The August Riots


Thursday, 31 December 2009

Predictions for 2010 – a new start, or more of the same?

As we end a decade in which the world has changed immeasurably, we enter 2010 hoping for a year of peace, reconciliation and progress. The first of these we may have to wait a long time for, with the conflict in Afghanistan due to carry on with no end in sight, claiming for and more British lives. The United States’ deployment of 30,000 troops to the area will provide a boost, and can have one of two possible effects. For the optimists amongst us, reinforcements will take the pressure off over-extended forces in some of the most dangerous regions, including Helmand Province where the majority of British soldiers are stationed. However from a less positive point-of-view President Obama’s decision could serve to turn the Afghanistan conflict into ‘another Vietnam’, at least to a certain extent. I say this because if the extra troops fail to have a significant effect on the war, the United States will likely pour even greater resources and manpower into Afghanistan, due to its strategic importance in the Middle East and the need to ensure the Taliban do not gain a political foothold. Given the unpredictable and uncertain nature of the conflict, and the successful use by Taliban forces of tactical roadside bombs, I cannot predict how the conflict will pan out. We can only hope the sacrifices made by British soldiers are not in vain, and that the extra deployment has the desired effect on turning the war to our advantage. In the meantime the people of Wooton Bassett will probably be forced to endure the deeply saddening images of fallen soldiers passing through the town, having given up their lives to ensure our freedom and that of others.

Whilst the citizens of the United States have already been afforded the opportunity to decide who ought to lead them through this time of acute economic crisis, and chosen wisely in my view, such a privilege has yet to be afforded to us in Britain. With Gordon Brown required to call an election before June 2010, the next few months will be both economically and politically crucial. With the majority of opinion polls still indicating that David Cameron’s Conservative Party are due to claim victory should an election be called, the performance of the British economy over the first three or four months is vital to Gordon Brown’s chances. If the figures were to indicate an economic recovery, Brown could rightly ask the British people, “why let the Conservatives ruin it?” Whereas if statistics were to show that the United Kingdom remains mired in recession, with no clear signs of recovery present, he will find it very difficult to sell his party to voters. With both Germany and France having brought themselves out of recession in the second quarter of 2009, the government could face difficult questions on exactly when the United Kingdom can expect to do the same. It is probably too early to have a clear idea of exactly which road the three main parties will choose to follow with regards to solving our economic difficulties, but the forthcoming election will certainly be one of the most important in British history. With difficult decisions to be made on immigration, economic policy, the renewal of our nuclear defence system in the form of Trident, and our role in the global ‘war on terror’, whoever triumphs in the summer will almost certainly require a good deal of luck to “get Britain moving again”.

Following the failed Copenhagen summit the issue of climate change will in all likelihood be put aside by many world leaders whilst assuming even greater importance for not only those in developing nations heavily affected by it, but also those who realise the need for a global agreement. The abject failure of our leaders in Copenhagen doesn’t exactly bode well for the future of the planet, nor does the “meaningful” tag attached by President Obama to the five-nation agreement to limit temperature rises to less than two degrees Celsius. Whilst the ‘deal’ between the United States, China, Brazil, South Africa and India promised to “take action to meet this objective”, it remains unclear what action, if any, will be taken. The view of Tuvalu’s lead negotiator, Ian Fry, that his country was being offered “30 pieces of silver” to sell its future, is unfortunately one I share. Given the presence of many in the American political sphere who doubt the existence of climate change and global warming despite significant evidence to the contrary, and the Chinese attitude that they ought to be allowed to industrialise in the manner of the developed Western nations, a fair point, a worldwide agreement will remain impossible for a long time. Yet it seems that most countries are unwilling to take steps to reduce their own power, economic output, industrial capacity, and emissions for the sake of others. If this is the case, a number of world leaders must therefore prepare to see many world islands simply disappear off the map, formerly rare natural disasters become commonplace and temperatures rise to unbearable degrees. The most 2010 can provide is renewed attempts by those right-minded individuals intelligent enough to realise some sort of binding, effective and far-reaching agreement is fundamental to the future of the planet to achieve such an agreement. Yet like many other bold attempts to change the world it will likely fail in the face of the sort of intransigence, selfishness and blind stupidity demonstrated by our leaders at Copenhagen.

With abhorrent celebrity circus Big Brother having been mercifully axed by Channel 4 earlier this year, 2010 will be the last time we are subjected to gormless, empty-headed morons displaying their personality short-comings for the entire nation. Yet this unfortunately doesn’t mean the celebrity-obsessed nature of society will suddenly come to an end. 2010 will in all probability see an even greater obsession with ‘celebrities’, many more opportunities to become ‘famous’ and if possible, an augmented concern with exactly how Lindsey Lohan, or any other filthy-rich vacuous Hollywood starlet’s latest spell in rehab is going. For me, the rise of Heat, Now and Hello magazine is one of the worst legacies of the 2000s and production of all three along with any other similar publications ought to be discontinued immediately. Although perhaps 2010 will surprise us, and people will suddenly become interested in talented and interesting people who deserve our attention, or dare I say it, politics and the sort of issues that are actually important to our lives. Sadly this will probably never be the case, and society will continue to indulge us with celebrity gossip and shield us from what is actually going on.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

The most important events of the 2000s - how have they impacted upon the world?

As with any review or analysis of the past ten years there really is only one place to start, and that is with September 11th. For years the terrorist network Al Qaeda, under the leadership of Osama Bin Laden, had objected to the presence of United States soldiers in Saudi Arabia and the policy employed by the US towards Israel. Two separate fatwa’s were issued, the first in 1996 calling for American soldiers to leave Saudi Arabia, and the second two years later encouraging violent action against United States citizens in order to reverse the country’s position on Israel. Bin Laden had previously declared a holy war against the US and by 2001 was ready to carry out an attack. This constituted a series of co-ordinated suicide attacks on targets throughout America, the most high-profile of these the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York on September 11th, 2001. 9/11, as it has since become widely known, took the lives of 2,976 victims from a total of 90 nations, as well as the 19 hijackers, and constituted the highest death toll of any ‘suicide attack’ in history. The Pentagon was also attacked, whilst a fourth jet liner crash landed in a field near Shanksville in Pennsylvania, following a struggle between passengers and the hijackers.

The images of brutality and suffering shocked both the United States and the world, and resulted in the commencement of the ongoing ‘war on terror’, the passing of the USA PATRIOT act, which strengthened the ability of law enforcement agencies to gather intelligence on potential terrorists. As with nearly all major events in American history, 9/11 has been immortalised in a number of Hollywood films, but no airbrushed, heroic epic starring Matt Damon or Tom Cruise could ever have such an impact as the image of the Twin Towers, icons of the capitalist world, burning and sending thick black smoke over the New York skyline. September 11th can essentially be seen to sum up the world we live in; innocent civilians attacked due to governmental actions in foreign lands, great heroism amongst the emergency services and individuals caught up in the attacks, and the retaliatory ‘war on terror’ promising huge retribution on essentially any county the United States chose, and providing the US with a 'blank cheque' to democratise the Middle East by force. For many 9/11 constitutes the moment the world became unsafe again; having been subjected to the threat of nuclear annihilation for nearly fifty years during the Cold War, 9/11 uncovered the new threat; more willing to enact destruction upon innocent people than many before it, and prepared to involve the most powerful country in the world in an ongoing conflict in order to achieve its aim.

Following the tragic events of September 11th President Bush immediately launched an invasion of Afghanistan, accused of harbouring many of the terrorists involved in the attack. Operation Enduring Freedom, as it was officially know, resulted in the overthrow of the Taliban regime and the institution of free elections, from which Hamid Karzai was elected President. Although millions of dollars have been distributed in aid and for the creation of infrastructure, Karzai’s government is believed to hold little power outside the capital Kabul, with the Taliban still wielding strong influence in many regions. Whilst the invasion arguably achieved its objectives, and constituted a multi-national operation with troops representing over forty countries, it has understandably been thought of as an American conflict, and a key part of the United States’ post-9/11 retaliation. Whilst back in 2001 88% of Americans and 65% of the British public backed military actions in Afghanistan, by late 2008 68% of Britons favoured withdrawal as soon as possible, with around 33% of the US public feeling the same. More than 1,000 coalition troops have given their lives for the war, a number which continues to rise, and for a conflict with no end in sight.

It is arguable that no matter how many troops are deployed to Afghanistan the Taliban may never be removed. Indeed it is probable that Taliban insurgents will simply continue to concentrate their support amongst isolated rural communities and use strategies including terrorist attacks and roadside bombings to inflict huge casualties on coalition troops. The efforts to ensure a ‘free and fair election’ in Afghanistan this summer were hugely disrupted by Taliban attacks, and despite Karzai apparently gaining 54% of the vote, thousands of votes and polling ballots were accused of being fraudulent. With the International Council on Security and Development stating that the Taliban had a “permanent presence” in 80% of the country, it appears that the United States’ policy on Afghanistan will be to continue supporting an “appropriate” regime with negligible control over the majority of the country, against an enemy allegedly provided with funding and armaments by the CIA in the early 1980s in order to resist the Soviet invasion. What is clear however is that the war in Afghanistan is a long way from being won, and will likely require even greater troop commitment and sacrifice in order for any progress to be made. Meanwhile both Britain and the United States are vulnerable to terrorist attacks perpetrated by groups such as al Qaeda who remain able to operate in Afghanistan.

When attempting to provide an overview of the past decade it is impossible to ignore the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the ‘coalition of the willing’, led by the “defenders of the free world”, the United States. If the war in Afghanistan was part of the ‘war on terror’, then for me the Iraq conflict was simply an attempt by the United States to remove a man who for the past fifteen years had defied, embarrassed and refused to co-operate with both the US and United Nations. The man in question is of course Saddam Hussein, captured by American forces in December 2003 and executed by the Iraqi authorities under US supervision three years later having been charged with the execution of 148 Iraqi Shi’ites accused of planning his assassination. The justification for the war was the now-infamous “threat” to the United States posed by Iraq’s ‘weapons of mass destruction’, which was quickly proved to be non-existent, and despite the largest ever anti-war demonstration in Rome of more than three million people a month before the invasion, Bush’s will was unaffected.

The Iraq War has had many severe repercussions, not least upon Iraq itself. Over 4.2 million Iraqis have been displaced and made refugees since the 2003 invasion, whilst hundreds of thousands have died in order for their country to become a democracy. Whilst the American and British governments claimed the war to be in the interests of domestic and international security, Iraq was never a threat, in terms of nuclear weapons, to either nation. If anything the Iraq war has served to make the world far less safe, increase ill-feeling towards the “West” across the Middle East and promote instability in Iraq and neighbouring countries. I like many others see the invasion of Iraq as an attempt by the United States to remove an ‘inappropriate’ government at whatever cost and an attempt to pacify the desire for a ‘response’ to September 11th within the US, and it unfortunately appears to have learnt little from the failure of such a policy.

In 2004 what ought to have been a period of great happiness and joy was turned on its head by one of the deadliest natural disasters in recorded history, which struck the Indian Ocean just after midnight on December 26th. The ‘Boxing Day Tsunami’ resulted in the deaths of 230,000 people from eleven countries, and affected many more. The hardest hit countries were India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand, in which more than a million people were displaced due to the series of deadly tsunamis which resulted from the second strongest earthquake ever recorded on a seismograph. The effects were felt around the world, with eight people in South Africa killed due to abnormally high waves and sea levels, and around 9,000 Western tourists dead or missing. Of all the European nations, Sweden suffered the deaths of 543 holidaymakers, making it by far the hardest hit.

The sadness and devastating nature of the disaster was exacerbated by the news that around 1/3 of those killed by the Tsunami were children, due to the high populations of children in the affected areas and the fact that they were less able to resist being overcome by the surging waters. In addition to the high death toll, the Tsunami resulted in a humanitarian crisis, widespread destruction of infrastructure and homes, a series of epidemics, economic devastation and severe shortages of food and water. This promoted a huge response from the international community, which provided over $7 billion, in addition to around $600 million donated by the British public to aid organisations. However some of the problems detailed above persist in many of the affected areas, whilst the ecological and environmental damage caused by the Tsunami is still being felt and will be for many years to come.

November 4th, 2008 will likely forever be remembered as one of the most important moments in the political history of the United States. Following a whirlwind campaign Senator Barack Obama of Illinois was elected President with 52.9% of the popular vote and 365 Electoral College votes, as opposed to Senator John McCain’s 45.7% and 173 Electoral College votes. With voter turnout the highest for 40 years it was clear that Obama had captured America’s imagination, and that of the world. Given the precarious state of the US economy, the aftermath of former President George Bush’s invasion of Iraq and the increasingly-important issue of global warming, it was one of the most important elections in American history. Barack Obama’s election signalled the beginning of a new period in US politics, with the rejection of a Vietnam War veteran committed to upholding President Bush’s commitments to belligerency and acceptance of a leader aiming to change perceptions of America throughout the world. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Obama in October 2009, making him only the fourth President to receive such an honour, illustrates the social and cultural impact of his aim to foster a “new climate” in international relations and “reach out” to the Arab world. The fact that polls show huge support for Obama in many countries show the potential impact he could have on attitudes towards the United States. Whether or not Obama will be able to meet the expectations of those within the US or around the world remains to be seen, but his election still marks the most significant socio-political change in the United States for many years, as shown by his attempts to institute an overhaul of the American health-care system.

In a decade that saw the deadliest terrorist attack in history carried out on American soil, resulting in the ‘War on Terror’, there were a number of others, the bloodiest of these being the 2002 Bali bombings. The Kuta district, an extremely popular and highly-developed tourist destination, suffered the deaths of 202 people, of whom 152 were foreign nationals. The bombs deliberately targeted nightclubs, perhaps due to their supposedly symbolic representation of the corrupt and decadent nature of Western life, and were carried out by members of the Jemaah Islamiyah, a violent and militant Islamic group, in retaliation for the ‘War on Terror’. The attacks merely acted to confirm the fact that it is only innocent civilians who suffer in disputes between governments, religious identities and ideologies. Unfortunately the targeting of such locations is only likely to continue by such groups committed to inflicting suffering on others for the sake of whatever cause they represent.

In terms of terrorist incidents undertaken for the sake of disputes between governments and organisations, the bombing of Cercanias trains in Madrid on March 11th 2004, three days before the general election, is a textbook example. Likely designed to influence the outcome of the election, which the Partido Popular was expected to win, the attack claimed the lives of 191 people, wounding 1,800. In the end the election was won by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero of PSOE, largely in response to the government’s handling of the bombings. Yet no matter the political motivations of the attack, and whether or not ETA or al Qaeda were responsible, they constitute yet another incident of citizens becoming unintentionally embroiled in an outside dispute, and giving their lives for a cause they hadn’t chose to represent.

Although nowhere near as destructive as the 11-M Madrid bombings, and with significantly lower loss of life, the July 7th bombings of London Underground trains in 2005 motivated by Britain’s role in the Iraq War, were nevertheless deeply significant. With 56 people killed and around 700 injured, the attacks reverberated around the world and shocked the British public, particularly their brutal nature and the images transmitted by news agencies of those injured in the bombings. In addition they resulted in the extension of the time limit for detaining terror suspects without trial to 28 days, albeit not the 90 day period pursued by the government, as well as the tragic shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, suspected of being a suicide bomber. On top of this 7/7 threw the liberalism vs. security debate into the open, revealing for the first time the true divergence of opinion not only in the political sphere but in society in general. For many Britons, and the majority of Londoners the images of 7/7 will probably never be forgotten, and universal support for Britain’s role in the fight against terrorism will never again be assured.

Monday, 28 December 2009

The Best Albums of the Decade – as opposed to those which sold the most

As the millennium arrived music was, at least in my opinion, a fairly poor state. Having been subjected to the ‘rise of the boy band’, with Boyzone, Five, Backstreet Boys and N*Sync dominating the British charts, it was time for something different. However 2000 began in a similarly mediocre fashion, with Westlife’s Christmas Number One ‘I Have A Dream/Seasons In The Sun’ remaining at the summit; yet musical redemption for the British public followed as the Manic Street Preachers’ limited edition stand-alone single ‘The Masses Against The Classes’ gave the band their second number one. Whilst Robbie Williams’ not unimpressive ‘Sing When You’re Winning’ sold 2.4 million copies, spent 91 weeks in the chart and was 2000’s top-selling album, it was by no means the year’s most impressive offering. That honour must go to Coldplay’s Parachutes, one of the most critically and commercially successful debut albums of the decade. Upon its release the Guardian described Parachutes as “one of the year’s most uplifting albums”, with Rolling Stone magazine calling it “a work of real transcendence”. Whilst Coldplay have gone on to even greater commercial success and established huge popularity within the United Kingdom and around the world, for me Parachutes remains their magnum opus. Songs such as ‘Don’t Panic’ and ‘Shiver’ showed Coldplay’s indie rock inclinations, whilst the album itself was filled with sweet melodies and catchy pop-rock songs, albeit with a slightly dark focus, making it a deserving winner of the ‘Best Album’ award at the Brits in 2000.

The following year saw Dido’s ‘No Angel’ dominate the charts, become the biggest-selling album in the United Kingdom and go on to apparently shift in excess of sixteen million copies around the world. Whilst Dido’s offering was critically lauded and exceptionally popular, in no small part due to the success of ‘Stan’, it is a very different album that takes the crown for 2001. Whilst ‘Toxicity’, the second album from Armenian-American band System of a Down, reached number one in both the United States and Canada, the reaction to it from the British public was rather cooler. Despite this it is one of the most innovative, challenging and original metal albums ever released. Although lead single ‘Chop Suey’ caused considerable controversy due to its numerous references to suicide and the line “I cry when angels deserve to die” in the aftermath of 9/11, that cannot detract from the album’s brilliance. Few other bands, if any, have ever managed to provide such cutting social commentary, with no small degree of lunacy and shouting, and for this System of a Down deserve considerable recognition. Their example stands head and shoulders above many of System’s contemporaries, and given the general lack of attention and appreciation given to this genre, it thoroughly deserves this award. As Eduardo Rivadavia states, “Toxicity may well prove to be a lasting heavy metal classic”, and a total of sixteen million copies sold is also a rather impressive legacy for a truly unique band.

2002 saw the concept of the 'musical talent show' explode onto the British music scene, with former Spice Girls manager Simon Fuller’s Pop Idol a huge success, depending on your definition of the word. Both winner Will Young’s single ‘Anything is Possible/Evergreen’ and Gareth Gates’ cover of ‘Unchained Melody’ sold a million copies, the former becoming the 11th biggest-selling single of all time in the United Kingdom. On the album American rapper Eminem’s critically-lauded The Eminem Show lost out to Robbie William’s critically-panned Escapology by a mere 110,000 copies in the ‘best-seller list’, but it has triumphed here. Whilst previous offerings The Marshall Mathers LP and Slim Shady LP were impressive, The Eminem Show constituted Eminem’s first mainly self-produced album, and showed his more personal and serious side. Songs such as ‘Sing for the Moment’ deal with the sensitive issue of poverty, on with which Eminem has for a long time been greatly concerned, and ‘Cleaning Out My Closet’, providing a rare glimpse into the rapper’s childhood. ‘White America’ deals with the issue of race in hip-hop, an issue becoming of increasing importance given the growing popularity of rap and hip-hop music in the commercial charts. Yet such social commentary does not mean the album lacks Eminem’s characteristic sense of humour; ‘Without Me’ essentially shows Eminem as back to ‘save the world’, whilst ‘Business’ shows Eminem and Dr. Dre working together to set the hip-hop and rap music world straight. The Eminem Show will long be remembered as one of the all-time great rap albums, and the moment at which “the world's most celebrated rapper examined life in the hall of mirrors he'd built for himself”.

2003 was in many ways the beginning of the end for the UK singles charts, as sales fell by 34% compared with the previous year and for the first time in ten years no single shifted more than a million copies. Yet this didn’t stop the almost unknown Black Eyed Peas topping the chart for six weeks with their song ‘Where Is The Love?’, whilst Dido’s Life For Rent ended the year as the highest-selling album, having sold over two million copies. 2003’s winning album is one which managed to superbly combine raw anger, energy, edginess and very real lyrics, and won the 2003 Mercury Prize. I am of course talking about Dizzee Rascal’s Boy In Da Corner, the debut album from the East London rapper. The fact that Dizzee was at the time just 18 years of age only adds to the album’s fantastic appeal. The bombastic ‘Fix Up, Look Sharp’ was like manna from heaven for millions of white suburban teenagers on whom the album’s themes and messages were perhaps lost, but Boy In Da Corner was by no means a half-baked rap record designed to appeal to everyone. The bleak ‘Do It’ details an account of apathy and discontent, “friend’s don’t understand us, adult’s don’t understand us, no one understands us”, whilst ‘Sittin’ Here’ shows Dizzee confronting the type of urban discontent and problems he would have faced growing up, describing “benefit claims and cheques in false names” and how “police don’t give me no peace”. It’s a huge shame for all those who hold Boy In Da Corner in such a high regard as myself that Dizzee has chosen to sacrifice his artistic integrity, originality, and everything that made him popular in the first place in favour of bland, dance floor numbers detailing his ‘new’ life of girls, clubs, alcohol, fame and fortune. I personally would rather hear the gun shots and police sirens of Boy In Da Corner than the meaningless and inane lyrics which characterise the far more successful ‘Bonkers’ and ‘Holiday’ every time.

For me 2004 was the moment at which the UK Singles Chart was truly rendered untenable, as the god-awful ‘songs’, if such terminology can be deemed appropriate, by Eamon and Frankee, ‘F*** It, I Don’t Want You Back’ and ‘F U Right Back’ somehow remained in top spot for seven weeks between them, despite both songs being aberrations and devoid of any appeal whatsoever. Luckily Eamon’s dismal effort, being the more popular of the two, was beaten to the crown of the year’s top-selling single by Band Aid 20’s ‘Do They Know Its Christmas?’, but the album charts made for similarly poor reading. This is because 2004 constituted the real beginning of the recent indie revival, a term which has become so inaccurate that its replacement ought to be a top priority for those who choose to shoe-horn music into categories. As such albums by Franz Ferdinand, Keane and Maroon 5 were hugely popular, but in what is rapidly becoming a pattern in these awards, the prize must be awarded to an altogether far-less popular album. Despite its ominous title, Arcade Fire’s Funeral was by some distance the year’s best album. Funeral is an extremely unique album, and in the years following its release has remained so upon each listen. Unlike the samey and uninspiring ‘indie rock’ bands that followed, Arcade Fire truly set out to forge an independent musical style with their debut. Single ‘Wake Up’ is a stadium anthem of the highest proportion, no doubt a huge factor in its use by Aston Villa as the players’ entrance music, whilst ‘Rebellion (Lies)’ features constant changes in pace and musical style. The funereal ‘Crown of Love’ is by far the album’s most depressing and downbeat song, in which lead singer Win Butler begs “if you still want me, please forgive me”. However it is Arcade Fire’s musical variety that astonishes most listeners; whilst the majority of bands feature merely drums and guitar, Arcade Fire incorporate cellos, violins, xylophones, accordions and harps. Few bands, certainly in the 2000s, have been able to at any point be as versatile and all-encompassing in terms of instruments and musical styles.

The following year saw the indie revolution continue in the album charts with Coldplay’s X&Y, Kaiser Chief’s Employment, Gorrillaz’ Demon Days and the Killers’ debut album Hot Fuss all inside the top twenty. As for the singles charts it appeared that novelty records were back in vogue, as Tony Christie and Peter Kay’s ‘Is This The Way To Amarillo?’, Shayne Ward’s highly comedic and utterly horrific ‘That’s My Goal’ and Crazy Frog’s ‘Axel F’ constituted the top three best sellers across the entire year. There were a number of other entries which one could describe as being ‘novelties’, but that would perhaps be doing Akon, James Blunt and McFly a slight disservice. Of the new ‘indie rock generation’ the stand-out offering was Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm, an album whose “spirit is closer to the Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible’ than Franz Ferdinand’s eponymous debut. Silent Alarm is indeed a rather more dark and introspective album than those of its contemporaries, as one would expect from a band listing Sonic Youth and Joy Division as influences. Kele Okereke’s vocals provide an instant uniqueness, whilst musically the album spans “edgy pop, atmospheric ballads, and angular, percussive tracks”. Highlights include opening song ‘Helicopter’, of the Championship’s Goal of the Month fame, as well as gorgeous ballad ‘This Modern Love’ and the murky ‘Positive Tension’ with its promise of “something glorious…about to happen”. The proclamation was correct, and Silent Alarm remains Bloc Party’s greatest offering to date and one of the high points of the indie rock revolution.

Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ topped the singles charts for an astonishing nine weeks in 2006, a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that it had reached said position based on downloads alone, a phenomenon that would become far more common in the coming years. Sheffield’s Arctic Monkeys burst onto the scene with their debut album, the long-winded Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, and whilst it received rave reviews, sold over a million copies and received the 2006 Mercury Prize, was far too inconsistent to be considered a contender for album of the year. That honour must go instead to Muse’s Black Holes and Revelations, also extremely popular and well-sold as well as critically praised. Black Holes and Revelations in an exercise in the abnormal, from the title down to the band’s subject matter; themes include alien invasion, political corruption, astronomy and science fiction as well as conventional love songs such as ‘Starlight’. ‘Supermassive Black Hole’ stands out as the album’s most commercial point, mixing dance floor beats with “Rage Against the Machine riffs”, whilst ‘Knights of Cydonia’ pushes “the epic side of the band to almost comical levels”, in the words of Matt Bellamy. Black Holes and Revelations constitutes Muse exploring new musical possibilities and provides an album bursting with variety, songs ranging from the pulsating electro-orchestral Take A Bow to the industrial rock mixed in with alternative dance of Map of the Problematique, which drew unsurprising comparisons to 1980s innovators Depeche Mode. For the first time in their career, Muse had finally been able to shake off the ‘next Radiohead’ tag and firmly establish themselves as one of the leading British alternative rock bands.

Although they have by now become an entirely meaningless entity, having attained commercial success and near-universal popularity thanks to the now hugely annoying ‘Sex On Fire’, in 2007 the Kings of Leon were still a relatively minor player in the alternative rock scene in Britain. Whilst Amy Winehouse, then an excellent singer with a great future, ended the year with her album Back to Black as the top-seller, Because of the Times is for the me the year’s highlight. It appears to be an album on which single releases were clearly afterthoughts, as the songs are all of similar quality, as well as being an altogether “darker, less pop-orientated and more cerebral affair” than its predecessors. Opening track ‘Knocked Up’ is symptomatic of this new approach, and showcases lead singer Caleb Followill’s growing maturity as a songwriter, along with the moody ‘On Call’ and the stadium anthem ‘Fans’, all of which make comparisons with Bruce Springsteen not entirely unfounded. ‘Black Thumbnail’ is an excellent vocal performance from Followill, and one of the album’s most forceful tracks whilst the atmospheric and floaty ‘McFearless’ “while not immediately hummable”, does “sink into your memory revealing layers of melody and emotion on repeated listens”. I for one sincerely hope the Kings of Leon are one day able to return to these heights, and ditch the commercial pandering of ‘Sex On Fire’ and ‘Use Somebody’ for their former garage rock glory days.

For those unable to stand Welsh singer Duffy’s rather grating vocals 2008 provided a number of great albums capable of standing up to her critical and commercial success Rockferry. American innovators Vampire Weekend laid down an impressive gauntlet in January with their eponymous debut, featuring its brilliant combination of African influences and indie-rock stylings, whilst Bruce Springsteen-esque the Hold Steady’s Stay Positive was the soundtrack to many a summer. Despite these deserving efforts the 2008 album of the year is one which I doubt many people within these Isles have yet had the pleasure to listen to. I am talking about TV on the Radio’s Dear Science, named the best album of the year by Rolling Stone, the Guardian, MTV and Entertainment Weekly amongst others. With such an impressive critical following first-time listeners would be forgiven for having high expectations, but Dear Science more than matches them. Stand-out tracks include the funky ‘Crying’, pop-rap hybrid ‘Dancing Choose’, described as “another example of this album’s rare balance between craft and passion” and the “self evidently sexy” ‘Red Dress’, possibly a comment on the loss of innocence given the repetition of “days of white robes have come and gone” and “come bear witness to the ‘Whore of Babylon’”. Tunde Adepimbe’s singing on ‘Love Dog’ and the use of harmony contrasts well with the constant drum beat and slightly melancholic feel, whilst giving the song an orchestral feel as the drums fade into gentle strings. The most remarkable thing about Dear Science is the way it manages to sound both deeply experimental and entirely natural and well put-together, and is an album deserving of a far wider audience than that it has achieved thus far.

Last but by no means least we come to 2009, a year of transition in British music with Noel Gallagher’s not entirely unexpected but still surprising departure from Oasis in the summer, which essentially brought the band to an end, as well as splitting up one of the most volatile musical partnerships in history. Elsewhere twenty million Britons tuned in to the final of singing competition X-Factor to watch Geordie sensation Joe McElderry join past winners including Leona Lewis and Alexandra Burke, only for the 18 year old to lose out on the previously guaranteed Christmas Number One spot following an internet campaign to get Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Killing In The Name’ to the summit. Controversial singer-songwriter and performer Lady Gaga was a mainstay in both the singles and album charts, with ‘Just Dance’, ‘Poker Face’ and ‘Bad Romance’ all reaching number one, and her album The Fame spending four weeks at the top. The music world was shocked by the death of the legendary Michael Jackson in June, just before he was due to commence his ‘This Is It’ tour, and that of former Boyzone singer Stephen Gately a few months later at the age of just 33. Meanwhile the Susan Boyle phenomenon spread through the Anglophone world following her appearance on Britain’s Got Talent, with her debut album I Dreamed A Dream hitting number one in December. Yet away from the commercial world was an album designed as a tribute to a lost band member, from which no singles would be released. That album was Journal for Plague Lovers, not as many Manic Street Preachers fans would have hoped for, ‘The Holy Bible 2’, more a tribute to the song writing ability, wit and intelligence of Richey James Edwards. The combination of lyrics left behind by a man for whom no subject was too controversial and no thought or feeling inexpressible, and a band going through a musical renaissance following a number of years in the wilderness provides a truly special listening experience. No other album this year has felt so emotionally rewarding, at times painful and at others joyful, and for me Journal for Plague Lovers represented a riposte to the meaningless, insignificant and vacuous ‘music’ occupying the charts. We can only hope more bands decide to shock and appal in equal measure, including the Manics themselves, and that the succeeding decade will provide similar moments of lyrical excellence, musical variation and pure unbridled originality. For music can only last if it remains individual, and steers well clear of the homogenising tendencies our charts have unfortunately come to promote.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

A festive Premier League round-up – The perfect present for West Ham and Aston Villa’s turkeys stuffed at the Emirates

The Christmas period always provides a multitude of clichés, analogies and well-worn jokes, and although Roque Santa Cruz was mercifully excluded from Manchester City’s starting line-up, the weekend’s football was still well worth tuning in for. Although it is customary to start any Premier League round-up with the current leaders, West Ham’s clash with Portsmouth was one of huge importance to both sides, the proverbial ‘six-pointer’. The game saw Gianfranco Zola’s side run out 2-0 winners, and haul themselves clear of the relegation zone. Substitute Luis Jimenez was scythed down by former Hammer Hayden Mullins, providing West Ham with their seventh penalty this season, which was converted by the in-form Alessandro Diamanti. The Hammers were forced to stand firm for almost seventy minutes before an unmarked Radoslav Kovac headed in Jimenez’ free kick, bringing a palpable sense of relief for both the players and the fans. The result leaves Portsmouth rock-bottom of the table on 14 points, three behind their nearest rivals, both of whom have at least a game in hand. Zola described the result as “massive”, adding “it will be a big boost to everybody”, whilst his opposite number reiterated his belief in Portsmouth’s ability to survive, saying “everything is possible”. In what was on paper the most attractive game of the weekend, defensive scrooges Aston Villa travelled to the Emirates to face an Arsenal side which had taken ten points from a possible twelve. Not since Chelsea’s visit in late November had the Gunners been defeated in the Premier League, but Villa proved a worthy adversary throughout the first half, and forced Wenger into a bold substitution on 57 minutes. Despite not having recovered from a hamstring injury, Cesc Fabregas entered the fray hoping to inspire Arsenal to victory, and managed to do just that, curling in a stunning 25-yard free-kick after being fouled by Richard Dunne. Fabregas netted his second within twenty-five minutes of coming onto the field, chipping the ball past Brad Friedel from Walcott’s inch-perfect pass. Abu Diaby netted an emphatic third to bring Villa’s run of four clean sheets in a row to a dramatic end, and put Arsenal within just four points of leaders Chelsea with a game in hand. Martin O’Neill had unsurprisingly little to say after the game, perhaps still a little shell-shocked, but despite the defeat his side remain a point ahead of fifth-placed Tottenham, and on course for Champions League qualification.

Premier League leaders Chelsea faced a difficult encounter against nine-game unbeaten Birmingham City, undoubtedly one of the season’s surprise packages. Whilst many were expecting Chelsea to extend their lead to seven points over Manchester United, they were frustrated by a spectacular performance from home goalkeeper Joe Hart. Hart denied Daniel Sturridge his first goal for the West London side, whilst producing a magnificent save to prevent Frank Lampard opening the scoring. Birmingham at times rode their luck, and ought to have gone behind but for Ivanovic inexplicably heading over from point-blank range. Despite this Alex McLeish’s side were cruelly denied three points by the linesman, who incorrectly ruled out Christian ‘Chucho’ Benitez’s tap-in for off-side. It remains to be seen whether Chelsea will be able to cope with the absence of their African Cup of Nations-bound players, particularly Didier Drogba, given Nicolas Anelka’s injury and Sturridge’s lack of top-flight experience. Meanwhile Birmingham will continue to dream of Europe and will do well to continue their impressive unbeaten run, which currently stands at ten games. Champions Manchester United overcame a scare against struggling Hull City at the KC Stadium to move within two points of Chelsea. Wayne Rooney gave United the lead, tapping in from Darren Ferguson’s deflected cross before Craig Fagan netted his first goal of the season from the penalty spot. Rooney’s abysmal back-pass gifted the ball to Fagan, whose wayward cross would have been met by Jozy Altidore were it not for a push from Rafael. Rooney made amends for his error when his low cross was turned in by Hull defender Andy Dawson in the 73rd minute, before he brilliantly provided Dimitar Berbatov with the easiest of tap-ins to make the result safe. Whilst a 3-1 score line may appear conclusive, it was anything but for United who were lucky to come away with all three points, but for all their endeavours Hull City remain firmly in the relegation zone, just a point off safety going into the New Year.

In the obligatory Boxing Day London derby Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur played out an entertaining 0-0 draw in which Heurelho Gomes finally proved his worth with a succession of world-class saves. Following his abject error last season, when he fumbled a shot from distance into his own net last season, he produced a simply magnificent save from the most in-form striker in the Premier League, Bobby Zamora, palming a goal-bound header wide. Not to be outdone, Fulham’s Mark Schwarzer pulled off a heroic double-save, first diving low to his right to save Peter Crouch’s volley, then rising almost instantly to deny the follow-up from Jenas. The result means Fulham remain ninth, five points ahead of Sunderland, whilst Tottenham are just two points ahead of Manchester City, who following a hugely turbulent week hosted Tony Pulis’ Stoke City in Roberto Mancini’s first game as manager. It proved to be a rather uncomplicated affair with Martin Petrov, restored to side by Mancini, opening the scoring on 28 minutes, before Carlos Tevez’ volleyed home from Gareth Barry’s header to guarantee the win for City. The game’s importance however lay in the performance of Robinho, who was pointedly substituted to huge relief from the Manchester City fans with fifteen minutes to go. Whilst the sulky Brazilian this time acted appropriately rather than storming off down the tunnel, his lack of effort and nonchalant manner was of great contrast to his replacement Craig Bellamy. Bellamy and Santa Cruz were reported to have been left out because of their negative reaction to Hughes’ sacking, but on recent form Mancini can ill-afford to leave the Welshman out if City are to meet their owners’ huge expectations this season.

Struggling Liverpool overcame a stubborn Wolverhampton Wanderers side at Anfield by two goals to nil, taking the lead through Steven Gerrard’s header just after the hour mark, with Yossi Benayoun firing the second into the top corner with twenty minutes to go. Yet it took a bizarre few minutes to give Liverpool the impetus to opening the scoring, as the referee somehow managed to book Christophe Berra for a foul committed by Stephen Ward. After being surrounded by Liverpool players in a manner unfortunately becoming more and more common in the Premier League, he eventually realised his mistake and showed Ward his second yellow card. Mick McCarthy correctly pointed to the dismissal as the turning point, as prior to this Wolves had been taking the game to the hosts. Yet Benitez’ side quickly capitalised on their numerical advantage to gain yet another convincing win and leap-frog Birmingham into seventh, just five points off the coveted top four positions. Sunderland’s poor form continued with a disappointing draw at home to Everton, who battled their way to an equaliser five minutes from time. Darren Bent gave Sunderland the lead with a powerful header after just 17 minutes, before Marouane Fellaini fired an equaliser from Tony Hibbert’s cross following a second-half in which Everton overwhelming dominated, with Steven Pienaar a continual threat. Burnley and Bolton Wanderers fought out a spirited Lancashire derby which ended 1-1, David Nugent heading in Wade Elliot’s cross to increase his chances of remaining at Burnley until the end of the season. Matthew Taylor had given Bolton the lead with a well-struck free-kick from distance just before the half hour mark, and were fortunate to remain ahead as Steven Fletcher squandered a number of opportunities for the home side. Bolton remain third bottom with Burnley just three points ahead in 13th place, whilst fellow strugglers Wigan and Blackburn played out another 1-1 draw which did little for either side; Hugo Rodallega equalised for Wigan just after half-time. Benni McCarthy had put Blackburn ahead with his first goal of the season but Blackburn were denied the three "precious" points manager Sam Allardyce had sought ahead of the match.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Journal for Plague Lovers – A fitting tribute to a lost genius

It is impossible to ignore the name of Richey James Edwards when listening to the Manic Street Preachers’ ninth studio album, Journal for Plague Lovers. Not only are all the words written by Edwards, but the album itself appears a heartfelt tribute to the band’s tragic lyricist. For those who are unaware, Edwards disappeared on February 1st 1995, having withdrawn £200 a day from his bank account in the previous two weeks. His car was reported as being abandoned at the Severn View service station on the 17th, and due to its proximity to the Severn Bridge, a previously renowned suicide location, it was believed that he had took his own life by jumping from the bridge. However the remaining band members refused to accept this assumption, and had kept Edwards’ share of the royalties separate until he was declared presumed deceased in November last year. The lyrics provided by Edwards are said to have been taken from a folder of songs, haikus, drawings and collages given to bassist Nicky Wire a few weeks before his disappearance. In a message on the Manics’ official website, the “brilliance and intelligence” of the lyrics are said to have compelled the band to use them, as they reiterated the “genius and intellect of Richey James Edwards”. In light of this the album can only be seen as a heartfelt tribute to, in the words of Stephen Erlewine of Allmusic, “their lost comrade”. It seems as if the album is as much the Manics’ paying their respects to Edwards as a chance to move on, having been able to “acknowledge and embrace the blackest portion of their past”. As bassist Nicky Wire points out, “there’s not gonna be a Journal for Plague Lovers Two”, a fact which only serves to make the album even more special, as the final offering from one of the most enigmatic, eloquent, poetic and intelligent lyricists British music has ever produced.

Opening track ‘Peeled Apples’, despite its rather mundane title, is one of the fiercest on the album and, according to Mark Eglinton of Quietus, “if there were [a single] this would probably be it”. Beginning with the ominous words, “you know so little about me, what if I turned into a werewolf or something”, from the 2004 film The Machinist, Peeled Apples sets the tone for the rest of the album. Lyrics such as “the more I see, the less I scream” detail Edwards’ depressed mental condition, whilst “the Levi Jean is always stronger than the Uzi” offers a humorous observation on consumer culture that wouldn’t have been out of place on the band’s debut album Generation Terrorists. The bizarrely-titled ‘Jackie Collins Existential Question Time’, a song which “despite the lyrics”, according to Nicky Wire, “is very sweet and very pop” follows the raucous opener. Much like Peeled Apples it is one of the album’s more accessible tracks, with its rousing chorus of “Oh Mummy what’s a sex pistol” the perfect ‘festival chant’ before the last minute “rasping, pure hatred and anger, kind of spoils it all”. ‘Me and Stephen Hawking’ is a stop and go effort interspersed with references varying from the world-renowned physicist to 1980s wrestler Giant Haystacks. The lyrics come across as a stream-of-consciousness; one minute Edwards plays on racial prejudice with the line “African Punch and Judy show at half the price”, the next he offers a humorous observation on his very public battle with anorexia, “Oh the joy, me and Stephen Hawking, we laugh, we missed the sex revolution”.

‘This Joke Sport Severed’ appears to deal with the sensitive subject of blood sports, and is one of the album’s bleakest songs, but in an interview with NME both James Dean Bradfield and Nicky Wire have stated their belief that the song is saying, “perhaps I’m not worthy of love, or love in relationships doesn’t work for me”. Edwards lyrics are fairly telling, when he describes wanting to “find a place where I became untethered”, again reflecting his distorted mental state in the weeks and days before his disappearance. The song itself is a gentle affair, with the music far outweighed by the gravitas of the lyrics and Edwards’ heart-wrenching plea for release. The title track follows, with an altogether more upbeat tempo and the return of the Manics’ ‘stadium rock’ sound that characterised Gold Against The Soul. The lyrics evoke memories of the band’s 1994 masterpiece, The Holy Bible, and appear to be a deep criticism of the medical establishment, or as Wire calls it, the idea of “doctors being Gods”. Lines such as “only a God can sooth” and “only a God reserves the right, to forgive those who revile him” could refer to Edwards’ stay in the Priory, “a mixture of Pseudo-God and religious bollocks”, as Wire described it, and his dissatisfaction with the homogenisation of cures, as reflected by his description of “PC certificate, all cuts unfocused”. ‘She Bathed Herself in a Bath of Bleach’ is a collection of stories from people met by Edwards’ during his stay in hospital, about which Wire has stated “we’ve got to keep schtum”. The first is a particularly brutal story, evoking huge sympathy for someone Edwards would have felt a deep affinity with because of this fact. Lines such as “she’d walk on broken glass for love” and “she thought burnt skin would please her lover” paint an extremely vivid picture of suffering, and may serve to remind fans of Edwards’ carving of ‘4 Real’ into his arm when the Manics’ authenticity was questioned by then NME journalist Steve Lamacq in 1991.

The gentle folk guitar of ‘Facing Page: Top Left’ brings listeners back to the simple beauty of ‘Small Black Flowers That Grow in the Sky’, one of five songs penned by Edwards on Everything Must Go. Whilst it shares the desperation of ‘Small Black Flowers’ and feeling of being enclosed, the chorus of ‘Facing Page: Top Left’ seems to also offer hope, rather than remaining mired in misery. The pivotal line “this beauty here dipping neophobia’ will undoubtedly be a source of confusion for many listeners, but to a certain extent it can be seen as part of the album’s wider criticism of the homogenisation of treatment and institutionalised nature of beauty, the former a subject close to Edwards given his protracted hospital stays. If the meaning of ‘Facing Page’ seems difficult to discern, the subsequent track is far easier to figure out. ‘Marlon JD’ begins with the line “he stood like a statue, as he was beaten across the face”, a reference to the 1967 Marlon Brando film “Reflections In A Golden Eye”; the track appears very much to refer to Brando, about whom Edwards was fascinated, as he was “the idealisation in his mind of what the ideal man could be, but also because he turned to shit as well”, in the words of James Dean Bradfield. The ‘JD’ referred to in the title remains a mystery, with many believing it to be the cult ‘Rebel Without a Cause’, Bradfield’s namesake. If this is the case Edwards could be seen to be showing two sides of the same coin; both were 1950s sex symbols, film icons and critically lauded actors, yet whilst Brando lived on, losing his looks and the respect he’d accumulated, Dean was cut down in his prime, and his brief career has assured him untainted cult status. Perhaps ‘Marlon JD’ is an attempt to illustrate the sadness of natural human decline, and the fragility of existence, which would be an appropriate conclusion given the rest of the album’s content.

‘Doors Closing Slowly’ follows with a funereal opening, in which the gentle piano notes sound like those of a death march “summoning doom and despair”. The repetitive drumming creates again the sense of a journey into darkness, whilst the ominous title implies a certain religious undertone. Edwards was known for his ambiguous relationship with God and religion, and in ‘Doors Closing Slowly “his religious obsession or rejection of it is quite strange”. As Bradfield states, “the depiction of death as being beautiful and self-glorious” in religious art was both troubling and inspiring for Edwards, as the line “crucifixion is the easy life” shows. Edwards seems to be deliberately inciting controversy and pulling on the listeners’ emotional heartstrings, whilst the song’s final line “listen to the selfish ones, they are the voice of accomplishment” is extremely profound, and a sadly accurate observation on the nature of capitalist existence. The audio clip following this is taken from the Virgin Suicides, due to Edwards’ fondness for the book, as the film was released in 1999, four years after his disappearance. ‘All is Vanity’ continues Edwards’ seeming obsession with beauty and glamour and the shallow nature of such concepts. The title refers to Charles Gilbert’s 1892 drawing ‘All Is Vanity’, an optical illusion or ‘double image’ depicting a woman admiring herself in the mirror, yet from a distance a grinning human skull. Musically it is deeply similar to ‘Faster’, but with an even greater sense of urgency. Edwards appears to be calling for authoritarianism, advocating “no choice, one bread, one milk, one food, that’s all”, and “one truth”, seemingly a response to the dearth in quality of modern music due to the greater range available, as well as a demonstration of his “slightly unfashionable” left-wing side. The line “it’s not what’s wrong, it’s what’s right”, followed up by “it’s a fact of life sunshine” seems to be a response to perceived criticism, and an attempt to show that “sometimes your emotions are not your best guides or friends”, quite an unfashionable view and one which links into the concept of authoritarianism and limits expressed in the verse. ‘Pretension/Repulsion’ begins with an onslaught of verbs and the bewildering line “bornagraphic vs. pornographic”, which begins to make some sense when the line “Odalisque by Ingres, yet your bones for sale” is taken into the equation. Edwards appears to be commenting on the phenomenon of ‘lads’ magazines prevalent in the 1990s, and the distinction between ‘art’ designed to demonstrate the beauty of human form and the sale of such beauty for erotic and money-making purposes.

‘Virginia State Epileptic Colony’ constitutes an additional criticism of the homogenisation of healthcare provision, with the title possibly referring to the United States Supreme Court ruling in 1927 on the Buck vs. Bell case, which upheld the institution of compulsory sterilisation for the mentally ill. The lyrics, such as “they sit around tables rendered dumb” and “six chalk colours the very meaning of life” reflect the song’s deep sarcasm, whilst playing on the listener’s deepest held moral beliefs in a way few other songwriters have been able to. Yet in terms of the emotional impact of Edwards’ writing, few if any songs have come close to ‘William’s Last Words’. Whilst on the surface it would appear to be a thinly-veiled suicide note, Wire has rejected this assertion, stating that although “it obviously sounds very autobiographical, and very sad and like some kind of goodbye”, he believes it to not be referring to Edwards. Even if this is the case however, the lyrics are rather telling. The song’s closing line “I’d love to go to sleep and wake up happy” is undoubtedly Journal for Plague Lovers most poignant moment, and one which may prove upsetting for many fans. Yet despite the lyrics, the emotions they convey and their possible implications, ‘William’s Last Words’ is by no means desperate. If anything there is a palpable sense of relief throughout as Edwards, if one assumes the song is about him, pays tribute to his fellow band members, “the best friends I ever had”, adding “I'm just gonna close my eyes, think about my family, and shed a little tear”. Although Wire believes there to be no sense of catharsis, one can’t help but feel that whoever the song refers to has found peace by the end. I imagine that ‘Williams Last Words’ will remain a difficult listening experience for fans and the band alike, seeing as Bradfield felt himself unable to sing and encouraged Wire to deputise, as he believed that it would “resonate much more”. The four-minute long silence which follows if anything affords the song an even greater significance, and allows the listener to absorb Edwards’ tender lyrics and Wire’s gentle vocal performance. We can only hope to see Richey James Edwards again, but in the meanwhile there is only one thing we can say. Nos da, your genius will never be forgotten.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Midweek review, weekend preview – One game too many for Arsène Wenger?

In the absence of Champions League action the Premier League took centre-stage this midweek, with the so-called ‘Top Four’ of Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool all in action. Despite the Arsenal manager’s complaints there has always been something special about games played under floodlights in the run up to Christmas, and this midweek’s offering was no exception, despite offering up few unsurprising results. Premier League leaders Chelsea were in action against bottom-club Portsmouth, with many expecting the in-form pairing of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka to inflict a painful and humiliating defeat upon ex-Chelsea and current Portsmouth boss Avram Grant. Instead the result was a very unconvincing 2-1 victory for Chelsea, their first in five matches, which restored the Blues’ three-point advantage at the top of the table. The first-half was an extremely one-sided affair, with goalkeeper Petr Cech rarely tested after the defensive aberration a week previously against Everton. Chelsea took the lead after 23 minutes, when Alex’s cross was slotted home by Anelka, following a host of chances spurned by the home side. Portsmouth’s only attacking foray ended with Cech spilling Piquionne’s well-struck effort into the path of Herman Hreidarsson, only for the Icelandic defender to miss-control the rebound. The league leaders appeared to have allowed complacency to slip into their play in the second half, and were punished when Jamie O’Hara’s free kick deflected off Ashley Cole into the path of Piquionne, who smashed a ferocious equaliser beyond Cech. Portsmouth then had chances through the self-styled ‘Ghetto Kid’, Kevin Prince Boateng, before Chelsea’s blushes were spared by Frank Lampard’s 79th minute penalty. Flying right-back Branislav Ivanovic was clearly brought down by Marc Wilson, and Lampard stepped up to banish memories of his spot-kick miss against Manchester City the previous week. The result means Pompey remain rooted to the foot of the table, but Avram Grant’s arrival has clearly inspired greater confidence amongst the South Coast club’s players, who will hope to build on their victory against Burnley and late draw against Sunderland last weekend. Chelsea will need to improve for their Sunday afternoon encounter with London neighbours West Ham United if they intend to remain at the summit of the table.

Manchester United encountered a drastically weakened Wolverhampton Wanderers on Tuesday night at Old Trafford, boasting ten changes from the side whose heroic defensive effort guaranteed victory at White Hart Lane on Saturday. Only goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann was retained, whilst George Friend, recently recalled from his loan spell at Scunthorpe United, made his first Premier League start. Wolves were only able to hold out for half an hour against the Champions, who took the lead after Ronald Zubar handled Darron Gibson’s corner and Wayne Rooney dispatched the subsequent penalty. Nemanja Vidic headed in the second from another Gibson corner, and a powerful strike from Antonio Valencia rounded off a comfortable 3-0 win for United. Temperamental Bulgarian Dimitar Berbatov flicked the ball over his head to Valencia, who slammed a half-volley into the roof of the net. Mick McCarthy’s decision to field such a weakened side has since generated great comment, not least from Arsène Wenger, who bitterly stated “we will have to compete with Manchester United over 37 games instead of 38”, implying that Manchester United were ‘given’ the victory. Both Owen Coyle and Tony Pulis have condemned Wenger for his comments, with the Stoke manager stating “the players Mick played, most of them are seasoned professionals who he has spent decent money on”, adding “I don't think it was the walk in the park for United that people are suggesting”. Despite such support the Premier League has asked McCarthy to explain his team selection, as rule 20, section E stipulates that teams must field a full-strength side in all top-flight matches. Fans have also joined in the condemnation, chanting ‘we want our money back’ during the game; Wolves supporter chief Arthur Williams, talking to the BBC, branded the selection “grossly disrespectful” and called for McCarthy to make amends in the club’s next game against Burnley. It remains to be seen whether or not McCarthy and Wolves will be punished, but one thing is for sure; if the club were to defeat Burnley at the weekend, in what is a crucial game, the fans will no longer feel the need to complain. United meanwhile will be hoping to close the gap on Chelsea with a win away at Fulham tomorrow afternoon.

Third-placed Arsenal took on Owen Coyle’s over-achieving Burnley side at Turf Moor on Wednesday night, with goals from Francesc Fabregas and Graham Alexander ensuring the game ended all square at 1-1. Fabregas somehow managed to evade Burnley defence and slot home the opening goal after just seven minutes, before Andre Bikey’s powerful run was brought to an abrupt end by a clumsy challenge from Thomas Vermaelen. Scottish international Alexander netted his 100th career league goal from the penalty spot, in what has become a formality, to deny the Gunners what would have been an unlikely six points from two ‘tricky’ away ties in the North of England. Despite the draw being on the whole a good result for both sides, Wenger would have been severely disappointed to see his goal scorer limping off with an injury just before half time. His annoyance was clear after the game, when he criticised the Premier League’s fixture list for making his side play three games in a week, whilst his side’s next opponents Hull City missed out on the opportunity to due Everton’s participation in the Europa League. Wenger’s outburst was greeted by Tony Pulis, who accused the Arsenal boss of “moaning like a drain”, but Pulis’ assertion that any ‘top’ side ought to be able to handle three games a week is certainly correct. I very much doubt the North London side will encounter any difficulty in over-coming Phil Brown’s Hull at the Emirates tomorrow.

This season’s strugglers Liverpool overcame a gutsy Wigan outfit at Anfield on Wednesday to move up to sixth place, just five points behind Aston Villa in fourth. The game marked a special celebration for the fans, who celebrated the 50th anniversary of Scottish legend Bill Shankly becoming Liverpool manager. With Rafael Benitez having ‘guaranteed’ a top-four finish this season, the pressure was on Liverpool to prove such confidence not to be unfounded. In the end goals from the much-maligned David N’Gog, an impressive performer on the night, and the returning Fernando Torres sealed a hard-fought 2-1 victory. N’Gog opened the scoring for Liverpool with a glancing header from Aurelio’s cross, his sixth goal of the season, before Gerrard’s header released Torres, who took the ball past Wigan goalkeeper Chris Kirkland, and scrambled the ball in after his initial effort had been blocked by Titus Bramble. The goal was Torres’ 61st for Liverpool in just 100 appearances, a phenomenal record, and his manager will undoubtedly be hoping he can stay fit for the second-half of the season, and the club’s Europa League campaign. Wigan’s efforts received some reward when the outstanding Charles N’Zogbia netted with a well-placed finish through a gap in the Liverpool defence, to make up for striker Jason Scotland’s appalling miss earlier in the game, when he smashed his shot against the bar with the goal gaping. Benitez summed up the game in the post-match conference, saying “the main thing for us was just to win”, whilst his opposite number emphasised his disappointment at coming away with nothing having played so well. Tomorrow’s game away to Portsmouth should provide Liverpool with a test, as well as being a huge opportunity to close in on Spurs, who remain in fifth place, whilst Wigan will be looking for a greater reward at home to Bolton on Monday.

The remaining games saw Aston Villa continue their excellent recent form with an impressive 2-0 victory at the Stadium of Light, Emile Heskey answered critics of his goal-scoring record by giving Villa the lead on 24 minutes, before the star of recent weeks James Milner gave his England credentials yet another boost with a majestic 30-yard drive into the top-corner. The win keeps Villa in third place, level on points with Arsenal having played a game more, whilst Sunderland are tenth, having slipped out the of European picture in recent weeks due to a string of poor home results. Villa have the chance to consolidate their hold on fourth place at home to Stoke tomorrow, whilst Sunderland face a tricky game at the City of Manchester Stadium, with Mark Hughes’ side likely to be out for revenge following their midweek annihilation in North London. Tottenham made amends for their hugely disappointing 1-0 home defeat by struggling Wolves last weekend in style by thrashing City 3-0 at White Hart Lane. Niko Kranjcar was the star of the show, netting twice, once in either half, with Jermaine Defoe scoring his fourteenth goal of the season soon after the interval. Kranjcar opened the scoring in the 37th minute, slotting the ball home after Crouch’s header had deflected off City midfielder Stephen Ireland. Tottenham’s man-of-the-match then netted his second in the third minute of added time, cutting-in from the right and placing the ball underneath Shay Given. Spurs manager Harry Redknapp described Kranjcar’s performance as “fantastic”, and will be hoping for more of the same in tomorrow’s game against Blackburn, partly in order to take the attention of his disgraced players following Robbie Keane’s organisation of a ‘secret’ Christmas party Redknapp had explicitly banned. Redknapp has promised to “severely” punish those involved, and it remains to be seen whether Spurs’ captain Keane will be sold in January, partly in response to his poor form throughout the first half of the season. Birmingham City continued their excellent recent form with a 2-1 victory against Blackburn on Tuesday, Cameron Jerome scoring twice before Ryan Nelson halved the deficit twenty minutes from time. The result is Birmingham’s fifth successive league victory and keeps the club in the European places, a remarkable achievement given City’s start-of-the-season expectations. Bolton heaped yet more misery on second-bottom West Ham United with a 3-1 victory at the Reebok Stadium. South Korean striker Lee put Bolton ahead just after the hour, before Alessandro Diamanti equalised for the Londoners. Robert Green’s World Cup hopes were dealt a severe blow when he inexplicably spilled a Gary Cahill shot and Ivan Klasnic side-footed the winner. Cahill then made the result safe with a late header from Ricardo Gardner’s corner, his fourth league goal of the season. The result lifts Bolton out of the bottom three at the expense of Wolves, whilst ensuring West Ham face an uphill struggle to climb out of the relegation zone, starting with Chelsea at home on Sunday.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Rage Against The X-Factor – Will it be a Happy Christmas for Joe McElderry?

The past few weeks have seen one of the greatest displays of ‘people-power’ ever to affect the popular music scene, with what likely began as a joke amongst friends having escalated into a mass movement designed to influence the outcome of this year’s race for the Christmas Number One. The group on the ubiquitous social networking website Facebook ‘Rage Against The Machine For Christmas No.1’, encourages members to purchase copies of the band’s 1992 single ‘Killing In The Name’ between the 13th and 19th of December in order to break the X-Factor’s supposed monopoly over the Christmas Number One. For the past four years the winner of the ITV talent show has taken the number one spot, but this year popular Geordie Joe McElderry faces a difficult fight to take his single ‘The Climb’, a cover of the folk song popularised by Miley Cyrus, to the summit. Despite winning the show’s finale with a huge 61% of the vote, McElderry trails the anarchistic anthem in the iTunes and Amazon download charts, leading bookies to take “the unusual step of suspending betting on who will take the coveted slot”. According to the Daily Mail, the anarchistic ‘Killing In The Name’ has sold 175,000 copies thus far, whilst McElderry’s ‘The Climb’ has reached just 110,000. The decision to suspend betting on the outcome of the chart battle was reached because of bets “up to £1,000” being placed on Rage Against The Machine, making the betting “unviable”. Despite the bookies’ actions, HMV spokesperson Gennaro Castaldo, speaking to the Daily Mail, said “there really has been a massive Facebook campaign for Killing In the Name Of but I think X Factor will knock it off”, adding “we are expecting that most customers will actually buy this single in a store rather than online.”

The Facebook group, which now has over 800,000 members, explicitly states that its intention is simply to make the race for Christmas Number One more interesting, rather than a foregone conclusion as it has been for the last four years. A similar ‘protest’ campaign last year to get Jeff Buckley’s version of ‘Hallelujah’ to number one instead of Alexandra Burke’s attracted a fair amount of interest, but nowhere near as much as this year’s. Despite the group also stating that it isn’t directed towards X-Factor creator Simon Cowell, the music mogul was quick to condemn the idea and bring all the attention onto himself, as appears to be his want. Talking to the Guardian last Thursday, Cowell commented “if there's a campaign, and I think the campaign's aimed directly at me, it's stupid”, going on to brand it “cynical” and “very scrooge”. The latter may seem a rather ironic assertion given the large amount of money Cowell stands to make from McElderry’s success, and the fact that the ‘Rage Against The Machine For Christmas No.1’ group has helped to raise over £30,000 for the homeless charity Shelter. Cowell isn’t the only big-name to get involved in the fight for the coveted number one slot, with Rage guitarist Tom Morello issuing a rallying call on Twitter, writing “England! Now is your time!" having found out about the campaign. Morello also announced today that he would donate his earnings from the campaign, with which he has no involvement, to Youth Music, a charity designed to help young musicians in the United Kingdom.

Such actions make Cowell’s objections seem rather self-centred but one can’t help but feel sympathy for this year’s X-Factor winner Joe McElderry. A fantastic young talent, his performances of the Elton John ballad ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ and Journey’s classic ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ had both the crowd and judges in raptures, and are just two examples of his singing versatility and consistency throughout the competition. It would be a real shame for someone so unassuming, modest and level-headed to miss out on a dream Christmas Number One slot, and a large part of me hopes he doesn’t. Although I welcome any attempt to break the X-Factor monopoly over the Christmas Number One, and hugely object to the ever-increasing commercialisation of music, of which Simon Cowell is very much guilty, I would hate to deny a talented young singer the success he has battled for over the past months. Having said that it would be a sad day when music ceased being art and became nothing more than a commercial tool, and for this reason the campaign must be seen as an effort to ‘reclaim’ music from people like Simon Cowell. The fact that he has taken it as a personal attack, despite Tom Morello confirming the campaign to be a “grass roots effort and “nothing against the candidates or the guy that runs the show”, makes the prospect of hearing a truly great song at Number One for Christmas very alluring indeed. It remains to be seen who will claim the title, but one thing is for sure; Tracy and Jon Morter’s campaign has rejuvenated the battle for the Christmas Number One. Perhaps Simon should focus on the song’s anarchistic rallying cry, “f*** you I won’t do what you tell me”, as it may be a sign of things to come.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

The Iraq Inquiry – will we ever find out the truth?

The long-promised and equally long-anticipated public inquiry into the Iraq War began last month, on the 24th November. Whilst many British citizens will be hoping to discover the true motivations behind the decision of Tony Blair’s administration to invade Iraq, the inquiry will most likely constitute another ‘cover-up’ designed to protect those who made the fateful decision back in 2003. The fact that Gordon Brown initially announced his intention to hold the inquiry in public shows the extent to which the government is aware of the lack of justification for the war, and the potential backlash if compromising information were leaked into the public domain. First of all I feel it’s essential to give some background on the invasion, the way in which it was justified to the British public and the international community and why I believe Iraq was the target. In the aftermath of September 11th, in which 2,976 people were killed, the United States launched an invasion of Afghanistan, enacted the USA PATRIOT act, and inaugurated its ‘War on Terror’ which was spearheaded by the invasion of Iraq. In 2003 Iraq was an undemocratic nation ruled by Saddam Hussein, a de-facto dictator ruling in the name of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party. Following his seizure of power in 1979 Hussein created a cult of personality around himself, erecting statues in major towns and cities, and tried to enable Iraq to play a major role in Middle Eastern affairs. Following the overthrow of the Shah of Iran by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 Hussein invaded the new Islamic Republic a year later, beginning the eight year long Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). Chemical weapons were used by Iraqi forces throughout the war, most notably on the Kurdish town of Halabja on March 16th 1988, where 5,000 citizens were killed. The war left Iraq in desperate need of reconstruction and dependent on foreign loans to maintain its economy, yet following a number of disputes with neighbouring Kuwait, Iraq invaded and annexed the small, oil-rich Gulf State. These actions triggered huge international condemnation as well as a counter-invasion by the Coalition of the Gulf War, which included troops from the United States, Saudi Arabia, United Kingdom and Egypt amongst others. The Iraqi invasion was halted and turned back by Coalition Forces, and the war itself ended by a cease-fire. Hussein continued to rule the now destitute Iraq, whose dire economic situation was exacerbated by a continuation of the economic sanctions placed upon the country by the United Nations at the outset of its invasion of Kuwait. During the late 1990s the United States continued to suspect Iraq of developing the now infamous 'weapons of mass destruction' which had allegedly begun in the early 1980s. Throughout the decade there was only limited and intermittent Iraqi co-operation with UN weapons inspection teams, at the same time as Saddam and his sons became increasingly powerful and carried out a private reign of terror and repression.

This was the background to George Bush's identification of Iraq as part of the 'Axis of Evil' following the September 11th attacks, the other two nations being Iran and North Korea. Bush claimed in his 2002 State of the Union Address that "the Iraqi regime has plotted to develop anthrax, and nerve gas, and nuclear weapons for over a decade", whilst suggesting that he may take action to topple Hussein's government because of the alleged threat of its 'weapons of mass destruction'. British Prime Minister Tony Blair closely followed, nay shadowed the United States policy towards Iraq, and was a willing accomplice in the 2003 invasion. Iraq's failure to comply fully with the United Nations Security Council's Resolution 1441, designed to prove whether or not it was in possession of 'weapons of mass destruction' fuelled suspicion amongst the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom. Although no evidence of 'WMD's' was ever found, indeed the United States-led Iraq Survey Group concluded that Iraq had ended its nuclear, chemical and biological programmes in 1991, Bush and Blair were so committed to punitive action that not even vehement French, German, Russian and Arab League opposition could prevent an invasion. Thus the so-called 'Coalition of the Willing' invaded Iraq on March 20th 2003, captured Saddam Hussein nine months later and established the 'democratic' government of Nouri-al-Maliki three years later.

The British government under Tony Blair took the decision to invade Iraq in March 2003 allegedly because of the threat posed to the United Kingdom by Saddam Hussein's regime because of its possession of 'weapons of mass destruction'. The invasion was 'illegal' in the sense that it wasn't backed by a United Nations Resolution, unlike the First Gulf War, but also in the eyes of many British citizens. This is because even before the war began there was no firm evidence of the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the main justification for the war. Had the British and American governments chosen a different justification the war would have been even less credible amongst the international community. The deposition of Saddam Hussein was almost certainly morally right and correct, and I'm sure many within the United Nations wouldn't have thought twice to remove him from power by legitimate and legal means. However, George Bush and Tony Blair arguing that the invasion was justified on the grounds that it 'liberated' the Iraqi people is completely incorrect and morally repugnant, for why is an Iraq suffering from sectarian violence and political instability any more 'appropriate' than the regime of Saddam Hussein?

There are many answers to this question, the foremost being that courtesy of the invasion Iraq is now a ‘democratic’ nation. Obviously we all define ‘democracy’ differently, but the crucial fact for the United States is that Iraq is led by a ‘democratically-elected’ government friendly to US interests and receptive to its demands. For the United States a government representative of the views of a majority of the population hasn’t, since the warm, fuzzy rhetoric and foreign policy of Franklin D. Roosevelt disappeared, been a necessity. Indeed the United States spent an astronomical amount to prevent the emergence of a democratic and representative government led by Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam by supporting the hugely unpopular administration of Ngo Dinh Diem. The fact is that for the most part of a century America has seen itself as a bastion of ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’, and since the end of the Second World War has supported corrupt, inefficient, undemocratic, unrepresentative regimes mostly in order to prevent the spread of Communism but also ensure ‘stability’. For the most part the latter has been valued far higher than any of the aforementioned values the United States has supposedly been so committed to upholding. The Bush administration would never have been willing to see anyone but Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia dissident during Saddam Hussein's period of rule, elected to lead Iraq. The United States’ commitment to democracy extends solely to democracy on its terms, meaning that only governments in favour of capitalism, free markets, US bases on their territory, exploitation of indigenous natural resources, and opposed to Communism, Socialism, Terrorism, Al Qaeda (what the United States sees as a monolithic terrorist organisation encompassing all those throughout the world opposed to the West), and nuclear proliferation. For only the United States and nations such as Russia, France and Great Britain it was unable to prevent developing nuclear weapons ought to have them, as other countries cannot be trusted to. Not only is this an immensely patronising and hypocritical view, it is also hugely ironic, as the only country since the completion of the Manhattan Project to use nuclear weapons against another sovereign state is America, on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. When one takes this fact into account it becomes very different for any American to accuse North Korea and Iran of being ‘dangerous’ and a ‘liability’ if they were to develop nuclear weapons, but I’m sure many will manage to.

Tony Blair’s claim that he “would still have led the country to war in Iraq even if he had known that it had no weapons of mass destruction”, which has been so shocking for some and yet so surprising for many, reveals a number of things. Firstly it shows the extent of his arrogance, as he clearly believed he had the right to depose Saddam Hussein as part of the American ‘crusade’, if you’ll pardon the expression, to enforce democracy upon the Middle East. The resoluteness of the above statement also illustrates his sheer disregard for public opinion; Blair is not alone in this, as the governments of Italy and Spain, the latter until the election of PSOE in 2004, supported the invasion politically and militarily despite nearly 90% of citizens in each country being opposed to it. For those who always believed Blair to have been innocent, and merely a pawn in George Bush’s evil master-plan to gain control of Iraq’s oil, his assertion will prove a huge revelation. The now-infamous ‘weapons of mass destruction’ file on which the Blair administration based its justification for Iraq has been shown for what it was; a bright shining lie, and the perfect cover-up. By playing on the issue of national security Blair was able to give the war a legitimacy it would never have otherwise had, and he was well aware of this.

As for the Inquiry it will reveal little more of interest, be a painfully long and drawn-out process and come to the already-obvious conclusion that Britain and America had no right to invade Iraq, conveniently after the forthcoming General Election so as not to harm the Labour Party’s chances. I very much doubt that any charges will be brought against the high-profile figures involved in the war, least of all Tony Blair. Whilst some continue to call for Mr. Blair to be tried as a War Criminal, an accusation I find slightly exaggerated, he must forever be known as a Prime Minister who fundamentally disregarded popular opinion, acted unilaterally without the backing of the other main political parties and deliberately misled the British public in order to institute a policy change in a foreign nation which he had no right to do. The disgraceful attempts by his successor Gordon Brown to hold the Inquiry into the Iraq War in private illustrate the lengths to which politicians in this country will go in order to protect themselves and deflect the blame onto others. Will we ever know the truth about the Iraq War? I’d have to say no, but for me, Tony Blair’s revelation is all we need to know that our views will forever be fundamentally unimportant to and disregarded by those who represent us in Parliament.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Justice – the new Daft Punk or just another electro band?

French duo Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay burst onto the electronic music scene in 2006 with their UK Top Twenty hit ‘We Are Your Friends’, a remix of Indie band Simian’s hit ‘Never Be Alone’. The song became an instant club hit, and won the MTV Europe Music Award for Best Video, but for many Justice remain an unknown quantity. Their debut album †, commonly known as Cross, was released in 2007, pre-dating the current ‘electro-fad’ by almost a year and a half. Musically Cross drastically different to any ‘electronic’, ‘new-rave’ or ‘dance’ music around currently, and its critical success makes the comparison to their fellow countrymen, House pioneers Daft Punk sadly inevitable. If anything its better that Justice remain a niche band, exposed only to a select few, as so many promising bands have fallen foul of excessive airplay and become nothing more than commercial radio fodder. After all it’s always nice to feel you’ve discovered something different, fresh, exciting, and most importantly original. All of these apply to Cross, which is quite a discovery, managing to sound commercially viable and artistically unique. Perhaps due to the nature of the genre, or the fact that most electronic music is commonly enjoyed in clubs alongside copious amounts of alcohol, most dance or electro albums tend to be overlooked, ignored, quickly-forgotten, or simply not very good. It is remarkable therefore that Justice have managed to steer clear of such a fate, and managed to avoid the dreaded ‘one-hit wonder’ tag with Cross, as it is normally the singles most people remember. I highly doubt people flocked in their masses to purchase Darude’s 2001 offering ‘Before the Storm’, but I’m sure there are very few yet to hear perennial club favourite and dance mega-hit ‘Sandstorm’.

Cross however is remarkably consistent; there is no filler and every track manages to flow effortlessly into the next, whilst managing to sound unique, which is no mean feat for a debut album of this genre. Its inclusion in the prestigious book ‘1001 Albums to Hear Before You Die’ is a testament to such qualities, and reflects the ease with which it can be listened to; whether going out, staying in, chilling out, stressed or happy it is a perfect accompaniment. Whilst some dance artists such as Basshunter and Cascada choose thumping bass-lines and predictable melodies with which to fill their disappointing albums, Justice seem to have wanted to provide an array of material, themes and styles rather than just regurgitate the same basic track twelve times. The most obviously commercial track from the album is undoubtedly ‘D.A.N.C.E’, an incredibly catchy number which according to the band is “about and dedicated to Michael Jackson”. The “lisping playground chants” pay homage to the days of the Jackson 5, and make D.A.N.C.E an instantly recognisable party song. Its description as ‘pure musical Ambrosia’ is fitting given the song’s playful quality and childlike appeal, and complement the intermittent synth hooks perfectly. According to de Rosnay the intention behind Cross was to create an ‘opera-disco’ album, which is evident in the band’s debut solo single ‘Waters of Nazareth’, released in 2005 and championed by many DJs, but mostly ignored by the musical mainstream. Although it “does not sound like disco when you hear it for the first time”, in the words of de Rosnay, “if you forget that everything is distorted, the bass lines are just really disco patterns”. Distortion is very much the operative word with which to describe the murky Waters of Nazareth, which packs the album’s biggest punch. Its combination of ‘a crunchy church organ with a bottom-heavy synthesizer rolling in gravel’ gives the song a deeply mysterious and almost gothic feel.

Opening track Genesis is not so much a “sludgy techno throb that feels not so much expertly crafted as messily stapled together out of twitching blocks of sound”, a per Louis Patterson of BBC Six Music, but rather a comparatively tame intro aiming to draw the listener in. Justice understandably want their debut to be as accessible as possible without compromising its artistic integrity, and Genesis shows them bridging the gap between commerciality and art perfectly; it hints at what the rest of the album has to offer without giving away too much, and whilst it wouldn’t win awards, is at least as credible as any electronic music around currently. ‘Let There Be Light’ is another murky, distorted offering sounding remarkably similar to a jellyfish being given electro-shock treatment, and is the sort of track that would implore most parents to ask whether or not the CD has been badly scratched. ‘Newjack’ is a clever twist on old-school funk, which is combined with a gnarled, jittery accompaniment to create a track bizarrely complicated on the surface but actually remarkably simple, whilst the two-track salvo of ‘Phantom’ and the imaginatively titled ‘Phantom II’ which manage to sound at times exactly the same and at others completely different. Phantom creates the sensation of falling, as the synth groans and squeals, creating a dark and sinister atmosphere, whilst Phantom II is the calm after the storm, yet still sounds as if it “were concocted in a cold, cavernous atmosphere”. Perhaps this can be explained by the fact that both songs feature samples of ‘Tenebrae’, the theme song of the 1982 horror film of the same name. The album slowly becomes more and more gothic and mysterious through ‘Valentine’, the type of track Dracula would be seen to request at a London club night, with its haunting vocals and horror-film-esque playground ride synths, and ‘The Party’ which incorporates a cute-voiced rapper coaxing her friends to get "drunk and freaky fried" over a keyboard potentially lifted from Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants”. The Party illustrates Justice’s ability to mix things up; rather than produce an album consisting solely of high-energy dance numbers, de Rosnay and Gaspard manage to adapt their trademark synths and mid-tempo beats and try to tell a different story with each song. Such qualities draw comparisons to 2008’s breakthrough act MGMT, with the ‘get drunk and freaky fried’ call straight out of the Ting Ting’s debut ‘We Started Nothing’.

DNVO’s disco handclaps and comic book style ‘zaps’, combined with the sort of bouncy vocals that characterised 80’s new-wave acts show Justice’s commitment to the ‘disco-opera’ concept, whilst Stress provides the album’s creative high-point, and “is perhaps the best track here” as Louis Patterson suggests. Its sound suggests the coming of a terrible apocalypse, with the brutally heavy, super-dense concoction of air-raid sirens and whirling violins the physical embodiment of paranoia, fear, tension and stress, as the name implies. The way in which the track builds up to a crescendo, before continuing in the same vein supplements this idea. Patterson’s assertion that it “sounds like nothing less than the bathroom scene from Psycho set to beats” is certainly an accurate and fair assessment. Final track ‘One Minute to Midnight’ signals the the point for sombre, in keeping with the previous tracks, reflection on without a doubt one the best albums of 2007. Many will continue to ignore Justice, whether intentionally or not, whilst journalists will be unable to resist the allure of using the laughably simple and inaccurate comparison to Daft Punk. As Louis Anderson correctly states “this big, bold record is the sound of leaders – not followers”, and Justice have certainly proved that they don’t need any tips on how to achieve originality. For those tired of lazy, half-baked efforts from mainstream acts who long ago sacrificed any artistic integrity, look to Justice, whose follow up next year will either build on the excellent foundation of Cross, or condemn de Rosnay and Augé to excessive rotation on ‘Virgin Radio’ or ‘the Hits’, and signal the end of two very promising careers indeed.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Premier League weekend – Goal and game of the season on the same day?

It’s been a while since the so-called ‘top two’ sides in the Premier League have failed to win on the same day, so do Saturday’s results mean the title race has been thrown wide open going into the busy Christmas period? Not really, seeing as it remains ‘as you were’ at the summit of the table following Manchester United’s failure to capitalise on Chelsea’s inept defensive display against out-of-luck and out-of-form Everton at Stamford Bridge. The match ended 3-3, extending the Blues’ run to four games without a win and giving Everton a chance to kick-start their flagging campaign. Not for a number of years has a Chelsea defence looked as shaky, brittle and vulnerable as it did on Saturday, where three simple free-kicks proved their undoing. The formerly imperious Petr Cech was more Leaning Tower of Pisa than a tower of strength, deflecting Louis Saha’s header into the net to give Everton an unlikely lead after just 12 minutes. Whist defensively Chelsea are in poor form, star strikers Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka continue to shine, with the former netting Chelsea’s equaliser before Anelka curled a clever finish into the top right-hand corner from Ivanovic’s cross. However on the stroke of half-time Bilyaletdinov’s long throw caused havoc amongst the Chelsea defence, with both Terry and Carvalho failing to clear before Louis Saha side-footed home. Chelsea’s attacking prowess once again paid dividends after the break as unlikely playmaker Ivanovic centred for Drogba to volley Chelsea into the lead once more with his 18th goal of the campaign. Whilst it would be easy to blame the result squarely on Chelsea’s defensive shortcomings, Everton demonstrated huge grit and determination belying their league position to equalise just after the hour. Johnny Heitinga’s free-kick was met by Didier Drogba, whose header rebounded off Louis Saha and looped over the stranded Cech into the back of the net. The result will undoubtedly concern Ancelotti, particularly his side’s vulnerability to set-pieces, but shows Everton’s incredible resilience, having rescued draws ‘from the jaws of defeats’ twice in a week. Despite losing striker Jo in the second half, Everton shouldn’t be languishing in the bottom-half of the table for too long.

Chelsea’s defeat provided champions Manchester United with the perfect opportunity to capitalise and go equal on points at the top of the table at home to Aston Villa. With Villa having failed to defeat United at Old Trafford in the league for twenty six years, an upset seemed extremely unlikely. Yet this is exactly what Martin O’Neill’s side provided, with Ashley Young cutting inside and delivering a perfect centre for Gabriel Agbonlahor in the 21st minute. Villa then faced the prospect of holding out for seventy minutes against United’s impressive array of attacking talent, with Rooney coming closest to an equaliser when his powerful effort smashed off the bar. Dimitar Berbatov came closest to an equaliser, with unsung hero Brad Friedel tipping his long-range effort wide, but on the weekend Ryan Giggs, one of the greatest players of the Premier League era, was honoured with the Sports Personality of the Year Award, his team-mates were unable to reclaim the initiative in the title race. The result sees Villa climb to third place on 29 points, two clear of their nearest rivals for fourth-place Tottenham, whilst leaving United three points behind Chelsea ahead of a comparatively-easier tie against Wolverhampton Wanderers on Tuesday.

In the weekend’s highest profile game Arsenal heaped yet more misery on Rafael Benitez and Liverpool, coming away from Anfield with a 2-1 victory thanks to a screamer from Russian wizard Andrei Arshavin and Glen Johnson’s unfortunate own-goal. The hard-working Dirk Kuyt had given Liverpool a deserved lead, but Arsene Wenger’s half-time tirade inspired his young Gunners to overturn the deficit and emerge victorious. Arshavin’s winning goal was a joy to behold, extending his magnificent run of form at Anfield, but Liverpool ought to have gone ahead earlier, when Torres played in Steven Gerrard, only for the skipper to be scythed down by defender William Gallas. The referee alone knows why he failed to award a spot kick, as although Gerrard had probably lost control of the ball, no-one can deny that there was contact. The result means Benitez goes into the Christmas period under yet more pressure, with Liverpool five points off fourth place and hoping to gain momentum going into their Europa League campaign in 2010.

Going into the weekend’s games Tottenham were looking to deal out a similar punishment to Wolverhampton Wanderers as the 9-1 thrashing they had inflicted upon Wigan, yet it was the ‘other’ Spurs that turned up for their clash at White Hart Lane. Nenad Milijas’ free-kick was floated into the box, evading the entire Tottenham defence before receiving the lightest of touches from Kevin Doyle to send it into the back of the net. Whilst Tottenham conceding would have been of little surprise to the home fans, their inability to create any meaningful chances was certainly shocking. Wolves’ victory means they have won back-to-back top flight games for the first time in twenty six years, and sees Tottenham fall behind their North London rivals in the Premier League table. It will be interesting to see whether or not Wolves are able to continue their form during the Christmas period and remain outside the relegation zone come January.

Whilst the game at Stamford Bridge will grab the majority of the headlines, perhaps the best game of the season so far took place at the most unlikely of locations, the Reebok Stadium. Bolton, who have won just once at home all season, a fact unlikely to ease any of the pressure on the perennially unpopular Gary Megson, and draw-specialists Manchester City served up a hugely enjoyable 3-3 draw. The star of the day, the ‘rich man’s Dirk Kuyt’, Carlos Tevez, netted the first equaliser with a deflected effort from outside the area after Ivan Klasnic had opened the scoring for Bolton from what appeared to be an off-side position. Unlikely hero Gary Cahill made it 2-1 with a splendid effort into the bottom left-hand corner, likely the best goal he will ever score, before Micah Richards slotted in following a sleek Manchester City counter-attack. ‘Poison dwarf’ Craig Bellamy was then sent off in bizarre circumstances as the referee inexplicably gave him a second booking for diving, when he had clearly been tripped running at pace into the Bolton area. The decision was so abject that it may have made Match of the Day viewers sympathise with Mark Hughes, but it probably didn’t given the regularity with which he criticises referees. If Hughes were to judge himself by the same criteria with which he judges Premier League officials, you’d imagine he’d have been forced to resign from City a long while ago. Klasnic netted Bolton’s third from Taylor’s knock-down with a poacher’s effort before Tevez drove home a left-footed pile driver from 25 yards to ensure the game ended all-square, an appropriate end to a thrilling game of football.

Man City’s trip to Bolton may have provided the season’s most entertaining game thus far, but following Wigan’s 2-2 draw against Stoke City almost certainly contained the goal of the season. Wigan took the lead through an unlikely source in Emerson Boyce, before Stoke new boy Tuncay Sanli netted his debut goal for the Potters with a low shot from a tight angle. Stoke will undoubtedly hope for great things from the Turkish striker, but the game belonged to Wigan left-back Maynor Figueroa. The Honduran defender saw Thomas Sorensen off his line and with great audacity launched an effort on goal from within his own half, which sailed above the head of the Stoke keeper and into the net. Despite the goal being a demonstration of perfect technique, skill and hours of practice on the training pitch, Match of the Day’s Alan Hansen was still able to criticise the Stoke defenders for failing to ‘stand on the ball’. As for the remainder of the game City pressed forward in search of an equaliser, with the impressive Ryan Shawcross rising to head in a Matthew Etherington corner, before Sorensen saved Hugo Rodallega’s late penalty, making his spot-kick record five penalties saved out of six attempts and preserving the draw for Stoke.

Birmingham City continued their excellent run of form with a comfortable 1-0 victory at home to struggling West Ham, with the hugely impressive Lee Bowyer scoring his fifth league goal of the season. The result propels City into eighth place, level of points with Liverpool, whilst keeping West Ham in 18th place still searching for a buyer and a replacement for Dean Ashton, who was cruelly forced to retire at the beginning of the week following chronic injury problems. Two of the season’s over-performers, Burnley and Fulham shared the spoils at Turf Moor, meaning the Londoners’ still haven’t won away at Burnley since 1951. Bobby Zamora opened the scoring for Fulham with his second goal in a week, before midfielder Wade Elliot hit an equaliser into the top corner, meaning Fulham are in 9th place, four above Burnley who could surely not have hoped for better at the beginning of the season, when just staying up seemed unlikely. Sunderland, who had previously beaten both Liverpool and Arsenal at the Stadium of Light, failed to defeat the Premier League’s bottom-side Portsmouth, with Younes Kaboul striking at the death to salvage a point, cancelling out Darren Bent’s opener for the Black Cats. In undoubtedly the least enthralling game of the weekend relegation candidates Hull City and Blackburn Rovers played out a 0-0 draw that does neither side any favours. Hull will feel they ought to have won the game on the basis of the chances they spurned, but Blackburn’s Nikola Kalinic ought to have scored at least one of the three excellent chances presented to him. The likely departure of Benni McCarthy means the burden on Kalinic will only increase going into 2010 when the fight for survival becomes more and more desperate, with ever-smaller margins the difference between staying up and going down.

This most prestigious of this weekend’s awards goes to Carlos Tevez, often maligned for his poor goal-scoring record; his two-goal salvo at Bolton makes him a more than worthy recipient of the Player of the Week award, which can also be seen as an appreciation of his hard-work, commitment and effort throughout the season. The Team of the Week is without a doubt David Moyes’ Everton, who despite a multitude of injuries, terrible form, and being dealt a hammer blow regarding their new stadium, were able to produce a hugely resilient display at Stamford Bridge and come away with a hugely credible 3-3 draw. Goal of the week is a remarkably simple affair, with Figueroa’s effort an example of pure genius, audacity and confidence which will be re-played for many years to come. However we ought not to forget Gary Cahill’s fantastic strike for Bolton, which illustrated the type of skill and finishing ability that few Premier League centre-halves possess. Pass of the week goes to Ashley Young for his pin-point cross to Gabriel Agbonlahor in the game against Manchester United, which demonstrated his potential value to England if included in the squad for South Africa next year. The ‘Worst Team of the Week’ has to be given to Chelsea, for whilst Drogba and Anelka were sublime, football is a team game and as a team Chelsea defended atrociously and were very lucky to avoid defeat. Miss of the Week is a difficult decision, as whilst Nikola Kalinic was hugely profligate when presented with excellent opportunities in the game against Hull, Rodallega’s abject penalty just about edges it. This week’s unfortunate recipient of the ‘mistake’ award is Glen Johnson, who despite being one of this season’s success stories, was Djimi Traore-esque in scoring at the wrong end and unintentionally helping Arsenal on their way to a crucial victory.