Everyday I’m scrobblin’

My most recent Tumblr post

Just adding a bit of insight to the above Tumblr. I’m trying to figure out what kind of stuff should go on here, on Tumblr, on Twitter. So short stuff on Tumblr, maybe a bit more fleshed out here, with both of those used as signposts for this. Or something.

I’ve spent the last couple of years doing what a lot of music fans have been doing: shuffling. Spotify premium (or Tidal or Qobuz), make a playlist, get it shuffled.

And that’s fine. I get a lot of enjoyment out of it. I can add a bunch of albums I’d like to get to know, and shuffle them; or I can playlist a bunch of old favourites and randomise those. Guess which I do most often…

So I’m making a concerted effort to listen to full albums, and ideally new ones. Maybe even from artists new to me! Try to combat that cynicism that comes from ageing, or try to understand the age-old question: is it the music, or is it me?

With hip-hop being the primary (only?) musical currency at the moment, I’m getting refamiliarised with that genre. I think my metal bands are doing well with a couple of million Spotify plays, then I see rappers I don’t even know, with hundreds of millions, billions, for a song. I’m old school. I like rappers with flow and clarity. I’m not historically into the current scene that seems to have taken its key influence from a decade-old Kanye album. But, partly because it’s clearly captured everyone’s attention, and partly because it’s the only “new” thing out there, I’m listening.

XXXTentacion is not without his controversy. Charged with violently assaulting a woman, Spotify initially hid him away with R Kelly. Then he met a violent death. Aside from the accusations of brutality to women, which he denied, but also admitted, his fans really love him. His music speaks to them in a way that most artists don’t have a prayer of.

While newpaper readers know him as a thug who abused his girlfriend, his growing masses of fans listen to his songs of inner turmoil, angst and confusion. XXXTentacion, shit name aside, was clearly a complex, conflicted character who you could tell might be prone to bouts of rage and violence, expressed externally as well as internally.

As you can see, he “won” the weekly listening, as I played his ? and 17 albums, which I think are his official albums? Both open with an earnest, if ham-fisted entreaty for listeners to understand alternative music, and to listen without prejudice. Granted, if his market at that point was mainly rap heads, such a request is understandable. It’s just a clumsy way to open an album, even if I appreciate the personal touch that clearly helps endear him to his audience.

Musically, there’s a lot of drawly auto-tune, as you might expect from modern hip-hop, but there’s also live instrumentation, screaming and howling and a surprisingly organic sound. This strand of rap gets compared to emo, but to me it has more in common with the earthy, heavy grunge sound. It’s good enough for me to pursue this avenue further, for sure.

I didn’t know much about Dødheimsgard until recently. My man Da5e repped them (a few years ago, in a post I got to late) and they’re intriguing. A Norwegian metal band that started out as black metal (don’t they all), but who got more avant garde, I guess following in the footsteps of Ulver, Arcturus and Ihsahn. They also seem to only do one or two albums a decade at present, so I’ll give this a few more spins to understand it, rather than rush to evaluate it.

The top 3/4 is rounded out by old favourites Nine Inch Nails and Anthrax. The former is on the list because Trent Reznor (and friends? Who knows any more) has released a new installment of the ambient Ghosts series, which seems fine. And Anthrax are there because I made a playlist of 80s bands in the early 90s. I find it fascinating to hear how 80s hard rock and metal bands changed (and if they did) to cope with the challenges of a new decade. And I am of the opinion that Anthrax were even better in the 90s than the 80s anyway. But more on that later, I imagine.

More on the firefly funhouse

After having watched WrestleMania (largely free of spoilers), I started reading some of the online reactions to the matches, especially the godawful Boneyard and brilliant Firefly Funhouse matches. I was intrigued!

Alfred Konuwa of Forbes decided the Boneyard match was:

…immediately lauded as a masterpiece, the likes of which will be lionized in WWE history…

Alfred Konuwa

Surprising, right? I’ll see if I can find an actual review he did of what was essentially an ego trip squash match wherein a 55 year old part timer pretty much ended the careers of younger, better workers, filmed like a Z-movie. I’d love to understand the rationale that led to such a conclusion.

There’s something in Konuwa saying the online reaction was positive. USA Today seemed to like it, in a write-up that as nothing if not concise. Death Valley Driver, the message board I used to go to (a lot) in my early 20s also – generally – liked it. This was because they like schlocky “so bad it’s good” stuff like Walker, Texas Ranger and Sharknado rather than thinking it was anything approaching a “masterpiece”.

At least Konuwa decided the Firefly Funhouse match was “arguably the best of the show“. Phew!

In fact, the latter was not only incredibly enjoyable to view, but begat at least as much entertainment again for me in reading the analysis. Konuwa decided the segment recalling WCW’s New World Order era suggested this was a parallel world in which WCW beat WWF in the ratings war. Maybe, but I prefer the idea that this segment was Wyatt telling Cena that the next step in his emulation of Hulk Hogan was to turn heel, as nobody took him seriously as either a hero or an underdog anymore.

Post Wrestling has an insightful piece suggesting exactly that. Well worth a read.

In this vision, Cena has completed a fateful transformation into his childhood idol. Hogan, a man often criticized for overstaying his time in the spotlight at the expense of underprivileged talents, managed to prolong his oppressive dominance for multiple generations by tapping into his own dark side as part of the nWo.

Wai Ting

But I think the best article I’ve read about the match – certainly the most detailed – is from Uproxx. They break down every element and spell it out, maybe a little heavy handedly, but you can’t fault their painstaking approach to analysis. I think this says it all in terms of their approach:

We begin with Cena’s creation. This is represented by Cena standing in a dark room, surrounded by nothingness, while a heart beats in the background. This is John before “John Cena.” His persona only exists in a dark void, waiting to be created. And who created him?

Brandon Stroud

Devs episode 1

Ooh, FX, you’re a decent channel. After bringing us the likes of Fargo, Atlanta and What We Do in the Shadows (as well as stuff I want to see, like Snowfall and American Crime Story), we now have the bewitching Devs, which UK people can watch on BBC 2 or the iPlayer.

Devs seems to be somewhere between a science fiction show and a socio-cultural analysis both of Big Tech and how life is changing in the Bay Area. We witness the daily life and work of Sergei (Karl Glusman) and Lily (Sonoya Mizuno), who both get bussed out from their ultra-modern (if dim and modest) home, saying goodbye to their friendly homeless guy on the way out, to work at the ultra-high-tech Amaya campus, which is dominated by forest and an unsettlingly giant statue of a little girl. Once there, they are managed/mentored by Forest (Nick Offerman), who is bearded and maned in contrast to the young couple’s short hair and high cheekbones. Sergei and Lily are as minimalist as their apartment, and you wonder if Forest has had his shaggy individuality bestowed upon him with seniority and experience.

Did anyone else get flashbacks to Akira when they saw this?

I work in the general area of data/technology/Agile development, so Silicon Valley generally and this show specifically intrigue and entertain me. Silicon Valley is clearly the apex of achievement (and power) for people who work in my sector, and its ambition, modernity and endless money mean Devs may be a fantasy or eerily close to reality. I think that’s why it works.

Take the cloister in which the titular and mentioned-in-hushed-tones devs work: the lead Faraday shield, the 13 yard thick concrete shell, the gold mesh, the eight yard vacuum seal… It’s just like when I was product owner for my old place’s model office project, and we were testing out the physical environment! Yep, just like that. I jest, but the screens of code offer a passing familiarity to anyone who’s used VIsual Studio or R Studio in dark mode.

There is an utter serenity to the TV show for the first half of the episode. The setting is predictably beautiful and futuristic, partly due to being in northern California, and partly to communicate the sci-fi Mammon nature of Silicon Valley. Conversations take place at levels just over whisper; the incidental music ambiently relaxing: even the lighting is soothing. This makes for a show that is a tad unsettling in its ethereal-cum-somnambulist atmosphere, but one which has some very clever and beautiful sequences, such as the “hall of mirrors” style conversation among the golden pillars in the header photo.

As Sergei and his pals demo some AI to Forest, I am struck by the beauty of the lighting on this shot.

All beautiful and relaxing, that is, until Sergei breaks down, and the soundtrack grows a touch more discordant and shrill. Everything changes. It’s night, and Sergei is stressed out. He’s been promoted from AI to Devs, and the pressure is on. He starts crying as the enormity of his assignment becomes clear (again, like model office). Crying and puking into a perfect Silicon Valley toilet. He then does something with his Seiko watch that I don’t realise until Forest tells us while confronting Sergei. If you don’t mind spoilers, he uses his watch to film the code that’s scrolling up his screen, and is then suffocated – Prisoner style – by campus security.

Okay, so he’s not the main character any more.

The rest of the episode is understandably darker, as Sergei’s girlfriend Lily tres to find out what happened to him while seemingly being led down the garden path by Forest and the Amaya massive.

But why is everyone so chilled out? As I mentioned earlier, there is a serenity: the show is almost meditative. As well as the relaxing lighting and (for the most part) music, nobody raises their voice. Not even when Lily seeks out an ex she’s not spoken to for two years and asks him to help her current beau. He tells her to eff off in a shockingly measured manner. (Maybe he’d spent the last two years planning for just that moment, and decided to play it cool.)

I mentioned disinformation. While we know that Amaya staff have killed Sergei, we – and Lily – see CCTV footage in two sections. The first is as he walks with purpose off campus. The next as he pours petrol on himself and self-immolates, Thic Quang Duc-style, back on campus. Assuming this is a very clever graphical simulation thanks to Amaya tech, one wonders why the former employer would portray Sergei’s alleged suicide in such a demonstrative way. I guess it is effective visual storytelling if nothing else.

In a sense, the 50 minutes of near-whispering and ambient music pays off when Lily sees the footage and primally roars in grief, shattering the dreamlike atmosphere of the show. Episode ends when she rushes to see Sergei’s charred corpse for confirmation; one assumes Amaya did this after the suffocation.

I’m definitely intrigued as to where we go from here. I’ve not seen any of Garland’s work thus far, but Devs episode 1 is stylish, compelling and unsettlingly beautiful.

Knives Out

Dir: Rian Johnson, 2019

I wasn’t sure what to make of this one, before I saw it. It looked like fun, and a friend whose opinion I respect recommended it. But it looked a bit period-y, and I’ve never been that into Agatha Christie.

I was wrong: it’s not period-y at all. In fact, it’s pretty much modern day, and falls into the Hail, Caesar! and Grand Budapest Hotel ensemble semi-farce category that I spend so much of my time enjoying, these days.

So what the eff is it? Well, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) – a very successful, very old author – is dead. And he’s got a big, financially hungry family. And some staff. So how did this come about? Yes, it’s a modern “who did it?” film. That’s right – a whodidit. Maybe he did it. But why is there a private investigator in addition to the standard cops?

Knives Out was written and directed by Rian Johnson. The name looked familiar, so I looked him up. He’s done at least three films that I think are great, so he’s now on my watchlist. Well, three including this. He’s also got Brick and Looper, which I really enjoyed, and Star Wars: the Last Jedi, which I am not sure my memory can differentiate from any other new Star Wars film, but which I am sure I reasonably enjoyed at the time.

This kind of film essentially stands or falls on the quality of the cast (and the writing of course, but you really need a big cast like this to pull its weight). As you can see from my tags, we’ve got some big hitters here, and they are all great, despite (or because of) Daniel Craig’s accent which I think is supposed to be New Orleans but does go round the houses a bit. Craig plays Benoit Blanc, the aforementioned PI, and it’s a role we can see him ageing into after he finally turns Bond down once and for all. Most of the cast, though, constitute the remaining Thrombey family, and they’re like the Royal Tenenbaums but with a story to hold them together. A story of inheritance! Oh, and how their dear dad perished.

I don’t know about you, but I regularly get confused by sleuth films and heist films. Knives Out is reasonably easy to follow (no spoilers) for the most part, and I can’t really think of any plot holes beyond the occasional coincidence. Don’t ask me to name them now, as I can’t remember: I just remember thinking “hmm, how convenient that the thing did the thing at that time”. Nowhere near as beautifully confusing as, say Logan Lucky (which incidentally has my favourite Daniel Craig performance outside Our Friends in the North).

I know certain sectors of the audience enjoy Chris Evans, especially considering he’s approached the opportunity to play a bad boy with some gusto. And he is good. But he’s nowhere near as raspily charismatic as the giant-headed acting savant that is Michael Shannon. From his role as on-the-edge Bureau of Prohibition agent George Mueller in Boardwalk Empire to his noble attempts to save Man of Steel by playing the life out of General Zod, Shannon is the best actor in everything he’s in. (Honestly, if you don’t believe me, please watch My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done; or Midnight Special; or Little Drummer Girl; or The Runaways; or The Iceman; or Shotgun Stories; or The Shape of Water. I’ve not even seen Take Shelter.)

Shannon actually doesn’t play a pivotal role, but he is great when sharing scenes with protagonist Marta Cabrera (played by Ana de Armas), the late Harlan Thrombey’s nurse and the centre of the intrigue. This is the first I’ve seen of de Armas, but she plays the caring, somewhat discombobulated Cabrera very well. There is also a great detail, possibly a statement about White America’s view on immigrants, that whenever a family member mentions where she is from, it is always a different South American country.

Rest assured: the story is excellent, and it finishes satisfactorily. What does intrigue me is the fact that this $40m budget film has so far made over $300m worldwide. So we’re getting a Knives Out 2 (Electric Boogaloo)! Quite what it will be about I don’t know. What happens next with Marta and the Thrombeys, or will it be a Fargo (TV series)-style thematic sequel with no direct ties. Given the way cinema is going, with its conveyor belt approach to film-making, the studio will fear the latter would confuse everyone. But if Johnson remains at the helm, it should be high quality nevertheless.