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Looking For Quacks In The Pavement

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Pet Shop Boys – Hotspot

And someone said, “It’s fabulous you’re still around today / you’ve both made such a little go a very long way” — “Yesterday, When I Was Mad”, Pet Shop Boys, Very

With Hotspot hitting stores earlier this year, the Pet Shop Boys have now released fourteen entire full studio records, on top of the never-mind-how-many compilations, EPs, remix albums, singles and so on that comprise their full discography. (Discography is in fact the name of one of their compilation releases. Because of course it is.) This record is billed as completing a trilogy of albums, with 2013’s Electric and 2016’s Super preceding it. So, how does this one fare?

PSB songs tend to fall into one or more standard categories: Dance tracks, sappy downtempo pieces, biting satire, and weird experiments. All of the biting satire was siphoned off for last year’s delightful Agenda EP which is worth the price of admission for “On social media” alone, with an honorary mention for “What are we going to do about the rich?”. What remains for this album are several solid dance numbers, one weird experimental bit (“Wedding In Berlin”) at the tail end, and a mixed bag of downtempo pieces. The boys are in solid form here, make no mistake. It’s just that their sappier numbers tend not to work for me, so what I’m really getting out of this are the dance songs.

Which isn’t a bad thing, because the three best ones here are “Will-o-the-wisp” right at the start, “Dreamland” (with guest vocals) a few tracks on, and “Monkey business” just past the halfway mark. I can’t decide which of the three I like best, and believe me I’ve listened to them frequently enough this past week-or-so that I should’ve been able to by now. They’re all really, really good, let’s just leave it at that.

Is Hotspot worth your money? That depends on if you like other Pet Shop Boys music and want more of it. There’s no mistaking this for anything but a PSB record, with just enough new twists and variations to assure the listener that Tennant and Lowe haven’t entirely submitted to the ravages of time. As a fan since almost the beginning, I give it a solid stamp of approval.

Myke Cole – Legion Versus Phalanx

To many people I know, running through “what if?” mental exercises is a favored pasttime. Turns out that authors like Myke Cole can also have a lot of fun with the “what if?” game, and in his case he possessed the means and opportunity to chase down some answers. It helps that his particular “what if?” actually happened several times throughout a particular period of history.

What if the Roman legions faced off against the ancient phalanx infantry formation? Continue reading

Mono Inc – The Book of Fire

One thing about 2020 started off well: Two of my favorite musical acts released albums on the same day. Let’s dig into the one I pre-ordered, first…

My first exposure to Mono Inc was “Boatman,” a single released in advance of the album Together Til The End, that featured Ronan Harris of VNV Nation. I bought that album and became an instant fan of this goth metal act. Their 2018 album, Welcome to Hell, is absolutely outstanding. I’ve gone a couple records into their back catalog now (Terlingua and Nimmermehr) and have been looking forward to this new release for months now.

The Book of Fire is an interesting record. The band seems to do themed albums, somewhat, after a fashion. They’re all songs from another time, albeit pretending all the while that the other time being referenced had modern drum kits and electric guitars and such. Together Til The End is the golden age of high seas piracy record, Terlingua is the tales of the Wild West record, Welcome To Hell is the Great Plague record, and so on. This one’s harder for me to pin down, though the Spanish Inquisition and The Crusades seem to figure prominently. Make of it what you will, I suppose. Maybe if I was better at parsing lyrics it would all come clearer for me. Such is life.

Mono Inc is, first and foremost, a hard rock band. Barn-burners and rock anthems are their stock in trade. That hasn’t changed on this album, not really, but they seem to be experimenting with pushing song lengths out quite a bit. I checked: Most songs on the previous four albums are within half a minute of the four minute mark, and rarely did they push past five minutes. “It Never Rains” on Terlingua is an outlier at six full minutes long. The Book of Fire starts out, track one, with the title song clocking in at a full seven minutes twenty. It’s encroaching on Yes-like prog-rock territory, and it’s one of two songs here to smash past the seven minute mark.

(If you buy the digital release, by the way, some bets are hedged: There’s a “single” version of the title song which is… just under six minutes long. Well then.)

Fewer than half of the dozen songs on this release are under five minutes long. A big change! But does it work? I mean, as I noted in my review of Garbage’s Strange Little Birds album, going prog is certainly pitching to my strike zone as a music fan. Unfortunately in this case… it does not entirely work out. The band mostly takes advantage of the extra song length to repeat lyrics and choruses a bit more. The other seven-minute-plus song here, “Where The Raven Flies,” gets a lot right and almost justifies the entire experiment in the extended bridge section but ends up needing to be edited down by an entire lyrics/chorus cycle. I almost love it, I really do. It really swings for the fences, though, and I absolutely want to see the band try this sort of thing again. With practice I think they could get good at it.

With that said, let’s be clear: This is still a nice big bundle of barn-burners and rock anthems. “Louder Than Hell” is, well, the “Welcome To Hell” of this album. (Speaking of comparisons to the previous record: I really wish they hadn’t almost completely lifted the superb “A Vagabond’s Life” from the last album and turned it into “Nemesis.” I can’t hear the new song without wishing I was listening to the other version of it.) “Right For The Devil” and “The Gods of Love” and “Warriors” are standouts in an album that doesn’t have any truly awful songs out of the dozen on offer.

Overall, The Book of Fire is a strange combination of the band playing it safe (moving away from some of the more experimental structure and pacing of the last album in favor of mostly straight-up rocking out) and trying something new (extended song lengths, including two songs with prog-like structuring). It’s not bad, it’s not the best, it’s just pretty good. As Patrick H Willems has pointed out, there’s nothing inherently wrong with “pretty good.” So yes, I can recommend the album.

January was a long year.

I meant to get a couple more posts out last month. Clearly that didn’t happen. I blame the stomach bug, the weird work stuff, the weather, and a solid week where I didn’t want to do much of anything at all of any kind.

On the upside, I did make a loaf of bread all on my own. I set a goal late last year of doing something about my interest in learning to make my own bread, and here we are:

My first loaf of bread

Letting it sit for an hour to cool was torture, let me tell you. I wanted to chow down IMMEDIATELY.

It turned out okay, albeit a bit dense because I accidentally did a bit more kneading than intended. Not bad for a first try, though. We had that thing devoured within 24 hours. For instance, it made a helluva grilled cheese sammich:

Grilled cheese sandwich made with first loaf of bread

Apologies for the blurry photo, I’m still a lousy photographer.

Seriously, that was the high point of the month. On the Blender side, I learned to make a snowflake and took notes on how to do things like animated fireworks and so on. There’s a project coming, I’m just not yet certain the shape and scope of it yet. News to follow once there is some.

I also got around to assembling the two Nanoblocks Pokémon kits gifted to me over the last year or so, a Vaporeon and an Eevee. Immediately afterward I insisted that nobody buy me any more Nanoblocks kits. There are simply too many small fiddly bits for my hands and eyesight to manage. Ugh.

Nanoblock Vaporeon

These Nanoblock builds are not even remotely sturdy, with some bits hanging on by one lone post. Ugh.

Other than that, I’m just keeping on keeping on. I have a book review and two music reviews to get out there; look for those in the relatively near future.

Come On, See The Noise

I started learning Blender with two goals in mind. One centers on toy ducks, as one might naturally expect. The other centers on music visualization.

Since my earliest days “tuning out” (sitting and listening to music with big headphones on, letting my mind wander) I pictured patterns and colors and what-not. Perhaps now that I have tools to do so I can try creating some of that effect in video form. Perhaps.

This is an early test of my ability to play with lights and colors to music:

Keep in mind that this is literally my very first anything-at-all along the way toward my actual goal. The camera is static, I rendered at a super-low resolution to get the frames made in a reasonable timespan, and I clearly need to experiment with the attack/release values when baking sounds to F-curves (hence the jittery quality of the oval lighting changes). But hey, it’s a start.

Technically speaking: I intend to actually carve up and pre-process my source audio going forward. It’s one thing to tell Blender “hey, use 250Hz to 500Hz for this bit” but perhaps better to say “hey, use this copy of the audio file that’s been pre-tweaked to get the best results from this material node.” Also? Every tutorial I’ve watched so far about doing music visualization in Blender has ignored the fact that stereo exists. I think I can bring something to the table in this regard.

Downloads Zero

Perhaps you’ve heard of Inbox Zero. The idea being that one’s main email folder can become unwieldy rather quickly and the best way to stay on top of it is to aim for nothing remaining in the Inbox that hasn’t been processed in some fashion, be it by deletion or delegation or sorting into a “do this later” entry elsewhere.

I’m pretty good at keeping my work email under control. (Let’s not talk about my Gmail and my Google Apps accounts, because those interfaces are absolutely terrible if you want to manage your email in a non-Google-approved way, ugh.) The rule at work is, if I can see a scrollbar in my Inbox, I have too many messages in there and I pare it down one way or another.

On the other hand, I’m very very bad about maintaining another popular dumping ground: The Downloads folder on my computer. Judging by what I’ve seen in the course of my job I’m not the only one, mind you, but I can’t do anything about people who download the same Excel sheet twenty times and end up with ‘Critical Company Accounting Data (15).xlsx’ and so forth. All I can do is start looking after my own pile of mess.

There’s no mystery as to why this happens, really. A big part of what we do online is take stuff offline for our own use. Documents. Software installers. Media files. We download it, we run it or look at it or watch it or whatever, and then we’re done with it. “I’ll have to remember to put that in its proper place later,” we tell ourselves.

Ha! As if.

Let’s be honest: The bulk of it is Recycle Bin fodder. By the time you need to install that program again there’ll be a new version, or the program will be obsolete and you’ll have to download some other program’s installer anyway. You watched that video once, got a good laugh out of it, and… there it sits, undeleted and unsorted, until you get a new hard drive probably.

Don’t call it a “new year’s resolution” because ha ha no we don’t play that game in this household, but I started getting my main Downloads folder under control this weekend. Music is sorted where it belongs, installers are organized for safe keeping (or deleted), and so forth. My goal: Downloads Zero.

(Oh yeah and I have a stack of old hard drives with their own Downloads folders to work my way through as well. Whee!)

Let’s see how it goes.

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