.
For an album so impressively spartan "It's Blitz" shows us emphatically that Less Means More, as time and again, the listener is elevated higher and higher as a truly euphoric record unfurls. Indeed the rarified air up here is so thin it's a triumph that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs can fly so high and yet give us a piece of work that can leave us in a morass of inhuman loneliness one moment, before instantly elevating us to the most comfortable of happy places.
The Cambridge University Botanic Garden can be found close to Cambridge City centre; initially it comes as something of a surprise to find a peaceful 40 acre garden only a few minutes walk from the railway station. The Garden has an impressive collection of thousands of plant species in a fantastic setting, including a Scented Garden, Lake, a number of Glasshouses, and a mature Woodland Walk.
There is year-round interest at the Botanic Garden; visitors can explore the beautiful Winter Garden, taking in barks, foliage and berries and there is a profusion of spring bulbs and early alpines in the Woodland Garden. During the Summer the Herbaceous Borders, Dry Garden and Scented Garden are worth a visit alone and in the Autumn the late flowers and foliage of the Autumn Colour Garden are impressive.
--- New entrance ---
The first thing that visitors encounter is the Botanic Garden's new 2008 Design Award winning Brookside Gate. This high-profile entrance is a vast improvement on the old Bateman Street entrance and gives the site a presence on the busy Trumpington Road, leaving passers-by in no doubt as to what lies within. A new timber-clad ticket office gives the entrance a contemporary feel and provides services for mobility-impaired visitors.
--- History ---
The Botanic Garden was first conceived as a teaching and research centre by Professor John Stevens Henslow in 1831. The garden was opened to the general public in 1846. Henslow recognised the importance of plants and the need to study them; furthermore he believed that trees had great ecological importance and it is no surprise that a number of large mature specimens form the backbone of the Garden.
--- How to get there ---
Parking is at a premium in the middle of the city. If you have not been to Cambridge before and you plan to come by car the best option would be to park and ride as the Botanic Garden has no car park. I personally use a free car park in Newnham and walk across the common. This car park is a bit of a local secret and can be quite busy, but if you look on Google Maps it can be found on the corner where Barton Road (A603) meets Newnham Road (A1134). The Botanic Garden is just a few minutes walk going East, crossing the river. Visitors travelling by train only have a five minute walk and there are regular buses.
--- Admission and opening times ---
Admission Charges are £4.00 for adults aged 17 - 60 and £3.50 for concessions. Children under 16 go free. The Garden is open 10 am - 6 pm from April to September, 10 am - 5 pm February, March and October and 10 am - 4 pm November to January.
--- Main attractions ---
For many visitors the glasshouses are a great draw. Contained within these structures is an impressive array of tropical plants, including the spectacular Jade Vine which has numerous trailing racemes of bright green flowers around Easter time. There is also a range of Alpine glasshouses with different microclimates from around the world represented.
There is a large Lake and Water Garden, which is buzzing with wildlife, including birds, newts and brightly coloured dragonflies in the Summer. The water theme is further represented by a large fountain in the centre of the Garden which has a large array of flowering aquatic plants and provides a bit of movement and sound to the overall experience.
There is lots of formal planting in the Garden, with the historic Systematic Beds displaying hundreds of flowering plants. The Dry Garden is an experiment in water conservation, using plants that are drought-tolerant. As the name suggests, it is never watered, and relies solely on rainfall for moisture. The Scented Garden needs little introduction, but is one part of the garden that children can really appreciate as it is a lot of fun investigating all the different smells.
For those that like the grand statement, there are a number of areas that have some mature trees, including the previously mentioned Woodland walk, a Pinetum and a procession of Giant Redwoods and Black Pines which line the Main Walk and look spectacular. Some of these large trees were planted in 1846 during the Garden's opening to the public.
--- Sainsbury Laboratory ---
If you visit the Botanic Garden the construction work on the new Sainsbury Laboratory will provide an ever-present background hum on the North side of the garden. When I recently visited I expected this to put a bit of a dampener on the day, but it is surprising how easily you forget it is there. This new complex, opening in 2010, will provide a world-class facility for 120 scientists involved in research in to understanding plant diversity.
With lots of new landscaping, and some conference facilities, including a dedicated visitor centre, this new development promises to become a welcome addition to the Botanic Garden.
--- Refreshments / Shop ---
The Botanic Garden has recently updated its gift shop into a more spacious, welcoming space, with a large selection of tasteful items to buy. Likewise, the café has been replaced with a larger, more accessible area with all the usual drinks and snacks that you would expect to find at an attraction of this type.
--- My opinion ---
The Botanic garden provides a welcome antidote to the busier things that you can indulge in, offering refuge from a hard morning's shopping. At the price I think it represents good value for money and there genuinely is year-round interest, with many different things to see during all four seasons.
There are lots of areas of interest for children, with the Bee Border and fountain being very popular. As mentioned earlier, the Scented Garden can keep children amused for a while and the glasshouses are a great draw. One criticism of the glasshouses is some of the Cactii are within reach of small children, so some supervision is required.
I would definitely recommend the Cambridge University Botanic Garden as it is an attraction that the whole family can enjoy all year round. An impressive array of plants and trees from around the world is on display; check it out.
Caution: alternative adult humour. If you are easily offended or have a serious dislike of bad language then thanks for clicking on my review but you probably won't want to know about The Urf. Sorry.
"The Urf" is a cartoon-based website with contributions from three artists: Phil Selby, Mike Jacobsen and Adam Burke. The Urf in question is basically a parallel world similar to our own (see what they did there?) The inhabitants, fauna and flora of this imaginary world are laid out in their bizarre glory as they mirror our own society in some ways yet other times they appear to be quite the opposite.
Phil Selby and Mike Jacobsen already have their own cartoon sites, "The Rut" and "See Mike Draw" respectively. They have also dabbled in the collaborative model before with another site: "Pencils at Dawn". Contributions to these previous sites are now more sparse than they once were, but new cartoons do pop up from time to time. If you check out these three sites you can see the different individual styles of both artists and you can appreciate how each style is complimentary of one another.
I check out The Urf on a fairly irregular basis. After all, we are not talking about the most prolific of sites, but what The Urf lacks in quantity it more than makes up for with quality. Each cartoon is well drawn and has the same punchy alternative humour that I personally find very amusing. The site does have RSS capability, so users are quickly informed of any new content.
Some cartoons to watch out for include "The unsung hero" who tirelessly hunts down criminals only to receive no recognition of his heroics. The regular appearance of various Urf Leaders who generally retire after only two weeks in the job through stress due to the evil Procrastriton's 3000 year old threat to invade Urf is also very amusing.
There is a glut of wannabe comic artists out there as the internet gives anyone the power of a voice even if nobody wants to listen. The Urf stands out from the crowd, combining a great alternative sense of humour and a neat visual style.
Why not give The Urf a try? Catch your laughs on: http://theurf.com/
When I am out an about in the countryside I have a backpack containing a number of things, in particular a few field guides. One of the books that never leaves my side is Richard Lewington's Pocket Guide to the Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland. There are only 69 butterflies resident to the British Isles, so a field guide devoted to them will always be pocket size, and at 144 pages long, this book is certainly diminutive.
What the Pocket Guide to the Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland lacks in size it more than makes up with content, artwork and information, making this book the best field reference guide to arguably our most beguiling of creatures. From the first page to the last it is clear that every effort has been made to compile a stand-out example of natural history publishing.
In the book's introduction the author describes how British butterflies have been, and continue to be the, most studied butterflies in the world. This nation has a long history of butterfly watching, with more and more people getting involved in recent years. This increase in activity in butterfly watching is in stark contrast, however, to the gradual decline of butterflies in this country, so Lewington goes through considerable effort to provide a great deal of information to do with conservation and how the reader can get involved. A short reference section describes anatomy and life cycle of a butterfly as well as detailing the five families of British butterflies.
Each species of butterfly is then given a two page spread where all the information is given in a clear and well laid-out style. Adjacent to the common and scientific names is a map detailing the range of each species. A concise description is given, including habits and other relevant facts. Each part of the life cycle is illustrated, from egg to adult butterfly so the reader is able to identify each species at any time of the year. Perhaps the most useful part of each description is a little chart detailing the times of the year that you are likely to find each stage of the life cycle of each butterfly in the wild.
A small section at the rear of the book describes resident butterflies that have sadly become extinct in the British Isles, as well as a list of possible rare migrant species that venture over to our country from the continent in varying amounts each year. A short description of some commonly seen day-flying moths, which are easily mistaken for butterflies, completes this handy little reference book.
What stands out from this book is the amazing artwork. The illustrations found within Lewington's book are so detailed and life-like that they appear almost photographic. There are plenty of pictures for each butterfly from all sorts of angles to make identification as easy as it could be. The superb illustrations combined with the concise and accurate information in my view make the Pocket Guide to the Butterflies of Great Britain and Ireland the best field reference guide available.
If you have never bought a reference book of this type before, why not give it a go? What have you got to lose? At under ten pounds from Amazon, this great book is a bargain, and if some of these flimsy little butterflies can make it here all the way from North Africa, perhaps more of us could give them some of our time...
Thanks for reading.
Publisher: British Wildlife Publishing (16 Jun 2003)
Product Dimensions: 18.4 x 11.6 x 1 cm
***WARNING: B3TA CONTAINS OFFENSIVE ADULT HUMOUR***
The first thing I should say when I talk about B3ta.com is if you are in any way easily offended then thanks for clicking on this review but you may want to stop reading.
At first site B3ta (pronounced "beeta") can appear to be one of those websites that just peddle puerile, silly, offensive nonsense. The truth is it does all this and more; indeed when you delve deeper in to this online community you can find some fantastic left-field humour, if you can stomach it.
Founded in 2001 by Rob Manuel, Denise Wilton and Cal Henderson, and with around 100 000 regular readers, B3ta and its members (B3tans) have been responsible for a number of controversial internet phenomena. These 'achievements' have included provoking a legal challenge from Prince's lawyers, a flash animation of George W Bush morphing in to a set of apes, and a shocking alternative logo for the 2012 London Olympics which actually made it on to the BBC's own website.
The first thing that hits you when you enter the B3ta site is the photoshopped images and flash animations adorning the front page. On show here are the most popular entries from the message board, where B3tans can submit their take on current affairs or the weekly Image Challenge. At the time of writing this review the current challenge is to "bring a little happiness to a globe in turmoil: take atrocities, murders, disasters, the lot, and make them as fluffy as fluffy can be". If you still are not convinced of the need for a cast-iron, bulletproof sense of humour from that description, then perhaps you've got the stomach for B3ta.
The message board is the busiest part of B3ta. Here users can indulge in (un)healthy banter on a number of subjects, but proceedings are dominated by the Question Of The Week (QOTW) and Image challenge. The former is quite self-explanatory; B3tans are asked to regale everyone with experiences relating to a question submitted by one lucky user. The Image Challenge also needs little in the way of explanation, and has already been alluded to previously. Suffice it to say, B3tans take no prisoners in these pursuits; nobody and no subject is deemed taboo. The only self-regulation that occurs here is when users give an obvious warning of particularly offensive material by the use of NSFW (not safe for work). On the rare occasion I have seen B3tans post links without this warning, the ensuing vitriol aimed at the errant user has proved to be quite a spectacle.
The B3ta newsletter comes out every Friday afternoon and is a distillation of the week's activity on the website, combining the best of the various postings submitted by B3tans, a list of interesting websites that are likely to amuse, sometimes unintentionally, and various other items. The newsletter is a great way to find the week's highlights from B3ta, and is particularly useful to turn to if you have been away for a few days.
What I like about B3ta is the diverse set of individuals that inhabit this little corner of the internet, everyone being united by their love of irreverent no-holds-barred humour. Although B3ta is undoubtedly cliquey, there is no barrier to anyone wanting to take part and contribute. While there is a definite code of conduct, or netiquette in evidence, anyone can pitch in. If you submit something that is clichéd or old or just unfunny, you can provoke an unfavourable reaction from some B3tans, despite the fact that humour is often very subjective. While I shy away from the animation side of things (due to lack of technical ability mostly), I do regularly dabble in the QOTW.
So should you try out B3ta.com? Well, if you appreciate humour that is irreverent, challenging and outrageous, then check it out, just don't come running to me if you get all upset, ok?
Fine Fascination is the debut album by Red Light Company, a band made up of five nomadic musicians recruited from around the world. This five-piece, assembled from three continents, has been stirring up a lot of interest in the music press over the last year or so, hitting the road exhaustively, supporting a number of acts, including Glasvegas and Editors. When Australian front man Richard Frenneaux founded the band two years ago the barely-concealed intention was to make a 'huge record'.
So how does 'Fine Fascination' stack up against this grand ambition? In some ways this album represents a very good effort at doing just that. This is wannabe stadium rock and we have encountered it at the early beginnings, when the sound is fresh, ambitious and challenging. Red light Company are probably going to be huge, and their time will come; they might just get there off of the back of this album.
You would expect that a quintet cobbled together from Australia, the UK, and the US might sound disparate, yet Frenneaux (vocals/guitar), James Griffiths (drums), Shawn Day (bass), Paul Mellon (guitar) and Chris Edmonds (keyboards) form a cohesive group, with the whole at times appearing to be more than the sum of the seemingly incongruous parts.
There are moments on this album where it all comes together, evoking memories of The Smiths and Suede, with shimmering guitars rolling over lyrics bursting with unrequited love, riddled with angst. From such heights the great can often fall, however, and 'Fine Fascination' proves to be no exception as the album is unfortunately padded out with some mediocre fare.
--- Words of Spectacular ---
The album opens with 'Words of Spectacular' with chiming guitars that layer progressively, with Frenneaux evoking memories of Suede's Brett Anderson's vocal style. The title promises something spectacular. It gets there. Just.
--- Scheme Eugene ---
Containing a great singalong chorus that raises the neck hairs, 'Scheme Eugene' builds to a dramatic finale, with a satisfying layering of cruising, melodic guitars. This is grand, polished, alternative rock and forms the backbone of some controversy surrounding the formation of the band. This track has previously been released by a different outfit containing some of the band members and was used as a recruitment tool to assemble the remaining members.
--- Arts and Craft ---
If you are ever in need of an example of how genius can be distilled down into four minutes of music, then 'Arts and Crafts' is just that. If Red Light Company were to disband tomorrow and hang up their instruments, they could hold their heads up high for making this track. This was released as a single recently and it is not hard to see why, it is simply majestic. 'Your testimony shakes and all you wanted breaks' wails Frenneaux, mired in a regretful, anguished spiralling tale of loss.
--- First we land ---
An exercise in mediocrity. If Red Light Company wanted a huge record this is a serious blot on their copybook. The track is blighted by a whining synth drawl that overlays the whole track. 'It only works on a weekend', suggests Frenneaux. Nearly there. Hidden behind the previous 'Arts and Crafts', this track misses the mark.
--- With Lights Out ---
Inspired by the suicide of a close friend, 'With Lights Out' treats the listener to a wicked reverberating hook. 'Seven years colder by the side bought you some flowers and every day gets longer.' An emotive song of loss and helpless regret; released as a single.
--- New Jersey Television ---
A meandering filler, with the subject of love at the core. Annoyingly repetitive, this track is possibly the most derivative on the album. Close your eyes and think for a second, and 'New Jersey Television' screams of Snow Patrol at their most lacklustre.
--- The Architect ---
This is the album's sleeper track. Armed with a killer hook that is arguably over-used, almost becoming the victim of its own success. Almost. When you first listen to the album you know it's in there, but it has been buried in the lower middle order. A sprawling epic about how broken love can be fixed. Another stand-out track.
--- Meccano ---
Very radio friendly, possibly why they released it as a single. Soaring guitars provide the backdrop to a higher-pitched Frenneaux, displaying his impressive range. Lyrics however are a little on the cheesy side, with 'listen to your heart' being over-used in the chorus. In isolation this sort of line can sound dreadful, and so 'Meccano' struggles to give the lyrics the street-wise edge that the band are looking for here.
--- When Everyone is Everybody Else ---
Nicely backed with a classical string-synth sound. Guitars take a backward step in favour of a more percussive feel, paired with the big classical sound. This track feels very good, although it is unmistakably generic. It is impossible not to imagine as though this has been done a million times before.
--- The Alamo ---
Starting with a spiky guitar overlaid with a haunting keyboard sound, 'The Alamo' is Red Light Company's last stand. Thoughts of heroic defeat are dismissed however, as an epic tale of lost love unfurls. 'Please don't go, I'll make it right' pleads Frenneaux. Don't worry Richard, you already have. We'll be back.
When you listen to 'Fine Fascination' a number of truths quickly become apparent. Frenneaux is indeed a very talented vocalist, ably assisted by some great backing vocals. His band has a big sound, and this album is very well produced, with a polished feel, which proves to be more than enough to hit the target. It is all too easy to get swept along with 'Fine Fascination' and you have to admire the ambition evident here as the band embark on their first steps towards world domination...
It would be easy to say that Red Light Company are little more than a hastily arranged 'super group' wannabe, contrived in their creation and overblown, cynical intentions. This opinion almost prevails in a polarised music press. While we are not talking about a group of kids that have been together from school, from what we see arranged before us, like some sort of chimeric independent 'pop idol' mishmash, the quality and momentum that Fine fascination exudes is unmistakable.
With two increasingly inquisitive children I recently decided that it was high time we bought an atlas. After a short period of deliberation I decided upon the Tenth Edition of The Times Concise Atlas of the World. It's already proved its worth, as my six year old son has recently come home from School with a project that was made all the more enjoyable having this excellent atlas at our fingertips.
Arriving at your choice of Times Atlas is not easy. There is not one version from each edition, but seven! The collection ranges in size from the Comprehensive version, all the way through to the Mini World atlas. The Concise edition is the second largest in the collection, although I think the word 'concise' suggests a smaller book, with less information than is actually contained within this beautifully presented all-inclusive volume.
The first thing that grabs you is the protective sleeve that the atlas comes in. I try to keep my books in as good condition as possible, but with two young children this represents something of a challenge, but I am sure the sleeve will do a good job. As you slide the atlas out for the first time and open it up the quality hits you immediately; the book is an inch or so larger than A4, hardback and has a well designed dustcover.
After the contents section a number of satellite images of each of the continents greets the reader. These images are truly spectacular, showing each continent in vivid colour, my favourite being Antarctica, which from space has a rather benign look to it. The image shows lilac hues bouncing off the ice sheets below, a far cry from the desolate inhospitable region we know it to be.
The previously described satellite images are a prelude to a geographical section that contains a wealth of information about our world, from climate information through population charts to mineral distribution. The information is well presented, in full colour and even includes a potted history of the evolution of mapping. This section finishes with an alphabetical list of all 194 recognised countries of the world, giving a short description of each nation and a few relevant facts. This part has proved invaluable recently, providing useful background information for a recent school project.
Forming the main part of the atlas, naturally, are 260 pages of mapping, providing the reader with an amazingly detailed view of the world. Each continent is given its own section, depicted initially in political form, outlining each country; very useful for budding geographers. Continents are then mapped out in great detail in a range of different scales. One of the main reasons I bought this atlas was to have an up to date view on some of the more changeable parts of the world. Areas such as the Balkans and the Caucasus, the latter constantly in flux with the Russian Federation, are now current. Previously, the nearest I had to an atlas was a dusty old tome that included the now-defunct USSR.
The atlas finishes with a large index, with innumerable entries and cross-references. I can't eulogise endlessly about this section. It's an index. Suffice it to say, if there is somewhere in the world you want to find, you will locate it here.
I regard the Tenth Edition of The Times Concise Atlas of the World as one of the most important and satisfying purchases I have made in a long time. The information contained within is delightfully presented, being concise, factual and a joy to read. The book represents fantastic value for money at £30 from Amazon, although I picked this copy up for an unbelievable £15 from The Book People, which I think is an absolute steal.
There will undoubtedly be some nay-sayers that believe the atlas is dead, and that with the advent of online mapping, the humble book has become an anachronism, but I say there is nothing better than having something in your hand, to leaf through on your own or with somebody else. Google maps and the like have their place, granted, especially if you are on the move or need to manipulate information the way only the internet can, but as far as I am concerned there will always be a place for opening a book and delighting in what lay within.