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iTunes Festival 2014: Mary J. Blige steals hearts with timeless hits at the Roundhouse

This review was originally written for the Daily Star, found here.

R&B queen Mary J Blige can always be counted on to pack out a concert — and fans both new and from her 90s heyday packed in to see her at this year’s iTunes Festival.

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The stunning singer songwriter has a platinum-covered history of 11 albums since 1992 and she clearly knew that the audience at the Roundhouse in Camden, London craved some soulful nostalgia.

She strutted out in her iconic glam style, massive shades, miles of gold-studded leather and stiletto shoes sharp enough to kill a man.

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A Jazz Interlude: Interview with George Simmonds of The Squintet

This article can also be found at the South West Londoner, here.

It’s difficult being 22. For most of us, it’s the point where we struggle to balance adulthood with the aftermath of university. But for George Simmonds there’s a jazz quintet to lead and a music agency to run. And astoundingly, both things are rapidly gaining momentum.

A Londoner through and through and presently based in Tottenham, George has taken his love of jazz music from a young age and formed his band, The Squintet, with childhood friends and other budding artists.

George himself leads on trombone and vocals, his old high school friend Jamie Hone on saxophone, Mike Cuthbert on keyboard, and Jack Polley on bass guitar.


Rob Hervais is the newest member of the band, on the drums, replacing Bryan Taylor who left.
With them, he’s shared his jazz passion all over London (including Soho, Islington and the famous The Rivoli Ballroom in Lewisham) and also abroad in Istanbul and Norway.

Over time their sound has changed – starting out with a strong swing feeling, before moving to a more funk-focused, New Orleans-style sound in recent months. The change was sparked by the drummer Rob, and George says that the band has definitely become more comfortable since.

At the start of performances with The Squintet, George likes to open with ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ by Fats Wallop, a piece played to him by his grandfather as a child. The version he was familiar with was performed by Acker Bilk, and the memory has always stuck with him. 

His musical influences include J.J. Johnson, Jimmy Knepper (both trombonists), and Charlie Parker. More recently he’s been taking on the funk-based influences of James Brown and Fred Wesley.
During a period of taking an interest in composing, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus’ jazz orchestras were a major factor.

For the last two months, George has also plunged into the world of business with the Maxwell Barrett Music Agency. Christened after his middle names, he uses it to both set up his own gigs and those of his steadily increasing client list.

After playing music professionally for three years, he felt that to go into conventional employment and have less time for his music was not an option.

Running a business in your early 20s is a fairly daunting task, so he co-runs it with his father.
New gigs are being planned all the time, and George is definitely looking to perform more in the South West London area.

You can find out about future gigs at www.maxwellbarrett.com or on his Facebook page.

My Big Mouth: Save Our Subcultures

This feature can also be found at the South West Londoner, here.

Violent attacks against subcultures like punks and goths are now being considered as hate crimes by the Greater Manchester Police (GMP).

What was once only the territory of politically-established social minorities (so race, religion, disability, sexuality or transgender identity) is now broadened to alternative music scenes and subcultures – at least by the GMP.

The plan to record attacks in this manner was sparked by the murder of Sophie Lancaster back in 2007. The 20-year-old goth was attacked in a park in Lancashire along with her boyfriend, Robert Maltby, simply because of their style of dress. While the boyfriend managed to survive, Ms Lancaster was not as lucky.

Because this attack was motivated by judgements about the victims’ identities, a pretty strong parallel can be drawn between attacks of this nature and existing hate crimes.

You could replace these goths with queer people or people of colour, and I could most likely find an existing news report to match. Hell, in March last year there were reports of emos in Iraq being murdered by militia, partially because the subculture is heavily associated with homosexuality there.

The crux of attacks like these is ignorant fear of identities that differ from the ‘norm’. Why the scare quotes? Because in Western culture, to be anything other than a straight white man with a taste in Top 40s pop is an ‘other’, someone to be changed or removed. It’s an awful way to think of things, really. That demographic may not be the most prevalent in terms of numbers, but social dominance counts for so much more than manpower.

Society has progressed just enough to cut some minorities some slack. You’re allowed to be, for example, black in a public place in much of the world without pulling much ire (Though sometimes it doesn’t feel that way). 

But often, our identity as minorities is displayed in ways that aren’t physiological. There’s nothing in terms of body type that separates straight men from gay ones, but there’s a laundry list of ‘coded behaviour’ that society decides is indicative of being gay, or religious, or yes – belonging to a subculture.

What raises the hackles of violent bigots is that people who differ from the ‘norm’ have the temerity to express themselves openly, and think that beating them will change that in some way. That seems very much like hate crime to me.


That subcultures are largely tied to musical tastes, rather than biology may cause some to feel that they aren’t appropriately equitable to the other minorities, but I have issues with that.

Most notably, there are some subcultures that are heavily involved in socio-political struggles. Punk as a movement revolves around being non-conformist, and as such features heavy streaks of anti-racist and anti-sexist ideologies. 

The emo scene, while considered rather male dominated, embraces emotional openness (hence the name) and androgynous fashions, making it a social safe haven for many queer teenagers.

The workings and intricacies of subcultures is just as fascinating to me as learning about feminism, racial history and queer theory, and deserves to be respected in a similar manner. For a glimpse of just how vastly different subcultures can be, take a look at Urban Tribes. Hours will fly by.

The official consideration of subcultures as being part of the hate crime demographic is a while off – England’s courts cannot recognise its legitimacy, and the GMP are the only police force that are recording it.

But all is not lost. By bringing the idea up as a point to be seriously considered, the public are also forced to think of those who are part of alternative scenes as people, not targets.

What this news hopefully won’t do is get people arguing over which minority has it worse, and flinging mud at whatever groups might have it easier. These kinds of ‘Oppression Olympics’ aren’t helpful to discussion; those who try to start them require immediate defenestration.

Note: Simon Price’s entry on The Guardian’s Comment is Free gives a great break down on different subcultures, as well as detailing his own experiences of being targeted.

Film Review: A Late Quartet

This review can also be found at the South West Londoner, here.

Despite my constant burning need to see pretentious non-mainstream film (if it’s in a different language or about socio-politics, even better), my knowledge of the fine arts is actually not so great.

My initial interest in seeing A Late Quartet was, embarrassingly, because Christopher Walken takes a major role in it. He’s had a myriad of roles and cameos in films since the 60s, many of which ended up being cult hits. He even starred in some terrible video games in the mid 90s.

A large part of his popularity is his notably stilted speech, and since it tends to work best in comedies, I was interested to see how he would fare in something that looked to be so serious.

As it turns out, A Late Quartet is wonderfully human and moving, and Walken does a great performance by… largely not being there. It’s an odd situation.
 
Pete Mitchell (Walken) is the cellist in an internationally famous string quartet called The Fugue. He shares the spotlight with Daniel Lerner (Mark Ivanir) on Violin I, Robert Gelbart (Philip Seymour Hoffman) on Violin II and Juliette Gelbart (Catherine Keener) on Viola.

Recently Pete’s playing has been affected by his shaking hands. After a doctors appointment, he finds out that it’s Parkinsons, and bows out from The Fugue, asking the other members to find a replacement.

As it turns out, this upset sparks desires for change in the rest of the quartet, and emotional havoc ensues.

It’s all very melodramatic, but the way the script is written makes that not matter. All the narrative points are closely and expertly woven in with the films themes, in a way that you won’t need a degree in media studies to get (though a little knowledge about classical music will help).

The ideas are honestly clever, from the way that the amount of time Pete is on screen is related to how badly he’s suffering from his condition (though he’s arguably the protagonist, Parkinsons is very effective at taking away his agency, both as a disease and in the script), to how the emotional issues of the quartet match up nicely with the musical role they play.

The soundtrack was funnily enough, a mixed bag. There are some elegant and well timed cues of classical string pieces, including the one piece that the film is arguably ‘about’, that I won’t spoil for you. However, it’s matched with a general orchestral score that feels very generic. Although the two musical styles share instruments, the feel is very different. It made some scenes feel notably schmaltzy – though that may just be my jaded heart.

That said, the experience as a whole was touching. It manages to pull you along on an emotionally manipulative ride so well you’d think it was a Hollywood production, if it wasn’t for the quietly middle class subject matter.

Watch It: If you know your way around a string section, If you want to see a cult actor happily make peace with his age on film, if you want a talking point for your film discussion club.

Skip It: If the phrase ‘human drama’ makes you dry heave, if you’re not ready to make peace with your age, if you want something that doesn’t feature the American Middle Class.

Want more? Go and check out some live classical quartets! I promise, it’s a moving experience the first time. If you want to see Walken in something cheerier, he has a great supporting role in Catch Me If You Can.

Gym Class Heroes – The Papercut Chronicles II

This review can also be found at The Yorker.

I caught Gym Class Heroes with their second album, As Cruel as School Children, and it worked out well for my 15 year old self. It took a stance just on the fringe of what ANGSTY TEENS would listen to, kept a cool mix of rap and rock (because who didn’t have that foolish dichotomy in high school?), and did a neat job of being relevant – though I can only chuckle at the references to My Space in ‘New Friend Request’.

©Waner Brothers, Fueled by Ramen

Though since then, while Gym Class Heroes haven’t exactly gotten worse, the image they portray has changed. The Papercut Chronicles II is in direct reference to their first album in 2005; but I don’t quite feel like that callback is apt, this is the lead vocalist Travis fitting into his mainstream role.

Things start out strong – skipping over the intro track, ‘Martyrial Girl$’ has a guitar and drumline aggressiveness and tension that reminds me of the sound direction for No More Heroes; punchy with a bit of grit, but not about to drive off those who wouldn’t be a fan of something too thrash-y.

The problem starts for me with the track, immediately following, ‘Life Goes On’. All sense of aggressiveness is lost, and it all goes in the direction of a love ballad – but with none of the funkiness, they managed to give that concept in the past. Even worse is that the style is pretty much repeated with a later track in ‘Ass Back Home, which feels incredibly weak.

Speaking of which, how did you feel about Maroon 5’s ‘Moves Like Jagger’? Did it make you cringe and despair like me? If so then you’ll absolutely love ‘Stereo Hearts’, which features Adam Levine’s once reasonable, but now grating crooning. The common theme between these three songs is the unnecessary guest artist. They all feel compromising, and the strength of these songs are considerably weakened as a result.

Indeed, ‘Solo Discotheque’ and ‘Holy Horses**t, Batman!’ are much closer to what I like about Gym Class Heroes, with ‘Holy’ being an amusing little ditty about scepticism over religion. Not exactly profound, but the funky bridge it has makes up for that.

‘Lazarus, Ze Gitan’ is the most hip-hop influenced, but the subject matter leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It’s another one of those songs where the male singer is all jaded about relationships, because no one’s ever good enough for them (but they’re so lonely, damn it!). That, coupled with the previous track’s Nil-Nil-Draw being a pouty break-up song (“But you’re too dumb to understand; I could have any girl,” says the chorus) makes Travis sound like a big jerk. And who knows, he may well be.

It’s cliché to say that a new album has none of the flavour that you once loved in a previous work, but I don’t know what else to say here. While I will come back to ‘Martyrial Girl$’, my love for Gym Class Heroes has remained firmly in 2006.

This entry was posted on August 10, 2012, in Music.

Chiddy Bang – Breakfast

This review can also be found at The Yorker (whoops, I overlooked mirroring this one…)

It’s been a while since I listened to an album with honestly interesting sampling. One of the things I love about hip-hop (and music inspired by such) is beat-making in original ways. A lot of instrumental hip-hop goes heavy on the piano and brass samples, which are excellent, though not as common as it used to be.

©Regal

Thankfully, Chiddy Bang’s Breakfast, the duo’s first full album after a mixtape in 2010, has funky and creative beats from the start. The intro is a cute little soundscape with piano backing that reminds me strongly of Nicolay’s work. But that’s contrasted hard with ‘Breakfast’, the punchiest discussion of a mealtime you’ll ever hear with booming 808s and a solid demonstration of Chiddy’s rap skills – clear and rhythmic without resorting to painful half-rhymes or hashtag rapping.

Beat-wise, ‘Handclaps & Guitars’ is what is says on the tin, with this weird Owl City-ish chorus, and ‘Mind Your Manners’ has an odd but catch voice sample from Icona Pop’s ‘Manners’ (which may prove grating for some) and a sweet-as switch in the beat at 1:43.

‘Ray Charles’ was one of the Singles for this album; definitely a solid choice. It might be a bit of an unfortunate choice for Chiddy to compare himself to the famous jazz pianist based around just his shades-wearing habits and weed consumption – but the track as a whole sticks to its amusing and silly theme.

‘Does She Love Me?’ has its groove set firmly in a romantic sentiment from its opening bar, and it’s by far my favourite track on the album. The the quiet synth chords and the ooohing chorus is an aural dream come true, juxtaposed by lyrics about romantic frustrations, just in case you were tempted to think Chiddy Bang has gone soft.

Things slow down a little after this point. The beat to ‘Run it Back’ struggles to compete with ‘Does She Love Me?’, although the chiptune aspects to it interesting (if outclassed by a later track I’ll get to). Out 2 Space doesn’t do it for me, alas. It’s just lacks a catchy element, though the space-y feel is spot on.

There’s a seemingly out-of-place Interlude for track 10, but its melody gels with the following track, ‘Talking to Myself’, which has a solid bassline groove coupled with violin plucks and a light piano, of all things. However, that pales in comparison to the penultimate track, ‘Baby Roulette’.

It competes for the accolade of ‘best track’ with ‘Does She Love Me?’, losing out just slightly. It’s slow, goofy beat is heavily chiptune based, and would find a happy home in an episode of Adventure Time, strangely paired with a rap about avoiding university pregnancy. The chorus cracks me up (“I hope you know that I’m for real / My love is super-sized, ain’t no Happy Meal”), and the whole thing just puts a smile on my face. It’s a shame then, that it’s followed by one of the most boring tracks on the album, ‘4th Quarter’. It’s loud and repetitive, and could have been removed entirely to give Breakfast a way stronger ending.

Chiddy Bang definitely impress with their fun sampling and use of chiptune, and Chiddy’s rapping is well-crafted with a neat habit of staying in theme with the track’s title. The general content doesn’t go much further beyond discussing marijuana and sleeping with pretty ladies; but I can forgive that – not all hip-hop has to be politically inspired, and either way Breakfast is very refreshing. Consume it today.

This entry was posted on August 10, 2012, in Music.

Patient Zero – Curse and Regret (Promo Material)

I wrote this as promo copy for a musical friend of mine, Patient Zero, the album’s fully open to the public now, so go check it out!


Many may know Patient Zero from his collaboration with the Internet video group the Yogscast – ‘Dwarf Hole (Diggy Diggy Hole)’ took both YouTube and iTunes by storm. Following on from that great success, and to continue his long line of album releases; Patient Zero’s new album Curse and Regret is hitting iTunes, Amazon MP3 and Spotify this July.

For those not part of the scene, electronica and trance can be intimidating genres. At first blush the sound may be hard and clashing, but Curse and Regret offers some solid tunes that even newcomers to the genre will fit right in with.

To be specific, Curse and Regret is Electronic Body Music (or EBM); think Trance with Industrial sensibilities. However, precise pigeon-holing only gets you so far – Patient Zero takes on the genre from multiple angles and it works for the better; keeping things fresh.

‘Humanity Will Lie’ is a strong start with a solid club vibe, and fun, distorted vocals that are a running theme through the album. There’s a finely-tuned balance between lyrics that exude dark humour, club hype, and just a touch of campness. You may well find yourself singing along with the simple chorus of ‘Raise those Horns’ or the upbeat and poppy verses of ‘The Band Played On’.

For those who want something more experimental, ‘Eins’ goes down the route of a sample-based track (remember DJ Shadow’s Entroducing?), with the cheeky decision to build the vocals out of porn samples and a cut from a sex-negative sermon, for an amusing contrast.

For more down-tempo vibes, there’s ‘Take my Death Away’, with its airy and futuristic vibe; or the piano-based instrumental of ‘The Burden of Distance’ that both work wonderfully as a mellow middle to the album.

Those who have been anticipating a follow-up to ‘Dwarf Hole’ need not hold their breath any longer – ‘Dig It’ brings back samples from the Yogscast for a more punchy feel than its predecessor with a retro video game feel. Your Minecraft sessions need never go silent again.

Curse and Regret will be available from the 20th of June via the aforesaid locations, as well as Last.fm, Google Music Store, Myspace Music, and of course Patient Zero’s Bandcamp site – where his previous albums and singles can also be found. For more information on Patient Zero’s music, as well as news and updates, visit http://doctorzero.tumblr.com/ .

Metric – Synthetica

 This review can be found at The Yorker, here.

I initially found out about Metric though the film Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, where they composed one of the many guest songs (the film is, in part, about Canadian indie bands, after all), ‘Black Sheep’. I adored this track – it was energetic, but only on the cusp of being aggressive; with seductive vocals by lead Emily Haines, and a chorus that makes you want to air guitar – if you’re a cool person like me.

Their 2010 album, Fantasies, was of a very similar sound to ‘Black Sheep’, and I became a solid a fan of their work. So coming to Synthetica, my expectations were very high, but I was expecting something rather specific. Not to demand that my favourite artists should deliver the same experience with every album, but in a Summer holiday state of mind, an album like Fantasies would be just what the doctor ordered.

Thing is, Synthetica is a rather different pill to swallow.

The message is clear from the opening track, ‘Artificial Nocturne’; the album is a lot more low-key. The vocals and drums are still pride of place, but the quiet, slightly distorted synths and the droning guitars are sedately menacing; it’s a pleasant surprise.

The following track, ‘Youth Without Youth’ is closer to the sound I’m familiar with, but it falls short with the lyric repetition that shows up fairly often in Metric’s songs being performed in an irritating monotone. From there, things go back to the chill vibes, with ‘Speed The Collapse’. The rippling guitars in the background are decidely Muse-ish, with a chorus that actually makes me think of Blackmore’s Night, which makes for an interesting overall tone.

‘Dreams so Real’ sticks out as my favourite of the album – It grabs me from its opening riff, more square wave than guitar string, the chanting repetition of “Shut up and carry on; the scream becomes a yawn” is relaxing in some unnerving way. It’s only 2:40, though. I’d love an extended version that builds up a little more.

‘Lost Kitten’ is fun and kitschy in a twee, coquettish way (right down to an introduction of xylophones and finger snapping), but it feels it would be better suited to an advert for iPhones or UniQlo than my music collection. ‘The Void’ hits you with a really annoying synth distort, and doesn’t really manage to redeem itself afterwards. It’s also rather cutesy, but nowhere near as endearing as ‘Lost Kitten’.
As the title track, ‘Synthetica’ is solid- a more traditional Metric sound. The vocals are more languid than say, ‘Help I’m Alive’, but it fits perfectly with the rest of the album’s tone, and that kind of consistency is a positive in my book.

‘The Wanderlust’ is very much an oddity, built upon distant, watery piano – and out of nowhere, male vocals from Lou Reed on the chorus, evoking a folk rock-style sound. It took me a few listens to get into it, but its uniqueness won me over.

It’s worth mentioning that there are 5 additonal bonus tracks (available on Spotify and via iTunes preorder, at least) that are synth-heavy 80’s-ish versions of melodies from the album. It’s an odd addition, but I honestly like it a lot. It reminds me of the ‘Exogenesis’ tracks on Muse’s The Resistance – in fact, the album as a whole reminds me of that divisive endeavour; especially since Synthetica is a big drift from Metric’s normal sound.

It would be all too easy to take Synthetica at first glance and go “It’s different; I don’t like it”, and maybe the more relaxed and less punchy composition honestly isn’t for you – but there’s no denying that this album is solidly made and will fit snugly in the collections of those who open to a little Shoegaze in their lives.

So hipsters, basically.

This entry was posted on July 15, 2012, in Music.

Four Great Video Game Composers

This article can also be found (with additional entries by other writers) at The Yorker, here.

It can sometimes feel that soundtrack composers don’t get a lot of credit. Unlike with the general music industry, there’s comparatively little focus paid to those who write the soundtracks for film & TV; and maybe even less for games. But if you take the time to look (or get totally immersed in video game nerdery like we do); there are plenty of composers for video games, old and new, who create tunes with aplomb; getting the tone and emotion of a title in a sweet spot that just couldn’t be obtained without their work.

Masafumi Takada

Tending to work alongside the unorthodox auteur developer Suda51, Takada has lent his talent to many of the early games produced by Grasshopper Studios, such as Killer 7, No More Heroes, and Flower Sun and Rain. His style is often very atmospheric and heavy, but with such quirky titles that he’s worked on, there’ll occasionally be tracks that are suddenly upbeat and energetic. These days he works outside of Grasshopper Studios, mostly doing low-key Japanese only titles. His most recent work surprisingly features in Kid Icarus: Uprising!

Masashi Hamauzu

Generally when thinking of the music in the Final Fantasy series, long-time veteran Nobuo Uematsu comes to mind. But the more recent titles in the series have a different lead musician – Hamauzu. Cutting his teeth on other Square Enix titles (Notably SaGa Frontier II), he then collaborated with Uematsu on Final Fantasy X, showing a more lighthearted and instrumentally varied style from his collegue. After Uematsu left Square Enix to follow his own projects, Hamauzu took over as lead composer and put together the beautiful soundtracks of Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2. He now has his own music studio, Monomusik.

Shoji Meguro

Differing from the two previous composers I adore, Meguro has a single, veru distinct style – but it’s so solid and catchy, I can’t help but love it. He’s worked closely with the RPG giant Atlus ever since 1996 with Revelations: Persona – and has consistently worked on games within the Shin Megami Tensei series (and a few outliers) since then. His style is very rock-heavy, but he also has a strong love for using brass and piano in his songs, resulting in songs that are closer to hip-hop beats. A special mention should be given to his work in Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, where his normal approach is reworked into a menacing, militaristic soundtrack that fits the game’s tone perfectly.

Virt (Jake Kaufman)

The independent game design movement hasn’t just been a great opportunity for coders and artists – but also musicians. Virt A.K.A. Jake Kaufman started out doing fan remixes of existing video game tunes on OC Remix; but he soon found a professional home with developers WayForward – and he’s been getting his high-quality work out there in a subtle way ever since the Game Boy Colour. Special mentions go to the music of Shantae, which was just as technically detailed as its graphics; BloodRayne: Betrayal for being stylistically different from his other work; and Mighty Switch Force for being bombastically funky. There’s often a lot of compilation work between indie game musicians, which are also worth a gander.

Have You Heard – StooShe and Bluey Robinson

This is a partial version of a feature found at The Yorker, here.

StooShe are very much an amalgamation of pop culture from a very specific subculture. Their name derived from the slang term ‘stush’ meaning ‘an air of superiority’; and in reference to the artist of the same name, the trio of singers have a style born from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and song topics that are firmly lodged in London’s urban youth culture. A combination like that is going to be painfully polarising; but those who are receptive to StooShe’s bright and loud attitudes will have great things to look forward to.

StooShe have not as of time of writing produced an album, but their début release (Swings & Roundabouts, to be released this month) is already in the pipeline for release this year, and a handful of singles releases have given us a taste of the StooShe flavour. Betty Woz Gone was unabashedly rude (but not unintelligent); Love Me/F*ck Me got some solid airtime with its Safe For Work radio edit and guest verse by Travis; and Black Heart, a 60s Soul vibe that’s to see radio air time real soon.
If that’s not enough to satisfy your curiosity of what these women are capable of; a 17 minute demo tape is available on their website; which, definitely meets its aim of demonstrating StooShe are capable of taking the UK urban music scene.

Bluey Robinson is even more of a quiet start-up (not having a Wikipedia page feels rather damning) but it’s not as if he doesn’t deserve one. Debuting in 2011 with ‘Showgirl’, the beat is appropriately summery and familiar, making me miss the days when Lemar was still around. Although it wouldn’t be unfair to criticise this single for following the tried and tested formulas for producing a solid Pop/RnB jam, this guy may just be getting started.