Music Opinion Blog

Opinions and occasional rants about the state of the music scene. The views expressed are entirely my own, and do not represent those of any artists or publications with whom I may be connected.

Anoraknophobia

AnoraknophoboaIt’s only a couple of months until the UK Marillion Conventional in Wolverhampton. As has become the established format for these events, two of the three nights will centre on an album played in full. One will be the near-universally loved “Marbles”. The other will be 2001′s “Anoraknophobia”, an album that still divides opinion more than a decade after its release. As with “Holidays in Eden” at the 2011 event and “Radiation” in 2013, it gives an opportunity to reassess an often overlooked album from their back catalogue.

It’s no “Brave” or “Season’s End”, but Anoraknophobia is still a personal favourite for me. It was the album that bought me back on board and made me a Marillion fan again. I’d been slowly drifting away as a fan for several years. I hadn’t actually seen them live since the Holidays in Eden tour, where I witnessed a rather lacklustre gig at Hammersmith Odeon that seemed to lack the old magic. I’d kept on buying the albums, and loved “Brave”, but a few albums later they were losing their magic for me on record too. “Dotcom”, the album before Anorak was and still is my least favourite Marillion album.

In retrospect Anoraknophobia feels part of a trilogy along with Radiation and Dotcom; those three records represented the period where the band were looking for a new direction and trying to adopt a more contemporary sound. DotCom didn’t work for me; much of the album sounded too much like generic rock/pop which diluted Marillion’s strengths.

Anoraknophobia too was as much a departure from the classic sound with its elements of trip-hop, dub and indie-rock, but somehow the album seemed much more in the spirit of Marillion. Songs like “Separated Out” and “Between You And Me” rocked out. The ambitious “Quartz” merged a dub bass riff with some archetypal Steve Rothery guitar textures. The sprawling album highlight “This is the 21st Century” with it’s hypnotic rhythms and extended dreamy solo is miles away from the neo-prog of their 1980s heyday, but is still one of the finest songs.

The tour was also the first time I’d seen them live in a decade. I’d just moved to Manchester, and saw them on the tour at Manchester Academy. What I experienced seemed a completely different band from the one I’d seen a dozen years earlier; the same self-confident and coherent band that we’re familiar with today.

Anorak isn’t flawless by any means, and was eclipsed by “Marbles” when the band finally found the magic formula, but Anoraknophobia remains a personal favourite, and still seems to represent the moment when the band turned the corner.

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CDs May Actually Sound Better Than Vinyl?

Vinyl may be making a comeback in a big way, but this long and technically informative piece in LA Weekly suggests CDs may actually sound better after all. The digital nature of CDs means it’s possible to capture an amount of dynamic range that simple wasn’t mechanically possible with vinyl.

It is a fact that vinyl sounds different from CDs. And many people prefer vinyl’s sound. But it’s not clean reproduction of a recording that makes vinyl a preferred format; it’s the affect the vinyl adds to a recording that people find pleasing.

“I think some people interpret the lack of top end [on vinyl] and interpret an analog type of distortion as warmth,” says Jim Anderson, a Grammy-winning recording engineer and professor at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. “It’s a misinterpretation of it. But if they like it, they like it. That’s fine.”

It’s also clear that the vinyl experience is about more than just sound. Pete Lyman, co-owner and chief mastering technician at Infrasonic Sound, an audio and vinyl mastering studio in Echo Park, says he believes listeners are gravitating toward vinyl for the physical experience of owning, holding and flipping an LP.

“I don’t think that [sound is] really the appeal for people right now,” Lyman says. “They like the collectability factor. They like the whole ritual and process of listening to it. They’re more engaged with the music that way.”

So, is the vinyl revival purely down to middle-aged men trying to recapture their long-lost youth? (I know of no female vinyl enthusiasts!). One reason may well be that many contemporary CDs are intended to be listened to in cars or to be ripped to iPods for listening to on public transport. So they’re given a loud compressed mastering intended to punch through background noise, making little use of the CD format’s dynamic range. In contrast, vinyl recording are sold to be played on Big Expensive Stereos.

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Quote of the Day

From a Guardian piece on Eddie Bo, the gentleman of soul who never got his due:

“James [James Black, drummer] was also an accomplished trumpet player,” Bo recalled. “On that day, the trumpet player was doing his part on From This Day On, but it was too complicated. I was getting frustrated with him. In the end, James took the trumpet from him, and hit him in the head with it – bent it. Then he said, ‘Let’s go – I’m tired of bein’ here.’ And he played the trumpet part himself.”

Ouch! If you’re a trumpet player, be wary of the drummer!

This piece is a good example of why music writers love interviewing veteran musicians – theyve got stories to tell that up-and-coming bright new hopes just can’t match.

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I wonder what would happen if everyone started trusting their ears rather than restricting their music listening to whatever has been validated by industry-appointed tastemakers? How many sections of the music biz would just collapse?

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Get Your Sea Lions Off Our Lawn

The hashtag #MetalGate has spring up on Twitter over the past few days. Despite claims that “Social Justice Warriors” have declared war on metal, the only links being passed around are to a notorious MRA site I won’t link to, and to a sife called Death Metal Underground which blows the racist dog-whistle at heavy metal volumes.

Basically SJWs are complaining about how people who enjoy metal tend to be racist, misogynist, and homophobic the three favorite strawman attacks of the left and exclude those who are not white “cisgendered” males. As you know, the average white man in the West Virginian coal mines has much more prosperity and opportunity than the rest of the ethnic and gender groups in the country, so there is no reason that white men should have a right to have any pride in their ethnic identity or have anything unique that they can identify with.

The rather more reputable MetalSucks dismisses the whole thing as total hogwash.

But my ultimate problem with #metalgate is that it’s entirely manufactured. No one, or no group, is banding together to try and change metal in any one specific way — the threat is entirely imagined. Certain social values enter the metalsphere simply because those values are spreading throughout society as a whole — this idea that “SJWs” failed with #gamergate so they’re now moving on to a different cause is total bologna. They’re entirely separate people!

Precisely. Hack journalists have been writing poorly-researched articles riddled with lazy stereotypes about metal and metal fans for decades. And metal fans have been calling them out on it for just as long. You do occasionally hear people say “Metal is racist because metal fans are predominately white”, but nobody with the remotest of clues takes them seriously. And no, mentioning the fact that Varg Vikernes of Burzum is a neo-Nazi and a convicted murderer isn’t the same thing.

If you actually look at the #MetalGate tag on Twitter, it’s all the same people as #GamerGate. It doesn’t have much to with actual metal fandom. Please get your sea-lions off Metal’s lawn.

But it does make you wonder how the whole thing started. Today’s big story in metal is the sacking of Phil McSorley from Cobalt after a bigoted meltdown on Facebook, to the tune of “Good bloody riddance” from several prominent metal music writers.

The decision to go separate ways is not at all surprising. McSorley, the former vocalist of Cobalt and current force behind the raw black metal band Recluse, employed some colorful hate slurs while accusing a prominent metal journalist of trying to build a “USBM friendship scene,” and bringing a “liberal agenda” of political correctness and social awareness into metal.

Now, I have no idea if acolytes of McSorley have anything to do with the appearance of the MetalGate tag. But the timing does seem something of a coincidence.

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The news that Muse are to headline Download Festival 2015 has predictably drawn out the tribal idiots of the rock world. If The Prodigy can headline the same festival, and Metallica can headline Glastonbury, then a band as over the top and bombastic as Muse ought to go down a storm at Britain’s premier metal festival. Surely people can remember “Knights of Cydonia“?

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Punk Warriors Strike Again

No, I don’t have particularly high hopes for the new Pink Floyd album “The Endless River”. When the two remaining members of the band have more or less made it clear that it’s warmed-up leftovers from twenty years ago, I think it’s unrealistic to expect something to rival “Meddle”. Of course there’s always the chance it will be a pleasant surprise; few people expected three-quarters of the original Black Sabbath to come up with something as strong as last year’s “13″.

But when I see a national newspaper review the thing, and the opening line is the hoary old cliché “This is why punk had to happen”, my hackles start to rise. I guess the reviewer deserves some credit for laying his prejudices on the line so openly, but with an opening line like that you know there is absolutely no point in wasting any time reading the rest of the review.

Now punk delivered some great back-to-basics rock’n'roll records that stood the test of time, and that ought to be its legacy. But the whole “Year Zero” thing was always total hogwash, and it’s still galling to see generations of music writers who were too young to be around at the time swallowing the narrative whole.

There are old punks for whom two minutes of adrenaline-changed stripped-down rock’n'roll is the peak of musical perfection, and more power to them. But I’ve always suspected that for some of them, it was all about the excitement of being part of a “scene” and they didn’t really like the actual music at all. Unfortunately far to many of the latter group ended up in influential positions in the media, and music has been the worse for it ever since.

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Today’s unsurprising discovery: finding new music through recommendations from trusted friends is a far more reliable method of filtering out the forgettable mediocrity than promos from record companies chosen on the basis of their overheated PR blurb.

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I’m waiting for the BBC to commision an all-star cover of Meshuggah’s “Bleed” being murdered by 1001 fashionable but mediocre guitarists.

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Any list of “Greatest guitarists” that excludes both Tony Iommi and Nile Rogers deserves only ridicule. This counts double if either Eric Clapton or any three-chord punk idiot is very high on the list.

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