Author Archives: Tim Hall

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That’s before we note that the whole thing is probably a generation out of date.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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John Mitchell releases The Nostalgia Factory

The Nostalgia FactoryJohn Michell of Lonely Robot, It Bites, Arena, Frost* and The Heather Findlay Band fame has somehow found the time to record a four track EP of covers, “The Nostalgia Factory”.

The title track is a very early Porcupine Tree song. The EP also includes Justin Hayward’s ‘It Won’t Be Easy’ and Phil Collins ‘Take Me Home’, the latter of which featured as the encore at the Lonely Robot showcase show at The Scala last December. The final song is ELP’s ‘C’Est La Vie’, which shares the same origins as Panic Room’s “Bitches Crystal”, recorded for the ill-fated Prog Magazine cover disk of ELP covers.

The EP< which also features Kim Seviour on backing vocals is released on 26th February, but can be pre-ordered now from White Star Records.

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Why It’s a Critic’s Duty to Be Wrong

Interesting post on Criticwire; A.O. Scott and Why It’s a Critic’s Duty to Be Wrong. It’s really about film criticism, but it’s the sort of thing that’s more widely applicable, including music criticism.

Criticism isn’t meant to be the final word but an opening statement, or, increasingly, a volley in the potentially unending ping-pong match between writers and readers — to the extent that distinction is even meaningful anymore. Critics should try to be right, of course, whatever that means in the context of a largely subjective medium. (My definition: Passionate but controlled; true to the aesthetic and moral principles you’ve articulated and evolved over the course of your critical career. Also, try to spell the names right.) But there’s nothing more dangerous to a critic than the ironclad belief in their own rightness.

A couple of things resonate quite strongly here. The first is that anyone who’s too afraid of being wrong will be less effective as a critic. We’ve all seen reviews where the reviewer won’t commit to saying whether the record is good, bad or indifferent, and instead dances around the subject with a load of anodyne waffle. Worst still is groupthink, when the reviewer is afraid to be the one who’s out of step with everyone else. It’s the reason I  never read other reviews of a record before I’ve written my own.

The second is that reviews are ephemeral compared to their subjects. For new releases a review is only relevent during a record’s release window. Once a critical mass of people have had the chance to hear it for themselves, anything you write is old news. In the case of a high-profile major act that window is measured in days. For a small independent release that relies on word-of-mouth for promotion it’s more like months, and reviews are an important part of that word-of-mouth process. In many cases the most significant thing is the fact that you’ve chosen to review it at all.

Eventually the record will either become part of the canon, for some given value of canon, or it will sink into obscurity. Either way, subsequent writing about them will read in a very different context, even if the writer or reader is discovering the actual music for the first time.

To give an example, Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” now has an assured status in the rock canon, with Dave Gilmour’s “Comfortably Numb” recognised as a rock standard. Few remember or care about Sounds’ Dave McCulloch’s one-star review that complained that there were too many guitar solos.

I’ve just written a strongly negative review of a record by one of the biggest names in progressive rock. Judging by subsequent conversations a lot of others share my opinion. But there are some strongly positive reviews out there of the same record that declare it a masterpiece. And here’s the important thing; none of these reviews are wrong. They’re all part of the conversation. Eventually a consensus will emerge, even if that consensus is that it’s a Marmite record that divides opinion.

And yes, sometimes you will look back at a record you praised or damned, and realise you were completely wrong about it.

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Elkie Returns!

As reported by Prog magazine, former Touchstone singer Kim “Elkie” Seviour reveals album plans.

She plans to release a solo album to be produced by and co-written with John Mitchell of Lonely Robot, Frost*, Arena and It Bites fame, a man who’s in so many bands because he’s so prolific that nobody else can keep up.

There is to be a single “Fantasise To Realise” released next month, a standalone track that will not feature on the album.

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Die Krankenhausbahn

The delightful narrow-gauge railway serves the hospital in the Austrian city of Lainz, transporting food from the central kitchens to the wards.

There cannot be many hospitals in the world where the hospital porters get to play trains, and I do wonder if it was an inspiration for the Castle of Bequest in Iain Banks’ novel “Walking on Glass“.

Filmed in 2009, I have no idea if this railway is still operating today. But I hope it is.

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