Warner Brothers

REVIEW: Cheech & Chong’s Greatest Hit (1981)

CHEECH & CHONG’S GREATEST HIT (1981 Warner)

Even if you’re not into comedy albums, Cheech & Chong’s Greatest Hit compilation should be considered for your collection.  For one, it can be found in any format for cheap.  And that justifies buying it for their classic song “Earache My Eye”.  Classic song?  It’s been covered and homaged by bands such as Soundgarden, Korn, and even Rush.  So listen up!

Cheech & Chong’s original “Earache My Eye” is heavy metal and horns gone wild.  Cheech sings as his persona “Alice Bowie”.  The song was featured in the group’s first movie, Up In Smoke.  There is also a lesser song on the album called “Basketball Jones”, but it too is noteworthy because there’s a Beatle on it:  George Harrison!  And a slew of others including Billy Preston, Carole King and Nicky Hopkins.

Everyone in the world should know Cheech & Chong’s comedy sketch “Dave”.  If you don’t, shame on you and go hear it immediately.  “Dave” is here in edited form so you’ll get the gist.  Other popular bits include “Sister Mary Elephant” (remember the teacher screaming “SHUUUT UPPP!” to the rowdy classroom?) and “Sargent Stadanko”.  Most sketches focus on (gasp) drugs!  “Let’s Make a Drug Deal” is a spoof of a popular TV show.  “Cruising With Pedro De Pacas” is a paranoid drive with a Latino stoner.  Pedro and his sidekick Man take up most of side two.

Listening to this is a real throwback.  Sneaking people into a drive-in movie back when a drive-in movie was just 50 cents per person!  It’s good stuff but it may only appeal to people who remember those times.  Cheech & Chong’s laid back style of comedy makes this album (almost 55 minutes long) difficult to finish in one sitting.  Take a break between sides if it’s too slow for you.

The most important life lesson contained within is don’t try to sneak friends into a drive-in movie in the trunk of your car.  Especially if you’re with two guys named Pedro and Man.

3.5/5 stars

Advertisements

REVIEW: Harem Scarem – Live in Japan (1996)

scan_20170221HAREM SCAREM – Live in Japan (1996 WEA)

Three albums seems to be the industry standard before you can release a live one.  Harem Scarem followed suit and issued Live in Japan right after their third LP, Voice of Reason.  It was their first with new bassist Barry Donaghy, replacing Mike Gionet.

Live in Japan is a safe, fairly compact selection of tunes from the first three.  It could use less Voice of Reason, an album which never boasted the killer tunage from the first two.  In fact if one edited out “Blue”, “Candle”, “Breathing Sand”, and “Paint Thins”, you could make a pretty tight set.  Leave in “Warming a Frozen Rose” though; it was always the best of the Voice of Reason tracks.  You can also leave in the title track as it’s pretty heavy.  Most of the real firepower comes from Mood Swings.  The opening salvo of “Change Comes Around” and “Saviours Never Cry” are a rousing start to the proceedings.

Live, Harem Scarem were tight.  Their harmonies are handled easily by the four guys, all capable singers.  Harry Hess’ roar is not lessened by the road nor jet lag.  He’s as powerful here as he is on record.  This is necessary for amped rockers like “Had Enough” and “Empty Promises” from Mood Swings, both very strong.  There is only one song from the 1991 debut album Harem Scarem. Representing Harem’s early pop rock roots is “Slowly Slipping Away”; call it a power ballad or just call it a song.  It feels like it has too much guitar to be a ballad, so call it what you want: it’s great.  You can clearly hear Barry Donaghy’s contributions on backing vocals, an essential part of the song’s hookiness.  The live set closes on “No Justice”, the best known track from Mood Swings and an obvious crowd favourite.  The vocals are just outstanding from the whole band.

There are two bonus studio tracks on this album, a nice little unexpected treat.  The first, “Pardon My Zinger” is a peppy instrumental the likes of which you expect from guys like Joe Satriani.  Not so much for guitar trickery, just in terms of composition and hooks.  The last track is a new ballad called “More Than You’ll Ever Know”.  It has since been reissued on Japanese compilations such as Ballads and B-Side Collection, but this live album is the easiest place to get a copy.  As far as ballads go, this one’s not bad.

For fans who didn’t get into Voice of Reason the way they did the first two, Live in Japan offers a bumpy ride.   There is little question that the recorded performance is freaking amazing.  It just comes down to the songs and personal taste.

3/5 stars

REVIEW: Van Halen – LIVE: Right here, right now. (1993, plus “Jump” live single)

scan_20160929VAN HALEN – LIVE: Right here, right now. (1993 Warner Bros, plus “Jump” live single)

The summer of ’93 was the “Summer of Live Albums” here at LeBrain HQ.  There were many live discs out to digest, several of them from “must-purchase” bands.  Most notable was Ozzy’s Live & Loud which came in a metal speaker grille cover.  Iron Maiden also put out A Real Live One, the first of a two-album live set.  And then there was a big’un:  Van Halen’s first live album, the double Right here, right now.

What did all three releases have in common?  They were all boring duds.

Sad but true.  In Van Halen’s case, the disappointment was acute.  Sure it was “Van Hagar” and not the “real deal” if you believe in that  sort of thing, but that wasn’t the issue.  There are a few problems with Right here, right now but none of them have to do with the singer.  The setlist is a real drag, with way too much material from For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge.  10 of the 11 songs from F.U.C.K. are on this album!  (“The Dream is Over” being the only missing song — you had to buy this on VHS to get it!)  A F.U.C.K. song opens the set, another closes the set…it’s too much, especially since F.U.C.K. was (one of?) the weakest Halen albums to date.

Issue #2 is perhaps a bit silly, since Van Halen shows are known for their solos: but this album has too many solos.  Eddie’s aside; he always going to blow your mind.  Unfortunately, Michael Anthony and Alex Van Halen are, quite frankly, boring soloists.  Did “Ultra Bass” need to be five minutes long?  It’s best when Michael’s just playing, but as fans know his bass solo is half notes, and half noise.  Immediately after that is “Pleasure Dome/Drum Solo”, nine whole minutes.  The instrumental “Pleasure Dome” section is best since it resembles a song (a driving hard one at that).

The final major issue is one we didn’t even know about until recently.  Sammy Hagar revealed in his book Red that this album was heavily overdubbed afterwards, and I wouldn’t doubt it.  (Hagar claims that he re-sang the entire thing over again in the studio.)  There was always something underneath the surface that didn’t feel right about this album, and that could be it right there.  Right here, right now feels dulled, perhaps by too much studio polish after the fact.

It’s not all bad of course, how could it be?  “Poundcake” and “Judgement Day” start it off strongly.  Then they went and dropped a ballad (“When It’s Love”) and a shitty song (“Spanked”), and all momentum is stopped.  The duo of “You Really Got Me” and “Cabo Wabo” are pretty damn great though.  There are a couple Hagar solo tracks in set which add some spice to the mix.  The acoustic ballad “Give to Live” is just Sammy alone, but “One Way to Rock” is the whole ass-kickin’ band.  Of all the Hagar tracks the band has played live, “One Way to Rock” sounds most natural as a Van Halen song.  The final surprise is “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, which Eddie does not play keyboards on.  Instead he mimics Pete Townsend’s synthesizer part with his guitar.  Who purists will hate Sammy’s take on it, but fuck it.  It’s a pretty damn good version of a hard to cover classic.

There are a couple other decent tracks to be had.  German and Japanese versions contain two bonus tracks:  “Mine All Mine” (from the OU812 tour) and another Hagar track, “Eagles Fly”.  They can also be found on the “Jump” live single.  Unlike much of the rest of the album “Mine All Mine” has some bite to it.  It’s a great example of synthesizer working well in a hard rock song.  (Unfortunately it fades out early.)  As for “Eagles Fly”, this is a song Sammy played acoustic on the occasions he didn’t play “Give to Live”.  Although it was played less, “Eagles Fly” edges out the other just slightly by a nose.  These two bonus tracks are worth tracking down the single for, or an import version of the album.

I traded up my original copy of LIVE: Right here, right now for a US import that came in a cardboard digipack.  Although it has no bonus tracks, it does have some bonus photos, which is still pretty cool.

It’s not fun to say any Van Halen album isn’t essential, but Right here, right now is not essential.

2/5 stars

 

COMPLETE VAN HALEN REVIEW SERIES:

VAN HALEN – Zero (1977 Gene Simmons demo bootleg)
VAN HALEN – Van Halen (1978 Warner)
VAN HALEN – Van Halen II (1979 Warner)
VAN HALEN – Women and Children First (1980 Warner)
VAN HALEN – Fair Warning (1981 Warner)
VAN HALEN – Diver Down (1982 Warner)
VAN HALEN – 1984 (1984 Warner)
VAN HALEN – 5150 (1986 Warner Bros.)
VAN HALEN – OU812 (1988 Warner)
VAN HALEN – For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991)
VAN HALEN – Balance (1995 Warner – Japanese version included)
VAN HALEN – Best Of Volume I (1996 Warner)
VAN HALEN – 3 (Collectors’ tin 1998)
VAN HALEN – The Best of Both Worlds (2005 Warner)
VAN HALEN – A Different Kind of Truth (2012)
VAN HALEN – Tokyo Dome Live in Concert (2015)
VAN HALEN – Tokyo Dome Live in Concert (2015) Review by Tommy Morais

+

VAN HALEN – “Best of Both Worlds” (1986 Warner 7″ single)
VAN HALEN – “Can’t Get This Stuff No More” / “Me Wise Magic” (1996 Warner promo singles)
VAN HALEN – “Can’t Stop Loving You” (Parts 1 & 2, inc. collector’s tin)
VAN HALEN – “Right Now” (1992 cassette single, Warner)
VAN HALEN vs. JOHN LENNON – “Imagine A Jump” mashup by “Mighty Mike”
RECORD STORE TALES Part 186:  The Van Halen Tin

 

 

REVIEW: Damn Yankees – Damn Yankees (1990)


Scan_20160525DAMN YANKEES – Damn Yankees (1990 Warner)

Now here is an album I haven’t played in a long time!

When the supergroup known as Damn Yankees first emerged in 1990, they quickly became my favourite new band.  Ted Nugent, Tommy Shaw (Styx), Jack Blades (Night Ranger) and drummer Michael Cartellone emerged with one of the hottest new albums of the summer:  Pure radio-ready hard rock, but with the integrity added by the Nuge himself.  All aboard!

(I like that Ted is in the credits also as “security”.  You can picture it.)

So what is Damn Yankees?  Light rock, Great Gonzos, or a mixture?  The answer is:  all of the above.

The predominant direction is radio-ready hard rock circa the time. Even though all these guys had been around for a while (especially Ted), if you didn’t know who they were it was easy to mistake them for the new hot band.  Their lyrics are geared to the young.

Dressed to kill and lookin’ dynamite,
With her high-laced stockings and her sweater so tight,
I asked her name,
She said her name was ‘Maybe’…

Oh come on guys!    Jack Blades was 36 years old when he sang that.  We already have one Gene Simmons.  Thankfully, the lead single “Coming of Age” was musically impeccable for hard pop rock.  Lyrically, there is nothing of any value here, just meaningless male drivel.  The Van-Hagar like licks of “Coming of Age” are enhanced by the aggressive lead guitar work of Terrible Ted, who probably thought the lyrics were pure poetry.

The bluesy riff of “Bad Reputation” screams Nugent, but the vocals of Blades and Shaw blend as if they have always been a vocal team.  Of course as we all know, Damn Yankees led to a long and very productive partnership for the two, with Shaw-Blades being a personal favourite album.  The most remarkable thing about Damn Yankees is indeed the blend of vocals.  Just listen to that bridge in the middle of “Bad Reputation”.  Two rock singers rarely complement each other as well as Shaw and Blades.  But just when you thought it was going too folksy, Ted returns with a fluttering blitzkreig of strings and (probably) freshly killed meat.

“Runaway” features some of Shaw’s great slide guitar work, on a mid-tempo rocker with an unforgettable anthemic chorus.  Damn Yankees is often forgotten for its guitar work.  Think about it though:  Tommy Shaw and Ted Nugent are two of America’s best from the old school.  While the songs are simple pop rock, the solos are simply awesome.

By the time fall 1990 rolled around, it was time to drop a ballad for a single:  “High Enough”.  In the year 1990 there were a number of acoustic ballads that were all very similar sounding:  “Silent Lucidity”, “More Than Words”, and “High Enough”.   There is no better way to describe “High Enough” than “sounds like summer 1990”.  Unfortunately it does not stand out or have any qualities that make it more memorable than the other ballads out that year.  The saccharine strings just do me in.  I get ballad-fatigue. And let’s not even talk about that awful music video.

The band’s namesake track “Damn Yankees” sounds like a Nugent song.  It has a chunky, ballsy riff, though nothing to write home to mother about.  Unfortunately the lyrics are terribly dated, the kind of pro-American intervention sentiment that went out fashion many years ago.  With references to Manuel Noriega and the Middle East, this is all much less glorious with the benefit of hindsight.  There’s a lesson to be learned there:  avoid overly politicizing your lyrics, young rockers.

For a better ballad than “High Enough”, check out side two’s opening track “Come Again”.  This one is old-school, sounding something like Styx’s “Boat on a River” colliding with the Nuge on “Stranglehold”.   It builds into a frenetic solo section that is just to die for, Nuge seemingly doing his best Eddie VH impression.  Then on “Mystified”, Ted brings the blues while Tommy gets down on the pedal steel.  This is a great little blues rock jam of the kind ZZ Top are comfortable with.  I’m certain Rev. Billy would approve of the Nuge’s blues licks, authentic as they come.

“Rock City” ain’t bad at all, accelerated for your pleasure and name-dropping Jimmy Page in the lyrics.  It’s not the heaviest song on the album — they save that for the end — but it’s definitely second.  There is little doubt, based on interviews with the band, that the heaviness came from Ted.  Let’s all take a moment now to thank Ted Nugent for rocking so damn hard.  Thank you, Mr. Nugent.  Penultimate track “Tell Me How You Want It” is a pretty good mid-tempo song, with classy vocals from Tommy and Jack.  Had they released more singles from the album, this one would have been up for the job.

And then finally…

A blues lick, and Ted speaking:  “Nice lick!  I have a feeling this is gonna be a rhythm and blues song…nice, real nice.  Tasty.  WAITAMINUTE!”

“Piledriver” is just a dumb sex song, but it’s also pure Gonzo Ted, the Ted you knew was hiding somewhere on this album.  You wanna hear Ted go friggin’ top gear for four and a half minutes?  “Piledriver”, baby!  Tommy and Jack on the backing vocals even drop an F-bomb!  Can you believe it?  They’re the nice guys of the band!  But let’s not forget Michael Cartellone on the drums, hammering relentlessly, not only keeping up with Great Gonzo but setting the freakin’ pace!  Even without headbanging along (strongly recommended), you’re exhausted by the end of the tune.

I say again, thank you Mr. Nugent.

As it turns out, Damn Yankees is still an entertaining listen 26 years later.  I didn’t properly appreciate the smoking guitars on it at the time.  Back then, I was interested in ballads and singles and catchy tunes.  Even so I still liked “Piledriver” back then…because it’s awesome.  The album’s real flaw is on the lyric sheet.  I know these guys can do better than some of these tracks.

3/5 stars

REVIEW: Blue Rodeo – Live at Massey Hall (2015)

Scan_20160426BLUE RODEO – Live at Massey Hall (2015 Warner)

Things have changed a lot since the last time I saw Blue Rodeo in the mid-2000’s. They have added a few more albums to the oeuvre, and a few more members to the band. The expansion of Blue Rodeo to a seven-piece band has made their live sound smoother, the rough edges sanded off. Due to Greg Keelor’s hearing loss, the singer and author of some of the most gonzo country-rock guitar solos north of the 47th was forced to unplug, and focus on the acoustic guitar instead. Colin Cripps (Crash Vegas), who had filled in before, was drafted full time to fill the guitar sound. With Kitchener resident Bob Egan on slide and various other stringed instruments, there are now four guitar players in Blue Rodeo. The newest member is Michael Boguski on various keyed instruments.

According to the band, one of the solutions to Greg’s hearing issues was changing over to in-ear monitors. There was a rough shake down period to get used to this setup, timid performances during which the band says they failed to take chances live. For Blue Rodeo to issue a new live album, one must assume these issues have been ironed out. Live at Massey Hall is the band’s first live album since 2008’s Blue Road.  It is also their shortest live album with only one disc inside (Blue Road was more of a video album, with unique CD and DVD content).

Supporting the studio album In Our Nature, the Massey Hall album has a little bit of newer material, but is dominated by past hits.  Most of the new songs are clumped together in the middle of the CD:  “New Morning Sun”, “Tara’s Blues”, “Tell Me Again” and “When the Truth Comes Out”.  There is no drop of quality during this four-song clump, in fact “New Morning Sun” almost sounds as if lifted from Blue Rodeo’s late-80’s heyday.  The last of the new songs, “Paradise”, is left closer to the end, before the rousing finale of “5 Days in May” and “Lost Together”.

Plenty of hits abound, with only “Try” obviously absent.  There are also a couple of surprise tracks: the rarely played “Girl of Mine” from Diamond Mine, and “Disappear” from Tremolo.  The 8:04 “Disappear” is the album highlight, recalling the mighty feats of Blue Rodeo onstage in the 1990’s.  It rivals “Diamond Mine” for drama and instrumental gold, but has a beautiful melancholy power.

IMG_20160426_090808

Old man time may have taken his toll on Greg’s hearing.  Jim’s voice might be a little lower and huskier than it used to be.  This band, surely one of the best live acts Canada has produced, survives on.  The studio albums may no longer hit the charts like they used to, but Blue Rodeo have always seemed truly at home on the stage.  With the addition of Cripps (helping out on backing vocals as well as guitar), the band are still able to do the big bold rock songs like “Lost Together” and “Diamond Mine” at full strength.

There was once a time when the music press questioned if Blue Rodeo could remain a vital force without original member Bobby Wiseman on keyboards.  That was 1992.  Not only have they remained just as challenging as ever, but they have continued to evolve and grow.  Now it feels as if things have come full circle, back to that point in the mid-90’s when we realized the sky was the only limit for this band.  We look forward to whatever Blue Rodeo produce next.

4/5 stars

 

Scan_20160426 (2)

REVIEW: The Sheepdogs – Learn and Burn (2011 bonus tracks)

SHEEPDOGS AND LEBRAIN

Ewen, Leot, LeBrain, Sam & Ryan

THE SHEEPDOGS – Learn and Burn (2011 Warner reissue, originally 2010)

SHEEPDOGS_0002Like many of you, I first heard The Sheepdogs via the excellent single “I Don’t Know”, a rollicking journey through territory pioneered by The Guess Who and Neil Young. And what a cool Canadian success story, what with that Rolling Stone cover and all.

A few months after falling in love with “I Don’t Know”, I was invited to a private acoustic session with the Sheepdogs. There were about 40 people in the room tops, including myself and my co-worker Bart who was my “+ 1”. I remember them playing “How Late, How Long” and an older tune. They were great, friendly and gracious.  They did a short meet & greet after the show, and I appreciated it when Ewen said to me, “I really like your Beatles shirt.  That’s my favourite period of John Lennon.”  I told him I specifically picked that shirt because I hoped they’d dig it!  The beards, you know?

I’m going to coin a new genre here:  “Beard Rock”.

Before seeing the band, I bought the album based on “I Don’t Know”.  That was sometime in fall of 2010; I remember listening to it on a cold, cold night at the cottage.   My impressions?  It’s a really cool mellow rock album. It sounds as if it came right out of 1969. It sounds very authentic to the period, even sonically.  Very different from their current work with Patrick Carney of the Black Keys.  I am impressed. I really like it.  Admittedly though, it’s a bit too derivative.  SHEEPDOGS_0006

Highlights for me included:

  • “Please Don’t Lead Me On”, which was very Beatles-y.  It’s jaunty, I like it.
  • “I Don’t Get By” which has a very country (or even Led Zep III) vibe.
  • “Right On” and its fat saxophone solo.
  • “Southern Dreaming” which reminds me of the Allmans, CCR and The Band
  • “Soldier Boy”,  probably the most rocking song on the album.
  • “Catfish 2 Boogaloo” kind of reminds me of a laid back version of Cream.

And, the whole Medley. These four mini-songs all meld together seamlessly, but are distinct sections.  It’s a gimmick similar to Abbey Road side two, but in miniature form.

The only song that does nothing for me is the title track “Learn and Burn”. Not into the vocal hook at all. Sorry.  I also didn’t dig the lyric referencing “Facebook invitations”, it just doesn’t vibe with the vintage 1971 sound of the song.

The two bonus tracks on the remastered edition are “Birthday” and “Slim Pickens”.  Yes, I re-bought the album to get two more songs.  You knew I would.  “Birthday” is worth it, a lovely 60’s sounding pop rock tune, with twang and banjo.  I wasn’t expecting “Slim Pickens” to rock as hard as it does, but it does!  This is a smokin’ little electric guitar bluegrass boogie instrumental.

Good album though, and a band to watch. Their work with Patrick Carney on their 2012 self-titled record expanded on their sound.  I expect them to continue to grow.

3.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Mr. Bungle – Mr. Bungle (1991)

MR. BUNGLE – Mr. Bungle (1991 Warner)

For the uninitiated, get ready. You’ve never heard anything in your life like Mr. Bungle. Featuring the powerful pipes of Mike Patton, Bungle was his pre-Faith No More band which he admirably kept going through the 90’s before finally calling it a day. This album, produced by John Zorn and completely different than anything Bungle did after, is a challenging first listen for the musically timid.  It is also acutely rewarding, and can only do good in expanding your musical vocabulary. If that ain’t your cup o’ tea, it also has lots of X-rated, adult only lyrics; words that will keep you laughing, disgusted or titillated all the way through. See: “Squeeze Me Macaroni” (sex with food) or “The Girls of Porn”.

Mr. Bungle squeezes multiple genres into single songs, often switching gears multiple times within a minute. Careening joyfully from breakneck-speed horn-laden funk, to death metal guitar with doo-wop vocals, to circus music and beyond, this is not for the meek. This is for the open minded. This is for the bored, those who can no longer handle the same damn songs on the radio all the time, the same keys, chords, time changes and instrumentation. And if you’re a Mike Patton fan already, but somehow missed this, prepare to have your mind blown.The production by John Zorn is perfect. How he managed to arrange all these instruments, samples, and voices together into coherent songs is nothing short of genius. The sound is gloriously crisp. This is Mr. Bungle’s magnum opus.

IMG_20140209_131234_edit
Highlights:
  • “Travolta” – Changed to “Quote Unquote” on later pressings for obvious legal reasons.
  • “Squeeze Me Macaroni” – “Hostess Ding Dong wrapped an eggroll around my wong / While Dolly Madison proceded to ping my pong”
  • “The Girls Of Porn” – “The urge is too much to take / All I can think about is playing with myself / It’s time to masturbate / I got my Hustler and I don’t need nothing else”
  • “My Ass Is On Fire” – A memorable shocker ending with Patton chanting “Redundant, redundant, reeeedundant, reDUNdant…”
  • “Stubb (A Dub)” – A song that questions, among other things, if a pet dog believes they will grow up into a human being.

Regardless of the contrasting styles and lightning fast changes, after a fashion the album flows, and cannot really be broken down into singles, or put on a mix CD. It needs to be listened to in its entirety, in sequence. And be careful, when turning up the volume during the quiet moments.  You might want it louder to hear some bit of dialogue that’s mixed in too quietly.  That’s just when they blast you with more guitar and horns!

If you don’t like this on first listen, don’t fret. You’ll love it by the 21st. Guaranteed*.

5/5 stars

* I don’t actually honour any guarantees.

MOVIE REVIEW: 2001: A Space Odyssey (2008 blu ray)

Happy LeBrain Day! It’s my birthday. Sometimes on my birthday, I like to just spend an afternoon watching a favourite movie. This is one.

 

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, from the 2011 Stanley Kubrick Visionary Filmmaker Blu Ray Collection, Warner Bros.)

Once upon a time, when the year 2001 seemed aeons away, director Stanley Kubruck (Dr. Strangelove) contacted author Arthur C. Clarke (Childhood’s End) to discuss making “the proverbial good science fiction movie”. Both were sick of films that passed for science fiction, but were actually monster movies set in space, or just replaced  science with fantasy.

The result was 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film, and a companion book of the same name which is actually a completely different animal. The film — striking, innovative, visually engrossing, ambiguous, and scientifically solid — is as good today as it was in 1968, even if many of the “predictions” of the film have failed to come to pass.

Separated into four chapters (The Dawn Of Man, TMA-1, & Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite) complete with intermission, 2001 has no dialogue for the first quarter of the film. Beginning with a blank screen (and “Atmospheres”, by Ligeti), this is a film paradoxically anchored by both music and silence. The screen changes to the Earth rising over the moon, and the sun rising over the Earth (an important clue and recurring symbol) accompanied by “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”. We are then introduced to a tribe of pre-human apes (Australopithecus, perhaps), starving and on the verge of extinction. Other tribes are stronger and out-competing them for territory and resources. There is no dialogue, but the barking of the apes, yet that and the scenery speak volumes. Suddenly one morning, the game has changed: a mysterious black monolith has appeared. The apes are drawn to it, and soon find that they are now able to compete with predators thanks to a new discovery: weapons.

MONOLITH ACTION FIGURE!The second chapter, TMA-1, begins with what Clarke has called “the longest jump-cut in history”.  We see that humanity has evolved into a space-going race. Orbital weapons platforms orbit Earth as a shuttle is making way to an under-construction space station. “The Blue Danube” plays as the spacecraft dance in calculated perfection. Our first main speaking character, Dr. Heywood Floyd, arrives on the station and we are given some tantalizing clues as to why he’s made this trip: Rumours of a plague outbreak on the moon. Yet this is just a cover story. As Floyd makes his way to the moon in another beautifully choreographed sequence, we learn that a magnetic anomoly was discovered in the crater Tycho (named after astronomer Tycho Brahe) — Tycho Magnetic Anomaly 1, or TMA-1. This discovery is potentially so important, that the cover story was created to keep everyone far away from Tycho.

We see that TMA-1 is another black monolith.  We see echoes and ripples of past events lead to another jump forward in time.  Midway though a mission of discovery to Jupiter, helmed by David Bowman (the perpetually young Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Star Trek’s Gary Lockwood).  Their ship, the Discovery contains three sleeping astronauts and the most famous computer of all time, H.A.L. 9000.  H.A.L. was flawelessly voiced by Stratford Ontario resident Douglas Rain.  His eerie voice and Kubrick’s perfect framing shots help create the creepiest computer character ever seen.

HAL 9000The seemingly dull, sleepy daily routine is soon shattered.  H.A.L. has detected a flaw in the ship’s main antenna.  It will fail, unless one of the astronauts goes outside and repairs it.  The antenna is their only link to distant Earth.   H.A.L., who controls the life support and every function of Discovery, then begins to show signs of what humans call stress — he makes an error, and acts strangely. Yet no 9000-series computer has ever failed, or found to be in error.  The chapter closes with H.A.L. singing the old song, “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two)”, surely one of the most haunting scenes in cinema.

After an intermission, Discovery finally arrives at Jupiter and its true mission is revealed. This section too has no dialogue, bringing us full circle to the way it began. David Bowman once again must venture outside the ship, and find out how the mysterious discovery on the moon relates to Jupiter.  Perhaps even how it related to our millenia-dead ancestors.

What follows is one of the most baffling and strange sequences in movie history, one which will require a few patient viewings to appreciate. The beauty of this final sequence is that there is no right or wrong interpretation. While on the surface it may appear to be a psychedelic kaleidoscope of colour followed by a bizarre dialogue-free encounter with a being that seems to have no bearing on reality, it is Kubrick’s inventive way of showing the audience something that is beyond anyone’s imagination. Like the audience, David Bowman and humanity have come full circle.

2001_0004Lacking in what modern audiences call “action”, lacking typical space sound effects (there is no sound in space!), lacking dialogue for most of the movie, and lacking any sort of warm human characters (except maybe H.A.L. who is not human), this movie was a challenge to watch in 1968 and is still a challenge today. It is, however, a piece of art that transcends its genre and is a landmark in film making. Kubrick, always a visionary and always breaking through boundaries of what could not be done in film, outdid himself and made a science fiction film that still has not been topped over 40 years later. Nobody has made anything this epic, this beautiful, this deep or this scientifically sound since. The special effects — all practical effects and mostly in-camera, as CG did not yet exist — still stand up today. No movie buff will ever forget the rotating Discovery set that allowed one character to be seated while another seemingly walked on the “ceiling”.

Sure,we don’t have a moon base. We haven’t sent anyone to Jupiter. We do have a space station. We have created computers that can beat the best humans at chess and Jeopardy. This is not that far off. If they had named this film 2031: A Space Odyssey, we might be in the right ballpark. In the end, the year does not matter. You never see modern Earth in the movie anyway.

The blu-ray release is loaded with special features and has a beautiful transfer in 2.20:1, as Kubrick shot it and intended it to be. Both Dullea and Lockwood provide an audio commentary. There are documentaries about Kubrick, about the predictions of the film, and about the effects. The only thing missing is the vintage 1966 Arthur C. Clarke lecture from the first issue of the DVD.  I still have that DVD copy because I like that old 1966 footage of Clarke.  He’s my favourite author.

2001: A Space Odyssey is, without any doubt or any argument in my mind, the greatest science fiction film of all time. With Kubrick and Clarke now both gone, I doubt we will ever see anything like it again. 5/5 stars is meaningless, since this movie was (for its scale and stature) first, and the best, against everything in its genre.

I’ll rate it 200 billion stars, one for each star in our galaxy.