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TARANOYA: BECOMING

(SOUND AS LANGUAGE; 2021)


I have been writing about ambient music for many years, as it is the still under-appreciated genre I MOST find myself able to get immersed in. From those heady early days decades ago when Brian Eno contextualized a new sound that could function as either foreground or background and that would serve as “a tint, an atmosphere,” as he put it, rather than something you had to experience in a traditional listening mode, to the myriad of variations the genre sprouted in the modern age (Ambient Jazz, Ambient Classical, Ethno-Ambient, Dark Ambient, space music, et cetera ad nauseum), I’ve been riveted by the endless universe of sound that the misleading term “ambient” can encompass. I honestly can’t think of another musical banner, excepting maybe “indie rock” or “art rock,” that will accommodate so many types of music. It’s because of how the music is supposed to FUNCTION for the average listener, the fact that it needs to be workable as background music, but also to reward close listening, that helps it to live up to Eno’s definition.

TARANOYA (promotional image)

Imagine my delight, then, to come across the Iranian born, Portland-based female composer/vocalist/producer Taranoya (Taraneh Schmidt), whose new release
BECOMING is just about the most enthralling thing I have heard this year. It’s all dreamy, drifty, ethereal soft vocals, most of it essentially wordless although there ARE some intended lyrics, floating through beds of gentle droney synthesizer. Reference points don’t immediately come to mind… some of Liz Fraser’s aesthetic on the Cocteau Twins’ VICTORIALAND disc in particular would be one door in. I also was reminded here and there of a Kranky label artist named Jessica Bailiff, as well as scattered tracks from other ambient artists who’ve utilized feather-soft female vocals in the background. But what we have here is an entire album’s worth of this sumptuous sound, and it’s pretty singular in my view. And singularly PRETTY, without ever being vacuous or saccharine. That’s no mean feat, and it speaks wonders for Taranoya’s soulful, deeply contemplative vibe. I am almost shocked at how blissfully haunting this recording is, and how it manages to avoid nearly every cliche of the genre. Releases in this sonic terrain can sink rather rapidly if the lyrics are too upfront and take you out of the dreamy web you want to get stuck in, or if the instrumentation veers too much into the “new age” realm. Without wanting to irritate fans of new age (and I have some records that would fall under that banner myself), I am experienced enough with this kind of stuff to be able to tell the difference between New Age and Ambient, something that connoisseurs used to argue about on the net, back when these things were viewed as more consequential. What many of us viewed as new age seldom stood up to late-night scrutiny, as it aims for the lightest and most undemanding of moods while being generally quite restricted in its ambition, with some exceptions. Taranoya’s BECOMING, my friends, is very definitely AMBIENT music, and that’s a compliment. It’s lush, lulling, pastoral dream music conjured by a woman who seems to intuitively know that heading right for your subconscious, the place you inhabit when your intellect is turned off, makes for a far more satisfying sound experience than adhering to the parameters of the more typical offerings in this ballpark.

TARANOYA (promotional photo)

I personally LOVE music that appeals to a sort of “half asleep” state, and has a quality of being totally removed from mundane or stress-induced concerns, the kind we all battle daily. “Accidents” is eight minutes of beautiful keyboard drone that invites you to get comfy, serves you a fruit-infused beverage like nothing you’ve imbibed before, and then puts you at rapt attention as your charming host murmurs things to you that you can’t quite hear but you don’t care… her voice hypnotizes you and pulls you right into a place you would be happy to just never leave. “Heavenly” is an overused adjective in the ambient world, but… this IS heavenly, mes amis. What Taranoya’s voice does between 4:27 and about 4:43 on this track may be the single most beautiful moment I’ve experienced in a piece of music this year. The whole track is a wonder, really. A little bit of spoken word at the end adds to the feeling you’re in a partial dream state sitting in a cushioned chair at the airport or something. “You’re Only Breaking Down” is an even longer track, commencing with a Cocteaus-style flourish before Taranoya goes full feminine vocal allure in the middle of the mix. It’s like hearing your favorite cat purring happily, with neither one of you inclined to move even a smidge from where you’re currently located. And I was awestruck by the artist’s discipline to keep the keyboard sounds so subtly in the background, never showing off for even a moment. The dream state rules here, aesthetically. Works for me!

“Thinking About You” does get a shade more familiar initially, with the main synthesizer being not too far removed from the odd Tangerine Dream release or even early Pink Floyd. But from about the two-minute mark on, the sort of “otherly” ambient strangeness we fans always hope for kicks in, and Taranoya proves once again she’ll opt for originality and the sonic multi-verse over any formula or “non-genre” tenets. I was fully spellbound by the time this track was over, and knew I’d be a fan of this gal from here on out.

TARANOYA (promotional photo)

On “Let the Air,” the vocals are the most “conventional”; you can just about hear some actual words and there’s a touch more normalcy if that’s what you prefer (love the ending, though). And “Do I Return” has what is clearly a piano, not some obscure synth setting stumbled across in the wee hours of the morning when otherliness rules in the studio. It’s still very pretty. But the long track “Wake Me Up Rush” returns to the killer combo of Taranoya’s ethereal voice and the airy synth settings she tends to favor, with a low-frequency drone entering stage left at about the four-minute mark that adds some unexpected gripping energy. Subtle variety in a tapestry of sound that is uniformly lulling, is what makes this set something of an ambient classic, ethno-femme division (“fembient”? “womenbient”? What moniker should we give, exactly, to characterize the sub-genre of ambient where a deeply compassionate and yes, angelic female presence, is at the center of the sound? And is that even worth pursuing?). I’m in love with this music, and I thank this spellbinding artist for truly forging some new territory on BECOMING. Taranoya strikes deep… into your life it will creep, if you decide to check this out and float away among the clouds of bliss that this very visionary and wondrous artist has to offer.

TARANOYA (promotional image)

(BECOMING is currently available as a limited edition of 100 cassettes, as well as the obligatory digital download)

MICK FLEETWOOD AND FRIENDS CELEBRATE THE MUSIC OF PETER GREEN AND THE EARLY YEARS OF FLEETWOOD MAC

(BMG MUSIC GROUP; 2021)

A majority of people in the good ol’ United States of… believe that Fleetwood Mac began with (maybe even started BY) Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham; most of the rest of the world knows that the Mac had been around for at least 70 years before the Buckingham/Nicks tandem joined in 1974 or so. Actually, Peter Green left John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in 1967, taking drummer Mick Fleetwood with him to form what was originally called Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac; Bluesbreakers bassist John McVie would follow later that year. Drug use and a mental collapse led to Green exiting the group in 1970 and the game of musical chairs (so to speak) with guitarists began. Now, Mister Fleetwood is never one to forget upon which side his toast is buttered and, more importantly, who made it possible for him to pay for not only the bread and the butter, but also the knife to spread the butter and the house in which he sits at the table buttering that toast. That incredibly confusing run-on sentence is just a bored writers way of saying that Mick Fleetwood gives credit where credit is due and pays tribute to those who have made his lifestyle possible. So it was, that on Tuesday, February 25, 2020, Fleetwood and his hand-picked, suitably impressive “house band” (alongside an equally impressive lineup of friends) took the stage of London’s legendary Palladium to celebrate the music of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. As it turned out, the very next day, England was put on lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The performance has been released in several formats: The video documentary has been making the rounds on various streaming platforms, as well as being released on Blu-Ray in a package that includes two CDs and a deluxe package that also features four slabs of vinyl; of course, the double CD and four LP versions are available separately, too.

MICK FLEETWOOD (photo credits: ROSS HALFIN, OLIVER HALFIN, KAZUYO HORIE)

Things get off to a fine start with “Rollin’ Man,” from the Mac’s second album, MISTER WONDERFUL. It features Mick’s specially chosen musicians – Andy Fairwether-Low, Jonny Lang and Rick Vito on guitars with David Bronze on bass and musical director Ricky Peterson on keyboards; Vito takes the vocals, as he did during his short time as a member of the Mac. Lang takes over the vocal duties on “Homework,” an Otis Rush tune played live in the earliest days of the band, while the final member of the group, the Who’s Zak Starkey joins in, keeping the beat alongside Fleetwood on drums for most of the evening. If there were any questions regarding the Blues pedigree of the original Fleetwood Mac, these opening salvos should dispel them. The first “friend” makes quite a splash as Billy Gibbons (yeah, one of the beards from ZZ Top) tackles “Doctor Brown” as only he can. As hot as the backing band was on the first two numbers, they somehow seem even more energized here.

CHRISTINE MCVIE (photo credits: ROSS HALFIN, OLIVER HALFIN, KAZUYO HORIE)

While I can find no indication that Fleetwood Mac ever recorded or even played the Otis Rush track “All Your Love (I Miss Loving)” in a live setting, I’m sure that Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie played it many times during their respective tenures in John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers. That somehow makes it the perfect tune for Mayall to join the festivities, supplying both vocals and keyboards. Mick introduces his former boss with, “Please give a grand, grand welcome to our mentor, Mister John Mayall,” as the band rips into a killer version of the tune. If you are unfamiliar with the music of John Mayall, first of all… WHY? And, second, the man sprang from the womb (in 1933, making him 83 years old when this concert took place!) wailing the Blues! Steven Tyler late of some band called Aerosmith delivers his version of “Rattlesnake Shake,” one of Peter Green’s and the Mac’s best known early songs (from THEN PLAY ON) in his inimitable over-the-top fashion. Tyler sticks around to add flavor and harmonica to “Stop Messin’ ‘Round,” the third of five tracks from MISTER WONDERFUL, the album that introduced Christine McVie (then, as now, “Perfect”) to the world of Fleetwood Mac. Since the group’s ascension to the Pop Rock hierarchy, we’ve known Ms McVie as the gruff balladeer, in contrast to Stevie Nicks’ wispy, ethereal flights of fancy; here, she shows that she can hold her own with just about anybody, belting out the Blues that the early band was known for.

RICK VITO (photo credits: ROSS HALFIN, OLIVER HALFIN, KAZUYO HORIE)

Not one to ignore a good thing, Fleetwood keeps Christine around for “Looking For Somebody” from the group’s first album. The memorable drum intro leads into a re-imagined version of the song with McVie trading vocal leads with Rick Vito. “Sandy Mary” comes with a strange pedigree: Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac had been performing the tune live at least as early as 1969, with the song appearing on various records of rather dubious origins. It wouldn’t see an official release until LIVE AT THE BBC in 1995. Jonny Lang’s soulful vocals make the song hard to forget. Vito takes over on vocals for “Love That Burns,” a slow-burning Blues number with a great slide lead and organ solo. It’s hard to imagine the rest of the album being as good as this side.

PETE TOWNSHEND (photo credits: ROSS HALFIN, OLIVER HALFIN, KAZUYO HORIE)

Next to the stage is one of the Gallagher brothers, Noel, whom (along with his equally distasteful brother, Liam) I dislike on general principals, though I must admit to liking some of their band’s earlier stuff. Noel actually acquits himself quite nicely on the stripped-down acoustic Blues of “The World Keep On Turning.” He hangs around for a more rocking “Like Crying,” a Danny Kirwan song from THEN PLAY ON. Overall, Mister Gallagher has taken steps with this performance to – if not endear – overcome my disdain for his earlier abhorrent behavior. He may be inching closer to gaining a certain respectability but… nope! I still don’t like the guy. Vito, Lang, and Fleetwood take center stage on Chester Burnett’s “No Place To Go,” a song that appeared on the first Fleetwood Mac album. A rolling kind of rhythm underpins some nice slide guitar (maybe it’s a dobro… credits on this thing are somewhat lacking) and some impassioned “church meetin’” vocals from Rick and Jonny. Pete Townshend makes a magnificent Who sound on “Station Man,” a great track from the first album after Peter Green’s departure from the band, KILN HOUSE. It seems that Townshend’s presence has re-energized the band, as they’re hitting on all cylinders throughout the Danny Kirwan/Jeremy Spencer/John McVie barn-burner. This may be my favorite single track up to the midway point of the set.

DAVID GILMOUR (photo credits: ROSS HALFIN, OLIVER HALFIN, KAZUYO HORIE)

Neil Finn, one of the newest members (and current co-winner of the guitarist musical chair game) of Fleetwood Mac, performs a nice version of the 1969 single, “Man of the World.” His voice isn’t unappealing and his guitar work is a thing of simplistic beauty. Just when you think that the song is gonna go on too long, it ends at just the right time; such a tune should never outstay its welcome. Billy Gibbons and Steven Tyler return for one of the Mac’s most well known tracks, “Oh, Well (Part One).” The pair trade vocals, with Billy playing his usual crunchy-mean guitar and Steven wailing (as one does) intermittently on the harmonica. The band finds a heavy groove to fall into before it smooths out for “Oh, Well (Part Two),” featuring one David Gilmour on guitar. By the reception, I must assume that a fine time was had by all.

ZAK STARKEY, RICK VITO, JONNY LANG (photo credits ROSS HALFIN, OLIVER HALFIN, KAZUYO HORIE)

Jonny Lang proves he is a bonafide practitioner of the Rhythm and Blues that set Fleetwood Mac off on their fifty-plus year journey with a Gospel-tinged version of Little Willie John’s “Need Your Love So Bad.” The vocals, the guitars (including a solo that would make BB King weep) and Ricky Peterson’s almost mournful Hammond organ all but scream the Blues. Rick Vito steps to the mic again for “Black Magic Woman,” possibly the greatest hit that Santana ever had. This version, obviously, owes more to the Mac’s original version than it does to the cover by Carlos and his boys. Fleetwood and Zak Starkey on drums and Dave Bronze’s work on the bass prove to be a formidable rhythm section, especially on the extended jam that ends the tune. The special guests are great – and a great tribute to Peter Green – but the power and passion of Mick’s hand-chosen band is monster and not to be slighted.

MICK FLEETWOOD, JEREMY SPENCER (photo credits: ROSS HALFIN, OLIVER HALFIN, KAZUYO HORIE)

Jeremy Spencer, a founding member of Fleetwood Mac (he stayed with the band through 1970’s KILN HOUSE album) is joined by former Rolling Stone bassist Bill Wyman on a couple of Elmore James tunes. Mick introduces Wyman before adding, “The last time I shared the stage with this dear friend of mine was 50 years ago,” as an introduction to Spencer. First is a killer version of “The Sky Is Crying,” which Jeremy sang during the early band’s live set. With Mick holding down the drum stool and Bill laying down a solid bassline, Spencer’s somewhat reedy voice and brilliant slide work are allowed to soar over the rock-steady band. Things slow to a near-stroll pace for “I Can’t Hold Out,” with an even more impressive slide lead from Jeremy. Obviously, having another original Mac on board was a surprising treat for the ticket holders and he did not disappoint. The presence of a Stone was equally impressive, as was his playing.

Metallica’s Kirk Hammett straps on Peter Green’s beloved 1959 Les Paul for another well-known tune, “The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown),” though probably a large percentage of America will credit the song to Judas Priest, who famously covered it on their 1979 live record, UNLEASHED IN THE EAST. The tune proves that Kirk has a little bit more to him than just “loud, fast rules.” ZZ Top’s Mister Gibbons joins the fray once more on vocals and guitar. David Gilmour returns, this time on pedal steel, for what can only be described as a lilting, stately take on one of the original group’s biggest hits, “Albatross.” Elmore James’ “Shake Your Money Maker” closes the show, with a free-for-all that sees the entire cast return to the stage. The highlighted musicians and singers include Rick Vito, Ricky Peterson, Steven Tyler, Andy Fairweather-Low and John Mayall.

PETER GREEN, circa 1969 (photo credit: GETTY IMAGES)

Amid a haze of psychedelic drug use and mental collapse – diagnosed as schizophrenia – Peter Green walked away from the band he founded in 1970. His body of music during the course of those three-plus years as the group’s primary songwriter, vocalist and guitarist is quite staggering. The legendary BB King once said of Green’s playing, “He has the sweetest tone I ever heard; he was the only one who gave me the cold sweats.” Peter’s near fifty-year career as a professional musician began in 1961 and didn’t officially end until his death on July 25, 2020 at the age of 73, just five short months after this monumental tribute. The show and the music are particularly bittersweet as he was unable to attend what must have been one of the proudest moments of his life.

LYKANTROPI: TALES TO BE TOLD

(DESPOTZ RECORDS; 2020)

Clearly I have GOT to get myself to Scandinavia. I’ve known that for a while, but it was mostly based on my passion for a few Norwegian acts specifically. But the more I hear of bands influenced by the apparently endless deep forests of Finland and especially Sweden, the more I want to see that influence for myself. Apparently those endless woods make musicians of the region want to write brooding, proggy song cycles about life, love, hours contemplating the meaning of it all, and yes, “tales to be told” in music. That’s the title of this brand-new album by Lykantropi, a group sewing up good reviews and a fast-growing fan base due to their ‘70s rock evoking brand of psych, which is delivered in a perfectly comfortable ensemble guitar, flute and mixed-gender vocals. You need know NOTHING about Nordic spells or landscapes to appreciate this stuff. But it helps if you like Jethro Tull, Blue Oyster Cult, the Moody Blues and yep, even prog kings Yes, since the sounds on TALES TO BE TOLD bring all of those legends to mind.

LYKANTROPI (OLA RUI NYGARD, MARTIN OSTLUND, TOMAS ERIKSSON, MY SHAOLIN, ELIAS HAKANSSON, IA OBERG) (publicity photo)

Martin Ostlund and My Shaolin trade off on male-female lead vocals and often combine for strong harmonies that will remind you of lots of stuff you grew up on in the ‘70s. That’s no slight; it’s a brisk and invigorating sound when combined with the thoroughly confident guitar riffing on tracks like “Coming Your Way,” “Mother of Envy” and “Axis of Margaret,” which is a good solid tune to sample if you’re in a hurry. On “Coming… ,” the repeated simple chorus of “Close your eyes before it’s too late” tends to stick in your mind, and as much as I’d like to ask the band specifically what they MEAN with that lyric, I’ll just take it at face value. The sturdy and melodic title track and the showcase tune “Kom ta mig ut,” which has a striking accompanying video. show a band that is impressively disciplined, one that has obviously heard a few Yes and Genesis albums, yet they rarely indulge in guitar solos or anything at all that could be called “ponderous.” They seem to be purveyors of a surging sonic current that moves forward, but always provides just the right framework for the two vocalists to be heard over, and for the atmosphere to envelop the listener. I really like the accessible arrangement on “Mother of Envy” and the expansive but breathing normally space of “Varlden gar vidare,” which yes, is sung in Swedish but it doesn’t matter. It’s the whole landscape of the piece that draws you in, not individual lyrics. The instrumental work here is exemplary, with Lo Oberg’s flute work deserving special mention. If you want lyrics you understand to sink your teeth into, go with “Coming Your Way” or “Spell On Me,” which made me listen a few times to catch the lyric “”The only time I feel all right is when I’m by your side,” and its slight variation. Others can discuss if the Kinks tune “All Day and All of the Night” and the similar lyric may have been in the heads of the songwriters, but it’s more likely that this universal expression of love and existential angst gripped the pens of Lykantropi’s songwriters same as it does for us Yankee types. Even if they do have better forests and more precise language skills over in Scandi-land.

TALES TO BE TOLD isn’t all that groundbreaking; you’ve heard this sort of psych-y, proggy idiom before. But it’s unquestionably more self-assured and sincere than the umpteen generations of American bands that have been trafficking in this sound since the halcyon era of the ‘70s. And I’ll take the Swedish focused cool and inter-band solidarity we get here over any number of second-rate progsters garnering column inches elsewhere. Three or four albums in, Lykantropi seem to know what they’re doing, and they have the lineup and dedication they need to stay in this for the long run. Give ’em a listen, and then listen again. If, like me, you have all the reference points in you already, the sense of familiarity will be welcome and even a bit emotional.

NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE

(PASSION RIVER FILMS/TEXAS TECH PUBLIC MEDIA (62 minutes; Unrated); 2021)

The worst action humanity has proven itself capable of is surely what we call genocide. That’s the systematic destruction of a particular group of people usually by government decree, and it’s generally incomprehensible to most of us. The new documentary NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE doesn’t add that much new to our understanding of this vile policy, but it’s important nonetheless, especially by focusing primarily on two examples outside the “Holocaust,” which we already have countless films about. Here, director Paul Allen Hunton looks at the Khmer Rouge’s horrifying actions in the latter half of the 1970s, and the massacre of mostly children in Burundi in the early ‘80s. Key survivors of each atrocity are interviewed, and it’s hard to believe they are even here to tell their stories. Sichan Siv, a United States ambassador to the UN in the early 2000s and an author whose books include GOLDEN BONES: AN EXTRAORDINARY JOURNEY FROM HELL IN CAMBODIA TO A NEW LIFE IN AMERICA, guides us through a harrowing look back at the “Killing Fields” he escaped from. He lost 15 members of his family, including his mother, in the horror show that commenced after the Vietnam War ended and a bombing campaign in neighboring Cambodia illegally undertaken by Richard Nixon, gave the rebel group known as the Khmer Rouge an excuse to start organizing their plans.

We were in a situation where you could not really think straight because nobody has ever seen this kind of happening before,” Siv tells us. “Not anywhere in human history. A society that killed their own people!”

NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE (SICHAN SIV) (publicity still)

Through simple but effective animations, and even more effective filming done at Tuol Sleng, the infamous and preserved torture prison in Phnom Penh (complete with countless skulls and photos of the actual prisoners killed there), Siv relates, with remarkable calm, how Pol Pot and his well-trained underlings proceeded to wipe out essentially a third of “Kampuchea’s” then population of eight million people. It’s almost impossible to comprehend unless you have the opportunity to visit the sites in Cambodia where the atrocities happened, something that American student Josh Kiser was able to do.

When a lot of people think of genocide, they think of NUMBERS, not the thought process behind the killing,” Kiser relates. “It doesn’t matter if it’s 50,000 people or two million people. If it’s the systematic killing of people… for whatever reason, that’s a genocide.”

We get some useful history of how the end of the Vietnam War gave birth to these nightmarish events, and how the Khmer Rouge wanted to form “an agrarian community… to get rid of all the powerful elites and… take things back to ZERO.” Some of the most powerful insights are provided by Doctor Ron Milam, Director of the Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies at Texas Tech University. He has studied these matters in depth, and almost matter of factly describes how important it is for the reality of genocide to be taught in schools.

NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE (publicity still)

It will happen again some place, that’s the point,” Milam says. “We need people to know that it can go this way, that there can be a genocide. Unless you’re taught that, you could fall back into that comfortable way of thinking, that people ‘can’t do this to each other.’ It HAS to be taught. My calculation was always roughly that two percent of the population is psychopathic. Then there are fifteen to twenty percent who are just rascals. They don’t believe in genocide and are not driven by racial hatred. But they see it as a way to make money and be in power. Those people surround the psychopaths and will support them.”

This is obviously tough stuff to watch, and it won’t make viewers comfortable about the state of humanity, especially as we know that smaller genocides are still taking place around the globe. Gilbert Tuhabonye was a popular athlete in Burundi in 1993 when the genocide in neighboring Rwanda (with Hutus targeting their perceived rivals, the Tutsi) spilled over into the smaller country and caused many to be exterminated in cruel ways such as fire, including school children. Tuhabonye himself was tortured and marked for death; he relates that he did NOT think he’d survive, recounting in detail his harrowing escape from murderous pursuers. He is shown at a couple of meetings where he is to speak, being introduced and earning enthusiastic applause, before we learn how lucky he was to even get to this point. And he founded an important entity, the Gazelle Foundation, a non-profit that funds and builds clean water projects in his native Burundi. The sheer hate and determination of groups that are often government-sanctioned (and often the government itself), the underlying reality here, will have you shaking your head. It’s a little too resonant even today, in places like Yemen, Myanmar and parts of Africa. How can humanity hope to understand such a level of hatred?

NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE (GILBERT TUHABONYE) (publicity still)

One of the things that genocide requires is the dehumanization of a people,” says Aliza Wong, an Associate Dean at Texas Tech University. “There is a… brainwashing that renders the aggressors to be firm in their commitment that their victims are not human.”

Humans killing other humans en masse, and for the flimsiest of excuses at times, has been going on since early in our history. When you can see exhibits on the subject, as with the Holocaust Museum or the evidence preserved at Tuol Sleng, or hear from survivors who lost loved ones, such as the subjects of this film, the effect is sobering. Though Hunton’s film is barely over an hour in length, and arguably could have provided more background, especially in the Burundi segment, it does a good job of zeroing right in on the primary horrors of its subject, and how escape from genocide appears to be an almost random and unlikely thing due to the thorough efforts of the organized killers. That Siv and Tuhabonye are alive to tell their stories is miraculous, and that they can do so in a tone of voice almost like simply having a hard time finding a parking spot at a crowded store, is just unreal. Sure, one moves on from personal trauma, but THAT level of trauma? Let’s hope none of us are ever in the position to find out what it’s like. This documentary is definitely worth the short time it takes to watch it, and though it won’t put you in a great mood, it’s essential that we all know what politics and war can lead to. Some history we definitely do NOT want to repeat.

NARRATIVES OF MODERN GENOCIDE is available now on DVD and On Demand

PARADISE COVE

(QUIVER DISTRIBUTION/VOLTAGE PICTURES/CRASHING WAVE PRODUCTIONS/SUNSET PICTURES/THUNDER STUDIOS (144 minutes; Unrated); 2021)

I don’t know, sometimes it’s not that complicated. Despite the fact I’ve been watching more movies than usual in the pandemic era and have in general been predisposed to like most of them, I still require an engaging plot and some kind of cinematic ZIP to push my thumb to the UP position. And the little sucker is resisting efforts to do so when it comes to PARADISE COVE, a new Malibu-set thriller directed by Martin Guigui. The only known star in this thing is Mena Suvari, whom I haven’t seen on screen for a long while. It was good to have a new appearance by her as kind of a guide, and she’s decent here as the restless, aching-to-get-pregnant wife of a guy who just took possession of the shell of his late mother’s beach house in Malibu, which needs – let’s just say – a ton of work. The setting is lovely enough, and our young couple, Knox Bannett (Todd Grinnell) and Tracey (Suvari) are shown admiring the view, playing with their tiny dog, and clinking wine glasses together as they discuss how much they want to have a child and Tracey’s apparent difficulty getting pregnant. Knox doesn’t seem too bothered by anything, and assures his wife that everything’s going to work out fine.

PARADISE COVE (TODD GRINNELL) (publicity still)

It’s a jolt, then, to discover that they have a mysterious squatter living below their abode-in-progress. That would be Bree (Kristen Bauer van Straten), a shifty, wild-eyed woman who looks older than her twenty-something age and is more than well-known to the locals, including a bar maid who telegraphs that something may be amiss with this gal, and to Sheriff Garcia (Ruben Garfias), who sees her mostly as a harmless nuisance. Ah, but Bree is more than just a danger in paradise. She is clearly unhinged, manipulative and not receptive in the least to Knox’s efforts to get her to relocate. A bit of background is provided about a tragedy she endured with a young son, and Knox tries to be sympathetic to her. But she’s not the sort to “work out a deal” with him or anything. And she quickly gets on the bad side of Tracey, too, who hardly wants to set aside her preoccupations with pregnancy and finances to deal with this crazy lady. Sparks are gonna fly, you might say. And sharp knives, hammers and coldly barbed insults are also gonna be utilized. That kinda stuff can definitely impinge on the aesthetic beauty of crashing waves and crying seagulls outside the window. A scene of Bree sneaking into the shower with Knox is downright ludicrous, and it’s sort of where I began losing patience with this film. Although Bree is reasonably attractive, I simply did NOT believe Knox would react as he did in this scene, not after what had already happened. In fact, Knox’s less-than-smart decisions throughout the movie detract from the sympathy he might have earned as the central character. He’s not all that bright, slow at putting the big picture together, and less than a truly reassuring husband for poor Tracey. As an actor, Grinnell LOOKS the part of an in-over-his-head husband, and he fits nicely with Suvari’s mostly plaintive, concerned wife. But he’s missing something in the charisma department, and his performance is simply too low-key in these proceedings. By the time a big confrontation occurs, there has not been enough energy built up to give this “thriller” an actual thrill. You just sort of want to get it over with.

PARADISE COVE (MENA SUVARI, TODD GRINNELL) (publicity still)

I will say that the premise is a reasonably interesting one – the list of movies about deranged homeless females in Malibu is a short one, as far as I know. And Bauer van Straten’s is the notable performance here. She’s a character who is not overtly psychopathic… more someone who gets under your skin by being rude and insensitive, and then starts doing increasingly nasty things without warning until you and your new place are in BIG trouble. The character has some compelling moments, and yeah, she’ll likely creep you out plenty. There’s a bit of “Fatal Attraction-lite” about Bree and her doings here.

PARADISE COVE (KRISTIN BAUER VAN STRATEN, TODD GRINNELL) (publicity still)

But ultimately this movie is somewhat of a tiresome watch, despite the scenic setting. Nobody is genuinely likable, the plot pushes at the limits of credibility a bit too often, and Knox and Tracey, while you basically ROOT for them, are kind of a bland, unromantic couple. The film lacks any big or genuinely impactful scenes that would make you invest more deeply in these characters. And as a so-called “thriller,” there’s a paucity in that regard, also, except for one or two sudden moments. Mena Suvari fans might enjoy seeing her in a sizable role like this, and some may find the film an okay diversion. But my stomach felt empty at the end of the movie and so did my brain. Not exactly “Paradise,” in other words, for my cinema-loving self.

PARADISE COVE is available now On Demand.

PRETENDERS: HATE FOR SALE

(BMG MUSIC GROUP; 2020)

When I heard that there was new music coming from Chrissie Hynde and Pretenders, I must admit I was pretty happy! HATE FOR SALE was released this past July, their first album of new music since 2016’s ALONE. There are a couple of new faces in the band’s studio make-up (a couple have been part of the group’s live line-up for quite awhile): James Walbourne on guitar and keyboards, Nick Wilkinson on bass, Stephen Street on keyboards and percussion, plus the studio return of original drummer Martin Chambers, who hadn’t recorded with the band since LOOSE SCREW in 2002. Of course, the linchpin, the main star, band architect and leader, Chrissie Hynde, sounds incredible; her songwriting, guitar work and readily recognizable harmonica blasts are feisty and ready to rock. Her voice, it almost goes without saying, is wonderful.

HATE FOR SALE isn’t very long… just a little over 30 minutes, but you certainly get your money’s worth with every song. Those songs flow well as the band moves flawlessly from one to another. Though I really do like all ten tracks here, I think my favorites are “Turf Accountant Daddy” and “Didn’t Want To Be This Lonely,” which just rock with reckless abandon. There’s an interesting kinda Reggae thing called “Lightning Man” which moves directly into “Turf Accountant Daddy” that manages to mix things up a bit. The record ends with a nice little tune, a beautiful piano ballad called “Crying In Public,” an emotional side that we rarely see from Chrissie.

PRETENDERS (James Walbourne, Nick Wilkinson, Martin Chambers, Chrissie Hynde) (uncredited photo)

Martin Chambers sounds great throughout and I’m so glad he’s back, but this is obviously Chrissie’s album and she makes the most of it. She’s been in the business for over five decades and I have certainly enjoyed her work. Having lost track of what Ms Hynde and her band had been up to in recent years, I was curious when I heard they had new music out. I was totally happy and surprised when I finally got to hear it. I’ve seen the group in concert a couple of times, once right after their debut album came out in the States, opening for the Who and once on a package tour with ZZ Top and Stray Cats. Both good shows (though they were nearly “Who’d” off the stage during the first one!) and I’ve always liked their music, but this new one, HATE FOR SALE, has become one of my favorites of this year. Stephen Street did an excellent job producing and mixing, giving the music a very clean sound. The entire record hits you right in the gut… in the best way possible! Pretenders were scheduled to tour with Journey earlier this year but, like countless others, those plans were put on hold due to the pandemic. So, even though we didn’t get live Pretenders this year, we did get an absolutely incredible record from them. For that and for decades of musical brilliance, I say, “Thank you, Chrissie Hynde!”

HAWK AND REV: VAMPIRE SLAYERS

(RBG FILMS/CLUMSY TIGER PRODUCTIONS/LOADED IMAGE ENTERTAINMENT (85 minutes; Unrated); 2020)

Without a doubt, this is one of the silliest movies I have ever seen. HAWK AND REV: VAMPIRE SLAYERS aims to be a kind of cross between DUMB AND DUMBER and THE LOST BOYS, in that it focuses on two very dim-witted friends, Hawk (Ryan Barton-Grimley) and Rev, his vegan-hippie space cadet counterpart (Ari Schneider) who are sure their town of Santa Muerte, California is being plagued by vampires. They wisecrack about everything, assemble a plan to take on the bloodsuckers that may or may not include the eye patch-wearing tough guy Jasper (Richard Gayler), and find time to parody other, better-known films such as FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. In fact, when former security guard Hawk tries to make a point about predictability to his clueless friend, he rattles off a long list of quotes from classic movies that Rev shows unblinking ignorance of. It’s a preposterous scene, and yet, it did sort of make me chuckle. So did a brief chat about how yes, you can still rent DVDs in some places, and seeing a trio of punk rockers mistaken for vamps (one of whom is a black leather covered gimp in an homage to Tarantino’s PULP FICTION… silent, but shown eating popcorn in one scene). The low-budget movie eases into its absurdity at first, with most of the budget apparently spent on some gory scenes that are over the top a la Monty Python. But by the final half hour, it simply goes all in on complete and total idiocy that, if you’re in the mood for it, will possibly give you giggle fits. The film is like an ego project for some college students making their magnum opus, probably stoned for most of the production. Weirdly, though, the acting is decent in a self-indulgent way, and Barton-Grimley is no newcomer. He’s been in the business for years, and I recognize him from one or two TV projects I can’t recall the names of. He’s obviously having a great time here, sending up every cliche in the world of vampire and crime investigation type films. The two leads are joined by a female writer named Theo (Jana Savage), who comes across as though she were doing little more than helping a couple of pals. And a bit of extreme gore in that last half hour will make college students chuckle, perhaps, but likely won’t be of much interest to anyone else.

HAWK AND REV: VAMPIRE SLAYERS (Ari Schneider, Jana Savage, Ryan Barton-Grimley) (publicity still)

I thought at first of including some of the more comical lines of dialogue in this review, and decided against it. The pace of this film is frenetic, and it wears its willful stupidity proudly, honestly wanting to be a throwback to the ‘80s on almost every level. There is an audience for this kind of movie, just as there was for DUMB AND DUMBER, although that one was art compared to the slim production values of this thing. And yet, its gleeful dedication to a brainless aesthetic is admirable. I DID actually laugh a few times, and once I realized that nothing serious was going to happen and the “stakes” (pun intended) would remain low, I could appreciate the lack of pretension here and the high number of ridiculous scenes. But forget all about stuff you’ve seen before like BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER if you watch this. That Joss Whedon show is like MASTERPIECE THEATRE compared to Hawk and Rev’s exploits. Describing the plot beyond what I’ve already said is pointless. These “vampire slayers” are just wanna-be’s, lug-headed friends whose main purpose is to send up a couple of time-worn genres. They do that moderately well at times, but any expectations at all for this film beyond indulging in some extreme silliness, are likely to result in head shaking and exhaustion. And yikes, it looks like a sequel dealing with werewolves is out there. You gotta be howling mad to make a franchise out of this stuff.

JON ANDERSON: 1000 HANDS, CHAPTER ONE

(BLUE ELAN RECORDS; 2020)

Jon Anderson has one of the most instantly recognizable voices in the world; as lead vocalist for prog rock titans Yes for the bulk of their storied career, his pipes became the vocal signature on dozens of vibrant rock classics such as “And You and I,” “Roundabout” and “Heart of the Sunrise.” Why Anderson is not still with Yes can best be left to another discussion, but the man still has a commanding, healthy sounding voice; he hardly seems to have aged at all despite his nearly 75 years of age. 1000 HANDS, Anderson’s latest opus, has been gestating for a number of years and earned its title at least partly from the exaggerated number of individuals who contributed to it. That includes former Yes associates like Steve Howe, Alan White and the late Chris Squire. So it stands to reason this dense new album will be of interest to Yes fans, but it’s also just a solid musical offering that anyone into lush, upbeat pop with classical leanings should be able to appreciate. It’s filled with spritely melodies, Anderson’s lyrical optimism and plenty of engaging instrumental interplay.

JON ANDERSON (photo credit: DEBORAH ANDERSON)

The album is bookended by two versions of a simple mostly acoustic song called “Now” in a brief into, then “Now and Again” as the fuller light rock song that ends the record (Howe guests on guitar here). “Ramalama” is a fun little piece that Anderson has said emerged from vocal exercises he was in the habit of doing. While one Anderson sings a repetitive “Dit di da,” another sings some lyrics about light, togetherness, finding your center and other standard Anderson concerns. The piece may remind some of Yes’ album 90210, especially the Rabin-penned “Leave It,” which I thought was extraordinary, myself. I’m hearing a banjo on this number, I believe, and that is kinda cool. By the time this song ends, it has thoroughly grabbed you and demonstrated Anderson’s absolute love of sheer sound, a real trademark of this iconic composer. “First Born Leaders” is an unlikely marriage of calypso and gospel stylings, featuring Larry Coryell guesting on guitar, a small choir and Anderson opening with a burst of smooth a cappella. “Everybody wants what they cannot have/Everybody needs what they cannot see/Everybody wants what they haven’t got at all,” goes the repeated chorus, and that’s pretty dang down to Earth for ol’ cosmic Jon. This is a melodic, upbeat tune that should please most music fans.

JON ANDERSON, 2016 (photo credit: JOE KLEON)

“Activate” features classical guitar and flute (by none other than Ian Anderson) and is one of the two tracks Chris Squire guests on, but at nearly 9 minutes is slightly too new agey for my taste. Anderson can’t stop his searchingly humanistic lyrics from simply pouring out in this song, and truthfully, they resonate quite well for the most part: “In accordance with the facts of life, we resolve to show the truth,” goes one lyric; “Don’t get in the way of the light that shines” is another. But I especially love this directive: “All you gotta do is mesmerize my heart and soul,” something I wish more artists would keep in mind. And the very poignant verse “And the only way we have of contacting you for sure/Is the melody of music and the harmony of love.” Although Anderson has voiced such sentiments countless times, I love the context here and it really moved me as a fellow musician. I only wish the song itself had contained more of the delicate beauty Anderson has been known to effortlessly conjure at times.

JON ANDERSON with ANDERSON PONTY BAND (photo credit: ROBIN KAUFFMAN)

“Makes Me Happy” and “I Found Myself” are sugary pop truffles, the former a ukulele-featuring melodic rush that could get the kiddies dancing; it has uncommon musical efficiency and a genuine spark of joy. The unlikely guests here include Rick Derringer, the Tower of Power Horns and, golly, the “human beatbox,” Michael Winslow. Clearly Anderson kept the sonic palette wide open for this outing. The latter is a romantic love song that features acoustic guitars, violin and (I think) a double-tracked vocal by Jon, before a woman’s voice responds in pure affirmation of his loving expression. If you’re into birds, you’ll notice the prominent call of an Eastern Phoebe throughout, so either Anderson had his windows open when he recorded this, or he made it a point to include sounds of nature in the mix. Again, it’s worth noting the simplicity and directness of tunes like this; no cosmic couplets needed to be transported somewhere special.

JON ANDERSON (photo credit: TAMI FREED)

The next three songs represent a sort of climactic and Yes-influenced sequence, with “Twice in a Lifetime” featuring instrumentation that evokes “Turn of the Century” a bit, and “WDMCF” (“Where does music come from?”) featuring lovely harmonies, a piano showcase by Chick Corea, and the kind of celebration of MUSIC that Jon Anderson has made a career out of (see “Awaken” and “Sound Chaser” among others). If you’re a fan of Yes, go straight to this track and turn it up loud; it’s the best song here. There is something riveting about hearing Anderson sing “Music, music/Music… come up, music come up” that hits the bulls-eye of Anderson’s many thematic targets. He’s the right guy to ask “Where does music come from?” and although he might take 20 minutes or more to answer such a question in conversation, here he does it in a sublime five and a half minutes. Stellar, man. “1000 Hands (Come Up)” is the second song in a row to repeatedly use the phrase “come up,” and here we get some overtly jazz stylings (Billy Cobham joins the ensemble), some fancy keys (Corea again) and a sharp bit of violin by Jean-Luc Ponty. Not to mention Squire again making a welcome appearance. Anderson sounds more casual and circumspect on this 8-minute-plus track, and it feels like slightly new territory for him. The whole intricate arrangement comes over like the work of a composer/sonic architect who has been around for a long time and is still searching for sparkling new sounds.

Which Anderson HAS been, and clearly IS. When he sings “Come up with me” on that previous song, it’s not just an invitation to listen, it’s a plea to move your entire vibration to a higher level in life. That’s sound advice, no pun intended, for this era in particular. Anderson may sometimes be cloying, and the overall success of his solo work (and even some Yes recordings) depends on how organically his aesthetic and lyrical explorations nestle into those intricate proggy sound beds his band is known for. When everything gels, the results are transcendent (stuff like “Awaken” and “Heart of the Sunrise,” and at least a couple of tracks here). When it doesn’t, or if you ain’t in the mood, the love-peace-togetherness vibe can get a bit tiresome. But it’s immensely reassuring to have a good Jon Anderson album out there right now, and to hear him sounding happy and caring about humanity as only he can. High vibration, go on… indeed. This enduring musical soul is more than worth listening to on these matters, and would that EVERY legendary musician could still sound so focused and healthy at his age.

JOE OLNICK: WINK OF AN EYE

(SELF-RELEASED; 2020)

You gotta have patience to appreciate straight drone music. You know that expression people commonly use where someone talks too much? They’ll say of the party in question, “Oh he just drones on and on… ” In other words, someone is making a repetitive noise that someone else quickly gets tired of. Many listeners would say that about a lot of ambient music, especially the sub-genre that is primarily drone-based. But as a devoted ambient acolyte, I appreciate a good immersive drone, and Joe Olnick offers three of them on this here self-released outing. Olnick is a guitarist and producer mostly known for a sort of rock/funk/jazz hybrid that his Joe Olnick Band traffics in (“Funky Traffic” and “Downtown” earned spins on college radio). But he also digs ambient, and has been exploring the possibilities of what the guitar can do when, well, you process the shit out of it so it doesn’t hardly sound like a guitar anymore. WINK OF AN EYE apparently began as brief sections borrowed from an earlier ambient recording called BRIGHT PAINTINGS, and Olnick used what he calls “advanced processing techniques” to conjure up some layered space music.

There are only 3 pieces on this disc, curiously titled “Slow Funky Buildings,” “Slow Bright Buildings” and “Slow Modern Buildings.” All three are, you got it, slow. These are drones that can work as background ambience, and they are pleasant and captivating enough to hold your attention should you choose to pay it. But you won’t be suddenly bombarded by rude sonic bursts of weirdness, either. The “Slow Funky” track is most assuredly NOT funky… it’s made of subtly changing soundwaves that might remind you of a wild seashore, where the water comes into shore dramatically and then recedes. “Waves” is really the best word to describe this stuff. Not that much happens, but it’s still hypnotic. At 26 minutes, the “Slow Bright” track is longest, and it starts off more abrasive and metallic than its predecessor. I was reminded of Fripp and Eno’s “An Index of Metals,” only not as ominous as that opus. Olnick is not out to unnerve anyone; this really seems to be an exercise in how ambient a guitar can get when you manipulate the output very thoroughly. The answer? VERY ambient. You could possibly drift off to sleep with this one, although I wouldn’t call it “serene” or anything. “Slow Modern Buildings” does approach a kind of serenity, though. It’s a modest 11 minutes long, and turns the “evocative” dial up to at least “7.” You could take chunks of this piece and use ‘em in some arty indie film or documentary about wild places. Without any such context? You basically get a Joe Olnick ambient drone trio, which will be enough for some of us. No less than the legendary Robert Rich mastered this recording, which should tell you two things: One, it sounds terrific and enveloping, and two, Rich thought highly enough of the sonic excursions here to put his name on them.

JOE OLNICK (publicity photo)

You could say of virtually ANY ambient disc, “it’s not for everyone.” And this may bore non aficionados, for sure. But there is something very comfortable and unassuming about Olnick’s relaxed space music; he offers it up with the confidence that some folks will find it worthwhile. Olnick is NOT one of those artists who simply “drones on and on” without purpose. He’s got plenty of other things on his plate, but knowing he is into at least the occasional drone-fest makes WINK OF AN EYE rather special. I was a contented participant in the conversation that Olnick started with this release.

TWO WAYS TO GO WEST

(GLOBAL DIGITAL RELEASING (78 minutes; Unrated); 2020)

If a movie primarily consists of talking, and mostly features just two or three characters, a few things are essential. First, those characters should be distinctive and somewhat charismatic. Second, the thematic material covered should be compelling and fresh in some way. Third, the film needs to be shot and lit effectively. The little indie film TWO WAYS TO GO WEST gets about 50% of each of those categories down effectively. It looks good; everything is pretty sharp and clear, and the many, MANY closeups of the three leads help us get to know them and form at least some kind of opinion.

TWO WAYS TO GO WEST (Drew Kenney, Paul Gennaro, James Liddell) (publicity still)

Those characters, Gavin (James Liddell, who also wrote and produced the film), Marty (Paul Gennaro) and Shane (Drew Kenney) portray old school chums who have loads of problems and are not too happy with each other for most of this movie. Gavin is a struggling addict who’s made some movies; one of these gets some attention early on in a discussion and we even see a poster for that film, a nice touch. Marty is the most organized and proactive of the trio; he’s trying to put a small bachelor party together for Shane but finds himself appalled by the behavior of his two chums. Shane has a fiancé that he’s struggling to commit to. Gavin is sort of involved with a Las Vegas dancer named Addison (Levy Tran), who is from the Philippines, is covered with tattoos, but seems to have the most common sense of all of them. So about those three essentials: the characters are “sort of” distinctive, and certainly physically appealing and masculine, but they don’t reveal much depth. They say a lot of abrasive things to each other over and over (“What’s wrong with you?” is a recurring line, and “You always take everything much harder than everyone else” is a charge leveled at Gavin), express disapproval, and talk about women – a LOT. Gavin is fighting the drug thing with only partial success. We don’t necessarily get much insight about his habit, but we DO see that he’s giving it his best shot not to go under. Shane tends to be selective in what he shares, and it’s revealed that he slept with someone important to Gavin in the past. There is some bad blood. Marty is really disappointed in his pals, to say the least, and has little faith that they will ever be there for HIM, in ways that he tries to express.

TWO WAYS TO GO WEST ( James Liddell, Paul Gennaro, Drew Kenney) (publicity still)

So about that “thematic material” I mentioned? Well, “flawed male bonding” is the biggest take-away (including disappointed expectations of old friends), with the way relationships with women can impact things through the years. And also, cinematically speaking, the tensions, laughter and nostalgic asides that emerge in intimate, sustained conversation with those you think you know best. There are some believable dynamics and fast-moving discourse in this film, but it also gets tedious at times. You wait for a big revelation that doesn’t really come. By the time the film leaves the dark apartment where most of its “plot” takes place, and you get to see Marty in an actual diner talking to a sympathetic waitress who has a darkly funny story to tell (this story gives the film its name), the effect is oddly refreshing and memorable. And it helps set up a final conversation between the three friends that does have something to say about the passing of time, the possibility for change, and the ability of those we care about to face up to mistakes.

The film doesn’t quite earn any big emotions, and none of the three leads seems like someone compelling enough to imagine being old friends with (although they all try pretty hard to create real-life multi-dimensional chums convincingly). But as a talkie type film, it’s at least above average, and both the movie and its stars look plenty sharp, even if the emotional content goes flat at times. TWO WAYS TO GO WEST is directed by Ryan Brookhart, who does enough with his camera and perspective to make me think he’s got a promising future in character-driven films. He’s also chosen excellent country songs (including a couple by Suzanne Santo) to begin and end his little opus.