65daysofstatic play the soundtrack to Silent Running: a review
65daysofstatic soundtrack Silent Running
Queens Social Club, Sheffield, 6th May 2011
by Cath Aubergine
Many a film-maker has started out making music videos, but in recent years there’s been a growing trend for going the other way with bands writing a piece of music to accompany an existing film. A chance to flex the creative muscles, it’s probably harder than it looks – you’re not just creating music but interpreting the atmosphere of what’s on the screen, and timing is imperative. It probably helps if there’s more to your band than writing three minute rock songs, too: French experimental duo Zombie Zombie’s analogue electronica already had cinematic qualities before they applied it, with great acclaim, to Eisenstein’s classic “Battleship Potemkin” whilst those only familiar with British Sea Power as the indie band who had hits such as “Remember Me” and “Waving Flags” might have been surprised with their beautiful, sweeping Mogwai-esque accompaniment to Robert J. Flaherty’s “Man Of Aran”; those familiar with some of the more offbeat work tucked away on B-sides and the like less so. Both bands have found themselves performing their interpretations at film festivals across the world, and last year British Sea Power brought their score to Sheffield for Sensoria, the city’s annual festival celebrating the fusion of film and music.
This year the festival welcomes some hometown sons in the form of 65daysofstatic to a traditional and unreconstructed social club, in a part of the city centre once soundtracked by the crashing of metal forges but now surrounded by the offices, gym and burger restaurant of any urban business/leisure district. Inside, the stage looks more accustomed to hosting “Full Monty” style entertainment than the forefront of audiovisual creativity, although following the lead of the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds it is starting to make its mark as a venue for modern alternative music. This is also a celebration of ten years of a band who emerged from the city around the same time as the more celebrated Arctic Monkeys and their many lesser and less celebrated copyists, but whose sound could hardly be further away from kitchen-sink indie-rock. Their regular tours visit thousand capacity venues around the country and they have toured extensively across Europe and North America and even into Russia and Asia, but somehow they remain underground, largely ignored by the music press (possibly because they have never bothered to court its fickle tastes) despite four consistently excellent albums. Thirty years ago Sheffield was producing some of the most forward-thinking music in the country as the likes of Cabaret Voltaire wrote their own electronically-driven chapter in the post-punk chronicles – in the past decade 65daysofstatic more than anyone have carried that flame of innovation.
They are, therefore, a band who seem almost made to do this sort of thing: much of their music – in particular, the still astonishing post-rock symphony that was their 2007 album “The Destruction Of Small Ideas” – already feels like the soundtrack to something, a science fiction dystopia waiting to happen. Their first shot at soundtracking saw them on BBC Radio 3 – an appearance almost unprecedented for a 21st century techno-fuelled progressive “post-rock” band – when they were invited in 2009 to score the first radio adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Slaughterhouse Five”. And in keeping with their futuristic and technologically-driven sound, they’ve passed over the potentially easier option of an old black-and-white film (“Metropolis” might just have worked, but was probably a bit too obvious) and instead looked to the 70s, although watching it in 2011 one could say that (Bruce Dern’s hairstyle aside) Douglas Trumbull’s “Silent Running” was some way ahead of its time. Featuring robots, space freighters and a plot based around environmental destruction it is the perfect vehicle for 65daysofstatic, who have always had an interest in climate matters and eschewed the traditional music video format for their 2006 single “Radio Protector” in favour of a chilling and beautifully effective montage piece on the subject by Sheffield audio-visual collective Media Lounge.
It helps that the basic plot of “Silent Running” is uncomplicated, the film more reliant on the bigger ideas behind it and Trumbull’s visual imagination; he had previously worked on Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and some of the sequences featured ideas originally developed for that but never used. For the uninitiated, plant life on earth has been wiped out by advancing technology which now maintains the planet in a constant and artificial climate, and its once natural ecosystems survive only in a collection of geodesic domes in space maintained by mostly tired and bored freighter crews whom, with the exception of Dern’s botanist Freeman Lowell, care little for the legacy of which they are the guardians. Lowell’s just got back from hanging out with rabbits and picking some fruit when the call comes from Earth that government cutbacks mean the end of the project, with orders to destroy the domes and return the freighters to commercial use. Driven by his obsession, Lowell kills his fellow crewmen and hijacks the last remaining dome, steering it towards the rings of Saturn and an escape which will preserve his beloved forest; the scenes with him alone on the ship with just the service robots for company a clear influence on similar sequences in Duncan Jones’ recent “Moon”. Eventually, with the authorities closing in, he jettisons the dome to safety under the tenure of a now fully trained robot and destroys the freighter and himself. That’s all there is to it, really, but the powerful cinematography overrides the simplicity of the plot. The use of then-contemporary hippy-ish Joan Baez songs in the original score dated it somewhat, which is where 65daysofstatic come in – their new score repositioning the film in a century where its toxic future (lamented by Lowell, but shrugged off by his crewmates as they enjoy their lurid artificial protein dinner) seems ever closer.
Musically, it is classic 65daysofstatic – a fitting blend of the organic and technological. They have chosen to retain the film’s original, sparse dialogue, underpinning it with ambient sound – the rest, however, is theirs to play with. Guitars and drums build to crescendo as the forests explode; great sweeping sequences accompany space scenes; and Lowell’s struggle to pilot his hijacked freighter through the battering of Saturn’s rings is played out to glitchy futuristic electronica. I’ve seen their interpretation twice now, and the first time I was uncertain but now less so: as the crew prepare for the domes’ destruction despite Lowell’s pleas, a brief electronic sequence carries strong echoes of a track by Fuck Buttons, a younger British post-electronica band whose own sound seems influenced by 65days’ work: the title of the track in question being “Sweet Love For Planet Earth”. Deliberate, coincidental or my own imagination working overtime? In general though it’s fair to say that 65daysofstatic fans will be neither disappointed nor massively surprised by what they have done here. It sounds exactly like 65daysofstatic soundtracking a science fiction film should sound.
The audience tonight seems to be largely made up of fans. Next week’s performance at Manchester’s FutureEverything may be different. Having also witnessed British Sea Power’s first “Man Of Aran” performance amongst fans, and later seen it receive standing ovations at various film festivals where in some cases fans were very obviously in the minority, it’s interesting to see where this will go from here.
The next performance will be at Manchester Royal Northern College of Music on Saturday 14th May as part of the FutureEverything festival – tickets still available.