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Sordel (United Kingdom)
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The Velvet Trail
The Velvet Trail
Price: £11.99

6 of 18 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Winter Sun, 9 Mar. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: The Velvet Trail (Audio CD)
I suspect that how you feel about this Marc Almond album - his first very clearly "pop" album for many years - will depend on how you feel about the contribution of writer/producer Chris Braide. Braide's background is in mainstream pop (Britney Spears, Sarah Brightman, Lana Del Rey, Olly Murs, Westlife) and he has created with Marc a sunny, thin-sounding confection of an album overrun with '80s-style drum machines. It's like Soft Cell or the Pet Shop Boys with all the edges carefully filed off.

"Demon Lover", which opens like a throwback to "Baby Where Did Our Love Go?" but has a chorus reminiscent of The Turtles' "Happy Together", is a case in point. It's well executed but feels cobbled together, and is sadly lacking a real hook. The drum machine and keyboard sounds are retro, but Marc did all this stuff better first time around. The instrumentals have a drama that is sadly absent from the actual songs and there are hints of past glories on some of the later songs, but they never go anywhere: "Winter Sun", for example, has a nice verse but throws it away with a dire chorus.

After the boldness of 2010's Varieté Marc appeared to have found a way to carry the seedy glamour of his early work into the songwriting of his maturity, but The Velvet Trail is just bland.


Hand.Cannot.Erase
Hand.Cannot.Erase
Price: £9.99

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lives of Quiet Desperation, 3 Mar. 2015
This review is from: Hand.Cannot.Erase (Audio CD)
For many Progressive Rock fans a new album from Steven Wilson is an automatic opportunity to ask questions about where Prog is heading next and whether Wilson in particular will be leading the march. The Raven That Refused To Song was the perfect album for that sort of debate - a masterpiece of retrospective cherry-picking that seemed to renew the entire genre - but Hand.Cannot.Erase. is something completely different. Although still identifiably Steven Wilson, it is an album with a broader appeal: an attempt, perhaps, to create an album that seeks to define not just a year, but a decade.

Hand.Cannot.Erase. still has room for some exceptional soloing from guitarist Guthrie Govan and keyboardist Adam Holzman but it is not fundamentally an album of big instrumental performances. Where the rhythm section of Nick Beggs and Marco Minnemann ran riot on The Raven, here they play with a restraint demanded by the emotionally-involving story. Although the songs are massively prolonged in places, with three songs above nine minutes, the length of songs is unimportant when the album feels so much of a piece. There is no album-distorting "Raider II" here, and I think most people are going to end up taking the full, 66-minute journey of this album rather than picking out highlights.

That said, there are highlights here. The first three tracks form a superb opening sequence, giving what feels like a long overture culminating in the upbeat title track. Towards the end of the album the equally compelling sequence of "Ancestral", "Happy Returns" and "Ascendant Here On..." form a similar unit. Wilson uses long stretches with little or no singing to set up the emotional punch of the main vocal songs here: both "Hand Cannot Erase" and "Happy Returns" are strikingly moving, and many will find the same of "Routine" although the operatic drama of that song may equally prove too much for some.

The music moves from a singer-songwriter feel to outright Progressive Metal in places, but it's difficult to pin the album as a whole down in terms of genre: it feels closer to Rock than Prog in places, and this is why a lot of Prog fans may end up that this isn't specifically "their" music. Never (since, perhaps, Stupid Dream) has a Wilson-penned album felt closer to the mainstream and more likely to be adopted outside his fervent fan base.

Hand.Cannot.Erase. is an album about a woman slowly erasing herself from society, yet it also becomes, surprisingly, an album that is emotionally warm, even oddly life-affirming. It might just prove to be Wilson's best to date.


Amon: Book of Angels Vol. 24
Amon: Book of Angels Vol. 24
Price: £6.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brio & Invention, 25 Feb. 2015
Amon falls more towards the "World Music" corner of the Book Of Angels series, inviting comparison with the volumes by Roberto Rodriguez, Banquet Of The Spirits and 2014's stellar set from Zion 80. This time out the arrangements are consistently interesting and the Latin dance rhythms compellingly "groovy". For wit & charm, this album feels like a potential highlight of the series.

Klezmerson is a large ensemble from Mexico, but the sound they produce draws on wide influences. While the Roberto Rodriguez volume has a very strong "Cuban" feel, this album is no more clearly "Mexican" than Zion 80s's album was "African". Instead, it feels like a fresh blend of influences held together by particular stylistic elements such as the powerful horn section, which trades licks nicely with other instrumental groupings. The arrangements are detailed and well thought-out, leaving surprisingly little room for solo spots but nevertheless providing plenty of instrumental detail & contrast.

At one point it was starting to feel as though it was beginning to take a certain amount of determination on the part of the listener to see the Book Of Angels series through to its final volume, but this disc is one of several recent releases that have brought it to new heights.


Grado SR80e Prestige Series Open Backed Headphone
Grado SR80e Prestige Series Open Backed Headphone
Offered by home AV direct
Price: £89.95

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Best In Class, 22 Feb. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Grado headphones are something of a cult, and one of which I was very reluctant to become a member. You often see them described as uncomfortable, ugly, aggressive and bright, or read abstruse discussions of which sponge ear cushions are best to correct their various design problems. But they also inspire an evangelical zeal and brand loyalty that is probably unequalled in the headphone world.

The SR 80es were my first Grado headphones and I've owned them for over six months before reviewing them because I've often heard that they are not a "love at first hearing" headphone. This is true: when I first heard them I was not much impressed. The sound was airy and bright but very closed up. But - whether its psychological or an objective change - these 'phones really do seem to open up over time. The signature experience is listening to a piece of music, being slightly concerned that the headphone is bass-shy or narrow, and then suddenly getting a shot of bass or expanded soundstage that reassures you that everything is just where it is meant to be. The SR 80es never give you that muddy omnipresent bass that you get with headphones that have been built to boost a particular frequency: the sound spectrum is where it is on the recording and nowhere else.

The factory-fitted ear pads are just fine, by the way, and I don't find them uncomfortable to listen to for extended periods, nor fatiguing on the ears. Admittedly, they're not as comfortable as my Bose QC 15s or my AKG K 701s, but both of those are built for comfort and are considerably more expensive. Moreover, while the looks of these headphones are utilitarian, you come to like them in proportion that you like the sound that they produce.

These headphones are priced where the market starts to move from cheap, mass-market, fashion headphones to those aimed at the serious music enthusiast, and the SR 80es are great value for money if you are looking to step up to a decent pair of 'phones for home listening. Their design is not good for listening on the move, and the lack of noise cancelation is a limitation in any other environment. Moreover, while the sound quality is a clear cut above the competition at this level, these headphones are not an audiophile product and do not boast the same transparency that you get from other manufacturers as you step up to significantly more pricey models. They're aren't giant-killers, but they will kill most things in their class.

Overall, the highest compliment I can pay to these is that they can get more than their fair share of ear-time when my personal alternative is the far more expensive and "better" K 701s. Their forward presentation and lively frequency response means that they always seem to make the best of a favourite recording.


Bose ® QuietComfort 25 Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphones - Black
Bose ® QuietComfort 25 Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphones - Black
Price: £269.95

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Should I Upgrade?" (QC 15 vs. QC 25), 22 Feb. 2015
I reviewed the QC 15s in 2012 and gave them five stars: not because they were perfect but because they were best for purpose. I have been perfectly happy with those headphones since and saw no need to upgrade to a different noise-canceling set, but by chance a pair of QC 25s now exists in my home and I thought that I would write a quick comparative review.

First impressions are that the QC 25s are very, very similar. The earpieces are much the same, as is the battery compartment. The QC 25s look as though they have had a slight engineering upgrade where the cups pivot on the headband: there are now visible allen screws. Some users (not me) identified this as a concern in earlier models, so I'm happy to accept this as an improvement.

The headphones now take a standard cable: any cable with a standard 3.5mm 3-pole (for microphone) or 2-pole jack will work, meaning that you do not need to buy a proprietary cable if (as does happen) your cable gets damaged. It's a "swings & roundabouts" improvement though because the new cable does not carry the attenuator switch for aircraft and it does not fit quite as smoothly as the old cable. It's nice, however, to see Bose voluntarily giving up the opportunity to chisel in the aftermarket.

Other minor changes include a smaller on/off switch and a different padding for the headband: you may prefer new over old, or vice versa but these are trivial changes. The external microphones on the ear cups are no longer a feature; they are simple holes, which means I suppose that they are protected from damage, but I suspect that the real reason for the change was to cut manufacturing costs. One clear step forward, albeit completely unimportant, is that the ear cups now have the left and right printed in large letters on the fabric lining. Simple, but a nice touch.

The big difference - the one that the Bose shops point out to you when you ask how the QC 25s differ from the QC 15s - comes when you turn off the noise cancellation and the music keeps on playing. Yes (a feature much requested in reviews of the earlier model) the QC25s still play music with no power being drawn, so you can now listen to your Bose headphones once the battery has run out. Now, I've never run out of battery on my QC15s and never saw why you would: unless you fail to put a spare battery in the case and fail to notice the flashing battery light and go on a journey of more than about six hours. (One AAA battery lasts a long, long time on these 'phones.) Still, the ability to listen to music without noise cancellation does have a theoretical value ... until you realise that the QC 25s just don't sound as good with no battery power. With power they sound louder and airier. Cut the power and they sound muffled, dull and lifeless. So the USP of the QC 25s really doesn't amount to very much.

Other changes? Well, the QC25s fold asymmetrically, so that the cups can be housed in a slightly smaller case. The advantage amounts to maybe two inches at the widest part of the curved QC 15 case, which is not very much, but packing space is valuable and this may be a consideration for some buyers. I find the QC 25s clumsy to fold, but perhaps it's just because I'm not used to them. The QC25 case does not hold the ear cups as securely, but probably still securely enough, and it has a nifty holder for a spare battery and in-flight adaptor, which is easier to use but maybe less flexible than the old zip pocket.

I haven't tested battery life or directly compared sound quality & attenuation but these are so like the QC 15s that I'm going to go out on a limb and say that any improvement is slight. That means that they are still the market leading noise cancelling headphones and should be a strong recommendation to anyone trying to listen to music in a noisy environment.

Overall, then, I can't see any reason for an upgrade to anyone with working QC 15s. If you can get remaining QC 15s at a bargain price, I'd say go for the deal, but if you can only buy the QC 25s, don't worry, they're really very good.


New Nintendo 3DS XL with Zelda Majoras Mask
New Nintendo 3DS XL with Zelda Majoras Mask
Price: £209.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another New Handheld?, 22 Feb. 2015
= Fun:5.0 out of 5 stars 
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Nintendo originally launched the 3DS into a market that was full of apathy: sceptical about the rather gimmicky 3D, dubious about its low technical specifications when compared with Sony's PS Vita and uncertain whether an upgrade was required to the successful DS. Since then, Sony has more or less abandoned software support for the PS Vita, Nintendo has been immensely successful with the 3DS and I, rather grudgingly, found myself buying my *third* 3DS. Am I just wasting money or is there a good reason?

The 'New" (2015) 3DS has made several changes over the previous XL model: some clear improvements and some arguably manufacturing economies. The 3D is the best ever by a long way: although it is not perfect if you move your head very quickly, it gives a real sense of solidity just as long as its camera can get a good fix on where your eyes are. Going back through your 3DS library trying out again games such as Mario Kart 7 is close to a revelation.

The other prominent additions include an analogue "nub" to the right of the lower screen, and two additional trigger buttons at the rear of the console. These mean that the console now fully integrates the features added by the Circle Pro accessory. In reality, it adds comparatively little functionality at the moment, but works fairly well with games that support it (such as Monster Hunter 4) and gives a degree of future-proofing that will be welcome to anyone joining the 3DS generation late. The 3DS now also sports support for Amiibo toys, although I haven't tested this myself and it is not currently clear how much Amiibo add-ons will add to games in the future. It could be prove to be a big advantage, or no advantage at all.

The New 3DS has a replaceable battery, which would be a massive advantage for some users were it not for the fact that and the memory card slot are now hidden behind the fiddly backplate: to remove this you need a screwdriver and a degree of patience. Given that I never felt the need to switch the memory card in my old 3DS, I don't mind losing the spring loaded slot too much ... it seems safer behind a secure plate. On the other hand, it would have been nice to be able to change the battery more easily, opening the possibility of carrying a charged spare to increase battery life from a stated six hours. Regardless, it is better to have a user-replaceable battery than to have to depend upon the factory-fitted one for the entire lifetime of your device.

I like the finish of the Majora's Mask special edition more than I expected to. It's less pristine-looking than the lovely gold finish of the previous Link Between Worlds Special Edition, but this means that you don't feel like you ought to put on gloves every time you pick it up. Sadly, while the LBW SE was entirely gold (i.e. the screen panels were gold as well as the outer panels), the Majora's Mask only has a unique back and front panel. It's only a minor quibble, but worth knowing.

The New 3DS feels like a proper overhaul of what is now a well-established system and it could prove to be an essential one if developers exploit the additional functionality. Even with the library as it stands, it's worth owning this for the improved 3D.


Boss RC-300 Loop Station
Boss RC-300 Loop Station
Offered by Absolute Music Solutions
Price: £375.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Joy In Repetition, 11 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Boss RC-300 Loop Station
I've owned a Line 6 DL4 for years. It was the first pedal I owned with any significant loop ability, and it was for years one of the most popular delay/looper pedals around, but it has some serious drawbacks, not least the pitifully short sample length (only slightly increased in Line 6's current POD series). Chord structures longer than a few bars run the risk of hitting the hard time limit, and the fact that you only have a single loop to play with, which cannot be saved, means that it has very limited facilities. Really it's a tribute to that little green unit that it has been as popular as it has.

The RC-300 takes the appeal of the DL4 and turns it into a sort of Looper Central Command.

BUILD QUALITY & EASE OF USE

The RC-300 is very solidly built and has pedals that can be comfortably stomped with bare or stockinged feet. The idea is for the unit to be largely foot-controllable, but that is actually an illusion: you're going to want to set each memory slot up before you get going in terms of tempo, time signature, drum track etc. etc. If the thought of stooping down to play with the pots and buttons makes you think "that is not for me", however, don't worry because it's actually very intuitive, and very controllable.

The three pots to the right of the bright, readable display are individual volume pots for the input level for the AUX, INST and MIC inputs. Set them once, leave them alone. The pot to the far left is Master Volume and next to it are three sliders that enable you change the individual volumes of the three tracks; again, they're best left alone except when balancing the tracks prior to performance or when saving the memory slot. Below each of these are Track Edit buttons that put each track into settings edit mode. You will need these last sooner than you might think.

Right of the track section are the Rhythm controls. Think of this as a programmable metronome: because it's global (effectively on a fourth track it can be dropped out or altered at any time) you can record in any of many selectable time signatures and then drop the drum track completely if you want a live drummer to come in and add a live track.

Below the display are the memory edit buttons for a variety of options such as what effects are used. The default effect for the assignable pedal is a rather clumsy semitone pitch shift but you will probably set this for one of the other effects. There's a nice filter effect if you want to be able to "squash" the entire mix, but I think most people are likely to use this aspect of the unit to provide, for example, a flanger or phaser effects pedal on the input signal. The ability to put the effects on one track offers some options for very wacky effects. All of this is readily understandable without needing the manual, although the nuances usually require you to think "hey, I wonder if it can do ..?"

IN USE

The three tracks unlock a lot of creative possibilities. In terms of the simplest practice regimen, you could simply lay down a few bars of backbeat, then lay a chord structure over it and use the second track to try out various overlays that you can delete easily on the fly. (Deleting is as easy as holding the Stop button for a few seconds, so abandoning changes is very easy.) Alternatively, you could match the tempo of music you're trying to learn, record it using the AUX input, and then use the Tempo setting to slow it down so that you can follow it more easily. If those two functions were the only ones, the unit would still be pretty good.

As a studio tool, you could use the RC-300 outboard to perfect a solo take and then send the solo back to your sequencer using the USB connection: if, for example, your amp was in the garage and your computer was in your bedroom. Or maybe you want to record a solo in the natural ambiance of a cathedral: your music, your choice. You can switch the recording mode from "overdub" to "replace" in order to get a single clean take. The ability to use this looper as a foot-operated digital recorder shouldn't be ignored, and the three hour total memory means that (just as long as you have an electricity socket to hand) you can record a lot of performance hands-free and then simply dump it back to your PC.

Moving to performance, you can do the YouTube thing of carefully layering together various live sounds to build up a complete track (beatboxing, playing keyboards, singing, whatever) but instead you could simply pre-plan and record three sections of a single song into the memory. Another trick is to put a single short loop on Track 1, put a longer chord structure on Track 2 (tracks can be of different lengths) and then put a different chord structure on Track 3 so that you can have the same loop harmonised in two different ways: that's an example where three tracks are definitely better than two. Or I suppose you could just record an entire song on a single track with no looping at all (though there are easier and cheaper ways of doing that.)

So, anything that could be better? Well, I can't see a bouncedown function so that you can simply copy Track 2 to Track 1 once you've got the balance right: that would open up other possibilities. It would also be nice to be able to change time signatures within a memory. The effects need quite a lot of tinkering to make usable (though the same might be said of many dedicated effects units) and you can only use one effect at a time, but neither of those will be a big problem, since anyone buying a device this expensive probably already has some effects covered. Setting up a track can be fiddly but it's the price of the additional flexibility.

OVERALL

The RC-300 earns the floor space it takes up. Paired with headphone it provides a wonderful one-box practice device, but it offers so many real-world options for performance that it should be high on any musician's wishlist.


John Zorn's OlympiadVol. 1 Dither Plays Zorn
John Zorn's OlympiadVol. 1 Dither Plays Zorn
Price: £13.59

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Games Without Frontiers, 9 Feb. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Until 2015, the earliest composed of John Zorn's Game Pieces available were those included on the seven-disc Parachute Years boxed set, which featured "historic" recordings of performances of Pool, Archery, Lacrosse and Hockey. This disc casts new light on the roots of this genre by offering fresh performances of three works: Curling, Fencing & (again) Hockey. Whereas the historic recordings featured The Great & The Good of the New York Downtown Music scene, the performers here are (depending on the work) four (or three) young guitarists. This new disc will therefore probably become the best readily-available way to sample Zorn's game pieces pre-Cobra.

This music is neither Jazz nor Classical: it's Zorn's very personal approach to pure experimental music. I gave The Parachute Years a very miserly single star for the simple reason that the only person who is going to get much out of that box is the type of person who would either ignore, or be enticed, by such a low rating. It's hard music to listen to and hard to like. Moreover, Zorn's work has a strong visual component, to the extent that it is important to know in a work of this sort which performer is playing and which out of a wide-ranging technical language they are employing.

That said, the Dither ensemble manage to perform here with a maturity that reflects the way that Zorn's musical language has evolved in the intervening years. Direct comparison of the new Hockey on electric guitar with the classic recording (by Eugene Chadbourne, Wayne Horvitz and Bob Ostertag) shows just how much has altered. The approach of the original recording is more jarring and provocative: sensationally odd. The new recording - replacing the amplified piano with a third guitarist - has less in common with Zorn's "cartoon" music and more in common with later game pieces such as "Hu Die" (from New Traditions In East Asian Bar Bands album). What is strongly reinforced is that the game pieces are about how sound is generated in time; not so much about the particular technical language employed by particular instrumental pioneers during a particular era.

Not all the music here is wholly abstract either. The effect of the two versions of Fencing is that of hearing snatches of different guitar music played against one another, coming together or diverging abruptly. Due to the different musical found objects appropriate to an electric or acoustic guitar, this is a piece that fully justifies multiple performances on a singe CD. The long version of Curling here, by contrast, provides a single shifting field of sound that has much in common with ambient music but has a convincing sense of depth and layering.

Most listeners will probably find these recordings less inaccessible than the Parachute Years recordings. Clearly they will not be for all, but a generous 78 minutes of invention of this quality deserves to be heard by the widest audience willing to hear it.


The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft
The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft
by H. P. Lovecraft
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £20.09

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Weirdly Unwieldy, 28 Jan. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
I bought this selected edition of Lovecraft's fiction as an "upgrade" on the Library of America volume of Tales but - although it unquestionably adds something - it is not the massive stride forward that you might expect.

The Library of America edition is sparsely annotated and contains 22 stories; it is a light, small format, convenient volume printed on thin "Bible-style" paper that does the job very well of providing a sensible reading edition of Lovecraft's major works. By contrast, this New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft contains exactly the same number of stories with considerably fuller annotation, but is a hefty and very inconvenient volume with less readability overall. Annotations are set, rather fussily, in columns outside the main story text when endnotes would have been perfectly adequate. Moreover, while both of these selections draw on the obvious major stories (At The Mountains Of Madness, The Call Of Cthulhu, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Shadow Out Of Time, The Dunwich Horror, Herbert West - Reanimator) the New Annotated strikes me as the lesser selection since it misses several of Lovecraft's most striking stories, including "The Rats In The Walls" and "The Horror At Red Hook". For most readers, then, The New Annotated is only made attractive by being less expensive.

If, on the other hand, you want a volume because you are more interested in studying Lovecraft than just reading him, The New Annotated becomes a far more sensible purchase. While it is not strictly necessary to know his references for the enjoyment of his stories, there are some where having the background and a photograph is of clear benefit. This is not the last book that you will ever need on Lovecraft, but it is a useful intermediary volume that you may want to consult perhaps when reading the stories in a more convenient edition. (Of course, if you're looking at this book on Kindle (which I don't own) a lot of my comments may seem superfluous.)

On the whole, then, this is a valuable volume that is well worth owning, but unless you are conducting your Lovecraft Studies at a dusty lectern in Miskatonic University, it may prove a little too cumbersome.


William Blake: The Drawings for Dante's Divine Comedy
William Blake: The Drawings for Dante's Divine Comedy
by Maria Antonietta Terzoli
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £64.99

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Revelatory, 27 Jan. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
The delicacy and translucence of Blake's colouring means that his series of watercolour illustrations (including those for Night Thoughts and The Poems Of Thomas Gray) have not been readily available to readers at home despite being some of his most important works. This large format clothbound edition of the illustrations to The Divine Comedy therefore brings the full power of Blake's work to a general readership for almost the first time. 'Affordable' is a word that means different things to different people, but at the price this lavish book almost counts as a bargain.

The illustrations are printed on a heavy, textured paper that is almost completely unreflective. Where more space is required, foldouts are used and, while these mean that you have to put up with visible folds, they are still preferable to diminishing the size of the reproductions. Images range from complete works to faint pencil sketches such as 'The Spiral Stairway' but even the vaguest of sketches has its force.

The commentary focuses almost entirely on placing the illustration in its context in Dante's poem, missing an opportunity to give any insight into Blake's work methods, but Schütze is good at pointing out elements that are incomplete or easily missed. The text is also very sympathetically set, given the book substantial browsing pleasure.

Overall, a wonderful piece of printing and a must-own item for anyone with more than the most casual interest in Blake.


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