May ’17 Earworm: “Drive Home” by Steven Wilson

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The album cover for “The Raven That Refused To Sing”

Although I listen to music as diversely as most millennials these days, I do not have a single, diverse playlist like most millennials these days. I tend to go into cycles of listening to the a single artist or genre for months. For a good few months of late last year, I was listening exclusive to the Bee Gees, whose earlier works leading up to Odessa were criminally underrated. Recently, I am listening to a lot of Steven Wilson- the prog prince of darkness.

English artist Steven Wilson has been around for 3 decades and is most recognised as the lead singer of Porcupine Tree. At the risk of oversimplification, the music of Porcupine Tree is dark, moody, heavy and weighty. But what separates Porcupine Tree from other bands that might occupy a similar niche is Steven Wilson, who has a Trent Reznor-like approach to realising his artistic vision and also possesses a mellow singing voice that cuts through layers of dense music with great effect.

One Steven Wilson song that has stuck to my head throughout the month of May is “Drive Home”, from the 2013 album “The Raven That Refused To Song”. Although my favourite song on The Raven is “Luminol”- a rare progressive epic that, to my ridiculous delight, celebrates vintage Yes (and Chris Squire)- it is Drive Home that cannot leave the head (check out the Drive Home music video). The relatively down-tempo track comes after the exciting album opener Luminol, so it took a few listens for the track to become a pernicious earworm in my head.

The piece opens with a plaintive guitar melody, followed by Steven Wilson’s signature guitar arpeggios that can summon dark clouds over the most cheerful summer wedding. Steven Wilson’s voice sounds distant and gentle. As I listen to the track on earphones amid the warm, tropical climate of Kuala Lumpur, Steven Wilson clinically delivers the cold, depressing Autumn of England into my ears. And the chorus does not take the form of a loud hook accompanied with grandiose power chords like 90% of the minor rock ballads. Instead, Steven Wilson employs light acoustic strumming and sumptuously sinister strings (is that a mellotron?) to deliver the hook.

The real highlight of the track is the guitar solo, performed by virtuoso-meets-muso (they don’t always meet, you know), Guthrie Govan. His solo begins with sparse, maudlin notes which lulls the listener into a false sense of security before building up  into a terrifying bluesy crescendo with chromatic notes expertly weaved in to disarm the listener. It’s shocking and exhilarating. If David Gilmour’s solo on Comfortably Numb were New-Year’s fireworks, Guthrie Govan’s solo on Drive Home is a volcanic eruption- even if you’re watching from afar, you do not know if you’re safe from the immense power or heat.

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Steven Wilson (left) and Guthrie Govan during The Raven recording sessions. This is a still from Youtube (Video: Steven Wilson – Recording Luminol in LA)

Many people say that Steven Wilson and Radiohead are similar. However, I would argue the main difference between Steven Wilson and Radiohead is the method of evocation. Radiohead relies on apathy and absence in their music to disarm the listener- its music (especially post-Kid A) being spatial, ambient and often mechanical. Steven Wilson on the other hand relies more on musicality, lyrics and progression to connect with the listener. And while Radiohead aims for the abstract, Steven Wilson’s music is deliberately dark and human. And Drive Home epitomises Steven Wilson’s music.

I have every intention of posting what I think of The Raven as it is a unique album by the standards of the 21st century in the future. For now, I will be taking my time exhausting the earworm that Drive Home has unwittingly planted.

Tiger Thoughts: The Lament of a Night Owl

There is a lot of us out there. We identify with each other with little effort. We feel passionate and wronged about our plight. Yet, we do little to challenge the status quo which caters to the majority who are exactly like us but for this inevitable dichotomy. Ideally, we would like the world to accommodate us as fellow human beings but things are so set in stone that most of us are resigned to the inconvenient reality.

The above platitudes are applicable to any silently-oppressed people who belong to the unfortunate side of certain dichotomies: heterosexuals and homosexuals, religious and atheists, able and disabled. It goes without saying that some countries are more sensitive to these dichotomies than other. For example, the UK mandates all workplace to maintain a disabled-friendly toilet through its Equality Act while in Malaysia where I reside, a wheelchair user would struggle with the toilets in most commercial buildings throughout the tropical nation- I digress. As I contemplate how often everyone hears the sighs of the nocturnal and offer little more than a blink in return, it occured to me that perhaps the most silently-oppressed people in the world are night-owls.

The idea of working from 9 to 5 seems rather primitive- you work while the sun is up. Yet puzzlingly, in a post-electricity, post-globalisation era, mankind acquiesce, if not accept, such an anachronism. Granted, there are an increasing number of employers who do recognise the utility of flexible working hours, but that still appears to be a niche rather than a trend.

These days, sleep is trendy (for example, check out this Guardian article) and there is a correspondingly large volume of accessible research on any wh- questions one can think of on “sleep”. Seasonal articles on sleep (this was the big one in spring: The Purpose of Sleep? To Forget, Scientists Say) are as ubiquitous as articles on sex and diet. But what about features on the curse and struggles of being a night owl? Well, one cannot run article that could potentially rock the boat. It has to catch the attention of night owl readers without offering any radical ideas (Night Owls are smarter than those who go to bed and wake up early). “How dare you suggest something as unthinkable as flexible ideas! Stick to journalism!”

As a child, I was a lark. I can recall sleeping at 10 every night and waking up … some time in the morning. However, I did not become a night-owl immediately upon reaching adulthood. The transition from lark to owl took place between age 11 and 14. By 15, I was part of this significant minority (or are we in fact the silent majority).

At eleven, I realised that I was more productive/willing to work at night than in the morning. In the afternoon, I would not be interested in doing schoolwork having just returned from school. Instead, I would play computer games or play in the park. The seeds were truly planted when our schoolteachers started giving us an insurmountable amount of homework. This is a regular and banal occurrence as I went to school in Malaysia, not Finland (Why do Finnish pupils succeed with less homework?). I can still remember doing my Mandarin homework- which required us to look up the Dictionary on the thousands of alien characters and idioms- up until 2 am in the morning. I didn’t mind doing that as much as I do now. There are two reasons: One, Lite FM used to play more Elton John (whom I like) and not Taylor Swift (whom I like less). Two, I had an infinite amount of energy at 11, which seemed to vanish the second I entered high school.

In high school, I encountered two new problems that would irreversibly condemn me to owlhood:

Firstly, as mentioned earlier, I lost the boundless energy I had at eleven and could no longer live on 4 hours of sleep every day. This meant that I had to sleep at the earliest opportunity, which would be every afternoon after school. Daily naps were like heroin addiction. Falling asleep on a hot afternoon was a daily euphoria. Sleeping for 3 to 5 hours without any care in the world was utter bliss. And then comes the withdrawal syndrome when I wake up. I would be an empty shell. Languid and destroyed by sleep inertia. I would be unproductive for the rest of the afternoon. And this acedia would persist until late in the night or early in the morning. And the entire cycle would repeat.

Secondly, I have difficulty with sleeping early. And I mean this literally. If I managed to fall asleep at 9 or 10 pm, I would almost certainly wake up at 1 am. I have attempted this countless times throughout the past decade of my life in attempting to have a normal sleep cycle, and as sure as the sun would rise, I would wake up again at 1, or if I am lucky, 3. After years of experimenting with different sleep times, I have concluded that my body is not meant to rest before 11 pm and attempting to do so only results in waking up far too early.

Being a night owl is a manageable condition for a university student. Because the traditional method of assessment is through final examinations, I can get away with scoring a respectable grade even though my attendance at lectures and seminars are appalling. I also get around the typical morning examination schedules by not sleeping the night before. If I were to sleep, and that would be a very late time given my difficulties sleeping early, I would wake up tired and disorientated. It is easier to not sleep at all and rely on caffeine and internal adrenaline. Consequently, I got through college and university having not slept the night before for every single paper. Even the evening papers. And yes, evening papers were hell.

Work is less forgiving for the night owl. 9 to 5 (or in my experience, 9 to 11) is incredibly punishing for the night owl. I have adapted unsuccessfully to the rigorous working hours by catching power naps during lunch hour, but that requires immense mental effort and discipline. And I have learned that I am far more productive at 11 pm when it is all calm and quiet than at 3 pm. Unfortunately, because of the need to wake up early the next morning, I have rarely been able to utilise the 11 pm runner’s high.

Personally, I am most productive between 5 to 7 in the morning. Unfortunately, it is not practical to harness the potential from this time slot because of my difficulty with sleeping before 10 the night before. So, even if I do wake up at 5 on the back of 3 hours of sleep, I would almost certainly collapse in the afternoon.

Would I rather be a lark than a night owl? I would without missing a heartbeat. But sleep is one of the greatest challenges I have struggled with. I have overcome the difficulties of falling asleep numerous times in my life and I consider this a personal triumph, but the  greater issue of staying asleep remains. Is it possible to reconvert into a lark? There were a few times over the last year where I succeeded in sleeping at 11 and waking up at 7 over a few consecutive days, but the subsequent ease in which I relapsed to sleeping late due to not being able to sleep at 11 suggested that being an owl is by default. Also, I felt that the quality of sleep I was getting from 11 to 7 was not great. I woke up feeling somehow more tired than sleeping later. However, I cannot sustain 5 hours of sleep for more than a week as I will fall asleep.

This post is simply a lament of a hopeless night owl. There may be foolproof sleeping methods or plans out there for those who struggle with sleep that are reminiscent to diet plans for those who struggle with weight, but it is a tedious task to research into the science and to filter out the quacks. And Dr. Oz’s advice probably does not take into account the hot and humid nights in Kuala Lumpur. In my opinion, the best way to learn and improve one’s sleep is by a combination of knowledge and empiricism. It takes time, mental resolve and for one not to lose sleep over it.

The Secret Life of Pets- surprisingly funny

I watched Secret Life of Pets recently on TV and it is surprisingly funny. It is also surprisingly incoherent. The character development was awful.  The interactions between main characters Max and Duke are very forced, and the audience is often invited to fill the gaps. But it was nonetheless enjoyable.

The story is about the social life of apartment pets in New York while their owners leave for work or whatever. They somehow manage to meet in adjoining units, via fire escape ladders, air vents, parkour etc. The main protagonist, Jack Russel Terrier Max, is one day forced to share his apartment with new housemate and co-pet big dog Duke. They dislike each other, and managed to get lost in New York City on the next day through the negligence of a dog-walker. They encounter feral city cats, dog catchers, a combat-savvy rabbit and his car-driving cronies and a sewer full of live flushed pets. Max’s love interest and fluffy white thing Gidget leads the neighbours, including an unrealistically abstinent falcon, to retrieve Max. Following a commotion at the Brooklyn Bridge, which includes the combat-savvy rabbit jumping off the bridge into river unscathed and rescuing Max and Duke from a submerged van, the momentarily loose pets return home with renewed camaraderie.

Secret Life of Pets is an insane film. The character developments are scattershot and the action is exaggerated. But Secret Life of Pets is hilarious and the humour is at times quite intelligent. It is an anti-Disney film. The only death scene (yes, there is a death scene!) would make any Disney exec bawl- a viper being crushed, first by some rubble then by large slabs of concrete and then set on fire. It’s refreshing to watch an animated film that does not attempt to mollycoddle kids or appease potentially uptight parents. And huge props for working a System of A Down track into the film (it was also in the trailer, but I didn’t think it would be part of the movie!)

REVIEW: One More Light by Linkin Park

I don’t listen to much radio music these days, but I make an exception for Linkin Park, an artist that left a great impression on a teenage me with its unique but accessible sounds. The Band has always been experts at making core music accessible to radio: accessible metal, accessible hip hop, accessible electronica, accessible folk (Castle of Glass) etc. And they’re great songwriters to boot.

LP’s latest album, One More Light, is a u-turn from the exploration of heavy rock in 2014’s The Hunting Party. The album is all songs, all hooks and all contemporary radio production. The last two months building up to the release of the album have seen a huge schism among the band’s fans: one camp denouncing the released material as a contrived commercial effort and another defending said effort for various reasons.

Upon listening to the album intently on Spotify, I conclude that it would be unfair to judge One More Light as an unequivocal surrender to the current pop trends, but the album does not showcase the band at its best.

First of all, One More Light does not sound like a new LP. The album has some likeness to 2012’s Living Things in terms of sound, but minus the distorted guitars and screams. The synths and beats throughout the album. are recognisably post-Living Things LP.  For instance, the second track Good Goodbye sounds like Living Things opener Lost In The Echo but with more rap. There are three tracks on One More Light that stick out from the rest: the second track Talking To Myself is a close cousin of Until It’s Gone from The Hunting Party, while closing tracks One More Light and Sharp Edges have a noticeably stripped-down approach. In terms of sound, the greatest changes in One More Light are: the sampling (most obvious on Nobody Can Save Me Now, Battle Symphony); the singing style (lead singer Chester Bennington opting for less rasp and more gloss); and the lack of distorted guitar (there are cleaner embellishments throughout). One More Light is crafted to take on today’s Top 40, but the band’s signature is sufficiently present on the album to distinguish it from generic factory pop.

As a successor to the intense The Hunting Party, the level of musicianship on One More Light is greatly reduced. Instead, the best musical moments on the album are often nuanced, such as the gentle guitar work on the title track, the clever use of snare on Battle Symphony and the simple but effective keyboards on Heavy.

The real victim on One More Light is the songwriting. LP has aggressively promoted One More Light for its collaboration with notable pop industry songwriters, such as Julia Michaels and blackbear. So it is rather ironic that the songwriting on One More Light are, in my opinion, inferior to their previous efforts. The arrangement of the songs are by and large lazy, and consequently do not leave much impression on the listener. For instance, 9 out of 10 of the tracks feature a soft to loud final chorus that I find extremely frustrating (LP also used the same party trick on previous albums, but more sparingly). Would it kill to have an instrumental break, or a different chorus? The lyrics are also unexceptional and middle-of-the-road. LP’s ability to add depth and dimension to their lyrics, such as on outstanding songs like Waiting For The End, The Little Things Give You Away and Final Masquerade, is completely missing on One More Light. It appears the collaborations with external songwriters has dulled the band’s lyrical expression.

One thing I do like about One More Light is the theme of family. It is certainly more pertinent for LP, now a sextet of middle-aged family men, to write songs about familial relationships and children. The band would be truly selling out its artistic integrity if they were still writing songs about teen angst.

One More Light suffers from safe arrangements and a lack of imagination. The album will be favourably remembered for its moving eponymous track, which is an outlier amongst the otherwise homogeneous radio-ready production. On the whole, I see this as a ‘been there, done that’ effort by the band, and I will be very surprised if they continue to collaborate extensively with other songwriters on their future studio albums.

KittyTiger has a new logo

The KittyTiger blog serves as an outlet for two like-minded creative individuals living in Kuala Lumpur (with radically different personalities and talents, however) to express themselves. Naturally, the blog needs a unique logo. As creative individuals, it is not always an elegant act to borrow (or pilfer) images from the internet. So what does one do when one suddenly wants a logo but has limited skills in graphic design and photoshop? One draws of course! The above logo was hastily drawn in 5 minutes. It has a bit of an amateurish feel, but it’s better that way, cuz it’s unique.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: the film where everything is made up and the plot don’t matter

A motley crew of barely compatible misfits venture through space, visiting planets, double-crossing alien acquaintances with calculated insouciance amid a vintage soundtrack. I am talking about Cowboy Bebop, of course, the anime that anticipates all the tropes that make the Guardians of the Galaxy movies stand out by over a decade.

Cowboy Bebop is evidence that anime, when written and executed expertly, can be just as credible as any other form of visual storytelling. The Guardians of the Galaxy movies, to the horror of Cowboy Bebop fans who forever yearn for the anime to be recognised as much as the likes of anime royalties Dragon Ball and Naruto, appear to rip off Cowboy Bebop shamelessly. With a long gap between the two sets of cosmic cruisers, it would be futile to analyse whether GG did commit blatant theft from Cowboy Bebop à la Rocket the racoon, but it suffices to say I was not as enamored by Baby Groot as I should be because Ein the Corgi has long occupied that special place in my heart for space-trekking non-talking cute things (yes I know Baby Groot ‘talks’).

As far as GG Vol. 2 is concerned, the elephant in the room is that the plot sucked.  The entire plot was driven forward by the inconsequential yellow folk of whatshisname planet getting upset over, um, blatant theft à la Rocket the racoon. Compared to the gravity of the Infinity Stone in Vol. 1, Vol. 2 feels like a filler. I mean, why else would Marvel torment leaving cinema audience with FIVE post-credit scenes? And obvious evil dad was obvious.

But if you’re gonna denounce GG Vol 2 for its plot, you’re missing the point. The entire film is very enjoyable as viewers are served with huge, greasy portions of superb CGI, contrived banter, 70s rock earworm, extremely dated “enemies’ lasers missing the spaceship” scenes, extremely dated romantic tension, and Baby Groot.  I’d challenge anyone to direct GG Vol. 2 and milk Baby Groot’s appeal the way it was done; you just can’t do a better job.   GG Vol. 2 is pure fun, and even the death scene is made less profound by the film’s light tone (by contrast, the passing of Quill’s mother at the start of Vol. 1 demanded an effort from a weary viewer to embrace the ensuing upbeat).

If you choose tonindulge in deep-fried ice cream, you must know what you’re getting- it’s no poached lobster with cauliflower purée. But GG Vol. 2 is deep-fried,  ice cream of the highest cinematic quality. Nutritional content is irrelevant.

Cigarettes After Sex is not bad

The music is slow and hypnotic. Live drums punctuate the spacey synths, reminding the listener that this is also a pop song. While it has become as much a cliché to pronounce a musical act as genre-less as it is to categorise said act, I nevertheless indulge in genre typecasting when it comes to listening to new music. As a listener of popular music, an organised mind is worth the potential scorn.

Most likely to be heard in a post-climax movie scene

So anyways, Wikipedia categorises Cigarettes After Sex as an ambient pop band. Admittedly I am quite unfamiliar with this territory and have always had a regrettably short attention span for the likes of Brian Eno, Velvet Underground, shoegazing etc. Anyways, there are two of the latest Cigarettes After Sex singles on Spotify, Apocalypse and Each Time You Fall In Love.

On the two songs alone, I am a fan of the production. The sounds both singles are consistently spacious, cinematic and clear. And hypnotic.

Cigarettes After Sex is a leading contender for the most aptly-named band. The music is exactly the kind of music that accompanies a post-climax scene for drama, romance and indie films. Post-climax here refers to the “down scene” where the protagonists of the film learn their lesson, or realise things aren’t meant to be, or (insert your favourite Oscar trope).

The two new songs are not bad albeit anodyne. Still merit a listen-   Cigarettes After Sex