05 November 2005

My favourite Techno, Trance and Ambient Albums

Orbital - Insides
Orbital - Snivilisation
Orbital - Green album
Orbital - Brown album
Underworld - Second toughest in the infants
Underworld - Dubnobasswithmyheadman
Banco de Gaia - Heliopolis
Banco de Gaia - Last Train to Lhasa
Air - Moon Safari
C.J.Bolland - Electronic highway

The majority of them are from the 1994-1996 period. Of course there are a lot more but these are my favourites.

"Hold your head up high-for there is no greater love
Think of the faces of the people you defend
And promise me, they will never see the tears within our eyes
Although we are men with mortal sins, angels never cry"
'Winterborn' The Cruxshadows

04 November 2005

Roman Legionary 3rd Century BC

A simple ink sketch of a Roman Legionary.

"Blue Hawaii, Piccadilly whore
A cocktail is what I'm longing for
Blue Hawaii, Piccadilly whore
Roger fell asleep you know"
'Club Montepulciano' Hooverphonic

The Synthpop Torchbearer: Todd Durrant of A Different Drum

Todd Durrant of A Different Drum music label single-handed* rescued synthpop from oblivion in the early nineties when the advent of grunge drowned out almost everything else. Today, there is a thriving synthpop underground due to his persevering efforts.

In the early nineties, the marketing executives at many record companies have made the shift from marketing synthpop and the music of the New Romantics to grunge (Nirvana, Green Day and other crap), techno (early techno like the Shamen, 808 State) and rap. This new trend saw synthpop bands dropped or relegated to the back catalogue and finally getting deleted. Slowly, synthpop became extremely hard to locate. In many instances, they became extinct. Radio stations soon adjusted to this new trend and the format and programming did not include synthpop.

Synthpop and some varieties of electronic music were difficult to locate in stores in the early nineties. A Different Drum, based in Smithfield, Utah, was an avenue and it provided an online store for synthpop releases of all kinds. From mass-market releases to independent American synthpop and German synthpop, A Different Drum was a mecca of synthpop and electronic music CDs.

Through his store, he introduced a whole range of German, Scandinavian and other European synthpop, ebm, darkwave, dark trance, futurepop and ebm. His introductions and his online store gave widespread exposure to them.

Todd Durrant went a step further, he released synthpop CDs under A Different Drum label and held synthpop festivals inviting bands such as Alphaville. Synthpop bands from Europe like Wave in Head, De/Vision, Daybehavior, Alphaville and KeiTheVez were released on his label. At the same time, many CDs including wonderful CD singles from American synthpop acts like Brave New World, Cosmicity, A Covenant of Thorns were released. After a decade or so, A Different Drum has released over 100 synthpop and electronic music CDs including compilations, remix albums and samplers.

Today, A Different Drum with a few other labels like Synthphony Records and Dancing Ferret represent synthpop in the USA. The synthpop underground lives today and is thriving through small independent labels and distributors despite the dictates of large mainstream labels and radios.

*There were a few others like CAT from the CATCompilation series and Information Society which were subscribing to these ideals. However, their efforts were shortlived.

03 November 2005

Playing the Blues: A View of Depeche Mode's 'Playing the Angel' release

Depeche Mode is now a bunch of middle-aged artistes who are best remembered for their edgy, dark, underground eighties dance hits like 'Strangelove' and 'Everything counts'. When they first burst upon the scene in 1981-82, they were playing a brand of futurist pop like 'New Life', 'Dreaming of You', 'Photographic'. Their sound were unusual and totally different from the prog-rock of the seventies. It was a milestone. This was then followed by a few darker albums with industrial sounds and themes. These albums were innovative, trendy-setting and daring despite being hated by traditional hidebound critics.

Today Depeche Mode are blues pretenders with a bad case of the rock-god syndrome.

Previously, I felt that Gahan and Depeche Mode were able to express and give a personal sense of darkness and anguish that is uniquely Depeche Mode. Martin Gore's lyrics and songwriting captured that mood well and created a form of electronic darkness of that is distinctly their own. Depeche Mode was individual and different from the typical rock band. From 1993 and after, Gahan's lapse into the rock-god syndrome and Gore's venture into the blues territory, Depeche Mode veered towards a electro-blues mode with rock vocal leanings. There were stomping stadium rock ('I feel you') and gospel numbers ('Condemnation'). The vocal stylings and lyrics began to reflect that new direction. Bands evolve. And Depeche Mode did. Gahan and Gore had spoken of their personal heroes in interviews and have covered their favourite artistes in solos and compilations. Sadly, in an interview, Depeche Mode has even compared themselves to middle-aged rocker crap like R.E.M. and U2 and they claimed to have nothing in common with their contemporaries (ie other New Romantics, "we are rock/blues gods now, they are poor people with no money and we hate their hair-dos.") A case of hubris for these New Town Boys...

I think the drift towards that direction will continue tempered with whatever producer they choose in subsequent albums which is not unlike what Madonna is doing except that Madonna probably does less (not even the songwriting!). Some producers may stamp their signature on the resultant effort while others are less authoritative, so we are likely to see a variety. The uniquely Depeche Mode sound, supposedly crafted by the now departed Alan Wilder is gone.

'Precious', easily the best track on the album, appears to be a concession given the current direction. Despite the 'new-style' vocals, 'Playing the Angel' appears to have less of a pronounced 'blues and rock' feel (except 'John the Revelator' and a track or two) than the previous two. 'John the Revelator' is possibly the worst track on the album and it would probably be better to have been a B-side. The track is littered with blues stylings and harmonies which is extremely grating and it detracts from the album. Perhaps, if the vocals can be changed...

The Gahan-penned tracks (with his compatriots from his solo album 'Paper Monsters') proved surprisingly to be in the Depeche Mode vein despite his often stated rock-god pretensions. 'Nothing's impossible' is possibly his best track on 'Playing the Angel' and as such, is quite a worthy track. Note also that none of the Alan Wilder compositions have ever made it to any Depeche Mode album. (Except in the B-sides of singles)

For me, stand out tracks include 'Nothing's impossible', 'Damaged People' and 'Lilian' and the feel of these tracks do re-capture a little of the gloom in 'Black Celebration'.

On same topic regarding some critics describing 'Playing the Angel' an electro-dance album, I am not surprised as I think these critics have obviously not listened to it. The tracks here have to be radically remixed or stripped to be playable in a discotheque or club and I can't see how the tracks can stand on their own in a discotheque. Imagine 'Precious' coming on after a Perfecto or DJ Tiesto track. I don't think so. It would seem that often critics pigeon-hole Depeche Mode without ever really listening.

With 'Playing the Angel', Depeche Mode has in a way, come of age, they have lost the mantle of electronic (and synthpop) pioneers, taking on the distorted sounds and directions of other industrial bands, tempered with the decidedly average songwriting (at least for this album). Depeche Mode has, in my opinion, never really been comfortable or confident with their pioneering synthpop which has influenced so many other bands, and ultimately, they became a follower and slave to commercial rock radio. (MOR or AOR).

'Playing the Angel' has grown on me quite a bit. The album track arrangements with 'Introspectre' interspersed in the nineth spot as a musical interlude and 'Precious' coming in at the fourth spot did give a certain sense of integrity, a wholeness that is consistent to the overall theme.

All in all, 'Playing the Angel' is a good worthwhile album although lacking the greatness of 'Violator', 'A Broken Frame', and 'Some Great Reward'.

My favourite Depeche Mode albums (Ranked from favourite to least liked)**

  1. Violator
  2. A Broken Frame
  3. Music for the Masses
  4. Some Great Reward
  5. Black Celebration
  6. Speak and Spell
  7. Songs of Faith and Devotion
  8. Playing the Angel
  9. Exciter
  10. Construction Time again
  11. Ultra

My first impressions of 'Playing the Angel'.
My first impressions of 'Precious'.

*Again, not a review but a view of the album.
** Excluding compilations, singles collections, live albums, remix albums

"So bury fear for fate draws near and hide the signs of pain
With noble acts, the bravest souls endure the heart's remains
Discard regret, that in this debt a better world is made
That children of a newer day might remember, and avoid our fate."
'Winterborn' The Cruxshadows

02 November 2005

Chung Hwa Pencil

The humble Chung Hwa pencil. It is actually the premier pencil in China. I have used them. Not bad at all. I have also used Sea Lion and Great Wall pencils.

I have also used generic pencils from hotels and convention halls to draw. Those conventional hall ones are usable but the quality is not there. They break easily.

01 November 2005

Current Books

I am always reading several books at the same time. I read a chapter on 'The Guns of Singapore' from Karl Hack and Kevin Blackburn's 'Did Singapore have to fall?' The chapter discussed the myths of the fortresses guns from several perspectives including the ability of the gun to fire landward, the suitability of the ammunition (APC or HE) and the distribution of various guns.

I finished John Hussey's narrative of 'Marlborough'. The 1711 campaign and the breaching of the Ne Plus Ultra lines is noteworthy.

For 'On Point: The United States Army in Operation Iraqi Freedom', interesting points includes the planning, execution and subsequent lessons from the gunships' deep strike. I have yet to read the entire volume and will do so within the next few years.

As for fiction, I am still reading Mary Gentle's 'Ash'.

"My feelings - as usual - we will slaughter them all"
Iraqi Information Minister, Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf (Baghdad Bob)

I use a variety of pencils. The ones I use most frequently in the past were the Berol Venus and the Venus pencils. Excellent stuff.

I have used Staedtler and the Schwan Stabilo ones too.

31 October 2005

Marlborough, Crescent and Cross

I am currently reading John Hussey's 'Marlborough: John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, Hero of Blenheim' and Hugh Bicheno's 'Crescent and Cross: The Battle of Lepanto 1571' and of course a couple of others.

"I got on Fox News and said, "I know where he is, tell him to stay there for 15 minutes and I will come get him" because we were right outside the Ministry of Information."
Lieutenant Colonel Eric Schwartz, commander, TF 1-65, 2nd BCT (at the presidential palace, Baghdad)
Colour Pencils

My colour pencils. I have a combination of Derwent, Berol Karisma and a single Caran D'Ache Supracolour II Soft . I have bad experiences with the Derwent ones and would avoid them. The Berol Karisma colour pencils are my preferred pencils.

"They are sick in their minds. They say they brought 65 tanks into center of city. I say to you this talk is not true. This is part of their sick mind."
Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf (Baghdad Bob)

30 October 2005

After Action Report (29.10.2005): 'Thirty Years War Quad - Nordlingen 1634'

We had two tables set up this time. Seow Buay would be playing two games of Nordlingen simultaneously.

This was the second time this month I was playing 'Nordlingen'. This time, I would be taking the Imperial forces.

Seow Buay would be playing the Swedes. He would also be taking on Wei Yi on the other table. (Image of Seow Buay pitted against Wei Yi in a battle of wits)

Seow Buay (Swedes) versus Shyue Chou (Imperialist forces)

Seow Buay opening moves were utilising Horn's powerful infantry and cavalry (a mix of 13-4, 15-4, 7-8, 4-8 units) to decimate my four infantry units (5-3 units). He also brought up strong infantry units (8-4, 12-4 units) from his main army and shifted them towards his right flank. He sent strong cavalry reinforcements (4-8 units mainly). Meanwhile, I moved strong forces (5-3, 4-6, 9-3 units) towards my left flank, attempting to rescue those beleaguered units.

I had also sent units up the right flank of the Swedish army, hoping to present a threat. (See Image 2)

My guns were unable to disrupt a single attacking infantry at point blank range (turn 1) until much later (turn 2). By then, the guns were surrounded and I had only one disrupted unit left. I launched six attacks and moved up a lot of my forces. My numerous flanking attacks at 1:1 odds failed badly and Seow Buay was able to build a line, taking the guns and bringing up reinforcements. He had destroyed nine units (easily 60+ VP) by turn 4 and captured two guns (20 VP). I haven't yet destroyed a unit.

At that point, I withdrew my largely intact army to strong positions. Seow Buay had enough a victory points for a decision victory and he occupied strong positions. As no one would advance their army, we ended the game at this point. (See image 3)

Wei Yi (Imperialists) versus Seow Buay (Swedes)

Seow Buay essentially did the same thing in this game. He attacked with Horn's forces and destroyed Wei Yi's positions by turn 2, securing the hill and the guns. He moved strong reinforcements forward.

Wei Yi was very aggressive. (See image 4)

He moved his Swedish army forwarded, attempting to prevent the Imperialists from reinforcing Horn. There was a large cavalry melee where the Imperialists took heavy casualties. It was to no avail as the hill was lost to Wei Yi. The position was formidable and the Imperialist forces cannot take high ground with a 15-4 infantry unit securing it. Meanwhile, Wei Yi managed to penetrate the Imperialist left flank, destroying three units while suffering heavy losses. Wei Yi's Imperialist Army was disintegrating. Seow Buay had managed to accummulate sufficient VP for a decisive victory. The battle was lost by turn 6.

Next week

We will be playing GMT Games' 'Sword of Rome' next week.

"Our armed forces, according to their tactics, are already leaving the way open to the capital, especially the commandos, are getting ready to wipe them out."
Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf (Baghdad Bob)

Great Photo Reference Sites for Artists and Illustrators

As many would already know, the Kohrman Report is an excellent site by one David Kohrman in his odyssey in chronicling the majestic old decaying buildings of Detroit and the surrounding areas.

His other site, Forgotten Detroit, is another masterpiece in the same vein.

The blog and website have an excellent collection of photos which can make splendid references for comic book artists (yes, especially if you have a penchant for dark futures, dystopian worlds and so forth), illustrators and artists (Perspectives anyone?).

I highly recommend the blog and the website. I also applaud his effort.

"They fled. The American louts fled. Indeed, concerning the fighting waged by the heroes of the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party yesterday, one amazing thing really is the cowardice of the American soldiers. We had not anticipated this."
Iraq Information Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf (Baghdad Bob)
The Sun always shines on TV

In Strict Confidence and Melotron has released a great re-make of A-Ha's pop gem from 1985 'The Sun always shines on TV'. Time really flies. It has been two decades since A-Ha's second single release.

2000 copies of this single has been released in a strange limited edition package including a small little plastic TV set (how very apt) and 3-inch CD.

Excellent re-make. Highly recommended.

"There are no Americans infidels in Baghdad. Never!"
Mohammed Saeed al Sahhaf (Baghdad Bob)