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Monday, September 26, 2016

Algonquin - Western Uplands Backpacking Trail - September 2016

Having just completed a 5-day (4-night) backpacking trip around Algonuin Provincial Park's Western Upland backpacking trail, I thought I'd get all of the relevant details down before I forget them all - in case it helps others but also as a reminder the next time I do this route.

Background


I'm about 6' and 170 lbs. or so. I normally walk around 20-25km per week, with 13-15km of that concentrated in a single trip and including the full length of the Hungry Hollow trail in Georgetown. Living in Halton Hills, there are hills here, but most of the routes have gradients in one direction. You go down a hill on one end and up a hill at the other end, but there aren't a lot of frequent ups and downs in between.

I've done a lot of car camping but little backpacking. The only backpacking trip I had done previously was a train + backpacking trip about 8 years ago, which had significantly less hiking involved than was planned here and I used the camp site as a basecamp rather than hiking between different sites daily with all of my gear on my back as was the plan with this trip.

So, that's where I am coming from in writing everything that follows.

Thoughts on Approach


I wasn't too sure what to expect from this trail. Most of the information and commentary online comment on the frequent elevation changes along the route, so I expected something in this regard but didn't know what to expect other than that it might be more difficult than ~75km of straight hiking, plus the difficulty of carrying 38 lbs. of gear on my back at all times.

Equipment


I'll list out what I took with appropriate good/bad commentary as needed. Some things I didn't use and likely would not take again.

Overall, my fully-loaded pack weighed approx. 38 lbs going out and 34-35lb on return.

Essentials


  • Pack: Gregory Baltoro 75. This is an excellent pack, very durable, and I don't have anything negative to say about it. It made lots of packing options possible (most of which were used at some point). 38 lbs is approaching the heavy end of the reasonable pack weight scale for my height/weight and the Baltoro didn't seem that it could have had anything that would have made carrying the load any easier than it did. On the 75L volume, less volume would have been too little, and more would not have been needed.
  • Tent: MSR Hubba. Nothing bad to say about this tent, either. Very light for what it provides, extremely quick to set up, and long enough for me to lie down in. The vestibule covers a pair of boots nicely. I stored my pack stood vertically at one end of the tent and put my feet either side of it. This worked quite well. Condensation on the underside of the fly is often an issue with this tent but it's not a major problem and I think this is a reasonable trade-off. It's very breathable overall as all of the walls are made of mesh, covered on all sides by a waterproof fly.
  • Stove: Coleman single-burner white gas stove. I decided to take this over my Primus Omnifuel stove because, although the Coleman is a bit heavier, it's significantly quicker to get out and start using as it's fully integrated and there are no setup/connections involved. I brought additional white gas in a Primus fuel bottle. I brought about 1.1L of fuel overall and didn't run out.
  • Cookware: MSR Titan 1.8L kettle, basic polycarbonate camping mug, 1-cup measuring cup. The MSR kettle was extremely lightweight and quite versatile as it has a pouring spout as well as a tight-fitting lid. I used the cup for both eating breakfast and doing the coffee afterwards. The measuring cup was useful for both measuring grains for dinner and preparing some things on the side (such as small amounts of milk that needed to be pre-mixed from dry).
  • Footwear: Merrell Pulsate mid-height waterproof. I can't easily fault this shoe. It's a light trail shoe and I wonder if a hiking boot may have been more appropriate, as I did get numerous foot injuries as well as an impact-related infection; however, I can't fault the shoe for that and it may have been due to the boot being undersized. I chose light trail boots over hiking boots due to the weight. Waterproofness saved my feet from getting wet at least twice (once in a bog and another during a mis-step while over-reaching at the lake edge to get cleaner drinking water at one site). With conditions the way they were, if my shoes had become wet then they would never have dried out during the trip.
  • Sleeping bag: MEC Drake. This is a down-filled 0-15C bag and packs to a nice size that would have either fit inside the bottom of the pack or rolled up and strapped to the outside. On day 1, I had it inside the pack but swapped places with the sleeping pad strapped to the bottom of my pack on day 2, as the sleeping bag was more amenable to staying in the straps with it being more compressible.
  • Sleeping pad: MEC Kelvin. I added this to the pack at the last minute. It's an 800g self-inflating sleeping pad. Each night using the pad was comfortable, but the ground wasn't too hard on all sites. However, it did keep the ground warmer than I think it would have been, and I would likely take it again in future.
  • Dry bag: MEC Brooks Bag 10L. A dry bag may have been overkill, but I used this for food storage and it was good to have something holding all of the food for the trip that I knew would stay dry and was easy to find and lift in and out of the pack when needed.

Clothing


  • Shirts: MEC Overlook shirt  x 2. My clothing strategy was to bring ultralight, adaptable clothes that were fast-drying rather than worrying about watertightness. This worked well and the Overlook shirt is comfortable for hiking, very light and packable, and highly recommended. It dried very quickly when needed.
  • Bottoms: MEC Mochilero x 2. One of these pairs was convertible to shorts; however, I kept them long the whole time (I can't imagine wearing shorts on this trail - too many opportunities for abrasion). Also very light, packable, fast-drying, and highly-recommended.
  • Waterproof/breathable jacket: Patagonia TorrentShell. Although it did rain one day, I didn't use this. The weather was warm and humid and the trees provided shelter from most of the rain. Given the hard work of the terrain, if I had worn it, I'd probably have been more wet on the inside from perspiration while hiking than I would have got from the outside.
  • Hat: Outdoor Research hat. I brought this in case of sun exposure but never used it as almost all of the trail is in the shade. It stayed in my pocket the whole time.
  • Towel: Chawel. Lightweight towel. There were no good places to use this, as the water was often too shallow, or would have been too muddy in volume for washing. This was unfortunate because the item is relatively heavy. I would likely not take this again next time.
  • Pocket bucket: Lightweight packable fabric bucket. As with the Chawel, there wasn't a good opportunity to use it much. I did wash one shirt in it. May take this again as it's so light, but it'll be one of the first things to leave behind if I need to lighten the load.
  • MSR Dromedary bag: This bag has some great applications and I have used it heavily in the past, but I didn't find a use for it here. It may have been useful as a shower; however, at many sites it would be challenging to collect a large volume of water near the shore without stirring up mud and having dirty water. May not take this again.

Food


As with most backpackers, the vast majority of the food was dry in order to keep the weight down.

Breakfast: Muesli every day, with milk from whole milk powder.

Lunch: No lunches were planned and instead a series of snacks during hiking breaks. I took one Clif bar for each day, as well as a large bag of mixed nuts and candies. I ate all of the Clif bars but other snacks were surprisingly under-consumed. I didn't get as hungry as I thought I would on this trip.

Dinner: This is where I think I am most impressed with myself, as I came up with something that I almost looked forward to each day (which is no small feat for backpacking food) and which was very tasty. The recipe is provided below.

Drinks: Water, black tea (tea bags), and instant coffee.

Other: Oatcakes, cookies, and dark chocolate. Most of these didn't get eaten as I didn't have an appetite for them (which was very surprising). I forced myself to eat some of them some days as it seemed necessary to eat. I did also take two fresh eggs to be used the first morning, and they survived the trip being wrapped in bubble wrap and packed in the hard plastic container that the cookies were in.

Food did get quite boring, and I seemed to be less hungry and eat less food than I would have done when I was sitting down at work all day. At one point, the only thing I was hungry for was potato chips and/or fish & chips. So, I will likely take a bag of potato chips with me next time. It takes up a lot of volume but I suppose it can be strapped on somewhere.

Cooking


All cooking was done on the stove. Even though it rained only one day on the trip, most of the available wood was too damp to light or stay lit. You are permitted to collect dead wood for fires, but that's not much help if the wood is all damp. It's not a good idea to plan for using fires for cooking any of your food.

Dinner recipe


This doesn't have a name (let's call it Matt's Spicy Backcountry Grain Boil), but I would likely do something similar again. I had it every day and didn't get too tired of it.

Ingredients

  • Ghee
  • Chili flakes
  • 1/6 cup quinoa
  • 1/6 cup millet
  • 1/6 cup basmati rice
  • 2 cups of water
  • handful of dried vegetables
  • small handful of beef jerky
  • stock cube
  • 10 raisins

Method


Melt and heat ghee without burning. Add chili flakes and heat together for 10-15 secs. Add quinoa, millet, and rice and stir to combine, Heat together for 10-15 secs. Add water and bring to a boil. While the water is coming to a boil, add vegetables, jerky, stock cube, and raisins. Continue to bring to a boil. Simmer (sometimes this is not possible with liquid fuel stoves - full boil is fine is that's all you can do) for 13 mins uncovered while stirring regularly. Turn off heat and stand covered for 10 mins. At that point it should be ready but will likely be quite dry/stodgy and hot. Add cold water to reduce stodginess - this will cool down for eating and reduce dryness, so add just enough water to reduce stodginess.

The Hike

 

Day 1

Segment: West Gate to Maggie Lake North
Distance: ~13km
Day weather: Sunny, 20-23C, medium humidity
Overnight weather: Clear followed by unexpected showers, breezy, low teens
Pain Points: None (yet)

You realize quite early on whether the trail is going to be more difficult than you imagined. The first 4km of the trail are quite representative of what days 2, 3, and 4 will look like. To be clear, let's get this out of the way first: if you are imagining that this trail is going to be a walk in the woods made up of 75km of nicely-groomed trails like the ones you see at most Provincial Park car campgrounds, then that's a big mistake to make. Many of those car camping trails are marked as "difficult" (and I could never quite understand why), but this trail seems to be using a different scale and I'd definitely call this a legitimately challenging hike.

It's clear from the topography of the park maps that there are many elevation changes along the route, as the trails regularly cross many 50ft gradient markings, but what's not apparent is how much the elevation fluctuates between the bands. It's not one up and one down, but a perpetual change in elevation on a trail that is visible but nevertheless regularly rocky, muddy, or laden with tree roots, putting regular stress on both your knees (on downward slopes) and feet when your 5-day pack is added into the mix.

Don't forget that when you get to the end of day 2, you really have very few options but to continue. By that point, you either walk back the distance you came, or continue on a similar distance to the end.

Having said all of that, the Maggie Lake campsite was excellent and one of the better sites out of those used on the days that follow. The ground was covered in soft pine needles, relatively hollowed out by underground tree roots (easy to pitch a tent and not too hard), and gave easy access to clear drinking water at the lake edge.

At the end of day 1, I had noticeable aches in my shoulders and legs and was starting to wonder how 4 more days of this would feel. At this point, of course, I didn't know what the rest of the trail held - whether it would be the same, worse, or significantly easier as time went on.

Although I had read going in that Weatherradio is rebroadcast on the FM frequency at 101.3MHz at the park gate, my ultralight pocket radio (Sony SRF-84) couldn't pick anything up on that frequency. And although I located many radio stations in Ontario and northern Michigan at Maggie Lake, the number of stations I could receive dwindled as the days went on and the distance from civilization increased. I could consistently receive 105.5MHz in Huntsville through the entire trip, which gave accurate weather for the region at :00 and :30 between approx. 06:00 - 19:00 but seemed to go hostless during the evening and overnight period and into an automated rotation of Boomer-friendly music radio.

Made a decision on the hanging of a bear bag, which is that I didn't hang one. Rather, I put my food bag inside my pack, and put my pack at the end of my tent between my feet. Although I've read a lot about hanging bear bags, it seems to make more sense to me to do that if you were going to be using your site as a basecamp and leaving your food unattended, which I wasn't doing. The food was multi-layer sealed inside Ziploc bags and then encased in a dry bag inside a pack. Given that you couldn't even smell coffee between the first two layers, it didn't seem like odour was a problem. And, I didn't have a problem with animals approaching my food for the whole trip. However, if I had been leaving my food unattended for any amount of time then I would have hung a bear bag.

This night was quite comfortable. Most of the pain was familiar shoulder and leg pain that I'd get from a typically more-strenuous-than-normal day of activity like walking 20km while on holiday or doing a significant amount of heavy gardening. It was breezy and not too cold, which kept sleeping comfortable, and I wasn't too grimy at this point.

Day 2

Segment: Maggie Lake North to Pincher Lake
Distance: ~14km
Day weather: Sunny, 20-23C, medium humidity
Night weather: 11C. Clear.
Pain Points: Shoulders, legs

The familiar call of the Loon could be heard in the morning

The hike was very similar to the first day - challenging, with uneven paths and continuous elevation changes.

I washed one of my shirts using lake water on this day and left it to try overnight on a line. This worked quite well, although most of the drying occurred the following morning when the sun came up. It was extremely beneficial to have brought clothes made of ultralight fast-drying fabrics, as both sweating, washing, and/or getting wet all become less of a problem. The shirts I brought with me frequently dried of sweat during rest stops if the stop was sunny or breezy.

Began seeing many piles of moose droppings on this day, as well as the occasional pile of bear droppings, and it continued for most of the trip. Though it should be noted that I didn't see any moose or bears on the trip.

The site on Pincher Lake was quite good and the logs arranged for sitting had a head-on view of the lake. As with the other nights, any available firewood was too wet to hold a flame, so all of the cooking was done with stoves and luckily it was regularly warm enough outdoors to not need the benefit of a fire for warmth. This is unusual for this time of year in the Algonquin region.

As with most sites, this one had a nearby thunderbox toilet. This is a wooden cedar box with a chain-retained lid and a hole in it. Some are in better shape than others, with some having seen their lids completely decomposed and fallen apart. The boxes on all of them were intact, however, but how much they thunder is all up to you.

This is also the part of the trail when it's quite feasible to never see anyone else for another day or two, depending on the time of year. The beginnings and ends of the trail were more travelled, with the long part in between being quite isolated. Even so, the beginnings and the ends on Days 1 and 5 only saw perhaps 3-4 parties each day. Days 2-4 saw about three parties in total over all three days.

This was perhaps one of the more comfortable overnight periods. One of the challenges with a 0-15C sleeping bag is that it really is too warm for my cooler-leaning taste for the upper end of that range, and most of the overnight weather was in the upper end of the range.

Day 3

Segment: Pincher Lake to Brown's Lake
Distance: ~16km
Day weather: Sunny, 22-24C, humid
Night weather: Mid-teens, humid
Pain Points: Shoulders, Knees, Toes

There was a huge racket in the early morning coming from some geese that visited the lake as a group at some point in the night.

Other than that, however, this is where is becomes extremely quiet. If there's wind, you'll only hear the wind and whatever that wind is doing to the lake. If there's no wind, it's quite possible that you won't hear anything at all. There's no traffic to be heard - perhaps an occasional overhead plane or distant jet rumble. If there's any wildlife, you'll probably hear it. But there was also less wildlife than I expected.

This was the warmest and sweatiest day of the trip and felt like the longest day overall to the extent that the distances reported on the map became suspicious. On paper, it was 16km but felt like it might have been a couple of kilometres longer. This was also one of the longest hiking days overall, with about 7 hours of continuous hiking.

This is the day where I injured my knee, and I think I did it by trying to ascend hills without fully extending my legs (think of how a spider might climb a hill), as it shortened the time to get to the top. What started with a light pain became more significant over the subsequent days and still persists currently (3 days after the return).

It was also becoming apparent that I either had the wrong type of boots for this trip, or that they were under-sized. Although the boots fit comfortably on level ground, the repeated impact of my toes on the front of my boot during uneven downward descents over the previous few days led to at least two large blisters, and three impacted toenails (one of which broke skin and appeared infected).

With the knee and toes being the way they were, and being that I could barely walk around the campsite to get water and set up camp, I went to sleep this day worried that I wouldn't be able to walk the following day, which is a significant problem when you are at the middle of the route and "going back" requires more effort than continuing to the end.

Got as much rest as possible, in a flat position, this day, going to bed before it got dark. Feeling quite grimy at this point, and there wasn't a good place to wash. You're not supposed to wash in the lake, so you need to collect water and use it with biodegradable soap far away from the water, so collecting water in volume is necessary. I had a packable fabric bucket with me for this purpose; however, the water near the lake edge was quite shallow atop an unstable muddy lake bed. Collecting water would have meant collecting muddy water, so washing had to be postponed (indefinitely, as it happened).


Day 4

Segment: Brown's Lake to Red Wing Lake
Distance: ~17km
Day weather: Cloudy, ~20C, afternoon rain
Night weather: Steady rain, turning colder and windy
Pain Points: Knees, Toes

I woke up on this day with significant residual pains, still wondering whether I'd be able to walk or not.

One thing I realized this day (after a few similar experiences) is that the pain after resting either overnight or during rest stops tends to be worse than while moving, and stops being a significant impediment once you start moving in the morning. What I felt when waking up was not necessarily what I would feel after I'd been hiking for 10 minutes. Chances are, there'd be significantly less discomfort after 10 minutes of hiking.

This was also the day where I improvised with some shoe modifications by rolling up small strips of the some of the bubble wrap I'd protected some of my electronics with and stuffing the front of my shoes with it. It worked well overall, all other options considered.

I also found a way to make my knee less painful by making sure I fully extended my leg at every opportunity (on flats, and downhill, but especially when going up hills). With this realization in place, although every downhill segment made my knee worse, each uphill segment was an opportunity to make it feel better. This worked for most of the day.

However, each downhill segment became an exercise in split-second decision making about which ongoing injury to impact least with the next step taken. Do I put my foot sideways and let my knee take the hit, or is it the turn of the 2nd toe on my right foot?

Regardless, I think this day was a turn of the corner overall. The overall challenge looked feasible, shoulder and leg pains were mostly gone or subsided, the other injuries were mainly being sustained and not getting worse, and there was the promise (however unproven) of the final day being the easiest part of the trail. Being honest, I think the main highlight of this day was just knowing that I would be able to complete it despite the injuries accumulated over the previous days.

Finding water at an appropriate point became a challenge on this stretch, and the lake that was eventually found (I believe it was Rainbow Lake) had quite a boggy smell to it, even after filtration. Still, drinking bog water is better than no water and there were no ill effects.

This was the first day where rain was in the forecast, though how much was not clear. The radio station I was able to pick up kept saying "some showers" in the brief forecast but would say "rain" in the full forecast. To me, there's a significant difference between those two things. There were showers in the afternoon, and steady, light rain in the evening and overnight. The tree canopy provided shelter from most of the rain during the afternoon hike, though the site on Red Wing Lake was not very well sheltered so the tents were needed for any shelter when on the site.

The 2nd site on the trail at Red Wing Lake was actually very small and seemed sized only for a single tent. It was a small circular pad of dirt at the bottom of a narrow descending trail, next to a firepit and a small lake access point, though it was possible to fit two tents on the site with some creative positioning and slackening of vestibules. This was with the extremely compact and narrow MSR Hubba tent and would likely not have been possible with anything larger.

The final night's campsite had a seating choice of a wet plank of wood backing onto a dirty hill of moss, or a few decomposing branches placed directly on the ground. After cooking dinner in the rain, and with darkness coming sooner within it being cloudy, most of the rest of the evening was spent inside the tent or shuffling things around within the perimeter of the vestibule.

Having blocked off the route between a narrow descent to the site and the lake with the tent in order to make use of all available space, I did have the concern that some heavy nocturnal creature (or early morning feeder like a bear or a moose) might have needed to walk over my head in order to get to its regular drinking hole. In retrospect this was not a good placement, but nothing went wrong on this occasion.

The other site on Red Wing Lake became occupied by a party of loud women using what sounded like a cowbell as a bear bell. This was the only time I had wished for the (distant) presence of a bear.

Feeling extremely grimy on this day. When your hair gets so oily that moving it on the pillow results in an immediate transfer of cold to your head.

The rain stopped overnight, the humidity and temperature dropped significantly, and a regular breeze picked up, now coming from a northerly direction from across the lake. It became quite cold overnight and this was the first night where my 0-15C sleeping bag was fully needed.

Day 5

Segment: Red Wing Lake to West Gate
Distance: ~13km
Day weather: Sun/cloud mix, 15-17C
Pain Points: Knees, Toes

This was the first truly-chilly morning. A new northerly breeze coming off the lake combined with the residual overnight dampness meant that most of the morning routines were done in a hurry, and tents were packed away wet.

At this point, I had hope that the rumours of the last part of the trail being easier than the rest are true. It was hard to see how it could have been true, given the experience so far.

But, the rumours were true. Not that it was a walk in the park, as the first stretches had some regular elevation changes with paths no less rocky and rooty than those that came before them, and all of the downhill segments put stress on the now-familiar injuries, but there were some segments in the last half of this stretch that resembled the "walk in the woods" type of experience that pleasure-seeking leisurely hikers go on hikes for. The last 4-5km were almost easy, and there's a nice place to rest at Guskewau Lake right before this part (the sites on this lake resembled those at Maggie Lake - isn't it nice that the nicest sites are the ones nearest to the entrance/exit?).

On arriving back at the parking lot, it's hard to overstate the incredible feeling of sitting in an upholstered car seat for the first time in 5 days. Most of the campsites have logs at various heights for seating, and if you're lucky then the top curve of the log has been shaved off so that you have a flat rather than round and stumpy surface to sit on. The car seat was never more appreciated.

Starting the drive back home, there was some readjustment to "modern life" for the first couple of hours. Sat in the car, travelling so fast with such comfort, felt a bit unfamiliar. Exiting the car at the first rest stop was a painful experience with all of the resting injuries being woken up at once. The greasy smell of the air that seems to encroach further north with every year is apparent on approaching significant population. And the imagery of Hwy 400 as a flume to transport excess and contamination to the pristine northern regions that I'd just spent five days in felt a bit obscene.


Closing thoughts

  • I am going to do this trail again. With the experience of doing it for the first time under my belt, there are ways it can be done better, and the only way to test this is to do the same trail with different preparation.
  • If my commentary sounds negative, it's accurate. The general feeling along the trip was one of discomfort. It wasn't pleasurable. It was demanding and painful. But I'm glad I did it, and I want to do it again.
  • Although you're in the natural environment, you don't get a whole lot of time to look at it while moving. Except for the final stretch, you constantly need your eyes on the ground to see where your feet are going to be landing next. Most of it is a blur in my memory, though you are in it for so long that you remember being in the woods for 5 days.
  • Given the constant activity, I was expecting to be very hungry on the trip. This didn't happen. I was probably eating less than 1500 calories per day and many of these were consumed by forcing myself to eat because I thought I needed to. There were some foods that I was hungry for (and only hungry for), but they weren't necessarily the ones I brought. I ate less than I would do on a normal day spent mostly sitting.

What changes would I make?

  • Will consider proper hiking boots rather than light trail shoes, and perhaps oversized boots that allow for feet swelling, different sock configurations, and more toe room.
  • Will consider different socks. I wore thick cotton, whereas multiple layers of nylon socks would likely have been better. These would also dry faster.
  • Won't bring items that I didn't use - fabric bucket, dromedary bag, towel
  • Will bring some of the foods I was hungry for but didn't have with me, such as potato chips, and will try to pack a few fresh foods within reason (where the weight will not be affected too heavily).
  • Will bring extra Band-Aids. I didn't run out, but they are so light that you should bring an oversupply.

What items was I most glad I had brought?

  • Gregory Baltoro 75 pack. No complaints about this. I think it offered everything possible to make a large load carried comfortably and accessibly.
  • Lightweight clothing. Ultralight, packable tops and bottoms are extremely helpful as they dry quickly - whether from sweat or being washed and dried overnight. This rules out cotton t-shirts and jeans, which are heavy and don't dry easily.
  • Water filter. This is pretty essential, as there is no tap water and all of the water is drawn directly from lakes. None of the water was boiled, though I believe this is advised.
  • Band-aids (for protecting foot blisters and broken skin), though I wasn't impressed with the Life brand ones I had in one size vs. the Band-Aid ones I also brought.
  • Bubble wrap (for shoe modifications to help with toe cushioning)
  • Garmin eTrex 30x GPS: I wouldn't call this necessary, but it did help for confirmation of trail correctness in a couple of cases, and with all of the other challenges, going off-route and having to re-tread distance is not something I would have wanted. Battery life is excellent on this device, and two AA got through 4 days.
  • Coleman single-burner white gas stove. This isn't as light as modular stoves like the Primus Omnifuel (which I also have but didn't bring), nor is it multi-fuel. But it's not much heavier than those given the integrated fuel tank, doesn't require any connections/setup, lights very quickly, and boils water very quickly.
  • Food. Obviously. Even though I didn't eat a lot of it. But I was most impressed by my dinner recipe as I think it was quite well-balanced and was the only thing I looked forward to eating each day.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

For all the lip service we give to diversity, it really is important in pop music

In so many aspects of life, it is easy to see the value of diversity. Which is another way of saying it's often bad when everything is the same.

Does that make me homo-phobic? Or hetero-philic? It's never so clear. There's no room for black and white here.

But it's never as clear as it is in modern music.

Exhibit A: ABBA
ABBA would not have been possible without the diverse influences of its two male protagonists. It would also not have been possible without the incredibly tight harmonies offered by the simultaneously perfectly dissimilar voices yet perfectly similar voices of its two female singers.

They were a pop band with a sound that became increasingly synthesizer-driven as they moved (however briefly) through the late 1970s. Yet none of them started out making the music they became so well-known for. It was a perfect fusion of their folk/schlager influences riding on a current of disco music and rapid advancement in synthesizer technology. Even today, with decades of hindsight, very few people can make the music ABBA made.

They are responsible for one of the most perfect pop songs ever made -- "The Winner Takes It All" -- and it's a song that many bands would have been afraid to make. Nobody focused solely on the pop music of the time would have come up with the perfect bassline, which in isolation sounds like the accompaniment to a polka party or a high-brow Balkan pig-roast when you strip it back to what it really is.



And they combined their unnatural synthesizers with the natural tones of real bass guitar and real drums. I'm sure it was just a coincidence that it all started to fall apart when Benny decided to use a drum machine for "The Day Before You Came" (one of their very last singles):



Exhibit B: Death Metal
Death metal is one of the most boring genres of music ever. The music is monotone and the people aren't funny which combined with a difficulty in taking anyone involved seriously is a poor recipe for entertainment. Much of the same can be said of rap music, but death metal is somehow worse because it seems to pretend that it's more than it is.

...unless you're Opeth or Katatonia: two nominally death metal bands who have listened to far more than just death metal, so much so that they eventually concluded they didn't really want to do it anymore and wound up doing a very appealing sort of gothic jazz music (I'm not quite willing to call it "death jazz").

When you have broad influences, you can see how this:



...fits in perfectly next to this:



Exhibit C: Steven Wilson
I'm pretty sure he must listen to everything (including real life), and it shows. So many influences are evident, and all of them are built on toward something new with near-perfection:



"The Holy Drinker" apparently sounds quite random at first and takes some getting used to, but once you get inside its head, you can follow and remember every note:



He even masters the ABBA-style harmonies in a way very few other people can (the key, I think, is that the harmony has to be perfect, but the harmony is never the main point). Follow the progression that begins around 3:00 and ends near the 4-minute mark in "Deadwing", for example:



Diversity is important. Or, at least in music it is.




Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Sunday, July 07, 2013

More meaningful classified ads

Births, Deaths, Wedding Anniversaries, Graduations... where's the "Gainfully Employed" section?

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Only a matter of time...

I first saw this years ago and never really forgot about it.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Old person, come over here and teach my kids how to use technology

Kids wouldn't grow up knowing how to use technology unless they had a bunch of old people around to show them how it all works.

It sounds silly, but that seems to be the perpetual position of the public education system. I don't understand why it's not challenged more often, especially considering the expense of outfitting schools with "technology" and keeping it constantly upgraded.

There are some parallels between this and the notion of an undergraduate business administration degree. You come out of school with a business administration degree but no real business to administer when you get there. Business is something you wrap around a basic competence to make it saleable, not really a competence in itself. Professional management may have something to say about that, but I've never seen anything of quality come from an arrangement like that.

Likewise, kids have technology all covered. If you teach them nothing about it, they'll grow up somehow knowing how to use it because they have an interest and because it's now required to functional socially. But what they won't necessarily know about is how to do productive or useful things with it, and this seems to be a topic quite separate from use of the technology itself.

What would an old person more likely be able to help a child with? How to use a computer, or how to go about asking the right questions, thinking critically, and entering into meaningful experience?

It seems like schools could forever guide these timeless abilities without ever having a computer enter their classroom. It'd be cheaper, and probably more beneficial. The kids would figure out how to get it into the computer. It's more of a challenge for the old person.

Can it really be true that the reason such an "old-fashioned" idea fails to gain traction is that there's more effort involved, yet so little opportunity for graft?

Bygone days, indeed.

Everyone has opinions on education because everyone went to school at some point in their life, so that makes it even more surprising to me that the above idea doesn't have more currency.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The raven that refused to sing

More and more, I'm finding that I can agree with certain new music but not with the way it's recorded, and not with how the life and blood is squeezed out of it by having all of the knobs turned up, the dynamics expunged, and all oxygen in the room consumed so that there's no space for anything else.

This is most apparent with the 80s revival currently taking place. It looks, moves, and sounds a lot like the 80s, but it doesn't feel like it. It's too close to your eardrums, and the space between the music and your eardrums is where feeling settles in (I assume illicit drugs can overcome this temporarily [see: techno music, clubbing]).

It's all just too loud.

Here's one that gets it right: