Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Silhobbit Review

Like many of you out there, I had never heard of Paul Cusick until I saw the ads on Facebook and the like, and the tone of them intrigued me enough to get a copy of the Focal Point album. And am I glad I did or what? This was one of 2009s hidden gems to be sure.

For those of you who are still unaware of Paul Cusick (or "Q"), he is a British multi-instrumentalist, formerly of bands such as Gabriel, Ripped and Riversea. A couple of years ago, he decided to "go it alone" and record a solo album. And "solo" really is the word, as he plays all the music himself, except for the drums which are handled by Alex Cromarty. Prog loon Andy Edwards also contributed drums to one of the tracks, Touch.

I'd say that the musical style of this album sits between "Progressive Rock" and "Alternate Rock". There are no overly long songs or complex solos here, just an excellent demonstration of songwriting. My favourites are the Porcupine Tree-ish Big Cars and Soul Words, Hold On, the emotional Touch, and final track (except for the GM remix of Touch), the atmospheric Hello.

There's plenty here to interest the fans of bands such as modern Porcupine Tree and Pink Floyd, as well as mainstream rock bands.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

The Album Is Dead?

I'm starting to think the album is dead.., well slowly dying?

Now don't go all nostalgic on me and talk of days gone by when you used to queue outside music shops waiting for the latest release, because I'm not talking about the history of the album but more the future.

I have given this a lot of thought and decided to write these thoughts down in order to make sense of them. I am drawing upon my personal experiences as a consumer of music and, in some lesser way, my limited experience as a recording artist/producer.

An album is simply a distribution model for releasing songs. If the songs follow a common "Theme" e.g. Pink Floyd - The Wall then it makes sense to buy the album in whichever format you choose, Vinyl, CD, MP3 Flac or even Tape.

But another way is to view an album is as a "Snapshot" in time of an artist/band(s) work. This is the case for the majority of albums. An album quite simply is a collection of separate songs where the only common denominator is the artist/band that wrote it and the time when it was written.

But I remember buying singles (7" and 12"). Why? Because I couldn't afford the album? Sometimes.., but sometimes it was because I didn't like all the songs on the album. And I repeat this buying pattern online. I preview the album and if I like all the songs I buy the CD. If I find there are only a few songs I like then I buy the downloads of the individual tracks.

There are few artists making concept albums now. The advent of pirate downloads has stripped income going into the music industry. Once upon a time big record labels used to invest in their artists, nurturing their talent and encouraging their creativity. With less money big companies are focusing on those few artists that have a ready audience (X-Factor etc). They are not interested in the music but are focused on the return they can get from an artist as a commodity / T-shirts / Ring Tones / Endorsements / Products etc. This is how the music industry is shaping up. They cut the lower rungs of the ladder and concentrate on the top echelon.

Yes there are lots of smaller independent labels, but they only act as part of the distribution chain and do little to market their artists other than cross pollinate between their signed acts. The artist signed to the smaller label may sell a few more CDs by association, but the Indie Label will take their slice of the ever dwindling cake for their work.

So Vinyl’s, CDs, Digital Albums or Digital Singles?

Now I love liner notes and album artwork but these can be distributed online as digital products and are often embedded in MP3s. All that info can be found quickly online at the artist’s website.

But CDs give better quality.... yes they do but that's to do with the lossey format of MP3 files. But FLAC and other better quality lossless files are now available and I distribute my own work in lossless formats.

But Vinyl’s sound better than CDs..., yes they do? And they can't be digitally uploaded. I think that's the primary reason why many people are starting to release on vinyl. It is a product that can't be stolen and distributed illegally online. Add a limited version of an unreleased song, some great artwork and the artist regains the exclusive control of the sale of their work.

I own an iPod and it sounds acceptable. I've added some studio quality full size headphones and it sounds good. I also use a nokia phone which has a music player and there is an option to rip uncompressed music files to my phone. Add the headphones and it sounds very good. What I'm getting at is digital does not sound as bad as some people would have you believe.

Anyone involved in music production will tell you that the problem with the sound of modern music isn't the digital format in which it is delivered, but it is in the treatment and mastering process done to those digital recordings to make them commercially viable in today's world. There is a trade off between "dynamics" and "volume" and unfortunately to exist in today’s broadcast world "volume" usually wins over "dynamics".

As you can see there are arguments for and against the different formats.

So when I look at things wearing my song writers hat then things change: Focal Point was a collection of songs that represented important points in my life. There was a theme and I hope that is carried through in the CD.

Now as time has progressed I am starting to see how my digital sales have gone in the first few months of release. Roughly 50% CD Albums to 50% Digital Albums. But interestingly over 2000 digital singles have also been sold. So digital is strong, and even with an album that I consider follows the "themed" package, buyers are still cherry picking their favourite singles.

Now I have been working away on Album 2 and again it was going to follow a theme and should therefore be an album. I have been writing away with specific concept(s) in mind and tailoring songs to sit in place. Now I am conscious that it will take some time to write the full album, especially when I do it all myself. But I have been approaching my work from an "album" point of view.

But I keep getting new ideas for new songs that do not tie in with the theme of album 2. I quickly record these and set them aside to carry on with Album 2. A linear approach of one album at a time.

Now I'm starting to think about working on one single at a time, released digitally. Then releasing CD/digital album(s) as and when my body of work warrants it. The albums would be either "themed" or "snapshot".

The next "themed" CD/digital album would be released when I have approx 50+ minutes of related songs that capture a theme. Not all themed songs would be officially released as digital downloads but would probably be released on my own website.

"Snapshot" digital singles (those that don't follow the theme of album 2) would be released as and when they are finished. I did this with "Christmas Through Your Eyes". Then a "Snapshot" CD/digital album would be released once there are enough singles to warrant it manufacture.

My point is there is a demand for both singles and albums but why does it have to be the creation of an album that dictates the release of songs? I'm starting to question why I, and many other bands, focus on releasing album after album? Why not release single after single? Perhaps many do and I just don't buy from those circles. I wonder what the pros and cons are?

Remember I started saying the album is just a distribution package, whether it be a "themed" or "snapshot" album. Buying an album based on the strength of one or two songs is a great way to discover new and, many times, better music.

In the end the songs are the contents of that package and they will continue to sell irrespective of whether the album format lives or dies.

Personally I like the album format, but I think market forces and cash flow will see a rise in the dominance of singles.

I'm looking foward to reading your thoughts on this topic.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Review of Focal Point on musicstreetjournal.com

Focal Point

Review by Gary Hill

I like this album a lot. It’s rather moody progressive rock that gets pretty crunchy. It’s very atmospheric. There’s plenty of alteration here and while some of the music borders on metallic, it never crosses into metal. All in all, this is a fine album that should please fans of neo-prog for sure, but I think classic progressive rock fans will dig it, too.

Track by Track Review

Focal Point
Starting with "Chopsticks", this moves out into fusion from there and as it continues it becomes something akin to both Dream Theater and space rock. This is a killer instrumental and it drops to a weird guitar solo section a bit like Malmsteen or Satriani for the outro.

A hard rocking cut this comes in with more instrumental work akin to the first cut. As it moves into the vocal section I can still hear some of that Dream Theater thing, but also Porcupine Tree. It’s hard edged, dark and tasty. The cut is taken through a number of changes and is both meaty and quite cool. It gets very intense on the closing segment.

Fade Away
A sharp contrast to the previous one, this is a mellow and very pretty ballad that has a lot of keyboard layers. This definitely reminds me a lot of modern Marillion. I also make out Pink Floyd and even Queenryche and the Beatles at points on this. It’s got a tasty melodic guitar solo.

Soul Words
This one is simply incredible. It alternates between mellower and harder rocking sections and I can make out Pink Floyd and points on this, but that’s only one small piece of the picture. There’s a killer, almost funky groove to a lot of it.

Scared To Dream
Another killer cut, this is majestic and powerful and yet quite melodic and much of it is fairly sedate.

This is a melodic and pretty instrumental that has a bit of an electronica texture to it.

Senza Tempo
Here we have basically a bluesy hard rocking guitar solo.

Big Cars
This hard rocker reminds me a lot of Hawkwind. It’s definitely crunchy, but also very space rock oriented.

Hold On
A rather dark cut, this is a real rocker that’s quite accessible.

Sedate and dark, this somehow reminds me of a totally different arrangement on something from Dan Fogelberg. It doesn’t sound anything like Fogelberg in terms of the way the track is done, but the vocal hook and the lyrics make me think of someone like him. It’s a cool song and seems an intriguing contrast.

Touch (GM Mix)
Here’s a different mix of the track that showed up earlier in the set. It’s cool and quite ambient.