Saturday, 18 January 2020

Underground Up of the Year....

Agents Rob and Johnny put their feet up after a hard year doing nowt....

Ah, another year, another 365 days. Another 356 days another 365 dollars (well, if your a reasonably successful comic artist). Another 365 dollars another 101835-ish streams (well, if you're a reasonably successful musician).... Anyway, welcome to 2020AD one (reader) and all! Flying cars, jetpacks and teleportation are surely just around the corner considering we live in such truly united, enlightened, utopian times, ay? Plenty thanks due to the very amenable means by which Agent Rob's communicating surely - praise be for the world wide web? Anyway, as we wave (a happy goodbye) to the 'tenties' it's time to get our fashionably late – it really ain't over until it is over, mmmkay - UndergRound Up going. So slather on the suncream, refuse to learn your lines, fire the director and let's leave the decade (that time would likely rather forget) behind and blast off....


In keeping with last year's leftfield opening gambit Rob thought he'd once again go 'wireless' and salvage yet another aborted blog and sing his praises for the BBC's Choral Evensong. Yep, he has to admit that BBC Radio 3's weekly trip 'down the aisle' quite often shines a light into the dark corners of his soul like no other, providing a spiritual nourishment (that easily transcends any accusations of religious trappings). It's the 'choral' aspect that does it for him, the human voices nudging something strangely soulful in his otherwise unfeeling being. (Though he has to admit that concluding every episode(?) with an almighty church organ solo may have something to do with it – one particular broadcast, a repeat from 1983 celebrating the Queen's Coronation, was simply sublime in it's final shuddering, cacophonous glory!)


Between that and Composer of the Week – itself proving a vital introduction to the supreme 'alte musik' (early music) of the likes of Orlande De Lassus and Thomas Tallis – you'd be hard pushed to believe great stretches of Kounter Kultyur Kevn were inked and pencilled in such blissful peace....


Of course, what can you say about this year's films, other than the fact that Avengers: Endgame really was as massive as it deserved, the blockbuster to end(game) all blockbusters. After the sheer relentless wham-bam! of Infinity War it was striking how the studio slowed everything away down, gently easing out the twists and turns of the cunning plot in such deft and ambitious moves, so assured and capable, so aware of their audience – sure, there were a few blips over the course of the (surprisingly swift) epic running time, but all was easily forgiven due to such sweeping, bold, blockbusting film-making. Considering they took the sort of impenetrable, unpalatable comic 'crossover event' – the kind of thing that is the antithesis of enjoyment for Agent Rob – and pulled it off is even more of an achievement. #1 grossing movie of all time. Yep, well deserved!

King Koba....

Special mention has to go to The Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, another excellent, intelligent blockbuster that passed Rob by several years ago. There's no doubt he rates the CGI FX as perhaps the best he's ever seen. Wholly CGI characters were always about the eyes and this squad have nailed it. It's the (monkey) business!


On the smaller screen it was all about Talking Pictures TV as they rattled off a succession of lesser-spotted yet striking films, the pick of the bunch being the edgy cool of The Driver, the strange, sensual, superficial allure of The Swimmer and Charles Bronson's revelatory (to Rob at least) vulnerable performance as the sad, silent bruiser in Hard Times AKA The Streetfighter. British films screened included the delightfully deadpan Callan and the near-forgotten frivolous follies of Royal Flash and an equally misfiring Modesty Blaise, Terence Stamp's darkly brooding performance aside. (Not that everything was a winner, a much anticipated Hammer Horror double bill of The Scars of Dracula and Frankenstein Created Woman proving that pure shitening can strike in the same place twice!) TPTV even rounded off the year by bringing Mystery and Imagination to our screens - a 60's Thames TV show that Rob and Agent Johnny discussed only a few months ago - with Ian Holm in a dual role as Frankenstein and The Monster and Denholm Elliott as Dracula.... (They also screened the wonderful Clockwise, just in case anyone had forgotten John Cleese's fantastic comedy chops.)


Film4 fought back gamely with its graveyard slot, their best (often foreign) films tucked away in the one o'clock slot, The Connection being the very best of the bunch, a French true crime tale that hit sweet spot, while Byzantium, if not the greatest film, just looked exceptional (especially for a British picture, seeing as they're often as drab as the kitchen sinks they fail to emulate). The Danish actress Trine Dyrholm also shone in Nico, 1988 – a biopic Rob's glad for once he stuck with – and Love Is All You Need, a witty and touching 'dromedy' (dramatic romantic comedy).... or should that be a 'dromcom'? Thankfully they ditched the literal translation of the title, The, er, Bald Hairdresser, um....

Forget Spock's brain - check Spock's beard!

The even smaller (but with just as big a looking budget) screen also had plenty to offer – it was 'Round 2, second seasons out!' for a lot of shows so let's find out what made it to to round 3 (as per the excellent, precision tailored Strang3r Things) and knocked Rob out while, er, going the distance....

Sadly Star Trek: Discovery hit the canvas early. After a solid first season it's a mystery (not really!) as to why the showrunners suddenly caved in to a crisis of creative confidence as they rejected new ideas in favour of falling back on established/lazy tropes to try and keep bums on seats. See the overzealous splurge of new Star Wars film for details (or, indeed, don't bother) - proof that honestly anyone can simply bash their 70's toy collection together, using modern cinematic flash to disguise the paucity of new ideas while trying to mask the whiff of recycled old ones. (Agent Rob really ought to do his disgruntled duty as a quite pointless middle-aged white man and undertake a blog on these blockbusting crowd (dis)pleasers. Mind, it may take a long time (ago in a galaxy far, far, etc.) to analyse – with the emphasis on 'anal' – their shortcomings and goings as he's still to bring himself to slog his way through The Rise of Skywalker....)

So, Rob has to confess he was 'triggered' – not that he'd consider himself a mewling 'manfint', y'know the type, rails against feeble millennial snowflakes only to behave as equally childishly himself – but the early scenes of a reintroduced Captain Pike deferring to George Michael(!) just seemed, well, pointless... The fact that the character of Spock was next to be exhumed to presumably team up with the almighty Michael Bolton(!) and.... he'd seen more than enough. (Mind, he did say those who deserted the first season missed a treat, so he may eat these words one day.)

Introducing the Mast- ah, dang!

Killing Eve also returned for a 'was that actually any good?' second season. Notable for superb performances all round – special mention to Braw favourite Kim Bodnia for not only his zany grinning laugh but his eclectic wardrobe. It'll never happen, but Rob'd take that great Dane as a Doctor Who any day. In fact, he'd make a choice Master (but for, well, no spoilers)....


Atlanta, that American oddity of an import chopped and changed its way through a surreal second season too. Donald Glover may be the “star” but it's obvious the show belongs to his clueless cohorts, the blank glaze of Darius and Al's deadpan glare providing all the laughs. In fact, the 'Barbershop' episode (5) might just have been Rob's favourite comedy moment of the year (slightly edging it over What We Do In the Shadows' 'The Cursed Hat' effort). Like all great world cinema, Atlanta transports the viewer into a wholly alien walk of life, making no apologies for its cultural quirks and stylings. Congratulations to the BBC for sticking with it!

While some comedy flies some comedy dies. And, yep, in 2019 it was the turn of Hold The Sunset. to plummet six feet under. Following a decidedly limp 2018 Christmas special that just about got by on some much needed festive goodwill, the second series got off to a non-starter for 10 that surely saw viewers completely abandon the sinking ship – not surprisingly John Cleese's character had gone AWOL by the next episode too. Perhaps, after years of wondering why the British press seem to detest him so much John's finally decided to give them a valid reason, fleeing into foreign exile for this blatant crime against comedy (where's he's penning the second part of his autobiography – here's hoping!). This is an ex-sitcom. It has ceased to be funny, etc....

The BBC also attempted to thrill us with their ambitious new adaptation of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials, turning out a visually lush but somehow curiously uninvolving series. Top marks for the cinematic quality CGI and passionate performances though.

Bigger than Elvis?! Such a nice drawing too. How unfair!

While December 2019 in the UK will be remembered for the battle for Number 10, Rob was just as interested in the battle for Christmas Number 1, worried that Robbie Williams would equal the chart record of Elvis should the soaring stadium pop of Coldplay prove unable to keep him off the top spot. The joy of this initial festive justice was unfortunately short lived and by the second week common nonsense had prevailed, Williams's last turkey in the shop – and future Poundland staple – climbing to the peak. Imagine in 2120 if (on digital paper) people will look back and view a smug void like Robbie Williams as the statistical equal, if not better, of Elvis. That's like (ye gods forbid!) a modern krenk like Russell Howard somehow matching John Cleese as a comedy heavyweight....


In spite of some stiff competition - and a year spent mostly prone inhaling the still fresh whiff of 'Skunk Rock' - it's fair to say that Vakula's A Voyage To Arcturus was Agent Rob's record (discovery) of 2019. A sprawling techno concept double album based on the science fiction book of the same name, all spaced-out grooves and wig-flipping electronica, a super(nova)sonic stew that dripped with proggy delights! What, as 'they' say, is not to like?

More than worthy runners up include Viktor Vaughn/MF DOOM's Vaudeville Villain, the music here a sort of ambient techno form of hip hop by turns deft, spacious and delightfully sonic. RIDE also continued to stand tall post-reunion, proving Weather Diaries was no fluke with an excellent record, This Is Not A Safe Place, that riffed (sweetly) on the past and simply burst with youthful exuberance and neat future leanings. Meanwhile NYC hipster upstarts DIIV cleaned up their act and powered up their drifting dream-gaze sound, delivering the muscular and focused Deceiver. And how about some cosy Orb-esque mid-90's ambient techno, the sort of warm and organic sprawl that typified their excellent Orbvs Terrarvm? Well, thanks to the hitherto unknown Another Fine Day (AKA sometime early Orb collaborator Tom Green) that was exactly the, er, 'orber of the day'. Not so much an album you'd wash down as rather let it soak your toes....

1 year. 2 boobs. 12 albums.... and lots of DOOM! In spite of Soundcloud falling like a stone on deaf ears there was nothing stopping the distended Scottish duo Boobs of Doom rattling out an album a month last year. Nuff said!


Proving a man has to know his limitations (and quite possibly delivering the gig of the year) was Johnny Echols who sauntered into town with 'The LOVE Band' in tow for a joyous farewell concert, powering through a whole host of LOVE classics in front of an enthusiastic, appreciative (and similarly ageing) audience. Amazing to think that it was 2002 that Agent Rob (and Adam J. Smith) saw Arthur Lee and LOVE, sans Echols, only to come full circle and see Johnny Echols, sadly sans both Arthur and Adam, in 2019.... it's no secret that Rob's a huge fan of Johnny's own particular brand of frazzled soloing and the veteran guitarist didn't disappoint – indeed, in addition to treating the crowd to 'Your Mind And We Belong Together's epic 'greatest guitar solo/outro ever (IMO)', he also stepped up to the mic and sang (bitter) sweet renditions of 'Signed J.E.' and 'Message To Pretty'. Heck, they even dusted up two new songs from their final (aborted) album sessions with Arthur, both of which chugged along in the classic LOVE vibe....

Any excuse....

Other than that Gig-wise 2019 offered up some choice treats, be it a reunionised(!) RIDE sounding simply IMMENSE (and relevant) at the (not actually nearly as awful as the other woeful) SWG3 venues) Galvanisers, or perhaps bathing in the all-enveloping guitar fuzz of Nadja's towering, shuddering soundscapes. Maybe EARTH's glacial crawl is more your thing, proving that that even the local gods who post-rock among us aren't immune to the modern gig-goer's scourge of snaps, selfies and social media! Still, it didn't detract from what proved to be (at times) something of a groovy gig, with 'The Colour of Poison' and an untitled new track shimmying along in a most welcome jaunty fashion. Then there was Dreadzone's energetic ambient-dub, Rob opting for their idea of a good time this year as opposed to the expected slog of The Orb's 30th anniversary mobile disco - and a good time it was too, a jolly, swaggering performance from a bunch of charming geezas! Similar rampant vibes were on show as Teeth of the Sea took a hefty bite out of the audience at Broadcast, their sparkling mariachi-tech stomp getting a cosy crowd suitably going....

What you see is definitely not what you get!

If Johnny Echols knows to quit when he's ahead then sadly the same couldn't be said of the 'Border Lord' himself, Kris Kristofferson. In spite of Rob's enthusiasm and a surefire 'living Twentieth Century legend' status there's no denying that the Royal Concert Hall gig was a total dud. Shame on any promoter who charges (minimum) £35 a (grand)pop to see a frail old man - he is 83, mind! - warble his way indiscriminately through his frankly stellar songbook, too diminished by the years gone by to inhabit his whiskey-soaked odes to the good (and bad) times, quite unable to dig down deep and reach the powerful emotional crux required. To be fair, the audience and their affection carried the old fella along in a genuinely touching fashion. Special mention too to his backing band The Strangers who sure helped paper over the obvious cracks. Still, great hair!


It was something of an, ahem, 'Dickless' year for books in 2019 – a situation Agent Rob hopes to (e)rectify(!!) in 2020 – but still this time allowed for a little exploration into the oeuvres of other past masters, including Walter Tevis's fine Mockingbird, John Wyndham's haunting The Day of the Triffids and Robert Silverberg's engrossing Tom O'Bedlam. The absolute pick of the bunch had to be the very old mastery of H. G. Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau, an incredible mix of pre-pre-Ballardian body horror and creepy dreaminess. Excellent stuff! (It's also the source of two curious films, the first, from 1976, looking like it fell off the back of a lorry bound for The (original) Planet of The Apes and the second, from 1994, being apparently a dream project that turned into a nightmare. Still, it's an entertaining enough watch - it's just a shame the core of the book was jettisoned (and not just by Marlon Brando completely refusing and losing his marbles) when the look and feel were more than up to, er, scratch. Here's hoping the team behind the newer POTApes trilogy decide to sink their teeth into an adaptation – that, boy oh boy, would be worth queuing up for a boat to the island for!


And so FROM HELL got a 'director's cut' (according to Eddie Campbell). As Rob said last last year, "FROM HELL was this year's top notch rediscovery. Rereading for the first time (and having obviously revised his opinion of Eddie Campbell's art in a 100% volte face) there was much for Rob to enjoy in this exhaustive and deep work from the endless mind of Alan Moore. There's the odd foray into writer's stodge, there's no denying that, but also moments of sheer power - several scenes towards the end of the book are almost transcendent in their rendering." Only now in (not nearly as bad as it looked from the sample pages posted online) FULL COLOR! 

AKIRA also got a wonderful 35th anniversary box set edition courtesy of publisher Kodansha, overseas fans getting the first proper opportunity to experience Katsuhiro Otomo's epic as originally intended. Readers may or may not know that manga artists prefer their artwork is not 'flipped' for printing (and ease of reading) abroad as it can show up imperfections in their drawing (as any artist who has held their work up to the mirror *shudder!* will surely testify!). An essential gargantuan masterwork of comics!


Of course, this list is less exhaustive and more exhausted (2018 notable for omitting the tremendous This Is Us - another amazing television programme that hit the canvas at the end of its second season - and the near-faultless The League of Gentlemen, Live Again! stage show). It's not even as if Rob'll completely escape the clutches of 2019 any time soon, what with Jodie's Doctor Whottaker just starting her (crucial) second season and hefty BBC adaptations of Dracula, War of the Worlds and The Name of the Rose to plough through.... How that's going to leave Rob any time to dig out and dust down his DVD collection of the third season of Twin Peaks is anyone's guess.... 

And the pick of the year? Hmm, no new Pusherman rarities unfortunately – although Youtube did offer up a few super fascinating gig snippets of end of Jon Baker-era The Charlatans, featuring his playing on tracks - 'Normality Swing' and 'Can't Get Away' destined to appear on their second (Bakerless) album Between 10th and 11th. It has to be, however, this concluding cut from EARTH's 'Full Upon Her Burning Lips' album. It hit a home run at their Glasgog gig and, really, it's as much the evocative title of the sparse track as the yawning, desperate, dustbowl of a riff. This, ladies and gentlemen, is (a most apt) 'A Wretched Country of Dusk'....

Earth - A Wretched Country of Dusk