Saturday, December 30, 2017

2017 Year in Review

So, another year comes to a close and I'm really pleased I kept the blog as I can get some good stats on what I've done...

In 2017 I...
...saw 83 new films with my favourite being The Handmaiden and Baby Driver, both of which I saw twice. If The Prince Charles Cinema ever opened flats above the cinema I'd seriously consider living there as I visited the place 19 times including 2 overnight events and 5 double/triple bills. At just over 24 hours the Harry Potter marathon was the longest marathon I've attended to date.

...saw 75 live acts, including support and festival acts, which is an incredible number and I now want to try for 100 in 2018. Joe Goddard was the artist I saw the most with 5 appearances, Soulwax and DJ Yoda took second place with 3 appearances. I walked out of 2 gigs early; Tegan and Sara, whose latest album wasn't as good as their last and they pushed the feminist cause a bit too much this time around, and Dirty Vegas where I thought I was getting their old sound and we got their new, which was completely different and not something you could listen to.

...rode 64 new rollercoasters, which I'm also happy with. My love for rollercoasters has all but gone now but I still want to reach 2000 before I completely stop. This year I did reach 1900 but then discovered 2 had moved and ridden twice so I finish the year on 1898. I'm not currently planning to ride enough in 2018 so I think the hobby needs to run for a little while yet. Of those I did ride this year my favourite was probably Flying Dinosaur at Universal Studios Japan. My favourite park was Lagunasia, also in Japan, which I squeezed into the trip as an impulse visit. The ride selection was completely random and as a fan of quirky thing, that place ticked that box.

I am really pleased that I saw more live bands than rode rollercoasters; it's in that direction I'm headed now.

...visited 8 countries (11 if I include flight transfer locations): Macedonia, Kosovo, Croatia, Belarus and Kazakhstan were all new, UAE, USA and Japan were revisits. I transferred in Iceland, Russia and South Korea. My holidays were all great although I'm still recovering from the bite I got in Japan. I'll have that souvenir for a while yet :)

...ticked off 2 new US States, Wyoming and South Dakota. 8 to go!

...saw my 24th Cirque du Soleil show, Reflekt in Astana, Kazakhstan. As a one-off show it's a rare one to get and it wasn't bad at all. I also saw Amaluna for a third time at the start of the year.

So, all in all, a very solid year.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Event: Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire

Disclaimer: This post does not give too much of the VR experience away. There are other pages out there if you want that.

It's no secret that I've always been a fan of VR, doing some research on it whilst at university, but frustrated that the technology wasn't where the ideas needed it to be. But that was (cue star wars intro) a long time ago, and the technology has now caught up and is now affordable for people have their own setups at home.

As a theme park enthusiast I've also seen VR be adopted by most of the big amusement park chains but it has been implemented for the most part as a retrofit to existing rides as an incentive to pump new interest into them. This for the most part hasn't been received well, due mostly in part to the operational challenges that come from trying to get a train full of public wearing headsets on and off rides that weren't designed for it. The budget on some of the visuals is also questionable relying on cartoony visuals that don't really work. Someone has clearly sold the industry a virtual snake oil that will be a short-term gimmick at best - the same could be said of the cinema industry's attempt to get public interest in 3D cinema; the backlash there is already underway.

The future of VR isn't bleak however as we're seeing dedicated VR centres now opening up that offer experiences tailored the technology rather than the retrofitting we've seen to date. I've been to a small number of these from short-term pop-up zombie themed experiences to the more cutting edge centres like Hub Zero in Dubai and the recently opened VR Zone in Shinjuku, Japan. This is the future of the industry in my opinion and how VR needs to work.

Leading the charge in the next generation of VR experience are a company called The Void. Originating from Utah, they're a company that are specialising in all facets of the VR experience from the visual experiences, to the kit and the environments. Where they differ from most experiences is that the focus much more on the immersion elements blurring the real world with the virtual. So, how do they do this? The biggest trick is to include a physical representation of the virtual world. In most virtual games you're prevented from reaching the boundaries of the world; imagine if you were to bump into a wall if you did so in the game. So The Void use tracking technology to locate the individuals within a physical environment. The immersion is so much stronger when you can interact with the world. Then they introduced motion, sounds and smells to make the experience even more immersive. Multi-sensory immersion is their USP.

During a US road trip a few years ago I was hoping to take my group to their beta-test centre in Utah to get some early insight into what they were up to. However the bad news was that in the weeks leading up to the holiday they announced they wouldn't be in the state on the dates of my visit. But the good news was that their reason for this was that they'd been signed up by Merlin to commission their first public VR experience, The Ghostbusters attraction at Madame Tussauds in New York City. This was excellent news and so it wasn't long before I was planning a trip to the state to see what they'd come up with...and I was blown away with an experience that has left me remembering the smell of toasted marshmallow to this day. During my visit there I had a chance to speak to some of The Void staff on-site and we had a small chat on where their tech was going next; I got a "watch this space" response which led me to believe they were no flash-in-the-pan operation, and I knew that other park chains must have been as blown away by what they'd done as I had. A second installation of the Ghostbusters attraction in Toronto soon followed and a short-lived run in Dubai helped put them on the map a little bit more. 

Then in 2017 an announcement was made that I just couldn't have predicted. The biggest player in the theme park industry Disney had signed them up and given them their biggest licence, Star Wars, as the theme to a new VR attraction that had been advertised as opening in both their Orlando and Anaheim parks. With me already having a plan to visit the former in November 2018, I was buzzing at knowing I'd soon by visiting their next project, and being a Star Wars fan (who isn't) made this even more special: Ghostbusters was great, yes but Star Wars is just a different kind of special! November 2017 comes around and they formally open up the ticket purchasing website and I see the two sites, and a third...London. A total WTF moment then followed where I couldn't believe what I was seeing. This came out of nowhere; a Void installation in my hometown! It didn't take much effort for me to recruit three friends from work to join me and that day our tickets were booked. Call me a fan, I'll happily agree.

The London installation is a temporary site with a 12-week lease located in the central atrium of the Westfield Shopping Centre in Shepherd's Bush, West London, easily accessed via the Central Line.  Tickets are around £32 and for that you get a total experience of around 30 minutes; half of that spent in the VR world. There is a short pre-show giving you an overview of the mission you'll be undertaking (using an actor from one of the films) and it takes a few minutes to kit up and get calibrated. It may not seem like a lot of time for the money but believe me it's worth it and you could easily spend more than that in the same amount of time in many of the shops that surround it. You also don't want to be in the virtual experience for too long; one of our group took a little while to climatise back to the real world once we were out. The maximum group size is 4 and the staff do a great job pulling individuals together into custom squads so don't think you can't go on your own.

A lot of VR experiences have you cabled to a machine restricting the movement. There is no such restriction here but for that to happen you need to carry the tech on you so there's a backpack you have to wear to which the headset connects. The backpack is attached to a jacket that you have to wear and they've done a great job customising this to be comfortable and not restrictive in any way. You quickly feel at one with the kit, more so once you're in the first room and you see your groups virtual alter-egos for the first time. It's no surprise that you are stormtroopers (that has already been revealed in the trailer) and that was my first wow moment; there's something nostalgically cool about being in the white body armour, and it doesn't matter that it's only virtually. The group quickly gets use to each other being like this. Then you realise you can see your hands in the virtual world and can move fingers in the virtual world even without the need for gloves. There must be some very clever technology somewhere on the headset that can detect finger movements and render them in realtime. The rendering does glitch occasionally usually when once person gets close to another but it's no detraction from what is going on.

The experience has you going through a number of interior and exterior sets en route to your mission with some puzzle solving along the way. There are shooting sections, dizzying sections (I was literally touched by one of my team holding onto my arm during one ascent part). They do something to the temperature in some of the scenes; most of the group emerged at the end with a noticeable amount of sweat on us, and we were shot...we were shot a lot. The cliche that stormtroopers can't aim didn't appear to be the case in this and you realise that there is more to the jacket than first seems. I subsequently found out that some of the shots that hit me were from my own team who just wanted to see what could be done with the guns. Ghostbusters has a great section where Slimer flies through you. We didn't have something with quite that impact here, but nothing in that attraction shot at you; there's plenty that do here.

The immersion was so strong that at one point we found ourselves backed into a corner unable to remove the enemy in our way. As they got closer the realisation we had nowhere to go and death was imminent really cranked up the intensity of the attraction. I'm guessing it's scenes like that which have meant kids under 10 can't take part. This may lead to some upset punters should they not read the small print. Given the marketing behind the Star Wars licence, and it being Disney owned, the idea that it isn't for all kids is something that I'm sure the PR department is already prepared for (more an American problem than a British one admittedly).

The installation itself contains two stages each with it's own queue, pre-show room and equipment racks. This helps the throughput incredibly and ensured queuing was kept to a minimum. In fact the staff were doing such a good job that we were able to enter before our allocated time. Online purchases are recommended, more so as word on this spreads, but there were people paying on impulse. 

So, I'm already an old-hand at these VR things, but the rest of my group were all new to this with their previous best VR attraction being the Derren Brown Ghost Train ride in Thorpe Park, an attraction that has been beset with technical issues throughout its 2-year existence. We were all blown away with what The Void has done and we're all already planning our return trips with other friends, and this is the best way The Void are going to become even more successful. The immersive experience they've delivered is that strong that it's putting bums on seats, even if they're virtual stormtrooper bums on a mocked up seats. It's now known how much the experience changes depending on what you do within it; I'll know more the next time I go...and that won't be too (cue intro again) far far away.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Film: The Last Jedi

It's that film, and it doesn't matter what I write here you've probably already seen it if you're into it and dismissing those who have if you're not interested. So as not to spoil it for the tiny minority who have yet to see it here are some random thoughts.

It's long but interest is kept throughout.
The scene with the iron is funny.
The sound effect designers must have had a field day in the scene where one spaceship is flown into another.
Silence works.
Those puffin things are annoying but not Jar Jar Binks annoying.
Those who died live and those who live die. It's a bit odd.
If it only took one bomber to destroy the space ship at the start, why send them all out?
I thought we'd get more of the silver lady stormtrooper.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Gig: Soulwax @ The Roundhouse

My final gig of 2017 and in a year that I've done really well from a live music perspective it was good to make a return trip to a band I've seen twice already this year. Soulwax's current show is incredible and this time around we made sure we were down the front for the entire show.

Support came from The Future Sound of Antwerp, which I am going to guess are signed to the Soulwax label. They played twice with different lineups each time; one looked like a 60's porn star, one looked very urban and the final one looked like Joe 90, but he was also a roadie for the Soulwax band. All a bit strange but their sound was a little eclectic with some tracks working and some not. We also had Joe Goddard in support, who I think we've seen 4 times this year not including his appearance in Nando's before the show. 

The Soulwax 3-drummer show is still incredible and a must-see if they're in your town. I think they're off to Australia and New Zealand following this leg.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Gig: Correspondents @ Electric Brixton

The Correspondents are an electro-swing act that I first saw a couple of years ago and remember fondly for the lead singer, Bruce's ability to throw himself around the stage more than Leeroy from The Prodigy. Earlier in the year they announced a 10th birthday bash with support coming from The Nextmen, Rob Da Bank, DJ Yoda and Krafy Kuts. I rarely miss a Yoda set and have yet to see Kuts so this was a must-do night.

The Nextmen opened with a reggae set, and that was continued by Rob who moved it into a swing set towards the end. The Correspondent's then came on with an excellent 90 minute set. I like their swing stuff but much prefer their jungle and drum and bass with some excellent toasting from the singer. 

They're a band that deserve to be more popular than they are but given the response of the crowd, they do have a great following (even if some of them don't know how to catch a diving singer). The night was great and Yoda followed it up with a classic hip hop set. By the time his set had finished I was shattered and didn't have the energy to stick around for Krafty Kuts. There will be another time.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Event: Bug 57

The final Bug of the year and probably for a few months as host Adam Buxton is taking some time off (can we get the guest presenters again please?)

A nicely composite piece by Arno Salters for General Elektrik's track "Different Blue" opened the show

I liked Gorillaz first album but I'm not feeling the new stuff. The video for "Garage Palace" was alright with a nice 16-bit look to it but the track sort of washed over me.

OK Go are a definite for Bug and their latest video for their track Obsession was chosen on this occasion. A clever piece using lots of printers (including a few that misbehaved) done to a time-lapse to create a clever animation. This got the youtube treatment with lots of debate around whether it was a waste of paper or not; the funniest comment not giving a stuff about the paper but criticising the use of toner instead.

A terrible track with a rapper described as sounding like a muppet however the video saved it. A technically simple trick that reminds me of riding Hex at Alton Towers. Is the camera moving or the room?

Flying Lotus was up next. His sounds are hit and miss but the videos are clearly put together by people under the influence of something. Apparently he's done a film that's full of this. One to watch with your friends no doubt. 

Then we had a rather slow, sleep inducing track by someone called Sevdaliza. I can't say I liked either the track or the video - sorry!

This interactive video was quite clever and features a huge array of clips joined together like a Fighting Fantasy books us nerds read as kids. It's a fun way to make the video stand out. If you go via this link there's apparently a prize.

If you're going to sing a song about breaking up with your girlfriend and it's going to be a tear jerker for most (not me) then make the video special too. That's what the guy behind Dirty Projectors did. I'll remember the video more than the music for sure.

This year's Blue Dot festival was going to have a Welsh mining theme to it with a number of colliery bands playing and the latest album from Public Service Broadcasting having a mining theme too. Sunday headliners Alt-J have a  track called Pleader which also fits. However the PSB couldn't show up so the theme wasn't advertised as heavily as expected. This is a short film to the Pleader track. I don't like alt-j and didn't see them on the Sunday. Not a fan of this one.

Last year Bug played "Virile" by French music outfit The Blaze, and it became a track I played a lot through the year. The video was memorable and this one for their track "Territory" is very similar, almost documentary like and focusing on the poorer class in Algeria. There's a great bit where the on-screen action matches the music perfectly which made it stick in my head. Virile is a much better track though.

My favourite video of the night was also the most simplest with the girls from Haim doing a lightly choreographed piece to their song "Want You Back". This video was supposed to feature a car but following at traffic accident they had to re-plan and this what they came up with. This is great though. The raising camera at the end reminded me of the video to "It's Oh So Quiet" by Bjork.

We ended the show with a clever use of a feedback loop to create a video by The Academic for their track "Bear Claws". When you stream to Facebook there's a delay and the band have made use of that to create this nicely layered looping version of their track. I'd seen this before the Bug but it was still good to see it on a big screen.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Graffiti: Barbican and Shoreditch

With time to kill before a gig I thought I'd go and check out the Banksy pieces that had appeared whilst I was on holiday, and then a quite night time walk around Shoreditch (so apologies for the yellow photos).

These are the Banksy pieces. I'm not sure what I think of them. He's done better but I guess we have to be thankful for the few pieces that do pop up. He's been very quiet of late.

This on the Village Underground wall is a plug for Beck's new album.

Gig: Confidence Man @ Xoyo

An act that is dividing opinion, Australian pop-band Confidence Man came to London as part of their global Ring-A-Ding tour. They were recommended as a band to like if you liked LCD Soundsystem but having heard their stuff whilst the music was well constructed and probably where the comparison came from, with the vacuous vocals over the top their sound is much more on the poppy end of the spectrum. They also had a small catalogue of tracks with just 3 singles released and a rumoured first album in the new year. So I was going into this with low expectations.

They're fronted by a man and woman who are not the best dancers (by their own admission) but they are very enthusiastic and with a little bit of choreography get away with it. The music comes from 2 unrecognisable chaps in black beekeeper masks; we'll it's cheaper than Daft Punk or Deadmau5's headpieces. 

We had a couple of breaks where the singers would go off and refresh or change costumes but the music was kept playing throughout, and the music was all very good although the best tracks were the ones they've released.

The set came in at just under an hour, with more music behind them they'll obviously be longer but their set worked well and I can see them doing very well on the festival circuit. Their music will get any crowd going.

One to keep an eye on for sure.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Gig: Orbital @ Hammersmith Apollo

A sold out tour saw the Hartnoll boys back in London for a night playing to an older fan base than at gigs I usually go to, but having been around on and off since the 90s this was never going to be in any doubt.

The set was great with a raised stage and plenty of screens, lights and lasers to keep us busy. The band wore their signature light goggles too and took us through a long set consisting of a couple of new tracks but mostly older tunes, which have all stood the test of time very well. 

the best track was their reworked version of Satan which sounded heavy and incredible, powerful enough to leave most of us drained; the sound was in point tonight and helped carry tracks like this.

We got the Dr Who track to finish, something that wasn't played in Manchester the night before, and we all left very happy.

I didn't see their set at Blue Dot in the Summer as I was off seeing other acts. I am pleased I got to see them here though.

Film #63: Piranha

You know you're getting old when films celebrate their 40th anniversary. This 70s horror flick comes on the back of the success of ...