turning a disadvantage into an advantage…and “the perception of music”

today I want specifically to talk about perception, in this case, my own perception of the music that I create, and some observations I’ve made regarding this.

first off, I’d like to suggest that I think all musicians may experience what I am about to describe, namely, that feeling, while you are playing, performing with, or recording your instrument(s), that what you are playing is possibly:

a)     not as good as it should be

b)     not “right”

c)     going horribly wrong, but you carry on anyway

d)     is a “disaster in the making”, but you carry on anyway

e)     sometimes, that bad feeling is so strong, that you actually abort the take (or worse still, stop the performance!)

I don’t know about you, but all of the above has happened to me; most of them, many, many times.  blessedly, the last one, not too often 🙂

but, based on some listening and performance experiences of my own, I would like to suggest that if we are feeling this way when we play, that we are maybe doing ourselves (and therefore, our music) a huge disservice.

a case in point, is a track I recently mixed, that I had recorded live in the studio on september 30, 2012, entitled “into the unknown”.   this track, a lengthy improvised piece (an 11:48 scape and energy bow guitar duet), is the perfect example of what I am talking about here, in that, while I was recording it, I really didn’t think it was going well at all.

I had concerns about the tuning of my guitar; concerns about the ambient guitar parts I was playing; and concerns about the solos I played.  those concerns stayed in my mind, from the day I recorded it, september 30, 2012 – until february 10, 2013, when I finally sat down to mix the track!!  all that time – I held a very, very negative view of this improv in my mind – I was pretty sure it was not going to be a good experience to hear or mix it.

how very, very wrong I was (thankfully).

much to my amazement, when I mixed “into the unknown” – while it wasn’t perfect – to my everlasting astonishment – it’s actually a very, very beautiful and good track, with nothing particularly “wrong” about it !!!!

but, at least for me, as it so, so often does – my “self-criticising circuit” just kicked in automatically, every tiny imperfection I perceived as I played it, magnified a million times, until I was sure it would be a waste of time come mix time – and boy, was I ever wrong – it’s a gem, and I am now very excited about this track – I really enjoyed creating and publishing the video of it, because it’s a unique and unusual scape and guitar synthesizer duet – a very, very unusual, (and quite lovely, too), piece of music indeed.

surprise number one: when I sat down to mix the track, the first thing that struck me was how very beautiful the underlying “scape” was, and that meant immediately, that 50 percent of the track is automatically “good” and beautiful, too.

surprise number 2: the other 50%, which is what I “live looped” and played live with the guitar synth – OK, some of it required a little work, I did have to “treat” a couple of the guitar synth solos to make them sound better – but mostly, there was nothing much to do, except trim the track, add a tiny bit of reverb overall, and master and produce it.

and with fresh eyes and fresh ears, that nasty (mental) list of problems and complaints, looks slightly different using my february 9th, 2013 “ears” – I’d say that list should really have read this way:

a)     song is better than I thought – much better

b)     it’s very right – the scape is great – the guitar synth is good – the solos are acceptable

c)     it was going well, and I was right to carry on – a good decision

d)     not disastrous at all, and I was right to carry on – a good decision

e)     luckily, I did NOT abort the take, because if I had, it would have been a tragedy – a travesty, as it would have meant throwing away a really, really interesting, utterly unique, and perfectly good piece of live music!

so this is how the perception can change, and of course, now, being aware of all this, I do make a serious effort to look more positively upon music I’ve recorded, because much of it is probably (but not necessarily!) much better than I initially think it is.

what I take away from this is at least twofold:  one: I need some time, a significant amount of time, to pass, before I “pass judgement” on any of my recorded works, and two: I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.

another track, “escape from the death star” (a seven minute scape and ebow loop/live duet recorded on october 20, 2012) proves the same point – for a different reason.  I had the usual mental list of “what is wrong with this track” – as above, but in this case, this track came from a truly disastrous session, where things really DID go wrong, and badly wrong, on the first fourteen of fifteen tracks recorded total (now THAT is a bad day in the studio!).

so, based solely on it’s presence within this “disaster session” (unfortunately, an accurate name for it) – I think I just assumed that this track would somehow be tainted by the failure of the other tracks, harshly judging it by the same criteria with which I rejected tracks 1 through 14 – which again, is a ridiculous assumption, and again, I was quite surprised on first playback, to find that it is a very intense, very powerful, ebow and scape loop – and, to be honest – it’s not bad at all!

once again, I placed a mentally “negative filter” over this piece, which was unfair and incorrect – needing to measure the piece based on it’s musical merit rather than it’s inclusion in a set of bad music.  time seems to be what I need, hindsight I guess…that seems to be the main catalyst for me swapping my negative view for a much more positive one.  I am hopeful though, that since I’ve written this article, and discovered these behaviours within myself, that I can be less negative at the time of recording, and shorten the time needed to achieve the correct and positive view of these improvised pieces of music.

now, I am not saying that you should automatically assume that every take you make is golden!  you do have to be critical, and even ruthless, and remove takes that are less than inspiring, have substandard solos, or are too much like one another.  I’ve never had too much trouble with that, although there have been occasions where I felt like I really had to publish many, many examples from one session, just because the quality was high overall, and the different takes reflected different aspects of the improvs that were important musically.

but that is a rarity; very few sessions produce a 50, 60, 70 percent, or higher, success ratio (for me, anyway) – most sessions end up with one or two very good takes at the most, a few decent takes, and several that are not taken further. very occasionally, 90 percent are good.  very, very rarely, all of them have merit – very rarely indeed – but it has happened.

but otherwise, it’s actually the norm for me to record a dozen or more pieces of music, and then in the end, only publish perhaps three or four of them.  sometimes, maybe just one or two…or in the case of “escape from the death star” – maybe even just one!  depending on the session, it may also be that I might publish eight or nine out of 12 tracks, or 14 out of 20, or whatever makes sense to me from a strictly musical point of view.  some days, you are fortunate, other days, not so fortunate.

as always, though, it’s about finding balance – finding the sweet spot between being fairly and justly critical, but not automatically assuming that everything you record is really, really incredible – just finding the right pieces, the ones that reflect well on you, that express your musical ideas well but not too overtly, regardless of if they are understated or “over the top”, the ones that represent “you”  as composer, musician, performer – but, at the same time, trying not to be too critical on yourself, giving yourself some slack!  give you a break… 🙂

now – I can just imagine you all scuttling back to look back at those tracks you recorded four months ago, six, seven months ago…desperately hoping that they have miraculously turned from bad to good while you were busy elsewhere – but you may be disappointed.  or, you may find a hidden gem or two…

I just know that for me, I can often be very, very overcritical at first, especially at the time of recording, just after, and probably for a few weeks afterwards – but interestingly, as I found, after a few months, when you listen (with fresh ears), you may well find that you were too critical, and you have perfectly viable music sitting there just waiting for that final mix and master.

while we are on the subject of behaviours and perception, I’d like to mention another curious behaviour that I’ve noticed in myself recently, and I wonder if any of you have ever experienced this – it’s what I now call the “I don’t want to know” syndrome.

a very current and very real example of this is my current and ongoing relationship with a peter hammill song entitled “the siren song”.  over the past several months, I’ve had several recording sessions devoted to this very, very difficult-to-play, difficult-to-sing track from “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” album, by van der graaf, from 1977 – and I have struggled mightily to get a take that I am entirely happy with.

some of those sessions ended up yielding absolutely NO candidates (usually due to unrepairable and disastrous and horrific errors in my piano playing – it’s devilishly difficult to play!); others, perhaps, one or two at the most, and those with too many faults, although I will say, as the months marched on, my understanding of the song (and particularly, the piano parts) has grown immensely, and the last few sessions with it were far and away, the closest I had come to getting “a take”.

but here’s the interesting thing.  I love this song; I am absolutely determined to capture a good quality version, completely live, at the piano, and, I have done a lot of work, both in learning the piano part much better than I ever knew it before, and in recording the track over and over and over and over again, slowly getting better at it in the process.

as you know, because I record so much music, using so many different instruments or apps, that there is always a backlog of songs that need to have their audio assessed and mixed.  I did a couple of sessions for “the siren song” several months ago, that went quite well, and I was even wondering, just kind of wondering…if possibly, one of the takes in that very last session MIGHT be “the take”.  but – I couldn’t face listening to them back, to find out if a good take was present.

eventually, after months of dread and procrastination I finally went and listened – and there it was.  a good take!

however – for some reason – for a long time, I absolutely, steadfastly, and repeatedly, AVOIDED going back to listen to those last two “siren song” sessions!  because…I didn’t want to know!  I did not want to find out whether I “had a take” or not!  what a strange thing to do, but for some unknown reason, I assessed the first few “the siren song” sessions, up to a certain point in time – and then, fully intending to carry on the next time I mixed – I just STOPPED – utterly inexplicably.   I kept avoiding it, until eventually I had to face it – and much to my surprise, that good take I was looking for – was there…with very, very little wrong with it.  a minor miracle, in my experience 🙂

instead of continuing the seemingly never-ending sessions devoted to capturing THIS song, and this song alone, I could then move on to other projects, and at last, let go of the seemingly endless search for that elusive “good take” of “the siren song”.  🙂

I think as musicians, we do sometimes do strange things with regards to the music we create, we are in denial about certain things, we hope that certain takes ARE takes when we know deep down, that they are NOT, conversely, as described in this blog, we thing takes are bad when they are really OK…and so on.

I was really hoping not to solve any great problem here, but just to draw attention to some of the psychological aspects of recording modern music (as opposed to the physical challenges, such as dealing with computers, MIDI, soft synths, DAWs, digital noises, pops and clicks, and so on…), but mostly, how very important indeed it is to give yourself a break, let music sit for a while before you judge it too soon or too harshly or both – and also, I think you will find that the passage of time gives you different ears with which to listen, and when you do find the time to listen, you will see – and hear, more importantly – the work you’ve done in a whole new light.

I noticed certain behaviours during the creation and mixing of these songs and recordings, and I wondered if any of you had had similar or identical experiences, or, if there are other behaviours not noted here, that you indulge in that you may wish to share with us all – if so, please feel free to fill in the “comments” below – we’d be very glad to hear from musicians and listeners alike as to any issues they find with “the perception of music”.

as always, we encourage you to participate, and we do want to hear your views on this blog, so please feel welcome to comment on this or any of the blogs, we’re always happy to discuss / dissect / deviate from topic / whatever it takes to communicate, learn and grow.  I think this is a very real problem for many musicians, yet I can’t remember ever hearing anyone talk about it – so I decided that I had better say something! 🙂

being overcritical may be another symptom of OCD, which I do have a mild case of, but I don’t really believe that.  I think it’s something basic in my personal make up, I tend to focus on “what’s wrong” with each piece of music, rather than celebrating “what’s right” and being kind to myself, and letting go of “what’s wrong”.  so being aware of this – I can make changes, and start to view things more positively.  I do try now, to give myself a buffer zone of time, a week or two, preferably more – and THEN go back and listen…and invariably, things sound better once they been around for a few weeks – strange but true.

of course, I WILL go and fix what is “wrong” – even if it takes a week to fix 30 seconds of music.  [does this sound familiar to anyone ????? 🙂 :-)]

happy mixing and mastering to all!!

peace and love

dave

a new year, a new beginning – and the piece that is – providence suite

here we are, then, on the cusp of another year, 2013 is over, seemingly in a flash, while 2014 is about to begin: and with it, my second major classical work, “providence suite” which has now been published on bandcamp – on the newest eternal album, “classical”, available for your listening and downloading pleasure.  if you read my last blog entry, you will know about the music for this project; it was meant to be a collaboration between John Orsi and myself, but, this was one project that was fated not to be, at least not in the collaborative sense that it was originally intended.

the seven new pieces that make up “providence suite” join my only-just-released first-ever classical work, which was a piece written on the guitar synthesizer and released earlier this year (2013), “concerto no. 1 in e minor for oboe and guitar”, from the dave stafford eternal album, “classical”.  originally known here on the blog as “the orsi-stafford project”, at some point during the work in 2012, after some months and some deliberation, John and I had agreed that our new band should be called “providence” – so – “providence”, the band, was born, from our collaborative / collective imaginations.

when I heard the sad news of John’s untimely passing earlier this month, I felt even more determined to see if I could complete and finish my “providence” demos – which consist of two fruitful days’ recording in the studio, back in march, 2012.  so over the 2013 christmas holidays, I sat down for another two days, and had a good look at the material.  these two sessions done three weeks apart during march 2012, over the past week or so, with 2013 winding down and 2014 looming on the horizon, have captivated my attention and my ear; the music has somehow, almost magically, transformed from two (rather large and somewhat daunting) batches of unrealised tracks into a substantial piece of classical music: “providence suite” by dave stafford (music inspired by the band “providence”). I was surprised (and still am, if truth be told) at both the quantity and the quality of the music, I remember being satisfied with it at the time, but I had forgotten exactly what was there…musical buried treasure.

inspired by our discussions and plans for the band, I sat down to record “sketches” for John to listen to and consider, so he could listen to what music I was thinking of for the project, from which he could then work out what his percussion goals for the album were, and respond with sketches of his own. the bulk of the demos for “providence suite” were played by myself on the keyboard, for the first two movements, on march 4, 2012, and for movements three through seven, from (what became) the final “providence” demo session on march 24, 2012.

since I am known primarily as an ambient looping guitarist, I didn’t want to sit down and create lots of really beautiful, but perhaps, predictable ambient music, it seemed too easy:  I could just set up my guitar, and create a bunch of ebow loops (which, I now realise, I’ve been making for over 25 years…sigh), and send them away to John. so I decided to purposefully do something unexpected: instead of doing what was comfortable / expected / easy – instead, I played the piano.   and, stranger still, I wrote classical themes, instead of ambient or rock or pop.

such an ambitious move might well have backfired, but good fortune smiled on me; my many years of self-taught piano playing stood me in good stead (not to mention my fortunate / apparent / ability [??] to improvise without rehearsal or plan!) – the two sessions went very well indeed.  of course, if you are known as a guitarist, ambient or rock, what you do is…play classical piano?  well, strange though that idea may seem – it worked out quite well in the end.

so, I set up my MIDI grand piano in the now-familiar way, with more than one sound output; so I could have a choice of grand piano, and various mellotron “versions” of the pieces, with which to later build the album.  I then sat down and played – and for the most part, with some minor editing, what you hear in “providence suite” is exactly what I sat down and played.

played extemporaneously, I might add – for example, “grace”, is compiled from a series of 16 takes of the same evolving theme, with a number of mini-musical-themes within those 16 takes, originally, it was three mini-themes: takes 1 and 2 were “theme  I”; takes 3 and 4 were “theme II”; takes 5 through 15 were “theme III”; while take 16 was my attempt to incorporate all three themes into one single take – certain piano phrases, chord changes, and melodies that repeat in different configurations, as the takes…and hence the resulting movement…progress.

when it came time to assemble the piece, it just sounded “right” with all of the variations intact (the original plan had been to use the “best” takes – but what do you do when all sixteen tracks seem to be…”best”?. you publish them all…of course!)  🙂

so, the movement consists of all 16 takes, in sequence, in the order that they appeared – simply “tacked together”.  I merely “closed up the spaces” between the takes – and that was the movement – “grace”– it could not have been simpler.

this is an example of myself composing classical music on the fly, and luckily, with the recorder running; but at the same time, it’s a glimpse at the creative process, too; with each take, I am improving the themes, testing out alternate ideas, and generally perfecting the themes on the fly, as I was playing them. the takes for “movement no. 1 – grace” start out fairly basic, and then they grow and grow, and then for the final take, take 16, I attempted to reiterate each of the three mini-themes within the session all in one take – so that take does a wonderful job of recapitulating the 15 takes that went before, and was the perfect way to conclude the movement, too.

using both the piano tracks and the various mellotron variations, the music recorded in the first session, on march 4th, could then be assembled into the first two movements, “movement no. 1 – grace” and “movement no. 2 – redemption”.  “grace” is strictly solo grand piano, to clearly establish the themes using a familiar instrument; while “redemption” (which uses 17 iterations of the same 16 takes from grace, re-configured) restates those themes using the various mellotron voices and piano, including some unusual-sounding voices such as “after glow”, along with the more traditional, and more easily-recognisable, string and choir voices.

originally, there were four main keyboard themes, which shared two titles (“grace” – representing the march 4th session; “providence” – representing the march 24th session) – so originally, themes one and two, from march 4th, were “grace”, and themes three and four, from march 24th, were “providence”.   in the end, while I was assembling the pieces, and realising that I had a lot more viable material than I at first thought, I expanded the titles to seven distinct movements, which incorporate the four original themes.

when I read the above paragraph back, it seems a bit unclear ! so perhaps the simplest way to clarify it, is to draw a mapping from “theme” to “movement”:

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providence demo session – march 4th, 2012:

themes I & II      “movement no. 1 – grace” (solo grand piano themes) – from 16 sequential takes total (essentially a live performance, with some minor edits)

themes I & II      “movement no. 2 – redemption” (piano and mellotron variations on the themes) – 17 iterations total (from 16 takes)

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providence demo session – march 24th, 2012:

theme III             “movement no. 3 – providence” (piano and mellotron variations on the themes) – 13 takes total – including. from march 4th, one short excerpt from theme I and one short excerpt from theme II – which neatly ties together all of the themes from march 4th into the “providence” movement (the only movement to contain music from both the march 4th and the march 24th sessions)

theme IV              “movement no. 4 – atonement” (live performance – takes 1 through 5 of theme IV) – 5 of 9 takes total

theme IV              “movement no. 5 – purity” (live performance – takes 6 through 9 of theme IV) – 4 of 9 takes total

theme IV              “movement no. 6 – perfection” (piano and mellotron variations on the themes – takes 1 through 5) – based on the same live performance as “atonement” – 5 of 9 takes total

theme IV              “movement no. 7 – transcendence” (piano and mellotron variations on the themes – takes 6 through 9) – based on the same live performance as “purity” – 4 of 9 takes total

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the themes were originally intended to be first piano; then piano and after glow mellotron; and then, finally, a combination of those two plus additional choir / electric piano tracks, which were recorded live / direct from the output of my MIDI keyboard (using it’s very high quality internal voices).

however, thanks to some relentless digital noise (a constant problem with “pops” that plagued my studio for many months, and is now blissfully, mostly gone), all of the MIDI keyboard choir, strings and electric piano tracks were scrapped (ALL of them – from both sessions – so, dozens of tracks – all too damaged to salvage), which at first seemed an insurmountable loss – until I came up with the idea of re-creating them in an even more beautiful way, using a violin orchestra and a specially-designed stereo choir.  problem solved.

that is the beauty of working with MIDI – your output can be literally anything – although for classical music, I would basically always stick with using true pianos software for the grand piano sounds, and the m-tron pro mellotron software for more exotic sounds, in this case, strings and choirs.

by adding the additional three mellotron elements in – violin orchestra, choir ahs, choir oos, I was then able to “mix and match” instrumentation for any of the sections within each theme or movement.  and where the instruments change, that’s an indication of one take ending, and another one starting – so in some of the pieces, you can actually hear where each individual take “is”, because the instruments change each time the take changes from one to the next – solo choir, then piano and strings, then piano, strings and choir, then solo strings, and so on.

some of the pieces are presented just as I sent them to John, and pretty much just as I played them, unrehearsed, unplanned; especially the solo grand piano pieces, which had his approval – “movement no. 1 – grace” is very close to the demo versions; while “movement no. 3 – providence” did require some editing – there was simply too much material, too many takes, so I had to (reluctantly) remove a couple of the sections, and edit together what remained – but I was careful to preserve the musical themes – very, very little in the way of music has been taken out, just excessive repetitions of certain phrases were carefully removed.

so “grace” and “redemption” share the themes from the march 4th session; while “providence” presents the third theme (plus a reprise of theme I and a reprise of theme II – one take of each added in to the piece to tie all of the march 4th themes together – within the first theme from march 24th).

in the mixing stage, “movement no. 3 – providence”, gave me the most grief, it took three tries to get a mix I could feel happy about, the exuberance of the young pianist knows no bounds – but a little creative editing sorted that out – while some unplanned and exciting juxtapositions in the last four movements, and indeed, the inclusion of some of the earlier themes in “movement no. 3 – providence”, to tie the whole suite together, well, this was as much of a joy to assemble and mix as it was to play, it really was a pleasure – and it’s difficult for me to comprehend that all this music came from just two days of unrehearsed, extemporaneous piano playing – it was as if I’d composed it in my head beforehand, or in my sleep, in a dream, perhaps, and then; just sat down and played it from memory – the themes appeared like magic, with little conscious input from myself.  I recorded quickly, take after take, refining the themes as I went along.

when I sent the demos to John originally, his responses were both enthusiastic and very positive, and, he paid me an incredible compliment; when speaking about one of the pieces, he said “this piece is complete as-is, there is nothing I can add to it – it’s perfect” (paraphrased but you get the idea) – and that speaks to the sort of “completeness” or “completed-ness” if you will, of the pieces – they felt complete, they felt composed, despite the fact that I literally sat down, pushed “record”, and started recording with no notes, no rehearsal – and from that – this massive suite of music now exists – much to my everlasting astonishment!

I was particularly eager to mix and master the last four movements, because they utilise the incredibly beautiful “ebow ensemble” mellotron voice, which while it consists of sampled ebows (my normal instrument of choice) when played back on the mellotron, it doesn’t sound quite like ebows, it has a more ethereal, beautiful, string orchestra-like feeling to it, so it’s like a cross between the most beautiful ebows and the most beautiful strings you never heard…a magical, beautiful musical voice for the final four movements of the suite.

again, I used the strings and special stereo choir to augment the “ebow ensemble” voice on the final two movements, but for “movement no. 4 – atonement” and “movement no. 5 – purity”, you hear just the “ebow ensemble” in it’s purest form, with nothing added and no variations – and again, these two movements are basically what I played on the day, march 24th, 2012 – “movement no. 4 – atonement” is made up from combining takes 1 through 5, unchanged and unedited, while “movement no. 5 – purity” is composed of takes 6 – 9, unchanged and unedited, of nine takes total – every note I played is presented in these two themes, as they were played. so in this case, movements four and five are live recordings of theme four, and in fact, they represent every one of the nine existing takes of theme four, as they happened.

by that criteria, in actual fact, movements four and five are completely and totally “live to digital”, while the other themes underwent very minor editing (with the exception of “providence” which did have to be edited more severely) so these two live “ebow ensemble” pieces give you an idea what it was like for me, sitting there at my keyboard, hearing what would become “movement no. 4 – atonement” and “movement no. 5 – purity” come out of the mellotron – an unbelievably beautiful sound, which was utterly inspirational, and I hope you can hear by the soaring theme four, just how exciting this last session was – unforgettable.  I had never recorded using just the ebow ensemble voice (no piano) and it just sounded amazing to my ears – a remarkable experience.  when you press down the keys and that sound comes out, it’s just breathtaking and extremely inspirational.

I should take a moment and talk about the missing piece (my apologies, I am listening to gentle giant as I type this blog entry) ; during the march 4th session, I did record some guitar synthesizer pieces for the “providence” project (before I began this keyboard-based work); these were mostly unsuccessful, requiring a lot of time and effort to make them useful, however, there is one very simple and overriding reason why they are not included here: they are not really classical music – and while I can play classical music on the guitar synth, the pieces I recorded on guitar as demos from providence, were simply not the right material to be added directly to “providence suite” – they were going somewhere else musically – so if and when they are released, it will be…somewhere else :-).

if time permits, I do intend to sit down with these guitar themes (including the unreleased theme “intransigence”) and see if I can create something to listen to, although it may be more in demo form than in completely mixed and mastered form as “providence suite” has ended up – there is not a lot of the guitar material, certainly not enough for an album or possibly even an EP, but if I can master any tracks from that part of the session, of course, I will – but that’s something I plan to look at later on in the new year.

once I set the guitar aside, and sat down at the piano, where I proceeded to play the “grace” theme pretty much as you hear it here…everything started to go right in an incredible way.  I can remember feeling so excited about these pieces, and I burned all of the tracks (which were quite substantial) to disc and mailed them away to John for his comments…which came back very positive, he seemed happy with the material, and I was looking forward to hearing his sketches.  that never came to pass, so my “half” of the music of providence, now released under my own name, is all there is of the band that was-to-be-known-as “providence”.

life is a funny thing, it never goes as you plan it, as john lennon once said, “life is what happens while you are busy making plans” and that could not be a more true statement for this project – I am amazed, though, that some 22 months after it was recorded, that this piece of music would be so epic, so challenging, so dramatic and so clearly filled with emotion.  I tend to pour emotion into the music I write; the chords, melodies and harmonies I choose (minor motifs are common) reflect this, but in this case, it was if these pieces were already present inside me, in the memory of my hands and mind, and the act of sitting down at the keyboard released them into the world.

and here they are – the seven movements of “providence suite”:

grace – 18:54

redemption – 19:46

providence – 20:34

atonement – 10:40

purity – 6:22

perfection – 10:38

transcendence – 6:22

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for John, without whom, this music would not exist

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www.overflower.com the music of john orsi

www.pureambient.com the music of dave stafford

POSTSCRIPT:

I recommend that if possible, to listen to the entire suite as a single work – that’s how it’s intended, of course, you can listen to any of the movements in isolation, but playing the seven movements in sequence gives you the music in the way John and I discussed and intended it to be, as an “album” – and given that John was not able to actually contribute any recorded music, I still very much valued his input, I valued our collaboration, and the ideas we exchanged, and his intentions are as well-reflected as they can be in these pieces – I have worked very hard to do justice to his memory, by assembling this plaintive,  sometimes sombre set of musical movements, made up of the raw material that was originally meant for the first “providence” album – the album that was not to be.

“providence”, as a band, never completed or released any actual music, which is why I have taken the time to mix and master “providence suite” now, at the end of december 2013, and to release it with my best wishes, sending my positive thoughts with it into the new year 2014.  reluctantly, I release it under my own name, rather than under the name “providence” – but that’s not a problem, it’s just an unavoidable issue – this is the way I can release this work, which features only myself performing, unfortunately.  if John had had time to send me his parts (it is actually unclear if he ever was able to actually record any parts, or if they were recorded, he never sent anything to me beyond letters), it would be a very different story…and a very different album, too.  so what was to be a collaboration of many instruments with ambient and active percussion, with ebow loops and solos, with collaborations…instead, I am presenting these “solo” versions of the seven movements, taken from the original master recordings made in march, 2012 – because that is the only option.

“providence suite” was conceived to honour the memory and intention of the band “providence”, and to honour the input of John as much as is humanly possible when the music presented does not contain any of his recorded sound – but his heart is in it (as is mine), and when I hear this music, I think of the music of  “providence” – not of “dave stafford solo recording” – that’s a choice that was made for me, I am very happy indeed, but at the same time, it is with a heavy heart, because John isn’t here to see it happen (and more importantly, he is not present to hear the music inspired by the band – beyond in demo form – and from our collaborative thoughts and communications) – I am most happy to release these pieces now, comprising “my half” of the work, in John’s honour and in his memory.

I never met John “in the real world” but from his letters and other communications, I felt a kindred musical spirit, we shared a vision of a new kind of collaborative effort, across an ocean, from providence, rhode island to the wilds of central scotland –  we…stood poised…to set the world on fire with our music – and in hearing “my half” of what the band would have eventually released, I’d like to think that we actually would have :-).

this one is for you, John, wherever you are.

on the road to red…

Impressions, feelings, memories. a journey made by my favourite band of all time – King Crimson – across the USA and Canada – ending in some professionally recorded gigs and ultimately, to that final gig, on July 1, 1974, in New York’s Central Park – the end of an era – the end of the original King Crimson which had existed in one form or another since 1969.

Ten very diverse albums, embracing prog, jazz, rock and musics in between; countless tours, one of the most road-tested bands of all time – and in many cases, Fripp, the band leader, would work in reverse: instead of recording an album and then going out and playing it, he would “rehearse” the band by going on the road, and then once the songs were worked in, then it’s time to record them – a wonderful way of working, a method which gave us “Starless and Bible Black” – a studio album that is mostly live.

The Road To Red” if you haven’t heard, is Fripp’s latest “attack on culture”: simply, it’s as many of the 1974 live shows, from the US/Canadian tour, that could be eked out of whatever tapes existed, brought together on 21 CDs for your listening pleasure (yes, I said 21) – if you have a few days free to listen!  It’s an impressive feat, and actually, given that some of the source tapes are dodgy bootleg cassettes, the set as a whole is extremely listenable, because, the occasional lapse in sound quality aside, this band was on fire – they went out each night to try and change the world, just a little bit – and every night, they were rewarded with something memorable.

now, we are reaping that same reward, but with the added time, these performances seem even more extraordinary – this was a band with a particular musical vision, and they stuck to that vision – night after night.

It’s not all perfect – things happen, as Robert once said “a foot slips on a volume pedal…” but it’s pretty damn consistent, and given that they were using not one but two of that most temperamental of instruments, the mellotron, it’s amazing that things didn’t break down more than they do.

There are no surprises here in terms of musicianship, except perhaps how very effective David Cross could be with his extremely distorted electric piano, or in occasional quiet moments, on the violin, there is almost no need to describe just how incredibly well the rhythm section play on this set, it’s an object lesson in power and precision, the Bill Bruford / John Wetton team, topped with the amazing guitar histrionics of Mr. Robert Fripp himself – soloing with passion, power and even humour – there is one moment during “Easy Money” where Fripp tries to get Wetton to laugh, and it’s there in almost every take of the track, Wetton trying to sing but instead, listening to and laughing out loud at whatever silly riff Robert has inserted into “Easy Money” on this particular night.

I said there were no surprises here, but what I mean by that is that there are no surprises that these four players play so, so well, individually, and as a unit, but, there ARE surprises, sometimes, something will happen one night that doesn’t happen on any other night.  Perhaps it’s the guitar solo in “Lament”, which may sound much the same from night to night until one night, when Fripp decides it’s time to try something completely different, and holds one note for ages as the start of his “solo” – and then plays a blinder that is nothing like previous “Lament” solos. The next night – back to the “normal” solo.

Or, Robert might decide that tonight, the guitar solo for “Easy Money” is going to be done double time, and when he comes in with said solo, the ferocity, the determination, is truly awe-inspiring – the band are very comfortable with these tracks, and they don’t mind deviating from the script – in fact, it’s positively encouraged – and from night to night, each of the four will change up their parts, just for the sheer joy of seeing what might happen…

And sometimes, what happens is remarkable.  There are some truly beautiful renditions of King Crimson classics here, and it’s especially gratifying to have so many versions of “Fracture” and “Starless” to luxuriate in – personally, I can’t get enough of either track.

For me, too, often, it’s the “Improvs” that make these shows truly interesting, where the band goes completely off-script, and sometimes, the results are truly inspirational – stunning, loud, fast, amazing, slow, beautiful, peaceful – these improvs can be almost anything, and it’s fantastic that the band includes them in every show – they break up the sets beautifully, often providing a springboard in or out of one of the pieces in the set list.

Maybe the best anecdote that sums up the professionalism, the camaraderie, the teamwork, of King Crimson Mark 3, as Fripp calls this band – is the story of the “John Wetton Save”.  This occurs early on in the set, near the end of one of the versions of “The Night Watch”.  The piece is nearly done, Fripp is on his own, playing the short, repeating mellotron chordal section that leads up to the final violin melody, which then leads to the song’s end.

Fripp is playing away, the revolving mellotron part, when the band all seem to realise that there is no violin coming in (apparently, it had broken down completely) so what happens next is astonishing: Fripp decides to play the part a second time, so another few bars of music go by, when once again, the moment has come for when the violin solo should come in.

But what happens instead is, we hear John Wetton playing the violin melody as a bass solo, with feeling, playing it note perfect, slowly, deliberately, as if it were MEANT to be a bass solo (even though it’s NOT a part he is required to know – somehow, he knows it!) which then brought the band to the end of the piece perfectly – without missing a beat – and a successful conclusion, sans violin, to a beautiful piece of music. 

And – it’s a bonus, it’s the ONLY time you will hear Wetton playing that particular melody anywhere on record – it was a demand of the moment, an equipment failure causing an unscheduled bass solo emulating a missing violin solo…brilliant !!  It could only happen in King Crimson, and it’s to Wetton’s credit that he picked up that melody so quickly and perfectly – saving the day and rescuing our distressed violinist.

I could sit here and write about each disc of this set, exhaustively, pointing out certain gems and certain gaffes (not too many of those, actually) but I think it’s best if I just keep this concise and say, if you like King Crimson live, you could do a lot worse than to pick up this beautiful box set, which comes with all kinds of goodies, a huge booklet featuring the good Sid Smith; excerpts from Fripp’s diary, photographs, and various facsimile lyric sheets and so on – a really, really nice package, which also includes a treasure-trove of DVD and blu-ray material.

Another nice feature of this set is the fact that five of the shows were recorded professionally, multi-track, so that means those five shows can be presented in extra pristine sound quality versions.  You even get two different mixes of one of those shows – the Asbury Park show – one mix from Robert Fripp, Tony Arnold and David Singleton, the other, from Ronan Chris Murphy.

The presence of the high quality recordings near the end of the set nicely balances out some of the less high fidelity moments earlier on, so you actually end up with increasingly better sound quality as the set goes along (with the exception of the final Central Park concert, where we sadly, must return to a cassette source).

That’s a bonus you don’t get in most live series, professionally recorded shows – but this was intentional, and all of the material for the official live King Crimson record of the day, “USA”, is culled from those shows.  So really, this record might have been called “The Road To Red And USA” but I guess that doesn’t really have the same ring to it!

Disc 21 is the culmination of the “road” – a new 2013 mix of the studio album “Red” which followed this tour – mixed by the unstoppable Steven Wilson. So you get to hear the live shows that lead up to the recording of “Red”, so you can feel the energy that was in the band when they went to make that record.  It’s no wonder that the studio version of “Starless” is so incredible, being built on the back of these live performances – that is proof that the rehearse-on-the-road method really works when it needs to.

For a fan like me, ordering this was an absolute no-brainer, yes, I did have a few of these shows already, but this brings them all together in perfect chronological order, so it’s nice to have them all in one set.  Some of this material was released on the most excellent “Great Deceiver” set (but, only in part) and others were variously, DGM CDs or DGM downloads – but, to be fair, there is also a fair amount of previously unreleased material, which makes it an absolute “must have” for the voracious King Crimson fans – of which, I am admittedly one.

This set rocks, I’ve sat for the last two days, playing disc after disc, hearing the band get better and better at the tunes, and hearing the improvs develop – and I can tell you, the conclusion of “Starless” night after night, does not get ANY less beautiful or inspiring, it’s just incredibly beautiful, and Fripp’s final lead solo at the very end of the song, is soaring, searing and intensely, intensely beautiful – that one note just rings and rings…and then fades away as the mellotrons also fade.  it’s starless…and bible black.

I am surprised, I would have thought that after about ten discs, I would be getting tired of hearing “Lament” or “The Talking Drum” over and over and over again, but I absolutely do not, because interesting things happen – different things happen from night to night, show to show, venue to venue, and it’s fabulous hearing the band experimenting, trying out new ideas, as they tour across North America.

Then, finally, July 1, 1974, live in Central Park – the great Crimson beast of 1969-1974 was finally laid to rest – the last live show ever by this line-up, and the continuous series of various “King Crimson’s” finally brought to an end – and at that time, of course, we didn’t know that Crimson would indeed re-emerge, re-built from the ground up, in 1981 – but for us, suddenly in 1974 to find that Crimson was no more! – this final line-up was probably the best line-up, it’s arguable either way, many cite the 1969 line-up that only existed for 11 months as the “best”, or, this final quartet that worked for about 18 months (from 1973 through half of 1974) – I am not counting the 1972 – 1973 period when they were a quintet with Jamie Muir.

I think that this band had a better chance to really work out their repertoire, and they actually had material that stretched from Larks’ Tongues through “Starless and Bible Black” – two full albums (and, two of their most adventurous, complex, mature works from which to draw on) – plus, they played old worlde Crimson pieces such as “Cat Food”, “Peace – A Theme” or “21st Century Schizoid Man” – and, also, odd unreleased tracks such as the illustrious “Doctor Diamond” which was never recorded in the studio (I think).

It was great fun, for example, hearing Wetton tackle the vocal to “Cat Food” – that is really something (not found on “The Road To Red”, but available on earlier live recordings) – and this band’s take on “Schizoid Man” is not to be taken lightly.  “Schizoid Man” isn’t played at every gig on “The Road To Red” but when it is – you notice 🙂

I am staggered, though, just listening to a randomly selected version of Fracture, first, at the complexity and maturity of Fripp’s biggest challenge to himself (of the time) – and second, at the world class, incredible fuzz bass and loud distorted bass and beautiful soft bass that John Wetton plays during “Fracture”.  Yes, what Bruford and Cross do in “Fracture” is very important, I am not downplaying that – but what Wetton does with this piece, you can hear him, hanging on for dear life, trying to follow Fripp on his cosmic guitar journey – and then that bass solo at the end – it’s fracking impossible – he rips it off like it’s nothing – and then right back into that climbing coda.

All four players have their moments, and all of them can solo like four houses on fire, but for me, this set gives you John Wetton, one of the most powerful bassists in rock music, in all his glory – loud, belligerent, confident, capable, subtle, and always, always present, always in the moment.

I don’t feel like I can really critique the guitar playing of Robert Fripp, occasionally, equipment gets the better of him, there’s one awkward silence where something goes wrong and he actually stops playing for a few seconds – but then, consummate professional, comes back in as if nothing had happened.  Some guitarists have criticised his tone, his endless distortion through wah pedals and so on – but I really put any such problems down to the equipment of the time – and really, with Fripp, you aren’t there to hear a bitchin’ tone, you are there to hear him play.  And play – he does.  With blinding speed, with innovative ideas, with surprising and strange note selections – always questing, always pushing the limits, and it’s a joy to hear him work his way through this amazing catalogue of music on the live stage – absolute genius at work.

Not meaning to ignore the good drummer – to me, this tour just shows what an incredibly good decision it was to quit Yes and join King Crimson – to me, Bruford was BORN to play drums with John Wetton – and there has never, ever to my mind, been a better pairing.  They just work perfectly together, and no need for more than that.  The perfect rhythm section, which made things much easier for Cross and Fripp, the two soloists – because they know they can depend on the Wetton-Bruford powerhouse – which can also transform into the most delicate, beautiful sounding accompanying bass and percussionist imaginable, and on some of the very pastoral, violin-led improvs, where Wetton and Bruford are both playing so carefully and gently – you can’t really believe it’s the same band that had just been belting out “21st Century Schizoid Man” at full volume four minutes beforehand !

But there it is – a band capable of great dynamic range, from a whisper to a scream – and I love both of those bands – the quiet, gentle melodic King Crimson, and the hard rocking, jamming, improvising King Crimson.

You will find both aplenty on The Road To Red.

Available in fine music shops everywhere.

living in the past

no, not the classic album from jethro tull, nor, the tendency of mature folk to wistfully long for days gone by; but instead, just a state of mind I’ve had to become accustomed to with regard to my own music and…how much of it there is! 🙂

the problem is, stated simply, is that I record far more music than I have time available to “process”.  as a result, there is an ever-growing backlog of tasks, two of which are always, always on my mind:

1)     audio mixing and mastering

2)     video creation and upload

things have changed for me, in some quite radical ways, two years ago, I had music made with instruments: guitars, basses, keyboards, soft synths, the kaossilator pad, and so on.  familiar instruments, that I’ve been working with all my life (or, in the case of the kaoss pad, some of my life!).  with the instruments, I had already become so prolific that I was about a year behind on video mastering, and some months behind on audio mixing and mastering.

but then came the advent of applications.  that really threw a monkey wrench into my musical affairs, because suddenly, I had not one new instrument, but 40 or 50 new instruments, seriously, all of which allowed for the very quick production of a lot of high quality music.  this overwhelming amount of new music made with a huge number of apps, became such a problem so quickly, that I was forced to invent a new kind of album to deal specifically with application based music – the “eternal album”.

the first four “eternal albums” are now live on bandcamp, and from what I can tell, they are working correctly.  having these means I am free of having to worry about compiling albums for any applications-based music – which is great.

so now, I have two main, massive streams of music, which are kept physically separately, to maintain clarity:

1)     music made with traditional instruments

2)     music made with applications

however, I do view the backlog as a whole – I have audio mastering and video mastering to do for both instrument-based and application-based music, and I actually just tackle it in chronological order, regardless of what it is – maybe it’s a session done with addictive synth arpeggiators, then next, some live electric guitar improvs, then, some guitar synth improvs, then, back to the ipad for some n log pro pieces…it might be anything.

the one thing all of these mastering projects have in common, is how far behind I am on them J.  at one point, I had the video backlog down to about three months – and then, things happen – and suddenly, not even sure how it happens, it’s back to over a year – 13, 14 months!  so what can I do, what choice do I have, except to go back and master those 14 month old videos, to clear the way to mastering the 13 month old videos…and so on, ad infinitum, video without end.  followed by, audio without end.

I will never, ever run out of work.  sure – I could stop making videos.  but that’s my “stage”; since both physical constraints and time constraints prohibit me from playing real gigs (I’ve played very few in the last decade, sadly), so performing live guitar improvs on youtube, or playing the kaoss pad, or singing peter hammill tracks at the piano, creating music with ipad applications or on the synthesizer– takes the place of that stage – in fact, it’s in a way,  it’s better, because it’s a world stage, where anyone, from anywhere, is welcome to listen and watch the improvs and loops and songs.

in another way, it’s not better, because I miss the feedback that a “real” audience provides.  I have to remind myself, though, that the youtube audience is just as real, and they do provide feedback in the form of comments, both online and offline, so that’s a great relationship – and besides all that, I don’t WANT to stop making videos – I love it!

all I can really do is keep going, and hope that I find enough time to eventually, get “caught up” – or at least, close to it.  I know it’s possible, because I nearly was “caught up” at the beginning of this year.  now, due to circumstances beyond my control…I am far behind once again.

however – there is hope.  the “eternal albums” truly, truly help me, and once I have a couple dozen of those in place, life, and the backlog, will get substantially better.  why?  because for a full fifty percent of the music I make, the applications-based music, I no longer have the task of creating bespoke “albums” – I can literally complete a track; master it, and add it to the existing, live-on-bandcamp “eternal album” – and that is win / win / win:

  • it no longer sits “in the can” waiting for enough material to form an album
  • it’s out to the listeners and fans faster
  • it’s off my backlog !

so once I have a couple dozen “eternal albums” all growing slowly and organically, as tracks using that application get completed, they go straight “up” and onto the appropriate album – that will mean I can spend MORE time working on the Instrument side – audio mixes and videos, which I hope means I might actually get caught up !

possibly.

now, I do also have plans to create a few special “eternal albums” for some of my instrument-based music too.  at the moment, what I have in mind looks like this:

new instrument-based dave stafford “eternal albums”:

1)     “longer” by “bindlestiff” – lost live recordings from 1994, these were never assessed, over 70 tapes exist, so instead of trying to pick the best seventeen songs from 70 tapes, and make a single, traditional album, I plan instead, to go through them over time, as time permits, and as I locate viable tracks, upload them to the “longer” album – until all 70 tapes have been gone through.  this will hopefully generate a long, long record, which will be a wonderful history of the “lost year” in the life of the band (including some very, very rare tracks, like our ambient, ebow-driven cover of jimi hendrix’s “the burning of the midnight lamp” which we rehearsed many times but never performed in public – somewhere, there may be a take of this – I hope) – even if there is just an average of one good track per tape, that means a 70 track album – and almost certainly many, many more.  I am also hoping that these tapes will present many, many different “versions” of one of our signature pieces, “without difference” – which went through some really interesting evolutions, so I can’t wait to compare the versions from “longest” with the existing versions on “quiet” and “live” – and to hear multiple versions of songs, to hear them slowly evolve and develop as we become more and more comfortable and familiar with them as pieces of our repertoire.

2)     “classical” by dave stafford – this is to cover a little-known side of my music, which is given away by the title.  since acquiring the guitar synth, I’ve taken an interest in creating classical music, and I’ve got a nine minute plus, nearly-complete concerto for “nylon classical guitar” and “oboe”, which has been sitting waiting patiently for me to finish it and release it, for something like three years.  it’s a lovely piece, that started life as a short classical-style loop (of guitar synth “oboe”, “clarinet”, and “flute”), which I then developed into a proper piece of music, and then – started expanding. it features the “nylon classical guitar” heavily, and the aforementioned “oboes”, (one of the “oboe” solos I play, I consider, may be the single best solo I’ve ever played in my life – not sure) – meanwhile, I’ve added “cello”, “organ”, “vibes”, “piano” – and, in the final coda – I used massed “string sections” to create real drama – in wonderful stereo – and a plethora of other classical instruments, too, and the piece is really, really coming along.  I would say it’s about 90 percent plus complete at this point in time – so very close to ready.

it’s absolutely remarkable to me that a person can compose for “orchestra” – and I mean full orchestra, any instrument you dream of – with a single roland gr-55 guitar synth!  but really, that’s all you need –you don’t need to hire musicians, or score all the parts – you just play them all yourself 🙂 so I really want to get this album set up so I can release this piece, and hopefully, if time permits, record and add more “dave stafford classical pieces” over time.  a bit indulgent, perhaps, creating an album for one track – but I really want this track to be available, as it shows a side of my music that you might never, ever imagine – one where my prowess with the guitar synth “oboe” is much more important than my prowess with lead guitar 🙂 how very strange indeed!

3)     “classical ambient” by dave stafford – this would collect all existing classical ambient pieces, there are many that were done as live videos, and some studio pieces, too, that are sitting “in the can”. this would give these works their own platform, as they are unique – mostly “strings”-based pieces, but “strings” performed as ambient loops – such as “bela teguese” which you can hear on youtube on the pureambientHD channel at the moment.  there are also some string + guitar synth based pieces, pieces created with two guitar synths, that might fit in well on this album…but that gets tricky, as those are actually one instrument and one application – so not truly “instrument-based”!

4)     “straight to video” by dave stafford – this would collect the best of my video performances (most of which, have never been compiled or collected into albums – with a few notable exceptions such as live ebow tracks for “the haunting” and tracks from 20120820 that ended up on “gone native”) – but in the main, these videos are shot live, produced, uploaded, and then never formally collected into albums or any other presentation – and also, we’ve had requests from fans for “audio” versions of some of these video tracks, so this would be a way to satisfy those requests, too.  this would also include alternate mixes and alternate versions – in some cases, I might have done three takes, and only uploaded one video – meaning that there are actually three audio versions available, one from the video, and two unreleased – that’s the kind of thing that would be featured on this album.  or, in some cases, I created alternate mixes of a single audio mix, to try out, so an alternate mix of “folding space”, for example, exists – “folding space (hypercardioid mix)” – same track as the video, but “treated” in a separate audio file – and then not used in the final video.

it’s remarkable how all this music has appeared in my life, often, I actually have no idea how it all gets done, but it does – somehow.  I am working diligently to find the best way to present it to you, and bandcamp seems like the ideal platform, because, most importantly, you can listen first, which is a great feature, and secondly, you can select just the tracks you want, and not the ones you don’t – not every track appeals to every person – so it provides the ultimate in choice, the most flexible choice possible, which I think is really good.

I’m also very pleased that recently I did finally find the time to upload some of my archival albums – I always thought it strange, just seeing four or five of my more recent records up there, knowing that there is this huge back catalogue – and really, it’s just finding time to upload it – not easy, there is a lot of detail that needs to be entered to make the albums as complete and accurate as possible…for example, last night, I was working on the “song with no end” EP, which, because it contains four vocal numbers, actually meant that I needed to transcribe the lyrics to all four vocal songs directly onto bandcamp.  I made certain that this was done, as lyrics are vitally important to vocal music.

bandcamp is a great platform for both artist and listener, and we hope long may it live.  we shall continue uploading the back catalogue, and we’d like to take this opportunity too, to thank the many, many listeners who have been visiting bandcamp, and who have been checking out some of these archival releases – and in doing so, we are experiencing the highest visitor levels of all time on the bandcamp site.  so – thank you for that, we really appreciate all of our visitors.

the early and mid 90s were a very, very exciting time for looping and ambient, we had “looper’s delight” – a mailing list where loopers could share their experiences; we also had, again under the auspices of that most excellent of communities, “looper’s delight”; various compilation CDs where we could submit music and become part of this very early looping community – and at the same time, for bryan helm and I, we had the support of the crafty community as well, and our ongoing interactions with guitar craft – and I think sometimes, that this amazing time is a bit overlooked, when “new” loopers like the oberheim echoplex pro were just arriving, this was such a great time in music.

for me, it was 1993 – 1995, as a member of live looping ambient duo “bindlestiff” that I experienced the bleeding edge of live looping and live ambient (and, the added inspiration of continued close involvement with guitar craft) – an unforgettable experience, that spawned solo albums for me from “other memory / sand island” to “transitory” to “1867” to “the autoreverse sessions” and so on, and concurrently, a string of seven brilliant “bindlestiff” CDs, too – and all of these recordings document a remarkable decade for both looping and ambient music in general – and I’m very proud to have been there right in the centre of it all !

happy listening!!!!

TC-11 – a touch-controlled synth for ipad that really delivers…

since acquiring a tablet device some time ago, I’ve tried a lot of ipad synths, and I am not ashamed to say I have a very large collection of them, that is still growing steadily – and probably always will! 🙂

they tend to fall into three broad classes:

  • category one – those that work to emulate normal synthesizers, and therefore, their main method of producing notes and chords is a “virtual” keyboard;
  • category two – those that use an alternate method to produce notes and chords – in a serious number of radical configurations, some more successful than others;
  • category three – other less easily defined interfaces – oddball devices / devices that use truly unusual methods of triggering notes and chords;

so – in our first category (by far the most populated, from what I can tell) you have keyboard-based synths ranging from animoog to xenon, including classic emulations of moogs and korgs (such as the iMS-20 or the iPolysix), other standalones  such as addictive synthalchemy, mini-synth pro or magellan, and second and third generation devices such as the amazing thor and the equally capable nave.

the second category is a mixed bag, with some good entrants, such as the strangely satisfying sound prism pro; then you have your cantors, your mugicians, and the like…they don’t have keys, but they have a single, straightforward way of producing notes and chords.  but that is also their drawback – they only have one screen pattern, regardless how innovative.

and then finally, the somewhat unclassifiable, such as the good dr. om, noisemusick, the 76 synth, or the moog filtatron – any number of oddballs “fit”, more or less, into this third category.

in category one, some stunning advances have been made, and in the case of a keyboard-based synth like the mighty thor – well, this synth is almost a textbook case for how to build a perfect synth in ios – it’s just a dream to play, it sounds great, it looks great, and the developers deserve a huge pat on the back for what they’ve done with thor – it’s really incredible.  if I want the best in a keyboard-based ios synth, I almost always turn to thor or nave, nave or thor, or let’s not forget the redoubtable iMini.

while I might go for one of those first, depending on the requirement, for another session, on another night – I might go for animoog (which has become quite the synth now that you can get the richard devine and other nice sound libraries for it, the metallic library is also fabulous) – so that’s a synth that has improved with the addition of new libraries, although of course, you do have to pay for them – or I might choose one of the korgs, or addictive synth, or cassini, or xenon or sunrizer.  or let us not forget the mighty n log pro – a fantastic first generation synth.

I’ve been less impressed with the progress of category two and three synths, that is, until I decided to take advantage of a rare price reduction on the TC-11 synth a few days ago – and suddenly, all these attempts to use the massive screen of the ipad in a unique and unusual, yet totally functional and musical way – well, it all starts to make sense now!  the designers / developers of TC-11 has done what the sound prisms and mugicians and the cantors could not quite do – they’ve created a synth with no keyboard, that is actually playable; that challenges the very need for a standard keyboard, and I found today, in making some test recordings, that it is entirely possible to play music with the TC-11 – despite the lack of a keyboard.

so the claim on the itunes store that the TC-11 synth is “the only fully programmable multi-touch synthesizer for the iPad” – would actually seem to be true! – I’ve certainly never encountered any other ios synth with the level of “under the hood” control that the TC-11 gives you.

the key is that there is no one solution, there isn’t one static screen (as there is with sound prism pro, mugician, cantor, and so on) instead, there is a different screen for each preset!  and each patch is totally configurable, from the oscillators to the filters to sequencers to the effects to determining how the movement of your fingers affects auto-panning, total behind-the-scenes control.

I actually bought this synth thinking “OK, I am a guitarist, and I have a lot to learn about synthesis still, despite playing and working with them for more than a few decades; I will buy this, and I will sit down at some far future point, many months from now, and try to teach myself how to program it…”  I expected it to be beyond me – and am pleasantly surprised to find that really, it’s not.

within seconds, I was playing, within minutes, music was emerging, even before I really understood what is going on with this remarkable synthesis engine, which is utterly and so beautifully configurable, you have access to everything under the hood, and I do mean everything – and this synth has just about everything you could ever, ever want – you are in control!

like any good ios synth, of course, it comes stocked with a healthy dose of presets; and from examining the way those are designed, I can begin to make my own connections and alterations and create fantastic patches of my own.  I actually didn’t expect presets, I thought I would have to build all of my own, but the developer has spent some serious time and effort to give us some absolutely great sounding presets right out of the box – which also work as building blocks for sounds of our own that we will design later…did I mention that the synth comes with a fantastic set of presets?

when you play through some of the presets, you will see that not one, but several different screen configurations are used, based on various different geometrical shapes – commonly, a circular interface; fret like interfaces; and various alternate versions of several basic screens, none of them featuring a key of any size or shape! nary a white key or black note in sight – and that, in the case of the TC-11, is a good thing.

despite the lack of a keyboard, there is a somehow-obvious logic (that I can’t describe in words) and when you play each patch, well, sometimes, it just hits you how you should use your fingers, you might make a fist to create a really pure chord, or stretch two notes far apart to increase that amazing thick flanger – but the design of even these presets is incredibly complex, and you can get amazing and very musical results by variously:

  • making a swirling circle with one or two or three fingers
  • putting all five or all ten fingers down in a semicircle
  • making a fist in the centre of the screen, and spinning it slowly around
  • trailing a single finger from one corner of the screen to another corner
  • tapping out individual notes just as if you had a keyboard, but – you don’t
  • moving the entire ipad in various directions to effect the sound as you hold fingers on the screen
  • playing the screen like a typewriter
  • any combination of the above
  • using your imagination – just try it…and hear what it does to the sound !!!

…in other words, almost any gesture that you can imagine, made with finger, fingers, the fingers of two hands, the backs or sides of your hands…will produce a distinct result within the parameters of that patch, and some of the effects are extreme and wonderful – especially in the world of auto-panning, a lot of work has gone into the panner, not to mention some beautiful delays and flangers, too.

I imagine that you could put your forehead down on the screen, and something beautiful would come out of the TC-11. 🙂

so now – what I suddenly have here, is a superlative touch control interface synth that I can already play.  with some rehearsal, and some knowledge of how to get the best out of some of the best presets, and I should be able to play it live, anywhere, without issues.  so when I want to move from playing thor, and the world of the black and white, the tradition, playing those 88s in which ever mode I find them on whichever category one synth I am playing…

…to the world of total freedom, where one patch is all about circles and chords, another, about fretless dub bass with sonic qualities you will not believe, the next, an abstract plane of rectangles that fades into the top of the screen in an endless, fading curve, which defines your “playing field” for the next patch – it’s fantastic, a fantastical world of sound that is one of the most exciting I’ve heard, touched and seen, in a long time – the TC-11 is the real deal.

playing it is very, very liberating, the only experience I can compare it to, was when I first got my korg kaossilator, and I realised that after forty some years of making music with either frets, or keys – that I could make GOOD MUSIC without the benefit of keys or frets – well, it’s a similar feeling – and a wonderful, freeing one I can tell you.

I can make that comparison easily, because when I started out with the koass pad, I had no idea what would happen, and to my everlasting astonishment, with one day of practice – I could make music – without those pesky keys or frets or strings!

same thing with the TC-11 – within minutes, I could make music, even though the interface was completely alien to me, after a few minutes, I could begin to pull tunes out of it – which surprised the heck out of me, because with other category two and three synths, like sound prism – OK, you can get some nice chords and melodies out of sound prism – but you don’t get what you get with the TC-11 – beautiful, rich, synth music – with a really, truly unique playing surface, which is really, really fun to play – with a beautiful synthesis engine powering it, giving you the power to configure each patch to suit the way you want to move your fingers, to create the sounds you want to hear when you use that patch – total control, including the playing surface.

and, with the total configurability of the TC-11, even the most demanding, experienced synthesist should find the kind of control they crave for their patches – total control,  and playing without keys, finally got truly do-able.

so if you enjoy the challenge of playing the synthesizer without a keyboard, using a variety of approaches for note and chord generation, and you want a totally configurable synth with a powerful engine that you can tweak to your heart’s delight – then the TC-11 is the category two synth for you!  give it a try – I am finding it to be very, very addictive – it’s just a LOT of fun to play, and trying out different gestures to see what sound will result is a real hoot, and sometimes a new gesture will bring out an amazing sound out of a patch you thought you knew everything about – it’s full of surprises.

I took a bit of a risk in purchasing this, thinking it was far beyond me, but that risk has been rewarded a thousandfold, and what I have with the TC-11 is a fantastic tool for both live performance and recording – and a tool I know I will make a lot of use of in the years to come.  the TC-11 is a winner with me – a real winner.

you may want to give it a try – I am so, so glad that I decided to give it a go – because boy does it ever go! 🙂

a mixtikl experience…

i never dreamed i would think or say this:

i believe i like mixtikl better than i like scape…for ambient (and non-ambient) generative music creation.

there – I said it. sacrilege!

don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love scape; it consistently produces truly beautiful, unique, ambient music – but for a musician, it is an odd experience – you draw a picture, and music comes out.  that’s amazing, and it sounds great, but I like to have more…control over what happens in a piece of music that I am creating.

all of the rules are hidden, and as far as how much control the operator actually has over the app – in scape? none, basically. but over in mixtikl…the operator has almost total control – maybe too much control!

I made scapes for months and months until I had over a thousand of them – and then one day, I just stopped.  I will make more at some point – but I’ve never really had time to listen to the ones I’ve made, in the main…so I will do some listening, and eventually, go back to scaping – because it’s fun, it’s a fantastic app…but.

mixtikl…gives me control.  and I have to admit, I like that.  I like the idea that I can select the sample (even create it myself, if I so desire) and that I can mix and match anything with anything…it’s the ultimate in creative flexibility.  you can do ANYTHING! literally, anything.

as I tend to do, my first creations on mixtikl were ambient, mostly.  after a few months, though, drums started creeping in, and then I found myself intentionally creating active pieces – and the results were just as satisfying, and sometimes startling, as the results were with the ambient pieces.

I recently did a new piece (not yet uploaded) comprised on mostly human voices, with a couple of synths added in – dropped it into a nice reverb, and it just sounds fantastic.  then I turned around, made a copy of this very ambient track – added bass, drums and synth – drew the reverb back – and suddenly, I had a loud dance version of the same track – that really rocks – as time goes on, I find that mixtikl can do just about anything, limited only by your imagination.

so right there, that gives mixtikl a second huge advantage over scape: scape makes mainly ambient music.  that’s what it does, and, it does it very well.  but mixtikl – makes ANY kind of music.  and that is freedom.

the first time I used a series of samples that were intended to be used together in mixtikl , I was absolutely amazed at how well it worked, the intelligence built into the samples – astonishingly clever.  a bass, a beat, a guitar, a horn, a voice – all working in tandem, in harmony, in sync.

once you get the hang of the controls, then you can really start to work with mixtikl , in particular, I love the mixer grid, because you can have both repetitive and linear activities, so I can have a bass looping but at the same time, I can have four slightly different drum beats running in a linear sequence – so the bass stays the same, while the drummer changes things up in four different scenarios – brilliant!

I also love the fact that of course, you can insert the same sample many times, and alter the pan position, the time, the effects…so for example, in one track, I had these beautiful guitar harmonics – and I wanted a LOT of them, so I just dropped six or seven of them in, left one mono, made the rest stereo, set them at different levels, etc. – and the results were fantastic.

sure, it takes a bit of work sometimes – and some days, nothing sounds right, I am importing, then deleting, sample after sample – but more times that not, I can simply import a few sounds, get them working together, drop one or two maybe, then, carefully add sounds until the piece builds up to whatever sounds good…and it really does sound good!

I still consider myself to be a beginner at mixtikl, and when I read the mixtikl operator manual, I feel immediately humbled and I realise that there is so much I don’t understand or even begin to understand – but, armed with my tiny bit of knowledge, I just forge ahead creating many, many pieces of music – right now, I have four that were just mastered and uploaded, and another four or five waiting to be mastered, so a small backlog is building up…and whenever that happens, I can tell I am falling in love with yet another brilliant application – and this time, it’s mixtikl.

I find that I like to let mixtikl pieces play out “long” when I record them, and a few of my recent pieces have been approaching, or even over, 30 minutes in length.  this is really a semi-conscious decision to “go long” as in the old days of ambient, in 1995 and 1996, when I was working in the ambient looping band “bindlestiff”, we tended towards longer loops, because for one thing, any repetition becomes quite hypnotic, so that’s one reason why I favour longer pieces, but the main reason is, the loops and samples sound so wonderful when assembled into these generative pieces, that I love to listen to them unfold over a decent period of time.   they sound good if you play them for ten minutes.  they sound GREAT if you play them for 25 minutes…

strange eddies of quiet appear – odd bits of music that you don’t expect, but that create wonderful atmosphere when they suddenly appear from nowhere…and then disappear again – back into the main loop, or whatever it is.

generative music is really good for ambient, because odd things happen in ambient, unexpected things, sure, there are repetitive events that your ear “expects” to hear each time they repeat, but sometimes, other events may intrude that temporarily disturb that flow – and it’s a complete surprise to the ear – which is wonderful – and then, you are back on track before you even know what hit you.  I tend to have a pretty busy “grid”, even on ambient tracks, strangely, sometimes, “more is less” with ambient, because you get different voices coming out of nowhere briefly, and then disappearing for a while, and then eventually returning…

sometimes, having a lot of different events is helpful, because it gives the brain variety and repetition, and I think we as humans like both of those things.  the beauty of it is, though, I just put the samples into the cell, I decide if it’s looped, linear or whatever, I might then add a compressor or eq or some track effects – and that’s about it – the tool does the rest.  mixtikl decides when it will play the sample, based on the tempo and key I’ve told it to, of course.  it does all the work.

it’s been noted before, and I find it to be true, sometimes, some of the most ambient pieces, have a lot of music playing, a lot of events, they are technically a bit “busy” – but the effect when you hear them:  totally ambient.  It’s very strange, but very true – some of the very best ambient pieces actually have a pretty high level of musical “activity” – yet somehow, that distils down to something very pure and clean, and very, very ambient – I think this fact will always be a bit of a mystery, but for me, it’s made me less afraid to add in more, because I find that even with more, the pieces still, often, come out supremely ambient – it’s brilliant.

mixtikl is fast becoming my go-to tool of choice for generative ambient music, and latterly, active music, too – it’s a blast for drum and bass-based pieces, really fun to work with – and that’s something you can’t do in scape, too – play the drums!

I promise, right now – my next blog will not be about scape or mixtikl 🙂

the worst band in the world

a few months ago, I tidied up a portion of my music collection that had lain dormant for a long time; I completed the partially complete task of loading the entire 10cc catalogue onto my mobile device.

thus prepared to re-engage with one of the most interesting bands of the 1970s (were they art rock? were they pop? were they prog?), yesterday, I put on a record that I haven’t listened to a lot since 1977, when it came out, but I am stunned just now, hearing it in headphones for a start, but just hearing how good it is…”live and let LIVE” by 10cc.  this album…is an absolute corker.

despite the absence of the uh, stoned geniuses, kevin godley & lol creme, this newly-reinforced and revitalised version of 10cc, led by the very straight eric stewart and graham gouldman, the two remaining original members…is astonishingly capable, the set list is amazing, considering that godley & creme aren’t there…and what a performance !! stunning musicianship, and the vocals are so, so perfect it’s difficult to believe it’s live.

I myself was fortunate enough, to see 10cc live in 1978, so, the tour after this one; at the san diego civic theatre, this was the “bloody tourists” tour, and while it was a slightly different band (I got to see them with the amazing duncan mackay on keyboards, whilst “live and let LIVE” features tony o’malley on keys) it was essentially the same group as you hear on this official live album…

there is a live album made by the original 10cc; the quartet version, featuring eric stewart, graham gouldmanlol creme and kevin godley – which is available under different titles, but it’s basically “king biscuit live 1975” and it was in support of “the original sound track”, so quite “early”, recorded at the stage where they have just three records out – and while it’s a great album, because it’s the original band…it does not have the production values that 10cc – ”live and let LIVE” does.

of course, ”live and let LIVE” was recorded a full two years later, with a revitalised eric stewart in charge – and the difference is noticeable.  two great live albums, but the difference was something like, well, we’ll record this 1975 santa monica gig for fm radio – and maybe release it some day; whereas with ”live and let LIVE” was intentional, more “let’s go out and play these songs really well, really professionally, and record the whole tour until we get a perfect version of every song, or one perfect show” kind of thing;  the planning and execution is something akin to the invasion at normandy – planned to musical perfection by eric stewart, executed to near perfection, live on stage, by the “new 10cc“.

and yes, if you go onto you tube (or if you buy the “tenology” box set) you can see fantastic live videos of the original four piece, playing deep album tracks such as “oh effendi” or “old wild men” – and, it is a bit sad, that those kinds of ultra creative / proggy tracks are long gone from the repertoire by 1977.  the original quartet was unbeatable, studio or live, their four studio albums are all top-notch, so when eric stewart sat down to build “deceptive bends” without godley & creme, he knew he was facing a challenge.  but, he stuck with what he knew best: songs.  and, he penned the undeniably catchy “the things we do for love”, which meant that “deceptive bends” was going to be a big success.

so what does this “brave new 10cc” play, then?  first of all, you need to remember that this is the stewart-gouldman 10cc, therefore, the “poppier” 10cc, not the darker, stranger 10cc featuring godley & creme, so it does tend towards pop, and towards the “hits” – but there are a lot of surprises, and a lot of great tracks from all different phases of the band’s long career.  and, a few performances of classic original 10cc tracks – in particular, the show opener, a hard rocking version of a stand-out track from the band’s third album, “the original soundtrack” – an absolutely kick-ass version of “the second sitting for the last supper” that is shocking in it’s musical prowess.

also from that original series of four albums (10cc, sheet music, the original sound track, “how dare you!” – that was all they did before godley & creme split – well, five if you count “king biscuit 1975” I suppose) a very cool version of “art for art’s sake” plus eric stewart’s best contribution to “how dare you!”, the overlooked pop classic “I’m mandy, fly me”.  an unavoidable choice, also from “the original soundtrack” album, is the fm radio classic “I’m not in love” – also a stewart track.

but, here’s the full set list for this double live album:

the second sitting for the last supper                  [dave – (!! – a storming way to begin the show !!)]

you’ve got a cold

honeymoon with b troop

art for art’s sake

people in love

wall street shuffle

ships don’t disappear in the night (do they?)                    [dave – (listen to eric stewart on slide – harrison and allman, look out)]

I’m mandy, fly me

marriage bureau rendezvous

good morning judge

feel the benefit                        [dave – beatlesque perfection, stonking dual lead guitar outro…)]

the things we do for love

waterfall

I’m not in love

modern man blues

before I look at the show itself, I should explain the difference between the bands:  the original 10cc line-up of stewart / gouldman / godley / creme was nominally a quartet, but often, because drummer godley had so many lead vocal duties, they had a second drummer in paul burgess – so the “original” live quartet was actually a quintet:

eric stewart – lead guitar, acoustic and electric piano, lead vocals

graham gouldman – bass guitar, electric guitar, lead vocals

kevin godley – drums, lead vocals

lol creme – electric guitar, gizmo, piano, lead vocals

paul burgess – drums & percussion

with the departure of godley & creme in 1977, who went of to concoct their triple album, progressive rock masterpiece “consequences”, which utilised their invention, the “gizmo”, throughout – a “gizmo” orchestral work, if you will (which includes performances from the late sarah vaughan and the late peter cook) – stewart and gouldman had to then rethink the band – and enable it to play both the very complex (and often quite strange) back catalogue, as well as the current material (at this point, the new 10cc only had one “new album” – the very respectable “deceptive bends”) – and I think that eric stewart now, ironically, faced the same problem that kevin godley did back in the original band – he played so many different parts on the album, multiple lead and rhythm guitars notably, as well as now being the main keyboardist in the studio band, so he needed to have a band with enough capability to free him from trying to play all those complex parts himself – and let him concentrate on either lead vocals, lead guitar, or occasionally electric piano or real piano as required.

so – faced with this problem, the solution seemed obvious – hire an extra guitarist who can also play bass (in the person of rick fenn); hire a second keyboard player so that they can replicate tracks where there are more than one keyboard (in the person of tony o’malley); and for some reason, hire an extra drummer (in the person of stuart tosh) (maybe because they were accustomed to having two drummers on stage?) – not really sure why – but that is what they did.  the new, expanded 10cc looked like this, then:

eric stewart– lead guitar, acoustic and electric piano, lead vocals

graham gouldman – bass guitar, electric guitar, lead vocals

rick fenn – lead guitar, bass guitar, vocals

tony o’malley – keyboards, acoustic and electric piano, vocals

paul burgess – drums & percussion

stuart tosh – drums & percussion                 [dave – formerly of the pop band “pilot” – oh they of the one hit “magic”…]

(It is interesting to note, and perhaps a comment on how difficult they were to replace, that basically, it took four people – fenn, o’malley, burgess and tosh – to replace two departed original members – so four people to replace two very talented, capable people – that’s kind of “telling”, isn’t it??).

this band, with duncan mackay replacing tony o’malley, was the 10cc that I was fortunate enough to see in 1978 playing the live version of “bloody tourists” – and I would say, it was one of the most incredible concerts I’ve ever seen, they played all the really excellent deep tracks from the new album (including some real beauties, “tokyo”, “old mister time” and others), and also including a very proggy number called “everything you’ve always wanted to know about !!! (exclamation marks)” (my personal favourite track from the album) which features an amazing end section of duncan mackay and eric stewart playing more like members of yes or gentle giant, than a “pop” band – serious chops – I kid you not – it was musically stupendous.

and…clearly, without a doubt, this was the band with the best live vocal sound I’ve ever, ever heard, incredible six part harmonies (when needed) and the most perfectly arranged, and in tune, and in time, background vocals imaginable.  just…stunning.  only the beach boys or the beatles in the studio are better.  hearing them sing like this, live, in 1978, was something that left a strong impression on me – and made me realise just how important having properly arranged vocal harmonies is to the live sound of every band.  if you are going to do harmonies – do them right.  hit the notes.  be in tune… !!

it’s fortunate for 10cc that the technology of 1977 and 1978 allowed them to re-create six part harmonies and complex background vocals on stage in a way that in 1966, the beatles, then the world champions of rock vocal harmony, could not (not due to any shortcomings on their part as vocalists, but totally because the technology just wasn’t there in ’66).  I think that eric stewart secretly wanted his band to be like the band that the beatles could have been live, had 1966 technology allowed them to hear what they were singing.

I watch the film of the beatles playing “nowhere man” in munich, germany in 1966, and it’s the closest thing we get to them singing their perfect LP harmonies, live; whereas on ”live and let LIVE” – stewart manages to recreate the studio vocals on every single track, beautifully and damn near perfectly – on stage.  If only the beatles had arrived ten years later…but then, that wouldn’t have worked out for other reasons, so I shouldn’t wish such things really…

and on ”live and let LIVE” – it’s pretty much the same as what I saw a year later with the 1978 version of the band – the vocals are unbelievably perfect.  just like the record – only – live.  this perfectionism is obviously the work of eric stewart, who was always the guy who arranged, recorded, and mixed all of the original 10cc albums; with godley & creme gone, stewart took over as de facto leader with gouldman as his willing lieutenant…and together, they forged a new, better, more in tune, less unpredictable live version of the band.

one of the stand-out tracks on the record is the 13 minute rendition of  “feel the benefit”, the long suite in three parts from the then-new “deceptive bends” album – this is a very beatlesque song to begin with, having a “dear prudence” like guitar intro (and coda) that evolves into a very string-laden ballad, which features the incredibly beautiful lead voice of eric stewart, clearly the “heir apparent” to paul mccartney (and strangely, later on, he joined mccartney’s band for a while, appeared in mccartney videos, and on a few mcartney tracks here and there – appearing on a few different mccartney albums over time) – what an incredible lead vocal on this track!

and then, when the background voices join in, it’s literally goose-bump inducing; it’s so perfectly like the album, but with the added excitement of being live – and stewart is the star throughout (thirteen minutes on his very best game) – sitting at the piano, singing the lead vocals, and then at the end, jumping up to play his half of the dual lead guitars, a beautifully distorted guitar duo – complete with graham gouldman doing his very best bright, chris squire imitation behind them – that chime their way out through the end of the song – a totally beatlesque and very very beautiful song, rendered with incredibly precision – even the silly centre section, the second of three parts, entitled “a latin break” meaning – “latin break in A major”, very punny indeed, is perfectly performed, including a live fade out of part two with simultaneous fade in of part three (something I have NEVER heard on anyone’s live album, EVER – amazing performance!!!), which is a return to the coda version of the “dear prudence” guitars…fantastic.

the album is worth it just to hear this one 13 minute pop masterpiece – the vocals are astonishingly in tune and in time, almost to the point where it seems impossible that any band could sing that well live. but – my experience in 1978 proves it, this live album, ”live and let LIVE” proves it – one band could – 10cc.

“feel the benefit” also reveals something that few people know – well, people who have seen 10cc play live probably know it – that graham gouldman is a world-class bassist.  he takes an extended and incredibly virtuoso bass solo during “feel the benefit” that sounds more like chris squire than something you’d expect from a “lightweight pop band” like 10cc.  gouldman wields his rickenbacker bass with an almost careless charm, a sort of, “oh, yeah, I’m actually pretty damn good with this thing” attitude – and I believe that he shares the perfectionism that stewart is known for.

I think that stewart felt a little frustrated with the godley & creme “version” – or “vision”, perhaps, of 10cc, he could see the potential – on the records, he could make the vocals sound perfect – but on stage, he could not control godley and creme, and it’s well known that while godley & creme were / are more than a little fond of a little ganja…while we also know stewart is not, stewart wanted to play straight, it was all about the music for him, and nothing else – so with them out of the picture, we could now have the “vocal perfect” version of 10cc live – and this album shows that not only did he succeed in this desire, he excelled – the band excelled.

I think too, that the public’s perception of what kind of band 10cc was flawed – the “hits” made them seem very, very poppy – “I’m not in love” being a very atypical track, the rest of “the original soundtrack” sounds NOTHING LIKE “I’m not in love” – which of course was then swiftly followed with the REALLY poppy “the things we do for love” (not to mention, also, the even smarmier, but wonderful, ballad “people in love”….) – and this gave a somewhat skewed impression of what the band really were.

I thought of them as progressive, but more along the lines of a very poppy / prog / beatlesque / strange kind of band, I thought they were maybe competing a bit with queen (“un nuit a paris”  – from “the original soundtrack”– a godley & creme track, of course – pretty much out-queens queen themselves – in a good way, I promise you!) while if you listen to “sheet music”, “the original soundtrack”, and “how dare you!” – these are deep records, with songs embracing many, many styles, pop, rock, prog, r&b, blues even, indescribable genres…) that cannot really be pigeon-holed even as prog, definitely not as pop (despite the obvious pop “hits”) – you really have to just listen to those three albums to understand what 10cc were – and a huge part of that legacy still spills over into 1977, and into this new band, especially on stage – stewart and gouldman carrying on the 10cc name and tradition by adding “deceptive bends” as the poppier follow-up to “how dare you!” – and it still flows, sure, the magic of godley and crème is gone, but stewart and gouldman are no slouches as musicians, writers or performers – and I think “deceptive bends” proudly belongs right where it is – the next album after “how dare you! despite the serious and life-changing personnel changes.

sure, as with almost all live albums, there are the very, very occasional gaffes, which stewart has wilfully left in the mix – a missed chord in the outro of the otherwise impeccable rendition of one of the very best songs from the final “original 10cc” album, “how dare you!” – stewart’s wonderful ode to an air hostess, “I’m mandy, fly me” – another extremely difficult, extremely beatlesque track, once again, rendered to perfection vocally and musically – leaving that one slipped chord in to perhaps say “look, we are human after all…”- it’s hard to say.

but it isn’t easy to find mistakes on this record, you have to look really hard – because really, it’s a flawless live snapshot of their current record, “deceptive bends”, peppered with a range of hits (from “wall street shuffle” to “I’m not in love” to “the things we do for love”) and the occasional surprise track from the distant past (“waterfall” and “ships don’t disappear in the night (do they)” – from the first album era) – as well as tracks from all four of the original 10cc albums.

still – it seems quite odd to hear the words coming from the stage… ‘here’s one from “how dare you!”’ when the band that made “how dare you! never played a note from that album live that I know of.  however – I am still appreciative that at least, we get to hear a track from “how dare you! done live – even if it is by this strange new sextet version of 10cc.

for me, even though I understand the necessity, I found it a bit frustrating that in a number of instances, because eric was very busy playing electric piano or real piano, and singing lead vocal, that signature guitar solos that are very, very much “eric stewart guitar solos” – were of course, played live by the very capable and enigmatic rick fenn  I had to console myself with the tracks where eric did play lead guitar – and those were smokin’ hot.  note to all guitarists out there:  if you think eric stewart is that wimpy guy who wrote and sang “the things we do for love” – sure, you are right, but if you heard and saw him play slide guitar on “ships don’t disappear in the night”, or if you saw him switch from piano and vocal to lead guitar at the end of the impossibly cool “feel the benefit” – this guy can play lead guitar, and he’s also an amazingly good slide player – trust me.

so it would be “the wall street shuffle” – one of my all-time favourite 10cc tracks, and in fact, the track that got me into the band – and eric would be singing and playing the piano – so when it came time for the lead solo, that beautiful, concise, perfect eric stewart-channelling-george-harrison guitar solo…there came rick fenn to play it.   and, to his credit – he played that solo, and almost every other eric stewart guitar solo that he was called upon to play – with care, with precision, with beauty – but – it wasn’t eric playing it!  that, I found a little difficult to get used to…but, technically, I suppose it just had to be that way – no one can swap instruments that often on stage (except steve howe perhaps, but he takes it to a ridiculous extreme – and, he doesn’t have lead vocalist duties while he’s swapping guitars repeatedly…), so I applaud this decision – play the song well, play the electric piano part perfectly, sing the hell out of it – and trust your new guitar stand-in to play that amazing little solo just right.

but then I would forget all about that, when I saw and heard eric himself, during the thunderous ending of “feel the benefit” or witness the precision slide guitar-fest that is “ships don’t disappear in the night (do they?)” – eric stewart letting go and showing us how being in the best pop band in the world doesn’t hold you back from having prog-rock like chops – I swear, stewart and gouldman are both far better players than their recorded catalogue would indicate – which is why this live album is so important – for example, a rare early b-side, called “waterfall” is an opportunity for the band to stretch out on a three chord jam, and play the song in a million different ways, as vocal blues, as total reggae, but more importantly, as total three chord jam with fantastic guitar solo interplay between fenn and stewart – including an amazing extended “burn out” where o’malley leads the two guitarists into the final chords of the song – just brilliant.  this track just rocks – and I think we often forget that 10cc really could, and can, rock when they wanted to.

and you should hear the audience response to “waterfall” – they are louder than the band.

sure, there are so many songs from the back catalogue that I wish were on this live record, and of course, there are a few slight missteps (like the somewhat uninspired gouldman tune “marriage bureau rendezvous” or the somewhat plodding and predictable “modern man blues” which is the encore – both from “deceptive bends”) – other than that, the choices are solid, and the pieces are really well performed…and it’s a very even mix of hits, oldies, and a decent chunk of the “new” album – “deceptive bends”.

every single fan of every band has their own wish list of songs that they wish their favourite band would play when they do a live show or album, and with 10cc it’s very difficult, because with half of the band gone, and, the half that was considered to be the very creative, “arty” half – that immediately makes it very, very difficult to recreate the repertoire from those original albums, without the unique voices of godley & creme, and their unique musical contributions, too…there are not too many “gizmo” players out there from which you could find a replacement for “gizmo” inventor lol creme – who is also an accomplished pianist.

I think given the cataclysmic personnel change that the band had just endured, that this new stewart / gouldman led sextet did really well.  first of all, the recovered in the studio, with “deceptive bends” (personnel: eric stewart, graham gouldman, and the redoubtable paul burgess) – and finally, expanding that studio trio to a sextet for a wildly successful tour for that album.

note: additional players on “deceptive bends” – little known fact, a very young “terry bozzio” is on “drums” – it doesn’t say on which track or tracks unfortunately – source – wikipedia (what else?).

  • del newman — string arrangement
  • jean roussel — organ, keyboards, electric piano
  • tony spath — piano, oboe
  • terry bozzio — drums

the wiki page goes on to explain that this album was actually begun while godley & creme were still in the band; at one of their last UK concerts, at knebworth on 21 august 1976, they debuted an early live version of “good morning judge” and there was also an “awful” studio version of “people in love” (strangely, known as “voodoo boogie” – which was included on the recently released – and apparently, already out of print !! – “tenology” box set) – so at least two of the songs actually date back to the original band – something I did not know until I researched this blog!

apparently, the rough mix of “voodoo boogie” was so awful, that godley & creme left shortly thereafter, leaving it to stewart to pick up the pieces and try to build an album that did justice to the name 10cc.  I for one, think he not only succeeded, but he took the band into a new era, a short-lived era, but a very successful and high profile era – and the three late 70s albums – “deceptive bends” and ”live and let LIVE”, both from 1977, and “bloody tourists” from 1978 (which features the massive worldwide hit “dreadlock holiday” – plus a bunch of great album tracks that were the last great batch of stewart / gouldman compositions) – all three of these records are outstanding, excellent examples of quality musicianship.

for me, 1980’s “look hear”, and it’s follow-up, “ten out of 10 – as we moved further into the 1980s…it just wasn’t the same – it became formulaic, and it was also the beginning of the end for one of the best bands that the 1970s produced – everything changed in 1980, and it was hard for 1970s bands to thrive in the synth / robotic era of the 1980s.  gouldman as much as admitted that the last time they had been “hot” was 1978, and he has expressed his displeasure with the 1980s output – and the fans seem to agree, since the 1980s albums did not chart…whereas 1978’s “bloody tourists”, did – the last 10cc album to do so, I believe (I could be wrong about that!).

but for one shining moment, 1977 / 1978, the band re-grouped and went out there and showed them how to do it right…with brilliant tours supporting both studio albums, and luckily, the first one was recorded intentionally for a live album – the oft-overlooked but absolutely brilliant ”live and let LIVE”…pronounce the title however you like, but listen carefully to what is perhaps one of the most meticulously performed and produced live albums of all time – created by the master: mr. eric stewart – long may he sing, play that slide guitar, lead guitar, acoustic guitar, acoustic piano, electric piano, record, arrange, engineer, produce and mix… 🙂

into the unknown… or – wind chime guitar

since I am just now returning to active duty in terms of working on music properly again, just beginning to resume work on videos, audio mixes, and web tasks including a lot more uploaded music both past and present, I wanted to take a moment to talk about a process that to me, is pure creative joy.

as part of the ongoing work, I’ve been reviewing the recordings that are slated to be published on video in the near future, and in particular, I am listening to a session from 20120930 which is…most unusual. (update september 22, 2013 – the first of these two videos, “into the unknown”, has now been uploaded to you tube).

this is my first successful “scape & ambient guitar” session.  I had really struggled, I really, really wanted to capture the magic of scape, and of course, the purescapes channel, and the dave stafford all-scapes eternal album “music for apps: scape” both present the scapes in their purest form, as they happen, one by one – sure, those are great outlets for my scapes, as created…but I also wanted to use them in a live improvising context – which, if you think about it, it’s every ambient musician’s dream – it’s like playing live with brian eno and peter chilvers.  what an amazing feeling…

but this is a far more difficult and challenging proposition than you might think – and the first few sessions when I tried to play live with scape – were not satisfactory.  they just did not…”work”, and I couldn’t really put my finger on “why”.  I believe now that part of the issue is that scapes are such a complete entity unto themselves, that it’s difficult to “add” anything of value to them.  they stand up well on their own, so they don’t “need” any help from me or anyone!

once I realised that, I could relax a bit, and work out a way that I could play along to scapes, that made sense for me.  after a few false starts, a few early experiments gone wrong, on september 30, 2012, I finally “got it” – and I am so pleased to have captured these ambient experiments on video!

this session is comprised of just two long tracks, and scape works best when it’s a long track; the first track of two is entitled “into the unknown” (11:48) – and, (update – september 22, 2013 – as promised, now that the video has been uploaded, I have made this a link so you can see the video and hear the track) – and the scape works wonderfully in this track, and happily, the overdubs I do – which are quite, quite atypical – work well too.  I play ambient guitar, sure, but in a way I’ve never really done before.  I use three or four different roland gr-55 guitar synth patches, including one of my own custom patches, which is just wind chimes – and “playing” wind chimes, from a guitar fretboard, is surely one of the weirdest experiences I’ve ever had as a guitarist – you strum the strings…and out come the wind chimes.  brilliant!

I can tell you – playing live wind chime guitar to a brian eno scape is a heavenly experience.  I do use other more standard guitar sounds, and I play a few solos too, using a really weird sounding synth voice – but over all, I try to just add to the general ambience of the piece.  there are even sections in the song where I just stop and listen – and then, scape takes over, and really mesmerises me – I love how it picks up the slack, it’s just beautiful, and it gets even more beautiful with repeated listening…

it was such an unusual experience, listening to this scape, adding in wind chimes by strumming the guitar synth, playing the occasional guitar solo using some strange roland gr-55 patch…a wonderful experience!  and it was definitely scape that steals the show, that is the star on the day – my contributions are nothing – scape just sounds so, so beautiful.

the second of two tracks for the day is a bit more challenging, but again, it’s a unique and remarkable experience for me as a guitarist, trying to play ambient guitar – the track is entitled “discern” (19:58) and at almost 20 minutes long, it’s the first long form ambient piece I’ve done since “sky full of stars”.

again, the mellow organ tones of the scape, that peaceful, peaceful drifting chord, dominates the beginning of the track, and I am just sitting back, waiting, not playing – just listening to the beauty of the scape. then those beautiful, stereo wind chimes start to work their way into my consciousness…

I think I had also forgotten about that wonderful, mesmerised feeling you start to get in a longer ambient piece, where repetition starts to get caught in your brain, and new patterns start to emerge on the later iterations…you get caught up in the loop, and the repetitions within scape alone are beautiful and compelling.

I use the guitar synth for ambient noise, just making a lot of delay noises, interspersed with wind chimes, and these just shimmer atop the droning organ chords, balancing atop them – an unlikely pairing, but somehow, it just works – it brings to mind, to me, the work of david sylvian and holger czukay, “plight and premonition” and “flux + mutability” – two albums I dearly love – but this is the first time I’ve ventured into those kinds of sonic territories.

a very odd guitar synth voice enters at around the four and a half minute mark, which maybe seems a bit obvious at first, but I like it’s oddness – it’s just weird enough to work, after four minutes plus of delay noises and wind chimes, I think you need something more “ordinary” to re-focus on…soon enough, though, I return to my beloved delay noises and wind chimes – and “discern” rolls on and on and on.

at just around the 6:00, a sitar-like voice enters, again courtesy of the roland gr-55 guitar synthh, and I take a fairly active solo, which again, works very nicely with the ongoing scape, I love these two tonalities together, and while again, it’s a bit of an unexpected voicing, it dovetails nicely with the scape – and I end the solo on a crashing chord.

then – back to that very odd guitar synth voice again, solos bouncing about using one or the other of these two voices, with a lovely five note descending theme emerging slowly – this shorter solo ends on a very strangely bent whammy bar guitar sound…and then I am back to the delay sounds again – always returning to those.

I set up a rhythmic sound that washes over the scape’s wash, and suddenly, the piece goes from melody over wash, to rhythmic – over which I play – you guessed it – more wind chimes.  I think the rhythmic delay sound is a short loop that I created, and then I am adding more content on top of it – reiterating the five note theme, and taking some pretty active solos as well.

a more normal guitar solo starts, just distorted guitar, with the five note theme being repeated at diffferent points at different places on the guitar neck…and then I kill whatever loop is going, and things quiet back down again to the sort of “baseline” that’s been established:  delay guitar on top of scape.  with wind chimes.

both of these pieces are technically, quite active, with real solos, but because of the presence of the scape, the fact that I am also playing some ambient sounds like the delay guitar and the wind chimes, plus the fact that sometimes, loops of these live sounds are running as well – all of that turns what could have been a very active piece, into an undeniably ambient one.

then, quite suddenly, at 12:25, it happens: the quiet zone.  the whole piece quiets down dramatically, which is quite unexpected – at this point, the piece is really just flowing along, alternating between “solo sections” and more “ambient sections” – but, with a fairly decent level of “activity” – until the hush occurs.

I must have removed another loop that had been running for some minutes, and we really ended up in a very, very stripped-back space, with just scape and a little live delay guitar…lovely!

after a minute of this “quiet zone”, I begin to build the loop back up, by layering bits of scape and more wind chimes, more delay guitars – and once it’s up to a more active state, I really take off, using the “odd” sound, I play a very short, quite unrestrained solo – and then stop just as suddenly – the loop that’s playing at this point is just so cool, I could listen to that loop forever – it’s really quite hypnotic by this point.

another odd, idyllic quiet section around the 15:00 mark, now, a sinister, minor key note has crept in, and the piece goes from fairly neutral to quite, quite menacing, I love the sinister quality it acquires after being so hypnotically mesmerising all along – the last part is almost a bit like the fripp & eno classic piece “an index of metals” – not musically friendly, quite, quite ominous – but ominous in a very beautiful way.

now what seemed minor, with more layering of the loop, is becoming downright dissonant…until I stop the loop again, and the “happy” wind chimes re-assert themselves, the delay guitars return, and the terrifying two minutes is over.

the last couple of minutes are fairly ambient, with a few uncomfortable, sinister sounds interspersed, so a mixture of light and dark musical elements.

the scape re-asserts itself by changing to a different constant chord, and taking the piece to another place, a really beautiful change which totally “makes” the last minute or so of this piece so remarkable – really lovely.  the scape is on it’s own at the end, and then suddenly, it fades away without warning.

what an incredible musical journey this was for me, I’d never tried to play live ambient guitar for 20 minutes using a guitar synth before, and I was astonished to find that in the main, while not perfect, that it was possible – I can do it.

both of these pieces surprised me, because I found that using just four or five different sounds, I could sustain something fairly unique yet remaining pretty ambient (not entirely successful at that, but sometimes, ambient BECOMES active…for a moment, or for a few moments…but it’s still ambient!) without a huge effort on my part – I found it quite natural to “play” those delay guitar “sounds”, I found it quite natural to “play” the wind chimes as if I were the wind, making them sound…it just happened.

never, ever having played wind chimes guitar before, I am not quite sure “how” I know “how to” do it, but somehow, I did, and the end result is lovely.

a surprising and interesting day in the studio, and these videos are scheduled to be released at some point in the next few months – I think both of them are going to become videos, certainly “into the unknown” will, “discern” may need extra work, this remains to be seen.

I must do things like this more often, I really must – because it’s so, so enjoyable!

ambient guitar rules!

the return of drone forest

I was pleasantly surprised to find that my old friend and partner in musical crime, ian stewart, has just created and posted onto you tube, some lovely long form drone forest videos (each running about 29 minutes and change) – four of them, to be exact, released on ian’s you tube channel just last month (june 2013).

I first ran into ian stewart via his excellent music mag “autoreverse”, and ian did some features on my mid-90s ambient and crafty output, and over time, we became friends.  he has also done a couple of in depth interview with me over time – one, back in 1995, reprinted here from autoreverse, and the other, quite recently – again, from autoreverse – 2011 version.

ian is an incredibly creative person, plays a number of instruments, and has a wonderful band called “devilcake” – a metal band – whose songs are exclusively about food, and another band called samarkand…he’s a fellow fan of XTC and king crimson, and is one of those people I’m always happy to work with.

one day, quite a number of years ago now, ian asked me if I would record some material for him on guitar, but he posed a really, really curious and difficult challenge:  he wanted pieces of music, but, critically, they were to have no melody and no beat – just texture.

so a few days after receiving this request (and, scratching my head a bit in terms of, how exactly will I do this?), I set up my guitar system, and started recording pieces of guitar “texture”.  I actually found this really quite difficult to do, because of the no melody rule in particular!   but, using stompboxes and my trusty ebows and some just plain strange, strange techniques, I produced quite a large “library” of these textural guitar sounds (probably more than an hour’s worth – I remember it took two cds to capture them all – maybe 25 tracks or more – I will have to locate the original discs to be able to say definitively how many tracks / how much time there was there).  I then mailed them away to ian – and promptly forgot all about it.

ian had never really said why he wanted the sounds, when I asked him about it, he would mumble something about a project of his, so I just put the whole thing out of my mind, and carried on with my life.

a few months later, out of the clear blue sky, a cd arrived in the post from ian, bearing the band name drone forest, entitled “drone forest”, which, apparently, was a new band, featuring ian c. stewart, c. reider, mike bowman, and…myself !!! I couldn’t believe it – here was a cd I was playing on, that I didn’t know existed, that I didn’t know was being made – I put the disc on, and sat there in an astonished state – and there were those textural guitar sounds of mine, recorded perhaps four months previously and then promptly forgotten –  expertly mixed in with sounds produced by the other three musicians (none of whom I had ever met, although I knew of c. reider because he’d reviewed one of my albums for…none other than ian’s “autoreverse” magazine!).

sitting there, hearing this cd, and realising what ian had done – he’d basically asked the same of both chris and mike, solicited material – they duly recorded sounds with no melody and no beat (a difficult task in particular for mike, who is a visual artist first; a drummer second, and a great guitarist/multi-instrumentalist – with his main instrument at the time being drums…the “no beat” rule must have been extremely challenging!) – but, all of the samples were superb, and ian had done an amazing job, creating several unique songs for the album which is known as “drone forest I” or simply “df1” – the first of many, many cds to come.

“drone forest II” followed hot on the heels of the first album, and after that, the albums started flowing so quickly that we couldn’t really believe it – we very quickly worked out a way of working:

1) we formed a yahoo “group”, and we all uploaded our self-created audio samples to our “sample pool”

2) we then would listen to and download the samples that the others had uploaded, picking what we liked, ignoring what we didn’t like

3) these then became the source material for new “drones”, which we each made many of, using whatever music software we favoured at the time

4) sound stretching, speeding up, slowing down, crushing, distorting, flanging, delaying, echoing, cutting, reversing, phasing, reverbing, mixing, contorting, convoluting – anything and everything went, any source files, mixed any way – as long as the end result sounded…like a drone.

a furious year of work, 2003, saw us so exhausted from the speed and quantity of creation, that we just sort of…stopped working.  leaving a massive trail of really, really interesting and innovative drone cds in our wake.  a while into the project, we decided that we would each produce a cd, instead of creating tracks and then picking a few from each member as we did originally, so I set off to produce “my” drone forest project, which is entitled “ZOSO” – the supposed “name” of led zeppelin‘s fourth album (although the music has nothing to do with led zeppelin – I just fancied calling it that, and that was that) – and each of the other members produced their own vision of drone forest – so all of these approaches, all of these amazing ideas were just flowing and it was a really fabulous and truly exciting time.

I am not exactly certain of the numbers, but I believe that in the first year, 2003, we produced eight cds – and then again, in the second working period, 2006 (which spilled over into the first part of 2007, to be fair), we also produced eight cds and then, chris produced a lovely piece of vinyl entitled “amy’s arms” right near the end – as well as two “posthumous” cds as well – for a total of 19 releases.

we’d invented a sort of  “bastard son of ambient” genre, the “drone” – along with several hundred other artists and bands, probably, but the quantity and quality of the drone forest catalogue cannot be underestimated.  sure, others before and after us, have claimed to invent the drone, but I think ian’s “drone supergroup” idea was a first – and his methods of working are unique and unrepeatable – brilliant thinking.

ian, as the godfather and founder of drone forest, embarked on a number of really, really interesting drone projects, including but not limited to a project where he created 100 one hour long drones (these were amazing, I never even heard them all, I probably have about a third of them), I think only ian has them all.  in any case, he developed a really clever and remarkable way to create these drones, for the 100 drones project (which was called “megadrone” I think – not quite sure) – he would create a short drone in the usual way, using different source files, he would build it to a particular length, five minutes or seven minutes or whatever it was (he had calculated this out) – and then, once happy with the short drone, he would “stretch” the track to one hour – and whatever the outcome – that was the drone.

remarkably, using this very strange and quite random technique – the resulting drones were – surprisingly – very consistent, and, they sounded great, and were perfect to listen to – equal in every way to drones that I had spent hours carefully concocting in cool edit pro multi-track!!  so he could produce a one hour drone, using a seven minute starting track – just by pushing a button.  this allowed him to work very, very quickly – to create a massive body of work – 100 hours – using a formulaic method that is truly inspiring.  I worked far too hard on my drones – ian just did it the easy way – and the results speak for themselves – really beautiful work.  what is perhaps most fascinating about this is, is that it demonstrates that the creation method of a drone can be almost anything – I spent hours meticulously building multi track drones, whereas ian just pushed the button – but both methods, along with whatever methods mike and c were employing – ALL methods produced beautiful, quality drones. it’s uncanny, really.

each of us worked in a different way; each of us favoured different software for the squashing, crushing, stretching and other audio atrocities that were committed in the name of drone creation – yet, when you put together an album with say, two tracks from each of us – there would be no way to tell “whose” track it was, because they came out remarkably consistently!  it really was quite something – mike, as a drummer, would make his drones the way he made them, c.,who is primarily a vocalist, would make his drones the way he made them, I would make my drones as if they were songs, but intentionally working towards a dronelike sound – and ian, well, ian was the master, really, he could make these “push button” drones, sure, but he was also the guy who put together that astounding first album – still one of my very favourite records from that period.

time passed, and for some reason, in 2006/2007, this time driven more by c., who in the meantime had built up the very, very cool drone forest website – we started recording again (quite suddenly, we just…started up again, as if three years hadn’t just passed with almost no band activity), and we created another large batch of records during another intense year-and-a-bit of drone creation.  I should mention that c. is the champion of all things netlabel, and on his netlabel site, you can download lots and lots of not just his music, but music by other netlabel artists, including compilations and collaborations galore – a fabulous netlabel resource.

and then…we stopped again – this time, for good – mike was busy starting a new family, and always busy with his art work – and his music (see velveeta heartbreak – this man is an incredibly talented artist and musician!) – I was busy with guitar craft, bindlestiff and my own solo records, and c. carried on his own solo work, on his label vuzhmusic – as well as being the caretaker of the drone forest website and being it’s main builder and webmaster.

ian carried on with his “megadrone” drone projects, and others, and also continued to work with his two bands, samarkand and “devilcake”, as well as going on to run the internet version of autoreverse, and also, his own bizarre depiction label.

but – there is so, so much drone music that has never been released – ian was far, far more prolific than any of us, and while we all gradually returned to our normal lives after the ’06/’07 round, ian continued with the “mega” and other drone projects – which really should have been released – as they were the some of the best – really remarkable stuff.

ian did produce an ultra-rare, 10-cd set of one of his unreleased projects – “metadrone” (which has the cryptic title “df8” on the actual package, and ian sent one to each band member – I am the proud owner of number 10/10 of “metadrone”, and also, a very proud owner of the vinyl record that chris produced, “amy’s arms”).  luckily, you can now download “metadrone” for free from the drone forest web site, while c’s vinyl release is still available for purchase as far as I know.

if we now fast forward to june 2013 – ian has (apparently, as I had no warning or inkling of these new recordings’ existence until today, when they appeared as suggestions on my you tube page!!) taken the original source tapes (I assume, from myself, mike and chris – and himself) and created new random audio mixes, one each for his four 29 minute long videos, using the original “drone forest I” source materials.  this is exactly the kind of thing that ian excels at, and I am so, so pleased to see these “new” videos, along with the first brand new drone forest music since 2007 (that I am aware of, anyway!).

what a pleasure and a privilege to be involved in a project like “drone forest” – an internet band, but an internet band like no other – working with three of the most creative people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know and to work with, and it’s with an incredible fondness that I think back on those two-and-a-bit remarkable years of creation, and, the massive catalogue of music we produced – which, by the way, you can download every single album and track for free at www.droneforest.com (with the one exception of the “amy’s arms” vinyl release, which is a for sale item as it is in vinyl format) – otherwise, all of the other tracks, 16 original cds and 2 posthumous cds, are free to download!!! free.

for me – well, what an absolute joy the entire drone forest experience was – and is, because right now, I am sat listening to four brand new, 29 minute long drone forest tracks – probably recorded in some very unusual way by the most excellent ian c. stewart – all hail the master of drones ! these new pieces are intriguing, dark, and most, most excellent – drones 2013 style.

you can view the entire discography on the drone forest website – we created 16 cds in our main heyday of 2003/then 2006-2007, plus the “amy’s arms” vinyl release makes it a nice round seventeen (my lucky number)  – and two “posthumous” cds.  in looking at the discography just now, I noticed that there are actually two of the drone forest cds that I produced, in 2003, it was the aforementioned “ZOSO”, but in 2006-2007, at the end of the second run of albums, I did a second production job on the final cd released by the group as a whole, “spatial displacement”.  in a way, I’m pleased that I was the one to master and produce our final album as a band – followed by the swan song – c. reider’s most excellent “amy’s arms” making it seventeen releases in total during our active lifetime as a band.

I think it’s more than fitting that exactly ten years after the release of “drone forest I”, that it’s creator has seen fit to create four brand new works from the band, here and now in 2013, but, using the ten year old samples – randomly re-arranging them into these there wonderful new pieces of music – I think that is brilliant !

if you are interested in drones, which, after all, are a sort of bastard son or offspring of ambient music, I would suggest a visit to the drone forest website, download an album or three or five or nineteen, and you might find you have a new love – the drone.  drones can be dark, disturbing, momentarily uplifting, disorienting, wonderful, moving, annoying or just downright cool, but, as an unusual offshoot of the ambient genre, once you start listening…you may find them very compelling indeed – I just listened to two full hours of brand new drone forest music, and it was absolutely captivating, relaxing, exhilarating – a great listening experience.

here are direct links to the four brand new drone forest videos, on the ian stewart you tube page:

drone forest video 1

drone forest video 2

drone forest video 3

drone forest video 4

ian also produced a short form drone forest video in 2009, which is here.

in listening to the new tracks tonight, I really find the to be most excellent – an updated, remixed, powered up version of the drone, set to ambient videos of – what else – trees, forests, snowstorms…the 2013 version of what we did so well back in 2003 and 2006/2007 – re-imagined for the 10s by none other than the drone master himself, ian c. stewart.

all hail indeed!

the drone forest discography:

title  /  assembled by

drone forest / ian c. stewart

drone forest II / ian c. stewart

our ghost in her wood / c. reider

june 21, 2003 / c. reider (a live simultaneous one hour event from four studios)

ZOSO / dave stafford

airways nova teeth / mike bowman

remixes, volume I / ian c. stewart

metadrone / ian c. stewart (original release, handmade, hand painted limited numbered edition 10 cd set)

drone forest IV / compilation – assembled by the band

remixes, volume II / the band

kirchenkampf vs. drone forest / john gore – guest assembler – drone forest source material

biolegacy / ian c. stewart (original release, handmade, limited numbered edition 3″ cdr 10 copies)

point / c. reider

honey / ian c. stewart

wormwood / c. reider

spatial displacement / dave stafford

amy’s arms (12″ vinyl release) / c. reider

forester / c. reider (posthumous release – the entire DF catalogue to date, put through an audio mulcher)

distinguish / to be determined (posthumous release)

I’ve been in some unusual bands before, from the dozey lumps to bindlestiff to the orchestra of crafty guitarists, but there has never been another band quite like drone forest.  go have a listen!

van der graaf generator – live at the abc theatre, glasgow, scotland, june 27th, 2013

first things first: here is the set list from thursday night’s van der graaf generator concert at the abc theatre in glasgow, scotland (june 27, 2013):

[encore:]

peter hammill announced early on in the show that the band would be playing seven songs during the evening – which from any other group, would have brought cries of dismay, because it might well mean a pretty short set.

but, in true van der graafian form, those “seven songs” contained two very, very long pieces, “flight”(which they began playing live for the first time ever on the last US tour), and “a plague of lighthouse keepers” (which van der graaf began playing on the current european tour – and, that being the first airings of the tune save a very few live versions performed in 1972 – so, a long, long waiting to hear that tune!)…and – between those two songs alone, you have something around forty minutes or more of music.

“over the hill” (what a bizarre and wonderful song to begin with – I could not believe my ears) – is over twelve minutes in length; and “childlike faith in childhood’s end” is certainly over ten minutes in length, so those four tracks give you an easy one hour of fantastic progressive rock music.

add in the “shorter” songs, none of which are that short – and it’s quite a decent length show, despite only eight songs being played in total !!!

the venue itself was tiny (this isn’t the big hall at the abc, it’s the ancillary hall, the smaller one – and I mean it’s pretty tiny – but, packed full of happy scots folk on this occasion), it was incredibly hot in there, but the fans were so astonishing – staying dead quiet in the silent sections of the music, then yelling their heads off and singing along when the music returned after a silence – a really respectful audience, and they really made the band feel welcome and appreciated, I don’t think I’ve ever seen peter hammill smile so much as he did during the applause for “gog” – he seemed positively chuffed, I would say…

now that I’ve described the mood and the venue, I will return to the beginning, and try to give my impressions of the show in terms of the music and the musicianship.  let me first say, that I only very rarely attend live concerts any more, and usually only when I feel that I will be witness to truly great musicianship.  very few players in this day and age meet my exacting standards.  for example, so far, this year, I am only planning on two concerts for the whole year – this one, van der graaf generator (who are, after all, one of my favourite bands of all time) and in november, because I love them, a “modern” band – queens of the stone age (who are my current favourite “modern band”).

that is it – so far.  sure, if robert fripp or king crimson or someone of that calibre was touring, and played in scotland – I would make it three concerts.  but having seen many of the best bands over the years (bear in mind that I’ve been going to rock concerts since 1973, so that”s actually forty years worth of live shows, and amongst those shows, I’ve been fortunate to see some of the best musicians of the day – very fortunate indeed) I just don’t often get the urge to put up with all the negative aspects of live shows.  to see a show as good as this one was – was worth the minor hardships of tiny venue, high temperature, and cramped seating arrangements – well worth it.

so – the aforementioned “over the hill” was the opening piece, and, having seen the trio twice previously, on both of those previous occasions, they had opened with the very, very tricky “interference patterns ” from trisector – so I knew that they would have to break that pattern (pun not intended, but, accepted 🙂 ), and sure enough, they did – but what a choice – with it’s odd stop / start arrangement, and it’s wonderfully dissonant piano riffs, all of which gradually resolves into one of the most glorious pieces of music ever created – the piece becomes less dissonant, more glorious, more beautiful, as it progresses to it’s regal ending.  the fact that they replaced the nearly impossible to perform “interference patterns” with one of the most complex, difficult and beautiful tracks from the same amazing studio album, “trisector” (2008) – well, to me, that choice just oozes class.  you mustn’t be predictable; the last two tours, you usually open with “interference patterns” – so how can you top that?  by substituting an even better track from the same album (your strongest post-quartet album, surely).

a fantastic choice, and I thought it was a great way to start the show.  the organ parts, the amazing distorted signature hugh banton solos in this piece are truly spine-tingling in their beauty, and the band played the piece well as they always do – a fantastic starting point for an amazing evening of live music!

next, comes the enigmatic and wonderful “mr. sands”, from the very surprising follow-up to “trisector”, “a grounding in numbers” (2011)– so – two songs from the current van der graaf catalogue, one from each of the first two “trio” albums – to me, a statement, a reminder, that we are here now, and this is the music we are writing and playing – it’s not all about our seventies output.  and what better two songs?  “mr. sands” means a lot more to me now that I understand what it is about, it’s one of those songs that it really, really does help to understand what it means, lyrically, for you to truly enjoy it.  a rocking little number, and the band knocked through it with the confidence and the knowledge of a band playing a current catalogue item – no problem – we know this one 🙂

then, without any ado whatsoever, the third song of the night, the band launches confidently into “flight” – which they had not played previously outside of the last US tour, so we are seeing and hearing this performed live for the first time ever here in europe – “flight” being a peter hammill solo song (from his tenth solo album, “a black box” from 1980) rather than a van der graaf song – so it’s unique in that this is van der graaf generator, 2013 trio version, playing a peter hammill song – and not just any peter hammill song; one of the most convoluted, challenging, and simply remarkable pieces of progressive music ever composed by anyone.  I love this song; I was fortunate enough to have seen peter hammill, solo at the piano, play this piece back in 1981, at the roxy theatre in los angeles, california – and here I was, suddenly, thirty three years later, seeing peter hammill playing “flight” again – but this time, with the best backing band in the world; and, with good technology and reliable instruments – and while both the 1981 and the 2013 performances were amazing…the 2013 really was something to behold.

not perfect – at one point, just one time, someone missed a cue, and they shifted uncomfortably from one impossible section to another impossible section with a bit of a “bump”, but, always professional, carried on as if nothing had happened.  that you could play this 20 minute sequence of music “perfectly” is in doubt anyway – I spent ages just learning the first three minutes of it (the section known as “flying blind”), which I can just about play after 30 years plus of trying – and I never could learn any of the rest of the 20 minute piece!! it is difficult.  I watched with my mouth hanging open, while peter hammill‘s hands played the impossible riff that is “nothing is nothing” while his voice sang in a completely different time signature, and it makes you realise what an amazing performer he really is – he can completely disconnect his voice and his hands – the hands are on automatic, and the vocal is what he concentrates on.  and – somehow – both come out sounding amazing – “I say – NOTHING IS NOTHING!” and another crazed section of impossible prog is launched (the piece is broken into several sections, each which bear a sub-title on the album) – but they are collectively, “flight” – and I am so, so happy, that I can add seeing “van der graaf trio” flight in 2013 to seeing peter hammill “solo” flight in 1981….brilliant!  I am very, very lucky.

peter and hugh handle all of the melodic and harmonic information: on a song like “flight”, the piano is the basis (hammill) the voice is the message and the lyrics delivered (hammill) and then there is the bass player (hugh’s feet) and the organ player/synthesist (hugh’s hands).  and guy…is the glue, the percussive glue, that drags and fits and forces and slams and makes it all stick together as music.  you’d see guy staring up at hammill, waiting for the visual cue, and then going into an impossible, high-speed drum fill that can’t possibly fit in the two seconds available before he has to do yet another impossible drum fill…but somehow, he makes it happen – and it’s really something else watching the three of them, all working to that singular purpose, to deliver “flight” to an unbelieving audience.  the applause was thunderous, and the performance was absolutely unforgettable.  sigh.

“bunsho” is song four, and for me, slightly spoiled by a not quite-in-tune electric guitar (of course, the 100 degree heat in the room wasn’t helping any guitar’s tuning, in all fairness to hammill) but they soldiered on, I like this song, but it’s not something that really rocks my world personally – and it had the difficult task of following “flight” – an unenviable role, we might say!  but still, another great “new” song, and I love seeing hammill play guitar – surely, he’s one of those guitarists that is constantly being underrated, because, we are always talking about his piano playing, his voice, his songs, his lyrics…but not his guitar playing.  I shall rectify that shortly.  “bunsho” passes unobtrusively,  making it three out of four for “new songs” – three new, one old (and that one, not even a van der graaf song!).

the fifth piece of the evening, “lifetime”, is a track from the first “reunion” album, 2005’s “present” and it’s a real favourite of mine, a great organ sound and riff, and hammill playing some wonderful guitar – and the last time I saw them play this, it was a bit of a row, hammill could not seem to come to grips with the guitar solo (which occurs twice in the song) and I was a bit disappointed with it at the time (felt bad for him, it was just not his night!) – but this time, it was right, it was as it should be, and in fact, in my opinion, the solos he played here, are better than what was on the original record.

he’s at home with the song now, he sings it’s beautiful verses with a lovely, quiet passion, and then settles down to play those beautifully chorused, clean lead solos as perfectly as humanly possible – and he nailed them; both of them – much to my everlasting satisfaction.  those earlier awkward performances are redeemed, and he has the guitar parts perfected – great – guy just supports this one, so gently, while hugh plays really, really beautiful hammond-like and other gorgeous organ sounds and bass – really well done.

and with the conclusion of song five, we now leave the present, and the recent, and move back to the classic van der graaf 1970s repertoire that we all love so much – we go to that place, and we stay there until the concert is finished.  probably a calculated move when creating the set list – blow them away with amazing renditions of songs from across our back catalogue – and that’s what they proceeded to do…

song six, “childlike faith in childhood’s end” – an absolute classic from “still life”, which is perhaps my favourite mid-70s van der graaf generator album (from 1976) I think this has the most uplifting, challenging and beautiful lyrics ever written, it asks all the questions, it poses those questions to us, the audience, and then it fills us with joy with it’s thoughts of infinity and how, with the death of mere human….life shall start.  when this song started, I was transfixed, yes, I’d seen them play it before, in fact, three times before, and now, I was going to see it a fourth time – but this time – again – the lead guitars were far exceeding any earlier version I’d seen or heard.

hammill sings this with great, great passion, and on more than one occasion, I could feel myself welling up, at certain lines, certain lyrics – it’s just one of those songs that has always affected me emotionally, and this time, for some reason, I found it more hard-hitting than usual – I don’t know why.  but one thing raised this performance up in my esteem and in my mind – peter’s lead guitar playing.  when it comes time for him to play his beautiful, melodic solos on this track – I always cringe a bit, because as often as not, he struggles a bit, and I want those lead solos to sound perfect. he usually does pretty well, but there’s always a bit I wish could have been…somehow…”better”.

this time, they did not disappoint – in fact, they excelled, they were BETTER than they would normally be – he was so, so “on” – and he played the solos with renewed strength, vigour and excitement – and that absolutely blew me away.  really good, really excellent guitar playing – and all in between singing that impossibly difficult vocal – no problem.  this is one piece too, where you really hear and see the power of guy and hugh working as a team – basically, they take the place of a four man band, but there are just two of them – while peter is either silent, is singing, or is singing and playing lead guitar.  they carry the song – peter is the soloist, and the vocalist, and the lead guitarist, too – what a great arrangement of a fantastic song.  peter’s two supporting musicians pack a sonic wallop that sounds more like four or five sidemen – not two.

from strength to strength we go – no sooner had the band ended the remarkable, powerful, positive universal hymn that is “childlike faith”…than they launched immediately into the never-before heard on a UK stage “a plague of lighthouse keepers” – so – from a 12 minute masterpiece straight into a 22 minute masterpiece.  newly arranged for the trio, newly adjusted for the realities of being played by the trio in 2013 as opposed to being played by the quartet (once or twice, only) in long-ago 1971 – and the new arrangement is absolutely amazing – I was transfixed.  those lyrics, so dark, so astonishing, just giving me the chills, setting the stage for this long, sad tale of loneliness and grief –

“still waiting for my saviour, storms tear me limb from limb;

my fingers feel like seaweed…I’m so far out I’m too far in.” **

 

** [that last line famously plagiarised by fish, when working on an early marillion masterpiece – borrowing from the best, I suppose].

the beautiful vibrato on the electric piano was reproduced flawlessly, but sounding a million times better than the original (advances in technology, I love you) and hugh providing some wild sound effects when required – the band played steadily, like a ticking time bomb waiting to go off – moving through the familiar sections, “the presence of the night” with it’s almost ambient, eerie feeling…all building and building to those vocal storms that we all knew were coming (and a word about that in a  moment):

“where is the God that guides my hand?

how can the hands of others reach me?3

when will I find what I grope for?

who is going to teach me? I am me / me are we / we can’t see any way out of here.

crashing sea, a trophied history: chance has lost my guinevere…”

I think everyone was a bit…worried about what hammill would do when it came time to re-create the highest pitched, most insane “screaming” vocals that are part and parcel of “lighthouse keepers” – but I wasn’t worried; he did exactly what I would expect – he adapted the melodies to the current range of his voice.  he still did some of the build ups, but, pitched a bit lower – he hit what notes he could – but it didn’t matter, it’ just sounded perfect – they did an absolutely fantastic job.  his vocals were absolutely wonderful, very tasteful, very, very well executed – I really respect hammill’s ability to sing these songs now, when his voice does not have the range it once did – yet, you would hardly know that from listening.  he just makes the vocals work, and works around the tricky parts professionally, tastefully, and beautifully.

for me, it wasn’t so much the “insane” parts or the wild, screaming vocals, but instead, the peaceful resolution at the end – after all of the tumult, including one section where I couldn’t tell if it was a really, really loud and long bass note, or maybe even, feedback – a sound so loud it rattled your very bones – and the swirling instrumental sections that we all know and love from the original album, not just faithfully reproduced, but, improved with this new arrangement – but all the wonderful, crazy sections are all really just leading to… “land’s end (sineline) / we go now” – I realise, this is what I have been waiting to hear …

“cceans drifting sideways, I am pulled into the spell,

I feel you around me, I know you well.

stars slice horizons where the lines stand much too stark;

I feel I am drowning – hands stretch in the dark.

camps of panoply and majesty, what is freedom of choice?

where do I stand in the pageantry, whose is my voice?

it doesn’t feel so very bad now, I think the end is the start, begin to feel very glad now:

all things are a part

all things are apart

all things are a part”.

this was the section that I realised I was waiting for, how the song resolves itself in an incredibly melodic and beautiful and harmonious section comprised of glorious organs and pianos, crashing cymbals, and the oddly phrased coda of “all things are a part / all things are apart / all things are a part”, beautiful vocals, made even more beautiful in the now calmer, more mature 2013 voice of peter hammill…a lovely outro to one of the most tumultuous, strange yet wonderfully reborn pieces of music ever created, and I am so pleased to have been able to hear and see the band play this song – really pleased.  a once in a lifetime experience that I will not soon forget.

so with the words “oceans drifting sideways” I was suddenly there, at that moment, “land”s end” – I’d finally reached that amazing place of peace and beauty after the terrific maelstrom of the first 18 minutes of “plague” – I had reached the place of peace – “land’s end” – and it was just the most wonderful resolution, a great journey through a long and difficult terrain – but ending up in such a good, good place.  sigh.

I am so glad that they undertook the decision to do this, I think that the success and the positive reactions to “flight” from the last tour, lead them to this idea, of adding an even more unlikely candidate into the set list – so for that, I am so, so, grateful, and I feel even more fortunate, because of this, I am doubly lucky, as we got to hear and see both songs in one amazing concert!!! two impossible things before breakfast, as it were…

before we could catch our breaths…while the loud, loud, wild applause for “a plague of lighthouse keepers” was still resounding, not yet finished – the encore began. a moment of sheer shock, as I realised – “this is gog” – “oh my dear god, it’s gog…”

the most chilling hammill lyric yet, with it’s nihilistic denial of all labels, some who would have him as satan, some as god – and when he delivers the edict “I AM NONE” it’s just the most chilling moment in any song, anywhere – the creepy church organs-meet-freestyle-jazz cymbals, with potent, throbbing organ bass threatening – and then suddenly it’s hammill’s voice “some swear they see me weeping in the poppy-fields of france….” – god, there’s just nothing like it, a fantastic lyric, a great piece of free-form prog…an astonishing choice of encore, too – a second peter hammill song (this time, from 1974’s “in camera” – an absolute classic, but, a solo album, not a van der graaf album) – although in this particular case, it does so happen that van der graaf performed on the original – which is probably what made it possible for them to resurrect it for one of the earlier trio tours.

and I was careful to watch what hammill played on the electric guitar during this tune, it’s not evident on the studio recording, but there is an absolutely stonking guitar and organ precision riff, that hammill and banton play at speed, in perfect time, repeatedly during one of the verses of this song, so, they are playing this convoluted, impossible descending guitar and organ riff while hammill is singing the song – and it’s another one of those sleight-of-hand things, if you blink, you might miss it, but it’s that disconnected my hands are doing one thing in one time signature while at the same time, my voice is singing in a different time signature…and together, that makes “gog” what “gog” is – a fantastic piece of progressive music, especially in these live “trio” versions – they play it really, really well – better than the record.

I was lucky enough to see them play it once, but to see it again, now, in 2013, following immediately on the heels of none other than “a plague of lighthouse keepers” – and, as the bloody encore – gog – take no prisoners; no happy, positive tune of hope, no “refugees” or other audience placation – instead, the dark side, the darkest of the dark lyrics, and, the fantastic denial of the labels that were applied to hammill all encapsulated in this song’s lyric; the audience’s reaction was to scream even louder than they did after “lighthouse keepers” – if such a thing is even possible – a fantastic reception – but it did, in the end, have to end – so, as they left us with last night, I leave you know with the full lyric of the remarkable “gog”:

some call me SATAN others have me GOD some name me NEMO…

I am unborn.

some speak of me in anagrams, some grieve upon my wrath… the ones who give me service

I grant my scorn.

my words are ‘Too late’, ‘Never’, ‘Impossible’, and ‘Gone’;

my home is in the sunset and the dawn.

my name is locked in silence, sometimes it’s whispered out of spite.

all gates are locked, all doors are barred and bolted, there is no place for flight.

Will you not come to me and love me for one more night?

some see me shining, others have me dull; gun-metal and cut diamond –

I am ALL.

some swear they see me weeping in the poppy-fields of France…

in the tumbling of the dice see them fall!

Some laugh and see me laughing down the corridors of power: some see my sign on Caesar and his pall.

My face is robed in darkness, sometimes you glimpse me in the shade,

All friends have gone, all calls are weak and wasted, there is no more to say.

will you not crawl to me and love me for one more day?

Some wish me empty, others will me full, some crave of me infinity –

I am NONE.

Some look for me in symbols, some trace my line in stars, some count my ways in numbers:

I am No One.

Some chronicle my movements, my colours and my clothes, some trace the work in progress –

it is done.

My soul is cast in crystal yet unrevealed beneath the knife.

All wells are dry, all bread is masked in fungus and now disease is rife.

Will you not run from this and love me for one more life?

now that’s how the encore of a progressive rock concert should go!! – with drama, with darkness, with a tinge of hopelessness mixed with a tinge of hope…

that’s gog.

what a way to follow “lighthouse keepers” too – totally a grand slam – the impossible 22 minute saga of a “lonely man” followed by the ultimate denial of any labels at all being applied to that same man a few years later…I AM NO ONE !

for those of us who were lucky enough to see a show from this current european tour, those of us who won the “double van der graaf generator lottery” and got to see and hear the band play “flight” anda plague of lighthouse keepers” in the same show…it was an unforgettable experience, and I am so, so glad that the band decided to return to scotland again this year, and that we were lucky enough to get to see them play again – highly recommended if you want the real deal, a real progressive rock band playing at the height of their skill, their musicianship is untarnished by the years that have passed – and we are left with…the music.

and, it stands the test of time as no other classic seventies prog band’s catalogue does – van der graaf generator, could easily be voted “least negatively changed” over time, or better still, “most amazing after all these years” – because they truly are, and no other reunion or reformed prog band that started in the late sixties as van der graaf did, can boast a current musical quality like the one we witnessed at the abc theatre on june 27, 2013 – no other prog band can touch them, now.  seriously.

a remarkable experience. you should see them if you have the chance.

the “eternal album” – and, sequencing with the fairlight pro app

with the recent release of my first “eternal album”, “music for apps: fairlight pro” I’m now moving much more publicly into the realms of app-based music, so far, I’ve kept most of my application-based music just in the world of you tube videos, with musical activities such as the purescapes channel, which is a you tube channel dedicated to music I’ve created with “scape” – the generative ambient music application designed by brian eno and peter chilvers… I’ve also done the odd live improv involving applications on some of my other you tube channels such as “applicationHD” and “synthesizerHD” but this is my first actual full “album” of application-based music.

I should take a moment and explain the “eternal album” concept; this is an idea I’ve been working on for about one year, I’ve mapped out a series of these albums to be made using existing and future music recorded with applications – and application-based music is like science fiction to me; I still can’t really believe that it exists, and that for the last year and a half, I’ve been able to create music (and, a lot of music at that) on a tablet; using a myriad of music-making applications – to create music of  incredibly varied styles, from super ambient (scape, mixtikl, bloom) to frenetic, heavy, synth music (nanostudio, imini, animoog, addictive synth, thor, nave, n log pro, magellan, sunrizer, and so on…) to almost anything in between (launchkey, loopyHD, cantor, mugician, sound prism pro, beatwave, and so on…) – five years ago, I would not have thought this possible.  however, a practical problem has emerged, that the “eternal album” solves – how to present a large number of finished compositions (far too many to assemble into ordinary “albums”) in a way that makes sense for both artist and listener.  the “eternal album” solves this new world, application-based problem.

so, after 41 years of making “normal” albums – i.e., for release first on cassette, then on compact disc, and eventually, online (a mixture of downloads and compact discs), but this…this is a new “kind” of album, one that recognises that the album concept has become slightly outmoded.  of course,  I will still continue to make normal “albums”, where I collect songs together (such as “gone native”, my recent collection of active music, or ambient albums such as “sky full of stars” and “the haunting” – and many others, too) – this will continue, and it will revolve mostly around music made with electric guitar, or guitar synthesizer – I still feel in particular that for ambient music, the normal “album” full of songs is the best presentation method.  there are many reasons for that, the foremost of which is that by selecting a group of songs, and ordering them in a particular way, the artist can control the “mood” of the ambient album experience – so I think a defined set of tracks, carefully sequenced, is very often a good idea, and in ambient music, it’s particularly effective.

but…not so for music made with applications.  since to me, with my old-fashioned brain, this is futuristic music, science fiction music, music that I never dreamed could be made, mixed and published on a tablet device, in vast quantities (example – in just about one year of creating “scapes” using eno and chilvers remarkable application, I’ve created in excess of 1000 scapes) – and, the majority of them are of a quality I would absolutely publish – so – I feel that this music, in these quantities and at this level of quality (there is really no such thing, for example, as a “bad scape”) – this music deserves a new kind of album – the “eternal album”.

the concept is simple:

1) there is no finite number of tracks – tracks are added as they become available.  we begin with existing, completed tracks, and add new tracks as they are created and completed

2) there is no ending to the album itself – it’s end is dictated either by the disappearance of bandcamp, or by the disappearance of myself from the planet (both will happen eventually – this is inevitable)

3) customers can download any number of tracks and construct their own “versions” of the album, from a single track to hundreds of tracks if available, or anywhere in between

4) customers can either use the suggested running order or create their own, four seconds of silence has been added to the end of each track for this specific purpose

5) there is no album price, as the “album” is whatever the customers want it to be, from one track to hundreds of tracks (if available) in any order they please

6) a word about track pricing, because of the nature of the “eternal album”, we have set the track prices at a special low level to compensate for the higher track count

so what this means for me as an artist, is what I need to do to present the work for a particular application, is to create a normal bandcamp album, in this first case, the album is called “music for apps: fairlight pro” (in fact, all of these albums will have similar titles, such as “music for apps: scape” and “music for apps: nanostudio” and so on) and I then upload the existing, finished master tracks that I’ve created with that application.  that might be just a handful of tracks, it might be many, but once uploaded, I would then add to the album at any point in time over the next 30 or 40 years,  many, many more completed tracks – as they become available.

this might mean that if I have a very prolific period of composition next year, that I might add 20 or 30 new tracks during 2014, to the existing fairlight pro tracks that are already part of the album.  or, if I do not have the urge (or more likely, the time, due to other commitments) to work with the fairlight, it might be that no tracks are added until 2017, when I finally find the time to record new fairlight sequences…the input is totally flexible.  note: if customers indicate a demand for more tracks of a certain type, i.e. they ask for more fairlight sequences, or more scapes, I will do everything within my power (and my schedule) to provide same.

so any “eternal album” can have any number of tracks at any time, more tracks can be added at any time, or, they might remain static for many months or years depending on what apps I am currently recording with.  it’s the ultimate in flexibility for me, the artist, but it’s also the ultimate in flexibility for the customer for these reasons:

1) the customer can listen to all of the available tracks before making any purchase, and decide if they like none, one, a few, many, or all of the tracks

2) the customer can download only the tracks they like, ignoring those tracks that do not appeal to their “ear”

3) for completists, they can own every available track and get the full musical impact of perhaps a decade or two decades’ worth of the artist’s work in that particular format – perhaps, a hundred or more songs recorded over ten or twenty years – something that most artists do not necessarily make available to their listening public (but I wish to as much as is humanly possible)

4) having many “eternal albums” to listen to and choose between, gives the customer a very good idea indeed “which” of the applications that he or she likes the sound of, so some folk, for example, who are more used to my ambient work, will favour the scape and mixtikl “eternal albums” while others who perhaps like the louder, more active side of dave stafford, will opt for the “eternal albums” created with the fairlight, nanostudio, or other active/synth tools.  it provides a much greater range of choice, which appeals to me.

it’s really all about choice, and to me, having a range of albums, sorted by application, with a comprehensive catalogue of tracks created within each application available to listen to at no charge and no risk, gives customers the chance to listen, compare, and decide which applications they feel drawn to or that resonate with them, and, which applications do not appeal to them at all.  it might be that one customer only likes the sound of scape and mixtikl, and does not enjoy the fairlight pro or nanostudio albums.  or, the complete opposite, or any mix of styles/apps – but the beauty is, as with all albums presented in bandcamp, you can listen, compare and contrast before making any purchase decision.

since I have just been through a complete review of every single track I’ve ever produced using the fairlight pro (peter vogel cmi) sequencer, I wanted to take some time to talk about the joys and frustrations, the highs and lows of creating music with the fairlight pro app in particular, since it’s the subject of the first dave stafford “eternal album” and is our featured application today.

whether you call it by it’s current official name, “peter vogel cmi”, or if you are a bit lazy like me, and you call it “the fairlight” or “fairlight pro” – this is one of the most unique applications that appeared in the early days of the ipad tablet revolution.  despite it’s high ticket price, it was one of the very first applications I purchased, because I wanted that sample library – the one that kate bush and peter gabriel used in the early eighties, I wanted those sounds!

I had a bit of a learning curve, I am first a guitarist, second, a pianist, and lastly, a synthesist – and despite playing both guitar and keyboards, sequencing was a skill that I had really never got the hang of…until the fairlight pro application appeared in the itunes store.  it took me a few weeks to really understand and take advantage of what the app can do, but once I got the hang of it, my skill set just skyrocketed, and within a few months, I found that I was creating pieces of music that really surprised me in their complexity for one thing, but at the same time, it was the sound of the pieces…and that takes us right back to those incredible samples.

in uploading the tracks to the album, I’ve taken the unusual step of defining in full, in the attendant metadata, a detailed description of each piece, it’s duration, tempo and the instruments used in the creation of each track, so for each track that is part of the album, there is a list of the eight instruments used to create it.  the reason I’ve included this is because it’s so, so difficult, when listening to a completed, mixed, stereo sequence, to tell what the component parts are.

but even knowing what “went into” the piece is sometimes not enough, sometimes it’s more about unusual choices made with note durations, or adjusting the tempo to make a certain melody sound a certain way, a lot of the fairlight “magic” is in the combination of instruments used – and sometimes, strange things happened, and instruments that sound one way juxtaposed with three other instruments, suddenly change their sonic character when paired with say, two other different samples.

there is something about the fairlight that you can’t explain in words, and at that point, you can only listen.  the samples are just classic, and I love the quantity and diversity on offer, but even more important, the insanely strange combinations of instruments you can achieve by mixing and matching across categories, and if you think about it, each fairlight “instrument” consists of (a maximum of) eight instruments, so just how many combinations of eight can be made from the many hundreds of samples there are??

what amazes me, too, is that I can create a new instrument, and it always, always sounds completely different from any other instrument I’ve ever created!  no matter how many I create, each instrument seems to create an utterly unique sound, which you can’t replicate easily using other applications.

yes, you could physically collect those eight instruments (although it might be difficult, for example, to get ahold of “jetpasso1” – mosts musicians do not have a jet in their studio) and record with them, but it would be utterly impractical in a lot of cases, again, I don’t have a digeridoo in my studio, but with the fairlight – well, I do.

listening back to the sequences I created beginning in february 2012, and then moving up to the present moment, it’s a journey of pure discovery, a joyful, joyful journey, with a few moments of frustration, a few paths that I shouldn’t have gone down, but mostly, it’s just one of the most unique, interesting and entertaining bodies of work I’ve ever had the pleasure of creating and being the composer of.  I’ve created silly sequences, sequences composed of bird song, classical music, pop music, heavy synth music, rock music, progressive rock (quite a bit of prog in there), it’s unbelievable the variation of tracks I’ve created over the last year and a half – I even have one sequence that accidentally sounds a bit like an obscure XTC b-side…

I think that this unassuming little app, with it’s amazing set of classic 1980s samples, has a remarkable power – it allows you to play eight very diverse instruments together, in an impromptu “band” that you then arrange measure by measure…creating completely unique pieces of music with these one of a kind “instruments”.  I love spending time creating with it, and I hope that you’ll enjoy some of the fruits of this labour, it’s always an amazing feeling when you push “play” for the first time, and a remarkable and very unique piece of music plays back…which was built literally, note by note.

so – I think it’s appropriate that the music made with the fairlight pro application is the subject of  my first “eternal album”, it seems right, it’s both a classic synth from the 80s but also, one of the first high quality sequencer/samplers to be made available for the ipad and iphone, so therefore, it’s part of our past and our present and our future.  I love working with this tool, and I recommend it highly to anyone who plays keyboards, that wants to learn how to sequence – it’s how I got started 🙂   note by beautiful note !

…’neath heaven’s sea

may 22, 2013

mykonos.

a comparatively lazy day today, no plans for exploration beyond the seaside cafes and restaurants of mykonos town.

another sunny, clear greek island day, a long trek from the ship to where mykonos town proper starts, and our first stop of many for refreshment: two tall, fresh orange juices, which both fortified us and made it possible for us to continue on in the heat…

along the mykonos seafront, with the tourists and the townspeople mixing almost unaware of each other; dogs and cats and seagulls aplenty, and many a sidewalk cafe, where cool or hot drinks and food can be had…our next unscheduled stop led us to first, frappes, a cold coffee drink very popular in greece, and then for me, to cappuccino, which I cannot get enough of in italy or in greece – they are always a joy, and they provide much needed caffeine, too.

this stop also provided a delicious treat: feta cheese, baked in filo dough with herbs, with honey on top – what a fantastic treat that was…and so memorable, that my partner made it for us for supper just a couple of days ago (now that we are home) – and it came out fantastically – a really nice dish added to the supper or snack repertoire – thanks to a sidewalk cafe on mykonos.  note:  “sidewalk cafe” also being a great instrumental song from the 1974 album “todd” by todd rundgren, the second todd album that “got me into” todd’s music (the first one being 1974’s “todd rundgren’s utopia”)…little known fact.

as this was a “lazy day”, by choice (that was the original plan, when we get to mykonos: do nothing, take photos, read, drink, eat, relax – and we stuck religiously to that plan!), we spent time reading, watching the tourists and passers-by, watching the thin, scrawny island cats, taking photographs…and taking it relatively easy when compared with the level of activity at our last two destinations, corfu and santorini.  we were happy enough to find a shady bench by the seaside, overlooking the bay, and take still more photos and gaze out at the calm, beautiful water.  taking photographs of the houses and buildings and churches and the famed mykonos windmills that were dotted all over the low hills surrounding the town capturing (on film, of course!) a seagull perched atop a small dome-topped shrine, or snapping pics of modern speedboats tied up at the water’s edge…just a lazy day of watching, filming and relaxing.

the famous mykonos windmills are lovely, with their characteristic spindly design; small shrines with red domes as well as the more common blue domed buildings, churches, houses, all splayed across the low hills in blinding white – again, the all white buildings intentionally painted white simply because of it’s reflectivity – it’s the best colour to build with in a hot, sunny climate such as the climate mykonos enjoys.  one renowned aspect of life in mykonos town we did not get to try out was the famed “night life”, apparently, for the young or young at heart, there is a thriving night life scene, with cool clubs and restaurants – for those who are…in with the “in crowd”.  amongst the cognoscenti, in other words.

where, suggests the usually-reliable wikipedia “many international celebrities visit the island every summer”.  we certainly didn’t see any when we were there 🙂

in any case, there is always one more cappuccino before we go, given the amount of effort it took to get over to the town, we treated ourselves to a taxi ride all the way back to the ship, after just a few hours on mykonos, after our difficult day on santorini on the previous day; we were tired, so heading back to the ship early seemed the thing to do – and of course, I headed straight to my favourite spot on the ship, the jacuzzi, while my partner opted for a shady deckchair in the pool area, and her latest kindle book adventure (she got a lot more reading done than I did, I can tell you that much) – a wonderful, easy day and while mykonos is often portrayed as a place where there is “not much to do” or “very little to do” – I disagree – eating feta in filo with honey; drinking, juice, frappes, cappuccinos, and most important of all, just relaxing – that’s what mykonos had, and the attitude of the people there was much friendlier than on santorini.

this was exemplified by the young man who arrived in the taxi to return us to the ship:  when faced with a wheelchair, his response was “no problem” and he set about securing the chair into the boot of his rather small taxi in no time, and then unloaded it for us at the other end – great attitude, and we were most appreciative of that in our semi-exhausted state.

so our relatively “lazy day” on mykonos, followed by a really lovely afternoon of swimming and reading, really was a most relaxing and lovely time, so I would discount those who say there is “nothing to do” on mykonos – that’s actually wrong, it should be “there is nothing to do on mykonos except relax” – and that is exactly what we did during our short but lovely visit there.

may 23, 2013

final island destination: katakolon (olympia) – also known as katakolo.

for the fourth and final day of greek island-hopping, we docked at katakolon in the morning, and our first destination was the train station, where my first and most important activity, while my partner was buying us tickets to travel to the site of ancient olympia (our main goal for the day was to visit this ancient site, which was about a 45 minute train ride away – 25 miles, approximately – from the port) was to get and consume at least one cappuccino, so I would have enough caffeine to tide me through the journey.

we just missed the first train, which was a real shame, as we had to wait quite some time for the next one, which was of course, late.

the train journey itself, was surreal – a strange gallery of landscapes, moving from extreme beauty and wealth to terrible poverty, it was almost as if you could see the entire economic struggle in microcosm as the fairly modern train sped along, hooting it’s horn at the many, many level crossings and travelling through a somewhat bewildering array of rural areas, including farms, beautiful brand new houses with massive ornate gardens, shacks, dilapidated houses and yards, graffiti-scrawled walls, with the untrimmed plants whipping at the train windows constantly…until we finally arrived at the town of olympia, which also happened to be the end of the line, so the train had obviously been purpose built to transfer tourists from the port to the site of olympics, first modern day, and then, to the  ancient site on foot, after traversing the modern town (wheelchair and all, a truly challenging  journey I can tell you, especially for my partner).

but, arriving at the site, it all began to feel like it was worth it, and we had a wonderful but short tour of the ruins, which were impressive indeed, and it was a slightly haunting and very impressive place, the birthplace of the modern olympics, and it was such a fantastic feeling, to see the scale of it – obviously, these games meant an enormous amount to the people of that time, given the amount of time and effort spent to create this massive training complex for the athletes – the scale of it is hard to write about in words – and some of the buildings are in incredibly good condition given the amount of time that has passed.

I particularly liked the temple of zeus, which was central on the site, and it was a wonderful day walking around and looking at the various different buildings, and reading about their purpose, construction and back story.  the site itself was fully overgrown with plants and trees, some stunningly beautiful trees with gnarled, old, twisted trunks – and the ruins, amid this greenery, was fantastic to visit – the place has a really good vibe about it, possibly because of what it represents (the birthplace of the olympic spirit) –  but, the best was yet to come – the museum.

we’d bought the combination ticket that allowed us to travel both to the ancient site, and to the museum, so at the end of our time walking around and taking photos at the site itself, we went to find the olympia museum, which was unfortunately quite a long distance away, but once we found it – our collective jaws just dropped.

tiny, delicate figurines of animals and people, statues – so many statues, that some of the “less interesting” ones were lined up in a protected hallway OUTSIDE the museum proper; the central gallery inside, on the other hand, containing absolutely staggeringly massive works, whole tableaux of full sized or even larger than life statues, of every type of greek person or greek god imaginable – an absolutely unmissable collection of statuary.

the other rooms of this fair-sized and incredibly populated museum contained a huge array of olympian artefacts, from helmets to weapons to jewellery to carvings to ceramics and back for more statues still –  some of them compellingly life-like and beautiful.  this gallery of photographs begins to give you an idea of what you would see, but does not in anyway have the impact that “actually being there  does.  what a wonderful museum – I cannot recommend it highly enough – do not miss it!!

then time raised it’s ugly head again – we didn’t know how long it would take us to get back to olympia station, to catch the last train at 14.30, so we were forced to cut our visit to this amazing museum short (which was quite upsetting!), locate a taxi, and return to the station post haste – where of course, we then ended up having to wait for the train.  more juice and more cappuccinos followed, until the train arrived and we could make the long journey back to the port at speed.

a short walk through the port town, which had beautiful red flowers blooming above the shops, and we made our way back to the ship on our very last day of island visits.  the island of katakolon (olympia) was an absolute high point, possibly my second favourite greek island after corfu, and the visit to the ancient oylmpia, and particularly, the olympia museum containing the artefacts of ancient olympia, are a do-not-miss item.

 

in case you couldn’t tell that I really liked it, the museum in particular was most, most excellent, and we dearly wished we could have spent hours and hours there – but it was not to be.  still, we did manage to capture the essence of the place on camera (how nice is that – a museum where you are ALLOWED to take photographs – fantastic!) – our photos came out fantastically well, so we do have great visual, and internal, memories of the ancient items we were privileged to see both at the site of ancient olympia and in the museum.

one more day at sea, one more day of jacuzzi and sitting on our balcony, watching and listening to the sea…and that sound, after a week, is ingrained in my brain now at the deepest level – and it’s a sound I will always, always love.

it was time to travel home.

back first to venice, and then straight to the airport for our flight back to scotland via paris – but, we only saw the paris airport, nothing more.  setting foot on scottish soil, edinburgh, late afternoon, presented us with a beautiful, warm day with big, fluffy white clouds in a blue sky – fantastic.

while it’s wonderful to visit such places, it’s also very, very good to be home.

 

very good indeed.

next time, we return once again to our usual topics of music, applications, looping, guitars and all of that pureambient stuff !!!  see you then.

application of the moment

I’d like to talk about an application that I downloaded exactly one week ago, last Saturday, the day I returned from my holiday.  it’s called ifretless guitar, and to be frank, I can’t put it down.  every time I pick up the ipad, I find myself opening ifretless guitar, and seeing what I can learn.

this is a remarkable application, and even after just one week, I’m astonished at what I’ve learned from it and with it.  first of all, as a standalone app, just with it’s basic “guitar string” sound, it’s excellent.  you can set it up as a 7-, 8- or 9-string virtual “guitar”; you can select 7, 8 or 9 frets; and even better, you can tune it in many, many ways:  standard guitar tuning, bass guitar tuning, maj 3rds, violin tuning, and tritone tuning.

it also has both a coarse tuner and a fine tuner so you can match it precisely to other apps and instruments.

that’s the basics, but beyond that, it has many, many excellent features, such as: you can set the lowest two strings to “power chord” mode, so they play chords instead of notes – meaning you can “chord” or “riff” with the bottom two strings, while you “solo” with the top 5 or 6 or 7 strings…

it has controls for velocity, a four band EQ section, a music player, a nice reverb control, and a really capable digital delay that adds a fantastic liveliness to the sound…not to mention, an x-y pad for added versatility.

the current price of the app is zero – so that’s a pretty capable app for the price. [update 20130603 – apologies – by the time this was published, the price had returned to $5.00.  but you can, if you are willing to wait, get the “app ticker” application, then set it to “watch” ifretless guitar – and when the price drops, the app alerts you, you can set a threshold – so if it’s $5.o0 normally, you can tell app ticker to alert you when it reaches $3.99 or whatever price you want to pay – or it could drop to zero, and it would let you know that too.  app ticker is a really useful tool – you can load all of the apps you want to buy but think are currently too expensive, and it will let you know when the price you want to pay is reached – brilliant].

but it gets better – when you realise just how much more you can do with this app, because like so many apps, of course, you can control other apps with it – so on day two, I started using it to control other ios synths, from n log pro to mini synth pro to launchkey to sunrizer to any number of other MIDI friendly devices, and I have to admit, playing high quality synths from a nine “string” interface tuned to whatever you desire, is a lot of fun!

so beautiful pads, string sounds, or mellotron-like patches, you can control from the fretboard, so you can play your own nine string version of king crimson’s “dinosaur” – I found myself playing all kinds of unlikely tunes, bits of “here comes the sun” or “something” ( no idea why, but very enjoyable) but I also found that I could do a credible “fripp soundscape” if I picked the right string or string-like synth sound, and then played odd triangular shapes – and I’ve never played touch guitar or chapman stick (well, before last saturday, anyway), but I am finding it very easy to do (because of course, I do play piano, and synth – but I also know my fretboard reasonably well – and if you don’t – another great feature is “turn note names on”) – so regardless of which tuning you pick, if you know your “notes”, you can play anything – chords, melody, whatever.

or, crank up the quality digital delay, and have a go at being tony levin for a day – no problem.  for serious bass players, there is a “paid” version of the app, called “ifretless bass” – and if it’s ANYTHING like “ifretless guitar” – it’s going to be a brilliant application 🙂   if I find this app to be as long-lasting and useful as I believe it will be, I might even be tempted to buy the bass version.  after one week, I’ve got a lot of mileage out of this application, I “play” a bit of nine string guitar almost every day, I play in different tunings, and I alternate between playing with the normal guitar string sound (which really does sound quite good, if I may say so myself), and driving various other ios synths with it, picking synths and synth voices at random to see how well ifretless guitar responds – and so far, it always responds brilliantly, it’s such an amazing feeling to “play” a beautiful mellotron sound with a trio of guitar strings, a string “chord”, or to “play” a mad arpeggiator or a powerful lead synth sound, on a virtual fretless nine string guitar – it’s just a great feeling, I don’t know why.

I can easily see a whole range of live performance possibilities with this app, and I am quite certain that I will use it when I next make app-based live performance videos – because it’s an enormous amount of fun to play.  I was thinking that it would sound amazing, run through a looper through the eventides – and I hope that I will be in a position to try it out as one of my premier sound-generation apps in the ios, normally, I am used to playing synthesizer applications, and applications with “new” kinds of interfaces, like “mugician” or “cantor“, but this is something that feels very natural (since I am primarily a guitarist) – so I am hoping this will become a respectable part of my ios instrumentation.

this app is a true gem, and given the price, you get so much value – it’s possibly the best free app I’ve ever downloaded, because it’s not just a guitar emulator, it’s practically a full-on control surface, with great features and a really well-thought out interface – it’s so easy to play, easy for beginners, because they can turn the notes names “on”…., easy for advanced players, because of the range of tuning / fretting options, as well as a lot of great features that make playing this application a real joy for folks at any ability level.

hats off to the developers of ifretless guitar (and ifretless bass), then; as with every app, there are a few things I’d love to see added to this already excellent and very musical tool, of course, my request would be please add robert fripp’s new standard tuning to the tuning choices (and maybe, a “set your own custom tuning function, too, where you can define the tuning of each string manually”), but regardless of such fanciful enhancements, this is one of the most useful control surfaces I’ve seen yet on the ipad. I do like this kind of app, I am very fond of both “mugician” and “cantor“, but I am finding that “ifretless guitar” is even more fun to play than either of those, well, more fun, anyway, because it’s familiar to me as a guitarist – yes, the ipad gives us lots of unusual and new ways to make music, and that’s fantastic, but there is something to be said for the devil you know, too 🙂

and this little devil is a real beauty – give it a try !

🙂 🙂

in search of…a few good sounds

today’s modern electric guitarists have the opposite problem to that faced by the pioneering rock guitarists of the 1960s.

in the 1960s, guitarists had a very, very limited palette of guitar effects.  I was just reading a list of the equipment that jimi hendrix used at the very famous 1969 woodstock performance – and when you look at it:

fender stratocaster guitar

wah-wah pedal

arbiter fuzz face

uni-vibe  (simulated rotating “leslie” organ speaker)

marshall amplifier

4 speaker cabinets

that was literally ALL that hendrix had, with which to create songs from across his catalogue…from purple haze to the star-spangled banner – not much in the way of sonic choices, although in that case, hendrix made the most of the pickup selectors and whammy bar on his beautiful white stratocaster, too (and his manual dexterity, and the amazing things that he did with his hands, on guitar body, strings, bridge, neck, and head stock – remain unrivalled as the most unique technique ever invented – often copied, never equalled) – coupled with his skill on the wah-wah pedal, that whammy/feedback/wah combination was the screaming metal fire music of it’s day.

hendrix and other guitarists performed miracles with just a wah-wah and a fuzz, one of my other favourite live records from 1969 is the recently-released “the move live at the fillmore 1969” which features roy wood playing both six string and twelve string electric guitars through wah or distortion, and coaxing a lot of great guitar tone out of his set up (whatever that was!) – this article suggests that it might be a fender guitar through a vox amp with a binson echo

while much amazing music WAS made with these simple tools, over time, even 60s guitar legends like frank zappa, todd rundgren, robert fripp and so on, began to use and become used to using, and having available, an ever-growing, ever more bewildering selection of effects pedals – at first, better distortion pedals, then, chorus pedals, then flangers,  phase shiftersreverbs, delays, and starting in the early 70s, an absolutely astonishing array of truly bizarre sounding effects – envelope filters and followers, micro synthesizers, loopers, as well as devices such as the gizmo and the ebow

today’s guitarists – have too many options.  too many effects.  too many choices…

I started playing guitar in the 60s, too, but not seriously until I was a little older, and it was not until the 1970s that I got really serious about being a lead guitarist, and like all my 1960s guitar heros, I had the same kit: fuzz face fuzz box (because that’s what jimi hendrix used) wah-wah pedal (because that’s what hendrix used) and later, for a while, I had an echoplex – the tape kind – an amazing piece of kit.

for  a long time, that was really all I had, although when boss started making good sounding chorus, flanger, reverb, delay, etc pedals I collected a lot of those – sold some of them, re-bought them a few generations later, and so on – nice little stomp boxes, small, and reasonably good sounding.

then came the era of the rack mount.  stomp boxes fell by the wayside, in their place, shiny new rack-mountable devices, in my case, I favoured digitech so I had a nice 24 bit reverb, the tsr-24s; I had a digitech 8 second delay (the longest delay/looper I could afford at the time); and later, I bought robert fripp’s old roland GP-16 to use as my first rack multi-effects unit, and later still, I got the oberheim echoplex pro (the digital version, this time).

fast forward another 20 years, and the list of pedals and rack devices and miracle hybrid stomp boxes, and multi-effects devices just grows and grows, until you have so much choice that it’s nearly impossible to figure out what combinations of what devices, coupled with what input device – guitar, or guitar synth, or keyboard, or kaossilator, or ipad…to use to achieve what sound.  and then – for recording – record with effects, or add them later…or some of both?

the choices…the sheer number of choices, is staggering.  let’s say I have 17 devices in my arsenal of effects.  that means…they can be set up in a nearly infinite number of ways, pre- or -post, used as you play, or “re-amped” through them later – we are truly spoiled for choice.

the natural tendency, if you come from the wah/fuzz/echo background that I do, was at first, to try and get as many sounds as possible, by having every pedal that made a different sound added to your pedal board. I spent years and years designing and building ever more grand pedal boards, sometimes I used two pedal boards – whatever it took –  but then, technology progressed yet again – we started to have “multi-effects” devices, and modelled guitar amps (like the sans amp), and so on – which made the choices even more confusing…

and then – do you just set up each song free-form, by reaching down and making changes, or do you control everything – or just PART of your system -with a MIDI controller?  all of these questions, have to be worked out…answered, solved, tested, tried…

I’ve been playing electric guitar for 41 years now, and in that time, while I do now have a lot of really beautiful sounds and instrument sources to choose from, and it’s still very tempting to set up these multiple-choice, multiple-path set-ups that allow you to change effortlessly between a number of different instruments, chains of effects, or rack devices…and yes, that’s fantastic technology;  and with it, you can do so, so much…

but lately, I’ve decided that I am going to attempt to apply what I call “the eno principle” to this massive array of rack, stomp and other effects devices (including, soft synths, ipad synths, software effects, and everything else in my current set up)…”the eno principle” being simply: find a few REALLY GOOD SOUNDS and use those, and…ignore the rest.  in other words, life is too short to use a crappy sounding patch!

eno originally gave this advice about synthesizers…when the first truly beautiful synths, like the yamaha dx7, came along, eno commented on the fact that they all had a very few REALLY BEAUTIFUL or really interesting sounds…and most of the rest of the sounds, were not all that good – and the secret was just to use those  good sounds, and ignore the rest.

well, here it is, 2013, and I am now applying this same principle to my current guitar system.  I have lots of sound generating devices: guitar, guitar synth, keyboard, kaossilator, and ipad (which in itself, contains many, many unique synths, as well as guitar processing gear) – and lots of fabulous effects devices that 41 years ago, if you had told me I would have in the future, I would have just laughed at you – but, now I do have them, and they are incredible…but my thought now is, I need to examine each device; figure out what it’s best 10 or 15 sounds are (as eno did with his yamaha dx7), and stick with those, and not waste time with any sound that is less than incredibly beautiful, or incredibly interesting, or incredibly powerful.  this seems to me now, after 41 years, like a sensible approach.  a more sensible approach, than having more possible sounds than I can possibly remember, much less actually use…

so I am thinking in “patches” again, but patches that are not complete patches – they are patches of “post” effects only…so – harmony, delay, reverb.  the input, instrument, and basic sound – clean, distorted, etc. I will still select manually each time – with the processing, or treatments, handled by patches.  via a MIDI controller of some sort – an as yet undetermined controller.

the input can still be anything – and with the roland gr-55 guitar synth, that is so true – it might be a flute, or a clarinet, or a xylophone, or a strange hybrid synth voice of some odd description – or just an ordinary electric guitar sound.  but that input – will be processed, in the near future, with very, very carefully chosen “presets” of harmoniser, delay, and reverb.

so I am hopeful that with a few months work, I can document and “work out” what the best sounds are on each device, then (and this is the tricky part) try to marry up the perfect harmony with the perfect reverb, and know what delay works with that perfect harmony / reverb combination…

for me – music is just as much about the treatments, about what you do to the sound, as it is generating the sound.  they are of equal importance.

but now, I want to concentrate on what the very best of those “treatments” are, selecting and blending only the very best sounds, so that my oboe sounds unlike any one else’s oboe: partially, because of the way I play it, but also, because of the way I process, or treat, the sound as I perform.  that is the goal – to sound unique, unusual, but beautiful 🙂

over the next several months, I will be working on these high quality, hybrid, “best of”, “eno principle” sounds, and once I have a decent selection of them completed, I can begin to use them on recordings and live video performances.

so I am hoping to have a smaller selection, fewer sonic choices, using fewer sounds, but – sounding better than having too, too many choices, which perhaps dilutes things too much – too many wildly varying effects, instead of going for what is the most interesting, the most beautiful, the best – and, with ambient music, and even in rock music – sometimes – less is more.

since this will be an ongoing process, I will return to the topic in future blogs over the next couple of years, to see what progress I am making – it will take time, but I feel that it’s well worth the effort – even if I only come up with 20 or 30 basic sounds or “patches”…if they are superior, and they bring new sonic qualities to my playing – then I will consider that a success…hell, I’d be happy with 17 really fantastic sounds 🙂

I don’t really “need” a lot more, if they sound truly amazing.

so, it follows then, that they need to sound truly amazing 🙂

whatever happened to… the grays ??

once upon a time, many years ago, in the year of our lord 1994, there was a short-lived power pop band, with progressive rock leanings and complex, four part harmonies,  named “the grays”.

I had come to know of their music via the music of member jason falkner (also of jellyfish, and briefly, the three o’clock – a band credited with being part of los angeles’ “paisley underground” scene – before that) and I purchased their album, which has the odd title of “ro sham bo” – and found myself playing it often, and I very much enjoyed it – threedifferentwriters, each one singing their own songs, full on three or more part harmony…and just a great sounding power pop album.

quirky, odd songs that stick in the brain. intelligent guitars, perfectly arranged harmonies and backing vocals.  great singers – great songs.

fast forward to 2013, and my good friend pete greeson pointed me to a second grays “album” – which isn’t so much a real album as a really great bootleg, full of rehearsals, alternate versions of songs from the official album, and live / acoustic radio shows and interviews, “companion” is exactly that, something you need to hear if you are a fan of the band – or maybe, if you aren’t a fan.

“the grays” were sort of a power pop super group, a reluctant one, since most of it’s members, particularly jason falkner, didn’t want to be in bands…but it happened anyway – one of the interviews included on “companion” alludes to the fact that someone heard the band jamming in a rehearsal space, and then spread the news about the band – and then, it was just about which label to sign with.  epic was the eventual choice.

to demonstrate how little is known about this now-defunct group, I have just copied the entire wiki entry for “the grays” here (it won’t take you long to read!):

The Grays were a short-lived rock band comprising singer/songwriters/multi-instrumentalists Jon Brion (vocals, guitar, keyboards, bass), Jason Falkner (vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards), Buddy Judge (vocals and guitar), and Dan McCarroll (drums). They only released one album, the out-of-print but highly regarded Ro Sham Bo (1994) on Sony/Epic Records.

Their musical style featured careful composition married with pop-friendly melodies influenced by The Beatles but with a harder edge. Their songs also contained musical surprises such as atonal harmonies (“Is it Now Yet”), backwards vocals (“Everybody’s World”), and dissonant ukelele-like solos (“Oh Well Maybe”) mixed in with traditional rock instrumentation.

(instruments played added in by me – d.)

that’s it.  It’s accurate enough I suppose, but I find it astonishing that this rather significant pop experiment only rates two tiny paragraphs – to me, “ro sham bo”was one of the highlights of the year, particularly because of the presence of jason falkner and jon brion – this band had real potential, and I think it’s a real shame that they only existed for such a short time – I would have loved to have heard a few more records by the band.

and now, in 2013, in the form of “companion”, I guess I am getting to hear that – well, I’m getting to hear something besides the very familiar (I played this album – I mean “ro sham bo” now –  constantly when it came out) songs from their one album.  and “companion” delivers, and in the case of “blessed”, a fantastic pop song with a vocal by falkner and an astonishing guitar solo from…someone. and it sounds like a live in the studio take, although it may not be – it’s difficult to tell, and it just fades out at the end, so we may never know.

another interesting track on “companion” is a frankly bizarre power pop cover of joni mitchell’s 1968 classic track, “both sides, now” – and hearing this song, sung again by falkner, and re-arranged with power pop harmonies, and delivered at speed – the band is rockin’ on this track (as they pretty much are on every track they recorded) – it’s very strange, a strange choice of cover, but once committed – they do a great job of it! it’s fabulous.

“outside miner” is another odd track on “companion” that has so much potential, and it just makes me wonder how many other songs were started, rehearsed, and then nearly disappeared forever…which makes me doubly glad that “companion” exists. how very strange, too, to “get”, after nineteen years, a second “album” from a band that in your mind, only has existence through it’s one official release.

and, if the wiki entry for “the grays” is short, the entry for buddy judge is literally non-existent.  besides playing on “bachelor no. 2” by aimee mann, there is just not very much information out there about buddy judge, except of course his own web site. this is one of those rare situations where the wiki lets you down, and you then have to look further afield for information. the brief bio page on his web site show that along with the aforementioned aimee mann session, buddy has contributed to albums by michael penn, liz phair, and the wallflowers. in recent years, buddy seems to have moved almost entirely into film and tv music.

his involvement with “the grays” is summed up in one short sentence, “he was a singer / songwriter in the grays, with jon brion and jason falkner”.  that’s it – I kid you not.  so it seems that buddy has really moved on, and really isn’t still working in the power pop arena – whereas falkner and brion seem to remain as integral components of it to this day.

the aimee man connection weaves in and out of this story, in 1993, brion, now moving into the world of production, produced his then girlfriend aimee mann’s “whatever” (1993) album, as well as it’s follow up, “I’m with stupid” (1995).  brion has also been involved in some very high profile film scores, notably “boogie nights” (which he also had a cameo role in the film), 1999’s “magnolia” (whose soundtrack heavily features a lot of aimee mann songs) and “eternal sunshine of the spotless mind” (2004) – and many, many more – brion’s list of sound tracks is impressive, his list of production credits, equally so.

for many years, brion had/has a residency at “largo”, a popular dinner club in los angeles, where he performs music without a set list, using drum loops made on the fly, and then building up loops of other instruments – all based on audience suggestion.  this has proved to be incredibly popular, and has resulted in many, many interesting live collaborations with a long list of well known musicians who have joined brion on largo’s stage and performed live along with his on-the-fly loops and songs.

oddly, falkner, who seems the most prolific of the three (at least in terms of number of releases) – is the only one of the three who has not really gotten heavily into film music, in the way that brion and judge have – although recently, he has begun to do so – and is currently credited with two recent high profile soundtracks, “ocean’s 13” (2007) and “the informers” (2009) so it may be that falkner will now turn mostly to film work as both brion and judge seem to have done – although I doubt that falkner will ever stop making pop records – which is a very good thing, indeed.

this of course is the problem, you have three guys who each in their own right can make monster records and/or film scores – falkner being perhaps the most “high profile” of the four, but jon brion is also very well known as a studio musician extraordinaire contributing to albums by the wallflowers, sam phillips and marianne faithful, among others, and writer of many, many file soundtracks –  so, the expectations are high.  and the band did not disappoint, musically, maybe the only power pop supergroup that actually succeeded, albeit only for one year.

falkner himself has a long resume of musical collaborations and contributions, serving briefly in the three o’clock while still a teenager, being in the band jellyfish for the first album and tour (after which he left, due to not being allowed to develop his songwriting within the band) and went on to work on many, many sessions, for aimee mann, beck and travis, to name a few.

the “new” songs from “companion” make up the first half of the record, but then you get several acoustic sessions, in many cases, acoustic versions of songs from “ro sham bo” – and that is quite a revelation.  a song that on the official album is a fully produced power pop masterpiece, such as “same thing” (which appears in two separate acoustic performances on “companion”) is quite startling when re-invented as an acoustic track – and the vocal work in particular is excellent – trading lead vocals, harmonies, backing vocals – all pulled off live in a seemingly almost effortless way – very impressive.

then – a vocal line follows a descending guitar line, as solo outro – and this “new” acoustic version of “same thing” is over.

the acoustic version of “nothing between us” is just beautiful, it’s such a great song anyway, but it’s absolutely fantastic to hear these songs, which are all beautifully produced on the album…in this raw and primitive form – yet, you can hear exactly what goes into the songs, and the transition from acoustic to full on power pop is made transparent – at least to some degree.

vocals are important, and “the grays” take that seriously – the harmonies are meticulously worked out (as they were in jellyfish, too) and performed in these acoustic renditions as if their lives depended on them being perfect – and they damn near are.  I am always positively impressed by a band that can a) play their songs well on acoustic instruments and b) recreate studio multi track harmonies in a live setting, and do it with a sense of quality.

“both belong” acoustic is really lovely, and jason’s voice is in great form, and this song is such a pop gem, falkner’s performance here is really relaxed, the vocal pure and in tune, the guitars supporting, background vocals impeccable as always. the truly beautiful and quite beatlesque acoustic guitar interplay at the start of this song reminds me very strongly of the sparkling acoustic guitars in the beatles “here comes the sun” – and of course, being power pop, being a jason falkner song, I expect a beatles influence.

in a recent, rare interview, jason recalls his experience of working with paul mccartney, and the obvious awe that he holds mccartney in says it all – the beatles are clearly an influence, although on this song it’s george harrison’s influence more than mcartney’s that shines through.

I would imagine this would have been a difficult situation to be in, having three strong songwriting / guitarists (and one drummer – who was probably a bit bemused to watch the three writers struggle for dominance…) all of who would naturally want “their” songs to be on the album – but somehow they worked it out, and managed to select a great set of songs to include on “ro sham bo” (surely one of the worst album titles of all time??).  the title is based on one of the many words for the children’s game most commonly known as “rock-paper-scissors”.  there – now you know as much as I do about the album’s title.

when you look at the writing credits, while you might think that falkner and brion would dominate, but in fact, the writing credits are shared out almost perfectly evenly between falkner, brion and judge – but I have an inkling that this wasn’t easy to arrive at – it’s very, very difficult for bands to act as true democracy – but it would appear that they managed to do it, at least for this one album.  I believe a second album didn’t happen because they could no longer agree on whose songs should be included – but it’s unknown how far, if at all, the band moved towards actually making a second album.

falkner very famously swore he would never be in a band again after his experience in jellyfish, but, in 1994, was persuaded to join jon brion in the grays – they had met during session work, and hit it off – but it was once again, personality clashes, and writing differences, (as it had been in jellyfish) that meant a sadly early ending to a band with enormous potential.

I think that jon brion has been too busy doing session work to make many albums, so while falkner has released many solo albums and two albums of beatles covers, brion’s catalogue is mainly down to “meaningless” from 2001 (his only solo record to date), which is a great little pop record in it’s own right.  I have to confess to not being as familiar with brion’s work, except for his contributions to sam phillips albums and the one solo album, “meaningless”, which I only just recently acquired.  I do know that the people he works with speak incredibly highly of him, and I believe he is very well respected as a guitarist and all around musician who has contributed to a lot of great records…

meanwhile, falkner was the guitarist / songwriter for all seasons, contributing to albums by the great brendon benson (jack white’s partner in crime in the criminally overlooked and most excellent band, the raconteurs) – and a pop genius in his own right, he also worked on a susanna hoffs album (I am not a fan), and many others.

the sudden and very, very unexpected appearance of “companion” really raised a lot of questions in my mind…this is absolutely one of those “what if” moments, what if…the band had stayed together, and made a dozen albums over 10 years?  given the quality of the songs on “ro sham bo” and the additional very intriguing material available on “companion”, I really feel that they might well have succeeded very well indeed, and become even bigger than the much-lauded but strangely unsuccessful jellyfish.

I believe though, that it’s a basic problem to have more than one strong writing presence in a band, and the grays had not one but three, which inevitably leads to arguments about whose songs go onto the album, and whose fall by the wayside…so I think that these sort of “pop supergroups”, while a great idea on paper (three great voices, three great guitarists, three great writers – should be fracking amazing – and they often were!) in real life, it causes conflict, and in reading a very detailed recent interview with falkner, he alludes to this and it’s clear that he is most comfortable on his own – he is better off not being in a band.

it’s a bit telling that in one of the interviews included on “companion”, the interviewer asks the band a question about how the songwriting is divvyed up…and instead of answering, the band sort of mumble “let’s play another song” – because it wasn’t a question that they really wanted to answer!

I for one, am glad that falkner broke his own rule, the one he keeps breaking, the one about not really wanting to be in a band – and decided to give it a go with the grays, and while it only lasted for one album, all four members played and sang as if their very lives depended on it.  with passion, with heart, and with the highest standard of musicianship, too.  in the case of the grays, they absolutely were greater than the sum of their parts – and when you have four very talented parts, and they come together in a musical union that for some reason, just resonates – then you get something greater than the individual parts – the beatles had it, and with the beatles as one of their biggest influences, the grays had it too.  not too many bands really do – but this time, you can just hear it – from the first note of the first song – this band just works.

and given the strength of falkner’s albums, band and solo, well – for me – the solo albums win, hands down – especially the trio of “jason falkner presents author unknown” (my personal favourite), “can you still feel?” and the remarkable “necessity: the four-track years” – a collection of demos and alternate tracks, many from “author unknown” that is a fascinating glimpse into the creative process – home made four track versions of songs that were later recorded and mixed in a proper studio – “necessity” is essential listening to anyone who wants a master class in pop songwriting – it’s simply brilliant, although if I had to choose just one, it would absolutely be “author unknown”, a record that I listened to non-stop for about two years! given the strength of his albums – it’s no surprise that the grays profited so much from jason’s participation – and in this band, there was no restriction on jason contributing songs, either. 🙂

I just recently saw, for the first time EVER, an “official video” by the grays, (in this case, the most excellent lead-off track from the album, “the very best years” – one of jason’s best songs, a really lovely power pop anthem that has long been a personal favourite grays and falkner track) – which really caused mixed emotions in me – it was very odd, after almost 20 years, to actually “see” the band playing (I never had before 2013) – for me, there was just…the album, and that was all.  it was great to see them “in action”, and it also struck me again just how good they were, and what a shame it is that so few people ever got to hear this remarkable music.  we are lucky that we have what we have.

“ro sham bo” is currently out of print – but is available second hand or on import.

thanks again to pete greeson for his contributions to this article, and for increasing the number of grays fans in the world – good man.

the return of progressive rock…

I turn now to a topic that I have not ever addressed directly from these pages, something very close to my heart indeed – progressive rock music.  I have very occasionally reviewed progressive rock albums, such as king crimson’s “larks’ tongues in aspic”, or written about some of my favourite progressive rock bands, such as focus, but I’ve never tackled the genre itself until now.

as a visual adjunct to this essay, please take a look at some selected album art from four of the best progressive rock bands – king crimson, yes, genesis and gentle giant. the artwork that was such an integral part of progressive rock music, deserves it’s own separate treatise, and would include, of course, familiar artists such as roger dean, who has long been associated with the progressive rock genre. the beautiful, fanciful, and extremely creative artwork that has graced many a prog album cover, we will leave for another time, and instead, this essay will concentrate on the music itself.

“prog rock” as it’s known, or progressive rock if you want the long version, is a unique, remarkable and very persistent genre of music. speaking of the “long version”, that’s exactly what the proggers are famous for, epic pieces of music such as (but not limited to):  “supper’s ready” (genesis), “a plague of lighthouse keepers” (van der graaf generator), “fracture” (king crimson) – or to choose an even longer live crimson improv, “a voyage to the centre of the cosmos”, “karn evil 9” (emerson, lake & palmer), “the revealing science of god” (yes), “thick as a brick part one” (jethro tull), “echoes” (pink floyd), “nine feet underground” (caravan), “in held ’twas in I” (procol harum), or even some of the very earliest works by, of all people, the mothers of invention, such as the title track from the “absolutely free” album – this trend for very long tracks was mimicked by, strangely enough, in the mid-1980s, a genesis-soundalike band called marillion – with their very long piece entitled “grendel”. of course, not all prog songs are very, very long – this is just one of many aspects of progressive rock.

it’s generally acknowledged that progressive rock developed out of psychedelic rock, and certain well known records, including the beatles “sgt. pepper’s lonely hearts club band”the mothers of invention‘s “freak out”, and the beach boys‘ “pet sounds” – these, and others, bands such as the left banke, who introduced unusual instruments into their songs, are considered to contain the first seeds of true progressive rock.  king crimson‘s robert fripp has cited the beatles “sgt. pepper” as being a profound influence when he first heard it, on the radio (along with classical works by bela bartok), in 1967, so that certainly lends some credence to this theory.

prog rock is remarkable for a number of reasons, the primary one being the incredibly short period of time that it existed in it’s original incarnation.  it is somewhat difficult to pick a year to represent the “beginning” of “true progressive rock” – because there are examples going all the way back to 1966’s “freak out” by the mothers of invention, whose leader, the late, great frank zappa, understood classical, jazz, and many, many other musical forms – which of course, came out in the mothers of invention’s music – these can be considered to be “prog prototypes”…but if I had to pick a “starting year”, I would say it was 1969 – the year that saw the release of “in the court of the crimson king” – the classic first long playing album from one of prog’s most important bands, king crimson.

in my mind, then, I’ve always felt that prog “ran”, if you will, from 1969 through 1977 – and it was during 1976 and 1977 that a new form of music came along that didn’t sit well with prog – punk. prog tried to persist all the way up until 1980 (and in a limited number of cases, beyond), but by 1977, a lot of the life had already gone out of it, so roughly speaking (this can be argued a number of ways, this is just an arbitrary span approximating the time when prog had the most influence) – progressive rock lasted exactly eight years. ten at a stretch – if I had an alternate, decade long version, it would run from 1968 – 1977.  if the beginning of prog is difficult to determine…really, we could place it anywhere between 1966 and 1969, in contrast, the end of prog is quite clearly delineated by the arrival of johnny rotten and co.  in 1977, there were still a few decent remnants of prog, but by 1978…progressive rock was in serious trouble. there were a few stalwarts who continued to work through the end of the 1970s, such as u,k., a late arriver on the prog scene featuring two ex-king crimson members, john wetton and bill bruford.

if you follow the career of any prog band that started say, in 1969, and ended, say, in 1980 – you can audibly hear the prog heart of the band dying.  an example of this, would be the amazing gentle giant, who put out an unbroken string of great records…up until 1977’s “the missing piece”, which, while still containing some excellent music, you could hear the change coming…and then, the albums that followed, between 1978 – 1980 – bear almost no resemblance to the band we knew and loved circa 1970 – 1977. something happened.  the catalogue of emerson lake & palmer traces a similar course – complex, inventive, intriguing music which perhaps reached it’s height with “brain salad surgery”…eventually gave way to “works”, which in comparison, seemed dull and lifeless.  and don’t even get me started on the musically reprehensible “love beach”…

I’ve always maintained that for myself, 1974 was the perfect year of prog.  I mean, in that year, we heard “red” by king crimson“the power & the glory” by gentle giant“the lamb lies down on broadway” by genesis (which I actually saw the concert of at the san diego civic theatre – outrageously good concert…), from yes the ground-breaking  “relayer”, two albums from the suddenly solo peter hammill“the silent corner and the empty stage” and the incomparable “in camera” , the live rendering of “brain salad surgery” and much more in “welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends…ladies and gentlemen, emerson, lake & palmer” – the obligatory live album from emerson,lake and palmer“exotic birds and fruit” from the redoubtable procol harum“hero and heroine” (strawbs), “hamburger concerto” (focus), from pfm (premiate forneria marconi)  a double release of “l’isola di niente” (the original italian album) and it’s english language counterpart (featuring english lyrics from king crimson’s peter sinfield – of course) “the world became the world” from italy’s finest prog band…

my perfect year of prog list of amazing albums continues…with the absolutely extremely innovative and incredible “mirage” from andy latimer‘s cameljethro tull’s “war child”, and the remarkable gryphon with one of their most amazing records, “midnight mushrumps”, the surprising debut from todd rundgren‘s progressive rock band, “todd rundgren’s utopia” and album of the same name (who knew that the previously very pop rundgren had a soul of pure progressive rock? – and was a guitar slinger second only to my next star?)…the incomparable, amazing, genius guitarist and composer, frank zappa, now mothers-less, with one of his most incredible records, the absolutely unique, hilarious yet deadly serious musically, “apostrophe(‘)”…none of these recordings being exactly second-rate.

of course, by choosing 1974, I do have to leave out a huge number of really fantastic albums that came out in 197119721973 and 1975…but, I had to pick just one, so 1974 is the year for me. I am sure you have a favourite year of prog too, which very well might be different, for different reasons, but there is something about prog, about that strange moment in time, an incredibly unique event that only comes once in the history of music…

I feel very, very fortunate that I was born at a point in time that intersected almost precisely with this absolutely unique 8 year period, because this is the music that I grew up with, starting with a love for the beatles, moving briefly to hard rock via led zeppelinjimi hendrixzz top and so on, and then eventually through yesgenesisgentle giantking crimson, and so on…in 1974, in my perfect year of prog – I was sixteen years old – old enough to go to concerts, and the first concerts I did go to cemented me in a place of first rock, then prog:

concert 1 = led zeppelin, san diego sport arena 1973 (OK, I was 15 for this one – barefoot in that amazing crush at the front, a stone’s throw from the amazing jimmy page…)

concert 2 = yes, san diego sports arena 1974 (tales of topographic oceans tour, quadraphonic sound)

and from then on, via various rock and progressive rock shows, as diverse as steely dan or the allman brothers…eventually leading to the aforementioned “lamb lies down on broadway” show, maybe the single most amazing concert I’ve ever been to…and then more yes, much more yes (they visited san diego twice during the “relayer” tour – not often you get to see one of your favourite bands twice in a row, although technically, it was on two different tours, 75 and 76 – the set lists were quite similar), then gentle giant (finally – a 40 minute set, but – better than not seeing them!)…

eventually, since I missed them in the seventies, much to my chagrin – in 1981, finally – I got to see king crimson.  as it turns out, I did see crimson several times in the 80s and 90s…which almost, but not quite, makes up for me missing the 1960s and 1970s incarnation(s) of the band.  I was just a tiny bit too young to witness the first few years of prog, but thankfully, by the time the “lamb” tour hit san diego…I was there with open ears.  I can still remember the crowd as we left the venue, complete strangers turning to each other, everyone wearing the same permanently-jaw-dropped facial expression, sort of saying to each other “do you BELIEVE what you just saw and heard??”.  the future of music – peter gabriel‘s amazing costumes and characters, the theatrical front man with the incredibly capable band…there was nothing on earth like genesis live at the end of the “gabriel years”.

the 1980’s king crimson, adrian belewrobert fripptony levin and bill bruford on the other hand, is one very rare example of a progressive rock band actually adapting to the times, and reinventing themselves in the very prog-unfriendly 1980s – and having a good run of albums and tours.  80s crimson were the exception to almost every rule, most prog bands that tried to exist in the 8os, simply found that they couldn’t.  some bands changed so much (remember yes-meets-buggles with the rather dreadful “drama” album of 1980? – not their best moment) that you could no longer recognise that they were a prog band any longer.  of course, I suppose you do need to change with the times, but in a lot of cases, it was better for a prog band to just quit (as gentle giant wisely did after their final three albums, which were not to the standard of their string of albums from 71 to 75) than to carry on forever trying to adapt your music to times that were, frankly, not suited to progressive rock at all. it’s such a strange series of events…

rock music, in the 60s, itself barely a decade old…then spawning psychedelic rock, which then in turn…spawned progressive rock (sort of) – and that then only really ran for less than a decade – before the big backlash, the punk wave and the new wave that overwhelmed prog completely, so that by the dreaded 80s…it was mostly gone.  except for king crimson, who held on from 1981 – 1984 before calling it quits once more. it was such a serious backlash, too, the punks really didn’t like prog (although, of course, not advertising that in one case, john lydon being not-quite-secretly a fan of the music of peter hammill (in particular, the punk-predictive 1975 “nadir’s big chance” album and his band van der graaf generator, so prog was actually a secret influence on punk…) and they were very vocal about it, and the whole punk movement and the new wave that followed, showed disdain for the “bloated excesses” of prog – made a lot of fun of that (even though those excesses were actually really only limited to a very few prog bands – who shall remain nameless – hint, starts with e, ends with p, l in the middle…but never mind that!)

and that sort of sealed prog’s fate until the various resurgences of very recent years…so out of all the genres that came and went from 1950 forward…progressive rock is one of the strangest, lasting such a short time, being of such a unique musical cast, with the “progressive rock” tag being applied to bands as different sounding as jethro tullking crimsongenesis, and van der graaf generator – none of whom sounded remotely like the other.  arguments ensued; was van der graaf REALLY a prog band?  because they had no lead guitarist (until 1975, anyway).  was king crimson really prog, when some of their albums (particularly, the lizard album) were so jazz there was very little “rock” to be found on them? and jethro tull – a band led by a crazed, bearded gentleman who shouted into his flute – how exactly was THAT progressive rock?

none of those questions can even be answered, and there is not much point in arguing about them – all of those bands were, for better or for worse – prog rock.  even oddball groups like gryphon, who were really more classically oriented than progressive, still had the “progressive rock” label attached to them, whether they would or no…

so if you think about it, all of these bands, who are labelled “progressive rock” – bands like pink floyd, who began life as a psychedelic rock band – eventually somehow mutated and evolved until they were then lumped in with “progressive rock” by about 1971 or so.  in the particular case of pink floyd, that would partially be due to the change in line up, from the psychedelic / rave up syd barrett era, to the calmer, relatively “normal” david gilmour version of the band (“relatively” being the operative word in that sentence!).

a few bands seem to “fit” the genre more neatly than others – genesis and yes, to my mind, being “typical” progressive rock bands (if there is such a thing) but even that doesn’t hold up, because if they are typical, then where does that put king crimson, also one of the bastions of the genre.  genesis and king crimson don’t really share that much musical common ground, not if you think about it.  those beautiful, pastoral genesis records, from “trespass” to “nursery cryme” to “foxtrot” – sure, there are some heavy prog passages, but there are also a lot of lilting, gentle acoustic guitars and 12 strings – something you do not generally hear on early king crimson records.

fripp did play acoustic guitar, but in a very, very different way to the way that anthony phillips, steve hackett, michael rutherford and tony banks did – very different, and if you don’t believe me, then simply play “the musical box” by genesis followed by “cirkus” (studio version, from lizard) by king crimson – and you will be able to hear what I am talking about. I love both of those tracks, but they are a million miles apart musically speaking!

first (original genesis guitarist) anthony phillips, and then steve hackett (phillip’s replacement), brought distinctive lead guitar sounds to genesis as their music evolved, yet, comparing either of those to the style envisioned by king crimson‘s robert fripp – there’s just no musical continuity – fripp plays guitar in a completely different style to hackett or phillips.  and bands like jethro tull – they were so odd, so unique, and really, no other band was quite like them – I think they were given the label “progressive rock” simply because there was no other choice, no other possible genre that a band that unusual and creative could by placed in.  but jethro tull have none of the standard hallmarks of a prog band, except perhaps a propensity for very, very long pieces of music.  but even though I suppose they were, I never really felt like tull were a prog band – they were just…tull !  a unique musical entity who perhaps, deserved a niche genre of their own…who knows?

if you know what I mean.

so – I was lucky, I was actually there, and I did manage to see some of these bands, at the time that they ruled the earth.  and those I didn’t get to see…well, that was what albums were for, and we all collected prog – british prog mostly, but also french prog, italian prog – we would listen to anything once, just to see if it was good – and much of it was good.  but the truth was, it was mostly a british phenomenon, and there were really very, very few prog bands from anywhere except the UK.  the USA produced a very few prog bands, all I can think of off the top of my head are happy the manthe dixie dregs (featuring guitarist steve morse), and todd rundgren’s utopia, and of course, canada’s redoubtable power prog trio, rush.  I suppose that early kansas (I mean, “song for america” kansas, NOT later kansas) were prog, but they moved very quickly towards more ordinary rock with songs like “carry on my wayward son” and “dust in the wind”, so personally, I don’t really count kansas as prog myself, but this is another one of those arguable points that prog fans will never agree on…they certainly started out as a prog band, “song for america” does prove that, but after that…well.

meanwhile, while the perhaps the best and brightest prog always came from great britain, italy produced pfmle orme, and banco;  france, angegong (which also featured brits and australians, and was actually founded by an australian, daevid allen – also a founder member of soft machine), magma and others, germany produced a few prog bands, most notably triumvirat and various versions and incarnations of amon duul, while the netherlands gave us the amazing focus (featuring one of my all-time favourite guitarists, the remarkable jan akkerman), as well as the arguably “are they really prog??” golden earring…most countries produced a few progressive rock bands, but it was really just down to the british isles from whence the lion’s share of progressive rock bands sprang…

and what an amazing and bizarre lot those british prog bands were – from the shulman brothers, born in one of the poorest parts of glasgow, raised in portsmouth, mutating from simon dupree and the big sound into one of the most remarkable and innovative groups of all time, in any genre, the insanely talented multi-instrumental gentle giant; to dorset’s soft spoken robert fripp with his singular vision of multiple guitar-driven incarnations of king crimson, which now spans four decades, to the canterbury scene with the extremely capable caravan, to andy latimer‘s fabulous rock-meets-jazzy guitar prog outfit camel – the list goes on and on, and each one of these groups, has a distinctive sound, sometimes more than one, which is often very unlike the others.

I would take a moment to mention an odd stem that branched off of the progressive rock family tree, and it relates to what happened in germany – which did produce some really good progressive groups, such as the aforementioned triumvirat, and while they had british members, were considered to be a british band, but were actually originally based in germany (so a lot of folk thought they were german) – I would be remiss not to mention the very talented nektar, a band that I used to cover – one of my earliest bands, “pyramid”, used to play both sides, the entire “remember the future” album, live – a fantastic achievement for three out of work nineteen year old musicians 🙂  what happened in germany, though, is that rather than just producing a few prog bands, as almost every european country did – prog mutated once again – into what became known as “krautrock” – as represented by tangerine dreamfaustcanpopol vuh and neu! – and if we fast forward a bit, that same branch eventually produced the decidedly unique kraftwerk – a band that I consider to be a sort of “descendant of krautrock“.  if there could be such a thing…

another odd thing about prog, is that all these progressive rock bands…almost every one of them had a unique sound, and often, did not sound anything like their contemporaries. for example, it’s difficult for me to name two progressive bands that “sound quite similar”, although if I had to, I might cite camel and caravan – if only because richard sinclair was lead vocalist and bassist for both bands at different times – so that did temporarily, give them a similar sound…I suppose.  but not really similar… this of course, does not include intentional sound-alikes, the most notable probably being bi kyo ran, a japanese band that sounds suspiciously like 1973 period king crimson.

some of the european bands might also semi-accidentally adopt an elp-like or crimson-like sound, but mostly, most of these prog bands did actually have a unique sound – and that’s possibly due to the very different instrumentation used by some of these bands – where for example, the lead instrument might be a flute (as in jethro tull) a saxophone (as in early van der graaf generator, played by the remarkable david jackson), or the more traditional lead guitar (as in many prog bands – but not all!!).

gentle giant sounded different because they would play completely different sets of instruments on stage, starting a song (such as “so sincere”, from 1974’s “the power and the glory album”) with all five members playing acoustic, classical instruments (cello, violin, acoustic guitar, recorder, drums), switching quickly during two bars of drum beat, to electric instruments (electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, drums, vocals), and ending with all five members playing drums!! – which was unheard of – no other band could do that!  they also sounded quite different to other bands in the studio, because they played so many different instruments. one of my very, very favourite progressive rock bands, the classically-oriented gryphon, had a very unique sound, because they used some very strange and quite rare instruments, such as the krumhorn.

speaking specifically of the instruments that prog musicians favoured, there are a few that do tend to crop up again and again as “common” in progressive rock bands, besides the ubiquitous electric lead guitar, the mellotron is absolutely associated with progressive rock, as is the hammond b3 organ– although that instrument is common across all rock styles – so probably the mellotron, and it’s successor the birotron, are the most often associated with prog. the other very, very common instrument found in prog, is the now ever-present moog synthesizer – in particular, the mini-moog, which rick wakeman helped popularise both in his work with yes, and in on his various solo albums, the most successful of which was “the six wives of henry VIII”, where he created six long suites using a huge array of keyboards, mellotrons, moogs and other synthesizers.

some prog bands used a lot of mellotron in their recordings on stage, notably king crimson, while others, like camel and nektar, favoured the hammond b3 sound, while still others such as yes, incorporated all three.

of course, the beatles had used mellotron quite a bit in the studio, and from the late 1960s onward, they were to be found on many of the most important progressive rock recordings and on the stages at progressive rock shows.  prone to breakdowns and notoriously hard to tune, they didn’t really evolve much during prog’s brief run, although rick wakeman had some success with the birotron in later years.  it is interesting to note that now, in 2013, you can get mellotron apps on your ipad or iphone, and even better, a company called “g force” has published a software synth (or softsynth) named m-tron pro (which, in 2011, I created an entire album with – “sky full of stars” – and, m-tron pro was also my instrument of choice for the “dreamtime” sessions from my latest collaborative band, “scorched by the sun”), that faithfully reproduces all the classic sounds of the original mellotron, plus, hundreds of more modern sounds, including looped versions of the classic mellotron strings, flutes, horns and choirs – as well as artist “presets” from players like rick wakemang force have also developed additional add-on sound libraries of other samples, such as samples from instruments like the chamberlin, another offshoot from the mellotron family tree…

all this to say, that there really was no “formula” for a progressive rock band – you might be led by a flute, a guitar, a sax, or a voice – you might have no lead guitars, or three of them – there was no formula like the formula “two guitars, bass and drums” for rock music, that really applied to prog, and that is possibly a good thing – because that meant that prog could be represented by some very, very different musical outfits, yet somehow, still be one genre.  I’m damned if I understand how it’s supposed to work, because I just can’t see what some of these bands have in common!  and some of them are so strange and so unique, that they probably ought to have had their own genres – but, when in doubt – just call them “prog”, and that sorts it all out.

having actually…been there in the 1970s, and witnessed certain watershed events like “tales from topographic oceans” and “the lamb lies down on broadway” performed live in the day, means that the recent, and not so recent, resurgences of prog, in the 1990s, noughties, and the tens, are simultaneously making me feel very, very old, and at the same time, baffling me greatly.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am very, very glad indeed, even grateful – as if what we knew all along has finally been vindicated! – that an entire new generation (or two or three generations, actually) of music fans are suddenly hugely in love with the current version of yes (astonishing!) – the one with the lead singer from the yes cover band – yeah, that yes – and are discovering the amazing music of all the bands mentioned in this article, and so many more that I did not mention – I think that is fabulous, and this means for those prog bands that still exist, they are getting some long-deserved recognition, after having to ride out the punk / new wave anti-prog rock backlash of 1976 / 77 / 78 and beyond – and that’s fantastic. it must feel so good, to the chris squires and steve howes and john wettons – to now suddenly find themselves lauded as musical heroes, after struggling for so long to get any recognition at all.

speaking of john wetton (possibly my personal favourite bassist of all time) – on my latest CD / download release, “gone native” (pureambient records – 2012), I wrote and performed a progressive rock track that honours the spirit of his playing, entitled “wettonizer”…so in a very, very tiny way, I hope, that I’ve added something to the progressive rock genre.  “gone native” contains three or four prog tracks, a handful of rock tracks, and a few improvs,  loops and experimental music too, and this is the first time in 41 years that I’ve recorded and released any songs in the progressive rock style – but that is only because I chose a very different path – ambient loop guitar, and it’s only been recently that I had the time to sit down, compose and record some “songs proper”.

some of those musical heroes…didn’t make it, too many to list – including peter bardens of camel, more recently, the very talented peter banks of yes, are not here to enjoy the latest resurgence of camel or yes-mania.  and that is indeed, a shame.  some of these bands are still here, in the same incarnation or very nearly the same as their original incarnation (van der graaf generator being one prime example, although they are down to a trio now – but what a trio!) and are actually playing at a level equal or better than in the day.  that’s mostly down to huge improvements in technology, so while in the 70s it was mellotrons breaking down, underpowered pa systems, and failing electronics…now it’s customised electronic organ / synth / mellotrons that never break down, and that sound absolutely amazing; pedalboards that actually work (most of the time…) and so on. current music reproduction technology, to a child of prog like myself, is absolutely unbelievable and astonishing, guitar and synthesizer magic…

so I am very happy for the surviving members of these bands, that their music is being hugely celebrated by succeeding generations of music fans, who have listened, and realised that the progressive rock music made between 1968 and 1978 is very special indeed, of a unique and unforgettable era (that amazingly, I grew up in) and that’s fantastic.

what’s more difficult for me to get used to, is the progressive rock bands of today.  I really struggle with most of them, because for me, anything they play – anything, no matter how good, no matter how clever, I am afraid I can point to each section and say “that’s stolen from genesis song x, that part, is a rush track y, that section there, is king crimson from track z” and so on…every bar of music, seems derivative, seems borrowed or copied from SOME record made between 1968 and 1978.  because really, I don’t think there is a lot of point in trying to improve on something that is impossible to improve on.  that music was of a time, and it was created by a bizarre set of musical coincidences that can never recur…so in a way, while it’s very, very flattering to the bands in question – in some ways, I don’t see the point in having new prog bands now, in 2013 !  this is just an opinion…please, no flame wars !! 🙂

I am not saying there shouldn’t be prog bands now – I have no issue with that, but for me – it’s difficult.  because while most people listen to a current prog band and hear something original and wonderful…I hear the albums from which they have copied, or adapted it, usually in a fairly obvious way, sometimes, in a more subtle (better) way – but always, at some point, always, always derivative of the original prog bands of the sixties and seventies.  at least, that’s been my experience so far.  I have to admit, because of that experience, I have been a bit reluctant to really embrace any prog made post 2000. or actually, post 1984…when the 80s crimson stopped performing and disbanded.

in a way, I just don’t…need new prog.  it’s great for young fans, and it’s fun for the musicians, because they get to play in a unique style that is pretty musically challenging.  but for myself…all the music I ever need, was already made in that “magic decade”, where progressive rock was the stuff of dreams, being “pretentious” was a bold and outrageous move, and prog rock ruled the earth.  I’m still discovering prog gems from the time, that I missed, or could not afford to buy, now re-released on CD forty odd years later. so while I am very, very glad that prog is “back” – for me, it was never gone, it was always here, kept alive by multiple incarnations of king crimson, by the return of van der graaf generator to full time performance beginning in 2005, to the “three friends” gentle giant partial reunions that very briefly saw part of gentle giant reforming as a new entity…

and it’s a good thing that some of these bands persisted.  I never got to see the sixties or seventies king crimson.  but, in 1995, at an outdoor concert by the double trio king crimson – I finally got to hear king crimson play “21st century schizoid man”.  I’d seen peter hammill solo shows, but had missed ever seeing van der graaf generator in the day – until one day in the late 2000s, I saw the classic four man lineup play a full concert in glasgow, and later, saw the trio version in manchester – and these modern versions of crimson and van der graaf are even more musically astonishing than the original early lineups.  van der graaf have even made several new studio albums which stand up very well when compared to their 70s output, as did king crimson.

after missing them in the 1970s, I finally saw dutch prog rock sensation “focus” live in glasgow in 2009 or was it 2010? – and they were absolutely amazing.  a fantastically talented and capable band, still led by thijs van leer, who is, without a doubt, a musical genius; while my favourite focus alumni, from the early 70s incarnation of the band, drummer pierre van der linden was absolutely spot on, it was so good to hear pierre’s meticulous, clean, precise drumming behind thijs’ “organ and flute” once again – and the two younger members of the band, were utterly equal to the task.  remarkable.

so the legacy of prog has moved forward through time in the hands and hearts of the original players who made it happen in the sixties and seventies…the visionary musicians who made progressive rock great then, and are still very much the masters of it now – the robert fripps, the peter hammills, the andy latimers, the richard sinclairs…the thijs van leers, still carrying that amazing musical legacy forward into the 2010s…

I can hear the skill and sincerity of modern progressive rock bands.  I can admire their instrumental prowess. but I really struggle with the actual music, because the form it’s based on, means that it almost has to imitate directly to even be “prog” – the apple has to fall far too close to the tree for their music to “sound” prog.  don’t get me wrong – there are a huge number of very, very adept, skilled progressive rock bands, from across the last three decades, from spock’s beard to steven wilson (oh he, the great re-mixer of the king crimson catalogue – all hail steven!) to dream theatre to pendragon to the mars volta to echolyn to glass hammer to the flower kings…prog bands from the 80s (like marillion, for example), 90s, 00s, and the current decade – the 10s, I guess we call them.  an enormous list that this is only the beginning of – which shows that there is so much love and respect for the music that is responsible for almost everyone in that list – progressive rock!

but – I am afraid that for me, the passage of time is just too long – I am very glad that prog, both old and new, seems to be having a fantastic resurgence, particularly right here, and right now, in march, 2013, but for me, as spectacular and as impressive as some of the new prog is…from porcupine tree to neal morse and beyond – for my personal taste, it’s just too derivative, so when I hear it, all I can hear is the 70s prog band that inspired it – whichever one or ones it is – which makes it more difficult for me to enjoy it for it’s own sake.  I don’t dislike modern prog, at all, I just…don’t need it 🙂 so when I witness a remarkable resurgence – which is two pronged: many, many new prog bands playing music that honours and compliments the progressive rock music by it’s imitation (and if you are going to imitate a genre of music, you can’t go far wrong by imitating progressive rock!) as well as, many of the originals, from the 60s and 70s I mean – still playing, bringing in whole new generations of fans, the original fans’ children and grandchildren, and who knows, by now, probably great-grandchildren.  and thinking about that really does make me feel as if I am getting old! 🙂

prog is an enormous topic.  I’ve just written over seven thousand words about it, and I’ve omitted dozens of great prog bands, and not touched on many important aspects of prog, but it’s the endless level of detail to be found within the music that continues to fascinate fans of the music old and new. I still listen to a lot of the records I mention in this article, and sometimes, even though I’ve heard a track a hundred times in my lifetime – I hear something new that I never noticed before.  a strange counterpart, or unnoticed rhythmic change – a strange sound you never heard before.  and of course remasters and re-mixes, and a good pair of headphones, can reveal musical details that were missed on previous “listens”! and CD only bonus tracks, for example, the “wind session” included on the remastered “in the court of the crimson king” deluxe box set, reveal much about the creative process that was not apparent from just hearing the original album…in that case, revealing in fascinating detail (complete with the band and engineer’s studio chatter from the actual recording session) how the famous sound effects that precede the studio version of “21st century schizoid man” were created.

scholars and aficionados argue about what the “form” of progressive rock is…and depending on which progressive rock bands you listen to – those “forms” can range from mini-classical suites, to modified and enhanced verse-chorus-verse forms, to the extended improvisations that might speak to the classical tradition or to the later jazz tradition, lyrically, prog is all over the place – king crimson’s peter sinfield (my favourite prog lyricist of all time) wrote epic poems (such as the title track of the band’s fourth studio album, “islands”) which were then set to music, while rush was unusual in that their drummer wrote all the lyrics, some prog bands depended on outside lyricists, not only king crimson, but procol harum is notable as well in this aspect with pianist gary brooker writing the music, and lyricist keith reid writing the lyrics – other bands had a lyricist or two in the band – van der graaf generator had peter hammill, as well as the absolutely remarkable, eccentric talented musician chris judge smithpeter hammill has covered a number of judge smith songs on his solo albums, long, long after he left van der graaf, and hammill often performs judge smith songs in live performance.

some prog bands go for the long form, with many extended interludes, additional verses, long solos, including some interminable drum solos that are difficult even for the fans to take! while other prog bands feature much shorter, more “normal” or “song-like” works.  classical influences are common but not mandatory, some prog acts seem to have quite a bit of jazz influences, others, hardly any… the only consistent thing about the “form” of progressive music, and also, the only consistency about what instruments were used to create it…is their complete and utter inconsistency.

but perhaps – that’s what makes it magic.  the fact that one band can have a one-legged flute and acoustic guitar wielding eccentric singer at the helm, while another was led by a very determined young guitarist with a particular vision of being in the best band in the world…and for a short time during their heyday in 1969, king crimson arguably were that band.  or maybe you just liked to do endless spacey jams, surrounded by science fiction lyrics, as the founder of gong, daevid allen seems to do, with a whole mythology around “planet gong” which was recently revisited in a very successful follow on album to their classic album “flying teapot”, entitled “2032”.

anything from the loosest, jazziest 20 minute improv, that you might get with can or the soft machine or any number of prog bands;  to the most incredibly practised, precision musical callisthenics (examples might be the “precision part” near the end of king crimson’s famous prog anthem, “21st century schizoid man”, or some of the guitar/bass/organ/drum precision work in the side-long “eruption” from focus’ breakthrough 1971 album “moving waves”  – which is sometimes also known as “focus II”, depending on the country of release) – in prog, just about anything goes! so the form, and the content of prog – is quite variable.  just about any configuration is possible, and there are some strange ones out there – the current line up of van der graaf generator is drums, organ/synth, and piano – or, electric guitar, depending on the song – so it’s quite odd, to see two keyboardists and a drummer producing prog rock, when genesis required drums, keyboards, bass guitar, lead guitar, and a lead vocalist to do the same thing.

a few examples of what in the world of rock would be called a “power trio”, guitar, bass, drums – rush takes those same well known instruments, as popularised in the rock world by the two most famous power trios of all, cream, and the jimi hendrix experience – and make intelligent, articulate, and very recognisably prog (with a bit of hard rock thrown in for good measure) …using the same three instruments that used to be the backbone of the hard rock power trio. technology helps, cream and jimi hendrix had a very, very limited palette of guitar pedals to use in live performance – three, basically: fuzz tonewah-wah pedal, and later, univibe (a device that imitates a rotating speaker). that was all they had, every other sound had to come from hands, strings and marshall stack – that was all they had.

fast forward 10 years, and in the 70s, the now common pedalboard started to make it’s appearance, the beatles (originally calling their chorus device “adt” for “automatic double tracking”) and jimi hendrix both had a hand in the development of modern effects such as chorus, flanging and phasing…and even in the early 70s, guitarists had a huge palette of sounds to choose from – but of course, each decade since has seen music technology leapfrog to newer and better sounding gear, it’s now gone beyond belief what you can control from one guitar and one pedalboard – it’s far beyond “guitar”. I’ve made this transition myself, from electric guitar and amplifier, with the crudest fuzz, wah and echo devices – to guitar synth controlling multiple pedalboards and effects – on three or four different signal paths – and it’s still something that I am still getting used to.

so technology enabled rock players to grow their sounds in many new ways, many improvements were made to the sound of the bass guitar, keyboards and in particular, synthesizers; that technology in particular, grew out exponentially, so during the last half of the lifetime of progressive rock, gear was changing so fast, so many new sounds – anything from compact guitar pedals, to the first guitar synthesizers, to the invention of the e-bow or energy bow, to the invention of “loopers” so musicians can capture digital recordings of what they are playing live, and layer many guitars or keyboards atop each other – those changes happened at the exact right moment for progressive rock musicians to take full advantage of.

so when I see all the excitement around this progressive rock cruise ship that’s about to embark on what surely must be the strangest holiday of all time, yes and several other prog bands on an ocean liner – how very odd that is – but I am glad, because new generations of yes fans get to enjoy the current version of yes – whereas, I don’t need to go, because I saw the real yes in 1974.  and again in 1977 (and while I want to deny it, I want to pretend I didn’t go, and it was the last time I went – I also saw the dread “drama” tour in 1980 – which I am afraid, put me off yes for many, many years afterwards…).  so it’s strange to me – but it’s OK.  for me – that magic decade is all I need, because I was there.  for folk younger than me – that could not be there, or can only experience it via video – well, this is a chance to connect with an amazing time in musical history.

and surely – that is a good thing. 🙂