Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Big Big Train performing Judas Unrepentant

Big Big Train are one of my favourite groups of recent years.  They to me define current British Prog Rock - steeped in the 70s - much of this songs rhythm and style remind me of Gentle Giant - anyone remember them?

This is my favourite song of theirs which has as it's lyrical inspiration the definitely off beat topic of an art forger - Tom Keating actually who was able to churn out a number of "great masters" that fooled many of the art world.  Anyhow this is a very rare live outing for the band earlier this year... enjoy

Monday, 16 November 2015

Book Review - Where my Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks

I've really enjoyed Sebastian Faulk's books in the past.  Engleby is actually somewhere up there on my "everyone should read this book list" without any doubt.  I'll cut to the chase Where My Heart Used to Beat is potentially in the running for that list too.

As with many of his works it is a study of life, love, the meaning of being but more importantly about love and how some people experience a really stunning moment of love in their lives - although it may be all too brief.  In this way it follows on from the theme in his last work - A Possible Life - where he covered love in a series of short stories.  Here we have a single hero character - a psychiatrist.  Someone who has worked his life to understand mental illness and how to help those with it to a better life.  Dr Robert Hendricks lost his father to WWI and himself fought in WWII.  Set initially in the early 80s we find a 60 something Hendricks reviewing his life - aided by some others who somewhat set this up as it were.

Faulk's does introduce Dr Hendricks in a manner whereby for many you may feel he is a man of little integrity and honour and then rebuilds that.  Only again for that to be questioned by actions that are revealed from his past.

I think this is a terrific novel - like many of Faulk's work it isn't a jolly read, it isn't for the feint-hearted and may if you are passed the top of the hill of your life like me make you a little uncomfortable in terms of considering exactly what have you achieved in life.  However it does show again how people's life and love are so moving and important to us. I totally recommend it.

Very rarely awarded but this the second time Faulk's gets one (the other was for Engleby) Two Thumbs up with a Grin

* Furtheron Thumbs Up Book Review Scale - 
lowest is both thumbs down with a frown
two thumbs down, 
one thumb horizontal,
two thumbs horizontal, 
one thumb up, 
two thumbs up 
two thumbs up with a grin - very rarely awarded

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Book Review - Career of Evil Robert Galbraith

Despite it is all long out in the open about Ms Rowling's alter ego she continues to write as Robert Galbraith in the latest instalment in Cormoran Strikes life.  I'd really enjoyed the first two books in the series and looked forward to this one.  On completing it I have to say - I'm a little deflated and disappointed.

Whilst the continuing character exposure of the two main characters in the book, namely Strike himself and Robin his enthusiastic assistant continues I feel that in some ways the main plot line was purely a complete vehicle for that exposure.  In the first two books it was clear there was a deep, dark secret in Robin's past in this book that is pushed firmly into the open.  That is the major reveal of the book but is somewhat too early in the narrative since after that we're playing out the rest of this plot that you feel was mostly there to simply reveal that secret.  The frisson within Strike and Robin's relationship continues with her continuing engagement to Matthew the guy you really want to just bugger off out of the scene - no disrespect Matt but you just are getting in the way of what we can all see if the relationship we all want to see... oh he does look a complete shit at one point as well which helps you dislike him more.

Where however this book fails to be as enthralling and engaging as the previous two is that the case Strike manages to solve again under the noses of the incompetent Met Police is all about him.  A ghost from the past is stalking him and wanting to destroy him.  This again is a vehicle to expose a bit more of our hero's past but frankly I feel less engaged than when Strike was working to show up a major injustice in someone else's story as the first two were.  He lost some of the Robin Hood shine that kind of role gave him - having him pitted against the Met over threats to himself just doesn't seem to fit as well as an engaging plot line.  As I say I just feel the author felt the need to expose some points about him and Robin in particular and wove the investigation about that which just left me a bit flat. 

If you've read the first two and enjoyed them and intend to stick with the series read this.  If new to it - read the first one and then decide.  I do feel after the next volume comes out this one might seem unnecessary reading frankly.

Two Thumbs horizontal (just!) on the FTUBRS*

* Furtheron Thumbs Up Book Review Scale - 
lowest is both thumbs down with a frown
two thumbs down, 
one thumb down,
one thumb horizontal,
two thumbs horizontal, 
one thumb up, 
two thumbs up 
two thumbs up with a grin - very rarely awarded

Friday, 30 October 2015

The End of the Strat Upgrade Project

No sooner is it started but it's finished!

The strat upgrade is done!

Some pics to run through the work.  We'd left it last time with all the components fitted onto the scratchplate but nothing wired up.  It is half term week from my course giving me a couple of days where weather and waiting in for a heating engineer meant I had a clear few hours on the bench (i.e. dining room table suitably covered with rugs, old t-shirts, etc.)

Here is the start of the wiring - some of the wiring for the pots and switches done.

Here with the pickups connected up - There is actually a simple but major error on here that I spotted later...

Here she is naked - stripped of all the hardware I was replacing, i.e. bridge saddles, tuners, strap buttons, scratchplate and backplate.

Dignity being restored with tuners, saddles and strap locks installed.

A close up of the saddles.  I can't say how much if at all they improved the sound as clearly in this rebuild I can't to a side by side comparison with the old ones and the same electrics.  However when I tried it out as bought it was ok but a bit lifeless, or soulless - it just didn't "ring" like some of my others. I'd assumed the quality of the body wood and the bridge block being a cheaper cast one.  However once all assembled she does indeed "ring" / "sing" much better.  How much is due to the saddles?  Hmm.. I'd actually wager a fair bit - for only about £15 a simple, easily reversed upgrade I'd recommend now to anyone with one of these.  Do check your string spacing - this like most Far East ones is 52.5mm across all strings vs a USA (although Jap reissues as well - so check!) are 56.5mm.  These were sold as genuine Fender ones and are stamped as such.  You can find similar unbranded ones under £10 which would still be worth a punt as I say they can easily be swapped back.

So the scratchplate held in on a couple of screws for final "tap test"**.  I did one test before fitting in then one before all securely fixed in case I shorted something out.  But all was good to go.

Nearly there - strung up and being set up.  Like most modern Fenders the radius is a 9.5in.  So I got the two E strings about where I wanted on action and set the rest to a radius curve - you can see my set lying by the neck support.  However final "fertling" was by eye, ear (little buzz on A string at 12th fret) and feel.

Reclining in the sun having been polished up and played.

This shows the new rear backplate fitted to match the front just for completeness.

Final summary.  Well having played it for an hour or so it is really good.  I'm extremely pleased with the result.  As I say as bought it was "ok" but not a singing stunner. Next to my 1983 Squier JV Strat (modified with old 90s USA Standard electrics - the one with the TBX control), possibly an unfair comparator, it was a bit flat and non descript.   Now however it does "sing" and "ring" more to my ears even unplugged I think leading to my thinking the saddles were the best investment on this upgrade.  Soundwise it works a treat.  The Artec pickups are really excellent for the money.  The neck in a brooding heavy bluesy bruiser in humbucker mode with some crunch on the amp.  The middle is a great singing sound in either humbucker or single coil and the bridge is a bright singing humbucker sound.  Being single coil humbuckers mean they seem to maintain some of the Strat single coil flavour in the humbucker mode.  There is a bit of a drop in output when switching to coil tap mode but actually that can be used to an advantage potentially.  Over all I'm really pleased with the result.  I may get around to a video / audio example at some point so watch this space as they say.

** What's a Tap Test?
Simple - plug the guitar wiring into an amp - I use an old practice headphone amp called a pocket rocket as the headphones help determine exactly what is going on.  Then tap the pickups with a screwdriver - this'll show your switching is ok, it isn't all going to earth and pretty much ok to fit down.  I did this when it was all soldered up including the earth connections to the bridge etc.  It was time well spent in this case.  In getting my head around wiring the coil taps etc. I'd connected the neck and middle pickups to the wrong lugs on the switch.  A simple few second fix but better than before all strung up! 

Thursday, 29 October 2015

The start of the Strat upgrade project

I have another guitar project underway.  Using some money I got for my birthday I bought a cheap second hand Squier Strat off a local instrument sell/swap noticeboard on Facebook.

Here is the guitar I got - an affinity Squier strat.  Nice colour I thought and very clean.  Previous owner had it as a spare to a "real one" as he called it and wasn't using it much.  I negotiated a cash purchase and a little discount from his asking price.  All cool.

 The plan all along was one I've had in my head for a while to buy a cheap but reasonable Strat copy and upgrade it a bit... well a lot actually.

So the plan is to replace all the electrics in it.  I wanted a sort of Dave Murray Strat like idea with strat sized humbuckers in it.  However Dave's guitar if you buy his latest Fender signature offering is north of £700 (which is good value actually given the hardware you get on it) but also a bit of a no-no for me features a Floyd Rose vibrato.  I'm not a lover of them much at all personally preferring the more traditional strat type including the one of my PRS which is firmly in that stable of design.


I wanted single coil humbuckers - preferably hot rails like Dave uses.  Actually he has recently changed for an all hot rails set up with the launch of his new model to one featuring two hot rails in neck and bridge and a JB Jr in the middle position.  Recently Seymour Duncan launched a Dave Murray loaded scratchplate featuring that set up.  They are however as rare as Hen's Teeth in the UK and well north of £200 anyway... like I say makes the Fender model look very reasonable.  Anyway I was thinking of more versatility in the set up myself.

My initial thoughts were for a HSH arrangement with a single coil in the middle.  But as I was buying cheaper non match set pickups I was worried about getting a matched set.  In the end I've gone for three hot rails from the Artec range which were really good value and had some good reviews around.  To retain versatility I wanted to coil tap them in some way.  Original thoughts were three pull pots one on each - but that is clunky and I want strat style knobs on it still which to me don't lend themselves well to pull pots.  So I decided there is room for two small switches amongst the knobs.  My first thought was to have one switch to coil tap both the neck and middle at the same time and one on the bridge.  This would give HHH, SSS, HSS and SHH combinations - not sure on the last one, certainly novel.  But I mused on this - one glaring thing is that I'm missing the HSH combination I original was going for and that seems a useful one, given the many guitars you can buy that offer that out the box.  Thinking more on it I have coil taps on some of my two pickup humbucker guitars (my old Nunostrat and Gordon Smith Graduate) and frankly I mostly favour the bridge as a humbucker with the coil tap on the neck useful.  I rarely coil tap the bridge on those guitars.  So I wanted definitely the HSS set up as that is one combination I'm after with this guitar I don't have in my arsenal currently, along with HSH again a variant I don't have as such.   Therefore having gone through this all I've decided to wire it up as the bridge permanently in humbucker mode and the middle and neck coil tappable independently on the two switches.  This gives the HSS and HSH modes along with HHH and HHS as well. I'm using perloid scratch and back plate - again the Murray model influence, plus looks good with the colour of the body.


Originally I had thought to replace the whole bridge unit with something like one of the Wilkinson Strat replacements - probably a modern looking one aping a bit the PRS trem style.  However once I got the guitar and looked at it I realised that the Afinity model (well this one at least) is one of the thinner bodied Squiers.  I thought they only did this with the bullet models but it seems not.  The body noticeably thinner than a standard Squier.  A quick check against my trusty (very) old JV model shows a difference of 5.1mm (46.9mm vs 41.8mm) measured on the top horn.  Therefore most normal trem blocks at 40mm won't fit - or at least will stick out the back.  I measure this trem block about 4-5mm shorter than that which is in line with the difference noted.  Obviously I could buy a new bridge that is compatible with the trem block and reuse the one in the guitar to retain the distance.  However that seemed a bit of a huge compromise as the main upgrade would be the block and the saddles anyway.  So after some thought I opted instead for new saddles only.  I found some reasonably priced on eBay.  I've gone with the more traditional bent steel ones as consensus, shown by Fender returning to feature them on the American Standard, is that these sound best anyway.  Getting some that were the correct (narrow) string spacing was the key point.  Another difference from USA or Mexican or Japanese reissues is that the cheaper strats from the far east have a narrower string spacing at the bridge.  After some umming and erring on my side I've also decided on fitting set of sperzel style locking tuners too as I've found locking tuners on vibrato guitars really useful in tuning stability.  So I've now ordered a suitably value for money set.  Finally I'll be sticking on some Schaller style locking strap locks - which I use as default on all my guitars anyway.

Once completed then the only original hardware will be the bridge except the saddles, the string trees and the plate holding the jack plug... everything else will be replaced!  Oh the neck plate will be original too I see no reason to update that ;-)

Here's some photos of the guitar in a state of disassembly to allow me to check fit the scratchplate - a couple of screw holes don't line up so I've filled them with old cocktail sticks and glue and will drill new ones later - same on the backplate too as my replacement has USA screw alignment.

You can see all the pickups, switches and pots in place now on this one - again a trial fit to make sure nothing it catching anywhere before I start to solder it all together which is the next major task and will be the subject of the next update no doubt.

Monday, 26 October 2015

CD Reviews - Iron Maiden, Show of Hands, City and Colour

Without a doubt this little album review shows my eclectic music tastes.  I find it funny how even more so these days stuff is labelled this of that, Folk, Alt-Country, Metal, Speedmetal, Deathmetal... blah blah blah.  Do I like it?  That should be the only question to ask yourself really.  But the marketeers esp in this online age try to pigeon-hole us so they can then push "targetted" ads into our facebook feed, spotify suggestions list etc.  Frankly just suggest random stuff - in my humble opinion they'd sell more.  Say I'm a young person who's been brought up on modern R&B and that's what I listen to - then Spotify throws some Country my way and I like it - but I've never listened to or downloaded country - am I more likely to go off and seek out more of this new interest?    Well that's my thoughts but then ... I don't run a music company or streaming service or get paid oodles of cash to advise advertising campaigns.

Iron Maiden - Book of Souls

This is the umpteenth album from Iron Maiden in their must be close to 30 year history now.  However their first ever studio double album.  Now the old stalwarts of what us teenagers dubbed NWOBHM still have much of the trademark Maiden sound... the gallop, the bounding bass line, the twin/trio guitar harmony, the time changes and the operatic singing style the Bruce Dickinson brought to the band when his inspired hiring fired them towards global domination.  Yes all that is there but then there are really long tracks - three of the total of 11 are over 10 minutes, this smacks of old song prog rock from the likes of Yes, Genesis when they were more than 3 and Rush in their epic heyday.  Actually those aren't bad benchmarks for some of what you have here this is the most prog rock Maiden have ever been.  And that is for the good actually - this album isn't a barnstormer throughout but it's weaves and twists and turns and different textures make it one that you listen to repeatedly spotting new colour and interest.  The magnum opus that is Empire of the Clouds even has piano courtesy of Bruce Dickinson who only recent acquired one (as a raffle prize!).  This is the best on the album for me and even if you think you know Maiden go listen to this one to get a flavour of where they are today - the lyrical subject as so often for Maiden is more leftfield that many "heavy" bands charting as it does the demise of the R101 airship.  Maiden could have written 8 songs all based on previous hits of theirs but they haven't they have as middle aged rockers with cancer concerns and all that tried to do something a bit different and hugely succeeded in my view.   The plan to tour this album... of course being maiden they've leased a 747 to carry all the kit, crew and the band with Bruce Dickinson having to be trained up to be allowed to fly it - they redefine Spinal Tap at times but I love them for it.

Show of Hands - The Long Way Home

Hello English folk lovers - I did say this was eclectic didn't I.  Fresh in my mits is a signed copy of the new Show of Hands CD prior to it's full release - you need to see them on tour and chuck em £13 to get it at the moment.  The duo of Steve and Phil are as ever joined my Miranda Sykes and a few other friends including some recording of shanty style numbers in a pub.  This is more of a return to a more traditional folk feel than the last offering Wake the Union.  The first words uttered are old Saxon actually!  This is in Breme Fell At Hastings which morns the lost of Saxon England under the Norman yolk just after defeating the Vikings only a few days before... You thought Maiden singing about aircrashes in 1930 wasn't topical... ;-)
The playing and the singing, esp the singing on this are sublime.  Hallow's Eve a topical ditty about 31st Oct is one of my top picks along with 'Twas on an April Morning and Keep Hauling and The Old Lych Way.  But it isn't all totally fingers in the ear and lambswool sweaters with Sweet Bella being a straight up 12bar blues type number too.   If you love just hearing good singing in good songs go check this out once it is on general release - or better still if you can catch them live on the current tour go do that.

City and Colour - The Hurry and the Harm

Bit late on this one as it's been out ages but my daugther got it for me for my birthday.  Dallas Green (City and Colour... gettit?) started this as his little side project ages back away from his day job in Alexisonfire.  I'd listen to them a bit but in that field (genre) prefer Linkin Park, Hundred Reasons, Funeral for a Friend etc.  So to hear Dallas churning out these country gems was a surprise for me when I first heard him ages ago coming out of my daughters bedroom.  We've continued to share our interest in him - culminating with us having booked to see him in Brighton on his next UK tour - he's been on the "must see live" list for a while.  Now this is to me his most accomplished, coherent and complete sounding album.  I think him working in the studio with a nucleus that had been his touring band for a while really helped make the whole thing sound more together and relaxed and just gelled.   I ought to catch up more on his latest release and review that soon.   Watch this space.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Gig Review - Show of Hands Canterbury Marlow Theatre

One of Mrs F's presents to me for my birthday was tickets to see Show of Hands.  The Marlow Theatre in Canterbury was back and Mrs F had excelled herself with tickets in the third row :-)

Show of Hands have over the last three years or so become one of my favourite folk acts.  There is something just so unpretentious about them, a working class ethic within many of their lyrics and performance I really like.  They are stunning musicians to boot.  Now mostly they perform as a trio the original duo of Steve Knightley and Phil Beer augmented by Miranda Sykes on double bass and vocals.  Three musicians only, acoustic instruments but what a sound they can produce.  Phil is a master multi-instrumentalist on fiddle, guitar, mandolin etc. and both him and Steve have incredible voices that work so well alone or together.  Miranda adds terrific bass playing and singing to the mix to.  Hats off to the sound engineer again - this is the second time I've seen them live and both times blown away by the quality of their live sound.

The first half was to showcase the new album The Long Way Home, which I snapped up a signed pre-release edition at the interval!  They played a lot of the new material off of that including an incredible a cappella three way version of Keep Hauling which made the hairs on my neck stand up.  After the break it was more of a Greatest Hits compilation going back through their long back catalogue.

All too early it was the last song and encore and they were off but isn't that the sign of a great gig when you're left thinking it flew by.

If you can get to see them I fully recommend they may not have had the notable chart success of others but for me they are one of the best folk acts about in the UK today.