I'm British. I don't celebrate Thanksgiving, and I don't do my Christmas shopping the day after, on Black Friday. I tend to get a bit grumpy when UK retailers try to make out that we should be doing the same thing as our American friends. They get the day off. We don't. I hate going shopping at the best of times but the idea of battling through hordes of people driven crazy by the prospect of stuff being sold off at a slightly cheaper price does not fill me with joy.
But I do occasionally make exceptions. When I saw a couple of good Black Friday deals on expansion packs for EZDrummer this week, I caved in and bought them. And I got a copy of EZMix2 for £18, too. It's only two months until February Album Writing Month starts again and I want to be prepared. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. So I have added the Rock! and The Blues expansion packs to my collection of computer drum kits. They sound great, and feeding them through EZMix 2 has given me some interesting new sounds to add to my sonic palette. Many thanks, once again, to the people at Toontrack for making such irresistible products.
Next year is a leap year, so I will get an extra day of music making, meaning that I have to write fourteen and a half songs during the month instead of the usual fourteen. The last time there was a Leap FAWM back in 2012 I ended up writing nineteen songs and collaborating on a twentieth. I'm going to try and beat that figure for 2016.
Every year in February I come down with a stinking cold, which means I end up either recording rather more instrumentals than I would normally write, or singing with a voice that sounds more like Leonard Cohen than me...
This time I seem to be getting my February cold out of the way in advance. I've been coughing and sniffling for most of the week and with the way the wind was throwing the rain at the windows this morning I was very tempted to just stay in bed. But I'm up, writing stuff, and waiting for the nasal decongestants to kick in.
One of the first references to Bristol I can remember reading as a child was a news article that talked about a mysterious low-frequency noise that was known as the Bristol Hum. Not everybody could hear it; it was a quiet drone that faded in and out of audibility. It was most noticeable at night and for those who could hear it, it was a source of irritation and distraction. As I became more interested in things Fortean, I discovered that the phenomenon isn't limited to Bristol - similar noises have been reported from all over the World. Lots of different explanations have been suggested over the years, from fans in air-conditioning units to the wind blowing through electricity cables. Sceptics maintained that there wasn't a phenomenon at all, and that people were imagining things. Given this attitude, you might not be surprised to learn that several cases of suicide in Bristol have been blamed on the noise.
Then in 2004 it was discovered that the Earth rings like a bell; seismic oscillations (the waves that travel through the Earth's surface after an earthquake) have been consistently identified in seismic records in the frequency range 2-7 mHz, even on days without significant earthquakes. While the sound should be well below the threshold of human hearing, the noise definitely exists. This year, a team of scientists led by Fabrice Ardhuin at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Brest published a paper identifying the prinicpal cause of these seismic waves. Well, actually it's two causes that combine to produce the Hum.
Firstly, when water flows over a seabed that undulates in a regular pattern, the waves in the water will fluctuate with a wavelength much longer than the waves themselves, and the pressure on the sea bottom varies. The longer the wavelength, the lower the frequency of this variation. The frequency of this variation can match that of the seismic waves, mentioned above, so the seabed starts to resonate. Using computer modelling, the researchers found that depth variations on the scale of the ocean wavelength can strongly amplify the seismic source. And near the coast, where the ocean floor shelves off into the deeps, conditions are really good for creating large effects.
Secondly, when two trains of waves interact they can cause intereference; you might have seen your physics teacher demonstrate this with a ripple tank at school. When the wave trains are travelling in directions that are nearly, but not quite opposite to each other, the interference patterns move over time and the resulting pressure variations on the sea bed again have a frequency that can match those seismic waves.
In both cases, there's a strong increase in the resulting effect at frequencies between 2-7 mHz. Places where you get both things happening at the same time are therefore prime candidates for generating low frequency noise. Sources of the hum "are strongest along shelf breaks, on the east side of oceans," the paper says, and Bristol is an ideal candidate. It's scant comfort to the families of those who killed themselves, but perhaps the fact that the phenomenon is real will help prevent anyone else taking their own life as a result.
The Bristol Evening Post ran a story about the Hum being solved back in April, but I missed it. When I stumbled across the report earlier this week, I immediately tweeted about it, but it wasn't until Friday night that it suddenly started getting rather more attention than my ramblings normally receive. I looked at Twitter to see why and very soon figured out the cause: I'd been retweeted by the film director Guillermo del Toro. That certainly made my day.
I called in at the Intersound Guitar Show on Thursday night. I didn't have time to stay, but it was good to catch up with a few friends and look at some very shiny new pieces of gear. I've been playing guitar for four decades now (as I mentioned last week) but walking into a room full of gorgeous guitars and amps never fails to set my fingers twitching. Steve, Denver, Norm and the rest of the Intersound team know this all too well. Norm gave me a guided tour of what was new and I burst out laughing when the first thing he handed me was a brass resonator ukulele made by Ashbury - the thing weighed a ton!
The one thing that had absolutely everybody buzzing was the BLUGuitars AMP1. At first I thought it was just a new guitar multi-effects pedal, but Norm explained that it also has a 100 watt amplifier built into it. Plugged into a single 10" speaker cabinet it was producing a really satisfying, meaty range of sounds. Extraordinary bit of kit.
I didn't have time to try out one of the new Artist series amps from Blackstar, but I suspect it won't be long before I find myself popping in to Intersound's shop in Dursley to give one a go.
After dragging myself away from all the lovely guitars I headed into Bristol for a special Novel Nights event at The Lansdown in Clifton. Their guest for the evening was Gareth Powell, who was talking about the craft and business of writing science fiction. Back in January, I went along to Forbidden Planet in Bristol for the launch of the concluding book in Gareth's award-winning Ack Ack Macaque trilogy, where (as the result of a Thing on Twitter) Gareth had appeared in full costume as his fictional hero, and he's a good bloke, so I wasn't going to miss this.
The first half of the evening featured readings from Simon Toseland, Caroline New, Patrick Edwards and Tim Kindberg. The first three writers were alumni of the Creative Writing MA course at Bath Spa University, which they all enthusiastically recommended. All four pieces were interesting. The writing was deft and accomplished. The description of one character's physical reaction to what they were experiencing really drew me in to the story and built the tension. Little asides, such as one character's response of "As if..." as a dismissal of another character's statement really showed what the narrator felt rather than told us. Each writer had successfully avoided the temptation to explain every little element of the scene when building the world in which the fiction is set. I've read published works of SF that fail at this; someone called it the "I've done my homework" response, and it's a great description.
After a short break (there was cake!), Gareth read a couple of chapters from a work in progress, then a great little short story called Ride The Blue Horse, which he'd written for an online magazine focusing on climate change. Then he took questions from the audience. The subject quickly turned to world building. When asked how much he did, Gareth replied
"As little as possible!"
For the Macaque trilogy, Gareth explained that he wanted to write a murder mystery set on a Zeppelin, and once he'd come up with that he had to figure out why Zeppelins were still in use, what sort of political climate would have to be in place, what sort of effect that would have on, for instance, what make of van a character would end up driving, and so on.
The question of what constituted a "science fiction novel" cropped up and whether a work like George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four should be classed as SF. Gareth's response was that it certainly was. He explained that he uses the Duck Test to decide if something is SF or not:
"If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck."
I agree; mainstream critics are still incredibly sniffy about SF as a genre and there are cases of famous authors writing something that was undoubtedly and firmly science fiction and having reviewers desperately insist that oh no, it really wasn't SF at all, it was something else. And yes, I may well be thinking of Margaret Atwood at this point. This is why literary circles now use terms like "magical realism" or the equally acceptable term "speculative fiction" when we all know what they're really writing about is SF. This happens even for novels which are set in the future and that have spaceships in them. David Langford is a merciless chronicler of such discomforts and of mainstream condescension in the As Others See Us section of his monthly Ansible newsletter. His site is well worth perusing.
I'd taken my creative notebook along to take notes, and there were plenty of hints, tips and notes on technique to keep me scribbling away. It was an inspiring event. Even though I gave National Novel Writing Month a miss this year (for the first time since I signed up way back in 2006) I found myself thinking about getting back into writing again as I drove back home. Novel nights moves to a new venue in Bristol next year, a bar called The Strawberry Thief. (I suspect that's a William Morris reference). The bar offers a range of 70 to 80 different Belgian beers, so I suspect I may find myself becoming a regular attendee.
I might even start writing properly, instead of just blogging!
If you've read my blog entries in February over the last five years or so, you'll know that I take part in an event called February Album Writing Month. The goal of those taking part is to write fourteen songs - an album's worth - in 28 days. As a way of improving your creative discipline it has few equals. You can't be precious about waiting for inspiration. Rather, in the words of Jack London, you have to light out after it with a club. Taking part has been a great help in honing my chops as a songwriter and my musical proficiency has changed beyond all recognition. There isn't time to fuss over what you're doing. You just have to get on with it. As an example of this, the heavy metal song Blackjack that I wrote in February took me just over two hours from sitting down to start writing to uploading the finished article to the web.
Some people don't respond well to deadlines. Douglas Adams said that he loved them because
Much to my surprise, I've found that I do - and in my professional career, not just for recreation. Even so, the challenge of coming up with a new song every two days for a month is not a trivial one. You might argue that making things even more difficult by trying to get each one done in a couple of hours is verging on masochism, but I like a challenge. One reason why I am able to do so is that I use a lot of very clever software applications. The drums in Blackjack were created using a software package called EZDrummer 2 which is made by a Swedish company called Toontrack. I've blogged about the company before and I recommend their products (and their customer service) very highly. Some of my favourite musicians use their software, too, and one of them called in to Toontrack's Chicago office on Thursday to deliver a masterclass in songwriting, which was streamed live on Toontrack's website.
When I tell you it was Devin Townsend, you may understand just how excited I was by this.
Coverage started at 12:30 in the morning UK time, so it was going to be a very late night for me, but this is Devin we're talking about here, so who cares? The folks at Toontrack had given Dev two hours to come up with a track and they set the clock ticking at 1 am UK time. Dev was on camera for the whole thing. It was a fascinating opportunity to see a phenomenally talented musician's creative process. I had my notebook at the ready once again and made lots of notes. I learnt a lot of really useful things, such as:
- He has a song template with all the tracks he uses - drums, rhythm guitars, lead guitars, vocals - and his favourite effects already preassigned to the relevant instrument. The template is also split into traditional song sections - verse, chorus, prechorus, bridge and so on, as he uses different instruments and different processing on different parts of the song.
- He starts by playing guitar to a click track. The drums come later. This boggled my tiny little mind; I always create the drum track first. His way, of course, offers much more scope for invention and improvisation.
- Using a de-esser on vocals allows Dev to use much higher levels of compression on them.
- He used to record 4 tracks for rhythm guitar but he finds he gets a bigger sound just using two, panned hard left and right (hooray, that's what I do too!)
- He records four takes of vocals for each section of a song and he doesn't listen to each take - he just mutes it and moves on to the next one. (I do that as well!)
- He uses an Ehrlund mic for acoustic guitar and vocals - and I was amazed to see that he records vocals sitting down, holding the mic in his hand.
- Dev is LOUD when he sings. You could hear the camera's automatic gain control kick in when he let rip.
- He gets "haunted" by an aspect of something and deals with it by writing a song. When the song's done, he can move on and he will often leave the song alone for some time after recording the demo.
- He's been playing a lot of bass guitar recently, particularly Zon basses. I want one.
I knew it already, but watching him at work for two hours confirmed it: Dev is utterly endearing. He was very humble about his own abilities and full of encouragement for others. He said he wanted to help other musicians to do what they do because people had been so good to him in showing him the ropes. His chops as a musician are awe-inspiring; the effort that he put in to recording the vocals showed absolute commitment to his work. As time progressed and things developed, you could see how completely engrossed in his work he was. He got annoyed at himself for messing up a take, just like I do. And it was strangely reassuring to see that even the professionals have problems just like us mere mortals:
"Oh, the application has unexpectedly quit. That's helpful."
There was no hiding things when they went pear-shaped, as we had a constant feed of Dev's desktop on screen. The Bluetooth wireless keyboard he was using kept losing its connection to the computer (possibly because all the cameras being used were using Bluetooth to send their video to the broadcast hub) which meant that the system didn't always respond to what Dev was doing. At one point he just left something he didn't like as it was, and moved on, muttering
That's not going to bug me at all, is it?
(whispered) Yes it is..."
He described how he laid down one instrument track
"With all the elegance of a new-born mule."
One thing he said really struck home:
"Being led by your intuition is essential."
People were commenting on the fact that he had a spectacular guitar sound straight away, rather than tweaking it in ProTools, but as Devin said, and this reinforces that last quote,
"Having the right guitar sound and the right drums from the start is so helpful creatively, because I can hear straight away if it sucks. I hate having to fix things later."
He finished playback of the completed song at one minute past three in the morning, UK time. It was extraordinary to watch (and take part in - there was much Tweeting using the hashtag #toontrackmetalmonth and several of my Tweets popped up on screen - and it was utterly inspiring.
Rikk from Toontrack said at the end that the whole thing will be put on YouTube in the near future. And he was true to his word. Here it is.
As for me, I'm off to the studio to make some music of my own and put all this inspiration to use. But before I go:
The trailer for the documentary about the comic 2000AD, Future Shock has been released, and it looks great. Some very familiar faces appear in the trailer, including Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, and Scott Ian from Anthrax! I can't wait to see it. The fact that I contributed a photo or two to the production means I'm even more excited by this than I would usually be.
Last night I finally caved in and switched the central heating timer over from "OFF" to "AUTOMATIC". Overnight the temperature in the back garden dipped to 0.9°C, quote a difference from the double figures we've been getting at night up until recently. Friends in London tell me it's trying to snow there, but here the sky is a brilliant blue and the sunlight is streaming in through the living room window. It's still cold, though; even with all that sunshine, the temperature outside hadn't climbed above 5°C by late morning. Winter is finally making itself felt.
I just uploaded the last reformatted blog archive page to the server, and with that I think I have completed the site's switch over to CSS-based formatting. And thank goodness that's over.
It's not really been particularly taxing work, but there was an awful lot of it; by my count, there were 217 separate pages of HTML that I ended up editing. Each page grew by between four and ten kilobytes in size as a result of the change to the codebase, so I've been doing a fair bit of copying and pasting and typing. Since the blog went live with the new design back on October 9th, I've spent pretty much every day with my head down, hacking code. Now I can get back to some of my more creative endeavours.
Aside from the BORDERLANDS franchise, I haven't really done much gaming for well over a year. At the weekend I thought I'd have a quick blast on Gran Turismo 6 but it took the PS3 the rest of the day to download a seemingly interminable set of upgrades and patches and then install them on to my machine. By the end of it, the Playstation's hard drive was looking more than a little bit cramped; I think I might have to do some housekeeping.
When I started working my way through the game's news feed I realised I hadn't played it since Christmas 2013, less than three weeks after the game came out, which might give you an indication of how less-than-enthralled I was with it back then. It really doesn't seem to have been improved much in the interim, either, and it soon went back in the box.
But this week I actually bought a new game for the PS3 after seeing a version of Skyrim with all the add-on packs on sale at Amazon for fifteen quid. It arrived yesterday, and in the evening I sat down for a quick play, just to to see what it was like. Four hours later, the lights in the living room went off and I realised I ought to stop and go to bed. I suspect I'll be playing the game a bit more this week.
I heard via "Fast" Eddie Clarke's Facebook page today that Phil Taylor died last night. It's floored me. I don't know what to say, really - getting to hang out with the Motörhead line up of him, Eddie and Lemmy was an experience I will never forget. My condolences to all his friends and family - I'll be thinking of them all tonight.
I'm still slogging through old blog entries, but today it feels like end is in sight. To mix things up a bit I abandoned my original approach of working backwards and started working forwards from the earliy entries as well. I've just finished working through stuff from 2006. It's been fascinating, because there are aspects of what I was writing about back then which feel like they happened only yesterday, and yet I had only the vaguest recollection of other events.
Do you remember the Gizmondo debacle, for instance? For me it was the dimmest of memories. And yet another blog entry from the same day, about Sam Javanrough's photograph of a Lamborghini balanced on four china tea cups, is something I remember vividly.
Now I'm going to finish updating all the old blog entries for 2010 and after that, I think I'm going to take a break from it all and go and make some music instead. Why? Read on...
I want to get a lot more guitar practice under my belt while I'm inspired by all the great music I've caught recently. I saw another blindingly good guitarist last night: Per Nilsson, who hails from Sweden. You might remember that back in December last year I was blogging about his amazing band Scar Symmetry. Last night I finally got to see them play live as they hit Bristol with Epica and Eluveitie on their UK tour. I was right down at the front, of course. You can't really see it from the photo, but Per's guitar was fitted with True Temperament frets, which look crazy but which give much better intonation across the fingerboard.
I got to chat with them afterwards as well, which was really, really cool. I have a great new tour shirt to add to my collection. And after seeing so many talented musicians this week I am really motivated to practise more!
I've been playing acoustic guitar since I was a kid. I bought my first electric guitar in the 80s and it became an obsession. It still is - in fact over the last couple of years, playing the guitar has become one of the most creatively rewarding and fulfilling things that I do.
Needless to say, I've listened to other guitar players a lot since I started to play, and trying to figure out how to play what they were playing has helped me to gain a deeper understanding of the guitar as an instrument, as well as building a stronger appreciation of music in general. Some of those guitarists have become heroes of mine over the years, and a much smaller number have made such an impression that they have influenced the way I approach the guitar as an instrument and the way I want my guitar playing to sound. One of the guitarists in that collection of musicians is, without any doubt, the one and only Joe Satriani.
I went and saw him at the Colston Hall on Sunday night. Joe was, as ever, excellent. I've been going to his shows for more than thirty years now and I can tell he's put a lot of effort into the live performance to make it a memorable experience. As well as some tracks from his latest album Shockwave Supernova (which is a resounding return to top form), he played some of my favourite tracks from older albums: Flying In A Blue Dream, Big Bad Moon, and Surfing With The Alien all got an outing, of course, but I was delighted to hear Luminous Flesh Giants in the set as well. And it was very good to hear If I Could Fly being played live again.
Joe has an incredible band with him this time around: drummer Marco Minneman and bassist Bryan Beller are two thirds of one of my favourite rock supergroups, The Aristocrats, and they were joined by the multi-instrumentalist and downright wizard, Mr Mike Keneally. I think the first time I saw Mike play live was back when he was in Steve Vai's band and as you'd expect from somebody who began his professional career in Frank Zappa's band - as did Steve, of course - his chops were pretty intimidating. But now Mike has pushed things to a whole new level, and what he was doing on stage was frequently just ridiculous. At one point he was playing a fast guitar line by hammering on with his left hand and at the same time he was playing the same notes with his right hand on a Korg SV1 stage piano. I was awestruck.
I have another gig lined up tomorrow night, when I'll be catching Epica, Eluveitie and Scar Symmetry at the Academy in Bristol and I'll be blogging about what that was like here, of course.
All this great music has inspired me to go off and practice playing the guitar some more. I definitely feel like I'm getting somewhere with my sound this year; last night I had the headphones on, listening to this instrumental mix of a track I recorded during Fifty/Ninety. I actually feel quite proud of the guitar playing on it. Hey, it's only taken me four decades of playing to get to this point...
I continue to work on updating the website. It's a slow process, and I had to go back and update some pages I'd already worked on yesterday as the embedded Flash-based player on Soundcloud no longer works. There was a certain amount of swearing when I realised this, as you can imagine.
I've already made a fairly decent dent in the blog archive, but even so I still have six and a half years' worth of blog entries left to update. At least as I go back in time each month's file tends to become smaller and I've already got the two largest ever entries - June 2012 and July 2011 out of the way.
It's been fascinating to travel back in time and see what struck me as worthy of comment from year to year. There was the point when we all thought Star Wars Episode III was going to be called The Creeping Fear, for example. Remember that? It was around the time when some poor deluded fools (including me) still believed that it wasn't going to completely suck. Boy, did we learn our lesson there.
But at the risk of repeating myself, it's overwhelmingly obvious how ill my job was making me, and how insecure and unvalued I felt as a result. I'm updating the files for 2011 at the moment and it seems to have been a particularly bad year for me. I was miserable. Despite there being some very high points, it's not a time I'd ever want to live through again. I feel so much better these days. My moods are stable; I sleep like a log every night and it's been a long time since I woke up at 3 am fretting over anything.
I've spent the last week wandering around in socks after my slippers disintegrated. This morning I drove down to Bradley Stoke (and it's safe to say I don't miss doing that at all) and bought myself a new pair. In fact, as they were doing a 2 pairs for £10 offer I splurged and bought two pairs.
Of such things is my life composed these days.
Actually, I spent some time yesterday updating my studio. A big new release of Ableton Live, version 9.5, dropped this week and I downloaded and installed it last night. A 3 gigabyte download took less than ten minutes. The me from 2004 would have been very impressed by this, I know. He'd probably have been less impressed by the fact that it crashed as soon as I ran it, but since that little wobble it seems to be stable. I also updated my version of Toontrack EZDrummer 2, and four of the drum packs that I bought had updates too. All in all, I'd downloaded more than 5 gigs of updates, and it took me less than half an hour. Lovely.
While I was waiting for all those gigabytes of data to unpack and install, I taught myself to play another Jan Hammer song from the TV series Miami Vice; this one is a track called Rum Cay. But when I listen to the original version and those bells kick in at the 1:55 mark, I find the old hankering for a Yamaha DX7 kicking in once again...
As this month's blog banner points out, this is my 150th month of blogging. I started way back in June 2003.
And don't I know it. I'm still grinding through old entries in the blog archive to convert them from the old table-based HTML format that I used from the beginning of this website to the much spiffier Cascading Style Sheets approach that you see before you. It's slow going, but it will mean that every single day in which I wrote something in the blog will have a permanent URL that I can link to.
I really didn't think about how long I'd be writing the blog for when I started. I didn't suspect that I'd still be writing regular entries here, more than a decade later. But here we are. Will you still be reading the blog 300 months after it started? I hope so!
I observed last week that the blog talks about the weather on a regular basis, and here I am discussing it once again. Why? Because I still haven't needed to set the central heating to come on every day. Last night I wandered down to the pub to meet up with a few friends and I didn't even take a coat. Outside this afternoon it felt more like the middle of September than it did November 1st. By teatime the Met Office had announced that today has been the warmest November day on record, but this evening the fog has started to swirl around the street lights and it's expected to get thick enough that it's triggered a yellow severe weather warning.
I suspect it will come as a bit of a shock when winter does finally arrive, but there doesn't seem to be much sign of it happening at any time in the next few days, at least.
I had a good day yesterday, with a selection of classic monster movies playing on the television and a string of trick or treaters knocking on the door.
The films were ones you'll have heard of, I'm sure, even if you've never sat down and watched them. And they were all perfect Halloween fare.
I started with the youngest film in the batch, Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954). I had to watch at least one film with Richard Carlson in it, as he has one of those faces that cropped up in several of my favourite cult 1950s movies; he's perhaps best known as the astronomer in It Came From Outer Space (1953). It's safe to say that his performance in selling what is happening to the audience helped tremendously in building these films' reputations. "Creature" needed that earnest performance, as it's a first-class piece of hokum about a prehistoric creature living in the backwaters of the Amazon jungle. When it's not very obviously rear-projection work on the Universal back lot, The Amazon looks a lot like Florida. Another Sci-Fi film stalwart, Whit Bissell also makes an appearance, although after being attacked by the monster he spends the latter half of the film swathed in bandages. The monster itself is visually striking, but it is always - very obviously - a man in a rubber suit. Through all of the muttering about creatures from the Devonian period, Julie Adams keeps a straight face and provides an attractive foil for the monster. Like "It Came...", Creature was shot in 3D, and boy, can't you tell. Divers brandish their spear guns at the camera, and any underwater shot has carefully positioned fronds of weed floating in the foreground. I don't have a 3D home cinema setup, and to be honest I've never felt the need for one. The film has to work on its own merits, and this one just about manages it - although it very nearly doesn't. The way the creature is allowed to escape at the end is such a blatant attempt to set up a sequel that I actually groaned. It worked, though; Revenge of the Creature followed in 1955 and The Creature Walks Among Us came out in 1956.
Phantom of the Opera (1943) was next on the bill - this is the colour remake of Univeral's 1925 silent movie, but both films are based on Gaston Leroux's novel. It was the first of three films on my list to feature the English actor Claude Rains, who plays the eponymous character here with dignity and a certain amount of pathos. Having said that, he's not afraid to lapse into Grand Guignol when necessary and when he does, he doesn't do things by halves. This was the only film of the six to be filmed in colour, and in general, it looks gorgeous. The Paris Opera House set is spectacular, but I noticed that many of the rocks that fall into the subterranean lake in the middle of the Phantom's lair when it begins to collapse end up floating on the surface of the water. It's with the sound - or more specifically the music - where Hollywood begins to depart from the rest of the Universe. With a war going on, the studio was unable to gain copyright clearances for the musical side of things, resulting in some truly bizarre scenes where Tchaikovsky's fourth symphony is turned into a Russian opera complete with tumbling acrobats and Nelson Eddy in a fur hat, and others where people start singing along to some of Chopin's piano pieces.
The writing is patchy, and Rains's dismissal from the Paris Opera is particularly laboured. The ending, where Eddy and Edgar Barrier suddenly decide to stop competing for the affections of Susanna Foster and go and have dinner instead is, frankly, just plain odd. Perhaps the writers thought they were emulating Humphrey Bogart's line to Claude Rains in a film that had come out the previous year:
"Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
Rains wore a mask for much of Phantom; in The Invisible Man (1933) he's either covered completely in bandages or invisible. And yet he carries the film completely - mainly down to the relish you can hear in his voice as he delivers Griffin's megalomaniacal dialogue. It's a masterful performance. Some of the other members of the cast are less mannered in their acting - in fact there's an awful lot of scenery-chewing going on, particularly in earlier scenes. But that just adds to the fun. Director James Whale weaves a macabre sense of humour into the proceedings that really makes it feel like a proper horror movie. Having a British director making a film set in England helps keep Hollywood's eccentricities under control, too - there are references to genuine British brands like Bass Ale that give it an authenticity which is sadly lacking in some of today's other efforts, as we shall see in a moment. The fact that the film sticks much more closely to its source material than most of Universal's other efforts helps as well. This is quite an achievement - it may have been due to the direct intervention of H. G. Wells himself - given that of the fourteen screenplays that were submitted to the producers, one transferred the protagonists to Czarist Russia and another set the action on Mars.
Next I watched The Mummy (1932) which was made the year after Boris Karloff's performance as the Monster in Frankenstein made him an international star. In The Mummy, Karloff gets to show off more of his range as an actor, and he's hypnotic to watch. As the heroine, Zita Johann is beautifully exotic-looking but by all accounts the director hated her on sight and made her life hell on set. That tension pervades the film, and it has a distinctly weird vibe to it. But the script is leaden and the principal dramatic reveal, when Karloff's character reveals to Johann's character their shared past, is achieved by the two of them sitting down and watching some home movies together. It's undoubtedly the weakest of the films I watched in this session.
Claude Rains was back in The Wolf Man (1941), where he plays Lon Chaney Junior's father. And despite Chaney's size and physical presence, Rains steals every scene he's in. Chaney also has to compete with a brief cameo by Bela Lugosi as a gypsy fortune-teller. The delights of Hollywood's sometimes bonkers casting methods have seldom been more evident than in The Wolf Man, for the Russian actress Maria Ouspenskaya plays Bela's mother, despite being only four years older than Lugosi. Her performance is one of the film's high points. But Chaney does a grand job in conveying the sadness of the doomed character and he has some great material to work with; the scene where he gives the one thing that he knows will protect him to his sweetheart Gwen (Evelyn Ankers) is a lovely bit of writing. Having said that, there are some moments the film that will have you thinking, "wait, what?" In particular, in the scene where Chaney first transforms into the wolf man, he strips down to suit pants and a white vest. Yet when he awakes the next morning he's wearing dark trousers and a dark dress shirt. I was interested to see that this is listed for the film's goofs page on iMDB as "Incorrectly regarded as goofs" - without any evidence to explain why it isn't a mistake. I guess it's one of those mysteries we'll never solve...
Finally yesterday I watched Tod Browning's adaptation of Dracula (1931), widely regarded as one of the greatest horror movies of all time. And yet I kept sniggering all the way through it. Lugosi is hypnotic and compelling when he's in front of the camera, but the rest of the film really doesn't have the chops to keep up with him. There are some nice touches, such as when he climbs the staircase in his castle in Transylvania and walks through a veil of cobwebs without disturbing them, but much of the film is laughably camp, particularly the flapping rubber bats on pieces of string that crop up every few minutes (and there's a movie drinking game for you, if ever there was one). Again, Hollywood's lack of awareness of the wider world it tries to portray comes to the fore with armadillos and possums in Castle Dracula and howling wolves in London - or is it Whitby? Browning doesn't appear to know there's any difference (or distance) between the two locations. The film ends up being all about Bela.
Lugosi had portrayed Dracula in a stage play and had clearly done his homework; his mannerisms, particularly in how he uses his hands, show similarities to Max Schreck's Graf Orlok in Murnau's silent classic Nosferatu (1922). His strong Middle-European accent works for, not against him here (he was born in what is now Romania) and the writers gave him some memorable lines to chew on, including the wonderful
Unfortunately much of the rest of the writing is pedestrian, and those memorable lines have to compete with clunkers like
Flies? Flies? Poor puny things! Who wants to eat flies?
You do, ya loony!
So, what was the verdict? I had huge fun watching such a marathon session of monster movies. Of the half dozen films I watched for Halloween I'd say that The Mummy was the weakest and The Invisible Man by far the strongest. Claude Rains's performance is outstanding and James Whale's expert direction make the experience of watching it both convincing and deliciously macabre.
That was a good day of watching monster movies; I'd like to thank my brother Andy and his family for the present of Universal's Blu-Ray set in the first place. Most enjoyable!