Author Archives: Tim Hall

What is Criticism For?

Thiis comment left on Jeffro’s Space Gaming Blog resonated very strongly with me

Being a good critic takes a lot of courage of a certain kind, I think. Perhaps this is why I don’t write a lot of reviews of more contemporary media. Especially for critics who fraternize with the writers they’re charged with reviewing (of course they same applies with video games or what have you), I think it can be difficult to write honest criticism and there is the temptation to inflate positives. Hell, these pressures are even present when you don’t personally know the creator. I’ve reviewed or wanted to review games I’ve played where it pained me to list negatives because I really liked or sympathized with the developers.

I’m reminded of that line in the film “Almost Famous”, when Lester Bangs tells the novice music journalist “These people are not your friends”.

When you’re on first name terms with some of the people you’re reviewing, there’s always the potential for conflicts of interest. No matter how much you try to be objective, once you know the people involved it does change the way you perceive their music.

When you’re writing enthusiastic positive reviews, they’ll always love you, but if you say something critical you can sometimes find out how professionally they handle it the hard way. Nowadays I’ve got a self-imposed rule that I’ll restrict strongly negative reviews to artists I don’t know personally and am unlikely to meet, and will decline to review albums or gigs by people I know if I think they’re sub-standard. I haven’t always followed that rule in the past, but the damage it can do to relationships just isn’t worth it.

The linked blog post raises wider questions, which it doesn’t really answer, over what criticism is supposed to be for. I’m a strong believer in critic-as-curator, someone who sifts through the dross and tells the world about the good stuff that might otherwise have flown beneath people’s radar.

There’s a place for criticism highlighting where artists can improve, but I’ve not got much time for critic-as-gatekeeper, or worse, critic-as-would-be-censor. The most obnoxious failure mode of rock criticism is the sneering dismissive review by someone with no love or understanding of what the artist is trying to do, that challenges their work’s right to exist. Too much mainstream music press coverage of progressive rock by people steeped in the thirty year old revisionist punk narrative falls into that trap.

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What now for the British Centre-Left?

So, as was widely predicted, Jeremy Corbyn has been re-elected as Labour leader.

The YouGov exit poll is quite telling, and reveals the extent to which Labour has been the victim of a successful infiltration and take-over by the far left. 60% of those who were Labour members before May 2015 voted for Owen Smith, while 83% of those who joined after the May election defeat voted for Jeremy Corbyn

It does look as though the hard left has assumed total control, and given that Corbyn’s supporters do not seem to care about winning general elections, not even a thumping defeat at the hands of the Tories in 2020 is likely to shake their faith. The bastard offspring of 70s sectarian Trotskyism and millennial Tumblr identity politics is not interested in reality, only the mantras repeated within their bubble. It’s more a religious cult than a political party, every election defeat can be explained away by blaming the unbelievers.

Where does that leave the British centre-left? And more importantly, where does this leave the Liberal Democrats?

I have a strong suspicion that we’re only in the early stages of a much bigger political realignment in which existing parties will break up or change out of recognition, and new parties will emerge. A lot depends on what happens to the Tory party in the coming months and years.

The expected post-referendum implosion of the Tories hasn’t happened only because Theresa May has carefully avoided taking an actual position on implementing the result that referendum. The moment she comes unequivocally down on either side on the Single Market vs. Hard Brexit question, there’s a good chance that half the party will see the decision as betrayal. If that happens it will be hard for any leader to hold the party together.

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Marillion’s F E A R

Reviews of F E A R

My review of Marillion’s F E A R has now been published in The Guardian, not just in the online edition but in Friday’s print edition as well.

And yes, the album really is that good.

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Riverside: And The There Were Three

Riverside have made a statement on the future of the band after the tragic untimely death of guitarist Piotr Grudziński.

We have decided that we are not going to do a casting for a new guitarist. Thus we have ceased to be a quartet and have become a trio. In this line-up we will prepare our new studio album. Both in the recording studio and on tour – if we get back to touring – we will be playing with session guitarists, who are our friends, whom we know and like. But the line-up of Riverside will be as shown in the picture.

Yes, we do realise that this is not going to be the same band. We know that for many of you the story of Riverside ends here, this year, and that “Eye of the Soundscape” might be the last Riverside album you’ll buy. We know that some of you can’t imagine this band without the characteristic guitar of Piotr Grudziński and for you Riverside has ceased to exist. But our story is not over yet; with a flaw, with a scar, with a wealth of new experiences, we have decided to go on.

The band will be working on a new album, which may be “heavier and more intense”. In the meantime there’s the instrumental album “Eye of the Soundscape” combining music previously released as bonus material for earlier albums along with some brand new tracks,

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Poisonous Memes

The use of these images is not an endorsement of their conent

Was there ever a better illustration of the Horseshoe Effect than this?

Let’s get one thing out of the way first. The one on the left, as awful as it is, is orders of magnitude less objectively harmful than the one on the right. The Trump campaign ad is shouting-Fire-in-a-crowded-theatre levels of dangerous. The radfem meme is merely offensive, and is most unlikely to lead to gangs with sea-green hair roaming the streets in search of low-status men to beat up. In its original incarnation it had little impact beyond the echo chambers of Tumblr and Twitter.

But that doesn’t let their meme off the hook. It’s still ugly and dehumanising, and I do have a problem with value systems that see that sort of bigotry as acceptable because reasons. But more importantly, Trumpism and the alt-right didn’t happen in a vacuum. In so many ways their identity politics of the disenfranchised is a mirror image of the dehumanising identity politics of the regressive left, and has risen as a reaction against it. So it’s hardly surprising they’ve started copying the regressive left’s most toxic memes.

And as this well-written piece explains, the whole “Poisonous M&Ms” analogy is nonsense that cynucally targets our lizard brains, and relies on the inability to understand statistics or risk in a remotely rational manner.

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The RPG Social Skills Monster rises from the grave

The RPG Pundit issues forth a pronouncement from his lofty citadel.

Some people have criticized my past blog entries where I argued that the best RPGs (like old-school D&D) are superior at handling actual roleplay because they DON’T have any ‘social mechanics’ and just make you actually play it out.

The common complaint is “RPGs should be fair to players though; it isn’t a competition; and if a player has a PC who should be able to do well at diplomacy or something like that, but the player himself is not very good at speaking or putting together arguments, isn’t it only fair that the GM give him a bonus??”

This isn’t really about being in “competition”, but it sounds like they’re saying that if you’re a really good roleplayer and come up with good ideas, you should roll with just your normal bonuses; but if the guy next to you is a moron who always thinks up dumb ideas or can’t roleplay worth a damn, he should get a Special Snowflake bonus so his feelings aren’t hurt.

Is that not going to create a sense of ‘unfair competition’ from the people who do not get that bonus?

Doesn’t that look like favoritism?

As far as your character failing to do things he should be able to do: the question would be WHY do you feel your character “should be able” to do those things? In an OSR game you don’t have 30 points to dump in Diplomacy so you can wave it around like a Mind-Control Superpower to avoid having to actually come up with ideas or roleplay, so that’s out.

You are in a ten foot by ten foot room. Ahead of you stands a very obvious straw man argument. Roll for initiative….

I know the role-play vs. roll-play argument about social skills is as old as the hobby itself, and it’s a distinction between what are really two distinct but equally valid methods of play. But in all the RPG sessions I’ve played, including those with plenty of social skills on the character sheet, I have never, ever seen a GM treat social abilities as if they were superpowers.

When you think about it, what is the difference between:

Player: I hit it with my axe.

GM: Roll to hit

and this:

Player: I tell the palace guard I’m on official business and have got to see the king right now

GM: Roll against your Deceit skill to see if the guard believes you.

That doesn’t look much like a superpower to me. That’s how I have always handled social skills when running a game, and how most GMs I’ve encountered handled things as well.

Why, exactly, are well still having this argument?

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The ongoing Great British Bake Off meltdown makes it look as though Channel 4 are going to end up with the reality TV equivalent of The Oliver Dawson Saxon.

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Opeth – The Wilde Flowers

A lyric video for “The Wilde Flowers”, from the forthcoming album “Sorcoress” to be released on 30th September.

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Panic Room – Ten of the Best

Panic Room at South Street, Reading

Regular readers of this blog (all four of you) will know I’ve written a few “Ten of the Best” features for The Guardian Music Blog. I’ve done entries in the series for Yes, Black Sabbath and Ritchie Blackmore, amongst others, and pitched quite a few more suggestions (And no, I’m not going to say who they’re of, in case the editor comes back and accepts more of those pitches).

These things are fun to write. They’re explicitly “Ten of the best”, rather than “The Ten Best” which leave scope to include the odd personal favourite or overlooked gem at the expense of one or two of the all-too-obvious standards that everyone ought to know anyway.

So how about a Ten of the Best for a band a little closer to home? I’ve chosen an obvious favourite of this blog, Panic Room. Even though they’ve only recorded four albums so far, just about the minimum body of work to qualify for this sort of feature, it’s still a hard choice. They have so many great songs.

So, with no further ado…

Apocalypstick

Panic Room’s début album “Visionary Position” was the sound of a collective of musicians who’d survived the implosion of another band casting around for a new musical direction. It contained an eclectic mix of styles from stripped-down singer-songwriter material to sprawling prog epics. One standout was “Apocalypstick”, with lyrics about Helen of Troy and swirling eastern motifs in the music, featuring spiralling electric violin from guest musician Liz Prendergast. Anne-Marie Helder sounds both seductive and scary at the same time on vocals, which fits the song title perfectly. This was the song, more than any other, that pointed the way forward for the band.

Picking Up Knives

Panic Room’s second album “Satellite” was a far more coherent statement of intent, marking the point where the band found their musical identity, and this song was one of many highlights. Anne-Marie’s lyric takes the perspective of a mother seeing her son getting caught up in knife culture and fearing the worst, with music driven by Alun Vaughan’s propulsive bass riff and Jon Edward’s evocative shimmering electric piano with more than a hint of Ray Manzarek about it.

Dark Star

Panic Room’s music has always contained elements of pop, jazz, folk and metal, and this song, opening with a monstrously sinister organ riff, and with Alun Vaughan channelling Geezer Bulter on bass, represents the band at their most metal. It’s a big, dense wall of sound of a song, and shows the power of Anne-Marie’s voice, in absolutely no danger of being swamped by the instrumentation.

I Am A Cat

The strangest, quirkiest song in the Panic Room songbook, and one that seems to divide opinion. The ode to the archetypal mad cat lady is both humorous and tragic at the same time. Even if not everyone appreciated it, if you’ve ever seen the band include this song in their set, it’s obvious just how much they enjoy playing it live. There is an actual cat credited for additional backing vocals.

Song for Tomorrow

If the band found their voice with “Satellite”, their third album “Skin” took things to the next level. The album’s dramatic opener is a kaleidoscopic journey through much of what makes Panic Room such a great band. It begins with atmospheric keyboard washes, and when played live saw Anne-Marie playing guitar with a violin bow. Then it explodes into spiralling prog-metal guitars, before the guitars drop out for Anne-Marie’s emotive verse. Every member of the band is firing on all cylinders here, including new bassist Yatim Halimi.

Chameleon

Chameleon represents the opposite face of Panic Room’s music, that of sophisticated jazz-tinged adult pop. It demonstrates their versatility as musicians, and it’s a form that suits Anne-Marie’s vocal style especially well. The short solo section at the end features some delightful jazz guitar from Paul Davies. When they play it live nowadays Anne-Marie also throws in a flute solo, though we’ll have to wait for their upcoming live album before we can hear that on record.

Promises

The album “Skin” included a string quartet on several numbers, and they used the strings not just for additional colour but as an extra instrument in the band. The result is powerful arrangement for a very emotive song. Although on record it’s a big cinematic number, but the song works just as well as a stripped-down solo acoustic song, as seen when Anne-Marie supported Steve Hackett a few years back.

Nocturnal

This list contains now fewer than four songs from “Skin”, and to be honest the album is so consistently strong that just about anything from the record could easily have been included. We’ll leave this album with the slow-burning epic ballad that closes the record, starting with Jon’s delicate piano intro and ending with Paul’s evocative slide guitar outtro.

Bitches Crystal

Panic Room have played quite a few covers over the years. In the early days of the band before they’d built up such an extensive songbook of their own material they’d encore with things like Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” or a groove-based arrangement of Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter”. But the only cover they’ve actually recorded was this ELP number, which appears on their “Altitude” EP. It’s one of the rare cases where a cover vastly surpasses the original, rebuilding the song from the ground up and making it their own, reinterpreting it in swamp-blues style.

Dust

Panic Room’s fourth album “Incarnate” saw a change in direction. With Paul Davies leaving the band and new guitarist Adam O’Sullivan coming from a jazz background, the band moved away from wall of sound rock approach of “Skin” in favour of a lighter singer-songwriter style. One highlight is the evocative closing number, quite unlike both the rest of the album and equally unlike anything the band had done before, based around a simple repeating motif that gradually builds in intensity over the song’s seven minutes, and carries on playing in your head even after the last piano notes have faded away.

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CSMA: Trans-Pennine Express

Electronic music and First Trans-Pennine class 185s. What more can you want?

The music is from a live performance at Catford, London in 2016. The filming is by Chrissie Caulfield in Leeds, Darlington, Marsden, Huddersfield and around Standedge Tunnel.

I always associate the North Trans-Pennine line with gigs in York. I wonder which band is playing Fibbers and either Manchester or Bilston on consecutive nights?

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