Archive: photography

Last month I attended the World Series by Renault event at Silverstone. I have become a big fan of the World Series by Renault. I have already recently enthused about its centrepiece event, the Formula Renault 3.5 series. So I was pretty excited to go and see it for real.

Despite having been massively interested in motorsport for over 15 years now, I have never managed to get myself to any kind of motorsport event before. I haven’t even been to watch a race at Knockhill, which is an hour down the road. So I was pretty excited to be making a trip to Silverstone to see some top-class international motorsport action.

First glimpse of the Wing

We entered the circuit on Saturday morning at the new Wing pit complex. It is a very impressive building to see in real life.

Daniël de Jong goes for a spin

While this is the location of the new international pit straight, World Series by Renault was using the old start–finish straight, so there was no bustle here. But the first piece of excitement was watching Daniël de Jong spin at Club corner during Formula Renault 3.5 qualifying.

My friend’s mission was to walk round the perimeter of the circuit, which I was all for. For this World Series by Renault event, you can freely walk in and out of almost any grandstand you choose. So during the qualifying session we made our way round the circuit, travelling anti-clockwise (the opposite direction to the cars).

Here is me posing at the bridge at Hangar Straight as though I am standing next to the pyramids of Egypt.

Standing at Hangar Straight

It is amazing how close you can get to the circuit at some points. I was dead proud I managed to take this photograph of Felix Serralles at the apex of Aintree during the Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup qualifying session.

Felix Serralles

We continued on to Copse. Here there is a tunnel that goes underneath the circuit and leads to the inside. This is where most of the World Series by Renault action takes place. World Series by Renault is as much a festival of motorsport (or, more accurately, a festival of Renault) as a day at the races. That is underlined in this ‘village’. But I will write about that in a separate post.

After visiting the village, we walked along the national pit straight. All of the World Series by Renault pitlane action happens here. However, it is very difficult to see what is going on in the pitlane, even from high up in the grandstands.

But a little creative thinking enables you to see what is going on in the reflections from the pit building! This photograph is of Kevin Korjus being wheeled into his garage following Sunday’s Formula Renault 3.5 race.

In the pits

Bridge corner

We then went round Woodcote to visit the old Bridge corner. We were able to freely walk around this disused part of the circuit. It is pretty cool to walk across such an amazing, historic corner.

But it is also a bit sad. While I was taking a photograph of Bridge, I didn’t notice that a wheelie bin would be the most prominent feature of the photo! It kind of sums up what has become of Bridge.

I found the newer parts of the circuit harder to access. When walking round the perimeter, it is easy to completely skip past the new inner section. We didn’t manage to properly explore the Loop section until late on in the day.

You might wonder if we managed to watch much racing given all this wandering round! That will be the subject of a separate post to be published in the near future.

But the wandering round was certainly beneficial. We got a good feel for the best places to view. I can’t imagine there is a better place to sit than the stand at Becketts.

Views from the stand at Becketts

This photograph doesn’t demonstrate the best view available from this stand. I later discovered that by sitting further to the right, it is possible to see the entry to Maggotts, through Becketts, Chapel and the first part of the Hangar Straight. Then you can also see the ‘opposite’ end of the circuit, when it doubles back on itself at the Loop, then all the way along the full length of the Wellington straight. The end of the Wellington straight is very far away, but you can see it nonetheless.

When we sat up here for Saturday’s Formula Renault 3.5 race, there was almost always a car in view. Neatly, these two parts of the circuit are at exact opposite ends in terms of lap time, so you get an update on a car’s progress twice a lap in an even fashion. Brilliant stuff.

The second leg of my trip took me away from nature. I decided to go out of my way to visit Steam — the Museum of the Great Western Railway.

I am not an extreme railway enthusiast, although I do find railways quite interesting. I only knew that Steam existed when I happened to pass it on the train a few weeks earlier on a separate journey.

I decided I wanted to visit, and it was quite convenient that I managed to incorporate it into my holiday. It is very easy to get to by rail, being just a stone’s throw away from Swindon railway station.

The museum is very comprehensive. It is not just a collection of old trains. The very first thing you see when you enter is a mocked-up back office. I wandered into a small room to find myself walking in on a worker being given a row by his boss for turning up late for work! Quite amusing.

From there, you go on to learn about the processes of building a steam locomotive, step by step.

Caerphilly Castle locomotive

Then, finally, you are presented with the finished product. This is Caerphilly Castle.

The underside of Caerphilly Castle

This is just one example of the excellent way exhibits are presented at Steam. A staircase allows you to walk straight underneath the locomotive to give a view of the underside.

After that, there are exhibits about the building of the railway itself. You learn about the Box Tunnel, and the Great Western Railway’s original unusual, but superior, broad gauge.

This is perhaps the most fun part of the museum. There is an awesome train driving simulator, and games that demonstrate the difficult job signalmen had.

Then you pay a visit to a mock GWR railway station.

The mock railway station at Steam

Train-shaped coffee pot

The station contains objects like clocks, benches and vending machines of the steam period. But the highlight for me was the brilliant silver-plated locomotive-shaped coffee pot.

This was used at Swindon railway station, which apparently was notorious for its awful refreshments. Isambard Kingdom Brunel himself complained about it, with audio of his complaint playing out in the mock railway station. The display describes it as a “foul brew”, but you cannot deny that it was gloriously presented.

"See your own country first"

After you have looked around the railway station, it is time to enter ‘Speed to the West’, which is all about the efforts made to attract tourists to use the Great Western Railway. Among the exhibits are old slot machines, which you can still try out for 20p.

“See your own country first,” one poster implores. “There is a great similarity between Cornwall and Italy in shape, climate and natural features.”

This was another highlight for me. I have a particular fascination with the visual identity and graphic design of railways.

It would have been really great if I could buy some prints of old GWR posters from the souvenir shop, but sadly they didn’t sell anything like this. I made do with a GWR keyring and three bottles of beer that were brewed by the Box Steam Brewery, based near the Box tunnel.

I also pressed a penny to emboss it with the GWR logo. I haven’t done that in years, but it is always quite a nice and inexpensive souvenir of a visit.

All-in-all I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Steam, and would highly recommend that you pay a visit if you happen to be in the Swindon area.

After my adventure on the Struggle, I parked at White Moss to embark on a walk up Loughrigg Fell, which Nick Barlow recommended to me.

Although I enjoy walking up hills from time to time, I hadn’t done it for a while. But this was a good reminder that I really do enjoy it.

Does this mean I'm halfway?

I found Loughrigg Fell to be a particularly rewarding walk. As with the area around Aira Beck, there are lots of different ways you could go about it.

There are a few different summits to explore and for a while I couldn’t work out which one was the one to climb. All the more opportunity to see some of the fantastic views.

Also like Aira Beck, it was very quiet for the most part, but with more people at the main attraction. People who came up to see views like this.

Lingmoor Fell

Inevitably, my photographs do not come close to conveying how lovely the views are up there.

I went down in the opposite direction to the way I came up, and saw the people milling around on the beach at Grasmere lake.

Above Grasmere

Since I had a bit of time on my hands, I decided to go for a wander round part of Grasmere lake as well.

Small building at Grasmere

That topped of a brilliant day. It began with an early start in Dundee, setting off for a four hour long journey to Aira Beck. Then from there, via the Struggle, up a 1,000 foot hill and round a lake.

It’s a lot to cram into one day if you haven’t had much sleep. Inevitably it unravelled a bit after this. I kept on getting lost on the way to my accommodation for the evening, and ended up not eating anything in the evening.

I guess I needed a rest, but watching television in a Travelodge for several hours is quite a comedown.

A couple of weeks ago I went on a mini holiday. I don’t often go on holiday since I usually struggle to find anyone to go with. In the past I have found lonesome trips to be a bit dull. But this time I decided I might as well stop in a few places on the way down to Silverstone for the World Series by Renault event, which I was dead set on attending.

After some thought, the Lake District became the obvious stopping-off point. It is roughly halfway on the journey between Dundee and Bristol, where I would be staying at a friend’s place.

The first port of call was Aira Force waterfall. I had been told that Ullswater was worth visiting, and Aira Force stood out to me as something to see in that area.


I was rather worried when I tried to park my car. The car park was mobbed, and I took what I considered to be the last available space. I was worried that I was blocking the car park exit somewhat. But that it didn’t stop someone else coming along and parking next to me! We agreed to back each other up if anyone told us off for not parking in the bays.

Considering how busy the car park was, I found the walk up to Aira Force and beyond surprisingly peaceful. Of course, with it being a waterfall, the river itself is quite noisy. And there were plenty of people there. But at the same time, it is amazing how much privacy you can find.

There is plenty of potential to deviate from the main path. You are not restricted to just walking alongside the stream. You can escape nature’s white noise, created by the torrents of water, to enjoy views like this.

View from near Aira Beck

I could have spent much longer exploring the area around Aira Beck. But I had only paid for two hours of parking so had to make my way back down.

I very nearly missed Aira Force itself! It was almost by chance that I eventually came across it.

Aira Force

I have no idea how I missed this on the way up. I must have been too preoccupied with seeking out other views that I walked straight past the main attraction. I am thankful I saw it in the end as it is pretty spectacular.

It says a lot about this location that I was having a brilliant time, before I had even seen the main draw.

Here are all of my photos from Aira Beck and Aira Force.

I was pretty excited to learn this week about Domesday Reloaded. The Domesday project aimed to take a snapshot of British life in 1986. 25 years on, the BBC are looking to update it to document the changes that have taken place since then.

I have been interested in the Domesday project for a while. The idea that a snapshot of Britain was taken, in the form of maps, photographs and text. Yet, the data was unavailable to most people.

The Domesday project was as much an ambitious experiment with technology as anything else. The technology was just about available, but a lot of pioneering work had to be done, and the hardware required for it was prohibitively expensive, leaving many of the contributors somewhat miffed.

Since then, it has become one of the most famous examples of digital obsolesence. This was due to a combination of the technology required to read the discs becoming increasingly rare, and idiosyncratic code.

The Domesday project came at a time when the technology was available, but the standards were not yet there to make it stable enough for long-term preservation, or even easy access in the short term. It’s a reminder that digital technologies are hugely enabling, yet frighteningly fragile.

Then there are the copyright issues surrounding both the content and the technology.

Joys of browsing Domesday Reloaded

The BBC should be applauded for finally managing to open up some of the data to the public on the web. The Domesday project was created before the web was invented. This isn’t how the content was designed to be viewed, so navigation is a bit cumbersome.

But aside from this gripe, the Domesday Reloaded website is turning out to be a fascinating resource.

I was born in 1986, the same year in which the Domesday project disc was published. So the Britain described here is a place that I don’t remember. But enough of it is familiar for it to feel incredibly relevant to me. It’s almost like being given a little upgrade to my memory, so that I can have snippets of knowledge from just before I was born.

Take the photographs for D-block GB-328000-690000 — the centre of Kirkcaldy, my hometown (D-block being one of the 4km by 3km areas the UK was divided into). It took me a little while to recognise “Kirkcaldy’s busy High Street”. But once I spotted British Home Stores, I was right there.

Yet, despite the familiarity, it is almost a completely different world. My memory of the High Street before it was pedestrianised is very limited. But it is just within touching distance of my memory for me to feel a strong connection with it.

The text entries are also fascinating. Most of the contributions were provided by primary schools. A decision was taken by the Domesday project not to edit the contributions, so the quality and style of writing varies from area to area.

As such, what strikes me the most is that it informs you as much about the prejudices of the school pupils and their teachers as it does about the area. It also retains their poor spelling and strange grammar.

For instance, an entry from Dundee (D-block GB-336000-732000) called ‘Traffic in and out’ is a basic survey of vehicles travelling on a road, with guesses as to where the vehicles are going and why. It lacks the academic rigour you would ideally want from a historical document.

But while some of the entries may seem banal, it was designed to be this way. The aim was to genuinely document society by capturing childrens’ curiosity with everything. This way it wouldn’t leave out what adults perceive as being obvious, when it wouldn’t necessarily be so obvious to someone in 1,000 years.

Missing D-blocks in Dundee on Domesday Reloaded

The really big shame is that not every part of Britain was documented. I could understand remote rural areas not being included. But sadly some highly populated areas have also been missed out. For instance, two D-blocks that cover the centre and east of Dundee lie blank, as does much of London.

But what exists is a joy. Even in the little amount of scanning I have done, I have already learned new information about the area I live in, which has set my mind racing and inspired me to investigate further.

Challenges for the modern day equivalents

What also struck me is how we actually already have readily-accessible modern-day equivalents of the Domesday project, almost by accident. The BBC is asking for users to update the content for D-blocks that were documented in 1986, to take an equivalent snapshot of 2011. I may go out and take some photographs for that.

But this sort of local information is staggeringly well documented already. We have Wikipedia, which can be edited by anyone but retains an academic approach that the Domesday project lacked. As such, it is a treasure trove of local information that can probably be relied on more.

Meanwhile, Google Earth and Google Maps provide masses of images of all corners of the country. It absolutely dwarfs what’s on Domesday Reloaded.

But the big question, which can’t be answered at the moment, is whether the wealth of information available on the web can be packaged up into a Domesday-style snapshot and preserved forever. The challenges of web preservation are massive.

Like the Domesday project, we could find the digital information almost slipping through our hands. The BBC know that themselves. With a stroke of a pen, it was decided that a significant chunk of British web heritage will be removed when the BBC removes some of its archived pages from the web.

Almost three years ago I was on a walk with my family near Bridge of Earn. Along the way I saw a dead swan. I took a photograph of it. I don’t know why I decided to take a photograph of it. I guess it was just something interesting. It wasn’t too long after the H5N1 scare in Cellardyke, so that made it seem a bit more noteworthy too.

Red Riding screenshot I uploaded the photograph to Flickr and forgot about it. But in September I got an email asking for permission to use the photograph in a film, Red Riding 1974. I said yes, and it was broadcast today. I didn’t even realise it was on (I don’t really watch television at all these days), and I only found out by chance when I entered another room and asked what they were watching.

And there it is. Blink and you miss it. I also spotted it in a shot of a big noticeboard that had lots of other photographs and clippings on it, so it might have been used a couple of other times and I haven’t spotted it (I wasn’t watching properly).

It’s not life-changing in the slightest, and I didn’t get paid a penny for it, but it is still rather cool. It’s yet another example of the unexpected opportunities my activities on the internet have brought. If you look at my Flickr stream, you will no doubt quickly come to the conclusion that my photography is not much good. But now it’s ended up on Channel 4.

Here is the original:


Recently, Twitter has very much gone mainstream (at least in the UK). Even for a while before that, Twitter has been becoming more than just a microblogging service. It is certainly about a lot more than the famous prompt, “What are you doing?”, suggests.

Twitter is used by different people for a wide variety of purposes now. But due to the space constraints, it requires a fair bit of creativity on the Twitter user’s part. Twitter has almost developed a language of its own.

Very quickly, a convention developed whereby @username signified that this tweet is a reply to one of that user’s recent tweets. Twitter recognised this and built the functionality into the system. Later on, #hashtag acted as a tag for your tweet, the idea being to make it easy to find tweets on certain subjects using a site like #hashtags or Twitter’s own search function. Even more recently, the retweet (now commonly signified by RT) has emerged as a popular way to share other people’s great tweets.

What does this have to do with social bookmarking? Well, a large amount of retweets are just interesting links. That means that a lot of original tweets are just interesting links. But hang on — isn’t a social bookmarking service like Delicious more suitable for sharing interesting links?

It should be, but it’s not. Now let us get one thing straight here. I am a huge fan of Delicious. I have been using it for over four years now, and in that time I have amassed a collection of 7,493 bookmarks across my three accounts. And I won’t stop using it any time soon.

But sometimes, I find it much more satisfying to just paste a URL into Twitter and share the link that way. It is pretty clear that a lot of people do too.

Take the two most recent posts on this blog: ‘Why are newspapers hiding their niche content?‘ and ‘The Edinburgh Twestival‘. Both of these posts were shared around a bit on Twitter.

Certainly, you would expect that for a post about the Edinburgh Twestival. People interested in that post are likely to be Twitter users. This post was shared by five different people (including, it has to be said, me) on Twitter. Four of them were retweets of my original tweet. Google Analytics suggests that 15 visitors landed on the page from the Twitter website (and that doesn’t include any visits that came from Twitter clients, Twitter streams embedded on webpages, etc.). No one shared it on Delicious.

As for the post about RSS feeds, it was shared by four people on Twitter (including me again), one of which was a retweet. It was also shared by four people on Delicious. But three of those people are also the three people who shared it on Twitter! Delicious doesn’t timestamp entries, but I am pretty sure all of them posted to Delicious after posting it to Twitter (let me know if I’m wrong about that). Very probably, two of them discovered it through Twitter rather than anywhere else. So far, the post has had 18 visitors from Twitter, and just five from Delicious.

So is Twitter doing the job of sharing interesting links better than Delicious, the daddy of social bookmarking sites? Almost certainly. And it struck me why while I watched the video currently sitting on the dead / dormant Ma.gnolia website. Ma.gnolia was another social bookmarking website, that was recently taken down for good by a massive database problem. The video is a post-mortem on Ma.gnolia, but it also feels a little bit like a post-mortem on social bookmarking as a whole.

During the interview, Larry Halff points out that the biggest link-sharing website is not Delicious as is commonly suggested — it’s Facebook. It reminds me of the often-forgotten fact that the biggest photo-sharing website is not Flickr, nor is it even Imageshack or Photobucket — it’s Facebook.

This is not because Facebook is better than Flickr for sharing your photos — far from it. Nor is it remotely as good as Delicious for link-sharing. But Facebook is certainly the best place for sharing your photos and link-sharing. That is for one simple reason: Facebook has more users, meaning that you can reach more people more quickly. It’s what Facebook like to call the social graph. It doesn’t matter if the functionality is a bit basic. What matters is that all your friends are on it.

Twitter is no Facebook. While most of my “real life” friends are on Facebook, Twitter has just a smattering of my real life friends. But I follow a great deal of people whose content I just find interesting — bloggers and other online associates with whom I have built a digital acquaintanceship over the years.

Most importantly when it comes to reaching a large amount of people, I know that Twitter is extremely addictive. I know that dozens of my Twitter followers will have a Twitter application of some kind open. I am watching the messages from them tumble down the screen all the time. It feels like I’m having a conversation. I know that I will reach a lot of people by posting a link in Twitter. Then I could have a conversation with people who are interested in that link.

That sense of vibrancy just isn’t there in Delicious. The reason? This social bookmarking service just isn’t social enough. Its social functionality basically extends to being able to add other users to your ‘network’, and being able to inform them of links you think they will find interesting by using a special tag. And that’s it. There are no comments. There is no conversation. There is near enough no social. Just lists of links.

Is there the scope for a TweetDeck-style Delicious application? You could leave it open all day and watch the links from your friends stream in, just as we watch our friends’ tweets. You could use the notes section to leave comments (have a conversation). There could be special tags that allow you to use the notes section to reply to your friends.

I have seen people tag their bookmarks as via:username to signify how they found the link — but Delicious doesn’t appear to recognise it in any special way. Twitter were really smart to capitalise on the @replies convention, because it has made Twitter much more of a social tool. Delicious feels stagnant in comparison. But it seems like it could be easy to fix. So why don’t they?

My mother complained that I haven’t written about my graduation apart from that slightly sarcastic post I wrote prior to it. So here I am with an update on the experience.

First of all, it wasn’t as bad as I had feared. We had to be sat down by 10:30 and the ceremony didn’t start until 11:00. That was a pretty boring half hour. But then once the ceremony itself started it went surprisingly quickly.

Unfortunately the person who was reading everyone’s names out made a bit of a mess of it. A lot of people’s names seemed to be pronounced incorrectly. It wasn’t just the international students, which you might understand. But even some common Anglophone names were completely mauled.

For just one example, the guy who was sitting next to me is called Sussock. Not too difficult I would have thought, but he was introduced as ‘Sisscock’. Amazing. I was a bit worried I was going to be Step-hen but I got off in the end. But for so many people I imagine their memory of the ceremony will be this guy butchering their name. I’m sure it’s not a fun job to have to read so many names out, but it was a bit unfortunate.

The rest of the ceremony wasn’t much better, I’m sorry to say. I watched the webcast of the ceremony that came the day before mine to see what I should expect and that went much better. But in my ceremony the same jokes fell flat because the delivery was so poor. And a lot of the script was skipped as well. I reckon he just wanted to go home early!

The plus side of that was that we all got to go home early as well! 😀 And the queue for the photographer was not bad at all — I was only third in the queue when I joined it. So it was all over much more quickly than I expected.

So I got a nice certificate and a glorified giant red Smarties tube. I was not sure about that you know. In all of the photographs my parents took I am standing there with this ridiculous empty Smarties tube. Then of course for the proper professional photograph I was holding a different fakey prop degree certificate. I can’t really deal with these levels of fakeness. In future I will probably just look at the photos and think, “Smarties tube, fake”.

The photos we took ourselves were not much of a success. My parents can’t seem to cope with the digital camera. Every time my mother uses it she asks the same question — “Which button do I press?” Which button do you think? The one on the top, just like film cameras??

But no, she just reacts like she’s been asked to build a nuclear bomb. Once she’s figured it out she waits about 20 seconds and then — without warning — just presses the button. No “are you ready?” or “right” or any other warning to stop looking gormless. She just presses it. So in all of the photos she took I look either confused, disgusted or gormless.

Escapades with the old camera (which is genuinely as old as I am) were not much more successful, so I hear. My mum managed to drop it in McEwan Hall and the back fell off, exposing the film to all that vicious light. Apparently it was in a dark stairwell, so fingers crossed. Later on we couldn’t work out if it was winding on or not. Serves them right for using a camera that’s about to celebrate its silver anniversary.

Then we got someone to take a photo of me with both of my parents. It was the best shot of the day — apart from one thing. We were standing in front of a building site. We didn’t even realise until I downloaded the pictures onto my computer.

It is funny because when I went through the campus earlier in the week I was surprised at how little it looked like a building site — the new computing building is almost finished, and it’s now largely free of the normal eyesores that are associated with construction sites. Yet we managed to stand in front of the one tiny bit that still has building equipment on it. Incredible.

I also look pretty peeved in a lot of the photos. And I look gaunt and baggy-eyed. It didn’t help that I was seriously tired having had so little sleep and I suffering from caffeine withdrawal at that time of the day, several hours after my one and only coffee of the day.

Me after graduating Anyway, I know you are desperate to see a photo of me in all of that silly attire and holding that ridiculous Smarties tube, so here is the best shot of me (cropped because my parents still haven’t mastered the zoom function on the camera).

In complete seriousness though, all-in-all it was quite a strange day. I felt a bit down about it on my way back. I had a very strange mixture of feelings. Partly that I was probably seeing a few people for the last time and didn’t really get the chance to say a proper ‘goodbye and good luck’ in the rush of the day. Partly regret that I hadn’t made the most of my university days. Partly that I have to come to terms with the fact that I’m moving on to a strange and challenging period of my life. Mostly, simply that — despite the fact I didn’t enjoy my time there much — university is over. Bye-bye JSTOR log-in. Seeya later Athens account.

So in the slim chance that any of those people I didn’t get the chance to see again happen across this post, all the best for the future!

Maybe I’m a bit slow, but I’ve just discovered that you can only easily view your latest 200 photos on Flickr if you don’t pay up. Isn’t that a bit rubbish?

A Lazarus Taxon artwork It shouldn’t really be the case that an album of old tracks that never made it onto proper albums is one of the most hotly anticipated albums of the year. But it is very difficult not to get excited about Tortoise’s music, particularly when most of it comes from the band’s most fertile period.

A Lazarus Taxon is a mammoth compendium of rarities from one of the most revered bands of the past fifteen years. Three CDs are filled to the brim, and a bonus DVD is thrown in for good measure. And it costs little more than a normal album. This is craziness!

The first thing you notice about A Lazarus Taxon, though, is the bleakness of the packaging: black and white photographs of car crashes taken by Arnold Odermatt. The photographs are brilliant, but apart from that I have to wonder why Tortoise decided to use these as the artwork for a box set that almost sums up their career.

In their review of this album, Pitchfork described the album as having “tombstone vibe”:

…in many ways they remain emblematically tied to the mid- to late-1990s, a time when indie rock remixes were a real mind blower and everyone was scrimping for their own marimba.

It is unfortunately true that Tortoise’s heyday has probably been and gone. Although my personal favourite Tortoise album is the relatively recent Standards from 2001, there are few people who would say that their last proper album, It’s All Around You, is their best. And if the startlingly bland album of cover versions made with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, The Brave and The Bold, is a sign of things to come, it is difficult to get excited about new Tortoise material. Not as excited as you would get about old Tortoise material anyway.

So along comes A Lazarus Taxon to remind us what all the fuss was about. And make no mistake — that fuss was justified. Hearing Tortoise’s music was one of the major reasons why I started getting interested in more experimental music about five years ago.

‘Experimental’ is a term that is used far too liberally when no actual experimentation takes place, but Tortoise surely deserve the tag. They are often credited with inventing a genre — post-rock, a kind of krautrock updated for the 1990s where indie-rock, electronic music, Steve Reich-style minimalism and jazz all met with ease. This is a band that was so unconventional that the first appearance of a (not bass) guitar was a big step — pretty weird for a rock band. Tortoise turned the vibraphone into a rock and roll instrument, man!

At their peak, Tortoise were able to defy your expectations, turning their music inside-out at ease, making the listener rip up his expectations over and over again — and not just for the sake of it. Tortoise were one of the few bands that were able to push the boundaries and experiment without coming close to disappearing up their back chute.

Can you imagine any other bands being able to create an epic like ‘Djed’? Lasting twenty-one minutes, the track begins as a quaint melody played on the bass guitar which becomes a driving mid-tempo foot-tapping quasi-jam. The party is interrputed by the most evil-sounding keyboard you’ll ever hear, which in turn becomes a mind-bending Steve Reich-influenced marimba / vibraphone showdown. The hypnotic percussion is interrupted by a ‘tape accident’ which eventually leads to the relaxed, ambienty conclusion. Despite the vast range of styles and moods explored in the track, it is cohesive — every single move makes sense. I really struggle to think of any other bands that could even dream of creating something like this.

Despite the high bar that Tortoise have set on their most well-known material, A Lazarus Taxon does not sound like just a bunch of sub-standard B-sides and obscurities thrown together. Almost everything on this album is every bit as strong as Tortoise’s regular album tracks. It is a real testament to the quality of the band that even Tortoise offal is so good.

Perhaps the only real disappointment about this album is that despite the length — almost three hours — a quick glance at Tortoise’s discography confirms that this comes nowhere close to tying up all those loose ends. Perhaps this is a simple case of choosing quality over quantity, but the quality of this album has only made me more eager to finally learn how to use Soulseek so that I can track down those obscure, forgotten remixes.

So what about that quality? The first two discs of the set are made up of remixes, Japanese bonus tracks and miscellaneous other tracks from out-of-print EPs. The album kicks off with ‘Gamera’, which appears to be one of Tortoise’s most famous tracks despite the fact that it is considered a ‘rarity’. The track is immediately familiar, as it is a reworking of ‘His Second Story Island’ from Tortoise’s eponymous debut album.

Other highlights include ‘Restless Waters’ (a chilled out reworking of ‘Dear Grandma and Grandpa’), ‘Blue Station’ (the beautiful Japanese bonus track for the Standards album) and the amusing ‘Waihopai’ (from the ‘Gently Cupping the Chin of the Ape’ tour EP). Autechre’s two remixes of ‘Ten Day Interval’ are also real standouts. You couldn’t dream of having two better acts working together, and both of them near the top of their game aswell.

For me, the album’s low point comes in the form of ‘Elmerson, Lincoln and Palmeri’ and ‘Deltitnu’, the inconsequential Japanese bonus tracks for It’s All Around You. Nobukazu Takemura’s ten minute-long remix of ‘TNT’ could have done with being half its length aswell.

The third disc is basically a reissue of Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters, an album of remixes from Tortoise’s debut album — but with the inclusion of ‘Cornpone Brunch Watt Remix’ which had to be left off the original after the DAT master was damaged in the post.

Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters is perhaps the most sought-after part of A Lazarus Taxon, although it is a bit of a disappointment to me. Maybe ten years ago it was revolutionary, but today it just sounds a bit rambling. There are some pleasent moments (some nice fuzzy ambient efforts) and it was worth the effort to include ‘Cornpone Brunch Watt Remix’, but for the most part RR&C doesn’t do much for me.

The DVD, where there was so much potential, is also a bit of a let down. The videos, apart from ‘Seneca’ and ‘Salt the Skies’, are poor and have dated badly.

Much of the live material is also of low quality. The band is absolutely fine, but the majority of the live footage — taken from a 1996 concert in Toronto — looks like it has been filmed on whatever was one step above a camcorder ten years ago. It certainly looks as though it’s been shot by amateurs, and the sound is badly out of synch with the pictures — very off-putting, especially when you’re watching the percussionists. It is like watching something on YouTube, not a DVD. I guess if that’s all there is then it’s obviously better than nothing, but it’s still a bit of a let down.

I was also looking forward to seeing ‘Seneca’ live, but that turned out to be Tortoise miming (pretending to play toy instruments) to an audience of bemused children on a television programme called Chic-A-Go-Go.

A better haul of videos can be found on YouTube, and I’ve collected some of them below the fold

Despite the slightly more disappointing aspects, though, A Lazarus Taxon is a very special collection of tracks. Apart from including more tracks, it is difficult to imagine how this album could be better. A lot of gems have been plucked from obscurity, which is something to be grateful for. If you’re even slightly interested in Tortoise, you really should buy it. Three CDs and a DVD of excellent material, and it costs little more than a normal album.

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