Music, Maths, and Mash-Ups

It’s been a huge pleasure and a lot of fun to host Esa Räsänen and George Datseris here at Nottingham over the last few days. Once the video of George’s seminar, “Music Time Series Analysis: Universal Structure and Its Impact on the Listening Experience“, is edited and uploaded, I’ll write a longer post expanding on Esa’s and George’s work and the reasons why they both spent some time visiting our group at Nottingham. (I’ve been following Esa’s work for quite some time now…)

In between our discussions of 1/f noise, microtiming deviations, and power spectra, Esa introduced me to some classic compositions in the “mash-up” genre, of which I was previously only vaguely familiar. That meant that I was missing out on gems like this ground-breaking Bangles-Slayer collaboration…

Thank you, Esa, for expanding my musical horizons!

More soon on the physics behind Esa and George’s visit, but for now I’ll leave you with George’s wonderfully monikered (and logo-ed) band, The Max Funk Institute. George, a professional drummer, has recently completed his PhD at, you guessed it, the Max Planck Institute. He’s clearly a polymath; music, physics, and — as the first few seconds of the video below show — acting all fall within his sphere of expertise….

In Perfect Circles

I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t
Welcome any change, my friend…

JG Chancellor, D Carey, A Jones, MJ Keenan. Lyrics © BMG Rights Management

Ænema, Tool (Zoo Entertainment, 1996)

It’s been a week now; 10,000 minutes, give or take. And since the exponentially hyped and hyperbolically trumpeted release of Tool’s Fear Innoculum last Friday (Aug 30), I’ve persisted, playing the album at least once a day. In other words, I’ve sat through all eighty-six sodding minutes of their thoroughly predictable, tediously self-derivative, and frankly wholly disappointing new opus more than seven times over.

Why the musical masochism? Well, I’ve been trying to figure out just what it is that I’m missing; what’s in the bits/grooves of Fear Innoculum that others apparently hear but which completely passes me by? To say that the album has received critical acclaim would be quite some understatement; it’s been described in the hushed, awed, reverent tones that greets just about everything Tool produces. Moreover, Fear Innoculum is shifting units like no-one’s business, even potentially knocking Taylor Swift from the #1 Billboard spot.

But…but…but… it turns out that I’m not missing anything at all. It’s virtually the same bloody album as they released in 2001, Lateralus, and again in 2006, 10,000 Days. (If I hear just one more recycled variant of that hammer-on Schism riff I’ll scream…[1]) This, from a band that is meant to be the pinnacle of progressive rock/metal? There’s no progession at all. Zilch. They’re been running in circles, treading water, spinning their wheels for literally decades (if you’ll excuse the Keenan-esque mixed metaphors.)

As a huge Tool fan of old [2], I was eagerly awaiting Fear Innoculum. From Opiate, through Undertow and Ænema, and up to Lateralus, I bought almost entirely into the Tool mythos (slightly irritating though it was at times) and was rapt when I went to see them play live. Being a prog rock/prog metal fan — Rush, Queensryche, King Crimson, Yes [3], Dream Theater [4], Opeth [5], Haken, Shattered Skies, ELP, the afore-mentioned Marillion …etc., etc. — lengthy, rambling, self-indulgent songs are my aural tonic of choice; Rush’s 2112, Hemispheres: Cygnus-X1 Book II, and that archetypal exercise in self indulgence,  La Villa Strangiato, are not the snappiest or pithiest of compositions. Tool similarly have a penchant for long, intricate songs, which their fans, including yours truly, lapped up. (Reading the reviews of “Fear Innoculum”, I was put in mind more than once of Mark Kellys’s quote about Marillion’s song writing: “We could do a 15-minute fart into a paper bag and some people would be happier with that than a three-minute classic.”)

But what distinguishes Rush, Crimson, Yes, Marillion et al. from Tool is that the former set of bands didn’t release the same damn album three times in a row. They each experimented and evolved, and while I didn’t always like what they did, I admired their willingness to challenge themselves and move forward musically; to progress.

There’s nothing wrong with sticking to a musical template; I love AC/DC as much as — probably more than — the next rock fan. But this is Tool, a band admired for their musical adventure, for their intelligence, for their willingness to push boundaries. And yet Fear Innoculum isn’t so much the sound of a band dialling it in, it’s the sound of a band having it dialled in for them — like the music an AI would produce if it were trained on previous Tool outputs.

Fortunately, not every review was on-brand and on-message; some, including Pitchfork  — thanks, Peter, for sending me the link — and the ever-reliable Prog, were more than happy to point out that the emperors are, if not stark bollock naked, at least drastically underclothed.

Perhaps the band themselves put it best on “Penuma”, track 2 of Fear Innoculum: “(we) go round, one foot nailed down.”

[1] And not in a good, metal, Maynard-James-Keenan-channelling-his-inner-demons way.

[2] To highlight just how much of a Tool nerd I was… I not only included a homage to “Lateralus” in the piece of music, The Tau of Phi, described in this Numberphile video, I made damn sure it appeared at 1:09 into the track in question. Tool aficionados will know why.

I guess I should also admit at this point that I smuggled a Tool lyric into my introductory thermodynamics lectures for many years: “I’ve done the math enough to know… the dangers of our second guessing.”

[3] I even like parts of Tales From Topgraphic Oceans, for feck’s sake…

[4] …who’ve also been treading water since about 1997.

[5] …who, on the other hand, continue to evolve and progress.

“And now behold a feast befitting famine…”

When it comes to thrash, death, grindcore, and the heavier end of the spectrum, I tend to like my metal crunchy, guttural, and driven by huge sludgy riffs. There is nothing that gets my pulse racing more than a massive riff propelled by pummelling double bass drums, with vocals dredged up from the Seven Circles [1]. If the lyrics have a social conscience and/or political bent, all the better.

So when Chris Morley, a final year PhD student researcher here in the School of Physics & Astronomy — and fellow metal fan, accomplished musician, and quantum technologist — sent me a link to the new song he’s recorded with Beyond Grace, I was, let’s say, just a tad enthusiastic about the track.

Strap yourselves in. I’ll see you again in 4 mins and 56 seconds…

I f**king love that track. [2] There aren’t too many other bands (metal or otherwise), with the notable exception of Napalm Death [3], who would write a song that lambasts the breathtakingly simplistic fantasy of trickle-down economics. (And kick off by sampling Obama’s critique of that fantasy.)

As Beyond Grace themselves explain over at MetalSucks,

In The Arabian Nights there’s a story where a beggar is taken in by a rich man and served an imaginary meal and, after playing along with the illusion, is ultimately rewarded with a life of luxury and opulence.

“Of course, in the real world, this isn’t what happens. We wait and we wait, but nothing changes. We’re just told to do more with less, to keep our mouths shut, even as those upstream do their best to dam the river so that all that reaches us is the merest trickle of the wealth they’ve hoarded.”

And not only do Beyond Grace raise awareness, they put their money where their collective mouth is. They’re donating all the proceeds from the single to local food banks. You can purchase the track here, for however much or little you would like to donate. Go get it now. As MetalSucks put it, “killer music, killer ethos.” ‘Nuff said.

OK, are you ready? Growl like you’ve never growled before. Everyone. On 4.

1, 2, 3, fouuuuuuurggghhhhh…


[1] On other occasions, Abba, Zappa, or just about anything in between — except, of course, the aural enema that is country – are what I need for my musical fix. (And, if you, like me, have ever idly wondered what Abba-influenced death metallers might sound like …

A big thank you to my friend, and erstwhile colleague at Nottingham, Adam Sweetman, for introducing me to the majesty of The Night Flight Orchestra.

[2] Back in the days when I used to waste a lot of time “debating” pointlessly online, aggrieved anti-social-justice warriors often whined at me about “self-censoring” expletives in this way. (I kid you not. They really are exceptionally fragile individuals.) Let’s just say that it’s my homage to Kerrang! magazine, which I read voraciously as a teenager. I also think that partially “redacting” the word like that actually strengthens, rather than lessens, the written impact of the expletive.

[3] As I said to Chris, I hear echoes of Barney and the boys in “Barmecide Feast”.  

“Uncertainty to 11” Playlist

I was over the moon to find that a goodreads reviewer who goes by the handle of Hisacro had very kindly put together the YouTube playlist below for “When The Uncertainty Principle Goes To 11“. Hisacro diligently worked page by page through “Uncertainty to 11…” to add each of the songs I referenced therein, with a couple of key (and quite brilliant) differences to my selections and suggestions in the book. These include a wonderful version of Peanuts doing Rush’s classic 2112Thank you Hisacro, for taking the quite considerable time to put the playlist together. If you ever read this, please drop me a line so I can thank you slightly more directly than via the lines of a blog post!



Maths In Action

Just back from London where I had a fun — and ever-so-slightly daunting — time talking about the beauty of maths in music and physics for an audience of 700 GCSE students at the “Maths In Action” conference. The venue was stunning…


Just about visible at the front of the cavernous auditorium is the speaker before me, Hugh Hunt (Engineering, Cambridge), doing a remarkable job of entertaining and engaging the audience with his demonstration-packed talk on angular momentum, gyroscopic precession, and all things spin-y. Hugh’s talk was an impossible act to follow — he set the bar exceptionally high indeed. I did my usual spin on the quantum-metal interface but tilted it towards a discussion of the role of mathematics in physics. (I had to come clean right at the start and confess to the students that I am most definitely not a mathematician.)

The students were great throughout — they certainly were not shy to shout out answers to the questions I asked (and to sing musical notes back to me, occasionally even in tune). An extra big thank you to Korbyn — and my sincere apologies if I’ve got the spelling wrong — for coming up on stage to play the opening riff to Black Sabbath and help me introduce the concept of the diabolical flattened fifth.

And, of course, I have to say a huge thank you to David Matthews, coordinator of the event (and Maths Programme Manager for The Training Partnership, who run a very broad series of GCSE events of this type)  for both the invitation to speak and for such an impressively organised day. As someone who too often struggles to manage just two teenagers*, attempting to coordinate 700 would bring me out in a cold sweat…

* I’m joking, Niamh and Saoirse. You’re great.

Denim and leather brought us all together

After the thrash metal overkill of last weekend, this week it was the turn of some heavy duty NWOBHM to crank the volume to the point of pain. I’m still recovering from the early eighties flashbacks induced by Saxon’s set at the Royal Concert Hall on Saturday night so please forgive this relatively short review. (Fortunately, my voice is now rather less croaky — it spent most of Sunday recuperating from my hollering along to “Wheels Of Steel”, “Dallas 1 pm”, “Strangers In The Night” and a bevy of other (head)banging metal classics…)

Up before Biff and the Barnsley boys, we had the classic rock of Wayward Sons, fronted by Toby Jepson, the erstwhile Little Angels frontman. (Bonus review points before they played a note for wandering on stage to the strains of Johnny Cash’s “I Shot A Man In Reno”). As a thrash metal fan in the late eighties I had to keep my penchant for Little Angels material well under wraps — “Too posh to mosh” and all that — but I always had a soft spot for Jepson’s voice. (After all, he comes close to Geddy Lee’s stratospheric vocal register at times. Even now in the throes of middle age. Bastard.) She’s A Little Angel is still very welcome indeed when it appears on shuffle on my phone.

But Wayward Sons aren’t about capturing Mr. Jepson’s past glories — they’re a much more seventies-style hard riffing, hard rocking band with none of the hair metal pretensions of Little Angels. Their down to earth rock ‘n’ roll is imbued with a wonderfully infectious sense of enthusiasm, some beefy Bonham-esque backbeats, and even a very welcome Thin Lizzy feel at times. Last year’s “Until The End” is as good an introduction as you’ll get…

I’ll definitely be looking out for Wayward Sons in the future — high octane rock with a sound that may well not be fashionable ever again. But that’s just the way we like it.

Doro Pesch, the long-crowned Queen of Metal, was next to tread the Royal Concert Hall boards. I’ve never been a fan, I’ve got to admit, but Doro deserves quite some respect for flying the metal flag so loyally for quite this long. And she and her band certainly can command a crowd…

Doro’s set took the Spinal Tap influence and, it’s got to be said, cranked it far beyond 11. Here are the lyrics for the chorus of the closing song of the set, “All For Metal”…

Oh-oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh
Oh-oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh
Oh-oh-oh, oh-oh
All for metal (Metal)
Oh-oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh
Oh-oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh
Oh-oh-oh, oh-oh
Gods of metal (Metal)

How much more metal could this be? None. None more metal. (Metal)

And then it was time for the main event. Saxon were not only one of the first metal bands I got into but were a formative part of my musical education back when I were a lad. I distinctly remember feeling rather pleased with myself when I nailed the riff for “Strong Arm Of The Law” as a fledgling guitarist — one of the first “proper” guitar parts I learned — after rewinding and replaying the cassette of the album for what seemed like weeks (but was probably months). Here’s that riff reverberating across the Concert Hall on Saturday night…

Classic old school metal tunes were mixed with Saxon’s newer (and rather heavier) material. I’ll be brutally honest, however — I was there for the nostalgia trip. Kudos to Biff and the boys for not resting on their laurels and continuing to write and perform new material, but give me “And The Bands Played On” over “Sacrifice” any time. Fortunately, they did. Better still, the Barnsley ‘bangers closed their fan-pleasing set by belting out this anthem for the NWOBHM generation…

I can’t hear you…

Where were you in ’79 when the dam began to burst?
Did you check us out down at the local show?
Were you wearing denim, wearing leather?
Did you run down to the front?

Did you listen to the radio every Friday night?