Teacher, feminist, krautrock connoisseur, anime enthusiast, player of video games, occasional modder, intermittent blogger

Kamasutra (o.s.t.), by Can / Irmin Schmidt (2009)

The Inner Space - KamasutraAccording to The Can Book, the band did not hit upon their name until December 1968; and music included in this soundtrack was recorded a month before that. And so Kamasutra is credited to Irmin Schmidt & Inner Space Production. Indeed, none of the musicians involved in the recording are mentioned in the sleeve notes, which instead summarise the contents of the obscure German film. Only Malcolm Mooney, and one Margarete Juvan, receive any credit, and only because they sing on one track each.

And in a way, that's fair enough. This is, after all, proto-Can, Can before they found their groove and identity. In some ways, the music here resembles some of the entries in their occasional Ethnic Forgery Series, but that's not quite fair, as the most of the EFS pieces which have been released are decidedly tongue-in-cheek—they're 'forgeries', after all—while the ethnic elements appropriated here are played more conventionally. Both the ethnic elements and the rock elements sound fairly typical of the sound of the late 60's, and so unrepresentative of Can themselves. That's not to say the album is of no interest to a Can fan; it's just a recording of the band in their earliest stages of development. And at several points I thought I heard references to later pieces, riffs or rhythms which would soon make their way onto record in a different form.

It's also interesting to hear David Johnson's flute playing here; if I remember correctly, there were only a couple of points on Unlimited Edition where we've heard it before. To be sure, that flute is what part of what makes the album not quite sound like Can; but this was apparently the only time when the six musicians of Inner Space played together, and it's a fascinating insight into the band's development.

Verdict: Much as I appreciate this release, it's hard to rate the album higher than Decent. Dedicated Can fans may consider this to be an essential part of their collection, but anyone else is not likely to be impressed.

[Review also posted on rateyourmusic]

Livemiles, by Tangerine Dream (1988)

Tangerine Dream - LivemilesUntainted by any hint of nostalgia, I've just listened to the album for the first time. One of the words often used in connection with Livemiles is 'warm', and that seems appropriate to me. In a way that's surprising, because all those keyboards and computers were typically thought to lead to soulless music (in part Kraftwerk's influence, no doubt). But warm this album is, while thankfully avoiding being too drippy or saccharine.

Despite that, Livemiles is still basically wallpaper, or coffee-table music. It doesn't challenge, it doesn't really excel, it doesn't excite. It does what it does well—and warmly—but it never even attempts to scale the heights of previous Tangerine Dream albums, live or otherwise. For its time, and its place in the band's discography, it's pretty good; but that's like saying it's the best of a bad bunch, or the lesser of many evils.

To be fair, I probably will listen to Livemiles again; somehow, I see the point. I wish it was a more interesting point, but at least it has one.

Verdict: Not really good, but not a total waste either. Still, the album probably represents the point at which I part company with Tangerine Dream.

[Review also posted on rateyourmusic]

Underwater Sunlight, by Tangerine Dream (1986)

Tangerine Dream - Underwater SunlightWay back when, I used to listen to a compilation of Tangerine Dream which, bizarrely, contained a single track from their pre-Phaedra records, and then material from nearly a decade later, skipping their Virgin years entirely. It made for a weird mix—krautrock experimentation rounding out a selection of 80's electronica.

In the early 90's, of course, the 80's were not so far away, and I had not yet come to a) despise the 80's as the worse decade of music in the entire history of the universe, and b) love early krautrock. And so I thought the two-part (and side-long) 'Song of the Whale' was pretty damn epic and pretty damn fine. Twenty years later, I decided to pick up the remastered edition of Underwater Sunlight, the original album containing that piece.

The problem is, in the end, that I've delayed so long in picking that album up because I've been testing how far my patience with Tangerine Dream goes. I love the pure krautrock years of the band, and I like most of the Virgin period a great deal. But by the time we hit the 80's, my interest begins to wane; there are just too many synths, too much New-Ageiness, too many soundtracks. Though I appreciate that the band were still capable of putting out side-long tracks on both studio and live albums, the overall feeling I get from them at this point is of pastiche rather than progress.

And so 'Song of the Whale', while clearly the best thing on Underwater Sunlight, is far away from what I really want to hear from Tangerine Dream. To be sure, after all this time, I still know the whole track note-for-note, and the Big Guitars™ which turn up about half way through each part of it do remind me of what my younger self liked about this, bombast notwithstanding. But it no longer captures my imagination—musical or otherwise—in the way it did, and I've never been very susceptible to nostalgia (in the sense of liking what I used to like because I used to like it).

The rest of the album is increasingly worse, gradually dropping the guitar solos and devolving electro-pop, with the bonus 'Dolphine Smile' representing just how far Tangerine Dream had fallen by this point.

Verdict: I considered being lenient towards this, given the nostalgia I said I wasn't affected by. But I can't. Underwater Sunlight is simply Bad. The only time I'm ever likely to listen to it again is on a Tangerine Dream marathon, and then only to make myself sad about how good they used to be.

[Review also posted on rateyourmusic.]

E2-E4, by Manuel Göttsching (1984)

Manuel Göttsching - E2-E4 Clearly way ahead of its time, that's for sure.

Recorded 1981, released in 1984, E2-E4 was arguably the first recognizable trance album (I say arguably because I don't know of any other contender, but could be proved wrong). In some ways following on from where 1974's  Inventions for Electric Guitar left off, E2-E4 is a single 59 minute track, composed principally of electronic rhythms. For the first 30 minutes it builds and builds, adding more instruments and variations until a solo guitar enters the scene. At that point, for my taste, the album becomes a little less impressive: the guitar somehow never quite takes off, and I prefer the moments when it falls into playing rhythm and lets the electronics carry the melody (such as it) is. Also, although it continues to vary, the background electronic rhythm more often becomes just that: a background to the guitar in the foreground.

Personally, I like it less than Inventions: it's perhaps just that little bit too long, that little bit too monotonous, with a little bit too much guitar noodling, to reach quite the same level. That being said, E2-E4 is still a landmark album in modern (electronic) music.

Verdict: I'll say it's Very Good, but it should really be in anyone's collection, unless you're the kind of person who despises all forms of electronic music.

[Review also posted on rateyourmusic]

Aufbrüch! (2009)

 - Aufbrüche! Die Umsonst & Draussen Festivals 1975-1978An impressive collection, no question about it. The box set includes the four original Umsonst & Draussen releases in re-mastered form, accompanied by a booklet containing articles and photos (most of which are available on the official release site). You can also download the albums individually from iTunes (the German store, at least).

Most of the music is in the kraut-funk style of mid-to-late 70's Embyro, which is no surprise since they were involved in setting up the festival in the first place. The first album contains perhaps the most krautrock-orientated pieces, but is unfortunately marred by the mastering being done from an LP release (the original tapes were missing). The sound improves considerably with the second album, and although the music is more focused on kraut-funk, it makes for a more consistent listen. The third and fourth releases are both double-albums, over 90 minutes each, and diversify the range of music somewhat. That's good in one way, but certainly makes them feel more like compilations that the second album.

Very few of the recordings are available elsewhere (Embryo's 'Wir sind alle politische Gefangene' was released on the re-master of Apo-Calypso as 'Prisioneri Politici'), and most of the bands are pretty obscure. That said, a large proportion of the bands involve musicians from better-know bands; some 67 minutes of the 4 1/2 hours of music feature Missus Beastly and various off-shoots, for example. Six tracks (from four bands) involve Marlon Klein of Dissidenten, who also is responsible for the re-mastering of the albums. And that's quite aside from the various Embryo-related projects. Obscure some of these formations may be, but there's no lack of musicianship.

On the (slightly) negative side, the CDs don't exactly follow the original releases—there's no way the third and fourth albums would fit onto single CDs. So all the albums (except the first) are split across at least two CDs, which breaks whatever continuity the originals had. It's better than leaving tracks off, and at least you can import the tracks into iTunes (or whatever) and make your own playlists. Also, the promotional artwork that you might see around is slightly misleading: in my edition at least, the cardboard sleeves containing the CDs are generic and do not show the original album art. That's slightly disappointing in an otherwise well-made box set.

All in all, this is a set which is greater than the sum of its parts, or at least than the individual songs it includes. Perhaps one more for the fans (of Embryo and later Missus Beastly in particular) than the casual listener, it's nevertheless a great overview of the alternative festival scene in Germany at the time.

Verdict: Very good, especially for anyone interested in mid-70's krautrock.

[Review also posted on rateyoumusic]

Jethro Tull @ Festung Mark, Magdeburg

I've been a Jethro Tull fan almost as long as I've been a music fan—practically speaking, that's since the late '80s, when I heard 'Living In The Past' while camping out in a tent in the garden. Since then their output has dwindled, releasing only four albums of original recordings, although singer and flautist Ian Anderson has also released four solo albums in the same period, often including songs in the Tull set-list. That was not the case last night (13 June) when the band played the Festung Mark in Magdeburg; celebrating a 40-year anniversary, the vast majority of songs were from the very earliest part of their career.

By 'vast majority' I mean that 11 of the 17 songs in the set were from the first two albums, 1968's 'This Was' and 1969's 'Stand Up'—eight songs from the latter album alone. Maybe the band had just become fed up with playing the set-list they've been touring since March, or maybe they knew that the Magdeburg crowd would be, shall we say, unresponsive at best, but this seems to have been a fairly unique move. Gone were 'Cross-Eyed Mary', 'Sweet Dream', 'Mother Goose' and 'Living in The Past', replaced by minor songs such as 'We Used To Know' and 'Back To The Family', which Anderson described as being the worst song he'd ever written, but great fun to play live. There were grumblings in the crowd, as this wasn't the greatest hits package they wanted—after the show I heard people comment that they could have just come for the last couple of songs (the obligatory 'Aqualung' and 'Locomotive Breath').

I was having fun, though. After seeing a somewhat lacklustre performance by Deep Purple last year, I really didn't want a band reminding me of how great they once were, but aren't any more. By playing so many minor songs it was possible to just listen to Jethro Tull, rather than comparing the latest live performance of a classic to the original and countless other recordings that have been made over the years. The band were clearly playing songs they wanted to play, and having fun doing so—and that was what I wanted to see them doing. Hits be damned.

Anderson's voice has clearly lost something over the years, but it never had as much to lose as, say, Ian Gillian, so the effect is less disturbing; and his flute playing is still excellent in any case. Martin Barre remains one of the most underrated guitarists in rock; and Doanne Perry may have only been with the band for 25 years, but his drumming is as as solid as ever. Then there were two other guys who I've not seen or heard of before. They did what they needed to and no more, which was also fine, as I'm really at a Tull concert to see Anderson and Barre anyway.

In the end, a somewhat controversial performance, which I can say that I enjoyed while understanding the frustration of others. And 'Stand Up'—a great album in any case—has acquired a new level of meaning for me. I saw it played live, after all.

The Bunny Boy Video Series

*Contains spoilers*

I watched the first few episodes of The Bunny Boy Video Series by The Residents when they were originally released, but failed to keep up with them during the move to Magdeburg. Yesterday I listened to The Bunny Boy album on the way to work and decided to see what had happened to the Video Series when I got home, only to find that it had coincidentally just ended two days before, on 6 April 2009. So last night I downloaded the whole lot and sat down to watch.

Back to back, the 66 episodes (67 if you count the two-parter) take about two-and-a-half hours to watch. The episodes themselves are more like video diaries, shot from a hand-held camera by the Bunny Boy himself—who we learn is called Roger—although he eventually enlists help from a Russian friend named Igor. Most videos are single takes; cuts do creep into later episodes along with the occasional special effect (and glove puppets!), serving to undermine the impression that the videos are 'real', although I suspect that this was the intention in any case. The sleeve notes to the album state that the videos—supposedly posted to The Residents on a DVD—were the inspiration for their musical retelling, but the question of which came first is actually irrelevant. The videos describe events occurring after the release of the album, such as the Bunny Boy being persuaded to accompany the band on tour and seeking sponsorship for the show. The two approaches, video and album, essentially tell the same story through different media, rather like the stories which accompanied 2005's Animal Lover complimented the music.

The premise of the story is that Roger's brother Harvey has gone missing; not knowing where to begin searching for him, Roger records these short videos and posts them on YouTube in the hope that somebody will notice his plight and be able to offer help. Eventually clues start to come in, both from 'viewers' and by examining Harvey's belongings, and Roger is drawn to the small village of Patmos, Arkansaw. But this plot is more or less a Macguffin—Harvey is never actually found, and the only glimpses we have of him are torn up photographs. Indeed, it is never really clear whether Roger and Harvey are actually different people.

We learn that Roger went on holiday with Harvey's family to the Greek island of Patmos, where the Book of Revelation was written, and suffered a breakdown—to begin with he is unable to remember anything from the trip and is confused by a shadowy figure (himself) lurking in the family photographs. Harvey and his wife Hilda apparently became estranged after the failure of a dotcom company which Harvey attempted to launch, but Roger is still living in a 'secret room' in the basement of their house, surrounded with all sorts of paraphernalia.

Many of the scenes build on these ambiguities and can be viewed from the perspective either that Roger and Harvey are the same person, or that they are not. At one point, for example, Roger asks Harvey's daughter to make a plea for help on one of the videos, but she's too uncomfortable to do so; it isn't clear whether she's uncomfortable with recording the video for the voyeuristic public or whether the problem is rather that she finds it difficult to play along with Roger's delusions. One morning Roger wakes to discover a stack of boxes left outside his door by Hilda, apparently containing drawings and notes by Harvey; but again, we can't be sure whether Hilda passed on the notes to help Roger with his search or to snap him out of it.

But even this question is something of a Macguffin. I'm not sure that it really matters whether Roger and Harvey are the same person or not, and the lack of definitive clues seems to support this. What's important is how Roger sees the situation: that he really does have a lost brother, that signs seem to be pointing an Apocalypse which only he and Harvey can prevent, despite being consumed with doubt. If it's all a delusional fantasy, then it is still one which seems real to Roger, and all we can do is follow him. He may not actually fight the Beast in the cellar of a chicken farm, and it may all be a confrontation of himself; but then what matters is how Roger constructs his narrative.

Appropriately enough, social media such as YouTube and Twitter form an underlying critical theme in the series, as Roger attempts to get his message heard. To begin with he receives mostly spam; sympathy and criticism, when they come, are naturally from complete strangers, and both seem misplaced. He begins to don a rabbit costume when a viewer comments on his clothing, at first taking offence but quickly settling into the role. His 'viewers' become 'fans', both in his mind and in reality; in the end he receives sponsorship, with the unscrupulous Residents (!) selling the rights to his character (The Bunny Boy) and his predicament. The final episode gives us a taste of things to come, as an anonymous media company launches The All New Adventures of The Bunny Boy. What started out as a genuine plea for help is trivialised, sensationalised and commercialised: Roger is unable to keep himself separate, and his story becomes shaped by the media it adopts. This bitterness runs throughout the series: Roger is alone, occasionally indulged by those near to him, misunderstood and manipulated by those further away. The internet and social media do not really offer a solution, just more and greater disappointment.

All of this is, of course, purely interpretative. It's just what the Video Series meant to me. Others might see more in it, or less. But it's well worth watching.

The Bunny Boy Video Series can be downloaded from http://www.residents.com/bunnyboy/.

In Aller Stille, by Die Toten Hosen

Not bad at all. In Aller Stille opens with a 'We're still here!’ song which sets the tone for the rest of the album. There's less musical experimentation (or, depending on your perspective, boredom) here than the Hosen's had a decade ago, so there's no horn sections or supermarket trolleys or funk rhythms. Nevertheless, a cello creeps into a couple of pieces, as well as a duet on a ballad. And a decent ballad at that. There is a fair amount of shouting—which should please my brother—although at times it sounds a little cheesy, as do the Madonna-esque keyboards on 'Disco' (but you can't really hold that against them as that's their point). All in all it's a short, punchy album which doesn't really do anything new but does show that the Hosen's can still muster up enough passion, anger, and musicality to remain relevant. Whether it's still punk is another question.

Verdict: Good; worth hearing. RYM review.

The Bunny Boy, by The Residents

Paraniod. Psychotic. Deranged. And that’s just the music.

Like The Voice of Midnight, the last album by the famously anonymous Residents, The Bunny Boy describes a descent into madness. Except that it makes its predecessor sound like a bed-time story, which in a way it was.

To be honest, I haven’t had enough time to absorb the album, except to say that it’s excellent, so I won’t even try to write a review. It does feel a little unfinished—that is, the story doesn’t seem to reach a conclusion—but that’s only to be expected, given that the CD is the first of three elements to be undertaken.

The second, a video series, is currently being streamed on YouTube as well as being available at a higher quality for download at the official site. This latter is in mp4 and so works perfectly with iTunes. There are supposed to be three episodes released a week, and will feature completely different music to the CD.

The third element is a tour starting on 3 October. This I will kill to see.

The CD may well end up being the weakest part of the project, if the first video and recent tours are anything to go by.

One final thing: The Bunny Boy should probably come with a warning. This isn’t music that young children should hear, not unless you want them to have serious nightmares. So, in parting, I’ll leave you with some words.
There’s blood on the bunny, there’s blood on the floor
There’s blood on the funny face he adored
There’s blood on the bunny

In Autumn…, by Faust

I have to say, I'm less than convinced. When I bought this box set I was overjoyed: the last recording Faust released was their great collaboration with Dälek in 2004, and I was looking forward to hearing what they'd been up to since then. Such a generous offering (3 CDs and a DVD) seemed just what I needed. But these concerts, taken from a UK tour in late 2005, are not the Faust I'm used to, and are far from what I wanted. In essence, on these recordings you're listening to Faust III, and they bear little resemblance to the Faust who have been releasing albums for the past decade, after a 20-year hiatus. Gone is the seemingly organic industrial experimentation: it's been replaced by tired rehashes of past hits. Most of the tracks have unfamiliar names, and say that they are 'inspired' by Faust songs, but don't be fooled: for the most parts they are just extended jams around old riffs, and there isn't really much inspiration to be found anywhere. For the first time, Faust sound like ageing hippies.

That's not to say In Autumn… is really all that terrible, although admittedly the audio quality is pretty poor. It just sounds like the kind of thing you'd expect a band to produce on a thirty-year reunion: a pale echo of former glories. There's a bit of weirdness thrown in for good measure, and the best things on here are the completely new improvisations. But when, just a year before these recordings, Faust were pretty much cutting edge, In Autumn… comes as a shock to the system.

Recommended only if you have no idea what Faust have been doing since 1975, and you think that So Far and IV are the best things the original band recorded.

subHuman, by Recoil

So yesterday I got hold of the new Recoil album, subHuman. And pretty good it is too. It's brimming with the intense, dark atmosphere that Alan Wilder has made his own. If anything, despite the horrible prog-rock-esque artwork, this might be the least commercial thing he's released since leaving Depeche Mode. Certainly, it's the polar opposite of whatever execrable pop Depeche Mode are churning out nowadays. It’s almost as if he sucked all of the intensity out of the band when he left and honed it to perfection—impressive for an electronics wizard who only penned one—frankly awful—song for them.

Still, it's been seven years since the release of the awesome Liquid, and the first question is whether anything has changed. Yes and no. The album is arguably the most focused thing he's done, but it also lacks the diversity of its predecessor and 1997's Unsound Methods—and possibly 1992's Bloodline as well. That diversity was in some ways the strength and weakness of Recoil, and in the same way the focus of subHuman is both its strength and weakness.

Recoil pieces—I hesitate to call them songs—are usually collaborations between Wilder and a singer—directly, or sampled. Bloodline featured vocals by Moby, Toni Halliday, Douglas McCarthy, and a sampled Bukka White; Unsound Methods involved McCarthy again, Maggie Estep, Hildia Campbell and Siobhan Lynch; and Liquid enlisted the talents of Diamanda Gálas, Nicole Blackman, Samantha Coerbell, Rosa Torras, and Sonya Madden on a single b-side, while sampling The Golden Gate Quartet. That's quite a list of names, and quite a range of styles; but Wilder deftly managed to pull everything together into a coherent sound and make everything work. Still, with such a range of vocal talents, it's inevitable that some singers stand out more than others—although Samantha Coerbell's contributions are fine pieces, they're both overshadowed entirely by Nicole Blackman's. And only on the (extended) single release of Stalker do two of the artist contribute to one piece—in that case Maggie Estep and Douglas McCarthy, creating a disturbing depiction of the pursuer and the pursued.

subHuman has only two vocalists—five of the seven pieces feature bluesman Joe Richardson, with Carla Trevaskis contributing breathy vocals (which put me in mind of Kate Bush) to the remaining two. Naturally, Richardson offers the kind of continuity which was impossible on the previous albums—he's there from start to finish, lending a bluesy growl to everything. In some ways that's the problem—it isn't difficult to form the impression that subHuman takes the sonic landscape of, say 'Electro Blues for Bukka White' from Bloodline, or 'Red River Cargo' from Unsound Methods, and turns it into an entire album. Throwing your lot in with a vocalist to such an extent can be a risk for a 'band' like Recoil: much as I feel that the last Sofa Surfers album was flawed because it stuck with a single vocalist who didn't overly impress me. And so Recoil fans will either lament the diversity of subHuman, or praise its depth, continuity and sense of development. As for anyone else, well, it's hardly likely people will pick this up by chance, and people coming from Depeche Mode will probably be in for a shock.

But depth and beauty the album does have. More than perhaps anyone else out there is currently doing, Wilder is creating musical environments. Which isn't to say that it's ambient waffle—the pieces on subHuman are dramatic and richly rhythmic, building to almost cacophonic crescendos before collapsing into moments of tranquility. And there's nothing minimalist about subHuman either, but Wilder seems to do a lot without doing much—there's a sparseness and sense of economy which permeates everything, not a beat or note too much, or too little.

When it comes down to it, if you like dark, complex and, dare I say it, intellectual electronic music, you should definitely give it a spin. I can imagine it causing a something of a split amongst existing fans, but slightly confounded expectations aside, it's an album which you should listen to repeatedly to fully absorb. If possible on headphones with the lights out. And that way, you won't be able to see the artwork, either.

And if you are going to pick it up, try and get hold of the limited edition—the bonus DVD comes with PCM stereo, 24 bit DTS 5.1, and 5.1 surround versions of the main album; as well as all five of Recoil's previous promotional videos, along with new videos for 'Shunt' and 'Electro Blues for Bukka White (2000 remix)'. Perhaps most interesting, though are the 'Reduction' remixes—every piece in a more down-tempo form, lyrics (mostly?) intact, essentially offering an alternate version of the album. I can see some people preferring the reduced version to the original—the remixes are that good. The case lists the run-time as 162 minutes, if that gives you an idea of the amount of material here. Worth every penny.

Universal Music shows its true colours

So Universal Music has decided to offer DRM-free music for download. Hooray! Except they won't be doing it through iTunes, but through all its main competitors. Universal's argument is that Apple's DRM has stifled growth of the online music market, and thus they will not be offering their DRM-free music through the the leading online distributor. As John Gruber said, WTF?

It's quite simple really. Universal are painting Apple as being the big bad guy who needs to be toppled. The iTunes Music Store is the leading distributor of legal online music—and it's achieved that position because it was the first service to convince the major music labels that there really was a way to distribute music online and legally. DRM was the catalyst which got the record companies on board, despite it being clear that what the public wants is DRM-free music. And now that the whole DRM model has become increasingly unsustainable, everybody is tripping over themselves pointing fingers at each other and saying that the whole DRM thing was someone else's idea.

Hence, Universal are now claiming that Apple is addicted to DRM music, because it locks people into the iPod. True, Apple's-DRM based music will only play on iPods. But iPods will also play pretty much everything else except WAV. In fact it's a blatant lie: given that Steve Job's recent 'Thoughts on Music' was backed up by offering DRM-free music in collaboration with EMI on iTunes, it should be clear to anyone with a modicum of integrity that Apple isn't bothered about the so-called iPod lock-in. iTunes is the market leader; the iPod is the market leader; and they will both remain so because they simply blow the competition out of the water. Just like being able to install Windows on your Mac via Bootcamp: yes, Apple could lock you in to Mac OS X if they wanted, but given the choice, you're going to stick to Mac OS X anyway. People will use Bootcamp for playing games, that sort of thing—but they'll live in OS X because the user experience is so much better. At the risk of sounding too much like an Apple fan-boy, the key thing that you have to remember about Apple is that they are absolutely convinced that they don't need lock-in: they've got quality instead. Hence Job's comments that they won't be bringing out a budget-priced Mac even though it would garner market share—there's certain lines they won't cross, like releasing rubbish.

The whole DRM finger-pointing is just a distraction from the real issue, which is cleverly hidden down at the bottom of the NYT article:
Under Universal’s arrangements with digital retailers, at least some of its new music will be sold in unprotected form for 99 cents, company executives said.

At least some—that's the key. The problem is that Apple has steadfastly refused to change the pricing strategy on which iTunes is based—99¢ per song. When EMI and Apple launched the iTunes Plus concept, with DRM-free songs of twice the quality for $1.59, there was some discussion with how that would fit together with the rest of the store. Again, quality—this time of user experience. There is a simple, elegant pricing strategy which permeates everything. But once they were convinced that the whole online thing could be profitable, the big labels have decided that such transparency was not what they wanted (EMI excluded, hopefully). What they want is variable strategies, with 'budget' prices for back catalogues and premium prices for everything else. Lonny Donegan you'll be able to buy for peanuts; you want the Pussy Cat Dolls, you pay through the nose.

While Apple and EMI have shown us what the future of online music could look like, Universal are digging their heels in and trying to recapture the past—a past where the consumer is kept in the dark as much as possible, because lack of and clarity consumer iand clarity is deemed an economic advantage. This isn't about DRM at all. It's about whether quality vs. quantity, transparency vs. obfuscation. The basic aim is the same—naturally, all these companies want to make money—but the methods are different. Do they provide you with the kind of service where you part with your cash willingly, or manipulate you into thinking you're getting a bargain when you're not?

Tool, Flaming and Falsifiability

Well, I’ve been flamed and by, some definitions, engaged in a bit of flaming myself, over at Thought Mechanics. I do tend to take the bait, that’s true. But for crying out loud, all I wanted was a decent debate about the relative merits of Tool’s new album. But it’s reached the point where if I put up a post saying ‘come on, what happened to the debate’ I will have lost, in so far as that will elicit another response from the idiot Stefan, who will conclude that I have to have the last word, that I am a smart-arse trying to prove that I am smarter, and that he has won. So instead I will back off, because there is no longer any point. He will, of course, conclude that he has won because he has ‘shouted me down’ and I have given up. There is no possibility of 'winning' against - or countering, or responding to - such arguments.

Every viewpoint should meet the basic criteria of falsifiability. It should admit the possibility of counterexamples. If, as in the case above, everything that I do or say will prove my opponent right - in his view - then there is no longer room for any debate, and his view - not mine - is shown to be inadequate. Objectively speaking, he has lost. And I am not a smart-arse for saying so - it may be that I am a smart-arse, but for different reasons - because his argument has defeated itself.

I know that I argue in detail, at length, and that I try to do so persuasively. This does not, in fact, mean that I believe that I am right and you are wrong. One black swan will disprove the theory that ‘all swans are white’; I’m looking for the black swan in your argument, and hope that you will do the same to mine.

As far as the Tool debate goes, I’ll not go back until someone else has posted something worth responding to. In my last post I quoted Oscar Wilde:
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital. When critics disagree, the artist is in accord with himself.

Of course, this too can be falsified. It just seemed to encapsulate the general tone of the debate well…

10,000 Days, by Tool

It’s a cracker. Better than I expected, actually. Somehow, although 2001’s Lateralus has some great tracks, I never thought it was as good as Tool’s 1996 masterpiece Aenima. The progression wasn’t quite as marked as before, and even the greatest tracks didn’t seem epic in the same way that 'Push It' or 'Third Eye' from Aenima did. And this time round epic is back, and in a big way; although it might take a few listens to get into it all. 10,000 Days is, in my rather opinionated view, the best ‘prog’ album since Marillion’s Marbles in 2004, and the best album since Kate Bush’s comeback album Aerial last year.

10,000 Days starts off in much the manner I had feared, which is rather well. The two openers 'Vicarious' and 'Jambi' are fine Tool songs, layered and building in a way that only a few contemporary bands seem capable of. But they felt like what I was expecting, and somehow that wasn’t enough from a Tool album. It’s been five years since the last release, and I didn’t want the new album to merely do what was expected: I wanted it to surprise me. I wanted to be blown away, not think that it made a nice companion to Lateralus. And with the third track I got what I wanted.

Actually, the third track is the first of a pair entitled 'Wings For Marie (Part 1)' and '10,000 Days (Wings Part 2)'. There’s a lull of a kind between them, like gathering breath, but the two belong together, and if you want to import them onto your iPod you’ll need to use the ‘Join CD Tracks’ option to avoid a click between them. And together they clock in at 17:24. If 'Wings…' resembles anything Tool have done before musically, it’s the live version of 'Push It' from Salival, but this is still more mediative; lyrically, it’s probably the most personal thing they’ve ever been, apparently about the death of Maynard's mother. It’s long, elegant, beautifully rhythmic, and quite possibly the most ‘prog’ thing they’ve ever done. And the fact that the album is set up to lull the listener into a false sense of security with the opening tracks before engaging in such an epic is a stroke of genius. On a lesser album, 'Wings…' would be placed at the end, not before the half-way point; but by the time you’ve reached the second part, it’s clear that you’re not listening to a normal album with normal programming. This is an album which is meant to demand your attention, to snap you out of complacency, to break away from the formulaic, even when those formulas are (pretty much) unique to Tool themselves.

The next track 'The Pot' is similarly askew, beginning like some kind of a-cappella shanty which momentarily reminded me of 'Fiddle and the Drum' from A Perfect Circle’s eMOTIVe. The vocal is not quite like anything else we’ve heard from Maynard before, and is mixed louder than on the rest of the album, making it the dominant feature. The song itself is good, although after Wings… it feels like there’s a little something missing.

After that we come to the first segue on 10,000 Days, a piece called 'Lipan Conjuring', which resembles nothing if not one of Can’s 'Ethnic Forgery Series', this time with Buddhist monks as the subject. Or maybe Native Americans. Or some bizarre synthesis of the two. Whatever it is, it works, and it provides an effective break between the two parts of the album.

Then we’re back to another epic, this time 'Lost Keys (Blame Hofmann) / Rosetta Stoned', which come to a combined total of 14:57. 'Keys…' works like an introduction, with movie samples providing a narrative, while 'Rosetta…' features probably the strangest vocal Maynard has ever committed to record. I have no real idea of what it being sung throughout most of it; the voice is more like an instrument than it has ever been, and snatches of lyric float in and out of coherence. Odd references to previous songs from previous albums enter the music briefly, as if 'Rosetta…' is somehow the theme underlying much of the band’s previous work. It’s possibly the densest thing Tool have ever done, more wall-of-sound than song, and certainly comparable to the densest moments of Aenima. What it’s all about I haven’t the foggiest, but it’s tremendously good. Definitely one to play to scare your friends, or to illustrate why Tool are unlike any other so-called Metal band.

Things then seem to settle down a bit with Intension. I've heard this compared to A Perfect Circle, and although there is a certain similarity in the opening vocal, the music is more atmospheric that anything Maynard’s Other Band have done. The percussion is initially based around tabla rather than drum-kit, and as song builds there seems to be some drum programming going on - although I wouldn’t put it past Danny Carey to be playing like a drum-machine rather than using one.

With 'Right In Two' the tabla is back, and the album heads towards its conclusion. The lyric evokes the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, while the music hypnotically climbs towards a dramatic resolution. And then there’s the odd ambient/industrial piece 'Viginti Tres', and 10,000 Days is over, more than 75 minutes after it began.

My initial impression is that the new album is better than Lateralus by quite some way. I’m not in a position to compare it to Aenima yet, but then that was a masterpiece. Yet it certainly has more in common with the earlier record. All of Tool’s trademarks are here in abundance: rhythmic playing like no other Metal band, epic songs, ethereal voice, surprising arrangements and original programming. But it while it is arguably the most ‘prog’ album Tool have yet released, and also the most cohesive, my guess is that it will be less successful than Lateralus - which entered the American charts at #1. My reason for thinking this is that 10,000 Days is less bound by convention, and far less easy to pigeon-hole. It’s unlike anything else out there at the moment, and some people will undoubtedly decide that it’s cool to say it sucks. Others will find the it immensely rewarding; and I will definitely be among them.


Before coming to Germany, I was unemployed in Britain for a couple of years. Wasn’t much fun, but one event seems to encapsulate it fairly well…

I stayed around in Lampeter (where I went to uni) for a couple of years, applying for jobs in cheese factories, that sort of thing. I had no money, but had decided that I could buy one second-hand CD from Hag’s Records every two weeks; I didn’t smoke, hardly drank, and still that was all I could afford. But Hag had a deal where you could make a one-time payment up front, then rent a couple of CDs at a time for £1 each; if you then decided to buy them, the CDs would be £1 cheaper than the cover price. Very fair, and a godsend for a music nut like me in a time of unemployment.

(Great man, Hag, an ex-student, and stood for election as the local Labour candidate in the 1998 election when Tony Blair came to power and Labour put an end to 17 years of the Tories… He didn’t get elected, ‘cos Lampeter was in the Plaid Cymru heartland—that’s the Welsh national party—but came a good second.)

On the occasion I want to talk about, I borrowed Mark of the Mole by The Residents, a special edition of the CD which included Intermission—music played during the intermission of the tour they did at the time—and sleeve notes explaining how you should programme the CD if you wanted to listen to the two mixed together as they were meant to be. This was the first Residents album I’d heard, and I was perhaps more than a little influenced by the middle-aged assistant in Hag’s Records, whose view was that the Residents were, well, “Weird but not wonderful.”

He—I think his name was Bob—or Dave?—was a big Can fan. Another remark of his was that he only regretted selling the records he had of two artists—Can and Captain Beefheart. I now have everything Can ever recorded, although I’ve yet to catch up on the Captain. Another great comment of his was on Björk, something like, “Her name is like the sound I want to make when I hear her music.” Beautifully opinionated, which no doubt appealed to me, even if I didn’t always agree—soon after that Björk released Homogenic and I was hooked; and he hated Jethro Tull (“Why would I want to listen to a multi-millionaire who dresses like a beggar and jumps around on one leg?”), who are undoubtedly the band who have endured most throughout my constantly-changing record collection. On one occasion I think I got the better of him—Hag had just got in a special edition of Tabula Rasa by Einstürzende Neubauten, with two bonus eps and an interview disc. Being inclined to check out anything German at the time, I borrowed the CD, loved it, and went back to Hag’s to buy the thing. Hag reckoned it was probably just the price of a double-album, and gave it me for about £14. You could have picked the assistant’s jaw up off the floor. He thought it should have been three times that price as a limited special edition, and that I’d just got the deal of the year. I was chuffed. Anyway, back to the story.)

Weird the album was, but there were definitely some moments of wonder. At the time I thought most of the best moments were in the somewhat lighter Intermission part—it was my first Resident's album, you know?—I was on the cusp of my musical tastes turning a little odd (Can, Faust, Neubauten, Residents) but wasn’t quite there yet. And I listened to this album over and over, and it started to grow on me, but, somehow, not enough. I loved parts, but didn't ‘get’ others. And I decided that, on my one £7-CD a fortnight budget, this wasn't the one. I did what I now consider sacrilege, and made a taped copy, abusing of the fairness of Hag’s rental deal. And worse, I edited the almost 70-minute CD down to fit onto a 45-minute cassette, removing the parts I didn't ‘get'. Took the CD back, and borrowed something else, I don’t remember what. And this truncated corruption followed me to Germany when I got a job teaching English in the university of Jena.

In July 1999, The Residents performed in the Kulturarena in Jena, and I went to see the concert with Frank, an ex-student of mine. Though not a ‘fan’ at that point, I was amazed that in our city of 100,000 people in the old East Germany, we would get a band like that to perform, and there was never any question about seeing them live. They were touring Wormwood: Curious Stories from the Bible, and it was quite simply the most incredible concert I had ever seen. It still is—the next time I saw anything in the same league was Trey Gunn's guitar playing at the KTU concert in 2005, again Kulturarena. It was more like performance art than rock concert. By the end there was nothing more that the initially bewildered audience could do than to stand up and applaud. Both Frank and I came away fans. And I went home and dug out that cassette of Mark of the Mole, and a hunt began.

The 'horror' of what I had done—copying the CD, truncating it, and onto cassette of all things—finally began to hit home. I scanned the sales catalogue of EuroRalph, The Resident’s record company in Europe, but couldn’t find the CD I had heard not more than two years before. It was a special edition, and Mark of the Mole was normally released without Intermission. Intermission itself—a 20-minute CD—was released separately, and for almost the same price as the main album. That was no good! I wanted both—in one place, and in the right playing order! I had no computer at the time, and what is common now—ripping the CD in iTunes and making your own playlists—was unknown to me then. I could have bought both CDs and copied them onto a cassette (!) in the right order, but no. I wanted the CD I had once had in my hands, but had slipped through them, through the limitations which being unemployed impose, and through the greed of being able to copy and return. And I searched and searched and searched but could not find.

Fast forward seven years. A couple of weeks ago, I was browsing on Amazon and came across a new special edition of Mark of the Mole, beautifully packaged, including lyrics, and accompanied by Intermission on a separated CD. Purchase was instantaneous. Two CDs are now no problem in this age of the iPod. True, it wasn’t the actual CD I had quested after, but I could finally listen to the album in all its glory. And glorious it is too; an epic metaphor on the woes and prejudices of immigration, cast in an industrial mould with hints of folk and jazz. One of the finest CDs I have, without a doubt.

The title of this post is ‘Unemployment’, and to me finally managing to find Mark of the Mole has made me think about what that aspect of my life meant to me. That quest was the only lasting result. Before I came to Germany I sold off almost all my music and anything superfluous in order to scrape together enough money to survive the first few months. Now I’m surrounded by books, CDs and DVDs, and I’ve had a job for eight years. I may be bouncing along the bottom of my overdraft, but at least I know that if I don’t indulge and buy too many X-Files DVDs (oops! too late!) I can actually improve my financial standing. But that Residents CD somehow represents everything I associate with being unemployed; the limitation, the frustration, the misplaced opportunities, the bad choices. Everything good that happened seemed to come from outside: moving to Germany, teaching in the university. Listening to the album nine years after I last heard it is somehow like putting a full stop on a period of my life.

Against Copy-Controlled CDs

There has recently been a shift away from the largely authoritarian prohibitions adorning CDs to a more ‘personal’ approach: rather than the familiar “All rights reserved. Unauthorised copying blah blah blah is prohibited”, recent EMI CDs have sported the spiel reproduced below.
Thank you for buying this music and for supporting the artists, songwriters, musicians and others who've made it and made it possible. Please remember that this recording and artwork are protected by copyright law. Since you don't own the copyright, it's not yours to distribute. Please don't use Internet services that promote illegal distribution of copyrighted music, give away copies of discs or lend discs to others for copying. It's hurting the artists who created the music. It has the same effect as stealing a disc from a store without paying for it.

Apart from the somewhat whining tone, this is a shift of focus away from what we might call ‘professional’ copying (pirating CDs en masse and selling them in shops as actual substitutes for the originals) to ‘casual’ copying (making copies for friends). The latter has apparently reached such proportions, and the copies such high quality, that it is considered the more threatening to the music industry, or at least threatening enough to warrant a direct appeal. This appeal is apparently to the better side in all of us, the side of us which is basically law-abiding, and the side of us which doesn’t really understand the implications of what we are doing when we copy a CD for a friend. However, I find it sentimental, patronising and on the verge of insulting.

That illegal copying and downloading have reached unprecedented proportions is beyond question. What is questionable is the explanation presented in the passage quoted above. You and I copy CDs because we don’t understand what we’re doing, how it’s hurting the poor musicians and ‘others’ (I wonder who they are? - perhaps the same people who were so afraid of releasing Terry Gilliam’s most famous film that he had to put an advert in the newspaper which read, "Dear XYZ, when are you going to release my film Brazil?" - in short, the pushers of pens). It’s like stealing from a shop, and you and I wouldn’t do that, now would we? Yet we copy CDs. The unavoidable implication of this is that the music industry regards the likes of you and me not so much as customers but as potential (or actual) criminals. How generous. And if we could only realise how it hurts (and don’t forget, as R.E.M. once said, that “Everybody hurts”), could let our hearts fill up with sympathy and empathy, instead of apathy, we could rise above the sinful temptation.

Do I go too far? Perhaps. But please note that there in no mention of the over-pricing and poor standards of commercialised music in the passage cited (admittedly, how could there be?). All the blame for the current proliferation of copying and downloading is the consumer’s responsibility. The music industry have (needless to say) absolved themselves of the need to produce quality music at a reasonable price - in short, of giving us value for our money. And so long as the blame is one-sided, and seen as solely the prerogative of the unscrupulous consumer rather than the unscrupulous producer, there will never be a solution to the problem.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not promoting the illegal distribution of CDs and I am not an inveterate copier of CDs myself (I own over 800 bought CDs). I most definitely agree that we should pay musicians for what they do. What I am disputing is that the problem lies where the music industry think it does (or better: where they are telling us it lies) and that it can be solved in the way they think it can.

So here, in a little more detail, are my objections.

1) The argument from stealing goes like this: if I copy a CD for a friend, I am depriving a store of the sale of that CD. If I hadn’t copied the CD, my friend would have bought it, and as such the shop would have made its €16, and thus I am effectively stealing. Fallacy #1: there is no reason to think that my friend would necessarily have bought the CD if I had not burnt it for them. True, they might have; but might have is entirely different from would have. They might have listened to it in the store, decided that there were only two good songs on it, taped them off the radio, and waited for the Greatest Hits to come out. In that situation, exactly how has the copying deprived the store of money? It hasn’t, and my point is this: even if copying CDs often deprives stores of money, it does not categorically deprive them of money, and as such cannot categorically be compared to stealing.

Which brings up to Fallacy #2: copying a CD for a friend is not like stealing it from a shop, for the simple reason that I bought the CD which I am copying. Naturally this does not give me copyright over the material. But I still paid my €16 for the CD, and even if the store has diminishing returns on that CD the more I copy it (one copy = €8, two copies = €5.33, and so on), at least there are returns. When I steal a CD from a store the returns are immediately €0 for everyone involved. True, the store doesn’t make its second €16, but it did make its first, and in this copying a CD is significantly different to downloading songs from the internet or indeed stealing it. To accuse the general public of effectively stealing a CD from a store when they copy it for a friend is over-simplistic and sensationalist.

However, it might be argued that even if what I say is true, when I copy a CD from a friend, the analogy with stealing is more appropriate, since I have paid nothing. But that still depends on whether or not the friend bought the CD or downloaded it from the Internet, since ultimately what interests the music industry is how many CDs are sold, not who buys them.

2) Why isn't the industry clamping down on second-hand record shops? Don't they re-sell CDs at reduced price and prevent people from buying them at full price from high-street stores? (Okay, that’s a bit pedantic....)

3) It is disingenuous to suggest that artists are only hurt by copied CDs, since it ignores the role that ‘burnt’ CDs can play in selling CDs indirectly, or at least judges it insignificant. To take an example: suppose I have two copied CDs of Ani Difranco at home. But I could qualify that by saying that I have eight bought CDs by Ani Difranco at home as well. If I hadn’t been given copies of those CDs by a friend several years ago, I would never have discovered her music and bought every album she has released since. So in this case, surely even if those two copies of CDs are comparable to stealing, the threefold returns of subsequent sales must offset that.

Ani Difranco has a far better slogan than the EMI blurb on her CDs:
Unauthorised duplication, while sometimes necessary, is never as good as the real thing.

This strikes me as much more honest. Ani Difranco is herself a fine example of what is meant by ‘while sometimes necessary’, since her career is built on the distribution of bootlegged tapes of her earliest album(s) during the early nineties, which built a following because of the quality of the music (pushers of pens take note) that allowed her to become a successful independent artist thereafter. Just how many artists have built their careers on great live performances and casual copying? My estimate would be many, although admittedly confined to the so-called ‘independent’ scene. A great British example would be the Ozric Tentacles, whose early albums are all 60 minutes long because that was the length of the cassettes they were recorded onto. But if we start talking about unauthorised copying possibly being more threatening to some artists than others - namely, more threatening to the commercialised, over-promoted artists who only have hits because we are told that they are good, than to those who eschew such machinery and consistently produce good music and live performances without top 40 hits - then we are entering a wholly different ball-game.

4) Someone may accuse me of having a deficient sense of morality: that just as stealing is wrong (=illegal), copying a CD is wrong (=illegal), and that, after all, something is either right or wrong, and there is nothing in between. The answer is that there are shades of grey. Remember the old commandment of Thou shalt not kill? Try explaining that it means in all cases to any God-fearing Christian of the crusades, or latterly born-again Christians like George Bush. My views about the war are irrelevant here; just that when even self-professed Christians believe that killing is acceptable in some circumstances, what compels the rest of us to accept that stealing is in all cases wrong? And furthermore, anyone who sides with the music industry should stop being an apologist, since surely no-one in their right mind thinks that the industry itself believes in black-and-white morality. Just watch the sliding standards of sex/advertising on any music TV station you care to mention if you don’t agree.

5) Copying a CD for a friend is vastly different to downloading music from the Internet or indeed posting music on the Internet for others to download. Such a song is readily available to thousands upon thousands of people, which is somewhat different to the limited number of CDs that could be burnt for a circle of friends that have similar music tastes. Internet sites which promote illegal downloads of music are more comparable to the ‘professional’ copying I mentioned earlier than to casual copying through the sheer magnitude of potential downloads.

6) I find the Apple Music Store, which recently celebrated its 10 millionth download amongst American Mac users alone, instructive in several ways.

i) The obvious: that it is commercially viable to sell music downloads over the Internet, if the price is reasonable, the service effective, and people have the right to do what they want with the music (such as burn it to CD) when they have downloaded it. All the previous solutions offered by the music industry were overly paranoid and incredulous, like suggestions that people could ‘rent’ the music on subscription or pay for the number of plays.

ii) The principle fear of the music industry - that such a service would promote ‘greatest hits’ or ‘Top-40’ downloading rather than downloads of complete albums - has proven unfounded. Now just why were they worried about that? Perhaps because the multi-media morass which is popular music sells mediocre albums on the back of two or three hit videos which are indistinguishable from all the other hit videos and promoted to the point of saturation, and that given the opportunity the public would judge the rest of the album for what it is and ignore it. After all, not everybody (hardly anybody) is, like Michael Jackson, capable of producing an entire album of viable hits (as was certainly the case with Dangerous). And Kaboom! all those low-quality-driven profits are out of the window. But for whatever reason - maybe we’re just too well trained - it didn’t materialise.

iii) The introduction of the Apple (iTunes) Music Store in Europe is currently planned for the euro-zone only. One wonders why. Administration purposes? Hardly. The truth is surely that the euro-zone, with its single currency, has a certain degree of price parity, while the main country outside the euro-zone, Britain, has no price-parity whatsoever with the countries within it. A new CD in Germany costs say €16 or €17, while it costs the same in pounds sterling. With a conversion rate of approximately £2 : €3, that means that the average British CD costs around €24. The excuse for this, as for all the extortionate prices of Britain, is import costs (which of course is why Guinness, imported from Ireland, is cheaper in Germany than in Britain). And here we have the real reason for euro-scepticism amongst British companies. After all, what self-respecting British company would willingly subject itself to a transparent pan-European enterprise which highlighted just how much they had been overcharging the British public for decades? The same is true of the music industry in Britain in relation to the Apple Music Store.1

7) Copy Controlled CDs don’t prevent copying. Any fool can copy a copy controlled CD, by simply buying a cable from a local electrical store, connecting the headphone jack on a standard hi-fi system or disc-man to the input jack on the computer and importing the sound with software like the open source Audacity. True, it won’t be a digital reproduction but an audio one, yet the point is this: Copy Control does not prevent anyone who actually wants to copy the CD from copying it. It simply takes a little longer (1:1 playback), and doesn’t even involve fancy software which can be outlawed, just around €3 for a cable.

8) They are intensely annoying. I don’t have a hi-fi system, or a TV, only a computer (I fell for the Apple propaganda about a digital hub, all right? You know, all that stuff about a computer being able to do what you want it to and not needing six different appliances to do what one thing is perfectly capable of doing?) The software that comes along with these CDs is rubbish, since it keeps jumping, stopping and utterly ruining the listening experience. So either I have to connect my disc-man to the computer every time I want to listen to a Copy Controlled CD, or for simple convenience, I am encouraged to employ the method described above to circumvent the problem in order to listen to the blasted CDs whenever I want to do so with the minimum hassle. In other words, Copy Controlled CDs may even encourage people to find ways of overcoming the inconvenience.


Those are some of my reasons for disliking the spiel now found on Copy Control CDs. It targets the wrong consumer problem (which is downloads); it treats the consumer like a criminal; and it ignores the responsibility of the music industry to produce things which are worth parting with our money for. It is a cynical, and above all frightened, manoeuvre. What is the music industry frightened of? Change in the face of technology. So far its response to the increasingly open and global scale of technology has been increasing protectionism, increasingly aggressive attitudes towards those who do not play the prescribed game. For the music industry the dot-com bubble never burst: it never even began.

A Passion Play, by Jethro Tull

At last! Finally my favourite Jethro Tull album has been re-mastered and re-issued! This may seem unworthy of comment, but, having released the ‘classic’ Tull albums of Aqualung (1971) and Thick As A Brick (1972) some time ago, EMI recently set about re-issuing all the Tull albums starting with the first album This Was (1968), followed by the second album Stand Up (1969) and the third album Benefit (1970). Then for some reason they leapfrogged A Passion Play and released the next three albums, War Child (1974), Minstrel In The Gallery (1975) and Too Old To Rock And Roll, Too Young To Die (1976). I was beginning to despair. Then last weekend I found it, re-issued out of sequence with Songs From The Wood (1977) and Heavy Horses (1978). I still don’t see the logic of this, but at least the CD (and naturally the other two) has finally made its way into my record collection.

My relationship to Jethro Tull’s music has been complex. They have passed through so many styles and phases during their career that I have found myself liking different records or series of records at different times. This is to some extent natural for anyone who listens to a lot of music, but Tull seem to have experimented with directions more than most and I’ve found myself growing into their various developments. I began with the late 80's rock phase of Crest Of A Knave (1987), for which Tull somewhat farcically won a Heavy Metal award (over Metallica!), and Rock Island (1989). Then progressed backwards to the greatest hits of the early 70’s. Then rocketed forward to the early 80’s electronics of The Broadsword And The Beast (1982). Then backward again to the late '70s folk-based albums. The two albums I would not part with now are are A Passion Play and Minstrel In The Gallery. The point is really that at each time I thought I knew Tull and knew what I liked, only to rediscover them again later (A Passion Play became a foil for my increasingly electronic-dance orientated musical tastes), so I’ve been spared the nostalgia of ‘I used to listen to this’ but have instead found that Tull have remained relevant to my musical environment, from the beginning on, in a way that no other band have.

A Passion Play is the most complicated album Tull recorded, and, following Thick As A Brick, the second and last album to be 45 minutes of continuous music. And 45 minutes it is, rather than two sections of 23-ish minutes. In that comment lies my first criticism of every CD release. On both Thick As A Brick and A Passion Play, there is a sense of trying to overcome the physical constraints of the medium of a vinyl record. The end of the first side of Thick As A Brick fades out and the second side fades in from the same point. On A Passion Play there is an interval song, 'The Story of the Hare who Lost his Spectacles', and the bridge occurs in the middle of the story, during a natural pause after the main characters have been introduced. In fact the album anticipates the CD medium with its single side, and it was not until being issued on CD that this endeavour was truly fulfilled. However, every CD I’ve seen begins the second part of the album from the beginning of 'The Story…' . It would be more appropriate to begin from the middle, as the vinyl did, or to dispense with such divisions altogether, in acknowledgement of what the album was trying to do.

'The Story of the Hare who Lost his Spectacles' is an oddity amongst Jethro Tull songs in that it is narrated, and indeed not even by Ian Anderson, but by Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond. Musically it is a psychedelic mutation of Peter And The Wolf filtered through Winnie-The-Pooh and only flirts with what we would recognise as Rock in the last few bars. But the words are the key for me: the punning makes you cringe in delight. On the newly re-mastered release, we are treated to a 7-minute promotional video of 'The Story…', complete with ballerinas, the dancing of oversized animals and frantic editing. As you watch this or listen to the music, it’s worth bearing in mind that only two years previously Tull had been bracketed in much the same category as Led Zeppelin, and yet this is about as far from Heavy Metal or Hard Rock as it’s possible to get.

The words and lyrical plays are part of what makes the album so impressive. Perhaps the best line is on the second side: 'I’d give up my halo for a horn and the horn for the hat I once had'. Overall, the album is about death and possibly life afterwards, beginning as it does with a funeral. Yet, 30 years after its original release, it is not only the lyrics which make the album rewarding. Released in the same year as the ‘definitive’ concept album, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon, A Passion Play is for me the better recording, and a major part of the reason is the music. A Passion Play is more unified musically than The Dark Side Of The Moon; the latter is really just songs which cross-fade, whereas the former has an ‘approach’ and a sense of continuous development. The music often is among Jethro Tull's most playfully eccentric, flowing in and out of seeming incoherence. The opening instrumental, for example, has an inverted 'Teddy-bear's Picnic' quality (which reminds me of the truly disturbing start of Faust’s eponymous 1971 album) before turning to the apparent gravity of funeral described in the lyrics. Regular song structures are rare, while repeated motifs tie the various sections together. There’s still a lot of acoustic guitar in there, but there’s also a lot of jazz-based rhythm and extreme contrasts of electric to acoustic and wild to ethereal.

The strange thing is that this album marked the turn of critical acclaim for Tull. The critics hated it, and for some reason have never recovered. Maybe part of the problem was that Ian Anderson seemed to resent being put into a category. Or maybe that he gave the impression of not caring whether they liked him and his music or not. Maybe the swing between introspective albums (A Passion Play and Minstrel…) and extroverted albums (War Child and Too Old…) meant that Tull were hard to get a grip on. And maybe it was simply a bandwagon that everyone got onto, and a guy playing a flute whilst standing on one leg is an easy target. But whatever the reason, Jethro Tull remain unpopular amongst critics and are for some reason considered to highlight the excesses of the 1970’s prog-rock scene, even though their music has dated better than much of Pink Floyd’s, never had the classical bombast of Yes, ELO or even Deep Purple, and Martin Barre’s guitar playing never degenerated into widdling and 40-minute solos.

And if you want more, then the 1993 compilation Nightcap is essential. The double CD set contains the original session for A Passion Play, recorded in France and labelled under The Chateaux D'Isater Tapes. Although much of the material was simply abandoned, some of the pieces, especially instrumentals, crop up again on A Passion Play, sometimes with alternative lyrics. For the full 'Passion Play Sessions', of course, you need to have War Child too, since 'Skating Away On The Thin Ice Of The New Day' and 'Bungle In The Jungle' were also recorded at the ‘Chateaux D'Isaster', along with Solitaire, which appears in its original form on Nightcap. The compilation makes it easier to tie up various threads in this period of Anderson's writing, as for example with the animal metaphors and 'Law Of The Bungle'.

All in all, a work of eccentric genius, in my opinion, closer to avant-garde than Rock. The critical headlines of 'Play without Passion' could not be further from the truth. Certainly a difficult album to listen to, but well worth the effort of trying. Still vibrant and inspiring 30 years after the original release.

Elephant, by The White Stripes

Great album. There’s nothing original about what the brother-and-sister (?) team known as The White Stripes are doing, but they just do it very well. At the moment I’m missing the two albums between their first album and this, their fourth, but I’d have to say that there hasn’t been any progress as such. You’ll see what I mean if you compare this album to Placebo’s recently released fourth album, which sounds completely different to their first. The White Stripes still have their feet firmly planted in Led Zeppelin’s first to third albums, even though other references creep in there every so often. But they’ve simply got better at it.

I don’t know of many other bands out there that do the Led Zeppelin-filtered blues-rock as well as The White Stripes. Of course they could be accused of being retro (and in the words of Tool’s Maynard James Keenan, “Fuck retro anything”), but I think the truth is more subtle than that. The White Stripes are just plain old-school rock music with edge; there is no bombast about it, no pretence of being intense in an attempt to sell more records, and there is a sense of humour in much of what they do (witness the last song on this album, 'Well It's True That We Love One Another'). Unlike self-styled indie-drivel like Nickelcack (sorry, -back) or Puddle of Crud (sorry, Mudd), The White Stripes don’t wear Led Zeppelin T-shirts in order to gain ‘Rock’ credibility whilst regurgitating their insipid rubbish; you listen to their records and hear the influence of the music, and get the impression that they play the music they do simply because they love it.

The influence of Led Zeppelin is everywhere, although as I’ve indicated, only the first three blues-based albums of 1968-1970. Jack White’s impression of Robert Plant has to be heard to be believed, even if he can’t quite reach the high notes, and his guitar playing is clearly inspired by Jimmy Page. The 7-minute 'Ball and Biscuit' is a fully at home in the epic-blues-drama that Led Zep perfected on 'Since I've Been Loving You' on III. But as I’m listening to the record, I’m reminded of the other ‘Class of '68’ bands on occasion. 'The Hardest Button To Button' begins almost identically to 'No-One Came' from Deep Purple’s 1972 Fireball; Jack's singing on 'Hypnotize' is reminiscent of Purple’s Ian Gillan, and 'The Air Near My Fingers' reminds me of another Purple song, 'Hush'. The crunch of the middle section on 'Black Math' strikes me as a more than a passing reference to Black Sabbath, but in general when they crunch The White Stripes have more of The Stooges about them than Sabbath, as on 'Little Acorns'.

I guess it might be harder to appreciate fully what The White Stripes are doing if you don’t get the musical background, but the fact is that they rock in a way that very few bands do anymore. Fans of their predecessors might complain that we should bypass them and listen to the originals, but that’s not fair. For a start, Led Zep aren’t around anymore. Secondly, just as Nirvana were doing something important by attempting to decapitate the mullet-rock of the 80’s, not by doing anything original but by re-invigorating punk, The White Stripes are like a breath of fresh air in the foul-smelling morass which is today’s rock scene. And if it is any comfort to the old rockers who cringe at the thought of Led Zep and Purple being bundled into the same category as The Spice Girls in record shops, at least the fact that The White Stripes are to be found in the Indie section should offer some consolation. Good old-fashioned rock music is decidedly alternative in this day and age, and The White Stripes are doing it like no one else.

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