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  • Vinyl Review : Neon Indian – VEGA INTL. Night School

    2015 - 11.21

    The first time I heard Neon Indian was in 2005 when I heard “Terminally Chill” while shopping at American Apparel and had to Shazaam this awesome retrowave tune that was undeniably hip. The rest of their first album “Psychic Chasms” was right up there on the same level. Lo-fi production jam packed with weird sounds, crude drum machine, and old-school synths. Ten years later, they are releasing their 3rd album “VEGA INTL. Night School” and after listening to it many times now my geekout level has reached critical mass.

    The first thing I’ll say about this album is that it genuinely surprised me. Neon Indian’s previous album Era Extrana was, let’s be honest, a complete flop for me. It had zero tracks on it with staying power. I listened to it several times when I got it, wanting to like it, hoping that it would ramp up in appeal but it flat-lined for me and never jumped up. I have not gone back to it since.

    There’s tons and tons of artists out there in all mediums who create something magnificent, something worthy of attention, but then seem unable to ever reignite that level of greatness again. Coming away from Era Extrana, I was convinced that this was Neon Indian. Something lined up for them during the creation of their first album Psychic Chasms and it was magic. All the right elements came together and awesome, memorable music resulted. But in their sophmore effort it was obvious that whatever had ‘clicked’ that first time around simply wasn’t there anymore. I thought hmph, so that’s it then. My expectation was set: LOW.

    So it’s super, super inspiring as an artist to hear what happened on “Night School.” After listening to it many times over, I feel that it’s an even stronger album than Psychic Chasms. It’s still brand new so that’s a bold statement because music needs to age a little bit for the proper context to settle in. Time tells you how often you come back to it, how much lasting appeal it has in the panoloply of everything you might want to put on. Most of the time good music occurs as a slow realization along the lines of “hey, this is pretty good > ooh, actually this is really good > oh man, this is a cut above > yeah this is classic material” Night School is the rare exception where the very first time I listened I knew immediately, yep, this is fire.

    Neon Indian: Vega Intl. Night School

    What separates an “album” from a playlist of songs is cohesiveness. To me an album is a set of songs that creates a mood or takes you on a journey, something that’s complete and self-contained. The mark of a good album is when you create a playlist of random stuff and you insert one of these tracks, hearing it makes you want to hear the next song from the original album instead of whatever’s next on your playlist. With Night School, Neon Indian has achieved that style of continuity.

    Okay okay, what makes it so good?! Let’s break it down:

    Outrageous palette: the overarching theme is a cheezy late 80s/early 90s shopping mall pop sound deconstructed and rebuilt with modern sensibilities. That’s the core. But a better question is, what doesn’t this album have? I hear hand percussion of many varieties, acoustic guitar, japanese flute, old-school rebirth synthesizer, a sax solo, old TV samples, female backing vocals, detroit techno, chiptunes arppegios, and all manner of odd-sounding effects/processing. There’s a little bit of eastern European flavor going on in there, and definitely homage to Depeche Mode style guitar. The whole thing is very electronic and processed but they manage to throw in something organic a lot of the time too. There’s simply an absurd amount of different sounds to chew on.

    Catchy hooks: the main chorus on nearly all tunes is very hummable. There’s a lot of anthems built around simplistic (read: accessible) phrases and Neon Indian dishes that out with proper buildup around them. Often they present a simple melody which repeats again with an extension to the phrase the second time. It’s a tested forumla that works.

    Songwriting: The album has a 1 minute intro track. There’s pre-choruses. Breakdowns. Bridges with chord changes. Unexpected basslines. Nothing gets me quite like an unexpected bassline does. After listening to music your whole life you get a pretty good idea of where a particular bassline should lead. When it doesn’t do what your ear expects it to do, that kills me in the best way. If you were to try to cover any of these songs, you’d have to sit down and write out all the sections that are going on.

    Production value: There’s a million little touches. Every tune is jam packed with little nooks and crannies. Add a funky synth here that only comes in once and never again. Okay, this tune gets a weird telephone-sounding breakdown at the end. This one has a free-form cadenza intro. There’s a six bar interlude here. The big single from the album gets a seperate part II reprise track that takes it to a mean big-room dancefloor feel. And the whole thing is caked in delay/reverb fader-riding that shoves all the right nuances in your face.

    So yeah, I’m blown away by this one. It’s a masterpiece of nostalgia-mining, pop-glitz, thoughtful production, and selective exploitation of dated sound palettes. I still say Beck is the king of taking elements that would sound stupid by themselves and mashing them into a bafflingly awesome whole but damn, Neon Indian has shown up to the record store with a gauntlet to throw. Night School is an album with something to prove and it does it relentlessly. As a musician myself I am inspired by just how severly this blows their previous record straight out of the water. Neon Indian’s style may not be for everyone but wow, what a record.

    100% Juice video: Hey Fela! (New Mastersounds cover)

    2015 - 10.16

    A bit of news: Bob Saviano, my drummer of choice for the past 3 years has moved out of Houston. However the silver lining there is our band 100% Juice finally did a double-session weekend, which is something we’d meant to do for a very long time. The first day yielded some stellar group improvisations and the second day was mostly video-recorded. I have been chipping away at those sessions with a snail’s pace, so there is still more to come, but hey, there is one completed video which I’ll post here.

    Here is 100% Juice covering The New Mastersounds song “Hey Fela!”

    I have also been putting more of our jams onto YouTube, where they can be streamed in higher quality than Soundcloud offers. Check out this link for some listening.


    Planet or not…

    2015 - 09.09

    So obviously I haven’t written much about space exploration in quite a while. Some of the projects I wrote about long ago have pretty much fulfilled their missions; the planet-hunting Kepler space telescope is now thousands and thousands of exoplanets deep, and the ice-cube neutrino observatory has found its high energy neutrinos. I haven’t lost my love for all-things space related, but I have had somewhat of a philosophical shift on this site that what I write about here is more focused on either my own creations or journaling for myself, rather than reporting the current news.

    But there was one thing that happened recently which was pretty amazing: the New Horizons space probe finally reached Pluto! (talk about earning that “tremendous voyages” tag) Dwarf planet or not, this is a new achievement in the exploration of distant worlds. This mission’s a high water mark in terms of pure kilometers that, let’s be real, won’t be exceeded in my lifetime. And that’s awesome to think about. Seldom do we get to watch something happen and know within that very moment that history is being witnessed… but this is one of those times. These pictures are a kind of rebuttal against that refrain “born too late to explore the Earth, born too early to explore the galaxy.” Well here’s a new part of your galaxy to admire:


    New Jams

    2015 - 09.03

    I’m tossing up a quick post here with links to two soundcloud pages for my musical projects:

    The Acropolis of Soul

    100% Juice

    Check ’em out!

    PS3 Round II

    2015 - 07.31

    So for many years now I’ve been playing games on my Playstation 3. It’s an original 60gig “fat” system, the very first model introduced. Sadly two months ago it gave me the so-called “yellow light of death” which means that the main BGA inside it has cracked solder balls from a slow temperature stress over time. I was able to use the so-called hairdryer-trick (which is exactly as scientific as it sounds) to briefly revive it; enough time to copy over my save games, eject a disc, and get a little nostalgic.

    The oldest save file? Ratchet and Clank from 4/17/07. Wow. Eight years. Has it really been that long? Though it sounds odd to say it, rewinding through the save files and being reminded of all the games I had played over the years was quite a trip down memory lane. Certain games I maybe only played for a short time, and carried a strong association with whatever else was going on in my life at the time. It’s a bit like hearing a song you haven’t heard in forever… something that reminds you of a smell or a place you once lived, or the way life used to feel back then.

    It’s sort of funny, the way your mind forms these connections and loops nostalgia through it. I also feel some connection to the system itself because in my last job I had taken a business trip to Japan and the two weeks I spent there were visiting Sony and Toshiba, working for the manufacturing plants that were building the Cell processor (CPU) and the main graphics chip for the PS3. And this was during the early days of their manufacturing as well, so it would have been these “fat” systems they were struggling to build, with all the growing pains of scaling production up on a system destined to sell millions of units.

    But all things have a season and the fat PS3 has served me well. When it went down, I decided to go on a videogame sabbadical until after the MRHA conference, since I knew I wanted to focus my free time on some model RR work for their model contest. Now that this is complete, I went out to buy a new PS3, only to discover that new units are no longer being produced. I settled on a used “SuperSlim” unit–the 3rd generation of the console.

    My videogame pace seems to grow slower and slower with each passing year but I gotta admit it was very exciting to get a new (to me) console! I’m sure it will provide many nights of enjoyment……

    Major Trackwork: Complete.

    2015 - 07.28


    IMG_9319 BLOGSIZEOver the long 4th of July weekend I took the two afternoons of free-time needed to do something I’ve been procrastinating on for a long time now: complete the short stretch of track needed to join the upper and lower decks of my railroad! This required the installation of three switches, five transitions from code 83 to 100, three rerailers and assorted wiring/soldering. So it was somewhat of a busy little stretch in terms of trackwork and attention needed for the actual construction even though it is not very long in size.

    As part of this construction project, I also completed what I’ve been calling my level 1.5 staging tracks. These are three very long, single-ended staging tracks that can accommodate a huge train, like a 12 car North Coast Limited. Since the passenger cars and engines that compose a big train like that will draw a lot of current from my DCC system, I also installed a light switch under the layout that can switch power to that section of track on or off.

    My layout wiring has been largely improvised with little to no foresight or planning which has resulted in an increasingly gory spectacle of wire madness for those brave enough to venture beneath the layout. There’s one particularly bad spot where several levels of track wiring all join together, combined with an autoreverser and a circuit breaker. It’s pretty much disgusting but that’s what I get for a lack of wiring planning.

    When I designed my layout I knew that if I had an upper level and a lower level there were only 2 choices of how to join them: a helix or a long steep grade. I’ve never been a fan of the helix since they take up a huge amount of space and can’t be included into the layout as anything remotely realistic. So a steep grade it is. It turned out mostly around 3% although it does approach just under 5% at the steepest point, which is somewhat beastly of a slope.

    In real life when trains encountered an unavoidable mountainous grade, the train crew would split the train in two and take it up the hill in smaller pieces in a move called “doubling the hill”. So this same behavior is required on my layout since the engines won’t be able to pull a huge train up this grade. After performing this maneuver a few times over the weekend, I think I actually enjoy this operational requirement. It adds a bit of challenge and reward for sending trains up and down. This forces some “operation” on the layout rather than running loops, which is still the main thing I enjoy.

    Pre-Release Hype: No Man’s Sky

    2015 - 07.27

    I just want to go on official record as having raised my alert status to super-mega-stoked for this PC/PS4 game which might get released later this year called “No Man’s Sky.” For anyone who hasn’t heard of it, the game is a sandbox/exploration game where you begin on a generic planet and start hunting for resources. Eventually you find a weapon and a ship, which frees you up to either explore more of the planet… or leave and go find another planet to explore. It is an incredibly open concept just at this level, but here’s the kicker: everything in the game is procedurally generated. That loosely means that your computer is “inventing” everything on-screen as you go. It has a broad set of rules regarding what types of air/plants/animals/stuff should appear on a given planet which is situated a given distance from its star, but that’s it. No one has “designed” these worlds–they are the output of a complex mathematical system.

    The information (and the names of all the things you encounter) are cataloged on a central database that all the other players are feeding into, so effectively a whole universe (yes, with multiple galaxies) is being created/populated by the players of this game as they explore it. Hooooo. I mean, there’s an idea that’s never been done before in gaming, at least not on this level. It’s a heady concept and I’m captivated by the idea.  And the scale of it all is preposterous: the creators estimate the universe contains 18 quintillion planets.  That’s 18,000,000,000,000,000,000… and no that’s not a typo.

    At this stage there’s still a lot which is unknown about how the gameplay will flow, but it seems heavily influenced by the game Journey… a sparsely populated but strikingly beautiful landscape that appeals to explorers and open-world fans. That’s me! I eagerly await this one. There’s a lot of great videos including long gameplay ones if you search on youtube but I really like this one for the pure excitement value:



    Photographing the Milwaukee Road right-of-way in Washington state

    2015 - 07.12

    On June 17th 2015, a nearly cloudless day, I set out for a bike ride of the former Milwaukee Road railway between Easton and Cedar Falls in Washington state.  It is now the Iron Horse state park AKA the John Wayne trail.  This album shows the best of the many photos I took along the way, documenting the area for the purposes of reconstructing it via model railroading.  Hence there is a heavy emphasis on tunnels and bridges, rocks, and small details that may only be of interest to railroad fans.  There are also several large panoramas which you’ll need to download to view full size.  I may use these to build a photo backdrop.  There are 217 photos and I highly recommend viewing them on flickr if you want to enlarge anything.  There’s a slideshow below which gives a preview but here is the full link:


    Photographs of the model contest from the Milwaukee Road Historical Association 2015 conference in Yakima

    2015 - 07.09

    As the title suggests, I recently attended the Milwaukee Road Historical Association 2015 conference in Yakima Washington.  I’m really glad I did this, since it was centered on the region where my model railroad is located and there were lots of former railroad employees, historians, and fellow modelers in attendance.

    As part of the conference, the MRHA held a model contest to which anyone could submit as many entries as they liked.  I brought along several models and there were lots of excellent submissions.  Naturally I had my camera along so I took lots of photos of all the models that were there.

    The winner of the contest was Mr. Noel Holley, author of the book “The Milwaukee Electrics” which is widely regarded as the authoritative volume on the railroad’s electrified operations.  He brought a superbly impressive model of the Hyak substation modeled in HO scale.  To accompany the substation he had brought along a 2-3 foot section of track with his custom built catenary wire above it.  We had an excellent conversation about how he had built his catenary (since I will be following in his footsteps to build my own) and he was kind enough to let me pose the two Creek series observation sleepers on the electrified track for some photos.  He had brought along a 1952 maroon-stripe bipolar which is posed with the Coffee Creek and I had brought my E-1 in the experimental Olympian Hiawatha scheme, which is posed with the Gold Creek.  I saved the best photos until the end in this slideshow.  Click the title of the image if you want to go to flickr and view it in full resolution.  Enjoy!:

    More models from the MRHA conference

    2015 - 06.27

    Okay, I’ve got a few more photos worth sharing that show the models that I had been working on to take along to the 2015 Milwaukee Road Historical Association 2015 conference in Yakima.  As seen previously, here is Bipolar E1 in the experimental Olympian Hiawatha paint scheme, this time from a different angle:

    Bipolar E1 in the experimental 1948 Olympian Hiawatha scheme

    And here’s his buddy, the Skytop sleeper/observation car #16 “Gold Creek” in the 1948 paint scheme with gold lettering, additional maroon band and gray roof.  I did a lot of work on this car: decals, dull coats, gloss coats, added stainless fluting to the rear, etched stainless lettering for “Olympian Hiawatha”, painted grabirons, interior partition, window glazing with Lee Filters #730 Liberty Green, and lightly weathered the trucks, which I swapped in from a Walthers car for better looks.

    IMG_7458 v2

    When running around Seattle’s Union Station on the unelectrified tracks, the fellow below would do the pulling: an NW2 switcher.  It’s a custom painted (not by me) Kato shell on a Broadway Limited SW2 frame which has sound and DCC.

    IMG_7426 v2

    Below we have some trailers for TOFC service (Trailer on Flat Car), as they would have looked in 1980, right at the end of the Milwaukee.  I did all decaling with Microscale decals, dull coat, light dirt weathering, and black diesel exhaust.

    IMG_7415 v2

    And one more close-up of Gold Creek.  Check out that stainless lettering.  Sharp!
    IMG_7465 v2