Anvil — The Story of Anvil

This is not Spinal Tap. This is not Spinal Tap… For the first half of Anvil — The Story of Anvil, you have to keep reminding yourself of this fact. Even if you do hear people saying things like: “I can answer that in one word — two words — three words: we haven’t got good management.” And even if, at one point, we see a dial going up to 11:

Anvil go up to 11

But what makes it not Spinal Tap really comes out in the second half of the film, as we get to see the part of the story that was untapped, as it were, by Tap — the part where you meet the real human beings behind the would-be rock-stars, and where you realise that the reason they’re still doing what they do after all these years of slog is they’re so passionate about it. Lead singer/guitarist Steve “Lips” Kudlow especially — he’s the fire to drummer Robb Reiner’s ice, with no preserved moose in between. Throughout Anvil’s ups and down, he manages to bounce back time and again with amazing optimism, even though the dream of rock-stardom has to be shoehorned into holidays from his job as a catering driver, and even if the resultant European tour doesn’t turn out exactly how he’d hoped. “Things went drastically wrong,” he says. “But at least there was a tour for things to go wrong on.”

In a way, I was sort of thankful Anvil hadn’t made it big. If you compare Anvil — The Story of Anvil to the Metallica documentary, Some Kind of Monster, you see the same in-band personality clashes, only, with Metallica, backed up as they are by megabucks, the egos are turned all the way up to 11. With Anvil, the music may be that loud, but the people at least remain human beings.

So we get to see “Lips” trying to remind rock stars he once toured with who he is (though none of them say “We’re playing the Enormodome”), or thundering through a set with all the enthusiasm of his stadium days even though there’s only one person in the audience, or making up with his lifetime buddy Reiner after a Tap-pish “We’ll never work together again” break-up. (Some of the Spinal Tap-ishness is perhaps contrived, as we get to see Lips and Reiner in a small eatery singing through the first song they wrote together, just as David St Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel did in This is Spinal Tap — only, instead of it being a skiffle song about riding on a train, it’s about the Spanish Inquisition hanging people up by their thumbs.)

But the ending, where Anvil return to play in Japan for the first time in twenty-five years, is a wonderfully uplifting moment. Both This is Spinal Tap and Anvil — The Story of Anvil might make you laugh, but only one of them brings a tear to the eye.

Metal on metal!

Giovanni Battista Piranesi and the Three-Dimensional Labyrinth

Surely the “Dungeons” part of Dungeons & Dragons owes a substantial debt to the fevered mind of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who stands as a sort of dark fountainhead of one obscure aspect of fantasy art — the multi-levelled subterranean labyrinth.

Born in 1720, Piranesi wanted nothing more than to be an architect, but despite publishing several books on the theory of architecture and architectural renovation (a hot topic in crumbling late-Renaissance Rome), during his lifetime he only received one actual commission that was actually put into effect — and that was a renovation, not a new building. Piranesi made his living in various ways, one of which was producing etchings. His most popular was a series of views of Rome to sell to tourists, but he also indulged in a set of “architectural fantasies” published under the title Carceri D’Invenzione — or, the Invented Prisons.

What a febrile, tortured imagination Piranesi had! This, looking like the nightmare child of Gary Gygax and M C Escher, is one of his more labyrinthine efforts, a three-dimensional maze of stairways and walkways, complete with gibbet-like struts, barred windows and darkly suggestive ropes. The figures, if you can spot them, are dwarfed by their surroundings:

piranesi_xiv_2

I’ve been collecting examples of the Piranesian influence as I find it popping up, so here are a few. The first is from one of my favourite films (and novels), The Name of the Rose (1986). Not a prison this time, but a monastery library, though this fact hardly makes it any less oppressive (here, forbidden books are imprisoned):

nameoftherose

And this, from Guillermo del Toro’s first Hellboy film (2004) — del Toro’s obsession with clockwork replacing Piranesi’s spiked wheels and shadowy torture devices:

Hellboy

Hayao Miyazaki provides this example, from the villain’s castle in Tales From Earthsea (2006), complete with Piranesian winch:

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The latest addition to my collection is this panel from Starblazer #190, “The Power of the Warlocks” (1987), drawn by Ian Kennedy (not credited in the comic, but artist info courtesy of the Starblazer Issue Guide). More oppressive religious architecture, this time with appropriate minotaur figures as pillars (and is the one on the lower left flipping the bird?):

starblazer_190_p32

But my love of the dark, subterranean, multi-levelled maze began way before I came across Piranesi. It probably started around the time I came across this picture, in The Best of White Dwarf Articles III, drawn by (I think) Bob McWilliams (…or has it always been there, in dreams?):

wdaIII_35_bobmcwilliams

What would the world have been like had a Piranesi design actually been realised in stone? And what sort of demon patron would commission such a nightmare anyway? For the answer to that, see this story of mine, elsewhere on this site

Vampires, vampires everywhere…

Somehow I’ve ended up reading a couple of vampire novels recently, something I’d normally avoid like a plague of moaning, groaning, tapping-on-your-window-pane-at-night undead. Vampires, to me, are one of those genre tick-boxes that just don’t tick my box. Particularly when they get caught up in the tired old recombinations game, where you take a slightly tatty genre element and “re-imagine” or “re-invent” it by adding a lame twist. As in, “Yeah, man, it’s vampires, but it’s vampires on the moon…” Or steam-punk vampires, or vampires versus the CIA, or vampires in hoodies, or vampires with sat-navs. I used to get caught up in that sort of game with Doctor Who, thinking up all the monster-related adventures you could squeeze out of those pulpy titles: “We’ve had Destiny of the Daleks, so we’ve got to have Destiny of the Cybermen, and Destiny of the Sontarans, and Destiny of the Ice Warriors, and Destiny of the Wirrn…” But I was eight years old at the time.

Back to vampires. Twilight (I’ve only seen the film, not read the books) seemed to me more X-Men sequel than horror film — more about troubled, “gifted” teenagers whose gift just happens to be called vampirism. I could see how the film would work for teens, but it didn’t quite do it for me. The vampires just weren’t dangerous enough, and it was all a little bit too reassuring. (I never watched Buffy, but I suspect it owes far more to Buffy than Dracula.) Having said that, there are a few vampire novels I like — Richard Matheson’s I am Legend (covered on this blog some while back), Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (the first horror novel I ever read), Le Fanu’s Carmilla, and the first half of Stoker’s Dracula (the second half just devolves into rather dull action-adventure). Now I’m going to add one of the two I’ve just read to that list. (But don’t strain yourself trying to guess which one. I’m only going to let the right one in.)

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First up is The Strain, by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. I read it because of del Toro, who I admire as a spokesman for the fantastic, and because Pan’s Labyrinth is the only film for many an age I got excited about a full year before it came out (just from seeing the poster, and reading the title), and it more than lived up to my expectations. Del Toro has dealt with vampires before — sensitively in Cronos, sensationally in Blade II — and it was in the hope I’d get something more on the Cronos side that I read The Strain. But it was Blade II I got. I tried to tell myself the book was probably del Toro’s initial idea, which was then filled out by Hogan in standard “adapt me, Hollywood!” thriller style, complete with manly heroes with troubled marriages and technical descriptions of how to bag an infected corpse, but from the interviews that surrounded the book’s release, it seems the whole thing is as much del Toro’s fault as Hogan’s.

The Strain (whose title got me off on the wrong foot by reminding me a little too much of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band song of the same name, which is about constipation) “updates” the vampire story by (a) taking it to America and (b) providing a scientific explanation of vampirism by having it be the result of a parasitic infection. But both (a) and (b) have been done before, and much better, in I am Legend (which does a lot more with its ideas, besides). The trouble with making vampirism just a plague is you end up with hordes of dumb, blood-hungry vampires roaming the streets, which means you’re really writing about zombies, not vampires. And zombies are, when it comes down to it, a lot less interesting than vampires. Why? Because they’re dumb, and all they do is roam the streets hungering for blood. They’re video game fodder. (I am Legend escapes this dead end because its appeal, for me, is more from it being a Last Man on Earth book, a disaster novel in the Day of the Triffids or War of the Worlds mold, and not what I’d think of as primarily a vampire book.)

What makes vampires interesting, for me, is that as well as being supernatural monsters, they’re human beings. The like us/not like us factor brings out the real power of a monster — monsters only begin to mean something when they’re part human, and it’s monsters with meaning I want. (The exception is when your monster is a pure killing machine, as in the shark from Jaws or the Scott/Giger Alien. It’s this category zombies fall into. (Zombies are dumb, they’ll fall into anything.) But if you’ve got a pure-killing-machine monster, the story has to work on the strength of its human characters. The Strain’s humans have about as much depth as the paper they’re printed on.)

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Let the Right One In, on the other hand, is brilliant. (I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’m dying to.) There’s a brief (and not too successful) attempt in John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel to give a scientific explanation for vampirism, but fortunately it’s far enough into the book that it doesn’t matter, and Lindqvist doesn’t try to push it to the point of explaining, for instance, why vampires can’t enter a house till they’re invited, which is (and should stay) a purely supernatural element. The result is that the book’s vampires are weird, dark, and genuinely supernatural — properly disquieting monsters, not merely scientific aberrations.

But what makes the book really work for me is that, as well as being genuine monsters, the vampires are also more human than any others I’ve read about. The basic premise of the book could be couched in those “another twist on the genre” terms I so abhor (“what if there was a vampire, but it was a child“), but simply because the author goes to the bother of creating real characters, and not just out of the victims but out of the vampire itself, the whole thing opens up all sorts of deep, dark possibilities. Right to the end, I had no idea where the book was headed. What was more, it meant the book wasn’t just about another twist on a genre, it was about what all good books should be about — what it means to be human. It’s about childhood, about the way people (normal, non-vampire people) treat each other, and the way they get treated by the world, about the difficulty of finding true friendship amidst all this bleakness, and the lengths people will go to hold onto such friendship should it be found. The presence of a vampire just heightens the drama that was already there — gives it that extra spark and spice, which is what good fantasy does best, raising a story about real human beings that little bit beyond where normal fiction can go.

I was glued to Let the Right One In, and it ended too quickly. The Strain, on the other hand — well, let’s just say I skipped bits.

What adventures they’ll have…

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Queen’s Queen II

Fantasy worlds created in childhood sometimes spill over into adulthood. Thus we have E R Eddison’s peculiarly childish naming scheme for the races in his otherwise sublime novel The Worm Orobouros (with Witches, Demons, and even Pixies being his warring nations of basically human warriors). Thus we also have Emily Brontë continuing to write poems about the invented lands of Angria and Gondal (which she and her siblings had worked on intensely as children) right through to the end of her life. And thus we also have the world of Rhye — or hints of it — a childhood fantasy world created by Freddie Bulsara and his sister, which crept into reality when Bulsara became Mercury, and Queen recorded their first two albums.

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I’m picking Queen II (from 1974) as the fifth of my top five fantasy concept albums, but really I’m picking the fantasy concept album that might have been, had Freddie Mercury taken over the whole thing and expanded the handful of fantasy-themed songs on the group’s first two releases into a complete concept album. My fantasy fantasy concept album, you could say.

And what an album it would have been! Early Queen manage a misty-morning never-never sound that tints many of their non-fantasy songs with the fantastic (“Nevermore”, “White Queen”); they also manage an almost religious grandiosity with equal conviction (the epic “Prophet’s Song”, “Jesus”) — both essential elements in a full-fleshed fantasy. When actual make-believe enters into it, we get something as baroque and filigree as the Art Nouveau-esque “My Fairy King”, as operatic as “The March of the Black Queen”, or something in the straight-ahead rock leagues like “Ogre Battle”. There’s humour, (“she boils and she bakes and she never dots her i’s” from “Black Queen”) — something which can puncture the make-believe bubble unless handled properly (in this case, with sufficient bombast) — there’s lyricism, and there’s even something that sounds like it was inspired by Dungeons & Dragons (“Can’t go east cos you gotta go south” from “Ogre Battle”), though of course D&D wasn’t released till 1974 (and I doubt it reached England immediately), while Queen II was recorded in 1973.

Centrepiece of the whole thing must be “The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke”, a rendering in music of Richard Dadd’s intensely-detailed painting (and quoting from the peculiar poem Dadd wrote to accompany the picture, apparently in an attempt to prove it was a rationally reasoned-out subject, and not entirely produced by madness). At a mere 2 minutes 41 seconds, the song contains almost as many textures and details as the painting, and is one of the few examples of one work of art inspiring another of equal value.

Speaking of works of art inspiring others, there have been (I think) two fantasy novels written using Queen’s fantasy songs for inspiration. I read one, in the late eighties (I think), and can’t remember what it was called or who wrote it. And I don’t really want to. The secret of a successful adaptation from music to literature is, I suspect, not to be too literal. When I realised the plot of the novel was building up to a battle between two ogres, my heart sank. I remember glancing at another fantasy novel more recently which was inspired by Queen’s fantasy songs, but can’t remember the details, and the internet (in a brief search, I have to admit), seems equally disinclined. (I did uncover a video game, Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen, from 1995, though).

Well, that’s it for my top five fantasy-themed concept albums. I’m sure there are others, perhaps even betters. If I discover one, you’ll find it in a future Mewsings. Here’s the full five, which have been presented in no particular order:

Hawkwind’s Chronicle of the Black Sword

Ah, Hawkwind. Rocksters of Reality! Spacefarers of the Science-Fictional! Plunderers of Pulp! Barbarians of Blanga!

That’s enough of that. Let’s just say I like them, and The Chronicle of the Black Sword is one of my favourite of their many albums.

Those many albums… Sometimes I think Hawkwind aren’t so much a band as an anthology series, or an old pulp magazine. Weird Tales, say, or New Worlds. Pick up any lurid-covered issue of Weird Tales in its heyday, and you’d find a mix of stories by individually excellent authors, presided over and brought into some sort of unity by the vision of the editor, shaky-handed Farnsworth Wright (the “Tyrant Pharnabeezer”, to some of those who had to deal with his rejections), or, for New Worlds, (and quite fittingly in this case) the staunchly bearded Michael Moorcock. Pick up any lurid-covered Hawkwind album and you’ll find the same mix of authorial styles, presided over this time by chief Hawk Dave Brock (who has been called a lot worse than “the Tyrant Pharnabeezer” by those ex-members who’ve departed over creative differences, or been plain fired, but I think without him we wouldn’t have nearly so much — or as good — Hawkwind as we do. Hell, we wouldn’t have Hawkwind. Besides, I love his singing voice and thudding guitar).

Pick any two Hawkwind albums and play them back to back, and at times you’d be hard pressed to guess they were from the same band. You’ve got sixties druggy droning on their debut, a punk-like tightness in the Calvert/Charisma years, electronic trancy weirdness on It Is The Business of the Future To Be Dangerous, and oodles of straight-ahead rock (1980’s Levitation being a particular high point, for me).

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Hawkwind's Chronicle of the Black Sword, cover by John Coulthart

The Chronicle of the Black Sword is mostly straight-ahead rock, with a few patches of moody instrumental, and the beautiful breathy synth lament “Zarozinia”. Having listened to the album a good few times since I bought it back in something like 1987 (it was released in 1984), I find it impossible to judge how well it works, as a fantasy concept album, in transporting you to its particular story world. Why? Because all I have to do is hear the deep whomping thrum of the electronic drone that opens “Song of the Swords”, the album’s first track, and I’m there, in Hawkwind/Moorcock/Elric land, and I stay there till “Horn of Destiny” at the end. (With perhaps a slight jar at “Needle Gun” which opens side two, because it’s Jerry Cornelius, not Elric.)

But Chronicle is just a taster of the full Hawkwind/Moorcock/Elric experience, to be found on Live Chronicles, a double album and DVD of the accompanying live show. (Which, I always kick myself to recall, I had the chance of seeing when Hawkwind put on a reprise of the show at Conspiracy ’87, but, at the time, I was too scared of the idea of going to a rock concert to do it!) Here we get songs from Chronicle of the Black Sword and Hawkwind’s back catalogue, as well as some new linking tracks, woven into the tale of doomed Elric Womanslayer and the final battle between Law and Chaos.

Cover to US release of Chronicle of the Black Sword

Cover to US release of Chronicle of the Black Sword

How I’d love a full studio treatment of the whole show! Because, like it though I do, Live Chronicles just doesn’t have the full thumping aural richness of its studio-based little brother, and in the case of a song like “Moonglum” (written, sung and lead-guitared by the wonderfully reggae-voiced Huw Lloyd Langton), this is a crime, because this sublime piece of tune-smithery hasn’t, as far as I know, ever been studio recorded.

Ah well. Perhaps I should put the full-studio Chronicles (a triple album, I’d like to think) down as my fantasy fantasy album, the one I’d most like to hear had it ever been recorded.

Or I could, if I hadn’t already reserved that slot for the last of my top five fantasy concept albums, which I’ll be covering in the next Mewsings…