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Looking For Quacks In The Pavement

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The Coronavirus Lockdown Blues

Forget all the things we were going to do, all there is now is what little we can do in the time and space we have.

The original plan, of course, was to get back to working on something to do with Blender 3D and the ducks. Then my computer started misbehaving, so I can’t trust it to do renders. Another plan was to get out and do more hiking. Then the stay-at-home order arrived (shortly after my employers issued a work-from-home order). And so on, and so on. At this point we’re simply glad that we stocked up on toilet paper before the hoarders took over the grocery stores.

I barely leave my room anymore. It’s where I work, has been for a couple of weeks now, and where I play, since listening to music and playing games and whatnot (such as my ailing machine permits) involves the computer that’s at a desk in my room. This is really adding insult to injury since I was stuck in my room back in February when I came down with a cold, then I was mostly stuck in my room during my birthday stay-cation.

Am I getting tired of these five walls? Oh yes, yes I am.

But the alternative is being reckless and getting myself sick, or worse, getting someone else sick. So here I remain, with a lovely view out my window of the apartment building across the parking lot.

I hope you’re all doing well, friends.

Two Loaves For The Price Of Two

Instead of focusing on three dimensional digital fakery, I decided on my recent vacation to spend some time focusing on three dimensional edible foodstuffs. That’s right, it was time to try my hand again at making fresh homemade bread. I used a different recipe (sorry, “formula”) from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, my guiding tome. Lesson learned from the first go-around: Don’t be so knead-y.

Here’s how that panned out.

Pictured: Measured ingredients for making a couple loaves of bread

Ingredients: Assemble!

I started at six thirty in the morning on the last day of my vacation, the day after the DST change no less, because I had a movie I wanted to see shortly after noon. A madman I may be, but I’ve always worked best to a deadline.

Last time, my inaugural breadmaking foray, I over-kneaded the dough and it was a bit dry besides, so the final product came out a bit on the dense side. I did not make that mistake again, though I overbalanced a bit and ended up with too sticky of dough for a while. Luckily when I added some flour to fix the consistency I didn’t go overboard.

Pictured: A bowl containing a blob of dough.

Arise, my doughy mass, arise!

One nice thing about this hobby is that a large percentage of the time spent making bread involves waiting for proofing (rising) stages to complete. This meant that I could read, goof off a bit, and take care of other chores.

Pictured, blurrily: Two loaves' worth of dough in their baking pans

One of the minor miracles of this project? I managed to get a nearly even split of the dough into two loaves.

That (somewhat blurry) photo above shows another of the problems with this attempt: The instructions call for spraying oil lightly atop the loaves, but all I had available was a silicone brush so there’s a fair bit more oil on those things than actually intended. Whoops.

Pictured: Two damned fine loaves of bread if I do say so myself, which I do.

Two plain loaves of boring white bread, but they’re MY plain loaves of boring white bread. I did that!

I can’t complain about the results, though. Not one bit.

Lessons learned from this go-around: Get an oil misting bottle instead of using a brush, and have a small amount of flour and water on hand during kneading in case things get too sticky or too dry, respectively. Other than that? All’s well that ends deliciously.

Rethink, regroup, redo

I had plans for the next Blender project. Unfortunately, I ran full-speed into a logistical wall: I can’t do what I wanted to do with the audio-based triggering of effects. Not at all. That setback basically means that I can’t at all proceed with one of the original ideas that got me into doing Blender in the first place.

After a couple weeks I finally came up with a loose game plan for the other project/idea so I’ve started poking at that. I lost that couple of weeks to just being frustrated and annoyed with myself and with the limitations of the technology I have on hand.

On the upside: I submitted my taxes and the refunds have already arrived. I spent part of the refund money on a new mattress, which is long overdue considering how long my old futon mattress has been in dire need of replacement.

At any rate, hopefully I’ll have more stuff to show off before much longer. There’s some scenery construction work to get done and at least one more iteration of the duck design before I can get the ball fully rolling.

A wonky 3D duck on some cheap wood flooring.

My next attempt will probably involve building the main body and head in one sculpting pass. Wish me luck.

So here’s hoping I don’t run into any other brick walls, eh?

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.

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