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Category: Music

Auri II – Those We Don’t Speak Of

I first heard of Auri back in 2020, during the tedium of the first lockdown. If you read this blog (yes, both of you) you’ll know I’m a massive fan of Nightwish, and of course Auri has two members in common with that band, so I was already pre-disposed to be interested. I bought the first album.

And make no mistake, Auri I is a really good album, with a couple of utterly transcendent tracks on it. But it seemed like they were still figuring out what Auri was; as an album it feels slightly inchoate and (oddly) slightly too long.

This time out, though, there is no uncertainty. Johanna, Troy and Tuomas know exactly what Auri is and precisely what they’re doing, and they articulate it with a clear, consistent voice over ten perfectly crafted, transportingly beautiful, constantly surprising songs.

Musically, it is genuinely hard to describe. The foundation is folk, certainly, with strong prog elements, but equally there’s chamber music, film scores (the album title is a clear reference to M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village) and even some bits that verge on latter-day Nine Inch Nails. Traditional string and wind instruments sit side-by-side with electronics. It’s tuneful and you can sing along to the songs (not well, at least in my case, but if it’s just you in the car and nobody’s listening …), but they don’t follow conventional structures and no sooner have you got the hang of a song than it immediately veers off to somewhere completely different. Regardless, it is certainly one thing: absolutely beautiful.

Honestly, since it arrived on Monday I’ve rapidly become obsessed with this record. It’s probably displaced The Anchoress’ remarkable The Art of Losing as my album of the year. Go buy it, then put on your headphones, go for a walk in the woods and just lose yourself in its beauty. You won’t regret it.

Cambridge Audio Melomania 1+

I finally gave up and bought some wireless earbuds. Yes, I know, they’re always a compromise. But honestly convenience isn’t to be sniffed at, especially when your primary use case is yomping through fields after a ridiculously energetic dog.

After a bit of looking around I settled on the Cambridge Audio Melomania 1+ buds, largely on the strength of their five star review in What HiFi.

I’ve had them a few months now, and while they’re good, I’m not completely sure I agree with What HiFi’s hagiography.

First, the fit is fiddly, even with the plethora of different tips provided. In the end I found the memory foam tips gave the best results for my ears, but even with those achieving a decent seal requires a good amount of twisting and jiggling each time.

Second, the tech is finnicky. I had to RMA my first set when they just completely refused to charge any more, and a recent firmware update only managed to update one of the two buds before crapping out, resulting in a support ticket and a significant amount of faffing around.

Third, the sound is perhaps a little on the bright side, tending occasionally towards harshness. That can be mitigated with the EQ in the provided app, but they don’t sound as big or spacious as my wife’s (admittedly much more expensive) Apple Airpods.

Still, for 120 quid, they’re very respectable indeed, and I don’t regret buying them.

Nightwish at The Islanders Arms

Plenty of bands have found themselves becalmed by the pandemic. A few have even had the infuriating experience of putting out a new album right as the pandemic hit, and then not being able to tour it.

I’m sure most bands in that situation would have thought about doing some sort of livestream instead. Find a nice little studio somewhere, break out the acoustic guitars, do an intimate little show and shove it out on Twitch.

Not Nightwish though. They’re all about spectacle, bombast, and unironic melodrama with the emotional dial turned up to 11. They don’t give a stuff about whether or not you think they’re cool. They just want to make you sing, make you jump around, and then make you bawl your eyes out, and they always go all out to do just that. So when they do an Internet livestream, they break out the green screens and do a full electric show from a fantastically detailed CGI tavern teetering on the edge of a waterfall. Because of course.

If all this sounds a bit Spinal Tap, then you’re starting to get it: the whole point of Nightwish is that there exists a thin line between being genuinely dramatic and spectacular on the one hand, and being Derek Smalls stuck in the pod on the other, and Nightwish have spent their whole 25 year career dancing along that line, singing as they go.

Which brings us to this show (two shows really; there’s one for the Americans tomorrow kicking off at about midnight). The first thing that struck me, after the fact that the tech works (itself quite a feat), was how much they were obviously enjoying themselves. I mean, seriously. They’re a metal band, they’ve just had a year and a half of being stuck sitting at home, they’ve just lost Marko, their bass player and backing vocalist of 20 years, to a combination of mental illness, exhaustion and anger at the state of the music industry. They really have no right to be this damned happy. There they are, playing on their own in front of a green screen, with no audience to feed off of, and they are having a great time.

The second thing that struck me, about three songs in, was this: A band in this situation, live streaming with untried technology, sticking their necks out with a big CGI show, breaking in a new member (Wintersun bass player Jukka Koskinen) and giving an existing member an awful lot more work to do (Troy Donockley now takes on all backing vocal duties), if they were smart, would play it safe with the setlist. Stick to the hits, don’t do anything too technical, don’t go out on a limb, make sure it works first and foremost. But that isn’t the Nightwish way. Instead, we get a drastic (and brilliant) re-arrangement of Planet Hell, a song from 2004’s Once which relies heavily on Marko’s vocals, with Floor basically doing both male and female vocal parts, while the CGI waterfall turns to flame and lava and everything goes very, very extra.

And then, there’s Shoemaker, their paen to the planetary geologist whose ashes were scattered on the moon, which even they said probably wasn’t feasible to play live. Except they do. All of it. Even the magnificent operatic laudato which ends it. It was a huge risk. They pulled it off, perfectly.

All of which brings us to lead singer Floor Jansen. Nightwish songs are technical and difficult at the best of times; even relatively simple songs like Nemo and Élan demand power, stylistic versatility, agility across the full scale, and really disciplined breath control. Here, Floor was faced with the added complications of having to sing new arrangements in which she also covers most of Marko’s parts, and bearing the main burden of fronting the show and connecting emotionally with an audience at the other end of the Internet. That’s a hell of an ask.

To say that she rose to the occasion is an understatement. With this performance Floor has, I think, cemented her reputation as one of the all-time great rock singers. Technically she threw everything she has at it, breathtaking high note after breathtaking high note, with more power and sheer emotion than I think I’ve ever heard her bring to bear. At one point, at the end of Nemo, she held a D#4 (I think?) for something like 6 bars. That’s Axl Rose territory.

But, more than just her singing (and I know the word “just” is doing a lot of work there), it was her performance that really blew me away. It was riveting, in the way that Freddie Mercury at Live Aid, Bono at Red Rocks, Roger Dalterey at the Isle of Wight Festival were riveting. But playing for people she could not see or hear. It was utterly exhilerating. If Wacken 2013 was the moment that Floor planted her flag in the ground, then The Islanders Arms 2021 was her coronation. Rock, thy name is Jansen.

Yes, I know I’m gushing. But really, Nightwish deserve it. Even the glitches were charming: Troy got so wrapped up in a pipes solo that he missed a vocal cue completely; at one point Tuomas’ keyboards suddenly became inexplicably massively louder than everything else; Floor’s earpiece kept falling out. The band laughed it off, and so did we.

This whole undertaking was a huge risk for Nightwish, both financially (it must have been ruinously expensive) and creatively. It could have backfired or gone horribly wrong. It didn’t. They’re one of the best live bands in the world, in any genre, and with this show they’ve raised the bar again.

Spirits In The Forest

Depeche Mode are one of my very favourite bands. I love their music. But they need to stop now, and their film “Spirits In The Forest” perfectly illustrates why.

The premise, I love. A spiritual sequel to “101”, following a bunch of fans’ journeys and stories, of what the band has meant to them through their lives, intercut with concert footage. The divorced dad in Bogotá who reconnected with his kids through making YouTube videos of them doing DM covers. The young girl from Ulan Bator who lives with her grandmother. The gentle, soft-spoken Romanian who learned English so he could translate DM’s lyrics for his friends. The cancer survivor. It’s lovely, really it is.

The trouble is the concert footage. And lord, it pains me to say this, even to admit this to myself, but here it is. DM were, once upon a time, one of the greatest live bands in the world. Just watch “Devotional” if you don’t believe me. It’s epic. But, now, in 2021, they’re just plain not. Dave’s voice is shot. He knows it, too, retreating into Vic Reeves club singer crooning and clowning around as a way to avoid having to actually hit the damn notes. What’s almost worse is that Martin isn’t far behind him: that legendarily huge, rich tenor that created those magnificent harmonies is sounding increasingly reedy and cracked.

Singers’ voices do change as they age. That’s a well-understood phenomenon. Sometimes they find a way to master that change, and become – if anything – better than they were in the first flush of youth. Bruce Dickinson’s a great example of that, as are Floor Jansen and James Hetfield (yes, they’re all metal singers but the point stands – and metal singers over 35 or so have to develop really good technique if they’re not going to blow out their vocal chords).

The first time Dave Gahan’s voice changed, he got on top of it and made it work. The roaring, stadium-filling baritone from Songs of Faith and Devotion gave way to the creeping snarl that percolates through Ultra, Exciter and Playing the Angel. It let him do some of the best work of his career, in the form of the Soulsavers record. Thing is, it’s changed again, and this time he hasn’t got a hold on it.

That is, perhaps, understandable. He’s nearly 60. And Christ, the man performs. He’s all over that stage like Mick Jagger with a flea up his bum. But Depeche songs aren’t about prancing and posing. They’re songs. They’re all about the voices. They need that plaintive tunefulness that makes Depeche … well, that makes them Depeche. They need Dave and Martin both to be absolutely on top of their game vocally.

And, in this film, they aren’t. So much so that I, a lifelong fan, can’t bring myself to watch it again. It’s the first DM concert film I’ve watched where I haven’t wanted to be there.

Perhaps, really, they just need to stop. They have one hell of a body of work behind them. But enough is enough. I for one don’t want to have to watch them fading away like this.

Fiio M3K

I’m that guy who still buys CDs. I have hundreds of the things. Why? Well, there are all sorts of reasons; I like physical media, I like album artwork, I often listen to music in places that don’t have a great Internet connection, and I also have a few issues with the way some of the streaming services treat recording artists.

Equally, I do like to have a good chunk of my music to go, and I’ve generally done that with high capacity digital music players. For years, I’ve been using an iPod Classic 160Gb with the Rockbox firmware, and it’s been great, but the iPod hard drive has finally croaked and right now I can’t be stuffed to start spudging around to open it up and try to replace it. Apple didn’t do repairable, even back then. So, I needed a replacement and what with just having paid for Christmas and a new washing machine (don’t ask), I didn’t really want to spend a fortune.

Which is how I lighted on the Fiio M3K. Fiio have been making a bit of a name for themselves with high quality digital audio players aimed at the audiophile, and the M3K is their entry-level model coming in at just 60 quid. It had good reviews, from hifi websites as well as from Amazon, and all in all it seemed like a decent machine for the price point.

It arrived today, and these are my first impressions of it.

The Fiio M3K. Hand for scale.

As you can see from the picture above, it is pleasingly tiny. Is it any good though?

Good things first. The screen is small but decently bright and perfectly readable. It feels solid and well-made, the silicone case it comes with feels good and the side buttons are pretty intuitive and responsive.

Most importantly, it sounds really good. FLAC audio sounds spacious, defined, clear, and alive. There are plenty of EQ settings and the like, but after testing with everything from Tom Waits to Nine Inch Nails (Reznor and Ross’ complex soundscapes and high dynamics are always a good workout for a music player) I haven’t felt the need to change anything from the default. Paired with my beloved Grado Labs backless headphones it sounds sublime, much better than the iPod Classic ever did.

There are some niggles and compromises. First off, this is a 60 quid device, and most of that budget has gone on the high quality DAC. Intensive operations like rescanning the library when you add new files are not quick, and you can’t use the player while it’s doing it. In fact, I had some issues with it locking up doing the initial scan of around 130GB of music. Turned out it didn’t like the dodgy knock-off MicroSD card I was using. Switching to a quality Sandisk card made the problem go away. Not an uncommon issue, but one to be aware of.

The touch controls on the front are OK, but they’re not as good as the iPod Classic’s peerless jogwheel, and in fact I’ve found a few instances where it wouldn’t respond to my fingers. Again, this is a 60 quid device, so comparing it to a device that cost four times that ten years ago probably isn’t fair, but something to work on for future revisions perhaps.

Overall, I’m really happy with it. I have Auri’s gorgeous Night 13 playing on it as I type this, and I’m spotting details I’ve never noticed before, even on the same headphones. A device this cheap shouldn’t sound this good. For the money, you can’t go wrong, really.

Ghosteen

Some time towards 11pm, I was the last one awake in the house and more than several beers down, and it seemed a good idea to sit down and properly listen to “Ghosteen”, the new Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds record.

In terms of my appreciation of one of my very favourite recording artists and songwriters, it was an excellent idea. In terms of my own emotional equilibrium, it was an appalling one.

See, Ghosteen is the first thing Nick Cave has written since he lost his son. And, well, it’s a grieving record. And a healing record. And … I don’t know … there’s something about it which has just got under my skin in a way that nothing has since … well, since I don’t know when.

Maybe it’s the ethereal production, or the sparse arrangements, or the way the mix shoves Old Nick’s voice right up front and centre, or the fact that the words that he’s singing are simultaneously both marvellously crafted and precise and just heartbreaking beyond measure. I don’t know. But this is a record that stays with you.

Go buy it. Just, y’know, clear some headspace first. You’re going to need it.

Recording PC audio to MiniDisc – digitally

Having acquired not one but two MiniDisc players (the first one I bought turned out not to be a recorder – probably why it was so cheap) and a bunch of MiniDiscs, the next job was to work out how to actually get some music onto the ruddy things.

I had assumed that my HiFi would have a S/PDIF optical out, and that I would be able to record MiniDiscs from there like one did back in the day. I assumed wrong. They’re both optical ins; it can’t output digitally.

Bugger.

I could record from an analogue signal, but I really wanted to keep it digital rather than lose quality by going through multiple conversions.

So I turned to my PC. Now, normally I get audio out of my PC using this glorious little USB DAC, which sounds wonderful and which I highly recommend for a real upgrade over built-in PC audio, but – by its very nature – it outputs analogue audio. No dice.

After a bit of research, I happened upon the Behringer UCA222 USB audio interface, which (amongst quite a few other things) can output direct to S/PDIF via toslink.

I’ve had to muck about with the recording levels on my MiniDisc recorder a fair bit (digital distortion is not a nice sound) but this seems to be a good solution: I can play a CD or a FLAC playlist on my PC, tell the playback software to output to the Behringer, and then hook the Behringer up to the optical in on my MiniDisc recorder. Hit record, hit play, wait a while. The Behringer allows you to use headphones to monitor, and you can switch between monitoring input and output so you can check levels etc.

So, yeah. I can now listen to music on a thoroughly obsolete technology. Because reasons.

MiniDisc adventures

I have a thing about old/obsolete media formats, especially ones that were a) good and b) never really took off as they ought to have. Witness for example my mild obsession with Iomega Rev drives. What need do I have, really, for 70GB removeable cartridges in an age where you can pick up a 1TB USB3 drive for less than 40 quid? None at all; and yet, I still use them for some non-core backups. For no reason other than that I find them pleasing.

So it is that I’ve finally turned my attention to the grandaddy of all the also-ran formats: the MiniDisc.

Back in the 90s, I was dimly aware of MiniDisc: a few rich kids had them, and towards the late 90s / early 00s as I was pratting around in bands and things, I came across them as field recording devices and handy tools in the sound engineer’s arsenal for backing tracks and the like. Never owned one myself though, until now.

In a spate of probably ill-advised late night eBaying, I have now acquired:

  • A Sharp MiniDisc recorder
  • A tiny Sony MiniDisc portable player
  • A USB to TOSLINK adapter for my PC
  • A bunch of new-old-stock MiniDiscs

Why? I have absolutely no idea. But I’m going to have a ton of fun making mixtapes and the like.

TIBO Bond Mini

I have a stereo in the living room. A proper one, as in I-bought-it-from-Richer-Sounds proper. Yes, that does make me old-fashioned, but the kind of music I like wasn’t mixed to sound good on shitty little speakers, and I still like to buy music on CD. So there.

That said, I do have our whole CD library ripped to our Plex server for ease of access from our phones and cars while out and about, and for a while now I’ve had an Amazon Echo Input hooked up to the stereo and used Alexa’s Plex skill to stream music from Plex to the living room stereo.

It works well, but like many people I’ve started to worry about the privacy implications of Alexa technology. So, I started looking around for some alternative streaming solutions, and based on reviews and so on eventually settled on the TIBO Bond Mini as offering everything I needed except voice control, for a reasonable amount of money.

The first thing that struck me when I opened up the box is just how dinky the thing is – it’s little bigger than a ring box. Setup is, according to the quick start guide, a matter of hooking it up to the stereo, powering it on and following the steps in the companion app to hook it up to the wifi network. Simples.

Or so I thought. Here is where I hit my first snag. It seems that the Bond Mini doesn’t support 5Ghz wifi. My home wifi is dual band and uses the same SSID for both, because the mesh system allows 5Ghz devices to fall back to 2.4Ghz in some of the dodgier areas (old house, thick brick walls, therein hangs a tale ….).

Happily it offers an alternative means of setup. You can use your phone to join a temporary wifi network fired up by the Bond Mini and configure it from there.

Except that, of course, my phone is too bloody clever by half, realises that the temporary wifi network doesn’t have internet access, and falls back to 4G. The only way to get around this seems to be to put it into flight mode and then manually re-enable wifi. With that done, the app could at least see the device, but the device apparently couldn’t see my home wifi network and so the setup wizard couldn’t continue.

There is a third and final way offered to configure it, which is again to hook up to the temporary wifi network and then configure the device manually using its web-based interface. Finally, that worked and I was able to get the thing onto my home network.

It then resolutely refused to see my Plex server through DLNA. I even went so far as to give the Plex server a restart. No joy. So, I restarted the Bond Mini, whereupon the control app stopped seeing it and it apparently completely forgot the wifi config and went back to first setup mode.

It being a school night, I gave up at that point. I will have another go this weekend, but I have to say, first impressions are less than stellar.

UPDATE 29/09/19: I’ve managed to get it onto the network reliably. Still won’t see any bloody DLNA servers though. Gah. I’ve contacted support. We shall see.

Eurovision

Is it just me or has Eurovision got really dull in recent years? It always used to be a bastion of tongue-in-cheek camp, but over the last few years it’s become more and more po-faced and earnest.

Take last night, for instance: a cluster of tired four-on-the-floor Europud, wholesome kitsch, bloated balladry and sub-Gloria Gaynor me-against-the-world humourless bleh. Absolutely no fun anywhere, not a single drumming granny to be seen, and to top it all off we were subjected to the heartbreaking spectacle of Madonna grimly murdering Like A Prayer despite it being very obvious that a) her range has dropped over the years to the point where she actually can’t consistently hit those notes and b) she was painfully aware of that fact but felt duty bound to give it the good old college try anyway.

Losing the high notes happens to all singers, of course – it’s a fundamental unfairness of being a vocalist rather than an instrumentalist that you don’t get better with age, no matter how much you practice – and to be fair to Madonna she sounded fine on the new material that followed, presumably because she wrote it for her vocal range as it is now, rather than as it was 30 years ago. I think she should have stuck with the newer stuff to be honest; her voice may not be what it once was but she is a skilled and clever songwriter, and her newer songs are strong enough not to need bolstering with old hits that she can’t reliably perform any more.

Oh well. I don’t think I’ll bother with Eurovision next year. Another bright spot in the world reduced to dullness.

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