Saturday, September 17, 2022

They also make music in Ireland: three Irish records reviewed

Michael McHale Moonlight (2022)

This release on the Ergodos label sees pianist McHale tackling Beethoven's Appassionata and Moonlight sonatas, interspersed with shorter pieces by Linda Buckley and Áine Mallon. Despite my interest in contemporary music, I mainly bought it so that I could have a copy of the Moonlight Sonata to listen to. McHale's performance of this feels a bit non-standard, with the playing seeming to be a bit more delicate than other versions I have heard. I am not familiar enough with the Appassionata to judge this rendition, but the playing seems a good bit more in your face than on the Moonlight Sonata. The two short contemporary pieces meanwhile function effectively as introductions to the Beethoven sonatas, with Buckley's piece played with the diffidence of the Moonlight Sonata, while Mallon's "Raindrop Prelude" has the more aggressive playing of the Appassionata; it could also be said to have notes invoking falling rain.

Overall an enjoyable listen but I think I would need to listen more closely to a standard performance of the Moonlight Sonata to appreciate the deviation here. You can check it out yourself on Bandcamp:

Cormorant Tree Oh Cormorant Tree Oh [2018]

You will recall how impressed I was by Ms Cormorant Tree Oh, the mysterious balalaika playing lady who played support to local gothgazers A Ritual Sea. It turns out that Cormorant Tree Oh is actually a stage name, and her real name is Mary Keane. On stage she came across as a bit of an outsider artist weirdo, albeit one with clear musical talent and application, but here we have a record that is much more form the world of spooky weirdo folk, with songs about werewolves and stone circles, while the music is a mix of electronic and acoustic instruments. There is not much in the way of credits on her Bandcamp page, but I suspect this is something she knocked up herself, and extremely impressive it is too. Its eerie, ritualistic sounds have been on repeat here in my brane and I suspect they would be in yours too if you give this a listen. I see she is releasing another album in September… which may mean that she will do another live show. Exciting. Check out her stuff on Bandcamp:

Fears Oíche (2021)

Fears is the recording name of Constance Keane. I bought this after liking a track on a friend's compilation of their favourite tunes of 2021. This album, whose title must surely be unpronounceable to anyone who has not been through the Irish education system, is a collection of downbeat electronic sounds over which we get Keane's delicate vocals. The lyrics touch on Keane's mental health issues, which on occasion saw her in psychiatric institutions, but just letting the beautiful music wash over you stops this being a harrowing trudge. You can listen to it yourself on Bandcamp: images:

Moonlight (Bandcamp)

Cormorant Tree Oh (Bandcamp)

Oíche (Bandcamp)

Friday, September 16, 2022

Quick ones: some short record reviews

v/a Stax Gold - The Hits 1968-1974 (1991)

So this is a collection of Stax classics from Ace Records. It's a great selection of southern soul sizzlers, but you probably know that already.

LoneLady Nerve Up (2010) & Hinterland (2015)

You will recall that I went to see Ms LoneLady earlier this year, at what was basically my first proper gig after the menace of Covid was vanished from the world. I picked these up at the concert. If you've listened to the LoneLady track I included on my 2021 compilation you'll get the basic idea: nervy vocals over a somewhat retro accompaniment of electronics and edgy guitar lines. LoneLady's Julie Campbell plays almost all the instruments on both records. Nerve Up is a bit more guitar-oriented than the later record but they are both broadly of a piece. There are Tim Burgess listening parties for both of these (Nerve Up & Hinterland), which I keep meaning to play back while listening to the record. Probably should have done that before writing this.

You can buy these and other records by LoneLady in record shops or from Bandcamp:

The Anchoress [2022 covers]

In an effort to rake in the $$$s, the Anchoress has been posting cover versions on Bandcamp for short time periods. I keep downloading them. The first one here is a cover of "The Tradition" by Halsey. I have no idea who Halsey is so the song has no prior residence for me. It's nice enough. The second one is "These Days", originally from Nico's debut album Chelsea Girl. I have a troubled relationship with that album: while it is certainly pleasant enough, I feel like it is basically False Nico, in that she is singing a selection of nice songs written for her by other people. It is also from before she acquired her harmonium and started writing her own songs of subterranean doom. "These Days" was written by Jackson Browne, reportedly when he was about 16. While it was not written for Nico, she appears to have been the first person to record it commercially. The Anchoress croons her way through it; divorced of my difficulties with Chelsea Girl it's hard not to listen to it here and conclude that this is in fact a beautiful song with appealingly wistful lyrics about loss and regret.

And then a cover of Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence", the electropop banger slowed down. It's fine but not revelatory. Continuing the trawl through goth-adjacent tunes of yore, the next one is The Cure's "Friday I'm In Love". I've never liked this song and the switch from the uptempo poppiness of the original to the slower and sparser version her does not change my opinion that this is one of those fundamentally bad songs that everyone in the world bar me loves.

The last track is "Pennyroyal Tea", originally be Nirvana and released by the Anchoress after the US Supreme Court's revocation of the Roe v. Wade judgement (pennyroyal has history as a herbal abortificant of variable efficacy). The cover is fine but again, not revelatory.

In fact I think all of these covers are inessential, with the exception of "These Days"; none of them leap out at me like her 2020 covers of "Wicked Game" or "Martha's Harbour" did. But I'll probably keep chasing the buzz by downloading whatever covers she releases next. You can do the same by keeping an eye on her Bandcamp page:

Confidence Man Tilt (2022)

I feel like I bought a Roisín Murphy album by mistake. This is fine as far as it goes and the songs would probably be great live if you had Janet Planet and Sugar Bones dancing in front of you, but there aren't enough lyrics about how Ms Planet is amazing and everyone else is a loser. Some of the tunes also sound a bit over-reminiscent of other tunes by other artists. Howard Blake "The Moon Stallion" (1978)

This is the theme from this now quite obscure TV series that is now completely unavailable on home media and has never been released on English-language DVD. Its unavailability is a shame, as anyone who remembers seeing it will recall it as a classic of spooky 1970s kids' television. Its use of the Uffington White Horse and Wayland's Smithy interspersed with a plot mixing up Arthurian myth and Graeco-Roman paganism would make it highly relevant to our current revived interest in all that folk horror stuff. If you've seen it you'll remember its late-Victorian setting and its spooky plot based around the mysterious white horse of the title, with anyone who catches sight of it being doomed to die in the near future (conveniently the story's heroine, played by Sarah Sutton, is blind).

The theme, downloaded from YouTube, is of short duration, but in its 50 seconds it manages to evoke the stallion's untamed gallop while hinting at the esoteric content of the programme. The theme isn't even on YouTube (the "Moon Stallion" hits you find there are for a completely different programme), but it can be listened to here. Give it a go, but don't blame me if next thing you find yourself meeting a spooky white horse and then dying in an unfortunate accident.


Stax Gold (Ace Records)

Hinterland (Bandcamp)

Diana (Sarah Sutton) and the Moon Stallion (Bradley's Basement: "The Moon Stallion")

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Recordings of weird folk music from Britain and France

v/a Lammas Night Laments Vol.1

I saw a copy of this and later volumes in the series while we were out in Kimmage visiting a cat whose owners were away. As a series of CD-Rs compiling weirdo folk tunes they looked very much like my kind of thing, and it was all I could do not to gently slide the discs into my bag and claim ignorance regarding their existence. But they don't call me Honest Ian for nothing, so I left the discs where they lay.

Nevertheless, I did search online for the series to find more information about them, and discovered that information is easily found. The discs seem originally to have been put together from 2005 by some guy called Mark Coyle for a now vanished website called The Unbroken Circle. Since then the series has become much prized by those who take an interest in esoteric folk music. I also discovered that some cursory googling serves up sites from where the collections can be downloaded. Resisting the urge to scoff the lot, I stuck with just the first volume, which I found in what claimed to be a remastered format (implying that previous uploads of the collections have been characterised by poor sound quality).

And it's beautiful stuff. Some old friends (Vashti Bunyan, Dr Strangely Strange, Magnet, & Anne Briggs) and a pile of tunes from people I had at most heard of. Stone Angel's "The Bells of Dunwich" boasts a beautifully clear female vocal,C.O.B.'s "Spirit of Love" is like something from one of those Welsh Rare Beat compilations, for all that it is in English, while Dulcimer's "Caravan" sounds like they lured in Richard Burton to help out with narration.

I will eventually move on to later volumes in the series, but this one makes a great start.

Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U. F. O. La Nòvia (2000), Vox Bigerri "La Nòvia" (2013)

My beloved and I had the great idea of learning "La Nòvia" for an Unthanks singing weekend: not the full on Acid Mothers Temple throat singing guitar rock freakout version but something closer to its Occitan folk origins. That got me thinking about how I'd like to have versions of this popular tune on my iPod so I could listen to them and stuff. These are both rips from YouTube (I already own a vinyl copy of Acid Mothers Temple's La Nòvia, but it seems to be impossible to legally acquire either a CD or MP3 version of it).

Just in case you do not already know all about this, "La Nòvia" is a folk song from the south of France, sung in the Occitan dialect. I think it may originally have been a children's song or even a lullaby, and it definitely has that kind of repetitive progression children love. The title translates into English as "The Bride" and the lyrics describe her ornamentation, with first verse being thus:

La nòvia qu'a nau brilhants suu cap

La nòvia qu'a nau brilhants suu cap

Nau brilhants suu cap,

L'anèth au dit

Which translates more or less as:

The bride has nine diamonds on her brow

The bride has nine diamonds on her brow

Nine diamonds on her brow

A ring on her finger

Subsequent verses are the same except the number of diamonds reduces by one in each verse until the impoverished bride is left with just one diamond.

If you've ever seen Acid Mothers Temple live you'll know their version, which features throat singing and electric guitar soloing of a type not commonly seen in the mediaeval Languedoc. It also goes on for ages, starting a capella and then bringing in the instruments before looping backwards and forwards between accompanied singing, a capella singing, and pure instrumentation. The Vox Bigerri version is short and unaccompanied, apart from a church bell at the start; on YouTube you see them singing as they walk around a deserted town that may or may not be in the south of France. Their harmonies are pretty full on, but I think they are a vocal folk group so that's not too surprising. The Vox Bigerri version is an impressive showcase of their talents. I would pick up one of their albums if it had a recording of it on it; sadly it does not appear on any of their albums' tracklistings. The Acid Mothers Temple version is however the one I heard first and it will always be my favourite. The original record sleeve contains material on the Cathars, a religious community who lived in the Languedoc until they were exterminated in a thirteenth century crusade; the last two hundred of them were burned at the stake after the conclusion of the siege of Montségur. In the hands and mouths of the Japanese freak rockers the simple children's tune becomes an elegy to the Cathars, whose extermination is symbolic of northern France's subjugation of the Languedoc. With the passage of time it is also en elegiac evocation of a now-vanished phase of Acid Mothers Temple's own history, when their line-up was large and had room for weirdos like Cotton Casino.


Lammas Night Laments (Its lost its found: "VARIOUS ARTISTS - LAMMAS NIGHT LAMENTS VOLUME 01")

La Nòvia (Discogs)

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Some short gig reviews

I'm a busy man so I don't have time to review every concert I go to in great depth, but maybe if I throw together several unsatisfying short reviews (with pictures I took myself) they will add up to one semi-satisfying big thing.

Sparks (Vicar Street)

I took no pictures of the popular Mael Brothers, whose concert I was only able to see because Covid struck down successive owners of a ticket. "So May We Start" from Annette makes for a great opener, while the best songs of the night were either "The Number One Song in Heaven" or "This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us", the latter very much gaining form having a full band performing it (last time I saw Sparks it was just Ronald and Russell).

Nick Mason's Saucerful of Secrets (Convention Centre Dublin)

It was great being back for the first time since Worldcon. This saw early Pink Floyd tunes played by Nick Mason (as you know, drummer and founding member of Pink Floyd) and some of his musical buds (Guy Pratt, Gary Kemp, Lee Harris, and Dom Beken). The setlist featured songs from early singles and1967's Piper at the Gates of Dawn up to 1972's Obscured by Clouds. Like proper oldarse musicians they took a break in the middle of the concert, with things really ramping up in the second half as they opened with the double whammy of "Interstellar Overdrive" and "Astronomy Domine". The light show etc. was all amazing. The tunes were great too. I have a considerable fondness for Pink Floyd, but I maybe go in different directions than other people, tacking considerably towards the early stuff (Wish You Were Here is the latest I go, and I've never really warmed to Dark Side of the Moon), so the selections here were right up my alley. It is worth noting however that the music of Pink Floyd seems to have a negative effect on men's hair. And I was unfit to operate heavy machinery for a long time after the concert concluded.

Luzmira Zerpa (Cafe Oto)

She came from Venezuela to play music in Cafe Oto, which I saw with my bud Colin while I was over for that Nigel Kneale centenary thing. Everyone loved the Latin grooves of Ms Zerpa and her band, which reminded me of music I heard in Cuba for all that Venezuela is a completely different country with its own musical traditions.

Low (Vicar Street)

A date with the new crunchy music iteration of Low. Top notch stuff. I did hear the outlandish claim advanced that the bassist on this tour is one of their sons, but cursory research revealed that the bassist is in fact one Liz Draper. She acquitted herself well, though I do wonder about how many former Low bassists there now are.

More concert photos

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Concert: Tangerine Dream

This took place in Dublin's Liberty Hall about a week after Putin invaded Ukraine; sitting in my seat enjoying the electronic sounds I felt like I was Nero fiddling while Rome burned. The concert was billed as being centred on Tangerine Dream's years with the Virgin record label, so a bit outside my own main area of familiarity with the band's oeuvre (which is centred on Alpha Centauri and Zeit, though I do admittedly have a copy of Phaedra, which I have not listened to so much). Before the concert I did some investigations and discovered that Edgar Froese, the main guy from Tangerine Dream, died some years ago, leading me to wonder what class of gig I was going to. What I got was a performance of electronic music by a band consisting of three people: a woman on violin, a guy on electronic stuff, and a younger guy on other electronic stuff. There also were lights and images projected on a screen. The music was a bit more full-on than the early Tangerine Dream stuff I am familiar with, at times heading towards what might appeal to young people in a "night club". That was funny because the concert was all seated and you got the impression that many of the attendees were in such a relaxed frame of mind that they would have been unable to dance even if they had wanted to. I think I recognised a track from Phaedra, but apart from that it was all new to me. I have no idea whether they were actually playing tunes from the Virgin era (possibly jazzed up) or pieces from their career to date, but it was all very enjoyable and I would be happy to see them again at a future concert. Afterwards I carried out some further investigation into the band's current line-up and discovered that the older of the electronic musicians is a fellow named Thorsten Quaeschning, who was not even born when Tangerine Dream formed and is in fact a good bit younger than me. He has been Tangerine Dream's bandleader since Froese's death. He has a side project called Picture Palace Music, who among other things do scores for old silent films that they perform live and release on record. And I have one of those records, Three Easter Nights at the Babylon - Music for Bunnies and Fallen Capitals, with tunes composed for soundtracks to Metropolis, Nosferatu, and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, which I bought when I saw a screening of the latter with live musical accompaniment in Berlin once. Small world.

Monday, September 12, 2022

"Petite Maman" (2021)

This is a charming French film that begins sadly. Marion goes with her husband, and daughter Nelly to clear out the house of her mother, who has just died. It all proves a bit too much for Marion, who returns home to leave her husband to the task at hand. Nelly goes wandering in the nearby woods and meets a little girl her own age. Going back to the other girl's house she realises it is her grandmother's house, but in the past, and that her new friend is her mother when she was a child. Because she is a small child she is able to roll with this far better than an adult would.

In the hands of an American director I suspect Petite Maman would be a terrible confection of twee sludge, but thanks to Céline Schiamma's understated direction and subtle but impressive performances by twins Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz as the two girls it remains something gentle and quietly poignant. I recommend this one highly. There is one odd musical bit. Eventually Nelly explains to little Marion what is going on. Then at one point she is listening to music on headphones and little Marion says "is that the music of the future?" and then asks to hear it. We then get this sudden burst of euphoric electronic music, which might be the only music heard in the entire film (Schiamma does not do soundtracks), which continues playing while the two girls paddle off in a little boat around some weird concrete structure in a lake. For the first time it becomes possible that the bit with little Marion is actually our present and Nelly is living in the future.

As a timeslip fantasy, Pettie Maman was eligible for this year's Hugo Awards. I nominated it in the Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) category, but due to biased political voting it failed to make it onto the list of finalists.


Nelly & Marion (Guardian: "The 50 best films of 2021 in the UK, No 3: Petite Maman")

Sunday, September 04, 2022

Film: "Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: a History of Folk Horror" (2021)

This is a documentary by Kier-La Janisse about all that folk horror stuff, starting off with the big three (The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General, and Blood on Satan's Claw) before heading on into weirdo TV of the 1970s (typically written by Nigel Kneale) before travelling around the world and on to the present day. Howard Ingham, who wrote the book on folk horror, features as one of the talking heads, possibly being the first voice heard in the film. The guys who set up the Folk Horror Revival group on Facebook also make an appearance.

The film is good but maybe goes on a bit. It loses focus a bit when it starts talking about folk horror from places other than Britain. That section felt a bit "Around the World in 88 Crazy Folk Beliefs", coming close to offering little more than a superficial listing of the films.

My sense of unease with the folk horror around the world section did get me thinking about what this folk horror stuff is all about. I lean towards the idea that is fundamentally a very British thing, based on the country, particularly England, having a continuous history that has rolled on for hundreds and hundreds of years without the disruption of invasion and the like. That sense of long history means there is a lot of past from which things can resurface. And despite the name, there is more to folk horror than horror featuring elements from folk traditions (e.g. leprechauns exist as threatening entities in Irish folk tales but Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood is not folk horror). Some of the non-British folk horror films in Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched did just seem to be taking some monster from folk traditions and having it eat people, which to me is not what true folk horror is about.

I also found myself taking issue with the claim by one of the commentators that folk horror asks "what if the old ways were right?". I don't think any of the great folk horror narratives pose that question. Rather they ask "what if there were nutters who believed the old ways are right?", e.g. people on a Scottish island who think that human sacrifice will guarantee an abundant harvest or East Anglian peasants who think that their neighbours are practising witchcraft and should be executed. Folk horror sometimes presents the followers of the old ways in an almost appealing manner, but you'd have to be a right weirdo to think that their ways are better than the ones science has to offer us.

That's a lot of grumbling and caveats from me, which is unfortunate and might give the wrong impression that I did not enjoy the film. It is a great piece of work and I think it functions well as both an introduction to the genre and something that triggers debate and thought for people who have more engagement with it. I think it is available on some online streaming patterns and possibly also DVD. I encourage people to seek it out. This might actually be a better film to see at home rather than in the cinema, as you may well find yourself wanting to note down films to check out later.

I nominated Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched in the Best Related Work category in this year's Hugo Awards, but it did not make it to the list of finalists, due to biased political voting.


The Unholy Trinity (The Kim Newman Website: "FrightFest review – Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched: A History of Folk Horror")

Warwick Davis and friend (Nathan Rabin's Happy Place: "Exploiting the Archives: Control Nathan Rabin: Leprechaun: Back 2 tha Hood")

Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched (Rotten Tomatoes)

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Nigel Kneale audio drama: "The Stone Tape" and "The Road"

These are two BBC radio adaptations from 2015 of much older teleplays by Nigel Kneale. They are not available to stream or download on the BBC's own website, but they can be found on shady websites like the Internet Archive or YouTube.

The Stone Tape

This one was adapted from Kneale's 1972 original by Peter Strickland (who also directs) and Matthew Graham. The basic set up is essentially the same as in Nigel Kneale's original: some scientists move into a Victorian mansion to do research and discover that it seems to be haunted; they stumble onto the "stone tape" theory of hauntings (that traumatic events of the past can somehow be recorded in their surroundings). And computer programmer Jill Greely (Jane Asher in the original, played this time by Romola Garai) seems to have a special sensitivity towards the ghostly manifestations.

If you've seen the TV drama then the way this one ends will probably not surprise you. What is maybe interesting is the way in which it deviates from the TV version. For one thing, it is set in 1979 rather than the early 1970s. Also the scientists are working on using sound waves in mining or something, rather than trying to make a breakthrough in recording technology. But the really striking difference for me is the lack of the original's all pervasive racism. I'm guessing that comes from the march of progress and a sense that having a play full of characters who make jokes about "the Japs" or their Irish employer would be a bit problematic in our more enlightened times. Yet it feels like a retreat, not because I am a colossal racist but because the original characters' racism struck me as a marker of weakness and unease on their parts, whether over having to take orders from an Irishman or the imminent destruction of their industry by Japanese competition.

Still, this remains an impressive work, thanks to strong direction and acting bringing out the best of the source material. The play also features striking electronic music by James Cargill of Broadcast and Children of Alice.

The Road

The TV version of this was broadcast in 1963, but no recordings of it survive. For this radio version, Toby Hadoke adapted Nigel Kneale's original script and Charlotte Riches directed. Actors included Mark Gatiss and Hattie Morahan. Set in 1768 this centres on an investigation of mysterious phenomena in a wood by the local squire (one of those gentleman scientist types, played by Adrian Scarborough) and a visiting urban philosopher (Gatiss); the philosopher seems to be carrying on with the squire's wife (Morahan), or maybe I am supposing too much here.

The phenomena being investigated see strange sounds manifesting in a local wood, but only on one night of the year. People report hearing unfathomable and disconcerting noises, but also the sound of screams and people in extreme terror. And a local girl reports that she also heard the sound of people moving over a paved roadway, even though the wood has been there since time immemorial. There are stories of Queen Boudicca's followers being massacred in the woods during Roman times; the squire thinks the sounds might be a stone tape echo of this but the philosopher dismisses such ideas as superstitious nonsense. He sees the supposed haunting as the product of over-active imaginations. It turns out both squire and philosopher are wrong: the actual nature of the haunting may surprise you. The ending packs a considerable punch; rather than spoil it I encourage readers to listen to the audio drama themselves.

Like everyone my age I have not seen the original television version of The Road, but I did find myself wondering how Toby Hadoke's version might have varied from the source material. My suspicion is that Nigel Kneale's philosopher probably did not have a West Indian former slave as a manservant, although it's not impossible that someone of his class at that time might have done. It pleased me that the drama presented 18th century race relations in a reasonably realistic manner and did not present us with a fantasy bollocks utopia version of such things (as seen in popular drama Bridgerton).


The Stone Tape (BBC)

The Road (BBC)

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

More BBC Audio Drama: "Broken Colours", "Who Is Aldrich Kemp?", "Siege"

These BBC audio dramas all came out earlier in 2022.

Broken Colours This one was written by Matthew Broughton, who wrote the brilliant Tracks, which ran for five series. This one begins with Jess (Holli Dempsey) suffering an injury when a demonstration turns into a riot. A passer by named Daniel (Josef Altin) brings her in for medical treatment. A romance blooms between them, despite their very different backgrounds, but Jess starts thinking there might be something a bit sketchy about Daniel. And then he disappears from her life and stops returning her calls. Obviously people are ghosted all the time, but there's a bit more to it here. The depiction of the shady world Daniel inhabits is fascinating, but so is Jess's own descent into problematic moral compromises. It's also good on how Daniel and Jess are attracted to each other, despite being from completely different worlds. All in all this is a strong piece of drama that I recommend engaging with.

You can listen to it here:

Who Is Aldrich Kemp?

New drama from Julian Simpson, who wrote those Lovecraft Investigation dramas. And an exciting whammy at the end of an early episode reveals that this actually overlaps with those. But unfortunately it is more like another episode of those not great Mythos-Glamis-Albion spy dramas than proper Lovecraftian spookiness. It's not really to my taste but I suspect I will still download the sequel when it comes out.

Don't believe the rumours:

Siege Now this is good. Written by Katherine Jakeways, Eno Mfon and Darragh Mortell, it is presented as a series of interviews with people who found themselves being held as hostages when a small-time crook's attempt to rob a convenience store goes badly wrong. The former hostages all have axes to grind and records to set straight, with the way they were previously presented in the media being a particular bone of contention; they also have their problems with each other. Thanks to a great ensemble cast and impressive direction from John Norton the format works really well. Siege is a great example of what can be achieved with audio drama.

Listen to it or download it here:

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

Audio Drama: "The Sink", "Body Horror", "Power Out", "Steelheads"

These are all BBC audio dramas that I listened to on lunchtime walks while working from home. Some are better than others.

Body Horror (2020)

This was written by Lucy Catherine, who also wrote Harland, which disappointed me. I liked this a bit more. It is set in the near future when the march of progress means it is now possible to perform full body transplants. The main character is a middle aged woman who is less than comfortable in her unfit overweight body. She wins the lotto and has her head grafted onto the body of a young woman who died in a tragic accident. She also has some kind of remould to de-age her face. So all is good. Except she starts feeling ghostly impressions of her new body's former owner. And she begins to hear suggestions that the body transplant clinic might have its own dark secrets.

I thought maybe this unfolded in a somewhat predictable manner, but for all that it was well made and packed a few punches as it rolled along. Try it for yourself and see what you think: Body Horror

Power Out (2020)

And this one is about a kid hacker who gets involved in a radical group who decide to bring down the UK national grid as a protest against environmental destruction or something. The characterisation is pretty good but I thought the kid hacker was portrayed too positively; the programme did not really engage with how many people would die or see themselves fall into destitution if the UK power grid was brought down. But you can listen to it yourself here.

Steelheads (2021)

This one starts off with an up and coming star tennis player who has an inoperable brain tumour. She agrees to be placed in suspended animation in the hope that the passage of time will mean that future science be able to cure her. But when she awakes, the world has gone to complete shit despite it being only a couple of years into the future.

It is by the same people who created The Cipher but is much better than that, with the plotting carrying things along in an enjoyably relentless manner while Jessica Barden is impressive as the lead. But when they finally reveal what has happened to the world I didn't really buy it. I found myself thinking that a problem with mystery dramas is that too often the writers make them up as they go along, coming unstuck when they have to pull an explanatory rabbit out of the hat.

Listen to it yourself here.

The Sink: A Sleep Aid (2020)

I have saved the best till last, and it is an odd one. Written by Natasha Hodgson and with creepy narration by Alice Lowe, it presents itself as being a kind of programme to help people sleep, combined with some kind of semi-scientific study of people's dreams. So it starts off with Alice Lowe talking about how worried she is about how the listener hasn't been sleeping too well lately and how we should sit back and let her help us, but then it switches into what seems to be re-enactments of people's dreams. At first these are bizarre but comic, with the kind of surreal logic found in real dreams. A writer finds himself being berated by an interviewer after he has written a book so big that it won't fit in his house. A couple go for a picnic in the woods in an attempt to save their troubled relationship but then encounter a man who has got stuck while taking part in a fun run in a "Sonic the Hog" costume; their efforts to help him trigger the destruction of their relationship. And so on. But the mood begins to shift, with things becoming noticeably more ominous when one guy asks another, "Did a bird man ever come to your school?" After that it becomes impossible to miss all the references to birds peppering the various dreams.

What it's all actually about remains a bit arcane but the journey is a fascinating one. And I find myself thinking that I should give it a re-listen while lying in bed falling asleep, letting it seep into my dreams. Maybe you should do that too, but be careful of the Bird Man.

One great thing I discovered subsequently is that back in 2012 Natasha Hodgson tweeted about how the Bird Man did actually come to her primary school. So clearly this drama was a long time hatching, making her an obsessive hero for our sleep deprived times.

Listen to it yourself here: Sweet dreams.