Saturday, 19 May 2007

CD: Zongamin - Zongamin

UK-based Japanese artist and musician Susumu Mukai released his debut album under the moniker Zongamin back in 2003, but, bar a couple of exhibitions and the odd remix, has done little else since. Which is a shame, as his first effort is a fiendishly unique adventure spanning numerous musical genres, yet rendered in his own inimitable style that can only be described as Zongamin-esque.

From the short sparky choral-driven opener (Make Love Not War) onwards, Zongamin crafts a strange concoction of mysterious music that feels like a trip into the unknown. Much of it sounds like backing music to a 70's documentary on jungle exploration or unearthing mystical tombs of Ancient Egypt, especially Street Surgery, Tresspasser and Mummies (of course, judging by the track names and album artwork, this is no happy accident). It's all a rather strange, sometimes even sinister, atmosphere for what would otherwise be pigeonholed as a dance or electronic or even rock album, but even then, it's the kind of dance music that refuses to make a song and dance about it; and muterock, if you will. With the clipped beats, tiny blips and mumbling bass, it's both raw and restrained, with a lo-fi charm that can be attributed to Susumu playing his own instruments and then editing and mixing his own created samples. Only the two-minute rock-burst of Whiplash, also the only track with vocals (guess what the lyric is?), pushes Zongamin to a state of mild mania.

But that's not to say the rest of the album is too understated - indeed, it's exactly that which makes the upbeat funkier tracks that bit more interesting. Both Spiral and Painless are exciting expeditions into minimalistic disco, and J. Shivers Theme is a whistle-led bongo bop of the highest caliber (and was used in a recent Orange mobile ad campaign with narration from Stephen Fry), but it's the grimy grooves of Serious Trouble and Tunnel Music that are the album's real treats. Unconventional certainly, but undeniably compelling in a way that makes you want to pop limbs and twist appendages. And the Japanese bonus tracks aren't half bad either.

However, it's all a bit too much to take in on one sitting. All the tracks have their merits, but after two minutes or so, many of them suffer from repetition and lack of direction, and it's not long before impatience turns to skipping tracks altogether. There's a lot of talent on show, but it seems that many ideas run out of steam before the crucial point at which they can be stepped up that extra gear to turn what is simply a good tune into a great one. Much of this review has been spent building up the wonders of the Zongamin-iverse, and it's still an album to recommend, but it all just lacks a certain something to keep the ears from wandering elsewhere. Regardless, I hope we see another offering from Susumu soon - there's still a lot of potential on the music-front to be realised.


> > > Official Site

Friday, 4 May 2007

FILM: Spider-Man 3

Sam Raimi's love affair with the iconic web-slinger continues as the third installment in the mega-franchise arrives, with Peter Parker yet again beset with all his usual problems - love pentangles, super-villains and conflicting feelings. In fact, the film is so jam-packed that, despite it being one of the most expensive ever made, it looks like it was all put to good use. Spider-Man 3 delivers such a ludicrous amount of action, drama and goofy comedy, your brain rarely has time to stop spinning. There are so many plot threads that a synopsis would involve an unhealthy use of the word 'meanwhile', but Raimi does a fine job of holding it all together, joining the dots where applicable, a bit like a spider's web if you think about it. Fnar.

With three separate baddies to contend with, there's no denying that this is the most action-packed of the trilogy, and all the set-pieces are rather wonderful, each using their setting and the relationship between those involved to their fullest. Of course, there's a certain amount of CG whizz-bang overload, and there are a few 'seen-it-before' moments, but there's still a great energy to the fighting/rescuing that a superhero like Spider-Man allows. And, just as in the previous two, the core of the film is the emotional roller-coaster our protagonists ride, with love, loss, revenge, fear, happiness, sadness, and anger experienced by one or more characters at some point. Only the film tries to do too much, and while it all remains coherent, there are certainly a few casualties pushed to the side-lines.

Of course, Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst and James Franco do their usual thing. But James Cromwell is distracting being a well-known actor in a minor role, Dylan Baker is literally ignored, and Rosemary Harris only seems to pop up to offer self-help nuggets and worry a bit like some strange spiritual guide (to be honest though, a little Aunt May goes a long way). Where the film perhaps doesn't go far enough is in exploring some of the more interesting ideas the themes hint at but little else. The supposed darkness that envelop's Peter seems to manifest itself in little more than making him a bit cocky and giving him an emo fringe. And by the time Venom arrives on the scene, there's little of the movie left to examine the parallels between him and Spidey. However, the plot does take a few different directions that kind of compensate, with Peter and MJ's relationship troubles hitting some quite unexpected snags.

Indeed, even with all the action already on offer, just as Doc Ock was shafted before them, more Venom and more Sandman would have been welcome. Even if they are both a little too fantastical for my tastes (sure, space symbiotic ooze is too far out, when genetical spider transformation isn't?), both Topher Grace and Thomas Haden Church really sold their roles, so it would have been good to see them do a little more than just be superbad. The shifting friend/mortal enemy relationship between Peter and Harry did offer some good fisticuffs in their place, but, after so many big battles, the grand finale doesn't deliver quite the knock-out punch it should have, leaving the ending feel more lacklustre than it would have done had there been a greater climax.

Nevertheless, kudos must also go to Raimi for continuing to keep the tone and style consistent throughout the three films. As seen previously with the Batman and X-Men series, when the original director jumps ship, so seemingly does all sense of logic and good taste. The most enjoyable sequences are those which play to his strengths, notably his kinetic camera-work and also his love of daft broad humour, in particular Bruce Campbell's hilarious cameo (as well as yet another Stan Lee appearance, seemingly on some kind of mission to break Hitchcock's record), the return of J. Jonah Jameson, and an alternative reprise of Peter Parker's 'changed man montage' from the previous film, courtesy of his new black suit. Many of the goofy gags can probably be attributed to the fact that this is the first time Sam actually co-wrote the screenplay, with brother Ivan Raimi, who co-wrote Army of Darkness, and, returning from #2, Alvin Sargent.

All in all, Spider-Man 3 is a reasonably satisfying package; a little less of this and a little more of that would have made it ideal, but it's hard to make a threequel for a much-loved comic book character that pleases everyone. Perhaps it's problem is that it tried too hard to do so, resulting in something that felt like a dark chocolate cake, with plenty of tasty layers, but just a tad too rich. Or maybe like a Chinese takeaway, in that there's so much stuff, you try and have some of everything, and in the end feel a bit bloated and it all looks a bit messy, but you're quite happy anyway. You could easily remove one dish, and it wouldn't have ruined the rest of the meal. Or something.

But as more of a Raimi fan, I was just happy to see a new film that he directed. Is there much left to be said about Spider-Man? Probably not. Should they do another sequel with or without Raimi? Don't know. My personal view is perhaps to give the character a rest for a decade or so, and see if anyone is then willing to give the franchise a reboot a la Batman Begins or Casino Royale. But for now, we're left with three pretty entertaining, occasionally cheesy, rather well-made crash bang wallop superhero movies. Mr. Raimi, you may now take a break. And then go shoot some low-budget funny bloody nonsense with Mr. Campbell. Come on - you know you want to!


> > > Official Site, IMDb