Thursday, March 3, 2011

Curating Post-Rock Paper Scissors

Oh my, it's been far too long since the last time I posted here. Perhaps one day this blog will actually become a regular thing. For now, though, I'm just gonna continue with the sporadic updates.

Today, I have a very special treat for you guys: Armand Babian, all-around great guy and producer of the podcast series Post-Rock Paper Scissiors, ask me if I would help him out by "curating" an episode of the podcast. Basically that just meant that I picked out some music, we played that music, and then talked about it a bit. It was good fun. I decided to go with a playlist focused primarily upon contemporary classical music, as this is a subject that I am quite interested in, and one also that I think many of Armand's listeners would appreciate as well.

I also remember how difficult it to listen to yourself talk. If I had my way, all voice recordings would be made from microphones placed within the inner ear. Anyway, here's the podcast, if you care to listen!

Be sure to check out Post-Rock Paper Scissors, it's a great site! And also The Silent Ballet, of course.

See you again in another few months, probably!

Friday, October 22, 2010

An Open Letter to the Obama Administration

To the Obama White House,

I have been extremely pleased in the last few days to see that members of your administration, such as Secretary Clinton and President Obama, have recorded videos as part of the It Gets Better project. Feelings of hopelessness and alienation are unfortunately commonplace among LGBT individuals, and those feelings are preserved or enhanced when society refuses to extend a helping hand toward those who are suffering out of the fear that such a humane attitude might "condone" or "encourage" homosexuality, whatever that means. The significance of having members of the administration, who represent all Americans, appear in these videos cannot be understated.

However, it occurs to me that making a video, though important, is not enough. The project is called It Gets Better so that LGBT individuals will be encouraged about the possibility of a better life in the future. Supporting this goal, however, means that legal obstacles to a better life must be torn down. It seems to me that it is difficult for your administration to proclaim that "It gets better" when you are currently defending policies like Don't Ask Don't Tell and other examples of LGBT discrimination. In the most cynical of views, this might even approach hypocrisy. You, the members of the Obama administration, are in the rare position of being able to pursue policy to put an end to institutional discrimination against those who don't fit the common heterosexual mold. I thank you for contributing to the message that it gets better, but I urge you to act so that it actually does.

Tom Butcher

Friday, July 2, 2010

Rating Ratings

A short post this time around, as I'm just about to go out to the lake to celebrate the 4th of July, the holiday where one celebrates the birth of his or her country by blowing up a small part of it (to quote The Simpsons).

In any case, I recently had another high score published over at The Silent Ballet. This time the review was of Treasure State, a new collaboration between the New York avant-garde percussion quartet So Percussion and the Baltimore-based experimental electronica outfit Matmos.

I've said enough about the album in my actual review, so I won't rehash all that. The short version: the album kicks twelve kinds of ass. Go check it out ASAP. For te purposes of this blog post, I thought that I might say a few words about our scoring system.

I said up at the top that this was a high-scoring review if you read that and then were surprised to see an 8.5 at the top of the page, then you probably aren't very familiar with our scoring system. TSB's official policy n scoring is that a score of 5 ought to reflect an album that is perfectly average. Therefore, a score of 5.5 is a slightly positive score, while a 4.5 is a slightly negative score. Scores of 8 and above (and, correspondingly, scores of 2 or below are considered to be albums of exceptionally high (or low, on the other side) merit. As a website, we've never given out a score higher than 9.0, and we only have a few of those per year. So, on this scale, an 8.5 really is a pretty high score.

The intended goal of such a system is to ensure that high-scoring albums truly deserve their scores. I won't name names, but I'm sure you can think of a few websites that seem to hand out high scores like they were going out of style, where the most common score may be 4 out of 5 stars. This dilutes the value of a high score. I can assure you, if you see a high score at TSB, the album will have earned it.

On the other hand, I think it's a bit silly to have the top two scoring possibilities on the site as (apparently) unreachable. You can go back and forth on whether or not any album is deserving of the perfect 10, but I think that any score on the scale ought to be fair game. When it comes to a score of 9.5, that seems a bit ridiculous. (We actually did almost have a 9.5 once upon a time, actually, but unfortunately the score got cut down before publication. Ah well.)

Regardless, I think that having high scores actually mean something is a valiant goal. And maybe one day we'll actually use full spectrum.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to celebrate the national holiday of blowing shit up. Happy fourth of July, everyone!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tactical Nuclear Penguin

First off, apologies for the long time without a blog post. My initial schedule of having at least one post a week got temporary delayed during the madness of my graduation from college, and then that temporary delay rolled into an indefinite delay all too easily. Well, no more! Elitism for the Masses is back, and I’ll be updating much more regularly from now on. (And for the record, yes, I do realize the irony of making a statement about trying to keep to a regular schedule in the post right before I went AWOL. Ah well!)

Anyway, if you look over at that blog description on the left side of the page, you’ll notice that one of the categories reads “Exotic Beers,” a wholly worthy subject of discussion, but one which (alas!) has gone unreported on this blog thus far. Well, I intend to correct that lapse today, with a review of BrewDog’s Tactical Nuclear Penguin, a beer that was, until recently, the strongest beer ever made.

At 31% ABV, some might not even consider the Penguin to really be a beer at all, but it does qualify according to some definitions of the beverage. The primary definitional issue is that, unlike most beers, the Tactical Nuclear Penguin’s extraordinarily high ABV can only be achieved by a process of distillation. In this case, cold distillation is used, which means that the beer is brought to a temperature of 32º Fahrenheit, the freezing temperature of water—but not of alcohol. Because alcohol freezes at a lower temperature (-173.2º F, to be exact), this means that the water will freeze out of solution, and it can then be removed from the beer to raise the ABV to a higher level. In the case of the Penguin, this process is repeated multiple times (the bottle indicates that the batch is frozen at least three times before its ready to ship).

This process of distillation puts the Penguin in a class with whiskey and other liquors (at 32%, we’re past the realm of most liqueurs). Generally speaking, beer is not distilled, but is only fermented and aged. However, there are a few styles of beer that are cold fermented. Particularly, there’s a style of beer known as an ice bock, which is a German bock beer that’s been cold distilled. Although only one ice bock has an alcohol level anywhere near that of the Tactical Nuclear Penguin (produced by the German brewery Schorschbräu, with an ABV of 31%), they do still possess some rather high alcohol percentages, and are also (to my tongue) rather tasty indeed. So there’s some precedent for allowing beers to be cold distilled. However, the most obvious reasoning comes from the definition of beer itself: an alcoholic beverage consisting of malt, water, hops, and yeast (plus multitudinous other optional ingredients). Since the Penguin includes all of those ingredients, it qualifies as beer, even if it’s on the razor edge of the definition.

Now, as I mentioned, the Tactical Nuclear Penguin is the world’s former strongest beer. It has since been outdone rather handily by it own creators, who have recently put out a 41% quadruple IPA known as Sink the Bismark. Why “Sink the Bismarck”? Well, there’s also a German brewery by the name of Schorschbräu that’s in the super-beer market; they had dethroned the Penguin with a rather large 40% beer, and are currently the record-holders with a massive 43% superbock. They were also the ones responsible for that aforementioned 31% ice bock. At a certain point (which I’m guessing we may have reached), this all begins to look like a pointless pissing match, with these two adversaries only focusing on ratcheting the alcohol up as high as possible, rather than on the true goal of any self-respecting brewer, which is to produce a quality beverage. Still, I have an appreciation for anybody who wants to push the boundaries of any artistic medium, be it art, music, or brew. Also, I was recently heartened to read a review of Sink the Bismarck by my buddy Scott Miller over at Beer(ein)stein, which painted the beverage in an unexpectedly favorable light. And in any case, these definitional issues are something of a moot point: the beer, or “beer,” was there, sitting in a bottle in front of me; I didn’t really have much choice in the matter: it had to be tried.

At 32% alcohol, this isn’t exactly a beer that you have a whole glass of. No, the best vessel for this beverage is a quality whiskey glass, meant to hold a small quantity of liquid and to propel the aroma up to your nose. The beer pours darkly, as one might expect of an imperial stout, but it possesses a surprisingly thin consistency—must be all the alcohol. There’s hardly any carbonation to speak of, and only the slightest head develops. The aroma is full of alcohol, as expected, but it’s not terribly overwhelming; you would have to inhale for quite a while before getting the standard nose burn associated with the smell of most liquors. Besides the booze, the nose contains a fair amount of malt, and a goodly quantity of smoke. If you swirl the beer in your glass, it will stream down the sides on legs, just like a good whiskey. Clearly, even before tasting, this is a rather exceptional beer.

Speaking of which, the taste is rather unusual. Obviously, it’s significantly more alcoholic than all but a few other beers in existence, so the flavor profile will be at least a bit different. This is certainly a beer that was meant to be sipped, not chugged. The taste is somewhat similar to whiskey, due to the base of malted barley and the peaty smoke character, but there’s still some hop flavor and bitterness left in the brew, which helps to bring the taste back to the realm of beer. After I’d finished about half of my glass, I decided on a lark to throw a cube of ice into the beer, like one might do with a single malt scotch, to see if it had any effect on the flavor. Surprisingly, it did. Even just looking at the beer after the addition of the ice (plus a few minutes), you could tell that some of the oils were separating out of solution. Tasting confirmed this theory: the ice really opened up the Penguin, and made into a far better beer. That’s just my opinion, however; some of the others with whom I tasted the Penguin preferred their beer “neat,” although they immediately started laughing at the notion of having “neat” beer at all. But these were also the same people who told me that they preferred their whiskey without water or ice, so perhaps it’s just a trend. To my palate, the Penguin is (rather appropriately) far better on ice.

All this being said, I can certainly appreciate the merits of the Tactical Nuclear Penguin. Although this contest for the highest ABV is beginning to seem like a pissing match, I am glad that there are breweries out there willing to push the craft to its very edge. After all, this is what has made Dogfish Head such a successful brewery in the last decade. However, I don’t think that I shall be seeking out the Penguin again anytime soon. I’m glad to have tried it, but in the end, it seems like much more of a noble experiment than a tasty beverage. I wouldn’t refuse another glass if it was offered to me, but I doubt that I’d ever spend my own money on another bottle. I’ll rate this one 3.5/5—2.5 points for taste, and one more for the delightfully experimental attitude.

This has been a rather long-winded post. Thanks for sticking with me! I’ll be back within a week at most, with an entirely new subject to write about. Until then, I wish you many happy beers.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Love Generation (Robot Version)

A short post this time around, because it's 3:30 in the morning and I have mono and really should be sleeping. Still, it's been about a week since I last wrote, and I want to try to try to write at least once a week for this blog, to ensure that I don't just forget about it and let it lie fallow.

Anyway! I have recently become enamored with with the song "Love Generation" by Bob Sinclair. Like most songs that I love, this one is excessively long, but unlike most music that I love, it isn't weird or experimental or anything like that. It's actually pretty much just pop music. But it's got this great, driving beat in it that just keep going seemingly into infinity, and the guitar keeps looping around, and there's a delightful tune being whistled in the background. Its basically everything you could ever hope to dance to, and it makes for great party music, and also great space out music. Those three don't coalesce very often.

So, after a semester of hearing this song, I finally decided I needed to have it on my computer. Feeling cheap (and also perhaps a bit altered from some of the medicine I'm taking to combat my illnesses), I tired to just record the above youtube video in Audacity, which is a free (and pretty damn powerful) audio recorder. However, I couldn't get it to record from my soundcard for some reason (probably related either to the illnesses or the medication), so instead I did something that would normally be rather stupid: I connected my computer's audio-out port (for speakers) to my audio-in port (for microphones). Then I hit record.

When I came back to the file nine minutes later, I found that I had not captured the music well at all. At least, I didn't capture it as Bob Sinclair wrote it. I did, however, create something totally awesome, totally by accident. By slaving my audio-in and -out ports together, I made everything sound all static-y and reverb-y, except that for some reason the vocals and the whistling came through just fine. The result is definitely not something that I would call party music, unless perhaps you're having a techno party, and then it might just be in order. If you're into electronica at all, I would recommend giving this new file a listen—I think it's quite amazing actually, and I can't believe it was a total accident. In case you're wondering, this is probably the definition of serendipity.

Oh, and headphones are recommended. And yes, this does mean that I somehow managed to turn one of the few long non-elitist songs that I like into something crazy, weird, and out-there. Accident, or subconscious impulse? The jury's still out.

Love Generation (Robot Version)

In other news, I had another review published at The Silent Ballet last week. This record's not as great, so I won't go too much into it, but if you're interested in reading it, here's a link. One of my writers also published a review of an interesting project related to Terry Riley's justly famous In C; if you're at all interested in (relatively) contemporary classical music, I suggest you check that one out much faster.

Oh yeah, and I'm done with that whole college thing now. How about that?

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Baked Appreciation

As it so happens, I am seriously overdue on thanking some of my professors for writing grad school recommendations for me and for sitting on my thesis defense panel. Oops. Granted, I was wanting to wait until I knew where I was going officially before I thanked the thesis recommenders, but that was still about a month and a half ago. This situation calls for some desperate action.

Actually, I’ve been mulling over the issue for some time now. I wasn’t quite sure what to give some of these professors: of course a note would probably suffice, but I wanted to let them know that I really appreciated what they had done for me by giving them something special. On the other hand, you don’t want to go too far in the other direction, or else it seems like bribery or a kickback or something. I also briefly considered getting my thesis director a bouquet of flowers, but immediately crossed that one off the list as being just a little bit creepy. I mean, I’m sure she would have loved them and all that, but I’m also quite sure that she would have had no idea how to react, because apparently flowers have some overtones of romanticism, or something like that. I wasn’t really paying attention.

Anyway, I finally decided to settle on baked goods, which are the perfect gift for many reasons. First of all, as a male, anything that I cook for people benefits from an automatic bonus factor associated with the surprise of finding someone behaving outside of rigid gender stereotypes. For some reason, this is especially true of baked goods—apparently only girls decide to make cookies. Who knew? Whatever the reason, my being a male will give these cookies’ appreciation score a permanent +2. No, it’s not fair that I get this advantage, but I’m totally taking advantage of it.

Second, it’s a busy time of year for professors. They have to get caught up on end of the semester grading, plus the grading of final papers and tests, plus make arrangements for summer studies and activities, plus a thousand other little things that seem to pour in at the end of the year. That translates into long hours spent at the office, which translates into an urgent need for comfort food. Enter the cookies.

The third reason is that cookies are easy to make, carry that homemade charm, and are frankly delicious. Last summer I patented a recipe for some cookies of my own design, which I have dubbed Choco-Scotch Chip Cookies. Being both tasty and somewhat unusual, these cookies have been a big hit with everyone. I’ll post the recipe below, but if you want the short version of it, just replace half of the chocolate chips in any recipe with butterscotch chips. The combo is delightful and unexpected, although, despite what the title might imply, it does not include whisky—that’s another culinary experiment for another day.

Lastly, of course, is the fact that I (and my friends as well!) get to eat some of the cookies as a bonus. Can baked appreciation get any sweeter than that? I humbly submit that it cannot… at least not without ice cream.

Here's a picture of the cookies, all wrapped up in plastic baggies and ready to be delivered. I've got a feeling that they'll find a happy home in some professorial bellies.

Choco-Scotch Chip Cookies

2 cups all purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
2/3 cup granulated white sugar
2/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 large egg + another large egg yolk
A goodly dose of pure vanilla extract
3/4 cup chocolate chunks or chips
3/4 cup butterscotch chips

1.) Preheat the oven to 350ºF.
2.) Mix flour, baking soda, and salt together in a bowl, then set aside.
3.) Beat the sugar and butter together with an electric mixer until light and fluffy (about 2-3 minutes). The beat in the egg and the additional yolk, as well as the vanilla.
4.) Gradually beat the flower mixture into the butter mixture. Beat the dough as little as possible in this stage.
5.) Pour the chips in and mix them into the dough. I prefer to use a fork.
6.) Roll the dough into balls and plop them onto a cookie sheet.

Cooking time will vary based on the size of the dough balls. I tend to like my cookies larger, so I let them bake for about fifteen minutes. At that rate, you should be able to get about eighteen cookies out of this batch. Adjust your baking time according to the size of your cookies. I hope you enjoy!

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Silent Ballet; My Education - Sunrise

I'd thought about beginning this blog with a manifesto of sorts, but it strikes me that such posts are usually far too self-referential and usually end up not quite describing things accurately after a couple of weeks or months. So I thought instead that I would just jump straight in with a link to my latest album review on The Silent Ballet. With luck, this paragraph will be about as self-referential and "meta" as this blog gets.

The Silent Ballet, for those of you who aren't familiar with it, is an internet music magazine devoted to instrumental and experimental music. The site started out dealing primarily with post-rock styles of music (Explosions in the Sky, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mogwai, Tortoise, etc.), but it's since moved past that base to also include ambient, electronica, instrumental metal, and generally anything that plays up the "experimental" half of our self-imposed description. If you find the sort of stuff that we cover interesting, then our yearly Top 50 Lists and quarterly compilation series (free to download!) are a good place to start. Links to all of those can be found on the right side of TSB's homepage.

I've been writing for TSB for almost three years now, and I've been editing for the site for just about two years exactly. In that time I've had the privilege of reviewing quite a number of excellent albums. The highest score I've given out is an 8.5/10, which is quite high when you consider that in more than four years, the site has never given out anything higher than a 9/10. The scoring system might seem a bit harsh, but that's another subject for another day.

Anyway, I've given out five 8.5s in the past: first, to No. 9's Usual Revolution and Nine; second, to Paniyolo's I'm Home; third, to The Autumn Project's This We Take with Us; fourth, to Tyondai Braxton's Central Market; and fifth, to My Education's Sunrise, the most recent review I've had published on the site. In other words, if ever there were a review with which to begin my blog, this is it.

I'll spare most of the details since you can read them in the review, but suffice to say that My Education is a post-rock band out of Austin, Texas which plays in a style somewhat similar to that of Japancakes and Six Parts Seven. The group's latest album is a score which they wrote to accompany the silent film Sunrise, a seminal work in the history of existentialist cinema.

I hope you enjoy the review and the music too. My colleague Rich Allen also informs me that the Irish group 3epkano also have a soundtrack for Sunrise, and that it's somehow even better than My Education's. I'm not quite sure if I believe him, having heard the selections from their version on their myspace, but 3epkano is certainly a band which can do little wrong in my book.