Looking Back on 2020

As this year draws to a close I have decided to look back in order to see what lessons both musical and general can be taken from this truly strange year. As crisis go the global pandemic has been a boring one, but a crisis none the less. My musical life has been badly damaged by the situation. I haven’t played a gig since February and have lost money that was due to me for performances because of venues being shutdown and a promoter not having any cash flow (at least this is what I have been told). You don’t know how much you need something in your life until it is gone. This has certainly held true for concerts. Going to shows both as a performer and as part of the audience has been a central part of my life for years.

However, there have been some positive things too. San Raquel have finally been able to release our EP and I have been able to finish my own solo album Shadows which will be being released soon. I am very proud of this album, it captures an emotional journey that I have been on for the last few years and I have only just come to the end of. Without all the free time I have been given by being stuck at home for so long I don’t think I would have been able to accomplish this. Work has begun on the follow up, I have a title and a rough idea of where I want to go musically, some of the songs are nearly complete with others still in very early stages.

Something that has occupied my mind recently especially as there is now news of a vaccine and life returning to some degree of normality is what in our society will be changed post-pandemic and what will simply revert how things used to be. I think it is going to take a long time for the music industry to come back from this. Many musicians have had to change careers, venues have shut, workers have been made redundant. It seems likely there will be tremendous demand for live music once the restrictions are eased. However, the network of different businesses that make live music as we know it possible will not simply spring back into action immediately. There will likely be lag between the end of social distancing and the return of what we used to know.

What lessons have I learned this year? Advice can be a dangerous thing that can represent the mistaken effort to take your own situation and impose it on another’s. This said, I humbly submit to you the following suggestions:

  • You cannot plan for everything, even the most carefully thought out strategy will not survive the unexpected.
  • Success without struggle is meaningless.
  • Be grateful for what you have it can be taken away from you in a moment.
  • In the face of death all that is trivial and inessential falls away.

The last lesson I received from Steve Jobs, although it has become cliché to praise him I must commend to you this speech:

I will do my best to take new risks in 2021 and avoid simply slipping into old patterns and habits. I will once again try and dare to do what is foolish.

The greatest lesson this year has taught me is that the truly unexpected can never be accounted for. Even the best plans can be nullified in an instant, I nor anyone else can control the flow of life. It is moved by inscrutable motivations and unseen forces, we are simply caught in the current. The choices send us this way and that, but ultimately we move within fixed parameters of reality. I think there is a larger purpose at work in my life, however, I know this intuitively not through reasoning. I do not count this as an item of dogma. If we ultimately deal only what we can prove we will live a very limited life and cut ourselves off from any experience of transcendence.

This year has also taught me to be less certain. How many times in my life have a felt so certain I was right only to find new information that tore the mental edifice down? Whilst perpetual skepticism is neither desirable nor tenable, a certain level of self criticism and doubt is beneficial. Without it all forms of delusional and fanatical thinking will take root in our minds. Of course, it must be mentioned that precisely what should be classified as “delusional” or “fanatical” is not widely agreed upon, so I do not offer any easy solutions here.

Another lesson that has be gifted to me by the pandemic and the current restrictions in the UK is the fickle nature of moral standards and how quick people are to fall in line and follow the status quo. The threat of a health emergency has lead to vast swathes of people (myself included) to surrender their liberties. This is not to say that measures designed to protect others health are inherently wrong. What I am saying is that the way they have been enforced with fines and police patrols is authoritarian. If one has to resort to force it is often a sign that one has lost the argument. I fear in the case of UK government this may be accurate. From what I can see online there seems to be a lively debate on what the correct approach for containing the virus is. Whilst I am not is a position to provide certain judgements on such questions I will say that I would be surprised if in future years there received wisdom about the virus and the measures used to contain it are overturned. What I can say with more certainty is that appears to have been no real discussion as to what extent public health must be weighed against economic and civil liberties. The current position appears to be that life must be saved at all costs. Ideas such as the inevitability of death and that quality of life is just as important as quantity are taboo. Of course, dying slowly of a ruthless of disease is a horrible fate. Nor would I want to loose a loved on to the virus. However, the side effects of the efforts to stop the virus are just as bad, many lives have be ruined financially, emotionally and spiritually by government restrictions. This is especially true for those who occupy a more precarious position in our society. Socialist interventions have hit the poor the worst, such a catastrophe does not fit into the conventionally narrative of big government.

Given the right guidance people are more than capable of taking reasonable precautions. People should be allowed to make their own judgement about risks they are willing to take. These ideas were originally articulated by Lord Jonathan Sumption who has been speaking out about the current situation.

In our politics there seems to a complete lack of opposition to the dominant narrative. I guess that this should come to no surprise as any politician linked to virus deaths would become electorally toxic. This is not to say that politicians in this country are totally without principles but that as far as I can tell the leadership of two main parties are in broad agreement on the need for continued lockdowns the only difference is that Conservatives in their graciousness have allowed us to celebrate Christmas. It is none of the governments business what people choose to do in the privacy of their own homes. Christmas is not theirs to take away or give back. The banning of public acts of worship is likewise a shocking infringement of religious liberties.

Another lamentable characteristic of the current situation is that in the discussion there appears to be no mention of the people who are largely to blame for the pandemic, the Chinese government. If it had not be for their attempts to ignore the spread of the virus (and possible cover it up) the virus might have been better contained. It may have even come from a biological research facility run by them. If this silence to be interpreted as a tacit admission that we no longer have the will or the strength to oppose them? At least it got a mention in the US presidential debates. Behind closed doors more may be going on.

In closing, look forward to a better 2021 free from face masks, hysteria and empty streets.

What I Am Listening To, December 2020

This month I have been revisiting some old favourites and trying to expand my listening horizons into new territory.

One such novelty is the live recordings of the joint David Bowie and Nine Inch Nails tour. What was particularly interesting about these concerts is that for part of the show David Bowie joined the rest of NIN for a joint set that saw him and Trent Reznor perform reworked versions of songs from each of their catalogs. The most impressive of these being Hurt.

What I love so much about this rendition is how boldly and imaginatively the song in reworked and the original instrumentation only appears far latter in the performance. It is fascinating to see the same material being sung by the very different vocal styles of Bowie and Reznor. The contrast between elevates the song to a totally new place.

I have also been listening to Fear Inoculum by Tool. Tool have become infamous for their total lack of output for over a decade, Fear Inoculum represents the final breaking of this silence. From what I can tell the reaction online has been mixed, here are some reviews I enjoyed of ablum presenting these contrasting opinions:

What is my own opinion of this album? Before answering this question I must discuss the way the album was released as this has coloured my judgement somewhat.

Firstly, it must be said that after such a lengthy gap between this and the last Tool album I think fans deserve something high quality. One thing that annoyed me initially was how difficult it was to get a physical copy of the album. I remember going to my local music shop and asking if they had any copies to which the reply was “No” that they had sold out. This was understandable given the massive amount of hype and mystery surrounding this release. I then asked when it would be back in stock, only to find out that Tool had only authorized a very limited amount of the product. Further, having looked online later I found that there was no option to buy a simple package with just a CD, rather, this had to purchased as part of a deluxe package eye watering amounts of money. So for some time there was a bizarre situation where they only way you could get a CD was to spend over ¬£50 but you could get all the tracks digitally for a reasonable price. Such a strange commercial decision on the part of the band and record label smacks of pretentiousness. I am sure they are many Tool fans (myself included) who are not rich and would have liked to be able to own a CD of the album for a reasonable price. Now this error has been corrected and a semi-reasonably priced redux version of the album with just a CD ad booklet is available.

This all said, what of the music? There are many promising moments in this album but none of them are fully developed or executed in a way that produces any emotional impact. The vocals have a very minimal presence in the album and feel at times like an after thought. The album meanders through motif after motif, build after build, but there is no real release, no climax, just monotony. At points it sounds like the band have become a caricature of themselves. The complex rhythmic sequences Tool are know for are very much in evidence, as are the intimate interplay between guitar and bass and the elongated song forms but all passion and energy are almost totally absent. In a large part due to the vocals not being present as a force in the music and the instrumental parts being so indecisive. The one notable exception is the excellent Chocolate Chip Trip which gives the listener a welcome break from the overly dry sound of many of songs. Instead, we are in the totally different sound world of modular synthesizers and the drums as protagonist play against the developing soundscape with aggression and passion. Finally, here are moments of excitement and the unexpected. I heard mentioned in an interview with Dan Carrey that this song was related to Billy Cobham’s pioneering work in the 70s that similarly involved drums playing against a electronically produced sequence.

Overall I think Fear Inoclum has great promise which is fails to deliver on, after so much waiting I cannot help but be disappointed.

I have also being revisiting parts of Garry Willis’s Album Larger Than Life. In genenral I have enjoyed this album there are many bold and experimental compositions here. However, sometimes the weirdness of that pervades the album can be a bit draining. I think I need to give this album a few more listens before making my mind up about it.