Quick Thought: on Margaret Thatcher

Margaret_Thatcher

Let’s be clear, celebrating the death of an elderly woman is clearly distinct from challenging the subsequent fawning over and deification of her political persona by the establishment and media through public funeral processions, high-profile political speaches and hagiographic newspaper editorials. The former is crass and unnecessary; the latter is more relevant than ever.

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Album Review: the Dillinger Escape Plan – Calculating Infinity

Calculating InfinityI’ll admit that I’m a pretty obsessive person. Whenever something catches my interest, I have to grab hold of it, pull it apart and examine it down to the last detail, often for months at a time before moving on to something else. At the minute, I’m pretty obsessed with the seminal “mathcore” group The Dillinger Escape Plan, a band that has gained notoriety in underground rock and metal circles for their spastic, brutal yet fiercely intelligent sound. Coupled with this fact, the band is about to return to the forefront of the music scene with their eagerly anticipated 5th LP release One of Us is the Killer later this month so I thought, in celebration, I’d go back and look at one of the albums that made them so special and relevant in the first place.

The Dillinger Escape Plan is one of, if not the most important and influential bands within the mathcore genre, a particularly cacophonous subspecies of hardcore characterised by dissonant chord progressions and, crucially, highly irregular rhythmic and time signature changes. The band’s origins can be traced back to 1997, when the band’s original line-up, including guitarist Ben Weinman, vocalist Dimitri Minakakis, bassist Adam Doll and drummer Chris Pennie released a self titled EP and began to tour the U.S. They soon became notorious for their chaotic and even violent live shows, a trait that remains with the band to this day, with respective members throwing themselves over equipment and audience members, scaling stage rigging and sometimes even physically injuring themselves whilst playing. A second EP with added guitarist John Fulton, Under the Running Board, followed a year later and showcased a considerably more experimental and complex musical style. This release pretty much set the stakes for the Dillinger Escape Plan’s signature sound and along with the eventual replacement of Fulton with guitarist Brian Benoit, served as the precursor to their first full length LP, Calculating Infinity.

You should probably prepare yourself physically and mentally before listening to this album for the first time. When pressing play on opening track ‘Sugar Coated Sour’, you are smacked in the face from the word go. Before getting the chance to blink an atonal, rhythmically contorted tapping harmony between Weinman and Benoit is ripped apart by Minakakis’ furious and agonised screaming, underlined by a  barrage of diminished chords and Pennie’s stunningly original drumming. 40 seconds in you’re given a slight rebate in the form of an atonal guitar break before the band shoves your face back in the water with a livid 7/4 breakdown that poses the risk of leaving you with a few broken ribs should you ever get to see it performed live.

‘Sugar Coated Sour’ is the quintessential sound of the Dillinger Escape plan, before your brain has amassed even the slightest clue of what is actually going on, the band has ripped your face off. The intensity certainly doesn’t give up from here, track two ‘43% Burnt’ remains one of the group’s single finest hours: beginning with a riff probably best likened to the act of throwing a chainsaw into a wood chipper, Dimitri then axes down the bedroom door to tell you about how pissed off he is. The instrumental and compositional dexterity within this one track reaches almost absurd heights, I can’t think of many other rock or metal songs that shove so many brilliant musical motifs into such a short space of time: the explosion of sweep picking runs just shy of one minute in, the way Ben and Brian’s guitars ricochet off one another when Dimitri screams “take your medicine like a champ…” and the utterly mind bending middle section that I still can’t get my head around. There’s no way I would be able to pick out a single favourite riff from this track, they’re just all too brilliant.

The mood of Calculating Infinity generally alternates between two poles: a level of violence that would make your neighbours call the police and a brooding, unsettling ambience, the latter largely encapsulated by 3 interlude tracks that serve to complement and emphasise the aural chaos of the album’s “proper” songs. Within a strongly defined sonic framework the Dillinger Escape Plan manages to trash out a mind bogglingly huge number of different riffs, sections and rhythmic changes, as a musician what really blows my mind about this album is how much there is to memorise when trying to play any of the songs. If you were completely ignorant of how music is actually put together, you would probably deride this album as random noise, yet nothing could be further from the truth, Calculating Infinity is a tour de force of painstakingly calculated compositional moves, listen to the way the drum interlude of ‘Weekend Sex Change’ segues into the closer ‘Variations on a Cocktail Dress’, the tapping sections of ‘Clip the Apex… Accept Instruction’ which sound like they could only be vomited out of some crazy computer algorithm, never mind played by human beings and the whole 2nd half of ‘4th Grade Dropout’. The latter track is one of the few instances on the album in which the band manages stay inside a regular 4/4 time signature for a prolonged amount of time, yet somehow, manages to become one of the heaviest, most oppressive pieces of music I’ve ever heard.

Calculating Infinity is the last of all the albums the Dillinger Escape Plan has released so far that I came round to personally; it’s a difficult and demanding piece of music that certainly doesn’t lend itself to you on the first listen, but is totally worth the effort. I guess some of criticisms that can be levelled at the album would be the generally unvarying mood beyond “really, really angry” along with the relative monotony of Dimitri Minakakis’ vocal delivery (though, to be honest, these criticisms can be directed at hardcore in general). Beyond here, the band would be go through further line-up changes still with Minakakis amicably departing from the band to be eventually replaced by the technically versatile and rather muscle bound Greg Puciato and both Adam Doll and Brian Benoit unfortunately sustaining serious injuries leaving them unable to perform. The band’s subsequent releases would experiment with a broader range of stylistic influences, more orchestrated production and even *shock, horror* actual hooks and melodies to the slight detriment of Calculating Infinity’s mind-blowing technical adeptness. Consequently, there seems to be an opinion amongst some sections of the internet that this one album is the absolute final word in mathcore and the only album by the Dillinger Escape Plan actually worth listening to. As usual, I’d say anyone who rejects the band’s later albums on these reasons alone, is seriously missing out.

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Quick Thought: On Enlightened Thinking.

The enlightened mind is merely one aware of the full extent of its own delusions.

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Cameron to Curb Benefits for European Migrants: What’s the Reality?

ImmigrationImmigration is one of the most salient political topics of our time. You scarcely go a day without seeing a headline on the front of a tabloid newspaper or big news website on the issue, often depicting it in a negative light. Just today, UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced plans to restrict Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA) to EU migrants beyond 6 months along with access to social housing for 2 years. According to a report last year by Oxford University’s Migration Observatory, immigration is generally viewed as a problem in the UK, with approximately 75% of people (1) believing that levels should be reduced so on the surface, Cameron’s proposals may look like a good idea. However, things are never as straightforward as they might first seem in politics and often the reality of an issue might run completely contrary to our collective perceptions. Using some facts and figures, I’ve set out to establish whether immigrant exploitation of social housing and benefits really is that much of an issue, and whether Cameron’s proposals will really make that much of a difference.

Are immigrants taking housing?

The Prime Mininster’s first proposal, as highlighted by the BBC, is to deny economic migrants (for they are a completely different group of people to asylum seekers or illegal immigrants) access to social housing for at least two years (although the wording of the article is unclear: “a social housing applicant would have to live in an area for between two and five years before going on the waiting list” implies that the proposal may also apply to British residents as well) under the assumption that this will remove “any expectation that new migrants can expect the British taxpayer to give them a home on arrival”. I’m suspicious of the degree to which such an expectation actually exists, has anyone ever actually surveyed prospective economic migrants as to what they actually come to the UK for? “Do you come for benefits? Or do you come for work?” My suspicion is that it is actually the latter.  More crucially though, by the figures cited within in the article itself 9% of new council lettings have been given to foreign nationals(An ONS publication from 4 years ago gives the similar figure of 8% for England (2)) when those not born in the UK actually make up about 13% of the UK’s entire population (3). If we go by this data alone, an immigrant is actually less likely to apply for social housing than a UK national. Technically, “foreign national” includes refugees (asylum seekers who have been granted permission to stay in the UK) as well, so this would reduce the number of migrants coming over here with the intention to work living in social housing further.

Housing a big problem in the UK, a big problem, there are 1.85 million people on council housing waiting lists alone (4), yet according to research by the fantastic Facebook page “Keep Calm Britain – just the actual facts” only 308,000 of council houses in England currently have tenents of foreign nationality (5). On practical terms then, reducing immigrant access to social housing will do little to address the country’s chronic shortage of social housing¸ as the afore mentioned page has pointed out, the 1.12 million council houses sold off to the private sector over to past decade (6) is a much bigger contributor to lack of council housing for the British people.

Migrants are less likely to live in social housing than their British conterparts.

Migrants are less likely to live in social housing than their British conterparts.

Coming here for benefits?

On practical terms, immigrant access to housing appears to be nowhere near as urgent in issue as the media makes out, yet on ideological grounds, the argument can be made that “we shouldn’t provide welfare to those who have never paid into the system”. This is a legitimate argument, but again, how often does this actually happen in reality? This ties in with the Prime Minister’s second proposal: to limit immigrants’ access to benefits, specifically, Jobseekers’ Allowance after 6 months. Again, the impact of this proposal needs to be looked at in context: statistically a foreign born national has been estimated to be less than half as likely to claim benefits as someone who was born in this country.(7) Also, although the individual rules are complicated, economic migrants generally are not entitled to any benefits unless they have already settled and worked for some time within the country anyway (8). Further still, a report by the TUC found that immigrants as a whole make a net contribution of £2.5bn to the public purse (9), so if we are to argue that immigrants should contribute to the system before claiming any benefits, in pragmatic terms, they clearly already are.

Overall, migrants contribute more to the UK tax system than they take.

Overall, migrants contribute more to the UK tax system than they take (9).

So what’s the impact of these proposals?

            A final point to note is, that judging by the BBC article, the Prime Minister’s proposals seem to focus specifically on Jobseekers’ Allowance, a drop in the ocean of public spending, making up only 3% of the entire benefits bill (10). Going by all of this evidence, it appears the government’s proposals are in reality a shave around the edges in regards to the ways that economic migration affects our economy and public services, a far cry from any sort of real “crackdown”. As far as I can see the proposals are going to have little effect on the actual British people, they will do next to nothing to reduce the benefits bill or alleviate the national council housing shortage. Their impact is going to be limited to a tiny minority of migrants who either do try to abuse the system (which is a good thing) or who genuinely fall on misfortune (which is not such a good thing) and if we extrapolate from the fact that all benefit fraud, both by immigrants and those born here, has sat at the miniscule level of 0.6-0.8% (11)  over the past 5 years, it’s more likely going to be the latter.

Jobseekers' Allowance constitutes a tiny fraction of the entire benefits bill.

Jobseekers’ Allowance constitutes a tiny fraction of the entire benefits bill (10).

In a future post I hope to provide a broader critique of why the media and politicians place so much emphasis on immigration at the expense of other important political issues despite that fact that, as demostrated here, fears of immigrants draining the UK economy are strongly overstated.

_

References:

  1. The Migration Observatory, UK Public Opinion toward Immigration: Overall Attitudes and Levels of Concern
  2. Communities and Local Government, Housing in England 2007-2008 (p .49)
  3. ONS, 2011 Census: Key Statastics for England and Wales, 2011 (1st paragraph)
  4. Communities and Local Government, Local Authority Housing Statastics 2011-2012 (p. 3)
  5. Housing in England, p. 49
  6. Local Authority Housing Statistics, p. 6
  7. Department for Work and Pensions, Nationality at point of National Insurance Number Registration of DWP Benefit Claiments, Jan 2012
  8. Eden District Council, Migrant Workers
  9. Trade Union Congress, The Economics of Migration (p. 18)
  10. Institute for Fiscal Studies, A Survey of the UK Benefit System, (p. 7)
  11. Full Fact, Is Benefit Fraud at an All Time High (final paragraph)

Many thanks to the “Keep Calm Britain: Just the Actual Facts” for making the facts and statistics presented in this article so, so much easier and quicker to source.

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Quick Thought: a Simple Philosophy for Life.

vlcsnap-849771Follow your heart, but your head gets veto power.
Follow your dreams, but make sure you don’t sleepwalk off a cliff.
Be open minded, but not so much that your brain falls out.
Fight for what you believe in, but always stop to consider whether you might actually be on the wrong side.

(with credit to John Cheese)

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Quick Thought.

Semantically speaking, is the term “pop-punk” an oxymoron?

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Quick Thought: on “Common Sense Politics”.

Be wary of politicians who advocate a ‘common sense’ approach to policy. Common sense allows us to solve simple, relatively insignificant everyday problems, (for example, I don’t need to calculate the kinetic energy of an HGV to know that it’s a very bad idea to walk in front of one) yet modern politics is anything but, it is complex and chaotic and has huge repercussions on many aspects of society. The sense needed to solve big issues that affect millions of people is not common and to use common sense to do so is not sensical.

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