Tag Archives: music

Growing Up Under the Mushroom Cloud, Waiting for the Hammer to Fall

It was about a year ago that I started this blog. Although I’m not a big marker of milestones, I’d say it’s definitely been an interesting time. The past year has seen me rise from the dungeons of utter obscurity to the lofty heights of absolute anonymity. Which is to say, not a lot has changed, but it’s been a fun ride.

The first thing I posted here was an examination of a song by my all-time favorites, Queen, rock royalty and my personal “Shakespeare of Music.” The song was “Machines” from the album The Works, which has always been one of my favorite Queen records. It’s music that takes me back to the summer days of my youth. So now, with summer again upon us, I want to look at another track from The Works, one of the greatest rockers in the Queen canon, “Hammer to Fall.”

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The Strange Dichotomy of “Life”

What do you do with those really great moments of life, those times when you’re most happy? Like when you’ve just sold your first short story, or a novel. Or it’s your wedding day, or the birth of a child. Maybe you’re celebrating a fiftieth anniversary. It’s your parent’s or grandparent’s eightieth birthday and they’re in great health. So you’re beaming. And do you, at that moment, spare a thought for the ending, the fact that no matter where we are in life, eventually it ends in death for all of us?

Of course not! Why would you? Revel in the now. (Unless you’re of a particularly morbid character.) . . . And yet, that death is still out there waiting for each of us, isn’t it?

Before I lose you, I’m not here to dwell on death, but rather to examine the uplifting message in the song “Life” by Devin Townsend. As the two or three people who read my posts regularly will recognize, I’ve been rather obsessed with the music of Devin Townsend recently. And I’m OK with that. “Life” is a happy song; you can have a listen while you continue reading below:

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“Pixillate”: Fractured Identity & the Power of Art

I spent a lot of time writing about literature in college and during my MFA program. As a writer, learning to evaluate and talk about writing is a pretty handy skill, some might say an instrumental skill. Even when I read for pleasure now, part of my mind is always evaluating, trying sentences in different constructions, trying to predict character actions or upcoming turns of plot, and so forth.

Because music is a vital part of my daily life, it’s probably no surprise that I frequently run the same mental games on the songs and albums I listen to—evaluating how or why a song achieves its effect, explicating how lyrics and music combine to form meaning. I’ll show you what I mean.

A while back, I wrote about a musical selection by the Devin Townsend Band called Synchestra and how it had influenced a short story I was writing (“Synchestra: Unleashing the Transdimensional Space Goat on America’s Wickedest Street”). I’d like to take a look now at one of the tracks from this album, a song called “Pixillate.” The song comes on the second half of the album; if we were to consider the album as a novel—a not inappropriate comparison, considering we’re talking about progressive rock here—this song would be well into the rising action, heading into the dark of the woods, approaching the black moment or crisis.  Continue reading

Warts & All: J. Tull & My Early Creative Writing

I’ve pretty much been writing stories for as long as I can remember. It’s the only way you can get away with lying all the time. You know, if that sort of thing appeals to you. I did quite a bit of writing when I was first in college, right out of high school, in the late ‘80s. That was also the same period when I first listened to the music of Jethro Tull. It turns out that even back then, my stories were influenced by the music I was listening to.

When I started listening to Tull, they had already been around for nearly 20 years. In fact, the second time I saw them in concert, in 1988, was for their 20th anniversary tour. I was only 21-years-old at the time, so naturally, they seemed really old: I mean, they’d been performing for basically as long as I’d been alive. (Their first album was released in 1968; their best-known album, then and now, Aqualung, was released in 1971.)

As part of that 20th anniversary, Jethro Tull also released a box set of rarities and live performances. Among those tracks were a few songs from their famous abandoned album (from 1973), known as the “Chateau D’Isaster Tapes.” Due to technical difficulties, illness, and other problems, they scrapped a nearly complete album, but those recordings were still around; this was the first chance to hear a bit of what the band had been planning, warts and all.  Continue reading

Blank Page: A Writer’s Greatest Adventure & Biggest Fear

I had coffee this morning with a couple of my writer friends. One of the topics that came up was how we each suffer from failures of motivation at times, being unable to buckle down and do the writing that we know we want to do and which ultimately makes us happy. The reasons for the failure are myriad, and I’m sure it’s a problem most writers deal with at least some of the time.

Staring at a blank page is daunting—especially if it’s your job to fill it with meaningful words. The ideas in your head are beautiful, exciting, unique, important. What if they don’t translate that way when you get them out onto the page? At the same time, it can be terribly exciting filling that page with your vision when everything comes together just right. Those are the days we live for as writers. If you don’t start, you never know.  Continue reading

The Dying Fall: A Playlist for Autumn

That strain again! It had a dying fall . . .
            —Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

It’s well and truly autumn now. You can tell because post-season baseball is going on. Here in Colorado, leaves are just beginning to turn in some areas, and temperatures have fallen out of the too-hot range. The thing about autumn that’s most telling, I’ve always felt, is the quality of light as the sun crosses to the south side of the equator and shadows become less distinct and more steeply angled.

When I sense the change to fall in this way, it usually signals a shift in my musical mood. This dying season calls for a certain type or style of music. In fact, each season has its own preferred music for me, although that doesn’t mean I listen only to that music during that season. For instance, in the spring I usually stick mostly with the wild, imaginative possibilities of progressive rock, and summer has always been the season of the classic rock from my high school days, when summers lasted forever but were never long enough.

For the autumn, I usually start craving more Celtic music and rock that has folk or Celtic influences. So I’ll usually listen to a lot of Jethro Tull, Fairport Convention, and Great Big Sea around this time. It’s music that’s a little bit sad at times or has a hint of longing. It’s angled sharply, like the season’s light. It tells stories of times long gone by. In fact, the music itself is at times ancient. Perhaps that’s why it seems so appropriate for the dying season, which so clearly illustrates the passing of time.

I’m not sure why I’ve never done this before, seeing as how there are so many songs that scream out to me of the autumn, but I’ve just created a short autumn playlist, and I present it to you here. I’ll probably continue to build and work on this one, but this is how it currently stands. Let me know if it evokes that fall feeling for you or if you have other selections you would choose instead.

  1. Long Life (Where Did You Go), by Great Big Sea
  2. Come All Ye, by Fairport Convention
  3. Beauties of Autumn, by Dervish
  4. She Doesn’t Exist, by Robyn Hitchcock
  5. Me and the Moon, by Gaelic Storm
  6. The Fox Hunt (or Chasing the Fox), by The Chieftains
  7. Heavy Horses, by Jethro Tull
  8. Doing Fine, by Séan McCann
  9. Drowse, by Queen
  10. Now Be Thankful, by Fairport Convention
  11. Moon Over Bourbon Street, by Sting
  12. Collapse the Light into Earth, by Porcupine Tree

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins

In Search of Epic Music

The term “musical genius” is tossed about all too often these days . . . but in the case of legendary progressive rock artist Fish, I’ll let it stick. Fish is about to release his first studio album/CD/digital download (pick your preferred terminology) in over 5 years, A Feast of Consequences, and he’s been pushing hard through social media channels to get the word out. Because that’s the world we live in these days.

In doing my part to promote the upcoming release, below is the latest promo video from Fish, including musical samples and artwork. Check it out, then go on below to see what all this has to do with epic music in the modern world.

When Fish got his start with Marillion back in the early ’80s, their music was epic, and his solo work has continued that tradition. What do I mean by epic music? In part, it’s the presence of long songs, songs that are themselves epic, which is a common trait of progressive rock music. The classic example in my mind is the Peter Gabriel–era Genesis song “Supper’s Ready,” which runs in just short of 23 minutes.

But it’s not only long songs. In the Fish catalog, there are certainly several tracks that are epic in length. Every Fish album is itself also about something. It’s not just a collection of songs he happened to write and record at the same time; it’s not so different from someone writing a book or a collection of poetry. He’s working with a story or a theme, and using music as his medium.

Fish "A Feast of Consequences" CD artWhen you listen to a Fish CD, you’ll find images recurring in the lyrics of different songs, musical themes repeated, all building an immersive emotional experience. The music itself helps tell the story. It’s music that feeds the brain as well as gets the feet tapping. Fish doesn’t just write songs; he writes albums. And they’re epic.

To some degree, this epicness is another trait of progressive rock in general because these are bands that release “concept albums,” albums built around a story or theme. But not all concepts are epic, nor is all progressive rock for that matter. So I’ve been in search of more music that seems to me to fit the requirements for epic, with limited success. Are there new bands or artists that rise to the level of epic? Recommendations welcome.

The good news, of course, is that Fish has a new release forthcoming, and I’m pretty sure it will be epic. I keep thinking of a much earlier Fish lyric from the Marillion days:

Where are the prophets, where are the visionaries,
Where are the poets, to breach the dawn of the sentimental mercenary?

Although I don’t think this is what Fish meant when he wrote that (from 1984’s “Fugazi”), to me this a cry for the true musical artists to appear and cut through the sentimental treacle that clogs the airwaves.

Of course, Fish was epic from the beginning. I’ll leave you with a Marillion live performance of “Grendel” from 1983. It’s literary, theatrical, and dramatic: Epic. And it’s got a killer ending, just before the 18-minute mark.

Follow B. K. Winstead on Twitter at @bkwins