Thursday 22 February 2024

UndergRound Up of the Year, Part 2....

I know how you feel....

With Part 1 taken care of it's now time to get on with the serious music business, one that's stopped Rob from taking a one way trip 'doon the watter', the lure of the Clyde a mere 2 minutes from his work, else he suffers in total silence, itself the sound of amazing and precious existence passing by, totally taken for granted.... (Nothing heartless intended here, mind, as rest assured Braw will get to honouring the terrible loss of  John G. Miller in a more comprehensive manner come the summer....)

First up, The Orb's most welcome Prism arrived in Spring 2023 and like 2018's NSOOB (which is itself going through something of a resurgence Rob-side), when shorn of 2 middling middle tracks that bog it down - Tiger and Dragon of the Ocean (Dogon Mix) FYI - makes for a pleasantly compact hour of quality late-era Orb outings. There’s no doubt in his mind that this current iteration of the good starship, with excellent Ensign Michael Rendall now at the controls ‘making it so’ for Captain Alex Paterson, is one of Rob’s favourite and most consistent Orbular excursions – there being plenty of ‘take it or (mostly) leave it’ pairings and albums over the years – 2020’s Abolition of The Royal Familia lp being an absolute highlight, the crown jewels in their trilogy thus far….

The Orb - Picking Tea Leaves and Chasing Butterflies

If only DRAP/they could bring that same forward thinking and confidence in their material to their live shows – Paterson has collaborated on 5(!) extra-curricular albums (Chocolate Hills x2, OSS x1 , Sedibus x2) in a flurry of ambi-entertainment in recent years – instead of treading retro water with endless anniversary themed tours. See farrrrr below for the (not quite so) grim details of how they faired in the UFlesh….

The rest of The Orb's other huge ever-pulsating discography continued to delight, whether it was the joy of Rob's own Cydonia: Redux - throwing away the rule book and making the best double album possible from Cydonia and the Orbsessions I and II originals- or the sheer Thrash-tastic rising sunnyness of their unearthly YMO Technodon Remixes II....

....to the thump-tastic mid(dling)-era Dave Gilmour collaboration Metallic Spheres (given an extra twist/track thanks to an extended Japanese import, and a somewhat pointless 2023 makeover to render it 'in colour' which, like almost all post-94 Orb, is passable enough without being wholly essential)....

Again, thanks to the Orb Music & Remixes Facebook group, Rob's been delving deeper and deeper into the Live 93 era, an astonishing, fluid, ever-evolving, deftly ambient yet seriously banging time - woah, Brixton! - thanks to space cadet supreme Thrash  manning the controls, capably setting them for the heart of the Ultraworld.... Yes, Paterson returned relatively unscathed but it seems Kris Weston resides there still, lost in space....

Valley (Live at Trekkoner Sunset Festival, Copenhagen, 1993) 

And, gee, if Rob isn't totally mad for this live stuff, and the above hitherto unexplored version of Valley in particular, a strange, cavernous thing that just weaves its minimal components together so expertly and hypnotically - it's somehow achingly hollow and impossibly emotionally gargantuan at the same time (as opposed to the planet swallowing sonics of the dribbling loon of the eventual overstuffed studio version). Sad to say the sheer audacity of how unhinged The Orb were live, the careening sounds and oddly nostalgic samples, often gets Rob giggling at the work photocopier, completely adrift in this this deep, private universe that is so warm, so nourishing and so (blissfully) removed from any reality....

With all things quiet on The Charlatans creative front in 2023 Rob felt duly obliged - as did they if their retro joint tours with RIDE are anything to go by - to rewind the clock 30 years to 1993, scouring his hard drives and record collection to concoct his own 'deluxe edition' of third album, 1994's Up To Our Hips, comprising the lp itself, various b-sides, some demos and a few choice live cuts....


.... revelling in what was to be their last truly Hammond heavy offering courtesy of late keyboard maestro Rob Collins. Cheers! (The Blackpool leg of Day Tripper, an excellent live bootleg in itself, got its own separate makeover too....)   


Encouraged by an article on The Quietus (here >>) Rob decided to give the middle-age spread of Pink Floyd's ‘Wish You Were Here’ a rest and instead indulge himself with some choice (overground bootleg) cuts from their early 70’s space rock peak, the period when they drifted far out en route to exploring The Dark Side of the Moon, taking in such concerts and venues as Atomized (Paris 1970, John Peel), Electric Factory (Philadelphia 1970), New Mown Grass (San Diego 1971), Rainbow Theatre (London 1972) and the exceptional, epic eruption of 1972's masterful Live At Pompei....


Other records that bubbled up included the drifting country tumbleweed of William Tyler’s finger pickin' good Impossible Truth and Modern Country albums, the affecting sonic squall of Canyon’s Live in NYC, the primitive riff 'n' rumble of Earth’s A Bureaucratic Desire for Extra-Capsular Extraction, the pre-and-post-millennial rebel yells of Primal Scream’s XTRMNTR and More Light, the woozy Americana of Brightblack's lush Ala Cali Tucky, the proto-Charlatans Hammond swirl of The Prisoner’s spiky and charged take on rock 'n' soul on The Last Fourfathers, the cult-born assembly cut of Mansun’s hefty Kleptomania collection and the folking fantastic chill out oddity of the FLK’s cheeky and cannily curated We Know Where The Time Goes....

With Slowdive returning with their second post-reunion album, the truly slow burn emoting of Everything Is Alive, Rob decided - with a little help from a certain former Teenage Shoegazer - to delve that bit deeper into the 90s heyday of 'the scene that celebrates itself', first-footing (and occasionally revisiting) all things FX pedals from the likes of Lush, Paris Angels, Pale Saints, Swervedriver, Chapterhouse and Curve....

One of Rob's discoveries of the year was a seismic spacial shift into the far out sounds of early Hawkwind - his only prior exposure is the thundering sonic attack of their live Space Ritual - wallowing in their much more nuanced on record outsider SF optimism (tethered to earth only by delights). But after 50 years - or 'half a century', that being a more apt SF term, surely? - such wide-eyed stargazing has accumulated a definite and definitive 'what if?' wistful melancholy, a time capsule drifting in outer space waiting for eager cadets to dock and discover them afresh....

Techno-wise there was plenty to choose from, be it System 7’s rattling 777, Dreadzone’s dub-centric debut 360, Loop Guru’s wonderfully worldly Amrita (...and all these Japanese soup warriors), Mount Florida’s chilled melange of orbanic, dubby and ambient infusion on Arrived Phoenix and the Storm, Strut and Stealth Eps, or how about the grand techno of X-Mix-2-4, Laurent Garnier, John Acquaviva, Ritchie Hawtin and Dave Angel all knocking it out the mid-90s park with their classic evergreen club mixes. Unbeatable beats indeed….


There were a few favourite (Original Motion Picture) soundtracks that cropped up this year too, the menacing jazz of Bernard Hermann’s cooly threatening Taxi Driver, John Barry’s brilliant The Black Hole, the Oz evocative sounds of Peter Best’s chirpy Crocodile Dundee, the woozy early ambience of VangelisBlade Runner, pretty much anything by Joe Hisaishi for the Studio Ghibli animations, each as emotionally stirring and inspired as the last....


(but not least, thanks to a surprise find in MISSING) there’s Dudley Moore’s masterful and deliciously devilish score for Bedazzled….


And, much like the dusty DVD, the humble CD has also hit such a low that serious scouring of the charity shelves cannot fail to bring occasional bargain rewards - I mean, Grateful Dead's Skull and Roses for 33p! - or, say, the perfectly passable post-rock formulas of ISIS and This Will Destroy You (25p each), or the morose songwriter sprawl of Sun Kil Moon’s Ghosts of the Great Highway (25p) to the giddy guitar godliness(?!) of the best of Jimi Hendrix (33p), the doomy indie of Interpol's Turn On The Bright Lights (50p), the heady early hip hop rush of Ultramagnetic MC’s Critical Beatdown (99p), or more bang on banging ambient techno from System 7 on their sleek Power of Seven7 (99p)....

Grateful Dead - Wharf Rat (Live at Fillmore East, New York, NY, April 26, 1971)

....or perhaps the proto-techno of Kraftwerk’s masterful Man Machine (99p), the flippant komische of Fujiya and Miyagi's Transparent Things (25p), The Engineer’s gentle nu-gaze of In Praise of More (25p, double cd!), the bombastic clatter of Secret Machines’ star searching Now Here Is Nowhere (25p), the blissful stretched out space disco of (Prins Thomas’ pal) Lindstrom on Where You Go I Go Too (50p, double cd!), coming full circle with (re)purchases of The Chemical Brothers' Leave Home (99p) and Dig Your Own Hole (33p). Life is Sweet indeed (well, far better than the blundering Beatles-aping Setting Sun, for sure)….


Christmas came early in 2023* in the amazing (if wallet busting!) shape of 'I'm Still Waiting', an 11 LP box set of all of Acetone's albums. Of course, this means the lot have duly arrived on Spotify - preceded by, y'know, a rather perfect home-made, ahem, Youtube channel - so now there's simply no excuse not to give this absolutely amazing band some of your sweet sweet time....

*It honestly did, arriving in mid-November with a glut of terrible themed television adverts, I'm even docking Film4 a point for screening 'It's A Wonderful Life' around that time....  


Although not without its own (internal) problems this year, Bandcamp still managed to offer up a few tunes that grabbed Rob by the ear, the shimmering Sun Electric offering up the glorious, exemplary ambient techno sheen of Live at Votivcirche Wien, Nick McCabe again reaching for new guitar shapes on his endlessly experimental Present Imperfect instrumentals, while William Tyler also set out on a similar journey with Frozen Shelter - melted and vanished from there, sorry - and old-time Braw faves Amanset made a surprise return with more of the same-ish fuzzed out warmth on For Forever, and, it goes without saying (only Rob is saying), there’s always time to mention the gnarly ambient of fellow Scots* Fordell Research Unit and the rumbling stutter of Boobs of Doom – check ‘em out!

*and, y'know, Rob guesses there's plenty room here to plug his own heady The Mind Robbers modest (!) The Guitar Thanks God I Exist, 2008-2018 compilation....

In June Rob took himself off to Glasgow's OVO Hydro to catch up with The War On Drugs, perhaps a little too under-over excited, finding their spacious and rousing rock and soul uplifting in the main - Pain, Harmonia's Dream, Under The Pressure, Old Skin and I Don't Live Here Any More all hit home - but oddly plodding the rest of the time, their 'winning formula' being exactly that - sing-soaring solo-sing-soaring solo/outro - while their onstage 'bonhomie' had a tendency to tip over into the faintly ridiculous (large) arena of rock star parody, frontman Adam Granduciel often coming across all Jack Black/Tenacious D while drummer Charlie Hall, his perm illuminated and billowing in some manufactured breeze was more laughable Eastbound & Down daft than exuding any E-Street cool. And yet, y'know, for days after Rob's mind was awash with mashed up fragments of their songs, a 24/7 mental comfort blanket. Weird, huh?

On a much more down to earth trip, November saw Rose City Band make a more than welcome return to these shores, stopping off at The Hug and Pint to play to an enthusiastic sold out crowd of 80 fortunate punters (who can say, "I was there!"). While they're not a million miles away from The War On Drugs - there's less 'heart on sleeve' emoting and a more passive, vague wistfulness, 'porch music' as they've self-coined it - there just seemed so much more space (man....) for their more than capable members to move around in musically (but not actually, given the jam-packed tiny stage), the mix of pedal steel, 'Rippleying' guitar, and jazzy Brian Auger-esque keyboards, all riding a tight, rock solid rhythm section. This adept deftness helps them never lose their clarity or to tumble over into the indulgent or contrived. And, yes, thank the guitar gods, as per last year they wrapped up their set with a blissful run through of Dawn Patrol -the very song that reminded Rob why he loves keyboards in the first place. Paul Hasenberg's playing is an absolute swirling and dizzying delight!


Contrary to his best instincts Rob recently took himself off to see The Orb – last seen trashing the Ultraworld at the swoeful SWG3 in 2017 – tempted (duh!) by their current Ultraworld/UFOrb run-through/cash-grab. On the plus side this time the gig was at the QMU, a Braw fave, while on the back side of the moon… actually, it wasn’t too terrible, though condensing 3 hours of deft ambience into 1 hour 45 – yep, there was an unannounced and needless left-field support eating up precious Towers of Dub time – left little room for, well, deft ambience, the sonics swallowed up by a booming 4/4 beat clumsily aimed at the legs and not the brain, thus orbliterating their ‘layering sounds on top of each other’ mantra. Just about everything suffered the same fate, the sweltering breeze of O.O.B.E. simply blown away by the sudden gust of lumbering drums (far too) early doors – at one point there was an interminable 4/4 that could have been anything (or nothing) before Rob realised it was Assassin (just as it drew to a close). Sure, it’s fine for A Huge...., and UFOrb is characteristically a bit heavier on the ‘dance’ elements, but still….

The Orb - Super Nova at the End of the Universe

Thankfully all was not lost (in a retro reverie) for, just as Rob feared it was all over, we were treated to Abolition’s Daze and some of (Prism’s) H.O.M.E., before a blissfull, dubby four to the floor free Super Nova At The End of The Universe saved the day/night, charged, as it was, with so much welcome space and groove – a total treat! Of course, there was no getting away from the gathering Little Fluffy Clouds, but the predictable rainy day clump clump dampener of that was then wonderfully washed away by a fresh and sprightly Ghetto Love Story, a great grin plastered over the end of a mixed bag of a gig….


Without a doubt Bobby Gillespie’s Tenement Kid was Rob’s (surprise) stand-out ‘weekend' (auto)biography of 2023, a passionate and insightful look into the ‘Scream’ frontman’s formative years, a love note (albeit at times a spiky one!) to the raw power of punk, the faith in one’s life choices and friends and the unity and optimism of 80s rave culture, an astonishing and detailed book – Gillespie writes about the music, drugs, fashion, and politics that shaped him with real depth and passion, peeling back the layers of Primal Scream (and his beloved JAMC) to reveal much more motivations than their (carefully constructed) hedonistic front ever suggested. More highly recommended than the sun!

Primal Scream - Kill All Hippies

Of course, it all unravels somewhat if you put the later deaths of Throb and Martin Duffy through the same perspective, harsh realities and sad ends that undermine Bobby’s near-evangelical mantras to ‘higher states of consciousness' – he celebrates Robert Young’s sudden creative transformation under heroin with beguiling gusto. Again, there’s far too many references to ‘sheep’ and ‘straights’ throughout – er, likely a bulk of the folk who’ve bought his records over the years – which falls a little flat considering when Rob copped him on the phone through a Glasgow hotel window he was on a Smart phone. And, y’know, sorry, but whatever you think of your outsider punk credentials, owning one of those devices makes you the very worst type of conformist sheep, Bobby….


By comparison Stuart Braithwaite’s Spaceships Over Glasgow seemed distinctly lightweight – you could argue (on the surface) that if Bobby Gillespie revealed the art behind the hedonism then Stuart revealed the hedonism behind the art – for reasons best known only to himself – a life of pills and thrills and the resultant bellyaching as he gets royally wasted with just about every influential left-field alternative guitar act of the late 90s....

Mogwai - Helicon 1

While there’s something distinctly Scottish, and thereby very amusing, about Mogwai’s refreshingly mindless (mis)adventures – unlike Primal Scream(‘s later years), they’re not beholden to some sort of mythical (ie. horribly dated, tired and totally cliched) “rock and roll” ethos as embodied by The Rolling Stones. One thing's for sure there’s no pre-existing template for Mogwai’s (mis)behaviour…. which is perhaps what sucks all the glamour from proceedings, akin to a Glaswegian superhero (of BMX) pounding the litter-strewn and rainy streets here being ridiculous when lined up against the likes of Spider-Man web-slinging his way through the unimaginably glamourous streets of New York – it’s not like you’d ever see him doing anything as pedestrian as queuing up in Mo’s 24 Hour Store, bottle of Irn-Bru in hand….

Mogwai - Yes! I Am A Long Way From Home

Still, you can’t shake the feeling the music exists in spite of their antics rather because of it - a hard point to put down in words (but Rob’s for trying nonetheless) - there isn’t a huge- amount of insight into the creative process itself, with just a handful of interesting tidbits for each of the earlier albums before we sprint through their later years. What you have to admire is the band’s rise, it seems almost effortless from their DIY beginnings – there’s not much of the self-questioning toil that peppers Bobby’s tome – and was bullishly, purely on their own terms (which only goes to make their ongoing Rock Action label and As The Love Continues #1 album status 25 years later even more of a resounding triumph in retrospect)…. Still, it’s not the worst by a long shot – we’re not reduced to guddling around in a chemical toilet for worthwhile spoils as per Alan McGhee or Bez’s totally tedious autobiographical tomes, but neither are we superior emotionally skyscraping a la the top tier likes of Bruce Springsteen or Bob Dylan….

Following on from last year's astounding Children of Time came the two sequels, Children of Ruin and Children of Memory, books which could never hope to match the first's astounding burst of ideas - the second could never be as good, but it has no right to be this good - even it's close second is still light years ahead of the year's other reads.... Adrian Tchaikovsky wrapped up his trilogy with a grounded, less expansive third book, a highly skilled 'companion' novel to the one-two punch of the others, still deft, still brimming with ideas, still crazily readable, but not wholly essential....

2023 saw William Boyd, Rob's favourite 'straight' author, make a welcome return with The Romantic, another of his trademark 'cradle to the grave' novels, all historical twists and turns - Boyd likes to sucker punch his characters and readers alike - in what was an excellent read, with a genuinely memorable ending. The Blue Afternoon, an earlier, shorter novel, also got a reread, revealing it to be almost like the midsection of the above, the hopeless narrator trapped in a loveless marriage only to embark on a doomed affair, although this time expertly framed in a captivating murder mystery.... (It's worth mentioning here The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, a book almost proto-Boyd in a sense, a fine balance of  thriller-ish tension and the blackly comic at the same time, concerning a scared, indecisive Jewish man criss-crossing Germany (in vain) in a doomed bid to escape the Nazis....)

If any book was to throw modern life (and all it's superfluous indulgences) into stark contrast it was Alistair MacLean's brutal HMS Ulysses. Based in part on his own wartime seafaring experience it was a truly astonishing, emotional and humbling read - the Poppy Foundation ought to give away free copies every year! - that made Rob understand all the better the selfless sacrifice of "those that died so that we may live", for at the heart of this book lies the true 'cost of living crisis'.... 

Add to the above a double dose of George Orwell's eternally powerful 'state of the nation' books, Down and Out In Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier and the sobering thoughts were piled on aplenty, more than enough to counter the glut of fantastical fiction Rob absorbed, rendering those hyper-evolved spiders and malevolent killer clowns somewhat pointless.... 

While not quite in the same category, Allie Morgan’s The Librarian still had it’s finger on the state of the current nation’s (weak) pulse, a pertinent slice of life novel about delivering front line library services in Scotland, all ‘broken Britain’, austerity cuts and brave facing up to (or should that be facing down?) the limiting council red tape encountered at every turn (of the page). The reality, for that is what it is, is much more interesting, given Rob once worked a Library Assistant’s shift with “Allie” herself, and so he knows many of the parties (who have had their “names changed to protect the innocent/guilty”) involved in this quasi-autobiographical tall tale, as well as identifying with the plight of the librarian’s pain and pleasure, including many of the overarching themes that course through this enlightening book….

With Alan Partridge again scoring a bullseye - or should that be spearing a b-lister? - with the razor sharp I, Nomad, there was a second entry into the fake autobiography category in the simian shape of James Lever's Me, Cheeta, a strange and compelling book - you'll often forget it's supposedly written by a chimp - that packs a considerable emotional punch due to Cheeta's undying love towards Johnny 'Tarzan' Weismuller and her rejection of Jane's constant reaching for civilisation, her infuriating 'time-disease' that threatens to undermine the joy, the 'dreaming' of the sanctuary of the 'escarpment' (film set). Sadly the 'immortals' of which she speaks (often in scathing and revealing detail) such as Bogart, Chaplin and Niven are already perhaps slipping from view, but nevertheless as the book weaves towards its melancholy climax it proves that the 'magic' may indeed be preserved 'up there' (on the big screen) forever even if time eventually catches up with us all....

Stephen King-wise Rob tackled three of his more linear novels, The Dark Half and The Dead Zone, finding their single central character arcs and length a little more to his liking (than, say, committing to a sprawling epic like The Stand, with it's giant cast and 1000+ pages of reading). Pet Sematary came billed as King's 'scariest book', but Rob found it his bleakest, his blackest, his most nightmarish and brutal, bordering on the unpleasant and repulsive - the way he punishes and pummels his characters without mercy is pure unflinching horror in every sense. If The Shining could be considered the fear of what a father could do to his son, then Pet Sematary perhaps asks what a father would do for his son....

With those three Kings under his belt, Rob then ignored his own advice (above) and added several more notches to allow for the gargantuan undertaking that is IT, 1300 pages of quite astonishing novel - the kind of book that sets you wondering, 'how the hell could all this possibly come out of one person's mind?' - IT is that good, an incredible, epic, titan of a book - there's a lot of devils in King's detail for damned sure! Even the slightly 'eh?' aspects of the ending - perhaps a stretch too fantastical for Rob, but nowhere near the 1200 page buzzkill some vocal corners of the internet'd have you believe - could not detract from the towering achievement....

And while we're on the subject, could there be a more pleasant way to while away an afternoon tucked up sick and snuffly in bed than breezing through Cycle of the Werewolf, all the while admiring Bernie Wrightson's startling and evocative illustrations....

From 'Sob Miller'

This year's favourite quote comes from the strange, and strangely powerful The People's Act of Love by James Meek....

'I'm thirsty,' said Mutz. 'Let me put some snow on my tongue.' Bondarenko didn't say anything and his hand didn't move towards his gun and Mutz kneeled down and cupped a light heap of snow in his palm. He stood up and put his tongue into the cold powder. The ice crystals hurt and their taste went deep. Mutz the boy and Mutz the man recognised each other and for an instant he was engulfed by a joy so intense that he could hardly stand.


After a brief ‘separation’ - move over Billy Connolly, sorry - it was inevitable that Rob would eventually return to the love of his (mid-)life (crisis) Dudley Moore, fuelling the flames of passion with his delightful, playful An Audience with... and career high-point Arthur (which he found a bit perplexing and underwhelming) as well as rattling through two further biographies – Rob now has a book to match the number of wives ‘cuddly Dudley’ had! In spite of his initial trepidation at covering the same ground for a third and fourth time, Rob was soon smitten with the tales of Moore’s (exhausting) early days of performing, composing, acting (and carousing!) seemingly 24/7, the highlights of the footlights….


….then aghast as his later life truly unravelled, the lowlights of the bright lights – it’s as if his roving eye got the ultimate comeuppance in the spiky form of 4th wife Nicole Rothschild who, by all (these) accounts, terrorized and dominated him into a state of fearful anxiety, draining his wallet just when his (fading film) career ought to have been settling into a tranquil musical (final) phase. Not that dear Dudley could help himself – indeed, all he wanted to do was help himself, continually! – ever-chasing a (perpetual sexual) high with the aid of ecstasy and speed (and prostitutes!) while unable to extricate himself from this crushing love-hate relationship….


Rena Fruchter’s book then picks up where Barbara Paskin’s ‘authorised biography’ ends (on an upbeat-ish note post-Moore’s firing from The Mirror Has Two Faces) to add a very sad and sorry coda, detailing not only the conclusion of the tempestuous Rothschild marriage but also his diagnosis and struggle with PSP, a particularly cruel (and incurable) disease that robbed him of his faculties, the most precious being his desire to see out his days in peace playing the piano (making his Dudley and Songs Without Words albums highly recommended listening). Truly heart-breaking stuff….

Comics-wise Earth X was 2023's heavy hitter, a dense (or maybe that's just Rob?) tale that manages to sweep the entire MARVEL universe up into a single, epic book. Maybe there's a bit too much Sentinels, Deviants, Celestials and Inhumans action/chat going on, but it's absolutely worth it with (the late) John Paul Leon's moody and evocative artwork - rarely has such a thorough comic book history lesson looked this damned good!

Jock's iconic Batcover + Batconspiracy by Frank Quitely

Scott Snyder's intriguing The Black Mirror headed up the Bat-entry in 2023 - it's just a shame that it's great story is beholden to/spoiled by the then DCU continuity - y'know, Batman's elsewhere/dead, while Nightwing is maskuerading as Batman and Robin is currently Damien (Batman's son) and all that pointless Batcrap - but again, the wonderful artwork by Francesco Francavilla and some iconic covers by Jock (his interiors are admittedly less interesting) make it worth a bit of a Bat-punt for sure....


And with the publication of the fifth and final volume of Polish underground sensation Jez Jerzy then the shelf, if not the mammoth task of actually translating and reading, was finally complete....

There were two further heavy, heavy losses on the braw radar this year - as if the truth behind MF DOOM's passing didn't hit hard enough - as Brian McBride of warm wooze wizards Stars of the Lid – their Even If You’re Never Awake and Requiem For Dying Mothers are bona-fide ambient classics, firm Braw favourites – marking a huge loss for (fans of) left-field sonic explorers everywhere….


....and, about as polar opposite as you could get, there was the loss of comedian Barry Humphries who chaperoned Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson to the great stage in the sky, joining contemporaries like Peter Cook and Dudley MooreHumphries got a start (of sorts) at Cook’s The Establishment club in the 60’s and never looked back – leaving the world a distinctly less jolly place….

And what, dare you ask, of Braw’s 2023, a year that began with much bravado and optimism as regards working on the John Stark comic only to have crumbled entirely in the past month with the passing of John Miller…? Well, you’re looking at the sum total of Rob’s creative output above – those 3 hour work brainstorming sessions have to be good for something, right? As for now finishing John Stark: Secret Agent itself, who can say what the future holds - there's 50 or so pages of strips 'good to go', but without a definite ending and John's recovered pages of 'work in progress' still to be assessed, then….



As usual the year rounds up with Rob trying to pin down (perhaps) the best thing he saw (or heard), the one moment that touches his (lost) soul (when most needed or unexpected) these past 12 months-ish. Could it have been a gnarled looking Matthew McConaughey rolling back the years, simply transforming himself with a loving smile as he held his Grandson(?) in White Boy Rick, or Bill Camp’s surreal tale about flying his plane through a flock of geese in Paul Dano's Wildlife? Or watching, heart in mouth, as various characters clambered all over the Eiffel Tower with scant regards for (evidently non- existent 1970s’ ) health and safety in the pure sugar rush of Zazia Dans Le Metro? Or maybe it was the welcome return of John Squire to music, (a swaggering Liam Gallagher in tow – ah, you can’t have everything - making them, what, Squallagher, surely?) with the almost coming up Roses but honestly more Seahorses-shaped Just Another Rainbow and Mars To Liverpool. Then there was Catterick, of course, covered last time. For now the winner is BRMC's Let The Day Begin - the song and the video - which tended to crop up on those late night soul and Youtube searching sessions that we all have from time to time. All Rob can say in a vague attempt to pin it down is that it's simply alive with the world....

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - Let The Day Begin

Wednesday 31 January 2024

John G. Miller, 1954 - 2024


Devastated at the passing of John Miller. A true original, a great friend and a defiantly underground character dedicated to his unique craft and a love of comics in general. Be rest assured his story is not finished....

Thursday 11 January 2024

UndergRound Up of the Year, Part 1....

 

And so we bid goodbye to 2023, the forward-looking year in which The Beatles topped the singles chart, The Rolling Stones topped the album chart, Doctor Who him/her/itself hit 60 and Agent Rob did a Dylan and went "electric" (er, toothbrush, that is). A year where it was all about UK television, specifically the people on it (or not), the nation yawning its way through lengthy self-perpetuating, self-justifying media stories as if the BBC and ITV were playing a vast, pointless game of tit for, well, tit as Lineker, Schofield, and Edwards dominated the news, while politicians, the absolute lowest of the low, lined up to throw stones from their eternal glass houses, happy that this trite wallpaper covered the cracks and tracks of their underhand dealings in the increasingly brutal and cruel times we (barely) exist in.... All the death and destruction of the wider world is enough to put any trip by Scotrail into perspective.... Still, that didn't stop Rob from trying to have a good time over the past 12 months. So please read on and enjoy the year gone by's pointless 'pundown'.... (as 2024's will no doubt be farted out by some AI blogbot).... 


Dun da dun dun! Now, did Indiana Jones and The Dial of Destiny deliver or was Ford phoning it in for the fifth installment of the archaeological franchise...? Hmm, it's hard to say if it was either relevant or relic (or what actual audience it hoped to capture). The de-aged ex-tended intro, sticking to the later The Last Crusade/The Kingdom of Skulls - see that whole film just an edit/draft away from hitting the spot - formula, looked exceptional for the most part. Only occasionally did it dip into Spielberg's Tintin-esque uncanny valley, though the action itself, conducted in that bluey fake CG darkness never quite hit the spot - watching Tom Cruise being a right stunt in the Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning trailer beforehand just highlighted how hard a sell imaginary action is on the big screen. Then, of course, choosing time travel is about as iffy a concept as big brained aliens - you could imagine if they'd walked through a portal at the end other than (snip - no spoilers!) it would have shaved about $150 million off the bloated budget. Still, Ford put in a typically grizzled shift as the ageing archaeologist - Rob had genuine fears after his decidedly wobbly turn in The Risible of Skywalker - the visual and character call-backs were reasonably well handled, even if it all had a sense of being a bit lifeless and humourless (in spite of Fleabag playing, er, Fleabag). But, hey, just imagine if JJ had got his horrible fanboy mitts on it. Every cloud.... 


If it was zip and zing and and bang and whizz and pop you were after then (in another evergreen franchise that never seems to die) there was the sheer visual fizz of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, which genuinely burst off the screen in a explosion of kinetic animation (thanks in part to a fellow Scot). Then again, like self-proclaimed "permanent teenager" Seth Rogan, as a watch it was a likeable and passable enough without actually being remotely funny....


Who isn't looking forward to this lady roaring into mad multiplexes in May 2024? Though admittedly the trailer looks nothing special.... But in George (the other one!) we trust (to bring his A-game to big budget B-movie thrills)....


It was a quieter year for films on the big small screen this year, though Film Four still managed a select crop of their usual mix of world and indie cinema, screening the likable likes of Mandy, The Lighthouse, White Boy Rick, Beyond The Infinite 2 Minutes, To Live and Die in LA, Bombshell, Special Delivery and Anais In Love....


Elsewhere it was much the same, Talking Pictures TV having a yield somewhat on the grainier side too, but still they stuck to their favoured formula of the culty, the curio and the kinda crappy with She, Vanishing Point, Death Race 2000, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, Cisko Pike and The Knack and How To Get It.... 


Other than that Freeview was able to scrape together such treats as M.A.S.H., Wild Men, Horror Express, Master Cheng, Halloween, I Think We're Alone Now and Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close....


As ever, that Glasgow city centre stalwart Missing Records - a twice a week saviour from the dull, decidedly dead ends of Rob's work - provided a plentiful, ever-shifting stock landscape absolutely ideal for periodical 'pocket money' purchases (helped a huge amount by their Black Friday-esque half price DVD/Blu-ray fest around mid-November)....


And, gee, did their 50p each for '3 for £1' DVD (and occasional Blu-ray!) deliver - it's just a case of diligently sifting through the dingy piles of Danny Dyers and Daniel Craig Bonds in search of those surprise punts - this year offering up such bargain hunts as the weird and wonderful likes of Babette's Feast, Day Watch, Night Watch, Tron: Legacy, Gridlock'd, Rudo and Cursi, The Streetfighter, Flash Gordon, Close Encounters, Richard Pryor, Lowdown, Planet of the Apes (Blu-ray!) Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy (Blu-ray a quid!) and Star Wars: The Last Jedi (admittedly at 33p on Blu-ray still far too expensive)....
 

Again, now that the humble DVD has tumbled so much in (resale) value across the board - we're talking 2 for £1, 50p or 3 for £1, 50p or 4 for £1 and, on one startling, if impossible occasion, a whopping 10 for £1! - then charity shopping*, that diligent search for the 1 or 2 or 3 (or often a great 2 and one that'll do) diamonds in the second tier MARVELTransformersStar Wars PTBruce WillisNic Cage , John BishopMichael McIntyre and romcom rough also kept Rob busy in 2023....

*After which you either just trade them in or donate again and, voila, the non-degradable circle is complete....


....offering up such random rarities as Joe (good Nic Cage, ahem), I Am Not A Witch (Blu-Ray, still sealed!), Win-Win, Theeb, 13 Assassins, Storytelling, Festen, Dracula AD1972, Iron Monkey, Jin-Roh, The Measure of A Man, Weiner Dog, The Beat That My Heart Skipped, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Once Upon a Time in The WestZazi Dans Le Metro, Cape Fear (1962), Allegro and Waiting For Guffman....


And, as ever, for those slightly harder to source oddities - as in the excellent Adam's Apples or ace anime Wings of Honneamise - there's always eBay or Music Magpie on hand, those old chestnuts (for to buy other folk's old chestnuts)....


Of course, it's not always a case that those diamonds in the rough turn out to truly shine, as can certainly be said for such DVD duds as The Wild Bunch, The Super, Tony Takitani, The Silent Flute, Let The Sunshine In and Quentin Tarantino's woeful Wild West stinker The Hateful Eight....


And so television-wise Doctor Who returned for its much trumpeted (by the BBC!) 60th birthday with NuWho saviour Russell T. Davies back in the producer's hot seat in the hope of steering the TARDIS back into a more popular space. Strangely Rob always thought that the 'T' stood for 'Teatime', but, after an initial spike of excitement at seeing the first episode was based on a Mills/Gibbons 80's comic - a nice nod to an often overlooked Who Avenue (or an indication things are running out of steam?) - it seems this 'T' might actually stand for 'Troll'.... You could practically hear the Cloister Bell sounding on 'Woketor Who' forums across the globe* as the Tennant/Tate love-in commenced with The Star Beast. Unfortunately Rob's immune to their supposed twin charms, sorry, with Tennant looking like the oldest man at a Tintin convention while Tate barks out her lines with a curious lack of, well, anything....

*although they were too likely gnashing their (false) teeth over The Daleks In Colour (see below) to notice....


On the other hand Wild Blue Yonder smothered its inventive story in ghastly emoting - initially NuWho added a pleasing emotional dimension that soon slipped into endless sloppy sentimentality, the terrible 'Titanic in space' Xmas episode being Rob's nadir, and it's dogged David Tennant's drippy Doctor ever since - and a splurge of Di$ney dollars, evidently in the belief that 'more is more' (it isn't, far from it). At least The Giggle didn't have Rob wishing it would end after 45 minutes, but again the bloated 'look what we can do' budget - UNIT now have a nice shiny Avengers-esque HQ in central London - and shouty emoting edged out (or, in Tate's case, shouted down) a potentially interesting story.... that involved the Doctor undergoing a bi-regeneration (geddit?!) presumably so Tennant has an excuse to spin-off behind a Di$ney paywall with Tate - surely a fate worse than regeneration?! - and new Doctor Ncuti Gatwa has a chance to run around in his Y-fronts for 20 minutes. Still, for a(n understated) 60th bash it didn't overly pollute back into 'classic' Who, RTD keeping it very much (his own) NuWho centric with a restraint that can only be applauded....


Amazingly The Church of Ruby Sunday was a much more consistent and (reasonably) enjoyable viewing (shorn as it was of the RTD baggage being tied up in the previous 3 episodes). Even if the story was middling twaddle it cracked along at a fair pace with Ncuti Gatwa's shape-shifting Doctor - dare Rob say 'fluid'?cutting a suitably Shaft-esque figure (and thankfully not quite encapsulating the 'Captain Jack turned up to 11' Rob was anticipating/fearing from RTD). At one point Rob's pretty sure there's a 'was that the dinner bell?' call back to Colin Baker's incarnation. Though it has to be said that statements like, "I spent a long, hot summer with Harry Houdini” are obviously as intentionally loaded as they come, ahem, all delivered in Gatwa's strange (and variable) blend of broad Scots and gentle purr, while new companion Ruby Sunday settled into her obvious post-Rose/Clara cute boots well enough from the off. The proof will be in the pudding come May....


In terms of a genuine Timelord birthday treat there was 'The Daleks In Colour' on BBC4 - or, if you want to stick to the modern naming trend, how about 'The Colourisation of The Daleks'?, a 75 minute show that slimmed down and polished up in zinging colour the original classic(-ish) William Hartnell adventure (in time and space) that, well, started it all.... Not that it was perfect by any means, the merciless truncating of the story leading to a few 'huh?' moments (but Barbara putting her hand on the camera lens - one of Rob's all time fave tv moments - survived), while the new soundtrack seemed to be suitably, ambient, gloomy and perky as required - thankfully they kept another fave, the ominous 'dong!' that welcomed the Dalek City too. So not, given the muted response online, 'The Decimation of The Daleks' by any means, but instead something truly 'special' to be unwrapped for Who's 60th, the icing on the top of this particular cake being the end montage of the earliest era - yum!


The cake itself, of course, is the fact that the entire 'classic' era has arrived on iPlayer BBC iPlayer - Doctor Who (1963–1996) - a slice big enough for everyone! Tuck in!


Sticking with talk of the ever-ticking time travel theme, 2023 started with finishing Sapphire and Steel, Rob impressed by David McCallum's (RIP) icy cold turn and Joanna Lumley's warm, plummy performance. Clocking in at a mere 34 (30 minute) episodes - making it akin to The Prisoner's 17 hours of  locked up lunacy - the show succeeds on the strength of its (budget curtailed) claustrophobic settings, 1 per each of the 6 "assignments", and its small but uniformly excellent supporting casts - Steven O'Shea, Gerald James, Val Pringle (as Lead), David Collings (as Silver) and Edward De Souza and Christopher Fairbank (as Transient Beings) all merit a mention. Such a shame then that it concludes with the chilling menace of the Transients (only really beginning to suggest what further, deeper assignments may have been in store). Highly recommended viewing....

(One can only imagine how great mid-80's Doctor Who could have been had McCallum swiped the TARDIS keys from Colin Baker and fellow Scot Sylvester McCoy and delivered a similarly steely stint. Indeed, but for Mary Tamm's posh performance as Romana, the delightful Ms. Lumley - as was mooted around the time - could have given the pre-Whittaker Timelord a deliciously graceful tongue in cheek regeneration.) 


Kicking off with a trip into HBO's Lovecraft Country - once cancelled and now cancelled again along with star Jonathan Majors - a show that somehow ended up less than the sum of its stitched together parts - is it a horror, is it sci-fi, social commentary, history lesson, all of the above? That's not to say it wasn't sporadically great - the Jig-a-Bobo episode certainly brought the scares - but some of the overarching themes were surplus to requirements and Rob felt that often the core character drama - which ought to have been hard-hitting - was undermined by the fantastical events surrounding and thereby distracting from it. At it's best it evokes the similar WATCHMEN but is unable to be consistently enough batsh*t crazy to go toe-to-toe or, indeed, tentacle-to-tentacle with that show....


Showtime's Dexter: New Blood was certainly a pleasant televisual surprise, picking up as it did 10 years after the original half great/half ropey 8 seasons had (unsatisfactorily?) concluded. Indeed, for all its plot hole hokey dokeyness there was something immensely enjoyable (about, er, rooting for a serial killer...?) and curiously addictive about this bloody good series as a whole. Certainly it was far better than it had any right to be (especially when compared to an attempted rewatch of the hyperbad series 8 that didn't even last a single episode)....


Other TV shows aiming for if not hitting the spot every time included HBO's darkly funny Succession, their hit show about avoiding a corporate sh*tshow as ailing media mogul Brian Cox tried to control his self-centred sons and daughter as they wrestle for control of his self-made empire - horrible people doing horrible things! Then there was Glenn Close chewing up the scenery without mercy in FOX's dodgy legal drama Damages - which it was, being subject to the law of diminishing returns after 2 great opening seasons - and SKY's Fortitude, their fine foray into Twin Peaks-esque territory (though the ambience was decidedly chilly as opposed to warm)....


....the brutal gut-punch of SKY/HBO's truly chilling Chernobyl*, the genuine 'cost of living' crisis in the shape of HBO's superb, stately Band of Brothers and The Pacific, the tense home turf defense drama of FOX's war and terrorist Homeland and the BBC coming good not once, but twice, with the frazzled revenge Western of The English and the outback twist and turns of The Tourist**. Showtime scored another late winner with the first season of Yellowjackets, their feisty female footballers survivalist/survivors drama, although a killer but frustrating twist towards the end was almost an own goal - but Rob supposes that's the best telly doing its job, innit, if it provokes enough that you can't stop thinking/talking about it....

*proof indeed that everyone in a position of power knows absolutely nothing about anything, their only point being to make ill-educated and irreversible decisions on everything....

**Spoiler/spoiled alert! The second season just premiered and already it's a total stylistic bomb a la Killing Eve's fall from grace, paper thin characters spewing witless one-liners in a pointless morass of seen it all before violence. That it's been unceremoniously dumped on iPlayer in its entirety is a sure sign it's a post-Xmas turkey....


Hot on the fangs of What We Did In The Shadow's toothless third series, the (near enough) same team loaded up another mirthless misfire in the shipshape of Our Flag Means Death, a strange, expensive-looking but mostly tedious pirate-cum-bromance-cum-whatever-cum-'if all else fails just swear (a lot)' programme that was all at sea in every sense. Sunken, yes, treasure, no....


Time for Rob to eat some humble Bantha Pie as he has to admit that 'blAndor' (as he so wrongly tagged it last year) is easily the best Star Wars spin/rip-off so far, far away... Indeed it might be the very best Di$ney production of all - it's easily better than The Mandalorian (okay, but lazy) and The Book of Boba Fett (wayyyy beyond lazy) and the Rogue One film (director Gareth Edwards and company bashing all their OT toys together like mindless 8-year olds). Considering Cassian Andor and Jyn Erso were the least interesting characters in R1 - Rob dismissed Cassian as the 'world cinema' Han Solo at the time, with particular reference to the early fumble of the informant killer scene, as per Greedo, finding him dull and lacking in big screen charisma. (Just to note, while we're happily bashing post-Lucasfilm SW - check any sad middle-aged male for details - that all this makes Poe Dameron the 'cosplay' Han Solo.) But it has to be said that on the big small screen there's a better intensity to Diego Luna's performance, helped by the fact that he's supported by an excellent cast across the board - every actor seems to fit perfectly into inhabiting their smaller roles....


We're delving deep into life on the ground, the show expertly teasing out little unexplored corners of the galaxy in a welcome slow-burn fashion, watching as the Empire's vast boot grinds the universe under its heel. And it works! The show feels fresh in spite of its tendency to drain all the (Industrial) light and magic out of Star Wars - there's no Force, no sunlight, no sand to be found here (so likely it appeals to Rob's inherent bleak Scottishness). At first there's a creeping sense of flab - do we really need to round out every character? - but by the midpoint Rob just wanted more and more until, with a few episodes to go he then kinda just wanted it to end (which it did in a somewhat 'meh' fashion, having peaked around episodes 9 and 10). Still, Rob cannot wait for season 2 for this jewel in the Star Wars crown to blast off....


Contrary to Andor, Rob was pretty hyped for Season 1 of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, only to find that (the) 'Same Old Worlds' seems a better tag, the only substantial spin being that the Enterprise is crewed by a ticking time-bomb of mental health casualties, every member seemingly saddled with a secret or a doubt or an insecurity that makes you wonder just how this bunch of the Federation's finest (closet) f*ck-ups ever passed enough muster to make it into deep space! Not only is Mr. Spock so badly cast as to continually pull you out the story - this is embarrassing 'fancy dress' Spock, not even 'cosplay' level - but Captain Pike himself is so lackadaisical and unsure of himself - he's haunted by his impending death, gah! - it's doubtful whether you'd let him mix you a drink let alone command a Starship. As per Star Wars it looks a million dollars (7 per episode to be exact!), but as ever they sure didn't spend it on the writing. (To be honest the 'wee kiddie winkies' got it good/better with Star Trek: Prodigy....)


The biggest grin of the year - a strange fleeting pulse of pure happiness - was (inexplicably) reserved for Catterick, Vic and Bob's 2004 sitcomedy drama, er, experiment. Of course, it faded fast - it's not as if Rob was watching to see if it held up, considering it really didn't hold up in the first place.... But somehow amid all the (highly talented) mugging and laboured gags there's something unique at play, gleeful moments of joy/idiocy in this strange, uneven middle England of surreal static caravans, garden centre gunfights and tacky hotels (all a little uncomfortably spliced with post-Pulp Fiction/Lockstock violence) - the sheer fact that this deranged world exists at all is a cheering wonder to behold and something to cherish....

Catterick - Kinky Boots