Tuesday, 26 May 2020

A review from a friend


I just wanted to share this review of Carrot Shaped Stick from a very dear friend of mine. Stuart explains below how we know each other and all I asked for was a short paragraph. What I got was what I should have expected from a man who never does anything by halves:

Would you review it?”.  That was the question posed by Loz, which took me aback somewhat.

I’m not a music journo and have never written an album review in my life!  Not only that, but Loz and I go back over 25 years during which we have spent significant periods together in rehearsal rooms, recording studios, on stage, and rolling with all the crap that goes on between musicians (I can recall more than one occasion of shouting matches between us!)

Hardly the basis for an impartial review you may shout?   Well, that could be one perspective.  Another could be that after decades of playing (and shouting!) with Loz, I may have just earned the right to also be his biggest critic.

So, with the challenge accepted, what to make of Loz’s new album Carrot Shaped Stick?

Followers and fans of Loz’s music will be familiar with his style of writing and production from previous releases Not The Only One (2005), Spoiling It For Everyone (2008) and The Futile Adventures of Bitter & Twisted (2012).  However, a couple of significant differences to these releases are immediately evident upon first listen to ‘Carrot’.  

First and foremost, there is a major change in the approach to the vocals throughout the album.  Aside from a more relaxed style overall, the astute listener will pick up on multi layering of vocal parts in the mix, including double and triple tracked lead and harmony parts in the versus and choruses of many of the songs.  This is in contrast to a more traditional single vocal approach in previous releases, and significantly expands the depth and impact of the vocals and lyrics throughout. 

Second, the pacing of songs is more measured, underlined by a more reflective approach taken with song subject matters.  The resulting ‘feel’ of this album overall is that it comes across as a more ‘collective’ body of songs that ebb and flow more seamlessly with one another.

Turning to the songs, Tomorrows Children kicks off the album, combining simple but effective piano chords riding over simmering synthesiser layers, asking what will become of the generations being brought up in a virtual narcissistic and manipulative world (‘winners? losers? leaders? dictators? heroes? killers? creators? destroyers?).  A thought provoking start.

Next Silent Fury, with lyrics co-written with Lucy Jones, takes things up a notch with its electronica bass groove and lo-fi robotic vocal effects.  At this point I will mention the break starting at 1.54, where the tempo drops off for a mid-section before getting back into gear for the final verse.  

While mid-section breaks can allow listeners to have a breather, equally momentum of a song can also be lost.  This type of formula is found in seven of the album’s tracks, and while its fair to say most songwriters develop a style that identifies as their ‘trademark’, repeating the same formula too regularly can also become predictable.

A poppy Plastic People then follows.  Containing exquisitely wry observations on the superficial incompetent transient bull-shitters that stalk the corporate world (we all know at least one!), this could easily be a single.   In similar style to material by Reverend & The Makers, the humours and trenchant lyrics are so on point that I laughed out loud on more than one occasion.  


Together Alone then takes the pace down, riding through the swells of the sea of life with some deep reflections on commitment, decisions, regrets, strengths, love and togetherness that can only be understood by those lucky enough to be lifelong soul mates. 

The brooding intro to Heat of the Sun leads into an Elbow-esq anthem that would not be lost on any stadium audience.  The synth loop starting at 1.42 has echoes of The Who’s Baba O’Riley, with backing harmonies in the choruses adding an almost evangelical feel before the key change at 3.22 taking the song to its final soaring crescendo.  

A grinding Disconnected brings things back to earth looking at our failures to learn from history when people become disaffected with the world they are living in, underpinned by a thought sobering lyric “take a selfie as the water turns red”.

Next up is Blabbermouth – a punchy groove overlayed with sirens and jangly guitar that camouflage some dark warnings of revenge for past upsets (“Are you having fun? Your time will come. I’ll be there to remind you when you’re battered and bruised”).  Whoever ‘Blabbermouth’ is, they have been forever incarcerated in this track (“You got your name on my song!”) who would do well to keep one eye over their shoulder!

Sitar and acoustic guitar intertwine in Lucky Escape John, giving a clue to its subject matter - which ponders how John Lennon would have fared in the digital age of social media (‘Imagine’? – sorry couldn’t resist!).  Despite a momentary anomaly between instrument frequencies in the mix leading into the choruses, this contains some nice vocal layering in the chorus with the building keyboard solo taking the song to its end.

Following this, chugging guitar and bass and a bluesier chord structure underpin an impassioned and almost exasperated No One Asking Why and its questioning of the support given to mental health issues.  Wild Wishes then blends a more 90’s indie rhythm with 80’s style keyboard and synthesiser sounds, and although a pleasant listen, feels a tad directionless at times and maybe one of the weaker tracks overall.

Invisible Again starts with a spaghetti western movie feel before moving aptly onto its theme of being lost in the ‘wild west’ world of city life and its “miles of curved glass” where “thousands of people pass.”  Crashing power chords in the choruses and flanged guitar warmed through a Leslie speaker effect in the verses provide some nice light and shade throughout.

Things then ramp with the defiant and highly catchy Coming Back To Life.  The combination of synth hooks and gated guitar treatments are reminiscent of some of producer Mutt Lange’s work, and along with Plastic People is strong single material that deserves to be all over the radio playlists of the country.

Kingdom of the Blind closes the album, highlighting the perverseness of non-creative people telling creative people how to ‘create’ (“you wanted me to make things, then you told me what to make”), its energy sapping feel framed through the chorus’s descending spiralling chord progression and heavily tremolo effected vocals.       

As Loz notes on his website, Carrot Shaped Stick was recorded, mixed and mastered at home.   The last time Loz released a similar type of production was Not The Only One in 2005, and this new album demonstrates how far his song writing, composition and production skills have advanced since then. 

The detail and subtleties in this album are almost endless; while the songs themselves remind us that inspired song writing about serious issues is not (yet) a lost form of art. 

This is a very personal and powerful piece of work, which demands more than just a cursory glance.

It is, by far, Loz’s best work to date.

Stuart Buckle

Monday, 10 February 2020

What has instant gratification done for us?

I’ve always seen myself as an impatient person.  Just like everyone there are things I desire or want to achieve and like most people, I get frustrated if it can’t happen now or at least soon.  As a kid I would nag my parents for something or other until they relented or said that I’d have to wait which would usually end in a tantrum.  As we grow up, unless we are the offspring of an Arab prince or Russian oligarch, we get used to having to wait and learn how to be patient.  This is of course a good thing because it allows us to approach things with a clear mind and it also acts as cooling off period - “Is this what I really want?”.

Recently though, I’m beginning to think I’m very patient.  I’m proud of this too because as a person with bipolar it’s harder to achieve, especially at the lowest point of depression or the highest point of mania.  It’s quite often during these peaks and troughs that I seek a quick fix to cheer me up or change my life for the better.  However, I’ve learned to remind myself of the all important cooling off period.  After a few hours or days, that new phone, new car, expensive software plug-in, can probably wait a bit and moving to Patagonia to herd llama all seems a bit reckless without at least a bit of research.

Okay, I understand that part of the reason is that as I’ve got older, I want for less things and appreciate what I already have.  Naturally I’m less excited by the shiny and new and been disappointed by hype enough times to be more cautious.  That’s not the whole picture though, I’m still as hungry as I was at 18 for new places, tastes, experiences, sounds and stories.  I still have countless dreams and desires but accept that I can only ‘control the controllables’ and therefore there’s no point in having a five year old style tantrum.  I’m not always capable of managing my impatience but I try.  So why does it seem impossible for so many people these days to even try to curb their impatience?  I suppose I need to give an example of why I think this is such a problem.

Generally speaking, company staff are working way beyond their payed hours because of a shaming culture that’s spread across the developed world leading to an overworked, unhappy and even suicidal workforce.  If you’re not doing over and above, then you’re not ambitious enough and therefore, unfortunately you’re “not the right fit for this company”.  Doing your job well is no longer enough for over ambitious bosses.  They want results before they’ve made enough money to pay for the amount of employees they really need to achieve their ridiculous deadlines.  It’s understandable though, we’re sold crazy aspiration goals that tell us we’re not successful unless we’ve retired at 40 with millions in the bank.  So many companies these days are set up with no long term goal, only with a vague idea that can hopefully be sold on to a massive corporation for quick bucks.  The corporation rushes into the purchase without enough research because it needs an immediate solution to fill a missing part of the organisation but then it turns out not to be what they actually needed.  People are unnecessarily made redundant but it’s okay because someone made a mint out of the deal.
All this impatience leads to poor quality products rushed out to increasingly impatient customers who probably paid for them with a credit card because we need it right now to fix our overworked depression and to appear successful and ambitious to our peers.  Now, because our hastily designed product doesn’t work properly, we call customer service centres filled with thousands of unskilled staff because answering the call in seconds is more important than resolving the issue properly.  Aaaargghh, the anger! - zero stars, thumbs down etc.  “Why do we have to wait so long for such crap?”, “This country is rubbish, I blame the government!” 

Ah yes, the government.  It doesn’t matter who it is or how long they’ve been in power, policy changes take a long time to implement if they are to be well thought out and given time to take effect.  It doesn’t stop the complaints and protests from those who demand instant change and immediate improvement to their way of life.  Only instant solutions that are in front of us will work - remove this, replace it with that, sack them, hire them, jail them and our favourite, spend more.

I could keep going here for probably 100,000 more words until it all loops round to ‘company staff’ again because it appears to be a pattern.  Take football as another example.  Ask yourself why do so many people support the top six teams in England over their local team?  Why are top footballers paid so much?  Why do managers last on average only 6 to 18 months in a job?  Why were none of these things the case 30 to 40 years ago?  It all leads to our lack of patience for instant success.  Pick a subject that is important to you, think about the things you don’t like about it or problems that it faces and you’ll probably find that our impatience plays a large part in those issues.

So why am I banging on about this?  Well, apart from believing it would make a much happier, healthier society if we just calmed down a bit and put some effort into understanding the bigger picture while thinking of the long term effects of our instant gratification, I have a selfish reason too.
I make music and video, I believe I’m a pretty creative person and like to think of what I do as art, my art.  Whether you see it that way or like it or not is up to you.  It has and always will be down to personal opinion.

What I do ask though, is that if you watch or listen to my work, or in fact anyone else’s work, please don’t dismiss it after a few seconds.  Give it at least until the end just once to hear all the words, all the sounds and see the whole picture.  If you can do that, then thank you, you’ll have given me a chance and that’s all I ask.

Because I’ll be damned if I’m going to let an algorithm driven by the impatience and petulance of our modern society tell me that MY songs should be under three minutes, my videos under one and that intros are now irrelevant.  I’ll be damned if I’m going to be told what the subject matter should be or what tricks I should employ to dumb down my work in order to appeal to idiots with the attention span of a fruit fly.  Unlike these digital marketeers, I don’t believe that you, the majority of people and my (hopefully) potential audience are idiots.  Please prove me right.  


You can listen to my album ‘Carrot Shaped Stick’ here

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Where have I been? Fighting with myself

If you already know me or know of me, sorry I haven’t been around for a while and thanks for checking in to see if I’m still alive.  To say it’s been a tough few years would be an understatement and if you’re interested, here is the reason.

After I called time on performing in 2013 because I couldn’t get my head in the right place, I focused on my motion graphics and video work.  It wasn’t long though before the same problems crept in like it had done with music and the band.  Wild unpredictable mood swings from deep depression and anxiety to euphoria, over confidence and outbursts of anger.  The whole time I felt increasingly disconnected from people and everyday life.

Lucy suggested we took time out to make changes, to find a new path that would lead to rediscovering our love of life.  We didn’t take this lightly, we sold our house to go travelling in South America and Australia.  Inspired by our travels, we started to come up with ideas to take us in a new direction, my confidence returned and so did our energy.  We got home and threw ourselves into work in order to afford to achieve our new goals.  It didn’t last though and it really didn’t make sense.  I was in a fantastic job, one of the best I’d ever had with people I really liked and a new life to aim for.  However in less than a year I was not only back to where I was previously but much worse.  On the way home from work one night I drove the car off the road and into a ditch.  I don’t know if it was a feeble effort after months of suicidal thoughts or an attempt to feel less disconnected but either way, I was ridiculously lucky.  The car somehow bounced into the ditch and back out onto the quiet country road.  I was hugely shaken but unbelievably, even that wasn’t enough to get me to seek help.  I was becoming a physical wreck, exhausted from barely sleeping and drinking way too much.  After months of trying to persuade me to see one, Lucy finally dragged me to a doctor.

Anyone who’s had mental health problems knows that this next stage is a long and desperate struggle with the NHS system to receive proper help.  I was initially given the GP’s standard response of Sertraline and CBT therapy for which there was a 4 month wait.  The drugs clouded my thought, killed any motivation I had left and the CBT therapy was like being told how to use a diary by a softly spoken primary school teacher.  I was in such a mess I had to quit my job and was getting absolutely nowhere back in front of my GP who had decided that I didn’t want to help myself because I wouldn’t take Sertraline.  I got in touch with Mind - the mental health charity for one to one talking therapy.  My therapist was amazing, I finally felt I was being listened to and it gave me the confidence to do my own research into the symptoms I had.  When I research things, I go into a lot of detail and every avenue I pursued, I kept arriving at Bipolar Disorder.  It explained so much about my state of mind.  I hadn’t been fighting this for the last three or four years but for my whole life until I was at breaking point.  My therapist at Mind was also coming to the same conclusion.  There were so many unexplained moments, awful memories and crazy decisions that could now be understood.  I had been using my own coping mechanisms for years and now, they were no longer working.  My GP though, clearly insulted that I had the audacity to read books and use the internet, dismissed this immediately.  Apparently, people with Bipolar are totally incoherent and need to be physically pinned down?!  The following day, I broke down in front of my Mind therapist, telling her what happened and that I was desperate for help.  With my consent she wrote to my GP suggesting that maybe I should be referred to the local hospital’s mental health unit to get to the bottom of the problem.  I heard nothing back from my GP but months later and totally out of the blue, I got a hospital appointment.  After two assessments, I was diagnosed  Bipolar II.  I changed my GP.

I’m now on medication that controls the extreme highs and lows but doesn’t leave me feeling groggy or suppressed creatively and I’ve also had to make a number of lifestyle changes too.  Obviously I’m still learning to live with what I have and accept that it’s part of me and what drives my desire to be creative.

Now, I have been very, very lucky because eighteen months after seeking it, I got the help I needed.  The average time in the system, trying to get a diagnosis and the help you need is between six to eight years.  One thing they tell you that helps to keep you going is writing down how you feel.  Over the last two years I have been doing just that and I’ve turned a lot of these thoughts and feelings into songs and making this album has become the best therapy.  You don’t have to write songs or poetry and you certainly don’t have to publish your thoughts but it really helps to unload your brain onto a page.  Also, once involved with a health care professional, it really helps to refer to these notes as you don’t always feel that way when in front of a therapist.  I’m a very lucky boy to be able to articulate how I feel and have this as an outlet.  I’ve never taken the NHS for granted and the people who work within it are absolutely amazing, hugely undervalued and working incredibly hard in a totally archaic system.

If you’re struggling with your mental health, don’t wait, please talk to someone.  If you know someone who you think is struggling, please talk to them.  You’ll probably say some things that will seem stupid later but if that person is in trouble, you’ll be glad you did talk and so will they...

… in the end.

I thoroughly recommend getting in touch with Mind

Call Samaritans free at any time on 116 123