Serving The Song

My first experience with the Tragically Hip was a memorable one. My friend Driver invited me to Pine Knob, the summer after our freshman year in college, to see this amazing Canadian rock band I had only barely heard of, with an enigmatic lead singer and bluesy vibe. I was really going to see the opening band, Guster, but the Hip were a new, added bonus. I had no expectations.

Then they opened with “Tiger the Lion,” a booming, slightly psychedelic rant on a hot July night, and I thought, “My God, where have these guys been?”

The rest is personal history. I’ve since seen the Hip more than any other band (more than a dozen concerts, easily), traveling back and forth over the Canadian border to see the North’s favorite rock and roll band. The last time, in January 2015 at the Windsor, Ontario casino, was just months before lead singer Gord Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.

The news hit last week that Gord passed away. I’ve spent the last week in mourning. It’s been rough.

Last Wednesday I loaded up my Hip playlist, grabbed my camera, and hit the streets for some fresh air and therapy. It’s all I felt like doing: playing music, and making pictures. What else can one do when a music hero dies?

All of Canada mourns Gord’s death. But we sure sent him, and the guys in the band, out on a high note last summer when the Hip headed out for one more tour.

Thanks Gord, for everything: the music, the memories, and that magical summer night in 2000 that gave me 17 wonderful years of your performances.

Days I Tried to Live

Soundgarden in Las Vegas, 2011

If there’s anything to get you off your butt and get in gear to accomplish something, it’s death.

Lately for me, it’s been that way with musicians and bands. Rock musicians die all the time, but the past few years, a few of my musical heroes have passed on. That makes it super important for me, as a live music fan, to see them in concert before they’re gone.

Soundgarden was my grunge band. Heavy, psychedelic, that banshee in a goatee as the lead singer – Soundgarden represented everything about heavy metal and classic rock that I loved. Luckily, I got to see them at the Hard Rock Cafe in Las Vegas back in 2011 with my good friend Driver.

Now Chris Cornell has passed. That makes me ultra mega glad I got to see his band before he died. And so it should go with a bunch of my musical heroes. For as much as I love the Smashing Pumpkins, I’ve never seen them live. Nor the fully-formed Pink Floyd (the closest I got was seeing Roger Waters in 1999). I think Cornell dying is good motivation for me to see who I can see, before they’re gone.

That philosophy extends to just about anything. See it, make it, love it – before it disappears.

We need reminders, don’t we?

‘Anthrax Sucks, Dude’

My friends and I set our musical foundation in the 1990s. Post grunge, post groove metal, we looked back at the decade before us and wondered what everyone saw in the metal bands of the ’80s.

New Wave of British Heavy Metal, power metal, hair metal – these were dirty words to kids who rocked out to Pantera, Alice In Chains, and Rage Against the Machine. Sure, we dug the stuff from the ’70s, and it was easy to make the connection from grunge to classic rock. But “metal,” as we knew it, was so passé.

We made exceptions, of course. Dio, some Iron Maiden, Metallica was still doing interesting things. Everyone else could go to hell.

It’s only recently that I’ve started to dig up good material that we may have missed. We picked on bands like Anthrax, but maybe we were missing something. This is especially evident as these classic bands have kept going and releasing new material.

Turns out? For All Kings is pretty damned great.

Dead Again

Type O Negative released Dead Again, their final album, 10 years ago.

It’s hard to overstate how important this album, and Type O Negative, were to me. I remember 2007 being a big year for me, personally, and Dead Again was there through all the tumult and strife. My roommate and I went to see Type O at Harpo’s in Detroit that year. Three years after the album, lead singer Peter Steele would drop dead. I think about him a lot, and what Type O would’ve made had he been alive.

Ten years? Man. That’s a lot of time to soak in one album.

If there’s such a thing as progressive goth (14 minutes!), “These Three Things” is it. Such a sprawling, epic track – my favorite on the album.

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.

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!)