what we’re listening to – wing beat fantastic – mike keneally (featuring the songs of andy partridge)

one of the most-anticipated albums of the year among fans of both keneally and xtc (and their ace songwriter, andy partridge), “wing beat fantastic” does not, in any way, disappoint.

 

this is the first batch of “new” andy partridge songs we’ve heard in a long, long time, even if they are delivered by collaborator and mega fan mike keneally, rather than partridge himself – who declined to perform on the record (even though some of his samples did survive the process), wanting instead to ensure that it is viewed as a keneally solo album.

the story of how this record came to be is well documented elsewhere, how whilst keneally was in frank zappa’s band, their bassist, scott thunes, had the audacity to invite partridge to a zappa concert in the uk – and much to their surprise, he actually turned up – and both a friendship and a writing partnership was born.  there were two discrete sessions where the two actually sat down and worked on these songs, but it was left to keneally alone to create “wing beat fantastic”.

it seems to me that this must have seemed like the most amazing opportunity in the world, similar to a scenario where lennon and mccartney said “here, take these songs, we can’t be bothered to record them – YOU DO IT” – and keneally not only rises to the challenge…he hits the ball out of the park.

first of all, it’s clear to me that keneally is not just familiar with xtc’s style, but that he must have studied it in minute detail, or else this record would not sound the way it does – as if it were the next XTC album.  and that is exactly what it sounds like, and at some moments, when the vocal harmonies are particularly sweet, you can close your eyes and EASILY forget that this is mike keneally, because what your ears hear, especially on a tune like “you kill me” – is pure andy partridge.

as with all zappa band alumni (such as steve vai, adrian belew, etc.) keneally has more than excellent chops on guitar, meaning that he has the skill to sound like a dead ringer for the very capable partridge OR xtc’s other (former) guitarist, dave gregory. But the real surprise here are the absolutely amazing vocal arrangements, and sheer beauty that keneally manages – that study paid off – and ALL of the trademark xtc vocal tricks are here, revolving vocals, beach-boys-like harmonies, delicate, beautiful solo vocals – we knew that keneally could sing, but we never knew he could sing like THIS.

so – partridge picked the right person, the exactly perfect person, to work up these demos into proper songs.  and what a batch of songs they are!

keneally has wisely interspersed the partridge songs with some tunes of his own, and I have to say, some of those are so beautiful that they easily rival the songs co-written with partridge, and they fit in perfectly.  the opening track, “the ineffable oomph of everything, part one” clocks in at exactly one minute, a keneally tune rather than a keneally/partridge, but it’s one minute of incredibly melodic, beautiful guitar music – including amazing slide guitar reminiscent of the master – george harrison.  so my first feeling for the first song, was that it was very harrison-like – a great way to start, and certainly a good indication of what was to come…

I’ve been a fan of mike keneally’s music for a long time, beginning way back when with his groundbreaking “hat” cd (“thank you for buying hat”…) which is utterly unlike “wing beat fantastic” – it’s more like a zappa album, lots of impossible guitar, funny vocals – but, with the occasional moment of sheer beauty.  those occasional moments have now, in this new album, been transformed into an ENTIRE ALBUM of sheer beauty.  I kid you not, this album is a completely atypical album for keneally, but oh my god, I wish he’d done this before, and I hope he does it again – perhaps with an entire album of his OWN pop masterpieces.

and when that first guitar solo comes in on the second track on the album, the gorgeous “I’m raining here, inside” – well, that’s it, it’s absolutely perfect, it’s beautiful, it’s seamless, flawless – and so very like the very best andy partridge or dave gregory guitar solo imaginable – it’s cut from the same cloth – just as the vocals are, even the bass and drum parts remind me of xtc – every song on this record sounds like an xtc song, or occasionally, a george harrison song or a beach boys song – hey, wait a minute, that’s just like you would get on an xtc album.

I do imagine though, that mike and his crew would have studied existing xtc album’s, because the production values, the use of phasers and flangers, the song arrangements, the guitar solos, the vocal harmonies – it just SCREAMS “xtc” – the title track, the third track, is a perfect example of this, it’s so much like xtc it’s not funny, acoustic guitars chiming, passionate, layered vocals, harmonies to die for, great chord changes…it’s perfect, an imitation maybe, but actually, a beautiful creation in it’s own right – as if keneally were some sort of musical genetics engineer, taking the xtc “dna” and re-arranging it into new, cloned musical lifeforms – xtc through the mind of keneally.

and then another amazing guitar solo, this one jagged, clean, lovely – comes flying through the song, as the flanged vocals build and build, a lovely descending figure that you can’t get out of you brain, amazing “oohs” – then, a serene, heavenly bridge ending in a beautiful high note – and it’s over.

next comes track four, a 30 second reprise of the opener, “the ineffable oomph of everything, part two” – which is even more enigmatic and beautiful than the first version – just beautiful, mike.

I can’t imagine how it must have felt, to have these songs in hand, in demo form only, and then sit down in your leucadia studio and say “right, how are we going to do this then?” – and the answer is the result – the album “wing beat fantastic” – IS fantastic, totally fantastic…and the next song “you kill me”, track five, is just staggeringly beautiful – even just the introduction is so beautiful I can’t believe it, a great guitar riff, followed by chord changes that you don’t expect, that give you the shivers before the song proper has even begun.  a clean pair of lead guitars leads us into the vocal – and those vocals – I would ask AGAIN – who knew that mike keneally could sing THIS beautifully?

the harmonies are straight from every xtc album from “skylarking” onwards – really, really complex, really, really beautiful vocal arrangements – and from a distance, if you don’t dissect it too closely, you would NEVER KNOW it wasn’t andy partridge singing.  an almost zappa-like “linking riff” repeats irresistibly in between the choruses, a tiny reminder that this is a zappa band alumni – but the sound overall, is not zappa at all – it’s PURE xtc.

in fact, I played the record for my partner, who doesn’t really know the music of xtc that well, and she said “that guy sounds EXACTLY like the guy in xtc” – and I could not agree more.

this album is an unqualified success for keneally, and I think that this album will do well for him, even if it didn’t have the songs of andy partridge, it would do well, but having that extra kick – not to mention many, many xtc fans ravenous for “new” andy partridge fans (myself included – and just about everyone I know pre-ordered the CD).

track six, “friend of a friend” is a very short little linking piece, 0:49 of acoustic guitars that works beautifully as a lead in to the next track…in fact, it almost sounds like the introduction of track seven, rather than a piece in it’s own right – the two fit together so well.

the album now moves into some really wonderful uncharted musical territory, as exemplified by a song such as track seven, “that’s why I have no name” – a song that is so very strange, with a lot of unusual reverse sounds burbling in the background, and a lot of wonderful clean jazz and reverse guitar (that is probably forwards guitar played through a reverse guitar patch, using something like a line 6 dl-4 delay modeller set to “reverse guitar”) as well, a very strange chord progression, very odd, almost dirge-like vocal, the whole piece is very…minor key, almost jazzy – but again, even though UTTERLY different from the preceding pop masterpieces – even this very odd songs screams “I sound like xtc!” at the top of it’s musical lungs.

I was not surprised to realise that this is a keneally song, not one of the tracks co-written with partridge, and I think all of the “solo” keneally pieces fit in beautifully with the co-written ones – a beautiful job of integration.

a remarkable, ascending clean jazz guitar solo is as startling in it’s appearance as it is in it’s intelligence, and then, it suddenly mutates into a reverse guitar solo of extraordinary beauty – keneally uses every bit of skill he has, but any very strange or very dissonant elements that we might have got on a zappa-influenced record like “hat”, have been replaced with a melodic sensibility of almost uncanny proportions – this solo just TAKES FLIGHT, and it’s the perfect vehicle for the song, drifting waves of reverse guitars float over the top of a steadily building background, the clean guitar returns for a moment – and then we are back to the verse once again.

the end section features all of it: the jazzy guitar, volume pedal guitars, reverse guitars – and it’s just perfect – and it then STOPS on a dime. perfection, but – strange perfection.

then it gets weirder still, with the very odd vocal melody of “your house”, track eight, and it’s incredibly melancholic mood – but very quickly, you realise, this is sort of like the “chalkhills and children” of this album, an odd, unusual vocal melody, which then moves into really beautiful moments “drawn by some strange magnetic pull…” it’s so weird, that you can’t get it out of your head “I know this is crazy, cause after all, it’s only…your house”.

this song sounds resigned, final, triumphant, sad, uncertain “I walked slowly at first, tried not to break into a run…I knew that was your house at the end of the road…”.

I feel like I already knew all these songs, because in a way, I have heard them all before – in those last ten or twelve xtc albums – because keneally heard those records too (in fact, he was in the studio during the making of “oranges and lemons” which xtc recorded in los angeles – which is where the partridge-keneally partnership really began to blossom), and he knew EXACTLY how to inject the magic xtc dna into these songs – and he’s done it!

then we have track nine, “miracle man and woman”, which has the most remarkable vocals, a very, very unusual vocal arrangement – and this is the weird thing, it features a lot of really, really good acoustic guitars – which remind me of gentle giant, the vocals too, are almost gentle giant-like in places – until you get to the godley & creme “deep”/”creepy” backing vocal – beautiful synths (which might well be guitar synths) accompany a strangely equalised vocal section…what a wonderful musical construction!

the middle section of the song is some sort of synthesizer duet, with tinkling piano in the background – and then, here it comes, the kevin godley vocal “ahhhh” from heaven (remember the backing vocals on “I’m not in love” by 10cc?? – like that) – a wordless vocal accompaniment to the middle section – which resolves into a synth-backed acoustic guitar solo, that is SO gentle giant it isn’t funny – like an odd outtake from an early giant album like “acquiring the taste” or maybe “octopus” – and then that crazy, ominous godley & creme creepy vocal returns to end the song on a note of pure creepiness – brilliant!

next is “inglow”, track ten, and it’s very serious indeed, a slinky rhythm overlaid with carefully bendy guitar notes, then, a cheerful, clean, simple melodic solo – a beautiful introduction, resolving on a really wonderful chord – and then starting again, this time with multiple lead guitars, the acoustics gently swaying behind them – a magical instrumental, that makes me think of tropical islands and sunsets and evening closing in – a slowly fading in, mysterious, wordless vocal appears and disappears – the clean melodic lead guitars continue their beautiful journey – what a fantastically beautiful composition, I just find the mood and feeling in this piece to be remarkable – a lovely interlude indeed, and one of keneally’s most mature and respectable guitar compositions ever.

eventually, the vocals begin, and if the first half of the song can be attributed to the genius of mike keneally – then the second half, the vocal section – well, that’s pure andy partridge, but realised by keneally – so they are both brilliant.

track 11 is one of my favourites, “bobeau” – which is a snappy little number with a funky horn arrangement, and a very complex layered vocal arrangement – not to mention great guitars and basses from keneally – then, a fantastic, sing along chorus, with great piano and horn backing – sort of this album’s equivalent to something like “extrovert” from the xtc canon, that’s the only thing I can even imagine I can compare it to – then, a very, very weird vocal melody, backed by ocean sounds and wonderful ghostly background vocals – leads us, via a very odd bridge, towards the song’s remarkable conclusion – which is all about the guitar.

after the final verse, we get another chance to experience the incredibly mature skill of keneally as a lead guitarist, or actually, in this case, as a slide guitarist – for me, the last section of “bobeau” is a huge highlight, during the second chorus, you start to get some lead guitar bits – but then, it starts, a sinister bass and drums, with creeping horns, backs an amazing, slapback slide solo, which is either double tracked or remarkably delayed – but it’s a scorcher, and then keneally really starts to mix things up, with a heavily syncopated guitar riff that is sinister, killer and fucking brilliant.  I love it!

then suddenly, it stops, the ocean sounds and seagulls return for a moment…

“land”, track 12, the final track on this amazing album, is another keneally-only piece, which makes a great end piece for the record, and it contains one of my favourite lyrics on the entire record “you understand, finally that, you don’t understand…” which I think is…fantastic.  wing beat fantastic, maybe…

it seems to be cut from the same genome that the keneally-partridge co-writes are, almost as if it were inspired by the other songs, it has a bit of everything, including some really beautiful acoustic guitar – short and sweet, just over two minutes, but a perfectly constructed finale for one of the most important pop records – ever.

“wing beat fantastic” is a remarkable achievement, I’ve never heard anything quite like it, where a well known ex-zappa lead guitarist takes away a handful of andy partridge songs, and creates an album that is so xtc-like as to be almost indistinguishable from the real thing – and that is clear praise, mike, you did an amazing job with this, you transformed these demos into a thing of real beauty, a succinct and very musical album that successfully captures the spirit of xtc beautifully, in a very respectful, and perfectionistic, way – every detail has been considered and reconsidered, the vocal arrangements, the vocal harmonies, are absolutely among some of the most beautiful I have ever heard on any album – and if keneally were now to switch hats permanently (no pun intended) and just make beautiful pop records, I would love every one of them.

I know that when andy partridge first heard the completed keneally project, he was absolutely overwhelmed by the result, in fact, literally moved to tears, and I understand why that is.  this is a gorgeous record, it would have fit seamlessly into the xtc catalogue anywhere between “skylarking” and “apple venus” (either part) and no one would have been the wiser – OK, you can tell it’s mike keneally singing, not andy partridge, but beyond that – the guitar work is top notch, the guitar solos are simply amazing, and the songs – wow, the writing, the lyrics, the tunes, the arrangements – it’s all good!

there is not a bad or even lesser tune on this record, keneally has done the impossible, he has almost “out-xtc’d” xtc themselves.  but it’s done so respectfully, so tastefully, it’s imitation as sheer flattery – but perfect imitation, glorious, beautiful, joyful music – music like the music that xtc themselves produce.

 

a pop masterpiece, not to be missed – genius.  “wing beat fantastic” truly is, fantastic.

I cannot recommend this album highly enough.

 

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the music of the moment – last minute adjustments – “flying solo”

well, I stated my goal for this past weekend as doing the needed repairs on the one unfinished song from “gone native”, “flying solo”, and, dealing with the album artwork.

while I can’t say that both are finished, I made significant progress on both, and I a pretty certain that “flying solo” is complete, whereas the artwork, well, we did photos over the weekend, and sketched out some cover ideas, but that just needs more time – one possible idea for a cover has been conceived, front and back, so that just needs more work during the coming week.

as far as repairing “flying solo” goes, well, it’s been a really interesting experience.  first, I don’t believe I have ever tried to “reverse engineer” a guitar part that I had previously recorded, which is a challenge to begin with, however, in this case, it was made even more difficult by the fact that said guitar part was originally completely improvised, take one, off the top of my head.

in the event, it proved to be quite, quite difficult to “learn” an improvised guitar part – more difficult than I would have imagined,  a two-hour session last saturday, with 8 takes made, yield no clear winners but it did mean that after two hours, I had pretty much mastered the form of the part – which is a solo guitar, with no accompaniment at first, so about a minute playing utterly on my own, and then the drums and existing guitar solo come in, and I then had the beat to play along to – and then another brief solo section at the end.

returning to the piece on sunday, I did a further ten takes, with take ten marked “best” – and, it does have a clearly superior (and new) ending. in fact, in many ways, it’s entirely better than the original track.  however, there are two notes in the introduction that went slightly out of tune, so something will need to be done to fix that – probably “fly in” those notes or that phrase from another take would be simplest, and take 6 from sunday seems to have a “good” intro, so it’s a likely candidate.

I did do some very rough tests last night, using 95% of take ten as the take, and flying in part of take 6 for the questionably-tuning notes, and it seems like it is a winner with that slight adjustment.  of course, I really was trying to get the entire take live, but after 18 tries, I think 95% live might be all I can manage – sure, I could do many more takes, until I got one that was more perfect, but – I doubt I would get the beautiful ending that I improvised on take ten again…

It’s disappointing though, because on a couple of occasions, I got VERY near to nailing the entire thing in one live take, which of course I would have preferred. I found it strangely difficult to “play” this part, it was like learning someone else’s guitar part, and it took a lot of work to make it sound natural, as if it were improvised – which strangely, originally – it was…but now, it’s a re-creation of an improvised part.

the fun part of this though was the middle section, when the drums and guitar solo come in, I just completely improvised the rhythm guitar that went behind the central solo, in the original version, I had just taken a section of the improv guitar, and “looped” it as a backing, so now, the song has a proper rhythm guitar part, including a lot of really strange harmonics and bending – strange because of the synth voice I used, “flying tremolo” – which does some amazing things to the sound of your guitar, especially when you play harmonics.  I thoroughly enjoyed playing a sort of adrian-belew-vamp behind the solo, and I think it has improved the song greatly to have a new intro, backing rhythm for the solo, and outro – nearly captured in one very good take.

the two notes in question are right at the top of the neck, and you guitarists will know that if you “miss” hitting these notes with extreme accuracy, they WILL go out of tune.  it’s a shame, because those two notes are “right” on most of the other 17 takes, but never mind.

I am also tempted, now that I know the part like the back of my hand, to possibly have one more go at it – it depends, if I can find an intro that I love, or that can be used to repair my near-perfect take ten, then I would just use that, but if I can’t…I may end up playing this two-minute guitar part yet again…I want it to be right, and if possible, to be perfect.

re-recording the part has changed the character of the piece a little bit, but not in a bad way, I actually think that piece is stronger now, especially since I totally improvised the middle section EACH time, on every take, I did it differently each time, “learning” parts and then discarding them, replacing them with better ideas, learning what NOT to do – and by the time I got to take ten on the second day, I actually had constructed, almost by accident, a rhythm guitar part that really works with the piece.  I knew exactly how to handle it, and I even introduced a chord change in two spots that did not exist in the original.  why not?

the new introduction, well, it’s very nearly the same as the old one, but hopefully this time, with no inherent distortion (levels are being kept on the low side just in case). the intro was made even more difficult in that I had to calculate the timing “blind” – I had to play for a certain amount of time, play all the notes, octaves and chords planned, and end up on a descending riff of G, F#. E, D# JUST as the snare drum comes in… so that is a feat of extreme estimation – start too fast, you end up early, start too slow – late – and it was not easy ending up at JUST the right spot every time.  to my credit, I did make it there at the right time on the majority of the takes – you just “get it” after a while, you know just how long you have…

much to my everlasting astonishment, on most takes, I ended up there at precisely the right moment – basically because I was playing the part correctly – but a couple of times, my tempo would stray, and I would end up either early or late – not that that is a huge issue, because of course in SONAR I could just move the intro to where it needed to be – if I detached it from the rhythm guitar that follows.  but it was and is my preference to play the part right, from start to finish, and not resort to any moving of guitar parts, and I think my current solution, using almost ALL of take ten, plus a tiny bit of take six (or another one if I find a better candidate) – take ten went extraordinarily well, and I really liked the ending I played, it was very gentle at the end, ending on a barre e minor on the 12th fret – strangely, a couple of beats AFTER the drummer hit his final cymbal crash, but it was always meant to be some solo guitar after the drums finished – and I held the chord briefly, and then stopped it – which has the strangest, most wonderful effect of doing a sort of detune-then-fade out – thanks to the very odd “flying tremolo” patch – it gave me the perfect ending – very pretty followed by a briefly detuned, dissonant farewell – the sweet followed by the sour – which worked out perfectly. if the synth hadn’t of done that, the ending would have been too sickly sweet, so I am really glad it did!

so my first experience of learning a “dave stafford guitar part” – an improvised, take one part was – that it was bloody difficult to learn, and nearly as difficult to play!  that surprised me, because I thought “it will be easy” – but in the end, it turned out to be difficult enough that it took me four hours of practice to play one minute of guitar “well” – because once I got to the end of the intro, I just “wung it” (that being the past tense of “winging it” I assume) and made up the entire thing from middle section onwards through the ending – and that was really fun, playing along to this very outrageous solo, a very loud and “in your face” solo, and trying to make it work in the “reverse engineered” fashion – it was a blast..

I’m sure if it had been any other part, it would have been much easier to “re-learn” but by chance, this particular little piece of music is quite tricky – it starts with an e minor ninth chord at the root, which then jumps up to a high melody beginning on the 15th fret; then, back down to the root for another e minor chord, with a 2 note trill; then, jump back up to the 12th fret, a climb up the e minor scale across the strings, and then a really high melody including an incredibly hard to replicate top-string bent D to E at the 22nd fret followed instantly by a two note trill on the second string, and then a couple more difficult trills on the third string…then a reverse strummed e minor chord at the 12th fret which then turns into a riff that climbs up from the 12th fret e on the low string, resolving on the third string in an F# (to re-iterate the e minor ninth theme present throughout) – then, a section involving some octaves played on the fifth and third string, that eventually climb up to a final strummed chord e minor chord with a set of descending half-step note pairs, descending down across the 12th fret; then a jump back down from the 12th fret to the root, and at last to that final four-note ascending pattern, coming off an e minor chord…into the middle section.

written like that, above, it sounds as difficult as it was, I really had to analyse it to truly become familiar with every nuance, but now it’s committed to memory, I could play it live if I had to – and maybe I will, as it’s a very distinctive piece indeed.

I assume that I will resolve this eventually with a new mix that I am happy with, and I love the “new” middle part and ending – even if I am never 1000% happy with every note in the impossibly-designed introduction – it’s just bloody difficult, so I definitely challenged myself there…but then I never dreamed when I was originally playing it, on march 6, 2011, that I would have to come back a year and a bit later, and try to re-play it – if I had known, I would have played something easier to learn!

it doesn’t surprise me, however, the lengths I will go to, to try and “save” a song that has problems, especially if I think that the song is a good song – I will spend a disproportionate amount of time “fixing” a song that I spent three minutes making, originally – because I care about the music being “right” – and for me, “right” means, basically, perfect, or as perfect as it can be given my current faculty on the instrument in question…

the passing of the “album”…how we view recorded music now

well, they make jokes about it now, about vinyl albums, about “sides”, about those big, square cardboard containers with their big, circular chunk of vinyl – but when I was a teenager and a young man, we didn’t have the CD format, and we certainly couldn’t have imagined something as exotic and unlikely as “downloads” – so it’s remarkable how much has changed, in the way music is delivered, over a very short period of time.

in a similar way as my previous blog topic, the running order, the “album side” has also come to my attention, of course, because I have just “finished” an album – or rather, finished the music for an album – because of course again, now, the real work has to begin – all of the detailed work that supports an album release.

because I am a bit…older…in my mind, albums are still albums, and they still have two “sides”.  so for “gone native”, in my head; side one is active rock songs, side two is experimental music, loop music, ambient guitar and so on.  for anyone a bit younger than me – well, it’s a CD, or it’s a download album of 20 tracks – there are no “sides”.

which I believe, in many ways, is a real shame.  first of all, it makes having “concept albums” much more difficult – in the vinyl days, you could have a concept for side one, and a different concept for side two.  or, you could spread two parts of a long work over two album sides…and it is a bit sad that you can’t really do that with the CD format.

there were a lot of options! and while the compact disc does offer a lot of advantages, there is, perhaps, something lost as well – certainly the artwork suffers; and vinyl purists will say that a certain audio warmth has been lost as well.  for me – well, I hated surface noise and scratches so much, that I can accept that “loss” without complaint – but it’s difficult for some people, the CD format.

for me though, I am forever thinking of most recordings as vinyl albums, having two (or more) “sides” – and each side has it’s own character, a good example of this is “all things must pass” by george harrison from 1970 – a triple album, six sides – four sides of which, are normal “songs”, the last two sides, are jam sessions – “apple jam” (since it’s on the apple label, a very handy joke indeed) – but that was very distinctive, you knew what to expect.  so putting on side one, would be a very different experience to putting on side six.  when you wanted to reflect and listen – side one.  when you wanted to rock and roll, with eric clapton, george harrison, and a host of superstar musicians jamming madly – side five or side six.  easy!

and whether it was intended or not, you would develop fondness for a particular side, if I use the beatles as example now, the white album: a double album, four “album sides” – I think everyone who owned it on vinyl, as I did, thinks of this record in terms of the side they love the most – for me that is undoubtedly side 3, because of the presence of so many amazing songs, and to this day, when I go to listen to the white album, I will often select “disc 2”, and stop the disc after “long, long, long” – that’s the old vinyl “side 3”.  birthday, yer blues, mother nature’s son, everybody’s got something to hide (except me and my monkey), sexy sadie, helter skelter, long, long, long – I will never forget that running order.  that’s my “side 3” of the white album…

it even allowed artists to name their albums in a peculiar way, for example, a normal, single vinyl LP by the raspberries was named “side 3” – because it was their third “side”, third album (not because it had three sides…however…see below).

or, with a self-titled album from todd rundgren’s utopia, where there were literally only three “sides” worth of music (because, in that case, that was all the songs they had)– the fourth side just being blank vinyl! – but, this practice goes way back, “second winter” by johnny winter, an album from the 1970s,  is another example of a three-sided album…(my pal jim whitaker had this album, I never owned it, but I remember thinking “how peculiar”…that it had three sides…).

so: the compact disc isn’t able to have “sides”, so you do miss out on these peculiarities, some of which made for some very charming, entertaining and clever/artistic/unique ideas from musicians (or the artists representing the musicians)…and it’s been a little bit more difficult to do this type of creative packaging in the CD format – difficult, but not impossible, and I am sure we could all cite examples of unusual and creative CD packaging, but, as clever as some of those are – there will never be anything quite like the vinyl album, with it’s massive 12 X 12 inch canvas “work space”, where musicians could create or have created, a lot of very large scale artwork to attract (or repel, as the case may be) potential customers.

and, you can no longer have three-sided albums, or even make jokes about having three “sides” as the raspberries did  – actually, they were very serious, not really joking – you get one, one long block of time, for your digital music now, and that’s the CD – here to stay I think; and despite a lot of vinyl purists’ complaints about the sonic problems CDs allegedly have, I for one, do not miss….surface noise, crackles, pops, snaps, hiss, distortion, “vinyl warmth” and all the other problems that vinyl had – when I used to buy vinyl, I returned almost as much as I bought, because of these problems – I despised the idea of trying to listen to MUSIC…through a barrage of snap, crackle and pop. (michael dawson, you remember this!).

this became extreme during the oil crisis, when the quality of vinyl plummeted to new depths; and I can remember buying really quiet, ambient records like eno’s “music for airports” –over and over again and and then immediately returning it, over and over again, until I got a copy that was only 2% noise instead of 17% noise.

even then, I would take the precaution of recording each and every record, once, to a high quality chrome cassette, and then NEVER playing the vinyl – and if the cassette died, then I had a near mint vinyl “master” to repopulate a new cassette.  this system worked reasonably well – I would listen to the cassette, and put the once-played vinyl away for safe-keeping – but it should never have had to have been invented, the poor quality of vinyl made it unavoidable.

I recently found “crib notes” for transferring vinyl to cassette, where I timed out the spaces between songs, so I could quickly remove the crackling between tracks, so I would do a sort of “live mix” to cassette, removing the noise during the spaces between songs – talk about an extreme desire for SILENCE surrounding my music!  but that’s what I want – music, with silence in between.  and blessedly – the CD gives us that! – so I consider it to be a modern miracle, because it actually solved this problem for me.  as an ambient musician, I’ve struggled to acheive silence between my tracks, and in them when it makes sense, and it’s difficult to keep noise, and clicks pops out of very quiet music…difficult, but not impossible.

I don’t miss any of that crackle and pop nonsense, and buying a quiet album now (on CD, obviously!) is a pleasure instead of a test, I am just horrified by good, clean music being damaged by surface noise and crackles and pops – it totally spoiled my enjoyment, so I for one, will always love the CD format, long may it thrive…of course, some day, it WILL be superseded by something (although I cannot imagine what) but I am sure whatever that is will be spectacular.

since I have just finished recording “gone native”, this question of “sides” and “concepts” has returned to haunt me, and I was feeling a bit regretful that there is no way now, when I go to have “gone native” pressed up, really, that I can have a two-sided record, because if this had been back in the vinyl days, I would have had a definite running order, a definite set of “loud” songs on side one, and a set of “quieter” songs on side two – but all I can do is make note of this on the CD sleeve; perhaps, leave a space or gap of seventeen seconds between the two “sides” – that might be one idea, I don’t know, but I am regretting that just this once, for my ultimate guitar album, that I can’t have it be “two-sided”.  oh well, this is progress I suppose…

the idea of “sides” really lends itself well to concepts, and for “gone native”, it’s not just loud and soft, rock and ambient – it’s a lot more, it’s also, to some extent, past and future: side one, is a set of rock/progressive rock songs I’ve developed over the past three and a half years, side two, more recent loops and experiments and examples of extreme guitaring – the future of dave stafford guitar, because the tracks on side two are the first examples of the work I will be working on going forward, including a lot of very exciting music using either soft synths – software synthesizers – and/or, application-based music, using iPad apps for guitar or iPad app synths…

sure, I can just “explain” that there are meant to be two sides, as I just did, and that’s fine, but somehow, it’s just not the same.  I wish we had unlimited funds, because if we did, I would do a short run of heavyweight vinyl for “gone native” along with the CD run, which would mean I could then realise my vision for the “two-sided” version of the record.  but – it’s just a question of timing, if I had made this record in 1979 (when I probably should have) it may have been on vinyl with a “later” CD release…since it’s going to (hopefully) come out in 2012, it will be CD only with alternate downloads.

…unless I can get 500 vinyl pre-orders (highly doubtful), that is not ever going to happen…but that’s OK, my main concern is the music, and that is actually best delivered via download or via CD, not so much on vinyl 🙂

speaking of “gone native”, there is going to be an unavoidable delay before I can continue to work required to actually get the record released, which frustrates me no end, as I’ve wanted to release this album for more than three years!

but I am just having to patient – I have multiple issues, from hardware failure (my main work laptop is now down, it does need a new fan I am afraid) to other unavoidable facts – such as – I haven’t even begun to look at the artwork, which is holding me up, so that is what I am going to work on.  unfortunately, an image I really wanted to use, is unavailable to me, so, I have to start over from square one…but, I have some ideas, so I am sure that will be sorted out soon enough.

I can’t really move forward at all, broken laptop and all, without the artwork, so I can’t even set up the downloads at this point in time, so unfortunately, I am just having to wait for  the laptop to be repaired, work on the artwork over the weekend – but as soon as I am able to push the release forward, of course, I will!

there are other aspects of pre-release that I can work on, such as samples of the songs on the discography, other web site updates, etc. so I will be working on those while I am waiting for the main release to finally occur.

despite any delays or setbacks, I am really excited about the impending release of “gone native”, more excited than I have been about any album of mine, for a long, long time; and I am pleased to say it looks like as well as making the album available for download in the pureambient store, that it appears that we will be able to produce a limited edition CD of some kind, so of course, once I have more information on that, I will let you know.

I think regardless of format, despite the fact that we’ve lost some of the idiosyncrasies of the vinyl album format, that the concept of “album”, even without sides, still exists – people still think of a CD release as being an “album” (at least, I believe that older people do – not sure if younger people would maybe just call it a “CD” – I do not know) so I think the idea of an “album”, as a collection, a scrapbook, a snapshot, a group of songs that serve a common purpose or denote a key theme, will be with us for a long time still.

that certainly describes “gone native” – it’s a collection of songs and more abstract works, but in my mind, it’s an album, and it will always be an album, regardless of what names get applied to it over the years.

I think that “changing formats” demands in turn, that we change in the way we think about music, and I look forward to whatever the next great innovation is, I’ve seen the vinyl album be replaced by the CD, I’ve then seen the CD partially replaced by the download (legal and illegal, I am afraid) and I am not sure what might be next – but I am betting that it will be very, very cool !

so – is the album dead? – I do not know; the album is dead <?!!?>, long live the album…

the importance of the album “running order”

first of all, I’d like to apologise for the length of time between posts – I can say happily that it’s for a good reason – the work on “gone native”, which is getting closer and closer to reality every day – the work continues.

secondly, I just want to mention that further down in this posts, there are links to both audio and videos that feature on gone native, so if there is to be a “sneak preview” of the album, this is it – three excerpts of earlier demos of songs from side one, and a few videos for tracks from side two of the record – the ambient/experimental side – so please check out the links below.

third – here we go:

because of the continuing work on the pre-production of “gone native”, various topics surrounding releases keep coming to mind, and this is one topic that I have long held as significant – I really feel that the very best records are made or broken by the order in which the songs are presented.

I know for a fact that george martin worked very closely with the beatles to establish the best possible running order for each beatles album (even including the very early ones!), and lennon went on to say later, how appalled he was by the re-ordering of tracks on the beatles “albums” created by capitol america for the american teenage market in the early 1960s – how the beatles had chosen the songs for the british albums with care, in a very specific running order for very specific musical reasons – and then capitol america just ignored that completely, releasing songs out of sequence in the bizarrely constructed “capitol masters” series. (and, myself being born american, now british, I grew up hearing those wrong, incorrect, bastardised capitol “versions”..a fact that fills me with a gentle horror now – and even in that very wrong form, that music WAS still brilliant…). note: that did NOT stop me from buying the capitol masters vol. I so I could hear them in that childhood-memory order!

it was not until I was fully adult that I realised that I had been…swindled in this way, that I had never heard the beatles albums properly, the way the beatles intended – so, in 1987, when they did the first release of the beatles albums on CDs, I bought them all – and was amazed to find, for example, that “yellow submarine” is actually a track from “revolver”, and other similar, remarkable running-order discoveries – the british records make SENSE; the running orders make much more musical sense when heard in the original british releases…

now that I am used to them, the british ones seem right, the american, wrong (so what’s new there?) but I’m here more specifically to talk about running orders in general, not for the beatles, so shifting back to that topic…

in the here and now, the running order of “gone native” is something I’ve given considerable thought to, and it’s ended up, by intent, partially chronological (side one), but partially, musical (side two) – so the earliest rock songs begin the record, with the very first rock song recorded, “thanks frank” (remarkably, originally recorded, in a tour de force I-can’t-believe-I-nailed-that-guitar-part take one, in november, 2008 !!) in the lead-off position – followed immediately by my first two pieces featuring all of my “new” 2009 tech: sonar 4, the line 6 x3 live, and the m-tron pro mellotron – “open to anything” and “force of nature”.  these were the earliest songs created using these exciting new tools, which soon led to much more sophisticated song construction: more complex pieces still followed: “wettonizer”, “sinuous thread” and “what are souls made of”; full-on multi track extravaganzas, including not only mellotrons but real bass, and lots and lots and LOTS of guitars…

having the m-tron pro mellotron soft synth available was hugely inspirational, and I was working simultaneously on several active tracks for “gone native” that rely on the presence of the mellotron to bring the mostly rock / prog / guitar-based work to life, and at the same time, I was creating the all-mellotron, all m-tron pro created ambient album “sky full of stars” (released in late 2011) – so getting that mellotron made so much difference to both my active music and my ambient music – I don’t know what I would do without it now, and, it’s also a huge part of the upcoming “scorched by the sun” record, “dreamtime” – where I have overdubbed m-tron pro “mellotrons” onto bryan helm’s remarkable series of basic tracks – so again, the m-tron pro has shown it’s worth in that project as well as my own two album projects…

for the tracks on “gone native” that feature mellotron (most of the songs on side one do) it might be anything from the simple flute part at the end of “force of nature”, to complex overlays of black sabbath sound effects in “sinuous thread” – despite the fact that this is primarily an album about guitar, guitar, and more guitar, the addition of the mellotron parts, in all of the songs where it appears, gives the pieces a unique atmosphere that would be hard to create using any “ordinary” soft synth – the m-tron pro is unique, and it will always be my “go-to” soft synth – always.

– and then – life happened, and I wasn’t able to work on the album for many, many months – time then was often spent doing definitive mixes of all of the above mentioned songs, especially “wettonizer”, “sinuous thread” and “whatever souls are made of” – those three cost me weeks and weeks of time, particularly the very sonically dense mix of “wettonizer”…but in time, I nailed it (with a lot of remote help from california, by the way, from my good friend and business partner ken mistove).

eventually, I went back to work on the record, spending quite some time working out the curiously reverse-engineered “this is a test” – I had a guitar solo, made when I first got the line 6 x3 pedal, just the solo, by itself, that I really liked, so I set out to create a song based on this solo, adding first drums, then bass, then many guitar synths, until I had built up a real song.  using another piece from the 2009 x3 sessions, an unreleased ambient loop of ebow guitars, I also added that to the piece, so it’s a rock song with an ambient loop outro, a most unusual combination – and it’s one of the highlights of the record – possibly because of it’s unique, reverse-engineered construction, and beautiful ambient outro.

“gone native”, the album’s title track, took quite a long time to gestate, but it was well worth it, it was begun pre-guitar synth, and completed post-guitar synth, so it is sort of a hybrid, it’s a “standard” dave stafford prog/rock piece, leaning heavily towards the “rock” side – drums, bass, mellotron and lots of guitars – but then that guitar synth came along, giving me organ/guitar hybrid solos, cellos, thunderstorms and other amazing sounds to combine with my phase-shifted mellotron flutes – all contributing to one of the most remarkable pieces of music I’ve ever had the honour of working on – it’s just one of those tracks that you know is right – it’s just right!

then, when I had a block of time to actually work on the record this summer, I took a some pieces from early 2011 (one fully produced piece involving drums and classical instruments, from the guitar synth, of course “caladan”; one guitar piece with overdubbed solo – “flying solo”, one piece involving four different guitar synths mixed into one song “sun willow quartet” – adding drums to the latter two), recorded when I first got the roland gr-55 guitar synth, and the next three rock pieces were complete…

“junction” is the penultimate track on side one: a song I would find difficult to describe in words, so suffice to say, it reminds me of early to middle period bill nelson (and it also makes a vague musical reference to “secret ceremony” by bill nelson, but only roughly)…it also contains a roving “bill nelson/maps of dreams” style bass guitar – but, call it “bill nelson done dave stafford/guitar synth style” if you must call it anything at all.

at the moment, I am struggling with this part of the record, the next and final piece on side one, “flying solo” did not translate well when compressed to a test MP3, I am getting some distortion from the rhythm guitar tracks, and further investigation shows me that the original track does seem to have some inherent distortion, so I need to sit down properly with the multi track master, and see what my options are.  if I can’t fix that guitar, I would either have to re-record it – not necessarily possible, since it was an improvised take, but possible, or, if I really can’t solve it, I might have to remove the track entirely – which would be a shame, as it has a nice legato solo in it that I really like.

update: a further remix of the original “flying solo” did not solve the problem – well, the wav file sounds fine, but it doesn’t compress well, so the MP3 still distorts, so now the plan is to re-record the rhythm guitar – which is maybe a good thing.  so I would take the drums and the solo, and “underdub” a rhythm guitar – strange, but possible…we shall see!

this running order works for me, because it’s basically chronological – five original rock/prog pieces from 2009 first, then, one reverse engineered piece from 2009 completed in 2010, and finally, five more drum-based pieces from early 2011 rounding out the side – eleven tracks that “are” side one of the album:

“gone native”, side one:

thanks, frank

open to anything

force of nature

wettonizer

sinuous thread

this is a test

gone native

caladan

sun willow quartet

junction

<<<flying solo>>> repair, re-record, replace, remove?

so for me, the driving force behind the running order of side one, was to show a musical progression – plus, these are all rock, rock/prog, or drum-based pieces (and you can hear the progression in the music, it gets more and more sophisticated, and hopefully, more and more interesting, along the way…) as well as sticking to a rough chronology, whereas side two is a completely different animal…

side two, on the other hand, was entirely conceived and constructed during the current session, during the summer 2012 mastering/mix sessions for the album, drawing mostly on music created between march 2011 and the present.  since this is a shorter time span we are covering, and I was wanting to demonstrate some very different guitar sounds, styles and approaches, I decided to not stick to the chronological model this time, but instead, to base the running order of side two more on the style of the music itself.

now, it had always been in my head that the ambient mix of “whatever souls are made of” would be the final song on the album (although in the end, it’s not quite the final track…), and that idea stuck, and in the final assessment, it’s a good call – it achieves a number of things: it brings us back to a more song-based area after the rather unusual sonic experiments that are side two, and, it brings us full circle back to a 2009 composition, it “ties back in” with side one – so that device works as intended.

so what to put “in front of” that final track, since I had decided on the “ending” first?  I just looked at what I had recorded over the past many months, and made decisions based solely on musical merit, performance appeal, and uniqueness – or some combination thereof.

to begin then, I definitely wanted some ambient pieces, just a few, to demonstrate at least some part of the mostly ambient musical world I’ve been inhabiting since about 1989; I also wanted to include a few very unique examples of some very unique guitar styles, some specialised pieces; just as side one delivers a broad range of guitar information in the “song” format; side two delivers a different range of guitar information in some more exotic and unusual forms, including ambient, looped and treated music.

“salusa secundus”, the first track on side two, is what I would call “semi-ambient”, it’s ambient in nature, but there is still a fair amount of musical activity in the piece – yet, the overall effect is ambient. this was a piece I built up very quickly in one day, by layering guitar synth parts, and it just happened very organically – there were no re-takes, I just added parts until it was “right” – including a very occasional bass guitar, carefully timed to work with the guitar synth parts in a particular pattern.  It uses some particularly beautiful guitar synth patches that include pitched up guitars and wind chimes (always a lovely sound) and I just like the feel and the spontaneity of the piece – it was always going to be on this record, it just “belongs somehow”, and it’s a great way to introduce the ambient section of the record.  the thunderstorm patch, previously heard in the title track, also makes a return appearance, and then that single, ominous bass guitar note keeps appearing…

the next track on side two is a very, very unusual one, “desert power I (drone mix)”; it’s a live loop, originally done as a video for youtube, that I then took the audio mix and ran it through a special resonant filter (using the breeze plug-in in sonar) to create an utterly unique and very strange alternate “mix” of the song – all of the normal guitar sound has been replaced with a wonderful, buzzing drone that I really like the sound of – and, it’s a very unique sounding piece, like nothing you have ever heard (I hope) – perhaps reminiscent of early fripp & eno? – if it is similar to anything at all.

track three on side two is “cinematique I”, a piece similar in character to “salusa secundus” but realised in a completely different way – a totally live loop, one guitar synthesizer, looped, but inhabiting a slightly darker, more dissonant musical space than “salusa secundus” does – so this one might be comparable to a later robert fripp soundscape – and it’s created the same way – a completely live, ambient, dissonant, loop.  this is perhaps the most dissonant piece on the record – and I have at various times in my career, over the years, created a number of very, very dissonant loops, far more dissonant than any of the pieces here, but I think it is essential that at least one such piece be included to show the “darker side” of dave stafford looping.

and speaking of that dark side, next comes “the gemenon blues (long form)” which is certainly one of the strangest pieces of music I have ever recorded, it’s an almost eight minute long live guitar synth looping performance, where I create a backing loop of a sound called “crims-o-tron” on the fly, and once that’s established itself, eventually, I play a live solo on top of the loop, which I then also loop, so the piece starts out very dark and strange, then, a thick, sinuous guitar solo appears, and is then joined by many more looped guitar solos, and the whole thing is incredibly atmospheric – and I am happy to have a few live pieces on side two (desert power I (drone mix), cinematique I, the gemenon blues (long form), wide open spaces), that represent what can be done with one guitar – or one guitar synth – the roland GR-55 – and one good looper – the roland RC-50 – you can get some remarkably full recordings out of that combo!

next, comes something so completely different that it’s almost indescribable, it’s a studio piece, a multi track work, but, it’s composed entirely of loops and sounds made using the korg kaossilator, the miniature x-y pad synthesizer, and this piece, “zencouraging”, was a complete surprise to me, as I had created it one day back in december, 2011, and then immediately, completely forgotten it’s existence, and when I was looking back over the last year or so of tracks for material to include on side two of “gone native”, I happened upon it, many, many months later.

it’s one of those songs that you cannot describe in words, it does have drum loops in it so it’s not truly ambient, yet, it’s so atmospheric, it has a beautiful, deep, deep synth bass that is so incredibly sonic, you almost feel it more than you hear it, and it’s melodies are very, very distinctive. because there are no keys or strings, there is a certain “kaoss pad” melodic style that is unmistakable although very hard to describe in writing – the synth melodies are less distinct than they would be with a key or string triggered device – they have a sort of wonderful “fuzziness” of pitch. this piece is truly a one of a kind, it contains no guitars whatsoever, but it, surprisingly, it fits in beautifully with the various loops and experiments on side two – a real standout track in my opinion.

switching gears again, the next piece, “wide open spaces” (video forthcoming), was almost an accident, I was testing out an ipad application for guitarists called “ampkit +” and during the trial, I recorded three different energy bow guitar solos, and this one moves from mournful to joyful to lyrical, a weaving, sliding melody.

it’s not ambient e-bow, as I’ve mostly done historically, but instead, it is an intentionally active, melodic guitar solo – using the e-bow. of the three ebow pieces recorded on that day, I felt that “wide open spaces” was best – although all three are quite good – and it seemed to me to be a good, upbeat-feeling piece to start to bring the record back around to it’s more upbeat beginning – to the next and penultimate piece, “whatever souls are made of (ambient mix)”.

“souls (ambient)” is just that, the full song appearing on side one of the record, but with all of it’s melody e-bow guitars, bass, and drums, removed; leaving only the backing layers of looped and layered energy bow, which create a fantastic empty shell, that sounds wonderful with or without those overlaid instruments – so it’s a reprise, a chance to experience the song in a very different, far more atmospheric way, and it’s one of my very favourite pieces on the record (in either guise, if I am honest).

originally, the record was meant to end with “whatever souls are made of (ambient mix)” – and nominally, it still does, in terms of tracks proper. however, I had a live guitar track, or rather, part of a track, that I really wanted to include on the album, but it wasn’t quite an actual standalone piece, so, included as a “hidden track” a couple of minutes after the conclusion of “souls” (ambient)”, you get the remarkable “a plague of frogs (coda)” – which is literally just the “delay tail out” of an active piece of guitar originally recorded for a youtube video.

so, I played this piece of active guitar, ended suddenly on an e flat chord, and I had set up the digitech time bender delay to create this amazing delay “tail”, which sounds like a chorus of frogs – so I just snipped out the frog chorus only, faded it in and out, prefaced it with 2:17 of pure silence; and this “hidden track” then came to life – just to add a bit of unusual atmosphere to very, very end of the record.

“gone native”, side two:

salusa secundus

desert power I (drone mix)

cinematique I

the gemenon blues (long form)

zencourage

wide open spaces

whatever souls are made of (ambient mix)

hidden track: a plague of frogs (coda)

I am hoping that by talking through the reasons and the logic behind my two very different running orders, I can demonstrate here just how important running orders can be, and in this case, how important running orders are to me.

because I grew up in the era of vinyl albums, to me, an album has a certain musical identity that is in part dictated by the songs on it, but almost equally importantly, by the order in which those songs is presented.

what would the beatles’ “revolver” sound like with something other than “taxman” as it’s lead off track?  for some unknown reason, it was decided to put george’s song first, and that is so iconic, “revolver” is almost defined by that odd count in – that was actually added onto the beginning of the track – and I can’t imagine those songs in ANY other order – I really can’t  – and in the same way, for my own music, which of course I do spend a lot of time creating and then compiling into albums, I have a very, very definite running order in mind – that’s the way it works out.

I am aware that some artists and bands do not care about running order, leaving that decision to producer or even manager, but I personally disagree with that, you need to care about the presentation of your songs, and the order in which the customer hears them – while it may seem trivial, it’s actually hugely important, because this one album might be the only record of yours that they ever hear – so you want to make a good impression!

I personally believe that running orders are very, very important, and I take them very seriously even if other artists and bands – do not – that’s fine, but for me, I will always care about this, and each time I collect songs together into a new album, I will always spend the time to work out what the very best running order for those songs is, to optimise the listener’s experience – and in the case of “gone native”, I’ve done all I can to make it as enjoyable and as logical as possible.

first you rock, past, present and future (tracks 1 – 11) ; then you rest (tracks 12 – 14); then you explore (tracks 15 – 16); then you arrive full circle back to the ambient shell of one of the earliest pieces (track 17); then finally, a detached chorus of electronic frogs (hidden track 18) whisks you away to an unknown musical future of as-yet-undreamed musical ideas…

who says running orders are not important?  it’s in my nature to care about every aspect of the music I present, and that includes the order that those pieces reach your ears – the best order I can imagine given my knowledge of the tracks themselves…no chaos, instead: logical, orderly, sensible, and – delivered and presented with a real sense of quality.