Albums That Shaped Me: David Bowie, Blackstar

Blackstar is the final album David Bowie, he died shortly after its release. At the time it came out I was aware of Bowie but I hadn’t investigated his music in any depth.

In many ways, writing and talking about music is pointless as the true experience that is worth having cannot be had on the level of the intellect and conscious willing but only on what Schopenhaeur refers to as the silencing of the will through the experience of artistic beauty. However, by writing this piece I am not trying to “explain” this music. Rather, I am trying to pose questions that may lead to a deeper understanding.

My first contact with this album was the video for the title track Blackstar.

When I first heard this I was immediately hooked by the unusual structure of the song and the strangeness of the lyrics, music and video. I had only known Bowie through older material. I had no idea that he had gone through a phase of producing emotionally dark music in the 90s and that he had in the albums prior to this been experimenting with Jazz arrangements for his music (The Next Day). I was totally surprised by what I was hearing.

Blackstar is a enigmatic work that defies simple explanations. Clearly some of it is concerned with Bowie’s facing up to his own mortality and his inevitable demise. By creating this music Bowie turned his own death into a musical statement. However, there is more to explore beyond this obvious analysis. For the enigma of Blackstar lies in all the other themes and allusions that occur under the overarching concept of death. For example, in the title track the demise is cast in a positive light: towards the end the song transitions from minor to a major tonality. The concept of an enduring spirit is introduced:

Somebody else took his place, and bravely cried
(I’m a blackstar, I’m a blackstar)

Something happened on the day he died
Spirit rose a metre and stepped aside

Is this Bowie’s artistic legacy? Perhaps this symbolises the continuation of music through each generation?

The songs Sue and ‘Tis A Pity She Was A Whore do not have any obvious biographical content (if any) and seem slightly out of place in the album. The reason for them being included is something of a mystery, especially given that the far more obvious song No Plan which was recorded a part of the Blackstar sessions was not included in the final release.

The idea of a black star has something the occult about it adding the the mysterious feeling surrounding the album. For there is a reference to the star of the nativity in the first track:

I’m not a wandering star

I’m a blackstar

This interpretation is reinforced by the imagery of the music video supporting the title track which is the bizarre and disturbing. Again, borrowing from the visual language of the occult or a horror film (scarecrows, candles, spasmodic dancing, the bandages over Bowie’s eyes). This imagery may obliquely refer a fear of death or a preoccupation with the supernatural, but the abstract way in which these images are given to us does not support any one interpretation.

Musically, Blackstar represents the joining of two very different musical forces: Bowie and the musicians from what was the regular line-up of Donny McCaslin’s band. In my mind the band are something like the modern equivalent of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters with funk influences being replaced by styles and sounds from electronic music.

What is interesting about this collaboration is that by joining forces with Bowie the musicians on this album have to be more controlled in their approach so that the music supports the vocals. This leads to there being more space in the music than on a typical record by McCaslin’s band.

Blackstar influenced me profoundly. It is one of my favourite albums of all time. It showed me that there is still an appetite amongst the public for music that defies any easy genre categorisations and demands a great deal from the listener. It is an inspiring example of artistic bravery in the face of death that deserves to be remembered.

Albums That Shaped Me: Muse, Absolution

This album was the vehicle for Muse to achieve mainstream acceptance. Many of the innovations they pioneered have since become cliché but at the time they helped revitalize my interest in heavy music.

Absolution is the most substantial achievement of their early career. The dark mood that pervades the album keeps the collection of songs thematically unified without the artificiality that plagues so many concept albums.

The guitar and bass tones of this album are monstrous and were one the catalysts for me to start exploring unorthodox sounds on the bass. For example, in Stockholm Syndrome during the guitar solo the guitar is doubled with a digital recreation of the guitar line.

Throughout Absolutions Matt Belamy adopts a variety of persona which live in the lyrics. The most obvious case being Apocalypse Please where he adopts the role of a religious fanatic. More subtly, in Thoughts of a Dying Atheist he appears to be himself but dancing closer to death. These different persona give the album an emotional depth and sophistication which can be missing from purely biographical songs. All of this being very  reminiscent of David Bowie and his every morphing identity.

Another influence from Absolution that has stayed with me is the strong relationship between the bass and drums. There is a weird funkiness that Dominic Howard and Chris Wolstenholme achieved together that left a strong impression on me. Especially, on Time is Running Out. Later in their career this quality could no longer be heard in the music as they fell under the malign influence of Queen.

Muse have now largely become a victims of their own success. In this they follow an arc that many bands have followed: early success, mainstream acceptance and finally stagnation.

I will always look back on Absolution with fond memories. It is a unique achievement that will never be replicated.

Albums That Shaped Me: D’angelo, Voodoo

I can’t remember how I first heard this album. I think I had the CD on loan from a generous neighbour. What I am certain of is that this album changed my life.

What first hit me was the undeniable chemistry between Pino Palladino and Questlove. The way that the stretched the time and rhythms freely within a song was something I had never heard before. Even on the “straighter” songs the groove they created together was ferocious whilst always supporting the rest of the music. I was at the same time captivated and baffled by what I was hearing. Years later, I am still far from totally understanding how they did it.

Voodoo represents a magical moment in time where fate aligned with opportunity. So great was the power of the music that it attracted someone like me, who could not have lived a more different life from D’angelo, to his story and his atmosphere. To me his music still sounds like it is coming from somewhere else.

With hindsight, I can see how this album was part of the musical eruption that was later name “Neo-soul”. Labels aside, the influence of Voodoo can be heard everywhere. Rhythm sections around the world can heard imitating it’s grooves and feels. Pino Palladino single-handedly brought the P-bass back into fashion and set the new standard for all to aspire.

Albums That Shaped Me: Jean Baudin, Mechanisms

In this series I will be exploring albums that had a great influence on my musical development.

Jean Baudin’s Mechanisms is consists entirely of solo performances. The instrument Jean plays has 11 strings and does not easily fit into the category of either bass guitar or guitar. With this unique instrument he makes music that breaks fresh conceptual territory in a genre that is polluted by the constant presence of empty virtuosity. The music on Mechanisms escapes the ghetto of solo guitar/bass music and moves through a impressive range of emotions: at times dark, melancholy and finally transcendent.

One of the ways the album influenced me was the wide variety of sounds Baudin uses. The obvious examples being the effects that are used to colour the sound of the bass either modifying, or entirely transforming it. The sound of Baduin’s instrument is so unusual that even his uncoloured tone sounds futuristic.

Mechanisms showed me that instrumental music can go to a place that words can’t and that one instrument can have the power of many.

You can purchase this album from: http://www.jeanbaudin.com/store.html

Introducing The DYLEMA Collective

The DYLEMA Collective is a musical project I have been a part of since it’s inception in 2016. The group encompasses a wide variety of influences and styles which make playing in this band a unique and challenging experience for me. The fact that the project is still going strong for one year with big plans for the future is a great surprise to me. I can remember when David (drums) pitched the idea of getting together and jamming with some people I only really said yes out of politeness as I was not familiar with any of the musical touchstones he mentioned. Having had a band I had earnestly tried to setup implode I was not in the mood to commit myself to something new. My decision to stay was essentially made after our first rehearsal there was real chemistry in the jams we did and I was hooked.

To give you some idea of what we sound like here is some footage from a show last year for Sofar Sounds London:

Playing in The DYLEMA Collective has been full of surprises both musical and spiritual and has really forced me to push myself as a player to try and bring something unique and fresh to the music. I have high hopes for the future and have no idea where this journey will take me.

DYLEMA: Do You Let Every Man Adapt.

Toby

The DYLEMA Collective On Tour

As you may be aware The DYLEMA Collective are currently on tour in the UK. The shows we have done so far have been exciting and we have had the privileged to play to receptive and open minded audiences. Below is a revised list of tour dates:

Playing in this band is a honour and a joy for me, the people I work with are all exceptional and force me to raise my game every night.

I will see you on the road.

Toby

Book Review: From The Holy Mountain William Darlymple

William Dalrymple journeys to heartland of the early church in the footsteps of the famous monk John Moschos who documented his travels sojourns across Byzantium in his work The Spiritual Meadow. Dalrymple hopes that by following in his footsteps he may gain an insight the history of Christianity in the east and its future. The author skilfully intertwines historical narrative with the travails of his long and arduous journeying, which see him l climbing into abandoned tombs, surviving in the harsh desert and fleeing from terrorists.
Throughout the book one is constantly reminded of the stark contrast between the situation for Christians in 578 AD and today. In the past Christianity enjoyed supremacy in large parts of the what we would now call the middle east and coexisted with the other religions such as Islam and paganism. The most extreme example of this being one occasion where our author is told that the same space was used for worship by both Muslims and Christians. In addition, at one point in the narrative the author meets a group of Muslims who are visiting a shrine of Saint George in the West Bank to be healed. Darlymple emphasizes throughout the narrative Christianity is contrary to popular perceptions an eastern religion and must be understood as a system of belief which emerged from the intellectual milieu of the east and the rich tapestry of competing ideologies of that region. Further, that the Church in the west was constantly looking to east as the source of inspiration. For example, Irish monastic art is almost certainly seeking to imitate work originating from Tur Abdin in Turkey. Further, the monastic cells on the island Skellig Michael off the Irish coast are copies of eastern designs that can be still seen in modern Israel.

The situation finds in the present is completely different: Christians are a tiny and oppressed minority persecuted by and increasingly militant Islam and stuck in the middle of ethnic and political conflicts some of these between different religions and some between waring Christian factions. These pressures have led to a mass exodus of the young, Christianity is vanishing from large parts of the world. In the face of such bleak facts From the Holy Mountain is also a story of resistance and fortitude. Darlymple meets monastic communities that defiantly cling on in the face of persecution and misery to traditions that go as far back as the beginnings of Christianity and acts of forgiveness and tolerance by those who should be enemies owing to race and creed.
From the Holy Mountain is a masterfully written and guides the reader through a bewildering range of emotions and places. In the hands of lesser writer such a narrative might be confused or dull because of endless historical detail. Darlymple manages to gives the reader a plentiful supply of historical data without detracting from the tempo of the narrative. Further, the journey he is on serves as an anchor that helps make sense of the bewildering number of topics, people and places both past and present.

Two Visions of Philosophy

by the river ect 003

When people speak of philosophy, they are usually thinking of two different things: one is a subject that concerns itself with the question of how one should live both ethically and practically. The other is a theoretical pursuit chasing the perennial questions of existence. These two visions interact with each other but are nonetheless separate.

Often these two visions are forced into conflict, the rationality for this is that either theoretical pursuits are a waste of time or they are inferior to the higher questions and in some way not “respectable”. First, let us turn our attention to the first contention: one may think that there are so many practical issues to deal with in world that such speculation is morally reprehensible. The mistake here is to forget that our modern world has been equal assisted by ideas as well as technology. The idea that we should no longer be governed by kings, or that we do not perceive reality without an interpretative framework to filter our perception were once considered outlandish. Now they are common knowledge to the extent of almost being cliché. Karl Popper rightly pointed out that in science it does not matter where the ideas come from initially whether it be dreams, experiment or visions. What matters is what fruit they can bear, his judgment about science can be expanded to the field of ideas in general. We do not know what will be of practical use in the future, therefore, we should remain open to many different possibilities and not prematurely close off avenues to knowledge.

Even the ideas that do not possess any practical application have a beauty of their own that demands they do not be idly discarded, they reside in what Robert Pirsig described as the high country of the mind in which the intellect is elevated to a greater and wider discourse, free of idiocy of the mundane and every day.

Now let us turn our attention to the second criticism that practical philosophy is of no worth because it does have the intellectual solidity of the theoretical philosophy that is entrenched is most British and American universities. To criticise philosophies such as stoicism for not having a strong intellectual foundation is to miss the point entirely. The test of a practical ideal is in the living of it, which is something lamentably few “philosophers” would ever dare and attempt. Further, in the case of stoicism it is an open set of ideas which can be easily modified and attached to some other underlying belief system that may be more intellectually rigorous.

These endless division of philosophy has led to a pernicious division of the mind where intellectuals tend to concern themselves either purely with the practical or the intellectual spheres, which is itself been hastened by accelerating march of specialisation of work and thought. We see those like Alain de Botton who possess much practical insight but meagre theoretical understanding and on the other hand, the archetype of the university professor who possess great theoretical wisdom but very little practical understanding. The world needs people who embody both meanings of philosophy and is doing so give richer and broader lives to the world. Without generalists we will live in a meagre and divided world in which people will be unable to understand each other so lost in their own experience and jargon.

Meditation On Death

Recently I suffered the misfortune of having to go to hospital for an extended period of time. If I had  not checked myself in I almost certainly would have died. This experience has forced me to reflect death and to know it more intimately. Whilst I was in intensive care two people were taken out in body bags.

The first and most shocking realisation I had was that my death was a very real possibility and when it occurs is only partially in my control. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger thought our prevailing attitude towards death was inauthentic. What he meant by this is that we think of death as some distant phenomena that will never visit us, we only see death as happening to someone else. Even though I have studied Heidegger my attitude was still inauthentic, certain truths can only be learnt through experience.

With this new knowledge I have tried to reconsider what I am going to do with the time I have left. I would urge you dear reader to do the same. There is a darkness in such thoughts but also a chance for liberation.

Another hard question that my experience raised was how to find a balance between future and present orientated thinking. Because we can never be sure when we are going to die we might be tempted to make immediate preparation for the end. However, if we have many more years to live this would be unwise. How are we to find balance? The answer lies acting in harmony with this uncertainty mixing future and present desire together, exercising spontaneity and prudence in equal measure. I put this forward as an ideal goal rather than something that can be easily achieved.

It is equally unwise to dwell on death too long for as Nietzsche said:

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.
Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146