Riverside – Eye of the Soundscape

riverside-eye-of-the-soundscape Riverside are not only one of the best bands to come out of Poland, but they’re in the vanguard of the modern progressive rock scene, picking up the torch from Porcupine Tree when Steven Wilson put his band on hold and took off in a different direction. The tragic and sudden death of guitarist Piotr Grudziński in February put the future of the band in doubt, but band leader Mariusz Duda has since stated their intention to continue as a trio.

Released as a tribute to Piotr Grudziński, “Eye of the Soundscape” is something of a departure from the song-focussed rock of Riverside’s recent albums, taking the form of 100 minutes of ambient electronica. It’s actually a compilation, combining material previously released as bonus tracks on earlier albums with a couple of remixes of older songs, and some completely new tracks that were works in progress at the time of Piotr’s untimely death.

It’s not completely instrumental, as there’s an occasional ghostly vocal. Nor is it completely electronic; though not as prominent as on earlier albums there’s still room for some of the late Piotr Grudzień distinctive fluid guitar on a few tracks.

The album begins with the icy minimalism of “Sleepwalkers”, the sort of thing that might have caused a lot of excitement had it been made by a fashionable DJ rather than by a bunch of Polish prog-rockers. “Shine”, another new track, has more of a Riverside feel even though loops take prominence over guitars.

The shimmering arpeggios of “Where The River Flows” and the electronic pulse of “Night Sessions part 1″ with its lead synth line and spooky background guitars recall mid-70s Tangerine Dream. “Night Sessions part 2″ even features some evocative mournful sax, and the album ends with eleven minutes of ghostly ambient soundscape of the title track.

It all amounts to very different record from “Shrine of the New Generation Slaves” and “Love. Fear and The Time Machine”, at times referencing Tangerine Dream in the same way as some of their earlier work recalled Porcupine Tree. But it’s always their own take on things, never a derivative pastiche, and there are plenty of reminders that there always was an electronica side to their music. It will be very interesting to see where they go next.

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Farewell, Jack Chick

Jack Chick, author of the awful but compelling badly-drawn fundamentalist tracts railing at Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Gays, Freemasons, Rock and Roll, Dungeons and Dragons, or anybody who didn’t share the specific doctrines of his particular Protestant sect has died, aged 92.

Many of his tracts were little more than crude hate-speech with no redeeming qualities, and while they deserved mockery, weren’t very funny to his targets.

One exception was his anti-Dungeons and Dragons: “Dark Dungeons”, which ended up being unintentionally laugh-out-loud funny. Anyone who has ever played D&D will recognise how ridiculous it is. Though his vision of an all-girl D&D group was way too ahead of it’s time, pre-dating Contessa or I Hit It With My Axe by a generation.


There is even a Lovecraftian parody of Chick Tract out there. It’s disturbing how close the style and tone is to Chick’s own tracts. But then, some of H. P. Lovecraft’s dark cults were Presbyterian sects that had gone off the rails, so maybe it fits after all?


I learned of Jack Chick’s death on Twitter while listening to AC/DC’s Highway to Hell. This may or may not be evidence that God has a sense of humour. If Jack Chick does make to Heaven (who am I to put limits on God’s mercy?), he may well be in for a surprise with some of the people he meets there.

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The Ignobles of Rock Lyrics

Classic Rock magazine responds to Bob Dylan’s nobel prize for literature with some suggestions for Rock’s Ignoble Laureates.

There is the inevitable Noel Gallagher, who as ever sounds like somebody fed the Bumper Book of Bad Clichés into a random text generator.

“Sitting upside a high chair/The devil’s refugee is gonna be blinded by the light that follows me”

But I have to defend the late, great Ronnie James Dio. They quote this line from “Holy Diver” and rather miss the point of what Dio was about.

Ride the tiger/You can see his stripes but you know he’s clean/Oh don’t you see what I mean?

I’ve always seen Dio as the Jon Anderson of metal; he plays with evocative imagery even when they don’t make any literal sense.

And this one from Krokus’ “Down the Drain” is a work of comic genius along with Queen’s classic “Told my girl I gotta forget her/Cost I gotta buy me a new carburettor”

“My mother was a B-girl/My old man was a tramp/Some say they conceived me/On a loading ramp”

Some of the others are hilarious, though the Great White lyric is too crass to post here. That appalling piece of macho drivel is actually credited to five authors, presumably so each of them could deny all responsibility and blame the others.

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The Literary Origins of RPGs

Interesting post on Jeffro’s Space Gaming Blog on how the first generation of roleplaying games from the late 1970s weren’t influenced by the ackowleged greats of the golden age of science fiction such as Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein or Arthur C Clarke, but by a host of less well-know authors, many of which are long out of print.

If you take some time to read what the early rpg designers had read, you will see that they almost compulsively lifted material from pulp and new wave writers. The most surprising thing about this is the extent to which they passed over the grand masters of Campbellian science fiction. The authors that are synonymous with the field seemed to hold not one iota of attraction or influence to them. Mike Mearls thinks almost entirely in terms of television and movies. These things had a negligible impact on the first wave of rpg designers. For them it was short stories and novellas and short novels from dozens of authors that were primary. There was no “big three” for them: they read everything they could get their hands on.

He makes the valid point that Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke wrote serious stories about big ideas, which don’t translate well into roleplaying settings or scenarios. Meanwhile it was the lowbrow pulpy action-adventures that inspired Gary Gygaz and Marc Miller to create D&D and Traveller. In particular he cites Jack Vance as a huge influence on both.

Where, I wonder, does H. P. Lovecraft fit in? He was surely a pulp writer, and his work inspired what has to be the most successful licenced RPG of all time. How much has the Call of Cthulhu game contributed towards Lovecraft’s status as a cult author? I can’t be the only person who came to his fiction through the game.

Today’s generation of RPG designers get their ideas more from film and television than from books, with some games designed around the tropes and beats of a typical television episode, and combat systems designed to reproduce the fight scenes from action movies. As D&D line editor Mike Mearls says to Polygon.

“If you look at science fiction follows, I think an arc that fantasy is following now. In the 50’s, science fiction was very iconic, and at least in movies, very much templated. You had the flying saucer, or the rocket ship, you had either the aliens who were clearly monsters — like the guy in the deep sea diving helmet wearing the gorilla coming to eat people or whatever. Or they were people in funny outfits who were very inscrutable and so much more advanced that we were, and that was your pantheon.”

Later, as science fiction entered the ‘60s and the ‘70s, it began to be entrusted with more serious themes and dealt with issues of change in modern culture as a whole.

“So you have this new wave of science fiction coming through and science fiction grows up,” Mearls said. “It became Alien — a horror movie in outer space. It becomes Soylent Green, which is kind of like this social commentary on science fiction. It’s Rollerball, right? This entire thing about what’s it really mean to have free will, and can there really be freedom in a technological society? But it’s still science fiction.”

Barely a mention of books at all. Is this because the current generation of gamers read fewer books and watch more telly? Or is it because literary SF and fantasy have moved away from the sort of pulpy action-adventure that makes a good RPG in favour of more weighty topics, and the action-adventure genre in turn has switched to other media?

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Back in Play?

Even though Liz Leffman didn’t achieve what would have been an improbable victory, the Liberal Democrats still did remarkably well in the Witney by-election. To come from a poor fourth place to a strong second and slashing the Tory majority has put the party back in play in British politics. It’s also heartening to see The Greens beat the repellent UKIP into fifth place.

It’s not an unexpected result either. Although the Liberal Democrats have been stuck in single figures in national opinion polls they’ve been winning council by-elections on double-digit swings all over the country, but especially in Tory heartlands. One or two such victories might be explained away as flukes influenced by local personalities, but there have been enough of them lately to show a clear pattern. The party gets little attention in the national media, but on the ground in actual election campaigns voters are receptive to the party’s message.

The Tories should be worried. Under Theresa May’s leadership they have pivoted into an English nationalist party with the intention of destroying UKIP and peeling working-class social conservatives away from Labour. But that strategy only works in the absence of a viable Liberal Democrat challenge to their opposite flank. There is far lower-hanging fruit that Witney, and a Libdem revival will cost the Tories seats.

David Herdson of Political Betting thinks otherwise, suggesting it’s a reversion to the early 90s with the Libdems merely displacing UKIP as the protest vote party. But it could be more than that; they are the only party with a clear and unambiguous position on what has to be the most important political issue of our time.

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Some rolling stock additions

There is little progress to report on the layout, so to fill the game, some of the rolling stock I’ve acculumlated over the past year ir so.

Dapol Class 33

The most recent purchase, the new and long-awaited Dapol class 33, a locomotive always associated with the Southern Region. In the days of the 1955 Modernisation Plan, the SR management concluded their motive power needs were quite different to other regions. With all their main lines scheduled for electrification and relatively little heavy industry they had no need for an express passenger or a heavy-haul freight locomotive. What they wanted was a one-size-fits-all locomotive suitable for passenger work on non-electrified secondary routes and for general freight work across the network, able to operate in pairs on what little heavy traffic their was. They rejected the Modernisation Plan type 2 designs as underpowered, came up with their own specification for a medium-power machine, and Birmingham Carriage and Wagon were the successful bidders.

In later years these versatile machines spread their wings as declining freight traffic made more of them available for other work. They worked on the Western Region in Devon and in West Wales, on the cross-country route from Cardiff to Manchester, and even into North Wales. None were allocated outside the Western Region, instead working complicated cyclic diagrams that took them back to their home region for maintenance. The majority were withdrawn in the 1990s, but even today a handful remain in traffic. Several more survive in preservation.

Minitrix Cisalpino

Something completely different, an addition to the Swiss-outline fleet. It’s the Minitrix Re484 in Cisalpino livery with matching EC coaches. Cisalpino was a joint venture between the Swiss Federal Railways and the Italian State Railway operating through trains between the two countries, using dual-voltage trains to avoid needing to change locomotives on the border. The rolling stock was a mixture of Italian Pendolino multiple units and Swiss locomotive-hauled trains. As ought to be obvious from the picture, this train is one of the latter. They were a common sight on the Lötchberg main line during the mid-noughties.

Dapol Grange and Farish Hawksworth

And next, a couple of kettles for when the layout is running in transition-era mode. This one’s the recently-introduced Dapol Grange class. The GWR had several classes of mixed-traffic 4-6-0s, and the Granges combined the smaller driving wheels of the Manors with the larger boiler of the Halls. The result was a locomotive with the same overall power as the Hall class but with a greater tractive effort at the expense of reduced maximum speed. This made them especially useful for fitted freight work in the west of England, the sort of versatile machine that would work freight during the week and heavy holiday trains at weekends. The coaches are Farish Hawksworths in the older blood and custard livery, since Farish have yet to released them in 1960s BR maroon.

Dapol 2884

And finally, another Dapol model, this time the Collett 2884 class. These locomotives were were the Great Western’s equivalent to the LMS Stanier 8F. The GWR didn’t build eight-coupled freight locomotives on the scale of the LMS or LNER, preferring to use mixed-traffic 4-6-0s on much of their freight traffic, but despite this the 2884s were found all over the system, including a couple based at St.Blazey in Cornwall for china clay traffic. The china clay wagons are made by Farish as an exclusive model for Kernow Models.

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Oasis snubbed Trainspotting soundtrack thinking film ‘was about trainspotters’. Yes, I know it’s just a throwaway filler piece in The Guardian. But you’ve got to laugh.

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Yes, Journey, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and Salon

A central casting too-cool-for-school hipster looks at this year’s nominations for the Rock and Roll hall of fame and asks “Why celebrate Journey and Yes? He concludes that the Hall of Fame has hit “a new low”.

Journey stands, alongside REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, Styx, and a handful of others as an exemplar of one of the worst, least inventive periods of rock history — the corporate rock movement that was marked by bland playing and generic songwriting. Of all of them, Journey may have had, with Steve Perry, the most annoying lead singer. “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” is lodged permanently on AOR radio, television shows like “Glee,” and in the karaoke and covers repertoire. Forget ear worms — it’s the musical cockroach we’ll never kill. But please, can’t we just agree that this band’s career was a big mistake, try to forget about them, and just leave it at that?

Yes, on the other hand, is a band that once had real musical ambition as leaders of the “art rock movement.” But their classical-rock fusions sound studied now; they never had the imagination or drive of, say, King Crimson. And they are, like Journey, led by an awful lead singer. Can we remove “Owner of a Lonely Heart” from radio forever and just pretend that ‘80s comeback never happened?

Because if you really think Yes are defined by “Owner of a Lonely Heart”, you should not be employed to write about them. But it’s Salon, which is really a leftist-hipster version of The Daily Express, a publication that exists to confirm and reinforce the prejudices of its narrow-minded readership.

There is a wider question, of course, of why exactly does anyone take the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame seriously in the first place.

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Desert Island Disks

The long-running BBC radio series “Desert Island Disks” asks the guest celebrity of the week to choose eight of their favourite records. The premise is that if you were marooned on a desert island, and you had just eight records to listen to, what would they be?

I’m treating “records” as albums, and for this exercise, I’ve imposed a rule of no compilations, and no live albums. So with no further ado…

pink-floyd-meddlePink Floyd – Meddle

The first album I ever bought was Pink Floyd’s “The Wall”. But although that album means a lot to me, there’s only room in this list for one dark angst-ridden concept album, and that’s coming up further down. And though “Dark Side of the Moon” and “Wish You Were Here” are undisputed classics. they’re so overexposed that they’ve just been worn smooth. If I’m in the mood for some Pink Floyd nowadays it’s most often either “Meddle” or “Animals” that gets played. If forced to choose, we’ll go for Meddle. It’s worth it for the extended dreamy atmospherics of “Echoes” alone, but there’s more to the album that that.

blue-oyster-cult-secret-treatiesBlue Öyster Cult – Secret Treaties

Blue Öyster Cult have been one of my top bands ever since a college friend played me the live version of “Astronomy” from Some Enchanted Evening when that live disk was still almost a current album. But since live albums are against my self-imposed rules, so we’ll go for their classic third album. Fan consensus is their Secret Treaties is their best, and fan consensus isn’t wrong. It’s the final album of the so-called “Black and White trilogy” combining richly layered music with a raw garage-like sound, with high weirdness lyrics hinting at the magical origins of World War Two. Blue Öyster Cult were always far more that just a metal band, and this album is proof of that.

Rainbow RisingRainbow – Rising

Hearing “Eyes of the World” on Nicky Horne’s show on Capital Radio radio changed my life. Ever since then Ritchie Blackmore’s music has been part of the soundtrack of my life, either with Deep Purple or with Rainbow. He was at the peak of his powers when he made this record along with the greatest hard rock singer of all time in the shape of the late Ronnie James Dio, and a sheer force of nature in Cozy Powell on drums. With just six tracks and a running time of less that forty minutes it’s all-killer-no-filler, with the monumental “Stargazer” as the centrepiece of the record.

220px-MarillionBraveMarillion – Brave

The three previous bands had been long-established by the time their music first appeared on my radar, but with Marillion I was there from the start. Not quite to the extent that I was seeing them play to thirty people in pubs before they were signed, but I did see them at the 1982 Reading Festival and bought their first album of the day of release. Since then they have released many great albums both with Fish and later with Steve Hogarth, but the favourite has to be their dark and intense 1994 concept album. As the sleeve notes say, play it loud with the lights out.

mostly-autumn-the-last-bright-lightMostly Autumn – The Last Bright Light

Anyone who knows me knows that Mostly Autumn are one of my favourite bands. I’ve seen them something like a hundred times live now. Which doesn’t make it easy to choose just one album, especially when their music has evolved of the years along with changes in the make-up of the band. But if forced to choose just one, it will be their third, the high point of their celtic-folk-prog era on Cyclops records. It’s now sadly out of print, though many of the best songs appear on the retrospective compilation “Pass the Clock”.

porcupine-tree-in-absentiaPorcupine Tree – In Absentia

It’s not easy to choose one Porcupine Tree record. Sometimes it seems as if their best album is whichever one I’ve just listened to. But if forced to keep just one, it would be have to be this album, because it’s sheer variety covers many of the bases of their sound. In just the first three numbers it goes from the Zepellinesque riffery of “Blackest Eyes”, the song-focused pop-rock of “Trains” and the psychedelic atmospherics of “Lips of Ashes”.

opeth-waershedOpeth – Watershed

Perhaps more than any other band, Opeth have redefined what a metal or progressive rock band can be, with deep roots in the classic rock of the 1970s on one hand and a contemporary attitude and desire to avoid repeating their own past on the other. Few other bands can match their sense of dynamics and compositional skills. All their albums are good, but Watershed is the best, seamlessly combining intense heaviness with mellow atmospherics, often in the same song, and would be the last time Mikael Åkerfeldt would use his death-metal growling vocals on record.

Panic Room - SKINPanic Room – S K I N

Along with Mostly Autumn, Panic Room are my other favourite club-level band, and I’ve seen them live almost as many times. Indeed, the two bands were joined at the hip at one point with Anne-Marie Helder and Gavin Griffiths doing double duty in both. All their albums have their fans; there are even people who think the first was the best, but for me the favourite has to be their third, which goes from hard rock to jazz-tinged adult pop to epic soaring ballads while still adding up to a coherent work. It may well be that their best is yet to come, but for now this album is their masterpiece.

Over to you. What eight records could you not live without?

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Huge cuts at DB Schenker UK

Britain’s largest railfreight operator, DB Schenker, plans to cut 900 jobs, a third of their total workforce, and significantly reduce the size of their locomotive and wagon fleet.

The reason is a dramatic decline in steel and especially coal traffic as the UK moves away from burning fossil fuels in favour of renewables. The one growth area in rail freight is distribution and logistics, largely intermodal, and that’s not enough to offset the loss of bulk traffic to heavy industry.

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