All My Demons Greet Me: The Music of Aurora

Damien Shalley takes his civic duties very seriously; that’s why he votes multiple times during elections. He is a very responsible driver and is not currently wanted in three states, no matter what you’ve heard. He was recently amazed to learn that the TV series VEEP is not a documentary. His hobbies include involving himself in home handyman-related accidents and reblogging internet memes. He is currently working on a screenplay for an action sequel to Christ’s resurrection story called “Jesus 2: The Revenge”. So far, he has no takers.

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ALL MY DEMONS GREET ME

The Music of AURORA

by D. Shalley

You should find the conqueror in yourself first, and be your own hero. If you stand strong, then you will stand for a bit longer.  AURORA

 

Bergen, Norway is the epicentre of, well – nothing at all.  Dead snow and dirty ground – Norwegians have the monopoly on that.  Arctic twilights – long periods of cold, semi-darkness known by locals as “freezing moons” – they have them too.  “Democratic socialism” – they have that as well; Scandinavians are very big on government.  Norwegians pay tax rates typical of European cradle-to-grave welfare states – up to 78 per cent. (Go democratic socialism!)  They also pay €22 euro for a pint of beer at the pub, have prisons featuring taxpayer-funded public art and experience one the highest rates of suicide in the western world – approximately 12-14 suicides per 100,000 inhabitants.  (In other Scandinavian countries such as Finland, the official 2014 suicide rate was 26 per 100,000 – worse than war-torn African countries like Burundi – go democratic socialism!)  Simply put, the Nordic peoples are not exactly known for their light-hearted verve.

Norwegians really proved this point in the 1980’s by spawning the astounding musical phenomenon known as “Death Metal”.  Now normalised into the mainstream (or semi-mainstream), this alarming music – which sounds somewhat like gurgling vomit – is as significant to their cultural life as the export of North Sea crude oil is to their economic life. This spookily malevolent musical form has actually been granted “cultural protection” status by the government.  (The national murder rate increases during Norwegian “freezing moons”, but I have a secret theory that the country’s icy murderers also have death metal playing on their iPods).  Regardless, the chaotic and anti-social sounds of death metal remain an internationally recognised musical motif of the country.   Oh those happy-go-lucky Norwegians!

Music is subjective of course and death metal could well be described as an acquired taste – like Eddie McGuire.  Yet death metal isn’t all that these lovers of fermented fish can produce. (By the way, Norwegian fermented fish is called “Rakfisk” – the fish are left in buckets with whey solution for up to a year without cooking and then canned for distribution.  The heads are included.  You’re welcome!)  These fermented food lovers (and don’t even get me started on Scandinavian fermented sheep heads, which are a real thing) have recently sent a wondrous musical incarnation from Bergen to appreciative fans around the world.  Perhaps in an attempt to counter their deathly musical predilections (and their horrifying taste in food), the Norwegians are currently exporting an angelic cascade of pop from a quirky new performer.  Outrageous taxes, awful food, bone-chilling weather and the infinite smallness of life in Norway – none of it matters when you hear her charming tunes.  Ladies and gentlemen, please be upstanding (and put down your Rakfisk!) for singer-song writer AURORA.

 

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AURORA

Aurora Aksnes (she calls herself AURORA, in CAPITALS – hey, I don’t make the rules;) first came to mainstream attention in 2015, although she had been releasing music in her homeland for two years prior.  She is a genuine musical artist, not a record company robot.  Her career began in the most inauspicious way possible – performing in front of students at her local high school.  Taken by her compositions, a fellow student asked her for an mp3 of some of her songs and uploaded it to social media.  Shortly thereafter, a local record label started taking interest.  Labels in other countries started noticing too.  So did audiences.  This natural progression to success proves that talent speaks, even in the age of Little Mix.

AURORA’s beautiful 2015 cover version of “Half the World Away” really put this pixie-ish entertainer in the picture.  It sounded to me like an angel had left the celestial realm and landed in my sound system.  It was quirky, but it was beautiful.  There was genuine talent on display.  Oasis originally brought the song to prominence, but AURORA’s version is better.  (The Gallagher brothers did it well of course, just differently).  AURORA reinvented the song and added a soulful depth to the track that really makes the lyrics resonate.  This pleasing musical experience – at Christmas time no less, when I was already feeling sentimental – led me to start investigating the AURORA repertoire.  Would I find other hidden gems?  I was not disappointed.  (Noel and Liam’s opinions remain indeterminate).

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“Half the World Away” Digital Single Cover (2015)

Exploration revealed another two previously released AURORA singles – “Awakening” (her teenage debut) and “Under Stars”.  These are from 2013 and 2014 – you can find them on Vevo.  They are interesting because the essence of her talent is clearly evident, however the style and sound are not quite as evolved.  “Awakening” is very languid but still obviously AURORA. “Under Stars” is very electro, lyrically vague but quite catchy – an emphatic, modern pop track.

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        Young AURORA.

AURORA released her first EP “Running with the Wolves” in 2015, with tracks also streaming on Spotify.  Discovering it belatedly, I was immediately drawn to the track “Runaway”.  Spare yet tuneful, coldly beautiful and so very Norwegian – this is classic AURORA.  The song “Running with the Wolves” itself is also superb – moody and understated – with a vibe slightly reminiscent of Massive Attack.  “Awakening” and “Under Stars” also appear here.  AURORA toured with this release and developed a reputation as a solid live performer.  The track “Runaway” became a live favourite and also reappeared later on her debut album.

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AURORA performing live in an “intimate” setting.

AURORA played major music festivals in the US and Europe in 2015 and 2016, delivering her tunes (and idiosyncratic dance moves) to wider audiences.  Her live performances at the South by Southwest festival in March 2016 were particularly appealing – as if a tuneful, blonde fairy had escaped from a fjord with a synthesizer and a bold determination to entertain.

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AURORA performing live on the festival circuit.

Her first full length album, “All My Demons Greeting Me as a Friend”, was released in 2016.  The obvious singles from the album are the radio-friendly “Conqueror” and the practised pop track “Warrior”, both of which go over wonderfully well live.  The “All My Demons Greeting Me as a Friend” album is a solid effort for a young artist.  I enjoyed “Conqueror” so much when I watched her romping performance on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” that I downloaded it immediately and played it incessantly. On my balcony.  At 11:00 pm. Having annoyed residents far and wide (if not half the world away; I have a 1200 watt sound system) I am still completely unrepentant about this incident.  What can I say? It’s that kind of song.

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Cover of AURORA’s album “All My Demons Greeting Me as a Friend” (2016)

The LP also delivered some other tunes that were noteworthy, but for different reasons.   “Murder Song (5, 4, 3, 2, 1)” is weird and alarming.  It’s AURORA channelling Bjork channelling Nick Cave.  It’s a folk-ish track about a girl coming to peace with her murderer, and it’s either the most evocative piece of musical poetry you’ll hear or the worst case of Stockholm Syndrome ever imagined.  This ominous song makes people nervous. I mean actual, grown-up people – real adults with jobs and houses and taxation issues.  They get scared. It’s distressingly good.

“Winter Bird” is a subdued track about Nordic melancholy and the fact that a stoic exterior can well hide a heavy heart (you’d be depressed too if you had to eat fermented fish all winter).  It’s a slow-burner about Norwegian coldness permeating the senses.  AURORA provides some wonderfully delicate vocal intonations during the song, allowing one to forgive her somewhat clichéd lyrics.  (Well, she’s still only nineteen).

An expanded version of the “All My Demons…” album is also available, featuring some additional acoustic tracks and the “Half the World Away” single.  She has recently also covered David Bowie’s “Life on Mars”, imbuing the track with a different, softer kind of melancholy.

 

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The butterfly motif.

Why is AURORA so good?  In this time-poor world, why should anyone spend even a moment of his or her life exploring the AURORA oeuvre?  Is it the extraordinary, Halsey-ish quality of her vocals? Halsey’s “Badlands” album is wonderful, but it is very much a commercial product, with glittering production and a sheen that is clearly designed to move “units”.  Maybe it’s AURORA’s profoundly moving and insightful lyrics?  Melanie Martinez writes fantastic lyrics too, but one can’t help hearing record company executives in the background of her tracks urging her to sass it up whilst they check the corporate stock price on their smart phones.  Is it perhaps the freak factor – Norwegians make pop music?  Of course they do – what about Bjork?  (Oh, that’s right – Bjork’s from Iceland. Close enough though).  Is it because she’s quixotic and weirdly cute and often seems quite confused?  Is it because she seems so vulnerable, like a newly-emerged butterfly drying its wings?  Is it all of these put together?  All I know is that I like what I hear. You probably will too.

Here are three AURORA tracks that I DARE you to hate. It won’t take more than a moment of your time to learn the truth.

“Conqueror” (Live) “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon”, NYC, 2016

Performing “Conqueror” on “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon” (2016)

Her live performance of this track on Jimmy Fallon’s “The Tonight Show” is incredible.  This is sublime pop music; supremely expressive, quirkily optimistic, wildly catchy and wonderfully uplifting.  Her dance moves in this performance are insane – and insanely good.

 

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“Conqueror” digital single (2016)

“Warrior” (Audio).  Sublime pop perfection emerging from iced earth – that’s what I hear.

“Warrior” digital single imagery (2016)

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“Under Stars”.

She was sixteen when she wrote this track.  Enough said.  (There is also a live version of this song that sounds somewhat different, find it here:

AURORA performing “Under Stars” live in London, 2015.

AURORA is pop, but she’s so much more as well.  Her mystique derives from authenticity.  She has the ability to write great tunes, but also to the ability to capture the essence of a song as she sings it.  She is transfixing, she is transformative, she is vibrant and she is joyous.  She is playful, yet purposeful.  She shows no signs so far of being influenced by musical trends or corporate objectives.

A true musical artist wouldn’t give two sh*** about fame and that’s why we love AURORA.  She sings because she loves too, not because she wants to shock the impressionable into buying her music.  AURORA is a beautiful singer and I hope she keeps doing her thing because she will have loyal fans and in my book that’s more important than mass followings. (You Tube user “Darren”, 2016)

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AURORA is currently on tour in Europe and playing to sold-out houses.  She has only just begun her journey as a musical artist, but hopefully it will be a long and successful one.  I will definitely be along for this Nordic aural adventure (minus the fermented fish).

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Rogue Male Attends Christmas Carols

After a brief hiatus it is with pleasure that Damien Shalley blogs again for Bear Skin, this time with something a little more personal. A Christmas reflection.

Rogue Male Attends Christmas Carols

by Damien R. Shalley, Esq.

for N.W.

Last Saturday I awoke at 3:47 pm feeling mighty used, having spent the previous day and night attempting to prove that a person can be sustained exclusively on fermented malt beverages. (Fun fact: You can, until you lose consciousness). I can usually manage to stumble out of bed by the crack of noon after a big session on the stagger juice, so even for me this was a grand anti-achievement. I popped a Berocca and some Nurofen Plus and attempted to reintegrate my synapses. I had a vague feeling that I was supposed to be doing something on this day, but my addled cerebellum wouldn’t reveal this secret knowledge. So I moved to my default position whilst in this condition – oblivious ignorance – whilst wallowing in self-pity and emitting quiet whimpering noises.

I hit the shower for an extended water therapy session. I revived enough to realise that I had forgotten to take off my socks. (Oh well, they needed a wash). The water was soothing but I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was required to be doing something else other than rehydrating whilst curled up in the foetal position on tiles of my shower bay. On the plus side, my socks were now very clean. I lay there until the throbbing in my head had reduced to a low-key drumming. The dullness in my corpus abated to the extent that I could reach for and open the shampoo bottle without risking heart failure. Small mercies. I continued to absorb the H2O for an extended period and eventually relieved my H2 woe. I exited the shower on my hands and knees and blow-dried my socks whilst still wearing them. (Incidentally, this resulted in remarkably fluffy and comfortable socks – I would recommend this technique to the hung over). Now I was ready to face the day, despite the fact that the day was pretty much over.

At this point my resolute nausea was weirdly challenged by a desire to eat something. Food, I thought, might provide a nice counterbalance to the strange percolations that were occurring in my stomach – an organ only marginally less abused than my liver. Experts recommend eating a healthy, low-fat meal after a hangover to help one’s body cleanse toxins. Phooey! I hadn’t listened to expert advice about how to avoid a hangover, so I wasn’t going to listen to expert advice about how to treat a hangover. (I know this is circular logic, but hey, I had a hangover!) I proceeded to fix myself two fried eggs on toast. With greasy bacon. And a lot of sauce. Tempting fate much? I am not a chef and there are two things that always ring true about my culinary exploits: 1. Nothing cooked by me tastes any good, and; 2. I’m not kidding. My meal was average at best but at least it quietened my bubbling gastric system. In the back of my mind I still felt that I had forgotten something. I retired to my favourite leather recliner to give serious consideration to this dilemma – and promptly fell asleep. Food always makes me sleepy, and in my weakened state I entered the land of nod without resistance. Blissful slumber ensued – for a while.

Two loud beeps broke though the arc of snoozy zzz’s emanating from my reclining body. That’d be my phone, I thought as I returned from unconscious oblivion. I had previously forgotten to check this device because I was preoccupied with my own misery and because I secretly resented the way it ruined my naps. After fumbling with the insidious creation, a text message from a friend revealed itself. “Don’t forget Carols tonight at church, biggest night of the year! Be there by 6:00!

Uh-oh, Christmas Carols! That is what I had forgotten to remember! Caroling is not supposed to send chills of fear through one’s body but my friend is pretty demanding and if I was late to these festivities there’d be a passive-aggressive price a pay. Luckily for me it was only around 4:30 pm, right? Wrong! It was 5:25pm, I’d been away with the pixies (or Christmas elves in this case) for an hour! I grabbed some previously worn “going out” clothes from the floor of my bedroom which were crinklier than my Grandma (luckily I didn’t to find socks – serendipity!) and splashed on a lot more cologne than I should have to improve my freshness factor. And so, smelling like an accident in a Lynx factory, I proceeded to my destination. Almost.

My trusty car picked this critical moment not to start. Arrggghhhh! I popped the bonnet and found, well, an engine. I don’t know too much about cars, but my old man always told me to check your points and battery connections first if the vehicle is playing up. I retrieved my trusty red toolbox from the boot and proceed to fumble around. I tightened a loose battery connection and the engine turned over. Dad was right about something for once! A Christmas miracle! I threw my trusty red toolbox onto the front passenger seat and hightailed it to the church.

I usually drive defensively but sometimes the best defence is a good offense, so I ducked and weaved through indecisive motorists noodling through the local streets until I hit the motorway. Unnecessarily singing “Get Your Motor Running” by Steppenwolf, I made great time until, a few minutes into my run, I felt an unmistakeable urge. Maybe it was the previous dodgem’ car antics that had upset my stomach, maybe it was the hangover treatment of eggs and bacon, maybe I was worried about disappointing my friend – but man, did I have to throw up! Oh no! The urge was overwhelming and there was no time to pull over. The only thing my addled brain could think about was not vomiting on my clothes. Nobody wants to attend carols looking and smelling like the local alcoholic hobo. There was only one thing I could do. I grabbed my toolbox, flipped the latch and, well – hurled into it. Recalling Jim Morrison’s warning to “Keep your eyes on the road, your hands upon the wheel”, I managed to time my paroxysms to unpleasant intervals in between rapid-fire scans of the road ahead. The expulsions, amazingly, resulted in no unpleasant residues on my clothes. The same cannot be said for my toolbox. I threw it back on the passenger seat and pressed onward at speed.

I arrived at the church with a few minutes to spare but couldn’t find a park in the car park. Or in a side street. Or on a side road. The entire population of northern Brisbane was apparently attending this event. So I ventured down to a dimly lit local park. This less-than salubrious locale didn’t even have a name like most parks do, just a sign that read “No Dumping”. I pulled onto the grass in what may not have been a breach of 21 local by-laws and jumped out of my seat. Some shifty-looking teenagers were loitering around a bench on the other side of the park. I told myself that all teenagers look shifty, abandoned my car to the will of the universe for the evening and entered into a slow jog (very slow considering my condition) towards the place of worship and tunes. Halfway to the venue, I remembered that I hadn’t locked my car. Too late, too bad, I thought and continued toward salvation.

Whist negotiating a swampy miasma at the edge of the park which appeared to exist in order to prevent the unworthy (i.e. me) from entering the church – and muddying my boots in the process – I received another text message. “You idiot, where are you?” It was 6:02pm. Assuming that the word “idiot” was a term of endearment, I responded. “Nearly there, a minute away”. I was expecting to be congratulated for this achievement. I was disappointed. “You know I’m the sound tech for tonight, right? Busy all night, I won’t see you at all. Should have got here earlier, idiot!” (Idiot again. Must really like me).   In fairness, this probably was not new information. I did have a vague recollection of something like this being mentioned previously, but I had forgotten. What can I say, I drink. I extracted myself from the swamp and continued forward to the sing-along, arriving muddied, befuddled and just in time to be late. The celebration had begun. Music wafted over my sweating brow and passed through the air above the fetid mash I had just escaped.

I grabbed a song book and infiltrated the crowd in a vain attempt to show my friend that I had arrived against great odds. I was immediately struck by the fact that nobody in sight was alone. The place was packed with families, couples young and old, extended collections of relatives, groups of excited children performing boogie-woogie moves. I was truly a rogue male in this milieu.   Rogue males are not welcome in places with multitudes of children, and can often find themselves subject to unwelcome scrutiny from “proper” adults. (We are welcome at dinner parties though, and regularly get set up with somebody’s unmarried female cousin who has worked in the Bureau of Statistics or some such fascinating entity for the last twelve years whist being treated intermittently for spastic colon). My move towards front of stage was thwarted by a large and particularly enthusiastic assemblage of primary school-aged children dressed as elves. (I would later learn that they were to be part of the night’s stage entertainment. For a while there I thought I was experiencing DT’s from all the booze). I took this as a sign and implemented Plan B – strategic retreat.

The rear of the arena was actually not such a bad location to spend an evening. I have a singing voice roughly akin to an angry walrus and the term “tone deaf” was invented specifically for me. So it was quite refreshing to find an area of respite, both for myself and fellow participants who didn’t have to listen to my tonal dissonance. I staked out some territory near a sound mixing desk (no sign of my friend here either) and got my groove on.

The first carol of the evening had been a traditional religious song, nicely performed by the church choir and a live band. The next performance however, was a dance routine by some hip youngsters tightly choreographed to a funky Justin Bieber tune. I was not aware that anything Justin Bieber has ever produced constituted a carol. (I was not aware that anything Justin Bieber has ever produced constituted music). I made a mental note that I secretly hated this song. The kids in the audience were enraptured. What do I know?

“Hear the Angels Voices” arrived next, with lyrics projected via digital teletron. The words “Fall to your knees” precede the chorus lyric of this carol – I was ready to do just that at this stage because my hangover was telling me that I really needed some fluids. At this point I contemplated an excursion to the nearest 7-11 store for a litre of Gatorade, but my exit strategy was thwarted by an assemblage of performers behind me who were preparing to run toward the stage costumed as the “ghosts of Christmas past”. I felt that I was in grave danger of becoming a ghost at this point so poorly did I feel, but I stuck it out and, unbelievably, started to feel really uplifted by the performances. The songs were (mostly) familiar – Bieber be damned – and the tradition of gathering together to celebrate something as joyous as Christmas is beautiful. This is collective memory writ large, and what a beautiful memory to have. The whole occasion had an aspect to it that – dare I say it – was holy.

The night’s official festivities went on for two hours. Carols and songs, both old and new, lifted spirits. The band was tight, the lighting was spectacular, the performers were elegant and the assembled families (plus one rogue male) were entertained. This really is the way to experience Christmas.

After the event I finally caught up with my friend. We laughed together about my dumb exploits prior to arrival and made plans to meet up again soon. Christmas wishes were exchanged, and I then beat a retreat to retrieve my vehicle and get home to bed (and painkillers). As I approached my car, I noticed that something didn’t look quite right. As I got closer, I could see that the mirror on the driver’s side of the vehicle had been torn off. It was lying on the ground beside the car. “Damn kids, I thought. They’ve vandalised my car!” The driver’s side window was missing too. Parts of the shattered remnants, still held together by tinting film, were sitting on the driver’s seat. I opened the UNLOCKED door (guys, you didn’t have to break in) and surveyed the scene. They had stolen, along with some other small items, my trusty red toolbox! I don’t know whether it was the joy of the night’s carols, the Christmas spirit in general, or my hangover forcing me to prioritise my concerns, but I just couldn’t help laughing out loud. “Boy are they going to get a surprise when they open that!”

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If you would like to guest blog for Bear Skin please message me on jennifer@bearskin.org

Folkenroth Fever

We are pleased to share this next guest blog by Damien Shalley. 

Damien Shalley enjoys breathing the cold air of solitude – as long as he’s got some company whilst doing so.  He’d hang an original Folkenroth in his apartment if he could afford one – an original Folkenroth or an apartment.

If you have a piece to submit to Bear Skin please don’t hesitate to contact me at jennifer@bearskin.org

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Folkenroth Fever!

by

Damien Shalley

 

The dull corpus of your Bear Skin correspondent was infected by a fever in the mid 2000’s, a fever which to date has not been cured.  No, not Influenza “A” or “B”, but something heretofore unknown called Influenza “F”.  “F” for Folkenroth – Caroline Folkenroth, to be precise.  This utterly underrated artist (married name Taulbee) first made her presence felt in the early noughties and by mid-decade was regarded by art commentators as one of the then ascendant “New Gothics”.

With her modernist works depicting a stylised and sometimes confronting take on female beauty (and her later, somewhat alarming surrealist pieces depicting abject despair – or her version of it at least), Folkenroth enjoyed a degree of success due to the relative accessibility of her painted imagery.  You didn’t need to be an art scholar to appreciate the emotions present in her work – she seemed to transfer her feelings directly to the canvas for viewers to experience directly.  Her pieces possess a wondrous feminine elegance.  And of course, some have been controversial – but not for the reasons you might think.

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“Mermaid”

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Too obvious? – “Water of Life”

Folkenroth’s early pieces were defined by an obvious folk art style that some critics suggested was deliberate – a commentary on art snobbery or at the very least a pre-meditated ploy to create ripples of controversy with “outsider art” that would ultimately lead her to wider recognition.  Others with less kind assessments suggested that her style was the unfortunate result of a lack of training –artistic naiveté.  It is difficult to look at “Delphian Waters” and not agree.  (Folkenroth did have some formal training but is largely self-taught).

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Folkenroth fail – “Delphian Waters”

She also commonly utilised fantastical themes at this time – fantasy is prevalent in this phase of her artistic journey – but was also accused by some of relying on clichés.  “Oh Caroline, no!”  What’s a girl to do girl?  Well…

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“A Simple Sight for Sore Eyes”

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As her self-awareness grew, Folkenroth’s work took on a new tone and complexity. In the mid 2000’s her output took a sudden, feverishly exciting turn guaranteed to put critics into a flat spin.  Her whimsical, lightly-coloured, quietly emotional art took a sharp left turn into oppressively sombre black and grey surrealism and warning-sign red nightmare images.  And it’s great!  She delivered some truly striking and often unnerving works.  The critics took a second look, the galleries clamoured for her pieces and the art world’s “Lilith” faction adopted her as a cause célèbre.  The viewing public were energised and inspired, and Folkenroth was knocking on the door of art world fame.  And then…nothing.  (Well, nothing much).

Art – modern art in particular – can be as fickle a business as pop music.  Trends come and go, and those in the right place at the right time get to ride the wave – for a while.  Unless your career is well-managed (like Damien Hirst’s, whom some might argue is more “managed” than it is “material”), you can flounder.  For whatever reason, Folkenroth never hit her stride and never succeeded in the way that many felt she could have.

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Folkenroth faded to a very significant degree after her mid 2000s peak and has most recently taken up sculpture.  Some of her works – she is fond of smiling angels – are very technically accomplished and as evocative as her best paintings.  (She also works in wax to a lesser extent).  Folkenroth has had involvement with A.R.T Research Enterprises – a bronze sculpture foundry working closely with the arts community to deliver highly technically accomplished sculptural capabilities.  Her paintings and her sculpted works almost never appear together though and must be sought out seperately.  The Lilith Gallery in Toronto, Canada holds a significant collection of her paintings, ensuring public access to her legacy pieces.  Folkenroth prides herself on having created her own “stylized visual language” as she call it and continues to work towards creating “a visually beautiful, sensual, and emotional euphoric experience” for viewers of her pieces.  Let’s hope she keeps doing just that.  Ultimately, what her artistic future holds is anyone’s guess, but we’ll always have her remarkably evocative early efforts to contemplate and to remind us that the ethereal female mystique will beguile artists forever.

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Welcome to “Byzantium”

We’re pleased to share another guest blog by the ever popular Damien Shalley. He introduces himself here:

Damien Shalley sometimes confuses armadillos with peccadilloes, usually when he’s had too much Tempranillo.  He wishes that Kanye West would just come out of his shell a little.  If he was a rapper, he’d call himself “Daddy Cruel”. He would like to thank whoever invented yoga pants.  He would not like to thank whoever invented Pimento Loaf.   He knows who the real Slim Shady is, but he’ll never tell.

If you would like to contribute a guest blog to Bear Skin, please don’t hesitate to email me at jennifer@bearskin.org

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Welcome to “Byzantium”

by Damien Shalley

(for ‘Josie’)

 

Byzantium was an ancient city founded by the Greeks, the origins of which are shrouded in legend.  A wealthy city at the nexus of Asian-European trade, it was conquered by the Romans (who called it Constantinople), and conquered again by the Ottoman Turks, who made it the capital of their empire.  Today it is called Istanbul and vestiges of its’ ancient power and forgotten glories remain.  It is a city that has existed throughout modernity; a city that has seen prosperity, a city that has seen blood and violence, a city that has seen the vicissitudes of existence.

Perhaps that is why Irish director Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game”, “Interview with the Vampire”, “Ondine”) chose Byzantium as the name of his 2012 vampire film, starring the beguiling Gemma Arterton and talented Irish newcomer Saoirse Ronan.  Jordan examines the time-worn, desolate existence of a mother and daughter vampire duo living part of their hope-free eternity at the Byzantium guesthouse in a desolate English seaside town.  The central theme of this film is emptiness – the infinite emptiness resulting from perpetual exclusion from salvation.  Jordan shows us convincingly – and in gloriously lush style – that the true fate of a vampire is isolation from everything that is good.  This isn’t the famous Ms. Meyer’s “Twighlight”. (Thankfully).

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Jordan’s film has been described as a meditation on family, life, love and death.  It is all of those things and more, wrapped up in stylish visuals and a well-known concept with appeal to audiences.  Gemma Arterton plays Clara, a mysterious, hardworking lady of the evening (literally).  She is on the lamb, running from mysterious men whose role in the proceedings becomes clearer as the film progresses.  Clara is provided with information by one of her clients about a run-down old seaside guesthouse called the “Byzantium” which she decides might be a safe (and productive) home base.  Saoirse Ronan plays Eleanor, Clara’s daughter, a particularly “unsweet” 16 year old with a somewhat philosophical bent, who enrols in a local school after moving to her new coastal home,  and who mortifies her teachers with a writing assignment detailing her centuries of existence and her need to prey on unsuspecting souls to survive.  Together, the two women work in tandem to defeat (or temporarily deny) the goal of their pursuers.  As the film progresses, we are witness to flashbacks which flesh out the story and offer insight into the two women and their current predicament at the “guesthouse at the end of the world”.

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There is a mournful aspect to these women – their relationship features many familiar mother-daughter dynamics, and Clara genuinely loves Eleanor – but ultimately they are both doomed.  Eleanor has a thoughtful disposition and dispatches her victims with a sense of melancholy.  She also feels a certain disdain for her mother’s more “scattershot” approach to predation.   The more experienced Clara has weathered centuries of interactions with humanity and is much less conscientious about her victims.  The two women are inseparable though, due to their family bond and their condition.  Love knows no boundaries, even for the undead.

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The screenplay for “Byzantium” was written by Moira Buffini, adapting her successful play “A Vampire Story” for movie audiences.  Her work examines the lonely routine of the vampire and the very un-“Twilight” concept that there is nothing glamorous about vampirism.  Director Jordan takes this concept further by examining what being a vampire actually means.  Jordan’s vampires are soulless entities relegated to a tiresome earthly existence of perpetual feeding on the gullible.  They are creatures who can experience no true satisfaction despite living through the ages and knowing all that this world contains.  They are ultimately condemned to an eternity excluded from God, and what’s worse, they know this all too well.  Their efforts on this mortal coil will all amount to nothing, and at the end of time salvation will elude them.  In the meantime, they must go through the motions in order to live through another night.  They will experience both good and bad in all its forms, build existences only to see them crumble, enjoy wealth and power then watch it disappear and be constantly reminded of the perpetual “veil of tears” that summarises earthly existence.  Just like the ancient city Byzantium.

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Some critics have suggested that his film is not particularly insightful and is ultimately nothing more than a reworking of a story we’ve seen many times before, presented in a visually beautiful way.  “Byzantium” also pitches to commercial audiences by offering a quotient of exploitable elements; blood, beauty and seductive glamour.  (Well, this is still a vampire movie after all). Jordan’s concept of an empty eternity for the soulless nightstalkers he showcases has been described as somewhat superficial.  More cynical observers have suggested that the beauty of the cast and the elegant photography might prevent some viewers from acknowledging that aspects of the film are somewhat “half-baked”. It has been noted on more than one occasion by critics that there is a certain lack of substance to the women’s back story and that their tale really doesn’t justify two hours of screen time.  The flashbacks to their past are probably the least interesting parts of the film, although they do offer some understanding as to why the women find themselves in their modern day predicament.  Has Jordan presented a compelling narrative? Decide for yourself.

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Director Jordan has on more than one occasion been accused of dwelling on beauty in a somewhat lascivious manner, “overplaying his hand” as a director, as it were.  There might be some validity to this criticism.  Whether this is good or bad is up to the individual viewer.  He has also been accused of “popularising” serious subject matter – he turned Angela Carter’s screenplay for his early film effort “The Company of Wolves” (a re-examination of the original Charles Perrault “Little Red Riding Hood” tale) into a strangely dream-like B-grade horror movie packed with sensual imagery that confounds critics to this day.  Saoirse Ronan’s Eleanor character is sometimes presented in “Byzantium” as a red-hooded “innocent” with the innate potential to destroy any “wolves” who may pursue her, and this concept appears to be a “through line” in much of Jordan’s work.

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The conundrum that Byzantium” presents is that whilst the glamour aspect of vampirism is downplayed (philosophically, at least), the film is so beautiful to look at that it is entirely possible audiences will miss this very point.  Jordan presents creatures that rely on the abuse of all that is good – honesty, integrity, attraction and love – creatures that will happily prey on the undeserving.  They exploit the weakest link in order to maintain a godless and ultimately hopeless earthly existence.  Jordan offers viewers vampires as soulless creatures – predatory animals – and  nasty ones at that.  His vampires are beautiful and seductive, though – the eternal trap for the unsuspecting.  These kittens have claws.

Jordan has taken an uncommon approach to this type of tale.  In modern pop culture, vampires are synonymous with elegance, glamour, stylish living and eternal life.  “Byzantium” takes a closer look at the vampire narrative and uncovers a bleakness and hopelessness that is, for the most part overlooked in modern cinema.  Warner Herzog’s silent film classic “Nosferatu” went quite a way towards revealing the “truth” behind the vampire concept – his vampire is a creature of pity, condemned to an opportunistic existence preying on strangers, a lonely creature ugly in both appearance and purpose, a creature whose eternal fate has already been sealed and who must now remorselessly destroy the innocent in order to survive until the next sunset.  Nobody would suggest that “Byzantium” is even remotely equal to Herzog’s classic, but there is a definite similarity of purpose between the two films.  Critic Max Nelson, (“Byzantium”, Film Comment, June 25, 2013) offered this perceptive comment about the movie.

“…in the film’s longest flashback: teenaged Clara escapes the brothel where she’s been forced to live and work, sails to the same island that her daughter will visit a couple hundred years later, and, after making herself immortal, bathes with wild, joyful abandon in a torrential downpour of blood. It’s an unsettling take on the Christian redemption narrative: a victim of the worst possible injustices is washed clean in blood and given eternal life—only, at least at this point, the eternal life in question looks a lot more like Hell than Heaven.”

This seems to summarise director Jordan’s intent in perfect economy of words.  For those who appreciate this perspective, Byzantium will be a worthwhile viewing experience.

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Neil Jordan Filmography

 

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 09: Actress Gemma Arterton, director Neil Jordan and actress Saoirse Ronan of "Byzantium" pose at the Guess Portrait Studio during 2012 Toronto International Film Festival on September 9, 2012 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Matt Carr/Getty Images)

BOND GIRL GEMMA IS SEXY MOVIE VAMP Actress Gemma Arterton ( Quantum of Solace ) gets her teeth into her new horror movie Byzantium. The 27-year-old actress stars as Clara, a vampire who has to protect herself and her daughter (played by Saoirse Ronan) from those seeking to plunge a stake through their hearts. Picture Mother and daughter: Gemma Arterton with Saoirse Ronan 74018 EDITORIAL USE ONLY

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The Death Defying Boo Saville

Damien Shalley is a regular [and popular] guest blogger for Bear Skin. He introduces himself in cryptic fashion:

Damien Shalley knows nothing about quantum mechanics, but won’t support it if it’s anything like the other mechanics he’s dealt with.  He puts raspberry topping on his fruit loops, which he fondly calls the “Breakfast of Champions”. He once ate an entire raw hot chilli pepper with nonchalant disregard for his personal safety.  He offers thanks to the paramedics who revived him.  He wishes “Scientific American” magazine was a little racier.

If you have a piece to submit to Bear Skin please don’t hesitate to contact me at jennifer@bearskin.org

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The Death-Defying Boo Saville

by Damien Shalley

 

Death frightens us all.  We strive to continue existing under almost any circumstance because human beings fear dying.  We fear the process of departing from this life, we fear no longer existing and some of us may even fear ultimate judgement or a kind of “cosmic justice” whereby earthly wrongs are righted.  Art is immensely useful in our human exploration of what scares us and what plagues our thoughts – resolutely and perpetually – in the deepest recesses of our consciousness.

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The art scene of the early 21st century was impacted by a trend known as “New Gothic”.  Themes prevalent in traditional Gothic works of art and literature – primarily an obsession with death, decay and our ultimate fate as mortals – re-emerged in some thought-provoking and sometimes confronting works by the likes of Caroline Folkenroth, Stefanie Lynn Evans, Judith Weratschnig and many others.  One artist at the forefront of this new vanguard was Boo Saville.  Saville rose to fame with some startling pieces and attracted cashed-up buyers and media attention, but over time she evolved a new perspective on life (and death) and her reflections on those subjects in her work began to change.  She now no longer identifies as “New Gothic” – or Gothic anything, despite acknowledging that some or her existing pieces could rightly be interpreted within that framework – and much of more recent work is strongly akin to the abstracts of Mark Rothko.  But why?  Artists almost always evolve, but why change tack to this degree?  Strangely enough for a creative soul, at least part of the answer to this question lies in modern science.  The truth, as they say, will set you free.

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Boo Saville’s “Polycephaly” exhibition opened in London in 2014 and the breadth of work on display showed an artist operating on multiple levels.  Her works incorporated numerous mediums – pictures created with paint, bleach, dye and even Biro ink – and illustrated various themes including death, but also life, love and hope.  These were examples of not just experimental art techniques, but also the evolving mind of an artist.  Questioned about the motivation behind her newer works by U.K. journalist Holly Fraser in October 2014, Saville was asked whether her philosophical position on death had changed.  Her answer was intriguing.

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“I realised there was going to be a dead end. I found it confusing and hard to get my head around. I still do. We all do”.

She continued,

“I listen to a lot of podcasts when I work, and funnily enough there was this one podcast from Yale about death. It was about what happens when we die, why death frightens us, and whether or not there’s a soul. It amazed me. It got to the conclusion that we don’t experience our own death anyway, so it doesn’t exist to us. The only death we experience is the death of others, and that’s the hard bit to take as human beings. At that point I had a realisation and began making loads of abstract work because I lost that inquisitiveness. I thought, if death doesn’t exist then it’s an irrelevant argument.”

http://www.hungertv.com/feature/interview-boo-saville/

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This statement is as illuminating as it is truthful. Medical science has shown us in recent years that human sensory functions gradually “switch off” as natural death approaches.  The slowing of the human heartbeat prepares the brain for impeding nullification, and we “shut down” quietly without full sensory awareness.  When the heart ultimately fails, the brain and subsequently the brain-stem deoxygenise and we slip away.  This might well explain the “white light” or “tunnel of light” phenomenon that is anecdotally experienced by some people whose hearts have stopped beating and are then revived.  Of those who are successfully resuscitated under such circumstances, approximately 18-20 per cent of people claim to have had this experience.  It is currently considered by doctors to be a function of oxygen deprivation originating in the outer brain and, due to cessation of blood flow, it appears to move gradually toward the centre of the brain and subsequently the brain stem over a period of time (somewhere between six and eighteen minutes, in some cases longer).  But people don’t experience this part consciously.  We may well harbour a fear of no longer existing, of no longer being “switched on”, but the process of departing is more than likely something that we as individuals will never know.  In a strange way, this process parallels our births.  We don’t recall them either (although some rare souls claim to have vestigial memories of this experience).  For the majority however, we only ever know consciousness.  We take our places in this world only ever knowing life and leave with that same knowledge.  And that may well soothe some anxieties at least.

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The final comments on this topic are perhaps best left to Boo Saville – quoted by Holly Fraser in the same article – when asked about her current psychological relationship with death,

“It’s now just part of life to me. I don’t see it in a macabre, “monster under the bed” kind of way. It also helps me come to terms with ageing and my own body”.  And how should people cope with the knowledge that they will one day make an exit from this mortal coil?  Well?

“Making art is an amazing way of leaving something behind.”

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Light and Magic – The Music of Ladytron

Now a regular guest blogger with Bear Skin, Damien Shalley submits another piece this time about electro pop group Lady Tron. He introduces himself in his characteristic style:

Damien Shalley owns a Teflon coated polyester tie that is surprisingly silk-like in appearance.  He stays away from open flames whilst wearing it.  He believes that the greatest living Englishman isn’t Stephen Hawking but Lemmy from Motorhead.  He would like someone to explain to him the precise difference between tequila and mescal.  He does not enjoy the taste of parsnip.

If you’re a reader of Bear Skin and would like to submit your own writing, please don’t hesitate to get in touch at jennifer@bearskin.org

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“Light and Magic – the Music of Ladytron”

by Damien Shalley

What does a music fan do to combat the monotonous reality of musical force feeding?  Start exploring the music scene for yourself, that’s what.  “Seek and you shall find.” And perhaps let yourself be guided on your journey by the spectacular sounds emanating from cult electro-pop bands from the UK. Everybody’s favourite electro pop band du jour is the U.K.’s Chvrches (that’s how they spell it – it’s pronounced “Churches” for the uninitiated).  Critics, fans and even casual, non-musical observers seem to love this Glaswegian three-piece and their impossibly catchy tunes.  But Chvrches are standing on the shoulders of giants.  Giants called Ladytron.

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So who or what are Ladytron?  Only the single best electronic pop outfit on earth, that’s who.  In the early 21st century, they were seemingly the lone exponents of stylish electronica in a music scene dominated by grungy guitars and flannel shirts.  Anyone who had ever been aurally seduced by the Eurythmic’s “Love is a Stranger” and then lived to wonder whatever happened to sophisticated electro-pop knew instantly when they heard “Playgirl” that Liverpool’s Ladytron were now carrying that torch. In style, too!

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Ladytron are pioneers of new sonic space.  They fit no precise pop music category but are obviously heavily influenced by classic electronica from the 80’s.  They deliver lush, synthesizer-based compositions with evocative, relatable lyrics.  They also mix new and old technology – the main component of their sound is vintage keyboards.  The two founding members of the group (Daniel Hunt and Reuben Wu) are D.J.’s and producers who also work with other artists, remixing for outfits like Placebo, Soulwax, and the legendary Goldfrapp.  They possess a “warm” sound in a musical sub-genre traditionally associated with coldness, tour with a live drummer and occasionally use modified guitar chords to sound like synths and vice versa. They belong to no specific trend or movement, unless being glamorously uplifting is a trend.

Hunt and Wu met in the 1990’s and recorded a song as studio project in 1999 called “He Took Her to a Movie” utilising guest vocalist Lisa Eriksson.  Positive feedback resulted in Hunt and Wu developing their project further.  Their original concept evolved into a four piece live band incorporating the elegant, Scottish-born Helen Marnie as lead vocalist and the darkly attractive Mira Aroyo, as co-front woman.  They have gone on to release six full-length original albums and a seemingly innumerable collection of remix compilations.  They have a cult following worldwide and have toured extensively, opening for Bjork, Nine Inch Nails and headlining their own shows.  (They played Brisbane’s Tivoli in 2008 and the Hi-Fi in 2009).  They last released a studio album, “Gravity the Seducer”, in 2011 but a new original album is on the way.  They have never been particularly famous and seem quite prepared to approach the business of making music in their own way.  Their emphasis remains on quality sounds, not fame or global domination of the airwaves.

To be fair, Ladytron have achieved a certain level success to date, primarily in the U.K. and Europe, but even there they’re never been “mainstream”.  They have released six original albums – five studio recordings and a haughty live album.  There has also been the mandatory “Best of” album (featuring two new tracks, one quite delicious) and a number of remix albums, some of which are surprisingly innovative.  Lead singer Helen Marnie also released her first solo album “Crystal World” in 2013 to solid reviews.  But they’ve never been a “break-out” smash anywhere, despite consistently delivering quality music.  They’re a synth pop fan’s secret wish, beckoning seductively from the background.

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Early Ladytron was marked by a retro-futuristic flavour.  Their first album “604” (2001) is dominated by tunes that are relatively spare and infused with electronic beats that one might hear emanating from a Casio keyboard.  It’s as if someone opened up a can of pop music circa 1985.  “Commodore Rock” is perhaps the ultimate example of this simple style.  Yet the album also yielded one of the band’s most infectious songs – “Playgirl”.  An almost perfect electro-pop melody with insightful lyrics about the human need to love and be loved, “Playgirl” offered the musical cognoscenti a glimpse of what Ladytron was capable of doing, and more importantly, what they were capable of becoming in the future.

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The band’s next effort, 2002’s “Light and Magic”, offered further musical evolution.  The style is similar to “604” but not as bare, and more emphasis is placed on song writing.  This is synth with substance.  Tracks like “Seventeen” were designed for commercial airplay whilst reinforcing the band’s technical roots. The title track itself is a traditionally structured, solidly commercial and delightfully upbeat composition which expands the Ladytron oeuvre whilst acting as a counter balance to some of the more clinical (yet entrancing) tunes, a prime example being the digital dystopia of “True Mathematics”.

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“Softcore Jukebox” (2003) is a mix album of covers by Ladytron’s Daniel Hunt and Reuben Wu.  Some of their favourite artists and songs are featured.  There are two Ladytron songs included, the single remix of “Blue Jeans” called “Blue Jeans 2.0” (featuring the oblique lyrics “You’ve been trying to protect me, an insect living in your memory”) and a cover version of “Oops Oh My“ by Tweet.  Although not strictly a Ladytron album in itself, “Softcore Jukebox” does give an insight into the musical influences of the founding members of the band.  This release features the inclusion of a vibrant (and unexpected) My Bloody Valentine rock number called “Soon” and the disarmingly funny (and insightful) 80’s track “What’s a Girl to Do?” by Cristina.

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“Witching Hour” (2005) is characterised by richer production and strong, traditionally structured songs delivered with a pristine technological edge.  It is consistently good from start to finish – an “album experience” as old school vinyl fanciers like to say – and yielded the concert favourite “Destroy Everything You Touch” and the utterly infectious “Sugar”.  This is Ladytron’s high water mark – the band defined in shimmering digital glory.  “Fighting in Built Up areas” will set your speakers alight with its complex tonal mix, “Witching Hour” offers a relaxing “soft power” listening experience, “International Dateline” reflects beautifully on the break-up of a relationship and the understated tunefulness of “The Last One Standing” manages to take that subject matter even further without disheartening listeners.  And the ominous yet catchy track “Weekend” will have special resonance for those with a tendency to overdo things a little on a Friday or Saturday night.  This album represents the defining moment for Ladytron as a recording outfit and summarises what the band represent.  “Do yourself a favour ………….”

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2008’s “Velocifero”, whilst not as consistent overall as “Witching Hour”, yielded some of Ladytron’s best- ever material.  “Burning Up”, “Runaway”, “I’m Not Scared”, and “Ghosts” all throb with intensity, melody and heart.  The production on this pacy album is refined yet dramatic.  This is speaker-searing audio perfection, and many of the tunes on the disc have become remix favourites.  “They Gave You a Heart”, “Versus” and even the robotic “Black Cat” and “Deep Blue” are worthwhile listens and the album itself will really put your stereo to the test (and yield most rewarding results).

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Live at the London Astoria is a solid collection of the band’s best singles mixed with deeper album cuts.  The live versions of many of Ladytron’s best-known tracks are infused with new energy here, some of them almost sounding like new compositions.  It’s a rare live album that can sit alongside well-known studio recordings and compliment them with something truly fresh.  This is one such album.

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“Gravity the Seducer” (2011).  Regarded as something of a disappointment in general by fans, this album saw Ladytron experiment with softer, more ambient sounds.  There are a few fantastic tunes here too, just not as many as dedicated followers might have expected.  “Ace of Hz” and “Mirage” are pure Ladytron, and the album does lend itself to multiple listens.  Overall though, this is probably not the best place to start your Ladytron listening experience, and would probably be better suited as the soundtrack to a strange science fiction movie (or spinning on a turntable in someone’s moon palace).  This is perhaps best described as artful electronica.

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In a perfect world, Ladytron would be more famous than Chvrches.  They’d be more famous than Nicki Minaj in fact, and they wouldn’t need her gimmicky videos and controversial album covers. Why?  Because Ladytron are actually good.  The music they create is very much their own -distinctly retro yet undeniably current.  It’s just as worthwhile as any rap superstar’s beat-laden banalities, and Ladytron’s  lyrics are upbeat and intelligent.

Impossibly elegant, delightfully upbeat, deliciously seductive and utterly sublime – that’s Ladytron. So the next time you’ve been bludgeoned into coma town by the stultifying fare that currently clogs commercial radio playlists, say “no” to turgid tunes and “yes” to salvation by synthesizer.

Tell ‘em Ladytron sent ya!

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 LADYTRON

Helen Marnielead vocals, synthesizers

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Mira Aroyovocals, synthesisers

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Reuben Wusynthesizers

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Daniel Huntsynthesizers, guitar, vocals

Ladytron Discography

  • 604 (2001)
  • Light & Magic (2002)
  • Softcore Jukebox (2003)
  • Witching Hour (2005)
  • Velocifero (2008)
  • Live at the London Astoria 16.07.08 (2009)
  • Best of 00–10 in 2011
  • Gravity the Seducer (2011)
  • Remixed and Rare (Various)  (All Ladytron albums have also been released in “Remixed and Rare” versions, and there have been numerous “Extended Play” releases featuring tracks from these compilations and further remixes).

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Helen Marnie Discography

  • Crystal World (2013)  (Features singles “The Hunter” and “Hearts on Fire”)
  • The Wolves [upcoming]

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