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Thursday, Jul 3, 2008
Heart of the Congos is generally regarded as the greatest reggae album ever. It isn’t. It’s better.

Part One
HalleluJAH: Heart of the Congos


Great art knows no seasons. Nevertheless, some music is made for—or at least can be fully appreciated during—specific times of the year. Reggae music, which many people still believe means Bob Marley’s music, tends to get broken out only once the flip flops and hibachi grills come out of hibernation. And so, since summer can be considered in full swing with the holiday weekend coming up, the time is right to talk about reggae. Where to begin? How about with the best.


Released in 1977, Heart of the Congos is generally regarded as the greatest reggae album ever (certainly the best roots reggae album). It isn’t. It’s better. While it would be neither accurate nor fair to call this a one and done masterwork, it’s beyond dispute that the Congos never again came close to the heights they reached here. It’s okay, no one else has either.


The ‘70s were, without question, the golden age of reggae, and aside from the ubiquitous (and, let’s face it, omnipotent) Bob Marley, no single figure loomed larger during this decade than Lee “Scratch” Perry. His own albums (as the Upsetter, with the Upsetters) are more than enough to secure his legacy, but it’s his work as the Dub Shepherd—producing everyone from a baby-faced Bob Marley to the mature Max Romeo—that seals the deal for his enshrinement. Although he had more immediate commercial and critical success with Party Time (The Heptones), War Ina Babylon (Max Romeo) and especially Police & Thieves (Junior Murvin), Heart of the Congos has come to be fully appreciated as his masterpiece—and the Rosetta Stone of roots reggae. While Perry’s patented production skills are in overdrive on everything he touched circa ‘76/’77, this is the one where everything went right.


(Sidenote: these 24-odd months are a veritable embarrassment of reggae riches, considering that the albums mentioned above, as well as Culture’s Two Sevens Clash and Right Time by the Mighty Diamonds, also dropped during this time. Not only was this a high-water mark for reggae, it’s always interesting—and instructive—to consider that this unsurpassed creativity was churning out of Jamaica while, stateside, prog rock sat, constipated on the sidelines as punk and disco duked it out on the dance floor.)


Heart of the Congos is a sufficiently suitable title, but this album could very plausibly have been called Back to the Future. It is an uncanny document that in every facet—lyrically, vocally, sonically—seems to be stretching into the past even as it strains toward the future. Where virtually any reggae album of this (or really, any) time has the expected—even obligatory—shout-outs to Jah and the invocations of Rastafarianism, Heart of the Congos dives even deeper into biblical texts and—crucially—the civilization that preceded Jamaica, and everything else in the west: Africa.


Send my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the world…


This line, from “Open up the Gate” crystallizes the powerful consciousness the Congos are tapping into here: in one line they capture the essence of both the Old Testament and Repatriation—from slaves to immigrants to artists. It is spoken (quoted) as the voice of God (literally), but more, the voice of memory, summarizing the story of our time on this planet.


Virtually any song could be singled out for analysis, but the second track, “Congoman” best represents the culmination of Perry’s—and the Congos’s—vision. This song, a timeline of history invoking “songs and psalms and voices”, is an effective, almost unsettling tapestry of deep cultural roots. This might be, if one were forced to choose, Perry’s ultimate achievement: listening to what he constructed in his (by today’s standards) primitive studio is breathtaking. This track (and the entire album) remains a living testament to the more natural, (if old-fashioned, and/or out of fashion) instinctive abilities of fingers, ears, brain and especially heart. Just as the most incredible effects can be manufactured with the click of a mouse in today’s movies, the technology certainly exists to embolden a million paint-by-number producers. In other words, what Perry did does not merely epitomize ingenuity from the oldest of schools, it stands apart as an honest, utterly human artifact.


“Congoman” brings all of Perry’s innovations into play: after an undulating beat unfolds with percussion, piano and bass setting a trance-like tone, all of a sudden an overdubbed refrain (heard repeatedly throughout the song) jars the moment: all sound ceases and it’s only the voices: “Out of Africa comes the Congoman”. It is at once eerie (or, Irie) and astonishing. With one masterstroke, Perry makes the composition future-proof: it is already deconstructed on the first go round: no mash-ups or remixes (then, now) are necessary, or even possible, since the first version is already reworked as a work in progress (and make no mistake: everyone with an MC or DJ before their name sprung forth from the tradition the mighty Upsetter originated). Perry takes what would have been a stirring, melodic and beautiful song and makes it richer, messier, more complicated, and inscrutably tantalizing: he transforms a masterpiece into a miracle. As the song unfolds it establishes the deepest of grooves (naturally, most of Perry’s regular posse is on hand here, including “Sly” Dunbar on drums, Ernest Ranglin on guitar and Boris Gardiner on bass), while Cedric Myton’s falsetto blends with Roy “Ashanti” Johnson’s tenor to cast their spell of longing and redemption. Perry’s production sounds like a remix already, providing a slightly disorienting tension between the push of straight ahead riddim and the pull of the echoing voices: Gregorian chants funneled through the heart of darkness into the light—a higher place, deeply spiritual yet entirely human. It is unlike anything you’ve ever heard, yet it’s somehow, impossibly, familiar.


We come with our culture to enlighten the world…


Any questions?


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Thursday, Jul 3, 2008

It’s been nearly six solid months of agony and waiting, speculation leading to momentary bouts of joy and sullen disbelief. With reliable information a rarity, fans had to use every ounce of their cautious constitution not to overreact. Then, suddenly, patience paid off. The announcement came - the gang at Cinematic Titanic were back, and they’ve brought along a real hackwork howler to foist upon us unsuspecting bad movie buffs. For those who don’t remember the origins of this Mystery Science Theater 3000-styled clone, here’s the scoop. Touted last winter as a welcome return to in-theater commentary comedy, Joel Hodgson reteamed with pals J. Elvis Weinstein and Trace Beaulieu. With the additional help of talented ex-MSTerions Mary Jo Pehl and Frank Conniff, their goal was to update the original concept and bring the fine art of mediocre movie ridicule back to the masses.


Along with Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy who carry on the defunct series’ traditions via their Rifftrax and Film Crew DVDs, this was the first time many in this group had participated in the format in over a decade. And after half a year, they have finally fashioned a follow-up. Devotees of the collective’s first direct to disc effort, the Al Adamson atrocity The Oozing Skull, wondered how the group would top that celluloid stinker. The answer? The Doomsday Machine, a reconfigured 1967 sci-fi slop job that has the bold faced filmmaking audacity to offer 75 minutes of Bobby Van, Denny Miller, Grant Williams, Ruta Lee, Mala Powers, and Henry Wilcoxon, only to disintegrate into footage shot four years later with none of the original cast.


See, the producers were clearly planning a major speculative epic, an end of the world wonder featuring the destruction of Earth, a hazardous journey into deep space, and an eventual colonization of Venus. Very much of the era - drive-in or otherwise. In the end, a lack of money meant they could only realize a small percentage of their goals. Stock footage replaced the planned F/X and corners were cut toward inventing the film’s future shock vision. Or maybe directors Lee Sholem and Harry Hope were just cheap, unimaginative bastards after all. The film frequently reeks of the Ed Wood School of incomprehensible narratives, the plot quickly de-evolving from a political crisis Apocalypse to an outer space swingers’ party in the blink of a cinema-schlock eye.


It’s 1976, and the world is on the brink of destruction. It seems the Chinese have developed a ‘Doomsday Machine’ located 700 miles below the planet’s surface. At the slightest provocation - which eventually arrives, though we never learn how or why - the Asian Reds will jumpstart the Earth’s core, causing the entire sphere to spontaneously combust. Of course, once the US and Russia get a whiff of this info, they decide to hijack a planned NASA mission to Venus and replace three of the more expendable astronauts with a few fetching astro-babes. Naturally, this goes over like gangbusters with everyone on the crew, except for the highly strung Major Kurt Mason. One look at skirt and he goes from persnickety pain in the ass to psycho-pseudo rapist.


The rest of the motley crew, including foxy flight surgeon Marion Turner, Russian space queen Georgiana Bronski, slightly unhinged meteorologist (and Mason victim) Katie, wisecracking New “Yawker” Danny, and surfer stud boy Colonel Don Price take their part in the procreation quite well. They don’t mind being passengers on this knotty Noah’s Ark, even if the tempers are flaring as often as the hormones. Eventually, people die, analog computer calculations are made, sacrifices are discussed, and one of those Planet of the Apes trick endings is attempted. No, it wasn’t all a simulation or an intricate NASA experiment. It turns out that if Soviet scientists had paid a bit more attention to the previous failed missions to the second closest planet to the sun, they may have discovered a few ‘collective consciousness’ warning signs along the way.


A long time staple of the breast-ically endowed Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, The Doomsday Machine is a miserable bit of motion picture sickness. Its mood swings are so rampant - serious space saga to stale soap operatics to mean-spirited misogyny - that teen girls are jealous of its irritability. Any film that feels Bobby “Mr. Elaine Joyce” Van and Ruta “HSN Diet Spray” Lee can sell its tech spec sketchiness is definitely dunderheaded. To make matters worse, the four years in the making finale, clearly fashioned out of whatever Sholem and Hope had lying around, has the cajones to recast the important players. As a result, there is at least 15 minutes of pointless stasis as well hidden extras with non-compatible voices try fervently to connect the material and make everything seem meaningful and deep. It ends up rendering the already retarded movie even more insipid.


For the Cinematic Titanic collective, The Doomsday Machine marks a MST3K Season 4 level challenge. At one point, Frank Conniff states exasperatedly that this experience is like “watching someone else watching Manos: The Hands of Fate”.  There is an instance when the cast completely clams up, the inability to quip on the inanity they’re witnessing overwhelming even their own masterful mirth making. The rest of the time, their material is spot on, joke after joke hitting the painful plotholes and destitute acting dead on. Hodgson is rather quiet this time around, letting Weinstein, Beaulieu, and Pehl do a lot of the heavy humor lifting. There is one classic moment when Mary Jo stops the film (a developing CT gimmick) to discuss the crisis fallback plan should the group have to decide on who lives and who dies, but overall, there is little of the skit-oriented filler that accented the previous series.


We do get a little more insight into the whole Cinematic Titanic protocol, however. At the very opening of the presentation, two workers discuss the upcoming installment with the cast. We discover that the plan is for the individuals present to record these episodes for “posterity” depositing the final results in a ‘time tube’ for future generations to enjoy. Oddly similar to the Film Crew conceit (adding commentary to all the movies known to man, even the horrible ones), it opens up the entire experience to limitless possibilities. One assumes that, after they get a handle on how to successfully market and maximize their self-sales and distribution network, Cinematic Titanic will become a regular cult commodity.


And as long as they deliver stellar satire like the kind found in The Doomsday Machine, there’s no reason to worry. Fans familiar with the group’s retro-revisionism will find nothing but treasure here, while those new to the whole MST/CT situation should be instantly won over. Way back in the ‘80s, when Hodgson teamed up with Murphy and producer Jim Mallon to produce some local UHF programming for Minneapolis, Minnesota television, they could have never envisioned two decades of celluloid send-ups. While purists wait for the day when all camps make nice and come up with a combined effort to bring everyone back into a single spoofing whole, we’ll have to settle for segmented brilliance. And with Cinematic Titanic, this cast of creative geniuses is back in big style. 


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Wednesday, Jul 2, 2008
by PopMatters Staff

Hellboy II: The Golden Army, directed by Guillermo del Toro, opens 11 July in the US. We’re big fans of del Toro’s work at PopMatters, having awarded Pan’s Labyrinth a rare 10 and the del Toro production of The Orphanage an 8. Check out stills from the film and a trailer…




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Wednesday, Jul 2, 2008

While Jason Bateman spends the morning dishing with MTV about the “bent and twisted” script that may one day become the Arrested Devlopment movie, his Arrested co-star Henry Winkler is on the road in the UK getting Brit-kids into books.


Winkler is in London promoting his Hank Zipzer series of books featuring a 10-year-old protagonist with dyslexia. His tour of London schools as a representative of the First News for Young Minds group kicked off at St. Matthews Church of England School in Westminster. UK Schools Secretary Ed Balls was on hand to help Winkler in promoting 2008 as the UK’s National Year of Reading.


Winkler is quoted in the Epsom Guardian discussing his objective with the Zipzer stories: “Just because we learn differently, that does not mean that we are not incredibly smart human beings. That’s something I need every child to understand.”


The Hank Zipzer novels boast some great titles like I Got a ‘D’ in Salami!, The Curtain Went Up, My Pants Fell Down, and Barfing in the Backseat: How I Survived my Family Roadtrip. The latest (they’re up to 14!) came out in May. It’s called The Life of Me: Enter at Your own Risk and features Hank putting together a memoir-scrapbook while dealing with the ups and downs of a major crush. They’re published by Penguin.


Winkler takes on the Independent‘s “5-minute Interview” here.


 


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Wednesday, Jul 2, 2008
Excited as anybody by the upcoming DS re-release of Chrono Trigger, I'm curious as to what makes it such a well-regarded and influential game.

Did you hear?  Did you?  Chrono Trigger is coming out for the Nintendo DS.  Chrono Trigger!


Of course, anyone who has witnessed Square Enix’s recent track record when it comes to re-releasing their old RPGs and still happens to be surprised by this isn’t really paying attention.  Chrono Trigger, which gained the majority of its notoriety as a classic RPG for the Super Nintendo, has already been re-released once, as part of Final Fantasy Chronicles for the original PlayStation, complete with a few bonus cutscenes created for the purpose of giving the included games a reason to live on the PlayStation.


Like a lot of kids who were just getting in to the whole “video games” thing in a big way during the time of the SNES, I simply didn’t notice Chrono Trigger amidst a sea of Final Fantasy games; my time with the SNES was limited as I didn’t own one, and the only RPGs that I ever played at my friends’ houses were variations on the Final Fantasy name (II/IV, III/VI, Secret of Mana and so on).  Phantasy Star was my drug of choice, RPG-wise, and Chrono Trigger barely registered a tick on my still developing hype meter.


As such, despite the fact that Square Enix might just be releasing another port for the sake of a quick buck at the hands of a ravenous fan base (most recently exemplified by The Brainy Gamer’s assembly of his RPG class syllabus and the drooling posts from some of the major blogs), I’m pretty excited about this, as it’s the first time I’m seeing Chrono Trigger during a time in which I’m actually likely to care (the PlayStation re-release came and went while I was transitioning from Nintendo 64 to PS2, unfortunately).


My question, then, is this:  What makes Chrono Trigger better than, say, Final Fantasy IV?  Or VII, for that matter?  Why should I play Chrono Trigger ahead of more advanced fare developed specifically for the DS, like the Pokémon games or Atlus’ Rondo of Swords?  It’s obviously an influential and beloved game, but why?  Or would it be better, at this point, to be surprised?


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