Guns N’ Roses (London Stadium) – Review

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This concert has been a long time coming. I’ve been a fan of Guns N’ Roses for many years: they were the band that got me into heavy metal when I was a teenager, half my lifetime ago. But for all the countless concerts I’ve been to, I’ve never seen them live. I’ve always regretted the fact I was just a little kid during their heyday, and for one reason or another I never went to see the recent incarnations of the band, even though they gigged quite a lot during the Chinese Democracy years. I’ve always admired Axl’s musical ability and vision, but the acrimonious climate that surrounded the band all these years put me off seeing them.

So, like millions of others around the world, I was delighted last year when legendary guitarist Slash returned to GnR along with original bassist Duff McKagan for the ‘Not in This Lifetime Tour’ (named after a reply given by Axl some years ago when asked when a potential reunion might take place). The tour has been going for almost a year now, and at time of writing has grossed around a quarter of a billion dollars. The massive commercial success of the tour speaks to the enduring enthusiasm for the band’s classic albums, as well as the excitement generated among the band’s loyal fanbase at the prospect of seeing a reunion between Axl and Slash. In an ideal world, it would be nice to see guitarist Izzy Stradlin participating in the tour in some capacity, as well as former drummers Steve Adler and/or Matt Sorum. But the world we live in is so far from ideal that it feels churlish to get hung up about this. Just seeing Axl and Slash playing together is something few thought would ever happen again, and having Duff McKagan involved is the icing on the cake. In a world crying out for happiness and good news, I was determined to grab this with both hands, cynicism be damned. As far as I’m concerned Axl and Slash should be credited for putting their differences to one side for the sake of the fans, a gargantuan payday notwithstanding.

Tickets for the London date seemed to sell out as soon as they were released; but a second date the following day was announced within minutes, so T. and I eagerly snapped up a couple of standing tickets for £100 each. In all honesty, I would probably have paid significantly more if I’d needed to. It helped that the general vibe coming off the early tour shows in the States last year seemed to be overwhelmingly positive. Axl also received generally great reviews when he stood in for AC/DC last year, and the prevailing narrative seems to have changed a bit, with a lot of the engrained critical hostility towards the band, and Axl in particular, dissipating. Without wanting to disparage Chinese Democracy and all the work that went into that – and the work that Axl and other musicians have done to tour for GnR fans over the years – you can’t help but feel this tour was needed to eliminate a lot of the rancour, and restore Axl and the band’s reputation and legacy.

The concerts took place on consecutive days at the London Stadium in Stratford, East London – the only shows they played in the UK. According to the website the venue’s concert capacity is 80,000; the Saturday didn’t look sold out, but the crowd was still very respectable, and had a pretty good split of people from their early 20s to middle age. It also seemed pretty evenly divided between men and women: no surprise as the band has always appealed to both genders. The venue opened at 5pm, with a couple of support bands before GnR were scheduled to take the stage at 7.45pm. The band’s tardiness when hitting the stage back in the day is legendary, but a lot has changed since then, and this is a much more professional, mature, and sober operation. So, I wasn’t surprised when they started on time.

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The set opened with a couple of unarguable classics from Appetite, “It’s So Easy” and “Mr Brownstone”. I’d been looking forward to the concert a lot, obviously, but I wasn’t prepared for the rush of euphoria when it actually started. It wasn’t just me either: everyone around me basically went nuts, and I’ve never been at a concert where so many people were singing along to so many of the songs with such gusto. This concert seemed like a cathartic experience for a lot of people. Right from the get-go, the songs sounded just like they should, and that was a feature of the night in general. Axl’s voice is pretty much as good as ever, though I thought he seemed a little gassed at points during “It’s So Easy” – no surprise considering how much running around he was doing on stage. The guitar tone also sounded spot-on, which was particularly important during ballads like “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Estranged”. I don’t know whether this can entirely be attributed to Slash’s presence – most guitarists at this level should be able to get the right sound – but it certainly didn’t hurt.

The third song was “Chinese Democracy”, and there was a much more subdued reaction to it than the opening songs. I don’t think this was due to hostility so much as the fact a lot of people didn’t recognize it – I needed T. to tell me what the song was. I was actually a bit surprised to see them play it with Slash and Duff in the band, but I shouldn’t have been. The song actually sounded fine, as did fellow CD song “Better”, which they played after “Double Talkin’ Jive” and… “Welcome to the Jungle”.

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“Estranged” is my favourite Guns N’ Roses song and probably my favourite rock song, period. It’s even more special to me because it’s also my fiancee T.’s favourite Guns N’ Roses song. This is even more meaningful to us as it’s one of the band’s less popular ballads. So, we were hoping against hope they would play it, but weren’t sure they would (and had avoided seeing setlists ahead of time for fear of ‘spoilers’). Seeing them play it live in a perfect rendition was a singular experience, and I confess this was the first of several times the concert moved me to tears. It was an enormous emotional release, and I felt then (and still do) overwhelming gratitude to the performers and everyone associated with the concert for making it possible. I’ve been in bands, promoted shows, and attended hundreds of gigs, but live music has never come close to affecting me like that before.

“Estranged” was followed by “Live and Let Die”. The cover is one of the better songs on Use Your Illusion 1, and it was a really enjoyable number and a needed change of pace from the intensity of “Estranged”. It was followed by “Rocket Queen”, another one of my personal favourites off Appetite, and it was fucking awesome. Unfortunately they didn’t have anyone doing the sex sounds during the song, but a lot of people in the crowd tried to supply them anyway. “You Could Be Mine” followed, one of the best songs of UYI 2, rounding off the best hour of live music I’ve ever witnessed.

It has been uplifting to see Axl somewhat liberated over the last couple of years, and as a frontman he now does an extremely professional and engaging job. He didn’t spend too long chatting with the crowd but what he said was simple and sincere (and included an endearing reference to his pet cat). He still has arguably the best voice around, and delivered an engaging and entertaining performance, switching between about ten different outfits over the course of the near 3-hour set. Slash and Duff were on great form, and to do them credit, both of them looked in amazing shape. Slash looked jacked as hell and could have passed for someone 20 years younger, while Duff was something of a revelation, lean and muscular, looking like a heavy metal version of David Bowie. It was good to see him taking over vocals for a couple of covers in the middle of the set. The other band members, mainly holdovers from the Chinese Democracy tours, did a great job, and here’s hoping things hang together like this for a while.

Rose has got a lot of stick over the years, some of it justified, most of it not. For all that he hasn’t necessarily helped his public image much of the time, as an artist he remains misunderstood (sometimes willfully) by much of the musical fraternity. It’s also his misfortune to have been out of sync over the last couple of decades with the dominant smartass hive-mind that overtook a lot of musical culture, something he gives the impression he neither understands nor cares for. He’s continued to do his own thing, to the mixed amusement, bewilderment, and frustration of a lot of observers, but what has never been in doubt is his artistic vision. I’m starting to feel like he has been in the right a lot more than I and many others have given him credit for.

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The middle part of the set was a bit more subdued, with some comparative filler in the way of lesser-known covers and songs from UYI like “Civil War” and “Yesterdays”. They played “Coma” – apparently the song is a regular on this tour, the band having not played the song since 1993. It has always been one of my favourite songs off UYI 1, largely because of the intense and emphatic vocals, particularly towards the end. It didn’t quite have the oomph that I would have liked, but that could have been due to the venue’s sound (which wasn’t perfect) or just because it’s a long song that fell during a natural lull in the set. Still, it was nice to hear them play it at all.

“Coma” was followed by a Slash solo, which segued into a cover of the Godfather theme (apparently a staple of shows back in the day). This led into “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, probably the very first GnR song that caught my attention as a teenager. It was a joyful, lungbursting experience, followed by “Out Ta Get Me”. It’s probably one of the weaker songs off Appetite, and the one change I would have made to the setlist would probably have been to swap it for “Think About You”. A cover of “Wish You Were Here” led into “November Rain”, yet another high point in an evening full of them.

The sun had set by this point, which felt somehow appropriate. The mood started to get a bit more reflective, not least as we knew we were pulling towards the end of the marathon set. The band did a cover of the Soungarden song “Black Hole Sun”, a tribute to the late Chris Cornell, and the theme of paying tribute to departed friends and family continued with a heartwarming rendition of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”. The cover is not one of my favourite songs off UYI 2, but it shone in the stadium setting with everyone singing along, not least with Axl explicitly connecting it to lost loved ones. The mood then lightened again somewhat with an explosive rendition of “Nightrain”, before moving into the encore.

“Don’t Cry” won a prize for most ironic title of the evening, as by this point a lot of people were really struggling to fight back the tears. The emotional rollercoaster continued with an uproariously upbeat cover of AC/DC’s “Whole Lotta Rosie”, which was very well-received indeed. It was an excellent version of the song; the association with AC/DC undoubtedly seems to have helped invigorate Axl. Inevitably, the set finished with “Paradise City”, which was one last opportunity for everyone to sing their hearts out. I’d completely given in to my emotions by this point, trying to make the most of a transcendent and once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Guns N’ Roses have long been one of my favourite bands. They were a gateway band for me – the band that got me into heavy metal – but they’re also much more than that. I discovered debut album Appetite for Destruction around the age of 16, and the energetic, masculine romanticism of the music as well as the lyrical themes themselves helped give me confidence as I entered adulthood. For better or worse, it helped shape the way I approached the world, and my personality. Aside from the great music and hellraising motifs of sex, drinking and drugs, one of the things that always appealed to me about the band was the emotional sincerity, and the surprising penchant for reflection that accompanied the bombast of Use Your Illusion. My disillusionment with GnR over the last decade or more has really hurt, and been like a loss; so this whole experience felt like a massive healing process. Who knows where the band will go from here, but the tour has already shown there’s reason to hope the future has more in store than bitterness and recrimination.

One of the ironies of Not in This Lifetime is that it might actually go a long way towards enhancing the reputation of the Chinese Democracy album. The album attained memetic status before internet memes were even a thing, becoming a byword for excess and self-deception. By the time it was released, an underwhelming reception was almost guaranteed due to the widely entrenched views about the band and Axl’s personality. I confess to having been completely biased and barely listened to it at all, dismissing it out of hand once the critical reviews confirmed my negative expectations. But now, having heard several songs played the other night, I was surprised to find they were actually pretty good. And having listened to the album four or five times since the concert finished, I’m astonished how good it really is. There may not be anything on the album to rival the iconic songs from Appetite or Use Your Illusion, but its an underrated gem with great vocals from Rose (naturally) but also some inspiring composition and guitar work. It definitely seems more consistent than UYI. Hopefully the album will get a bit more of a hearing now. It certainly will in this household.

10/10

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Music of the 16-bit era: five of the best

Introduction: I spent much of my late teens and my 20s playing and listening to loud music, earning me tinnitus by the age of 30. Its got a bit better in the years since I gave up being in bands, but nevertheless my days of listening to heavy metal are largely behind me (with a few exceptions), and my music of choice now tends to be video game soundtracks. This isn’t just because my hearing is a bit sensitive: even though I spend more time playing games than any man in his 30s should, it’s still not as much time as I would like, and so listening to old video game music is a way to make up for it a bit.

Plus, there is a massive nostalgic appeal to listening to game music from my childhood, not least because it reminds me of spending time with family and friends who I don’t get to see much these days, or who in some cases are gone for good. After all, the word nostalgia comes from the Greek words for ‘homecoming’ and ‘pain’; another word that evokes the same idea is the old German word ‘heimweh’, homesickness. Nostalgia is like the pain of going home, the pain of the past.

Here are some of my favourite tracks from the 16-bit era, mainly from games I first played between the ages of about 10-15. Quite apart from their inherent musical appeal, some of these tracks really stand out for their compositional and technical ingenuity, if you consider the limitations of the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive/Genesis.

In no particular order:

  1. Fear Factory – Donkey Kong Country

Donkey Kong Country was a hugely important game for Nintendo, an amazing technical achievement that boasted brilliant graphics at a time when Nintendo was first challenged by Sony’s Playstation. The game was memorable not only for its visual and clever level design, but also for one of the best soundtracks featured on the Super Nintendo. From the catchy scene-setting of the brilliantly orchestrated opener Jungle Japes, to the beautifully atmospheric Aquatic Ambience, this is a soundtrack that features a number of iconic pieces of music. Gang Plank Galleon, heard when you’re fighting end boss King K. Rool, segues from a pirate-themed intro into a rollicking rhythmic beast of a track that wouldn’t sound out of place on an Iced Earth album. But for me, the highlight has to be Fear Factory, a stunningly futuristic track that at times makes me think of Mass Effect and Blade Runner. It perfectly captures the sense of incongruity Donkey and Diddy encounter as they traverse the strange (for them) industrial and technologically advanced levels towards the end of the game.

2. Upper Brinstar (The Jungle Floor) – Super Metroid

One of the best games for the Super Nintendo, one of the best RPGs of all time, and arguably the best Metroid game ever made, depending on how you feel about Metroid Prime. Super Metroid’s soundtrack is incredible: hugely atmospheric, it’s surprisingly varied and does a good job of conveying the feel of the diverse regions of planet Zebes. Some parts of the soundtrack are minimalist, reminiscent of something like John Carpenter’s The Thing; then you have a track like Jungle Floor. It’s ridiculously catchy, almost like a disco track, but still menacing and with those weird alien synths washing over it at the same time. It’s a perfect change of pace, but the entire soundtrack is worth listening to from beginning to end.

3. Under Logic – Streets of Rage 2

I never had a Mega Drive as a kid (we were a Nintendo household), and the only game that made me wish I had one was the original Streets of Rage. Side-scrolling beat ’em ups were huge in the late 80s/early 90s, and for me SOR was the best of them all, better than Double Dragon, Final Fight, and everything else. I remember playing it at my friends house and absolutely loving it. So, I never owned Streets of Rage 2 as a kid, but I do now, and its soundtrack is my go-to for easy listening at work. The whole soundtrack is killer, with major standouts obviously being Go Straight and Dreamer. Under Logic, though, is probably my favourite, not least due to its opening, which is just insanely good. One of the best video game soundtracks ever composed, hands down, on any system, from any era.

4. Pyramids – Zombies Ate My Neighbours

Zombies is a cult classic: a top-down, hard-as-nails B-movie horror themed shooter that supported two-player co-op. I got it for my tenth birthday and absolutely loved it, even though I was terrible at it and never completed it. One of the best things about the game is its soundtrack, composed by the inestimable Joe McDermott, who kindly gave me an interview for this very blog earlier this year. The award-winning soundtrack has received many plaudits over the years, and for good reason: it’s spooky, catchy, and perfectly captures the comedy-horror vibe exuded by the game’s graphics and writing. My personal favourite track is Pyramids, a remarkable piece of music that features a ridiculously groovy and catchy bass line, amazing keys, some sick samples, and is just pure gold from beginning to end. It’s an underappreciated gem that deserves more attention. I’ve often wondered if the members of the band Ghoul played this game as kids.

5. Phantom and a Rose – Secret of Mana

Secret of Mana was a very special game, probably my favourite RPG on the Super Nintendo and one of my favourite games of all time. Many aspects of the game were very unusual and have never been successfully copied since, like its weird three-player support, peculiar fusion of real-time combat with ATB gauges, and expansive magic levelling system. But somehow everything came together perfectly, due in large part to its fascinating, rich, and beautiful world, and it’s long, complex, dark, and sad story. A big part of this appeal was its stunning soundtrack, which is full of hauntingly beautiful pieces of music, and it’s really hard to pick out any one from the others. Just listen to the whole thing. For me, nothing captures the feeling of listening to music from my childhood quite like this.

Chrono Trigger, a successor to Secret of Mana and regarded by many to be a superior game, was never released for the SNES in Europe, and so I never played it as a child. CT has a famously good soundtrack, and I am finally getting round to playing it now, on the DS, over 20 years after its original release. But no matter how good it is, I doubt I will ever have the same emotional response to it as I do with Secret of Mana.

So, these are some of my favourite pieces of music from the 16-bit era–arguably video gaming’s golden age. I hope you like them, and if you’re not familiar with the source games, I encourage you to check them all out!

Blue Man Group (Berlin show) – Review

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The Blue Man Group is a famous and well-established performance art troupe that has been going since the early 1990s, but we only found out about them quite recently, thanks to Arrested Development. The Group is primarily based in the USA, but while we were in Berlin, T. and I discovered there is a long-running Blue Man Group show in that city–the only one in Europe. Naturally we decided we had to check it out.

We had only a limited idea of what to expect. In Arrested Development you don’t see that much of an actual BMG show, and instead the troupe serves mainly as a sort of recurring background reference to highlight the foibles of individual characters. But a quick internet search indicated that music, comedy, satire, and lots and lots of colour would be involved. We decided to buy the most expensive tickets so we’d get to sit in the front row, where you’re issued with a poncho to protect you from getting splashed with blue paint and banana juice. Definitely sounds like my idea of a good night.

Tickets for the BMG Berlin show aren’t cheap: depending on when you go and where you sit, you’re looking at about 55-80 Euros per ticket. The shows last about 90 minutes, so I suppose it’s about on par with seeing a (very) major rock band or an expensive musical. The show was quite full, though, so the price doesn’t seem to deter people; and spending that amount of money also makes you pretty determined to have a good time.

For our part, we really enjoyed our experience watching the Blue Man Group. The show begins with a musical section with the three members of the Group playing percussion instruments during a stunning display of light and colour. It was really spectacular and felt quite special. Overall, the show featured a few of these sequences and for me they were the highlights. There is something profoundly moving about the live fusion of sound and light achieved by the Blue Man Group and I would be interested in seeing an entire performance like this, although it might end up being a bit overwhelming.

Most of the rest of the show features a number of skits and routines by the three members, sometimes with a backing band featuring drums and electric guitars. The showmanship is at a very high level and the blue men are all consummate musicians and entertainers. They are completely mute during the performance, communicating through dance and various devices brought on stage. Although the show is in Berlin, most of the voiceover was in English, which makes sense as I’m sure it’s a significant tourist attraction.

As well as the music, I enjoyed the physical comedy and there was a lot of interaction between the Group and the audience. This involved throwing things at audience members (I caught a marshmallow in my mouth, earning a round of applause), as well as firing bits of food and assorted gunk at people sitting in the front rows. Overall, we left feeling a bit disappointed that we weren’t subjected to more flying paint and banana juice: the ponchos (and more expensive seats) had created expectations of leaving drenched in water-soluble paint, which alas did not happen.

The alien appearance of the Group is used to good effect as they employ the familiar comedic technique of reproducing ‘normal’ human behaviours (like eating dinner) with an unusual twist (eating a twinkie with a knife and fork). Although I felt some of the attempts at satire–especially about the internet and digital technology–fell a bit flat, the show’s underlying philosophy and energy is really inspiring. Attending a BMG show is a joyful experience, as you’re drawn in to enjoy the beautifully-crafted combinations of colour, shape, movement and sound. Ultimately you’re led to revel in a wholesome and child-like appreciation of your own senses, which is something truly refreshing, invigorating and all too rare in the world of grown-ups. In the end, these three alien-looking Blue Men deliver an experience that is about making you feel happy to be alive, and what more can you ask for than that?

9/10

David Bowie

Hugely depressing news this morning as the world learned of the passing of David Bowie, just days after his 69th birthday. Bowie was an inspirational and iconic musician, performer and visual artist whose work resonated with millions of people from all walks of life and all parts of the world. His significance was not limited to his music alone, as his public personality and identity encouraged people to be comfortable in their own skin and offered encouragement that it’s OK to be yourself.

I’ve always admired and enjoyed Bowie’s music, especially his more commercial material, but unusually, I’ve always been more of a fan of his films than his music. The ones I have in mind are Labyrinth and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Labyrinth was released a couple of years after I was born. Directed by Jim Henson and starring Bowie as Jareth, the Goblin King, as a child I was enraptured by the film’s visual design and mesmerized by Bowie’s remarkable performance. (It also has a young Jennifer Connelly, of course).

Labyrinth is one of the best depictions of a fantasy world I’ve ever seen, despite (or because of?) its reliance on physical puppets and props rather than CGI. It’s one of those rare films that has stayed with me throughout my life, and its soundtrack is a big part of that, too. I listened to ‘As the world falls down’ after I heard about Bowie’s death this morning and it moved me to tears. A good job I had my office to myself. Here’s a more joyful song from the film which I always enjoy listening to. If I ever have kids, I look forward to being able to introduce them to this movie.

 

The Man Who Fell to Earth is a remarkable film, and for a while in my early 20s ranked as one of my favourites. Again, the visual design of this film was exceptional, and it’s surely no accident that Bowie had some of his most fruitful cinematic collaborations with visionary filmmakers like Henson and Nicholas Roeg. Bowie’s physical beauty is often remarked upon, and it was particularly apparent in Roeg’s film–at least when he wasn’t in his alien get-up.

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The Man Who Fell to Earth had a powerful sense of mystery and poignancy, much of which stems from Bowie’s extremely sensitive performance. It’s a peculiar film in some ways but also a fascinating and moving one and a testament to Bowie’s versatility and subtlety as an actor. If you haven’t seen it then I suggest you check it out.

One of the things about Bowie, with his knack for innovation and constantly changing style, is that different parts of his career can resonate profoundly with different people. One of my other heroes, Arsenal football manager Arsene Wenger, commented on this aspect of Bowie’s personality this morning by saying that to the post-war generation Bowie’s message was “be strong enough to be yourself”. Bowie maintained throughout his life a determined independence and self-reliance that demands respect, but at the same time, his life and work will inevitably be interpreted by individuals in a way that is meaningful to them.

Bowie was from a fairly humble (ie, normal) background and grew up in South London, between Stockwell and Bromley. I grew up just a couple of miles away, a generation later, from a similar class background. Today, with so much of the country’s cultural life being re-appropriated by the wealthy and powerful, to me Bowie’s passing serves as another reminder of that great era of British popular culture of the 1960s-1980s. British music and British comedy both enjoyed a remarkable flourishing in that period, for which there were a number of social and economic factors (including comprehensive education, a diverse economic and industrial base, flourishing trade unions and civil society, and mass immigration). David Bowie was one of a kind, but everyone has the capacity to create and express themselves, and we should live in a world where everyone has that freedom.

Bowie’s cultural influence has been so pervasive and ever-present since my childhood that his death really comes as a shock to me which is out of all proportion to the amount I actually listened to his music. He is one of postwar Britain’s most influential cultural figures, one of the good guys, and it is so sad to see him go.

Joe McDermott, composer of ‘Zombies Ate My Neighbours’ – Q&A

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I’m thrilled to be able to introduce an interview with Joe McDermott. Joe composed the soundtrack for cult classic video game Zombies Ate My Neigbours (just called Zombies in PAL territories), released for the SNES and Mega Drive/Sega Genesis in 1993. In addition to his work on video games, Joe is a composer and musician who specializes in music for children, and you can visit his website here.

A few months ago I wrote to Joe to see if he would be prepared to answer a few questions about his experience working on Zombies, and to my great pleasure he agreed.

If you’re not familiar with Joe’s work on this game, I suggest you check it out straight away: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xsdkSeTAGYs

Dear Joe: first of all, thanks so much for agreeing to do this. Zombies Ate My Neighbours is a cult classic loved by many people. It was a big part of my own childhood, and I spent countless hours playing the two-player mode with friends and my two younger brothers. Thank you for creating such an awesome soundtrack to accompany this memorable game which brightened so many young lives.

Q: Are you much of a gamer yourself? Did you ever play Zombies…, and are you a fan of any other video games or franchises?

Not really, no. We (me and Team Fat) used to play Outlaws a lot. An old western shoot up multiplayer game. I was at a conference once at the Lucas Arts booth and they asked me to play the new Star Wars game. After a while the guy looked at me and said, “You don’t play much do you?”

Q: Can you tell us how you ended up composing the soundtrack for Zombies? Had you done much other work on video games up to that point?

It’s a long story but here goes. I was doing children’s music and had a bad parting with a manager that slowed my career for a while. My friend George Sanger (The Fat Man) hired me to do some sound fx editing. George had gotten some game work from Dave Warhol, his college roommate. One thing led to another and soon George (who was one of the first real innovators in the PC game music world) started getting lots of gigs. He took me on as a team member. The story is better than I can tell it, so I’m going to ask George to give an interview too!

Sooo… I did a game called Rocket Man for Nintendo (the first – not Super Nintendo). I also did a game called Wings. When we started doing Super Nintendo I did Q-bert 3. Dave Warhol was very impressed with the style that we did and I got the Zombies gig. When I say “we”, I mean me and George. George was our producer (and my mentor) and he oversaw everything and gave everything the ok before we sent anything off. If you make it to the top level, George and I are standing next to a desk wearing cowboy hats. You might be able to shoot us. If you can read the cheat code on my cartridge you might be able to get there.

 

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Joe’s copy of the Zombies cartridge for Super Nintendo, complete with cheat codes. ZAMN’s difficulty was legendary. For many players like myself, cheat codes were the only way to see half of the levels, and even then, I couldn’t complete it.

Q: Can you tell us about your process for writing and composing the soundtrack? Did you enjoy the experience?

It was one of my favorite things to write. Dave Warhol gave me the green light to go crazy on the music. I started out by watching all the 50s Sci-Fi I could get my hands on. When I was a kid there was a show on called “Creature Features”. They ran old black and white horror films. The theme was a very lonely sounding low guitar with lots of reverb and it used to kind of creep me out. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AN3PL0_ZJa0

That theme song inspired the “Is Anyone Outside?” theme.

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The Telecaster Joe used while composing the soundtrack. Note the Ghostbusters sticker which Joe tells me has been on the guitar since the cartoon series started.

 


Q: Were there any major technical or artistic challenges involved? How satisfied were you with the soundtrack, artistically and technically? Also, several tracks feature humanoid sounds, like monsters growling or babies burping; how were those created?

Video game music back then was nothing BUT a technical challenge. The programmers wanted as much space on the card as they could get. That left very little for samples and the midi files that ran them. If you listen closely to the instrument sounds you can hear that they were incredibly short loops. They all have a kind of springy echo sound. I had a one-off card that plugged into a SNES box. I had the SNES sent to my studio speakers and a TV. The SNES box itself had an instrument bank but I tried to avoid that as much as possible.

The challenge was to make something that sounded really different than the games that were being produced at the time. As far as the human stuff it was very short low res samples. The voice that everyone asks me about is saying “Is there anyone outside?” The other is Chris Boas saying “uh oh”. If I may wax poetic: It was really rewarding to do video game music back then because it was so limited. It was like trying to build a Taj Mahal out of beach sand. The tools we used ran on DOS and the obstacles we had to overcome were real big.

If you listen to Koji Kondo’s work, it still is some of the best video game music ever written. The songs and sounds had to be great because we had nothing to cover them up with.

Q: What did the Zombies soundtrack mean for your career at the time? How was it received, and did you do more video game soundtracks afterwards? If not, why was that?

It really meant a lot to me because it was such a great game! My kids (and many other kids) loved the game and there is nothing better than to have contributed to something like that. A funny story: In the same phone call that Lucas Arts was sending the award for best Cartridge game that year they let me know that I was being taken off the game I was currently working on. It was like “Here’s your award–you’re fired!” It was much more good natured than that but there it is. I remember not being that into that game and I don’t think it even was ever released.

 

Award

“Here’s your award. You’re fired!”

And yes I did games after that but mostly multi-media titles. Our team did the Putt Putt games and the Scene It games; I did the Friends Edition. I also did a lot of work for Stan and Jan Berenstain. That was fun.

Q: The aesthetic of Zombies draws widely from a lot of aspects of horror and B-movie culture, and takes a humorous spin on what could be construed as dark subject matter. Your soundtrack conveys a combination of creepiness and humour. Did you enjoy trying to create music that was both creepy and catchy?

Absolutely!

Q: Do you listen to the Zombies soundtrack much these days? Do you have any particular favourite tracks?

I teach audio engineering at a community College in Austin. My students pull it up once in a while.

Q: As an adult who grew up playing video games, it strikes me that these days, when I encounter the games I played as a child, it is more often than not the music of those games that resonates with me now. Every aspect of the game can seem horribly dated apart from the music. Do you have any thoughts about that, particularly as someone who specializes in composing music for children?

As I said before, the songs had to be carefully crafted because we had almost nothing to hide behind. One of the things that eventually killed the independent music houses doing game music was Redbook audio–the CD. As the computers got more powerful the game creators started using music from their favorite bands. Also, the unique tools that we used went away because anyone could make game music at that point. I guess I have to say that programs like Ableton and Fruity Loops etc. made sounds that were really fantastic right out of the box. It can often lead to a certain laziness compositionally. If you can make a few mouse clicks and have something that sounds pretty awesome, why go further? We were composing as these tools came on the market and we used to try to use them, but we would always go back to old fashioned songwriting and composition.

Q: Have you found there to be any specific challenges in composing and performing music for children?

Well you have to be pretty entertaining to keep them interested. They just walk away if you bore them. Children’s music is a lot like game music. Anything goes. It’s really been amazing to be able to work with children and music–it never gets old!

Q: At this stage in your career, would you be interested in composing music for video games again if the right opportunity arose?

Sure. It would have to be the right kind of thing. I would love it if one of you youngsters made a ZAMN tribute game. (hint hint)

Q: Do you have anything else that you’d like to add?

Yes. Thanks for your patience! And thanks to all you people that remember that great game!

I want to thank Joe again for agreeing to do this interview, and more importantly, for his inspirational work on the Zombies soundtrack. Let’s hope that we see more from the franchise in future, perhaps even accompanied by a new score…

Crom Dubh, live at the Black Heart, Camden – review

cromdubh

Tinnitus is a bastard of a condition to live with. Apart from the incessant ringing in the ears, it also involves physical pain when subjected to loud noises, particularly crashing or high-pitched sounds, like babies crying or screaming. It’s a form of hearing damage and it has certainly changed my own hearing, meaning that I rarely enjoy listening to the same kinds of music that I used to (that would be metal). As a result, I rarely go to see bands these days; but I’ll always try and make an exception for Crom Dubh.

Crom Dubh are a rare band indeed. They are a black metal band but their music is heavily tinged by folk as well as ‘noise’ or shoegaze. The result is an exceptionally evocative and dense sound, which can be attributed primarily to the very high level of songwriting as well as quality musicianship. They released their debut album earlier this year on Ván Records, which was very well-received, and has earned them a lot of deserved praise.

Crom Dubh gigs are something of a rarity, and this show at the Black Heart was a joint album launch for them and Scythian. Crom Dubh played first, with a 45 minute set. Their material comfortably fills a longer time slot and I hope this is something we get to see more of in future. The crowd was a pretty decent size and filled out the room quite well. The Black Heart is not a pub I’m fond of these days but it does lend itself well to atmospheric or ‘intimate’ gigs. I played it once or twice and it’s a pretty good stage.

Anyway, the crowd was into it and there were a good number of people who seemed to both know the material (including the newer songs) and were getting into it a bit with heads pumping and fists banging, or whatever, which is always nice to see. I thought it was one of the best Crom Dubh gigs I’ve been to. The Invulnerable Tide came across particularly well–which surprised me as it’s not one of my favourite songs on the album. I was delighted they played Decline and Fall off their EP, Deifr; but sadly there was no Insurgent Blood, which is a bit of a shame as it always feels like a signature song to me. Oh well, maybe next time. I’m still holding out for The Widening Gyre as well. One day.

The set closed with Sedition which got a very good reaction from the crowd. Sedition is certainly a good song but it has a different feel to the rest of ‘Heimweh’, and kind of makes me think of Opeth. Maybe that’s just my hearing damage.

Seeing Crom Dubh is always an inspiring and emotive experience for me. My own background is predominantly Irish. I generally hate folk music, especially the sort I heard when dragged along to Irish pubs as a child; and I also hate metal bands that incorporate folk into their music. But something in the music here, especially at a live performance, resonates with my blood. It’s a strange thing and not something I can adequately describe.

The musical and lyrical themes are influenced by, and infused with, a profound and mature understanding of the pre-modern human history on these islands generally referred to as the British Isles. This can be a thorny subject particularly as there is something of a genre of shit ‘English Heritage’ black metal, which is generally purveyed by racist morons with an explicit or implicit right-wing agenda. But the understanding and sense of history which underlies the music here seems to me to annihilate those sorts of philistine and recidivist ideas.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to see much of Scythian’s set as the ol’ tinnitus was playing up by that point. Even when I get to a gig these days I only ever seem to manage one band. It sucks being in your thirties.

10/10

Live Review – Funeral Throne + Crom Dubh, London, 31 October 2013

Samhain heralded another Isengard Promotions black metal show at the Boston Arms. This was Crom Dubh’s first live performance in over two years, and a welcome return to the stage for their drummer Hay, who endured what the band described as a ‘serious’ motorcycle accident  last year. Northern black metal outfit Funeral Throne were headlining; sadly Virophage, who were initially announced for the show, cancelled, but it was still one of the most promising shows of 2013 for me.

I missed the first band but saw most of Scutum Crux’s set. It’s the second time I’ve seen them and this occasion didn’t tend to change my earlier impressions. It might be harsh, but I don’t particularly like this band. There was nothing bad about their set, which consisted of competent thrashy black metal. Like last time I saw them, their stage presence was impressive for a three-piece, and they tick all of the necessary genre boxes. Their songs do have occasional interesting passages, but for the most part it’s fairly generic and muddy-sounding. There’s nothing notable or stand-out here. There are a lot of bands out there playing the same style, but doing it better.

Crom Dubh were next. Crom Dubh’s third guitarist, Satyrus, left the band last year, so they took to the stage as a four-piece. It doesn’t seem to have affected their live sound, though. That’s no mean feat, because there are very few bands anywhere that exhibit the same level of craftsmanship and artistry in their composition as Crom Dubh. Their blend of avant-garde, artisanal black metal, encompassing passages of Celtic folk and postrock or shoegaze elements, is stunning on record and hypnotic in a live setting. They played a similar set to their last show, with two songs from Deifr (‘Decline and Fall’ and ‘Insurgent Blood’) and three from the upcoming full-length, Heimweh. The Deifr EP is one of my favourite recordings of all time and the newer songs are of comparable quality, which bodes very well for the forthcoming album.

More live performances from Crom Dubh can only be a good thing. Their music evokes a sense of space and time that few bands can match (Fen is the only comparable UK band I can think of), and they do so without the exclusionary nationalist trappings that taint most other bands that aspire to play this sort of music. Crom Dubh have the potential to become the most important black metal band to emerge from this country, discounting Venom. This live performance was mesmeric, a stunning achievement considering their two-year absence from the live arena. The popular tendency to value preening, posturing, and self-aggrandisement, rather than artistic merit and meaning, might militate against Crom Dubh’s music ever reaching the audience it should. But with the new album around the corner, and performances such as this, all the pieces are in place.

Funeral Throne were excellent when I saw them play in 2011, and their album Nihil Sine Diabolvs is superior, so I was looking forward to seeing them very much. I wasn’t disappointed. Describing their sound as ‘Heavy metal blackened by death’, Funeral Throne play a blend of traditional black metal in the style of Watain and Dissection, but with the old heavy metal feel. There are no other bands in the UK I know of who can pull off what Funeral Throne do. Fucking hell this band has attitude. But they also have the repertoire to back it up. They have an intense and visceral, vicious sound, interspersed with surprisingly appealing guitar progressions and melody. The triple vocal attack deserves special mention for cranking up the aggression, as does Wakelam’s drumming.

It was an excellent set rounding off one of the best gigs of the year for me. It is good to see Funeral Throne headlining a London show, and hopefully this will be followed by more return trips once their much-anticipated second album is released.

The Boston Arms gets seemingly endless slagging for its sound, but I thought it was fine for Crom Dubh and Funeral Throne. Just like it was for other sets there this year by bands like Sonne Adam, Grave Miasma, and Venenum. I’ve always found that good bands sound good at this venue, and that’s about what you can hope for, isn’t it? (The sound was fine on stage when I played there as well.) What was more irritating was the engineer putting out all the incense sticks during Funeral Throne’s set. Also, the disgusting admixture of blood, vomit and piss in the gents at the end of the night deserves a mention; another fitting tribute to Halloween, I suppose.

Funeral Throne: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Funeral-Throne/104497066275246?fref=ts

Crom Dubh: https://www.facebook.com/cromdubhmetal?ref=ts&fref=ts

More here: http://www.reverbnation.com/page_object/page_object_blogs/artist_485164

Edited: forgot to include links.