Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Book Reviews

Just to catch up on my summer reads....

Sharp Objects - Gillian Flynn

If you are looking for a happy, carefree read... avoid this at all costs.  Gillian Flynn is now famous due to the huge success of Gone Girl - a book I liked a lot.  This earlier effort is well written but frankly beyond dark it is as black as black can be.  A reporter returns to her family town to write a story on two young girls who've been found murdered.  Not only is there the darkness around the murders but there is a lot of history in her own past and her families that is extremely dark...   And it doesn't stop there...   It is a good thriller, with some very disturbing themes and issues within including self harming, infanticide, drug taking, underage sex, rape to name a few.  A recommended read but I can't warn you enough, this is a very black book.

Two thumbs up on the FTUBRS*

Jackdaws - Ken Follett

I seem to often come back to Mr Follett's books when looking for something - he has been quiet prolific and I like how he writes from many eras with many different themes.  So this book is about a group of misfit ladies who are co-opted into the British Secret Service at the time of the Normandy invasion for a critical mission.  The characters are believable and likeable, even to a degree the main German adversary.  The story rattles along well with perils a plenty.  Enjoyable and believable read.

One thumb up on the FTUBRS*

Lay down with Lions - Ken Follett

As I say about another of Mr Follett's stand alone novels.  A good one set during the Afganistan Russian occupation.  There is a big romance under current to the thriller aspect of this one.. though you have to question the lady's choice in men as both the rivals are duplicitous, double agents!  Good story set in an interesting setting and time.

One thumb up on the FTUBRS*

Guy Martin - My Autobiography

Something a bit different.  I like Guy Martin, he talks straight and he clearly is one of the most egoless sportsmen around.  He is also very talented at what he does, he may not yet have won an Isle of Mann TT race but in road racing like that he's pretty much won everything else in that genre over the years... in between continuing to be a Truck Fitter and TV personality to boot.  If you like Guy I'd recommend this book, you don't need to understand bikes of bike racing either.  However my position on him did change as in the candid book there are some aspects of his life that he honestly portrays and you are left a bit speechless about how he could treat some people like that, esp his ex girlfriend and frankly how dumb he can be.  He assumed he was sacked by he Dad from the family truck fitting business over something so needed, he thought, a new vehicle to get about in as his Dad had repossessed the van he had.  He bought a clapped out old Astravan... however his TV production company had bought an Aston Martin that was sat in a barn at the time and he considered it to do with that part of his life so he left it there depreciating and driving it "never crossed my mind"... doh!  I still respect him as a racer and enjoy his tv work but this does expose him as not always the nicest bloke about.

One thumb up 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

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Hughes & Kettner Triamp 3

Now if only I could afford one of these.   Hughes and Kettner have updated their flagship guitar amp the Triamp now in it's Mark 3 version.   One thing I've notice, Alex Lifeson who I'm a bit obsessed about you may have noticed has had the H&K backline obvious in live videos of the R40 tour I've looked at online - there are some where he has a wall of Marshalls which looks like him and Geddy trying to portray the look from the bands early 70s days.  But interestingly to me they all look somewhat not plugged in where as the ones with the Triamps they are glowing away with the characteristic blue H&K glow.   Seems like Lerx has returned to these as his go to amp - he has a signature model around.

Anyway back to the new one.   Let's try to get our heads around this.  You essentially have three dual channel amps in one here.  Each with independent eq.  As you work from 1 thru 2 to 3 the level of dirt goes up, so channel 1a and b are more clean/minor crunch ... think classic Fender sounds.  Next up Channel 2 heads into classic rock territory... think Marshall.   Now here I know a few old cynics will be smiling that knowing smile that is thinking - but Fender is 6l6 and Marshall is El34 so you'll never get same out of an amp - it'll mimic but not get close.  H&K have solved that with 6 power valves in split in pairs two pairs of 6L6s and one of EL34s.  Oh you can then fiddle with what pair or pairs you use on each preamp...  you can then programme that all in and have it all instantly retrievable via the included midi footswitch - or ask your programmer to include the settings in the backing midi tracks.... Yes.. my jaw was heading to the floor at this point to.   BTW if you fancied putting in some KT66s to try to get even closer to say the very early Marshall JTM45 sound guess what?  There is a built in automatic and active valve biasing circuit so you simply plug them in and it takes care of it.   Channel 3 is into the high gain territory... the demo below shows how really musical channel 3a is in the right hands.

Oh yes throw in top quality speaker emulated output for ease of recording sending to front of house and that each preamp has a tailored boost/overdrive pedal available at the flick of a footswitch and you are starting to get close to this amps features.   Boggling!   My son claims with the switchable power amp tube settings etc. it's like 42 amps in one - Douglas Adams moment...

Now the downsides.   It is 150w.... ouch not the best for bedroom use.   Oh yes the biggest draw back.  I can only find it on sale in the UK in a couple of outlets and best price I can get is north of £2,700...  but then it is the answer to life the universe and everything.    Watch the demo video below and you'll see that just on sound quality alone it is stunning.   Would love to see some of this flexiblity and usablility finding it's way down the range into cheaper models...   the Grandmeister and Tubemeisters are already great amps but the next generations with some more of these features in them will be interesting to see.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Go set a Watchman - Harper Lee (Book Review)

This has to be one of the most long awaited follow ups in the history of publishing.  I can't understand why it was never published back in the day.  Harper Lee did enough to be put on the highest rung of any literary ladder with To Kill A Mockingbird.  Especially when you consider that novel was published in 1960.  It is hard today to put that novel into the context that was the USA civil rights movement at that time for most of us who weren't even alive when it first hit the bookshelves. 

Go Set A Watchman was the original title for the original manuscript that eventually became To Kill a Mockingbird.  There is much controversy about the release now of this work.  Some claiming it is simply the original draft for the first novel - having read it that makes no sense to me, others that no Ms Lee is old and infirm she has been coerced into releasing it and others even questioning the validity of it's authorship.

I've read that there was speculation at a trilogy with Mockingbird and Watchman sandwiching another work.  Maybe but having read the book if there was plans for a trilogy I fancy it would have been a further work after Watchman since I was still left with un-answered questions about Scout's relationship with her father.  I would love to have seen another vol set another 10 years or more in the future maybe at the end of Atticus' life.

So is it any good?  Oh yes!  If you've ever read Mockingbird I urge you to read this.  It takes preconceptions about who people are and twists them around.  Is Atticus a bigot?  Or simply playing a part to know the enemy?  You see some of the arguments often used about the emancipation of blacks in Southern USA trotted out but you do get a sense of why some people were frightened.  Given the current headlines about immigration into the UK and Europe there is much to think on in reflecting on modern values and ideology too.  It is set approximately 20 years after the events in To Kill A Mockingbird.  Scout returns to her hometown now a successful professional in New York, but the tomboy has never left Scout and she is soon raising eyebrows among the neighbours.  The real focus of the novel though is over how her relationship with your father is irrevocably changed through her again witnessing him at the local courthouse, the scene of much of the drama in Mockingbird.  Only this time Scout is left utterly confused and her father is reduced from hero to zero in the short space of the meeting.  Much of the latter part of the novel is Scout trying to deal with this and both her father and uncle making cases on different sides of the argument.

Overall in my opinion this is not as good as Mockingbird which maybe why it was never published in the first place but it is still a good work... time may determine whether it is near to the greatness of Mockingbird but for me it is not, still an important novel and it is a shame it didn't appear in the 1960s when I think with the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement it would have had much more impact.  However I still think 50 years on the lessons in there are worthy of exposure and contemplation by many.

Two thumbs up 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

Monday, 13 July 2015

The Epiphone Ltd. Ed. Tony Iommi Signature SG

Well it looks like a Tony Iommi and sounds like a Tony Iommi... have to say this new signature Epiphone is worth some investigation.  I love the inclusion of many of the features from his original Jaydee Old Boy - 24 frets, the high output humbuckers and even the little feature of the side not front fitted jack socket.

Love this!

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

CD Reviews

I went mad and bought a bunch of CDs over the weekend.

Muse - Drones

I've liked Muse since Absolution.   I did delve back into their back catalogue too but the first two didn't quiet tick the boxes with me.  The last effort 2nd Law was ok but I felt a move away from the "Muse" sound they'd defined up until then.  I remember commenting at the time that it sounded a bit like Porcupine Tree - which wasn't a criticism but simply an observation that it didn't sound really like a Muse record to me.   Drones is much more on song for me.  Heavier, the distorted bass riffs are there, Bellamy's soaring guitar sounds heavily over effected too and his voice is right on song.   I heard a review on Jo Whiley's Radio2 show about this in which the guest reviewer went on about how hilarious Muse were with the bombastic instrumentation, hand built guitars etc.  He seemed to think they are a parody of themselves.  I completely disagree but then I get the feeling we'd never sit down and listen to Yes Relayer and be able to meet anywhere on a level for a conversation either.  However here's a funny observation.  The title track - he expected a post apocalyptic attack on unmanned combat aircraft (that is on Reapers actually).  I had already thought to myself DADGAD... i.e. some sort of droning musical statement.  It is largely a vocal chant.  I think showing I'm more in touch with Muse and their output than the reviewer.  So... if you were switched on to them with 2nd Law but didn't like Absolution et al look away now.  If you wrote them off after 2nd Law - put them back on your list.

The Plague Within - Paradise Lost.

I like Paradise Lost.  I first came across them at Knebworth in 2009 where their performance was one of the highlights for me and they were the discovery of the weekend.  This is really dark and heavy from the starting out doom laden riff and the gruff shouted initial lyrics we know where we stand.  However Paradise Lost for me have a couple of bits that make them stand out.  Firstly Nick Holmes vocals.  He switches effortlessly between the gruff shouty metal genre to melodic and attractive lyrical singing easy and it adds something many lack in this area.  He is a really great singer.  Secondly Greg Mackintosh is a unique lead guitarist.  He uses a set up with two wah-wah pedals open but set normally in specific positions.  This gives his lead lines a very unique tone and quality.  They are ethereal and not what you initially expect, you expect a more typical over driven scooped sound with machine gun attack but this high pitched middle heavy lyrical and melodic tone and feel is hypnotic.  The Plague Within is their heaviest offering for a while but attractive none the less.  If you like any heavy metal try them out - I think you'll be as enamoured as me.   BTW my son met the rhythm guitarist Aaron Aedy in Aberystwyth last summer, I'm not sure if my son had any influence but the latest videos show Aaron has now moved to using an Ltd Vintage Black EMG loaded EC1000....  just like my son has... hmmm... ;-)

B.B. King - Definitive Collection

I had some old vinyl BB King when I was younger a studio album and a live one.  Sadly long lost.  I have a few others bits of him - esp Riding with the King the album he made with Clapton which is one of Clapton's best albums too frankly.  But with his passing I realised I have a BB hole in the collection this was as cheap solution.  Every song on here he nails.  His vocals are fantastic and the big bell ringing clean tone he had with that instantly recoginsable vibrato - genius.  There is a duet with Robert Cray on there - now Mr Cray is no slouch and his first solo has is characteristic strat snap and bite to it but then BB hits the first note in his reply and sorry Robert should just join the employment line.  I mean that with the greatest respect - Robert is great but BB .... well he was just something else entirely....

Thursday, 2 July 2015

YesSongs #7: YES - Roundabout

Sadly today Chris Squire is laid to rest. In memory of one of the greatest bass players ever I offer this great version of Roundabout from 1973. RIP Chris.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Formula E - season finale review

Mrs F and I went to the very last Formula E race in Battersea Park on Sunday.

Formula E is a totally electronic racing car series.  This has been its inaugural year.  There is some interesting banter going on around it involving such lumineries as Christian Horner the main man at Red Bull Formula 1.  The fact that he is having to make derogatory comments about it as a series, trying to compare it to a lower formula than F1 shows it has made some sort of significant mark in its first year. 

A quick summary from my point of view about Formula E...

The good....

The season runs Oct to Jun so means some of the races are over the "winter" period when most other series like F1, Indy Racing League etc. are not running.
The promotion and development of electric vehicle technology can only be good.
The races run in city locations - for many who are not die hard fans of motorsport going to a city and taking in the race as well as other attractions is a new approach to traipsing to some airfield in the middle of nowhere where there is nothing else but the race venue.
Close racing - possibly due to this year everyone having exactly the same machinery (that is planned to change in time)
A great driver line-up.  Getting into F1 is hard, staying there harder when so many are desperate to get in as well.  So most races have had a majority of recent F1 refugees and you can't deny quality like ex F1 race winners like Trulli and Heildfelt.
Completely new tactics about power management can influence races greatly
Cheap to watch
All the practice, qualification and race action is all on the one day.
Good TV coverage - all races shown live on ITV4 (better than F1 on free to air services in the UK)

The bad

The battery only lasts half of the approx 45 min race distance.  The drivers have to stop and change car, whilst this pit stop spices up the races a lot it seems a glaring issue with the technology if you wanted to consider it for a road car.
Driver swaps - like IRL and other series like A1GP in the past some teams have had too many drivers coming and going.
Single make car - I like to see development, I have the same issue with all one make series.  They have close racing but little car development obviously.  I like both... I'm greedy!

That's my view - I like it as a championship.  The first race back in Oct in China ended in a spectacular final corner crash as Heidfelt who'd managed his power consumption better tried to pass a slow Nicolas Prost.  (Oh yes and there are three drivers with the names Senna (nephew), Piquet (son) and Prost (son) - so to hear Senna is closing on Prost is still alive and well in motorsport.

We took the train up to Victoria and the four min hop to Battersea Park. The park was a few yards from the station - see my comments above about accessibility of the races.  Somewhat easier than getting to Silverstone!  And the cost - we'd only  bought the cheapest general access tickets but were right trackside by the entry to the last chicane, we could see them coming along the last part of a long flat out left hander and then into the heavy braking zone.  I'd figure from the layout it'd be a potential overtaking spot that was reinforced with watching the Saturday race on the tv when Jean Eric Vergne used it for one of the best overtakes of that race.  Clearly others reviewed his tactic for Sunday.  So tickets were under £20 each.  For any motorsport that is a total bargain.

The race was terrific.  The back story is that going into the last weekend Nelson Piquet jr was ahead in the points and favourite but 5 others mathmatically had a chance.  Realistically that was really only 2 others, Sebastian Buemi and Lucas Di Grassi (all three F1 refugees).  Saturday Piquet didn't qualify well, Buemi landed poll (worth 3 points in this championship, something I think F1 should adopt).  So suddenly all the weight of expectation was shifting.  After Saturday's race Piquet had the lead by a mere 5 points. 

Sunday qualifying started at 12 noon under typically London leaden grey skies.  Not good for Piquet he was in the third group to go out.  And indeed with a red flag in group two delaying things the rain, although the that heavy or constant did really hamper the third group in particular and now Piquet had a mountain to climb from 16th on the grid with Buemi in 6th.  Frankly on the very tight temporary circuit I think most people just expected that the title was handed to Buemi.  But not so.  Piquet passed several cars on the first couple of laps and then once changed to his second car there was more good fortune.  Buemi span on cold tyres on his out lap and was passed by Senna putting him 6th on the road.  Try as he might be couldn't repass the clever Brazillian, Senna positioned his car just right into the chicane in front of us so Buemi couldn't get down his right hand side.   Meanwhile Piquet was handed more good luck with a safety car bunching the cars up for a last sprint to the line.  His team mate easily gave way and he passed Salvador Duran into turn 14 right in front of us - see my careful analysis of the best place to stand paid off!   So suddenly Piquet was running 8th on the road and with neither him or Buemi looking likely to get the 2 points for fastest lap now everyone was bottled back up in traffic he was 1 point ahead in the championship.  And so it stayed to the line.  Even a large penalty for using too much power dished out to Sarrazin on the slowing down lap robbing him of his first victory had any effect, Buemi and Piquet both moved up one place and still Piquet had that crucial single point advantage.

I've heard some people complaining that it is a "boring" formula running on "Mickey Mouse" tracks that mean you can't get decent racing.  Well that certainly wasn't the case on the last race.  16th to 7th was a stunning drive my Piquet and he really did deserve the title with Buemi no doubt left really regretting that spin on the cold tyres.

Next year allows manufacturers to enter the series to start developing their own powertrains - Renault who had been involved in the initial development has announced it will develop a new version exclusively for the e.dams team.  That will add some additional spice to a good series already.