Music Review – “Vamp” (Jake Perrine, 2001)

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I was introduced to this Gothic rock-opera by a friend several years ago, rediscovered it recently, and was amazed how much influence from it had seeped into my own work: in particular, its villain-protagonist Alexandra has more than a little in common with the antagonist of “Wolves of Dacia.” That being so, and since I never paid a penny for it (having been gifted the CD, back in the days of its limited CD run – it is download-only now), it seems only fair to give it a bit of a boost …

Originally an off-Broadway production by actor and musician Jake Perrine of Warp Academy, “Vamp” is a three-act synth-rock opera (the script almost entirely sung) with diverse influences, from traditional opera and classic musicals (the author specifically cites Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd”, and it certainly has a similar blood content, at any rate …) to Peter Gabriel and Nine Inch Nails. Conscious influences aside, however, the word “Goth” will be on the tip of your tongue for most of the show, and given the subject matter (“Vamp” does what it says on the tin …) the composer could hardly complain.

The main character, Alexandra, is a vampire: this is no spoiler, as unlike Dracula she has the consideration to clue the audience in right from the word go (as opposed to her victims, who enter stage right in all innocence and ignorance). She is of indeterminate (though implied great) age, highly cultured, an exquisite pianist, deeply depressed, nihilistic, murderous, and evil. She is very much the vampire as addict / junkie, disgusted by her condition and dependency, yet finding it her only way of regaining some sense of purpose and pleasure in her “life”, and unable to find the will to break the cycle.

Her modus operandi, apparently, is setting herself up as a private arts tutor, insinuating her way into families, and thus grooming potential victims from a young age (It seems that the memories of her victims have some bearing on the quality of the “blood vintage”, so to speak, so she aims to encourage her marks to lead interesting and fulfilling lives before she deems them ripe enough for the preying). Three such victims, now adults, have now come to “spend the weekend” with her, unaware it is doomed to be their last. In order of least to most sympathetic, there is the ironically-named* Simon – a narcissistic actor overly-fond of reminding everyone that he used to play “Dracula” in the West End; Rosemary – a fiction writer, and the much put-upon girlfriend of Simon; and Carmine – a devout, weak-willed artist who is undergoing a crisis of faith, not helped by his “friends” using him to get revenge on each other. Their friendship, as one quickly gathers, is tenuous at best, but all three are bonded in their Stockholm Syndrome-like devotion to and admiration of Alexandra: her easy charisma, gracefulness, profound knowledge, and artistic mastery seeming to show up their own inadequacies, and all three of them craving her acceptance … which from the audience’s POV is clearly a bad thing. For Alexandra has decided she might be able to improve her miserable immortal lot if she “spares” one of the three meals-in-waiting to become her eternal companion. Will she make the right choice? Is there, indeed, a right choice?

Enough said on the plot, suffice to say it is very twisty, and I would recommend buying the full soundtrack with the PDF libretto, as it will prove most enlightening: not only on the complex philosophical lyrics but also on the staging (One would otherwise have no way of knowing that Alexandra is so pitifully dependent upon her grand piano for solace, it also doubles as her coffin / bed. Nor indeed that she is constantly haunted by the shadowy spectres of her former victims, and that she can stop time at will when she feels like a “snack’). As in any opera, however, the music is where it is at, and “Vamp” – in spite of its modest resources – has it where it counts, from its grandly melancholy overture, to its darkly humorous “patter” sections in act 2, to its more catchy “poppy” numbers (“Sometimes at Night” and “Fallen” are especially hummable, if hardly upbeat), to the “turning” scene in act 3 – a tour de force of both menacing and haunting melodies and surreal, nihilistic lyrics that really does capture as well as pure audio ever could the sense of humanity slipping away in favour of something dark, seductive, and destructive. As for the vocal performances, they are all commendable, although the stand-out is Beverly Butrie as the tortured Alexandra. She creates a character who, like any well-realised vampire, manages to charm the audience / listener in spite of her incredible moral awfulness, meaning we are rather pleased when the escalating conflicts force her to examine what she has become … but to say more on that would be telling.

I would love to see this performed live one day, but I think it very unlikely (While a new version was staged recently, it was only in Hungary). As such, the 2001 New York cast recording remains – to my knowledge – the only way to enjoy it, as I dare hope I may now have persuaded a few other vampire-junkies to do …


* If one happens to be a “Castlevania” fan, that is.

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Album Review: “Party on, Papillon!”

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Having hugely enjoyed Anna Secret Poet’s earlier album “Tits of Steel” (as hilarious as it sounds, and a great antidote to a depressing workplace where listening to offbeat deadpan punk-poetry ought to be mandatory for mental health), I was eager to hear her latest offering, and was thoroughly entertained, amused, and really very impressed (especially as, by her own admission, recording sessions typically took place in her bedroom). This is not to to categorise it as a mere collection of comic songs – if anything, it is less overtly comical than its predecessor; darker and edgier – although fans will be pleased to know it retains the sharp, laconic wit of her earlier offerings.

Musically, the emphasis is towards a harder, more rock-oriented sound, with some particularly stunning guitar work which it is very hard to believe was mastered in a home studio (although that may account for my one criticism: as with the previous album, the lyrics can occasionally be overwhelmed by music or distortion on the heavier tracks). Anna’s singing is also very impressive, and in spite of her self-deprecation in “Limited Appeal” – a rock and roll pastiche in which she talks of having a “manly voice” – she demonstrates a remarkable vocal range on this album (especially in “The Cat That Got the Dream” – another of the album’s strong rock offerings).

Acoustic offerings are fewer on this album, although the intro and outro both take that form, and have the playful, whimsical humour that characterised much of “Tits of Steel.” Humour on the rest of this album tends to the dark side, especially with “Aunty Semitic and Uncle Adolf” (which one can’t help but feel is written very much for our current times of frightening but absurd resurgent far-right movements) and “Still Ragin’ After All These Years,” which deals with the poet’s existential crises in an ironically bouncy, happy-go-lucky arrangement that owes more than a bit to Paul McCartney (as she hilariously acknowledges, but to say more would be a spoiler). Also on the softer side of arrangements is “Anna vs The Festival” which delightfully recounts the pleasures and pains of being an itinerant performance poet and drag artist at a muddy festival.

Powerfully performed and wittily composed, testimony to its creator’s dual talent as poet and musician, “Party on, Papillon!” is a very worthy follow-up to its predecessor, and worth many listenings.

Music Review – “Arboles Lloran Por Lluvia” (Helena Tulve, 2014)

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I first encountered Helena Tulve’s work by accident, while searching through my local library’s depressingly small collection of female classical composers. A copy of her 2008 album “Lijnen” was all that this search yielded, although it justified the effort with its starkly beautiful, free-form works: part audio poetry or storytelling, part sound-scapes, each piece feeling like a journey through some compelling yet dangerous wilderness.

Her second collection is similar insofar as it builds on this style, yet an overall richer experience in texture and composition than its predecessor, as becomes quickly apparent from the first track, “Reyah hadas ‘ala” with both complex instrumentals and several vocalists (“Lijnen”, by contrast, had only one voiced track, with a haunting solo by Ariana Savall. “Arboles …” has vocals on most of its tracks, and several vocalists besides Savall). While this makes for a less tense experience than the eerie simplicities of “Lijnen”, the mood is no less haunting, yet in a more introspective way. If “Lijnen” often felt like a dangerous journey through frozen, treacherous landscapes, “Arboles …” feels like the dangerous journey into the multifaceted, treacherous psyche.

The piece opens with mournful strings, instantly reminiscent of Tulve’s earlier work, then staccato bursts of flute enter the scene like bird cries (The translated title of the piece, “The perfume of the myrtle rises”, already seems to set the scene in some mystic garden). The piece is dominated by a recurring Gregorian chant motif, with male vocalists in solemn harmony, seeming to offer the hope of serenity yet ghostly and unsettling. Flutes strike dissonant notes, and harmony between instruments and vocals is only ever achieved in uneasy, fleeting moments (The motif of complex yet competing, or somehow irreconcilable harmonies occurs throughout this album). A female vocalist then offers a new chant, heralding a change of mood: a new calmness in the instrumentals (though still with ominous undertones), with lighter melodies and trills suggestive of birdsong and dance. One could almost imagine competing tutelary spirits of this strange “psychic garden” vying for control. Ultimately, the chants loosely harmonise, and peace descends on this otherworldly space as the piece closes, although inconclusively, its troubled notes unresolved. There are no easy solutions in Tulve’s work.

The second piece, “Silences / larmes” (silences / tears), makes liberal use of silences as a device (as you might expect) and begins on a protracted one, before giving way to strings and a single oboe. These instruments are presently joined by a female vocalist (the aforementioned and inimitable Ariana Savall) whose ethereal chants interweave with the oboe melody yet do not strictly harmonise. The effect becomes of a swirling dance between the two, an elusive search for unity, reinforced by some suggestive lyrics (imagery of moths, leaves, and the strange solace of a single chime highlighting the themes of transience and mutability throughout these works). Intermittent silences break in upon the piece, while percussion effects could almost suggest waves breaking upon the shoreline, as the piece draws to a melancholy close. The effect is of exquisite vulnerability, the performers again seeming like spirits or personifications of nature, yet themselves prey to the greater forces of chaos and entropy, threatening to silence them at any given moment, perhaps eternally.

The third piece, “L’Équinoxe de l’âme” (The equinox of the soul) continues and deepens the strong metaphysical themes, taking as its basis a Sufi poem that characterises the soul as a phoenix-like entity. Its opening, in contrast to the serenity of the earlier works, is shrill and energetic, and this sense of tumult builds, with many instrumental voices seemingly vying for dominance. One could imagine it to be the psyche at is most turbulent, raw and unfocused. The faint hint of a female vocal (Savall again) enters, then builds in significance, exerting a calming and harmonising influence, strings forming around its melody. Perhaps this signifies the “dawning” spirituality bringing peace and enlightenment, or an alchemical transformation of formless elements, but (as is characteristic in Tulve’s work) the epiphany is transient, chaos and randomness returning before the piece draws to its close (although the vocal nevertheless continues to soar, phoenix-like, suggesting its influence may yet return).

Track four is the title track, “Arboles lloran por lluvia” (Trees cry for rain), and is another reflective, serene, yet melancholy piece. A silent opening tentatively gives way to strings and vocals, male and female voices echoing each other’s plaintive lyrics yet (as ever) unable to synchronise easily, overlapping yet constantly separated. The tone becomes more desperate, the lovers’ longed-for union only more elusive for its fleeting moments of harmony. It feels like a ghostly, two-way chase that will never find a lasting resolution. A simple, wistful, repeated string motif closes the work, seeming to signal a sad acceptance of the inevitable.

As an appropriate climax, the final piece, “Extinction des choses vues” (The extinction of the things seen) utilises the full orchestra and its sense of scale to dramatic effect. From a subtle opening, energy and volume soon increase as several instrumental voices build simultaneously in a long-drawn crescendo (curiously reminiscent of the orchestral bridge in the Beatles’ 1967 track “A Day in the Life”, and not dissimilar to it in terms of the effect achieved). Incompatible yet not formless, the various voices reach a peak of unbearable intensity, then tail off with high-pitched strings into near-silence. Shrill, formless notes linger in the void, until the piece finally closes on a two-note string motif (not unlike the “Jaws” hook, though eerie rather than urgent), reduced to starkest simplicity in its final moments. It is, like so much of Tulve’s work, a piece open to any number of interpretations, although the title offers provocative hints. Ultimately, it leaves the feeling either of a musical “Road to Damascus” moment – some blinding revelation that eclipses all that came before – or a musical mental breakdown, the psyche overwhelmed and laid low by its inability to find peace and reconciliation (or possibly both).

Overall, then, “Arboles …” emerges as both a logical development from Helena Tulve’s earlier work, and a hugely rewarding collection in its own right. It is far from ‘easy listening’ – its loose, constantly-evolving structures absolutely demand attention – but for those who allow themselves to be lost in its liminal, Gothic spaces, it is a beautiful if often unsettling experience.

Music Review – “Lijnen” (Helena Tulve, 2008)

Haunting, sonoristic contemporary classical suite.

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This subject may have come up before, and I have no wish to reignite political debates on this blog, but suffice it to say it was only after transitioning that I realised what an indifferent feminist I had been before transitioning, and set about looking for ways to amend that, both in activism and in my personal and cultural life. While my bookshelves already have quite a decent gender balance, my music collection proved to be depressingly male-heavy, and particularly my classical music collection. Female composers to this day, alas, do not seem to figure much at all in the popular image of this field, and I struggled to locate many in the classical CD section of Cardiff Library, but I did manage to locate this example.

“Lijnen” (lines) is the work of Estonian composer Helena Tulve, and I ought to perhaps stress right now that I am in no way, with my “D” grade in GCSE music, qualified to review a classical CD, but here is my laywoman’s attempt …

The comparison that most strikes me with this album is with the “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” (1960) by Penderecki, which used a free-form sonoristic style to generate a sense of pain and catastrophe fitting to the subject matter. Tulve’s work follows a similar technique, with very little percussion, and that used only to generate specific effects, emotively and dramatically, rather than to generate any sense of rhythm and form. The main sounds one will hear in this album are woodwind, strings, and a haunting vocal in the second track, generating a very ethereal mood. “Soundscapes” would be a good word for the overall effects, and the album art gives a hint to the type of audio geography in store (and possibly to the title, the skeletal winter trees composing a harsh vista of mere “lines”).

The first piece, “À travers” (through), starts the album off on a Gothic note that will be sustained throughout, seeming to conjure that desolate yet threatening landscape of the cover art, and pulling us on a journey through it. Amidst the purely atmospheric noises of strange, alarming bells and ominous bass tones, a solo clarinet plays a forlorn melody, but it meanders and seems lost in its way, confused. Strings almost seem to echo it. Do they perhaps suggest pursuers, or merely imagined threats? The piece ends harshly, as if in shock or fright.

The second, title piece, “Lijnen,” is dominated by the vocal, which maintains the ghostly mood. It is a beautiful theme, but refuses to be pinned down, with sudden shifts of volume and intensity, almost suggestive of tides, winds, or other such unpredictable forces of nature. This dissonance and capriciousness undercuts any sense of serenity, and leave the listener ill at ease. It is almost like listening in on some esoteric witchcraft taking place in the depths of this frozen wood.

This is followed by “Öö” (night), in which saxophones now take over, although anyone expecting a sudden shift to cheery jazz will be sorely disappointed … They seem to resonate from the distance, atonally, like warning foghorns or plaintive cries. That mood continues into “Abysses” where flutes and other woodwind instruments seem (fittingly) to cry out of the abyss, competing to be heard over each other, their crescendos evocative of despair.

“Cendres” (ashes) is next in line, and introduces a harsh, jangling piano to the ensemble, its staccato, minor key notes perhaps suggestive of chattering teeth, and certainly evocative of cold and danger. Music now comes in fits and starts, with bursts of energy and urgency, and scraping strings that play into the subject matter (Is the traveller attempting, but failing to sustain the fire that may keep her from freezing to death?).

Finally, “Nec Ros Nec Pluvia” (nor dew, nor rain) pays homage to the Vulgate Bible with its title (referencing 2 Samuel 1:21, where David curses the mountain after finding the body of King Saul, killed in battle), while its anguished, unpredictable strings evoke grief, despair, and confusion. Again, they will not be pinned down, but seem to follow their own wilful, emotive melodies. The arrangement (for string quartet) is raw and minimalist. Elaborate orchestration would detract from the effect of these forlorn, screeching mourners.

I am, in conclusion, very pleased to have discovered this. It is certainly not “easy listening,” (if anything, it is designed to be unsettling and disconcerting, with an overarching eeriness) but as interesting Gothic mood music goes, I can see myself coming back to it very frequently. Eschewing traditional formalities, Tulve gives her music a primal, elusive, emotional quality while retaining enough sense of internal logic and structure to hold the listener’s attention (or mine, at all events). if you are in the mood for something darkly original, I would certainly give it a whirl.

Album Review: “Tits of Steel”

A brilliantly eclectic combination of performance poetry and punk …

I was lured to this album by C. T. Herron’s glowing review that gave me very high expectations for it, and they were not disappointed … much to my relief, as Anna has been a supporter of this blog since its early days, so it is really nice to be able to write of her work with heartfelt praise.

I should point out, though, that the title claim of Track 4, “I Don’t Know Any Funny Songs,” is a blatant lie, or at any rate unwarranted modesty, as this album is a masterpiece in ironic wit. There seems to be something about Celtic accents that lend themselves nicely to that, so that we can hardly concur when Anna sings later on the album, “I wish I was French but I’m Scottish instead.” (Track 7, “Anna en Francais”) Somehow, her combination of pithy satire and utter surrealism just wouldn’t be the same without her dry, laconic, Glaswegian tones.

Which is not to say that the album is purely an exercise in comic poetry. The musicianship is stunning right from the first, heavy rock track, and continues to show versatility throughout, seamlessly tackling hilarious pastiches of reggae, techno, and funk. The only criticism I could make is one of mastering, in that sometimes the music overwhelms the lyrics, although that would well just be the fault of my inadequate setup (so do try to listen to this on decent sound equipment, as it deserves, rather than a phone speaker or a pair of cheap Flying Tiger headphones).

The whole album was an absolute pleasure for me, but if I had to select highlights, I would probably go for “I Don’t Know Any Funny Songs” (an acoustic number and, as mentioned, a total inaccuracy), “Anna en Francais” (witty, surreal, and all-too-easy for this struggling student of French to sympathise with), and “Catch The Tiger” (which starts off as a series of bizarre self-help style affirmations to a driving, upbeat tune, then turns a corner into something downbeat and ironic, which appeals so totally to my inner cynic).

This is a stunning independent production, the skill and variety of the music perfectly complementing Anna’s wickedly amusing lyrics. The very easily offended might not care for it, but I have no hesitation recommending it to everyone else.

Album Review: “Pesticide”

Having recently received some lovely reviews on my own work, I feel the time has come to share some of the love around, so the next few posts will be reviews of works I have recently discovered and felt were deserving of a wider audience. To commence, a punk-Goth album by an independent local (as in Welsh) band …


“Pesticide” (by Clusterfuck)

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I should state, for the sake of honesty, that the founder, drummer, and producer of this band is one of my best and oldest friends, and also one of the nicest people I know and one of the first people to support me in my transition, so pardon me if I am a little biased … That said, I can impartially state that I know few people so committed to their art, so perfectionist in their instincts (I have seen him lose faith in and abandon many a promising track, or take great persuasion to release them), and so wonderfully eclectic in their tastes, with musical influences ranging from The Sex Pistols and Daft Punk, to lesser-known 1950s Rockabilly idols, to contemporary classical composers such as Giacinto Scelsi and Arvo Pärt. This commitment and eclecticism is reflected in his latest album project, the second with this particular band following the almost-as-good “Dear Mortal,” (or visit here to listen online) but I would call this a definite artistic progression, more unified in its structure).

It opens on a epic note with “Reach Out,” with soaring vocals reminiscent of the interludes on Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” although by and large this album is far ‘punkier’ than it is ‘proggy’. At any rate, though, it makes for a striking overture, and an impressive lead into the first actual song of the album; “Paranoia.” This piece is as dark as its name suggests and one of the album’s highlights, with a sinister, driving techno beat accompanying the eerie lyrics and the whispering ‘inner voices’ chorus. The Gothic mood continues in tracks such as “Death Begins” and the instrumental “We Are the Void,” the latter in particular being another highlight, its dark electronic rhythms being varied by haunting harmonica fills that seem to echo out of the void (appropriately). Also in this mood – and another of the album’s finest offerings – is their cover version of T. Rex’s “Get It On.” It somehow fits seamlessly into the group’s musical and vocal style, carried along by some beautifully haunting guitar work.

Other tracks, especially to the midsection of the album set a lighter, more relaxed mood, especially the infectiously catchy “Besties,” “Electric Distortion,” (a track on synesthesia, the vivid lyrics delivered in a comically deadpan fashion by the guest vocalist), and the wickedly satirical yet outrage-inducing “Trumped,” consisting mostly of ‘lyrics’ culled from the 45th US President’s most reprehensible statements, along with well-chosen mocking, comically-timed samples. One would love to imagine him hearing it … The satirical mood becomes much darker in the final tracks, with “Money” and “Tazer” dealing with poverty, prostitution and police brutality, but it all concludes on a mercifully upbeat track with “Death Race.”

With tremendous energy, variety, a social conscience, a wicked sense of humour, and a remarkably strong production (especially considering its humble origins, with no big studio or equivalent backing), I have no hesitation in recommending this (with the sole caveat that their language can be quite strong … as the band name itself implies). On a final note, here is me in some rather old footage (taken around 2015) being in a music video for their first album …

Musical Interlude

The next proper post I plan to make will be a review of albums by some friends of mine who have helped support my morale over these last three years … so these reviews will be predictably favourable, but I shall make every effort to justify that artistically. 😉 That will require some thought and careful listening of said albums, so I don’t feel quite ready to tackle that just yet. In the meantime, on the subject of music, here is some low-fidelity video of me murdering some J S Bach …

(Apologies for all the pauses: the music was on my screen, and needed scrolling on. I was feeling too cheap to buy a proper score book.)

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