The Aussie Pink Floyd Podcast #4

(…or should that be The Aussie Pinkcast?)

Last Tuesday I visited my friend Dave Domminney Fowler, guitarist with the Australian Pink Floyd, singer, keyboardist, drummer, songwriter, sound engineer, computer programmer, digital audio enthusiast, MIDI expert, self-confessed geek, and all-round obscenely talented bloke, at his home-cum-recording-studio in Sidcup, just outside London, to record a couple of podcasts.

Dave and I had a blast…

Not only is Dave an exceptional musician, but as I’ve mentioned before, he could very easily steal the mantle of “nicest guy in rock” from a certain Dave Grohl. He and I spent six or so hours playing guitar and nattering at length over copious amounts of tea. (It should be said that Dave has one or two guitars at his disposal…

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…and that’s certainly not all of ’em.)

The first of those podcasts, #4 in the Australian Pink Floyd series, was uploaded yesterday. Here’s the YouTube version, but it’s also available via a stream at the Aussie Pink Floyd site and via iTunes. Be warned, it gets a little bit “physics-y” in the first half — Dave and I are both massive Fourier analysis fans so we got perhaps (possibly, maybe) a little too carried away by the technical detail. It all settles down in the second half…

The second podcast was for Dave’s upcoming new (and yet unrevealed…) project. This featured discussions about social media (and social media shaming), tribalism, the Peterson-Harris ‘debate’ that Dave attended the night before, thunderf00t, sexism, and the greatest ever guitarists. (Some of Dave’s choices really surprised me. A man of eclectic tastes…) And that was just for starters. If and when the podcast appears online, I’ll certainly blog about it!

Thank you, Dave, for such a great day in Sidcup. (And there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write…)

Hard-Wired To Sleepwalk

Underwhelmed.

Again.

That’s my reaction to the new Metallica album, released on Friday. It’s not a snap judgement — I’ve listened to Hardwired To Self-Destruct four times over now and tried my utmost to give it a chance. Hardwired… has its moments of spark and originality, where the band fire on at least a couple of cylinders, but those are lost in a sea of pedestrian riffing and uninspired vocals that the Metallica who recorded Master Of Puppets, …And Justice For All, and Metallica (aka The Black Album) would have left on the cutting room floor.

Master Of Puppets is in my top ten albums of all time; I  still listen to it on an almost weekly basis. It’s a classic that set the bar for so many other bands because it represented an innovative coupling of huge riffs, aggressive-yet-melodic vocals, intelligent arrangements, and, yes, memorable, off-kilter drum patterns. (Lars Ulrich gets a lot of flak for his drumming these days — often deservedly so — but his work on MOP, …AJFA, and Metallica is very often inspired. Take a listen to what he does on the opening to Harvester Of Sorrow  (from …AJFA). Or revisit those iconic double bass drum sextuplets in One.)

I realise that the Metallica of today is not the Metallica of 1986. I’m not expecting them to reproduce the output from those halcyon thrash metal days. But instead of evolving, instead of continuing to set the bar when it comes to intelligent metal music, they’ve been trying to recapture past glories for decades now. Dom Lawson, a fine writer with a deep knowledge of the metal genre, kicks off his review of the album for The Guardian as follows: “Metallica have just made their finest record in 25 years”. True. And that’s precisely the problem. Metallica’s output since their eponymous, multi-platinum, stadium-slaying opus in 1991 has been almost continuously sub-par, and that’s even excluding the abominations that were the Lulu album and Some Kind Of Monster (although the latter at least rivaled Spinal Tap in terms of (unintentional) comedy value).

The worst thing about Hardwired…  is that much of it sounds like it could have been recorded by any one of the slew of second division thrash metal bands that trailed in Metallica’s wake back in the eighties and early nineties. Vocals that didn’t quite hit the Hetfield heights (and depths), riffs that lacked the punch to the gut of a Battery, a Sad But Trueor a Creeping Death, lyrics that were hurriedly written on the back of a fag packet during a lengthy liquid lunch down the local — all said and done, a poor facsimile of the masterful Metallica sound.

The mud, the frets, the cheers. Donington 2016.

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I spent the majority of last weekend up to my ankles  — or, not too infrequently, practically up to my knees — in mud, in a field just outside a small village in Leicestershire, occasionally braving the vastly overpriced food, tentatively sipping hot beverages that almost, but not quite, tasted entirely unlike tea, and being drenched periodically by sheet rain.

And I loved it.

This was Donington 2016. Although its formal title for quite a number of years now has been the Download Festival, many of us who are long enough in the tooth to have attended Donington for the Monsters of Rock concerts in the eighties have a profound aversion to referring to the event as “Download”. It’s Donington, dammit.

I first attended Donington in 1987, largely because Dio, Metallica and Anthrax were playing. (Anthrax had supported Metallica at the SFX Concert Hall gig in Dublin the preceding September, on their Damage, Inc. tour; both bands made a big impression on me. This was despite James Hetfield having broken his arm in a bizarre gardening skateboarding accident and being solely on vocal duties. Roadie John Marshall, also a member of Metal Church at the time, did an admirable job of mimicking Hetfield’s signature rhythm guitar patterns).

I was back at Donington a year later when Iron Maiden headlined for the first time. Offsetting the triumph of the Maiden performance was the tragedy of the death of two fans during Guns N’ Roses’ set earlier that day. We were quite far from the stage –something like eighty yards back — when Guns N’ Roses walked on, but, despite this, the resulting crowd-swell and downhill surge were frightening. The band paused their set a couple of times so that fans at the front could be fished out of the melee, and Axl Rose asked the crowd to take a few steps back to relieve the pressure, but none of us in the crowd were aware until Maiden left the stage that two people (Alan Dick, 18 and Landon Siggers, 20) had died. 

The festival, for obvious reasons, didn’t take place in 1989.

It was 1994 before I returned to Donington, the year I started working as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham. (Castle Donington is very close to Nottingham). I’ve sporadically attended every few years since then. This year, however, was the first time I’ve gone to two days of the festival: Sabbath headlined on Saturday night, Maiden on Sunday (their sixth headlining appearance at Donington). Although I’ve seen Maiden many times before — indeed, the very first major rock gig I attended was their show at the Hammersmith Odeon on the Somewhere In Time tour in November ’86 — to my great embarrassment (particularly given the name of this blog), I’d never seen the Ozzy-fronted Sabbath live.

As compared to the festival in the 80s, Donington these days is a multi-day, multi-stage affair with a multitude of rock and metal bands of every conceivable, and, at times, inconceivable, sub-genre. Sorting out a schedule for the day was a major exercise in organisational logistics of a type that is far beyond my capabilities. Luckily, my friend (and alumnus of the Nottingham Nanoscience Group), James, had the foresight to bring along a copy of the festival schedule which was not at all dissimilar to the type of planner produced by the organisers of major international scientific conferences (where there are many parallel sessions). This made making our way between the various stages much easier, rivers of mud notwithstanding.

Here’s my tuppence worth on the bands we saw.

Saturday June 11

Sixx: AM. We  arrived in time for Nikki Sixx’s post-Crüe, and disappointingly umlaut-free, new venture. Although I was never the greatest Mötley Crüe fan, at least they had a degree of edginess. Sixx:AM, in contrast, were bland in the extreme. James put it best: underwhelming.

TesseracT. Sublime. I was expecting the complex and multi-faceted dynamics of TesseracT’s music to be compromised by the festival setting but needn’t have worried — this was a stunning performance in front of a huge and receptive crowd. It’s difficult to single out individual contributions, as a core element of TesseracT is their intensely syncopated arrangements, but I was blown away by the other-worldly drumming of Jay Postones. He is surely the natural successor to Tool’s (similarly innovative and immensely talented) Danny Carey. Incredible.

Lawnmower Deth. Any band whose vocalist goes by the name of Qualcast Mutilator is worth seeing. I was quite a fan of the late eighties UK thrash metal scene (of which the ‘Deth were a part), which, it must be said, was never quite as focussed, state-of-the-art, or ‘incisive’ as its US counterpart. (The jump-the-shark moment for UK thrash came when Xentrix did a cover of, um, the Ghostbusters theme tune). None of this mattered to Lawnmower Deth, who care not a jot for carefully crated fourteen minute epics, 13/29 time signatures, or neo-classical guitar solos. The title of their first (half) album says it all: Mower Liberation Front. A highlight of the ‘Deth’s set at Donington, and, indeed, a highlight of the entire festival was Kim Wilde joining them to perform their frantic version of The Kids In America.

Megadeth. I’ll be honest, my hopes were not high. Although I was a massive Megadeth fan in the eighties/early nineties for their first four albums —  aficionados of the world’s state-of-the-art thrash metal band will be disappointed to hear that I prefer Peace Sells… to Rust In Peace, however — they’ve fallen a very long way indeed in terms of the quality of their output and their performances. While this is of course similarly true of Mustaine’s arch-rivals Metallica (it’s painful to listen to modern-day Metallica and compare them to what they were in their prime), Mustaine’s vocal performances have been abysmally weak and strained for many years.

…and that’s why it was an extremely good idea for Megadeth to start down-tuning (by not just a semitone but a full tone). That Mustaine didn’t constantly over-reach with his vocals and send the whine levels into the red made a big difference to the quality of Megadeth’s set on Saturday. Even their traditionally wishy-washy cover of Anarchy In The UK , this time ‘complemented’ by the appearance of Nikki Sixx on bass, sounded a lot more full-bodied than usual. (Mustaine sneeringly (how else?) noted that “hell must have frozen over” to have an ex-member of Mötley Crüe appear on stage with Megadeth).

Mustaine even kept his pontificating at bay. Mostly.

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Skindred. A stunning performance from an innovative band. I’ve seen Skindred a couple of times before at Rock City but this performance made those earlier gigs, which were chaotic (in the very best way), look positively tame in comparison. Benji Webbe is the consummate front-man — he has that rare ability to connect with an audience and make each member of the crowd feel as if he’s talking directly to them. (Bruce Dickinson similarly has this skill). His love of the music and of performing was absolutely clear — at no time did it feel like he was just going through the motions (and that certainly wasn’t true of some of the bands who played over the weekend). And, of course, he’s ever the comedian.

Highlights? Nobody, Pressure, a truly beautiful and affecting acoustic version of Saying It Now, and, of course, the famed Newport Helicopter…

Black Sabbath. Oh my. They open with that riff, the ominous flattened fifth paving the way for Ozzy’s unnerving “What is this that stands before me?“. (And was there ever a more apt example of the pathetic fallacy in action, as the heavens opened yet again?) Then it’s classic riff after classic riff, each one burned into the synapses from years of exposure, Iommi and Butler still both on top of their game after all this time.

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And Ozzy?

Well, his singing wasn’t flat all of the time…

No, to be fair to the self-styled crazy man of rock, his vocals were mostly in tune and he was, it has to be said, bloody entertaining. His plaintive mid-set “Why does it always have to fucking piss it down?” certainly got the soaking wet audience laughing in appreciation.

It’s a great shame that we didn’t have the complete classic line-up, but Bill Ward’s replacement, Tommy Clufetos, not only looked rather like the 70s version of the drummer, he played with the same type of bombast and wild abandon.

All the fan favourites were there: War Pigs, NIB, Children Of The Grave, Snowblind… And the set closed, of course, with the obligatory Paranoid.

Was this really Sabbath’s last festival appearance? We’ll see. With Sabbath, it’s always best to, ahem, Never Say Die…

Sunday June 12

Periphery. We missed half of Periphery’s set while queuing to get lunch, but I must admit that they’ve always been a bit of a poor man’s TesseracT to me. (Sorry, Periphery fans). It was an accomplished performance but TesseracT set an exceptionally high bar for other djent/nu-prog metal bands to clear…

Halestorm. Yes, Lzzy Hale has got an incredible voice. And, yes, she gets bucketloads of kudos from this particular Rush fan for playing a double-necked guitar. And, yes, their songs are catchy.

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But for some reason, they leave me cold. And I don’t think it’s entirely because I’m a cynical middle-aged git who’s seen and heard countless incarnations of the big rawk dynamic. It just felt like the band were going through the motions.

And we certainly could have done without that fecking drum solo…

Disturbed. Continuing on the grumpy old bastard theme, I’ve never been a big Disturbed fan. This performance did little to change that. It was an hour or so of largely one-dimensional metal which didn’t deviate too far from the tried-and-tested blueprint. Yes, they’ve got that song. And, admittedly, it’s a good song. But one good song does not a set make.

Disturbed did at least attempt to diversify a little with a (somewhat overblown) cover of The Sound Of Silence, but then bizarrely followed this up by lurching into karaoke mode with a series of guest singers. First up was a bombastic metallized cover of I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For featuring Lzzy Hale, during which she traded vocals with David Draiman, the Disturbed frontman (who looks more and more like Omid Djalili these days, and whose messianic shtick gets very tiresome, very quickly).

The vocal trading between Hale and Draiman reminded me of the type of bellow-fests that happen during the “play-off” episodes of The Voice. (My daughters are big fans of The Voice. (I always knew that sacrifices would have to be made when I became a parent…)). While Hale and Draiman are both great singers — although the former is rather greater than the latter — the entire performance just felt choreographed and ‘by the numbers’.

Then Blaze Bayley wandered on stage and launched into The Who’s Baba O’Riley with Draiman. Roger Daltrey’s full-throated roar is a tough act to emulate. Blaze did his best, but it did get just a little too “club singer“-esque at times…

Shinedown. Not for me, I’m afraid. More big, bland, cliched stadium rawk. Good cover of Skynyrd’s Simple Man at the end, though.

Nightwish. I hadn’t expected to enjoy Nightwish quite as much as I did. Prior to seeing them at Donington, I always felt that they strayed a little bit too close to Stonehenge territory (the seminal Spinal Tap song, that is) but their set was very entertaining indeed. Great riffs, great vocals, great drumming… and, errm, great mandolin. I’m a convert to their brand of symphonic metal.

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Saxon. I’m a child — well, teenager, at least — of NWOBHM and will always therefore have a soft spot for Saxon. I remember being delighted when I could play Strong Arm Of The Law (or a rough approximation thereof) on guitar; it was among the very first riffs I worked out when I was learning to play. (There was no internet in those days, and while guitar tablature certainly existed, getting hold of the tab for Strong Arm… in the heart of rural Ireland in the early eighties was simply not a credible option).

So I thoroughly enjoyed Saxon’s set. Biff Byford’s voice is holding up remarkably well and the band gave it their all, including liberal doses of double bass drumming (that wasn’t on the originally recorded tracks). The crowd roared along with the classics — 747 (Strangers In The Night),  And The Bands Played On (“the Donington song”), Heavy Metal Thunder (dedicated to Lemmy), and, of course, the ever-green Wheels Of Steel. (No Strong Arm… though. Grrr.).

As the final chords of Wheels… faded out, I turned on my heels and joined the crowd trudging its way back to the main stage for the main event…

Iron Maiden. Absolutely amazing!“. That was the verdict of James’ eight year old son Jonathan following Maiden’s set. I have got to say that I concur completely. Quite how Maiden manage to retain the same levels of energy and commitment almost three decades on from that first Donington appearance in 1988 is simply beyond my ken.

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It’s not as if they were resting on their laurels by churning out a set which was entirely a greatest hits package. They included no fewer than six –yes, six — songs from The Book Of Souls. I can take or leave Death Or Glory — it’s the type of song Maiden can write on autopilot — but the remainder of the new songs slotted seamlessly into the set alongside the classics (The Trooper, Hallowed…, Powerslave, Children Of The DamnedNumber Of The Beast, and Wasted Years all got an airing).

Until it was mentioned from the stage towards the end of Maiden’s set, it’s clear that quite a number of people in the crowd were, like me, oblivious to the sickening and appalling news from Florida. There was a collective gasp from much of the 80,000-strong crowd when Dickinson informed us about the deaths of so many in Orlando. His words and sentiments, as he introduced Blood Brothers, mirrored what Owen Jones says in the clip below.

I’ll close this post with that message of hope.

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“Play me the melodies I want to know”

On Lynott, Lizzy, Lemmy, and Life.

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30 years ago this week, Phil Lynott tragically passed away at the age of 36. I was seventeen at the time of Lynott’s passing and a huge Thin Lizzy fan (who had spent an inordinate amount of his time learning to play guitar largely by rewinding and replaying Lizzy riffs/solos ad infinitum until the songs were not only burned into my synapses but imprinted in the calluses on my fingertips).

Ireland had its fair share of problems to deal with when I was a teenager in the eighties. Deep sectarianism and violence. Hunger strikes and H-blocks. Chronic unemployment and mass emigration. Chris de Burgh and that wretched Lady In Red. But we could all be proud of Lynott and Lizzy for breaking the mould for Irish music.  The band I played in, like so many other fledgling/amateur Irish rock bands of the time, covered many Lizzy classics: Don’t Believe A Word, Cowboy Song, Boys Are Back In Town, Still In Love With You, Emerald. And, oh yes, Whiskey In The Jar as well. That one was something of an albatross around Lynott’s neck in terms of moving Lizzy’s music forward. His irritation at the start of this video ,when introducing a song from the most recent Lizzy album at the time, couldn’t be clearer: “No, it’s not Whiskey In The f**king Jar.” (And the less said about that atrocious Metallica cover version of Whiskey…, the better. Jaysus wept…)

I remember the shock and sadness of hearing that Lynott had died, and yet feeling rather taken aback that the passing of someone whom I had never known could affect me quite that much. But there’s something about Lynott’s music which connects deeply with so many; 30 years after his death his lyrics and melodies continue to resonate across the generations. I always smile when an undergraduate walks into a lecture theatre wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with that larger-than-life Lizzy logo. (*checks Monsters Of Grok website*. Goddamn, there’s no Lizzy shirt available. Some type of petition must surely be in order…)

Philip Parris Lynott was — like the inimitable Ian Fraser Kilmister, who has also now sadly gone to the great gig in the sky — the quintessential hard-living rock star. Always canny and perceptive when it came to establishing his, and his band’s, image, Lynott of course did his utmost to live up to his iconic status as the rocker. But there was a great deal more depth to Lynott than that; it’s a shame that it’s the machismo and the lifestyle for which he’s too often remembered (at least among those with at best a passing acquaintance with Lynott’s/Lizzy’s music). This quote, from a Creem article from 1976 republished in The Guardian in 2012, regarding the publication of his book of poetry, Songs For While I’m Away, is rather telling:

“I’m incredibly proud of that,” [Lynott] says. “I’m more proud of that than, say, I was when the record got into the charts. A budding poet, ehh???”

Even in their more metal moments, Lynott’s lyrics often avoided the usual cliches: he was a storyteller and in his finest lyrics paid a great deal of attention to connecting with the listener. It’s difficult to find a more metal song title than “Angel Of Death” — Slayer went on to use it for the opening track of their genre-defining “Reign In Blood” album — but even on this track (from their Renegade album), Lynott doesn’t lazily string together the usual boilerplate from the metal lexicon and instead sets up a series of what are perhaps best described as emotive scenes…

I was standing by the bedside
The night that my father died
He was crying out in pain
To his God, he said, “Have mercy, mercy”

The Irish have always had a way with a story, apparently, and Lynott regularly borrowed from Irish myth and legend for his lyrics and poetry. Róisín Dubh is the greatest example. I love David Marchese’s breakdown of the various legends intertwined in Róisín Dubh , published in Rolling Stone on St. Patrick’s Day (when else) a couple of years back. (…and the title of the blog post you’re reading is also taken from Róisín Dubh).

When this story-telling aspect is coupled with Lynott’s keen ear for cadence and tone, and his strong sense of melody and harmony, it’s not so surprising that his, and Lizzy’s, music connects with so many.  (And, yes, before any Lizzy aficiandos mention it, I am also well aware that there are rather less thoughtful approaches to lyric writing in the Lynott oeuvre; “Are you ready to rock?” is hardly going to win any awards for poetry. But that’s the great thing about Lizzy’s work — it spans a range of different styles and they were never afraid to experiment).

The photo above is of my daughter, Niamh, sitting at the base of the statue of Phil Lynott which is just off Grafton Street in Dublin. (Fittingly, the statue is right outside Bruxelles pub – a favourite haunt of metal fans, at least during my time in Dublin (1985 to 1993)). The photo was taken during a visit to Dublin in the summer of 2010 when Niamh was 7. Niamh, her sister Saoirse (who’s now 10), and her brother Fiachra (who reliably informs me that he’s 7 in eighteen days’ time…) have grown up in a house filled with Lynott’s and Lizzy’s music. I sang them to sleep when they were babies with Sarah. (Niamh to this day refers to Lynott as “Sarah’s dad”). Saoirse’s favourite song for a while when she was younger was the “one about the broken-down boy”: this one. And they too often had to listen to me caterwauling over one of my favourite-ever songs, The Sun Goes Down.

One of my new year’s resolutions was to try to carve out some time for music. (Killing my Twitter account has helped somewhat with this.) I also got a bass guitar as a Christmas present from my wife and kids so, with the help of the wonder that is Aerodrums, can now put down rhythm tracks. I’ve been meaning to record a cover of The Sun Goes Down for what feels like decades, and with the thirtieth anniversary of Lynott’s passing this week now seemed an appropriate time to get round to doing it. Here it is:

It’s a fairly faithful cover apart from the intro and outro where I’ve taken the simple, but effective seven-note keyboard riff that Darren Wharton* plays at intervals during the song and put it on piano. (I’ve also excised some of the more “widdly” keyboard flourishes which never did anything for me and, I feel, detract from the song). The vocal lines are a mixture of the phrasing Lynott uses on the studio version of the track and that on the last album Lizzy released, “Live/Life”. For the reasons discussed below, I aimed to reproduce the guitar solo note for note.

There are so many things I love about The Sun Goes Down but if I were to choose one word to encompass them all it’d be restraint. Lynott’s vocal line is rather understated for much of the song. Brian Downey, who is an amazing drummer, sticks to the same exceptionally simple drum beat throughout — he plays for the song, not to show off his drumming skills. Gorham’s guitar solo oozes with emotion because he doesn’t try to pack in four octave harmonic minor runs complemented by sweep-picked arpeggios, as if guitar playing were some type of olympic sport.

What I particularly love about the guitar solo is the way Gorham wrings the bejaysus out of the A note (technically, it’s a G bent up a tone to an A) for a full ten seconds (starting at about the 3:58 mark in the video above). In some live versions of the track (like this), John Sykes, the other guitarist in Lizzy at the time, also does a solo. While technically Sykes is a more accomplished guitarist in terms of speed and “chops”, his solo is much poorer (at least to my ears) than Gorham’s masterclass in ‘economy’ and feel. Gorham says more with one note (and the spaces between the notes) than Sykes manages throughout his solo. (Interestingly, Sykes doesn’t solo on the track on the studio version).

Now, restraint is not a word normally associated with Lizzy. The Sun Goes Down isn’t, however, the only example of wonderfully understated playing — Lizzy’s back-catalogue is full of great moments like this. But they of course complemented those moments with hugely exciting bombast and over-the-top hard rock/metal.

And on the subject of going over the top, restraint is hardly the watchword for Lynott’s kindred soul, Lemmy. I was shocked to hear of Lemmy’s death last month because, in common with the majority of Motörhead fans, I honestly thought that Mr Kilmister was immortal**. As the tweet below none-too-subtly points out, Lemmy’s body had endured so much that we all thought there was nothing that would stop him; come the apocalypse all that would be left would be Mr. Ian Fraser Kilmister and the cockroaches:

There are close links between Lizzy and Lemmy/Motörhead, as laid out in Lemmy’s autobiography, White Line Fever. For one thing, Phil “Philthy” Taylor (1954-2015) was a huge Lizzy fan. This is fascinating because Taylor’s pummelling and relentless double bass drum pattern on Motörhead’s “Overkill” is often credited with kick-starting thrash metal. There’s good evidence for this — Dave Lombardo (Slayer) and Lars Ulrich (Metallica) have often credited Taylor’s key, and undoubtedly thoroughly deserved, influence. But a good five years before the release of “Overkill”, Brian Downey was propelling Lizzy’s Sha La La with a very similar approach to double bass drum overkill…


*There’s an interesting Cox connection here. Darren Wharton went on to form Dare. And one of the keyboard players in Dare was a certain (pre-D:ream) Brian Cox. (The other was Wharton himself). This means that Prof. Cox is one step removed from Lynott on the Lizzy musical heritage tree. I have a soft spot for AOR/hair metal and every now and again this classic Dare track comes up on shuffle on my iPod…

** There’s currently a petition doing the rounds to immortalise Lemmy by naming, fittingly, one of the heavier elements at the top end of the Periodic Table as “Lemmium”. Some of the less enlightened members of the chemistry community/IUPAC have suggested that Lemmy lacks the academic credentials to be immortalised in this way. I, for one, have signed the petition. Anyone who can get the word “parallelogram” into a heavy metal song has demonstrated impeccable academic credentials in my view…

 

Sex(ism). Murder. Art. And Science.

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Trigger warning. If you find that you are unable to respond to criticism of sexism and misogyny without randomly arranging terms such as SJW, white knight, cuck, kill yourself, bitch, whore, rape, professional victims, PC gone mad, First Amendment, feminazi, fuck (and other assorted expletives) into grammatically dubious and arbitrarily capitalised boilerplate then you may find the following post both intellectually and emotionally challenging. A strong and potentially damaging kneejerk response or, indeed, extreme overreaction may result.

You have been warned.

The furore surrounding #TimHunt’s sexist comments continues to rage.

And rightly so.

As my erstwhile colleague, Peter Coles, has pointed out in a typically clear-headed and eloquent piece, what Hunt said was indefensible. In a similarly insightful blog post, Michael Eisen convincingly argues that Hunt’s attempts to defend the indefensible were certainly not due to any lack of awareness of how bad the problem of sexism in science can be,

while both Dorothy Bishop and David Colquhoun, among others, have pointed out just why the Royal Society was correct to ask Prof. Hunt to step down from membership of the Biological Sciences Awards Panel.

I say all of this as someone who has met Prof. Hunt and attended meetings with him (and others) in the context of challenging the damaging focus of the research councils on near-term and near-market socioeconomic impact in science funding. In those discussions, Tim came across as a modest, insightful individual who passionately advocates the value of curiosity-driven science. I found him to be personable, likable, and, indeed, often inspiring, as this BBC4 programme from a few years back amply demonstrates…

But what he said in that conference in Seoul was beyond dumb. It was crass. And immensely damaging.

I don’t want to retread well-worn ground at this point — particularly when (i) Profs. Bishop, Coles, Colquhoun, et al. have done all the legwork, and (ii) the subject of this post isn’t so much the impact of Hunt’s views on academics and researchers as the broader public influence of what he said — but I will note that it is worth considering Tim’s comments in the context of Adrian Sutton’s recent letter to Physics World:

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That’s just in physics, but the situation in other scientific disciplines is pretty similar. 1.7% of the postdoctoral research population per year make it through to a full time academic position. That’s how tough it is to get a permanent academic career these days. I know for a fact that what I had in terms of research ‘outputs’ when I got my lectureship in 1997 wouldn’t get me within sniffing distance of a shortlist today.

Prof. Hunt’s comments, regardless of whether they were misjudged 70s-esque ‘humour‘ or not, put the Royal Society in an exceptionally difficult position. The RS is meant to be scrupulously fair in how it distributes its awards and fellowships, the latter being like gold dust and increasingly being the pathway to a permanent lectureship. And yet Tim decides he’ll shout his mouth off — with just possibly, maybe, a smattering of bravado about not being cowed by the “PC Brigade”? — and say that he doesn’t really want women researchers in his lab because they burst out crying if they’re criticised? When he sits on the Biological Sciences Awards Panel? And when, as Eisen points out, he was more than aware of the problems which continue to plague women in science?

And no, the argument that “Well, he’s 72 you know, let’s cut him some slack given his age and the environment he grew up in” just. doesn’t. wash. Over to Colquhoun (78) again:

I should perhaps also note that I’ve been managing research students and postdocs for the past 18 years. It should not need saying — but, depressingly, it does — that Hunt’s remarks certainly do not reflect my experience of supervising female research students and postdocs.

It’s the impact of Tim Hunt’s statements outside the ivory towers/dreaming spires/[insert cliché of choice] of academia, however, that’s the real subject of this post.

I suspect that Prof. Hunt may be oblivious to the shockingly high levels of not only sexism, but deeply ingrained vicious misogyny, which infest the web. Like this. And this. And what’s described here. And, while we’re at it, this.

Hunt’s comments are, of course, a universe away from the absolutely appalling abuse which is meted out online. But the problem is that his statements feed directly into, and are exploited by, that sexist/misogynistic culture. Let’s consider the case of Milo Yiannopoulos, described by The Observer, no less, as “the pit bull of tech media” and a poster boy for many of the more rabid sexists and misogynists out there.

Last week, Yiannopoulos appeared in a debate with Dr. Emily Grossman on the topic of sexism in science, prompted, naturally, by Hunt’s comments. I watched the debate slack-jawed in astonishment. That Yiannopoulos could manage to trot out so much lazy, uninformed, stereotypical misinformation — oh, let’s not mince our words; I mean shite — in such a short space of time was a quite remarkable achievement. After being invited to put his views across, within the first minute or so he managed to follow up a complete non-sequitur of a non-argument with an entirely groundless assertion regarding women’s motivations for doing science. Here’s exactly what he said:

“We hear a lot from scientists. We hear a lot, in particular, from female scientists. But the fact is that there is some reason to suppose that there are…ummm…there is an advantage to being a man in certain subjects.

There’s reason to suppose that gender essentialism, biological determinism, whatever you want to call it…The fact that there are male brains and female brains may indeed have some basis in science.”

Let’s pause there. “May indeed have some basis in science“. I suspect that Yiannopoulos — who, it must be said, is a seasoned media ‘player’ — knows full well that he’s skating on thin ice here. (Here’s a very good article by Tom Stafford, a Lecturer in Psychology and Cognitive Science at Sheffield on the age-old nature vs nurture debate regarding brain differences. Neuroskeptic‘s blog posts (e.g. here and here) on the subject are also highly recommended. I must admit that I was astounded by the prevalence of under-powered statistical ‘analyses’ after spending some time reading papers in this field.)

Anyway, here’s what Yiannopoulos says next:

“This is thrown out of the window completely by feminists and female academics who refuse to accept that there’s any reason whatsoever why there might be a gender imbalance”

Hmmm. “…by feminists and female academics…”. We’ll let that one hang there. Let’s see where Milo is going with his argument…

“Two things on that. One, the science is very much still out on that…”

Oh.

He’s going precisely nowhere.

Because his argument is totally lacking in any self-consistency:

“May indeed have some basis in science…The science is very much still out on that”.

Cannily, Yiannopoulos plants the seed that the science supports his initial claims about gender differences. Then, less than thirty seconds later, he back-tracks. However, the important thing is that he’s planted the seed — a frustratingly disingenuous debating tactic. (But then, it’s just possible that adopting a principled position isn’t really what Milo is all about…)

But what’s Milo’s second point?

Two, if you look at equality in society, if you look, for example, at Bangladesh vs Norway, what you notice is that the number of women in science and technology subjects actually goes down as societies get more equal because women simply don’t make the same choices as female academics and feminists would like them to.

Women actually don’t want to go into the sciences on the whole…

And the source(s) of Yiannopoulos’ evidence for this astoundingly sweeping claim is…? How credible is that evidence? Does it represent a consensus scientific view?

He doesn’t tell us.

Strange, that.

Shortly after the debate, Yiannopoulos wrote this: Why do feminists cook up stories about misogyny when they lose debates. He, in his usual modest and understated manner, clearly feels that the debate went his way. A link to his post somehow ended up in my Twitter timeline. So I sent Yiannopoulos and his acolytes a number of tweets asking for the evidence — admittedly, in a somewhat, errm, robust manner — to support his claims in the debate, and, in turn, I ended up embroiled in some lengthy Twitter-spats about the reliability (and lack thereof) of the quantitative analysis in papers on gender differences.

What was Milo’s response to being challenged on the matter of data and evidence?

https://twitter.com/Nero/status/609304973608923136

Followed by

https://twitter.com/Moriarty2112/status/609323918298624000

[Update June 02 2018 — Tweets no longer available. I deleted my Twitter account for reasons explained elsewhere at this blog. Milo’s account was suspended.]

Not for the first time in the #TimHunt debacle was I reminded of the cartoons here. [Before those of you who have posters of Milo on your wall click on that link, remember the trigger warning…]

OK, let’s now finally get to the rationale behind the title of this post and the associated image above. (Apologies that it’s taken a while, but then context is everything.)

The title of the blog might give it away for some, but I’m a huge fan of heavy metal and all its various sub-genres. (There are, of course, very deep and fundamental links between metal and quantum physics, so my love of metal isn’t entirely non-professional). Metal has, let’s say, had its issues with sexism, as wonderfully lampooned by the brilliant Christopher Guest in this classic scene from This Is…Spinal Tap.(My favourite ever film).

(Shame that the punchline is in the title of the video but if you haven’t seen Spinal Tap yet, you haven’t lived…)

Since the #shirtstorm incident last year — which we covered in a Year 4 undergraduate module at Nottingham called The Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics (see Slides #8 and the set of whiteboard photos at the bottom of that page) — I’ve been struck by some of the parallels between the “PMRC wars” that the metal ‘community’ (for want of a better term) fought in the 80s, and #shirtstorm, #GamerGate, and the entire “Don’t infringe our rights to say whatever the fuck we like” flavour of a lot of the debate surrounding sexism and misogyny.

I was a teenager in the eighties and remember being incensed by the PMRC’s attempts to lock down metal music. Can I understand why a community which feels beleaguered and under attack might kick back against what it sees as threats to its autonomy and creativity? Yes. Do I think that banning words and images is the way to go? No. That would be entirely hypocritical given that I’m a fan of Slayer’s music (well, up to about album #5. Their output has tailed off quite a bit since then). The title of this post and the image are taken from a t-shirt that Tom Araya, the lead vocalist in Slayer, wore on, I believe, the South Of Heaven tour in 1988. (I told you we’d get to an explanation eventually…). Sex. Murder. Art is also the title of a Slayer song. With exceptionally vicious lyrics.

Metal has progressed a great deal over the last few decades when it comes to sexism. I urge you to read this insightful and intelligent article by Dom Lawson on the evolution of metal. Here’s a choice quote:

…heavy music has spent the last few decades steadily edging away from an overriding culture of crass misogyny and making the whole scene a lot more welcoming and palatable to women in the process.

There are also intriguing parallels between the #TimHunt case and what Lawson says in his article above with regard to sexism being explained away as humour:

But no, Dom, I hear you cry, it’s not sexist. It’s funny! Look at those vibrating butt-cheeks! Brilliant. It’s probably ironic or something.

Well, no. It’s still sexist.

The progression away from the “overriding culture of crass misogyny” to which Lawson refers hasn’t happened by banning certain albums, lyrics, or bands. Or infringing freedom of speech. That would be entirely counterproductive. It’s happened by calling out sexism and misogyny when we see it. And via debate and argument.

“But, but, but… Hunt banned…witch hunt riding through…fascists…caused his downfall…freedom of speech. Those feminazis aren’t interested in debate.”

OK, OK. Calm down. Remember the trigger warning.

First, let me direct you back up the page to my tweet in response to Mr. Yiannopoulos blocking me. More importantly, let me repeat that context is everything. Hunt was entirely free to say what he did. And he did. And he was criticised for it. I’ll let the wonderful xkcd explain:

Of course, this would mean that Milo Yiannopoulos, by blocking me, considers me to be an asshole.

You know what? I’m rather proud of that.

What’s wrong with being sexy? Discuss.

When the uncertainty principle goes up to 11…

sagan

First published at physicsfocus.

I’m a middle-aged professor of physics and I love heavy metal.

There, I’ve said it.

I know that the mere mention of heavy metal – the music, that is, not one of those dubiously defined toxic elements in the periodic table – is likely to provoke a disdainful wrinkling of the nose among the more, let’s say, cultured readers of physicsfocus. But before you run to the hills, or depart en masse for BBC iPlayer and the more sedate sounds of Radio 3, first let me explain just why I am so heavily into metal and all its myriad sub-genres (including thrash, death, power, progressive, and – forgive me – hair metal), and why the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is fundamentally connected with the ‘crunch’ of a metal guitar riff.

The best metal is incredibly harmonically rich. The music of Black Sabbath and Metallica, to name but two metal giants, echoes and channels the sheer heaviness of the work of classical composers such as Wagner, Rachmaninoff, and Paganini. Indeed, one of the most accomplished metal guitarists there is, Yngwie Malmsteen, frequently cites Paganini’s work as a formative influence on his playing. And a British band who were a major inspiration for the fledgling Metallica, Diamond Head, ripped off paid homage to Holst’s Planets Suite – specifically, Mars: Bringer of War – on their seminal track Am I Evil? Other examples of classical ‘crossover’ abound in the metal oeuvre.

In addition to being harmonically sophisticated, however, particular ‘breeds’ of metal are also rhythmically complex. Thrash metal, and the closely related industrial metal and ‘djent’ sub-genres, in particular, are based around exceptionally tight and syncopated rhythm guitar riffs where extensive use is made of palm muting to damp the strings. The video below includes a few examples of the use of heavy string muting in a number of archetypal metal riffs.

Bands like Meshuggah and Fear Factory have honed the level of syncopation to a very fine art where even the vocals become percussive and are locked in sync with machine-like guitar ‘chugs’ in challenging time signatures. It’s this rhythmic complexity – and the type of guitar style that’s required to produce it – which underpins the link between heavy metal and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

Unfortunately, the uncertainty principle continues to be explained — at least in many pop sci accounts (see here for example) — in terms of the disturbance that a measurement causes to a quantum system. This rather frustratingly fails to put across the fundamental essence of the uncertainty principle and can be somewhat misleading for students.

The uncertainty principle is simply an unavoidable and natural consequence of imbuing matter with wavelike characteristics. A wave can equally well be described in the time or in the frequency domain. These are conjugate variables and we can switch between the two descriptions of the wave using the wonderfully elegant Fourier transformation process. (An erstwhile colleague at Nottingham described the Fourier transformation of data as “what physicists always do when they can’t think of anything better”. I agree, and am guilty as charged! But there’s a very good reason why physicists fall back on Fourier analysis time and time again…) Any sound engineer or producer is also familiar with the results of Fourier transforming audio waves (although they may not refer to the process in quite those terms): a spectrum analyser provides a visualisation of Fourier components, while a graphic equalizer allows the relative amplitudes of those components to be modified.

The uncertainty principle arises from a very simple relationship between the two different representations of a waveform on the time and frequency axes: the shorter the signal is, the wider its frequency spectrum must be. Put more simply: narrow in time, wide in frequency. The width of the spectrum is simply a ‘proxy’ for our uncertainty in defining a specific frequency for the waveform. This, of course, translates to other pairs of variables including, in particular, position and momentum, giving rise to the standard form of the uncertainty principle which 1st year physics undergraduates are most familiar with.

Metal guitar lends itself rather well to a demonstration of the uncertainty principle in action. An undamped string left to its own devices on a highly amplified guitar produces a distorted note which sustains for some time:

The waveform is shown below on the left. On the right hand side is the frequency spectrum for the fundamental (i.e. first harmonic) of the guitar string. Note that the spectrum is essentially a single spike at the frequency of the fundamental. (Of course, there are many other frequency components but we don’t need to worry about those – I’ve zoomed in on a narrow portion of the spectrum containing just a single harmonic).

Uncertainty-to-11-sustain

If the string is now muted to get the signature ‘crunch’/’chug’ of the metal riff, the waveform dies out on a very much shorter time-scale:

This time-limited signal has a correspondingly wider frequency spectrum, i.e. our effective uncertainty in determining the frequency of the fundamental is much greater. (The intensity of the peak in the frequency spectrum will also decrease but I’ve scaled it up to allow for better comparison of its width with that of the original narrow peak).

Uncertainty-to-11-chug

This natural broadening of the spectrum of a time-limited signal represents the very essence of the uncertainty principle. And as was also aptly demonstrated by the IOP Schools lectures a few years back, what better way to demonstrate fundamental physics principles than via a heavily distorted guitar dialled all the way up to 11?

As I was finishing this post I found out that New College here in Nottingham will offer a degree in heavy metal from September 2013. It’s of course already attracted more than its fair share of opprobrium, widely mocked as a “Mickey Mouse” degree, but an undergraduate module or two on the physics of heavy metal strikes me as a very good idea indeed. It’d be an intriguing and left-field route into teaching topics such as vibrations and waves, signal processing, Fourier analysis, ordinary and partial differential equations, and feedback (non-linear dynamics).

I wonder if New College Nottingham is in need of an external examiner for its course..?

Image: Sagan/Slayer t-shirt design by Monsters of Grok

15 Responses to When the uncertainty principle goes up to 11…

    1. John Duffield says:

      Interesting stuff, Phil. I suppose you know all about the “Optical Fourier Transform”, like on Steven Lehar’s web page, about half way down. A lens converts an extended-entity wave into dots on a screen, effectively performing a real-time non-mathematical Fourier transform. I can’t help wondering if something similar is going on in the double-slit experiment. A photon goes through both slits, as per Steinberg et al’s plot in In Praise of Weakness. But when you detect it, you get a dot on the screen. And if you detect it at one slit, the photon is transformed into a dot that goes through that slit only.

    1. Firstly – it feels good to finally know I’m not the only physics-loving metalhead (or should that be metal-loving physicshead). I thought you were supposed to appreciate art history and Mahler, so I tend to keep it quiet! Thanks very much for this video, and the novel way of looking at the uncertainty principle.

      Secondly, a thought occured – when palm muting, I often find that if one rests too hard on the string, a noticeable change in frequency can occur, because you’re effectively changing the length of the standing wave. Is that not a possible alternate cause for the effect?

        • Hi, Mike.

          That’s a wonderfully perceptive comment! I worried about this too and made sure that I was not changing the pitch. It’s one of the reasons that I tuned back up from “drop A” tuning in the video. The key thing is that the peak position of the fundamental stays at the same frequency – it just becomes broader.

          All the best,

          Philip

            • Of course! If you were to change the length, the frequency would have changed. The proof that the wavelength is the same is the unchanging fundamental. Brilliant 🙂

              I wonder if there’s some way to relate the uncertainty in frequency/wavelength to the width of the damper…

              Thanks for the reply,

              Mike

    1. Ian Liberman says:

      As creator of Pressman`s Rock Trivia and an obsessed metal fan, who is very much into physics and cosmology as a hobby, I can not remember when I have enjoyed a article as much as I have yours. Your use of the guitar string played at its loudest to demonstrate Heisenberg`s Uncertainty Principal,using time and frequency instead of position and momentum to demonstrate the cycle of the waveform. This is demonstrated by the uncertainty residing in “narrow in time, wide in frequency” and also vica versa, when you play the one string along with the illustrating graph and applying it to HUP .You also peaked my interest in how you illustrate how the fourier transformation of data is used for analysis. Thanks for an excellent learning experience with metal overtones.

    1. Kelly says:

      I absolutely loved this post and the analysis of metal from a physics perspective. I am a biologist as well as a very vocal metalhead, and a classically trained percussionist. I have never seen anything remotely strange about my love for metal and classical music and sometimes have a hard time explaining to people why I am the way I am, but this post, as well as some others I’ve seen recently make me feel better that metalheads are getting out there and talking about why we love this technically and lyrically amazing music as much as we do (I write this as I am listening to Swallow the Sun…). Hopefully there will come a day when I don’t get dirty looks for being proud of the death, doom and black metal I listen to, and I will no longer have to explain how I can have Beethoven following Behemoth on my iPod. Thanks again to all metalheads supporting the genre.

    1. Richard Codling says:

      Very interesting article! I got into physics through taking guitars and effects apart and eventually built up to making my own little valve amp so this brings it all back round nicely.

      I attended an interview to become a trainee physics teacher and as part of my interview I had to give a five-minute presentation about an aspect of physics that interested me. I chose the elctric guitar and highlighted what could be cross-referenced to what part of any given course, mostly experiments I wanted to try myself! I got a place on the course but ended up in the health service instead for various reasons.

      I notice you can see the decay envelope of your noise gate on the raw waveform of the ‘crunch’ D too does that affect the frequency composition? DId you try with and without?

      Right better be off, my new band have a gig in 8 weeks and we need some material… http://www.facebook.com/LiveBurial

        • Hi, Richard.

          Great comment. The noise gate will indeed affect the overall shape of the frequency spectrum, but the general principle remains – narrow in time, wider in frequency. An exponentially decaying sinusoidal signal (as for the traditional damped, driven oscillator) when Fourier transformed to frequency space, will have a Lorentzian frequency spectrum. (The resonance curve familiar from A-level physics).

          Other types of decay of the signal will change the shape of the frequency spectrum (e.g. an abrupt switch-off of the signal would be the equivalent of the top-hat function known to undergrads, and this would produce a sinc function in Fourier space).

          I was being entirely serious in the last paragraph of the post – metal guitar sounds could be used as a very effective and entertaining way of explaining Fourier transforms.

          I look forward to hearing some MP3s from your band – please post a link when you upload them!

          All the very best,

          Philip

    1. Great stuff Philip. I never dreamed I’d see the day when Heisenberg and hair metal were mentioned in the same article. On the other hand, Heisenberg would be a great name for a German industrial metal band.

      This reminds me how, when a German researcher developed an algorithm for classifying music according to characteristics such as timbre and rhythmic variation rather than genre, the system couldn’t really distinguish classical music from heavy metal: http://www.nature.com/news/2006/060717/full/news060717-16.html. One can, for example, draw some analogies between the rhythmic tricks of Led Zeppelin and Stravinsky, although the refined audiences to whom I sometimes talk about music cognition don’t always seem to appreciate hearing Black Dog.

      If you’re interested in seeing the two genres (and others) merged (lord, if not Lord, save us from Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra), check out Glenn Branca (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdLhRB4dJJI) or Towering Inferno. TI’s album Kaddish has been described as a mixture of “East European folk singing, Rabbinical chants, klezmer fiddling, sampled voices (including Hitler’s), heavy metal guitar and industrial synthesizer”. It would be hard to improve on that recipe (which also brings us back to Heisenberg…).

        • Thanks for those fantastic links, Philip. Wonderful to know that a quantitative analysis of timbre and rhythm fails to distinguish reliably between metal and classical music!

          That Branca composition is… disturbing. I thought that Robert Fripp was ‘out there’ but Branca is on an entirely different plane – actually, in an entirely different universe. I can’t say that I enjoyed it but I certainly found it compelling.

          “…lord, if not Lord, save us…” Nice.

          Philip

    1. What an awesome site those links go to. Shows what I always suspected, which is that Bartok anticipated Slayer.

      This is risking getting off-topic now, but I couldn’t help thinking of one of my favourite YouTube videos:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9pS5xzOWbwo

      I love the way the demure little Japanese girl sits down to delight her audience with a beautiful performance, totally rocks out, then gives a petite little bow to polite applause. She’s even more extraordinary here:

        • It’s absolutely amazing, isn’t it? I watched that many moons ago during a tea-break in a long night of experiments which weren’t going particularly well and it cheered me up immensely!

    1. Mark Fromhold says:

      Philip,

      As you know, I’m also a middle-aged Professor of Physics but I also love folk music. So you see, it could be worse…

        • Hi, Mark.

          A bit of folk now and then is nothing to be ashamed of! Christy Moore, both solo and as a member of Planxty, is certainly lurking on my iPod. I’m also partial to the folk-prog-rock of Jethro Tull.

          Philip