Sunday, November 30, 2014

Renaissance Shines a Light in Natick

Photo by Esa Ahola 

As previously discussed on this site, longtime Renaissance singer Annie Haslam is a true survivor. Despite a recent half-decade of considerable setbacks (including the 2012 passing of guitarist Michael Dunford and ongoing personal health issues), Haslam remains determined to keep the group going after resurrecting the Renaissance name for a 40th Anniversary tour in 2009. As already evident of this year's extraordinary Symphony of Light album and made abundantly clear at the group's sterling October 30 performance at The Center for Arts in Natick, Haslam's talents and strengths are unshakable.

With past Renaissance keyboardist Tom Brislin (Yes/Meat Loaf) sitting in for current member Jason Hart, the band delivered an effortless overview of Renaissance’s best work, ranging from classics like “Mother Russia” and “Ashes Are Burning” to material from Symphony of Light. As strong as Haslam's unmistakable five-octave range was throughout the evening, her finest moments came when taking on new songs like “Symphony of Light, Waterfall” and “Grandine il Vento.” With good-natured between-song banter and onstage smiles throughout the evening, it was obvious that the current incarnation of Renaissance enjoys delivering this music to live audiences. Although Renaissance may not be a household name in the states, the members of their loyal following who gathered in Natick to take in the band's rich sounds were treated to an unforgettable experience.

Very few artists strive to top themselves after nearly 40 years in the business. In Annie Haslam, we see – and hear – an artist producing and performing her strongest work in the present tense.  

Renaissance and Annie Haslam online:


Saturday, November 15, 2014

"Hollywood Has It Wrong:" Uncovering the Truths of Voodoo with "Bight of the Twin"

(Author's note: Please check out my recent chat with Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and watch the video below to put the following article in a proper context.)

When was the last time you read about an interesting movie or play and decided to hop in your car and experience the event for yourself? Now, when was the last time you read about an intriguing culture in a different part of the world and jumped in a plane with a film crew – especially with Genesis Breyer P-Orridge in tow - to check it out without knowing what would happen? There are very few people who would be so daring, but Los Angeles-based artist and filmmaker Hazel Hill McCarthy III is one of them.

Hazel's friendship with Genesis dates back to 2009, when she was introduced to h/er by Kelly McKay of Swoon Magazine. The two instantly hit it off; before long, Hazel was doing design work on Gen's book Thee Psychick Bible (Feral House), and Gen was appearing at Hazel's popular performance space Show Cave. Fast-forward a few years, and Hazel finds herself inspired to see the Vodun Festival in Ouidah, Benin in West Africa after reading about it in The Guardian. She invites Gen to take the trip with her. A small crew is assembled. Airline tickets are booked for January 2014. Nobody really knows what is about to transpire as the first plane leaves the runaway. And then...they're off.

Let all of this sink in for just a moment. Here is a film crew packing up and heading to a part of the world that they knew very little about – and to a community that knows nothing about them - all for the purposes of investigating a controversial religion. And with Genesis – a pandrogynous Caucasian with blonde-dyed hair and gold teeth – along for the ride. Still, it all made perfect sense to Hazel.

“I had to remind myself multiple times that Genesis was different,” she offers. “I'm not saying that in a fanatic way or a repulsive way, but you kind of forget the facade – the outer shell, if you will...I think something that really attracted me to Genesis was actually being able to look at yourself with faults, being able to take changes and being able to be vulnerable. For some reason, with the life's work that Genesis has really embodied as a transformative cultural artifact, I just thought it would really interesting to examine that further in what seemed to be the most bizarre culture fit, but at the same time the most fitting culture fit. Voodoo is something that can be really looked at in a myriad of ways. The only way to fully experience it is with somebody who kind of lives that activation and that type of wonderment and spectacle...It feels right when I'm working with Genesis to kind of take a stab in the dark, but with the gut feeling that this stab in the dark is going to be something with some sort of purpose and a bigger message that we won't fully realize until we physically experience it.”

Fortunately, the chance paid off, with the people of Benin welcoming the crew with open arms.

“Everyone we met was really open, loving and accepting,” Hazel says. “They didn't acknowledge, 'Oh, you are different.' We bypassed that; we were people. 'Yes, you're white, but you're just like anybody else.' I think that was the most shocking part of the trip. We literally fell into place there.”

Photo courtesy of

Although most Americans live in a Web-connected age with plenty of information, Voodoo is still a very esoteric – and, for many, a downright frightening – subject. After all, “Voodoo” is about gore, violence and exploring the “dark side,” right? So why would Genesis call it a “religion of kindness” when we spoke about the project earlier this year? What are the real truths about Voodoo that a vast number of people in our culture seem to be missing? Bight Of The Twin will provide the answer to these questions.

“Specifically in Ouidah, the practitioners of Voodoo live a very coexistent life with other religions,” Hazel explains. “There's the Basilica [of the Immaculate Conception of Mary] in the main quarter, right next to The Python Temple, and a mosque is just another road behind. When they have actual functions and festivals, they allow all different religions to partake in it. Sometimes, practitioners of Voodoo are also Muslim and Christian. I hope to show through this film that Hollywood has it wrong.”

Two months ago, the crew made a second trip to Benin to continue filming. By then, flying to West Africa had become not only an adventure, but also a potential health risk as word of an ebola outbreak hit the world news.

“We had planned on going with a crew of six, including Gen,” Hazel recalls. “Two of the people who hadn't gone on the first trip pulled out before we left. They had major concerns with their own health and the risk of getting ebola.”

Despite the danger, the remaining crew soldiered on, seizing the opportunity to capture more footage for the film. In the spirit of repaying the hospitality of their hosts, the crew donated funds towards benches and desks for an elementary school in Benin. Not only had the filmmaker and her crew survived the ordeal, but they did what they could help children of Benin thrive.

Naturally, an undertaking like Bight Of The Twin cannot be possible without considerable funding. After a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign earlier this year, Hazel recently launched a page on Indiegogo to raise the funds to carry the film to the next stage of production. The campaign had seven days to go at the time of this writing. Hazel is aiming to have the film finalized in the spring, preceded by a rough cut in December.

A film as intriguing as Bight Of The Twin also needs the right kind of soundtrack. Enter Hazel's husband Douglas (best known for his work with Nitzer Ebb and Recoil), who signed on to provide music via DJMREX, his current project with LA electronic music vet Cyrusrex. Taking isolated sounds taken from field recordings in Benin, Douglas and Cyrusrex used modular synths to create unique musical accompaniments. Along the way, frequent Skinny Puppy collaborator Ken "Hiwatt" Marshall joined the team to help with the sound design and music production. The resultant music is nowhere close to what one might expect when considering a soundtrack to a movie based in West Africa.

“Given that it was a subject matter filmed in Africa, we wanted to keep clear of a kind of cliched combination of National Geographic and Paul Simon,” Douglas says.

In keeping with the spirit of the film, this music will be utilized in unexpected ways. For example, some of the film's more in-your-face moments could very well end up with soothing sounds in the background.

“There will be very intimate sacrifices [in the film]...Things will get really intense,” Hazel reveals. “When there's that intensity, the last thing you want is some jarring music that is just overpowering the image. Then it just becomes this flatline nothing; you're not really sure what to hold your attention to. So the idea is to really juxtapose the music with the imagery.”

Of course, this isn't the first time Douglas has been involved with a P-Orridge-related project. His first experience creating music around h/er happened in the mid '90s – even if he didn't know it at the time. At the urging of his friend Mary Byker (Gaye Bykers On Acid/Apollo 44), Douglas hit the stage and sang at a Pigface show at Saint Andrews Hall in Detroit. He would be reminded of this event years later.

“As I got to know Gen after Hazel had worked on the book, we were in LA swapping stories,” he recalls. “We were talking about the Detroit show. It was difficult to tell because Pigface had about 12 people onstage – and nobody was particularly coherent or especially sober - [but] we were actually on the stage together! Without knowing it, we had performed with one another.”

For Douglas, some of the most “intimate and emotionally charged events” surrounding the Benin journey involved the ceremonies where Genesis reconnected with Lady Jaye. For these “visibly raw” moments, the crew was reduced to just Douglas and Hazel. What they captured was a deeply personal chapter in the ever-evolving narrative of P-Orridge's existence.

“Gen is coming to the end of h/er life story,” Hazel says. “There's been so much baggage and non-resolution. If you see her life pattern, things have been very much on the fringe of society...I think this documentary is looking less at trying to glorify Genesis, but take the human condition that we all have and kind of amplify it through h/er experience in Ouidah. It's a little like a fish-out-of-water story, but fundamentally it's h/er experiencing something that s/he's been practicing. This isn't a fluff piece about someone of greatness at accomplishing life figuring out the origins of Voodoo in the one month in total that we spent there, and this isn't proposing to understand Voodoo. It's just trying to understand the human condition through this really interesting experience.”

Photo courtesy of

Humbled by his travels in Benin, Douglas has learned to see things like flight delays and other inconveniences for what they truly are – first-world problems at a time when so many in other parts of the world have so little.

“I remember coming back from LAX to our home and just being kind of shocked at how much concrete there was, and how many people and cars there were,” he says. “We had only been away for two weeks...It really does affect you that deeply.”

“There's a closed-mindedness in the West that you don't feel when you go to Benin,” adds Hazel.

Above all, Bight Of The Twin will showcase a brilliant example of what is possible when inquisitive people leave the comfort of their surroundings to explore elements of humanity that are simply unattainable with a Mac.

As Hazel says, “There's still stuff out there, and [this project] kind of takes the chance of stepping away from your computer to find those things and really, fully experience them.”


Sunday, November 2, 2014

ALBUM REVIEW - Sonny Vincent & Spite: Spiteful

Supergroups can be tricky. Too often, the lofty expectations generated by the names listed on the album cover are decimated once the lukewarm reality of the album's music greets the understandably bummed listener. For one reason or another, projects of this nature tend to highlight the lowest common denominator of each individual contributor when they should reflect the very best that each musician has to offer. Simply put, far too many “supergroups” whimper when they should wail. (I don't need to name names; just look at your record collection and you’ll see that I'm right.)

Where does Sonny Vincent & Spite's Spiteful fit into all of this? First, let's have a look at the cast of characters. Of course, there's Vincent, New York Punk veteran and legendary Testors frontman, on vocals and guitar. On bass, we have Glen Matlock from The Sex Pistols. The drumming is handled by none other than the great Rat Scabies of The Damned. And then things go way over the top...On saxophone, Steve Mackay from the mighty Stooges.

Let that sink in...We have a singer/guitarist who's been at this game for a good 35 years, the guy who wrote “Pretty Vacant on bass, the original drummer from one of history's greatest bands and a guy who played on Fun House. This is some serious, serious business – enough to make one reluctant to actually play the record out of fear of having his or her incredibly high hopes dashed. Thankfully, Spiteful will go down in history as one of the very few occasions where something like this absolutely works.

Blazing out of the gate with the all-out “Dog On The Subway” and wrapping up with the deceptively calm “Clouds,” Spiteful doesn't let up for a second. Boasting 14 tracks in under 35 minutes (perfect!), the album showcases some of the strongest, no-fucking-around Rock music committed to disc in decades. Shades of L.A.M.F., Blank Generation and Young, Loud And Snotty abound, while Vincent and Co. have more than enough spark in them to give latter-day Punk Rock 'N' Rollers a guide to doing it right. Highlights include the raucous, dirty Blues of “Silver,” the Mackay freakout on “Thief Of Words” and the sterling love song “Now That I Have You.”

In a world of literally thousands of “Punk” bands, it takes a bunch of middle aged guys to plug in and peel the paint off the walls to remind us of what the real deal is all about. There are guys who can play it, and there are guys who are it. Give Spiteful a listen to immediately recognize the difference.

(Note: This review is based on the track listing on the promo CD provided to the author. The tracks and song order referenced above might be different on the final commercial release.)

The behind-the-scenes story of the making of Spiteful is available HERE.