Friday, May 30, 2014

The Illness' Mirage on CD

"Hey everybody. After six years my beloved rock'n'rollers and I are taking an indefinite leave from the band."

I received this group email from Josh Viers of for The Illness about two weeks after he sent me his band's latest release, the 5-song EP Mirage. John and I had been trading emails for a few weeks--he once again wanted to thank me for the positive review on their last album, A Monument to Our Gilded Age, back in 2012. He wanted to check in and see if I was interested in reviewing their new EP, and of course I said yes. I really enjoyed Monument, going as far as saying: "The way the Illness can root around every metal cliche that's ever been passed out and whip up something novel and interesting with the resulting pile--well, that's just not that easy to do these days."

So it's sad to see this SF prog metal band call it quits, even if it winds up being temporary--these five new songs are more focused, more consistent and more confident than anything they've done before. Perhaps it's because this is a smaller chunk of music, and it's easier to wrap it up in a big bow, but Mirage sounds as if the band, after being together for six years, finally hunkered down and agreed that "we're gonna start doing it like this now." Since my only minor quibble with Monument was its enormously ambitious sound, you may see what I mean about Mirage being a big step in the right direction when it comes to making all the pieces fit together.

I feel bad for putting it like that, as if The Illness made some terrible mistake by quitting now, just when things were going to break for them. It's just that each of these five songs are so strong. "Lion's Share," the opener, starts off with a '70s horror metal groove that pays tribute to Alice Cooper before succumbing to a fretboard-fest that may or may not remind you of a little old-school Van Halen. "Winter" reminds me a little of Alice in Chains covering Tool, with its despairing harmonies mated with precise, fearsome musicianship. I like the way these five guys can step back and let the music breathe in the softer passages in "Violence" and "Cut This Rope." (This is where the band's subtle jazz influences come to the forefront.) The exuberant finale, "Vitriol," even throws in huge dripping sections of authentic hardcore '80s punk.

It's almost as if the band is answering all those horrific interview questions about their musical influences by putting it all out there as a final statement. This is who we are, basically. Listen to these five songs and you might get a decent idea of what we wanted to do. The only thing missing is a few more songs, guys.

You can download these five songs at for just $4.95.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Here's How I'd Spend $500 on a New Turntable...

I checked out the Vinyl Nirvana site this morning and found this beautiful Dual 1019 for just $475. Not every old Dual sounds magical, but this is one of the three Duals, all idler-drives, that do--the other two being the 1219 and the 1229. It's been decades since I've seen one this perfect--just look at that plinth!

The 1019 can also serve as a great 78rpm or mono deck when you choose the right cartridge. For stereo playback, I'd choose an Ortofon first unless you can find a Shure V-15, any generation, in perfect condition. (That's getting close to impossible in 2014.) I used a V-15 Type III on my Dual 510 back in the '70s, and it was my first taste of great audio.

Seriously, if you're looking for a great turntable for under $500, this is a very cool choice.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Beck's Morning Phase on LP

Beck's Sea Change, released back in 2002, is one of those albums where I have a history with it, I can't imagine life without it and yet it's really difficult to sit down and listen to it at this, a positive point in my life. Sure, this was the album where I realized that Beck wasn't the ultra-hip prankster I thought he was, and I declared myself a fan. He was a real human being with real emotions and I really needed some of that substance twelve years ago, when I was experiencing a fairly turbulent time in my life. But a few years ago Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs came out with a re-mastered version of Sea Change and I kept putting off its purchase because I wasn't sure if I wanted to revisit that more shadowy state of mind. Despite these mixed feelings, I really wanted to hear it again because it's a really amazing album, easily my favorite from Mr. Hansen.

So last year I finally purchased the MFSL CD at a trade show. I headed back down the hall to my exhibitor room and immediately played it. Surprise, surprise. When life's going well, Sea Change isn't a downer at all. It's intense and angry and beautiful and playful and dreamy. In fact, nearly every cut puts one of those "oh yeah, this song" smiles on my face. So when I heard that Beck was putting out a "companion piece" in 2014, I wondered if it would have the same initial impact of its predecessor, or would it lack that extra layer of context.

Well, it's taken a few listens but I think Morning Phase comes close to equaling Sea Change and over time it could even surpass it. It comes from a different place in Beck's life, as well as mine, but it's clear that these two albums are intended as spiritual partners. Beck even asked a lot of the musicians who performed on the older album to appear here, and they did. That underlines the connection without being too obvious, and that's automatically another mark in the win column.

At first you'll think yes, this is merely a continuation of the older album. Once you listen to "Morning," the first track after a brief orchestral opening, you'll swear these songs were recorded during the same 2002 sessions. But as you move through the album, Beck starts taking more and more chances, and not the type of cartoon pinwheel-eyed chances he takes on albums like Odelay and Guero. It's a richer, more mature grab bag of genres, suggesting someone who has really expanded his musical horizons over the years and seeks to work them into his own art as quietly as possible. With this education you get receive such gifts as the laid-back early '70s California country-rock of "Say Goodbye" and "Country Down," the smooth late '70s R&B semi-ballad "Unforgiven," the angelic Simon and Garfunklesque folk harmonies in "Turn Away" and even a sleeker, more modern indie-rock perspective on "Phase." The orchestral interludes, interestingly enough, are more somber here than with the older album--you won't find any sultry tributes to Serge Gainsbourg here.

Then I read something interesting. Beck has said that this album, his first in six years, is his "California music." I've noted that already, but this is perhaps why Morning Phase could possibly be held in higher esteem than Sea Change oh, ten or twenty years from now. The older album, in retrospect, is Beck's grand ode to heartbreak--and it's a great one, or at least a really, really good one. But the newer album is more about specific feelings that are hopelessly attached to specific memories from long ago. If you're a fan of Sweethearts of the Rodeo or Gilded Palace of Sin or even the first couple of Eagles albums, you might be surprised at how favorably you respond to this album.

I think you'll also be surprised if you're a hardcore Sea Change fan who thinks it's impossible for Beck to really come up with something that's consistent twelve years later. But he did, and it's a pretty impressive feat.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Blue Skies for Black Hearts on CD

"Keep On Keeping On." Doesn't that sound like something you'd say on a cloudy afternoon--maybe back in 1974 or 1975? It's an optimistic notion--we're kind of screwed right now but the sun's gonna come out by the weekend. That's how I, in retrospect, look at my life in Portland. I lived just outside of that wonderful city for a couple of turbulent years and I loved the way people dressed in the brightest of colors when the weather was the wettest and the grayest, which was basically most of the time. I loved all the whimsical touches everywhere--the sex-crazed donuts and the big neon reindeer on the bridge and the flip-flop/parka look. That's when you sort of notice that Portland is a city of paradoxes, or it least it strives to be. It's that ironic duality, and it's the thing.

Blue Skies for Black Hearts is a Portland-based band, and with that name, it must be. "Keep on Keeping On" is the opening cut on their new eponymous album, and it's a naive pop song on the surface but wears a scowl when no one's looking. The CD, coming out in mid-July, has that sunny afternoon power pop wistfulness that's trying to evoke Big Star, or at least Teenage Fan Club, but when this quintet loosens up and forgets themselves, they might even sound like the Monkees led by an older, wiser Buddy Holly. (Charismatic front man Pat Kearns even wears the big black glasses to cross that T.) That's the relaxed, pure pop vibe these guys want to project--let's have some, at least until the rain clouds roll in and everything gets serious, or at least way semi-earnest.

If this album, the band's sixth, seems centered around Kearns, that's because it is. Kearns is noted for rotating musicians in and out of BSFBH, with the focus on clever songwriting. In this respect you can hear the Big Star influences in the lyrics--it's simple basic pop thoughts but told with a sincerity that elevates the song. Unfortunately that focus is also applied to the lo-fi sound approach--this album stretches the idea of late '60s pop into a rough, almost minimalist production that might sound its best on a small radio on the beach. The audiophile in me wants more, but I might also be missing the point. I like this album so much I want it to sound more alive, that's all.

In Portland, this band is definitely a local favorite. One game the Portland fans like to play, it seems, is comparing BSFBH to a wide variety of musical legends--the more over the top, the better. I've mentioned the Monkees, Buddy Holly and Big Star, but I've seen other critics mention everyone from John Lennon to Brian Wilson. If Portland is anything, it's wry. It's also pessimistic and sardonic, yet upbeat and amused. That's the paradox again, and this band is the soundtrack for that realization.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Katzenberger Music Productions 03 on CD and Blu-ray Audio

What do you think of when you hear the term "German jazz"? Would it be too ethnocentric to assume that it would be precise, rigid and exact? They say that about Japanese jazz and I just don't see eye-to-eye with them, whoever they are. But I've always maintained that much of classical music reflects the nationality of the composer--Russian music always sounds sad, French music always seems playful, Italian music always sounds emotionally expressive and German music always sounds, well, precise, rigid and exact. So if you have an argument about projecting that onto jazz, I'll hear you out.

My rebuttal, of course will be this third CD/Blu-ray audio selection from Katzenberger Music Productions, which is predictably titled 03. (I've reviewed 01 here and 02 here.) This jazz quartet, led by saxophonist/flautist Heinrich von Kalnein and featuring Sebastian Gille on saxophone and clarinet, Henning Sieverts on double bass and cello and Jonas Burgwinkel on percussion, is as loose and sloppy as can be--in an extremely good way. It's also a rare jazz quartet that includes two saxes, bass and drums, which makes it all sound even more lively and jumpy.

KMP producer Ulrich Katzenberger goes out of his way to stress that the music in 03 is meant to be a pure expression of music-making joy and even goes as far as to offer this famous Leonard Bernstein quote as an epilogue: "Jazz is the joy of playing music and therefore it is entertainment, in the best sense of the word." These compositions, written mostly by Heinrich von Kalnein, are so loose-limbed, laid-back and unrestricted that there are times when the genre boundaries fade and 03 just becomes gorgeous shifts in complex moods.

While tracks such as "Simple As That" and "Resistable" do sound like lost jazz standards with just a touch if dissonance thrown in, quieter and more expansive tunes such as the humorously titled "Sixty-Nine in the Wild West" are uneasy ballads bursting with hypnotic beauty. By the time you get to the three "Wildon" interludes, you're firmly in the land of the avant-garde with plenty of unusual instrumentation and sound--the percussion in particular may remind you of Shelley Manne's more experimental excursions back in the late '50s and early '60s.

The technical aspect of this amazing recording is noteworthy as well. Like the other recordings from KMP, this 24 bit/192 kHz CD was recorded without equalization, compression, reverb or any other type of artificial processing in the studio. In an effort to preserve the incredible dynamic range of this recording, you might notice that you'll need to crank the volume knob higher than usual--the liner notes state that "due to the special care given to dynamics in this production, it might seem less loud than the normal standard for recordings." The Blu-ray disc is even more incredible since it was recorded in surround sound. Actually, it offers two different surround mixes on the one disc--one for a system with 5 main loudspeakers and one for a system with 2 main speakers and three smaller speakers!

Now that I've reviewed all three of the KMP discs, I need to ask myself a couple of questions. First, I just discovered that each of these discs retails for $60, and that sounds like a lot for a digital format--even one jam-packed with amazing technology and a wide variety of format options. (Remember, you do get two discs here.) In addition, you get it all in a hardcover book-like package with incredibly thorough liner notes. But I usually like to reserve that amount of money for rare LPs or even box sets. So, the question is this: does the sound quality justify the price? I think it does--these three discs set a new standard for space, air and soundstage three-dimensionality. But you should have a hi-fi good enough to let you hear the reasons why these discs are $60 each.

The second question, of course, is whether the KMP discs are better than the offerings from other labels that specialize in hi-rez digital--like the ones I've been raving about all year. I don't know if I want to compare KMP with 2L and FIM and the others--it's all so good and amazing and lifelike. I finally really like the sound of digital playback--which is something I never thought would happen. In other words, I think these discs are worth it. Kudos, Katzenberger Music Productions.

You can find out more information at the KMP website.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Two Essential Accessories for Vinyl

It's been hard keeping up with this blog for the last few weeks. I've just been busy with a couple of big writing projects and haven't had time to write for fun. I even wrote a blog post a few days ago where I talked about taking a possible hiatus from this blog because I truly hated seeing it languish and the Google stats dwindling to pre-2011 levels. I've known this for quite a while, that my daily unique hits are directly proportional to the amount I write. It ain't rocket science.

So I wrote that blog entry, posted it for a few minutes and then changed my mind and deleted it. In the few minutes that it was up, two people read it. So to those two people...never mind.

Tonight I'm just checking in. I recently bought a couple of analog accessories that I've needed for quite a while. The first accessory, as you can see above, is a digital stylus tracking force gauge. For years I've been using one of those old manual see-saw thingies, and borrowing a digital one periodically to check my accuracy. (The latter situation usually occurs during trade shows, when I really have to have everything dialed in perfectly.) For years I've put off buying a digital tracking force gauge because they were originally quite expensive--the first one I saw was $300--but now they've gotten quite cheap.

This one cost me less than $20 and the instructions were in Chinese, so I wasn't sure if it was going to work for me on a professional level. One concern that I had--something two or three people warned me about--is that some of these cheap gauges are actually re-badged and re-purposed from other types of mini-scales. One problem with that is these gauges may have scales that are made from magnetic materials--which of course is totally unsuitable around the magnets inside of phono cartridges. It would take a millisecond to complete destroy the cantilever.

I was advised to buy a cheap gauge only if it was clearly designed for phono cartridges. So I did, and it wasn't...magnetic, that is.

Anyways, here's the reason I needed one. I used the old seesaw to set the tracking force of my Unison Research UN1 cartridge. It's got a lot of hours on the stylus, so it wouldn't have been a total disaster if the scale was magnetic. I originally set the tracking force at 2 grams (the Clearaudio Virtuoso on which this cartridge is based has a recommended range of 2g to 2.5g, and the Unison Research specs are 2.2g). When I re-checked it on the digital gauge, the LED display read 1.87g. Way too light. I wound up moving the tracking force up to 2.2, and when I listened I heard a huge difference in clarity and focus. So far I'm happy.

The other accessory is a bit more simple--it's just a lighted magnifying glass. Lately I've been noticing that these 51-year-old eyes of mine are no longer able to see the point where the tip of the stylus lands on the alignment protractor. This accessory--again, way less than a sawbuck--makes all the difference in the world when it comes to aligning cartridges, setting azimuth, setting VTA and checking the stylus for wear.

I've had a lot of audiophiles my age tell me that they can't/won't learn to align a cartridge because their eyesight is too bad or their hands are too shaky. Buy these two accessories, along with a bottle of Lagavulin, and you'll see how easy it can be.