The Year of the Comeback

This year has seen the return of many of my favorite artists in many years, ones who released albums in the past that I think are essential listening. Even ones who I thought I'd never see a new album from released stuff this year.

Seriously, the list is quite incredible. Artists that I had been waiting years for: David Bowie, The Knife, Pheonix, Nine Inch Nails, Franz Ferdinand, Queens of the Stoneage, Jimmy Eat World, Justin Timberlake, even Daft Punk! Then add to that a year in which My Bloody Valentine AND Boards of Canada release a new album... Yeah, a special year.

The thing is some have been far more successful than others for very different reasons. The new Pheonix album for example is a crushing disappointment because it it's dreadfully loud and dynamic-less sound. The Daft Punk album was just a stylistic misfire in my eyes, and an album I can't get into. The Knife really managed something I thought was impossible and really kill any love for them I had. What I would still call a defining album, Silent Shout, was followed by Shaking the Habitual, an overlong mess of an artistic attempt. I don't get it. 

Others are much better. the MBV album was starling at how nice it was, the Boards of Canada album is pretty incredible, and the Bowie even is listenable to. Biggest surprise was how much I liked the new Nine Inch Nails, Franz Ferdinand and Queens of the Stoneage albums. Very good.

2013 has been a weird year because of that. I have so preoccupied with older artists coming back I have missed a lot of the new debuts from this year. I will catch up with them in the coming months. If only Avalanches, Modest Mouse and Wild Beasts had pushed something new out... I would have loved that.

Boards of Canada: The New Album Dilemma

So, if you've been following me on Twitter for the past week or so, I probably have been insufferable, spouting incredulous messages about a new Boards of Canada album, some random numbers, and generally being excited like a little schoolboy, probably very similar to the way I was when I first found out that the computer game Sonic and Knuckles was coming out.

Yesterday the group announced what all fans have been waiting (in some instances, not so patiently) for: a new album. It's called Tomorrow's Harvest, will be release on the 10th of June and I have already made my pre-order.

I never thought I'd ever see this day.
I first discovered Boards of Canada approximately a week after the release of the Trans Canada Highway EP, back in 2006. I'd just handed in my notice at The Link, and was about to embark on a 10 week placement at Jacobs engineering as a recently passed 3rd-year student at Chemical Engineering. I was still living with my parents, I was still a Scout leader, and hadn't even considered moving to Aberdeen or starting to blog. That would come in late 2006.

My life has moved on a lot since 2006, as has a lot of things. But as the years passed the likelihood of a new Boards of Canada album became less and less, and as time went on I decided that despite my wishes, they probably wouldn't release a new album any time soon.

And then, last Saturday, a 12'' LP was found, hidden unannounced amongst the Record Store Day finds in New York City, that hinted either at an elaborate hoax or something new - it broadcast a cryptic code like a Numbers Station. Then Warp Records confirmed it was legit. Then a second code appeared, then Radio 1 broadcast a third, NPR broadcast a fourth, and then before I knew it I was checking various fan forums hourly as the clues unraveled, before the fan forum I was viewing became part of the trail.

Then yesterday, the album was revealed. I was commuting during the reveal and found out by way of a random re-tweet by a Boards of Canada related Twitter account when I got home - I could scarcely believe that they'd finally done it.

Before reading further, if you haven't, read this post on Tones of Town about Boards of Canada as I explain what the mean to me and why I love them so. Then come back.

Are you back? Good. I now have a dilemma.

See, Boards of Canada are my current favourite artist. I grew to appreciate each release I acquired over a long period of time, only recently listening to their lost-complication BoC Maxima just this past week. I have both Old Tunes tapes downloaded and own each of their official releases (only owning one physically, Music Has the Right to Children, but I actually don't know where it is right now). I have made my peace with their back catalogue - I discovered it all out of sync, out of order, and now have pretty much fully formed opinions of how each release sits in my mind, and how they relate to each other.

Imagine a story that was finished - one that had an ending of sorts, and then being told there was a future book that expanded on the characters. If you'd made peace with their fate, knowing that there was a canonical version of the events after your ending it can shake it up a lot. An actual example of this is the sixth book in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy, And Another Thing, heroically written by Eion Colfer after Douglas Adam's untimely death. It didn't change the books I had read previously, but it certainly did change how I felt about the ending of Mostly Harmless.

Of course, music is very different to that of a book - there is no real narrative, besides that of the album it's self. But what of my narrative? I have had eight years to dissect all their work and how it fits in my head, and now there's going to be more. And the new work will never change how I feel about the albums right now, but might it change how I feel in the future? It could. My tastes are fluid (though, admittedly, much more stationary than before) and like my infatuation with The Smiths 5 years ago, Boards of Canada could fall out of favour (however unlikely).

Don't get me wrong, however - I am not not looking forward to new material - I actually have not been this excited for a new album by anyone in my life, I think (though my younger self was extremely excited about Oasis' Be Here Now) but I am suddenly wary. I never expected new material from the group and now there will be it changes things ever so slightly. Despite writing this, I don't think I can quite explain it fully - apprehension isn't the correct term, but it is a type of wariness. 

I look forward to hearing the new album at any rate. How it changes my relationship with their early work I won't know until I have heard it.

Loscil and Talvihorros Live – The Glad Café (2013/03/21)

As I mentioned before, I think the Glad Café was already on my good side with their lovely décor, nice staff, and Williams Brothers beers that they served chilled and cheap. The café its self is lovely and so is their magazine (that I’ve still to submit to, natch) so all that had to be done was to go and see a gig in their venue space to complete an opinion. 

As luck would have it, Loscil, a Canadian ambient electronic artist called Scott Morgan, and Talivhorros, a noisy ambient-ish live act two-piece from Edinburgh, were playing – both artists that I’d wanted to see live for a long time. So, with a friend that I’d drip fed with back catalogue entries and Youtube clips of the two artists over the course of four months to prepare him, I went along to the café. Here are my thoughts:

The set up for this duo was intriguing – a drum kit pared down to the essentials – a snare, a hi-hat and a kick pedal, as well as a few looping pedals and a drum pad. On the other side of the stage was a series of looping pedals and machines, and an electric guitar. The music that the two guys made using this ragtag of set ups was impressive and immersive – you’d probably already be ready for their style if you were going to see Loscil, sure, but the live aspect of it all doesn’t come across on their records (which, I think might be because the two piece set up is fairly new, I am unsure). 

The drumming was used to excellent affect, especially in the final track. The looping of the drumming however was overshadowed by the intricate and excellent guitar looping. The set was quite impressive, the variety of the melodies and the urgency of some of the looping was spectacular, showing that there was a true talent for construction of music on show. I was very impressed by the end of their set.

In comparison to Talvihorros’ set up of live instruments, Loscil’s was simply a Macbook on a table with a few controllers and a touch pad controller. I have listened to a lot more of Loscil’s work, his being one of the break through ambient artists that I started listening to. I recognised a lot of what he was playing as linked to some of the work on his new album, but the arrangements were slightly different and the timings were constructed differently. This was one of my first “laptop” gigs where the music is being live from a computer. I always wondered what it would be like, as I was brought up on live bands and the interplay that that brings, and I thought it would be hard to be engaged in what appears on the surface as a guy simply standing behind a Mac. 

I was wrong, however – I was mesmerised by Loscil’s concentration, evidently working on timings and queuing things up to slowly build a cohesive sound. It was pretty fascinating watching someone play with a laptop as intricately as anyone playing a guitar or drum kit. And, in the end, what is the difference? I know that many might not see it – many would struggle to be convinced by it, many of my friends would find it difficult, but I enjoy it a lot. The music was fabulous and  I was certainly invested in the way in which the music was being created. As someone with a mild wish to make their own electronic music using a laptop only, it was an education to see it done live.

The Venue:
The Venue is at the back of the café through what looks like fire doors and is small – this is not a bad thing. Despite it being a sell out (more on that in a bit) there was ample space to enjoy both acts and move around. Indeed, we were right up at the front of the stage and there was around 8 feet of space, enough for some of the audience to take a seat during the relaxing Loscil set. After having a few pints of the Williams Brothers draught (which is lovely, properly lovely) I didn’t mind standing up, but sitting down with Connie for something else is a nice option – though I am not sure if it would work for some other artists, or if the venue would let us. 

The only slight problem I noticed was with the gig being a sell out – whilst I waited for my gigging compadre to appear several folk asked if there were tickets on the door. Confusion reigned as a tweet earlier in the day had said there was 10 left but they had been reserved between the tweet and the gig door opening. This wasn’t isolated – there was at least 20 people coming up to the bar asking for tickets. I think it surprised the venue that it had sold out (it surprised me too) so I can’t be too harsh on them, but for those who missed out… it might’ve been a bit annoying.

I really enjoyed the gig and the venue, so that’s good. Can’t wait to go back again.

Note: I looked online for some photos of the gig but I couldn’t find any.

The EP

There has been many writers online in the past few years bemoaning the death of something or other thanks to digital downloads – the death of the single, the death of the album, or even the death of music.

This is obviously mostly the death of making money from music. Many people seem to think that making music (and for that matter, art it’s self) means that artists should be able to make their living from that. I guess that’s they way it used to be, when albums were selling millions and people actively bought music. But the major problem is that the generation below me have grown up with no need to buy music ever, and that’s a major problem if you are aligned to make money from the industry.

Of course, what many people are also realising is that it’s actually the death of the music label, and from that the birth of the new direct-selling industry occurs. The middle man, labels, which were needed to sell and make albums, are no longer needed.

This post isn’t about that though – it’s about the humble Extended Play. The EP originally was simply a competing method of packaging albums – 78rpm records, or even seven inch, ten or twelve inch albums, could be regarded as EPs if they were developed in such a way. The EP was later mostly used for extended singles, with more B-sides, or even as an album sampler. Now though the term EP is pretty fluid – sometimes it is three or four tracks, either recorded specially for the release, or album session off cuts, or even a remix EP.

The definition of what an actually EP is is pretty hard to pin down – for example, Modest Mouse’s 2009 EP No One’s First But You’re Next is eight tracks and 33 minutes long, whereas Radiohead’s 2011 album The King of Limbs is eight tracks and 37 minutes long. The definition is primarily determined by the artist themselves.

However, there is a compelling argument that seems to suggest that in the post-label world we are approaching, an EP might be the more obvious format for releasing material. Singles themselves are either one of two things – a chart baiting release, designed as a promo for the upcoming album, or a stream online. If you are releasing a single many people (myself included) simply just pop onto Spotify or Youtube and listen to it when we want to. There is no need to worry about buying it as it’s always there to listen to. Even a B-side that I might like can be bought a-la-carte, without the parent single, and it’ll probably end up online anyway. Lost B-sides are rare now thanks to the archiving nature of Spotify. For example, I’ve made two full Coldplay “albums” using B-sides from Spotify. This would have been impossible 10 years ago without buying all versions of all singles. It’s brilliant.

The album format too is dying – I love the format. 40-50 minutes of music from my favourite artists is perfect. I adhere to the album format too – despite building playlists weekly, I rarely listen to out of sync music from my artists. I have hundreds of discography playlists made which each album running in order, and I don’t dare pop on the shuffle feature. I don’t blaspheme against the craft gone into an album. In this, however, I am in the minority. I took a quick scroll through a friends iPod recently and found miscellaneous tracks from hundreds of album, cherry picked. This too, would have been impossible years ago – building a mixtape used to take as long as it took to play it, but now it’s simply a matter of picking a choosing tracks.

So the real question is why would an artist spend months and years building a cohesive album of material, potentially spending hundreds of pounds on production and pressing, only to find people only download the singles, or only buy one or two tracks from it?

And this is where the EP comes in – a single is worthless, a simple stream, and an album is too expensive in time and cost to produce. Instead, cranking out an EP or two a year, in sporadic sessions in the studio, with a smaller price than an album and a higher price than a single. It’s economical too, with the ability to tour more often rather than spend months on albums.

And it’s not just me who thinks it – EPs are in vogue again – big name artists like Radiohead, The Antlers, Burial and even Take That (though, the Progressed EP did smack more of a special edition of the original album than a stand alone EP) have all released EPs out of album cycles. It all really depends on how the artists conduct themselves really – a story from the Mars Volta tells that their second album, Frances the Mute, was originally due to be a five track album, but their label would have only paid them an EPs wages – instead, the band arbitrarily split the last track, the 32 minute Cassandra Gemini, into eight tracks.

I love the EP too. My favourite releases from some artists are EPs – Boards of Canada’s EP output eclipses their LP output almost entirely, for example. The EP might be out of date technologically, but as a format for consumption I feel it’s ready-made for the music industry’s future. I might be wrong (I am regularly) but it feels right. The natural extension of this is a reduced album – a mini-album, like ErrorsNew Relics from 2012 – a half way house between the EP and the LP.

Long live 20 to 30 minute EPs.

Google Play Music - The Cloud Player I've Always Wanted

I’ve been a major proponent of Spotify for years, and I love every inch of it’s streamy goodness. However, as someone who loves music and will endeavour to expand my musical tastes for the foreseeable future, Spotify has one major downfall – the lack of some of my key favourite artists. If Spotify was to ever replace my hard drive, I’d lose quite a few artists and albums I feel are too important to lose. 

So, I waited.

I waited until someone gave me one of two options; one, a cheap method of setting up my own server and cloud music upload system or two, a good service designed for music listening in mind.

iTunes is where my music is stored, for better or worse, and it launched a service similar to what I wanted only last year – iTunes Match and iTunes in the Cloud are two parts of a service that would let me load all my music onto Apple’s servers and then play it anywhere. Or so you’d think. See, even though I’d have all my music on their servers, I’d have to install iTunes to access it, or play it on my iPhone. And even then, it doesn’t stream it strictly, instead downloading it and caching it offline. Not exactly what I want.

Then there’s Amazon’s system, but even then I didn’t fancy paying for something just yet. I wasn’t 100% sold on the idea.

Google’s Play Music then is the obvious next option. It allows free uploading of 20’000 tracks (I have 11’000ish in my library) and the playing of it anywhere, via a web app in the browser, or via third party applications on the iPad and iPhone. So, this weekend I decided to take the plunge and upload all 90Gb of music to their servers. It’s taken a long time, for sure, but it’s a one time thing.  

Now, I have used it a bit now and am slowly falling in love with it for the reasons below;

It’s free. I mean, it’s free like all Google things are, and maybe it won’t be for all the time, but as a solution that meant I could see if it would work, it was the best.

It works. I can use it in Chrome, Safari on the iPhone, in Firefox on the work PC (for now), and via an app on my phone and iPad. Without any problems either. It’s been utterly seamless.

It lets me have scrobbling. This is very important to me. I thought at first it wouldn’t, which would’ve been a deal breaker, but serendipitously the app I downloaded updated this morning to allow it, and via some finagling with Greasemonkey and this cool add-in, Firefox scrobbles too. This sealed the deal for me.

I can re-download my library, if I need to. This means that not only is it a streaming service, but also a kind of free back-up service. Pretty neat. I wouldn’t use it as a back-up though, you never know when Google will stop you from doing that.

It’s free from Apple. I love Google’s services. Gmail is brilliant, Google Maps is wonderful, and now Google Play Music. But then you wonder why I don’t have an Android phone, or an Android tablet – but that’s the thing. Despite being entrenched in Google’s services I am also built into Apple’s ecosystem too. To leave for another would lock me out of all I have before. In fact, this is the best way round, I think. I have Apple’s device and OS but with Google’s services, and none of the Android hassle. Not that there is much now, natch, but moving away from a mobile OS, especially when I’ve had iPhones for 5 years now and own a MacBook, an iPad, and a second iPhone, it’d be mental to leave. But the point is that Apple’s stuff just doesn’t work the way I want it to, and it’s great that Google supports my wishes.

It’s early days, sure, but so far having all my music online, for me to stream on any device, anywhere, at any time, is feeling so much like the future I want it’s scaring me. Google Play Music is fantastic.

Notes: It converts your music to MP3 at 320kb, including lossless stuff. For streaming that’s fine, but if you have a lot of FLAC stuff (I don’t) then you might not like that aspect of it. Also it does take ages to upload your stuff despite doing some matching of artists. It’s taken me 3 solid days of uploading to put 11k on, with around 4k matched. It’s a one time thing. And yeah, I don’t think O2 has been too happy – they’ve been throttling back my Xbox and Facetime connections quite a bit. Turns out uploading 90Gb isn’t exactly their favourite thing in the world.