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Kansas Album Review - "Kansas" (1974)

30 Jan 2017

I got the strange idea to review some of my favorite albums on here, starting with the first Kansas album. Don't expect any fancy lingo as I am not by any means a music expert.

I've been a fan of Kansas ever since I heard the cover version of Carry on my Wayward Son on the (tedious) game Guitar Hero for PlayStation, and I have probably played their early albums for hundreds of hours in total since then.

The first album was self-titled and released in 1974 and features lead vocals and synth by Steve Walsh, Robby Steinhardt on violin, guitarists Kerry Livgren and Rich Williams, bassist Dave Hope and Phil Ehart on drums. The albums' eight tracks were mainly written and composed by Livgren and Walsh. The whole album revolves a lot around Steinhards violin, which has the lead on many of the tracks.

The first two tracks, Can I Tell You and Bringing It Back, are pretty standard rock by contemporary standards. Although the band incorporates some progressive elements here, these two tracks are just semi-messy rock-and-roll pieces where the violin lead gets pretty annoying to listen to after a while.

Continuing down the track list we find Lonely Wind, which is a very calm ballad. There is something quite saddening about this track which seems to revolve around a man talking to the wind which is easy to over analyze. Walsh's vocals are showcased for the first time here, and I'm certain that the song would not have been as good with someone else singing it. Walsh does, however, have a very different vocal technique compared to the later 70's albums which would launch Kansas into mainstream stardom a few years later. I imagine this song would have been great to calm everything down in the middle of live sets. All in all it is a pretty standard piano accompanied ballad which should appeal to anyone. Can I Tell You and Lonely Wind were released as the albums only two singles, which is pretty absurd considering that the real classics from this album are yet to come.

The fourth track, Belexes, is where the album really starts to shine. This track is so.... funky! The lyrics, written by Livgren, are much more abstract than the preceding tracks and are apparently based on some 17th century italian opera. It kicks off with a really cool rolling guitar melody which despite being pretty cheesy is very catchy. The song is being performed by the band to this day, often as an opener, with a very cool build-up. I'm pretty sure it's impossible to find a cooler grandpa rocking a guitar solo than Rich Williams in the live performances of Belexes.

Journey from Mariabronn is a pretty similar track to Belexes but much longer. This is definitely a progressive track which offers long build-ups, pace changes, multiple solos and an epic finale. Although very good, Kansas refined the style they used on this track on later releases and admittedly this is not a track that I play very often.

The Pilgrimage is another rock-and-roll style track which there isn't very much to say about. Easy to like, but pretty boring. Skip ahead to Apercu which is much more interesting. It switches between a calm soundscape, a power ballad and a roaring progressive roller coaster. Don't put this on in the background at your party, this is active listening material.

Although the album as a whole can be considered pretty mediocre when compared with the other 70's gems in the Kansas discography, the last track is reason alone to love it. Death of Mother Nature Suite is one of the most epic prog compositions Kansas have released, rivaled only perhaps by The Pinnacle from Masque. It's the best Kansas song featuring featuring lead vocals by Steinhardt, and calling the recurring guitar riffs anything less than legendary would be a severe understatement. The transition at around 3:20 (omitted in the live video embedded below for some reason) is simply so vicious that I find myself rewinding the track several times just to experience it again. The lyrics are very self-explanatory and tell a tale about how human society has distanced itself from nature. "Once she ruled the world with love and wisdom, but we were much too smart to live away. With greed and lust we tried to rise above her. The ignorance of man will reach an end, and now she's gonna die." It's senselessly simple, yet extremely powerful.

All in all this is by no means the best Kansas album, but it's still a classic worth a listen for anyone interested in 70's prog.

Progress

27 Jan 2017

These days it seems like every day I wake up with a different feeling on the progress of my thesis. Going from being very optimistic to borderline panic attacks is stressful but I still feel like I enjoy life more when there are challenges (or rather, when I overcome challenges). Although I face seemingly impossible tasks I'm very lucky to have some very professional supervisors who always push me to do my best. In the beginning it was difficult to structure my daily activities without the proper framework that I am familiar with from classes, but it has gradually gotten better and now I wouldn't want it any other way.

Schoolwork aside, life is (still) very good here in Copenhagen. After many busy weeks I have rediscovered the importance of taking some time off on the weekends and focusing on something completely different. Having amazingly intelligent and motivated friends around me makes doing so incredibly rewarding!

Thoughts about the year 2017

01 Jan 2017

Happy new year!

I'm back in Copenhagen trying to get ready to write an amazing thesis. It is beyond any doubt that 2017 will be a very challenging (and hopefully exciting) year for me. In half a year I will graduate with a Masters degree, marking the end of my education followed by my ascension into the ranks of the Danish workforce (I hope).

First of all, I have to read a lot. Then I have to become best friends with Matlab. Hopefully also work out a bit. Right now everything seems a bit overwhelming but I think it's just a matter of spending a few weeks getting settled into things.

Let's make 2017 the best ever!

My Last Exam Period Ever!

14 Nov 2016

It's been almost five and a half years since I started my engineering journey. It's weird to think that this December will be my 11th and last exam period ever. What does life beyond classes have in store for me? I'm getting ahead of myself, let's pass these exams.

Hello? Am I here?

01 Oct 2016

It has actually been so long since last time that I'd forgotten my password, so much for an active blog. So I looked at my Google Analytics overview for this page and it looks like I've had between zero and one reader per month on this blog. Not a big surprise as I haven't advertised this blog to anyone for about four years. I feel like not advertising the blog means that I can be more controversial (which of course doesn't makes sense since I'm posting this to the internet openly available for all kinds of scrutiny). If you know me IRL and randomly stumbled upon this blog please let me know (no reason, just curious).

Now for a quick update: School is still 78% of my life right now. The remaining 22% are Danish style socializing and procrastination. Just the way I like it in other words. Japan seems like a distant past and I have already settled into the Danish way of life. I reckon I will feel Danish any time now. Slowly but surely Danish people are actually answering me when I talk to them, not just nodding their heads yes pretending like they understood what I said. Great progress. Overall Denmark is amazing, except for the disgusting "hot dogs" they sell in 7-11, yuck. I hope to stay here after I graduate in a years time, that would be sweet.

I may or may not remember to write here from time to time from now on. Don't stay tuned.

Btw PPAP is the worst thing to happen so far this year.

Almost two semesters flew by

17 Apr 2016

I need to start writing something on here! It's been almost two semester since the last post, and a lot of things have happened. Most importantly I have gotten accustomed to living in Copenhagen, and have found a new place to stay not too far from the campus. In general, life is good and I hope to be back with some more posts soon!

3 week report

13 Sep 2015

It's been (almost) three weeks since I came to DTU. So far the courses have been tough but OK. I have four courses, out of which half are quite interesting. The other two courses are excruciatingly boring, but I think I will make it through. Even though DTU is ranked as (one of) the best engineering schools in Scandinavia, I have not seen a big difference in the student body from my previous university in terms of motivation and willingness to learn. This has made me realize that quantifying "smarts" is not easy in any institution, and thus some people who are here shouldn't be and vice versa.

What has surprised me most is that the Danish students party a lot. I mean, A LOT. If I wanted to I could easily go get wasted any day of the week, without ever leaving the campus. I have no idea how they survive, but it is nice that I can go out and have a beer with people on the weekend.

My accomodation is right in the campus which makes me one of the lucky few who lives close to here. Most of my friends live about 10km away (bicycle distance in Denmark). Just a heads up to anyone thinking of applying to DTU!

Have a great few weeks.

I'm off!

24 Aug 2015

Leaving my hometown for Copenhagen tomorrow! Excited to meet my new flatmates. First five days will be the "introduction week" for the intl. MSc courses. Looking forward to that too!

AFS camp in Oslo

12 Aug 2015

I'm back home with a Bachelor's degree. This weekend I am participating as a volunteer at an AFS camp in Oslo. It's going to be a lot of hard work, but hopefully a lot of fun too. I will move to Denmark at the end of this month!

Positive outlook

21 Jul 2015

Just registered my courses for the first semester at DTU. Long story short: Prerequisites I don't have, interesting electives overlapping (boring) required courses, late Fridays... This is going to be fun.

Phone company rant

13 Jul 2015

I'm in a bad mood. I am leaving Japan within a months time, and I just came back from cancelling my phone contract. Even though I had been on contract with that company (DoCoMo) for more than two years, they still insisted that I payed the 104$ cancellation fee. Why would there be a fee to cancel your phone contract after using it for so long? Well, the Japanese phone companies are really weird.

First of all, there are only three major phone companies. This fact really kills competition, and the three companies pretty much do whatever they please. Japan has fewer phone companies for its 120+ million people than Norway has for it's five! As a result of this, all three companies charge outrageous prices for their services, and constantly trick you into buying services that you don't need.

In my case, the lady at the DoCoMo shop told me that the base charge would be free if I made a student discount contract. What she didn't tell me is that this "discount" comes with a mandatory 3GB 4G plan at almost 40$ per month! Don't even try to talk sense into them, if you signed the contract you better start downloading porn on the train or something because you are not getting your money back. They also gave me a service called "international call" that you can use if you want to pay MORE money to call home than you already were. How is this not illegal?

And those cancellation fees are also a result of lacking competition. To keep their customers, the companies instilled a cancellation fee for all contracts so that it would be harder for the consumer to move on to better deals. Because there are so few companies, all of them get away with doing this without consumers batting an eye. The good part is that if you are still living in Japan (not leaving like me), the other companies will gladly pay the cancellation fee for you if you agree to switch to their plan. It's like your money is being held hostage by the companies, because at some point you will have to pay the cancellation fee when you inevitably leave Japan for a longer period of time.

Thought you could just take your iPhone to Japan and get a contract with a Japanese company? From what I've heard, this is actually possible, but the companies will do whatever they can to convince you that it's not. If you just bought a brand new S6 from abroad and wanted to use it in Japan, they would go above and beyond to make you buy another brand new phone for monthly payments of around 20$ for two years. The truth is that they could just put a new SIM card in your phone and it would work like a charm. Scoundrels if you ask me!

Some Chinese friends of mine are solving this problem in an interesting way. They buy a phone with a contract in Japan, sell it to their friends back in China, and then go to a different phone company to collect the cancellation fee. Rinse and repeat, and they are actually making money from it. However, us western gaijins, who don't have the time on their hands to be constantly changing operators and selling phones abroad, have no defense against being constantly ripped off.

The Japanese Consumer Affairs Agency was established as recent as 2009, and are now pumping out laws and regulations that nobody is following. Whereas I would give consumer services as a call had this happened back home, I know that there is no point in doing that here. People here are already too used to having to be very cautious when buying anything, and bite the bullet when they inevitably get scammed.

Bottom line: As consumers, we will ALWAYS lose to the phone companies here, and foreigners who can't read 6-page contracts in Japanese are viewed as gold mines.

Driving in Japan

02 Jul 2015

Discovering that my university was located on a hill in a remote suburb outside of town, I found out that the most economical way for me to traverse the 6km from my home to the university was by buying a scooter. Thus started my life as driver in Japan, and thinking back, I have become a pretty good driver by Japanese standards, and probably a lot worse by standards back home. Japanese drivers are very nice and mostly drive safe, and there are not many serious traffic accidents, but boy is their system a lot different from ours.

First of all, I have completely forgot that you are supposed to stop before pedestrian crossings when there are people waiting to cross. This is pretty much never done here, and if you were to stop you could create a dangerous situation in which people are overtaking without seeing the pedestrians.

I also have no idea what the speed limit is on most of the roads that I use, unless I drive in a very rural area. This is because since the Japanese city roads are literally RIDDLED with stop-signs (one every 50 or so meters, no joke), I just go as fast as I can before I have to stop again. Slowing down in densely populated areas is mostly unheard of here. Also, there is no fine for going 10 km/h over the limit, and people will get annoyed if you don't do it.

The traffic rules themselves are also a bit different here, as it is based on the American system and not the European one. For one thing you drive on the wrong side of the road, but that's just something you get used to. The most different thing is that there is no rule where you have to yield for people coming in from the right (or, in this case, the left). Who yields is simply regulated with stop signs and lines on the road, and in the absence of these, the smaller road has to yield. Back home, you would have to yield for people coming out of tiny side roads onto large ones, but that is never done here. Undertaking is also legal here.

Another peculiar thing with driving in Japan is that in stead of giving the "wave" to say thank you in traffic situations, the Japanese honk their horn. In the beginning I was really confused, and often thought people were really mad at me. I still do. I also find it really funny when there are pedestrian crossings on roads that have no sidewalk. There are no rules for wearing clothes when riding a motorbike, and I often see people on 300cc bikes wearing no socks in their pink crocs. If you drive a scooter <50cc, you don't even have to wear a full face helmet. I often see Japanese "gangsters" drive their scooters with a small bicycle-style helmet dangling down their upper backs.

If you are a confident driver, driving around Kyushu Island in a rental is a really enjoyable experience (bring your international drivers license), but keep in mind that their system is a lot different from ours, and try to avoid big cities as much as possible!

A few things that I love about living in Japan (as a student)

30 Jun 2015

These are just some of the things that I love about Japan. This is by no means a complete list, but more like a summary of everything that comes to mind when I get asked that question.

1. Living here is very convenient. Many shops are 24/7, and government instances such as city halls are never crowded and provide good service. All of your mail is delivered on the door for no extra charge, even big parcels.

2. Housing is readily available and relatively cheap. Where I come from, people put themselves on waiting lists to even have a roof over their heads when they start studying. I have yet to hear about a Japanese university which did not provide at least temporary housing for its foreign students. When I moved out of my temporary housing, I just went to the real estate agent, picked out a room, got the contract in the mail a week later and just moved.

3. Infrastructure is very well maintained. Driving in Japan is, unless you live in a big city, very convenient. In addition to this, road-tax for small cars is pretty much non-existent (something like 2000 yen a year).

4. Public transport will take you anywhere, and is practically never late. It is also fairly reasonable if you buy a daysaver or a monthly pass.

5. Eating at restaurants is cheap and fun. If you want to go out to eat and drink (which is probably the most popular Japanese pastime...), you can just drop into any roadside Izakaya to enjoy great Japanese food. Where I come from, eating at a restaurant is so expensive that you would only do it on special occasions. Here, even students can afford buying a ready made lunch whenever they feel like it. Which brings me to...

6. The food. Japanese food is just as tasty as it is beautiful, so much so that many Japanese girls actually take pictures of their food before they eat it. Even much of the western food is better here, because the Japanese chefs take the good parts of western food and improve it. Believe it or not: In Japan, burgers from McDonalds actually look like the ones on the pictures!

7. The people. The overwhelming majority of people that I have met here are really friendly.

8. Onsen. Japanese hot springs are amazing. It is quite the culture shock to begin with, but once you learn to block out the fact that you are completely naked in a large bath-house with 20-30 others, you start to realize how great it really is.

9. Karaoke. In Japan, people don't go to night-clubs, but spend the night singing karaoke until the early hours.

10. Japanese people are really talented. It is common for a Japanese person to choose a hobby at a young age, and just stick to that their whole lives. Because of this, you find people all around who are just really good at what they do.

11. Public places are mostly spotlessly clean. If you take the first train in the morning, you can see the station staff cleaning every corner of the station manually. They even take time to wipe the walls! Also, the city rarely provides garbage cans in public areas, but most people still take their garbage home and recycle it.

12. Public toilets are clean, everywhere and hi-tech. Who would have thought that you can just walk into a random public-park toilet and sit down on an electrically heated toilet seat?

13. The summer. In the summer, Japan turns into a summer paradise, with long clean beaches, great temperatures and good conditions for swimming, surfing and other summer activities. Downside: 35 centigrade exam period...

14. Clean air, by Asian standards.

15. Student housing always has a bathtub.

16. The whole country is ridiculously safe. People leave their bikes unlocked when they go to the store, pick pocketing is almost not an issue, lost items are mostly returned. The areas here that are known to have a high crime-rate are just like anywhere in a European city. Also, girls can walk home alone drunk wearing a mini-skirt without any issues. That is not to say there isn't crime, though. I have friends who have gotten their bikes stolen, or their houses broken into. There is just a lot less of it.

17. Relatively few homeless people and addicts.

18. Government sponsored health care which is almost free for students.

19. Low taxes on everyday items such as groceries and gasoline. Electronics and household appliances are also cheap.

20. Smoking is banned in crowded areas, which have designated smoking areas. For example, there are only a few spots on campus where smoking is allowed. Strangely enough though, smoking indoors in restaurants and bars is totally fine.

21. Amazing customer service. Employees will go out of their way to help you even though they speak no English.

Those are just a few reasons that came to mind, I'm sure there are many more that I just didn't think of.

Lastly, let me add that I love my home country for just as many reasons, and that neither that nor Japan is by any means a perfect country!

Music in Japan

29 Jun 2015

When I first came to Japan, I spent a lot of time getting to know the Japanese culture, including the Japanese entertainment industry. I had my regular Japanese variety TV show that I watched every week, and read some Japanese comics (although I couldn't really read much Japanese at the time).

I also tried my very best to start liking Japanese music. One good reason to learn some pop-music classics from Japan is so that you can have fun singing with your Japanese friends in the mandatory karaoke after-parties on tired Sunday mornings, and I know from experience that singing too many songs in English can ruin the karaoke-room vibe (protip: learn one or two Japanese songs, and you will earn instant friend-points with your Japanese companions). I rented CD's and copied them over to my mp3 player (yes, for some reason renting CD's is still a thing here...) and listened to everything from soft-rock and Japanese idol groups to chipmunk-style techno groups (see Perfume). However, as a person who enjoys rock and heavy metal music, I soon came to a realization about Japanese pop music:

It all SUCKS.

But all is not lost. Japanese music does not suck, good music is just not popular in the country in where it is made. A Japanese friend of mine pointed out that this may be due to the fact that karaoke is so big here, so all the songs pretty much have to be singable with guitar solos and instrumentals kept at a minimum. Also, marketing is alpha-omega for the industry, and the massive advertising companies are just too powerful for independent artists to shine through. So I did some research, and I found tons of high quality music by highly talented musicians. The Japanese audience doesn't appreciate talented musicians, but that doesn't stop the talented people from flourishing here.

As an example, I want to introduce Ningen-Isu (人間椅子). The name is Japanese meaning Human Chair, based on a short story of the same name. They are a metal band (although they are often touching upon other genres), fusing western hard-rock culture with Japanese elements such as Noh-theater and ancient Japanese poetry. In interviews they have named classic bands such as Black Sabbath and King Crimson as their inspiration. The band has been around since the late 80's, and are still releasing albums today and have quite a cult following here. Their stage show includes dressing up in the Japanese traditional attire Kimono, and the bass player dressing up as a Japanese Buddhist monk. Recommended listen!

In short, give Japanese music a chance!

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