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solo quizzicality

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OK, it’s a pretty easy quiz, but still fun: can you identify 16 guitar solos? They’re all famous, but I had to guess at a couple. I have no idea if Neil Young has a signature sound, or Jane’s Addiction, but one is new and one is old, so a guess was good enough.

Guitar Solos Quiz Score: 100% (16 out of 16)

I Rock!

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Written by brian t

June 6, 2007 at 11:56 pm

Posted in music

eight-legged pumpkin

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‘Ello, ‘ello? Look what the cat dragged in…

It’s… the Smashing Pumpkins, reassembled. The song is Tarantula, from their forthcoming album Zeitgeist.

I heard about this a while ago, and didn’t think I’d be interested, because I still think they were right to call it quits when they did. Tarantula, however, has piqued my interest, sounding fresher than I had any right to expect. Billy Corgan’s voice is sounding particularly good; higher and clearer than before.

I’d like to hear more, but this is a good start. The setlist looks good – including personal faves Thirty-Three, Cherub Rock and Tonight, Tonight, so if they come this way, I better just jump at it.

Speak to me in a language I can hear,
Humour me before I have to go…

Written by brian t

June 5, 2007 at 10:35 pm

Posted in music

whirlwind life of faith and betrayal

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I’ve heard it said that King Crimson, the band, is “a way of doing things”. I agree, but I would also apply that description to Rush, who have just released Snakes & Arrows. Far Cry is the first single:

Rather than tell you what the overarching theme is – which is not that simple to define – I’ll use the song Armor and Sword to illustrate the way a few well-chosen lyrics open up a world of concepts that lend depth to an album.

The first line also gave the album its name:

The snakes and arrows a child is heir to
Are enough to leave a thousand cuts

According to lyricist Neil Peart, the term “snakes and arrows” was originally a pun on the kids’ game “snakes and ladders”, and part of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy:

To be, or not to be, — that is the question: —
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? — To die, to sleep, —
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, — ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d.

This passage has Hamlet questioning his own will to live; is life worth the pain? As used in the song, the “thousand natural shocks” becomes an unnatural “death by a thousand cuts”: the slowest and most painful form of death possible, it has also become a metaphor for the slow degradation or destruction of something held dear against one’s will. By way of contrast, the soliloquy came early in Shakespeare’s tragedy, when Hamlet thought himself in control of his destiny, and “to be or not to be” was a question he could honestly answer.

In the game of Snakes & Ladders (US: Chutes & Ladders), the tumbling of a dice marks your progress up the board, from the bottom to the top, step by step. Your luck can land you on a ladder, sending you upwards quickly, or on a snake, on which you slide downwards. In the worst case, a snake can send you “back to square one”, literally. The lucky player makes it to the top first, winning the game against the rivals.

Our better natures seek elevation
A refuge for the coming night
No one gets to their heaven without a fight

In the Old Testament myth, a snake was the reason Adam & Eve were ejected from the Garden of Eden, and (if you believe the Bible), our existence since that point has been a fight to re-enter that Heaven. It pays to be a “straight Arrow”, but the Snake is still with us, in the form of Sin, laying traps of Temptation to be resisted. In the Snakes & Ladders game, however, your progress is random, determined by the dice, so is there any meaning to be found in the fight to the top?

This is where luck adds an extra layer of meaning: in his album essay, The Game of Snakes & Arrows, Neil explains what happened next. When “Snakes & Arrows” was suggested as a possible album title, Neil went online to check if anyone else had used it, and found that there was once an Indian board game called “Snakes & Arrows”, the ancestor of “Snakes & Ladders” that was adapted by the British from the original.

Also known as Lila or Leela, meaning “play”, it’s a game based on a Hindu concept: the idea that life is a game, and the Universe is a playground for the gods; a puppet theatre in which spontaneous plays are improvised. All this is dharma, the will of the gods, with the random dice the sole deciding factor; I looked for any reference to karma, the idea that a person’s actions can influence their progress up the board, towards their particular heaven, but I found none.

So, if “no one gets to their heaven without a fight”, what are they fighting for? The lesson to be learned from Leela is that Life is a cosmic game, to be enjoyed for as long as it lasts.
The gods are just having fun; why should a human life be any different?

Snakes & Arrows, in its lyrics, casts a soft, sympathetic, yet unrelenting light on the difficulties people create for themselves, in their beliefs and the wars they get into over them. Yet, what we face is not a game; religious fanaticism in all its forms is subjecting our world to “death by a thousand cuts”, the “snakes” are the sins we burden our children with, and the “arrows” are the dangerous ideas we cultivate in them. As children grow into adults, the intellectual weapons can become real weapons, if we cultivate irrationality in them. Is this what we want?

It’s a far cry from the world we thought we’d inherit
It’s a far cry from the way we thought we’d share it

This is not a conventional review, but Snakes & Arrows is not a conventional album. The musicianship is excellent throughout, with Geddy Lee in particularly fine voice and his basswork is as complex as it needs to be, and no more. Neil Peart’s playing is less flashy, more rounded but still precise; Alex Lifeson stretches his playing in to new territories, with the instrumental Hope showing him to be a master of the acoustic 12-string too. There is no shortage of great musicianship in the world today – enough to make me pessimistic about my own work – so I look to bands like Rush for much more than that.

Neil once wrote “the spaces in between leave room for you and I to grow”, and I agree: hidden depths are revealed in works of art that require the audience to think for themselves; even popular works, such as Star Wars , Desparate Housewives, or the Harry Potter books, benefit from time to dig in and send out shoots in unexpected directions.

I defy any reviewer to fully digest a Rush album in a single listening; if they write their review too soon, it shows in its superficiality. There’s far more to be found in Snakes & Arrows, if you’re prepared to look below the surface gloss.

Written by brian t

May 10, 2007 at 5:52 pm

the enormous room

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Back at the Fort Collins hotel, my room is one of the “accessible” ones, meaning there are handrails in the bathroom and plenty of floor space to wheel a chair around. Not the biggest I’ve ever had – that harks back to the 2-bedroom condo I had to myself in Bangalore – but pretty big, and with free broadband internet access.

The week is over, and so is the work, even the breakfast meeting in the morning is just social. More work on Monday, in Colorado Springs, but until then I have a weekend to look forward to, and to kick it off, have some chillout music courtesy of YouTube and one of my favourite musicians: Michael Manring’s live performance of his solo composition The Enormous Room.

A little explanation for those interested: the instrument Michael is playing is the Zon Hyperbass, an electric bass with some unusual features. It has retuning levers on each string – four on the headstock and two on the bridge – which Michael is activating at times to give that “pedal steel” effect. For that to work well the strings have to be light; for that to sound good and offer stable tuning, the bass is made with an extremely rigid carbon fibre neck. Not cheap, as you might imagine, but extremely effective in the right hands – as the video amply demonstrates.

Written by brian t

March 10, 2007 at 3:41 am

Posted in america, life, music

gayband! gayband!

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News just in: a Christian website has published a list of “gay bands”, here. Besides the grammatical error – some are solo artists, not bands – the list makes for hilarious reading. The author appears to be listing bands submitted by readers, without further examination.

There are artists on the list who are gay, and bands that have gay members, which is to be expected: Erasure, k d lang, Judas Priest, Depeche Mode. Others listed are completely off the mark: Motörhead, Eminem, Björk, Jay-Z, Nickelback. I’m surprised AC/DC aren’t on the list; the least gay band in the world, formed in suburban Sydney, Australia, by teenagers completely unaware what that name meant in the red light district.

Now, while I’m not a fan of “camp”, of the type displayed by the Village People, Erasure, and more recently the Scissor Sisters, I’m still not convinced that has any influence on the listener’s sexuality at all. In other cases, you wouldn’t know an artist was gay unless he or she pointed it out. Certainly, people had suspicions about Rob Halford for years, given his fondness for leather and studs on stage, but I would never have outed k d lang, a singer I quite like, since her music isn’t anywhere near as risqué to my ears as that of her fellow Canadian, Joni Mitchell.

It’s all a little pointless, and a particularly American view of the world. I wish all these Yankee moralizers would stop and read their own country’s Constitution. Take particular note of the part guaranteeing all citizens, of any particular curvature, the inalienable right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Written by brian t

January 29, 2007 at 2:18 am

Posted in humour, music

noise pollution unit

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Tonight, in the restaurant attached to the condos where I am staying, the staff turned off the radio that had been playing Techno music shortly after I sat down. Why would they do this, upon seeing me, without being asked? It stems from an incident last night, Saturday. All through the week, the same Techno noise had been playing, though it hadn’t been as loud, and there had been other diners present. Last night I was an early diner, and had the place to myself.

Firstly, try and imagine the scene: a relatively quiet street in the suburb of Koramangala, south-east Bangalore, India. The decor in the restaurant is restrained: white walls, orange tablecloths, waiters in brown and black. The cuisine is semi-authentic, aimed at Western visitors such as myself; some bland dishes for the weak-of-stomach, plus the chef’s ideas of the kinds of local cuisine we might like e.g. “Mysore Pepper Mutton”, served with various vegetables, paneer, rice, roti, and garnishes such as sambar and yoghurt. I’ve been specifying “spicy” whenever asked, since the hot main courses are presented with the proper mild side dishes, unlike some restaurants in the UK. So far, so sensible.

Still, as noted, the radio, is playing loud Techno. This was totally inappropriate for the venue and the people in it, a prime example of what musician Robert Fripp calls a “noise pollution unit”. Since I was the only customer, I asked if it could be turned down. No complaints: the waiter went over, turned a knob, and the music faded away.

Up to that point, “noise pollution unit” was a mere metaphor: with the volume on the radio unit down, the real noise pollution took over. Electrical noise in the cabling from the radio was being amplified, almost to level of the Techno. BZZZZZZZTZZZZZZZR RZZZZZZZZZTTZZ ad nauseum. I went over and tried fiddling with the wires a bit, but to no avail. The manager came over to see what I was doing.

I was nice. Honest! I kept a smile on my face, and explained, to start off with, that Techno is Dance music, and no-one was dancing. Right? Now, after the waiter turned the radio down, he agreed that the speakers were noisy. Would I like him to turn the amplifier off?

This is the point at which I nearly lost it. I simply said “yes, please”, but what I really wanted to ask was: “are you such an insensitive clot that you think it’s acceptable to play Techno in a quiet restaurant? It’s Dance music, do you see anyone dancing?”. Had I got the question out, I was imagining an answer along the lines of “Techno? It’s Western music and we have Westerners here. You all look alike, and all your music sounds the same to me.”

So, Mr. Manager, continuing our imaginary argy-bargy: “what about the speaker noise? Doesn’t it annoy you at all? Can you imagine any customers who would ever, under any circumstances, want to listen to speaker noise?” Expected answer: “I only work here. The customer is always right, my own opinion doesn’t count. You Westerners are crazy, you’re capable of anything, even listening to speaker noise. My senses have been dulled by too many customers and their demands.”

So, I’m the idiot here, the foreigner who’s being difficult, because I have a sense of the appropriate? I came away with the impression that the staff there, knowing they’re dealing with Westerners, have abdicated their own senses of logic and taste, not realizing that some customers actually think beyond the obvious.

The “noise pollution unit” was not the only example of this odd passivity among the staff. Twice this week I placed an order, followed by a conversation something like this:

  • “I would like (starter) and (main course), please.”
  • “Are you sure?”
  • “Is there a problem with my order?”
  • “Are you sure you want that?”
  • “Can you tell me why I should not want that?”
  • “You have ordered (starter) and (main course).”
  • “Yes, I did.”
  • “OK…”
  • “Look, can you tell me what is wrong with my order?”
  • “Well…”
  • “Is it too much? I don’t know how much is included, so you need to tell me if it is too much. I can’t tell from the menu.”
  • “It is too much.”
  • “OK, thank you. Remove (starter), and replace (main course)with (main course2).”
  • “You want (main course)and (main course2)?”
  • “NO! Just (main course2)!”

This did not happen in France last June: there, the staff would actually advise the customers, understanding that the customer can not be expected to be right about everything on the first visit to an unfamiliar restaurant. They take that attitude a little too far in Paris, I think, but it was great down in the Rhône Valley’s family-run gourmet establishments.

The most depressing thing is that all this aggravation can be avoided, with a little thought, a little empathy, and a little imagination. Is it any wonder I’m turning in to a Grumpy Old Man? If the alternative is a numb, careless acquiescence to any and all circumstances, then bring me a pile of Grumpy, a pick-axe and a helmet. Please?

Written by brian t

December 17, 2006 at 9:29 pm

Posted in culture, food, india, music, travel

london lowdown

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This morning, not long in to a two week holiday, I was idly wondering if I could justify a visit to London this weekend. I saw hotel prices weren’t too bad, and I could get a flight direct to London City Airport at a fair price, but I still needed a reason. A little browsing on the Time Out site for concerts showed an unusual number of Jazz gigs, tagged with the letters LJF: it’s the London Jazz Festival this weekend. That’ll do.

I plan to take in one major concert, and two or three smaller free gigs, starting at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Friday evening, when Lol Coxhill does some “Commuter Jazz”. The major concert is Dave Holland’s 60th birthday bash at the Barbican. Before that, a day out in the country, or at least Ascot, with my camera and a raincoat. Throw in some shopping at markets and in the West End, and that will pretty much take care of the weekend.

The India trip is confirmed from the business standpoint, all but the last flight from Bangalore back to Dubai. Oddly, the visa isn’t ready yet, or at least they haven’t called me, so I’ll go an chase it up on Friday, before I head for the airport. If they find a reason to refuse me one, well, that will get me out of going. I’m not particularly against going, just not enthusiastic about it. Still, I can’t reasonably refuse, so I guess I’m going. Could be worse.

Written by brian t

November 14, 2006 at 9:26 pm

Posted in london, music