Vinyl Graphics

Many people think that vinyl records are a work of art – if not the plastic itself then certainly the sleeve and when combined with the rich analogue sound quality, who could argue.  Well how about the actual surface of the vinyl becoming the work of art.

Shinsuke Yamaji has found a way of engraving vinyl in such a way that a pattern or graphic is visible on the surface, without making the disc unplayable.  I have no idea exactly how he does this – I can only assume that the groove is slightly angled to reflect light differently for each area of the pattern.

The description on the designboom website (where I discovered this vinyl oddity) is not clear at all about how the process works – there is the mention of a smartphone app which may be involved in reading the audio file and apparently there is no loss of sound quality on playback, however it is achieved.  Unfortunately there is also no clarity to be found on the Autora Factory Plate website (owned by the designer), unless you can read Japanese.  If you can it might be worth a look.

Can you create your own pattern?  Does the audio file create the pattern or is it simply a random selection of shapes?  Which ever it might be, it is certainly a new angle on an old format.  For an audio format that was supposed to have died with the advent of the CD, the vinyl record is surprisingly resilient and refuses to die quietly.

If you found this of interest you may like to read my articles on Wooden Records and ‘Years’ by Bartholomäus Traubeck.

Have a look for yourself:-

all images courtesy Shinsuke Yamaji via designboom 1

all images courtesy Shinsuke Yamaji via designboom 2

all images courtesy Shinsuke Yamaji via designboom 3

Wooden Records

Wooden Record 1This posting leans more towards the “That’s just pointless” and  “Why would you want to do that” category, rather than the “That is beautiful and useful” one.  With reference to another of my postings (‘Years’ by Bartholomaus Traubeck), this posting has a similar wood-based musical theme.

If you are at all inclined to do such a thing, it is possible to make a playable (although that is beyond debatable, it’s an outright lie!) analogue record made from a disc of wood.  You can find out how, through the use of a computer and laser cutter, by looking at this page by amandaghassaei on the Instructables site.

Looks great, sounds awful.

It’s also a great way to bugger-up a perfectly good stylus.

Wooden Record 2

Poe Through The Glass Prism (1969)

In celebration of last Sunday’s 163rd anniversary of the death of Edgar Allan Poe,  I thought it was about time I wrote something related to this great, mysterious and macabre author.

I cannot remember a time when Poe has not plagued my imagination and haunted the dark recesses of my sub-conscious.  His writing, and more particularly the mood of dread and foreboding that dripped from his pen, has over the decades coloured many a youthful mind – and for some, like myself, that crimson stain can never be erased.

Rather than write directly about one of Poe’s stories or poems I have decided to take a more oblique view of his work, through the music of The Glass Prism.  In fact this is a double celebration – one for Poe and one for me, I downloaded my first album of music last week and it was a suitably obscure album called Poe Through The Glass Prism.  I came across a vinyl copy of this album many years ago in a charity shop in Fareham, Hampshire (UK) and it has been on and off my turntable ever since.  I had occasionally tried to find a digital copy (CD or download), but to no avail, it has long been out of circulation – until now.

The album (which was released in 1969) has a slightly psychedelic sound and consists of a series of Edgar Allan Poe’s poems set to music.  I remember reading the album sleve, trying to gain some information about the band and the recording – all I discovered was that the songs were all credited to Varano, Christiano and Poe, and that the album was produced by Les Paul.  I later found out that Tom Varano (Guitar and Piano) and Augie Christiano (Bass guitar) where the main songwriters for a band which had quite a convoluted history.  They began in the early 60’s as the El Caminos and spent most of the decade playing gigs around the northeast USA and were popular enough to record a few songs at the Bell Sound Studios in New York.  They were eventually signed to RCA and decided to change their name to The Glass Prism to better suit the concept of the Poe orientated music they were writing.

Taking the words of some of Poe’s poems, Varano and Christiano moulded sounds which could only have been created in the 60’s and in America – that ended up as a very distinct piece of work.  Dominated by the organ sound of Carl Syracuse the songs are littered with piano, drums, electric guitar and bass.

The album begins with a majestic organ and piano led version of “The Raven“.  Not all the stanzas are used but the song encapsulates the brooding nature of the poem.  This was the single from the album and it’s epic nature makes it one of the stand-out tracks on the album.

The second track is a cheesey-funky version of the poem “To –” which has a great drum intro that trips into stabbing organ chords.  It is quite impressive to hear how the band managed to fit the music to the words in a way that it doesn’t sound at all awkward.  The lines are sung effortlessly with the arrangement, to such an extent that it is sometimes difficult after hearing the album to read the poems without singing the melody from the songs.

“To One In Paradise” has a dreamy quality, using a range of vocals and at one point a spoken word verse.  It ends with a classic 60’s organ sound. Another dreamy mood is evident in “Dream Within A Dream” which opens with a soft and slow tremolo effect on the electric guitar supported by a simple rhythm on the drums (Rick Richards) before the downbeat vocals and chiming organ enter the song.  Where “To One in Paradise” was more up tempo and playful in its dreamy arrangement “A Dream Within A Dream” is far more soporific and mournful in its delivery.  “Take this kiss upon the brow, and in parting from you now…” – 0f all the poems used this is probably the one I sing most readily when reading the original text.

With “Eldorado” we’re back to cheesey-funk and like many of the songs on this album it consists of a few chords repeated on the organ, which effectively makes the music pulsate, the other instruments and vocals providing interesting details.  This song was used as the b-side to “The Raven” but it could have been an A-side because it really grooves – you could almost imagine it on a 60’s TV pop show with a load of dancing-girls in brightly coloured mini-dresses.

Another standout track is provided by another standout poem – “The Conqueror Worm“.  Like “The Raven” it has a similarly repetitive but majestic organ and piano lead line which weaves throughout the song, but as always (and as it should be) it is the words, sung with real emphasis, which holds the piece together.

“The Happiest Day The Happiest Hour” is the closest we get to a classic 60’s freak-out.  A splurge from the guitar leads to a frenetic drum break propelling the songs to its conclusion, interspersed with short, slightly less manic moments, where the vocals come to the fore.  The following track, “Alone”, is similarly crazed – a piano and fuzzed lead guitar slowly emerge from the silence, emerging with dueling vocals and a crazed fuzzed bass line.  The quieter moments are like pools of calm sprinkled with twinkling piano and subtle organ.

Beloved” is guitar led and quite poppy.  It has an interesting arrangement and a great lead guitar break in the middle of the song, sounding not to dissimilar to a forgotten early track by Arthur Lee of Love.

The music on this album cannot escape the gloom inherent in Poe’s words and even the more pop-like or uptempo tracks remain plaintive.  The vocals on “Hymn” glide over the organ which uses the smooth and percussive effects, becoming a little jazzy to the end when the guitar comes in for support.

The album ends with “A Dream” – an up-tempo workout between the guitar, bass and drums, complete with chiming cow-bell.  It has the feel of a hit single but Poe scuppers any chance of it catching on with the opening line:- “In visions of the dark night, I have dreamed of joy departed”.

The Glass Prism released one more album (On Joy and Sorrow (1970)) which they wrote and recorded in a few days.  Then after a tour supporting Blood, Sweat and Tears failed to materialise they disbanded in 1971.  Tom Varano, Augie Christiano and Rick Richards then formed Shenandoah, which, as far as I know, did not get to release any of the songs they recorded at the time, although some may now be found on the band’s website.

Although not a lost classic, this album is a neglected gem and a wonderful period piece which has managed to maintained a cult following where many other albums have simply disappeared.

The band recently reformed and released a new album with a few of the old tracks re-recorded, although the newer versions in no way capture the quirky, atmospheric quality of the original album.

“Through a circle that ever returneth in to the self same spot” – I doubt that this will be my only entry on this blog about the eternal Edgar Allan Poe…

The Evolution Of A Word

Language is not often created, words very rarely pop up and become absorbed into everyday use – they evolve slowly, changing or shifting their meaning gradually over long periods of time.  There are created words, of course, but they are usually scientific terms and not supposed to be a casual part of conversation.  An obvious exception is the created word ‘utopia’, or more correctly ‘Utopia’ (well, it was the name for an island).  Created by Thomas Moore in 1516 from the Greek for οὐ (“not”) and τόπος (“place”) – effectively ‘no-place’, it was used to name a perfect society – and if that’s not genius I don’t know what is!

As for more commonly used words it can be interesting to see how they have changed use over time, ending up with the meaning now associated with them.  As highlighted in an article in The Times newspaper (Saturday the 29th of September 2012), John Simpson (Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary) traces the origin and evolution of the word ‘album’ and makes an amusing connection between ancient Rome and the 1968 album ‘The Beatles’ (more commonly known as ‘The White Album’).

Originally in ancient Rome the word ‘album’ was derived from the Latin ‘albus’ or ‘white’ and meant a blank tablet or noticeboard.  The next stage of the word’s progress, about five hundred years later, came from Germany around 1550 where the term ‘album amicorum’ literally meant a collection or book of friends.  When this meaning is first used in an English source from 1612 the Oxford English Dictionary notes that it is “a [blank] book in which contributions (such as signatures, memorial verses and epigrams) are inscribed for the owner”.

Nothing happens for the next few hundred years, but the meaning shifts again with the birth of photography.  The word is adopted for a collection of photographs, stamps or postcards.  The progress is almost complete with the advent of the Gramophone when it becomes used for a collection of records – not blank pages, but empty sleeves to group and protect the brittle shellac discs.  The early 1950’s saw the word applied to the new 33 rpm vinyl record, which revolutionised recorded music in the same way that the digital medium has in more recent years.  Now, instead of the single track-per-side of the old Gramophone record, a whole collection, or album, could be stored on one disc with far superior fidelity to the original sound.

We have been left with a number of meanings for the word ‘album’, but the Beatles ‘White Album’ spans thousands of years of evolution, bringing together its original and current meanings into one.

Will the word fall out of favour and become extinct now that people more often download single tracks rather than a body of work from an artist, will the word be fixed to its mid-twentieth century meaning, or will it evolve further and be applied to a person’s own personal album of music, no matter how vast and varied that may be – who knows!

Now that’s what I call evolution!