Black Sabbath and the Art of The Fugue

In musical terms, a fugue is a compositional style using two or more contrapuntal voices, exemplified by Baroque composers such as J.S.Bach. But I’m talking about the other definition of fugue- that psychological state involving the loss of awareness of one’s identity and the flight from one’s usual environment, often associated with female hysteria.

I frequently fantasise about running for the hills. When I’ve been dragged out of bed for the twentieth time that night and it’s only 1am. When I’m driving down the motorway with four people screaming in the back, one of them repeatedly kicking my seat and the others throwing Cheerios at my head. When I realise I know all the words to Season 8 of Peppa Pig off by heart but can’t remember anything I studied for my degree.

The blissful imagining of a brief escape from my daily life has been my go-to daydream for the past ten years, but I’ve never actually done it. Until now.

January 29th 2017 was a landmark day in my life, not because I had tickets to see Black Sabbath at the O2 in London, but because in order to attend this concert I was leaving my husband and children overnight, for the very first time. Black Sabbath, the founders and godfathers of heavy metal, were coming to the end of ‘The End’- their last ever tour- and I felt this was a momentous enough occasion to take the plunge. In fact, yes, it was my moral obligation to attend.  I bought the tickets months ago, but as the day approached I began to wake every night in a cold sweat. What happens if somebody gets a stomach bug? What happens if my husband forgets to pack their snack for school? What happens if they miss me too much? What happens if they don’t miss me enough?  I began to secretly wish that something would happen to prevent me going.

I was in a parallel universe as I boarded the plane to London, and I kept patting my pockets trying to remember what I had left behind. Your Family. Once I got over this odd feeling of dismemberment, I have to admit that I barely gave any of them a second thought for the next twenty-four hours.

On a whim I had purchased the ‘VIP Soundcheck Experience’ package; the one where you don’t get to meet and greet the band, you don’t get to take photos, but you do get to feel like a criminal (‘line up against the wall please, I said against the wall’), and wonder whether you are a bit of a sad loser because you paid extra for this. However you also get a rather nice souvenir brochure with signed guitar picks included, and you get to stand right in front of the band while they churn out a quick Iron Man specially for you and a few other die-hards. I was leaning over the barrier directly underneath Tony Iommi, who exudes loveliness, and he gave me such a nice smile that it was completely worth it.

After a pleasant hour of people-watching and beer-drinking in the bar, I took up my position near the front for American band Rival Sons, the opening act. Rival Sons have the silliest collection of beards I’ve seen this side of Shoreditch. ‘We play rock and roll music’ the singer Jay Buchanan kept reminding us, and their brand of retro blues/rock is perfectly serviceable, if only just on the right side of hipster. However Buchanan’s phenomenal rock voice and stage presence made this worth watching.

Rival Sons were clearly very honoured to be there and did a good job, although I would have liked something a bit heavier, and I’m not convinced they were the right choice for a night of historic metal.

Black Sabbath began with the eponymous ‘Black Sabbath’, still menacing after all this time, and then proceeded with a setlist mainly from their first four albums. This gave the show a distinct Seventies feel, enhanced by the psychedelic backing screen effects, but the band’s doom-laded lyrics are somehow just as relevant today. Black Sabbath also had a new drummer for the tour- Tommy Clufetos- who kept the sound modern and had so much energy they gave him his own 10-minute drum solo.

Ozzy looked as confused and lovable as ever, exhorting the crowd to clap totally out of time to the beat. He had an array of drinks and medications lined up in front of the drums to help get him through, and he looked so pleased whenever he got the end of a song that he would break into an insane grin. But he was more in tune than usual and his eery voice was resonant.

Tony Iommi has been suffering from cancer on and off for several years, and this tour must have been gruelling for him, particularly tonight after just hearing of the death of Black Sabbath’s former keyboardist Geoff Nicholls.  However Iommi’s illness has clearly not affected his guitar playing, which was magisterial. His presence is somehow humble, despite the obvious influence of his riffs on the entire history of heavy metal. I realised that quite a few of his mid-song breaks have been entirely lifted by Metallica.

In keeping with tradition, here are a few of the un-metal ways in which I attended this concert:

  • I went with my best friend, who doesn’t know anything about metal, but who does like knitting and Welsh male voice choirs.
  • We felt like vomiting, not due to excessive alcohol consumption, but due to excessive consumption of a family-size pack of Yorkie giant chocolate buttons.
  • I sent several text messages to my husband during ‘Into The Void’ about not forgetting my son’s maths homework.
  • I didn’t know the words to War Pigs during the sing-along, which was embarrassing when the camera panned over me to reveal my metal failure on the big screen to 20,000 people.
  • We left before the end because our legs were tired, which conveniently allowed us to avoid the car park rush.

This morning I woke up naturally in a hotel bed, with no tiny limbs clambering on me, no voices in the dark solemnly informing me they have wet the bed. I am enjoying my first peaceful breakfast in ten years; I have been sitting down in the same position for half an hour without having to get up to wipe spilled orange juice or take someone to the toilet. And now I can’t wait to see the kids.

Thank you Black Sabbath, for giving me my first mini-fugue.  Oh, and for inventing heavy metal.

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Ten Very Easy Metal Riffs

Only an idiot would come to me for guitar advice. And yet, here you are. You’re looking for a quick fix, a shortcut to fretboard wizardry, and I am all about shortcuts. I started my guitar odyssey with grand plans- to join a band, become a Youtube sensation, write an album. But my plans have a tendency to deteriorate, and eighteen months on, I am still trying to work out what Mixolydian means, and have yet to nail a single decent pinch harmonic.

There is absolutely no shortcut to becoming good at the guitar; even with the most expensive and complicated equipment, teachers, books, tabs, instructional videos; there is no substitute for thousands of hours of focused practice. I do not have a thousand hours, or a hundred hours- I can barely manage one hour a week of practice if I wish to call myself a decent parent- and so I am still only at the half-way point of the Powerslave solo I started learning a year ago.

However, while there’s no shortcut to being a guitar god/goddess, there is a shortcut to pretending to be one, because of the nature of the power chord.

The power chord, the musical basis of all heavy metal, has an extremely complex sonic profile, but is incredibly easy to play. It may only consist of two or three notes, but run that perfect fourth or fifth through a distorted amplifier and it splits into infinite resultant tones. Those resultant tones hit the nervous system, giving that spine-tingling sensation and generally sounding awesome.

In order to achieve that sort of resonance on the piano you’d need the hand span of Rachmaninov, every finger splayed into the biggest chord possible, with the sustain pedal held down. But all you need to play a power chord is an amp with the distortion cranked up. Play a few power chords in the right order and you have a classic metal riff.

After a failed practice session, make yourself feel better with these guilty pleasures. Each takes about two minutes to learn, and will then give you a lifetime of satisfying moments. Moments only because, once you’ve played each riff about 20 times in a row, you’ll realise that you can’t actually the play the rest of the song, you’re not in a band, and nobody cares that you sound exactly like Slash.

‘Iron Man’, Black Sabbath

Toni Iommi’s iconic Iron Man riff is the perfect example of how sometimes the simplest can be the most powerful. Iron Man is so easy you can learn the whole song in a few minutes, and the solo is do-able too.

‘The Trooper’, Iron Maiden

Iron Maiden riffs tend to sound more difficult than they actually are, and The Trooper is perfectly manageable. However you’ll need a friend (or a loop pedal) for those gorgeous harmonised thirds. The verse is great for practising the trademark Iron Maiden ‘gallop’.

‘Sweet Child O Mine’, Guns N’ Roses

No power chords here, just a beautiful tune. Don’t forget to switch to the right pick-up to achieve the sweet tone needed for this emblematic and plaintive refrain. It just goes on and on and becomes rapidly tedious once you’ve got over the novelty of being able to play it. Sweet Child O Mine used to be your favourite song; it won’t be for long and you’ll drive your entire household crazy.

‘Back in Black’, AC/DC

Ok this is more rock/blues than metal, but how could I not include it. There’s a couple of pull-offs and a slightly awkward bend, but other than that it’s ultra-straightforward. My kids immediately start dancing when they hear this.

‘Dissident Aggressor’, Judas Priest

Actually many of Judas Priest’s songs could have been included here; this is my favourite.

‘Invincible’, Disturbed

The syncopated rhythms of Invincible are great fun to play and easy on the fingers.

‘Rock You Like A Hurricane’, The Scorpions

This basic power chord combo is the most satisfying earworm in metal, and once you get bored you can stick it on loop and try adding in the trickier lead guitar parts. Don’t forget to face your amp then spin around to face the mirror audience importantly at the seminal moments.

‘Enter Sandman’, Metallica

This was the first song I learnt, and it’s a great place to start because it incorporates a range of techniques, and helps you learn the contrasts that palm muting can achieve.

‘Crazy Train’, Ozzy Osbourne

Randy Rhoads’ opening riff to Crazy Train is one of the most iconic in metal and very easy to play. The verse becomes a little tricky with some big chords and runs, but the chorus is just simple power chords with some lovely artificial harmonics to add interest.

‘Smoke on the Water’, Deep Purple

Ok, this is a cliché- even my seven-year old son can play this one. But it has to be on there as it’s officially the Easiest Metal Riff Of All Time.

Which easy metal riffs would you add to the list?

Desperately Seeking Something

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‘Guitarist wanted for female black metal group. Must be ok with a bit of corpse paint’.

Am I ok with a bit of corpse paint? I don’t really know what I am these days, but I think I’d be ok with a bit of corpse paint. A more pertinent question is whether these black metal ladies would be ok with a 38-yr old who is not that good at the guitar and can only come to rehearsals if she finds a babysitter.

I am trawling the small ads on my local version of Craigslist. My youngest child is about to start nursery, which means it’s time to think about going back to work. I have plenty of qualifications and experience, but I’ve been out of the workplace for nine years so the prospect is pretty daunting. And in any case, all I really want to do is join a metal band.

I have barely ever played with another musician before; the piano is a solo instrument, and as a young pianist I had only myself to rely on. There were a few gigs as an accompanist, and a disastrous evening as a last minute stand-in with the Liverpool Chamber Orchestra, performing a Brahms Quartet unrehearsed- despite counting furiously, I somehow finished about 20 seconds before the other instruments, and will never play Brahms again- that was the longest and most sheepish 20 seconds of my life. Consequently I never reached the dizzy heights of playing a piano concerto with a full orchestra.

The electric guitar is the opposite of a solo instrument; it yearns for accompaniment. Sure I’ve been thrashing away to backing tracks downloaded from the internet, but that’s starting to wear a bit thin- I need the visceral kick of a live drum beat, the thrill of an audience.

‘Just put out an ad looking for bandmates’ my guitar teacher suggested, as if it were that simple to start a band. And perhaps it is- after all Metallica were famously born when James Hetfield responded to an advertisement placed by drummer Lars Ulrich in a local newspaper.

I decided to start small, and a couple of weeks ago I put an ad in the school newsletter to start up a parents’ rock band. I wrote it after a few glasses of wine and sent it to the PTA president on a drunken whim, so I was mortified to see my text word-for-word in the newsletter the next day, replete with over-enthusiasm and exclamation marks.

‘You have basically humiliated yourself in front of your entire community’ said my husband helpfully. ‘The only solution really is to move out of the area’. I have yet to receive a single response to my ad. Tumbleweeds fill the ether, and people avoid my eyes in the school carpark.

This is a huge relief to my husband, but it’s also something of a relief to me; I don’t actually want to fill my garage with dads, nodding our way through Journey covers, making knowing guitar faces, arguing with the school bursar over who gets to play Slash’s part in Sweet Child O’ Mine. That scenario is the apotheosis of the midlife crisis I am pretending not to have. I want to be in a proper band, with original songs and tour buses and sex and drugs and vomit and hotel-room-smashing. Ok maybe not all of those things.

But let’s face it, I’m not ready to start my own band; name any standard metal riff and I can play it, but I haven’t a clue how to co-ordinate with other musicians. And anyone who has read my blog knows that my ‘original material’ is abysmal. I need to join someone else’s band, with someone else in charge. What I secretly want to do is join my guitar teacher’s band, because that would avoid me having to make any effort whatsoever, and he could carry me through any difficult guitar parts just like he does in our lessons. But since he is a highly technical mathcore virtuoso who has devoted his life to music and is about to go on a big European tour, and moreover probably finds my existence the most embarrassing aspect of his life, this idea is typical of the spectacularly wishful thinking which has yet to get me anywhere.

So here I am looking through the classifieds.

We are two fifteen year old boys hoping to start a metalcore band. Influences Korn, Slipknot, Bullet For My Valentine. Please get in touch if you play guitar or drums’. Sure, and perhaps after band practice I can make them a snack, help them with their homework and then drive them back to their parents’ houses.

We are FUCKWHORE!!! Brutal hardcore punk. We need a fucking sick guitarist, fucking losers need not apply!!!’. I may be a fucking loser but that’s not why I won’t be applying to your band, gentlemen.

Soft rock cover band needs rhythm guitarist. Bon Jovi, Heart, Whitesnake. Wedding gigs etc. Contact Greg’. Greg, you are my nightmare.

‘Established 80s Hair Metal tribute band seeks new shredder, age unimportant but must look the part’. God, that would be my dream- to wear spandex leggings, leather bustier and a huge perm, and play blistering solos with abandon. But even if I was a better shredder I would never have the balls to apply for this, because although the ad doesn’t mention it, what they really want is someone with actual balls. 80s Hair Metal was all about the misogyny- can you imagine a female member of Motley Crue, Poison, Guns N Roses? Nope. Perhaps if I was twenty years younger they might hire me as a groupie, but they wouldn’t let me near a guitar.

So the search continues. Any band that sounds remotely metal tends to be looking for a drummer or vocalist- there is very little demand for guitarists, because everybody around here seems to play the guitar already.

There’s a spectre looming; the spectre of Last Chances. Last chance to change career, last chance to climb the corporate ladder, last chance to make a name for myself other than ‘Mummy’. Last chance to escape the fate of becoming a permanent housewife, resigned to gym classes, bake sales and school runs. And behind that spectre lies the encroaching world of work- the 9 to 5, the office politics, the suit and heels, the water cooler gossip, the deadlines.

Last chance to become a guitar goddess. Maybe I will give Fuckwhore a call…..

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Nostromo, Le Cave d’Ilot 13, 9.12.16

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2017 is going to be huge for Swiss grindcore legends Nostromo. They disappeared from the scene in 2005 but are suddenly and miraculously back with a vengeance- a string of tour dates supporting Gojira in January, a prime spot at Hellfest and various other European festivals, and a new album in production.

It’s been almost 12 years since Nostromo, the pride of Geneva’s underground metal scene, last played together, and Le Cave de L’Ilot 13, a bar underneath the modern-day commune of L’Ecurie, was the perfect venue for their homecoming concert. It was in underground spots such as this where Nostromo, formed in 1996, made a name for themselves and built up a loyal following. They navigated their way through the demo-CD network before going on to release several acclaimed albums (Argue, Eyesore, Ecce Lex, Hysteron Proteron) and sharing international stages with the likes of Napalm Death and Dillinger Escape Plan.

Nostromo’s style is difficult to define- grindcore in its soul and relentlessly brutal, but with a rhythmic complexity worthy of Meshuggah, jazz influences, intelligent lyrics, and a uniquely inherent menace.

This performance wasn’t publicised, so the crowd was an intimate mix of friends, family, commune residents and loyal devotees who had waited over a decade for this moment. So a special evening and there was a buzz of nostalgia and emotion in the bar pre-show, although emotion is hardly the word for what happened next.

Nostromo launched into their first track, Epitomize, with no fanfare and no warning, setting the tone for a half-hour of unremitting brutality. Wide-eyed vocalist Javier was so incensed with angry energy that he almost seemed to skip across the stage. Jerome, the guitarist, sound engineer and powerhouse behind the band, rarely strayed from the bottom two strings, but on these strings he created an immensely rich and threatening soundscape. There were moments of genuine beauty in Sunset Motel, and favourite tracks Selfish Blues and Stillborn Prophet had lost none of their momentousness.

This was about as challenging a listen as you can get, with constantly shifting and pummelling rhythms. The venue at L’ilot 13 is primitive- breeze block walls and damp wooden rafters almost collapsing under the strain- but thanks to Jerome’s acoustics skill the sound quality was excellent and his riffs rang out with extraordinary precision.

The ceiling was dangerously low, such that a few brave stage divers took their lives in their hands, and tall audience members found themselves rather evocatively covered in spiderwebs.

Nostromo powered their way through the best of their back catalogue- Collapse, Jagged, Twist The Knife, Delight- in a triumphant return to the scene. Even in the late 90s they were noted for the maturity of their musical composition, and now with all that life and experience behind them we can’t wait for the new material… roll on 2017.

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Me and My Noise Suppressor

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What is the Best Thing You Have Ever Bought? I don’t mean the most expensive, or luxurious, or practical; I mean the Product That Changed Your Life.

Yesterday I was supposed to take my two-year old to Monkey Music class. My Tuesday mornings are usually spent in a church hall making animal noises and leaping around with a tambourine, desperately trying to engage the enthusiasm of my toddler. She sits staring into space, or occasionally has a languid suck on a germ-ridden plastic trumpet before lying face down on the floor. The other women there are strangers; we smile vacantly but avoid each others’ gaze, in case the cracks are revealed.

All this in the name of good parenting. But yesterday I chose the bad parenting option- I dragged my little one to the guitar shop, and I am now the proud owner of a Decimator II Noise Reduction Pedal.

I genuinely love this pedal with all my heart. My guitar sound has changed in an instant from ‘teenage boy bashing on his first guitar’ to ‘someone who can actually play Slayer’. How did I not know about this piece of equipment before?

A noise suppressor, or noise gate, does exactly what it says- it eliminates unwanted noise. It works by silencing or reducing the audio signal once the signal drops below a certain amplitude, which is set by the player using a dial. Noise suppressors can be useful for all electric guitar players, to simply reduce signal hum or noise generated by a complicated pedal chain. But they are almost essential for metal with its high gain amplification, and in particular for the fast and precise riffs I am attempting to play.

Until now I have been plagued by string-sliding noise, messy palm-muting, and a general shambolic unpleasantness surrounding my playing. But plugging in the Decimator instantly cleans everything up, leaving the crucial silences between pick strikes that had been lacking before. Apparently the Decimator is the premium noise pedal on the market- it’s certainly the most expensive. I still have to do a bit of experimentation with the levels but so far it doesn’t seem to be affecting my tone very much either, tone degradation and loss of effects being the downside of noise gates.

So I’m really not as bad a guitarist as I thought. I asked my teacher the million dollar question- is it cheating? Yes, he said emphatically, you have to learn to play without it first.

Well, fuck you teacher. I am never turning this thing off.

In reality it may make me a worse player, but in my fantasy world of bedroom shredding it will make me superficially sound like a better player. And I am all about the superficial.

Now this will all be blindingly obvious to anyone who has played metal guitar for more than about five minutes. In fact most of the writing in this blog will be blindingly obvious to seasoned metalheads. But I am a fledgling metalhead; I am still at the stage of soft fascination, of childish excitement at every new discovery.

Ronnie James Dio invented the devil horns? Yay! Djent is an onomatopoeia for the progressive metal sound developed by Meshuggah? Tell me more! I didn’t know!

I flick through guitar magazines just to look at the pictures; I am still in a wonderland, devouring information, soaking it in, and too old to care if I am totally lame.

And since I can usually find a metal metaphor for everything in life, what I now need is a sort of built-in psychological noise suppressor. Imagine if we had a dial that could turn down all the unwanted sounds- children squabbling, TV advertisements, negativity- and just focus on the important things in life.

Like playing awesome riffs, cleanly.

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Amon Amarth, Salle Metropole Lausanne, 15.11.16

 

I had high hopes for Switzerland being a metal country. Huge mountains, Celtic Frost, general atmosphere of gloom- all of this has great metal potential. So perhaps it’s just the city of Lausanne letting the side down, because I was the most metal person in that crowd on Tuesday night. And that’s not a good thing.

Let’s be clear; earplugs are NOT METAL. Metal is SUPPOSED TO BE TOO LOUD.

At least half the people I saw were surreptitiously wearing earplugs. The man I stood next to in the crowd was shirtless, rippling with muscle, covered in tattoos, some of which bordered on the right-wing, his shaved head nodding furiously. But the tell-tale piece of blue plastic in his ear told me that ‘You sir, are a pussy’. And the way he eyed me sheepishly showed that he knew it too. He stood aside politely as I headed into the pit.

I was bemused by the sheer number of so-called metalheads with bits of chewing gum in their ears. Going to a heavy metal concert with earplugs is like going to an art exhibition wearing sunglasses. I wondered if they had been issued on the door due to Swiss noise protection regulations, and perhaps my husband and I had just slipped by unnoticed. Earplugs should in fact be confiscated at the door of metal concerts, on principle, along with the drugs and weapons.

But aside from the too-sensible crowd, the music tonight was wonderful. Another irritating thing about Switzerland is that things really do start on time, so we missed the first act, Grand Magus, as we were still having sushi down the road. But we made it just in time for Testament, my main concern of the evening.

As Testament’s biggest and most annoying fan, I am somewhat biased, but they were sublime. Precise, energetic, and playing their best music yet.  I was eager to hear them perform tracks from their new album, Brotherhood of the Snake, which is a concept album about, well, snakes. More specifically, a secret society set up by draconian aliens to exploit the earth, as told by 6000-year old Sumerian scriptures.

Concept albums have a reputation for self-indulgence, unfairly so because there’s no rule that says a record has to be an unconnected list of songs. It’s not as if Vivaldi threw a bunch of random stuff together to create the Four Seasons. Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion is a concept album.

And heavy metal is all about taking its listeners to a fantasy world, so why not. I was sold.

Brotherhood of the Snake was reportedly produced in a rush and under duress, but it has turned out wonderfully- aggressive thrash, but with new elements brought in from melodic death metal and jazz. Surprising changes of metre and register make this Testament’s most innovative album yet.

Chuck Billy’s versatile voice was on point, and he somehow manages brutality with an infectious grin. Alex’s playing is so effortless that it’s easy to forget he is playing the most difficult solos to be found in metal. Their inventiveness increases with every album, the world of thrash benefitting enormously from his study of jazz.

It’s hard to believe that Testament are a support act, but Amon Amarth, the Swedish melodic death metallers, are having an extended moment due to the current trend for Vikings and all things Scandinavian.

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This was one for my husband to enjoy. In general he loathes metal; he only chaperones me to these things because neither of us trusts me not to run away with someone with a waist-length beard. He may hate metal but he does love Vikings, and he delighted in the elaborate set of a Nordic longship and giant horns, and the costumed extras brought on to simulate axe-fighting. There were even two archers who pretended to fire arrows into the crowd, which was frankly quite unnerving.

Amon Amarth are another band with a concept album out, and lead singer Johann Hegg was clearly revelling in his role as the wronged hero from the Jomsviking legend.

Amon Amarth get away with their Viking silliness because of the high quality of the music; they play the most elegant and cinematic death metal, with heavily down-tuned riffs over blast beats contrasting with beautiful harmonised thirds. They even manage the unlikely feat of producing a ‘sing-along’ death metal anthem with ‘Raise Your Horns’.

An amazing evening which exemplifies the very high standards metal is reaching this year.

But next time, Switzerland, try without the earplugs. Go on, you might like it….

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Metal Breastfeeding

You can do a surprising number of things while breastfeeding. You can work- I racked up hundreds of hours as a postnatal counsellor while feeding my own baby, either sitting on the phone at home, or at baby groups in the Children’s Centre. You can study- I qualified as a personal trainer, a counsellor, and an infant masseuse, all while holding a baby. You can exercise, go to the toilet and cook when required. You can even play the piano. However, for just about every reason- health and safety, ergonomics, volume- you cannot play the electric guitar while breastfeeding a baby.

Here was a fairly fundamental stumbling block which I hadn’t considered- when would I have time to practice? Scheduling in a weekly one-hour lesson was hard enough, finding time to practice in between was going to be a huge challenge. There is no shortcut to musical prowess. Talent counts for something, and practising effectively, rather than just playing the fun and easy bits, is important, but putting in the hours is key.

I practice when I can, carving minutes into the day here and there. I eschew the accurate tuning with which you are supposed to start a practice session, so I can get playing as quickly as possible. I set up my breastfeeding area right next to the guitar and amp, with my laptop at hand so I can study the tabs and learn the notes off by heart, so that as soon as the baby is finished I can put her in her Fisher Price bouncy chair for a few minutes and plug in, without the constraints of reading the music.

I practice while the baby was in her Jumperoo bouncer- once she’s strapped into it I can have a five-minute window of her rocking happily before she gets bored. Its tinny calypso tune accompanies my Megadeth riffing, but no matter. And as long as I’m smiling at her and making eye contact, I can still tell myself that I am parenting even though I am also playing a song called ‘Mandatory Suicide’.

And there is always more time to be gleaned from the day. Four hours a week, split into two two-hour sessions, I volunteer on the National Breastfeeding Helpline as a trained breastfeeding counsellor. This involves waiting for the phone to ring and then helping callers with anything from sore nipples to postnatal depression. Some sessions involve back-to-back long and emotional calls, while others you can sit back and get lots of other things done in between callers. I’m far less diligent than some of the other ladies on the team, but I do my four hours a week and feel good about it. However now I have other things on my mind; I decided that these sessions would become the perfect opportunity to practice the guitar in between calls. Previously I would set myself up for the counselling session in my home office, baby sent out for a walk with a babysitter, phone, laptop, notebook, useful phone numbers and medical textbooks at the ready. Now I set all this up on the floor in the basement, next to the Peavey and with my trusty Ibanez all tuned, plugged in and strapped on.

When the phone goes you only have four rings before it hits the helpline’s answer machine, and while this may not be disastrous for the majority of callers who just want to chat about a breastfeeding issue, it could be a matter of crisis or not for the odd caller who was really in a desperate situation. So we are morally obliged to answer, and as soon as the phone rang now there is a farcical dash- first I have to actually hear the phone over the racket I’m making, then I have to get to the amp, switch it off, and quickly turn my frame of mind from axe-wielding metal goddess to caring, empathetic health professional. There’s not enough time to unwind myself from the guitar so the Ibanez remains on my lap throughout the call.

It’s very difficult to put yourself into some tearful new mother’s head space when you’re annoyed with her because she interrupted your rather excellent rendition of Dissident Aggressor (Slayer version). It’s also difficult to sound convincing when your guitar is still feeding back on your lap because you haven’t switched it off properly. And it’s difficult to talk expertly on the finer points of which antibiotics are compatible with lactation when you’re sitting cross-legged on the floor with a guitar strapped around you.

I have found myself signing up for the graveyard helpline slots, when I know there will be fewer calls coming through. I find myself mentally swearing at the caller when the phone rings, and daring myself to let it go to the answer machine. That’s when I realize that my proficiency on the guitar, as well as being inversely proportional to my parenting standards, is also inversely proportional to my dedication as a counsellor.