music

Elder at SXSW

“Dead Roots Stirring” doesn’t really get going until 3:33 in, but that’s what I love about Elder: noodly, jamming metal from a fantastic trio.

Elder gets labelled a doom/stoner metal band, but I think there’s a bit of prog in there, too. They’re one of those bands that I turn on and let play all morning: repetitive, great hooks, and meandering. That turn at 9:15 or so? It’s like another song buried in the larger song. So good.

Looking forward to what they come up with next.


Lack Of Agency

Lack Of Agency

Seth Godin’s recent post hit a nerve:

There are institutions, professionals and organizations that would like you to believe that you don’t have much choice in the matter.

They want to take away your agency, because it makes their job easier or their profits higher.

But you have more choice than you know.

In our recent move, I’ve twice dealt with corporations and utilities that have made me feel like I have no agency. Most recently, Apple Support left me hanging on an Apple ID and iTunes issue. Apple! A company I’ve supported each of my adult years!

Call support centers are a form of capitalist nihilism. There’s no reason for any of the decisions made except to make the company’s situation better, and to help you feel powerless. It’s rare that a support interaction has a positive outcome – so rare, that we marvel at Creation when it happens.

My Apple interaction was especially galling. From 2005-2008, I purchased a bunch of music under an old Apple ID. From 2008 on, I’ve been purchasing music from a different Apple ID, unaware of the consequences, so now I have a bunch of music in limbo. The support center’s solution? “Switch Apple IDs each time you want to listen to that music.” Helpful! And silly. What they don’t tell you is that each time you switch Apple IDs in iTunes, it locks the previous Apple ID for 90 days.

Three months! Unacceptable. And completely arbitrary.

So now I’ll be sticking to downloading my music from companies with fewer arbitrary restrictions (as Godin writes, keeping the “ability to shop around”). It’s one of the reasons I don’t rely on subscription-based music services. There is, by definition, no agency involved in that transaction. If you unsubscribe, all the music goes away.

The larger point can be applied to creativity and photography, of course. There’s creative agency – that sense of not being held hostage by expectations and self-imposed pressure. On the technology side, by submitting our work to Instagram and Tumblr, you’re giving up a bit of agency. And if something goes wrong, your only recourse is a faceless call center, if that.

My one weak spot: Flickr. I rely on Ol’ Reliable for so much of what I do, including image hosting for this very blog. And I have a lot of time and infrastructure wrapped up in that website. If something goes wrong, I’ll be in a bit of trouble. It won’t be catastrophic, but it certainly won’t be fun.

When we keep our agency, in the form of hosted, backed-up websites and blogs, we have a bit more say in the matter. We can always pack up and put up our tent somewhere else.


2016 Music Recommendations

VOLA – Inmazes

VOLA kind of came out of nowhere for me.

Well, they came from somewhere: Spotify’s Progressive Metal list. As soon as I heard “Starburn,” I knew they were my kind of band. Dynamic, heavy, beautiful, different – VOLA’s Inmazes combines djent, prog, and electronics in novel ways. All of Inmazes is a treat. Standouts include the title track, “Starburn,” and “Your Mind Is a Helpless Dreamer.”

My album of the year. So good.

Big Big Train – Folklore

Another in the new-prog discoveries, Big Big Train makes pastoral progressive rock that’s a lot of fun. “Wassail” was my favorite from this album – and thanks to that song, I’m making an traditional wassail cider for the holidays.

Frost* – Falling Satellites

Boy, what a discovery “Milliontown” was for me. Twenty six minutes of pure prog glory. Frost* made a poppier effort with Falling Satellites: less prog epics but more prog experiments (ProgStep? It’s in there!). It’s been in near constant rotation since the fall.

The 1975 – I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it

An outlier for music this year, and even though I greatly prefer their first album, the 1975 snuck up on me. They’re the rare modern band that breaks through the noise and make themselves known (it helps that I follow a bunch of my former college students on Twitter). I like it when you sleep… is quiet a bit too often for my liking, but the upbeat tracks are a lot of fun in that grimy, party-hardy English way.

Haken – Affinity

More on the prog metal side of things, Haken’s Affinity is a nice callback to the mid ’80s in that rose-colored glasses kind of way that made Stranger Things such a fun series. I mean, just listen to that synth and guitar line in “1985.”

My favorite is “Earthrise” – a gung-ho prog romp if there ever was one. You can’t beat that opening piano riff.

The Tragically Hip – Man Machine Poem

Want to see me have a meltdown on Twitter? Just go back to earlier this year during The Hip’s final show. Man Machine Poem is a weird, beautiful, potential goodbye from Canada’s hometown band. “Machine” says “so long” in such a haunting way (“I dream like a bird”), it’s all you can do not to break down at the end. Or pump your first in celebration.

“I tried nothing, and I’m out of ideas,” Gord sings. I doubt that – but it’s a fine idea to finish things up.

Honorable mentions:

Tycho, Epoch : Big surprise album from one of my fav electronic bands.

The Pineapple Thief, Your Wilderness: More good stuff from a great band. Missing Porcupine Tree? These guys will help fill the void with PT’s Gavin Harrison on drums.


Black Light Machine

Speaking of music: Frost’s behind the scenes work on their song “Black Light Machine” was a lot of fun to watch. With all of these “here’s how the song was made” videos and podcasts, it’s great to see the musicians actually performing their individual parts.

And my gosh, that guitar section at 5:56. Beautiful.

Frost is becoming one of my favorite bands – and they’re a recent discovery, thanks to that Spotify / YouTube / Amazon connection. Great, poppy prog with virtuoso musicians. If you have a spare 26 minutes, let “Milliontown” wash over you. Every part and movement is perfect.


Analog City

Analog City

In Sound City, Dave Grohl’s love letter to the legendary, hit-making studio in California, he and other musicians gush about the “real” process of getting guys in a studio and recording music live, on two-inch tape: “the human element of creating and recording music.” ProTools has its place, many of the artists say, but there’s nothing like analog.

We’ve heard this before, of course. Everyone from filmmakers to photographers are returning to (or, in the case of movies, never leaving) film.

Lots of words get used to describe this process: magic, alchemy, mystery, human. Digital is too “easy.” You can fix everything with digital. Etc.

For many, it’s a return to what is known. Analog is more familiar to those of a certain age. A lot of what Grohl and Christopher Nolan and other film fans seem to be saying is, “You missed the good stuff, the good old days.”

Those of us who adopted photography as a hobby or profession in the digital age don’t know what a dark room is like because we’ve never used one, and may never step foot in one.

(A side note: my college newspaper had a darkroom attached to it, behind this sweet swiveling circular door, and I did spend some time in there – but never to actually develop or print images. I remember photography students spending a lot of time in that room, and I’d catch glimpses of what they were working on when they brought their prints out into the light.)

We seemed to have this big upswing, in the ’80s (music), ’90s (movies), and 2000s (photography) toward digital art making. In the last decade, that digital tide has swung back, and more and more artists are experimenting with analog again. Call it the Maker Movement, call it hipsterism, call it whatever, but vinyl records and photo film seem to be doing okay again. Not great, but not dead.

So it is with blogging – away from federated, silo’d social media platforms and toward artists and writers owning their material.

Maybe we’re all learning that perfect isn’t the goal. The goal is to make something great, imperfections and all. Something human.

We’re all living in Analog City now.

 


Steps to Music Discovery

So Hard to Get Along

So Hard to Get Along – Ann Arbor, Michigan

Lately, I feel like I’m exploring more and more musical acts, especially in progressive rock and metal. So many musical discoveries have come from a combination of Spotify, YouTube, Amazon, and following the bands I love. I feel like I’m awash in music, and it brings me a lot of joy.

Don’t get me wrong: I still purchase my music, usually in physical form. I give myself a monthly musical budget, and I’m not afraid to spend that money.

But music discovery? Spotify makes this so easy.

The steps go something like this:

  1. Listen to a band I enjoy
  2. Look at the “Related Artist” tab on Spotify and poke around
  3. Check out YouTube to see if the artist has any music videos (remember those?)
  4. Head to Amazon to see what reviewers say about their albums
  5. Put an album in my Amazon wish list to reference later
  6. Purchase the album

Rinse, repeat.

I don’t do like the kids do these days and use Spotify (or Apple Music, or any other streaming service) for all my music needs. But I do find that it’s perfect for experimenting, and for checking out albums that I’ve always wanted to hear before I buy.

(And thank goodness for YouTube. If an artist is not on Spotify, chances are someone has ripped and uploaded their album to YouTube.)

For those bands that have been on the periphery of my musical tastes, digital music venues offer me a free sample. It costs nothing, except a potential album purchase down the road.

I haven’t been this excited about music since around the time I was in college, when so much good stuff was coming my way from friends in school and college radio. Today, the material is almost overwhelming, because now the entirety of rock and roll’s catalog is at my fingertips. A lot of these newly-discovered artists have quickly become some of my favorites. That’s a fun feeling.

Supporting my favorite artists with actual money is so important. Thanks to these streaming services, I can find more favorite artists to support.

(Follow along on Spotify if you’re interested in what I listen to!)


Folklore

Is there a more nerdy musical category than prog rock?

If so, I don’t want to know.

All of Big Big Train’s Folklore is a delight, but the title track and “Wassail” are my favorites so far.

So dorky! So English! But such a great tune.


Inevitability Of Death

Tragically Hip in Windsor, Ontario

Saturday night, The Tragically Hip played the last show on their most recent “Man Machine Poem Tour” in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario.

The show was notable because Gord Downie, the Hip’s lead singer, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer earlier this year. Saturday night’s show, broadcast on the CBC to a third of Canada’s citizens, could be the Hip’s last ever – capping a 30-year career.

Imagine that in America. What U.S.-based band would garner a national broadcast on its last show ever? Bruce Springsteen, maybe? What modern music act can unite a country on what night in the way the Hip did this weekend? It’s amazing when you think about it.

I have a great history with the band. My friend Chris took me to a Hip show in the summer of 2000 at DTE Energy Music Theater (Pine Knob to those who remember the good ol’ days), north of Detroit. Since then, I’ve seen the Hip more than a dozen times: in Detroit, in Grand Rapids, in Sarnia, in Toronto, in Windsor (photo above). Their country and my own, I’ve seen them on almost every tour since 2000, sometimes catching them on several dates on a given tour.

Saturday night was emotional for me. It was especially difficult watching Gord, obviously frail and tired, giving it his all. He was spent emotionally, physically, and perhaps even creatively. But he went out with a bang. Here was a guy who has dealt with terminal cancer, on the last night of a country-spanning tour, deliver a three-hour performance in front of his hometown crowd and his nation. That’s grit.

Not that I think about death a lot, but watching my musical heroes pass away over the years makes me think about mortality, and the limited time we have.

It’s hard not to dive into the live-like-you-were-dying cliché here, but hear me out.

What would you do, artistically, if you knew you were on borrowed time?

And what’s holding you back from doing that, right now?

I try not to be morbid about this stuff. But it’s hard, having kids, not thinking about being taken away suddenly, and what kind of situation I’d leave behind. The unexpected happens all the time. Any of us could get a diagnosis that changes everything.

We can’t think about this stuff every day. That would be paralyzing in a way. Then again, that’s the whole point of the your-life-changes-after-you-get-the-news storyline – hardly anyone young-ish sees death coming. Saturday’s concert was a good reminder.

I mean, if a guy with terminal brain cancer can hit the road with the band one more time, travel the country and give it his all every night in the name of art and performance and duty, surely I can get that undone project completed. Right?

Watching Gord’s exhausted face melt into anguish at the end of a barn-burning song? Yeah, there aren’t too many excuses left after seeing that.