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.
It turns out that when a couple separates it is customary — in the antithesis of the Spice Girls song — for one to become two. So next month I’ll be moving into my new flat at Agnes Blackadder Hall in St Andrews, where I’ve been appointed as the new warden.
I feel very honoured and privileged to be given this opportunity. It seems like a very natural move for me, drawing on past experience working in three residential homeless hostels in London, as well as in pastoral care roles in parishes, prison and hospitals, and my last nine and a half years working at the University of St Andrews, as well as four as a student.
(I’ve just realised that I’ve spent 30.6% of my life at St Andrews.)
I’ll still be working as web architect within the digital communications team, the warden role will be alongside that post: evenings and weekends mostly.
I’m really looking forward to the new opportunities, the new challenges, new experiences… and the enormously steep learning curve ahead of me.
As I said a couple of weeks ago: To quote Faith No More: “Life to [me] is a dashing, bold adventure / So sing, and rejoice, sing, and rejoice”.
At work yesterday I discovered that the localhost Apache web server on my PC wouldn’t start; it was running XAMPP.
Each time I tried to start Apache from the XAMPP control panel I got these error messages in the console:
08:59:34 [Apache] Attempting to start Apache app…
08:59:35 [Apache] Status change detected: running
08:59:35 [Apache] Status change detected: stopped
08:59:35 [Apache] Error: Apache shutdown unexpectedly.
08:59:35 [Apache] This may be due to a blocked port, missing dependencies,
08:59:35 [Apache] improper privileges, a crash, or a shutdown by another method.
08:59:35 [Apache] Press the Logs button to view error logs and check
08:59:35 [Apache] the Windows Event Viewer for more clues
08:59:35 [Apache] If you need more help, copy and post this
08:59:35 [Apache] entire log window on the forums
Reinstalling XAMPP didn’t fix the issue. But this did, spotted on the ever-wonderful Stackoverflow:
Press Windows + R to bring up the Windows Run… dialog.
Type services.msc and click OK.
Scroll down the list of services to find World Wide Web Publishing Service.
Right-click it and select Properties.
Change the Startup type to Manual.
Click Stop and wait for the service to stop.
That fixed it. Now Apache is running, as evidenced by the green light on the XAMPP control panel:
Back in January 2014 I wrote a post about needing to rediscover honest blogging. It’s funny looking back at that now, almost two years later. A lot has happened in that time. I may not have fully rediscovered honest blogging, but I think I have definitely made a good stab at living a more honest life, and being more honest with myself and those around me.
I remember last summer, it was about 02.00 am, I was sitting in my hospital bed hugging my knees feeling utterly terrified. I had never felt so small and so vulnerable and so utterly afraid to die. I had gone into hospital, as many of you know, with suspected viral meningitis but having reviewed my family history I was told that they were now exploring the possibility that I’d had a brain haemorrhage like my dad, who had greedily had three.
What I realised that night and the nights following was that I wasn’t only afraid to die, I was actually afraid to live.
I looked back over the previous fifteen years or so and recognised that I had slowly and gradually lost something essential of who I was. I had lost my spark. I had lost myself in a vocation, in a job, in a relationship. And I realised that I didn’t really like the person I’d become. I realised that I’d let myself go. I realised that I couldn’t even look myself in the mirror any more, I had become so ashamed of who I was.
But here’s the remarkable, grace-filled thing about this personal epiphany: I simply observed and asked questions of myself without judgement. I, thankfully, recognised that beating myself up about it would solve nothing. This was a time for self-forgiveness, for listening, and for doing something about it.
Live without fear
I sat in that hospital bed in Kirkcaldy and I promised myself that if I got through all of this then I would live without fear, I would grasp life again, I would join the adventure once more.
This past year has been one of the happiest I’ve ever known. I think this has been the most content I’ve ever been, certainly the most consistently content. I’ve felt empowered, and as I’ve listened to myself without judgement I’ve learned and grown.
All this despite what’s going on.
After years of struggling together, a couple of months ago Jane and I agreed to separate, with a view to divorce.
It wasn’t a decision that we took lightly. I cried for about three weeks. But I think in terms of our own personal growth and happiness I think this is the right decision. Obviously, we now need to guide the children through this as gracefully as we can.
We told the boys a couple of weeks ago; it wasn’t as difficult as I had anticipated. Now is the time to make it public.
There is still a lot to sort out, a lot of practicalities as we untangle seventeen years of life together. But we’ve agreed to be as gentle and kind to one another as we can. There is no animosity, there is no resentment. We’re still friends, we just make terrible partners: we still don’t really get each other. We’re like bright, colourful lights that when brought together cancel one another out and produce white.
It’s important to both of us that we model to our children a positive, healthy approach to separating: that even though it is terribly sad that we weren’t able to make things work (and boy! did we try) that we can wind things up gently and courteously.
So… that’s where I am. A lot of uncertainly ahead, but within myself I’m in a good place. I’m healthier than I’ve been for a long time; I’m happier too; and I’ve got my zest for life again. Time to make it count.
And what amazing family and friends and colleagues I have around me—I’ve never felt so supported and so inspired by these amazing people. Thank you, thank you, thank you lovely people. I am truly and deeply humbled by your love.
As I tweeted a couple of weeks’ ago:
To quote Faith No More: "Life to [me] is a dashing, bold adventure / So sing, and rejoice, sing, and rejoice".
On Friday afternoon I attended my bi-annual renal outpatients’ clinic at Ninewells hospital in Dundee. My appointments usually follow the same script.
Doctor: Hello, come in, sit down… how are you?
Me: Fine, thanks.
Doctor: Good. How have your kidneys been over the last six months? Any problems?
Me: Fine, no problems.
Doctor: Your blood pressure is a bit high, but you’ve probably been rushing to get here. Let’s take it again… Hmm… still a bit high. You’ve put on more weight, I see. You really need to lose weight. That will help with your blood pressure.
And off I’m sent with a slap on the wrist, a ticket to get my bloods taken, and an appointment for six months’ time.
Change of script
Well, dear reader, not this time. This time we had a change of script. I was in and out in about five minutes. No reprimand, my blood pressure was looking good, just a a request for bloods and to return in not six but nine months’ time (always a good sign when they don’t want to see you quite as soon).
The reason: over the last five months I have been exercising. A lot. And yesterday afternoon I discovered just now much weight I’ve lost: 6 kilogrammes (13.2 lbs).
I knew it must have been quite a bit: I am now back into my XXL t-shirts, and my 38″ jeans.
The last seven years have been in many ways the most brutal, the more difficult that I’ve ever experienced:
sleep deprivation (twins and then singleton) for about four or five years
two back injuries
two neck injuries
Whenever I did exercise (walking, cycling or light dumbbell weights) invariably I’d get ill pretty quickly, within a few days I’d come down with someone, or I’d overdo it and pick up an injury.
And with a regular pattern like that comes fear. And so I ended up avoiding exercise because I didn’t want to get ill.
In June of this year I knew that something had to change. I was experiencing major headaches again, comparable with the ones I had experienced during last year’s meningitis. I knew that I’d put on more weight, I was already in XXXL t-shirts and these were beginning to feel a little tight. I was feeling so unfit and so ashamed of my size that I knew that I had to do something about it. It actually got so bad that I felt I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror.
I knew that I could do it, I’d done it before, after I’d moved from Edinburgh to Fife. I just wished that I had written down what I’d done so that I could do it again.
So I committed to the following:
Eat less (especially, cut out unnecessary sugars and sweets).
Lift weights more.
With the exercise I committed myself to a little, often. And with that I got on my bike and tackled a familiar circuit that I used to do: home to Kilrenny, up the farm track to the main road, then back home. I knew that it would take me about 13 minutes to reach the top of the farm track, up a gently hill, and about 26 minutes to complete the loop and get back home.
A few weeks in, I started lifting weights again. A little and often. Squats, preacher curls, bench presses. I hit major muscle groups. I followed a couple of Men’s Health dumbbell guides that I’d collected over the years.
Then I went back out on my bike, and was amazed that I could go significantly faster. The weight lifting had given my legs strength. Who knew?!
The clocks changed and I continued to go out in the dark. I have fabulously powerful LED bike lights that illuminate the road ahead. And that’s when I realised that one of my biggest enemies, one of the things that had been holding me back, was myself.
When I cycle during the day and hit the bottom of a climb there is a small, nagging voice in the back of my mind that says, “You’ll never make that climb!” And coupled with the fear of getting ill, or pulling an injury, my brain gives in and replies, “Yeah… you’re probably right”, and I slow down and don’t push myself quite as much.
But at night… at night I can’t see the top of the hill. And so I don’t hear the nagging voices. I’m in the moment, and I just keep going, until I find the top of the hill.
So, I set myself a goal: get from my house to the top of the hill in under 10 minutes. A week in to my challenge I got it down to 10′ 52″.
I then realised that I was taking it too easy getting from my home to the bottom of the hill, so a couple of weeks ago I set out with the attitude of going for broke.
I pushed myself harder than I had in a long time, through the pain, up the hill, pulling on my pedals when pushing hurt too much, pushing when that started to ache.
At the top of the hill I slumped over the handlebars, out of breath, my heartbeat in my ears, sweat turning to steam in the cool night air.
I unclipped my bike computer and held it in front of my front light. Five minutes fifty-six seconds. What?! 5′ 56″.
Well… that’s under 10 minutes.
The next year or two are going to contain a lot of changes, big and small. Some I will have little control over, others I will grasp with two hands. This is one of them. I’m getting back on track (metaphorically and literally), getting fit and regaining my confidence.
Yesterday’s renal appointment was a significant milestone. Let’s see just how much fitter I can be in nine months’ time when I present myself to the clinic once again.