Soundscapes at the National Gallery | Exhibition review

The need to express oneself is as old as time. Before mankind acquired verbal communication skills, people would already seek ways to convey messages or to leave testimonies of their passage. And even then, men would naturally be influenced by their surroundings, as simple as they were.

Linking arts is therefore not such a novelty. Even when they specialise in a certain field, artists more than often will cross genres and mediums to create their works. What is innovative about Soundscapes, however, is the approach with which it was conceived.

The National Gallery asked six recording artists to each select a painting from its collection and provide a soundtrack to it. Whereas nowadays this is a common feature in cinematic productions, it is interesting to witness the results of the same method as applied to non-moving images. Especially considering that interactive events have become so popular, this exhibition is another attempt to get visitors involved and benefit from a multi-sensorial experience.

Soundscapes is devised so as to guide visitors from one room to the other, through a path which should stimulate and increase their sensitivity and concentration. Every space is dedicated to a single canvas, all walls are pitch black, at times including the floor, and speakers are positioned around the area according to the artists’ instructions.

From a technical point of view, however, the exhibition fails to achieve its main goal. Since allowing people to enter each room individually is perhaps impossible, at least without restraining the visiting experience to a given time frame, the curators may have thought of giving out headphones instead, so that everyone could share the space while making it more intimate.

In spite of the effort made by separating the paintings by sound-isolating corridors, voices, steps and whatever sound we produce still naturally impairs a total communion with the pictures and the musical scores that have been purposely crafted to match them. Evaluating the effectiveness of these commissioned installations is not so useful – some may turn out to be more evocative than others but that is only up to visitors to decide, as it is very subjective.

Its real aim being to encourage visitors to keep this same approach next time they look at a painting, Soundscapes definitely provides the grounds to instil this curiosity, awaken imagination and promote a deeper connection with art. Nonetheless, it doesn’t quite make it happen. Seeing some people leaving rooms after approximately five seconds is enough reason to believe they didn’t even give it a try.

Verdict: •••

Soundscapes is on until 6th September 2015 at the National Gallery, for further information visit here

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Audrey Hepburn at the National Portrait Gallery | Exhibition review

In a recent commercial created with CGI technology, a 20-something Audrey Hepburn winked once more at the camera – an appearance coming twenty-plus years after her death in 1993 and showing the extent of her legacy in our contemporary culture.

A new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Audrey Hepburn – Portraits of an Icon, opened yesterday with the aim to reaffirm this.
It chronicles Hepburn’s life in photographs, from her first steps into the arts as a ballet student, onto her debut as a chorus girl in London revues, where she was discovered, via her rising fame and established success as an American movie star until her demise.

Early evidence comes, for instance, from late-40s fashion shots by Antony Beauchamp, who praised the actress’s ‘dancing eyes’ as one of her most prominent features. In fact, this is what was so peculiar – Hepburn’s natural beauty was enhanced by her unassuming, benevolent soul which transpired through her style and figure, especially her eyes. Later redefined ‘the Hepburn look’, it distinguished her from fellow actresses of her time who, more or less consciously, promoted a more sexual kind of appeal.

Audrey’s refined elegance soon became even more of a distinctive trait when the actress started a partnership with Givenchy for the filming of Sabrina (1954) – the stylist would go on to take exclusive care of Hepburn’s wardrobe for decades, forever defining her as an icon of sophistication.
The 50s and 60s were crucial, Hepburn was at the height of her cinematic career and her image helped reshaping the perception of women in society, her delicately fierce poise “blurred the boundaries between conventional depictions of male and female”. A photo (1953) by Mark Shaw in which the actress poses outside her Beverly Hills apartment is emblematic.

However, Hepburn’s down-to-earth character wasn’t only laudable in itself, and the exhibition alludes to this compassionate disposition of hers way before visitors reach the final room, where the actress’s active involvement in humanitarian campaigns during her last years is briefly exposed. The shooting of The Nun’s Story (1959) was undoubtedly a cathartic milestone in Audrey’s life – a caption to a film still mentions a letter in which, collecting her thoughts on this experience, she immediately recognised the impact that Africa was having on her.

Hepburn’s last years are unfortunately not extensively accounted for. Although she is mostly remembered as an international film celebrity and fashion idol, it’s a pity that the exhibition doesn’t pay a bigger tribute to her charitable efforts as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador.
This retrospective surely serves as a good starting point for those who are still relatively unfamiliar with Audrey Hepburn but it would have been interesting to celebrate her long-standing status as an influential persona by actually showing the implications that this still has today.

Verdict: •••

Audrey Hepburn – Portraits of an Icon is on until 18th October 2015 at the National Portrait Gallery, for further information visit here.

Muse – Drones | Album review

Rock veterans Muse need no introduction. Since their formation in 1994, the band has spawned seven albums, the latest, Drones, being released but a couple of weeks ago.

The first impression is that it’s not even worth a penny…after a few spins however, it can surprise. Initially a rollercoaster of ups and downs, just like Muse’s career – an alternating sequence of WTFs and “wait, that’s good” – the record needs some listens before it can be fully digested.

This time around, Muse distance themselves from the electronic sound which had characterised their last material, initiating a U-turn towards their roots. Definitely heavier than the previous effort, Drones is a little achievement that is rarely seen these days. In spite of the different influences which still shape the band’s work, this album manages to keep cohesion throughout and, while it has a somewhat weak start, it’s one of those records that grows on you the more you listen to it.

Muse take listeners on a journey from the desperation, anger and rebellion vented out in the first section, to the calm, ecstatic, reconciled or subdued vision described and expressed in the songs that constitute the ending part of Drones.

Nothing new is on the horizon – the trio’s musical talent is evident and reinstated – nearly sparking indignant outbursts for their being repetitive and not so much inventive any more. The lyrics are also more than often easy to be scoffed at – take Psycho for instance, Bellamy sings “your ass belongs to me now”, a line which would fit more in a dodgy porn movie script. Little matters that it has a specific purpose and that it is connected to the main theme of the record, it just doesn’t sound cool.

The chorus in Reapers seems to have been sampled on Madness, The Globalist reminisces Knights of Cydonia – we’ve seen it all before. It is nonetheless what Muse have learnt to do best – Bellamy’s falsetto, hard-rocking and powerful guitar solos, pumping bass chords, building-up hammering rhythms, keyboards and piano suites will all be there.

With Drones, the band resorted again to a concept album which doesn’t explore much but rests on the comforting signature sound they have become known for. A stadium-filler, yet a bold attempt and by all means enjoyable.

Verdict: •••

Drones was released on 8th June, for more information about Muse and upcoming shows click here.

Watch the official video for Mercy:

Walk Off The Earth – Sing It All Away | Album review

Raise a hand who doesn’t know Walk Off the Earth. There probably exist very few people unaware of this band, whose video for Somebody That I Used To Know went viral on YouTube in 2012. This live cover of Gotye and Kimbra’s famous song had such a success because of the original approach the group had to it – one acoustic guitar and the five members alternatively providing main or backing vocals, singing “a cappella” style and each of them somehow involved in the playing of the instrument.

Three years later, the new album Sing It All Away retains little of the innovative breeze with which the band had swept the musical scene. The first impression is that the record is but a collection of all similar sounding tracks in which Walk Off the Earth repeat themselves over and over again. The second impression is that not only the album is dull and redundant, it also has no direction whatsoever – copying from other artists and resulting in a chaotic mixture of genres which are merely recognizable before ending up once more in the same patterns, rhythms and melodies.

All you can hear in this record are stadium-size choruses à la Coldplay, tribal beats that gradually evolve into more electronic sounds ready to fill in the airwaves of your local discotheque, simple and catchy radio-friendly tunes and trite lyrics.

Take Home We’ll Go – whistles, banjos, stomping rhythms and a chorus that sounds all too familiar. Inadvertently reprising the Italian version of The Story of Pollyanna’s opening theme, it sounds like a pastoral, Southern U.S.A. country song at first but soon turns into a techno-pop composition – Avicii would either be proud or sue the group for plagiarism. This is even clearer when you find out there’s a Steve Aoki remix of this track at the end of the album. It all makes sense now. But if this mash-up is the real innovation, the band had better spared us.

Clapping hands, rapped words and sing-alongs. Somewhere you spot Rihanna, somewhere else you find Hayley Williams. If Walk Off the Earth wanted to keep doing covers, they should have kept doing covers – they were good material.

If anything, the record is appropriately named – it’s very easy to Sing It All Away. Praise for the members being able to switch from an instrument to the other – being multi-instrumentalists like they are is quite impressive. The album instead may well be chosen as the soundtrack of the next World Cup.

Verdict: ••

Sing It All Away was released on 15th June 2015, for more information about Walk Off The Earth and upcoming shows click here.

Ash at Scala | Live review

Merciless signs of the passing of time may be showing on their faces, but their spirits haven’t been affected – as Tim Wheeler cared to remind, Ash have been performing for twenty-one years and last Thursday’s gig proved that the band still has the energy to lead a Teenage Wildlife.

Die-hard fans and recent recruits alike flocked to Scala to express either their unconditioned love or their newborn enthusiasm and Ash didn’t disappoint them.

Apart from a few technical glitches, the concert was impressive, a special occasion to celebrate and commemorate several events. Starting with the bluesy instrumental Evel Knievel, the gig was first of all a warm-up to introduce and promote the latest record Kablammo!
The show however was a mix of new material and old repertoire. Understandably, yet unheard-of tracks like the blasting Cocoon or Go! Fight! Win! received a generally positive response, but Ash were more successful when playing familiar tunes.

Curiously, the audience was literally divided in two factions – one keener on creating mosh pits during the execution of harder-edged, faster-paced, old-time favourites such as Kung Fu, the other equally enjoying the show but keeping a more composed attitude no matter which mood the songs provided. Only Goldfinger, whose performance was unanimously wholeheartedly welcomed, saw a little rift when someone attempted body surfing not realising he was on the “wrong” side, ending up being ruthlessly shun and pushed to the floor, luckily without consequences.

A second reason for celebration was drummer Rick McMurray’s wedding, which had taken place the day before and was cause for banter between the band members and the fans – Wheeler and McMurray made jokes about marriage life and “inappropriately” playing “emotional break-up songs”. A remarkable live rendition of Moondust gave the (otherwise slightly tedious) track a different status, a cinematic atmosphere that made it suitable for the soundtrack of a cosmic-themed movie.

Renowned for their fascination with astronomy-related things, the band also took the chance to pay homage to Christopher Lee – who acted in some of the Star Wars instalments and passed away a few days ago – dedicating Evil Eye to his memory.

Just when it seemed like they couldn’t do better, Ash definitively brought the venue down with a powerful performance of career staples Walking Barefoot, Girl From Mars and Burn, Baby, Burn – which closed the gig.

It’s a safe bet to say the band has passed the test of time and their future is brighter than ever.

Verdict: •••••

For further information on Ash and future gigs, visit here.

Ash – Kablammo! | Album review

Coming after a long 8-years wait since the last LP, Kablammo! sounds like the product of a tormented soul torn in two very incompatible personalities. The Northern Irish trio’s latest effort is divided between a handful of punk-rock anthems and a few ballads. If it’s true that most albums feature a variety of songs whose nature greatly differs but which, put together, still manage to keep some cohesion, Kablammo!, unfortunately, isn’t one of them.

Full of promises, it opens with Cocoon – a downright, classic Ash tune, with a twist. What seems like a common punk-pop song, fast and bursting with energy, is enriched by a peculiar riff whose reverberations musically epitomise the cartoon-style graphic design of the record’s cover. A mysterious empty place and a strong desire to break out and be born again, here the fight is within oneself. Pow! Wow! The song even ends with what sounds like a gunshot. Boom! Everything combines in a eerie, vivid, visual and lyrical imagination that borrows from multiple sources but heavily relies on singer and songwriter Wheeler’s well-known fascination with all things cosmic and inexplicable.

Let’s Ride follows, an anthem in its purest form – starting with the title itself, the song is an encouragement to do something (in this case departing, “leaving behind all we know”) and the sing-along chorus only proves the obvious.

Wheeler then keeps drawing upon his usual set of references – dark vs. light, out-of-this-world powers desensitising and paralysing him. Machinery is yet another example of these haunting, unknown forces conspiring against his freedom. There is hope, in the guise of love, but it always seems like the protagonist of every story ends up in despair, either pining for the girl or whining over her loss. Take the slower-paced Free, to name but one. Straight after that comes Go! Fight! Win! and the tempo speeds up once more thanks to the steady drumbeats and the cheerleading screams. In spite of all that’s been said so far, Wheeler now claims to have finally made it through.

Then tracks like Moondust or For Eternity, make one wonder what happened to the rebellious spirit that Wheeler previously boasted. These lullabies are also nothing like any other love song by Ash, lingering too much on their piano melodies and strings harmonies. Even the lyrics are too cheesy and already heard. They feel out of place in an otherwise great album spawning songs like Spaghetti Western-sounding Evel Knievel.

It’s a pity, fingers crossed one of these days the hero gets the girl.

Verdict: •••

Kablammo! was released on 25th May, for more information about Ash and upcoming shows click here.

Mew – Plus Minus | Album review

Although it has taken them six years to release a new album, Mew were far from being dormant meanwhile. During this time they have honoured their frengers (the word, a sophisticated mashup between ‘friends’ and ‘strangers’, served as the title of a previous record and is now employed by the band to refer to its fans) with little giveaways like tracks previews, a compilation record and even an app. After enticing their followers with such treats, the Danish indie-rock ensemble eventually pulled out its latest effort around a month ago.

Named + –, the new LP sounds like an average work by Mew and not too different from their last. There’s no surprise factor as the musical direction is still heading back to the band’s signature vibes and atmospheres, geared towards a pop-rock sound which heavily relies on echoed, mellow melodies and on Bjerre’s dreamy vocals.
It’s a pleasant listen from beginning to end, a ship that smoothly sails from a harbour to another until its final destination.

The record, however, is more than a mere collection of all-equally-tuned songs. The opener, Satellites, chosen as the first single, is a catchy track characterised by a building-up structure, starting off quietly but rapidly increasing its rhythm.
Distorted guitar riffs and keyboards predominate here, overlapped by Bjerre’s high-pitched yet sweet vocals and intertwined with up-tempo beats. Like in every other song, all the components are wisely mixed and never redundant.

The Night Believer is another feel-good track and features vocal parts by the New Zealand singer Kimbra, who also lent her voice to two more songs. Making Friends, instead, has a more funky yet chilled groove. Clinging To A Bad Dream’s peculiarity is the slightly alienating harmony reverberating in between the main melodies, reminiscent of the famous electronic song Born Slippy by Underworld.

Another song which needs a special mention is Witness, with its heavier, insistent percussion patterns and gloomier mood and vocals. Rows also stands out for being a nearly eleven minutes-long track which is anything but tedious. My Complications sees the contribution of Bloc Party’s guitarist Russell Lissack, and is a fast-paced track whose sound differs a bit from the rest of the album’s repertoire.

All Mew songs are little works of art which are very independent and interesting in their own right even if they all share the band’s trademark sound. + – is a thoroughly enjoyable record and if that wasn’t enough, the comeback of bassist Johan Wohlert makes it even more worthy of a spin.

Verdict: •••

+ – was released on 27th April, for more information about Mew and upcoming shows click here.

Watch the official video for Satellites: