Over The Hills And Far Away

Led Zeppelin spent a substantial amount of 1970 on the road, playing gig after gig after gig.  Their debut album did well enough in the charts to earn them attention, but it was the singles from Led Zeppelin II and the subsequent promotional tour that really broke America wide open for the band.  Understandably frazzled after a frantic year on the road, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page retreated to the cozy confines of Bron-Yr-Aur cottage to deprogram and write some new songs.  Some of what they wrote ended up on the folk-infused Led Zeppelin III; other songs, like “Over the Hills and Far Away” emerged later on Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti.

Bron-Yr-Aur is in the Snowdonia region of north Wales.  While the mountain peaks of Snowdonia don’t reach the dizzy heights of the Rocky Mountains, it is still a beautiful region.  Photos of this stunning little corner of Welsh countryside are a little bit reminiscent of the sub-alpine wildflower meadows in Banff National Park.  I’d love to visit there some day.  In the meantime, I’ll be content to hike over hills to far-away destinations a little closer to home.

The trail to Helen Lake winds through forests and high-country meadows and is known as one of the best day hikes between Lake Louise and Saskatchewan River Crossing.  The trailhead is right across the Icefields Parkway from the popular Crowfoot Glacier viewpoint.  Even though Helen Lake is situated to the north-east of the trailhead, the first 3 km of trail climbs steadily to the south through forests.  Don’t worry if you find yourself asking “when am I going to start walking over TOWARD my destination?”.  The trail eventually wraps around to the north and traverses an alpine meadow high up above Helen Creek.  The reason why the trail takes the indirect route to Helen Lake will become obvious by about Kilometre 4 or 5.

Thankfully, the scenery on the long loop is outstanding.  After no more than half an hour on trail, views open up to the west.  Once above the treetops, the ridge offers an inspiring perspective on Crowfoot Glacier and Bow Lake.

A few hundred metres further down the trail, you cross through a white-bark pine grove where a prescribed burn was made in the late 1990s.  In a little over a decade, a new generation of pine trees and other vegetation has started to emerge in the sunny meadows amidst the scorched snags.  Fire is a destructive natural process that used to be suppressed by park officials but, paradoxically, ensures the continued health of the forest by periodically hitting the ‘reset’ button.

Once you round the corner to the north, the grade flattens out a bit for the next 3 km.  Look to your left and you’ll see why the original trail breakers looped so far to the south – the steep back side of the ridge that now separates you from the Icefields Parkway is littered with moraines and avalanche slopes.  There is a creek crossing to make at Kilometre 5, but it looks like you should be able to jump from stone to stone and stay dry through most of the summer.  Finally, at the 6k mark and after a climb of around 500 vertical metres from the trailhead, you crest a hill and find yourself on the shores of pretty Helen Lake.

There are several good picnic areas along the south shore of the lake, but expect company.  Not only is the Helen Lake trail popular with day hikers, but a colony of hoary marmots also calls the area home.

Not ready to turn around just yet, I ascended the rocky pass east of Helen Lake and explored the ridge.  The 360-degree views from the ridge are fantastic.  Beneath you to the west is the glacier-carved Helen Creek valley, and the distinctive Matterhorn-like summit of Mount Assiniboine is visible far to the south.  Turn around to the east and you’ll have a breathtaking view of Lake Katherine at the foot of imposing 2,782m Dolomite Peak.

The trail from the ridge down to Lake Katherine is not particularly well-marked.  I followed a series of cairns down what looked like an old equestrian route, but there are probably several unofficial ways to get there.  The reward for temporarily giving back 125m of hard-earned elevation is a carefree walk along the secluded beach of Lake Katherine.  On this particular day, I had the beach all to myself (and wished I’d had the foresight to stash a beer in my backpack).

The trail continues past the lake to Dolomite Pass.  I will admit to being a little underwhelmed by Dolomite Pass – it’s really just a starkly-vegetated low saddle of land that climbs perhaps 30 metres above lake level.  That said, it was neat to see an unexpected glacier lurking in the shadows on the northeastern face of Dolomite Peak.

The route back up the ridge to Helen Lake is a little tedious, but I was entertained by the antics of the local marmots.  I saw three of the critters, wandering from den to den feasting on whatever succulent plants they could find.  The summer season is very short at this elevation (around 2400m above sea level).  Marmots don’t have a lot of time to fatten up before retreating underground to sleep off the snowbound eight-month winter.  Perhaps that’s why they aren’t particularly skittish around humans – they’re just too occupied with cramming in calories to notice any biped interlopers.

Retracing your steps from Dolomite Pass back to the trailhead, plus some time spent exploring the ridge, makes it a 20 km hike with around 700m of total elevation gain.  On my way back, I noticed that a few hardy souls had scrambled up above Helen Lake to 2,993m Cirque Peak.  I will put that on my list of possibilities for next summer.

Most of the hike back to the car was quiet and uneventful, but just before I reached the fire zone something extraordinary happened.  A silvery-beige animal about the size of a dog sprinted across the trail perhaps 40 metres in front of me.  But this was no poochie.  It took a couple of seconds for it to register, but the tufted ear tips and feline gait were a dead giveaway.  I had just seen my first lynx!  Almost twenty years of mountain hikes, and I finally had my first encounter with this beautiful, secretive creature in its natural habitat.

There was no time to dig out my camera – and I was too fascinated to do anything but watch it disappear into the woods.  In this modern world of digital cameras and PVRs, it’s disappointing that we can’t pause & rewind the images in our brain and screen-grab cool photos that way.  Nevertheless, my memories will never forget my close encounter with that mountain kitty-kat.

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Upcoming Music Releases – September 2012

September looks like a great month for new music, with several well-regarded acts releasing new albums.  Despite persistent rumours to the contrary, the album format isn’t dead just yet.

4-Sep-2012:

Experimental rock outfit Animal Collective releases Centipede Hz, their first album since 2009’s critically acclaimed Merriweather Post PavilionMPP perfected the tricky balancing act of combining unusual sounds and challenging songwriting with bouncy, digestible production techniques.  Early word is that the new album is yet another shift in the group’s fearlessly evolving sound, this time ramping up the sonic density to new levels.

Fresh off an appearance at the London 2012 closing ceremonies, UK rock act Elbow release a b-sides collection.  Dead in the Boot collects various odds ‘n’ sods from the past decade, songs that for whatever reason did not find their way onto one of Elbow’s five excellent studio albums.  Recommended for fans of brooding, quietly anthemic (and that’s not meant to be a contradiction), unquestionably British rock music.

11-Sep-2012:

North Carolina’s Avett Brothers return with new album The Carpenter, the follow-up to 2009’s breakthrough I And Love And You.  Their unique brand of rocked-up, punked-out folk resonates well with satellite radio listeners and music festival attendees, many of whom seem to become instant fans.  Über-producer Rick Rubin is once again on hand to twiddle the knobs and push the sliders, which should give The Carpenter the same kind of uncluttered, widescreen space to sprawl out and engage listeners as its predecessor.

Despite occasional dalliances with other styles, Calexico’s music has usually been grounded in the American southwest.  Tucson-based Calexico have elected to switch things up this time, recording new album Algiers not in northern Africa but in the lovely and musical city of New Orleans.  Expect Calexico’s trademark sounds (warm vocals, acoustic guitars and mariachi horns) to still feature prominently in the mix, just in an entirely new musical context.

One of the best albums of 2009 was the debut recording from tricky-to-Google group The XX.  Its combination of beguiling beats, boy/girl vocals and crystalline sonic textures earned the UK band the Mercury Music Prize.  New album Coexist aims to build on the momentum of the debut, the group’s greatest strength being their ability to infuse the spaces between the notes with just as much beauty as the notes themselves.

18-Sep-2012:

Alt-something (alt-rock? alt-folk? alt-country?) group Band of Horses are back with new album Mirage Rock.  The strong songwriting on their previous album, 2010’s Infinite Arms, opened a lot of doors, securing Band of Horses appearances on national TV and a prime slot at seemingly every major music festival.  This time out, the band elected to work with legendary producer Glyn Johns, best known for being behind the boards for five-star classics like Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street by the Stones, and Who’s Next and Quadrophenia by The Who.  At the very least, Mirage Rock should sound fantastic.  If Band of Horses can once again deliver on the songwriting and performing front, this album should appear on many Best of 2012 lists.

The rumours are true.  Ben Folds Five are back together, and their reunion album The Sound of the Life of the Mind is set to drop.  A lot of water has passed under the bridge since 1999’s brilliant The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner.  Ben Folds’ songwriting has grown in a multitude of new directions over several solo records.  It will be interesting to see what getting back together with drummer Darren Jessee and bassist Robert Sledge does to Ben’s muse.  Will the presence of his old pals spark a return of the angst-ridden smart-ass piano slammer we knew and loved?

Studio album #4 from The Killers is called Battle Born.  The presence of A-list producers like Daniel Lanois, Steve Lillywhite, and Brendan O’Brien suggests that the Las Vegas band is once again setting their sights on Joshua Tree epic greatness.   Brandon Flowers’ recent solo projects seem to have given him more confidence and a better ability to exploit his limited vocal range – we shall see how this translates to a full-blown Killers album.

25-Sep-2012:

Rootsy UK folk-rockers Mumford & Sons finally release the follow-up to 2009’s Sigh No MoreBabel seeks to build on the ubiquitous airplay of earlier tracks like “Little Lion Man”.  Early reports suggest that Babel will not reinvent wheels – if you liked the punk-rock banjo stylings and harmony vocals of the debut, you won’t be disappointed by these twelve new songs.

Upcoming Music Releases – Summer 2012

It’s been a pretty slow summer for notable new music releases, unless you happen to like Marcy Playground and Maroon 5.  In which case, you are a crazy person and you should seek help immediately.  If the very thought of a new Maroon 5 album is enough to compel you to burn down the nearest record store, then here is a brief list of alternative releases that you might enjoy instead.  And kindly leave the Molotov cocktails at home…

26-Jun-2012:

The Soundtrack of our Lives have released their swan song effort, Throw It To The Universe.  The Swedish rock band made their name over the last decade with near-perfect albums like Behind the Music and Communion, seamlessly blending classic rock influences (primarily Pink Floyd and The Who) with modern rock dynamics.  However, bandleader Ebbot Lundberg has recently been quoted that this year’s new release will be their last, having completed a perfect six-album cycle.

17-Jul-2012:

If you are into Hasidic rap reggae (and who isn’t?), rejoice, because Matisyahu is back.  Spark Seeker marks out a new direction for Matisyahu, after announcing in late 2011 that he is moving away from his religious studies and toward a more secular, power-pop future.  That said, we should probably expect his compelling hip-hop and Jamaican dancehall beats to remain somewhere in the mix.  And with Kool Kojak on board as producer, the bleeps and bloops should be hyper-polished.

24-Jul-2012:

Tapes is the new release from Oxford, UK math-rock band Foals.  Note that Tapes isn’t a new album per se – it’s actually a 21st century mix tape of other bands’ music.  With Foals on board as curators, the 22 tracks range from Afropop and Southern soul to techno and electronica.  Quite the Maxell XLII, then.

21-Aug-2012:

UK group Bloc Party return to the scene after four years away with their fourth proper studio album, helpfully titled Four.  Not to be confused with 1980s ultra-slick pop album IV by Toto, this Bloc Party record should feature angular guitars, spiky rock, and electronic flourishes.

Perhaps the least surprising story in UK rock in 2006 was that leotarded lead singer Justin Hawkins had stepped away from The Darkness to pursue a new career in rehab for a cocaine addiction.  After recording and performing the musical equivalent of a speedball for half a decade, it was really only a matter of time.  Hawkins returned to the fold in 2011 for some well-received reunion shows, and new album Hot Cakes promises to once again ‘rock out with its cock out’.  It also includes a cover version of Radiohead’s “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”, which simply has to be heard to be believed.

Brooklynites Yeasayer are set to officially release Fragrant World, the follow-up to 2010’s brilliant Odd Blood.  The leaked songs circulating on the Series of Tubes suggest that Yeasayer are continuing in Odd Blood’s unsettling and challenging yet compelling synthetic-soul direction.  Expect a bearded and bespectacled record store clerk to spin this one (on vinyl, of course) at least once a day at your local record shop.

Back-Catalogue News:

Finally, 31-Jul-2012 marked the long-awaited re-release of the Blur back catalog.  All seven studio albums have been given the deluxe two-CD remastering treatment, just in time for Blur’s headline appearance at tomorrow’s London Olympics closing ceremony.  It has also been reported that all seven albums will finally be available on vinyl.  And if you’re REALLY keen, you can pony up for the new 21-disc Blur box set – featuring the seven twin-disc albums, four more CDs of rarities, and three DVDs.  That’s a lot of UK music nerd all in one place.  Whoo-hoo!

Upcoming Music Releases – June 2012

Here’s a selection of upcoming music releases for your summer listening pleasure:

5-Jun-2012:

Rhett Miller – The Dreamer

The Old 97’s front man steps away to release a new solo album.  Miller’s side projects tend to be a little quieter and poppier than his day job’s raucous alt-country records.  Early word on The Dreamer is that it’s still relatively low-key but more folk-infused than usual.

The Hives – Lex Hives

The sharply-dressed gents from Fagersta, Sweden return with their fifth album of glorious noise.  Lex Hives promises to administer another healthy dose of punked-out Stooges energy to cure whatever ails you.  After a five year hiatus, expect twelve new sonic salvos that sound like the Ramones accidentally plugged into 240-volt power instead of 120-volt.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Americana

Neil Young lives and dies by the magic of the first take.  He is notoriously unwilling to develop songs in the studio, preferring to bash them out in one pass instead.  From time to time, he captures lightning in a bottle, especially when the erratic Crazy Horse is involved.  That said, early reports suggest that these 11 new recordings of American folk standards (including, inexplicably, “God Save The Queen”) might have benefitted from a bit of rehearsal and some editing.

12-Jun-2012:

Metric – Synthetica

The Canadian modern-synth-rock ensemble releases Synthetica, the follow-up to 2009’s well-received Fantasies.  Like The Hives, it seems that Metric have decided to hoe their own row by self-releasing their new album.  I haven’t been too enamoured of lead-off single “Youth Without Youth”, but maybe the album will reveal itself over time.

Rush – Clockwork Angels

The Canadian power trio (finally) releases some truly new studio material, five years on from the surprisingly decent Snakes & Arrows.  Some of the new songs, like “BU2B” and “Caravan”, have actually been in the live set for awhile now, which is a little unusual for Rush.  Exclaim.ca reported that Clockwork Angels “chronicles a young man’s quest across a lavish and colourful world of steampunk and alchemy as he attempts to follow his dreams”.  So, Neil Peart’s still reading a lot of fiction, then.

Wintersleep – Hello Hum

Completing the trio of Canadian rock releases on this day is a new album from Nova Scotia’s Wintersleep.  Check them out if you think you’d like to revisit the highlights of R.E.M.’s back catalogue by way of Halifax and Montreal.

19-Jun-2012:

Smashing Pumpkins* – Oceania

Billy Corgan Inc. gets set to unleash Oceania upon the world.  Since giving the boot to Jimmy Chamberlin in 2009, the Smashing Pumpkins* (2012 edition) features all-new guys, including the seemingly-mandatory lady bass player.  If the band’s somewhat random trajectory since 1998’s Adore album hasn’t already driven you away, then consider that Oceania was designed to be an album-within-an-album.  It reportedly features a number of songs intended to sit within Corgan’s sprawling 44-track Teargarden by Kaleidyscope project.  Artistically brave, and likely to be peppered with moments of gothic synth-rock beauty, but probably not for the casual Pumpkins fan (you have been warned).

26-Jun-2012:

Beachwood Sparks – The Tarnished Gold

Eleven years removed from their previous album, the classic line-up of these California cosmic-rock revivalists make a triumphant return with a set of all-new songs.  In this era of multi-part harmony vocals and sunny baroque pop on the indie-rock charts (see also: Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear) the Sparks may finally be primed to make a long-overdue breakthrough.

The Flaming Lips – The Flaming Lips & Heady Fwends

If you missed picking up a double-LP vinyl copy of this collection on Record Store Day 2012, here’s your chance to make up for lost time.  The Flaming Lips have been keeping busy since their 2009 record Embryonic by recording EPs with other artists.  Check out the Heady Fwends if you’re keen to hear their collaborations with Ke$ha, Bon Iver, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeroes, Jim James, Nick Cave, Neon Indian, and a host of others.  Pretty much guaranteed to be the weirdest album you buy this month, if not the best.

Upcoming Music Releases – May 2012

Another selection of upcoming indie (and not so indie) music releases:

1-May-2012:

Welsh straight-up rock act Feeder returns with new album Generation Freakshow.  Their albums have been less consistent lately, but once upon a time they (nearly) conquered the world with radio-friendly records like Comfort in Sound and Pushing The Senses.  Foo Fighters fans may find much to like here.

Frequent indie collaborator Santi White (aka Santigold) releases her second full-length record, Master Of My Make-Believe.  This time out, the album features a veritable mix-tape of guest producers, running the gamut from Diplo to Dave Sitek.  Expect a correspondingly wide range of sonic textures.

8-May-2012:

Last month it was Amadou & Mariam.  This month, their English compadre Damon Albarn gets in on the new-release racket with Dr. Dee.  Here’s a quick summary from the album’s tumblr site (and no one will ever accuse Albarn of playing things too straight):

Dr Dee is 18 tracks of songs and music inspired by the life of John Dee, mathematician, polymath and advisor to Elizabeth I. Described by Albarn as ‘strange pastoral folk’, Dr Dee is a fitting companion to the end of another Elizabethan age. The album combines Albarn’s voice with early English choral and instrumentation alongside modern, West African and Renaissance sounds.

UK trio Keane return with new album Strangeland.  Coming on the heels of 2008’s transitional Perfect Symmetry, the new album is reportedly a back-to-basics affair with a greater emphasis on songwriting and fewer production tricks.  As always, success or failure will begin and end with the quality of the songs.

Silversun Pickups are back with Neck of the Woods.  Will be interesting to see if producer Jacknife Lee and his Topanga Canyon recording studio influence the band’s unique sound.  It also sounds like the album will come out on very cool 180g yellow double vinyl, if you’re so inclined.

Sony Japan are releasing new remastered CDs by The Byrds, including Notorious Byrd Brothers, Turn Turn Turn, Fifth Dimension, and Younger than Yesterday.  These records are the fountain of jangle-rock genius from where bands like the Flying Burrito Brothers, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, R.E.M., Blue Rodeo and Dawes nicked all their best ideas.

15-May-2012:

Indie darlings Beach House release Bloom, the follow-up to 2010’s well-received Teen Dream.  Let’s see if a more expansive approach to their multi-textured dream pop can continue the momentum.

At the complete opposite end of the indie-rock spectrum is Rise of the Fenix by Tenacious D.  It would be hilarious if Jack Black and Kyle Gass came out with a multi-textured dream pop album, but who are we kidding.

22-May-2012:

Kind of a slow day for new releases.  If you’re in the mood for vintage two-minute rock gems wrapped in black leather, try the posthumous Joey Ramone solo release called …Ya Know?

28-May-2012 (UK release date):

2:54 is the self-titled dark-pop debut album from the hotly-tipped UK sister act that’s named for their favourite moment of a Melvins song.  They were discovered last year after posting their GarageBand experiments online.  Doesn’t get much more indie than that.

Meanwhile, Scissor Sisters get back in the game with Magic Hour.  Check out the album cover – I can’t decide if it’s stunningly brilliant or everything that’s wrong about Photoshop.  But it is undeniably eye-catching.

29-May-2012:

It’s virtually impossible to describe Icelandic indie-rock superstars Sigur Ros in mere words.  You might be better off seeking out a copy of new record Valteri and listening for yourself.  If it’s anything like previous works, imagine guitars turned up to eleven, played at half speed, all while providing the sound track to icebergs cleaving from glaciers into the North Atlantic.  Utterly unique – you either get them or you don’t.

Indie rock’s most anticipated new May release is undoubtedly the new album from The Walkmen.  Heaven promises to expand upon the sterling reputation earned by previous albums You & Me and Lisbon, two tough acts to follow.