Grumblin’ Ole Geezer @ Ibrahim Maalouf

Goosebump-inducing microtonal escapades

I only became aware of Ibrahim Maalouf and his work recently, a few months ago… But as soon as I heard the first track by Maalouf by pure coincidence (True Story, it just played on Deezer one day), I knew I had to hear more. Since then I’ve “studied” his whole discography and was very happy when I heard he had a gig scheduled here in Berlin for 23 February – I went out and bought tickets immediately. It was the right decision, because yesterday’s concert was one of the most goosebump-inducing events I’ve attended recently.

Admittedly, I was quite a bit concerned when I found out the concert would take place in Konzerthaus Berlin. I’ll freely admit that I prefer louder, more rock-oriented fusion concerts to any “chamber music” events by far, so I was immediately worried that this would be a very gentle acoustic affair. What else to think, when the concert hall looks like this:

Konzerthaus_Berlin_Aussenansicht_quer_Foto_Sebastian_Runge

Grosser_Saal_Foto_Sebastian_Runge_1
Photos by Sebastian Runge, “borrowed” from http://en.konzerthaus.de/

Unfortunately, my concerns were well-founded and instead of the electric bass and guitar I had hoped for, Maalouf’s lineup featured double bass and sax – no electric guitar. Damn, there go my heavy metal horns. The acoustics were as problematic as expected, because the hall is surely better suited to classical music than fusion bands. At this point I couldn’t help but wonder why in the hell jazz/fusion concerts are discriminated against in such a manner? Maalouf, judging by his jocular comments, seemed equally surprised at the pure “fanciness” of the venue he had just filled to the brim. A Simon Phillips concert I’d seen back in Slovenia ages ago came to mind, when Mr. Phillips was so frustrated with this “jazz discrimination” that he refused to play encore until the seated audience vacated their thrones.

This time such a thing – getting off our butts and remaining afoot for more than five minutes – would have been a tall order, because for some reason I couldn’t quite explain about a quarter of the yesterday’s audience were pensioners (unless it was some sort of a season-ticket-for-the-Konzerthaus thing?). Half of the audience, though, were obviously musicians and their significant others, which was to be expected… And another quarter consisted of Frenchpersons and Maalouf’s Middle-Eastern compatriots (many of whom knew the lyrics to the tunes Maalouf’s trumpet toyed with).

You see, the thing was, the Lebanese-French Maalouf and his crew performed Kalthoum, his newest album and homage to the Egyptian songstress Oum Kalthoum. I admit I’d been hoping for a Red & Black Light and Illusions oriented setlist, but this was fantastic as well. Maalouf’s more “acoustic” team sounds like this:

I soon came to terms with the rather gentle volume of the whole affair (and with the fact that the poor drummer was sweating under pressure – not because of raging all over his drum set like a deranged blacksmith on methamphetamine, sadly, but due to all the excruciatingly hard work invested in keeping it “pianississimo” most of the time, which all drummers will know how hard it is, especially once the passion and frenzy of performing live takes over). To be sure, regardless of the volume (or, actually, thanks to it – anything louder would have been terribly boomy in such a hall), every detail was perfectly audible, down to the last microtonal escapade by the virtuoso Maalouf. In fact, Maalouf’s brooding, lyrical, extremely dynamic and highly melodic, exotic microtonal solos resulted in some of the highlights of the performance. Not that the other band members didn’t do their part: as expected, all of them exhibited superb musicianship, and I could even enjoy one of the most musical and not so very pianissimo drum solos over the 7/8 time signature I’ve heard recently. The pianist, saxophonist and bassist (who, sadly, kept having, to his obvious dismay, severe technical problems with his bass) were just as great.

Maalouf is also a real joker (and blabbermouth), and his contact with the audience was amazing. If I were filthy rich, I’d have these guys play at my wedding. For three days and nights. His humour also featured several pointed hints and remarks about the ongoing refugee crisis as well as stereotypes involved in it; and he also invited a superb oud player and singer – who he explained was a Syrian refugee, otherwise a master judoist and expert carpet layer (because one can’t earn a living playing music these days) – to demonstrate how Kalthoum’s tunes sounded with vocals.

Finally, during… what… third encore and standing ovation, I believe? he taught us a musical phrase and got us to whistle along with him while he and the pianist (in Maalouf’s words “a German who doesn’t look like a German”) frolicked around on the trumpet and piano. Simply presenting a phrase (with a slightly tricky variation in the second half) in thirty seconds and teaching it to at least 20 % of the hall in three minutes attests to Maalouf’s optimism – or to his awareness that his audiences consist mostly of musicians. Because, to be sure, we knew perfectly well what to whistle and when to do so just a few minutes into the “experiment”, all of us apparently drawing from the experience of a thousand rehearsals with various bands under our own belts. Hell, even the variation sounded almost right after the third attempt!

Fortunate Finds: Guido Henkel

Guido Henkel’s Zen of eBook Marketing still free today!

A few months ago, after I finished the first draft of my second novel, I started considering the possibility of joining the ranks of self-published, indie authors. I was thoroughly dissatisfied with the (non)strategy and unresponsiveness of the small U.K. e-book publisher who had released my first novel, Cynicism Management, as well as frustrated because of my lack of control over that release. Therefore I decided to educate myself in the matter of indie publishing, which I had previously consciously avoided, primarily due to two concerns: problems involved in e-book formatting; and my inability to promote my own work in any effective way (I have a long but infamously anonymous career as a composer, musician and producer behind me, spanning back more than 20 years with extraordinarily limited success, to prove that).

I decided to approach both issues the way I usually do: by reading about them. My ultimate decision to go ahead and self-publish was based on the most helpful works of two authors: David Gaughran and Guido Henkel. From Gaughran’s books (I intend to make a separate “Fortunate Finds” post about him and his work in the near future) I have gleaned a wealth of invaluable information about contemporary self-publishing in general, more than enough for me to decide this was indeed what I wanted; but they only touch upon the subject of e-book formatting briefly. However, as far as that pressing issue was concerned, Gaughran pointed me in the direction of Henkel.

Now, I know enough about IT and coding to have been seriously worried about how to even approach e-book formatting properly. I knew enough not to trust any ZenFautomatic conversion processes, and it turned out I was right. However, due to financial constraints (i.e., zero budget) I wanted to tackle this issue myself. The feat would have been impossible without Guido Henkel’s Zen of eBook Formatting, which has been, for me, the definite go-to e-book formatting compendium, and it hasn’t let me down once. To boot, Mr. Henkel is a very generous and plain old “nice” guy, who will not shy away from any questions one might have. With the aid of his thorough instructions I was able to overcome my fear of formatting my e-books myself… And I can now do so with conviction that they’ll display well on all sorts of e-readers, phones and tablets.

For this reason I was very happy when I recently found out that Henkel was about to publish a new Zen book – Zen of eBook Marketing – this time focusing on e-book promotion, which remains a seemingly insurmountable problem for me. First of all, I dread most kinds of self-promotion and abhor marketing. I find most of it nauseating and utterly incompatible with my personal philosophy, especially as I tend to be an annoyingly compulsive cynic, even with regard to my own work. Thus I’ve always found any self-help books on marketing shady, suspecting them of mainly promoting themselves – you know, in the vein of get-rich-quick books: why would one write such a book if one knew how to get rich quickly? Unless writing a get-rich-quick book is a way of getting rich quickly?

ZenMHowever, by that time I had already been very grateful to Mr. Henkel for his book on formatting, so in spite of my inherent skepticism I will quite shamelessly say this: it is my opinion that Guido Henkel does it primarily because he likes to help people (no matter how cheesy that statement sounds); and if he makes a thoroughly honest living while doing it, that’s fine with me. If you disagree, check his instructions on eBook formatting: he could have taken this freely accessible information down when he wrote a book about it, right?

If you’re looking for get-rich-quick schemes, you won’t find any in Henkel’s book. Instead he approaches the subject of e-book marketing realistically and wittily, providing a treasure cove of information on everything every indie author should know: from editing, proofreading, beta readers, formatting, importance of cover design, keywords and metadata… all the way to reviews, online presence, social media and promo ideas. You’re free to pursue whatever you like, and ignore whatever it might be you don’t. Henkel will not tell you to do this or do that in order to achieve overnight success: he provides a comprehensive overview of everything you can do, topping it all off with an exhaustive and invaluable collection of links and resources, and then it’s up to you. It’s a book every indie author should grab – and you can do so without any risk whatsoever, because Henkel is still offering it for free until the end of today.

Fortunate Finds: Tigran Hamasyan

Classical folk jazz heavy metal fusion

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:

“Pendulum Pet” cover finished

PPet-COVER-400x600My favourite graphics and illustration wizard, Matej Peklar, has just finished the cover for my second novel, Pendulum Pet (Cynicism Management Series, Book 2), which is to be released in March. The final draft is also done, and I’m about to start formatting the text for e-readers.

In the meantime, head to this page to find out more about the upcoming novel and listen to the complete, quite extensive original soundtrack for it (stream it or download it free of charge)… Or grab Cynicism Management (links: Amazon | Apple | Inktera | Kobo | B & N), the first book in the series, for just 99 cents – it’ll be on sale until the end of February.

Fortunate Finds: Vennart

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.)

“Pendulum Pet” cover – sketch

The-Dog-Sketch300My favourite graphics and illustration wizard, Matej Peklar, has just come up with the first, rough sketch of the cover for my upcoming novel, Pendulum Pet. I love it – the “pendulum” dog, hanging from a leash, is as cranky as I have imagined him to be.

I am currently polishing the final version of the manuscript, trying desperately to hunt down and eradicate any remaining typos, blunders, slips of the pen, clumsy formulations, inconsistencies and plain old brain farts; and then I have yet to format the manuscript for e-readers before publishing it in March, if everything goes according to plan.

In the meantime, head to this page to find out more about the upcoming novel and listen to the complete, quite extensive original soundtrack for it (stream it or download it free of charge).

Fortunate Finds: Ibrahim Maalouf

Can’t wait to hear this live

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.

Grumblin’ Ole Geezer @ Steven Wilson

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.

KSCOPE522_COVER-MED300Steven 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’s Hand. 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.

New homepage up

Finally: my new “author homepage” is up and running. It focuses on the literary side of my work, but also offers direct free downloads of most of my music, recorded in the recent years (I’ll probably be adding more from my “back catalogue” over time). The download packages – available to all “new release mailing list” subscribers – contain tracks in 320kbps mp3 format as well as artwork for each of the albums. Under the “Novels & Soundtracks” tab you can see more details about my books as well as download the complete soundtracks for both of them (collections of Cynicism Management and Ray Kosmick tracks, featured in the novels).

Meanwhile, the second edition of my first novel, Cynicism Management, has also been released on Apple, Barnes & Noble, Inktera, Kobo, and Scribd (apart from Amazon).