“you wake up one morning…w”

strangely, today, I find myself working on audio mixes, not that that in itself is strange, but in this case, it’s audio mixes of live performances of a song that I never, ever dreamed that I would perform in any context, anywhere – but there it is:  my second attempt, too – I’d tried it out originally, during the recording session of 20150222, but couldn’t get a take that I was happy with, so I let it go for a while – until april 19th, to be exact – when I sat down specifically to record a little-known, rare Van Der Graaf Generator b-side entitled “W”.

I had only just re-discovered this track, when I was working on other acoustic Hammill songs, it suddenly struck me during the February sessions, I should see if I can capture one of my strange renderings of this song – so I did try.  And while some of the takes were close, none were good enough to properly do justice to this rather unusual song.

hence – trying again later, which in this case, is a dedicated session to “W” – twelve takes in all, about an hour and ten minutes of session time, doing live take after take, working out the arrangement, working on the vocal – and just trying to get to a version that would indeed, do justice to the song, at least, as well as I can with my strangely gentle, twangy California accent – hardly the accent to tackle the Peter Hammill canon, but – that’s what I do – I spent many years, learning many, many Hammill and Van Der Graaf songs, and now, I find, I’d like to record them – all of them, although the amount of relearning needed my be prohibitive in some cases, while age lowering my voice might make others impossible…who knows??

but for whatever reason – I found myself trying to do this song, live, with one acoustic guitar – or rather, with  an acoustic guitar substitute, which is my roland gr-55 guitar synth.  because my real acoustic guitar is unhappy, I had to use the synth instead, which, admittedly, does look a bit odd, in the video, but it had to be – and it does a reasonable job, I have to say – not bad.  It certainly sounds acoustic on playback, and of course, I can’t resist giving it a bit of “sparkly”, by using the Waves Reel ADT plug in on it – give it some Beatles chorus or flanging – which is about the right era, “W” might have been written in the late 60s, I don’t really know, in fact, I only have two versions of it – one is the live version (from 1971) that I “grew up with”, which, oddly enough, has only just recently been released officially, on the new Van Der Graaf Generator CD “After The Flood” – At The BBC 1968 – 1977 – that live version,which is to me, an absolute Van Der Graaf rarity, coming from a rare 1971 John Peel concert, which had only previously been available on bootleg – which is where I had heard it.

years later, I also acquired the “studio” version, which again, isn’t that easy to find, but it’s out there, and of course, I had to have it – beyond that, I don’t know if there are a lot of other live versions out there, I doubt that they played it much after 1971, I am not sure about the song’s history, but I am sure of one thing:  the effect it had on me, as a young Peter Hammill fan, I just think it is an amazing performance, led initially by Dave Jackson’s amazing horn playing, and it’s odd and wonderful to hear Hammill singing and playing live on acoustic guitar – with the rest of the band, playing in a subtle and wonderful way, Hugh Banton coaxing some of the oddest and most wonderful harmonics from his Hammond drawbars – I love the organ playing on that live version, I love everything about it – it’s just one of those odd tracks that sticks in your head for some reason- I really loved that particular bootleg – it had the first three Van Der Graaf songs I ever heard on it, in this order:

1) Killer

2) W

3) Man-Erg

Which is actually reverse order from the real session, but that’s just bootlegs for you (in this case, “Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace” – what a title!).

And while all three tracks were absolutely mind-blowing to this young man, who was just discovering this remarkable band, over time, it’s “W” that has stuck with me the most – although “Man-Erg” is a close second – I just love these performances, it’s a great session, and it’s really great to have it officially released at LAST – thank you.  That is not to downplay “Killer”, but I can’t perform “Killer”, although I can play the main riff – the connection is, over the years, I have learned, practised, and performed both “Man-Erg” and W – while with “Killer”, I can only sit and listen in astonishment – especially when David Jackson takes THAT solo – wow.  Amazing stuff.

So – at a session meant to capture “acoustic guitar songs” by Peter Hammill, where I’d performed both “Shingle Song” and “Again” – it suddenly struck me – hey, you could play “W” !!! Or – could I?

My first attempts were spirited, but flawed, mostly, it’s the guitar playing that got me, although the vocal does present certain challenges….so I abandoned the 20150222 takes (reluctantly) and am now currently embracing the 20150419 takes – which give us a completely different story – more of an embarrassment of riches, than anything else.

By this time, after about three warm-up takes, both the guitar arrangement, and the carefully designed vocal part (where I have to omit at least one high note that I can ALMOST hit, but I don’t want to risk – so I have made a slight change to the melody in one place, so as not to embarrass myself every time) have come together pretty well, they are both reasonably well developed – and starting with take four, and going on through take 12 – the takes are all good!!  With tiny variances, very difficult to note, and making it very, very difficult to “choose” between takes, when they are mostly all, so very good.  Basically, there are 8 good takes out of 12, with five of those being near perfect or with only very slight faults, and the other three, only slightly less perfect.

Every take has something of merit, so I have really had my work cut out for me here:  how do you, when you have eight out of twelve good takes, make any decisions at all – how to know which one is “the” take.  The answer:  listening.  Of course…once you start really listening, all of the tiniest errors find their way to the surface – which, allows you to cast out more and more takes for more and more small reasons – until you are left with what is, truly, “best”.

You have to listen and listen, perhaps focusing in on one aspect of the performance each time – for example, it was important to me that the guitar take contain a clean four bars of introduction, and that the same four bars, when repeated later as an instrumental “solo” of sorts, that those are also as flawless as possible – and also, the ending is important, I’d added on this crazy “Fripp”-chord as the final ending, and the quality of it varied on every track – with a few most excellent, others, just OK, and then, of course, I wanted a take with a really good vocal…luckily for me, there isn’t as much variation between the vocal takes – so in the end, it was really about where the best, most consistent, guitar playing was, and it had to be a whole take, obviously – with one exception – I could, potentially, since there is a silence while I sing the last line of the song – I could potentially “swap out” the ending chord, if for example, I had a great take (like Take 11, for example) but the ending chord was a bit better, a bit cleaner, on Take 12 – then, maybe, I might take a slight liberty and improve the audio, by having a better, cleaner chord – which of course, I would tell my listeners (if I decide not to use an entirely live take, then I would say “live performance of take 11 – except for the final chord – which was borrowed from take 12” – or whatever I had done) – or maybe, I would just decide to keep whatever ending the “best” over all take had – it depended on what sounded best.

I wanted what sounds best, so I really have to trust my ears, and say ” this take, this one is it” – and then stick by that decision – then, do everything in my power as both producer, and as engineer, to make this take sound as humanly good as possible – or as humanly possible.  At this point in time, during my second or third re-assessment of the 12 takes, I believe that Take 11 is the master – I can’t find much fault with it, but, I do tend to like the end chord of Take 12, very much indeed – and, Take 11 itself is not bad – so I need to decide between these two, I think.

I get to this point, and then I think – yes, but, what about those early takes, where I was a bit unprepared, but maybe there is a bit more spontaneity, maybe…so I find myself back again, listening to take four, take five, and so on – trying to rule these “earlier” takes out for one reason or another – but it’s difficult, because they are good.  I begin to wonder if I shouldn’t produce two or three of these – and that is a distinct possibility, it’s definitely do-able, because these takes are so uniformly good – it’s strange, because I had such a struggle playing the song on February 22, 2015, but on April 19th, I had no such issues, and every take from take four onwards, has a life and a feel of it’s own.  Heck – maybe I should produce ALL of them, warts and all…it’s such a temptation, it really is.  But I really want to pick just one, and I really need to narrow it down – so I just keep doing the only thing a good producer can do – listen, listen, and then, listen again.

After a long afternoon of listening, and then listening again, I was forced to exclude the majority of the earliest takes – 4 through 9, basically – because the guitar intros and solo sections were too imperfect.  Even take 11, which is closer to perfect, is still imperfect, but, it’s so much better than takes 4 through 9, that it makes enough of a difference – it’s a good take!  So now, it’s pretty much going to be a race between Take 11 and Take 12…

Finally then, some full on tests, with levels properly set, limiter on, and the final, finishing touch – my beautiful Waves Reel ADT Plug-Ins – a stereo one for the vocal, and another stereo one for the guitar – and just adding those on, makes such a huge difference to the sound – it’s just remarkable.

And what this meant was, that, the imperfections in Take 11, seemed worse, while the relative perfection of Take 12 – seemed apparent, so adding the Reel ADT plug in, made it possible finally, to choose between the two “best” takes – and 12 – the very last take of the session – has it all, at least, to the extent that anyone can “cover” such an unusual song with one guitar synth, set to “acoustic guitar”, and a shure sm-58 vocal mike !!

Not that it’s particularly difficult to play, the chords are easy enough – but the lyrics certainly are not.  “double you” – seeing yourself from another perspective, as other things occur to the other “you” – is a strange point of view for a song; you wake up one morning, and there are two of you, which makes you twice as unhappy (as it would, if you were unhappy) a strange tale told of this man, immobilised, almost, only able to look out the window, and see the smoke “billowing across the lawn” or only able to drag himself downstairs, to specifically find out that “you are gone…!”.

At the end of the song, you wake up (again) – look to your left, but you see no reassuring head – you then stayed in bed all day, when, at six o’clock, you realised – that you’re dead.  A short, unhappy tale, with a strange atmosphere, strange lyrics – definitely one of the oddest of all Peter Hammill-penned songs.  But at the same time – a strangely compelling one.

A very strange perspective, the classic sort of “seeing yourself laid out on the table”, and realising that it’s you, it’s YOU that are dead – that’s very odd, and it’s no wonder the band didn’t perform this often, what with it’s somewhat cheerless lyrics – not the most cheerful tune ever written by the sometimes-unusually-morbid Hammill (as he could be, back then) – who, while known for tackling difficult, or uncomfortable subjects, rarely tackles a subject like this one, in such an inflammatory way, too – practically a primer for how to leave your body, which some might view as the ultimate “suicide” song – I don’t, I view it as a man having the odd experience of seeing his own body, suspended in space, whilst realising that the body is dead – not having realised it earlier in the day.  more metaphysical than death wish, if you know what I mean. but I think each listener has to decide for himself or herself, what the song means – because even though I am singing it here – I absolutely do not know.

So the sort of day-long purgatory of trudging around the house, knowing something is wrong, dragging yourself downstairs – and finding that you are gone…that longest day finally ends in the sudden realisation that there is a very specific reason that there are two of you, that you have woken up and it’s a “double you” situation – “W” – because, you have passed away, of course!

The rate that our hero realises at, well it take a few minutes, which gives the song time enough to get through it’s purgatory phase – and then, it’s all over, in a blinding flash of  – well, in the real live version, it’s a wonderful, sonically crushing organ chord and bass note, accompanied by a crashing horn note from David Jackson – which I have chosen, for unknown reasons only known to the other half of me, to represent in this version with a very long, loud, dissonant “Fripp” chord – that was the only thing I could do, safely, on an acoustic guitar, that might work as a facsimile organ/sax ending – and I suppose, sonically, it could be worse – it’s a decent choice.  originally, back in February, I wasn’t returning on the guitar at the end, after the final two words – I was just letting the last two words, be the last thing you heard in the song – but I think the frantic, crazy guitar chord is just the ticket, and it was an absolute joy to try to play – even though, I only got it “right” about once in every 12 attempts 🙂

I was as happy as I could be with the guitar arrangement, and the vocal arrangement, and then, it was just down to the playing – and luck – and in the end, “practice made perfect” or at least, practice made it bearable…and I finally stayed with Take 12, and started working with the track – until I got a sound I liked, and was happy enough with – I mean, it is live, and it’s only as good as it’s two simple components, so there is not much you can do to improve the performance itself – it is what it is.

I think you can tell that I love this song, that I love to sing it – I hope that comes across in the video, it was an incredible surprise to me, that I could actually play it, and I so much enjoyed singing and playing it, it was a real pleasure – and I am really glad that I did learn this song so many years ago, because at least it came back pretty quickly – which is great.  What a nice surprise, to have an old friend like this turn up out of nowhere – and still be unchanged, as familiar as when I first knew them – a good, good surprise!

In the end, it took me almost two full days of work, and four attempts at getting the right sound, before I could produce an audio track of “W“, completely live (I decided, in the end, that the completely live take 12 was the best bet, no messing about – warts and all – not quite perfect – but, not too bad!) that I am happy enough with, and now, I am assembling not just the video for “W” live, but also, a strange special bonus video – what happened directly AFTER the end of the successful take.

so I’ve produced two audio tracks, and am working on two videos, one for the live version of “W“, using the whole of take 12 as it’s master, and the second, which I am calling “improv on a theme – stone free (james marshall hendrix) – live – post take 12” which is approximately one minute worth of digital recording time directly following the final “Fripp” chord that ends take 12 of “W” – for the first time ever, I’ve decided to release some “non-song” footage, featuring a spontaneous jam on “stone free” by jimi hendrix – notably, a song that I have never played, never learned, and have no idea how it goes!!

it’s only really “on theme” for about the first 17 seconds, and it then wanders off into random imaginary hendrix octave playing – and then dissolves completely into a fatigue-driven crazy, climbing riff of uncertain description – remember, I’d just spent an hour and ten minutes filming, and recording, no less than 12 complete or near complete takes of “W” by peter hammill – so I was pretty tired.  but the hendrix tune just sounds so good with that odd, acoustic guitar tone, and having the whammy available on the “acoustic” sound is so strange, too – so I just thought – why not?

so for the very first time anywhere, about 54 seconds of “what happened after the last take” has been included, which, I should warn you, some pretty lame guitar playing at the end – I plead fatigue, and I wasn’t really trying to play anything – this Hendrix thing appeared – and then just as quickly – disappeared – leaving me with nowhere to go but out.  I just thought it was OK, an interesting glimpse, an epilogue if you will, to the best live take of “W“, and it shows a little bit about how my mind works – or maybe – doesn’t work – I am working on a serious Peter Hammill song, and yet, during the break – I jump into “Stone Free” by Jimi Hendrix.

I begin to think that it’s been far, far too long since I was in a band.

🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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studio diary – november / december 2014

The last several weeks have been more about getting equipment, computers, software and storage sorted out, than having a lot of time to actually play much music.  That is slowly changing, early this morning, I spent almost two hours playing and recording some beautiful sampled sounds in Kontakt, and it’s rare that I sit and play the keyboard for an hour and fifty minutes at one sitting!  I did capture a few interesting things, so I am hopeful that this long period of extended studio set-up, improvements, and testing, will also result in some new music along the way.

I’ve had more than my share of frustration with equipment; particularly, software and storage, but things are slowly sorting themselves out.  Hardware issues, software issues, strange computer behaviours – I’ve got it all.  But it is slowly getting better – all the time.  I solve one issue at a time, eventually, they will all get done.  Over the past two days, with a lot of assistance from my pal Ken Mistove, I have sorted out a number of long-standing issues in SONAR X3, and we have also made a number of improvements to how things work in the world of the music computer, external hard drives, and recording practices – big improvements, and things are running so much smoother, and better, already – which really pleases me, as I really just want to sit down and play music, not, troubleshoot for two hours, and then play for 10 minutes!

My attempts to film the Kaoss Guitar (the remarkable Ibanez RGPK6 electric guitar), well, on Sunday, November 30th, I finally got some takes that were better than my original session from the previous week, November 23rd; so we shall see, I’ve been going through the audio and video from the first session from the 23rd of November, and then I have to go through the miles of footage shot on 30th November as well.

I am hopeful that out of probably 25 takes between the two sessions, that there will be a handful of pieces that are worth making videos of.  It’s difficult to say, but I feel that some of the takes from the second session will yield video, I am less sure about the first session – besides being a bit under-rehearsed, I was still having a fair number of technical issues too, so I was not able to concentrate fully on the music.  So I may be forced to shelve the entire first session, although I believe that at least one of the final three takes from the 23rd may be good.  Time will tell.

Update: there are definitely some good takes from the 20141130 session, beginning with one almost-ambient-but-not-quite quiet track, entitled “just gone”, which is mixed and ready for video build now.

Then tonight, I mixed the next candidate, a remarkable distorted reverse guitar solo entitled “slicer” – so that’s two audio mixes ready for video. There are probably three or four more kaoss guitar trax to come from the second session, audio mixing continues this week, with video builds to begin soon as well. End update 🙂

The Kaoss guitar itself – is an absolute joy to play, I had really hoped to get some videos made and uploaded so you can hear and see it, but I’ve decided that it’s more important to take some time, and get some really interesting examples of what you can do with this innovative instrument.

The recording set up for the Kaoss guitar is very, very simple indeed, I am using my Line 6 DL-4 delay (either bypassed, or, to provide reverse guitar on demand) to provide a stereo out, so it’s the guitar into the DL-4, and then directly into the sound card, thus bypassing all of the outboard effects in the mixer – and for the first time, I am relying solely on Guitar Rig for guitar tone and for reverb / delay effects – since it’s a live performance anyway, I didn’t feel that I needed to use the outboard stuff, so I am keeping it really, really simple.

As part of Komplete, and just in general, I’ve been relying more heavily on Guitar Rig 5 for a lot of my guitar-oriented projects, which allows me to create complex rack mount simulations of many, many excellent effects, which I can play through when I record, but then, if I am not totally happy with the patch I have chosen for the live take, I can then “remove” that patch, and replace it with a different one (re-amping, in essence) until I feel happier – so I’ve also started saving my patches, taking stock patches and changing them radically, and then saving the results, so I can re-use them on other takes later.  I’ve never done a lot of re-amping because I considered it to be a bit too burdensome in the past, but with Guitar Rig – it’s a pleasure.  It’s quick and easy, and there is such a huge range of truly exceptional effects, that you can very quickly build up some really complex and wonderful sounds – the kind of guitar sounds that 30 years ago, I could only ever dream of, or, hear on a Jimi Hendrix album (such as, “Electric Ladyland” – my favourite).

In that first Nov. 23rd session, I had played through one Guitar Rig patch that was a bit too echo-y, too over the top, so later on, I re-mastered it; removed the original Guitar Rig sound I used for the live take, and replaced it with a different Guitar Rig sound (a customised sound created by and saved by myself), a much better sound (if I do say so myself!), and really, that saved the day – it made the performances sound so much better.

So I am currently working on both audio mixes, and video creation and mixes, from the two Kaoss guitar performances; as well as, I captured a large number of new improvs using Komplete and Kontakt last night, which I need to go through next! after the kaoss projects, and see what is there – some of them are surely going to be good – the system is performing so beautifully now, it’s an absolute joy to use – and that is reflected in the music that comes out, too.

I think audio mixing is my favourite of those activities, or in the case of the Kaoss Guitar takes, well for any and all live takes that are simply live to stereo – I should say, “audio mastering”, as you can’t really “mix” a live performance, unless it involves multiple instruments, which these do not.  So you just have to get the best stereo sound, make sure the track is normalised to the right level, be happy with your EQ and effects (re-amped or otherwise) and then – that is that!

I was so pleased with the results of the somewhat tentative and somewhat technically challenging first session, I had very little experience with the new Kaoss guitar, it’s quite a struggle to work out the very best way to play it, without sounding awkward, and slowly, I am gaining experience with it, to the point where on Sunday, November 30th – I could almost make it do what I wanted 🙂 – almost, most of the time.  Sometimes – it’s still outwith my control.

I’ve also been shopping, what with all the sales on line – but not for the ordinary kinds of things that most people shop for at Christmas time – I’ve been buying samples.  During the past two months, I have added so much to my sample library, it’s just out of control, and this past week, I bought three amazing packages from my favourite software instrument maker, Soniccouture (http://www.soniccouture.com/en/products/) – I have a lot of these now, including the amazing Geosonics – sounds of the earth – field recordings adapted into music – astonishing stuff – at a huge savings, 50 percent off in total.  That was a short lived sale, but I am glad I acted – it was great to acquire all of those sounds for such a good price, I could not be more pleased:

1) “the conservatoire collection” – a collection of renaissance and baroque samples – very pricey, but you get things like baroque guitar, psaltery, flemish harpsichords, hurdy-gurdy and so on – fantastic one of a kind classical sounds.  I had an absolute blast using these instruments for the first time earlier today, and I can foresee a lot of interesting pieces forthcoming using this beautiful collection of antique sounds.

 

2) “glass works” – the sounds of various glass instruments, including a famous “cloud chamber bowls” instrument made by eccentric composer and instrument maker Harry Partch, I visited Partch’s studio when I was a teenager, on a school trip actually, and I actually played his original glass bowls instrument, so I am very excited to OWN those sounds! some of the pieces I recorded early this morning were made with the “cloud chamber bowls” instrument, and it sounded JUST as I remembered it – but perhaps even more stunning, is Soniccouture’s emulation of another of Partch’s unique glass instruments – the amazing “armonica”.  This instrument sounds like nothing on earth, like a weird combination of bowed glass, church organ and ethereal spaces – that’s as close as the English language will allow me at a very poor attempt to describe an incredibly beautiful sound!  Lovely beyond compare.

 

3) “ep 73 deconstructed” – this is the most intense, most detailed set of samples available for a 1973 fender rhodes electric piano – the kind my best pal Ted (RIP) used to use in our jam sessions back when I was about 18 years old – a great, classic sound, playing this vintage rhodes is a fantastic experience, it was literally, better than the real thing – and I could have easily sat and played it for hours on end – and, of course, it’s Soniccouture, so you get a lot of “extra” sounds, bowed, plucked, sound effects, and so on – variants on an already perfect set of electric piano samples – incredible attention to detail is Soniccouture’s watchword – the samples they create – are simply, the best.

However, best of all is this next item…

 

The final item in my “black Friday to Monday shopping spree” – based on Ken’s emailed link that simply said “HURRY!” – normally $200.00 I got it for $79.00 – one day only – it’s ADT from Waves Audio – a software “hardware emulation” where they take a classic piece of hardware equipment, and painstakingly re-create it in software.

In this case, “ADT” is, of course, “automatic double tracking” which was developed by one of the Beatles’ engineers, and it was used on classic Beatles albums from the late 1960s such as “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “The White Album” – this device used tape machines, that were slowed up and down to create a second, “doubled” track, it was basically built for John Lennon, who complained about having to double track his voice – he wanted a machine to do it for him.  So this guy, Ken Townshend, figured out a way to do this, using the existing technology of 1967 – which in itself is remarkable.

 

Even more remarkable is the fact that from ADT, a massive industry sprang, of doublers that are choruses or flangers; “Ken’s flanger” is what Lennon called the device, and the name has stuck – millions of “Flangers” have been sold since then, emulating this same “ancient” technique. While I have owned and do own a number of flangers and choruses, both hardware and software, this is the ORIGINAL, the one that started it all – and, I couldn’t own the original hardware, it only exists at Abbey Road Studios where it was designed, it’s not for sale, so having it as software, gives me the classic Beatles chorus and flanger sounds, WITHOUT tape machines and an impossible-to-buy-hardware item.  If that isn’t technological magic, I am not sure what is 🙂

 

So 2015 is going to be a very interesting year indeed, I have a plug in version of the “original” chorus/flanger plug in now, so I can apply “Beatles” flanging or chorus sounds to my guitar parts (think of the lead guitar break in “Fixing A Hole” from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” – or Clapton’s solo on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” – what a sound!)  I will also be able to choose from a huge, huge range of samples, something I’ve never really had available in my first 40 years of music-making 🙂

 

I wish I had a time machine back when I was 16, if I could have travelled 40 years into the future, and been shown what my tiny, modest studio would look like, in that far distant future of the year 2015, from the vantage point of 1975 – I would a) not have believed you, that such a thing could be possible, and b) it would have seemed like witchcraft, magic – the samples, a kaoss pad guitar (or, a kaoss pad itself, for that matter!!), synthesizers that can reproduce real sounds, sampled sounds, (or, a synthesizer itself), ipads, app technology, all of it is strictly magical stuff if you go back forty years.  40 years ago, I was 16, and I was working with my good friend and fellow musician Ted Holding, who had some recording and mixing gear, but neither of us had any access to the kinds of tools and software instruments available now to me, and to all musicians, in the year 2015 – we would have been dumbstruck with amazement, we really would have!

At 15 or 16, my “technology” was a knock off or off brand electric guitar, played thru a hand me down Fuzz Face, a Cry Baby Wah pedal, and later on, a borrowed echoplex – the kind with tape loops in them, not the new echoplex pro – played thru a Carvin bass head and a home made speaker cabinet. The guitar and the wah pedal were mine, the rest, mostly stuff left lying around Ted’s studio (aka garage) or built or repaired by Ted. I played through that bass amp for like, three years, until I could afford to buy an amp of my own!! Of course, when we hit 18, 19 and 20 we did achieve some manner of technology, but it was still a far cry from what is available now.

Ted expanded his selection of instruments, adding Fender Rhodes, Hammond Organ, and an ARP Omni string machine. I had better guitars, and I brought over a reel to reel tape deck to use as the worlds cheapest tape delay unit, which I would reach over and switch on during a guitar solo, and it was the best and most authentic tape delay I’d ever used…because it was real, real tape, on a reel, running past tape heads with a delay introduced…it sounded amazing to us then.

40 years on, a modestly priced delay pedal such as a Line 6 DL-4, can emulate tape echo very similar to what I was doing back then, plus a myriad of amazing delay effects, all in a small green box…no need to lug around a massive Sony reel to reel tape recorder, but I didn’t own any kind of delay or reverb unit, and couldn’t afford the expensive delays of the day…so using the tape deck as a delay pedal, was a no brainier. We were all delighted, it really made my guitar sound good!

Sometimes even now, even though I’ve now been doing “digital music” for quite some time – since 2005 at least – I’m still just stunned when I walk into my studio and I open up the computer, and I see the tools arrayed there, at my fingertips, for music production.  It’s difficult to imagine how my young self would have reacted to the idea of having real instrument samples playable on demand, on a MIDI keyboard – disbelief, shock, astonishment – at the very least.  But – I am glad I’ve stuck with music, because now, the toolsets are very nearly unlimited, and this gives you choice – choice to create sound worlds that previously, you could only dream of…

I plan on doing a lot of musical dreaming in 2015, and right now, I am making a start – I can’t wait to master the pieces from this morning, and start sharing some of the magic of glass works or the ep 73 deconstructed electric piano or to my very first attempts at playing the hurdy-gurdy – remarkable.

 

A good “problem” to have, I suppose – spoiled for choice, where to begin?  At the beginning, of course!!!

 

 

D.

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

[encore:]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

“where is the God that guides my hand?

how can the hands of others reach me?3

when will I find what I grope for?

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

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

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

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

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

I feel you around me, I know you well.

stars slice horizons where the lines stand much too stark;

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

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

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

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

all things are a part

all things are apart

all things are a part”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am unborn.

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

I grant my scorn.

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

my home is in the sunset and the dawn.

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

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

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

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

I am ALL.

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

in the tumbling of the dice see them fall!

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

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

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

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

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

I am NONE.

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

I am No One.

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

it is done.

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

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

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

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

that’s gog.

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

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

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

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