Lately I’ve been writing a lot, so I’ve mostly abused jazz, fusion and classical categories on Deezer on a daily basis, simply because though I enjoy listening to music while I write I tend to avoid anything with lyrics. Especially the silly “I love you / but you left me / so my heart is breaking” variety or “shake yer booty” gems that plague music perpetually and seem to have a profoundly detrimental effect on my blood pressure (though, admittedly, even the most intriguing of lyrics don’t do much for my writing focus – quite the contrary). On the other hand, instrumental music, especially if it’s not too engrossing, can help me “get in the zone”.
Occasionally, however, I’ll stop in the middle of a sentence, drawn irresistibly to what I’m hearing. That’s what I love about random mixes and pre-made playlists on Deezer: there you are, cruising along nicely, and then all of a sudden a particularly intriguing tracks pops up, seemingly from nowhere, and you know immediately you have another “fortunate find” on your hands. So about a month ago I was typing away indifferently, minding my own business, and then this starts playing:
Of course, as this is right up my alley, I immediately unglued my considerable posterior from my exercise ball… (Why are you frowning at me like that? Due to incessant staring at the computer screen, high-speed typing and mousing away I started having problems with my back, neck and wrists a few years ago, so I bought a ball to sit on and an ergonomic keyboard to manhandle, what of it? It helped.) I shuffled over to the laptop, plugged in my sound system just for music purposes, to check what was it that I was hearing – like I normally do when I notice something really great. And there it was, Entertain Me by Tigran Hamasyan.
Thoroughly entertained, I’ve since listened to his whole discography on Deezer and became quite a fan of his Shadow Theater and Mockroot albums. There’s nothing wrong with the others, of course – I listen to those as well, but the two I’ve enjoyed most contain a notable abundance of those “heavy fusion” moments I love and adore, complete with a good dose of melancholy, thoroughly odd time signatures, and some radical drum playing, which I, as a drummer, always appreciate. So I guess Mr. Hamasyan and his crew will be responsible for my inspiration for quite a few pages of the novel I’m currently writing.
Unfortunately, this Armenian prodigy pianist lives in Los Angeles for some reason (perhaps he likes the weather?), so I doubt I’ll be able to catch his band live any time soon – though I certainly would if I could. Here’s one of my favourites from Shadow Theater – live; so, yep, due to the exquisite musicianship exhibited by these guys it would certainly be worth seeing:
Many years ago – shortly after they released Effloresce – I was fortunate enough to stumble upon Oceansize. Here’s Unfamiliar, one of my favourite tracks from their superb third album, Frames:
I grew to like the band immediately, so much so that I eagerly followed all their releases until their unfortunate breakup in 2011. I particularly appreciate their wonderful blend of odd time signatures and superb melodies, as well as what are often quite epic running times of their tracks: they’ve always had a knack for developing their ideas slowly and meticulously, not adhering to some arbitrary postulates about what is an “appropriate” length and what isn’t. Furthermore, as a drummer I became quite disillusioned with the over-abused straightforward 4/4 beats sometime in the previous millennium, as soon as I was old enough to know better: why write a song in 4/4 (or 1/1, as I often refer to the lousiest and most horrendously simplistic examples of that – kick hat kick hat kick hat kick hat), when you can annoy people with something fascinating like 33/16, I say! On the other hand I’ve always had a weakness for haunting melodies. Hence my obsession with bands that blend superb musicianship, intricate rhythms and great harmonies (plus vocal lines, if applicable). If the lyrics also happen to focus on anything else apart from the eternally imperative relationships between lovers, preferably on something a little bit disturbing, all the better.
Anyway, as saddened as I was to learn that Oceansize fell apart – especially because I really wanted to see them live at least once, but haven’t had the opportunity – I never went as far as to check out any of the potential spin-off projects by any of the former band members. But, lo and behold – a few days ago a friend of mine, who has introduced to me a heap of musical discoveries over the last two decades or so, mentioned that vocalist and guitarist Mike Vennart, one of the founding members of Oceansize, had his own project now. So I checked it out, enjoyed it immensely, and here it is, in all its glory. Obviously Mr. Vennart still has his “mojo”, and I hope his band drops by Berlin sometime…
(The 30-second Deezer previews – if you don’t have a subscription – are not ideal, but in the absence of better options they should suffice. If the player doesn’t load, your browser is probably blocking third-party cookies, which you can always unblock in the browser settings if you wish.)
I’ve recently stumbled across some of Ibrahim Maalouf‘s gems and took an immediate liking to his work. He seems to be quite renowned – especially in the Francophone regions, it seems – so I guess the guy is not exactly news, but he was a new discovery for me. Here’s the first track I’ve heard from him, which has persuaded me to explore the whole of his discography on Deezer:
The whole Illusions album is a great mix of jazz/fusion/rock/eastern ethnic influences, while some of his other albums also include more prominent classical elements. Here is another track from Red & Black Light:
The best news is that the guys are playing in Berlin in the end of February, and I fully intend to check them out.
or, Sulking at a Burial Vault Interior Decorators Convention
DISCLAIMER: I never take any pictures or, perish the thought, make videos of concerts I attend, simply because I go there to enjoy the show, not stare at a damn eyephone like so many of our fellow concert-goers do these days. So you can be sure that every picture or video I may stick in this report I’ve blatantly borrowed from the internets.
Steven Wilson is one of my favourite music heroes of the 21st century. I better get this out of the way immediately. I’ve previously seen the guy with Porcupine Tree in Ljubljana and Blackfield in Berlin. Last year the tickets to his solo project’sHand. Cannot. Erase. tour sold out so quickly I inadvertently missed the whole thing, so I went this year instead. Throughout the concert I couldn’t help but wonder how the one I had missed was like, because this year much of it was like a burial vault interior decorators convention – fascinating, but pretty morbid.
Although Wilson’s crew is new, missing two of the “superstars” from last year (I was particularly disappointed that drummer Marco Minnemann is now frolicking around with The Aristocrats rather than submitting to my amateurish scrutiny), their musicianship was sublime. I won’t elaborate much on this – as expected, these guys are top-notch, their playing (and crooning) makes your head spin, makes you want to deposit your own musical gear and gadgets in a dumpster, and that about covers it, no need to go into details.
As much as for his obsession with gloom and doom (in my book that’s a good thing), Steven Wilson is also known far and wide for his focus on sound. Thus I fully expected the sound to be equally sublime as musicianship, but… I’ll just put it bluntly: it was highly disappointing. Sometimes I just don’t know how this can happen – is the sound guy on really lousy drugs? Fell on his head? Are the acoustics of the venue so peculiar as to confuse him, or make his job impossible? What could be the cause of this suffering? It was a flashback to the open-air Faith No More concert I had the misfortune of (not) hearing at Zitadelle Spandau last year, and which gave me ear warts… Though, to be sure, this wasn’t anywhere nearly as bad (I’m never going to the Zitadelle again in my life, not even if Frank Zappa himself rises from the dead and appears there). But it was still pretty bad.
First of all – interested as I was to see how the new drummer Craig Blundell would fill the shoes of the (figurative and literal) giant Minnemann – drums were so damn quiet it drove me nuts! What’s the use of Blundell raging down an (extensive) collection of toms (the guy can really play, hats off!), when I can’t even remotely hear what the hell he’s doing? I understand some people hate it when they cringe involuntarily each time the drummer hits the snare, feel nauseated at the kick of the bass drum, and worry about bleeding out of their ears due to the cymbals poking holes in them, but man, it’s supposed to be a ROCK concert. At least one filling is supposed to vibrate in your teeth, and you should get some tinnitus to take home and keep you company when you rest your weary wobbly head on the soft pillow. There was absolutely no punch or definition to the kick, toms were so smeared you couldn’t tell what was what, and when accompanied by bass (or Chapman stick) everything blended together in a distasteful, unintelligible soup booming away in the realms of muddiness without any definition whatsoever. Equally shocking was the fact that the snare(s) suffered severe lack of clarity and punch, were far too soft in louder parts (except maybe when played over loops), and most of the cymbals were virtually inaudible. It was as if somebody had covered the drums with feathers (or cut away loads of mids). The only redeeming quality was that the hi-hat and a few of the numerous splash cymbals were quite audible (though, again, only in high frequencies, so they sounded awfully thin), thus I was at least able to revel in some superb details that Blundell obviously put so much effort in. To my complete surprise, equally weird was the sound of the guitars – as if somebody had castrated everything at about 2 kHz. The vocals sounded great, though, and the appearance (and superb performance) of an actual singer (Wilson’s words, not mine!), Ninet Tayeb, was much appreciated (by everyone, it seemed).
Whether it was just the strange acoustics or not I do not know, but boy do I not appreciate listening to underwater rock concerts, because that’s how this felt. Either that, or the way your hearing turns sour when the rapidly-changing air pressure screws around with your eardrums. I, for one, do not appreciate the fact that I can calmly discuss the finer points of existentialist philosophy with my wife while the band is supposed to ejaculate a FFFfortissimo, goddamnit!
So, while the sound struck me as if it was actually geared towards a meditation retreat of the local Geriatric Tibetan Monk Association rather than a rock crowd, the atmosphere at Tempodrom in Berlin was absolutely funereal with everyone sitting in their chairs like so many (aging) statues. The fact that throughout the first part of the concert (the whole Hand. Cannot. Erase. album performed live, which was beyond lovely) we were forced to watch a monotonous documentary film about a depressed middle-aged middle-class woman living in a socialist-realist block of flats, in the sole company of her cat, where she despaired and pined away endlessly while smoking and staring into nothingness, failed utterly to uplift my spirits any, thank you very much, and it was also highly distracting, what with the low volume of the music and all that.
OK, I get it that Hand. is a conceptual album about a woman who disappears and whom nobody misses for three years. Fine. It is a touching, depressing, even creepy premise, something for a bit of dismal literary fiction few people will read, but many will praise. But, man, do the existential crises of middle-aged middle-class chain-smoking cat owners (apparently mercifully abducted by aliens in the end, so at least there’s that) feel misplaced and self-absorbed when you live in a world teetering on the brink of the precipice, in a city where tens of thousands of migrants are freezing their asses off in refugee camps without the comfort of their tomcats, cigarettes, or even a clean toilet and a shower, for that matter. But, admittedly, at least their fellow refugees know where they are, so they’d be missed, had they been missing: in the next bunk, damn it! They’re either in the next bunk or dead or worse! Roll call, everyone!
The only break from this bleak, life-annulling documentary feature – I must emphasise that I’m grumbling about the monotonous art video here, NOT the musical performance! – was the following animated gem:
Even though the dirge once again laments a forlorn and morose middle-aged middle-class housewife, at least this housewife, according to the yarn, apparently saw her nearest and dearest shot before despairing and pining away. Granted, that is extremely unfortunate for her, though by this point I was tempted to proclaim: “They had it coming, just jump over the edge!” And everybody would hear me, too, because the soundtrack was so infernally quiet. Damn it, I’ve experienced more cathartic moments – in terms of loudness – in my car!
Fortunately, Steven Wilson heeded my prayers and turned off the docudrama for the second half of the concert, and the guys launched into an astonishing mix of mind-boggling psychedelia; some very surprising numbers (the menacing, evil “collector” thing comes to mind, whatever that was, haven’t seen or heard it before – ah, Index, from Grace for Drowning, thank you, Google); a bit of new material for the upcoming album 4 ½ (sounded very sexy); dramatic, theatrical (in a good way) punches in the gut; and a good measure of Porcupine Tree tracks to boot, thank you, sir! I was almost able to forget about the feathery drums when the band blasted through Open Car.
In conclusion let me retract the position I’ve recently expressed elsewhere: that I like sitting down at concerts, because I’m a grumblin’ ole geezer and standing among evil rockers for three hours gives me back pains. I’ll amend that: that would only work if I were the only one sitting down in some strategic elevated position, with a nice cold beer on the hand rest of my well-cushioned throne, with everyone else standing. But this… The fact that last night we were a seated audience only contributed – in combination with the chamber-music sound level and the consequently overly distracting dreary video – to utter morbidity. It certainly bothered Wilson as well, because he admitted – after the much appreciated and completely non-cheesy homage to the late David Bowie (Space Oddity) – to feeling as if he stood in a graveyard, so he asked us to have some mercy, stand up, and sing along to the Sound of Muzak, which we happily did. Even the Germans, despite their proverbial reserved attitude.
So, all in all, a remarkable concert, with some annoyances and inconveniences – but what would I be grumblin’ about without those, right.
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