Forgotten & Surreal Instruments [#42]

Two nights ago we had the privilege of listening to the latest show put together by the Society of Strange and Ancient Instruments. Never heard of them? Well, neither had I. In fairness, had we not known one of the musicians (who, it turns out, was stepping in for another member) we still wouldn’t know about the Society and certainly wouldn’t have heard them perform.

Which is rather lucky, because both the members and the performance itself were brilliant. I had absolutely no idea what to expect and, frankly, even if I’d read a blurb or heard an explanation I doubt my expectations would have fitted the reality. In brief, the hour-or-so performance was a string quartet playing a medley of medieval and modern compositions, interspersed with readings from Sir Francis Bacon, the 16th century philosopher and naturalist. Oh, except the string instruments on which they played were not your standard violins, cellos etc. but rather the likes of the trumpet marine (one of the only ones in the world), viola bastarda (the only one in the world), gothic bray harp and utterly bizarre looking nyckelharpa (to name only a few, with each musician swapping instruments at least once throughout the performance). Layered on top of these medieval instruments were sound recordings, (occasional) electronic music and various distortions – these being the remit of the fifth musician, whom we know.

The result is a fascinating walk down both scientific and musical history. Francis Bacon has some wonderful excerpts on the nature of sound, the concept of his titular “Sound Houses” (from his New Atlantis, which I really must read) and Medieval anecdotes about noise in general. I doubt that a group of revellers truly did clap hard enough to “make the air thinner and cause the birds to fall from the sky” [paraphrased] but his observations on sound propagation are wonderfully modern and his vision for the future of music consumption is, at times, eerily prophetic. The excerpts were performed brilliantly by a live actor, lending a very clever degree of wit, movement and comedy to proceedings.

Alongside, and greatly overshadowing, the classical excerpts from Bacon was the music itself. For the most part, the musical performance was just incredibly well played Medieval fare. It’s a genre which I love, because it feels somehow incredibly alien whilst the core rhythms and structures, at times, feel almost pop like. The sound mixing was brilliant, allowing the whole medley to produce a wonderfully lyrical and complementary music whilst still permitting you to hone in on individual instruments, which you absolutely wanted to do from time-to-time. In particular, the trumpet marine was fascinating. A single stringed instrument with dozens of hidden vibration panels and sympathetic strings it could produce a bizarre array of sounds. I’m not so convinced as to the claims likening it to a trumpet, whose sound is much fuller and cleaner, but there is definitely a level of reverb and rasp which I’ve never heard from a stringed instrument before. I’m genuinely tempted to donate to their crowd funding campaign to get four of them made, just to hear what several of these instruments could produce together! Personally, though, my favourite was the weirdly altered bray harp, with small pegs fastened to the end of each string creating a very harsh, discordant noise completely antithetical to the classically perceived sounds of a harp.

Whilst there were new compositions interspersed with ancient, you really couldn’t tell them apart, and although the mixture of Medieval strings and modern audio sampling sounds odd on paper, in reality it worked extremely well. One of the last pieces performed, with the most electronic overlays, in fact felt ripe for sampling beneath a grime track, a combination I would happily pay to listen to. When paired alongside the esoteric poetry of Bacon’s prose and the atmospheric setting, an equally ancient church in the centre of a mist enshrouded town on the Moor, the result was wonderfully evocative and utterly riveting. An extremely fun way to spend the evening!

Accio Deathly Hallows

10 years ago today the Harry Potter series came to a close. With the publishing of The Deathly Hallows a large part of my, and many others, childhood came to an end. I find it strange that a decade has passed since, but probably for different reasons.

Whilst I was eager to read The Deathly Hallows when it first came out, I have to admit that the Potter franchise had lost its lustre for me. I grew up alongside the release dates, but as they stretched out over the last three books my own ageing overtook the target audience. By the close of the series I still counted myself a fan, but my life revolved far more around the likes of Lord of the Rings, Pratchett’s Discworld and authors like David Gemmell.

But the release of The Deathly Hallows does mark a pretty big event in my life, though I wouldn’t realise it for another three (!) years. Several days before the book was officially released, a little known channel on YouTube uploaded what would become a viral, fan-favourite and Harry Potter inspired song: Accio Deathly Hallows. The musician was Hank Green; the channel was “Brotherhood 2.0”, the fledgling website that would evolve into the Vlogbrothers. Whilst Hank and his brother John have become far better known for other reasons, ranging from writing The Fault in Our Stars (John) to creating VidCon (Hank), that song was what changed their experiment on YouTube into a community. Both brothers have pointed to Accio Deathly Hallows as a pivot point, the first time either had considered that their involvement in YouTube was more than just a one-year deal. The popularity it gave them on the platform ultimately changed both of their careers and, arguably, the face of both YouTube and the web in general.

That, for me, is the far bigger anniversary today. The Vlogbrothers, their content and their outlook on life have been a hugely impactful and important part of my life as I left home, went to University and officially began to “adult”. They remain one of my most watched YouTube channels, a huge inspiration and a brilliant example to the world of how to be humans. Whilst it feels like Harry Potter ended years ago (which I guess it did), the idea that the Vlogbrothers have been vlogging for over a decade is equal parts encouraging and terrifying. Forget Accio Deathly Hallows, I’m more interested in Accio DFTBA.

Vinyl Scratchings [#20]

Yes, I am one of those irritating people that have decided to resurrect an audio format that, by all rights, should be long extinct. And, further yes, I’m also now going to complain about my irrational decision and why the industry is ruining it. Have you got the rage and sighs out? Okay, let’s continue.

First of all, because it’s likely the number one question any vinyl ‘enthusiast’ (I am not a fan of that term) gets asked, why do I buy vinyl? Well, it isn’t because of ‘superior’ sound quality. I don’t have the time, or money, to become an audiophile. No, honestly, it’s because I like collecting stuff and I like music. Vinyl collections are just more attractive to me than CD collections, although I have quite a large one of those too, and I find no joy in having a large digital media collection at all. Plus, the audio industry was forever changed the moment Spotify launched. I have subscriptions to both Spotify Premium and Amazon Music, which combined account for over 90% of my music listening habits. I no longer have any need to buy music.

Still, sometimes, I want to buy music. Most of the time it’s so I can support a specific artist; the rest of the time it’s because a given record has some personal significance to me. As a result, my vinyl collection is not full of one-time release, special edition recordings from bands you’ve never heard of. It’s largely main stream, best selling albums from the likes of Linkin Park, Muse and the Killers. Still, because I’m part of the ‘digital generation’, a lot of these records are the first time I’ve owned some of my, personally, favourite and most influential music. As a result, I want these purchases to be special; I look at them as more than just ‘buying an album’ but as recognition of an album or artist that means something to me.

Yet, despite the enduring revival of the format, it seems that the prestige of vinyl is being forgotten. Most modern releases are a simple sleeve, with identical cover art to the CD (often not even at increased resolution), and nothing more. The records of the 70’s and 80’s delighted consumers with multi-hinge fold outs, ornate lyrics sheets, in depth leaflets about the album, artist, designers and everyone inbetween. Cover art was detailed and extravagant, with the entire package often being pain staking lay designed. Vinyl records felt special, rewarding your purchase with a product that somehow felt more than just an album. Conversely, modern CD albums tend to contain more of these features than the vinyl issue does.

This mass market reaction is predictable but should, theoretically, be matched in step by a shift in cost. However, far from making vinyl records cheaper, it seems that the resurgence of interest in the format has increased the expected RRP. As vinyl has become cool and collectable again, the price, particularly of sought after albums (even reissues), has steadily risen.

The result is a market where vinyl records now feel less special whilst costing more. There are some benefits to the mass market, such as the inclusion of digital download codes with vinyl purchases, but even these are hit and miss with little thought. A recent selection of albums I’ve bought contained a download code that had already expired (Sir Sly), a code with no corresponding website (Watsky) and a digital download given at lower than CD quality compression (Glitch Mob). Vinyl albums, especially ones that hold their value, tend to have long shelf lives, tend to be bought by people who have a decent understanding of audio quality and are largely purchased by fans of that artist. None of those interactions made me feel like my purchase mattered to the bands involved. They left a bitter taste in the mouth.

There are those that do get it, though. Cat Power’s Sun is a fantastic example of a vinyl that rewards the consumer. It comes with both a CD and digital download code (amazing) and the specially designed insert sleeves include lyrics, credits, interesting information and much more. Plus, it looks great and sounds amazing, making the purchase so much more special. Also, Florence & The Machine Lungs which has a proper bi-fold sleeve and some stunning album art. Ironically, both cost much less than other, rather disappointing vinyls. Hopefully artists will begin to take pride in the way their art is presented again as they used to.

CSV Albums: A Database

For the most part, using the Universal Scrobbler is as simple as searching for the artist/album you want and hitting Scrobble. There are a couple of albums I have, however, which don’t seem to be searchable on the relevant databases. Luckily there is a CSV entry option which makes scrobbling whole albums super easy. I figured I might as well leave the converted CSV files online, just in case they come in handy for anyone else (plus, it acts as a backup/easy access for me as well). I’ll add to/update this post whenever I find some new ones.

UPDATE: (06/04/17) I’ve converted all of the CSV lists to use quote-mark column delimiters. By doing so, I can have track titles that contain commas without worrying about odd results – hooray!

The Atrocity Exhibition – Lazy Habits

“Lazy Habits”,”Kicking The Clouds”,”The Atrocity Exhibition”
“Lazy Habits”,”Feed the Brass”,”The Atrocity Exhibition”
“Lazy Habits”,”Left 2 (Ruins)”,”The Atrocity Exhibition”
“Lazy Habits”,”Crossing”,”The Atrocity Exhibition”
“Lazy Habits”,”The Breach”,”The Atrocity Exhibition”
“Lazy Habits”,”Answer With Quiestions”,”The Atrocity Exhibition”
“Lazy Habits”,”Hindsight Bias”,”The Atrocity Exhibition”
“Lazy Habits”,”Cold Shoulder Freestyle”,”The Atrocity Exhibition”
“Lazy Habits”,”The Terminal Beach”,”The Atrocity Exhibition”
“Lazy Habits”,”Give It Up”,”The Atrocity Exhibition”
“Lazy Habits”,”Sanity For Sanctuary”,”The Atrocity Exhibition”
“Lazy Habits”,”Never Did”,”The Atrocity Exhibition”
“Lazy Habits”,”Waiting Around – Bonus Track”,”The Atrocity Exhibition”

Lazy Habits – Lazy Habits

“Lazy Habits”,”Processional”,”Lazy Habits”
“Lazy Habits”,”Ashes”,”Lazy Habits”
“Lazy Habits”,”Surface Dirt”,”Lazy Habits”
“Lazy Habits”,”Even Out”,”Lazy Habits”
“Lazy Habits”,””Perfect Sentence””,”Lazy Habits”
“Lazy Habits”,”Ghosts (Fallen)”,”Lazy Habits”
“Lazy Habits”,”Memory Banks (feat. Baby Sol)”,”Lazy Habits”
“Lazy Habits”,”Starting Fires”,”Lazy Habits”
“Lazy Habits”,”Fades”,”Lazy Habits”
“Lazy Habits”,”The Road”,”Lazy Habits”
“Lazy Habits”,”An Interlude”,”Lazy Habits”
“Lazy Habits”,”Bulletin”,”Lazy Habits”
“Lazy Habits”,”The Drowned World”,”Lazy Habits”
“Lazy Habits”,”Please People”,”Lazy Habits”
“Lazy Habits”,”Recessional”,”Lazy Habits”
“Lazy Habits”,”Ghosts (Screen and Fallen)”,”Lazy Habits”

Sun – Cat Power

“Cat Power”,”Cherokee”,”Sun”
“Cat Power”,”Sun”,”Sun”
“Cat Power”,”Ruin”,”Sun”
“Cat Power”,”3,6,9″,”Sun”
“Cat Power”,”Always on My Own”,”Sun”
“Cat Power”,”Real Life”,”Sun”
“Cat Power”,”Human Being”,”Sun”
“Cat Power”,”Manhattan”,”Sun”
“Cat Power”,”Silent Machine”,”Sun”
“Cat Power”,”Nothin’ But Time”,”Sun”
“Cat Power”,”Peace and Love”,”Sun”

Cold Fact – Rodriguez

“Rodriguez”,”Sugar Man”,”Cold Fact”
“Rodriguez”,”Only Good for Conversation”,”Cold Fact”
“Rodriguez”,”Crucify Your Mind”,”Cold Fact”
“Rodriguez”,”This Is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst: Or, the Establishment Blues”,”Cold Fact”
“Rodriguez”,”Hate Street Dialogue”,”Cold Fact”
“Rodriguez”,”Forget It”,”Cold Fact”
“Rodriguez”,”Inner City Blues”,”Cold Fact”
“Rodriguez”,”I Wonder”,”Cold Fact”
“Rodriguez”,”Like Janis”,”Cold Fact”
“Rodriguez”,”Gommorah (A Nursery Rhyme)”,”Cold Fact”
“Rodriguez”,”Rich Folks Hoax”,”Cold Fact”
“Rodriguez”,”Jane S. Piddy”,”Cold Fact”

Palookaville – Fatboy Slim

“Fatboy Slim”,”Don’t Let the Man Get You Down”,”Palookaville”
“Fatboy Slim”,”Slash Dot Dash”,”Palookaville”
“Fatboy Slim”,”Wonderful Night”,”Palookaville”
“Fatboy Slim”,”Long Way from Home”,”Palookaville”
“Fatboy Slim”,”Put It Back Together”,”Palookaville”
“Fatboy Slim”,”Mi Bebé Masoquista”,”Palookaville”
“Fatboy Slim”,”Push & Shove”,”Palookaville”
“Fatboy Slim”,”North West Three”,”Palookaville”
“Fatboy Slim”,”The Journey”,”Palookaville”
“Fatboy Slim”,”Jin Go Lo Ba”,”Palookaville”
“Fatboy Slim”,”Song for Chesh”,”Palookaville”
“Fatboy Slim”,”The Joker”,”Palookaville”

Make Me Pulse

Screengrab of Make Me Pulse's 2016 Microsite with text reading "Make Me ..." followed by empty box and surrounded by geometric shapes

Occasionally, Stumbleupon delivers something totally unexpected and awesome. It’s why I still get the service’s weekly emails years after ever actively using the… app? Extension? Whatever, today it brought me Make Me Pulse, a fantastic design studio (well, at least a fantastic website for a design studio, though a brief review of their work means I’m relatively confident giving them the thumbs up as well) with some very clever interactivity on their site. I’d recommend checking out their homepage purely for the geometric, virtual “drum skin” you can play with, but tucked away in a semi-hidden corner is a very fun, quirky and captivating little ‘happy new year’ microsite. Definitely worth a check out.