Sunday, December 28, 2008

Workingman's Death

If you have ever had a day or two when you just want to chuck your job in because of the pressures & stress that it brings, then maybe it might be beneficial to watch this movie first. If you think that your own job is hard, then, in the words of Randy Bachman "You ain't seen nothing yet"!

This Jaw-Dropping film was utterly stunning on the big screen, but crucially its power is not diminished by viewing on a reasonably sized TV. Although the majestic & imposing industrial landscapes are intrinsically linked to the majority of jobs, they don't overwhelm the viewer either. Impressive as they are, the backdrops take second place to the people going about their day, doing the jobs you wouldn't really put high on the list of desirable career option's.

Ukraine: Illegal coal mines
Starting with one of the most claustrophobic jobs-working in a mine, we meet a group of Ukrainians faced with no option other than to work a long discarded, derelict mine that the state has deemed unprofitable. Based in a ghost shanty town, way passed its prime, our hardy souls chip away in the darkness and cold, for a few meager baskets of the precious black stuff.
With the constant threat of imminent collapses' a very real everyday possibility, these exceedingly brave comrades beaver away with no real reward in sight other than the most basic of human needs-survival. I absolutely felt like I was inside the mine at times, and felt a great deal of empathy for the miners doing this wretched job-on a daily basis.

Indonesia: Kawa Ljen-Sulfur mining
From the tight confines of the Ukraine mine, to the unbearable vapor from the Kawa Ljen Volcano that these unbelievably heroic Indonesian workers toil away in. In Eye-stinging, throat burning scenes that seem like a vision of hell, this bunch of guys are without question, the very definition of brave. From the tricky, slippery descent into the volcano's bubbling lake to chip away at the precious sulfur deposits, to the hair raising climb out, and the gut busting run-back down the mountain, they 'walk' an incredibly dangerous line. At any second, you really fear that impending disaster is but, a footstep or 2 away.

Nigeria: Port Harcourt-Slaughter yard
If you're a vegetarian, then this next segment will be incredibly tough to view. If you can stomach the very real scenes that are presented before you, then you are indeed, both brave and strong willed. I do know that animals are killed in slaughter houses, to be converted for mass production & consumption. Even so, I was totally unprepared for just how hellish, disgusting and nightmarish this place was. If, like me you have viewed this on a cinema screen, then you will understand what kind of an impact, viewing this ghastly vision on a giant canvas can have. Viewing this screen on a TV doesn't lessen the impact either! Mercifully, we don't get one critical sense to make more of an impression-the sense of smell. I can only begin to imagine just how this place would actually smell. And lastly, Blood. If you can't handle seeing a lot of blood, then again, this is another bloody tough (Pun intended!) segment to watch.

Pakistan: Gaddani-Ship breaking
Health & Safety would have a field day with the Dickensian conditions here on a desolate Pakistani beach. Here, is where all the worlds shipping firms send their old, unwanted, obsolete & unprofitable ships to 'die' as such. Beyond brave, teams and teams of extremely poorly paid migrant workers toil very long-and very hard, to break these massive vessels apart, to be sold as scrap metal. All this taxing, back-breaking work is done the old-fashioned way. By hand, with next to no modern machinery to help in this most herculean of tasks. You cannot for a second, imagine any western worker (Used to safe working conditions, Unions, benefits, etc) comprehending the type of person who would willingly work in such shitty conditions!

China: Steel workers
Lastly, and maybe for a sort of 'light relief', we head to China to watch workers toiling away in a massive shipyard-or steel factory. By comparison, these guys (and the odd woman or 2) have it damn easy! Although, undoubtedly this work is physically demanding, when you've just watched the 4 previous jobs, this must seem like a walk in the park to some. Obviously, its not, I think that director Micheal Glawogger purposely put this part near the end to illustrate that maybe not all jobs are without some kind of hope for a better future. And China is a great example of just where the working world is heading in the 21st century. Working hard to create a new future for your country's prosperity.

Coda: Germany-converted smelting plant
To portray just how far we've come in the evolution of work, Glawogger highlights the old ways converted into the new future. A massive Iron-smelting plant converted into a showcase leisure park for all the public to use and enjoy. Probably not how the original owners would have ever seen this behemoth being used, but it is a testament to man's ability to rethink how we use a major building-and the benefits we can get from using it altogether in a completely different way that is more conducive to the future of humanity.

The real power of this movie is watching these ordinary people doing the most uncomfortable, back-breaking, mind-sapping, filthy, claustrophobic task's in all of humanity. Easy, these job's were never meant to be, but someone has to do these dirty jobs! So, next time you come across a grumpy customer, take a deep breath, remember they are paying your wage, smile and think of all those poor buggers doing the types of work in this movie.

By comparison, you've got it damn easy...

Monday, December 22, 2008

Bachman-Turner Overdrive: NOT FRAGILE

Call me old fashioned when it comes to what types of music I really love, but I just can't ignore the truth staring bluntly back at me. I was born in 1963 (Near the last of the "Baby-Boomers") so my formative musical appreciation started in the early 70's, listening to A.M radio, then it changed completely in 1977 when I started high school. Man, was this such a great time for music! I mean, just where do you start? Luckily for me, I was able to enjoy all different genres of music, but I always came back to my now favorite genre-ROCK!

And somewhere near the top of my favorite rock bands is this bunch of Canadians known as: BTO (Bachman-Turner Overdrive). My introduction to these guys was via this superb (And vastly underrated LP) Album "Not Fragile" which was 1st released in 1974. My great friends Mike & Greg B's mother Anne was the owner of the LP, which the guys introduced to me around 1975/6 (Or so-hey, we're talking some 33 years ago!).

And its impact was devastatingly immediate! I just wanted the guys to "Turn the fucker up louder" on numerous occasions. From the opening bass intro of the title track, till the last stinging blue notes being peeled off from Randy & Blair, this muthafucker ROCKED!!! This LP can be described in one word-Muscular. Its made by men who were on a mission to spread their brand of high octane powerhouse boogie to a thriving live scene in the halcyon days of the American rock experience. The band had a great work ethic, and truly put their hearts & souls into converting non-believers into rabid life-long worshipers. It is a great shame that to date, there still isn't an official Live DVD of one of their seminal 70's concerts available. Even judged by the other staple of the 70's-The ubiquitous "live Album", sadly they fell short in this critical area as well. Its is well documented with some bands, that the truest recording that represents the quintessential sound of the band is best personified by the live LP. Some great examples would be Deep Purple's "Made in Japan" , Thin Lizzy's "Live & Dangerous" & Peter Frampton's "Frampton comes Alive" Perhaps history would have looked slightly different if they had delivered such an album. Regardless of this minor quibble, they still left us with this monstrous slab of piledriving, sledgehammering badass boogie that for me, has aged incredibly well!

A Pre-History of BTO firstly...

Randy Bachman was an integral part of one of the iconic Canadian bands in the late 60's "The Guess Who" singing, playing guitar & co-writing some of their most enduring music, tunes such as These Eyes, Laughing, Undun, No Time, And the provocative American Woman. After leaving this band, he formed Brave Belt with early Guess Who singer Chad Allan & younger Bachman brothers Robbie & Tim. Upon hitting the road to promote the album, they enlisted the talents of C.F (Fred) Turner to solidify the touring version of this band. But the country-Rock sound wasn't really working for them. With Fred's arrival however, they began slowly morphing towards the now recognizable signature BTO Sound-Heavy, pounding, riff orientated driving rock & roll boogie, with Fred's unique "Gin & Tears" vocals making an immediate impact on their audiences. After numerous record company rejection, fate dealt them a kind hand. A demo Randy had hawked around missed the rubbish bin in the Mercury records office of Charlie Fach, who had always liked what Bachman had done. He signed the band straight away with the proviso of a name change. Both Bachman & Turner had toyed around with using their names in some way, but one day in a truck stop, whilst getting supplies for the road, they noticed the American trucking industry magazine Overdrive. Eureka!, this was exactly the name that most effectively conveyed the type of music they were playing & thus the world now had BTO.

After 2 reasonably well received LP's, it was time for another change, Brother Tim making way for Blair Thornton, a guitarist with skills more than equal to Randy's. This was now the line-up that would record their masterpiece, NOT FRAGILE.

Track by Track:

Side 1
1) NOT FRAGILE: From its ominous & precise bass intro, this piece of music was intended to do only one thing-Remind the listener that they most definitely were not listening to a YES Album! (Yes had recorded the Fragile Album 2 years earlier). This opener is unrelenting with its propulsive grunty guitar riffs monstering everything in sight. Add Fred's vocal scream and Wow, this is a masterful statement of intent! One of the most perfect album opening tracks EVER.
2) ROCK IS MY LIFE, AND THIS IS MY SONG: Randy's autobiographical track about his life on the road, and his relationship with that aspect of his life. This initially deceptive track starts out with a jazz styling, but soon erupts with a familiar heavy guitar riff less than a minute in! BTO's innate sense of dynamics is superb in this great tune, the Rhythm section providing heavyweight ballast for the guitarists to blaze all over with well judged solo's and melody lines.
3) ROLL ON DOWN THE HIGHWAY: C'mon people! Is this not one of THE quintessential rock & roll songs to drive to in all of recorded history!!! Every single time I have listened to this powerhouse track I never fail to tap my feet, hands, sing along-and if I'm driving, put the foot down more on the gas pedal! From the opening riffs, to the rock steady pounding drums, this is probably the best track to introduce a person to BTO with. It has all the signature elements of the BTO sound, and crucially, it ROCKS LIKE HELL!!! Bloody hell, I think I even typed this faster than the previous tracks...
4) YOU AIN'T SEEN NOTHING YET: Unbelievably, this initially wasn't a proper track at all, just Randy fooling around in the studio, adlibing over a recently written riff (Or 2). When the engineer suggested that it might actually make a fully fledged song, Bachman took some convincing before eventually agreeing to see just how it might pan out. Luckily for us, and the band, this would become one of BTO's biggest hits! Sometimes, musicians just can't recognize a hit-even when its staring at them in their faces. A hypnotic jazzy riff in the verses is well counterpointed by a concise riff in the chorus, the track shuffling along well with Randy's stuttering vocals & Robbie's drums underpinning this monster hit.
5) FREE WHEELIN': A progressive jazz-fusion influenced instrumental that features a waay cool solo section where every member gets a few bars or 2 to solo on! It was the early 70's o.k? This sorta thing was more than acceptable in those days!

Side 2
6) SLEDGEHAMMER: A perfect example of the difference in both the vocal & guitar sounds that BTO made. The intro verse has randy singing the opening lines with a jazz riff, then followed by CF's 'Sledgehammer' scream and a titanic guitar riff roaring into view. A stellar Yin & Yang BTO song, which pretty much "Sledgehammer"s you into submission...
7) BLUE MOANIN': Bluesy to the max, this underrated number features some excellent solo guitar workouts from Blair Thornton & guest Frank Trowbridge on Slide guitar. A great mid tempo rocker that probably was an excellent live track.
8) SECOND HAND: Another vastly underrated album track that has a lot going for it. Randy singing very much like CF ironically, a squalling solo from Blair, great main riff & arrangements make this track hold up well on closer inspection.
9) GIVING IT ALL AWAY: the album closer is another relatively unknown gem, one of the few tracks where both Randy & CF sing in tandem-throughout the length of the song. It opens with multi layered guitars chiming in unison, then the boys start bellowing the words out in earnest.
The bridge section where they chant the chorus over the drums is cool, followed by another great Blair solo, the track fading out to echoes of not fragile.

So, if you've never heard this album before (In its entirety) then, its kinda obvious exactly what I would suggest next...

This isn't the last 70's album I will be raving about either!

You have been warned ;)

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Master of Melancholy

Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way

The time is gone, the song is over,
Thought I'd something more to say...

Whenever I've thought about Richard Wright-for reasons that I still can't really explain even to myself, I always come back to these rather poignant lines that in light of his recent passing, resonate with ever increasing assurance. To me, they reflect the true essence of his personality. Of all the various Pink Floyd personnel, perhaps Wright was in retrospect, the real enigma.

Roger Waters & David Gilmour were the defacto leaders of a band who accidentally muddled their way into the major league of rock 'n roll superstardom-even though in true Floydian style, neither were exactly proto-typical rock stars. Their relationship was of the Lennon/McCartney or Jagger/Richards mold. A pair of seemingly opposites paired off to write some of rock 'n rolls most iconic music. But crucially, this pairing almost always came with a strict proviso. The more successful they became, the more other band members were relegated to the back row. "Shut the fuck up and just play your fuckin instrument" would be just one of many insults hurled at any poor hapless soul who happened to think that they may have a better song idea than their ego driven songwriting duo! Other notable casualties of this type of egomania would be people like George Harrison (Beatles), Don Felder (Eagles), & the rest of Creedence Clearwater are just some examples of where true democracy didn't reign properly for these frustrated musicians.
It should be noted that Waters & Gilmour weren't that egotistical about such matters, until Rogers vision began to dominate the band, then Gilmour pushed back. Unfortunately Mason & Wright were less inclined to do the same.

Post the Syd Barrett era, The Floyd were initially a fully fledged democracy, every band member brought an equal amount of musical invention to create their evolving potent brand of musical genius. But as the years went by, the workload was falling more and more onto the shoulders of Gilmour & Waters. Nick Mason & Richard Wright either becoming increasingly daunted by the competitive talents of the guitarists-or deciding that because they were so good, why stand in the way of such greatness? And thus, not only the songwriting contributions dropped off, but even the occasional lead vocals from Wright were getting harder to sight. This is a great shame, considering the unique voice that Wright has; a gentle plaintive tone, full of life's anguish and melancholy. Typically, his understated songs reflected that sensibility, songs nostalgic for a simpler, less complicated life. Great examples of this are "Julia Dream" & "Remember a Day"

Crucially though, its in some way irrelevant to a certain degree about the lack of songwriting & vocal contributions because Wright did leave his indelible imprint to the history of rock for posterity with his signature keyboard work for the Floyd. His playing was absolutely vital and perfect for the Pink Floyd sound & it was also unlike many of their contemporaries such as YES & ELP who both had virtuoso musicians who weren't afraid to play a solo or 2. Whereas Rick Wakeman & Keith Emerson were both dazzling entertainers, Wright never put flashy showmanship ahead of making a composition sound better. He utilized more textured and nuanced fills, runs and sequences to give the Floyd their signature sound. Indeed, so instinctive and complementary is his playing, that it never threatens any track by overwhelming the balance of instruments in any particular song. If you took away Wright's sublime playing & compositional abilities & the Floyd wouldn't have sounded as great as they did. His part in the success of Pink Floyd was undeniable.

In my humble opinion, the best Pink Floyd Track ever is the sublime 23minutes & 31 seconds that is "Echoes" . That it is the quintessential heart of the typical Floyd sound is both a nod to the past-and a major hint to the future to come. One can only wonder if the band had continued along this kind of musical journey more often, where it would have lead them to. Key to this tracks inherent greatness was the fantastic interplay between Wright & Gilmour. Their vocal lines are in sync, each soaring to greater heights than previous vocal partnering in older Floyd songs. From the opening 'ping' (A note played through a Leslie speaker-Which has a rotating speaker in its housing), this track takes the listener on a voyage to distant shorelines, labyrinths of coral caves, outer space via eerie slides on bass guitars, and interstellar majestic guitars...
This song was the best thing that Richard Wright ever did with the Floyd, his organ swells are just breathtaking in their exactness of what the track required. The opportunity to do a overblown solo must have been very tempting, but Wright successfully resists this and infuses Echoes with a sound both majestic and otherworldly.

If you haven't already done so, I strongly urge you to go and buy a copy of David Gilmour's "Remember that night" DVD. Wrights playing is magnificent throughout the whole concert. He makes a remark in one interview saying that this is the happiest tour he has ever done-and it clearly is no idle throwaway line either. Wright has a look of absolute contentment throughout the whole tour. One can only now sadly speculate on the possibilities of a reformation of the Pink Floyd-and what it might have done for Wrights desire for a often longed resumption of recording with the under the Pink Floyd brand again.

In one of his last ever print interviews, he mentions to the journalist concerned that he whiles away a lot of time, just playing his piano, his one true companion. The one thing he could always rely on for emotional support & therapy. It would interesting then, to hear more of what was in his head. If Pink Floyd songs submerged his true feelings, then perhaps solo recordings would reveal the real Richard Wright. Maybe, some day we will be lucky enough to hear some of these pieces, then again, maybe we shouldn't.

Lastly, here's my list of my favorite Wright contributions to Pink Floyd.

From: Piper at the gates of Dawn; Astronomy Domine, Chapter 24, Interstellar Overdrive

From: Saucerful of Secrets; Remember a Day, Set the controls for the heart of the sun

From: More; Cirrus Minor, Up the Khyber

From: Meddle: Echoes, San Tropez

From: Dark Side of the Moon; Time, Great Gig in the Sky, Us and them, Any Colour You Like

From: Wish You Were Here; Shine on you Crazy diamond (Pt's 1-9), Welcome to the Machine

From: Animals; Dogs

From: The Wall; The Thin Ice, Mother, Goodbye blue Sky, Hey You, Comfortably Numb

From: The Division Bell; Wearing the Inside Out

Richard William Wright; 28-7-1945 to 15-9-2008

Monday, December 8, 2008

National Geographic's Megastructure series

Plot Summary:
Fascinating series of documentaries on how big-sized construction projects are made, and the amount of planning, commitment, money, time, luck, and sheer hard work that is needed to make these iconic structures what they are today.

Ever since a very young age, I've always been very interested in how things work, especially electrical/mechanical objects like cars, aircraft, bridges, buildings and so on. I guess living near a military base (Dad was in the RNZAF) and seeing jet aircraft wizz overhead constantly helped fuel my imagination! Its no great surprise to tell you then that a big part of my working life involved fixing photocopiers, faxes, printers & typewriters. I job I really loved doing for 15 years or so. And that interest hasn't waned in the slightest, I am still very curious to know exactly what it takes to make something work-even more so when the scale of the project seems too incredible for words.

When ever you drive across a major bridge, or take a ride on a big aircraft or ocean ship, pause for a minute or two and reflect on the technological marvel that you are using to travel from one location to another. It is staggering to say the least when you actually learn of the process from the very inception of the initial idea, to the official opening to the general public, the major faith you need to place in the professionals who build these extremely complex projects to a level that is deemed safe for the general public to use on a daily basis. It shouldn't ever be taken for granted.

However, before you get too interested in this series, a small word of caution. Having searched on both Nat Geo's & Amazon's websites, it appears that there is only a 'best of' 3-4 disc set available from the 3 or 4 seasons shown so far. So, you will have to be a cable, sky or similar type of subscriber to actually watch the damn things. I figure if both the Nat Geo & Amazon sites don't have more than just the 1 meager offering, there must be some sort of licensing issues tied up with the rights to this series.

Some of the episodes I've watched are as follows:

Season 1
Ep 1: USS Ronald Reagan-The worlds biggest aircraft carrier. Never realised just how complex these floating airports really are. With a crew of 6000 people, carriers can stay at sea for more than a few years.
Ep3: The Channel Tunnel. One of the most difficult tunneling projects ever undertaken. Connecting Britain & France together, this highly technical challenge involved digging in very soft soil, with the danger of collapses a very real threat. A staggering achievement for all those who worked on this impressive project.
Ep5: Kansai International Airport. With no free land available, the Japanese put their very creative thinking caps on and came up with a seemingly impossible idea-build a massive island out of landfill in the middle of the harbour-and then hope it doesn't sink too much in future years to come! The jury's still out on that aspect, but it is undeniably a major technological achievement.

Season 2
Ep 19: The North Sea Wall. After centuries of devastating floods, the dutch government was compelled to build a vital sea wall to combat the effects of the destruction that floods wrecked on the dutch people and the Netherlands economy. Its scale is immense-but the problem wasn't going to be solved by half measures either.
Ep 20: Dubai's Palm Islands. Like the Kansai airport problem, Dubai has a major lack of land-specifically sea frontage, so the only solution was to reclaim land and position itself post oil boom by making it a iconic tourist destination. Again, the scale was staggering, and then unbelievably, they have made an even bigger island (Rather groups) in the shape of the world map. So, if you have a few million or 50, Brazil, Australia, or any country you want could be yours! Probably, not the last thing these clever buggers will attempt to make...
Ep 34: Millau Bridge. This vast bridge is also now the tallest in the world. And it is a stunning engineering miracle that has to be seen to be believed.

Season 3
Ep 37: Rio-Antirio Bridge, Gulf of Corinth; Greece. Another extraordinary bridge that is built in an extremely challenging environment.
Ep 38: Oresund Bridge, Copenhagen-Denmark to Malmo-Sweden. This bridge linking 2 countries is another triumph of man's battle vs nature, and the opportunities that were afforded to both countries by this significant link.

Other eps (Cant find any season/ep data) that I've seen are:
Deep Sea Drillers: The accuracy needed for ocean drilling is precise-so are these machines
Maglev Trains: Maybe the future of trains, catastrophes notwithstanding.
Queen Mary 2: That it works at all is a major accomplishment.
Beijing Olympic Stadium: The birds nest is now an icon of architecture without question.

Regardless of the lack of easy access, if you are able to watch the series, then it is wholeheartedly recommended!

Saturday, December 6, 2008



Plot synopsis: brutal & sobering anti-war movie based upon a true incident that happened in Iraq very recently, told from multiple points of view.

This undeniably powerful movie is a very welcome return to form from veteran director Brian De Palma. Using different media such as web cams, hand held camera's, De Palma creates a very credible story about a squad of raw recruits , encountering just how difficult life is in a extremely hostile environment-or is it? Based upon an ugly event whereby an innocent Iraq teenage girl was raped-then killed, this film then covers what happened next. Revenge from the aggrieved Iraqi community who clearly felt at the mercy of the oppressive occupying infidel American army.

The cast of mostly unknowns are all effective in portraying the various types of personalities who react in wildly differing ways when confronted with an extreme event such as this ghastly episode. Men behaving badly is one thing. Doing it on foreign soil in a very highly charged geopolitical country where you are not really welcome keeps everybody-friend and foe, in a constant state of unease, to say the least.

Some critics have carped on about this film being an anti America diatribe, but surely they're missing the real point. That a rape is a rape, a murder is a murder, irrespective of who commits these atrocious crimes-or where they commit them. Imagine the fury if the same thing happened on American soil, by foreign combatant's.

And the final series of photo's will burn an imprint into your subconscious. Hearts and minds will be affected by this searing evidence of collateral damage that is just so heartbreaking to view.

Absolutely masterful and very resonant in these clearly troubled times we live in. Maybe Obama is wise to get the hell outta Iraq. Is the oil really worth all this trouble?