Category Archives: Review

Review: smallsounds/bigsounds Fuck Overdrive

I have been wanting to get my hands on one of these for years. For some reason, other pedals were prioriotised (many fuzzes, chorus, looper, the Quest for Compression etcetera) and time passed. And then in 2014 there was a Black Friday sale on the smallsound/bigsound website and I finally took the leap. It came in a limited edition finish and with a t-shirt included, both of which I am a complete sucker for…

A brief overview: it has controls for Gain, High Cut, Volume on the top row which do what you would expect them to; the second row controls the secondary function of the pedal – the Crackle function, activated with the momentary footswitch labled Boost. The On/Off switch controls if the momentary switch turns the Crackle on or off when pedal is activated; Threshold sets how strong signal is needed for the sound to get Crackled; the Heavy/Light switch controls the nature or the Crackle, glitchy/gated death or overdriven tape deck with maintained sustain.

So my journey with this pedal has gone like this: first I started with the pedal in the middle of my dirt section, with the gain set low. The Crackle goes up as the gain goes down, so this was a lot of fun! I then discovered how pleasing the overdrive from the pedal was so I spent a few weeks with the gain pushed up quite a bit – but that lost me the explosiveness of the Crackle (fantastic for looping), which eventually made me take the gain down again. By then putting the pedal last in the dirt section I get all the sustain from the previous drives and fuzzes and as a welcome side effect, the Fuck is absolutely amazing when you stack other pedals into it. The JFET-based circuit has a warm but still quite flat EQ which does wonders for fuzzes especially but firming up the low end.

This has in practice become an always-on pedal for me. I only turn it off when I need really clean, sustaining notes for looping or more delicate and/or funky stuff. These days, whenever I turn on another overdrive or fuzz and this one is not on after it I immediately feel like something is missing. The Crackle function is just the delicious, seductive icing on the cake that is this lovely piece of electronic pastry.

[ there used to be a very nice photo here of the FOD sitting on the very nice t-shirt I got with it but it’s disappeared and I can’t even find it on my computer anymore! ]


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Review: The TC Electronic Flashback delay for live looping (new video and sound samples)

To my great joy (and the slightly lesser joy of my neighbours I imagine) I finally have a device that allows me to do live looping. As seen here previously I have started to do some very basic videos of this and the latest one will be linked at the end of this post.

Edit, 17 oct: Please note that I’ve added some later thoughts at the very end of this post which modify some of my original opinions.

The pedal itself sounds good but has some user interface issues – most notable is the abscence of a dedicated tap tempo switch which I have grown very used to having with my Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Memory Boy. It does have a “strum tempo” feature but it is nowhere near mature. To begin with you have to step on and hold down the switch for two seconds before you can strum the tempo you want, and doing so mutes the signal. In effect, if you need to sync or re-sync with the beat mid-song, you will have to be quiet and not contribute to the music for ca five seconds. And do you want your delay to be a subdivision of your strummed-in tempo, say a dotted eight? First you must be in quarter note mode, then set the tempo as above, and then change the switch from quarter note to dotted eight. Imagine going from one stummed tempo to another between songs, both in dotted eight mode – madness! And also somewhat beside the point for me as I don’t use this for “normal” delay duties but those are some crazy oversights.

Another strange mistake is that when I set the pedal to be in buffered mode, so that the delayed signal “spills over” when disengaged and the loop keeps playing, the reverse delay can no longer be set to wet signal only. In other words, the straight and the reverse-delayed signal are both heard whether you like it or not. This is not how I would like to use a reverse delay.

If you are not a guitar player and pedal user, much of the above will make no sense at all. Bear with me just a little bit more and soon we will get to the pretty sounds!

As I said, I use the Flashback as a live looping device. “Live looping” is the act of performing and/or sampling music and/or sounds and repeating them live, as a performance. In contrast, to copy+paste a drum segment in a piece of software to get an ongoing drum groove  is still a form of looping, but not live looping. It began in the mid 1900s with tape loops with Terry Riley being one of the most common pioneers you hear about, and in the 1970s tape live looping had as much of a commercial and audience awareness breakthrough as it could ever hope to get with Fripp & Eno’s No Pussyfooting. Fripp later started touring and recording with a more mobile version of that setup called “Frippertronics” using two Revox tape recorders. The number of players using similar techniques has grown since then, especially with the emergence of digital equipment which is easier to move around and suffers little to no signal loss compared to tape loops (unless you want the sounds to degrade of course).

In practical terms, I set the delay time knob at ca 3 o’clock and the feedback knob at max or slighty less. “Feedback” in this context simply means “number of repeats”. The Flashback is a digital modeling delay which mimics the sound and behaviour of several types of delay – for looping I use the “2290” and “Tape” settings where “2290” is the name of TC’s legendary old digital delay and “Tape” mimics the sound degradation of a tape based delay unit like the Echoplex.

So how does it sound? Well – good! It sounds really nice. The “tape” mode probably degrades the sound a bit sooner than I like but the “2290” is great. It is also possible to get a loop going in “tape” mode and then very quickly switch over to “2290” to in effect “store” the tape loop without the tape degradation effect (I do this in some places in my videos and it can cause a small hiccough to be added to the loop).

Here are some brief and simple samples, recorded with my phone held up to the guitar amp:

The first and second are in “tape” mode, the third in “2290” mode.

All things considered this is a pretty good pedal that does just what I want it to at the moment. For me it lacks versatility and has very limited possibilites for making adjustments while playing so I would not use it as a regular delay pedal as such. The various sound voicings also can not be changed in any way – like how much degradation the “tape” mode causes or how much modulation is added in the “Mod” mode. The Toneprint feature is nice and it is quite surreal to completely change the sound of your delay by holding your mobile phone up to your guitar pickup!

The next step for me as a live looper, equipment-wise, is to add another guitar amp for stereo and then to look at some kind of multi track unit for even more fun! Thanks for reading this and please enjoy my latest looping video:

Follow-up, 17th october. I have now worked with this pedal for a while. To begin with, the reverse delay suddenly does mute the dry signal – or at least it did when I tried it again the other day. I have no idea why as I have not changed anything. The same goes for subdivided strum tempo, it suddenly works as you’d imagine it would. I can not remember whether I tried these features before or after I did a firmware update on the pedal, so it could be that which corrected these flaws.

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King Crimson: Park West, Chicago, 7 Aug 2008

It is one of the greater musical sorrows in my life that I will probably never get to see King Crimson play live. I had a slimmer of a chance on 2003 when the Power to Believe tour visited Copenhagen but I missed it. In 2008, I had no chance whatsoever.

Luckily, pretty much everything KC do is recorded, especially concerts, and the best bits are released as downloads on the DGM Live website. There are two formats, flac and mp3, of which flac offers the best sound quality (essentially uncompressed cd-quality sound in a compressed format). DGM generally only release soundboard recordings as downloads – there are numerous multitrack recordings in the archives, but these take much more time and a bigger budget to release with any frequency and are generally released as cds.

This gig starts out with a brief and sparse soundscape from Robert Fripp which is at the same time questioning, cautious and unsettling. After a short while the rest of the band take to the stage and Pat Mastelotto and Gavin Harrison do a short duet on the drums.

Then, the first proper song – “The Construction of Light” from the album of that name. This was one Trey Gunn’s real show pieces during the 1999-2003 KC, and Tony Levin does not play it perfectly. This is fine, it is live, but I feel a certain flow and grace is lacking. Also, the guitars are not quite in tune with each other. This is not normally a big problem in a rock setting, but for this song – very distracting.

They must have tuned up quickly, for “Red” comes hot on the heels of “TCoL” – and it is an absolute monster. Now, it usually is pretty heavy and the guitars do their usual stomping about with the drums. It is Levin’s distorted Chapman Stick that really crushes everything in its way here. It becomes so absurdly heavy that I actually laughed out loud when I first heard it, it is a sound like nothing else. Maybe a collapsing mountainside comes close, but I can not imagine what else possibly could. Metal has nothing on King Crimson when it comes to heaviness.

Next up is perennial KC crowd pleaser “Frame By Frame” and thankfully all guitars are vibrating happily together. It sounds pretty good, but with a strangely tired tinge to it. A big surprise to me was when after the second verse and fast part the guitars suddenly play harmonically and not in unison, with the Stick coming in to play the main riff as well, I have never heard that before.

Now, “Neurotica” should be amazing with two drummers – and the drummers are great! But when Fripp’s frantic chord stabbing is gone from the intro and the parts in between verses, it sounds very very empty. Also no guitar solo! The song simply lacks the frenzy it needs to carry it to the end. Probably they meant the drums to provide this, but they just do not, at least without the visuals and sound volume  of a live performance. “Three of A Perfect Pair”, next, is another decent performance that, like “FxF” before, adds little new to the song.

The time traveling backwards continues with “The Talking Drum” and “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic II” – and finally some decent guitar solos during the “Drum” (yes I know KC music is not about the solos). “Larks’ II” sounds much like it did with the Double Trio KC during the 90’s, but somewhat heavier. Fripp’s guitar is distorted all the way through, and Levin plays the Stick rather than bass guitar. The distortion makes him sound a bit like John Wetton from the ’73-’74 Crimson!

In “One Time”, things are as usual, with the exception of the middle portion. Fripps builds a looped soundscape, but then solos over it with a muted guitar sound, quoting the beautiful solo from “The Power to Believe II” – very nice. A short transitory guitar synth burst then precedes the drum duet “B’Boom”, executed with, as one might expect from these players, amazing accuracy.

I would have loved to hear what this band could have done with “TRaK”, but instead comes “Dinosaur” with a very vicious sounding Fripp in the verses. The solo after the full band dead stop goes all over the fretboard, between menacing rumbling to high squeals. The faux-mellotron string intro/outros are back, somewhat unnecessarily for my tastes – I like the simpler version from the Double Duo.

“Level Five” must be one of the most unforgiving benchmarks for any band to play, and this KC does it pretty good. Again, like in “Neurotica”, between the sections with very fast guitar and Stick unison lines only the drums play without chord stabs on guitar – and again, like in “Neurotica”, it sounds very empty. And I miss a proper low bottom end on this track, the Stick does not provide the foundation it should. “Level Five” concludes the first disc of this release.

First out on disc two is “Sleepless” which has been given a very ProjeKct-y feel. The drums are all techno-beat-with-some-hi hat, with various sound effects sprinkled all over. Levin plays his signature digital delay-riff, Belew’s guitar does all kinds of eerie noise and Fripp plays his ominous arpeggios – but it just does not feel very alive and it even sounds like Belew makes a bit of a mess of the middle of his solo. This is a song I’ve always thought made more sense in its studio and remix versions, an impression which is reinforced here.

And then it happens again – “VROOOM” suffers the fate of “Dinosaur” and has to endure a mellotron/string intro. They sound wonderfully creepy on record, but live they simply do not work. Besides this, it sounds good with the odd miffed note due to lack of routine that really is not a big deal. For the first time in a long while, “VROOOM” is followed by its coda, “Marine 475” which  unfortunately suffers from a terminal lack of guitar solos. They usually add enormously to the drama, but Fripp chooses to abstain and just focus on some very creepy soundscapes. And creepy soundscapes are fine and can be excellent for a song, but this time it is just 2.20 minutes of a rhythm section stomping out a rhythm with no change in dynamics. It gets boring, frankly.

The soundscapes continue to loop for a few minutes and are then silenced by the steady introductory beat of “Drum Duet”.  The beat quickly becomes decidedly less steady and more ambiguous as the dummers execute their duet with flawless timing. It is certainly more interesting to listen to than a drum solo and must have been great to see live. With the visual input, it loses some of its charm but rewards attentive listening.

The duet comes to a sudden and dead stop, to be replaced by the frantic riffing of “Thela Hun Ginjeet”. It is performed with its usual verve and some surprises (Fripp’s sudden switch to a piano sound, ray gun samples from the drummers etc). Some things are a bit unfortunate – the somewhat too murky guitar sounds, the old “this is a dangerous place” spoken recording of Belew being played over, and obscuring, Belew’s excellent soloing in the middle part and the fact that Fripp’s solo is buried too deep down in the mix.

After some enthusiastic cheering from the audience, Levin plays the immortal Stick intro to “Elephant Talk”. While the pace is more stately than before and the guitars (again) sound a bit muddy, it is well delivered with lots of humour – bicycle bells from the drummers, wonderfully weird Belew solos. So far, the best delivered ’80s song of the evening.

And once again, it is Levin who gets to start the very last piece – “Indiscipline”. When the mayhem starts, Belew plays just as well as you would guess but the drums just marches in step with the beat and the Stick disappears in the mix. Fripp’s soloing is absolutely explosive and played in the way that probably only he on the whole planet is capable of – strumming (dissonant) chords so fast that it becomes one continuous sound. It is an astounding thing to hear.

And then they bow out, to the cheers of the crowd. I believe this is the swan song of King Crimson, the last hurrah. King Crimson currently requires Robert Fripp and for him it is an enormous effort to re-activate Crimson with all that it entails. I suppose it is possible it could happen, but nowhere near likely. A King Crimson without Robert Fripp is the other option – but who could possibly pick up the mantle? No one I can think of.

Also, all of the players in the band are incredibly busy. Tony Levin has to fight off work with a (cough) stick, Adrian Belew has the time of his life with his Power Trio, Gavin Harrison has a full time job in Porcupine Tree and Pat Mastelotto is working in several constellations with among others Tony Levin and Trey Gunn.

And as for my constant nitpicking throughout this review – this was recorded in the very beginning of the tour and by all accounts they got a lot better later on.

King Crimson: Park West, Chicago, 7 Aug 2008. DGM Live flac download released 20 Aug 2008.

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Parceled Perfection: Björk, “Hyperballad”

“Hyperballad” was my favourite song off Post right from the start, and it still is. The music is actually very interesting in a subtle way: listen to the verse. Instead of the usual four notes to a phrase, the bass only does three, descending (in the chorus it changes to four, with a different beat) which gives a subtle sense of urgency to what at first sounds like a rather withdrawn arrangement.

The lyrics are an illustration of the very human tendency to imagine the worst, even when we are happy. In this case, it is to be able to be happy.

As usual, most striking of all against the solemn, serene musical background is the empassioned voice of Björk herself. Below is a fantastic performance from Later with Jools Holland with an absolutely amazing drummer.

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Parceled Perfection: Brian Eno, “Another Green World”

Every once in while, one comes across a piece of music which is perfect, where there is nothing more to add and nothing to take away: the title track of Brian Eno’s Another Green World is one example of this. Out of the somewhat chaotic beginnings of the record comes a sudden moment of perfect stillnes – sombre, static yet in transition as it fades in and out. Layered electric guitar, a simple piano motif, a calm keyboard bass, an organ playing simple chords. It is its complete lack of anything spectacular that makes it so effective, as well as the great beauty of the melodies.

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U2: Achtung Baby

I had a discussion with friend Rasmus a few years ago about records, and how some of them make up a sort of microcosm of their own – like entering a room and closing the door. One example I gave was Blur’s 13 and we both absolutely agreed on Achtung Baby belonging there as well. It’s a world unto its own, both a completely separate entity and  also completely the sound of the early nineties.

I had started listening to U2 before and during a week long hospital stay in 1991 – mainly Rattle & Hum because I was not entrusted with the LP player at that time. So I kept that CD and an MC copy playing all through the year, and then one day I heard a loud, loud racket from my room. My dad sat there painting an Airfix model plane we had put together with the radio on, blasting out “The Fly” for all it was worth. I didn’t believe him at first when he said this was U2’s new song.

This record, like few others, roars to life. In technical terms, that opening riff of “Zoo Station” is almost unique in rock music: a very rapidly strum slide. How often do you hear that as a featured riff? However, it quickly opens up from the tight soundworld of the intro to echoes, shimmering background guitars and flanging keyboards. I really like it, but it is dangerously repetitive and really needs the studio effects to make it varied enough – they played it again recently on the the Vertigo tour and it fell flat on its face. Still the best thing with this song may be how effectively it alienates the “fans” who want U2 to remain in their greyscale 80’s bubble.

“Even Better Than the Real Thing” starts off with a riff inspired by Edge’s new favourite toy at the time, the Digitech Whammy pedal, which is what makes the guitar sound “weeo-weeo”. There is some really fine playing by the Edge on this track, especially the thing he does right as the chorus starts. There is also a slide solo which is beautifully carried over into the next verse.

So far, the lyrics have been fine but not exceptional, dealing with starting-over (“Zoo Station”) and being horny, basically (“Even Better Than the Real Thing”). But taken into the context of the time, they are very different from what came before on The Joshua Tree and Rattle And Hum, being much more personal and abstract. The next song, however, is an icon of rock lyricism whether you like it or not. Listen to “One” while disregarding the knowledge that it is dangerously close to becoming a cliché in popular culture, and read the lyrics carefully. It is an amazingly mature work for someone aged 30 at the time of writing and probably U2’s most well known song. Personally I think it is one of the best songs ever written – the dynamics of the music, the quality and restraint of the lyrics and the singing, the fact that it is not sullied with a guitar solo: all of it. The finest performance I have heard can be found on the PopMart live DVD.

“Until the End Of the World” is another classic, but this one is a proper rocker with another one of those simple-yet-sublime guitar riffs that just come flowing out of Edge on this album. The lyrics are of a biblical nature, but from a new perspective for a U2 song. This song is great live with an extended ending and it is great fun to play as well.

After that, unfortunately, the album enters a bit of a slump. “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” has many good lyrical ideas, the bridge beginning with “ah, the deeper I spin” especially is brilliantly written and phrased vocally, but the music never takes off. The song plods on, feeling uninspired and unfinished. It is a shame, then, that the following “So Cruel” is even worse. I have simply never liked it, there are no original ideas in the music which feels too much like it was built in the studio rather than constructed out of the interplay between musicians. The fact that it is the longest track on Achtung Baby only makes matters worse. There is nothing wrong with the lyrics, they just do not feel comitted – and again, there is too much of them.

And then, “The Fly”. This is about as far from “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” as one can get and that is a very good thing. Ferocious guitar playing, a relentless rhythm section, sneeering, brilliant lyrics – this is “the sound of four men chopping down the Joshua Tree” as Bono himself put it. He has also commented on the lyrics as being a “phonecall from Hell, and the guy likes it there”. I love this song.

“Mysterious Ways” is a song in the same vein as “Even Better Than the Real Song” – a love song, focusing on the more physical aspects of love – while acknowledging that women really do rule the world, whatever us males may delude ourselves with. It has belly-dancing built into it and the live guitar solo is amazing.

While “Mysterious Ways” may have the best swing and swagger, “Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around the World” has the best bass groove by far. The lyrics sound like someone being comforted, someone who is trying to love everything and everyone and losing themselves in the process.

Something that influenced much of the lyrics on this record was the Edge’s divorce before recording started. It’s been felt before in “Wild Horses” and “So Cruel” and will dominate the last part of this album, starting with “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)”. This is troubled love, love that has gone lost, with nostalgia and longing for days gone by in the last verse. Unfortunately, the music never really takes off and this becomes one of U2’s more forgettable songs.

The next song, “Acrobat”, is one of my all-time favourite U2 songs. The desperation in the lyrics is palpable and the vocal performance goes from despondent to emotional to equally desperate; this is someone stuck in a terrible situation, cut loose and flailing yelling “and I can love, and I can love” into the void at the end. The music has great drive, but it is that shriek from the guitar at the beginning of the solo that sends shivers down my back every time, a terrifying sound of pure desperation.

And in the end, there is only emptiness. The desillusionment of  “Love Is Blindness” is complete: there is no light at the end of the tunnel, no silver lining, no hope left, only grief. Rock bottom. U2 albums generally end on an emotional note – “Mothers Of the Disappeared”, “All I Want Is You”, “40” – but this is more like anti-emotion, the closest to nihilism this band will ever come. As an album closer it is devastating, confirming the emotional upheaval that has gone before and bringing it all to a numbing halt. Seeing and hearing Bono as Macphisto singing it at the end of Zoo TV is deeply chilling.

Achtung Baby is an amazing album in so many ways: how it brought colour into the previously greyscale U2 universe, how the lyrics are exclusively internal/personal – notice the complete absence of political songs? -, the way Zoo TV redefined the rock gig, that the Edge finally cut his hair. Etcetera. But it is also an exhausting listen, because to get the complete Achtung Baby experience the listener has to enter that loud, difficult, demanding, overwhelming, flashing multicolour room and live through the emotional onslaught. It’s not easy, but in return this is one of U2’s most rewarding works.

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2001: A Space Odyssey

The story of 2001 is, briefly, that someone or something interferes with the development of some primitive hominids at some point in the Earth’s past. Several million years later humans find a strange buried structure on the Moon which sends out a very strong electromagnetic signal aimed at Jupiter as it is hit by the light from the sun. An expedition is organised and sent off to Jupiter to find out what is on the recieving end of the signal.

There have been very few serious science fiction movies made, and the concept and genre of science fiction (sf) has been seriously watered down by Star Wars and its various clones and extended family (or the predecessors, such as Flash Gordon). Without getting too far bogged down in the theory of classification these latter ones are rather part of what is called space opera – lots of guns, swords, battle in space and young, preferably lightly dressed ladies in distress. Movies like Armageddon and Independence Day are action/thrillers with space bits – a space ship does not make it science fiction.

To become sf it takes something more. A cornerstone of what is considered “real” sf is that the writer changes some basic condition (for example, someone or something gave what was to become humanity an evolutionary push) and then finds out what might happen. Sometime, as in 2001, Alien or Blade Runner the change is obvious, while in cases like Brazil it is more subtle.

Of course, the definition of “real sf” is under constant debate. This is a good thing, but may be slightly bewildering for the newcomer.

The first time I saw this movie I was really young, 7 or 8-ish, and I didn’t see all of it and didn’t make any sense at all. I did have memories of HAL being disconnected and Poole spinning away into deep space, probably causing all sorts of strange effects in my psychological development… The second time I saw it was in late 2002, at least ten years later. I remember watching it extremely intensely, eyes never leaving the screen more than ten times in the entire time and not once in the last hour. When it was over I was so stunned I could not move and just barely speak, semi-coherently. No other movie has quite managed that although some have come close.

In my book, especially visually, 2001 is the best sf movie ever made. To begin with it is amazingly well shot: the landscapes in the first part and the still unsurpassed spaceships in the later parts are stupendous. I especially like how light in space is rendered – sharp as a razor. And the Discovery is the best made ship ever to be seen in a film; computers have a long way to go before they can measure up to well crafted models, skilled lighting artists and really good cinematography.

As much as this is a film to look at, it is a film to listen too; from the deafening silence of the beginning to the whisper of air conditioning; the breathing of the astronauts in their space suits to the choral works of Ligeti. The aural detailing is every bit as good as the visual.

I won’t address the story of the film much, because so much of it is just hinted at or suggested. You certainly have many questions afterwards, from the profound to the very basic – where do the monoliths come from? How to use a zero-G restroom? What is actually happening in the finale, is that Bowman returning? What are the consequences of instructing a logical being to lie? How to stay alert after many monotonous months in space?

2001 is a major multisensory experience, and makes demands of its viewer. One has to be able to accept that a movie does not have to have fast-paced editing; that it can be long, slow and “different”; that not everything is answered. For me the best movies are those that stir up my thoughts, that I think of long after they’re over. 2001 does not end when the the screen goes black – for me, it will never go away.

PS. Should one really trust someone claiming that “Everything is going extremely well”?

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