Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Thunderbird gripe!

Aaaargh! That's twice now!

For the second time, Thuderbird has lost all my details and old e-mail messages. This is not a problem as far as work e-mails go, as they are on an IMAP server, but all my 'home' e-mails from the last couple of months (since the last time it lost them) have now also been lost.

I don't know what the issue is. I simply clicked ont he Thunderbird icon this morning and it asked me to enter new account details, etc. All previous settings (including e-mails downloaded from POP3 servers) aren't there anymore.

Anyone else experienced this?

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Brother Firetribe: False Metal

An old friend of mine (hello Pete), who is a big fan of 80s rock and metal and now lives in Finland, the country where hair-metal never died, sent me a CD in the post the other day.

No note of explanation, just a CD in a jewel case in a jiffy bag. The (really quite awful) cover of the CD is shown on the right. The album is 'False Metal', the band 'Brother Firetribe', released in Finland (and Japan) last year, no release date for the rest of the world as yet. No, I'd never heard of them either.

A quick text to Finland revealed that Pete considers this CD to be the 'best album of last year by miles'...

So I listened to it. Twice.

If this had been released in 1988 by Van Halen, it would have been a better follow up to their '5150' album than 'OU812' ever was. But this isn't Van Halen and it isn't 1988. It just sounds so much like it is trying to be both. Actually, if you look at the band's website, they are pretty unashamed of wearing their musical influences on their sleeves, and acknowledge that when listening to this CD 'your hair might just start curling in classic '80s style'. Eeek.

It is an entertaining listen. The guys in the band (several of whom have been in reasonably sucessful [at least in Finland] bands before) are pretty good musically and they're certainly having a good time. The lyrics are reasonably stereotypical for 80s AOR/melodic rock: mentions of angels and demons abound, most of the songs speak of things that happen in the night, which is often spelt 'nite', and so on. I would have loved this album when I was 16, but that was 20 years ago.

As well as Van Hagar, the other band which springs to mind when listening to this is Journey. In fact, if you made a band out of Michael Anthony (Van Halen keyboards) and Neal Schon (Journey guitarist) and took a good, but fairly nondescript, AOR vocallist, this is what they would sound like. In fact, this sounds very much like Journey's two most recent albums, Arrival (2001) and Generations (2005), where Journey replaced the distinctive voice of Steve Perry with the slightly less distinctive voice of Steve Augeri. (Note, Augeri has now been replaced by the more distinctive Jeff Scott Soto - could be a good move)

But the thing is, while the guitarist of Brother Firetribe is good, he's no Eddie Van Halen. And while the keyboard player is good, he's not Jonathan Cain (Journey). It feels like you're listening to an Asia-esque rock 'supergroup' made up of the second most talented instrumentalist out of each of the previous bands.

The bottom line is that this album is not an album of its time, its an album of someone else's time, and as such it can never be great. Sure, I'll listen to it occasionally, but there are far more contemporary rock CDs out there which are still great, but have moved with the times.

I place this CD in the same bracket as Bob Catley's last album ('Spirit of Man', 2006) - which will seem like praise to some folk, but will make others take a wide berth.

ps The title of this CD is a kind of homage to ManOwaR - the self-styled kings of metal who were the ultimate cliche in 80s metal - they wore leather, they signed their contract with the record company in their own blood, their songs were heavy and spoke of battles and demons... and their rally cry: 'Death to False Metal!' - So would ManOwaR consider 'False Metal' to actually be false metal? Yes, I think so.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Plectra and inflation...

This year marks the 20th anniversary of me starting to play the guitar. I think I improved over the next two years and have kind of stagnated ever since. But in one regard I am better than most guitarists I know - I don't lose plectra very often![1]

I bought six of the things yesterday and it must be over a decade since I last bought some. I thought that since so much time has passed, they would have increased in price in that time, but I bought them yesterday at 3 for a pound (i.e. 33p each). I'm sure when I last bought some in the mid 90s they were about 30p each and, thinking back further, they were about 25p each when I started playing. That's only an increase of 33% in 20 years. Or an average increase of 1.4% per year. This is well below the UK inflation rate which has been varying between 2.5 and 4.5% for the past couple of years. (As far as I can tell from a very quick internet search, inflation since 1990 has averaged a little over 3%.)

On thinking about it, guitars haven't increased in line with inflation either. In 1994 I bought a nice electric guitar for £199. Today you'd pay about £250 for an equivalent model - again an increase way below inflation. All this means it is much cheaper to play the guitar today than it has ever been. Cool. Rock on!

[1] One of my friends, and I think it might have been you Gareth, once had personalised plectra made with his address on them and an 'If found please return to...' request on them. Dunno if anyone ever returned them though.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Chronicles of Narnia... Radio Series

I am a big fan of C.S. Lewis's Narnia stories. I had some of them read to me at an early age, had read all of them myself by the age of 10, and have re-read them since then more times than any other series of books.

I also have all seven of them in 'talking book' form - the classic 1980s versions read by Michael Hordern (with appropriate music on the harp and flute composed and played by Marisa Robles).

I also have the 1990s BBC radio adaptations of all seven books. Which I like and am annoyed by in equal measure. (Whoever cast Sylvester McCoy as Reepicheep should be shot!)

So I have been diligently following the complete run of the new radio adaptations, made by 'Focus on the Family' and endorsed & introduced by Douglas Gresham, as broadcast on BBC 7 across the Christmas holidays. I have recorded all of the episodes and have listened to all of them but one (which I will listen to on the train later).

I like the new dramatisations in all regards except one. In general the adaptations are very faithful to the stories and contain more of each of the stories than the previous abbreviated talking books and the 1990s radio series. The later stories (Dawn Treader, Silver Chair, Last Battle) are significantly longer and more detailed than either of the earlier audio versions that I have, this is very good. Also, in general, the acting is fine and the casting is appropriate (Lucy is an understandable trade-off between age and acting ability - she is young and so she seems like she is reading her lines rather than acting at times, but I can't really complain on this one).

But I can complain about David Suchet's performance as Aslan. It is the thing that lets most of the stories down. He clearly thinks that, for dramatic effect, Aslan should speak as deeply and s--l--o--w--l--y as possible. Deep is not a problem, but even at times when the action demands that Aslan should be swift he does this unbearably slow voice. And he gets the emphasis all wrong. Or rather he emphasises almost every word so that the performance actually becomes pretty flat. This is not generally a problem in The Magician's Nephew, The Horse and His Boy, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader or The Silver Chair, as Aslan doesn't say much in these stories, but parts of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, Prince Caspian and The Last Battle are pretty unbearable.

Liam Neeson in the movie version got it right. David Suchet got it all wrong. Sigh.

But except that, the new radio versions are great.

And the movie of Prince Caspian is in the works too...

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I spent most of the weekend building a fence in my garden. One of the things that happens when you spend all day hammering nails into wood is that you inevitably hit your thumb with the hammer at some point. In the whole weekend I only did this twice, so I think that's not bad.

But, when I thumped my thumb with a hammer, the expression that somehow found its way to my lips was:

"Oh yah beezer!"

Where this expression came from I have absolutely no idea. Thinking back on it I can recall two other instances of me using the word 'beezer' as an expletive in the past couple of weeks, but I really have no idea why the word should have come to mind at such times as this.

I did read The Beezer comic when I was wee (approx 10 to 12 years old?), but really haven't thought much about it since then.

Anyway, I liked the use of the word 'Beezer' as a non-offensive expletive, so I think we should all start using it when the occasion requires such a word. Although this will probably not catch on, just like my brother-in-law's failed attempt to re-popularise the word 'Doofus' as an insult a few years ago...

(By the way, the Wikipedia info about the Beezer (link above) is wrong. It was called 'The Beezer and Topper' when I read it in 1979/1980. Oddly enough, the Topper was A4 sized while the Beezer was A3 - the Topper was a 'pull out' of the middle few pages of the comic which could then be turned on its side, folded, and turned into a whole extra comic... I always thought this was pointless.)


Saturday, January 20, 2007

2007 - A good year for new albums?

I'm looking forward to a number of album releases in the coming year.

If you look at my page (which charts all the music played on my computer) you will find that my top five most listened-to bands are:
  1. Queen
  2. Spacehog
  3. Marillion
  4. Heart
  5. Fish
(Chart as of today, it changes with time). Actually, it was only a binge-listen to Heart a couple of months back that pushed them above Fish on the list. I fully expect Fish to move up the chart again in the future.

At least three of the five are certainly working on new albums. And I really hope the other two are too.

Brian May and Roger Taylor of Queen recently let slip in a radio interview that they have been writing and recording in the studio with Paul Rodgers. Its now 12 years since the last Queen studio album 'Made in heaven' and 16 years since the last album of all new material, 'Innuendo'. Brian and Rodger have both released two proper studio albums (not counting soundtracks, etc.) since the death of Freddie Mercury, but none of them have approached the quality of a real queen album. Here's hoping they can get some of the old magic back.

Sadly Spacehog split up several years ago. But three of the four members of Spacehog have formed another band called 'Arckid' and have been recording some tracks for an EP, so hopefully an album will be along sooner rather than later.

No, Marillion didn't end in 1988 when everyone thought they did. Yes, they parted company with charismatic frontman Fish, but got a new lead singer and have produced nine albums - ranging from merely 'good' (Holidays in Eden, Radiation) through to 'fantastic' (Brave, This Strange Engine, Anoraknophobia) - in the past couple of decades. Their 10th studio album since Fish left is due for release in March and will be called 'Somewhere else'.

Heart are the only band on this list that I don't know if they are planning another album. Their last album, Jupiter's Darling, is still my favourite album of the decade so far, despite having been released in 2004. If the follow up was even half as good, it would still be worth a listen. However, 11 years passed between the release of the last two heart albums, so I'm not going to hold my breath on this one.

And last but not least, Fish is back in the studio working on his 9th studio album since leaving Marillion. This one is to be called 'The Thirteenth Star' (being his 13th studio album including his Marillion ones) and should be released in about October. The tour starts before then, so chances are I'll have heard quite a few tracks before the CD lands in my player.

So, all in all, 2007 could be a very good year for music. Especially if the music in question has its roots way back in the 70s and 80s.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Silent night, guitar night....

I bought a new guitar on eBay at the weekend. It arrived this morning. Its a Yamaha SLG100s - Steel strung 'silent' acoustic guitar. RRP £429, online new price £359, eBay second-hand (but 'mint' condition) price £265. Bargain.

As you can see (on the left), Brian May played one of these babys on stage on the 'Queen plus Paul Rodgers' tour last year. His was in red, which is only available in Japan, mine is the standard 'natural' wood finish, but still very nice.

The main point of buying this guitar (as opposed to any other guitar) is that I only really play acoustic guitar (indeed, I have no choice since I traded my old electric in as part payment for my 12 string acoustic seven years ago) but, as anyone with young kids and a full time job will tetify to, the only free time for guitar playing is after they've gone to bed, and after they've gone to bed you have to be quiet...

So the 'silent' guitar is a bodyless (and virtually weightless) acoustic guitar. Plug it in to headphones or an amp and it sounds like a very nice acoustic guitar. Don't plug in the amp and the player can noodle away in his private guitar world, not waking up any of the sleeping kids or annoying the neighbours.

It even features an 'aux in' socket so that you can play along to your favourite music and two reverb settings so that you feel you're being loud in a fair sized room. All very good.

Guess what I'm doing tonight?

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The drugs do work...

Richard Ashcroft was wrong when he said 'the drugs don't work, they just make it worse' because in my experience of the last two days, the drugs do work. Well that one (pictured on the right) does anyway.

A few years ago I went through a rough period with mysterious headaches. I had them occasionally in spring / summer 1999, but didn't give them much thought. They returned in force in February 2000 leading to a period of 6 weeks when I was signed off work in March / April. My doctor didn't really know what they were, they were a bit like migraine, but were certainly not 'classic' migraine.

The pattern of attacks was this:
  • I was fine in the morning - no symptoms.
  • By lunchtime I was feeling light-headed and a bit dizzy.
  • By 2pm I had a medium-strength headache, fairly severe light-headedness and what I can only describe as a fuzzy brain - basically I found it hard to think about things, let alone concentrate on anything. Doing a simple sum, for example, would have taken me ages.
  • By 4pm I had a major headache - always at the front of my head, usually both sides (which is unusual in migraine) and had to be lying down in a darkened room with a cold facecloth on my forehead.
  • By teatime the headache had eased but I was still fuzzy brained.
  • By about 8pm I was more or less back to normal.
  • Repeat daily.
It wasn't so bad if I got outside (and stayed outside) in the mornings and the symptoms definitely varied according to the weather (cold and wet days were bettern than warm and dry). Under my doctor's advice I tried various drugs, was referred to various specialists (ENT and neurology) but nothing really worked. A holiday in Tenerife worked though! During the holiday and after it I was fine.

But in the spring of 2001 it came back again. We managed (by trial and error) to find a drug that greatly reduced the symptoms to a manageable level, but it wasn't very satisfactory. So I went to see the famous herbalist Jan de Vries who tried various things with me. Homeopathic things did absolutely nothing, but then again there is nothing in them to do anything... Herbal things worked better. Indeed, the herbal mixture Marum Verum (no idea what's in it) actually had a better effect than the prescription drugs... but still didn't get me back to normal.

When 2002 came around, the symptoms returned again in the spring. The doctor prescribed Pizotifen. It worked straight away. Bliss. No headaches. However, it only dealt with the symptoms, not the problem so I stuck with the herbal stuff and eventually managed to get rid of the headaches altogether... in 2004.

2005 and 2006 were fine. But over the past few weeks I've felt it coming back again, and last weekend was awful. So this time I went straight to the doctor and got Pizotifen. Bliss again.

I'll start the herbal stuff to deal with the problem too. It'll take a while though. Wish I knew what the root of the problem was. Any suggestions anyone?

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Saturday, January 06, 2007

Can you think of a better guitar riff?

In honour of David Bowie's 60th birthday (on Monday), I've been listening to a few of his records.

On listening to the song 'Rebel Rebel' (originally from the Diamond Dogs album from 1974), it occurred to me that I couldn't think of a better guitar riff in rock.

Can you think of a better guitar riff?

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Friday, January 05, 2007

Torchwood: Series 1

So series 1 of Torchwood is over. Started off good, got better, got worse, was OK for a while then got quite good towards the end. You can read all my episode reviews here:
  1. Everything changes: 7/10 (perhaps more)
  2. Day one: 7/10
  3. Ghost machine: 9/10 (series high point)
  4. Cyberwoman: 8/10
  5. Small worlds: 6/10
  6. Countrycide: 4/10 (series low point)
  7. Greeks bearing gifts: 6/10
  8. They keep killing Susie: 6/10
  9. Random shoes: 7/10
  10. Out of time: 5/10
  11. Combat: 7/10
  12. Captain Jack Harkness: 7/10 (perhaps more)
  13. End of days: 7/10
So on average, the series scores 6.6/10 (perhaps slightly more), which by my personal ratings scale means that the whole thing is probably worth a second viewing, but not worth buying on DVD.

Oddly enough, the DVD releases are arranged in such a way that you can buy two out of the three DVDs and miss most of the dull episodes. DVD set 1 (out now) has the first 5 episodes (average rating 7.4/10 = possibly worth buying), DVD set 2 has the next 4 (not even worth a second viewing) and DVD set 3 has the final 4 episodes (worth a second viewing). I'll probably not buy any of these though, I rarely find time to watch things multiple times these days.

But it has kept me reasonably entertained over the past 11 weeks (Episodes 1 & 2 were shown on the same night, as were Episodes 12 & 13) and I'll certainly be tuning in again in October. But now I can get back to watching crappy US sci-fi for a while until Doctor Who starts in the Spring...

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Torchwood: Episode 13 - 'End of Days'

Nice doggy. Sit!

Have we not seen the end of the world like this before?

It's the usual sci-fi take on the devil / Abaddon / etc. - the old bible stories got it all wrong, he's not some supernatural being, he's just a big, bad, powerful, very old alien who's been imprisoned somewhere and then gets let out. (Hang on, did we not just have this kind of story in Doctor Who, not just in the recent Christmas episode, but also in 'The Satan Pit' back in the Spring?)

Oh, and while we're at it, lets use some more biblical imagery and have the lead bloke die heroically (defeating the devil, no less), then be resurrected three days later, to be found first by a mourning woman, then to reveal himself to his followers, including the one who betrayed him - who he forgives.

A bit predicatable really, but reasonably entertaining. The Abaddon FX were a bit ropey but you kind of expect that on a BBC budget. And we still have lots of questions about Captain Jack... perhaps some of them will be answered in the new series of Doctor Who, perhaps we'll have to wait for Torchwood season two (which has been given the go ahead - it is the most popular programme on BBC3 after all and has the highest ever viewing figures for any non-sport programme on a digital channel).

So all in all I'd still rate it 7/10.

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Torchwood: Episode 12 - 'Captain Jack Harkness'

The time rift opens up and Jack and Toshiko find themselves in 1941. They meet the real Captain Jack Harkness and it turns out that Jack isn't really called Jack after all...

I quite liked this one and will happily watch it a second time when the series is repeated in the future. We find out more about Jack, whilst still having lots of questions about him.

The time travelling is handled nicely, and fairly subtly (I was reminded of the novel 'Time and Again' rather than other, more flashy, time travel stories), and the period setting is good. The caretaker was suitably creepy and the interplay between Ianto (who verged towards being 3D) and Owen was good. Gwen, however, returned to her quivering-lip, 'what's happening Jack?' persona.

Nicely engaging story and more complete than I was expecting given that it was presented as being the first half of a two-part season finale. 7/10.

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Monday, January 01, 2007


We made a banoffee pie last night.

Rather than following the usual recipe (which works, but takes a long time) we tried the quick recipe on the side of the condensed milk tin.

Big mistake.

Rather than produce a lovely gooey, caramelly layer which is a delight to eat, it produced a layer of toffee - it was nice to eat but highly chewey - it would have been pretty impossible to actually eat a slice of pie made with such a layer.

So we peeled it off (if it had been a proper banoffee layer I wouldn't have been able to peel it) and started again with the old recipe caramel on the biscuit base (which, remarkably, remained intact throughout the peeling process). Much better.

The photo on the right is me modelling the peeled toffee layer. You really wouldn't want to eat that, right?