Thursday, 1 November 2012

A Universe From Nothing - Book Review

As hurricane Sandy ravaged New York City and the rest of the North East, it was an ideal time to hunker down and finish the latest book I was reading. While nature wreaked havoc all around, coupled with the contents of the book, it was obvious yet again that reality is much more awe inspiring than fairytale.

Lawrence Krauss is one of the leading names in cosmology and theoretical physics, and is the director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University. He has written a number of popular science books.

A Universe From Nothing gives an account of the latest findings in cosmology, and attempts to bring some light as to why there is something rather than nothing. It turns out that there is a lot going on in "nothing", and it has nothing to do with the supernatural. We are told about the breakthroughs of science over the course of the last century and more, right up to the knowledge of matter and anti-matter particles popping in and out of existence within empty space. 

It's an invigorating subject, and the book was spawned from the popularity of a lecture that Krauss did back in 2009, which has had over 1.6 million youtube hits at the time of writing. 

The original lecture is below and well worth your time.

Krauss' style is sharp, incredibly witty and filled with humour but perhaps most distinctly, very quick-fire. This style is also prominent in the book, and in terms of being quick-fire, perhaps to its detriment. I found myself struggling to keep up with the content somewhat and this is either my fault for simply failing to grasp some of the information, Krauss' fault for not explaining them well enough, or the fact that the subject matters are simply quite difficult in the first place! Perhaps the book needed to be longer than just under 200-pages to flesh out all the ins and outs. However, despite sometimes being hard to follow, the overall picture is clear, reality is the way that it is and not the way we would like it to be.

I had the pleasure of seeing one of his lectures earlier this year at the Hayden planetarium, where I also purchased the book. Krauss is a fantastic public speaker, thoroughly engaging and funny, and aided by various slides, was much more digestible than the book. The lecture was similar to the one posted above, but updated a little more, including indulging in some of the backpedaling that theologians and philosophers have had to go through as we start to know more about what nothing is. If you ever get the chance to see him lecture, do so.

Christopher Hitchens was going to write the foreword for the book, but had to stop when he became too sick, apparently he was about halfway done. I spoke to Professor Krauss about Hitch after the event and you could sense their friendship and admiration he had for him.

In Christopher's absence, Richard Dawkins wrote the afterword and gives the book a ringing endorsement, perhaps overly enthusiastic, but nobody writes better than Dawkins when trying to highlight the virtues and inspiration of science.

I also managed to meet Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who introduced the lecture and stayed around afterwards. It took me about an hour to meet him as other people muscled in ahead (I think I'm just too nice to do that...), but it was a thrill to hear him debate with various people who had somewhat deluded views... it's amazing to see so many people appear to be disappointed that the world is not going to end in the near future through a variety of reasons (Mayan calendar, giant asteroid, etc, etc). One person even said to him "Genesis is mostly true...", I applaud Neil's patience as he must have heard all of these things before, but seems to treat each occasion with a feverish enthusiasm for the virtues of science.

Overall, I would say the book is a good read, but I couldn't help but feel that I was missing something. One of religions last cards is "why is there something rather than nothing?", but we are very close to having a plausible scientific explanation for just that cowardly fallback into the unknown that theologians cling to (even though in the highly unlikely event there is a god, it's even more unlikely it's the god as described by any of the worlds religions...). 

The book perhaps does not answer what "nothing" is to the satisfaction of all, because people can reframe what "nothing" is to fit their own agendas, the book is upfront about what notions of "nothing" are being dealt with, and given the advances of the last hundred years, perhaps even experts at obfuscation will ultimately be left dumbfounded in the future.

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Global Festival - Central Park: Neil Young, Foo Fighters, Black Keys and more

I was fortunate enough to "win" tickets in the lottery for the Global Festival at Central Park's great lawn.

Global Citizen's own FAQ states: Global Citizen is a tool to amplify and unite a generation’s call for justice. It’s a place for you to learn, and act, to bring an end to extreme poverty.

Now, I don't know about anyone else, but I think that forcing the concert goers to not be allowed to bring in outside food and drink is not a good start to the message of ending world poverty. Unless you want to starve 60,000 people so that they might experience what it is like to go without! I had to throw out a SEALED bottle of water (and downed another), and the mountains of perfectly good food and beverage that others had to waste is really unforgivable. I figured that there would be some decent food trucks once we got out to the field (one way of scoring points to get into the draw was to buy organic food, so I thought they'd be promoting that...), but in our area there was one tiny little stall that sold a few dodgy $8 sandwiches (all of which had cheese, which meant I went through the day on a packet of crisps that cost me $3).

Once inside we were ring-fenced into "pens" which I suppose is a way to stop obnoxious doucehbags from thinking they're entitled to get to the front by turning up late and barging their way through the crowd, although it obviously just meant that many people barged their way as far as the barrier then asked the security if they could get into the front pen (I overheard one person moaning "this is the furthest away I've ever been from the stage at a gig", cry me a river...)... we arrived as they closed off the "first" pen so were at the front of the second pen, I'm guessing we were about 100 yards from the stage, not too bad all things considered, we decided to stay put for the day though we wouldn't have had much choice in that anyway since we were penned in.

So, the organisation and ethics of the day were off to a dubious start... in any case I was looking forward to the music and expected it to be interspersed with lots of overly sentimental appeals for support. That was exactly what we got, I sympathise greatly to those suffering from poverty and those in need, I'm just not sure throwing a big concert is the way to spread these ideas, the crowd were not particularly interested in the big screen videos and I could not hear any of the speakers due to crowd chatter and certainly those around me were getting agitated as the day wore on. People come to a day like this to see the bands.

Anyway, so was the music any good?! First act K'Naan was ok, a little sentimental and cheesey but he's writing about his life experiences and the genuine troubles he's had to go through, so it's hard to be too critical, it just didn't resonate with me. 

Band of Horses were up next, I'd listened to their previous record but honestly couldn't remember any of their songs, which probably says it all. They were ok but it was a bit bland, music-for-the-masses type of rock. 

Next up, John Legend, who was not on the bill, made a brief appearance and sang John Lennon's Imagine, I don't really know Legend's work but I hear the name all the time. Anyway, he mumbled the "and no religion too" lyric, which would be a great start to ending world poverty, and a sure way to end polio, which would probably have happened already if it weren't for religious influence in the three remaining countries on the planet where polio is still a problem... and then ended by saying "god bless"! Just an odd observation...

The speakers appealing for support ranged from celebrities and those involved with various charities, Olivia Wilde spoke a few times and came across as very sincere and that she was a well-rounded individual who could take in any subject, delivered in a bubbly style that is more likely to get people involved. I'd love to meet her and find out more about what it was like to have Christopher Hitchens as a babysitter!

People seemed to be going crazy because Selena Gomez was one of the speakers, I now know what it feels like to be old because I have no idea who she is...

Now we were heading toward the three main acts, The Black Keys played a decent and high energy set although for me it didn't really get going until about half-way through. I have three of their albums that I enjoy and I was expecting them to pummel out that really fat guitar sound that I know (the last album I have is Attack and Release...) but it seemed a bit cleaner and, well... nice for the most part. I'm glad I've seen them though and they saved the best to last with a rasping rendition of I Got Mine.

Next up were the Foo Fighters, I've seen the Foos twice before but not for 10 years, so I was quite looking forward to seeing them again. Some may scoff at their output but when it comes to pop-rock Dave Grohl really knows how to write a good tune, although personally I had rather tuned out after 2002's One By One, which I think is their best album, since then they've been at best average with the odd good single. In any case, those first four albums are all very good. We got a bit of a greatest hits set and Grohl really knows how to work a crowd, I think they suffer a bit too much with the false-ending of songs, that works a couple of times but quite often it's best just to finish a song rather than deliver a crescendo then go back into the song and finish it again. A few bands seem to suffer from this unnecessary excess. The band indicated that this was the last show they have planned and that they don't know when they will play again, if that does turn out to be their last ever show then I think they can be happy with such a huge send-off. Grohl said during the Foo Fighters set that they wished they could play all night, but that he wanted to see Neil Young!

For me, I was there to see Neil Young. Foo Fighters and the Black Keys were a nice bonus, but I'm a big NY fan. I was flabbergasted to see a bit of an exodus after Foo Fighters finished! Anyway, after a bit of wait Neil Young and Crazy Horse came out onto the stage and played an absolutely blistering set! One word of praise for the whole day, I have to say, is that the sound was incredible for an outdoor concert, it was faultless for all the bands. They opened with an extended version of Love and Only Love from Ragged Glory, which seemed an appropriate message for the day.

We then got old favourite Powderfinger followed by two new songs, Born in Ontario and Walk Like a Giant which was stretched out to about 15-minutes, Young's guitar playing was as incendiary as ever and it was a real thrill to hear that great sound scream out. I'd seen Neil Young play in Hammersmith a few years ago, playing an acoustic set followed by an electric set, but seeing him with Crazy Horse seems to invigorate his playing. 

After the sonic assault of Walk Like a Giant, Young calmed things down with The Needle and the Damage Done, followed by another new song, Twisted Road, which is his tribute to Bob Dylan.

The highlight of the evening was Fuckin' Up, one of my favourite songs in the whole discography and it was delivered with suitable power and of course, extended! 

The whole evening was brought to a close with Rockin' In the Free World, joined on stage by all the previous acts, including Grohl and Dan Auerbach playing guitar, both of whom looked as though they could scarcely believe they were on stage playing with Neil Young.

While the organisation of the day seemed to me to be a bit chaotic and the message was fumbled and a missed opportunity, going hungry and having to stand in the same spot for 6 hours was worth it to see Neil young absolutely nail through his set and deliver numerous crushing guitar solos. 

We all have a duty to be aware of the problems that many face in the world, be it financial or social, and the day had a good message, but didn't deliver it terribly well. And while most people in the world avoid the elephant in the room (religion is not a net force for good), we have to base all future efforts on  shared humanistic values and the best evidence and methods possible (leaving faith out of the picture completely). The ideal of the global citizen is an endearing one, however.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Grizzly Bear - Radio City Music Hall 24th September 2012 review

I saw Grizzly Bear at the Roundhouse in London back in March 2010 and it was one of the best performances I've ever seen (easily blasting its way into the top 5) so my expectations for this show were significant to say the least.

Grizzly Bear at the Roundhouse - March 2010

The band have just released new album, Shields, which is another fine addition to their discography, coming off the back of the majestic, Veckatimest, it must be difficult for a band to follow up something like that, but Shields is certainly one of the finest releases this year.

View from our seats
Radio City Music Hall is truly a wonderful venue, I saw Pulp there earlier in the year (my wife's review) and it is a beautiful room in which to see a band.

Support band, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, a rock trio led by guitarist Ruban Nielson ploughed through a garage-rock set but were not afraid to cut loose on some long and ferocious guitar solos.

The acoustics of the room were perfect for Grizzly Bear's lush melodies and soaring harmonies, the sound at the venue was crystal clear and the best I've ever experienced. The light show had been upgraded from the last tour, which had featured lights in glass bottles suspended in mid-air, we were treated to a "floating lantern" type of display, creating different formations during the course of the night. It was all tastefully done and knew when to drench the hall in light and when to dim everything down low, our seats were up on the first mezzanine so while the view wasn't the most intimate we did get the full effects of the lights.

Radio City Music Hall - 24th September

The set focused heavily on the latest album, with 8 of the 10 tracks played (6 from Veckatimest, 3 from Yellow House and 1 from Horn of Plenty completing the set), all of the new songs come across incredibly well live, like old favourites already.

One thing that is utterly mesmerising about their live show is the vocal harmonies, which are so enchanting on the records and are performed immaculately on stage, you can feel your spirits race as the vocals ejaculate across the room time and time again to utter perfection. An orgy involving the Byrds, Beach Boys and the Beatles could scarcely compete.

Special mention should also go to Aaron Arntz who is joining them onstage on this tour playing a myriad of instruments. He takes a backseat while the band take up their customary positions in a line across the stage, giving each member an equal footing up front.

Picking highlights is virtually impossible when the setlist has such a wonderful flow to it, and being performed so well. There's no sitting around waiting for them to play a crowd favourite. Having said that, Sleeping Ute, Yet Again, A Simple Answer, Cheerleader, Ready Able were all performed with such sweeping beauty that it seems reasonable to give them a shout out. And of course While You Wait for the Others is a behemoth of a song that seems to have everything.


In my experience of New York so far, one observation is that audiences don't really make all that much effort for an encore. I don't know if that's just a lazy attitude and people know a band are going to come back anyway (they don't always) or what, but the audience really demanded an encore here and the roar when the band came back onstage was spine tingling. We were treated to a dreamy rendition of Knife (though for the first 30 seconds the amps weren't turned up all the way!) and then On a Neck, On a Spit both from Yellow House.They ended with an acoustic version of, All We Ask, which was transformed into a longing lullaby, as the band harmonised for a final time the chorus seemed to resonate the relationship this particular listener has with their music perfectly:

I can't
Get out
Of what I'm into
With you

The band are so in tune with their music and masters of their craft, and while some bands may have felt pressure at playing such a prestigious venue in their hometown with many friends and relatives in the audience (Ed's 91 year old Grandmother flew in to see them for the first time), everything seemed like a celebration of what they had achieved up to now. A victory for music integrity. I suspect the band will see it as a significant moment in their career and for me it was quite simply the best concert I have ever been to.

Set List:
Speak in Rounds
Sleeping Ute
Yet Again
Ready, Able
A Simple Answer
While You Wait For The Others
What's Wrong
Two Weeks
Sun In Your Eyes
On A Neck, On A Spit
All We Ask

The band have a few North American dates left this year before heading to the UK and Europe, finishing off in Australia and New Zealand. Miss them at your peril, tour dates here.


Saturday, 8 September 2012

Bob Mould - Williamsburg Park - 7th of September 2012: Live Review

I have been a fan of Bob Mould for about 8 years (a drop in the ocean compared to the length of his career!) but had never managed to see him live until now (not for the want of trying). Originally this show was going to be at Webster Hall but was moved (and subsequently made free) to Williamsburg Park.

To coincide with the 20th anniversary of Sugar's resplendent masterpiece, Copper Blue, Mould has been playing it in full this year, and seemingly inspired has just released his latest studio effort, Silver Age, which is very much in that power-pop style, lead single The Descent has the following promotional video:

The show was opened by Cymbals Eat Guitars, I enjoy both of their albums so it was good to see them rattle through selected cuts from both (including my favourite track, Rifle Eyesight), doubly-so because I missed their set supporting The Flaming Lips at the Troxy in London in 2009 (train delays!).

Playing as a trio (just like Sugar and Husker Du, of course), Mould is joined on bass by Jason Narducy from Telekinesis and Jon Wurster from Superchunk on drums (whose playing was particularly ferocious). They blitzed through Copper Blue with the enthusiasm and freshness of a new release.

We were then treated to a couple of cuts from Silver Age, I thought that we'd get most of the album having just witnessed a celebration of material 20 years ago, but after three new songs we were treated to a quartet of Husker Du songs, including one of my very favourites, Hardly Getting Over It.

The set was rounded off with another song from Silver Age, Keep Believing. Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn joined the band in the encore to sing Husker Du's Something I Learned Today. I have to confess I'm not really a fan of the Hold Steady and I didn't recognise him, but he performed the song as if fulfilling a life-long fantasy.

Representing almost all of the Husker Du discography, the band also ripped through early single Keep Believing before returning for a second encore and blasting out Makes No Sense At All from Flip Your Wig.

Hopefully I'll catch Bob play many more times in the future, this concert was utterly thrilling. Such  is the strength of his solo material, I came out thinking about dozens of songs I'd have also loved to hear, and while the Husker Du songs felt like a treat, I was surprised how little we got from his solo material (only 4 songs from the latest album).

I also picked up both Sugar re-issues for $15 each from the merch stand and am looking forward to the live discs in particular. 

        (Copper Blue played in full)
        The Act We Act
        A Good Idea
        Hoover Dam
        The Slim
        If I Can't Change Your Mind
        Fortune Teller
        Man on the Moon
        Star Machine
        The Descent
        Round The City Square
        Hardly Getting Over It*
        Could You Be The One?*
        I Apologize*
        Chartered Trips*
        Keep Believing

        Something I Learned Today*
        In A Free Land*
        Encore 2:
        Makes No Sense At All*

*Husker Du songs

Sunday, 19 August 2012

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Book Review

I bought this book, and wrote a blog about it back in November last year, it's a hefty read for a hefty subject and took longer to finish than I'd have liked (a transatlantic move, among other things, got in the way somewhat), but I felt compelled to write a proper review once I was finished.

We've all thought at some point things like "if only everyone thought like me the world would be a better place!", I'd like to propose that if everyone read this book then the world would be a better place.

That isn't to say that Steven Pinker has solved the worlds problems, far from it,  The Better Angels of Our Nature gives us an analysis of the history of violence; from the rate of wars, battle deaths, murder, torture, rape, etc, and the reasons (or potential reasons) for their declines (though it has not been a steady one).

The book pulls no punches in describing various acts of violence, it is not for the faint of heart, but we are not talking about gratuitous descriptions of violence here, it's hard to sugar-coat breaking on the wheel for example. The fact that it's intuitive to recoil in horror at many of the practices that were once commonplace is in itself indicative.

Violence can often be an emotive subject, and most of the objections I have had to deal with when discussing this topic tend to get clouded in personal anecdotes and an inability to consider the vast span of historical time that Pinker has analysed. The first thing to realise upon being faced with statistics on death and violence is not to take anything away from what is still happening today, terrible things still happen and always will, but the world as a whole is less terrible than it was. One also has to remember that behind every number is a life taken too early or inhumanly abused, families robbed of loved ones via spear, machete, bullets, explosions and methods of torture that one can scarcely comprehend. For some of these victims, death must have been a relief.

A further objection I have dealt with is that people claim that the data are simply wrong and that the nature of statistics can show anything (although it's also curious to note that the people I have spoken to have not read the book nor have any interest in doing so), but Pinker is very analytical of the data itself and gives full disclosure of the sources (there are 200 pages of notes and sources). Some people claim that battle deaths in recent wars today are not fully reported (though death in war is just one form of violence analysed in the booked). Even if that were the case they seem to be willfully ignorant of the fact that reported battle deaths will be prone to errors in all wars and not just those of today, but more importantly the number of unreported battle deaths would have to be so high (to compete with past atrocities) it would be a conspiracy greater than a faked moon landing or government involvement in 9/11.

One has to zoom out a little bit (or a lot, in some cases) and look at the big picture, while it's tempting to consider the 20th century as the most violent of all time, this table (reproduced from the book) paints a different picture of histories bloodiest events by recalibrating the death toll to 20th century population equivalents (so they can be compared fairly):

Worst atrocities

Death toll*
Death toll (20C equivalent)**
1 Second world war 20th 55 million 55M 9
2 Mao Zedong (mostly government-caused famine) 20th 40M 40M 11
3 Mongol conquest 13th 40m 278m 2
4 An Lushan revolt 8th 36m 429m 1
5 Fall of the Ming dynasty 17th 25m 112m 4
6 Taiping rebellion 19th 20m 40M 10
7 Annihilation of the American Indians 15th-19th 20m 92m 7
8 Josef Stalin 20th 20m 20m 15
9 Middle East slave trade 7th-19th 18m 132m 3
10 Atlantic slave trade 15th-19th 18m 83m 8
11 Timur Lenk 14th-15th 17m 100m 6
12 British India (mostly preventable famine) 19th 17m 35m 12
13 First world war 20th 15m 15m 16
14 Russian civil war 20th 9m 9m 20
15 Fall of Rome 3rd-5th 8m 105m 5
16 Congo Free State 19th-20th 8m 12m 18
17 Thirty years' war 17th 7m 32m 13
18 Russia's “time of troubles” 16th-17th 5m 23m 14
19 Napoleonic wars 19th 4m 11m 19
20 Chinese civil war 20th 3m 3m 21
21 French wars of religion 16th 3m 14m 17
*Median/mode of figures cited in encyclopaedias or histories. Includes battlefield and civilian deaths
**Deaths were calculated against global population at time, then scaled up to mid-20th century level

When we see that World War 2 barely scrapes into the top 10, it's cause for contemplation. Few people tend to take stock of the fact that European countries tended to initiate two or three wars per year leading up to 20th century (a brief glance at wiki's list of conflicts in Europe gives the scroll button a sprinting start but a strolling end) . We have had an unprecedented peace since WW2 by comparison, which is known as "the long peace".

The world is not a perfect place, and violence is part of human nature (though so are inclinations towards peace, it would seem), but by studying the trends of history, our psychology and having a greater understanding of what indicators influence violence, we can concentrate on what "works" and what doesn't. While violence may well go up in the future, I can't see a situation in a developed society where many of the victories of the rights revolution (in terms of race, gender, etc, etc) are going to be unwon, it's unthinkable that segregation will come back or that women will have their right to vote taken away, these are humanistic victories that we now take for granted. Not to mention the abolition of slavery, witch-hunts (60,000-100,000 Witches were killed over history thanks to biblical instruction) Let's be grateful for the gigantic strides that have been made in most societies.

As a more humorous analogy, I consider what Louis CK says here, Everything's Amazing and Nobody is Happy:

Of course, not everything IS amazing, there are still horrific acts of violence happening every day, but things are better. As Pinker says in this interview, "My first edict as global overlord would be to impose the following rule on pundits: No one may bemoan a decay, decline, or degeneration without providing (1) a measure of the way the world is today; (2) a measure of the way the world was at some point in the past; (3) a demonstration that (1) is worse than (2)."

What is amazing, is The Better Angels of Our Nature.


Wednesday, 1 August 2012


The act of lying is something we have all been guilty of, and we will all most likely continue to fall into its seductive trap when it suits our own needs. But is lying, even those little white lies we tell ourselves are ok, ever justified?

Sam Harris has, for this week only, made his essay, Lying, available for free on his website (click here for a direct link to the PDF), prompted by his latest blog post, The Fall of Jonah Lehrer, in which the journalist has been shamed by admitting to fabricating quotes and then initially lying about it. If you happen to miss out on the freebie, it's very cheap (my ebook cost me around 2 pounds).

Upon initial analysis, few will get beyond this sentence without concocting up scenarios in which it seems not only ethical to lie, but imperative. Sam analyses these temptations with his usual wit and razor-sharp logic. Lying is a brief but riveting analysis of the types of lies one can commit and the ramifications they have.

A commitment to not lying does not mean one has to divulge all dark and personal secrets upon request, being honest about not wanting to divulge information is better than concocting a lie to save face. Indeed, being honest need not commit us to acts that only the most socially ignorant would willfully perform, but gives our relationships with others a stronger bond.

Now each time I am faced with a situation in which I am tempted to lie, I feel a pang inside my conscience. I'm not perfect, and it would be a lie to say I have not lied since reading Sam's essay when it was released last year, but each chip in the armour of lying makes me feel better about myself, and I hope I give the impression to others that if they want an honest answer from someone I can be trusted to give one.

As Sam notes in his essay:

Honesty is a gift we can give to others. It is also a source of power and an engine of simplicity. Knowing that we will attempt to tell the truth, whatever the circumstances, leaves us with little to prepare for. We can simply be ourselves.

In any case, read Lying for yourself and see what you think.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Rush: Clockwork Angels review

New album Clockwork Angels is Rush's 19th full length studio LP (most sources claim it's their 20th, but 2004's covers EP, Feedback, was little more than an otiose indulgence best forgotten...).

2007s Snakes and Arrows suffered desperately from a lack of pace and passion, it basically sounded like a classic rock album recorded by a bunch of 50-somethings. While there isn't anything drastically wrong with most of those songs (though there are certainly some poor moments, hello Larger Bowl...) it's simply an uninspired record. Clockwork Angels, on the other hand, sounds like a band reinvigorated and with a sense of purpose.

To bring up the dreaded c-word, it's a concept album, inspired by Steampunk and Voltaire's 1759 novella, Candide, which I confess I haven't read but know of. The record achieves a nice balance between marrying the lyrics as a whole albums worth of work but also not sounding out of place as individual songs. 

The album kicks off with the two songs that were digitally released last year, Caravan and BU2B, which both seem to have benefitted from either a re-recording or a remix. Caravan probably wouldn't have been out of place on Snakes and Arrows although the "I can't stop thinking big..." chorus is catchier than anything they wrote on that album. BU2B has a drive and urgency that I didn't really feel on the digital release and rather surprisingly has become an early favourite, there are some wonderful arpeggios from Alex that, when analysed in their own right hark back to some real classic Rush moments.

However, given the relative familiarity with those first two songs, you don't get that new record feeling until the title track kicks in, and is filled with some particularly furious drumming from Neil. There's a great range of light and shade on the album and the title track seems to include all of this in one song, although the band also let loose on occasion and thrash through a few heavy riffs, most notably on Carnies. Alex also seems to have upped his game a little here, his Eastern-twinged solo on The Anarchist is incredibly pleasing. 

While Rush tend to work best with some combination of intricate and (leaning towards) heavy instrumentation, they can sometimes struggle when trying to really tone it down and write a ballad or just a mellow song in general. Halo Effect tries to bridge that gap somewhat, it perhaps falls a little short as it isn't until the bridge that the song seems to demand attention.

For the moment at least, the finest song on the album is The Wreckers, which came about with Alex and Geddy swapping instruments in the writing stage, the intro reminds me of the band Ride (who excelled at that ethereal whilst also crunching guitar sound), while the verses are definitely something that Geddy probably comes up with in his sleep, it wouldn't have been out of place on his solo album, My Favourite Headache. The chorus is Neil at his best lyrically and with or without the context of the Voltaire inspiration, aims a big dig at religion (which he also tackled on S&A's Faithless) and societal norms:

All I know is that sometimes you have to be wary of a miracle too good to be true,
All I know is that sometimes the truth is contrary of everything in life you thought you knew,
All I know is that sometimes you have to be wary of a miracle too good to be true,
All I know is that sometimes the truth is contrary, 'cause sometimes the target is you.

Things rev up a gear with Headlong Flight, a song that they would have played about 25% slower on the previous album, If any of the band stand out in particular on this record then I think it's Neil, he mentioned recently about giving it his best while he was still physically able to, and that really comes across in the music. His drumming hasn't been this ferocious in many a year, it will be interesting to see just how physically draining these songs will be to play live. I'm tremendously looking forward to seeing them at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn in October (although I am trying to make myself forget just how much the ticket cost).

The album closes with The Garden, which seems to have become a favourite among fans, but I have to confess I'm struggling with it a little bit. I mentioned earlier that ballads are not really in Rush's comfort zone and I think this is evidence of that, it sounds over-sentimental and more in the realm of dodgy AOR bands from the 80s, not a band that has just rattled through one of their best albums in 25 years (which obviously, somewhat ironically, puts us into the 80s...). It's rescued somewhat by some nice arpeggio work from Alex in the chorus and a decent solo (which comes after a somewhat nauseating bridge). If they play this live I hate to imagine all the lighters (or do people just use iphones these days) held aloft in the air, this isn't Bon Jovi...

It's not a perfect record and at times suffers from the cut and paste pro-tools method of songwriting they have had for the last decade, but for the most part the songs are focused and it's a record that is greater than the sum of its parts and one of which the band should be proud.

I am certainly in a minority when it comes to Rush fans, in that I think 2002's Vapour Trails is among the band's finest work. So while Clockwork Angels isn't quite the revelation and return to form that some are saying, it is certainly one of their best efforts from the 2nd-half of their career.

1. Caravan
2. BU2B
3. Clockwork Angels
4. The Anarchist
5. Carnies
6. Halo Effect
7. Seven Cities Of Gold
8. The Wreckers
9. Headlong Flight
10. BU2B2
11. Wish Them Well
12. The Garden

Overall score: 7.5/10

Saturday, 2 June 2012

La Sera

La Sera is the solo project of Vivian Girls bassist Katy Goodman (aka Kickball Katy). While I love Vivian Girls, La Sera pull off that extremely rare feat where a side-project is actually better than an artist's "main" band.

With two albums under her belt, the self-titled release in 2011, new record Sees the Light completes a double whammy of wonderful tunes that deserve a much wider audience. 

Who can resist the sugary guitars and lullaby vocals of Never Come Around? And to top things off it is also accompanied by a fantastic and playfully gruesome promotional video.

The first album is a real pleasure, full of bright and dreamy guitars it's a perfect pick-me-up, but if I had to pick a favourite however, it would be Sees the Light which has a wider range of songs and moods, the swagger and triumphant breakup of Love that's Gone is swiftly followed by the fast-paced Please Be My Third Eye, then you have the shimmering guitars of I'm Alone and the low fuzz of How Far We've Come. It's a bit like the debut set everything up for the second album to blow everyone away, the songs are just great (as they also are on the debut).

I also had the pleasure of catching a show in Williamsburg at the Cameo Gallery where the band pulled off an incendiary 50-minute set which was full of energy and style. Backed by members of Darker My Love, La Sera are a much tighter live unit than you would expect from a side-project, catch them if you can!

(Photo by me. Though we were right at the front which wasn't the best spot for photos!)

Lead promotional video from Sees the Light is for Real Boy / Drive On which features more of that twisted humour.

Also, as a fellow cat lover I'm happy to report that Katy posts regular photos of her felid companion, Walt.

 You can follow Katy on Twitter, La Sera on Facebook

Sunday, 22 April 2012

Dear Football Manager: Please can I have my life back

To most people, the thought of playing a football game that you don’t actually play is the most bizarre concept of all, only those bitten by the bug can sympathise when it takes over your life. For my own sanity as well as for the sake of loved ones, I do not buy each release, limiting myself to a new version every 3 years or so, simply for the fact that I know that it is not a healthy lifestyle choice in the slightest.

I treated myself to Football Manager 2012 just before leaving Oxford to live in New York, I knew that soccer would not be part of the way of life here as it is back home, and I was also planning on picking up a laptop and wanted a game I could play.

The all too familiar cracks in my psyche began to appear soon after installation and now I find myself firing up the game at every conceivable moment, I force myself out of bed early in the mornings to get some playing time in regardless of how fatigued I am (even writing this blog requires a gargantuan effort). If I were single I would probably awake with my face stuck to the laptop, which would have short-circuited from the tsunami of drool spilling from my mouth having no doubt dreamt of unearthing the next Lionel Messi (I did find one and he was lured away by a premiership club. Why did you leave me, Wang Ze, why?!).

I am hoping that by ridiculing myself I may come to my senses somewhat, I have other articles I plan to write, science lectures to watch, books to read and music to listen to, etc, etc. But I can't, I seemingly have to play this game, to the detriment of my life. Upon the release of one of the games (I think it was Football Manager 2005) I took a week off of work, with no other plans than playing the game, non-stop. 

And in terms of results, if only the real-life Oxford could mimic my wizard-like achievements! Promotion in my first season (winning the league), followed by another promotion (second place finish) found me in the championship. A season of struggle was followed by a 9th place finish, before another runners-up spot now sees me in the premiership, I've got about 10 games of the season left and it looks like I might just about stay up!


Friday, 13 January 2012

Hello America!

I became a "permanent resident" on the 20th of December, landing in Boston to spend a couple of weeks with family in New Hampshire before heading to New York City.

I set up a bank account with TD Bank a couple of days after arrival (fortunately a foreign national doesn't need a social security number to set up a bank account, but you can't get paid without one and I'm currently still waiting...). All seemed to go smoothly but after a couple of days my card was blocked, when I went into the branch to check why and seeing my details on the computer they had somehow put my middle name as my surname! So I was actually Mr Richard... this was a level of incompetence for which I was unprepared. The account took a little while to get sorted and I had a few other cards blocked over the next couple of weeks, hopefully it's sorted now!

That inconvenience aside, christmas is usually a period of time where vast quantities of food are consumed, this also happens to be the case whenever we visit New Hampshire. A combination of the two led to an ascension of gluttony that would cause Jabba the Hut to blush.

I didn't want to purchase too many things while we were still in New Hampshire as we'd only have to cart them across with us, but while in Bullmoose (I hate to think how much money I have spent in there over the last 8 years) I saw the Stax/Volt 1959-1968 9-CD singles box-set for a good price. It was actually gathering dust so I really had to give it a loving home.

The in-laws have a new dog since we last visited (as well as goats, a horse, chickens, ducks, guinea fowls and probably other species I'm forgetting) called Redford.
a rare moment when Redford is not terrorising me...

We arrived in New York on the 4th of January and made our way to our apartment in Ditmas Park. Greeted by a friend of the landlord who showed us in, after a nervous few minutes where none of us could get the keys to work we finally managed to enter and set our things down. The apartment is great (though the shared heat in this building is brutal, need the windows open and fans going most of the time we're inside and it's January!) and the area seems pretty convenient (I suspect I will do a separate blog about it at a later date). We're about a 20-minute subway ride to Union Square on the Q-line (of course!). Here's a view from our window.

So far we've gotten out and about quite well, experiencing many areas of Manhattan. Had a nice walk along the Brooklyn Bridge (best to walk from Brooklyn to Manhattan for better views, though parts of the view are obstructed due to repairs), drinks in the East Village (and onto Williamsburg, getting home at 3:30am...), record shops in Greenwich Village, and various moments of gawking at the various buildings in the city (and the general prices of just about everything).

Also nipped a bit further south to Coney Island, taking in a visit to the New York Aquarium but not before trying a Nathan's Hotdog and a stroll along the boardwalk.

The Bronx Zoo is a real treat and you need a whole day there to just about squeeze everything in. We were quite lucky because the Red Pandas were on real form, and I'd never seen a Polar Bear or Snow Leopard before. Other highlights included a Mouse Deer (too dark to get a decent picture), Fossa and many others.

I'm not getting these events in order, but in any case. We had a nice walk around Central Park (and we also had a long walk around Prospect Park near where we live), both will obviously be more impressive later in the year, but they're pretty immense as it is. From Central Park we took in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is huge, we whizzed around as much as we could in a couple of hours but you could spend days in there and still have plenty to see.

I obviously haven't had time to indulge in the usual myriad "best of 2011..." lists (though I'll hopefully fit in a music compilation of sorts before the end of the month). My first day of work will be the 16th of Jan (which is a public holiday here for Martin Luther King Jr. day, but our office is still open), by which point I'd have had 4 weeks off, and will have forgotten what it is I'm supposed to be doing! So far it has seemed like a long holiday so it's still too early to tell if I am missing things back home too much, though obviously I'm a little anxious at the lack of (real) football, we don't have any TV channels here (just a DVD player) and I had the misfortune of watching a game of "American" football, which seems like watching real football if only it were played constantly with set pieces, with the ball only being in play for a few seconds at a time. I'm not sure how anyone manages to get through a game without getting extremely drunk. It also proved quite difficult to find an electric kettle!