Los Angeles, November 2019

Chris's Blog Archive: November 2019

Permalink entries for Chris's blog from November 2019.

My latest album Beyond is now available on Bandcamp. It's also on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon Music, Tidal, and all your other favourite streaming services.

My recent albums Generator and Fort are also available at Bandcamp, together with a wide selection of my earlier music.

CHILLY

The temperature dropped to -4°C here last night and I saw on the news that north and mid Wales got their first snowfall of the season this morning. It's raining here now, but at noon the temperature here was still only 4°C. As a result I have set the central heating back to its "automatic" setting so I guess that means that it is officially winter once again. It's not the latest I've held off on the central heating; the autumn of 2015 was unusually mild and I managed to hold out until the 20th of November, but in some previous years it was already on by the third week in October. The last time I made it to November was in 2017.

But I also know it's winter because the scratchy throat that I've had for most of the week has now developed into my first cold of the season, which I am more or less keeping at bay with regular hot toddies of Lemsip mixed with honey. Is it okay to use a 10-year-old single malt for such purposes? I'm asking for a friend...

MARVELLING

Since the end of September I've been working my way through the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies in chronological order. Last night I got to the first movie in the series that I bought as a 4K UHD disc rather than as a standard Blu-Ray, 2018's Black Panther. The extra resolution of the disc really pays off in what is probably the best-looking of all the films in the series, particularly with the high dynamic range that UHD discs have (although I now have a player that can handle top-of-the-line Dolby Vision encoding, Spider-Man: Homecoming is the only disc in the series that has it.) The switch up from DTS HD Master Audio to Dolby Atmos for the soundtrack also provides a noticeable improvement. But most importantly, it's a fun movie. I particularly enjoyed the banter between T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Shuri (Letitia Wright). For me, Shuri is the star of the movie, and all the best one-liners in the film are hers. Andy Serkis chews the scenery with manic glee once again as the mad arms dealer Klaue and Martin Freeman returns for his second appearance as Agent Ross (and I was pleased to see that he gets much more to do this time).

It's been interesting working my way through the films and reassessing my reaction to them all. I'm afraid that Thor: The Dark World remains the clunker of the set. Much as I like Chris O'Dowd as an actor, he's woefully miscast as Jane Foster's new boyfriend. When he appears, the dramatic tension of the film collapses for me, and it never manages to recover. Things aren't helped by the spectacle of Stellan Skarsgård romping around Stonehenge in the (pixellated) nude, which is a comedic step too far. Poor old Christopher Eccleston struggles under heavy-handed prosthetic makeup that prevents him from being anything other than the most clichéd of villains. But it wasn't the budget hobbling the film—at an estimated 170 million dollars it cost five million more than 2016's vastly superior Doctor Strange, for example. The plot itself just lacks the spark that the other MCU films have had—it all just seems a bit naff.

I was surprised on rewatching Avengers: Age of Ultron that it was nowhere near as bad as I remember it being. The complete ignorance of basic physics that drives the plot remains profoundly irritating; no matter what Ultron thinks, there is no way that dropping a city from a couple of miles up would create anything like an extinction-level event. It would make a mess, yes, but the kinetic energy involved is paltry compared to that of an asteroid the same size as Sekovia travelling at thirty or forty kilometres a second. And the dinosaurs were wiped out by a comet that was much, much bigger: the Chicxulub impactor is currently estimated to have been between 10 and 80 km (6 to 50 miles) wide, and it left a crater more than 150 km (93 miles) across and 20 km (12 miles) deep. No, the film works now because it's used to do most of the setting up of the subsequent movies, and many scenes take on a greater significance as a result. Captain America (Chris Evans) begins the film as a straight-laced martinet chiding the rest of the team on their language and ends up considerably looser, eventually being mocked by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) for swearing every bit as enthusiastically as his colleagues; it's this change in his attitude that drives most of the plot of Captain America: Civil War. We lose Jarvis and gain both Vision (Paul Bettany) and Friday (Kerry Condon) in his stead; Scarlet Witch (Elisabeth Olson) joins the Avengers, Hulk heads out into a wider universe, and Thor realises that he has to track down the Infinity Stones that become the overall MacGuffin of the MCU. But perhaps the best example of the foreshadowing that takes place is when Tony Stark actually gives away the title and the plot of the movie that culminates the whole sequence of MCU films we've seen so far:

TONY STARK (Robert Downey Jr.):
Recall that? A hostile alien army came charging through a hole in space. We're standing three hundred feet below it. We're the Avengers. We can bust arms dealers all the livelong day, but that up there? That's—that's the endgame. How were you guys planning on beating that?

I have a further six films to watch, the last of them being Spider-Man: Far From Home, which will be released on Monday. It's the only MCU film that I've not already seen, and I'm looking forwards to getting my copy.

NOT STAYING IN

Over the last few months I've spent far too much time on my own at home. Going for days at a time without speaking to another human being is not good for one's mental health, so since I started feeling better I've been making more of an effort to get out of the house and go and do things. So this week I've already been to a couple of gigs: Aurora at the O2 on Monday, and Little Villains at The Poacher in Portishead last night. They were two very different shows, but I enjoyed both of them.

My friend Roz got me listening to Aurora's music a few months ago, and after a single listen to her latest album A Different of Human I became a fan too. She's a gifted songwriter with an extraordinary voice and her songs deal with love and loss and pain in a way that is both raw and honest. I discovered that she also sang the cover of Oasis's "Half the World Away" for the Christmas 2015 John Lewis advert, and anyone who can ruin Christmas for Oasis fans must be doing something right. On stage, she's a tiny bundle of energy, constantly connecting with the audience. And the audience loved her; she was clearly taken aback by how load the roar of approval was after her first song of the set, and she later thanked everyone by saying that the show felt "like Christmas Eve and my birthday at the same time."

Little Villains was formed in 2006 by two LA-based British rockers, James Childs and Phil "Philthy Animal" Taylor. Although Phil passed away a few years ago, my old Motörhead days are still with me and it was Phil's sister Helen who suggested we go to the show, which was a warm-up gig for the band's upcoming European tour (they're playing Paal in Belgium tonight). It was a fun evening. Everyone in the band has been in at least one other music project, so they blazed through a wide selection of original songs, as well as the occasional cover version: at one point the band grew from three to six people to roll through a selection of songs by AC/DC, which they pulled off with obvious glee. To do this, James swapped his bass for the obligatory Gibson SG and did a fine job replicating both Angus Young's playing and his mannerisms! The pub was full of several generations of James's family who had come along to support the band, and it made for a friendly atmosphere and an enjoyable evening. I had a great time.

CLOBBERED

In the last six weeks, Yorkshire has had as much rain as it used to get in six months, and yesterday was particularly wet with a month's worth of rain falling in 24 hours. As a result, there was widespread flooding across the county. Shoppers in Sheffield's Meadowhall shopping mall were trapped overnight and Rotherham's high street was under water. 400 houses have been evacuated in Doncaster as the River Don hit its highest ever recorded level. As I write this, there are still six severe flood warnings—defined as posing a "danger to life"—active for the River Don. Evacuations have also taken place in Worksop and Mansfield.

Weather patterns are changing. The climate now is not the same as it was when I was a child. The sort of weather that happened yesterday will become more commonplace as the planet warms. Warmer oceans mean more evaporation, which means more water vapour in the atmosphere, which means more rainfall. We can't cope with the extra water that's already falling, and things are only going to get worse. It's worrying.

ERROR MESSAGES AND VIEWING PLEASURE

The Samsung UHD player that I bought with my new TV eighteen months ago started to play up last month, spitting out absolutely brand-new discs with an error message of

Cannot play this disc.
The disc does not meet specifications.

After doing some digging around on the web it appears to be a common fault that Samsung players develop. Needless to say it only seems to happen once the warranty on the unit has expired, as was the case with mine. None of the suggested remedies worked (the main ones were to leave it unplugged for ten minutes, or use a lens cleaner). I guess it didn't owe me anything; given the cash-back offer and collection of "free" UHD disks that came with it, it was about as cheap a player as I could get. At present, the player still happily plays DVDs and most of my Blu-Rays, so rather than send it off to the recycling centre I've plugged it in to the second monitor here on my office PC.

I spent hours trawling the Internet for a suitable replacement. I wanted a "full size" unit so it would fit into the stack, which ruled out a surprisingly large number of players, including most of Sony's range. I was also on a tighter budget, which meant I sadly had to rule out anything at the high end of the market. In the end, the Samsung's place in the home audio stack has been taken by a new Panasonic model. They're a brand I've always liked; the first DVD player I ever bought was a Panasonic, and it gave me excellent service for a decade, right up to the moment when the magic smoke escaped from it. I chose their DP-UB820 model, which got a five star review from What Hi-Fi and after trying it out with my setup, I can see (and hear) why. Unlike the Samsung, it can handle Dolby Vision and HDR10+ metadata, which enables a suitably-equipped TV like mine to adjust contrast and brightness levels on the fly to best suit individual scenes as a movie is playing. The resulting improvement in image quality is particularly apparent on discs with Dolby Vision, like the UHD release of 2001 that I bought this time last year (and where does the time go, eh?) Like the Samsung, it upscales DVDs so they don't appear too blocky on big displays. Unlike the Samsung, this player has been modded to play DVDs from all regions—given the number of foreign DVDs I have of movies that aren't available in the UK, this was a big plus point for me.

But it's the sound reproduction that left my jaw on the floor. I still can't believe how much of a difference there is. Soundtracks have much more oomph. Audio has better dynamics and the sound is punchier with noticeably clearer separation in the sound field. Music and concert discs sound amazing. And I soon realised I needed to turn the amp down a bit; the new player is LOUD!

The player behaves in slightly different ways to the Pioneer BDP-180 I have (which I'll be keeping in the stack, as it can play the DVD-A and SACD discs in my collection, which remedies the only negative points in What Hi-Fi's review of the Panasonic, and unlike the Panasonic it's been modded as a multi-region player for Blu-Rays as well as DVDs). The Panasonic doesn't autoplay CDs when you load them in the drive, so you can sit down and get comfortable before hitting play to start your listening experience. The Panasonic's remote control is a vast improvement on the pathetic little unit that came with the Samsung.

One of the most satisfying things about the player for me is that when I use it to play CDs, the front panel display shows the track number as well as the elapsed time. The Pioneer player that I've had for a while only shows the elapsed time, and I've been surprised by how much I've missed knowing which track I'm listening to when a new album is playing.

I wasn't planning on making the extra expenditure this month, but I'm very pleased with my purchase. And given the amount of time I spend watching films at home, I'm sure I will get a lot of pleasure out from it.

(PRINCESS BRIDE REFERENCE)

I was hoping that I'd be able to announce that I'd got a new job this week, but it turns out that I'm still looking. I've never had a job fall through after I'd accepted the offer before, and I am well aware how dodgy this is. There were things going on behind the scenes that I have only been made aware of this week, and I suspect that I'm better off continuing my job search elsewhere. It's a shame, though—the work would have been fascinating.

Ah well; onwards and upwards. As always (and far too often) I find myself following the Dread Pirate Roberts's sage advice:


via GIPHY

WOWZERS

I tweeted a frame grab of the Blade Runner date card that I blogged about below, and it was subsequently retweeted by both Adam Savage and William Gibson. As a result, Twitter tells me that my "tweet impressions" are up 1,506.2% on last month at 297,000 and it's only the 3rd today.

I've still got a long way to go to beat my all time record of 2.78 million impressions that I set back in July, though...

IT'S THE FUTURE

When I went to see Blade Runner at the cinema in Croydon back in 1982, the opening card of the film (adopted in negative form for this month's blog banner) seemed an incredibly long way off. Thirty seven years later I'm in the West Country rather than Los Angeles, but: it's November 2019.

The world of Blade Runner is not our world; in some respects we've done much better than they have, but in others much worse. We managed to avoid the craze for brutalist architecture and flame-belching smoke stacks that dominate the LA skyline in the movie. Our environmental crisis exists, but is apparently not as advanced as the apocalyptic weather in Ridley Scott's vision of 21st-Century California. But our flying cars aren't as pretty and while you can still buy Koss headphones and Sony televisions, enough of the other companies featured in the movie (such as Pan Am) have disappeared that people talk about the "curse of Blade Runner."

I'll be watching the film again at least once this month. Even after 37 years, I still get a lot out of repeat viewings and the latest 4K HDR release of the Final Cut is breathtaking.

Next stop June 2049?