Review: Depeche Mode – Spirits In The Forest

The Picturehouse cinema in Exeter was bustling a good thirty minutes before the timetabled screening I was to attend. Understandably, a Depeche Mode movie might be considered a “specialist” event and was therefore relegated to the smaller of the establishment’s two screens; the other housing the Hollywood spawned Ford v Ferrari featuring bum-on-seat catalysts Matt Damon and Christian Bale. I surveyed the crowd, largely unable to gauge which film each punter would be attending. They seemed so…well, normal; though every now and then I would spy a distinctive grey t shirt from beneath a dark jacket. They were the easy targets. The age range and gender of people awaiting the showings that night appeared so broad as to make it tricky to identify the “typical Depeche Mode fan” amongst the thrall of cinema goers.
I fully expected numbers to thin down to a manageable amount when the audience for Messrs Damon and Bale were allowed to take their seats, yet what appeared to be only a handful of viewers made their way into Screen One. I was surprised to find that the vast majority of people were there to see the Mode film; a stark contrast to my own secluded attraction to the band which began during the mid-80s. In those days it wasn’t “cool” to like a band made up of primarily keyboards and no drummer. Bands such as Mode may have changed dramatically, but sadly in some rock-orientated quarters those attitudes still prevail. The punters organised themselves patiently and politely into a queue as the doors opened.
Seats were not allocated at the time of booking, making for a situation not dissimilar to the usual standing room bunfight at your typical live concert. Before long, the theatre was largely full and the air was thick with conversation between partners, friends and strangers finding that the community that would be depicted in the forthcoming film was wholeheartedly represented in the cinema in physical form. I personally found myself sitting next to a gentleman who had also attended my own first Depeche Mode concert at the Crystal Palace stadium in 1993. We reminisced together like old friends whilst having never met before that evening.
In 1989, filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker produced 101, a now somewhat legendary-amongst-fans documentary that recorded the final stages of Depeche Mode’s Music For The Masses tour. The film cleverly depicted the multi-layered aspects of the band, its music and fans in a voyeuristic and immersive format . To this day, specific scenes spark conversation between devotees and the piece stands as an accurate and affecting record of what it was to be an internationally successful touring musician or, as I readily related to, a young music enthusiast during the late eighties. Ironically, the band’s original premise for the film had been exactly that: to convey where exactly Depeche Mode fitted into the decade, yet Pennebaker instead insisted that such a brief would create a stilted, informational piece and a more natural, unscripted storytelling approach would serve them better. As it turned out, the film delivered their wishes and far more.
The universal effectiveness of 101 came largely from the masterstroke to concentrate on detailing its story through the eyes and experiences of a gathering of fans rather than the band themselves. As such, Anton Corbijn took this element as inspiration for his new film, taking it to a more extreme level by pulling the focus firmly away from the musicians and making a small group of specially selected multinational fans the stars of the show. It is their lives and their relationships which fill the heart of Spirit’s 94 minute running time and in contrast to Pennebaker’s film, those hoping to gain some further insight into the older members of Depeche Mode may be sorely disappointed. Their role is purely in performance form; the attraction drawing the disparate souls together both for the final show in the band’s 2018 tour and in the proverbial spirit that Corbijn wishes to capture.
This is where I bring (obvious) comparisons with 101 to a close. Story is equally a priority within Spirits In The Forest, but the tales are solely those of the six individuals, with Mode, aside from their obvious musical influence, sidelined. The fans’ lives are unique; each with their own personal battles and circumstances. We meet and learn about them in short vignettes; their personalities, passions and sometimes incredible experiences trickling throughout the film in spoken word.
If Spirits is to be considered a successor to any previous Mode release, then Corbijn’s Strange and Strange Too act as artistic reference points. In his work covering the tail-end of Black Celebration era Mode through to Violator, monologuing actors were interspersed amongst Corbijn’s music videos with fictional tales acting as the glue between the songs, creating a non-stop short film from the elements. The films offer a stylistic template to much of Spirits of the Forest, with real lives replacing those of the actors.
Similarly, Spirits opens in a manner that continues throughout its playtime. For example, a 22 year-old girl, Indra from Mongolia talks of a traditional life at home with her mother in a small tower block apartment. The songs of Depeche Mode allowed her to reach past what was expected of her and be aware of the world beyond her family and country. She learned the English language via their lyrics. At best, these sequences give us a window beyond our own cultural experiences; the individuals living within offering up their own stories to camera and I found myself absorbed quickly into the details of her home life and how Depeche Mode’s music fits into that. This, for me, is the greatest strength of the film.
It is worth noting that Depeche Mode themselves are the lone representatives of Great Britain on screen, with the featured fans being drawn from elsewhere in the globe. One senses that at a time when their home country battles with its own identity and its place amongst its neighbours, Depeche Mode feel the need to facilitate their multinational success toward representing their own, unrestricted identities as citizens of planet Earth. The film, as a whole, seeks to locate that which makes us similar whilst celebrating our differences. Our travails, our failures, our successes and our determination to become something better are facets indicative of the human being as a species regardless of our birthplace.
Depeche Mode as a physical presence pop up at regular intervals; usually illustrating notable and affecting points in their fans’ stories with a relevant song extracted from their live show. Highlights include the poignant Precious for a father desperate to maintain his long distance relationship with his children after a divorce and their efforts inadvertently sending them beyond expectation to become stars of YouTube. For the charming comedy of a Romanian individual seeking to recreate the video to Enjoy The Silence in the mountains surrounding his home, his story surpasses the claustrophobic regime into which he was born, bringing forth a joyful celebration of reaching out across borders and creating some breathtaking photography in the process. If the film hits home with any one profundity, it is that when it comes to Depeche Mode’s followers (as with any other artist who attracts devotion of a certain level) there is no such thing as a “typical fan”.
While I wholeheartedly applaud and adored the human aspect to Spirits Of The Forest, with its beautiful cinematography that we have come to expect from Corbijn (at times, one could freeze-frame any point in the movie to create an image worthy of unlimited record covers or art prints) the film doesn’t obviously appear to progress in its texture, stifling the journey for the viewer. While we are drip-fed tidbits of information and emotionally resonant memories from the fans; the live performances funnel towards the greatest hits that we have come to expect for any show’s climax. Even with the six fans coming together in attendance towards its end, the film still feels a little limited in tone. By the time of its conclusion the film feels “over before it’s begun”. The disparate nature of the fans’ stories and the live performances lacking a cohesive identity, with one interrupting the other rather than complimenting its partner. By keeping the two elements at arm’s length from each other, I for one, detected a physical distance between the band and their fans that I have been increasingly aware of through the years, despite the obvious passion that stems from that relationship. This, I fear, is the price paid for a worldwide career that regularly fills stadiums, leaving little room for intimacy.
The complete Berlin show is to be released on blu-ray in the near future as a full concert recording without any interruption from the fans, largely, I assume, due to the dismay from viewers that complete 101 concert footage has never existed, let alone be made available for public consumption. I might argue that, while the bands’ performance on screen in Spirit is as impressive and affecting as Depeche Mode have ever been (with Mode in their most “rock band” shape so far), a cut of the documentary featuring just the fans and interspersed with limited, purely illustrative clips of Mode might be just as valid. When archive footage appears in passing, there’s no denying that the nostalgia evoked is a powerful thing, illustrating the passage of time in both the fans and band’s lifetimes.
In limiting their involvement to that of figureheads, Depeche Mode find themselves sidelined by the more openly human aspect of the featured fans. As ever, their material shines, bringing hope and meaning to their admirers, and their performances, while uncomfortably slick to this older ear, are captured in the cleverly intimate coverage of a massive stadium event (the featured fans literally framed in close focus due to German filming restrictions) and I look forward to the full length depiction of the show itself. But overall, I cannot escape the feeling that one element distracts from the other and a number of somewhat fragmented arcs build only marginally by the end of the feature. Despite some extremely emotive and surprising moments from the participants, the film fails to fully build upon those nuggets to the next stage and while some genuinely affecting factors in the lives of the six stars are revealed along the way, it is left to the final few live songs to provide a satisfactory conclusion to their stories. An encore that hasn’t been earned, you might say, as aside from the fans telling us what the songs mean to them, and despite the extensive live footage, there is a lack of integral heart or artistry from Mode as individuals. Perhaps they feel that their music speaks for itself, though I fear that anyone other than a dyed-in-the-wool Depeche Mode fan might understandably ask what the fuss is all about. While I found the film as a piece on human storytelling entertaining, moving and fascinating in ways that I didn’t expect, I also found it marginally underwhelming and unsatisfying as a whole.

Score: 7/10

Sheriff Of Nottingham Poster

There are some TV shows and franchises that you never believe you’ll be asked to reference in your work, so it was a wonderful surprise and an honour to be asked to put together a piece based upon the classic HTV Saturday evening drama, Robin Of Sherwood.

Hooded Man Events are holding a special one-day event on May 18 based around the episode The Sheriff Of Nottingham. When I refreshed my memory by watching the episode, I was struck by how much story and fantastic characters were encased in the single, hour long outing. This, coupled with the fact that this particular show was written by a man who has come a long way since, Mr Anthony Horowitz led me to the decision to approach the artwork like a movie poster.

The illustration was created entirely in vector format. This essentially means that the image is constructed entirely from lines and shapes and although the process can be somewhat protracted and lengthy, it does mean that every element is not only editable right until the last moment, but the artwork can be printed to any size without any loss of quality and sections can be reproduced separately from each other. Edges are clean and crisp, even if rendered to the size of a house! Having been a pencil to paper artist for most of my life, this illustration alone has been a learning experience in creating effects that would ordinarily be created by traditional means. It’s an interesting prospect to think that I may be able to apply this method to other subjects in the future.

Prints of the artwork will be gifted to visitors at the event, though the possibility of it being available otherwise is currently being discussed.

Blown away…

I’ve just learned a valuable social media lesson. Don’t retweet a tweet until you’ve checked the link associated with it … thankfully for a very positive reason!

When Big Finish tweeted the winner of their recent Vortex art competition, I had already received a very nice email stating that I hadn’t won, but that the standard had been extremely high. So, when I saw the image from the winner, Sophie Cowdrey, I thought nothing more of retweeting said piece with a small congratulatory message and continued with my day…until my friend Mark Clapham made a point of congratulating me for being runner up!

I quickly took a look at the Big Finish website to see that I had indeed been name checked as runner-up. To say that I’m shocked is an understatement…

You can see the news item and view Sophie’s entry here:

Vortex Competition Winner

Back in Orbit and tools of choice

Not sure if I’ve mentioned it before, but I have a real love/hate relationship with software. What I can’t bear is using multiple software packages with which to complete one job, but I guess when you have a habit of using various techniques to complete your work, it’s a tough ask for one package to do *everything*. Affinity are almost there with both their Designer and Photo platforms (They’re blummin’ lovely) for the artwork side of things, but I do find myself still sketching using Sketchbook Pro because it’s do darned natural to use…though it’s limited resolution does restrict it’s use. I now use it for preliminary sketching before porting and up-rezzing into Affinity. Both Designer and Photo now have page rotation in increments which really helps (You can turn the page, just like you would working on paper) but they are yet to have the fluid, completely flexible control that Sketchbook provides…but they are catching up!

On the music side of things, I adore Propellerheads Reason. Fairly recently upgraded and can’t quite get my head around how awesome it sounds. I also recommend Cockos’ Reaper for basic sound mixing. Lost count of the amount of times I’ve heard of people struggling with Audacity (As powerful as it is) to do heavy editing on a large sound file, yet Reaper makes it all so naturally. Once you get your head around the idea of non-destructive, physical editing, you’ll never sit twiddling your thumbs every time you try and remove a section from the beginning of a 30 minute stereo file again.

All this leads me to my latest software love affair. Scrivener. People just wouldn’t shut up about it. It can’t be that good, I thought and this was all before I even began listening to the Bestseller Experiment, who by their second(?) episode had not only bigged up the package, but had been offered sponsorship by the makers of the program.
I had a book to write. I was going to instigate my own NaNoWriMo over the course of a month, so, in true procrastinatory (Is that a word?) mode I thought that I would try out something new to make things interesting as they offer a 30 day free trial. Little did I know that I had chanced upon not only the tool of choice, but something that would ultimately mould my workflow into something pretty darn efficient…and I’m still learning new stuff that the thing can do.
What I found most helpful was that the program organises things in a way very similar to my own brain – except it does it, there, in the computer, rather than take up your brain space. It’s also flexible enough that you can reshape things to make more sense to you, personally. Website reference info can be imported into your document, negating the need to “nip” to Google every time you need to check the weight of a Swedish pistol in the 18th century and the avoid the lure of Facebook each time you open up Safari. Image reference files and your own character descriptions sit alongside your scenes, chapters and notes in a file system reminiscent of standard file structure – yet totally separate from the “body” of your work, so word counts are not affected by your meanderings and Tolkeinesque ventures into world building detail.
Seriously, it’s a joy to use and I very much doubt that I’m even using 20% of what it’s capable of.
All of this is a long way round to stating that on this, the first day of August and the first day of a new regime I haven’t managed to get anywhere near my daily word count because I’ve been fixing lights, filling new bookshelves, sorting out artwork for clients after doing a full day at work…oh…and rabbiting on about Scrivener on my blog…but I’ll get there!!
In lesser news, I’ve fallen in love with the new All Saints album. Don’t kill me. It has lovely William Orbit noodlings, which are always a familiar, warm place to stick your ears.

The smell of coffee and the sound of inspiration

As mentioned in my previous post, I decided to close down my Patreon page as I was struggling to maintain a steady presence on the site. I think the platform is a fantastic way for creatives who are very much immersed in their art to nurture a positive two-way dialogue with their followers. Personally, I was finding it increasingly difficult to offer a steady flow of rewards for those kind enough to offer support through a lack of quality time and a number of personal factors that have been demanding my attention.

I’m now quite literally in the process of redressing some of the Patreon imbalance and certain individuals should be receiving something unique in the post very soon!

However, I’ve recently found myself utterly addicted to a fantastic writing podcast called The Bestseller Experiment. It’s a particularly good audio companion for not only the drive to and from my day job, but also to focus the mind away from aching limbs while I run. Not only is it giving me regular doses of inspiration and positivity as I work my way through my very first book, but it has some incredible nuggets of advice for not only budding writers, but creatives of all persuasions. One particular interviewee on the ‘cast offered up the option of a Ko-Fi page…

This works differently from Patreon in as much as the option is there for fans/followers to donate a one-off payment as and when they feel like being generous, without having to make a regular donation. Much like Patreon, there is the option of upgrading to a monthly arrangement. This, of course, relies on the account holder making material available to their followers on a regular basis … so in my case, I think we’ll stick with the first option, just for now!

Despite technically being a freelance artist, I, like many others, still rely on a steady day job to keep the wolf from the door. I’ll always remember interviewing one incredibly prolific science fiction writer on a radio show, when out of nowhere he stated that he had only recently given up a salaried position in order to concentrate on full-time writing.

This, unfortunately, is the state of play for many a creative, whether they be writers, musicians or artists. Only the very lucky few have a consistent stream of paid work with which to refine their LinkedIn profile to the thing that truly makes them happy. I’m sure that other creatives would agree with me how frustrating it is to be in the middle of a meaty piece of work only to look at the clock at gone midnight and realise that at 6 o’clock the following morning you need to be awake for your ‘proper job’. Nothing quite focusses the mind on time management than a deadline that can only be batted away by relentless use of whatever time (and energy) is left after your day job has finished with you.

Still, I find myself moaning. It is a gift to have the ability to do anything creative and in this day and age it is a gift to simply have a steady job – particularly with a family to feed. And actually, as jobs go, it’s quite a nice one. To have the support of family, friends and followers on top of that is another thing altogether.

As a footnote, if you’d like to check out someone who runs a Patreon page and runs it well (She is fantastic at updating and offering great rewards to her followers) why not check out Raine Szramski’s page. Her work is incredible. >>>



A New Chapter…

It really IS a new chapter in more ways than one.

I came to a decision to close down my Patreon page. I’d suspended it a couple of times  over the last year while I became too busy with work and life in general to really be able to concentrate on providing the appropriate relationship between myself and my supporters. I’m not just talking rewards, but something that I think supporters deserve, which is a two-way street of information and communication. While my schedule (And focus) isn’t allowing this to happen, I thought it only right to close it down, at least until I’m in a position to establish something more substantial in less “dense” times!

I would like to take this opportunity to thank those who came along with me for my short Patreon journey. I know who you are and certain individuals will be receiving something a little special in the near future. I won’t forget the difference you made to me.

As far as my continuing work goes, firstly, I am up to my neck in my biggest writing project to date. I can’t give any more details at this point in time, but needless to say, there *will* be a “product” at the end of all the work that I hope to be proud of.

Secondly, there is something in the pipeline on the audio side of things. Again, there will be an end product that I can shout to the rooftops about when the time comes. Famous authors have been mentioned. Actors known to the fans of a certain scifi show have been mentioned. JOB TITLES have been mentioned. Music is most definitely involved.

As and when I can talk a bit more, this will be the place I’ll be doing it…


Peter Farrie’s Skeptileptic launch Wednesday 25 April

Way, way back when I first moved to Exeter, I got chatting with a certain Mr Peter Farrie on either Twitter or Facebook (I can’t quite remember) about songwriting. He was in the midst of a project entitled My Song Life in which he posted a song a month (With accompanying video I might add) for a year.

That year came to an end, but far from resting on his laurels, Peter continued to write and even found the time to play piano at my wedding. Since then I have held firm that I would like to return the favour by creating the artwork for his first album. That time has come.

On Wednesday 25 April, Peter is playing a special gig to launch the album, Skeptileptic, along with support and the opportunity to purchase said compact disc.

The album will shortly be available to pre-order.

You can find more details via Peter’s Facebook page or via his Twitter thread. Tickets for the launch night are available via WeGotTickets

Time Shadows E-Books Available For A Limited Time

The e-books of Time Shadows: Anniversary Edition and Time Shadows: Second Nature are now available for ordering for a limited time.

The Time Shadows Facebook page and website have all the details, including order links.

All sales proceeds benefit CODE NGO, Canada’s leading international development agency uniquely focused on advancing literacy and education.

I contributed a brand new fourth Doctor illustration for the anniversary edition of Time Shadows 1 and a short story called The Spinning Dancer for Time Shadows 2.

After The Ball by Simon Brett
After The Ball by Simon Brett

Whoblique Strategies

1977: Brian Eno and David Bowie apply random oblique strategy cards to the recording of Bowie’s Low and “Heroes” LPs. From rock ‘n’ roll comes a new kind of art.

2017: playwright Elton Townend Jones and his Vortex of Wholigans apply the same strategy cards to every Doctor Who TV story. From time ‘n’ space comes a new kind of magic.

Over 275 stories, over 275 bursts of fast fiction, 70 writers, 16 Doctors, and a whole new adventure across the history of everyone’s favourite Time Lord.

Whoblique Strategies from Chinbeard Books by A Vortex of Wholigans.
Edited, conceived and commissioned by Elton Townend-Jones.
Sleeve, internal illustrations (And various written contributions) by Simon A Brett.

Available direct from Amazon