Category: Listen

Careful with that Axe, Eugene | On titles

Daria Halprin watches the world explode in the finale of Michelangelo Antonioni's film Zabriskie Point.

When Adolf Hitler marched to the centre of Munich in 1932, bounded by approximately 2000 men, with the intention to overthrow the then State Commissioner Gustav Ritter von Kahr, he couldn’t have imagined—even in his most feverish moments of ambitious delerium—that his act of political and social defiance (which would be lionised upon his becoming Fuhrer as a significant chapter in the development of Nazi party mythology) would one day result in an American Stand-up Comedian—Doug Stanhope—taking said event’s name and adapting it for use as the title of a comedy special, replete with provocative unconventional thinking, commentary about the absurdity of modern existence, dick jokes and one hell of an awesomely bad seventies-era suit (the type that you might expect to see on a stereotypically sleazy car salesman).

The Beer Hall Putsch coup attempt of 1932—to which Adolf Hitler, and his fellow senior Nazi’s, attributed so much meaning, remembrance, ceremony and respect—through the creative vandalism of comedian Doug Stanhope—is scaled from Hitler’s intended solemn, valourous, memorial and symbolic heights, to a moniker atop one particularly sharp hour of a scruffy looking guy standing on a comedy room stage, telling off-colour jokes to a bunch of (frequently) laughing people who are most likely only a little more under the influence than he is.

Beer Hall Putsch (the comedy special, not the historical event) did one thing to me other than make me laugh heartily, its title provoked me to think about my own relationship to titles of significance: that is, to titles that I can’t get out of my mind, that have followed me for years, or decades, that have some special significance or resonance to me whether due to or in spite of their creator’s original intent. Here then are two such titles.

Apocalypse Now, the title of Francis Ford Coppola’s acerbic look at (specifically) the Vietnam war (and more generally, at the state of warfare and what it does to people, and what it makes them do) is one such memorable title. In fact, in my estimation, as a title it is one of the all time greats. Its lineage is worth recounting briefly; reportedly writer John Millius thought apocalypse now a suitable sarcastic rebuke to a popular hippie button of the nineteen sixties: Nirvana Now. As a descriptor of the film it couldn’t be more appropriate, truly Apocalpyse Now is about the end of times; churning from one scene of civilisation in collapse to another. Whether morally or physically, the whole place is going down (the film concluding in orgiastic, violent death and a rainy downpour that washes away its ephemeral and ghost-like characters—back into a murky ether from whence they first emerged). Apocalypse Now, the title, conjures up a canvas full of images of Bosch-like horrors which Francis Ford Coppola then, more than capably, delivers to the screen.

Zabriskie Point is the name of a visually unique eroded-lattice landscape region in Death Valley National Park, California. It is also the enigmatic title of a 1970 film by Michelangelo Antonioni. There’s no hint as to what the film may be about from its title alone, except to say that it may be about a place. Upon viewing Zabriskie Point one may well suggest that it is more a film about the experience of places (a university, the business world, and various natural evironments untouched by the presence of man) and man’s sense of displacement when faced with each of these—his lack of belonging no matter where he finds himself in spite of his own best efforts to ‘fit in’. This is, after all, the film in which the lead female protagonist joyfully imagines the erasure (obliteration through explosion after explosion) of the man made world from its unceasing encroachment on the world of nature.

Upon release Zabriskie Point became a spectacular box office bomb, its critical reputation seems never to have fully recovered with some assessments suggesting that it is notable principally for its soundtrack (I’ll get to a key part of that later) and its cinematography (in particular, that spectacular, explosive ending sequence). But, I am rather fond of Zabriskie Point and have been since I first saw it as a child. It is an unconventional film in that its characters purposely exist outside of the world that they inhabit—an element of design that perhaps assisted to embolden distributor MGM to the idea that it would appeal to 60’s-era counter-cultural youth, perhaps in the hope that they would have the next Easy Rider on their hands. But, it’s clear from the opening scenes of a politically charged college campus (shot in claustrophobic fashion by Antonioni) that our lead male protagonist no more belongs to the world of the counter-culture than he does to the opposing establishment police force who later amass to disperse protesting college students with force. Antonioni’s sympathies lie with the individual, not with movements or with the preoccupations of any given generation. In the film’s explosive finale the only place that the lead female protagonist is truly accepted and is free is inside of her own mind.

Zabriskie Point, then, is a state of mind as much as it is a place—a place where people can be free (free and naked, as the film shows in another notable sequence which visually suggests man’s return and reconnection to a more natural state).

My fondness for Zabriskie Point extends far beyond nostalgia, it remains as fresh and as lively as the day it was first released, and, given the present-day, tumultuous political positioning that now grips all spheres of society—the way in which the ‘personal’ individual is so aggressively and consistently assailed by pundits, zealous ideologues and mobs of their dedicated followers to incorporate the ‘political’ into every sphere of individual existence—the films message that personal fulfilment is best derived from following a path toward the realisation of one’s own individual identity—even if that act is one as as ultimately isolating and alienating as the journey of Zabriskie Point’s male and female protagonist—seems as equally important today as it ever was in 1970.

For me, both titles Zabriskie Point and Apocalypse Now are sparkling and resplendent; they are never far from mental reach. These two title’s longevity, and eminence, speak to the unique qualities of their design and impact (their distinctiveness, their originality, their ability to inspire, to provoke, to challenge and, of course, their relationship to the very films to which they are permanently attached) and, as well, to their simple, functional utility. Apocalypse Now is a handy mental reference point and rejoinder to have when faced with evidence of social, economic and political dysfunction (Milius maximal rebuke awesomely dwarfs any other proportion instantly) while Zabriskie Point suggests that the answers to all of those ills are not to be found by working through them but by shutting them out of oneself entirely, blocking them out of the world and forbidding them entry to the sanctity of the individual mind at any cost (or, as the film’s finale figuratively suggests: blowing them the fuck up).

One final thing. In this conversation about titles I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the title to this article. Careful with that Axe, Eugene is the title of a musical composition (its minimalist lyric simply repeats the composition’s title in an almost-whisper over and over) by Pink Floyd which was re-recorded (without lyric) for use in the final explosive scene of Zabriskie Point and retitled Come in Number 51, Your Time Is Up (that title was apparently taken from a line by English surrealist comic Spike Milligan). My original intent was to use the first provocative line of The Beatles song Revolution for this article’s title before reconsidering and briefly adopting Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond before finally settling on the much more provocative and impressionistic Careful with that Axe, Eugene. Careful… is also, of course, much more in keeping with the unexpectedly jolting nature of Doug Stanhope’s comedy special title, and thus my foray into examining memorable titles has arrived at full circle.

View the excellent ending to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point which features Pink Floyd’s Come in Number 51, Your Time Is Up, it’s well worth seeing and hearing.

For a bit of fun, here’s Director Stephane Sednaoui referencing Zabriskie Point’s naked couples in landscape scene in the form of Smashing Pumpkins’ film clip for their song Today, from the 1993 album Siamese Dream. Rock on!

Armoured Angel | Thy Blood Eterne

Cover of the album Hymns of Hate by Armoured Angel

About once a week I pull out my super-fangled High Resolution Audio Music Player and headphones, which together cost me a frightening amount of dosh, and I listen to Armoured Angel’s anthemic Thy Blood Eterne; which I transferred direct to my player from the Hymns of Hate collection—no ripping or compression of the original track, straight drag and drop of the original CD file to the HRA MP hard drive.

Hearing grinding death metal guitars and coarse growled vocals in high resolution is immediately exciting, then relaxing, and then—finally—enervating. (I would listen to the entire Hymns collection but I am at heart a track-skipper—or disc-changer—and want to hear dance-pop, post-punk and whatever else that catches my stylistic fancy at any given moment.)

Progress in portable digital audio equipment has made listening to great bands in high resolution an option for discerning audiophiles. Anyone can choose to be a discerning audiophile though. With the best quality audio equipment, and highest available audio source files, a listener’s experience of their favourite band’s music—via digital equipment—can reveal depths of sound, production and instrumentation that are likely to be obscured or diminished while hearing lower quality audio-source compression formats that don’t fully reveal the range of sound that was originally recorded. But the cost of portable HRA players, such as my own, are woefully prohibitive—with one less expensive entry-level option apparently offering not much better audio quality than that of an advanced MP3 player (due, at least in part, to the lack of a quality amp module).

People tell me that they’re not fussed about sound quality—it doesn’t matter—as long as they can hear the sound and it’s clear (whether played on an MP3 player, through a cell phone audio output or via some alternate system), and folk justifiably baulk at spending hundreds of dollars on a portable music player that (certainly, in my HRA MPs case) does little more than play audio files. It’s a losing battle: that is, the argument that people should preference sound quality when listening to their music is a losing battle. That battle has been lost.

I don’t begrudge anyone’s choice (and I can’t comfortably debate anyone on the issue of price given that HR MPs are typically sold at a luxury-status price point) but I am selfishly disappointed in a present-day that requires me to spend a motza to achieve sound quality levels that were much more financially accessible, and available, to everyone decades (literally decades) ago. (I own a cheerful 70s/80s orange-box portable suitcase turntable—the orange portion serving as the speaker, which detaches from the black turntable base—which, to this day, provides richer sound than any MP3 I can recall hearing.)

Perhaps, to better understand how we arrived at this present state, it is fruitful to briefly turn back the clock and examine the events of the not too distant past. After the dawn of the 2000s, the attitudes and behaviours of music consumers changed significantly in response to events that were developing or occurring in the technology and music industries. A shift in the public perception of popular music—as a commodity, an entertainment source and a medium requiring a technological go-between to access—occurred, happening as the result of a convergence of factors, including; pressure on consumers due to prohibitive CD price points, a creatively stagnant mainstream industry entertainment product (I’m talking about the failure of A&R—Artist & Repertoire services—here), the introduction of convenient digital audio player options and the rise of online piracy (buoyed itself by the rise of the internet) which was often fuelled by the desire of music fans to simply share and expand their own music libraries. Priorities and the attention of music consumers (casual or otherwise) were clearly shifting. Free from the prohibitive constraints of music industry pricing, and with the advantage of networks of distribution heretofore unimagined, consumers could demand and receive volumes of product through instantly accessible mediums at (sometimes) reduced or no cost. The music industries (both content and technology producers) were left reeling. But the trade-off, right from the start—whether in terms of content or technology—was audio quality.

In the past, being into your favourite band meant sharing your enthusiasm with like-minded people (whether passing on a new find or discussing a common musical interest). Post-2000 those behaviours continue to exist as staples of our music-culture interactions, though they’re now supplemented by (or they take second place to) internet interactions (comments, ratings, social media, online vendors and blogs—to name some of the ways in which we source music, and discuss or discover it). Do some of those present day interactions question the quality of what we hear and the quality of the mediums through which we hear it, or is it more likely the case that we simply accept what we’re sold, with no consideration given? Is there a clear audio quality benchmark that we can aspire to or doesn’t that standard matter at all, anymore?

Access to high quality audio fidelity was always the goal in the days of my youth, influenced heavily by hearing thundering Led Zeppelin, Creedence, Doors, Sex Pistols etc on a vinyl stereo system well into the early/mid-nineties—and, at least, partly as a result of spending equal time having to suffer listening to taped music on Sony walkman rip-offs (of wildly varying quality) through dollar-store bud earphones. Stepping up was always a desire, limited only—to this day—by a requirement to remain within the portable option range (I’d love to have a wall-sized stereo with speaker stacks but that option only exists in my daydream fantasy-land of a ’70s inspired lounge suite with an orange shag rug, lava lamp and chill cane furniture).

Vinyl is back though, even if only as a boutique option (despite steady, increasing sales it still is only a boutique option). And there is a growing awareness of the benefits of audio fidelity emerging across the music retail market, perhaps driven by consumer access to better fidelity portable digital audio toys (wireless speakers, players etc.) and the growing realisation that their sound improves upon—or reveals—the over compressed limitations of mp3-type audio files. Maybe a brighter HR audio future is just around the corner, though—it should be noted—we had that very future 20—30 years ago (and at a more reasonable price).

Personally, I miss my Sony walkmans (plural, I had several—I was particularly fond of the green slimline one that I bought in 2000), upon which, up until two or so years ago, I still listened to CDs—flipping discs out willy-nilly whenever I wanted to change it up. It was my last discman’s eventual failure—and Sony’s decision to stop making them a few years prior—that finally forced me into a year and a half long trough of purchasing second hand discmans (or third rate rip-offs thereof) and portable digital audio players whose design emphasised the commercial pillars of convenience and ease of use over audio fidelity. Discovering the burgeoning world of portable high resolution audio players was an enormous audio lifeline—an expensive lifeline, but a lifeline nontheless. I had so missed listening to the immersive wall of thundering drums, guitar fuzz and John Garcia’s perfect rock wail vocal that is Kyuss’ Gardenia (a track that’s been a favourite of my own since its initial release decades ago) that, when I first heard it pump through my brand new HRA MP, it was like being reintroduced back into the vivid wild—in full colour—after being cooped up in a wooden crate box for a year and a half.

But… back to Thy Blood Eterne. A rich, heavy immersive sound is what makes the track. It’s what keeps me coming back for more, again and again. The lyrics are well worth reading in full too, though I won’t summarise them here; suffice to say that they could be interpreted as a punkishly philosophical response to the conundrum of living under the yoke of Christendom (or any organised religion for that matter). Even if metal tunes aren’t your bag, you have to admit, it’s damn catchy stuff. All credit to the band for being the full package: impressive of sound, style, performance and lyrics. Armoured Angel haven’t been an active band for decades but that’s no excuse not to listen to them. Whether you’re into heavier music or you’re just adventurous in musical taste, the rewards of hearing Thy Blood Eterne are well worth the effort.

Purchase Hymns of Hate via Raven Clothing ebay: Armoured Angel | Hymns 2CD

And, get a taste of My Blood Eterne via youtube (it’s the first track up).

As an addendum, I suggest listening to James Hetfield’s appearance on the Joe Rogan podcast. The whole thing is entertaining from start to finish and includes Hetfield discussing the moment he opened his children’s eyes to better audio quality by giving them a decent pair of headphones.

Clearly, a metal-heads work is never done.