Archive for June, 2011

So far I’ve seen fit only to let select Creative Commons music filter through onto the page, but the time has come now for me to promote my favorite resources. With these resources, a person could if they were so inclined begin their own exploration of what’s available for free out there.

A good first place to start is at the source. The Creative Commons website doesn’t just explain and promote the license, it also has a selection of links to help people start looking for works licensed under CC. This can help familiarize people with the culture, and the directions it’s taking.

Next up is a website responsible for the last two artists I reviewed, The Comfort Stand. This website is a small affair, essentially a browsing ground for a modest collective of artists. While the website appears stagnant, only offering new material when one of their preselected artists releases another album, The Comfort Stand is nevertheless stocked with several quality musicians, and I recommend giving them a once over.

Did I mention the direction the culture is taking? Then for a more in depth exploration I definitely recommend checcking out CCMixter. Harder to navigate for those not in the know, what CCMixter does best is promote samples for reuse. While the pure patron can find songs, even albums, to peruse here, the real target audience is for the up and coming sampler or mix artist, looking for open source sound and samples to work with. The result is that those looking for full albums (or even on occasion complete songs,) may have to wade through a bunch of strange samples, bleeps and bloops, but if the bleeps and bloops is what you were going for in the first place, then you’re set!

The sheer size of it may overwhelm many, but it never hurts to pay a visit to the Internet Archives. This vast library of public domain works stretching back for decades has a huge music and sound archive where all manner of unusual treasures can be unearthed, from the spoken word poetry of yesteryear to Grateful Dead live recordings. More of the information here falls simply under the “Free” as opposed to “Creative Commons” category, but that simply makes it all that much more accessible!

Finally, the resource of resources for the CC music patron, I present Jamendo. This massive and constantly expanding archive hosts thousands of artists of every genre and nationality, all putting out songs and in most cases full, extended play albums for anyone to delve through. Most of the artists I review come from or end up on Jamendo, and any music lover could lose weeks scrolling through their archives. Jamendo is a resource that helps legitimize the entire concept of free music.

Whether you’re a broke college student who can rarely afford to legally upgrade their music collection, a connoisseur on the lookout for some rare new taste, or an artist yourself looking for materials that might both inspire and provide substance for your own works, these resources will all put you well on the right track.

Two Zombies Later

Two Zombies Later at the Comfort Stand

There’s nothing quite like your, “first time.” Sure, I’d dabbled in free music before, by which I mean I’d grabbed a free compilation CD[ of local indie bands lying in unwanted stacks at the record shop, only to use them as impromptu drink coasters within a week. But there was that turning point, the day a naïve young boy heard about a collection of free music that anyone could download and own. And so I downloaded and even printed out the cover and CD art for the bold new Creative Commons compilation, Two Zombies Later, and that boy…became a man. It was the album that would ignite my passion for the Creative Commons cause.

Two Zombies Later is a two CD set of over thirty songs from various artists which would tend to fall into the lounge, progressive and eclectica genres of music. A study in opposites, the various songs, taken alone, would seem to derive from entirely disparate sources. Philip Jackson’s ambient mix of traditional electronica and sampling in Nature Boy has virtually nothing in common with Otis Fodder’s smooth swinging jazz sound in Brilliant Pillows, at least at first listen. But collected together and blended in one of the finest mixes ever made, these strange sounds all turn out to have a root thematic element. They display a fundamental unified theory of musical construction, the atom that is also a solar system.

In theory, free compilations are an excellent way for artists to join forces and advertise together. Even artists disinclined to give out whole albums for free can use these to take easy advantage of the free music model. Compilation albums like the drink coasters I describe above, however, are too often collections of artists which are not only sub-par in quality but also entirely unrelated, their music all jarringly dissimilar. Two Zombies Later, by contrast, is a collection of established, quality artists drawn together by competent producers and mixers to create a compilation with a signature sound and theme, a true extended play album, not just a hodgepodge of b-sides.

Together the music can, in fact, seem strangely one note, as the overt differences mysteriously slip away to be replaced by the once subtle but now absolute similarities. The sound becomes singular, a singularity, a mass less pinpoint of genre-specific excellence which, I think, is what compilations are supposed to be about in the first place. So instead of just listening to a couple of randomly selected songs, you connect with a uniformed effort to explore a very precise aspect of the whole of musical potential; in this case, the playful world of progressive lounge/jazz exotica! And what a fun place it is to hang around! Frankly the whole album is like staring at a gallery of Josh Shag paintings.

Alas I cannot tell you that this album will fill the holes of your pop/indy megaband collection. If you really needed the Creative Commons version of Pink Floyd or Sting then you’re just going to have to keep looking. But I’ll also say that Two Zombies Later has something for everyone. If you like music, I mean as in if you actually consciously appreciate music in any meager manner beyond as a means of displaying your chosen social class to your chosen peers, then you’re going to be challenged and pleased by at least some of what you find there, and that is a promise I’ll stand behind

So how wide spread is Creative Commons use? Start digging around and many people might be surprised to find out just how much popular culture they explore is Creative Commons licensed. Beyond an increasing number of online blogs, people can find the Creative Commons logo aside flickr picture galleries, numerous musical archives and even well known collectives like Wikipedia. The popularity s growing, so what are the perceived benefits?

Some have already been explored here in prior rants, but others certainly exist, and perhaps none is more persuasive than the simple notion of self publishing. Self publishing is a phrase many people use, but there’s a difference between producing and publishing, creating and protecting. It is extremely easy to self produce artistic works, and even distribute them, in the modern age, especially if you’re willing to allow free access. Protecting them is another matter. A person can state that the work has been copyrighted under any trademark they like, but if they are allowing free access to the material then it’s extremely difficult to defend against any exploitation, a difficultly only compounded if the trademark in question isn’t protected by a pack of quality lawyers.

Creative Commons handles the legalese for people, with a variety of specific publishing licenses which can distinguish who can use what and under what conditions, thus allowing the work to be shared while still limiting exploitation. This means that people can truly self publish, not merely in the act of printing, but in the act of legally protecting their creations. Why a person might want this is cited over at Spreading Science:

“A difficulty with scientific presentations is that the copyrights of the graphs and figures are not even owned by the person who did the work. Scientists have historically turned over all copyrights to the publisher in order to get published in the first place. If you want to get published, you had to relinquish all rights. “

Scientific work is a good example of information which is more useful shared, and built upon, then hoarded for profit. But to receive any compensation or credit for work, scientists too often have to relinquish control of it. Creative Commons offers a chance for these people to retain both recognition and control, which means they can more easily allow other scientists to study, cite and reproduce their work. This has obvious benefits for the entire field, as well as any society that prospers from its findings.

Perhaps more importantly, Creative Commons, by encouraging people to reference an artist’s work, can aid in building a professional portfolio in the early stages of a career. Over at The Blog Herald this concept is discussed in relationship to the written word :

“Having a CC license offers encouragement for that kind of reuse and lets anyone interested in reusing some of your text that you are fine with it. Though the lack of a CC license may not stop many people from quoting you who was going to do so previously, it does encourage others to quote more from your site, talk more about it and link more to your work than they might have otherwise. “

This can be equally profound in other art forms. A friend and photographer, Clinton Steeds, licenses his work on On a few occasions, publishers have requested, and received, permission to use photographs of his for illustrations in or even as the cover of books going to press. While he has earned no money for this as of yet, his professional portfolio, not to mention his professional contacts, have both grown positively.

For the up and coming artist, professional scientist, motivated humanitarian, or collaborative collective, Creative Commons is a simple but effective means to publish and share information, promoting yourself in your profession while increasing the resources of that profession and society in general without the same risks of exploitation or plagiarism. The ease of its implementation and the benefits to the producer, not to mention its comparative legal potency compared to home brewed attempts, ensure that CC’s usage can only expect to become more widely spread in the near future.

Chenard Walcker at the Comfort Stand

Most people trace the roots of the information age back to the first iterations, like the telegraph, telephone, or phonograph (but not the phonophone.) The savvy data mixer, though, knows that the age truly began with the first file casually copied from one digital floppy to another. From the moment society began digitizing everything, from ideas to pictures to music, the information became truly free, free to spread, to grow and, most importantly, to change. Now you could not only record music, but you could chop it, bend it, stretch it, dice it, turn it inside out into countless new iterations to astound and delight. Recording information was no longer just a means of preservation. It became itself an artistic medium.

Part of the importance of free information and fair use is to allow works of art to grow beyond themselves. As demonstrated by THRU-you in the atthecommons manifesto, in the correct hands fascinating, even culturally important new works, or even whole new genres, can be born. And probably no one understands this better than self described cut-and-paste artist Chenard Walcker.

Walcker is a French musician who focuses on producing music through sampling, using new combinations of music snippets and found sounds to engineer strange new melodies. His songs, particularly those found on The Lotus Opus, tent to mix traditional lounge with eclectica, forming a haunting but mellow atmosphere. His music is comparable to the ambient explorations of more mainstream artists like Moby or Aphex Twin, both practiced cut-and-paste-ers in their own right. At the same time, Walcker lends what almost resembles a coherent but twisted sense of madness to his music, an askew viewpoint regarding art and reality that is dutifully reflected at his homepage. Not speaking the French language stymies me somewhat in reviewing the page, but what there is that I can access paints a picture of whimsical self contradiction in the medium of pop, and that serves as an excellent base description of the music, as well.

Walcker’s sound isn’t for everyone, but the practiced hand combines with bold explorations into the unknown that produce not merely songs of a unique nature, but of definite quality as well. Each track will keep the mind guessing, while laying down an overtone of classic grove that combines the modern scene with the hip era seamlessly. And for those looking for good examples of how free use and sampling help redefine and repurpose the potential of art, look no further, for The Lotus Opus shines like a beacon in the dark for such seekers.

Making an honest-to-god living as a musician isn’t just hard, it’s the kind of struggle that epic tails of heroism and tragedy are born from. Living off your music is so difficult that it’s become an archetype, the starving artist, the struggling house act, that band that ‘almost’ made it big. In the information age such success has only become harder as music suddenly saturates the very air around us, a swelling sea of digital broadcasts as every person with a Casio keyboard begins producing, producing producing.

Plenty of that flood is produced and distributed for free. Services like Youtube, Myspace or Jamendo, to name a few, offer up-and-coming artists a chance to display their potential in hopes of ‘going viral,’ that sudden, inexplicable wave of flash-in-the-pan popularity. Unfortunately, such artists are rare, and even among commercially sponsored artists, such fads rarely turn into sustainable riches. In the meantime all this new information makes finding the gems amidst the wreckage that much harder. It becomes increasingly difficult for musicians to generate the kind of patronage necessary to create art as a career, particularly those musicians who elect to forgo conventional profit and give their albums away for free.

At The Technium, Kevin Kelly explores the problems associated with musical success, coining the concept of what he refers to as the 1000 True Fans. The 1000 True Fans idea suggests that (more or less) 1000 true fans, which Kelly defines as, “someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce,” will create a sufficient financial base for an artist to produce art for a living. At that stage, funding becomes reliable, and the artist need not produce hits, go viral, etc. to enjoy a respectable income. (Kelly, Kevin. “The Technium: 1,000 True Fans.” Kevin Kelly. Web. 10 June 2011. .)

There are several recent examples of the 1000 True Fans hypothesis at work. In 2007 the band Radiohead released their album In Rainbows using a pay-what-you-want format, which lasted for three months before reverting to a more traditional sales method. Despite the majority of listeners acquiring the album for free, sufficient true fans existed to push the album’s sales beyond their prior release, Hail to the Thief. A year later Nine Inch Nails released The Slip, a Creative Commons licensed album which is still available for free today. Despite being free, the album has sold over 98,000 copies at retail value, as well as achieving top 50 rankings on a variety of popular charts, including 13th on the Billboard 200. (“In Rainbows.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 10 June 2011. , “The Slip (album).” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 10 June 2011. .)

Both bands subsequently expressed disappointment in the process, but as they are established bands these examples demonstrate the potential power of the 1000 True Fans. It’s also worth noting that these ‘comparative’ failures would, to most musicians, be considered unparalleled successes and would certainly constitute an ability to work as career musicians. The problem, of course, is developing that fan base in the first place, a problem especially difficult for artists which don’t manage to earn corporate sponsorship.

One big step in creating and maintaining such a base, Kelly points out, is finding a way to reach out and establish consistent contact with your fans. This is easy enough for those who have managed to find corporate sponsorship. At that point the industry does most of the work, work like setting up tours, advertising new albums and other kinds of public promotion. For the rest there is only the information waves, casting your works into the internet like a message in a bottle and hoping it washes up on a well populated shore. (Kelly, Kevin. “The Technium: 1,000 True Fans.” Kevin Kelly. Web. 10 June 2011. .)

This is where the incentive to use a free-use license like Creative Commons can make a difference. Precious few are going to pay money to find out whether a random artist is worth listening to. Even a few free sample songs will rarely be sufficient to convince someone they should become a true fan. Downloading and listening to an album for free, however, is considerably easier and fiscally risk-free. A collection of well mastered albums, freely available, can quickly find their way into someone’s collection, and their heart.

And to be sure, there are artists that have made this a successful model. Some, like the previously reviewed Diablo Swing Orchestra, play both sides, releasing some albums for free via Creative Commons and others for purchase only. Other acts, like a band I’ll soon be reviewing, the excellent German group Jammin’ Inc., rely on live concerts, their free albums serving as kind of a heavy handed advertising to woe fans who will regularly attend (and pay for,) the shows.

Creative Commons licensing, then, offers an alternative method by which those artists unable, or disinterested in, retaining conventional corporate sponsorship may develop the kind of devoted fans needed to commit themselves to a career as artists. Concepts like Creative Commons may, in fact, be vital in allowing such artists to distribute and advertise their work in an affordable but effective manner without being at risk of having their works simply stolen by others. It also puts the artist in greater control, with more say in how their art is (or isn’t,) used, and enjoying a greater share of any foreseeable profit for the works they’ve created. The struggle to achieve financial success as an artist may not have gotten easier, but Creative Commons helps make the struggle, and the rewards, so much more the artist’s own.

Cool Aberrations

General Fuzz Homepage

Growing up in rural Arkansas left me with little exposure to quality progressive music. Early in life, my only three avenues for fashioning my musical identity were commercial radio, my parents’ dusty old LP collection, and the very real Beavis-and-Butthead style environment of young heavy metal hicks. So after getting my feat wet with some old Vivaldi, butting heads with Van Halen and abandoning the wasteland that was popular eighties rock, I was left to scour the fringes of musical culture, such as they were in the early eighties, for succor. The sad result of this was a long and fairly embarrassing relationship with New Age.

Its not that I regret my time spent zoning out to Jean Michelle Jarre. Ray Lynch was all kinds of fun when I was twelve, and arguably provided a few rungs in the ladder of modern pop and electronica. And you can actually get away with name dropping Tangerine Dream, everyone will nod and smile like you just told the story of your first clumsy, nervous expedition through “second base.” But while I may, at the peak (or pit,) of my new age exploration, have owned every Fresh Aire album ever produced, I keep those cassettes under lock and key, safe from the prying eyes of guests or potential romantic partners.

Gradually my tastes expanded, and even my lingering fondness for that new age sound translated into more exciting and socially acceptable realms like Brian Eno or Devo. And yet, a part of me always wondered, “Where could it have gone?” Had new age somehow kept pace with the stride set by alternative and indy music, what might we be hearing on our local college radio stations today?Some possible examples exist, bands like Low, Orbital, or The Postal Service especially, can be seen to have drawn a note or two from that ancient grab bag of bleeps and bloops.
General Fuzz marks, for me, the pinnacle of this exploration. The crystalline harmonics and complex yet precise orchestration that saturate Smooth Aberrations on once hearken clearly back to the innocent days of Mannheim Steamroller or Tangerine Dream, and yet so clearly brings their sound into the modern age. For me, General Fuzz took that next great step in both mood and arrangement, maturing New Age into a sound to be equivocally proud of.

I’ve always been fond of cool precision in music. When a song encourages you to sample and taste the fine staccatos and presto picking of every guitar string or synth hit, it invigorates the mind, like rolling the flavors of a good sushi roll around over your tongue. That is definitely part of the appeal of Cool Aberrations. Despite being individually produced electronica, you never get the sense that any instrument, or even any note, is simply placed to be mortar for the melody. Fuzz ushers this atmosphere along by including a variety of actual instrumental tracks throughout the album.
Fuzz himself labels the music as, “lush melodic instrumental electronica,” which I think is a fair assessment of the style. Though tranquil, it would be a mistake I think to refer to it as mellow or relaxed. Instead, it wanders somewhere closer to intelligent, almost inquisitive, encouraging the listener to wander into each track consciously, exploring every detail. As a result, it really is good for virtually any environment, from leisurely quiet afternoons to freeway driving. The music enjoys such an accessible detail to it that your conscious mind can’t help but attend it. Thus, while you might still throw a little Kitaro on in your private life, General Fuzz is someone that might actually end up on a party mix. At the very least, you wouldn’t turn red with embarrassment if it cued up while friends or important business clients happened to be about.

So if you, like me, went through an awful new age phase in your musical growth, and are looking for some kind of refined progression to enjoy, then Cool Aberrations is definitely an album for you. Frankly, unless you simply require that your music be, “this brutal,” I’d say that this album is worth anyone’s time. And don’t stop there. While I feel that Cool Aberrations is the peak of General Fuzz’s craft, he has several other albums to enjoy, and they paint, I think, a clear and wonderful picture of his growth as a musician. That’s part of the joy and ease of free music via Creative Commons licensed albums, one well worth taking advantage of as regards General Fuzz’s excellent collection of works.

The Diablo Swing Orchestra

How we come to love or appreciate music can be a story in itself. A good example for me would be The Doors. I have to admit that I despised my first Doors album, Strange Days, which was a gift from my Dad when I was around eight years old. But since it was from my Dad I forced myself to listen to it repeatedly, trying to figure out what he saw in the band, and eventually fell in love with them. Eventually.

Other music catches you unawares, like those peopole who inexplicably draw your attention in a crowd. Riding the crowded subways home from work at night, the various faces and characters start to bleed together losing substance or flair until you start to forget they’re even there and then, suddenly, someone brushes by you and with only a moment’s glance at their face, you fall in love. The Diablo Swing Orchestra was one of these, crammed into a playlist full of music to review that I’d largely tuned out while I worked on other things. I was at the stove stir frying something or another when they cued up, and just a few bars into Balrog Boogie the music had grabbed me by the chin and forced me face-forward towards the stereo. By the end of the first track they had my full, undivided attention and by the end of the fifth I was standing atop the couch, makeshift sword flailing wildly, arms flexing with sympathetic rage. I felt not unlike I’d just slammed down a massive pot of black coffee after a week free of caffeine. I was seeing red with clarity!

Red really is The Diablo Swing Orchestra’s color. Even prior to seeing the album art, the name was already evoking the appropriate imagery. The Diablo Swing Orchestra brings you The Butcher’s Ballroom? Fallacy of intent aside, if you aren’t picking up on the red motif from that alone then you’re doing it wrong. The genre is avaunt-garde heavy metal, brilliantly and smoothly mixing distinct elements of big band, operatic vocals and more traditional jazz around a heavy metal core. At one point in a song, snarling electric chords might be grinding down at you on the wings of some aggressively trilling vocalist until you’re all but convinced that you’re charging over the sandy ridges of the desert planet Dune screaming the name of Mau’dib, then suddenly a jazzy little flute solo bursts out and you stop short, exclaiming, “Oh, hello, Pierre Rampal, what are you and this charming little corner of post-liberation Paris doing among the blood-soaked sands of Arakis?”

The Diablo Swing Orchestra will surprise you is the message you should take from this. Drop your preconceptions, especially the ones you may have about the metal genre and instead prepare for every stanza to be its own delightful little twist ending. There’s a lot going on here, but unlike most metal it isn’t going on in the melting pot style of blending five instruments together into an inaccessible paste but instead they diligently ferment a fine bottle of wine with every note and undercurrent hitting on cue, a bottle you have to drink twice just in case you missed something the first time!

A Swedish band, The Diablo Swing Orchestra’s homepage is a fun little exploration in itself. A simple flash ‘novella’ describes the certainly apocryphal history of the orchestra, stretching back to the 16th century and encompassing a Templar’s tale of popularity that earned the ire of the lords of the land, driving the musical act underground for centuries. The story lends a backdrop for the eccentricities in the music, the ambitious vocals of Daniel Håkansson and Annlouice Loegdlund and even, to a degree, the lyrical choices the band makes.

Ah yes, the lyrical choices, the pitch spread liberally across the fields of Elysium. Do I think highly of the lyrical quality of the music? Evidence already suggests that I do not. I will confess that I am not mired in the traditions of heavy and death metal, so this becomes a tricky point to critique. My understanding that these overly blatant, heavily Tolkien inspired notions, concepts that act as though they’ve never heard the word subtext before in their lives, are in fact the meat and milk of northern European metal, and if that’s the case then regular fans of the genre will be in their comfort zone. For me, I especially appreciated the songs written in languages I’m not fluent in. Still, with music as excellent as the D.S.O. writes, my instinct is not to reject the lyrics but instead to embrace them and try to learn to love them. With everything else constructed with such precision and talent, maybe…just maybe…it’s me and not them, and if I get to indulge in a mood that powerful, then I can howl along to any ridiculous tale they choose to weave around me!