My Favourite Films of 2016

Once again, I haven’t been able to see some powerful films that were released in 2016 due to living in Australia but of those I did catch, here are my best.

10. A Bigger Splash

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Superbly written and acted, this film was dialogue heavy with some serious work being put into tension and implications. The characters in A Bigger Splash were all too real. Frustratingly human, they invoked many feelings in the viewer, mostly negative. Personally, I was angry and disgusted by the end of the film. It affected me in a big way and I didn’t forget it. While I may not have ‘liked’ the characters, the way this film was crafted has to be appreciated.

9. The Lobster

 

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Wholly unique, The Lobster is weird and offbeat for sure. At times it’s funny, at others disturbing. Effectively a satire, it points a laser beam at the pressures of contemporary society and adulthood and lets us see some of them for what they are: ridiculous and dangerous. Grounded by a great performance from Colin Farrell, it may be too strange and uncomfortable for some but for those who go along, it’ll serve up some serious quality.

8. Swiss Army Man

swiss-army-manAnother extremely quirky film that rests on a fresh idea. If you can get past the abundance of flatulence, this is a beautiful and heart-warming (also slightly creepy) film of emotional connection and discovery. We can all learn a little about ourselves watching this. Some magical imagery and an outstanding score make this one of the year’s most immersive movies.

7. Deadpool

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Yet another superhero film hit the cinemas but this time we got something different, something that recognised all the usual tropes and turned them into a joke. Not only did Deadpool dare to be outrageously violent, crass, and hilarious but it was a passion project for Ryan Reynolds and it shows. His performance as the titular character is one of the most charismatic of the year. It’s his commitment that made this film work as well as it did, and propel it above other Marvel or DC entries.

6. Arrival

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Director Denis Villenueve is quickly proving himself to be a master. This is another example of his refusal to sacrifice storytelling for the sake of cheap thrills. His movies always deal with complexities in a way that is perfectly balanced. His movies are made to settle into, become entrenched in. They always offer something you don’t quite expect and Arrival is no exception. Stunning cinematography is combined with a tense, multi-faceted, and emotionally wrenching story. The moral conundrum is a punch to the gut.

5. Demolition

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The writing in this film does fluctuate somewhat from very good to not so good but the good is brilliantly affecting. There are many interesting things it has to say about life; about relationships and about ourselves. It doesn’t always hit the mark and the approach it takes to convey its messages is sometimes flawed but at the end of the day the tone and mood (slightly depressive and resigned to the sadness while also finding ways of experiencing joy) of Demolition is something I gravitate very strongly towards. To top it off, Jake Gyllenhaal can do no wrong and he’s amazing again here.

4. Zootopia

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Rare for me to include an animated film and as fun as Zootopia was, it wouldn’t have been enough to get it over the line. What makes it stand out is the positive messages it makes accessible to the children who watch it. It also speaks of some broader issues like gender equality in way that more serious films haven’t been able to. Adults will almost certainly pick up on some thought provoking stuff. To be able to present this within such a fun-riot of a film and have it all still work must be celebrated.

3. The Nice Guys

the-nice-guysWriter and director Shane Black sure knows how to do noir. He’s got buddy films down to a tee at this point. The Nice Guys might be his best yet. It’s a film that is just so stylish, funny, and exciting you can’t help but like it. There’s also an undercurrent of emotion driving the main characters that never explodes but bubbles every now and then just to remind us that there is more at stake than making us laugh. But laugh we do. The chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe is seamless. Gosling again proves his comedic talent, confirming he’s as diverse an actor as exists right now. Australian actress Angourie Rice also shines as a newcomer, playing Gosling’s plucky daughter.

2. Nocturnal Animals

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A second entry for Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal. They both deserve it. There is something about this film that gets right under your skin and stays there. Director Tom Ford adapts the novel into a screenplay that is so tight and well balanced it’s almost a masterpiece. The intricacy of the story and the way it’s told was doomed to fail and yet it doesn’t. It triumphs. Nothing can be criticised. The drama is intense, scary even. The emotion is gut-wrenching, the violence shocking. Amidst all this is a vein of black humour that strikes at exactly the right moments. This film has one of the best endings I think I’ve ever seen. In the context of the rest of the movie, it’s perfect. Tom Ford shows his background in design with a beautiful aesthetic throughout and the two leads are faultless in their performance as is Michael Shannon. Superb.

1. La La Land

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When you hate musicals but happen to adore a film that is a musical, it says something about how good it is. La La Land brings back the magic of cinema. You just don’t see films like this anymore. A simple plot does nothing to diminish the complicated nature of the characters lives in a story where dreams are chased and lost and chased again. Along the way, love is juggled back and forth with various consequences. There’s so much passion and beauty in this film. It shines down from Director Damian Chezelle through every aspect of the project. Every scene is gorgeous and interesting to look at. Every musical and dance number is engaging. The composition and choreography is off the charts. There’s context to every set-piece and real weight to every conversation. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone work so well together, injecting the humour of the film with even more laughs, the drama with even more heartache, the love with even more ‘feels’. La La Land has captured a lot of Oscar buzz and for once, I agree with the buzz.

Film Review: Nocturnal Animals

A shocking, beautiful, and constantly engaging tale of heartbreak and revenge.

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‘Nocturnal Animals’ is directed by Tom Ford, starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, and Armie Hammer. It’s a film that takes an exquisite look at betrayal, revenge, and the impact of our decisions on others; and our own happiness.

With a narrative style that is decidedly unconventional, the storytelling faced some potential pitfalls but, with just his second film, writer and director Tom Ford has established himself as a master of balance, pacing, and affectation.

The basic plot sees Susan (Amy Adams) running an art gallery and living in an unhappy marriage with Hutton (Armie Hammer). She’s taken aback when her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) sends her a manuscript of a novel he has written and dedicated to her. She begins to read and soon, we see the fictional world and real world start to intertwine.

The first thing to say about ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is how stunning it is to feast your eyes on and meticulously it is designed and shot. It’s no surprise, considering Ford is also a fashion designer who has worked for Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent, but every shot is perfectly composed and infinitely interesting to look at, just like a good piece of art. No prop, costume, angle, colour, or slice of light is wasted here. This is explicitly established in the opening title sequence, which is perhaps best left undescribed.

A beautiful-looking film only goes so far on aesthetics though. Ultimately it needs to engage the viewer on another level. The narrative was where people might believe Ford would suffer but it seems he’s also an incredible writer. The delicate nature in which he was required to balance this kind of storytelling would have brought many undone, yet he was almost faultless. As stated, the pacing of the film is perfect. Every cut is made precisely when it needs to be, allowing the viewer just enough to digest without having anything shoved down their throat. Understanding the film comes gradually and naturally, and Ford never has to perform an expose for the audience. Rather he uses effective visual cues and the expertise of his actors. It’s the tone of the film that is so surprisingly well done. This is a brutal and intense drama that boils certain characters down to their base emotions, and us with them. However, it’s also a scathingly clever and at times funny movie. Somehow, these two opposing moods don’t block or intrude upon each other; yet another tick for Ford’s ability.

As for the actors, the film is led superbly by Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal with a fantastic turn by Michael Shannon. Amy Adams continues to sign onto great films and give suitably great performances. Her performance is magnificently understated and emotive at the same time. Jake Gyllenhaal is the perennial professional who never puts a foot wrong. Here he’s particularly good for a very important reason I won’t spoil but it’s with him we ride the biggest waves of shock, despair, and pain. Michael Shannon is just badass as a hard-as-nails country detective.

Underpinning, and tying together, all of this is a haunting and mournful score put together by Abel Korzeniowski. Often, you almost don’t notice it because it fits so well with what is happening on screen that it seems an organic piece of the drama.

All in all, ‘Nocturnal Animals’ can only be described as being crafted by someone with immense attention to detail and passion for their work. Tom Ford and co. have delivered one of the year’s best films and I would urgently encourage people to go see it.

Top Ten 2015 Films

Please note the following list is based on films that saw a release in Australia in 2015, which unfortunately discounts films such as The Revenant and The Hateful 8.

So in no particular order, here are my choices for the best films of 2015.

1. Ex Machina

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Here is a great example to show that you don’t need a massive budget, cast, or set to make a great film. All you need is good writing and good performances. The four main contributors for this film; writer/director Alex Garland, actress Alicia Vikander, actors Domhnall Gleeson, and Oscar Isaac, delivered in spades to create a beautiful, interesting, and tense sci-fi movie that asks a lot of questions about humanity. Also has a great and unexpected dance scene.

 

2. Dope

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This is why we love indie films. We’ve got three lead performers who are relatively unknown so we’re just seeing them purely as the characters they are playing. Dope is a joy. Original, creative, crazy, funny, and most of all heartfelt. It’s a great take on the story of finding your place in the world with a great score to boot and be assured, it will take you by surprise in more ways than one.

 

3. Inside Out

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Without doubt one of Disney – Pixar’s best films. Equally accessible by children and adults, it’s an incredibly imaginative exploration of the human psyche. Funny and touching, it can also teach us a lot about how we perceive ourselves and others. I’d watch it for Rage alone.

 

4. Chappie

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Some critics couldn’t get past the casting choices or tonal shifts of this film. On the contrary I think the injection of Die Antwoord as main characters and the use of humour through the middle act made this film all the better and unique. Director Neil Blomkamp stamped it with his typical style of balancing serious issues with offbeat jokes and casting Sharlto Copley, who did a good job by the way. Chappie is essentially a condensed version of childhood, nature vs nurture, and what it means to be human. It’s charming, funny, and emotional on top of also being a good action film.

 

5. Mad Max: Fury Road

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Not much needs to be said here. It’s one of the most intense action films you’re ever likely to see. It never lets up, it never slows down. Incredibly stark cinematography combines with amazing stunt work to create a full-on experience that may be overbearing for some but heaven for others. Although most of the plaudits are for guitar guy.

 

6. It Follows

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I’m not a horror fan but I think that’s because the genre has lost its way. It Follows is an example of how it should be done. Instead of relying on unnecessary shocks like gore and loud noises it uses tension and a far more interesting story than you’ll find in other horror films. There’s a good film here in general with an underlying theme, not just a good horror film. Don’t watch if you’re overly worried about sti’s.

7. The Martian

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Ridley Scott returns with this extremely surprising survival story. After the ultra serious Gravity and Interstellar, The Martian turned towards levity with great effect. Matt Damon’s central performance was outstanding and made the movie work as well as it did. As someone who was never thrilled about Damon, I was shocked by how much I enjoyed this film and he deserves a lot of praise.

 

8. Lost River

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Ryan Gosling’s debut as a writer/director was not loved by critics who criticised him for borrowing and meshing the styles of some of his mentors like Nicholas Winding-Refn and Derek Cianfrance but who isn’t inspired by the artists they love? In reality this is very much Gosling’s film. The way he chose to tell his story was as original and creative as it gets. Every shot in this movie is beautiful to look at and his actors gave their all for him, they’re faultless. The music, curated by Johnnie Jewel is magnetic and there are so many scenes in this film that are hypnotic. Yes, it will be a little on the strange side for some but if you see film as an art form, this is one to watch. Ben Mendelsohn also challenges Oscar Isaac for best dance of the year. Hmm, is dancing becoming a theme here?

9. A Most Violent Year

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Oscar Isaac gets his second mention on the list and neither have been Star Wars. Sue me. Here’s a film that received very little media attention. It’s not a blockbuster, not a comedy. It’s not even violent, as the title would suggest, just a supremely tightly wound drama that is terrifically acted by Isaac and Jessica Chastein. Understated and intimate, it slowly makes an impression on you, one you won’t forget.

 

10. Sicario

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Director Denis Villenueve is a master of tension and suspense nothing has changed here. Sicario is gritty, grimy, shocking and might have you grinding your teeth. Look out for some exceptional cinematography alongside brilliant performances from Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro.

courtney barnett – sometimes i sit and think, and sometimes i just sit

4/5

Despite some dreary content you can’t help but want to hang out with Courtney Barnett.

This may be the Victorian’s debut full length album but her talent and sound have already been well established with singles such as History Eraser, Avant Gardener, and Pickles From The Jar. For the majority of this album it won’t surprise with the way it sounds, with a couple of brilliant exceptions. It won’t cease to please her fans either. There’s something very endearing about Courtney’s deadpan stream of consciousness delivery and her elaborate self-critique. The opening three tracks; Elevator Operator, Pedestrian At Best, and An Illustration Of Loneliness (Sleepless In New York) display her energy, dry wit, and way with words. She has a vocabulary but is just as skilled at turning everyday language into quirky phrases. Pedestrian At Best is an early highlight, the writing is superb.

The album covers many topics but the main three would be; consumerism and the environment (Dead Fox and Kim’s Caravan), middle class society (Elevator Operator and Depreston), and Courtney herself (Aqua Profunda!, Pedestrian At Best, and Boxing Day Blues).

Quite rocky throughout with her all ‘aussie’ accent, you think you have Courtney Barnett pegged but then comes along Depreston and Kim’s Caravan. In these two tracks the accent is less noticeable and her voice quite beautiful as she really decides to sing. Depreston is a wonderful song. It’s hard to describe in my inexperience but it feels old and nostalgic from the get go and is best listened to driving around your local towns. There is one particular section of this song that brings tears to the eyes because the image is so relatable and, well, depressing. It will hit home hard for some people. Kim’s Caravan begins and you think the cd has ejected and the radio is on. The opening sounds like a completely different artist, eerie and creepy. Then Courtney’s voice joins in, sad and drained here, hooking you until the end. This song isn’t entirely pleasant , especially when she remarks the Great Barrier Reef has been “raped beyond belief” and “treated like a whore”. Nevertheless you can’t stop listening.

The album leaves us knowing she will probably become quite an admired artist, outside of the mainstream of course, and that it would be very cool to hear her perform a Nirvana cover.

Highlight: Definitely Depreston for me but for new fans, perhaps Pedestrian At Best

Chappie – Not what the critics wanted but ‘Zef so fresh’*

*Warning: Review contains minor spoilers*

Chappie is director Neil Blomkamps’ third offering and it has come under some heavy criticism from critics who are angry it wasn’t the movie they wanted it to be. Well tough luck, it’s better than the movie you wanted it to be. The majority of reviewers seemed to want Chappie to delve into the arguments surrounding artificial intelligence. Is it wrong for scientists and engineers to play God? Or should it be pushed to its limits in the aid of creation and progress? Chappie certainly hints at these arguments throughout but it isn’t really what the movie is about. Thank goodness, we’ve seen enough of those moral balancing acts. Time for something different.

The basic outline of the plot is as follows: Johannesburg is a crime epicentre which is now being policed by AI robots, known as Scouts. They’re doing quite well in reducing crime but Vincent Moore, played by Hugh Jackman, is unhappy his human controlled behemoth The Moose isn’t being utilised ahead of these ‘Godless’ creatures. The creator of the droids Deon, played by Dev Patel, wants to push his work further and create a sentient robot that can think and feel like a human. Meanwhile Die Antwoord, basically playing themselves, have Deon in their sights as someone who can help them get free of a particularly nasty gangster who will kill them if they fail to pay his debt. Enter Chappie, a scout commissioned for destruction that Deon steals and makes conscious, but not before being kidnapped by Ninja, Yolandi, and Amerika. Unpredictable events ensue.

Chappie also doesn’t really qualify as a science fiction film either, although of course it will fall in this genre. Chappie, the main character, is portrayed as a human rather than the physical robot he actually is. Chappie is about a boy being pulled in three different directions. His ‘mummy’ (Yolandi) just wants to love him like any mother loves their child. The creator (Deon) wants Chappie to maximise his potential and his ‘daddy’ (Ninja) wants him to assist in a heist. Being only days old, this is all very complicated for Chappie, as smart as he is. He makes promises he doesn’t fully understand and tries his best to please everyone. All the while he is discovering the joyous highs of what life has to offer (painting, literature, dogs), as well as the horrifying lows (violence, dishonesty, death). Eventually he must learn for himself what is right and what he should do.

Only the heartless will fail to be moved by Chappie’s struggles, or amused by his transition into a streetwise gangsta. “Chappie has bling.” There are some truly heart touching moments, such as when Chappie is attacked by a gang of youths despite his confused pleas for them to stop and when Yolandi is reading him Black Sheep (perhaps a metaphor for the movie as a whole in addition to Chappie).

The casting of the film is interesting to say the least and there are some definite flaws here. Sigourney Weaver’s character is so boring and pointless she may as well not exist. There’s really nothing to say about her. Hugh Jackman’s villain is more of a shell than a fully fleshed out character. His extreme rage or psychopathic nature is not explained and his Australian idiosyncrasies are a little overdone. He doesn’t fit quite right and this lets the film down. What’s surprising is that Die Antwoord aren’t horrible as actors or characters. At times they are shaky but for the most part they’re enjoyable viewing, especially Yolandi who is so taken by Chappie she becomes more conflicted than we might have expected. Ninja is not particularly likeable for most of the movie but we learn to understand him and he does redeem himself in the latter stages. One scene specifically showcases his humane qualities. Chappie is inspecting a dog that has been killed in a gambling ring. Ninja looks upon the animal with what seems like regret and sympathy despite his previously violent tempers and dismissive attitude. He remarks; ‘It’s dead Chappie. Life is hard; you have to be tough to survive.’ He points to a dog still living. ‘Do you want to be this dog or that dog?’ We see here Ninja is not inherently evil but he does what he needs to do to survive. Later we see how deeply he cares for Chappie and Yolandi. He even aids Deon, who he openly showed derision towards earlier. Sharlto Copley does a great job as Chappie, aided of course by a fantastic effects team. Dev Patel is acceptably earnest and ambitious as a man who truly cares about his creation.

Die Antwoord get plenty of free publicity and perhaps they should. They’re a major reason this film looks so good, with their colourful self-styled outfits and weapons along with their graffiti riddled place of residence. Their music makes up probably half the score and adds to the film’s offbeat tone. Chappie is amazing to watch, especially after he has been remodelled by his new family.

All in all the film takes an unexpected approach which generally works. The comic relief throughout the middle act is welcome and not too over the top. The plight of Chappie struggling to cope with life is engaging and touching. The action sequences are well executed and entertaining. Jackman and Weaver are weak links through no fault of their own and some elements are not afforded the effort and explanation they need. Chappie isn’t a masterpiece but it’s nowhere near as bad as the critics want you to think it is.

Recommendation: See it before it leaves theatres.

*Enter The Ninja – Die Antwoord

British India – Nothing Touches Me

3.5/5

British India lose a little of their edge in an album which is too contrived.

Nothing Touches Me is British India’s fifth full-length release. It seems not too long ago when their debut Guillotine was unleashed. Since then they have delighted with their raw but well-crafted rock. The band has recently stated this album feels the most like a studio album they’ve ever had. It sounds like it too and it’s not necessarily a good thing.

The record begins beautifully with Spider Chords, a great slow-then-fast opener which will have classic British India fans cheering. Suddenly is a perfect single to blast while driving down the highway but we hit some roadblocks with Angela and the aptly named Wrong Direction. Angela is way too main-stream for an alternative band like British India; it feels disconnected with anything they’ve previously released. Wrong Direction is an example of why the studio influence is bad for BI. It is excessively formulaic and smooth and falls flat despite Declan’s desperation on the mic. Nothing Touches Me, the title track restores the faith however. At five minutes long it takes us on a journey of all the bands strengths. The rest of the album undulates pleasantly, still uniquely BI but with a new pop rock ballad approach taken on some tracks. The songs are good, with the exception of the soft boiled Lifeguard. The record finishes strong with Right By Your Side, This Is How It Feels and Departure Lounge with a return to traditional BI.

The main issue with the album is that it sounds too planned out, too uniform. The rawness that has made BI so great is missing most of the time. This album doesn’t have the energy of Guillotine, it doesn’t have the song writing of Thieves or Avalanche, and it doesn’t have the emotion of Controller. Trying new things is never a bad idea and this album is still a good album and no doubt it will be great fun live. It just isn’t their best.

Highlight: The short and sweet Spider Chords ties with sing along favourite Suddenly.

*Update: It gets better with multiple listens so add half a point.

Nightcrawler- ‘like catching things and eating their insides’ *

Nightcrawler is a film directed by Dan Gilroy and stars Jake Gyllenhaal and it is one of the most affective movies of the year, right on par with Gone Girl. This is also a case where the lead actor really does ‘star’. Jake Gyllenhaal is incredible in his role as Lou Bloom, combining charm, wit, intelligence, malevolence and animal instincts with aplomb.

The plot follows Lou Bloom, a thief turned ‘stringer’, a person who chases crimes and accidents to get exclusive footage to sell to news stations. Bloom, as he often says, is a very quick learner and he soon becomes successful, dragging his employee Rick deeper and deeper into his dark world. The line between civilian and criminal quickly blurs. Lou Bloom is perhaps the scariest character to ever be seen on screen. Forget about horror movies, this man is so unsettling it is impossible to assume a comfortable position in your seat. His words and actions have you constantly trying to fathom if he is truly psychotic and if so, to what extent. It becomes more evident as the film goes on that he is ruthless and dangerous in an eerie way, similar to Ryan Goslings character in Drive. They also share the mystery of their characters. You can’t help but wonder about Blooms past, although there are hints. However Bloom couldn’t be further from Driver in most other aspects. He talks a lot, in over the top sophisticated, almost robotic language. He is always calm and controlled. This adds to the sense of anxiousness the audience feels when he is on screen. The only time he loses his cool is when we are least afraid of him, because at this point he seems more human.

The whole movie is like watching a dissection, fascination and disgust are felt simultaneously, both from observing Bloom and from the content, uncovering the grimy underbelly of TV news. One of the greatest aspects of this film is the tension built throughout. Every scene is rippling with it, as well as the film as a whole. One cannot guess what Bloom is going to do next and with that comes the fear that something horrible could happen at any moment. And yet there are moments you can’t help but laugh. He is funny, with his self assuredness during business interactions. Most of all he is disturbing, a superbly crafted character which Gyllenhaal gives complete justice to.

This movie is beautifully filmed, glitzing up Los Angeles like Drive but also taking us right into the city, the dirt and the chaos. The score is perfect, blending so seamlessly into the movie you don’t even realise it’s half the reason you are feeling what you are feeling. The action scenes are also engrossing. There is a lot of driving and car chases in this film and all of them are exciting and nerve wracking as Bloom sits with laser focus at the wheel.

To sum up, this film exposes the moral abhorrence at the centre of this type of news gathering but is ultimately dominated by the central character of Lou Bloom and Jake Gyllenhaals performance. He will have you believing he is real and that if you ever meet him, it would hopefully be in a nightmare only.

Recommendation: See it without delay

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*I Miss You- Blink-182

The Revolution Is Never Coming by The Red Paintings

5/5

Unique, experimental, strange, emotional, brilliant.

Highly anticipated by fans, especially long-time fans who listened through numerous EPs, singles, and a strings album, the debut LP from The Red Paintings does not disappoint upon its arrival. The experimental art-rock five-piece take us on a journey, not the same as Bilbo’s but just as unexpected.

The opener Vampires Are Chasing Me creates a sound we haven’t heard from them before, less energetic but all encompassing. It only spans just under four minutes but the song is vast, seeming to sweep us across large distances and through various worlds. It sets the scene perfectly for the rest of the album which can only be described as epic. It’s like an alien abduction where the little men do away with the probing and replace it with whatever your heart desires. From here we move on to Dead Children which is familiar to us with Trash McSweeney both haunting and aggressive on the microphone. A diverse set of songs follow, covering topics from aliens to Alice in Wonderland in energetic and frantic orchestral rock. There’s repulsion in Dead Children, fear in Wasps, creepiness in The Streets Fell Into My Window, and a violin solo to die for in You’re Not One Of Them. In ‘Hong Kong’ and ‘Deleted Romantic’ we get a chance to catch our breath and while ‘Hong Kong’ is probably the weakest track on the album, ‘Deleted Romantic’ is one of the best. Trash evokes sadness and hope in equal measures, his voice almost distraught. One of the reasons this band is so great is lead singer Trash. Not many vocalists convince you of their passion and emotion better than he does. The closer The Revolution Is Never Coming personifies the epic journey aspect of the whole album. Its medieval opening takes us back in time and through the next seven minutes we are transported through time back to the present and shot out into the future. It’s uncertain where we end up, but one thing is for sure; it’s an album that won’t be soon surpassed.

Highlight:  Impossible to choose, although the violin solo on ‘You’re Not One of Them’ deserves a mention.