Sunday, January 01, 2017

A Difficult 2015—Top 15 Albums

I never did finish summarizing my 2015 in music, so here's a quick list.

1. Elder—Lore (Armageddon Shop)

2. Iron Maiden—The Book of Souls (Parlophone)

3. Guapo—Obscure Knowledge (Cuneiform)

4. Zombi—Shape Shift (Relapse)

5. Uncle Acid—The Night Creeper (Rise Above)

6. VHOL—Deeper Than Sky (Profound Lore)

7. Anekdoten—Until All the Ghosts Are Gone (Virta)

8. Teeth of the Sea—Highly Deadly Black Tarantula (Rocket)

9. Trans Am—Volume X (Thrill Jockey)

10. Steven Wilson—Hand. Cannot. Erase. (Kscope)

11. Windhand—Grief’s Infernal Flower (Relapse)

12. Six Organs of Admittance—Hexadic (Drag City)

13. Pugs & Crows & Tony Wilson—Everyone Knows Everyone 1

14. Krallice—Ygg huur (self-released)

15. The Fierce and the Dead—Magnet (Bad Elephant Music)

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Synth DIY Part 2: The Noise Toaster

For my second project, I chose the Music from Outer Space Noise Toaster. This Ray Wilson design is a little synth in a box; kind of a condensed version of the classic MFOS Mini-Synth (about which I’ll write next). With one oscillator, an LFO, an ASR (Attack/Sustain/Release) section, white noise, and a legit filter with frequency and resonance control, the Noise Toaster looked like a more versatile and interactive device than the Weird Sound Generator. You can let it drone in many interesting ways, but even better, it encourages real-time tweaking. You could perhaps jam with it if you had some patient collaborators.

Here’s a recording of the Noise Toaster jamming with a drummer I know.

So, it was a more challenging project overall. I decided to make things more difficult by only ordering the circuit board and faceplate from MFOS. I felt confident I could source the other components myself because (a) I had two electronics supply stores in my neighbourhood, and (b) Ray’s book Make: Analog Synthesizers includes a whole chapter on building the Noise Toaster, with lots of pictures of the wiring and components. When faced with a wall full of potentiometers at the store, for example, I’d have a pretty firm idea of what I was looking for, and if I wasn’t sure, I could ask the folks at the stores.

Although ordering just the PCB and faceplate was cheaper than getting the whole kit, I definitely did not save any money on the project overall by buying the parts myself. If I’d had the confidence to order my parts online, I might have saved a bit—ordering the three 100k resistors I needed would have cost less than having to buy a bag of 10 at the store—but I learned a lot by going out in person and hunting things down.

The biggest pain, funnily enough, was finding the knobs. The pots I bought turned out to have stems that were too tall for the many cool-looking knobs at my favourite store. I bought a couple that had the old-school Moog style I was after (seen on the filters here), and they just perched on the pots like mushroom caps when I put them on—not flush with the faceplate as desired. Bummer. I did find the right ones once the store got some fresh stock in, well after I’d finished the rest of the project.

Also for this project, I bought a proper soldering station. My first iron had no temperature control. It seemed to get too hot, and the solder would boil. If I was going to be putting in heat-sensitive transistors and diodes, then I wanted to be able to back off the temperature a bit. So, this soldering station joined my mobile workshop. It’s rather dodgy, in that the first one I brought home did not work at all, but the replacement has behaved well since.

The box construction went much better this time. I used a simple design and learned that pre-drilling the pieces before inserting screws prevented the wood from splitting. Who knew? I also discovered a power saw in our shed, and that saved me a lot of time and trouble.

Here’s the result. Like the WSG, it worked straight away. It has an internal speaker, which in theory lets you play the Noise Toaster any time, anywhere. However, the speaker stopped working a couple weeks after finishing the project. I haven’t bothered troubleshooting it because I’m happy just plugging it into my recording interface whenever I want to use it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Thumbscrew—Convallaria (Cuneiform, 2016)

The second Thumbscrew album goes further out than their debut. The trio of Mary Halvorson (guitar), Michael Formanek (double bass) and Tomas Fujiwara (drums) sound like they’re challenging each other, striving to push beyond their comfort zone. This is a much more adventurous record that’ll take several listens to fully appreciate. Passages where they lock in and rock out happen infrequently; however, Halvorson still cranks up the distortion and warp-effect pedal regularly. Her playing gets ever more dextrous and articulate, from the bit-crushed terror sonics of “Screaming Piha,” to the heavy-riffed mid-section of “The Cardinal and the Weathervane,” to the elegant virtuosity of the title track. Convallaria emphasizes what a perfect match this trio are for each other. They operate at a level most groups can only dream of.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Synth DIY, Part 1: The WSG

I was really into building model cars as a kid. My bedroom shelves were filled with 1/24 scale funny cars, dragsters and other exotic miniature automobilia from Revell or Monogram. In the years leading up to giving up the hobby, I was making more elaborate F1 car kits from Tamiya. I loved the activity (and I fully credit my immersion in model kit instructions and diagrams with inspiring my career as a technical writer), but there was a limit to what I could do with the tools and the money and the space I had available. On top of everything else, I was more into rock 'n' roll than farting around with plastic models.

That urge to make stuff has always been there, so when I discovered the world of synth DIY, it seemed like the perfect thing. You mean I can stick together a bunch of pieces from a kit and then make noise with the finished product? Let’s get cracking! I recalled enough of my Grade 8 Electronics class to remember that it was basically super fun to solder. That LED Roulette Wheel I made for my final project didn’t look like much, but it worked from the get-go.

I’d been looking at videos for devices like the Sleepdrone 5, and the idea of a simple noise box really appealed to me. Eventually I found what looked like an ideal first project for me: The MusicFrom Outer Space Weird Sound Generator (or WSG). It had four oscillators that could be tuned somewhat musically, along with LFOs (Low Frequency Oscillators) to mess with the main oscillators and produce various rhythmic/tremolo effects, and a basic filter to produce that classic synth “frequency sweep” akin to a guitarist's wah-wah pedal. The WSG was more versatile than the other drone boxes I’d seen, and it came as a complete kit. The only part I'd have to make from scratch was a wooden case to house the faceplate, circuitboard and clumps of wiring when I’d finished.

I sent my money to Ray Wilson, the genius behind MFOS, and the kit arrived soon after. After buying a few tools (a $20 soldering iron, solder, and wire snips from The Source), I took everything up to my family’s place on Mayne Island and got to work.

[Note: Ray Wilson passed away from cancer earlier this year. Like I say, he was a genius and a true DIY guru. His book Make: Analog Synthesizers was a huge help, and I recommend it highly if you’re thinking of getting into this sort of thing. This series of blog posts is dedicated, with thanks, to Ray.]

Oh, I forgot to say that, in order to reacquaint myself with soldering, I first built a very simple metronome from a kit I got from my neighbourhood electronics shop. Even though the thing consisted of about eight parts, it was still a thrill to plug in the battery and hear it emit a faint “click, click, click”. My Grade 8 regression was complete!

Here are some pictures I took of my WSG build as it progressed.

Preparing the front panel. Everything laid out in true anal fashion.

The circuit board's almost done, save for the ICs. Compared to some of the soldering insanity I've put myself through lately, this looks really simple in retrospect!

Preparing the front panel.

Wiring up the front panel. This is the trickiest part of all the MFOS projects I've done.

A successful first test.

The biggest challenge was building the box. I came up with this cunning angled design, but it turns out that I'm a useless draftsperson and my woodworking skills are no better. You can't imagine how much anguish it caused, fashioning four small pieces of wood together to form a (rough) square. The black paint hides a shitshow of splinters, splits and mangled nail heads. 
Next post: The Noise Toaster.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Film In Music—Tell Tale (Drip Audio)

Film in Music, formed in 2009 and led by cellist Peggy Lee, includes a formidable bunch of heavy hitters from the local jazz/improv/creative music scene. When you note that Jesse Zubot, Chris Gestrin, Ron Samworth and Dylan Van Der Schyff all contribute, no preview listening is required. You already know this will be good. Seeing them perform this album live earlier this month reminded me of cinematic post-rockers Do Make Say Think (whatever happened to them?), albeit at a much lower volume. Other bands come to mind as well; for example, “Epilogue to Part 1” roils along like Tortoise. The album intersperses full-band material with individual or small group performances. On his solo piece “Gruesome Goo,” Torsten Muller (acoustic bass) produces squeaks, growls and rattles from his instrument—suddenly you’re trying to bunk down in the world’s most haunted attic. Equally eerie is “Egg Hatched” by Gestrin/Lachance/Samworth. Based on the threatening pulses, plinks, and echoes presented, you don’t wanna know what entity has pecked its way out of that egg, that’s for sure. To label Van Der Schyff’s “An Eyeball for Dan” as a drum solo is accurate but inadequate, such is the avalanche of sonic surprises that tumbles forth. The TV series Deadwood was the inspiration, says the liner notes. By and large, the album’s tracks evoke a kind of Old West desolation. Even the jaunty moments are undercut with yearning for better times. Bursts of dissonance generate tension, hinting that not everything will be all right.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

A Difficult 2015—Reissues and Archival Releases

2015 was such a lousy year for music that I found most of my fun in the reissues pile. Each one of these was an exciting discovery.

Alice Coltrane—Universal Consciousness (Superior Viaduct)
This is a fantastic reissue of Coltrane’s 1971 album for Impulse!—one which Fact magazine declared the third best album of the 1970s. The music shimmers and prickles you, surging in ways that I can’t comprehend—how do you play like that? The spiritual journey that Coltrane describes in the liner notes isn’t something I can understand either, but I’m certainly glad it sparked the creation of this music.

Six Organs of Admittance—Dust and Chimes (Holy Mountain)
Ben Chasny is in full folk/psych acoustic splatter mode on this set originally released in 2000. A little frantic and spindly to really mellow you out, it’s mind-expanding stuff nevertheless.

Besombes/Rizet—Pôle (Gonzaï Records)
This French duo operated in the same synth/freakout realms as Klaus Schulze, Tangerine Dream and especially Heldon. It doesn`t sound like they had the latest gear (in an era when being two or three years behind could mean a lot), but they made the most of it. The original 1975 LP was a double. This reissue is a single disc, but you get the whole set of tracks with the download card.

 Soft Machine—Switzerland 1974 (Cuneiform)
Allan Holdsworth joining Soft Machine made for a heavy, volatile mix. Ace Soft Machine archivists Cuneiform Records have outdone themselves with this CD/DVD combo.

Sensations Fix—Music is Painting in the Air (1974-1977) (RVNG)
Italo/American outfit Sensations Fix were led by Franco Falsini, who returns to his cache of tapes recorded in the mid-seventies for this collection of lost tracks and remixes. The songs are driven by Falsini’s cosmic guitar playing and plentiful Minimoog. It’s whacked-out and hapless enough to have considerable obscurist allure.

Friday, April 08, 2016

2112: Side Two

There’s a scene in Freaks and Geeks where the geeks argue about the perfect movie. Sam says it’s The Jerk. Neil claims that it’s Caddyshack. No way, Sam scoffs. Caddyshack is totally inconsistent. It’s just like Stripes: “You cannot tell me what happened in the second half of that movie.”

2112 is the Stripes of classic rock albums. To say it’s front-loaded is an understatement. The first side so obsesses people that they forget that side two even exists. The 20 minute suite of songs that make up “2112” is the entire album to some fans. I’ve even seen the claim that 2112 is a concept album.

2112 is not a concept album. Side two has nothing to do with the side preceding it, unless I’m missing something. Maybe after the elder race assumes control of the solar federation, everyone celebrates by getting really high, as told in “A Passage to Bangkok.” This extension of the "2112" storyline hasn’t been widely accepted yet, so let’s go with the idea that 2112 consists of the title piece and unrelated songs on side two.

The songs in question aren’t the strongest stretch of material in the Rush catalogue either. Fly By Night might even have better short songs if you consider the kick-ass quotient of “Anthem,” “Best I Can,” “Beneath Between & Behind” and “Fly by Night.” Side two of 2112 is a mixed bag indeed. It starts and ends strongly with “A Passage to Bangkok” and “Something for Nothing.” Both were in the live set for years. “Passage…” is loveably dumb, seemingly written to get the Woodersons in their audience on board. I remember reading the lyrics for the first time and dealing with the realization that my heroes were stoners. As Morrissey once whined, I swear I never even knew what drugs were at that age.

This leaves a three-song ditch in the middle. Caress of Steel was dedicated to Rod Serling, and now “The Twilight Zone” continues the tribute. Unfortunately it’s a stitched-together and forgettable ditty. Also unfortunate is that it was the single off the album—not likely to send the roller rink into a frenzy on a hot seventies night. Frampton and Styx had nothing to worry about.

“Lessons” is a solid Fly by Night by way of “Ramble On” number elevated by Alex Lifeson’s acoustic rhythm guitar track. Peart, faced with laying down something basic in 4/4, sprinkles in a bunch of fancy fills to keep himself interested.

“Tears” is the sort of ballad they felt obliged to include for a while—think “Rivendell,” “Panacea,” and “Madrigal.” Best of the lot was “Different Strings” from Permanent Waves. For Moving Pictures and subsequent albums, the real ballady ballads were dropped.

After “Tears,” “Something for Nothing” swoops in to save the day, taking the album out on a triumphant, defiant note. Geddy howls like his throat’s about to give out, Peart throws in an 84-bar tom roll, and it’s hell yeah! Finally time to flip the album over and play side one again.