Reviews

Album Review: Mountain – The Cold Stares

TheColdStares

Listening to some of the tracks on The Cold Stares’ latest album, Mountain, it makes sense that you’re listening to a duo. In fact, some of the haunting man-and-a-guitar tracks are so sparse that it might convince you that you’re listening to a solo bluesman. But on most of the songs here, when the band are cranking out material that wouldn’t seem out of place in the early 90s grunge scene, you’ll swear that there must be a least five members. You’d be wrong. The Cold Stares comprise singer/guitarist Chris Tapp and drummer Brian Mullins – and that’s it.

Released last year, this would have been right near the top of my end-of-year list. It runs to fifteen tracks, and although your favourites may change from one play to the next, there is no filler here. The songs alternative between the sparse arrangements of dark blues numbers with meatier fayre. Lyrically, the album is an intoxicating fusion of biblical references and Southern mythology. On “Friend of Mine” Tapp howls “Oh, Lord, bless my soul / been standing on the levee since I was six years old”, which, lyrically at least, is the album in a microcosm. There are references to the “Mississippi at my hips,” preachers, muddy water, and the characters that populate these songs often call out to Jesus or God for inspiration in some form or another.

The sparser numbers draw you in to the unfolding tale, where the characters feel real, such as on “The River”, a murder ballad in which Tapp deftly sketches out the grim story of how a Chevrolet came to be sunken at the bottom of a river. “Killing machine” kicks off with the lyric “Another man dead, I didn’t want to kill” before taking us through the protagonist’s thoughts like a haunting movie reel. Best of the slow songs is the title track that closes this collection – an atmospheric meditation about those lost finding their way, played out against a soundscape of acoustic and slide guitar. But if it’s monsters riffs you’re after, or huge slabs of guitar backed by percussive bombast, you won’t be disappointed because the album has all of this in spades. Songs like “The Great Unknown”, “Gone (Not Dead)”, “Cold Black Water” and “Two Keys and a Good Book” are just a few of the songs that will have you tapping your feet and reaching for that air guitar.

Mountain straddles the worlds of dark acoustic folk and modern electrified hard rock, fusing some blistering riffs with a captivating lyrical theme to produce a powerful listening experience. Although religious imagery abounds, it’s never preachy, and when you read that Chris Tapp is a cancer survivor, who has battled through years of treatment, some of the biblical references make sense. Maybe he found comfort in religion, maybe he was always religious, or maybe I’m simply reading too much into it. Once thing is for sure, whatever the reasons, Mountain is a superb piece of lyrically astute blues-rock that you’ll want to listen to time and again.

Finally, in researching this article, I was absolutely gobsmacked to discover that Mountain is a crowdfunded album, one of the aims of which is to cover the costs of the forthcoming WAYS album! Before its appearance as a 12-track album, WAYS will first be released as a series of 4-track EPs, starting with the acoustic-based “white” EP this June. The promise of new music so hot-on-the-heels of Mountain is fantastic news for fans of The Cold Stares, and I definitely count myself in that number after listening to this fabulous album.

 

Rob Campbell is the author of “Monkey Arkwright” and “Black Hearts Rising”, part of a mystery series that will appeal to fans of 80s films such as “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies”, where people stumble across strange things in the woods or uncover dark secrets hidden in the abandoned places around a small town.

 

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Reviews

TV Review – Chernobyl

Chernobyl

Chernobyl is a 5-part drama series produced by HBO/Sky TV. It tells the story of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which occurred in April 1986. The series shows us how the disaster occurred, its immediate and long-term effects on the lives of many, the heroic efforts of the Soviet people in preventing a disaster from becoming something far worse, and the search to uncover the truth as to how it was allowed to happen at all. We view events through the eyes of three main protagonists: Valery Legasov (played by Jared Harris) – the scientist given the twin tasks of dealing with the consequences of the disaster and investigating its causes. Boris Shcherbina (played by Stellan Skarsgård) – a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party who accompanies Legasov to Chernobyl, and Ulana Khomyuk (played by Emily Watson) – a fictional character created to represent the team of scientists who helped Legasov manage the situation.

After a brief flash-forward to the suicide of Legasov, we are given no time to get to know the characters as we are plunged straight into the control room at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, where a routine safety test goes wrong and the unthinkable happens: the core of reactor #4 explodes. All of the radiation measurements taken by plant employees in the immediate aftermath of the accident were reported at 3.6 roentgens, but it was soon acknowledged that this was the maximum reading possible on the devices at hand. “Not great, not terrible” is the verdict of at least two people, one of these being deputy chief-engineer Anatoly Dyatlov. Dyatlov steadfastly refuses to believe that he is dealing with anything but a failed test, ordering his team to pump in water to cool the reactor core. “There is no core,” his astounded engineers continually tell him. Later, when the true level of radiation is measured, it is revealed to be 15,000 roentgens every hour – or twice the level of radiation released by the bomb dropped in Hiroshima.

As the first episode progresses, we witness the efforts of the local firefighters to put out the initial fire, and of the plant engineers hopelessly trying to minimise any leak. We see the residents of Pripyat, a town specifically built to house the employees of Chernobyl, come out to watch as the fire at the plant blazes on the horizon. Meanwhile, the plant director and manager (Viktor Bryukhanov and Nikolai Fomin) insist that everything is under control, joining Dyatlov in their unswerving faith in the Soviet system.

When the Soviet government meet to discuss the accident, it is generally agreed that everything is under control. Boris Shcherbina jokes that the reported radiation level is so low that Chernobyl would be a good place to go if anybody was due an X-ray. There are laughs around the table, and the meeting is quickly adjourned. However, Valery Legasov, patiently waiting his turn, voices his objection, pointing out that everything is far from OK. His arguments and obvious expertise are sufficient to convince General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev to dispatch him to the disaster zone, Shcherbina tasked with overseeing the project.

Chernobyl is not an easy watch. There are scenes that are downright horrific, but it’s a story that deserves telling. For every brutal scene, there is an act of heroism, and in each case, you’ll find yourself asking whether you’d have been able to act in the same way. For the most part, these were ordinary people asked to deal with extraordinary circumstances. When three volunteers are required to don diving gear and swim in the radiated waters of the doomed plant to open a valve, meaning almost certain death, they ask why they should do it. Shcherbina’s response is, “If you don’t, millions will die.” Three men step forward. When a team of miners is approached to dig a tunnel through the concrete below the reactor, and excavate a space large enough to house the heat exchanger that is vital to preventing a catastrophic meltdown in the reactor core, they work for weeks in extreme conditions to get the job done. Later, when the worst-case scenario has been averted, teams of men work in 90-second bursts to run out onto the roof of the reactor so that they can shovel the highly-toxic pieces of the graphite, that once covered the reactor core, over the edge in preparation for sealing the leak.

The firefighters who first responded are seen recovering from their burns in the hospital. But what at first appears to be superficial damage turns out to be something far worse. Just as Legasov had explained to stoic Shcherbina, initial recovery is followed by severe blistering of the skin and unimaginable pain as the body’s organs decompose, with death arriving shortly afterwards. We see firefighters and plant workers alike suffering in this way, the makeup department sparing us nothing in depicting the true horrors of death by radiation. Their bodies are laid in what looked like metallic coffins (presumably lead-lined), and buried in a mass grave filled with concrete. Later in the series, the bodies of radiated animals, hunted down and shot by a group of soldiers, suffer the same fate, except without the coffins.

“You don’t need to be a nuclear scientist to understand what happened at Chernobyl,” Legasov states in his opening remarks at the trial of those deemed responsible. The final episode makes for compelling television, as Legasov calmly lays out his findings, explaining for those assembled and the viewer alike, just how Chernobyl’s #4 reactor suffered such a catastrophic failure. The trial is intercut with scenes in the control room immediately before and after the accident. Earlier, we’d seen Dyatlov under pressure from the plant’s director to perform the safety test. Now, despite repeated warnings from his senior engineer, Dyatlov orders that the test be carried out, threatening his team with the sack if they fail to comply with his instructions. This scene, allied with Legasov’s analysis, makes sense of the chaotic scenes with which the series started. Near the end of the trial, Legasov points out the inherent flaw in the design of the Boron control rods that formed part of the system’s failsafe system, concluding that if human error was partly to blame, it was only one part of the chain that led to the disaster.

Whilst the whole production is superb, for me, the professional relationship that develops between Legasov and Shcherbina, Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgård superb in their respective roles, is most noteworthy. Shcherbina is initially sceptical of Legasov’s claims that they are dealing with a disaster on an unprecedented scale, but slowly comes to realise the truth in the scientist’s words. One of the most sobering scenes in the whole series occurs when Legasov is dismayed that Pripyat has not been evacuated, meaning that so many civilians remain in close proximity to the plant. “We’re staying here,” states Shcherbina, the implication being that if they were okay, then the general population would be as well. “Yes, but we’ll be dead in five years,” Legasov replies matter-of-factly. There is no response from Shcherbina, the look on his face telling the viewer everything about his feelings. Later in the scene, the politician receives a phone call informing him that the world now knows about the disaster. “They are afraid to let their kids outside. In Germany,” he says in astonishment as he looks out of the window to see Soviet kids passing by, ignorant to the fact that they are living next to a damaged reactor leaking radiation.

During a break in the trial, Shcherbina laments the fact that he is a nobody – a servant of the state sent to deal with the aftermath of an incident that no one believed was a big issue – “an inconsequential man who has stood next to those who matter” as he tells Legasov. Legasov responds by pointing out that he is just a scientist doing a job that any of his colleagues could have done. Whilst it was him they heard, it was actually Shcherbina who they listened to – the man who made the difference by supplying the almost impossible number of men and vast quantity of materials required for the clean-up operation.

Emily Watson is also excellent in her role as Ulana Khomyuk. As noted in the informative slideshow that closes the final episode, the character of Ulana Khomyuk is fictional but was created to represent the team of scientists who assisted Legasov. It’s shocking to learn that some of these scientists were imprisoned and silenced for speaking out against the Soviet hierarchy’s official explanation of what happened.

Filmed in Lithuania, the production has mastered that concrete-under-grey-skies look that we associate with the Soviet-era. The producers also took the decision to film the actors using their normal voices, and whilst it may seem odd hearing a Scottish miner or a Yorkshire fireman, it is probably better than having the integrity of the series ruined by potential comedy attempts at Russian/Ukrainian accents. Series writer Craig Mazin also wrote the flawless script, and uses it to hammer home the point that in addition to the guilt of key individuals, it was the system that failed. Spend any time reading about the background of this production and you will note that pretty much everything that you are seeing on your screen – all those horrific images, the heroic deeds, the denial from those in charge of overseeing and running the plant – is as accurate as it can be, based on interviews with those who lived, and in most cases died, at Chernobyl. Yes, there are some fictionalised elements of the series, but as Mazin points out:

“We never changed anything to make it more dramatic than it was, to hype anything, to amp it up. For us, this is a story about truth. The last thing we wanted to do was fall into the same trap that liars fall into. This is very much a well-researched factual dramatic representation.”

Growing up in the 1980s, there was always the possibility of a nuclear war. Admittedly, this fear was distant and for most of the time, you could push it to the back of your mind. Chernobyl was the fear of a nuclear disaster made real. Not a war, or as a result of some surprise attack by a foreign power, but a terrible consequence of poor decisions made within a system. An oppressive political system where fear of others in the chain of command was enough to compel people to take the wrong actions, and a physical system designed so that there was no effective failsafe against such actions. The Chernobyl disaster was one of the most significant events of the 20th century. I still have a vivid recollection of sitting in the college library, reading about it in the newspaper in the days following the incident, and its significance is one of the reasons why I chose it as a key point in the backstory of one of my characters in my fictional novel. Now it has a well-researched and brilliantly produced television series to honour those who suffered. Make no mistake, this is a landmark piece of television that demands viewing.

 

 

 

Reviews

Album Review: Fever Breaks – Josh Ritter

Fever Breaks

I’ve been a fan of Josh Ritter’s music since his 2010 album, So Runs The World Away. That album unfolds like a richly detailed novel, with diverse themes ranging from scientific discovery, polar exploration, murder, and there’s even a love story song featuring an archaeologist and a mummy. Fever Breaks is his 5th album of the decade and his 10th overall, and once again, it makes for a compelling listen. Recorded in Nashville, the album was produced by fellow singer-songwriter Jason Isbell, and here Ritter is backed by Isbell’s band – the 400 Unit.

Josh Ritter’s music has never been overtly political, but in this case there are a couple of tracks that address some pressing issues in the US. The album’s moody centrepiece, “The Torch Committee” has Ritter speaking his chilling words in an almost matter-of-fact manner. There’s talk of by-laws being breached, the process of law, names being crossed off a list and “the truth of rumours lately heard, that there come monsters in our midst”. Hiding behind the technicalities of the law, the narrator calls forth the “hungry mob and angry crowd” to root out “the root of every evil done” for the supposed good of the people “by means not meant for the light of day”. This is a dark song, the seriousness of the subject matter underlined by Amanda Shires’ haunting fiddle and a menacing guitar that broods in the background, waiting to be unleashed.

On “All Some Kind of Dream”, Ritter returns to the same theme, seeing “children in the holding pens” and “families ripped apart”. “For it seems that these are darker days, than any others that we’ve seen” he sings before wishing that it was all some kind of dream. The upbeat nature of the song belies its underlying core of a nightmare made real; the same kind of message in the style that Dylan was delivering more than fifty years ago.

“Silverblade” sees Ritter use his fingerpicked acoustic to good effect, recounting the tale of a woman who takes revenge on a man who forces himself on her. The story is framed in terms of a lord who owns a castle and the lady who catches his eye, but it is impossible not to read this as an allegory to recent stories related to the #MeToo movement.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. A couple of tracks benefit from the muscular backing provided by the 400 Unit. “Old Black Magic” sounds like it was dredged up from the bottom of a swamp: Ritter growling away about that “old black magic rolling in” whilst the music rises in the background – all gnarly guitars and moody keys. The anthemic “Losing Battles” features some trademark Ritter lyrics, words tumbling out at a fair old rate before you’ve even had a chance to digest what you’re hearing. “From the apple tree, I ripped a snake, It was a poison but I knew its worth. Kept it in a box of wood, Fed it all my sins and apples.” I’m not sure what all of that means – it probably includes a healthy dose of biblical imagery – but when you hear him singing with utter conviction, he makes you believe in something! On “A New Man”, he sings about a personal evolution, sounding not unlike a latter-day Springsteen, but the style is all his own and this is a track that builds beautifully both lyrically and musically throughout its running length.

Whilst I wouldn’t pick this as my favourite Josh Ritter album (let’s face it, it’s got stiff competition), Fever Breaks is another well-crafted piece of work. There are a couple of tracks that see a bit humdrum by his high standards, but most of the songs are strong, his trademark lyrics are used to full effect, and the fact that he’s recorded the album with Jason Isbell and his band give the album a subtle twist. It’s not markedly different from the sound of his other albums but it’s a welcome wrinkle on yet another fine album from one of the 21st century’s premier songwriters.

Rob Campbell is the author of “Monkey Arkwright” and “Black Hearts Rising”, part of a mystery series that will appeal to fans of 80s films such as “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies”, where people stumble across strange things in the woods or uncover dark secrets hidden in the abandoned places around a small town.

 

 

Reviews

TV Review – The Bridge

The Bridge - close-up
The Bridge Trilogy (but there is a fourth series!)

Introduction

Writing this review is difficult for two reasons. One: I’ve just watched the final episode of The Bridge series 4, and although we are in a golden age of television, I’m a little sad that I may never watch a show this good again. It’s a bold statement, but I’ll come back to this point later in the review. The second thing that makes this review difficult is how best to capture the show’s brilliance and excitement without spoiling it for potential viewers.

The Bridge is a Scandinavian drama that focuses on police departments from Copenhagen and Malmo as they collaborate on a series of murder investigations. It’s an indication of how good the concept and storyline are that it has been remade several times for US, British (as The Tunnel), German, Russian and Asian TV. However, having watched the original, I don’t think that I could bring myself to watch the others. This is not to disparage the remakes, as I’m sure that they are good shows that have their own strengths, but after watching four series of brilliant performances by the actors in the Swedish-Danish original, I’d be forever comparing with the original (and probably complaining about the remakes!)

Series One

The opening scenes of the first series explain the title of the show. The Øresund Bridge links the Swedish city of Malmö with the Danish capital, Copenhagen. When a body is found on the bridge – sliced in half at the waist and positioned so that each half lies on either side of the Sweden-Denmark border – both the Danish and Swedish police must be involved in the investigation. Saga Norén from the Malmo police department (played by Sofia Helin) and her Danish counterpart Martin Rohde (played by Kim Bodnia) meet on the bridge when the body is discovered, and this is the start of both the investigation and an intriguing working relationship between the two.

Martin comes across as amiable, but it’s quickly clear that Saga is socially awkward. Her forthright conversation astounds Martin, particular when it comes to questions about his private life and Saga’s brutal assessment of the situation. Despite this awkward start, it works because Martin somehow gets Saga, eventually warming to her outwardly cold, yet unique personality. Saga is also supported by her boss, Hans. As the series progresses, it is clear that Hans is a father-figure for Saga, often willing to take her aside for a quiet chat or relax procedure in order to get the best out of his star detective, accommodating her social inadequacies. We are also introduced to John, the IT specialist with the Malmö police, whose job it is to track mobile calls and scan CCTV footage; Jair, the pathologist in Malmo, with whom Saga appears to share a good working relationship based on her willingness to learn more about the science of his job; and Lillian, the head of police in Copenhagen.

Working together, the Danish and Swedish teams make good progress on the case. The killer phones a local journalist, using him to spread the message that he, the killer, is trying to highlight various social problems. But as the investigation progresses, it becomes clear that there is a more personal motive behind the crimes.

Like the three series that follow, series one of The Bridge is a superb piece of standalone television. It tells the story of a murder investigation from day one, right up to the shocking conclusion. The fascinating characters give the show a depth that is as good as any show that I’ve ever seen. Outstanding performances from Sofia Helin and Kim Bodnia, and the unique chemistry that they bring to the screen, make this a must-watch.

When the series finishes, you’re left with the impression that you’ve just witnessed one of the best TV shows; that it’s a lightning-in-a-bottle moment that the makers would do well to even get close to again. And then you watch the second series.

Series Two

As previously noted, the second series tells its own complete story, but the events of the previous series continue to shape what happens in the lives of Saga and Martin. Once again, we have a killer who seems hell-bent on proving a point. The police teams are fleshed out by Danish detective, Pernille, who becomes friendly with Martin, and Rasmus, a cocky young Swedish detective whose determination to succeed sees him prefer to act on impulse as opposed to following the rules. Both the new characters have significant roles as the series leads to a conclusion that is at once satisfying and devastating.

Series Three

So, that’s two series gone, and you start to experience the same feelings that you had at the end of the first. Surely, they’ve set the bar so high with the climax of series two that they should just stop. Well, my friends, gather in close for series three, because it’s a humdinger in which the events in Saga’s life that have been boiling away in the background start to affect her in significant ways. Naturally, there is another killer trying to get his message across via a series of bizarre killings and if watching Saga’s personal struggles as the police try to solve the latest crimes was all that series three offered, it would still have been a worthwhile endeavour. But that’s not all as we are introduced to The Bridge’s third major character: Henrik Sabroe.

Early in proceedings, Danish detective Henrik asks his boss, Lillian, if she will send him to Malmö to help the Swedish police crack the case. As you watch the early episodes, you’re going to be asking yourself a lot of questions as the pill-popping Henrik coolly talks to his wife before heading out into the Copenhagen night to meet other women. Once in Sweden, he asks Saga for help with an old case that he’s been working on, and as his backstory is slowly revealed over the first half of the series, it’s compelling television. For me, Thure Lindhardt’s performance as Henrik is one of the highlights of the series. He plays the role with a wonderful balance of aggression and humility, making the viewer totally buy into his story. He works well with Saga, encouraging her when she needs help but isn’t above poking fun at her – calling her “Wikipedia” when she quotes some fact at him. Also in this series, Hans and Lillian get their own story, and IT specialist John gets a nice little personal connection to the investigation.

Series Four

The final eight-episode series is every bit as good as what has gone before, and in some ways is a continuation of the previous series. As Saga helps the Danish police track down yet another killer with a grudge, the major story arcs are given a satisfying conclusion and if it feels like you’ve lived every minute of Saga’s trials and tribulations through all of the thirty-eight episodes, it’s hard not to have a lump in your throat for that final scene on the bridge. Her closing words are a stroke of genius from the show’s creator and writer, Hans Rosenfeldt.

Analysis

I’ve specifically not talked about the plots and killers in too much detail so as to avoid any spoilers, but rest assured, in each case, there is a dazzling array of characters that will keep you guessing as the police come up against lots of dead ends and red herrings. One of the show’s many strengths is how characters are fed seamlessly into the mix, quickly engaging you in the plot of their daily lives whilst wondering how, and if, they are connected to the wider story that is unfolding. Things that may seem significant often peter out whilst the reverse is also true, so keep your eyes peeled!

Not only are the writing and performances top-notch, but the production team bring a lot of style to the show. For the most part, the show is filmed in the city at night, although there is the odd excursion into rural fringes. The camera shows us modern cityscapes that appear to be in the permanent grip of autumn, a beautiful combination of Scandinavian grim and cool. There are plenty of drone shots of the city from up above, including the majestic Øresund Bridge itself. Then there is the theme song, “Hollow Talk” by Danish band Choir of Young Believers. The theme sets the tone and follows the pre-credits sequence at the start of each episode. An instrumental section reappears at the end of the episode, rising to a crescendo as, more often than not, the characters make some startling discovery that makes us re-think what we’ve seen or become excited at what this means for the next episode.

In watching The Bridge, I’ve noticed that the police officers are portrayed as normal people, dealing with many problems that, at least some of the time, regular people will be able to empathise with. However, the killers are played out more like caricatures. Although the reasons for their killing sprees are grounded in reasonable grudges, the murders are exaggerated, and the murder scenes themselves often staged, presented as artistic tableaus with some message for the police to figure out. It’s another quirk that gives the show its unique look and feel.

No overview of The Bridge would be complete without making specific reference to Sofia Helin’s performance as Saga. This must feel like the role of a lifetime to the Swedish actress. She’s playing a character suffering from a chronic social issue, and more often than not, this is written across her face. She rarely smiles across the four series, often wearing a puzzled look or fixing her features in a permanent mask of confusion or concentration. I wonder if she often went home with a headache after filming. As her story arc progresses, she brings the required level of emotion to the role, making us believe in Saga’s problems. Whilst it’s just one of the many outstanding aspects of The Bridge, there’s no doubt that it’s her show.

So, let’s get to the nub of what may be a problem for many British viewers: this is a show presented in the native languages with English subtitles. I used to have the view that I couldn’t be bothered spending my time reading subtitles, but once I watched a few films, I found that it became an automatic process, and in some ways, enhanced the experience because you were constantly focussed on the plot and what the characters were saying. The fourth and final series of The Bridge was shown last year on the BBC – the reason that I’ve taken so long to get around to watching it was that I persuaded my wife – a previous subtitle-avoider – to give it a try. “Just watch a few episodes of the first series, and see what you think,” I’d said. Naturally, she was already hooked by the end of the first episode! For various reasons – nothing to do with lack of interest – we watched the first three series over the last twelve months or so, and so I was only in a position for the grand finale recently.

Basically, what I’m saying here is that if you only ever watch one subtitled film or TV series, make sure it’s the first episode of The Bridge. I’m willing to bet that you’ll be hooked.

Final Thoughts

At the start of this article, I made some comment about being sad that I may never watch a show this good again. Each series of The Bridge was consistently excellent, and whilst there are other shows that you can say this about, I’ve not seen one where the characters are so complex yet compelling, having you emotionally invested not only in the murder case but their lives as well. Totally different type of show but Game of Thrones, for example, is a show that I love: it is consistently good across its entire span of episodes, has stupendous production values but doesn’t have me feeling the same way about the characters that The Bridge does.

Again, a different show, but since 2001, I’ve always thought of Band of Brothers as the high watermark in television – a true story that got you to engage with the characters and also had the production values of a mega-budget film. The fact that I’ve mentioned The Bridge in the same breath as these other two excellent shows demonstrates how highly I rate it. Whisper it quietly, but series 1-4 of The Bridge, a subtitled Scandinavian police drama, may be the greatest TV series ever made.

Rob Campbell is the author of “Monkey Arkwright” and “Black Hearts Rising”, part of a mystery series that will appeal to fans of 80s films such as “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies”, where people stumble across strange things in the woods or uncover dark secrets hidden in the abandoned places around a small town.

Reviews

Album Review: The Unseen In Between – Steve Gunn

The Unseen In between

Although he has been releasing music for over a decade, I’ve never had the pleasure of listening to a Steve Gunn album. However, after hearing his latest offering, The Unseen In Between, I can confidently state that I’m looking forward to exploring his back catalogue. A quick search reveals that his resume includes several solo albums, collaborations and for a short time, he was a member of Kurt Vile’s band. Gunn is an American singer-guitarist whose music has been said to have a sensibility that echoes the sound of English singer-songwriters, despite the fact that he hails from Philadelphia.

This is a wonderful album that grabbed me from the opening song, “New Moon”. Like every song that follows, the production is top-notch, with vocals and guitars nicely balanced so that one doesn’t overpower the other, and there’s just enough colour provided by other instruments to fill out the sound. Gunn is a competent rather than outstanding singer, but his stream of consciousness lyrics backed by mesmeric guitar patterns elevate the songs on this album.

Although the album is a mere nine songs long, two-thirds of the tracks run longer than five minutes, and there’s not a weak link to be found. One of the strengths of the album is that longer songs allow Gunn to stretch out with arrangements that invite the listener to become immersed in the unfolding sound, but they’re not so long that they become boring or self-indulgent. Being able to find this balance is a skill in itself.

“Vagabond” is a chipper little number that features lyrics about being “camped up in a graveyard / Took a job to clean some tombstones”. This is as close as you’ll get to a commercial-sounding song, and enjoyable though it is, the real gems are the contemplative laid-back folk-rock songs at the core of the album. “Stonehurst Cowboy”, a tribute to his late father, featuring lyrics that recall his time in Vietnam, is a strong contender for best song on the album. However, it has several rivals. That Steve Gunn is a superb guitar player is obvious, but he’s rarely flashy, often favouring a fingerpicking style on both electric and acoustic guitars, and it’s always in service of the song. “New Familiar” features hypnotic picking that loops for most of the running time before the sublime solo brings the song to a close. “Lightning Field” takes its inspiration from an art installation featuring 400 metal rods in the ground in a field in New Mexico, and like “New Familiar” closes with the guitars letting loose in the coda.

This is followed by the deceptively simple but beautifully played meditation of “Morning is Mended” before the closing track “Paranoid”, which is reminiscent of Pink Floyd. Folk-rock with a little psychedelia thrown into the mix is about as close as you’ll get to pigeonholing this superbly crafted album. As with all the best albums, The Unseen In Between rewards repeat plays as its little melodies keep appearing in your mind throughout the day, drawing you back to the record for more. It’s early in 2019, but I feel sure that this will feature high on my end-of-year list of best albums. Don’t be surprised to see it appear in the lists of some heavyweight music magazines and blogs either.

Rob Campbell is the author of “Monkey Arkwright” and “Black Hearts Rising”, part of a mystery series that will appeal to fans of 80s films such as “Stand By Me” and “The Goonies”, where people stumble across strange things in the woods or uncover dark secrets hidden in the abandoned places around a small town.

Reviews, Writing

New Monkey Arkwright Review

Monkey Arkwright Cover

One of my three targets when I launched Monkey Arkwright has been realised today – a blogger has reviewed my book, and even better, she liked it!

I don’t just e-mail every blogger in existence. I like to do a bit of research before sending off a polite request to those that I feel would be interested in reading a Young Adult mystery. Most of my requests have fallen in deaf ears, although last year, Lorna over at The Writing Greyhound was kind enough to feature me in a Q & A on her blog.

A few weeks ago, Michelle from Curled up with a good book agreed to review Monkey Arkwright, and today she’s made good on that promise. To say that I’m pleased with the review would be an understatement. It’s a great feeling when somebody provides feedback on your work, and of course, even better when they love it. The fact that she’s specifically mentioned that she’d be interested in reviewing book #2, Black Hearts Rising, when it’s ready, is a massive bonus.

When you’re an indie author, writing is the easy part; getting people to read your work can be a real slog. I’m sure I’m not the only author who feels this way, but I truly appreciate the efforts of bloggers like Michelle and Lorna in giving indie books that chance, however small, to reach a wider audience.

You can read the review here.

Reviews

TV Review – Killing Eve

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One evening, a few weeks ago, I was about to load up Netflix in search of my next TV series to watch. Then a friend told me how much he had been enjoying a great series on BBC Three. So, instead of Netflix, I fired up the BBC iPlayer and launched into Killing Eve.

Sandra Oh plays the titular Eve Polastri in the show, which is adapted from Luke Jennings’ Codename Villanelle series of novellas. Eve is an MI5 officer who spends all her time behind her desk, but when a ruthless assassin begins to carve her way across Europe, Eve builds a dossier on the case and quickly comes to the attention of MI6 section head, Carolyn Martens (played by Fiona Shaw). Carolyn convinces Eve that she should join her at MI6 in an unofficial capacity, and soon they have put together a team that includes Elena (Eve’s assistant), Bill (a colleague from MI5) and the youthful Kenny (an ex-hacker).

Meanwhile, the viewer knows exactly who the killer is. We see Villanelle, a psychopathic Russian assassin (played by Jodie Comer in what may be the performance of a lifetime), as she makes her kills in Vienna, Berlin, Tuscany and other glamorous locations throughout Europe. Each assignment is handed to her in code by her handler, Konstantin (played by Danish actor, Kim Bodnia – best known for his role as Martin in The Bridge). As the series progresses, Eve and Villanelle develop a mutal respect and obsession for each other.

Killing Eve is terrific television. Most spy films or series fall into one of two camps: they’re either packed with spectacular stunts and thrilling action, like the James Bond or Mission Impossible films, or they go for the gritty and realistic angle like John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But Killing Eve doesn’t fit either of these templates. With its poor tradecraft and botched assassinations, it can hardly be taken as a serious espionage thriller (although events in the UK earlier this year may suggest otherwise) and yet most of the characters play it straight, like their life depended on it, which in some cases is true. Bloody and horrific things happen, yet at the same time, the series doesn’t take itself too seriously, particularly when there are some downright unrealistic scenes for the genre.

Despite this refusal to be pigeon-holed, or perhaps because of it, Killing Eve is one of the most watchable British series for years. The main reason for this is the extraordinary performance of Jodie Comer as Villanelle. Whilst Sandra Oh is fine in her role of Eve, the former desk-bound agent who has to balance her home life – leaving her husband wondering whether his wife will return home safely – with her new assignment of chasing down a ruthless assassin, it’s Comer’s portrayal that catches the eye. In one scene-stealing performance after another, Villanelle effortlessly switches tack from the pouting girl who just wants to be loved to cold-hearted killer, in the blink of an eye, with many subtle variations in between. Equally impressive is Comer’s range of accents – Russian, French and when on assignment in a rural UK location, a fine cut-glass British accent (but then again, she is from these shores).

The script is whip-smart throughout, providing many memorable moments and some great dialogue between the characters, often when Villanelle is ready to dispatch one of her victims. When she throws a party for Konstantin, she appears dressed as him, complete with a false beard! In an early scene, a superior is worried that she is cracking under the pressure, and she hams this up, causing both he and Konstantin to feel sympathy for her. She turns up to the interview in a pink ballet dress and acts likes she’s falling apart only to turn the situation on its head by laughing in their faces. Throughout the series, her comedic chemistry with Kim Bodnia’s Konstantin is evident.

I have to admit that during the first episode, I found the overuse of music a tad distracting but as the series wore on, it settled nicely into a groove and it ending up being an integral part of the series in my eyes (I mean ears). When one of the characters runs down a picturesque jetty to make his escape in a speedboat, the music rises in the background, and you find the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end – it’s all reminiscent of Miami Vice except this time the action plays out on a Russian lake.
The series is not perfect: I didn’t find the ending wholly satisfactory, and there are some strands of the plot that weren’t explored as much as I’d have liked. But if there are little niggles with the series as a whole, Jodie Comer’s performance is flawless, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she is the recipient of some prestigious awards over the coming months. Given that Killing Eve has been renewed for a second season, I’m prepared to give the makers the benefit-of-the-doubt and can’t wait to see what they serve up next. In the meantime, if you haven’t watched this entertaining series, dig in via the iPlayer.