About 40 years ago, I used to hang out at the Harkness house after school. It was the kind of place I want my daughter to be able to hang out in when she gets into her teenage years—a house full of creativity, music, art, and positive energy. There were five siblings, one of whom is still an extremely close friend and another who is now the musician known as Harkness.
Back then, Mr. Harkness, the father, had assembled a serious stereo system: KEF Model 105s driven by a Carver Sonic Holography preamp and an M400 amp, and fed by a solid Technics turntable. All the after-school guests were free to slam a record on the ’table at any time, but given that Mr. Harkness was always in residence in his listening chair, and given that he was a music teacher and two of the brothers were musicians, I was always extremely conscious that my choices needed to be appropriately serious.
The basement was in continuous use as a rehearsal space, and there were a number of iterations—three discrete groups, I recall, over a period of about six years. The earliest was a fusion three-piece, with one of the Harkness brothers playing a Steinberger fretless bass and doing creditable Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius solos—at 14 years of age.
Other bands followed, and toured, and had a whole ton of fun. I attended many of their concerts and often sat in on rehearsals in the basement. It was an encapsulated period of richness and energy, and it happily balanced out some of the more negative aspects of my late teenage years.
As I said, I still keep in touch with the two Harkness brothers, and over the last year, Harkness the musician has been steadily releasing songs on both Spotify and Tidal, in anticipation of putting out a full album.
I’ve listened to the resulting album, The Occasion, on Tidal now a number of times. At times angular yet filled with catchy hooks, it’s dense as all get-out and obviously crafted with the utmost care. I’ve listened to this album with appreciation and just a tiny bit of duty. I was predestined to like it, even if I didn’t actually like it, if you know what I mean.
A couple of months ago, Harkness rang me, asking for some opinions about how he should press and package the upcoming vinyl release of The Occasion. After some back and forth, Harkness decided on a non-gatefold cover and mauve-colored vinyl to match . . . his robe. And his visor.
The robe and visor require some explanation.
Harkness wants his music to speak for itself. He doesn’t want any distracting elements from his personality or appearance to interfere with or come between him as a performer and the actual end product. So when he performs, he wears a nondescript long robe with a hood and a one-piece visor so that he’s essentially unrecognizable and, well, almost generic—in an odd sort of way. Harkness also wears his visor whenever he’s appearing in his official capacity, such as his visit to my house to drop off the finished commercial pressing of his album.
On this visit, Harkness was accompanied by filmmaker Maria Markina, who is shooting and directing a documentary of his life, a project currently in development with one of Canada’s largest broadcasters. Harkness and I chatted for a while about old times and also discussed the LP itself. The LP was pressed on translucent mauve 140g vinyl at Precision Record Pressing in Burlington, Ontario, not far from our hometown of Toronto. The sleeve and label are illustrated with sketches that Harkness drew as a teenager, some of which are quite racy indeed.
We couldn’t take a listen that day, as I’d recently experienced a minor flood in my basement listening room (see later in the article) and my vinyl rig was still disassembled.
But flash back to a couple of months earlier, when Harkness delivered a test pressing of the vinyl version of The Occasion. I was quite excited to see what he’d cooked up with this LP. And—my stars!—what a hot chili pepper it is.
First off, the quality of the pressing is superb. Utterly silent and totally flat—that’s the goal, right? Well, that’s ticked off the list here. But what knocked me off my feet here was the sound quality and the way the transfer to vinyl altered my perception of this music.
I’d been listening to The Occasion on my digital system—consisting of a Hegel H120 integrated amplifier feeding my Estelon YB speakers and my refusing-to-die Logitech Squeezebox Touch as the source. Now, this is a serious system—it sounds fabulous on our main floor, and I can listen to it for hours. It is rich and detailed in the bass, with a reserved, sophisticated top end. It’s one of the true luxuries in my life. And Harkness’s album sounds great through this system. So listen to it I did, and I found many aspects of the album to my liking.
But The Occasion sounds like a totally different recording on vinyl. The songs leap off the record with huge depth, realism, and inner life. I find it far, far easier now to understand what’s going on with this record.
And there’s a lot going on, that’s for sure. First off, Harkness plays most of the instruments on the record, with the exception of the orchestral parts; for these, he hired session musicians to play sections he’d scored. It’s a dense recording, almost symphonic, with passages that are reminiscent of the best of King Crimson, Mr. Bungle, and Frank Zappa, interspersed with melodic hooks of absolute blinding brilliance. This is carefully crafted music, and the more I listen, the more I find myself noting new, interesting details. And I find myself humming some of those hooks at the oddest times. Via the digital version, I liked The Occasion, but on vinyl, I love it.
With my room back together, I took a listen to the production pressing of The Occasion (Wildchild Records WCR001LP) and found it essentially indistinguishable from the test pressing. The mauve-colored vinyl is equally silent, and my copy was totally flat. This is a record I’m going to be listening to for a good while yet.
You can buy your copy from Bandcamp via this link: https://harkness.bandcamp.com/merch
I hate laminate flooring
Last year we embarked on a significant home renovation, bashing out the walls around our kitchen—essentially a full gut—and adding two new bathrooms. One of those bathrooms was in the basement, which is where my main system is set up. About four months ago, I noticed that the laminate flooring near that bathroom was starting to cup.
Now, laminate plank flooring is both a blessing and a curse. It’s really cheap, easy to lay, and tough as nails, so that’s all good. But if you so much as sneeze on it, the particle-board core swells up and the floor is ruined. I learned this about eight years ago, after the first laminate floor I installed in the basement failed due to an overflowing washing machine. But the floor had looked good for so long and had absorbed so much punishment from having equipment dragged over it, that I decided—what the heck—I’d just replace it again and hopefully, there wouldn’t be any more floods.
Live in hope, die in despair, right? Well, when the carpenters were nailing down the new baseboards in the basement bathroom, they nicked the feed pipe for the toilet. The pipe was pierced just enough to release one drop of water every 20 seconds or so. It took about eight months to wick out enough water to raise that laminate.
So out it all had to go. Over a weekend I moved nearly three thousand records, a couple hundred pounds of stereo gear, and my rack, which has to weigh nearly 800 pounds on its own.
I never want to do this again. I will never deal with laminate flooring again.
We put down ceramic tile. Which is waterproof. And since we were at it anyways, we heated the entire basement floor, replaced all the trim and the doors to the backyard, and slammed on a full coat of paint. The end result looks great, and the heated floor changes the whole feeling of the room. I’m thrilled with the improvement. It was edifying to note how many dead interconnects, power cables, and wall warts were coiled up behind my stereo rack—I think I ended up only putting back about half of what was originally there.
I also gave my walnut stereo stand another coat of air-drying oil, followed by a quick polish with some car wax. It looks great now.
The room is 95% complete. There are still some paint touch-ups left to do, but with the gray floors and matching gray walls, I’ve gained an austere aesthetic that makes the stereo rack and speakers stand out in a way they never did before.
While I was refilling the record rack, I took the opportunity to whittle down my garage-sale classical record section, and pulled out about three linear feet of albums that I’ve never listened to. These will be gifted to my friend Malene, who moved to the remote community of Providence Bay on Manitoulin Island in Northern Ontario. The winters are long up that away, and there aren’t many record stores nearby. This, apparently, is the season of giving, and as many people as possible should profit from my calamity, right?
. . . Jason Thorpe