Sunday, 2 December 2018

CTA - Sacred Ground

Over the years, I've reviewed a number of Chicago-related recordings - new Chicago, late-released Chicago, old Chicago re-recorded by the latest band, solo recordings by members of Chicago, a Toto recording with a Pankow horn arrangement, etc.

This one is something slightly different, although it could go under a solo album by a former band member. This one has a twist in that it's the second album by Danny Seraphine, the original Chicago drummer who left the band (was kicked out?) after Chicago 18. He's definitely trying to sound like Chicago, or as someone else has mentioned, like Chicago should have sounded had the David Foster era never happened.

Well, if the name of the band is an indicator, it may be more of a Chicago tribute band with not one, but two Chicago members involved. Bill Champlin also appears, and Jason Scheff has also appeared with them live in concert. Their first album was almost entirely Chicago covers, which is why I never bought it. This one is different. There is one Chicago cover and one BS&T cover (which Chicago often covered in concerts back in the day).

Sacred Ground
The Real World
I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know
Out of Reason
Conviction (Song for Ronnie)
Full Circle
Staring at the Sun
In the Kitchen
Take Me Back to Chicago
Go On
Daydream Lover

Before I rip it to shreds, let me first say that I like this album.

Package: Danny must have been the advocate of the nameless, faceless brand, because this is more nameless and faceless than Chicago. No liner notes, no listing of band members, not even writing credits.

Production: Pretty good, although sometimes the textures are a little dense, with less variety than a typical Chicago album. I don't really like the track order, and if Danny wants to sound more like old Chicago, he needs to have a better album concept. For example, Chorale was slipped into the middle of the album with no relation to what happens before and after. For the same reason, he needs to rethink who is sing which tracks. There were a few that would have sounded more like Chicago if Bill would have sung them, especially The Real World.

Horn arrangements: Many of these do sound like Pankow's distinctive horn writing - too much at times. Certain recognizable tropes sound like they were lifted straight from various Chicago albums, and others just sound bland (Strike).

Solos: Where are they? You don't get a horn solo until the 12th track (Take Me Back to Chicago). There are lots of guitar solos, and more keyboard solos than typical for Chicago. (Robert Lamm was never a great improviser.) For that matter, James Pankow recorded many embarrassing trombone solos as well as some awesome ones, and Walt was an advocate of wrong note solos, to the extend that very few were "right" note solos. Lee's recorded solos were generally quite good. To be honest, none of them are really masters of their instruments, but they did what they did really well, and were terrific as a unit. Chicago super-subs Lee Thornburg, Nick Lane, and Ray Hermann are probably all better players than the founding members.

As far as the concept goes, they (at times) sound more like Tower of Power or Blood, Sweat, & Tears than Chicago. Why? It possible is accounted for by more soulful vocals, especially from the unnamed tenor lead, and possibly thicker brass over-dubs. ILYMTYEK is a BS&T cover, but it sounds like it was covered by ToP. My real question is why they NEED to sound like Chicago. Yes, I love Chicago, but I think they should take it to the next step, become a band with named members, unique writing styles, and stable personnel. I would like to hear the individuals express themselves more, not just try to sound like Chicago.

This is getting long, and I haven't even discussed the individual tracks. Here is a brief rundown:

My favorite track is the instrumental, In the Kitchen. Here there is no attempt to sound like Chicago. In fact, I probably would have started the album with Chorale, In the Kitchen, then either The Real World, or Staring at the Sun. That would have been a typical Chicago progression, then something low-key like Go On. I would probably end the album with Out of Reason and Daydream Lover. The piano solo, Conviction, should have been paired with some more appropriate than Strike. Full Circle is the obvious candidate.

Staring at the Sun is a rocker, and at times sounds like (the brief) DeWayne Bailey-era late Chicago. The tenor vocalist and guitarist both sound like him and the lower voice sounds a little like Robert. One of the singers in Go On sounds like Keith Howland. The title track is good, but I wouldn't have started the album with it. It almost sounds like Foster-era Chicago, but with more brass and fewer synths. It does have the wall-of-voices like late Chicago. The Real World reminds me of James Pankow's Toto collaboration (Dying on My Feet - which I liked a lot) although it doesn't really sound the same. Primetime is another instrumental, which I think works well. Strike sounds like something off Hilary McRae's only album. I liked her album, but I don't really care for this. It also reminds me of Love Me, Do from XXX, which I didn't like at all.

My overall verdict is tough. It's not an album that I can't put down, yet I like it. If I could forget that this isn't really a Chicago cover band, I would probably give it 4 stars out of 5, but considering all my above criticism, let's say 3.5 stars. I might like it a little more than Robert Lamm's Subtlety and Passion, which I can't remember what I rated it, but I confess I haven't listened to it in a long time.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

More upgrades

All summer I have put up with slow POSTing on my desktop. I was also suffering from lack of RAM. I put off upgrading until after we came back from the UK, and now I've done it.

I decided this time to go for raw speed. Over the years, I've used mostly AMD in my builds, but I've always come up against some incompatibility issues, the latest one being the Scarlett, which I solved in the end.

To switch to Intel, I had to get rid of the motherboard and memory. I opted for an unlocked i7-8700K which was illogically lower priced than the locked version. As I am going for stability, I won't overclock it. I went for a mid-level ASUS ATX motherboard and the fastest DDR4 RAM I could find. I went for 2 8GB sticks, so I have room to upgrade. (There are 2 free slots.)

I fortunately could keep all my drives and PSU, but I discovered that I had no parallel port for my laser printer. I bought one, but it shows up as LPT3. Score won't recognize that, and oddly very little else did. Fortunately, I have a JetDirect port, and it seems to work fine over the network, although for some reason it won't print multiple copies.

I set it up and it is blisteringly fast. The latest versions of iTunes say my graphics card is too slow to play video, and I can't seem to roll back to a version that does, even though Apple says I can.

The last piece of the puzzle was that I was getting a low frequency rumble on my speakers. Since both the Scarlett and the JBL monitors both support balanced cables, I bought some, and now I have crystal clear sound.

Now that I have everything set up properly, I have no complaints (other than the multiple print issue). Re-authorizing Windows was tricky, but somehow I succeeded.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

A review update, of sorts

These past few months have brought more hardware woes, which have inspired me to update some of the things I said in the last blog on Windows 10.

I had a hard disk failure (Samsung SSD 850 PRO), which was under warranty, and has since been repaired, but not before I bought a new one. I was lucky to be completely backed up, and after I installed the new drive I was able to read the old one, although I never did get it to boot.

After refreshing my installation, I was still having some problems:
1) My computer was slow to POST, but that seems to have fixed itself. I'm not sure what I did that fixed it, but it seems to be OK now.

2) When coming out of hibernation or sleep mode, it freezes for a short time. I haven't figured out why.

3) I have had a lot of problems with that Creative X-Fi, and it may have been the driver that killed the old SSD. I finally ditched it, and have opted for an external option: a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. You have to be careful with it. I read some instructions when installing it that you had to attach it to a USB3 port if you have an AMD CPU in your computer (which I do). That, I discovered, is only if you have version 1 of the unit. In fact, I discovered that with version 2, it is better to plug it into USB2. When I ordered it, I decided not to install it until I upgraded my SATAIII card to one that also has a USB3 port. I tried two, and one didn't work at all, but the second one did. Unfortunately, it was competing for bandwidth with my HD, and causing dropouts. In the end, I put the Scarlett on a USB2 port and started using ASIO4ALL to control it, rather that the Focusrite driver, which kept looping (in Sibelius or Finale). It also hogs the device, so I have been leaving the Directsound drive on by default, so it shares with other software. I'm not sure of the advantage of using ASIO just for playback anyway.

My laptop

About 5 years ago, I purchased an HP Split X2. It has become a little long in the tooth lately for two reasons: The SSD (system drive) is full. There is a second drive (SATA) in the keyboard, but if I separate the two, obviously, those files become unavailable. I've installed a 128 GB SD Card, and gotten around some of the problems, but I think there is a speed penalty there.

I decided that I would upgrade the SSD and the RAM. I was having difficulty opening the case and was afraid to do it, so I tried to find out what I can do online. Unfortunately, there are about 10 different model numbers for the Split X2, and I didn't know which was correct. The software gave me the official number, but that wasn't listed on the site.

Finally, I tried Crucial, who have an online checker for such things. It told me I could install an 8 GB kit (2x4GB), but it didn't look like the SSD was upgradeable. I was about to order the memory, and possibly take it to Best Buy to be installed, but then decided to try to open it up again. I was able to pry it open, and eventually discovered there were 4 screws hidden under the grille for the speakers (glued on). I carefully removed the grille, detached the screws and opened it up.

At first, I didn't see the memory or the SSD, then I found a small card partly covered up by a label that said Micron RealSSD C400 mSATA 128GB. That sounded like a hard disk to me, and I eventually discovered that it was. Replacing it with a larger one would proved difficult, although I eventually found a 256GB version on Ebay, so I ordered it. I wanted a 512GB, but never found one.

Next, the memory. I couldn't find it for the longest time, but eventually, I looked under the heatsink cover, and there it was ... soldered to the motherboard. So much for that idea.

So, it was the opposite of what Crucial said. The SSD could be upgraded, but not the memory. The SSD will arrive by Friday, and I've ordered an USB adapter to copy everything across. Should be (ahem) fun. At least, I'll have some headroom on the drive, so it should speed things up.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

More on Windows 10

I've had a chance to live with Windows 10 for a while, and I want to update a few things.

Control Panel

I finally found the classic mode Control Panel. It was hidden in the All Apps section of the Start (Window) menu. It had everything I was used to, and I've pinned it to the start tiles. You can find all the other administrative and system tools down there as well.

Virtual PC

The old Virtual PC that came with Windows 7 Pro no longer works. I use to use it for some older programs that I have, like some label software. I also had installed Sonar, but I've switched to Pro Tools, so I don't really need it anymore. I needed CorelDraw the other day, but I couldn't open Virtual PC, so I'm not sure what I'll do yet. I might stick it on my old laptop, just to convert some files. There is supposed to be a new VM called Hydra, but I haven't found it yet.


I liked it when it first arrived, but I got a new laptop for work that had Outlook on it, which is so much better. I still prefer Thunderbird on my desktop, but it doesn't show new messages in the tiles like Mail and Outlook. I may ditch it when it when my ExQuilla license needs renewal. ExQuilla is the plug in you need for MS Exchange services. It used to be free, but now requires a $10 annual subscription. I have Outlook 2007, but not 2013 like on my work laptop. I'll decide later.


As far a I have experienced, Windows 10 is quite stable. The only problem I have had has been my Creative X-Fi driver, which has a habit of disabling itself when the computer goes to sleep. That means no sound and no midi. I have had intermittent success restarting it in the Services snap-in, but usually I need to restart.

Start up

I think it starts up a little quicker than before. I've ordered an SSD drive, which I'll install next week, and that should make starting up less annoying. My laptops restart in about 20 seconds, as opposed to my desktop (SATA HD) which takes minutes. I wish I could install more memory like my work laptop has (16 GB as opposed to 8 GB). It's really fast. Excel spreadsheets update instantly.


I still don't use it. All my bookmarks are in Chrome, which I have installed on all my machines, so I don't see any reason to use it.


My last post discussed that my Toshiba Encore Mini had not yet updated. Well, it finally did, and promptly "bricked." There is only 16 GB of HD space on it, which wasn't enough to back up the old OS. Fine. It has a 128 GB memory card in it, so I redirected the back up there. Great.

Not. When it tried to boot, for some reason it panicked and wanted to reinstall the old OS. Unfortunately, you need the OS to read the memory card. It looped, and without an OS to install, I couldn't revert. To make matters worse, I couldn't download recovery media from Toshiba. I had to purchase it, and eventually discovered that the model number on my Encore was missing a digit, which made it impossible to use their online ordering system. I also couldn't reach them by phone, and it took about two weeks for their support forum to sufficiently answer my question that I could order it.

Instead, I purchased an HP Stream 7, which boasted 32 GB of HD space, plenty for the install. The good part about that was that I created Windows 8 recovery media, and restored my Toshiba. It formatted the drive a little smaller - I think because their OS recovery partition was larger. That precluded me from upgrading to Windows 10.

Except that when I upgraded my desktop, I created upgrade media. It was tricky balancing when the media was plugged in and when the keyboard was. Eventually, I had a clean upgrade that worked, as well as recovery media. Everything was perfect except that in portrait mode, the screen rotates the wrong way. I've tried many ways to fix it, but none have worked, so now I have just locked the rotation.

I prefer the HP Stream 7, because I can do more with it as a result of the more memory. I have discovered, however, that it's audio system is noisy, so I use the Toshiba to do any streaming that I want to do. That's a good use for it.

I still prefer Windows 10 over 8 at this point, and I think probably over Windows 7 as well.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Windows 10, first impressions

I'm not going to re-hash all the new features. That's been done in all the computer mags, and frankly, I'm not really going to use them.

I have 3 computers that will get Windows 10. The important thing for me was to get all my computers running pretty much the same thing. That was the lure of the free Windows 10 for me.
I had a desktop running Windows 7 Pro, a laptop running Windows 8.1, and a 7" tablet also with 8.1.

Actually, I have another desktop running Windows Me for Score and another desktop running Ubuntu Linux, which I never seem to use, but it is supposed to be able run Score 4 natively with working MIDI. It's not an easy set-up, and when I got the midi to work, Score kept crashing and when Score worked the MIDI crashed.

Back to Windows 10. My laptop was the first to upgrade. I never got the time to upgrade message, but when I opened Windows update, it was ready. Thus far, I haven't run into any real problems with it. There are still some of the same annoyances I had with Windows 8.1. Sometimes the mouse pointer submerges in Chrome, so I have to use the touch screen. Splitting the screen from the keyboard doesn't always fix it now. That's new.

My desktop never gave me the message to upgrade. I finally stopped waiting and deleted the downloaded files in the c:\Windows\Software\Distribution\Downloads folder, and manually called wuauclt.exe /updatenow from the command prompt. That worked. I didn't stick around to attend the upgrade, but everything seemed to go smoothly. When it finished, there was a little problem with the video card driver and my 2-display setup, but that was fixed by restarting a couple of times.

So far everything else has worked except my sound card. That required re-installing the driver. Windows 10 knew to activate the Creative AutoUpdate, but it showed the exact same build I had installed. I ran the installation anyway, and it worked after a restart.

My tablet still hasn't upgraded. It says it's ready and compatible, but I was going to wait. I'm getting close to giving up. Maybe another day or two.

I use Thunderbird for email on my desktop, but it isn't very portable. MozBackup didn't work last time I tried to use it, so I couldn't transfer the setup to my laptop. Instead, my laptop works on Imap and Exchange, so the files aren't local, and they don't delete from the server until my desktop tells them to. That means I use Mail on my laptop and tablet. The new Mail app didn't migrate all of my settings (passwords, mostly). After that, it took a while for it to sync with the remote servers. Now it's fine and works a little quicker than the old app. The layout is a little better, but selecting multiple emails takes an extra step now. I may go back to Thunderbird. Mail did crash once.

Since I'm accustomed to using Chrome, I'll probably stick with it. It has all my favorites synced between my devices. Edge looks clean and quick, but it keeps thinking it's my default browser, even after I've changed it in Chrome. So far, it seems fine on my desktop.

Seems better than before. I incorporates all my calendars, except my Google calendar. I still don't know if I'll ever get into the habit of using it regularly.

Control Panel
Classic mode seems to be gone. That means I have to use Search to find what I'm looking for. I usually do in the end, but it is annoying. I always reverted to Classic Mode in Windows 7. Now I'll have to give in.

I was hoping for some spiffy backgrounds, but there is only one Windows 10 one, which is OK, but I'll probably look for something else. Goodbye Aero. I guess they must have decided that it used too many resources. The colors to seem to automatically coordinate to your background, though.

Look and Feel
It feels quicker, possibly having to do with losing Aero. I'm still not convinced by moving the tiles to Start Menu. Yes, it's back. Is it better than Windows 7? Probably not. At least it is there. I had to reassign my toolbar to the taskbar, but I do like the fact that the pinned apps appear on both displays now. Thunderbird seems quicker ... in fact, the second time I use each program, it seems to work better. It did lose some of my shortcuts from the Windows Explorer. (I'm not sure I've found everything that was in my old Documents folder either.)

Metro is still there as an option, and I may activate it on my laptop touch screen. The charms menu is gone. I didn't hate it like most users. I may look to see if I can re-activate it.

It's stable so far, but I haven't really put it to the test. I haven't checked all the programs I use, so I'll have to come back to those.

So much for now. I'll update once I try doing some heavy lifting. Now, I've got Spotify playing, Chrome, and Thunderbird going. I might try to catch part of a baseball game later. That often screws things up.

More later

Monday, 26 May 2014

Chicago XXXVI "Now"

This is what every Chicago fan has been waiting for. A new album of new music without the shackle of a label. Ignore XXXII: Stone of Sisyphus, since it was recorded in the early nineties, and most devotees had bootleg mp3's that were floating around the Internet, probably due to Dewayne Bailey, who left the band shortly after the recording.  The previous new music was released as XXX on Rhino with muted success, partly due to the fact that Rhino is an oldies/re-release label and I don't think they did a great job on marketing. They released XXXII as an afterthought, with almost no publicity at all, in spite of being one of the best albums Chicago ever produced.

You can also forget the numbering. In fact nobody is sure what XXXV is, possibly the Nashville Sessions, which has no number on its spine. There is also the Chicago in Chicago DVD. Wikipedia has XXXIV as Live in '75. XXXIII is O Christmas Three, their 3rd Christmas release. XXXI is a 40th Anniversary "best of" set.

More Will be Revealed
Crazy Happy*
Free at Last
Love is Forever
Something's Comin' I Know*
Watching all the Colors
Nice Girl
Naked in the Garden of Allah*
Another Trippy Day

Although the album isn't due to be released until July 4, 2014, the band streamed a preview last week. I had heard three of the four singles which have been available on iTunes for about 6 months. The last one, Naked in the Garden of Allah preview didn't really connect with me, so I decided to wait for the album. There are a number of premium packages available for pre-order on Chicago web store.

There is something for everyone on this album: edgy Kath-era-like bluesy-brassy stuff, Foster-era poppy ballads and some Robert Lamm solo album-like songs.

The title track starts a little cheezy, but has the best hook of all the songs. It sounds like real Chicago, perhaps from Chicago X. In fact, there are several songs that strike me as taken from that album. Love is Forever may be their best ballad since the 80's, again with a great hook. Nice Girl is one of my favorites, as it sounds like early Chicago, but not too much.

Another Trippy Day, Watching all the Colors, and More Will be Revealed are Robert Lamm leads. I don't know for certain that he wrote them, but the second sounds like it is from his Bossa Nova project. I'm not all that crazy about them, but Crazy Happy and Something's Coming I Know (also Lamm leads) are excellent. America is a nice patriotic rocker, if you are into that sort of thing.

Free at Last has some of the best music. A lot of it sounds Kath era, but the brass work sounds a little Hot Streets-ish during the verses. The only problem I have with it is that it starts and stops a lot. I would probably re-edit it, if I had the chance.

Finally, Naked in the Garden of Allah. I really don't like the words, but I like the music quite a bit. I don't know what else to say. It has one of the best brass breaks on the album.

If you like the free roving Chicago brass, this is the album for you. Every song has it, almost too much. Overall, I like this album a lot. There is too much Robert Lamm for my taste. I think he had too much influence on the production, at least the artistic decisions. His later music has become a little too predictable and same-y, even to the point that Nick Lane provided some of the brass arrangements. For those who don't know, he is James Pankow's sub for some of their live gigs, and has arranged the brass on Robert's solo albums. (I remember him from the Maynard Ferguson band of the 70's.)

I can't give this anything less than 4 stars (of 5), as it should please most Chicago fans, including myself. Will it get them new fans? Is it "current" enough. Probably not.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013


I've discovered a new guilty pleasure. In these pages, some of you have read my reviews of music as wide in variety as Deep Purple and Avril Lavigne. This is one of those.

A while back I stumbled onto some Evanescence videos on YouTube. I had been pointed towards a single from the latest Avril Lavigne album, which I thought was a far cry better than her previous effort. Perhaps she's growing up. Unfortunately, her lyrics haven't. On the sidebar, sat a load of Evanescence tracks, so I tried one ... and another ... and another. I had always avoided them because they had been described to me as angry girl music.

I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, it is angry girl music, but the lyrics are all that I wished Avril Lavigne's would be. They are poetic and deep, and the music is far more complex than I ever expected. Amy Lee has been described as "the breakup singer", and I can see where that comes from, but she's more interesting than that. Granted, she sings more about dying than I would care for, especially on Fallen, their first album.

The self-titled third album is much more mature than that. Yes, it is about breaking up, but now she's learned that maybe it is worth soldiering on. It's still heavy, with some orchestral moments, and poignant piano work. I struggle for highlights because it is all so even and good. The lone exception is that I'm not fond of the last song, Swimming Home. I particularly like the tracks with the more complex beats, Change, Erase This, Sick, and Never Go Back, but I'm hard-pressed to choose one to take to a desert island.

If anything, that is the only disappointment of this album, there isn't a single song that is so amazing that it eclipses the rest of the album, like Bring Me to Life or My Last Breath from Fallen. What sets Amy Lee apart from Avril Lavigne, apart from the lyrics, is that Avril's albums have one or two 5+-star songs and the rest are 2-3-stars. Swimming Home might be a 3-star, but the rest are probably 4.5-5.

Because the album is so consistently good, I'll give it the full 5-star rating.