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Review: “War of The Worlds – The New Generation”

Ok. I’ve finally finished listening to the new “War of The Worlds” album – have had to listen to it a track at a time, walking to/from work, since buying it on Tuesday – and I’m ready to review it. If you’re at all interested, I suggest you grab a coffee and a couple of digestives because this isn’t going to be quick read.

I should start with some history, I suppose, for any young readers who aren’t aware of what’s been going on here.

Back in 1979 a double album – made of that strange, ancient material ‘vinyl’, you know, the brittle tar-black stuff – caused an absolute sensation when it went on sale: a musical version of what is probably the most famous science fiction story ever written, “The War of The Worlds”. The world went nuts for it, absolutely crazy, and I was its perfect target audience – a space-mad, science fiction loving, Mars obsessed teenager. So in the run-up to Christmas I bugged my poor mum relentlessly, telling her “That would be a GREAT Christmas present!” every time, and I mean *every* time, it was mentioned on TV. Come Christmas Day and the album was mine, mine! I must have played it four times that day (listening on headphones, I wasn’t completely selfish!), reading the now famous beautifully illustrated booklet over and over and over, and fell in love with it, almost as deeply in love as I was with Charlies Angels at the time. And in the years since then I’ve played it so many times I’ve lost count, losing myself each time in the grandeur of the music, the wonderful voices and the sheer epic nature of the album. Love it to bits.

Sooooo… when I heard that the album was being re-made with a new cast my initial thought was “Nooooooooooooooooooo! Leave well alone! You’ll ruin it!!!” Then I heard the names of some of the people involved – Liam Neeson, Joss Stone and Gary Barlow – and calmed down a bit. They’re all classy, right? They can sing, right? Maybe the magnificence of the album was being placed in safe hands after all…

And, I mean, what were they going to do? Media reports suggested the new album wasn’t going to be a complete re-make, rather it would just be brought “up to date” with new technology, new production values and techniques. And that made sense – technology has jumped forwards in leaps and bounds since the original, beloved album came out, so it would be great to have iconic tracks like “Eve of The War” and “Forever Autumn” brought up to date, wouldn’t it? What could possibly go wrong?

Well.

I should start by saying that this isn’t a bad album, not at all. If this new version had been the original I would have been drooling over it, heaping praise upon it in almost embarrassing amounts. But listening to it it’s impossible to not compare it to the original, and compared to it “The New Generation” is a bit of a curate’s egg I’m afraid. Some sections work really well, but they’re short and in the minority. Others have been tinkered with too much for my liking. And others, well, they’ve been murdered, to be frank.

One of the most basic problems I had with the new album is that it’s somehow lost the epic, sweeping, almost operatic feel of the original. On the original, each track led effortlessly and seamlessly into the next, like a river flowing downstream. Now there’s a more juddery, broken feel to it. That’s a problem inside some of the tracks too – the insertion of brutal rhythm breaks is jarring and unwelcome, and here and there stoccatto sound effects (echoes, etc) are thrown in for no obvious or good reason, which really hacked me off and had me groaning “Oh no, why did you do THAT?” when I heard them over my earphones.

Amazingly, and I honestly can’t get my head around this, the new album actually sounds more dated than the original, because it uses some quite horrible, tinny, cheap-sounding keyboards and synths that sound really out of place. It’s as if the production team travelled back in time to the mid 80s and bought a load of Casio keyboards from Dixons or Woolworths. Very odd.

And it’s tinny, too. Very trebly. The original album’s tone was rich, almost luxurious. Listening to it was like dipping your finger in warm, melted chocolate and slowly, slowly licking it off. Listening to the original album is almost a sensuous experience. The new one? Not so much. It’s more dancy, more techno. In places, thought not all the way through, the production is so overblown and melodramatic it sounds very late 80s/early 90s; like something Trevor Horn would have produced for Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

This is all sounding very negative so far, and I don’t want to be. WOTW:TNG is still a fantastic listening experience, and again, if *this* was the first album I’d be ranting and raving about it… but it isn’t, and the ghost of “War of The Worlds Past” is standing behind it, shaking its head sadly and rattling its chains.

Listening to the new album I really was struck by how absolutely hit-the-nail-on-the-head perfect the casting was for it. Everyone on that album was just perfect. No-one seemed out of place or sync. Richard Burton… Ah, The Voice… hiring him for that gig was an absolute stroke of genius, pure genius. From the very first time he opens his mouth, purring out that immortal line “No-one would have believed…” he is totally believable, likeable. Human. In contrast, Liam Neeson – who I had fully expected to be every bit as grand and epic, having heard him in many films – is cold and monotone and really doesn’t connect with the character, or the story, at all. I didn’t believe a word he said, or a situation he was in, sorry. And having heard him in three films now as the voice of Aslan, yes, I did expect him to say, at the end of Disc 1,  “Susan… Lucy… this is a dark time for all of us… Narnia belongs to the martians…”

I wish Patrick Stewart had been given the role of Narrator, that would have been awesome. His tones and gravitas and sheer presence might have swamped the rest of the record tho.

Justin Hayward was always going to be a hard act to follow for “Forever Autmn” but Gary Barlow does it brilliantly. He sounds fantastic, just wonderful on the track. The problem is with the track’s new production – it now sounds very “Hey Nonny Nonny”, with what I think are flutes or pan pipes of some sort chirruping away in the background. And again, very tinny and sharp.

Then there’s the Artilleryman, a role played by David Essex back in the day, you may remember. His replacement, Ricky Wilson from the Kaiser Chiefs, does a pretty good job, and is very keen, he really throws himself into the role, but unlike Essex he can’t act, and goes a bit over the top sometimes. He sounds a bit too posh too, I thought (personal minor niggle, I know, but like I said, you just can’t help comparing the new to the old, in anything), but he gives it a very good go, so all credit to him. (Have to acknowledge a brilliant Tweet I read… “Watching the martians get lairy… oh… I predict a riot…” hehe) Who would I have used instead? I’d have loved to hear Justin Currie giving it a go, that would have been fun.

On the original album, Julie Covington played the role of  “Beth” the parson’s wife, and she absolutely brought it to life, her voice full of angst and pain, and loss, every word crystal clear and sharp as a dagger blade. The New Generation’s Beth is bare-footed, wild-haired, soul singer Joss Stone, who has a *fantastic* voice, but clearly and sadly can’t act for toffee. And acting *is* needed on this album, for all the characters. WOTW is essentially a play recorded as a double album. Stone sounds great when singing – and only wanders off on a Mariah Carey hit-all-the-notes-at-least-once warble once – but whenever she spoke I didn’t believe her like I believed the original Beth. Who would I have used instead? You might laugh, but listening to the track I really wished Charlotte Church has been given the gig. That would have worked better. Or Katherine Jenkins, who showed she can act in the Dr Who Christmas Special a couple of years ago.

…which brings me to The Parson, played to manic perfection by Thin Lizzy’s Phil Linnott on the original, of course, and now played by Maverick Sabre. Yes, I know, I had to look him up too. And, perhaps predictably, he can’t fill Phil’s shoes, in fact he doesn’t even come close. Not manic enough, not tortured enough, not crazed enough.

So much for the cast. What about the tracks on the album?

EVE OF THE WAR remains a musical masterpiece because thank the lord they haven’t tinkered with it too much. From the opening chords it grabs you by the throat, shakes you, and shouts “Listen to THIS!!!” in your face. All the original elements are there, though it has been jazzed up a bit and definitely sounds and feels more like a dance track than the original. I have to be honest and say that it actually puts across more of a sense of urgency and imminent peril than the original, and the extra “Schtummmpppp!!!” at the end of some lines – meant to sound, I’m guessing, like the foot of a martian war machine thumping down onto the earth – works better the more you hear it. Liam Neeson narrates through it, as Richard Burton did, but he’s a pale immitation, no drama in his voice, quite flat and dull I thought. But the music behind him is magnificent and sets the scene for the rest of the album.

HORSELL COMMON AND THE HEAT RAY: still a good track, but can’t help thinking a lot of the sense of tension and menace has been lost.

ARTILLERYMAN AND THE FIGHTING MACHINE: Hmmm. Ok. All a bit of a warm-up act for the next track tho…

FOREVER AUTUMN: …which is just such a classic song that they’d have had to work REALLY hard to spoil it. They have tinkered about a bit with it tho, making it sound a lot more like a folk song, as I said very “hey nonny nonny” in places, and if you’re used to singing along to the original you’re going to have one of those toe-curlingly embarrassing “Oh no!” moments when you start to sing a line but it’s Not The Right Time because they’ve added a bit extra. But the spirit of the song remains the same, and Gary Barlow is a very safe pair of hands, and with his beautiful voice he does the song, and its pivotal place in the story, justice.  And, of course, it leads into the Grand Finale of Disc 1 which is…

THUNDER CHILD: Anyone who grew up loving WOTW just has to hear the name “Thunder Child” for the hairs to stand upon the back of their necks and their pulse to start racing. Thunder Child’s story is one of heroism and sacrifice, and fleeting victory followed by heartbreaking defeat. The new version of WOTW thankfully doesn’t mess with that, and the track is pretty loyal and true to the original, tho I have to be honest, I really did find Liam Neeson’s narration lacking here. Richard Burton’s narration brought this track to life, and had you cheering and then crying, living the events described in the song; Neeson sounds like he’s reading a  script. Neeson goes through the motions, whereas Burton lived every word. Ah, the difference between a good actor and a great actor, I suppose.

So endeth Disc 1 – with an unnecessary booming echo effect thrown in for good measure, and what are, I think, supposed to be some martians talking to each other in native martian, which sounds an awful lot like Welsh. I couldn’t help wondering if Merlin had been woken from his centuries old slumber by the crashing of the martian cylinders and was casting spells at them.

Hello Disc 2…

RED WEED: Yes, Red Weed is still there, and it’s still boring, still drones on for what seems like a year, and is still the track you skip to get to The Good Stuff.

SPIRIT OF MAN: One of the highlights of the original for me because of the chemistry between “Beth” and her Parson husband. On the new album, neither of the singers involved really lives up to their predecessor’s soaring vocal achievement, and it all gets a bit strained. And there are LOTS of annoying extra sound effects in this track, which okay, bring it up to date in terms of sounds and technology, but were they needed? Really? I don’t think so.

ARTILLERYMAN RETURNS: Well, it’s just an intro to the next track really…

BRAVE NEW WORLD: After “Eve Of The War” this is my favourite track on the whole album,the one I’ve played over and over and over,  so I was excited/terrified to learn what The New Generation had done with it. And, well, it is quite the techno/military dance track now. It features some new and truly ghastly keyboard sounds, too. Ricky Wilson does his best, bless him, to make the Artilleryman sound ambitious and driven, if delusional, but he’s not got the same charm or charisma as David Essex, and whereas in the origiginal the Artilleryman is so sincere-sounding, so convinced, that you go through the song actually believing he might be on to something, Wilson just doesn’t have the same charisma. And at the end of the track, when the Artilleyman takes the narrator down into the cellar to show him his progress so far, the difference bentween original and new is stark: on the original album, the sense of disappointment in Richard Burton’s voice as he sees how little the soldier has achieved, and realises how impossible his exciting plans are, is utterly heartbreaking. On the new one, Neeson just sounds dismissive, cold, there’s no sense of defeat or despair, or surrender. Very disappointing. But, the track itself is a rollicking ride, very epic, very in your face, and again, if you hadn’t heard the original you’d think it was absolutely brilliant.

The two closing tracks, DEAD LONDON, aren’t much changed from their original versions, the only difference is Liam Neeson’s flat delivery of the narration which leads you through the ruins of the city to come face to face with the dying and then dead martians. He sounds about as lost and full of despair as someone who’s  gone into Greggs and been told they’ve sold out of sausage rolls.

The EPILOGUE is still there, untouched and unchanged I think – but for a new last line, which is so unnecessary, so corny and so jarring I wanted to rip my headphones off and hurl them in the river as I walked home from work. No. Just… no. No need for that at all. Shame on whoever shoe-horned that into the production.

So… that’s the music. That all sounds very negative, I’m sure, but honestly I don’t hate the album, it’s just impossible to listen to it and not compare it to the original, just as it would be impossible to listen to a “New Generation” recording of The Wall or Sgt Pepper. The good bits are fantastic, the bad bits are godawful and unnecessary, and inbetween there’s lots of “okay”. My overwhelming feeling after listening to the CDs a few times now is basically wondering why they bothered. There’s a lot of tinkering, a lot of fluffing up, a lot of jazzing up, but it doesn’t really sound much more modern than the original, and to me it just serves as a reminder of how utterly groundbreaking and epic and brilliant the original was.

WOTW: TNG i’s not a bad album, not by any means, and there will be fans of the original who will absolutely adore the remake, I’m sure. Some will love it more. And a whole – ahem – new generation of fans will listen to this without having heard the original and wee themselves with excitement. Which is fine; these are all just personal opinions on a blog, and I don’t expect a single person to agree with me, and many will probably disagree strongly. That’s ok. Music is  a very personal thing.

One last thing tho, and although I hate to end on a negative I just can’t let this one go. The accompanying booklet is absolutely beautiful, with some new paintings to illustrate the music which are a visual treat. It also features the ‘script’ of the album, all the spoken words not just the song lyrics, and when I flicked through it after opening it I wondered why some of the text was in gold rather than white, which most of the text is printed in. Turns out the gold text is *new* narration, extra lines spoken by the narrator or other characters. And honestly, I don’t think a single word of the new script was needed. The original was so perfectly written, aimed so pitch perfect at the listener, that it didn’t need touching, just as the text of Frankenstein, Wuthering Heights or The Martian Chronicles needs nothing adding to it. Reading the booklet after listening to the album I just wanted to cross out the new text with a red pen, like a teacher marking an essay or an editor going through a manuscript.

So, there you go, my review of “WAR OF THE WORLDS: THE NEW GENERATION”. It’s not a bad album, in fact as a stand alone musical work it’s exciting, vibrant and tells a cracking story. Listening to it is a rollercoaster ride, and you will get caught up in the story all over again, I promise you. But the original was better, and after listening to this new version you’ll love the original even more.

Calendar review: The Year in Space 2013

Writing a blog can be hard and lonely work (altogether now, awwwwwwwww!), but the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. You get to communicate with amazing people, and get to share your passion for your subject with readers too. But one of the greatest advantages is, I’ll be honest, that if enough people read what you write you sometimes get sent stuff to review.

I’m very lucky to be sent books and other things for review occasionally (and always try to be honest when writing about them, or there’s not much point doing it, is there?) and was recently sent a copy of a 2013 calendar which has been published incooperation with The Planetary Society for review. Very timely that was too, not just because I’ve actually been looking for a spacey calendar to hang on my own wall for the coming year, but because it gave me a kick to knuckle down and write a blog post making a real recommendation for a great Christmas gift for any readers looking for one…!

So, what’s it like?

Well, for a start, it’s big…

…and it is, frankly, beautiful just to hold. Heavy, glossy paper, mega-shiny, with absolutely perfect printing, it’s a very high quality product indeed. But inside it proves itself to be a great product…

Of course, calendars all do the same thing – they give you a table to fill in with personal information about events you have to go to, anniversaries, whatever. It’s what goes *in* that table, and *around* it, that makes the difference, and “The Year In Space” crams so much information onto its pages that it’s a wonder some of the words and pictures don’t come loose and fall out when you pick it up…

(Above: our cat, Chi Chi, sighs “Oh god, not *more* pictures of Mars…”)

As you can see from the picture above, showing November’s spread which focusses on Mars, the actual monthly table has lots of interesting and important space exploration and astronomy dates and anniversaries filled in, and very useful sky notes too, ensuring you won’t miss eclipses, meteor showers and the like. Moon phases are shown too, and interesting ‘random facts’ join in the party.

But it’s what’s around the monthly table that really sets this calendar apart from other “spacey” calendars available for next year. Most of those other calendars are, well, boring. The top page is a big picture, the bottom page is taken up with the monthly table, and that’s it. Opening “The Year in Space 2013″ is like opening a scrapbook, or a magazine and finding an article illustrated with beautiful photographs and diagrams (over 100, according to the blurb on the back). It’s just beautifully designed and laid out, too. The pictures have been chosen very well, and are complemented by profiles of figures from space exploration and astronomy, Fact Boxes, trivia, and more besides.

So, ok, a calendar is a calendar is a calendar, but this is a *beautiful* calendar, and a *useful* one too. It’ll not just look great on your wall, but you’ll find yourself using it as a reference too.

Very highly recommended.

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“The Year In Space 2013″ can be ordered online here…

http://www.YearInSpace.com/wall-calendar

Unfortunately it’s not available from UK dealers, but the company is happy to ship copies overseas at a discount.

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