Synth-driven goodness: O. Children and SPECTRA*paris

Two new finds causing some synth-driven excitement at the coffee pot today are O. Children and SPECTRA*paris.

The former hail from the UK and have just released their self-titled debut album — the tracks online suggest Joy Division basslines and a Sisters of Mercy meet Nick Cave sensibility taken into even darker, synth-drenched terrain. With a name taken from a Nick Cave song (a fairly recent one, too, the clever young things!), they’re definitely an outfit to investigate further. Maybe file with the likes of Interpol, Editors and White Lies

SPECTRA*paris offer lighter fare on their album Dead Models Society, but it’s equally compelling. Catchy synth beats are complemented with great washes of fill-sound, buzzing guitar highlights and, so very notably, the vocals of Elena Alice Fossi (whose accent adds fetching weight). I’m finding this more accessible (or less challenging) than the choppier cut’n’thrust of Coroner’s Sun, an album by her other outfit, Kirlian Camera, though it’s early days yet. Dead Models Society shows nice changes of pace from high-energy to meditative to down-right slinky, and throw a cool cover of Mad World into the mix. The pop sensibility should this see fit nicely in the background for the car or the commute, or with some track selection, thumping out at a party.

It would be easy to dismiss the outfit as a gimmick band, given their catwalk-ready all-girl line-up, but that would be shortsighted. Here’s a taste, the cracking opening track from the album performed live (the studio version has lots more oomph through headphones!):

Reject hate

Caught this bunch of tossers on the news this morning — the usual hate and vitriol that does no one any good. You might notice this particularly ugly little branch of ‘Christian’ zealots have venom to spare for gays as well as Muslims. You can almost see them in your mind’s eye, these pathetically scared little people, grasping at their vile belief in some attempt at making themselves feel better. Dictators know very well the power to be gained by getting your flock to hate someone else — we all like to feel that we’re a wee better than someone else, don’t we? That little superiority complex to prop up our inferiority complex. Feeling left out? Economy not so good? Life’s a bit shite? Here, follow me, son, and I’ll make you feel better about yourself by hurting someone else. Jackboots or a crucifix, it’s all the same. I can imagine how they’re relishing the attention, too; lovin’ the self-inflicted martyrdom that comes with uttering such vile inanities. I don’t trust zealots, no matter their creed. I wonder if there’s a way to get them to break out of their little boxes of myopic belief and see the true wonder of everything the world has to offer.

Recent reading: Ellis and Marsden

BRET Easton Ellis is on his way to Melbourne so I thought I’d better swot up, starting with Lunar Park (2005; his only book since then, Imperial Ballrooms, came out last month and is a sequel to his debut, 1985’s Less Than Zero).

Lunar Park is a very clever book, all about a writer called Bret Easton Ellis whose career path seems to mirror the drug-snorting, much-screwing celeb career path of the real life character (there’s a fascinating interview with Ellis in the Guardian about his new, drier, quieter life, and his public persona). It also offers some of the spookiest scenes I’ve read in ages, as fictional Ellis realises the mansion he shares with his wife, their son and her daughter is, shall we say, under a cloud. And it’s not just the fact that the wild child is grasping on to what passes as a normal life when you’re famous and your missus is an actress. Mixed in with acerbic observations about a certain well-to-do class of society is a plot of vanishing teenagers and some even stranger goings on at chez Ellis; there’s a son’s difficult relationship with his deceased father and the whole issue of fitting into this strange, new family; there’s drugs and booze and a certain girl at the university where he teaches who he’d really like to screw; there’s the dog, a truly delightful character.

The climax left me a little underwhelmed, but the writing was so smart and, despite some long (very long) sentences here and there (that for the most part worked), accessible, the characters so engaging (if the narrator is a tad, well, useless (he’s an addict so, d’uh)), that I really didn’t mind the letdown. The denouement was fetching, so maybe that helped.

FAMILY is also central to Tomorrow, When the War Began, but the focus is different and the comparison ends there. While Ellis and co are snogging and snorting in McMansions, Ellie and her small band of high school pals are sweating it out in the Australian scrub in the aftermath of an invasion by an unnamed and unidentified foreign power. All we know is that the soldiers probably hail from Asia or the Pacific — you do the math. John Marsden doesn’t say, at least not in the first three books. Given Australia’s traditional xenophobia, it’s probably wise to keep it obscure, but I can’t help feeling that wanting to know where the invaders were from would be on the minds of the invaded. It’s a small thing, and it’ll be interesting to see how the makers of a movie based on his series (opening in August), first released in 1993, tackle the subject of just who launches this comprehensive strike with an eye to colonisation.

Ellie’s from the bush, a rural town where most of her friends are farmers’ kids, so they know there way around machinery, animals and the scrub. They’re resourceful and plucky, and altogether human. Watching the characters rise to the occasion, mature under the pressure, grow and change, is part of the joy.

One of the most compelling features of the story is the way Marsden balances the action with the insight — this war is not patriotic, it’s survival, and questions of hate, morality, love and the future under foreign rule are handled with such care it’s a pleasure to read. There are some explosions — Ellie’s mates work out that they have a compulsion to fight for their land and their way of life against those who would take it by force. But the kids don’t turn into commandos overnight. They don’t use karate and explosives and guns with an innate Hollywood sensibility. Rather, they use their nous, they learn from their mistakes, and they pay a physical and moral price for making some hard decisions. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Classic Australian spec fic

macabre an anthology of australian horror stories

Two quick links to tease your wallet:

Aurealis releases a set of “classic Australian SF” novels (published originally 1880s-1930s; I suspect the SF is speculative fiction rather than pure science fiction) with introductions by some of the today’s best talent.

And Macabre, a door-stopper of a volume that showcases Australian horror stories from yore to now. Due out in September.


The Loved Ones – skin-deep Aussie torture porn

First, the good news: Australian horror movie The Loved Ones looks very good. Nice effects, effective acting — I really enjoyed Lauren McLeavey’s psycho killer Lola — and some wicked camera work (there’s a gorgeous shot, coming out of a cellar, with mirror ball highlights moving across the ceiling). Special effects were on the money.

It’s a high school horror drama, set in regional Victoria, in which, as you will gather from the trailer, a side-lined girlfriend gets even with the help of her good ol’ dad (best line: this one’s for the Kingswood!), while the victim’s girlfriend is left to pine and his best buddy gets it on with the self-destructive goth girl (sigh).

Note that the core plot ie boy being tortured, and the secondary plot ie sex with goth girl, have little to do with each other.

And therein lies the rub. The connection between the characters and even the scenes in this flick just don’t add up. Just what kind of movie are we watching here — high school drama, family grief drama, edgy comedy, sicko horror? I’m sure I was laughing at the wrong times for all the wrong reasons, here.

There is so little development of character — here is the guilt-ridden hero, feel sorry for him; here is the patient girlfriend, cheer for her; here is light relief in good-hearted side-kick and here is the total outsider who, in some strange act of self-humiliation, deigns to date the class loser for the night of the formal (I think the reason that she’s goth, or maybe emo, I can’t tell after a certain age these days without hearing the music, is because she HAS SUFFERED LOSS: hence the fashionable black, the drugs, the booze, the screwing). (Nice girl Holly gives blow jobs, but they’re for the good of others.)

Lola the psycho could’ve been fascinating, but sadly she’s psycho from the moment the light goes green and has nowhere else to go. I really wanted to know her, her and her dad, and how it had come to this, but nup, it was all power drills and emotional power plays. Oh, and there’s a quasi-zombie moment.

The movie could’ve been fascinating: a history of disappearances, guilt-addled and grief-stricken dysfunctional families, and some really cool defensive driving lessons were all on the cards here, but alas, style held all the aces.

Anyway, it’s a solid little slice and dice if you’re up for seeing some people suffer, even if it is short on logic and lacking in give-a-damn, and the actors do a great job with what they’ve got. And it really does look very good.

Inception – living the dream

Writer/director Christopher Nolan’s latest film is still looping through my mind after tonight’s viewing — it’s a tad exhausting.

In Inception, Nolan, who did a superb job re-energising the Batman franchise, casts Leonardo DiCaprio — far from the prow of the Titanic, thank goodness — as renegade spy Cobb who can enter a sleeping person’s dream and root out hidden or suppressed knowledge therein. Wanted by the law and with his wife, um, problematic, he sees an intensely dangerous mission as his one last chance of getting to live his life with his children. He leads a team of dream-shapers into a rich businessman’s dreams, not to extract, but to implant a ruinous suggestion that will earn Cobb his freedom to be a father.

There are dreams within dreams in this clever heist movie, where the treasure is an idea and the vault a man’s subconscious mind. Cobb’s relationship with his wife adds a gorgeous undertow to the movie’s arc as the action sequences, the kind we used to see in James Bond, pile up. My one negative about the flick was that there was perhaps too much bad shooting, too many shoot-outs and chases and fisticuffs that didn’t do much more than look pretty (some, very pretty indeed).

As the credits roll, we’re left with a question akin to that notably posed by The Matrix and a large section of the Philip K Dick canon: what is reality, and is it any more reliable, or preferable, than the dream?

A blog at NME suggests a few movies that cover similar terrain to Inception, and you’ll find a couple more amongst the at-times snarky reader comments (Dark City and Eternal Sunshine… were two that came to my mind quick smart, and I rate them both highly).

Another good thing about Inception was that it has completely erased (well, almost) the bad taste left by Predators, which we saw last week when Inception was all but sold out at the theatre and, well, since we were there… bad mistake. Should’ve got a takeaway and gone home to finish off Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars. I had hoped Predators might breathe some life into the franchise, but it went from improbable to dull very quickly indeed.

Recent reading

I’ve been trying to keep up with the pile of ‘to read’ books, and struggling. The pile never seems to go down! But here’s some recent ones I’ve ticked off:

I finally got to Magic Dirt, a collection of shorts from over-achieving Australian Sean Williams. There are a bunch of lovely stories here, most with a preface from the author about how they came to be. Two of my favourites are ‘Passing the Bone’, a gorgeous take on the zombie story, and ‘White Christmas’, a very different approach to the apocalypse. There a goodly number of SF stories, some concerned with Williams’ ongoing fascination with the idea of just how humanity might cope with the distances of space, and other post-human conundrums, and one that isn’t spec fic at all.

Note: There is also a superb Aussie rock band called Magic Dirt.

And for something completely different, I rolled Rant, by Chuck Palahniuk. This was a delightfully quick read, the story of the eponymous Rant being told through the accounts of those around him, documentary style. It’s cleverly done and the characters are drawn with considerable relish and appeal, and I much enjoyed the dystopia that the alternative history provides with all its Ballard-lite car crashing and diurnal/nocturnal divide. I didn’t quite go for the final conceit of just what was happening here (it belongs to a certain plot device that I always have trouble getting my head around), but didn’t mind so much, the ride had been so enjoyable.

  • Check out Chuck’s writing tips
  • Over on the non-fiction shelf, there’s A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels and Other Subversive Spirits, by Carol and Dinah Mack. This survey of, well, the title says it all, really, was going pretty well as it discussed fey folk of water, mountain, forest and soforth. It sets out each entity by description, then a little story about them, and then a section on disarming and dispelling them: identify, case study, coping technique. But the guide loses traction with a few of its inclusions, the spirits being so specific (such as St Anthony’s demons) and so powerful (such as Kabhanda and several deities) that the guide’s ‘disarming and dispelling’ section is rendered irrelevant, there being neither disarming nor dispelling available (it might as well have been renamed ‘put your head between your legs and kiss your arse goodbye’). The inclusion of psychological entities such as Freud’s Id and Jung’s Shadow seemed a step too far. Still, as an introductory guide to mythology, not bad, and the introduction to the role of spirits within each domain gave cause for reflection.

    On a similar theme, there’s Anthony Finlay’s Demons: The Devil, Possession and Exorcism, the author being a former Catholic priest who offers up a history of Christianity’s relationship with Satan and his minions and the Church’s changing attitude to possession and Satan. It’s a good starting point for an overview of how Satan came to his position within Christian dogma, Finlay showing a lovely balance between logic and faith as he charts the course in conversational, approachable prose. There’s some discussion of the role of evil in the world and Christianity’s loss of ground to materialism and atheism and other alternative viewpoints. Finlay cites historic cases of possession, introduces pop culture portrayals through the likes of The Exorcist, but doesn’t reveal too much detail about his own experiences. I suspect this book is aimed at readers from within the Church, but I found the basic history and information to be thought-provoking.<p
    Here's a fitting sign-off:

    Zola Jesus — what happens when you listen to too much Siouxsie Sioux!

    Oh nom, nom, nom… and how good is the clip from Future Primitive Films? Find out more about Zola at her MySpace. There’s more discordance in store! (Good gracious, check out her version of Jefferson Airplane’s Somebody to Love for starters … yipes!)

    And in other recent net musical explorations to raise an eyebrow if not an ear:

  • Iron Maiden blast off to the Final Frontier ahead of a new album!
  • Girls put out, ahem, two versions of their spunky Lust For Life (no Iggy was harmed in the making of this tune) — one for work and one for home. Meh.

  • A comfortable little noodle is offered by English outfit XX (or is that xx?) with a touch of unassuming synth. Mostly harmless?

  • And finally,Brisbane plays host to this really cool film clip for a catchy Megan Washington pop song (with an uber-cool support cast!)

    Meanwhile, still waiting for those Concrete Blonde Australian tour tix to go on sale… not that I’m impatient or anything, no not me!

    Footnote: I only found out today that Tim Burton (now on show in Melbourne, will get there I swear!) is teaming up with Johnny Depp to shoot a new Dark Shadows. Could be/should be wicked cool! (If you’re asking wassit, check out the original soapie and the remake with Ben Cross. Neither of which should be confused with Australia’s Dark Shadows, a rockin’ Sydney band!)

  • Yarra Valley wine tasting

    yering station restaurant

    There is much to like about the Yarra Valley. It is only an hour from Melbourne City, for starters, and offers spectacular rural scenery once you break out of the urban sprawl at Lilydale: a gorgeous blue-mountain horizon, lush paddocks of sheep and cattle, and vineyards. The vineyards are the main attraction, offering a huge selection all within close driving distance.

    My first venture into the region took in six vineyards in one day of easy driving.

    The first stop was Yering Station, a delightful property where we pulled up chairs by the wood fire in the lounge and enjoyed pastries and coffee over the morning paper. The staff were a joy. By comparison, the wine tasting in the timber-beamed barn seemed a tad tame. The cellar door was complemented by a range of foodstuffs and branded merch and the balcony bar looked tempting but not that early in the day. By afternoon our splendid winter’s morning had clouded over to cold’n’crappy so the bar remains untested. The complex has a superb restaurant that not only is architecturally interesting thanks to raw stone and water features, but offers a sensational view of the fields and mountains.

    Coldstream Hills, small but shiny with a hillside outlook, had a definite professional flourish to its tastings, with an emphasis on quality and a $5 per glass fee on the reserves (waived with every bottle purchase).

    We drove into Healesville to hit Giant Steps-Innocent Bystander, where the crowded restaurant offered a fine view of the winery on the other side of a glass wall, and was also offering tastings from the next-door brewery as well as their own wine. Very friendly staff made this visit a delight, with a cheeky pink moscato proving tempting. We had a chat with winemaker Steve (a fellow Joy Division fan!) who recommended two other vineyards, and very fine recommendations they were, too.

    Oakridge and Maddens Rise are veritable neighboures on the Maroondah Highway. Oakridge boasted an intimate cafe and friendly staff and a very tasty 854 shiraz (sadly, at $60, it wasn’t THAT tasty). Maddens Rise was a comparatively new kid on the block, with the cellar door in a superbly fitted out but small shed with only a couple of varieties on offer. The cab sauv was my pick of the day, and staffer Emma was an absolute gem. I was particularly taken by the shed’s panoramic windows: a clever way to enhance the view.

    We broke our tastings with a filling lunch at Rochford Wines, a vineyard known for its concert events. One of its standout features was an iron, circular stairway to a first-floor art gallery and second-floor viewing platform. Another was its fudge bar!

    Before heading back to the big smoke, we popped into Yarra Valley Dairy for coffee and picked up some of their cheese after a tasting session — a spreadable herb and chilli called Hot Cow and an ashed creamy blue called Black Savourine, both of which were decimated over a Coldstream Hills shiraz that night. I was taken with the shop’s unlined corrugate iron roof and the view from the loo — a very contented dairy cow up to its belly in green grass. Now that’s local produce!

    The thing I like about the Yarra vineyards is that the ones I’ve seen all offer a point of distinction, and there seems an effort is being made to put their own stamp on their product. Except for poor old Giant Steps, stuck in an urban surround, they all have a pleasant outlook, too, which certainly adds to the experience.

    With more than 50 cellar doors on offer, the exploration has only just begun…
    More pictures here.