Friday, December 21, 2007

Merry Humbug

The latest Board recording session was a bit of a mixed bag - partly due to technical problems with the monitoring of the sound and partly due to a lack of planning, perhaps. We ended up with a single recording, albeit a 20-minute, multi-instrumental one. This was a bit of an attempt to recreate some of the live experience in a studio setting by recording an extended improvisation tying together The Unofficial National Anthem and Morning Rolls in one long track. However, neither of the two songs were a patch on existing recordings, so I doubt we'll use them. Some parts of the instrumental worked quite well, and I would reckon we could probably get it edited down into a pretty decent four or five minute piece.

I have done a bit more writing over the last few months - putting a better structure to The Parallel Curve, a song about corporate lunacy, which we first tried recording back in March this year. I'm hoping to put a new demo together for it in the next week and possibly record it at the next session. I also have some bare bones of a song started which covers some themes about power, leadership and control through the ages - a verse, a chorus and some chords exist so far, and even a little bit for the celtic flute. I'm still struggling to get Jim Crow into a finished state - it rolls along rather nicely in its new doo-wop styling, but needs another couple of verses to do the subject justice.

That's about it for the moment - I've been without a studio for a couple of weeks as I'm shuffling it around a bit now that I've had some time to live with it and can see improvements to my original plan. I've also got a very cool new-but-old keyboard which I needed to make room for - more to follow on that shortly!

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Gimme Dat Harp Girl

I don't normally pay much heed to the 'latest big thing' in musical circles - there is just so much hype about usually very little substance, but there is a new album by a quite unique artist that has been sitting at the top of my playlist for the past few weeks.

I investigated Joanna Newsom's music after she featured Roy Harper as support at a recent UK gig, and having heard some positive mumblings from some reliable sources, I have to say that I was instantly enthralled. She gets labelled as 'freak folk' apparently, but to these ears there's a healthy mix of not just folk, but classical chamber music, progressive rock, blues and plenty more - a real eclectic acoustic brew.

To me her vocal style and the cascading flood of lyrical images reminds me of Captain Beefheart around the Trout Mask era, which is high praise indeed. That's not to say she sounds LIKE Beefheart, but she certainly appeals to whatever bits of the brain and soul that thrive on the Captain. Long may she continue to follow her own unique path and avoid being swallowed and spat out by the media monster - the world needs more gems like this instead of the music-by-committee z-factor drivel that the public is being fed intravenously at the moment.

Here's a performance of a song from her new album, Ys...

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Show and Tell

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, those of you too tight to buy tickets, those too distant to travel, those too drunk to care and everybody else can now see The Lunacy Board's performance last week from the comfort of home.

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Lunacy Live

Bass and Theremin improvised section

It was a night of mixed emotions, stress, compromises and arguments, but above all a night of music in various guises...

It's been a while since I last drove around Glasgow and numerous new one way streets (as well as unexpected roadworks en route) meant that I didn't arrive as early at the Classic Grand as I had intended. A rant for another day, but it added unnecessary stress before the show was even underway. As it turned out Glass were still setting up, so we had a bit of time to unload and prepare to shift our gear on-stage. With four bands on stage over the course of the night time was tight for soundchecks, and as first-on we drew the shortest straw with a check that everything was making a sound without the luxury of any fine-tuning. Not to worry - the doors were open and people were arriving, so we took to the stage to kick off the evening.

The intention had been to play a new short song, Morning Rolls first, followed by an instrumental improvisation, then finishing off with The Unofficial National Anthem, but the time restrictions meant that we had to drop something, so Morning Rolls got the chop. The improvisation we started off with was based around a delayed loop on guitar which I varied between a gentle acoustic sound and a slow e-bow background pad. I knew we wouldn't have the luxury of time to set up the 'Sooper Looper' system I used at the Theremin Symposium, so the loop came from a standard effects pedal, meaning the sound looped, but gradually degraded in clarity and faded away so that the piece changed texture as the looped sounds piled up. Having rehearsed this method a good few times over the last couple of weeks and come up with some interesting and varied music (different every time), we knew this could work even though the risk of it being a total train-wreck was high. On the night I don't think it worked as well as it had in rehearsals, but these were really just wobbles on the corners rather than full-scale derailment. The fact that we had to keep it fairly short instead of building the piece up gradually meant that there were a few places where we changed directions earlier than we would otherwise have done, so I don't think the piece flows as well as it might have, but neither does it stand still for long.

Drums, vocal and guitar on TUNA

The Unofficial National Anthem mutated out of the dying echoes of the improvised track, and we kept it simple with no instrumentation apart from guitar, drums and voice. We had tried a number of variations on the song recently, including with a full drum kit, but the little set of digital drum pads just seemed to be the right sound for this song. I built a mount so that it could be attached to a mic stand which meant that Sean could stand at the front of the stage to sing instead of being hidden behind a wall of drums, and was also able to easily switch between drums and bass guitar where necessary. Since there are only two of us, this arrangement means we're both up-front and visible, even if we need to play on a relatively small stage area.

As is usually the case, the venue didn't really start to fill until nearer the time for the headliners to take to the stage, so we weren't playing to a crowd by any means - probably a few more people than were at the Theremin gig, but it was more of a toe-dipping exercise for us. We wanted to see how we'd do on stage, how the songs would hold up to being stripped down from multi-layered arrangements into more direct and raw pieces of music, if we could pull off a totally unstructured improvisation live, and finally if anyone would even listen. As with my previous stage outing, we did get some positive comments. We know we're only likely to appeal to a tiny section of the population, but if just one person enjoyed what we did at a gig, then our mission is worthwhile.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Live in Glasgow - next week!

The Lunacy Board's first proper live gig is set for the 25th of October. We'll be playing at the Classic Grand in Glasgow. Headliners are US progressive band Glass and also playing will be local acts Oswald and The Twisted Melons.

Doors open at 7pm and tickets are £6.

I'm really looking forward to this - the 'subcommittee' set at Hands Off 2007 was great fun, but I'm hoping it will be even better to play the music as it was intended - in a well-rehearsed group with a solid prog-rock drum section and a house full of prog fans. We've stepped up the rehearsal rate significantly so that whatever we play will be as tight as possible.

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Monday, September 24, 2007

HOW many?!

Happy Birthday Deserters!

Yes, it was a whole 25 years since The Deserters came into being following a showing on BBC of The Beatles' "Yellow Submarine" that inspired four young and impressionable Scottish lads, with barely a modicum of musical experience between them, to form a rock band capable of performing music with as much fun and enthusiasm as those boys in Sgt. Pepper's band.

The band may not have played together for several years now, but we never actually split up, and the spirit lives on. Who knows what the future may hold.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Fire Engine Nudity

I came across this headline today, which reads like a collection of The Deserters' and The Lunacy Board's favourite songwriting topics:-

- Woman Tries To Steal Fire Engine Half-Naked -

The young lady, recently released from a mental hospital jumped on board whilst the firemen were on a call, but caught her before she managed to drive off. Full details here.

Mental health problems and fire-fighting apparatus in one charming story - what more could you ask for?

Well, apparently there's something going round... A few months previously on the other side of the World, a young Australian chap drove around a town in New South Wales in a fire engine full of naked passengers. More details here. With a number of firms now operating fire-engine-as-limo services, it will likely not be the last story of this kind we hear.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Mr. Gone

RIP Joe Zawinul

The legendary jazz keyboard player passed away earlier today.

I first came across his work with Weather Report back in 1987 in a TV concert presumably broadcast following the death of bassist Jaco Pastorius, was immediately transfixed and bought "Black Market" the next day. Although I have only a handful of his recordings in my collection, his playing (and that of his collaborators) formed the bulk of my introduction to modern jazz and paved the way in preparation for my brain and ears to appreciate Zappa and more freeform improvisers.

So long, Joe.

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Saturday, September 08, 2007

Neo-prog overload

Euan Lowson of Pallas

It does get its fair share of bad press, but neo-prog was a part of the early years of my musical development - mainly because the other bands I liked at that time in the mid 80's (Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, Rush and Yes mostly) were split up and/or in hibernation. If I wanted to hear live music with any sort of a challenge then bands like Pallas, Marillion, IQ, etc. were the only choice (bearing in mind that I was working through word-of-mouth and band links and had yet to venture as far off the commercial track as the likes of Zappa, Hammill, Harper and many more I subsequently discovered). So whilst I don't religiously buy every album by these bands in the music-hungry fashion I once did, I do keep an eye out for what they're up to and have bought the occasional disc on recommendation or from bargain shelves.

Alan Reed of Pallas and Abel Ganz

Having said that, this week has been a bit of a progfest for me. Last weekend I saw Pallas in Glasgow, sporting both current and former vocalists and making King Tut's rock. They played a fair chunk of the Atlantis suite from their classic Sentinel album with original vocalist Euan Lowson, and a selection of newer songs, mostly from their two most recent albums, with Alan Reed. In the past I have found Reed's stage presence to be a little uneasy, but he was very animated and had some amusing stage banter this time round - perhaps improving his 'game' to keep up with Lowson's semi-crazed antics, which might otherwise steal the show. I thought that Graeme Murray's bass sound seemed to have lost its characteristic sharp attack, and there were a couple of wobbly vocal harmonies, but in general it was a great show with plenty for Pallas fans old and new.

Joe Cairney of Comedy Of Errors and Abel Ganz

Before Pallas came on stage, we had another couple of blasts from the progressive past, in the form of Glasgow-based progsters Abel Ganz who also made use of two vocalists. Alan Reed, now of Pallas, was previously in Ganz and joined them for 'The Dead Zone', giving it an enthusiastic update for the new millennium. Also on vocals for the other two (long) songs of their set was Joe Cairney, formerly of Comedy of Errors - a Glasgow band who just started to bloom as the short-lived UK interest in prog (largely due to Marillion's success) was tailing off. He put in a strong performance on two new Ganz songs which made use of more traditional instrumentation (bazouki and flute) and suggests that their new album could be a bit of a treat. Apparently Joe is working with Ganz keyboard player Hew Montgomery on a stand-alone concept album called The Grand Tour, which should be worth checking out.


So - representatives from 3 of Scotland's main players in the progressive scene - just one to collect... Enter Planet Rock radio. They kicked off Fish's new tour with a free show in Edinburgh's Jam House. I last saw Fish almost twenty years ago when he was touring his first solo album and was able to fill the Playhouse. Changed days from the peak of Marillion's popularity, but having done the sound at the Jam House myself I was interested to hear how a pro would sound in what seems a pretty good venue. Unfortunately not too good - the mix was pretty muddy in places, and especially on the vocals, with even Fish clearly struggling to hear himself on his monitors. The band were a good deal more raw and rocky than the previous line-up I had seen (which really had a point to make in terms of being musical equals to Marillion following the split), and certainly suited the music and delivery to a tee. I would like to see him changing the format a bit - I think the songs are strong enough to stand up to being performed just by him and (guitarist) Frank Usher, as Peter Hammill does on a regular basis, and would allow Fish to concentrate on the emotion and delivery of the song. The material was mostly taken from his last Marillion album ('Clutching at Straws' - celebrating its 20th anniversay), with a few from his new album ('13th Star') and the rest of his solo career thrown in for good measure - the new material all sounded strong. One thing Fish has over most (in not all) other neo-prog frontmen is his natural showmanship - positively encouraging hecklers and engaging in lengthy periods of banter between songs, though sometimes it's difficult to tell whether he looks like he's going to hit someone or hug them!

So I'm all neo-progged up now. That should keep me going for another few years - back to the more esoteric music now...

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Inverbegnac Regurgitated

I've been doing a lot of mixing of live recordings over the last few weeks, and needed a little break, so last night I messed around a bit with a couple of video editing programs to see which would be the best for the forthcoming Lunacy Board Subcommittee live video. Here's the result. A suitably daft video accompaniment to the 'Inverbegnac' advert.


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Monday, August 13, 2007

Tartan Heart (Belladrum) Festival

It has been a number of years since I last went to a music festival to experience the delights of multiple bands, dodgy catering and never-ending queues for toilets. My first such event was the Cropredy festival in 1987 which featured Jethro Tull, Fairport Convention and John Martyn amongst others, ran like clockwork and had record-breaking good weather - nothing I've been to since has measured up to that weekend, so how did Belladrum fare?

It has won awards for being the most family-friendly festival, amongst other things, and there were indeed stacks of activities for ankle-biters from puppet shows to storytelling and creative workshops. A very good selection of food stalls was on offer - from the traditional festival fare of burgers through to smoked salmon and stovies. The quality varied as much as the variety, as you'd expect, whilst the prices were uniformly high. Then there was the usual range of cash-in, boutique and generally peculiar shop stalls for those wishing to buy hats, wellies (essential), healing stones, etc. So far, so good, but most importantly... what of the music?


Nick Harper

We arrived slightly later than we had intended on the Friday, so by the time we had unloaded our gear into the tent (pre-pitched by Martin - what a star!), then found a copy of the 'Garden Times' (the mini-newspaper detailing running orders and events), we only managed to catch the end of Nick Harper's set. He played a monsterous version of his 'Love is Music' mutating epic, which grows more arms and legs and nods and winks every time I hear it played live. His singing was as strong as I've heard it, and guitar playing superb as ever - I just wished I could have heard more! The only downside was that the sound in the tent was pretty poor - almost as if the sound team underestimated the power that could come from one man with acoustic guitar - it seemed to be overdriving something in the system.

Peatbog Fairies
The Peatbog Fairies

After a wander about we settled down to see the Peatbog Fairies over at the main stage - the only stage not covered due to the size of the arena. They have a mix of instruments from bagpipes and fiddle via horn section to standard rock guitar, bass and drums, and play a sort of high-octane ceilidh music intertwined with jazzy horn riffs and funky guitar solos - ideal for a festival audience in the Highlands, and it certainly got plenty of people up and jigging about. As a dance band they were great, but musically I found them fairly repetitive and lacking in dynamics, a fact which was not helped by a very poor mix which lost several instruments which were clearly supposed to be playing solos, and which had the bass so loud that we actually moved to the back of the arena because it was painful on the ears.

Alabama 3
Alabama 3

The bass was still a bit on the heavy side during the Alabama 3 (or A3 in the US) set, but the mix was generally a bit better. They play a brand of country music with a strong flavour of modern dance music - I'm not familiar with the correct label, as this is a type of music that generally I try to avoid, but I'd guess house or acid or something like that. It works quite well, with three vocalists singing and rapping against each other, electronic noodlings warbling in the background and a pretty tight set of country/gospel/blues songs to carry along. An interesting and entertaining act with mock evangelical zeal and some nice cynical references to world politics.

The Magic Numbers

Having been disappointed by the poor sound of all the artists so far, I was pleasantly surprised by The Magic Numbers, for whom the mix was just right, with a strong, crisp (but not overpowering) bass and clear vocals. I wasn't expecting great things, as none of their songs that I've heard before particularly appealed to me, but I really enjoyed their set which had a great variety of songs, with lots of dynamic range and fun little time signature changes backed by that clear and busy bass and smooth harmonically-interesting backing vocals. A very polished performance which shone with humour and a sense of fun.



Headliners for the Saturday night were James - one of those bands which, from back in my student days when they were big news, I always considered to be over-rated. Not bad, I just couldn't see why so many people thought they were SO good. Nothing I heard at Belladrum changed my opinion. The sound wasn't great, the songs uninspiring, and the early 'last number' seemed like a push for a second encore. I don't know if they got it - I left after the first one - as did many others, but there was no change in lighting or on-stage clearing-up activity, so I think they were expecting it. In all I was surprised to see they had as big a fanbase present as they did, but they were the least interesting of all the acts I saw on Saturday. They pulled a bunch of people out of the audience for one song (which seemed to repeat the same riff endlessly) to dance on stage, but made no attempt to interact with them once they were up there. Perhaps I'm just spoiled by Zappa's approach to audience participation, but I thought it was a pretty empty gesture.

Kharma 45

Back at the start of the day, before the daily rag was available and we knew where to go and who to see, we stumbled upon an unadvertised band Kharma 45 - good lively rock band, with an energy I'd imagine in an early U2, and a bit of a hint of their progressive influences. A unexpectedly good start to a day of great music, despite the rainclouds starting to empty overhead.

The Dangleberries

The DangleberrysNext up for investigation, purely on the basis of their name, were The Dangleberries - another bagpipe-rock combo in a similar vein to the Peatbogs, but this time more of a pipe and drum band with a rock group tacked on. And with an altogether different remit. If Jack Black had lived in Scotland and learned the pipes, this is probably the sort of thing he'd come up with. Sabbath's "Paranoid" played on the bagpipes? "Roadhouse Blues" with a pipe and drum solo? Rock meets folk head-on and some sort of hybrid mutant music comes out. Not entirely successful all the time, but certainly a lot of fun. If you're going to do a cover version, then at least try and bring something new to the song - and the Danglers certainly do that!

Paul Steel

At this point we headed over to the 'Hothouse' tent to see String Driven Thing, but apparently the string driving the generator had snapped earlier in the day and the whole schedule for the tent was delayed. Another happy coincidence. Paul Steel was leading his band in his upbeat, quirky style, swirling his moptop around and jumping between keyboards and guitar with timing-perfect changes in style and tempo. Maybe I'm avoiding the radio too much, but I'm amazed that I hadn't come across them before - definitely one to watch.

Orkestra del Sol

Orchestre Du SolBack to the other side of the festival arena to see Orkestre Del Sol - a wonderfully eccentric, but very well rehearsed brass ensemble playing great Eastern-European flavoured tunes with a great sense of humour and an engaging way of switching between band leaders. I could imagine this band doing great things with lots of Zappa's earlier instrumental music - great fun to watch and heart-warming, uplifting, crazy music.

Fake Bush
Fake Bush

Slightly disappointing was the fact that Fake Bush was just one woman and a backing tape, rather than a full band, but she was very entertaining covering Bush songs from "Wuthering Heights" to "Breathing" (the latter done very well). A very visual act, half the enjoyment lies in seeing the moves and expressions familiar from KB videos and performances. She struggled with (or avoided) a few of the more awkward notes in the range, and some of the expressions were more like Fenella Fielding than Kate Bush, but this just added a bit of comedy to the mix which wasn't out of place. The only thing missing (minor, but an important part of the song) was the rifle sound in "Army Dreamers" which had been replaced in her backing track by a simple percussion sound - just not the same. Towards the end of the set there was a large influx of people into the tent to avoid the rain - I appreciate the need for shelter, but it was pretty damn rude to come in and talk all through the rest of the set - some of us did go to hear the music. FB carried on regardless of the pushing, shoving and noise and put on a great show. On leaving the tent it was apparent that the rain people had been trying so desperately to escape was no more than a standard Scottish shower - not some massive downpouring of biblical proportions. What a bunch of jessies.

String Driven Thing
String Driven Thing

Having only heard of String Driven Thing through their links to Van Der Graaf (Graham Smith played violin for both), I wasn't sure what to expect from them. What we got was a great old-school rock band with elements of folk and blues - no frills, no gimmicks, just good live music, played well. I hadn't really done much to find out more about them in the past, but certainly will now.

Misty In Roots
Misty In Roots

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the weekend for me was just how much I enjoyed Misty In Roots. Whilst I don't think I've heard a Bob Marley track that I didn't enjoy, reggae has really never done much for me and I've steered clear of it in the past. That's probably got more to do with the likes of UB40 and their ilk, but at Belladrum I finally got to hear a reggae band good enough for me to 'get it'. Sat down near the stage to get the full trouser-flapping effect of the bass (though still not as loud as the previous night's Peatbog mix), it was a pleasure to let the laid-back rhythm carry me along. But these guys can rock too - some of the guitar solos by Kaziwayi wouldn't have been out of place on a Pink Floyd album, the horn section added all the right touches and the vocal harmonies were stunning. The chatty rhythm of the lead vocal (Poko) seemed very spontaneous until the backing vocals came in exactly on cue to reinforce the rhythm and showed just how tight these guys are. A great performance.

So hats off to the organisers of the festival - it really was a cracker.

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Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Survivors' Party (Live Theremin Frenzy)

Mick and Wilco

It's been a long time since I've been on stage, and never as a 'solo' act, so it was with some trepidation that I set off on the road to Bushey (near Watford) for the 'Hands Off 2007' Theremin Symposium. Various people have posted reports of the main event, which was a great success, but of most interest in these pages is the little set I did on the Sunday night for the 'survivors' of the whole weekend. This came after a packed weekend of workshops, demonstrations and a truly wonderful concert by a variety of thereminists from around the World, so it could easily have been a total wash-out with everybody drained. I happen to think it all went rather well.

I rehearsed a batch of new Lunacy Board songs, along with a couple of old Deserters numbers - just me playing guitar and singing, using an old Linux PC running the 'Sooper Looper' software to set up sections of repeating chords to play solos (either guitar or theremin) over the top of. At some point prior to the event it occurred to me that it would make life a bit easier for me and a bit more interesting for the audience if I was to have some collaborators up on stage, so contacted a group of performers with the offer of the post of 'Stunt Thereminist' for The Lunacy Board Subcommittee. I received a couple of positive responses, so re-arranged my setlist to fit around their choices of song, and I was ready to go.

Nerves were absent as the performance drew near - probably just because the day had been so busy and I had barely time to think about the evening show. I got the stage more-or-less set up as soon as the main concert had finished, took half an hour to get refreshed, then returned to the stage to finish off. At which point I discovered that I had not brought a video cable for Sooper Looper. It can run quite happily without one, as I control it from a set of effects pedals, but should anything go amiss I would not be able to reset it or see what was wrong. Live and learn. The audience came into the room and chatted as I prepared for the first song.

To warm up my fingers and voice I kicked off with 'Morning Rolls' - a very short song with no instrumentals or frills. With that complete and with only a small fluffed chord change I invited Wilco Botermans to the stage. Previously in the weekend Wilco had demonstrated his theremin effects set-up which he controls using a specially wired glove to control parameters of a group of Moog 'Mooger Foogers', as well as the visually stunning 'Croix Sonore' - a unique instrument with similar properties to a theremin. For the purposes of his guest appearance he was using his TVox Tour theremin (the Russian-built instrument favoured by Lydia Kavina and Barbara Bucholz), and the Mooger Foogers, though without the glove controller.

We started off with 'The Unofficial National Anthem', followed with a very laid-back version of 'Requiem For A Head In A Field In Butler' - using Doug's original bass part which we improvised along to, and finished off with 'One Night In The Back Of A Fire Engine' complete with audience participation (cheesy, but fun). Wilco played a mix of melodic accompaniment and weird special effects which worked well - 'Requiem...' seemed to really benefit from this approach as far as I can recall. The concert was recorded in full, but I've only had a chance to hear a few snippets back.


Wilco left the stage and I played another short song - 'Jim Crow', then Hypnotique came up onto the stage. We played 'The Man In The Boat' followed by Lee Newe's 'The Woman In Red' - both fairly slow songs, to which Hypnotique added some legato cello-like theremin parts. Her solos on 'The Woman In Red' were particularly effective at bringing the sad nature of the song to the fore.

At some point during the previous song, the looper had stopped responding, so this stopped me doing the new multi-part song we've been working on, which needs several looped layers to work, so I called for another stunt thereminist and Terry Bowler came up to play on 'The Winning Smile' (a rare love song I wrote last year, which now also incorporates the music from 'Goodbye Mr. V.') and 'The Ballad of Serenity' (the only cover version I've tried, with lyrics which fit into the Lunacy Board remit). I finished off with one more guest thereminist, Captain Ants of 'The Jaw-Line of Julianne Moore', playing the somewhat rockier 'Fairytale Propaganda'.

It was good to finally get some of these songs out on stage, and great to be able to play them with a group of musicians from a range of backgrounds. I hope to get some video clips posted in the near-future from this.

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Going Live

The Ultimate Theremin Concert - 29th July 2007

This gig forms the grande finale of the theremin shindig I mentioned a while ago. I'll be part of the 'UK League of Thereminists' playing a few structured improvised pieces as part of a 'theremin orchestra'. There are a number of very good thereminists going to be attending, so well worth the money if you are in that neck of the woods this coming Sunday. Book soon, though, by clicking on the picture here.

More daunting for me will be the post-concert wind-down party, for which I'll be providing some of the music...

This will be the first time that the Lunacy Board material has been played live, albeit in a somewhat more spartan form than usual, as it will just be me playing guitar and singing with a looper and theremin to make things more interesting. The original plan was to use the yobstick as well, but I might limit this to just one or two songs due to the way the looper works, as the rhythm can become a bit too repetitive.

I have also dusted down a couple of old Deserters' numbers to include in the set, which will be fun, and for a few songs I will be joined by special guest stunt thereminists.

The whole event is being recorded and videotaped, so watch this space for more news early next week...

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Electronics + Beer = Not Good

We had a bit of a crisis at our latest gig... The mixing desk made a rather loud bang and stopped working just before the start of the 2nd set. Everything was lit up, but not a whimper of sound came through. All was not lost and our back-up plan for just such an event came into action, but it was a pretty embarrassing, annoying and uncomfortable half-hour to get back into action. Now we can, with a small degree of certainty, put our finger on the culprit.


Beer and pubs and music go hand in hand - without pubs and beer there would be a substantially smaller consumption of live music in the world. However, pouring beer into the mixing desk essential for presenting that music to the audience is not a wise plan, and a couple of clues (not least of which was the liquid seen pouring out of the desk earlier today) suggest that is exactly what happened.

Such are the risks of sitting the desk in the midst of the audience, especially in a fairly cramped venue.

Amazingly enough, after a spell drying out (rehab?), the desk seems to be performing as well as it did before - no noticeable difference, so our wallets can breathe easy for a while longer.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Best Batch Yet

Captain Beefheart

Something I've never come across before for some reason is Captain Beefheart's "10 Commandments for Guitarists". I found this at the ever-informative Music Thing, though it appears on a few sites around the web. The annotations in italics are mine.

That's where all the music comes from. Birds know everything about how it should sound and where that sound should come from. And watch hummingbirds. They fly really fast, but a lot of times they aren't going anywhere.
Which reminds me that I once wrote a piece of music on the old CX5m that was based on dozens of transcribed birdsongs - what the hell happened to that?

Your guitar is a divining rod. Use it to find spirits in the other world and bring them over. A guitar is also a fishing rod. If you're good, you'll land a big one.

Wait until the moon is out, then go outside, eat a multi-grained bread and play your guitar to a bush. If the bush doesn't shake, eat another piece of bread.
Strangely enough, I have done this, apart from the bit about the bread. Next time...

Old delta blues players referred to amplifiers as the "devil box." And they were right. You have to be an equal opportunity employer in terms of who you're bringing over from the other side. Electricity attracts demons and devils. Other instruments attract other spirits. An acoustic guitar attracts Casper. A mandolin attracts Wendy. But an electric guitar attracts Beelzebub.
So what does a yobstick attract? Nearly Headless Nick?

If your brain is part of the process, you're missing it. You should play like a drowning man, struggling to reach shore. If you can trap that feeling, then you have something that is fur bearing.

Your instrument has more power than lightning. Just hit a big chord, then run outside to hear it. But make sure you are not standing in an open field.

You must carry your key and use it when called upon. That's your part of the bargain. Like One String Sam. He was a Detroit street musician in the fifties who played a homemade instrument. His song "I Need A Hundred Dollars" is warm pie. Another church key holder is Hubert Sumlin, Howlin' Wolf's guitar player. He just stands there like the Statue of Liberty making you want to look up her dress to see how he's doing it.
I never leave home without mine.

You need that stink on there. Then you have to get that stink onto your music.

When you're not playing your guitar, cover it and keep it in a dark place. If you don't play your guitar for more than a day, be sure to put a saucer of water in with it.
Mine does live in a cool, dark place, but usually gets left a half-cup of cold, black coffee - maybe water would be a better bet.

Wear a hat when you play and keep that hat on. A hat is a pressure cooker. If you have a roof on your house the hot air can't escape. Even a lima bean has to have a wet paper towel around it to make it grow.
Well now, I used to have a hat - the "Silly-bugger-time hat" as it was known (actually a tweed deerstalker). I refuse to wear a baseball cap as a matter of principle, but may need to invest in something with a modicum of style to meet this rule.

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Top 10 - My Synths

Inspired in part by Sonicstate's top 20 greatest synths and Matrixsynth's The Most Underrated Synths, here is my alternative. This is my top ten list of synths. Not the greatest by any margin, though there are some classics in there. Not the most historically interesting, though one or two certainly have their place in history. Just 10 synths that I've enjoyed using over the years, despite or even because of numerous obstacles they've thrown in the way. Most were end-of-line bargains or second-hand gems, but they've all served me well.

10 Yamaha FB01

For such a little unit this comes with one of the most comprehensive and awe-inspiring manuals complete with extensive MIDI implentation charts and sysex data. The sound out of this is not great - 4-operator FM is not going to win many prizes these days, or even in the days it was first launched. However it is 8-part multitimbral, which was pretty impressive at its launch, and it does work will for a filler. I usually use it for background layers of choirs, brass or synth strings.

9 Casio CZ1000

Casio didn't stay in the pro synth market for long, but the CZ series has endured. In theory it is a variant on FM synthesis, but in practice it is much easier to program and tends to sound a bit warmer, with some great synth bass sounds and a nice line in brass blasts. This is the full-sized keyboard version of the very popular CZ101. I don't use mine very often these days as it is a big keyboard to house for the sake of its 4-note polyphony, but it does get dug out every so often to bring its own charm to the occasional piece.

8 Yamaha PSS780

This is a pretty wretched FM workstation with mini-keys, built-in drum pads, sequencer, auto-accompaniment, effects and basic synthesis controls. It is generally pretty weedy sounding, with less oomph than half a FB01 on a bad day, and is really a home keyboard with pretensions of being a synth. However, it is multi-timbral and MIDI-controllable and when the sounds are layered up and a decent drum pattern programmed, it can sound okay. Add some real guitar and vocals and you might just pull it off. This was the first 'synth' I had that I could control via MIDI, and it more than doubled the range of sounds I had available at the time. For that I pay it my respect.

7 Akai S950

Akai were several generations of their legendary samplers on by the time I joined the fray with this 3rd-hand bargain. Only 12-bit sample quality, but with all the bells and whistles of the pro favourite S1000, the S950 was quickly pressed into service as an enhancement to the meagre drum sounds of the PSS780, allowing me to mix professionally recorded samples with yobstick, bucket and kalimba samples amongst others, adding more detail to drum parts. I never did manage to get hold of the SCSI disk interface for it, so to this day I have to load it up with several floppy disks, which puts me off using it as much as I might do.

6 Yamaha DX7

What need I say about the DX7. THE classic late 80's synth. Wonderful electric pianos and bells, wonderful evolving FM washes and great hammered percussion. It is a beast to program, but blessed with a bucketful of computer programs to make it easier, and my first synth was FM-based, so I was in familiar territory. The DX is still my master keyboard for controlling synths, though only occasionally do I use the on-board sounds - usually only for piano or pads. Mine is a mk1, with limited MIDI capabilities, annoyingly curtailed keyboard response and horrible membrane buttons, but it still has a great feel, is built like a tank and is easy to fall back on.

5 Kawai K4R

My first foray into Sample+Synthesis was with the K4r, the rackmount version of the K4. It took the place of the PSS780 as a general dogbody machine with a good collection of drum kits, 16-part multitimbral sound source and a selection of waveforms suitable for everthing from acoustic guitar to analogue lead synths with a filter section good enough to do it justice. I still use this regularly, and probably still could find new things to do with it.

4 Yamaha TX81Z

Another 4-operator Yamaha FM synth, but this one's a little bit special. First of all it has a significantly improved synthesis engine over the old FB01, with a wide range of waveforms to base sounds on. Secondly it has the ability to store micro-tunings for more experimental music. Thirdly it has good support for breath controllers, making it an ideal partner for my Casio digital wind controller (DH100). It also has a range of good software supporting editing, which is just as well since it has a DX7-like unfriendly editing system. Like the DX it is great for metallic sounds and crisp basses.

3 Moog Etherwave Pro

It's a theremin - does that count as a synth? I say yes. It's my list. It is the top of the range Moog theremin and a thing of beauty. Curved walnut surface with gleaming chrome knobs. It is has a nice linear playing range, classic preset tones and enough filter and tone controls to provide a wide range of sounds from pure voices to cutting sawtooth buzzes, as well as CV controls for controlling analogue synths like a theremin. It's my favourite of all the sound creating gadgets I have, but there are two more items that are currently in the lead for historic reasons.

2 Casio CSM10P

This is a tacky little black box with only 5 sounds - electric piano, piano, organ, harpsichord and vibes. I think it uses 12-bit samples - they're certainly not great quality. It is preset-only with no editing, being designed to plug in and expand a home keyboard. I have used it time and time again, especially the piano and vibes, and it always wins me over with its simplicity. Just select the sound and play. Nothing more to it. It does have pretty good polyphony, or at least good enough for my keyboard playing, and I find the sounds sit comfortably in a mix (though the pipe organ can be a bit overwhelming at times). It really shouldn't get used as much as it does, but I just can't help it. Try listening to Yet Another Granfalloon (pt1) for an example of it in action.

1 Yamaha CX5M

WHAT? Surely I'm joking? Well, no. I cut my electronic / MIDI / composing / keyboard teeth on this bizarre creature, and for all of its many, MANY faults, it holds a slightly rose-tinted place in my musical heart. When I had the opportunity to buy my first keyboard, some time after The Deserters were formed, I spent endless hours scrutinising music magazines for the best synth for me. I had a few front-runners, including the DX100 and CZ101 which had just come out, though I wasn't too keen on their small keys. Then the CX5M Music Computer came to the end of its commercial life and dropped significantly in price - I was able to pick up the equivalent in sound quality to a DX9, with in-built computer and sequencer for about the same as a CZ101. I pontificated for a while over this, even passing over the opportunity to pick up a Korg MS10 for 50 quid (ha ha, how very different things could have been had I gone down that route...), but eventually came to the conclusion that it was too good a deal to miss.

I wasn't aware that it couldn't be played from another MIDI keyboard, despite the presence of a MIDI in socket, so that blew the longevity of it out the water. The only useful sequencer for it at the time was the step sequencer which required some very tedious manual progamming. And the included keyboard was pretty pathetic. However, like so many limited things, these drawbacks just focused the use of the thing, and I soon got my head around FM synthesis using the built-in editor, complex harmonies and rhythms with the score composer sequencer, and drum programming by linking it up to a ZX Spectrum with "SpecDrum" fitted. So it was flawed, but it formed the musical base for a large number of Deserters tunes, try Phill Up the Glass to hear it in action, but most notably the 20-minute-plus instrumental extravaganza that was "Mick's Amazing Megamix". Unfortunately the only version of this recorded comes from a badly distorted tape - it has been converted into a more modern sequencer format so may eventually see the light of day using the TX81z to emulate the CX5 tones.

So that's the lot. Not to everyone's taste, and probably more biased in favour of a certain Japanese manufacturer than I would like, but impoverished gear junkies can't be choosers.

Friday, June 01, 2007

It Was 60 Years Ago Today

Sgt.Pepper Cover Art

Forty whole years have passed since the world first heard "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band". A pretty good innings for a piece of pop music, ephemeral as the genre usually is. It's not an album I even own (The White Album is the only beatles album I have on CD), but it does play a big part in Deserters' history.

Several songs from the album appear in the animated film "The Yellow Submarine", which was the inspiration to start the Deserters. Looking for a name, we started off with various derivatives of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" until it finally changed into "The Deserters". The Beatles were a fairly strong influence on us back in those days - probably more due to the eclectic range of styles shown on their later albums than anything else.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

An Ancient and Distinguished Instrument

I came across a Yahoo group yesterday that I thought might be of interest (Novelty Music), and this morning heard back from founder member Paul Moore. Paul has a one-man-band and plays the 'Zob Stick' which, upon further investigation, turns out the be one of many names for what we know as the Yobstick.

Whilst I have heard of others playing similar stick-based instruments every so often, I had never heard of the name. I suspect the name 'Yobstick' may just be due to a mispronunciation of 'Zob Stick', but the instrument has also been called the 'Monkey Stick', 'Lagerphone', 'Freedom Boot' and many other names from around the world. In fact it has a history going back to asian shamans, and possibly beyond, where it was used as a symbol of power. I've stuck some more details about this up on the Deserters site, along with links to some related sites.

For me the most interesting of these is The Groanbox Boys - a London band who I had already heard about in the last couple of days as they just happen to feature Michael Ward-Bergman. He plays some superb accordian (yes, perhaps it seems like a contradiction of terms, but it is really VERY good) on Judge Smith's album, "The Full English".

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The New Yobstick

At last, I finally got around to finishing the new yobstick. It's quite a departure from previous efforts - lots of natural wood and more emphasis on playability instead of durability. I've only played it for a short time tonight, but it feels great and sounds lovely (far better than a stick with a welly at one end and a load of bottle tops at the other should do!)

I'll stick some audio clips up once I've worked out how to mic the damn thing up. Imagine a drum kit that moves... I may need to get contact mics for it to work, but it is in effect three linked sound sources, so a single mic won't do it justice, and certainly wouldn't make it easy to be heard over electric instruments.

This picture of it makes it look somewhat scrawny, but looks aren't everything. I've set out the process I used to put it together over on the Deserters' page, under Instrumentography, so you can get a flavour for what is required to build one, and find out really interesting facts like "who makes the best bottletops for a yobstick?"

I've also been experimenting with some software called "SooperLooper", which turns a standard Linux PC into a long controllable delay loop. I've worked out how to get some control over it with my guitar effects pedal, to the extent of being able to play a series of chords, then bass, then solo over the top. Once I'm more familiar with it I'm hoping to be able to set up a rhythm with the yobstick and guitar, then play theremin over the top. Early days, but if I can get it working together and hit the timing spot on, then it could sound pretty good.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

A Slight Detour

I'm a great believer in trying something new at least once, especially if it is something that will provide some new insight or approach to life or what we do in it. In a recent search for interesting sounds to use I came across which is one of a number of websites dedicated to sharing samples - in this case everything from retro synths and orchestral instruments to foreign language dialog and farmyard sounds.

They have been running a competition for new electronic compositions, which is not something I've done for many years, preferring to work with at least some acoustic, hands-on (or off in the case of theremin) instruments. Listening to some of the tracks on the site only confirmed that this was pretty hard-core electronica - mostly not the sort of music I would listen to, let alone attempt (or wish) to play.

Sounds like a challenge.

So here you'll find the latest creation from The Lunacy Board. No lyrics. Lots of effects and electronic twiddles. Buckets of theremin. Not our usual fare, but what is usual for us?

Friday, May 04, 2007

Hands Off!

I don't usually like to plug things around here, but this is an event that I'm really looking forward to - a whole weekend of theremin fun and goodness. There's a great line up of concerts and events planned with big names from the theremin world. Click on the picture for more details.

Hands Off 2007

Monday, April 16, 2007

Now It Can Be Told

Just back from a fortnight's holiday on the emerald isle, refreshed and renewed, to discover the passing of another great.

Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt Vonnegut

Of the small group of writers I would categorise as my 'favourites', Kurt Vonnegut has always felt like the one whose writings were closest to my own feelings and thoughts. He has put into succinct words and touching stories concepts and concerns that I have had over the years in a down-to-earth, often conversational style which can be both amusing and disturbing in equal measures. To me he has always seemed the eternal optimistic pessimist - knowing the worst is likely to happen, but focusing on the best of mankind - that certain 'something' that brings hope that doom is not totally inevitable, or at least that some part of us might actually learn something from it. These are themes that have appeared in The Lunacy Board's material, from The Unofficial National Anthem onwards - that there is "some spark within" that may see us through the madness.

The new 'epic' we're working on covers the evolution of mankind - we ran through some of it a couple of weeks ago before I went off, and it's sounding good so far. It includes a section which was a tip-of-the-hat towards Mr Vonnegut's Galapagos, with the future human race (by then evolved into sea-living, flippered mammals) describing how our current actions are shaping us for the future. It is somehow appropriate that this part of the song should become our eulogy to Vonnegut as well as to the human race. As he wrote himself, so it goes.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Next, please

First of all, "Xenochronous Requiem For A Head Laying In A Field In Butler" was used to open this week's Spellbound show, with host David Vesel commenting on the unlikelihood of chart success if Casey Kasem can't even pronounce the title. That's a relief, then.

I've finished mixing all the music from our last session. Most of it is just for our own use as demo reference for future practices, but there were also some new instrumental pieces for use in the Stockholm soundtrack. One of them is available for download over at The Lunacy Board site. It is based around a simple evolving, echoing guitar riff, with synth textures, found sound samples (including some yobstick) and a meandering rhythm backing.

The big one

We're working towards a new extended piece to fit in with the repetoire we've already built up. Since we first started this project, we've been throwing ideas around towards a longer song which touches on a few topics we feel are linked around the area of evolution, mankind's journey and definitions of good and evil. I've recently come up with an idea to link these topics within a narrative setting that has the potential to be our 'big number'.

It's still in the early stages, so I can't give too much away, but the aim is to have a piece that both covers the topics of interest and also lets us demonstrate all the aspects of what we are as a band. It will have an evolving instrumentation, so we'll start off with two instruments at the start of the piece and swap around between guitar, bass, drums, keyboard, theremin and whatever else we come up with. The sections of the song will deal with different characters and reflect that in the instruments chosen and the style of the section. This will let us cover everything from ambient soundscapes and avant garde rock to upbeat pop or country and western - anything is fair game. It's going to take a while to put together and get it working fluidly, but we'll start on it at the next session and hopefully will have a clip or two to post on the web site in the not-too-distant future.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


One of Zappa's favourite tricks around the "Joe's Garage" era and beyond was the practice he called "xenochrony" or "strange synchronisation". This involved him taking a piece of music (often a studio backing track) and overdubbing it with a totally unrelated (usually a live guitar solo) track from a completely different song. After some fiddling about, the result was a melody that would play what appeared to be insanely complex polyrhythms over the top of the new song. It's something I've always wanted to have a shot at, but lacked the source material to work with.

Then I came across a beautiful bass solo written by Doug Boucher over on his MySpace page. It's called "Requiem For A Head Laying In A Field In Butler" and is dedicated to the very wonderful Mike Keneally. I really enjoyed the piece and tried playing some haunting theremin over the top, some of which came together quite nicely, and other parts of which were less successful. I then tried putting the piece together with some of Sean's drumming for (I think) The Winning Smile - two unrelated bits of music coming together to form something new altogether. To this new hybrid track I set about playing guitar and theremin, with pretty good results. There are places where the bass and drums drift apart to give a very laid back feeling, and others where they synchronise exactly, including some where the drums and bass reach a crescendo at the same time before gently tailing off.

As usual, you can find the track over at The Lunacy Board site.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Moving Along...

We've had two more LB sessions recently; one short acoustic practice throwing ideas for songs around and a long and productive studio-based session. In the first of these we considered some ideas for possible inclusion in any live set we may do in the future. We have a fair bit of work ahead of us to get to the position where we'd feel ready to do a live gig, but it is a possibility that we might consider a short support slot at some point.

Our current feeling is that we would feature our own material, but have a few cover versions on hand to whip out according to the audience - e.g. for a dedicated progressive audience we might include a Jethro Tull or Rush cover, but for a more general audience we'd maybe think about something that has had some more airplay like Gabriel, The Who or Marillion, though still keeping within the progressive genre, more or less. We'll probably try out a range of possible covers over the next few practices we have, but don't want to get too bogged down in them when we have new material to play with.

The studio session was VERY productive, lasting all day and covering a total of 5 new songs, 1 old song, some more soundtrack work and Stockholm dialogue.

We started with The Man in the Boat, which is an old song of mine from years ago that we've stripped down and rebuilt. It deals with the temptation to play it safe and end up missing out on actually living life. It is a bit more downbeat the The Unofficial National Anthem, with an extended instrumental section in the middle which has a bit of a Pink Floyd feel to it. At the moment we've only done drums, guitar and vocals, but the structure is coming together well - we just need to practice it some more before committing it to a proper recording as there are some switches in the dynamics of the song that need to be tightened up.

We then moved onto Fairytale Propaganda which is a brand new song I've been working on over the last couple of months. It asks the question "what would fairytales be about 500 years later, if the characters written about were living now?", casting a critical eye over the less than noble way our 'fairytale' characters of the present day conduct themselves. The song builds slowly from a quiet instrumental introduction into our most outright rock song to date.

After these two fairly long songs we switched over to do some improvisational music with a view to including parts in the Stockholm soundtrack. Starting with a drum and bass backing we layered various solos, textures and effects over the top using guitar, keyboard and samples (including an old sample of the yobstick I came across). The results were much more avant-garde than our previous improvised music, closer to Zappa than anything else we've tried. It will need a fair bit of editing to make some of the layers work together, but there is definitely some unusual and interesting music in there.

After a bite to eat and a blether, it was back to work on some shorter songs, kicking off with Morning Rolls, which is a short song about bereavement (or traditional Scottish fare at the most literal reading of the lyric). It came together quite well with just vocal and guitar, though it is still in its early days and may change a bit in time.

The Parallel Curve was next up. This is a song about careers and insanity that doesn't really have any music yet, so we tried a few things out, mainly around a march-like rhythm and slide ebow guitar - kind of a rising and falling pulse over which the lyrics were half-sung, half-spoken. The idea being to have a number of non-fixed pitch instruments including the theremin and slide guitar and bass all providing a constantly shifting backing. Parts of this worked well, though some verses simply didn't come together properly, so it will need further work. The version we worked on was significantly different from my original demo attempt, and I suspect it will change as much again in future iterations.

A quick run through of Jim Crow was next - we tried this a while ago and it mutated from a choppy, almost Buddy Holly, style into a more laid back doo-wop number. This time around we went straight into the doo-wop and after a couple of false starts it was a nice bit of fun. I have some ideas for additional verses for it (it currently only has two which are repeated), and we need to agree on the backing 'oohs' and 'aahs' to make the vocals rock-solid as they need to be for this style of music.

The final song of the day was one I wrote for my better half earlier this year, called The Winning Smile. It's a happy little number about the power of a smile in a World with too few. I originally recorded it as an acoustic piece with just guitar and vocal, but we tried it as a full-on power ballad and it worked a treat.

To finish the day off we recorded a big chunk of Stockholm dialogue which I'll be working through over the next few weeks. The first part of the film (of the three episodes we have split it into) has been 'filmed' and is ready for dialogue and music to be added, so progress is good and it looks like we could have the first part ready for viewing in a month or two.

So, a good day all round, with plenty of things to take forward. I'll be putting a bit of the soundtrack work up on the website within the week, so keep an ear out for that.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Radio Killed the Video Star

We've had some very positive feedback about "The Unofficial National Anthem" from a few sources now, which has been quite encouraging, comparing the song, or parts of it, to Syd Barrett, Brian Eno, Pink Floyd, Can, Jethro Tull and others. The song has recently been played on the Spellbound radio programme, which will be available as a downloadable mp3 within a week. It is also likely to appear on a compilation CD in the near future - details to follow shortly, I hope.

Work is progressing slowly but surely on "Stockholm", both in terms of the visual side (with animated scenes progressing well - almost 20% complete) and the audio. We have a growing collection of soundtrack material to choose from, ranging from our first ever recording session through to the latest pieces, and will be putting some short selections up on The Lunacy Board website. The first piece is already there, a 2 minute piece of improvised instrumental music reminiscent of Meddle-era Pink Floyd.

Finally, for the moment, we also have a dedicated forum area over at Melos' Prog Bazaar, so drop in any time and let us know what you think about the band, the music, the weather or anything else.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Lunacy Launch

The Lunacy BoardHappy New Year!

The Lunacy Board have now officially launched, with our first track "The Unofficial National Anthem" being available for download from our website at

The song is an unusually upbeat number featuring a fairly standard rock base (drums, bass, guitars), layered vocals, a little theremin and a spot of organ. It is probably the most accessible music we've attempted so far, though there are enough weird things going on to appeal to more warped tastes (such as my own).

The new website will be our base of operations for the foreseeable future. As well as musical offerings, we'll be providing various other creative outpourings including poetry, prose and videos. As a small taster I've put on a test demo of a scene from our forthcoming drama "Stockholm" - watch out for more little nuggets in the future.

Wishing you all the best for 2007, with The Lunacy Board providing the soundtrack!