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.

Welcome To The Machine

All this machinery. Making modern music. Can still be open-hearted.

From “The Spirit Of Radio”, Rush. Lyrics by Neil Peart.

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On Tuesday evening I had the immense pleasure of attending The Australian Pink Floyd gig at the Royal Concert Hall in Nottingham. It was a remarkable concert — stunning musicianship, awesome (literally) visuals, and beyond-impressive interpretations of Pink Floyd classics.

What made the gig extra special for me was that I had the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time backstage at the invitation of the Aussie Floyd’s guitarist, David Domminney Fowler. Despite his hectic touring schedule, Dave finds time to pursue interests in physics, maths, and the music-maths-physics interface. For example, he’s worked with Sean Riley on the Computerphile YouTube channel, including this fascinating video on translating visual information to music:

I’ve worked with Sean for a recent Sixty Symbols project and have similarly thoroughly enjoyed collaborating with him on a Computerphile video in the not-too-distant past, so was delighted when I got an e-mail asking if I’d be interested in meeting up with Dave when the band played Nottingham. I, of course, jumped at the chance.

Dave talked me through his impressive guitar rig (and variety of guitars) before the gig, and even generously gave me the opportunity to try out a few of his ‘axes’ (including his beloved Telecaster; I’d not played a Telecaster before). What particularly struck me was Dave’s forensic attention to detail in capturing the Floyd sound. Some of this was due to the signal processing — there were a number of classic analog pedals and kit on the way from the guitar to the amp — but the vast majority came from Dave’s exceptionally tasteful and accomplished playing. You can see what I mean in this video:

 If you’ve not yet seen The Australian Pink Floyd, I thoroughly recommend them. I’ve run out of superlatives to describe ’em. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed -Dave’s Comfortably Numb solo is worth the ticket price alone.

Moreover, Mr. Fowler certainly gives Dave Grohl a run for his money in the “nicest man in rock” stakes. Maybe it’s a Dave thing…

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.

https://embed.theguardian.com/embed/video/us-news/commentisfree/video/2016/jun/13/owen-jones-orlando-shooting-massacre-terrorist-will-fail-heres-why-video

“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…

 

The Rhythm Method: Crowd-sourcing Drum Science

It’s always fun making Sixty Symbols/Numberphile videos with Brady Haran but the most recent filming brought together quite a number of my core enthusiasms — Rush, physics, drums, and noise (in all senses of the term) — and so was even more enjoyable than usual.

Brady uploaded the videos this morning (here and here). The first discusses a fascinating recent paper by Esa Räsänen and colleagues which focuses on the fluctuations in timing in the virtuoso drum pattern played by Jeff Porcaro in Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’ “. I’m not a huge fan of the song but Porcaro’s groove is certainly infectious. He’s also responsible for the fantastic drumming in this classic, among so many other others. (Please excuse the excruciatingly high cheese factor in that Toto video. It was the Eighties.)

Fortuitously, I read the paper by Esa, Holger and their colleagues at around about the time an e-mail arrived asking for suggestions for undergraduate projects. As Esa et al. state in the conclusions of their paper, there is particularly exciting scope to extend their analysis to other songs, drummers, and styles. So I proposed an analysis of fluctuations in drum beats as an undergraduate project and was delighted when two 3rd year Physics students at Nottingham, Easel Kandola-McNicholas and Adeel Bokhari, selected the project.

What we want to do is analyse the fluctuations in timing/rhythm for not just one drummer — as Esa, Holger et al. did — but for as many drummers as possible. Enter Sixty Symbols. While we could have stuck with an analysis of the Porcaro pattern — and, indeed, if you’re a drummer, please feel free to send us your version of “I Keep Forgettin’ ” to the address below — there’s another single-handed 16th note pattern which is very famous among drummers: Rush’s “Tom Sawyer”. Neil Peart is widely recognised as among the very best rock drummers in the world, and there are very interesting parallels with the Porcaro track in terms of the way the 16th note pattern is played, so, in many ways, “Tom Sawyer” is a natural choice. (My love of Rush is, of course, entirely coincidental…)

I put together this short video (using the wonder that is Aerodrums — see below) to show some examples of the 16th note patterns in “Tom Sawyer” and to explain what we need for the analysis.

Our aim is to publish the analysis and include the names of all those who contributed their version of “Tom Sawyer” (and/or “I Keep Forgettin’ “) in the paper. If you’re a drummer and you’d like to contribute please e-mail your WAV, MP3, or MIDI file (or any other appropriate file type) to drumsciproject@gmail.com. There’s no deadline — we’ll accept drum tracks for as long as it takes to get good statistics for the analysis. The more, the merrier.

By the way, Aerodrums are available here. I enthusiastically recommend them! I’m not a drummer and so Aerodrums are ideal for learning to play and for putting down rhythms when song-writing or demoing tracks. But they’re much more than this — in very many ways, Aerodrums are just as good as a real kit, as this impressive example of virtuoso aerodrumming shows…

[A huge thank you to the University of Nottingham BandSoc and, in particular, Jedd Bellamy-Carter for providing the practice room for the video and for all their help with equipment].