Suede – Night Thoughts

Suede - Night ThoughtsSuede were always one of the more interesting bands from the Britpop era. Their dark lyrical themes and sometimes florid music meant they little in common with the likes of Oasis or Blur.

They had an unusual career trajectory; guitarist Bernard Butler, whose playing defined their early sound, left the band after the recording of their second album “Dog Man Star”. Though they replaced him and carried on, much of the magic was lost. After three more disappointing albums, they split, making them one of the few bands for whom their second album was the best. A decade later they were to reform, older and wiser, and appeared to pick up not from where they left off, but from where they perhaps should have gone after “Dog Man Star”.

“Night thoughts” is their second album since they reformed, following on for 2013′s “Bloodsports”. It’s a concept album with a storyline of the drowning man’s life flashing past his eyes, which is admittedly a bit old hat; Spock’s Beard and Mostly Autumn are just two bands to have covered similar themes. But in theme and mood Night Thoughts is closest to Marillion’s 1994 classic “Brave”.

The guitar drones heralding opener “When You Are Young” so closely recalls Brave’s “The Bridge” it’s hard to imagine it’s not a deliberate quote, and the same song’s cinematic string section strengthens the prog flavour. What follows is a mix of anthemic guitar-pop numbers with big choruses interspersed with darker and more atmospheric numbers that sometimes evoke the bleakness of the middle parts of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”.

The pairing of “Pale Snow” and “I Don’t Know How To Reach You” are early highlights, the spiralling guitar on the latter sees Richard Osman channelling the late Mick Ronson. But every song has something to recommend about it, and like the best concept albums it’s more than the sum of its parts. The mid-70s Bowie vibe that’s been present throughout their career is still prominent, but there are also moments that would not have sounded out of place on a mid-90s Marillion album.

For a band who so often wore the influence of David Bowie on their sleeves, it was ironic that Bowie’s death rather overshadowed this album’s release. While it doesn’t quite reach the florid grandeur of “Dog Man Star”, this record is still streets ahead of the weaker albums that followed it. It’s a rich and dense record that gets stronger on repeated listens, and while it’s not really a progressive rock album as such, it does share some of the same strengths.

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All Aboard the Preserved 125!

Flyer for the Great Central Railway Nottingham

It had to happen. A preserved High Speed Train running on a museum railway. The one survivor of the two power cars from the prototype HST, the other of which was sadly scrapped several years ago,

41001 was displayed at one point in the National Railway Museum in York, but has more recently been restored to working order using a Paxman Valenta engine taken from a production-series HST when the fleet was rebuilt with new engines.

The reversed blue and grey livery doesn’t quite match the Virgin Trains livery of the coaches, though.

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Is Twitter Circling the Drain?

plugholeIs Twitter circling the drain? The omens do not look good; a user base that’s actually shrunk for the first time, a plummeting share price, and a management that has lost the trust of the user base to such an extent that every announcement about new features leads to everyone fearing the very worst.

Twitter the product has a big enough user base that it’s going to be around for a while, even if Twitter the company does not survive. But current trends suggest a long-term decline unless something drastic changes.

Perhaps the only way Twitter can be saved from its own clueless management with their destructive Facebook status envy would be for Twitter to be bought out by Facebook itself. Because it would be against Zuckerberg & co’s interests to turn Twitter into a low-budget imitation of their own core product rather than focus on the things that make it distinctively different.

Twitter’s latest move is the establishment of a “Trust and Safety Council” comprising forty outside organisations, prompting free-speech advocates to raise concerns over the pro-censorship agenda of at least some of those organisations. Hopefully Twitter will focus on developing better block and mute tools rather than go down the road of agenda-driven centralised moderation, but yet again the lack of trust is telling. You don’t need to be a free-speech absolutist to be concerned about some of those names.

Whatever their agenda is, I hope the Trust and Safety Council is paying attention to the ongoing car-crash around NYMag writer Jesse Singal, which displays many of Twitter’s problems including hate-retweeting and misuse of “.@” to pour petrol on flames. Here is someone who willingly participated in Twitter witch-hunts until one day he crossed the wrong line and part of Twitter decided he was the witch. Perhaps the lesson ought to be that if you run with the outrage drama warriors it’s only a matter of time before they will turn on you, because it’s the nature of that sort of subculture to eat their own. Twitter’s problem is it enables and amplifies this sort of thing.

Perhaps one aspect of Twitter’s harassment problem is way the nature of the network tries and fails to make different groups who won’t play nice with each other share the same playground. And when they fight, innocents always get caught in the crossfire. It goes beyond Twitter itself; a lot of the worst things on Twitter are flame wars that spill over from toxic and abusive communities on Tumblr or 4chan. Perhaps what Twitter should attempt is to keep those groups in their own corners of the playground rather than trying to force the least popular group out of the playground altogether?

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Why We Test

In the second weekend of December 1988, there was engineering work taking place on the busy main line out of London Waterloo, part of a resignalling project. A mistake was made; a redundant section of wiring was left in place without being properly disconnected or isolated.

Because of this rogue piece of wire, a signal showed green when it should have showed red, at the height of the Monday morning rush hour. A packed commuter train ran past this wrongly-green signal and collided at speed with the train in front. The Clapham Junction rail crash killed 35 people and injured nearly 500.

This is why we test.

This shouldn’t need to be said. But there are still people out there who really ought to know better who insist, despite all evidence, that testing is not a worthwile activity.

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Jumping the Shark?

No longer the preserve of the hardcore geek, comics are moving away from superheroes and into a new golden age of creativity and diversity. We talk to the indie writers and artists inking the changes

The way this article has been framed epitomises everything I have come to loathe about the recent direction of The Guardian’s cultural coverage.

Canadian video game journalist Liana Kerzner has called it out for benevolent sexism, rightly stating that women are people, not benevolent pink aliens. What’s infuriating to me is the implied zero-sum game. It could have praised radical new creators taking comics in exciting new directions in their own right. But no, they had to take a swipe at the things many other people love along with their audiences. And aren’t women allowed to be geeks too?

That’s before we note that the whole thing is probably a generation out of date.

It gives all the appearance of bottom-feeding clickbait, cynically calculated to push people’s buttons. I sometimes wonder how much of the “angry male nerd” subculture that seems to see any media that’s not for them as a threat is really a backlash against nonsense like this.

The irony is there may be a chance that the article itself is a fine and insightful piece. But the way it’s been framed puts you off reading.

The same sort of thing has been spreading like pondweed across the music section of late too, much of it ludicrously ill-informed and under-researched. Last summer we had thinkpiece after thinkpiece demanding that rock and metal festivals add more dance-pop to their bills in the name of gender equality, all written by people who had clearly never heard of Nightwish or Within Temptation or Arch Enemy or Myrkur. They even tried to call out rapper MIA for appropriation of Indian culture despite the fact she’s of south Asian descent herself! It got to the point where one of their own staff writers had to point out on Twitter how embarrassingly stupid that was.

There are still some good writers like Dom Lawson and Alexis Petridis contributing to the music section who clearly demonstrate a deep knowledge and love of music. But it seems their writing in increasingly drowned out by clickbait drivel.

Much as I hate to say it, I think the proverbial shark has been jumped.

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Bernie vs Hilary. It gets ugly

The continuing awfulness of Donald Trump had been overshadowing the race for the Democratic nomination between Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. But that race is not only very close but has become very ugly, and it does seem to highlight the fundamental schism in the liberal-left.

It’s become so ugly that comparisons are being made with GamerGate. Does this suggest that the culture wars across gaming, fandom and tech are not quite the left-right conflict as they’ve frequently been framed?

It’s not as if either side is innocent here. We’ve seen some ugly casual sexism coming from a small but noisy faction of Sanders supporters, which doesn’t do their candidate a lot of favours. The so-called “Bernie Bros” do appear to have a lot in common with the infamous Cybernats or some of the more belligerent Corbyn supporters that sometimes make the British political internet an unpleasant place.

But the Clinton campaign is no better. It is noticeable is now many of those who have invested heavily in so-called “Social Justice Warrior” middle-class identity politics are solid Clinton supporters. Their attacks on Sanders and his support appear to come from the same playbook as the attacks on GamerGate and The Sad Puppies. On the surface at least, Sanders’ politics have little in common with the conservative-libertarian bent of the Gaters or the Puppies. Is what we’re seeing just their default response when faced with what they see an intruder on territory they believe to be rightfully theirs?

Though it should be noted that Bernie Sanders has distanced himself from the so-called “Bernie Bros” in a way those other groups did not do with some of their own bad actors.

But in the end, much like with Jeremy Corbyn’s labour party, both camps appear to have forgotten that their ultimate goal is to defeat whatever horrific troglodyte ends up on top at the end of the Republican race. Posturing and self-indulgent virtue signalling will not help achieve that goal.

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Rebecca Downes – Believe

Bebecca Downes BelieveAlong with the likes of Chantel McGregor and Jodie Marie, Rebecca Downes is a female blues-rock artist revitalising a traditional form for the 21st century, in her case turning down offers from X-Factor producers because she’d rather make real music of her own than someone else’s formulaic product.

Her second album “Believe” shows she means business, and demonstrates a vocal talent that would indeed have been wasted on sausage-factory pop. With a tight six-piece band including co-writer Steve Birkett on rhythm and slide guitars and Rik Sandford on lead guitar, she plays the blues through a prism of classic rock with nods to soul and funk. Rebecca has a great voice, with range and power as well as emotional depth, equally at home with soulful ballads as belting out hard rockers.

What impresses is not only the strength of the material but the variety; this is not one of those albums where nearly every song is a variation on the same basic template. Highlights include the impassioned funk-rock of “Night Train”, the guitar-shredding ballad “Sailing on a Pool of Tears” and the seductive smoky jazz of “Could Not Say No”. Just occasionally the quality dips, with the middle-of-the-road “Come With Me Baby” and one or two rather ordinary boogie numbers on the second half of the record, but the album ends in rousing form with the hard rock workout of the title track.

In some respects this is an old-fashioned record with little or no concession towards the contemporary commercial mainstream. But a record this good deserves to be heard well beyond niche audiences of ageing classic rock and blues fans. The performance and production manages to combine a rich and sophisticated sound with a crackling energy, which leaves the impression the music is built to be performed live.

The album is released on March 4th, with a pre-released launch party at the 100 Club in London on February 23rd.

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“The Big Snub Dept” on Genji Press is well worth a read. Can someone really be an artist unless their art manages to resonate with an audience?

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Of Genres and Canons

If you divide music into “Classical” and “Pop”, but don’t make any distinction between “Pop” from “Rock”, a record like King Crimson’s “Red” gives a divide-by-zero error.

It’s one of the high points  of the progressive rock movement, an ambitious and powerful collection of music far removed from simple top-40 pop songs. Yet it’s performed by a rock band with electric guitar as the main instrument rather than a symphony orchestra.

If you’re reading this blog, you almost certainly know all that. But this post isn’t really about Red, but about the wider divide between “high” and “low” art, and whether such a divide is still meaningful, or even if it ever was.

It reminds me a bit of my old school music teacher, Mr Macey. He was an old-school traditionalist for whom only orchestral music in the Western classical tradition qualified as real music. Anything played on electric instruments was ephemeral nonsense. I suspect he genuinely believed rock’n'roll was a passing fad and none of it would pass the test of time.

He was wrong, of course, but back in the mid-1970s it was still possible for someone to hold that position without looking like a ridiculous old reactionary. Much of what we now consider as the rock canon was either less than a decade old, or had yet to be written. The fact we’re still listening to some of that music forty years on shows that it has stood the test of time rather better than the so-called “squeaky hinge” work that some classical composers were writing at the same time. But it’s also notable that the way rock fans dismiss music made from samples and computer-generated rhythms sounds a lot like the arguments used against rock by my old music teacher.

The whole high art vs. low art thing is really about social class. In past centuries, “classical” was the music of the rich, and “folk” was the music of the poor, and the former was put on a pedestal at the expense of the latter because the people with the money wrote the histories. The rise of the middle classes and the development of amplified electric music disrupted that hierarchy, but old prejudices die hard.

I wonder how the music of the past fifty years will be regarded in a hundred years time? What will pass the test of time, and will today’s genres of classical, folk, jazz or rock still make any sense to listeners who encounter the music in a completely different cultural context?

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#RIP Twitter?

Fail WhaleSo Twitter is apparently planning to replace the current reverse-chronological timeline with a new “algorithmic feed” which will prioritise the things the writers of the algorithm think you most what to see. The chorus of raspberries from Twitter users is such that the hashtag #RIPTwitter is trending, and was #1 at one point.

Yes, it’s a bad idea, and on the surface it looks like yet another attempt to turn Twitter into a low-rent copy of its bigger rival Facebook, oblivious to the fact that many of us prefer Twitter because we don’t care for the Facebook experience. The chorus that the sky is falling may be overstated, but the way everyone is immediately assuming the worst is indicative of the way Twitter’s user base no longer trusts the company.

It may be that Twitters strategy is for the basic Twitter apps, especially the web version, to be dumbed-down products aimed at new users, with the power users responsible for much of Twitter’s content steered towards Tweetdeck and third-party apps. We shall have to wait and see.

I know I’m not the only person who uses Twitter for real-time conversations, as a kind of personally-curated chatroom. Algorithmic feeds risk breaking that use-case. There are also justified concern that algorithmic feeds will reinforce existing power hierarchies, with even the most inane posts from celebrities prioritised over the speech of ordinary people. There’s another darker fear that it’s a trojan horse for filtering feeds in the interests of corporate and political agendas, weakening the ability to speak truth to power. Finally we should also not underestimate the way Facebook’s notorious Edgerank algorithm contributed towards poisoning the rest of the web by encouraging the worst kind of clickbait.

Many people are rightly complaining that Twitter devotes more time and energy to new features nobody asked for while doing too little about Twitter’s known problems with harassment. That’s a whole ‘nother issue I’ve covered elsewhere. But in passing I do wonder how many of those who advocate loudly for centralised moderation would change their tune the moment one of their own got permabanned for leading one witch-hunt too many.

But in the end perhaps we should be asking ourselves whether we should invest so much of our online presence and social connections in corporate platforms we do not own and do not control. Maybe it’s time to stick a fork in social media and go back to blogs and RSS aggregators. Not as a retro attempt to recreate the web of a decade ago, warts and all, but something that learns the lessons from what social media does well. Something that combines the ease-of-use of Facebook and Twitter but without a central hub controlled by a single untrustworthy company that could pivot and any time.

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