Friday, August 5, 2016

The Way Of The Weird post 3

A collection of posts about the strange, the unusual, the experimental and the odd in a variety of musical genres.

Cromagnon - “Orgasm”
(ESP-Disk 1969)

This is a record I only came across (pun intended) about 5 years ago. It is the only known release from this obscure experimental US project Cromagnon. They were essentially a duo of Austin Grasmere and Brian Elliot with a large 'tribe' of guests performing on the record as well. I once read an interview with one of these guys and there was some explanation of the process of recording this record, the 'band' as it were and the possibility of more records. Can't track it down right now, but in many ways it doesn't matter. This record is what it is without explanation and stands up on its own. It also sounds pretty unique for it's time and contains proto-versions of different 1980s genres such as Black Metal and Industrial, predating them by a couple of decades. When I heard this album, I was already pretty versed in experimental music and some of the more abstract example of psychedelic music and this record still stood out. There is a wide variety of styles on here and yet there is a wonderful “crazy basement” kind of unifying atmosphere to it. So as a body of work, it is a coherent listening experience. Dare I say “Orgasm” is quite an experience.

Side A
1. Caledonia
2. Ritual Feast Of The Libido
3. Organic Sundown
4. Fantasy
Side B
1. Crow Of The Back Tree
2. Genitalia
3. Toth, Scribe I
4. First World Of Bronze

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Way Of The Weird - post 2

A collection of posts about the strange, the unusual, the experimental and the odd in a variety of musical genres.

Voivod - “Dimension Hatröss”
(Noise International 1988)

French Canadians Voivod were a bit of a gateway band for me. Initially considered part of the thrash metal movement, with their first two records borrowing some sonic and compositional traits from Venom, Motorhead and the harder elements that emerged from the NWOBHM, they soon showed that they were much more. Their third album “Killing Technology” (1987) showed a tremendous progression, showing psychedelic and progressive elements, industrial textures and a punky sneer whilst retaining and enhancing their metal roots. That album is my personal favourite as it was a transitional album and as a consequence is a fascinating listening experience. It was also the first full Voivod album I'd heard, having only experienced a couple of earlier compilation tracks, so the impact of the full body of work stayed with me.

And as I say hearing the divergent influences and reading interviews with the members about who they listened to led me to bands I might not have discovered on my own, especially considering I was fully entrenched in the quite conservative Heavy Metal genre at the time. At age 15/16 when this album was released, my tastes were heading towards more extreme and slightly more experimental or crossover records, but a lot of it was still quite safely playing in it's own realm. Chrome, Van der Graaf Generator, Die Kruezen were but three bands that were name checked in interviews with drummer and cover artist Away and who I checked into as a result. Founding (and now former) bassist Jean-Yves 'Blacky' Theriault along with industrial acts such as Einsturzende Neubauten was into the more experimental end of contemporary classical composers such as Ligeti and Penderecki and that allowed and encouraged me to listen further afield. This collision of punk, metal, psych, prog, classical and industrial is what made Voivod special and nowhere is this aural collaboration more apparent than on their 4th album “Dimension Hatröss”. It is a full concept album about the sci-fi exploits of fictional character Korgull (a figure who appeared on their records from the get go) and is split into 2 movements.

So while it's not actually my favourite album of theirs, “Dimension Hatröss” is the one I've been returning to the most of late . It is the one where their sound is fully formed for the first time. It is further refined with the next album, their most commercially successful - “Nothingface” and then given a Power Pop edge with following album “Angel Rat”. In fact, although things started to get a little inconsistent musically and there were various lineup changes (including a few years as a power trio, a period featuring former Metallica bassist Jason Newstead and the unfortunate passing of founding member guitarist and key musical architect Denis 'Piggy' D'amour), there is much to recommend across their entire output. But this album, you could safely say, defines them.

1. Experiment
2. Tribal Convictions
3. Chaosmöngers
4. Technocratic Manipulators

5. Macrosolutions to Megaproblems
6. Brain Scan
7. Psychic Vacuum
8. Cosmic Drama

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Way Of The Weird

A collection of posts about the strange, the unusual, the experimental and the odd in a variety of musical genres.

I've been a music obsessive from a young age, from as early as I can remember in fact. I traveled seemingly endless journeys inward via my Dad's copy of The Beatles' 'Abbey Road' on headphones. I knew every little pop and crackle of the surface and every little beat, rim hit, note strike, string scrape, vocal break, wayward voice instruction inadvertently captured on tape, the aesthetic structure and composition of the record, the gaps between the songs. I knew it all, I still do. As a avid listener (as opposed to a hearer) and a musician and composer myself, music, even very basic pop music can be much more than just ephemeral entertainment, it can be a journey, a trip. My tastes emerged around age 7 and 8 and tended towards hard rock and heavy metal and stuck around there until my mid-teens. There it started to evolve via extreme metal (a key band were Voivod) which lead to industrial, which lead back in time to psychedelia and space rock. That lead to 'krautrock' and 'kosmische', the less mainstream areas of prog rock and a healthy dose of the freer jazz in the world, noise/power electronics and some of the more 'outsider' and psych folk out there.

As much as I love and impassioned by well crafted pop and rock, I equally and thoroughly enjoy the 'weird' in music, it takes me to strange and unusual places that I may not be able to visit any other way. I'm what some may call 'straight edge', in so much as, I'm a non-consumer of alcohol or recreational drugs and it's safe to say that there are a number of these genres associated with such substances. These substances are not part of my life. Regardless, this music touches a very definite corner of my psych and for that I'm grateful.

These posts focus on some of my favourite 'weird' records of a variety of styles. 'Weird' of course is kind of subjective, but certainly most of this stuff would not be considered mainstream, popular material in the greater scheme of things. It's not something I can really define here, but something that can be written about within each individual post. And when listened to, something you may appreciate.These are things to listen to in the small hours, no matter what time it is.

WOTW – Post 1:

Syd Barrett - “Opel”
(EMI/Harvest - recorded 1968-1970, released 1988)

July 7, 2016 was the 10 year anniversary of the passing of this iconic psychedelic music figure, so I thought this might be the album to start this series with. This was the first 'solo-Syd' album I heard, in early 1990. I was already vaguely aware of Pink Floyd's early history being somewhat enamoured by 'Ummagumma' and the 'More' soundtrack and having heard some of the first incarnation of Floyd with Syd via the 'Relics' compilation. But a friend of mine, who at the time was a much bigger and more knowledgable Pink Floyd fan than me, purchased this record on a shared trip to Melbourne and played it for me at my Uncle's house where we were staying. I wasn't quite sure what to make of it at the time, but it has certainly stuck with me and I soon become a bit of a Barrett obsessive, collecting all that I could. This is a compilation of outtakes from the sessions for his first two solo records; 'The Madcap Laughs' and 'Barrett' (both released 1970, though the bulk of the former was recorded late 1968 and throughout 1969) that despite the incompleteness of much of it, the quality of the songs really shine through. It is the sound of a man clearly damaged and yet the visionary nature of much of the work is quite apparent. The title track in particular is a stunning piece, clearly ready for some further instrumentation and arrangement.
So while one could say Floyd's 'Piper At The Gates Of Dawn' is the best example of his recorded output overall and 'Barrett' may be the easiest solo release to get into if you are just starting out, perhaps it's true what they say about your first time being your most memorable. It's the one (official) solo release that I return to the most even though it's not a proper album per se.

About a month after Roger 'Syd' Barrett passed, my partner and I happened to be in Europe on a collaborative art project and we stopped in the UK on our way home. One day we went to Cambridge on a bit of a self directed Barrett/early Floyd sightseeing tour, taking in his place of birth, his former school, Grantchester Meadows, the Cambridge Corn Exchange and ultimately the house where he lived a somewhat reclusive life for approximately 20 years and died in at age 60.
The simple semi-detached house had a few bunches of flowers and a number of cards of dedication placed respectfully at the front gate. We too wanted to be respectful and not be too intrusive and gawker-like in the pretty little Cambridge suburban cul de sac. Two little girls, 7 of 8 years of age, were riding their bikes, doing laps of the street. We overheard their conversation;
“Do you see that house there?”
“That used to be Syd's house, he was some kind of rock star”.

Some kind of rock star indeed.

1. Opel
2. Clowns and Jugglers
3. Rats
4. Golden Hair
5. Dolly Rocker
6. Word Song
7. Wined and Dined
8. Swan Lee (Silas Lang)
9. Birdie Hop
10. Let's Split
11. Lanky (Part One)
12. Wouldn't You Miss Me? (Dark Globe)
13. Milky Way
14. Golden Hair (Instrumental)

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Kenny Everett (25 December 1944 - 4 April 1995)

As is obvious, by the sporadic posts on this blog, my postings are fairly irregular.
However I've had this topic in mind for a while and now seems like no better time to post.
April 4 saw the 20th anniversary of the passing of Kenny Everett.

For those who don't know who he was, click the Wikipedia link, that covers much of it. Suffice to say, Maurice Cole was a Liverpudlian born on Christmas day 1944 who became a Pirate DJ and who basically out of legal necessity became Kenny Everett. Inspired (in equal measures) by the Goons, Joe Meek and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop created some of the funniest, silliest and innovative radio and later television to come out of the UK in the 20th century. He was rather more complex than his outward appearance would lead one to believe, but I won't really go into that here…you can find out about much of his personal life online or in the biographies that have emerged throughout the years. This post is about his work and why I'm an admirer of it.

I have been a fan and admirer of the work of Kenny Everett for a very long time. I would say the first time I was aware of him was in 1979 seeing a few episodes, maybe 3, that had been recorded on a Beta VCR by my older cousin from an ABC TV broadcast upon visiting them during a school holiday. I was probably 8 years old, possibly 7.

A slightly long caveat, because very often I question everything including myself and what I'm a fan of:
I'm aware that a number of my friends based in the UK are kind of dismissive of Everett, particularly those of a more alternative, leftist persuasion, which I basically share. And I suppose objectively I can see why. He was part of what became commercial radio and his TV show on Thames television often featured the pop music of the time. His comedy of that time also could be said to have some somewhat questionable sexist and racist overtones. There was also the unfortunate rally that he was part of for Thatcher's conservative party in 1983.

I actually can't and won't argue against any of that and admittedly I may feel less 'forgiving' if I lived in the UK at the time. From these shores, perhaps with rose-tinted glasses (though I'm pretty good at remaining objective), I will say this:

In regards to his involvement in commercial and mainstream culture, it was basically harmless fun, he often took the piss out of much of what he was playing in a good natured way. It was an ephemeral culture and he realised that, still enjoying it, but referring to his beloved classical music and The Beatles (whom he was quite chummy with - even going so far as producing a couple of their Christmas Fan club records) as 'real music'.

People often excuse dodgy things in regards of the 'times'. "We didn't know any better". Doesn't make it right though, but certainly many didn't consider some of the more offensive elements in comedy 'back then'. I must say, I feel that most of the more questionable content in Everett's output was more often than not, not presented in a mean spirited way, but with a sense of fun and a loveable wink. Was it right? No. Did he mean genuine harm? No, I don't believe so. Interesting to consider what he would do today.

The Conservative rally is a tough one, as I believe you should speak what you believe and believe what you speak. But others close to him say he was generally apolitical.
When being political in his comedy, he would just as often take the piss out of the right as much as the left. In regards to the rally he later regretted it and only did it because because the Tories "asked me first". Hmmm, that's a shame. Anyway... It's sometimes good to look at the flaws in your heroes.

Generational, an acquired or particular taste? I'm not sure.
There are of course locals and members of my circle who probably don't understand the appeal. There are a number of things I can point to that appeals to me about the man and his craft. He was a technical wizard, particularly with radio, sound effects and multi-tracked voices. This was not 'art', it was wacky silliness and a bit of fun, but it was approached with tremendous finesse and expertise on par with and rivaling much of the more artier crew he was inspired by. Although not so much working with the visuals, his audio style on radio was very much the impetus for what emerged visually on his Thames television shows (The Kenny Everett Video Show and The Kenny Everett Video Cassette) between 1978 and 1981. His comedy is interesting, much of the best stuff co-written with Barry Cryer and Ray Cameron. In many ways it could be seen to be crass and kind of basic. But when it worked best it was often a case of playing with the visual gag inherent on the screen. He was a creature of technology and the material reflected that. As a consequence it wasn't always particularly witty or sophisticated. But, at least to me and others I've spoken to about him, his charm and likability was his main asset. Plus any performer willing to leave in his goofs as part of the show (I'm talking the Thames shows mainly here, but some of it is also heard on the Radio stuff he did too) and in fact become the main part of the "finished" sketch, earns my respect. I love a good corpse or blooper!!!!

For the boffins.
Over the years I've managed to locate a lot of audio documenting his radio shows from the Pirates through to Capital Radio and thanks to another collector and the internet most of the Thames TV series and the first 3 BBC TV series (nowhere near as good, but it has it's moments). But other than a number of compilation tapes available originally as video shop rentals and later editions with removed musical acts (due to a lot of copyright red tape), most of the complete episodes have not been official released. But in terms of official merch - here is what I've collected over the years. There are a few holes in the collection of official items, but I'm getting there.

Collection of video media, VHS tapes mainly and the Kremmen movie on DVD. Not pictured 'Best Of Kenny Everett's Naughty Bits' as it was out on loan!

Vinyl and cassette copies of the 'The Greatest Adventure of Captain Kremmen' and the 'Remembering Kenny Everett - Audio Portrait' on CD.

7" vinyl of the Kenny Everett/Mike Vickers theme to 'Kremmen The Movie'
Various publications from the 70s and early 80s including a nonsensical autobiography. Also included is a 1997 biography by David Lister and the Captain Kremmen Viewmaster Reels!

Probably my prized Everett-related item, a character test cel from the Cosgrove/Hall Kremmen series.

This was an outwardly naive spirit for a more naive time (as I saw it at least).
Tapping into that time and spirit, particularly during times of stress or uncertainty, is like an emotional security blanket. The wit is not sophisticated, but it tickles a deep part of my sense of humour where I feel that everything will be alright.

The last time I saw 'contemporary' footage of Kenny was on TV, I think about 1993, maybe 1994. Myself and my partner Sally were watching the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras broadcast on TV. Without announcement we saw Kenny bounce and dance by on one of the floats. He had been out for a number of years by then and seems he was joining in on the festivities. There was no announcement that it was him…I suspect it was unscheduled and the announcers just didn't recognise him or notice him in the throng of activities. But both of us being fans both believe we spotted him.

So here's to Mr Cole, his creation that was Kenny Everett and all those characters that emerged from his delightful head. May he make you laugh.


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Black Sabbath '13'

Black Sabbath - "13"

Well here it is, the first Black Sabbath album with Ozzy since 1978.
Some of us gave up waiting for another album with the original lineup, some didn't really care either way. The last Black Sabbath album I really cared about was the much maligned (unfairly, in my opinion), "Born Again" with Ian Gillan on vocals. The previous two Dio albums are fairly well considered, though I only really enjoy "Heaven and Hell", whilst "Mob Rules" is merely adequate. Despite Gillan's distinctive tones, "Born Again" always sounded to me as having a convincing Sabbath musical spirit whereas the Dio ones didn't.

Although "13" is actually only 3/4 of the original band, (drummer Bill Ward is absent due to a variety of reasons, depending on who you listen to), it does sound like Black Sabbath. So was it worth the wait?

Well yes, it's a very good hard rock album, with everything that's good about that genre. It also contains the distinctive tones of Ozzy, Tony Iommi and Geezer Butler that in combination create 'that sound'. Despite Geezer's past pedigree as a fine lyric writer, there are some dodgy words here and there (Ozzy's fault?) and Ozzy is noticeably lower pitched in his vocal range, but both elements suit the musical material fairly well.

Producer Rick Rubin and his engineering crew have given the album some crisp, modern sonics. The intention of capturing an authentic original 'vibe' redolent of the first few albums is of course impossible. But there's been no sacrifice of a simple sound in favour of digital technology despite the use of Pro Tools.  All this is in fact a bit of a relief considering what Rubin did with Metallica's "Death Magnetic"…a brick-walled mess. This is loud, but there's a bit of breathing space and the integrity of the instruments remains relatively intact. Most impressive is Geezer's bass which positively growls.

End Of The Beginning is a great opener and is in fact the best track on the album, lots of twists and turns that ebb and flow like the best of Sabbath of old concluding with a lovely arpeggio refrain that hints at the feel of the conclusion of Dirty Women and Snowblind.

God Is Dead follows and has an introduction that is little bit too long, but soon picks up and eventually moves into a great shuffle riff. For a single, this didn't grab me initially, but it's a grower. 

Some may accuse Sabbath of musically trading on past glories, by overtly referencing their back catalogue. Well when you have a back catalogue as fine as theirs with as many iconic riffs contained in their first 8 albums as they do, that many other bands that followed already aped, well I think they may get a free pass. Maybe they are just taking back what they rightfully own. After all, given the difficult birth this record had, it's very possible that it may be their last, it serves as a good bookend to a career. Certainly the title; End Of The Beginning and it's structural similarity to Black Sabbath as well as the final track Dear Father concluding with the same bells, rain and thunder that opened their debut in 1970, it certainly hints at a bookend.

Loner is an exception to that rule here for me. Apart from a various obvious musical nod to NIB and a bit of a lyrical nod to The Wizard it's just not up to the standard of the rest. To my ears it's just a little too close to an already superior song.

Rather than a rewrite, we have a kind of atmospheric sequel to Planet Caravan with Zeitgeist. It's rare that a sequel is as good as the original and this is no exception. However it is a lovely track, well performed and sung.

Age Of Reason has a nice stuttery drum intro from session man Brad Wilk. This song is a mid-tempo number and feel-wise it sounds like the bastard child of "Master Of Reality" and "Heaven and Hell", not a bad thing at all. The quality of Ozzy's vocals is slightly odd on this track. Some great chunky riffs throughout, some ethereal keys play under the end solo which is full of Tony's wonderful guitar tone.

Live Forever. Following a nice collection of power chords that could have worked well on "Vol 4", we move into another shuffle that sounds a little like a sped up Zero The Hero from the aforementioned "Born Again" or something stoners Spiritual Beggars might do, themselves not afraid of lifting from the Sabbath canon. Chorus feels a little like something from Ozzy's solo career. A fairly slight song, not without it's charm.

Damaged Soul is doomy waltz. Starts with the line 'born in a graveyard' which made me shake my head until I remembered this is the stuff of blue songs of old which seems to be what they were attempting here. It has a nice feel actually especially when Ozzy's harmonica (!) makes an appearance. Some of the words though…hmmm, I don't know. Another mid-tempo shuffle comes in at the end with harmonica and some great Iommi soloing. Haven't decided yet if this is brilliant or a bit silly, maybe a bit of both.

Dear Father - muted riffing starts this one with Ozzy following the guitar for the melody on the verses as he did on Electric Funeral and Iron Man. But the lovely arpeggio guitar and the vocal melody on the choruses have again the feel of Ozzy's solo career. Is this a hint of where Sabbath may have gone with Ozzy in a hypothetical post-"Never Say Die"?
The bridge is yet another shuffle, which could have worked in Children Of The Grave, before returning to the early riff. Generally pretty good, if a little repetitive.

Some criticism of the lack of uptempo material I think is a little unfounded. However an improvement may have been solved simply by altering the running order and moving God Is Dead from second place to last. Following on from the album highlight End Of The Beginning, it does seem to drag it down a bit. The end of the former shares a similar tempo to the latter (albeit with a different intensity) and changing it up a little may have improved things.

The bonus songs (on the deluxe edition/iTunes and the Best Buy exclusive in the US), sound just like that, kind of like left overs. They are good, but not quite on par with the others. The exception being Methademic which I was privy to when it debuted live at the recent 1st Melbourne gig and is good enough in fact to be a suitable replacement for Loner, but only just. Worth seeking out, but to my ears, they don't really belong in the body of work, but are justly placed as additional material.

I first heard Black Sabbath in 1978 at age 7. The first 8 Black Sabbath albums have had approx 35 years to bury their way into my psyche, so "13" will in no way be that iconic to me in this short timeframe, maybe it never will be. It's not a masterpiece, but it is surprisingly good and a very solid effort. Good work lads.


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

'Don't Slander Me' - Roky Erickson in Melbourne, March 13, 2012.

Roky Erickson at The Corner Hotel, Melbourne.
Tuesday March 13, 2012
Supported by
Jegar Erickson
UV Race

Objectivity and an emotional response are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they can make strange bedfellows. I knew when entering the venue it was going to be difficult to be objective about a musician I've been a fan of for close to 20 years. It seems to me if you become a bit of nerdy fanboy about someone or something, which I'm often guilty of, that you can often be both an apologist of the artist's shortcomings, but simultaneously you can be super-critical - “I've heard him do that so much better, way back in blah blah, from a soundboard recording in 1979 at blah, that was leaked by blah blah”.

I've been well aware of Roky's tumultuous life, the struggles with imprisonment, drugs and mental illnesses, for as long as I've known his music. I'm also incredibly happy that he seems to have come through those struggles and is active again, but it's hard to deny those struggles in some way contributed to Roky's unique outlook and ultimately his music.

His five piece band, (sorry don't have their names) began the set without him, with Bo Diddley Was A Headhunter, a couple minutes in Roky wandered onto the stage, his roadie strapped on his guitar, all the while a rapturous applause broke out from the capacity crowd around me. He resembled his early 80's appearance, long hair and bushy beard, but obviously a much greyer 65 year old. He looked fairly healthy and happy as he stepped up to the mic.

I can say that I perhaps lowered my expectations somewhat...was that from being an emotional fanboy or a critical/objective reviewer? I'm not sure. But what struck me immediately was how good his voice sounded, strong and confident for the most part. Particularly in song 2 Cold Night For Alligators Roky seemed very fired up, seemingly to the amusement of the rest of the band. He became a little more subdued over the course of the set, but his vocal ability seemed to remain.

It wasn't difficult to notice Roky's continual fiddling with the toggle and volume knob. It could of course been a tech problem, but I tend to think it may have been to do with stage fright, an onstage nervous twitch. Certainly Roky was playing much more ragged lead guitar than I was expecting, getting enthusiastic encouragement from the lead guitarist in the band. It didn't always work of course, but when it did, it was kind of thrilling, because it was so unexpected.

The songs were shambolic in parts and sometimes they sounded like jams rather than rehearsed songs, but the nature of many of his songs, well you can't really go too wrong. A few bemused glances back and forth and songs seemed to get things back on track for the most part. And the set was pretty fantastic.

Personal highlights, a raucous Don't Slander Me, the unexpected Elevators' track Reverberation and a rough but powerful Two Headed Dog. A lovely moment was when Roky's son Jegar stepped out front rather than singing backup (he also was a fairly able support act) and sang the Elevators' ballad Splash 1 with his Dad. It was actually quite a nice moment...schmaltzy or moving depending on your level of cynicism.

The obligatory encore was of course You're Gonna Miss Me, was admittedly a little disappointing, possibly the most ragged of the evening. Roky seemed the most lost in this song and sang sporadically. But the prior set had already more than made up for it.

There was a lot of love in the room which is quite infectious. Perhaps in the end the emotional response won out over objectivity. Afterall, I'm a fan, but trying to have some distance, despite the missteps it really did work as an enjoyable gig. This was Roky Erickson in Melbourne in 2012...that scenario in itself is kind of a minor miracle on it's own.

Text and images © Matt Warren 2012

Monday, March 5, 2012

Nightmares In Yellow - Giallo Cinema

This was originally presented as a talk with images and clips at the 'Stranger With My Face' Horror Film festival in Hobart (Feb 17-19, 2012), organised by Briony Kidd. Obviously with copyright to consider, clips are not included in this version, but more often than not you would be able to find at least some of this material online. Where possible I have put appropriate stills, but of course moving pictures are what we are talking about...please consider tracking down these films.

Nightmares In Yellow

My name is Matt Warren, I'm an artist, musician and curator, based here in Hobart. I grew up watching horror films, being scared to death by
Halloween and Halloween II, the latter I watched at a neighbourhood friends house one evening at age 13, then having to walk, or rather run all the way home through the dark gloomy suburban streets, always looking behind me in the hope I wouldn't spot Michael Myers stepping out of the shadows.
Horror cinema has an incredible power to disturb, frighten and fill the viewer with both terror and exuberance. Horror cinema has a dark energy.

As a practicing artist, usually working in time-based media, there is no doubt that cinema and specifcally the screen language, lighting and composition of horror cinema has influenced my work. The world of Horror cinema has a long and interesting history and within the genre itself it has many and varied sub genres. 'Giallo' is one such genre

Once moving through some of the more well known directors from North America I discovered the work of one of their biggest influences, one Dario Argento from Italy. Whilst not the originator of 'Giallo', he was perhaps the most commercially successful horror filmmaker from Italy and therefore introduced this genre to the mainstream.

So what is Giallo? Giallo” is full of lurid violent imagery, disorienting camerawork, obtuse dialogue, groovy soundtracks and a dream/nightmare-logic. These films are psychedelic murder-mysteries and trippy 'whodunnits'. I will discuss the origin of these films, give some key examples, the various traits inherent with them and the influence they have had on wider horror cinema. I'll also discuss examples of typical and atypical female roles seen in these films with special focus on Dario Argento's Deep Red/Profondo Rosso, a key-work of the genre. I'll show some of my favourite short sequences from some of the key Giallo films and they will hopefully illustrate to you the techniques and styles used in Giallo. I should also point out that many of these films are beautifully shot and unfortunately the quality of the clips in this presentation do not do them justice, but hopefully they look okay. There is still a lack of good quality DVDs of many of these films available in Australia, but a lot are available overseas. And apart from Deep Red I'll try not to present any spoilers when giving a context for the clips.

The word 'Giallo' is literally 'yellow' in Italian. The way it became associated with this kind of cinema is quite simply the paper back crime, murder mystery novels that were key plot inspirations were often published in Italy with yellow jackets. The majority of these novels were Italian translations of American and British writers such as Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Ed McBain, Rex Stout and Raymond Chandler.

Names of Key directors to look out for

Mario Bava Dario Argento Lucio Fulci Sergio Martino Pupi Avati Aldo Lado

Cinematic influences.

German Expressionist film – works such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari,
Faust and Nosferatu inspired Dario Argento and Mario Bava in particular. Be it the use of light and shadow, the composition and framing or the intense facial expressions of the films protagonists, the mood and sometimes hysterical atmosphere was transferred to much of the work put out by Giallo filmmakers.

This kind of cinema went onto inspire another German form known as 'Krimi', crime stories often based on the written work of Edgar Wallace and prior to and in tandem with that 'Film Noir' – shadowy, detective and gangster dramas with some of the best works coming out of America.

The films of Alfred Hitchcock – were also influential. Films like The Man Who Knew Too Much - with a character perhaps overhearing, or seeing details that embroil them in a mystery. An obvious reference can be found in the title of what is considered to be the first Giallo film – Mario Bava's The Girl Who Knew Too Much (aka The Evil Eye in some countries) from 1962, though Bava refined the style with this next film Blood and Black Lace. I have not been able to track down Bava's film, but, do have a short clip here and it does display it's debt to both Hitchcock and German Expressionist film.

Vertigo's use of a convoluted plotline involving mistaken and obscure identities that extends the mystery and also the protagonists with some physical or psychology ailment that encumbers his or her's ability to solve the mystery are also recurring themes in Giallo stories.

Psycho is also a key influential work. A recurring theme in gialli is often the obscure psychology of the murderers motives and the dark undercurrent inherent in both Robert Bloch's orignal story and Hitchcock's film informed Giallo as well as many other films inside and outside of horror. So too the scene of murder in Psycho is a key moment for Giallo filmmakers. There is the interesting swapping of POVs between murderer and victim during the shower scene and this in itself is rare in Hitchcock films in that it is quite implicit and and not as detached and objective as much of his work.

Argento has been called by film critics – the "Italian Hitchcock" or the "Garlic–Flavoured Hitchcock" and to be compared to such a master, Argento feels complimented. However he would point out that one of the main differences between him and Hitchcock is that Hitchcock's approach was a somewhat aloof, detached reserve, especially when it comes to presenting scenes of violence. Whereas Argento's approach contains a more frenzied, hystertical subjective point of view...he has said “I am Latin – hot blooded and passionate”. And the shower scene in Psycho notwithstanding, this is generally true when comparing their works.

Blow Up by Michaelangelo Antonioni 1966 – was a murder mystery set in Swinging 60s London starring David Hemmings as a hip photographer who inadvertedly witnesses a murder, but doesn't realise it until much later when blowing up one of his photographs taken in a park.

This film was a world wide cult hit and gave Italian cinema some notoriety. Dario Argento at the time was a film critic and this film later on inspired Deep Red.

These all collided and were filtered through an Italian operatic sensibility, Opera being the so called Italian National Art, to create Giallo.

Characteristics and techniques

One thing people may notice first of all is the somewhat over the top, titles of these films. This is not across the board of course, but very often excessive poeticism comes forth when the director names their film. Of course to a degree these are down to the Italian to English translation, but they do remain pretty literal.

The Bird With the Crystal Plumage,
Short Night of Glass Dolls,

The House of Laughing Windows,

Too Late Claire too late,
Hatchet for a Honeymoon,

Four Flies On Grey Velvet,

Twitch of the Death Nerve

and one of my favourites -
Forbidden Photos of A Respectable Woman.
In fact there is a very simple website that one can go to and get your own fictional giallo film title, fictional director and brief synopsis.

Lurid violent imagery.
As mentioned earlier one of the characteristics is the somewhat lurid and explicit nature of the violence in the films. The violence is usually not left up to the imagination, is intense and in your face. Even if it does not always put you, the audience in the murderers POV, it brings you close to the action. It should be stated too, that a potentially distrurbing technique employed by Dario Argento is his use of himself as the gloved hands in murder scene closeups. He has stated that he “feels comfortable in this role and knows how to play it very well”.

Psychological states on display.

One of my personal favourite elements common in Giallo is
the use of delirious and restless camera techniques, unusual editing and hallucinatory, psychedelic content illustrating a sense of psychological turmoil. This could traced back to certain elements of German Expressionist cinema and where the 'stimmung' or mood is created with the composition of objects and people within the frame and the use of light and shadow. A psychological state is achieved with some or all of the these things.

An example being the opening scene from Lucio Fulci's Lizard In A Womans Skin from 1969. Where the jump cut editing, the claustrophobic composition and the harsh lighting contribute to an increasing sense or panic.

In this pre-murder scene from Dario Argento's 1982 Giallo named Tenebre, we have an example of what could be called impossible voyuerism. An extended crane, tracking shot combined with pulsing electronic music both hinting at the murders desire to see and invade all and also the underlying paranoia of the people inside the building. It is almost like we are seeing the POV of a dark spirit or the staring personification of the scene's mood.
When viewing this seen you will notice that what initially appeared to be an objective use of music, becomes subjective by the end of the sequence, the character's hear and respond to the music, not just us the audience. This is a technique that Argento had played with a little earlier in his 'witches in a dance academy' fairy tale Suspiria where the music almost becomes a character, even whispering clues to the audience and the protagonists.

And speaking of music and just because it's one of my favourite scenes for it's utter strangeness, I'd like to show another scene from Argento's Deep Red of which I'll talk more of later. This scene again portrays a sense of paranoia, with dolly shots that hint at the character, a person too close to the mystery, is being watched. It would traditionally be scored with quiet, menacing music when instead it's filled with the groovy progressive funk of the band Goblin. What preempts the attack is nothing short of chilling and nightmarish. Also without wanting to give a 'spoiler', those who are squeamish in regards to the mouth, approach with caution.

Unusual situations, witnesses and mysteries

As stated earlier, when talking about Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much, the protagonists in Giallo films can often find themselves embrolied in murder mysteries under very strange circumstances and scenarios. Here in Dario Argento's first film The Bird With The Crystal Plumage from 1969 the witness to an apparent attack becomes helplessly involved and unable to assist when he becomes caught between two glass doors. He is silent and trapped and unable to help.

Here is a scene from Pupi Avati's very strange and atmospheric House With the Laughing Windows from 1976. A restorer of church frescos begins to unravel a small village's murder mystery through his restoration job.

Strange Noises

An element of that adds to the strange atmosphere and dream-like logic of the giallo films is the sound component. Dialogue has a slightly disorienting feel in a number of these films. This is due to a couple of factors. For starters, often the English dialogue we hear is a translation of the original Italian and perhaps some liberties have been taken in regards to logic. It should also be said that many of these films contain international casts. It would be not uncommon for English, Italian, French and Spanish speaking actors to be in the same film. Sometimes dialogue is spoken between two or more actors in their own tongue. As is the case with perhaps 95% of Italian cinema of the time, dialogue was post production dubbed in a sound studio. This was both to counteract the multi-language issue, so often not by the original actors and to also have clean clear dialogue as original shoots were much more concerned with visuals. The sonic qualities of the the post production audio leaves a sense of slight disorientation as it does not always match up with what's on the screen.

So too a contributing factor is the scoring of these films. There are a number of composers used, but two of the soundtrack composers are Ennio Morricone and the band Goblin headed by keyboardist Claudio Simonetti .

Morricone is probably best known for his soundtrack to Sergio Leone's The Good The Bad and the Ugly but he also worked on a number of notable Giallo films including Argento's first 3 films. They are often a strange mix of free jazz and avant garde orchestral music and odd vocalisations. Here is a reminder of Morricone's superb soundtrack to Argento's Bird With the Crystal Plumage.

Starting with Deep Red, Argento began using Italian prog rock group Goblin on his soundtracks adding another texture of strangeness to the mix. He followed Deep Red with Suspiria which is possibly Goblin's finest hour and also encouraged George A Romero to allow them to score his zombie materpiece Dawn Of The Dead. In fact Argento co produced this film and had final cut for the European markets, which had a different edit and more Goblin soundtrack material. Other filmmakers began using them to soundtrack their horror and gangster films during the 70s and Argento himself continued to use Goblin or members thereof on and off during the 80s and 90s.

There are a number of these soundtracks available nowadays and worth tracking down, particularly the Morricone Giallo tracks and a good sampler is the one I showed earlier.

There were also a series of compilations released in the mid to late 90s called Easy Tempo that compiled many of the more obscure Italian composers of giallo and other exploitation film soundtracks from the late 60s and 70s.

Female Archetypes

With limited time versus a wealth of potential films to discuss, these example just touch on the world of Giallo films. But in line with the subject of this festival, I like to talk a little bit now about female roles in Giallo.

I do not know of any female film directors of the Giallo films created in the peak time of say 1972 to 1978, unfortunately. Perhaps they exist, but I'm not aware of them. It could be explained I suppose by it simply being a sign of the times. Horror cinema in general in the early 1970s seemed to have a lack of female directors behind the scenes. Giallo was no exception. It is perhaps a cliché that Giallo cinema was concerned primarliy with the murder of female victims. And it's a valid perception, but it's not definitive. In horror cinema, the female victims and the reasons they are victimised has been written and spoken about a lot. Sex equals death, the virgin stays alive etc etc.

So instead I'd like to look at a seemingly atypical female role in Giallo films and perhaps early 1970s horror in general, that of Gianna the journalist in Deep Red.

Mark, an English pianist and composer is in Rome composing, conducting and performing. He is friends with Carlo, a drunken piano player who works in a bar, the bourgeois artist and the gigging muso. Between sets, they discuss their respective roles in the music world, Carlo staggers off for his next set after they both hear a distant scream. Alone, Mark see's a woman silently scream against an upstairs window which breaks. He rushes up to investigate the situation. It turns out the victim is a psychic, in town giving a presentation and writing an article about her ablities. She has gotten too close psychologically to some dark secrets. Mark believes he sees something in the woman's apartment that is a clue to the identity of the murderer, but can't pin point what it is. During the ensuing police investigation in the apartment, Gianna, an investigative journalist enters. Mark and Gianna become involved in a DIY investigation together. Along the way, people assisting the pair in the investigation become victims of the same murderer.

A little background on Deep Red. It was Argento's fifth film and his fourth Giallo. Just prior to this he made his little seen historical comedy/drama The Five Days Of Milan. His return to giallo brought with it a new safisticated approach. Prior to being a filmmaker Argento was a movie critic and began working on films as a writer on spagetti westerns including co-writing with Bertolucci on Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In America.

During his critic days Argento had seen and I believe favourably reviewed the Michaelangelo Antonioni classic
Blow Up as mentioned earlier. Though when it came time to make Deep Red Argento considered his film as both a homage, but also a critical, almost post-modern response to Blow Up...the obscure clue remained or course, that being the main character witnessing something, not really sure what he had seen...
a blurred image of a gun in a photograph in Blow Up, the murderers reflection in a mirror, mistaken for a painting in Deep Red. There is of course the main investigative role reprised by the same actor David Hemmings. But seemingly a critical and critised factor in Blow Up is the rather insipid and weak willed female charaters, treated badly as playthings by the arrogant photographer played by Hemmings. In Deep Red, although a key amatuer investigator, Hemmings character Mark is a buffoon, is rather insipid and often calls upon Gianna played by Daria Nicolodi to help him out when in trouble. As much as he doesn't want to admit it, he needs her. She is the stronger willed of the two.

A little background on the actor Daria Nicolodi.
Her first film with Argento was
Deep Red where she had a significant role, the character of a strong willed but carefree journalist. Her and Argento went on to become partners. She also went on to co-write and conceive of his supernatural “Three Mothers” trilogy – Suspiria, Inferno and The Mother Of Tears. Interestingly it's been said that the state of their relationship can be traced through Nicolodi's roles in Argentos' films. From her playful carefree nature in Deep Red up to her final role in an Argento film Opera in 1988, where she is spectacularly shot through the eye whilst looking through a peep hole in a door, the downward trajectory of their relationship seemed to be charted thus. Soon after Daria and Dario split and she discontinued appearing in his films, their daughter Asia, took over many of the female leads in his latter and in my opinion, less successful films.

Deep Red was one of the few horror films of the time that overtly addresses gender inequality.

It more often than not presents Gianna and Mark as equals in the couple, both vulnerable, goofy, but both can be be strong and driven by a desire to find out some kind of truth. Albeit for different reasons.

Interestingly when this film was shortened for time to make it more commercially viable, a number of these scenes of characterisation and interaction between Mark and Gianna were excised. Did this portray a general attitude of the time? Not only a preference for a simpler more exploitative horror film but also a lack of interest in gender politics.

Argento has often been accused of misogynistic attitudes in his films and it's not unreasonable to think this looking at some of his later and lesser works. However he has stated that the female characters in his films are more curious, stronger willed, more investigative and ready to get into dangerous situations out of a sense of adventure. Is he making excuses for splattering pretty girls with blood or is this a genuine philosophical approach to his film-making?

Certainly I would argue that these characteristics are very present in the character of Gianna.

The misogynistic elements of a number of what I would consider lesser - Giallo films seemed to carry over when influencing American slasher films particularly Friday the 13th and it's clones like The Burning, The Prowler aka Rosemary's Killer. Although lumped in with these, Halloween from 1978 was one of the earliest so-called slasher films and incorporated a little more flair and mood that came from Giallo and Argento in particular. There is the use of the killer's POV, the use of electronic music and the obscure psychological back story.

So too it could be said that the character of Laurie Strode played by Jamie Lee Curtis, a forthright, strong but vulnerable female character is seemingly atypical in 1970s American horror film. Writer/director John Carpenter and producer Debra Hill have both noted their love for the work of Argento and perhaps the atypical female roles, in Deep Red, both a strong-willed investigative character as opposed to simply being a victim had inspired a change of attitude.

What many of the lesser giallo films lack is character development, particularly the female roles. As Deep Red was the first giallo film I saw, I noticed the lack of characterisation in some of the other giallo films when I came to view them later on. That is not too say these films are without merit, they are indeed stylish and atmospheric. But there can be a lack of empathy with main characters. Deep Red is quite rightly considered a benchmark of giallo, as it contains not only what makes the form so great, the strangeness, the atmosphere, the beautiful shots, but also interesting well rounded male and female characters.

Text: © Matt Warren 2012