Jon Hassell and Brian Eno’s Fourth World Vol. 1: Possible Musics

Heat’s rising…

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It’s hot tonight.

The kind of heat that pushes up against you gently, fogs the mind and drains you of strength. It was a loooooong day at work today, one of my two-a-week eleven-hour shifts, which to be fair I’m happily used to because I get Wednesdays off every week. 9-5, Mon-Fri? Keep it. I’m alright. Still, a long day is a long day, and obviously I’m going to be pretty bloody tired at the end of it. The heat today has been quietly but insistently oppressive, and to be honest, today’s been a lonely day. If you’re already familiar with my Twitter/Facebook/recent reviews you’ll know why, but if you don’t there’s this and this. And this and this and this.

I work in a library, one branch of many branches in the borough, and today I had to cover at another branch, so I was out of my comfort zone, which for the most part I have absolutely no problem with. It’s nice to work somewhere else for a change – you know, shake things up a bit, be in a different area, different people to work with and all that, but the downside is that the latent loneliness that I’m feeling ends up more pronounced with your creature comforts far away in another building. You know, the little things like your tea mug, your familiarity with the stock (books, DVDs, CDs, etc), the regular customers, the reassuring surroundings, the workmates who’ve been there working with you through good and bad. Today I was away from all of that, and like I said earlier, I don’t have a problem with that, but I feel like my strength is a little weaker on days like these.

As ever, music is a beautiful comfort, and today for example, during my lunch break, I was listening to Swimmers, a lovely, gentle collection of melodies from the band Younghusband, and, especially on a hot day like this, such airy, radiant music really soothes the soul and mind. Coincidentally (or not, given I was only made aware of the band through this connection, as the two have collaborated) there’s a touch of early Rose Elinor Dougall about some of their songs, especially the grey-skies-by-the-seaside loveliness of ‘Grinding Teeth’, and Dougall’s music has been an extraordinary source of comfort these last few months.

However, by the end of work, I felt so shattered in body and mind that I couldn’t even muster the strength to listen to music on the way home. It probably didn’t help that I’d taken these stupid over-ear headphones to work with me, the kind that all-too effectively shut out the outside world – great when you want to block out all that external bullshit, not so great when the heat of the day is borderline claustrophobic-inducing. Literally, these headphones make your head hotter. No thanks. Plus, I didn’t feel like shutting out the outside world tonight. I didn’t want to feel separated from it. I wanted to be part of it, even if only softly so. Plus, my journey to another branch today involved me taking the Tube, which can be an ordeal at the best of times, but on a day like today, all that added heat, loudness and subterranean atmosphere is just too much with those bloody headphones on top of it all. Besides, I can barely hear my music over the sound of the underground anyway (cue Girls Aloud joke).

Yet despite not listening to any music on the way back home, a certain album came to mind, a certain sound, utterly in keeping with the humidity of the evening.

I’m talking about Jon Hassell and Brian Eno’s literally otherworldly album Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics.

In the 1970’s, Brian Eno was involved in so much music. His time in Roxy Music, which for many artists would be achievement enough, was merely the springboard for a remarkable musical journey which took in four extraordinary song-based albums, collaborations with Cluster (and by extension Harmonia, made up of Cluster and Neu!’s Michael Rother) Robert Fripp and David Bowie, production work for Ultravox!, Devo, U2 and Talking Heads….and then there were the ambient albums. Even though Eno didn’t exactly invent ambient, he definitely harnessed and popularised the sound to the extent that it became an identifiable genre. As well as the becalming instrumental interludes scattered over Another Green World and Before and After Science, the hypnotic ‘Frippertronics’ on display throughout No Pussyfooting and Evening Star, and the extended tape-loop experiment ‘Discreet Music’, we had four volumes of self-defined ambient music released over five or so years. The third one, Day of Radiance, wasn’t actually an Eno album (it was performed by Laraaji, although Eno produced it), and the second one, The Plateaux of Mirror, was a collaboration with another pioneer of the genre, Harold Budd. The first and fourth instalments – Music for Airports and On Land – were credited to Eno alone, and together, all four albums are like different colours of the same instrumental rainbow, covering a spectrum of styles, moods and most essentially, feelings and sensations. This was music that was designed to be listened to either as background noise or as meditative, hypnotic escape. Sounds a little New Age-y, right? Hey, we can’t blame the originator for the pallid, faded facsimiles to appear in this music’s wake. Eno’s ambient music is often incredibly atmospheric, blissfully serene and seriously tranquil. Of all the pieces of music ever created, only one is guaranteed to send me to sleep every time, and I really do mean this as a compliment. It’s ‘1/1’, the first track from Music for Airports, a seventeen-minute thing of utterly peaceful wonder that will make everything all right.

Still, if the ambient albums were the rainbow, then Possible Musics is the rain. A remarkable album, it devises an imaginary genre of music Hassell has described as “a unified primitive/futuristic sound combining features of world ethnic styles with advanced electronic techniques.” On one level this sounds like what came to be known as world music, but it’s world music through a filter, through a kaleidoscope, through heat haze and humidity. It feels utterly, utterly alive – and is one of the few albums out there that truly transports you somewhere else. Despite Eno being the star name on the album cover, rumour has it that this is more of a Hassell album than anything else. Indeed, his trumpet is the predominant feature of these six instrumentals, but this is a trumpet that sounds like it’s been left out in the heat too long. This music sounds like it’s slowly melting, it sounds like a thick, impenetrable jungle that you with your machete must wade through to get to the album’s mysterious centre. At times it sounds like some mysterious animal, howling somewhere in the distance. The bass is deep, repetitive, hypnotic. Opening track ‘Chemistry’ is like stumbling onto a sacred ritual, unseen for centuries by Western eyes. It’s a fascinating sound.

‘Delta Rain Dream’ is probably the most humid-sounding piece of music ever recorded. It truly is the sound of overcast, stormy-skies at breaking-point, just before the first rumbles of thunder. It sounds sweaty, close, uncomfortable yet woozily dream-like. At no point does this music sound like it was recorded by humans – everything about it just oozes pure nature, yet a kind of futuristic nature that’s eerily alien. The percussion is dense, shuffling, quietly forceful. It’s only three minutes long, but ‘Delta Rain Dream’ could have been an extended piece along the lines of Eno’s later ‘Reflection’, ‘Neroli’ or ‘Thursday Afternoon’, all of which are an hour-long or longer. It’s one of my favourite pieces of music ever. ‘Griot’ is much sparser, with what sound like horses galloping, the sound of their horseshoes clapping, albeit at no recognisable or natural pace. Hassell’s trumpet sounds weird as fuck, it doesn’t sound like a trumpet at all. If it wasn’t for the credits, I wouldn’t have guessed what the hell it was. ‘Ba-Benzélé’ allows a little oxygen to enter the scene, which is good as I was feeling a little too woozy. The trumpet sounds almost like a treated human voice, an unrecognisable call of some kind, a wail. The synths rise like mist over trees, it could be either sunrise or sunset, I have no idea. That’s what I love about this album, it’s so intangible. I can never put my finger on it. I’ve never listened to it in the winter. Something about the heat, those sunless but intoxicating, incredibly close days just makes me want to pop this album on. It’s probably about as necessary to listen to this music on a day like today as it is bringing a hot water bottle to bed in the middle of August, but I’m a glutton for this sort of thing. The sound of rain comes in near the end of ‘Ba-Benzélé’, and it feels good, it feels welcome. ‘Rising Thermal 14° 16′ N; 32° 28′ E’ closes the album’s original first side with little more than pure atmospherics, the sounds of heat escaping, of swaying mirages, of distant images retreating even further into the distance.

I have this album on vinyl, but to be honest, like a lot of ambient albums, I prefer to listen to them on CD – that way I don’t have to get up and flip the record over, potentially breaking the spell in the process, although Eno did make a point of wanting to break the spell on Music for Airports by inserting extended gaps of silence between tracks, so that we didn’t get too comfortably lost. I’m sure I read that somewhere. Anyway, the whole of the second side is taken up by just one track, ‘Charm (Over Burundi Cloud)’ – like many of Eno’s extended pieces, it’s essentially the same thing repeated over and over, with only the slightest of tonal shifts. It’s easily the most overtly ambient piece on the album, by sheer length if for no other reason. You can put this on and just go somewhere else entirely for twenty minutes, without the fade outs and atmospheric shifts the first side delivered. It’s pretty spooky. Listen to it in the dark, for ultimate effect. It works best at night, on a night like this, with the window open, because there’s more chance of a chill breeze to add to the atmosphere.

And you know what, the album’s relaxed me. So has writing this piece, to be honest. I love writing about music, love trying (but not trying too hard) to get to grips with why it affects me so. That’s me done. Thank you for reading this structurally awkward, first-take, first-draft slab of prose. Now give the album a listen. It’s the perfect night for it.

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Rose Elinor Dougall: A New Illusion

The third album, and a much-welcome ray of light in my life. 

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Albums or songs can become synonymous with particular times in your life. They become such an inextricable soundtrack to a relationship, a holiday, a tragedy or maybe just a mood that they soon become difficult to divorce the two. For example, I can’t hear Tori Amos’ ‘Cornflake Girl’ without remembering being struck down with a horribly queasy sickness bug one week back in the early nineties; stuck at home, wishing I could participate in a game of Monopoly being played in the other room but too icky to do so. I can’t hear Suede’s Dog Man Star without thinking of being glued to my computer screen, trying to finish university coursework back around the turn of the century, April showers mingling with the early promise of summertime. And er, there’s Billy Joel’s ‘Uptown Girl’ , which I can’t think of without cringing over my awkward teenage clumsiness at my local club’s 70’s/80’s retro night from 1998-1999, which had a tendency to repeat its playlist in more or less the same order every Monday night, which led to a reassuring (if eventually wearying) familiarity. I can’t think of R.E.M’s 2001 album Reveal without lying in my bed and listening to it on headphones on a pretty Sunday afternoon, thinking about my Nan who had died only recently.

Sometimes however, it’s the gaps between albums can be taken up with an immense chapter of your life, with book-ending releases from a particular artist eerily coinciding with notable beginnings and ends in your own world.

For example, as the brilliant Supergrass released their ace self-titled third album, I was just starting university – a nervous, shy and naive 18-year old. When they released Life on Other Planets three years later, I had just left university. Still nervous, shy and naive, but changed in many other ways too. At the time I couldn’t help but compare the two parallel timelines. I realised that while the artist(s) had moved on from something old to something new, so had I, the listener. We had both connected in a big way in September 1999 and then drifted apart until I listened to them again, in September 2002. I thought to myself – I wonder if and how Supergrass might have changed after all this time. Would I still like them the same as before? Would they look different, sound different, behave different? This was all a one-way relationship, of course. The members of Supergrass had no knowledge of my existence and were not aware/interested in what I’d got up to in that three-year gap. Unfortunately, in this case, Life on Other Planets had failed to capture my imagination the way their second and third albums had, and this disappointment I felt was almost like, say meeting up with an old friend only to realise you didn’t have that much in common anymore. Oh well, time to move on, I suppose. We’d remain friends in this case, Supergrass and I, but whatever spark existed between the two of us had fizzled out.

A more recent, and tragic, example of this sort of book-ending thing occurred recently to me.

Rose Elinor Dougall’s wonderful album Stellular came out at the start of 2017 and stunned me senseless with its perfect collection of dreamy, exciting, passionate and emotional pop gems. I felt like a teenager again, overjoyed that at the ripe old age of 35 I could still discover music that was totally re-energising, exciting, passionate, heartbreaking and addictive. A song like the title track made was so good that it me dig out that old, old critical chestnut ‘it could have been a #1 single in a parallel universe’ when describing it. It was so good that awareness of what was actually selling and what wasn’t in the pop charts meant nothing to me – I just couldn’t understand why the hell this song wasn’t massive, and why its parent album wasn’t selling millions. It was accessible, it was bright, it was powerful, it was everything I wanted in a record. Songs like ‘Take Yourself With You’, ‘Answer Me’ and ‘Poison Ivy’ broke my heart into a million pieces and the likes of ‘Hell and Back’ and ‘Space to Be’ took me to the stratosphere. I even went to see Dougall perform live, and as anyone who knows me will understand, my gigging days had seriously declined by that point. I hadn’t been this much into a contemporary artist or band in well over a decade, and I regularly made a point of recommending Dougall and her music to anyone who would give me a chance.

Much of this intense adoration for Stellular existed a few months before my world changed forever, when my beautiful wife Carole was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

It wasn’t an overnight shock – she’d not been feeling well at all and we feared the worst beforehand. There was also that horrendous period when we warned that cancer might be the reason for her condition but we didn’t know for sure. Then there was that horrible, horrible day when we learned the truth, and that there was no chance of Carole surviving her cancer. From that point onwards, we both knew time was running out for her, and for us as a couple. Those next eighteen months were a surreal, painful, frightening time, but it was also intimate, beautiful, and, lest you think we were spending all our days dreading the end, also full of laughs, lazing about and us going about our usual business (when she wasn’t in pain or at chemotherapy or anything like that). Looking back now, this time feels like a feverish dream, incomparable to anything I or she had ever experienced, full of intense lows and relative highs, with the exception being that this wasn’t a dream. It was very, very real, and there was no happy, relieved wake-up at the end. ]

Carole died on the evening of Thursday 7th March, 2019. She was no longer in pain (so there was relief in that sense), but the fact was that I’d lost her forever, and her life had ended far too soon. Remarkably, her outlook on all of this had been very matter-of-fact – sure, there was anger and there was fear, but she had been so astonishingly strong (though she was quick to dismiss any suggestions that she was brave – she was just reacting the way she felt came naturally) that she gave me strength, which helped me help her, and we were both able to help each other, ultimately. She died at home, comfortably and peacefully, and with her friends and family by her side. It was about as good a goodbye as she or we could have hoped for. So now I carry on, alone without my Carole by my side – the house emptier and colder, my mind and body shattered and exhausted – nevertheless I’m strengthened by the courage and the confidence she gave me all the years we were together. She made me a better person. If you fancy a look at the kind of person she was and the things she liked, here’s a little poem I wrote for her and read out during her eulogy at her funeral.

A New Illusion, the new Rose Elinor Dougall album, came out shortly after Carole died, and the gap between this and Stellular before it saw everything in my world changed. These last two months, I’ve been listening to, reading and watching a lot of things that give me comfort, and that means a lot of familiar, reassuring stuff; the kind of musical, literary and visual cushions that soften the hard reality of my life, stuff that I’ve loved – favourite films, favourite albums, favourite stories, that sort of thing. On the other hand, A New Illusion is one of the first ‘new’ things I’ve let in to my life over this time, the only link to the past being my existing appreciation for Dougall’s earlier work. It’s a beautiful album, and boasts songs that are amongst the very best Dougall has created. With it however, comes the knowledge that, like the latest series of Game of Thrones and Line of Duty, it’s something that I experience alone. Not that I listened to music much with Carole – she listened to her stuff and I listened to mine, but I’d always tell her and share with her (or bore her, you know what us music geeks can be like) with my enthusiasm for the latest album or artist I was into. It’s sad that I can’t tell her about how much I love this album, because I do love it, and yet my reaction to it is inescapably entwined with my current state of mind. I’m 100% sure I would adore A New Illusion even if things weren’t the way they are in my life, but listening to it as a widower has almost enhanced and intensified its impact. It’s a very powerful album, and I do find myself extremely moved by it.

Just as a little extra prelude, let’s put the new album in context with Dougall’s more recent musical activity. Popping up out of nowhere in December 2018, ‘Make it With You’ was the first new music she had released since Stellular had died down – a tremulous, aching and utterly hypnotic torch song with melodic depth charges that made me feel like I’d been punched in the gut, it was cut from the same cloth as before but with a darker, sparser approach that suggested Dougall was aiming for a more direct sound. Then, when A New Illusion itself was announced, a quick perusal of the track listing revealed it was not to be included, so I had to assume that the song was intended as a stand-alone release, harking back to the glory days when singles and albums were mutually exclusive. I was all for that, although the old-fashioned collector in me would have loved a physical release of ‘Make it With You’ and its B-side.

On the day A New Illusion was announced, first single proper ‘First Sign’ was also aired, and in retrospect, it was a bit of a red herring – the sun-kissed, lazy, hazy vibe suggested a future album full of easy-going, relaxed and softly funky early-evening pop. Despite fitting into the album very nicely, little of ‘First Sign”s ambience bleeds over into its fellow tracks, with the exception of the title track, maybe. What was very obvious about this song was that it didn’t really resemble anything from Stellular at all. It made me wonder what the new album would be like, as did the lovely artwork of Dougall standing, purposefully, beside a magnificent bendy tree (I’m pretty sure that’s not the correct term) on a beautifully sunny day, a far cry from the gentle, near-monochromatic portrait of Without Why or the blurred impressionism of Stellular. Would the album be pastoral? Summery? Laid-back? The truth turned out to be a little of all of the above, but a lot more too. One last complication came in the form of second single ‘Take What You Can Get’, which sounded nothing like ‘First Sign’ and took me completely unawares. Here was a charged, tremendously exciting pop rush that dazzled the senses and revealed layer upon layer of gorgeous production listen after listen. That thick, fuzzy bass, those ethereal strings, that spacey guitar and Dougall herself, of course, on peerless vocal form.

By the time A New Illusion was finally released, I’d lost my wonderful Carole and I hoped the album would bring something beautiful into my life once more. It had been a couple of weeks, and family and friends had been extraordinarily lovely to me and I felt cared for and looked after. On an aside, Carole had often broken down in tears during her last year, overwhelmed at the kindness of others, and it’s true – it can be too much to bear, in a good way, of course. I was lucky to have so many people looking out for me. Of course though, there was the unavoidable fact that I was now living alone in a house that used to be our home, and I knew I had to cope with being by myself. The slow afternoons of days off work, the ghastly stillness of a sleepless night… that’s when things like music, and films, and literature become my solace. I had the day off work on release day, and I first listened to A New Illusion on headphones in the afternoon, sun shining outside, specks of dust floating in slow-motion by the window. Of course, I’d already heard ‘First Sign’ and ‘Take What You Can Get’, but they don’t appear until later in the album, and while I’d heard some of the other songs when a friend of mine and I went to see Dougall at Thousand Island in Islington a week-and-a-half earlier, they understandably hadn’t properly sunk into my consciousness. So plenty of of A New Illusion felt, well… new! And there is little that fills one with such anticipation, excitement, and yes, anxiety, than listening to a follow-up to an album you absolutely, unreservedly adore.

First impressions were strong – some songs drifted past, promising future, deeper pleasures, some made an immediate, devastating impact on me. There were no duffers, to put it crudely, but then I’ve never disliked any of Dougall’s songs, so that was to be expected. It also helped that the last two songs were instantly amazing, so it left a tremendous closing impression. It felt like a proper progression from Stellular too. And yet, like many new albums of this kind, it all kind of rushed by in a hazy fog on that first, and even second or third listen- it’s impossible to catch hold of all the melodies and touches, and so you’re left dizzied and swirled by it all. It’s a great feeling when you get an album like that. By the time of writing these words, the album has worked its way into my being and isn’t going to leave anytime soon, if ever. Stellular was a perfect album for me, so any more of the same, as pleasurable as it would have been, might very well have been unnecessary. A New Illusion isn’t a whiplash-inducing genre twist or Bowie-esque reinvention or anything like that. It’s just that there’s enough different here that the album, not in the slightest, resembles Stellular II. A New Illusion feels more organic, with a greater focus on acoustic instrumentation. Not that there’s anything wrong with staying still – some bands and artists have made an art form of it – but the risks and new adventures of a new approach is often more exciting and satisfying. A New Illusion leaves me just as intrigued, fascinated and excited by Dougall’s future artistic endeavours as Stellular did. The piercing, dramatic impact of these new songs may very well catch you unawares, leave you feeling exposed and with your guard down.

Forgive my prosaic structure for this part of the feature, but I’m going to talk about the album, song-by-song. ‘Echoes’ sees Dougall kick off the album in a seemingly more pared-down fashion than either of her previous LP openers. For Without Why we had the lead single ‘Start/Stop/Synchro’, which commanded attention immediately with its whirlwind, shivering melodicism and appealing commercial feel, while Stellular‘s shimmering ‘Colour of Water’, although not a single, would soon become a live favourite (it really gets going on stage) and Dougall is still performing it today. ‘Echoes’ is not single-material, but it is a perfect album opener. Comparisons have been made by others to the clipped, sparse sound of Young Marble Giants and the ghostly, otherworldly hum of Broadcast. It takes multiple listens to catch all the neat but subtle touches this song has. It’s a great introduction to Dougall’s new, ambitious and subtle approach. I must admit that I wasn’t familiar with the work of Boxed In’s Oli Bayston before Stellular, but in retrospect I can see that his production work on that album clearly brought his own sound to the table, whereas A New Illusion feels more like Dougall branching out on her own, or at least taking charge more. She could have even called the album Control if Janet Jackson hadn’t already used it for her own third album. Saying that, this is also a collaborative work – production duties are shared with Matthew Twaites, and some songs are co-writes. Of course, there’s Dougall’s band too, who are a very, very special thing indeed. Their presence is deeply felt and judiciously applied – there are moments when the bass or the drums or a guitar or a violin make an entrance and you just feel it. This is an beautifully orchestrated album, produced with care and invention.

‘That’s Where the Trouble Started’ is the album’s first classic. While there has always been a touch of English folksiness to Dougall’s sound and here it is more pronounced, although this isn’t mere genre pastiche. She’s created a kind of modern-folk here, her vocals continuing a tradition of rich, English, sensual and direct performance. There’s a shade of The Wicker Man‘s ‘Willow Song’ too, or at least I think there is. Beautifully, the song unfurls to become bigger not just once, but twice, and each time the effect is like a shiver over all of your body. There’s also the shiver of the words. I haven’t really checked out the lyrics to this album – I prefer to let the words come to me over time. I don’t want to know all this album’s secrets so soon. ‘Wordlessly’ strips everything down to the bone, and is incredibly haunting. It makes me feel like I’m lost in a forest straight out of The Company of Wolves. Finger plucked acoustic guitar flutters around and over you, Dougall’s vocals (some of her best ever) a tender caress, and at first it’s all serene and calming, but the chill air closes in and the whole thing becomes spectral, dreamily unsettling. It’s a reverie, a moon-lit reverie, quietly erotic and deeply intimate. It transcends like the Cocteaus in their Victorialand phase – a world unto itself. Definitely one of my favourite songs here. The title track is the first time (for me) the album lets a little light (well, aside from moonlight) in, as well its first really immediate pop hook thanks to its joyous opening melody, and the words include one of the most arresting lines on the album – ‘take your shaking hands in mine’. It’s little moments like this that make the album a bit of a cushion. Hey, I know Dougall’s not singing to me personally, but when songs are sung in the first person and address the listener in such a way, such reassurances become as warm as a hug and give the song a real sense of sanctuary. ‘Something Real’ offers similar pleasures to ‘Wordlessly’, albeit with added piano. Dougall has this way with a shift in melody, the kind that clutches at your heart, makes your stomach get butterflies, that sort of thing. Unlike ‘Wordlessly’ however, ‘Something Real’ reaches out into the light and becomes something to breathe and take in. It’s also evidence of how the songs on this album aren’t content to just repeat themselves, they add extra instrumentation as they progress, like the rumbling drums from the second verse onwards. I didn’t even notice their presence the first couple of listens, but soon I found them to enrich the experience immeasurably – also, the song seems to shift into a luxurious, Pink Floyd-ish kind of groove.

‘Take What You Can Get’ is an instant classic, showcasing Dougall’s knack for melodic hooks but layering them with lots of thrilling touches. Listen to the way the word ‘ether’ echoes into the, well..ether. Listen to those ripples of guitar. Those exquisite strings. It’s this album’s ‘Stellular’ – a total goosebump-tickling swirl of miasmic sensation, a beamed-in-from-outer-space classic. It’s as though the rush of the middle-eight of ‘Hell and Back’ has been honed into a tangible pop song, and it’s a testament to Dougall’s increasing production mastery. Also, this song hits me deeply in other ways, especially when hearing a couplet like ‘Take what you can get/before there’s nothing left’ – here I hear the fragility of life, the passing of time, the need to grasp at the fleeting pleasures, those magnificent moments. Having experienced death so close to me, the shortness of life feels all the more urgent and alarming lately. It’s a scary, sobering sensation, but it also makes one want to live more than ever, even if right now I feel too emotionally battered to go rock climbing or anything like that. ‘First Sign’ works splendidly after the highs of the previous song. It’s a wind-down, preparing us for the emotional ride of the final three songs, and in itself is quite a lyrically turbulent thing. ‘At the first sign of trouble/I took myself away/to a place made for forgetting/I hope I lose you on the way’ As I said before, I haven’t read the lyrics to this album yet, but I’m hearing what sound like complex, honest (‘the truth undressed’, she sings) self-analysis at times. Earlier, on the title track, Dougall asks whoever she’s singing to to ‘see life as it really is’. I hear that line isolated and it fascinates me – right now my world has been knocked off its axis, and I’m reminded once more of life’s uncertainties, or in some cases, its unavoidable certainties. Life as it really is. Sometimes this can be a thrilling, exciting revelation. Sometimes it isn’t. I don’t even know if this the kind of thing Dougall’s singing about – maybe I really should read the lyrics. Thing is, I prefer to hear them, and then at my own pace. Sorry, let’s get back to ‘First Sign’, which fits in really nicely with the rest of the album, but is also a unique song in her canon – it feels like a whole new avenue for her which she could have based a whole work around, but the fact that it hasn’t got any equivalents on this album makes it feel all the more special.

The sad ‘Too Much is Not Enough’ begins with the words ‘English rose’, which always catches me off guard for obvious reasons. It’s a lovely thing indeed, and I think I remember Dougall stating this to be her favourite song from the album when she performed it at Thousand Island. It’s a real beauty, full of ethereal sounds and haunting words, but my personal favourite song here is ‘Christina in Red’, a staggeringly accomplished mini-epic (it’s Dougall’s longest song to date) that instantly captivates with its use of piano glissando – it’s a great example of how Dougall has made her music less intensely produced yet somehow larger and more infinite than before. Proof that space and relative silence can be used to open up a song like nothing else. It’s like when The Durutti Column packed their bags and went to Portugal back in the early eighties, that kind of impossibly wrenching, deeply emotional music that feels as though Dougall poured every beat of her heart into it. There’s an utterly magnificent moment around halfway through where everything blossoms and opens up like a flower, the beat kicks in, the bass pushes forward and we’re all set for a glorious extended coda with beautiful, hazy saxophone and a lurching melodic hook that’s so fucking beautiful I’m close to tears just thinking about it. I haven’t seen Dougall perform this song live yet but I’m prepared for devastating impact if and when she does so. It’s one of the best songs she’s ever given us. It could have been a fitting album closer, but then there’s ‘Simple Things’, which is just as remarkable a song. It’s the sparsest, most delicate thing Dougall has delivered – it’s utterly beautiful, and will resurface in your dreams, no doubt about it. There are gentle melodic shifts that feel seismic to this listener. Like its title, the simplest gestures this song offers are devastatingly effective. It feels incredibly intimate, like something on the level of ‘(Don’t Talk) Put Your Head on My Shoulder’ by The Beach Boys or late-period Talk Talk, where all you can hear is the song’s heartbeat, and the silences, and the tender sighing of the music. It’s a generous, wonderful close to a generous, wonderful album.

There have been some great albums out this year, but this is the one that speaks to me the most. Like Stellular, it’s an album that I’ve instantly come to love and take to my heart. It sounds great any time of the day, any time of the night, and I do need it right now – long walks to the train station to get home after a day at work are feeling painfully lonely, especially with the days getting longer and the prettiness of the fading sun against the London skyline inspiring just as much heartache in me as it makes my soul sing. Sometimes the beauty of Dougall’s music is just as tough to experience – its sheer loveliness is too much to bear sometimes. But when I can take it, it’s a magnificent thing, and this new album is also immensely satisfying from an observational perspective – by that I mean that I’m excited for Dougall’s upwards artistic trajectory, I’m delighted that she’s progressed and delivered another great album. I wish her all the best with it. She’s moved on to new territory with seemingly effortless ease. Times change, whether it’s inside or outside our control and we all have to move on, whether we want to or not. Stellular was then, back when times were what they were, A New Illusion is now, where times are different, and it’s a very welcome ray of light in my life. It’s proof of how the very best music and songwriting and singing can comfort you during the darkest, greyest and loneliest times. Thank you, Rose.

A poem for my darling wife Carole

If you don’t follow me on Twitter or Facebook, then you won’t know that recently I lost my darling beautiful wife Carole to cancer on March 7th this year.

This little poem was something I put together to read during her eulogy at her funeral, and I wanted to post it on here too because I wanted people to know what a treasure she was.

I miss you darling, and I’ll love you always.

xxxxxxxxxxx

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The Films of Dario Argento: Opera (1987)

You won’t be able to look away…

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This review contains spoilers.

Opera, or Terror at the Opera as it was rather crudely re-titled outside of Italy, is for many the last great Dario Argento film, a magnificently twisted, deliriously accomplished mix of high and low art. Following the brilliantly mad Phenomena, Argento went back to the world of the straight-up, non-supernatural giallo, and, on the surface, seemed intent on delivering a knockout, crowd-pleasing, crowd-shocking thriller. After all, the plot is one of the director’s most conventional – deranged fan stalks opera singer, that sort of thing, but the execution is anything but. Of the classic-era Argento (1975-1987) movies, Opera was one of the trickiest to acquire in the UK when I was younger, and my anticipation for it was through the roof. I remember a feature in an issue of Total Film which talked about various movies that were still only available in cut form – I imagine a complete list would have been enormously long, but amongst the issue’s list of highlights was indeed Opera, and they were talking about (but not showing any pics of) stuff like knives going up someone’s neck and inside their mouth – horrible! I wanted in.

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Around the same time (2001-2002) I was writing about Argento for my dissertation at university, and was obsessed with tracking down a copy of Opera. eBay was in its infancy, and even then the only copy I would have been able to acquire would have been the UK Orion VHS which, on top of being the shortened US version, had also been censored by the BBFC. I wouldn’t have minded – anything would been okay. Luckily the film got a US release by Anchor Bay in late 2001 (just in time for me to still be able to use it as vital research for my imminently due dissertation) and it ended up being my first imported title. Unfortunately it was a very glitchy transfer (it was eventually repressed, but I must have missed the memo) but I was still able to watch it from start to finish without too much bother. From those early viewings when I was watching partly as a fan and partly as a note-taking film student, via the period where I avoided it, just like all other Argento films, for years to put the stress of that dissertation behind me, to the joy of getting back into Argento with a vengeance, Opera is a film that gets better and better every time, a fascinating, fantastic thrill-ride.

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Compared to say, Suspiria or Inferno, Opera may seem like an Argento film that’s relatively restrained in regards to primary-coloured visual pop, but don’t let that fool you (although there is some great use of colour in a few scenes) – I mean, just look at that camera move! Working with DOP Ronnie Taylor, Argento delivered by far and away his most ambitious and insanely exciting film in terms of sheer kinetic verve. It’s the sort of film you want to watch immediately again afterwards because one viewing is just not enough to take in all the magnificent flourishes, tracking shots, miniature close-ups, pulsating screens, POV shots and so on. I remember reading a Time Out review saying that the impact of Opera was doomed to be lost on video, and while the average TV set-up is more impressive now than it was 1987, I still totally get what the reviewer was driving at. Simply put, I would absolutely LOVE to see this on a cinema screen. The impact must be absolutely exhilarating. Still, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about plot. Yeeeeah, I know Argento isn’t usually bothered about things like that (not when there’s a beautiful murder scene he could be concentrating on instead), but I have to do this.

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Betty (Cristina Marsillach) is a young opera singer who is shocked to discover that she’s no longer an understudy to the ‘Great Mara Cecova’ for the coveted role of Lady Macbeth in an avant-garde production of the Verdi opera directed by Marco (Ian Charleson), a filmmaker chiefly known for his career in horror movies. Incidentally, Opera came about shortly after Argento failed to get a bloodthirsty production of Rigoletto on the stage. Argento has also admitted that Mark is essentially a stand-in for himself. Join the dots, peeps. Betty is wracked with nerves, thinking she’s too young and not ready for the role….and isn’t Macbeth meant to bring bad luck? Nah, says everyone else, including her agent Mira (Daria Nicolodi), it’ll be fine. Unfortunately, there’s a total psychopath who’s obsessed with her and proceeds to make Betty’s life a living hell. After a magnificent opening night that goes off without a hitch (barring the death of a stage hand, small matter), Betty adjourns to the house of assistant director Stefano (William MacNamara) and, after an unsuccessful attempt at sex, he goes off to make some jasmine tea (as you do), which is when the psycho seizes her, ties her up against a pillar, tapes over her mouth and then….

Okay, deep breath.

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Let me state it loud and clear for the cheap seats – Opera‘s most terrifying and famous hook, so good that they put it on the posters, is one of the greatest in all horror cinema history. Seriously, this is up there with ‘you can never sleep again’ from A Nightmare on Elm Street, and just like that nightmare, it involves not being able to close your eyes. Imagine not being able to shield your vision from the worst sights imaginable. More specifically, imagine having a row of needles taped under your eyelids so that ‘if you try and open your eyes, you’ll tear them apart’. The thing is, like Elm Street‘s ‘sleep and die’, it’s such an original concept that no one’s dared to copy it because it’s just too unique, and yet unlike Elm Street, Opera hasn’t had sequel upon sequel follow it, so it still feels utterly fresh, still shocking.

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So there we are, tied, bound, taped, and helpless. The killer then waits in hiding as Stefano walks back into the room, who is understandably confused with seeing Betty stood up, tied up and mumbling in panic. He walks closer and closer, Betty’s muffled screams intensifying and just when he’s close enough for Betty to get a proper good close-up of the action to come, the killer stabs him up through the jaw with one hell of a nasty-looking dagger. Of course, being Argento, that alone isn’t enough, so we get a really spectacular shot (clearly a fake head, but fuck it, it still looks great) of the tip of the dagger visible inside Stefano’s screaming mouth.

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All the while Betty is forced to look on, unable to turn away or close her eyes as the killer continues to stab the hell out of Stefano’s helpless, flailing hands, with raucous heavy metal pounding over the soundtrack. The killer, finished with Stefano, moves over to Betty and proceeds to grope her, telling her that, contrary to her earlier confession to Stefano that she’s a ‘nightmare’ in bed, ‘it’s not true you’re frigid…you’re a bitch on heat’. Then he unties her.

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A sick game is being played with Betty, and the mechanics behind it are more twisted than she could have ever guessed. It turns out that the killer – who is actually Inspector Santini (Urbano Barberini), the policeman who will end up investigating the case and who had shown up at her dressing room earlier with flowers and an autograph request – had been in a sadomasochistic relationship with Betty’s mother. The two would play murderous games whereupon he would tie her up and she would be ‘forced’ to witness him as he murdered random young women. A classic case of the one being tied up actually being the one in control, Betty’s mother’s insatiable demands led the killer to murder her in frustration, and now he wishes to replay the past with Betty herself. Of course, unlike her mother, Betty is no sadist, and we can only presume the killer is hoping to unlock some latent darkness in her by forcing her to watch these appalling acts. Despite the killer’s hopes (and those deluded, ugly claims that she’s a ‘bitch on heat’ are essentially the same as a rapist’s ‘you love it really’), Betty is not this idealised figure he wants her to be, no matter how hard he tries to change her.

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Of course, and this is to be expected in an Argento film, there are logical flaws in characterisation – Betty’s reactions are often a bit baffling, none more so than directly after Stefano’s murder. Not the whole ‘wandering around at night in the rain’ bit, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s when Marco picks her up in his car and the two have a conversation about how men are always assuming that whenever a woman is upset it’s always about a bloke and I’m thinking, er…didn’t someone just get murdered? I mean, if I was feeling generous I could say that Betty’s odd behaviour at this point are the actions suffering from immediate post-trauma, but I think it’s more likely bad writing. Sorry, Dario. It totally spoils the mood, even if we do get a rather revealing line of dialogue from Marco about how he always ‘jerks off’ before he shoots a scene. Remember, Marco is supposed to represent Argento, so we the viewer now have some nicely sticky info about how one of the world’s greatest genre directors gets through his day. Lovely!

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Luckily, Opera recovers swiftly after that misstep of a scene and continues to deliver the goods (more about those later), building to an insane final act where Marco, during Betty’s second performance, unleashes an unkindness/conspiracy/shitload of ravens mid-show in order to identify the killer, who earlier had murdered a few of them and ultimately pissed off the others. And ravens never forget. So it’s not just elephants then. The ravens target Santini and proceed to eat his eye out, so he goes utterly ballistic and opens fire on the audience and the actors. There’s a rather funny bit just before Santini starts shooting where Betty gives Marco a happy thumbs up on a job well done – never mind that they’ve just unleashed absolute fucking chaos, the end justifies the means, I guess!

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Betty retires to her dressing room (a bit too casually, given that Santini’s still in the building!) and Marco comes in to comfort her, but they’re not alone. Santini’s already in there; he knocks out Marco and takes Betty to another room where he ties her up and confesses his crimes, both past and present. Distraught at the idea that Betty could now never love him due to his new disfigurement, he decides that the two of them should die together, so he sets himself on fire and leaves her to burn.

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Now I must admit that writing down the plot, twists and turns of Opera is making explicit just how crazy it is, and there will be lots of people who, maybe stumbling onto this film somehow, will laugh it off the screen. I admit, I do find the occasional ridiculousness of Opera amusing, and maybe that’s why I wasn’t knocked out by it when I first watched it. When your first Argento film is Suspiria, everything afterwards will suffer in comparison. I say that as someone who thinks that Suspiria is the quintessential horror movie, where everything is perfect, nothing is flawed… while the other Argento films from the classic era are not perfect, and as much as I love them all, I do usually get some amusement out of their lapses into silliness, and Opera is definitely no exception. I think when I first watched it I wanted to be flat-out terrified the way I was with Suspiria, and Opera just isn’t that film. It is scary for sure, and shocking, but it’s also host to a lot of silliness, and it’s not helped by the below-par dubbing job the film got. Dubbing in Argento films has always been contentious issue for me – even when the actors are recording their own lines, there’s often a sense of remove and artificiality to the exercise that can sometimes work (like in Suspiria) but here it does take getting used to, especially when the delivery and dialogue is as hysterical as it sometimes is here.

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Anyway, the film appears to be over – Betty survives, Santini’s dead – but then we suddenly find ourselves in pastoral, sunny Switzerland, where Betty and Marco now seem to be in a relationship living in splendid isolation. You might have realised that this is where key scenes in Phenomena were also set. Argento has pointed out that Marco attempting to film a fly with his camera is a deliberate nod to his own attempts to do the same during the making of his previous film, while critic Mikel J. Koven has suggested that setting the epilogue here means that both Opera and Phenomena may very well be set in the same universe. The news report that reveals Santini’s death was a fake is broadcast by the same network that reported the death of Vera in Phenomena. The backdrop of the Alps and the shot of Betty running through the grass are reminiscent of Jennifer walking down the path towards the murder house. There’s also the very final moments, which I’ll get to in a mo. So Santini has tracked down Betty and pursues her across the fields – Marco tries to intervene but is stabbed to death, forcing Betty to resort to a ruse to stop Santini from killing her. She says that yes, the two of them were made for each other, and that they should flee together. This was going to be an actual ending for the film, which would have really ended things on a twisted note. But no, in the final cut that was just a lie for the police to arrive in time. Santini is apprehended and Betty furiously protests that she is nothing like her mother. Then, unexpectedly, Betty surrenders herself to nature, decrying humanity and falling down into the grass, freeing a trapped lizard (an interesting counterpoint to the lizard that was perforated as a sick joke by a twisted child in Deep Red) and lulling herself into blissful escape.

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This very last bit – Betty’s descent/ascent into another way of life – was edited out for the US release. For some, that was a merciful act of pruning. In fact, the ending to Opera is often ridiculed, but I love it. After the relentless madness, sadism and torture Betty has endured, her friends killed and her faith in humanity shattered, it’s no wonder she has decided to unshackle herself from her past. The fact that Santini is not killed at the end – a first for an Argento villain – means that on one literal level, Betty’s nightmare continues, although it’s probably likely she would have gone this way even if he had suffered a spectacular demise. The embracing of nature is also a logical extension of Argento’s new found cinematic respect for animals that was established in Phenomena – remember, they were eaten, feared, literally hurt and given evil qualities in the past, but here even the bleedin’ ravens, who are not normally a signifier of goodness, are heroic!

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Now Argento was, as we all know, a notable example of a director who pushed on-screen violence to its extremes, and while I love Phenomena, for some fans it was a bit of a dip, and maybe one of the reasons was the lack of a truly jaw-dropping death scene, something that rivalled those gruesome kills in Deep Red, Suspiria or Tenebrae. Hey, we love Argento for the beautiful camera work, the gorgeous visuals, the stunning music, the wild storylines, but we also love them for the absolutely great violence. Opera‘s murder scenes really pack a punch, and are an utterly essential component of the film’s overall impact. No wonder Argento was so incensed when it ended up being censored in country after country. Given that the medium of opera itself has been home to extreme violence in its storylines, it only makes some kind of sense that Argento’s film should deliver the bloody goods too. We get that very icky dispatching of the stagehand earlier on – upon discovering Santini the poor man is viciously pushed back onto a coat hook, which goes in and out of his neck rapidly. Grisly sound effects here. Stefano’s murder is an absolute classic – the suspense building up to it is amazing, the bloody release shocking and spectacular. Not content with the ‘knife in the mouth’ shots, we get a load of grisly hand-stabbings too. Oh, and of course, those amazing shots of Betty’s eyes with the needles.

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And yet, for all its gore and brutality, Argento seems to know when to hold back. The infamous ‘scissors’ sequence, in which Betty’s costume designer Guilia (Coralina Cataldi-Satoni) swallows an incriminating bracelet whilst she’s being stabbed to death, is notable for what it doesn’t show. Santini takes the rather drastic measure to cutting open Guilia’s throat to retrieve the bracelet, and this moment is a masterclass in ‘less is more’. The build-up is deeply unpleasant, and certainly explicit – Santini’s fingers and the scissors prodding around Guilia’s bloodied mouth made it an unsurprising target for the BBFC, who have an issue with sexualised violence such as this, but the actual moment, the cutting of the throat, is achieved with clever close-up shots of the scissor handles being gripped and a hell of a lot of nasty sound effects. When the bracelet is retrieved, the surrounding gore is out of focus – just enough for us to imagine the horrendous mess that’s just been made.

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For many though, the absolute highlight of Opera is the extraordinary peephole sequence. After Guilia’s death, Betty seeks sanctuary in her apartment, and Santini has assured her safety by promising that a policeman will be visiting to guard her. The problem is, after the policeman has arrived, another policeman knocks at the door saying that he’s here to protect her! Which one of the two is the killer? Mira speaks to the policeman outside the door, spying through the peephole to get a better look at him, demanding to see his face. Just as she realises that she recognises him, Santini puts the gun to the peephole and pulls the trigger. In an insanely brilliant shot, we see the bullet pass through the inside of the peephole (!!!!) and then we cut to a side shot of Mira as the bullet comes out of the door and then into and out of the back of her head. The bullet then destroys the telephone that Betty was trying to call for assistance with. It’s such a fucking incredible moment, so good that it was many viewings before I realised the trajectory of the bullet meant that it probably wouldn’t have hit the phone on the floor. Oh who cares? After all, ask Marco says earlier on, ‘it’s unwise to use movies as a guide to reality’.

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Argento has been on record as saying he was annoyed when people closed their eyes whenever the gore came on screen during his films – whether or not he seriously proposed the idea of having audiences wear the needles-and-tape get-up as a result of that frustration or if that was just a joke is unclear, but it would have been one hell of a marketing tool. However, for other, more hardened viewers, the violence is as much an attraction as it is a repellent. The act of looking, of seeing, is a key allure of cinema. It is a primarily visual medium, and right from the very beginning, it has been exploited as a means of seeing the forbidden, the illicit, the dangerous, all via the safe shield of a movie screen, safe in the knowledge that this is all unreal. Opera is about, among other things, the act of looking. Opera itself is a spectacle, a precursor to cinema, and we the audience are watching audiences watching opera, as well as watching others watching television, watching monitors, through binoculars, through peepholes, through vents…

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Yet as much as the characters in this film enjoy looking, there is as punishment inflicted on those who indulge in this act. Eyes undergo all manner of abuse in this film – aside from Betty’s own ordeal, we have Mira being shot through the eye (after looking through a peephole of all things – punishment maybe for daring to look back at the killer?), Mark has a gun shoved in his eye by Santini and Santini himself has his eye pecked out by ravens. Also, Betty’s vision is compromised when she applies eyedrops to herself, meaning she’s unable to identify the man in her apartment who may be a helpful police officer or a psychotic killer. Sight – its use, its power and its vulnerability, is a major source of tension in Opera.

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Funnily enough, for a film obsessed with looking, stalking and obsession itself, the character of Betty, and Marsillach herself, rarely feel objectified, despite moments like the one above, where Santini traps her in a display cabinet, as though he’s trying to keep her as a possession. This may have something to do with Marsillach’s insistence on not being sexualised throughout filming (refusing to wear clothes that accentuated her body, for example), and as such, Opera avoids a potentially nasty, leering quality that may have resulted with another director or even simply another lead actor. Despite the point-of-view shots from Santini and Betty’s horrific experiences, we’re rarely asked to gloat or indulge in her plight. Her ordeal is terrifying, they are the acts of a sadist, but the film merely about sadism, and is not sadistic in itself even though Argento is a self-confessed admirer of the beauty of an on-screen slaying. It’s a fine line Argento’s treading here, and he gets the balance right.

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As I mentioned near the start of this review, the cinematography is astonishing. Belying the fact that Argento was already seventeen years into his career as a director, Opera has the excitable restlessness of a first-time filmmaker. He’s worked with incredible cinematographers before – Vittorio Storraro, Luciano Tovoli, Romano Albani, Luigi Kuvieller and so on, but with Ronnie Taylor (and of course, editor Franco Fraticelli) it’s like his appetite for a deliriously mobile camera went into overdrive. Technically, Opera rivals Suspiria in terms of technical excellence, albeit in different ways. So where do I begin? Well, following the super-cool opening shot of an opera house reflected in a raven’s eye, we have an instance of crisis turning into opportunity regarding the character of Mara Cecova – originally Vanessa Redgrave was supposed to play this role but, depending on who you’re talking to, she was cut out because her star power would have lopsided the movie, or she left the production willingly. Either way, with no diva, we only get to see her through POV shots, including an extended one which sees her leave the opera house in a huff and we see her retreat, seemingly backwards, towards the exit, all the while haranguing Mark and his damn ravens and being pampered by her manager and Guilia. There is a brief shot of her outside the opera house, but she gets knocked down by a car a couple of seconds later. Whatever the circumstances were leading to this shot, it must be said that the execution we ended up with is more memorable than a star cameo probably would have been.

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We also get some very cool transitions like the one near the start that moves from the inside of a vent grille into darkness and then up to the grand interiors of the opera house, the conductor in the foreground. There are deliriously dizzying shots that defy gravity, such as the one with the feather being dropped into Mark’s hand by Santini, or Betty and her neighbour climbing up into the vent to escape. We have shots of Santini’s pulsating brain. We have shots where the screen ‘thumps’ to mimic said pulsating brain. There is an amazing 360 degree shot inside the opera house that represent the ravens circling the audience, looking for the killer. We have elegant Steadicam shots descending staircases, hovering over a series of tables, passing through corridors and flowery fields. We get Betty’s POV with the needles dominating her vision (as well as the occasional lowering of her eyelid whenever she blinks). We even get a shot from the viewpoint of a plughole! Then there’s the sparing but ravishing use of colour – like the application of icy blues during the flashback sequences to Santini and Betty’s mother’s crimes. Rarely has a dagger been filmed with such silky beauty.

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You also have the vivid greens and reds of the kitchen where Betty and Mira hide in the apartment, which can’t help but bring to mind Suspiria and Inferno. Why the lights would be this colour in an ordinary building I don’t know, but oh, doesn’t it just look amazing? And yet the film never becomes excessively flamboyant to the point of exhaustion. Argento and Taylor know when to slow things down, when to not move at all and when to simply let the on-screen action speak for itself. The peephole sequence could have been even more wild when you think about it – we could have had a POV from the bullet, we could have had a frenzy of shots, that sort of thing. The fact that this amazing moment is achieved with just a few edits and a static camera is proof that sometimes you don’t need the extra flash.

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Like Phenomena, Opera avoids the single-composer route and features a variety of contributors, including heavy metal bands. However, whereas the use of of metal in Phenomena seemed to represent little more than Argento’s own then-love for the genre, and in Demons it was all part of a big fat commercial soundtrack, here in Opera it’s a very interesting counterpoint to all that Verdi, Puccini and Bellini. If classical music is regarded as the high watermark of musical achievement, then heavy metal must surely be somewhere near the bottom of the respectability-o-meter. High and low art in beautiful harmony. Just like the violence of Macbeth and the music of Verdi is regarded as something refined, classic, artistic, then the violence of Argento and the base-level impact of metal are dismissed as exploitation. Indeed, when I first watched Opera, I wanted those murder scenes to be accompanied with something more, well.. operatic. Now though, I think the metal really works with the violence. Other musical contributions are just as noteworthy – Bill Wyman and Terry Taylor make a welcome return, delivering two great pieces. The main theme by Claudio Simonetti (played after Stefano’s death and over the end credits) is more melancholic and sad than his one for Phenomena but just as memorable. We also get some pieces from not only Brian Eno but his brother Roger Eno too! And of course, there’s the classical music. It’s one of Argento’s most disjointed yet fascinating soundtracks.

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In regards to performances, the beautiful Marsillach is a fine lead – score one more point for Argento’s run of strong female protagonists. Some may find her characterisation occasionally difficult to reconcile with – as previously mentioned she seems to be able to keep her cool in the aftermath of what are horrendous ordeals, but you’ll have to take or leave that. The just-as-beautiful Barberini, fresh from playing the the co-lead in the Argento-produced Demons, is a handsome, bashful supporting character to begin with but loses his shit spectacularly once he loses his eye. For the most part Santini is an anonymous killer in a mac and disguise, and is most likely played by Argento rather than Barberini (at the very least, his hands are Argento’s during these bits), but the final act gives the actor a chance to go full throttle. Amusingly, the ‘shock’ reveal of his identity was spoiled by the plethora of Italian lobby cards used to promote the film’s release back in 1987 – there are loads of publicity stills of a bloodied, eyeless Santini attacking Betty! Ian Charleson is very good indeed as Marco. He has great screen charisma and presence (plus a cool voice), and it’s horrible that this would be his last film (some TV work followed) before he died of AIDS-related causes in 1990 aged just 40. Cataldi-Tassoni, who the year before transformed into something exceptionally unpleasant in Demons 2, gets to have plenty of fun as Guilia, up to and including her spectacular death scene. William McNamara, who would later star as the killer in the underrated 1995 thriller Copycat, is a cute and boyish initial love interest who, bless him, comes off as very safe compared to his vicious rival Santini. He never stood a chance, poor man.

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And then there’s Daria Nicolodi. Her impact and influence on Dario Argento can never be underestimated, and it’s probably no coincidence that the era that most would consider to be the director’s golden period syncs exactly with the pair’s professional relationship. However, by the time of Opera, their personal relationship had soured, and it would be their last film together. You could say that Argento and Nicolodi’s most impressive collaborations were Deep Red (in which she starred as Gianna Brezzi, definitely her best character in any of his films) and Suspiria, which Nicolodi did not star in but who co-wrote the screenplay and was a major factor in the film’s success. Nicolodi was responsible for Inferno‘s story but didn’t receive credit, and from then on her influence, or at least her credited influence on Argento’s films seemed to diminish more and more. Her characters never matched the classic Brezzi, and it was telling that the most interesting things about them were the amount of terror and trauma they undergo. Nicolodi’s character in Opera is pretty rote – she’s simply there to encourage or console Betty. The most interesting thing she does is look through a peephole and get shot through the eye, which in reality was a pretty damn dangerous stunt involving a small explosive being attached to her head. Following Opera, Nicolodi and Argento only collaborated once more (to date) on 2007’s Mother of Tears, the long-awaited sequel to Suspiria and Inferno.

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So there you have it – it’s time to draw the curtains on Argento’s classic period. From Deep Red to Opera, he and his collaborators delivered a golden era of idiosyncratic, stunning genre cinema. After this he would try to break the States, but that’s another story…

PS: Much gratitude to Maitland McDonagh, Chris Gallant and James Gracey, whose writings on Argento and Opera have really opened my eyes. And they didn’t even resort to using needles.

Check out my other Dario Argento reviews, including:

‘The Animal Trilogy’, aka The Bird with the Crystal PlumageCat O’ Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet

Deep Red/Profondo Rosso

Suspiria

Inferno

Tenebrae

Phenomena

Crap Holiday by Jenny Morrill

Very bad holiday. Very good book.

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This is the first book review on my blog.  I was going to tackle Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but it was still out on loan at the library where I work, so instead I decided to write up on the wonderful debut novel by Jenny Morrill, the delightful mind behind the thoroughly entertaining and often hilarious World of Crap blog. A hub for nostalgic oddities, humorous ephemera and super-profane retrospectives of the kids’ TV show Rainbow, where no one, not even that dickhead Bungle, is safe from Morrill’s targeting of the absurd, WoC showcases a naturally funny viewpoint that lends itself perfectly to the full-length novel.

Melissa is frustrated, alcoholic and works at the local mini-market where she has to put up with dreadful customers (mostly called Alan), one of whom is so desperate to not pay for a chicken that he resorts to claiming one is ‘used’ because, you know, someone earlier looked at it. Then there’s the ones who take exception at not being referred to by a preferred title, like ‘madam’. Anyone who has worked retail, frontline or counter work will get this. The pain-in-the-arse customers. The ones you give you unnecessary grief. The ones with not just one bee but a whole fucking hive in their bonnet.

Oh well, at least Melissa can escape all of that when she gets home, right? Whoops, sorry. Her house stinks, the washing-up never seems to get done and worst of all, her housemate Joanne is a New Age nightmare, prone to painting the walls fluorescent yellow, preaching about ‘fire energies’ and practicing ‘rage yoga’. She’s awful. Again, anyone who’s found themselves sharing a home with someone who is just one misguided reference to the self-help practice that is ‘anal breathing’ away from being murdered with the nearest utensil. Any utensil. Except maybe the Daniel O’Donnell mug.

Lots of us have our equivalent, our silly, totemic, often naff item that we find particularly lovable, usually at the scorn of others.  So when it comes to house sharing, where not everything is yours, and everything is potentially up for grabs, the silliest things can become unbearably precious to us. What starts off being a ridiculous possession ends up being something quite special. Melissa’s relationship with a mug that features the cheery visage of yer mum or nan’s one and only favourite singer Daniel however, has progressed from the platonic, skipped the sexual and moved onto a higher plateaux of spiritual connection, even if Daniel is prone to being rather judgemental and doesn’t always give the best advice. Still, he seems to be Melissa’s only friend, so he’ll have to do. At least he doesn’t embarrass her in McDonalds by drunkenly haranguing the staff or antagonising the police (as in ‘fuck tha’), but saying that, Melissa’s doing a bang-up job of making herself look bad, be it being too hungover to go to work, or making up appalling excuses for said absence by referring to a non-existent uncle who’s dying of leprosy.

An unfortunate incident involving an abducted children’s toy somehow results in Melissa finally accepting Joanne’s invitation to attend what sounds like a horrendous music festival with her and her strictly non-commercially inclined poet Fax, the kind where the attendees have names like Titania, Bee and Swallow, where no meat is allowed, where the ‘100% natural’ coffee substitute costs 8 quid and tastes like shit, where your next-tent neighbour loves playing the lute, where you are in close proximity to hippie-sex and the sound of over-enthusiastic grunting is complement by renditions of ‘I Gave My Love a Cherry’, where there are spoon carving, public wanking and spiritual dancing workshops, where hardcore environmentalists will give you grief for using ‘triggering’ language and call you a ‘body shaming Nazi’, despite you having, you know, not done anything wrong….

First of all, despite being a guaranteed pleasure for readers of the site, there are no in-jokes or nudge-nudge moments that only fans of Morrill’s previous work will get. Rainbow does not get a single mention. This is no indulgence (though I do loves me some of that), this is an astute, very funny, unsentimental but nonetheless very sweet tale of a lost soul, the kind I can all too easily relate to. The humour is very suited to the kind of reader who loves the flotsam and jetsam of pop culture and who remembers being dragged around shopping centres as a child, the kind of reader who can tell a Rumbelows from a Tandy, and who cherished their Beano annuals or Skeletor toys. It’s also deliciously rude – but never crude or vulgar (although you may have your limits – personally I’m comfortable with Morrill referring to possible traumas like ‘exploding fanny disease’). It’s gross, but never gross-out.

Also though, it’s for the kind of reader who’s simply found themselves lost. Lost in static employment, lost in their own indulgences (Melissa’s visits to her Slimming World class are dispiriting to say the least), lost in frustrated relationships.. made to feel inferior, be it by hectoring housemates, nasty customers, arsehole cousins, disappointed parents, etc. It’s a hilarious look at someone who is essentially alone and climbing the walls. Another, lesser book probably would have insisted on her being hooked up with a dream man, but Morrill’s too shrewd to go down that route. Or is she? There’s Aaron the barman, after all. I’m not giving anything away. It’s also for the kind of reader who, when having to put up with other human beings, has had to take a lot of shit, and yet also experienced those sweet, sweet moments of revenge, be it through sensible, professional means or by, say, deleting someone’s favourite series about ancient aliens off the Sky box.

This a wonderful first novel. It’s supremely confident, all-too relatable and like the best stories, I really didn’t want to it finish, which is why I made a point of being extra leisurely when reading it towards the end because I wanted to stay in this world, even if Melissa didn’t.