Thursday, 31 March 2011

Akimbo And The Great White Bull

There will be no salvation or respite from your aquatic nightmare, as you find yourself still treading water in the same chummy, shark infested seas as my last post. Below your anxiously beating legs the ocean yawns into seemingly infinite depths. Down... down through the Epipelagic and Mesopelagic zones, now deeper still, leaving the shadowy twilight behind for the crushing, frozen darkness of the midnight zone. No shapes can be discerned here, but one lurks nonetheless... an unseen giant, gracefully steering it's streamlined bulk into a steep ascent.

Carcharodon carcharias does not usually enjoy the taste of human flesh, but this one has already had a taste of this exotic meat... and liked it. There are no senses that you possess that could possibly alert you to the two ton horror hurtling towards you at 40 km/h, driven upwards by your pheromone trail of urine and terror...

Just as the great white shark lives to kill, Seattle's punk/metal wrecking crew Akimbo lives to crush, and if the abyssal depths don't pulverise your mutilated remains first, this epic album definitely will.

Certain genres of metal have just the right feeling of epic grandeur to make them perfectly suited to adapting the romance, mystery and violence of great seafaring mythology... and we've seen a lot of it in recent years (another album I often revisit is Ahab's Call Of The Wretched Sea). I've always assumed this trend came about because of a bad case of Norse/Anglo-Saxon/Christian/Middle-Earth/Conan/Elric myth-fatigue and the need to find fresh folklore and fiction to pillage. Well, the oceans have provided a great deal of rich material to play with, and I can't think of a better place to dive into those murky depths than from the muddy banks of this fetid little swamp. Oh, and with all the attention given to whales, sharks, giant squid and Dagon... don't forget THE CRABS!

Plenty of great music there landlubbers, but for my tarnished doubloons, Akimbo's Jersey Shores is the best of the bunch. Shores is a lovingly crafted ode to the infamous spate of fatal shark attacks that plagued the New Jersey coastline from July 1st to 12th, 1916. Five attacks in this brief period resulted in four fatalities, two of which occurred 26 km inland in an estuarine creek (including an 11 year old boy, Lester Stillwell). It's a fascinating story that I gather is pretty widely known in the States, but not so much elsewhere. Get all the gruesome facts HERE.

"the head, the tail, the whole damn thing"

As you've probably already guessed (or knew), just as Melville's inspiration for Moby Dick was the real-life sinking of the Essex; the 1916 NJ shark attacks were Peter Benchley's jumping-off point for Jaws. Spielberg's adaptation even makes a direct reference to the attacks - to quote the late, great Roy Scheider's Chief Martin Brody:

"And there's no limit to what he's gonna do! I mean we've already had three incidents, two people killed inside of a week. And it's gonna happen again, it happened before! The Jersey beach! 1916! Five people chewed up in the surf!"

There's been much speculation about the species and number of sharks involved in the Jersey Shore attacks, and from my limited knowledge I'd say that Benchley's unofficial summation of events is pretty unlikely. Given the ferocity of all the attacks, and the estuarine location of two, it sounds more like the behaviour of one or more bull sharks to me, as they're partial to hunting in brackish waters and are able to tolerate fresh. Just recently in the Queensland floods, two bulls were spotted cruising through suburban streets in Goodna (just 20 km from Brisbane). Also, bulls - along with tiger sharks - are generally regarded to have a more aggressive nature than white pointers.

I've often wondered, if Benchley and Spielberg had opted for a bull or tiger instead of a white... would the white still be saddled with it's erroneous reputation in popular culture as the most dangerous of sharks? Perhaps, simply due to it's more majestic appearance... but who knows?

It's interesting to note that the city I call home was blighted by a similar (but not fatal) spate of attacks a couple of years ago. To quote my own post on Illogical Contraption last year:

Here in Sydney we're home to (or regularly visited by) a number of potentially dangerous shark species such as Bulls, Tigers, Hammerheads, Makos, Bronze Whalers and Great Whites. In the last couple of years we've seen a spike of attacks in the harbour and on surrounding beaches, with three attacks over a three week period in February and March last year (the worst of which involved a naval diver in the harbour losing a hand and a leg to a Bull). The increase in attacks is generally attributed to over-fishing of oceanic waters and the cleaning up of Sydney's marine habitats (by pumping our effluent further out to sea for the last couple of decades). I'd like to point out that despite our local media's best attempts to demonise these beautiful creatures, I'm rabidly opposed to the culling of sharks.

All of this provides plenty of food for thought while your ears are being pummeled by Jersey Shores. And pummeled they will be. Although this album finds Akimbo dabbling in some gentler, more meandering passages in between their regular crushing attack, there's still plenty of satisfyingly raw, destructive power here. Standout track for me is "Great White Bull", which kept threatening to snap my neck when I first bought this. Fucking amazing song.

I should add that San Francisco's Giant Squid also released a concept album based on the same events entitled Monster In The Creek, but - in my humble opinion - it sucks shark cock. Both albums have tracks titled "Lester Stillwell".

Contact and buy stuff from Akimbo HERE & HERE

Dive into Jersey Shores HERE

Finally, does anyone know if a live recording exists for either of the Black Flag cover sets they played last year in Seattle and Portland (with the singer of Black Elk)? I want.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Eaten Alive

Zombies. Monsters. Ghosts. Demons. I'll always love 'em, but the truth is that they just don't scare me much anymore. Unfortunately, desensitisation is an inevitable side effect of watching too many horror movies... sooner or later, the dreaded phantom of ennui casts it's long shadow over the enthusiasm of every long-term horror addict. I crave the unbearable nerve-shredding terror that I felt watching Evil Dead for the first time, but with each passing year it's an itch that's getting harder to scratch.

Well, for the second time in a year I'm happy to report that I've seen a movie that succeeded in scaring the shit out of me (the first was Adam Green's Frozen, which I raved about here).

New Aussie shark thriller The Reef falls under the same sub-genre as the aforementioned Frozen and their close cousins, Open Water and Black Water. The settings may differ, but all these movies are almost identically structured, exploiting the same universal fears and presenting them with the same pseudo-documentary realism. They're effective and scary purely because of this straight-forward simplicity.

In a time when genre film is increasingly reliant on gimmicks and twists to reinvigorate old ideas, it's refreshing to see these movies that are so unpretentious. Not every horror director can pull off the sociopolitical commentary of Romero or the philosophical musings of Cronenberg, and when they try, all too often it comes off as dishonest and shoehorned in - an attempt to lend a sense of depth and meaning to what amounts to little more than a conglomeration of cliches. The thing about these new nature shockers is that they don't need to be cerebral, or even unpredictable, to be frightening - the fears therein are primitive and visceral. The thought of being eaten alive by sharks or wolves is no less horrifying in the 21st Century than it was for our distant cave-dwelling ancestors.

For obvious reasons, The Reef is a closer relative to Open Water than Frozen, but where Open Water was only partially effective at evoking terror, Andrew Traucki's new shark-attack flick had me feeling a twinge of nervousness every time I set foot in the ocean this past summer (I caught an early screening a few months ago, just as summer was kicking in down here). In fact, I'll go on record here as saying that I think it's far and away the best shark movie since Jaws. Part of the film's success lies in Traucki's decision to reign in any temptation to try to outdo Jaws, and the film really benefits from this restrained approach and lack of excess. There's only one shark, and it's not a giant, just a very respectable 12-15 foot Great White. The shark behaves like an animal, not a monster; the protagonists like people, not heroes.

Although I didn't really like Traucki's previous crocodile thriller Black Water (set in Queensland, but shot in mangroves not an hour from where I'm sitting now), it does provide a good example of the degree of realism to which Traucki aspires. If you have any doubts about the veracity of that film's storyline, you shouldn't, as my friend Phil found out the hard way some years before it was made. At the time he and some friends were living a pretty feral existence in a rainforest region of Far North Queensland. Phil's no fool, has a good knowledge of the bush, and is respectfully aware of the myriad dangers it conceals.

One day a simple miscalculation found them deep in a mangrove area, with the tide coming in much earlier then expected - and very rapidly. All of them were well aware of the very real and present danger of saltwater crocodiles and promptly started hauling ass out of the swamp. Soon enough, the tide was too high and the danger of salties too great - so they were forced to take to the trees for the rest of the afternoon and the entire night, only crawling out, sore and exhausted, the next morning. They never even saw one that day, but statistics dictate that they made the right decision to climb those trees, and it may well have saved their lives.

You'll notice that I'm giving precious little away about The Reef. Honestly, it's such a pared-down little film, that to give away too much would be to do it a disservice. What do you need to know about it? It was masterfully shot on digital camera (a couple of Red cameras I believe) and looks gorgeous. The cast represents something of an Underbelly reunion, which is no bad thing. It builds tension that will wind you up 'til you're squirming in your chair. The next time you swim in oceanic water deeper than 30 feet, you'll keep feeling the urge to look behind and underneath you. Maybe curl your toes up and draw your legs in a little closer to your body. You'll try to relax as you start to hyperventilate... but there's no point telling yourself it's only a movie... because it's not.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

It's Tom Cruise's Fault

That is not dead which can eternal lie

And with strange aeons even death may die