Beware of Safety – 10 Years

Last Thursday night, January 14th, 2016, my band Beware of Safety took the stage at the Troubadour for our 10 year anniversary show. It was an incredible mix of emotions: accomplishment, sadness, nostalgia. Mainly though, I felt a sense of wonder that, in my lifetime, I have been afforded an opportunity to do something like this. The reason this is so crazy to me is that music really wasn’t supposed to play any significant part of my life.

As a nod to that, I did something special during the show that I wanted to share.

I first started drumming in 4th grade because I had to pick an instrument to play in our school band (or I would have been forced into chorus). I didn’t want to read music, so, you know, drums. Also, my grandfather had a drum set available that I could use. Mind you, I didn’t just get a drum set, I also got my first teacher who happened to be a former Navy band drummer and student of the great Cozy Cole. Now, that didn’t really mean much to me at the time (because I was stupid): drumming was a choice of convenience, plain and simple.

I got the chance to tell the next part of the story in more depth at my Tower Hill Forum speech last year:

The short version is that I decided to go out for the 2000 Delaware All-State Jazz Band as a Junior in high school. That decision was important for a number of reasons. It was a response to bullying I tolerated for a number of years and was a way to define myself as an individual. It was also where I met Shelly Berg, who, at that time, was the head of the Jazz Studies department at the University of Southern California, my future alma mater.

The three days of All State were incredible, and accelerated my playing dramatically. But, after the intensive instruction and the concert that followed, music was still something secondary that I planned to give up. As I stood on the stage listening to the applause of the audience, I was overcome with a feeling that this was the greatest thing I would ever do with music in my life. And the amazing thing was, I accepted that fact. I believed it so deeply that when I got home from that show, I took the drumsicks I performed with and wrapped them up with a note commemorating that night. For 15 years, they sat on my bedroom shelf back in Delaware.

Now, I did continue to play music actively for two years after that point. My high school rock band Halfslide put out an EP of originals. When I arrived at USC, I played on the Trojan Drumline and in two jazz combos. Come Sophomore year though, I stopped all music cold turkey because it was time to “get serious with engineering”. What a learning experience that was.

Much to my surprise, I nearly had a nervous breakdown. Difficult classes combined with severe family illnesses back east pushed me to the absolute brink. The problem was that I had suffocated my other half and had no means to process what I was going through. That was pretty much the bottom for me, and ever since that point I made a concerted effort to put music back in my life. I enrolled in music theory classes, hosted a radio show on KSCR (now KXSC), and started an electronica group called Slow Comfortable Screw.

As I was finishing up my first semester of grad school, I started searching Los Angeles for people to collaborate with. Most attempts didn’t pan out, but one day, an old friend of mine told me about a band he had started listening to called Do Make Say Think. I cued up “Goodbye Enemy Airship the Landlord is Dead” and was blown away. I hadn’t heard anything like it before in my life.

Normally I would search through Craiglist’s musicians personals for “industrial” or “electronica”, but that one afternoon I plugged in “Do Make Say Think”. Low and behold up pops “Instrumental Post Rock – Indie – Drummer Needed”.

I’ve told the Beware of Safety origin story so many times over the past decade, but I’m still floored every time I think about it. 10 years later, I can’t fathom the confluence of events that came together to make this a reality. That, at age 32, I’d be thinking back fondly to my 22 year old self cutting his teeth with these guys:

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Every time I go back to Delaware, I’ve looked at the drumsticks sitting in their wrapper on my bedroom shelf next to the other odds and ends from my childhood. When I taped them in their packaging in 2000, they were a monument to a great achievement in my life. In the winter of 2002, they were a harsh reminder of a time when I had music as part of my day to day existence. After starting Beware of Safety in 2005, they were no longer a monument, but merely a gate that I passed through on my musical journey. This past December, though, as I took a break from my practice pad, I picked up the sticks and I realized they were symbol of my closed mindedness and lack of vision.

Maybe that’s too harsh of a self criticism, but, as I’ve said many times before, we live our lives at a fraction of our potential. Far too often, we shrug off opportunity. Far too often, we give up on ideas or dreams because they’re not realistic, or profitable, or what we’re supposed to do.

Here’s the thing: doing the reasonable thing didn’t get me into that All State Jazz Band back in 2000. It didn’t introduce me to Shelly Berg or bring me to the University of Southern California. Hosting a college radio show wasn’t the reasonable thing for an Astronautics major to do, nor was joining up with three guitarists I met on Craigslist to form a band with no bassist and no vocals.

The unreasonable thing put my band’s records in the hands of people all over the world. It let me play drums and keyboards in most of the states in this country and on two continents. It let me hear some kid in Poland with little grasp of the English language scream “John Bonham!” at me. It let me perform in front of my drumming hero. Yes, my “academic” life is an illustration that reasonable choices do yield successes. But sometimes unreasonable things do too.

And so instead of setting the drumsticks back on the shelf, I put them in my suitcase. While I was on stage at the Troubadour last Thursday, I unwrapped them and used them to perform “Kaura“, the first song I ever played with (what would become) Beware of Safety. Afterwards, I placed them back in their wrapper. I did this not to commemorate that night, but to serve as a reminder to myself that the only limits that we have in our lives are the ones we set for ourselves. Most of the time, those limits are far, far below what we’re actually capable of.

Whether last Thursday was the mountaintop or merely a foothill on the pathway there, here’s to what comes next.

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Best of 2015

I wanted to put together another top five list for this year, but there has been way too much great stuff released in 2015. Instead, I put together a playlist of my favorite tracks. Hope you enjoy it!

spotify:user:analogdrummer:playlist:2uOtYJxfoaCEqce1BDiQXZ

The list:

  1. push pull – Purity Ring (Another Eternity): While their debut record Shrines was all about creeping around dark corners, there is a contrasting euphoria throughout Another Eternity which I really enjoy. I love Roddick’s shifting synth counterrhythms behind James’ innocent vocals on this one.
  2. Universal Everything – Leftfield (Alternative Light Source): It’s been 16 years since we last heard from Leftfield. 20 years after it came out, Leftism’s “Afro-left” is still one of my top dance tracks. Universal Everything has all those old elements that made Leftfield great, with a refreshed, driving vibe that shows they still have things to bring to the table.
  3. Arcs of Command – Caspian (Dust And Disquiet): Caspian has been kicking ass for 11 years in post rock circles, one year longer than Beware of Safety. We shared a label for a period of time, toured together, watched the scene explode (and implode), saw countless bands and venues come and go. It is hard to keep it together for that long, as a band and as individual musicians, let alone innovate on every release. This is definitely where Caspian has succeeded. There has always been catharsis in their work, but they hold absolutely nothing back on this record (even abandoning their purely instrumental heritage). It is both some of the most aggressive and naked music they’ve ever put together, and moments like Arcs of Command are glorious. Shameless plug: Caspian will be joining Beware of Safety for our 10 year anniversary show Thursday, January 14 in Los Angeles at the historic Troubadour. It will be an amazing show – definitely consider coming.
  4. Men Today – Health (Death Magic): For some reason, I missed the Health train when it left the station a number of years ago. That said, Death Magic is definitely one of my favorite records from this year. It lays into you from start to finish, and is arresting the entire time. Leaps and bounds better than their first two albums, thanks in part to the excellent production work by The Haxan Cloak (also a contributor on Bjork’s new record).
  5. Sticky Drama – Oneohtrix Point Never (Garden of Delete): I started listening to Oneohtrix Point Never last year, and it took me awhile to get past the “what the fuck” point. Garden of Delete has lots of those (example: the music video for Sticky Drama, and its prologue). Once the shock wears off, you can really start to see Lopatin’s brilliance, the dance between the chaos and orchestral-inspired beauty.
  6. Sinner – Arca (Mutant): See Oneohtrix Point Never RE: “what the fuck”. Arca’s doing some absolutely amazing stuff – genre defining. I started digging into him after hearing Kanye West’s “Yeezus”, and, after some persistence, fell in love with his music. He’s worked extensively with FKA twigs, another one of my favorite new artists.
  7. Often – The Weeknd (Beauty Behind the Madness): Come on, I went to five weddings this year and was accosted by “Can’t Feel My Face” at every one. I had to check it out. To my surprise, there was some really dark stuff in this record. Nothing like some nihilist party anthems to get you up for a night out.
  8. In Time – FKA twigs (M3LL155X): I discovered FKA twigs earlier this year, and quickly gorged myself on everything she’s done. Her new EP M3LL155X (Mellissa) has almost zero fat. It is a quick, surefire hit of eroticized electro nu R&B. In Time has been on loop in my head for a good portion of late-2015, and it encapsulates almost everything I love about music in 2015. Be sure to check out her long-form music video for the album (NSFW).
  9. The End Where We Start – The Black Queen (Fever Daydream): The new project from Dillinger Escape Plan frontman and Telefon Tel Aviv is making waves ahead of its 2016 release. Like a lot of stuff on the list, the lead single from the record has a lot of the interesting industrial R&B flavorings that I’m enjoying.
  10. Stonemilker – Bjork (Vulnicura): A track (and album) to listen to if you, perchance, feel like getting your heart ripped out. Two of my favorite producers (Arca and The Haxan Cloak) take Bjork to new levels on this record.
  11. Almost Leaving – 18+ (Trust): Sort of a weird mutant child of FKA twigs and The Weeknd, hyper-sexualized and stumbling through the door of the bar drunk out of its mind at 2 am. The kind of music you’d be leery to wake up with the next morning.
  12. Falling – JOY. (ODE): Kids these days. I don’t know what is going on with all the 18 year olds. First Disclosure, then Lorde… JOY. definitely put herself on the same playing field with her four track EP ODE. Keep an eye out for this one.
  13. Magnets – Disclosure ft. Lorde (Caracal): It’s tough to follow up an album as remarkable as Settle. The brothers do a decent job avoiding the sophomore slump with Caracal. Lorde brings her best lolita vibe for this slinky number.
  14. hat5c 0001 rec-4 – Aphex Twin (Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments PT 2): Aphex Twin has burst back on the scene after the epic kickstarter to release his long delayed Caustic Window EP. While Syro had its moments, I think Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments is a more interesting record. It has a very similar vibe to some of his work on Drukqs, but is a bit more playful in nature. While some of the playing is “inhuman”, it’s not insane, meaning you have a chance to pick up on the subtile compositional choices he’s making.
  15. Deepest Lake on the Planet – Dengue Fever (The Deepest Lake): A recommendation from a friend (now collaborator on my latest release “Abandon in Place”), this one is a bit outside of what I typically listen to. That said, there are some standout tracks on the record (this one especially).
  16. Church of Red – Worriedaboutsatan (Even Temper): I originally found these guys through The Silent Ballet (a site that launched hundreds of instrumental and post rock projects, including Beware of Safety). Their debut album, Arrivals was fantastic, and on Even Temper, the duo shows they haven’t lost anything during their six year hiatus.
  17. La Guardia – Alessandro Cortini (Risveglio): There are two Alessandro Cortini tracks on this list, and each of them has its own distinctive style. I love the dirty feel of Risveglio, and La Guardia’s menacing build is the perfect snapshot of this release
  18. W – Olafur Arnalds, Nils Frahm (Loon): Like Cortini, there are two tracks on here by Nils Frahm, here a collaboration with Olafur Arnalds. The record is a haunting mix of acoustic and electric instrumentation, which Frahm excels at (ala his track Says).
  19. Exploitation – Inner8 (Inner8): I learned about Inner8’s debut record through a Create Digital Music interview. His release is extremely well produced. The thing I love most about this track is how it morphs throughout the frequency domain within a cloud of foggy reverb. You never really know what’s going to pop out.
  20. Scappa – Alessandro Cortini (Forse 3): Great minimalistic synth work from Cortini on the Buchla Music Easel. Scappa slowly builds to a heavenly climax over 9:57.
  21. Ode – Nils Frahm (Solo): Some of the best things in life are free, including this record released on the first ever Piano Day this year. This track is so naked and open, complete with breath marks from the performer. As a new student of the instrument, I am loving what Frahm is bringing to the classical and experimental music world.
  22. Rene – Teen Men (Teen Men): I absolutely adore this record. If I had to pick a top five for this year, Teen Men would definitely be on the list. I’ve been a long time fan and friend of the Spinto Band crew, so maybe this one isn’t a shocker. But even your friends, who consistently put out great music, can bowl you over with their untapped talent. Rene is just a gorgeous track, and I love the mid song breakdown. Please, go buy this record.

 

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SMAP Launch: How to Watch

SMAP before shipment to Vandenberg AFB. (Source: http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/jpeg/PIA18828.jpg)

UPDATE 1/30/15, 2:50 PM PST
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From spaceflightnow.com:

Launch managers have approved plans for another launch attempt Saturday for the Delta 2 rocket carrying NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive mission. The weather forecast calls for a 100 percent chance of acceptable conditions.

“High pressure will continue to build in for Saturday leading to continued drying throughout the atmosphere,” meteorologists wrote in a forecast summary. “Skies will be mostly clear with some scattered low stratus and slight upper level cirrus lingering over the range. Radiation fog will again develop over much of the low-lying areas of the range, dropping visibilities to 5-7 miles.”

The temperature at launch time is expected to be around 40 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit, with surface winds out of the north-northeast at 8 to 12 knots. Maximum forecasted upper level winds are 65 knots out of the north at 30,000 feet.

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UPDATE 1/30/15
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Today’s launch was scrubbed due to a debonding issue with the Delta II insulation. Next attempt is tomorrow (Saturday) at 6:20 am PST. Third time’s the charm?
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UPDATE 1/29/15
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Today’s launch was scrubbed due to high level winds. Next attempt is tomorrow at 6:20 am PST. The ground weather was perfect for viewing the launch. If the weather report for tomorrow is anything like today, you should get a great view from Lompoc/Vandenberg.
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For the past six years, I’ve had the honor of working on the Soil Moisture Active Passive mission, or SMAP.  The job of SMAP is to measure the moisture content and freeze/thaw state of the top 5-10 cm of soil worldwide.  While this might not sound as sexy as what Curiosity is doing, it’s vitally important for drought monitoring, flood prediction, land use, small and moderate scale climate models, and disease vector tracking.

My job on SMAP has been to handle the mass properties for the entire vehicle.  SMAP is a partially spinning spacecraft.  Half of the vehicle spins at a rate of 14.6 RPM, and the other half remains pointed at the sun for power generation.  To put it simply, I was responsible for making sure the delivered vehicle spun straight.  This involved a tremendous amount of work to configure and track the vehicle dynamics thought the project, and apply balancing mass as required to null our projected wobble.  It has (hands down) been the most challenging problem I’ve ever worked on in my engineering career thus far.  Also, it was a departure from what I did on the Curiosity rover in that all my deliveries to the project were data (no hardware).  No wonky boxes this time…

At 6:20 am PST (9:20 EST) tomorrow, January 29 SMAP will launch on a Delta II from SLC-2 of Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, CA.  Unlike a Mars mission that takes ~9 months to get to Mars, SMAP will begin its checkouts within hours of launch.  It should be a very exciting day!  In the event of a scrub or delay, the next attempt is 6:20 am on Friday, followed by 6:20 am on Saturday.

There are several ways to check out the events tomorrow if you’re interested.

Online (worldwide)

By far, the easiest way to see the launch is to watch it live on NASA TV.  Streaming will run from 4 am to 8 am PST (7 am to 11 am EST).  You can tune in on the official NASA TV site or on the NASA UStream site.  This will get you a closer view of the pad than you’ll be able to see in person.  You should also be able to see any video being broadcast from the rocket this way.

From Northern/Southern California

Weather permitting, you should be able to see this launch from as far as Los Angeles or San Francisco.  I believe the last launch I tried to watch from LA was during the day, but even then I was able to see a bright spot screaming across the Southern California sky about 12 degrees above the horizon.

Delta II Launch Visibility Zone (from http://www.spacearchive.info/vafbview.htm)

OCO-2 Launch on a Delta II as seen from Santa Cruz. SMAP is also flying on a Delta II, so this is probably you’re best preview for a remote viewing. (From http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap140704.html)

The interesting thing about this launch is that it happens right before dawn.  The rocket will launch in darkness, but as its altitude grows, the exhaust and contrail should become illuminated by the still-set sun, possibly giving you visuals like those shown below.

Twilight Minotaur Launch (from http://www.spacearchive.info/vafbview.htm)

The problem you might face is visibility.  Low level clouds, fog, and haze will severely limit what you can see.  If skies are not clear, the best bet is to head to high ground.  Many of the local mountain areas should get you above the worst of the low level stuff.  Check out this site for many viewing locations in Northern and Southern California.  Ventura, for example, might give you a better view than LA without a trip to the central coast.

If you have a clear view, look to 289 degrees  in Los Angeles or 154 degrees in San Francisco (0 degrees is North, 90 degrees is East, etc.).  A more accurate bearing can be found by drawing a line from SLC-2 (our launch pad) to your viewing location on this map.

For timing, you can tune into the NASA TV feed on your phone to know when we launched.  After a few seconds, the rocket should become visible above the horizon.  Be warned though, there is sometimes a multi-minute delay in the video feed, meaning the rocket may have launched before you get wind of it.  If I remember correctly, the exact launch window is from 6:20:42 to 6:23:42 am PST.  Trust your watch, not the feed.  And keep watching the skies!

From Santa Ynez Peak

If you’re willing to venture a bit farther north, I’ve been told that Santa Ynez peak is a great mix of altitude (to beat out low level clouds/haze) and proximity to the launch pad.  If the weather looks bad in Lompoc, head here.  The directions below, like much of the information I’m posting, is from Space Archive’s amazing site.  Visit them for more details on Vandenberg launches.

Santa Ynez Peak
Latitude:     34° 31′ 36″ (34.52666°) N
Longitude:     119° 58′ 45″ (119.97916°) W
An Adventure Pass may be required.

Directions (be careful of steep drop-offs):

  1. Go to the intersection of U.S. highway 101 and Refugio Road (18 miles west of Santa Barbara).
  2. Take Refugio Road east (uphill) several miles to Refugio Pass.
  3. As you approach the top of the mountain range, you will see a sign for the La Sherpa Retreat.
  4. At the top of the mountain range, there is a T-intersection with a road on the east (right) side with a sign that says “This road not maintained by Santa Barbara County”. That is West Camino Cielo.
  5. Turn right (east) on West Camino Cielo and continue uphill for several miles.
  6. You will pass a small observatory. About one mile further east, you will see a mountain with numerous antennas. That is Santa Ynez Peak.
  7. Take the short road up to Santa Ynez Peak and park near the propane tank on the northwest side of the summit.

You should be looking West to see the launch, but a more accurate bearing can be determined by drawing a line from SLC-2 (our launch pad) to your location on this map.

From Lompoc/Vandenberg AFB

Every person I’ve spoken to has said that Vandenberg is either the best or the worst place to see a launch.  Weather is the big factor.  If things are clear on the ground and there are few low level clouds, you should be able to get a great view of the rocket taking off from many points in the area.  If it’s foggy/hazy, you might see a bright flash, hear a loud roar, and get nothing else.  Check the weather forecasts this afternoon/evening before deciding if you want to venture out (if I remember, I’ll try to update this post with what I hear).

OCO-2 launched in the fog. Fingers crossed for a clearer morning… (Source: https://pbs.twimg.com/media/Brh-URUCMAEQseX.jpg:large)

You won’t be able to get on base if you don’t have a pass already.  However, there are still some great spots on local roads to watch.  The official public site (with bleachers, loudspeakers, porta-potties, etc.) can be found near the intersection of Corral Rd. and Skyscreen Rd. in Lompoc, CA (here’s a map).  As you come up Corral Rd (off of Firefighter Rd.), bear left onto Cotar Rd (after Skyscreen intersection).  You should see a parking area.

While you’re up there, be sure to stop by the amazing Lompoc Wine Ghetto!

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Reddit AMA with Beware of Safety Today at Noon PST

I’ve been off the grid working hard on the next Beware of Safety album, Lotusville. It is set to drop October 7 on Vinyl/CD/Digital through our Bandcamp site. In honor of that, my bandmates and I will be holding a Reddit AMA today at noon PST. You will be able to find it here: http://www.reddit.com/r/postrock/wiki/ama

What is it like to be a rocket scientist musician? How does my electronic drum gear work? What’s my favorite tiki drink? Ask away! It’s all on the table!

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Best Music of 2013

Back in 2011, I lamented the fact that I was not listening to music as much as I used to in my college radio days. As a remedy, I set out to listen to 365 albums I hadn’t heard before. It definitely made an impact on how often I seek out new songs and new artists. While I didn’t listen to 365 albums in 2013, I did (surprisingly) listen to enough new music to constitute my first ever top five album (and top ten song) list for the year!

My top 5 albums of 2013:

5. Welcome Oblivion – How to Destroy Angels
Welcome Oblivion Cover

I am a huge Nine Inch Nails fan, but honestly, I was not blown away by this record when I first heard it. While it had top-notch production and was far better than the An Omen EP that proceeded it, it didn’t hook me at first. I wish it had, because I decided I didn’t want to take the risk on the band’s first ever live show in Pomona. Huge mistake. I kept coming back to this album through the course of 2013, and sure enough, it locked its claws into me. Mr. and Mrs. Reznor really gel on this, combining his abrasive synthesis and sound design with her sultry vocals. Yes, some of the themes tread close to NIN’s previous work, but over the course of the first two releases How To Destroy Angels has begun to establish their own identity. I very much look forward to what lies ahead for this band.

4. Yeezus – Kanye West
Yeezus Cover

Unlike Welcome Oblivion, I really wanted to not like this album. “The Voice of a Generation”? Track titles like “I Am A God”? Who the hell does this guy think he is? In fact, I purposefully managed to avoid most everything written by him (save for “Power” and “Gold Digger”). So, it was with much reluctance and eye rolling I listened to Yeezus. West can make singles to be sure, but the hype about this record must surely be just a mass delusion. As the last “uh huh baby” of “Bound 2” rang out, I sighed and started Yeezus again from the top. Is it highly crass, racist, and misogynistic? Absolutely. Some of the things he says are appalling. But damn it, this record is really, really good.  First off is the production. Between the hired guns (half of Daft Punk and Rick Rubin for starters) and his deep sample library, the record is a sonic assault like none other this year. “On Sight” tears into your ear drums from note one and doesn’t let up. Through the hole pours West’s acidic lyrics. This man is loosing his mind, and you have a front row seat. It is a true mix of insanity and brilliance that blends the immortal words of Martin Luther King with taking a woman’s top off, only to toss the metaphor aside with a remark about buying condoms in a gas station two lines later (“I’m In It”). You can’t keep up with the assault of sensation and sex, which is most certainly a relatable feeling nowadays (though I don’t think it makes him “the voice of a generation)”. Despite all my preconceptions, I willingly admit this is one of the best albums this year: a both exciting and uncomfortable listen.

3. Pure Heroine – Lorde
Pure Heroine Cover

“Tennis Court” was my first introduction to both this record and to Lorde. Actually, the true first introduction was her brilliant video for the song, which beats the pants off the other, more star-studded stare-you-in-the-face video this year. After hearing the new single I immediately went back and listened to The Love Club EP, which unleashed “Royals” on the world. I got why Royals was popular, but it was tracks like “Bravado” and “Biting Down” that really told me something good was coming in the next release. I am proud to say, I was correct. Lorde’s album has been called “confessional bedroom pop“, and it certainly is. But it is done so well that it knocks you over. “400 Lux” is a song about doing nothing. Seriously – she comes right out and says it. It is a song about cruising block to block through tract housing while watching your high school fling sputter along. But within that simple idea is woven such a feeling of melancholy. The world of her music is slowly melting away each second, exposing the darker sides of her teenage soul.  Though catchy, songs like “Glory and Gore” are pretty nihilistic for someone so young. In many ways, this album is gothic to its core (even more so than her press photos try to paint her to be). She’s not breaking new ground in music (yet), but she’s blowing away the teenage pop acts I grew up with (and pretty much all that came after).

2. Settle – Disclosure
Settle Cover

It is impossible to deny that Disclosure had created one of the best dance records since, well, ever. While the duo draws heavily from early 2000’s Garage and 2-Step, their music is graced with both the euphoria of mid-90’s house and the R&B infused electronica that has come to the fore over the past few years. I found Disclosure through Joe Goddard’s remix of “Control”, but was completely blow away when “White Noise” dropped early this year. Settle is filed with fantastic cuts, from the hyper-falsetto of “Latch” to the incredibly catchy “You and Me”, which I had on loop for days. There is plenty of throwback nowadays, too much really. For much of the past decade music has been regurgitating previous forms and their knockoffs. But where Disclosure borrows, they do so in a way that is fresh and exciting. It is the mark of a great artist that can embody the music that came before them and push the genre forward. I put “Settle” on the same pedestal as Basement Jaxx’s “Remedy” and Leftfield’s  “Leftism”: a must own for the fan of dance music.

1. Dysnomia – Dawn of MIDI
Dysnomia Cover

Let’s just start by saying there was no battle for number one this year. Dysnomia blew everything else out of the water. It is the work of not only incredibly talented musicians, but also an intense concentrated effort that breaks down barriers not only in music but in musicianship. The gentlemen in Dawn of Midi are first and foremost highly talented free jazzers. Where many would be content to live in this circle, Dawn of Midi sequestered themselves in their rehearsal space, digging deep into the Pakistani, Indian, and Moroccan folk music they grew up with, merged with African tribal music and electronic/IDM minimalism (ala Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works 85-92). Much attention has been paid to the electronica influences. As a consequence, there have been several comparisons to Dawn of Midi’s NYC neighbors: Jojo Mayer’s live electronica group Nerve. Honestly, I don’t believe those comparisons are entirely fair to either artist. The goal of Jojo Mayer (one of my favorite drummers) was to deconstruct electronic forms like Drum n’ Bass and use them as a basis for jazz improvisation. Dawn of Midi may share the jazz pedigree and penchant for mimicking electronic sounds on acoustic instruments, but their approach on Dysnomia could not be more different. While none of Dysnomia was written down, it was deliberately composed (unlike their previously releases and Nerve’s original jam sessions in the late 90’s). Dysnomia is neither jazz nor electronica, though it draws from much of the same source material. Additionally, it’s not the fault of Nerve that breakbeat inspired music isn’t as tight as what you hear on Dysnomia. In fact, I’ll throw down the gauntlet and say, in this context, that Dawn of Midi is the tightest sounding band I’ve ever heard. It is more akin to your grade school handbell ensemble than a jazz band. Each member isn’t just completing their bandmate’s sentences, but adding individual letters to each others words. Naturally, you have to give up the ability to improvise in this context. So what are you left with? Dysnomia lays across the dividers of you local record shop, recontextualizing folk and tribal music using the traditional instruments of jazz. I’ll say nothing of the discipline required to perform this 45 minute composition live, because even if it was unperformable it would still be groundbreaking. There is still another reason, however, why Dysnomia was a shoe in for number one this year. In short, this record has changed the way I think about drumming (and frankly composing in general). It directly influenced my playing on two new Beware of Safety tracks, and will continue to challenge the way I write and perform for years to come. Dysnomia isn’t just one of the most important albums this year: it is definitely in the running for one of my favorite albums of all time.

Honorable Mentions:
Just Movement – Robert DeLong
The Word as Power – Lustmord

My top 10 songs of 2013:

10. In Two – Nine Inch Nails (Hesitation Marks)

It’s always fun to watch an artist evolve through their career. On his latest release, Trent Reznor shows that he hasn’t lost his touch. While lacking some of the vitriol of his last EP, The Slip, Hesitation Marks still packs a healthy punch. “In Two” is certainly one of the album’s best tracks (and the highlight of the current live show), featuring a wily guitar lick from Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham and a driving, vocoded lyrics.

9. Babel – Lustmord (The Word As Power)

The opening track off The Word As Power really captures the essence of the album, and beckons you deep into the dark cave of Lustmord’s music.

8. Global Concepts – Robert DeLong (Just Movement)

The deep groove and thoughtful lyrics of “Global Concepts” separate it from the majority of dance music you’ve heard. Like many of the younger artists on this list, Robert DeLong is poised to make a big impact in coming years.

7. How Long? – How to Destroy Angels (Welcome Oblivion)

This major key anthem off of Welcome Oblivion took me a little time to get used to. It’s bright chorus masks the dark heart of the song: a nuclear sheen on the post-apocalyptic wasteland of twisted metal synthesis (watch out for evil Michael Cera).

6. Memo – The Spinto Band (Cool Cocoon)

The Spinto Band has been around a long, long time, and it’s been such a joy to watch these gentlemen grow with each release. “Memo” is at first a pretty pop ballad, but the last 1:30 of this song is some of the most gorgeous sound I’ve heard all year.

5. All These Things – MMOTHS (Diaries EP)

The Diaries EP was released this year by a 19-year old Jack Colleran. “All These Things” is a delicate, haunting gem that showcases how his production shines when graced with a talented vocalist (here, Holly Miranda).

4. Hearts Like Ours – The Naked and Famous (In Rolling Waves)

The Naked and Famous writes euphoric music in general, but “Hearts Like Ours” is no doubt my pump-up jam of the year. This is some great songwriting.

3. I’m In It – Kanye West (Yeezus)

“I’m In It” has everything you’ll love and hate about Yeezus: abrasive minimalist instrumentation, sexually hyper-charged lyrics, but, most importantly, a little production flourish at 2:33 that sends a shiver down my spine every time I hear it.

2. White Noise – Disclosure (Settle)

“White Noise” has landed on my list of top dance songs of all time. The driving synth line is enough to get you out on the floor, but once Aluna Francis’ chorus explodes, it’s all over: sweaty mess.

1. Ribs – Lorde (Pure Heroine)

If you want to know why people are raving about Lorde, don’t listen to “Royals” or “Team”. Listen to “Ribs”. Its brutal honesty about aging sounds like it’s coming from someone twice her age, yet still mixed with the prescience of a youth she’s leaving behind. Joel Little’s minimalist production is immaculate and perfectly suited to O’Connor airy vocals. It’s songs like this that restore my faith in what pop music can be.

Honorable Mentions:

System of Unlimited Love – When Saints Go Machine (Infinity Pool)
Debris – Stephen Price (Gravity: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
You – Matmos (The Marriage of True Minds)

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Circuit Bent Akai S01 Sampler

It has been a marathon week of circuit bending for me.  After knocking out the Roland DDR-30, I turned my sights to the Akai S01.  Almost 20 years old, the Akai S01 is, to put it mildly, a bit of a relic.  I originally picked mine up in the late 90’s for around $100.  Nowadays it’s…well…not that valuable.  With 15.6 seconds of sample memory, it’s power is dwarfed by any of today’s soft samplers.

The process for this bend was very similar to the DDR-30.  I identified the two chips of interest and started wiring up leads for the 1/8 inch jack patch panel.  The biggest issue was the fact that I was working with a surface mount chip vs the DIP ROMs on the DDR-30.  This made for some very tight wiring.  The first chip wasn’t too much of a problem, however the second gave me no end of trouble.  After wiring up the lower chip, I realized that I had a number of contacts touching.

Tight wiring.

As I started probing to identify the short circuits, I found that most of the pins on the second chip linked directly to the same pins on the first chip (something that should have occurred to me before).  With that knowledge, I started pulling off the wires that shared a contact with the first chip, leaving only a few unique bend points.

Completed wiring. Note there are only a few unique bend points on chip #2.

The front panel was done the same way as the previous one, although I added four multiples to help expand the patching possibilities.

Drilling the patch panel.

Wired patch panel.

Another shot of the inside before closing things up.

I’m learning that a circuit bent S01 has a ton of sound mangling possibilities, although there are a few bends that effectively kill the MIDI signal to the unit.  Also, it seems like you need to strip out the patch cables before you can reload sounds from the floppy disk.  All in all though, I’m very excited to start digging into this.  Here’s a little demo of what it can do:

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Circuit Bent Roland DDR-30

I really love the sound of the Roland DDR-30 Digital Drum module as is.  Overall it has a hell of a dirty bite to it, and the super deep snare and tom sounds have turned up in several of my compositions through the years.  However, since the module itself has no internal effects or sequencing, it is pretty useless once you sample it.  I strongly considering selling it recently until I read that it might be a good candidate for circuit bending.

There is a ton of information online about circuit bending, so I won’t try to rehash it here.  Suffice it to say that the point of circuit bending is to short circuit existing hardware in musically interesting ways.  This is not without its risks, and you should be willing to loose your hardware in the process of modifying it.  Also, extra care should be used when modifying a 120V powered circuit like this one.  ALWAYS check the voltage of the points you’re working with before messing with them, and NEVER fool with the power supply section of the board.  There is some great information here on what to look for when circuit bending.

Disclaimer: proceed at your own risk.  I take no responsibility if you damage your hardware or body doing this.

Inside the DDR-30, the chips of interest are the three large ROMs on the main (lower) circuit board.  One handles the toms, one the snares, and one the kicks.

Three ROMs used in this project.

I decided early on that I wanted a patch bay so that no bends were hard wired.  After some experimenting, I determined that most of the pins on the chip change the sound in some way.  Instead of agonizing over which to use, I just ran wires to each of the chips’ pins.  This took awhile, as there were 28×3 pins and I was trying to keep each wire tagged with its respective pin number.

Tom ROM after wiring.

All three ROMs wired.

After wiring all the ROMs I attached a 1/8 inch jack to each end.  84 jacks.  Thank you eBay and China.

Attaching the 84 jacks.

I drilled a grid of holes on a blank patch panel (another eBay purchase).  84 jacks is a tight fit, so I used a drill template to lay out the holes.  For some reason a number of holes were still off, so I had to flip a few jacks to make everything fit.

Drill template and blank panel.

After all jacks attached.  Note the through hole in the top of the case for all the wires.

The final product mounted in my rack.

And the first test run:

 

Stay tuned for more!  I have an Akai S01 and Kawai R50e waiting for the same treatment…

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