real synths vs. soft synths – advantages and disadvantages

let’s face it, there is no feeling on earth quite like it, sat at your actual mini-moog or yamaha dx7 or korg m1…the feel of the keys, the knowledge that you can push a button and “that” sound will come out, the knowledge that you can reach over suddenly and bend that note down two octaves…the knowledge that you can modulate a chord until it sounds flanged and warped to kingdom come…

there is a lot that is undeniably good about playing real synthesizers, it’s so tactile and so real – and each synth has it’s own personality and quirks, good and bad.

I know a lot of you have “real” synths, some of you have softsynths, and many have both. but what are the real advantages or disadvantages of real vs. software synths?

this is a topic that I will personally be “torn” on for a long time, possibly always, because I simply could not afford hardware synthesizers, although I have owned a few. if I could have afforded them, I would have a roomful of synths, moogs and korgs and yamahas and synclaviers and god only knows what else.

since I don’t, reluctantly at first, but now, fully embracing them – I began to get into softsynth. my friend and business partner ken mistove helped me at first, way back in SONAR 4, to get my first softsynths going, and over time, it’s become easier – well, somewhat easier – to install and use them.

the first softsynth that really captivated my interest is the m-tron pro mellotron softsynth. and like it’s hardware counterpart – it has it’s quirks. but what is also has is the most beautiful and the most amazing set of voices ever, including many looped and enhanced voices (as well as all of the originals) and it even has bizarre voices such as some pre-recorded sections of a roxy music song, that roxy used in performance; it has black sabbath samples which are awesome, and of course the famous beatles nylon string spanish guitar riff from “bungalow bill” on the white album.

so it’s beyond faithful to the original, but with almost none of the problems that are traditionally associated with “real” mellotrons. in fact, the only real issue I have with the m-tron pro is that it’s a bit too “hot”, you have to crank the output volume way down or you will end up with bad clipping.

but besides that – in a case like this, where the original hardware is very, very expensive, having something like the m-tron pro available is brilliant – let’s face it, the average working musician simply cannot afford a hardware mellotron!! so in this particular instance, I would say that the software version is the clear winner, for so many reasons.

first of all, I sat down in 2009, and made an entire album with it (“sky full of stars”) an album that practically “made itself” it was so easy to do, and the expansive and remarkable palette of sounds that the m-tron offers gave me so much flexibility – any sound I could dream, was probably a preset. I should take a moment to mention the artist presets, where well known keyboardists have programmed patches especially for m-tron – and I have to admit, I use those sounds a lot – the artist patches are outstanding, and yet another reason why soft synth mellotron beats real mellotron.

secondly, quite a few established artists that used to use hardware mellotrons, are now using m-tron pro onstage – so that in itself is huge testament to the quality of this soft synth.

finally, it is just the obvious physical consideration – the real mellotron is neither light nor small and is prone to mechanical failure…so not having to carry that massive beast around is yet another advantage of using the software version.

so in my opinion, in this case, the software version is vastly superior, it does everything the hardware version does and about 700 percent more…so it’s a bit of a no-brainer.

but there are other instances where this may not be true. for example, some of the classics, like the mini-moog, I think might be a little bit more difficult to replicate in the world of soft synths. the mellotron has a particular world of sampled sounds which was finite, but m-tron increased that in a most remarkable way, but, still based on the core sounds.

of course, the moog creates it’s sounds in a completely different way, it doesn’t use samples, so I think it may be a bit more difficult to emulate in the world of soft synths. I do have a couple of moog soft synths, and they are both remarkable, I love them, but unfortunately, I have never owned a real moog of any description (although I did once own an ARP Odyssey) so I cannot compare the experience to the experience of owning and playing a real moog.

I think that for sample based sound libraries, such as the mellotron library, and the fairlight library, that creating software synth versions of a mellotron and of a fairlight, well, the task is made simpler by the fact that the sounds are samples, whereas with both additive and subtractive synthesis, there are some ridiculously complex combinations of oscillators and filters that must be hell to program.

this might explain why we don’t yet have an exact soft synth “version” of certain synths yet, because it’s just too difficult to replicate the exact functions in every detail. having said that, I am very partial to one of my soft synths, the korg ims-20, which is one of the few fully detailed soft synths I’ve seen,where you can actually set up your oscillators and filters and ROUTING by hand – and that is fantastic – it offers and experience that is very, very similar (apparently, since once again, I could never afford the real thing!!!) to the original hardware synth.

my two moog soft synths also offer full control of oscillators, filters, ASDR, and so on, and for me, since I’ve never had or played the korg or moog originals, they offer a remarkably “real” experience – and for me, I can’t discern any real advantage or disadvantage of these soft synths as compared to their hardware equivalents. does anyone out there have a real korg ms-20, AND the ims-20 soft synth? I would love to hear your thoughts on how well, or how badly, the soft synth version compares to the “real thing”.

I must apologise here; I am mixing soft synths (m-tron pro, etc.) in with applications, but in my mind, they are all “soft synths” whether they play standalone on your PC; or if you call them up in your DAW’s synth rack; or if they are iPad apps that you access via a MIDI keyboard – already, in my mind, all of those are blurring into just….”soft synths”.

I never could afford a mellotron or a fairlight, so having the soft synth or app version of those very, very expensive hardware devices – well, in those two cases, I am going to vote for the soft synth or app version every time – since I will never play the originals.

for less expensive synths, for affordable synths, well, those may be more arguable. however, when I think back to my ARP Odyssey – frankly, no offence to Roger Powell or anyone at ARP who worked so hard on those early synths – but my Odyssey was almost unplayable – really difficult to tune – and I only used it very occasionally, with a LOT of set up and tuning time…it just wasn’t quite there. so even for a synth like that, if there was an ARP Odyssey soft synth – I would buy that every time over the original, no questions asked.

so almost solely because I could not afford many real synths, I have now ended up to be a huge proponent of the soft synth and the iPad application. I have so many of both, that I simply do not have the time to learn and use them all! as time permits, I learn another one, and another, because I LOVE finding new and unusual sounds that I can use in compositions or improvisations…every time I download a new synth app, it is so exciting to work through the presets to hear what the inventors have come up with for stock sounds, to test out the various arpeggiations, and so on – it’s enormous fun.

the main advantage of a soft synth or app is simple; no bulky hardware to move around. that’s the main thing that makes soft synths and apps so attractive.

but there are other advantages, such as the additional voices in the mellotron that are not in the original – enhancements like that, make soft synths very, very attractive. I could literally sit and play that mellotron all day long, I could happily make ten more albums using only the mellotron – it’s that remarkable.

in fact, when it came time to work on the “dreamtime” album (forthcoming 2013, the debut album from “scorched by the sun”) I first tried using guitars and ebows to overdub bryan helm’s pre-recorded contributions, but it just was not “working” – and then I had an idea – what if I used the mellotron exclusively? and that was the answer. everything went really well once I switched to the m-tron pro!! so – soft synth to the rescue 😉

I am afraid I am completely spoiled, having so many beautiful soft synths and amazing apps, my interest in real synthesizers has waned considerably…unfortunately. of course, if I had the room, and I had the money…but I don’t, so I am doubly pleased, because I can still PLAY all those remarkable instruments…in their more compact form.

what do you think? are there cases where you feel the hardware version is truly superior – and why? I am a guitarist, primarily, who happened to learn piano at an early age, and who happened to get into synthesizers early on, but I would love to hear from some real keyboardists, what are your thoughts on this?

obviously, soft synths work for me – but that is just a personal preference, and I would love to hear your thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages of either approach.

discuss…

the music of the moment – the “fairlight 51” album – plus, 3 other amazing apps…

in a typical dave stafford multitasking way, even as one album project reaches fruition, another one is still in the creative, formative stages.

so even though I’ve been very involved in the work in support of “gone native“, at the same time, I’ve been reviewing in particular, my work created using applications, and I’ve also been working on application-based existing tracks, improving existing tracks, and, creating new ones.

before I speak about the upcoming “fairlight 51” project and the “fairlight pro” application, which is shaping up to be the next album release after “gone native“, I’d like to speak for a moment about three other applications that I have really been enjoying: “isequence“, “tabletop” and “nanostudio“.  I have not had much time with isequence, but I would have to say that I will be using it for music creation in the future, as a sort of alternative to nanostudio.  it’s laid out in a completely different way to nanostudio, but I really like the available voices, and the different GUI is challenging and fun – so even with just a couple of preliminary test tracks, I am really liking isequence a lot, and I am looking forward to using it much more over the coming months (and years!).

another application that is new to me is tabletop, which is yet again, a completely different layout to the other two, and with a lot of unusual and interesting instruments, many of which are free, and some of which are in-app purchases.  I’ve also done a couple of test tracks in tabletop, and I am equally excited about using it, and isequence, as time progresses.  these tools are so, so exciting to me, because of course each has it’s own synths, it’s own drum or percussion options and it’s just so exciting to hear some of the really sophisticated sounds that these tools can make – a lot of really fantastic sonic possibilities there, and I am excited about finding the best sounds, and using  them in compositions, and trying new combinations of sounds…the possibilities are nearly endless, with so many great tools to make music with…

finally, there is my old friend nanostudio, which was an early purchase, that I have worked with for a long time, and I have probably six or seven pieces in progress. a couple of those are nearly complete or essentially complete, and I went through a full review of the pieces and I am very excited about a couple of them, “atlantis rising” and “alien…or sutin” in particular – these feature the fabulous eden synth, which is one of my very favourite ipad synths, it just has so many amazing patches, and both of these pieces are dense, exotic and full of really interesting synth sounds, some of which are quite odd, but with nanostudio, it’s so easy to sound good – you just lay out a drum track, and then start playing synth parts…and very quickly, you have a really beautiful and complex piece of music built up.

I am thinking that what I might do is dedicate the works that I do on nanostudio, tabletop and isequence to my so-far empty soundcloud account, just so I can get them out there, although of course I will probably gather and compile them for another application-based album down the road…so hopefully, over the next few months, I can get at least my nanostudio work mixed and uploaded to soundcloud, and hopefully add some isequence and tabletop pieces into the mix a bit later on.

and then there is the “fairlight 51” album, the fairlight is one of the first applications I purchased, and I now have a months-long relationship with the fairlight, and I have a great working relationship with the device, and recently, the pieces are appearing almost by osmosis – I build a new instrument, I begin to create passages of music, and often, not always, I have a complete piece of music 30 – 60 minutes later…

over the past few weeks, I’ve created quite a few new pieces for the fairlight, some of which defy description – some of which utterly surprise me – some of which I really cannot even explain rationally. this tool…makes you think in a completely different way, it makes you compose slowly, bar by bar, taking care with every note, every percussion sound, every cymbal splash – and of course, being sample based, you are basically conducting a strange orchestra of eight pre-selected samples, in a bar-by-bar composition that at least for me, well, I really never quite never know what is going to happen with any given composition, until I hit “play”… and then these pieces of music just come to life, and it’s a strange dichotomy – you compose slowly, yes;  but sometimes, the process itself goes very quickly, and in the space of 20, 30 minutes – you’ve composed a very complete and intricate piece of music. as if by magic.  it just…happens.

over the past few weeks, new pieces have been arriving fast and thick – I can’t believe how many have appeared, and most of them, in a single session, an hour or less, and they arrive almost fully-formed.  sure, a few pieces need a bit of work the next day, but that’s the exception rather than the rule – most of them, arrive within 20 minutes or so, and that is pretty much their final form.  that never happens to me when I use normal compositional tools, when I play guitar or keyboard – but when I compose on the fairlight pro…it almost always happens.

and each time, I start with a completely different “instrument” – and the effect that has on the sound, the feel, the mood of the piece – if I select brassy, bold sounds, maybe a cheery, poppy melody will appear, if I choose wooshy synth sounds, maybe something dark and mysterious, and what is also remarkable is how each piece sounds SO different from the previous one!!  it’s as if each piece is a tiny island, a unique island, in a strange archipelago of sampled sounds – but the piece are so unique, and so far, with some 35 – 40 pieces recorded towards the project, there has been almost no repetition of anything whatsoever.

that’s astonishing to me, it really is – that you can create an instrument, then compose and execute a composition, then, the next day, when you repeat the process with a new instrument and a new composition – it comes out completely and wildly different. this is probably because you have eight utterly unique samples, that when “played together” as a virtual instrument, create one sort of “island” of sound; and then the next eight, create a completely different “island”, and so on…so you get this huge and amazing diversity that you wouldn’t think was possible.

over the past few weeks, I’ve been witness to the arrival of “mutant sheepish”, “monsoon season”, “long walk in the pouring rain”, “effective immediately”, “a passage of time”, “kiwi republic”, “the harold angels”, and over the past few days, “carbon life form” and it’s brother composition (which sounds COMPLETELY different) “silicon life form”.

I literally do not know where these pieces come from; each one has it’s own unique identity, and it’s getting to the point where the pieces just arrive almost automatically, I am just there to make sure they arrive safely…

I haven’t tried to figure out why, but recently, the name “fairlight pro” changed suddenly, to “peter vogel cmi” – and I actually don’t care about who owns the code or what the reasons for this change are, if peter vogel can’t use the name “fairlight” anymore – well, it’s been “the fairlight” to me for the past eight months, and I think it will always be “the fairlight” to me – and I am sure peter vogel will only make this app even better; I’m pretty happy with it now, and I am sure it’s only going to get better…

whatever name it goes by, the application formerly known as “fairlight pro” is one of my very favourite applications, of all time, and I can see myself continuing to work with it indefinitely…I love how surprising it is, how you literally never know what a piece is going to sound like until you hit “play” and the remarkable, unique sample set of the fairlight pro comes into play…whoever gathered those samples originally, really selected a remarkable and diverse selection of amazing sounds, such that, fast forward about thirty years from the original fairlight to the app version on the ipad – and those sounds still sound as fresh and otherworldly as they did when peter gabriel and kate bush and so many others made some of the most iconic music of the early 1980s using the £20,000 hardware version of the fairlight.

I could never, ever have afforded that, and as a guitarist, I never would have aspired to…but in december 2011, when I realised I could have that library of SOUNDS for a tiny fraction of the cost of a “real” fairlight – how could I say no?   as a guitarist, I’ve always had a great love of synthesizers of every description, and I’ve always enjoyed creating and composing on piano, organ or synth – but now, to have such a huge array of amazing synthesizers all shrunk down to tiny applications that deliver big sound for very little investment…

these application tools are going to give me so many sonic options, and already, some of my hybrid experiments, where I am driving two or three app synths from one key-press, means that not only can I use the unique and astonishing sounds of an extraordinary array of app synths, but if I want, I can use three or four at once – and that’s when the possibilities extrapolate out into an unknown universe of sonic madness.  and I plan on going there with them 🙂

what we’re listening to – “focus live at the BBC”, early 1973, with bob harris

to say that this is my favourite concert of all time is not really an exaggeration.  I taped this off the radio soon after it was broadcast, I had it on a kodak cassette for more than 30 years…later, I got other copies of it from tape traders, later still, “new” copies from the internet – and no matter what version I am listening to – this concert has a quality like no other.

I would also say, straight away, that I feel it’s far better than the official live focus album from the day, “focus live at the rainbow” – which is a nice record, but, it’s from later in their career, and it’s my contention that they reached the height of their quality performances in late 1972/early 1973, when “focus III” was the “new” focus album.

I’d come to focus almost accidentally, I had bought the album “moving waves (also known as “focus II”) like so many other teenage boys, for the bad reason that it had “that” song on it, “hocus pocus” but what I understood pretty quickly was, “that” song was a bit of a one-off, a bit of a gimmick, and if you ask me, it’s the worst song on the album (well, not that there are ANY bad songs on “moving waves” or “focus III” – two more perfectly-formed prog masterpieces you could not ask for), and the rest of the tracks are so good, that you can skip “hocus pocus” and still have a fantastic listening experience – especially since it ends with the remarkable “eruption”.

at some point, I would love to talk through the first three focus albums in detail, to discuss their relative merits, that is “in and out of focus” (also known as “focus plays focus”), “moving waves” (also known as “focus II”) and “focus III” but for now I want to restrict myself to this mystical live concert.  first of all, this concert has no definitive “date”.  some think it’s actually from december 1972, others are just as certain it’s january 1973, from what bob harris says during the introduction, it’s pretty certain that it’s in the new year of 1973…but beyond that – the BBC records aren’t clear, the last focus broadcast they mention is from the end of 1972, so that’s no help…

the show starts with one of the toughest pieces from “focus III”, “anonymous two” – a 20-minute-plus prog/jazz workout that is something that I wouldn’t try “cold” – but they just dive in, and it’s amazing – the speed, the skill, the solos – each member takes a solo – but to me, it’s the ending, when suddenly, after all that improvising and jamming, they all four hit that theme, hard, and in a slowed-down, endless-ritard way, with jan akkerman’s incredibly fluid, melodic guitar working so beautifully with the glorious, classically themed hammond organ of thijs van leer…sheer sonic beauty, but also, precision jobs – and the snap/cold/dead ending of “anonymous two” here is a thing of beauty.

I don’t know why akkerman left the band, but now, I really wish he had stayed forever.  to me, this was the best focus lineup – bert reuter on bass, pierre van der linden on drums, van leer on organ and flute, and akkerman on lead guitar – this lineup, that produces a few of the classic, and best, focus albums – starting with moving waves, then focus III, then hamburger concerto (a terrible album name, but the last great studio album from the band – although, in my opinion, not as good as focus III).

they follow the loud, brash, jazzy “anonymous two” with something very delicate and beautiful and melodic (and this is my favourite piece from the entire focus canon) – a shortened, concise version of “focus I” from the first album – this is the best arrangement, and the best performance, of this song, anywhere, any time, and to me, it’s one of the most beautiful songs ever written, and akkerman’s sensitive, careful, beautiful guitar lead really just blows me away, it’s so simple, so purely about melody, and van leer so seriously underplays his part – very clean, very clear, very simple hammond chords, while the rhythm section just purrs along – it’s three minutes of classical pop heaven, and I absolutely love it – I find the original studio version tedious, with it’s extended end section, this short, to the point, live, clean reading of a great song is the best – I love this arrangement!

after the almost religious experience of pure, simple, beauty that is “focus I” has passed, the band moves back into prog territory, this time with the very flash title track to the “new album”, “focus III” – starting with a mysterious hammond, but soon, progressing to a full on prog-workout, that gives all the band members plenty to do…this track then seques into another really, really long track from “focus III”, “answers! questions? questions! answers?” – which is again, very jazzy, very fast, with odd dissonant sections that are weird enough to have come from a king crimson song but are played instead with hammond and guitar – and it’s that organ and guitar combo that keeps me coming back for more, they slam, they speed, they twist, they turn, they shred, then – suddenly, a beautiful organ solo, with single notes, and a gently speeding up and slowing down leslie speaker, suddenly, akkerman comping on chords with little guitar solos in between as van leer takes over – a drum and bass interlude leads into a van leer flute solo – this song is so complex, and twists and turns through so many sections and solos, it’s no wonder that it wasn’t in their live repertoire for that long – it’s can’t have been easy to remember, much less play!

but they do a stupendous job – it’s better than the album version, by far better – and I can hear it’s influence on me when I hear tapes of myself jamming from a couple of years after this came out – I kinda learned how to play lead guitar from listening to this tape far, far too many times – and you couldn’t have a better teacher, akkerman was all about taste, knowing what to do when, knowing when to push hard, but totally being able to be supportive too, working as a team…what a great band this was in 1972 and 1973!  it’s great too, to hear the musicians stretch out and play for so, so long – I love the long view, and they think nothing of playing music in 15, 20, 25 minute chunks – but not just jamming, a lot of it is planned, arranged, set up – but whether it’s carefully arranged prog, or crazy, abandoned jamming – it’s simply brilliant!

the musicality of van leer and his prowess on the hammond is surpassed perhaps only by hugh banton (of van der graaf generator) but he is also an absolutely amazing flute player (if you’ve seen the official focus DVD, you will have seen and heard his flute solo there – the best flute solo in modern music that I have ever heard – it is astonishing!) – and I love the melodic and classical music influences he brings to the table.  his hammond organ is the harmonic foundation upon which akkerman adds the melodic information that makes this such an amazing team – it just works!

I do not mean to short-sell the contributions of bert reuter on bass and pierre van der linden on drums, they are critical to the success of the two soloists, and they are so constant, so supportive, but, also, totally able to come up to par when it’s required that they go beyond the ordinary – they come through with flying colours – in fact, bert even plays a nice solo in “anonymous two” as does van der linden – both extremely good players, if perhaps slightly overshadowed by the powerful presence of akkerman and van leer – but who wouldn’t be intimidated by two such amazing players?

without stopping, they move into a third song, another melodic, thematic one, this time from “moving waves” – the beautiful, beautiful “focus II” – this piece has some really great rhythmic breaks, and van der linden is especially good on this, I love his drum arrangement, and the stops and starts, slow downs and speeds up, the dynamics are all over the place, and he plays almost effortlessly, but so, so carefully, too – his popping snare leading the way at some points – there are a large number of “bits” where it’s just pierre – and I think he rules this piece – the last section especially…and then…the hush, quiet organ chords, a suddenly subdued, melodic akkerman – and pierre just sits on the bell of his ride cymbal while harmonic and melodic magic occurs around him, reuter supporting on melodic mccartney-style bass – what a song, and, another dynamic build up, with distorted, leslie-speaker organ winding down with that amazing lead guitar…

to play these three songs in sequence, without stopping, ending up well over 20 minutes in total, as if it were nothing – these guys sound like they could play all night (and when I saw them play, they tried to) – this is a fantastic live medley, and a great part of a great concert.

finally, because they have to, they play their big hit, and of course, they have messed with the arrangement to make it even weirder (as if it were not weird enough on the album), with it’s proto metal chord sequence, but with…yodelling…as the vocal, van leer is famous for his strange vocalisations, and his work on this track is no mean feat – he demonstrates not just his yodelling ability, but also the enormous range of his voice – all the while playing a very complex chord sequence as he yodels and sings.  the star here though in my mind is akkerman, who has to play at breakneck speed, however, he makes it sound easy, and it’s back to those famous chords…

van der linden also gets some little solos of his own, in between whatever vocal weirdness van leer is injecting at any time – this is not my favourite song, but they do rock on it – and the drum part is amazing! so it’s worth it being here, so we can here them being quasi-proto-kinda-metal – in a very dutch and strange way !  I mean, the idea of a massive hit song having…yodelling as it’s lead vocal, that’s an odd, odd hit – but, it got them noticed, despite the fact that it’s the weakest song on that album (“moving waves”).  with this bizarre and strange rendition of “hocus pocus” by focus, the concert ends.

for me, the gem here is the shortest, apparently most inconsequential song, the 3 minute arrangement of “focus I” – I absolutely love that tune, and it represents a special kind of prog to me – a kind of prog that only camel and focus, really, and maybe sometimes nektar, every played – very simple, very classical, very melodic music – and “focus I” has such a hauntingly beautiful guitar line, that plain, clean note, rings in my brain, akkerman expressing van leer’s melody the best way possible – simply.

I was quite disappointed then, when the official live album (“at the rainbow“) came out, and it didn’t contain this material, it was missing a lot of the great songs played here, so really, even though it’s now 2012, I would give anything for van leer to go back and make the RIGHT live 1973 album – this one, or a better one, if there is such a thing.  this band was so good at this point, I really think that “focus live at the rainbow” disappoints, because it was made too late, when akkerman had lost interest (and his playing is NOTHING as good on “rainbow” as it is in this concert – believe me) so it would be my dream come true if van leer could find the master tape of this awesome BBC concert (or even the best quality BOOTLEG tape, just so I can have an official, clean recording), and give us a deluxe CD release of the real 1973 live focus album that never was.

if only.  it makes me wonder too, what the tapes of this band in rehearsal sound like, what other concerts recorded right around this time might yield – and if van leer or anyone has those tapes – they could make a fortune off of people like me – because I want two or three or four “new” live focus albums from 72/73 – twist my arm.  what a great, jamming, melodic, powerful, instrumental band – a huge influence on me (I can hear myself imitating akkerman in tapes from the late 70s), and I would be proud if any of the rock music I make ends up half as good as any piece from this remarkable concert.

thijs van leer – if you are out there – can we have an “offical” CD release of this concert please?  PLEASE?????????????

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

I cannot recommend this album highly enough.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the importance of the album “running order”

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

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

third – here we go:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“gone native”, side one:

thanks, frank

open to anything

force of nature

wettonizer

sinuous thread

this is a test

gone native

caladan

sun willow quartet

junction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“gone native”, side two:

salusa secundus

desert power I (drone mix)

cinematique I

the gemenon blues (long form)

zencourage

wide open spaces

whatever souls are made of (ambient mix)

hidden track: a plague of frogs (coda)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the music of the moment – dave stafford / “gone native” – test pressing

after three days of intensive work, the first set of master mixes for the “gone native” album is at last, complete, and I am sitting here listening to the very first playback of these new mixes as I write.

the first thought that I have is that this record has been a long, long time coming, as reflected by track one, “thanks, frank”, which is playing now, which was really the whole impetus for making a rock / progressive rock themed album.  recorded originally in november, 2008, this is the oldest song in the collection, and the song that started it all.  at that point, I had spent many, many years as an ambient artist, a live looping guitarist, and occasionally, as an acoustic crafty guitarist, but part of me was harking back to a time when I played a thing called “rock” – so I created a drum part out of pieces taken from mike bowman’s “fever drums” (drone forest, velveeta heartbreak), which was originally a source file for the drone forest project, and then overdubbed it with a live guitar take – which turned out to be one of those amazing, lucky “take one” miracles that you get so, so seldom – it just worked.  I overdubbed a bass part, wasn’t happy with it (because it wasn’t as good as the drums or guitar) – scrapped it, overdubbed an new bass part – which was better, but still imperfect – finally, in the brand new, june 2012 mix of the song, I did some edits to the bass part, and now, at last, I am truly happy with it – it works.

so – a power trio of drums, bass and guitar to lead off the album, and then onto the work that followed in a “rock” vein, the first pieces, recorded with SONAR 4 in 2009, my very first proper multi-track work in a long, long time, and over the next three and a half years, I created a number of pieces with “gone native” in mind. it was, undeniably, a slowly evolving work, and the first eight or ten pieces all took quite some time to conceive, organise and mix – I wanted these songs to truly reflect my ability as composer, arranger, and mostly, as guitarist.  more importantly, I wanted these to be the best quality in terms of the playing, the arrangements, the mixes – I wanted this album to be the best.

the title track is one example of demonstrating my playing and arranging skills;  a powerful, pounding drum part is overlaid with a myriad of strange and wonderful guitars, many of them created using the remarkable roland gr-55 guitar synth, which makes such a huge difference to this record, as well as the m-tron pro mellotron, which I had  found indispensable on the “sky full of stars” album – because of my positive experience with it on that album, it’s made it’s way onto the title track and onto other tracks on “gone native” as well, providing that crucial bit of authentic prog colour – and for me, that allowed me to create a “virtual band” with the instrumental line-up of guitar, bass, mellotron and drums – eerily and not accidentally similar to a certain band called “king crimson” – and while this music does not in the main sound anything like king crimson, nor would I compare myself to that band in any way shape or form, I love that particular combination of instruments, and just using those four instruments, you can really create a good band sound.

as time went on, I greatly expanded on that basic “virtual line-up”, most significantly through the introduction of the roland gr-55 guitar synthesizer, and, in other ways,  but it’s present for the first few songs, certainly for both “open to anything” and “force of nature”, two of the earliest pieces here.

of course, to do rock or prog right, you have to have drums and bass, so during this time, I also taught myself (with a lot of help!) how to use both BFD2 and session drummer 3 in SONAR – between these two, I could create high quality drum parts, and I delighted in trying to create real sounding, interesting drum tracks to compose against.  I also took up the bass guitar again, something I hadn’t done regularly since I was a very young man, so that these tracks could benefit from having real bass. so, even though the drums are made with machines, everything else is very, very “real”, and it’s my hope that the humanity of the instruments will help to blend in the drums, so that everything mixes up very nicely and organically.  I think, in the main, that it has worked out well – I’ve had some compliments on the drum tracks already (feedback on early mixes), so that’s a good sign.

I won’t go into a song by song analysis now, at some point, I might detail that, but suffice to say, this is, in the main, not an ambient album, it’s a rock/prog rock album, and therefore is completely different from any record I’ve ever made. most of what I’ve done over the past 20 or 30 years, has been very live, or looped (I’ve done a lot of loops), and not multi-tracked, and not including anything using bass and drums, so it’s already in a completely different class to say, my last two records (“the haunting”, and “sky full of stars” – both from 2011) which were both very, very ambient.

this record gives me the opportunity to do things like play extended bass solos (“wettonizer” – a tribute to king crimson’s finest bassist, john wetton) play an active ebow solo (“wide open spaces” or demonstrate the quirky but amazing korg kaossilator (“zencourage”) – every all-guitar album should have at least ONE all-synth piece on it!! there is a broad range of styles here, there is extensive use of guitar synthesizer on the later songs which gives me a wealth of “instruments” to inject into the mix, there is even a song reverse engineered from a guitar solo (“this is a test”) and a song treated with a resonant filter that converts it to a buzzing drone that does not resemble the actual performance in any way (“desert power I – drone mix”).

there is ambient music here – how could there not be, given that it’s dave stafford – in fact, in my mind, the record has two sides, just like the old vinyl albums had – side one, is “songs”, rock songs, prog songs, strange songs, but basically, all multi-track affairs involving drums.  basically, that’s the first ten tracks, then, the next eight, are a variety of unusual pieces – guitar synth demos, live loops, and even an ambient remix of one of the songs on side one, (“whatever souls are made of – ambient mix”) to close the record.

a few of the tracks on side two are pretty much completely ambient, or semiambient, and there are a few live performances on side two as well (“desert power I – drone mix”; “the gemenon blues – long form”, and “wide open spaces”) as well as the aforementioned multi-track korg kaossilator piece (“zencourage”).  I like this idea; first, the songs, and actually, the album feels to me like it’s in three pieces, not two, the first eight pieces are the “songs proper”, tracks 9 and 10, are the “bridge between” – songs that are more recent, with partial drum tracks, and then finally, eight ambient, synth demo, live or otherwise strange and wonderful examples of extreme guitaring.

In this way, I really hope that I can demonstrate not just the work of the past three and a half years (impossible to believe that I have been working on this project for that long, but there it is, in black and white) but really, the work of my life, because these 18 songs are the sum total of what I’ve learned – sometimes, from others – from people I’ve worked with, for example, sometimes, from myself – such as learning the ins and outs of MIDI, SONAR, mixing in SONAR, guitar synth, korg kaossilator, and iPad applications – the latter which, barely existed when I started this project.  in the last few years, I’ve been adding in a lot of very interesting technologies – everything from the roland guitar synth to the m-tron mellotron to the korg koassilator to the iPad applications – and that has made the record much better, it has really benefited from those innovations – and I’ve also learned an enormous amount myself, about the possibilities of making music with a lot of very, very bleeding-edge technologies, and some of the remarkable things that can be accomplished are truly mind-boggling – but that will be for the next few albums, which will explore a lot of the more experimental music I’ve been making in the last year or so.

“gone native” then is the sum total of two things, first, forty-one years of playing experience, and second, the changes and growth and experience of the past three and a half years.  hearing these eighteen piece today, gathered together at long last, for the first time ever, well, even I am surprised and amazed at the incredible diversity on show here; from the hard rocking, guitar based songs all the way up to the very ambient pieces on side two, it’s an amazing variety of music and I am very, very proud indeed of this brand new dave stafford album.

production is next, it will be a few weeks probably, but once everything is set up, I will be announcing the details for download to begin with; and possibly, this time, a short run of “hard copy” CDs for those who prefer physical media to downloads – this is something we are going to start looking at again…

 

in the meantime, there is much work to be done still, but, I am so, so pleased to be able to say with finality, that “gone native”, dave stafford’s first proper hard rocking rock/prog album, is completely done, and will be ready to release before this summer is out. until then – keep on rockin’ !!!

the music of the moment – recalling the piano and vocal repertoire

since february 2012, I’ve been working,  in earnest, on “re-learning” some of the piano and vocal repertoire that I used to play when I was…younger, and it’s been both challenging and rewarding – as well as sometimes, surprising.  this repertoire is mostly of progressive rock, with some pop thrown in for good measure, but it was mostly repertoire learned between roughly, 1971 and 1981, which I then played for the next ten years or so.

an example of a surprise would be: the fact that I could take one of my own songs, which was originally written on guitar, and quickly adapt it to become…a piano song.  that surprised me, and my song about the death of john lennon, “john” is a case in point; during one of my test piano and vocal sessions, I just gave it a go – and was so totally surprised that not only could I play it and sing it at the piano, but it actually works well arranged that way, for solo piano and voice – brilliant.

an example of a challenge would be…well, mostly, the challenges are twofold – a) getting my fingers to play what I do know in my brain, and then, b) if I succeed at that (questionable) getting my 54-year old vocal chords to reach those notes that seemed so easy to reach when I used to sing these songs…

getting both to happen during one performance – very difficult!

an example of a reward would be: when it all works, when I get a really quite good take of a really quite difficult song…such as “flying blind” by peter hammill.  it took a few tries, but in the end, I did get one – a good take!

I persist, that is what I do – I persist.  the “easier” songs – well, those come back quickly, and I find them easy enough to play – maybe something like “vision” by peter hammill: it’s in an easy key, the vocal is not demanding – this, I can manage. few of the songs I know fall into this category, and even some of the lighter pop music I know, is actually quite complex – for example, early todd rundgren – it sounds simple, but actually, it’s full of complex chords with odd interval bass parts (which is part of what makes those early songs so sonically appealing). so something like “a dream goes on forever” from the “todd” album (1974) sounds pretty easy, but the intro is actually very, very difficult to play well.  I am getting it – it’s coming back to me, but, it’s more difficult than you might imagine.

but playing that song isn’t the problem – it’s singing it.  most of the verses, I can sing fine, but, there is one section that has a very high vocal part – and I just can’t hit those notes anymore…which is heartbreaking, it means I will perhaps have to satisfy myself with whatever historical recordings I have of me playing that song when I was a young man – but those will have their own issues, poor sound quality and so on.

now, I have devised a method whereby I drop the vocal to the low octave for that one verse – but in practice, a) it’s very difficult to “switch octaves” during a live take and b) it sounds a bit strange, to suddenly go for these very low notes, just so I can hit the few high ones – and then switch back up an octave again a few seconds later – it’s not really working.  so I may have to scratch “a dream goes on forever” from the list of possible songs for “a black box”…

speaking of todd, there are a number of pieces that I used to play by todd: “believe in me”, “be nice to me”, “sweeter memories”, “real man”, “black maria”, “couldn’t I just tell you”, “lucky guy” and many, many more, so over the coming weeks, I will begin looking at these pieces to see what is involved in relearning them. of course, a couple of those are guitar songs, and there are some todd guitar songs that I would REALLY like to learn – for example, I know huge chunks of “number one lowest common denominator” on guitar, but I’ve never learned it properly…so maybe I can invent a giant todd guitar medley – black maria/no. 1 lcd/couldn’t I just tell you…something like that.  if only I had time…

so I did learn and play a lot of todd and utopia songs – including the big utopian anthems, both “just one victory” and “sons of 1984” – todd was a big influence for a long time, and I can remember spending weeks trying to perfect my version of “lucky guy” – I even recorded a version of it with borrowed grand piano, and then overdubbed my vocals – as well as a painstaking re-creation of todd’s dual ebow solo in the middle – I really love that song, and I may have to have a go at it again now – it’s the highlight from “hermit of mink hollow” (1978) and it was a real joy to learn, sing and play that – a great piece of beautiful pop music.

if todd was my biggest pop influence, then peter hammill was my biggest prog / dark side / influence – and I am not sure I can even list all the peter hammill songs – of both van der graaf generator and “solo” variety – that I have learned, forgotten, relearned and re-forgotten…so, so many, from “man-erg” to “still life” to bits of “a plague of lighthouse keepers” to “vision” to “the birds” to “my room (waiting for wonderland)” to “the undercover man” to “the siren song” to “w” to ever more obscure items from the hammill canon “forsaken gardens”, “out of my book” (that’s a guitar song right enough, not a piano song) or “mirror images”…so again, as with the todd catalogue, there are so many songs that I used to sing and play, and I think while I can often quickly re-learn how to play the songs, it’s going to be the vocals that challenge me – every time.

I do hope that with some rehearsal (and I am never big on rehearsing, I just expect that I can sit down and play these songs, and that’s expecting too much!) – I hope that with a few weeks of recording and rehearsal, that my voice will loosen up, and maybe I can recover enough extra range to at least once, capture the odd good take of one of these songs.

over the past four months, my facility to sing and play these songs has slowly, painfully slowly, improved – where previously, two months ago, I could not even “get through” a full take of a complex song like “still life” (the title track of the album of the same name) or “the siren song” – now, at least, I can get through, although so far, with too many errors to make any of the takes “good” – but, I can at least, now PLAY the songs.  the good take – well, it’s always the elusive thing, I did version after version of “flying blind”, I even went so far as to master one version, make a video of it – then decide it was just not good enough, and, by re-recording it again on june 1st, got a far, far superior version – so my intuition was correct, it wasn’t good enough, while the june 1 version, is.  so I need to learn to be more patient – I am impatient, I wish I could just sit down and reel out perfect versions of each and every song I’ve named here – and a host of others – I used to play so many different songs on the piano, everything from roxy music “a song for europe” or “pyjamarama”  to steely dan’s “charlie freak” or “doctor wu” – “charlie freak” being the first piano piece I ever learned by actually reading the notation – note by note, because I couldn’t figure it out by ear.

most of these songs, I learned completely by ear, by playing along to the album – and I mean the vinyl album (or if not, a cassette of the vinyl album) – this was the way I learned.  so something like hammill’s “man-erg” – it would start with me recognising one or two chords, realising there was a progression with a descending bass line, playing that bit, then working out the whole verse – but it would take deeper study of the album to learn the strange “middle part” or the long and complex chord progression at the end.  I would play along with the record, and write down the chords, and eventually, after days and days or even weeks of work, I could play the whole song.  but “charlie freak” had no chords, it was entirely composed of notes, so I had to use my limited sight-reading skills, and work it out from the sheet music.  I can’t play it now – I’ve completely forgotten how it goes I am afraid.

king crimson – yes, a few, not many, because songs by this band – they are not easy, but certainly “islands” in an abbreviated piano version (although I cannot touch keith tippett’s original arrangement – a fantastic pianist!), “exiles” in an all-piano arrangement – on guitar, a few others: “lady of the dancing water” (on nylon acoustic), “red” (on electric, obviously), “one more red nightmare”, “larks’ tongues in aspic part II”; fragments of “easy money”, “21st century schizoid man” and even entire fripp solos like the infamous lead solo from “easy money” live on the USA album – I learned that note for note on guitar, because I love that solo so much.

there are others from the golden era of prog – genesis – I learned several, the only ones that I learned well were “the carpet crawlers” and “anyway” – both from “the lamb lies down on broadway” – and then there was gentle giant, the only piece I ever learned (and this was actually more recently, NOT back in the day) is the very, very beautiful “aspirations” from “the power and the glory”.

where available, I would and do use song books to get the basic structure, although when I was younger, I just learned them without the song book – and of course, for things like van der graaf generator and peter hammill – there IS no song book! (maybe I should publish one – 10 easy peter hammill songs for piano!) so you are forced to learn them totally, totally by ear. it seems crazy to me, now, to spend that much time learning a song, but I’m glad I did – because the chords and notes I took then, actually enable me to remember the tunes, using my 35 to 45 year old documentation – all neatly typed up on a manual typewriter !

so I have help – I have the chords, I have the lyrics, but as far as actually playing the pieces, I actually “make up” the bass parts and the melodies, I just “pick them out” as I work on the song.  so for example, hammill’s “still life” has a section at the end, where the voice follows a piano note, so I had to learn every single note in that sequence by heart, so I could sing that climactic section with conviction, yet follow along on the piano, note by note, to the heartbreaking end.  “still life” is one I am determined to get on tape, because I never, ever captured it on tape back in the day – so if I don’t manage to record myself playing and singing this song, there will be no dave stafford version of it left behind – and it was such an important part of my hammill repertoire.

over time, sometimes, with additional “listens” to the originals, these “made up” bass parts and melodies and chord inversions actually start to very closely resemble what peter hammill or hugh banton played – it just takes time, and practice, and persistence – and being able to listen really well, and “hear” every note…sometimes, if a piece is too complex, I cannot “get it” by ear – most classical music falls into this category – it’s too complex to learn by ear – but popular music, even prog rock, is not – because it’s mostly just chords, lots of chords, with sometimes, melodies or bass lines – much easier to learn than classical music.

it’s great when there is written sheet music, because that gives me a great head start, I can sight read, very slowly, very painfully, so if I have to, I will resort to the sheet music, but it’s tough when it comes to a king crimson or a peter hammill song.

growing up in the 70s, when progressive rock was at it’s height, peaking in 1975-1976 and ramping very quickly downhill from 1977-78 onward, I was so, so lucky because I basically learned every song I could learn, not really realising at the time just how difficult, just how complex this music was – but to me, it wasn’t “prog” it was just – music, the music I listened to, the music I loved, the music I wanted to play.

as you then grow up and become adult, there is less and less time available for things like practicing your piano repertoire – I eventually got rid of my upright piano and hammond organ, so the piano repertoire fell by the wayside for quite a few years.

now, in 2012, well, albeit slowly – it is coming back.  I’ve had such an amazing time these pasts weeks and months, playing pieces like “my room” and “the siren song” – what a remarkable experience, it is actually amazing that I can remember them at all, but – they are on their way back, if only I can be patient, can keep practicing, if I am very, very fortunate – one or two of them might end up on a rolling tape.  I hope…

“dreams, hopes and promises…fragments out of time…”

the music of the moment – a new kind of dave stafford music ? – “synthraga orchestra”

well, by complete accident, I think I have created a new kind of music for myself, a kind of music that I’d really like to do a lot more of, work out this new process really well, so that I can play pieces that are truly beautiful and inspiring. the good thing is, technology is making it possible for me to play this music live, so that is even more exciting – live performance, with tanpura drone and tabla drums – and it’s wonderful fun to do!

in my head, I am thinking of this new kind of music as a “synthraga” – and that’s because on may 19, 2012, I set up a scenario where I could have an application, itabla pro, providing both tanpura drone and tabla percussion, and then I also set up between one and three apps, synthesizers, that I could use separately, or ganged together, to play melodies on top of this beautiful rhythmic “bed” of indian sound.

when I was playing the pieces – six of them, all of substantial length, I wasn’t convinced that it was really “working” – I had my doubts if a synthesizer was a valid melodic device to play over an indian rhythm.  however, when it came time to listen back to the tracks, my opinion changed completely – it works really, really well indeed, which surprised me greatly – I would have thought that synth + tanpura + tabla might have been a disaster, but really, all six takes succeed, one or two of them need a little bit of attention, and a few of them are just exquisite right out of the box – thanks mainly to the genius app that is itabla pro.

the first take, “felled trees float rapidly down river” starts with a ghostly, lone synth melody, that plays for about a minute, then the tanpura enter, then the tabla – the piece continues – then I bring in a second synth, and play a lot of very strange melodies, including violent up and down sweeps of the pitch bend wheel…and then, I switch back to synth one, the ghostly one, and continue with the pitch bend antics but in a more subdued way.  for me though, it’s the tabla that make the piece – constant, beautifully recorded – they are just lovely.  the tabla stops; but the drone continues, the ghostly soloist returns, then suddenly, the tanpura and melody just fade away – and a new kind of dave stafford piece is borne.

take two could not be more different; two synths are operating at once, one a stuttering, chattering beast, the other a slow, long, wah sound, the two play together for several seconds, with lovely oscillations and delays – then, the tanpura enter – which just sounds amazing on top of these two wildly moving synth voices, and it begins to set a mood, the soloing on the dual synth voice is just wonderful, the drone of the tanpura really enhancing it – then, suddenly – the tablas enter, and we are away. “branches splaying flying outward – powerful gusts of wind” – once the tablas start going, the chattering synth melody begins to move up and down the keyboard, following it’s own melody line, up and down the scales, then ending up in the high registers – the tablas stop, some amazing synth sounds happen thereafter – then, it’s just tanpura – and we are gone.  another remarkable piece of music from nowhere, I had no plan, I just set up the instruments and just…played.

the third piece starts with a strange, half-strangled square-wavish sound, as usual by now, the drones enter first, always, to set the mood, while the synth melody plays alone, the drones envelop it and make a lot of beautiful noise.  a heavy bass note emerges, then repeats – the tablas enter – and then the strangest thing ever happens, a sort of extreme, in your face wah based synth plays a short sequence – surprisingly – then disappears – then – reappears thirty seconds later, just the most unlikely synth voice you could imagine, it’s arpeggiator based, but it’s the sudden starts and stops – while the original voice continues to play melodies, in fact, it now goes solo, including several interesting pitch wheel motions – then, back to the extreme arpeggiated voice, which if at first was almost irritating, you now can’t help but really like it, and it’s the unusual justaposition of this weird solo voice with the lovely drone/tabla backing, it’s SO unlikely – that it actually works, really, really well. “rustling of leaves turns to rattling, then back to rustling, then, to silence” is a very strange, but very wonderful piece of music, unlike anything I have ever created.

our fourth piece here, “hailstones rattle down the hillside, into the empty riverbed” starts with a mysterious, minor key solo synthesizer that is more fender rhodes than synth, but it sounds wonderful with the tanpura drone and tabla, and most of this piece is taken up with this subtle instrument, it gently plays a lovely melody atop the perfect rhythm kept by the tablas, courtesy of course of the remarkable itabla pro application (which just underwent a fantastic update) – then suddenly, a technological disaster, by accident, the volume increases dramatically, some strange musical events occur, then it goes back to normal – and then, the middle section synth solo comes in (and, the “loud” section can be normalised in post-production, so it’s not a problem) – with again, a most unlikely voice, a very squelchy modified sine wav with a lot of glide, a lot of delay, and a lot of insane pitch wheel bending from the synthesist – that’s me!.  again, a sound I would never pick to go with an indian backing – it shouldn’t work at all – but, it works really well !!! – then returning to the rhodes-like sound and quickly dissolves into nothingness….

track number five (“thousands of leaves fly into the air, borne upwards on rising thermals”) again has a lovely, rhodes-like beginning, very mellow, really nice melodic playing as first the tanpura drone, then the tablas enter, just waiting for that completely out of control, mad, glide and delay, brash synth solo – in fact, this track uses exactly the same set up as track four, so it’s a second attempt to control this mad scenario of controlling multiple synth apps from one keyboard – it works, but the solo section is quite insane, but still, a lot of fun, with amazing pitch bending going on – and it’s wonderful to hear the crazy, brash voice AND the beautiful rhodes voice jam through the long, improvised mid-section – in the end, resolving down to just the rhodes-like sound…and through that lovely outro, tabla stop, continuing rhodes-like melody, and eventual drone fade and ending…beautiful stuff!

a third and final attempt using the same set up, track six, the final take of the session – entitled “the moon lights the heavens reflecting on the forest canopy below” – each time, the sound balance a little better, the transition from the rhodes-like beginning and end sections from/to the louder, brash/crazy middle section is more balanced – the piece begins to really, really  work, although the beginning of the middle section is STILL a shock, in terms of increased volume; the strangeness of the voice, etc. – although lots of great X-Y pad action makes that voice very, very interesting – a long, descending riff works beautifully – and the arpeggiation is just fantastic!  I love this solo I think best out of the three, it’s sudden, like the other two, but it’s very fluid, and it has a very crazy atonal section with lots of VERY warped pitch bend and X-Y manipulation – beautiful.

the inevitable return to just the rhodes-like voice is welcome after the extensive solo, but I believe that I can find a way to balance this out – I think that the right reverb may smooth this somewhat awkward transition between middle solo and the beginning and ending sections.  a beautiful, calm, rhodes-like solo finishes the piece, and the series…of course, fading to just solo and tanpura, and then fading away completely…

as I mentioned, when I was actually doing these, I was not sure if any of them was “working” – there are certainly some strange combinations of odd-synth-voice-choice to backing, but the way I played the parts, as if it were “supposed” to be that way – really makes the pieces just work somehow.  I would say off hand, that all six are imminently release-able – which is amazing, really – OK, maybe I should only release the first three plus which ever out of takes 4, 5 or 6 is “best” – so, four great takes, two very good takes – but it’s the concept here, the idea of playing synthesizer as the melodic instrument on top of tanpura and tabla – it sounds weird on paper, wonderful on tape. (or on digital, actually!).

I wanted specifically to recount this session, because I believe that I will be trying several more along these same lines, although I may incorporate the guitar synth rather than the keyboard synth – although to be fair, both is probably the best idea.  I could certainly command a larger “orchestra” to play over my indian backing tracks…I can forsee playing live on both keyboard synth(s) and guitar synth, using itabla pro as the rhythmic and drone backing – I believe that, over time, I can expand and perfect the “synthraga orchestra” concept, technology, and set-up – maybe even eventually do live streaming performances of synthraga pieces – why not?.

 

all I know is, I am loving this new sound, kinda found it by accident, but that is what I would call a very, very happy accident, because it’s given me yet another unique kind of dave stafford music to play, along with my ebow loop set up, or my various guitar synth string orchestra set ups, I now can add “synthraga” to the menu – and the best thing of all, they are all LIVE performance set ups – no other way to go if you ask me!

what we’re listening to – the ravi shankar collection – 10 CD – 2012

I have always had a soft spot for indian classical music; for me, it started, as it did for so many young musicians, when beatle george introduced us to a remarkable young musician named ravi shankar around 1966 .  I am so, so fortunate in that I actually got to see ravi play on three occasions, once, in 1974, when a massive indian orchestra was the opening act on the george harrison tour – and that was absolutely brilliant, I had never seen indian music performed live, and to see and Indian orchestra led by ravi shankar as my first experience – that was truly remarkable, and again later, at a special concert held at ravi’s home…and finally, again, a few years after that in a more formal setting, I was very fortunate to have seen ravi in concert with his daughter anoushka – and that was truly something to behold, father and daughter, master and student – but I will tell you what, anoushka’s ability on sitar has skyrocketed so incredibly much, that her playing sometimes challenges those positions of “master” and “student” – I believe that in the fullness of time, that anoushka may be an even greater player than ravi – and that is saying something.  time will tell.

so it began with ravi shankar, his influence on the beatles at first, hearing those strange, strange indian instruments in the george harrison song  “love you to” from revolver – of course, everyone cites “norwegian wood” as the watershed moment, but actually, for me, I always felt that was just a bit gimmicky, it’s not serious – but, as with all things george harrison, it became really serious, really quickly – and “love you to” is the first – the drones on “tomorrow never knows” are the second – and then the masterpiece, “within you without you” – which is absolutely brilliant.

then for me, when it really hit me just how good this music really, really is – was hearing, and seeing the film of, the concert for bangladesh. the main piece from that opening act of the film and the concert, “bangla dhun” is an amazing piece of music, and it’s melody haunts my brain to this day, I love the incredible musical interplay between shankar on sitar, and the master of the sarod, ali akbar khan – “bangla dhun” is a duet of the two then-masters of indian classical music.

but we are not here to talk about george, we are talking today about indian classical music, that 3000 year old oral tradition – that to me, makes the entirety of western music seem like a tiny blip on the screen when compared to the rich tradition of the “rag” or “raga” – which have been handed down, from teacher to student, for over 3000 years.  western music has nothing to even compare to that…

it wasn’t until I was an adult that I started collecting the music of ravi shankar, and it was slow going – there wasn’t much readily available, but I did start to build my collection.  and because I’d seen ali akbar khan play at the concert for bangladesh, I also became very interested in the music of the sarod, which is the sitar’s lesser known cousin, and I began to collect both shankar and khan CDs in earnest.

other styles of indian classical music also came into the mix, including some of the master players and performers:  pandit hariprasad chaurasia, an amazing flute player, probably the master of the bansuri, the Indian bamboo flute, is a favourite of mine, and I also have a love for both Indian vocal music, or the very hauntingly beautiful music of the indian violin as played by master musicians such as dr. l. subramaniam.

but for me, it was the holy trinity of ravi shankar, the master of the sitar, the undisputed master; ali akbar khan, the undisbuted master of the sarod; and alla rakha, the undisbuted master of the tabla.  hearing them play together at an early age (I was a young teenager when the concert for Bangladesh took place) left an indelible impression on my young brain, and I’ve been enjoying their music ever since.

few have arisen to challenge these three; for ravi, his only competition, in my opinion, is his own student and daughter, anoushka, otherwise, no other sitarist has come along to challenge his superiority, I don’t know of any challenger to ali akbar khan who simply reigns supreme on the sarod, and maybe, at a stretch, you could say that young bikram ghosh is at least holding a candle to alla rakha’s ability on the tabla – I’ve seen ghosh play (in ravi shankar’s living room, but that is definitely a story for another blog…) and I can tell you he is an extraordinary player – whether he is alla rakah’s equal or possibly better, I don’t know, I doubt it…but it’s a close raise, both men are insanely skilled with the very complex and intricate rhythms – which are often delivered at a breakneck pace!

so the other day, when I got one of those “pre-order this brand new collection by ravi shankar” emails – it was a bit of a no-brainer, especially when I realised that for a mere twenty quid, I would be adding no less than ten full CDs worth of shankar music to my collection – how could I not order it?

it arrived a few days ago now, and I was able to get the first five discs ripped and named and onto my ipod so I could listen to them earlier today, and what a pleasant day it was, too, because of this music.  a few days later, discs 6 – 10 joined them, and it was then that I could really immerse myself in this massive body of work – I can’t get enough of it at this point.

some of the music is familiar to me already, because I already own the very, very beautiful “in celebration” box set, so there is some overlap, but that is hardly an issue – I’m actually pleased that this collection is ten CDs, because at that quantity, you can actually begin, just about, to get an idea of the amazing career, and the amazing talent, of the man named ravi shankar.

it’s all here – solo ragas, duets with other Indian musicians, and the obligatory east-meets-west (probably my least favourite I would have to say) – including shankar’s first two concertos for sitar and orchestra in their entirety – and they are fantastic, it’s a star-studded disc too, zubin mehta, andre previn, yehudi menuhin as guest violinist, rampal as guest flautist, and so on…the usual suspects – but, all at their best under the challenge of trying to play along with a master like shankar – and the result of that challenge is some truly amazing collaborations, with some pretty terrifyingly fast and remarkable playing.

 

now, I really feel like these collaborations do need to be here, and some of them are absolutely essential, and absolutely musically stunning – shankar instinctively knows how to use the orchestra as a gigantic music foil for his sitar, and both of the “concertos” are well worth your serious consideration – I think they are brilliant.

but for me – no offence to anyone – for me, my personal preference is when the musicians are all traditional indian classical musicians.  I think the “east-meets-west” experiments are necessary, and, they would have been an essential tool in introducing this strange instrument, the sitar, to uncertain western concert goers and classical music enthusiasts – and I am sure that by working with the great western conductors, composers, and players (and shankar has worked with so many great names, including people like phillip glass) that shankar advanced the cause of indian classical music from totally unknown to a high degree of recognition – and it’s stayed that way – you hear indian music everywhere, in films, on television, and I believe that all-pervasive presence can be directly traced to the work that shankar did in the 50s and 60s promoting indian music to the great western masses – it worked – he succeeded.

so while I really enjoy the orchestral works, and in fact, some of them are nothing short of amazing – for me, it’s just the “ordinary” ragas that I crave, where you have ravi on sitar and (usually) one tanpura player providing the drone – and then just let this young man play!

and what can I say about his playing that hasn’t already been said a million times, I feel singularly unqualified to even comment – all I can say, as a guitarist, brought up in the western tradition, my admiration for the unending skill that ravi possess, the knowledge in his head – the knowledge in his fingers – he is truly the master of the instrument.

if you watch the opening section of the concert for bangladesh, you can see it, you can hear it – the best player in the room, of the whole night, despite the presence of all of the great western players there – is undoubtedly ravi shankar.  he is a good three or four times faster on his instrument for starters – leaving harrison, clapton, preston, russell and crew in the dust – and harrison himself later remarked that after ravi’s set, that the western music seemed dull, lifeless – and as excited as I was and am about the first post-beatles performance by george – he is right, it really does seem quite lifeless after “bangla dhun” – and it’s in the players’ attitudes too – you watch ravi shankar and ali akbar khan as they play, and they are transcendent, smiling, joy flying from mind and fingers – it’s a celebration of a beautiful folk melody of bangladesh, it’s playing that raga with everything they had, with so much love and so much obvious joy – and then, when the western section of the concert starts – everyone has their head down, no one is smiling, the band is not really in tune, not really in time, and not exuding anything except perhaps weariness.

of course, there were problems for some of the western players, clapton was in the middle of his heroin years, and was hastily cleaned up for the show (where he does not play spectacularly well, if I am honest), george himself was having anxiety and panic from having to go onstage again after NOT having had to since 1966 – he was vomiting before the show – so it’s quite a down, dour affair – which is such a shame!

don’t get me wrong, I love seeing george playing tracks like “wah-wah” live, seeing and hearing him play his best beatles songs and especially, seeing him play songs from the amazing “all things must pass” album – that’s awesome in itself, but I am afraid that ravi really stole the show before the harrison section of the night ever began.  and I am sure that for george and the others, listening to ravi and ali play, and then having to go out there and recreate the “hits” – that must have been disheartening. for me, after the performance that shankar and co. give on that night – well, no one should have to follow something so bloody good – it’s just not fair.

I guess I am saying, if you have not heard/seen the amazing duet between ravi shankar and ali akbar khan that is “bangla dhun” from the concert for bangladesh, hasten ye to do so now – it’s fracking remarkable.

normally when we do a “what we’re listening to” blog, I try to single out certain pieces and talk about them, in this case, that is nearly a futile idea, because I don’t have the requisite language to even describe this music – it’s ravi shankar!  the only pieces I can even talk about with any sense of understanding are the east-meets-west pieces, and to my mind, they are not the highlight here – the highlight is whenever ravi puts his fingers to the strings of his sitar – any time he does this.  when he begins to play, my attention immediately focuses sharply on what he is doing, the scales, I try to think about the uncanny fact that for each rag, there is a specific basic scale – which is one series of notes when ascending, and another when descending!

that idea in itself – well, OK, the western equivalent is “modes” – so it would be as if you played in D dorian mode in the ascending and in D phrygian in the descending – but, there would be hundreds of combinations – and of course, within each rag, there will be standard deviations – and non-standard ones taken by more experienced players – that idea, to me, is just mind-blowing, it’s so, so clever – because that means that the mood of the raga can be controlled – if one scale, say the ascending one, has a “positive” mood, then the piece can be positively influenced by doing a lot of work with ascending scales.  conversely, if the descending scale has a “negative” mood, that might then allow for wistfulness or sadness or even downright heartbreak, simply by accentuating the descending scales.

in practice, since everything sitarists learn is passed down orally from teacher to student, what happens is that the student…”just knows”, just as the master “just knows” a) what notes to play in the ascending b) what notes to play in the descending and c) when to deviate from this and how much deviation is allowable.

for me, it’s all I can do to play a C major scale with a sense of quality, and having to deal with the almost microtonal intervals that occur in some of the bending in sitar music – I would be utterly lost – I can’t readily “imagine” how they “know” what to do – I really can’t.  it is an art form, a pure and absolutely amazing art form – and it’s unlike any other music I know.

but – somehow – this oral tradition, where the “rules” for each type of raga are known and are passed down from teacher to student over the centuries…it just works!  it works well.  because, the emotion, the joy, the sorrow – well, for a player at the level of ravi shankar – all of these are available, and he expresses all of them with consummate skill.  I also have always loved the idea, which would be odd in western music, that each raga has one scale for ascending patterns, and a DIFFERENT scale for the descending pattern – I think that’s wonderful.  and, each raga has a “time of day” – morning, afternoon, evening, night – and while that might seem whimsical and a bit overly simplistic, the weird thing is – if you listen – you can HEAR this mood, you can “tell” when it’s an afternoon raga.  I don’t know why, although I am sure there are certain rags, certain scales, meant for different times of the day, so by selecting the correct raga, you set the piece in the correct time of day. it’s a brilliant system!

now well into his 90s, ravi has over the past several years, tutored his daughter anoushka in sitar, and has in a very short time comparatively speaking, turned anoushka into a stunningly powerful musical force.  I’ve seen her play a couple of times, and the confidence that she exudes when she plays, well, she knows her stuff, and you know she knows it – is really something to witness. but then she did have the best possible teacher!

she is very much her father’s daughter – she reminds me so much of ravi when she plays (and how could she not!) but she also brings two things to the table that ravi does not: her youth, and her femininity.  the energy that she puts out when she plays is phenomenal, and since I don’t believe that ravi really performs much more these days himself, I very much recommend that you go and see anoushka is you possibly can – she’s at least her father’s equal when it comes to skill and command of that most difficult of instruments, the sitar.

listening to this new collection, I realise, even with the space in time that ten compact discs gives us, that it’s still only a drop in the ocean, it’s only a tiny part of what ravi shankar has accomplished over the past several decades, what he did to publicise and popularise indian classical music, but mostly, for me, the music that he played – the music that he plays with such obvious joy and brilliance.

I would heartily recommend this collection to anyone interested in the music of ravi shankar, I cannot speak highly enough of him, except to say that his music changed my life, his music inspires me, his playing is transcendent, and I would give anything to be 1/100th of the guitarist that he is a sitarist – 1/1000th.

the speed – it’s devastating, burst of notes so quick that you might not be able to say what they are – guitarists rarely achieve speeds close to this when playing, and I think that the best guitarists in the world would all step back, respectfully, when faced with ravi at his fiercest, most flying solos – when ravi is on fire, the whole building starts to burn – and in the case of the aforementioned “bangla dhun”, I firmly believe that the way ravi played that night, the speed, the strength, the clarity – I believe that pushed ali akbar khan to play a blinder himself.  so the two greatest stringed instrument players that India ever produced, made each other play faster and better than they ever had before – and it’s also because of the joy, the flying joy, in the room – that’s also a huge factor in this – but that’s something you have to feel, you can’t see it, you can only sense it – but for me, I sensed it, and I followed, and I listened – and I’ve been nothing but rewarded for my trouble.

I am so, so glad that I started seriously listening to indian classical music so many years ago, it’s also had an influence on my own music, and I hope it has helped me to not be so rigid in my playing.  I wish now that I’d started playing an Indian instrument when I was young, but since I never did, all I can do now is listen – but the joy of that alone is enough to light up a room.

ravi shankar lights up every room that he walks into – every time.  you will not be disappointed…hearing ravi “trade riffs” with yehudi menuhin – wow, that is just unbelievable, something I never dreamed I would hear, and again, ravi’s presence spurs menuhin onto the performance of a lifetime – and hearing these two masters, sitar and violin entwined in an ever-growing musical intertwining – playing against each other, playing in unison, playing is sequence – the precision, the speed – it’s just dizzying, and the tabla player is hard put to keep up with these two!  what a performance (“swara-kakali” – based on raga tilang) – this piece is new to me, and it is a mind-blowing demonstration of musical proficiency and skill – it really is.

due to my schedule, I split the listening of the set into two, first, I listened to discs 1 – 5, which contain some of the more obvious feats of musicianship, and include a lot of east-west fusion, which is normally a curse word, but here, in this context, bringing ravi’s sitar into a western orchestra setting, or pairing him against the best western violinists or flautists – is an inspired idea.

discs 1 – 5 blew me away completely; a massive number of tracks; huge variety, and collaborations that are out of this world.  but then…I started listening to discs 6 – 10.   while there are still some collaborations, you also start to get what I always crave: pure ragas, the longer the better.  and there are some amazing ones in the second half of this set; ragas you can sit back and really get stuck into, where the players play for 56 minutes (!!) if they feel like it, developing the themes, just creating such an extraordinary atmosphere – the tanpuras, those random drones, just put me in such an amazing mood, those gently caressed notes that drone endlessly in the background as ravi and co. take centre stage…

I even made a playlist of the longest ragas, so I could hear ravi, ahem, without western accompaniment, and just by tossing in the longest of the “regular ragas” – I ended up with a playlist over six hours in length!  I can’t wait to hear it…

one piece in particular from the second half struck me, and I am sure ravi included it because he remembered and realised what an amazing performance it is, is a piece that features ravi’s regular tabla player, alla rakha – and drummers, sit up, pay attention, you can learn more about rhythm from one alla rakha tabla solo than any number of drum solos by ginger baker or carl palmer – and the man plays with his hands, not with sticks!  to say this is a great drum solo – that doesn’t even begin to describe it, it FLIES, and you just have to hear it to believe it, you really do! I am so pleased that this piece has been included – because it’s absolutely brilliant “tabla solo in ektal”.

back in the mid-nineties, I had the good fortune to attend a concert by ravi and anoushka at ravi’s home in encinitas, california (near where I lived at the time) and it was there that I got to see the modern day holder of the crown of the “hottest young tabla player around” – the amazing bikram ghosh, and his performance that evening, along with ravi and anoushka, was unforgettable – simply the best drummer I have ever seen in my entire life – full stop.  faster, by far, than any western drummer, more rhythmically advanced, just amazing to see and hear – and you could not see, because his fingers flew so incredibly fast.

the down side to this set?  if you ask me – too many orchestral pieces, not enough traditional ragas – but that is quibbling, that’s my personal greed for straight ragas – I cannot get enough of them – because the orchestral pieces are uniformly astonishing, and I would miss them if they were gone – so really, no, no down side – it’s all up sides – ten of them!

wait – I HAVE thought of a down side – it’s not long enough – it should really be 20 discs.  there – I knew if I thought long enough, I would come up with some kind of negative…

another one? not enough collaborations with Indian classical players, not enough appearances by ali akbar khan on the sarod, the aforementioned alla rakah on tabla, but these are minor, minor quibbles indeed – there are so many positives that they absolutely outweigh these almost negligible “negatives” – please ignore me. 🙂

for two pounds a disk, you are getting some of the best indian classical music ever recorded, and, you are getting a great introduction to the music of the man who started it all for indian classical music.  a note of appreciation too for ravi’s great, great friend george harrison, who helped to bring attention to ravi shankar and the music of india, this excellent classical tradition that predates the entirety of “western music” – now, when I hear the phrase “classical music” – THIS is the music I think of this is the “real” classical music – western classical music is something that came along much, much later….

not that sound quality is really an issue in these performances, but most of the tracks on the ten discs are digital remasters, albeit done at different times and compiled here from many, many sources – but the end result, is a set of discs containing some of the most amazing music I have ever, ever heard – all from the skilled hands of mr. ravi shankar, the undisputed master of the sitar.

I love it!

a milestone is reached – videos past, present, and future

on may 29th, a personal milestone passed, which I noted in passing – this was the one year anniversary of my very first music video – where I recorded an unaccompanied guitar-synth “oboe” solo – “st. alia of the knife”.

 

I then spent a couple of months fighting with the technology of youtube (who are NOT ready for 1080 50i/50p video) and learning my video craft, and eventually, two months after it was filmed, in july, 2011 – that first video, made on may 29th, a year ago as close as dammit, was posted onto the pureambientHD channel.

if you had told me then that in one year, I would have six channels and close to a hundred videos I would have laughed and said “yeah, right” – but, one year has passed, and I do have six channels and around one hundred videos:

pureambientHD – featuring my main ambient music work, plus active music as well

applicationHD – featuring music created with applications on the ipad

synthesizerHD – featuring music created on a full-sized, 88-key synthesizer, playing either MIDI synths (software synths – “softsynths” or VSTs); or driving applications on the ipad; or, using the voices of the actual keyboard – or, combinations thereof

kaossilatorHD – featuring works on the amazing X-Y pad synth, the korg kaossilator – a handheld looping synthesizer

ablackboxHD – the “anything goes” channel – for piano and vocal work, normal songs, strumming the acoustic guitar, covers of songs by the bands I love performed on piano and vocal (including peter hammill, todd rundgren and others), or, performed on electric guitar/guitar synth (some jimi hendrix covers are in the planning stages) – anything and everything that is unsuitable for one of the “official” dave stafford music channels – you will find it here on ablackboxHD – named in honour of the tenth peter hammill solo album (opening June 2012  – any minute now!)

bindlestiffHD – featuring the work of my ambient looping duo (1991 – 1997), “bindlestiff”, bryan helm / dave stafford

at the same time, today, june 2, 2012 – marks my 50th blog post – something else I would not have believed a year ago!!

when I began making music videos in may 2011, I was simply interested in capturing live performances that demonstrate the kind of music that I enjoy producing – so, that’s mostly completely live, using the looper to provide counterpoint, which of course gives me the ability to “play” several guitars or synths at once.  very, very occasionally, I produce a video for a pre-recorded song, but probably well over 95% of the time – what I play is completely, 100% live.

of course, over time, the pureambientHD channel in particular has expanded to include a broad range of music videos, from straightforward live performances such as “st. alia of the knife” ranging on up to old-style loop pieces, or energy-bow loop pieces, or in one case, I actually performed an entire album, “the haunting”, on video, before the album was released late in 2011.

I’ve gone on to make a wide range of videos, most of which are of live performances – of ambient works, animoog and guitar synth duets, active pieces looped using the guitar synth – an endless variety of musical approaches, which will only diversify further as time goes on…

so the original idea of putting up a few music videos has changed, and over time, what I have realised is that, due to some personal, physical limitations that make performing live quite difficult for me – because of that, I’ve only played three gigs in the last 8 years – that I can use youtube as a replacement for live performances – which would allow a broader audience to hear and see me perform my music, while making it possible for me to continue to perform “live”.

this was really a fortuitous accident then, a method whereby I could still bring live performance to an audience, but where I didn’t have to undergo the rigours of the road, travel, equipment setup and teardown, that my physical body struggles with – being free of that – I now have a world stage to work on, so I hope that I will be able to provide a lot of great live performances over the coming years for people to hopefully enjoy.

the other channels evolved out of new instruments and new ways of working that emerged beginning in december, 2011, when both the korg kaossilator and the ipad with it’s endless, amazing music applications, both arrived, and, both soon become part of my sonic arsenal – that then demanded new channels be created to accommodate this new content.  so “kaossilatorHD” and “applicationHD” came into being.

finally, in february, 2012, I replaced my 35 year old yamaha synthesizer with a modern, 88-key m-audio keyboard, and I very quickly realised that I can control my amazing ipad synthesizer apps from the 88-key controller – meaning I can play the larger keyboard, but make sound changes and utilise the mind-warping capabilities of the X-Y pad within each of the synth apps (most of them feature an X-Y pad). this meant then that “synthesizerHD” had to come into being to present these pieces.

the arrival of the full sized keyboard also means that I can resume playing the piano “songs” that I’ve played all of my adult life, so I am currently re-learning (slowly, painfully in some cases) much of my old repertoire, which includes extensive numbers of songs by peter hammill, both solo and his work with van der graaf generator; as well as songs by genesis, daryl hall, steely dan, split enz, king crimson, and, dave stafford – all of this material, once recorded, will go on the new “ablackboxHD” channel.

this really neatly solves a long-standing problem, OK, primarily, I am an ambient looping guitarist.  so, I have a pureambient channel, “pureambientHD” to present that music – that’s fine.  but what happens when I want to perform a live version of a jimi hendrix song, or sing a peter hammil song sat at the piano, or play a wild synth solo on my korg kaossilator or on the 88-key synth – so these additional channels allow me to perform ALL of the different kinds of music that I perform, not just the most well known, ambient one – so that’s definitely a win-win situation…prior to this, I had no place to go to play hendrix, hammill or rundgren, or any of my non-ambient works.

I think that the next couple of years we will see all of these channels mature, as more content is added to each one, and hopefully, eventually, this will truly represent the many, many styles of music that I can and do play, and hopefully, it will begin to demonstrate the broad range of performance styles I can and do embrace – I don’t know yet, but I am very encouraged by all the positive responses and comments from everyone, and I am looking forward to producing more, not fewer, videos, as time goes on, for your listening and viewing pleasure.

not saying I can absolutely do them, I will try if it’s possible – so – are there any requests?

also on the table – as an adjunct to the broad range of live performance videos on the six dave stafford content channels – inspired by my friend har’s live broadcasts on stillstream, I am considering the idea for myself – starting off slowly, perhaps, a live show once a quarter; if they go well, then I would consider to moving them to something like monthly – I do like the idea of a live streaming show, because while I am very, very happy indeed to create and present all of these live music videos, I do miss the audience, and even if I can’t “see” them, having an audience to work with again would be great, I would really enjoy it.

so – live videos will absolutely continue – possibly, with the added feature of live streaming ambient concerts on something like a quarterly basis.

I think that video is a great medium for live music, because it allows me to present the performance, sure, that’s one aspect, but I can also add in a creative aspect, by making films and integrating not just other footage (usually, that I have filmed myself) but pertinent transitions and effects, I can take an 8 minute music video and (try to, at least!) make it into a piece of art, with both a performance and the ability to tell a visual story to go with it, so I am developing as a filmmaker as well as a musician.

during the last year and a half, an enormous amount of technology has emerged that has really, really changed the way I record, perform and present my music. I am so excited about this, and I am really looking forward to what the next several years has to offer – right now, I am blown away by what is possible, I am barely scratching the surface in terms of really using my tools and applications to their utmost, but – I am learning, and as I learn, I will share the successful experiments here on one of the six dave stafford channels.

at the same time, audio recording continues on several fronts, and we will also of course continue to offer normal albums and tracks at the pureambient store, at the moment, we are featuring a sale on the two newest dave stafford albums, “the haunting” and “sky full of stars” which are normally £5.99, they are on sale until the end of June for just £3.99, so this is your chance to pick up two great ambient albums at a special reduced price.

if you are not sure you are ready to “take the plunge”, you can always check out our two free album downloads; in either ambient or active “flavour” – download either or both completely free, in high quality 320 kbps MP3 format. (please note, to download either or both of these, you do need to enter your details, but they are absolutely not shared with any third party whatsoever, they are strictly kept to identify our customers and for statistical analysis of the store’s performance only – your details will NOT be sold, given away, loaned or otherwise – under any circumstances at any time).

 

meanwhile, I am off to compose post 51 🙂      and play some guitar !

applications-based music – the allguitar / oneguitar / dreamguitar app – cantor is the beginning…

well, last night, I bought an application for £1.49 that I think is a bit of a game-changer; I really like micro-tonal synthesis anyway, and this is from the same developer who created “mugician” – which is a great app to emulate indian music on, and since I really liked “mugician” a lot – when I saw this brand new app, released to the store on may 26th, I did not hesitate – “cantor” was downloaded and installed.

“cantor” is to electric guitar what “mugician” was to mock sitar – so this is an ipad tool for guitarists – and having just had a brief try of it last night, I think it’s going to be fantastic for live performance, useful in the same way mugician is useful when you want to play something microtonal on your ipad, but now, purpose-built for guitarists.

at first look, it’s a fantastic app, you have control over everything: the tone of the instrument, reverb, distortion, etc. as well as being able to configure the playing area (the “strings” as it were) in a number of ways, it even has a looper which I found a bit tricky, but I did get it to work in the end – plus, audio copy and paste (which I couldn’t quite get to work, but never mind, the app is only four days old!).

but for sheer “fun factor” – it’s fabulous, and I think it will rapidly become one of my most loved and most used apps, because while it’s not exactly a guitar, it’s damnably close in terms of it’s sound, it’s playability – I found that you can even press down three or four notes at once and get a pretty convincing “power chord”…brilliant!

the developer has placed a link to a site where you can look at tutorials, and has provided his contact details (this always impresses me) and he seems devoted to making the product be all that it can be – and I really hope he keeps developing this one, and gives it more functionality, more features (MORE distortion please, different distortions – please!) – but, out of the box, I already love it, it’s truly fun to play and I think it could turn out to be an awesome musical tool for myself and many other musicians needing a guitar-like tool on the ipad.

I could dream this thing into something really amazing – now he’s already got the basic guitar functionality (and I could do trills, I could do “tapping”, it works really well!) going, I would really love to see some enhancements – such as, what if…I think it would be fantastic if you could run this thing in tandem with one of the better guitar effects apps, such as ampkit+ – so we would need a way to feed the audio output of cantor to the input of ampkit+.

or – conversely, build a “better ampkit” – guitar effects, and lots of them – and none of this “you have to buy this pedal, then this pedal, then this pedal” crap – that’s nonsense – charge more for the app, sure, but don’t rape the customer once he’s bought it) – just one massive playground of effects boxes. and later, a rack mount section too.

it’s strange, we’ve had a lot of effect-based apps, but not too much in the way of input devices except for plugging a real guitar into these effects.  now that cantor gives us, effectively, “a virtual guitar”, I’d love to see it coupled with the effects apps somehow – either externally by being able to route the output of cantor to the input of ampkit+ – or by building an entire effects module right into it…one way or the other. after some initial discussions with the developer, I think this needs to be more about apps working together rather than building one giant guitar app that does it all – but either way – I can still dream, right??

once I’ve played with the app for a couple weeks I am sure I will have some SENSIBLE suggestions, but right  now, I am more excited about this app than I’ve been excited about any app since fairlight pro.

I would say, even some simple effects, chorus, flanger, phaser, wah, would be a good place to start – they don’t have to be super fancy, but just so we can alter the tone quite a bit more – nothing like a bit of chorus on a clean sine wave guitar; or a bit of flanger on a very distorted rhythm guitar…

or you could just go insane and build in a complete guitar synthesizer, something like my roland gr-55 but for the ipad – call it my dream cantor-55. please do!!

OK, I have to go there: here is what I would absolutely dream it would do:  full on guitar synth, with as many presets as possible (and configurable sounds), including all of the “classical” instruments; full on guitar modelling so your basic guitar can be a strat or a les paul or a 12-string (plus the ability to blend/combine/shut off synth/guitar models/amp models); full on amp modelling so you can have a fender twin or a marshall or a line 6 or whatever; and finally, a complete effects family, in two sections; one, a full on stomp box (similar to ampkit+) and two, a rack mount as well, with more complex effects devices, especially a big, beautiful reverb with some massive rooms in it – no one builds decent reverbs!

call it “allguitar” or something like that – everything you need, no actual guitar required (although it would be good if you COULD play your real guitar through the synth, guitar models, amp models, and stomp box/rack mounts too) – that would be way cool.  you would never need another app – everything could be done with the one app.  maybe “oneguitar” is better, I don’t know – don’t care about the name, just want the app that does it all….

so I see it sort of like this:

cantor (or, real guitar or synth, plugged in to input)> imaginary cantor added-in guitar synth > imaginary cantor guitar modelling > imaginary cantor amplifier modelling>

note – all are switch-able, so you can have:

guitar synth only

guitar modeller only

cantor unprocessed

any 2 of the above

all 3 of the above

then, from any of these stereo chains into…

two parallel effects chains

imaginary cantor stomp box wonderland, like ampkit+ but better and NO “in-app” purchases please! >

imaginary cantor rack mount wonderland, like guitar rig for ipad, but better and NO “in-app purchases please!>

note – these are switch-able, so you can have:

stomp box effects only

rack mount effects only

both

none

then, from any of these three stereo chains > summed back into one rich stereo output > noise gate + reverbs **

** all stomps and rack effects can be “pre”, “mid” or “post” – so:

immediately after cantor (or real guitar or synth input)

immediately after the guitar synth but before the guitar models

immediately after the guitar models but before the guitar synth

immediately after the guitar models but before the amp models

immediately after the guitar synth but before the amp models

immediately after the amp models

immediately after the final output of stomp box or rack mount or both

you know, I don’t have the time to ever do or learn something like developing apps, I also don’t have the patience or the temperament unfortunately, but sometimes, I wish I were a developer. I would love to design apps (but not have to build or maintain them!) – all the glory, none of the pain!  of course, I realise that what I’ve just described would probably be far too large and clunky for one app, and it would probably be best to do this with two or more apps, but hey – I can dream (and I am dreaming, with THIS description….).

maybe it should be called “dreamguitar”…but whatever they call it, I want someone to build it, so that ***I*** can play it…sigh.

note to all developers: please ignore this, I realise that it’s absolute fantasy but who knows, maybe some day…

🙂

what we’re listening to – neil young – archives vol. I

I hadn’t heard this for a long time, and I suddenly thought, oh, I really, really need to hear that right the way through.  my wife had surprised me with it, brought it home with her from glasgow, this extraordinary box full of the mysterious earliest history of someone who was, and still is, a huge influence on me – neil young.  like every kid, I had harvest, but then I started buying more of neil’s records, and over time, I ended up with quite a few – but I was never prepared for the mass of material presented in this exquisite first archive box.

so I started at disc 0 track 1, and I’ve been slowly moving through neil’s earliest years, and it’s such an amazing trip – right now, he’s playing lead guitar in an instrumental surf number “kahuna sunset” from buffalo springfield,  but at any given moment, you might find neil young almost anywhere – with an orchestra, behind a piano singing, with his acoustic guitar, singing early versions of “nowadays clancy can’t even sing” or rocking the lead guitar on the electric version of “mr. soul” from the underrated, under appreciated buffalo springfield.

the double lead guitar attack of stephen stills and neil young was unstoppable, and on “mr. soul” they trade solos just to prove it – with neil taking a strange, almost indian raga kind of solo at the end of the middle section – beautiful!

or you get something grand and orchestral like “expecting to fly” – so uncharacteristic, I think neil is channelling brian wilson on this number, the orchestration is very, very reminiscent of wilson’s “let’s go away for a while” – a tune that we know young favours, since it’s the closer on his “journey through the past” album. this piece is on such an epic scale, with it’s mournful mood and even more mournful vocal – but, this is and was miles beyond a boy from canada strumming his guitar, it’s neil using the studio and orchestra like a giant song dream machine, taking an ordinary song and re-imagining it in an incredible way, I love the strings in “expecting to fly” and if neil is channelling brian wilson, I don’t care – that’s a GOOD thing in this case.

another very interesting piece from this time is the very oddly constructed “broken arrow” – a great song, broken up with circus organs and other silly things – but a really nice tune, with a little waltz bit in it – it’s genius. “did you see him….? ….did you see him in the river, he was there to wave to you, could you tell that the empty quiver, brown-skinned indian on the banks that were crowded and narrow – held a broken arrow?”

it’s a weird, weird pastiche of sound effects, strange interludes, it’s very weird, but it does keep returning to the beautiful waltz time section with neil’s plaintive vocal just cutting across all the strangeness – determined to tell the story in between the madness – next strange section – some clarinet jazz with piano…making no sense with the rest of the song – but, great piano solo…and then it just fades away – the end – but not, then, it’s an amplified heartbeat – and that is the end!  what a weird song!  but I love it.

of course, there are lots of “normal” songs like the lovely, naïve, “I am a child” – a really, really beautiful piece of music, gentle, beautiful vocal, wonderful lyrics, nice shuffling beat – classic neil young, and when I think of neil, it’s often “I am a child” that comes to mind – anything from his first album, like “I’ve been waiting for you” – things like that.

then you also get wonderful things like “previously burning” – more instrumental guitar music, but with a full orchestra – probably the same orchestra that’s on “expecting to fly” – but this lovely piece is really just a guitar backing for an unfinished song I’d say.  really nice mood, doesn’t sound unfinished – just sitting there waiting for a lyric that never arrived.

it’s quite a wild ride, but what it is constant, is that voice – and the songs – and that amazing lead guitar style.  I used to say that north America only really produced two truly great guitarists: frank zappa and neil young!  each has an idiosyncratic, instantly recognisable sound, and both are really amazing players – who both grew enormously as musicians during the late 60s and early 70s – to the point where no one could touch them.

my two favourite american (I know, neil is canadian – it’s in north america already!) guitarists then, zappa and neil young – and I listened to them both a lot, and learned a lot from both as well…probably more from neil, since when I was a young guitarist, learning zappa was a bit beyond what I was capable of.  later, I did learn a few zappa tunes, but neil young – he was easy to imitate.

I always enjoyed neil’s playing more than his greatly lauded partner/companion/friend/competitor? stephen stills.  stills is a great guitarist – I know, because I’ve seen him live – but for my money, neil is the more interesting guitarist, and, the most consistently good lead player in the buffalo springfield and in CSNY – for me, it was always neil young. you always knew when neil took a solo!

disc 1 starts with a very odd, acoustic guitar filled version of “everybody knows this is nowhere” – which is just so, so cool.  a very different arrangement to the version we know and love on the album, but I love it when artists do this – they have two or more completely different versions, and somehow, they pick one to put one there album.  this on has something like a flugelhorn solo in the middle of it, and synthesizers where the background vocals should be – it’s totally bizarre, but really wonderful.

and then we get to the songs from the first solo neil young album, starting with a song that hits me so, so hard, “the loner” – the attack of the guitars, the beautiful, whammied lead guitars – the perfect Hammond organs and then those guitars that I believe have been run through the organ’s leslie speaker – creating an amazing sound.

but the song itself “know when you see him, nothing can free him – step aside, open wide…it’s the loner…” and then you get the gentle little acoustic guitar melody with beautiful strings accompaniment – then back to the very, very hard verses with all their beautiful guitars, guitars upon guitars, with the strings in the left channel only, acoustic guitar in the right – that lovely 60s complete separation – fantastic.  I could listen to “the loner” all day long..

archives is so full of surprises, such amazing alternative versions of songs that are very familiar – for example, there is a very different version of the song “birds” – which ended up on the “after the goldrush” album many years later, but this early version is charming, simple and very, very beautiful.

another odd thing is neil’s voice – it’s not that wonky! It’s pretty normal on a lot of the songs, serious, no dramatics, he just sings the songs in a really beautiful way – no effects, just neil.

even that strangest of neil young songs, “last trip to tulsa” is enjoyable, it’s a stoner’s dream – a long, long story about chopping down a palm tree – what’s not to like?

then we return to electric music, and the sublime, beautiful, flanged, slow-panning slow motion thick as molasses guitar solo in the centre of “I’ve been waiting for you” – which is such a beautiful song anyway – my one complaint about the song – it’s not nearly long enough – fantastic leslie guitars along with buzzing lead guitars start us out, a chorused electric guitar accompanies neil’s beautiful vocal, bass and piano support perfectly – drums build tension to that beautiful chorus…”I’ve been waiting for you…and you’ve been coming to me….for such a long time now…” and then that SOLO, that amazing solo that wanders slowly from left to right and back several times as it flies through your brain…I love this song!!!

the stereo lead guitars during the fade out are just so urgent, full of life, warped and crying out “such a long time now” just as much as his voice is…beautiful.

maybe his best early work.

then the very serious songs, that are almost awkward in their seriousness – “the old laughing lady” being a case in point – nothing funny about this song; you need to be in a serious listening mood if you are to “get” this number – it’s serious!  another lovely orchestration though, lovely, lovely strings.

a song like “here we are in the years” is so pastoral, so normal, just wonderful in it’s innocence…the slow beauty of the country, how the stupid city slickers can’t relate to the slower pace of life in the country – a fantastic little piece of music…a synthesizer appears to play a few notes, then back to neil’s story, complete with beautiful strings, harmonies and chiming guitars…I love this song, it’s just so full of hope and sorrow and acceptance…here we are, in the years…and then it just fades away as if it isn’t done, but it needs to go…

“I’ve loved her for so long” – an amazing, high pitch vocal, and an orchestra from heaven, then a strange gospel choir appears, but neil’s vocal is so good that it doesn’t really bother me – when he sings in this register, it’s just unbelievable – really lovely.  A really weird arrangement, bass, drums, electric piano – and then the screaming choir in one speaker, the massed strings in the other…it’s just strange – but cool.

archives vol. 1 contains so much amazing material that I would have to write a novel to even describe it approximately, so I am literally picking a few highlights to try and describe – and the one I am listening to now is just astonishing, a previously unreleased live version of “broken arrow” – just neil and his guitar, and it’s an absolute revelation – this is the song, stripped of it’s odd orchestrations and overdubs, and in this simple, unadorned form, with a beautiful, melodic vocal, you get the true essence of “broken arrow” – it’s just astonishing, I’ve always loved this song, but this version, to my mind, is actually superior to the released buffalo springfield version, because the vocal is better, and despite the fact that I love all the weird overdubs on the studio version, it’s this one that I cherish – the surreal, acid-like lyrics, but it’s just the simplicity of the arrangement, straight chords, pure vocal – it’s really a thing of beauty.

the same set of live tracks, “live at the riverboat 1969”, from disc 2, contains other “solo” versions of songs that we know well from the Springfield catalogue, including a similar revelatory version of “expecting to fly” – another one that works far better with the orchestras and overdubs removed – I guess this means I like my neil young without overdubs, just the songs – and it’s the songs that really are so, so powerful “if I ever lived without you, now you know I died – if I ever say I loved you, now you know I tried – babe…now you know I tried…babe…now you know I tried”.

disc 3 propels us into a stark and amazing future, the carefully harmonised, beautifully arranged studio version of “cinnamon girl” is a far cry from neil and his guitar at the riverboat – a man, and a band, transformed, in just a year’s time – a mutation as startling as the beatles evolving from the dylanesque bits of “rubber soul” straight into the full-tilt psychedelic aspects of “revolver” – neil was undergoing a very, very similar transformation – picking up crazy horse as his band, an incredibly shrewd move, and then there is that heavy, heavy guitar solo at the end of cinnamon girl – which I can remember at the time really surprised us, the song was over – but the song wasn’t over, until neil had a little fling with his guitar…

so this third disc is more about crazy horse, and neil as band leader, and it includes songs from “everybody knows this is nowhere” and “after the goldrush” – so some of the most familiar of neil young material, but when I compare this in my mind to the material on the first two discs – the distance that neil young travelled musically, from say, 1968 to 1970 – is indeed comparable only to something like the transformation the beatles underwent.

a brilliant short version of “birds” by crazy horse is followed by “everybody’s alone” with a great vocal, and here comes that neil young guitar tone, the whammied, distorted guitar that we would come to know and love – sweet chord progressions, a totally earnest vocal, but when he takes one of those solos, you just stop, it’s so, so pure, so raw, a great guitar sound, and a sound that I never tire of…

disc 3 also includes one of my favourite neil young songs, performed by crosby, stills, nash & young – featuring Stephen stills on lead guitar, with neil on organ – and singing harmony with graham nash, close harmony – brilliant harmony – I love everything about this tune – “all I need is your sweet, sweet lovin…fill my life with happiness, all I want is your heart – everytime I think of you – mine falls apart” – this track was originally on the woodstock sound track, but I feel it never got it’s due – it’s a cracking little number.

another forgotten masterpiece, “country girl” by crosby, stills, nash & young is included here, and it’s a very formal arrangement, with the four-part vocal harmony to the fore – but despite being slightly over-produced, it’s still a very, very beautiful song – a very powerful song I think – I’ve always loved it “no time to stay the same…too young to leave…” – more neil young lyrical magic “find out that now was the answer to answers that you, gave later – she did the things that we both did before now, but who – forgave her?”.

a surprisingly heavy guitar ominously appears in the last section, playing single low notes on top of the chords…and then suddenly that positive, beautiful chorus “country girl, I think you’re pretty…” with neil’s voice now suddenly to the fore – a great revolving coda with, bizarrely, a reverb-drenched harmonica solo! of all things playing the chorus out…perfection.

the end section of disc 3 features the somewhat rough but very wonderful live at the fillmore east – crazy horse live – including the title track of “everybody knows this is nowhere” – which is a huge highlight for me, love the song, love the fantastic whitten & young lead guitars – they both rock “gotta get away from this day-to-day runnin’ around – everybody knows this is nowhere” – crazy horse are just perfection here, they just play the song – the spark comes from young’s lead vocal and lead guitar – as always, he’s chosen the perfect foil the perfect instrument – to play his songs.  crazy horse never overplay, they never get in the way – they just PLAY.  It’s rock and roll perfection if you ask me, the bass and drums support the rhythm and lead guitars – that’s how a four piece rock band SHOULD work – and despite being top-heavy with the very talented neil young on lead vocals and lead guitar, that formula still operates beautifully – I love this band, live or studio – either way.

this also includes “winterlong” – a tune from this time that never ended up on a studio album, so having it here is nice – it was part of the live show, and the vocal harmonies are fabulous for live and for the time – it’s pretty cool! but for my money – of course – it’s the renditions of the songs we know – including not only “everybody knows…” but also, “down by the river” and “cowgirl in the sand” – with their lovely guitar workouts, when we first heard that “I’ll just play one note over and over again” neil young lead guitar style – and it’s fantastic, in a way, neil young is really an incredibly innovative guitarist – he plays like no one else, he has an utterly distinctive, instantly recognisable sound – as much the “neil young sound” as frank zappa is “the frank zappa guitar sound” – you just know it, and it was during this period that young really started to push his own boundaries, and only he could make playing one note, over and over and over, sound really, really good!  it works…and it’s refreshingly different to the way most guitarists play lead guitar.

I am the first to admit that overall, I prefer british and european guitarists to american guitarists – but there are three american guitarists that I really, really admire (yes, I know he’s Canadian, I mean north American guitarists, of course!): neil young, frank zappa, and todd rundgren.
zappa was utterly unique, and outside almost any conversation involving normal music and normal songs, and of course, both rundgren and young were huge anglophiles, with a well known love of british music – so maybe that’s why I like them, because they were trying to BE british!

disc 3 continues with the lovely songs from “after the goldrush” notable for the strange concept of a young guitarist named nils lofgren being drafted into the band – and then being told to play the piano – an instrument he barely knew – but neil young knew, he knew that this would work – and my god, does it ever work.  the title track, with it’s prominent, blocky piano chords – is so instantly recognisable, so “just right” for the song – and what a song, that sci-fi, dream lyric, the incredibly high pitched lead vocal – I will always love that song.

another huge favourite song of mine is here, “only love can break your heart”, with it’s heart-stopping vocal harmonies on the chorus – I always felt this should have been a huge, huge hit for neil young, kinda like his version of todd rundgren – pop perfection, like “hello it’s me” or “I saw the light” – but it was destined to remain just another brilliant album track from the very, very popular and successful “goldrush” album.

a tour of the songs of this time has to end up with the amazing, immutable “southern man” – another work of guitar genius, this is so intense, and really fun to play – I used to jam on this for ages, I remember one gig where I was a stand-in lead guitarist, and we didn’t know any songs – so I taught the band “southern man”, and we then played it for 25 minutes – that amazing progression from D minor to Bb to G – great to solo over, and on the record neil plays an incredibly fast and spastic solo that is pure genius – of course, live, csny used to jam out on this one too, but whatever the version – “southern man” is a song of genius, with a great lyric, a beautiful, incredibly beautiful vocal harmony – and then – THOSE GUITARS!  This rocks.

“lillie belle your hair is golden brown, I’ve seen your black man, coming round – swear by god I’m gonna, cut him down – I heard screaming, and bullwhips cracking, how long – how long?” – that is just intense, the imagery, and the fierceness of young’s lead vocal takes you by surprise – he is singing with a passion heretofore unheard of – and it’s amazing to behold.

“when will you pay them back?” – probably never, I am afraid.

and then – another pop masterpiece, another should have been a rundgren-style number one: “when you dance, I can really love” – my god, I just love this, harmonies on the verses are brilliant, distorted guitars throughout – but that lovely, harmonised vocal is such a shining, beautiful thing – then, some great chiming lead guitars, and then back to more of the most beautiful vocals on the planet – “I can love, I can really love, I can really love…”.  an insistent piano, an ominous bass and guitar chordal pattern near the end – and then it fades away as quickly as it first appeared.

“when you dance…I can really love” – a simple message, with awesome guitar breaks between each verse – what a cracking tune.  another totally under-appreciated pop masterpiece – at this point in his career, neil could really do no wrong.

now – things turn political, things get very serious – but to neil young, watching soldiers gun down innocent students at kent state was just too fecking much – so we have the really frightening “ohio” – “soldiers are cutting us down…” a shivering testament to a horrific incident – peaceful protesters, shot down for no reason “what if you knew her, and found her dead on the ground”.

apparently, this was written very, very quickly – and was released just days after the incident, young was so incensed, so angry that such a thing could happen, that he really wanted to point the finger – and he does – at richard nixon, at the senseless death of innocents – heavy, heavy stuff – but you know what, I am not normally a fan of mixing politics and music, but in this case, it actually works in an incredible, shivering way – “why? why? how many more?”… an impassioned david crosby can be heard, seriously lamenting, meaning every word…during the outro of this incredibly powerful song.

a live version of “only love can break your heart” with crosby and nash comes out just beautiful, acoustic guitar, bass and three-part harmony – shivers – this is just so, so beautiful, and a great reading of a great song – I absolutely melt when I hear this incredibly beautiful vocal arrangement – these three voices just work – and the song…”what if your world should fall apart?”…it doesn’t get better than this, this is real music – it’s just the song, with neil’s heartbreaking lead vocal prominent, but the exquisite harmonies of crosby and nash make this into a sublime, remarkable musical happening – they really get it, and the whole effect is just stunning – what a thing to witness or to be a part of…sigh.

similarly, a live version of “tell me why” again with crosby and nash – just works so, so well, these two tracks almost put the “official” album versions to shame – especially in the vocal department, where, amazingly, the live vocals are better and more inspiring than the studio ones…excellent!  this song never knocked me out on the album, but hearing this live version totally changes my opinion of the song – it’s brilliant – but, it has to be THIS live version…no other!

speaking of david crosby – you also get the strange live rave-up/mess that is “music is love” – a song from one of crosby’s solo album, that heavily features neil young – and despite the stoned hippie approach to the performance, it’s still kinda cool – although ultimately, this song is more about crosby than young – I quite like it, it’s like a messy, stoned raga – “everybody’s saying that music is love” – a bit obvious.  a strange but essential addition to this disc…

then we move back to something of such delicate, transcendent beauty – a very underrated but very beautiful song – one of my all time favourites of neil’s – done solo at the piano, live – “see the sky about to rain” – this is one that you just have to hear to believe, such a lovely melody, just an incredibly pleasant, wistful, almost mournful song.

as disc 3 comes to a close, we get “on the way home – live” – and from the applause at the beginning of the track, it really hits you what a huge, huge star neil young had become – and here he is, just a few years on from the buffalo Springfield years – playing one of their songs on acoustic in front of a huge audience.

I am sure that part of him could not believe it was really happening, the huge success of csny took all four of it’s members by surprise, and they didn’t deal well with it.  I think of the four of them, neil weathered the strange storm of adulation and nonsense that is being a part of the record industry programme – they had become huge stars at this point, the audiences were huge, and with it, came all the responsibilities and problems of anything that grows far too big far too fast – I think that really, neil kept his head pretty well, all things considered – he just kept doing what he did best, playing that acoustic guitar and singing.

this section is live from massey hall, so neil’s on home territory here, playing in Canada – and as well as “on the way home” he plays “new” songs, and in this case, one of those, “old man”  is presented, and neil’s awe of the song’s subject, the ranch foreman of his ranch, is clear – he respects the man’s knowledge – and how odd is that – writing a song about a guy that works for you, a 70 year old man – and comparing your 24 year old self to him.

the whole thing must have been quite, quite surreal – 24 years old “live alone in a paradise, that makes me think of two…” – having so much money that he could just buy a huge ranch in california “old man take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you…” – I think writing about something real, helped to keep neil grounded – and “old man” is a brilliant piece of music, very deserving of praise – one of many great, great tunes from the very popular harvest album – which was brand new at this point in time.

to be so hugely successful at age 24, but to still be able to write clear, concise, meaningful songs about very real things – the level-headed neil young sticks to the programme – keep it real.

beautiful – and this live version just sparkles – and gets such a respectful, wonderful hand of applause – sensational.

a live version of “helpless” gets a great reception, because of course, it mentions canada, which, of course, makes the canadian audience at massey hall respond like mad – but it’s a lovely song, even without the trademark csny harmonies – it’s a beautiful song.  somewhere, I have an amazing cover of this song done by yukihiro takahashi and bill nelson – it’s absolutely fantastic – they trade vocals, each taking a verse – wow! a great cover of a great, great song.

a long rambling story about an imaginary neil young movie prefaces a rare live showing of one of the most heartbreaking of all of neil young’s songs, the beautiful, exquisite “a man needs a maid” – a tale of loneliness, sadness, and real heartbreak – on the harvest album, with a fantastic orchestral score – but here – just neil and his piano…and the lyrics are not all there yet, because he sings “a man feels afraid” – instead of the final version “a man needs a maid” on the album.

“when will I see you again” he asks plaintively, as this very, very sad tale unfolds – “a maid…a man needs a maid” – [crashing imaginary orchestra] – but on the piano, stark, naked – it’s even better for all the vulnerability that’s on show – then, it segues effortless into a piano version of “heart of gold” – that’s one odd medley!

“cowgirl in the sand” on solo acoustic is just as beautiful as “cowgirl in the sand” live with the raucous but wonderful crazy horse – I love it either way, and here, he pulls these amazing guitar notes on the acoustic – this one note, he keeps playing, in the middle of strumming – this note keeps appearing – it’s just fantastic, a hint of what the electric version holds.

one great thing about archives, is that you do get to hear truly alternative versions of songs, sometimes, you get the same song in three or four completely different guises – and that is fantastic in the case of neil young, the different versions are rarely similar, in fact, usually they are totally different, and often, surprisingly so – I love hearing the “what ifs…” and neil is a master of this, reinventing song with completely different instrumentation and arrangements – and that is brilliant in itself, but it also shows just how good the songs are – because in most cases, they easily can withstand the varying treatments – they are, quite simply, really, really good songs – and they sound great in solo acoustic settings, band settings, pump organ versions – you name it – it all works.

two of the sets in archives vol. one were also released separately – the live crazy horse set, and the live at massey hall concert, but they are essential to this set, and coupled with the rest of the amazing material on offer here – this is one of the best introductions to the genius of neil young, early period, that you could ever want.

“don’t let it bring you down – it’s only castles burning…”

what we’re listening to – the quiet zone / the pleasure zone – van der graaf

1977 was such a pivotal year in music, sure, in ’76, we had the beginnings of punk, the uncertain rumblings that said “this is gonna change…” and, soon enough, it did all change.

but the established artists of the day just kept working on music, and let the punk tide wash over them and around them – but, critically, importantly – just kept going.

that’s exactly what young peter hammill did – he kept going.  the classic four-man organ-based van der graaf generator had broken up for good after a series of disasters, including a disastrous yet successful “tour” of north america and canada, but hammill, as standard-bearer, decided to reinvent the band – completely.

with guy evans still present on drums, [always present thank god], hammill proceeded to and managed to completely change van der graaf’s sound; he even removed the “generator” to give the band a more stripped down identity in this year of great change: they would henceforth be known as “van der graaf” – no longer  “van der graaf generator”.

with the organ, bass and horns slots all empty, hammill started from scratch: bass player – he retrieved van der graaf’s original bassist, nic potter, so that was sorted; he brought in graham smith on violin, from string driven thing – and immediately, that became the core of the new van der graaf.

so suddenly, those beautiful church organs were gone, and hammill’s stark piano and acoustic guitar songs were now framed by violin solos, strings, real bass – fuzz bass! and these changes completely altered the fabric of van der graaf’s sound.  in a very, very good way…

a new year; a new band; a new album “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” by the new, string-driven, stripped-down van der graaf.  this one…rocks!

the album’s opener, “lizard play”, an acoustic guitar-driven vocal and violin extravaganza, sets the scene for the entire album – a supremely well organised sound, fantastic and very complete vocal overdubs – a great bass’n’drums rhythm section with snapping hi-hats, slithering bass, tight drum rolls, fabulous drum fills…and peter’s voice begging, begging “will you dance with me…?” – and then the secret weapon appears – david Jackson, the on-again off-again member, makes an appearance in the very last moments of this song on sax – so really, you have three of the original “classic lineup” – but the presence of potter and smith manage to change the sound of the band so completely, you would almost never know – so, a very similar band, a very different band – but – a really completely unusual, unique album in the hammill canon, unlike ANY other – I am adamant about that.

we move on to “the habit of the broken heart” – a listless, sad violin accompanies a lonely acoustic guitar, but then guy comes in with a steady drumbeat, and nic joins in with a very accurately repeated sequence – the perfect background for hammill’s vocal, and, on this tune in particular, I think it is lyrically really cool “I’m so sorry that he hurt you, but don’t throw yourself away”…and “you’re so special, such sadness seems a shame” – a straight ahead little rocker, with a central solo section of banshee-wail-smith-violin, just to make sure you are still with us…the violins are used then after the solo, as a sort of drone to build and build tension, the drums go mad at the end, guy is breathtaking on this piece – it’s worth it just to hear the drum part!

“the siren song” is next, and is, perhaps, the most beautiful song here, an epic poem, with fantastic nautical allusions, “lashed to the mast” – done only as hammill can do, but, utterly sincere, utterly heartfelt, and very, very beautiful indeed – I spent many, many hours teaching myself to play this song, and I will tell you, as an amateur pianist of no mean skill – this song is really, really difficult to play and sing – it’s very, very well written.  I love every word, every chord, every sound in this song – I could play “the siren song” over and over and over again, because it has an absolutely unique “feeling” unlike any other song I know – and that’s the genius of peter hammill at work.  the vocal – half-whispered at first, then, stronger and stronger and more and more full of agonised passion – “laughter – in the backbone – laughter – impossibly wise – that same laughter that always comes, every time I flash, on that look in your eyes…” that is brilliant!

“and time, will smash every theory I devise” – “nothing really matters, NO, nothing really matters very much….” – shivers.

then, oddly, a fast section, a lovely little piano bit with a nice, clean violin solo on top, this shouldn’t really work but it works really well, it doesn’t seem likely, but there it is, a nice length, a full run-through of a nice long chord sequence, ending up in a great little electric guitar riff (those AMAZING flangers again) and then … somehow, back to the original song’s theme, back to an almost dead stop, and a final, heartbreaking verse, with tinkling electric piano and more passionate violin helping it along until the very, very end.

it helps that these songs are good, really good, some of ph’s best – like “the siren song” – sure, that helps, but the band – they just sound fantastic.  guy is totally on form, underpinning the songs with his powerful, yet musically rich and complex drum parts, there is no other drummer that could have done these songs justice – it had to be guy.

and it’s on the rocking numbers that guy comes to the fore, propelling the songs forward – “last frame” is the first track that’s wholly electric in nature, featuring some beautiful distorted, thick-sounding lead guitars from hammill – but it’s guy’s drumming that draws me back to this song over and over again – nic’s contribution on distorted bass is awesome, and then hammill and smith handle all of the totally insane soloing necessary (the extended solo section, with it’s multiple overdubbed violins and multiple lead guitar melodies, is a true masterpiece of prog heaviosity – it’s a must-hear solo section).

“last frame” is a real sleeper, you don’t really notice it’s power, but then weeks and months later, you find it’s in your head – a really, really powerful song, using the idea of photography as an analog to a relationship, with hammill in various stages of alienation and grief, “hanging back from that last frame…in case it doesn’t show you, the way I used to know you…” – in hindsight, one of the best tunes on this record, but as I say, you tend to take it for granted.  “there you are – your eyes laced with secret pleasure – saying that you’re on the way – to change – devouring, in inordinate measure, every diversion that’s arranged….”.

The final allusion to photography “but then, I only have a negative of you…” gives way to a great descending coda, that quickly fades away into the distance…

smith is quite a furious player, and on this record, he mostly demonstrates a very powerful, very loud, very electric style of violin playing – which is fabulous – except when suddenly, he reaches deep and produces clean string parts of startling beauty – such as the violins within “the siren song” (perhaps my personal favourite track from the album) or the string parts for “the wave” – so not a one-trick pony, sure, the manic, mad, crazy, insane high speed distorted violin solos on this record are brilliant, but I tend to like the quiet songs even more, and smith does a brilliant job of switching between these two totally opposite styles – impressive.

if we hark back to the vinyl version, “last frame”, track four on our CD, would have been the end of “side one” of our vinyl, meaning that track five of our CD is track one on “side two” of our vinyl, and that is the very, very beautiful “the wave” – which never used to knock me out for the longest time, it seemed perhaps too obvious, but now – I consider this to be a hugely important track, with amazing violin overdubs filling out all the spaces of this piano ballad – and a heartbreaking, truly beautiful vocal from hammill – the drama of his lyrics brought into technicolour presence by smith’s amazing, shuddering overdubbed violins – sudden burst of acoustic piano filter through, and in the background, as always, nic and guy pinning this remarkable little piece of music down into a final form.

on both the “loud” songs and the “quiet” songs, the tension built up by the use of the violin (as opposed to the beautiful, melodic organ playing of the now-departed hugh banton) is stunning, and hammill uses the instrument to make these hard-hitting songs pack even more weight than they do as “just songs” – the arrangements on this album, to me, are just top notch, he’s taken everything he learned in the previous incarnations of the band – and distilled them into this remarkable album.

the other standout rocker on this song, is the absolutely amazing “cat’s eye/yellow fever” – a fantastic piece of distorted guitar/fuzz bass/string section that has to be heard to be believed.  hammill’s super flanged electric guitar is balanced by nics crazed fuzz bass octave parts, while guy is flying across the skins at an absolutely impossible speed…then hammill layers on the background vocals creating an incredibly lush and complex vocal arrangement that stems from his angry, powerful lead vocal – it bounces between the power and the glory, all the while, graham smith is sawing away, soloing, building and releasing the musical tension – then, a quiet, minor key section appears, multiple, heartbreaking gypsy solo violins appear as the chord progression is carried forward mostly by nic (guy stops completely to allow this serious piece of music play out) which slowly winds down to the end…this song, out of all the songs on this record, is such a powerful piece of music, and I think it’s one of hammill’s best songs of all time – bar none.

“the sphinx in the face” has long been one of my very favourite hammill/van der graaf songs, in part because of this fantastic lyric “I’m gonna head to the island when the summer’s out, I’m gonna do all the stuff that I can – drink like a fish in a waterspout…” – that’s genius! beginning with an awkward but cool guitar riff, when the rhythm section enters, with nic potter’s fuzz bass full of confidence, ploughing on through – I love that sound! this is one of those songs that just gets stuck in your head for days.  it has a heavily overdubbed vocal chorus, which hammill uses later in the reprise version “the sphinx returns” – as “the sphinx in the face” fades out, the instruments gradually disappear, leaving the multilayered falsetto led vocal harmonies – a great effect.  and they then begin the reprise version, giving us really good sense of continuity, despite being separated by “the chemical world”, it’s as if this song were playing the whole time in the background.

“the chemical world” – this is one of the strangest songs hammill has ever done, and it takes a while to warm to.  it’s quite…odd, and it also contains a fast section with some very, very heavily warped vocal effects, which makes it end up sounding like a lost transmission from the planet klingon during that section.  But over time, I’ve realised that it’s a really, really well done piece of music, with a great acoustic guitar/gypsy violin part that recurs – and then there are those strange, strange vocals! Weird as green milk, but really, nothing else would suit – and then when the “normal “ vocal returns it sounds awesome – a great back and forth between the totally alien and the relatively normal J  it’s a chemical world … after all.  and it’s gonna blow up in your face…  graham smith is extremely excellent on this with some otherworldly violin playing and effects, this song is so effects laden that it’s not funny, but they are done in a tasteful and wonderfully experimental way – there is no other song on earth like this one!  none.  it’s just the drug … it doesn’t last.

the aforementioned “the sphinx returns” as noted, begins where “the sphinx in the face” left off – in reverse, beginning with the naked vocal harmonies, the band comes back in, but this time, at a furious pace with an insanely beautiful, screaming david jackson sax solo – it is phenomenal! Jaxon is only on this record in a few places, but I think even hammill realised the importance of keeping just a little bit of the “signature” van der graaf generator “sound” in his new generator-less “van der graaf” – and including jaxon here, particularly on this song – is an inspired act of genius, because he takes this piece to another level – it already rocks, just because when you have multiple overdubbed peter hammills, vocals and guitars, on top of that very powerful rhythm section, nic and guy; when you add jaxon to that equation – it really just ROCKS – that’s the only way I can explain it – this is just a very brief reprise, with sax, of one of the very best tunes on the record – no wonder hammill decided to put it on twice!

the remastered CD then brings us an absolutely delightful rarity: the studio version of “door”, a song we’d only ever previously heard on 1978’s live album “vital” – and one of the few studio tracks featuring what was to have been the next incarnation of van der graaf – “vital”, and this track, and the studio version of “ship of fools” – that’s most of what is available from the expanded band, which included synthesizer wizard charles dickie (and his work on both “vital” and on the two aforementioned singles has to be heard to be believed – it’s brilliant) as well as an expanded string section.  it’s such a shame that they didn’t go on, and in 1978, van der graaf ceased to exist after only a two-year run, producing exactly one studio album and one live album.

“door” in the studio is absolutely fantastic, it has a very similar heavy feel to it as does the “ship of fools” single – which sounds like proto-metal to my ears – I love the direction this band was going in when it suddenly disappeared.  stay away from the door…

the penultimate track on the re-master is an alternate version of “the wave” – with no vocal, and stripping away the layers of vocal reveals a remarkable sensitive and beautiful basic track, with a great, great peter hammill piano part, and then there are those strings…another graham smith masterpiece if you ask me. “the wave” has always been a dark horse, the song that I never thought that much of – until you hear it like this – it’s truly, truly one of the most beautiful songs on the album, in either incarnation.

finally then, we come to the holy of holies, the studio version of “ship of fools” – this song very nearly leaves me speechless, you just have to hear it to believe it, an impossible, convoluted but incredibly powerful guitar riff is central, that goes without saying, but you have never, ever heard hammill play – or sing – like this…he is on fire! – it’s just out there,  the vocal and lyric is incredibly powerful – a bizarre slapback echo on the drums, the best bass part nic potter ever played – and hammill, hammill, hammill finally coming into his own as a shockingly powerful rock rhythm guitarist and a surprisingly good lead guitarist too – sure, we’d heard the live version of this on “vital”, which is really, really good – it opens that record – but this, this is a song that I can’t get enough of – “dispensing platitudes and junk”…”there’s no rules”.

no rules.

this then, in 1978, out rocks, out punks, most of what punk itself was putting forward.  we all know the story about how john lydon idolises peter hammill – well, this song is one reason why he probably does – “ship of fools”, live or studio, is the perfect blueprint to start a punk revolution from – just copy this, or any of the similarly punk-like songs on hammill’s fifth solo album, “nadir’s big chance” – and you got yourselves a musical movement.

this song is a powerful argument for the concept that it was really peter hammill, not john lydon, who started the punk revolution – although it was via lydon – who loved the music of van der graaf and peter hammill – he just channelled hammill in his own way – and a genre was born!  when you hear “ship of fools” – you will know exactly what I mean J

it’s rare that a bonus track becomes my favourite song on an album, but in this case, it’s probably a draw between the remarkable “cat’s eye/yellow fever” and this stunning, last-gasp-of-this-van-der-graaf single, “ship of fools” – these songs rock hard, have brilliant lyrics and vocals, heavy, heavy guitars – everything a boy or girl needs to have fun.

1978 was a bad, bad year for prog rock – but by 1977, with the release of “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” hammill showed us, over two years, two albums, and these amazing singles – that not only had he already moved on, but he was creating a startling, new, heavy kind of music that possibly was key as an influence on none other than johnny rotten – that’s quite an accomplishment for someone who would have been classed by those self-same punks as a “prog rock dinosaur” – hammill shed that skin, and grew a brand new one – and walked away unscathed from the punk revolution – one of the very, very few proggers to survive it.

it’s a ship of fools.  (there’s no rules!!)

“I was looking for something good, clean, straight – but instead I found – the bunker wall – and gate”.

the music of the moment (and the music of the past)

work on the backlog of audio continues, I’ve actually made some pretty good progress on several different fronts, unfortunately, not so much progress on others, but there is a lot of music beginning to emerge:

from january 2nd, 2012 session, I’ve now mastered the final version of “signs of winter” and after a lot of trials and tribulations, the video has been rendered and uploaded and is available for your watching/listening pleasure now.  this is one of the longest version of this improv, and it’s really a good one, it has a really long and very cool animoog intro, and a great looped and live strings session following – this might be my favourite of all the versions of this song so far.  I’m also happy that this session is now complete, because that means I can move on to assessing newer sessions – so that is exciting, too!

I am continuing to work on recovering a set of animoog audio-only recordings that fell prey to the overloaded IRQ-created pops and clicks, and I de-clicked and de-popped the first seven of twenty tracks, and it looks like at least two of those seven are “takes” – and just hearing these again, and hearing them without pops, the animoog is a very, very capable synth with some great, great presets, but it’s ability to customise that I am looking forward to – creating variants of presets that sound even better/stranger, it’s hugely fun to play with, and then of course full x-y pad capability, so I can alter as I play too…love that instrument!  so – fourteen more to clean up, using adobe audition, I don’t quite know what I am going to “do” with these tracks, perhaps some of them might be suitable for the orsi-stafford album, and/or, part of yet-another-unplanned-but-there-it-is album of synth music by yours truly.  the last track I did, which happened to be track 19, had the most amazing tone, it sounded kind of like a modified, textured motorcycle, but the resulting track just sounds fantastic – I love the sound of the animoog, it’s such a nice synth!

I also mastered a 45-minute session by holding stafford & corriere, from 1977, and it was fascinating to look back at this session, made when prog rock was at it’s height, and hearing myself as a 19-year old prog guitarist wannabe is a strange experience now.  when I hear those three 19 year old men play, I see a big prog future for them, but the reality was even stranger, ted holding went on to play in pop / top 40 bands, I went into prog briefly but then took a sharp detour to crafty acoustic/ambient/ebow/looping and never really got back into prog until the last ten years or so… and I have no idea where our drummer, rick, ended up – the last time I saw him was at an allan holdsworth concert in san diego.

it’s exciting hearing these improvised pieces again, I really enjoyed mastering this tape, especially because I had the very powerful hum, hiss and noise reduction capabilities of adobe audition to help me – something you will always need with a tape of this age.  I was able to make the performances sound as good as they can, I am very thankful indeed that ted holding did such a great job of miking up the session, with his carefully-placed stereo drum mikes on rick’s kit – everything sounded great, but with the help of the clean up audio tools in audition, and the mixing tools in SONAR, I think this is one of the best efforts so far as far as cleaning audio for the pureambient blog audio companion page.

the tracks went up this past saturday, a week ago today, so I hope you’ll have a chance to download and listen to this improvised session, it’s forty minutes plus of great prog rock, performed live in the studio by yours truly and my two best junior high school pals – it’s a fun session, but it’s also a serious stab at playing in the style of the day – and it succeeds on a number of levels – including a 17-minute plus prog opus that I really enjoy, complete with almost ambient creepy organ break and tony banks-style warped organ sound at the beginning, entitled “resolution” – not to be missed.

there are four songs, six tracks: three takes of the first piece, “propulsion”, each of which has improvements and alterations over the previous one, we are clearly trying to work out the piece – and by take three (which interestingly, is twice as long as take 1 or 2 – they are about 3 minutes plus each, while take 3 runs a full seven and a half minutes), it has taken a pretty decent form; then there are three unique tracks: “revolution” – which has a kind of heavy guitar bit in it that I quite like, it’s a nice little jam – followed by the remaining two pieces…

“resolution” is the aforementioned super-long prog rock extravaganza, and for my money, it’s the most interesting thing here musically.  it begins with something planned, and then the rest is just made up – but that start – I have something really detuned going on (despite the absence of a whammy bar, somehow I do this) while ted is turning the power of the hammond off and on to get this weird, warped sound (and what a sound it is!!) that hammmonds famously make when you shut them off and on while playing – and it sounds amazing, a totally beautiful effect from the organ and guitar, and rick is furiously playing something akin to freestyle jazz on the drums, which gradually resolves into a rock beat – so the song starts like a staggering drunk man, who gradually gets up and starts to walk a nearly straight line. I can say without reserve that this is probably the best single “beginning” of a song that I’ve ever been involved in, I remember cooking it up with ted, and it just worked phenomenally well – excellent work.

I think it’s remarkable to realise that, the beginning of this song was “planned” literally seconds before we did it, we would discuss the upcoming piece just prior to starting it, and I can remember this surreal conversation – “let’s start this one out really strangely and then move into the piece…” – and that is exactly what we did!  but then – how did it evolve into a more than seventeen minute long prog masterpiece?  that was not planned – but, we just kept playing.

it then transforms from that strange, detuned beginning into a really nice long jam – with lots and lots and LOTS of guitar solos and organ solos, and a beautiful “quiet” section from ted too, that I really like – just a nice piece of work, considering that only the beginning is planned, and the next 16 minutes are totally conjured up out of nothing, on the spot, by the band!

to close the set, the final piece “evolution”, is quite unique in that it was built to a strange concept that I came up with:  I could see that the cassette was nearly full, with just a few minutes left, so I said “ok guys, let’s play in E major just as FAST as we possibly can” – so we start off at a furious pace, and indeed, play until (and beyond, no doubt) the tape runs out – and we manage, somehow, to keep that relentless pace (I can audibly hear rick struggling to keep the drum beat going at this tempo!) up for a full three minutes – a really nice way to end the set I think.

so much more music is appearing that I find that I don’t have time to document it all, however, suffice to say that I did four different recording sessions today, that went something like this: five experiments involving running soundprism pro from the sono 88; eight tracks working with the itabla pro application and one or more application synths playing along with it; nine tracks involving the korg electribe drum machine (this thing is genius!) and various other synth apps; and finally, ten tracks made using “pinkie” – the original korg kaossilator.  That was a good day of recording, and I look forward to hearing some of this material back…especially the kaossilator session, which was completely unplanned, and an enormous amount of fun – what a brilliant device!!!

I learned a lot about just how much you can get away with in layering synth apps and drum apps when triggering from the 88 key keyboard, and I think that among all that was recorded today, that there will be a number of releasable items – I am sure of it.

I now return to the land of removing clicks and pops…

what we’re listening to – anthology (40th) – the move – movements (30th) – the move

it’s no secret that I am a fan of roy wood and his first very successful band, the move, and over the years, I’ve collected first move records, then move CDs, but I must say, that the two large anthologies released more recently get a lot of airplay with me.

“movements” (30th anniversary compilation) was the first – three CDs including quite a few most excellent rarities – and for me, some of them are just precious beyond belief, such as an early version of “curly” that is just fantastic, the Italian version of “something” and so on – a really, really great set.  I was and am extremely happy with “movements”, because it’s a really good overview of the band, but they also included enough rarities, alternate takes, and so on, for fans as well – another first is the full length ending/fade-out of “omnibus”, which has always been truncated on every other release, and finally saw the light of day on “movements” – and just to hear roy’s actual guitar playing during this full outro is fantastic – any recovered roy wood guitar is so, so worthwhile if you ask me.

I feel that roy is one of the most underrated guitarists of all time, and if you have doubts about that, I would refer again to the new “live at the fillmore west 1969” cd which proves to me that roy was the george harrison of the move, but he was also the john lennon – he did it all, rhythm guitar, lead guitar, lead vocals – and his lead playing I feel is fantastic.

he’s also the only other british guitarist besides george harrison (well, that I know about any way – only “famous pop guitarist” I should probably say) to seriously learn indian music, and the banjar solo in the middle of “fields of people” on the new live album is a fantastic demonstration of his skill in this area.

ten years after “movements” was released, came the four-disc “anthology” (40th anniversary compilation) – and if I thought “movements” was good – this record is unbelievable.  in some ways, if you have these two releases, these seven discs, then you have what you need to understand the move completely and utterly.  “anthology” has even more amazing rarities than “movements” did.

an early version of “fire brigade” that features piano over guitar, an alternate version of “I can hear the grass grow”, various un-dubbed and partially dubbed songs that you know but in different guises – and perhaps best of all, a fully restored and repaired version of the live marquee show which is just fantastic – this show was always damaged, but they found a way to repair it properly, and it now also features all of it’s tracks instead of just some, and they have also thrown in a couple of the original live mixes as well for a couple of the tracks – ALL of disc 2 is live tracks, from the marquee in 1968.

add those to the tracks from the new live album, and you have a lot of great live move performances!

of course, if you are a completist like me, then you need to pick up the 40th anniversary re-masters of the original albums as well, because on those – you guessed it – you get STILL MORE bonus tracks and rarities.  My favourite of these remasters is probably “shazam” – an amazing record in it’s original incarnation, but this one has some real beauties hidden away in the bonus tracks – including an amazing, amazing alternate version of my favourite move b-side “this time tomorrow” – with a vocal from carl wayne (instead of david morgan, who sings the original version) – a beautiful, beautiful song – arranged in a completely different way from the “official” version – and I love hearing things like this, it’s kind of like roy thinking “well, what if it went like…this”.  Or…this.  Or….this?

so after 40 years has passed, that single I bought way back in 1969, of “curly” on the a side, and “this time tomorrow” on the b-side, is now on CD, and I get an alternate version of both songs to contemplate and enjoy – I would have never dreamed of this amazing set of extra, rare, behind-the-scenes material back then!!!!

of course, I didn’t really get a good sense of the move just from having that single, that’s just how I started, and when I returned to the US after four years in africa, all I could find were compilations – and the vinyl version of “something else” – which was the truncated, bad sound quality live album from the marquee. for years, that was all I had for years…you just couldn’t get “real” move albums.

so I felt like I was missing out for a long, long time, eventually, I tracked down things like “message from the country” and so on, and then finally, over the past few years, I collected the 40th anniversary stuff – and I probably play “anthology” much, much more often than many, many records I have – and it’s fantastically arranged, too – do I want early move? disc 1.  do I want rough and ready live move? disc 2.  do I want psychedelic mid-period move? disc 3. do I want late period/jeff lynne move? disc 4.

I really seriously feel that the move got such a bad deal in the press, and their releases were in a shambles for years, and while those have been sorted, the damage to their reputation hasn’t been, which to me is a huge, huge shame.  I absolutely feel that the move SHOULD have been as big as the beatles, the stones and the kinks were – because musically, they were equals.  roy wood was like lennon, harrison, mccartney, brian jones and ray davies all rolled into one. a quintuple threat, he could write, he could sing, he can play lead guitar, rhythm guitar, piano, organ, drums, sitar, sax, oboe, banjar, banjo, bagpipes – ANYTHING.  the beatles, the stones and the kinks – none of those bands had a single person capable of all that.

if you listen to roy wood’s solo albums, where in the main, he plays every single instrument (doing a “todd rundgren” before todd rundgren did a “todd rundgren”) you can’t fail to note what an incredibly capable and talented man roy really is – I recommend both “mustard” and “boulders”, I love those records, and I really think that todd took a leaf out of roy’s book – I think that the move was a huge influence on todd and the nazz, it obviously was, because todd did indeed cover “do ya” on his live 1975 utopia album, “another live” – and roy also liked todd, because the move had not one but two nazz songs in their live 1969 set list – so it’s difficult to say who influenced who – but both todd and roy are the master of walking into a studio, and playing every part themselves, and creating amazing pop and rock music out of thin air.

on the “boulders” album, there is an amazing song called “all the way over the hill (an irish loafer and his hen)” which is a perfect example of…pop perfection, with amazing background vocals, drums, bass, guitars – including harrison-like lead guitar – but then in the middle of the song, out of nowhere, a brief but astonishing sitar solo that mutates into a reverse guitar and then…back to the song – I would give anything to come up with songs half as clever as this one…and then at the end, roy plays live strings, cello, viola, violin – and does this whole irish jig /outro thing – again, where does this stuff come from – like five little songs all rolled into one four minute song.

from the “mustard” album – well it’s just strange, surreal, the title track is some kind of 20s track with female voices (or sped up roys?) featuring a great horn solo from roy, I love this little song, it’s so bizarre…but it’s the second track that I truly love “any old time will do” – piano based, great drums – another one that would have fit right onto any early todd album – a song of unrequited love, roy singing from the heart, perfect background vocals, a beautiful melody – and every note, every sound made by roy.  the guitars, the slide guitars…are bliss, this song just bursts with pop joy, it’s such a shame that these albums never made much impact on the charts – because if you like the move at all, then roy wood solo is like getting to the man behind the scenes – I really wish roy had made more solo albums, I wish he would make an old-style pop album right now.

I felt so, so fortunate, a couple years ago now, I had the chance to see the roy wood band live, and it was sublime, it was really, really good – the band was great, straightforward, crack players – and of course, even though I didn’t expect him to, he did six or seven move songs – so I was able to see and hear him play those amazing riffs, like that really strange one from “I can hear the grass grow”, and for me, that was just as special, and just as utterly surreal and unbelievable – as seeing george harrison (one of the BEATLES ffs!) play in 1974 – to me, those are my top two live british guitarist sightings, more enjoyable than things like…eric clapton in 1975, who just underwhelmed me – but george and roy – both did fantastically live.  george had lost his voice – but his guitar playing was astonishingly good – as was roy’s.  I can’t believe that I actually got to see roy wood play – I waited a long, long time for that one!

but, if you don’t have any of the move’s albums, and you want to hear the most under-appreciated pop band that SHOULD have been the “other beatles”…hear them properly – then you cannot, cannot go wrong with the 40th anniversary package – and it’s a beautiful, beautiful disc – I love the packaging, it’s totally deluxe, but more importantly, it really gives a very complete overview of the band and it’s music, and I could listen to just those four discs over and over and over again – I never tire of the music of roy wood and the move – and I should say too, what an amazing singer the move had in the late carl wayne, his performances in the studio, and on stage (as proved beyond a doubt on the new live album) are just remarkable, so that gave the band a great live vocal sound – because they had not one but two very, very strong lead vocalists (kinda like that other pop group, what was their name again?) and the live harmony vocals were a move trademark, they took their vocals very, very seriously indeed – and sounded great for the extra effort they made.  so carl’s contribution to the band should absolutely not be overlooked – roy wrote the songs – and sang some of them, but carl drove the band forward, and sang most of the time, so roy could concentrate more on guitar – so that’s a win/win situation if there ever was one.

I am not quite sure why the music of the move resonates so strongly with me, possibly because I associate it with my childhood in africa, a happy time, I don’t know, but they always were, and probably always will be, my favourite pop/rock combo just below the beatles – or maybe, just beside them 🙂