On Thursday night I headed over to the Great Hall at Cardiff University to see Devin Townsend play his first ever concert in Wales. It was an excellent show. Dev was in fine form, and really looked like he was enjoying himself a lot. And with the band that he'd brought with him, I'm not surprised—he was joined on stage by Mike Keneally playing guitar and keyboards (simultaneously, at times!), Markus Reuter on Touch Guitar, and Ché Aimee Dorval and Morgen Ågren from Casualties of Cool, as well as Diego Tejeda on keyboards, Nathan Navarro on bass, and a three piece choir consisting of Samantha Preis, Anne Preis, and Arabella Packford.
When Dev announced this tour, he emphasised that everything would be played "without a net" with no click track or backing tracks. But the resulting sound didn't suffer. If anything, it was radically improved, delivering an immense wall of complex textures that sounded superb. The new band were well versed in Dev's back catalogue, too. As well as material off the new album we were treated to lots of my favourite tracks including (to my delight) Coast, Gato, and Heaven Send from the DTP album Ki and (of course) Lucky Animals and Kingdom off Epicloud.
Few people can get a crowd going like Dev can. He got us all shouting "Kittens!" in our best metal voices at one point. Later on he decided that it would be cool if we all jumped up and down and shouted "beep" as we did so. So we did. "No, that's not cool at all, let's stop," he told us. So we stopped.
I know I can't be particularly objective about anything that Dev does, as I'm a huge fan of his and have been for years. I've got more than thirty albums that he's worked on in my collection. And I'm going to be particularly biased about this tour because my friend Markus is in the band. But I'm not being at all hyperbolic when I say that it was one of the most satisfying gigs I've been to in a long time.
I made my annual pilgrimage to Hammersmith on Friday to see this year's Compendium of Reason show. I've gone to these events every year since 2015 and they've become a highlight of my year. When I had a beer with Robin last month he promised me that this year was going to be a good one, and he was absolutely right. This year I didn't get stuck in a traffic jam on the M4 so I'd dropped off my donation with the lovely Trussell Trust people outside, bought a pint of IPA from the bar and was comfortably settled in my seat before the lights went down and the show got under way.
Robin and Brian brought the giant screen from their recent world tour with them, and together with a very impressive set of lasers, the show's visuals this year were stunning. PowerPoint has never looked so good. This year's proceedings start off a conch shell blown by Steve Pretty from stage right, where he is safely ensconced with his band, The Origin of the Pieces. Robin and Brian come on stage to welcome everyone, before handing the stage over to Dr Dean Burnett, who gives a very funny talk about whether or not Christmas really is a time to eat, drink, and be merry, and he is followed by Steve Backshall talking about climate change and the time that he was chased by a very large polar bear while he was kayaking in the Arctic. The accompanying video gets a huge laugh, although it clearly wasn't funny for Steve at the time! The first musical guest of the evening is on next and turns out to be the wonderful Tanita Tikaram, who sang her song "Good Tradition" from her first album Ancient Heart which I had on continuous repeat on my car stereo back in the 1980s (I wore the tape out). I sat there listening with a huge grin on my face; she's still one of my favourite singer/songwriters.
Robin returned to the stage while furniture was moved about, which led in to a fireside chat between the presenters of last year's Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, Professors Alice Roberts and Aoife McLysaght, who talked about the archaeological and genetic evidence for when dogs were first domesticated. It was at least fifteen thousand years ago, and possibly long before that. I was waiting for them to mention Dogor, the 18,000-year-old Siberian puppy, but Robin and Brian were back on stage to introduce Dr Andrew Steele, who gave us some statistics on United States spending on the space programme and cheese (cheese has won out every year since the early 1970s) and reported on a recent YouGov survey that had found that most of the UK population didn't want to go to the moon either because "there wasn't enough to do there" or because "it was too far away", which should tell you all you need to know about how much attention you should be paying to YouGov surveys.
The Sky at Night presenter Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock was the first of the evening's presenters to talk about the Moon (it is, after all, fifty years since Apollo 11 landed there) and then Steve Pretty and the band invited us to join in a rendition of his daughter's song "Farting on the Couch" (which really deserves to be the Christmas number one) before the first half of the show is brought to a close by a blinding set from the one and only Eddie Izzard, who makes stand-up look completely effortless.
The second half of the show kicks off with Jack Liebeck and his string ensemble, who storm (aha) through "Winter" from Vivaldi's four seasons suite. The audience goes nuts at the end of each movement. Then Dr Ben Goldacre treats us to some live clinical trial dataset referencing, Josie Long enthuses about Greta Thunberg, and Grace Petrie belts out a passionate version of her song Farewell to Welfare with the backing of Steve Pretty and the band.
It wouldn't be a Compendium without Commander Chris Hadfield, and he returns to the subject of the Moon and explains how the Apollo program got there, finishing with a look at how we might return there and finally get round to establishing a permanent base at what the astronomer Flammarion called the the Peaks of Eternal Light, near the Moon's poles. To the audience's obvious delight, the next act is Milton Jones, who roars through a series of one-liners that elicit joyful groans from the audience, some even before he's got to the punch line ("I can see you're ahead of me..."). He goes down a storm and fist-bumps Robin when he goes off. Robin has returned to ask us if he ought to bring Chris Hadfield back on stage, and when everyone roars their approval, Chris is followed on stage by two more astronauts, Helen Sharman and Major Tim Peake. The audience goes nuts.
We get a twenty-minute discussion of life in space, ranging from diarrhea (we learn that Apollo 8 is known as the diarrhea mission) to enemas (although we are told that these come in two forms for astronauts, we are spared the details of what the difference is between the Russian type and the American type). Helen Sharman reveals that astronauts on the ISS frequently suffer from kidney stones as the body decides it has too much calcium (and given my current condition, I was fascinated by that little factoid). The giant screen plays a slideshow of photographs of the Earth that Tim Peake took from orbit. To my right, Eddie Izzard sneaks in to the auditorium to watch the discussion. Pretty much everyone is so engrossed they don't notice. Helen Sharman turns out to be a Tanita Tikaram fan and explains that she chose "World Outside Your Window" to listen to during her stay on the Mir space station.
Then Chris Hadfield rounds off the show with the carol he performed on board the ISS, accompanied by Jack Liebeck and the strings and Steve Pretty and the band. Together they play a beautiful arrangement of Space Oddity. The audience goes nuts again. Robin and Brian draw things to a close and Robin announces that the donations of food for the Trussell Trust have been so generous that their van was completely filled up; nevertheless, it's not lost on anyone that the fact that the Trust's work has become a necessity for a lot of people in this country is a sign of just how bad things have got thanks to the present government.
And then it's all over for another year and I'm back on the tube to Osterley to pick up the car and drive home. By 2 am I've filled the car up with petrol in Bradley Stoke (I'd driven three hundred and fifty miles since I last filled it up, and the tank was still a quarter full) and by 2:15 I'm back home and trying to wind down. I'm buzzing and still chuckling at Milton Jones's jokes and it's 4 am before I finally fall asleep.
I've already bought my ticket for next year's show. Weirdly, it's just two seats away from the seat I had this year. I'm already looking forward to it.
When I switched my Yamaha amplifier to Net Radio yesterday to nurture my current habit of listening to the Goon Show, I was rather disappointed to discover that all my presets had disappeared and the amp sat there silently, displaying a "Please Wait" message. I assumed the service was temporarily offline and switched to DAB to listen to something else instead, but when I tried again this morning, the same thing happened. However, a quick search on home audio forums on the web suggested that I should switch the power off at the mains for ten seconds and then switch it back on. That fixed the problem; all my presets have returned and right now I am listening to some rather chilled music on WGBH Boston's jazz 24/7 channel.
Which just goes to show that the maxim made famous by The IT Crowd of "Have you tried turning it off and back on again?" holds as true for home audio equipment as it does for computers.
My collection of kidney stones is growing; I passed another one on Friday. I'll be going for tests next week to try to establish exactly what's going on.
It's not as widely known as it should be that if you have a device connected to the Internet, the average amount of time it takes for someone to attempt to break into it is less than five minutes. In these days of smart devices (from televisions to light bulbs to doorbells) the number of different ways for hackers to break in to your home network is proliferating faster than companies are securing their products, and the results of security lapses can be far-reaching and even potentially lethal. Port scanning tools, which try to establish a connection on a variety of ports (which can be thought of as connection points on an IP address for a specific type of network service) by sending a TCP packet to them are readily available, and they are frequently misused in attempts to invade your machine—or a malicious user can send so many packets to your computer that it becomes too busy handling them to access the Internet for what you want it to do (in what's known as a Denial Of Service or DOS attack, like the ones that recently affected Twitter and Facebook).
Going through my router logs for the last month, it appears that several people around the world really want to get at my systems, and as the tools are automated, they can be irritatingly persistent; these folks are responsible for more than two thirds of the entries in my security log, for example, and from the other reports on that link I'm clearly not their only intended victim.
The moral of the story is clear: make sure that your router's firewall is turned on and configured correctly, and keep your anti-virus software up to date. And it should go without saying that you should install an ad-blocker on your web browser right now before you catch something nasty.
Winter is beginning to make its presence known; the temperature dropped down to -5°C here last night, the coldest it's been so far this season. Christmas lights are beginning to appear on other houses in the street. Television advertisements for Christmas have been playing on some channels since the beginning of October.
My Christmas tree remains in the loft.
I've just been diverted from updating the blog by the discovery that I had run out of prepared header images for the thing. I create pages of hand-drawn titles with my trusty Rotring pens, but these have to be scanned in to the computer, retouched, resized and colourised before they can be uploaded to my server to form the blog's header. I use a different header every month to keep myself amused, and they are all archived on my Blog Banners page (which also serves as a secondary contents page). It only seems like a month or two ago that I sat down with my Wacom tablet and created a batch of graphics that would keep me going for a year or so. But now it's December, the year is almost over, and I've just had to pull out the graphics tablet and create a few more. In doing so, I realised that the blog has an interesting milestone coming up soon. There will be more about that next month.
I won't be sorry to see the back of 2019, that's for sure. It's been a very mixed year, to say the least. Perhaps the best way of looking at things is that it's provided me with ample opportunities for rest, reading, and reflection. I've already flown past my Goodreads target of reading sixty books by the end of the year, for example. There have been highlights, to be sure; reconnecting with one of my oldest and dearest friends and getting to hang out with her has been one. Getting a track featured on the cover CD of the May issue of PROG magazine was another. I've had a prolific year when it comes to writing songs, with nearly a hundred new tracks added to my collection. And although my health hasn't been great since the summer, after passing a kidney stone last week it feels like I might have finally turned the corner and am on the mend. When I weighed myself his morning, I was delighted to find out that I'm the lightest I've been for the best part of two decades.
So, much to my surprise, I've realised that I'm looking forward to 2020 with something that—in a favourable light, and with a following wind—might almost resemble optimism. Keep your fingers crossed.
The Christmas tree, however, will remain in the loft for the time being.
As I explain in my Films Page, my love of cinema stems from Saturday-morning trips to the Odeon in Stafford when I was a teenager, when I saw a large selection of classic B-movies like The Thing With Two Heads and The Valley of Gwangi as well as weirder fare such as The Day of the Dolphin and Battle for the Planet of the Apes. But there was one particular genre that I adored above all others, and that was the monster movies produced by Japan's Toho Corporation. I must have seen all of them several times and over the years I've collected a fair few of them on DVD, although the quality of the releases has left a lot to be desired (my copy of Godzilla vs. Hedorah or "Godzilla vs The Smog Monster" as it was called for its original UK release doesn't even have the original Japanese soundtrack, and believe me, the English dub was atrocious).
I am still a huge Godzilla fan. Last year I spent a ridiculous sum of money on a Godzilla humidifier that spits a jet of glowing blue steam and emits that trademark roar. It now sits in pride of place on the subwoofer in my living room and every time I look at it it makes me smile. When I heard earlier this year that Criterion had announced that they were going to release a set of all fifteen Shōwa era Godzilla movies, all restored and freshly remastered on Blu-Ray in a special limited edition collector's set it was pretty obvious that I was going to have to get myself a copy, even though I shouldn't be buying such indulgences while I'm still looking for a new job. The thing is, I knew that I would regret not buying it on release because it clearly wouldn't be available for very long; it sold out on Amazon almost immediately. I very nearly missed the boat, but after dithering for the best part of a week, I was able to find a UK supplier who still had copies available (well done Zavvi) so I dusted off the credit card and placed my order.
The postman delivered it yesterday, and as far as I'm concerned, it was money well spent. The picture quality is absolutely fantastic. I've already watched the 1954 original film from start to finish and it's vastly superior to the copy I have on DVD. As befits a collection of kaiju movies, the set is monster-sized. It's presented as a 27 cm x 37 cm (10.5" x 14.5") hard-back book that is full of sumptuous illustrations by artists including Bill Sienkiewicz and Geof Darrow. It is, in my opinion, a thing of rare beauty. I'll be settling in to watch another film from the set today.