Monday, March 31, 2014

Opeth's Deliverance: an outsider's entry point into death metal

An outsider looking for an entry point into death metal could do a lot worse than mid-period Opeth (Blackwater Park, Deliverance*, Watershed). The key elements of DM are present and correct: riffs, hundred-hand slap drumming and RRURRGH vocals, but they're leavened by a strong sense of melody, even at their hardest. 

But then there's the prog rock too. 

Metal has its share of time-signature fetishists and intellectual posing, but the prog in play here from Opeth is the gentle existentialism of Dark Side-era Pink Floyd. The pianos, acoustic guitars and ballad-like interludes sandwiched between the death metal crunches not only give the loud-quiet-loud song structures real dynamism, but also make for a more adventurous but less brutal listen. 

Lynchpin Mikael Akerfeldt has a good Greg Lake/Roger Waters style 'clean' voice in between the Cookie Monster moments and sings about mental frailty and personal crisis rather than horror movie scenarios. The album artwork is appropriately gothic rather than the usual bloodstained DM fantasies.

In short -  nothing about Opeth scares the horses or implies that by listening to death metal you're suddenly regressing to being a 16-year old bedroom-dweller with a large collection of Space Marine figures.** 

Progressive rock's more doubtful gift to Opeth is sheer length. Deliverance, which I've been listening too most recently, has six tracks, five of which clock in at 10 minutes plus, which in theory means a lot of tunes per track. This works in spades for the title track, which takes you up a switchback of folk and metal before culminating in twitchy death metal funk with - yes - a tricky time signature. It's utterly brilliant, as is Wreath, the number which kicks off the album.

The rest of the prog/death mash-up on Deliverance doesn't work quite as well - with the benefit of hindsight it feels like a rehearsal for the superior (if a little softer) Watershed. The length of the tracks start to work against Opeth, with the two different strands like oil and water, refusing to come together.

Opeth's other weakness is the flipside of their accessibility - I wonder that by giving up on the bug-eyed, gross-out quality of death metal to deal in Floydian platitudes some of the intensity is (rightly or wrongly) lost thereby. They're an easy band to like and respect but a hard band to love.

* there's Damnation too, and that's all prog rock balladry, presaging Opeth's later career trajectory.

** I had Space Marines once, admittedly. But I gave them away to the Space Marine Conservation Society.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Time of the season: a quick way of classifying the health of your local campaign group

The best analysis can keep its complexity tightly wound within a well-chosen metaphor. So I've been drawn to using the seasons – what better environmental reference – to think about the health and longevity of local campaign groups.

Think about it – could you describe your Friends of the Earth group with a season? 

  • Is it still in first bloom, full of the new life of Spring? 
  • In the prime of Summer, its deeds coming to fruition? 
  • Experienced and still vigorous, yet living somewhat autumnally off its previous glories?
  • Declining and either hoping for renewal or stuck in midwinter?

Chances are, you probably can, at least as a top-line. And while the reality as lived by any one group is a lot more complicated, you can infer a lot from this simple typology. My group only got started last week, for example, so it's a pretty safe bet it's a Spring group. 

At this point, I do have to doff my wizard's hat to the source of this metaphor. Ars Magica, a role-playing game of medieval magic and considerably storytelling nouse, uses the seasons to classify fictional wizard communities according to age, literal and spiritual health.

Seasons and relaunches

The idea of a group rebooting the seasonal cycle and moving back round into Spring with new blood and new energy is appealing. I will say this: the time to think about a relaunch for most groups is the onset of Autumn – when the group has yet enough vibrancy to do so with some staff support.

Some groups can stay in autumnal mode for over a decade, still doing great things with essentially the same people. But recognising the signs of decline - ageing, diminishing interest, involvement or relevancy, the departure of key personnel - is key when deciding to invest time and effort in a relaunch while you can.

The best groups follow a kind of permanent agricultural revolution, with new talent, new coordinators, inspiring new campaigns every few years. The Birmingham group's paid internship for its Campaign Support Worker effectively institutionalises this system. Not quite eternal midsummer, but a good way of making sure they are always jumping forward into Springtime.

Even a wintry group can still be stirred to do mighty works – in Ars Magica the wizards of winter covenants were much feared and respected on those rare occasions when they stirred. But their ability to make themselves anew, to relaunch, is much less consistent than in Autumn, because their numbers, their culture or the time they have no longer support it 

It's not impossible, but it does need more thought, more resource and potentially more staff help.

So, what season is your local group? Comments below please!

Postscript: I do not have a wizard's hat. 


Monday, March 24, 2014

Kveldsanger - Ulver's beautiful anomaly

In more than two decades of musical digressions and genre transgressions, Ulver's second album still sounds like one of their most beautiful anomalies.

For starters, Kveldsanger is one of only two albums in their back catalogue I'd consider inflicting on my parents - the other one being the recent covers set Childhood's End. 

Not that they've previously expressed any interest in fairy tale concept albums about children lost in troll-infested woods, but it's gentle accessible stuff, led by delicate classical guitar and Garm's one-man multi-tracked male voice choir. 

You could - I frequently do - use Kveldsanger to reach an accommodation with the fact of the new day, letting its melancholy and simplicity wash over you on the way to work.

The fact that Ulver knocked this off in the midst of their full-on black metal sulky teenage phase - excellent in very different ways - also never ceases to amaze me. In a career defined by thoughtfulness, by concepts conceived and executed, it stands out as a contrastingly naive work.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Relaunch case study 4 - Empower, empower, empower

A Friends of the Earth local group had been on hold for around a year when several interested people got in touch with the local contact through the website, who referred them onto me. Previous attempts at a relaunch had foundered on the fact that members of the group had primary commitments elsewhere or had demanding personal lives.

This – on the other hand – was an opportunity. :-)
  • I became de facto coordinator for several months in the absence of a local person who could step in.
  • We brought the new volunteers together with those from the old group able and willing to help and collaborated on an initial trial action – a colourful Valentine's-themed stall which went down very well.
  • We then discussed a campaign for the coming year and decided on The Bee Cause, which the new volunteers in particular were very keen on.
  • I suggested that the group host and help me with a training day on The Bee Cause for locals and nearby local groups.
  • They agreed, and the new volunteers worked with me in a number of ways (venue, facilitation, publicity) to organise a fabulous event.
  • Planning and delivering the Bee Cause day also became a springboard to empower them. It gave them skills, confidence, allies and a vision of what the group was for.
  • It also found them new volunteers and creating a basis for future action on the campaign over the course of the year.
  • In parallel with this we supported the handover of the coordinator role to one of the new volunteers with the strong support of the others. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Relaunch case study 3 - The Power of the BHAG

This one isn't a Friends of the Earth group, but it's a very good example of how a vision can remind a group of their purpose in being.

  • The chair of a local environment group had stepped down over a year ago, after several years of successful campaigning.
  • While the group were still active – organising events and running campaigns – the leadership decided that a renewal of the group was required to ensure its long-term viability.
  • They decided to head-hunt themselves a new chair.
  • The chair worked with the committee to develop an ambitious vision for reducing the energy footprint of the local area, engaging communities and businesses, growing the group and raising money.
  • He presented the vision to interested members at the AGM as an idea of what the group could do if it looked beyond the immediate future and sought to change the town.
  • The vision also suggested a number of immediate steps which could be taken – it was both optimistic and realistic.
  • The group are now in the process of taking ownership of the vision both as a programme of work for the future but also as way of sharing the group and its mission to others.
  • They are also making a number of practical changes to their ways of working including:
    • Increasing the number of people active in the inner circle by expanding the committee.
    • Changing the meeting venue from someone's house to a public venue
    • Looking at ways of improving their electronic communications.

Tim comments: if this was a Friends of the Earth group, a staff member could have also supported that visioning process, helped with the search for a new coordinator through volunteer advertising and invited national supporters to the AGM or an event

It's also important to note that they took this decision while they were still in a position to do so - too far down the cycle of activity into 'winter' and the best vision in the world might have fallen upon deaf ears.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Relaunch case study 2 - a real Dr Who style regeneration

A group with an ageing volunteer profile decided that they could not carry on with the current active membership, despite past successes. They put a call out for help to staff in Spring and planned for a make-or-break AGM in Autumn.
  • The first thing they did right was to plan in a long-lead in time for a final decision.
  • This allowed us to do two things book in a mailing to national supporters in the area inviting them to the meeting. This supplemented local publicity to the membership.
  • We worked with the group to make the letter sound like an opportunity rather than a crisis.
  • Effectively it looked like an introduction to/get involved in Friends of the Earth event.
  • My team-mate also used the time to talk the group and get to know them a bit. This allowed him to steer his efforts strongly towards either nurturing any newcomers or recommending the group fold.
  • This was because it was clear from speaking to the experienced members that while they had done exemplary service to the movement in the past they were no longer in a position to offer substantive support to a relaunched group or maintain a group on hold for a few years.
  • When my team-mate went to the AGM they were able to meet prospective new members, one of whom subsequently became new coordinator.
  • The group therefore decided to continue, handing over key responsibilities.
  • My team-mate coached the coordinator through telephone and e-mail contact, and guided them towards public-facing actions requiring teamwork such as film screenings and stalls, to build up the active membership and contact list for the group
  • They also supported the coordinator to attend training opportunities such as the next Regional Gathering.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Relaunch case study 1: Breakfast of Champions

When the coordinator of this group had to resign unexpectedly due to family health reasons, and could not arrange meetings, it was not clear whether the group would continue. No candidate for coordinator in the group's inner circle presented itself, and while the team spirit was good, energy levels were low.

  • The outgoing coordinator took over the role of treasurer, which much better suited his time and commitments.
  • I supported the group to have an open discussion of whether and how to continue.
  • They decided to continue in the short term to see if continuing without the leadership of their outgoing coordinator was viable.
  • The group agreed to work together on The Bee Cause (the campaign which most appealed to the inner circle) and specifically a summer event designed to attract new members.
  • They went with a Bee Breakfast because the plans were already provided in the Action Guide and it appealed to the interests and resources of the members.
  • They deferred the question of who would coordinate the group until after the event had been completed. People pulled together to organise the meetings in the interim.
  • I helped publicise the meetings to the local members and beyond, and explained what they were working on. This drew old members and several newcomers back to the meetings.
  • Working on the Breakfast brought this group together and raised morale – everybody picked up tasks which suited their time and inclinations.
  • I supported the Breakfast through an invite to national supporters and developing publicity resources.
  • Breakfast event successful – drawing in 30+ participants and greatly enjoyed by the team.
  • After the breakfast event, we discussed new projects and I inducted and supported the new coordinator.
  • The group continued its focus on The Bee Cause, shifting its attention to planting projects, film screenings and another breakfast over the coming year. An end-of-year social found them energised, happy and working well together.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Local campaign groups are like Timelords, so let there be relaunches!

'Relaunch' is Tim-speak for a local campaign group - lower on any of numbers, morale and energy than it would like - making a concerted effort over a few months to find people, esprit de corps and inspiration.

This usually has as its focus a shared campaign, project, action or event – something to work on together, providing a sense of common purpose and a point of attraction for newcomers.

It can also entail:

  • Help from staff, as a catalyst for change and a coach, sometimes as collaborators
  • Supportive, mentoring relationships between experienced and new members
  • A reimagining of group culture combining the best of the old with new perspectives, although if experienced members are around less this can be a wholesale regeneration, Dr Who style.
  • A passing on of the torch, with new members taking key roles in the key group
  • A intergenerational renewal of the group

Image by Steve Collis via Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

A few words on when to relaunch: clearly, the best relaunch is the relaunch you don't need to do because your volunteer group is constantly renewing itself, you have kick ass induction processes, all your campaigns are accessible and involving etc etc. You're always centripetal rather than centrifugal.

However, back in the real world, my feeling is that every 2-3 years feels on average about right for a cycle of renewal, with healthy groups able to extend that cycle perhaps to closer to 5 years.

Staff often get asked to be involved in relaunches when the experienced members are close to giving up, or the group itself has become a 'zombie', existing in name but scarcely meeting, a shell of what it was. Needless to say, these aren't optimal times to affect change, but sometimes we can help turn things around.

I'd be keen to support groups to get on a cycle of renewal as a matter of course rather than rushing in at the eleventh hour, so part of my motivation for writing this post is to try and shift that paradigm.

The more immediate motivation is that I've been asked by the Watford group to provide some examples of successful relaunches for their upcoming AGM. So stand by for some case studies on the blog over the course of this week. All of them have involved some staff input, but the fundamental point is that they aren't doing anything you couldn't either do for yourselves or ask them for anyway.

Hopefully, this will give us all an idea of what happens when relaunches work, as well as of the different tools at your disposal.

Friday, March 14, 2014

8 weeks to save the bees - trainee campaigners sought

Here's a volunteer advert we're running as Friends of the Earth in a few places around the country to coincide with the Government's consultation on the National Pollinator Strategy. I'll add another post over the weekend talking about the organising context to this, but for now let the ad stand on its own merits.

Big thanks to our placement student Zarqa Mahmood who helped me write it.

And if you like what you read and want to help, get in touch!

Or if you fancy using it in your own area, feel free. Remember that you can put free volunteer adverts up on sites like Charity Job and Environment Job, especially if you have a structured opportunity to offer.

Want to take action to protect and connect with nature? We are looking for enthusiastic volunteers to help with The Bee Cause campaign at a crucial time.

Bees are essential to our survival as pollinators of hundreds of different crops as well as of plants providing habitats for countless other species. In Spring 2012 Friends of the Earth launched a campaign - The Bee Cause - aimed at halting bee decline and highlighting the importance of nature.

We've had great success - the Government has just put out its National Pollinator Strategy this month (March 2014) setting out how it plans to meet this challenge. However, Friends of the Earth believes the Strategy is still too weak on issues like pesticide use, intensive farming, new housing developments and funding for bee-friendly projects.

We now have an eight week consultation period to persuade them to make it stronger. And we'd really love your help with this. Even one Bee Action in the next 8 weeks could make all the difference.

Things you could do include: 

- organizing an informal gathering of interested local people 
- a fun activity-driven campaign stall at a local event
- promoting or planting wild flower areas in your community. 
- or you might have your own ideas and we'd be really keen to hear them.

Who we're looking for?

We're looking for people who can self-start and who want to learn how to bring others together to take action in a good cause. Enthusiasm for nature and the environment is more important than experience.

How we would help you

Each volunteer would have a staff mentor who would help you plan your Bee Action through telephone and e-mail coaching as well as providing information and resources and connecting you to any other local volunteers. There would also be an opportunity to meet other activists at a Friends of the Earth training event in Taunton on April 26.

Do let us know if you'd like to take action with Friends of the Earth and we'll be in touch with you to help you get started.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Flashback: what can local groups learn from the Obama '08 grassroots campaign?

I came across some notes I wrote five years ago about the Obama '08 election campaign and its fantastic grassroots campaign, having read Zack Exley's seminal article on the subject. Worth repeating them here to include in my auxiliary memory since they're still as valid today.

1. Start volunteers with small tasks and build it up - pass the baton when you get them running at the right speed.

2. Tailor roles to skills and personalities, have as many leadership roles as you have people willing to fill them.

3. Encourage active members to pass on their skills and experience to others.

4. Focus - build up your team in one area before tackling the next.

5. Measure success by the number of volunteers you recruit as well as the campaigns you win.


Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Monday, March 10, 2014

Marxist sky-daddy propaganda

As seen in Digbeth: a weirdly beautiful but almost comically religious poster for the CPGB-ML.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Leonard Cohen theory of organising

You can't do everything at once. 

Not just a master of affairs of the heart, Mr Cohen also knows the power of prioritisation. First you take Manhattan, then (and only then) do you take Berlin.

Joking aside, there's a lot to be said for this typically zen piece of advice from the Greatest Living Canadian After Joni Mitchell. 

Ambitious end goals, say, taking Berlin, or making your town the greenest in the country are good, but they can be scary. It's easy to be disheartened if you don't know where to start. 

The solution: focus on the immediate step of taking Manhattan. Or, if you like, persuading your local school to put solar panels on its roof. It's a thing worth doing in its own right but – if understood and communicated clearly - also a step towards your own personal Berlin.

To give another example, getting 3 people in a room to agree to start a Friends of the Earth group or try a new local campaign might not feel like a big deal. You could say that you can't start a string quartet with three people, never mind change the world. 

And yet it's a necessary step in the process of building change. It's not as superficially thrilling perhaps as the triumphal endgame you hope for. But it's the process of taking Manhattan that gives the promise of taking Berlin its meaning.

Hat tip, Mr Cohen.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Friday, March 7, 2014

Thergothon's Stream From The Heavens: as ambient as metal gets?

This record sounds cheap. Its lyrical subject matter is adolescent. I'm still not sure if all of its musical effect is intentional. But to me it's unquestionably a great record, partly because it sounds like nothing else I've heard, partly because I can hear its influence echoing in other things I've listened to and loved.

Contradiction? Not quite – allow me to explain.

Echo is indeed the operative word here, since Thergothon's only album proper (from 1992) is very nearly as ambient as metal gets. Dominated by long, slow guitar lines, heavy on the reverb, like  Sabbath in treacle, notes are left hanging in the air before the music drags itself forward one more step. On some songs, the guitarist seems to be tuning up for several minutes before a riff emerges from the gloom.

Underneath this, growling vocals are interspersed with chanting and whispering, all indecipherable, Lovecraft-inspired. Occasional 'atmospheric' interventions from what sounds like a child's Casio keyboard induce a feeling of mild narm. Somewhere in the background, the drums plod on with barely a hint of swing. The tinny production actively hinders any usual feeling of metal awe.

And yet taken as a whole, Stream... makes for an accessible avant-garde smash. It's doom metal in love with the hum of the amplifier, crude fragments of electric blues and folk rising out of the murk. It's drone metal with songs. The lo-fi production's tendency to undercut the ambition of the record strips it of pomposity, rendering it oddly endearing. 

The album spawned a new micro-genre in its wake: funereal doom metal, although what I've heard of its offspring so far suggests that there was something magical in the original production and throwing money at the sound quality just takes it away and gives you something far more orthodox (and therefore considerably less interesting).

However, it's also not too big a jump further out and forward in time from Thergothon to beatless, decidely less song-oriented acts like Sunn O))) . Keep the pace down but tighten up the playing, add in a smattering of jazz and blues, and then you've got late-period Earth, circa The Bees Made Honey In The Lion's Skull. 

It might be a misreading of metal history, but I hope it's a strong one. For me Stream... sits much more readily in that progressive tradition than Sabbath played at half speed with an extra dollop of misery. But its both a ground-breaking and love(craft)able piece of work in its own right.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Happy World Wildlife Day everyone!

Information about World Wildlife Day here. And to celebrate, here's a seal from the Donna Nook sanctuary on the Lincolnshire coast.

Also, one of our office volunteers Emily did a rather marvelous blog post about World Wildlife Day on Campaign Hubs asking if our Government is doing enough to protect nature - go check it out!
During the recent UK floods, some politicians claimed more attention was being given to birds than humans. Such comments show there’s a long way to go to understand that looking after nature isn’t taking anything away from us humans.
The reverse is true. The more we treat nature as a luxury not an essential we imperil ourselves. Will people face more or fewer floods if we have fewer birds using wildlife reserves, cleverly also serving as flood barriers?