Sunday, June 27, 2010

DVD Review: Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Volume 7

Aqua Teen Hunger Force is one of the strangest shows to grace the alternate television universe know as Adult Swim. ATHF started out as a short addendum to the legendary Space Ghost Coast To Coast, but was quickly picked up as a series in its own right. The incredibly surreal show is now the longest running original program on Cartoon Network.

The premise (such as it is) concerns the adventures of three living, human-sized food items, and their south New Jersey neighbor, Carl. The McDonald’s style box of french fries is the nominal leader, Frylock. His two companions are a large milkshake named Master Shake, and a big ground-beef meatball who calls himself Meatwad.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Volume 7 consists of 11 episodes from seasons six and seven, plus bonus material. The most noteworthy of the 11 programs is “The Last One Forever And Ever.” This was the grand finale of season six, and was done as a live-action show. Rapper T-Pain plays Frylock, Jon Benjamin is Master Shake, and Dave Long Jr. portrays Carl. Meatwad is a big, red, talking medicine ball.

Although the episodes are short (11 minutes), ATHF packs in so many bizarre and sometimes baffling plot twist and situations that it's still very hard to keep up. “Rubberman” is a good example. The Aqua Teens live in a pretty rundown neighborhood, and find a plethora of used needles, condoms, and crack pipes around. Frylock gets the bright idea to build a duck out of the discarded items. When he tops his creation with a magic lamp, it comes to life. They dub their new friend Rubberman, but given the items he was made out of, this duck turns out to be pretty evil. He gets Meatwad to help him on his rampage, and even manages to appropriate Carl’s arms.

This episode has been billed as the most violent ATHF ever, and it may very well be. By the way, the Rubberman theme song is absolutely hilarious, and is the subject of one of the bonus features.

Then there is “Der Inflatable Fuhrer." In this one it is revealed that Adolf Hitler’s soul was transferred into a balloon, and that he has an army of balloon soldiers ready to resurrect the Third Reich. It is up to our heroic foodstuffs to save the world, which they do in a most unlikely fashion.

Rounding out the DVD is a highlight of season seven titled “Eggball.” This is another one that basically makes no linear sense, but is supremely enjoyable regardless. The basic plot sees Master Shake building a pinball machine which runs out of pinballs. The gang then travel to the appropriately named Death Island to collect golden pinball eggs from flightless birds. This is a lure concocted by the birds to entice unwary travelers to the island, where they are to be killed.

Besides the Rubberman song, the bonus section includes a behind the scenes look at what it took to reproduce ATHF as a live action show, as well as a profile of Dave Long, who played Carl in the episode. There is also “Terror Plane II: The Legend Of Rakenstein,” a sequel to “Terror Plane,” which appeared on Aqua Teen Hunger Force Volume 6.

ATHF is on Adult Swim for a reason — the language and violence make it inappropriate for little kids. The uncensored DVD is even more graphic. But for those who enjoy surreal and boundary-busting animation, ATHF is well worth checking out.

Article first published as DVD Review: Aqua Teen Hunger Force: Volume 7 on Blogcritics.

DVD Review: David Koresh - His Final Hours

The Biography Channel’s Final 24 is a compelling documentary series which chronicles the last 24 hours of a celebrity’s life. The hour-long shows mix actual footage with staged dramatic recreations, along with interviews to piece together the events that led up to the subject’s death. The stories that are chosen for the series are generally some of the more lurid ones of the recent past. Marvin Gaye, John Belushi, and John F. Kennedy Jr. are just a few examples of people who died under somewhat cloudy circumstances. Nobody has gone out quite as spectacularly as David Koresh did in 1993 though.

David Koresh - His Final Hours manages to pack a lot of background information into its fairly brief duration. In some ways, his early years were almost a textbook example of how to create a sociopath. His mother gave birth to him at the ripe old age of 14, and bounced from man to man in his early years. He was an undiagnosed dyslexic, which led his schoolmates to nickname him “Mr. Retardo.” Finding religion in his teen years, the former Vernon Howell dropped out of high school and changed his name to David Koresh.

Koresh began sleeping with the 78-year-old Lois Roden, leader of the Branch Davidian sect of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. The Branch Davidians were located in a compound called the Mount Carmel Center, just outside of Waco, Texas. When Lois Roden died a few years later, a struggle for control of the cult ensued, which Koresh eventually won. His reign was notable for the unbelievable sexual privileges he enjoyed. All couples who joined found their marriages immediately annulled by Koresh, who ordered celibacy for the men, while he slept with their wives.

To support this virtual harem, the Davidians began dealing in guns. This caught the attention of the ATF, which launched a disastrous raid on the compound February 28, 1993. The result was four dead agents, six dead Branch Davidians, and a siege that lasted until April 19.

The footage of that fateful day is still shocking, with tanks knocking down walls of the structure, and canisters of tear gas being thrown in. All of this engagement was just a prelude to the roaring inferno which would engulf the compound, and everyone inside. A few former Branch Davidians managed to escape, and some of them provide present day interviews, which offer some context for the actions taken that day. Most of them dispute the government’s claim that the Davidians set the fire themselves.

The conspiracy theory element of the story is one aspect of David Koresh - His Final Hours that does not get explored very deeply. I guess it is a little outside of the subject at hand, but it is a huge element of the overall event. Timothy McVeigh bombed the Oklahoma City federal building on April 19, 1995 — the two-year anniversary of Waco, which he cited as one of the major reasons behind his actions.

Overall, David Koresh - His Final Hours is an illuminating look at the last day of the man’s life, and of the strange series of events that led up to his demise.

Article first published as DVD Review: David Koresh - His Final Hours on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Music Review: Terry Knight And The Pack - Terry Knight And The Pack / Reflections

I am surprised it has taken six years since Terry Knight’s death for these recordings to make their first appearance on CD. For fans of unhinged garage rock and/or Grand Funk Railroad, this 24-track collection is long overdue.

Terry Knight’s principle claim to fame is as manager/producer of GFR. As sort of a Midwest Brian Epstein, Knight took Mark, Don, and Mel out of the Michigan bars and onto stages in front of 100,000 people -- practically overnight. The rapid ascent was shocking, and their early career peak saw the band selling out Shea Stadium, which only The Beatles had managed to do previously.

Critics were appalled by GFR, a situation Knight exploited to the hilt. He reveled in all of the negative press, the bad reviews became a badge of honor. Suddenly those oh so hip writers at Rolling Stone looked hopelessly out of touch with what the teenagers were listening to. But like every great Behind The Music story, the massive initial success was soon overshadowed by events backstage. The band filed lawsuits against Knight for unpaid royalties, he countersued, and the legal ordeal dragged on for two years.

Grand Funk rallied admirably, and afterward wrote their most memorable hit, “We’re An American Band.” Terry Knight did not fare so well. Very little was heard from him over the next 30 years, until that fateful day in 2004.

All of this later drama imparts a historical significance to these early recordings. For one thing, members of The Pack included Don Brewer and Mark Farner, two-thirds of the future GFR. But the real reason to listen to this set is the music. What these guys laid down in those Mid-West studios is as down and dirty as anything on Nuggets, and some of it is weird beyond belief.

In their brief career, Terry Knight And The Pack recorded two albums. Their self-titled debut came in 1966, followed by Reflections, in 1967. “Numbers” is the opening track on the first album, and you could not ask for a better introduction. The guitar of Curt Johnson just sounds malevolent, like some Flint, Michigan cousin of The Count Five’s “Psychotic Reaction.” Their stoner anthem “What’s On Your Mind” seems like the blueprint for Spinal Tap’s “Gimme Some Money.”

Terry Knight wrote nearly all of the songs here, but the covers that were chosen are interesting to say the least. Sonny Bono’s overwrought “Where Do You Go” comes complete with strings and even bells. The version of the Rolling Stones’ “Lady Jane” is similarly mannered. But it was The Pack’s take on Ben E. King’s “I (Who Have Nothing)” that provided their biggest hit, reaching number 46 on the national Billboard charts that year. It opens with a “rap” straight out of Isaac Hayes, and is adorned with the most cloying strings imaginable.

Things get truly strange on LP number two. Reflections is an amazingly whacked set of tunes. It is hard to believe this one hasn’t been recognized as a definitive garage/psych classic like the 13th Floor Elevators or something. Reflections is nuts.

The album kicks off with the vaudeville sounds of “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show.” This gives way to the local hit “Love, Love, Love, Love,” which was later covered by Brownsville Station. Next is “Come With Me,” Knight’s very own “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon.” Then “Got To Find My Baby,” possibly the first cowpunk tune ever. Talk about front-loading a side!

But flip the original LP over, and things get even better. “The Train” is a nice nod to Northwest heroes The Sonics, featuring a classic Gerry Rosalie-inspired scream as the introduction. Upping the ante a bit, Knight next offers up his version of “Like A Rolling Stone” with “Dimestore Debutante.” This one has to be heard to be believed. Hearing him channel Bob Dylan right there in Flint is as beautifully weird as anything I have ever heard.

It seems as if Forever Changes was being played around the garage a lot that year. Both “Dirty Lady,” and “Love Goddess Of The Sunset Strip,” have a distinct Arthur Lee feel to them, which Knight pulls off much better than Dylan.

The clearest indication of what Mark, Don, and Terry’s next direction would be is contained on the final cut. The Pack’s version of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is as brutal as it gets. Four years later, GFR’s take on the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” would be described as “sledgehammer”. That hammer was forged right here, “Satisfaction” is classic Grand Funk Railroad in every way except for the name.

Having spent 30 years gleefully wearing the black hat as the one who got all of GFR’s early earnings (which was patently false), Terry Knight loved to play the unrepentant villain. But there was another side to him. Terry Knight was killed protecting his daughter from her meth-crazed boyfriend in November 2004, in the most selfless act of his life.

The contradictory impulses of a true rock and roll character are never more apparent than in the songs he wrote and recorded with The Pack. Forget about the historical aspect of it though, if you like truly crazed mid-sixties garage rock, the music of Terry Knight And The Pack is a must.

Article first published as Music Review: Terry Knight And The Pack - Terry Knight And The Pack / Reflections on Blogcritics.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Book Review: Hackers: Heroes Of The Computer Revolution

It must be gratifying to author Steve Levy to see his classic Hackers: Heroes Of The Computer Revolution celebrated with a 25th anniversary edition. It is an honor that very few books of this type ever receive. As Levy notes in his Afterword (written in 2010): “…I did shoot high, making the case that the brilliant programmers who discovered worlds in the computer were the key players in a sweeping digital transformation.”

Strangely enough, even as broad a claim as that is an understatement. The changes that computers have wrought in the world since 1985 are nothing short of profound. In a sense, Levy was in the right place at the right time, although he could hardly have known it. At that time, Windows had not yet been released and Apple was still king of the home computer front.

It was a great time to look back because 1985 was just a little past the 25th anniversary of the first serious hackers. The first part of the book takes place at MIT, during the 1958-59 school year. Levy does an excellent job of describing the era of white lab-coat wearing IBM people whose sole function was to deny access to all but the “anointed.” This is where one of the key mantras of hackerdom was born: “Information wants to be free.”

Freedom in this case meant “hacking,” or devising by any means necessary, a way to get to the machines. These incredibly smart kids, who just wanted to explore the brave new world of computers, came up with a number of tricks to get in. Picking the locks, traversing the acoustic tiles above, and getting one of their own certified were just a few of the methods utilized. Eventually they got their way, and the sacred computers did become open to a select group, who would regularly compete to write the most elegant programs. Just for fun.

A couple of decades later, those former students looked back on the MIT experience as a hacker’s paradise. And it certainly laid a lot of groundwork for what was to follow. But things really get going in part two. The introduction of the Altair home computer in 1975 is the key moment. With this kit, it was possible for someone to have (a very primitive) computer of their own for the very first time.

Levy details the many improvements that hackers made to the basic Altair model, leading up to the introduction of the Apple II. Steve Wozniak rightly gets all the credit here, as he did all of the nuts and bolts work. One of the reasons I consider this to be such an excellent book is that many authors would have taken a huge detour from the hacker story to the Apple success story at this point. After all, Steve Jobs is an endlessly fascinating character, and in 1985, Apple was king of the home computer market.

Levy sticks with it though, moving into the third part of the book, and the gaming explosion of the early eighties. The hacker/entrepreneurs who started the Sierra, Broderbund, and Sirius game companies are an intriguing breed. The author believes they amount to a third generation of hackers. These people had to find a balance between writing games and operating a huge business.

The central conflict of Hackers is contained in the statement that “Information wants to be free.” It came from an era when access to computers was heavily restricted, and people just wanted the freedom to use them. But when that dream was realized in the mid-seventies, did it mean that free now meant “no charge?”

Bill Gates spelled out his feelings on the subject back in 1975, when he and Paul Allen wrote the first operating system for the Altair. He was 19 years old when he published “An Open Letter To Hobbyists,” which addressed the matter succinctly:

As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software. Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who worked on it get paid?

When asked by Levy to comment on that statement 35 years later, Gates hilariously stood his ground by turning it back on the author: “Maybe magazine writers will still get paid twenty years from now, or maybe they will have to cut hair during the day, and just write at night.”

Hackers: Heroes Of The Computer Revolution is the definitive word on the subject, up to 1985 that is. What we need, Mr. Levy — is volume two. I would love to see a history as well written as this one on the massive changes wrought in the world of computing in the past 25 years. I am certain somebody will write it eventually. But they have a formidable task indeed if they try and top this one. Hackers is an outstanding read, as fresh and illuminating a history of The Hacker Ethic as you will ever find, even 25 years after its original publication. This is a true classic of the genre.

Article first published as Book Review: Hackers: Heroes Of The Computer Revolution by Steven Levy on Blogcritics.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Music Review: Roedelius - The Diary Of The Unforgotten (Selbsportrait VI)

Hans-Joachium Roedelius may be more famous for his collaborations with Brian Eno in the mid-seventies than anything else. Along with fellow Krautrock pioneers Dieter Moebius (Cluster) and Michael Rother (Neu!) Roedelius formed Harmonia, who Eno once called “The world’s most important rock band.” After recording with Harmonia, Eno went directly into the studio with David Bowie. The resulting three albums titled Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger were landmark achievements, recognized as peaks in both men’s careers.

Even as the high profile exposure of his experimental sounds reached the masses through Bowie and Eno, Roedelius’ own work remained cloaked in obscurity. For all I know, this may have been the way he wanted it. After all, the ten tracks included on The Diary Of The Unforgotten were solo recordings done during the Harmonia period, from 1972 to 1978, but went unreleased until 1990. That long out of print collection has just been reissued, and contains some first-rate material.

The title Selbsportrait VI, places it squarely in the strictly solo series of “self-portraits” Roedelius began releasing in 1979. His home studio in Forst, Germany was where everything was recorded, and the idyllic location seems to inform most of the music. Opening up with “Remember Those Days,” the album gets off with a lo-fi electronic piece that sounds fresh, even today.

The lo-fi electronics are a feature throughout the album. “Frohgemut,” “Ausgewahlt,” and “Manono,” are particular examples. When utilized in the context of these minimalist compositions, the archetypal early synth-tones sound utterly charming.

The centerpiece of The Diary Of The Unforgotten is “Hommage a Forst.” At twenty-four minutes, this track is a multi-part work which was obviously inspired by the surroundings it was recorded in. “Hommage” begins and ends very quietly, in fact almost imperceptibly in both cases. But in between, Roedelius allows his inner anarchist to run rampant for a change. There are parts that hearken back to the industrial clashes of the original Kluster, and their playfully abrasive sounds.

“Weg” closes out the disc with a brief, nearly tossed-off feeling. It is as if the deep soul-searching of “Hommage a Forst” had been a dream, and we are back in the comfortable womb of home and hearth, no matter how oddly futuristic that place might be.

As an avowed Krautrock fan, I whole-heartedly recommend anything by Roedelius, as he is a seminal figure in the genre. But The Diary Of The Unforgotten is much more than just a document of some home recordings the man made years ago. This is a fascinating album of minimalist pieces that could easily stand next to the contemporary works of Philip Glass or Terry Riley. It is definitely a record worth checking into.

Article first published as Music Review: Roedelius - The Diary Of The Unforgotten (Selbsportrait VI) on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Music Review: The Alps - Le Voyage

The Alps are a San Francisco band whose instrumental blend is positively hypnotizing. They have previously been compared to “European soundtrack music,” which is interesting to me, as I have no idea what that would mean. What I do know is their fourth album, Le Voyage is a great one, and a record I have been playing nonstop for the past few weeks now.

My guess is the soundtrack tag stems from the variety of styles The Alps explore. Once upon a time, film soundtracks reflected the various moods of the movie. Pink Floyd’s Obscured By Clouds, from Barbet Schroeder's Le Vallee (1972) is a fine example. The structure of Le Voyage is similar. It is very orderly (as soundtracks usually are), and features a mix of musical flavors. None of this really matters in the end though, as it is the songs themselves that will make or break a record.

Le Voyage is full of glorious music. The acoustic guitar piece “Drop In” opens the disc, and reminds me of a longer version of Steve Hackett’s “Horizons,” from Foxtrot by Genesis. The prog connection is never really too far away from The Alps, but not in the excessive manner that deep-sixed the genre.

Side one is perfectly programmed, with short one-minute interludes separating the longer, more fully realized cuts. The psychedelic “Marzipan” comes after “Drop In,” and leads into the fiery martial drums of “Crossing The Sands.” This track features the best superfuzzed guitar since Mark Farner’s on Grand Funk Railroad’s “Paranoid.”

Fifty-one cute seconds of “Petals” leads us back to sometime in the early seventies, and the beautiful “St. Laurent.” This song does not sound dated in any way though, there is just a laid-back vibe to it that reminds me very much of the era.

Side two dispenses with all the peripheral activity to get down some seriously trippy music. And what better instrument to evoke an elevated mood than the sitar? “Black Mountain” is the revenge of Ravi Shankar on the Quiet Beatle. For here, unlike the clumsy “Within Without You,” the sitar is effortlessly incorporated into the tune as a perfectly appropriate coloring device.

"Black Mountain” segues into the title track, "Le Voyage" — which at nearly ten minutes in length, is accurately named. Like all good journeys, this one starts out slow, and builds momentum. The switch from acoustic to electric guitar midway through is the key, but this is no one-man show. All three members shine, as they have throughout the album.

Finally we come to “Telepathe,” which begins with sitars, but soon moves into an entirely fresh region of sound. The drums are more prominent here than ever before, as is the bass. The track circles in on itself, while at the same time building an intensity unlike anything else on the album. It all comes to a head towards the end, with nothing but a blissful fade-out before the needle lifts.

The Alps are my fave-rave of the moment, and I very much recommend Le Voyage to all adventurous listeners.

Article first published as Music Review: The Alps - Le Voyage on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

DVD Review: Bing Crosby: The Television Specials - Volume One

After years of neglect, there has been a flurry of Bing Crosby reissue activity recently. The Crosby family have been working with various companies to release material that has been stored in his archives for decades. In addition to various audio projects, there is also this fine double-DVD collection of classic Crosby television specials.

Bing Crosby: The Television Specials - Volume One contains four full-length specials that originally aired from 1954 to 1970. Each one provides a fascinating glimpse of a world that is gone forever. Bing’s TV debut was on January 3, 1954. He was a bit of a latecomer to television. At the time he was already the largest selling recording artist of all time, and an established film and radio star.

The Bing Crosby Show was basically a live-TV version of his radio program. The half-hour special breezes by, with the unflappable host taking to the new medium effortlessly. As would be the case for all of his television shows, the majority of this one is taken up with musical numbers. There is also an appearance from the one and only Jack Benny, who was the number one TV star of the CBS network at the time.

The second installment of The Bing Crosby Show was actually his sixth network special, and aired on September 29, 1959. They pulled out all the stops on this hour-long affair, with a top-flight assemblage of guest stars. Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Peggy Lee join Bing in this musical extravaganza. The four perform together in every number of combinations; solo, duet, trio, and quartet. There are a number of highlights, but Armstrong’s version of “Mack The Knife” is not to be missed.

Disc two of the set sees The Bing Crosby Show moving from black and white to color. The special guest on the May 14, 1962 was old friend Bob Hope. The two were promoting their final “Road” picture, The Road To Hong Kong (1962). The centerpiece of the program is an extended Hope-Crosby medley of from their Road films.

April 13, 1970 was the date of the fourth special here. Strangely enough, it seems the most dated. Bing Crosby: Cooling It has a “futuristic” theme that would have been out of place in the New Frontier era, let alone in the aftermath of the '60s. Maybe that type of criticism is out of place for something like this though. Crosby’s audience did not necessarily want to be reminded of what was actually going on in the world at the time.

To that end, his guest stars are perfect. How can you go wrong with Dean Martin and Flip Wilson? The theme of Cooling It is leisure, and finds Bing and Dean performing a great medley of tunes about the subject. As Geraldine, Flip Wilson steals the show however. He cracks both Crosby and Martin up repeatedly during one skit.

Each disc contains a selection of bonus features, including vintage interviews, commercials, and an appearance on golfer Jimmy Demeret’s show in 1954.

Bing Crosby: The Television Specials - Volume One is a great way to experience the charm this great performer once brought to the small screen, all those years ago.

Article first published as DVD Review: Bing Crosby: The Television Specials - Volume One on Blogcritics