6 October, 2010
Good SW news and, potentially, bad
Those interested in the music of Steven Wilson, but who don't frequent the associated discussion groups (as I no longer do), might be, er, interested to know about two recent releases, not least because they're both free downloads.
First is a song prepared for SW's next 'solo' album (under his own name, as opposed to Bass Communion), but which he doesn't intend to develop further for inclusion in that project. Instead, he made it available via the website of a US radio station which interviewed him recently.
Second is a group of seven tracks, with a collective running time of 37 minutes, which were considered for release as bonus material with pre-ordered copies of the 'Insurgentes' documentary film. Different material was chosen for that purpose, and the seven tracks made available for free download in .wav format.
The potential 'bad news' is, in hindsight, obvious from the title of this latter release: 'Tape Experiments 1985-86' – it is indeed 'experimental' music produced by SW in the pre-Porcupine Tree era: interesting but nothing I'd upload to my iPod for repeated listening.
Note that these downloads, particularly the first, mightn't be available indefinitely.
18 May, 2010
I haven't watched broadcast TV since mid/late March, nor bought a CD within the past 6-7 months. How did that happen?
My TV still gets used for DVDs, of course, but I simply haven't been inclined to use its broadcast receiver. My life has changed fairly radically since November (overwhelmingly for the better, though it's been tough), and I have even less time or intellectual vacancy to invest into passively consuming whatever crappy gameshows or partial, excessively-editorialised 'news' coverage happens to be available at a given moment.
I'd already been receiving a broader, multisource overview of the latest news, supplemented by 'raw' data, via the web; now that's virtually 100%. Less expected has been my total switch to watching TV on-demand via BBC iPlayer and its ITV equivalent: to date, every single programme I've particularly want to see has been readily available at a time of my choosing via my browser.
My apparent abandonment of CDs has been similarly unexpected, but equally explicable.
It's certainly not that I'm obtaining (entirely legally!) less music: I bought two albums yesterday, in fact. The difference is that I now prefer to download in non-DRM'd, low-compression or VBR .mp3 format (even though the CD of 'Powerslave' was cheaper than the download). The new album from Anathema is due out at the end of the month, and I went to the effort of hunting for a non-'special' edition without 5.1-mix DVD-A, digibook, T-shirt or LP (simple: try Amazon rather than Burning Shed) before acknowledging that I'd rather wait a little longer for a download edition. There's no rush.
It's difficult to overstate the balloon-puncturing effect of my disillusionment with 'special' editions: obscure formats in excessive packaging, glorifying 'the album as artifact' rather than the mere carrying medium of the only part important me, the music itself (artwork can be a bonus, but not at a premium). SW is by far the worst offender, but not the only one; it's a disturbing trend, which I'm not prepared to condone. I don't need 'things'.
There's a pragmatic reason for the shift, too: I don't even recall the last time I listened to music on CD. Everything I've bought in recent years has been immediately ripped to .mp3 anyway; my sole CD player is in my PC, so any alleged sound quality advantage of uncompressed .cda over >192kbps .mp3 is probably negated by the chip fan!
17 May, 2010
Puppies in spandex
Given all I've said about NWOBHM and Iron Maiden in particular (pre-1991 Maiden, anyway), why have I suddenly started listening to their albums again?
I must have acquired a new bad influence.... ;)
11 March, 2010
That's... Uh The Deal
So EMI can no longer permit Pink Floyd albums to be sold as individually downloadable tracks, against the band's wishes.
Wanting people to only be able to obtain their music as full albums – continuous, coherent compositions rather than merely bunches of songs – it seems Pink Floyd inserted specific clauses in their contract, so this clarification of the law (a 'record' refers to a recording, not a physical storage format) might only apply to this one band, but it's going to be interesting to see how other artists with similar preferences respond.
18 February, 2010
Art or entertainment?
Tsk. The compiler of today's Guardian Quick Crossword defines 'music' as "(pleasant) sequence of sounds".
I disagree. Music doesn't have to be 'pleasing'.
2 January, 2010
Music of the year, 2009
Well. Not a vintage year for new music, so far as I'm concerned.
Ordinarily I'd identify a few highlights and disappointments from the numerous releases I'd bought, but according to iTunes only nine of those albums and EPs were released in 2009, and I wouldn't consider any of them to be especial highlights. Most of those I have been enjoying were released in 2008 or earlier (if we consider year of composition, much earlier, in the cases of Bach, Handel & Vivaldi).
Looking down the list, I've realised that I'd have to listen to all of the 2009 releases again in order to offer any meaningful comments and, frankly, I really can't be bothered to do so. Hence, I'll just post the list without further comment, as a record of the new music which grabbed sufficient attention to justify purchases but which failed to sustain my ongoing interest.
That's not to say I disliked these releases, just that I haven't felt much need to return to any of them for a while; the most recent 'last played' date is a little under two months ago. To offer a few more iTunes stats: of the 99 tracks included, I rated one 2-min track as '5 stars out of 5', seven as '4 stars', 21 as '2 stars' and only three as '1 star'; the remaining 67 received a 'listenable but unremarkable' '3 stars'.
Bass Communion – Chiaroscuro
Freiband & Bass Communion – Headwind/Tailwind
Gazpacho – Tick Tock
Imogen Heap – Ellipse
Jónsi & Alex – Riceboy Sleeps
OSI – Blood
[Link is to the standard single-disc edition; I wouldn't recommend the version with a bonus disc.]
Porcupine Tree – The Incident
The Resonance Association – Clarity In Darkness
[To be fair, my receipt of a review copy coincided with a somewhat life-changing event, so I haven't been able to give this the proper attention it deserves yet.]
Sylvan – Force Of Gravity
One landmark: three of those links are to .mp3 downloads, primarily because CD editions are a little awkward to obtain, but partly because distaste for the packaging excesses of Steven Wilson's projects has developed into me actually preferring to obtain music without artwork or a requirement for shelf-space.
15 September, 2009
There are people who claim music is "important" to them, and who apparently don't listen to, say, Porcupine Tree albums (whole albums, not individual tracks) on their audiophile equipment for "mere entertainment".
There are also people who engage in the mindless participatory sensation of whistling, yelling and generally flailing around at concerts.
The puzzling part is that they're often the same people.
Either it's 'just a bit of fun' or it isn't, surely?
29 August, 2009
As a result of my recently-rediscovered interest in Baroque music, my iPod now contains as much music from before 1960 (before 1930, apart from two tracks) than from the Eighties, very nearly as many tracks as from the Seventies, and over three times as many as from the Sixties. Not that any of that's difficult, as I overwhelmingly prefer post-1990 music.
- Pre-1960: 342
- 1960s: 111
- 1970s: 358
- 1980s: 342
- 1990s: 1239
- 2000s: 1750
Or rather, I prefer genuinely creative music, and consider that was generally lacking in the foregoing decades, apart from a minority of true gems (plus I just plain dislike
psychedelia, 'prog', etc.).
I'm not sure why that was &ndash could it be that music technology was developing radically in that period, with the introduction of electric and electronic instruments, and corresponding evolution of production techniques? One consequence could have been musicians being as interested in experimenting with the kit and effects as in assimilating them then creating art.
I don't know; I'm idly guessing, but I do feel that the technology can be incidental in modern creative music (not mass-produced pap, and that wasn't a typo), rather than a marketable gimmick.
20 August, 2009
My unexpected discovery of Imogen Heap on late-night TV in 2006 resulted in the purchase of one of my favourite albums, 'Speak For Yourself'. Her third, 'Ellipse' is now available for preorder, for release on 24 August.
For some reason I'm really drawn to her breathy electronic pop; this may be my 'album of 2009'; listen to the preview (a stream of the whole album) to determine whether you agree.
She also knows how to release special editions credibly, too (unlike the materialist pretentiousness of Steven Wilson, for example). 'Immi's Preferred Edition' features the standard album on one CD and 13 instrumental versions of the album tracks on a second, with a 24-page booklet. No oversized hardback books, pointless exclusivity or prohibitive prices: Imogenheap.com offers the special edition for a mere £9 + P&P (£2 within the UK).
16 August, 2009
Anyone else notice that in the BBC's iPlayer applet, the volume goes to '11'?
It's still not enough for last night's Proms performance of Beethoven's Ninth, though.
11 July, 2009
New Sigur Rós-related happiness
If, like me, you appreciate the music of Sigur Rós but don't participate in discussion groups or other online activity relating to the band, you may be interested in but unaware of a forthcoming, closely-related release.
'Riceboy Sleeps' is the debut album by Jónsi & Alex: Jón Þór Birgisson of Sigur Rós and his boyfriend Alex Somers. The music (or at least the samples I've heard) has the distinct Sigur Rós sound, but in an ambient, almost totally instrumental context: perhaps post-rock without the rock.
As is becoming traditional, there's a range of editions to consider.
My preference is always for the one offering the most music (main album and bonus material) in ordinary CD-quality stereo (not surround sound), but that's balanced against my dislike of extraneous, gimmicky packaging, so this time I'll be going for the ordinary, single-disc retail edition, available from Amazon and elsewhere.
Rough Trade offers an 'exclusive' edition which supplements the main album with a second disc of music (by other artists) which inspired Jónsi & Alex, including Edith Piaf, the last ever recording of a castralto, Washington Philips & Audrey Hepburn. Frankly, I doubt I'd play that more than once, so won't bother.
The duo's own site offers a limited edition box set, featuring a 33-min CD of bonus tracks (instead of the Rough Trade disc, not as well) which I would like, but otherwise it's a splendid example of the OTT packaging I definitely don't need: apart from the box itself the CDs are accompanied by a hardback book of artwork and a 40-page colouring book, with coloured pencils supplied. Oh, and a badge.
No. Just 'no'.
15 April, 2009
Spent tens of thousands on audiophile-grade sound equipment, including vibration dampers for your fridge, but finding the music still isn't quite right?
You forgot to use 24K gold fuses, didn't you?
Actually, that's gold-plated, which makes even less sense.
1 January, 2009
Live music is "dead" to Khoi Vinh:
Perhaps I watched too many mediocre bands within too short a time span, but it only took me a few years to develop a powerful distaste for the trappings of live performances....
Part of this attitude is about growing old, but I think another part of it is that, as digital music has become more pervasive, the ritual of attending the performance of songs in person seems more and more superfluous to my relationship with the music.
Where it once seemed essential to hear music performed live in order to complete the experience of being a fan of an artist or an album, it now does relatively little to enhance my enjoyment or understanding. Live music seems fleeting, subjective and basically irrelevant to whether I like a song, album or artist.
Aye; me too.
As a couple of commenters on the article say, (rock/pop) concerts tend to be more about 'the experience' than the music itself:
... the attraction is the environment – the crowds – the energy; not necessarily the music.
Recorded music, to me, is just stuff to keep you company as you work, drive, travel, etc. Live music is music as it was intended to be consumed: aural, visual, participatory, social, etc.
The point is that I don't want that experience
. For me, music is aural, and only
aural. I don't want the distraction of any visual accompaniment (whether lights & projections at a concert or video on a DVD at home), there's absolutely no chance of my 'participating', and the social aspects are a massive turn-off.
As I've said, I attend concerts to intently listen to bands; to feel
the music rather than academically scrutinise it, but not to 'party', not to share something with the bands (the relationship is strictly one-way) or audiences, and not to immerse myself in a mob . It's about me, moving no more than to breathe and blink, and the performers (or rather, the performance; the people are secondary to the music). Everyone else in the room is an irrelevance.
And when attending a concert typically means 4-6 hours travelling, ~3 hours just waiting (to enter the venue, whilst enduring a support act and whilst the stage is reset) before the only 1½-2 hours that matter, plus the expense of tickets, travel, food & maybe accommodation, I'm becoming far more selective about whether to bother.
Another comment, by Daniel Black, puts it particularly well:
We’re talking about two different things:
1. music for its content
2. music for its connectivity
In most cases, in my own experience, live engagements do not provide for the content of music as much as engineered recordings will. Precision provides clarity, and a level of artistic development a live show can only mimic, typically poorly.
However, the immediate, intimate energy of a live show can connect you to the artists, and to the crowd.
And I don't want to 'connect'.
Back to Vinh for the final word:
I still have a great passion for recorded music, though; I listen to as much of it as I can get my hands on, and I’m frankly more eager to hear new and different artists than I am to keep listening to the old standbys in my iTunes library. The thing is that I find recordings – as repeatable, knowable documents of musical expression – to be endlessly more fascinating than live performances. I enjoy the ability to examine them in greater detail, to pore over the tracks and to be rewarded by hearing new details even after dozens and dozens of plays. As our relationship to the 'physical' aspects of music become more and more abstract, I think the data – the information – is what holds the most fascination.
31 December, 2008
Music of the year, 2008
First the disclaimer: I dislike ranked 'Best of' lists. The idea of asserting that Album A is 'better' than Album B but not as 'good' as Album C is patently absurd and has no value. I recoil from the activity of compiling such lists, too: far too anal and stereotypically male for my taste.
That said, I am able to at least identify those albums released in 2008 that I have (and haven't...) particularly liked.
Album of the Year
Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid
Wonderful. I don't love every track – only most of them.
Bass Communion - Molotov And Haze
Marillion - Happiness Is The Road
Another peak on the Marillion roller coaster, another bungie-jump over the shark. After last year's excorable 'Somewhere Else' this was a very welcome return to form. It's no 'Marbles' or 'Brave' overall, but several individual tracks are of that quality.
Steven Wilson - Insurgentes
The release of SW's 'debut' solo album (in the limited sense of it being the first solo album released under his own name) was rather overshadowed by the grossly pretentious packaging and petty 'exclusivity' of certain tracks, both of which were a barrier to my appraising it fairly. However, despite not wanting to like it, I do – with the caveat that I only really like one track and I suspect this'll go the same way as SW's 'Blackfield' albums i.e. I'll have tired of it within a few months.
Also-rans (– but still pretty good!)
Bass Communion & Freiband - Haze Shrapnel
The Bass Communion track, an outtake from 'Molotov And Haze', is excellent, but the Frans de Waard remix doesn't add much.
Bass Communion - Pacific Codex
Pretentious over-packaging aside, I enjoyed the sonorous music, though after the long wait, it didn't turn out to be my favourite Bass Communion release.
Andrew Liles & Fovea Hex - Gone Every Evening
Pg.lost - It's Not Me, It's You!
As I said in August, this Swedish post-rock band's debut EP 'Yes I Am' may have been my favourite discovery of 2008, but that's a 2007 release so doesn't qualify for this exercise. However, their debut complete album was released in September 2008 and it's... mixed. The first half is excellent, if a little less novel that the earlier material (which, to be honest, wasn't desperately novel, 'merely' very well composed and performed), but I'm slightly less impressed by the rest.
The Resonance Association - dronezero
Pretty good; no complaints, though it's not exactly groundbreaking, and is slightly disappointing after 2007's excellent 'Northern Coastline Soundtrack'.
And yes, I did buy the CD-R version.
The Resonance Association - We Still Have The Stars
No-Man - Schoolyard Ghosts
Meh. S'okay. On the whole, it may be my favourite No-Man album, but it's still just not the sort of thing I'd ordinarily choose to hear, and Tim Bowness's 'crooning' still annoys me. If only this was an instrumental project....
The Pineapple Thief - Tightly Unwound
Yet again, they've released an inoffensive, entirely passable album which I neither like nor dislike. I played it a couple of days ago in order to write this review, as I'd forgotten how it sounded... and have forgotten again. I recall that whilst I hear it, it's 'okay', but no more than that, and I don't know when, or whether, I'll bother with it again. That's at least the third time I've responded this way to a TPT album, and probably the last. It may sound cruel to classify 'Tightly Unwound' as 'muzak', but that really is the level to which it grabs my attention.
Porcupine Tree - We Lost The Skyline
I rarely listen to official live albums nowadays, but this one less than most: the sound quality's not that much better than a good audience recording, and the performance definitely isn't. I know people who attended the in-store mini-concert, and like this aide mémoire, but I suspect that added personal meaning is required to really enjoy an otherwise rather average album.
Opeth - Watershed
Oh dear. This is a case where my principles contradict my tastes. I highly respect the band's wish to progress musically, but I don't like the resulting music: I want full-on death metal from Opeth, and it'd be an understatement to say I dislike Camel-influenced 'prog'. All the best, guys, but we may have parted company.
Sigur Rós - Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust
Initially, I was disappointed by this album, which contains fewer truly novel highlights than previous releases and, worse (for me), frequently has a more upbeat feel. However, having set my preconception and preferences to one side, it's grown on me a little, and the cheery climax of 'Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur' is a surprising favourite. On reflection, it's not a bad album; my iPod tells me I've rated two tracks as '4 stars' (of 5), one '1' ('Gobbledigook' is dreadful) and the rest an 'acceptable but unexceptional' '3'. I just don't rate it anything like as highly as the foregoing three albums.
Steven Wilson - Cover Version V
Nah. I don't particularly like the original of the cover track, but slightly prefer it to SW's rendition. As for the accompanying original song by SW: 'Well You're Wrong', er, is. Falsetto vocals never saved a mediocre composition.
Too Soon To Decide
Murcof - The Versailles Sessions
Maybe it's too soon to tell (I only heard it for the first time last week), but I suspect this was better as accompaniment to a visual spectacle than as the focus of one's attention, an album for home-listening. The novelty of using period Baroque instruments is just that, and of no particular relevance to the compositions, apart from my favourite piece, a reinterpretation of one by Lully.
Only for Murcof completists; the rest of us could have just waited for the next 'real' album in the wonderful 'M-U-R-C-O-F' sequence.
10 November, 2008
Taking on the 'canon'
I was interested to see that Squarepusher (Tom Jenkinson) had been invited to edit this week's Guardian music section, but it's been a busy day (and weekend, and week...) so I hadn't got round to reading any of the articles before encountering one via Tim's comments.
I simultaneously agree and disagree with Tim about Prof. Paul Crowther's discussion of the aesthetic value of music. It's not an easy read, packing a lot of content into a relatively short piece. Too much, really; a sensible 'rule' of writing is to make one point at a time, ideally one point per article/blog posting, whereas Crowther attempts to summarise what seems to be an entire book chapter. Yet when criticising the over-academic tone it’s worth remembering that Crowther is an academic, not a journalist, and he was invited to contribute by Jenkinson, himself not a journalist. It was misjudged, but I suspect Crowther provided precisely what was requested.
It’s not entirely suitable for a mainstream newspaper, and lacks the tight focus demanded by the context, but I didn't have trouble following the article (slowly…) – it's not suitable for the sort of reductionist who merely responds "Yeah, but does it ROCK!?" (hilarious.), but it's not that difficult, and at least there's no unintelligible jargon ('dialectical' is borderline). The overall 'message' is either absent or lost, but some of the individual statements are thought-provoking (not 'profound' – that's expecting too much). I particularly appreciated the observation that consumerism (and postmodernism, though I don't know much about those theories) "privilege the reception of artifacts over the significance of how they are created." Very true, and something which has been annoying me recently.
7 November, 2008
Alexis Petridis' newfound openness to complex music extends to him reviewing a box set of Gabriel-era Genesis albums.
He finds the awful lyrics more of a barrier than I do (I just ignore 'em) and prefers the poppy short songs to the grandiose epics I like, but that's fine – just a difference of opinion, and not as dismissive as I expected.
Yet he still hasn't quite grasped it:
Was there really a time when a band could expect to do good business with 21 minute-long songs in 9/8 time?
It doesn't matter. It wasn't about 'doing good business': their overarching objective wasn't self-serving popularity or wealth – Genesis were musicians, not aspiring celebrities (well, that incarnation of the band, anyway...).
I suppose that's incomprehensible to a modern pop critic.
7 November, 2008
You're just supposed to sit and listen
In today's Guardian, Alexis Petridis writes about an intensive 'crash course' he took into the appreciation of jazz. I don't often agree with Petridis, (his name on an article is usually reason enough for me to skip it), but the subject interests me, particularly the need to acquire an appreciation of jazz, or indeed any other variety of truly progressive music.
One quote that particularly grabbed me was from saxophonist Nathaniel Facey:
"These days, music is like fast food, but sound. It's over and it's on to the next thing, they take your money and they're on to something else. The danger is, it takes away from your actual listening skills. You just hear, you don't listen. Hearing a noise, it becomes a peripheral thing."
Exactly; a better expression of my own, rather loaded, statement that I don't want 'just a bit of fun'
, mere transitory entertainment. I want to be moved
which, though primarily emotional, requires a certain intellectual engagement.
That's also an internalised process, not really compatible with the showmanship and shared experience of a pop/rock concert. When I attend a Porcupine Tree show it's just me, standing motionless for two hours, and the live music – the surrounding audience and the backing videos are less than irrelevant to me, being mere annoyances. I don't want to be part of a communal 'party' – the fireworks are going off inside my own head.
I know nothing about jazz, but maybe I ought to give it a try.
7 October, 2008
Steven Wilson's latest solo album, the first to be released under his own name, is now available for preorder. I don't recommend buying it.
To be more precise, the 'special edition' of 'Insurgentes' is now available in two formats, for despatch in late November, but I recommend avoiding them in favour of a standard retail edition expected in early 2009.
The 'special edition' is offered in two formats:
- A CD with a second CD of 'outtakes', plus the same music in surround sound and higher resolution on DVD-A. The DVD will also include an 18-min extract from a forthcoming full-length documentary film.
- The music from both CDs on four 10" vinyl records, with no more than 12 minutes on each side.
Both formats will be packaged in a large hardback book of photographs by Lasse Hoile and Susana Moyaho. This means each package will weigh 1.6 kg, and a collector wanting both formats would receive two books.
You may be starting to see the problem. Whilst the prices of the items themselves are on the 'expensive' side of 'reasonable' (the CD edition costs £34, whilst Marillion is offering 'Happiness is the Road' as two CDs in smaller hardback books for £30), posting large items of such extreme weight, in special protective packaging, is expensive: £4.75 within the UK is okay, but €11.65 (£9.05) to mainland EU or $25.49 (£14.55) to the USA becomes questionable. And that's for the CD/DVD edition alone; a US collector ordering that and the vinyl would pay a startling $162.59, of which $51.89, or 32%, would be postage.
SW, Carl Glover and Burning Shed (the artist, designer and retailer) don't set international postage costs, so it's been justifiably said that they can't be blamed. Yet that's disingenuous: they didn't define the costs but have admitted that they were fully aware of what they'd be. They had an opportunity to say "we'd like to do this but it'll cost too much to distribute" – but chose not to. That decision was entirely their responsibility, and they have to accept the consequence: that alienating the fanbase could (should?) harm all involved.
Ordinarily I'd have been happy to spread the word about 'Insurgentes' without any particular caveats, but as you see, all I'm now inclined to do is criticise the excessive packaging & consequent shipping costs – I'm not even bothering to mention the music and it's no accident that I'm withholding links to related websites.
I have no objections to the existence of collectors' editions which the... less committed (aka rational) might consider overpriced; if people want to literally buy into an artist's aesthetics, that's fine, so long as more reasonably-priced editions exist too. 'Luxury' elements should be ancillary, such as additional artwork, minority-interest formats or, indeed, coffee-table books, whereas the core content (all the music) should be available to everyone (who's willing to pay a fair price – I'm not talking about free gifts!).
In that situation, calls to "stop whining – buy it if you want, don't if you don't" might be fair, but that's not the case here: it currently seems that the only way to legally obtain the music on the second CD would be to buy one of the hardback editions.
My own preference for the special edition would have involved the release of three distinct products:
- Two CDs and a DVD-A in packaging like the 'FoaBP' special edition (the discs in a digipack plus a perfect-bound booklet, both in a thick card slipcase). No hardback book.
- Box set of vinyl. No hardback book.
- Hardback book. No music.
Then people could have chosen the combination they wanted (or still waited for the retail edition), and collectors wanting both the CD/DVD and the vinyl wouldn't require two copies of the book, cutting unnecessary costs for everyone.
'Insurgentes' is also an ongoing film project, with Lasse Hoile producing a documentary about the making of the album. A stated theme is:
... the album as art form, applying the same aesthetic vision through the writing, performance, production, artwork, lyrics, videos and beyond. The film looks into the issues of creating, packaging and marketing music in an era when iPods, mp3s and download culture are changing and eroding perceptions of exactly what an album is supposed to sound and look like.
A discussion of devaluation of 'the album' as a physical object would indeed be interesting, but when the response seems to be hyperinflation of 'the album' into a lavish artefact, I don't feel able to condone SW's vision. Not at my expense.
An overreaction? In isolation, perhaps, but as not even the most extreme example of an ongoing trend not limited to SW's albums (as Porcupine Tree and other projects, particularly Bass Communion), it does need to be challenged. It's reaching a point where an album's 'special edition' is the primary release, with a nominally mainstream 'retail edition' actually being a cut-down afterthought released several months later, if ever. Again, I don't object to a collectors' edition being made available to a comparative minority, so long as that's alongside a less elaborate, unlimited edition for everyone else. One shouldn't have to pay extraordinary prices for additional cardboard just to hear the music – it's a game with which I'm rapidly losing patience.
28 September, 2008
Get the stars
'We Still Have All The Stars', the second 'album' from The Resonance Association (though far from their first release), is now out. It's available on vinyl (why?), with a free CD-R if ordered from Burning Shed, or as a 'free' 256 kbps .mp3 download from the dedicated album website, where 'free' means 'please donate whatever you think it's worth'.
I discovered TRA via their earlier dark ambient/post-rock projects, but I hear a lot more guitar-led space rock in 'We Still Have All The Stars'; the closing track might even be considered a bit too Floydian for some. The dense ambient soundscape is still there, though, and I'm torn between playing the album very loudly or at a level to best appreciate the depth of the mix. I might have to play it multiple times. Good.
I'd certainly recommend giving it a try, though I'm unsure about one track. TRA have produced techno-ish music before, but in the context of a largely instrumental, primarily space-rock album 'Unite', a track featuring guest lyricist/vocalist Scott Fuller, seems rather out-of-place.
14 September, 2008
No hint of a release date yet, but Kevin 'Chroma Key' Moore has at least confirmed that his 'OSI' collaboration with Jim Matheos will release a third album at some point: they've been working on material "for several months now, slowly but surely".
This time the guest drummer will be Gavin Harrison (hmm. I'm not a fan), and there may be a guest vocalist alongside Moore.
Their eponymous 2003 debut is one of my favourite albums, and the second, 'Free' has flashes of brilliance. I'm looking forward to the third.
9 September, 2008
Damn. Do I have to stop loving Elbow's 'The Seldom Seen Kid' now they've gone all mainstream and won the Mercury Prize?
Perhaps not. Well done, gents: extremely well-deserved. I'd have been fairly pleased if Burial had won, but this is wonderful news.
27 August, 2008
Post-rock band of the day
Anyone who likes the guitar-led post-rock of bands like Explosions In The Sky really needs to hear Pg.lost.
That comparison is both a good thing and bad, since my initial impression of the tracks available online was that this could be new material from Explosions In The Sky. Well, no; my initial, less analytical, impression was "this is wonderful!", so it'd be a pity if some dismiss them as merely derivative. I like EITS immensely, but somehow I hear more humanity in Pg.lost's music; it's no less intricate or soaring, but possibly displays less introspection.
Apart from that Myspace site (the url of the band's 'official site' redirects straight back there), I've struggled to find anything about the band (a four-piece from Sweden) and, more importantly, any way to order their album, 'It's Not Me, It's You!'. I've finally discovered that it hasn't actually been released yet in Europe, so I'll have to wait until some time in September. In the mean time, I've ordered their (very affordable) 2007 EP, 'Yes I Am' direct from the record label.
Give 'em a try.
13 August, 2008
I'm a little uncomfortable around obsessives, most prosaically those who indulge an urge to list, rank and hence stultify their enthusiasms: the comforting categorisation becomes the activity, rather than enjoyment of the subject itself.
I've been known to partially participate, including here, but if I do, it tends to be in the form of, say, 'an arbitrary number of musicians whose work I appreciate, in no particular order', not a ranked 'top ten favourite artists'. I simply don't see value in that: it'd only be of applicable to me, at the moment of compilation, and the ludicrous idea that I like Bass Communion 'twice as much as' Porcupine Tree or 'four bands ahead of' Pink Floyd is not something that interests me.
6 August, 2008
Richard Barbieri's Stranger Inside.
Well, yes, obviously; that's the miracle of human biology.
Ahem. Okay, by inspiring an awful pun, the title of Mr. B's forthcoming album has successfully induced me to promote it here, but it's only fair to mention that a 6-min sampler medley of extracts from 'Stranger Inside' is available at the afore-linked KScope website (warning: Flash-only), and on the strength of that, I won't be buying the album.
No particular criticism; it's just not remotely to my taste – I don't do 'mellow'. YMMV.
[Update 20:04: Hmm. Those willing to provide an e-mail address are able to download one whole track, 'Hypnotek', in .mp3 format, which sounds less like 'easy-listening'. Maybe I'll hunt for more samples after the release date.
Incidentally, I suspect KScope expects people to use real e-mail addresses, but Guerrillamail is your friend.]
1 August, 2008
I have mine! (Review: Molotov And Haze (Bass Communion, 2008))
Several releases by Bass Communion have been limited editions, typically only available by Headphone Dust (a mail order firm once thought to comprise just Steven Wilson (SW) himself and a stack of padded envelopes). One could argue that demand is correspondingly low (a subset of the subset of people who acknowledge it to be music), but each release sells out rapidly.
By definition, the hardcore fans tend to know about releases early (though I try to spread the word here), and get their (our) orders in quickly, so Headphone Dust seem to recognise their regular customers by name.
For example, I ordered the eighth Bass Communion album, 'Molotov and Haze', slightly late: as mentioned, I was 'on tour' 17-26 July, and happened to be without a network connection in Aberdeen on the day ordering opened. I'd established that this album isn't limited – it's even available at Amazon – so wasn't worried, but HD seemed surprised by the delay: the padded envelope I received was annotated beside the return address: "Where were you?!" Amazon doesn't do that....
The album itself is wonderful...ish.
'Molotov and Haze' contains four pieces, lasting from 12 to 23 minutes, derived from guitar tones heavily modified by SW's laptop. Two are 'beautiful', stressing the 'ambient' part of 'dark ambient', whereas the other two... aren't, more closely resembling industrial noise. Perhaps surprisingly, I'm drawn to one of each type: I hadn't expected to particularly like something which initially sounds like a ship's hooter jammed on for quarter of an hour, but as higher notes gradually emerged within the deep drone (which is itself less homogenous as it initially seems) of 'Molotov 1502'... well, I found it electrifying. The other 'noisy' piece, 'Corrosive 1702', was almost the converse: a higher-pitched industrial shriek which acquired deeper drones as the track progressed. I found it difficult listening; an exhausting experience.
The other two tracks, 'Glacial 1602' and 'Haze 1402' were closer to the hypnotic multi-layered modulated drones which first drew me into Bass Communion. As the Bass Communion Myspace site (which currently offers samples of 'Corrosive 1702' and 'Haze 1402') says: "transcendent".
8 July, 2008
And I thought proggers liked extended instrumentals
Certain philistines have lazily dismissed the ongoing Halberstadt performance of John Cage's 'ORGAN2/ASLSP As Slow aS Possible' as 'pretentious'.
Pretentious. Go on then: what does it pretend to be? If there's pretension, it's on the part of the critics, and their apparent po-faced adulation of convention.
C'mon; how could anyone interpret a performance scheduled to last 639 years, which is on its sixth note in seven years and which people visit on key dates to hear tone changes, as deadly serious? Don't be so ****ing worthy. Have you actually read anything about it, and noticed it serves as a framing element for other educational and musical projects?
Another criticism is that "anyone could do that". Trite, vacuous and irredeemably ignorant.
The ability to play an organ is a skill which I certainly respect, as is an ability to write organ music. But both are merely crafts, whereas an ability to derive inspiration from the instrument may go further: art. Conventionally, craft is considered a precondition for producing art, but it doesn't have to be: considerable technical ability on the part of the artist may or may not be involved, but that's a totally different issue, even a matter of coincidence. Banging two rocks together can be music, whereas as 70s 'prog' bands and their imitators amply demonstrate, the ability to wring intricate... widdly bits out of guitars and mellotrons has rarely produced art.
An object or performance may involve complexity, and an object or performance may be art, but there's no causal relationship: complexity isn't a precondition for art.
Production of art doesn't necessarily demand great (or any) technical ability, and nor does it necessarily require great intellectual effort.
Yes, in some cases the means of production, including the thought process, is part of the artwork, but sometimes only the result matters, whether it's a lifetime's work or the outcome of two minutes' daydreaming. I'd argue that it's even possible to generate art inadvertantly, perhaps by accidentally triggering one's camera at a fortuitous moment.
Art is about the reaction it inspires in the viewer or listener. If, after watching a film, one thinks "that was fun; what's next?", that's fine as entertainment, but it's empty sensation rather than art; it hasn't touched the viewer, hasn't provoked deeper, lasting thought; it hasn't changed the viewer.
That's not to say art has to have 'meaning', or convey some grand 'message'. As an organiser of the Halberstadt performance says, "It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just there." I really don't believe an artwork has to encapsulate ('contain') any ideas; many do, but it's not part of my definition of 'art' – it's entirely acceptable for an artwork to be an inert reflector of one's own ideas. An artwork doesn't need to give the observer anything, or interact with the observer in any way; sometimes the burden is entirely the observer's.
Self-reflection is a 'valid' reaction (as if validity needed to be proved) – some of the best art forces one to question oneself rather than the ostensible content of the work itself. Art can also inspire anger, even disgust – art definitely doesn't have to entertain.
But a blank refusal to engage with art.... No. I can't accept that. If you don't like an artwork, fine; that's your choice. But if you merely dismiss it, you're just a drone.
6 July, 2008
Who's counting: who?
iTunes' logging also allows me to say which artists are represented on my iPod, thereby repeating an exercise I first completed for my Creative Zen in 2005.
My player contains 3,595 tracks from 478 albums; some are complete albums, some just favoured tracks. In the following list of artists, asterices identify those with token presences, with the obvious exception of Frost*, as the asterisk is part of the band's name....
A Perfect Circle
Afro Celt Sound System
Agua De Annique
All Saints (arguably William Orbit with guest vocalists, really)*
At War With Self
Melissa Auf der Maur
Bass Communion (and collaborations)
Ludwig van Beethoven
Boards Of Canada
Tim Bowness / Peter Chilvers
Explosions In The Sky
Fear Falls Burning
Godspeed You Black Emperor
h (Steve Hogarth)
Liquid Tension Experiment
The Pax Cecilia
Pure Reason Revolution
The Resonance Association
Simon & Garfunkel
Paul Van Dyk
6 July, 2008
Who's counting: what?
Buying an iPod last October gave me access to far more information about my listening habits than was provided by my old (but otherwise perfectly adequate, apart from capacity) Creative Zen. For one thing, it allowed me to hear the entire contents of my player, as I knew which had and hadn't been played. Surprisingly, that took a full six months.
Overall, I have 3,595 tracks, which would take 13.8 days to play back-to-back. All tracks are in .mp3 format, the vast majority at 192 kbps.
Though the ability to carry videos certainly wasn't a selling point, the facility came with the iPod. However, the novelty of being able to watch Sigur Rós' 'Viðrar vel til loftárása' on a train soon wore off, so my player now 'only' contains 26.54 GB of music plus 224.7 MB of metadata & cover images. That's quite an impressive increase on the ~19.5 GB stored in my Creative Zen eight months ago.
Perhaps the most significant immediate addition was a large amount of 'classical' music – over a gigabyte – as I now have the space to carry, say, six hours of Beethoven symphonies.
For much the same reason (abundant space), I've added quite a few individual tracks by artists I don't otherwise like. For instance, if I like one song by The Stranglers, I'll add it, irrespective of my opinion (indeed, or awareness) of their career as a whole.
These isolated tracks are also possibly the most vulnerable: on a whim, I might add a sample track offered for download by an unsigned band like The Noun, but I might delete it just as easily.
Nominally, 478 albums are featured, but many are individual tracks, and as I clear out tracks I don't particularly like (see below), the album count could drop sharply.
I can't think of an easy way to determine the number of artists, other than manually counting them; anyone?
By definition, every single track has been played at least once, but 2,264 have been played only once and 1,064 haven't been heard within the past six months.
Conversely, I've only played 541 (15%) more than twice and only 71 (2%) more than five times. My most-played tracks are Fovea Hex's 'Allure' and Emilie Autumn's 'Chambermaid (Space Mountain Mix)', with 10 plays each.
The expected correlation between track rating and play frequency may be beginning to appear, but it's still masked by the effect of my repeatedly playing new albums to discover whether I like them. For example, Pure Reason Revolution's 'The Dark Third' accounts for three places on my 'Top 25 Most Played' list, though I've since become tempted to delete the whole album.
As that suggests, I've been able to very roughly rate my music, on a crude 1-5 scale. I'd have to question the validity and consistancy of the results, but if '1' indicates tracks I'm unlikely to want to hear again, '2' indicates tracks I'm more likely to skip than not, '3' indicates tracks I'd be happy to hear, '4' indicates tracks I'd actively choose to play and '5' indicates favourites, then I have:
- Rated 1/5: 113
- Rated 2/5: 752
- Rated 3/5: 1,997
- Rated 4/5: 628
- Rated 5/5: 105
That's a fairly even normal distribution, though I'm likely to double-check and probably delete the lowest-rated tracks, unless they're essential for the tracklists of 'contiguous-composition' albums such as 'The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway'
That's more than enough statistics p*rn for now, but just one more parameter: eras of music I choose to hear:
- Pre-1960: 154 tracks – Anton Karas' 'Third Man' theme is the only one post-1939, and the only one unclassifiable as 'Classical' music.
- 1960s: 38 tracks – 'Abbey Road', Nick Drake's 'Five Leaves Left', 13 Sandy Denny songs and The Animals' rendition of 'The House Of The Rising Sun'.
- 1970s: 358 tracks.
- 1980s: 333 tracks.
- 1990s: 1,176 tracks.
- 2000s: 1,536 tracks – so the largest proportion is from the current decade, with 2½ years still to go.
23 June, 2008
I'm torn. Fovea Hex's 'Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent' is one of my favourite albums (actually a trilogy of EPs), particularly the closing third, 'Allure' (highly recommended). I also kind of like Andrew Liles' remix of Bass Communion's 'Ghosts On Magnetic Tape'. So 'Gone Every Evening', by Andrew Liles and Fovea Hex should be a safe purchase, right?
The problem is the description of contributions by Laura Sheeran ("tortured and semi-hysterical vocals") and Michael Begg ("inscrutable audibles"). Okay, by many people's standards, I enjoy odd music*, but this might be pushing it....
**** it; it's only £2.50.
*: I promise there's no pretention in that – I listen to 'odd music' because I genuinely like it, never merely to be "more obscure than thou".
[Update 12:24: 'Every Evening' is excellent; easily worth £2.50 alone. Most of 'Gone' is good too, but I don't expect to want to hear Fabrizio Palumbo's spoken lyrics often, and as expected, Laura Sheeran's "tortured and semi-hysterical vocals" (only lasting a few seconds at the end) don't do much for me.
20 June, 2008
Bonus Bass Communion CD-R
If you didn't know the eighth Bass Communion album 'Molotov and Haze' (samples available here, at the time of writing) is due out in July, well, you probably don't care, but if you did, and do, you might also like to hear about an additional 3" CD-R release by Frans de Waard's 'MOLL' label.
'Haze Shrapnel' comprises two tracks: a new 13-min Bass Communion piece from the 'MaH' project plus a 8-min remix by de Waard as Freiband.
It's solely available from MOLL, solely by PayPal: send a payment of €6 (worldwide postage included) to 'email@example.com'.
16 June, 2008
People you look for
I'm not entire sure how new this 'news' is, but 'ambient/avant-garde improvisers' Darkroom have released pretty much an albums-worth of music as a free download. Last.fm bills it as an 18-track release called 'Podcast', but I'm pretty sure that should be a description, not a title....
If you like what you hear, consider buying some of their other EPs and albums.
12 June, 2008
Pity the pop critic who has to review a Coldplay album, polluting his/her consciousness with aural kebab.
In the Independent, Andy Gill dodges the distasteful task of discussing the latest album by explaining why Coldplay are so dreadful: whilst their music isn't 'bad', it hypocritically fails to acknowledge its utter vacuousness. I agree.
4 June, 2008
Not all alright
Grudgingly, I quite like 'deluxe' editions of CDs: additional tracks accompanying an album (preferably on a separate CD, enhanced CD or DVD in order to keep the 'core' album distinct), presented in oversized or novel packaging with additional artwork.
Given the choice between that and a retail edition in a standard jewel case, I'll happily pay an additional couple of pounds. In a few exceptional cases, I've paid almost half as much again as for basic editions. However, the material product isn't important to me – it's the music that matters – and I have no interest in the petty exclusivity of limited editions.
Unfortunately, recent trends seem to stress those elements, seemingly (to the cynical me) in order to justify startling prices – not 120-150% of the basic price, but 500% or more. The items do become mere 'items', conveying little more than the alleged prestige of ownership. Does anyone really need an album provided on CD and vinyl and DVD in a box which is, beneath all the sumptuous details, still just a box, and with the exact same tracks provided as high-res .mp3 downloads?
Preorders of Sigur Rós latest album 'Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust' have opened at sigurros.com (as opposed to their main and emphatically-hyphenated website, sigur-ros.co.uk). The standard CD edition will be despatched on or around 23 June, and costs £12. Other options, for £8 and £14, are available, but there's also a deluxe edition:
This exquisitely presented deluxe edition is a unique document of the creation of Sigur Rós' fifth album in film, photography and music. Given unprecedented access to the final stages of the making and release of the group's new album, photographer Eva Vermandel and film-maker Nicholas Abrahams create an intimate and revealing portrait of the Icelandic quartet at work on their most immediate record to date.
Housed in a large-format, fine weave cloth-bound hardback book, the deluxe edition comprises nearly 200 pages of fine art photographic images, as well as an impressionistic film portrait of Sigur Rós, as they record, mix and master 'Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust'. Locations include New York, London, Mexico, Reykjavík and beyond, and take in the filming of the 'Gobbledigook' video, tour rehearsals, the early shows on the tour, as well as exclusive band interviews relating to the record.
Each edition is individually numbered and includes a unique strip of 16mm film taken from the video 'Gobbledigook' as well as the DVD and album.
Yours for £60. Sixty pounds. Sixty
I usually prefer to buy albums direct from band websites, ensuring the retailer's cut of the selling price goes to the artists. However, attempts to milk fans via overpriced special editions rather alienate me, and now I'm far more inclined to obtain 'Með Suð Í Eyrum Við Spilum Endalaust' from Amazon.
If I like it at all, of course – I'll need to hear a few online samples before deciding whether to buy. I've heard 'Gobbledigook' (as can anyone willing to provide an e-mail address* before downloading), and wasn't, well, overwhelmed.
*: An e-mail address, but not necessarily a real one. Guerillamail is your friend.
30 May, 2008
Review: Blessed are the Bonds (The Pax Cecilia, 2007)
Fancy some free music for the weekend?
Last year, New York band The Pax Cecilia distributed their album 'Blessed are the Bonds' as 'proper', pressed CDs in 'real' digipacks absolutely for free, to anyone who requested them, merely in return for a promise to spread the word – yes, they want people to copy their CDs for friends.
In February that ceased, with the dwindling stock of CDs being held back for (free) distribution at concerts. However, the album is now available for download from their website in non-DRM'd 192kbps .mp3 format. It's still entirely free, but if you like what you hear, there's a PayPal donation link on the download page.
'Blessed are the Bonds' demonstrates a high level of musicianship, production and general professionalism – this isn't the band's debut album (their 'Nouveau' CD was distributed the same way) and they're not unsigned because of any lack of ability. Rather, it's an apparent desire to distribute the music from band to listener without the restrictions of an intermediary, plus the implausibility of pigeonholing music which combines progressive metal, post-rock and ambient soundscapes, from a band with limited idea about where their tastes will take them in future. Interviewed for Deaf Sparrow last September, Kent Fairman mentioned a desire to follow 'Blessed are the Bonds' with a full-on 'heavy' album, or maybe something which "delves even deeper into conceptual elements and the possibilities of recording technologies". Not an easy career plan to market....
The opening tracks in particular are post-rock from the metal end of the rock spectrum rather than the more orchestral sound of Godspeed You! Black Emperor or ethereal sound of Sigur Rós, yet admirers of those bands, Explosions In The Sky and even the dark ambient Bass Communion would also find much of interest in subsequent tracks.
The (stereotypical?) post-rock climaxes are extremely heavy, but other sections incorporate melancholic piano and strings; few bands manage that balance without the very disparate elements feeling 'tacked on'.
Labels are of limited use, of course, but one I'd be particularly reluctant to use is 'post-metal', as that term is generally understood. A fairer description, referencing a band many are likely to have heard of, would be 'Godspeed You! Black Emperor does metalcore, with occasional vocals'.
The vocals/lyrics may be a slight weak point, particularly a couple of instances of incoherent shouted vocals, thankfully brief. There are minimal vocals overall: two tracks of the nine are fully instrumental, three have less than a dozen lines of lyrics each and the remaining three are primarily instrumentals. I haven't given the lyrics much attention (though my immediate impression is that they're overblown); it's claimed that there's an overall concept, but I'm afraid that has eluded me so far.
One thing I have noticed is nice sequencing: though each track is strong enough to stand alone, I find the album works particularly well as a coherent hour-long trip.
As I said when I discovered Gazpacho last December, I don't have a new favourite band, but I'm certainly happy to recommend you give 'Blessed are the Bonds' a try, if any of the above sounds interesting.
9 May, 2008
Far too old to rock/n'roll
The current Jethro Tull tour commemorates forty years of performing under that name. Ian Anderson's last birthday was his sixtieth. Their musical arrangements and album release schedule are correspondingly sedate, so I lost interest in their contemporary output about a decade ago. However, ongoing fans have been kind enough to inform me about setlists for the Tull Tour History, occasionally including comments about the shows.
I'm afraid I found one slightly depressing:
I was happy for the early nostalgia of the first few songs and they sounded fresh. A New Day Yesterday sounded particularly great and a few people stood up at the end incl myself (had to do it in 2 stages mind..ah the advancing years of the ageing Tull fan) Thought maybe Tull fans should push each other from behind like a Geriatric Mexican Shove?!
If people still find that stimulating, I'm genuinely pleased for them, but it's really
not my thing.
30 April, 2008
No ultimate happiness, thanks
Last October, Marillion announced that they'd be repeating the 'Marbles' preorder scheme for their fifteenth studio album, the since-named 'Happiness Is The Road' *. Those willing to pay more than the retail price, several months before the music has even been recorded, will obtain the double-album later in the year, packaged within two hardback books themselves in a substantial slipcase. The books will contain Carl Glover artwork and the names of all everyone who preordered before 1 March, 2008.
Much as I'd loved 'Marbles' and that 'deluxe edition', I was deeply unimpressed by 'Somewhere Else', so decided to give the new preorder a miss: I want to hear audio samples before deciding whether to buy – I'm not taking anything on faith this time. However, H. (er, Helen, not Steve 'h' Hogarth!) told me it was very important that I didn't preorder by the deadline, so I have a vague idea about my next birthday present....
Yesterday, Marillion solicited opinions on whether to release an Ultimate Edition of 'Happiness...', in addition to the existing pre-order Deluxe Edition.
Our initial idea would be to include the entire 'Happiness is the Road' double album on 4 vinyl LPs, a 24-bit/96kHz Hi-definition Audio DVD, a 5.1 surround sound mix of some or all the double album on DVD-A, and a large format (12x12-inch) deluxe artwork book packaged in a special box, numbered and personally autographed by the whole band. This 'Ultimate Edition' would be priced at £150, made in very limited quantities and for a limited time only.
We might be able to include MORE goodies in the box – such as guitar picks, drumsticks, and separate master audio files on a data DVD for you to remix.
People have been asked to register interest at firstname.lastname@example.org
, mentioning any further suggestions, or disinterest at email@example.com
, saying why.
This is my response to the 'no' address:
The idea of a super-duper Ultimate Edition of 'Happiness Is The Road' is an interesting one, but not something I'd go for myself. I'm not really interested in collectibles, nor in obtaining albums in multiple formats. Just the CDs, please - no vinyl or DVD-A, thanks.
I really liked the Deluxe Edition of 'Marbles', but that's as elaborate as I'd go – a limited edition box is still just a box, after all.
There seem to be a lot of these OTT 'special editions' recently (which is probably why Marillion are joining the bandwagon train), but I don't see the attraction.
- I'm interested in the content of a book, DVD or CD, not the object itself, so I find it difficult to comprehend (quite literally) the desire to own things for the sake of owning things. I can appreciate a particularly well-designed or attractive object, but not the mere fact that an object exists: "it's-another-Marillion-release-don't-care-what-it-is-I've-GOT-to-have-it".
- I could understand the desire to obtain an album at the highest possible sound quality, but if one had a DVD-A why would anyone also want a CD or LP of exactly the same music?
- I don't play the guitar or drums, so why would I be interested in a shaped piece of plastic or wood which happens to feature a band's logo?
- I can just about see why someone might want a cardboard box which has been in physical contact with that person's favourite musicians, and been signed as proof, but I still think that's rather pathetic.
*: Horribly twee title, in my opinion.
28 April, 2008
Couldn't give it away...
... Though they are trying: Coldplay plan to release a free single, apparently.
'Fraid they'd need to go a stage further in my case, and pay me to listen to such muzak, but even then I doubt I would.
27 April, 2008
Spring music meme
A quick music meme, discovered via Tim:
List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they’re not any good, but they must be songs you’re really enjoying now, shaping your spring. Post these instructions in your blog along with your 7 songs.
It seems it's not necessary to comment on each song, but an unelaborated list seems rather pointless, so I will.
Even if "shaping your spring" wasn't LiveJournal-ist pretention from which I recoil, it wouldn't be accurate. I've been listening to a lot of music recently, but largely to discover new music rather than using music I already own to accompany activities or affect my mood. Hence, I haven't been exactly obsessed with many songs. A few (well, seven, obviously) which stand out from the past couple of weeks are:
Emilie Autumn – Misery Loves Company
Goth techno-pop (self-described as 'Victoriandustrial'), is an interesting idea, and Ms Autumn is an excellent vocalist & violinist, but having explored online samples, ordered two recent albums then played more samples whilst waiting, I suspect her earlier (2003) material is more my thing (less repetitive lyrics, for one thing). The 'Opheliac' album will either grow on me a lot or drop out of my awareness rapidly (that seems obvious, but I mean it's not the sort of thing I could imagine liking casually), but I keep returning to this track, probably for the vocal rhythms.
Pagan's Mind – Hallo Spaceboy
The rest of the 'God's Equation' album is unlistenable, but there's something about this Bowie cover; I can honestly say it's a drastic improvement on the original.
Imogen Heap – Speeding Cars
I picked up the 'Goodnight And Go' single from eBay for £1 last week, and have been playing this 'b'-side repeatedly – in contrast to the crappy prog-metal I've been trying to offer a fair chance, this is bliss.
Frost* – Here Is The News
I don't know whether this ELO cover has made it onto an album; I heard it on an archived Rogue's Galley podcast. I don't normally do upbeat 'happy' music, but this got through somehow, perhaps for the same reasons as 'Speeding Cars'.
BTW, the asterisk is part of the band name, not one of my footnote identifiers.
3 – Wake Pig
Another from Frans' weekly podcast and like 'Here Is The News', a track I haven't bought on CD yet: I'm playing it to decide whether I want to hear more from the band which supported Porcupine Tree in N.America last year. I'm not sure about Joey Eppard's voice in this context though, oddly, I knew immediately that I liked his solo material.
Porcupine Tree – The Rest Will Flow
The remixing & remastering of the 'Lightbulb Sun' reissue seems to insert the freshness of a brand new album. This is the track which seems most enhanced – I hadn't particularly noticed it on the 2000 edition.
Nina Simone – Feeling Good
Not Muse's cover version. I bought all Muse's studio albums last year in a fit of enthusiasm which wore off very rapidly; I can no longer bear more than handful of tracks. Definitely mere shallow entertainment, not saying much.
Anyway: I heard the definitive 1965 rendition on A's .mp3 player returning from the Lakes a couple of hours ago, and it just seemed to fit the moment.
23 April, 2008
1,000 'true fans' (an answer)
Last month, I linked to an article by Kevin Kelly in which he discussed the premise that an independent artist could survive on income from 1,000 'true fans' who'll buy everything the artist releases.
Kelly went on to ask an independent artist who does operate much this way, ambient musician Robert Rich, for his views. The result is a fairly long but interesting response.
In short: maybe, but it's not easy and there are problems. I was particularly interested by Rich's comments about artistic insularity – without the breadth of inputs from 'mainstream' distributors, he would never have become the artist he is, and if he felt obliged to satisfy the preconceptions of his 'true fans' in the interests of a secure income (he doesn't, but others in a similar situation might feel the temptation), his work could stagnate.
It may be worth mentioning that Rich became self-publishing well before the internet became available. I wonder whether a career more closely integrated with modern promotion & distribution methods at the 'formative' stages would be comparible.
[Via BoingBoing again.
11 April, 2008
In the race to mediocrity
With Jethro Tull on tour in the UK, there's been the usual change in focus of visitors to the Ministry.
Not particularly a traffic spike – the band becomes more of a minority-interest topic with each 'retro' tour, and Tull-related traffic rarely exceeds more than 15% of the Ministry's overall total – but there's been a distinct increase in the number of people typing 'Jethro Tull' into the blog's internal search utility. Time for a couple of reminders.
Firstly, as I said in the foregoing paragraph, the search box on each page of the blog is an internal feature which only searches blog posts – not the associate photos pages, nor the Tull-related 'departments'. For those, please use the overall, Google-based search feature on the home page and main Tull Tour History page.
Secondly, though I maintain the Tour History, I don't like Jethro Tull myself. Apart from references such as this, you're unlikely to find relevant entries in the blog.
To be more accurate, I do still kind-of like Tull's output 1971-1995, but nothing earlier (such as the 2008 tour setlist...), nor later – my interest in what Tull are doing nowadays is purely 'academic' i.e. in order to update the Tour History.
8 April, 2008
Round and round
Ever noticed that David Bowie's 'Ashes To Ashes' could be a Pulp song? Listening on shuffle whilst working this morning, I genuinely wondered which I was hearing.
24 March, 2008
Sound and vision
David Bowie has been a staple of 'the soundtrack of my life' (ahem; horrible phrase) – I've been aware of the man for as long as I've been aware of any pop stars, and I 'properly' encountered his material at about the same time as I developed an interest in music.
However, one of my (nominal) housemates at university, another in my first house in Lancaster and two of my current friends were always more interested than me, and I didn't actually own a Bowie album myself until H. gave me a 'best of' compilation last week.
It contains 39 tracks, theoretically representative of the range of Bowie's music over the first 33 years of his almost 40-year recording career (biased towards the more commercial material, naturally), but I'd only choose to copy 13 to my iPod, and only really like seven. Eleven are from the first eight years, two are from the Eighties and I kind of like a quirky Nineties track which would probably be better described as 'The Pet Shop Boys, feat. David Bowie'. Of the rest, I dislike half a dozen or so, and find the rest dreadfully samey. All credit to him for finding a coherent, characteristic sound and sustaining it, but I'm not sure whether it was ever truly novel, and, apart from superficial instrumentation and presentation, it hasn't exactly progressed for decades.
As I say, his music has always been there, so I'm surprised to find there'd have been little net difference to me if he'd retired in 1977.
21 March, 2008
If I hadn't discovered this via Bad Science's MiniBlog, I'd have presumed it to be a hoax (or maybe it is and I'm too tired to spot Ben G's humour): software which, it's claimed, can edit individual notes within chords in audio recordings. That's impossible, isn't it?
Suggested applications include tuning a guitar or correcting out-of-tune harmony vocals – after recording.
Perhaps not a technology for live-music purists or opponents of manufactured pop, but still, a remarkable development.
9 March, 2008
Wondering which of the buggers to blame
It's always slightly puzzled me that so many Pink Floyd fans¹ cite 'Animals' as their favourite album, since it does so little for me; apart from the Syd-era psychedelia, it's my least favourite by far.
I used to wonder whether I was missing something. Its themes are dark, but I normally like dark. It's generally misanthropic, but so am I, occasionally.
I briefly blamed its wordiness² for slowing the pace. On paper, there don't seem to be many lyrics, but they take the form of dense blocks of text better suited to careful consideration as prose. I presumed the repetitiveness of the music was an unfortunate consequence: that musicians had to repeat bars simply in order to accommodate so many words.
Yet on hearing it again today, I realised that's inaccurate: there are long instrumental-passages too, and they're no less ponderous. Well-played, no doubt, but lacking in creativity. If someone felt inclined to re-edit the main tracks to 60-70% of their published running times (10, 11 and 17 minutes), I'd probably be more interested.
The conclusion is the obvious one: it's just ****ing boring.
1: As opposed to the multitude who only own 'Dark Side Of The Moon' and 'The Wall'. There's nothing remotely wrong with that, of course, but I'm referring to those people who have heard the entire catalogue.
2: Dogs, sheep and pigs, satisfying metaphors for about a minute, become irritating when stretched for a further forty.
5 March, 2008
Small can work
Kevin Kelly discusses the economic implications of a niche artist maintaining a mere 1,000 'true fans'.
3 March, 2008
Own voice found
Visiting online forums related to British musicians, it's to be expected that I encounter Americans who describe themselves as 'Anglophiles'. I presume the reverse happens in the fan communities of US bands, though I doubt that's as forgone a conclusion as it was in, say, the 1950s and 60s, when 'American' was automatically exotic compared to the rather austere post-war UK.
That led to an additional thought: British vocalists of that era frequently adopted Transatlantic singing voices, but off the top of my head, I can't think of a single modern singer who still does. When did that happen?
9 February, 2008
The Bowed Piano
My initial thought on reading about a new approach to piano playing, in which ten musicians crowd around the opened instrument to manipulate the strings directly, was that it was probably a gimmick, and that its repertoire would be pointless or, er, experimental (not in a good way).
I was wrong. As samples demonstrate, the music is excellent; 'real' ensemble work somewhere between Philip Glass* and the (dark) ambient music I particularly like.
My presumption that it's new was mistaken, too; Stephen Scott has been developing the technique (including 'hardware' innovations) and composition for over thirty years. Very successfully, to my mind.
*: Sorry; I'm not especially familiar with 20th Century American composers: Glass is merely the most similar I can name offhand!
6 February, 2008
Pacific Codex out!
'Pacific Codex', the long-awaited new album from Bass Communion is now available for pre-order from Headphone Dust*. Despatch will be on or about 11 February.
For those unfamiliar with Bass Communion, the music is dark ambient: primarily drones overlaid by instrumental samples distorted beyond recognition. On this occasion, the single 40-minute piece is "based entirely on processed and layered recordings of metal sculptures and gongs, creating complex waves of deep subharmonic sound". Carl Glover (cover designer) described it as "a soundtrack for a slowly sinking battleship making it's way down the Mariana Trench, whilst experiencing impossible levels of pressure on it's disintegrating hull."
Then again, those unfamiliar with BC are unlikely to spend £18 to investigate the project. That's pricey for a 40-min album, but as I've mentioned in previous entries, 'Pacific Codex' is the most lavish BC release yet (not that that's particularly important to me) containing a stereo CD, 5.1 surround sound DVD-A and 36-page booklet in hand-numbered, hand-assembled packaging.
Then again again, I kind of hope no-one buys it just on the off-chance that he/she might like it, as there will only be 975 copies worldwide, and there are more than 975 existing hardcore BC fans!
If you do want to try something else by Bass Communion, I can recommend 'Bass Communion I' (or 'Bass Communion II' if you can find it). Headphone Dust also offers the 20-min 'Droneworks 6' (under the title 'Dronework', for some reason) for a mere £5, so that might be a cheap sample.
*: Those in the USA may prefer to order from Equation Records.
[Update 12/02/08: Equation's allocation has sold out.]
[Update 19/02/08: Headphone Dust's allocation has sold out. That's all, folks.]
5 January, 2008
Joint headline bad idea
Every few months, in pretty much any discussion group dedicated to a currently-active band, one can expected to encounter a variant of the same old thread: "wouldn't it be great if our band toured with [insert name here]?". My invariable answer is "absolutely not." The ensuing argument is one I've made a few times in forums, but don't seem to have explained here.
Before proceeding, I'd better stress that I'm talking about established bands appearing alongside others, not unknown ones trying to 'break through'. The latter have little to lose, or at least the flexibility to adapt to any opportunities, whereas the former already have a niche and a reputation to protect.
One apparent benefit of touring together is that a lesser-known (but not unknown) band can surf the brand recognition of a better-known band: "X must be good if they're opening for Y". Yet that relies on the relationship being accurate and complementary. Too similar and the support band may be accused of being a clone or even a tribute, and dismissed. Too dissimilar and the association is false, which can even become damaging if the bands become linked in the public's limited awareness.
An example would be Porcupine Tree, who supported Yes in 2002. There was a time when one could ask anyone dimly aware of that, and hear "Porcupine Tree? Oh, they're like Yes, aren't they? No thanks!" No, they are not ****ing similar, and I think that support slot was an extremely stupid idea. Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree has quietly admitted as much, saying that it was neither an enjoyable nor a productive experience.
Rightly or wrongly, the typical public and critical perception of Yes is very negative (and yes, shallow NME-style reviews do matter in marketing to the mainstream): they're considered to be regressive prog dinosaurs. Musically they are very dissimilar to Porcupine Tree and it's a unfair to tar the latter with the former's reputation. Porcupine Tree is a progressive contemporary rock (not 'prog' rock) band, a categorisation which needs to be communicated to the general public in promoting the band – an objective best served by actively avoiding false associations.
Thankfully, Porcupine Tree's career has developed since then, so the damage seems to have been minimal.
A second motivation for a 'name' band to tour with another would be to be heard by the other (presumably somewhat similar) band's fans. That may work to some extent, but there are two negative aspects.
The overwhelming majority of the audience will attend for one band, whether the headliner at a Yes concert or one of the headliners at a Porcupine Tree/Opeth show (they toured together with equal billing in 2003) . The other is merely an irritation, delaying the appearence of the preferred band. That's not conducive to giving unfamiliar music a fair hearing and may – may – instill a negative impression. I don't exclude myself from that: I've said before* that I dislike support bands, and usually time my arrival at a venue to miss the opening set.
The practical result is that audiences can be very unresponsive, talking over (or even heckling) the first band's set (that's very apparent in recordings of the Opeth/Porcupine Tree tour) or leaving after the first set (great for fans of the second band, but demoralising for the band). Either way, it's a unpleasant experience, far less enjoyable than two distinct concerts.
Secondly, concerts are generally of a fixed length, with doors opening (in UK venues) around 19:30 and a curfew at 23:00. That's fine when a support band's set only lasts ~45 minutes, but when two headline bands have to share equally, it means each has less time than usual. A typical Porcupine Tree headline set lasts almost two hours; on the joint tour with Opeth, they played for ~80 minutes and again, the tour recordings exhibit Opeth fans' noisy frustration that their band's set had been curtailed too. Less than satisfying.
It could even be argued that this whole exercise is pointless nowadays, when online samples and discussion groups are so readily available for such cross-promotion of bands. I know I prefer to encounter new music that way, then attend two concerts each devoted to one band, in the company of one band's audience.
*: Actually, that's another topic I've exhausted in discussion groups yet have neglected to mention here. I'm sure I will eventually. In short, I attend concerts for specific bands, not to hear music in general; I have no interest in hearing unrelated support bands.
25 December, 2007
Music of the year
I don't really like ranked 'Best of' lists – their compilation is too anal and stereotypically male for my taste, and the idea of asserting that Album A is 'better' than Album B but not as 'good' as Album C is patently absurd. However, I thought it reasonable to identify those albums released in 2007 that I have (and haven't...) particularly liked.
It wasn't until that list reached fourteen albums that I really realised how productive a year this has been – most of my favourite artists have released something in 2007, and I've made a couple of worthwhile new discoveries.
Album of the Year
Porcupine Tree - Fear of a Blank Planet
This wasn't in much doubt – if only in subjective terms of my own preferences, this was well ahead of anything else released this year: the first Porcupine Tree release since 1999 that I've liked completely, from start to finish, with multiple highlights. This would rank highly on a hypothetical list of my all-time favourite albums, too.
Continuum - Continuum II
I wasn't sure about an electric guitar accompanying full-on, extended dark-ambient pieces, but when I'm in the right mood, this grabs my total attention. Transcendental!
Fovea Hex - Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent
I have to confess I was drawn to 'Allure', the third of this 3-EP project, by the participation of Steven Wilson, but I couldn't distinguish his contribution and there was nothing 'fanboy' about my being blown-away by the music itself: a wonderful combination of haunting, vaguely Celtic folk and stark dark-ambient music. The other two EPs didn't quite meet the expectations set by 'Allure', but the overall result is still one of the best albums I've heard for quite a while.
Porcupine Tree - Nil Recurring
Not, as some people have said in year-end reviews, 'FoaBP/NR' – that's just plain incorrect, as 'Nil Recurring' is an entirely separate release featuring material which happened to originate at the same time as, if not slightly before, 'Fear of a Blank Planet'. It is not b-sides/outtakes from 'FoaBP'.
Anyway, I like it a lot, though it's not as consistent as 'FoaBP'.
Explosions In The Sky - All Of A Sudden I Miss Everyone
I said two years ago that I like this guitar-led, instrumental-only, post-rock. The new album isn't hugely different to its two predecessors (though stronger than the reissued debut album – if you're new to the band, don't start there!), but I liked them, so that's hardly a problem, and it's not really just 'more of the same'.
Sigur Rós - Hvarf-Heim
I think the band have called this a stopgap between 'real' albums or an offshoot of the 'Heima' tour & DVD project. I'd agree with that assessment: some of the live and revised arrangements of existing material are truly wonderful and the new material compares well with that on past albums, but I can't deny having hoped for genuine progression of the Sigur Rós sound.
The Reasoning - Awakening
An excellent reminder for me to keep my mind open: had I known before hearing the music 'blind' that The Reasoning are a new band featuring ex-members of 'neo-prog' acts Karnataka and Magenta, I wouldn't have expected the freshness and maturity of their debut album. The title track hooked me immediately, and repeated listening continues to unearth excellent details in the whole album.
Gazpacho - Night
My appreciation of this new discovery is developing daily, particularly as I become more accustomed to Jan Henrik Ohme's voice (I wasn't too sure about it at first). One could note a similarity to contemporary Marillion, but it's not too close and this is immeasurably better than the 'parent' band's 2007 release.
Blackfield - Blackfield 2
Like the debut album, I thought this was pretty good for a few weeks, but rapidly tired of it. I doubt I'd bother buying a third.
Riverside - Rapid Eye Movement
I was disappointed by Riverside's second album, as it lacked the novelty and energy of the first (my 'album of the year' acquired in 2005, though it was released in 2003). Hence, my expectations of this, the third, were more realistic: I didn't expect much, and was neither impressed nor disappointed.
Fish - 13th Star
I tried to convince myself that I liked this, and I do think it works well when played as one continuous composition, in sequence, but occasional plays over several months have led to the conclusion that it's far from Fish's best.
In fact, I recently made an uncomfortable realisation. As I've mentioned, I've been listening to Frans Keylard's 'prog'-orientated podcasts for a couple of weeks in a conscious effort to widen my knowledge and discover new music. Apart from certain highlights (some on this list), the experience has reinforced both my prejudices about the stale 'prog'/'neo-prog' genre and my perception that there are 'top' bands exhibiting originality and musicianship, and 'also-ran' bands merely emulating what's gone before, somehow lacking the undefinable 'spark' of creativity that'd elevate them to the premier league of headline acts.
And '13th Star' very firmly fits amongst them.
Radiohead - In Rainbows
I only have a slight interest in Radiohead anyway, and only like a few post 'OK Computer' songs, so I didn't expect to love the new album. It didn't meet even that expectation, and I only listened to it a couple of times.
Marillion - Somewhere Else
This bored me in April, and I don't recall feeling the remotest urge to play it since then. Best, and easily, forgotten.
Too Soon To Decide
Pineapple Thief - What We Have Sown
I only received my copy a few days ago, and haven't even heard it once from start to finish, so I better hadn't comment, beyond saying it seems much more promising than '12SD'/'10SD' (haven't heard 'Little Man' yet; that arrived with 'WWHS'). There are another six days until the end of 2007, so if I get an opportunity to give the album my full attention (possible but unlikely), I might post an update.
19 December, 2007
Doing so well...
I'm still listening to 'back-issues' of the 'The Rogues' Gallery', the 'prog'-orientated podcast (I think there's another 42 hours in the archive), and finding that several tracks are pretty good. Compelling rhythm, meaty guitars, nice keyboard textures, and then:
I am painting all your flowers,
I'm the shadow of your dream
Who changed your opium to money
Shiva calls your name
Argh! Prog pretension strikes yet again!
I really wish that example was an oddity, but band after band alienates me within the first few lines. With the exception of a couple of bands, lyrics aren't especially important to me, but those of these second-division prog bands really are obtrusively dreadful; I can't avoid listening and cringing.
17 December, 2007
Names to conjure with
'Alcoholocaust' by Invisigoth. That doesn't sould like overblown 'prog' does it?
Nah, 'thought not.
Reader, I bought that CD. ;)
15 December, 2007
Review: Porcupine Tree, Academy 1, Manchester, 8 December, 2007 (w. Anathema)
Back to Manchester for my second Porcupine Tree concert of the year.
I seem to have missed the pre-arranged meet-up of PTF members; I knew some planned to be at the designated pub from 15:00, but I wrongly presumed they'd still be in residence when I arrived at 18:00.
Not to worry; I was soon adopted by a friendly couple apparently on the basis that they and I looked "suitably biker-gothy" without having resorted to such kiddie-metal stereotypes as faux-leather trenchcoats. Porcupine Tree audiences are getting younger. Pleasant couple, and that's not a reference to a laced-front leather bodice which was more laced than bodice, and which seems to have driven out much recollection of our conversation. Ahem. I do remember they weren't going to the concert, so I left them there at ~19:20 and crossed the road to the venue – accompanied by Richard Barbieri, Colin Edwin & Gavin Harrison, returning with a takeaway. Good start.
As I'd known in advance, remodeling work in the main Academy venue (Academy 1), which was the reason Porcupine Tree performed in Preston instead in April, is still ongoing. The hall itself was usable, obviously, but access was through a fire exit and the toilets were in a portakabin outside. Fine with me, but I think the lack of a cloakroom caused problems for some people.
Once inside, there was absolutely no hope of meeting anyone, as the hall was in near-total darkness, illuminated only by a couple of blue spotlights on stage plus the lights of the bar and merchandise stall, both obscured by the small but rapidly growing crowd. I'd already bought a tour T-shirt (er, three different ones, actually) by mail order from Burning Shed, so didn't need to investigate the stall myself, so I wandered around the room a little (which seemed unchanged; presumably remodelling has been confined to the backstage and foyer areas, the latter still boarded-off at the rear of the hall) then just as I decided to find a spot to stand, at 19:45, Anathema's Vincent Cavanagh was suddenly already on stage. I didn't get as far forward as I could – large gaps remained in the thinly-packed crowd – but it seemed rude to push past and obscure the view of shorter people at the very last moment.
Within a few moments of starting, Danny Cavanagh (lead guitar) was exhorting the audience to clap along, which would have been a bit of a mistake even if this hadn't been a typical Porcupine Tree audience, seemingly unresponsive yet fully attentive: they (we) hadn't yet warmed-up sufficiently that we wished to participate. Unfortunately, that established the relationship for the entire set. I hope the band understood their audience; Vincent didn't seem impressed and his statement that they'll be back next year "as headliner" seemed to have an edge.
It was a well-chosen 45-min set, showcasing the high-energy rock and 'menacing' intensity I particularly like in their music, yet with space for some of the gentler, melancholic material I, er, appreciate less.
Fragile Dreams is amongst my favourite Anathema songs, so was an excellent start.
A Simple Mistake is one of the three songs released via the band's website as a preview of the next album. I hadn't been overwhelmed by that studio arrangement, but it worked much better live, particularly the powerful second half.
'Closer' was the song which introduced me to Anathema, so it was particularly good to hear it the first (and certainly not last) time I've seen them live.
Without wishing to criticise, Lee Douglas's voice (or more generally, female voices like hers) isn't to my taste, and nor are the slower-paced Anathema songs on which she sings, so I wasn't overjoyed that she joined the band on stage for 'A Natural Disaster', a song which I've just noticed I hadn't even bothered to upload to my iPod. Played at concert volume, I was wincing by the end.
She stayed to sing backing vocals on 'Angels Walk Among Us', which was preferable, but I wasn't pleased when Vincent thanked her by saying she'll take a greater role in the next album.
Somehow I didn't realise until later that Deep had been played; it segued straight from the unfamiliar (to me) 'A Natural Disaster', so perhaps I confused it for part of the same song. No, I don't know how, either.
Flying is another that I hadn't particularly appreciated on the 'A Natural Disaster' album (my least-favourite of Anathema's post- doom-metal releases), but it worked well live.
An as-yet-unreleased track, Hindsight closed the set. I think it was fully-instrumental apart from a vocal sample from what sounded like an American self-motivation album, which somewhat detracted, in my opinion.
Both in terms of music and live production, it was clear that under normal circumstances (i.e. with the backing of a record label) Anathema are a headline act. After their set, it took a full 15 minutes to clear the stage of their monitors and equipment (seemingly assisted by Jamie (third Cavanagh brother and bass player) – not so typical of a headliner!) and they made good use of the lights (if with a little too much dry ice – Les Smith (keys) and Mick (drums) were almost invisible at times). For a support band, the sound was extraordinarily good, though not in the same league of clarity as Porcupine Tree. It was particularly noticeable that Anathema's richly-textured music came across well, in extreme contrast to Amplifier's muddy sound in April.
Some Porcupine Tree fans encountering Anathema for the first time have commented negatively about Vincent's 'out of tune' vocals and John Douglas' 'imprecise' drumming.
Firstly, Vincent's diction (not just accent) is strongly Liverpudlian, more so than, say, The Beatles, and the melancholic nature of the music demands a certain delivery which I think he fulfills well. If you want a polished, formally-trained crooner, you have the wrong band.
Secondly, there's more to musicianship than empty virtuosity, and I've never noticed a problem with John's drumming, whether on studio albums or live recordings. I couldn't judge for myself this time, as John had become a father earlier in the day, so the band was accompanied by Mick, a stand-in who certainly seemed familiar with the material.
As soon as Anathema left the stage, some people headed for the bar, but otherwise there was a general shuffling forward, eliminating gaps and dodging around those slow to join in. I ended up at least 10 m further forward, 6-8 m from the stage, dead-centre, with only one taller person in front to my left. Perfect; I had a great view throughout the main set, though Wes was slightly obscured. There wasn't much room to move, so it's lucky that those (very closely) around me weren't inclined to, and the half-hour wait before the main set, in a London Underground-like crush, was rendered bearable by watching the bands' techs clear and reset the stage.
Porcupine Tree's stage setup was identical to that in Preston eight months ago, contributing an odd familiarity. In fact, that was my overall impression of the concert: truly wonderful, and I enjoyed myself tremendously, but somehow it lacked the novelty and extra thrill I'd experienced in April merely from being in the presence of the band. That's not necessarily a disadvantage, as I was able to focus more on their performance and the music.
There were a few videos and lighting effects projected behind the band, but as usual I consciously ignored them (I attend concerts to see the band perform for real, live, in front of me, not to watch something prerecorded) so can't really comment on their content. I did get a dim impression that there were fewer Lasse Hoile videos than on previous tours; perhaps 5 of the 15 songs (indicated with asterices below), as opposed to 8 of 16 last time. The remaining songs were accompanied by more abstract, less attention-drawing lighting effects.
I'm pleased to say the audience (at least those in earshot and in my line of sight) were particularly still and attentive – some would wrongly say 'unresponsive', but there was plenty of appreciation at the appropriate times: between songs. I was aware of people around me taking the opportunities of quiet sections to exchange comments, but no-one near me was shouting or jumping around.
From my position 8-10 m from Steven Wilson (SW), the sound was excellent, with clear stereo effects and good balance on both quieter and 'full-on' material; perhaps the guitar separation wasn't perfect, meaning a few subtleties were only apparent because I was listening for them. However, as explained below, I moved to the extreme rear left corner of the hall during 'Trains' and noticed a general deterioration in sound quality (hardly surprising) and a distracting effect off the temporary back wall, which mightn't have optimum acoustics. As in April, the sound was loud but 'clean', and as I was walking back to the station my hearing was about as clear as when I'd entered the Academy, which makes a tremendous difference to one's appreciation of the music.
The basic logistics of SW being unable to switch guitars quickly enough and having too much to do in complex arrangements of (in April) fairly new material rather dictated the relative roles he and John Wesley played on the last tour: on several songs Wes played lead guitar and the electric solos whilst SW played the acoustic or rhythm guitar parts. Another reason was apparently that Wes improvises solos in his own style rather than following the album arrangements closely, adding novelty to live performances. I can certainly respect that reasoning, but I don't actually like it. I do appreciate Wes' playing on his own albums, but given a direct choice, I prefer SW's sound, and in general I dislike improvisation. Hence, I was very pleased that SW and Wes switched back this time, Wes returning to a more supporting role and SW taking more of the solos himself. I was only jarred out of my rapture twice by Wes solos which I didn't think quite worked.
The set featured fifteen songs and no instrumentals, though several of the chosen songs include extended instrumental sections. Six songs were from 2007, three each from 2002 & '05, and one each from 1995, '96 & '99. That's the balance I expect at Porcupine Tree concerts, emphasising the 2002-2007 albums with a few token representatives of the earlier back-catalogue. I was interested to hear that the band varied the setlist rather a lot on this tour; six songs were replaced for the following night's concert in Leeds.
There was no distinct intro track this time: the band walked on stage to the accompaniment of a few seconds from Lasse Hoile's 'Blank Planet' short film (as seen on the 'Fear of a Blank Planet' DVD-A) then launched straight into the song itself, Fear of a Blank Planet*. An excellent start to the album, and equally so in concert.
As I said in my review of the 'Nil Recurring' mini-album, I suspect What Happens Now? was derived from jamming and was in turn cherry-picked for details when composing the main 'Fear of a Blank Planet' album. Live, that relationship operated in reverse, the song neatly summarising the overall feel of the album without quite quoting from other tracks.
Incidentally, congratulations to SW for hitting the high notes live!
As usual, it was good to hear The Sound Of Muzak, but the 'as usual' part was a problem. Porcupine Tree only play a two-hour set, and there are other songs I'd prefer to hear (not necessarily 'better', just 'other'). Perhaps it's time to retire this tour regular.
Apart from that on the 'Deadwing' album, this was the best-yet arrangement of Lazarus*, one of my all-time favourite Porcupine Tree songs and one which SW's mother "actually likes". I'll have to hear an unofficial recording (which I happen to know was made, but which hasn't reached me yet) in order to pinpoint its attraction, but I think a greater role was given to the electric guitars, providing a less haunting but more immediately exciting feel. Wonderful.
As in April, Anesthetize* was sublime, but curiously it felt very long. With a running time of over seventeen minutes it is a long song, of course (a seventh of the entire concert – a seventh very well used), but this was the first time I really appreciated how long the high energy of the middle section is sustained and that the closing 'Water So Warm' section is itself fully 5½ minutes long. A marathon effort, both for the band and the audience.
Open Car isn't one of my favourite songs – the lead-in to the chorus and parts of the chorus itself are too 'generic pop-rock' for me – but it follows 'the beast' of 'Anesthetize' well. Sometimes one needs the undemanding pleasure of a little plain vanilla ice cream to appreciate a complex, heavy meal.
Dark Matter was a highlight of the concert for me. Perhaps because of its contrast with the heavier, more recent material and the fact I hadn't expected it (I almost mistook the intro for that of 'Russia On Ice', somehow), it stood out strongly, really holding my attention. I gained a new appreciation of the track, refreshing my interest in the whole 'Signify' album.
Blackest Eyes* has been a standard part of Porcupine Tree concerts since 2002, but unlike 'The Sound Of Muzak' it still feels fresh and I enjoyed it immensely. I fact, I think it's improved over the years, and prefer the vocal timings to those on the 'In Absentia' album.
This was the third rendition of Cheating the Polygraph that I'd heard. On the first occasion, when all the 'Fear of a Blank Planet' material had been unfamiliar, the then-unnamed 'Track 5' stood out as the weakest of the planned songs and I was glad it was dropped from the main album. When it reappeared on 'Nil Recurring', my immediate opinion was more favourable (apart from the overbearing drumming) but since September the slightly whiney vocals (not lyrics, vocals) have gradually dropped in my estimation. That impression was reinforced live, but the new arrangement highlighted something new to me: just how similar the heavier sections are to those of 'Anesthetize' and hence how, well, redundant. In short, this was probably my least favourite part of the set.
A Smart Kid had felt out-of-place in the April set, almost lacking in power compared to the 'Fear Of A Blank Planet' material, but not this time, either because the arrangement had been revised or because of the overall balance of tonight's setlist. It was particularly good to hear SW take the climactic solo himself, as I love the 'standard' version.
Though SW almost apologised for repeating parts of the April concert, the main set again finished with the final two tracks from 'Fear of a Blank Planet', Way Out Of Here* and Sleep Together. This tour is supposed to be promoting the album, which I particularly like, so I didn't exactly object. An excellent ending. Though they're approaching the end of a long tour and SW had said he was looking forward to a rest, I was impressed by the strength of his vocal delivery on 'Sleep Together'. His voice has certainly developed in recent years.
The band left the stage for a couple of minutes then returned for possibly the highlight of the concert for me: a ~9-minute version of 'The Sky Moves Sideways Phase 1' performed live in Manchester for the first time since 1999 and hence my first time ever, if we don't count unofficial recordings. At the time I thought SW performed the opening instrumental alone, the others having nothing to do (this was the only song of the concert during which Wes wasn't on-stage, presumably grabbing a Guinness), but in hindsight Richard must have been playing too (his contribution makes the song) and I doubt the percussion was prerecorded. The subsequent vocal section was electrifying, whilst the high-energy end was a reminder (as if that was needed) of how much I love the band's pre-2002 sound.
I quite like 'Trains' but I've never understood the level of fan adulation it attracts and as with 'The Sound Of Muzak', I wouldn't object to it being dropped from the live set for a while; somehow its familiarity meant it failed to fully hold my attention. The circumstances didn't help. As it was introduced, I received a strong impression that 'Trains' would be the final encore piece. Excellent – even though I had to leave at 22:55 to catch a train, it seemed I'd see the whole concert after all. It then occurred to me that that'd only work if I was already by the exit at the end of the song – I wouldn't be able to wait for ~1,700 people to filter out ahead of me. Hence, I was obliged to push through the crowd in the middle of the song (sorry, folks) then leave quickly (at precisely 22:55) as soon as the applause began and SW looked as if he was removing his guitar to finish.
Bad news: I've since discovered that there was another encore. Good news: it was 'Halo', one of the few Porcupine Tree songs I absolutely dislike and one I was actually glad to have missed – as the final encore at the concert in April, I'd thought it a disappointing way to end, and I much preferred to walk back to the station with 'Trains' in my immediate memory.
So, another wonderful concert (from both bands), and I can't wait for the next one. It's unclear when that'll be; 2008 is supposed to be a year off for Porcupine Tree and the only known releases are to be reissues and SW solo projects. However, SW did mention they'd be back late next year, which made little sense. There's certainly been no suggestion of new material to tour.
[Those wanting the review can stop reading now; the following bit is just for cyclists.]
Leaving Preston station at ~00:15, the ride home took longer than normal due to an annoying gusty headwind, reducing my average speed to 14.5 mph (23 km/h; 38 km/h max. speed) and meaning I wasn't home until ~02:00 (01:58, I think). In hindsight, that average isn't much lower than the more usual 16 mph (26 km/h) for this route and my bike computer says I was only moving for 1 hour 34', so Preston's numerous traffic lights must have been the main delay.
For my own future reference and anyone else considering cycling from Preston railway station to Moorlands, Lancaster, the precise(ish) distance is 22.75 miles (36.6 km) – 1.75 miles more than I'd thought, which explains why it's always felt like more than 21 miles! Two useful landmarks are the northernmost turn-off from the A6 to Garstang, at 12.1 miles and hence only slightly over 10 miles from Lancaster, and Junction 33 of the M6, at 16.6 miles – it's important to accept that one isn't 'nearly there' at that point, and over 5 miles remain ahead.
14 December, 2007
Discovery of the day
Whilst working this week, I've been streaming 'back-issues' of The Rogues' Gallery, Frans Keylard's 'prog'-orientated podcast for The Dividing Line, hoping to discover some new music. The experience has largely reinforced my prejudices about the genre – there's a lot of derivative rubbish out there – but there are some promising bands, and I've ordered a couple of CDs.
Today's highlight has been a Norwegian band (though one wouldn't know it from the music or vocals) called Gazpacho. As the name implies, it'd be reasonable, if uncharitable, to describe them as a clone of modern-era Marillion. In fact, I understand they supported Marillion's 2004 tour and release their albums on Marillion's 'Intact Records' label; I ordered their latest CD from Marillion's webstore. Somehow the similarity isn't a problem, and hints of Porcupine Tree or 'Kid A'-era Radiohead add to the attraction.
Okay, I wouldn't describe their music as earth-shatteringly wonderful, and I don't have a new favourite band, but they're certainly worth trying. Their website offers a few full-length album tracks for download in 192 kbps .mp3 format, and for the price of an e-mail address, one can download an audience recording of their live set supporting, yes, Marillion, in Paris in 2005. It's even possible to hear their entire back catalogue online (streamed), though that facility didn't work well for me.
"Play it loud with the lights off."
21 November, 2007
New, free Anathema song available
... but they've hidden it. Or rather, the official website's structure is somewhat eccentric, meaning that many people will miss the download link. It's also frames-based, with Flash navigation, preventing my providing a direct link.
From the home page, select 'News' in the header menu. The text mentions the 'Everything' download from months ago, but not the new one. For that, select "click here for news, headlines and more". That page provides the download link, under the title 'Angels Walk Among Us'.
Previous downloads have been 'free but we'd welcome donations if you like them'. However, this one doesn't have an associated PayPal link, so I'm paying by promoting it (which is more than I can say about the band's website...).
8 November, 2007
The Man sticks it back
I noticed a few days ago that the entire Radiohead back catalogue is about to be reissued in three 'bundles': a 7-album CD box set, a 7-album download of 320 kbps .mp3s, and a novelty USB stick containing the seven albums in full-resolution .wav format.
However, I hadn't realised that these releases are scheduled for the same day as the 'In Rainbows' box set, and are alleged to be a spoiler tactic by the band's old label, Parlophone, which had been expecting to handle the 'In Rainbows' release.
Interesting. At first glance, the 'Radiohead Store' website seems to be from the band themselves, with their name in a previously-used font, the bear logo and a characteristic colour scheme, but on reflection, the site is too obvious and openly commercial for Radiohead: if it looks like a Radiohead website, it can't be a Radiohead website. There's also a telling statement that:
On the 10th December EMI/Parlophone are releasing a limited edition box set collection of all Radiohead's albums from 1993-2003.
Rather than "On the 10th December Radiohead are releasing..."
; according to the Guardian, the band were informed about the release – 'informed'
, nor, for that matter, 'pleased'
29 October, 2007
Better be worth waiting for
Bugger! The new Bass Communion album, 'Pacific Codex' was rumoured to have been finished several months ago, for release in September/October, but SW has announced that it's "now coming out in January, sorry!"
The 'most lavish packaging yet for a BC release' sounds like a nice bonus (a stereo CD and 5.1 DVD-A with a 36-page book and other inserts designed by Carl Glover, all in a hard box), but ultimately all I care about is the music, and I'm not pleased by a three-month delay for mere packaging.
[Update 22/12/07: Argh! A manufacturing fault has caused another delay, into February....]
[Update 06/02/07: Pre-orders are being taken by Headphone Dust, for despatch on or about 11 February.]
26 October, 2007
I was quite enjoying Enigma's fourth album, 'The Screen Behind The Mirror' (lightweight entertainment with crap lyrics, but that's nothing new, and acceptable background whilst working) until I noticed the title of Track 4: 'Smell of Desire'.
22 October, 2007
At the end of the rainbow
Radiohead's release of their latest album as a 'pay-what-you-want' download gained them a lot of publicity (including here, admittedly) and generated breathless speculation about a future utopia controlled by artists rather than global corporations. It seems the other shoe is dropping: it was all a promotional gimmick to sell CDs.
Quoted in the Financial Times, Bryce Edge of the band's management company said:
"If we didn't believe that when people hear the music they will want to buy the CD, then we wouldn't do what we are doing.
You can't listen to a Radiohead record on MP3 and hear the detail; it's impossible."
Well, it is when those downloads are deliberately restricted to 160 kbps rather than 320, as Radiohead have used before. In hindsight, that was a bit of a clue that they were a side-issue rather than the real release.
In fact, far from moving away from traditional CD distribution:
Mr Edge said. "We can't understand why record companies don't go on the offensive and say what a great piece of kit CDs are. CDs are undervalued and sold too cheaply."
Too cheaply! CDs are ridiculously expensive via mainstream UK retailers.
It was already known that 'In Rainbows' will be released on standard CD in 2008, but the FT provides an update: the album should be out in January, on one of the 'big four' multinational labels, and may contain further bonus material to drive the hook further into those already tempted by the mp3s. Having heard them, I'm not.
Not that this was some sort of loss-leader: sources quoted by Wired have attempted to assess the raw financial success of the download release, and come up with a figure of something like £3-5 million in the first week.
[Update 07/11/07: It seems that was optimistic, perhaps based on visitors to InRainbows.com, not necessarily the subset who went on to become customers. Further research suggests that 62% of downloaders paid no more than the 45p admin charge, and the average amount paid by those who did pay was £2.90.
The Guardian observes that that's well below the price of a CD or mainstream (i.e. iTunes) download. However, I don't find that part surprising. I certainly paid rather less than for a CD, as I never intended to buy the download instead of the later CD release, so paid a token amount now for a stopgap before paying the full amount for a CD later (then I heard it, and decided the download was more than enough, but that's a different matter). I doubt I was alone.]
11 October, 2007
Quick review: 'In Rainbows' (Radiohead, 2007)
I've identified one disadvantage of Radiohead's download scheme: if one buys a CD and dislikes it, one can recoup some of the expense via eBay. With a download, one can't.
Comprehensive review, based on one run-through of the 160 kbps mp3s: meh.
It's okay, but no more than that. Maybe it'll grow on me, but I can't say I've been especially impressed by Radiohead since 1997, and my immediate impression of this one is no different.
As Tim (who "made [his] excuses and left after 'Kid A', which [he] never managed to get into") says, it's not entirely fair to judge any progressive album from a single listen – like Tim, I "find anything remotely complex takes at least four or five listens before it starts to make any sense".
However, one can usually detect some points of attraction immediately, and one can readily compare new material to past releases. Like those post-1997 albums (including 'The Eraser'), which I think it strongly resembles, 'In Rainbows' is... okay. Inoffensive. If any of these tracks came on the radio, I wouldn't turn it off. Unfortunately, that's the full extent of my praise.
I doubt 'In Rainbows' would disappoint existing Radiohead fans, but more casual listeners like me might take some persuading. Maybe I would suddenly see the attraction if I forced myself to play it again and again, but, well, life's too short.
[Update 18/10/07: Fight Club is of much the same opinion.]
4 October, 2007
Sharing the Wes
I've known of John 'Wes' Wesley for several years, first as guitar tech and support artist for Marillion, then lead guitarist (and co-writer of 'Fellini Days') for Fish, and most recently as second guitarist/vocalist whenever Porcupine Tree tours. He also has a solo career; in 2005 he released his very impressive fifth studio album, 'Shiver'.
Unfortunately, his profile is a little too low for major distributors, and most of his back catalogue has been difficult to obtain. As Wes explains at his Myspace site he's driven by a need to create and perform: "for me to continue to create music, I have to know that people are hearing it.". At the end of August, he instituted a remarkable new policy, recently imitated by an obscure Oxford-based band called 'Radiohead'.
Wes' entire catalogue, featuring over fifty songs, is now available from his Myspace site as .mp3 downloads, on a 'pay what you want' basis. Apparently, he's happy for people to take the albums as entirely free downloads, on one condition:
The only thing I ask in return is that if you choose to download the music and add it to your collection, you 'Share the Wes' with everyone you know that may have an interest in the music that I create.
Point them to the site and encourage them to discover the music I have created over the course of my career, and then encourage them to share it!
If you like the music, go to the 'Demand it' button on my site, tell me where you are, and hopefully at some point in the future I can come near to where you are and 'Share the Wes' live.
Obviously, "music is not free to create"
, and this isn't just a hobby, so he's accepting PayPal donations. My own view is that if one likes an album, one should donate something in the region of the full commercial price, but Wes welcomes any contributions.
This policy doesn't mean he's giving up on CDs, not least because there's still a considerable market for physical objects with artwork, and the sound quality of CD Audio vastly exceeds that of .mp3. Hence, CDs remain available for sale from Wes' main website, at concerts, and via major retailers who happen to stock his in-print albums. Any future albums will also be solely sold on CD and SNOCAP (commercial download) for an initial period after release, rather than being made available for free via the 'Share the Wes' programme immediately.
Personally, I already owned 'Chasing Monsters' and 'Shiver' on CD, so took the opportunity to download the foregoing one, 'The Emperor Falls'. It was certainly impressive enough to justify full payment, so I went one better: I bought the CD.
In my opinion, the major flaw in donating or buying directly from Wes is that though he'll receive greater financial benefit than if distributors and retailers take cuts too, he'll rapidly become invisible to the mainstream market. That's why, at least on this occasion, I bought 'The Emperor Falls' from Amazon, reasoning that increased sales there could boost industry awareness a little. Perhaps that doesn't particular matter, if word-of-mouth means the music will still reach those interested. Either alternative has advantages and disadvantages.
A month on, Wes has reported back with the result of his announcement: since 24 August, over 17,000 albums have been downloaded by old and new listeners all over the world. Excellent! Let's hope a significant proportion paid, but the main objective is clearly working.
Your turn. Download. Listen. Share the Wes.
1 October, 2007
No really, it's up to you
The new Radiohead album, 'In Rainbows', is due out on 10 October. Sort-of.
It's available in two formats:
- A 'discbox' will contain a standard CD with the expected artwork and lyric booklets, plus a second CD of bonus material (songs & artwork), plus the album on 2 LPs, all in a hardback book & slipcase.
This will cost £40 – if the inclusion of LPs and lavish packaging wasn't a clue, this is pretty much for fans only. Discboxes will be individually manufactured and won't be despatched until December, but purchasers will automatically receive the second option in the mean time:
- A download will contain the album tracks, without bonus material. I haven't been able to determine the file format, but I'd guess it's .mp3 rather than something lossless like .flac.
This will cost... whatever you want to pay. Yes, really: you could obtain the latest Radiohead album for 1p (plus the basic online transaction cost, 45p).
The slightly odd thing is that there's no intermediate option: the standard CD-and-booklet-in-a-jewel-case package won't be available until an unspecified point next year, rumoured to be March.
[Update 20/11/07: the release date is 31 December, 2007.]
It'd be easy to dismiss this as a marketing gimmick, and if it is, it's worked – of my normal news sources, the Guardian, the BBC and BoingBoing have mentioned it prominently.
Yet it is noteworthy that an acknowledged major-league band, supposedly one of those sustaining the mainstream record industry, is releasing an album via its own website and without the involvement of a record label, and treating potential purchasers as responsible individuals rather than as potential thieves.
Personally, I'm undecided. I suspect I'll pay a token amount for a download, merely as a stopgap until the CD is released properly. Then again, I've only listened to each of the post-'OK Computer' albums a handful of times, so I might pay a fair amount for a download and skip the CD.
I suppose I could just wait for the standard CD to appear at Amazon; I'm in no hurry.
23 September, 2007
I'm asking too: is music taste innate?
Writing in the Guardian, Graeme Thomson wonders whether musical taste is innate:
No matter how cosmopolitan and genre-busting our musical tastes, buried deep somewhere in our DNA there's an atavistic default setting that makes us react in a particular way to certain nuts-and-bolts specifics.
So yes, we might appreciate, enjoy and even love everyone from Air to ZZ Top but the bottom line is that a handful of old, familiar noises will almost always pick off your defences one by one, over and over again.
To eliminate one factor immediately: I don't think he literally means a genetic pre-programming, just predisposition acquired at a very early age. Music heard in the womb still counts as 'nurture'
rather than 'nature'
, after all.
I can't help thinking the causal aspect is a bit of a distraction from the core point: is one drawn to particular elements in music, irrespective of genre? It's not a matter of hearing 50s crooners or 60s jingly-jangly pop in childhood and therefore liking (or disliking – it follows that aversion could be predetermined too) those genres now. Rather, the suggestion is that one might be drawn to similar sounds, even in radically different contexts. Having acquired a predisposition for, say, resonant baritone voices, one might subsequently enjoy opera and sea shanties without noticing the link.
Disappointingly, it doesn't seem to be a topic of interest to commenters on the Guardian article, who tend to dismiss or misunderstand it. The only person who actually engages with the subject is Tim, whose response is expanded here.
As for common factors in my own taste... hmm, it's not easy, is it?
One is obvious: I seek downbeat, dark music, and am rapidly bored by upbeat, 'happy' music. If one can dance to it or sing along, it's unlikely to grab me. I'd better stress that's not a conscious decision or any form of snobbishness – I'm not denying some secret urge for the sake of appearences – 'dark' music genuinely grabs me, irrespective of whether its fashionable, and 'party' music just leaves me cold.
I was about to say "but I do like some high-energy trance". Ostensibly, that seems contradictory, but it isn't; now I think of it, the specific tracks I like tend to be slightly sinister, with a sense of contained menace. Nothing fluffy!
Beyond that, I'm struggling. Guitar-led music (electric and acoustic)? Strong, complex rhythms? I can think of a consistent dislike: shrill female vocals.
The only other preference I can think of is a little more abstract, being a context rather than a sound.
Putting the 'prog' vs. 'progressive' genre distinction to one side, I'm interested by music (of any genre, whether metal, disco, folk, or even 'prog') which progresses: I'm naturally drawn to the novel and extraordinary. That certainly doesn't mean I chase 'the latest big thing' (on the contrary, fashion is cyclical whereas I want the genuinely different) and I don't actively hunt for new music. It just happens!
Conversely, I have absolutely no interest in nostalgia. I know some people like certain music as a reminder of certain periods in their lives, and also like music which resembles music from those periods. I don't.
This seems to be straying from the central point, but it is relevant. If I hear a piece which resembles another, I'm less likely to enjoy it (I might; I'm just saying it's less likely), even if it contains the fundamental elements I supposedly favour. Maybe it shouldn't, but it does matter to me whether I've heard something before.
I must be a nightmare for marketers, as their tactic of 'if you liked x, you might like y' invariable fails, because 'x' already filled that niche in my taste.
It may be significant that I was brought up in a house without appreciable musical influences, and I had negligible interest in music until into my twenties. A radio rarely featured in my home environment, and even then it was Radio 4 (i.e. speech, not music). There was a gap of about seven years between my buying my first album and buying the second. In both cases, the music stood-out from everyday pop I'd previously experienced; I was drawn to its differentness.
16 September, 2007
Review: '13th Star' (Fish, 2007)
This is a 'grower'.
My first (mistaken!) impression was... succinct: "That was dire." However, repeated listening and a little insight from the 'Making Of...' DVD which accompanies the special edition CD¹ have boosted my appreciation. I think the main problem was my own expectation of high-energy, accessible rock music (with more substance emerging with familiarity) comparable to 2003's excellent 'Field Of Crows' album. Though it's not the one I'd anticipated, I now think 'Thirteenth Star' is a reasonably strong album (though not one I necessarily like...). Perhaps I'm overstating, but its unexpected depth makes 'Field Of Crows' even seem a little superficial.
To expand that initial impression, at first I thought the music and lyrics were boring; 'been there, done that', and if you've heard one downbeat Fish song, this album would be all too familiar. From an artist who claims to be progressive, it seemed dreadfully stale. However, that was only the result of a single play-through and based on mistaken (inflated?) expectations. Hearing it again a few more times, and considering it on its own terms, I'm more impressed.
Uncharacteristically, I've taken a while to compose this review, returning to it several times over the weekend, between playing the album again several times. In that time, I've gone from "this is appalling" to "It's not his best" to "er... actually, it might be" and back to "don't be so wishful: it's not his best".
If this review has any purpose beyond spreading the word that Fish has a new album out², I hope it's a warning against preconceptions and an appeal to give the music, and especially the lyrics, more than one chance to penetrate.
It'd be naïve to ignore the context in which Fish wrote these lyrics, namely the departure of his fiance, Heather Findlay of 'prog' band 'Mostly Autumn', in late May 2007. This was another reason for my initial dislike. The material seemed too personal, and I have a strong aversion to people criticising ex-partners in public; I'd thought better of Fish. Yet that too was a flawed preconception, and it seems the album's concept was determined well before it was mirrored by real life.
There's a fine balance. I don't listen to music for mere transitory entertainment, 'just a bit of fun': I demand more substance. Yet nor do I seek discomfort, or to be unproductively reminded of unhappy times in my own life. If '13th Star' had been no more than an bitter declaration of Fish's grievances, I wouldn't have wanted to hear it. Though there are clearly raw emotions in the lyrics, framing them in a slightly abstract narrative somehow adds sufficient distance, and it feels like a fictional protagonist singing about a fictional lost love, not Derek singing about Heather. Whether that's strictly accurate is a different matter....
That pre-existing concept (yes, it's a concept album, but don't worry about it) still defines the basic structure, being the story of someone seeking love/fulfilment within the mundane cycle of everyday life, and failing; the protagonist is left looking for his 'thirteenth star' alone ('Misplaced Adulthood', anyone?). According to the 'Making Of...' DVD, ~80% of the lyrics were already completed by the time of the break-up, so the subject matter and direction apparently predate events and emotional responses they seem to document. An interview segment from April 2007 casually mentions an intended happy ending, so clearly the narrative arc was amended to incorporate Fish's strong feelings, but it's not the overt attack on Findlay that I'd thought (though read whatever you wish into the first line of '13th Star': "With a heart full of sky,..."). Apologies for doubting his integrity.
The only remaining uncomfortable moment is in the 'Fish TV' promo at the end of the 'Making Of...' DVD rather than on the album itself. A video clip of questionable relevance shows Fish singing 'Just Good Friends' to Findlay³: "what would you do if I went down on my knees to you...?" (which he did (twice), under Micklegate in York). I really wonder why he included that.
The music itself is a minor problem. As a non-instrumentalist, Fish is slightly dependent on his collaborators. When that was Mickey Simmonds on the early solo albums or Steven Wilson on 'Sunsets On Empire', it was fine, but this time his primary partner was bassist Steve Vantsis on his first ever writing project. Unfortunately, it shows: the music is competently workmanlike and enjoyable, but in places it's a little predictable, particularly in terms of song structure. I'm not really complaining, and '13th Star' is consistently preferable to, say, 'Fellini Days', but it doesn't particularly challenge the listener; it doesn't sparkle.
Naturally, the immediate highlights are the full-on 'rock' tracks, 'Openwater' (especially the verse keyboards), and 'Dark Star' played at a neighbour-rattling volume. In an earlier draft, I was going to name 'Where In The World' as the album's low point, the obligatory maudlin ballad to skip (there's one on every Fish album). Yet in context, it works, just not necessarily in isolation, which illustrates that '13th Star' is indeed an 'album' album: a coherent composition with an emotional curve rather than a bunch of unrelated individual songs.
In terms of technique, Mark Wilkinson's cover art may his best ever (though the booklet layout work still looks cursory, even amateurish), but the subject matter is disturbingly 'proggy' – angels sailing into a stormy sea, exaggerated starscapes, even a ****ing sea serpent. Dangerously Roger Dean-ish. I'm glad the special edition digipack comes in a plainer slipcase, but presumably the Wilkinson artwork will appear on the retail edition, and deter potential buyers who'll naturally question the album's apparent mainstream credibility.
Yes, I know genre pigeonholing is annoying and it shouldn't matter if journalists and mainstream rock fans falsely associate Fish with crappy retro 'prog' or 'neo-prog' acts, but this is marketing, and first impressions do matter. I loathe 'prog'. If my first exposure to Fish's career was seeing this artwork in a jewel case in HMV, I would not buy it. Simple as that.
Heh. I've just realised that I primarily associate the pictorial content with albums by second-rate 'neo-prog' bands, the artwork of which was very probably influenced by Mark Wilkinson's early work for Marillion and Fish! The original remains the best, but still, the association is unfortunate.
Two final, isolated thoughts:
- I don't have anything specific to say about it, but the beautiful production work by Calum Malcolm deserves especial mention.
- Why does '13th Star' (the song) begin with the intro to 'Sugar Mice'?
1: Should an album need to be justified by the artist, or should it stand alone? I genuinely don't know; I'm inclined towards the latter, but that sounds like a pointless test, and music isn't a competition.
2: The special edition of '13th Star', featuring the CD in a three-panel digipack with a full-colour booklet and 'Making Of...' DVD, all within a decorative slipcase, is available now, solely from Fish's webstore and concerts. The standard retail edition is expected at the start of 2008.
3: It may be from the Berlin concert in October 2006, the last time they appeared together on stage.
28 August, 2007
Declared the constitution of the walkways
Is it really a matter of national, even international interest that Fish and Marillion have performed together for the first time in 19 years (albeit only for one song, 'Market Square Heroes')?
Apparently so: at the time of writing, it's the lead item on the BBC News home page's 'ticker tape'.
Whatever; it's good to see Fish capturing a bit of publicity with the same shamelessness novelty as his former bandmates; he just happens to mention his imminent new album '13th Star' and tour, and there's a prominent link to the website (and hence webstore).
The hardcore fans' reactions seems to have been characteristically* OTT – 'grown men crying', and all that, but it is kind of cool that it happened in that very Market Square, in Aylesbury, the band's birthplace.
Incidentally, I haven't mentioned that there's a non-retail limited edition of '13th Star' exclusively available by pre-order from the webstore or from the merch stall at concerts. It's the CD album plus a 'Making Of...' DVD, in a digipack with slipcase and enhanced booklet. Order now for despatch in early September.
*: no, to be fair, that's Marillion freaks; Fish's fans are less scarily obsessive.
The forum thread at Marillion.com already runs to 27 pages of squabbling.
2 August, 2007
New Anathema coming at last
Just spreading the word that Anathema seem to be getting back on track after a period in the wilderness (and other mangled clichés).
They've announced that they're working on ~80 minutes of new music for what is expected to be a 14-track double album provisionally entitled 'Paradigm Shift'.
Double album, eh? Kind of 'proggy'? NO.
A double album will not mean it will be a very long album – it may only be two groups of seven songs, split over two CDs in order to be easily digested by the listener It definitely will not be a self-indulgent album; it definitely is not a concept album.
The subject matter could be a slight concern:
Themes of life, healing and unity will run through some of the songs.
Hmm. Not exactly what I seek in music, but I'll try to keep an open mind.
There's no suggestion of a completion or release date, but they have said that they won't be rushing into a studio before supporting Porcupine Tree's European tour in the autumn, so several new songs are likely to be performed and refined live before they're recorded.
It is the first album we have made that will be truly complete. It will change lives. Hopefully beginning with ours.
Okay, Danny; whatever. ;)
31 July, 2007
The (temporary?) reincarnation of Iron Maiden
When I was about 17, my favourite band was Iron Maiden.
There, I said it.
Hey; I was young and naïve.
Actually, that's rather the point: I'd grown up with negligible real interest in music, so saying Maiden was a favourite is distinctly faint praise; it's more a matter of them having appeared on BBC Radio 1's 'Friday Night Rock Show' fairly frequently at the end of the Eighties, and my being able to find several of their albums in my local lending library. Still, it's undeniable that 'Live After Death' was the first LP I ever bought, and I think I bought (or copied... sorry) the entire back catalogue up to 1990's 'No Prayer For The Dying' on tapes. It's no coincidence that I went to university that year and lost interest in Maiden, being introduced to Queen, Bowie & Jethro Tull. Oh, and girls. ;)
I don't think I've heard a Maiden single song for over fifteen years, but a little late-Spring cleaning uncovered my tapes archive (aka a cardboard box I couldn't lift, so had to open) at the weekend, so whilst working at home yesterday, I played 'Piece Of Mind', 'Powerslave', 'Somewhere In Time' and 'No Prayer...' back-to-back. I'd almost lost the will to live by that point, but I noticed a couple of interesting moments in the hours of noise, so I am continuing with the other albums, if not quite so intensively.
It's remarkable that the music is utterly unfamiliar – it's as if I'm hearing it for the very first time, which may be an indication of how much attention I really paid in the Eighties. I've mentioned before that I have a good long-term memory for music I like, but evidently not this.
There's one marked exception: 'Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son'. Weird. 'Infinite Dreams', 'Can I Play With Madness' and the title track are startlingly familiar. I presume that was my favourite album; I'm almost tempted to pick up a cheap copy of the CD from eBay....
It's all so samey! I literally can't distinguish the songs; ten seconds from the middle of one could be from any other. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and I could make the same accusation of the Ozric Tentacles, but the difference is I particularly like the Ozrics' music, and each additional marginal variant is quite welcome. With Maiden... yawn.
Particularly on the earlier albums, it's clear the music built on 'traditional' rock'n'roll riffs and rhythms. The result was catchy and didn't seem to take itself too seriously, but one could say the same about Status Quo's vacuous pub rock, and nowadays I look for something a little more intellectually challenging – I don't need mere entertainment, to kill time enjoyably. That sounds as if I take myself too seriously, of course, but I just mean that I don't need aural wallpaper – if I'm not actively listening to music, I'm entirely happy with silence.
However, Maiden seemed to have evolved by 1990, and I can see the root of my later interest in (some!) progressive metal.
Please don't mistake my criticism: there's certainly no doubt that the punk-like simplistic repetitiveness was performed with a very high standard of musicianship, and was overlaid by more intricate 'prog' influences which presumably primed me for hearing the real thing later in the Nineties. I don't know much about the NWOBHM genre, but I suspect Maiden must have been quite progressive for the time. Maybe my underlying interests haven't changed that much, after all.
Another discovery is that I no longer like the late-twenties Bruce Dickinson's singing voice. I prefer metal vocalists to use their lower register rather than shriek; I quite like the death metal 'cookie monster' growl as an instrument, but shrillness irritates me. However, Dickinson's delivery had a further grating element: vibrato.
The less said about the distinctly cheesy, simplistic lyrics, the better....
22 July, 2007
Review: 'Continuum 2' (Continuum, 2007)
Four minutes and three seconds.
Continuum is a collaboration between Steven Wilson (Bass Communion, Porcupine Tree, etc.) and Dirk Serries (vidnaObmana, Fear Falls Burning). For those unfamiliar with those projects, I'd better state that the content of their second album is dark ambient 'music'.
Ambient means it's composed of drones and processed samples. There's no melody or conventional structure, merely chord progressions and s-u-s-t-a-i-n-s. Where any conventional instruments are used, it's as individual notes prolonged for 5-10 minutes. Much of the attraction is in the texture, the atmosphere, the, well, ambience.
Dark means it's evocative of emptiness: windswept moors and abandoned factories, not flower-filled meadows and waves lapping on quiet beaches. New-Agey whalesong does not appear.
'Music' is in quotes because some might question whether ambient noise meets the definition of the word (I don't).
There are only three pieces, 'Constructs IV-VI' (I-III are on the debut album), but the shortest is over 17 minutes long, giving an overall running time of almost an hour. However, I feel those are appropriate lengths to absorb as individual pieces, separately, rather than playing the whole album as a continuous experience.
One soon realises this album is going to be a lot less ethereal than 'Continuum'. A lot less. 'Drones and processing' are the expected components of dark ambient music, but Continuum have added electric and bass guitars, creating something approaching ambient metal. The pace is slow, suggesting the unstoppable ponderous encroachment of an oppressive weight. It's not party music!
Very reminiscent of Bass Communion's 'Ghosts on Magnetic Tape', faux-EVP voices backed by a drone itself reminiscent of distant machinery, soon joined by additional layers of mechanistic electronic tones. Imagine walking alone through the vast turbine hall of a near-derelict power station, towards the sole remaining functional generator, with a disembodied voice whispering wordlessly in your ear, gradually drowned out by pipes 'singing' as they warm and the noise of the generator itself. Though the tones are purer and marginally more musical than raw mechanical noise, you get the idea.
Again, there's a sense of occupying a vast, derelict space; the beginning inspires thoughts of the wind through a disused factory's broken skylights. The organ-like electronic drones, accompanied by more heavy, fuzzy guitar drones, add to the sense of wandering alone through a deconsecrated cathedral of industry, the ghosts of machines gradually materialising from the darkness. Towards the end, it's as if the building itself is collapsing under the bass-rich vibration of the phantom machinery. Play it loud enough, and that mightn't be entirely fanciful.
I must stress that this isn't kiddie-goth music, wallowing in pretentious angst and self-pity. It's very, very dark, but not merely for effect and not in a melancholic, depressing sense; if anything it's a little sterile. In context, that's a good thing; one could interpret it as going beyond the futility of mortal emotion: everything dies, as exemplified by the majesty of large, empty spaces which were once hubs of intense activity, so why mope about it?
As with the first album (indeed, like most Bass Communion releases), a little more attention has been paid to the packaging than is usual. The CD comes in a DVD-format digipack designed by Lasse Hoile, with three postcards instead of a booklet (there's little to say about the musical production). The artwork is somewhat similar to Hoile's work on the first 'Blackfield' album: very dark processed photographs, predominently red (on black) and subtly degraded. This time the subject matter is coastal: seaweed holdfasts on rocks, pitted pebbles and a barnacle-encrusted whelk shell. The effect is of specimens from the collection of a macabre Edwardian gentleman scientist.
Again like the first album, 'Continuum 2' is a limited release, with only 2,000 copies available from Soleilmoon, Headphone Dust and vidnaObmana (collectively, not 2,000 each). The first album sold out fairly quickly, so if you're interested, order it now. You will not find it in your local record shop, nor at Amazon, etc. That said, 'Continuum' (a limited edition of 1,000 copies) was so popular that it was reissued on iTunes.
Four minutes and three seconds. Remember that. You've been warned.
9 July, 2007
Heh. In't musical taste weird, when one can play Opeth's 'Still Life' (sample track: 'Serenity Painted Death', 9:14) and Abba's 'Arrival' (sample track: 'Dum Dum Diddle', 2:54) back-to-back and enjoy them both?
You are the dancing queen, young and sweet, only seventeen
[And conceded pain is crumbling mirth]
Dancing queen, feel the beat from the tambourine
[A harlot of God upon the earth]
You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life
[Found where she sacrificed her ways]
See that girl, watch that scene, dig in the dancing queen
[That hollow love in her face]
23 June, 2007
Review: Free (OSI, 2006)
Soon after the release of OSI's second album, 'Free', I drafted a review, but somehow I prevaricated about filling-out and rewriting my rough notes, and a year has passed. I think I'd better accept the inevitable and publish it almost as-is.
The first album, 'Office of Strategic Influence', was sufficiently complex and non-standard to sustain interest – it's not mindless pop rock. However, there were beautifully catchy moments throughout. 'Free' doesn't achieve that balance so well, and fewer songs grabbed me from the very first time I heard them.
Some of the sampled material and the title of 'Office of Strategic Influence' (it refers to a post-9/11 propaganda agency established by the Pentagon to manage foreign perceptions of US policies) meant that the first album had a strong thematic feel; almost a consistent statement. 'Free' doesn't, and initially seems to be 'merely' a bunch of unrelated songs. That's not necessarily a problem, as the songs are rather good!
There's nothing as obviously dark as the debut album's 'ShutDOWN'.
The presence of Jim Matheos (of Fate's Warning) and, to a lesser extent Mike Portnoy (of Dream Theater), might over-emphasise the prog metal aspect of the project – it's there, in some sections of some songs, but on the whole this sounds a lot like Chroma Key with extra guitars. That's probably the main thing to emphasise to those who have heard the debut album: 'Office of Strategic Influence' could be considered to be an equal mix of Matheos' guitar-led prog metal and Moore's atmospheric keyboards-and-textures music, but 'Free' has greater emphasis on the latter.
This time, it's a little clearer that OSI is a two-man project: Kevin Moore and Jim Matheos are credited as composers, producers and lead musicians, with guest appearences (performance only) by others including Mike Portnoy and Joey Vera, who presumably weren't involved in the writing sessions and overall direction of the project.
Some songs seem a little repetitive, but on repeated listening, that seems to be for deliberate effect, and works well, particularly on 'Sure You Will'.
It may be a coincidence, but the second song, the title track, is one of the heaviest and comes across as an almost anthemic 'statement of intent', just as 'OSI', the title track of the first album, was sequenced second, and is one of that album's heaviest tracks.
Overall, the album isn't so full-on 'heavy' as its predecessor. Parts of 'Better' (the eighth song; I'm mentioning it here out of sequence) approach the same intensity, but it's not so in-yer-face, seeming a secondary accompaniment to the song rather than the dominant, driving element.
I may be imagining another structural similarity: The rhythm guitar accompaniment to 'Standby (Looks Like Rain)', the last track on 'Office...' sounds remarkably like that of 'Our Town', the last track on 'Free'. Listening to both albums together on shuffle, I misidentified one as the other for a moment.
Though I like them, the first two songs didn't immediately strike me as extraordinary, but 'Go' has it; within 20-30 seconds I thought it was great, and I like the way it developed. The syncopated vocals really grabbed me, as a very Chroma Key element.
There's a strange vocal rhythm, but it really works.
All Gone Now: another 'heavier' one, using the same 'almost repetitive' style as 'Sure You Will'. It's okay, but I'm afraid it doesn't hold my attention.
Somehow, I don't associate OSI or Chroma Key with wistfulness or sentiment, so 'Home Was Good' is a little different. Otherwise, it could be a Chroma Key song – voice, keyboards, ambient textures and some semi-acoustic guitar. Though one of my immediate favourites, it hasn't grown as much as others.
'Bigger Wave' is very OSI, consistent with the first album.
I particularly like the simmering, almost menacing rhythm of 'Kicking'; there are a couple of particularly nice chord changes, too. The first few times I heard it, I thought it slightly over-long, but somehow that feeling has diminished. It could almost be a good single. Imagine that.
'Simple Life': Er. Nothing to say about this one!
The intro to 'Once' could be the Ozric Tentacles, though with a little too mechanistic a feel for those hippies. The track proceeds in the same style, reminiscent of industrial processes or the operation of monolithic bureaucracy – apt for an Office of Strategic Influence (or a Ministry of Information...). I also the overlapping vocals.
'Our Town': just acoustic guitar and voice, with a little electric guitar and a very nice banjo section.
So: I like it, and that has only increased with repeated listening. It's certainly one of my musical highlights of 2006. However, fewer 'Free' tracks have stuck in my mind than those from 'Office...', and I choose to play the latter far more frequently.
As with 'Office...' I bought the 'Special Edition' of 'Free', which included a further 20 minutes (okay, 19:25) of music on a bonus disc. As with 'Office...', it's okay, and if you happen to see the Limited Edition available for about the same price as the standard one, go for it, but don't make a special effort to find it or pay a premium price.
The bonus tracks make greater use of samples, especially sampled speech, than the main album. Except for 'Set It On Fire' and part of 'OSIdea 9', all percussion sounds programmed.
'OSIdea 9' is a heavy guitar instrumental, accompanied by programmed percussion and the sampled voice of someone claiming he's about to be extradited to the USA to be executed.
'Set It On Fire' is the only bonus track to sound like a completed OSI song. Moore is credited as writer, but there's quite a lot of heavy guitar accompaniment.
'Communicant' sounds like a completed instrumental, featuring keyboards, samples and percussion, with guitars only introduced in the final 30 seconds. It's slightly surprising, therefore, that it's a Matheos composition, not by Moore. It's good, but I agree with the decision to leave it off the album, as the sampled speech wouldn't have fitted the album's overall sound, if not theme.
'When You're Ready' is one of my favourite tracks on 'Office of Strategic Influence', but the inclusion of the demo (and why on this album?) is redundant. Apart from the lack of 'real' drums, it's near-identical to the finished version.
'Remain Calm' seems a self-indulgent opportunity for Moore (alone) to play with odd drum rhythms, directionless keyboard sustains and fragments of sampled speech. Experimentation is fine, but this is one Moore could have kept to himself. It's marginally better in distinct stereo e.g. via earphones, as the overlapping rhythms are a little more comprehensible.
The final track is an odd inclusion: 'Old War' is a 66-second song by Bige Akdeniz, who also contributed guitar and vocals; the only OSI contribution is a few seconds of percussion, presumably programmed by Moore.
31 May, 2007
The thrill of the chase
In 1996, Steven Wilson expressed his negative reaction to the pervasiveness of the internet in Porcupine Tree's 'Every Home Is Wired'. More recently, particularly with the release of the 'Fear of a Blank Planet' album, he's been similarly critical of the instant gratification afforded by mp3 players.
At the unofficial Porcupine Tree Forum, one writer has a slightly different, very credible, interpretation:
I don't think he was (or is) against the Internet, or indeed people who waste away their lives on it. Nor do I think he's against iPods.
It's a lament, the mourning of the loss of an experience that he (we) enjoyed - how we'd have to read obscure fanzines, seek out unusual specialist record stores and mail order dealers, scour through thousands of used albums looking for those chance rare finds, excitedly travel home clutching our new-found treasures, and listen to them and digest everything with the sort of passion that maybe weeks, months years of searching for the music results in.
Now its Google, One-Click, answer door 24 hours later, rip to iPod, skip, skip, hey cool, next.
SW is known to be an enthusiastic collector who appreciates the process of obtaining music as well as (I'm not suggesting as much
as) the music itself. However, I've never understood that myself, and thoroughly welcome the 'loss of experience' described.
Apart from the last sentence, of course. Ready availability of music doesn't necessarily diminish or trivialise it, and I can enjoy a CD fom Amazon just as much as one which has been annoyingly difficult to obtain.
More so, in some cases – some music is rightfully obscure.
I think this overlaps with the urge for exclusivity: to be a fan of a band no-one else knows, or to have an album no-one else owns; to be able to self-affirm that 'I'm special, me'. Kind of childish, really.
There's also something almost religious about the 'questing' urge and the thought that anything worthwhile needs to hard-won. And I'm atheist.
Seriously; there's more to atheism than being certain there's no 'higher being'; it's a world-view, with a distinct value-system independently developed by each individual. To me, it's not about living virtuously or deserving anything, and it's about the content of an album, not the means by which it was obtained.
3 May, 2007
The 101 rules of prog metal, as revealed by Metal Storm.
1 May, 2007
No thankyou whoever you are
Cheeky buggers. Marillion are about to shut down their 'eWeb' e-mail list in favour of their online account system.
- This change "allows us to send out full HTML emails filled with links and images." Which I don't want. Text-only, please. Oh; that's not an option....
- In order to subscribe to the newsletter, one has to be a registered customer of the Racket Records web store, having provided full contact and financial details.
I don't think so.
I'm familiar with Marillion's often-comically pushy marketing tactics, and don't especially object (not that I support the tactics – it's no accident that this entry doesn't link through), but this goes too far.
I'm not prepared to provide personal details in order to receive information they want me to see. They are the ones gaining from the proposed relationship, so if they have information they wish to convey, it's for them to accommodate my preferences – they don't get to define the hoops through which customers must jump. I'm willing to provide an e-mail address in return for accepting basic updates on the band's activities (by plaintext e-mail), but that's all – I decline to offer anything more than that e-mail address.
If that disqualifies me from the newsletter, it's their loss.
26 April, 2007
Review: Porcupine Tree, 53 Degrees, Preston, 20 April, 2007 (w. Amplifier)
One of my favourite bands, performing my 'album of the year' (to date) live, within cycling distance (well, 37 km) of my home? Do you think I could have missed that?
[Looking for the album review?]
Queuing outside the venue, the audience seemed older and more predominantly male than usual, wearing a disconcerting number of retro 'prog' T-shirts. However, once inside, the hall soon filled with a wider range of people displaying preferable affiliations.
The doors opened on time at 19:30, and I went straight to the merchandise stand. I needn't have rushed, as Ade (Porcupine Tree drum tech & stallholder) seemed to have learned from last September, when tour T-shirts completely sold out within eight minutes, and there was plenty of stock. If anyone's interested, I bought the new tour T-shirt featuring a curiously low-res version of the 'Fear of a Blank Planet' cover image and a long sleeve shirt featuring the silhouette of an open hand (in the 'FoaBP' special edition's booklet, it's the image opposite the 'Anesthetize' part 3 ('Water so warm...') lyrics). Porcupine Tree are really grasping marketing opportunities at last, and Ade dropped a promotional postcard into the 'FoaBP' carrier bag.
Incidentally, don't wait to buy your copy of the new album at a concert, as neither the special edition of 'Fear of a Blank Planet' nor even the standard retail edition is being sold by the merchandise stall. This is because the band and label wish to maximise initial sales via mainstream, chart-registered retailers.
In the remaining ~20 minutes before the concert began, it was great to meet Simon 'Carbon Nation' Clarke in person, and meet ex-Lancastrian Adam again, but putting faces to online identities is always difficult, and two others vanished into the crowd before I registered that I recognised them from photos.
The venue was smaller than I'd expected; more of a club with a bar area and dance floor than solely a concert hall. I was told the capacity was around 1,200, and I don't think it completely filled, so the one-off move from the Manchester Academy (capacity 1,700-1,800) may have deterred some.
One advantage was that the room was on two levels, offering people at the back a better view than at the one-level Academy. That also seemed to spread the crowd slightly, and I easily found myself only seven 'rows' back from the stage by the time Porcupine Tree came on (I usually stand well back, 15-20 'rows' away, near the mixing desk to avoid the crowd and appreciate optimum sound).
For those planning to visit in future, the 53° is a 10-15 min walk from Fishergate (Preston's main shopping street) and the railway station, and there's a car park right by the venue.
I've mentioned before that I don't like the custom of including support bands in concerts, but for once Porcupine Tree were accompanied by a band I already like, Amplifier. In fact, after OSI's 'Office of Strategic Influence', 'Amplifier' was probably my favourite album of 2003 (though I didn't discover it until late 2004), markedly ahead of Porcupine Tree's 'In Absentia'.
It made a change to be very familiar with the support band's music, though I admit I couldn't name the opening instrumental until playing 'Insider' again this morning. Only two songs were from that second album, with the remainder being obvious choices from the eponymous debut album. Amusingly, I was able to predict which they'd be, in almost exactly the right order:
So far as I could tell, the playing was excellent, remaining quite close to the studio arrangements, if abbreviated. So far as I could tell. Unfortunately, the sound quality was... sub-optimal. Amplifer's music incorporates considerable controlled feedback, but the further distortion introduced by the band's amps and mixing desk (they didn't use Porcupine Tree's) resulted in rather muddy and out-of-balance sound. At a few moments I was appreciating the memory of the album versions, as the live renditions were indistinct. I suspect those less familiar with how the music should sound received a poor first impression. That's a pity, and I recommend giving them a second chance.
Amplifier played from 20:00 for forty minutes, so there was a twenty-minute interval before Porcupine Tree were expected. Some headed for the bar, but I took the opportunity to edge forward a little, towards the middle of the stage. I'd provided a vague description of myself at the unofficial Porcupine Tree forum, which was adequate for one of my new neighbours to recognise me – hi, Steve (who introduced me to his friend as 'a man from the Internet', as if I'd just downloaded to the venue).
The lights dimmed at 21:05, but it was a further five minutes before the band came on, causing me slight anxiety about abbreviating the set to meet a 23:00 curfew. I needn't have worried; the full set was played.
The sound was excellent – perhaps the best I've heard at a concert. It was loud, but extremely clear. Last September's mix had been far too bass-rich, which battered the crowd in a way which was interesting in itself (I thought the 'wall of industrial noise' effect was great) but which distorted the music. This time, every element was crystal-clear without compromising raw power, allowing the effective use of stereo, er, effects in places. Well done. It makes a tremendous difference to be able to appreciate the subtleties of the final song with as clear hearing as during the first. This may be the first rock concert I've left without my ears ringing.
I don't particularly like back-projected videos at concerts; I don't want someone else's interpretation of the music to distract from my own enjoyment, and the whole point of attending is to see the band perform for real, live, in front of me, not to watch something pre-recorded. Perhaps unfortunately, then, eight (indicated with asterices, below) of the sixteen pieces played had video accompaniment.
Two, from 'In Absentia', used the projections from that tour: abstract assemblages of Lasse Hoile images which were atmospheric without attempting to directly illustrate the lyrical content. Two more, from 'Deadwing', were similarly fairly abstract animations (both are provided for home-viewing on the 'Arriving Somewhere...' DVD). All were easy to ignore.
That leaves four new projections accompanying songs from 'Fear of a Blank Planet'. These were rather different, being more like 'proper' music videos for broadcast than mere concert accompaniments. Stylistically similar to the album booklet artwork and still images on the special edition DVD, they seemed to be relevant to the lyrical content, without offering an outright narrative. In a way, I welcomed them as, if they genuinely illustrate the meanings intended by Steven Wilson (SW), they helped me understand the songs. However, I wasn't there to watch TV, so kept my attention on the band as much as I was able.
Aside from the entire new album, Porcupine Tree played one song from 'Signify' (1996), two (two of my all-time favourite Porcupine Tree songs, in fact) from 'Stupid Dream' (1999), one from 'Lightbulb Sun' (2000), three from 'In Absentia' (2002) and three from 'Deadwing' (2005).
That's not quite what I'd expected; recent tours have featured new material, a significant amount from the post-2002 albums, and very little from the older back catalogue. Last September, they played the new material, eight 2002-2005 songs and only one from 1993-2000; I'd expected much the same again, so was very pleasantly surprised (when I read Wednesday's setlist – I didn't arrive at this concert 'cold'). Apart from the final encore, I wouldn't have changed anything.
As usual for a Porcupine Tree concert, the audience were still and attentive – some might say static. A few tried headbanging to complex rhythms, which looked foolish, but otherwise movement was limited to a little head-nodding and foot-tapping. In writing, that sounds awfully sedate, but somehow it wasn't, and I wouldn't have wanted it otherwise – it's a concert, not a party – and there's no question that the audience were fully appreciative. One group behind me was rather... chatty, but beyond being aware of them, I wasn't particularly distracted.
I don't think I'd previously appreciated the full extent of Richard Barbieri's role in live performances. He played keyboards, of course, and his soundscapes both underpinned and rounded-out the overall sound, but there were moments when I realised neither Gavin nor Colin Edwin were playing at all. Conversely, particularly during heavier sections of the new material, SW and John Wesley (Wes) were effectively playing rhythm beneath Richard's lead.
I've said before that I think Gavin Harrison's drumming has been too high in the mix of studio recordings since he joined the band in 2002, so I'd better clarify something I realised during the concert. It's the snares which have been too dominant in the mix of songs from 'In Absentia' and 'Deadwing', but I really appreciated the contribution his bass drum made in propelling the rhythm tonight. I'm no musician, so apologise if I'm misusing the terminology; I mean the 'harsher', 'bright'-sounding percussion has been too clear in the past, whereas I'd overlooked his 'deeper'-sounding drumming.
Though there were times when he had nothing to do, I was struck by how comfortable Wes looked on stage – he's not a stereotypical guitar hero, but in his quiet way, he's a consummate pro.
So; the songs themselves:
This pre-recorded piece was only played briefly as the band came on stage rather than as an extended lead-in beforehand. As such, my mind was elsewhere and I didn't give it much attention; I initially thought it was familiar, perhaps 'Revenant', but I've since checked, and it was an unnamed ambient piece.
Fear Of A Blank Planet*
I don't remember, and haven't heard an unofficial recording yet, but I presume this was the then-unnamed piece which opened concerts on the preview tour last year. Somehow it didn't have the same initial kick of raw power as I recalled, which made me wonder whether I'd view all of the 'Fear of a Blank Planet' material so differently now it's more familiar. I still enjoyed it, of course, and was uncontrollably grinning within moments.
The back-projected video had briefly been shown on the band's MySpace site, but had been temporarily withdrawn following the Virginia Tech murders last week. Now I've seen it, I can certainly understand why, as children with handguns, some shown in a school environment, was a little too close to truth.
It was wonderful to hear this live, not least because I hadn't attended any concerts on the 2000 tour, when it was last performed. Unexpectedly (by me), SW played a rather (visually) attractive acoustic guitar whilst Wes played the electric parts, which meant he took the solo. That was excellent: extended, and distinctly his own rather than a clone of SW's style.
I think this was the first time SW spoke, greeting the crowd and saying that they'd play the whole new album interspersed by songs from the back catalogue "that we haven't played before" [pause; shocked exchange of glances between Steve & I ] "...at least not with this lineup." [*******!]
Again, I was surprised by Wes' central role in the live rendition: he sang the entire choruses, rather than simply backing SW. I'm not sure why. I don't think it added anything special, and it was slightly distracting to hear material I'm still assimilating in his accent and higher vocal register.
This video depicted fragmentary images of young childhood, which suggested to me that the song could be about a member of the 'blank generation' recalling happy, more innocent earlier life.
SW introduced 'Anesthetize' by saying it's "a pretty hard one to play though not the hardest one on the record to play; more of that later". I thought that meant he'd later state which is most difficult, but he didn't.
Wow. I'd had some doubts about this song on the album, but suddenly I really 'got' it – it was sublime, especially the middle section. My highlight of an already wonderful evening.
The Alex Lifeson solo in the first section was played by Wes. I'm afraid the original was better; Wes' version seemed to lack direction.
Hearing it live reinforced my impression that this is really two distinct songs artificially forced together. The end of the second section felt like the natural end of the song, and received corresponding applause (which I joined, as it was deserved!), whereas applause after the third section felt like a formality.
Not my favourite track, from not my favourite album, but it worked very well in the live setting, and was a good choice after an extended period of music unfamiliar to anyone who didn't already have the new album.
Perhaps foolishly, I hadn't realised that the first third of the song is a duet between SW and Richard Barbieri. Until the second verse, the drums were played from tape (reproducing the filtered sound of the studio version), but I'm not sure why the bass was pre-recorded too – it's not as if Colin Edwin was doing something else at the time.
Drown With Me
SW introduced this by explaining the band had recorded but left certain songs off albums, then regretted doing so. The example he cited was 'Stars Die' which, for a fraction of a second, implied they were about to play it. However, that's practically impossible (too many layered vocals) and he went on to announce this b-side from the 'In Absentia' sessions. I'd hoped and expected it to be 'Half-Light', an outtake from 'Deadwing' which had been in the Glasgow set two nights ago, but 'Drown With Me' was okay too.
Like 'Stars Die', the studio version of 'Drown With Me' makes extensive use of overlapping vocals which couldn't be reproduced live. However, the live band does have two vocalists and backing tapes could be made, so it was surprising to hear the whole effect stripped away; apart from during the title phrase itself, I don't think SW and Wes sang together even once. Unfamiliarity with this version may have affected my judgement, but I'm afraid those sections just sounded clumsy and unfinished.
The video depicted an older teenager in cafés, on public transport, etc., which I interpreted as being about a member of the 'blank generation' growing up, entering the mundane adult life of work & commuting and being unable to engage with that either.
I must have been enjoying myself – it's not often that I feel an urge to (discreetly) sing along in public.
For several seconds, I didn't recognise this at all. It's distinctly different to the studio and 1997 live versions, with an unfamiliar drum rhythm. I'm looking forward to hearing it again on an unauthorised recording I happen to know was made, as I didn't really take it in at the time. I liked it, anyway.
One of the things I appreciate about Porcupine Tree is that they don't rest on their back catalogue, but I'd very much like to hear more mid-90s songs reinterpreted in this way.
A Smart Kid
I can't hear this song too often, so it almost goes without saying that I enjoyed it. However, it wasn't the highlight I'd expected it to be. Relative to the overall feel of the concert, it somewhat lacked power, and the normally stunning climactic guitar solo was slightly overshadowed by earlier pieces. It pains me to say it about one of my all-time favourites, but I think other songs could have been better choices within this setlist.
Way Out Of Here*
SW introduced this by saying the final two songs on the album are about escape.
I suspect this was the one they've been struggling to play live. Again, I'm no musician, and the playing seemed flawless to me, yet at one point (I think it was during this song), Richard and Colin abruptly looked at Gavin and grinned, so they must have spotted something I missed.
As soon as I saw the accompanying video, which depicts an attractive goth girl in a railway yard, I thought of a teenage member of the unofficial Porcupine Tree forum who was female, gothy and killed by a train in 2005. I've since discovered it was no coincidence.
I must have been overwhelmed by this point, as I don't recall anything specific about it!
With that, the band left the stage for a couple of minutes, long enough for the road crew to remove SW's keyboard, then returned for the encore:
This has been a staple of concerts since at least 1997 (yes, well before the release of 'Stupid Dream'), so I'd expected it to have been retired by now. Not that I'm complaining – it's always been my favourite Porcupine Tree song, so I was enraptured to hear it. That said, its stylistic difference to the current material didn't quite fit the mood of the evening (perhaps that's why it was in the encore rather than the main set) and, at least this time, I preferred 'Anesthetize'.
Mother & Child Divided*
Maybe I was tired, but this didn't excite me as much as it might; the same sort of material had already been covered stunningly in the main set, so this instrumental felt superfluous. I'm not really complaining; I just mean it was the least memorable part of the evening.
Throughout the concert I'd been hearing familiar songs afresh and gaining a new appreciation, so I genuinely approached this with an open mind. However, it's no use; even with the new arrangement, I simply don't like this shallow, populist song. It's a pity that I couldn't fully appreciate the last opportunity of the evening to be a few metres from my musical 'heroes', as I'd already emotionally disengaged.
And that was it, until my next Porcupine Tree concert. I can't adequately express how much I enjoyed this one.
I'm afraid this review reveals the major deficiencies in my supposed writing ability. I have no problem being analytical and commenting on specific points, but I can't adequately convey my emotional responses to the concert: the excitement of being a few metres from the band (I certainly can't rationalise that), the exhilaration of being immersed in wonderful music played at high-volume,... I don't know; just the sheer ecstasy of the whole experience. I can't describe it, but it's the nearest an atheist can get to a nonexistent heaven (in public, anyway).
I couldn't have hoped for a better setlist, but a 'source close to the band' told me that the band rehearsed three hours of material before the tour – each night's set is about two hours long, so expect some variety as the tour proceeds. In fact, the cue sheets by the mixing & lighting desks suggested 'Trains' had been a possibility this evening.
I'm used to attending concerts in Manchester and Liverpool, so it was a pleasant change to not encounter ticket touts outside the venue beforehand nor bootleg T-shirt sellers afterwards. However, a couple of Roadrunner Records/Porcupine Tree street team members were present, distributing stickers to the departing audience. Let's hope they secured a few converts.
21 April, 2007
Review: 'Fear of a Blank Planet' (Porcupine Tree, 2007)
Porcupine Tree's much-anticipated ninth studio album was released on 16 April, so I suppose I ought to stop enjoying it long enough to write a review.
[Looking for the concert review?]
Actually, I haven't been playing it back-to-back all week (only nearly...). At a little under 51 minutes, it feels short, but it's intense; as soon as I'd finished hearing it for the first time, I wanted a rest, and didn't immediately start again as I might normally.
I could nit-pick, as there were a few tiny details I didn't particularly like, but they were only details and overwhelmingly this is exactly what I wanted from Porcupine Tree: intelligent hard rock with an immediacy which pulled me in from the start, but also a depth that can only develop as I enjoy it repeatedly. There's nothing at all like the execrable 'Shallow' on this album, and the whole composition exhibits a maturity I thought lacking last time.
I want to stress that: apart from minor details, I liked the entire album, from the very first time I heard it. Quite a starting point, which exceeds the patchy 'In Absentia' and 'Deadwing'. Those albums contain some of my favourite Porcupine Tree songs but also almost all of my least favourites, and both took a while to appreciate. Particularly on 'Deadwing', I thought certain songs were 'pop rock' with no greater depth than crowd-pleasing 'fun': "only rock'n'roll" – and I don't like that. 'Fear of a Blank Planet' goes further.
As I said in my review of the preview material at the 'Arriving Somewhere...' concert in Manchester last September, my impression was that this would be the 'heaviest' Porcupine Tree album yet; not so much 'metal' as 'relentless industrial wall of noise'. That seems to have been moderated somewhat, and the studio album isn't so much of an 'in yer face' aural assault.
I think I like that. There's still enough full-on material to satisfy fans of 'In Absentia' and 'Deadwing', and where it's 'heavy', it may be more intensely 'heavy' than ever, but there's also a return to the textured atmospherics of earlier albums. In its initial 'punch', 'Fear of a Blank Planet' may seem like a 'heavy' album, but in hindsight it's not, really. I couldn't offer a precise breakdown of the relative proportions of 'heavy' and 'not heavy' material, but it may be something like 1:3-1:4. The 'heavy' aspect merely grabs disproportionate attention, unsurprisingly.
The album's lyrical content relates to teenage disengagement from wider society. Great; good for them. I'm all for the breakdown of traditional family-orientated collectivism in favour of self-motivated secular individualism.
Actually, that's not what's meant: it's about the 'blank generation': terminally bored 'hoodies' who disengage from the outside world altogether, retreating into an empty, instant-gratification cycle of computer games, prescription drugs and zombified mall wandering. Without wishing to convey a 'message', SW apparently seeks to draw attention to the tendency to live vicariously through an ever-widening range of impersonal technology – mass-media, the internet and gadgets.
That subject is explored most transparently in the title song, but the specific meaning of subsequent songs' lyrics eludes me at present. That doesn't particularly worry me at this stage; frankly, I don't really listen to Porcupine Tree for the lyrics. In general, I get more enjoyment from the vocal rhythms than the words of a new album, and more from the images conveyed by individual lines than from any overall themes, which I might appreciate more as I become familiar with an album.
The topic was apparently inspired by Brett Easton Ellis' novel 'Lunar Park', but I haven't read that myself (yet) and the synopsis I have seen didn't reveal an apparent similarity.
I noticed in a Marillion forum that fans of that band consider this album rather 'cold', but how else could one treat the subject of emotional vacancy? I find this more compelling that wallowing in outpourings of melancholy.
I do have one criticism of the album, but it's of the personnel involved, not the creative content itself, so is relatively unimportant.
The album includes guest appearences from Alex Lifeson and Robert Fripp from Rush and King Crimson respectively, if not respectfully – I'm not an admirer, and featuring what music critics and potential album purchasers could regard as 'prog dinosaurs' was needlessly dangerous. I didn't exactly welcome the announcement that they'd be participating.
Even knowing which guitar solo was provided by Lifeson, I didn't regard it as noteworthy; SW could easily have composed something himself and denied lazy journalists the opportunity to dismissively liken Porcupine Tree to retro 'prog'... stuff. Fripp's contribution on 'Way Out of Here' was pleasant enough but again, not distinctive, and nothing SW couldn't have generated himself.
So why have guest appearences by 'name' musicians only of interest to old-time 'prog' fans, which have the very real potential to alienate more mainstream listeners and critics? It's a bad idea in terms of mass-market credibility, which succeeded musically only because the guests' contributions were unobtrusive to the point of being anonymous. I'd call that a pointless gimmick.
I don't have anything significant to say about every song. There's limited value in my repeatedly stating 'I like this one', and I'm not a musician/musicologist who could comment on technical issues, so I'll just offer a few specific notes. Let's take it as read that I think they're all great!
Fear of a Blank Planet
If any track is reminiscent of the 'Deadwing' album, it's 'Fear of a Blank Planet' itself. However, it's not merely an outtake or continuation, rapidly developing from a (maybe deliberately) familiar feel to exhibit greater depth.
As I said, I don't really understand the lyrics of specific songs yet, but if the video accompanying this song at concerts is an indication, it seems to be about the protagonist wistfully recalling the innocent idyll of early childhood: "life's all ****ed up now; I wish I'd appreciated it more then." Maybe.
This has a particularly rich, layered soundscape, so it's not entirely surprising that Richard Barbieri shares joint writer's credit with SW. I'm not especially keen on lavish orchestral strings in rock music. That's not a criticism, merely my preference, and at least they're real, having been played by the London Session Orchestra.
This is the shortest track, 5:07 long, but actually ends at 4:36, the remaining 30 seconds effectively being an intro to 'Anesthetize'. The track division could have been located differently, but I think the right decision was made.
Yes, the title uses the US spelling, for some weird reason.
Surprisingly, this near- 18-minute compound song, affectionately known as 'The Beast' by those attending last year's preview tour, was my initial least favourite, though that impression was only temporary and relative ('less wonderful' is hardly savage criticism). This was partly because it seemed too repetitive, even rambling, in places, partly because the compilation of three distinct sections seemed somewhat artificial, and partly because I'd had very high expectations.
The initial impression I received in September, and which I unquestioningly assimilated, was that 'The Beast' 'blows away' 'Arriving Somewhere But Not Here' i.e. that I drastically preferred the highlight of 'Fear Of A Blank Planet' to the highlight of 'Deadwing'. Having heard the finished version, I'm less sure, but why would I? They're very different songs and it's not a competition. I like them both.
No matter how many times I hear it, I'm still convinced 'Anesthetize' is really two distinct songs forced together by a cross-fade and linking 'click track'. One is 12 minutes long in two different but complementary parts and, especially after hearing it live, is by far my favourite part of the album. The second is 4½ minutes long, and is fine, but seems musically unrelated to the first (apart from keyboards reminiscent of Pink Floyd's 'Echoes'). Ultimately, it doesn't make a difference if two separate songs happen to be indexed as one, especially as the album is intended to be heard as a coherent composition in the sequence provided, not a bunch of unrelated songs to be heard in isolation. I just wonder why it was done.
Again, if the back-projected video at concerts is an indication of SW's intended meaning, the lyrics seem to be about a member of the 'blank generation' growing up and trying to re-enter the establishment world of employment, commuting, and mundane adult life – and finding herself psychologically unable to do so. Again: maybe.
It's been noticed (and acknowledged by SW) that the riff at 3:52 and thereafter is the same as in live fan-favourite 'Trains', merely transposed to different chords. Now it's been pointed out, I hear it too, but I'm not entirely sure why it'd be an intentional back-reference, even though the first line of the next song, 'Way Out of Here' happens to be "Out at the train tracks...".
Way Out of Here
Er... 'I like this one'. Well, I do, even if I don't have anything to say about it here.
Okay: SW wrote all the lyrics on the album and all the music apart from 'My Ashes' and this song, which is credited as a collective band effort. Unlike 'My Ashes', I wouldn't have known by listening.
Some have said this is the furthest from anything Porcupine Tree have done before, even a hint of a major change in direction on future albums (as if that sort of thing is so planned). I don't see it myself. Though swirling orchestral strings provide a 'Middle Eastern' feel slightly reminiscent of ELO or Led Zeppelin's 'Kashmir', otherwise this is pure Porcupine Tree. It has quite a laid-back pace, but carries a brooding intensity, as if it could explode at any moment.
I could have done without the 'surprise' drumroll at the very end of the song and hence the album. It didn't seem to serve any purpose, and I'd have preferred it to end with the foregoing gentle fade, retaining rather than releasing the tension in the track.
Is it coincidental that much like 'Stop Swimming', the closing track of 'Stupid Dream', the lyrics of 'Sleep Together' could be readily interpreted as being about suicide?
As always, the album production was excellent, though for the first time, it was credited to the whole band rather than SW alone. This may explain two key differences to the foregoing two albums.
Since he joined the band, I've thought Gavin Harrison's drumming to be far too obtrusive on studio recordings, being much too dominant in the overall mix. This time, I wasn't aware of that even once.
Conversely, I was pleased that Richard Barbieri's keyboards & effects were more apparent. The combination of a driving guitar lead underpinned by a rich keyboards soundscape was what drew me to Porcupine Tree in the first place, so I'd been slightly disappointed by the (relative!) diminution of RB's role in the 'metal' 'In Absentia' and 'populist rock' 'Deadwing'; he's expressed dissatisfaction himself. He's back!
Aside from the production, I was also immediately impressed by the album's mastering (a different issue): not too loud, so there's room for dynamic subtlety and even on my very ordinary player there's negligible distortion at high volumes. It seems Porcupine Tree have stepped back from of the loudness war, presumably respecting the fact that their core market tends to be concerned about sound quality (consider the interest in high-resolution DVD-A technology, and criticism of compressed DVD-V), not to mention SW's own preferences. Notably, SW is credited as having mixed and mastered this album himself, whereas 'In Absentia' and 'Deadwing' were mastered by a third-party, Andy Van Dette, who evidently has more commercial 'everything louder than everything else' sensibilities.
To quote SW, interviewed by 'HDTV Etc.' magazine in 2005, if you want to hear it louder, "please use your volume knob".
Note that the album is deliberately not being sold by the band's web store at Burning Shed yet, nor from the merchandise stall at concerts on at least the UK part of the European tour, as the band wish initial purchasers to buy from chart-registered retailers. Once that promotional push subsides, Burning Shed should have copies, but they don't anticipate ever stocking the special edition, which was limited to 7,500 copies worldwide, all already accounted for – one by me.
Whilst the retail edition is a CD and standard booklet in a jewel case, the special edition comprises a CD, DVD and expanded 40-page booklet. The outer packaging, a thick card slipcase, contains:
- the CD and DVD in plastic sleeves, in a thinner card gatefold. The sleeves don't really fit into the gatefold, but that is nit-picking!
- a 40-page booklet containing the lyrics, album credits and extensive artwork. Like the slipcase and gatefold, the artwork features Lasse Hoile's characteristically downbeat photography laid out in the familiar Aleph style by Carl Glover. Lots of pills, empty landscapes, vacant teenagers and TVs tuned to dead channels.
I can't comment on the surround sound mix on the DVD, as I don't have a suitable amplifier system connected to my player, but it contains the PCM stereo mix too, which I can play.
I'd better stress that the special edition comes with a standard NTSC DVD i.e. a 'DVD-V', usable in any normal, modern DVD player capable of 5.1 surround sound output. It is not a DVD-A containing a higher-resolution mix only accessible by a dedicated DVD-A player. There is an intention to release a DVD-A later in 2007, almost certainly with bonus material, but this isn't it
. This is a standard-resolution 5.1 mix of the same six songs as on the main CD (accompanied by still photographs additional to those in the booklet), with no bonus tracks whatsoever.
If you'd expected the 'special' edition to compile all available bonus tracks and high-resolution mixes into one 'ultimate' edition, you must be new to Porcupine Tree.
Easily my album of the year (so far, though I'm not aware of release schedules being due to provide competition in 2007) and a very welcome antidote to Marillion's tired efforts.
[Update 22/04/07: 'Fear of a Blank Planet' reached no.31 in the UK album charts in its first week of release.]
[Interested in the live experience?]
14 April, 2007
Review: 'Somewhere Else' (Marillion, 2007)
Meh. Fifty-two minutes of blandness.
Officially released on 9 April, the pre-order special edition of Marillion's 14th studio album, 'Somewhere Else' reached me on 6 April, so I've had plenty of time to absorb it. However, the following few paragraphs were written immediately after I'd heard the album for the first time. Don't panic about some of it; as I say afterwards, I was mistaken on at least one point, but it's interesting to record my unalloyed immediate impression.
A little like 'Angelina', from the excellent 'Marbles
', this whole album is evocative of a late-night jazz club – very laid-back, very mellow.
I don't like mellow.
This is a downbeat, melancholic album. Downbeat is good; melancholic is workable, and Marillion have proven ability in the area. However, they've always managed to maintain a certain energy before, keeping the music compelling, or at least they've interspersed introspective songs with high-energy rock music. Not this time; it's consistently maudlin. I don't mind B-sides, and accept filler in albums, but where are the catchy A-sides?
I don't expect to fully appreciate an album from the very first time I hear it, but there's usually some immediate spark, something to draw me in and make me want to listen again. I'm deeply disappointed that that didn't happen with 'Somewhere Else'; I've listened to it once, and absolutely the only reason I'll give it a second chance is that it's by a band I've liked before; had it been by a less-familiar artist, once would have been sufficient and it'd go straight to eBay.
Having heard it again, I obviously have to acknowledge that several songs do feature a 'big' rock sound and some relatively high-energy material, notably 'Most Toys'
, but that fact is curiously unmemorable, and the overall feel is more laid-back than I'd choose.
I still think it's an album to appreciate alone in a darkened room, rather than sing along with in a sweaty concert venue with flashing lights (which sounds like a recommendation, but somehow isn't). If that's all this review conveys, perhaps it'll prevent others experiencing the same initial misconception as me, and perhaps they'll enjoy it more from the outset.
That may be the key point: the album failed to satisfy my expectations of it, which might have been unrealistic. I thought 'Marbles' was wonderful in 2004 (and still do); a return to form after a few patchy albums. I'd automatically presumed that 'Somewhere Else' would continue that reinvigoration, without even considering it might revert to something more comparible with the under-impressive previous output.
Even after a week, no single track stands-out as a highlight. Don't misunderstand: I'm not looking for the instant gratification of an empty pop song, and I'd probably recoil from anything a 17-year-old rock fan would consider 'awesome', but it's disappointing that not even one of these songs has, for want of a better phrase, the'wow!' factor.
There are times when I'll put a CD in my player just to hear one or two favourite tracks, even if I don't listen to the whole album. Up to now, every Marillion album has had, at the very least, a couple of highlights like that, but not this one. I quite like 'No Such Thing' and 'Somewhere Else', but I doubt I'd specifically seek them out in that way.
Of the other eight tracks, seven are... okay. I haven't felt the urge to skip them (yet), but they don't really hold my attention.
That leaves only one I actively dislike: 'The Last Century For Man'. I really, really don't need to hear this environmentalist hippie sh*t.
Overall, I'm not sure about the lyrics. I presume the intention was to go for 'simple but profound', but in a few places, the result borders merely trite. "He who dies with the most toys... / is still dead". Deep, or obvious?
So; not a classic, and I certainly don't have a new favourite Marillion album, but not disastrous either, despite my immediate reaction. It's simply... meh.
4 April, 2007
I don't normally link to web videos which probably won't be archived for long, but this is fairly amusing.
It's a brief extract from a lecture given to music students by Steven Wilson (Bass Communion, Porcupine Tree, Blackfield, etc.), filmed by Nana.co.il. In it, he expressed a few opinions about the music industry, being a musician rather than an entertainer, and Aviv Geffen (the other half of Blackfield). He also played a few songs. One request was for 'Cloudy Now', but SW couldn't recall the chord sequence – so he rang Aviv.
Imagine someone like David Gilmour doing that; pulling out his mobile phone on stage, in front of a screaming audience, to ask "Hey, Roger; how does 'Comfortably Numb' go?"
2 April, 2007
Still ripping off t-shirts
Like Porcupine Tree, Marillion aren't performing in Manchester on the forthcoming tour, instead appearing in Liverpool on 7 June (Porcupine Tree are in Preston on 20 April). Primarily, that's because their usual preferred venue, the Manchester Academy, is closing for refurbishment, but there's a specific reason why they didn't simply select alternative venues in Manchester.
Marillion explain in a message that mightn't be archived, so I'll reproduce it in full:
Reluctantly, we are not playing Manchester on the Somewhere Else Tour. Our old friend, The Academy, is closed for refurbishment. All the other suitable venues in Manchester have a policy of charging a 25% merchandise commission. Basically this means that if we sell one of OUR tee shirts or CDs (already bought and paid-for by us) to you, (OUR fans) we must pay the VENUE one quarter of the money YOU part with! You might think this is outrageous. You might even wonder how it can be LEGAL and so do we.. Unfortunately, it's rapidly becoming the norm at venues throughout the UK and Europe and we have decided to take a stand against this practice which is really no more than plain extortion.
All venues (quite reasonably) charge artists no-small-amount to hire the place, to provide security for the show, and to cover venue staff and running costs. The venue then takes a ton of YOUR money across the bar on the night and despite the fact that we, the artists, are responsible for the bar being full of thirsty customers, SOME venue owners somehow feel they have an additional right to ask for a hefty slice of artist's tour merchandise!
So we're going to Liverpool instead (it's Liverpool's turn anyway), but we'd love to do both.
We charge £12-15 for our t-shirts and refuse to put the prices up just to cover the merchandise fees which is what has been suggested to us in the past. Why should we make the fans pay? Of course we could put a higher price on the concert tickets but we don’t want to do that either. Why should we be forced to do that? Selling merchandise on tour can often make the difference between an overall loss and an overall profit so we don't want to be forced to give it all away. We've asked for 25% of the bar takings in return but, oddly enough, the venues won't go for that!
Some venues want to charge 20% for t-shirts, 15% for CDs and a massive 30% for programmes - we don’t understand or accept this concept either.
With us it is a question of the revenue and also of principles. So we're boycotting the gigs who want a merchandise percentage, and we're getting together with other band managers and forums to spearhead a campaign against this practice.
We hope you understand and can make it across to Liverpool or Leeds instead.
If you remember
, Sigur Rós encountered the same practice at the Hard Rock Hotel, Las Vegas in 2005, and protested by selling merchandise extremely cheaply ($1 per T-shirt). The venue took its cut of the profits (but "30% of nothing amounts to nothing"
) and the ongoing bad publicity.
Conversely, let's spread a little positive publicity: the Manchester Academy doesn't rip-off bands and fans in that way. Well done.
As I said in that earlier Sigur Rós entry, I consider it better to buy merchandise from bands' own webstores, wherever possible, as I think that gives them the greatest financial benefit.
1 March, 2007
Fear of a minisite
There's very little content present yet, but fans have discovered a promotional minisite for Porcupine Tree's forthcoming album, 'Fear Of A Black Planet'.
Initially, there's merely a countdown to the US release date (23 April; the UK/European release date is a week earlier, 16 April), a 6-min medley of low-res samples¹ and an opportunity to sign up for spam updates, but hopefully it'll become as substantial as the 'Deadwing' minisite² (i.e. not very informative, but a good taster).
1: A rather clearer copy of the same same medley is currently downloadable from the band's MySpace page.
[Update 30 March: the site has been updated, with the features one would expect: tour dates, icon/wallpaper downloads, a link to the main site and... something more if you can find the clickable hotspot.]
2: [Update 22/10/07: the Deadwing.com domain expired on 23/09/07.]
26 February, 2007
More on the Joyce Hatto scandal, which I summarised last week.
I was slightly mistaken in calling her 'an obscure pianist', as she was moderately well-known in the 1950s and 60s, but retired from public performance in the 1970s having been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. From then on she was indeed little-known until 2003 when her husband's label released a CD then, before her death in 2006, a further 103 – 104 CDs in three years – supposedly of her recording career since 1989. This was a period when she was seriously ill, undergoing major surgery on multiple occasions and being hospitalised 68 times in her final decade. Even before there was serious reason to doubt it, people questioned her 'superhuman' energy. Some also questioned whether a single pianist could cover the sheer range of her supposed repertoire with such virtuosity.
Following the initial identification of her recording of Liszt's 12 'Transcendental Études' as actually being by László Simon, 26 more Hatto CDs (and counting) have been verified as er, 'misattributed' (e.g. Chopin's Mazurkas). The New York Times suggests all 104 might be plagiarised. Even the conductor cited for each of 'her' concerto recordings seems to be fictitious.
[Update 27/02/07: Of course, as soon as I posted that, more news broke. The husband seems to have confessed.]
22 February, 2007
I've always been mildly impressed that one can put a CD into a PC's CD-R drive and have the audio player automatically identify the content via a global database.
Gramophone, partly acknowledging that it had been fooled too, reports that acclaimed recordings of an obscure pianist have been proven to actually be previously-available recordings of entirely different pianists. The detailed analysis was performed by specialist software and experts, but the initial identification was by standard, domestic player software.
17 February, 2007
Review: 'Blackfield II' (Blackfield, 2007)
After planning a collaboration for some time, Steven Wilson (Bass Communion, Porcupine Tree, No-Man and several other projects) and Aviv Geffen (Israeli pop star) released an album of intelligent pop songs in 2004, under the name Blackfield. The follow-up to the eponymous debut album is cunningly entitled 'Blackfield II' and was officially released on 12 February, though pre-orders from Burning Shed and Headphone Dust were despatched slightly earlier; I've had my copy since 10 February so have had over a week to consider my reaction.
It's likely that most listeners approaching this album afresh (apart from those in Israel) will be Porcupine Tree fans who have never heard of Aviv Geffen. If only for those people, I could describe the Blackfield project as resembling the softer, melodic side of Porcupine Tree; in those terms it's most similar to the 'Stupid Dream'/'Lightbulb Sun' era (and near-totally dissimilar to the 'In Absentia'-'Fear Of A Blank Planet' hard-rock/metal era!). Geffen's unique compositional contribution is in adding an overtly 'pop rock' feel under-represented in SW's other work.
Totally unlike Porcupine Tree music, most tracks on 'Blackfield II' are around four minutes long, though one is just under 3 mins and the longest is 5:13. Though they share a common feel of melancholia (near-suicidal despair in a couple of instances), there isn't an overall theme, and these are ten standalone songs.
Fans drawn to the 'progressive (not 'prog') rock' or 'metal' side of Porcupine Tree have expressed slight disappointment with 'Blackfield II', particularly with the, er, less-than-challenging lyrics. It's probably important to know what one is getting: this is a 'pop-rock' project, and by the standards of the genre, it's above average. Besides, the music easily compensates for the lyrics.
I can't comment on Geffen's other music, but this is about as 'pop' as SW gets. I can't deny preferring slightly less predictable, more challenging material too, but I do like the album. Not even one track feels weak, and I don't feel an urge to skip even one.
Even more than on 'Blackfield', the most obvious performer is SW, though Geffen seems to have been the primary composer. SW wrote (music and lyrics) three* of the ten songs, Geffen wrote five, and the remaining two+ are 'music Geffen, lyrics Geffen/SW'. SW is the lead vocalist on 6 tracks, Geffen on one and they share lead vocals on on three. That, plus the fact that the vocals are lower in the overall mix, which takes the edge off any vocal idiosyncrasies, means that Geffen's relatively strongly-accented, annoyingly quavering voice is less apparent. Sorry, Geffen fans, but I think that works very well.
A couple of people have suggested the album is overproduced, but I don't agree at all. Compared to the stark 'Blackfield', 'Blackfield II' could be described as 'lush', but I like the densely layered soundscape a lot and don't recognise any reason to criticise. The first album probably established expectations of a simpler sound, but if one can get past that preconception (and I can without hesitation), multiple overdubs sound great. Admittedly, the electronic effects on '1,000 People' grab one's attention more than I might have chosen, and 'Miss U' and 'Where Is My Love?' sound a little 'busy', but I actually welcome the relative diminution of the vocals on those two tracks. Initially, I was a little concerned by the frequent use of what I thought was sampled strings, but they're played by a real ensemble, the Downtown Session Orchestra. Not that I quite understand why it matters that they're 'real' – for me, music is about the result, not the process.
Unmistakably the product of the same band, this is a slightly richer experience, which I expect to hold my attention longer. Much as I like the debut album, after the first month or so I've only played it rarely.
[Update 05/12/07: Wrong – I tired of this album very rapidly and haven't played it for months, but I've returned to the first album a few times.]
So; a few thoughts about the individual tracks. Overstating slightly, I could be described as a professional editor, so I'm naturally inclined to spot negative points, which may make my comments seem negative. Please bear in mind that I do like all these songs!
The intro/verse riff of 'Once' *: is extremely familiar – distractingly so, though I can't quite identify where I've heard it before. One almost expects to hear a different voice than SW's.
I want to stress that I do like this, an enjoyable pop-rock song, but it's not exactly groundbreaking. I could imagine it doing well in the pop charts, if it wasn't a little too generic. A quick survey at the Porcupine Tree Forum found a wide range of individual favourite tracks, but not one person ranked 'Once' as the single 'best' song.
Incidentally, it seems a little perverse that a song called 'Once' is being played twice at each of at least the first few concerts on the 2007 tour.
'1,000 People' + is about a pop star's inability to respond to fan adulation. It's a theme other lyricists have covered, and Geffen doesn't say anything new on the subject. I'm assured this is just a slightly inadequate translation of Geffen's original Hebrew lyrics, but that isn't exactly relevant: this rendition has to stand alone. And, in my opinion, it does. Even discounting the words themselves, the interaction of the vocal rhythm and instrumental music is compelling. The French horn, played by Itamar Leshem, is a well-chosen addition.
Speaking of individual favourite songs, this is SW's, apparently.
'Miss U' is the first song to feature Geffen as lead vocalist (the only one on which he takes the lead alone); in fact the first point at which I noticed his distinctive voice at all. The song is very similar to material on the debut album. Apart from the guitar solo/lead out, it's also rather repetitive and perhaps my least favourite track.
'Christenings' * is something of an oddity. It was written and demo'd as a potential Porcupine Tree song during the 'Deadwing' sessions. I'd thought SW had contributed the song to the Blackfield project to be recorded by this band, much like the debut album featured a number of Blackfield renditions of songs previously released by Geffen. Not this time: this is the Porcupine Tree recording, featuring SW, Richard Barbieri and Gavin Harrison (I'm not sure who played bass; perhaps Blackfield's Seffy Efrati, perhaps SW). Weird.
My initial thought was that it was better suited to a Blackfield album, as it's too overtly 'poppy' for Porcupine Tree, but it doesn't really have a Blackfield feel either.
It's inspired by Syd Barrett, apparently, but isn't specifically about him, having been generalised to refer to a generic has-been pop star. Pretty good, but not a highlight of the album.
SW's is the only voice clearly apparent in 'This Killer' (that could be said about most of the album, really), but I suppose Geffen is in the nice harmonies in this nice, melodic song. I'm afraid that's also a slight criticism: I don't really go for 'nice'. The result is pleasant enough, but undemanding. The clichéd 'twist in the tail' of the lyrics doesn't help.
'Epidemic' + is excellent; possibly my favourite track. Oddly, this five-minute song feels like the distillation of a far longer, structured piece, an impression heightened by a hint – only a hint – of Porcupine Tree-style metal-inspired guitar, which itself adds energy and a great sense of menace.
The brief inclusion of a female backing singer (Daniella Pick) near the end is another of the small yet valuable details which I regard as immensely beneficial to the overall result, and which others seem to regard as overproduction.
Something about 'My Gift Of Silence' * grabs me as being more creative than the others, displaying both a complexity and subtlety slightly lacking in other, generically 'poppy' tracks.
I genuinely wrote that sentence 'blind', before checking the album credits and discovering it's a SW composition (music and lyrics). Whatever; it's excellent.
Somehow, the first half of 'Some Day' reminds me of SW's cover version of Abba's 'The Day Before You Came'. Perhaps that's partly why the percussion in the middle section seems misplaced, clashing with the lyrical content and other instruments. Then again, that characteristic is shared by a couple of songs on 'Blackfield'.
'Where Is My Love?' was a bonus track on the European edition of 'Blackfield'. I didn't like it there (and my dislike has increased with time), for its over-sentimental content, repetitiveness and SW's odd vocal delivery (slurred 'r's). This is considerably better, with vocals lower in a richer (denser and more varied) instrumental mix. Shock, horror: I actually like it a lot, especially the guitar-led second half.
That there's a REM track with a similar title to End Of The World is coincidental, but repetition of that line in the chorus in this song is slightly reminiscent of the REM one too. However, that's only an initial impression, and the strength of the Blackfield song soon drives out the comparison. I can imagine this somewhat anthemic track becoming a popular encore piece.
The first few times I played the album, the songs weren't familiar enough for instant recognition, but each time I reached the chorus of this one and suddenly recognised it, I couldn't help grinning in anticipation – I loved it immediately.
That's ten tracks, giving a running time of 42½ minutes compared to 37 for the debut album. 'Blackfield' felt short, but this feels like a decent length, certainly within the range of traditional mainstream albums.
Oh; and for those who discovered this review whilst searching for 'blackfield II lyrics', they're in the CD booklet. At the time of writing, they're only available in the CD booklet, not online. I don't know whether that's deliberate, giving people a reason to buy the CD rather than download.
31 January, 2007
Pre-order 'Somewhere Else' somewhere else
In helping promote the availability of 'Blackfield II' by pre-order, I mentioned the dilemma of whether to support the band financially by purchasing from the band's 'own' web stores or whether to boost their public profile by buying from a mainstream retailer whose sales data contribute to the album charts.
Blackfield seem to prefer the former, but Marillion has adopted the opposite view, by characteristically novel means.
Their fourteenth studio album (tenth since Fish left in 1988, if anyone was a little out of touch...), 'Somewhere Else' is released on 9 April and like 'Blackfield II', it's now available for pre-order. However, unlike 'Blackfield II', 'Somewhere Else' will not be available from the band's official website until after the release date. To be absolutely clear: one cannot pre-order from Marillion.com.
Instead, Marillion have arranged for pre-orders to go through Townsend Records, a chart-registered retailer. The 'Marbles' singles did remarkably well in 2004, so it's unsurprising that the band would want to try for a concerted impact on the more significant UK album charts. I suspect that an exclusive deal with Townsend might be mutually-beneficial in terms of the band's cut of profits, too).
Hard-core fans (and Marillion Freaks define 'hard-core fandom') will sign up simply to support the band, but those needing further persuasion might be interested to know that Townsend is offering an exclusive DVD containing three 'Somewhere Else' tracks recorded live at the Marillion Weekend 2007 (this coming weekend, in fact). The CD+DVD edition actually costs £2 more than the standard retail edition (one can pre-order either), but it won't be available from other sources, apparently.
28 January, 2007
It'll be alright on the night
Only Fish would come up with an album title ('Thirteenth Star'), collaborate on designing the cover art and name the associated tour ('Clutching At Stars' – oh dear...) and announce these facts to fans before even bringing the band together to start the writing sessions.
Blown speakers in his studio are being replaced and the mixing desk is about to be rewired 'in the coming weeks', so that's okay....
22 January, 2007
Pre-order 'Blackfield II'
It's been announced at SWHQ, but I thought I'd pass on the message that the European edition of 'Blackfield II' is now available for pre-order, to be despatched to arrive on or before the release date, 12 February. The N.American edition will be out on 6 March.
In case anyone (who's interested) doesn't know, Blackfield is a 'melacholic pop' collaboration between Steven Wilson (SW - Bass Communion, IEM, Porcupine Tree, et al.) and Aviv Geffen (Israeli pop star). See my reviews of the debut album for more information.
[Update 17:02/07: 'Blackfield II' is reviewed here.]
Pre-orders are being accepted by both Burning Shed and Headphone Dust. The album will be widely available from mainstream retailers, of course, but as SW says, purchases from BS or HD are of greater financial benefit to the artists.*
The former might be better for those ordering from outside the EU, as BS won't charge you UK VAT, apparently. However, the latter is offering a bonus item with pre-orders: a Lasse Hoile-designed postcard illustrating the lyrics to 'My Gift of Silence'. I'm so thrilled.... Actually, I know fans (lit: 'fanatics') who really would be excited.
*: Blackfield is possibly the most radio-friendly of SW's projects, and could even achieve chart success. Sales via major 'high street' retailers would count towards chart ranking, but neither BS nor HD are chart-registered. Boost the band's visibility or support their finances? It's a dilemma.
[Update 10/02/07: Those in the USA preferring to wait for the domestic release in March might like to consider pre-ordering from Newbury Comics. By special agreement, the first thousand albums pre-ordered will come with booklets signed by SW and Geffen.
19 January, 2007
Sorry if my squeal of delight disturbed you, but I've just discovered a techno(ish) rendition of 'Nothing Compares 2 U'.
As the NME said of the band: "Blows your trousers off!"
16 January, 2007
A member of the Porcupine Tree Forum happened to notice that the Virgin online music store offers downloads of recent Porcupine Tree albums, including a radio edit of 'Shallow' which was previously only available as a not-for-sale promo single.
This excited certain completists, but I was a little disparaging: it's a DRM'd, restricted-resolution download, which inherently wouldn't interest me, and it's 'Shallow', a trashy pop-rock track which I'd have preferred to have been never released at all.
One response puzzled me:
but... but... it's Porcupine Tree, and a version not previously available!
I'm no collector or Porcupine Tree fanboy, and don't quite understand the 'need' to have everything they've ever released, but I have particular trouble comprehending the desire to collect downloaded material.
I can just about understand someone collecting 'things', such as coloured vinyl special editions with hand-made sleeves (though I wouldn't participate myself), but a download is just a string of 1s and 0s.
Seriously: what is the attraction of having an intangible, abbreviated copy of an existing track? Just having
it? Being able to tell
people you have it?
Another person shared my lack of interest in downloads:
I'm not tempted. It's like [someone else] said I need the product. didn't even download Rockpalast. It won't feel the same.
That's a bit different, and I don't understand that attitude either. The 'Rockpalast'
concert material was previously unavailable at all (not merely edits of existing tracks, like the 'Shallow'
promo single), and the downloads sold by Burning Shed
are non-DRM'd .wav files (losslessly compressed to .flac
). By definition, there's absolutely no difference, bit-for-bit, between a mass-produced CD and a download burned to CD-R. Both discs would contain identical .wav files.
If it's about the music, I see no disadvantage in downloading. Download, uncompress, burn, enjoy.
If it's about the object, and the music doesn't matter to you as much as the shiny plastic disc in your hand, okay, there's a difference, but I genuinely don't understand why it matters. Remember, when there's no known plan to ever release the recording on CD, it's download or nothing.
It's interesting that this one topic drew out the two extremes of 'fandom'. At one end, there are those who'll buy anything, simply to possess every note and hiccough ever committed to recording. At the other, there are supposed fans who'd rather not hear the music at all than buy a release they can't physically fondle.
17 December, 2006
Listening habits, pt.2
It's been 18 months (and 12 days) since I listed the artists which fill my 20 Gb Creative Zen mp3 player, so I thought I'd provide an update.
It now contains 2475 tracks (193 more than in June 2005) from 277 albums (29 more). Obviously I've deleted some tracks in order to fit in the additional material, but most were extremely long pieces (20-30 mins each), so there's been less changeover than simply addition; all the artists included in June 2005 are still represented by at least one track. I won't repeat the entire list (see the earlier entry for that), but these are the additions:
Anton Karas – the famous zither theme from 'The Third Man', ripped from the DVD.
Carter Burwell – Who? This is the 'Miller's Crossing' theme, again ripped from the DVD.
Orchestra Of The Age Of Enlightenment – not hippie sh*t, honest; it's Bach's 3rd Brandenburg Concerto.
Simon & Garfunkel
Symphony X – just three tracks from 'V', which is so overblown, it's hilarious. I rarely play these songs, but if I'm in a bad mood they can be relied upon to induce howls of laughter.
[Update 23/12/06: Thanks to Snafje's suggestion, two albums by The Gathering take the track count to 2504 on 283 albums (with a handful of other tracks by artists already listed).]
29 October, 2006
Review: 'Insider' (Amplifier, 2006)
That was curiously unimpressive.
The underpromoted Amplifier are one of the best bands I've discovered in recent years. The high-energy yet intelligent hard rock of their eponymous 2003 album was a wonderful introduction, a high standard of musicianship underlying a refreshing playfulness. This was a rare case of substantial music also being just plain fun. It was also a rare example of a consistently high-quality album without weak filler tracks, though I'd isolate 'Airborne', 'Panzer' and 'UFOs' as especial highlights.
Their 2005 'EP' 'The Astronaut Dismantles HAL' was equally good (and 'EP' is understating what was really a 40-minute album). The first time I heard the intro to 'Everyday Combat' inspired pure joy; even just thinking of it, I'm grinning.
So what happened? In a sense, 'Insider' is more of the same (which is a good thing), but there's something... missing. The playing is fine, and the deeply-layered, complex arrangements are undoubtably impressive, but the new material is rather 'samey' and lacks one of Amplifier's earlier strong points, catchiness, to the point of being inaccessible and unmemorable. Experimental technique is pointless unless the music is simply enjoyable. Don't misunderstand: I don't regard 'Insider' as awful, just not so stunning as its predecessors. It's almost as if Amplifier produced enough material for two albums, 'Amplifier' and 'Insider', but put all the excellent tracks on one and all the less-inspired filler, which would be perfectly adequate interspersed by stronger tracks, on the other.
With regret: not recommended.
I own rather more CDs than available shelf space, so I periodically move those of which I've tired into storage. I think I've played 'Insider' five or six times since I bought it four weeks ago (on the release date), but I'm afraid I've had enough, and it doesn't qualify for shelf space at all. Straight to storage. If I hadn't liked (and still like) the foregoing releases so much, I suspect it'd bypass storage too, and go straight to eBay. I'm hoping that I'll suddenly 'get' it when I play it again in a few months time, but I'm not hopeful, and my initial impression isn't much incentive to belabour the attempt.
20 October, 2006
Nostalgia vs. Progression
In a post primarily about the decline of e-mail based discussion groups, Hippydave discusses the alternative career routes of long-established bands: nostalia or progression. Or a combination of the two, though polarity is undeniably more common.
Worth reading, it broadly restates (or at least overlaps) the endless 'prog'-or-progressive debate, mainly in the context of Marillion.
On the initial topic (e-mail groups vs. online fora), I definitely favour the latter, for one main reason: threads. For me, that's the 'killer app' of fora, with which e-mail lists can't compete. I drastically prefer to read the topics I choose, rather than an undifferentiated stream of all traffic.
I liked the pt-darkmatter Porcupine Tree Group at Yahoo!, but found that I gravitated to the PT Forum instead when that became available. The 'signal-to-noise' ratio is probably no different, and I suspect pt-darkmatter has slightly better-informed participants, but at the PT Forum I don't need to read anything off-topic (e.g. last night's US TV programmes), nor on-topic subjects that don't interest me (e.g. musicians' technical discussions).
2 October, 2006
I said populist, you idiot
Some ****wit misreading my review of Saturday's concert, specifically my criticism of the 'Deadwing' album's populist content, accused me of not wanting music to be popular. I'm not sure why I'm bothering to explain the very obvious distinction again, but popular and populist are not remotely the same thing.
If music becomes popular, on its own merits, that's to be applauded, as I've explained before.
If music is contrived to appeal to a target demographic, sacrificing substance for mere ear candy in order to sell the 'product', that's cynical marketing, not art, and to be condemned.
1 October, 2006
Review: Porcupine Tree, Manchester Academy, 30 September, 2006
Porcupine Tree performed at the Manchester Academy last night, as part of a short tour to promote the new DVD. However, that description of a typical promotional concert understates a rather special event. Uniquely, the entire first set was devoted to fifty minutes of brand new music from the next studio album, as yet unrecorded. Only after a five-minute break did the band return to perform a further 45 minutes of music from the DVD, plus an encore.
I wouldn't normally take especial notice of exact timings, but people have been asking about it in online discussion groups, so:
- 19:30: doors opened
- 20:03-20:35: Paatos – support set
- 21:03-21:55: Porcupine Tree – new set
- 22:00-22:46: Porcupine Tree – DVD set
- 23:00: Curfew, though I suspect they over-ran a little.
The sole slight disappointment of the evening was being present when the final 'Arriving Somewhere...'
t-shirt of the night was sold. I was right there at the merchandise stand, probably the next person to be served, when Ade announced they'd all gone. This was eight minutes after the doors had opened, which rather suggests someone hadn't brought enough t-shirts to the concert – never mind me, the band lost out on potential sales. I certainly hope extra shirts are made available online after the tour. Not only leftover stock, either, as there's clearly enough demand to justify printing more specifically for Burning Shed
I dislike the very idea of support bands, so I'm afraid I wasn't particularly receptive to Paatos – I hadn't planned to attend their half-hour set at all, but since I was there it would have been churlish to ignore them. It was clear that they're an established, professional band with a well-developed sound of their own, and certainly not beginners delivering a jumble of testosterone-fueled derivativeness (what did happen to Porcupine Tree's 2003 support band, Adom, anyway? Who cares?). That said, I didn't especially like their material and I didn't think it supplemented Porcupine Tree especially well. The fact that Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson (SW) acted as producer on Paatos' 2004 album 'Kallocain' doesn't imply an especial compatibility.
Porcupine Tree's stage setup was fairly standard (bass & drums on the audience's right, second guitar and keyboards on the left, keyboards and drums on risers, lead guitar/vocals ranging across the middle of the stage), with one unexpected addition: a small keyboard was set up at the front for SW to use occasionally. He plays keyboards in the studio, of course, but it can't be much more than a year since the first time he played the piano live in a solo concert, and I think this is the first time with Porcupine Tree. It's a development I certainly welcome.
A screen was installed for projection behind the band, but I'm glad to say it was barely used: a Lasse Hoile film was shown briefly during the interval before the second set, something involving time lapse photography of cars and cloudscapes accompanied 'Arriving Somewhere But Not Here' and Przemysław Wszebor Bernacki's animation was shown during 'Start Of Something Beautiful'. Needless to say (again), I deliberately ignored them, particularly the latter. I was there to see the band, not watch a film, especially not one I could watch at home. I presume the 'Halo' film was used during the encore too, but I'd left by then.
The sound quality was... okay; pretty good by the standards of a typical rock concert but not as good as at the 2003 Porcupine Tree concert in the smaller Academy 2 venue next door (though that had the best live sound I've experienced). It was loud – very loud, which suited the new material perfectly but left me with hearing still appreciably impaired over twelve hours later. The bass was sensational, by which I mean it was felt as much as heard; I was frequently aware of my trousers vibrating against my legs and during the intro to the second Paatos song my glasses were moving on my face.
Partly because of the volume, there was some loss of separation of instruments, especially the bass and keyboards, and I couldn't clearly hear the new lyrics. There was some experimentation with stereo effects (Wes' guitar shifted from side to side during one new piece), but there wasn't sufficient clarity for album-style soundscapes or the surround-sound experience SW apparently intends to implement one day.
One odd consequence of the loud, bass-rich amplification was that in contrast, SW's voice occasionally sounded like that of a smurf. Rather distracting!
This was Porcupine Tree's first appearence in the larger Academy 1 venue. I stood further forward than I normally choose (about ten 'rows' back, rather than near the soundboard), so it was difficult to judge the size and density of the rear of the crowd, but it looked pretty full as I left before the encore, and if it means anything, my ticket, bought a couple of weeks beforehand, was no.1,438. I think the official capacity is around 1,750-1,800. There were definitely more people present than at the Marillion concert in the same venue two years ago (Marillion claimed that concert was sold-out, but having seen tonight's visibly larger audience, I now think that was empty hype).
From where I was standing, the audience seemed older and more predominantly male than I'd expected – I'd thought the post-2002 albums would have attracted a younger, more metal-orientated audience. Maybe they were at the front. There were some in their teens and early twenties, but I didn't spot many band t-shirts and a woman near me seemed dressed for a quiet night at a cricket club!
On the whole, the audience was still and attentive, especially for the first set, though there was greater audible & visible reaction during the second set of more familiar material, even more of a 'party' atmosphere (for those who appreciate that sort of thing...).
There was the usual inability to 'be in the moment' – people were taking photos throughout the first set, some into the second set, and one person rang a friend and held up the phone during 'The Sound of Muzak', right in front of my face – briefly.
SW spoke very little between songs – even less than usual, I think. He said 'hello' after the first song and explained the plan for the evening (then repeated it when the audience's response to the idea of a lot of brand new material wasn't as effusive as he'd wanted), he announced the five-minute break at the end of the first set and he spoke briefly before the final song of the second set, which was the only one he introduced by name. Otherwise, the band just played and the audience were left to recognise songs for ourselves.
One thing he did say, which worried me slightly, was that the preview material was being played both as rehearsal before recording the forthcoming album and to gauge audience responses. The latter is an awful idea. I really wouldn't want an 'obvious' crowd-pleasing album from Porcupine Tree (parts of 'Deadwing' were bad enough, in that respect), and I hope the band will produce the album they want, hopefully something which challenges the audience rather than merely satisfies customers' whims. That way lies disposable, vacuous Coldplay-style rubbish!
So; the new music.
The first set featured six tracks intended for the new album (not seven – a quiet section in the third song seems to have confused some people). Considering past albums have had running times of about an hour each, I may have heard most of the new one.
Oddly enough, I was reveling in just hearing the new material rather than analysing it and taking detailed notes, so I'm afraid I can't offer a meaningful review of individual pieces.
None of the new tracks have been given titles (at least publicly) and none were individually introduced. Nothing is known of the thematic content or overall direction, but if this is a true representation, it's going to be much more intensely heavy than its forerunners.
I'm afraid I don't know much about genre subtleties, but I'd describe the new 'heaviness' as more industrial than metal. There's a wonderful 'wall of noise' effect, overlaid by guitar & keyboard melodies and textures. The drums contribute a rapid mechanical heartbeat, which is an excellent base for ominous, threatening music, very different to the more upbeat rock of 'Deadwing'. It really is heavy, too – at least at high volume in a concert setting, this could be the heaviest Porcupine Tree yet.
I mean that individual tracks are intense, but not that the album will be an unrelenting onslaught. SW played keyboards (mainly a piano effect when the lead instrument and a mellotron effect as accompaniment elsewhere) and Wes provided vocal harmonies & backing on some of the preview songs which, though not exactly 'ballads', were closer to the old, downbeat material of 1999-2001. No, that's not quite right; they don't directly sound like songs from 'Stupid Dream', 'Lightbulb Sun' or 'Recordings', but are similar in overall feel, as opposed to anything on more recent albums.
My major criticism of the 'Deadwing' album was that some elements were too 'obvious' and populist. Some parts seemed oddly familiar, as if I'd heard them before without being able to identify specific sources; I think it's the overall feel that was too generic. Some of those riffs and choruses seemed written to instantly entertain without challenging the listener, even to boost marketability. Thankfully, the new material is a welcome return to originality. It's not remarkably different to other bands and indeed foregoing Porcupine Tree albums, but the hooks are better hidden and this isn't easy, party music.
I received the impression that the preview material was primarily instrumental, which, in hindsight, implies this was work-in-progress and more is to be added. Some of the instrumental sections seemed a little repetitive (not that repetition of excellent music is a problem, and it often enhances the immersive experience I've appreciated in earlier Porcupine Tree long songs). Likewise, some lyrics were repeated several times, suggesting they were 'holding text' to be elaborated later. I'm not sure how I feel about the idea of the instrumentals acquiring lyrics – I already like them as they are!
I'd like to say it was all wonderful, and I almost can, but I'm afraid the fifth track seemed to lack direction and featured some sort of guitar frenzy by SW which impressed the teenagers in front of me but to me was just pointless noise; there didn't seem to be an emotional backing to it with which I could engage. Likewise, the first half of the final track seemed, well, whiny, though it consolidated and built to an excellent ending.
In summary, I loved almost all of the first set, from the initial explosion of guitar noise to the last, and I'm looking forward to hearing the finished album with an intensity I didn't feel for 'In Absentia' and 'Deadwing'. The new material promises to blow away anything on 'Deadwing', and the third preview piece, a '17-minute beast' known about beforehand, is even better than 'Arriving Somewhere But Not Here'. Those who haven't been able to attend a concert on this tour and haven't had the privilege of the preview (and I do feel privileged, really) have missed something special.
The second set was more conventional.
Some who have attended shows on this mini-tour have complained that the song selection was a little stale, even suggesting the band 'must' be bored playing the same songs each night. After fifty minutes of brand new music, I think the band can be forgiven a return to familiar material in the second set – I doubt boredom is an issue. Demanding even more variety strikes me as excessively cheeky.
Others have criticised the focus on post-2002 material at the expense of the back-catalogue, and the lack of anything from 'Stupid Dream'. Firstly, it should be clear that this is the 'Arriving Somewhere...' tour to specifically promote the release of the live DVD. It's not the 'Stupid Dream' tour, and the fact that that album was reissued a few months ago is of no relevance. The second set was always going to draw on the DVD tracklist (which could have allowed 'Even Less' and 'Don't Hate Me', I suppose, though I don't think they'd have fitted the context). Secondly, this is still part of the overall promotional effort for 'Deadwing', so that album was bound to be favoured.
- Open Car – not a favourite from 'Deadwing', as the chorus, and particularly the lead-in to the chorus, suffers from the 'obviousness' flaw I mentioned earlier. That said, it was played well and was fun. The stage lights were directed at the crowd during key moments, and it was plain that people were enjoying it.
- The Sound Of Muzak
- Buying New Soul – somehow, the 'new' keyboards intro didn't work quite so well as on the DVD (though the transition to guitar was better), possibly because the audience's attention seemed to wander and conversation was audible over the relatively quiet music.
- Arriving Somewhere But Not Here – as excellent as always, though Wes' guitar solo after the climax of the song was a little too close to self-indulgent prog and I confirmed my earlier impression that, overall, the new '17-minute beast' is better.
- The Start Of Something Beautiful
- Trains – this drew a roar from the crowd (and a curious yelp from the cricket club woman) when it was announced, but a collective unfamiliarity with the music was revealed by extended applause in the normally-brief gap before the song's finale. SW seemed amused/confused, and just for a moment I though he was going to go with the crowd reaction and stop early. Thankfully not.
I'd had a problem with accommodation so needed to leave immediately after the main concert in order to catch a train. However, I already knew from reports of the mainland European concerts that the encore
pieces would be 'Halo'
and 'Blackest Eyes'
. It was a pity to miss the latter, but it's been a staple of sets since 2002, so I've heard it numerous times in concert recordings. The former is one of the two 'Deadwing'
songs I downright dislike, so it was no hardship at all to miss it.
And then a brisk 20-min walk to Oxford Road station, an hour on a crowded train to Preston with not too many drunks, a 21-mile bike ride (~12 in increasingly heavy rain) to Lancaster, and straight to bed by 02:15!
23 September, 2006
Review: 'Arriving Somewhere...' (Porcupine Tree, 2006)
Have you bought your copy of Porcupine Tree's new live DVD (their first, after over a decade of touring), 'Arriving Somewhere...', yet?
I suppose I'd better declare a disinterest: generally, I don't like concert videos. I don't choose to experience music visually, and tend to listen whilst doing other things. I very rarely just sit and devote my full attention to music for more than a few minutes, and if I wanted to watch a DVD, it'd almost invariably be a feature film. For me, the music is about the music, and only the music. I have limited interest in the musicians, less in stage visuals, and no interest at all in the audience and 'live ambience'. Amongst the music DVDs I own, Pink Floyd's 'The Wall' and Marillion's 'Brave' are the only ones I've watched more than once, and I've yet to even finish two others by Marillion – mistaken purchases, in hindsight. I rented Opeth's 'Lamentations' a while ago, and thought the documentary was fairly good, but I returned it without even glancing at the concert footage, nominally the main content.
I made an exception for Porcupine Tree because a) it's Porcupine Tree and b) I can listen to the audio even if I don't bother with the video.
The first 2000 copies of 'Arriving Somewhere...' were a 'Special Edition', which sold out via pre-orders alone within four days – not bad considering that promotion was limited to a notice on the band's website, discussion amongst fans & an advert on the back cover of 'Classic Rock' magazine, and that sales were exclusively from the band's own web store. Further copies are selling extremely well on the accompanying mini-tour: the merchandise stall started the tour with 600 and sold them all at the first four shows.
The set comprises two DVDs in DVD-sized digipack packaging, itself in a card slip case. A (nearly) complete 105-min concert from the second 'Deadwing' US tour occupies the first disc, compiled from shows at the Park West, Chicago on 11 and 12 October, 2005. The second disc contains bonus material, described below. It's unclear whether a single-disc edition will be available at a later date.
The video format is region-free NTSC, which is playable on modern European, nominally PAL, DVD players.
The audio is in both PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 surround sound. I haven't heard the latter, but others have reported a slightly unusual mix which favours the side speakers and the bass end; no-one has expressed disappointment.
The content of the 'Special Edition' DVDs is identical to that of the the standard edition, but the first 2000 slip cases are numbered (I have sticker no.790) and came with six postcards. I know, I know; I could barely contain my excitement either. I'm sure they're very collectible postcards.
Disc One: The Concert
I'm not going to review the menu screens beyond saying they were adequate, using the same photography and design motifs as the cover.
Unfortunately, after the nice, feature-film-like opening titles, the main concert video made Carl Glover's very clean, colour-rich graphics for that cover and packaging seem almost misleading.
I'd dreaded, but been prepared for, excessively jumpy cutting between the multiple cameras (nine camera operators are credited), and got exactly that. Few shots were held for more than five seconds, and when the viewpoint returned to a particular camera, it had moved, increasing the slight disorientation. Annoying, but I've seen worse, and some of the cuts were to different views of the same subject, so some coherency was achieved.
However, I hadn't expected faux-degraded video material.
I'm pretty sure the raw footage was obtained using standard, modern cameras, with decent picture quality, but Lasse Hoile's post-production rendered the whole thing distinct grainy and in either sepia or the faded colours of aged cine emulsion. Film 'noise', including scratches, dust, and hairs were added as routine elements, with more extreme degradation (blotchiness, burned frames, etc.) in places.
Some the freeze-frame images actually make excellent stills, but this simply isn't what I want from a concert DVD. I want clear views of the band and their activities, and I doubt I'm alone. For example, for the bass-solo intro to 'Hatesong', the camera rightfully stayed on Colin Edwin, but the image is too dark, in grainy monochrome overlaid by coloured blotches & fake scratches and was deliberately blurred. All very atmospheric, but I'd quite like to actually see Colin. I'm sure some bass players would be interested in seeing his hands at that point; impossible.
Some 'arty/grungy' special effects might have been justified, but only occasionally, as atmosphere supplementing the primary content, the clean footage. Instead, this heavy-handed filtering becomes the focus of the production, imposing a barrier between the viewer and the immersive experience.
Presenting clean, unmodified images may be too 'obvious' and may have been done before on other bands' DVDs, but there's no merit in difference for the sake of difference, and anyway, effects become dated and cliched long before unpretentious footage which simply documents on-stage activities. Some people (on the production side more than the audience, I suspect) might find that boring, but I can only comment on my own taste, and this DVD doesn't satisfy my preferences.
To be fair, I did become accustomed to the style (and it's used less on later tracks), so it didn't totally spoil the experience, but I still wish it had been done differently and it irritates me that perfectly good footage was deliberately and unnecessarily degraded. If only I had access to Hoile's computer, so I could re-render the whole thing using the original, unfiltered material....
On the whole, the audience were unobtrusive, apart from in the obligatory 'from the crowd' shots, but there was at least one ****er standing right in front of the stage who kept raising his hand into the line of sight. Yes, you can go to the toilet, and don't ****ing come back.
The setlist was pretty good, showcasing the latest material without being too obvious (five songs from 'Deadwing' and three non-album tracks) and balanced by slightly older material (four from 'In Absentia' (2002), one from 'Recordings' (2001), one from 'Lightbulb Sun' (2000) and two from 'Stupid Dream' (1999)).
By the way, the aforementioned rendition of 'Hatesong' was wonderful, as was the subsequent track, 'Don't Hate Me'. Very nice instrumental sections. Richard Barbieri's keyboards intro to 'Buying New Soul' was another high point.
That's worth stressing: whatever my disappointment with the video component of the DVD, the music is excellent, especially the pre-'Deadwing' pieces, which tended to be substantial elaborations of the album versions (the newer material was mostly played 'as-is'). I do anticipate playing the DVD frequently as an audio live album and, if only on that basis, recommend it highly.
Disc Two: The Bonus Material
I drastically prefer this style of concert video. The cuts were still a little jumpy, but the shots were held longer than the Chicago set and the jumps were between a small number of consistent viewpoints, so they're not too confusing. There are no distracting visual effects, either; just clear, true-colour coverage of the band.
'Radioactive Toy' is one of my favourite songs, and it was interesting to hear an interpretation by the current lineup. Too short! In the full version, as heard on 'Coma Divine', it was the extended 'ambient' middle section leading into the full-on rock climax which made the song special, so skipping the former diminished the latter, for me.
'Lazarus' promo video
I love the song, but the video is nothing special; cine film footage of a 1970s? family holiday in Québec intermingled with close-ups of band members. There's no specific cause for complaint, but earlier promo videos for Porcupine Tree and Blackfield have been so much more innovative and compelling.
It was a good idea to include these short videos, as I suspect many concert-goers would find them interesting. I'm afraid I don't. In general, back projections aren't my thing. I don't want the distraction of someone else's visual interpretation of the music; at a concert I only want to see the band, whereas when listening to the music elsewhere I want to form my own mental images. Hence, I'd find these projected videos mere annoyances at concerts, and feel little inclination to watch them at home.
'Halo': I don't like the song anyway, so I suspect the one time I've watched this will also be the last.
'Mother And Child Divided': Actually, I'm not sure these things even work outside the concert setting. In isolation this was just boring.
'Start of Something Beautiful': That's more like it. This had the production standards of a 'proper', standalone promo video; punctuated by more generic imagery, it incorporated an excellent puppet animation by Przemysław Wszebor Bernacki which I would choose to watch for its own merits (though I still wouldn't want to see it at a concert). It accompanied a song I particularly like, but I doubt the video will influence my interpretation and appreciation of the song itself, thankfully.
Interesting enough, though I doubt I'd choose to watch the full 9½ minutes more than a couple of times. However, it's accompanied by the only totally new music on the DVD set: an almost ambient instrumental piece which I've immediately ripped to .wav for more frequent listening. Pretty good.
Why does a Porcupine Tree DVD include a Gavin Harrison solo track? It's okay (put it this way: I won't be ripping this to my mp3 player), but irrelevant, and I doubt I'll play it again.
[Update 1/10/06: interested in the live experience?]
19 September, 2006
Should be special
An article in the Guardian, and more so the subsequent comments, reflects my dislike of concert encores.
If a performance was stunning, and the audience was especially impressed, extended applause and an encore would be justified. An encore shouldn't be routine; if a band was planning to perform extra material anyway, I'd prefer it to be played as part of the main set, and avoid the almost hypocritical artifice.
I've attended several concerts at which bands haven't deserved effusive applause (in some cases they haven't received it, either, but played encores anyway). For that matter, I've attended concerts at which inattentive, noisy audiences haven't deserved encores – I'd have a lot more respect for bands which withheld them.
The only case I can recall (vicariously, via an unofficial recording) occurred on Transatlantic's last European tour, when exceptional applause in Tilburg inspired the band to give an unplanned rendition of Pink Floyd's 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond'. That was special, and meaningful in a way the usual tacit game between a band and audience simply isn't.
30 August, 2006
Inspired! I'd be tempted to buy this CD/DVD box set for the packaging (if not necessarily for much of the music...), even if someone didn't have a birthday approaching in, er, nine months... make that a non-christmas present, then.
Don't read this entry, H.
24 August, 2006
Not-so-random Tull question
More of a FAQ, really, though I'm afraid the very limited information I have is negative:
new jethro tull album in 2007
Not so far as I've heard.
In general 'newsletters' to fans at the band's website, there have been repeated casual mentions of time spent in the studio working on new material, but it seems these have been odd days/weeks between tours rather than concerted efforts, and it's unclear who has been involved. It might have been Ian Anderson alone, working on another solo album (<yawn>), or the whole band. It's even unclear which band – the line-up billed as 'Jethro Tull' (not necessarily deliberately) for shows in Russia in June/July didn't include Martin Barre....
So don't hold your breath!
18 August, 2006
Forget platinum discs; a band has only really made it when someone adapts its music into lullabies.
Baby Rock Records has started to release a series of 'Rockabye Baby!' albums, each featuring lullaby renditions of a particular 'alt.rock' (whatever) band's more famous songs.
The release schedule extends into 2007, and the later albums don't have samples online yet, but of those with samples, the Radiohead adaptations are excellent. I could say Coldplay music is soporific as-is, but the overtly lullaby versions sound good too. For Coldplay.
The only album I'm less sure about is the Pink Floyd one. Obviously, the originals were heavily-layered and nowhere near as simple as a melody overlaying a rhythm. That couldn't have been easy to unpick, but I don't think the reinterpretations emphasise the correct layers correctly (i.e. the selection and relative emphasis seem flawed). At least from 20-second samples, I had a trouble recognising almost half of the nine tracks.
10 August, 2006
Don't tell anyone - you'll ruin it
- There's music I like, and music I dislike.
- There's music that's popular with tens of thousands, and music that few have heard of.
The foregoing statements are not interdependent.
Frequenting online forums where 'prog' is discussed, I often find them dominated by those who dislike 'popular' music, seemingly on principle. The subtext (and it's not always a subtext) isn't just that tens of thousands of fans can be wrong, but that the music is inferior because it has tens of thousands of fans.
This strikes me as mere pettiness and false elitism, a desire to think of oneself as superior to the herd.
I suppose it's only human nature to want one's own discoveries to remain one's own, or to share only as far as to cultivate exclusive cliques of 'the enlightened'.
I like to think I've outgrown it, but I have experienced a twinge of irrational resentment when forums devoted to minority-interest bands have been invaded by brand new fans acting like baby elephants, throwing around the weight of their enthusiasm and partial knowledge without deference to time-served veterans (heh). It's childish of the long-termers to resist, but their discomfort is understandable.
Yet it's far more childish to blame the bands and their music. Would a genuine admirer wish a band's career to remain stunted by lack of mass-exposure? Isn't that unacceptably selfish?
The key point is that I don't see a causal link between mass popularity and lowest-common-denominator simplicity. Yes, some bands have 'sold-out', and consciously changed to become more 'accessible', to deliberately chase demographics and commercial success. That's their right, of course, though I do find it disappointing and I rapidly lose interest.
Yet if a band continues to do what they always had, and that becomes popular, surely that's to be applauded and encouraged. Popular doesn't have to mean populist.
2 August, 2006
Anathema's simple mistake
Though for some reason their official website's homepage fails to mention it at all, Anathema have released the second of the original songs they intend to offer for download whilst they're seeking a new record label, as explained earlier.
As with 'Everything', 'A Simple Mistake' can be downloaded for free (here; select 'Multimedia' in the menu), but donations are welcomed, and will directly help the band, who are having to cover their own costs at present.
There's nothing to prevent one from taking the tracks as freebies, and I suppose that'd help spread the word, if nothing else, but please consider paying a fair amount for them – one wouldn't be merely boosting the profits of some multinational corporation, but supporting the very viability of the band.
31 July, 2006
Could be beautiful
I know virtually nothing about soldier-turned-singer James Blunt, but one line in an article about a royalties dispute caught my attention.
In claiming that he co-wrote some songs, a producer said that Blunt's early drafts were "crude, occasionally laughably direct, and betrayed his relative lack of musicianship or discernible influence."
As if discernible influence was a requirement, and true originality to be rigorously avoided.
I understand the reasoning, of course: marketability to a audience which seeks the familiar, but still, it's regrettable.
28 July, 2006
Five favourite bands
At BlogCritics, Eric Berlin challenges people to state their five all-time favourite bands. With the caveat that I'm uneasy about the arbitrary restriction imposed by the very concept, these are mine, in no order, with the additional caveat that these are the bands I'd choose at the time of writing; though the list should be reasonably stable, I might change my mind tomorrow!
- Porcupine Tree – I was under-impressed by the two most recent albums, 'In Absentia' and 'Deadwing', but 'Stupid Dream' remains my all-time favourite album and I like virtually all of the back-catalogue alongside some tracks from the recent albums.
- Pink Floyd – Their awful* 'by-the-numbers' appearence at Live8 notwithstanding, I've always enjoyed the music of Pink Floyd, plus Roger Waters' solo material. I can't say I've enjoyed it all; I've never been drawn to the Syd-era material, I'm indifferent to most post-Waters material, and, unfashionably, 'Animals' leaves me utterly cold. Having listened to the albums & live recordings rather too intensively over the years, I've slightly burned-out on them, and tend not to listen to Pink Floyd's music so often nowadays, but when I do, I have no doubt that they're still important to me. The album version of 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond' remains my absolute favourite piece of music, of any genre.
*: No, that's unfair. The performance was fine. It's just that the setlist and arrangements were absolutely routine and could have been pre-recorded – twenty-five years ago. Pointless.
- Bass Communion – Some would dismiss this as experimental ambient... noise, but somehow it grabs me, and I can't hear it too often.
- Jethro Tull – I wasn't sure whether to include Tull, as I haven't liked anything they've released or performed within the last decade or so. However, I still enjoy their 1971-1995 material as much as ever, and with a couple of exceptions repeated listening hasn't (permanently) reduced that.
- Marillion – Primarily for the post-Fish h-era rather than the early neo-prog stuff, though some of that is good too. Like most of these choices, over-familiarity means I don't listen to Marillion's music on a daily or weekly basis, but I regularly return to it.
Hmm. That looks rather 'proggy', but I'd argue that it's a poor representation of my usual tastes. I suppose these bands collectively account for 20-30% of my 'listening time', but that leaves 70-80% for entirely different material, some not even remotely similar.
13 July, 2006
**** the crowd
A line from todays 'Count Your Sheep' web comic:
"What kind of artist sings whatever she wants instead of what the audience wants to hear?"
That'd be what's called 'an artist', as opposed to a mere performer.
Art may entertain, but art isn't for entertainment. It goes further.
25 June, 2006
I was very nearly gratuitously rude to a stranger last night.
Two things you need to know: I dislike prog rock, reserving especial loathing for Yes, and I don't believe in expressing opinions from the protection of online anonymity that I wouldn't defend face-to-face.
I'm not exactly reticent in explaining that whilst I enjoy progressive rock (i.e. music which actively challenges genre boundaries, creating new music) I intensely dislike 'prog' rock (music of a specific, fixed genre which was genuinely progressive in the early 1970s but which ceased to progress). 'Progressive' and 'prog' are not the same thing.
There are bands I like which were part of the 'prog' genre when it was progressive, but which remained progressive and hence ceased to be 'prog'. There are also bands that stayed 'prog' and became a public and critical laughing stock – rightfully so. Unfortunately, that reputation unduly rubbed-off on the bands I do like. Hence my conclusion: that if crappy bands like Yes had never existed, bands I do like, such as Jethro Tull, would have achieved greater lasting critical and commercial success. Yes is an anathema.
All too often, I've witnessed, and occasionally been the target of, unrestrained verbal attacks of a cowardly savagery only possible because the arguments were online and the speakers had the protection of being thousands of kilometres from their victims. They tend to involve personal attacks, too, which are merely nasty and pointless.
Not that I'd be so childish anyway, but I operate under the basic principle of imagining I'm writing to someone in the same room. Debate might become heated, but it remains respectful and avoids the risk of being punched. To uncharacteristically use a football reference: 'Go for the ball, not the man'. As I said above, I also try to avoid making wild points online that I wouldn't feel able to support in a face-to-face conversation. I'm not perfect (no, really), but I generally achieve reasonable self-censorship.
I visited J & Fi for a meal last night (J remembered to cook – last time we ended up ordering a takeaway. Not that I'm complaining, and I rely on J recognising teasing!). They recently befriended one of their neighbours, and he joined us for dinner. In the course of the conversation, the subject of musical taste arose, and for some reason J. prompted me to confess a liking for 'Scandinavian prog'. Puzzled, I admitted slight embarrassment that there was a time when I quite liked the Flower Kings, but that they'd since joined my general dislike of the crap they were copying, such as Yes.
The neighbour had been sitting leant over the kitchen table, but at this point sat back, revealing a Yes t-shirt....
I could have backed off, and attempted to say something conciliatory for the sake of politeness. Actually, I couldn't; I can't think of anything favourable about Yes whatsoever.
Sticking to my principles, I could have elaborated on my dislike in full, with vitriol. For a moment I seriously considered it. However, that would have been unprovoked and unnecessarily rude. Being prepared to defend a position is one thing, but forcing a view on someone uninvited is ruder.
I was glad to find that in the split-second of finding myself in a situation where I might have to espouse a contentious online opinion 'in real life' (i.e. tell a Yes fan I wished his favourite band had never existed), I had the courage of conviction to do so. However, I was more glad that my natural reserve intervened, and I didn't instigate an avoidable argument.
I simply said "Ah. Right. I don't like Yes." and changed the subject. To my dislike of post-1995 Jethro Tull. But that is indeed a different topic.
23 June, 2006
Torrents at the Ministry
If I publish an entry specifically about music torrents, mentioning the word 'torrents' a few times, perhaps those people who arrive via searches for 'Bass Communion torrent' or similar will find this page, and my view of those who distribute/download commercial releases by bittorrent and other p2p technology.
You are thieves. There is nothing for you here. **** off.
29 May, 2006
Crop circles in the carpet
I rarely watch music-related TV at one in the morning, but whilst channel surfing¹ a fortnight ago my attention was caught by an attractive woman² talking about interesting electronic pop. The interview and her music were intriguing, and a few hours later, I ordered her latest album from Amazon.
The woman was Imogen Heap, and her second & latest solo album is 'Speak For Yourself'. For those totally unfamiliar with her work, I'd loosely describe it as if Dido had acquired influences from more esoteric electronica and had dropped the middle-class mundanity; feminine electro-pop with some substance. I'm sure others could describe it better, but this genre is somewhat outside my normal range of listening and I have limited terms of reference.
Her recent 'breakthough' success is due to four of her songs being featured in lightweight drama 'The OC' 3, but don't let that deter you – it wasn't written for a specific market, and isn't empty teen pop. Frankly, having lived with the album for almost a fortnight, it's not exactly ground-breaking, and slightly 'girly'4, but it's perfectly respectable vocal-led art-pop and I certainly haven't become bored after repeated listening. Her classical training shows in the intricate layering, and I'm still discovering details.
I can't deny that I was drawn to the 'auteur' aspect of her work: on her current album, Heap wrote, performed (there are a couple of guest appearences, but I suspect they're samples) and produced all the music in her own studio, found her own photographer and designed the album packaging herself, and released it on her own label, Megaphonic Records ('I, Megaphone', her first album, is an anagram of her name). This wasn't an amateur tinkering in a bedroom studio, though: her previous label was Universal/Island and Sony (UK) & RCA (USA) are distributing 'Speak For Yourself'.
Heap's MySpace biography describes the attraction, both as interviewee and as composer/musician: 'part cool 'n' collected statuesque beauty, part thrilled eight year old'. That MySpace site streams a few song samples; give them a try.
¹: Horrible phrase.
²: Yes, I noticed her physical appearence first. It's a regretable fact that if I hadn't found her attractive, I doubt I'd have paused long enough to hear her music.
3: The latest of several appearences on TV and film (e.g. 'Garden State' as 'Frou Frou') soundtracks.
4: Not in a perjorative way; I simply mean it's more overtly feminine than my usual gender-neutral or masculine musical taste.
20 May, 2006
Review: Stupid Dream reissue (Porcupine Tree, 2006)
It's here. After having been out-of-print for about four years (blame Atlantic/Warner/Lava), Porcupine Tree's most highly-sought album, 'Stupid Dream' is back on sale, as a shiny new remix/remaster.
I'm not going to review the album itself in detail, instead concentrating on the new aspects of the package.
'Stupid Dream' is by far my favourite Porcupine Tree album and the opening track, 'Even Less', is my favourite Porcupine Tree song. Both would easily be amongst my all-time favourites by any artist if I was so anal as to rank albums and songs.
'Piano Lessons' and 'A Smart Kid' are also especially high highlights, but there are very few weak points in the entire composition. Forget 'In Absentia' and 'Deadwing', this is the Porcupine Tree I love.
Maybe it's because of my particular familiarity with the original album, but this is the first Porcupine Tree remix that's been immediately apparent as different to the original. Even in stereo (I haven't heard the 5.1 mix) there's greater depth, with previously unregarded background elements catching my attention for the first time. 'Pure Narcotic' is particularly enhanced, but I'd better stress that these are enhancements, not more substantial revisions. The original material is suddenly in greater focus, but it's still the same material.
The second disc, a DVD-A (playable in any DVD player, but not a CD player, to state the obvious), contains bonus material: two extra tracks, a video, a photo gallery and the album lyrics.
I already had the 'Piano Lessons' video on the 'Stranger By The Minute' CD single, but a number of people have reported that subsequent updates to Quicktime have rendered that unplayable, so it's good to have it back.
The concert photos of the band don't interest me (no criticism, they're just not my thing), and the lyrics are in the booklet, so I don't anticipate visiting those sections of the DVD-A again.
Alongside bonus material, the DVD-A contains the entire album in 5.1 surround sound. There's also a PCM (24-bit high-res stereo) mix for those without a 5.1 player, but rather surprisingly, the two bonus audio tracks are only offered in 5.1, not stereo. My first impression was that this rendered them inaccessible to anone without a surround sound DVD player (my PC's DVD-ROM drive won't even show them). That wouldn't be disastrous, as they were previously released in stereo on 'Recordings', but it's a strange omission and besides, 'Recordings' is out-of-print. Anyone who didn't buy the original edition of 'Stupid Dream', i.e. the target market of this new edition, is also unlikely to have bought 'Recordings'.
However, that's a false alarm: I subsequently discovered that my very basic standalone DVD (standard DVD-V) player does play the bonus tracks through the two speakers of my TV. If that can handle them, I doubt anyone else will have a problem.
[Update 19:00: Those who have equipment capable of playing the 5.1 mix are reporting a technical fault. The DVD-A actually contains two 5.1 formats: DTS, for standard DVD players, and a higher-resolution DVD-A format only readable by dedicated DVD-A players. Apparently, the DTS version of the first bonus track, the full-length version of 'Even Less', cuts out at 11 mins, three minutes before the end. The DVD-A version seems okay, but far fewer people have DVD-A players than DVD players.]
Incidentally, the title menu animation of the DVD-A features a circle of video material gradually eclipsed by a black CD. Steven Wilson (SW) has always resisted comparisons between Porcupine Tree and Pink Floyd, so it's surprising that the eclipse, a motif so closely associated with 'Dark Side Of The Moon' and Pink Floyd's signature visual style, wasn't deliberately avoided.
I've always considered Carl Glover's graphic design style to have been heavily influenced by Storm Thorgerson's work for Pink Floyd, and the new 'Stupid Dream' booklet is no exception. I'm not saying there was the remotest intention to copy it, but I see a similarity to the 'Dark Side Of The Moon' booklet's layout and photography.
When it was first announced that the reissue of 'Stupid Dream' would have redesigned artwork, I was unconvinced that that was necessary, and frankly still am. The only weak point of the original version was the band photo, and that's the only aspect carried across to the new version. However, I suppose the new booklet has greater visual cohesion, the lyrics are readable, and after all, it's SW's album: if he didn't like the old artwork, he's entitled to replace it.
To restate earlier entries: the 2-disc edition of 'Stupid Dream' is exclusively available by mail-order from the band's own web store, Burning Shed. It will not be sold via high street stores or other web retailers, so don't bother to shop around. There is to be a retail edition, containing only the remixed/remastered album on CD without bonus material, but no release date has even been implied. Do not wait – it could be several months away; if past events are any indication, it could even be years. For the foreseeable future, it's Burning Shed or nothing.
[Update 11/7/06: Contrary to the original plan, the two-disc edition will be available via normal retail outlets for a limited period.]
30 April, 2006
Last night, I saw a TV advert for some pop-rock band's second album. I wasn't paying especial attention, so didn't catch the precise wording, but one quote from a music magazine could be paraphrased as "sounds like the hits you've known for years".
Isn't that something to very reluctantly admit, when pushed by a hostile critic, rather than a remark to use as a selling-point? Do people want music that sounds like the music they already know and own?
Of course they do, and it's one of my biggest criticisms of mass-market music. It's not even the fault of major labels or marketing campaigns; it seems people really do want safe, unchallenging music which offers comfort rather than anything approaching stimulation.
27 April, 2006
Remain Calm (When You're Ready)
Grr! As a result of my ordering (not preordering – it's already out) OSI's new album 'Free' from Amazon, 'Amazon Recommends' numerous crappy neo-prog bands like Arena and Pendragon.
If there really is the vaguest similarity, I'll be astonished, and the album will be going straight to eBay!
Don't panic; I don't seriously expect 'Free' to be like that...stuff. I'm looking forward to hearing it.
When it eventually arrives. I ordered on the release date, but Amazon estimated the despatch date to be between 30 May and 13 June! I think there must have been an error; I've just cancelled and resubmitted the order, and the estimated despatch date is 1 May.
24 April, 2006
Leave No Trace
One thing that won't exactly assist Anathema's attempts at promotion is the fact that when one searches for 'anathema' or 'anathema band' at Google.com, the band's own site doesn't appear*. Searching for the specific term 'anathema official website' finds it as the no.3 result, but it should really have a high ranking for more generic terms, and for a range of terms.
For a moment I thought something drastic had happened – that the site had been removed from the index, perhaps for illegitimate SEO tactics, but it's simpler than that. Apart from the three words 'AnathemA Official Website' in the <title> tag, the home page contains no text or html links. At all. It's a frameset containing Flash files; the navigation menu is in Flash, as is the introductory text. There's absolutely nothing for a search engine spider to index or follow.
'Make It Right (FFS)'. Is a song on the 'Judgement' album.
*: It's probably there somewhere, but I gave up after the 150th result....
20 April, 2006
Everything is energy
The first of the new Anathema songs mentioned earlier is now available for download from the band's website.
Remember, 'Everything' is being offered as a DRM-free, free download; one doesn't have to pay for it, but if you do choose to make a donation it'll go directly to the band, not to a record company or other corporate entity.
Treat this as a freebie or as an opportunity to help ensure Anathema have a future career. Your choice.
10 April, 2006
Sign o'the times
There was a time when concert-goers waved lighters. It's reported that at the David Gilmour concert in New York last week, audience members waved mobile phones instead.
I suspect that's common nowadays, though I've yet to see it myself.
29 March, 2006
Random queries no.37
One of a series of genuine search engine enquiries which successfully brought visitors to the Ministry. Can I help?
The Making of Anoraknophobia torrent
Here's a radical thought: how about buying a legitimate copy on CD, from Racket Records (Marillion's own label and webstore), instead of attempting to cheat them out of a fair income? 'Unzipped' is a commercial release, not a freebie or in the public domain.
You parasitic ****.
To restate: the Ministry will not offer links or assistance in downloading music or video, except samples (typically low-res) which the artists have chosen to make available.
And don't even ask about BitTorrent.
27 March, 2006
New Anathema soon
Anathema are in the studio this week, recording three new songs. They're not for an album or commercial release (at present), but have a more promotional purpose, hopefully generating interest in record labels and fans.
Through no fault of their own, Anathema are currently unsigned, as their previous label, Music For Nations, was folded into parent company BMG/Zomba. Hence, though the songs are to be released in mid-April via the band's website for free, fans are encouraged to pay for the downloads via PayPal. The band are bearing all their own costs at present, so paying for the downloads would be helping them personally, not merely boosting a multinational's profits. This promotion could make a difference to the band's continued viability.
This isn't brand new news, but the original announcement said the tracks would be released via iTunes, which is why I haven't spread the word until now. I don't support the distribution of music exclusively in a DRM-crippled proprietory format, least of all Apple's. Thankfully, Anathema saw sense and revised that plan.
[Update 20/4/06: The first of these songs, 'Everything' is now available.
1 March, 2006
OSI approaching freedom
Quite specific details of the forthcoming second album from OSI have been known for at least a month by those 'in the right places'. However, nothing had been officially confirmed until now, so I've been avoiding saying much.
Anyway; it's called 'Free' and will feature Kevin Moore, Jim Matheos and Mike Portnoy again, with Joey Vera (of 'Fates Warning') appearing on five of the eleven tracks.
The announcement says that "Kevin Moore and Jim Matheos will be releasing a new OSI album...", which rather suggests that Mike P 'merely' played, having had a limited role in the actual composition and production. We'll have to see.
'Free' is scheduled for release on 21 April, though a special 2CD edition will be released, only in Europe, on 24 April.
If the debut 'OSI' album was any indication, the second CD of bonus tracks and outtakes will be of limited interest (I'd strongly recommend buying 'OSI', but don't make a particular effort to find the limited edition), but the price difference between the standard and special editions will be so minor that it will be worth buying the special edition anyway.
16 February, 2006
Living in the past pays
In March, Jethro Tull will perform a 19-date tour of the UK, their longest in this country since 1990. A full month before the first concert, shows started to sell-out*. At the time of writing, twelve are sold-out, with five more nearing that point. They're large venues, too, in the league Tull were filling at the height of their career in the early 1970s.
This is far from being Tull's first UK tour since 1990 (full tours in 1990-96, 1999, 2001 and 2004, and individual UK festival appearences in the intervening years, not to mention hundreds of concerts abroad), so what's so special about this one?
It's being billed as 'The 'Aqualung' Tour', which implies that that album will be played in its entirety each night (see below, though...). The supposition, therefore, is that the prospect of a setlist firmly anchored in 1971 has generated an abnormal level of interest. The old proggers are digging out the tie dye....
Well; best of luck to them, and I genuinely hope everyone has fun, but this sort of retrograde stuff is dangerously close to self-parody, and is a major reason why I gave up on contemporary Tull a full decade ago (the other is their post-1995 releases). I like bands which produce compelling fresh material, and tour with material less than, ooh, 35 years old. Ian Anderson has reinterpreted some of the old material, apparently, and if he & audiences find that stimulating, great, but it's not my thing.
Incidentally, if the 2005 US tour was any indication, UK audiences might be surprised to hear revised versions of the 'Aqualung' songs in amongst the usual Tull setlist, rather than a straight rendition of the album, in album order. The US shows didn't all feature all the Aqualung songs, either, though to be fair I don't believe that was promised at those shows.
[Update 28/02/06: That's correct. The first concert of the UK tour featured virtually the same setlist as the US dates, and omitted 'Wind Up.]
*: This has been verified by the venues; I don't merely mean that ticket agents have sold all those tickets allocated to them, which is a common false indicator of 'sold-out' concerts.
14 February, 2006
Herd taste - or not?
This is a bit sad: a US study reported by the BBC found that music fans are more likely to listen to a song if they think other people admire it. People who visited a new songs website gave higher ratings to tunes which had been frequently downloaded.
I'm not sure whether the phenomenon stated is really the one observed. Given a choice of 48 previously unknown songs, it's only natural to start with those that others have already rated highly, then perhaps those rated worst (which probably really will be the dross, perhaps with technical inadequacies). It's quite an investment of time to listen to 48 songs, and one will become tired after the first dozen or so, so those in the mid to low range won't receive the same freshness of attention, or mightn't be heard at all if one gives up.
That's the sampling process, which I suppose could influence one's critical choices, but listening to a song because it's already popular isn't quite the same as liking it because it's already popular. Existing popularity undoubtedly increases the chance that a song will be heard, but once heard, I think the chance of liking it is less deterministic.
I know that I've made a point of adding several of the IMDb top 250 films to my DVD Rental queue, partly to catch up on acknowledged classics which have somehow evaded me until now, and partly to discover what others think I should see. That's 'following the crowd', and choosing films because they're already popular, but it doesn't mean I'll like them.
That seems to be supported by the findings described in the latter half of the BBC article. When the subjects were split into eight groups, and could only see the rankings generated within their own groups, songs achieved very different popularity ranks in different groups. However, quality ratings were less influenced by peer grouping, and the same songs did well (or not) in all groups.
Hence, "success was not relative to the quality of the music" or, the depressing converse:
"It also suggests that even if an act creates high quality music, it might not be successful."
31 January, 2006
Review: Takk... (Sigur Rós, 2005)
There's an obvious influence from the 'experimental' 'Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do', and several songs include the same production style instrumentation (xylophone, 'musical box' and background crackle) amongst the more normal percussion and bowed guitars. However, I'd agree with the recipients of advance copies who'd said this was a return to the feel of 'Ágaetis Byrjun', rather than a continuation of the darker, more abstract and consequently less accessible '( )'.
Again like 'Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do', there's a strong sense that the album is one continuous composition. Certain songs stand alone, but repeat specific elements (especially 'non-lyrics') and the non-specific 'feel' of others, whilst others seem more directly linked, track divisions merely marking a slight change in direction within a longer song.
The first few tracks are downright joyous, but darker, more wistful tones emerge towards the end. The transition isn't so abrupt as on '( )', which consists of two 'sides' separated by a silence, but the same principle applies to 'Takk...'. That said, there is an extended silence at the end of 'Milanó', and the next track, 'Gong' conveys a sense of desperation setting the less positive tone of the rest of the album.
Incidentally, that is 'Gong', not 'Göng', with an umlaut – it seems some fans and reviewers have a form of linguistic diarrhoea, sprinkling accented characters indiscriminately, perhaps to add a false sense of exoticism, and 'Gong' has been a frequent target.
Reviews containing gratuitous comparisons to Pink Floyd should be treated with contempt, but there is one parallel: like 1970s PF, Sigur Rós have been playing 'Milanó' and 'Gong' on tour for at least two years before committing them to an album. As such, those two tracks are very familiar, but with a freshness introduced by hearing them in a studio setting for the first time.
My favourite Sigur Rós song is 'Viðrar Vel Til Loftárása', from 'Ágaetis Byrjun'. Now that has competition: 'Glósóli', from 'Takk...'. Both have the same slow-build format, though the latter is arguably more overtly uplifting. Both have excellent videos, too, though I don't think that determines my liking for the music alone.
'Saeglopur' is another highlight. In fact, as the most accessible Sigur Rós track I know, it's probably a good starting point for those new to the band.
Highly recommended - probably my 'album of the year' for 2005.
27 January, 2006
Advanced strategic information
Though there's nothing on the official websites yet, Kevin Moore has revealed that the forthcoming OSI second studio album, follow-up to my favourite album of 2003, has been recorded and mixed. It's to be mastered this week, and a release on Inside Out has been set for the end of March.
12 January, 2006
If my Creative Zen's 'shuffle' mode is so (pseudo-)random, why have I heard next to nothing but Peter Gabriel, Steve Hackett and pre-1975 Genesis this morning? Weird.
Ah; by writing this, I've broken the spell: Ian Anderson's singing about menarche (Jethro Tull: 'The Curse').
5 January, 2006
Great band, but not right now
I was going to say that I've really enjoyed rediscovering Anathema after not listening to them for a few months. I suppose I still can say that, and recommend that others give them a try.
However, I've been listening to them all day – all 53 Anathema tracks in my Creative Zen, back to back, so the words 'aversion' or 'antipathy' seem more apt; hearing even one more note within the next few hours would indeed be an anathema.
I still stand by my earlier reviews of the two most recent Anathema albums (good but flawed), but I've warmed to them a bit more, and the back catalogue between 1995 (i.e. post- doom metal) and those two consists of excellent albums, especially 'Alternative 4'.
4 January, 2006
Who needs a hero?
Riverside are a Polish 'progressive metal' (if a label has to be applied, though it doesn't really fit) band occasionally likened to Porcupine Tree, Pink Floyd (which band in the genre isn't?), Opeth and Anathema. Their debut album, 'Out Of Myself' was by far my favourite album acquired in 2005, though it was released in 2003. Unfortunately, their 2005 follow-up album, 'Second Life Syndrome' was disappointing.
General opinion of Riverside is strongly divided. Many, especially those very familiar with the prog-metal genre, don't see the attraction, regarding Riverside as too similar to too many other bands. Others, perhaps including those less jaded by familiarity, fully acknowledge that Riverside's influences are extremely obvious but feel that the results are worth hearing: good music, performed well.
The point of this entry is that someone at the Porcupine Tree forum produced a criticism which I hadn't previously encountered (about any band), and which puzzled me:
No stars in the band really.
Why is that remotely relevant? Why does one member of a band have to stand out as individually remarkable? Isn't it about the collective result of the band's writing and performing? Obviously there are many bands which consist of a front man and backing band, or a guitar hero and accompanists, but that's not a requirement
3 January, 2006
Could do with a little chili sauce
Coldplay have a mildly inoffensive song. It's not to my taste &ndash musically unadventurous and lyrically very trite – but not unpleasant. I tend to describe it as easy listening for the under-fifties, or like a traditional English kebab.
Just occasionally, it's exactly what one fancies, and whilst being consumed, it's okay. However, almost immediately afterwards one is left feeling distinctly unsatisfied, a bit greasy, and slightly nauseous.
Of course, the biggest problem with Coldplay is that they only have that one song, repeatedly rephrased to fill whole albums. Never mind composition by numbers, this is composition by demographics.
30 December, 2005
Review: Mixed Company (Fish, 2003)
There's something I have to state up-front: Fish's voice was bad at these concerts (Muziekcentrum, Enschede, The Netherlands on 28 & 29 June, 2002); not only is it odd to hear an older voice performing songs made famous by a young voice, it's often quite painful to hear him struggle to sing at all. On the 'Candlelight In Fog' 'official bootleg', similar vocal problems are easily balanced by increased spoken banter with the audience, but that's missing from 'Mixed Company'. Whether his vocal problems disturbed the concentration of Fish and the band, or they were under-rehearsed, the recording includes a few rather severe errors, primarily Fish forgetting the lyrics.
It's rather annoying that highlights of the concerts described by Fish in the CD booklet aren't actually on the CDs; presumably one has to buy the DVD version, 'Fool's Company' to get them.
I've been spoilt by Fish's series of 'official bootlegs', which have been released with the selling point that they're complete and unexpurgated recordings of entire concerts. 'Mixed Company' isn't. It would be fair to call it a 'greatest hits, live' CD set: the highlights of his solo career and time with Marillion. Assuming the DVDs and CDs are aimed at the hardcore fans who will buy both anyway, and assuming that the rest of the concert is on the DVDs, that's fair enough. It's reasonable to collect those tracks the fans will play most often onto the CDs, so they can be played on any CD player – in a car, on a work computer, at home on a decent stereo, wherever. In contrast, the oddities and er, secondary songs (I can't think of a way of phrasing that which doesn't sound pejorative, but I don't mean it that way) could be presented on the DVD, which mightn't be played so often but would receive the viewer's full attention when it is played, justifying the use of the format. As it happens, the DVDs have 12 tracks (plus bonuses) and the CDs have 10, of which six are repeated on both.
However, only having the CDs, I feel a little short-changed; I don't think the CD set adequately stands alone.
Why not buy the DVDs? I've found that I just don't watch DVDs of bands, so they'd be a wasted purchase. I'm not sure why, but I just don't find/make the time, and always seem to watch a feature films instead. I have two Marillion and one Roger Waters DVD that I simply haven't watched, so I'm disinclined to buy more. Unfortunately this means I only bought the 'Mixed Company' CD set, so I'm missing the rest of the show, on the 'Fool's Company' DVD.
In summary, I was distinctly under-impressed, and doubt I'll play this often, if indeed ever again.
[To the people who reach this page via a search for 'fish mixed company
torrent': buy the CDs, you ****ing parasites. 'Mixed Company' is not a freebie to be downloaded, it's a commercial release, and you are thieves.]
8 December, 2005
Burning bridges: here; use my lighter
The current issue of 'Explicitly Intense', a US metal magazine, features an interview with Steven Wilson (SW), of Porcupine Tree (amongst several other projects). One of the questions inspired a rather... forthright comment on regressive 'prog' acts such as Transatlantic and the Flower Kings (TFK), whose output is heavily based on the music of the early 1970s. Surprisingly, Roine Stolt, of TFK and Transatlantic, felt the need to respond publicly (I don't know where, but the following quotes were republished at the Porcupine Tree Forum).
Jeff Nau (Explicitly Intense magazine):
As far as progressive rock goes and had gone,what do you feel about what's happening now? Dream Theater is still doing very well, and now there's a new kind of prog rising up with bands like the Mars Volta and even Radiohead – but also with older-sounding groups like the Flower Kings and Transatlantic. What do you think needs to happen for it to survive?
Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree):
Okay, I think that answer is very simple: bands like the Mars Volta, Tool, and Radiohead – these bands are the future of progressive music.
Bands like the Flower Kings and Transatlantic? The DEATH of progressive music. These are the bands that reinforce every prejudice people have about progressive rock: old-fashioned, pompous, pretentious, hung-up on sci-fi concepts – that for me is rubbish. But there's a new wave of bands that for me are being influenced just as much by hip-hop as they are King Crimson or Godspeed You Black Emperor and bands like us as well, I hope.
For me, Transatlantic and the Flower Kings – and I have heard these bands, unfortunately – they're following the blueprint from 1972 so closely; it's completely pointless and redundant. They're never going to better the originals, anyway – why bother? Whatever's going around should be part of their musical vocabulary.
I don't particularly dig generic music, whether it's hardcore metal or hip-hop, even down to the prog bands you mentioned. They're following a formula way too closely. For me, being progressive is about taking the word at face value: if a band is going to try to be progressive, they shouldn't be looking at the past – they should be looking at everything that's going on around them now, from hip-hop to trip-hop to death metal to trance. The word 'progressive' is about the FUTURE.
Yay! Well said! Though I like Transatlantic immensely, at least as much as Porcupine Tree (I couldn't say the same about TFK), I totally agree with SW.
Roine Stolt, via e-mail to [?]:
It's correct, it IS a personal preference and it IS OK to have an opinion. It's just that it comes across as a bit aggressive and who knows... silly, as neither Flowerkings or Transatlantic have ever been dealing with "sci-fi lyrics", at least to my knowledge. But I fear it is more than an opinion, it is a bit of an aggressive statement, meant to hurt or diminish.
What he present is his opinion that we are the 'death of progressive rock', it is not that nice a statement really. I suppose he's trying to say that bands like us scare the younger audience or the hip crowd and press away, that he now apparently is eager to please, it is in his 'marketing plan'.
I suppose Stolt can be forgiven for not being familiar with SW's more generally-stated position, just as SW can be forgiven for not paying full attention to the lyrical content of certain bands, but he's missing the point. It's about artistic integrity (which sounds pretentious; whatever), not popularity. It's not about conforming to an image – quite the reverse.
We all fight for recognition, but a bit of positivism is sometimes better that hanging out what should/could be your friends.
****ing hippie sh*t (but you knew I was going to say that).
It's that Steven does not seem to care if he piss me off, or Portnoy or Trewavas off, or whoever have helped him in the past, I think he believes it just add to his credibility... or coolness??!!! So he don't like Symphonic/prog, fine, but my question would be, is he now into the more metal things because he loves it or because it simply have a bigger audience. My guess is that Steven's career means a lot to him and he do whatever it takes to make PT a bigger act, he wanna be in with the cool in-crowd, the dark tattooed guys. In that sense I can see that any 'flowery' old school hippie band like TFK looks like a bad future and something he wanna steer away from rapidly, not to be connected.
As I mentioned above, I believe Stolt is totally misattributing SW's motivations, which he's expressed quite frequently. SW wants to be progressive (an approach encompassing all genres) but never 'prog' (a specific, fixed, genre) – there's a difference
. Since 2002, his view has been that "death metal is the new progressive rock"
, and he's taken Porcupine Tree in that direction somewhat. In 2006 or 2007, it could be hip-hop, or folk, or polka. It's all about the music, not sales figures, nor popularity with the 'in' crowd.
Now, there are many prog bands out there (name XXXX) that create a stir within prog circles that I personally feel is exactly what Steven is referring TFK to be, they are scarecrows, they scare people away because they are not close to as inventive, poetic, expressive or original as Yes, ELP, Floyd or Crimson or simply DULL. Many a hype is written in advertisements or articles in the prog-press or mailing lists all over about those bands but I still find them VERY poor and sometimes unlistenable. BUT I would never go as far as hang them out in an interview (at least I hope I haven't ).
For me it's quite simple, if a band like Transatlantic sell 65,000 copies of a CD (on an independent label) it simply means that the band IS popular, VERY popular...
No, no, NO! Popularity and creativity are entirely different matters. An entirely stagnant, repetitive band can produce stagnant, repetitive music which will still sell well to the established fanbase and those wishing to recapture a lost youth. That the niche occupied by Transatlantic and TFK is relatively lucrative isn't relevant. It's still an inward-looking, closed system of which I, and seemingly SW, can have limited respect.
... and that MANY people do NOT consider them to be the DEATH of prog, rather the 'new life' or 'afterlife' or whatever, but many people did rejoice. It WAS a phenomenon. If Steven Wilson feel the opposite... we can't do much about that, but he's wrong.
It's impossible for an opinion
to be right or wrong.
Flowerkings is a band that started around the same time as PT and he knows very well of us and know we're both popular and considered along with Spocks [Beard], PT to be the new wave of prog. So after all there may be some truth to that he try to kill his competition.
Rubbish. TFK is an overt return to 70s standards and style; there's nothing 'new wave' about it. Stolt presumably means TFK represents a new resurgence of popularity, which itself is very debatable – modern, popular progressive music (e.g. The Mars Volta) is little like 70s prog.
That Porcupine Tree and TFK might be competitors is laughable. They're simply not on the same racetrack.
I may be wrong but I seem to remember that Steven Wilson's name came up as a possible candidate to mix the second Transatlantic album, but at the time someone of us had heard that he didn't like us at all, so it's not the first time he make similar statements, this is his firm belief, not something thoughtless he happen to say....
[Update 26/10/06: I've been directed to a post SW made in a Progarchives forum on 8 August this year, in which he reported that he'd apologised to Stolt for the personal nature of his criticism, whilst defending his right to dislike the music, and to say so publicly.]
In fact I spoke with Roine about this, and apologised - my comments about these bands was borne out of frustration with certain jounalists trying to lump us into some kind of "neo-prog" movement. And frankly it's just not my kind of music. Of course it's true that it's an ugly thing to criticise other musicians, but I don't think there's any musician on the planet that has not at some time been critical of their contempories in the press (including Mikael A). Many times I have had to eat humble pie with the guys from Dream Theater because I've had to come clean in the press and say I don't really dig their music (and these guys are my friends!)
1 December, 2005
Betrayal of trust
It's well-known that there were major problems with Fish's web store and mail order business in 2004 and into 2005, which caused many people to lose confidence, which in turn has seriously affected his credibility and livelihood. For legal reasons, it has been impossible for him to explain the situation, but that's been finalised, and Fish has made an announcement.
In short, Fish fans, and even more so, Fish, were the victims of deliberate fraud by his ex-office manager, Kim Waring, who stole at least £68,000. Haddington Sheriff Court found against her last month, and Fish is also pursuing her for £100,000 in damages.
I want to help spread the word that the problems had a specific cause rather than the store itself being unreliable and have been resolved. Fish has had a different office manager, of proven ability, since June/July, and the mail order business is apparently working well now.
More than most artists, income from his own retail outlet determines the viability of Fish's future career, so I urge people to give him the benefit of doubt and do buy from him again.
28 November, 2005
Another music meme
It's been a while since I last completed a music-related meme questionnaire, so here's one discovered via Neil.
1. Of all the bands/artists in your cd/record collection, which one do you own the most albums by?
That'd have to be Jethro Tull, with about 30 official albums/box sets and over 200 unofficial (concert) recordings. I can't say I've listened to many within the last couple of years, though.
2. What was the last song you listened to?
'Growing Up' – Peter Gabriel ('Up', 2002)
3. What's in your record/cd player right now?
In the PC: an unofficial recording of Sigur Rós at Edinburgh Corn Exchange on 10/11/05. Stunning rendition of Hafssól!
In the player downstairs: 'Urban Hymns' (The Verve, 1997). I've always liked 'Bitter Sweet Symphony', but the rest of the album is rather better than I remembered, and since I borrowed Helen's copy last month, I've been playing it frequently.
4. What song would you say sums you up?
I don't think in those terms.
5. What's your favorite local band?
The Ugly Jug Band, a two-man (and far more instruments) jugband who don't take it remotely serious enough. ;)
6. What was the last show you attended?
Not counting The Ugly Jug Band, and free public performances attended in Prague and Warsaw, it's been quite a while since I went to a 'proper' concert. It may even have been Marillion in July 2004. I was out of the country for the Porcupine Tree concert in Manchester in April this year, and I couldn't get to the recent Sigur Rós concert in Liverpool.
7. What was the greatest show you've ever been to?
Porcupine Tree, Manchester Academy 2, 05/03/03. Great concert, excellent sound quality, no video projections/annoying lights, and an unobtrusive audience.
8. What's the worst band you've ever seen in concert?
I've seen some dire bands as part of shared-bill shows e.g. charity concerts at the Gregson, or the old Worldbeat and WOMAD Morecambe festivals, and I've yet to see a support band I've rated (no! John Wesley was excellent supporting Fish at the Cavern, Liverpool on 6/12/01).
Worst headline act? Jethro Tull, Manchester Apollo, 21/9/95. Extremely loud (the loudest concert I've attended), but dull. That was the last time I saw them, and by 'last' I mean probably 'final'.
9. What band do you love musically but hate the members of?
'Love' and 'hate' are excessively strong terms.
Not counting the post-1995 material and performances, I like the music of Jethro Tull, but I'm not sure I'd like Ian Anderson outside that context.
10. What show are you looking forward to?
I really must sort out travel/accommodation and a ticket to the Porcupine Tree concert in Manchester on 8 December.
11. What is your favorite band shirt?
I like several band T-shirts, so that's difficult to answer. Probably Porcupine Tree's 'Deadwing' cover image shirt.
12. What musician would you like to hang out with for a day?
I suspect I'd be a bit overawed by any artist whose work I particularly like! If I could get past that, and if I had something meaningful to talk about, Steven Wilson.
13. What musician would you like to be in love with for a day?
Sorry; can't be bothered with this question.
14. Metal question: Jeans and Leather vs. Cracker Jack clothes?
I wouldn't recognise the latter, and dislike jeans, so it'd have to be only leather, if the very idea wasn't ridiculous!
15. Sabbath or solo Ozzy?
Neither. No interest whatsoever.
16. Commodores or solo Lionel Ritchie?
Likewise. No interest.
17. Punk rock, hip hop or heavy metal?
Oh, metal, definitely, though I only like a few bands, not the genre as a whole and certainly not the mainstream teen-orientated varieties.
18. Doesn't Primus suck?
Dunno. The name means nothing to me.
19. Name 4 flawless albums:20. Did you know that filling out this survey makes you a music geek?
Wouldn't a geeky survey involve more detailed, obscurer questions?
21. What was the greatest decade for music?
Ah, the topic of a thousand dead-end online debates. There's no such thing. 'Greatest' implies objective, measurable superiority. Much of my favourite music is from the 1990s/current decade.
22. How many music-related videos/dvds do you own?
Not many (under ten), and more than I need. As I've mentioned before, I rarely find/make time to watch concert recordings.
23. Do you like Journey?
Again, the name means nothing to me. Could be a song, a band or a variety of sound insulation, for all I know.
24. Don't try to pretend you don't!
25. What is your favorite movie soundtrack?
I'm rarely conscious of music during films; when I first saw '28 Days Later', I didn't even notice the Godspeed You Black Emperor material, and I particularly like their music. I suppose Peter Gabriel's contribution to 'Birdy' was an exception.
26. What was your last musical 'phase' before you wised up?
I haven't listened to much folk-rock this decade. More recently, I've started to wonder how I could ever have listened to the Flower Kings.
27. What's the crappiest CD/record/etc. you've ever bought?
I don't remember, so it probably wasn't anything spectacularly awful. Not counting albums I genuinely liked at the time but which I've subsequently outgrown (fifteen years ago, I had several Iron Maiden albums), Ian Anderson's 'The Secret Language Of Birds' would probably feature prominently on the list. I've never rated that one, from the first time I heard it.
28. Do you prefer vinyl or CDs?
Definitely CDs. I have no patience with the view that vinyl is inherently 'better'. In theory, analogue technology could capture more of the original sound than 16- to 20-bit digital, but I simply don't believe the difference is detectable by the human ear. I think emotional attachment to the old technology generates an imaginary sense that vinyl's superior. A preference is absolutely fine, of course, but opinion is too often expressed as fact.
26 November, 2005
Jumping into puddles
In case anyone who's interested hasn't visited 'eighteen seconds before sunrise' recently (why not?), Sigur Rós are releasing their first UK single on Monday 28 Nov., on CD and 12" vinyl.
The A-side is 'Hoppípolla', which some may have seen/heard on BBC2's 'Later...' a fortnight ago. It's one of my favourite tracks from 'Takk...', which is currently tying with 'Ágaetis Byrjun' as my favourite Sigur Rós album, and is almost certainly my 'album of the year'. I suppose I'm recommending it....
The B-sides are the brief 'Með Blóðnasir', which seems to be treated as the outro to 'Hoppípolla' in live performances, plus the long-awaited 10-minute studio version of 'Hafssól'. That song has been a highlight of concerts for years, and has considerably evolved from the (frankly unimpressive) 1997 studio version on 'Von'.
11 November, 2005
Last month I suggested that the 'internet revolution' of bands like the Arctic Monkeys achieving prominence through web-based self-promotion rather than via the manipulation of major record labels is nothing new – Marillion pioneered several major developments years ago.
In the Guardian, Alexis "Aren't I witty?" Petridis seems to address the point:
Selling music via a website became the province not of hip new bands, but old stagers considered defunct by their labels: Simply Red, Level 42, legions of wizened prog rockers. They were making a living, but the whole business still carried a slight taint, the modern equivalent of flogging your records from a car boot.
Ah well; Petridis was never a friend of Marillion, so one can't expect the courtesy of due credit.
2 November, 2005
I hadn't heard of the Finnish band 'Nightwish', but sacking the lead vocalist via an open letter on the band's website seems a remarkably good publicity stunt.
28 October, 2005
New old EITS out
I've only made tangential references to them before, but one of my (several) favourite bands is Explosions In The Sky, from Texas. Their music is post-rock: guitar-led (guitar/guitar/bass/drums), wholely instrumental and with an intricate, somewhat 'classical' structure. There's an obvious comparison to Godspeed You Black Emperor, but omitting that collective's unconventional instrumentation and sampled field recordings.
The album titles ('Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Live Forever' & 'The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place', and several of the track titles ('Greet Death', 'Memorial', 'Glittering Blackness', etc.) sound distinctly gothy, but the music doesn't (if that isn't your thing), and they are instrumentals, so such themes obviously aren't reinforced by lyrics.
In theory, one could enjoy the music without even knowing the titles, though it does add to my appreciation that the titles of my favourite tracks, 'Six Days At The Bottom Of The Ocean' and 'First Breath After Coma' do fit the music somehow.
There's a lot of repetition in a typical track, giving the listener clear familiarity with the rhythm and underlying theme, but the breathtaking part is when the lead guitars suddenly soar free, each independent of, but complementary to, the other.
EITS are very taper-friendly, so if you'd like to hear samples, several full concerts are freely available at the Live Music Archive.
The reason I'm mentioning them now is that I've just discovered that:
- They're currently touring in Europe, mainly the UK.
- Their first album, 'How Strange, Innocence', long out-of-print, has been remastered and released this month with new artwork.
A warning to those seeing them live: they have a reputation for being extremely loud. Take earplugs, just in case. Seriously.
17 October, 2005
Is this news?
The Guardian has finally noticed that the internet is a viable medium in which bands can promote themselves and build a substantial fanbase without having to begin via the conventional route of record companies, singles, press adverts, etc.
Amongst other examples, they cite the Arctic Monkeys, a Sheffield band which sold-out the London Astoria last week. Those fans sang along fluently to a single which has yet to be released, because some 140+ live recordings featuring that song are already in circulation amongst fans, with the band's permission.
It's great that this sort of thing receives mass-market coverage at all, but it's hardly a brand new development, and it's not just sour grapes to complain that the jounalist didn't mention Marillion's pioneering role in internet-led self-marketing.
16 October, 2005
Just play yer guitar
Now playing: 'Eternity' (Anathema, 1996), specifically 'Hope'. The first 80 seconds are spoken word; a male voice with an upper-middle class Merseyside accent intoning hideously pretentious... stuff. As usual, I skipped it.
This reminded me that such extended spoken sections, sometimes even full tracks, are something I particularly dislike, often diminishing my opinions of otherwise good albums.
Two particularly bad examples are 'Space Transmission' on Porcupine Tree's 'On The Sunday Of Life...' and 'Human Love' on Chroma Key's 'Graveyard Mountain Home'. I haven't heard either track in its entirety, even once – I find them that unlistenable.
Somehow, 'Fitter Happier', from Radiohead's 'OK Computer' is bearable – less self-consciously 'lyrical' perhaps – though I still tend to skip it unless I haven't heard it for a year or so.
Anyone else feel the same way?
10 October, 2005
One song that sold an album
I suppose this question is of diminished relevance in the age of downloads, but assuming, like me, you don't participate in that activity, would you buy an entire CD album, just for one song?
How about this one: if you bought an album on CD (for more than one song), then a couple of months later, another edition was released, absolutely identical but with the addition of a 'B-side' bonus track, would you buy the entire album again, just for that one song?
9 October, 2005
Rip off t-shirts
There was a time, long ago, when I thought that bands didn't do particularly well from the sale of albums, most of the cover price going to retailers, record companies and production costs, but that the real money was in touring and selling merchandise. Foolish me.
Particularly in the USA, it's normal for a concert venue to take a cut of any merchandise sold by a band on the premises. Sometimes, the fees facing bands become extortionate. Sigur Rós, currently on their biggest ever tour (they played at the Hollywood Bowl last Wednesday) have become annoyed at the system, and felt they had to respond to an especially bad situation at Friday's concert at the Hard Rock Hotel, Las Vegas, by selling T-shirts for $1 each. A statement from Dean, their manager:
The venue tonight charge 30% of our gross. The sales tax is 7% and on top of this there is a new gaming tax of an additional 10%. We, the band, have to pay for the cost of the shirt, the shipping, the printing, our merchandiser etc from the remaining 53%. The obvious and usual reaction to extortionate venue commissions is to hike the price of the shirts which simply serves to hurt the fan and help the venue to earn even more. It's immoral for a venue to earn more from a band's merchandise than the band. We simply felt that by reducing the price of the shirts to a mere $1 the venue might rethink the wisdom of keeping their fees so high when the taxes here are higher than anywhere else on the US tour. 30% of nothing amounts to nothing. Tonight's protest will cost the band and the venue money but some of our fans will win in Vegas tonight... and that's why we are doing it. There will be a limit of 1 t-shirt per person and stock is limited.
This protest didn't include the special-edition Toothfaerie shirts, and some at the band's message board totally misunderstood ("buy lots and sell 'em on eBay! **** the band!"
), but I certainly applaud the band's stance. One report suggested that the venue took offence and banned Sigur Rós from selling merchandise at all, but that's incorrect; the existing stock simply ran out rather quickly!
At least one person at the message board expressed my view: wherever possible, buy merchandise from a band's website, not at concerts (here's Sigur Rós' web store). It matters to me that the retailer's/venue's cut goes to the band themselves. I do the same for albums: I never buy from Amazon if a band has their own online shop, and I never buy from high-street retailers, period.
Of course, there are pressures within the industry, and bands mightn't always be able to set their own merchandising policies, but I'd urge bands to, wherever possible, include the web in their sales strategies from the outset.
I feel bands like Porcupine Tree get it entirely wrong. They take T-shirts, etc. on tour, then sell off whatever's left afterwards via the web store. If they were to allocate stock to the website from the start, I'm absolutely convinced they'd sell more, earn more from those sales, and get T-shirts seen in public before concerts, when the need for promotion is greatest.
25 September, 2005
Review: Ghost Reveries (Opeth, 2005)
For some reason, I always seem to write with a presumption that the reader will be aware of Opeth already. If not, I'd better mention immediately that that Opeth are a credible death metal band, definitely not a standard 'kiddie-Satanism' act, but instead displaying a maturity of composition and technical ability unfamiliar within the genre (there are no verses and choruses, for one thing). 'Progressive melodic death metal' might sound odd, but it's an accurate description for Opeth's unique sub-genre.
'Ghost Reveries' was released almost a month ago, on 29 August, but I couldn't write this review until now. For the first few days of living with it, I thought it merely 'okay', but then began to 'get' it. As familiarity has increased, my opinion has developed further (hmm.... that sounds like my normal response to more overtly 'proggy' albums), and I now rate it as one of the best albums I've heard this year.
When 'Damnation', was released in 2003 some claimed that Opeth, under the influence of Steven Wilson (producer of the three Opeth albums 2001-2003, but not 'Ghost Reveries', due to scheduling conflicts), had 'clearly' moved on from their death metal origins. However, they had misunderstood the nature of that project, and that 'Damnation' was the non-metal twin of it's full-on metal companion album, 'Deliverance', recorded during the same sessions. Hopefully, all such misunderstandings can now be forgotten, as 'Ghost Reveries' is an emphatic return to the pre-existing Opeth formula of death metal interspersed by, even intermingled with, lighter material.
The start of the album could be interpreted as a statement of intent - the first seven seconds could be a continuation of 'Damnation', but lead straight into perhaps the heaviest material on the album.
There are those who just don't like death metal, and the 'cookie monster' style of vocals. I'm afraid there's no avoiding them, and if the death metal growl is an insurmountable barrier, you needn't read on.
Personally, death metal lyrics don't remotely interest me, so I'm more than happy to accept Mikael Åkerfeldt's growl simply as an instrument contributing to an overall sound I like immensely, just as I like Jónsi Birgisson's falsetto as a contribution to the Sigur Rós sound, irrespective of the fact that Jónsi's Hopelandic lyrics are literally meaningless. Hence, once one passes the initial shock of Mikael's metal vocals, I do like them, especially in combination with his excellent 'clean' vocals – he doesn't only growl!
In fact, on repeat listening, I only think of two sections, perhaps 3-5 minutes of the 67 min. album as 'very heavy'; the rest is little heavier than, well, Porcupine Tree. This is certainly the most 'prog' of Opeth's albums. As usual, the songs are of stereotypical 'prog' length: four of the eight are over ten minutes long and only one is slightly under four minutes long.
A major change is that Opeth are now a five-piece band. Steven Wilson had contributed relatively isolated keyboard fills on the foregoing three albums, but Per Wiberg has joined as a full member, on mellotrons, organs and pianos. I wouldn't say that the keyboards take greater prominence than on previous albums, but the sound is frequently 'rounded out' nicely. This development may have more impact on live performances.
I was momentarily concerned by a couple of sections in the first two tracks, thinking them a little too 'obvious' and simplistically catchy, but they're the exception, and assimilated into the overall pieces, work rather well. In particular, there's something all-too-similar to Symphony X-style prog metal rubbish two minutes into 'The Baying Of The Hounds', but that misjudged interlude only lasts for less than a minute.
I'm not sure whether this is correct, but I've read that the outro of 'Atonement' (from 5:24 to the end) is actually 'Reverie', and that the CD is wrongly indexed. That'd make it 'Atonement/Reverie' and 'Harlequin Forest', not 'Atonement' and 'Reverie/Harlequin Forest', as listed. I feel the album sounds best played as one continuous composition rather than as isolated songs. In this context, I don't think the positioning of track divisions makes a huge difference, though some might disagree.
This album (and band) mightn't be for everyone, but I certainly recommend it. If anyone is tempted, I'd urge you to play the album or samples more than once – this isn't instantly-gratifying easy listening.
9 September, 2005
Those visiting the main Opeth (and Porcupine Tree) discussion forums may already know about this, but others might be interested to know that Mikael Åkerfeldt collaborated with Dan Swanö on a non-metal, Swedish-language 'prog' project some time ago (I'd guess it was 2001 or 2002), named Sörskogen. Despite the professionalism of the entire project, no album has appeared (yet), but one track has been released for free distribution on the web: 'Mordet i Grottan' (5.9Mb .mp3).
I can't help wondering whether this low-key release is testing demand for something more – I can't help hoping so, as I enjoy Opeth's non-metal 'Damnation' album almost as much as their more usual melodic death metal. In fact, the chorus of 'To Rid the Disease' on that album is directly copied from 'Mordet i Grottan' (music, not lyrics).
5 September, 2005
Sigur Rós 'Takk...': fréttir
You do know that the new Sigur Rós album, 'Takk...' is released on 12 September, right?
You mightn't be aware that a limited edition of the album will be released in Europe on the same day. Amazon doesn't explain on the linked page, but it comprises the standard album in a "rigid casebound book with a 24 page booklet of additional artwork, and a floating die-cut wallet for the cd". So, no additional music, but I'll certainly be buying the book version.
Update 15/09/05: Now I have my copy, I can recommend the limited edition. The only words in the entire book are the band name, album title and track titles – I had to hunt to even find a copyright date (and that's on the CD) – which is somewhat uninformative, but full album credits are available from the website, so that's no criticism.
The book (which is about the same size as a jewel case, rotated to portrait orientation) is simply a beautiful item. The '24 pages' include the covers, and the inner pages are printed single-sided (i.e. 8 sides are blank) with screenprinted permutations of three graphical elements: the archway of plants and boy from the cover, and a bird in flight. For a moment, I thought they were real screenprints, unique to each copy, but I was mistaken. At least that's an indication of the item's quality.
I wasn't sure what to expect from 'a floating die-cut wallet for the CD' – perhaps a sleeve separate from the book itself. It isn't; it's bound into the book as the back endpaper. The matching front endpaper is textured, embossed with the archay of plants. The die-cut element is that the CD is visible in its sleeve through a hole, in the shape of a flying bird.
Beautiful, like the music.
26 August, 2005
Shut up or stay at home
Paul Stokes, writing in The Scotsman, shares my annoyance at concert and cinema audiences who talk throughout performances. The article ought to be summarised and printed on the back of concert tickets, or encoded into a text message automatically sent to anyone entering a venue with his/her phone switched on.
The whole point of going to the cinema is to gawp in awed silence at the 40ft-tall projected visions before you, to lose yourself in the wraparound images of the silver screen. The whole point of being in a concert hall, whether listening to Mogwai or Mozart, is to let the soundwaves wash over you and transport you to a different place.
All the chatterers and the texters and the mobile phoners want to do is anchor themselves in the here and now, the everyday, the ordinary. They don't want to go elsewhere with the artist. They want to stick with their mates. Of course, part of the point of going to any event, a concert or a film, is to be able to say: "I was there." There is just no need to say it while you still are.
I do think this is a side-effect of the mobile phone age. Nowadays there's a blurring of public and private space, which I don't regard as an advance.
26 August, 2005
A pretty good article about one of my favourite bands, Sigur Rós, is currently given encouraging prominence on the Guardian homepage.
Ostensibly promoting their forthcoming (12 September) album 'Takk...', it's a useful introduction for those new to the band, whilst providing something for those with an existing interest, and doesn't sensationalise the band's slight oddities.
22 August, 2005
Run like hell
What's worse than a tribute band? How about a tribute band comprising dinosaurs of 1970s 'classic' prog rock?
I did know this was coming, but it's even worse than I'd anticipated: Ian Anderson, of Jethro Tull, is, alongside members of Yes, the Doors, Styx, Deep Purple, King Crimson and Toto, contributing to a project reproducing Pink Floyd's 'The Wall'. What's wrong with the original? Why **** about with it?
Former Yes member Billy Sherwood says that 'Back Against The Wall' has "honored the emotion of the original while bringing out the individual personalities of all the guest artists." That is not a Good Thing. In fact, it's ****ing scary. Whoever thought Rick Wakeman could contribute added value to PF's music needs baseball-bat-assisted re-education.
At least Ian A. isn't credited on the album cover, so might be able to retain some credibility.
25 July, 2005
Review: Shiver (John Wesley, 2005)
The executive summary: I like this album*. It's not a major departure from Wes' earlier albums (thankfully), and the material isn't the most challenging (to the listener), but so what? Wes' heartfelt delivery is well-suited to his own slightly melancholic rock and his playing is as good as always.
Those discovering Wes via his role as tour guitarist for Porcupine Tree might be interested to know that 'Shiver' was mixed by Steven Wilson and the cover artwork is by Lasse Hoile, but SW isn't credited as full 'producer' (if only because Wes did such a good job in the recording sessions that when SW arrived to work on it, little needed to be done and the entire mixing and sequencing were completed within two days!), nor as a performer. 'The King Of 17' features SW's signature 'as-if-via-telephone' vocal effect, but otherwise little of the album is reminiscent of Porcupine Tree. The opening song, 'Pretty Lives' would fit particularly well amongst the tracks on 'Chasing Monsters'; those who like 'Shiver' are recommended to try the earlier album, and vice versa.
It might sound patronising, but this is a guitarist's album. The lyrics are fine, some genuinely, well, lyrical, but there aren't enough of them! On several songs, the same lines are repeated too often, making good material seem somewhat repetitive. This does a slight disservice to the excellent and more inventive, more varying music.
I'm not going to go through all the tracks, but two brief highlights:
I can imagine 'Star' sounding particularly good live, as a showcase of Wes' writing, voice and playing.
Despite the repetitive lyrics, 'Please Come Back' is my favourite track, from the moment the excellent, melodic (actually, do I mean melodic?) guitar begins.
I first wrote this review within a week of receiving the album, but luckily I didn't get round to publishing it, as, having lived with the songs for a while, my opinions of certain aspects changed, and I've just dumped nearly half of the text! I hope the remnants aren't too disjointed.
*: not yet available from Amazon UK, it seems, but buying direct from Wes financially benefits him more than via a multinational retailer, anyway.
20 July, 2005
Greatly exaggerated reports of its demise
I rarely read the 'comment' pages of the Guardian, as they either exhibit a political bias I don't share, or the unsubstantiated opinions of people which whom I don't identify. In today's, there's an opinion piece which alleges that in the age of downloading individual music tracks, the recording industry is facing the demise of the album format – fact.
Sensationalist rubbish, and lazy, cliched journalism, which fails to sustain its central argument for more than six over-written paragraphs.
5 July, 2005
Not in it for the money
One of my somewhat cynical criticisms of the Live8 concerts is that I believe many artists appearing were motivated primarily by self-promotion. Indeed, the BBC reports figures from HMV which showed that sales of certain artists' albums on the day after Live8 were between double and over ten times those recorded on the previous Sunday. They mightn't have been paid directly, but the publicity and extra sales are going to be invaluable to some bands and particularly record companies.
However, the real point of that BBC article is that David Gilmour has called for artists and record companies to donate those additional profits to charity. That's what he intends to do with his share of Pink Floyd's additional sales: the number of copies of 'Echoes: The Best of Pink Floyd' sold by HMV on Sunday was 1,343% of the number sold on the previous Sunday.
All credit to him, but we'll have to see if his lead is followed. I'm still cynical.
1 July, 2005
Experience more Beethoven
If you acted on my earlier mention of BBC Radio 3's offer, you'll already have free downloads of Beethoven's first five symphonies, as recently performed by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.
This repeated notification is to say that the remaining four symphonies are now available. If you want all four, you only have until Monday 4th.
8 June, 2005
As part of its 'The Beethoven Experience' season, BBC Radio 3 is offering free, unrestricted downloads of all nine of Beethoven's symphonies, for a limited time.
- Symphonies 1 & 3 will available from 7 to 13 June.
- Symphonies 2, 4 & 5 will be available 8-14 June.
- Symphony 6: 28 June to 4 July.
- Symphony 7: 29 June - 5 July.
- Symphony 8: 30 June - 6 July.
- Symphony 9: 1-7 July.
The performances, by the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, will have been broadcast on the radio the day before downloading opens, and it'll also be possible to hear them via the Radio 3 website
(realplayer stream; no download) for a week after each broadcast, but the downloadable mp3 files are free to keep.
[Discovered via BoingBoing]
5 June, 2005
This is a bit self-referential, but now that virtually all 20Gb of my Creative Zen Touch mp3 player are accounted for by 2282 tracks from 248 albums, the following is the complete list of artists represented, some by a single track, others by a couple of hundred.
How many have you even heard of? ;)
A Perfect Circle
Afro Celt Sound System
Beijing Central Phil Orchestra
Boards Of Canada
Coldplay (I thought I'd deleted that!)
Explosions In The Sky
Godspeed You Black Emperor
h (Steve Hogarth)
Kathryn Stott & Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra
Liquid Tension Experiment
Melissa Auf der Maur
Salzburg Baroque Orchestra
The Flower Kings
Tim Bowness / Peter Chilvers
4 June, 2005
New new Pineapple Thief album
Almost a full year ago, I mentioned that the new Pineapple Thief album, at that time still untitled, was available for preorder. A little later, the title was revealed as '12 Stories Down', and I received my limited edition copy, not realising how limited it was to be.
Frankly, it wasn't very good. The material was very 'samey' (i.e. ten seconds sampled from the middle of one song could have been from any other), which wasn't helped by a very bland mix and less than decisive editing. I didn't like it, and the only thing preventing my writing a bad review was that I'd really liked the foregoing album, 'Variations On A Dream'.
It seems I wasn't the only one to be disappointed, and another was Bruce Soord himself (in the studio, Pineapple Thief is essentially a one-man band, and Bruce is that man). He regretted having released '12SD' too quickly, under pressure from the record company and his own promises to the fans. Hence, he halted the release – a brave move. Those 1,000 pre-release copies are the only ones.
Instead, Bruce took an extra six months to properly rework, remix, resequence and even re-record that material, and more, and edit it more severely, to produce a superior album, '10 Stories Down'.
I was annoyed that those willing to trust Bruce by preordering had effectively paid to be his focus group. An argument could be made for him sending us replacement copies of the finished album, but that wasn't proposed. I was even more sceptical about the value of buying a new version containing tweaked copies of the same boring songs.
However – and this is the important part – that isn't an accurate description of the new album. I'm assured by members of the Porcupine Tree Forum who know more about Pineapple Thief than me that '10SD' is a fundamental reworking. There are ten songs (obviously), but the limited edition of '12SD' actually contained fifteen (12 plus three bonuses), not counting the '8 Days Later' bonus disc. Hence, four of the original core twelve were cut (including the dire 'Catch The Jumping Fool'), two bonuses became 'core', and all were reworked. I mentioned tighter editing, but I see from the track times that most are slightly longer than before, with one exception: 'I Will Light Up Your Eyes' was a 3:41 bonus on '12SD', but has become the closing track of '10SD', 'Light Up Your Eyes', at 15:34 long (indexed as two tracks)! I'm assured that the songs themselves are substantially revised.
'10 Stories Down' is now finished (honest). The official release date is 20 June. However, that's a fairly arbitrary date, and if you're willing to order from Bruce himself (post free in the UK), copies are available now. The Pineapple Thief webstore says they'll be despatched over the next three weeks, but I hadn't preordered this time, and my copy arrived this morning, within a week of my having placed the order.
As my mention of track times hinted, I now have '10SD'. I've only heard a few tracks up to now, but can confirm the huge improvement. The arrangements are vastly better, with a wide, clean, well-layered soundscape that only emphasises exactly how muddy '12SD' was. As promised, they're not just remixes (though they're that too); extra instruments have been added to some, and others are totally reworked. Some are barely recognisable as the same songs.
It's far too early to offer 'definitive' opinions, but this certainly seems to be the album I wanted.
28 May, 2005
Performance is the Product
I keep meaning to spread the word about a band I particularly like, and of which readers are unlikely to have heard, for reasons which will become obvious!
Currently, The Bays are: Andy Gangadeen (drums), Jamie Odell (keyboards), Simon Richmond (samples & effects) and Chris Taylor (bass). Richard Barbieri, of Porcupine Tree, has also performed with them several times; that's how I discovered them. They're all very experienced session players who have appeared on several top-ten albums, so the concept of improvising live apparently isn't too daunting (the challenge is making it listenable...).
That's useful, as their music is best described as 'live electronic club music'. That might seem vague, but performances incorporate a wide variety of styles, such as house, electro, garage, drum'n'bass, hip-hop, ambient, techno, dub, funk and ragga.
Individual commitments permitting, they play regularly, mainly in the London area, though they'll be on the festival circuit this summer. They headlined the Big Chill Festival in 2003 and will do so again in 2005.
There's nothing unusual about all that, but a couple of points render The Bays unique.
Their music is totally improvised. Totally.
- Nothing is pre-programmed (even as a safety net in case something goes wrong).
- They have no planned 'song' (actually they only perform instrumentals, with the occasional vocal sample) structures, though it has to be acknowledged that if they perform, say, a techno piece, the generic conventions of the genre provide a natural guide – their music isn't wildly experimental.
- They never rehearse as a group. Each practices individually, and only hears the others' ideas at the same time as the audience.
They don't record (in a studio). They have no albums, nor merchandising of any type. The only way to hear their music is to attend a concert, either in person or by downloading from the web. Many concerts are recorded and made available via their website and elsewhere. Sharing is welcomed.
The fact that they have declined several record deals and hence have no affiliation to a record company may seem some sort of protest against the music industry, but the band explain it in terms of artistic freedom.
If there were albums, listeners might expect to hear those tracks performed live, and perhaps be disappointed when they're not, and when the whole feel of the show differs from the hypothetical albums. By its very nature, every set is entirely different, not only in specific material but also in overall tone. One show might be predominantly ambient, whereas if the mood in the room demands, the next might be predominantly high-energy drum'n'bass.
By operating slightly outside the system, The Bays can also avoid marketing hype. To quote Chris Taylor (bass) the intention is to:
... play music that has a depth to it but people want to hear as opposed to playing music that people are told is good.
Which slightly invalidates this recommendation, but never mind. ;)
You'll have to try them for yourself.
The band's site tends to have a couple of shows available in 192kbs mp3 format (registration required; just an e-mail address, I think. I've been registered for a year or so, and have received no spam). Older shows are apparently available via the Soulseek and Limewire p2p networks (I don't do p2p, so can't confirm that). Two other sources are:
- BBC Radio 1 offers a download of the 06/03/02 session recorded for John Peel (one of three he broadcast between 2002-2004). It's in RealMedia format, and features Richard Barbieri.
- The British Council (the eminent government agency promoting educational and cultural relations abroad) currently offers a full concert for download in mp3, but regulars at the thebays.com forum say the tracks aren't from the one concert cited (Rostock, Germany, 14/02/04), but are a compilation of material from other shows.
30 April, 2005
Review: Parachutes (Coldplay, 2000)
Well, that's 42 minutes I'll never get back. I won't compound the error by writing a long review.
Dull. Whiny. No. Just no.
26 April, 2005
Are you local?
Severe problems with the administration of US visas in recent years have imposed virtually overwhelming restrictions on non-US musicians wishing to perform there. Many have ceased even trying to arrange tours there, as all too often one or more members of a band/troupe will have a visa application refused at a late stage, effectively forcing expensive, disappointing cancellation. It hasn't been specified, but it seems that was the reason the recent full-band Blackfield tour was abbreviated and replaced by concerts by just SW and Aviv as a duo.
It's a disgraceful situation, which I've mentioned before. David Byrne's interpretation of the causality behind it comes across as a little paranoid, but he may have a point.
There doesn't seem to be a way to link directly to the relevant journal entry, unfortunately. The one you want is is headed 'April 16 NYC', on the 'Current' page at present, though if you're reading this significantly after the posting date, you might need to check his archives.
Actually, solely for the reason that future readers might struggle to find it, I'll reproduce the relevant part here. I hope that's okay, and that Mr. Byrne would agree it's important for the message to be spread. If republishing is a problem, I'll remove it.
The tightening of the borders in recent years, while it may be understandable regarding genuinely suspicious individuals, is in fact applied with almost no rhyme or reason – although in fact it may only appear to be without reason. A friend told me... that a chunk of [a dance troupe based in Germany] were denied entry, which effectively scuttled the performances that were booked months ahead of time. A tango group in Buenos Aires told me a week or two ago that they have toured Europe three times recently but have been consistently denied US visas, so at this point the US doesn't even figure into their performance plans. [A friend] says that some of the new regulations make the applicants pay when they apply, without knowing if they will even get the visa. Needless to say some individual members of many bands and troupes are refused visas, usually at the last minute, which effectively cancels the tour. The promoters in the US have become loath to even book or schedule foreign acts these days, as the odds are just not in their favor. The prospect of spending money on promotion, ads and radio only to have the show cancelled by the INS when the act applies for their visas is discouraging, and financially ruinous to some small promoters – so they eventually just don’t end up taking the risk. Likewise, many small US labels who might release recordings by foreign artists will think twice if there will be little likelihood of a local live show to generate press and interest. Often that’s the only way they have or generating press and word of mouth. So, many times, the labels 'edit' what they release based on these legal and economic factors.
It amounts to a kind of cultural censorship. Call me paranoid, but given all the manipulative tricks the Republicans have gotten up to recently, I am prepared to believe that this has less to do with Homeland security and more to do with keeping the American public ignorant and free of foreign influence and inspiration. An ill-informed, isolated, ignorant populace is a populace easily manipulated. Fed a diet of reality shows coupled with faith-based reasoning (an oxymoron if ever there was one) and you have a perfect recipe for a country in which the government that can do more or less whatever it wants. Democracy becomes a farce without access to information. And culture – music, theater, dance, etc. – is information for the heart. Yes, we can still obtain news reports and recordings online, but without live performance there is a hole where there should be face to face 'news' about how others live, how they love and why and what their passions are. If we are not allowed to feel the rest of the world then we can be told anything about it and not know what those people are really like. If the Other is hidden from you, then you don’t even know to ask or inquire about what it is you’re not getting – because you don’t even know it exists.
26 April, 2005
One aspect which motivates many people to buy CDs rather than download, apart from superior sound quality, non-proprietory format, ability to own the product outright, etc. (why do people download, in fact?) is the fact that a CD is an inherently attractive object. It's shiny (black and shiny would be better, but iridescent silver's pretty good too) and usually features the added value of artwork. I wouldn't say I'm materialistic, but I'd make a partial exception for CDs and CD artwork.
Francis Heaney reports that the FBI (sorry to employ a cliché, but don't they have better things to worry about?) has started to impose large anti-piracy warnings on the back cover of CD cases in the USA, leaving less room for artwork and detracting from the design. That's bad enough, but it seems they've started overprinting an ugly warning onto the CDs themselves too, right over the artwork.
As Francis says:
I just want to shake every single moron who works for the RIAA by the lapels and say to them, "Do you understand? The thing that makes me want to buy CDs is that I am a geek who enjoys having physical objects around. If you go around stamping ugly text directly on the artwork in a CD's packaging, you are decreasing my incentive to want to buy it, because you are making it objectively less attractive as an object."
22 April, 2005
Via the Porcupine Tree Forum, I've heard that the 'Nine Inch Nails' UK website recently ran a competition (prize draw) to win a 'Limited Edition 9" Vinyl Box'.
When one of the winners received his prize, he was slightly surprised to find it was just the empty cardboard box – he'd still have to buy the 9" singles, like anyone else.
Okay, I presume it wasn't said outright that the singles would be included, but at least one fan feels disappointed.
Marketing for PT might be bad, but at least its not this bad. Maybe I was naive in thinking that the Limited Edition Box might actually contain some 9" vinyl?
20 April, 2005
Another eBay parasite is selling one of the unofficial concert recordings I put into free circulation. This one's even less subtle than most, as the auction is accompanied by an image of the back cover artwork (the original of which I can produce on demand), prominently displaying my signature and, in block capitals, 'NOT FOR SALE'.
I've reported such auctions before, and eBay haven't shown the remotest interest. I reported this one anyway, as it's so blatent even eBay mightn't be able to turn a blind eye, but the reporting procedure has been 'streamlined'. Previously, one provided the auction number and an description of the problem, but now one merely submits an auction number under a very broad complaint category, with no opportunity to explain further. A member of eBay staff giving the listing a cursory glance isn't going to spot the supplementary information I'd be able to provide. Hopeless.
As I said last time: If you've reached this blog entry whilst researching the item before buying it - do not buy it. Contact me instead.
Never, ever buy bootlegs. Anything a commercial bootlegger may offer at a price is always available for free (well, the cost of blank CD-Rs and postage) from a trader.
Paradoxically, the person who brought this to my attention has been a known bootlegger too, specialising in the same band – could they be turning on one another?
Update 21/04/05: The auction's been closed a day early; I couldn't say whether by eBay or the seller.
Incidentally, I've just noticed that the person who brought the matter to my attention is on the bootlegger's 'Feedback' page as having been the winner of an earlier auction for a copy of exactly the same item. He spent $26 for something I'd trade for free. D'oh!
12 April, 2005
I've frequented online discussion groups dedicated to various bands for a long time; approaching a decade, which is more than enough to be aware that there are only so many topics to cover, combined in rather more permutations according to specific events but still fundamentally the same, irrespective of band, music or circumstances.
One which arises every time any band tours is whether it's possible to take photographs at concerts: whether the band permits photography, whether a specific venue does, whether specific practices are advised/permitted, and other concerns.
Aside from these practicalities, the point I've yet to grasp is why anyone, apart from professionals on assignment, would wish to take photos during concerts. I know that when I see a band I like, my full attention is entirely fixed on the performance, as it occurs, not on ****ing around trying to capture low-res memories for later. That has to be so distracting (to the photographer, not only the band), sacrificing attention on the now for a diminished, almost vicarious experience later.
I suppose it depends what one wants from a concert. I can only presume that there are people for whom being able to say "I was there", and have photos to show-off to prove it, is more satisfying than the experience itself. I'm not one of them.
9 April, 2005
How not to promote a band
It's only natural that fans of 'Band A' will wish to share the discovery of a similar band, 'Band B', with fellow 'Band A' fans. A brief mention in a discussion forum frequented by 'Band A' fans is fine. However, when that expands to repeated mentions, in terms that feel more like dispassionate marketing than genuine fan enthusiasm, one becomes suspicious.
An important part of 'word of mouth' marketing is that recommendations need to come from a person one already knows and trusts. Cynical marketing is obvious when the recommendations come from a username no-one recognises, which hasn't previously been a participant in conversations about 'Band A'. It's even more blatent when every message from that username contains a link to the website of 'Band B' (I don't just mean a .sig) and often also a bandwidth-heavy cover image of their album. Apart from anything else, it's simply in bad taste to exploit a potential competitor's forum to sell 'Band B' in this way.
Viral marketing happens, and I don't entirely condemn it, but it's not easy, and done this badly, it can only have negative impacts. Discovered in a genuine manner (or in a seemingly genuine manner, a marketer having subtlely brought 'Band B' to one's attention then let the product sell itself), perhaps one might like 'Band B's music, but if one merely associates their name with hard-sell, one is immediately hostile and less receptive to their music.
So it has been with 'King Bathmat', an otherwise unknown band frequently pushed at Porcupine Tree fans via the old official P-Tree forum and subsequently at the unofficial successor P-Tree forum. King Bathmat were repeatedly touted as similar to Porcupine Tree, though those who didn't immediately see through the trick and actually followed the proffered link reported back that any alleged similarity was grossly exaggerated, if even remotely true. The collective conclusion was that the advertising was not only offensive but downright false.
There was a lingering doubt that this over-promotion was merely the actions of a misguided King Bathmat fan, and that perhaps the band shouldn't be blamed. However, a couple of days ago I received precisely the same style of message via a direct spam e-mail, from a supposedly professional public relations firm – this is no over-enthusiastic fan, it's deliberate, if clumsy, marketing.
I have a personal policy: I never have anything to do with a company which sends unsolicited communications. If a double-glazing firm rings or writes to me offering their services, it does simplify any future purchasing decisions: that company will be disqualified – there's no chance that I'd consider giving them my custom. Hence, whether King Bathmat are the best band ever, or not (and P-Tree fans generally say "not"), I'm not interested in even sampling them.
17 March, 2005
P2P's bad, 'kay?
One of the more common types of search term bringing visitors from Google to the Ministry is for music downloads, so I'd better address the subject directly.
I've mentioned that Porcupine Tree released a download-only single of 'Shallow', but a statement that such a thing exists is as much as you're going to get. Personally, I have absolutely no interest in downloading music, especially that which will be available soon on CD and DVD-A.
No music is offered for download from this site.
I used to trade unofficial concerts recordings on CD-R, but I never participated in bit torrent or other p2p communities, and I couldn't direct people on to more appropriate sites even if I wished to.
That covers legal, paid-for downloads and the sharing of unofficial recordings, but recent searches seem to have been for downloads of tracks from, and indeed the whole of, that imminent album, 'Deadwing', so I'd better clarify my view of illegal downloading of commercial recordings, paraphrasing my side of a recent discussion at the PT Forum.
It's theft, and I don't condone it whatsoever.
It's been a while since I was last willing to buy an album 'blind', without hearing online samples as a guide to whether I'd like it, but I don't regard that as sufficient justification to illegally download a leaked/ripped copy of the entire album.
I restrict myself to the samples (extracts from songs, at low-res, not retail-quality full tracks) the artists choose to provide online. Beyond that, I feel one should take the risk by buying an album, then decide whether to keep it. Sometimes one mightn't like it after all. Tough. Return it to the shop, sell it on eBay (without keeping a copy!) or give it to a friend.
Having said that, I'd be naïve to deny that people are going to download, leading to five possibilities:
- Someone illegally downloads and likes the album a lot, and buys a legitimate copy.
- Someone illegally downloads and likes the album a lot, and just keeps the download.
- Someone illegally downloads and rather likes the album, enough to keep the download but not to pay for it.
- Someone illegally downloads and doesn't particularly like the album, but keeps the download anyway.
- Someone illegally downloads and dislikes the album, and deletes the download.
I'd tentatively support the first and last, but I take a pessimistic view of human nature, and suspect that the parasites are the majority. I'd find it difficult to believe that someone claiming to do 1) isn't really doing 2), and that someone claiming to do 5) isn't really doing 4). Needless to say, I don't remotely support 2-4.
It's been argued that:
"What's bad is downloading albums and not buying any. I see absolutely no reason not to download full albums, listen to them, and purchase them if they're worth it."
Idealism aside, I'd agree, but what if they're not worth purchasing? If you decide not to buy one, do you delete it? Every single time?
I can dismiss two other arguments outright:
I can't afford to buy all the music I listen to.
Lack of money is no excuse. Can't afford it? Can't have it. Simple as that. Pop music is a commodity, not a right.
Record companies are greedy. I won't pay the cover price no matter how much I like the album.
The price is the price. Either pay it, and receive the music, or decline to pay and don't receive the music. You can't have it both ways. I agree that CD prices are exorbitant. That's a reason to complain, campaign or boycott, but not to steal. Rolls-Royce cars are ludicrously expensive. Try stealing one of them then explaining to a judge that the manufacturer/retailer obliged you to do it.
6 March, 2005
I haven't mentioned (yet) that I bought a personal mp3 player a couple of weeks ago – a 20Gb Creative Zen Touch, emphatically not an iPod! I'll probably comment further once I'm more used to it, but in the mean time, a fairly common meme is now open to me; it's a blog cliché, but so what? Think of it as a snapshot insight into my personal taste.
The rules (summarised from Ed Bott's version):
Set your player to 'random shuffle' through all stored tracks.
State the first ten tracks it provides – no skipping of embarrassing ones, though a second song by an artist already mentioned can be skipped.
Hmm. That is a sample of what's in my player, undeniably, but I'm not sure what it really says about my listening habits. For this exercise, there's no skipping, but had I been listening for real I would have pressed that button at least four times, skipping tracks I do like, but only in certain moods. Let's try another ten:
That's better – ten tracks I would choose to play.
[As prompted by Neil]
28 February, 2005
Drone working again
Several months ago (Oct-November?), Steven Wilson released a new piece as part of his Bass Communion solo project. The 20-minute 'Droneworks 6' was the best since 1999's Bass Communion II, in my opinion. It was released on the independent Twenty Hertz label, but for unspecified reasons was withdrawn in December, with a promise that it would return on SW's own Headphone Dust label in 2005.
That has now happened. From March, it's available again officially, on a 'produced-on-demand' basis (i.e. not a limited edition, surprisingly!), exclusively from Headphone Dust.
24 February, 2005
Blackfield, the collaboration between Steven Wilson and Aviv Geffen, have been obliged to abbreviate their planned US tour in March. Shows featuring the five-member electric band have had to be replaced with a smaller number of concerts given by just SW and Geffen, playing acoustically. The reason? Unexpected overwhelming difficulties in obtaining visas to work in the USA. The band have said that if they'd known, they wouldn't have booked a tour at all.
I've posted about this issue of visas for musicians before, but coincidentally, the Guardian covered it too last Wednesday.
One slight compensation is that the difficulties may be resolved in time for Blackfield to support SW's other band, Porcupine Tree at a few shows on their tour in May/June. Sources close to Porcupine Tree have stressed that this would only be at specific concerts, and that Blackfield wouldn't be supporting the whole tour.
Credit is due to them for not being deterred by the hostility of the US immigration authorities. Many others would have - understandably - decided not to bother with 'Fortress USA' again.
Incidents like this can only reflect badly on the USA. I know that I regarded the country... less than favourably until I visited New York last Oct-November and gained a little more appreciation of something I already knew: that the US people aren't the US government, and the former shouldn't be penalised for the activities of the latter. Yet from here in the UK, we only get to see the ugly external face, which is a shame.
11 February, 2005
Porcupine Tree singles availability
There seems to be some confusion about the singles supporting the forthcoming Porcupine Tree album, 'Deadwing'. If I post a summary of the situation (as currently understood) here, presumably Google will pick it up ;)
'Shallow' has already been released as a one-track download single in the USA. It doesn't look as if it will be available for download outside the USA.
Radio stations have received the song as a one-track promo CD, but it's not going to be available to buy. At this time, there is not going to be any CD single for sale in the USA. Period.
'Lazarus' will be released as a CD-only (not download) single with non-album bonus tracks in Germany and Poland only. The CD single will not be available in the UK.
Let me restate that to remove any ambiguity: NO UK SINGLE, in any format. None. Full stop.
There is no confirmation that 'Lazarus' will be a download single anywhere, and if it is, it's most likely to be a one-track download. To be absolutely clear: if you want 'So Called Friend' and 'Half-light' you will have to buy the CD single, and only from Germany or Poland.
The extra tracks won't be on the US CD single of 'Shallow' because:
i) there isn't going to be a retail CD single of 'Shallow', anywhere, and:
ii) there isn't going to be a CD single in the USA, at all, neither 'Shallow' nor any other song.
All subject to change, of course, but there hasn't even been a suggestion that it will. Some fans have been seeking "a shimmer of hope" in the precise phrasing of official announcements, but it simply isn't there, however the words are stretched. Don't worry: if there are changes, I'll pass them on!
10 February, 2005
It's a miracle
Out-Gabrieling Peter Gabriel (whose 'Up' took a decade to make), Roger Waters has finally completed Ça Ira. The premiere of his opera about the French Revolution was originally intended to coincide with that event's bicentenary in 1989.
The Guardian reports that French and English versions are due to be released next year, though the journalist's parting shot about 'dabbling in the world of opera' is just cheap.
9 February, 2005
Listening to 'Pablo Honey' and 'The Bends' today, I remembered that when I first encountered Radiohead in the mid-Nineties, I thought they were really 'heavy', and that their sound was predominantly 'wall-of-noise' discordant guitar feedback. I suppose it was quite a contrast to Jethro Tull and the folk-rock I liked at that time, so I was particularly conscious of the unfamiliar elements in their material.
It's comparable to my first day at primary school. My overiding memory of that event was of overwhelming noise, even though there couldn't have been more than ~25 children present. It's not that they were extraordinarily loud, just that I'd never encountered such a concentration of children in one echoey room.
Returning to the point: in the years since I first heard those albums, my taste and musical experience have broadened, encompassing full-on prog/death metal (e.g. Opeth). Hence, whilst the albums obviously couldn't have changed, my perception of early Radiohead has, radically. It's like hearing a totally different band for the first time. I can even see the alleged similarity between Radiohead songs and some aspects of Porcupine Tree's back catalogue.
2 February, 2005
Classical: the new rock'n'roll
Writing an opinion piece in the Guardian, Martin Kettle argues that modernism removed new classical (orchestral/operatic) music from public awareness, becoming primarily restricted to academics. He suggests that this decline coincides with the growth of rock'n'roll and 'pop' music, though I don't think he's making a causal link; even if he is, I'm sceptical.
He further suggests that there may be an imminent resurgence in more populist new classical music (note the distinction: we're talking about new music, not the 'back catalogue' of established greats), though this may be unproven optimism; it's notable that he doesn't cite any such new composers/compositions. Classical music may regain a place of significance in contemporary culture, but it doesn't follow that it will.
Tim, at Kalyr.com, focuses on Kettles statement that:
Classical music's second coming, if it is to have one, could hardly be better timed. The popular music that once filled the place it vacated seems in turn to have largely burned itself out. Here, too, creativity is at its lowest ebb since the early 50s.
As a rock fan, I find I have to reluctantly agree with that paragraph; Rock no longer seems to be doing anything new, and is reduced to endlessly cannibalising it's own past. While a lot of good music is still being released, it's no longer evolving or progressing; I haven't heard anything much in the past few years that could not have been released two decades earlier. The British scene in particular has become extremely hidebound and conservative, a complete contrast to the heady days of the 70s and 80s.
That last line is the revealing one, for me. It's very true that if one looks at the particularly creative bands of that period, namely prog/art rock and neo-prog, they are extremely stale now - that's the very reason I dislike them. However, that only means it's the wrong place to look for creativity, not that such creativity is absent everywhere.
Contemporary 'rock' music is evolving and progressing, but one has to step away from the tired rehashing of 'classic' and neo-prog - I'm not sure Tim meant to say so, but I agree that that branch is dead.
One genuinely creative band springs to mind immediately: Sigur Rós. Godspeed You Black Emperor and Explosions In The Sky would be others. The fusion of metal and prog typified by Opeth and, to an extent, Porcupine Tree, is taking rock forwards, too.
Some might argue that this is the incestuous or cannibalistic fusion of existing genres rather than being startlingly brand new, uninfluenced by anything ever written before, but what is? Direct repetition of the same old formula is arguably to be condemned (hey, I'd argue that!), but there's nothing wrong with combining earlier influences into something fresh and vital.
That's something of a response to Tim, but back in the context of Kettle's article, it may be worth acknowledging that the almost entirely instrumental music of the first three bands I mentioned are rather closer to orchestral, slightly modernist compositions than 'traditional', populist song-based rock'n'roll. Conceptual convergence, anyone?
1 February, 2005
Not so shallow, after all
I wonder if fan feedback has had an effect.
'Shallow' isn't going to be the CD single from Porcupine Tree's forthcoming album 'Deadwing'. Porcupinetree.com has announced that a different track, 'Lazarus' will be released by Warners Germany on 7 March [Update 15/02/05: 14 March], 'backed' with two non-album tracks, 'So Called Friend' and 'Half-light'.
The statement seems to say this will be a Germany-only release, with "no plans for a commercially available single in any other country, although this may change."
29 January, 2005
I suppose it's a consequence of having a taste for non-mainstream music* that when I get a song lyric stuck in my head, it's not something cheery like "... I should be so lucky..." but "... my inamorata died...".
Which is just as embarrassing, really.
*: Not because it's non-mainstream; it just works out that way.
29 January, 2005
It hasn't been confirmed officially, but it's looking like Porcupine Tree's new album, 'Deadwing' will be delayed for a month in N.America. The revised release date seems to be 26 April. The previously announced UK/European release date of 21 March remains unchanged.
[Update 21/02/05: Nope. The UK/European release date has been moved to 28 March. The N.American date remains unannounced, but should be 2-3 weeks after Europe.]
[Update 02/03/05: The US release date has been announced as 19 April. Let's see if it actually happens....]
[Update 30/03/05: The US release date of the CD has been revised back to 26 April.]
29 January, 2005
Slightly contradicting an earlier statement that it would only be a radio promo in the USA, unavailable for retail there, Porcupine Tree's single, 'Shallow' is now available to download from US online retailers Sony Connect*, BuyMusic and Napster. It'll also be on iTunes shortly.
Note that this is the radio edit, with a running time of 3:34. When 'Shallow' was leaked' by a US radio station a couple of weeks ago, it was heavily criticised by existing fans, but some suggested that the full, album version would be better than that radio edit. However, it had a running time of 4:15 - I presume that was the album track.
*: the Sony Connect website is IE only. Firefox's User Agent Switcher fools it perfectly, but at least so far as I'm concerned, that unnecessary barrier disqualifies Sony, and I'd buy elsewhere.
26 January, 2005
Review: A Fine Day To Exit (Anathema, 2001)
I reviewed Anathema's most recent album, 'A Natural Disaster' ('AND') last week, and had been underwhelmed by it, but the recommendations of others, particularly Adam, suggested that it was atypical of their earlier output, and I ought to try another.
I'm very glad I gave them the second chance (which, I have to admit, I mightn't have done if H hadn't seen me looking at it in HMV on Saturday and bought it for me!), as I was much more impressed by 'A Fine Day To Exit'. As Adam had said, it's slightly closer to the feel of Porcupine Tree album. I suspect I'll play this quite frequently, whereas I doubt I'll bother with 'AND' more than annually, if indeed ever again.
I'm not going to write a detailed review, but in summary, the main elements I disliked in 'AND' are absent from its predecessor (which doesn't exactly inspire hope for their next release).
As I said in the earlier posting, the mismatch between 'hard' and 'soft' tracks diminished both; some of the 'ballads' (not the correct term, but I don't know what is) weren't bad in isolation, but didn't work when set against more driving rock tracks. Had they been on different albums, I might have appreciated them more. This time, the balance between 'hard' and 'soft' tracks is far better (i.e. more like 70-30 than 50-50), and that distinction is less apparent. It's intelligent, melodic rock, not metal, and nor are there any outright 'ballads'.
It's a downbeat album (of course - I wouldn't be remotely interested in 'life-affirming' fluff); some of the lyrics could be described as 'mopey' but the combination of guitar rock and keyboard textures retain some tension, and there's no maudlin wailing. Any gnashing of teeth is fairly genteel, too - energy is conveyed by the threat of all-out 'rawk', which actually arrives only rarely.
One lesser criticism I'd repeat is that as on 'AND', one track prominently features a female guest vocalist, which I still don't think adds anything worthwhile.
However... I can't be completely positive. Several bands achieve a high standard of musicianship, material and production, and 'A Fine Day To Exit' does display those characteristics, but some artists go further - they have an undefinable extra quality which elevates them from 'very good' to 'great'. I'm afraid that having listened to two Anathema albums, I've yet to hear that special 'it' that would truly grab me.
25 January, 2005
I suppose ProgAID might have the beneficial effect of making disaster victims realise it could all be so much worse. I'd certainly pay this lot to shut the **** up.
More seriously, I do have to question the motivations of minority-interest artists band(wagon)ing together to release a neo-prog charity single (a what!?) over a month 'late' - self-publicity, anyone?
18 January, 2005
New OSI album!
Wahey! I've just discovered that Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) will be producing a new album this year. This has blown Porcupine Tree's 'Deadwing' out of the water as my most anticipated album of 2005.
OSI's eponymous debut album was my favourite album of 2003, by a long way. It also helped me to discover another of my favourite artists, Kevin Moore (working as Chroma Key) and another of my all-time favourite albums, his 'Dead Air For Radios'.
OSI is Jim Matheos (Fates Warning), Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater), Kevin Moore (Chroma Key, ex-Dream Theater) and Sean Malone (Gordian Knot). I suppose it's only fair to mention that my liking of OSI and successful discovery of Chroma Key was balanced by failed experiments with Dream Theater and Fates Warning albums - I won't be buying more by those bands!
That's an oblique way of saying OSI sounds like a much heavier, guitar-orientated version of Chroma Key (keyboard-led music with numerous atmospheric samples), and rather less like those big-name prog-metal bands.
17 January, 2005
Of course you want some
I'm pleased to say that the charity concert by The Ugly Jug Band last Saturday (8 Jan.) at The Whittle (Golden Lion, for incomers and foreigners), Lancaster (UK), as reviewed by Cliff, raised an astonishing £300 for the tsunami relief fund. Well done Andy, Steve and in particular, audience!
Everyone who attended fully deserves to see the band again, basking in awe (and maybe a little shock) at their frequent appearences in The Whittle and the John O'Gaunt. In some small way, you'll never be quite the same again. Lancaster has a number of good bands, but The Ugly Jug Band are something else.
You could even buy their very reasonably priced CD, 'Do You Want Some?' (or a copy of it, anyway). Laugh, cry, and stamp your feet until it stops.
16 January, 2005
Review: A Natural Disaster (Anathema, 2003)
An advantage of the 'PT-Trans' Porcupine Tree discussion group is that other bands are occasionally mentioned which may be of interest to fans of Porcupine Tree*. One such band repeatedly cited favourably has been Anathema. Their having been the support band at Blackfield's London debut concert on 10 September boosted my mild curiosity, (though I hadn't particularly enjoyed a recording of their set), as did the inclusion of a track from their latest album, 'A Natural Disaster', on the October 2004 'Classic Rock' magazine cover disc, a sampler of 'contemporary prog'. I liked that track, 'Closer', so bought the album, even though a couple of brief (20-30 seconds) online samples of other songs at the band's website had failed to impress.
I'm reluctant to compare bands to others – few artists like to be pigeonholed – but a benchmark is useful for those who haven't heard their music. However, Anathema isn't particularly similar to other bands with which I'm familiar (possibly not a good sign, on reflection). Their use of strong guitars and percussion over keyboard textures is a characteristic they share with Porcupine Tree, but I don't think they sound similar.
Now I've heard it a dozen or so times, over a couple of months, I have very mixed feelings about 'A Natural Disaster'. To borrow a cliché, it's an 'album of two halves':
A common characteristic of five tracks is a keyboard-dominated, near-ambient beginning, the gradual introduction of percussion and guitars building to a hard-rock climax, typically dropping back to an ambient close. I'd expected this style, and the (very) tangential similarity to Porcupine Tree helps. I like these tracks; I wouldn't rate them as all-time favourites, but they bear repeated listening.
The remaining five tracks were something of an unpleasant surprise, being altogether too much like ballads for my taste.
The opening song, Harmonium is a good, loud but slow-paced rock track, particularly enjoyable through headphones. However, played on a normal CD player, not giving it my full attention whilst cooking, my second impression was that without the richly textured soundscape, it sounded very ordinary. I'm not sure what that says; that it's poor background music isn't really a criticism.
Balance: Apart from the clarity of the vocal delivery, this could be compared to mid-Nineties Radiohead.
Closer: Apart from something lost within the cacophonic (in a good way!) climax of the song, all vocals are fed through an electronic filter, making the words themselves indistinct but emphasising their use as a musical instrument, almost a modulated drone. Like 'Harmonium', the track builds slowly from a largely electronic beginning, gradually adding drums and guitars for the first half, further adding feedback and energy for another minute, then dropping back to the initial state. This track was included on Classic Rock magazine's October 2004 sampler CD of modern 'prog'. It isn't an obvious representative of the rest of the album, though on repeated listening I do hear common elements.
Are You There?: My first reaction was "no, I'm not". I hadn't expected something so close to a ballad, and it wasn't a particularly pleasant surprise. On repeated playing, it's not so bad, and entirely listenable; I don't feel a need to skip it, though nor would I regard it as a highlight.
Childhood Dream: An odd, short (2:10 min) track consisting of a keyboard melody over an electronic drone and the wordless chatter of a baby. Good through headphones, the stereo soundscape is mildly startling towards the end!
Pulled Under At 2000 Metres A Second: Another quiet, ominous beginning dominated by keyboards, this song builds quicker, kicking into an all-out angry rock track after a minute or so.
A Natural Disaster: The downbeat title track is my least favourite. I don't think the female vocals add anything, and the male vocals in the final minute are just annoying. The change of pace and tone from the foregoing song also jars. This song sounds like something from an entirely different album and even band – not one I'd be interested in hearing again.
Flying: Maybe it's just me, but the vocalist seems to be attempting an impression of Morrissey – and I'm not a fan. I'm not criticising it as in any way inferior, it's just not something I'd choose to hear often. That said, it sounds better loud, somehow shifting the emphasis towards the instrumental elements, and the latter (non-vocal!) half of the track is much more enjoyable.
Though not overwhelmingly wonderful, I quite like five of the first six tracks on the album, but the presence of this and the previous song does give me serious doubts.
Electricity: Another low-key 'ballad'. Pretty good, but again, quite a contrast to earlier tracks on the album, which are much more to my taste. In isolation, I quite like 'Electricity'. Having adopted the mindset instilled by the earlier, harder tracks, it simply seems a little out of place.
Violence: Very good. An instrumental distillation (if the longest track on the album can be termed a distillation!) of the feel of the other rock tracks: a near-ambient, keyboard-led intro gives way to a high-energy, and building, section dominated by electric guitars/feedback and drums. This fades out rather abruptly to be replaced by an introspective piano-led piece, itself giving way to an ambient drone; hence the end mirrors the start of 'Harmonium', neatly closing the album much as it began.
So; I don't have one, conclusive opinion of the album. I do like the heavier, rockier material, though it's a bit forgetable ('good', not 'great'), but I'm less impressed by the lighter (musically, not emotionally), more mopey tracks, two of which I just skip outright. If all Anathema albums were like this, I'd walk away; experiment failed.
However, I asked an existing fan of the band (Hi Adam!) whether 'A Natural Disaster' is representative of Anathema as a whole, and whether it's a suitable place to start investigating their catalogue. Apparently it isn't; it's "quite a change of style" from previous albums. This may have been a reason for some of my disappointment as, expecting Opeth, I encountered Morissey. Away from the context of a 'rock' album, some of the other songs actually aren't so bad (if not entirely to my taste); my expectation may have been at fault.
'A Fine Day to Exit' was recommended as a good first impression, being most like Porcupine Tree, whilst earlier albums are "heavier/darker". That's reassuring, and I'll probably try the recommended albums and earlier ones some time – the heavier the better.
*: Conversely, an advantage of the 'Dark Matter' Porcupine Tree group is that discussion is fairly strictly 'on-topic', avoiding significant digression into other bands than P-Tree and directly-related projects. The approaches of the two groups are complementary.
15 January, 2005
A bit of feedback on discussion at Dark Matter of Porcupine Tree's forthcoming single 'Shallow', mentioned on Thursday:
I'm amazed by the negative reaction to this song - and am a bit worried by the lack of faith and the extremely premature, cold and blunt criticism by some people.
No, I have no
'faith' in any
artist - that's fundamental to my character. A band needs to prove itself afresh each time. That's in the nature of being progressive. Concepts such as 'faith'
have no place in my listening habits.
14 January, 2005
If you've wandered over to the other departments of the Ministry (links at the foot of each page), you'll know that I, or rather, we, trade unofficial concert recordings, like-for-like, never for money. These are covert recordings made by audience members, or preferably taken directly from the mixing board (soundboard) or from radio/TV/web broadcasts.
It's a practice of borderline legality, but the bands are generally okay with it so long as a small number of common-sense rules are never broken. One is the money issue. CD-R trading is the sharing of recordings, for free, amongst fans who aready have a legitimate copy of every official release. It's not commercial bootlegging, deriving an immoral income from the work and creativity of the bands.
Another 'rule' is that long-out-of-print official releases are also discreetly traded, but current or imminent official releases are never, ever to be traded. Sometimes recordings go out-of-print temporarily, such as when an existing contract lapses before the new label is able to integrate an older item of the back catalogue into its release schedule.
The important point is that in such circumstances, if the band says a lapsed release will shortly be returned to sale, it may not be traded.
The example which inspired this entry is Bass Communion's 'Droneworks 6', which was recently withdrawn from sale on the Twenty Hertz label, for unspecified reasons. In announcing the fact on 19 December, Steven Wilson also said clearly that it would return on his own Headphone Dust label in 2005. Therefore trading would directly diminish his potential market, which is unacceptable.
To restate, for the search engine robots and the hard of thinking: Bass Communion 'Droneworks 6' is not fair game for trading.
[Update 28/02/05: From March, it's available again officially, on a produced-on-demand basis from
13 January, 2005
'Shallow', well, is
Though we still have a while to wait until the 21 March release of the new Porcupine Tree album, 'Deadwing' (the special edition will be available by preorder before that date), their record label included one track, 'Shallow', on a sampler CD issued to radio stations. Possibly breaking some sort of embargo, WWUH FM, in Hartford, Ct., broadcasted it last Sunday. P-Tree fans being what they are, the simultaneous web feed was recorded and made available unofficially, so the 'hardcore' fans (for once, I'm including myself in that clique) have already heard it. I won't offer a link, as the download has already been removed, understandably.
Also understandably, the Dark Matter Yahoo! Group, frequented by that 'hardcore' and those close to the band (promoters, instrument techs, etc.), has seen a lot of discussion of the track. It'd be a fair summary to say that the majority view is negative, and even those stating more favourable views are hoping it's unrepresentative of the album as a whole. 'Shallow' is to be released as the first single (as a promo available to radio stations in the US, but only available for sale in Europe, with non-album bonus tracks), so maybe they've deliberately chosen something instantly accessible and commercial.
[Update 29/01/05: it is available for sale in the USA, after all, as a download single]
[Update 31/01/05: Wahey! 'Shallow' isn't going to be the CD single!]
I'm afraid I'm underimpressed too. It's not awful - actually it's okay; pretty good at very high volume, really - it's just so, well, mainstream. At least for the first 20-30 seconds (which matter!), it really could be anyone. Nothing at all stands out as special, or grabs me. As was said at Dark Matter:
If Shallow came from a band I didn't know I wouldn't be making an effort to hear more.
Hence, I think I'm saying this is a poor choice for a single, if the purpose of a single is to showcase the range and typical sound of a band, and draw potential fans into the album and back catalogue.
I wouldn't say 'Shallow'
is 'bad'; I think it'll be fine in the context of the album, but not in isolation or as a highlight of the album - I hope....
So, when the single does come out and receives airplay, if you've never heard Porcupine Tree before, please don't base your entire opinion on this one song - they're better than this!
[Update 18/02/05: Brief samples of the German single, 'Lazarus' are now available in various websites. The fan response to this one has been entirely different: universally positive. That's better!]
2 January, 2005
Not me too
When I hear an unfamiliar album, I can usually discern the aspects which attract others, even if it's not to my personal taste. However, I've listened to my sister's copy of a U2 'greatest hits' album today, and just don't get it. It's entitled 'Pop', though it isn't the 1997 album of that name but an unauthorised (i.e. pirate) compilation made (and bought) in Malaysia. K. tells me that some of the tracks have been transferred from the original albums at the wrong speed, which won't help, but still, material and performances as good as they're alleged to be should be apparent even in an imperfect copy. The 'The Joshua Tree' tracks are familiar, and the distinctive guitar sound of that album does add something unique (though that too becomes repetitive), but the remaining majority of this tracklist* is, well, ordinary.
U2 is reputed to be one of the most popular bands in the world - so what am I missing?
*: Discotheque/The Fly/Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me/Angle (sic.) of Harlem/One/When Love Comes To Town/Ever Better Than The Real Thing/Mysterious Ways/I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For/With Or Without You/Where The Streets Have No Name/The Unforgettable Fire/Desire/Until The End Of The World/Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses/All I Want Is You
NP: K's copy of U2's 'The Best Of: 1980-1990'. Better, though I doubt I'd buy my own copy.
25 December, 2004
Slime on weed
I'm a little surprised it hasn't happened before now, but one of the 'Ministry weeds', the unofficial concert recordings I 'remastered' (cleaned up the audio and indexed into separate tracks) and distributed for free amongst CD-R traders, with artwork prepared by a professional graphic designer (er, me), is being sold on eBay by some parasitic ****.
Thankfully, it hasn't received any bids yet. The asking price is £17.95, or $34.72 - as I said, I made it available for free, and continue to do so.
As copyright holder of the artwork, I've contacted eBay, but the auction will probably close anyway before they respond.
If you've reached this blog entry whilst researching the item before buying it - do not buy it. Contact me instead.
Never, ever buy bootlegs. Anything a commercial bootlegger may offer at a price is always available for free (well, the cost of blank CD-Rs and postage) from a trader.
15 December, 2004
Deadwing not left wing
Since it was confirmed that the forthcoming (retail edition: 21 March, 2005; special edition: earlier, by pre-order) Porcupine Tree album will be entitled 'Deadwing', and that it seems the probable cover image will be an eagle with a broken wing (its right), there has been bizarre speculation that the album will be an attack on the US political right wing i.e. the Republican party and Bush presidency.
There is absolutely no reason to believe this. In interviews dating back at least a year, Steven Wilson (SW) has said the content will be material associated with a film he'd like to make/collaborate on, with the stated theme of a ghost story. The track titles of the album have been well-known since June (see the 'news' page at Porcupinetree.com) and suggest no apparent political references.
Without wishing to appear rude, this presumption seems to display considerable self-obsession on the part of some Americans. Why would a British songwriter, in a British band, producing music aimed at a global audience (okay, primarily European/N.American, but not primarily US, anyway), dedicate an album to commentary on a foreign regime? If there are multiple possible interpretations of an album title, why choose an improbable one?
I suppose people like to think the world revolves around them. The USA is indeed a dominant participant in global affairs, but not that dominant. For SW to "jump on a US-bashing bandwagon" (which confuses criticism of Bush with criticism of the USA as a whole, but that's a different topic) would imply he, or any other Brit, cares enough to invest that sort of time, effort and creative energy on the government of a nation thousands of miles away.
14 December, 2004
Deadwing site open properly
The working version discovered by fans last week has been replaced by the real thing: a promotional website for the forthcoming Porcupine Tree album 'Deadwing' *.
The format is the same as the earlier version, with the same accompanying music loop, though the initial image on the jigsaw is different (the site is to expand and reveal more audio, video and other media relating to the album over the coming months, so maybe the other one will appear later in the promo campaign).
Again, it matters where on the screen the jigsaw is assembled. Try moving the second-from-left piece on the bottom row - just click and let go, and it'll jump slightly upwards into the correct position. Assemble the rest of the puzzle around that one, the image will animate, and a menu of further links becomes available, though currently only one (and 'back') is active, showing low-fi footage of the recording sessions. Presumably further menu items will be activated as the album release date approaches.
Speaking of which, the official release date is 21 March, 2005. Unless plans have been changed [update 29/01/05: they have], that'll be a simultaneous global release, both in standard CD and in 5.1 surround sound DVD-A formats. However, watch for the special edition (apparently to be the stereo and 5.1 mixes (hopefully two discs, not 1 dual-format disc!) in a hardback book featuring extra artwork), which will be made available for pre-order. And I do mean watch for it - SW likes to limit numbers, and they sell out rapidly!
*: [Update 22/10/07: S'gone: the 'Deadwing.com' domain expired on 23/09/07.]
8 December, 2004
Deadwing arriving (somewhere but not here)
The more... avid fans of Porcupine Tree have discovered a teaser website [link removed - see update] promoting the forthcoming Porcupine Tree album, which will indeed have the expected title of 'Deadwing', it seems, rather than the fans' preferred 'Arriving Somewhere But Not Here'.
That link is [was] to a page at westsidecreative.com, not the official Porcupine Tree site, which seemed a little worrying - might it be a hoax? However, the Westside Creative home page explains it's work in progress, which would logically be expected to be hosted by the developers.
The audio loop certainly sounds like P-Tree, and the graphics look like Lasse Hoile's.
The format of the teaser is a jigsaw rendered in Flash. Note that if one assembles the jigsaw on the faint line just above the title text, the pieces snap into alignment and the completed image animates.
It's almost impossible to comment on a single, short audio sample taken out of context, so I won't.
[Update 09/12/04: It's not entirely surprising that this content was withdrawn a short time after the band became aware that the fans had found it. I've removed the link, as it's dead.]
[Update 14/12/04: The finalised version is now available at its own permanent address. More comments here.]
*: [Update 22/10/07: S'gone: the domain expired on 23/09/07.]
17 November, 2004
This morning I participated in a 'missing lyrics' quiz about 1980s pop songs. My score was 24 (is that a percentage?), and that's with a 5-point bonus for saying where I saw the quiz.
I'm not entirely surprised. As I've said before, I had negligible interest in music until 1990. I bought my first ever album in 1980, and my second in 1987. I wasn't a school disco or pop culture sort of teenager, so the whole subject simply passed me by until University, even music I've subsequently come to like. I think a high proportion of the few lyrics I did recognise were from songs I've encountered more recently, not from the first time round.
I did listen to the radio occasionally in the 1980s, but almost always BBC Radio 4 (i.e. spoken material - news, plays, documentaries), very rarely music stations. That probably makes me sound precocious, but I doubt that's accurate; I was just brought up to be comfortable with silence.
Incidentally, I no longer listen to the insufferably smug Radio 4, either. I doubt I've switched my radio on at all within the last five years.
13 November, 2004
Just good music
Talking to K. last night, I happened to mention that I prefer to buy music CDs from musicians' websites whenever possible, and never from high street shops, as I'd rather see the retailer's portion of the cover price go direct to the artists. Besides, some of the artists I particularly like don't have mass-market distribution deals.
In response, she laughed, "you said it."
The inference was that a band with the financial approval of a global megacorporation is artistically superior to a band promoting and selling its own music independently. That's obviously a hideous generalisation, with which I disagree.
Only this week, I bought the new Bass Communion composition, 'Droneworks 6', on the Twenty Hertz label. In my opinion it's the best thing Steven Wilson has done under the Bass Communion title since BCII, yet this release, on an obscure Preston-based label, is so far below the radar of high street chainstores that it probably registers on sub-surface sonar. That it'll never appear in HMV or Virgin is utterly irrelevant; it's wonderful music (though admittedly a twenty-minute ambient drone might challenge the definition of 'music' for some).
I'd better state clearly that this doesn't mean I take the opposite view, that only 'underground' music is worthwhile and that anything on a well-known international record label is automatically trash - that's an equally ludicrous generalisation.
There's only music; some I like, some I don't (not 'good' or 'bad', just 'to my taste' or 'not to my taste'). How the metal-and-plastic carrier medium reaches my hand bears no relevance to the quality of the content.
28 October, 2004
Marillion at no.2
With Marillion's 'The Damage' at no.2 in the new UK official downloads chart last week, the Guardian gives them a little coverage today, including a (old) photo and prominent story on the Guardian Online home page (not archived; no point linking). The article includes BBC Radio 1's 'explanation' for their refusal to play the no.2 download single ("we don't have to") and a recap on Marillion's pioneering role in internet-based self-promotion independent of major label record companies, and concludes with predictable speculation on the future of singles charts.
Incidentally, the chart position was achieved without my assistance - I don't do downloads and felt no inclination to make an exception for something I'll be buying 'for real' anyway within a couple of months. The 'Marbles On The Road' DVD, recorded during the 'Marbles' tour was released a couple of days ago, featuring this same rendition of 'The Damage' - why would I need two copies of exactly the same thing?
Hence, I thought the download was poor value, and unlike the regretably uncritical hardcore of Marillion fans, I'm not prepared to support a band merely for the sake of offering unthinking support. My willingness to buy a new release has to be won afresh each time, on the merits of that release, never empty loyalty.
The single didn't satisfy that requirement, but I'd still recommend people buy 'Marbles On The Road' from Racket Records (i.e. the band) because they're exclusively offering a 2-disc version which won't be available from Amazon, high street stores, etc.
To modify John F. Kennedy's slogan, "Ask not what you can do for 'your' band; ask what's in it for you."
24 October, 2004
This is the story
The first 35 seconds of 'Some Might Say', from Oasis' 1995 album 'What's The Story (Morning Glory)?'. Sublime. Over the last couple of hours I've listened to this intro at least twenty times, (obsessive, me?), and the whole song three times.
For a long time, I was put-off this album and Oasis as a whole by media hype, but I finally bought it in a sale about a year ago, for 'Don't Look Back In Anger', one of my all-time favourite songs. Hype aside, it's just a damn good album, with quality writing and musicianship, and overflowing with attitude. It's a powerful contrast to the more intricate, occasionally even clinical music (no, that's unfair - it's emotive, just differently) I usually choose to hear.
Incidentally, 'Don't Look Back In Anger' is one of the few songs which strongly reminds me of a specific event, partly explaining its particular attraction.
In 1996, the BBC showed a wonderful drama series, 'Our Friends In The North', starring little known actors who have gone on to greater prominence (possibly because of this series): Christopher Eccleston, Gina McKee, Daniel Craig and Mark Strong.
As I explained earlier, weekly TV drama series were important escapism at that difficult time of my life, so the impact was intensified. I really looked forward to each episode, and didn't miss one, a loyalty I wouldn't dream of sustaining nowadays.
The premise was to follow the lives of four friends from Newcastle, from the Sixties to the present day, in nine episodes (1964, 1966, 1967, 1970, 1974, 1979, 1984, 1987, 1995), the end credits of which were accompanied by a contemporary pop hit from each year. As the final episode ended, an emotional moment, the song at number one on the broadcast date was played: 'Don't Look Back In Anger', which coincidentally fitted the context perfectly.
14 October, 2004
New Tull discussion forum now open
Just spreading the word about the new Jethro Tull discussion board at http://s6.invisionfree.com/tull/. Despite the er, non-intuitive URL, it looks promising, just needing a critical mass of members to sign up and establish a community.
There are forums for general (Tull-related) discussion, albums, unofficial recordings, concerts, past members, and other bands, but I'm pleased to see there's no 'off topic' forum or provision for arguments about international politics, which ruined the discussion forum at the official Tull website.
If anyone else was disillusioned by that snake pit (I stopped visiting about 18 months ago, but hear it's only worsened since then), you might like to try the new one - it seems you (we) are the target market.
14 October, 2004
Review: Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do (Sigur Rós, 2004)
This EP (mini-album?) has been mentioned frequently in a number of music discussion groups I visit. Typical conversations might be summarised as:
"I understand this is different to their earlier albums; what's it like?"
I thought I'd better elaborate on that!
It is indeed 'different'. Imagine Sigur Rós without the lead guitar, without the bass, without the drums, without Jónsi's falsetto voice. The stripped-down remainder is 'Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do'. In other words, this is almost impossible to identify as Sigur Rós material, but once one knows, one might detect (or impose) something of their characteristic 'feel', in music otherwise entirely dissimilar to that of 'Agaetis Byrjun' and '( )'. If you already like the band, there's no guarantee you'll enjoy this. A taste for, or at least tolerance of experimental music would help. It developed from a specific purpose, as part of Merce Cunningham's contemporary dance project 'Split Sides', as accompaniment and inspiration to the dancers rather than the focus of a listener's attention, and is arguably less successful away from that context.
'Split Sides' was made up of two alternative pieces of choreography, costume design, set design and music, the latter provided by Sigur Rós and Radiohead (it seems there's no intention to release a recording of their contribution). The combination of these elements was determined randomly on the night, by dice. The music and choreography were prepared entirely independently; the dancers first heard the music at the premiere (Brooklyn Academy of Music, 14 October, 2003 - hey, that's exactly a year ago!).
Sigur Rós' backing track incorporated recordings of Merce Cunningham's voice, his tap-dancing feet, and the dancers’ footsteps in their Manhattan studio. The band improvised over this live, using two sheet-fed music boxes, a glockenspiel and a 'bummsett' (a homemade percussive instrument comprising eight ballet shoes on a rack), closely watching and hence both inspiring and taking inspiration from the dancers.
The band took the results of the improvisation back to Reykjavik, recording 'Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do' in late November before participating in further 'Split Sides' performances in Paris in December.
The running time is under 21 minutes, one continuous piece indexed into three sections of approximately six, eight and six minutes. I think they work best in this sequence, but were intended to be played in any order.
'Ba Ba' begins with the sound of a musical box, playing slowly, as if powered by clockwork on the point of winding down completely. This is joined and gradually drowned by a simple, repetitive keyboard melody. Once the listener has had a couple of minutes to assimilate the resulting rhythms, further layers of keyboards are added, but before this develops, the keyboards merge to a drone and a more sonorous tone emerges over the original simple keyboard melody and musical box.
By the start of 'Ti Ki', the musical box, now plainly two musical boxes, is (are) in the foreground of the soundscape, accompanied only by the quiet noises of people moving around a room, a subtle 'crackle' which begins to mimic the multiple rhythms of a clock's mechanism as the boxes' notes become increasingly distorted. Some are reversed, others stretched to resemble sustained keyboard notes; the introduction of a simple piano melody halfway through seems a natural progression, though the overall effect is of multiple rhythms rather than a more conventional instrumental piece.
'Di Do' is the only track to feature vocals - interlaced fragments of Merce Cunningham speaking voice over possibly Native American wordless singing, all against a background of industrial white noise/an approaching underground train. This background gives way to keyboards, becoming louder towards the halfway point, even beginning to sound like a Sigur Rós track. Then everything suddenly breaks down into, well, noise - a cacophony of distortion which makes challenging listening. Yet a basic rhythm remains, and the musical box is also audible, as everything subsides, to silence.
I think I like it. Not one I expect to play frequently, but if I'm in a certain mood, or wish to induce it, I suspect this is a piece I'll reach for.
12 October, 2004
The acoustic version of Radiohead's 'Creep' accompanied by a stunning Flash movie. Watch. Repeatedly.
Via Green Fairy
(The Radiohead website is pretty good, too, if you didn't know)
27 September, 2004
So you think you know Marillion
When the plane carrying Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens, as was) was redirected from Washington DC to Maine for him to be refused admission to the USA, Marillion were on the same flight, a fact their marketing manager is still trying to milk.
I can't help finding it a little distasteful to exploit a chance non-involvement in a serious example of an alleged democracy equating criticism with terrorism: "it's none of your business, your clients aren't the story, shut up".
This is all a preamble to saying that the non-issue at least led me to an article in the London News Review about the attraction - and simultaneous repulsion - of Fish-era Marillion. Yes, that music was pompous. Yes, it was 'of its time', by which I mean I think the lyrics have dated, and would feel a little embarassed about listening to it in company (as would Fish, I suspect). Yet it's stirring stuff, and fun, and I like it.
Okay, that was another preamble, and here's the main point: Fish was a member of Marillion for four albums, departing in 1988. That's sixteen years ago. In that time, Marillion have released nine more, very different albums with h (Steve Hogarth): modern Marillion is not the band of 'Kayleigh' or 'Script For A Jester's Tear', and any comparison is pointless.
16 September, 2004
Marillion error at Amazon
Marillion have just confirmed that the 'Marbles On The Road' DVD listed at Amazon UK (and .de) is not a 2-disc set, as Amazon had claimed. The double-disc version will only be available direct from Racket Records i.e. the band.
15 September, 2004
Review: Out There (sampler CD, 2004)
The October 2004 issue of Classic Rock magazine included a free CD, entitled 'Out There - the future of prog rock'. Note that this was supplied with retail and subscriber copies in the UK, but only subscriber copies abroad.
I wasn't sure whether to buy it, as the magazine's portrayal of 'prog' seemed worryingly old-fashioned. The cover photo shows Alex Lifeson and Geddy Lee of Rush in their Seventies heyday, both wielding dual-neck guitars. An odd way to portray modern prog, though I realise an image from the (ahem) 'classic' era will sell more magazines than one from the current, 30th anniversary tour.
Similarly, the photocollage illustrating the article on modern prog features Fish in c.1983 facepaint, Marillion logo and all, Peter Gabriel in 1978 face paint, and (argh!) a youthful Rick Wakeman. Hardly relevant to today - could that apply to the tracklist selected for the CD, too?
A quick glance through the magazine revealed reviews of (modern!) Marillion and Blackfield and a few other intriguing articles, so I gave it the benefit of doubt.
As I've said before, I usually like progressive music (music, of any genre, which innovates) and tend to dislike 'prog' (music which adheres to the specific, named genre), so I approached this sampler with some trepidation. Some tracks confirmed my prejudices (positive and negative), others were surprising.
Asia - 'What About Love'.
I initially considered this my least favourite track on the cover disc; I had virtually nothing favourable to say about it, but I suppose it's catchy, in a cheesy retro way, and at least it's not the execrable IQ track.
This could be a bad pastiche of Marillion circa 1981 - the point Marillion passed before committing anything to commercial recordings. If this is 'the future of prog rock', welcome to the Eighties. The write-up in Classic Rock admits the track is a return to the anthemic rock sound of the 'Alpha' and 'Asia' albums, released in 1989 and 1990 respectively. Perhaps other songs on 'Silent Nation' (2004) are more modern.
Spock's Beard - 'The Bottom Line'.
A little too much like post-Gabriel Genesis for my taste, as is the whole 'Feel Euphoria' album. The Genesis similarity extends to other aspects of Spock's Beard: after the release of a stunning concept album ('The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway' and 'Snow', respectively), both bands lost their charismatic front-men and continued in a less compelling style.
The brief comments in Classic Rock say that Spock's Beard have been following a particular path since their 1995 debut, 'The Light', and that this track is "a perfect example of the Spock's Beard sound." I'd tentatively agree that it's representative of the new album, but less typical of the earlier ones, which had something more of a hard edge and higher energy, and which I would recommend.
Cave In - 'Youth Overrided'.
A surprising inclusion on the sampler, as this sounds like a 'mainstream' rock song, without overt 'prog' features (that's an observation, not necessarily praise/criticism). I suppose the arrangement is a little more intricate than a typical charts song. Pretty good, but not something I'd buy.
Nektar - 'Always'.
Not bad, but I would have preferred this as instrumental, eliminating the uninspiring lyrics and lead voice, which simply isn't to my taste.
Threshold - 'Static'.
Very ordinary; could be any hard rock band trying to do 'prog'. Unlike Asia, IQ and Maestoso, this song isn't actively embarrassing, but it's not something I'd listen to for pleasure, or recommend to friends.
Porcupine Tree - 'Sever'.
My favourite band, so I won't try to offer an objective judgement! This seems a very odd choice of song. One of the things I particularly like about Porcupine Tree is that they are genuinely progressive, not part of the static 'prog' genre. Each successive album has been distinctly different to its predecessor. More than most, Porcupine Tree would need to be represented by a recent track in order to convey an impression of what the band are doing now. Yet of the fourteen tracks on the sampler, eight are from 2004, five are from 2003 and one is from 1997: this one. It does feature essential elements of the ongoing Porcupine Tree sound, including strong guitars and atmospheric keyboard textures, but more superficially it's rather different to 2001's slightly 'poppy' 'Lightbulb Sun' or 2002's near-metal 'In Absentia', and quite probably unlike the forthcoming, as yet untitled, album expected in Jan/Feb 2005.
Anathema - 'Closer'.
I liked this almost immediately, and the positive impression increased on repeated playing. I couldn't specify why, but I think there's a slight similarity to Porcupine Tree. Perhaps it's the electronically-filtered voice (not that P-Tree use that heavily) and 'heavy' guitar sound combined with keyboard textures. Whatever; though I'd already heard favourable comments about Anathema, this track was the final trigger which inspired me to risk £12 on buying the album. In that sense, one might say the cover disc succeeded in it's purpose!
I'll review that album, 'A Natural Disaster', separately, but I might as well say immediately that 'Closer' isn't obviously typical of its content.
IQ - 'You Never Will'.
... bother to listen to a single note more of this awful pick'n'mix 'prog-by-numbers'. The chorus begins "I keep on hoping you'll do something real" - precisely my thought, but it's all been done before, too often, and, well, better. I've just played the song for the third and emphatically last time, seeking some (any) redeeming feature, and failing.
Almost always, I can respect a piece of music irrespective of whether it's to my personal taste. Not this time. This song actively annoys me; if I had paid money for it, I would have felt cheated. Classic Rock lavishes extraordinary praise on the new album, 'Dark Matter', but I couldn't disagree more. Utter rubbish.
Amplifier - 'One Great Summer'.
I liked this song, a rock anthem with a brain, and will try to find online samples of others when I have an opportunity, but this track alone didn't inspire a purchase. The vocalist's voice was particularly compelling, for some reason; perhaps it's the novelty of an English regional accent I rarely encounter.
Blackfield - 'Open Mind'.
Already have, already like (a lot). This is one of the heavier tracks on the band's debut, eponymous album (see review). Those tempted by this song might like to bear in mind that about 70% of 'Blackfield' resembles the quieter first verse rather than the rockier middle sections.
Opeth - 'Hope Leaves'.
Another I like and already have, so I won't comment further, beyond questioning whether it's a fair representation of the band's usual output. It's important to mention that Classic Rock make the common error of saying that Opeth, under the (often overstated) influence of Steven Wilson (producer of the last three Opeth albums) have evolved from being a leading death metal band to become an 'ambitious progressive rock band', implying that 'Damnation' (2003) represents a permanent realignment of their career. That's incorrect. Opeth are still a 'progressive death metal' band, 'cookie monster' vocals and all, who have released one non-metal album, 'Damnation' as a one-off experiment. Its partner release, 'Deliverance' is solely metal, whilst their foregoing albums are metal with gentler interludes. Offering a non-metal song on the sampler could be considered a bit misleading. It also makes me wonder whether the other tracks on the cover disc are truly typical of the bands.
Caravan - 'Revenge'.
Frankly, this was far better than I'd expected from a Seventies prog band, and the high standard of musicianship is undeniable; full marks for technique. Rather lower marks for artistic elements, though. Excellent playing - and it is - doesn't mask uninspiring material. The vocal melody and lyrics were particularly clichéd, and the piece lasted a minute longer than I was able to sustain any interest.
The Flower Kings - 'Starlight Man'.
I used to like TFK, but this sort of kitsch is one reason my interest lapsed! No, Roine, you can't be my 'guardian angel and starlight man'. Maybe that lyric would have been less laughable thirty years ago....
Considering their usual rambling pieces (my main criticism of 2002's 'Unfold The Future'), it's surprising that this is the shortest track on the cover disc.
So, I won't recommend this track from the new album 'Adam & Eve', (which I haven't heard, though the song seems representative of the direction they were heading in 2002). However, any of their earlier albums up to and including 'The Rainmaker' (2001) are worth trying.
Woolly Wolstenholme's Maestoso - 'Blood And Bones'.
Fifteen seconds in, I was cringing at the cheesy lyrics, and it didn't improve in the following five minutes. Just say no. Deny this stuff a market, and it might go away, no longer tarnishing (by association) the reputations of contemporary artists. That would give prog rock a future, whereas more of this dross could kill it.
10 September, 2004
Special T-shirts have been made for tonight's Blackfield show in London, featuring the album cover artwork on a sewn patch stitched onto a plain black shirt. Last night, Steven Wilson HQ announced that a few are also available to buy by mail order. See that site for ordering details (it's PayPal only).
I'm never quite sure whether it's worthwhile to repost such news. Firstly the number of readers who might be interested is regretably small, and secondly those who would be interested probably visit SW HQ anyway. Any thoughts?
[Update 14/09/04: My T-shirt arrived today. The album cover image presumably prints better onto a white T-shirt, as that's what was done, then the square of white material was stitched onto a black shirt. 'Patch' implies finished edges, but they're not, and I suspect they're going to fray. That's okay as some sort of artistic statement, but not ideal for the longevity of the shirt!]
8 September, 2004
I posted the following at the official Porcupine Tree discussion forum a few minutes ago, but there's a wider relevance, summarising my attitude to music as a whole, so I'll repost it here.
It's in response to someone who expressed a degree of guilt at 'failing' to find the debut Blackfield album absolutely wonderful (good, but not great), unlike more 'loyal' fans.
I like 'Blackfield'
quite a lot, but I wouldn't call it the best thing I've ever heard in my life! I can't imagine myself 'raving' over any album, really.
Though I might use the word occasionally as convenient mental shorthand, I really don't regard myself as a 'fan' (literally: 'fanatic') of any artist. The term 'critical admirer' was coined at a Jethro Tull forum a couple of years ago, and I regard that as a better description - I have a predisposition to like certain music, and hence certain bands, but I don't buy into personality cults and I don't mindlessly lap up whatever a band deigns to release, uncritically.
I have no loyalty to any band - each new release has to impress me afresh, and I don't feel I 'ought' to like something because it's by an artist whose material I've liked in the past. I'll listen to online samples of the next Porcupine Tree album, then decide whether to buy it - it genuinely isn't a foregone conclusion.
The same applies to other bands. My predisposition towards the music of Jethro Tull was enough reason for me to try online samples of 'Rupi's Dance' last year, but I didn't like what I heard, so I didn't buy that Ian Anderson 'solo' album. The fact I host the Tull Tour History, which features setlists of recent concerts, doesn't mean I have the remotest interest in attending one.
1 September, 2004
Regular readers of the blog might have caught occasional offhand mentions of a rather good band called Blackfield. Some might have followed my recommendations and are now enjoying the 2-CD international edition of the album (not the 'inferior' (SW's words!) single disc Israeli domestic release).
Others might be curious (if you regularly read the blog, you're probably downright odd, never mind curious). Try the audio and video samples at the official Blackfield website.
Alternatively, have a go at winning a copy. To celebrate the release of the debut, self-titled album, the Ministry, in association with Snapper Music, is hosting a prize draw for copies, including limited-edition vinyl. [NOW CLOSED]
31 August, 2004
New Porcupine Tree album on the horizon
A few days after it was announced at the official web site, I'm pleased to pass on the news that recording and mixing of the next Porcupine Tree album (as yet untitled) is finished!
Selecting 10-11 of the 14 songs recorded is the next stage, followed by sequencing and mastering in time for a worldwide release in January 2005.
A 5.1 mix ought to be available by the same date.
27 August, 2004
Review: Blackfield - international edition (Blackfield, 2004)
I reviewed the album itself in February when it was first released in Israel, so won't discuss it again here, other than to highly recommend it!
Those familiar with SW's work on Porcupine Tree's 'Lightbulb Sun' (but not really 'In Absentia') will notice obvious similarities, though Aviv Geffen's (remarkably similar) style has resulted in drastically shorter, more radio-friendly songs.
The packaging is a digipack with a plastic tray for one disc and a pocket in one arm of the 'gatefold' for the album booklet, which provides lyrics, artist and recording details for the main album alone. I don't always like digipacks, as cardboard is more prone to damage than plastic (and interchangeable) jewel cases, but this is a good example, with a plastic disc holder imparting rigidity to the whole package, and Lasse Hoile artwork throughout (with layout by Carl Glover, another of my favourite designers).
The bonus disc isn't mentioned at all, and doesn't have a tray of it's own. Instead, it is simply slipped into the booklet, unprotected, as if as an afterthought. This has attracted criticism from fans.
Some have argued that this allows the same packaging to be used later for a 'standard' release without the bonus disc, but I'm unconvinced.
Given modern printing technology, the omission of bonus track details from the digipack and booklet can't really be justified on grounds of cost alone; two print runs of, say, 1,000 of version 'a' (with bonus) and 9,000 of version 'b' (no bonus) can't be vastly more expensive than a single 10,000-unit run of version 'b'.
Even a plain card inner sleeve, like that used in the Bass Communion 'Ghosts On Magnetic Tape' album would have seemed less cursory.
It just seems a pity for otherwise excellent packaging to have such a half-hearted finish; the slight extra effort would have been appreciated
Another common criticism is that there are two discs at all, when the main album is only 36:51 minutes long and the bonus tracks account for a further 14:41 (10:40 audio plus 4:01 video). I don't really agree; it's about disparate compositions, not how much one can pack into the disc. The main album is one unit, independent of the bonus tracks, and I'm pleased they were kept separate.
I must stress that the packaging offers no information at all about the contents of the bonus disc, not even track titles. All credits are printed on the disc itself, so whilst it was playing, I had to listen 'blind'. The following comments were made on that basis, without any knowledge of authorship or participating musicians.
'Perfect World' is very good, certainly of the quality and style of anything on the main album. I don't understand why it was left off the album, unless it was judged to not 'fit' the overall composition. It certainly isn't a discarded out-take!
When I first heard 'Where Is My Love?', I presumed it was a cover song; it just seemed uncharacteristic of Blackfield, both in composition (relatively simplistic (only relatively!) and surprisingly repetitive) and delivery. At the same point in each verse line, SW lengthens/slurs the letter 'r' (in 'heart', 'your', and 'stars'), as if attempting to mimic an American accent. Very odd, and annoying.
That I guessed it was a cover of something by a crappy pop/prog band like Rush or Yes gives some idea of how much I like it! No; that's an overstatement. I don't dislike it, it's just not something I'd particularly choose to hear, and I'm glad it's not on the main album.
It was only afterwards that I took the disc out of the player and discovered that it's a Geffen composition. Terrific. Now I'm going to be accused of slamming Geffen. I honestly didn't know who wrote it, and my criticism is genuinely based on the music itself. I don't like it, but I promise that's not because it's by Geffen!
The live version of 'Cloudy Now', recorded by the five-piece band for Channel 24 (Israeli TV's music channel) in late February (that's not mentioned on the disc itself) is excellent, with the clarity and balance of a track recorded live in a studio, rather than in the uncertain acoustics of a concert venue.
Note that the credit printed on the disc is again 'written by Aviv Geffen and Steven Wilson', not Geffen alone. This reinforces the fact that it's not merely a transliteration (as opposed to translation) of Geffen's 1980's breakthough hit, which was unquestionably his own composition - the Blackfield version is different, with a substantive input from SW, and is credited as such.
It's good to have the excellent video of 'Blackfield' on the disc, though to be picky, anyone could already download exactly the same thing from Lasse Hoile's website.
I also noticed that in Windows Me at home, the video was very jerky in the player provided on the disc (fine in WinXP at work), and was much smoother when I played the mpeg in a standalone player (RealPlayer/Windows Media Player).
Did I mention that I recommend this album?
16 August, 2004
Ooh; a music meme!
The following are the answers at the time of writing - if you were to ask again tomorrow, I might answer differently.
First Record Bought:
Adam & the Ants 'Kings Of The Wild Frontier' (1980). The dual drum kits sounded great to my 9-year-old ears.
While I was at University there were numerous occasions when I happened to be in a room where a band was playing, but the first time I specifically went to see a named band was probably Jethro Tull in Zaragoza, Spain, 5/4/92. However, I didn't start to go out of my way to attend concerts until seeing Hawkwind here in Lancaster, 13/10/95.
Favourite Music Movie:
Pink Floyd: 'The Wall'.
Favourite Music Book:
'Nick Drake: The Biography' (Patrick Humphries, 1998), though that's by default, as I don't recall having read any other music-related books.
Until 1999, Ian Anderson. I can get as much enjoyment from reading his Jethro Tull lyrics as from hearing the songs themselves. However, I dislike the direction he's taken in recent years.
Favourite Record Label:
Inside Out, especially for their beyond-the-call-of-duty packaging. They also happen to be the record label/distributor of several of my favourite bands, which helps!
I don't regularly read any music magazines. I occasionally buy 'Record Collector' (perhaps once per year), for specific features.
Roger Waters or Dave Pegg.
Favourite Album Cover:
Favourite Teen Idol:
In my teens, I had no interest in music. At 32, I don't have much interest in 'teen idols'.
Artist Who Broke Your Heart:
I wasn't pleased when Ian Anderson 'mellowed'.
Artist You Will Always Believe In:
I'm not a loyal 'fan' of any artist - if a band ceases to interest me, I won't vainly cling to inferior remnants. At present, I like Steven Wilson's various projects (Porcupine Tree, Bass Communion, etc.), but it's possible his evolving interests could diverge from mine.
Singer Who Makes Your Skin Crawl:
Singer Who Makes You Swoon:
Er.... Sandy Denny had a remarkable voice. I like Alanis Morissette's and Cerys Matthews' accents, if not necessarily their material. But 'swoon'? No singer has that extreme an effect on me.
Album You Will Always Defend:
I rarely feel inclined to argue matters of personal taste. If you don't like OSI's 'Office of Strategic Influence', that doesn't detract from my enjoyment.
Album You Own That No One Else Does:
I presume that doesn't mean literally! I doubt many copies of Karmakanic's 'Entering the Spectra' were sold. Given a second chance, I wouldn't have bought it either.
Classic Album You Own but Don't Like:
Led Zeppelin 'IV'. I tried, but Led Zep does nothing for me.
Artist You're Supposed to Like but Don't:
Since I like Jethro Tull (1971-95), Genesis (1970-75) and Pink Floyd (1969-94), it's often presumed I also like Yes, Gentle Giant, ELP and similar art/'prog' rock. I DON'T.
Song You Can't Stand by an Artist You Like:
Most maudlin Fish ballads! To pick one semi-randomly: 'Say It With Flowers', from the otherwise excellent 'Sunsets On Empire'.
Band That Should Break Up:
Jethro Tull. Seriously.
Band That Should Re-form:
Shania Twain's 'Come On Over' was surprisingly good.
Favourite Music DVD:
For reasons I can't really explain, I rarely find/make time to watch music DVDs. Roger Waters 'In The Flesh - Live' is pretty good. Does 'Koyaanisqatsi' count as a music DVD?
Concert You Wish You'd Seen:
Pink Floyd's 'The Wall'.
I can't think of any; I don't dream of collaborations and 'what ifs'.
14 August, 2004
PT for PF - back online, here
Back in April, I recommended an article by Patrick Keller at 'Spare Bricks', the Pink Floyd webzine, which provided a good introduction to Porcupine Tree, specifically directed at existing fans of Pink Floyd.
Unfortunately, when the next 'issue' of 'Spare Bricks' was released, a new Patrick Keller article took over the same URL, displacing the Porcupine Tree one with an equivalent introduction to 'the other PT', Pineapple Thief.
I'm pleased to say both Patrick and the 'Spare Bricks' editor, Mike McInnis, have granted permission for the Ministry to host a copy of the Porcupine Tree article, at least until 'Spare Bricks' incorporates its own archive of 'back issues'.
12 August, 2004
DIY without A&R
Read this article in the Guardian, about Groovelily, a band thriving without a record company by organising everything themselves with the considerable assistance of dedicated and internet-literate fans.
3 August, 2004
Limited editions limit
Over the past few days, the official forum at porcupinetree .com has seen a discussion about the nature of 'exclusive' collectors' editions of albums.
SW is notorious for releasing wonderful music in ludicrously small print runs - as I mentioned in April, 'Unreleased Electronic Music v.1' was, er, released in a run of merely 100 copies worldwide (which sold out in hours), later extended to 350. That's an extreme example, but far from unique. If you look at SW's page at the Porcupine Tree web store, you'll note that a majority of the items are limited to 1,000 copies, and several of the remainder have already sold out (so buy now!).
He has explained in interviews that it's partly a deliberate attempt to encourage collecting - if resources are scarce, it increases the 'thrill of the chase' and sense of satisfaction at managing to 'capture' a rare edition after a long, difficult and expensive search. Personally, I regard the whole practice as childish, encouraging exorbitant prices at eBay, and to be discouraged, but that's just me.
My own view is that if music is considered suitable for release at all, it ought to be made available in numbers which would satisfy everyone who would be interested in hearing it. This means print runs in the thousands, or, as with the 'Bass Communion III' official CD-R, sales on a 'manufacture on demand' basis. [Update 02/08/07: Since discontinued!] The music shouldn't be exclusive.
This doesn't totally preclude special collectors' editions - they're not my thing, but I wouldn't want to deny them to those who do enjoy that aspect of a bands output.
As I understand it, collectability is about the item: that specific piece of plastic, in that specific packaging. Exclusivity of that sort of thing is fine. Those who want that 'added value' can hunt for it. However, I strongly feel the core 'product', the music itself, ought to be made fully available - not free, but available in whatever numbers the mass-market will stand.
My solution would be to release two editions:
- Unlimited release, for everyone. If they sell out, produce more.
- Limited release, with exactly the same content, but unique packaging, coloured vinyl, etc. Something 'exclusive' for the collectors, but which still allows everyone else to have full access to all the music. Don't make the music exclusive.
One response was:
But to release everything in large numbers defeats the object of collecting/collectability. If there are other versions of something limited on the market, that devalues the limited edition version.
I disagree. If someone buys a version of an album as 2 CDs in a limited-edition 124-page hardback book with unique artwork, itself in a study slipcase, he/she has something special, a true collector's item. If other people have exactly the same music as 2 CDs in a standard jewel case, that doesn't diminish the special edition. No-one misses out on the aspect they value most: the collectability or the music.
There is a secondary issue, on which I won't elaborate as I'm a little short of time: it's highly debatable whether over-use of 'limited editions' as a marketing device really helps to promote a band. If a large proportion of the back catalogue is unavailable, that merely leads to frustration and resentment.
22 July, 2004
A survey reported at The Register (found via Neil) correlates IT professionals with their musical tastes. I'm not quite sure whether the stereotypes overlap for those of us who don't fit into the quoted categories. For instance, my role might be described as web design/admin/support, whereas my musical taste is for contemporary (not 'classic'!) prog, (some) death metal, and dark ambient.
21 July, 2004
Bass Communion InteractiveDJ Mix in circulation
At the start of March 2000, Steven Wilson combined several excepts from his ambient projects (primarily Bass Communion) into a single 60-minute mix for the (now defunct) InteractiveDJ website. Material was drawn from 'Bass Communion', 'Bass Communion II', 'Bass Communion Vs. Muslimgauze', 'IEM' and the IEM EP 'An Escalator To Christmas', plus unreleased material which subsequently appeared on 'Bass Communion III' and 'SW Unreleased Electronic Music v.1'. A couple of further pieces remain unreleased and hence unique to this mix.
With the loss of the InteractiveDJ website, the mix is regretably unavailable, so it is currently circulating amongst fans strictly on a non-commercial basis. If anyone's interested, try the PT-Weeds Group at Yahoo! (Yahoo! Groups require free registration).
A second reason to mention it here is that I completed the downloadable CD cover artwork this evening.
20 July, 2004
That's not alright
Reuters report that copyright is imminently due to expire in the UK on seminal rock'n'roll recordings.
Elvis Presley's 'That's All Right' was arguably the first example of the genre, and coincidentally entered the UK singles chart at no.3 this week, but it will also enter the public domain on 1 January, 2005.
"I regard this week's anniversary as a wakeup call and a call to arms to step up a gear or two in our campaign to lobby for a similar term in the EU
," said Peter Jamieson, executive chairman of British Phonograph Industry, in a recent speech.
Jamieson added, "The end of the sound recording copyright on the explosion of British popular music in the late '50s and '60s, not just the Beatles, but many other British artists, is only a short period away. If nothing is done they will suffer loss of income not just for their sales in the UK but their sales across the globe."
My first thought was "So what? Who cares if record companies lose the monopoly they've already had half a century to exploit?"
However, this also directly affects the artists who created these recordings. It's downright insulting for others to derive commercial benefit from someone's work without paying royalties, whilst the writer/performer is still alive and potentially reliant on that income.
Under US legislation, sound recordings are copyrighted for 95 years from the day of recording (in the USA). For recordings made after 1976, protection extends until the 70th anniversary of the artist's death. This makes a lot of sense, providing for the artist plus his/her immediate descendants; until reading this article, I'd thought that was the internationally-agreed situation.
Now, if there was some mechanism whereby a record company lost exclusive rights to a recording after 50 years but subsequent users still had to pay royalties to the artist, I'd have no complaints.
Found via Lost Pilgrim
NP: A Perfect Circle - Mer de Noms. I've listened to this 7-8 times over a couple of months, and am no more impressed than the first time. I'd recommend 'The Thirteenth Step', but not this one.
20 July, 2004
You have to see/hear this
Neil Gaiman mentioned this in his blog, but I have to, too.
Fredo Viola has published a Quicktime video (35Mb) for his 'The Sad Song', entirely composed of 15-second .jpg movies from his compact digital (stills) camera, reconstructed in AfterEffects.
More than just a technical exercise, this complements an excellent piece of music, itself quite a discovery!
There's also an audio-only (9Mb .mp3) version.
NP: Fredo Viola - The Sad Song
19 July, 2004
'The Pineapple Thief 4' coming soon
Bruce Soord of Pineapple Thief has just confirmed that the fourth album (seemingly still untitled, unless 'The Pineapple Thief 4' (TPT4) really is the title!) is very nearly ready for release. To maximise exposure by avoiding the congested pre-christmas market, the official worldwide release is scheduled for January 2005. However, a special edition will be sold on a pre-release basis in September.
Note: The official Pineapple Thief website is frames-based, so the following links will go to pages lacking a navigation menu. You might prefer to go in via the 'front door' instead.
An 8-min trailer can be downloaded via the 'Listen' page of the website, which also offers samples of the back catalogue.
During the production of 'Variations On A Dream', Bruce was told that the record company, Cyclops, would like to release a limited edition of the album featuring a second disc. They were thinking of unreleased, live, or remixed tracks, but Bruce went further: an entirely new album, '8 Days', was written, performed, recorded and mixed over er, 8 days. A single track was started and completed each day, with two tracks finished on Saturday and Sunday respectively. This limited edition release sold out rapidly, but the experiment is to be repeated for TPT4: during the second week of August 2004, Bruce will produce '8 Days Later'. This will be distributed exclusively with the special edition of TPT4, and is limited to 1000 copies.
The pre-release edition of TPT4 will feature a further three bonus tracks which won't be on the January 'official' version.
See the online shop for more details and to preorder TPT4 (i.e. pay now) or reserve a copy (i.e. pay when it's ready for despatch).
NP: Bass Communion - Remixed
16 July, 2004
Back in the top ten?
According to Marillion's eWeb, it seems the second single (or pair of singles, really) from 'Marbles', 'Don't Hurt Yourself' would have been at number 9 in the UK singles chart on Wednesday, if the charts were officially published on Wednesdays. That seems a somewhat spurious statistic, on reflection, but I suppose it was intended to spur people to buy more in time for the official chart on Sunday.
As is this posting, I suppose, though personally I'm buying from Amazon (1,2) which probably isn't a chart-return retailer. There's always HMV - yeah, right.
[Update 20/07/04: They reached no.16 in the official (Sunday) chart.]
15 July, 2004
Review: Ozric Tentacles studio albums
I've just written a series of very brief reviews of the Ozric Tentacles' studio albums at Rate Your Music, so I might as well post them here too.
Pungent Effulgent (1989) 3/5
I like most Ozrics music, but their albums tend to be a bit 'samey'. This is no exception.
That sounds like a criticism, but isn't really - I do like it! It's just that if I accidentally put two Ozrics albums into each others cases, I doubt I'd notice next time I played either.
Erpland (1990) 4/5
Possibly my favourite studio album from the Ozrics (until 2004's 'Spirals In Hyperspace'). Or rather, the album which first featured a number of my favourite live tracks - they're always better live! 'The Throbbe' is a particular favourite track, but has developed over the years and is truly special live.
Afterswish (1991) 3/5
A good summary of the band's earlier cassette-only releases (1984-91), for some reason I rarely play this 2-CD compilation. It's okay....
Strangeitude (1991) 3.5/5
Overall, 'just another Ozrics album' - which is a good thing! However, 'White Rhino Tea' and particularly 'Sploosh' show signs of development in the band's sound, and have become highlights of the live set.
Live Underslunky (1991) 3/5
The Ozrics have always sounded better live, but somehow this official live album doesn't seem to have 'it'. I don't know why; it just doesn't inspire me.
Jurassic Shift (1993) 3/5
The best-known Ozrics album, but certainly not the best.
Arborescence (1994) 3.5/5
This is where I came in, so it probably means a bit more to me than the music objectively deserves. I do like it, but several Ozrics albums are so similar as to be interchangeable, and this doesn't stand out from the (excellent) crowd.
When the basic sound is so good, 'more of the same' isn't a problem!
Become the Other (1995) 3.5/5
Though the arrival of Seaweed introduced a slight techno element to the music, the transition was subtle, and this a slight evolution rather than a significant departure from the usual Ozrics sound.
Curious Corn (1997) (4/5)
If 'Erpland' was the highlight of the early-90s Ozrics sound, this is the single best album of the late-90s period; everything between them might be seen as a gradual transition, and most of those following 'Curious Corn' seem to be virtual clones of it.
I think this is the studio album I play most often (though I play live recordings more than any studio album!).
Spice Doubt (1998) 4.5/5
This is the live album 'Live Underslunky' should have been! Wonderful.
Floating Seeds (1998) 2/5
Ozrics tracks remixed by others.
Can safely be avoided.
Waterfall Cities (1999) 3.5/5
Good, but not a 'standout' album.
"Should I buy this album?" Yes; it's as good as any, though I wouldn't make it a priority purchase.
Swirly Termination (2000) NR
There was something strange about the release of this album - I believe the band's ex-label released it without their permission in 2000, and it wasn't until 2003 that it was properly released by the Ozrics. I haven't got round to buying it yet, but I'm confident I'll like it!
The Hidden Step (2000) 3/5
The usual 'more of the same' comment was wearing a little thin by this point - a bit more experimentation or evolution would have been good, and this feels like they were treading water.
The cover is annoyingly amateurish, too.
Spirals in Hyperspace (2004) 4.5/5
Excellent - their best in a long time.
This is predominantly an Ed Wynne solo album, with guest appearances by other members of the Ozrics, though that's not too obvious unless studying the album credits.
The production is wonderful; ambient drones, dub beats and electronic 'blips' occupying a proper 3D soundscape. Some of these tracks take the listener on a trip, in the sense of an auditory journey, nothing druggie!
If one was to buy only four Ozrics albums, this would have to be one of them. To answer the unspoken question, the others would be 'Erpland', 'Curious Corn' and 'Spice Doubt'.
I took a mere 1,200 words to review this album in April, so I'll leave it at that, here!
7 July, 2004
Review: Marillion, Manchester Academy, 1 July, 2004
Though I'm very familiar with all of their official albums and have heard over sixty unofficial concert recordings (not bootlegs!), this was the first time I'd seen Marillion live, in person, so I was understandably excited.
The trip from and back to Lancaster, via Blackpool and involving a 25-mile (41 km) cycle ride which got me home by 03:20, is another story, but "many thanks" to Rob and Liz for the lift, and "hello" to Zoë and Alun (not to mention his toasted mother).
We reached the Academy at about 19:45, only fifteen minutes after the doors opened and whilst there was still a significant queue of people waiting to go in, but we didn't join them until about 20:15, during the final song by the tour support band, 'Kid Galahad'.
From that admittedly brief sample of their material, I didn't feel we'd missed much. Theirs was the generic hard/indie rock of a thousand minor-league bands; I'm not saying they were technically or presentationally poor, but I didn't detect the spark of additional brilliance or creativity which might elevate them to being a top band.
I saw Porcupine Tree on tour at the Academy in March 2003 (probably my favourite concert ever), but that was in Academy 2 in the main University Union building whereas Marillion were in the larger Academy 1, a separate building next door. They filled it, apparently; according to Marillion.com the concert was sold out, though I didn't think it was that full. Maybe the front of the crowd was tightly packed, but there wasn't too much of a crush where we stood, about ¾ of the way back on the left.
I'm always intrigued by the composition of an audience, people-watching and spotting band T-shirts before the show. There was a surprising uniformity to the latter: well over a third of the audience seemed to be wearing Marillion T-shirts, but few other bands were represented. Surprisingly, mine was the sole Porcupine Tree top, so far as I was aware. Ages seemed to cluster around late thirties, though I saw a few young teenagers, presumably attending with parents. The gender balance was around 60% male, of which about a third had bald/shaved heads, 33% ponytails, and 33% 'vanilla'. I didn't notice many prog or goth stereotypes, but both were represented.
The stage layout was slightly odd. From the audience, Pete (Trewavas, on bass, for those unfamiliar with the band) was at the front left, with Ian (Mosley; drums) behind him. The drum kit itself meant that I only caught occasional glimpses of Ian's head throughout the show. h (Steve Hogarth; vocals, second keyboards, second guitar) was at the centre front, his microphone stand also holding four maracas and a tambourine. His keyboard was a little to the right. Steve (Rothery, guitar) was on the far right, in front of Mark (Kelly; keyboards) on a raised platform. During the show, Pete and Steve freely wandered side to side, though Steve seemed happiest in his place for his solos, amongst his monitors. Pete was very energetic, running across the stage and, for a mad moment, just bouncing on the spot.
As I'd known in advance, the concert was divided into two sets, the first comprising tracks solely from 'Marbles', the second featuring older material. Perhaps surprisingly, the first set featured the entire retail version of the album, pretty much in order, apart from 'Drilling Holes' being replaced by 'The Damage'. The second set disappointed some, as the chosen songs tended to be from recent albums and conformed to the same rather downbeat feel of the 'Marbles' material, apart from the final two 'live classics', which therefore themselves felt out-of-place.
This was a concert encouraging attentive listening rather than a wild sing-a-long - which suited me perfectly. I attend concerts to see a band and listen to their music; from the moment they appear on stage until the moment the lights go up after the encore(s), the rest of the audience are largely just a distraction.
Thankfully, the audience was very attentive, to a surprising degree, and it was obvious that most were familiar with the new material; there was almost no clapping in the wrong places, except on 'Quartz', which admittedly does end oddly. There was also negligible talking over the music, with one exception. 'The Hollow Man' started quietly, and suddenly the noise from the bar/back of the crowd was very evident; h certainly noticed, and some audience members called for silence. I don't know whether the band decided to abandon it, or whether they'd only planned to play the first minute or so of the song anyway (the setlist posted at Marillion.com doesn't mention it at all), but they segued straight into 'The Party', and regained the audience's full attention.
The lights were good, somehow avoiding the disadvantage of strong colours diminishing visibility, with the contrasting use of white light adding further clarity at key moments. Masked spotlights played patterns over the band members' faces, and picked out individuals in complementary colours, which was an attractive effect. Images from the album artwork were projected onto the backdrop, again with masked lights varying the colours.
Greeted by tremendous applause, Marillion were on stage by 20:45 (five minutes late), beginning with The Invisible Man. I'm not entirely sure why, but h started the show in a business suit & tie, with glasses and slicked-back hair. Perhaps it was a reference to 'invisibility' through anonymous uniformity. By the end of the song, the glasses, tie and jacket had gone.
The sound wasn't wonderful, slightly too much bass vying with over-shrill treble tones. It may have been my imagination, or my ears becoming accustomed to the volume, but the sound did seem to improve slightly after the first song. Overall, it wasn't bad, and I don't want to be over-critical, but I think I'd been spoiled by the wonderful sound quality of the aforementioned Porcupine Tree concert. One specific, and definite, criticism would be that many of Steve Rothery's guitar refrains, which I'd enjoyed so much on the studio versions, were totally lost in the live mix. His solos could have been clearer, too.
Marbles I was next. Though I am going to itemise the full setlist, I don't plan to comment on every song!
The drums on You're Gone sounded less like programmed percussion than the studio versions. Together with a 'freer' guitar sound, this sounded less contrived to be a hit single, and more like a Marillion song.
Angelina isn't my favourite track, but in evoking late-night, laid-back lounge jazz, it works on the album. In a live setting, I'm not so sure.
Marbles II was a great improvement on the album version, being considerably lengthened and including a guitar solo. This seemed to fill the song out in the live context, but I can appreciate the reasoning behind keeping the album version short and evocative of childhood.
This was followed by the first real break in the music, as h thanked the audience for the extraordinary greeting (triggering another burst of abnormally loud applause) and for getting the 'You're Gone' single(s) to no.7 in the singles chart in May. This was a suitable opportunity to mention the next single,'Don't Hurt Yourself', to be released on 12 July. Unsurprisingly, they played that song next.
Fantastic Place contains my favourite guitar solo (actually double-tracked, so a 'duet') on the album. Live, it was indistinct. Despite this disappointment, I enjoyed the rest of the song.
The Damage was the only all-out, upbeat song of the first set, and the first to inspire a visible, collective response from the crowd, closer to that I'd expected from a Marillion audience. That's not to suggest the crowd were lethargic or that the band failed to hold their attention - far from it; they were enthralled.
Neverland, sure to become a long-term Marillion classic, closed the 'Marbles' set.
The band then took a ten minute break. As we'd entered, I noticed a sign mentioning a 23:00 curfew, so by the time Marillion returned, only ~45 minutes remained for a second set comprising (slightly) older songs.
This Is The 21st Century ostensibly might have seemed an odd choice, and not entirely a crowd-pleaser, but it followed the tone of the 'Marbles' material perfectly, and is one of the few 'Anoraknophobia' tracks I particularly like, not least for the accidentally prophetic 9-11 reference (think about it).
Quartz isn't one of my favourites - the mildly clever central premise of the lyrics fails to carry a slightly boring, over-long song, even longer live than on the album.
Bridge/Living With The Big Lie - Much as I like the 'Marbles' material, somehow hearing the start of 'Brave', live, was the biggest thrill for me. One of my favourite bands playing one of my favourite (okay, and commonly-heard) parts of one of my favourite albums, right in front of me, for real, in person. Whee! I've started grinning again just thinking about it.
The Hollow Man/The Party - I've already mentioned the curiously abbreviated 'The Hollow Man', but I was pleased to hear 'The Party', one of the oldest songs of the evening (from 1991's 'Holidays In Eden'), and one I particularly like, yet not one of the 'big name oldies' which might have provided ammunition to critics seeking to write Marillion off as living in the past. In fact, I strongly suspect this was a motivation behind the choice of material for the whole concert: nothing from the Fish era, one from 1989, two from 1991, two (and a bit) from 1994, three from 2001 and eleven from 2004.
The main set ended with an obvious crowd-pleaser, Between You And Me, though that's still a recent song rather than something older, which many in the audience might have preferred.
The Uninvited Guest was a fairly obvious choice for an encore and an outing for h's cricket bat MIDI controller, but he reiterated that they had to obey the curfew and that the next song really would have to be the last of the evening.
Cover My Eyes somehow seemed an odd choice to close the concert, abandoning the audience on a high. There had been a second encore at the the previous show in Wolverhampton, 'Easter' which I'd loved to have heard and which would have been a more satisfying way to end.
The room took quite a while to clear after the show (leaving a carpet of beer cans and plastic glasses) so we had a quick glance at the merchandise stall while we were waiting. Nothing in particular caught my eye; the latest t-shirt designs seem aimed more at a stereotypically 'indie' crowd than the old 'neo-prog' audience; there were no new black t-shirts (which is the only type I'd consider wearing!).
Rob and Liz, who have attended several Marillion concerts, didn't rate this one especially highly, but I suspect that was partly due to their preconceptions of how a Marillion concert should 'feel' and the reduced novelty of having seen some of these songs performed live before. The overall tone was somewhat darker and introspective than I'd expected; this was no lightweight, 'fun' party. Yet that suited me perfectly, and I had an absolutely wonderful time.
6 July, 2004
The Guardian reports that a CD 'pirate' has pleaded guilty to fraud, specifically the commissioning, manufacture and sale of thousands of illicit CD recordings, netting £4-6 million over a decade. At the time of his arrest in 2002, the police seized more than 28,000 illicit CDs from his premises, with an estimated retail value of £500,000.
The Guardian makes the usual error in terminology: the offender was manufacturing and selling CDs derived from unofficial concert recordings, which are correctly termed 'bootlegs', making him a commercial bootlegger. If he had been cloning and selling direct copies of officially-released albums, they would be termed counterfeited or 'pirated' CDs, and he'd be a pirate.
Either way, I applaud the court case, as I'm always keen to distance myself, a CD-R trader, from parasitic bootleggers.
The former activity involves fans of bands, who have already bought every official release, swapping individual copies of unofficial recordings for free, merely to hear and enjoy the music.
Bootleggers have no interest in the music or artists, seeking to gain commercial benefit from the efforts of musicians, exclusively for profit.
There is absolutely no cross-over between traders and bootleggers, beyond traders actively denying bootleggers a market by occasionally obtaining copies of bootlegs, copying them, and trading them on for free. Incidentally, this doesn't mean traders are parasitically reliant on bootleggers to obtain source recordings in the first place; the vast majority are donated to 'the community' directly by the audience members who made the recordings.
Why would anyone pay for a recording openly available for free? Frankly, I was a little surprised to read of this court case, as in the 'age of the internet', the very activity of bootlegging is obsolete. We hear a lot about pirating, particularly illegal downloading of official releases (to restate: I totally oppose all such activities), but I'd thought large-scale bootlegging was (rightfully) dead.
I really hope sloppy journalism doesn't confuse the quite separate issues.
3 July, 2004
Busy with his money games
Interviewed by the Sunday Herald at the end of May, Ian Anderson gave some insight into the financial side of Jethro Tull.
The article is primarily concerned with another of his well-known interests, salmon farming (not salmon fishing, as is typically misquoted by journalists with preconceptions of how an aging rock star should spend his time), mentioning that he has recently reduced his involvement in the industry. His revenue from salmon farming and processing fell from £2.4 million to £278,382 over the year. However, as the final third of the piece discusses, touring and recording with Jethro Tull (and 'solo') has always been his priority.
The activities account for the bulk of the £1.8m gross profit in the Ian Anderson Group accounts. He and his wife Shona, the sole shareholders and directors, shared a £500,000 dividend and emoluments, excluding pension contributions, of £850,954. A modest pre-tax loss of £5806 was booked for the year but the balance sheet shows shareholders’ funds stand at £3.2m. Income included a payment of £209,517 following one of the rock group’s regular checks on its flow of royalties.
Anderson says: “The likes of Jethro Tull are going to get around £2m a year in royalties and now and again you may audit your record company and get another payment on top. Whenever we do an audit on record companies it seems that they owe us money, not the other way round.
“While we have seen a drop in record royalty income of 20% in the last five years, the touring business has held up. Allowing for inflation we are just about on an even keel, as we have been in the last 20 years.”
30 June, 2004
Review: Unreleased Electronic Music Vol.1 (Steven Wilson, 2004)
As mentioned in April, Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree, Bass Communion, IEM, Blackfield, No-Man, etc.) has released a special album of his more beat-driven electronic music, previously unreleased but mentioned in interviews. Overall, this has several of the elements I like in the Bass Communion and IEM projects, but the inclusion of catchy, almost danceable rhythms renders this more immediately accessible than those albums. I already rate it as one of my favourite non-Porcupine Tree SW albums.
Unfortunately, this review serves little practical purpose; I can't recommend that you rush out and buy a copy, as there are none for sale. The initial batch was limited to 100 copies, which sold out within hours. Demand added a further 250 copies, but they were sold by preorders, and that process closed at the end of May. The first 100 of this second batch has been distributed (hence this review, as I have no.130), whilst those numbered 201-350 should be available (to those who preordered!) in the next couple of weeks. The staggered release is largely because each copy has a unique cover featuring a (real) Polaroid photograph taken by Lasse Hoile for the project. Mine is shown here, whilst David Schroeder hosts a gallery of many others.
'King Of The Delta Blues', a collaboration with Chris Lewis, includes a couple of vocal samples, one presumably of Robert Johnson, which gives a slight impression that this could have been produced by Moby in a really bad mood. A driving, in-yer-face piece.
SW is known to have done some work for TV adverts over the years, but has always declined to state which were his. Presumably the 56-second 'Observer Commercial 1998' was the soundtrack he prepared for a planned TV advert for The Observer, one of the main UK national Sunday newspapers. The fact that it's on an album of unreleased electronic music might imply that it was never broadcast; I don't recall it, though admittedly I don't watch much TV, so mightn't have seen it anyway. It's obviously derived from 'King Of The Delta Blues', so it's interesting to hear them together.
'Dub Zero' isn't a SW composition, but one by Chris Wild, remixed by SW in 1993. It has a dance beat, but retains an unsettling 'edgeiness', rather than being exactly a fun dance track. The dancer would be off in his/her own little introspective soundscape - it's not conducive to a 'loved up' communal experience. Or maybe that's just me.
'The Tobogganist' has a great start, as if a ball is bouncing on a guitar string, faster and faster, then moderating to a rapid yet realistic beat. Very familiar samples from another SW piece (frustratingly, I can't remember which - yet) are added, then, 40 second into the track, a harsh, 'industrial' beat kicks in, overlaid by characteristic SW echoing pings and phone-like tones. Overall, the piece is repetitive, which isn't necessarily bad, though I'm undecided whether it's excessive in this case. The final few seconds are a return to the initial bouncing beat accompanied by the ping, providing a very 'tidy' close.
The first minute of 'Shortwave' is reminiscent of the orchestra-tuning intro of Porcupine Tree's 'Even Less', combined with Vangelis' 'Blade Runner' theme, but again a strong beat asserts itself, adding layered cross-rhythms. Yet there is a strong division between the bass/percussion track(s) and the underlying, slowly undulating ambient choral tone, the first strong Bass Communion reference on the album. Halfway through, an indistinct sample of speech emerges, gradually becoming identifiable as extracts from shortwave radio stations. In the final minute, the ambient drones rise through the rhythm tracks, allowing the end to mirror the beginning.
'Telegraph Commercial 1996' was presumably for another TV advert, which again I don't remember, for The Daily (or Sunday) Telegraph, another major UK national newspaper. Alternatively, this might be just the title SW chose, for reasons of his own!
A variety of voices state letters of the alphabet over a fast, high-energy rhythm, the layered complexity building for 45 seconds before the track really takes off, led by an electric guitar. Then, exactly a minute in, it stops.
Each time I listen to the album, I feel slightly overloaded by this point and need a rest. Most SW instrumental projects wash over a listener and draw one in, but this is far more confrontational.
Another collaboration with Chris Lewis, 'To Wear A Crown' uses microphone/digital crackle as elements of the rhythm; an interesting idea. As with 'King Of The Delta Blues', the title comes from a spoken sample.
The first without a strong rhythm track, all sounds on 'Nuclear Head Of An Angel' were originally generated by an acoustic guitar, including the apparently keyboard tones and a flutelike tone which accompanies the obvious acoustic guitar as co-lead instrument. Even that guitar sounds a little odd in places, as chords are played backwards. The piece ends with an accurate simulation of the wind.
'Nailbomber' features Theo Travis' saxophone in another fast, high-energy piece which could almost be a continuation of 'Telegraph Commercial 1996'. It's quite a contrast to the foregoing track. I'm not sure this abrupt transition really works for me, unlike those on the rest of the album; the sequencing is a particularly impressive aspect of 'UEM v.1'.
Belying its aggressive title, 'Slut 1.4' features trip hop rhythms shifting around a 3D soundscape and over ambient drones, most of which gradually become more shrill and discordant in the latter half, evoking a subterranean seabird colony (?). The occasional use of white noise is an interesting effect, somehow adding depth whilst remaining almost unnoticed itself.
The final track, 'Apres-mortes', builds a layered soundscape of keyboards, a 'brushed' drum track adding a subtle yet rapid (~155 bpm) pulse. That fades out after 8 mins, which wonderfully sets the listener adrift amongst the keyboards. Some of these merge over the next minute into purer continuous drones, fading to silence by 10:20 mins. Beautiful.
Stopping there gives one experience, yet the track hasn't finished - after 75 seconds of silence, there's an IEM-style cacophony of clocks, low-fi keyboard, vinyl crackle and whatever samples SW had left over, including a cough and a ship's foghorn. If the main piece represents dying, SW's chaotic concept of the afterlife is rather scary.
24 June, 2004
Preordering Marillion? Not this time
As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Marillion are releasing a second single from the 'Marbles' album (featuring a track mixed by Steven Wilson), in another attempt to appear in the UK singles chart. Again, Marillion are encouraging people to buy from specific stores, the sales from which feed into chart statistics. Hence, the single (actually two versions, to double contributing sales figures) isn't available from Marillion.com (not a chart return store), whereas it's possible to preorder from HMV (which is).
Amazon it is then, and forget about chart position.
The ordering procedure at the HMV website (no, I'm not going to offer a link) is awful.
- Browse the store and add selections to a 'shopping bag'.
- Click on 'checkout' to find that one has to register with the site in order to make a purchase. I object to providing more details than the absolute minimum required to process an order; I have no wish to assist their marketing department. Well... it is helping the band... okay, just this once.
- Log in, and the 'shopping bag' is reset to empty. Why?
- Go back to the store and select the same items again.
- Back to checkout. I've already mentioned the comedy address finder; it's worse than useless.
- Select a shipping technique (markedly more expensive than other online retailers), provide payment details, submit order.
Or that's what I did when I bought two of the three 'You're Gone' singles Marillion released in April (now available at Amazon: 1, 2, 3). This time, I already had an account at HMV, so was obliged to log back into that one. I'd had no intention of buying from the site ever again, so hadn't chosen a memorable password. Not a problem; there's a 'lost password' facility: enter the registered e-mail (I knew which I'd used), and:
Your forgotten password request is being processed and will be emailed to you within the next 24 hours.
24 hours?! I need it now
, not tomorrow! If virtually any other online discussion board or web store can process such a request immediately as standard
(I'm accustomed to submitting a reminder request, then finding the response already there by the time I log into my e-mail account), why the **** would I dream of bothering with the blatantly inadequate HMV web store?
Answer: I wouldn't.
22 June, 2004
The other PT for PF fans
Following his introduction to Porcupine Tree in the April 'issue' of 'Spare Bricks', the Pink Floyd webzine, Patrick Keller does the same for the other PT, Pineapple Thief.
As Patrick says:
Pineapple Thief has much in common with the other 'PT' besides just the initials. Both are British 'bands' initially consisting of one talented multi-instrumentalist. Both sprang from another somewhat successful group, which were quickly eclipsed in popularity. And both later added a complement of musicians for the sake of touring and recording as a real 'band'. And, in fact, I first discovered Pineapple Thief because more than one website linked the groups' styles favorably.
His article is a good introduction to Bruce Soord's band including a brief overview of their (his?) career to date, specifically presenting the band to existing fans of Pink Floyd. Read it
, but I can't resist one other quote:
Being a fan of Pineapple Thief is like knowing a really amazing secret that you just can't believe more people aren't in on. Any of a number of the songs would comfortably fit on just about any 'alternative rock' radio station, and all the albums are eminently listenable, with rarely a clunker in the bunch. But along with the frustration inherent in being a fan [several releases are difficult to find - NRT] comes the pride of knowing you're in on the beginnings of a group with the potential to be truly great.
12 June, 2004
Isn't this a dark song? Perhaps because of the title, I'd equated it with the lyrically-vacuous surf music of the mid-sixties, but I listened to it properly today, and was surprised.
The first verse is as I'd expected; a 'grass-is-greener' dream comparing that state's climate with the winter conditions currently experienced by the narrator:
All the leaves are brown
And the sky is grey
I've been for a walk
On a winter's day
I'd be safe and warm
If I was in L.A.
On such a winter's day
The second verse is less straightforward:
Stopped into a church
I passed along the way
Well I got down on my knees
And I pretend to pray
Pretend to pray? That's unexpected. The first time I heard it, I thought it was 'began to pray', but no, the narrator's mind is elsewhere, either dreaming of California or agonising over how to get there.
You know the preacher likes the cold
He knows I'm gonna stay
The preacher's a cynic, thinking the narrator's dream is no more than that; he's never going to break free and actually go. Either that, or the preacher doesn't see (or care about?) his parishioner's dilemma.
On such a winter's day
With that lead-in, the flute solo (a solo in a song only lasting 2:40 mins overall?) introduces a wistful tone.
All the leaves are brown
And the sky is grey
I've been for a walk
On a winter's day
If I didn't tell her
I could leave today
So either someone - mother, partner - is going to be abandoned, or will forever be regarded as the millstone preventing the narrator from fulfilling his dream. Neither is exactly an uplifting message, and the song ends by reinforcing the negativity of the narrator's situation:
On such a winter's day
On such a winter's day
On such a winter's day
It's a very pretty song, of course, and the Mamas And Papas performed it well, but I wonder how many of their listeners really thought about the lyrics. Of those who did, I wonder how many hearts were broken by listeners following the dream.
The Bobby Womack cover version currently accompanying a TV advert in the UK is smoother and fits the tone of the lyrics a little better (or in a more expected manner, anyway), but now I understand why the advert only features the innocuous first verse.
[Lyrics © Phillips/Phillips, 1964]
11 June, 2004
Another Marillion single
In another assault on the UK charts (heh), Marillion will be releasing a second single from 'Marbles' on 12 July, or rather there'll be two, which will both contain the single edit of 'Don't Hurt Yourself'.
One of them will also include a video and two 'Marbles' tracks performed live, but it's the other that's intriguing, as it will feature 'Angelina (Steven Wilson Mix)'.
It's already fairly well-known that SW was responsible for the vocal mix of 'Angelina' for the album, but this certainly implies he did a mix of the entire song, too.
One to investigate further....
[Update 23/6/04: At his own website, SW explains that his mix takes a different approach to Dave Meegan's (on the album), in particular emphasising the rhythm track much more.]
1 June, 2004
Which one's Ozric?
This is an unexpected, though not entirely bizarre, crossover between two of my favourite bands: Harry Waters, eldest son of His Rogness, has joined the Ozric Tentacles for their UK and USA tours, replacing Seaweed on keyboards. That's a big pair of vegetarian leather shoes to fill, but I see he already has the requisite dreads.
I didn't even know Roger had an adult son, never mind that he's a musician who has toured with his father.
I wish I'd made it to the Ozrics show in Manchester last Saturday, but it wasn't really practical. I wonder whether anyone recorded it....
14 May, 2004
Oh, very clever
I'm told Total Guitar magazine (useless website) has a brief interview with Steven Wilson in the current issue, which includes:
Q: What would you play to someone to show off your skills?
SW: The piano.
Kind of missing the point there, Steven... ;)
9 May, 2004
Over the last week or so, I've been hearing criticism of Marillion from those who thought that the 2CD edition of 'Marbles' was to be exclusive to pre-orders, and that those who failed to pre-order would only be able to buy the 1CD version, missing out on several tracks.
That certainly isn't the way I remember the deal when it was first announced, and I signed-up for it.
The deluxe campaign edition, in a hardback 128-page book mentioning the names of those who pre-ordered before the end of December 2003, was indeed exclusive to pre-orders (though I believe a few spare copies are still available). After the official release date, a second 2CD edition containing the same CDs in cut-down packaging (a standard jewel case) was made available to everyone, though is only being sold from the band's own web store. There's also a 1CD edition, which is available from any CD retailer, but which obviously omits some of the music (4 tracks, or 34:40 mins).
The point is that 'Marbles' is a double album, and the 2CD editions offer the full version. The 1CD retail edition is an extract of the composition; it's been called a "glorified sampler". 'Marbles' is not a 1CD album, with 'bonus' tracks on the 2CD editions; those 'bonus' tracks are part of the composition, not add-ons.
Hence, it was never the case that 'Marbles' would be a single disc album, and those pre-ordering would receive exclusive bonus tracks - no exclusive music whatsoever was offered. Pre-ordering provided exclusive artwork and one's name in the remarkable packaging, but no extra music.
The practical effect of '1CD album/1CD album with second disc of bonus tracks' is much the same as '1CD extract/2CD full album', but the emphasis and intent is very different; if you only hear the 1CD version, you're not hearing the full thing.
Compare it to 'Brave'. The 1998 remaster is 2CDs, but the entire album is on disc 1, whilst disc 2 offers orchestral, acoustic and remixed versions plus demos: bonus tracks which aren't part of the complete composition. Disc 1 takes the story from the Severn Bridge to, well, back to the Severn Bridge, and on to a happy ending, with no reference to material on disc 2. 'Marbles' is different. Though it's not (overtly) a concept album, the 'arc' of the composition fills disc 1 then continues on to disc 2. To only hear the single disc version is to miss content that's supposed to be present.
So buy the full thing, okay?
8 May, 2004
Very limited edition - update to update
As previously mentioned, Steven Wilson released a special new album, 'Unreleased Electronic Music Vol.1', in April, limited to 100 handmade copies, which obviously sold out within a few hours (in the middle of the night, UK-time). Three days later, SW announced that he'd be producing a second and final batch to meet the (naïvely?) unexpectedly high initial demand, and that it'd be possible to reserve a copy in May. That time has now arrived.
Headphone Dust is now ready to receive reservation requests for the second and final batch of SW Unreleased Electronic Music Vol 1, and will be taking these requests until 31st May. Please send your reservation request to: firstname.lastname@example.org
When the discs are ready you will receive a confirmation e-mail containing the copy number you have been allocated, which you will need to quote when making the paypal payment. Paypal is the only way to pay for your copy. Please also include in the email where you live so that the shipping cost can be calculated - please note that if you do not provide this information no reservation will be made for you.
This time the CDs will be made to order and Headphone Dust plans to dispatch them over the summer. As before all copies will be handmade, signed by SW and come with a unique Polaroid photograph. The one copy per person rule still applies, so we ask those people who already have a copy to please refrain from trying to reserve another this time. Thank you.
Important: read the instructions - if you don't provide the required information, you will miss out. You must state your location in your e-mail, and must be able to pay by PayPal only. Headphone Dust isn't an online mail order firm, and shouldn't have to chase after people who can't, or can't be bothered, to read perfectly clear instructions.
[Update 14/5/04: A new message has been posted at SWHQ, reinforcing the point I made in the previous paragraph, but also changing the text of the original message. It has now been clarified that those interested must provide "...your full name [not previously specified] and where you live...". A full postal address is preferred.]
5 May, 2004
Guess the song
Found at Kalyr.com:
1. Grab the nearest CD.
2. Put it in your CD Player (or start your mp3 player, iTunes, etc.).
3. Skip to song 3 (or load the 3rd song in your 3rd playlist).
4. Post the first verse in your journal along with these instructions. Don’t name the band, nor the album title.
"I'm so bored with you
It didn't take long
I hear all about you
Every day of the month
You sounded so in control of it
On Radio 1
But I don't believe you
And though they all seem to
And though they all scream for you
And though they all dream of you"
Anyone recognise it?
As is customary, Tim cited the blog where he discovered the meme, which had done the same. For no particular reason, I traced it back for a further ten generations (i.e. 13 including Kalyr.com) to a 15 April posting at freakshow.twoday.net, which doesn't seem to mention a prior source, though since it's in German, I might be missing something.
3 May, 2004
Marillion still in the top forty
Though Marillion.com has, ahem, forgotten to mention it, after a week at no.7 in the UK singles chart, 'You're Gone' has dropped to no.32, still a respectable position in a volatile market in which the band is virtually unknown.
26 April, 2004
Marillion on BBC News home page
They really do have a gift for finding odd angles for promotion.
h even has his face on the BBC News home page, the day after Marillion registered their first top ten (no.7) single in the UK since the Fish era, 16 years ago.
However, that's not the angle: h is featured in the children's news section. Under the headline 'Rock Dad', h's children, Sofi and Nial are interviewed about him.
This article is part of the BBC's 'Press Pack' scheme, whereby children can submit their own articles for consideration by the BBC's editors; not exactly aimed at bands wanting publicity, but all credit to them for ingenuity! Also shamelessness, but whatever works....
NP: A Perfect Circle, 'Thirteenth Step' (2003). New favourite album.
25 April, 2004
Very limited edition - update
As a result of much greater interest in Steven Wilson's 'Unreleased Electronic Music Vol.1' than anticipated, and fairly vocal criticism from even the more sycophantic fans regarding the tiny initial release, SW (sorry, 'Headphone Dust') has announced that a second batch will be made available over the summer.
"This time we want to make sure everyone who would like a copy will have the chance to get one, so the size of the second and final batch will depend on the number of reservations. There will be an announcement in May about how to reserve one, so please don't try to do so now. Thank you!"
Okay, I'm impressed.
23 April, 2004
Be like that, then
A certain band with a talent for self-promotion has a discussion forum on its official website, as do many other bands. From my server logs, I see that a posting at the forum must have commented on something in this blog, as there was a sudden slight increase in traffic (~30 visitors) from the same source. Curious, I tried to sign up to the forum.
I've been a member of several such groups over the years, so am accustomed to sign-up procedures. I'm also accustomed to this band's marketing tactics, so knew to offer only the barest minimum of personal details. Typically, there'd be registration page, a verification e-mail to ensure that some joker wasn't signing me up without my knowledge, then I'd be admitted to the group immediately.
However, the verification e-mail took a couple of hours to arrive, and then astonishingly demanded my name and full postal address. Once I'd provided such details, a moderator would consider the application within three days!
I don't think so. I'm sure the forum software records the login details and IP addresses of participants in case of abuse, so there's no need to collect postal addresses too, unless for marketing purposes, which I consider unacceptable. I'm not aware of any other forum with similar requirements.
Merely having a discussion forum is a valuable promotional resource, and an opportunity for the band to interact with the fanbase; one would think they'd welcome new members rather than impose barriers and lengthy delays. Obliging potential members to help create a junk mailing list is going too far.
Since even criticism is publicity, I'm not going to promote the band by naming it here.
22 April, 2004
Very limited edition
Last night, Steven Wilson HQ announced a new album release from the Headphone Dust label. By this morning, it had totally sold out.
Steven Wilson's 'Unreleased Electronic Music Vol.1' is an 11-track, 65-min compilation containing exactly what the title suggests; more precisely, music created since 1990, somewhat similar to that of SW's ambient project Bass Communion but "more rhythmic and mostly in a dark-hop [?] or electronic vein". Some pieces were created for television commissions, but none were ever fully developed.
The presentation is rather... special:
Each disc (a high quality Taiyo Yuden CDR) is packaged in a slim line DVD container, with a numbered and signed index card. In addition, each copy contains it's own one of a kind original Polaroid photograph taken by Lasse Hoile specifically for the project. At present there are only 100 copies available to purchase (though there may be a second batch at some point in the future)."
I case it's unclear, SWHQ is SW's personal site, Headphone Dust is his personal record label, and the hands which made this handmade edition will have been his own! I suspect the otherwise ludicrously small number of copies is limited because that's the number he could personally afford the time to make and distribute.
I'm not sure how I feel about this. Disappointed that I'm unlikely to ever hear this music. Amused and impressed that SW can and does make such personal album releases. Annoyed that yet again he's indulged his obsession with exclusive editions and miniscule print runs.
I have absolutely no doubt that an edition of 1,000-1,500 mass-produced CDs in standard jewel cases, or an unlimited release on the burn-on-demand basis already used for 'Bass Communion III' would sell well, any initial outlay for preparation being recouped from sales. In addition to making the music available to anyone who wants it, this would also combat the predatory profiteering of eBay sharks.
It's only four days since much the same situation occurred: the deliberately exclusive Klanggalerie label released the 7" 'Vajrayana' Bass Communion single, an edition specially extended to 200 copies. It obviously sold out immediately.
Much as I like the music, this isn't a game I'm prepared to play.
19 April, 2004
New downloadable Chroma Key album
This news is a week old, but it's new to me:
Kevin Moore has a new Chroma Key album out, exclusively available for (paid) download from his website. Unlike the earlier releases, 'Memory Hole' is a 80-minute radio programme broadcast in 2003 by Radio For Peace International in Costa Rica. Rather than a number of songs or instrumentals, this features original music accompanying spoken word, largely content sampled from peace activist radio, far-right shortwave radio, mainstream television, and various spiritual/evangelical audio sources.
The download itself is in .mp3 format encoded at 205 kbps (a typical .mp3 file on the web would be at 128kbps). The files themselves contain supplementary media (artwork, credits and comments), whilst the download also includes .pdf-format artwork (jewel case inserts and CD label) for printing.
I enjoyed the foregoing Chroma Key albums, so it might seem surprising that I won't be buying this myself. A lesser reason is that for customers outside the USA, payment is by credit card only, and I don't (won't) have one. The main reason, though, is the subject matter. At least in the four audio samples at the website, the spoken material is primarily sampled from christian and white supremacist propaganda - obnoxious stuff, almost certainly intended to unsettle the audience, in my case, successfully. I can appreciate the artistic statement and potential importance, but I doubt I'd play it more than once, which isn't a selling point.
13 April, 2004
Review: Marbles (Marillion, 2004)
Okay; having dealt with the lavish presentation, does the music match it?
In general, I'd say 'Marbles' is the most consistently satisfying Marillion album of recent years, with fewer (if any) weak tracks than it's predecessors. Yet the converse also applies: while the low points aren't so low, the high points possibly aren't so high. I'm listening to the album for the seventh or eighth time whilst writing this and the music is still growing on me, so perhaps it's too early to say. Right now, I doubt I'd play either of the CDs specifically to hear one particular track, but I am highly likely to play the whole album without skipping tracks, which has to be a recommendation!
I'm pleased to say Marillion have put any stereotypical 'prog' history behind them, and this is very much the band of 'Marillion.com' and 'Anoraknophobia' rather than 'Script For A Jester's Tear' and 'Misplaced Childhood' (which are tremendous too, but Marillion rightfully moved on). However, if length matters, three songs on 'Marbles' exceed ten minutes, and the longest, 'Ocean Cloud' is a high point which should appeal to fans of 'This Strange Engine's title track. Incidentally, it's odd that throughout the post-1988 period, some of the best Marillion songs have been about near-death in water, including 'Estonia', 'Out Of This World', and now 'Ocean Cloud', my favourite track of the album.
Well before the release, I read somewhere that there'd be a similarity to 'Brave', but having heard it now, I think that was empty speculation, maybe wishful thinking, and I don't see the comparison.
Overall, this is a downbeat album. If you want driving, bouncy rock, look elsewhere. Several tracks have the laid-back feel of a late-night jazz bar, and there's a poignancy to even the slightly 'rockier' songs. There's little of the upbeat energy of, say, 'Hooks In You' or 'Deserve', nor the aggressive anthems of the Fish era - there'll be limited opportunities to clap, dance or sing along with this material in concert unless the arrangements are to be substantially changed for the tour. 'The Damage' might be the sole exception, and at 4:35 mins, would have been my choice for release as the single.
'You're Gone' is the single (2, 3), and has a programmed drum track that might improve its commercial appeal, but the general tone and h's delivery are introspective and downbeat (again). Existing fans, knowing what to expect, will probably like it, but I'm unconvinced that this adequately reaches out to the teen-led market of the pop charts. At 6:25 mins, it feels over-long, which is the last thing needed for a single.
Perhaps I'm misunderstanding the marketing strategy. If the intention is to present existing fans with something they'll like, as a 'thank you' for buying multiple copies anyway, this is a reasonable choice. Let's face it: if the band asked the Freaks to buy three mins of silence, a silent remix and the same again on DVD, they would.
Despite my apparent negativity, I do quite like the song. All I question is its value in grabbing new fans - a full-on marketing push might get the single (any single) into the pop charts, but once there, what will 'You're Gone' achieve?
The first track, 'The Invisible Man' begins well, with a synth sound suggesting a rolling marble, but when h starts to sing, the first impression isn't good. For some reason, he sounds out of tune. If an indifferent or hostile listener only gave Marillion 90-100 seconds in which to impress, this opening would do the band few favours. It's not until the three-minute mark that the true beauty of the music emerges, and it's an excellent song.
In a few other quieter moments, h's voice is surprisingly disappointing, displaying a tendency to mumble indistinctly (especially at the start of 'Fantastic Place'). If it's a deliberate effect, it's overused.
I'm not going to review each song in depth, but one observation to close:
'Drilling Holes': Marillion does 'Sgt. Pepper'. There's a distinct feel of 'Day In The Life', both in the arrangement and lyrics. It would be possible to over-analyse and see several direct lyrical references to the Beatles song, but the repeated 'one of those days' in the final verse is fairly compelling, even if the others are coincidental.
12 April, 2004
Review of Marillion 'Marbles' artwork, pt.2
Continued from here, this is the other half of my review of the artwork on the deluxe campaign edition of 'Marbles':
I initially thought page 67 showed a near-sphere of liquid, but on closer examination, it's a shattered marble (which supports the lyrics of 'Marbles III' on the facing page), exhibiting a characteristic glass fracture pattern, not ripples. Unfortunately, I don't think the colour and graininess of the marble itself quite match those of the cityscape behind, so the composite image isn't entirely convincing. This is compounded by the opacity of a glass shard at the lower right and the shadow of the marble on nearby cars, which seem unnatural.
I mentioned Rorschach earlier: p. 68-69 couldn't be a more overt reference to the psychiatric test. So what do you see in the inkblot?
Pages 70-75 (the 'The Damage' lyrics pages) employ a similar technique to that on p.24: certain people have been removed from each scene, leaving their shadows and silhouettes. Whereas on p.24 the silhouette was empty white, this time the silhouettes act as a window to a different, complementary image. On pages 70-71, three people in the foreground of a deep blue railway platform scene have been cut out to show close-ups of yellowish-green marbles against a bright white background (light box?). Could these be the people who have been 'enlightened' by hearing the album? One carried a shoulder bag displaying the Marbles logo - a nice touch. Oddly, five people in the background at the left of the image have featureless faces, like the businessman in the Pink Floyd 'Wish You Were Here' album booklet.
On pages 72-73, the main image is crowded coastal promenade, whereas the view through the silhouettes in a deserted airport concourse - perhaps the route the people took to reach the seaside resort?
Page 74 is a city street, looking up at tall buildings. The colouring is strongly blue again, and also like p.70-71 the 'Marbles' logo appears in red, this time in a street sign/light. In contrast to the tall buildings in the background, the view through the silhouettes (again yellow-green) shows a pedestrian subway (underpass), itself reminiscent of the 'Shot In The Dark' cover.
Finally, p.75 is the portrait of a person sitting at an outdoor café table in bright sunlight. However the person him/herself has been removed, and the view is through to a lamp post at dusk (again tinted yellowish-green).
If there's a relevance to the image on p.76-77, of poppy seed pods against a pure while background, I don't really see it, unless it's an in-joke reference to 'The Opium Den' from 'Brave'.
I don't have much to say about the next eighteen pages, though since eight of them are a list of names and a further three have no images, that's not quite so much of a jump as it initially sounds. The images on the remaining seven pages supplement the lyrics in establishing the atmosphere of the songs, but that's for the listener to discover.
The sheet-metal dome on pages 96-97, could be a partial image of a sphere, and hence another variety of marble, but my immediate thought is of another Pink Floyd cover: the huge metal faces on the cover of 'The Division Bell'.
Having spotted an apparent trend, one might regard the repeating rainbow motif in the 'Angelina' pages (98-103) as yet another Pink Floyd homage, to the famous cover of 'Dark Side Of The Moon'. However, the resemblance isn't otherwise particularly great, so that might be over-interpreting.
Pages 108-109 may be my favourite image: an unmodified photo of marbles lying amongst heavily frosted grass, the glass also frosted to near-opacity by moisture.
Page 111 has the final giant marble, framed within a bandstand. And it's not another iteration of that same marble photo!
The 'Neverland' sequence on pages 120-125 is particularly effective: three very dark pre-dawn scenes linked by a band of artificial greenish-blue stars. The reference to Peter Pan is clear, as Neverland was found via "the second star to the right, and straight on 'til morning". Pages 120-121 show Whitehall from Westminster Bridge, London, UK (not 'England'), black silhouettes against a dark sky. On the left is the Palace of Westminster (aka Houses of Parliament), its turrets again reminding one of the 'Piston Broke' cover. Dominating the image is St. Stephen's Tower, home of Big Ben (which most people now know is the name of the bell, not the clock or tower!). The clock shows the time to be 04:04 - the light level is that of a summer early morning, not a winter dusk, so I'm fairly sure it's not 16:04. I'm afraid I can't specifically identify the building on the right.
The subject of the image on p.122-123 puzzled me for a while, until I recognised the partially lit objects in the foreground as taps (faucets) - it's a view of a large building on a hill/island, seen though the condensation on a kitchen window. Then I read the accompanying lyrics, which mention 'Wendy' standing in the kitchen, dreaming - it might have saved time if I'd read that first!
The final image is a beautiful, though odd, view of sunlight breaking through abnormally dense cloud - in context, this could be a few minutes after dawn.The band of artificial stars has been reduced to a single star at the lower right - an excellent closing image. I'm a bit reluctant to spoil the illusion, but note that the star appears on the cloud, not clear sky.....
The band photos at the end of the book use the same effect as the slipcase cover - marbles held in front of the eyes of mirrored, perfectly symmetrical faces. However, in two cases, symmetry is broken: h's pendent is deliberately off-centre, and Pete's nose is naturally crooked (sorry, mate, but it is!), which has to be reproduced as-is or make him less recognisable.
So; 2723 words to review the packaging without mentioning the music itself. That's a first.
What about the music?
10 April, 2004
Out-floyding the Floyd: review of Marillion 'Marbles' artwork
The latest Marillion album, 'Marbles' has just come through my letterbox. Wahey!
It'll take me a while to assimilate and review the music, and I'm sure several other people will be offering reviews too, so I'll start with a different aspect: the artwork and packaging design. [Update: the music review is here.]
In case people didn't know, 'Marbles' is to be made available in three formats. I have the deluxe campaign edition: two CDs in special packaging. Racket Records (i.e. Marillion themselves) will also be selling the 2CD album in a standard jewel case. These versions can be pre-ordered now, for despatch on the release date of 3 May. If you'd ordered the campaign edition last year, you'd have received it now, a month ahead of the official release.
These editions are exclusively available from the Marillion.com website and live concerts - not standard retail outlets which would want a slice of Marillion's profits. There will be a retail version too, but it'll only be a 1CD subset of the double album, and will be released on 31 May - do you really want to wait an extra month for a lesser version? Buy the full album now, from the band!
My very first thought on opening the padded envelope: it's huge. Whereas a normal jewel case is 142 x 124 x 10mm, the deluxe campaign edition of 'Marbles' is 161 x 157 x 19mm - 13% wider, 27% taller and 90% thicker than a standard CD case.
The outer few millimetres are accounted for by a thick card slipcase, covering a 128-page (128 pages!) hardback book, the two CDs set into the covers. In addition to the usual credits pages, the book includes the song lyrics accompanied by a lot of original artwork. Thirty-two pages are filled by a list of names, from Eivind Aabakken to Zenon Zygmont via me ;) These are the people who supported the recording and promotion of the album by pre-ordering it over seven months before its release. Personally, I feel our faith in the band has been repaid by the quality of the packaging alone, before even beginning to play the accompanying CDs.
There's an obvious comparison to the format and lavish production of Pink Floyd album packaging, especially 'Pulse' and 'Is There Anybody Out There?', but the comparison goes much further: the graphics, as always by Carl Glover for Aleph, seem to draw heavily on the Hipgnosis signature style of Pink Floyd artwork.
Let me clarify that before going on. A comparison can be made, and I comment on points where I see similarities; whether that was the designer's conscious intention is an entirely different matter. I've always thought there is a similarity between the clean visual style and general 'feel' of Carl Glover's work and that of Hipgnosis, but I don't mean to imply that one has imitated the other.
Despite the pithy title, I urge the reader to avoid getting distracted by the Floyd references - they're only peripheral details. I think they're worth mentioning, but they're not the focus of the review.
The slipcase front cover shows a boy holding marbles in front of his eyes, the 'flame' of colour inside mimicking the shape of his eyes. The blue & green of the marbles is somewhat matched by a blue/green filter applied to the entire image, adding a grey-green tint to his hair and the shadows in his skin.
The image has been generated artificially, by mirroring half the photo along the midline of his face, creating perfect, subtly unsettling bilateral symmetry. One minor criticism (a matter of taste, really) from someone who has used this effect very frequently: the mirroring extends to freckles and the fall of his hair. Personally, I find a better result is produced by not mirroring such irregularities, instead cloning the natural positions from the source photo and hence creating a more realistic illusion of a person with flawless facial symmetry under the skin. That said, the vaguely Rorschach or fractal pattern generated in his hair is pleasing and reminiscent of the 'Piston Broke' cover.
The back cover reproduces the same effect using a source photo of a girl. A centre parting reduces the apparent artificiality of the symmetry, though freckles again make it more obvious than I'd choose. However, the marble 'eyes' are very powerful. The marbles in this image seem smaller than those held by the boy, covering only the girl's irises & pupils. Hence, the 'flame' inside each marble resembles the vertical pupil of a cat's eye framed within the outline of her natural eyelids. With perfect symmetry and very odd eyes, the sweet little girl staring intently at the viewer is only nominally human.
There's no text whatsoever on the slipcase, but the matt surface is broken in the centre of the front and back covers by a gloss rendering of the stylised 'Marbles' logo.
The front cover of the book itself is the left side of the boy's face (his left), the spine is the bridge of his nose, and the back cover is the right side of the girl's face - I didn't notice that for a while!
I'm not going to comment on every single image, (but probably most of them), and in sufficient detail to require that I do so in a couple of sittings and in a couple of postings. Here's the first.
The image on pages 10-11 is a good example of partial symmetry: a photo of a mowed field scattered with grass bales wrapped in black plastic (much like the scatter of marbles mid-game), with a giant black marble at the centre. The image is mirrored along this midline, but p.10 isn't quite a mirror image of p.11. The two nearest bales aren't mirrored, an electricity pole only appears on p.10, and the grassed foreground is different on each page. But for the direction of the light falling on two bales, this could give the illusion of a real field with carefully-arranged bales, rather than a post-processing effect.
There's a strong 'Pink Floyd' feel to the image - the 'Atom Heart Mother' cow must have wandered just out of shot. [See what I mean about the Floyd references? I think there's a feel of the AHM cover about this image, but I'm not suggesting there has necessarily been an attempt to reproduce it.]
Pages 12-13 show the plastic and foil packaging of throat pastilles, all already removed except for one, itself a marble. Nice concept.
The spread on pages 24-25, showing a huge bulk goods train apparently passing down the middle of a road, with a white human silhouette superimposed in the middle of the image, screams 'Wish You Were Here' - the colouring and imagery strongly matches that of the Pink Floyd album cover and booklet photography.
I can't work out whether the train really is in the street, or it's a stunning photo composite - it certainly looks genuine, just unlikely!
A 'no parking' sign in the foreground has been altered to show the 'Marbles' logo. I'm unsure whether this adds anything to the overall result; its use on the following spread (p.26-7) as a corporate logo or graffito on a pristine white wall, is more effective.
These two double-page spreads and a third on p.28-9 collectively accompany the lyrics to 'Genie'. Though superficially dissimilar, there is continuity between the first 'crowded' street scene, more open second street scene under a deep blue sky, and the less urban view of a isolated house under an identical sky.
Pages 30-31, an array of marbles in varying focus against a pink-purple background, could have been taken directly from the booklet of Pink Floyd's 'Meddle'.
The image on p.32-33 has the distinctive feel of earlier Carl Glover artwork for Marillion, but I can't clearly explain why. Perhaps it's the use of a crisply-focussed photo of an innocuous but compelling object (in this case, the canopy of a palm tree) superimposed onto a false-colour abstract background.
Pages 34-35 show a view of the sky, looking directly at the sun (representing a marble?), which isn't actually visible, its position only apparent from the pattern of light on the obscuring clouds. 'Obscured By Clouds' - no, I don't think that was deliberate, and I see no visual reference to that album's artwork! An overlain drawing of a flower (a sunflower, I think) links to the visual style of the previous spread. The inclusion of houses on a hill at the lower right of the image is compositionally a little odd, though I suppose it balances the text (lyrics to 'Fantastic Place') at the top left, and somewhat reinforces the lyrics themselves.
Whilst the viewer looks up at the palm tree on p.32-33 and further up at the sky on p.34-35, for the final image of the 'Fantastic Place' sequence, the viewpoint is downwards, at the feet of someone paddling on a beach. Though the whole image is strongly tinted turquoise, the source image has to be from the 'Radiation' photo session - the setting, stance and robe match those of the torch bearer perfectly.
The images accompanying the 'The Only Unforgivable Thing' lyrics (p.38-43) are of typical British street scenes, the lyrics displayed on road signs, billboards and a bus shelter in the characteristic typefaces of those media. The 'Marbles' logo appears again on pages 42 and 43, on a bus stop and billboard, but they fit the setting rather better than the same usage on p.25, as the context is better established.
The crisp (almost artificially so) focus on the lyrics and static street furniture contrasts well with the blurred passing traffic photographed with a long exposure; the result echoes the cover of 'Marillion.com'.
The bus stop image on p.42 shows the 'Marbles' cover image generated from a photo of a different boy. Somehow this rendering doesn't work so well as the one that was chosen for the cover. Conversely, the cover image wouldn't work so well in p.42's mock advert. Good decision.
The giant marble on p.47 has been very effectively inserted into a Californian street scene - the lighting and unifying film grain are very convincing. Look carefully - the marble is the same one as used in the pastille packaging on p.13, rotated 90° anticlockwise and flipped left to right. Exactly the same photo is used again for the vast marble in the crater on pages 64-65.
The artwork of the 'Ocean Cloud' pages (58-63) have a different feel to the rest of the book, being aged b&w/sepia blurred photos with a maritime theme: a coastline seen from a couple of kilometres offshore, a sailor looking out to sea from a ship's deck with a ghostly bearded figure in the foreground, and an indistinct blurred object which might be an aerial view of a ship. The result is reminiscent of Porcupine Tree's 'In Absentia' or something from 'Bass Communion' or 'IEM' rather than being typical Marillion imagery.
Halfway through the book, I'll pause there.
What about the music?
7 April, 2004
Review: Life For Rent (Dido, 2003)
I really enjoyed Dido's debut album, 'No Angel' (2000), her ethereal voice combining with unexpectedly complex trip-hop rhythms, particularly on such tracks as 'Hunter' and 'Thank You' (as sampled by Eminem) and carrying lyrics with at least a hint of substance.
'Life For Rent' is far more formulaic; Dido's voice is as good as before, but is the highlight of very ordinary arrangements, typically backed by unchallenging programmed bass, percussion and keyboards. Strangely, the earlier album seems to have superior, and presumably more expensive, production values than the follow-up, with a wider range of (real) instruments and richer layering of the soundscape; even the synthesised elements on 'No Angel' exhibit greater inventiveness than the 'default setting' bass and synth drum tones on 'Life For Rent'. One would expect the record company to invest more in an established artist, not less. Maybe it was an artistic decision to employ a more stripped-down approach, but that doesn't work for me.
The lyrics in particular seem to be the product of songwriting-by-numbers, perhaps even overtly chosen to match the audience demographic. I'd say this album is aimed at middle-class, 18-25 year-old females in boring office jobs. Many of the songs are downbeat, but address slight, ultimately transitory concerns. In 'Mary's In India', Dido sings of 'Danny' missing an ex-partner/relative, but the less-than-tortuous 'twist in the tail' is that she and Danny are together now and everything is okay. Anyone who has returned from a stereotypical package holiday to the Mediterranean will superficially empathise with the narrator of 'Sand In My Shoes', back at work and missing the other party in a holiday romance, yet it's plain that no lasting emotional damage is done, life will go on, and the romance will soon be forgotten - much like the song. The title track (also the second? single) is a very conventional reminder of carpe diem. There's nothing particularly thought-provoking or life-changing about any of these songs.
I couldn't call this a bad album; it's mildly enjoyable in much the same way that a cheap bottle of Californian Chardonnay is entirely drinkable. It's just that there are far better wines and music available - such as Dido's own previous album.
5 April, 2004
Blackfield: news on international release
Steven Wilson's own purchasing advice, as posted in the discussion forum at Porcupinetree.com
"Maybe I'm a bit late but I would urge people outside of Israel not to waste their money on the Israeli edition of the Blackfield album by buying it from this jazzis website or ebay. The international edition is going to be out soon and will feature a lot of extra material - perhaps it will be a 2 CD set, we are still finalising things. Though I recognise that some fans were not prepared to wait, complaints about the fact that they bought an inferior version on import will get no sympathy from me! We even made a point of not selling it through the PT store to discourage people outside Israel from buying this edition."
5 April, 2004
PT for PF fans
Patrick Keller of 'Spare Bricks', the Pink Floyd webzine, presents a good introduction to Porcupine Tree and an overview of their career to date, presenting the band to existing fans of Pink Floyd.
[Update 22/06/04: The new 'issue' of 'Spare Bricks' is online, with a new article displacing this Porcupine Tree one at the same URL. I'm hoping to make it available myself, at a later date. Follow the link anyway - Patrick offers the same sort of introduction to the other PT of potential interest to Floyd fans, Pineapple Thief.]
[Updated update 14/08/04: As advertised, the Ministry is now hosting Patrick's article, at least until Spare Bricks incorporates archives of its own.]
4 April, 2004
Review: Spirals In Hyperspace (Ozric Tentacles, 2004)
This is probably going to be a common comment in reviews of 'Spirals In Hyperspace': if you're already an Ozric Tentacles fan, you'll probably like the new album. The obvious subtext is that this is 'more of the same', and adds little to the band's existing catalogue. It's one of their best, but mightn't draw in many new fans.
In theory, this should be radically different to all foregoing releases, as it's an Ed Wynne solo album in all but name. Of the current nominal lineup of the band, Zia and Seaweed only appear on one track, John only on that same track and one other, and Schoo only on those two plus a third. In terms of writing, three tracks are credited to the band, one to Ed and Merv, and the remaining five to Ed alone. As always, Ed was also the recording engineer and producer, working from his own studio (I think) in Somerset. The artwork isn't explicitly credited, but includes five Erpman doodles by... guess who. Breaking from this trend, Ed doesn't play glide bass on 'Chewier', nor 'spikes' (techno sounds) on 'Plasmoid'. No, they're provided by a totally different person, Brandi Wynne... er, Ed's wife.
Yet the practical impact is less than expected, and this sounds like the Ozrics, merely with shifted emphases. With a couple of exceptions such as 'Zoemetra', the overtly 'Eastern' influences of foregoing albums seem to have been reduced, taking lesser roles in the soundscape. There's also a slightly more 'electronic' feel than before; live bass only appears on two of the nine tracks; live drums are on three. This isn't necessarily a problem, as I like electronic and sampled music too, but the more synthetic approach is worth mentioning. I'll be interested to hear some of these tracks performed live.
'Chewier' is a pretty good entry to the album, and typical of 'up-tempo' Ozrics - keyboard-led, accompanied by fast paced (electronic and 'real') percussion and the usual electronic 'squelches', occasionally joined by Ed's guitar.
The title track and the following two really are an Ed Wynne solo effort, as he played (and programmed) all instruments. This only serves to emphasise Ed's dominance of the Ozrics sound, as one wouldn't know they are other than normal full-band efforts, if not for the the sleeve notes.
'Spirals...' begins as typical of the Ozrics' more relaxed, spacey side. The underlying tempo is fast again, but the (electronic) instrumentation is gentler than on 'Chewier'. However, this is a journey of almost ten minutes, and the route meanders into rockier sections after the midpoint and again at the end.
'Slinky' is still more relaxed, a rich soundscape of ambient tones and wandering stereo effects gradually building until the lead guitar arrives after six minutes, sustaining momentum rather than let the track (or maybe the listener) merely drift off, a real risk considering the trip lasts 8:39 mins.
'Toka Tola' is classic Ozrics material - should be great live. The superficially familiar style is both an advantage and a disadvantage - this could have appeared on any of their albums. It has the ambient keyboard tones, intricate guitar solos, dubby bass, electronic flourishes, and sense that one is travelling through a three dimensional soundscape; in short, excellent music. It's certainly as good as anything they've ever done before - it's just that it, or music so similar as to be almost indistinguishable, has been done before. Does that matter? Nope.
Not that it's particularly relevant, this was the working title of the album.
'Plasmoid' could almost be considered a techno 'song', as an odd electronic noise slightly reminiscent of a dolphin's voice overlays the somewhat funky first minute or so; two minutes in and the clicking becomes more distorted then vanishes in a quiet moment of what could be whalesong. The synths and percussion return, followed by a strong bass beat which gradually accelerates to finish with a return of the 'voice', now sounding as if it might be a heavily distorted human voice.
'Oakum' is already familiar to fans, having been played live since 2001, being released as a fans-only single and appearing on the 'Live At The Pongmasters Ball' DVD and CDs; its inclusion on the album finally provides a studio version to the general public. I don't know whether this is the original 2001 recording.
This is the only track on the album which features the entire band. Knowing that, one can detect a different usage of keyboard 'textures' and a less mechanical feel to the bass - or that might be imaginary. The drumming certainly feels 'real', whilst the introduction of John's flute suddenly highlights its absence for the first two-thirds of the album.
'Akasha' includes guest appearences from space rock pioneers Steve Hillage and Miquette Giraudi of Gong, though I only know that from the sleeve notes and I don't hear anything remarkably distinct from the usual Ozrics sound; I think I noticed a couple of near-direct quotes from earlier albums. It's certainly an enjoyable track, guitars and keyboards wandering in and around a consistent synth base, taking six minutes to build from a laid-back beginning to a climax then dropping back to blend into the ambient start of the next track.
On 'Psychic Chasm', samples and drum programming were provided by Merv Pepler, currently of Eat Static; I'm unsure whether this qualifies as a guest appearence, as Merv hasn't played on an Ozrics album since 'Arborescence', a decade ago!
Following the aforementioned ambient start, the introduction of percussion is particularly enjoyable: an 'ethnic' drum sound fades in, initially muffled but developing a clearer tone as it becomes louder; this evokes a sense of flying above then breaking through a sound-damping layer of cloud, or approaching the drummer down a narrow corridor. After exploring this soundscape for a couple of minutes, a quieter interlude breaks through into a dance environment. The frenetic percussion is very much in a drum'n'bass style, which doesn't entirely match the slower pace of Ed's guitar 'solo', though the result is surprisingly successful. Definitely one for headphones listening: a high-energy, 3D audio trip.
'Zoemetra' takes the Ozrics (well, three of them) back to their signature Eastern style, the acoustic guitar setting the rhythm and feel, carried by a bass line which is very difficult to predict, moment to moment. Ethnic woodwind and interweaving keyboards reinforce the atmosphere. The music itself ends abruptly, the final notes echoing to fadeout, but the final sounds on the album are sampled birdsong - an excellent close.
When I started this review, after I'd heard the album twice but before fully focusing on the individual tracks, I wrote:
I'm happy to acknowledge that connoisseurs of the space rock genre might gain more from this than a casual fan like myself, but whilst it's pretty good background music for other activities, I wouldn't choose to sit and focus my full attention on an Ozrics album for the whole 70 minutes, and this is no exception.
However, that's almost entirely incorrect: having listened to it intently, both with and without headphones, there's drastically more to it than I'd realised, and this is far from just the enjoyable aural wallpaper I nearly dismissed it as.
10 March, 2004
Link to review: 'In Absentia' DVD-A (Porcupine Tree, 2004)
Porcupine Tree's 'In Absentia' DVD-A is due out today (though my copy hasn't arrived from Burning Shed yet*...). I may offer my own review after I've heard the DVD, but I know next to nothing about the technical issues of surround mixes and I'm not a musician, so my comments would be purely as a listener. For a more detailed review, try this one at HighFidelityReview.com, which also features an extended interview with Steven Wilson on the project and future plans for Porcupine Tree.
*: Having just checked the Burning Shed site, I see the release date has been moved to 16 March! Waa! Several other retailers have already been despatching it; it's even no.2 in the Play.com DVD-A chart. (Update: 11/03/04: No.1!)
6 March, 2004
Review: Mezzanine (Massive Attack, 1998)
From the album cover onwards, there's something slightly unsettling about this album; the beetle on the cover is sleek and shiny, but also heavily distorted, and when the booklet is opened, is much larger than originally thought; somewhat daunting.
'Mezzanine' has a dark, even claustrophobic intensity I find uncommon in its genre, though as with most of my favourite music, it's something of a disservice to neatly categorise it. The album has all the essential characteristics of trip hop, but I also hear strong similarities to the richly textured prog/ambient production techniques of Bass Communion, Porcupine Tree or Richard Barbieri, which is probably what drew me to the music in the first place. Even the rather ethereal voice of guest vocalist Elizabeth Fraser (of the Cocteau Twins, and whose voice I immediately recognised as having also appeared on Peter Gabriel's 'Ovo') fail to mask a distinct 'edge' to the music of 'Teardrop', neatly setting the atmosphere for the ominous slow-burn of 'Inertia Creeps', possibly the most obviously satisfying track.
Previously, I'd thought Massive Attack were just another drum & bass act, and hadn't paid them much attention; in fact I still find that little of the material on their other albums grabs me, being either too laid-back or too dance-orientated. Unfortunately, the track that most reminds me of those albums, 'Exchange' appears twice on 'Mezzanine', as the fifth track then slightly reworked as the closing piece. Together, they only account for eight of the albums 63 minutes, so that's not too much of a problem. The tempo is slow throughout the album, but apart from on those two tracks, the effect is somehow sinister in its relentlessness, rather than relaxed.
4 March, 2004
There's a good interview with Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree) at Studio M, discussing the 'In Absentia' DVD-A, the role of that format in future releases, and progress on the next album. There's also mention of SW's work with Marillion, and the international release of 'Blackfield'.
26 February, 2004
Review: Arcadia Son (IEM, 2001)
The IEM, or 'Incredible Expanding Mindf**k' is one of several side projects of Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree, No-Man, Bass Communion), exploring SW's interest in experimental music, specifically inspired by cosmic jazz and krautrock. Overall, the music is almost entirely instrumental, but as one would expect from SW, heavily textured, with odd production effects and samples.
'Arcadia Son' is the second IEM album, but I believe it's the only one currently in print - get your copy while you still can! I'd certainly recommend it, and the first album (simply 'IEM') even more so, if you can find it. However, this isn't remotely easy listening, and has little in common with Porcupine Tree, so fans of that band mightn't necessarily be fans of this; I'd go so far as to say IEM is SW's least accessible project. But excellent.
Four of the eight tracks might be dismissed as novelties or pointlessly weird:
- 'Wreck' - Guitar feedback and sax shrieking, over 'jazz' drums and flute. Just as it seems to resolve into something more coherent, after 84 seconds, it ends.
- 'Beth Krasky' - Simply a 25-second anecdote from Beth.
- 'Politician' - Just over a minute reminiscent of a 70s porn film soundtrack: musak-style keyboards overlaid by heavy breathing and groans; the whole thing played back at irregular speed, as if on a poorly maintained projector.
- 'Goldilocks Age 4' - An extract of a home recording of a child (presumably SW) reading the fairy story.
However, collectively these tracks account for four minutes of the 46-minute album, and the remaining pieces are excellent.
'We Are Not Alone'
is pleasant jazzy instrumental (percussion, bass & keyboards, joined by flute), rendered slightly unsettling by background electronic 'textures' and distortion of the bass track. This is overlaid by speed-distorted spoken vocals. Personally, I'd have preferred them to have been omitted and find the instrumental sections more enjoyable.
- My favourite piece: bongos provide a consistent base (not bass!), over which a flute improvises, gradually joined by bass and keyboard textures. For the latter third of the piece, the flute is neatly substituted with keyboards. This is possibly the most similar to the original 'IEM'
is another cosmic jazz jam, flute accompanied by (kit) drums, bass and keyboard atmospherics, all slightly modified by echo effects and shifting stereo balance, also featuring an interesting wah guitar interlude. This track also appears on the third IEM album, '...Have Come For Your Children'
, but there this 8-min jam is extended to 35 minutes!
'Shadow Of A Twisted Hand Across My House'
is by far the longest track, at over 20 minutes. It begins as a more overt fusion of krautrock drums & bass and a jazz saxophone improvisation. Unsurprisingly, the rhythm is very repetitive (not a criticism!), with very gradual shifts, until the track becomes ambient after 8 minutes: purely electronic, sustained by keyboard drones.
The album notes merely credit "All music performed and projected by the IEM", but some listeners mightn't realise that some (not all!) of the names listed in the the 'special thanks' section were contributing musicians:
Steven Wilson (of course; guitar, keyboards, electronics), Colin Edwin (from Porcupine Tree; bass), Geoff Leigh (ex-Henry Cow; saxophones, flute), and Mark Simnett (ex-Bark Psychosis; drums). Others with less obvious roles are Peter van Vliet (from The Use of Ashes, who have supported P-Tree on tour), Jennis Clivack and Michael Piper.
24 February, 2004
Review: several albums by Fairport Convention
I discovered Fairport Convention in the mid-90s via the Jethro Tull connection, which was particularly strong at that time. All but one member of Fairport had also recorded and appeared live with Tull in recent years (Dave 'Peggy' Pegg 1979-95, Martin 'Maart' Allcock 1988-91, Ric Sanders 1991, Dave 'DM' Mattacks 1992). Fairport had also supported Tull on tour in 1987 and '88, whilst Ian Anderson and Martin Barre had appeared with Fairport at their Cropredy Festivals in 1987 & '89.
If only to satisfy my curiosity, I tried a Fairport album. I'm sure it was 'Jewel In The Crown' (1995), though until writing this I thought I'd found them earlier than that! I quite liked it, but wasn't immediately overwhelmed. I heard more Fairport material on unofficial Tull concert recordings, so tried another album: 'In Real Time' (1987), and was hooked. 'The Hiring Fair' immediately became, and remains, one of my all-time favourite songs (I mean by any artist, not just Fairport), and I still regard that rendition as 'definitive'.
I gradually acquired a few more albums, branched out to discover Sandy Denny and Richard Thompson (I might discuss them in a separate posting, but for now I'll just recommend them), and saw Fairport live on three occasions. This aspect of my musical education led me to Steeleye Span, Maddy Prior, June Tabor and a couple of other UK folk-rock artists, but 'trad folk' has never done much for me, nor US folk artists; the alleged attraction of Bob Dylan is a total mystery to me.
It would take too long to go into great detail, but the following are (very) brief reviews of those albums I own. I don't have the earliest albums (inspired by US folk of the late 1960s, which I don't like), nor the mid-70s albums (which, from out-takes and concert recordings, I've found not to my taste)
'Liege & Lief' (1969)
Just a classic - one of the most influential albums of at least the half-century. Irrespective of personal taste, the importance of Fairport, and specifically this album, in defining the folk-rock genre can't be overstated.
I don't feel the urge to actually play it very often, though....
''Babbacombe' Lee' (1971)
A folk-rock concept album. That's progressive of them.... Pretty good; not great.
'History Of' (1972)
A good cross-section of early Fairport. I wouldn't normally rate a compilation highly, as it's usually preferable to buy the original albums, but I feel the early albums were patchy anyway, so the exercise of picking out the highlights is worthwhile.
'Gottle O' Geer' (1976)
Rather depressing. Though technically as good as they'd ever been, in terms of creativity, Fairport were dead in the water in the mid 70s.
'Gladys' Leap' (1985)
Not so much a return to early form, more a virtually new band! Though more 'adult contemporary' than what most might call 'folk' (as if labels matter), and lacking the magic ingredients of Denny (RIP) and Thompson, this is a really enjoyable album. Highlight: 'The Hiring Fair', my all-time favourite Fairport song.
Writing this inspired me to play the album again for the first time in several months, maybe over a year. Surprisingly, I didn't enjoy it as much as I remember. I can't decide whether that's due to familiarity, or a shift in my taste, towards, 'darker', 'harder' music.
'In Real Time' (1987)
Excellent; some of Fairport's most popular songs, in a live setting.
Though the album features crowd applause between songs, this material was all played live in the studio, not on stage - the crowd noise, recorded at a festival, was added later!
This is the album generally recommended as a starting place for those new to Fairport; I'd echo that advice.
'Red & Gold' (1988)
Might be called 'Gladys' Leap Part 2', as I can't really distinguish them. In fact, I believe the two albums were re-released as a single package.
This 'more of the same' comment isn't a criticism - they're both very good, and the title track is another example of Ralph McTell writing well for the Fairport sound (just to clarify for those who don't have the album: McTell wrote some of Fairport's best songs, but doesn't play on their albums)
'The Five Seasons' (1990)
Rather disappointing after the foregoing albums, I haven't played this more than 3 or 4 times in years.
'Jewel In The Crown' (1995)
Another excellent album in the vein of 'Gladys' Leap' and 'Red and Gold'. I like it, though only 'casually', as indicated by the fact I originally tried it on tape, and have never bothered to upgrade to CD.
'Old New Borrowed Blue' (1996)
To be pedantic, this album is by Fairport Acoustic Convention - Simon, Peggy, Ric & Maart without DM on drums or keyboards. It's a combination of about 50% new material (almost universally excellent) and 50% a live album of typical Fairport material without the drums.
'Who Knows Where The Time Goes?' (1997)
For me, the point where it all started to go downhill. With the loss of Maart and arrival of Chris Leslie, there was less rock and more introspective ballads. There's nothing inherently 'wrong' with that, and the musicianship is as great as ever, but it's not really my thing.
The result still hangs together fairly well, but I'd say it's the last Fairport album that does (up to now, anyway!): their shark jump.
'The Wood & The Wire' (1999)
They're showing their age on this one! The long-term fans, who have aged along with the band, will probably enjoy this at least as much as earlier albums, but for those of us who are rather younger and approach Fairport from the folk-rock aspect rather than the trad folk/adult contemporary side, this seems a bit too cosy. As with the previous album, the standard of playing is high, and 4-5 of the 14 songs are great, but the subject matter of most tracks does little for me. This is as good as the best albums from many other bands (that I like!), but compared to earlier Fairport albums, it's slightly disappointing.
Last time I saw them, I knew they'd be playing some of this material, so I bought the album, but if I'd attended the concert first, I'm not sure that would have inspired me to buy it, and I haven't felt the urge to hear more.
14 February, 2004
Review: Field Of Crows (Fish, 2003)
It's arrived! I said I was going to wait for reviews and audio samples before buying Fish's latest studio album, rather than buying it 'blind' on the release date, as I have in the past. The fan reviews have been favourable, and it's been encouraging to note that they specifically mention that the aspects of 'Fellini Days' (2001) I disliked haven't been repeated, so I went ahead and ordered a copy from Fish, having not heard the samples after all.
The following review is being written as I listen to the album for the very first time; it'll be interesting to see whether my views change after repeated plays.
A slow-build piece, instantly identifiable as the product of Fish's band. There's a stereotypical 'Scottish' undertone, with a bagpipe-like drone (guitars) and snare drums, which conceptually I don't particularly like, but in practice, it's fine.
Er... I don't want to comment on every song if I don't really have anything to say, and that's the case here! I'll just say I like it. The lyrics seem to have direct relevance to the Washington DC sniper murders of 2003, though I'm sure Fish intended a wider context.
Wonderful! Bouncy, unpretentious rock'n'roll, though not simplistic.
Is the title a pun? Crows are solitary birds, so a field of crows would actually be a field of rooks.
The opening lines:
"It's your decision, it's not up to me, and I've seen it all before got a wardrobe full of cheese,..."
WHAT? Consulting the lyrics in the CD booklet, I see it's "... a wardrobe full of T's,..." i.e. T-shirts. A good reference ('been there, done that, bought the T-shirt') but I like my version. ;)
Twenty minutes in, and I haven't stopped grinning yet.
I'd heard a working version of this before, on a recording of the 31/05/03 concert, and hadn't been overwhelmed, as the lyrics seemed repetitive and the arrangement didn't quite have 'it'. Now it does. The guitar intro grabbed me immediately, and I was held all the way to the big ending, with driving guitar accompanied by horns.
An amateur recording of an unfinished song played in a live setting over a 'tinny' PA makes no allowance for the impact of production techniques 'filling out' the sounds of the instruments, plus the effect of stereo.
'The Lost Plot'
The first more downbeat song, but not a typical Fish maudlin ballad; though in a minor key, it's fast-paced and underpinned by a powerful guitar track, which bursts through to lead the outro.
Another title with a double meaning: a field is a plot of land.
This is one of the (several) difference between this and Fish's previous album: whereas 'Fellini Days' sounded rather thin, as if recorded on a tight budget in a home studio with limited multi tracking, there's a considerable depth to the soundscape on 'Field Of Crows', with several layers of instruments interacting in complex rhythms. These are 'big' arrangements; the addition of a brass section to the band has had a significant effect.
Great music. Not so sure about the lyrics. This is 'just' a joyful, fun song, which certainly isn't a criticism. This is going to be a highlight of the live set.
Thirty-six minutes: still grinning.
Rather reminiscent of 'Sunsets On Empire' (1997). This is the other song I'd already heard (a working version played live, anyway), and I'm glad that first impression wasn't confirmed. In that setting, the lyrics had seemed repetitive, but in the context of the album, that's to leave room for the rich production and layered instrumentation; over-complex lyrics would be wasted.
Okay; full-on Fish melancholia. The late-night jazz club feel is a pleasant rest from the foregoing high-energy songs.
Back to the driving rock songs, though this takes a slightly darker tone than earlier tracks.
'Shoot The Craw'
The start is very similar to 'Pipeline' from 'Suits' (1993), but develops into another standard Fish ballad - not bad, but nothing new; I tend to find these songs interchangeable, and this could have been from any of his solo albums.
Another ballad. This has emerged as a curiously, even disappointingly 'front-loaded' album. Again, it's a nice enough song, and I'm sure I'll come to like it in its own right, but having been built up by the energetic, celebratory tone of the first two-thirds of the album, I'd hoped it would close with a bang. And if you've already heard the album: not that bang!
That's it. Time to play it again. I presume my comments convey the overall message that I really like 'Field Of Crows'. It's only February, but I may have discovered my 'album of 2004'.
Most of the reviews I've read to date have said this is a return to form, likening the album to Fish's solo debut, 'Vigil In A Wilderness Of Mirrors' (1989). In a sense that's correct, having recaptured the catchy tunes and powerful delivery of those songs, but I'd better stress that 'Field Of Crows' isn't particularly similar to 'Vigil...'. Much as I love that album, it does struggle under the weight of Fish's neo-prog background. 'Field Of Crows' is not a prog album. His style has moved on a long way from 1991 (and wandered a bit on the way...), and to quote Fish himself, he's found the 'groove'.
The album receives a general retail release in May, but has been available directly from Fish's own website since December (hence the official copyright date of 2003 despite it not being in the shops until five months into 2004!). I'd always recommend buying direct from Fish anyway, as this provides the greatest financial benefit to him, and he's in a position where that does matter. If added incentive is required, the standard retail version will be sold with a 12-page black & white booklet, whereas that sold via the website and concerts contains a full colour booklet of 24 pages.
Speaking of the artwork, Mark Wilkinson's van Gogh-style painting of Fish in a cornfield (yes, it's a painting, not a digitally-modified photo!) is well-executed and attractive, but the portrayal of Fish as if from 'The Matrix', in black leather and shades, somehow seems trite, like a movie tie-in released just that little bit after the zeitgeist has passed.
NP: Guess ;)
13 February, 2004
Just after I posted that review, it was announced that the record company, Helicon/Universal, will not be exporting any copies of the album from Israel.
This means Burning Shed won't be stocking it. However, a full international release is to be scheduled for later in the year, which may include bonus material; Burning Shed (and hopefully Amazon, etc.) should be able to sell that.
Bugger. This means I'll have to make do with the low-quality online version for months. I might have been tempted to buy via mail order from Israel (the price is certainly attractive), but I wouldn't be willing to buy it twice, so if bonus material can be expected, I'll wait.
13 February, 2004
Review: Blackfield (Blackfield, 2004)
Having repeatedly listened to the entire album at Walla! *, I really like what I hear, and will definitely buy it when released in the UK. Though the online tracks are in a fairly low-resolution format, with significant digital distortion, the quality is certainly sufficient to showcase excellent music.
Blackfield is a collaboration between Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson (SW) and Aviv Geffen, a chart-topping pop star in Israel. The result could easily be described as a slightly more upbeat, slightly more 'pop' version of Porcupine Tree circa 2000. Following 'Lightbulb Sun', P-Tree followed the 'heavier', guitar-led side of their music into 'In Absentia', but in an alternative reality they could easily have focused on the more keyboard-led, introspective aspect of the 'Stupid Dream' and 'Lightbulb Sun' material: that's Blackfield.
The majority of the ten songs are rather low-key, mainly consisting of SW softly singing to a backing of keyboards and subtle acoustic guitar, but three of the songs switch halfway through, with electric guitars, percussion and 'rockier' arrangements kicking in. On 'Glow', this is effective, flowing into a classic SW guitar outro, but in the case of the otherwise excellent 'Cloudy Now', I can't decide whether the abrupt change to a 'rock' ending works, or just sounds tacked on.
Apparently most lyrics were written by SW and most of the music by Geffen, but that's a little simplistic. Without being familiar with Geffen's other music, I do think this sounds very much like Porcupine Tree, and at least to me, SW's contribution, both as musician and producer, seems to dominate. That's not to diminish Geffen's contribution at all, I simply mean that those already familiar with Porcupine Tree are likely to enjoy Blackfield too; it's not a radical departure.
SW sings lead vocals for most songs, but for even those on which Geffen performs the lead vocals, his voice is passed through SW's signature vocal filtering, so the overall Porcupine Tree feel remains. Incidentally, 'Pain', one of the few songs with lead (verse) vocals by Geffen, is the album's second single, possibly to capitalise on his popularity in Israel. Not that such manipulation is necessary: the first single, 'Hello', mainly sung by SW, went to no. 2 in the Israeli singles chart.
Always a good sign: none of the songs strike me as weak or just fillers. The worst I'd say is that 'Summer' is a little monotonous, so I suspect I'll tire of it rather quickly, and 'Scars' features a distracting overdub halfway through the song which initially made me think there was a fault in playback causing me to hear two pieces at once.
I'm not going to comment on every single song, but one final observation: the opening of 'Lullaby' immediately made me think of 'Chant One' by Bowness/Chilvers (which certainly SW and probably Geffen have heard), or Porcupine Tree's 'So Low', which Geffen has performed live with SW on a few occasions. However, I suppose it's fairly generic.
I understand the album will be available soon from the Porcupine Tree online store at Burning Shed [no; see update], and is already available internationally from a mail order company in Israel [yes, but see this update], but I do think it's a pity that there's no sign of it being available via more mainstream retailers such as Amazon. Established fans would have no problems in finding and buying from specialists, but what about publicising the album to a wider public? Something of a missed opportunity, which I certainly hope will be resolved eventually.
*: Note that the website is entirely in Hebrew, so I needed directions to find the audio samples! This is the route at the time of writing:
- At the lower left of the home page, click on the small 'Blackfield' banner. If the banner is no longer on that page, go here and press the prominent green button.
- Allow the resulting popup window to load fully.
- On the dropdown (drop up, in fact) menu at the bottom right, select the uppermost item on the third menu from the right.
- A further popup will open, and album tracks will play.
[Update 27/08/04: Review of 2-CD international edition]
13 February, 2004
Steven Wilson mixes Marillion
There's been a bit of speculation about this since SW made a comment at the Porcupine Tree website that he'd be working with an established UK band, but this morning's progress report from Marillion, regarding the forthcoming double album 'Marbles' confirms it: SW is collaborating with long-term Marillion sound engineer/producer Dave Meegan and Michael Hunter (who created and mixed 'River' for Marillion and now produces bands such as Mansun) to mix 'Marbles'.
Great news. My favourite producer/musician working with another of my favourite bands. To be honest, his previous work with Marillion, mixing most of 'Marillion.Com', didn't stand out as well as his production work on Fish's 'Sunsets On Empire', but that may be because of the nature of the music rather than a true reflection of his impact on it.
I'm looking forward to this album, which is dangerous. All too often I've built up my hopes and expectations, only to be disappointed by reality. It's a struggle to avoid generating preconceptions, but many of my favourite films, albums and books are those about which I knew little beforehand.
12 February, 2004
Is some music 'superior'?
This topic came up in a moderately heated discussion recently: discounting outright poor playing, accidental bum notes, etc., are some styles of music 'better' than others? The following is a transcript of my views, slightly edited for clarity.
Someone else, speaking of hip-hop:
Playing around with drum machines and Q-Bass is not craft. I can do this. It's easy.
Anyone can put pen to paper; not everyone can write a publishable novel.
To belittle a genre because it doesn't necessarily require advanced technical skills is either missing the point or refusing to accept it. Music isn't a craft, it's an art; it's not the way you do it, it's what you do (to mangle the Bananarama lyric). By the same argument, anyone can take a photo, but that certainly doesn't define photography as automatically inferior to painting.
I don't like hip-hop. I don't see the attraction at all. I feel precisely the same way about (technically-complex) 'prog' - I can respect it as a 'valid' musical form, quite independently of my personal dislike.
An analogy might be, say, da Vinci's Mona Lisa, compared to Tracy Emin's unmade bed.
They're radically different, with different objectives. I don't think it's even relevant to compare them. Is the music of Holst 'better' than that of Ian Anderson? Anderson doesn't operate in the same area of music so there can be no direct competition; there's no common criterion upon which to make an objective judgement, merely personal choice. Plus social convention, but that's a separate issue.
A viewer may prefer one over the other, and in this example, I'd agree with you 100%, but personal taste can only speak in terms of like/dislike, not good/bad or valid/invalid.
Emin's art focuses on sensation (and undeniably succeeds), and on confronting the raw, often disgusting, aspects of humanity existing as animals in an artificial environment; our inability to transend the squalid physicality of our existence. That doesn't mean I like what she does, but I can't accept that it's reasonable to dismiss it.
It's important to remember art is about creativity, not merely technical ability; the distinction is one that has often been used to distinguish art from craft, artists from artisans.
[Contemporary 'Brit-art' is]... rubbish; craftless 'art' made by ambitious skill-less nobodies
See above. Art isn't craft, and ability isn't necessarily skill.
Hip-hop for 80 minutes? Listening music is it?
No, it's not! This is precisely my point. No-one went to Cream, the Ministry of Sound, etc. (major UK clubs) to listen to trance/garage/house/etc. music, they were there for the whole experience. The music fitted the context, and set itself objectives that are simply incompatible with sitting in one's favourite armchair listening to every nuance via thousands of pounds worth of audiophile sound equipment. That's plainly not what it's for, so it makes no sense to judge it in those terms. Experiencing rave music, or hip-hop, or opera, or cajun, or 'prog' are entirely different situations - not objectively 'better' or 'worse', just different.
Really progressive trance. I find it dull.
That's absolutely fine. that's your opinion, and no-one can take that away from you.
No form, no music.
I'd totally disagree. Banging two rocks together can be music.
Not a defining characteristic of music.
The development of the craft of musicianship, the creativity of song writing and music composition, the imagination and spontaneity required in improvisation puts Yes, Tull and all those classic bands in a league of their own.
Some value craft and technical ability above all. Again, that's a standard set by personal preference, which is fine, but with which others might disagree.
They all have a quality of substantial back catalogue that has left the bar too high for most others. So they [subsequent musicians or the media, I presume] lower it....
No, it's an entirely different bar, in a different stadium.
Not to worry; music does not cease to be progressive merely because of some imposed time limit.
Very true. If an artist keeps pushing, and changing, that's progressive.
To go from blues to jazz to 'prog' to folk-rock to electronica to hard rock to AOR to Eastern-inspired rock, all in a unique style, certainly is progressive (and oddly familiar...) [In case anyone misses the reference, it's a summary of the Jethro Tull back catalogue].
To record 'Tubular Bells' is progressive, but to record 'TB2', 'TB3', 'The Millennium Bell', then rerecord 'TB1' isn't progressive - but I like it.
11 February, 2004
Is 'prog' progressive?
This is a distinction of which many 'prog' fans will be aware, and particularly Porcupine Tree fans, but the subject came up in conversation at a Jethro Tull discussion group today, so I thought I'd mention it here too.
Progressive music is that which progresses, adding something new to a particular genre, typically taking that genre in a new direction. Music of any genre can be progressive.
The progenitors of hip-hop defined a whole new genre. The act of definition was was progressive; it changed the direction of popular music. However, once established, hip-hop itself isn't progressive. Likewise, the originators of disco, or swing, or skiffle, whatever, were progressive, though those that followed in the same genre weren't. Fairport Convention were progressive at the start of the Seventies, in combining rock sensibilities with traditional English folk music to father a whole new genre, folk-rock.
'Prog rock' is the name of a specific genre. In this context 'prog' is a label, not a description. This specific genre, also known as 'symphonic rock' or 'art rock' is usually characterised by extremely long songs or instrumentals, with intricate, highly structured arrangements borrowing heavily from orchestral music.
Now the distinction: very little 'prog' is progressive, and progressive music isn't automatically 'prog'. In the early Seventies, bands such as Yes and ELP defined the 'art rock' genre, so were indeed progressive; hence the original label of 'progressive rock'. However, having carved this niche, such bands continued to release further albums in the same vein. All credit to them for finding a successful formula and sensibly sticking to it, but by definition they ceased to progress and 'prog' became just a name. To rigidly conform to an unchanging style cannot be truly progressive; some would argue that 'more of the same' is even regressive.
- Music expanding/transcending any genre can be progressive.
- Only music fitting the specific, well-defined genre is termed 'prog'.
- Music expanding/transcending the 'prog' genre could be progressive, but that's very rare nowadays.
28 January, 2004
Radical guitar design
Ulrich Teuffel, German luthier (guitar-maker) discusses the evolution of the electric guitar at his website. Some fascinating observations.
I can't say I really like his own guitar designs, though. The 'Birdfish' is seriously odd, and looks too much like a gun for my taste. The 'Coco' is closer to a standard guitar shape, but somehow seems out of proportion, dominated by an over-large body (according to my preferences and possibly over-conservative expectations, anyway). The 'Tesla' reminds me of a mediaeval instrument in its overall shape, yet the detailing strikes me as rather 1980s.
That said, I'm speaking as a non-musician, solely in terms of visual design; it's clear that Teuffel has concentrated on function at least as much as form, and in terms of build quality, materials, ergonomics, playability and sound quality, they're highly rated guitars.
26 January, 2004
More on US Immigration
The Prog Palace has an interesting interview with Martin Orford, of IQ and Jadis. They're not bands I particularly like, but the interview offers some insight into the experience of 'part-time' bands being prevented from working in the USA. The relevant section is buried about halfway through the transcript, so I've reproduced it here; I've edited out the interviewer's side of the conversation, without distorting the context.
You may have already partially answered this, but why don’t we see IQ more often in
the States? Or Jadis as well?
Martin: Well. Because US Immigration won’t let us in. We’re not allowed to come in. They don’t like overseas bands. They say it takes the work away from US bands. If you turn up to a US airport with a guitar, they’ll put you on the next plane back home. The only people that manage to do it are the Scandinavian bands, and they’ve got sponsorships from their own governments. The only way that you can play the States is to get work permits, which basically they don’t give to people whose main profession is not being in a band. Our main profession is not being in a band, so there’s no way we’re going to get work then to be in a band. The only way that we can do a gig in the States is not-for-profit. You can’t do a tour like that.
Except for possibly Libya and North Korea outside of the US, it’s the most difficult place to come to if you’re in a band. I mean, somewhere like Russia is probably a lot easier. It is the most unwelcoming place that you could possibly find if you’re in a rock band. It’s unbelievably difficult to get an overseas band through Immigration. You can’t do it. The only way you can do it is do it not-for-profit and lie through your teeth when you come in. That’s all you can do.
Nobody in the US knows about this.
Interviewer: But yet our bands can go over there and generate revenue for other countries?
Martin: Yeah. But there is a very aggressive policy to stop overseas bands from coming into the US. So that’s why we don’t come over more often. That’s why we’re playing Mexico and not the US. We can land in a US airport if we’re in transit to somewhere else, but they won’t send us on with our guitars if we’re going to a US destination.
Note that this was recorded in April 2003, well before the latest amendments made foreigners even less welcome.
NP: Marillion 20/12/90, Walsall, UK
23 January, 2004
Jumping The Shark
I don't know the origin of the phrase, but it defines the point where a series (TV, novels, films) peaks, the episode after which it's all downhill into mediocrity or self-parody. As Tim shows, the concept also applies to album releases and musicians' careers.
I tried this once before, at a 'prog' discussion group, and the topic degenerated into a flame war. Though I obviously welcome comments and debate, please don't think I'm gratuitously criticising your favourite band. If it's mentioned here, it's probably one of my favourite bands too. I'm merely acknowledging that its heyday has passed.
In no particular order:
'The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway' (1974)
For me, the most obvious example of a shark jump. Unlike Tim, the lyrics of 'prog' bands do matter to me, and with the departure of Peter Gabriel, the band's lyrics swiftly degenerated into sentimental mush. Some would place the shark jump later, with the departure of Steve Hackett, but 1976's 'A Trick Of The Tail' and 'Wind & Wuthering' just don't seem to have 'it' (no pun intended), partly because I dislike Phil Collins' voice, but more fundamentally because the band members seemed to shift roles slightly, which affected the nature of their writing and playing.
As I explained above, I'm not particularly criticising the later albums, and all credit to the band for reinventing themselves at the end of the seventies to finally gain pop success, but that material just isn't to my taste. In terms of success, 'We Can't Dance' (1991) is the shark-jump album, as 'Calling All Stations' (1997) was definitely a step too far.
'Roots To Branches' (1995)
I've given a fuller explanation of my disaffection with Tull in an earlier posting, but to summarise, I feel this was the last album from an energetic, progressing rock band, and everything that has followed has merely kept the machine idling - still running, but in neutral.
'Bridge Across Forever' (2001)
Not a jump; they were pushed. With the resignation of Neal Morse, it was decided the band wouldn't continue, but everything up to that point had been great, so I wouldn't really say Transatlantic jumped the shark at all. Even the 'posthumous' DVD and live CD album, 'Live In Europe' (released 2003, but a 2001 concert) was excellent, both musically and in its physical presentation.
This is difficult to judge. In terms of my personal taste, Oldfield has been tap-dancing on sharks since his first album, in 1973! I like some albums immensely, rarely bother with others, only listen to 1-2 tracks from others, and dislike the remainder, but there's no chronological order to that. Over-simplifying, I tend to prefer the fully-instrumental albums.
In terms of creativity, the decision is complicated by the fact that some of Oldfield's best work has been reworking of earlier pieces, which I don't necessarily regard as a fault.
Hence, I've selected 'Guitars' as the most recent album that I liked and and also felt was significantly creative. I did like 'The Millennium Bell' (1999), though it was a little derivative, and 'Tr3s Lunas' (2002)... wasn't good.
However, on past record, Oldfield's next release might be better, so the shark might still be waiting.
'The Final Cut' (1982)
Arguably the first Roger Waters solo album, but let's not get into that argument....
For me, the essence of Pink Floyd was wonderful music inextricably linked to the venomous lyrics of Roger Waters; whatever the personal issues, I don't think Pink Floyd were the same without him. I quite liked two tracks from 'A Momentary Lapse Of Reason' (1987) - 'Sorrow' and 'Learning To Fly' - but I felt the album versions of these two were a little insipid (much better live) and the album as a whole was directionless, failing to hold my attention. The same applies to their final album, 'The Division Bell' (1994): 'High Hopes' was one of the all-time best Pink Floyd songs, but the rest of the album simply lacked the essential spark.
'Sunset On Empires' (1997)
I've always been in two minds about Fish's writing: his 'aggressive rock' songs really grab me, but they've always been interspersed by ballads, which I like less. His writing is very emotional, and I'm not particularly criticising either variety; it's just that the songs expressing bitterness and anger tend to manifest as high-energy, bouncy, visceral rock, which I find more entertaining than gentle, keyboard-led songs expressing wistful regret. On the post-1997 albums, the balance tipped a little too far for me towards the gentler, introspective side. The extended suite of 'Plague Of Ghosts' on 'Raingods With Zippos' (2000) was good, but I rarely play the rest of the album. I play even less of 'Fellini Days'. I haven't got round to sampling 'Field Of Crows' (2003) yet; the first time I haven't been willing to buy a Fish album 'blind', which has to be an indicator that he's probably lost me.
[Update 14/2/04: Wrong! See my review of 'Field Of Crows'.]
'This Strange Engine' (1997)
Many casual, and some not-so-casual fans cite this as a low point redeemed by Marillion's last gasp of 'prog', the title track. However, I like the rest of the album rather more than 'This Strange Engine' itself (which I like too), making this the last Marillion album (to date) from which I liked virtually every song. The subsequent three albums displayed a slight change of direction, most obviously in guitar sound, the result being somewhat patchy - I do like many songs from these albums, but far from all; there has been a slip towards mediocre 'indie pop'.
[Update 14/4/04: Wrong again! See my review of 'Marbles'. Marillion are back. A little different, but back on-form.]
10 January, 2004
Review: Liquid Tension Experiment 2 (Liquid Tension Experiment, 1999)
Another band sampled because it was mentioned favourably at the PT-Trans discussion group, this album
wasn't quite what I expected. I'd anticipated something fairly structured and 'heavy', essentially an instrumental version of Dream Theater, since the line-up was three members of that band, plus Tony Levin. If it wasn't for the vocals & lyrics, I might appreciate Dream Theater more, so this seemed a safe purchase.
However, it was immediately obvious, and confirmed by the liner notes, that a number of the tracks on the the album were largely the result of jamming. This means that though I certainly can't fault the virtuosity of the playing, a few tracks somewhat lack direction, and my attention wandered a little. That's only partly a criticism, more an acknowledgement of the way jamming works: when it all comes together, it's highly creative and enjoyable, but it doesn't always come together.... One criticism I would make is that there were places where flashy playing failed to mask the weakness of the underlining tune or lack of an over arching composition; as David Gilmour proved, great music doesn't require high speed or intricacy.
Another Mike Portnoy side project, Transatlantic, sounded like a real, 'first-priority' band, producing wonderful music with a sense of fun. This has the sense of fun, and I'm sure the technical achievement was satisfying, but as a listener, I don't think it goes much further than that. Not that it needs to - though my expectation was a little disappointed, I still liked the majority of the album. The longest track, 'When The Water Breaks', is a particular high point.
In summary, it's 'okay', but I doubt I'll play it often.
NP: 'Liquid Tension Experiment 2', Liquid Tension Experiment, 1999
4 January, 2004
Matt Pegg interviewed
Matt Pegg, stand-in bassist for Jethro Tull on a number of occasions in 1992-94, and son of Dave Pegg, driving force of Fairport Convention and Tull's bass player 1979-95, is now a member of Procol Harum. Matt was interviewed by John Collinge for Progression in Spring 1996, when his experiences with Tull were fresh in his mind (or what might be described as 'raw'). The interview is at least as much about that time as about Procol, and offers an interesting, and distinctly unfavourable, view of life on the road with Ian Anderson.
31 December, 2003
Music of 2003: the bad
2003 has been a particularly good year for my musical taste. I've really liked some albums released in 2003, plus older albums by bands new to me this year; I'll probably post reviews of them, eventually. But it hasn't been uniformly wonderful: I've bought a few albums I haven't liked, and previous favourite bands have disappointed.
I've already mentioned The Flower Kings 'Unfold The Future' and Karmakanic 'Entering The Spectra' (both 2002, but new to me in 2003) and the various Tull/Anderson 2003 releases individually, but a couple of other less impressive (to me) releases are worth a brief mention:
Spock's Beard 'Feel Euphoria' (2003). I wanted SB to succeed following the departure of Neal Morse, but it seems he was the one who provided the elements I liked in their lyrics and music, and the new album does nothing for me. There's a tempting parallel with Genesis; once Peter Gabriel left in 1975, I found subsequent albums insipid, and it took a radical shift in direction for the band's career to recover (in a way I didn't like, but that's not the point).
Radiohead 'Hail To The Thief' (2003) - This left me utterly cold. No noteworthy highlights, no disastrously low points, just mediocre, even boring. They're far from being my favourite band anyway, but the first three albums had a sufficient proportion of excellent tracks to justify the cover prices and 'Kid A' had some indefinable quality I quite liked (though I rarely play it). I haven't heard 'Amnesiac', and I'm no longer sure if I'll bother.
The sort of music I like does develop an attraction after multiple plays, rather than necessarily grabbing me the very first time. I remember that when I first heard each Jethro Tull album, it wasn't until the third or fourth occasion that the music fell into place and I started to really like it. Similarly, it may be that with time and repeated attempts, some of the albums I've mentioned above will gradually make sense and my appreciation of them might increase. However, each of those albums which improved later still had something attractive from the very start, something that made me want to play the album again at all. If I have to force myself to listen to music I don't really like, because I 'should' appreciate it and on the off-chance that something will emerge on the fifteenth or fiftieth occasion, that rather means the album has failed.
30 December, 2003
Review: Jethro Tull/Ian Anderson 2003
Some would say I didn't give Ian Anderson's 'Rupi's Dance' and Jethro Tull's 'The christmas Album' (both 2003) a fair chance, but sometimes I know I won't like something from the very first time I hear it. I also have a lot of experience of other Anderson/Tull albums, so have a head start on judging something new.
I bought 1999's 'J-Tull Dot Com' (DotCom) just because it was Tull, and therefore I was bound to like it. I didn't, and if anything my appreciation has decreased with time. Still, I bought Ian Anderson's 2000 solo album, 'The Secret Language Of Birds' (SLoB) on the same basis, and didn't much like that either. I've since ascribed my dislike to two factors:
- In 1995, IA learned to play the flute 'properly'. Previously, he'd used a non-standard technique to force notes out of the instrument, giving a unique, rough, rock sound which I liked immensely. Subsequently, his style has become more conventional, tamer and 'pretty', which is a huge turn-off for me. I like Tull the hard-rock band, and albums since 1995 have been gentler AOR, even MOR. A 'pretty' flute sound is too close to cocktail jazz, even muzak.
- The single factor that drew me to Tull, far beyond the music, was Ian Anderson's lyrics; in many cases I've received at least as much enjoyment from just reading the lyrics in silence as from hearing the songs performed. Again, the post-1995 albums have been extremely lacking in that sense. 'SLoB' was particularly bad, speaking of a 'lumpy' sea and crows 'bopping' - quite simply poor phrasing. Worse, the lyrics have become sentimental. I'd always valued IA's stance as impartial narrator, presenting situations without any judgement, leaving that to the audience. Now he writes of his own experiences and his own opinions. Fine if one shares his world-view, but I don't. The main problem is that IA is a man in his mid-fifties, with the concerns and priorities of anyone at that age, so I feel Tull/Anderson albums have become by and for fiftysomethings; those of a similar age would get most from them, but I'm 32....
My disappointment with the 1999 & 2000 albums meant I'd decided not to buy any more without hearing samples first, and reading the views of fans whose opinions I respect. There were plenty of unfavourable reviews of 'Rupi's Dance', surprisingly even from 'loyal' long-term fans, but even the favourable reviews spoke in terms of the aspects I'd most disliked in earlier releases. The commonest summary was that 'Rupi's Dance' was very similar to 'SLoB', if not so strong on lyrics (and remember, I'd thought those lyrics were weak). Others spoke of a gentle overall tone, and introspection, which are okay in themselves, but simply not what I want from Tull/Anderson i.e. impartial social observation in a driving, high-energy rock setting.
I didn't solely rely on the opinions of others, of course. The official Tull website offered an audio sample of each track. I listened to each a couple of times, and knew immediately that I wouldn't be buying this album. Some music grows on me with time, but there has to be something there from the start, to lead me on. I found the samples, backed by fan reviews and my views of the earlier albums, more than enough on which to base a purchasing decision.
Having made that evaluation, the decision to avoid the Tull christmas Album was even easier. I'm intrinsically hostile to the very idea of christmas albums anyway - when Tull release an album for Eid, Diwali or the Chinese New Year, perhaps I'll reconsider - and fan reviews were again drastically less favourable than I'd expected from 'hardcore' fans, who tend to be more forgiving than objectively critical. Several commented that the reworkings of 'classic' Tull songs were inferior to the originals (I'd questioned the point of reworking them at all), others criticised the laid-back, jazz arrangements of 'Greensleeved' and yet another version of 'Bourée'. Not that it mattered to me, another frequent comment was the tenuous relevance of some songs to the christmas theme.
I didn't need to know much more; in a year of wonderful music from other bands, I quite simply couldn't be bothered to invest time and money on something I'm unlikely to enjoy.
Oh, and the covers of both albums were spectacularly disappointing: extremely unimaginative, clichéd designs, executed using the default settings of an entry-level graphics package. Could I do better? In all sincerity: yes, without question.
Aside from the new studio albums, Tull released more remasters of the back catalogue. I'm unconvinced of the merit of remastering perfectly adequate releases at all, and will only be buying a few of the remasters to replace those I only ever owned on audio tape, plus the one justified remaster, 'Broadsword And The Beast' which was poorly mastered for the original CD release. I certainly won't be buying any remasters for the bonus tracks as, without exception, all the 'bonus' tracks have been previously released on other albums or box sets; existing fans will already have them all anyway.
That said, I did obtain two remasters this year: 'A Passion Play', a gift given to me for obvious reasons, and 'Songs From The Wood', which was in a bargain bin for £2.99.
It wouldn't be a vast overstatement to say the 'Heavy Horses' remaster scandalised some fans. Firstly, there was an error on one track, with a sudden jump in volume; I think that has been corrected for later pressings. Worse, one song was changed. The original 'Moths' has a string accompaniment, but it's missing from the remaster. The official explanation is that the strings track is missing from the master tapes, but assuming that's true, I'd regard it as a reason to re-release the original album version, perhaps with digital tweaking of the mix-down tapes (which should include the strings). For many, that'd be far better than changing the song.
One to avoid.
30 December, 2003
Review: Entering The Spectra (Karmakanic, 2002)
Fan reviews of this hard-to-find solo album from TFK's Jonas Reingold were largely favourable, generally describing it as a heavier version of the Flower Kings; indeed, most members of TFK appear on various songs, amongst other guest musicians. This sounded like something I'd particularly enjoy, so I managed to obtain a copy; it took something like two months for Amazon to order one for me.
Maybe all this had built up my expectations too much, but I found it disappointing. It was much as described, with something of a TFK feel to some tracks, but the comparison wasn't favourable; it was even more bombastic and 'hippy twee' than TFK in places. A high point was 'Space Race No.3', and I've put the album on a few times solely to hear that track, but I don't rate any of the other tracks as more than listenable, and two tracks are awful. I've only played 'The Little Man' and the bulk of 'Welcome To Paradise' once. If they were jokes, I didn't find them particularly funny, if they were serious, they're embarrassing.
30 December, 2003
Review: Dead Air For Radios (Chroma Key, 1998)
After hearing the excellent 'Office of Strategic Influence' album by OSI, I was interested in the music of each of that project's members. I'd already tried, and not particularly liked, Dream Theater, and came to much the same conclusion when I finally heard a couple of Fates Warning concert recordings, but Kevin Moore's 'Chroma Key' was a real find. 'Dead Air For Radios' (1998) is now one of my favourite albums.
On 'OSI', KM provided vocals, keyboards, sample programming and almost all of the lyrics, so 'Dead Air For Radios' naturally has a similar sound, only lacking the almost 'metal' weight of guitars and drums on 'OSI'. I like KM's voice and vocal style; his words aren't simply overlaid onto the music, their rhythm substantially adds to the overall composition. Though not phrased as richly as Ian Anderson's, some of the lyrics of 'Dead Air For Radios' are as thought-provoking as a Tull album; quietly profound without being 'in-your-face' clever. 'America The Video' is a highlight in that regard.
The use of sampled interviews, etc. in some songs is interesting, adding a little contrast to KM's vocals and accompaniment to otherwise instrumental tracks. A couple are less compelling on repeated listening; each time I play the album, I tend to actually play it twice (or more times!), but I've found myself fast-forwarding past the 'counting station' shortwave broadcast (Porcupine Tree used a similar sample on 'Stupid Dream' in 1999) intro/outro of 'Even The Waves' and skipping 'Camera 4' on repeat plays. There are no bad tracks on the album, but for me these elements are the weakest.
Though it doesn't 'blow me away' to the same extent, the second Chroma Key album, 'You Go Now' (2000) is still very good. More overtly keyboard-led and laid-back than its predecessor, with programmed percussion and minimal guitar fills, the result is somewhat gentler, though wonderfully fitting the theme of putting a brave face on loneliness.
26 December, 2003
Review: Unfold The Future (The Flower Kings, 2002)
This was actually a late 2002 release, but I bought it at the start of 2003, so think of it as a 2003 album. I've liked virtually all earlier TFK albums; not every track on every album, but each has had 2-3 outstanding songs I've played repeatedly. 'Unfold The Future' has nothing like that. There's far too much 'freeform jazz' for my taste, and insufficient accessible, riff-led rock; the combination of the two had been excellent on previous albums, but I don't think the balance is quite right this time.
A common criticism is that TFK albums are poorly edited, and at least half of all fan reviews I've read suggest that each of their double albums would be vastly improved by tight editing to a single disc. Ordinarily, I'm unconvinced, since some of their best tracks develop slowly and the very length of the songs amplifies the eventual climax; room to develop and digress is worthwhile. Unfortunately, I wouldn't say that applies to the somewhat rambling 'Unfold The Future', and I do feel tighter editing would have been preferable, also to impose a more accessible overall structure.
25 December, 2003
Review: To Watch The Storms (Steve Hackett, 2003)
As usual for a Hackett album, I found this very mixed - some tracks I liked immensely from the first play, others I didn't, and still others have emerged on repeated listening. One of the many favourable aspects of Hackett's work is that each time I play one of his albums, the experience is different - I fix on some aspect I'd missed the last time; often that same aspect doesn't sound so special the next time, but that keeps things fresh too!
A one-word review would be: 'eclectic'; the tracklist ranges from homely, almost sentimental, to experimental, via jazz, blues, and 'Come Away' is apparently a mazurka, though the arrangement sounds stereotypically Pacific rather than Eastern European (it's probably the instrumentation). I haven't liked all of Hackett's experimentation over the years, but that's the nature of experimental music, and there are only two tracks on 'TWTS' that I routinely skip: 'The Mechanical Bride' and 'The Devil Is An Englishman'. The former is the only song I'd heard before the release of the album - Hackett has been playing it live for a while, but familiarity hasn't drawn me in. 'The Devil...' is a cover of a Thomas Dolby song, with the consequent disadvantages - it's slightly bizarre without developing the central idea, and features Dolby's signature repetition and eighties rhythm. Hackett's affected upper-class English drawl is amusing, but I've only listened to the whole song a couple of times.
'Strutton Ground' and 'Serpentine Song' are high points, though probably the least challenging tracks, while 'Marijuana Assassin of Youth' has a more visceral, rock'n'roll attraction. The piece which sold the album to me, however, is gleefully whimsical. The only audio sample available at the Inside Out website was the first minute or so of 'Circus Of Becoming': the sombre organ intro giving way to the childlike optigan 'solo', establishing a strong rhythm elegantly modulated as the song itself begins.
I have the extended 'Special Edition', with an extra acoustic track and cased in a hardback book, itself in a thick card slipcase. As always, Inside Out's packaging is excellent, and not sold at a premium price, so I'd recommend the special edition if available. Including the album cover, the packaging features 18 paintings (powdered glass painted onto steel) by Kim Poor, Hackett's wife.
23 December, 2003
Cover bands - not here, thanks.
We've been asked to help promote a Jethro Tull tribute band, by mentioning it at the Ministry. Whilst I intend no criticism of a band I haven't heard, that's an important point - I don't think it's reasonable to ask us to recommend a band without having heard them first.
A more significant reason is that I just don't like the very idea of tribute bands.
Thankfully, their popularity seems to be waning, at least in mainstream venues. Last year, I saw dozens advertised, but only a couple in 2003. I'm sure many are extremely competent, accurately reconstructing the music, appearence and even stage act of their chosen original band, but I have a real problem with the lack of originality. If someone is a musician, I'd always encourage him/her to be creative, ideally to compose his/her own music. Covering other artists' material is absolutely fine with me so long as it's reinterpretation, not meticulous duplication of the original; I don't really see a virtue in direct copying.
In November 2002, I saw the Australian Pink Floyd (APF) in Morecambe. Their light show was pretty good, though budget and space limitations meant it wasn't exactly of Pink Floyd-type splendour! The music was note-perfect; absolutely impossible to fault, and the vocals matched Gilmour's and Waters' voices well enough to convince. It was like listening to the CDs, loudly, in public. And that, I'm afraid, just doesn't inspire me. To hear that wonderful and familiar music, then glance up to see it's not Waters or Gilmour on stage momentarily confuses and ultimately disappoints. I really enjoyed the concert, but there was something... missing. The APF were back in Morecambe a couple of months ago. I considered going, but though I think they're excellent in their chosen genre, it's not one I particularly wish to see again.
12 December, 2003
Nurture your CD-Rs
It seems 'mainstream' CD-R users are finally catching on to info long known by those of us who trade concert recordings on CD-Rs: that CD-Rs aren't remotely 'permanent' and need careful treatment. The claims of manufacturers (10 years lifespan, even 100 years) aren't realistic; artificial aging tests don't seem to simulate typical use & storage conditions adequately. Three points highlighted by recent online press articles are fundamental to audio trading:
Use decent discs - 'known brand' discs from reputable manufacturers are better than bargain-basement, no-name discs. Cheap discs are a waste of money and could cost you valuable data within even just 2 years. 'Own-brand' discs from supermarkets and high-street electrical retailers are similarly inadequate, generally.
Best of all are discs from known CD-R manufacturers. That's manufacturers, not retail brand names - companies like TDK are distributors who don't actually manufacture discs. The most reputable CD-R manufacturer is Taiyo Yuden, of Japan but distributed globally. I buy them in the UK from CD-R Media; 27p each (mail-order, sold in multiples of 100) for top-quality discs compares well to 17p each (high-street, sold in multiples of 100) for own-brand discs from Dixons (major UK electrical retailer).
Secondly, don't apply adhesive labels, as the adhesive can react with the data-containing dye layer of the disc itself.
Fred Langa at InformationWeek found this had caused appreciable deterioration of his archived CD-Rs.
Thirdly, don't write on CD-Rs. Surprisingly, Fred Langa didn't find problems with discs he'd previously labeled with marker pens, but his experience seems to be the exception; it's a known problem, reported as 'news' yesterday by The Guardian (I don't think that page is permanently archived, so the item might vanish). In the same way as label adhesives, chemicals in marker inks can react with the dye layer of a disc, destroying data. Markers specifically for writing on CD-Rs exist, but different CD-R manufacturers use different dyes, so I doubt the pens have been tested with the full range of disc dyes. Far safer, and simply better practice, is to write only in the clear area at the hub of the disc - it's just clear plastic, so there's no dye layer to destroy.
Quick disclaimer: trading unofficial recordings, like-for-like, strictly for no profit, amongst those who already have all the official releases of the traded artist, is very different to commercial bootlegging (selling/buying unofficial recordings) or piracy (distributing copies of official releases).
20 November, 2003
New musical discovery
I've heard a few mentions of a band called 'Pineapple Thief' at Porcupine Tree-related discussion groups. Initially, I though it was an in-joke nickname for P-Tree itself, but I gradually realised that it's a band in its own right, and that the mentions by P-Tree fans were unfailingly positive; someone cited the latest album, Variations On A Dream this morning as his album of the year. I had to follow up that lead. The band's website has audio samples and an online shop offering better prices than Amazon, with free delivery worldwide.
The music itself strikes me as being at the 'pop' end of contemporary prog (i.e. song-based progressive music), with a slight hint of Coldplay but more significantly, a feel combining Radiohead and c.2000 Porcupine Tree. The audio samples certainly led me to order the two most recent albums, anyway.
Give 'em a try.
23 October, 2003
Opeth's first official DVD due soon
On 25 September, 2003, Swedish death/prog metal band Opeth played a concert at the Shepherd's Bush Empire, London, UK, consisting of the entire 'Deliverance' and 'Damnation' albums, supplemented by further material from 'Blackwater Park'. The two 'D...' studio albums were recorded in the same sessions as a matched pair, one heavy-only, one non-metal, so this was a unique opportunity to hear them together, live.
Unique until 24 November, 2003, that is, when the band's first official DVD is released by Music For Nations! Featuring both hour-long sets, additional material also includes interviews with the band and the albums' producer, namely Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree.
NP: King Crimson, 'Masque', on LAUNCHcast. Argh! No skipping! Reboot! I can't bear KC.
10 October, 2003
LAUNCHcast at Yahoo!
Just found LAUNCHcast web radio (at Yahoo!). I've never really listened to web radio before, due to a combination of having to pay for internet access from home and having musical tastes that aren't exactly compatible with standard radio playlists! I get free better-than-broadband internet access at work, and this station allows a lot of customisation, so I get to hear artists I choose to hear. Importantly, I don't get to choose the running order or specific tracks, so there's an element of surprise, and additional artists are thrown in which I haven't selected, so I get to hear music new to me.
Over-customisation is my main criticism of webzines, etc. A selling-point is that it's possible to have an online newspaper show only stories matching preselected areas of interest, but there's a major disadvantage: missing out on things that the reader mightn't realise he/she would wish to know. If one reads reviews of music, books, films, etc. that one already knows, how can one's taste expand and develop?
If anyone wants to try my playlist, listen here. You may need to sign up to Yahoo! for access.
NP: Godspeed You! Black Emperor: 'Blaise Bailey Finnegan III' (on LAUNCHcast - what other radio station would broadcast a track lasting 17:45, featuring a sampled rant against the US government and legal system?) Excellent track, but I can't play it loud enough at work!
9 October, 2003
eighteen seconds before sunrise
Isn't that a wonderful name for the official Sigur Rós website?
NP: Opeth, 'Morningrise'
7 October, 2003
New Fish songs
Earlier, I was listening to a recording of Fish's 31/05/03 show in Tranent, UK, which included two new songs, presumably intended for his next album, 'Field Of Crows'.
Sorry to say, I wasn't particularly impressed by the unofficial preview. The new pieces, 'Numbers' and 'Zoo Class' sounded very much like tracks from a 'Fellini Days Part 2' album i.e. they have a very similar feel to the 2001 album, which itself seemed to be missing some 'spark' that could have elevated it from 'not bad' to his earlier 'very good/excellent'. A weakness of the new material is an apparent over-reliance on just repeating the title. I really hope it's only because he's still working on the lyrics!
[Update 14/2/04: See my review of 'Field Of Crows'.]
NP: Marillion, Geleen, The Netherlands, 04/05/02
5 October, 2003
NP: Enigma - MCMXCaD
Heh. I have happy memories of this one, which I'm not about to share with the world ;)
I picked up the 'Limited Edition' CD in a sale yesterday. It includes four 'bonus' remixes of tracks from the standard album, but I'm not convinced that they add much to what is already a nicely self-contained package.