Category Archives: Reviews

Preview: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR THE VELVET ONION.

© BBC / Todd Antony

© BBC / Todd Antony

This weekend sees the long-awaited launch of BBC One’s fantasy epic Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, starring Bertie Carvel, Eddie Marsan, Enzo Clienti, Alice Englert, Charlotte Riley, Marc Warren, Edward Hogg and Paul Kaye.

Set during the Napoleonic Wars in an alternate England where magic was once commonplace, the show focuses on two very different men who are drawn together by their talents in the art, and an ancient prophecy may just be their making, and their undoing.

TVO recently caught the first episode ahead of transmission, and to whet your appetites, there’s a spoiler-free preview peeling below.

Ten years is a long time in television, and it’s now over a decade since Doctor Who returned to our screens, bringing back with it not only the intrepid wandering in space and time, but also the notion that good quality, fantasy television could co-exist with game-shows, reality programming and chat-host ego trips in the realm of prime-time TV.

And whilst the boom in the industry has blossomed worldwide in the years since, production companies within the UK have generally struggled to find a genre show which would have a sizeable impact since Merlin, commissioned in the post-Who flurry, called it a day three years ago. For all it’s shared DNA with Doctor WhoSherlock is hardly science-fiction and far removed from fantasy – beyond the notion of why the cleverest man in England elects to take a taxi everywhere in London when the Tube would be much faster.

The truth of the matter is this: expectations are high for Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. The push for the show to be a roaring success isn’t helped by the BBC’s previous wobbles in fantasy adaptations: Gormenghast, we’re looking at you in particular, here. The greatest cast in all the land can’t save a production that doesn’t get it right behind the scenes and on the page.

© JSMN Ltd / Matt Squire / BBC

© JSMN Ltd / Matt Squire / BBC

Which may be why the makers of Strange & Norrell, as we’ll call it for shorthand, are led by familiar names for fans of BBC Wales’ recent output. In the directing chair is Toby Haynes: who cut his teeth on Being Human and Spooks before heading up the five successive episodes that made up the end of Doctor Who‘s fifth series, it’s 2010 Christmas Special, and the start of it’s sixth ‘nu-Who’ run. Haynes was also responsible for probably the most talked about drama episode in the last five years, as he led Sherlock‘s titular detective to his apparent death in the sublime The Reichenbach Fall.

He’s not the only Who allumni on board, either, as the adaptation of Susanne Clarke’s novel comes from Peter Harness, writer of 2014’s Kill the Moon episode, and two further episodes to air later this year. Harness was also responsible for the underrated Frankie Howerd biopic, Rather You Than Me, starring David Walliams as the troubled comic, and his last adaptation of a popular novel turned out to be the Kenneth Branagh smash Wallander.

So far, so good, and collating a cast that includes Bertie Carvel (Les Mis, Sherlock), Eddie Marsan (God’s Pocket, The World’s End), Enzo Clienti (In the Loop, The Theory of Everything), Alice Englert (Beautiful Creatures) and Charlotte Riley (Edge of Tomorrow) was an impressive coup. Adding the ever sublime Marc Warren to that cast was the cherry on top, and by adding in Bunny and the Bull star Edward Hogg and the legendary Paul Kaye: Well, now you’ve really got our attention.

© JSMN Ltd / Matt Squire / BBC

© JSMN Ltd / Matt Squire / BBC

Hogg’s role is our way into the story: as John Segundus, he channels innocence and devotion to his cause, as a determined scholar of magic curious to find out why conventional practise of the art died out three centuries ago. Travelling to York to join a gentlemen’s society of magicians, he is instructed that magic can never be performed, only studied, until, that is, he discovers Mr Norrell.

Played with world-weary heart by the eternally impressive Eddie Marsan, Norrell is content to keep himself to himself and practise magic only when he needs to do so, but Segundas’ curious soul manages to persuade him to demonstrate his powers to a flustered society in a sequence which features CGI so impressive, it may finally blur the lines between what Hollywood does as standard and the Beeb can do with a little effort.

Then, as if by magic (sorry, couldn’t help that one), we’re taken out of this narrative, and introduced to the other half of our title: Jonathan Strange. A drifter and clear romancer, he is enthused with ‘posh-toff-charm’ yet for all his flaws, is immediately a likeable soul, thanks in no small part to the nuances of Bertie Carvel’s portrayal. Sure, he’s hopeless, hopping about on his perpetual holiday from responsibilities, but a brief look into his family life demonstrates whose side the audience is meant to be on, and when the inevitable plot-device to free him of his predicament arrives, things begin to look up for ol’ Jonny-boy.

© JSMN Ltd / Matt Squire / BBC

© JSMN Ltd / Matt Squire / BBC

The connection between these two men is in the hands of a street magician, Vinculus, played by Paul Kaye with all his usual punk-rock gusto. He’s charming yet threatening, likeable yet disgusting at the same time, and Kaye has long since been a master of turning grubby little shits into characters you can’t help but root for.

Vinculus has received a prophecy concerning two magicians, and he approaches first Norrell, then later Strange, in his attempts to push the two together. The former has become embroiled in London’s high society, uneasy at his new-found fame after ‘The Miracle of York’, and is immediately cautious of Vinculus. Strange, on the other hand, is fascinated by his visitor, and thus begins a chain of events that could make or break everyone involved.

© JSMN Ltd / Matt Squire / BBC

© JSMN Ltd / Matt Squire / BBC

We could say more. There’s the entire matter of Marc Warren’s character, and how he becomes involved in the plot, that we haven’t even touched upon. There’s a sequence involving a pack of tarot cards that offers Kaye and Enzo Clienti a wonderful sparring match to savour. There’s the involvement of a cringeworthy society-luvvie, desperate to cling onto NorrrrrrELL for a moment in the spotlight, brilliantly brought to life by The Thick of It and Cucumber star Vincent Franklin. And there’s the story of Sir Walter Pole (Mr Selfridge star Samuel West), whose initial scepticism is disproven in ways he could never have dreamed.

But to say more would rob the opening episode of its strongest gambits. What we will say is that, though beautifully shot, and subtly scripted, the tale of Strange & Norrell is slow to get underway, and certain impressive sequences seem at odds with the majority of the episode. This is a dialogue-heavy show, and whilst said dialogue is richly nuanced, it is very much of the period and its half-truths and political implications could be hard to follow if you’re not giving it your full concentration.

Then again, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a show which deserves your full concentration. In an age where Twitter offers a live commentary of every programme, an awful lot of viewers on Sunday evening won’t really be paying attention, and that’s a worrying thought. Because Strange & Norrell rewards your efforts, and by the climax of the first episode, those who stick with it will be itching to find out what happens next.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell begins on Sunday, 17th May at 9pm on BBC One. It airs in the US from Saturday, June 13th from 10pm (9pm Central) on BBC America, and is released on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK on 15th June.

Previews: Inside No. 9 – La Couchette

THIS PIECE WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR THE VELVET ONION.

© BBC / Sophie Mutevelian

© BBC / Sophie Mutevelian

Next week sees the long-awaited return of Inside No. 9 – the twisted anthology series from Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton.

Episode One airs on Thursday, 26th March at 10pm on BBC Two, and with Alice Lowe and Paul Kaye amongst the big name guest stars this series, TVO was keen to see the results as soon as possible.

This, then, is our preview of the first episode, La Couchette

For more than two decades, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton have been honing their natural chemistry together – first as one half of The League of Gentlemen alongside Sherlock’s Mark Gatiss and Psychobitches director Jeremy Dyson, and more recently with their sublime comedic mystery saga Psychoville. Following the untimely demise of the latter, the duo took on their most ambitious project yet: Inside No. 9, and after a widely acclaimed first run, they’ve crafted six more tales in their inimitable style.

Where The League of Gentlemen mined the laughs in the downright macabre, and Psychoville took audiences on an increasingly preposterous journey into espionage and bad murders, Inside No. 9 showcased a remarkable constraint in Shearsmith and Pemberton. With each episode focusing on a different set of a characters in new locations each week, the pair got to continue flexing their skill as chameleonic character actors whilst also, on occasion stepping back from the big dynamic laughs: allowing the shifting mood and tone of the story to take centre stage, even if it meant a reduced role for themselves.  And with concept leading the way, it allowed the pair to truly experiment – most notably in the impeccable A Quiet Night In episode, which is almost entirely sans dialogue.

The results were quite unlike anything else on television in recent years, and the production of a second run is more than welcome, particularly as it once again comes with a top notch cast. The likes of Sheridan Smith, Alison Steadman, David Warner (who also appeared in The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse) and TVO’s own Alice Lowe and Paul Kaye are among those we will see in this new run.

© BBC / Sophie Mutevelian

© BBC / Sophie Mutevelian

But first: La Couchette. Episode One is set within the ninth sleeper car on a train from Paris to Bourg St Maurice, as a ramshackle bunch of travellers try, in vein, to bed down for the night.  At opposing ends of the spectrum, Shearsmith plays a fastidious doctor, on his way to an important interview – all nerves and twitches not a million miles away from his troubled librarian in Psychoville.  Pemberton, on the other hand is a slobbish, sluggish Germanic drunk – unkempt and full of gas, and seemingly unable to speak a word of English.

Before long, the unlikely companions are joined by a bickering Northern couple – played by those fine bastions of English character acting: Julie Hesmondalgh and Mark Benton.  This particular Northerner could watch these two read the phonebook, and be enthralled, so it’s understandably a delight to see them here: trying, and failing to stay quiet whilst settling in for the night on the way to their daughter’s wedding.

They are soon joined by the brilliant Jessica Gunning as a gung-ho Aussie backpacker, and a little while later by Jack Whitehall playing… well, a Jack Whitehall style yuppie gap-yah hitchhiker. He does it well, of course. Why, we’re even growing rather fond of the Whitehall Archetype now after Cockroaches. The shambolic sextet are perfectly mismatched, and unfortunate company for one another: intolerant of everyone else in the room, and in complete ignorance of their own flaws.

It’s a claustrophobic environment, captured with great style and panache by guest director Guillem Morales. With a background in horror movies – including the Guillermo Del Toro approved Julia’s Eyes, Morales is an inspired choice to find scope in such an enclosed space, and the many layers of the cabin feel at once constrictive yet never obtrusive to the action on screen.

© BBC / Sophie Mutevelian

© BBC / Sophie Mutevelian

Naturally, this being a Shearsmith and Pemberton creation with a horror movie director, there’s a surprise in store for our travellers, which we understandably won’t spoil.  However, we will say it puts the journey into jeopardy, and gives the more selfish members of the party an excuse to let their own desires get the better of them.

It isn’t perfect – there’s an incident with a shoebox that is almost too revolting for words, even after some of the more twisted aspects of The League… and Psychoville, which adds nothing of note to the episode’s plotting or structure, beyond a rather purile gag that may indeed make you gag yourself. Yet for the rest of the run-time, it works masterfully – building slowly to a climax that is both carefully signposted and hidden in plain sight.

To say more would no doubt ruin the game that has become part and parcel of Shearsmith and Pemberton’s work: wondering what on earth is going to happen next. Audiences deserve to be able to savour the rich characters they manage to build in such a short space of time, and if this is any indication for the rest of the series, we’re in for another solid gold run. Welcome back, Gents… the world is a better place with you in it.

Inside No. 9 – La Couchette airs on Thursday 26th March at 10pm on BBC Two.

Review: Marilyn Manson – The Pale Emperor

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR MUSIC NEWS.
© Cooking Vinyl

© Cooking Vinyl

At their peak, the band known as Marilyn Manson managed to whip the Western World into a frenzy. Their deny-nothing policy, complex concept-album mythology and live shows that set out to shock as much as they entertained all fused together to create utter pandemonium. There were many who believed Marilyn Manson were a real threat to American youth, and the band topped the charts as a result.
Such heady heights couldn’t last, and the ground was effectively disbanded in 2004. The titular frontman went solo: a revolving door of live musicians and recording collaborators helped him reinvent the name, Alice Cooper style.

Except, like Alice, Manson’s well documented alcoholism and seemingly ad-hoc approach to recording led to a string of further ‘Marilyn Manson’ albums which divided audiences, polarised critics, and in the case of the last one, Born Villain, could be downright impenetrable. Over a decade since his last true hit record, and it’d be easy to see Manson as a lost soul, desperate to cling on to past glories.

Not so. “The past is over”, he sings on new track The Mephistopheles of Los Angeles, “Now the passive seems so pathetic.” Realising his raw power is a strength, rather than a weakness, in The Pale Emperor he’s created an album almost entirely devoid of production sparkles, and the result is quite unlike anything he’s done before.

Whilst Born Villain had wrapped warped vocals around prolonged, murky dirge metal, and The High End Of Low stuck a little too close to the classics for comfort, The Pale Emperor manages to stride the gap between them.

There’s a blues swagger to much of the album, and the clinical production lets the music simply be, while Manson’s raw, raucous and often strained vocals lie on top: the sound of a torn and broken man fighting back.

There are hark backs to the Manson of old, still – a familiar drum pattern here, a guitar lick there… even the warbling gutter noises that he’s been using on and off for two decades are still knocking around. His childish sense of humour still comes to the fore in playground chantalong choruses that only Manson could write.

But every time a track like Third Day of a Seven Day Binge hark back to songs like Leave A Scar, or Cupid Carries A Gun manages to sound like just about every classic-era Manson track you can think of, there’s a new direction to go in. The song twists and turns, the album shifts mood, and the result is the most unique sounding Manson record yet.

It’s possible that Manson’s new mantra is repeatedly made explicit on Warship My Wreck: “You cannot say I’m breaking the rules/If I glue them back together.” That feels like The Pale Emperor in a nutshell: harking back to the old, doffing its top hat to the new, and ploughing its own, rougher path down the middle, hopping back and forth as it pleases. Even if the end result is unlikely to win over any new converts, it’d be hard to deny Manson points for effort on that front.

If there’s one major negative, it’s that the Manson of old wrapped intricate tales and obscure quotes around poptastic beats, and that side of him feels increasingly consigned to musical history as he takes a more autobiographical and somewhat simpler path. But to try and enforce a style on an artist is preposterous: Manson has moved on, and this time, he’s inviting us to go with him.

Time will tell if it’s too little too late for Manson, and there’s a slightly disturbing undercurrent across the record of a man on borrowed time and an apparent death wish. In the end, however, The Pale Emperor may just signify a new age for The God of F**k himself.

The Pale Emperor is released on January 19th 2015 in standard and deluxe formats.

Review: QUEEN – Let Me In Your Heart Again / There Must Be More To Life Than This / Love Kills

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR MUSIC NEWS.
© Universal Virgin EMI

© Universal Virgin EMI

When Freddie Mercury passed away in 1991, he left behind two decades of impeccably honed work which pushed the boundaries of studio possibilities in an age when ProTools could only be dreamt of. With a voice that could send shivers down spines, even when illness took its toll, he remains one of the quintessential frontmen of rock.

Having peddled their wares on tour with the legendary Paul Rodgers and the not-so-legendary Adam Lambert, remaining Queen band members Brian May and Roger Taylor (John Deacon having retired in 1997), have turned their attention to a handful of archive materials featuring their late friend to front a new compilation of love songs, Queen Forever.

Two of these feature familiar performances for anyone with a knowledge of Mercury’s solo output. Most notably, There Must Be More To Life Than This, a track from his 1985 album Mr Bad Guy, was demoed with Michael Jackson in the early 80s, but left unfinished. A bootleg of these sessions has been doing the rounds for years, but locating the original tapes, the song is now reworked into a fully fledged duet.

It almost works. Mercury and Jackson sing their hearts out, but the overly busy mix from William Orbit buries them under a cacophony of guitars, and Jackson himself is left out of the first half of the track, making his appearance feel somewhat of an intervention, rather than an equal partnership.

Much better, is the ballad reworking of Mercury’s collaboration with Giorgio Moroder, Love Kills. The track was a top ten hit back in 1984, and featured uncredited contributions from Brian, Roger and John all along, so it has long been a Queen song in all but name by diehard fans. And indeed, it has survived (and indeed thrived) in a variety of remixes whenever Mercury’s solo work has been revisited for new compilations.

Something about this song works in all of its iterations, even when they’re a little clunky – like this new mix. The track is changed so much, yet Mercury’s vocal is set in stone – with one particular line sounding particularly awkward forced into the new mix. The middle section allows some of the original instrumentation to break through, but it soon fades as the track limps on to a slightly anaemic pomp rock finale.

Finally, is the first chance to really hear new Freddie Mercury vocals, with the long rumoured Queen recording of Let Me In Your Heart Again. The track was recorded in the mid 80s, but abandoned and later reworked by Brian May as a song for his wife, Anita Dobson: indeed, she released it as a long forgotten single in 1988.

Musically, this is far superior to Brian’s later reworking, and while Freddie’s demo vocals are crisp but straining in places, when it clicks, it really clicks in that classic Queen way. Stronger backing vocals may have bolstered the mix, but the main rush here is simply hearing that incredible voice singing something new again, which hasn’t been possible since The Solo Collection cleaned out his archive in 2000.

All in all, though, these tracks don’t quite live up to the hype, but are simply serviceable reworkings designed to sell a new compilation. I’m sure they’ll do just fine, but it’s the original tracks on the album that will really have listeners reaching for it once the rush of new Queen material has died down.

Queen Forever is released on November 10th, with at least one of these tracks pencilled in for single release before then.

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Review: Dog Fashion Disco @ Camden Barfly, 05.09.14 / 06.09.14 / 07.09.14

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR MUSIC NEWS
© Dog Fashion Disco

© Dog Fashion Disco

Dog Fashion Disco are loved. Unequivocally. There may be bands commanding grossly inflated audience numbers in comparison, and they will almost certainly never be headlining stadiums, but the loyalty they engender from the devoted crowds assembled at Barfly this weekend worshipping every note cannot be underestimated.

This was only the second time DFD have graced the UK with their presence (after a record company sponsored promo trip in 2001), though that is not a choice they made lightly. These shows have only happened thanks to the gift of crowdfunding, with the diehards raising $88,000 to make a new album (Sweet Nothings, released back in July), a music video and a trip to London. And even then, there’s the sense they’re skinting themselves to make this happen for the fans.

Those fans include people from all across Europe, and further still: one fan came all the way from Iran, no less. With such a build up, could what happened on stage live up to the wait?

The short answer is yes. And then some. The six man line up – vocalist Todd Smith, guitarist Jasan Stepp, bassist Brian White, drummer John Ensminger, keyboardist Tim Swanson and saxophonist Matt Rippetoe are note perfect across the three nights and various genres they inhabit, appearing as their own support acts (and side projects) Polkadot Cadaver and El Creepo, as well as DFD itself.

Set lists varied material from over a dozen studio albums each night, with Friday favouring the more experimental, singalong side of their work, Saturday focusing on the heavier numbers and Sunday aiming somewhere inbetween. That the band relearned 60 tracks for this run is no mean feat, and the crowds lapped it up, singing along to every word, bouncing and moshing in complete harmony.

In fact, the whole experience was one of warmth, from the band’s willingness to be out front to meet fans, to total strangers bonding in the audience as if they had known each other for years. Everyone seemed so surprised the band were here, presumably for one time only, and appeared to want to make the most of it: so much so that by Sunday Todd was telling everyone he could he wants to come back every year.

And not a soul would complain if they did. The sooner the better.

Preview: Cardinal Burns Series 2

This article was originally written for THE VELVET ONION.

© Channel 4

© Channel 4

This week sees the long-awaited return of Cardinal Burns to our TV screens, with Episode 1 airing at 10:30pm.

The madcap sketch show starring Seb Cardinal and Dustin Debri-Burns is, once again, co-written by a large number of comedic talents, including TVO regulars Rufus Jones and Fergus Craig.

But with the show moving to Channel 4 – has it developed stronger legs to survive another run? TVO’s editor in chief, Paul Holmes, sat down with the first two episodes to find out…

Sketch shows are strange beasts. Since the early days of The Goons, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Goodies, right through The Two Ronnies, Not The Nine O’Clock News, The Real McCoy, The Fast Show, Goodness Gracious Me and Little Britain, they’ve been the source of some of the most memorable characters and classic lines in the history of British comedy.

Yet they’re also, by nature, incredibly haphazard and difficult to summarise. We all remember the Dead Parrot or Computer Says No, but we often forget the dregs that fill the gaps in-between the classics: Ed Winchester, anyone?

Such selective memories are often called into play when judging new attempts at the format in an increasingly negative manner – a fate which befell the likes of Beehive and tittybangbang in the last decade.  Cardinal Burns, returning for a second run, has polarised opinion as all sketch shows seem to do, and with the show being upgraded from E4 to parent channel Channel 4, the pressure for a smash hit, it seems, is on.

© Channel 4 / Jules Heath

© Channel 4 / Jules Heath

The pedigree is certainly there.  Hot new talents Seb Cardinal and Dustin Debri-Burns honed their skills at the Edinburgh Fringe and countless live dates on the London comedy circuit, and whilst the first series offered Aisling Bea and Bridget Christie in its supporting ensemble, this year sees Catherine Shepherd (The IT Crowd), Simon Greenall (Alan Partridge) and series co-writer Rufus Jones joining the dynamic duo.

The result is something which won’t appeal to all sensibilities – but the crudity of the first series has been toned down considerably beyond the opening sketch and a few off-kilter moments, which perhaps should have been banished to the cutting room floor.  To do so, however, would rob Cardinal Burns of their pull no punches approach, and make excuses for their eccentricities, and that would be a crying shame.

For whilst it’s true that riding a motorbike to human resources, two playaz failing to park their car outside a nightclub, and a serious duet between two grotesquely featured singers are all nice ideas that probably worked better on paper than they do on camera, for every failed laugh there’s at least two other ideas that will make you smile, even if belly laughs are a rarity.

The best of them make you see everyday events in a whole new light, and in that sense, the show is continuing the same drive Monty Python made over four decades ago.  For example, there’s a sketch in the opening episode which will not only change how you look at one particular place, but make going there vastly more entertaining too, all via the gift of a Crystal Maze parody. Who knew in 2014 we’d be saying those three words in the same sentence again?

© Channel 4 / Jules Heath

© Channel 4 / Jules Heath

By the same token, the henchman sketch which opens Episode 2 is magnificent in its simplicity, taking an idea others have ruminated upon before but doing it, quite simply, better, without outstaying its welcome.

And the longer sketches can work well too – with the ghost-hunting gay couple from 1987 managing to fuse a Pet Shop Boys classic, reality television and modern horror spoof together without any of it seeming cliché. So too, do returning characters like the Office Flirts, Banksy and his family, and the oh-so-well observed trio of Rachel, Olivia and Yumi in yuppie hipster spoof Young Dreams, which will thrill anyone who’s ever been stuck in North London with the kind of people who have a higher number of photos of their lunch on Instagram than the number of books they have read.

There are elements of extreme excess to the performances, like Little Britain and even Star Stories before it, but within the framework of the show, they just work, never more so than with Turkish/Dalston hybrid 80s tv show Hashtag and Bukake.  Centering around two rough-n-ready cab drivers, it’s a pitch perfect pastiche that harks back to that other-realm populated by Garth Marenghi, right down to the One Track Lover moment as the stars of the show sing their hit single in Episode 2.  Really, we almost wish THIS was the whole show – it’s that well done.

© Channel 4 / Jules Heath

© Channel 4 / Jules Heath

Sometimes, the ideas are great, such as a room service sketch we won’t spoil, but the final punchline is one anyone who watches a lot of comedy will be expecting.  But the thrill is in the chase, not the capture, and with Cardinal Burns, it’s one hell of an adventure getting there.

Cardinal Burns begins at 10:30pm on Wednesday, 30th April on Channel 4. It will be available on 4oD shortly after transmission.

Review: Space – Attack of the Mutant 50ft Kebab

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED BY MUSIC NEWS.

© Hug Records

© Hug Records

Throughout the late 1990s, as the dying notes of Britpop faded and indie music temporarily ate itself dull, a small group of bands pushed the boundaries of what classed as the mainstream. Liverpudlian band Space, whose big hits of the era included Female of the Species, Me and You vs The World and The Ballad of Tom Jones, fused film references and B-movie theramins with jangly guitars and dance influences to critical and commercial acclaim.

And then, in a tangle of record company nightmares, they were gone. Despite selling hundreds of thousands of copies of their first two albums, their third remains unreleased, and their fourth was criminally ignored and led to their break-up in 2005.

Almost a decade later, and Space are back in the game. Initally reforming with three original band-members for a one-off gig in 2011, now just vocalist/guitarist Tommy Scott and keyboard wizard Franny Griffiths remain, but the new recruits – who have been working with Scott throughout the last decade – are buoyant personalities and gifted musicians who have led the band down a slightly different musical path to the one you may remember.

The techno synths, spacious spooky guitar twanging and lyrical tales of self-conflicted pop-culture obsessed freaks and weirdos remain, but drummer Allan Jones and double-bass wielding Phil Hartley (both members of noise-punk trio Super Fast Girlie Show) have, alongside new keyboardist Ryan Clark, infused Tommy’s twisted tales with ska influences.

The infectious bounce of the title track – all manic ska beat, seventies synth warbling and fifties surf guitar riffing – mask a cautionary tale of high street destruction, and the sheer joy of tracks like Falling in Love and Anthony’s Brainwaves are hard not to adore.

Elsewhere, the wicked She’s in Love with the Boy in the Body Bag sounds like Fun Boy Three never left us, and lead single Fortune Teller wraps references to Harry Potter and Doctor Who into a story of not-so-safe sex via a ridiculously catchy melody and thunderous percussion.

Whilst the band’s 90s smash hit Neighbourhood told of a severely messed up street populated by caricatures, Happy Clowns sees Ryan take over lead vocal duties for a more 21st century take on that concept: a family who rob from their neighbours to flog their possessions to Cash Converters. Hilarious and biting in equal measure, it’s typical Space madness and one of many album highlights.

And whilst that tracks harks back to The B-52’s somewhat, the magnificent Frightened Horses sounds like the kind of thing Quentin Tarrantino would score a movie with. And if he isn’t already thinking of doing so, someone needs to sit him down with a copy of this record, pronto.

He’s not the only one who needs to hear it, either. Some bands come back from a long time away a pale shadow of their former selves. Space, on the other hand, are revitalised and arguably better than ever.

Across the twelve tracks on offer, there’s always something interesting going on, be it via Tommy’s tongue-in-cheek lyrics, or the band’s wide spectrum of influences – all worn on their sleeves.

Sure, the chances are Space will never bother the mainstream again, but who cares about the charts when this is the alternative? Because by the time the album’s Latin-tinged finale Day of the Dead rears its sumptuous head, you’ll be itching to play the record all over again, and there’s no shame in doing just that.

Welcome back, Space, may you never leave us again.

Attack of the Mutant 50ft Kebab is released on cd, vinyl and digital formats on Monday 17th March. The band also are on tour with Republica between March 18th & 23rd, with shows at Glasgow, Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool, Coventry and London on sale now.

Lead single Fortune Teller is also available now on download and limited edition 7″ transparent vinyl, both featuring non-album b-side The Perfect Sin.

Preview Peeling: Doll & Em

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR THE VELVET ONION. Next week sees the launch of Doll & Emon Sky Living HD.  Written by and starring Dolly Wells & Emily Mortimer, the show also features appearances by Dolly’s fellow TVO regulars Tom Meeten, Laura Patch and Noel Fielding, as well as a number of Hollywood stars.  

doll__em-001

© Sky Arts / HBO

The first episode airs on Thursday 18th February at 10pm, and will be available on SkyGo from 10pm tonight (11th Feb). TVO has been given exclusive access to the full series, and our spoiler free preview is below…

The great pantheon of work created by those we write about at The Velvet Onion quite often focuses on collaborations between friends and frequent associates.  Talent finds talent, and connecting the dots between the legends of alternative comedy is something which can span generations.  There’s a wibbly line right through the work featured on these pages which can, if you so wished to do so, be traced right back to the pioneers of silly: the Pythons, Goodies and Goons of yesteryear, even if our focus is on the last two decades or so.

Yet for all the talk of family: of Ealing Live, The Mighty Boosh and friendships forged in blood and sweat and late night petrol stations when a gig in the middle of nowhere’s gone awry, there’s one friendship which has remained untapped until now… and that’s that of Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer.

Though an actress for some time, we first came across Dolly as the stunning Methusula – wife of Head Shaman Dennis in Series Three of The Mighty Boosh.  From there came multiple roles in Star Stories and The IT Crowd, plus recurring roles in Free Agents and Campus and more recently Some Girls and Spy.

To many, though, she is simply Dolly – the German socialite friend of Noel in Noel Fielding’s Luxury Comedy.  Ahead of the second series of this candy-cane slice of liquid nonsense, comes a very different project which sees her first work with lifelong friend, Emily Mortimer.

© Secret Peter / Channel 4

© Secret Peter / Channel 4

Mortimer, of course, also started out as an actress in English television, before a series of film roles became increasingly high profile.  The 51st State catapulted her to stardom in America, which was followed up by roles in Match PointThe Pink PantherCity Island, Cars 2 and mega-smash Shutter Island.  Recently, she’s been appearing in the hugely successful HBO drama serial The Newsroom.

© HBO

© HBO

Through Doll & Em, which the two titular stars co-wrote with director Azazel Jacobs, the pair play hyper-exaggerated versions of themselves.  Emily is the movie megastar, currently filming a motion picture in LA with John Cusack and a hot-shot director who is adamant his film is not a female version of The Godfather.

Dolly, on the other hand, is not an actress, but a lifelong drifter whose nasty break-up with her slimy ex (played by her Luxury co-star Tom Meeten in a series of increasingly cringe-inducing cameos), gives Em the perfect idea.  In need of a break, Doll becomes Emily’s assistant, and whilst at first all seems cozy, it’s not long before the cracks in this set-up begin to show.

© Sky Arts / HBO

© Sky Arts / HBO

What begins almost as the pitch for a romantic comedy, complete with Doll and Em both falling for the same man, turns in a surprisingly different direction.  There’s a sense of British awkwardness abroad, and some scenes do perhaps play as broader than others – a seemingly disastrous encounter with a legendary actress, or Dolly getting locked out of the house springing instantly to mind – but the naturalistic tone soon takes hold and allows the flowing narrative room to breathe.

Those celebrity cameos never seem to get in the way, perhaps because they’re not handled the way a show like Extras did it.  Andy Garcia, Susan Sarandon and John Cusack are there because they’re acquaintances in Hollywood, not to bag ratings or give the actors a ‘wacky’ moment to play on.  Similarly, the appearance of Noel Fielding in the final, London-based episode doesn’t feel shoehorned in, even if his surreal suggestions for a great night in are so typically Noel!

© Sky Arts / HBO

© Sky Arts / HBO

It’s this naturalism that makes the show stand on its own legs, as the slow burning dissection of a lifelong friendship takes hold of Dolly and Emily.  As Doll starts to find her feet both on set and as a mature woman, Em’s own insecurity begins to take its toll.  A string of bad luck moments bring out her selfish side, which in turn causes a similar reaction in Dolly, and the two actors rise to the challenge of portraying this on screen beautifully.  When they finally confront one another in the penultimate episode, you feel for them both equally, and their mutual despair is heartbreaking.

If there’s one complaint, it’s with the show’s format.  With each episode only twenty-two minutes long,the piecemeal mini-plots do seem to be over so very quickly.  Where this show will shine, perhaps, is in its lifespan after broadcast: the digital age actively encourages marathon gorging sessions, and at just over two hours, it’s very easy to just sit back and let the whole series run through.

Indeed, TVO watched the series pretty much back-to-back, and the end result was reminiscent of an independent feature: you could re-cast this with Laura Linney and Catherine Keener, put it out in arthouses as a two-hour feature and it would still work, even though we’d be missing those glorious central performances.  Doll & Em just has that amount of class. As such, it will be interesting to see how it takes hold of an audience tuning in each week, as the nuances of the story may be clearer without the weekly gaps in broadcasts. We’re definitely hoping for a blu-ray release so we can revisit this world in one go once again.  

Throw in a cheeky little appearance from Dolly’s other long-standing collaborator Laura Patch, and perhaps this is a show to set your DVR for, and swallow whole, but if you’d rather not do that, then stick with this it to find something you’ll treasure for a long, long time.

Doll & Em airs on Thursday 18th February at 10:00pm on Sky Living HD.  It will be available exclusively to Sky Go customers from Tuesday 11th February at 10:00pm.

Review: The Creepshow – Life After Death

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED BY MUSIC NEWS.

It’s not often that a band’s entire future hinges on a viral video, yet for The Creepshow, the success of a particularly famous Gotye cover version almost destroyed the band for good. On the eve of a European tour, their singer Sara Blackwood – one fifth of that YouTube hit – walked out to join Walk Off The Earth, leaving the rest of the group frantically searching for a replacement.

That saviour came in the form of Kenda Legapsi, a long term friend of the band who had the guts to take centre stage, and the resulting tour was a resounding success, prompting the band to get back in the studio to begin work on this – their fourth studio album.

Beginning not with The Reverend’s usual sermon, but with the not-too-subtle sound of ‘the machine that goes ping’, it is nevertheless not long before its business as usual, tying the band’s Halloween vibe and rockabilly swagger into blistering knots for the album’s brief thirty-two minute run time.

For much of the record, there’s a definite ‘if it ain’t broke’ mentality in place – a band who know they do what they do so darn well, that they give their loyal fanbase exactly what they want – and nowhere is this more apparent than in recent single Sinners & Saints. Seriously, whoever decided that organs, double bass and punk rock are a great mix deserves a knighthood, and The Creepshow excel at this fusion.

That’s not to say there’s no room for experimentation. Born To Lose in particular, goes to places the band have never quite been before, with a full blown rock-n-roll duet that manages to include elements of glam rock and even a singalong 80s style chorus.

There’s also one of their closest homages to the genre’s 50s roots yet with The Devil’s Son, which could almost be a lost Johnnie Ray or Little Richard track if it wasn’t so darn noisy, in the best possible way! The track actually harks back to Kenda’s pre-Creepshow days, first appearing in her live sets three years ago, which perhaps goes someway towards explaining why she was the perfect choice for the band’s third lead singer!

Yet by the time the delightful ska-tinged Last Call arrives, surely destined to go down in the annals of the very best drinking songs, it’s clear there’s a white elephant in the room, and the happy-go-lucky vibes that surround their tongue-in-cheek macabre needs to be temporarily put aside, whilst the issue of THAT breakup is addressed.

At the time, the band were nothing but positive in public, wishing their former singer well as she went off around the world with her new family, but the defiant lyrics of the last few tracks here – together with a recent statement from bassist Sickboy that “NO-ONE is going to take away what we’ve built with this band” all seem to suggest her departure was not as rosy as it first appeared.

Take It Away appears to directly reference Blackwood, suggesting she almost destroyed everything but the band refused to lie down and accept their fate, with lyrics like: “You tricked yourself about the blood on your hands/Now the gun’s loaded and we know where you stand/Picked our pockets and you left us some gruel/Now you’re just somebody that I used to know…”

The lyrical theme continues, with the even more venomous Can’t Wait To See You Fall (“Picked you up, dusted you off, made you who you are/But now we’d give it all to see you fall”), and is made all the more powerful by giving each band member a moment in the spotlight, including slap bass breakdown, Hammond squizzling, guitar twiddling and Kenda’s finest vocal point on the album – so great, in fact, that the music just stops for a moment to appreciate it.

Yet despite the apparent venom, real or not, the final song – and the album’s title track – acts as a mission statement as much as it is an album highlight. “We don’t want to talk about it anymore,” the band sing, “So let us do what we were meant to do once more.” Truly it seems, that’s the case.

Life After Death may be short, and it may be sorely lacking a ballad moment – which the band previously excelled at – but what is there is bold, energetic, and does exactly what it says on the tin. With no regrets, and the past firmly behind them, The Creepshow are back to what they do best – making great music that’s filled with fun. Long may they continue.

Life After Death is released on Monday, October 21st. You can see the grisly video to second single, The Devil’s Son below.

Review: The Duckworth Lewis Method @ Manchester Academy, 26.09.13

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN FOR THE VELVET ONION. AN ALTERNATE, SHORTER REVIEW WITH LESS EMPHASIS ON PRIOR KNOWLEDGE OF THE BAND WAS ALSO WRITTEN FOR MUSIC NEWS.

© The Duckworth Lewis Method

Earlier this year, we told you all about Sticky Wickets – the second album from art rock band The Duckworth Lewis Method.  As with their 2009 debut, the record featured the vocal talents of Matt Berry, whose groin also graces the inside cover and subsequent merchandise on sale now.

That the record also happens to be one of the finest albums we’ve heard all year is no surprise, given that TDLM are in fact a combination of two of Ireland’s finest – Thomas Walsh of Pugwash (who recently toured with Berry), and Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy (and of course, the theme music for Father Ted and The IT Crowd if you need a further TVO connection).

Musically, the album was gloriously archaic – a timewarp to the 1970s and 80s with ELO, 10cc, The Beach Boys and even Art Of Noise references jostling with trad. jazz influences, spoken word interludes from big name celebs (Stephen Fry & Daniel Radcliffe, anyone?) and glossy production.

That symphonic baroque fusion, with lyrics focused on that last bastion of English sporting tradition – wonderful, glorious cricket – could have been hard to pull off live, yet the incredible talents of Hannon, Walsh and fellow Pugwash refugee Tosh Flood ensure that’s never going to be the case.

© Paul Holmes / The Velvet Onion

Crammed onto the tiny stage of Manchester Academy 3, the band are dressed in typically cricket-inspired attire, attempting to defy the heat of the stage lights and the small but packed out venue with a variety of hats, scarves and cricket whites.

Thomas Walsh takes centre stage, acoustic guitar slung over his mighty shoulders, flanked by Neil Hannon on his right and Tosh Flood on his left.  Instantly, the camaraderie between them is apparent: they may look gimmicky writing songs about cricket, but they love the game and they love one another, and it shows.

Blasting their way through most of their two albums, the band are on fine form throughout, and intersperse the tracks with audience interaction and chit-chat that out-does most live comedy shows in terms of laughs per minute.

Walsh, in particular, is on fire – banging out witticism after witticism, most of which we couldn’t possibly repeat here.  After a particularly cheeky spot of mickey-taking, Hannon comments at one point, “I’m not paying your legal fees for this!”  The big guy in the top hat retorts: “Imagine me in prison. Don’t bend down for the soap? I feckin’ can’t!”

© Paul Holmes / The Velvet Onion

The evening also acts as an opportunity for Flood to shine.  After an early microphone mishap causes a roadie to distract the audience from his foot on the speaker rock guitarist stance, Tosh makes his mark with daft comments and an impromptu rendition of The James Bond Theme.  Yet it’s his beautiful guitar work that resonates after the show just as much as his tales of late night shopping for Wotsits.

As for Hannon, it’s becoming increasingly rare to see the mastermind in his element on stage, and it’s a delight to get that opportunity in such an intimate venue.  As typically charming and eloquent as one would expect, he’s also incredibly self-demeaning – particularly when he simply cannot remember the words to Jiggery Pokery, and lets the song descend into a hilarious running commentary of how a cricketing legend may possibly murder him one day.

Besides this little mishap, the tunes are note perfect all night long, and the frivolity on stage keeps the crowd energetic and surprisingly pleasant, even when faced with improvised reworkings of songs by The Smiths and James Blunt in the name of comedy.

It’s an incredible, feel good vibe that only comes from musicians at the peak of their game – talented enough to have the song-legs to stand on, but human enough to leave egos at the door and just have a damn good time.

It’s quite common to walk out of a gig and feel elated, but less frequent to still have that feeling the following day.  Even rarer, is that wish you were going to back and do it all again the following evening, but after a few hours in the company of Duckworth and Lewis, you’d be hard pressed not to.  Splendid.

The Duckworth Lewis Method are currently on tour, with dates in Leeds, Bristol, Birmingham, Dublin and Belfast still to come. For more info, visit their website.  Their albums – The Duckworth Lewis Method and Sticky Wickets – are both available now via The Velvet Onion Amazon UK Store.