Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Edgar Froese

I was very sad last week to hear of the passing of Edgar Froese, the founding member of German electronic music pioneers, Tangerine Dream.

While I usually cite Jean Michel Jarre as a major influence on my own music, there is certainly no denying the influence of Tangerine Dream. Both artists began making ambitious and experimental electronic music around the same time, each pushing musical boundaries in their home countries. In fact, Tangerine Dream’s seminal 1974 album Phaedra does have a somewhat similar, if darker feel to Jarre’s Oxygène, which would emerge a couple of years later. 

Although I own many Tangerine Dream albums and tracks (they’ve recorded far too much to keep up with, especially in recent years), I actually know very little about the band and Froese in particular, which is a little unusual for me, as when I get into an artist’s work, I’ll usually find out much more about them beyond just the music. Yet Froese has remained somewhat enigmatic to me.

If anything, I was a bit of a latecomer to the party. I knew of their name for a long time, before ever investigating their music, which I did around 15 years ago. But I was instantly hooked. My introduction to their music was actually a 'best of' compilation on Disky Records, but that contained most of their famous works and encouraged me to go on to enjoy albums such as Exit, Phaedra, Zeit, Green Desert, Hyperborea and most recently, White Eagle.

While many people sing high praise for their early work, another generation was inspired by the albums that Tangerine Dream put out in the 1980s – I’d seen White Eagle namechecked many times, particularly by musicians producing computer game soundtracks in the late 80s and early 90s (which nicely leads me back to my previous blog!). Indeed the music on White Eagle – and countless other Tangerine Dream albums – is not unlike a computer game soundtrack; an ever-evolving soundscape forming a musical adventure of discovery and exploration.

Although an expanded band for live shows, in later years in the studio, Tangerine Dream and Edgar Froese were essentially one and the same thing – with the occasional contribution from his son Jerome and other musicians.  One particular favourite of mine is one of their lesser-known releases, Quinoa, originally a fan club release in 1992, though now readily available as a digital release. A quick discography check, and you come to realise just how many albums they’ve released – there’s always one you haven’t heard of and something new to explore. 

While their latter day music may not be as pioneering or iconic as their earlier albums, there is always an instantly recognisable Tangerine Dream sound and style – and although Froese has now departed for the great gig in the sky, that iconic sound and style will live on.

For me, the discovery of their music was yet another moment when I thought to myself: “I want to try and make music like this”. I’ll be the first to admit there’s a long way to go before reaching such a standard, but without their music, I might still just be thinking about the idea of making music rather than actually doing it. And for that, I’m grateful.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Digital Deluxe

Following on from the previous post about the joys of the Amiga home computer and the musical inspiration I gleamed from the games scene, it's now time to shift the focus on to art.

My journey into digital art began way back in 1990 at the formative age of 12. Up until that point, I had got by just fine with pencils and paper, without the addiction or distraction of a home computer. Of course, all that was about to change.

One day at school, our art teacher, Mr Cronin, took us to a dark and dusty corner of the art room, and introduced us to The Computer. Its was an Acorn Archimedes, and it had this thing called a Mouse – which looked like a house brick on a cable with a funky ball mounted in the underside. Mr Cronin then went on to demonstrate the power of a paint program, and the mouse swung into action.

This was the moment.

First he created a gradient from red to yellow, and before long we had a sunset! A few clicks of the mouse later and we had a house with windows. Wow. Up until that point, my only experience of computers were friends’ C64s or Spectrums that played pixely games with chirpy music. The notion of making artwork on the computer hadn’t even crossed my mind.

Mr Cronin then took the excitement up to 11 – by clipping out a section of the image and creating a brush… which he then zoomed around the screen and painted with, creating an impossibly crazy pattern.

I was sold. I’d seen the future.

I got home. “Dad – Can I have an Archimedes?” 

My pestering for one of these mysterious Archimedes machines went seemingly ignored, until one day when my Dad went out one morning and came back with this exciting new computer – a Commodore Amiga A500.

I still remember the squeak of the polystyrene packing as I extracted the Amiga from its box. Of course, the computer coming with the 10-Star Games Pack, would lead to a whole other distraction, but also in the bundle was this exciting looking software package entitled Deluxe Paint II…

Deluxe Paint – or Dpaint as it was usually referred to – was made by Electronic Arts and for a long time the main art/paint program on the Amiga. And it was the answer to all my artistic needs. The Amiga being smarter and more advanced that the Archimedes, Dpaint offered so many functions and hundreds of colours.  I’d soon be drawing cartoon illustrations, Daleks, space ships landscapes, you name it. All with the mouse, I should add! And as I progressed through later versions of the program, I’d explore the joys of even more colours and animation features too.

DPaint opened my eyes to digital artwork. I’d go on to design my own games on the Amiga, make comics, write stories and even do my school work at any given opportunity. 

Fast forward to the mid 1990s and my arrival on a college course in computer graphics and design. I was delighted to find a room full of Amigas. Of course, I already knew Dpaint inside out. The following year, it would all change and we’d be working on Macs and PCs running this new thing called Photoshop. But Dpaint’s user interface proved to be the perfect training ground for the more advanced Adobe software.

Some of the last work I ever did in Dpaint on the Amiga was some college coursework from that time – a journey inside a giant computer, giant engine and giant machine – and here it is! What fond memories.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Machine music

Today I came across a new publication from the makers of Retro Gamer magazine, The Amiga Book. I saw it on the shelf and snapped it right up. This magazine instantly brought a wave of nostalgia over me and took me back to my formative years and the start of my obsession with computer art and music.

Some of my most treasured memories of growing up are my early teenage years when I was pretty much inseparable from my Amiga computer.

The Amiga A500 first entered our house one grey day in 1990. And that day was a turning point – it set me on the course to go on to have a career in graphic design, create digital artwork and make computer-based music.

The Amiga opened up the avenues of music and digital art – I'll come back to art in a future blog post. Compared to earlier computers, where in-game music sounded as pixelated as the graphics, the Amiga heralded a new dawn for the computer game soundtrack, and no doubt in tandem with the music industry as analogue shifted to digital.

Not only did the Amiga boast the very best quality games and graphics on the market in the early 90s, but the in-game music was outstanding (well, most of the time!).

Electronic music pioneer John Foxx, (of whom I would later become a fan and run a website devoted to his work) emerged in the form of Nation 12 with Tim Simenon of Bomb the Bass to produce the music for the Bitmap Brother's Gods. The Bitmap Brothers had previously sampled Bomb the Bass' Megablast for the music to their classic game Xenon II – and in both instances, the music was fantastic; breaking new ground in game music quality.

However the benchmark for me was Chris Hüelsbeck, composer for German games developer, Rainbow Arts. I've previously blogged about Chris' soundtrack for the platform shooter, Turrican, but that remains my favourite game soundtrack from the Amiga days, and that music lives on today – so much in demand that in 2013, Chris launched a successful Kickstarter project to fund a brand new recording of the music.

When I wasn't playing the games, I would put a cassette recorder in front of the TV speaker and record all the various game music that I loved. Who needed the radio, when you had an Amiga?!

There were so many amazing composers working on the scene back then, such as Allister Brimble, David Whittaker and Bjørn Lynne, who are still producing great music today. I could go on listing games and composers – the point being that there was such a vibrant music scene within the Amiga circles back then, whether it was the game soundtracks or demo scene.

My first ever musical experiments would be on my Amiga 1200 in the mid-90s, when I got 8-track music programme, OctaMED. Although it would be some years until I turned my hand more seriously to music – all of that influence from several years of gaming obsession was ready to be regurgitated!

I might be AppleMac based today, but that influence from the Amiga days is still very much present and alive – and I think it is evident on my latest release, Sentient City.

The games I loved took you into another world, where you could explore and discover – all set to a brilliant soundtrack. And I'd like to hope I've achieved a similar thing with my own music.

Sentient City is out now on Bandcamp.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Sentient City – blog 2

The city – past, present and future – is an endless source of fascination for writers, artists and musicians alike.

It is a theme I’ve touched on in my music before. Back in 2006/7 I made a series of rough demos entitled Metropolis. Anybody who has followed my music for any length of time might remember these, as they were online briefly back then. In fairness, the ideas may have been there, but the music wasn’t! Although I did eventually include revamped versions of two of the better tracks on my After Hours compilation of early material. Maybe back then I wasn't ready to take on the subject. This time, I was ready to get lost in the crowd.

That said, I had no plans to make another album last year, but an interesting discussion with my friend Richard Hayes led to me thinking about how I would interpret the city theme today, but in a way that also left it open to interpretation and exploration. This was followed by some brainstorming, and from that emerged a series of intriguing titles as potential song starting points.

I had established a particular soundscape with last year's Traces album that I liked a lot and wanted to build on. In particular, one of the outtakes, Terrified, had started to take things in a slightly different, heavier direction which appealed to me and this became the starting point for the Sentient City soundscape.

The city is a world in itself. 

And as a creative theme, it brings together a crossover between a reality with which we can all relate, with fiction. While making the music, I’d often find myself thinking about the cinematic cityscapes depicted in films such as Dark City, The Fifth Element and Blade Runner or the literary urban underworlds of Haruki Murakami's books – but also of my own daily commute and observations of city life and the passing gleam of buildings old and new, and the way I’ve watched a skyline evolve and regenerate over time.

Its inevitable that we feel connected to our cities; the places we go, favourite spots, the bits we dislike, and a love/hate relationship with the transformations that occur. 

The city often feels like a living thing. 


Monday, 12 January 2015

Sentient City - blog 1

Cities are layered things. 

Look around. There’s always the fascinating notion of peeling back the layers of modernity to uncover what lies beneath. Like when you see a shop being renovated – the current façade or signage comes off, uncovering the remnants of what was there before; a vague outline of vintage typography or peeling paintwork. A little souvenir of the past, given one last brief airing, before being lost again.

There’s also the way that different parts of a city attract different cultures and walks of life. There are the documented histories in local archives and reproduced maps of how things used to be in times gone by. You’re treading on history as you walk through a city whether you like it or not. Layers of history, yet always the present.

Sometimes all you need to do is look up.

Look past the shiny contemporary frontages of the high street and more often than not, you’re met with upper levels in the architectural style of yesteryear. Some cities cling on to their heritage, others favour the new. And many are a hybrid of the two. 

Films and books set in future times often depict cities we know as unrecognisable places from the past. Chrome and glass gradually transform the cityscape; it grows, changes, evolves. It towers over you and becomes unrecognisable. But follow your protagonist down the back streets or underground and you’ll nearly always find a different side. Another face to the city.

When the title of Sentient City came about, that really defined the mood of the album. I wanted something upbeat and dynamic, that captures the energy and bustle of the city – but something that also thought provoking, dark and atmospheric that poses questions.  

Which city? And when? 

And that’s where it’s over to the listener.

Sentient City is available now via Bandcamp.