studio diary 20170705

well somehow time has really gotten away from me, and I’ve not managed to write a blog for a couple of months now.  I have an excuse (of course):  I’ve been busy.  Mainly, working on the new pedalboards and guitar system (more on that shortly) but also, still trying to “keep my hand in” by working on music in the form of a very, very large collection of new tunes created in Garage Band.  I would venture to say that over the past few months, GB became a bit of an obsession, to the point where my iPhone overfloweth with Garage Band songs and drafts, sometimes, just one or two versions, sometimes, six or seven if a particular song needs a lot of detailed work.

the net result of that, is that actually, both my phone and my favourite tablet, are currently overflowing, and later today, I will be offloading completed tracks, and also, completing incomplete tracks and then offloading them, and then, making sure I have final mixes of all unpublished tracks…so that finally, I can master them and upload them. Normally, this would be a handful of tracks, but if I am not mistaken (and this number might not be exact) at the moment, I have no less than 16 NEW Garage Band tracks to sort out and add to my Garage Band Eternal Album on Bandcamp.

Sixteen new tracks!  Now – I have been working pretty exclusively in Garage Band over the past several months, and not working so much with real instruments, etc. in the studio – and that is because when I have had time to work in the studio – I have had to dedicate that to working on the guitar system and pedal boards (plural).  Those have now grown to four in total, and in fact, just yesterday, I worked out a brilliant new system, for accessing the different sounds – I am using a very simple device, a “pan pedal” which is made by Ernie Ball, to allow me to “move” between my main studio set up (which currently is comprised of two pedalboards, which I call “Pedalboard 1” and “Pedalboard 2” (imaginative names, I know) and a third board, which, surprisingly, is named “Pedalboard 3”.  So I can be playing one sound via PB1/PB2 (which are currently chained together) and then I can “switch” over to take a solo on PB3 where a completely different sound is waiting patiently for me.

Having the pan pedal, also means I can “blend” the two sounds – and hearing that, you can get some amazing “stacked” guitar tones – because for the first time, I am actually running two complete stereo set-ups, through two separate guitar systems – and, I have the output of PB1/PB2 going to the board direct, while the output of PB3, is miked with two Shure SM-57 instrument microphones, and those are going direct to the sound card. This then means when I record, I can record two tracks of the direct sound on PB1/PB2 and two tracks of the miked sound of PB3 on two OTHER tracks which means I will then be free to mix and match however I want – using as much (or as little) of each of the two completely different-sounding stereo feeds.

I haven’t yet mentioned the fourth pedalboard – it has an incredibly imaginative name, which you will probably never guess – Pedalboard 4.  But – it does have a distinct sub-title, unlike the other three – it’s the Guitar Synth board.  It’s quite simplistic, but it is a viable very different sound source, and it can be easily chained to PB3 or otherwise incorporated into the mix since it’s also tied directly to the mixer.  So the Guitar Synth library of sounds is also readily available now – directly out of the mixing board.

Also – with just a very quick change of cables – I can re-route the pan pedal to move between PB1/2, and PB4, or, back to PB3, or if I really wanted – I could have it pan between PB1/2 and PB3/4 chained together.  Talk about sounds…that would be a lot of sounds.  Right now, I am pretty happy with my PB1/PB2 combination, panning to the little PB3 board which is great for distorted soloing.

Getting all of that set up and working, and finalised (for the moment, of course, until I change my mind again, or, more likely, until I think of a “better way” to do things) has taken up the last several months’ time, meaning that I have not had time to work with real instruments in the real studio, except to test sounds and boards – and I’ve been doing a lot of that.  I have successfully re-programmed my Ground Control MIDI controller with 200 awesome sound combinations, and successfully done a sysex backup of that new set of sounds.  So that challenge was finally sorted out after quite a bit of trouble…I have, however, finally cracked MIDI Sysex – which for a long time, was a mystery to me – no more, now, I know how to backup, and restore, the entire contents of my Ground Control…it’s fairly easy to do, if you are patient.

I do have one other aspiration, which I actually got this idea from Vernon Reid (a great source of guitar ideas – he has helped Eventide with a lot of their distortion algorithms – so I offer up my thanks to Vernon wherever he is!), which is to stop doing ALL of my effects in series, and do them in parallel (to be honest, I also remember the late, great Allan Holdsworth, describing the same idea in a guitar workshop) – running effects in parallel.  Vernon has discovered a nice little DOD Resistance Mixer (the model AC-240, to be exact) which allows you to run four in to one out, and he uses a few of these in his live set-up (which I saw on YouTube, of course!).  It’s brilliant, and I do plan to look into that when time permits.  For the moment, out of necessity more than choice, I am doing it “old school” – in series.  Given that I am running a lot of hardware in series, it actually is all sounding very, very good now.

Note:  later on this year, we are going to see Living Colour play live in a Glasgow venue, so I can’t wait for that – one of my guitar heroes – Vernon Reid, I will finally get to see and hear Vernon play – I can’t wait!  A great and greatly under-appreciated band, Living Colour.  One of my personal favourites…it”s going to be amazing. I am very excited about this concert!!

Anyway – based on the work I’ve been doing, I have decided that once I finished processing the outstanding 15 or 16 Garage Band tracks (which I plan to begin work on this afternoon) that I will no longer spend as much time working in Garage Band, or, if I do, it will be probably for ambient projects, rather than my endless exploration of Apple Loops mixed with “real” content i.e. bass parts “played” by myself, and instead, go back to working on real music with real instruments – primarily, the electric guitar.

I think that my obsession with Garage Band has finally run its course, but, the result of it is an already very interesting catalogue of music, but, once I mix and master the next 16 tracks of completed Garage Band music – it will become apparent what a brilliant tool it has become for music creation.  It is pretty amazing what you can do with it, and I’ve been working more with matching tracks up pitch-wise and timing wise, so, matching a “real” bass part to an Apple loop, for example, or pitching different tracks to fit better with other tracks.

It’s amazing how well it all works, and, I have had an absolute blast creatively, it is endlessly fascinating to me what you can do with a stack of pre-made loops and a little bit of crafty bass playing.  I’ve found that to be key in most of the compositions I have worked on – I might create an entire piece out of Apple loops, but then, to humanise it, I play a “real” bass part – and that does it, that suddenly makes the track “pop” – it’s weird.

For a while, another technique I would use, would be to have the first two thirds of each piece, be entirely artificial; all made from loops, and then suddenly, during the last third or quarter of the piece, bring in a “real bass” part and the effect is really dramatic – it really makes the tracks sound so much better, even if there is already a synth bass or whatever – having that wonderful, plain, “Paul McCartney” bass there makes the tracks irresistible.

I have spent a ridiculous amount of time perfecting some of those bass parts – which are often played on the fly in one take, and then close-edited later to sharpen them up – taking a wild, on-the-fly live performance, and custom-fitting it to the existing song.  It’s a lot of work – but it’s so, so worth it, because it just brings the pieces full circle, and the artificiality that the loops create, gets seriously negated by the humanness of the Paul McCartney plays as “played” by yours truly.

So when you finally get to hear the next 16 Garage Band uploads from me – please listen especially to the bass guitars – because I have indeed, worked really hard on those bass parts – which you will find in most all (but not all) of my Garage Band work.

I should also mention the other “star” of the Garage Band tracks, which is the Korg IWorkstation synthesizer, with it’s two dozen different sets of presets – if you search long enough, you can always find the perfect sound, and since Garage Band’s Inter-App Audio is so well implemented, it’s easy to bring in a powerful synth like the “iWavestation”, and I use it extensively, on multiple tracks, on almost all of my Garage Band material.  So those are my two secret weapons, really:

  1. Apple’s “Paul McCartney” bass, in “Note” mode, which I play like a real bass, then close edit later to “perfect” the bass part
  2. Via Inter-App Audio, I call up the “Korg iWavestation” synthesizer which can provide an absolutely astonishing universe of sounds from any kind of synth sound; any kind of beautiful, spacious pad sound, to drums, basses, whistles, you name it, it’s in there – one of Korg‘s most amazing products, ever.  It has become my “go-to” synth whenever I am recording in an app that offers IIA connectivity – the first thing I do, is bring in an instance or ten or the iWavestation – I cannot recommend it highly enough, it’s a great synth and workstation, too – absolutely amazing and sounds great.

The third and uncredited star, is of course, those amazing Apple Loops – without them, none of this amazing catalogue of work would exist, and I can’t believe how this incredibly diverse set of music, where every piece is completely different, where each time, I try to find a new approach, a new sound, to make it utterly unique, and, importantly, different from the last piece I did – and if you are doing this across dozens of tracks, you end up with a diversity of music that is almost indefinable – I could literally, not describe the different genres, types, feelings, grooves, systems, concepts – I just can’t, the only way to describe it is to say, go to the Garage Band Eternal Album, and listen to it from start to finish – and then try to describe in words what you just heard.

And when I add in the next 16, which feature some of the most diverse and weirdest, most out-there compositions so far – that will make the above experiment even more interesting.  If I were to continue with this, the madness of being addicted to Garage Band might send me right over the edge – I don’t know.

I am going to take a break, I am extremely happy with both the catalogue “so far” (note, as of this point in time, 20170705, the Garage Band Eternal Album contains 24 unique tracks) or to date, as well as, I am very excited about the next 16 tracks – which will close out the catalogue in the short term (bringing the total number of tracks to about 40 – which in itself, is amazing), because I am (with some difficulty, I admit) going to slow down or stop producing so very much Garage Band material, and return to working on real songs with real guitars and keyboards, and I am going to give the amazing, easy to use, fun to use, Garage Band – a well-earned rest.  Because if I am honest, I have spent altogether too much time working on Garage Band songs, and not giving my other musical outlets a chance!  Of course – that wasn’t intentional, they weren’t ready – but, now they ARE ready – so – I am ready.

 

It’s also my hope, to return to making ambient music, and in particular, ambient music made with applications.  I still have unexplored areas that utilise ambient tools that I have had for many years, as well as some newer apps that I also have not spent enough time with – so I hope to rectify that situation, and in the process, hopefully, add some new ambient tracks to some of the catalogues / eternal albums up there on Bandcamp.

 

I am hoping I have reached, or nearly reached, the “cut-off” point, where the total obsession with Garage Band ends, and a new practice of music-making begins, which involves using real guitars and my new pedalboards and guitar systems plural.  That is the idea, anyway – and that is why I have also spent the last several months trying to get everything ready for this day – and after extensive testing, and spending a lot of time creating 200 amazing and beautiful guitar sounds in my Ground Control Pro MIDI Controller – finally, everything is ready, and I have now, at my fingertips, a huge and diverse array of guitar sounds that I can use in my new compositions!  It was a lot of work to get to this point, and I am beyond pleased with the way my guitar is sounding – and that is not something I’ve said very often in my life.

Of course, Komplete will still be there to play it’s part, since I don’t have the space for a physical drum kit, and, I’ve never had the opportunity / chance / space / time to learn how to play a real drum kit – I still depend on Komplete to help me set up my real guitars-based tracks – mostly, with the drum tracks.  I also, often, will use Komplete to do basses – and certainly, I use it for keyboards and synths, along with other softwares like the M-Tron Pro mellotron software.

When the urge takes me, I do sometimes play real bass instead of Komplete’s bass, but using Komplete is truly tempting because it does contain toolsets like Scarbee’s amazing Rickenbacker bass samples, and I just can’t resist having the sound of a Rickenbacker or a Fender Jazz bass or a Fender Precision on my tracks – I love those basses, and being able to “Play” them, even via a MIDI keyboard – is heaven.  My cheap throwaway bass cannot compete with those sampled basses for tone – it was so cheap, that I actually paid nothing for it – a good friend of mine, and an amazing musician, too, Michael Dawson, actually gifted that bass to me – which I have subsequently used on certain tracks, one of which was the tribute to the late John Wetton – “Wettonizer” is the one main track I remember using the “free” Washburn bass on.  It is actually, a lot of fun to play (it’s tiny, and I am not!), so maybe I will add in some “real basses” as well as using the amazing Rickenbacker and Fender samples available via Scarbee via Komplete.

In essence, in the studio, Komplete is my “band” – they come up with the bass and drum tracks, and if needed, keyboard and synth tracks – and then, I am left to play real guitars on top of those created tracks.  It’s as close as I can get to having a real band to play with at the moment – and again, I don’t have the space available for a real band anyway, so at the moment, the Komplete “band” does me more than proud – and you can hear exactly how well they do, by listening to a couple of my larger works, where they are heavily featured – in particular, on “the complete unknown” “planet obelisk” and “day seventeen” – these are examples of the full Komplete band – drums, bass, keyboards – supporting me, the man of many guitar parts :-).  It takes weeks or months to get the drums, basses and keys in place on tracks like these, and it’s not uncommon that three months might pass, before I get to play a single note on the guitar.

(Note: all of the tracks noted above, are all taken from the dave stafford “progressive rock” eternal album – please have a listen on Bandcamp).

 

Of course, it does take time, creating drum tracks, and bass tracks, and keyboards and synths – but it’s worth the time, because I want the best possible backdrop for guitars – and with Komplete, I get the best there is.  For example, depending on what kind of era I want to emulate, I tend to use the Abbey Road drum kits, and I can choose from a vintage 50s kit, a 1960s kit, a 70s kit, 80s, kit or “modern” kit – and each one has it’s own character and options, and they sound absolutely amazing – so I tend to mostly use those, although there are many, many other drum options within Komplete…Abbey Road drums are my current favourite, and they can be heard on a lot of my works.

I have also favoured the Scarbee Rickenbacker bass, using different pickups and presets, for a lot of my pieces, and I think Scarbee is an absolutely amazing company, the care with which they create their instruments is exquisite – the details are absolutely stunning.  I can get so many amazing tones out of that Rickenbacker bass, I could just about not ever use any other – except of course, when I do need a Fender bass for a deeper, more traditional sound – and then, I turn to Scarbee once again – and in many cases, they even offer an “amped” version – so you can have just the bass, or, the bass sampled through amps – it’s amazing – I am totally spoiled for choice.

After a lot of hard work, especially the programming of 200 custom preset guitar “sounds” on the Ground Control Pro, I am ready to play some serious guitar – but, serious guitar with the best tones possible.  I have really chosen a bit of a strange path, over the years, I have mostly stayed away from “guitar amps”, instead, using a plain power amp, and asking either software, or, my pedalboards, to be the main source of “tone”.  Now I am in a hybrid set up – I am using an amp, or actually, two amps – one is a solid state guitar amp, which has a line out to the mixer, and the other is my plain power amp, where I am miking my two 1X12 guitar cabs direct to the sound card.  The “tone”, however, is the tone of whatever guitar I am playing, plus, what sound colourations are available from the pedalboards – which of course, include the many-faceted Eventide H9s – each of which contains a massive library of absolutely astonishing, high-quality sounds.

When I think about what is possible with just the H9s (ignoring all other pedals for the moment) I kinda wish I had more than 200 slots in my MIDI pedal, but the truth is, by combining different H9 algorithms, the number of possible insanely good guitar sounds, is not just 200, or even 2000, it’s probably more like 200,000.  Seriously – and, Eventide keeps adding in new algorithms, too, which just increases, exponentially, the possibilities, to basically, limitless – the latest new algorithm, “Pitchfuzz”, contains some amazing new distorted and / or pitch-shifted sounds, which are out of this world, and, of course, I have incorporated the best of those into my 200 presets.  Using the H9s in multiples, makes it possible to create combinations of effects that are truly lush and incredible sounding – you have to hear them to believe them.  Exquisite combinations of beautiful, individual sounds…

I did spend a bit of extra time on one particular sound that I truly love, and I got this idea straight from Allan Holdsworth (may he rest in peace) – on the first of several occasions where I was privileged to see Allan play guitar, he had this amazing “swell” sound, where while the bass and drums played a kind of “drone”, he would “fade in” or “swell” these beautiful, clean chords, which were drenched in layers of delay and reverb – and I never forgot how beautiful that sounded live.

During the Bindlestiff years, I even tried to emulate that sound, by fading the sound in manually with a volume pedal, into a huge reverb “room” – close, but not quite.  But now – in the land of H9s – I can have auto-swell, at any time setting I want, and it’s brilliant.

I took this opportunity to create some special Dave Stafford auto-swell settings; starting with a short auto-swell (1900 milliseconds), then, medium (3100 ms) and finally, the “Allan Holdsworth” series of auto-swell (my “long” swell at 4000 ms or 4 seconds) – and I made several variations of that basic sound, running the swell through various different Eventide Space reverb sounds, and in one final example, through a beautiful Eventide delay and then into a beautiful Eventide Space sound.  The result is a mini-bank of amazing “swell” variations, and I am so glad I took the time to work out the programming for those sounds – taking care of details like that, gives me an edge, it gives me something unusual, not stock – but with my own personality – these 200 sounds are Dave Stafford Guitar Sounds, regardless of whether they are “stock” or “custom” – they are my choices and juxtapositions – and it’s so nice to have such an amazing library of “algorithm meets algorithm” possibilities.

This afternoon, then, will be dedicated to downloading (and, clearing off, thank god) the 16 new Garage Band pieces, trying to first get the final mixes just right, then, the mastering, and finally, probably starting in a few days’ time, uploading them – and once uploaded, the Garage Band Eternal Album will have reached about 40 unique Dave Stafford compositions done over a relatively short period of time – months – but, in terms of sound, and quality – it’s a huge, huge sound – and, a catalogue of which I am both very proud and very fond of – I have really enjoyed my “time of Garage Band”.

You should try it – drop everything else for a while, and just create with Garage Band – a piece every couple of days was usually my method, although some of the more complex pieces might then stretch out to a week or two until I was happy with the final version – and then, immediately, start another one – preferably, something that sounded COMPLETELY different to the piece just completed.

In a week or two at most, you will be able to hear all 40 tracks, and these should give you a good glimpse (at least) – if not an amazing view – of what this creative and innovative Apple tool – one of the oldest “computer-based” music making tools (now, mobilised on the iPhone and iPad, of course – in the Apple way) can do; and, with it’s latest updates, it has become one of the most fertile, stable, and unique grounds for growing musical ideas.

Anyone can have a go – drag some Apple loops into your song, and you are away – dream up any kind of music you like.  Just do loops if you don’t want to play, or don’t know how – you can still create, using the magical Apple loops, if you do play an instrument, then you have the opportunity to add in some keyboard based or drum or bass content of your own.  It’s easy to learn, and endlessly expandable, you can add many, many bars and create very long pieces, or create three minute pop masterpieces – it’s all there with Garage Band.

 

And now – to mix, download, master and start getting those new tracks uploaded – I can’t wait !!!

 

 

peace and love

 

dave 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the damage is done… (long-lost blog draft #1)

March 6th, 2016:

Sometime back now, I attempted to compare the two different versions of the Sylvian-Fripp live masterpiece,”Damage: Live” more commonly known as “Damage” – the live album record of one of the most remarkable musical collaboratations of the last century – “Sylvian-Fripp” – the band.  I’d owned the Robert Fripp mix/version for several years, when I then had the opportunity to pick up David Sylvian‘s mix/version, released some years later.

I then sat down and listened to both records, first, in linear fashion, then, as an “A-B” – i.e. track by track, where possible. The differences are interesting – it’s not often that you get the chance to compare the “ear” of two such brilliant musicians, and it is interesting to hear how they interpret the same live show into a finished disc.

Anyway, from the first of the “long-lost blog drafts’, I now present to you, “the damage is done”, my freshman attempt at comparing two different versions of the same recordings…wish me luck!!

 

Additions, edits, and final proofing done on March 6, 2016.

 

 

Unfinished Blog Draft #1 – last edit (until today) was December 21st, 2014:

 

TRACK: “DAMAGE”

“Damage” (song) is the opening track on the RF (Robert Fripp)-produced version of the “Damage” album, whereas, on the DS (David Sylvian)-produced version of the “Damage” album, it’s moved to fifth position.

That’s not the only difference, however, it’s the only position change.  There are the omissions, one song omitted from each disc – the RF disc is missing “Jean The Birdman”, while DS has included that track; and the DS disc is missing the 10.47 “Darshan (The Road To Graceland)”, while RF has included that track.

To me, the omission of “Darshan” really harms the DS version, and I can’t imagine what the reason for not including what is surely one of the highlights of the concert – the super long and full version of amazing-Fripp guitar, “Darshan” – I couldn’t believe it when I first realised that the DS version did not contain it !

For RF to omit “Jean The Birdman” is not nearly as distressing, it was, supposedly, the band’s “single” if such a thing could be, for a band like Sylvian / Fripp.

Doing an A/B compare of the two records is very revealing, but, it’s tricky, because of advances in technology, the DS version is much “louder” than the RF version, so each time I switch from RF to DS, there is an increase in volume, punch, bass – everything.  I basically am trying to ignore that, and consider the content itself – the music.

Both versions of (title track) “Damage” are very, very beautiful, I can’t point to anything about either of them that I dislike, it’s just a beautiful, beautiful song, and OK, possibly, the vocal might be a tiny bit louder in the DS mix; and the guitars may be a tiny bit louder in the RF mix – but I would expect nothing less – the vocalist wants to hear the vocals, the guitarist, wants to hear the guitars.

Out of all of the tracks on the record, the two versions of the song “Damage” are probably “the most alike”, hence, I haven’t really said much about them, or their differences.  They a

As for the poor bass player, well, he just has to hope that the mix will be kind to him – and in this case, both mixes are, when Trey (Gunn) comes in finally near the end.  On the RF disc, “God’s Monkey” is track two, but on the DS Version, it’s the opening track (due to “Damage” being moved from track 1 to track 5 on the DS version).  Now, I don’t know the reasons for this radical change to the running order, except to say, maybe DS is using the real running order, and Fripp used some artistic license in placing the two “quiet” songs as bookends of the concert – and DS wanted to make a point by restoring “Damage” to its rightful place in the centre of the concert – I do not know.

 

TRACK: “GOD’S MONKEY”

RF’s version of “God’s Monkey” starts with Trey’s distinctive bass riff, and the bass is nicely up in the mix, as are both Robert’s (Fripp) and Michael’s (Brook) guitars (not surprising, again – a guitarist is mixing the album!) but you can hear the vocals fine in this mix, maybe just because it’s the “familiar one” but I really like the way this is mixed, the vocal is up, the bass is up, the drums are good, and the guitars are powerful or quiet as required…it’s very well balanced.

Even Trey’s harmony vocal on the chorus, is very clear and concise, and having that vocal harmony reproduced live, is very helpful to the overall feel of the song, which ends in clouds of harmonizer / soundscape loop guitars from Robert, and a piercing, beautiful solo as well, with Sylvian and Brook supporting him beautifully – Trey is simply a rock on the bass at this point, as RF shreds his way up the octave doubler – fantastic speed and clarity, an awesome solo – then back to that great chorus, replete with Trey’s lovely harmony – you can’t go wrong with this mix, and Fripp is way up front during the final solo – but not annoyingly so – it’s just right.

Then, we have the DS mix – with all trace of the audience removed at the start – unlike RF’s mix, which starts with audience reaction to Damage still going on.  So it sounds almost like a studio track, because of the removal of the crowd sounds – in the intro, the guitars seem quite loud, and there is some nice stereo Fripp, too.  The vocal is clean, clear, and not any louder than in RF’s version – in fact, the balance between instruments is not terrifically different, I would say that possibly, you can hear the Sylvian and Brook guitar parts a little bit better in this mix, but other than that, they both give a satisfying reading of the awesome triple guitar attack of Sylvian / Brook / Fripp – I was lucky enough to catch their performance at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles, California, in the early 1990s, so I got to see and hear first hand, what a powerful triple-guitar-entity they could be.

When you add Trey into that mix, you really almost end up with Trey representing the fourth guitarist, as a lot of Stick or Warr guitar does involve multiple tapped parts that are not necessarily all in the “bass” range – so sometimes, it’s a FOUR guitar attack.  The main guitar interlude sounds fantastic, Fripp’s ambient loops sound great, it’s really not that different from the RF version, except for the strange, slightly sterile EQ that makes this undeniably live track, sound a little bit more like it was created in a studio – which it absolutely wasn’t, but just the act of removing the crowd sounds from the track’s start, makes a huge difference in perception.

The final guitar solo, is mixed in a similar way to RF’s – Fripp is definitely featured, but the helper guitars from Sylvian and Brook are a bit louder than they are in the RF mix, or so it seems, but again, it’s just, in both cases, coming up with a sound balance and a “sound” for each track as they hear it, as an engineer, it’s surprising, I would have thought that these mixes might be radically different, and there are some audible differences, I think EQ and other treatments may have been used by either or both parties, to “improve” the sounds of any of the instruments, and there are some sonic tonal differences that are hard to pin down, even with an A/B test.

TRACK: “BRIGHTNESS FALLS”

“Brightness Falls” is our next victim on the table, in our dissection of these two disparate mixes of one of the best live albums of all time, “Damage” by Sylvian-Fripp – certainly one of the very best collaborations that Robert ever involved himself in.

I loved “The First Day” (“Sylvian-Fripp’s studio debut album) when it came out, it was amazing to hear Fripp’s guitar and compositional skills behind the ever soulful vocals of Sylvian, it just sounded great – that is, until “Damage” appeared a year later.  It blew me away; on “Damage”, the songs from “The First Day”, were already transmutated from iron into gold, already transformed And wonderfully mutated into amazing live musical experiences by this remarkable band – there’s never been another band quite like this one – a wonderful compilation of individual musical characters, who’s sum was much greater than the parts, always. The live versions by far transcend “The First Day” as a whole, “Damage” is quite simply light-years ahead in terms of song development.

It’s almost as if “The First Day” was a test pressing, a musical sketchbook to sketch out the songs in a basic, crude form, but then, in rehearsals and in performance, on the tour,mine songs blossomed and grew legs, arms, feet, tentacles,and became immortal versions of those primitive sketches.  I still to this day, struggle to listen to “The First Day”, if I should, it would be immediately followed by “Damage” to set the record straight. “Damage” shows the definitive versions of all of these songs, which just happens to make “The First Day” fade away into nothingness…

 

Along with revitalised tracks from “The First Day”, played with explosive excitement, there are also tracks from both Sylvian’s and Fripp’s back catalogues, including some where both musicians played on a track together – such as the tracks taken from “Gone To Earth”.

The RF mix has a lovely, lovely ambient outro, “Brightness Falls” live was incredible, with Robert building up an amazing live loop, which made the track more and more ambient as it went along, with the band keeping time beautifully with a lovely slide guitar part from Michael, and a constant and steady riff from DS himself.  The song fades into just Frippertronics, or rather, a soundscape, and gradually disappears – until it suddenly transforms into a track originally on the “Rain Tree Crow” album, “Every Colour You Are”.

But we still have the DS mix of “Brightness Falls” to contend with, this time, I would say, all four guitars have been EQ’d or treated, and the lack of crowd sounds again, gives a sterile and studio-like sound that is both brilliant, but slightly disturbing – it’s almost as if there is too much detail revealed, I would say in the case of this song, DS’s mix is definitely a bit “clearer”, the definition between the three guitars and bass, is stunning, really, it sounds great – and when Robert takes a short solo, it’s just amazing – it sounds fantastic – panning madly across the stereo field – and then, back to the quiet, four guitars in perfect harmony mix level – as the vocalist works through the chorus again.

I think in almost every song here, that maybe, the vocals are a little louder, a little clearer, on the DS mixes, whereas on the RF mix, there may be some murky moments, and sometimes, the balance between the 3 guitars and bass, is not as clean and definite as it is in DS’s mix, but – to Fripp’s credit, DS had both, better, newer equipment, and – more time, probably – to tinker with the album – and in the case of “Brightness Falls” that tinkering has truly paid off – I am hearing things leading up to the middle section, that I have never heard properly on the RF version – the found voices that David was triggering from his synth, are much more audible here – really clear and nice.

The long outro with Soundscape, is just as beautiful as in the Fripp version, or maybe even a little nicer, because you can hear the samples a little better on the way out.  It’s such a lovely, long fade down, you can’t really go wrong, it just sounds great in BOTH mixes – no clear winner here, although the DS does seem a bit clearer in terms of the guitars to bass balance – it’s clean.  But RF’s mix is no slouch, either – Fripp’s mixes are as they always are, accurate, precise, and, with Fripp pretty far up in the mix ;-).

TRACK: “EVERY COLOUR YOU ARE”

So we now get to “Every Colour You Are” from the “Rain Tree Crow” – which was, of course, an unofficial “Japan” reunion – they (all of the members of Japan) all play on the record, but, they didn’t want to call it “Japan” – so, because this was a new band making a new record, they became “Rain Tree Crow” for this one album.  It spawned a number of great new David Sylvian songs, and it’s great to hear the S/F band interpreting them on the live “Damage” album – now available in two delicious flavours.

Some slightly wonky delay slide guitar from Michael is mixed down a bit to try and distract attention from it, but he soon gets things together, and then that same slide guitar becomes a crucial component of the song – and there is then, that amazing drum roll from heaven, when Pat Mastelotto makes his presence known suddenly – that no one expects – right there in the middle of that beautiful solo – and then, the song settles back down to the two chord motif, and that amazing verse about the family man, who puts a torch to his house and warms his hands by the fire…remarkable.

I haven’t spoken much yet about the contribution of drummer Pat Mastelotto, because it’s just one of those things that you sort of take for granted, and maybe that’s the easiest thing to say – that he is solid, reliable, spot on, but still capable of lots of percussive surprises. He’s the perfect drummer for this sadly short-lived monster of a band, unobtrusive when he should be, powerful, precise and utterly, utterly focused on the beat, and on the song…and doing what is appropriate every single time.

I think Sylvian’s voice is equally compelling in both mixes, and despite some differing EQ’s and treatments on both records, it’s consistent and strong throughout, on both mixes.  On RF’s, it’s mixed up well, along with the solo guitars, which are just beautiful – Fripp plays a blinder of a clean solo up to the insanely cool ending – I love that ending !  Dissonance shown as beauty…only Fripp can pull that off successfully (courtesy of that amazing, high-pitched, 2 octaves up reverse guitar) – and he does, indeed, pull it off, with the remarkable ending of this track.

This time, the DS mix does contain audience sound, but it’s the sound from the ending of “Brightness Falls” which abruptly ends, “Every Colour You Are” begins, again, with it’s odd EQ sort of studio-sound, which is then confused by an eruption of spontaneous crowd noise when they recognise what song it is – a lovely, very real moment, and both mixes include it – it’s a nice moment, and it works within the context of the song, because this song has a lot of space in it.

TRACK: “JEAN THE BIRDMAN” (DAVID SYLVIAN MIX ONLY)

Now, we have arrived at the point where the discs differ, in this case, RF Mix does not contain the next track, which DS mix does – the live version of “Jean The Birdman” – I can understand why Sylvian wanted this track, it was the single, and I think he wanted it to do better than it did (there was a single release of it) and to be fair, it’s actually really, really beautifully done, with sparkling guitars throughout, including really beautiful reverse guitar solos from Fripp – a great live version of a much-underrated song.  Unfortunately, I can only comment on the DS version, according to Wikipedia, “Jean The Birdman” “replaced” “Darshan” from the earlier Fripp mix – but no reason is given.

In a way, it’s a bonus, because now, in a way, we get two unique live tracks – if you only had one of these discs, you would only have one of those two songs, so, it’s worthwhile having both mixes – if just to get “Jean The Birdman” live, if nothing else – it’s very, very well done.

TRACK:  “FIREPOWER”

Now we are back in comparison land, and it’s “Firepower”, another track that started life on “The First Day”, but is utterly re-vitalised, featuring a killer, exciting, vocal; fantastic drum rolls popping from Mastelotto’s snare; Trey’s bass is supercharging the rhythm section, while the Sylvian / Brook / Fripp “Axis of Guitar Power”, continue to dominate, Fripp playing another blinder of octave up distorted guitar solo, followed by an incredible, dissonant solo with some very odd goings-on, samples from David’s keyboards, a lot of fabulous detail in the background – with Fripp’s guitar definitely in the foreground!

A snappy ending – that isn’t an ending; the song then starts over, with a Fripp Soundscape, Trey’s beautiful bass riff, and a nice, extended outro that is really, really lovely – just a great mood, Pat is steady, Fripp’s soundscape is being built brick by brick, Michael makes strange guitar sounds periodically, and David has his many samples – odd to watch him, in concert, holding down one key at a time, to trigger samples – but, that’s how it works.  More ON FIRE guitar from Mr. Fripp, really beautiful Digitech Whammy II high pitched guitar work – this was also, for many years – my pitch pedal of choice, it’s not perfect, but, if you work at it, you can make it sound quite good.

The DS mix of “Firepower” – while perhaps, a slightly thinner sound, it comes blasting in, guitars a bit more up front, Fripp razor sharp guitar sounding even more razor sharp, the fabulous guitar solo, the dissonant section that follows it, sounding great – a bit cleaner mix maybe, and again, Fripp’s awesome high-pitched guitar melodies just buzz through the atmosphere – and at the end of the solo, a part that I don’t remember being on the RF version, just before the  famous “false ending” (at 2:58) – a great riff (at 2:40 to 2:44) that brings the track down to its outro just beautifully – a very heavy and very precise riff, bringing perfect closure to both an amazing Fripp guitar solo, but also, an amazing guitar trio – especially the dissonant part of it – and it seems like the main body of the song is ending, but, instead, after 3 minutes of “song with guitar solos” we now move purely into the instrumental realm – “guitar, guitars, and more guitar!” – for another four minutes; with a lazy, beautiful rhythm from Trey and Pat, over which Fripp gets to stretch out once again with a very long, very lovely solo.

The long outro after that false ending, with Fripp’s beautiful sustained solo, could not fail to sound great no matter who mixed it when, and it sounds just as wonderful in the new DS mix as it does on the “old” RF mix – both are great renderings, they really are – and, a great performance of the song, too, from the whole band – that certainly helps :-).

And during that outro, be sure to check out what Pat gets up to, he reminds us, gently, of the power and majesty that he can inject into the proceedings at any time – and he doesn’t do so often, he is very careful never to overplay – always, subtle appropriate drumming – which he does so well – so when he does cut loose for a moment, here and there, it’s even more impressive than it might normally be – so, restraint much of the time, but, bursts of incredible drumming, with a rhythmic musicality that only Mastelotto can provide – he is unique, and I love his drumming style.

TRACK: “GONE TO EARTH”

Next comes a somewhat oddball song, “Gone To Earth”, which must take incredible concentration to sing, it has the oddest melody; and the oddest guitar parts, I hear it start and all I can think is, “what a weird, difficult, odd yet wonderful song!” but it has that beautiful vocal refrain, and the found voices over Fripp harmonics – wow, that’s just so beautiful…an oddity, yes, but I am so glad they dug it up, the title track of one of David’s most famous albums, and it’s mostly famous for its roll call of amazing guitar guest stars, Bill Nelson, Robert Fripp (on the same album – I mean, wow!) and Fripp is on a decent number of the tracks on the album – so he is able to reprise his parts as well, with better guitar technique, and more experience and technique of his own.

The DS mix of “Gone To Earth” differs a bit, the vocal is definitely higher in the mix, with Robert’s unique guitar intro comes flying in, quite a bit louder than on the RF mix, his distorted stereo lead guitars clearly to the fore in the very beginning of the track.  The found voice samples are also a bit higher in the mix, which is great, I think in this case, despite my usual complaint about slightly weird EQ in the beginning of the songs, this may be superior to the RF version in some ways – although I love both versions.  Sylvian’s vocal is particularly good on this track, and I don’t know how he gets his pitch “live”, but he does a beautiful job of performing this often-overlooked mini-ambient masterpiece from “Gone To Earth”.

TRACK: “20TH CENTURY DREAMING”

Now, we come to the fabulous, riffalicious “20th Century Dreaming”, one of my favourite tracks, originally from “The First Day” – as David sings – “social, economical, spiritual – I’m moving to the House of Love…” and he sounds very convincing.  Fripp’s mix is very clear, bass and drums throbbing in the centre of the mix, while the three-guitar attack is blazing away in glorious, confusing stereo in the background.  There seem to be three rhythm guitar parts during the verses – and then of course, Robert begins his ominous, low-pitched solo, and it suddenly moves into double time, razor-sharp, biting, beautiful, and intense in that way that only Fripp can be intense – one of his best solos, and in this live rendition, it rivals anything he ever played under the name “King Crimson” – I was so excited by this band, that when I saw them, I walked around for months afterwards saying that Sylvian-Fripp were very nearly as good, or possibly, better than King Crimson (I know – a moment of madness) – but, there is some merit to that opinion.

A fantastical Frippertronics soundscape underpins a long, ambient “non-solo”, with quiet vocals, quiet guitars, quiet bass and drums, the whole band sinks down, but, still playing with intensity, which then, once the vocals pause – builds in intensity again – “dreaming….dreaming lying down”… and Pat starts in with the most constant snare drum you ever heard, until suddenly, all hell breaks loose as David is moving, moving, moving to the House of Love – and Fripp and co are literally propelling him there – with some of the most amazing music I have ever heard.  This song is so difficult to describe with mere words, the ambient parts, the soundscape is so incredibly beautiful, and Fripp soloing away, even when the drums and bass have silenced themselves, so it’s Fripp playing lead guitar, and reverse guitar, two octaves up, along with his soundscape…and suddenly, silence.

The David Sylvian mix of “20th Century Dreaming” again, has a different guitar sound, the stereo image of the guitars differs from the RF mix, which does make them feel fuller – not sure what adjustments were made, but, Sylvian’s mix does sound “different” – but it’s never “bad different” – it’s always “good different”.  This song is a very, very long, very detailed piece of music, with a lot of elements to it, and capturing those elements, and mixing them well, was certainly a challenge, moreso than some of the shorter, more straightforward songs.

The Axis Of Guitar Power, that triple-threat of electric guitars, with two masters and one very capable rhythm keeper, young David Sylvian himself, it’s just the most astonishing sound you could imagine; Fripp, ominous, capable of blinding speed, and amazing displays of speed and musical accuracy, while Michael Brook provides anything from second rhythm guitar, on up to lead guitars, sounds, infinite guitar, ambient guitar, and just plain strange guitar, which compliments David’s very straight parts, and Robert’s intense solos, but, of course, there are really a couple more guitarists here, in the form of “loopers” – so Robert has his Soundscapes, which are used a lot on the album, and also, here in live performance, they are a critical ingredient to the success of the music played on “Damage” – it would NOT be the same without them.

So really, you have a quartet of guitarists, one of them, a beautiful, musically complex Soundscape loop, played over by our three heroes.  “20th Century Dreaming” gives all three of them a workout, and Sylvian’s vocal is really beautiful here, the guitars and Soundscapes flying around in stereo around his head…a miraculous mass of music that should be overcrowded, but instead, just sounds perfect – in either mix, I love them both, no contest, this is such a good track, that you could just about NOT mix it and it would probably STILL sound amazing.  A lot of work has gone into both mixes, I can tell, and it’s paid off, because there IS a lot of great guitar detail to bring out, and Fripp’s performance on here is just stunningly good – one of those where you shake your head and think “how on earth does he do that?

TRACK: “WAVE”

Now we return to the “Gone To Earth” album, for one of its loveliest songs, “Wave”, which features what can only be described as an “Heroes”-like, long sustained guitar riff, which makes repeated appearances, alongside various other guitar solos using various guitar sounds, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Fripp use so many different sounds live, in one song – he is changing his sound mid solo, even – but it sounds great.  The Fripp mix is excellent, the lead guitarist is again featured, but, never overpowering the singer, it’s great to witness that in both mixes, Fripp never drowns out Sylvian’s vocal, and Sylvian never drowns out Fripp’s guitar – so there is obviously, mutual respect for the musicianship of each other there.

This is almost straightforward as a song, when compared to some of the very complex songs preceding it – with a few long verses, followed by Fripp’s “two different voices” solo, it begins with a strange harmonizer patch, then switches back to the trademark distorted, high-pitched, sustained guitar sound – a beautiful solo, and then back to David’s impassioned vocal, I am always surprised by “Wave” – “I’ll never let you down” – is followed by the most astonishing, “St. Elmo’s Fire” style Fripp “spinning guitar” at speed, and during the last few solos, Robert is absolutely scorching, wiping the floor with his guitar, I love this solo more than almost any other on the record – it’s just sublime – and, it takes us right to the end of the song.

Moving now to the DS mix, the drums in the beginning, sound completely different, and, it sounds almost as if vibrato has been added to the guitars in the intro.  Fripp’s guitar, volume and tone, seems identical to the earlier RF mix, but boy, those drums sure sound odd in the beginning!  In Fripp’s mix, they are mixed down to almost nothing, and their volume only comes up when the guitars start, in Sylvian’s mix, he has cranked the four bars of solo drums intro, up so far that it sounds like a different song at the start!  Personally, I like the fact that I can now hear what Pat played in the beginning of the song, and I am not sure why RF would have turned it down so far !

David’s mix otherwise, like Robert’s before it, is true to the spirit of the original song as it was on “Gone To Earth” – in fact, all of the songs taken from “Rain Tree Crow” or “Gone To Earth” have all been faithful reproductions of the original studio works, with of course, better and more interesting vocals and guitars – particularly, Robert Fripp excels in the live environment, so what sounded good on “The First Day” – sounds GREAT on “Damage”; and at the same time, what sounded good on “Gone To Earth” sounds GREAT on “Damage”…superlative improvements plus live guitaring.

So in the case of songs from “The First Day” – there are changes, there are improvements, the songs are MUCH better across the board, on “Damage”, whereas, the songs from “Rain Tree Crow” and “Gone To Earth” are much more faithful renditions, sounding pretty much exactly like the originals…but better.

BRIEF INTERLUDE – (OUT OF SCOPE):

“Exposure”, which they also played at live shows, also sounded much like it did on Robert’s breakthrough album “Exposure” – except with David Sylvian singing the song instead of Terri Roche.  Or, Peter Gabriel, as the version of “Exposure” on “Peter Gabriel 2” has.  I loved hearing Sylvian sing that, and play the “E”, “X”, etc. samples from his keyboard, while Fripp reprised his loops and guitar – it’s such a shame that no take of “Exposure” was deemed good enough to put onto the “Damage” album – a real loss, as for me, at the live show I saw in Los Angeles, it was a huge surprise, and, a real highlight.

Note: there are bootleg recordings of Sylvian-Fripp concerts that DO include “Expoaure” the song, unfortunately since that track does not appear on either of these official releases of “Damage” that we are comparing here, it is outside the scope of this discussion.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>Return to album comparison>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

TRACK: “RIVERMAN”

So from “Wave”, we move to another track from the same album, “Riverman”, beginning with a very strange, ambient section, which then gives way to the song’s lovely, swaying two note bass motif, and wonderful, strange guitars in the background, Michael plays rhythm guitar and slide guitar, while Fripp plays high-pitched notes which become Soundscapes; Trey comes in with a lovely vocal harmony on the chorus, an underrated singer, I think he harmonises beautifully with Sylvian, and that is no mean feat, as David’s voice is utterly unique, and probably not easy to sing along with!

After the first verse and chorus, Fripp takes a very intense, heavy solo, that seems almost too heavy for such an otherwise quite gentle song, “run with me, holy man…” quite dissonant, a beautiful solo – then back to normal music – it works beautifully, it’s dead serious, quick, intense – and then, back to beautiful, super-high pitched notes being dropped into a loop.  And then comes another short guitar solo, distorted, low pitched, with reverse elements, sounding just right – and again, back to the Soundscapes from heaven…drift away on clouds of ambient guitar.

This is the “slow moment” in the concert, or one of the “slow moments”, most of the band’s songs are uptempo, so it’s nice to have something that’s at a lower bpm, so we can hear this group of musician’s playing at something less than the speed of light, on a few tracks.  Fripp is just great on this track, filling in the areas between the verses with powerful guitar solos, and then falling back into those atmospheric sounds, the wonderful high pitch notes that appear and then group together in a loop, then fade, then return…really beautiful guitar work, and, loops at the same time – an immaculate process, and Fripp really knows how to work these live-built soundscapes into a piece of music.  An almost “Elephant Talk” two-note-Fripp-guitar calls a halt to the proceedings – and “Riverman” is over.

David’s mix, well, the intro is mixed up a bit more as usual, so you can hear the strange elements that the beginning is made up of, a bit better than you can discern them on Robert’s mix. Sylvian’s voice sounds more “present”, as if he has moved closer to us, which could be the result of almost anything in the studio, simply upping the vocal level, changing the stereo field, applying EQ – I don’t know what he does, but he always make his voice sound great, and, I also feel, he makes his three guitarists sound great – he manages to crank up Fripp and Brook, even more than Fripp cranked up Fripp in his mix, and that’s unusual, normally, Fripp’s mix would ALWAYS have the loudest guitars, by default, because he is a guitarist, of course, but not here, I think Sylvian likes these guitars so much, that he really cranks them up so he can enjoy them!

The solos in “Riverman” are brilliant, it’s yet another great rendition from the “Gone To Earth” album – in fact, the tracks presented here from that album, demonstrate that it’s a quality record that stands the test of time – and it really does.  It’s probably my favourite David Sylvian album of all, although I am also very fond of “Brilliant Trees”.

TRACK: “DARSHAN (THE ROAD TO GRACELAND)” (ROBERT FRIPP MIX ONLY)

Then we come to our second anomaly, another song for which there is no comparison, in this case, we only have Fripp’s mix, and, it makes me feel very happy – this is the almost eleven minutes of “Darshan (The Road To Graceland)” and all I could think when I saw David’s running order did not include “Darshan” – I could not believe my eyes, or my ears.  Removing that song…well, to me, it borders on sacrilege; because it represents Sylvian/Fripp at their most bleeding edge, testing the limits of a live groove with flying shards of screaming Fripp “Sailor’s Tale” or “Hendrix” style guitar, Fripp pushes himself, and this song, through an almost exhausting, and terrifically exhaustive, set of long, amazing distorted chords, delivered at speed, sliding up and down the neck with aplomb, bouncing of the fretboard – playing with it, pushing his own boundaries.

The band, is in an amazing groove, that runs pretty much without stopping, for the entire length of the song – giving both Sylvian and Fripp, plenty of time to do their individual singing and soloing.  Sylvian is great on this song, I love his vocals, I love the chant of “Darshan” and “leaving on the road….to Graceland” that recurs many times, whilst Mr. Fripp is almost in a world of his own with his super extended impossible sliding chord exercise / solo.  It is remarkable to hear, and, if you don’t have the Fripp mix, at this point, you should put DOWN your David Sylvian mix, and go order the Fripp version, so you can HEAR THIS SONG.   That’s the best endorsement I can give, it’s absolutely worth it, to buy a whole CD, to get this one song.

At 6:45, there is an incredibly “interplay” solo between Michael Brook and Robert Fripp, that is just sublime, there are so many great moments of guitaring on this record…this particular back and forth is just awesome!  Brilliant guitar work from both Fripp and Brook.

It should also be noted, that if you just have the Fripp mix, you should avail yourself of the Sylvian mix, so you can get a most excellent version of “Jean The Birdman” – which Fripp did not include.

But “Darshan (The Road To Graceland)”  – is an absolutely remarkable song, and this performance, available on the RF Mix of “Damage” only, is a must-have recording if you love the music of Sylvian or Fripp, or both (as in my case).

TRACK: “BLINDING LIGHT OF HEAVEN”

Moving now toward the end of the disc, we come to a personal favourite of mine, at the time of the original Damage coming out, Damage was the only record in Sylvian’s canon that contained this next song, the incredibly beautiful and semi-erotic “Blinding Light Of Heaven” – which to me, is a real highlight on this record, it has some wonderful guitars, although nothing can top the aforementioned “Darshan” – Fripp’s solos in “Darshan” are absolutely off the scale, especially the final one – which you have to hear to believe….

But, back to the “Blinding Light Of Heaven” – it starts with a rocking beat from Pat, and a two note “Hendrix” hammer-on, some sliding guitars, and then, it acquires a great disco (really, I’m not being funny here – it’s really cool!!) rhythm guitar courtesy of David Sylvian, while Robert and Michael play great guitars in the background.  “I’m in the shade, she’s in the blinding light of heaven….” And “…now she stands before me opening the buttons of her coat….I found myself, wrapped in the open arms…of heaven”.

It’s deceiving, it has a funky beat, with an almost-disco guitar, but to me, it’s a strange and wonderful piece of almost prog guitar work, especially when the second verse ends, and Fripp takes his first solo, which includes him TAPPING, and it’s just the most amazing, ripping solo, with those amazing trills, that slide right off the top of his top note on his top string – astonishing solo.

Fripp’s mix is very good, the guitars are getting louder, Sylvian is well audible but not up as much as in the DS mix, and now, here comes the second Fripp solo, this time, using the octave up pedal, and the tapping again, then – song over.

A great, great and sudden ending from Robert, such a concise little wonder of a song – “The Blinding Light of Heaven” indeed.  The Blinding Guitars of Robert, more like.  Now, to David’s version, his mix starts the same way as Robert’s (well it would, wouldn’t it) but again, the stereo on the guitars is better, Sylvian’s guitar has been re-EQ’d a bit, and the sound overall is a bit different, I think Fripp’s guitars may have had some stereo chorus added to brighten them up, otherwise, the vocal is a tiny bit higher, but not criminally so, if anything, Sylvian’s mix features loud, loud guitars, maybe louder than on RF’s mix.

This vocal, this vocal melody, is one of his best, and I think now, finally, you can get a “studio version” of this song, but I haven’t done so yet, because…I love this live version so much, so, very, very much, that I am not sure I want to HEAR any other version.  Great bit in the middle, where the two note Hendrix hammer-on happens again, DS just cranks it up, it’s right before Robert’s even-more-impossible second guitar solo.  And I love that sudden ending – it’s just brilliant!  Great song, great performance – two great mixes, you can’t lose, you really can’t.

TRACK: “THE FIRST DAY”

Finally, we come to “The First Day” which is mainly a vocal piece, with sparse keyboard and soundscape backing, some short, long low distorted notes from Robert, the simple piano melody the perfect backdrop for one of David’s most heartfelt lyrics – the RF mix, was always lovely, and Sylvian’s vocal on this, the way it ties in with Robert’s very careful 2 octave up volume-pedal guitar, David sings “bring out the stars….on the first day” – and after the word “stars”, Fripp plays four descending notes, up high, that parallel the vocal rhythm of “bring out the stars”… and it’s just the perfect moment, it’s why these two work together so well, because ultimately, both of them live to serve the music, to serve the song, and this lovely Sylvian ballad is even nicer than the title track, in my opinion, I love Fripp’s clouds of soundscapes here, and Sylvian’s understated keyboards – both supporting that gorgeous, honeyed voice “on the first day…the first day” – which is a great way to end an album, with a song about the very beginning.

The first verse ends, and a beautiful piano and soundscapes section follows: a frozen moment of pure music, until David’s warm, warm voice comes back to melt the frozen moment, and then – a beautiful, beautiful high register piano sequence, with the most beautiful soundscape in the universe behind it – those little interludes between the verses just knock me out, they are very, very beautiful indeed, and this is truly a “Sylvian-Fripp” song, for me, it really represents the co-operation of two great artists, and Robert’s final, massive, distorted one note ending is simply sublime. And, yes, I have over-used the word “beautiful” in this paragraph, but it was the only way to properly describe it: truly beautiful.

The David Sylvian mix, as always, is a few dbs louder overall, as the entire mix is louder than the original RF mix, and while I suppose that’s “progress”, I am personally a fan of CDs that don’t blast your socks off, this quiet meditative song, isn’t improved by being louder, in fact, my instinct is to turn it down, so it’s closer in level to the RF mix that I just heard, but I refrain, I let it play out at volume, and it’s no less beautiful than Robert’s mix, if truth be told, those musical interludes between the verses are just as beautiful, the vocal is so present, so real, so central to the song, and this beautiful live performance, is yet again captured in this new mix as a beatific moment trapped in time, capturing the spirit with which Robert and David approached this project, as a team brought to life to give this music life, and this song, possibly above all others, is the perfect example of co-operation, bringing only what is necessary for the song to the song.

This mix does sound different, I can hear what must be Michael Brook, making some swooshy sounds with his guitar, that I didn’t really hear in RF’s mix very well, as always, the “guitars” mix in Sylvian’s mix seems to be a bit different, but in a good way.  Since Trey and Pat don’t play on this track, you can hear the two guitars very well indeed, and especially in David’s mix – it sounds really lovely.

One thing I do love about David’s version of “The First Day” that is missing from RF’s version – is the very loud, very long applause that occurs after the end of “The First Day”, a very polite applause, respectful, which for some reason was removed from Fripp’s version – there is just silence after the track ends on RF’s mix.  So it’s nice to hear the audience’s reaction, if for no other reason than to confirm that they saw a similar show to the one I saw, and I get all the confirmation I need from that applause.

CONCLUSIONS AND COMMENTS

For a long, long time, after see Sylvian-Fripp play live, I walked around saying to everyone that seeing Sylvian-Fripp live was almost as good as King Crimson live – blasphemy!! – but in some ways, it really was superior – more human, and, Fripp’s guitar playing is absolutely on form, particularly on the “loud” numbers (i.e. the whole album, basically, since there are really only two or three “quiet” numbers); the quality of the soundscaping is brilliant; and the guitar solos, from the amazing “Darshan (The Road To Graceland)” to “20th Century Dreaming” to “Firepower” to the not-present-on-either-mix “Exposure” – Fripp just excels, and also, the inclusion of earlier Sylvian works, in particular, the sublime “Gone To Earth” album, as well as Fripp’s back catalogue in the form of “Exposure” – that really rounded out the performance – the core of which, was the new material from “The First Day”, but mixing in a Fripp classic like “Exposure” (and, getting to hear David Sylvian SING it !!!), plus a few of the best tracks from “Gone To Earth”, plus, a “Rain Tree Crow” track – what a great set list, totally involving, and featuring an incredibly broad spectrum of truly remarkable music from across the distinguished careers of both David Sylvian and Robert Fripp.

So, it’s odd but interesting to get this David Sylvian “version” of “Damage”, I had no complaints whatsoever about the Fripp original, none, but, in hearing another vision of the album, it’s really fantastic, actually, because David “hears” the vocal mix and the guitars mix, a bit differently to the way Robert “hears” the mix – so you get some fascinating variations of guitars, especially – but in the end, all it means is, I’ve now got two very personal, very brilliant mixes, by two of my favourite musicians of all time, of one of my very favourite live albums EVER.  Normally, you only ever get to hear one version of a live album, so it’s just double the pleasure, if you ask me.

So – a great set of music, if I had to make a complaint, it would be David removing the essential track “Darshan” from his mix – I really don’t get that, unless he was truly unhappy with the track from some strange reason – and for my second and final complaint – the omission from both versions, of the band’s live rendition of Fripp’s “Exposure” – which was a highlight of the live show, at least for me, because I never dreamed in a BILLION TRILLION years that I would see and hear Robert Fripp playing the song “Exposure” – live.  I just – never thought it could happen.

And then, there I was, at the Wiltern Theatre, in Los Angeles, California, 1994, with Bryan Helm of the Dozey Lumps sat beside me, and suddenly, that two note guitar riff started up – and “Exposure” was underway.  So those two “complaints” would be my only criticisms, otherwise, I’d say, if you like this band at all, you should absolutely buy both of these, because for one thing, that’s the best way to get the largest “set” possible, buying both gives you BOTH “Darshan” and “Jean The Birdman” – so it’s well worth the extra expense.

In conclusion, I absolutely enjoyed both mixes enormously, hearing them side by side, I could hear distinct differences, and wonderful similarities, and both Robert and David did an excellent job of representing one of the most amazing concerts I’ve ever seen, on one of those great, unknown live albums, “Damage” for me, is an absolutely brilliant live performance, and now, I can listen to it in two completely excellent mixes – more music, more different viewpoints – a nice addition to the very small “Sylvian-Fripp” section in my CD library – but, very unexpected, I didn’t even KNOW there was a David Sylvian-mixed “Damage” until I noticed it on the Burning Shed website.

A great band, a great performance, and one of my top ten live albums of all time – maybe top five, not sure, as I have never written down my top ten favourite live albums.  Get them both – you won’t be sorry !

 

 

So – bring out the stars…      on the first day

 

on the first day.

“islands” and other extraordinary albums…

I came to the music of King Crimson in a fairly random way, I simply started buying their albums, without any knowledge of their running order, the players on the discs, or anything.

I think the first one I bought was “Red”, which I liked very, very much.  Then, it was “Larks Tongues In Aspic” which had a huge, huge impact on me…and then, I bought “Islands” – which I thought was absolutely terrific, but clearly, cut from a different cloth than my first two acquisitions.  After that, I have no idea what I bought, perhaps “USA” – because it was live – and that was another amazing disc – my gut feeling was, I like everything this band does (but everything this band does, is SO different) – from the remarkable and incredibly jazzy “Lizard” to the heavy prog of “Larks’ Tongues” and on up till the end – the live “USA” disk – strangely, with re-dubbed violins – we never really understood why that was.

Getting these remarkable discs out of order, willy-nilly, was probably as good a way as any to get into the band.  Because it arrived very early in the rotation, “Islands” got played a lot, and I took a huge liking to it’s very honest song craft, with that AMAZING saxophonist (Mel Collins, of course!) as a guitarist, I was allegedly getting into King Crimson because of their remarkable guitarist (Robert Fripp, of course!) but I found myself really liking the bands that played behind Fripp, and not knowing what was going on at all, I could recognise the funky combo that performed on “Islands” as a remarkable working unit – a real band, which was clearly, very, very different to the african percussion and ambient percussion present on “Larks’ Tongues” – I could tell that “Larks’ Tongues” was indeed, by a very different King Crimson than “Islands”.

 

Of course, as time went by, I began to read the history of the band, and began to understand who it was I was listening to, was it the original “King Crimson”; the Crimson of the Big Red Face, that only existed for a mere 11 months, or one of the strange hybrids that followed on “In The Wake of Poseidon” and “Lizard”, finally settling down to a working combo for “Islands”.

And I think like many Crimson fans, I did, in the main, favour the triumvirate of “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic”, “Starless & Bible Black” and “Red”, all with the well-known four piece of Bruford-Cross-Fripp-Wetton, and for “Lark’s Tongues”, it was slightly unique in that it featured a remarkable percussionist who left the band in the middle of their first tour, Jamie Muir.

Once you understand the chronology, it all starts to make some kind of sense, although it’s quite difficult to assimilate the “first four” or the “first five” if you add in the live, and very rare and “Import Only” “Earthbound” which I had to special order from a specialist shop to get.  By then, I had everything else – so “Earthbound” with it’s absolutely searing sax from Mel Collins on “21st Century Schizoid Man”, was the missing link between “the first four” the “last three”, if you will.

It’s interesting, I think, I always call it “the first ten” because that’s the classic package, of the band that existed roughly ftom 1969 thru 1974 and then called it quits.  But if you think about it, Fripp did an unusual thing – he book-ended the two different eras with a live album.

So you get the “first four”:

In The Court of the Crimson King

In The Wake of Poseidon

Lizard

Islands

followed by, with some difficulty, the live album

Earthbound

 

Then you get the “last three”:

Larks’ Tongues In Aspic

Starless & Bible Black

Red

followed by, with some difficulty, the live album

USA

It’s an odd pattern, to say the least. Four studio albums, one very rare and hard to obtain live album, three more studio albums, followed by a brilliant live album.

 

That’s my classic “first 10” and for many years, that was all we had – the only other live material available was on expensive and shoddy bootlegs, and you were never quite sure about the information on such records, was it really at that venue?  Was it really on that day?

Then, Fripp introduced the beautifully-covered “A Young Person’s Guide To King Crimson” which gave us a lot of answers, it had an amazing booklet in it, where every gig the band ever did was listed by city and date – so that became our Bible, the only reliable, Fripp-produced list of gigs – and it was a really nice compilation, too, containing a rare demo version of one of their earliest tracks, “I Talk To The Wind” that featured Fairport Convention vocalist Judy Dyble on vocals – who was at that time, the girlfriend of one Ian McDonald.

It was a lovely compilation otherwise, a beautiful piece of artwork, but musically it didn’t present anything much that was new – it was definitely a look back.

So I guess that is the eleventh disk of my “original ten” if you will.

Once King Crimson reformed a few times, and Fripp started releasing better-quality bootlegs of the band, the full picture of King Crimson came sharply into focus.  I could revel in any number of remarkable “Islands” bands shows, including one where they actually play the title track, something they very, very rarely ever did.  I could hear this very funky quintet (the firth member being lyricist Peter Sinfield, who operated the VCS3 from the soundboard) and Ian Wallace’s mighty VCS3-altered drum solo became a huge highlight of the tours.

The “Islands” band was literally a group that could play from a whisper to a scream, Mel would put away his saxes, and play the flute, ever so beautifully and gently, and vocalist Boz would sing lovely Crimson ballads from the first four albums with real intent – I love his live performances of these classics such as “Lady of the Dancing Water” or “Cadence and Cascade” – Fripp disavows them, he felt that Boz was not a good singer for the quiet pieces; but that he excelled on the rocking ones – my own opinion was the exact opposite, I’m afraid.  Sure, I love to hear this band roar through “Schizoid Man” or “Pictures Of A City” as much as the next guy, but when they turned down, and Fripp consulted his personal dictionary of tasty jazz guitar chords – Boz could do no wrong, if you ask me.

So after only having “Earthbound” to represent the music of the “Islands” band, for many, many years, it was a huge deal to suddenly be able to either buy CDs of their live shows, and / or downloads – a huge deal, because the limited view of what they were capable of “live” given to us by “Earthbound” could finally be laid to rest, and we learned very quickly that this band was a stomping, kicking beast of a rocker, but it was also capable of incredible, gentle beauty, as found in the two quiet tracks I mention above, along with rarities like the live version of “Islands” itself, which is an incredibly brilliant rendition of a truly beautiful song, and features even better guitar than on the studio version.  Why they removed it from the running order so quickly, I will never understand, because it was so incredibly beautiful.

I would, at a guess, think that it might have been an issue with having just two mellotrons to try and recreate the orchestral mood of the studio track, but I think they do a splendid job, with an improved guitar part, and a great vocal from Boz, too.  Again – RF has said that Boz “did not convince” on the ballads – but I do disagree, I think he had a beautiful voice for both rock and ballads alike, and that his voice was a godsend – he was the perfect lead singer for that band.

In any case, they may have stopped playing “Islands” live after just a few attempts at it, but they did continue to play ballads at almost every show, and some of those recordings are incredibly beautiful – because Fripp carries the tracks with his incredible, concise guitar arrangements, while Mel just plays really beautiful flute solos and the rhythm section plays quietly and accurately – it’s really about Fripp’s guitar and Boz’s vocal (and bass playing too, I should add).

So if you do get a chance to pick up some of the live CDs by this band, I highly recommend that you find ones that include a ballad.

Back in 1978, or whenever it was – out of an entirely random series of purchases, I would buy a new Crimson record each week, I somehow fell in love with “Islands” because, perhaps, it was so, so strange, with the incredibly jet-lagged guitar solo from “Ladies of the Road” to Fripp’s vibrant harmonium playing on the title track.  This album also includes one song that the band never did perform live, because it was an orchestral piece written by Fripp to serve as an instrumental introduction to the final piece on the album, the title track – so what you hear is first, “The Song of the Gulls” which is orchestral/instrumental, followed by the vocal piece “Islands” which, I should add, contains one of Peter Sinfield’s most beautiful lyrics ever – I love all of his lyrics on “the first four” – but I have a special place in my heart for the lyrics to the “Islands” album in general, and the song “Islands” in particular – it’s truly beautiful imagery, and Boz’ gentle, quiet delivery makes the lyrics hit home so hard, just really gently and beautifully sung – there’s no other song quite like it in the Crimson canon.

It is, after all, the end of an era, because Earthbound, while it does have an outrageous version of “21st Century Schizoid Man” on it, is somewhat of a disappointment – it’s not in my top ten concerts by the “Islands” band.

I think it must have been an almost random selection, let’s just pick an “average” show, one of those ones where Mel is really kicking ass – and that’s what they did.

But – there is a lot more depth and beauty to be found, if you explore the world of live shows now available from this band – in particular, I recommend the earliest shows, where they have literally just come from the studio, and the songs much more, resemble the album versions, whilst over time, they began to stray wildly from the original forms, so if you want to experience the truest approximation of a perfect Islands band live show – stick with the earliest shows – the double CD at Brighton springs to mind as a good one, but you really can’t go wrong.

Even “Earthbound” has it’s positive moments.

For me, it was really, really nice to see King Crimson not once, but three times on their most recent tour of Britain and Europe, and to see that thanks no doubt to the ministrations of young Jakko Jakszyk, that Robert has indeed, made his peace with this record that at one point, he didn’t want to think about or look at every again.

So much so, that they now play two tracks from the record live, which is an astonishing and almost impossible feat – I couldn’t believe my own luck, I was not only going to see King Crimson play repertoire from across their career(s) but I was going to hear them play two songs from Islands as well – “Sailor’s Tale” and “The Letters” – and for me, that really felt like full closure – both Ian Wallace and Boz Burell have passed away, but Fripp in this way remembers them – and brings their amazing music to King Crimson fans via the 2015 incarnation of the band.  I think that is absolutely brilliant!  And the other player from the Islands band – is IN the new band, and it’s so, so lovely to hear Robert and Mel playing together again – Mel is an incredibly gifted player, and having him in the band has been absolutely brilliant.

I think that everyone knows and loves “In The Court Of The Crimson King” but then after that, doesn’t really know how to form an opinion of the band that made those next three records – “In The Wake”, “Lizard” and “Island” – each with different singers, different musicians, where only Fripp is the constant.

If we set aside the legendary first incarnation of King Crimson, and look at what happened afterwards – how the band changed in the studio – but that last incarnation, with Boz being taught how to play bass bv rote by Robert – he was originally just their singer – they couldn’t find a bass player – so he became the bass player! – they got it right, and the album they made, in 1971, still stands up today as an odd masterpiece of jazzy, blowing prog like no other.  if you are not familiar with “Islands” – I cannot recommend it more highly – in some ways, it’s my favourite King Crimson album.

It moves between so many moods, the lyrics are outstanding, there are great guitar parts and guitar solos, there are great sax and flute solos – the combination of Robert Fripp and Mel Collins, both of them mellotron-playing soloists – was a very dangerous one, and one that created a remarkable record with an incredible edge – “Islands”.  The record then travels through chaos until you reach the last two tracks on side two, when peace and beauty are restored in an incredible way – a truly gorgeous way.

 

 

 

“Islands hold hands, ‘neath heaven’s seas…..”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the making of an epic prog rock “monsterpiece” – part two

So – the stage is literally set, I’ve at this point, got the majority of seven months’ of work behind me…

My last blog, recounted the first seven months of the project in a fair amount of detail – that was part one – but here in part two, we are looking at the final few days of work – the last four or five days in December, 2015 – that’s our “part two”:

 

The drums and bass have been locked down (except for final level setting, of course) for many months.

The keyboards are all locked down, and the intricate middle section has been completed, encompassing acoustic guitars, birdsong, ipad, and ambient electric guitars (the infamous “Hackett Guitars” – courtesy of the new Eventide H9 multi effects unit – that occur just before the second half of the song re-enters).

All that is left is – more work (on the second half only, after the new “middle section”) with the guitars, a few needing solos, and a few, needing some rhythm guitars.

I decided to use some of the extraordinary sounds from the Eventide H9 multi-effects unit, which only arrived in the final days of work on the song, so using it as my main guitar effects unit, that enabled me to do, for example, the ambient “Hackett Guitars”, as well as some of the rhythm and lead guitar work in the final section during “part two” – so I would characterise “part one” as being the main build of the song, plus, the first part of the guitar overdubs; while “part two” is two things, finishing touches – all done on guitar – and mixing, mixing, and more mixing.

I had originally thought that I would play a series of different guitar solos over the second half of the mix, but things happen…plans change.  And in this case, it was one of those weird accidents that you just can’t deny, that you have to go with – because you hear it, and the sound of it just says to you, you know it in your heart: “you know this is the right thing”.

I sat down to play the first of many solos, which, by my cunning plan, would have filled the end of the main track from the end of the middle section to the end of the song, bit by bit, a short burst of one guitar sound, a short burst of the next, and so on. The first solo, was to be an ebow solo.  So I got a nice sound for the ebow from the H9, and started making takes.

But what happened was something I never expected, as the track kept playing, after the section I was overdubbing – I kept going, I kept playing after the first section went past…and then the next, and then the next…and suddenly, I could hear the very end of the song approaching – so I went for a crazy, major key ascending scale that could not possibly fit at the very end of a really, really LONG ebow solo – and of course, almost as if it had planned that way – it fit just right, ending right alongside the existing “fast-Leslie” organ solo…

I listened back, astonished – because I never meant to play right through, I hadn’t imagined finishing the entire track with one very long, multi-key energy bow guitar solo – but that is exactly what happened.  At first, I thought, well, this creates a problem – what do I do?  How can I play different sections of lead guitar now, with this really nice solo filling up the entire second half of the track?

The answer, of course, was “you no longer need to”.  So instead of doing piecemeal solos, using different guitar sounds, etc. (as I did in the first half, as planned…) the second half now features one long, long ebow solo (which, to be fair, is actually in five sections, edited down from the best three takes – but if I had not told you that, you would not have known – it sounds like one solo – well, it is one solo, just, from the best three takes!) – it was quite a feat of editing, but editing ebow solos is one of the most amazing procedures out there, because – well, because a recorded ebow sounds, looks and acts like a pure sine wave, fading it in and out is never an issue, at a microscopic level (zoomed) or even at a normal level (not zoomed) and “switching” from one solo to another, from one take to another rather, at any point, is almost always very easy, because the notes are usually quite long, and, whether they are long or short, they have distinct silences in between – the perfect space to switch between take 1 and take 3, for example.

The editing task then was not that difficult, but I did spend quite a lot of time on it, as I wanted this final solo to really bring the whole piece together, and once I got used to it – I realised that it was the best idea all along – because it’s the only opportunity, really, for a nice long guitar solo – and there is nothing on earth like a nice long ebow solo – it’s the best! – so…I took that opportunity.  Accidentally “on purpose” 🙂

So while unintentional – that “accident”, of me just carrying on playing that ebow solo, not stopping when I should have – going on and on to the very end of the song – changed the whole planned character of the second half of the song, and gave me a glorious, long and lovely ebow solo to take us out to the final moments of the song.

I did some work with panning towards the end of the piece – I boosted the level of the existing “fast Leslie” organ solo to match the ebow solo better, and I gradually moved it from the centre to one side of the stereo image, while at the same time, in the opposite direction, I gradually moved the ebow solo to the opposite side of the stereo image, so it moves from being a homogeneous centralised pair of instruments at the beginning of the second half, to two distinct instruments, one on either side of you – and I love that slow, slow stereo spread of the two solos – it works for me.  In headphones, it’s very nice indeed.  On speakers, you might not really notice it as much, but it’s an important point – I wanted the solos to end, with them split, one hard left, the other hard right – and that is indeed, what I ended up with.

I think at that point, I breathed a huge, huge sigh of relief – because, except for a very few finishing touches – this long ebow solo meant that the song was “DONE”!!  At long, long last, and just before the year ended, too – it had always been my goal to complete the song in 2015, to allow it to then become, pureambient’s first release in 2016.  So I am happy to report that I did indeed, with just hours to spare, meet that goal.

So – what finishing touches? Well, I added in a few rhythm guitars, where I felt that solos needed some chord-based support, but overall, there is not a lot of rhythm playing in this song – being a prog song, all of the players (i.e., me, lol) love to play solos, they all think that they are master of their own instrument – so you have a whole band full of soloists!

But the lead guitarist (again, that’s Dave Stafford, lead guitar), can be, and did indeed, allow himself to be persuaded that some rhythm guitars (well, more than he had originally done or planned for, anyway!) would not go amiss.  One of those rhythm guitar parts, a simple chord played once and left to ring, for four bars, sounds nothing like a guitar, but rather, some mellifluous dream electric piano from the stars…a beautiful H9-produced sound.

I added some lovely chords in the second half of the piece, using the H9 to get some beautiful new clean sounds (and the modulation section of the H9 is simply the best – better than any effects unit or software I have ever owned – it is the best, for those of us who cannot possibly, ever, afford an “Axe-FXII” – this is just as good or better!) so I am really pleased with the last few guitar contributions – because the H9 makes them sound really, really good!

I also realised that so far, I had not woven any reverse guitar into the fabric of the song, and I love reverse guitar – I’d always meant to do a reverse solo – but I hadn’t done any so far in the song (a huge oversight, surely!) – I mean, come on, this is prog – so in the style of King Crimson circa 1970, I thought of “Prince Rupert’s Lament” (or rather, the “Lizard” suite) I decided I would add some reverse guitars in that style, clean and nice – so – how could I now incorporate it?  Where there is a will, there is a way – I recorded a few different takes of reverse guitar (again, courtesy of the remarkable H9 pedal) and then mixed them into the closing section of the song.

That took some getting used to, in fact, all of the changes to the second half took me some time to acclimate to, because for so long, it had just been, you know, drums, bass, keyboards, mellotron.  No guitars.  No rhythm guitar.  No reverse guitars.  So the second half evolved, and the more I worked on it, the happier I felt – I really felt good about this piece of music, and despite how long it took, and the many, many long hours and long days I had to put in to get it there (the weeks spent on the drums and bass alone ate up the first two months!!!) and there were times when I thought – “I am never going to get to play the guitars on this song….never!” – but, the day finally did come, at the end of November actually, and I really went into it with a happy heart – finally, I am working out guitar parts, to go with the long, long-existing bass, organ and mellotron parts.

Playing guitar along to the finished backing track was an absolute joy, and I could just jam along to almost any of the sections, because I know them so, so well by this point – I could just about have played the guitar parts LIVE really, once I’d rehearsed them.

I did go back, too, and “try again” on some of the toughest solos – I spent one entire day, “seeing if I could do better” – and in almost every case, I found that I could, so I ended up with some very natural sounding, very “live” guitar solos – where previously, in the initial final mixes (I know, that sounds odd, but, it’s the only way to describe it) I had kinda, pieced together some of the more difficult guitar parts.  No more, though – now, they are played live, as are most of the solos – the final ebow being the one exception to that – but, it’s very, very long, and it’s not likely that anyone could play for that long, without some imperfections – so I did have to fix a few touchy moments in the long solo.

Mostly, the guitar parts kinda “wrote themselves”: there were areas where they simply join the bass for a ride-along; and other areas where they do not, but instead, they mesh or interact with the bass – and there are some spectacular bass v. guitar “battles” in the first half of the song that could not have come out better had they been planned (and, they were NOT planned – it just worked out that way – when I added the guitar parts, the bassist was RIGHT THERE, answering me – it was amazing! – the guitar would play a riff, and suddenly, there was the bass, ripping off a super quick “tiny-space”-filling-run, at impossible speed (that’s our bass player, Dave Stafford, again!) – and it sounded like both the guitar and the bass had always been there, that the interaction was totally planned and totally natural…when in fact, it was yet another “happy accident” – but the joy that it brought me the first time I heard it play back – wow! Listen to THAT, was well worth it – the guitars and the basses are totally working together, playing off each other as if it’s a live track!

Sometimes, you are very, very fortunate.  I was really fortunate with the way that the final overdubs, the lead guitars worked with the drums, worked with the bass, worked with the organ, and worked with the mellotron – and in fact, the mellotron came and went with the eeriest perfection – perfect timing every time, arriving right when I needed it.  As if they knew what the guitar parts would be (when I clearly, did not!).

I think then, that the reverse guitars were the last significant thing that was actually played on the track; after that, the last two or three days of December, 2015, were spent on the final mix, which I sorted of re-built from scratch – I’d had a “working mix” the entire time, but rather than just carry that forward and build in the new parts, I decided to create a brand new, fresh mix, which gave me the opportunity for example, to ensure that the bass and the drums, could compete with the masses of guitars, and the intense keyboard and mellotron washes – I wanted to be able to hear everything as clearly as possible (obviously!).

Getting a nice clean mix when there are this many instruments can be tricky, but I just approached each one, first, separately, and then, in relation to the other instruments, until I reached a point where I felt happy with everything.

I also stripped out a lot of “individual” reverbs and other effects that I had quickly thrown on during production, and consolidated them in the output section – I created a full set of additional stereo bus outputs, so that every set of instruments had an overall level control, and, consistent, high quality, reverbs and effects – made at the output stage rather than connected directly to the track.

Certain tracks that were created early on, were just too complex to move to a bus, so I left them alone with their track-specific sounds – in one case, a complex arrangement of Waves GTR and Waves Stereo ADT – used for an extremely strange “guitar” track that slowly, slowly fades in during the first quarter of the song.  That was left alone, along with the bass which was sent out directly without any effects whatsoever – I wanted it to be dead clean.

I didn’t mess with the drums too much, either, I probably would have (I do love adding phase shifters to hi-hat and cymbal hits and similar…), but I didn’t want to add another two months to an already somewhat overly long-production schedule!  So I kept it to some bespoke panned sections (which I really, really like, because they appear so seldom!), and just little touches – the drum track is pretty basic, and the bass is just bass – in this case, the tone of the Scar-bee Rickenbacker is so perfect, I couldn’t see putting any effects whatsoever on it – so – it’s dry and clean!

So really, mixing was quite easy, mainly because I was so, so familiar with all of the component tracks, and with the individual stereo buses for guitars, organ, mellotron, bass, drums – getting relative levels was easy!  I had expected an agony of mixing hell – and the song surprised me – maybe because to some extent, I kept it simple (well, simple when compared to something like “wettonizer” (taken from the newest eternal album, the first of 2016, “progressive rock” by Dave Stafford), I suppose!).

Note: “wettonizer” was originally included on the gone native CD (which is still available) and download, but is now also available on the brand new 2016 eternal album collection “progressive rock” – alongside the brand new track “the complete unknown”.  This is comprised of a set of prog songs taken from gone native, along with  “the complete unknown”.

The very last part of the song, after that energy bow climbs up to the top of that unlikely major scale, and then SLAMS down into reverb with an odd but lovely sound of wonderful completion, the song then almost comes to a halt, the keyboards are pretty much all that is playing, until suddenly, the Rickenbacker bass and the Hammond organ, join the drums for their final flourish – and then, a long, pure bass note is held, to remind us I think, of purity, of the beauty of just one note – and then, the drummer plays a few bars of precision military snare roll, and the long bass note and the snare drum, disappear forever into the complete unknown…the song is over.

I really, really enjoyed myself on this project, my only regret is that by becoming so involved in it, I was really unable to work on much of anything else, so other areas of my music suffered.  But that will change in 2016, I have an enormous amount of new music in the planning stages, including still more eternal albums on Bandcamp, and I hope to present more musical material, both old and new, in various formats, including hopefully, a return to video as well as audio only work.

We shall see!  But in the meantime, if you fancy a bit of old-style progressive rock, this could be the 17 minute long song for you – “the complete unknown”.  Give it a listen – it will take you right back to 1974…

 

Peace, Love and Groovy Mellotrons,

 

 

dave

pureambient hq

january 17th, 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the making of an epic prog rock “monsterpiece” – part one

on may 31, 2015, I sat down at my computer, and built an empty folder set for a new music project.  at first, it was named something like “20150531-01-komplete-unknown”, meaning, to work on a piece within the komplete application, content, unknown – but within a few days, it had grown to the point where I amended the name, because it seemed like such an obvious answer to a question that so far, no one had asked, namely, “what is the name of this song?” – obviously, it was – “the complete unknown”.

so the folder got renamed, and now it bears the name “20150531-01-komplete-unknown-thecompleteunknown” and that was it – I was away.

I loaded up komplete with four vintage keyboards – and I officially began my journey – a journey I am still very much on today – into the complete unknown – via “the complete unknown”.

I spent a few days, working out a piece for keyboards, that would work well as a “keys-only” intro to the song, I wanted it to have a fantastical, classically-based and with a serious feel to it, and then, after say, after a minute or two, the bass and drums would enter…I could just about imagine it all.  I could just about hear the song in my head…

I struggled mightily with my serious keyboard intro, overdubbing many different takes of many different keyboard voices playing the notes that I had chosen.  the entire piece was done manually – no sequencers were used, and it meant that I had to play a pretty tricky part, manually, over and over and over again, until it was just right.

Eventually though, I was happy with my little intro composition, and musically – it set the stage for the “song proper” – I was very happy with the way this short piece of quasi-classical keyboard music turned out, and I was extremely thrilled with the sounds of the vintage keyboards, which were all of course, courtesy of komplete.  the intro was complete – and I was thrilled!

note/the details: for the record, there were just four instruments (not six as I erroneously remembered and stated elsewhere – four, not six) used in the creation of the keyboard “intro”, which were:

dave stafford, vintage keyboards quartet:

soniccouture bowed piano X

soniccouture broken wurli – init (my own settings)

soniccouture novachord – novasynth init (my own settings)

soniccouture ondes martenot – poly ondes init (my own settings)

these four tracks were then mixed and mastered, with just reverb added to give it a big room sound – a completely “finished” piece of music which could then just be “dropped in” in front of where the bass and the drums make their grand entrance.

so, with the intro safely under my belt, it was now time for the active “core” of the song to be built, and as tradition has it, it started like all structured pieces in the rock world start – with a drum track, and a bass overdub of that drum track.  but I didn’t want just any rhythm section, I wanted a section with the skill of a powerful but wild drummer, I needed my own Andy Ward on drums, or maybe I’d borrow Marillion’s rhythm section…I wasn’t sure.

then – Chris Squire passed away, during the first few weeks of work on the song, so I thought a lot about Chris, and how Chris played the bass (and what a huge influence his playing had on me as a 15 year old guitarist who loved progressive music in 1973!), and it had a huge influence on the bass part in the song.  so the drums came from me – my own vision of a series of prog beats that run nearly continuously for 14 minutes or so…but when it came time to do the second overdub, the bass, it was all about emulating the God of Prog Bass Playing, the late, great Chris Squire.

If I was very lucky, I could get a sound like Chris’ and maybe “play” as well as Marillion‘s bassist 🙂 because no one, except perhaps Wetton or Lake, can emulate Chris – Chris has an incredible and very unique bass tone and style.

I also spent a lot of time on the drum part, I fleshed it out in the very first session, but it took many more sessions, to really get it into shape, to feel happy with the sounds, to add interesting fills, to use different variations of the beat, and there are even some special sections that I did by hand rather than by sequencer – and by the way, the drums (or drum machine, I should say – komplete again) is the only sequenced instrument in the piece – all others were really played by me – with one odd exception – the bass part, was played by me, but on the keyboard. It was not sequenced, I played every riff, every fill, two different bass solos – I really played those.

The same goes for all of the keyboard parts in the main part of the song, as well as the guitars – all of those are real as well.  I’ve never learned to play the drums, so, the best quality sampled drums in the world, will have to do!

The drum track took a few weeks to perfect, but the bass part – well, I laid down something to begin with, a bit at a time, a section at a time – but then, I was never satisfied, it sounded good, but it didn’t yet sound amazing – so I started doing a lot of work on the bass – I fashioned a quite wild bass solo near the end of the first half of the song, in the key of C major no less, but an awesomely fun solo to write and play.

I worked on the bass for quite a long, long time, and eventually, I felt completely happy with it – and I still do.  Now that I am laying guitars on top of drums, bass, organ, and mellotron – when I add a guitar part, and I hear the bass come up “in between” – I just have to smile, because it’s as if the “bass player” is responding to the guitarist, or, the other way around – and that’s an awesome thing for a piece that isn’t actually played live.

I am extremely pleased with the rhythm section, I spent far too much time on it, but, it was worth it, and the keyboard parts practically played themselves, because the bass and drums were so together.

 

So this is where it began – at least, the active part of the song, back during June and July this year. The first mixes then, were of nothing but the intro, plus the bass and drums – with no other ornamentation whatsoever.  I must have listened to this song, with just intro, bass and drums, dozens of times, whilst first, trying to perfect the drum track, and then later, trying to perfect the bass part.  That took even longer than the drums to perfect – but in the end, I feel truly happy with the results – and I am actually, especially proud of the bass part – it rocks.  It’s full of surprises, and I love where it takes the song – and, later, how it interacts with both the keyboards and the lead guitars – it’s excellent.

note/the details: the rhythm section looks like this:

drums: dave stafford – drum programming and manual playing of drum samples

abbey road modern drummer, alternative rock, “rage” setting changed from 98 bpm – sped up to 140 bpm

bass: dave stafford – performed on keyboard, inspired by the late Chris Squire

scarbee rickenbacker bass – neck pickup DI – direct injection

as the Scottish summer drew quickly to an end, at the end of july, I had a brainstorm – I would bring the introductory keyboard quartet, back in at the VERY END of the piece, to bring complete closure to the piece – no matter where it went during the 14 minutes in the middle, the sound and the melodies at the beginning and the end, were now tied together perfectly – and I was really glad of this decision, because some really good musical events came out of that decision, later.

I faded up the intro “in progress”, during the last long rock section of the drums and bass track, and I managed, after a couple of tries, to sync it up completely with the drum track – and eventually, unintentionally, I played a leslie’d organ solo over the top of it – and soon, it just sounded like it had been there the whole time.

then the time came, to work on the main body of the song, and add in a lot of supporting musical information – bearing in mind, that the drums and bass were complete, including a lot of very in your face, bright, Rickenbacker bass riffs, and, one very avant garde bass solo, and another quasi-solo later on – so those were now reduced, frozen and “carved in stone”.

so atop my finished drum and bass part, I began to add keyboards, beginning with the oldest progressive rock standby, the Hammond organ.  I really felt it was essential, to have chords and melodies on the Hammond, and, solos from the Hammond, because it’s such a very, very “prog” sound – it really cuts through the mix, and when playing chords, it’s so supportive with basses and guitars aloft on top of it.

So I worked on Hammond parts, using just one basic, straight sound, but varying it, by using the mod wheel on my M-Audio keyboard, to “speed up” and “slow down” the leslie effect – which is one of the finest things about sampled organs, done Komplete style – you get truly perfect sounding leslie effects, and I played every part as live as possible, using the mod wheel while I played, to speed up and slow down the effect – I had a blast.  There is one epic solo in the first half, and another accidental one at the end, with the leslie set to “fast” – a sound not usually used that much, but it sounds great, as the song proper fades away, to have this final organ solo with the “fast leslie” sound going – it’s really nice.

after I had added all of the organ parts, where I followed whatever key signature was stated by what the bass player was doing (I had injected several key changes when creating the bass part), and I was happy with both the organ sound, and the content – and the solos – I then moved on to the mellotron parts, which I used sparingly to try and give them more mystique.  I felt that using them throughout would be too obvious, and where the Hammond does sound great playing right through, you really want the occasional swath of a mellotron wandering in when you least expect it – that’s prog to me!

so – two separate mellotron tracks, using very simple, very pure mellotron sounds (nothing fancy, just the very basic strings and flute sounds) most of the time, it’s just mellotron strings, or, just mellotron flute and very, very occasionally – I allowed both – so you get a really full sound there, with drums, bass, Hammond organ, string mellotron and flute mellotron.  The string mellotrons became the backdrop for some really cool guitar sections later on, while the flute mellotrons were more taking on the melody, or in one case, as harmony, so they worked out very, very well indeed.

the mellotron parts went more quickly than the Hammond parts had, in part, because by this time, I knew how the chords went, and I just “knew” what the mellotrons should do – and they did it, beautifully.  Here I sit, several months later, and I am now marvelling at how they sound in support of some of the new guitar overdubs – they provide the perfect backdrop for lead guitars!

note/the details – the keyboard “section”

dave stafford, hammond B3 emulation

Komplete Vintage Organs – classic rock, Hammond B3 tonewheel emulation – preset  “j’taime” – leslie effect applied in real time with mod wheel during performances

dave stafford, mellotron strings

M-Tron Pro – Mellotron – Mark II Vintage Violins Basic

dave stafford, mellotron flutes

M-Tron Pro – Mellotron – Flutes Basic

so at this stage, after several months, of slow, patient work, I had a fairly complete song (no pun intended) with a full drum part, a full bass part, organ chords, organ solos, mellotron strings, mellotron flutes, plus the four vintage keyboards that inhabit both the intro and the outro…so, the time had come to deal with the “middle eight”.

the next idea I had, really, really changed things – I decided to cut the piece in half, and create an acoustic guitar interlude – in my mind, something like the live acoustic guitar interludes that Gentle Giant used to have during their concerts in support of the “Octopus” album – but in practice, what I came up with is much more dave stafford / guitar craft than gentle giant.

so – I split the track at a place where the drums were silent anyway (I had intentionally left a blank space in the song, with no bass or drums, knowing ahead of time that I wanted to split it in half), so it was easy to do – and I created an un-timed gap between the end of Part A and the resumption of Part B – with absolutely no idea what was to “go there” except I knew I wanted acoustic guitars.  what eventually ended up there – exceeded my wildest expectations of that time.

I managed to transition from the full song by bringing in two acoustic guitar leads almost simultaneously, playing two melodies which transition the song from “full band” to acoustic guitar duo / trio, and then the acoustic guitar section is off – the whole thing was played on my Ovation Balladeer, which is a not-quite-satisfactory replacement for my ailing Ovation Legend, which is no longer made.  In any case, the Balladeer did well enough, and I managed to get some very nice tones out of it’s pickup – it sounds good on recordings, in any case.

I had just a few notions about what the acoustic guitars should play, I had a little melody that I sub-consciously “borrowed” from Tales From Topographic Oceans, I play that melody a few times, and then suddenly, the rhythm of the piece changes, and there is another tiny section – and then, the magic happens – the third section, completely unrehearsed, came from nowhere – a slow, beautiful, simple chord progression, with a stately, played with the fingers-rather-than-the-plectrum lead part that just surprised the holy shirt out of me.  I am so, so pleased with this little piece of music, it doesn’t last long, but, it’s one of the loveliest melodies I’ve come up with to date, and I am really pleased and proud of this little miniature acoustic suite.

But then – then, a few weeks later, I had an idea – I would add bird songs into the piece, in stereo – during the most moving parts of the guitar solo.  I added several different species, recorded directly from an app on my ipad, some on the right channel, some in mono / centre, and some on the left – little bursts of different birds including the iconic british blackbird (because you know from the Beatles / White Album that they will sound good!)

The end result was astonishing – it made this already excellent part so relaxing, so natural – it just was the perfect little addition to the piece – I was so surprised and so amazed at what something like that can do to a piece of music – it naturalises it – if you know what I mean.

Then – for contrast, I followed the three acoustic guitar sections with some strange TC-11 synth sounds on the iPad – a solo and a looped piece, which worked very nicely as a contrast to the guitars, and leading back towards the song proper.  Several weeks later, I acquired a new synth on my ipad, the Poseidon Synth, and it had this really amazing sound that included the sound of human voices, so I tried replacing my original TC-11 parts with the Poseidon Synth, playing two stereo takes.

It was good, but, even better, when I added the original back in, and I realised that they both sounded good, and they sounded good together – so I left the old parts in, and added in the new synth part care of the Poseidon Synth – a really nice ios synth.

For quite a while, that was then tied to a drum riff, that led back into the second half of the song.  But then, I decided just a few days ago, that I was not happy with that transition, and I wanted something else.  After trying a very thrashy, sort of Steve Howe at his most dissonant Koass Guitar part, I discarded that, and set about making the exact opposite of that – something very, very melodic and beautiful…

This final part of the “middle section” is known as the “Hackett Guitars” section, which was made entirely with one electric guitar and the Eventide H9, two takes of guitar chords strummed finger-style, in a classical or flamenco fashion, but more reminiscent of a piece from the final sections of Genesis‘ “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” (the bit just before “The Light Dies Down On Broadway”, I think) so two gently but forcefully finger-strummed “Hackett” guitars, plus one reverse guitar solo – all of them drenched in luscious Eventide reverb. It turned out beyond my wildest dreams, a simple, beautiful section of music. Prog should be a mix of some dissonant and more melodic parts (or so it seems to me).

And with that, that brings us to what I consider to be “Part Two” of the song, which I will (eventually) describe in my next blog, in the New Year.  The “Hackett Guitars” section was the perfect vehicle to bring the middle section to a satisfactory completion, and a perfect way to merge back with the main part of the song – the resumption of the second part where I’d originally cut the piece in half.

Thats where we’ll go next time, then.  I will see you there!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

King Crimson – Tivoli Vredenburg, Utrecht, Holland – 20150924

For the third and final of our “three of a perfect pair” (see how I did that – effortlessly!) we went slightly further afield, and for me, seeing King Crimson playing on European soil, in Holland, in 2015 – was not only very, very surreal, but it brings a nice sense of closure for me over time. Three gigs, in three countries, and for us, in many ways, the Tivoli show was the best.

I never saw the 1969, 1971 or 1972-1974 King Crimson line-ups, for me, I started out with another “three of a perfect pair”, all which took place in San Diego, California (where I lived at the time) during the first half of the 1980s:

November 22, 1981 – UCSD Gymnasium, University Of San Diego Campus

August 10, 1982 – Fox Theatre, San Diego

June 8, 1984 – SDSU Ampitheatre, San Diego State University

(eleven years pass)

then, as a sort of strange Crimson interlude, I saw a pair of live performance by the redoubtable “double trio” during the mid-90s:

June 28 1995 – Symphony Hall, San Diego, CA

July 30, 1996 – Summer Pops Bowl Park (where finally, I got to hear “Schizoid Man” live at last!!).

(a non-descript outdoor venue where I handed out flyers to the concert-goers for Mark – and in return, got a DGM T -shirt!).

(nineteen years pass)

which then brings us to the three current 2015 shows we’ve just completed, with the September 24th, 2015 performance in Utrecht still ringing in my ears…

this show was different in a number of very significant ways, from the two UK shows we’d seen on September 14th and 17th, and we found it very enjoyable because we were much farther back in the venue, this time, up pretty high in the stalls, but it’s a beautifully-built , steep-seated theatre – so no matter how high up you are, you aren’t really that far away from the stage.

but, that actually meant that we could hear the band better, and. hear the bass a bit better, and the overall sound mix was “best” for us, out of the three shows:

September 14, 2015 – Symphony Hall,  Birmingham, England

September 17, 2015 – Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland

September 24, 2015 – Tivoli Vredenburg, Utrecht, Holland

but I am getting ahead of myself…

the Utrecht show began as all shows did, with the eiree, dissonant Robert Fripp Soundscape playing for perhaps fifteen minutes prior to show time; people were slowly finding their seats in the lovely, intimate theatre which was apparently bereft of any staff whatsoever, since there were no ushers of any kind in sight. we found our seats well ahead of time, but as we approached the later European start time of 20:00, a curious thing happened.

the Soundscape faded down briefly.  Then, a lone spotlight picked out RF’s “Lunar Module” rack mount rig and empty guitar stool, the theatre dark save for the strangely lit “Fripp” area.  Then the Soundscape returned, up to full volume again…and another wait of perhaps ten minutes this time (all the while, with that oddly lit Fripp guitar stool and guitar kit still bathed in that bright, bright spotlight), ending when the band finally emerged onto the stage.  This strange combination of Soundscape and the spotlight on the work area of the band’s leader, seemed to be saying something, but I wasn’t quite sure what.  Perhaps “this is where Soundscapes come from”, I don’t know.

so this was a bit of a different start to the show, the UK shows started earlier (at 19:30) and were a bit more on time, here in Utrecht, we started at a more Continental hour, and the band were a bit fashionably late. From our bird’s eye viewpoint this time, we could see well and hear the band really well indeed, and sonically, this show was the clear winner of the three shows we attended – they sounded fantastic.

the set opener remains unchanged, and as I never dreamed I would ever, ever, in a million years, see King Crimson playing “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part I” live, hearing it for the third and final time for this year (this MONTH!!) was something that I really enjoyed, the new arrangement is fantastic and I particularly like the drum parts and the way the two guitars divided up the work, a fantastic song and it just keeps getting better each time.  to a lesser extent than previously, we still had some difficulty at some times, in hearing Tony’s bass or stick, but apparently this is a fairly common issue at all of the shows (or so I have heard, anyway).

it could simply be the placement of the two lines, front and back, and the front line is quite loud….so that may well make things difficult for poor Tony, located as he is with four fairly loud objects encircling him: Mel, Pat, Bill and Jakko.

that may be part of the problem, or it could just be that Pat’s drum kit simply overpowers the bass from time to time, I am not really certain why the level of the bass does seem to be an ongoing issue – we noted it at all three venues we saw shows at, but it had definitely improved by he time we reached Utrecht. From high up, and this time, we were on Fripp’s side of the stage – things sounded good.

at Birmingham (Sept 14th), we were on the left side, sort of in front of Mel and Pat but off to the left; in Edinburgh (Sept. 17th), we were in the fourth row directly in front of Pat, so being both on the far opposite side, and being both “back” and “up”, meant that the Utrecht (Sept. 24th) show sounded different.  There was noticeably more Gavin Harrison in our mix. And we could hear Robert more clearly, being on his side of the stage. And Jakko, too.  The “guitars” mix was better, too.

so it was actually a blessing, getting “bad seats” (actually, it was such a nice theatre, there really was no such thing) – we’d been too close to the band at the other two shows – well, not “too close”, it still sounded amazing, but, we did get a clarity at Utrecht that we didn’t experience during the other two shows.

when “LTIA Part I” came to an end, we got our first surprise: a changed-up set list, so here, in second position, came the very powerful “Level 5” – in the section of the concert where new material normally appeared. this change made me really happy as it meant that this set would not be the same as the two shows we’d previously seen.

then things really took a new turn, in the form of the title track of “a scarcity of miracles” – which I enjoyed immensely, it was totally unexpected; Jakko was in fine voice, and it was nice to see Robert playing quite a bit of keyboard, taking his keyboard duties as seriously as his most difficult lead guitar solo.  the last time I saw Robert Fripp playing a keyboard was in 1981, where he did a bit of keyboard for “Sartori In Tangiers” or some such 80s tune in a live setting.

I really didn’t expect to hear any tracks from the “Scarcity Of Miracles” album, and of course it’s also a great showcase for Mel, too, who sounded great on the track.

once that surprising song choice ended, the “new music” section could finally begin, so we got “Meltdown” and what I think was “Hellhounds Of Krim” – I still don’t have a handle on what the percussion-based pieces are called – but I do prefer “Meltdown” now, to the now-absent “Suitable Grounds For The Blues”, so of those two non-percussion based new songs, we got the one I prefer – so more good luck for me.

then the set returned to something that more resembled the sets we’d seen, with a lively “Pictures Of A City” (featuring more amazing work from Mel of course) which was then followed by the fantastic new arrangement of “The Construction Of Light” – which I love, especially the final flute solo from Mel – I don’t know why, but I really like that part.

I should note here the remarkable talent of Jakko, who learned the interlocking “Fripp and Belew” guitar parts flawlessly, and this is especially notable on “The Construction Of Light” (and on “Level 5”,  etc.) – it’s concise, precise, correct and beautiful, too…Jakko is a natural, and the incredible range of guitar parts he is required to play, from picked mock-acoustic guitar on the 1969 tracks, to the precision interlocking parts of something like “The Construction Of Light” from 2000, or to the uproarious and wonderful guitar parts on the two tracks from 1971’s “Islands”…Jakko nails them all. He makes it look easy!!

speaking of the 1969 tracks, next up comes the first of the three (from the first album) that they often do now in 2015, “Epitaph” and this is yet another piece where Jakko truly stands out; a good vocal, carefully picked mock acoustic guitar while singing lead vocal…he knows these songs so, so well, and sings them as if the spirit of Greg Lake was inhabiting him.

I think that the first ten King Crimson albums are some of Jakko’s favourite music, much of which he learned some years back for the 21st Century Schizoid Band (who performed much of the same early repertoire as the 2015 KC does), he takes the twin tasks of singing the vocal, and playing the guitar parts note-perfect and tone-perfect too (I couldn’t believe the lengths he went to, in the 21st Century Schizoid Band, to play every Fripp note, chord or even special effect, as accuraviewedtely as humanly possible) – an astonishing performance then, and even more amazing now he is in the “real” King Crimson.

I think that Jakko does really well on all of the material, but he really seems to live and breathe the songs from the first four albums (except Lizard, from which they don’t seem to perform any tracks currently) so when he sings something like “Pictures Of A City” or “21st Century Schizoid Man”, or, indeed, “Epitaph” or “The Court Of The Crimson King” – I think he really feels it from the heart. It’s clear to me that he truly, truly loves this music.

the very solemn “Epitaph” then gives way to Gavin Harrison’s lovely little ditty “Banshee Legs Bell Hassle” which makes for a wonderful, cheerful bridging piece to the next Musical Great Leap Forward – “Easy Money” , which is always a high point in these concerts. It’s a chance for the whole band to shine, Mel has invented some great sax parts for it, Jakko sings the original lyric rather than the “USA” or “naughty” version, and Pat turns up with some of the original sounds from the original recording, such as the laugh box that he “plays” at the end. they really do a great job of re-creating the unique sonic atmosphere of this classic 1973 track…I love hearing “Easy Money” live, I can’t get enough of it really, it’s always over far too quickly.

Fripp does take a remarkable solo during “Easy Money”, using a great vintage Fripp tone dialled in on his trusty Axe-FX II effects unit, and I was privileged to see and hear him approach that solo on three different occasions, and this one was fantastic as always, a wonderful, nostalgic 1973 style lead guitar solo with cracked Wah and distortion to the fore.

from here on out, the show just hits highlight after highlight, this is really my favourite part of the show, and the next two tracks are probably my favourites, the melodramatic “The Letters” which features Fripp playing an ungainly but wonderful guitar part, a solo atop Mel‘s rollicking saxes, followed by the absolutely sublime live performance of “Sailor’s Tale”, a great instrumental featuring Mel Collins on screaming impossible sax solo, with Jakko and Robert locked in on their long, sustained notes in perfect twinned guitar harmonies.

oddly, both Pat and Gavin fall completely silent during most of this track, leave Bill Rieflin (ex-Ministry) to handle the drum part on his own; only rejoining him when he has to switch to mellotron for the ending section. Somehow, having just Bill playing drums on this, made it sound right – it just worked best with one kit – and they realised that – and I really admire that decision.  I admired Pat and Gavin for being absolutely silent and motionless during most of this piece. Two fantastic vintage “Islands”-era Crimson songs played in incredibly accurate detail, with an absolutely swinging drum and cymbal part from Bill – he really nails (the late) Ian Wallace’s drum part.

did I mention Jakko’s impassioned reading of the lyrics for “The Letters”, he really sings “The Letters” so, so beautifully, it’s such a tragic tale, beautifully sung right up to the fantastic lyric “impaled on nails of ice…and wait for emerald fire”…which eventually leads him to the final, utterly a capella stanzas.  A roar of applause greets him when his lone voice finally falls silent with “…I take my leave of mortal flesh”.  Shivers.

I often think that Jakko gets a bit short-changed here; he is alternately viewed as, usurping Adrian Belew’s “rightful place” in King Crimson (is there such a thing, for anyone except Robert himself?? I don’t think so!) or not doing justice to a certain vocalist, or whatever – but, if you think about it, the expectation that rides on this young man’s shoulders is considerable:  he has to sing like Greg Lake, he has to sing like Boz, he has to sing like John Wetton, and he has to play guitar like Robert Fripp. All four things, of which he does, without issue, without fuss – he just does it – and I think he is a remarkable, under-appreciated part of the band.  Huge expectations – and Jakko delivers, night after night after night.  He is a brilliant guitarist, too – he’s the “other Fripp” in the band 🙂

with the two amazing songs from “Islands” now done, at this juncture in the concert, I had no idea what to expect.  Would they just do the typical “last three” and be away, or what?  I didn’t have long to wait to find out, as the crashing riff and insanely-clever triple drum threat arrangements of “One More Red Nightmare” began. What a treat, too, to finally “see” just exactly how Gavin worked out the drum parts, and to see the amazing co-ordination between the three drummers on this song from 1974’s “Red” album.

this song holds fond memories for me,as I used to play and sing it, in one of my bands (Pyramid) when I was about 21 or so. the slow sections that modulate between either an E Minor To D motif, or, move up to a G minor based section, were brilliantly executed, with Mel’s snarling saxes over the two guitars…and finally, the whole band hits that opening riff hard, the triple drummers out do themselves once again, and one of the most amazing tracks of the night is over.

I was personally ecstatic that they included this song in Utrecht, it really made the set so special for me…I got my cake and ate it too, I got a different set from Birmingham or Edinburgh; I got “One More Red Nightmare” without giving up my two precious “Islands” songs.  Perfection – an inspired variation of set list.

and thence, following immediately, the beautiful “Starless”, with Mel Collins and Robert Fripp sharing that thick, liquid melodic line so perfectly, Mel in particular has clearly studied the recording incredibly well, but together they just sound so excellent on this track.  Fripp bends those notes so, so precisely this time, a great vocal from Jakko, this song works so well, too, with the triple drummers.  Tony gets a real workout, as well, playing the lead bass part for the last two-thirds of the song, until the fast bit at the end, which resolves at last into that amazing Fripp / Collins melodic conclusion – so, so beautiful!!

the Dutch crowd were very responsive indeed, I’d say they even gave the Scottish crowd in Edinburgh a run for their money, but both Scottish and Dutch were much louder and more demonstrative than the audience at Birmingham was.

A long, long, loud round of applause erupted at the conclusion of “Starless”, followed by rhythmic clapping eventually brought the band back for the two final numbers, another finger-picking exercise for Jakko in the form of “The Court Of The Crimson King” which also features the Michael Giles-channelling Pat doing his very damnedest to break his drum heads with the ferocity and speed of his drum rolling – such a powerhouse of a performer, Pat absolutely propels the final section of this song into a kind of drummer’s stratosphere.

meanwhile, Robert’s subtle, reverbed lead guitar, was so so lovely, working perfectly with Jakko’s mock acoustic guitar, and the vocal, too: “the yellow jester does not play, but gently pulls the strings…” Cue RF, gently bending between one half step and another, as if in answer to the lyric’s meaning, his guitar on this was just perfectly done, sounding very, very much like the original.

finally, it’s the end, which means it’s time for “21st Century Schizoid Man” 2015-style. Jakko sings the lyric like a man possessed, even dragging a little bit of actual melody out at the end of each spat-out line…an almost-melodic “….century schizoid man….” For me, this is one of the most altered arrangements, and it took me awhile to realise that actually, there is no real lead guitar “solo” at any point. RF does play a wonderfully convoluted descending guitar lead that walks right down to Mel’s solo (which doesn’t last long enough to become a solo) – and Mel just owns the song from there on out.

the band of course, all join together for the “precision part” which goes without incident, and then, the final verse, the final chorus…the wild ending that suddenly stops in dead silence…and the show is over.

the Dutch crowd is on their feet cheering and once again, the applause is long and loud, as the band take their final bows and are away down the stairs…and out into the cool night of Holland.

my first ever concert in Holland, but, the last of three King Crimson shows for September, 2015 – this is a month that I will not forget any time soon!!! The quality of musicianship on display, from all seven gentlemen in the band, is simply extraordinary; the selection of songs, mind-boggling in their quality and diversity; the overall effect is simple one of wonder, you are left wondering where else music could possibly go, from what you just heard…

the melodies stay with you for days.  you find yourself singing “Easy Money” or “Starless”, all the time, or you hear the choppy chords and mellotrons from “The Court Of The Crimson King” in your head – this music stays with you, for days and days, you find yourself playing your “Red” and “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic” albums over and over again.

its now been five days since the concert, and I can still hear huge chunks of the show in my head when I think about it.

and…I’m still singing “starless and…bible black…” and then I close my eyes and wait for Robert and Mel to come in with that unforgettable melody.  sigh.

King Crimson – Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland – 20150917

This then, is the second of three King Crimson gigs we are attending, the first of two shows at Edinburgh’s lovely old Usher Hall, on September 17th, three days after the first show we attended in Birmingham on 20150914; while boasting a similar set list to the show from the fourteenth, the Usher Hall Edinburgh show had a number of significant differences that are well worth noting.

First of all, is perspective; in Birmingham, we were off to the left side of Symphony Hall, slightly elevated, and back some distance from the stage, whereas in Edinburgh, we were in the stalls in the fourth row – directly in front of Pat’s drum kit with Mel just behind him…not bad at all.  So this time, still to the left but way up close in the stalls – we noticed quite a bit more detail – simply because we were so much nearer.

But first things first, the set list, which was pretty much unchanged from the show three days previous:

Taped Introduction (including the “Islands Rehearsal” snippet from the outro of the “Islands” album – in other words – the standard 2014/2015 Elements Tours taped intros – the “no photos please” vocal montage, followed by “Islands” rehearsal, and finally, the 1971 Voice Of Robert Fripp intoning the count of “1 2 3, 2 2 3″…) – which becomes the count in for:

Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part I

Red

Suitable Grounds For The Blues

Meltdown

The Construction Of Light

Level 5

Hellhounds Of Krim (??)

Pictures Of A City

Epitaph

Easy Money

Banshee Legs Bell Hassle

The Letters

Sailor’s Tale

Interlude (Taped audience sounds)

Starless

(Encore – after a well-deserved standing ovation for “Starless”:)

Devil Dogs Of Tesselation Row (??)

The Court Of The Crimson King

21st Century Schizoid Man

 

Since the set list is essentially identical to the Monday night Birmingham show, I will focus in on differences and details that I observed this time, that I might have overlooked with the excitement of that first show on Monday night; plus, sitting so close at the Edinburgh show, I was able to see the players in incredible detail. My new 10x binoculars helped significantly with this – if I wanted to see in close-up, what notes Robert or Jakko or Tony were playing – the binoculars allowed me to get in really close on the action, and observe chord patterns, note patterns, and playing styles in intense detail. Being in the fourth row gave us a great view of the band, but having the binoculars on top of being so close, gave me super-close up HD Guitar Vision – it was brilliant.

They all played well in Birmingham on Monday, but in Edinburgh last night…they played even better.

There were a couple of mishaps, so I shall get those out of the way, some mysterious mid to low frequency feedback was plaguing the band during “Pictures Of A City”, it was quite persistent and it ran for perhaps 40 or 50 seconds, a low, irritating non-musical tone; the band forged on as if it wasn’t happening, until eventually, the sound man (presumably) quenched it.  It returned again later, I think during Epitaph, for a shorter period of time, but that was the last of it, thankfully.
The beginning of “Easy Money” was slightly marred by an out of tune guitar (Jakko’s, I think) but then turned out fine, in fact for me, it’s a huge highlight because it’s one of the only instances where RF really tries to play a 70’s style Fripp sustained guitar solo, and that solo was a cracker, really beautiful, liquid distortion and cracked Wah pedal action…gorgeous guitar tone from Robert’s Axe FXII.

 

One of the other instances of that beautiful sustained guitar tone is Robert playing the exquisitely beautiful melody of “Starless”, however, at the end of one of those solos, his final bend ended up in a truly bum note – a rarity for Fripp.  Ever the professional, he simply looked at Jakko, and carried on as if nothing had happened.

Possibly because we were sat so close to Pat and Mel, I really noticed their playing this time, and I would say that Mel played even more spectacularly amazing sax and flute in Edinburgh, than in Birmingham, where he was awesome.  So better than perfect, really – the solos were so tight, so intense, and he absolutely steals the show with his soloing in “Pictures Of A City”, “The Letters”, “Sailor’s Tale” and “21st Century Schizoid Man” – his playing was absolutely stellar on those tracks in particular, he was consistent and excellent throughout.

Pat – well, what can I say, Pat is the master, and is my personal favourite of the three extraordinary drummers.  His intense, powerful playing on “Epitaph” and “In The Court Of The Crimson King” once again, channelling the great Michael Giles…was simply astonishing to witness at close quarters. Pat was amazing throughout the show, and I could really appreciate his contributions to the drumming really well indeed at this particular gig.

And, impressively, this time, we could hear the bass and the Stick, much, much better, so bring able to hear what Tony was playing, better than on Monday night, was great – I particularly love the verve with which he attacks the lolloping bass line of “Sailor’s Tale” – he sounds great at all times, really in tune and doing very musical, very good work on the electric string bass, the Stick, or the bass guitar, Tony always sounded really good.

But then, this is a band where everyone sounds good, all the time, and the amount of care and detail that goes into the band’s sound is truly overwhelming. Just watching the percussion section during the opening number, the incredible 2015 rendition of the 1973 classic “Larks’ Tongues In Aspic, Part I” is a lesson in musical co-ordination; all three drummers are playing many different percussion instruments to add atmosphere and ambience during the quieter sections, then sitting down simultaneously to come charging in for the heavy metal section.

Watching Pat was a revelation during this, he had clearly studied the original track well, and he picked up a myriad of strange percussion devices, and operated them at certain points in time during the “lulls” in the song – with military precision.  Then that heavy metal section would come up again, with Jakko wailing away on the high, bendy lead guitar notes, Robert, playing the chords (and often, during this concert, that was the case) and the three drummers all come in on the downbeat, and also, end each bar with a cymbal smack – and hearing the three of them, playing their hearts out underneath that ominous set of power chords – just sounded amazing.

“Red” followed immediately, and again, the band was confident, Jakko playing the long, ascending sustained lead guitar line, while Robert handled the chords; Robert played the flanged “stand-alone” chords on the “middle section”, leaving Tony and Jakko, with some assistance from Mel, to handle the beautiful melody that plays over the flanged guitar chords – and then, back into that wonderful E to F# progression, which then finally leads back to the wonderful ascending guitar from Jakko – and Mel joins in for the last few notes, so they both end up on a stretched high note that is held for just the right amount of time…perfection.

I can’t really add a lot to my previous blog’s comments on the “new” songs that appear at this point in the set, although I did find myself liking “Suitable Grounds For The Blues” a bit more than the first time I’d heard it, way back on Monday night – it, and it’s companion, “Meltdown” – are just not as convincing to me as the earlier material is.  And therein lay the difficulty – the repertoire they are playing, spans 1969 – 2003, and includes some of the most incredible of Fripp compositions and other writers’ contributions – the lyrics of Peter Sinfield are a huge part of the tracks that they perform from 1969’s “In The Court Of ‘The Crimson King”, 1970’s “In The Wake Of Poseidon”, and 1971’s “Islands” (sadly, no live versions of anything from 1970’s “Lizard”, the third album) and other contributors such as Adrian Belew, whose guitar parts on “The Construction Of Light” are absolutely brilliant – but, fair dues – Jakko played them just as perfectly and just as beautifully as Adrian ever did – and to be honest, as much as I love the music of Adrian Belew, and I liked his role in King Crimson – I am actually of the belief that Jakko is a better choice, because of his knowledge of the early catalogue, and he’s a fine, serious singer, too.

So I like the fact that Jakko is there, for example, his acoustic guitar emulations on the two quieter tracks from “In The Court Of The Crimson King” are just so spot on, he does the finger picking perfectly WHILE he sings the beautiful Greg Lake vocal melody with beautiful lyrics from Peter Sinfield!  A very beautiful example of multi-tasking – Jakko gives us the acoustic guitar, and the lead vocal, leaving Robert free to play the beautiful lead guitar parts on both “Epitaph” and “The Court Of The Crimson King” – beautiful work from both guitarists.

I am still astonished by the unexpected presence of “Easy Money” in this band’s set list, but there it is, and after a shaky beginning with an out of tune guitar, it quickly turned into one of the best songs of the night, because of Robert‘s amazing 1970s style lead guitar playing, not to mention Jakko’s brilliant vocal, and Tony doing his best to play like John Wetton – and mostly, succeeding at it.  A great rendition of a great song – complete with laughing machine at the end from Pat – just like on the album.

My favourite part of the concert then arrives – the two songs from “Islands”, and again, a delicate, beautiful rendition of “The Letters” with Fripp playing super high octave chords with a beautiful guitar sound, and Jakko playing the other picked part in time, and singing the beautiful, beautiful vocal – one of Boz’s best vocals, I believe – and then, there is an incredibly powerful part, where Robert plays some amazing, super sustained “Frippy” guitar lines, before the song begins to go…a bit mad courtesy of the amazing saxophone skills of Mel Collins, who blows his way through both “The Letters” and the second of the two tracks, which follows immediately, the instrumental “Sailor’s Tale” in astonishing form, with powerful, melody, and grace.

Mel is so amazing on both of these tracks, the accuracy with which he’s tried to re-create the original parts, while at the same time, improving and updating them – it’s just an astonishing effort on his part, and his playing breathes new life into these two songs.  Jakko’s vocal on “The Letters” is possibly my favourite vocal of the night, I love the way he sings this song, right up to the a cappella ending –  which he does just perfectly – a brilliant performance.

Once the band have played “The Letters” and “Sailor’s Tale”, two tracks from my personal favourite of the early King Crimson records, I could die happy, but, things progress, and we end up in the beauty of “Starless”, where I must mention the remarkably talented Bill Rieflin, who plays mellotron on so many of these tracks, the accurate arrangements he uses are a testament to how much he cares about getting it right, and the mellotron sounds are perfect, and the playing is perfect – and on “Starless”, it’s so, so beautiful – with Robert‘s amazing, thick sustained lead guitar line, and Mel’s sinuous horn parts snaking in between, it’s a huge highlight of the night, and the excitement of the final section, after the long instrumental build up, is undeniable.

Despite Robert’s unfortunate note in the middle of the verses, this version of “Starless” brought the band to standing position, and, brought the audience to it’s feet as well – and the applause was truly thunderous as we’d just been assaulted by a dozen of some of the most amazing progressive music ever written.  And when the band walk off, the crowd is clapping in rhythm for their return – until they do return, to play us out with the last two offerings, both from that famous debut 1969 album, “In The Court Of The Crimson King” – the title track, as the penultimate offering, followed by “21st Century Schizoid Man” complete with recorded intro (the “Wind” sessions result) – and this was another great rendition of “Schizoid Man”, with one slight disappointment – I hadn’t really noticed this at Birmingham, but I am definitely sure about it at Edinburgh – there is no guitar solo!

Robert plays the beginning of the original solo, and then does a short descending lead guitar, which is an intentional bridge to Mel, who picks up the notes from Robert, and then takes the solo proper – and Mel is great at this, he always had a solo on “Schizoid Man” back in the day, so he is the perfect player for the job, and this was no exception – he played a blinder.  But then, as the song progressed, there was a drum solo, and then, they came back in to play the “precision section” – which went flawlessly – and then to the last verse and the ending – which was dead silence at the climax of sustained rock-burn-out noise – brilliant!!  The crowd loved it, and it was a great version – but, strangely – no guitar solo.  It worked, it’s great with Mel handling the solo, but I would have loved it if Robert and Mel had each had a solo (as they used to, back in 1972) – but, this is the 2015 arrangement, so I guess that’s how it goes now 🙂

Overall, despite some annoying feedback and the very, very rare issues with the music, this was a really well-played show, and it just makes me look forward to our next and final of three shows, in Utrecht, Holland, on September 24th – I can’t wait !!

One of the things I’ve noticed about previous versions of King Crimson is that, if you listen to a series of concerts over time, you generally speaking, find improvement – parts are played better, arrangements are tweaked and re-saved, and musicians find better and more perfected ways to do things – so, over time, they tend to get better – and I realise I haven’t so far heard much of a series, but I can say, that over the three day period between Monday and Thursday. that there is improvement.

One thing that was easy to observe, was the difference in audience reception. In Birmingham, the applause was not nearly as loud or persistent after the main set, there was no rhythmic clapping to call the band back to the stage, while in Edinburgh, the Scottish crowd were on their feet and shouting for more, applauding really loudly, then, clapping rhythmically – a much much better audience response, which in turn, made the players respond positively – so while in some ways, the Birmingham show might have been more technically “polished”, here in Edinburgh, there was more emotion, more audience interaction, and in the case of one Mr. Mel Collins, some incredibly passionate horn soloing – really beautiful work, just out of this world solos on every track – the man is impossibly talented.  And when Robert Fripp and Mel Collins join forces to solo, one at a time, or together / trading / overlapping solos – it just rocks.

Both concerts had high points and low points, but I felt that the Edinburgh show was more relaxed, with a much more receptive audience, so at least in that sense, it was a “better” show – but in my mind – both of these concerts were absolutely remarkable musical experiences, once- in-a-lifetime – except, I get to see it three times in a life time 🙂

 

 

See you at Utrecht on the 24th !!!!

Happy Krimsoning !!

 

 

Dave