HTML & Methedrine

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I Don’t “Like” Mondays

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Well, if my Facebook profile is anything to go by, I don’t “Like” anything!

In truth, I’m just not a fan of the way Facebook sends me targeted posts (or adverts, as they used to be known) based on each and every interest I’ve expressed. So I’ve created my own Likes page, linked to from my Facebook profile, and listing my favourite artists and interests for everyone (including Facebook) to ignore.


Into The Mess That Scalpels Make

In 1992, The Sisters Of Mercy released a compilation album enitled Some Girls Wander By Mistake (from the lyrics to Leonard Cohen’s Teachers).  It included every Sisters track released from 1980 to 1983 and despite already owning most of these on 12″ vinyl I, like many fans, was delighted to finally get high quality, scratch-free recordings on a silver shiny disc. Some of the songs that appeared on the album were absolute classics – Body Electric, Anaconda, Alice, Burn, Temple Of Love – they were all there and they all sounded fantastic.

But what of the songs released after 1983? I assumed that a second compilation would surely be released and a year later one was – only it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. A Slight Case Of Overbombing was a ‘greatest hits’ collection (Volume One, apparently) and while it included all the singles, crucially it omitted the B-sides – which was a shame as there were some stunning tracks on the back of some of those discs.

Time passed…

In 2007, Rhino records released the Merciful Release boxed set containing the Sisters’ three studio albums and a smattering of extra tracks, including the B-sides to the two singles from First And Last And Always. My dream of getting the entire back catalogue on CD just got one step closer, but there were still a few tracks missing. Time to search eBay.

And so, twenty years after Some Girls Wander… was released, I’ve finally created its illegitimate sibling: Into The Mess That Scalpels Make.

Into The Mess That Scalpels Make

In creating this compilation, my goal was to bring together CD-quality versions of all the Sisters’ non-album releases post 1983; unfortunately I have failed on two counts. Firstly I’ve ignored some versions of some tracks, preferring to include just the 12″ releases where applicable. The running time is already excessive and I’ve no real desire to hear three versions of This Corrosion in the same sitting.

Secondly, there are still a handful of tracks for which no digital version has (to my knowledge) ever been released: inexplicably, the B-sides to the Body And Soul EP but also a couple of the ‘Live Bootleg Recordings’ churned out with Doctor Jeep. These non-digital tracks have been recorded off my vinyl copies using a Rega Planar 3 and a Behringer UFO-202, and cleaned up using Audacity; everything else is from a direct digital source be it the original CD singles, the Merciful Release boxed set or the Overbombing collection.

To my mind, there are four discs worth of tracks here; ordered chronologically they roughly span the Sisters’ three studio albums and the standalone releases that came afterwards. For your consideration:

1-01 Body And Soul 2-01 This Corrosion (11:15)
1-02 Body Electric (re-recording) 2-02 Torch
1-03 Train 2-03 Colours
1-04 Afterhours 2-04 Dominion
1-05 Walk Away 2-05 Untitled
1-06 Poison Door 2-06 Sandstorm
1-07 On The Wire 2-07 Emma
1-08 No Time To Cry 2-08 Ozymandias
1-09 Blood Money 2-09 Lucretia My Reflection (extended version)
1-10 Bury Me Deep 2-10 Long Train (1984)
3-01 More (long version) 4-01 Temple Of Love (1992)
3-02 You Could Be The One 4-02 I was Wrong (american fade)
3-03 Doctor Jeep (extended version) 4-03 Vision Thing (canadian club remix)
3-04 Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (live bootleg recording) 4-04 When You Don’t See Me (german release)
3-05 Burn (live bootleg recording) 4-05 Under The Gun (metropolis mix)
3-06 Amphetamine Logic (live bootleg recording) 4-06 Alice (1993)
3-07 When You Don’t See Me (remix) 4-07 Under The Gun (jutland mix)
3-08 Ribbons (live)
3-09 Something Fast (live)

When combined into a single playlist, Some Girls Wander By Mistake / Into The Mess That Scalpels Make forms a massive, four and a half hour ‘long train’ ride through the fourteen year release history of one of my favourite bands. With only a little bit of track reordering (Some Girls Wander… inexplicably puts the early singles at the end of the album) we can travel from the ramshackle engine shed that is The Damage Done, through the glorious landscape of The Reptile House EP, wave out of the window at three mighty fine studio albums before finally crashing into the buffers at the end of the line, ticket (or record contract) tattered and worthless.

The Sisters haven’t released any new recorded material for two decades now. They tour occasionally and play a handful of new songs, but for whatever reason, they seem to have no intention of ever letting a record company anywhere near them. For fans like me that’s a crying shame – who knows what wonders are lurking on Doktor Avalanche’s hard disk drive – but in the meantime, I now have the collection I always assumed would one day be released.

And it’s utterly bastard groovy!


Album Of The Year 2011

Okay, let’s ease into this nice and gently with your basic ‘review of the year’ post.

I reckon I’ve probably bought about a dozen albums this year (a little below par, truth be told) and that’s physically bought – on shiny silver discs – not downloaded, legally or illegally. Why I won’t buy downloads could be the topic of another post, but for the moment, let’s just assume it’s because I like owning stuff. Stuff that I can look at. Stuff that I can hold. Stuff that I can digitize, stick in the loft and then never see ever again…

Anyway; albums of 2011. There was A Map Of The Floating City by the mad scientist of pop, Thomas Dolby (his first studio album for nearly twenty years), an oddly titled and hugely disappointing concept album from Coldplay (Mylo Xyloto), a lovely collection of electro tunes from Metronomy (The English Riviera) and more wailing from Florence + The Machine with their fantastic second album Ceremonials. Polly J Harvey won her second Mercury music prize with the astounding Let England Shake and for Elbow, there was the small matter of what to do after the unparalleled success of 2008′s The Seldom Seen Kid; Build A Rocket, Boys! doesn’t quite manage it, but it’s still a mighty fine album (and Guy Garvey is the best frontsman on the live circuit today). Which brings us to the Fleet Foxes.

The follow-up to their critically acclaimed (and eponymous) debut album, Helplessness Blues sees the band being a little less weirdy beardy, and starting to rock a little. Just a little mind you; the close harmonics and acoustic instrumentation are still there, but this definitely feels like a band who have gained a little confidence in their art.

From the very first line of Montezuma to the surprising coda that is Grown Ocean (it almost feels like a bonus track after the previous track ends so wistfully), Helplessness Blues is nothing short of beautiful. The opening four tracks in particular, stand together and form a supremely strong base from which the rest of the album can grow.

And then there’s the title track itself; its opening stanza stops me in my tracks every time I hear it sung, so much so, that I feel I may have to reproduce it here in full:

“I was raised up believing I was somehow unique / Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see / And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be / A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me / But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be / I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see”

For the first part of this, the instrumentation is barely more than a quiet strumming below Robin Pecknold’s vocals, but then it builds such that the final two lines strike with a surprising weight; this continues into what might be loosely considered the second verse, before a complete change of pace (and key) and everything suddenly gets a whole lot dreamier. It’s fantastic stuff.

After that we get a beautiful little instrumental (The Cascades, which sounds a bit like early Genesis) and then the “old news” of Lorelai and the epic The Shrine / An Argument; an incredibly dynamic track with sections of heavy strumming, gentle acoustics and the occasional discordant horn. And then there’s the not-quite-final-track, Blue Spotted Tail; quiet, dainty and (sorry, here’s that word again) utterly beautiful.

Helplessness Blues really is a wonderful album. As I’ve listened to it again this afternoon, I have absolutely no qualms recommending it and, despite the double-dip ending, am convinced I’ll be revisiting it for years to come. And that’s why it’s my Album Of The Year 2011.

Bloody awful cover art though…

 


New Year; New Blog

Happy New Year, and welcome to the new home of my rarely updated weblog: HTML & Methedrine.

Looking back at its previous incarnation (last updated: 14/07/2007 – ouch!) one might wonder why I’ve bothered; I’ve been tweeting fairly regularly for the last couple of years, and my Facebook page is automagically updated from that quietly babbling stream of consciousness. However, that 140 character limit is suprisingly restrictive (although I love hashtags) and I’ve a couple of ideas bouncing around that might require a little more room to play.

So I’ve installed WordPress 3.3 on my own domain, found a simple theme, and copied a few posts across from the old site so there’s at least something to read now that you’ve got here. New posts will be announced via Twitter, so follow me @derrenphillips if (heaven forbid) you wish to be kept informed.

Wishing you all the very best for 2012.

 


Raising Awareness

(Originally posted: 14th June 2007)

This week, 14th-21st June 2007, is apparently Homeopathy Awareness Week and so what better time to have a little rant about this particularly ridiculous branch of woo Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM).

Homeopathy was invented two hundred years ago by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843) and is based around two basic principles: like cures like and potentisation through dilution, neither of which seem to have any basis in science.

The first of these suggests that you can cure an illness using a tincture created from a substance that produces similar symptoms. So for example, a symptom of the common cold might be streaming, rheumy eyes – peeling onions also makes your eyes run – ergo, onions might be suitable homeopathic alternative to Lemsip. Hahnemann documented about 300 such remedies in his Materia Medica, still the basis of homepathic treatments today.

On the surface this sounds a little like vaccination, a scientific principle that we all happily accept (media-driven autism scares aside) but there are crucial differences. Vaccination builds immunity through the introduction of a reduced amount of a virus proven to cause illness; homeopathy uses substances that generate similar symptoms, but otherwise have no direct connection (scientific or otherwise) to the malady being treated.

And anyway, Hahnemann’s second principle of making a treatment more effective by diluting it, does away with any ‘active’ ingredient even if it were shown to be beneficial: Homeopathic remedies are generally prepared by taking the prescribed tincture and diluting it one part in a hundred, a specified number of times. Hahnemann himself suggested that a dilution of 30C was appropriate for most treatments; so the original tincture is diluted one part in a hundred, thirty times, ie.:

That’s a pretty weak solution! In fact, chemists would tell you (with reference to Avogadro’s constant) that the chances of even a single molecule of the original tincture being present in the diluted solution are practically zero. Homeopaths claim that the water has a ‘memory’ of the original substance, but quite how this happens (and why the water should favour the homeopathic tincture rather than all the other substances it has come into contact with throughout its lifetime) remains unexplained.

So to recap: homeopathic remedies are based on using substances that have never been shown to be medically effective, which are then diluted so much that (very literally) none of the so-called ‘active ingredient’ remains.

Of course, maybe none of this would matter if the effectiveness of homeopathic remedies had been proven; the truth is that homeopathy has never been shown to perform any better than a placebo when tested in double-blind, clinical trials. Those that claim otherwise are at best misguided; at worst they’re charlatans and con-artists, fleecing an unknowing public who are desperate to find an alternative treatment to cure their ills.

In fact, all that we can really conclude about homeopathy is that two hundred years ago, doing nothing proved a more effective treatment than bloodletting or sticking leeches up your bum…


DeoxyLEGOnucleic Acid

(Originally posted: 9th April 2007)

Last week I just happened upon the website of professional Lego modeller Eric Harshbarger, and more specifically, this page where he describes a miniature model of DNA built entirely of Lego. Well, I just had to have myself one of those, so I printed out Eric’s photograph and headed off to BrickLink to see if I could get the required bits.

A couple of days later (and many thanks to Simply Bricks and The Brick Shiphouse) I had several bags of brightly coloured bricks waiting for me and a molecular model to make:

Isn’t it fantastic? Crick and Watson would be proud.

If you want to build your own Lego DNA model (and let’s face it, why wouldn’t you) here’s a handy shopping list; total cost for new bricks should be about £6:

DNA Molecule:

Base:

As you can see from the photo, I built the two helices from different coloured bricks which makes them stand out quite nicely, so you’ll need twenty of each colour.

And for the base pairs: I don’t think there’s a universally accepted coding so pick four colours of your choice. Remember though that they only appear in two forms; Adenine only ever bonds with Thymine (A-T) and Guanine only ever bonds with Cytosine (G-C). Again, twenty of each colour is probably a good place to start; you’ll certainly have enough to spell out GATTACA. ;)

Of course, you’re going to need to make about 220 million base pairs if you want to model your own DNA and that’s a whole lot of Lego…


Zoom-Zoom

(Originally posted 21st February 2006)

I took the new ‘Third Generation’ MX-5 out for a test drive on Friday and thought I might share my observations. However, it should be noted that the weather in Worcester on Friday afternoon wasn’t best suited to rag-top motoring; the persistant rain and thoroughly soaked roads meant that the hood stayed firmly up, and I couldn’t test the handling in quite the manner I’d hoped. Anyway, more on that later; let’s get started…

The first thing that grabs you when you see the new MX-5 in the showroom is how much bigger it looks; the wheel arches in particular do add a certain aggressive edge to the shape of the new model. Personally I don’t think it’s quite as graceful as the previous versions, the nose in particular looks a little flat and uninspired, but overall it’s quite clearly an MX-5 and generally a good looking motor. In actual fact, it’s not much bigger in either length or breadth but hopefully the new shape will finally put paid to the ‘hairdresser’ overtones usually (and unfairly) associated with Mazda’s roadster.

The back end of the car doesn’t really look much different although the high brake light is now mounted just behind the hood rather than in the tail itself. I’m not a big fan of so-called Lexus lights, but Mazda seem to have deliberately created echoes of the original Mk.I clusters with an hourglass shape in the centre of the group. The silencer looks massive and sprouts two tail pipes, one either side, but bizarrely the retractable aerial of the later Mk.IIs has been replaced by a fixed, stubby little rubber version. The boot itself is much deeper than before as there’s no spare wheel; the opening though is probably a little smaller; battery is up front now.

As mentioned, the wheel arches dominate the side view, now coupled with 16″ alloys as standard. Side repeaters are inexplicably still orange; I’m sure their replacement will be the first modification for many a new owner. Door mirrors are smaller than before and the front quarterpanes are absolutely tiny; I find it hard to believe couldn’t have got rid of them completely. Door handles are pretty standard and pull out to open; the cute little chrome versions from the Mk.I have long since been resigned to history.

From the front, the car is quite clearly an MX-5, and the new light clusters are attractive enough, with the indicators moved from the inside of the cluster to ouside the main beam. The bonnet line still doesn’t look quite right to me, and the grille (yes; finally it comes from the factory with a grille) is fitted almost flush to the nose; there’s no recess to speak of; a shame as all the best British sports cars have a deep ‘mouth’. Front fogs are fitted as standard, and the limited edition version comes with a chrome surround to the windscreen; thankfully the standard car has this in the body colour.

The hood is yet another work of engineering art from Mazda. Rather than folding back on itself like previous versions it works a bit like a fabric version of a folding tin-top; the portion directly above the windscreen finishes right side up and on the top, covering all the catches and lugs; no need for a hood cover this time round; it really does look lovely. A single central catch locks the hood both up and down, but it still has to be operated manually; there’s no electric option which is surprising but not a problem.

I guess this takes us inside the car; as I said, the hood catch is centrally mounted. The cabin itself doesn’t really feel much larger than previous versions although it probably is; the seats are comfortable and the driving position feels fine (for now – more on that in a second). The dash is dominated by a lovely piano-black band that covers its entire width (it’s silver in the limited edition and look awful) and the overall layout is frighteningly familiar; four small round vents (left, two centre, right) and two large dials (plus three gauges) are pretty much as before. Their faces are thankfully now black again although they have a slightly tacky silver surround; a similar silver flash appears on the steering wheel and the internal door handle; both might look better were they not just painted plastic.

The centre console is much better than previous versions (finally looking like it was designed for the car rather than in quarter-DIN modules) and the compartment on the transmission tunnel slides back rather than hinging up to allow much better access to two cupholders. Another locking compartment sits between the seat backs (underneath the hood’s ‘down’ release) and there are two more hidden behind the seats. A tiny little windblocker folds up though I can’t imagine it’s really of any use, and behind the headrests are two non-protective ‘style’ hoops; these look very cheap and nasty and will disappoint anyone who likes the solid looking ‘TT’ versions often fitted to current models. Overall the interior is modern and pleasant if a little drab, with great big slabs of grey ABS all over the place, but really there’s not too much to moan about here.

Right, we’re ready to roll; except they’ve moved than handbrake! It’s now on the right hand side of the transmission tunnel which would probably be considered the ‘normal’ side for any other car, but is immediately wrong in a ’5. I guess you get used to it, but it feels like an unnecessary piece of fiddling; reducing practicality in order to not put off potential customers with it’s ‘unusual’ location. However, I’ve found another cup-holder; it’s built into the door bin and is rubbing on my knee! Quite why a two-seater sports car needs four cupholders (there’s a matching one in the passenger’s door) is beyond me, but over the next half hour it will go on to bother me more and more. Obviously this is all down to driving position and there’ll be plenty of people for whom it’s not an issue; for me though, it’s painfully uncomfortable and there’s doesn’t seem to be much I can do about it.

They still haven’t given us a start button, so a turn of the key fires up the 2.0 litre, 160bhp Duratec engine. In truth there’s only 150cc more than the previous model’s 1.8 but it sounds bigger and beefier; blipping the throttle is curiously satisfying but the guy from the showroom is watching, so a few quick adjustments (electric mirrors – nice) and out into the rain…

Everything feels very familiar; (handbrake excepted) this is quite clearly an MX-5. There’s perhaps a slight feeling of extra weight and solidity, but the gearshift, steering and driving position are all very similar; God’s in his heaven and all’s right in the world. I had the car out for a little over half an hour, on A and B roads just off the A38 in Worcester, and it was lovely!

Although the 2.0 generates a little bit more power than the old 1.8, it doesn’t feel significantly faster, presumably due to the extra weight. It does however feel a little more relaxed, as if there’s a bit more torque at your disposal; it makes a lovely little burble at 2500 revs and the redline is lower than before at 6750. Rain being the bane of all RWD sportscars, I couldn’t really fling the new MX-5 around the bends with quite as much vigour as I’d have liked, but that said, I did (deliberately) manage to get the traction control to kick in a few times. For the record, the 1.8 now comes with antilock brakes as standard, while the 2.0 also has traction and stability control too. Whether this is a good thing is a matter of opinion; I’m assuming it can be switched off but I forgot to ask; I can definitely confirm that it works though… ;)

As mentioned, I really didn’t get to push the MX-5 as hard as one would have liked, so forming a definitive opinion on the new model’s handling is a little tricky. In the wet it handles just as well as my Mk.II, although the traction control stopped any nasty sideways action. In the dry? Well, so far reviews from the motor press have been universally favourable, suggesting that it is the equal or better of it’s predecessors. This seems fair enough to me; Mazda certainly haven’t broken anything obvious; I think another test drive in the Spring might be in order.

In summary? Well the Third Generation MX-5 (as Mazda seem to be calling it at the moment) is a little bit bigger, a little bit faster and arguably a little bit better than its previous iterations; certainly Mazda haven’t ruined their baby in any obvious way. Personally, I think they’ve put too many little flourishes into the overall design (though not as many as the frightful job they did on the RX-8) and the result is not a model you can say definitely looks better than either of it’s ancestors. Maybe it will grow on me, but at the end of the day it’s a modern-looking motor car and looks sure to appeal to the majority of buyers; existing owners will I feel, probably think theirs looks better.