Midweek Music Picks: Pure Reason Revolution

Pure Reason Revolution are a band that caught my attention first as prog, but I soon realised they were inhabiting the prog genre at the most progressive, eclectic fringes of it – as you can tell upon listening to the song below, Blitzkrieg.

The music hovers between the electroclash rock of Justice, the fast-paced drum’n’bass rock fusion of Pendulum, and the chaotic soundscapes of electronica artist Hans Appelkvist: synthy guitar riffs and strong drumbeats are peppered with Eighties style Orchestra Hits, the odd house clap, before descending into broken rhythms and chopped-up blurts and bleeps, then building up again with polyphonic chorus into an insane fusion of sound, using noise as sculpture, painting crescendo onto seconds.

The slightly dystopian futuristic undertones of their themes (the intro samples of Blitzkrieg, for example, are from 1962 post-apocalyptic French film La Jetéesuggest something akin to Rush’s 2112, which makes sense considering the band’s first producer also produced Rush’s music.

Furthermore this band is from the town next to where I used to live in the UK (Reading – a wee bit north from the birthplace of Genesis). Nobody seems to know where to place them – they have been labelled prog, electronica, alt rock, new prog, and bizarrely ‘Astral Folk’, even garnering a good review from keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman. It’s a shame they’ve split up now, but one can always hope, because this music rocks.

 

The Watch plays Nursery Cryme

Italian prog rockers The Watch are the Genesis continuation we always wanted. Officially endorsed by ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett, they do amazing covers of classic era Genesis songs. Their original albums, while having their own distinct flavour, are tantamount to the Genesis albums that never existed but that totally should have. Imagine, if you will, that Gabriel and Hackett never left and that classic era of music had been allowed to progress in that vein. This would doubtless be the result. I have so much love for this band, so you can imagine my excitement when I heard they were coming to Oslo.

The band kicking off the concert

The concert, held last Saturday the 30th January, was billed as ‘The Watch plays Nursery Cryme’, but what we got was so much more. Not only did we get plenty of The Watch’s own music, including a few wonderful songs inspired by the Italian Alps, but we also got a sly couple of songs from The Lamb Lies Down too. And, let me tell you, as soon as those gentle guitar strums and first Mellotron sweeps hit the air, the room was electric.

“There’s something solid forming in the air,

And the wall of death is lowered in Times Square…”

We could all feel it, and in that moment I knew we were enraptured, part of the show, the adventure. We were all Rael then.

The atmosphere electric continued on as they played through Nursery Cryme with stylised restraint. I loved this aspect of the band – it is clear that they are virtuosos, but they let out only as much as is needed for the song, giving the stark impression that they are holding back a powerful hurricane. The lead singer, in particular, Simone Rossetti, embodied the essence of Gabriel’s countenance in ‘Watcher of the Skies’ – a solitary, austere figure, voice tight as a tightrope walker, letting out just enough of the music to make the maximum impact. Less is more, in this case, and it was magical. It belonged to another universe.

Nursery Cryme was indeed played in its entirety, but not in order. This was a surprise for many in the audience, and by the time the album’s stellar track came out, The Musical Box, we were ecstatic, and more so from the unexpectedness. I was deeply happy with the guitarist, Giorgio Gabriel, and his ability to sound every inch as ethereal and heavenly as Steve Hackett. The sound of his guitar playing like waves lapping at the shore. Songs like Harlequin in particular, so dreamlike.

The keyboardist, Valerio De Vittorio, had amazing technique, using Moog and Mellotron to maximum Seventies effect. This really came into its own on the band’s original songs, where the keyboards seemed more striking than the soft waves of Genesis. And the bassist, Mattia Rossetti, impressed many by handling a multi-neck bass and 12-string guitar. Sometimes it amazes me all over again to witness how every single sound from these songs can be made with a group of just five people. Listening to the records, it is so layered that it always feels like it should be so much more.

Once the final song was over and the dust had settled, the encore came. I couldn’t believe my ears when the band announced they would be playing Supper’s Ready from the album Foxtrot. What a treat! This was so much more than I ever could have expected!

So the twenty-three minute epic journey of apocalypse, as envisioned by Peter Gabriel forty four years earlier. The dulcet tones of the intro began, and everything sounded perfect. The mood in this small blues bar, filled to the brim with fans, was like nothing ever experienced before. All of us, I would hazard to say, knew this song in particular, Genesis’s masterpiece, and united by a common love we all fell under the song’s sway. It would not be an exaggeration to say it was a religious experience.

I have to give particular kudos to the drummer, Marco Fabbri, who tackled the section ‘Apocalypse in 9/8’ with aplomb. I have to admit I’ve never heard someone drumming in this time signature before, and it was so well handled. I also really liked the Gretsch kit, a callback to the kits Phil Collins used in this era, and what was interesting and probably due to how small the venue was (and possibly the fact I was right at the front too), was the hard, punchy tones that resulted – it was quite different to the recordings, but made for a nice offset against the taut vocals and dreamy keyboards and guitars.

I also feel that Simone Rossetti flourished in this song. It felt like the entire concert was leading up to this point – the release of those slightly-off-kilter but perfectly placed vocals. I think Gabriel ought to be so proud.

The clock ticked well over midnight as Supper’s Ready, and the entire gig along with it, drew to a finish. I have heard that The Watch return to Oslo every year, so I am looking forward to next year’s show already. Every time I see such a large crowd coming to attend prog-related shows in Oslo I become ecstatic, almost with disbelief at the fact that there are so many others who share this obsession with the somewhat odd and niche music I listened to in my childhood. It’s a good thing, and this particular experience is one I will remember.

Here’s a link to their album ‘Tracks from the Alps’:

Chrysalis

I’m writing one-armed for fear of awakening the devil in my shoulder blade. Seriously, this devil wields my shoulder like a knife.

If I could harness this power, I’m sure I could have been a fantastic performer for Cirque du Soleil. But real life has other plans, it seems. Ehlers Danlos is not an appealing illness, unless you like pain. And not the fun kind.

It’s been a trying week. I’m sure that the cortisol produced by extra stress has a part to play in how cruddy my joints feel, and this week there has been a lot of that in the mix. I’ve counted a couple major dislocations and around twenty five minor, on the right shoulder, since Tuesday. Bra straps are killer.

This week the theme for the Oslo Writer’s League Anthology 2016 was announced. It’s an incredibly fitting theme for me right now: the journey of metamorphosis.

Our minds, our identities are always in a state of metamorphosis, as we find out who we really are inside. Our bodies we tend to assume only have two real states of metamorphosis: the pubescent transition from child to adult, and the process of ‘becoming old’. That whole life span in between is seen almost as a static state of ‘adult’, when, for the body, it is anything but.

I have always been aware of my mental state changing, but the real shock to the body system came in 2009 when my Ehlers Danlos syndrome ‘advanced’, and left me feeling like Sophie from Howl’s Moving Castle, an old ninety-year-old woman in a twenty-two year old’s body. I imagine that others who have had health issues thrust upon them early in life have felt similarly, have felt the change of body like the change of seasons.

And now the time for transition is upon me again.

I will be having surgery soon, to reduce breast tissue and decrease the pressure put on my shoulders and ribs. I’m getting tired of being unable to even run up a flight of stairs without my bra pulling my shoulder joint out, or my rib pinging apart. I have scars around my torso even from the most expensive and well-fitted, soft bras. It’s almost like God knew I was going to be born with EDS and decided to double the difficulty level.

The difficulty setting is more so unwelcome considering my identity lies somewhat between genders. I’ve never felt a strong association with having a body that’s easily gender-definable. It feels like never owning any pairs of shoes that fit, so you’re always uncomfortable and getting blisters.

So the imminent changes are exciting. I’m not naïve about what these changes entail: I’m aware that the entire process of metamorphosis is itself a journey, not an endpoint. Changing one thing doesn’t mean you’re ‘finished’ as a person. I don’t really think people have a Final Form (contrary the meme). All we have are things that change and concepts that we align ourselves closer to, like satellites around planets, when those concepts make sense for our current situation.

My current situation is going to change. I am going to find relief, when my ribs don’t pop out with every step, and I am going to feel more comfortable in my skin. It’s not going to cure everything, but it will be an important lesson.

Spontaneous Combustion

Sometimes I hear a song and imagine a strong story behind it, concepts that chill to the bone on a close inspection.

My favourite currently is Spontaneous Combustion by Dark Captain Light Captain:

they said they’d be waiting for us

now they’re smiling but they’re against us

they’re shouting in our ears

they’re shouting because they hate us

they hate us because we’re athletes

we’re athletes because we

can see

the rising sun

turn this rising sun into a mountain

turn this rising sun into a mountain

turn this rising sun into a mountain

to hide your x-ray eyes

turn your x-ray eyes into a visor

turn your x-ray eyes into a visor

turn your x-ray eyes into a visor

and turn this whole thing round

 

I hear a world where a group of people are vilified, like mutants (hence the x-ray eyes line) but more in line with what already exists in the world. People with different bodies, who the rest of society call disabled. We’re athletes because we can see the rising sun – the new dawn coming, the terrifying and bold new future. A society where they are hated and people turn upon them because of their differences, because of their different needs, but where their so-called ‘mutant’ powers could become strong and terrifying enough in turn to strike back against the people treating them as less than human. It’s not a good thing to hurt people the way they hurt you, but if you’re treated as subhuman for long enough, the desire to strike back is hard to ignore. All the anger and desperation has to go somewhere. This song feels like a revolution, and more so than I think any other song I’ve heard. It fills me with terrifying passion.

Nobody wants to imagine stories like the X-Men might be real. If the people you tread on actually did turn out to have immense powers, you’d be held accountable, confronted with your own inhumanity.

On Sadness Fuelling Creativity

It’s not been a great week. I’ve been seeking distractions for much of it, and some of those distractions have ended up becoming good things in themselves, but still the sadness remains when they peter out and it’s time to go home.

So I am sitting here at midday, drinking whisky far too early, because I’m caught between needing to not think, and needing to get it all out through my writing. Long story short, there are people I love who are in pain and not getting the help they need, and I don’t want to lose them.

I just keep thinking if I could write and make others feel something, maybe my loved ones would end up getting the help they need, maybe the propaganda would shift enough to cause change.

I feel hollow.

But there’s nothing I can do but keep on trying. So this week I’ve been forcing endorphins into my system by going to the gym, putting myself in a mental state where I’m able to keep going and keep creating things, and hopefully change things. It’s painful: with my own illness (EDS) I have a few extra obstacles to get over (this week’s stellar one was dislocating my middle finger, which makes writing hard, and which really reminds me I need to invest in a frogpad). The good thing about being where I am now is that I can actually afford these modifications. Others can’t. Anyway.

On Thursday evening I attended my first proper meetup with the Oslo Writer’s League (the OWLs). It was a fantastic evening, and aside from also being another thing to increase my endorphin levels, it was productive and I ended up making new friends. There were so many lovely people there, and so much good, in-depth discussion on various things. Also, turns out I already met one of the members (kind of) at a backstage event when prog guitarist Steve Hackett came to Oslo last year!

The other nice thing that happened this week is I finally received my proof copy of the story I wrote for my little sister Cara. This was meant to be her Christmas present but ended up a little delayed, and due to shipping problems, her final copy arrived in England before my proof one arrived in Norway. But the important thing is, it came out the printing process looking great, and I’ll probably write a separate thing on that.

Other nice things: it’s been cold and snowing a lot, and I love extreme weather. To top that off, the book I got in the writer’s club jackpot was about the first Western man to climb Mount Everest, so totally up my street. And another friend of mine is writing again with enthusiasm, so I’m watching her progress on her awesome fantasy story with great interest!

Behind all of this I’m trying to ignore the scratching dark tones, and get on with my writing. Considering the bad news of this week, which I’m not going into in any detail, I have not been able to handle writing City of Dis. So Nimbus edits is what we’re on. I’m 28k words in to editing, which is not bad, but god, do I just have to keep going.

I will make a fucking difference. For her sake, for all their sakes.

How to tell if it will snow or not!

Satellite-image-of-Britai-005

Satellite image from the University of Dundee, January 2010

Usually I end up writing my ‘In Defence of Meteorologists’ posts after negative incidents – namely, when people complain about them failing to have performed their duty as magical future-telling wizards with 100% accuracy…

But this time I’m writing it following a happy incident. It’s snowed in the UK, yes, snowed, in November, and a lot of people are pretty pleased about this, because who doesn’t love snow? However, the inevitable response is actually pretty dismissive of the entire field of meteorology as a result, and it goes something like this: ‘I can’t believe they *actually* got something right for once!’

It seems that even when a good thing happens, meteorologists are still sidelined. What would it take for people to treat the utterly impressive work they do with any kind of respect? I see others rise to defend other areas of public service, such as the NHS, when somebody has had a bad experience and insists on tarring the whole service with that brush, but I don’t see as much of this in meteorology, and it’s probably because people don’t have as much of a personal connection with the field, nor enough knowledge. So, my intent is to change that.

Weather forecasting systems are the supercomputers of our time – they deal with more variables than anything else, with greater levels of uncertainty even than the most tricky field of insurance, and they are awe-inspiring bits of tech. I mean, check out the Cray High-Performance Supercomputer plans that are taking up a huge portion of the Met Office’s investments at the moment.

Cray_Supercomputer_Newecmwf

Here’s an existing Cray supercomputer in the ECMWF offices

The fact that in this day and age we have any kind of way to predict the future at all is stunning. And let me make a distinction – it’s not actually ‘prediction’ – it is ‘forecasting based on probabilities’, because actually knowing what’s going to happen in the future is impossible.

Why is it impossible? You might think that, provided we had all the correct equations ready and all the possible variables of the earth-atmosphere system input into a machine, that we would be able to solve for all future configurations of that data?

Well, no. It’s not that simple. See, especially when it comes to fluid dynamics, there are some non-linear equations, such as the Navier-Stokes equation, with are unsolved in certain areas and this is a pure mathematics problem. Despite the issues with turbulence and flow interactions, however, the weather forecasting services still manage to make truly impressive efforts. And in the future, who knows? In fifty years I imagine we will have advanced even further, and I look forward to returning to this article when that happens, to compare how much better things have gotten. Endless possibilities!

There is much misconception about weather forecasting because of the sheer number of illegitimate reporting being done. The Daily Express is well noted for this, for instance, and other news outlets have been known to issue scaremongering reports rather than reasoned and interesting reports on the actual science being done, which is a shame, because it means that when the Met Office releases something with scientific legitimacy, it is often overload for the non-scientific layperson, who ends up classing it ALL as bogus.

Here’s some starter info from the Met Office on how snow forecasting works. But in addition, I would urge everyone to learn to read synoptic charts (the lovely surface pressure charts with all the cool lines and stuff going on over them). If you do this, it would be well worth your while and allow you to have a clearer idea of what weather forecasters are talking about. Synoptic charts are beautiful, and once you understand thickness lines, you yourself can more accurately understand whether reports of snow are likely to result in actual snow or not.

Met Office synoptic chart for Sunday 22nd November

Look for the dotted lines. They will be either blue or red (note – these are not the lines with the blue spikes or the red semicircles – these are much smaller, thinner dotted lines that may not be apparent on first glance). These lines don’t show up on every graph. If and when you find them. then look for the tiny number reading around this. These numbers tell you what the air pressure is at the top of the air column. In general if it’s above 528millibars, it means you’re probably on a warm patch of air (because warm air rises). If it’s below, you’re likely to get snow (and remember, likely does not equal inevitable). So, based on the above chart:

riskofsnow

This means it’s likely that the part of the world that I live in is likely to experience the snow that those in the UK are experiencing today (since the air mass is moving from west to east). And remember too that thickness lines are one thing, but to get snow you also have to have the right temperature range and the right amount of moist polar sea air coming in.

Thickness lines are a complicated subject. But you can gain a lot just from looking at the areas of highs and lows. In general, areas of Low pressure bring cyclonic weather, where air converges and rises. This is responsible for the tropical thunderstorms around the Equator, and also for the cold and wet batterings the UK gets from the North Atlantic. Areas of High pressure bring cloudless summer weather to the UK, but they also can bring ‘Siberian’ weather in the winter. Cold, dry and icy. Almost the whole inner area of Antarctica, for example, is a constant area of high pressure, and it is the driest place on earth (yes, even drier than the Sahara – it is officially classed as a desert).

So just knowing a.) what season it is and b.) what kind of pressure zone you have overhead can go a long way in aiding you with knowing what sort of weather to expect. Then there’s knowing where the prevailing weather fronts and air masses are currently sweeping in from. Knowing this gives you a real sense of connecting with the complicated and chaotic earth-atmosphere system once you get into it!

On a related note, the UK has a very interesting convergent trough approaching this noon (check out the flecked black line over Cornwall and South Wales – this is cool because usually the circular centres of lows are convergent, so having a convergent line is extra awesome):

convergent-trough

I hope more people get interested in the cool charts available (for free!) from reputable weather agencies. NOAA – the American Oceans and Atmosphere Administration – is also excellent for this, as is the ECMWF – the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasting, based in Reading.

And if you’re not already using the free Met Office app, you really should have it on your smartphone at all times. It’s great – not only does it give you UK weather forecasts and world forecasts, it also provides synoptic charts (aka surface pressure charts) and satellite data of cloud coverage, temperature readings and rain cover.

Another thing that complicates our weather research is government policy. The Met Office currently gets £117 million to run its service every year. It’s peanuts compared to many other services, such as the NHS (£115 billion), and even the Church of England (£170 million). That’s right. The government spends more money each year on the upkeep of old Church of England buildings than it does on the Public Weather Service… And to make matters worse, because of budget cuts, the BBC has dropped the Met Office’s contract starting next year. The mere fact that they’re opting for an even cheaper service signals the importance of ‘money savings’ over rigorous science, and that is a real shame.

Imagine if, instead of wasting energy dissing meteorologists, people with platforms spent that energy exploring the actual state of the tech, the actual state of the field of weather forecasting? We would surely all become more knowledgeable, more aware, and maybe even lead to more improvements in the field! That sounds like a much better use of time to me.

Hitting the wall

I’m fifteen days into NaNoWriMo, and have written twenty one thousand words. That’s a world record for me, although I won’t hide that I’m jealous of people who have already broken fifty thousand.

Yes, I am a little bit behind target, but I’ve had a rather demoralising experience. Not because of any incidents in real life (although in all fairness, it has been a saddening and depressing week for many of my friends), but because I have hit what long distance runners call The Wall.

It’s a little different from writer’s block, which can happen to anyone, anywhere, any time. It specifically happens at, or around, the halfway point of a predefined venture. In this case, it’s the end of the second week of NaNoWriMo, the point where I should have written around twenty five thousand words. I’m four thousand behind. I’ve had an almost completely stagnant four days in which under twenty words, cumulatively, were written. I gave up trying yesterday and replayed the entirety of Sonic Adventure 2, surpassing the final boss battle that had eluded me since I was fourteen. I do think there’s a benefit to giving in those moments, and distracting yourself with something completely ridiculous, whether it’s getting out the house for the day or just slobbing around eating pizza and playing videogames. I think I got most of it out my system, because today I’ve started writing again, and have another couple of thousand under my belt. Hopefully this means I’ll be back on track, and I hope my friends taking part in this writing challenge overcome their personal walls too.

It has been a very emotional week, and I know it’s a combination of personal relationships, terrible health, wider world events and my own internal landscape. I’m not writing about very healthy or fun topics, and this world I construct in my head does colour everything I do in reality, even if only a little. It’s made me want to fall back on some very old habits, and I’m glad that for the most part I turned to playing Sonic instead. From this I could postulate that Sonic is the cure for hitting the wall, and yeah, I’m happy with that.

 

 

November begins

And so does my writing. For the remainder of this month, I will be partaking in NaNoWriMo, and for the first time in years. I’m feeling more enthused than usual about this, largely because of my writing network having expanded – I am now in touch with a lot of writers who are serious about what they’re doing, and it lends me a lot of motivation to take myself as seriously as I wish to become.

So this month I’m using to finish up Trees in November and City of Dis. It’s the perfect month, as both those stories are terribly depressing. November’s good for that. I’m only about 20k into Trees, but am much further into City of Dis, so that’s coming first. If I can get first drafts for both by the end of the month, it would be fantastic!

After Sunday I’m already off to a good start with 4k in the bag, bringing City of Dis to a total of 60k words – almost enough for a first novel – and I’m especially happy that I’ve tackled some tricky scenes from the point of view of a rather unpleasant character. I’ve had real trouble trying to connect and make that character sound natural, because there’s so little in the way he thinks that I can emulate genuinely. But last night I got some great scenes down (well, I say ‘great’, but the truth of that will become apparent in the later editing…). I’m feeling positive about tonight’s writing. With a bit of focus and application, I might actually beat this year’s NaNo challenge!

If anyone’s on the NaNo site, why not add me? My author page

Of Monsters and Men

While watching the official trailer for Marvel’s upcoming series Jessica Jones, I discovered a new band named Of Monsters and Men. They’re an Icelandic chamber pop group, and they sound ethereal, chill, and peaceful in the sort of way that you might feel yourself before a storm breaks. The song of theirs used in the Jessica Jones trailer is called Thousand Eyes and is fantastic.

A pretty fitting song for Halloween too. The lyric video is particularly odd, but interesting.

Can you change the world?

That’s a tall order contained in that question, but it’s something that everyone’s thought about at some point or another. The realisation that you don’t have to settle for being a bystander, that you can do something that will affect the world, is a potent one, and one that forms the basis of most great stories.

On a literal and slightly pedantic level, we are changing the world in minuscule ways every time we buy a coffee or walk past somebody. Those small changes we make – how hard we push past somebody, whether we roll our eyes or look interested when someone talks to us, how much we tip a waiter or waitress – can affect others in small ways that, like sand grains, contribute towards the bigger changes. But that seems obvious – we can’t exist in the world without interacting with it, and even the decision to not interact has implications. So what about the bigger picture?

There’s a story I’ve been wanting to write since I was fourteen. It’s a big undertaking, so it won’t surface for a good few years yet. But the route those characters take ends up with them affecting their world in a big way. And, like most people I’ve met in most jobs and most places in the world I’ve been to, they never set out with that end goal in mind. They sort of stumbled in to it, then tried to make the best they could of it as they discovered more about themselves and the values they hold dear.

I hold my characters up on the road ahead of me when I’m uncertain. When I’m feeling despair – as in the previous blog entry – those moments eventually pass and my mind starts searching for reasons to continue, for motivation, for promise that I can potentially do something about the things that make me sad. So I put the characters from this future story up there and I say, ‘They aren’t particularly special. They lucked out in a few ways, they ended up with some privileges and some misfortunes, but most importantly, along the way, they noticed something was wrong. They noticed people were getting hurt and they tried to do something about it. They had no idea what they were capable of, but they tried anyway.’

And if only I can catch up to them on the road. I can see them up there, not heroes but just people, and it’s comforting. It feels like there’s hope there. I sometimes wonder if this is why I write – so that the dark feelings of the previous blog entry are not all there is – both for me and for anyone else who might have felt similar dips in their outlook. I have to try anyway.

Last night I walked under the trees by the harbour, and golden leaves showered over my head in the breeze. It felt like being on that path. I wanted to share that with others.

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