November 2023 - March 2024 Listening And Reading

So it’s been a bit of a while since the last media update. Christmas and New Year’s Eve 2023 has been and gone, and we’re nearly through the first quarter of 2024. Madness! So what has graced our ears and eyes lately?


Sgàile - Traverse The Bealach

I suspect that I was like a lot of people and had never heard of Sgàile before reading about them on AMG. Grumpy Metal Girl and myself are big Saor fans though, having traveled to Glasgow for the release show for Forgotten Paths. I figured that it was worth hearing what Traverse The Bealach1 was like, given the connection between the two bands. While there are definite hints of Saor in TtB, it is definitely its own highland beast.

One of the primary differences is the heaviness factor. Tony Dunn’s vocals are clean and ethereal, and the guitars lean more heavily on the melody than on the distortion. There’s a real sense of what us non-Highlanders think of as Scottish melody throughout, and it packs an emotional punch. The only negative point for me was that the second half of the album felt somewhat weaker than the first half, but even with that in mind, it’s definitely a strong release from North of the wall.

Blut Aus Nord - Memoria Vetusta II – Dialogue with the Stars

I’ve been relatively late to the Blut Aus Nord game, which is kind of crazy considering they’ve been around for 30 years now. Their Hallucinogen release from 2019 was spun many times here in Grumpy Manor, but I never went further back in their discography. Thanks to the wonders of streaming media recommendation algorithms though, Memoria Vetusta II popped up randomly recently, and as it turns out, I like this one a lot more than Hallucinogen.

Dialogue with the Stars feels like a very organic album, with warm and thick guitar tones washing over the listener. The music has a very hypnotic feel to it, which makes the 59 minute run-time fly by when listening. I did find that the music isn’t always the focus of your attention when it’s playing, but there were many moments where it would pull me out of whatever I was doing to focus my attention. Keyboards feature in most songs, but they never overwhelm the guitars. There are also moments with Batushka-like chants, and when it all comes together, there’s enough atmosphere there to sustain a spaceship in orbit.

Many of the tracks on the album felt like they wouldn’t have been out of place on Emperor’s mighty Anthems To The Welkin At Dusk, which is high praise indeed. For completeness, I gave the 3rd album in the series a listen as well, although found that the production on that one was a little cleaner than on Dialogue with the Stars. Funnily enough, it felt that this made it less enjoyable - I wasn’t drawn in quite as much for some reason. So for now, I’ll be content to continue my dialogue with the stars with I need a BAN fix.

Blizzard - Wrath of the Lich King and Diablo 2 Soundtracks

Blizzard computer games have been part of my life for several decades now, which is quite scary when I write the words down like that. They’re both clickable as hell (hello Diablo!) and life-suckingly, soul-destroyingly immersive (Azeroth, I’m looking at you). A massive part of this has always been the music. I discovered this by mistake to some extent by eagerly ordering the Diablo 2 Collector’s Edition in the year of our Dark Lord 2000 AD. While the game itself was what I wanted most of all, the cinematic DVD that came with it was the other reason I went for the fancy edition rather than the normal one.

What ended up being the most memorable part of it though was Matt Uelmen’s soundtrack CD. I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did, having not really paid much attention to the background music in games that much. Boy, did that change after D2! The music is utterly amazing - atmospheric, brooding, dark, and utterly memorable. It has been on regular rotation for nearly a quarter of a century now.

Recently, Blizzard released the Wrath of the Lich King soundtrack on vinyl. WotLK completely changed the way I approached gaming. It was a time when I raided all the tiers, spent way too many hours online with my guild, and eventually managed a Bane of the Fallen King title while it was still current. It was an absolute no-brainer to order the vinyl as soon as I knew it was coming out. Of course, it didn’t disappoint. Over 4 sides, the music took me back to Northrend and the dungeons and raids that I lived through. For people that weren’t part of the original release, it may not mean much, but for someone who did, it’s a journey back to a spiritual homeland.

When I received the WotLK soundtrack, it got me thinking about the D2 soundtrack again. A quick Kagi lead me to the page for the vinyl edition of the Diablo 2 Resurrected vinyl soundtrack, which I immediately ordered. While the track listing is not quite the same as the original soundtrack CD from 2000, it’s still an amazing listen on vinyl, the sound really punches through and it wasn’t long before my mind was wandering back through many hours of memories of relentless clicking and RSI.

If you’ve ever played either of these games and have a turntable, do yourself a favour and get these. If you haven’t, but like movie soundtracks, give them a listen. They’re absolutely worth it. I just hope that they eventually release a reasonably priced Vanilla and TBC soundtrack on vinyl, although I have a horrible suspicion that I might be waiting a while…

Bruce Dickinson - The Mandrake Project

As you might remember, I wasn’t terribly impressed with Tyranny Of Souls, Bruce Dickinson’s last solo outing. But it was a while ago, and since he’s hooked up with Roy Z again, I was hoping that he might be able to recapture some of that Chemical Wedding magic in a newer bottle.

Afterglow of Ragnarok was the lead single for the album, and has proved to be a bit of a grower. While a bit of noise was made about the growly vocals near the end of the song, they don’t herald any significant change to the way Bruce approaches singing, which is a bit of a missed opportunity IMO, but I totally get it. Other highlights include the stomping Many Doors To Hell, and the sweeping grandiose feel of Fingers In The Wounds.

Rain on the Graves, the second single, didn’t particularly grab me when I first heard it, and that hasn’t really changed. The rest of the album is all… well, fine. To my untuned ears (read: getting older and losing my hearing a tad), it almost sounds at times in Sonata (Immortal Beloved) that Bruce is ever so slightly off-key, which immediately takes me out of what would otherwise be a pretty good song.

On my last couple of listens to the album, I found myself hitting the skip track button midway through a bunch of the songs on the album. That’s never a good sign. The bits that work work well. There just aren’t that many of them, and the rest are fairly forgettable. Guess the bottle they were trying to recapture the magic in had a crack in it, much to the disappointment of this long-term Bruce fan. Here’s hoping that seeing him live in a couple of months will be the experience I’m hoping for.


And now for something completely different. I’ve been churning through a few books recently, and thought I’d put down some notes…

Tad Williams - The War Of The Flowers

Grumpy Metal Brother has been banging on about this one forever. Tad Williams has been taking up space on my bookshelf since the original Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy came out, and I’ve read that several times. The follow-on series, 2017’s The Last King Of Osten Ard, has been an amazing return to the same world, and I’m eagerly awaiting the final book in the series later this year. But as I’ve long been aware, Tad has written a lot more.

War of the Flowers is a stand-alone novel, and comes in at a mere (by Williams standards) 800-odd pages. It’s a super engrossing read, with the story starting out in the real world before transitioning to the world of Faerie. It’s smartly told, the characters are engaging, and there are enough twists and turns to keep you going up to the end of the story. I really don’t know why I waited so long to read it, so if you haven’t, make sure you don’t make the same mistake.

Cliff Stoll - The Cuckoo’s Egg

I was vaguely aware of the existence of The Cuckoo’s Egg, but didn’t know a lot more other that it involved computers and tracking something down. Grumpy Metal Girl gave me a copy of the long-out-of-print paperback for Christmas, and once I started reading, it was very hard to stop. The chapters weren’t particularly long, which made it easy to read several of them before drifting off into the netherworld each night.

Some are critical of author Cliff Stoll’s inclusion of elements of his personal life into the telling (milkshake recipes and extensive details on his flat sharing situation were somewhat unexpected inclusions). He also comes across as very American (said from the perspective of someone who doesn’t come from the US). But his tenacity is fascinating to read about, and some of the exploits that are used by the hackers are quite amusing with the benefit of hindsight (ultimately, we can blame all of this on Richard Stallman!).

The sequence of events seem almost too hard to believe, but what emerges is a truly interesting insight into the early days of early wide-area systems and what was possible if they weren’t secured properly in an age that predated the internet we know today. If you can get hold of a copy of this, it’s required reading for nerds like me2.

Alan Moore - Illuminations

I’m a big fan of Watchmen, the 1986 comic book series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. I devoured it in one sitting the first time I read it. I also really enjoyed the film adaptation. I’d heard good things about Illuminations, Moore’s short story collection, and was expecting it to be of a similarly high standard.

The collection starts out promisingly with Hypothetical Lizard, which I found genuinely interesting. Without giving too much away, the world-building here is interesting, and the writing is first class. The shift in the roles of the protagonists through the story is subtle at first, but leads to an inevitable conclusion. The second story, Not Even Legend, is also a fun tale. But after that, with the exception of Cold Reading, a problem begins to emerge.

The problem, as it turns out, is sex. Moore appears to be obsessed with it. He finds slim excuses to wedge it into each story, even when it doesn’t really add anything of value. The way he writes about it is, to these eyes, a bit puerile. The Improbably Complex High-Energy State is a story about Boltzmann brains, but eventually, it turns into page after page of them shagging each other, described in dozens of different ways. It’s exhausting, and after a while, not particularly funny or clever.

The situation comes to a climax (pun very much intended) in What We Can Know About Thunderman, Moore’s rant against the comics industry that he now so despises. I had to stop partway through3. The situations that the characters stumble through are all based around various forms of sexual deprivation, and after a while, it just gets boring. Sex should never be boring, but Moore makes it so. It’s pretty rare for me to stop reading a book without finishing it, but this was one of the times that I did. If you can, read the first two stories only. There are much better uses of your time than reading the rest of them.

  1. Loving the fact that the lineup tab says that Tony plays “everything” on here. Wish I had 1/20th of that level of musical talent! ↩︎

  2. Reading more about Stoll reveals a truly fascinating character. You can buy Klein bottles directly from him, and even the way he makes and sells them is fascinating! ↩︎

  3. When they break into his apartment. If you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean. Like, what the fuck is the point of this sequence? ↩︎