BBC Introducing Guernsey: February 2017 – WaterColour Matchbox and Of Empires

WaterColour Matchbox on BBC Introducing Guernsey

WaterColour Matchbox in the BBC Introducing Guernsey studio

Click here to listen to the show

As BBC Music Introducing moves on with its 10th anniversary that has so far included the relaunch of the Uploader tool for submitting tracks (click here to find out more), BBC Introducing Guernsey returned with another show highlighting new music from the islands.

This month’s live session came from WaterColour Matchbox. Live they are a prog-metal-grunge hybrid four-piece but it was founding duo Peter Mitchell and Mikey Ferbrache who joined me for the session, playing acoustic versions of tracks from their recently released debut album Fragments, Artefact and Ruins.

I also spoke to Jack Fletcher, frontman of Of Empires, about their upcoming new EP – the long-awaited follow-up to Stranger Sensations – and what the now Brighton based band have planned for 2017.

You can listen to the show thorough the BBC iPlayer or by clicking here.

Tracklist

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The Silverados – The Vault – 24/02/17

The Silverados

The Silverados

While I usually focus on bands playing original music in Guernsey, the island also has another side to its music scene, like most towns, with a vibrant set of cover bands playing in the pubs around the island.

These range from the likes of Stuck to the Ceiling and Day Release who emphasise the rock in their pop to Element 6 who are upbeat pop hits through and through and The Laird’s Chair who do their own traditional folk thing in the same spaces. Within this scene, comparatively recently formed four-piece The Silverados, have created their own rock ‘n’ roll flavoured niche.

Made up of four well-known faces from past bands, The Silverados are Susann Hatcher (vocals), Monty McMonagle (guitar), Dave Hatcher (bass and vocals) and Darran James (drums), so even before they started there was a certain expectation for those who know King Rat & The Soul Cats, The Johndoes, Nemesis and others.

Monty McMonagle of The Silverados

Monty McMonagle

Launching into a spot on version of Dick Dale’s Misirlou (or ‘the theme song to Pulp Fiction‘ to many) set the tone well as they delivered two hours of tunes with a strong rock ‘n’ roll and rockabilly vibe to them.

A couple of Stray Cats numbers followed before things diverted and we were treated to covers as varied as Snow Patrol, Elle King and Soft Cell but all with the same rockabilly twang and rhythm shaking their way through.

Although The Vault wasn’t that busy a few made it onto the dancefloor and it was clear that though many present hadn’t seen the band before (myself included) we were all highly impressed.

As anyone who’s knows them might expect while all four members of the band put on a good show it was Monty’s guitar work that was the highlight. He absolutely nailed the rockabilly riffs of Brian Setzer and Dick Dale on his Gretsch guitar and expertly converted the sounds of the poppier tracks into swinging blues and rock ‘n’ roll tones that made them sound like they’d always been played that way.

The Silverados

The Silverados

After a short break The Silverados second set took a similar format, this time starting with The Surfaris’ Wipeout before a few more Stray Cats tracks. This set had something of a looser feel to it as we got versions of Aerosmith, The Eurythmics and The Beastie Boys songs amongst others.

Closing on a reprise of Misirlou ended things on a high and, while this band certainly deserve a bigger and more energetic audience than the one they had tonight, they bring something different to Guernsey’s cover band scene that has potential to do that now rare thing of crossing over with some of the bands playing their own stuff on the island – and this will only be developed when Dave gets into the swing on his double bass!

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Hello America by JG Ballard

Hello America by J.G. Ballard book coverIt seems that the notion of The American Dream is one that keeps cropping up in my reviews recently, most notably with La La Land and Straight Outta Compton, so it feels natural, if strangely coincidental, that I now look at a book that seems to take that dream and turn it into a kind of twisted nightmare.

While J.G. Ballard is well-known for his dystopian science fiction visions from the likes of High-Rise and Crash, Hello America was not one I was familiar with when its blurb and cover caught my eye, but from the off its clear that it bears certain resemblances to the story of Lang in the tower block.

Here our hero is Wayne, a young stowaway from a back to basics Europe of the 2100’s, who has snuck aboard a vessel sailing for an evacuated USA. It’s 100 years since North America was abandoned in the face of an energy crisis as oil ran dry and the once most powerful nation on Earth was laid to waste by climactic devastation.

Arriving in this New World wasteland Wayne and the members of the expedition head off from a derelict New York to Washington DC and beyond.

The journey and the relatively mysterious lead male protagonist are certainly familiar from High-Rise, though Wayne feels far more sympathetic than Lang and the eventual arrival of the equivalent to Royal reveals a far less sympathetic antagonist. Along with this the general sense of growing disaster as the story goes on is similar to High-Rise but on a far grander physical scale.

JG Ballard

JG Ballard

What sets it apart is a sense of optimism, particularly in the first half, where Wayne’s vision of ‘The American Dream’ is infectious and really sucked me into the adventure, much as it does some of his fellow travellers, and the way Ballard paints the landscape of the ‘Great American Desert’ is masterful and hugely visual.

The first half of the book builds the tension to breaking point with what feels like a climax in the depth of the desert before Ballard throws a marvellous curve ball that almost resets things but goes on in eventually more disturbing and absurd ways as Wayne’s dream becomes a real American Nightmare – to say much more would be too much of a spoiler.

The fact that Wayne dreams of being 45th president of the USA is particularly pertinent given recent real world events, but that’s just a ‘happy’ coincidence, but there is clearly a political message at the heart of Ballard’s writing coming as this did at a time when a former film star had recently entered The White House.

Hello America original artwork

The cover of the first edition of Hello America

As well as the politics there is an ecological message which is writ large and obvious throughout though has lost none of its necessity and power since the book was released in the early 1980s and some slightly heavy-handed consumerist points add another layer.

All of this does make Hello America‘s purpose a little unfocused but it is certainly trying to say something and, generally, succeeding.

Where it doesn’t succeed quite so well is in the second half of the story that almost becomes too absurd to take seriously, though it just about holds things together as it reaches a hugely tense and surprisingly cinematic climax – I’m amazed no one has twisted this into a big budget blast-a-thon blockbuster.

This makes Hello America a book that, while easier to read than High-Rise, less physically controversial than Crash and a little unfocused, is none the less enjoyable and bridges hard sci-fi ideals with readable adventure in a very satisfying fashion.

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The Resurrection of Jake the Snake

The Resurrection of Jake The Snake coverIn the late 1980s, while Hulk Hogan stood atop the world of professional wrestling, many other men less famous but (arguably) more hard-working formed the remainder of the ‘sports entertainment’ pyramid of the World Wrestling Federation.

One man who always stood out, captivating audiences with a sinister, quiet menace in the face of all the bluster and bombast, was Jake ‘The Snake’ Roberts.

If you’ve seen Darren Aaronofsky’s film The Wrestler you’ll have an idea of part of the story of what happened to Roberts, the man born as Aurelian Smith, once his time in limelight faded as he was one of the inspirations for Mickey Rourke’s Randy ‘The Ram’ Robinson.

Some of this decline was also documented, in allegedly sensationalised and unfairly represented form, in late 90s documentary Beyond The Mat.

The Resurrection of Jake the Snake, a crowdfunded project, acts as something of a sequel to that documentary as it picks things up in 2011/12 as Roberts made headlines on celebrity gossip site TMZ following a particularly tragic performance at an indie wrestling show that was videoed and shared online.

Jake The Snake Roberts and Diamond Dallas Page

Roberts and Page

From there, former wrestler and now life coach-cum-fitness guru, Diamond Dallas Page, who was mentored by Roberts early in his career, makes contact with The Snake and we follow their progress to the titular ‘resurrection’.

The film itself is fairly basically constructed with semi-talking head interviews with the protagonists and associates along with ‘fly on the wall’ footage ranging from yoga sessions to doctors visits to rather ‘reality tv’ level public confrontations which at times feel a little too invasive.

What this is does very well though is paint a picture of a man who, after a lifetime of abuse of varying descriptions, is finally beginning to overcome his own issues and learn about himself in a way he never had, while also shedding light onto the less glamourous side of the world of pro-wrestling that is rarely seen if all you watch is WWE sanctioned programming.

Diamond Dallas Page, Scott Hall, Jake Roberts and Steve Yu

Page, Scott Hall, Roberts and director Steve Yu

While the many moments of burly men crying and hugging could easily be ridiculous, much like the profession they all come from, there is a real heart and honesty present alongside an inspirational streak both in Page’s zeal and Robert’s struggles, both internal and external and his, eventual, overcoming them.

This gives us a great insight into the nature of addiction and overcoming it which is backed up by interviews with other wrestlers who’ve had similar problems such as ‘Goldust’ Dustin Runnels and the addition, half way through the film, of ‘Razor Ramon’ Scott Hall going through a similar situation to Roberts.

This all makes for a fascinating story, that, while it feels a little like an infomercial for Page’s DDP Yoga health system at times, is far more than the sum of its parts shedding light on the somewhat absurd world of professional wrestling and also issues around addiction that are frequently glossed over or not made in such an abrupt and impactful fashion.

Jake The Snake Roberts

The Snake in his late 1980s heyday

It also acts as a truly redemptive story for Roberts and Hall and triumphant tale for Page as, by April 2017, all three will be members of the WWE Hall of Fame which is, amongst other things, a sign of respectability for many former performers (despite what a few others have gone on to do since).

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Sound Guernsey: Asylum Seekas & Friends and Sons of a Maniac – The Fermain Tavern – 17/02/17

Sons of a Maniac

Sons of a Maniac

After taking a break in January following their great Christmas party night, Sound Guernsey returned to kick off February half-term with yet another night championing new live music for a young audience.

It was very much a night of two halves and brand new band Sons of a Maniac kicked it off, following a recent well received outing in a local Battle of the Bands.

Playing a mix of 90’s and 00’s pop-rock standards from the likes of Snow Patrol, Coldplay and The Red Hot Chilli Peppers the five-piece, while clearly nervous, sounded good. As they settled down their were moments where they found some really nice grooves and frontman Sam Ashcroft has something going on when he breaks through the nerves.

Above all though what came across and really worked for them was the sense of fun and enthusiasm they brought, with smiles all round throughout that were infectious and got through to the audience.

B-boy Dave Hyett

B-boy Dave Hyett

With something of a switch of tone Asylum Seekas’ DJ Minirol, took to the decks while the scene was set for a night of grime and hip hop by Dave Hyett getting a dance off going with his classic b-boy moves.

Inspired by him several of the crowd took turns showing off their moves while others gathered round to watch and cheer them on in what was a lot of fun.

As Test Switch took the place of Minirol the live hip-hop portion of the night got going with Lowlife.gy.

With a confident and legitimate feeling delivery, Lowlife was captivating from the off as he delivered a series of what felt like rough and ready, but impressive, sketches and he definitely has a presence on stage that went down well and kept some of the crowd breakdancing.

Lowlife.gy and Test Switch

Lowlife.gy and Test Switch

Jordan Mauger, aka Atari, was up next with Smellz on the decks delivering a more electronic inflected set of grime.

While his delivery was somewhat more proficient the tracks still felt like sketches rather than totally finished products and he seemed to have more trouble keeping a connection with the audience, possibly due to the more intense nature of his style for this more upbeat and fun-loving crowd.

Finally of the trio of new(ish) faces was Doyle, again along with Smellz, keeping a similar style to Atari but with a slightly lighter feel. Again the tracks felt like sketches but with a lot to like and some spot on delivery.

For all three of these young performers I’m not sure the audience entirely knew how to react (and I’ll admit as I often have, neither did I) but its great to hear something new and for both the performers and the audience to be exposed to something new and fresh.

Asylum Seekas

Asylum Seekas

As soon as Asylum Seekas hit the stage at full strength, with DJ Minirol alongside MC’s Jimi Riddlz and Apex, the dance floor of The Tav filled up and everyone seemed up for the energetic performance that was delivered.

Much like at past Sound Guernsey shows, Guernsey Bus was a highlight of the Seekas’ set with Jimi Riddlz heading into the crowd to get them singing along to the title.

While there were points where the audience began to drift after what had been a fairly intense hour or so of hip hop from the support acts, Asylum Seekas brought them back in towards the end of their set by setting up a freestyling game.

Asylum Seekas

Jimi Riddlz gets in with the crowd

With Minirol providing a bag of ten random items purchased from local budget store Poundworld, Apex and Jimi Riddlz freestyled around these in fun and lose but still impressive form, with everything from Marigold gloves and cardboard pirate hats to thermal socks and Chewit sweets coming out of the bag.

With a couple more tracks to close Asylum Seekas once again showed why they have been so popular for so long as they have some great lyrics and are like nothing else in Guernsey and, above all, they work damn hard at what they do on stage and it really pays off and once again did here bringing the night to a close on a high.

You can see more of my photos from the show on the BBC Introducing Guernsey Facebook page

Some of my photos were used alongside the review of the show in the Guernsey Press published on Saturday 25th February 2017:

Sound Guernsey review and photos - 25/02/17

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Straight Outta Compton (Director’s Cut)

Straight Outta Compton posterAnyone who’s read through many of the articles and reviews here will probably have noticed that despite my fairly broad embracing of musical styles, hip hop is something that I have, over the years, struggled to appreciate (though I have to credit both Asylum Seekas and DJ Oneofakind for their help with what I do like), so, coming to Straight Outta Compton, a film chatting the history of ‘gangster rap’ originators N.W.A., I did wonder how well I would connect with it.

It wasn’t long into F. Gary Gray’s director’s cut edition of the film though that, whatever the style of music being created in the story, two things connected me with it deeply.

First is that this is a story about youthful rebellion, much like rock ‘n’ roll and punk in decades prior, though arguably these youths had a lot more to rebel against.

Secondly is that this yet another of that most cliché of cliché’s for Hollywood, The American Dream – so much so that there were a couple of points that had me comparing Straight Outta Compton to La La Land which also uses this as a framework for its musical action.

Starting off by introducing to our protagonists, the young men who would soon become N.W.A., and particularly Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr, the original Cube’s son), Gray drops us right into the heart of the action.

Eazy-E (Mitchell) and Jerry Heller (Giamatti)

Eazy-E (Mitchell) and Jerry Heller (Giamatti)

We meet ‘E’ in the midst of a drug deal as it goes wrong and the LAPD intervene with something resembling a tank – if that doesn’t set up just how extreme the situation of inner city Los Angeles was in the early 1980s then nothing will.

Dre’s situation is somewhat more sedate though still troubled as he is kicked of his mother’s house, dreaming of making music while missing out on steady work, and Cube’s introduction comes with a gang hold up on a school bus.

From there the plot is fairly well trodden, the group hit an artistic and commercial high before becoming embroiled with the kind of music industry stuff that seems to catch up with all successful musicians eventually.

As it goes on the troubles get more extreme and it all comes to a bittersweet conclusion, but with a sense of hope. I’m sure if you care that much you’ll already know the story but as I didn’t I won’t spoil it anymore than that.

N.W.A. have a run in with the police

The scene supposedly inspiring for ‘Fuck tha Police’

What really makes this all work and be so captivating for its near three hours is that, while it’s clear some elements are fictionalised, the whole thing has a ring of truth to it whether in a literal or artistic sense and the performances are all excellent and entirely convincing.

Part of this may be down to that fact that I wasn’t familiar with any of the actors (besides Paul Giamatti who seems born to play sleazy managerial types) so as the cast all physically resemble the people they are playing to a degree they are able to inhabit them without baggage.

That goes for the smaller roles too as we meet the likes of Snoop Dogg and, briefly, 2-Pac as the film goes on really helping to place this in the wider context of the musical scene of hip hop at the time.

Jackson Jr as Ice Cube

Jackson Jr as Ice Cube

The other thing that really works in the film’s favour is how it uses the music it is talking about.

From scenes in studios (ranging from bedrooms to high-end industry facilities) to a recreation of a national tour, the music is used as part of the narrative, not just a byproduct of it, giving the film the feeling of being something of a musical, albeit in an unconventional sense.

This is highlighted by a concert in Detroit where a riot is instigated as the local constabulary try to shut down the show as N.W.A. unleash the vicious, and massively appropriate, Fuck tha Police.

As the film winds down things get more emotional and again the performances come to the fore with a more grown up feel.

Hawkins as Dr. Dre

Hawkins as Dr. Dre

It all climaxes not only with the sense that we’ve watched the story of a musical group, but we’ve experienced along with them the journey of five young men from adolescence to adulthood through some hugely tumultuous times and experiences.

Added to that is the notion (quite rightly) that this all had a genuine effect not just on these five men but on culture, politics and life not just in Compton, but the USA and around the world making Straight Outta Compton at once personal and political while having a lot to say about the troubled ongoing, real world, narrative of The American Dream.

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Star Trek Beyond

Star Trek Beyond posterBack when JJ Abrams rebooted the Star Trek franchise with the ingenious time twisting Star Trek back in 2009, adding a modern, action-adventure edge to the formula laid out by Gene Roddenberry in the mid-1960s and developed through to the 1990s, it seemed the series had found a new life.

However following Star Trek Into Darkness, a film that while enjoyable was riddled with plot inconsistencies and riffed a little too much of the series stone cold classic The Wrath Of Kahn, it seemed it had all lost steam as Abrams headed off to breath new life into Star Wars with The Force Awakens.

With Justin Lin at the helm Star Trek Beyond hit cinemas in 2016 with somewhat less fanfare, dwarfed by ‘the other Star franchise’, and so catching it now at home my expectations were somewhat lower…

Left to right: Chris Pine plays Kirk, Sofia Boutella plays Jaylah and Anton Yelchin plays Chekov in Star Trek Beyond from Paramount Pictures, Skydance, Bad Robot, Sneaky Shark and Perfect Storm Entertainment

Kirk (Pine), Jaylah (Boutella) and Chekov (Anton Yelchin)

Interestingly for those of us who’ve followed the series for a long time, Beyond starts out three years into the Enterprise’s first five-year mission as Kirk and his crew are exploring the boundaries of the Federation.

Here they encounter a new alien aggressor with, as one would expect, a suitably weaponised maguffin to kick off the kind of action adventure we’ve come to expect.

As expected it is Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Bones (Karl Urban) who provide the main core of the film but even more so than previously the rest of the main crew are all part of the action, particularly Scotty (Simon Pegg), Uhuru (Zoe Saldana) and Sulu (John Cho) all having more pivotal roles. On top of this we meet new character, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) who fits in well with the established cast.

star trek beyond krall

Krall (Elba)

Scripted by Pegg and Doug Jung, Beyond is, for the most part, all fairly formulaic and never really does anything to break the mould of either the previous two films, or big budget blockbusters in general but for the most part is a fun romp. That said it relies a little too heavily on the action side for Star Trek which loses something of what makes the original series what it is.

On top of this it suffers from having an antagonist who never really feels properly threatening as, while Idris Elba’s Krall starts off looking fairly mean and nasty, it’s not long before he becomes somewhat ineffectual leading to a denouement strongly reminiscent of Into Darkness but I never had the sense that Kirk and co wouldn’t prevail.

bones and spock

Bones (Urban) and Spock (Quinto)

There are also moments that put this clearly post-Guardians of the Galaxy giving it an occasional ‘wacky’ tone that doesn’t really suit, including a fairly major and pivotal music cue.

Despite all this Star Trek Beyond was a fun way to spend a couple of hours and while it won’t stick in the memory like some of its forbears, it maintains some of their essence, but for a third film in a row the highlight is Quinto’s Spock.

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WaterColour Matchbox – Fragments, Artefacts and Ruins

WaterColour Matchbox - Fragments, Artefacts & RuinsWaterColour Matchbox released their debut album, Fragments, Artefacts & Ruins, in the first week of 2017 having been working in the studio in the prior months and making their live debut only a few weeks previously.

Though they are a four piece band live, this album grew from lead duo Mikey Ferbrache (past producer for Tantale, Wondergeist and others) and Peter Mitchell (also of Wondergeist and Burning At Both Ends) who originally began as an acoustic duo before deciding to embrace their prog and metal interests and develop WaterColour Matchbox into a full band.

My review of the album was published in The Guernsey Press on Saturday 5th February 2017 and the album is available digitally through iTunes, Spotify, Amazon and others.

Watercolour Matchbox album review 04/02/17

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Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout by Laura Jane Grace with Dan Ozzi

Tranny Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout by Laura Jane Grace and Dan Ozzi book coverIn May 2012 Laura Jane Grace came out to the world as transgender via an interview in Rolling Stone magazine. At that point her band, Against Me!, had been going through a lot of transition themselves and this marked something of a watershed moment, not just for Grace herself, but for the band.

In her autobiography, Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout (written with Dan Ozzi) Grace explores her life and career up to this point in startling honest fashion.

The book starts in 1985 with Grace (then known as Thomas James Gabel) seeing Madonna on TV and the wheels are set in motion for her life both in terms of her personal development and her musical ambitions – of course stylistically, the music at least would go in somewhat of a different direction.

I won’t go into detail of her story, this would be the autobiographical equivalent of spoilers, but it follows a natural chronology starting with her life as child of a military family regularly moving from place to place and never forming solid foundations, something that comes into play as she moves into being a touring musician.

Laura Jane Grace

Laura Jane Grace

As the title of the book suggests the story has two main threads that Grace weaves together seamlessly. Each chapter loosely follows a section of her career based around an album or tour, especially once we get to the point to the point of Against Me! releasing their debut album, …Reinventing Axl Rose.

This is a fairly standard conceit and obviously makes logical sense for a musicians memoir, but, what lifts it beyond that is the combination of newly written passages and sections lifted from Grace’s extensive journals.

What this does is extraordinary as we get the view of Grace now, with not only hindsight but an almost entirely changed life, and the in the moment thoughts and views of Gabel at the time.

While the view taken rarely changes it gives the book a duality that only serves to hammer home the experiences of Grace’s dysphoria that, it is evident, were present from her early youth (certainly at least since seeing that Madonna performance).

Against Me! circa 2013

Against Me! circa 2013

These journals are fascinating as its clear Grace documented everything, really putting the reader in the moment with her at many key moments both for herself and Against Me!.

This makes for a very intense and personal experience, like we are a fly on the wall, or even closer than that. With that we share many nights with her on the bench seats of vans or bunks of tour busses, as well as the back of a police car or two, in a way I’ve never read in any other musician’s life story.

As a fan of Grace’s music I did wonder if her personal story would take preference but I’m happy to say that it doesn’t as it is clear throughout just how inextricably linked these two things are, more than comes across in many other such stories. That said the most fascinating stuff comes with her personal story and quite how she came to terms with her gender dysphoria and how she dealt with it (or didn’t) at different stages of her life.

Grace as Gabel

Grace as Gabel

It never paints transitioning or anything associated with it as a quick fix or an easy process as some flippant reporting of such has, both in relation to her and others. In this it does a great job of expressing the feelings she felt and what she went through that, as a cis-male, was one of the most valuable insights I’ve had into this.

The story of the band is one we’ve heard many times before with members falling out, life on the road extremes and just what its like to support metallers Mastodon on tour when you’re in a band playing punk rock.

But with this we get a look into the American punk scene from the late 1990s to the late 2000s. While this view is obviously that of Grace herself, it is fascinating to see the DIY end of things and how it relates (or doesn’t) to the mainstream world of pop-punk and what comes between.

This just adds fuel to Grace’s resilient fire as she faces off against former fans who now brand her and the band sellouts and how some came back round as this part of her story neared its end.

The final chapter and epilogue of the book change things up as Gabel’s journals are no more and we get pure Grace, rounding off her story in suitably open-ended but still satisfying fashion (for now) as we find out about the writing and recording of the Transgender Dysphoria Blues album and the reconstruction of Against Me! as, arguably, even more of a potent force than they ever were before and certainly a more focussed one.

Laura Jane Grace (and Atom Willard) of Against Me!

Laura Jane Grace (and Atom Willard)

All this makes Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout not just one of the most satisfying autobiographies but one of the most satisfying books I’ve read.

Like much of Grace’s music its fast, raw and honest while provoking thought and opening up a wider world of experience than most other does not and, given the subjects it deals with, it offers an invaluable and important insight into something not everyone will experience but everyone should be able to at least try to understand all in a very personal way.

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Royal Rumble 2017 – The Alamodome, San Antonio – 29/01/17

Royal Rumble 2017 logoWhile there’s no denying that WrestleMania is the WWE’s, and all of pro-wrestling’s, biggest event of the year, what comes second could be debated, is it NJPW’s January fourth show (this year WrestleKingdom 11), is it SummerSlam (WWE’s WrestleMania of the summer) or is it the Royal Rumble where WWE kickstarts its year and the ‘Road to WrestleMania’?

If be hard pressed to argue against the Rumble, not only is it a launching off point for WWE’s hottest season its name has entered the pop culture lexicon like few things from pro-wrestling ever have and, with supposedly more than 50,000 in attendance the 2017 edition of the show could well confirm my argument.

Even in the pre show it was clear that The Alamodome was a vast arena and a far better scale of this was given than in the 1997 event which also took place here and even as the warm up matches got under way the crowd was already huge.

Kick Off Show

Becky Lynch, Nikki Bella and Naomi vs Alexa Bliss, Mickie James and Natalya

While a women’s six-man tag match screams throwaway warmup match it was clear that all six competitors, Superstars if you will, didn’t want this to be seen that way as all were obviously giving it their all.

Naomi flies at Alexa Bliss

Naomi flies at Alexa Bliss

Seeing Mickie James back on the main shows was great and gives a boost to the Smackdown roster that is otherwise made up of many lesser experienced performers or those moving out of the Diva-era into new WWE women’s wrestling.

As the match went on several storylines were developed or set up that could all feed into WrestleMania but it was the startlingly athletic Naomi pinning the Smackdown Women’s Champion Alexa Bliss after a split legged moonsalut that was the biggest story moment and I expect to see this play out as we head toward April.

WWE Raw Tag Team Championship
Luke Gallows & Karl Anderson (aka The Club) vs Cesaro & Sheamus (c)

Following a bit of a flat run in the middle of 2016, the new year has started with former IWGP Tag Team Champions, The Club, on great form while the development of the tag team champions has been equally great to watch so this felt like a natural match about who of these two rough and tough teams is the best.

The Club win the gold

The Club win the gold

As expected the action was hard-hitting throughout with The Club playing the classic heels and Sheamus and Cesaro’s teamwork growing to new heights, including some nice tandem attacks.

The gimmick of the second referee of course came into play in the conclusion as one ref ate a Brogue Kick from Sheamus allowing The Club to hit their Magic Killer finisher in the Irishman before Anderson rolled up Cesaro with a handful of tights to capture the gold.

This left stuff nicely open for the feud to continue on to Mania and showed The Club as they should have been all along, hard-hitting, dastardly heels of the old school.

Sasha Banks vs Nia Jax

While this match felt like it had come a little out of nowhere over the last few weeks Banks’ history shows she is rarely less than a good performer and Jax has developed into a solid, if slightly one-dimensional performer and that about sums up how the match went.

Nia Jax locks a strech muffler on Sasha Banks

Nia Jax locks a strech muffler on Sasha Banks

With a typical big wrestler vs small wrestler story it wasn’t anything special but Sasha is great at getting sympathy as Nia beat her with size and strength at every turn.

Sasha got a brief comeback after Jax went shoulder first into the ring post including hitting a nice double knee dive. Like Nakamura last night at NXT Takeover though this was Bank’s downfall and her knee injury allowed Jax to hit the pop-up Samoan Drop for the win.

While it’s no surprise to see Nia Jax get pushed (she is after all both an imposing presence and a cousin to The Rock) I’m not sure where she can go now as a dominating heel and Charlotte Flair also sitting atop the mountain as a dominant heel of a different flavour.

Main Show

As I’ve said previously the Royal Rumble is arguably the second biggest show in the pro-wrestling calendar and with an opening hype video like this it really got that across. Unlike many other shows which focus on all sorts of things it was clear that this was all about champions and contenders.

All the matches before the Rumble were for a title and then, of course, the Rumble itself is for a shot at the WWE World or Universal Championship at WrestleMania and from the off its clear this huge crowd was an excited for the show.

WWE Raw Women’s Championship
Bayley vs Charlotte Flair (c)

As her music hit and she made her way onto the stage in her ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage colours and tassels the crowd erupted for Bayley, showing the ongoing potential she has to be a top-level babyface like few female performers her.

Bayley attacks Charlotte Flair

Bayley attacks Charlotte Flair

Charlotte was greeted by a similarly loud reaction but suited to her heel persona as she has, over the past year, really grown into her role as a Flair to great effect.

As the heel champion Flair set the tone with a slow and steady pace, working down her faster more exuberant challenger before Bayley came back with speed and pace including a baseball slide hurricanrana, springboard cross body and Savage style diving elbow drop, before Charlotte regained the advantage with some brilliantly heelish use of the ring apron and steel stairs.

After that it was nearly all Charlotte as she continued to build her dominant persona culminating in a Natural Selection cutter on the ring apron. While this wasn’t the stormer I thought it might manage to be it was still a good, classically paced, contest and it remains great to see the women’s matches given the same level of importance and respect now as the men’s.

WWE Universal Championship
Roman Reigns vs Kevin Owens (c)
No Disqualification with Chris Jericho suspended above the ring in a shark cage!

While the gimmick may sound ridiculous it has its history back in the old territorial days and WWE have recently revived it with the same being used back at NXT Takeover: Toronto in November with Paul Ellering in the cage. Now it was Jericho’s turn to stop him from interfering in the match.

Kevin Owens frog splashes Roman Reigns

Kevin Owens frog splashes Roman Reigns

Owens and Jericho’s arrival got a very positive response (despite their heel role) while the reaction was typically very mixed with the lower, louder boos winning out.

The match itself was a great brawling affair starting with a walk and brawl through the crowd before Owens got the upper hand with a cannonball into the barricade and attempting to powerbomb Reigns throw a pyramid of steel chairs.

Back in the ring the pace slowed as Reigns took control in a far more heel way than anything Owen was really doing before ‘The Big Dog’ headed out the ring and set up a table. It wasn’t long before the table came into play with Owens getting the upper hand and hitting a top rope frog splash on Reigns through the table on the floor to a huge reaction.

After some more back and forth as Reigns survived the table splash Jericho dropped some brass knuckles into the ring and Owens attempted to use them to no avail before taking a Samoan drop onto a steel chair but coming back with a Stone Cold Stunner.

Roman sends Owens through the table

Roman sends Owens through the table

In what felt like the climax of the match Reigns again returned fire driving Owens through the announce table after sending him flying from the top rope through the pyramid of chairs as the crowd continued its mixed response to his every move.

As it looked like the win was secured though Braun Strowman appeared from nowhere chokeslamming Reigns through the table before powerslamming him through another allowing Owens to retain the Universal Championship.

While this felt like a great high stakes match it was once again a strange one with Reigns role as something of a ‘tweener’ still not really working in a satisfying way, though he is constantly putting on decent matches now. With most of the big bumps being taken by Kevin Owens really showed him as the more dedicated worker and the input of Strowman felt like it didn’t totally make sense given what came later in the night.

WWE Cruiserweight Championship
Neville vs Rich Swann (c)

Another match that had a great build through both Raw and the 205 Live show it was no surprise it got off to a fast start with Neville reinvigorated as the heel and Swann far more on the warpath than we’ve seen to date.

Neville hits a superkick on Swann

Neville hits a superkick on Swann

Neville looks like a beast now and after Swann getting the upper hand early the Geordie came back with a powerful missile dropkick from the top rope before slowing the pace down and using his strength to take the advantage.

Swann came back with a series of stiff kicks, showing he can play Neville’s game too, and hit his spinning heel kick finisher too close to the ropes to get the win.

The end came with a nasty looking superplex (it shows why smaller people doing this move is more dangerous) before Neville locked in his Rings of Saturn style double armbar to claim the Cruiserweight crown.

While the math was decent it didn’t sizzle quite as I thought it might but with the crowd in recovery mode from Roman/Owens and gearing up for Cena/Styles that’s not too surprising and with a solid heel at the top of the Cruiserweight roster now it can only help elevate the 205 Live brand further.

WWE World Championship
John Cena vs AJ Styles (c)

The build up to this match has been bubbling away since last summer and really hit a final burst in the last couple of weeks with an intense war of words between the pair that saw Cena take a darker turn than we’ve seen in a while and Styles’ role as well-travelled legit ‘world champion’ elevated even further.

Styles hits a Phenomenal Forearm on Cena

Styles hits a Phenomenal Forearm on Cena

As the pair were announced both received a mix response (showing how well tweener characters can work) before Cena got the early advantage with a, for him, vicious and physical attack.

For the whole match the crowd were loud and animated as the pair went back and forth time and again with both hitting their big moves early for near falls.

In a very nice sequence the pair traded holds from Cena’s AA to Styles Calf Crusher then STFs from each man and finally a figure-four leg lock from Cena referencing the fact that if he won this Cena would equal Ric Flair’s record number of world championships before AJ revered again into a cross arm breaker.

From there it was a flurry of big moves from both including powerbombs, an avalanche AA, the Styles Clash twice, an Ushigoroshi and more.

The crowd was going nuts for all the near falls as Styles set up for another Phenomenal Forearm before Cena countered, hitting a pair of AAs for the win to equal Flair’s record and, in a nice touch, the referee was long time Flair compatriot Charles Robinson.

Cena hits the AA on Styles

Cena hits the AA on Styles

While the match was very good (I don’t think it was ‘the best WWE Championship match ever’ as some have claimed) the logic of putting the belt on Cena again is lost on me.

He is a star with or without the belt both in the ring and out and he can’t be elevated any further in the wrestling world by having the championship again. While I respect his work and work ethic I will admit to never getting Cena but I am, as if it wasn’t obvious, a wrestling nerd not a casual fan, though I would have thought keeping the title on Styles going into WrestleMania would have helped elevate him while Cena remains the same star level he has been for the better part of a decade.

Royal Rumble
30 Man Battle Royal For A World of Universal Championship Match at WrestleMania

With more than 50,000 fans singalong to Enzo Amore and Big Cass the Rumble this year got going with the 7-foot New Yorker squaring off against the WWE United States Champion Chris Jericho.

Jack Gallagher gets eliminated

Jack Gallagher gets eliminated

With this being one of the most star-studded Rumbles in its 30 year history there was a real sense of anticipation and as Kalisto and Mojo Rawley entered the pace picked up and it got a nice flow going.

UK cruiserweight Jack Gallagher was a nice highlight early entrant and got up to some fun with his umbrella but was sadly the first man out at the hands of a returning (again) Mark Henry before the arrival of ‘The Monster Amongst Men’ Braun Strowman.

Strowman cleared most from the ring with Jericho sneaking away to hide with the announcers like the classic heel he is. It was clear at this point the first ‘story’ in this year’s Rumble would be based around Braun Strowman but his recent rival Sami Zayn survived the initial attack to stay in.

Entry number 10 was, as many had predicted and hoped, NXT’s ‘Perfect Ten’ Tye Dillinger and he and Zayn took the attack to Strowman while James Ellsworth provided a nice amusing moment leading to a nasty landing getting sent over the top rope by the monster.

The Wyatt Family explode

The Wyatt Family explode

Things became a battle of the big men as Baron Corbin hit the ring and after a flurry from all, including a stiff looking Helluva Kick from Zayn, Corbin sent Strowman out in something of a shock moment.

With Kofi Kingston’s usual survival spot not living up to past efforts the next part of the match saw Sheamus hit the ring in stiff mode battering his way through everyone before his tag team partner Cesaro arrived and hit his Giant Swing on anyone that got too close.

The pair soon eliminated The New Day, reinvigorating their rivalry, before being eliminated themselves by Jericho.

The next section of the match was built around the ongoing collapse of The Wyatt Family with Randy Orton hitting RKO’s on many before Luke Harper turned on Bray Wyatt and the feud hit a new high.

At this point it was clear the big name part timers were all coming late in the match and the crowd were getting impatient for it with regular Goldberg chants filling the Alamodome until Brock Lesnar’s music hit and the crowd erupted. The presence of quite so many part timers getting quite so much glory here is something that irks me a bit but I can see the draw they have to more casual fans, especially the three big names here Lesnar, Goldberg and The Undertaker.

Goldberg spears Lesnar

Goldberg spears Lesnar

Lesnar did what he does with multiple eliminations, suplexes and F-5s before the comparatively tiny Enzo Amore hit the ring all brash bluster and did one of the best sells on a clothesline I’ve seen in a long time before going over the top rope at the hands of the Beast.

With the field clear (or at least all downed at the hands of Lesnar) the epic music of Goldberg blared and he stalked to the ring face off with one of his greatest rivals. In a repeat of Survivor Series in November there’s a spear, a clothesline and Goldberg sends Lesnar packing in another shock moment that looks to be leading to a rematch at WrestleMania.

With an open moment Orton and Wyatt attack Goldberg before Goldberg gets the upper hand but the lights go out and The Undertaker appears in the ring attacking and eliminating Goldberg in another shock.

The final man out is, of course, Roman Reigns to another unbalanced reaction and he and Taker face off and go at it before Reigns sends Taker to the floor and I can only assume that WWE is finally pushing Reigns as an all out heel as the crowd chanted ‘bullshit’ at quite some volume.

Reigns stares down The Undertaker

Reigns stares down The Undertaker

With Reigns, Orton and Wyatt remaining Roman fought back eliminating Bray before Randy countered a spear into an RKO and got the, to me, surprise win to get a shot at John Cena at WrestleMania.

While I will admit to not being too hot on the idea of Cena vs Orton again at Mania the end of the match was nicely delivered but as a whole the match felt unbalanced.

The presence of the part timers in the final chunk added little to the overall match while their interactions with the main performers did nothing but make them look weaker leaving things on something of a downer

Randy Orton wins the Royal Rumble

Randy Orton wins the Royal Rumble

That said I remain hopeful that WWE have some good things planned heading into WrestleMania  as, while this whole show was certainly good, it lacked the magic thing to take it to the next level – maybe its too much hype that could never be lived up to?

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