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 – 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…”

what we’re listening to – the innocence mission (a guilty pleasure)

in the 1990s, since joni mitchell was already in semi if not full retirement, there was only one female singer that filled that gap (for my money, anyway) – big shoes to fill – and that was the innocence mission’s karen peris.

I discovered this band in a really strange way, I used to videotape mtv’s 120 minutes, which ran from midnight to two am, I would go off to bed and watch the tape the next day, on the off chance that an interesting or good video would be shown (and usually, I was disappointed) but on one of the tapes one night, there was this strange video for an even stranger song called “black sheep wall”, by a group I had never heard of – the innocence mission.

the singer was a shy looking girl with long brown hair, with a lovely soprano voice, but what got to me was the song itself – it was strangely compelling, and I liked the arrangement, which has some sort of reverse reverb backing vocals, and I really liked the instrumentation and the guitarist.

I did something completely uncharacteristic – the next day, I went out, and bought the album on the strength of that one song.  and this was an accident, I never did that – but for some reason, I did.  and I loved the album – it’s an absolute classic, and “black sheep wall” is just one of many great songs on that debut record.

I didn’t know it then, but this was the start of a long love affair with this band, this singer…these SONGS – delicate, fragile, beautiful, sensitive (all the things that most music of the 90s was not) and I was lucky enough to see the band live a couple of times as well, usually in a very small club in san diego. on one of those occasions, I even got to speak to don and karen, and they were just absolutely welcoming and wonderful people – I had a really nice chat with don, told him I liked the way he would go out on a limb with his guitar playing – which he did all the time, his riffs, bordering on the strange, his use of the whammy bar, very peculiar indeed…but wonderful, refreshing – unusual.

a huge component of my admiration for this band IS the guitar playing of don peris – he pretty much never uses distortion, always plays it clean, plays it straight, uses a lot of bright, chorus-y sounds…but can also play so, so powerfully when the need arises.

of course, it wasn’t just don’s guitar, karen’s ability as a vocalist, pianist and synthesist cannot be overstated, of course, really, this is in some ways, “her” band – mainly because it’s her songs – her piano. again, this always impresses me – I am not normally fond of singers who cannot play an instrument – but karen sings lead, sings harmony, play piano, plays synthesizer, plays acoustic guitar – whatever is needed, and she is a musician first and a singer first, as well – now, for a lot of people, it might be difficult to deal with her voice, because it’s one of those really powerful sopranos that some people don’t like, but if you listen to the words, the stories she tells – and then her vocal arrangements – for example, the arrangement on “black sheep wall” is absolutely stunning – as if joni mitchell and kate bush had a magic love child, and her name was karen peris.

as one of the few husband and wife teams out there in the world of popular music, the peris’ had a long and fruitful, albeit low-key, career – and it’s interesting, if you look at the series of recordings they made at the time, starting with their debut “the innocence mission”, moving on through “umbrella” and onto the phenomenal “glow”…but what was interesting was that at first, it was a real band, with bass, drums, guitar and piano – with karen at the centre of it all, those amazing songs, and don supporting her with his world class super clean, melodic, chiming guitars – those guitars!

but, as time went on, first the drums disappeared, and then eventually even the bass, leaving karen and don right back where they started – full circle, so that the last couple of “innocence mission” albums were really just karen and don – and therefore, a lot more acoustic than the earlier records – but the songs never suffered, and in fact the more minimal approach on the later albums actually works very, very well indeed.

early songs such as “clear to you” and “black sheep wall” – are just so, so beautiful, and even now, so many years later, the distinctive sound of karen’s voice, and those beautiful band arrangements, just resonate so beautifully – nothing has changed, even though…everything’s different now.

 

“when it’s…when it’s clear to you, I’ll be near to you – I will be around…

“when it’s…when it’s clear to you, I’ll be near to you – I won’t let you down…”

 

I really admire the amazing talent of these four people, of course, it’s all about karen’s songs, karen’s amazing voice, those kate bush/threatening background vocals, and don’s amazing, concise, careful, clean and sometimes daring guitar playing – and the songs are good, they are solid, the writing is good, the lyrics are intense and meaningful and joyful, the melodies are beautiful – and the band supports karen in an amazing, yet delicate way.

when I spoke to karen and don, I was struck by just what…almost withdrawn, quiet people they were, totally introspective, and when karen spoke, it was in an absolute, barely discernable whisper, almost as if she were afraid to speak aloud (she was probably just saving her voice for the next gig) – and some of her songs are like that too, fragile, you can’t believe something that fragile can exist, something that beautiful – but they do!

so these are definitely not your normal “rock stars” – there was no posturing, no nonsense, just come out, sing and play the songs (and don has a great harmony voice, you could tell that he and karen have been singing together for many, many years) and I was amazed that they then came out to speak to us after the show instead of “off to the hotel” – that was a really nice thing to do, and I haven’t forgotten that conversation even after all these years – I was wanting don to let me overdub one of their songs with layers of ebows – but that idea never came to anything (at least, not yet!) – there is something fairly hypnotic about a lot of the songs, and I had done some experiments where I looped live as the album played – so I could hear it in my head anyway…

 

I really think it’s such a shame that this band was not well known, here, we have real talent, real song writing ability, a great pianist and singer, a fantastic, accurate, clean, quality guitarist – and of course, they were largely ignored in favour of musical atrocities such as…shudder…tori amos.  tori amos was compared to kate bush, but the real talent, the woman who really should have been compared to the vaunted kate b., is our own karen peris – if you ask me, there is a holy trinity of female singers: mitchell, bush, peris – NOT amos, never amos.

 

even new female artists like joanna newsome…OK, I get it, but for me, no one has yet to touch the beautiful, fragile, yet strangely powerful songs of karen peris – they are tops, and it will take someone really, really amazing to replace her place in my heart – I love this music, I’m forever going over black sheep wall and karen peris is taking me there…

sometimes, the band builds up to an amazing frenzy of layered, chiming, beautiful guitars, with multiple karen peris overdubbed vocals lending themselves to this musical frenzy – there is a part in “that was another country” from the “glow” album that never, ever fails to give me goose bumps, as karen’s voices vie with don’s guitars for “most beautiful” or “most chilling” – a really musical, really creative build up of layers, and “that was another country” is a masterpiece, albeit an unknown one – if I had to take just one innocence mission song to my desert island, that might be it…

as I mentioned before, they start out very much “band” and end up very much “acoustic duo” which is a strange career, almost like a career in reverse, the most number of fully arranged, upbeat songs being on the debut, and then, fewer and fewer tracks with band as time goes on.  I love both, and there are also a few tracks that are mostly about karen’s piano and voice, and it’s then that comparisons to both mitchell and bush are totally unavoidable…obviously, she is influenced by both (in fact, mitchell was an actual mentor on the first album, which was produced by mitchell’s then husband, larry klein – as was the second album, “umbrella”, as well) but totally has her own identity, and I love that she is such a strong songwriter, and that the boys in the band – originally, mike bitts on bass and steve brown on drums, along with don and karen peris – they all contributed to the material, but peris is, and always will be, the principal songwriter and is the quiet, gentle, shy driving force behind this band and it’s incredible music.

there is no other like it. an early single, “wonder of birds” has a driving drum beat and a glorious orchestral arrangement that support karen’s massed vocals – and then don starts to layer in his “chorus guitars” – and the whole thing is away, flying, literally flying away – and what kind of band writes about how wonderful birds are – in fact, one of their later albums is actually called “birds of my neighbourhood” – so twitchers (birdwatchers/ornithologists) everywhere, including myself, can rejoice, karen peris and co. are still singing the praises of our avian friends…and that was even a minor hit, with a successful MTV video – can you imagine, a song about birdwatching, an MTV hit??? it doesn’t get more unlikely…

their second album, 1991’s umbrella, starts with an incredibly beautiful, upbeat song called “and hiding away” – with the most glorious guitars, picked chords flying, trying to keep up with karen’s voice, which is soaring so high, so far – and then it’s all don, amazing guitar break, I really cannot express in words what a good guitarist don peris is, you just have to listen – none of it is gratuitous, there is nothing excessive, nothing unnecessary; there is just what the song needs, no more, no less – pop masterpiece minimalism, and “and hiding away” is a perfect example of a great, great pop song – I love it!

I prize the cloudy, tearing sky
for the thoughts that flap and fly.
for staying in and reading by.
for sitting under.

I read a book of madeline
and her friends in two straight lines,
in paris, in a house with vines
over its old face.
far, far is paris…
and the sky is dark with mystery.

try, catch the thoughts that flap and fly
in the cloudy, tearing sky,
that touch and stir and won’t be tied-
and try to speak them.

I think of my old flower sky.
of us, when we thought we were spies.
of bobbing eggs in easter dyes.
of walks in london.
try, try to hold my love for you,
it knows no measure.

this is a day for hearing bagpipes
somewhere playing.
this is a day for hearing sarabands
and hiding away.

sky, I hold my tears if you do.
starling thoughts, go over me

 

and then, from pure, unadulterated joy, the album moves to unspeakable sorrow, with the dirgelike, slowly evolving “ sorry and glad together” with it’s perfect four-note george harrison style slide guitar break – the world’s shortest, best slide solo – so beautiful, a very moody song, that moves from sorrow to joy and back again, and even if this album only had these two songs on it, it would be a masterpiece, “umbrella” is a really, really lovely record.

I love the first three records perhaps a bit inordinately much, and for some reason, I am also very fond of the third album, “glow” – I don’t know why, there are so many good songs, great songs even, across the now-substantial canon of this great, unknown band – and whenever I hear them, I am taken back to the time when these songs were brand new, and I had a secret, I was into one of the best kept secrets ever, the beautiful experience that was being a fan of, and seeing play, a totally real, totally honest songwriter, who would sit down to an absolutely hushed audience, sit at the piano, and pour her heart out without opening her eyes, as don and the band quietly supported her – I will never forget that as long as I live – the venue was a tiny club, and you could hear a pin drop as karen sang…

I feel very, very fortunate that I stumbled across this band by total, total accident; that I took a chance and bought their first CD, that I kept buying their albums (and was rewarded time and time and time again with an even better record than the last one), that I went to see them play and supported them – so many bands are just hype and nonsense, all bluster and no talent, but this incredibly honest couple, with their beautiful, truthful songs, really touched me in a strange way, the songs get into your head and your heart, and you find yourself singing them days and days after hearing them…

“I can see you
I can feel you

I can see…see

you”

normally, I would never buy a CD based on the strength of hearing just one song that I liked – but in this case, I am so, so glad I did, because there after followed 23 years of enjoyment, and I class this band in a very unique category, a rare category, where the quality of the songs and the delivery of the music is such a pure, undamaged thing – even the record companies, the record industry, could not spoil this, and this band always did work on their own terms – they had it their way, even when that way was probably commercial suicide, and for that determination, they have my undying admiration and love.

 

“(I’ve got) clouds in the upstairs, clouds in the memory…

clouds in the upstairs…I still remember…I remember me…”

“clouds in the memory…”

 

 

karen and don – keep making that beautiful music !

 

 

addendum:

 

early period innocence mission playlist – killer tracks

if I had to just take 14 tracks with me…

 

 

black sheep wall

clear to me

you chase the light

wonder of birds

and hiding away

sorry and glad together

now in this hush

someday coming

keeping awake

bright as yellow

that was another country

happy, the end

go

everything’s different now

where does the time go?

snow

moon river

 

 

 

beautiful pop heaven playlist…

 

bliss.

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 🙂

the music of the moment – application-based music

because I have currently have a large backlog of audio and video that was recorded / captured, but never mixed or mastered, my work habits have altered to accommodate this – when I am in the studio, I work exclusively on the backlog (occasionally on the new orsi-stafford album as well) so making new music has temporarily moved exclusively to the more portable ipad.

 

it seems that each week, somehow, I manage to write and sequence yet another piece for my ever-growing library of unusual music that is the fairlight pro collection – in other words, the tracks that will become “fairlight fifty” – at least once a week, other times, maybe even twice a week, and the past week was no exception.

 

the current fairlight pro piece is as usual, quite different from all previous fairlight pro pieces – this time, featuring a strange, almost creepy accordion as the lead instrument, utilising a sound call “submarine” as my rhythm keeper, along with the odd pitched-up or pitched-down (never normal pitch) crash cymbals – the instrument I built is part drone machine part melodic accordion and percussion, and I so, so pleased with the outcome – the piece is currently titled “seagulls” and it has two sections – the original creepy accordion melody (recently improved) and a second section that has a strangely-altered rhythm from the first section, so even though the instrumentation is the same, the second section has a completely different rhythmic “feel” to it so it sounds like a big change – but it isn’t really!

 

it also features a different melodic voice, with a beautiful “humans” voice, voxfemme11, which was previously part of the drone accompanying the accordion section, taking over from the fairground/horror accordion in part two, and it’s even creepier when the accordion returns briefly…

 

so “seagulls” has been my lunchtime project this week (and part of last, it was actually begun then) it’s taken a little bit longer to get this one to fruition, but, well worth the extra work I’ve done on it the past few days – because I believe it’s finished now.  today’s addition was a brand new “middle section” – featuring the bass being removed, and the lead now taken over by a sped-up high-pitched talking drum, which give this third section a completely unique character of it’s own – so now I have three distinct sections, each characterised by a different melodic lead instrument: accordion, female voice, talking drum.

 

it sounds strange on paper, but it’s working really well on the fairlight, and that’s all that matters!

 

 

I am creating so many of these pieces that if I keep going at this rate, “fairlight fifty” will be done in no time.

 

the only slightly frustrating aspect of this is that I am not moving forward on all fronts, because all of my studio time has to be dedicated to clearing the backlog, which means, mix, mix, master,  then, mix and master – and if I am not mixing or mastering, I had better be fixing clicks and pops in recorded pieces and then get on with … mixing and mastering, so this means that I simply do not have any time available for guitar synthesizer, working on album tracks for any of the albums in progress- including collaborations, doing more sessions with the kaoss pad, doing new sono 88 synth sessions (although I have managed a few of those, since the setup is very easy).  there is just no time!

 

don’t get me wrong, there is almost nothing I love more than working with apps on the ipad at the moment, it’s absolutely fascinating to me to be able to make good music on a very portable device, and in learning all these apps and making recordings in several different apps – I have many, but am recording seriously with about 8 or 9 of them at the moment – maybe more – and new ones about to be added – it’s absolutely great fun and I am compiling a lot of good music for future use – including the fairlight fifty album.

 

there will also absolutely be at least one other application-based album, and that will be pieces made in nanostudio – which could not be more different than the fairlight pieces if they tried – two completely different instruments means two completely different sound palettes – and the pieces are distinctive to “their” synth – and, eden synth in nanostudio is a very different beast to fairlight samples.

 

nanostudio itself – that’s just a great tool, so easy to learn, great drum sequencer, super high quality drum sounds, great synth – I have created some really good pieces in nanostudio, so I will actually need to get those mixed and mastered along with the fairlight fifty, so there will eventually be large number of app-based pieces presented in at least two albums, if not more – including a few very ambient pieces as well as more active drum-based pieces.

 

 

speaking of that backlog, my business partner ken mistove found me a viable solution for removing pops and clicks, adobe audition, most distressingly; a set of carefully-prepared synth pieces that were intended to be the first tracks presented on the new video channel on youtube, synthesizerHD – all ended up quite damaged due to clicks and pops, so the opening was delayed until the first pieces could be repaired – thankfully, that is now all OK, and the new channel is up and running with the first two tracks now up.

 

so as well as trying to save those tracks (and others damaged by pops and clicks earlier on, as well) I have begun working through the other tracks from the same sessions (in this case, an ipad synth session from april 7th with nine tracks on it and a sono 88 keyboard/ipad synth session from april 9th with 15 tracks on it) – both, with pops and clicks, but a few of the tracks have escaped totally unscathed – so I am mastering those now.

 

I made a start last night, selecting tracks 8 and 9 from the april 9th session to start with, and those two tracks bear startling witness to the quality of one app in particular, a synthesizer app that is fast becoming one of my very, very favourites – addicitive synth – I love the sounds this thing makes, and playing it from the full size keyboard is the icing on the cake.  it has many, many amazing voices, but it’s best feature is a truly astounding set of preset arpeggiators, some of the most intricate, clever and creative I’ve ever heard – not to mention the facility to create your own arpeggiators – something I can’t wait to try!

 

It was a lot of fun play synth with arpeggiators again, it’s been a long, long time since I’ve done that, but what I try to do with them is hopefully atypical, most people use them to play really fast parts that they can’t actually play with their fingers, usually accomplished by holding down one note, then another, then another, and letting the arpeggiator do all the work.  I don’t go that way – I just play normally, or, rather, I adapt my normal playing style – and I play a combination of notes, chords, bass notes, and mixtures of the same – to try and get the arpeggiator to create unique music.

 

I like to fool the arpeggiator, by not allowing it to fully trigger, by playing short notes or chords that only fire off part of the arpeggiation, and I am already re-triggering it before it finishes – I try to use it as a musical tool, instead of leaning on it because of a lack of actual playing skill.

 

I think I succeed with this, I really don’t want to use arpeggiators as a gimmick, at the same time, I think some of the very creatively-programmed arpeggiators in addictive synth are extremely musical, and they allow me to play challenging pieces with unexpected and wonderful results…I haven’t yet watched the footage yet, so I am actually not 100 percent certain how I made these tracks, but, that will become clearer in time – I just know that in mastering the audio, the result I got for tracks 8 and 9 at least, and a few others I know, is very musical indeed and I hope is a valid way of using the device to make music, not letting the device control me.  I hope!

 

I finished track 8 last night (working title “externalisation”), creating mixes for audio and for video (all video mixes now get a standard six seconds of silence added at the start, and 21 seconds of silence added at the end, for ending reverb, titles and so on) – I just find that makes things much simpler, instead of customising each one – I always target six seconds pre- and twenty-one seconds post-audio when creating audio for video use – and of course I usually edit that 21 seconds down to something shorter, depending on the configuration of the end section of the video.

we always want to be in charge of our machines, rather than the other way around, but on some days I do feel like technology in general gets on top of me, and sometimes the machines win – and it’s then that I remember the phrase “watched over by machines of loving grace” – maybe that’s another album title – I don’t know!

the music of the moment – fairlight fifty

this is just to say, that the first of a number of applications-based albums is well underway, it now has a title “fairlight fifty” (many thanks to colin bathgate for that title), and there are a number of completed compositions now ready to go on to the mix/mastering stage, and more new tracks are appearing all the time….

three things have spurred me on to commit totally to this project:

1)       the bizarre and unique nature of the compositions I am doing on the fairlight pro is an absolute inspiration, the tracks are utterly unique; like nothing I’ve ever done before and like nothing on earth that I’ve ever heard before

2)       I accidentally filmed some birds the other morning, including crows and jackdaws, which became my latest video and the newest upload on the new applicationHD channel, presenting the first single from the record, “feast for crow

3)       I realised that for some strange reason, the average length of an average dave stafford fairlight pro track is about two minutes or less (one or two tracks stretch out to a lengthy three or even four minutes long, but in the main, they all seem to be right around the two minute mark); originally, I jokingly said “I will just wait until I have fifty and then I will release them” but now – I take that completely seriously, because if the most recent tracks are anything to go by, when I reach fifty, there will be then be fifty of the most bizarre and unique tracks I’ve ever recorded…

why not?  at the moment, I am planning on an early 2013 release, as only about a dozen of the required fifty tracks even exist, and I have several other projects that I really want to complete and get under my belt this year – so I can have the freedom to then turn to the fairlight pro project and complete it hopefully in time.

during the mastering of the audio for the “feast for crow” video, I also re-assessed the last few pieces that I have recorded, “unwinding prophecy”, “guitarilla”, “fun with cardboard”,  “petroglyph”, and a brand new, partially completed piece entitled “seagulls” – I realised that these pieces are even more unusual, unique, strange, weird and bizarre than my usual fare, and frankly – thanks to the amazing design of the fairlight pro application, with it’s strange approach of triggering real samples of real instruments and controlling note pitch, volume, duration, pan, etc. as you sequence the samples – that  these pieces of music make up a very special group of songs, each one made with a different customised eight part instrument – and that to gather up fifty of them as an album would be a very, very interesting sonic experience indeed, I hope, ending up as utterly unique as the dozen existing tracks sound now…I just can’t resist the temptation – so, an album there shall be!

fairlight fifty – I like it! (and so – the fairlight fifty album project is officially born…).

on monday night, after having mastered the audio for “feast for crow” on sunday, I assembled the video using the footage that I had taken just a few mornings previously at the end of april.  the video was a lot of fun to make, demonstrating an epic struggle of nature, with the more intelligent crows ending up in possession of the prize – the feast – and the dullard seagulls were defeated once again due to their overwhelming desire to posture and flap their wings and fight and chase each other off – while the crows patiently wait, eat what they can, and end up with the food anyway because the gulls had basically all chased each other completely away – a really cool avian slice of life/real-life bird video to accompany this most peculiar of songs.

best of all, the “lead crow” then does a victorious hopping exit stage left at the end of the video, which I just loved – you would almost believe that they knew I was filming, the way they behaved…

feast for crow” is one of the very, very first songs I created with the fairlight pro app, and given that I didn’t really know or quite understand what I was doing at the time, it came out quite, quite well all things considered.  I believe that for the album, I am going to record these pieces utterly flat, with no EQ or reverb or any alterations except to match levels – because I love the way they sound flat!  I experimented with adding reverb, EQ and other effects when working on “feast for crow” but in the end, decided against anything, so I reverted it back to the basic captured track and mastered from that.

I am seriously thinking I will do the whole album that way – but, possibly, with a twist – once completed in it’s “plain vanilla” version, I might then take “breeze” or other effects, and really go wild on copies of all fifty tracks – reverb them, flange them, chorus them, delay them, echo them, because while I love them plain – I am also sure that some of them at least, would really, really benefit from some serious “treatments” – I can’t wait!

another possibility is doing a single energy-bow guitar overdub of each track, which might be a very interesting musical experiment indeed – but we will see – I really feel that these unusual tracks have so much potential, so I do plan on spending a lot of quality time in the studio with them, to see what is…possible.

that would mean producing two masters of each track, but the tracks are so short, it will be easy to do that – so I think I will move forward on that basis.

I guess that means then that we will have both “fairlight fifty” and “fairlight fifty (enhanced)” – and maybe – “fairlight fifty (energy bow jam version)” too –  to look forward to next year.  I can’t wait!!!

what we’re listening to: roger powell

when we think about the great synthesizer pioneers of progressive rock, it’s really a list of very, very obvious suspects, from wakeman to emerson and right back to wakeman again.  a few others – maybe…  but there is one synthesist that is just as skilled, just as talented, and was really at the forefront of the revolution, I am talking about of course, roger powell, who is perhaps best known for his work with todd rundgren’s utopia.

but what is less recognised is the fact that powell actually was first, a protege of bob moog, and then later,  worked for moog’s competitor arp, who produced the arp odyssey (and by sheer coincidence, I used to own one of those myself) and was really interested in synthesis from a purely technical standpoint as well as from a musical / performance standpoint.  I still have a 7 inch 45 rpm flexi disc of roger powell demonstrating the “amazing new arp odyssey”, which is a strange curiosity now.

I am not saying, by the way, that wakeman or emerson or any of the great prog players were or are ignorant of the building blocks of synthesis; I know that all the players of the time absorbed a certain amount of knowledge just in the process of learning to use these monstrously large and cumbersome machines (they had no choice!).  but to me, powell always seemed in a class utterly by himself, sort of a “mad scientist” of synthesis – and, if you listen to his very, very small recorded “solo” catalogue – just three records spanning some 40 years, you can hear that he really takes the sound-making capability of synthesizers very seriously indeed.

[note: I am only talking here, in this post, about three of roger’s four records because I haven’t yet heard his fourth album, which is an album of solo piano work].

it’s almost as if he decided that within the organisation of utopia, that he would use a certain synth vocabulary, and he coaxed some amazing sounds out of his instruments, and in 1977, went on to help develop the powell probe and brought it to the stage with utopia – and soon, everyone had an original or copycat “portable synth” strapped around their neck.  jan hammer used a modified powell probe so that he could also be free to roam the stage.

I was lucky enough to see todd rundgren’s utopia in 1977 (and twice in 1978!) and powell’s command of the powell probe was beyond impressive – controlling a bank of six (I believe) synthesizers and sequencers that were offstage, he was able to both roam the stage with impunity but still command hundreds of sounds from a vast array of synths – it was absolutely blindingly brilliant…and it was really something to see, bleeding edge technology in 1977 – that worked beautifully.

roger’s work with utopia speaks for itself, it’s a fantastic catalogue of at first, progressive rock, but as time goes on, on both utopia and solo todd rundgren albums, the demands on roger to play not just prog, but ballads, pop – pretty much anything that the chameleon-like rundgren came up with – well, it was all water off a duck’s back to powell, since his skill on piano is certainly equal to his skill with synthesizers.

and he was there in the thick of it, first, working for arp, helping with the design of their products, before rundgren found him and dragged him out in front of an audience.

he didn’t just bring his voice and his skill on the keyboard to the band, he also brought the first fibreglass prototype powell probe, he brought his trumpet, he brought his youthful enthusiasm – and, I was lucky enough to see this tour, the 1977 “ra” tour…and roger was on fire the night I saw the band – hell, they were all four of them on fire.   it was strange seeing the keyboard player stalking the stage with the same freedom as the guitarist – and, it put roger on an equal footing with todd and new bassist/singer kasim sulton.  it was…fantastic – portable, light, fully capable, driving the off stage synths and sounding totally amazing – awesome.

if you listen to something like “communion with the sun” from the “ra” album (1977) by utopia, you really hear roger working so well with todd, they play in unison; they play in harmony; they trade solos in an amazing, concise, intelligent way; this piece was basically set up so it really could be played live, yet, it sounds like it can’t be – it sounds like a very complex studio track.

but – that was the genius of utopia 1976/77/78, at least, that you had four players who could really play, and, all four sang well too, so with very, very tight four-part vocal harmonies (and on “communion”, some yes- or even gentle giant-like “staggered/round” vocal arrangements) on top of a very concise arrangement played by four extremely good musicians – well, utopia live, for those three years, was a musical force to be reckoned with.

sure, the technology would and did let them down – guitars would not stay in tune – things fall apart, so if you listen to a live show from 1978, you will hear disasters, but then they just pick themselves back up, dust themselves off, and dive back in – and suddenly, you are hearing something akin to a prog / beatles, with amazing, perfect, four-part harmonies, and the ability to solo as well as yes or gentle giant – in fact, the guitar/synth trade-offs that todd rundgren and roger powell do sometimes defy belief – they are that technically and musically amazing.

that was the strange inconsistency about utopia – in the same concert, they might play three songs in a row that are just horrible, really out of tune, with bad mistakes, bad vocals – then, suddenly – it all falls into place and they play three absolute blinders, with perfect vocals, amazing solos, and precision chops – brilliant!  talk about erratic though…I actually think that speaks more about todd himself, because he is a bit of an erratic genius, he’s either great, or he is messing up in grand style – gotta love the todd.

a fairly unremarkable pop song might, for example, on the show I am listening to right now, “oops! wrong planet tour” might suddenly come alive because, for this one moment, everything is working: todd’s guitar is in tune, his voice is in perfect condition and he hits all the high notes, the whole band is in tune and in time, everyone is singing at their very best – and then you hear it, the best-ever live version of “love of the common man” you ever heard or dreamed of – far exceeding the original studio version from “faithful” – pop beatlesque perfection.  I’ve heard this song live a million times, but this version – it’s the way it should be.  the vocal harmonies are astonishing for live!  and yet on other tracks from this same show – everything goes wrong!

before I forget to mention, another talent that the remarkable roger powell has, is he is really quite a good trumpeter – this was first apparent on “another live” (1975) – the first utopia album roger appeared on – where his trumpet parts are integral to the success of the lead-off track “another life” – a really brilliant addition to the synthesizers, including an actual trumpet into the very synth-heavy utopia line up (at the time, they had either two or three keyboard players at once!) was a really good idea, and roger excelled at it (whereas todd on sax didn’t quite convince me!) – roger nails it.

later on, on tracks like “abandon city” (another one on the live show I am listening to right now), roger was given a really significant trumpet part, and again, really, really adds a lot to what might have been just another ordinary track from “oops! wrong planet”; roger’s jazzy, tasteful trumpet chops are most excellent.

I can’t say I’ve ever seen rick wakeman or keith emerson or really…any of the more famous prog keyboardist whipping out a trumpet and taking an awesome solo during a live concert!  one keyboard player who does, does spring to mind – edgar winter, who played sax live I believe as well as synth – but he is another unknown great.  there may be a few, but I really respect a guy who can be so good on keys, who can then effortlessly switch to trumpet and play with just as much quality and dedication.

sometimes I feel as if certain players overly dominate the field, while some that are equal or even, dare I say it, better – unfortunately, comparatively – they languish on the side lines or are (criminally) less-recognised:

edgar winter (an amazing talent)

kerry minnear of gentle giant (give me minnear over wakeman any day – sorry rick!) – plays every keyboard imaginable, plays cello, sings beautifully, writes…this man is a genius (another one who plays a non-keyboard instrument)

moogy klingman (of earlier utopia – 1974 version) – brilliant pianist – a prog pianist

larry fast (nektar, synergy, peter gabriel band)

eddie rayner (split enz, crowded house) – especially early split enz (1975-1980)

thiis van leer (focus) – also an amazing flautist, so there is another beside winter and powell

hugh banton (van der graaf generator) – originally a church organist, hugh plays with both hands and both feet

(an amazing thing to see in live performance, and for my money, a far better player than emerson or wakeman – but, because van der graaf didn’t have the high profile that yes and elp did, many don’t realise just how amazing banton is – if peter hammill is the soul of van der graaf, and guy evans is it’s beating heart, then hugh banton is the band’s brain – a mind of musical mayhem and intense, great beauty…)

and of course, our roger “the pal” powell.

don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that yes and elp are not good, sure, I love the music of rick wakeman or keith emerson as much as any true blue progger (but, less so over time), but I think they get all of the attention, while some of the lesser-known players are actually – more interesting, more skilful, more unique – more musically…interesting – but no one gives them a chance, because they have put emerson and wakeman on endless repeat in their brain – please give some of these other very, very talented players a chance – if you love synthesizer or keyboards – I mean, just listen to octopus by gentle giant and then tell me how good rick wakeman really is. (good, but not as creative/interesting/capable as the genius mind of kerry minnear).

just to be clear, I get it, I know how brilliant rick wakeman is on something like “south side of the sky” – I love that, especially the live versions up on youtube – but I just think that the focus needs to shift, and if you really love the music of rick wakeman, then you owe it to yourself to check out the music of winter, minnear, klingman, fast, rayner, van leer and banton !  seven amazing players – I promise you!

roger must have had one hell of a busy life, because during his entire career, he only found time to make three solo records – but what records they are – if you are a serious student of synthesis, or a lover of progressive music – or both – these records might be something you would want to check out.

powell’s first solo record is a period masterpiece: “cosmic furnace”, from 1973, is absolutely spot-on, it has serious titles, serious musical themes, and is using the available technology to it’s utmost.  when I listen to this record, I recognise that it cannot have been easy to make, synths being very unruly beasts back then, but there is no hint of struggle, and powell effortlessly layers his synths to great effect on this record.

the playing – well, it’s sort of techno-proto-utopian, it seems somewhat familiar, but I consider it to be more akin to the mothers of invention at their creative best, than related to the work powell was doing at the time with utopia.  it’s too complex, too serious – for utopia, and I’m glad that powell chose to sit down and make his first serious keyboard solo record at this point in his career, it’s confident, assured, and will sit well with your gentle giant, mothers, zappa, elp and yes – and of course, utopia cds.

we had to wait a long, long time – seven years – for the next roger powell record, made in 1980, “air pocket” is a giant leap forward, a snapshot of the state of the art of synthesis as the seventies came to a close – just before the advent of cheap synthesizers brought us into the musical debacle that was the 1980s – ugh.  When synthesizers passed from the hands of musicians, into the hands of bands.  I’ve written elsewhere about this subject, but powell’s farewell to the seventies stands up really, really well even today, and of his three albums, “air pocket” might be my personal favourite.  it does contain the original studio versions of a couple of tracks that utopia used to play on stage, namely the remarkable and powerful “emergency splashdown” as well as the less known “landmark”.

this record is far more accessible and slightly less musically serious than “cosmic furnace” was, but it’s still an amazing demonstration of skill and sensitivity.  a lot of synthesists struggle to make synthesizers seem human, but powell is better than most at humanising the instrument – I don’t know how he does it, or why I feel that way, but his sounds, his timbres, his tones – even his melodies – connect better with me than someone like emerson – who is more about skill than emotion, while powell, I feel has a better balance of skill and emotion.

the amazing, powerful synth solos that echo powell’s impassioned vocal performance on the studio version of “emergency splashdown” are just amazing, I would rate this album a ten for this track alone – nasty, snarling, visceral lead synthesizer as you want it to be – dirty, wild, spinning, with pitch bend and modulation going mad throughout – and such a brilliant variety of synth voices used in harmony, along with the main melodic synth themes – the solos, arpeggiators, and harmonies all work together as a monstrous orchestra of synthesizers, proving in this track, that you really, really don’t need guitars – it can all be done from the keyboard – if your name is roger powell.  this track is really so, so powerful – and it was equally remarkable in concert, where roger reproduced most of what is on the studio track in the live setting with ease – and doing it all from the portable “powell probe” controller whilst roaming the stage as if it were his own.

“air pocket” also features the original version of another utopia stage staple, the remarkable pop masterpiece “windows” – and you really need to hear this in both it’s studio incarnation and performed live with utopia – beautiful sweeping arpeggiators shimmy about in stereo over the main chordal theme, a really, really catchy pop song that is really all about synthesizers, the central solo is full of reverse and other ethereal, beautiful sounds – a brief glimpse of heaven before we return to that ridiculously catchy chorus – and it’s one of those songs that once you hear it, you just can’t get it out of your head – “you feel yourself, becoming someone else…” – a great pop song, and it proves that powell could have been very popular indeed if he had pursued this line of more pop-oriented material.

it’s actually damnably difficult to make a synthesizer “sing”, to make it sound warm and human, but through some curious bending and oddly-chosen moments of modulation; through his selection of voices, somehow, roger manages this nearly impossible feat.

the title track from the “air pocket” record is a case in point, it’s actually quite reminiscent of a bill nelson synth-driven piece from this same period, with a really emotive, almost oriental sounding lead synthesizer sound, used as the main repeating, melodic theme of the piece – which really creates the most extraordinary mood against an almost funky bill nelsonesque synth bass and snare drum riff – and then, when it gets to the first solo, roger uses a subtly different sound, to differentiate the central section of the piece – and eventually returns to the emotive oriental melody to round the piece out – it’s simple, it’s clean – it’s brilliant!

an even better surprise on this record is the inclusion of a “studio version” of the utopia live classic “mr. triscuits” (which utopia recorded live, but never performed in the studio) so powell makes up for that omission with “dragons’n’griffins/mr. triscuits” – and the glorious melodic themes of this prog masterpiece are reinvented in a most amazing way in this studio tribute.

to round out an all around remarkable record, “air pocket” concludes with powell’s amazing synth version of the all guitars classic “pipeline”, entitled “pipeline 76” so I assume recorded in that year – almost as if to prove a point – these new-fangled synth-o-sizers can do anything a gee-tar can do – and in powell’s capable hands, that actually becomes a truth.  the sounds might not be guitar sounds, but they work – they tell the story of “pipeline” just as well as the guitarists do, including some fabulous distorted “guitar solos” that are just brutal in their intensity – great stuff!

give me these three records over a dozen wakeman solo records anyway – there is nothing here that isn’t visceral, real and honest – I really like these three records a lot!

if we thought we waited a long time for “air pocket”, roger’s other commitments over time meant that his third and most current solo record, “fossil poets” was really a long, long, long time coming – it was originally released in 2006 – and perhaps, that 26 year gap between records was a time to consolidate everything roger had learned and experienced, and then, he finally sat down to make another record.

and it’s a lovely disc, once again, completely different from the other two, and with twenty-six years of progress in the field of synthesis, the voices and sounds that are now available to powell to express himself on this record are mind-boggling; he chooses wisely, and it’s another successful, rounded record – I think in this case, less is definitely more – OK, if I really want to hear roger soloing his heart out, I will find some vintage live utopia from 1976 or 1977, or I will put on one of the official utopia records – but when I want serious, intricate, thoughtful synthesizer music – it would be to these three records that I will always turn.

“fossil poets” is a grower, it’s much more about subtlety, texture – this is a such a different sounding record from either of his two previous solo albums or the utopia catalogue – it sits almost in a unique and unusual sonic world of it’s very own.  I love it, there are some bizarre and wonderful synth tones that you do not hear every day, and they are used in challenging and interesting ways – the weird intro to “fallout shelter” being one example, a nervous, shifting rhythm with a wonderful, tactile solo raging over the top of it, bending and stretching through impossible frequencies…as bill nelson says “the frequencies…shift”.

it’s absolutely fascinating too, to compare the aural experience of these three albums, each, as it were, representing an “era” of synthesizer development: 1973, the tones are more basic, the classic sine, saw, square, triangle waves all have their part to play lfos other modulation are definitely from a more limited palette than on the later records – although, given the primitive state of synthesizers in 1973 (compared to 2006 or even 1980) powell really does coax a lot of fairly subtle and advanced tones from his 1973 machines – it’s brilliant.

come 1980, and the entire vocabulary has shifted, arpeggiators are to the fore, we have some early beginnings in terms of more subtle sonic textures, even ambience, although not to the extent that ambience plays a part in the 2006 offering.  “air pocket” is like a mid-term exam, technology had come a long, long way since 1973, and roger takes full advantage of the new tools available to him in 1980 – he has the answers to the exam, and he passes with flying colours – every track on air pocket oozes confidence and quality.

finally though, we reach “fossil poets”, a modern-day record made with the latest hardware and software synthesizers.  tasteful use of real basses and guitars flesh out what is still, mostly, a keyboard extravaganza, and in the background, there appear everything from synth basses to fender rhodes (or similar) to clavinets (or similar) – or, a sudden hammond organ style solo will appear from nowhere – and curiously, quite often, the voices seem to have been run through a wah pedal or filter – which just goes to show you, technology does not have to be new and fancy to work – the wah-wah was the world’s first portable filter – and synth filters work in a very similar way indeed.

synthetic percussion is present too, and in this percussion, we can hear the progress – similar percussive sounds on “cosmic furnace” sound cheap and simplistic, here, they are fully evolved, they sound like drums, but, synthesized drums – they way they should sound, tasteful sounds that accurately emulate real drums.

the biggest difference though, for “fossil poets” are pads, sounds that “wash” over you, beautiful, ambient chords and drones – all of the ambient sounds and moods, that are completely absent from “cosmic furnace” and only partially in place by the time of “air pocket” – are fully realised here, so from a standpoint of mood, emotion, texture, and beauty – “fossil poets” probably “wins” hands down.

I love the fact that powell uses rhodes-like and hammond-like sounds on this record – why mess with what works? – he could invent or develop really weird synth or piano sounds, but he has the wisdom to not mess with perfection – so the rhodes, hammond, string and even percussion voices, sound good – because he hasn’t messed with the formula that says “use a rhodes sound, and your track will sound good”.

another favourite track of mine on this particular record is “underwater city” – which somehow, sounds exactly like it’s title – it starts out with subtle, ambient keyboards stalking you in stereo, then, ominous guitars layer on top of really ominous synth bass as the song develops – a muffled, strangled bassy drum beat accompanies the lead guitar, while roger plays odd sound effects and wonderfully textured synth accompaniment in the background.  then the song takes some odd turns, some beautiful short chord progressions, and it enters a wonderful, dreamlike state that would simply have not have been possible on “cosmic furnace”.  it’s like bluesy delayed guitar on top of space age ambience – a lovely combination. the use of stereo in this track is phenomenal, and the synth effects and one-off sounds are absolutely fantastic – I love it.

“tribe by fire” really throws in a complete kitchen sink of synthetic sound, there is so much going on, so much texture, so many melodies, so much wonderful ambience – sudden ethnic synth squeals – then peaceful, beautiful electric piano – slithering, snake-like synth leads – then, suddenly, the sound goes dry, and odd flute-like events and percussion take over – it’s as if the track is mutating from one song into another – but, every 17 seconds or so.  I really like this one, too…

“peaceful uprising” is a real centrepiece of this record, with it’s insistent beat, and wonderful layering of synths over a very beautiful ascending, positive sounding chord progression – synth leads harmonise with lead guitars over a vaguely arabic-feel backing – I really, really love this piece, it’s so intricate, so carefully arranged, and it’s all about harmony and texture; texture and harmony – the rhythm stops occasionally and the piece goes very ethnic, little islands of quiet before that insistent rhythm picks up again, driving the song onwards and upwards, it’s absolutely fantastic!

it’s strange too, how your own tastes change – originally, my favourite synthesizer record was undoubtedly “the six wives of henry viii” by rick wakeman; and I still do love that record, but I don’t tend to actually listen to it – whereas, I still find myself putting on the three powell albums quite frequently – often, I just select “play all” and listen to the whole suite – and when you do that, it really hits you what this man can do, what he has accomplished – the brilliant, atmospheric opening to “lunar plexus”, the lead-off track of air pocket, just sounds to me like science fiction/future synth music, I just love it (“air pocket” was the first powell record I owned, cosmic furnace was very difficult to find for a long, long time) but if you play the three back to back – the range, the diversity, the amazing sounds, sequences, arpeggiations – the amazing solos – the quiet piano breaks…the quiet, determined intelligence behind these records speaks volumes – this is how synthesizer music should be!

“cosmic furnace” is entirely instrumental; while “air pocket” sports a few very excellent roger powell vocals, with a return to the instrumental approach for “fossil poets” – and I actually really like roger’s voice, it’s underrated, I’ve seen and heard him sing at a number of utopia concerts, and he turned in some amazing live performances – especially on his own tracks, such as the live versions of “emergency splashdown” or one of his showcase pieces, “caravan” where he trades synth leads with rundgren’s guitar leads to great effect, all the while singing the lead vocal of the piece, to his remarkable “solo section” in the lengthy and complex “singring and the glass guitar” taken from 1977’s “ra” album by utopia – roger on stage was a revelation; even better than in the studio, and the range of expression he wrenches from his keyboards is one of the most significant – sure, wakeman gets a lot of great sounds, but somehow, with powell, it seems more personal, more indicative of his personality and style – wakeman is saying “I can make all these sounds” while powell is saying “these sounds represent how I feel” – and therein lay the difference.

the main difference in the 2006 offering though is probably the presence of real texture and real ambience – those things were harder to achieve earlier on in the development of synthesizers, but none of it is a problem for roger powell – the great unknown contender to the possibly unwanted throne of “prog synth wizard” – I think, if people listened to “another live”, “ra”, “oops, wrong planet” and “adventures in utopia” – along with these three records – they would be blown away by this quiet scientist of synthesis, the amazing roger powell.

I cannot recommend his music more highly to you if you enjoy the sounds made with synthesizers.

journey through the past (how we gather around what is precious)

I’ve been so pleased with the progress made on the pureambient blog audio companion page, and I am really excited about the music that is still to come as well, discovering all this historic music is both interesting and challenging.

those were simpler times – but I’m constantly amazed by the quality of what these young people (ted holding and dave stafford, and their various friends and musical co-conspirators) accomplished. I am even more impressed by what they accomplished without the benefit of technology more complex than a teac 3340-s – the four-track reel-to-reel recorder of choice in the 1970s.  that was all we had, ted had a 3340-S when we were recording from approximately age 15 – 19, and sometime later, I ended up with a 3340S of my own, which I made many, many records on – all the way up through 1995 when I got my first pc.  so the state of the art in 1975, well, we had the four-channel deck, ted had good quality mixers, a monster power amp, and giant homemade speaker cabinets to play back through – heaven for two teenage musicians!

the next set of tracks that I am working on will again, reveal a whole new musical direction for holding & stafford, we are now going to veer away from pop, into the fascinating territory of progressive rock improv; with ted holding demonstrating that his ability on hammond organ meets or even exceeds his remarkable capacity as a vocalist or pianist – it’s really an extraordinary set.

I notice now, though, that something else begins to happen: I publish the tracks, people hear them – other people who were there, who remember Ted and his amazing voice, and his amazing songs – and those people then join in, they begin to contribute to the process – in fact just today I received a remarkable recording from joe norwood, featuring ted on a cover version of an ambrosia track – so with joe’s permission, we can very probably add that track to the pages at some point for everyone to enjoy.

this phenomena is really one of the most positive aspects of the internet, for us, uh, more mature folk, it gives us the chance to locate our oldest friends and share with them music or events from the far distant past, no matter how far apart we have become physically.

and when we run across something really special, like the original music of ted holding, well, for me, it made me sit up and notice, “this is something truly special” – so you want to share that, you want people to hear this music that means so much to you, that means a lot to you because you were part of it’s creation – but, that aside, it’s important because it is truly, truly music of quality.  it demands to be heard.

then, people who knew the music’s creator appear, and the whole experience just becomes even more enriching, moving and compelling…

when I began the audio cassette restoration project, I never dreamed for one minute that it would be anything more than digitising some cassettes, and hearing and posting on my web site, some of the music from my past.  I never dreamed it would then take on a life of it’s own, eliciting such positive responses, and also allowing me to reconnect with some of the other players who were either there at the time along with us, or folk who knew the composer later on in life – the whole thing really has surprised me, in a really positive way – it’s been fantastic.

I can’t wait to get the next batch of music processed and put up on the audio companion page, and watch and listen as this musical story unfolds, and this section, the section featuring my best friend, ted holding, has been my absolute favourite chapter so far, and I know that there are many more pieces featuring ted that will come to light and will add to this online collection of historical, archival releases.

please join us, stop by and have a listen to some of ted’s songs, and our performances of those songs – I would hope you will be pleasantly surprised by the quality of the songwriting, the passion and power of the vocal performances, and the obvious love that we have for the act of music.

as we then move the audio cassette restoration project into the 1980s, the audio companion page will track my own development, first, as a pianist, then, on hammond organ, up until 1988, when guitar really took over completely as my main instrument, I did a lot of really interesting work with both piano and organ, and a lot of this music has never been heard – everything from noise experiments involving a pedalboard that could make music with no guitar attached, to covers of the songs of the day, the music I loved, played on guitar, piano, organ and often, with vocals.  so really, a whole new side of dave stafford is about to be unveiled – over time.

 

when it came time to look at my back catalogue in terms of digitising the work, so, originally, I could produce physical CDs, and latterly, so I could produce portable versions of the music in MP3 form to make them available as downloads, there was absolutely no way at the time (1995) that I could go all the way back to these earliest works.

so I picked an arbitrary cutoff year, and decided that everything before 1992, I would not digitise (at the time) and most of everything after 1992 (with a few notable exceptions, such as 1994’s “worldview” cassette) I would digitise.

it was really an accident then, that my 1992 album “voices from the desert” became my “first” album – which is actually inaccurate, I had created albums on cassette in the 1980s, but since all of that material was before the arbitrary cutoff date – well, “voices” has remained as my oldest released record until now.

the cassette restoration programme, and the reel-to-reel restoration programme slated for 2014 (or sooner, if it can be managed) will aim to change all that, and I hope eventually to “meet in the middle” – as my published CD catalogue works back from the present to 1992’s “voices from the desert”, the dave stafford works to be published on the pureambient blog audio companion page will work forward from 1971 (my oldest recorded music) up to 1992, when “voices” was created”.

 

it should be noted that 1992 is just the cutoff for dave stafford “solo” works, for bindlestiff and the dozey lumps, well, the former goes back to about 1991, while the latter stretches back to 1988 – but those were exceptions to the rule, and needed to be digitised and included in the currently available back catalogue, which can be downloaded from the pureambient store.

as I noted above, good things start to happen when you share music, and I cannot be more pleased than I already am about unearthing and presenting the remarkable music of theodore landis holding, musician and friend, and I am so glad I have taken the time to clean up and present this work on the audio companion page – a labour of love, as peter hammill might say.

 

the original songs of ted holding presented here are a tribute to my friend and musical partner, and are dedicated to his memory.