Harping On About Music

The harp is an otherworldly instrument, rooted in the deepest depths of our civilisational soil, branched out from the Andes to Ireland to India. In the same way that we have the original language of Proto-Indo-European, the ‘lost’ language in which all our diverse languages take root, the harp is the proto-instrument in which all our diverse instruments take root; the first medium through which we learned a more beautiful, instrumental language.

The harp stretches back to the earliest known civilisation, Sumer

I remember reading old stories with pictures of the harp and the lute. I’ve seen a harp played on the television. I see it on Guinness cans. Only recently did I see one played in person for the first time, by an Asian lady busking here in Brighton. Though it seemed out of place at first glance, the arrangement is timeless (hence why we have harpists play at weddings and the like); the instrument itself was beautiful, the tune tranquil, the player peaceful. It’s an almightily welcome change from Sheeran’s superficial shite (“I’m in love with the shape of you/I’m in love with your body”), which is the beginning busker’s go-to material. It’s also preferable to the potty hippie who busks in Brighton with assorted pots and pans scattered about his person, playing them as if they were drums. That novelty soon wears off, along with your eardrums.

The harp might be a timeless instrument at the deepest root of our musical tradition, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t still be novel; the oldest root of the musical tree might seem distant or distinct from its youngest branch, but they are still connected, they are still the same tree. The root and branch replenish one another: the root anchored within the soil of our musical tradition, the branch feeding from the fresh rays of today’s talent. One cannot do too long without the other.

I’m going to present three examples where we can behold the root, the harp, and its chordophonic descendants, the piano and guitar, revivified by modern music played by modern-day musicians. Enjoy.

 

1.

Our first example is a rendition of a relatively young rock song, Plug In Baby by Muse, played on a harp. Plug In Baby is an intense piece of music in its own right, featuring a ringing falsetto and an iconic, award-winning riff that only Muse could combine. Transposing several of its elements—the riff, the jumpy bass-line, the vocals, and a drumbeat—into a harp arrangement is difficult to comprehend, but easy to enjoy. The following is by British harpist Amy Turk, have a listen.

 

2.

If you were to push a harp over onto its side, put legs underneath it, a lid on top of it, and append a keyboard to its strings: you have a piano! Like root and branch they seem, at first glance, distinctly different. The piano is one of the musical tree’s most productive and beautiful branches. But even the most modern pianist—to my knowledge—cannot provide a drumbeat whilst playing; but then again they don’t need to drum to stir the soul, the piano works just fine. It works fine especially if the arrangement is a rendition of one of Pink Floyd’s masterpieces, Wish You Were Here. The following is by Vika Yermolyeva, a kickass Ukrainian pianist with a knack for making piano arrangements out of popular rock and metal songs, which to her credit turn out to be as head-banging as the originals. Or, in this instance, as tear-jerking.

 

3.

The guitar branch is also thick and productive; it generated much of the musical tree’s growth in the twentieth century, although it would be a mistake to assume that it had stopped growing. Musicians will innovate or invent with what they are given; like the potty Brightonian with his sundry crocks, pots and pans. Or, more tolerably and quite terrifically, this Italian guitarist with his three-headed hydra of an instrument. It comprises two guitars, for which he uses his left hand mostly, and an upside-down bass guitar and several miniature ‘snares’ for hand drumming, for both of which he uses his right hand. Luca Stricagnoli transposes the vocals of Feel Good Inc by Gorillaz ft. De La Soul; still more, he effectively instrumentalises the hip-hop trio’s rap whilst keeping a consistent beat for much of the piece. As with the harpist, it’s incredible stuff, and enormously enjoyable to watch and listen to.

 

Honourable Mentions

Pianist rocking Guns ‘n’ Roses

Twin harpists rocking Metallica 

Harp guitarist rocking Pink Floyd 

Villains by Queens of the Stone Age – Album Review

I remember when Muse released their album ‘2nd Law’ which kicked off with a song called Unsustainable. Not everyone’s bag of riffs, whizzes and whirrs, but it was nevertheless an interesting piece: in which a brazenly politicised but parodically modulated voice announced the ‘drop’ of a dubstepping guitar.

Muse, albeit massive moneymakers, are musicians first and foremost, so they didn’t fret whether the wider public, and perhaps their fanbase, would like the song. It was experimental, it was certainly different, and both in a relevant manner. Muse synthesised their own heavy sounds with the heavily synthetic sounds and beat of the then-popular dubstep genre to make a siren-song against disaster capitalism. I remember reading the criticism on social media: they have sold out!

True artists take their inspirations and sound from the past, they combine it with their inspirations and innovations in the present and, if successful, create a different and durable sound for the future. Perhaps Unsustainable was heavier on the ‘different’ than the ‘durable,’ but that’s a cynical take. My point is that, to whatever conscious extent, artists are receptacles for and expressions of their time, of the zeitgeist: this does not necessarily equal ‘selling out.’

Queens of the Stone Age’s new album ‘Villains’ is a sterling case in point. They have, for daring to contract uptown funky man Mark Ronson for the album’s production, ‘compromised’ their sound, they’ve ‘sold out.’

Frontman Josh Homme—producer of Arctic Monkeys’ ‘Humbug’, of supergroup Them Crooked Vultures’ self-titled belter, of Iggy Pop’s recent and well-received ‘Post-Pop Depression’ and of QOTSA’s last, ‘Like Clockwork’—has simply capitulated the band and its sound to Ronson’s funk, in all of its chirpy cheapness.

Or has he?

Villains’ is a nine-track neck-ache: head-banging and heart-wrenching, naughty and nice, sassy and serious. It’s QOTSA all over, still, just with added beat and bounce, with added Ronson. In the context of the above discussion, it’s surprisingly (and refreshingly)… familiar!

Its opener, Feet Don’t Fail Me, is a case in point: a long intro in their patently ghoulish sound, then an about-face into bouncy and excitable riffage. Ronson’s there insofar as you notice yourself nodding, tapping and shaking along to it, as a considerable portion of humanity did to Uptown Funk.

The next track and single, The Way You Used To Do, is the only explicit manifestation of Ronson’s input, and, unless I’m mistaken, it works well. It’s happy-clappy dance music. The beat and riff and rhythm are robotic, or “tight and vacuous” as Homme terms it, and tied together by some of the best bold-but-smooth vocals on any QOTSA album. The vacuity is uncharacteristically reflected lyrically, but ultimately not to the detriment of a beat-centric dance tune.

Such can’t be said for the following gem, Domesticated Animals, opening with the wail of guitars and a woof by the frontman, easing into a simple, sexy riff. We retain some catchiness in the chorus, ‘You get back up and sit back down/The revolution is one spin round,’ which is sung almost like an incantation. But we return to Homme’s punchily cynical poetry, ‘All for one, all for naught,’ sung sardonically in verse and with weight over the bridge; the swelling spasms of vocals, ‘I’ll tell you where the gold is,’ and guitar stir the (domesticated) animal inside us before cruising to a conclusion punctuated by a savage scream by bassist, Shuman. (N.B. The live version is, in this author’s opinion, (even) better.)

Fortress is of the QOTSA staple, ‘sweet song wrapped in melancholic rock,’ hitherto heard in Suture Up Your Future and I Never Came, with added whizz and whirr by way of keys and slide-guitar; it’s steady, easy listening, and arguably the only dud on the record.

Head Like a Haunted House announces the arrival of both drummer and bassist, the latter of whom heads the frantic rollercoaster, well matched with breathless bravado, ‘A misdiagnosis with the most-est,’ disjointed drugginess, ‘Drink the kool-aid and swallow the pills/Say that you don’t and you won’t but you will’ and more macho mumbo-jumbo on vocals. It’s a loopy, satisfying ride, vying with the opening track for head-banger of the album.

Un-Reborn Again is thick and fuzzy, a rhythmic rocker speaking to an age of cheesy synth and singing to youthful days long bygone. Another effective about-face pulls the beat from under the listener, now nodding along to a luscious orchestral breakdown, complete with soulful lead and backing vocals laid over violins; beautiful stuff.

The coherence of a freewheeling bass-line, ethereal keywork and incremental progressions on guitar in Hideaway is affecting at worst and truly poignant at best; QOTSA more than suit this style, as exemplified in I Appear Missing and …Like Clockwork, and further perfected in this peach.

The Evil Has Landed speaks to how far they’ve come from, yet just how close they’ve stuck to, their bread and butter: sassy, slightly feminine, irresistible sing-along rock ‘n’ roll. It’s been a whole decade since ‘Era Vulgaris,’ yet one can hear the rapid riffing of 3’s and 7’s, the macabre intonations of Sick, Sick, Sick. It’s all a bit disjointed, until it is (counter-intuitively) brought together in a crescendo leading to the best—or, rather, my favourite—about-face on the album at the five minute mark: ‘Here… we… come!/Get out of the way-ay! Care not… what the people say-ay!’ Beautiful, inspired, prompt: they take risks boldly on the album and this track; for its finesse and spiritedness in execution, it works out.

The album ends with a titular nod in Villains of Circumstance, a melancholy musing on the difficulties of long-term relationships, ‘I miss you now, what’s come over me?/We’re hostages of geography.’ Opening with a rousingly void intro, swinging into a bass-line pendulum, developing from a moseying to ballsier ballad, then concluding the song and culminating the album with a weird and wonderful urgency. Again, it works.

It all works, despite the directions being at once sad and salacious, pathetic and powerful, they somehow make it work again and again. The proof is in the pudding: Ronson’s production wasn’t necessary but it was a novelty the band fed off of fantastically. Criticism of the conspicuous absence of drums might be expected, but I cannot imagine the beat and shake to the more dancey tracks would remain if there were fills and spurts ‘interrupting’ them. My criticism? The album is too short and the time until the next, if there is one, too long.

 


As I’m not on social media, my writing is only read as much as it is circulated by readers like you; so if you liked this piece, please share and share alike, it would be greatly appreciated. Peace and chirps, Liam.

 

JD Weaver – Where Eagles Fly

‘Making’ it in music isn’t easy. One lad from Cheshire, who picked up the guitar in his late teens, certainly knew he didn’t – and wouldn’t – have the path laid before him.

Jason Weaver, the 19-year-old behind JD Weaver’s semantically Native American release, ‘Where Eagle’s Fly’, wants to send a message of subgroup solidarity and strength: vibrancy and colour contesting the depressive banality of exclusion – being the ‘other’.

JD Weaver’s inaugural EP, recorded in just one day at a studio, is the product of an inspiring young man who, despite having a degenerative condition that’s rendered him wheelchair-bound, is chasing his dream to make it in music with a humbling passion and vigour.

“I’ll take the physical side of disability any day”, JD tells me in his broad northern drawl, “I know I’ll never walk or kick a football again, but I  know I’ve got something with my music.”

The right people listened and agreed, one even funded the recording of ‘Where Eagles Fly’, but still JD’s encountered “a lack of respect” due to his disability. “If they can’t market you, they want nothing to do with you”, JD says, as our discussion turns toward the commercialisation of music and the societal obsession with money.

JD’s lack of ‘marketability’ has been disheartening but not discouraging: he’s been further spurred to set the trend for disabled artists who’ve no mainstream exposure, which he believes is in great part due to their disability.

I took a second to think of disabled musicians I knew. I came up with Tony Iommi, former lead guitarist for Black Sabbath who lost the tips of his fingers, and Stevie Wonder, the blind American singer songwriter, who so aptly said that “just because a man lacks the use of his eyes [it] doesn’t mean he lacks vision”. And that’s it, isn’t it?

JD in his hometown of Cheshire
JD in his hometown of Cheshire

An issue lies in JD’s ability to gig: wheelchair accessibility isn’t top priority for music venues which in turn severely limits his ability to promote his music effectively. “Access is the reason why I don’t gig much now”, JD tells me bluntly. “The last gig I ever had were in Brighton; Brighton’s my favourite place actually, it’s where I hope to make enough money making music to live.” (Potential Brightonian/Brighton-based collaborators take note.)

“I get to the gig and there are steps going down to the stage.” Having been told the venue was wheelchair accessible, it was hugely frustrating for JD to then be told, “’It’s alright mate, we’ll get someone to lift you’”. JD continues, “That’s not the point! I didn’t want to be lifted and didn’t ask to be lifted, now I’ve got three people I’ve never met before lifting me up in my chair”.

Though easy to sympathise, it’s difficult to empathise when you’re not in a position where people think it’s appropriate to advise of a venue being accessible to find out it isn’t and be lifted like a product or other piece of equipment on to a stage.

As a result “it’s just these four walls and a disabled toilet” for JD at the moment, hardly the creative atmosphere one would wish for as an up and coming artist.

Pfft! Totally undeterred, JD has managed to churn out his concept EP and build a modest following that’s swelled promisingly from the exposure he’s afforded by the internet, radio and now newspaper.

While by no means an accomplished artist (yet) and with but a day (his maiden) in a studio, JD’s music still carries meaning, power and (crucially) potential, fully demonstrated  by ‘Where Eagles Fly’.

Where Eagles Fly
Where Eagles Fly

A longing folksy soundscape is laid by the opening track, ‘Eagle Song’, that sounds positively country: the acoustic guitar’s subtly layered by an ambient lead that pines harmoniously with JD’s vocals. It’s melancholy, pretty music.

The pace quickens in ‘Native Man’: propped by thrilling drums, the lead emboldens, opening the track with a whirring, western riff leading to JD’s intensified and impassioned voice. The lead gently fluctuates before resurging for a distorted, storied solo cutting for a breakdown in which you can feel JD’s frustration.

‘Tiger Tiger’ is a rockier, anthemic amalgamation of the two: comprising lyrics that read as emotionally fraught as their delivery; a wider percussive backing with tricky drum fills; a more overdriven, slidey lead guitar; galloping together to an appropriately warm but melancholic conclusion. “I’m feeling so estranged”, “You and me, we’re just one of the same”.

JD, speaking words as wise as Mr. Wonder, tells me, “the one thing we share is disability”.

And he’s right. Whatever stripe or severity of disability – be it an inability to consume dairy, to walk, sing or see – it shouldn’t scupper your chances of living a life like that of more-abled human beings where it can be helped.

 


 

You can check out JD Weaver’s EP, ‘Where Eagles Fly’, on SoundCloud, and follow JD on Facebook and Twitter @JDWeaverMusic. x

 

 

Hurricane Festival 2015

An hour’s drive south of Hamburg in the unassuming village of Scheeßel (pronounced as ‘seashell’ would be after an oral anaesthetic), dotted in one of lower Saxony’s rolling emerald fields lie the festival grounds of one of Germany’s many badass and beery music festivals.

Hurricane Festival has grown remarkably in its 15 years, establishing itself amongst Europe’s biggest by accommodating 75,000 and attracting international attention and attendance. It caught my own attention this June and, as a regular British festivalgoer, I naturally assumed the role of ambassador to Germany’s organised revelry and couldn’t help but compare it to that of the British.

Although the festival ‘vibe’ remains true of every large European festival – music, booze, camping and general chirp – there were unmistakable differences between the German and UK experiences. A very surprising and welcome difference was that everything at Hurricane… worked. Not to riff on the tired stereotyping of Germans as an ‘efficient’ people, but effing Nora, there were toilets. Toilets! That flushed!

Eating was enjoyable; the food tasty, even. Prior to Hurricane I’d considered a hearty festival breakfast to be a soggy baguette wrapped around a shred of rubbery bacon and a tent-warmed Carling with which to force it down. Not so in Germany. Courtesy of the well-stocked pop-up Supermarkt on site, I was treated to some meaty bratwurst sausage for breakfast; evenly cooked on a cheap disposable BBQ (German festivalgoers are trusted with fire, you see); and a fresh salad with choice dressing as a side… washed, not forced, down with a tent-warmed Becks.

The camping areas were a metropolis of well-set tents and gazebos steadied and shielded by pegging and windbreaks, perfectly soundtracked by beefy speakers and beery singing. I felt short-changed by my years of barely sleeping in a tent (for ‘tent,’ read: leaky tarpaulin sleeping bag) to the tune of raspy Brits trying to salvage another “oggy, oggy, oggy” chant at four in the pissing morning. Though admittedly, it’s part of what draws me to festivals: escaping the sanity and sterility of the 9 to 5 for the scarcity; the sordid and debased nature of shivering in a muddy field after a day of cumbersome dancing in heavy wellies.

That’s what festivals are all about: letting loose. Getting ‘loosey goosey,’ as a friend of mine says, and the Germans are much looser geese than their national stereotype would imply. The Germans actually lead in the amount of paid holiday taken annually, globally, and make no mistake – they know how to party.

That being said, I was a Brit out of water in their well-facilitated land – I hadn’t paused to modify my British festivalgoer behaviours. By trial and error I discovered variations in the standards of ‘looseness’ considered acceptable by the British festivalgoer and their German counterpart.

I have a fond memory of Reading Festival 2013 that exemplifies one such ‘variation:’ after queuing to use a urinal (read: knee-high trough), I sandwiched myself shoulder to shoulder with my urinating compatriots and burped. It started a chain reaction of belching Brits competing for the most impressive volume and duration – it was magical. Hurricane Festival: I march into position betwixt fellow revellers filling their flashy, urinal-caked troughs; loudly and proudly and in full festival swing, I fire a spectacularly long and tuneful burp, more than worthy of compliment and reply. Not so in Germany. I was treated to awkward stares and looks of contempt as I retreated, ashamed.

Then there was the music, something everyone and anyone could agree on over the weekend. As the name might imply, Hurricane was once reserved for the hardcore rock and metal fans of Western Europe, but as the festival has grown, so with it has the range of musical taste catered for across the four big stages. In three days of music I listened to Canadian EDM (Deadmau5), German metal (Madsen), South African alternative (Die Antwoord), American rap (Big Sean), Irish indie (Catfish and the Bottlemen), British rap/drum and bass (Dub Phizix) and even a Bavarian brass band (LaBrassBanda) to name a few.

The German’s have got it to a T. For me, it was a fairytale retreat; an eclectic choice of acts plus all the beloved simplicity of a British festival sans unwelcome reminders of what the UK has become: cash-obsessed (you prepay festival funds to a cashless wristband (trialled at UK’s Download Festival – the system crashed)), full of cringe-worthy lager louts (hypocrite!) wearing the same clothes, haircuts and tattoos; listening to the same poorly manufactured ‘music’ in a communal state of excessive inebriation.

That being said, the local chirpers were surprised I’d opted to fly two flights and board three trains en route to their local event. Why did I choose to travel so far when there are “better” festivals on my doorstep?

Perhaps our countries’ merrymakers are missing what the other has. I can picture a utopian Anglo-German festival: one can burp and piss in chorus, smelling sweeter smells and eating tastier food… washed down with some tent-warmed beer.