Thursday, December 31, 2020

A Difficult 2020 (To Say the Least)

Well, that was a shit sandwich of a year, but I’m doing all right, and feeling blessed that I came out intact. I’ve always expected that I’d experience a pandemic in my lifetime—these are the types of things I think about a lot as post-war Western Civilization winds down—and the idea never stressed me that much. If some terrible new disease broke out, I reasoned, we’d be able to isolate it and use our incredible communications infrastructure to let people know what to do to avoid the new plague. We’d have the tools; we’d have the science! We’d all knuckle down and quash the thing.

I forgot to factor in human stupidity, laziness, magical thinking, and the cult of rugged individuality (and the governments that arise from, and foster, that cult). My other apocalyptic fantasies—religion-crazed murder mobs, cyanide pills and so on—seem more likely in the couple decades of life I have left in me.

Again, I’m doing all right. I’m still working, and my employer has been more than generous about enabling us to work from home. My housing situation is secure and comfortable. My mom, pushing 90, remains healthy and has been a champion of independence and stoicism. My wife suffered a work-related loss, then seized an opportunity that has put her in a better position than ever. It was a brave move, and I’m incredibly proud of how she’s built a new business around her amazing self.

There are weeks where I’m just cruising along doing my thing, feeling like the luckiest SOB alive. Other times, I flash back to the whole list of events of 2020 and remember: this year sucked. SUCKED. No gigs, no festivals, no travel. Friends out of work and in distress. One of my best pals, a real guru of our cohort and one of the coolest people I’ll ever know, died a lonely, sudden death mid-year. My band, with two years of hard work and growing success behind it, imploded in the most ugly and humiliating way I could have imagined. The days when I’m feeling good about things, I wonder if my positivity is just a PTSD-induced mirage.

Here’s a list of a few things made 2020 a little less hideous.
  1. Guitar lessons. This was my first and best decision of 2020…which led to… 
  2. Dirty Vicar. Kyle and I did this thing out of boredom and love for heavy metal music, and it was the most magical creative convergence I’ve experienced since Huxley (true Diff Music insiders will know what I’m talking about). More to come in 2021! 
  3. Bandcamp Fridays. This is how I shopped for music in 2020. Support! 
  4. The JHS Show. For 20 minutes or so every Friday I’m blown away by the professionalism and plain old entertainment value provided by Josh as he ponders guitar pedal history, shines a spotlight on a particular maker, and talks about a favourite album, all interspersed with jams that hammer home the point that gear doesn’t count for squat if you don’t make good music with it. 
  5. Hot Wheels Racing. What is a man-child gonna do when the F1 season is postponed? Time for some gravity-fed racing that is far more unpredictable and action-packed than anything involving Lewis Hamilton. As with the JHS Show, the production values on my favourite channel are insane. 
And of course, the music. A whack of stuff that moved and inspired me, in no real order: 

Meredith Bates's debut solo album is a surreal journey through a landscape of bowed strings and effects. It reminds me of nights at Merge or the China Cloud when I can't decide whether to close my eyes and drift off, or stay alert and try to figure out how it's done. 

Black/death insanity that is both killer and local. 

Trying to decode this album's knotty language would be futile. Just know that it has Robert Wyatt and Mary Halvorson doing incredible things together.

Ross has a way with sounds both bleak and seductive.

Sam Barton is from the esteemed Teeth of the Sea, and in lieu of new TotS, Apple Acid Satin Walls easily tides me over. A real favourite release this year.

Rocket Recordings always brings the good stuff to light.

As ever, Zombi thrill and amaze with this surprisingly guitar-laden album.

I know this dude. I was there when he debuted a lot of this material at the Vancouver Jazz Fest, and it's so good to hear it in its final form. "Harmonium" has one of my favourite sick riffs of 2020.

Sarah Davachi had a productive year, providing my go-to work-from-home soundtrack with several releases throughout 2020. This one is her major work, though.

One of many things to slither out of Mattias Olsson's sonic laboratory this year, I will happily grapple with this barrage of Lovecraft-inspired heavy prog.

Everything is up for grabs these days, so why not some '80s nostalgia via the expertly sculpted synth-pop sounds of Jacob Holm-Lupo's The Opium Cartel? You can keep it light and be serious while doing it.

After Morbus Chron ended, founder Robert Andersson continued pursuing his very personal take on progressive death metal, naming his new project after the old band's final album. The music here steps sideways at every opportunity, but never loses you.

Let's end in my comfort zone. Elds Mark aren't a modern take on anything, or boldly combining genres or some foolish idea like that. These concise but satisfying jams are straight-up progressive rock that sound like they were released on some tiny underfunded label in 1975, and I'll drink to that.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

A Difficult 2016

An ultra-lazy roundup of what I liked in 2016.

Caroline K—Now Wait for Last Year (Blackest Ever Black)
Originally released in 1985, this reissue was easily the most affecting album I heard all year.

Heron Oblivion—s/t (Sub Pop)

Elephant9—Silver Mountain (Rune Grammofon)

Black Mountain—IV (Jagjaguar)

Dysrhythmia—The Veil of Control (Profound Lore)

Neurosis—Fires Within Fires (Neurot)

Anciients—Voice of the Void (Season of Mist)

Gorguts—Pleiades’ Dust (Season of Mist)

Sarah Davachi—Dominions (JAZ Records)

Opeth—Sorceress (Roadrunner)

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.