Poetry Sunday #4- Fish in the Drain

“It’s not a tadpole!”

That was his first thought

As he scooped up the raindrop-shaped silhouette

Amid water, soil and algae

 

Water trickled away

From the seams of his fingers

An almighty leap

Propelled the pea-sized body onto the concrete floor

 

The silvery face

Gleamed in the afternoon sun

But why would anyone notice it

In a glasshouse full of giant plants?

 

After several attempts

He wedged the fish between his fingers

And released it one foot ahead

Into the now soapy water

 

Listening to a Classic- “Wired” by Jeff Beck

In 1976, guitar hero Jeff Beck released “Wired”, a distinguished 70’s fusion album. I have listened to a majority of Jeff Beck’s studio catalogue a few years back while playing computer games. As my attention was not on the music back then, I never properly registered the full extent of Jeff Beck’s virtuosity. The legend makes blockbuster guitar solos that sound uniquely terrifying.

I listened to “Wired” by guitar legend Jeff Beck today when I went for a jog. I have had the album on my phone for over a year, and finally decided to play it. And I was completely unprepared for what I heard. Fusion with incredible soloing on the top. It was as if Jeff Beck had joined Mahavishnu Orchestra. And that is an exciting thought, because Mahavishnu’s guitarist John McLaughlin is another virtuoso in his own right, and is one of the few original guitarists in the 60s who can lead a jazz fusion band (as opposed to merely playing rhythm). Jeff Beck, widely regarded as a great blues player in the 60s, shows us that he can play fusion too. And it is really thrilling to hear him weave his signature strat wailing with some more interesting timbres. Sometimes he sounds like a violin from MO, sometimes he plays in the dirty, baritone range, shocking the listener who expects a consistently upper-range choice of notes. I found my jogging pace being affected by the music, even stopping in some instances to take in some of the exaggerated but exhilarating solos.

I really enjoyed listening to Wired. This was beyond the typical soloing over the rhythm kind of instrumental album. Beck really pushed himself with the guitar effects and the range of the solos to challenge the listener. There were also some clever overdubs of guitar parts that added depth to the tracks.

The problem with fusion in the 70s is that many fusion musicians were guilty of protracted explorations whose nuanced findings could only be picked up by fellow fusion musicians. On the other hand, many rock musicians who attempted fusion were more creative in arranging instrumental sections, but often lacked the specific proficiency for fusion. What Beck brings to fusion is some urgent, blistering artistry and some outstanding playing that would give any fusion musician a run for his or her money. Jeff Beck will always be one of the greats, and with Wired, the best guitarist in I976. I can’t wait to listen to it again in my car.

Tiger Thoughts: The UK General Election 2017

In a traditionally two-party contest, the 2017 General Election has ended in a hung Parliament, with the Conservatives Party, led by current PM Theresa May, claiming a diminished majority- BBC coverage of the General Election.

As a former foreign student who voted in the 2015 General Election (if you’re a UK citizen who is mortified by this, blame your country’s imperialist past), I am delighted that the Labour Party has clawed back. From a microcosmic point of view, the Conservatives has been bad news for local and foreign students alike. University fees under David Cameron’s government has soared. While I recall the global value of the pound was at a low in 2012, the net effect of a David Cameron government was more belt-tightening for students across the board. If the Conservatives are somehow unable to form Government- paving the way for Labour to do so- it would be terrific news for university students. Labour- led by Jeremy Corbyn- has promised to scrap University fees. Foreign students will logically be charged, but probably less. And Corbyn’s promise to rescue the NHS is a great thing across the board. When I was still residing at the UK, I learnt from healthcare professionals, including some of the brightest young doctors in England, that the NHS is underfunded and understaffed and doctors are overworked. It is not conclusive evidence that the NHS needs rescuing, but it is evidence that people working  for the NHS are unhappy.

The unexpected resurgence of the Labour Party (albeit still a significant minority) affirms the tendency of the media to be wrong in its first impressions vis-à-vis Western Politics. In late April 2015, Ed Miliband was predicted to be Prime Minister (he was crushed and many Labour-loving Scots favoured SNP); Last year’s Brexit was perceived as a mere political manouevre and was expected to be unsuccessful just like the Scottish Referendum (Brexit is now a reality); Across the pond, up until the October announcements of further investigations into the Hillary Clinton email controversy by then FBI Director James Comey, the prospects of Donald Trump becoming president was dismissed by the media. One would have at least a modicum of success with the bookies if one bet against the predictions of the mainstream media. Having said that, this does not necessarily point to a waning influence in the media, as Ed Miliband’s disastrous loss can be attributed in no small part to a below the belt attack by the British Press. In short, one ought to pay heed to media’s agenda, but not its mathematics.

The most heartening takeaway from the 2017 General Election is the participation of young voters. If the effect of young voters were overestimated during the Brexit referendum, it was certainly underestimated this time. I believe the younger people, who do not share the weariness and pessimism of the old, were incensed that Brexit was favoured by those who would not live long enough to feel its repercussions. Voting has become urgent and fashionable again. Hot-air blower Russell Brand, who previous denounced voting, has announced his support for Jeremy Corbyn. However, the greatest lesson from the General Election is not for the voters, but for the politicians. Jeremy Corbyn has proved that sincerity and humility in politics is still effective even in an age where info-savvy voters, who can quickly expose half-truths and disingenuity, are inherently mistrustful. I have been following Jeremy Corbyn on social media since he was running for Labour leadership and have felt a lot of sympathy for his plight. At the outset, he has been opposed by Blairites of the Labour and derided by the media. Even the famously pro-Labour Guardian has been (rightly) accused being unfair to Jeremy Corbyn. As Opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn has had to endure personal attacks ranging from being constantly labelled as a “Marxist” and “terrorist-sympathiser” (he is obviously not either) to being attacked for his modest wardrobe (remember David Cameron’s “my mother” insult?). Jeremy Corbyn has maintained an upbeat campaign that has seen him embraced meme culture and celebrity endorsements. He has been seen everywhere, and has consistently maintained his composure and rigour in public speeches. He has also pressed his advantage when PM Theresa May haughtily snubbed televised debates, giving the lame excuse of preferring to focus on face-to-face campaigning. Whatever the strengths of Corbyn’s anti-austerity policies, he has shown the world that an earnest character can be just as compelling as a fearmonger.

Poetry Sunday #3- School Holiday Night

School Holiday Night

 

Ten’ o clock at the 24-hour café

Ambient yellow lights and air-conditioning

Queues for overpriced coffee and cakes keep forming

 

An entourage of adults occupy the second longest table

Talking loudly over loudness from elsewhere

None of them have hearing aids or decorum

Their children huddled at one end of the longest table

Shrieking even louder at a smartphone

Their legs swinging amid bar-height furniture

At the other end of the table I shut my laptop

On my right my girlfriend types away unperturbed

I glare at the nuisance as I leave for a walk

 

Warm night air fills my heaving lungs

Up ahead streetlights flicker from a roadside park

Unused exercise machines flank the footpath

Short grass kissing their stainless steel legs

Where the grass ends barbed wire fences gleam

A large supermarket towers over park and road

Its ugly blue facade less discernible this hour

Its surroundings as quiet as its carpark empty

Bright white lights filter from its entrance

Giving away a lone man with a cigarette in his hand

June ’17 Earworm- “Soothing” by Laura Marling

When I listened to “Soothing” again recently- this time with the comfort of a quiet background and decent earphones- the epic track blew me away and left an earworm in my brain.

I first heard of Laura Marling in my car while listening to BFM (an English radio station in Kuala Lumpur that plays everything but Top-40) earlier this year. It was the latest single of her highly-acclaimed Semper Femina album, “Soothing”. The BFM deejay compared her with Radiohead, which is akin to comparing every good movie to The Godfather- a bit unimaginative. As I was concentrating on navigating through heavy traffic on a notorious road (you’ll be stuck forever if you do not focus), I did not give her music the consideration it deserved. But the music had enough going throughout the four minutes to leave a last impression on me. In that sense, Laura Marling does compare favourably to Radiohead. But Laura Marling is a songwriter first; Radiohead less so.

“Soothing” is a perfect song. Laura Marling delivers a seductive melody with deliciously vulnerable vocals. The lyrics go hand in hand with her vulnerability- it appears to be an a rejection of her ex in song- the lyrics are analysed by other listeners here (the salacious interpretation of “who touched the rim” is amusing).

What makes Soothing even better is the captivating instrumentation. It is a standout not only among the mainstream, but also among Laura Marling’s own catalogue. Her typical Joni Mitchell-like guitar work is replaced by a delicious bass line and ambient strings. The result is a cinematic aural landscape that compliments the soaring chorus. Laura Marling’s voice echoes out into a subtly ominous organ-led coda that allows the listener to ponder the weight of her impassioned words.

The song is moody but majestic. On Semper Femina, it serves as a strong opener which would probably stun fans who are more familiar with her lighter, occasionally Dylanesque songs. I do think it is her best song on Semper Femina, and one of the best of 2017. With this masterpiece in “Soothing”, Laura Marling has unwittingly thrown the gauntlet to the new generation of artists to craft songs that are melodically, musically and emotionally profound.

Check out the intriguing “Soothing” music video, which was directed by Laura Marling herself.

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.