Sunday, 20 December 2015

Looking back...

It’s been another busy year at Light Dreams HQ.

Cover Artwork
Once again, I’ve had the privilege of working with several fantastic authors, with fantastic books.

While it is always exciting and an honour to be asked to create cover artwork, it is sometimes quite a daunting task. Somebody who has spent months or even years writing their book, now have to hand it over for me to do my best to take what’s in their imagination and written on their pages, and transpose that into a marketable cover. But that’s the thrill of the challenge, and it’s what I’m here to do, after all.

Every cover project has been rewarding in a different way, whether it’s the challenge of the cover or artist/author and publisher relationship. 

With a couple of exciting projects already on the horizon, I’m certainly looking forward to what 2016 may bring.

I’ve also had a very prolific year on the music side of things, having released three new albums on Bandcamp. The advantage of working independently is that I can release as much or as little as I wish. Ironically, I’d thought I may release one, maybe two albums at best this year, but when the muse strikes, you have to take advantage!

Sentient City was produced in the last quarter of 2014, and released in January 2015. I’d had in mind for some time to make an album with a “city” theme – with music inspired by working in or living in a vibrant modern city, or perhaps a glimpse of a future city, which is where the science fiction influence comes into play.

Panorama was released in July, and is my fourth release in association with the Initiative for Interstellar Studies. 2013’s Beyond theBoundary album was about space travel and exploration, so with that in mind, Panorama was about what lies at the end of that journey, and the discovery of new worlds. Whereas Sentient City came together in just a few months, Panorama took well over a year. I produced dozens of demos and ideas, shortlisting 16 tracks for the final album!

I’d only just released Panorama when I found myself working on some new music, of a different soundscape. Whereas Panorama had been a slow, building album, in contrast to that, I found myself putting together some heavier beats-driven tracks and in no time at all another album was in the works. 

I released Timeshift in November, and feel it could be my best album to date.

So with that in mind, just where my musical journey will take me from here, is anybody’s guess! But even so, I can't express enough gratitude for anybody who has supported my musical endeavours, whether it be buying an album or simply helping spread the word by sharing or retweeting.

So at least when it comes to art, music and science fiction, it's been a very rewarding year, and I've had the pleasure of meeting many great, likeminded people, whether on social media or in person at Novacon, which always feels like the culmination of everything, each year – and I'm already looking forward to the next!

Saturday, 12 December 2015


Today, I'm going to talk about the Doctor Who theme, and one version in particular. This is the obvious point of convergence between my love of science fiction and electronic music, and there's no denying the influence of Who's long history of electronic scores – both the theme tune and incidental soundtracks – in my own music.

One of my earliest musical memories is hearing the original Delia Derbyshire version of the Doctor Who theme, which my parents had on a record along with other popular television theme tunes. 

I like all the versions of the Doctor Who theme tune. Each offers something different yet unique and relevant to the era it represented. But the version I'm going to talk about is the seriously underrated 1986 arrangement by composer Dominic Glynn. Out of all the different versions, this is the one that has perhaps influenced me the most, musically.

So, let's cast our minds back to 1986. I was an eight-year-old, with a serious Doctor Who obsession (not much has changed, I admit). So when the series was given an 18-month 'rest' in 1985, I had to endure a long and torturous wait for the return of the Doctor. It seemed like an eternity had passed when the Doctor (then played by Colin Baker) finally returned to our screens in late 1986. Except somehow, the news that the series was even coming back had passed me by! And I still remember the day and the moment, having no idea whatsoever that it was returning.

It was a Saturday tea time in early September, and I had just finished watching and recording Roland Rat: The Series (yes, really...). I was just about to eject my video tape when I suddenly realised that the familiar Doctor Who titles were glowing out of the screen towards me. I hadn't realised what was happening, because there was also something unfamiliar about it – the music. 

Then it clicked. I almost combusted with excitement at the realisation that a new series was starting right then, as I quickly thrust the Play and Record buttons back in on the VHS machine, and sat back in amazement. But new Doctor Who AND new music?! This was a lot to comprehend in my post-Roland Rat haze!

The Trial of A Timelord season took the show in a very dark and unexpected direction. What was going on? How could my Doctor possibly be on trial? His own people turned against him? Almost everything about the new show felt different; new production values, new special effects, new ideas and most notably, new music, with composer Dominic Glynn handling the incidental music as well as the new theme tune.

This was perhaps the first time that the atmosphere and textures of the incidental music felt like a continuation of the actual title music. There was an icy edge to the music, an uneasiness and foreboding atmosphere, which accompanied the darker stories perfectly. Of course, as we all now know, Doctor Who was having troubles of its own behind the scenes at the time, but back then I was oblivious to all of that.

Glynn's arrangement perfectly matched not only this more menacing direction, but also the colourful, spacey aesthetic of the Sixth Doctor's title sequence itself. I also thought this new version of the theme music was an ideal match to Colin Baker's Doctor's often unpredictable persona – and it was great to see his Doctor finally get his own theme tune, rather than continuing with the hand-me-down version.

But after that first episode had aired, I distinctly remember talking to friends about the music more than the episode itself! It had evidently struck a chord with me.

Although it obviously had to follow the general arrangement of the classic Who theme, Glynn introduced drones, shimmers and various other nuances and atmospheres which gave his rendition a distinctive identity. It was very different to any version that had gone before, yet it was still very much the Doctor Who theme. What he achieved was a version that had the dynamic of the Peter Howell arrangement from 1980, combined with the haunting, unearthly atmosphere of the 1963 original. There's just something about Glynn's 1986 version, which still to this day, gives me goosebumps. 

The "scream" or "sting" (the bit at the very beginning) is also the most dramatic and piercing that the show has had to date, tearing perfectly into the cliffhanger at the end of each episode. I was already obsessed with the various arrangements of the show's theme tune before then, so when faced with a new version to digest, one of the first things I did was stuck my cassette recorder in front of the TV and taped the new the music (intro and outro, of course!). Then to my utmost excitement, BBC Records released an LP containing the full-length version! 

The LP came with an eighties-tastic holographic sleeve. And I vividly remember having a nasty head cold on the day it arrived, but that didn't stop me from hauling myself out of bed to get the thing on the record player. I remember sitting there with blocked ears, a blocked nose and a fuzzy, dizzy head, listening to the full-length arrangement of the new theme, not only in glorious stereo, but with all the exciting additional bits you didn't get to hear on TV!

This version of the theme music has also aged well, unlike Keff McCulloch's 1987 arrangement which followed. But in 2008 when the BBC finally released the whole Trial season on DVD, I was really impressed to find a brand new remix of the 1986 theme tune, sounding superb and bringing it bang up to date. I hadn't heard it in years, and I was instantly transported back to that exciting Saturday afternoon.

So while it may not be immediately obvious, the music of Doctor Who in all its forms has been a big influence on my own instrumental music. Maybe that's why there's nearly always a science fiction edge to it, somewhere along the way. 

But needless to say, that whenever I use the pitch-shift slider on my midi-synth to bend a note, Mr Glynn's Doctor Who theme is lurking there, in my mind!

My new album Timeshift is available from:

Dominic Glynn's new Gallifrey Remixes and Ravalox Remixes are available on Amazon.

...and Who, Where and When, my personal account of growing up with Doctor Who in the 1980s and beyond, is available for free download here.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Under observation...

I've been intending to post about my most recent piece of digital art, Observation Point for a while, so finally here we are.

One of the great things about bouncing ideas around for book cover projects is that there are inevitably ideas that come out of the mix that have potential to be pieces in their own right, and that's exactly what happened here.

This was my original mono sketch – which wasn't right for the cover in question, but I felt it had something about it which I was keen to explore further.

As I've said countless times, it was the science fiction and space art of the 1970s and 1980s which first caught my imagination as a boy and that ultimately inspired me to create my own art – and it continues to inspire me to this day. There is certainly a gentle nod to that special era of SF art in my work, and that was certainly starting to come across here.

A simple image, of an enormous space vessel, in orbit above a planet; a classic SF image. The planet was originally going to be the Earth. But then I had a last-minute change of heart, and decided to make a heavily cratered moon instead.

This was when I discovered that craters are not as easy as they look. It is all about the light and shade, and getting the shape right. Which at first, I didn't. My initial craters were very shallow and more resembled a large pitted orange than a moon!

If these were impact craters, then we needed to see that impact, and the build-up around the edge. But once I'd worked more on really giving the craters more of a three dimensional texture, the piece really started to come together.

When it comes to painting starships or other alien structures, I've started to adopt a much looser approach. Providing the style is consistent with the rest of the piece, and that the perspective is accurate, then I don't mind it looking a little more sketchy or impressionistic rather than something too crisp and clean, which has that evident "digital" look to it. 

The craft itself isn't massively changed from the original sketch, and despite the slightly rough and ready appearance, it still has a good deal of surface detail and texture:

Rather than showing a scene of a spacecraft in flight, I decided to have it floating in space, in an ominous Rama sort of way. And through that, came the slightly unsettling title of Observation Point.

And here is the finished piece...

...nicely rounded off with some text specially written by Richard Hayes:

A spacecraft orbits a heavily cratered moon, the distant sun of this star system casting its light across the scene. The vast size of this vessel’s engines tell us that it has travelled far to reach this point, but they are now cold and silent – it has reached its destination. Even so, there is still much activity aboard the craft. Lights appearing through windows show that its occupants are busy going about their work, and its surface is covered with sensors and antennae which suggest that its role is to measure and analyse data.

We are left in little doubt that these space travellers are here to observe something, but we are not certain what that can be. It might be some feature on the surface of the moon below, or on its parent planet which lies outside our view. What we can be sure of is that the civilization that sent this spaceship to this remote location had the resources, and the will, to dispatch a sophisticated mission – possibly for purposes of scientific research, or perhaps for some more sinister reason.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Pre-made covers - good or bad?

With the rise of self-publishing we've also seen the rise of pre-made ebook cover suppliers.

I'll be honest – these pre-made cover sites make me cringe. And they're putting hardworking artists and designers out of work. A quick search will bring you up with an overwhelming number of cheap ebook cover sites to choose from.

But if I were writing a book, I would want a cover made with my story in mind. 

Just browsing these sites, it soon becomes clear just how samey many of the covers are; dreamy montages of stock images and typography which looks like anything from the current list of Amazon bestsellers. And you can often spot them a mile off.

Granted, some of these suppliers use their own illustrators or 3D renderings for the covers, and in that case you do at least have a unique piece of work in one sense. But the majority of these sites sell book covers made up of stock image montages, because stock or Royalty Free (RF) images are high quality, cheap to purchase and also quick and easy to work with. You do see some excellent covers, but an equal number of awful ones, and its nearly always down to the execution than the actual image. 

The use of RF imagery on covers can be a tricky one – that's exactly the sort of thing these images are intended for, and it is a perfect solution to many covers, particularly when used creatively. But this does mean that anybody else could use the same image on their cover (albeit in another context), and there's nothing you can do about it. With that in mind, it all comes down to the designer's execution and any treatments used on the images – and it is those things which make it stand out.

There are many big-name authors, whose covers are often very well put together stock image affairs (with the suppliers usually credited on the back). The obvious difference here is that a designer has clearly spent a lot of time working up designs for the publisher and marketing teams and striving to get the right cover. It's also highly likely that they've actually read the book, too.

So my concern is not at all with the use of stock imagery, but the one-size-fits-all approach many of these pre-made cover sites take, and the astounding assumption that an author, who has slaved tirelessly on their book for years, will be quite content with a £30 off-the-shelf style cover. This is simply discrediting to the author. 

Put two creative people together and you get a synergy, and there's nothing more rewarding than the fruits of a brainstorm between an author or publisher and a cover artist. Why cut that out of the process?

The perfect cover will come out of those discussions. You want your cover artist or designer to care about your book as much as you do, and it is through that process (which also includes visuals, different options and revisions), that your book gets the cover it deserves. 

The bottom line is, you get what you pay for. 
And your cover should be as unique and individual as your book.

The Great Digital Art Debate

Nobody can deny that digital art has become an accepted art form, certainly over the last decade. It plays a vital part in the entertainment industry, from concept art for films and games, through to book cover design and illustration.

Any artist working digitally will have come from a traditional medium background of painting or illustration. For me, working digitally gave me the best of both worlds and has allowed me to explore a colour palette that I could never satisfactorily achieve with traditional paints, and it also came without the mess. I'll be the first to admit that paint was never my preferred medium – give me ink or pencil and I'm happy.

So as far as the design and creative industries go, digital art is a crucial commercial skill and one in high demand, with fierce competition. As a medium, it has certainly found its home on the commercial industry side of things.

But is it art?

Of course it is. Just a browse through some of the thousands of artists showcasing their stunning digital works on the Deviantart website demonstrates its versatility. For many artists it is their preferred medium of expression.

Then I hear you cry, "But there's no original!" 

And this sparks an interesting discussion. On numerous occasions when I have been exhibiting my digital art (signed, mounted one-off prints), people have said "I'd buy it if it were an original" and that sort of thing.

I thoroughly understand and accept the "no original" argument from a collector's point of view – there are the obvious facts like the value of a piece and it being the only one of its kind. I have no problem with that and the truth is, it doesn't really apply to digital art.

Of course there is an original - and it's a digital file on a hard disk. But there is no physical original as such. A print is perhaps as original as a piece of digital artwork can get. Some artists may produce one print and that's it. Others may go to the extent of supplying a buyer with their hard disk, or at least the original file on a CD or USB stick, having erased the original – but then you don't hang a USB stick on your wall.

Digital art is a medium in its own right by today's standards, and one in which it is accepted that there is no physical original. However, the amount of time, creativity and effort which go into a making a digital piece is often no different to that of a painted canvas. You can achieve the same nuances, minute details and unique touches of the artist's hand – and all that simply depends on the artist. The major difference is one is made of paint, one is made of pixels.

Funnily enough, at this year's Novacon art auction, I sold several prints of digital art. The one original in my display (a black & white ink drawing) didn't sell.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Another Nova Over...

As I arrived at Nottingham's Park Inn Hotel on Friday afternoon, it really didn't feel like a year had elapsed since last year's Novacon. Here I was already about to do it all over again. And here are my personal highlights...

Novacon 45 saw the usual mix of socialising, book launches and talk panels, which included a superb mix of science, science fiction and publishing. This year's Guests of Honour were writers Stan and Anne Nicholls – lovely people, whose books I've come home with and look forward to reading.

As usual my involvement was exhibiting at the art show, which this year saw a really good variety of artists and styles, including resident artists David A. Hardy and Sue Jones, and first-time displays from Anne Nicholls, with a selection of delightfully eerie fantasy paintings, and Mike Gould, whose display of disturbed surrealism and abstracts really gave the art show a different edge.

Even if overall attendance appeared to be slightly less than usual (this was at least my perception), the art room had a pretty constant influx of visitors, which was nice.

My own art display

Having recently produced my first cover for independent publisher Elsewhen Press, it was great to meet up with the team again at Novacon, and also meet many of their other authors. Most significantly, I was instantly welcomed into what has become known as the 'Elsewhen Family', and treated to dinner at a nearby Indian restaurant. Great company, great food and great conversation – who could ask for more?

This year also saw the Initiative for Interstellar Studies (I4IS) make their Novacon debut. While I4IS' mission is centred around creating a sustainable future in the stars and the technology and engineering required, much of its foundation really stems from science fiction – so Novacon being a heavily literary and science-oriented event, this was certainly the perfect audience for I4IS.

Director Kelvin F. Long with the I4IS display in the dealer's room

Sadly, the tragic events in Paris did affect the mood of the event come the Saturday morning – I don't intend to dwell on this, as I simply cannot find sufficient words. But needless to say, knowing what devastating acts stupidity were going on just across the Channel, did make our little event feel futile and irrelevant. But in the same sense it also highlighted the community feel at the heart of Novacon, and brought the crowd together. It was a topic on everyone's lips.

I attended various discussion panels over the weekend, including a fascinating genre discussion, touching on the vibrant YA scene and the ups and downs of self-publishing and the ongoing struggle to be fond or seen in a heavily saturated market. This had actually evolved out of an initial discussion about what makes decent SF, and if anything I found these subjects very insightful and posed questions that the publishing and self-publishing industries will need to find answers and solutions to in the very near future. Writers on the panel included Bryony Pearce and Janet Edwards.

Floodtide author Helen Claire Gould (wife of the aforementioned Mike) was present for the whole weekend, and presented an original panel on geology, which involved an interesting examination of various stones and rocks, where the audience got to participate and look at them under magnifiers, which in no time were being compared to strange alien landscapes!

The audience rocked up to the stage (literally) to examine Helen's geology collection.

Sunday saw the launch of Katrina Mountfort's Forbidden Alliance (out now from Elsewhen Press). This is a cover I'm extremely proud of, particularly because because Mountfort's Blueprint series is exactly my kind of dystopian SF. I had really enjoyed the first book, Future Perfect, so it was great to see Forbidden Alliance have its official launch – complete with mugs and t-shirts!

Katrina Mountfort and Elsewhen Press' Peter Buck

Author, book, artist and t-shirt!

The Sunday afternoon saw the traditional art auction, where work from the show went under the hammer – a pleasing time for us artists, as a chance to make a bit of cash!

Closing the panel of events was the Initiative for Interstellar Studies, with Kelvin F. Long's enthralling and passionate talk on The Physics of Starships in Science Fiction.

But, in no time at all, it was all over. Again! It's always a slightly sad moment on the last day to be disassembling the art show, which we'd lovingly installed on the Friday afternoon – the art show organisers Serena and John work tirelessly every year to put on a great show and they really know how to look after their artists.

A great event, as always and a pleasure to meet so many nice and likeminded people. Here's to Novacon 46!

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

New album: TIMESHIFT

Time flows around us.  It swirls and eddies through our lives, changing our view of what is happening around us every moment, of our memories of the past, and of our hopes for the future.  Nothing stays the same – there is perpetual movement and we may feel helpless in the midst of its flow.

This is an excerpt from the wonderful introduction written by Richard Hayes, for my new instrumental album, Timeshift.

When making an album I nearly always begin with a concept and a title, and work backwards from that. With Timeshift, this was not the case. I had started off composing some new music for the simple pleasure of making music, and from that, other tracks emerged. Soon I was on a roll. But there was no theme, at least back then. And there certainly wasn't an album title.

Themes gradually began to emerge as I produced more music, and one recurring mood was that of night. The images of rainy city streets, illuminated architecture and the way familiar scenes are transformed by the setting of the sun and the onset of night.

This is also the time when we dream, and our minds take us on unanticipated adventures as we visit worlds that we can only see through the medium of sleep. I've always found it fascinating how you can have a dream which lasts for hours or even days – complete with nights in between – yet you've actually had that dream in a matter of minutes.

In my mind, the moods and atmospheres of the music I was making reflected this, but also as the basis for a very Earth-based album, which looks at the passing of time and the general uncertainties you face in life. I've spent a lot of time making music with a space or science fiction concept, so at least for me, it was refreshing to make music that in my ears, felt at home when you're simply walking around town.

At the same time, instrumental music is not unlike an abstract painting, in that the music is open to interpretation, and you can make of it what you want.

As a synesthete, the colour of the music is ever at the forefront of my imagination, and this is often reflected in the album artwork. When making the album, I was seeing a lot of blacks and greens, with occasional shimmering gold. The album artwork came together very quickly – sometimes this is a lengthy process, and hard to get right. Other times, you get it right first time, which was the case here! Once the artwork was in place, I knew it would decide what it wanted to be called soon after. Within the last couple of weeks of mixing the album, the title Timeshift came about.

Now, it's over to you...

Timeshift is available via Bandcamp, priced £7. 
The full album download comes with a PDF booklet.