Author Archives: Tim Hall

Reading Festival Nostalgia

Reading Festival 1983

It’s Reafing Festival weekend. The streets of the town are full of people in wellies and the supermarkets contain stacks of cheap lager the size of Canary Wharf. It all reminds me of the last Reading Festivals I went to back in the early 1980s, when I was the same age as the people going now. Reading has always been a teenage rite of passage.

It’s a reminder of the fact I’ve been a Marillion fan for 33 years this weekend, after seeing them half-way ip the bill in 1982. They were back the following year as special guests on the Saturday night, opened with Grendel. They blew Black Sabbath and their fibreglass Stonehenge off stage. Little did I imagine their music would still be a big part of my life more than three decades laer.

It’s remarkable how many of the bands from the 1983 bill above are still around. I saw Marillion a few weeks back, headlining the Prog stage at Ramblin Man. Pendragon played the same festival. The Enid were at HRH Prog. Magnum, Pallas, Big Country, The Stranglers and even Man are still on the circuit.

This year’s Reading Festival bill includes Metallica, who have been around for 30 years. Can you imagine 1980s festivals having 1940s crooners and big band jazz on the bill?

Posted in Music Opinion | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Hugo Aftermath

Wth a bit of luck this should be my last blog post on this subject.

We’ll start with this extract from a post by George R. R. Martin

I had picked Mike Resnick in Short Form and Toni Weisskopf in Long Form, and indeed, each of them finished above all the other nominees in the first round of voting… but well behind No Award. This was a crushing defeat for the slates, and a big victory for the Puppy-Free ballot of Deirdre Moen. Honestly? I hated this. In my judgment the voters threw the babies out with bathwater in these two categories. Long Form had three nominees who are more than worthy of a Hugo (and one, Jim Minz, who will be in a few more years), and Short Form had some good candidates too. They were on the slates, yes, but some of them were put on there without their knowledge and consent. A victory by Resnick, Sowards, Gilbert, or Weisskopf would have done credit to the rocket, regardless of how they got on the ballot. (All four of these editors would almost certainly have been nominated anyway, even if there had been no slates).

((Some are saying that voting No Award over these editors was an insult to them. Maybe so, I can’t argue with that. But it should be added that there was a far far worse insult in putting them on the ballot with Vox Day, who was the fifth nominee in both categories. Even putting aside his bigotry and racism, Beale’s credential as an editor are laughable. Yet hundreds of Puppies chose to nominate him rather than, oh, Liz Gorinsky or Anne Lesley Groell or Beth Meacham (in Long Form) or Gardner Dozois or Ellen Datlow or John Joseph Adams (in Short Form). To pass over actual working editors of considerable accomplishment in order to nominate someone purely to ‘stick it to the SJWs’ strikes me as proof positive that the Rabid Puppies at least were more interested in saying ‘fuck you’ to fandom than in rewarding good work)).

I also misliked the roar of approval that went up at the announcement of the first No Award. I understand it, yes… fandom as a whole is heartily sick of the Puppies and delighted to see them brought low… but No Award is an occasion for sadness, not celebration, especially in THESE two categories.

I can’t find myself disagreeing with any of that. Sending the Puppies packing is being spun as a great victory, but in reality it’s nothing of the sort. At best, it’s a stalemate. Nobody has won, and the rhetoric from both camps suggests the chance of avoiding a repeat performance in 2016 is very slim.

Swamping the nominations ballot by block voting a slate was a dick move that was always going to provoke a backlash. It was a major escalation in a turf war that pre-dates the Puppies’ campaigns, and goes back several years. In recent years there has been an active campaign from some quarters to marginalise conservatives and libertarians out of fandom, with concerns being dismissed as “Old men yelling at clouds”. Rhetoric like “The dinosaurs are going extinct and we’re the comet” give that game away.

If the Hugos are to remain relevant, they have to get back to being a celebration of the best in Science Fiction & Fantasy rather than a battleground in a bitter turf war between two warring tribes, neither of whom exactly have clean hands. Those who care about the award also need to make up their mind exactly what The Hugos are supposed to represent. Are they Science Fiction’s equivalent of The Oscars, showcasing the best of the genre to the wider world? Or are they more like the CRS Awards, celebrating the favourites of a small community within a much larger fandom? And the moment it’s not quite either of those things, and it can’t be both.

My position at the moment is still “A pox on both camps”. When one camp places the odious John C. Wright on a pedestal, and the other still considers a great many known acolytes of Requires Hate to be respected members of the community, both sides play games with motes and beams when it comes to guilt-by-association. I am not buying either sides’ partisan narrative, echoed in their respective agenda-driven and nuance-free media channels.

As long as this nonsense goes on, while I continue to read SF, I refuse to identify myself as part of SF fandom. My fandom is, and will remain, music.

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Motörhead – Bad Magic

Motorhead Bad MagicMotörhead are a British institution. Their name and logo have become so iconic that high street department stores sell their t-shirts to people who probably can’t name a single song with the possible exception of “Ace of Spades”. But after Lemmy’s recent health issues saw a tour cancelled not once but twice, and one or two lacklustre recent festival appearances, there have been doubts as to wether Lemmy is quite as indestructible as we thought, or that they are still the primal force they once were.

So, with their 22nd album “Bad Magic”, have the legends still got it after all?

“Victory or Die!”, growls Lemmy as they launch into the raw and dirty rock’n'roll of the opening number. “Thunder & Lightning” barrels along like a runaway train, then comes the driving guitar-driven hard rock boogie of “Firestorm Hotel”. Those first three numbers set the pace for the whole record. It’s true that Lemmy’s voice isn’t quite as powerful as it was in their 80s heyday, but the Motörhead still rock like a bastard even after all these years.

Other great moments include “The Devil”, with a suitably demonic guitar riff, and “Choking On Your Screams”, which falls on the metal side of the metal/hard rock divide with a particularly menacing vocal. The one change of pace is the slow blues “Til The End” where Lemmy drops his traditional gargling-with-broken-glass style and sings with a fragile, cracked vocal. The album ends with a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for The Devil” which doesn’t quite convince, but aside from that, Bad Magic is a remarkably consistent record. Phil Campbell is economical but effective with lead guitar work, and Mikky Dee makes his mark on drums, especially his fusillade opening “Shoot Out All The Lights” and on the Maiden-like “Evil Eye”.

You can argue all night about what genre Motörhead belong to. Lemmy has always denied they’re a metal band, but they’ve been considered honourable members of the metal tribe right from the start. There’s an awful lot of the attitude and fury of punk about them too, of course, but listening to this record you can hear deep roots in the rock’n'roll of the fifties and sixties that Lemmy grew up on. They, as much as anyone else, embody the primal spirit of rock’n'roll, turned up to Eleven. Motörhead are still here, and they’ve still got it. Rock and roll will never die.

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Spock’s Beard – The Oblivion Particle

Spocks Beard The Oblivion ParticleSince their emergence in the mid-1990s when the genre was at its lowest ebb, Spock’s Beard have become elder statesmen of the third wave of progressive rock. With their twelfth album “The Oblivion Particle”, the second to feature Ted Leonard on lead vocals, they show no signs of running out of ideas.

The sound is what we’ve come to expect from Spock’s Beard. swirling Mellotron and Hammond organ, blasts of hard rock guitar, rich layered vocal harmonies, and a strong sense of melody. If you imagine 70s British progressive rock married to the US West Coast sound with a bit of The Beatles thrown in for good measure, that’s Spock’s Beard’s distinctive musical identity. As ever they love their vintage keyboards which have become a signature sound for the band, and Ryo Okumoto adds a few vintage synth sounds to the sonic palette.

From the opening wig-out “Tides of Time” and the soaring melodies of “Minion” to the stately finale of “Disappear” this is a record that needs multiple listens before it really starts to come to life. There are times when it strongly recalls Yes, especially those moments where the instrumentation drops out leaving gorgeous a capella harmonies, such as on “A Better Way to Fly”. But this is a record with far more energy than anything Yes have done for decades. There is an exuberance about the whole thing; it’s the sound of a band who know what they want to be and enjoy being it. Perhaps the only thing missing from this album is a stripped-down ballad to balance out the rocker workouts. Something along the lines of Octane’s “The Beauty Of It All” might have lifted the record to the next level.

But once you’ve given it enough time to get under your skin, “The Oblivion Particle” is a highly enjoyable record. Spock’s Beard succeed in having one foot in the past and one in the present; a delightfully retro sound with a modern sensibility.

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Noah Ward sweeps The Hugos

Mushroom Cloud

So the Hugo Award voters have decided to block-vote “No Award” for everything nominated by the Puppies campaigns, which means no Hugo was awarded in those categories where Puppy nominees swept the nomination ballot.

Many figures in the SF establishment are celebrating sending the Puppies packing. But I do think this may well prove to be a hollow victory, and risks diminishing the standing of the Hugo Awards amongst the wider SF community.

The full results (including the nomination numbers) can be found here:

Back in April, I wrote this

Every year, around February time, the Classic Rock Society holds an awards ceremony in Wath-upon-Dearne in Yorkshire. Despite the name, the emphasis is on progressive rock, and the winners are almost entirely drawn from a relatively small and incestuous scene of grassroots bands either signed to small labels or who release independently. Bands such IQ, Magenta, Mostly Autumn and a handful of others at the same level dominate the awards. Indeed the award for Best Bass Player used to be known as the “Best John Jowitt Award” because he used to win it year after year, until finally he ruled himself out of contention so that someone else could win for a change. Nobody from major-league prog bands like Dream Theater or Rush ever win, nor prog-influenced mainstream acts like Elbow or Muse.

Were a large influx of people join the CRS specifically to vote for something like Noel Gallagher’s album about points failures at Stockport as album of the year, a lot of people would be highly unimpressed. But the CRS Awards has never held itself up as representing the best of all music, progressive or otherwise. It doesn’t have a generations-long history in which “In The Court of the Crimson King” and “Close to the Edge” were illustrious past winners.

Have the Hugo voters decided they want to be the SF equivalent of the CRS awards? Because that’s the signal they’re sending out.  The most telling is the rejection of Toni Weisskopf as Best Editor (Long Form) in favour of No Award; it’s very difficult to spin this as anything other than pure partisan politics that pays no regard to Ms Weisskopf’s record as an editor.

Brad Torgersen ignited a firestorm with a comment about the SJWs wanting to load his kind into boxcars and ship them off to the icy wastes to die. It was a clumsy, insensitive metaphor, but the “icy wastes” reference ought to have been a clue that he was referring to the Soviet gulags rather than the Holocaust. But the way WorldCon made a strong statement that a subset of writers and fans are not welcome in their space because at least in part they belong to the wrong political tribe does suggest he had a point. The attitude of some people in SF’s progressive wing does have more than a whiff of Stalin about it.

If the business committee now rejects E Pluribus Hugo because block-voting No Award is seen as an acceptable method of dealing with slates, then the Hugo Awards are finished.

Don’t get me wrong, slate voting, even if it wasn’t in technical breach of the rules, was against the spirit, and I have no problem with people voting No Award for sub-standard work that didn’t deserve a place on the ballot. But what we’ve seen happen goes well beyond that.

Science fiction fandom ought to be about celebrating the best in imaginative speculative fiction. If that takes second place to turf wars between warring tribes, we all lose.

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D&D is Cultural Appropriation?

A British gamer travels to America for the first time, and speaks of the way finally “gets” the tropes behind Dungeons and Dragons.

Yes, yes. I have long been aware of the ‘borderlands’ theme of American history. A history of explorers, of pioneers, of the ‘civilizing’ mission (winning the West) which was conducted peicemeal as much as imperial. And, of course, the American West provides us with some archetypal examples of murder-hobos. So, yes, a ripe historical analogue for D&D PCs, if we can get past the racism and genocide. But hey, just chuck in Orcs and we can all sleep easily, no?

But I didn’t fly over Arizona and find myself struck by the history. No. At least not directly. No, I flew over the desert and found myself struck by the quite awe-inspiring scale that pervades the USA. The USA – and the Americas in general – has a scale about it that is quite unlike that of Europe, and Britain especially. I don’t just mean its continental vastness, nor the buildings, people, or even the military-industrial-prison complex. As I flew into Phoenix I passed over canyon-laced desert that resembled, to European eyes, the landscape of an alien planet. I didn’t need to know much history to immediately wonder what the first Europeans had thought as they crossed this landscape with their pack-mules laden with equipment, accompanied by their hirelings. And the heat! The heat! It was so hot that I remarked that if it is ever that hot in Wales then your house is on fire.

In Florida there was a different kind of heat. A wet, swampy, (once) malarial heat, in a flat marshy landscape prowled by man-eating alligators. To get some breeze you get to the coast, and escape down a chain of islands a hundred miles long tipped by a wrecker ‘city’ – the richest per capita in the USA at one point – precariously clinging to an island made up of the skeletons of weird sea creatures, just waiting to be swept away by hurricanes (or pirates).

It’s not medieval Europe, even a middle ages seen through a distorted American lens. Anything European is really little more than very superficial window-dressing. Dungeons and Dragons is the Wild West with swords instead of six-shooters. The complete absence of anything resembling social class, and the whole zero-to-hero character arc thing is a dead giveaway. It really does owe far more to Ayn Rand than to J.R.R.Tolkien.

This does put the social justice arguments about the game into context. The argument that D&D characters should be overwhelmingly white because historical accuracy is racist bollocks because D&D isn’t set in anything resembling medieval Europe. And to argue that a game that is based on medieval Europe and written by Europeans must reflect the demographics of 21st century North America because diversity is also bollocks, because such a game isn’t default D&D.

Posted in Games | Tagged | 1 Comment

No Security Theatre on the Railways

SNCF "Sybic" on a Basel-Brussels international working at Luxembourg

Following the foiled terrorist attack on an interational train on the border between Belgium and France, there’s a worry that opportunistic politicians will propose airport-style security theatre for rail travellers. Anyone who actually cares about rail travel must resist and oppose such proposals by every means possible.

It’s not just that such things have the potential to make rail travel as miserable an experience as air travel has become post 9/11, but they would completely ineffective when it comes to saving actual lives. All it will achieve would be to make would-be terrorists find other softer targets. We learned that lesson fighting the IRA in the 1970s.

At worst, degrading the passenger experience of rail travel would encourage a proportion of travellers to take to their cars instead, and a proportion of them would then die in additional road accidents. Even if that doesn’t happen, how about multiplying an extra 30 minutes enforced check-in time by the many millions of rail journeys a year. Just how many lifetimes’ worth of wasted time will that add up to? All for something which will achieve precisely nothing.

It goes without saying that any politician advocating such things as policy guarantees that their party will never get my vote.

Posted in Travel & Transport | Tagged | 3 Comments

Cloud Atlas, Bilston Robin 2

Martin Ledger of Cloud Atlas at Bilston Robin 2

Cloud Atlas don’t play live that often, especially outside of York, so it’s well worth catching them when they do. On Sunday 16th August they came to one of the temples of the grassroots rock scene, Bilston Ronin 2

Howard Sinclair at Bilston Robin 2

Support was singer-songwriter Howard Sinclair. He normally performs as a solo acoustic artist, but this gig was a rare opportunity to see him with a full band, which included Morpheus Rising’s Paul “Gibbo” Gibbons on drums.  The result was a highly entertaining set, the songs fleshed out with the addition of a rhythm section and some bluesy lead guitar but still retaining a stripped-back singer-songwriter flavour.  One highlight was “Bedsheets & Bad Luck” with Howard on piano and a great guest vocal performance from Wednesday S on the song sung by Touchstone’s Kim Seviour on record.

Heidi Widdop

Cloud Atlas began with by playing live what many other bands would have run as an intro tape, a long intro of low whistle and e-bowed guitar before Martin Ledger lauuched into the riff of “Searchlight”, the rock epic that defines Cloud Atlas’ sound; a huge guitar sound, soulful vocals, a strong rhythm section and great use of atmospherics. There were many moments where Martin Ledger’s melodic and fluid effects-laden guitar recalled the playing of Marillion’s Steve Rothery.

Heidi and Martin of Cloud Atlas

The set consisted of the album “Boyond the Vale” in it’s entirety plus the Stolen Earth oldie “Soul in a Jar” and a remarkable solo acoustic cover of Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean” so radically reworked that it wasn’t instantly recognised. The material comes over powerfully live, played with fire and passion, and benefitted from the sort of clear sound we’ve come to expect from this venue.

Martin Ledger,  Rock God

They finished with an impressive “Stars” with its guitar-shredding climax, after which the crowd weren’t willing to leave without hearing more. But the band had no more songs, so Martin Ledger put it to an audence vote on what song we wanted to hear again. The choice was “Soul in a Jar”.

So finished a great gig by a band who really deserve a wider audience. They’ve probably reached the stage when they need more material if they’re to play headline-length shows. At some point there will be a follow-up to “Beyond the Vale” and there will be new songs in the set. In the meantime, perhaps the band should consider rehearsing an interesting cover or two to play as encores?

Posted in Live Reviews | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Jeremy Corbyn

As a Liberal Democrat it’s tempting to grab a big bowl of popcorn over the Labour Party’s meltdown on the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn winning the leadership ballot. The latest episode is the rejection of many new members who “don’t uphold the values of the party”. While some of those are people who publicly supported other parties in the General Election, and we don’t really know the scale, in the event of a close result it’s going to undermine the legitimacy of whoever wins.

Although conventional wisdom is that a Corbyn-led Labour Party will be unelectable, we have no idea what likely to happen if he wins. The truth is that Labour is a hollowed-out shell of a party which no longer knows what it actually supposed to stand for, merely satisfied to triangulate in pursuit of power and let the Tories set the political agenda. That’s why they lost the election.

My guess is that a critical mass of Labour members have concluded that none of the other three candidates look remotely like election winners either, so they’ve put their faith in someone who, even if they can’t win, will at least widen the Overton Window in favour of things that won’t emerge from Tory-leaning think-tanks. A serious challenge to the austerity narrative would be a good start.

We can’t assume that Jeremy Corbyn intends to lead the party into the next general election. He does have far too much negative baggage, especially his links with anti-Semitic Islamists and his support for the IRA rather than the constitutional nationalists during the Northern Ireland troubles, and this will count against his party in the ballot box. But perhaps the plan is to spend two or three years revitalising the grassroots and changing the national conversation before stepping down in favour of someone else?

Liberal Democrat blogger Jonathan Calder is predicting a Corbyn victory will be bad for the Liberal Democrats. But I’m not so sure. The truth is we really don’t know what will happen. And if there’s another economic crash, all bets are off.

Posted in Religion & Politics | Tagged , | 3 Comments

For those who can’t get their hear around the maths behind E Pluribus Hugo, think of it like this. You have one vote, and it goes to whichever of your nominations turns out to be the most popular with other voters.

Posted on by Tim Hall | 4 Comments