Saturday, 31 July 2010

My sense of humour vs. Comedians, and the Brand/Ross/Sachs phone scandal

As most who know me are well aware, I am a great lover of comedy. I love comedy shows, comedy films, stand-up, even comedy music. I'm a big fan of several comedians, such as Bill Bailey, Billy Connolly, Michael McIntyre and basically everyone off Mock the Week. Comedy is such a wonderful medium of expression.

And it's just as wonderful when you analyse it, too; how many people can claim that they've devoted their lives to putting smiles on people's faces? To bringing joy to the world through the simple act of telling a joke? It seems to me like a truly fulfilling way to spend one's life. Humour is important to me, because it adds colour to life. It has the power to make people smile. It's an invaluable tool for bridging gaps between people.

I find myself instinctively liking and trusting people who can make me laugh. Perhaps that's because humour is such a personal thing; if we can communicate on that level, then perhaps I understand that we can communicate on other levels, too. Or maybe it simply reduces the level of formality between us, makes things more natural. All the people I surround myself with, all of the people whom I love have the ability to make me laugh, and I'm sure that I have the same ability with them. In many cases, it may be the method I used to gain their trust.

My own sense of humour can be esoteric and arcane or it can be universal; it can be light-hearted and jocular, or it can be withering. But all of my jokes share one thing, and that is my own personality, which is ultimately the place from which humour stems.

Perhaps it's natural that I find myself hailing many comedians as heroes, then. I really look up to men like Stephen Fry and Bill Bailey, partially for their intellect but mostly because of who they are. Many of my favourite musicians have a good sense of humour, too. I revere Devin Townsend as a musical genius, but I also really like him as a person from watching videos of him talk; much the same for Mikael Ã…kerfeldt, the frontman for Opeth, a progressive death metal band.

Now, all of this meandering preamble aside, I wanted to speak about a specific comedian: Russell Brand.

Before I continue, I'd like to make it clear that I love the man. I think he's utterly hilarious, a good man who has come through some hard times and still manages to come across as totally light-hearted during his shows.

However, if you took the script for his latest show, Scandalous, in its raw form and read through each line, you'd be struck by the lurid nature of his subject matter. It's loaded with provocative sex jokes and several quite affronting lines about famous people, and could potentially be called one of the most offensive things ever written thanks to a certain line about the American presidency.

But I just can't bring myself to be offended by Brand. In fact, I find him to be almost innocuous, despite his Michael Jackson jokes and talk of oral sex. I actually find him less offensive than, say, Ricky Gervais or Jimmy Carr. This is probably down to his happy-go-lucky demeanour, talking to the audience as though they are his confidants, which helps remind us of what he's doing: joking. Quite unlike the aforementioned two, who- while still being very funny- I find slightly unpleasant and vastly more offensive, because they come off as serious whilst doing the seedy bits.

Of course, as you have probably worked out, I've been building this up to a certain subject, and that is the Brand/Ross phone scandal.

It's surprising, but it's a situation which grew so big that it gained the honour of having its own Wikipedia page.

There are few who aren't aware of the events, I imagine, but I'll briefly describe it in my own words anyway. Brand and Ross teamed up to make some silly calls to Andrew Sachs, which was recorded and approved by the BBC for broadcast- not done live. The calls were sent out, picked up by the Daily Mail and then, shortly afterwards, by the rest of the media, creating a storm which, in Wikipedia's words, "eclipsed news of the global financial crisis, the U.S. presidential election, and fighting in the Democratic Republic of the Congo".

Now, in preparation to write this post, I actually listened to the segment from the radio show (linked here for those who haven't heard it yet and want to), and heard two guys being idiots together. Nothing intended to harm anyone- just two guys dicking around. It was a stupid move, certainly- someone was bound to be offended by this, probably Mr Sachs, but it was all just a joke. YouTube remarks such as this, then, strike me as being slightly out of proportion:
"Let's face it they're a pair of dickheads !!! Not funny just yet another pair of overpaid talentless,useless assholes taking the piss just cos they think they can !!! That Brand is a turd I'd love to smash his head open with a pick axe & saw his body up into little pieces !!! Then that should shut the high pitched squeaky irritating voiced twat the fuck up !!!"
That comment actually angered me quite a bit, as did all of the other people howling for the pair's resignation. People's reactions to stuff like this shows how they like to elevate themselves to some higher position where they can dish out righteous judgement on who's right and who's wrong, like some sort of quasi-Light Yagami. They weren't being serious, Kira wannabes! They didn't mean to offend anyone!

All right, I'll give you a little credit, Brand-bashers. The phone calls were a stupid move, and the duo probably deserved some sort of sanction to make sure that it didn't happen again. The above comment, however, is just idiotic. People like this, who, sadly, are found across the Internet, actually reduce my faith in the human race, which is something that I like to cling to in times of such negativity. The fact that the shitstorm surrounding this overtook the three huge political events mentioned in the Wikipedia article just makes the whole thing even more ridiculous.

I think that it's a huge shame that Brand and Ross are unlikely to work together again, because the duo produced some hilarious banter together on the tapes. It's just unfortunate that the banter was misjudged, and if it hadn't coalesced in a prank call, the two might've gone on to be even greater together. But the media and the people of our nation rejected this beautiful prospect in order to feed their own bloated egos.

If you've got this far in without tl;dring, by the way, thanks for reading.

Friday, 30 July 2010

CD Review #1: Dream Theater, Black Clouds and Silver Linings

This will be the first of possibly a long string of CD reviews I'm writing and posting here, so, to get myself into the groove, I thought that I'd review an album which I know from start to finish. Since Dream Theater were my favourite band for the longest time, it seems logical for me to pick something by them. I was going to review Images and Words, but on reflection, there's little I can say about it that's not been said before, so I thought I'd offer up my opinion on their latest work, Black Clouds and Silver Linings.

The album itself has a structure which would be considered challenging by most. There are six songs, four of which cross the ten-minute mark; the opener, A Nightmare To Remember, is 16 minutes and 10 seconds long. Of the two shorter songs, one is eight and a half minutes- the other is a five-minute power ballad. Not an easy setlist to swallow for some, but then, this is progressive metal, and long songs are a staple. Personally, I have a love of epic song lengths, so it's not a problem for me. Typically, albums with fewer but much longer songs tend not to have any weak material on them (see: Close to the Edge, Wish You Were Here), but we'll see about Black Clouds.

Now let's go through each track. A Nightmare To Remember sets the album off with a bang, unleashing a crash of metal thunder to cut through its introduction of a sampled thunderstorm and chilling piano. This one is fairly straightforward, sticking to mighty metal riffage for the most part- the metalhead in me cheers and throws the horns- but it's cut up with some beautifully serene sections led by some of James LaBrie's most emotional singing. It's especially notable for some blinding shredding by guitarist John Petrucci halfway through, and Mike Portnoy's faux-rap section towards the end. This section has attracted a lot of criticism, some saying that it nearly destroys the track. I don't mind it, personally, but it's hard to take seriously. Then again, the lyrics- telling the story of a car crash Petrucci was involved in as a child- are slightly ridiculous themselves, missing the poetic subtlety mark by a few notches.
Overall, however, the track is a good fun ride, with the positives well overriding the negatives. A strong start for Dream Theater's tenth.

The second track, A Rite of Passage, is almost half the length of the first, at 8:35. This one has a regular structure seen before in songs like The Dark Eternal Night; an introduction, two verses, an instrumental section and then a final verse. A Rite of Passage is strong for the most part, with an Eastern tinge to its chugging progression and very solid vocals from James LaBrie, but some of Jordan Rudess' soloing towards the end of the instrumental section is beyond the pale. The sound is less of a note and more of a squeak, sounding like a Martian equivalent Morse code. Besides that, the instrumental section is a typically thrilling ride, with the speed amped up and Petrucci's usual high shred standard. Another good fun song, if you can stomach the keyboard noodling.

The third track, Wither, is our power ballad. For the most part, I find this one to be quite bland, in all honesty. It goes through the motions well enough; it's got a powerful, heart-wrenching chorus, decent lyrics and another solo from Petrucci, which is really the only other standout. Overall, it's enjoyable- not unmemorable, but not on the same par as, say, Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd.

After Wither, which does serve the typical metal album purpose of winding things down a notch, it's ramped back up for the album's heaviest and hardest rocking track, The Shattered Fortress. Dream Theater fans will probably know this as drummer Mike Portnoy's final song in his series about the Alcoholics Anonymous twelve-step program, known as the Twelve-Step Suite. For the uninitiated, the Twelve-Step Suite is notable for starting with The Glass Prison, a song held by many to be Dream Theater's best track. The four songs in the Twelve-Step Suite have consistently been highlights of their respective albums (with the possible exception of Repentance), and the fifth is no different.

Its style is reminiscent of the other three hard rockers in the Suite, winding around in complex loops without a set chorus or verses, utilising crushing riffs and placing extended solos here and there. I have only one complaint about The Shattered Fortress, however: nearly all of its riffs are variants of riffs from previous songs in the Suite. If it wasn't for that, then The Shattered Fortress would easily be the best song on the album. Despite that, the song is still up there, and it's a rollicking ride. It even puts some nice dynamics into play when it reprises The Root of All Evil for a slower, piano-led section. Compositionally, it's superior to the rest- it's just not inventive enough to pull itself fully ahead of them.

The fifth song is probably the one that I would pick as the highlight. Another of Portnoy's works, The Best of Times is a touching, heartfelt epic written for his father, who was dying due to cancer, and who just lived to hear the band perform it for him. It's a soaring, gorgeous song which owes more to Rush than to Metallica, but for once, the instrumentation isn't what I'd focus on. Through LaBrie's voice, I, for one, really felt Portnoy's love for his father, and that's a special quality- an edge which lifts it above and beyond the other songs on the album, for me.

The final song is also the longest of the lot. At 19:16, The Count of Tuscany is an epic in terms of both length and structure. It starts off with a peaceful, perhaps beautiful introduction, which breaks like the crest of a wave to give way to more metal. Lyrically, it tells an odd story from John Petrucci's childhood, about meeting a count and becoming frightened for his life. Really, these lyrics seem a bit ridiculous, as the situation could only have been born of childish naivety, but he writes as though from the perspective of an adult, which makes it seem all a bit preposterous. This is not helped by the return of Mike Portnoy's shouts (LET ME INTRODUCE! MY BROTHER!) which come off as more ridiculous than brutal. It's a good song, though, with a satisfying and emotional conclusion, but it doesn't live up to the standards of other Dream Theater epics such as A Change of Seasons or Octavarium. Perhaps it's unfair to compare the song to tracks like those, however; both of them are two of the best tracks I've ever heard, and it would take something truly special to live up to that standard.

Overall, Black Clouds and Silver Linings provides a more optimistic look on Dream Theater's future than Systematic Chaos did with its at-times-mindless self-indulgence, but it's all a bit contrived. The songs aim to be deep and complex, but for the most part they come across as a little less than that, and even slightly silly in places. That said, it's not a bad album. It's just nothing to write home about compared to some of their past works. I'd give it 3.5 stars out of 5, all in all, and I'd hope that Dream Theater's work gets a bit more deeper than this for their next album.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Me, Myself and Music

I was born a rocker. From a very early age, rock and metal music have been the sorts of music that get me on my feet, jumping around and throwing the devil horns. Don't get me wrong, I do like other music, but rock seems to be what I was born for. It's only been for the past few years, however, that I've really started to get in touch with my inner muso, learning about bands besides The Beatles and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The transformation was quite remarkable- between the ages of 13 and 16, I've gone from being almost completely ignorant about the world of music to knowing my rock and metal inside out- well, more or less. There are still gaps that I need to fill, but that's besides the point. The point is that I have made the leap from neophyte to veteran, from an ignorant dabbler to a full-on rock snob.

It really began at 13, when I started listening to bands like Led Zeppelin and Iron Maiden. I had a limited library available to me, but I listened avidly to what I had, loving every second of it. Rock and metal. That was what I loved. At the time, I didn't go much heavier than Maiden, because I couldn't really handle it. It was probably a matter of vocals- the harsh vocals are often what puts people off genres such as death metal. When I was 14, I discovered Metallica. I listened to their stuff over and over, learning their discography almost inside-out. At the time, they were the greatest band in the world.

Now, those were just the early days. I've always liked music, but my hunger to learn everything about it began when I started listening to Dream Theater. A friend of mine had previously mentioned their song, Octavarium, which is exactly 24 minutes long. Some time later, I was lent their album Falling Into Infinity- which I later found out is regarded as one of their lesser albums. I fell in love with them, listening to it on endless repeat as I wandered through the streets, nodding my head as the band belted out the surging chorus to Lines In The Sand or chugged through the metallic Burning My Soul. A while later, I bought the album Octavarium and started listening to that one endlessly, too.

Whilst perusing the Dream Theater Wikipedia page, I was continually intrigued by their genre label: "progressive metal". What did progressive mean? How was it different from regular metal? And why were Dream Theater labelled as such? Before long and with some more research, I started listening to full-on progressive rock. The genre captivated me. It was a cut ahead of modern music, I decided. New bands didn't have an ounce of the skill or vision possessed by the likes of Yes, Pink Floyd and King Crimson.

In short, I was hooked. I borrowed CDs left, right and centre, from friends and even teachers. My then-girlfriend's father also had a collection of progressive rock CDs, from which I regularly sampled, learning of artists such as Gentle Giant. I heard Dark Side of the Moon for the first time. I bought all of Dream Theater's albums. It was a good time for me.

A few months later, a friend of mine invited me to Spotify, a fantastic music streaming service with an almost comprehensive library. Brilliant! With this, I could expand my musical knowledge tenfold. And I did. I listened to all manner of artists: Jethro Tull, Rush, Porcupine Tree, The Flower Kings, Genesis, Marillion, more Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer... I was becoming an accomplished muso.

That is more or less the story so far. My musical knowledge continues to grow constantly, through Spotify and buying CDs. I continue to uphold the principles of old-school prog whilst also learning of the new players in the genre, balancing ELP and Genesis with The Mars Volta and Ayreon. I have discovered hidden genius such as that of Toby Driver (maudlin of the Well, Kayo Dot) and Devin Townsend (Strapping Young Lad and all of his solo material).

As always, my passion lies with rock and metal, but I have branched off into other genres from time to time, most notably jazz. I know very little of the genre in comparison to my rock knowledge, but I like to relax with some Miles Davis or John Coltrane from time to time, or marvel at the sheer ability of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, for instance. Maybe I'll become a true jazz fan when I outgrow rock and metal- if I ever do. Until then, it's my continual pleasure to indulge my inner metalhead and throw the horns.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

The aftermath

I returned from last night's party having not touched a drop of drink. I think I might've had some of the most fun, too. My friend and I- the other person who avoided alcohol consumption all night- teamed up on a mission to enjoy ourselves by playing extreme frisbee, hijiacking the iPod and air guitaring to Black Sabbath, and generally not getting involved with the rest of the party.

It was remarkably similar in its feel to school, in that my friend and I are so at ends with everyone else that we were more or less ostracised from the rest of the group. As such, we have little shame in acting like children. In my opinion, it's far more fun than trying to fit in.

It wasn't all fun and games, though. I also sat a vigil of a few hours looking after a friend of mine who had a little too much to drink. I'd seen people act drunk for TV, but this is my first time seeing for myself what alcohol can do to people. Even though no long-term harm was done, it wasn't at all pleasant. It's not something I want to see again, or experience myself.

Personally, I don't think big parties are as good for celebrating compared to small affairs with close friends. Smaller parties with the important people feel a lot more special to me; how better to celebrate a birthday than by getting a circle of close friends together to joke and laugh along with you? Having a few people who genuinely care about each other gather to celebrate one of their own: that's how I like to do things.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Of an introductory purpose

Greetings, one and all, to my Musings. I am Shinsworth, British teenager and self-proclaimed philosopher. Today, I begin a blog which I will hopefully be able to keep up for a while to come. With luck, my readers might enjoy my posts, too.

Tonight is a big night, as a close friend of mine is hosting a party of reasonable size. All told, about 23 people are attending. I may be sixteen, but this is actually my first big party amongst my fellow students. I was never spectacularly popular, as I've marked myself out as a weird one from the start.

Personally, I am wary of it. I have no desire to attend an underage drinking contest- I reserve a fair amount of disdain for such affairs. That's not to say that this party will definitely end up like that, but I'm still not entirely confident about it. In the end, good or bad, it's an experience that I have yet to have, so I plan to go. Some view these sorts of things as rites of passage- stages of initiation towards becoming an adult, where you'll hopefully learn how to do this sort of thing responsibly. I would hope that I have that responsibility now, without having to get myself slaughtered in order to learn it.

Since including more elaborate content would break my precious flow, I'm going to wrap this post up here. I hope you enjoy reading what's to come.