Weird Kitties Review: Frankenstein by The Mechanisms

Last year, Elizabeth Sandifer announced a project called the Weird Kitties, where she solicited short reviews from her readers of SF works they considered Hugo Award-worthy, so people could take them into consideration when voting for the 2015 Hugos. The project sadly didn’t last very long, but I managed to get in there with three reviews of SF stories I loved last year, the first of which was this. I had gotten really into The Mechanisms after reviewing them a month of so earlier, so I was keen to share that love in this review of their latest song. I’m quite proud of these reviews, and it was an honour to have my writing on such a brilliant site as Eruditorum Press. This article first appeared there on 13 September 2015.

If you’ve ever thought that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein would have been better as a prog rock ballad, this new song from the UK-based steampunk folk band The Mechanisms looks to have you covered. Retelling the classic gothic tale as a ten-minute song about a rogue AI, Frankenstein, while perhaps the least grandiose of the Mechanisms’ projects to date, is still a wonderful piece of work, and crackles with the same energy as their lengthier albums.

The story is told in one long song, with linking narration putting one in mind of a geekier version of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds. The tale concerns a far-future world where a scientist named Victoria Frankenstein creates a revolutionary AI, and… honestly, you know how the story goes from there.

Initially it might seem a bit of a disappointment, after three albums of giddy textual play in established musical genres and mythical traditions, to see the Mechanisms doing a straight pastiche of a specific text. But the band, to their credit, seem to realise the dangers of this approach, and turn them to their advantage. At ten minutes long the song is tight and focused, avoiding the slightly slipshod nature of their longer and more complex albums, and dialling back a bit on the usual self-indulgence. There’s also a genuinely clever twist at the end, which manages to convey a sense of shock as well as ironic inevitability.

But what really sells it is the technical side of things, which is excellent. The singing and instrumentation are both top-notch, with the shifts in tone handled deftly by the introduction of new musical techniques as the song goes on. As ever, the Mechanisms manage to turn what could easily have been a one-gag premise into magnificent entertainment by sheer skill and chutzpah.

This is a song which has clearly had a lot of thought put into it, as well as an awful lot of effort and talent And it’s that sense of passion which makes this song such a worthwhile piece of storytelling. These a clearly a group of people who care deeply about what they do, and long may they continue to do it.

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Review: The Mechanisms

This review first appeared on the Ed Fringe Review website on 21 August 2015.

★★★★★

Imagine what would happen if David Bowie, Jeff Wayne and Douglas Adams got together and decided to write a musical. Whether or not you’ll like this show, a rotating trilogy of one-hour musical pieces re-telling classical mythology as science fiction epics, more or less hinges on whether you think that premise sounds very dumb or like the Best Thing Ever. (The correct answer, obviously, is that it is the Best Thing Ever). Witty, subversive and altogether brilliant, The Mechanisms have put together an absolute barnstormer of an act. You will never see another show like it.

The band plays a crew of bloodthirsty space pirates recounting tales heard on their travels of the universe, resplendent in steampunk costumes and colourful personalities. The songs are powerfully dramatic sci-fi folk, with lead singer Jonny Sims narrating the action, and the rest of the band playing the various different characters.

The narrative itself is a thing of beauty, a swashbuckling affair with a dash of cyberpunk cynicism and a shot of Douglas Adams-ian whimsy (including at least one direct shout-out). The overall effect is riotously entertaining, and the group’s clear passion for their work is transferred to the audience, who were eating out of their hands by the end. This is a weird, difficult show, and the sheer swagger and confidence on display is genuinely awe-inspiring.

There were a few technical faults, perhaps as a result of a venue ill-suited to such an elaborate act. There was a bit of a problem with microphone volume, with lyrics sometimes in danger of being drowned out by the cacophony of the band, which is shame, because the lyrics are as clever and self-assured as the rest of the show, with ancient mythology and science fiction archetypes bleeding together in fascinating ways. Having said that, a few gags wear a bit thin after a while. You can only hear ancient Greek monsters re-imagined as robots so many times before it gets a bit old.

But quite frankly, the flaws are irrelevant, because you have to experience it for the sheer uniqueness alone. Brash, clever and cool as hell, The Mechanisms are an amazing act, and it’s astonishing that they’re still inclined to let people in for free. This is, quite simply, one of the best shows of the free Fringe.

Songs to get through an essay crisis

This article first appeared in The Oxford Student on 8 May 2015.

You’ve got a deadline to hit, about twelve hours in which to hit it, and you haven’t even planned your essay yet. You sigh. You know it’s going to be a long night. You put on some coffee, open your word processor, and slip on a few tunes. This list of songs will get you through yet another essay crisis with your sanity intact (ish).

You start: Imagine Dragons – ‘It’s Time’. You play this as you finish your incredibly rough and hazily-drawn plan. Right. Time to begin the essay… In a minute. Maybe you should listen to this song just one more time.

Now you’ve finally begun, you know you’re in it for the long haul. You turn on the Proclaimers’ ‘500 Miles’. The going may get tough, but damn it, this essay will not beat you. ‘Cause I would write five hundred words, and I would write 1,500 more! After your neighbour yells at you to stop signing, you change the track and get back to work.

Time for something classical. What else? Pachelbel – ‘Canon in D’. Ah, something soothing and relaxing. So soothing and relaxing that you get nothing done for the next seven minutes.

Quick, energy. Need energy. Anything to get that second paragraph flowing. Who’s got the energy of an excited puppy? Ed Sheeran. The song: ‘Sing’. Try not to get distracted by how much Ed sounds like a nine year old asking to leave the dinner table when he says “Maybe we can get down now”. Although figuring out how this dweeb managed to make such a fun party song is an intellectual exercise that deserves an essay of its own.

Up next, The Rolling Stones –‘(I can’t get no) Satisfaction’. An excellent one to listen to after several irritating minutes spent trying to untangle the various rhetorical knots you’ve managed to tie yourself up in. Nothing alleviates frustration quite like hearing it shouted by rock gods.

It’s getting really late. You need a real pick-me-up, and there’s nothing like the ‘00s falsetto of the Scissor Sisters. ‘I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’’. It is scientifically impossible for people not to get at least a bit more of a spring in their step after listening to this one. A perfect pick-me-up as you struggle to the end of your half-baked point about quantitative easing.

And so you reach the 1,000 word mark. You’re ‘Livin’ on a Prayer’, and Bon Jovi will help you out. Take a few minutes off and listen to this hard rock classic. You’re halfway there, after all (note: this works particularly well for theology essays).

You turn to your old friend, David Bowie with ‘Starman’. You ponder the effectiveness of ‘I’d like to hand in this essay, but I think I’d blow your mind’ as an excuse. You decide it is not feasible, sigh, and get back to work. You know it’s all worthwhile, after all.

It’s time for an ego boost with the single most egotistical song ever recorded: ‘Mirrors’ by Justin Timberlake. Its core message boils down to: ‘I love you because you remind me of me’. This is exactly the kind of self-esteem boost you needs while staring at a screen at 3am and questioning your life choices. Especially useful if writing about Lacanian theory.

You need anything to stop you resorting to that ever-more-tempting three quid bottle of wine you’ve got in the fridge. ‘We Are Young’ by fun is a song that consists of the kind of bollocks you would drunk-text to your ex at four in the morning, and thus serves as an excellent warning against hitting the drink. Plus Janelle Monáe turns up for three seconds on that wonderful bridge.

Next, an overlong, incoherent mess of half-formed, disjointed sentences, with occasional outbreaks of terrifying noises suits ‘Revolution 9’ by The Beatles.

You stumble, bleary-eyed, to a conclusion at long last. You save your document, shut down the computer, and stick on one of the most relaxing songs in the world, before you collapse into bed, exhausted. Art Garfunkel sounds like the angel of sleep on Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. You try not to think about all the edits you’re going to have to make in the morning. For now, the waters are calm.

The Magic of Mashups: Swing the Mood

This piece first appeared in The Oxford Student on 22 January 2015, as part of the music section’s ‘four columns’ feature. They’d get four people to contribute very short columns on a particular theme, and on this occasion it was mashups. Short, but I had fun with it, and I remain ridiculously fond of this daft little group.

Girl Talk and Sam Ryel are all very well, but to truly understand mashups, you need to go back to the source, and see how three maniacs from Rotherham managed to get to number one by stitching together bits of aging bubblegum pop to form ahead of their time musical masterpieces. I’m talking of course about the seminal Jive Bunny and the Mastermixers, whose huge success in the late eighties and early nineties marked the mashup’s first real break into the mainstream.
Listening to the first track on their first album (imaginatively titled ‘The Album’) it’s not hard to see why. An invigorating cocktail of early rock’n’roll hits and Glenn Miller’s iconic jazz track, with a rock-solid bass line forming a reliable backbone as the song skips between genre highlights, ‘Swing the Mood’ does a wonderful job capturing the infectious, youthful energy of that period of music.
Mashups are pop music’s own form of alchemy; disparate sources, wantonly forced to occupy the same space, creating something more than the sum of its parts. And here it is, all the way back in 1989. As above, so below.

CN Lester: revolt from assimilation

Image: Helen Bartlett

This article first appeared on the The Oxford Student website on 20 March 2015. CN Lester was another interview subject who was terribly patient with me, and a lot friendlier than they might have been – the best kind of interview. The style of my interviews was still quite rough at this point (and I’ve edited out a couple of the more cringe-worthy bits), but I was getting there, and I was very lucky in the type of interviews I got.

CN Lester, musician, writer and activist, gave a spoken word performance at Queen’s College in 8th week entitled ‘What We Know To Be True: Trans Lives and Mental Illness’. I was lucky enough to talk to them in advance of the show, and our conversation began with the performance itself: “It’s about several things really. It’s kind of an intertwining of popular narratives around trans people and mental illnesses and personal reflections of how that works both within trans communities and also in my own artistic practice. So I’ll be looking at various different experiences of trans life using the Scottish Trans Alliance mental health service, which I think is [from] 2012 as a jumping-off point, but I also want to look at some popular misconceptions of what it is to be trans. Kind of ‘It’s all in your head’ or ‘you’re all making it up’ or it’s some kind of hallucination, and to see how that ties in with real experiences of mental illness, and my own experiences of both being a bipolar person with OCD and being trans, and how those work through the crucible of music and literature.”

As well as their work as a musician, Lester has also worked extensively in the world of LGBTQ activism – they co-founded the Queer Youth Network and the UK’s first gay-straight alliance. I asked them whether their work in each field has impacted the other. “I think it makes me more honest, which can only be a good thing, even if it’s not always the easiest thing to learn. I sometimes worry that if I had just been born a cis, straight guy, maybe I would have found it much easier to stay in the musical mainstream, rather than finding alternative ways of expressing myself. And while that’s not always been easy, it’s definitely been more interesting. I think it sends you down sort of dark avenues and little twisting pathways, and that turns up some really exciting stuff.”

In performing at Queen’s, Lester has sought out a student audience; is this their usual demographic? “I actually do tend to play to quite a lot of student audiences, which I find interesting. I’m a postgraduate student now, but I remember when I was an undergraduate, really not having any access to this kind of stuff. There was a lot of pushback to any ideas of exploration and creativity around gender and sexuality. I find it incredibly heartening that I now can come along to an event and meet so many undergraduates who can teach me so much in terms of ways of looking at things, at theories of society and gender and sexuality, and how we revolt from assimilation. It’s very exciting, and it feels like a university environment is an ideal place to do that – you’re meant to be stretched, you’re meant to be challenged. Often the only things that I found I was challenged with within the university environment itself were homophobia and transphobia. I think some of these student groups, they’re challenging students in a way which is supportive, but also deeply revolutionary.”

The conversation turns to Lester’s musical work, specifically their last album, Aether. “I’ve been really bowled over with the reception, the critics have been very, very kind – I haven’t had a bad review yet. I worked with Jack Byrne, who I worked with on Ashes [their last album] and we crowd-funded the production, went up to a studio in Leeds and worked for four days, of sleeping underneath the piano and just cranking the whole thing out. I wrote Aether mostly after gigs, or travelling to and from gigs. It’s mostly about relationships – between me and my audience, friendship, romantic relationships, the relationship between your mind and your body. All those sort of weird, strung-out thoughts that you tend to have on a train at 11:30 at night, going across the country, and you’re a little bit drunk and just trying to work out what the hell just happened to you on stage. I’ve been really happy with it. We took it on tour to London Pride, Norwich Pride, the Tate Modern, lots of little bars up and down the country, and I was really proud of it.

“I’m currently working on my next album,  which is called Coming Home, which I’m hoping to release at the end of 2016, fingers crossed! That’s going to be something a little more folksy, and a little more sideways. That and my PhD.”

Lester has a lot more up their sleeve – other upcoming projects include an opera to be premiered this summer, an ongoing tour and continued writing for their popular blog, A Gentleman and a Scholar. They describe themselves as having a “portfolio career”, and they handle that portfolio with confidence and style.