One of my favourite new Google Chrome extensions (plugins) is Momentum.
Momentum replaces the default Chrome ‘new tab’ page with a beautiful image that changes daily, the current time, plus an inspirational quotation, the weather, and an optional to-do list.
I never used to use the shortcuts on the default new tab page, so I find this page much nicer. It’s fun, it’s friendly, it opens really quickly (unlike other new tab replacements that I’ve tried) and it’s inspiring, not just because of the quotation at the foot of the page, but the image giving you a 24 hours glimpse into another beautiful part of the world.
When I returned home from St Andrews this evening the whole of Anstruther was in darkness. There was a town-wide power cut. It turns out the power cut extended right down the Fife coast, as far as Leven, someone reported.
It was really quite eerie. Most houses were in complete darkness, a few had the flickering glow from candles at the windows. A couple of people were walking down the street using torches (‘flashlights’ for American readers).
The sky was spectacular: a blanket of pin holes. I had never seen so many stars while standing outside my house.
I walked into the house and found everyone walking around with torches. There were a couple of candles lit on the dinner table.
“We can’t find your bike light!” a tiny voice exclaimed in the darkness.
“It’s under my bed,” I replied. “I charged it over night.”
I handed Reuben and Isaac my keys and they went racing up the stairs to find it. The small LED torch on my keyring lighting the way. (I always carry a torch with me!)
I walked upstairs, ducked under my desk for a moment and then asked Isaac to switch on my desk lamp.
Suddenly the room was bathed in light from a 7.5 watt 3000K LED bulb.
“How did you do that?!” Isaac quizzed.
“Aha!” I said, “I have an uninterruptable power supply. It’s like a giant battery.”
We saw out the rest of the power cut sitting in my study: the only room in the house with any electric light.
I opened my curtains to show off to the neighbours that we had electricity.
Uninterruptible power supply
A few years ago we experienced quite a few power cuts here in the East Neuk. I got fed up of my PC suddenly dying when the power went out, even just with short blips in power. So I bought myself a UPS, an unterruptible power supply.
As I said, it’s like a giant battery into which you plug your equipment. It monitors your power supply and if the voltage suddenly drops out then the UPS immediately kicks you over to battery power. It announces it with a satisfying ‘click’, and sometimes even a ‘beep’.
The UPS I have — the APC Back-UPS ES-700VA — which cost me about £80 a few years ago, doesn’t have a massive amount of power but it does give me a few minutes to save my work and shut down my PC safely.
But this evening it occurred to me that I could simply plug in my 7.5W desk lamp into it and get maybe over two hours out of it.
I certainly recommend getting a UPS or two, not just to safeguard your data but look how handy it is in a power cut.
I wake up most mornings to Planet Rock radio on my beloved Pure Evoke-1XT Marshall DAB radio. But that’s in my bedroom, I don’t currently have a DAB radio in my study and Screamer Radio no longer works for Planet Rock.
Which got me thinking: could I somehow convince my digital music player of choice, MusicBee, to stream Planet Rock? It seems to handle pretty much everything else I throw at it.
The answer is yes; this is how in three easy steps.
1. Find the Stream URL
The first thing to find out was obviously the URL to stream Planet Rock. Thankfully that is displayed very prominently on their listening online page. This is what they currently are (although I guess, they may be subject to change):
Both work, depending on the player you use, e.g. iTunes, Windows Media Player, MusicBee, etc; I use the first one.
2. Play the stream in MusicBee
Next, we need to tell MusicBee to use that stream.
That’s as simple as opening the menu and selecting:
File > Open Stream.
Then paste in the URL and click OK.
This may take a few seconds while MusicBee connects to the streaming audio feed and then BINGO! you’ll suddenly be listening to Planet Rock on your PC.
Don’t go setting your watch, though, to the streamed version. It can have a few seconds delay between broadcast and it emerging from your PC’s speakers. (My PC stream is currently 1 minute 25 seconds behind my DAB radio broadcast.) This is due to the software buffering enough data to ensure continuous playback, so that if some data goes missing and has to be re-requested from the server or if there is a local data bottleneck the audio doesn’t suddenly drop out.
What’s nice is if you use the first URL (the one ending /planetrock.m3u) then MusicBee will also display the name of the track currently playing:
3. Save the stream as a playlist
The final thing we need to do is tell MusicBee to remember this station. It would be a bit of a hassle to have to find, copy and paste that URL every time you want to listen to the radio.
Again, that’s simple.
Right-click the name of the track
From the context-menu select: Send To… > Playlist > <New Playlist>.
A new playlist will be created in the Playlists panel, with the edit caret waiting for you to give it a name.
Enter a meaningful name, mine says Planet Rock DAB.
Then press Enter to save it.
That’s all there is to it.
While I usually listen to MusicBee using the compact player view, when listening to streamed radio I prefer the mini player view which also pulls in the current track’s artwork.
This evening I was reading an article by Giles Fraser on The Guardian website and I was intrigued to understand how they coded the drop-cap at the top of the article:
I smiled when I saw, at the top of the HTML code, written in a comment in a combination of text and ASCII art:
In 2014 I bought 23 new albums, I thought then that was pretty few. This year, however, I appear only to have purchased (or acquired) 15 albums that were released during these last twelve months—see the covers above.
One was a reissue (Opeth—Deliverance and Damnation), one was a free download (Slayer’s “When the Stillness Comes” for Record Store Day), and two were sent to me for free to review (Krysthla—A War of Souls and Desires, and Siderian—Cancel Your Future).
As last year, I suspect a significant factor in my buying so few new albums was my 195 metal CDs project which sees me reviewing a different album every week. Remarkably, after a solid day catching up with about a month-and-a-half of reviews I am currently still on track to finish that project in November 2016.
Top 15 artists (Last.fm)
Before launching into my top 10 though, I’ve just taken a look at my Last.fm top 15 artists over the last 12 months. This reflects what I’ve actually been listening to over the last year: at home, at work, and on my Android phone.
The first thing to note is that the number one artist there, Diabolical Masquerade, accounts for three of my 195 metal CDs that I reviewed this past year. Death’s Design (2007) has definitely been one of my favourite albums of this year but it comprises 61 tracks which explains why it shot to the top: that’s only about ten listen-throughs.
Marillion take #2 simply because I was learning the lyrics to Misplaced Childhood (1985) ahead of Fish’s farewell concert in Glasgow earlier this month.
And then we’re back to the usual contenders. Comparing this with last year’s chart makes for interesting reading. Lamb of God (who released a new album in 2015) rose nine places, while Iron Maiden dropped from #2 to #14 despite a new album; Steven Wilson replaced Porcupine Tree, and Opeth fell from #1 to #6 but curiously with more tracks played.
Overall, it would appear that I have actually listened to significantly more music in 2015 than the year before.
Diabolical Masquerade (604 tracks played)
Lamb of God (441)
Steven Wilson (425)
Dream Theater (219)
Faith No More (214)
Iron Maiden (213)
Looking at my most played tracks during the past year, 11 of the top 15 are from Steven Wilson’s Hand. Cannot. Erase. album. That’s the entire album! And removing the 61 track Diabolical Masquerade — Death’s Design anomaly from the results, Steven Wilson’s latest album was indeed my most played album of 2015, followed by Marillion—Misplaced Childhood, and then Lamb of God—VII: Strum und Drang.
Onto the votes for this year…
10. Iron Maiden—The Book of Souls
Iron Maiden’s highly anticipated 16th studio album was made all the more dramatic in 2015 as it wasn’t released until after singer Bruce Dickinson had been given the all-clear from throat cancer.
It was received with great enthusiasm. Blabbermouth gave the album 9.5/10, The Guardian gave it 4/5. Metal Injection was a little more reticent asking “whether it is entirely consistent enough to successfully contend against the leaner 80’s albums is debatable, but the fact that the band is even attempting something of this scope and accomplishment is a wonder to behold.”
The first single “Speed of Light” is a raw, stripped down track that immediately left me feeling quite cold. It felt like a left-over B side from the Somewhere In Time (1986) sessions.
The problem I have with modern Iron Maiden is ironically exactly what I felt most excited about when Bruce Dickinson and Adrian Smith returned to the band: there are three guitarists. There was something punchy about two: one rhythm, one lead. With three the song writing seems to be compromised: too many chords, too few riffs.
It is a marvellous album. But I’m with Metal Injection: it doesn’t excite me as much as anything the band put out in the 1980s, or indeed Brave New World (2000) after Dickinson returned. Sorry, Eddie…
9. Metallica—Pier 48, San Francisco
I’m a big fan of Metallica live. Their 40th anniversary concerts are amongst the best live albums I’ve ever heard. I would love them to put them out on DVD.
This live recording from their gig at Pier 48, San Francisco — a private show for Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff — is like a best of from the first six albums. It was also a free download from LiveMetallica.com.
8. Maiden United—Remembrance
Maiden United, who perform acoustic renditions of Iron Maiden songs, came from an idea by Joey Bruers to put on a spectacular and different show for the Dutch Iron Maiden fan club convention. Maiden founder and bassist Steve Harris would be in attendance so it had to be good. It’s more than that: it’s great.
This is their third album, and I never tire of listening to these interpretations of classic Maiden songs, particularly “Strange world” and “Remember tomorrow”.
7. David Gilmour—Rattle That Lock
David Gilmour is by far one of my favourite guitarists in all of this fine world. Apart from James Hetfield’s rhythm playing, Gilmour is probably the one guitarist whose style I have most studied and tried to emulate in my own playing.
This album is one of my most recent purchases this year so I have not had much time to absorb it, but “A boat lies waiting” (track 4), his tribute to long-time friend and musical companion Richard Wright, is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard from Mr Gilmour. It reduced me to tears on one listen.
6. Faith No More—Sol Invictus
Now things are getting tight: it feels so wrong to place this album at number six.
I was so disappointed when Faith No More split back in 1998. When they reformed and toured in 2009 I bought a ticket to see them live. It was the most expensive concert ticket I’ve ever bought.
This… is a brilliant album. It’s the grown-up big brother of Angel Dust (1992).
5. Steven Wilson—Hand. Cannot. Erase.
Steven Wilson is a musical genius. I’ve loved pretty much everything he’s touched: Porcupine Tree, collaborations with Fish, Storm Corrosion with Opeth’s Mikael Åkerfeldt. This solo album is no different.
This concept album is inspired by the story of Joyce Carol Vincent who died alone in her flat in London and whose body wasn’t discovered for almost three years. I’ve watched the documentary about her, it’s so sad. She was young, she was popular, and yet when he died… nobody noticed.
The album is delicate, it’s deep, it’s complex. It is quite simply beautiful.
If my car was hooked into Last.fm then this album no doubt would have recorded more plays: I played this album almost constantly to and from work for about four weeks.
Following Jeff Hanneman’s sad death in 2013, and drummer Dave Lombardo’s unceremonious dismissal there was much debate as to whether Slayer could return with anything half decent. Oh, and boy did they!
Exodus guitarist Gary Holt has been an excellent successor to Hanneman. His playing certainly complements Kerry King’s.
This is by far the strongest Slayer album, I’d say, since probably 1990s Seasons in the Abyss. Welcome back, boys!
3. Krysthla—A War of Souls and Desires
If I could give all my top three albums equal place then I probably would, but I’m forcing myself to make a decision and so this amazing album sadly drops to third place.
Their overall sound seems to be somewhere between modern Napalm Death and Meshuggah. And that is a pretty darned interesting and exciting place to be. The playing is precise, in places like math metal, twisting. And turning. Stopping and. Starting. Something that. Gutworm. Did.
I speculated in that review that this album might well make my top three best albums of 2015. And here it is. This is definitely a band to look out for in the future. Brilliant!
2. Martha Bean—When Shadows Return to the Sea
I was first turned on to Martha Bean by four cousins of her cousins with whom I sang in the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, back in the day. They kept posting little plugs here and there for her music and one day this year I thought that I’d go check her out and see what her music was all about.
Her style is beautiful and delicate but with an underlying strength. She plays mostly guitar or piano, backed by drums, bass and cello (played, I believe, by her dad).
This so very nearly made it to number one. Held off this year by these guys…
1. Lamb of God—VII: Strum und Drang
The first album since vocalist D. Randall Blythe’s release from Czech prison and subsequent trial and acquittal (if you’ve not read his book Dark Days: A Memoir order it today—it is beautiful and funny and wonderfully, wonderfully written) and it is brilliant.
This is a more mature Lamb of God. They have their usual bite and twistingly heavy riffs. But this time round they’ve shaken things up with guest vocalists who bring melodic singing and even the first ever clean singing on a Lamb of God record from Blythe—and he has a lovely baritone voice.
My favourite track probably has to be 512, the number of the final cell he shared with a couple of Mongolian prisoners in Prague. “Six bars laid across the sky…” he sings, and you’re transported there. “My hands are painted red / My future’s painted black / I can’t recognise myself / I’ve become someone else / My hands are painted red / My hands are painted red”. Such pain, such experience etched into each word.
I’ve only been to three concerts in the last two years: two of those have been to see Lamb of God, including this year on my birthday. One of the best concerts I’ve ever been to.
This album is going to see me through to next year and beyond. Strum und drang indeed: storm and stress.