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:
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.
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.
The beginning of 2015 has been a real treasure-trove of live releases from the inarguably, the two most influential, powerful and long-lasting of the progressive rock bands: the mighty King Crimson (whose current ranks, in the 2014/2015 incarnation of the band, have swelled to seven thanks to a front line of three drummers) and the stripped-down-to-a-trio but just as powerful, just as dark, and just as technically proficient, Van Der Graaf Generator.
January saw the release of a sort of “taster” live King Crimson album, entitled “Live At The Orpheum” recorded at the Orpheum Theatre in Los Angeles, California, on September 30 and October 1 during the band’s 2014 US tour – their first tour in this seven-man configuration.
While the album is almost frustratingly brief, clocking in at about 41 minutes, it may be an intentional Fripp-ploy, or Fripp-plot as my keyboard seemed to prefer, so I will allow it to say that, to leave us tantalised and wanting more. And that – it does. I recently read a full set list of a 2014 King Crimson show (see “HollywoodReporter.com” to view this setlist), and it was about double or more in length (at least) to what this live album contains. But – what the album contains – is surely one of the most extraordinary and most unexpected things in the universe – King Crimson, with their “front line” of three drummers (Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison, Bill Rieflin – who also plays a bit of mellotron), and a “back line” of four musicians including founder Robert Fripp, is delving deep into…it’s back catalogue.
And that – well, we had hopes – we knew that Mel Collins was back in the band, and we also knew that his fellow 21st Century Schizoid Band alumnus Jakko Jakszyk, over time, had mastered most of the classic King Crimson repertoire from the “first four” albums – “In The Court Of The Crimson King”, “In The Wake Of Poseidon”, “Lizard”, and the less well known and under-appreciated “Islands” on guitar, and on lead vocals (plus, other tracks from “Red” too) – quite a feat in itself, but, also making him the perfect new lead vocalist / spare Fripp-type guitarist, too, for this new King Crimson. Much to my personal astonishment, we get not one, but two tracks from the much-derided and often undervalued “Islands” (1971), which over time, has actually become my personal favourite out of the “first four” classic King Crimson albums.
The two tracks they cover from “Islands” (“The Letters” and “Sailor’s Tale”), are at the same time, perfect re-creations musically and yet, edgy, new and sparkling from having “re-invented” drum parts, in three perfectly-arranged sections (Gavin Harrison, drum arranger), from the three drummers; who take these songs as seriously as any of the classic tracks on offer here, as well as what is probably Jakko’s best vocal on the album, on the wonderfully melodramatic “The Letters” – an absolutely beautiful vocal rendition. Perfect – and chillingly accurate – “impaled on nails of ice…and raked with emerald fire…” – Peter Sinfield‘s lyrics still forming a huge part of the ethos of King Crimson, some forty plus years since they were penned in 1971 – and that was Sinfield’s last King Crimson album as lyricist – “Islands”. For me, the lyrics from “Islands” are probably my favourite of all of Sinfield‘s lyrics on any album by any band, including the remarkable debut from King Crimson, 1969’s “In The Court Of The Crimson King” – there is something about “Islands” that just resonates with me, and much of it is in the beautiful words that the departing Sinfield graced the record with.
The back catalogue represented here on this short, but amazing live album, also extends to two tracks from the “Red” album, fast forward now from 1971, to 1974, where the second major incarnation of King Crimson, that started out in 1973 as a quintet, quickly became a quartet when percussionist Jamie Muir, left the band, leaving poor Bill Bruford on drums to handle all of the drums and percussion from there on out. David Cross was the next to go, driven out by the world’s loudest (and best) rhythm section – John Wetton and Bill Bruford, and it was Wetton, Bruford and Fripp that remained long enough, after the extensive touring just prior to the making of their last studio album, as a trio now – so in two years, from a quintet to a trio; the ninth of the “first ten” – (counting Earthbound as no. 5 and USA as no. 10) – two songs were included: the never-before performed “One More Red Nightmare” (this time, sporting the drummers having a go at bettering one of original drummer Bill Bruford’s most difficult and well known drum parts – and doing a GREAT job of it, by the way) and as the album closer, the beautiful, extended “Starless” – with Fripp playing that signature thick, distorted lead guitar melody (the one that breaks your heart all over again when you hear it), as Mel Collins reprises both his own and Ian McDonald‘s horn parts – McDonald was a guest on the 1974 “Red” sessions – as was Collins.
Forty four years has elapsed since Robert Fripp and Mel Collins toured together in 1971, and worked on the difficult fourth Crimson album, “Islands” together with then drummer Ian Wallace, and singer/Fripp-trained bassist Boz Burrell (both of who have by now, passed on), and some 41 years have elapsed since the “Red” album – the final studio album from the “first ten” which was completed in 1974 – so it’s more than a lot of water under a lot of different bridges – but, for me, for this reviewer, it’s absolutely fantastic to hear Mel Collins and Robert Fripp playing these songs again, and showing us anew how powerful, unique, and in many cases, under-appreciated they were at the time – especially the wonderful “The Letters” with it’s incredible story of unfaithfulness and purity, and the awesome , powerful instrumental track, “Sailor’s Tale” where Jakko and Fripp re-create the double fuzz tone attack solos that underpin one of Mel Collins’s most well-known and insanely wonderful sax solos – and we now have TWO perfectly-aligned, fuzz guitars duetting with Collins now on this unbelievably cool piece of music, driven now by three drummers plus the as-ever-note-perfect Tony Levin on bass – it is simply astonishing – a great version of a great song – really powerful stuff.
In fact, besides the obvious brilliance of Tony Levin on bass / stick, the multitasking Jakko’ on vocals, guitars and possibly keyboards, and Robert Fripp himself playing what can only be called “regular guitar” (as these older pieces demanded) instead of soundscapes and, “regular guitar” from Fripp, is both a surprise and a revelation – he is as competent as ever, a stellar player – and not to be trivialised; however, it’s really the presence of the remarkable Mel Collins that makes this live outing astonishing, beautiful, shiver-inducing and reminiscent all at once – he is able to either re-create his original parts, or, create improved, modernised versions of them, that still capture the beauty of the originals – effortlessly, and there are some very innovative uses of Mel’s abilities on this record – my favourite being during “The ConstucKtion Of Light” (the sole track from the 2000s represented on this record) when it comes time in the song where Adrian Belew is meant to sing – instead of a Jakko vocal to replace the missing Belew…we get a beautifully understated jazz flute solo from Mel Collins!
So that just knocks my socks off – a word-perfect rendition of the track, with Jakko and Fripp playing the interlocking guitar parts with precision and grace – and then here comes Mel, replacing the now-departed Adrian Belew with an amazing piece of live jazz flute – simply brilliant!
The only place where the album maybe lets us down a tiny bit, is in the almost-complete absence of any new music – it contains a short introductory piece, and an equally short percussion showcase written by Harrison – teasers, tiny bits of new Crimson. But that tiny point does not bother me in the slightest, because the quality of the takes, the amazing versions of classic tracks on this truly astonishing mini-live album, captured from just two random nights on the tour – are of such a high quality that I can wait a bit longer to hear new King Crimson songs in 2015.
The track list is as follows:
1. Walk On: Monk Morph Chamber Music
2. One More Red Nightmare
3. Banshee Legs Bell Hassle
4. The ConstruKction of Light
5. The Letters
6. Sailor’s Tale
If you enjoy the music of King Crimson, you cannot go wrong with this incredibly well-played, beautiful-sounding live record – which now joins a remarkable collection of live King Crimson recordings that begins with “Epitaph”, which documents the eleven months of the original 1969 band – remarkable performanecs! – then, moves through “The Great Deceiver”, “The Road To Red”, “Starless” (covering 1973-1974 and all points in between) and many, many more – and at the moment, ends here – in 2015, to commemorate the 46th anniversary of the band’s formation back in January, 1969 – this live release, released in January, 2015 – 46 years later.
More shows are planned for Great Britain and Europe in September 2015, and I am happy to report that we’ll be travelling to both Birmingham (September 14th) and Edinburgh (September 17th) in the UK, to see the band, something we’ve never, ever done before, as well as, one date in Utrecht, Holland (September 24th) – just for the sheer fun of it – a week later – so, I am actually ecstatic because we are going to see the new King Crimson not once, not twice – but THREE times!! – well, maybe, once before, in 1975, when I saw Led Zeppelin twice in one week – but that was because a second show was added at the last minute – this is a deliberate tracking of the band from one city to another and then to another continent…how very exciting!!! I’ve seen King Crimson before – a few times (1981, 1982, 1984, and in 1995) but this is King Crimson with MEL COLLINS – come on, and that is why we’re going to see them three times in one year!!! ☺.
Then – February arrived, and the special two-disc version of “Merlin Atmos – 2013 Live Performances” by Van Der Graaf Generator, arrived along with it. Now, I had been lucky enough to read about and pre-order this record, because, for those that pre-ordered, a limited edition of 5000 would contain a second disc of live material, which is called “Bonus Atmos”…and I would always rather have a double-live Van Der Graaf Generator CD instead of a single-disc Van Der Graaf Generator CD – any day of the week, month or year!!
On the day the discs were due to arrive, the vendor wrote to explain that they had been short-shipped, and that there had been a serious shortage of the two disc version of the CD – and that some unfortunate customers might have to wait for more to be pressed.
I was not one of those unfortunate souls, two days after that email, my copy of the double CD arrived – and I have to say, for my money, it’s the best live Van Der Graaf Generator album YET – even if you just count the first disc. If you consider both discs – then it’s absolutely the best – the range of tracks on offer, from classic to modern, is astonishing, and of course, it contains not one but BOTH of the “behemoths” – the two “giant” live tracks that this dedicated trio have re-learned: “Flight”, taken from the tenth Peter Hammill solo album, “A Black Box” (my personal favourite), as well as a classic Van Der Graaf Generator track reworked for the 2010s – “A Plague Of Lighthouse-Keepers” originally from the VDGG “Pawn Hearts” album of 1974. We were fortunate enough to see the band at this time, in 2013, and the setlist did include both of these tracks – and, they also both appear on disc one of the new CD, “Merlin Atmos – 2013 Live Performances” – so for those two tracks alone, it’s worth the price of admission. You cannot go wrong!
Most people know the story of the reformation of Van Der Graaf Generator, when the “classic” line-up got back together for a show, in 2005, and then a tour, and then another tour…and originally, this included fourth member David Jackson, on saxes and flute, along with founding member Peter Hammill, organist/bassist Hugh Banton, and the remarkable Guy Evans on drums – this quartet made a new studio album, went out and played it – and then at some point, David Jackson had had enough – and much to the horror of the fans, who were loving this re-united band – he quit after the 2005 tour.
We all held our collective breaths, wondering what on earth would happen next – how could this band go on without the very distinctive flute and sax contributions of the remarkable soloist David Jackson?? – the man who plays two saxophones at once, and was a huge, huge part of some of the songs – an integral part, you would think. An irreplaceable part…
Think again – the remaining trio of Hammill, Banton and Evans voted to go on as a trio – and produced an even more remarkable album, called “Trisector” in 2008, followed by tours and another wonderful studio album called “A Grounding In Numbers” in 2011, plus an experimental record called “ALT” in 2012 – so this gave the this well-rehearsed trio of veteran musicians a huge and diverse back catalogue – or two – drawing upon the classic tracks from the 1970s, or, the tracks from the current four studio albums, starting with “Present” (which was a double – so it’s really five studio albums) made with Jackson, three, beginning with Trisector – without.
One other live album, the most excellent double “real time” (with David Jackson) was also released in 2007, so this band has been very, very busy in its new incarnation(s), “Merlin Atmos” (without David Jackson) being the second full length live document of the band in the last decade – and I don’t really care how many Van Der Graaf Generator live discs get made – they are always good, and always welcome – because this is a band that actually just gets better and better as time goes on, and has become astonishingly able on the stage – almost telepathic in their ability to support the wonderful songs of Peter Hammill, as well as other tracks written by various band members over time – “Hammill, Banton and Evans” compositions probably to the fore, and why not?
Many of we fans have actually come to feel that the trio is somehow – better – purer, and able to improvise more freely, and it has in particular really allowed Hugh Banton to come forward, and take every single Jackson solo or part, and make it his own – beautifully. It’s strange to vocalise this, but – I like the trio better, than I like the reformed classic quartet! Sacrilege to some, truth to me. I think a lot of VDGG fans will know exactly what I mean by this – especially if you have been fortunate to see the trio version play live, as I’ve been lucky enough to witness a few times.
And – this band, this oddest of power trios – drums, organ/bass pedals, and piano/guitar/vox from Peter Hammill – has dared to take on repertoire that the reformed quartet, with Jackson, would not have DREAMED of attempting. Like the final track on CD one – the amazing “Gog” – an obscure Peter Hammill track from 1974’s “In Camera” album, that this trio plays as if on fire – a terrifying lyric and vocal, accompanied by church / nightmare / drum solo lead guitar music such as you have never heard – an extremely strange track, but – played with a wonderful, overwhelming sense of the now. Truly powerful, unbelievably strange music – but, also truly wonderful, and I was lucky enough on one occasion to see the trio version of VDGG play “Gog”, and it pretty much frosted my socks, to coin a phrase. I will never forget the power of that performance “will you not come to me? – and love me for one more night?” – the roar of Peter Hammill‘s voice is undiminished by time, and the anguish in the lyrics of a song like “Gog” does not lessen with time.
I did see the quartet version of the band early on; they were great, really, really good, and seeing David Jackson reprise his original solos was amazing and unforgettable, but, seeing the trio perhaps three times since then, I’ve come to absolutely love the stripped down, “can-we-really-pull-this-track-off-with-just- the-three-of-us?” (answer: yes, always) version of the band.
This 2013 double live CD is absolutely a must have, as far as I am concerned, first, so you can own the “official” live versions of both “Flight”, with it’s wonderful new intro and outro, and the re-worked, modernised but absolutely fantastical “A Plague Of Lighthouse-Keepers” (upon which one “Robert Fripp” played a bit of electric guitar, back in 1974, on the original studio version thereof) – those two tracks are astonishing, but – the rest of the tracks are of equal lineage, and the “new” tracks taken from the last few albums, sit perfectly with the older material – it no longer, in fact, “matters” from whence a song comes – it’s the Voice of Van Der Graaf Generator – and that voice is undoubtedly the voice of Peter Hammill – back healthy and hale from a heart attack scare several years back – and the music just flows from track to track and you find yourself not caring when a song was first recorded, but just listening in the moment, to a band of consummate musicians, playing a large quantity of some of the best highlights of one of the best progressive rock catalogues ever built – an amazing band.
The set list is as follows:
Disc One – Merlin Atmos
- All That Before
- A Plague Of Lighthouse-Keepers
Disc Two – Bonus Atmos
- Interference Patterns
- Over The Hill
- Your Time Starts Now
- Scorched Earth
- Meurglys III, The Songwriter’s Guild
- Childlike Faith In Childhood’s End
The band took an interesting tactic when it came to preparing this disc, that I found very refreshing – the three of them, split up the work like this:
- When you lift up Disc One, it says underneath it “mixed by HB at the Organ Workshop”.
- When you lift up Disc One, it says underneath it “balanced and arranged by PH at Terra Incognita”
- Guy Evans wrote the liner notes, which talk about the two long pieces they learned and how that came about.
I thought that was really, really fair and “meet”, and when you listen to the whole disc, both discs, I mean, in order, they sound like one cohesive concert, so the way that “HB” and “PH” “hear” the band in terms of the live mix, are clearly quite similar – it’s as if they were one person, but each mixing half of the show – very odd, but – effective. In fact, I’ve just re-listened to the transition from “Gog” to “Interference Patterns” in the play list containing all 13 tracks – and it’s just like the next track begins, there is no audible change that would indicate the hand of PH at the mixing desk, or any way to denote the handing off of the mixing task from Hugh to Peter at this point – it just flows…brilliant!
For me – a deeply satisfying concert, and hearing these familiar songs once again, now that the trio has been playing for a number of years, hearing the small changes and improvements – it’s just fantastic, they are growing, and, the quality of equipment, the quality of current technology, actually means that they sound better now, than they originally did in concert – back in the 1970s, underpowered and distorted PA systems, and generally bad stage sound plagued the band (as various bootlegs will attest) while all of the live material from the reunion onwards is of such a great quality – it’s fantastic, and I am so pleased for them, because it’s as if they are getting a second chance to be Van Der Graaf Generator, but, with the advantage of age, wisdom, experience, skill – and they can apply those in equal measure, on a stage that is MIDI compliant, and where microphones are not feeding back, and everything sounds really, really good – so it’s win, win, win for the new Van Der Graaf Generator – I hope they continue as long as possible, I love this band, and I can’t believe that I’ve now managed to see them four times – when I really thought I would never, ever see them play live.
I was fortunate enough to see some solo Peter Hammill shows in the 1980s, but at that time, Van Der Graaf Generator was a distant memory, and no one dreamed that they would eventually reform – and thank God that they did! What a great band, and another great live record with another great, no, amazing set list – 2013 was a good year for this band.
So here are two bands that were instrumental in starting out what became “progressive rock” – King Crimson in January 1969, and Van Der Graaf Generator originally in 1968 – both, now, alive and well in the 2010s, and making extraordinary music live on stage – still – and long may they play. Robert Fripp and Peter Hammill are two very different people, two very different “bandleaders” (Fripp would possibly deny being the bandleader, but never mind) but, what they do share is determination, determination that…the music shall be heard. Fripp endured legal battles that kept him away from music and the stage, Hammill had a heart attack and overcame his health issues, to go on to start making amazing albums like “Trisector”” – and one of the tracks from that album, “Interference Patterns”, starts Disc Two of the new set, and it’s an amazing, amazing performance – a really, really tricky song – and they play it amazingly well – a fantastic version of a now-classic song from a now classic album – “Trisector”.
And rumours are abounding that King Crimson is working on new material, so it may be that they are at the start of a new run of compositions that will rival the post-reunion output of Van Der Graaf Generator – I certainly hope so, that would be fantastic, and I remain hopeful that during the September tour, that King Crimson might reveal some new works from an upcoming album – who knows?
Meanwhile, you could do worse than to start your year with either or both of these extremely high quality live releases – I highly recommend them both to progressive rock fans, and the curious, everywhere.
all the very best
dave 🙂 🙂
A blast from the past as it were, sometimes, when you are involved in one project too many, various routine tasks (such as, uploading completed pieces of music) slip through the cracks. This is the story of one of those projects – a project that was actually completed at the end of October, 2014, was rough mixed on November 1, 2014, but is only just now seeing the light of day. The rough mix was acceptable, but for reasons unknown, the final mix was not made, and the piece just sat in the completed masters section of the database – done, complete – but not published!
That would be, my “third”, the “concerto no. 3 in d major for piano & strings“, my third concerto, but, the first to feature piano and strings, I’d always worked with horns before, specifically, oboes (my lead instrument of choice it would appear – see concerto no. 1 [in e minor] and concerto no. 2 [in a minor] – both for guitar and oboe – do you see a pattern emerging there?) so I wanted to test some uncharted waters, and see if I could “say” as much with just piano and strings. It was challenging, but in the end, I believe I have succeeded quite well in that particular aspiration. But I will let you be the judge of that…
A curious melody, sounding for the life of me, like a lost European folk melody, begins the piece, but then, suddenly, a banging and clashing of strings and timpani takes over, with urgent, repeating “morse-code”-like bursts, which then settle to almost ambient, mellotron-like strings, which wash over the listener in beautiful, deep waves…or so I hope, anyway!
That folk melody established at the very beginning, then re-occurs in various places within the larger work, as do other themes – I really like to try and establish a number of different, short musical themes or ideas, in the first (and sometimes, second) movement, and then, reiterate them, often in totally re-arranged or re-configured ways, at various points during movements 2 and 3 – I like to always refer “back” to earlier themes wherever possible, I find that gives you a cohesiveness that can otherwise, be lacking – you can hear the relationship between the movements, as well as their own unique characteristics.
What I found was, that of course, you can’t really have the strings or the piano “soloing” endlessly, so various interesting musical events probably “take the place” for me, of the missing oboe, short instrumental passages, plain and simple chord sequences; lovely pizzicato sections (I find pizzicato strings to be absolutely gorgeous, and I will use any excuse to include them in my work – I really will); but what I found very interesting was that I continued to turn to the percussion section, to take over sections of melody!
In particular, I began to rely heavily on the timpani, to express musical ideas, that normally might have fallen to a more common solo instrument (my missing oboe again, or clarinet, or flute…) – so I found that timpani alone, or, timpani with xylophone, became my new weapon of choice, and even better, when you contrasted those two percussive instruments against the best percussion instrument of all, the piano – it sounds great!
So I found myself playing xylophone a la Ruth Underwood, taking my cues from the world of Zappa jazz more than from the world of serious classical music, and I tried to think like a Zappa would (not an easy task) – however, I will say, that this concerto has a far more…”modern” sound to it, it’s far closer to jazz then my previous two works (in places), and normally, I am not a huge fan of modern classical composers or modern classical music, but I learned here, that it can be very invigorating and indeed, a joy to take those sort of almost jazz-like flights of fancy, and then keep bringing back to earth with the strings and piano, making sure that the normal classical motifs and forms are still in place, so that it still retains a flavour of non-modern classical music – elements as old as the hills – the piano, leading the way, the strings, supporting, questing – I really enjoyed the composition process in this instance, as I always do, and each time I produce a new piece, I learn something – actually, not “something” – many, many things – new.
Then, it’s almost as if the percussionists have temporarily “lost the plot”, as they seemingly almost wander off onto a strange melodic quote from “the firebird suite” – played on the xylophone in a humorous style [between 5:59 through 6:25].
More Ruth Underwood-style solo xylophone follows, which then resolves into the most incredibly ambient section of strings I’ve ever scored, which is the long, flowing section that ends the first movement – in such an incredibly calming, slow, and luscious way, and, the first time I’ve used a long fade out in a classical piece– the calm after the modern jazz storm I would almost say.
A strident string and piano theme begins at 6:42, but very quickly, loses its stridency, and becomes calmer, with pizzicato “dropped chords” occasionally appearing, long, deep strings, fade gradually along with the ever-calmer piano melody, which is now dream-like, almost ambient – eventually, the piano disappears altogether, leaving those gorgeous strings on their own for the last few moments running up to 08:07; until the first movement fades to complete silence, when another “first” is to immediately follow; the start of the second movement, has an even longer “fade in”, which then becomes a new piano theme (which, curiously, had originally been part of the first movement, had been rejected and removed to the outtakes section – and then, because I really liked it, re-instated as the first new piano theme in the beginning of the second movement; which then begins to merge and intertwine with more timpani and more xylophone, but, fleetingly; once again, the long, beautiful ambient “string chords” threaten to overwhelm, they just flow over what is happening whenever they will, often, at unexpected moments, and I really like the sound of those long, string section held chords – simple, effective.
Then we have a section of string madness, where more new themes emerge, including a brief, bowed solo from the bass (another first for me, I think) I have tried to be a bit more bold in terms of allowing individual players to have more solo “moments” – and probably, more solo piano than in any other piece. Some really lovely violin and viola leading up to ominous bass notes, long, held notes.
At some point, we are briefly re-visited by the opening “European folk music” theme, which is a nice place for a re-iteration, tying the first two movements together nicely.
Normal string melodies, trade off with pizzicato ones, followed by more moments of madness, from 11:18 thru 11:29 for example, when the lead violinist, begins playing high speed pizzicato riffs way above the top of his/her normal range, a piece of musical joyousness I simply could not resist, which started out as just one instance, and soon grew to a full 12 seconds of high pitched pizzicato madness – a temporary loss of sanity on the first violinist’s part, no doubt. 🙂
The second movement then settles into a sort of strange mixture of piano, timpani and xylophone, in more supporting roles, as violin, viola, and cello play interlocking lines, this section gave me a lot of grief at the time, but it was worth the pain, I persevered, and it all came out well in the end. Some sprightly up and down arpeggios for both the piano and for the xylophone are interspersed, accompanied by powerful timpani, the pianist playing with some wonderful flourishes and beautifully underpinning the piece with subtle low bass notes, while his/her right hand is playing double-quick arpeggios in the top octave of the piano keyboard.
Our familiar D suspended 4th to D major theme re-occurs too, extending out into a timpani–led improv section, followed by more mournful, long mellotron-like string parts that bring the second movement to its inevitable conclusion…
…the third movement begins immediately, without the customary rest between movements, at 16:02 on an eerie, ominous minor chord, with the bass alternating with a short-duration minor chord, a cello melody begins, and we are once again, away…
More new themes are immediately presented, piano and strings being featured heavily throughout this movement, we then move into some “octave” piano work, followed by a beautiful, strange almost Rundgren-esque chord sequence [17:31 – 17:42], involving both major seventh chords and bass notes that are not the root note – as example, C major 7th with a G bass, or C major 7th with an E bass – anything but a C bass!! (two of Todd Rundgren’s trademark devices, the major seventh and the 3rd or 5th in the bass – why not!) – which are then reiterated briefly by the strings –and then on into the next emerging theme, a descending chord motif…which then resolves to a piano theme first introduced in the first movement; our bright, major key sequence of D suspended 4th to D Major chords once again; which then resolves to a really stark, honest solo piano section that I am inordinately proud of [19:51 through 20:30].
A tension-building exercise is next, using a new piano riff to drive home a musical concept via repetition, and I love the powerful way that works, once again, resolving back to a reprise of that stark solo piano piece with its odd tempo slow-down [the one just referenced, from 19:51 through 20:30] – I love the fact that the tempo changes so often in this piece.
Again, the tension-building riff, but this time, for a shorter amount of time, it then dissolves into a piano and strings section that builds and builds in volume, until finally I reach my “Beethoven moment” [22:41 – 22:47] which while it may sound simple, it actually took some doing to get that part to sound right.
SPECIAL NOTE: since we are for now only producing recordings of the full concertos (previously, we have offered both the full concerto; and recordings of the individual movements, but we have discontinued that practice, and for the foreseeable future, we will be producing only complete, full versions of the concertos online) – here are the start times for each movement, and the total time as well, for those who like to know such things:
- Beginning Of First Movement 00:00 Approximate Duration: 08:07
- Beginning Of Second Movement 08:07 Approximate Duration: 07:55
- Beginning Of Third Movement 16:02 Approximate Duration: 13:09 (13:15 with added silence at the end of the piece)
- Overall Duration 29:11 (29:17 with added silence at the end of the piece)
As is my custom, it would seem, the third movement of every concerto I do, seems to always end up to be by far the longest of the three; I do not know why this is, I am not intentionally doing this, it just works out this way – partially, I suppose, because I want to add in themes from the first movement, and sometimes the second, that if all three movements started out life roughly equal, that the third would always end up having several minutes added, because, first of all, I want to re-insert certain earlier themes, but also, there just seem to be more emerging new themes, as well as sometimes, I like to re-arrange or sometimes, radically modify earlier themes, to present them with all new instruments, or with one instrument taking the lead and another a background part, the reverse of how they were in movement one, and so on – a place to experiment, a place to really stretch out both compositionally but also, as a player.
The piano parts are where I get to compose what I would love to sit out there in front of that audience and play, so they are special to me – I do tend to spend inordinate amounts of time working on the piano parts, solos and other instances of piano – which I use for everything – bridging sections, supporting the strings with some percussive, piano “rhythm” – I love to play piano, but I have also learned – that I love to score piano – it’s a real delight, and I love it when things work out well, and it ends up sounding just as I “hear it” in my mind – and that is an accomplishment, it’s not often easy for musicians to do that, but Notion is an app that actually does allow me to do that – it lets me wander compositionally where perhaps my mere, human hands maybe never really quite could – but my mind – my mind can!
To date, then, my “third”, the “concerto no. 3 in d major for piano and strings”, also remains, as of January, 2015, in any case, the longest in duration of my published concertos, although the Concerto No. 4 is nearly as long, clocking in at 27:22. I think this longer form suits better, allowing me more chances to introduce new themes or refer to existing ones…
In this case, the third movement of the third concerto becomes a vehicle for a fair amount of solo piano, which appears repeatedly in between other musical events; in my humble opinion, the piano solo in the third movement is one of the most surprising bits of music that I have come up with in recent times, it really surprises me, and, it contains a wonderful slow-down of tempo at one point, which really drives home the melody playing at that moment. After the long piano improv, a longish section of strings, with cello and viola soloing over the top of short chord bursts of strings, follows, again, this time, gradually slowing in tempo, with the cello leading the way to a long, long final sad chord…and then, back to the bright, beautiful string section with piano, theme of D major suspended fourth to D major, repeating, that originally appears in the first movement.
That piano theme fades away completely (I seem to really, really be on a “fade in / fade out” kick at the moment), or is that, rather, a “fade out / fade in”?? – the latter, in this case, and a completely new section, mostly piano-led, appears very gradually, fading in – to take us away into the lands of solo piano once again, repeating the wonderful “slow-down” tempo section, and then – to an incredibly Peter Hammill-esque duet between the lower registers of the piano and the string bass – it really, really is reminiscent of early Hammill there for a moment. [from 26:23 – 26:50 and beyond…] – I like how the piece lingers in this very lower register, where things are dark and deep – but then, moments later, the sun emerges again in the form of that persistent, sunny D suspended 4th to D major melodic section – what a swing of mood that is!
So many different moods and emotions are present here, especially in the third movement, which becomes a very rich and complex juxtaposition of themes, but somehow, I manage to make all of those recurrences, alternate versions, variants and mutations, all fit – and all work together nicely. It was sometimes not easy to fit it all together, at times I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but in the end, I made it work – and, I think I have some nice tension built in certain places, that resolves into some of the quietest, most ambient sections that to date, I’ve been able to include in a classical work.
Notion has been absolutely instrumental in helping me to learn how to score, but by the time I reached concerto no. 3 (September – October 2014) I had gained enough skill with Notion, and with scoring, that I could, somewhat playfully I admit, insert these short sections of odd music just for the sheer fun of it – and when you listen, you might think, hey, wait a minute, did I just hear…the firebird suite, by Igor Stravinsky, played on a solo xylophone? I am afraid the answer to that question is – “yes, you did”. Or “hey, wait a minute, wasn’t that Todd Rundgren on the piano there?? “yes – I am afraid so!”.
You are not imagining it, it’s really happening!
Therefore, I present, better late than never; completed on November 1, 2014, but not uploaded until January 2015, with a great amount of pride and happiness, here is my third major classical work to date, “concerto no. 3 in d major for piano & strings” by dave stafford – we hope you enjoy it.
today I want specifically to talk about perception, in this case, my own perception of the music that I create, and some observations I’ve made regarding this.
first off, I’d like to suggest that I think all musicians may experience what I am about to describe, namely, that feeling, while you are playing, performing with, or recording your instrument(s), that what you are playing is possibly:
a) not as good as it should be
b) not “right”
c) going horribly wrong, but you carry on anyway
d) is a “disaster in the making”, but you carry on anyway
e) sometimes, that bad feeling is so strong, that you actually abort the take (or worse still, stop the performance!)
I don’t know about you, but all of the above has happened to me; most of them, many, many times. blessedly, the last one, not too often 🙂
but, based on some listening and performance experiences of my own, I would like to suggest that if we are feeling this way when we play, that we are maybe doing ourselves (and therefore, our music) a huge disservice.
a case in point, is a track I recently mixed, that I had recorded live in the studio on september 30, 2012, entitled “into the unknown”. this track, a lengthy improvised piece (an 11:48 scape and energy bow guitar duet), is the perfect example of what I am talking about here, in that, while I was recording it, I really didn’t think it was going well at all.
I had concerns about the tuning of my guitar; concerns about the ambient guitar parts I was playing; and concerns about the solos I played. those concerns stayed in my mind, from the day I recorded it, september 30, 2012 – until february 10, 2013, when I finally sat down to mix the track!! all that time – I held a very, very negative view of this improv in my mind – I was pretty sure it was not going to be a good experience to hear or mix it.
how very, very wrong I was (thankfully).
much to my amazement, when I mixed “into the unknown” – while it wasn’t perfect – to my everlasting astonishment – it’s actually a very, very beautiful and good track, with nothing particularly “wrong” about it !!!!
but, at least for me, as it so, so often does – my “self-criticising circuit” just kicked in automatically, every tiny imperfection I perceived as I played it, magnified a million times, until I was sure it would be a waste of time come mix time – and boy, was I ever wrong – it’s a gem, and I am now very excited about this track – I really enjoyed creating and publishing the video of it, because it’s a unique and unusual scape and guitar synthesizer duet – a very, very unusual, (and quite lovely, too), piece of music indeed.
surprise number one: when I sat down to mix the track, the first thing that struck me was how very beautiful the underlying “scape” was, and that meant immediately, that 50 percent of the track is automatically “good” and beautiful, too.
surprise number 2: the other 50%, which is what I “live looped” and played live with the guitar synth – OK, some of it required a little work, I did have to “treat” a couple of the guitar synth solos to make them sound better – but mostly, there was nothing much to do, except trim the track, add a tiny bit of reverb overall, and master and produce it.
and with fresh eyes and fresh ears, that nasty (mental) list of problems and complaints, looks slightly different using my february 9th, 2013 “ears” – I’d say that list should really have read this way:
a) song is better than I thought – much better
b) it’s very right – the scape is great – the guitar synth is good – the solos are acceptable
c) it was going well, and I was right to carry on – a good decision
d) not disastrous at all, and I was right to carry on – a good decision
e) luckily, I did NOT abort the take, because if I had, it would have been a tragedy – a travesty, as it would have meant throwing away a really, really interesting, utterly unique, and perfectly good piece of live music!
so this is how the perception can change, and of course, now, being aware of all this, I do make a serious effort to look more positively upon music I’ve recorded, because much of it is probably (but not necessarily!) much better than I initially think it is.
what I take away from this is at least twofold: one: I need some time, a significant amount of time, to pass, before I “pass judgement” on any of my recorded works, and two: I shouldn’t be so hard on myself.
another track, “escape from the death star” (a seven minute scape and ebow loop/live duet recorded on october 20, 2012) proves the same point – for a different reason. I had the usual mental list of “what is wrong with this track” – as above, but in this case, this track came from a truly disastrous session, where things really DID go wrong, and badly wrong, on the first fourteen of fifteen tracks recorded total (now THAT is a bad day in the studio!).
so, based solely on it’s presence within this “disaster session” (unfortunately, an accurate name for it) – I think I just assumed that this track would somehow be tainted by the failure of the other tracks, harshly judging it by the same criteria with which I rejected tracks 1 through 14 – which again, is a ridiculous assumption, and again, I was quite surprised on first playback, to find that it is a very intense, very powerful, ebow and scape loop – and, to be honest – it’s not bad at all!
once again, I placed a mentally “negative filter” over this piece, which was unfair and incorrect – needing to measure the piece based on it’s musical merit rather than it’s inclusion in a set of bad music. time seems to be what I need, hindsight I guess…that seems to be the main catalyst for me swapping my negative view for a much more positive one. I am hopeful though, that since I’ve written this article, and discovered these behaviours within myself, that I can be less negative at the time of recording, and shorten the time needed to achieve the correct and positive view of these improvised pieces of music.
now, I am not saying that you should automatically assume that every take you make is golden! you do have to be critical, and even ruthless, and remove takes that are less than inspiring, have substandard solos, or are too much like one another. I’ve never had too much trouble with that, although there have been occasions where I felt like I really had to publish many, many examples from one session, just because the quality was high overall, and the different takes reflected different aspects of the improvs that were important musically.
but that is a rarity; very few sessions produce a 50, 60, 70 percent, or higher, success ratio (for me, anyway) – most sessions end up with one or two very good takes at the most, a few decent takes, and several that are not taken further. very occasionally, 90 percent are good. very, very rarely, all of them have merit – very rarely indeed – but it has happened.
but otherwise, it’s actually the norm for me to record a dozen or more pieces of music, and then in the end, only publish perhaps three or four of them. sometimes, maybe just one or two…or in the case of “escape from the death star” – maybe even just one! depending on the session, it may also be that I might publish eight or nine out of 12 tracks, or 14 out of 20, or whatever makes sense to me from a strictly musical point of view. some days, you are fortunate, other days, not so fortunate.
as always, though, it’s about finding balance – finding the sweet spot between being fairly and justly critical, but not automatically assuming that everything you record is really, really incredible – just finding the right pieces, the ones that reflect well on you, that express your musical ideas well but not too overtly, regardless of if they are understated or “over the top”, the ones that represent “you” as composer, musician, performer – but, at the same time, trying not to be too critical on yourself, giving yourself some slack! give you a break… 🙂
now – I can just imagine you all scuttling back to look back at those tracks you recorded four months ago, six, seven months ago…desperately hoping that they have miraculously turned from bad to good while you were busy elsewhere – but you may be disappointed. or, you may find a hidden gem or two…
I just know that for me, I can often be very, very overcritical at first, especially at the time of recording, just after, and probably for a few weeks afterwards – but interestingly, as I found, after a few months, when you listen (with fresh ears), you may well find that you were too critical, and you have perfectly viable music sitting there just waiting for that final mix and master.
while we are on the subject of behaviours and perception, I’d like to mention another curious behaviour that I’ve noticed in myself recently, and I wonder if any of you have ever experienced this – it’s what I now call the “I don’t want to know” syndrome.
a very current and very real example of this is my current and ongoing relationship with a peter hammill song entitled “the siren song”. over the past several months, I’ve had several recording sessions devoted to this very, very difficult-to-play, difficult-to-sing track from “the quiet zone/the pleasure dome” album, by van der graaf, from 1977 – and I have struggled mightily to get a take that I am entirely happy with.
some of those sessions ended up yielding absolutely NO candidates (usually due to unrepairable and disastrous and horrific errors in my piano playing – it’s devilishly difficult to play!); others, perhaps, one or two at the most, and those with too many faults, although I will say, as the months marched on, my understanding of the song (and particularly, the piano parts) has grown immensely, and the last few sessions with it were far and away, the closest I had come to getting “a take”.
but here’s the interesting thing. I love this song; I am absolutely determined to capture a good quality version, completely live, at the piano, and, I have done a lot of work, both in learning the piano part much better than I ever knew it before, and in recording the track over and over and over and over again, slowly getting better at it in the process.
as you know, because I record so much music, using so many different instruments or apps, that there is always a backlog of songs that need to have their audio assessed and mixed. I did a couple of sessions for “the siren song” several months ago, that went quite well, and I was even wondering, just kind of wondering…if possibly, one of the takes in that very last session MIGHT be “the take”. but – I couldn’t face listening to them back, to find out if a good take was present.
eventually, after months of dread and procrastination I finally went and listened – and there it was. a good take!
however – for some reason – for a long time, I absolutely, steadfastly, and repeatedly, AVOIDED going back to listen to those last two “siren song” sessions! because…I didn’t want to know! I did not want to find out whether I “had a take” or not! what a strange thing to do, but for some unknown reason, I assessed the first few “the siren song” sessions, up to a certain point in time – and then, fully intending to carry on the next time I mixed – I just STOPPED – utterly inexplicably. I kept avoiding it, until eventually I had to face it – and much to my surprise, that good take I was looking for – was there…with very, very little wrong with it. a minor miracle, in my experience 🙂
instead of continuing the seemingly never-ending sessions devoted to capturing THIS song, and this song alone, I could then move on to other projects, and at last, let go of the seemingly endless search for that elusive “good take” of “the siren song”. 🙂
I think as musicians, we do sometimes do strange things with regards to the music we create, we are in denial about certain things, we hope that certain takes ARE takes when we know deep down, that they are NOT, conversely, as described in this blog, we thing takes are bad when they are really OK…and so on.
I was really hoping not to solve any great problem here, but just to draw attention to some of the psychological aspects of recording modern music (as opposed to the physical challenges, such as dealing with computers, MIDI, soft synths, DAWs, digital noises, pops and clicks, and so on…), but mostly, how very important indeed it is to give yourself a break, let music sit for a while before you judge it too soon or too harshly or both – and also, I think you will find that the passage of time gives you different ears with which to listen, and when you do find the time to listen, you will see – and hear, more importantly – the work you’ve done in a whole new light.
I noticed certain behaviours during the creation and mixing of these songs and recordings, and I wondered if any of you had had similar or identical experiences, or, if there are other behaviours not noted here, that you indulge in that you may wish to share with us all – if so, please feel free to fill in the “comments” below – we’d be very glad to hear from musicians and listeners alike as to any issues they find with “the perception of music”.
as always, we encourage you to participate, and we do want to hear your views on this blog, so please feel welcome to comment on this or any of the blogs, we’re always happy to discuss / dissect / deviate from topic / whatever it takes to communicate, learn and grow. I think this is a very real problem for many musicians, yet I can’t remember ever hearing anyone talk about it – so I decided that I had better say something! 🙂
being overcritical may be another symptom of OCD, which I do have a mild case of, but I don’t really believe that. I think it’s something basic in my personal make up, I tend to focus on “what’s wrong” with each piece of music, rather than celebrating “what’s right” and being kind to myself, and letting go of “what’s wrong”. so being aware of this – I can make changes, and start to view things more positively. I do try now, to give myself a buffer zone of time, a week or two, preferably more – and THEN go back and listen…and invariably, things sound better once they been around for a few weeks – strange but true.
of course, I WILL go and fix what is “wrong” – even if it takes a week to fix 30 seconds of music. [does this sound familiar to anyone ????? 🙂 :-)]
happy mixing and mastering to all!!
peace and love
I shall start with a confession – I have to be honest, I only heard the songs from the “long play”, long after they were created – I had very nearly lost touch with the music of sam phillips, and I only found out about the “long play” subscription service in the first part of 2013, when they were finally shutting it down!
after buying both 2001’s mainly acoustic “fan dance” album, followed by the also low-key “a boot and a shoe” CD in 2004, four years later, in 2008, I ran across her then-new album “don’t do anything”, which I really fell in love with, but as I was struggling with health and other issues during this time, I never then realised what had happened – basically, sam removed herself from the business of dealing with record companies, and set up the “long play” project in 2009.
originally meant to run for one year, the “long play” ended up running for something like three years, with another two years passing before she finally pulled the plug on it in early 2013. I have to absolutely admire the guts of this woman, who basically said to her fans, via her website, “look, this is between you and me. you send me fifty-two dollars, and I will give you everything I produce as music over the next year, there is no record company involvement, this is between you and me”.
I totally admire that, and I don’t know how much uptake she originally got, but that’s a fantastic deal, because you actually got an enormous amount of music produced not over one year, but over three years or more – it just kept going and going, and she never asked for more funds, she just kept producing new music and sharing it with the subscribers – how cool is that? when, in 2013, she announced that the subscription service was to be ended – the website was so overwhelmed with people wanting to subscribe (myself included) that it crashed hard and stayed down for a couple of days – talk about a response. suddenly, those of us who knew how good sam phillips is – decided that we needed to download the entire “long play” in one go (which is what I did – and then, spent the next several weeks trying to absorb and understand what I had just downloaded…).
a compact disc of the “highlights” of the “long play” was produced (“solid state: songs from the long play”), for the “normal” markets, but beyond that, the “long play” was exactly what sam said it was, a subscription service, paying an artist directly for her work, NOT paying a greedy, grasping record company who had previously taken a huge cut of the money sam earned (doubtless, as that’s how it “works” in the record industry – the artist ends up with almost nothing compared to what the record companies make) – a great arrangement, and if she offers it again, I will sign up without a pico second of hesitation.
following “the long play”, sam has just very recently (early 2013) released the most excellent “push any button” cd which I am very much enjoying at the moment. but for now, we need to go back to the genesis of the “long play”, back to what happened after 2008’s “don’t do anything” CD.
2009 – long play year one
but now, let’s go back to the beginning of 2009, and the first track released under this new “long play” subscription service, the 2009 version of “I need love” – a standout track originally from sam’s seventh album, “martinis & bikinis” (1994). fifteen years later, to have a new version of this song, to me, is an absolute delight, and this re-arranged version could not be more different, and more exciting.
the original version of “I need love” is a band version, with full band, drums, basses, guitars, vocals. this new version, is sam phillips on acoustic guitar and voice, and strings by “the section quartet”, who are:
eric gorfain – violin, string arrangements
daphne chen – violin
lauren chipman – viola
richard dodd – cello
eric gorfain’s string arrangements are amazing, but to use a string quartet to replace a rock band, and to arrange what was a normal rock song, to be replaced by violins, violas, and cellos – in the way this track was arranged, well, it’s been done before, sure, but not by sam phillips – in fact, string arrangements of older songs (and some new ones, too) is a recurring theme in the long play, and it’s a theme I welcome. it’s done so tastefully, what could have been corny or overplayed or hackneyed, feels just right, and I applaud the arranger and the performers of “the section quartet” on a job really well done – this is a great version of this song!
the strings replace the lead guitars, while sam’s acoustic guitar drives the whole song forward, replacing drums, bass and rhythm guitars with one boldly strummed acoustic guitar, and the new vocal is even more pure and perfect than the original – I’ve always loved this song dearly, it’s really a fantastic tune, and I love the lyrics, too, and this new version really shines – it takes an excellent song, and gives us an excellent “what if…” version of it to enjoy along with the original.
I love it.
the next 2009 “long play” offering is a full band version of a new song, “when you’re down” (which reappears later on, twice more! in the “long play”) – a wonderfully present snare drum, panned full right, taps out a martial beat, as sam sings softly, “when you’re down, you find out what’s down there”, and then a sad lead guitar & bass guitar duet plays for a few moments until sam returns with her most world-weary, heartbroken voice – I love the vocal on this.
the mix of “when you’re down” is extraordinary, too, the acoustic guitars are hard left, the snare is hard right as is the lead guitar, there is a harmonium or accordion like keyboard that is also mixed hard right, while the thick, sine wave-like bass seems to be the only instrument that is even roughly centred – it’s a wonderful and very definite mix, a dark and unusual song – brief, but very moody and really heartfelt – I think it’s a fantastic song.
EP 1: hypnotists in paris
the third 2009 “long play” event is the first of five EPs, I love the extended play format, and it’s fabulous to receive these new sam phillips songs in nice, digestible chunks of five tracks at a time (sometimes six) – and it also allows sam to create a mood using titles, and I love the titles of all of her EPs and songs – this one is called “hypnotists in paris” which I think is absolutely fantastic – a great title, and she’s also included artwork that suggests just that.
here is the tracklist for the first EP, “hypnotists in paris”
what it all means
I don’t want to fall in love (2009 version)
say what you mean (2009 version)
so glad you’re here
these are new songs except for “I don’t want to fall in love”, which comes from sam’s fifth album, 1988’s “the indescribable wow”, and “say what you mean” which comes from sam’s ninth album, 2001’s “fan dance”.
what makes this EP both remarkable and very unique, is that all five songs are made with a very basic set up, acoustic guitar, voice and strings – the normal band arrangements that we might expect, are replaced with these remarkably elegant string arrangements from “the section quartet”.
we had a preview of what sam-phillips-with-strings sounds like with the first long play piece, the 2009 rework of “I need love”, but here, we have three new songs and two re-workings of older songs using basically the same set-up, voice and strings, or voice, acoustic guitar and strings, and it works so, so well – sam’s voice just floats so beautifully above the strings, and she seems incredibly comfortable singing along to these very different arrangements – singing along to a string quartet is very different to singing with a rock band.
but, ever the consummate professional, she pulls it off (like a level pulled down, perhaps!) as if she’d been doing it all her life, and she really seems in her element, and for the re-worked tracks, she breathes a whole new life into these “old songs” – they sound great with their shiny new string arrangements – I really enjoy these string driven versions of songs old and new.
the first track on the EP, “memory slope” just knocks me out, from the slick, concise strings to sam’s beautiful voice…the vocal on this track is so intimate, so beautiful: “it’s over it’s done…till I fall down the memory slope…” the strings so animated, the rhythm first pulsing, then flowing, while the effortlessly beautiful sam phillips sings with pure eyes-closed joy over the top – I absolutely adore this song, and the vocal melody really sticks in my brain…
next comes “what it all means” which has a much more “chugging” rhythm, which starts very simply, and then something really clever happens – sam sings a particular line, and the strings do exactly what she says!! “I can see it from all sides…” and the mostly mono-sounding violins suddenly separate into GLORIOUS stereo, so the instant she says “from all sides”…the strings go stereo. this kind of attention to detail is fantastic, and it’s the kind of thing I would put into a song and see if anyone notices…(I noticed, sam!).
this song is very, very short, and just when you think it’s really getting going…it suddenly ends on a sudden stop – fantastic.
now we get something truly extraordinary – the strings version of “I don’t want to fall in love” – which is simply one of the most amazing strings re-arrangement of a rock song I’ve ever heard. and the new vocal, it’s just so, so beautiful – this is one of the oldest songs represented here, originally produced in 1988, so, 21 years ago – and singing this now, in 2009, her voice is just astonishingly beautiful, especially when she sings the last part of the classic line “I don’t want to fall in love, with the idea of love…” her voice goes thin, breathy and impassioned all at once, and it’s shiver-inducing stuff, I can tell you. I think that’s a great lyric – “with the idea of love” – that says so, so much.
this EP is hauntingly beautiful, and the next song is a haunting, haunted beauty; minor key, stark, sad, the strings crashing together uncomfortably, slightly uncertainly, but with a great passionate beauty, slow, deliberate, supporting the sad, slow tale that sam sings, her reworking of a lovely song from the “fan dance” album (2001) the heartbreaking “say what you mean” – it’s a stop, a sudden stop and a movement to the minor, and after the bouncing rhythms of the previous three tracks, it’s a bit of a surprise – but a lovely one.
fifth, and final, is what might be the single most beautiful song on this EP, and possibly, of all of the long play – the piano ballad “so glad you’re here” – which is simply, a straightforward piano arrangement, with lovely cellos added, and sam’s voice – “I remember the day you were born – I wasn’t ready – I was scared – I’m so glad you’re here…I’m so glad” – but, in a soft, sombre and incredibly expressive voice.
“so glad you’re here” has moved into that realm, some of the rarefied few songs where sam just nails emotion so well, and it’s a song that very nearly moves me to tears each time I hear it – and I don’t even really understand why, except, it’s expressing happiness in a slightly sorrowful way…the lyrics are somewhat telling “nothing about us looks good on paper…paper’s no good in the middle of the night…so glad you’re here…so glad…”.
“people do all the wrong things for the right reasons…but somehow, you understand…I’m so glad you’re here…so glad.”
a brilliant chordal piano interlude with amazingly beautiful string accompaniment takes us through towards the end of the song…
“now is really all we have…now is all we have”.
thus ends the first long play EP, “hypnotists in paris”, and I can tell you, I would have been happy with just these five amazing string renditions of sam phillips’ songs old and new for my subscription money, but, there are not just four more EPs to come, but various other songs released as singles and b sides, plus an entire full length fully produced album. so this is just the beginning…
I believe that this new arrangement, where sam makes music for real fans who want to hear new music, must have been incredibly liberating for sam, because she produced a huge number of new songs in the first year of long play, and the second EP, “cold dark night”, coincided with christmas 2009, as makes sense since it’s sam singing four traditional christmas carols and two christmas themed songs written by sam.
EP 2: cold dark night
12 tracks over one year, which was supposed to be the entire “long play”, but when 2009 ended, sam carried on producing music and making it available to subscribers. the second EP for 2009, “cold dark night”, contained these tracks:
it came upon a midnight clear
cold dark night
it doesn’t feel like christmas
away in a manger
o holy night (bonus track)
for this EP, we return to a more familiar acoustic guitars/voices arrangement, with a muted, plucked guitar part underpinning sam’s glorious two and three and probably four part overdubbed vocal harmonies (shivers, chills and smiles), also aided and abetted by the strings, but it’s the voices that grab me here, I’ve always had a soft spot for this song, but to hear it song by the angelic phillips is a dream come true, heartbreaking, sincere, moved, moving, she absolutely nails this – my favourite ever christmas song cover – ever.
and that’s down to sam’s remarkable vocal arrangement, her harmonies are beyond perfect, they are chillingly beautiful.
next comes a really stark arrangement, an original song apparently about the birth of jesus, but the band is extremely funky sounding, a very small drum kit in an echoey space; bass, rhythm guitar, and sam pleading with us “when was he born? when was he born? on a cold dark night…” this roughshod arrangement suddenly bursting into rock and roll life, with a blistering lo-fi lead guitar solo from the very talented eric gorfain – I’d say this track captures an amazing lo-fi sound, the echoey drums, the dead sounding bass, the no-effects vocal, the rhythm guitars – and then that amazing solo, like the first good solo you played in your garage band, the first solo you were truly proud of – and this one rocks the house, with a little slapback echo, it’s just so smooth – strangely reminiscent of sam’s previous producer, t-bone burnett – but that is just coincidental.
“cold dark night” is a dark horse, a strange one, but a nice rocking little number.
the next original, “it doesn’t feel like christmas” – is a much more fully produced, studio creation, featuring the return of the absolutely astonishing sam phillips background vocals – just overdubbed, doubled “ahhs” but they take my breath away. starting with a lovely two note chiming lead guitar part, and dual acoustic guitars, a close-vocal harmony on the lead vocal, which then suddenly ends up in a very complex middle bit where there are multiple sam phillip’s singing melodies, harmonies, counterpoint, odd breathing vocals – then, a great lead solo, and more of those heartbreaking background vocals.
“I hoped that you’d be with me – this time next year”.
tubular bells ring out as she sings “it doesn’t feel like christmas” and suddenly, the chiming guitars disappear into maracas and a fading rhythm – another rocker, a beautiful production, a fantastic vocal arrangement – another one I absolutely love.
a relatively straight reading of “away in a manger” – with just one voice (as opposed to the massed overdubs and awesome production of the previous track) – but this song is pure devotion, and it’s kinda wonderful to hear the supposedly-now-secular sam phillips sing “I love you lord jesus” with so much emotion and passion – it’s wonderful (and I am not a christian, far from it – but I can hear the real devotion in her voice, and I respect that). the track starts out with just one guitar and one voice, then, the drums come in – and suddenly, another unexpected and blistering guitar solo from mr. gorfain. a fantastic and surprising arrangement of a traditional christmas song, and a very enjoyable one – great vocal.
“silent night” is next, starting with just a thumping drum/rhythm, this slowly builds, it’s mostly drum beat, simple bass guitar, strummed acoustic, and solo violin – a long, mournful violin solo fleshes out the track, which is lovely and minor key, reminds me of the neil young song, from the “everybody knows this is nowhere” album, “running dry (requiem for the rockets)” which features a doleful violin solo similar to this (or is it “round and round”? one of those two).
that is the only comparison I can make, and the solo violin and lead guitar interplay could almost be a neil young outtake – with a very different kind of vocalist.
the “bonus track” is another very straight reading, this time of “o holy night” – and this one is all about sam’s voice – accompanied only by acoustic guitar – sam’s confidence as a performer just means she can sail through something like this almost effortlessly, and the “fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices, oh night…divine…oh, oh night…when christ was born” is absolutely breathtaking – so, so lovely.
this is a voice of the heavens, simple, perfect, short and to the point. it’s also the shortest version I’ve ever heard (clocking in at a very tidy 1:55), and it suddenly is gone before you even realise. I am not normally enamoured of rock musicians, or pop musicians, or folk musicians, doing covers of christmas carols…
…but this mini-collection is great, because it’s not too much; the arrangements are unique and memorable, and you get two new christmas themed sam phillips tracks as well, one of them in glorious lo-fi, the other, beautifully and amazingly produced and arranged, and that makes this six song EP a real winner in my book – lovely work.
2010 – long play year two
EP 3: magic for everybody
“magic for everybody”, EP and song, is a real favourite of mine, introducing the lovely title track with it’s cheery message that “there’s magic for everybody”, this is one of those oddly perky sam phillips tracks that sticks in your brain for hours and days after you hear it – the sure symptom of pop genius, music that sticks in the brain. the first entrant for “the long play” in new year 2010, and the third EP; the full track listing for this EP is as follows:
always merry and bright
magic for everybody
level pulled down
tell her what she wants to know
beginning with “always merry and bright”, for me, it’s the vocal that stands out, and when sam sings the chorus, which is of course, the title, her voice has an odd, world-weary quality to it that almost belies the positive message of the song, it’s as if as she sings “always merry and bright…” that secretly, inside, she feels a little sad, not too merry, not too bright. I may be reading more into it than is there, but that is the impression I get from this vocal, which is delivered in a beautiful reverb, with lush strings behind. nice, close harmonies are featured on some of the lines, the song is slow, deliberate, evenly paced, and the string arrangement is a real highlight – otherwise, it’s a lovely, lovely tune and another one that sticks in the brain…
“magic for everybody” follows, another upbeat piece, which starts out with acoustic guitar and low-fi drum kit, with a beautiful, dry, un-effected vocal that knocks off my socks – “there’s magic for everybody – I know it’s so” – and “don’t let perfect make you blind, to this beautiful world…”, “don’t erase your crooked line – take your mistakes and come with me.” – that’s fantastic stuff, really encouraging and positive, and I love this odd song with it’s background vocals “oh, oh, oh” and then a dual guitar solo that’s to die for, with two different distorted guitars – this piece just rocks – and then there’s that voice again, pinning me down and leaving me helpless – “don’t let perfect make you blind…to this beautiful world”. sigh.
“trouble” is a very basic performance, mostly acoustic guitar and voice, minimal drums and bass, what seems to be the standard “let’s do this one lo-fi” set up that works so, so effectively with so many of these songs – the one extravagance here, is an absolutely astonishing stereo set of background vocals, which is then followed by what can only be described as a “vocal solo” in the centre of the mix, which then interacts with the ongoing stereo background vocals – the vocal arrangement on this piece is incredibly complex, and phillips needs to get credit for developing something so beautiful atop what at first appears to be a simple backing track – genius!
“lever pulled down” is a huge favourite of mine, a thumping bass drum and cracking snare accompany sam’s wonderful chorus “I’m a lever pulled down – I’m a flip switch” – fantastic imagery in this one – the verses are fairly non-descript, but that chorus – it’s instantly catchy, and the popping snare really accentuates sam’s vocal beautifully. a twangy almost country and western guitar solo, clean this time, rings out beautifully before we return to sam and her guitar – and then back to that awesome chorus – I love this track!
reverse guitars open “tell her what she wants to know”, which is just a tune of pure, pure sadness, and those guitars play through the intro, when sam, with no effects on her voice once again, sings so evenly and beautifully – the sad tale, about the things that this man should tell this woman – sam imploring him to “tell her what she wants to know – she’ll find out anyway” – wistfully … “tell her…” “tell her…” a plain lead guitar takes over, and then sam is back to continue the tale. a really, really real and very sad tale, you feel so, so bad for the woman that sam is singing about, you really do, and sam has done it again, you can’t get this song out of your head, with it’s curiously simple revolving lead guitar riff and that wonderful, repeated “tell her..” motif – more genius from ms. phillips and her remarkable band.
heart on wheels single
the second long play entrant for 2010 is the single release, “heart on wheels” which is a somewhat more “produced”-sounding track, but still with a bit of the lo-fi, nice twangy tremelo lead guitars are tastefully supporting this serious, and steady paced track, with a nice “middle eight”, followed by a lovely tremelo lead solo, I really like the band on this track, they are very subtle, but they support sam beautifully – a lovely little track “nothing can stop you now – you gotta keep driving on…”.
EP 4: old tin pan
third entry for 2010 and the fourth EP produced, it’s amazing just how quickly sam produced all of the long play material, it just seems to flow from her pen and her voice, I think being free of “the record company” for the first time ever, must have been so liberating, and the unique and creative song arrangements are testament to a revitalise, excited phillips – doing what she does best – writing and recording songs.
the track listing for this EP is as follows:
not so fast
when you’re down
old tin pan
I shall seek thee earnestly
go on alone
beginning with the remarkable “not so fast”, this is a fantastic pop song; catchy, and it contains some really unusual vocal techniques that really draw me in – it’s difficult to describe in words, but I will try, the song starts with a jaunty piano riff and some drum rolls, possibly timpani – then sam’s dry, un-effected voice begins, singing the verse – but when she reaches the chorus, there is a subtle change in her voice, as if a chorus had been switched on – and when she gets to the middle eight, whispered, beautiful vocal harmonies appear, so delicate you dare not breathe – and then, back to that piano –
aimee’s temple continues the “piano theme” – two songs in a row that start with piano, this one, with a lovely, intricate vocal melody, and then the drums come crashing in, along with pizzicato strings, that follow the descending chord sequence down – then, massed, harmonising violins support the lovely second verse, where sam is hitting a lot of really beautiful high notes, slightly higher than the range she normally sings in – and she sounds great! then – it’s suddenly over, with an ominous, descending four note piano riff – the lowest four notes on the piano, descending slowly…shivers.
one of the most compelling songs in the long play is “when you’re down”, which I immediately took a liking to, but it wasn’t until upon subsequent listens to the track, that I realised that this is the first and only song I’ve ever heard that is thematically and musically similar to 1977-era van der graaf (at least, this 2010 version is) ! strange and unlikely as that seems…it really is, and in fact, taking the analogy one step further, the string arrangement, and in particular, the wild gypsy violin solo, remind me specifically of the van der graaf track “cat’s eye/yellow fever”(!!??!!??).
that’s a song utterly unique in peter hammill‘s catalogue, a song I never thought I’d ever hear anything even REMOTELY like it, and while there is similarity, the songs are not identical in any way, the vocal styles, for example, are completely different – but something about the chord sequence, and the wild violin solo, reminds me so, so strongly of “cat’s eye/yellow fever” – one of my very, very favourite van der graaf / hammill tracks, which features graham smith’s (formerly of string driven thing) massed string overdubs/attack, and wonderful, albeit slightly insane, soloing on the violin 🙂
so sam phillips, of all people, has managed to create a song that reminds me of van der graaf at their most intense, and I’d happily put the two tracks side by side in any play list. in this way, the long play continues to surprise, and I find in particular that a lot of these songs have a clarity and simplicity that really appeals to me – there is something peculiar and wonderful about the string arrangements; and the instrumentation and sort of “roots” rock sound, almost audio verite in parts, is so appealing – the songs sound real, because they are real – this is real drums, real bass, real piano, real strings, real violin solos, real cello solos, real viola solos, real acoustic guitars, and sam’s amazing real voice – and it’s that voice, the one that sings almost seductively “when you’re down, you find out what’s down there…” over and over again, while the violin flies, van der graaf style, in the background…that voice, the perfect vocal vehicle for the lyric and feeling that is “when you’re down” – one of the most remarkable of all of the long play series.
I never dreamed in a million years that sam phillips would write and record a song that brings a peter hammill song so strongly to mind, but she has, and somehow, while that is surprising, it’s also not surprising – if anyone could perform such a miraculous feat (bring to mind one of peter hammill‘s most amazing songs ever) it would be sam – she is simply remarkable. even stranger is the fact that within one year, sam felt that she needed to remake the song – and when you compare the 2009 version and this (first of two) 2010 version – well, they are the same song, but the 2010 version has been radically re-imagined for solo and duo and massed gypsy violin, and features a fantastic, odd all strings ending, too – whereas the 2009 version is a relatively straight “lo-fi band version” – both are lovely, both are good, but I tend towards this imaginative remake – and this just illustrates the quality that sam has: ever-questing, never satisfied, always thinking “I can do a better version of this” – and then doing it! i wish more artists would re-evaluate and re-invent the way sam does – it’s brilliant, and it also gives us two great versions of a very cool song.
next is “old tin pan”, which is sort of an acoustic guitar rave up, with hand percussion, and sam singing in her most urgent and beautiful voice, a thumping bass drum comes in just in time for the lovely “la-la-la” chorus, there is something very old-timey about this track, which I am sure is intentional, and the wordless chorus is somehow perfect – then something like a twelve-string guitar (?) comes in for a simplistic but effective solo – and then back to sam, narrating the story, the crash of a cymbal propelling the song to it’s sudden end.
an odd percussion sound, sets the sombre rhythm of the very, very serious “I shall seek thee earnestly” which is the closest that sam comes to ultra dark – it’s slow, secretive and haunting – minor key, and serious, devotional lyrics – a slow violin takes the first solo as the band drifts through the simple chord changes, slowly, slowly – and then back to our good narrator, sam phillips. the way she enunciates her words is remarkable “sanct-u-ary” is just lovely, and this is a serious, intense vocal performance of the ultra serious variety.
more strange percussion begins the final track from this EP, a half-spoken first line, at a beautiful low pitch, this is almost smoky jazz, the piano is back again, but not jaunty this time, it’s more subtle, and as the song progresses, the violin enters, the piano builds, and sam’s vocal just gets so, so beautiful – “I’ll go on alone…it’s what I’ve always known….I’ll invite the angels up tonight to sing…” absolutely lovely – a duo of violins carries us forward to an even more hushed verse, and then back to that brave, heartfelt chorus “I’ll go on alone…”
EP 5: days of the one night stands
the fourth 2010 “long play” entry, and the fifth EP, “days of the one night stands” contains these tracks:
(I’m not your) stepping stone
where is love now
the fifth EP begins with a cover, but a most unusual one – the pace is slow, deliberate, almost lazy – when a close-harmony sam arrives with the famous chorus “I I I I’m not your stepping stone…” – then, the super slow, super low, verses are just so intense – sam’s voice takes on a wonderful quality when she pushes down for those super low notes – and then, just as easily, she soars up to soprano like it’s nothing, I love her range and the way she uses it. intensely beautiful background vocals form a lovely motif after the first verse, almost like an ambient interval, and then a lovely, bendy guitar solo takes over – and then that shiver-inducing, ultra low sam on the second verse – and then flying up to the chorus again – and the slow, slow pace is just relentless – an absolutely unique cover of this well-known song, and I love the arrangement – classic sam phillips, tackling an unlikely tune and getting it just right.
the new version of “lying” features a very stripped down version, no elvis costello guitar riff, and a really, really beautiful new vocal – so carefully sung, so, so perfect – meticulous is the word. then – an amazing distorted violin solo, which is just so unexpected and so, so beautiful – and then back to the new vocal, now with an amazing close harmony, so three or four sams are now singing the last part of this excellent track – and then there is that absolutely stunning distorted violin again, stealing the show – fantastic.
there are also some great mixing techniques here, some really odd ideas, such as “green grass” where all the instruments are mixed hard left, and the lead vocal, alone, is mixed hard right – so emulating an old mono recording as heard on a stereo record – many old beatles songs are arranged this way, instruments on one side, vocals on the other, but when played back in stereo, over speakers, the effect is cohesive – but in headphones (where I am now) the separation is awesome – and sam’s voice alone is so beautiful, as is the string arrangement in the other speaker – stunningly beautiful. I love it when people take risks like this, mixing something in a very daring way – and “green grass”, which is a heartbreaking and beautiful song, is one such bold, daring mix – I wish we had more like it – bravo.
next up is “where is love now”, a lovely, acoustic guitar and voice-led piece, “dry the tears from my eyes…leave me here long enough to realise…” – a quiet, reflective sam phillips here – delicate piano and guitar notes, and then that calm, loving voice, so calm – with a determination that is undeniable, the song builds in intensity, the chorus ringing out “where is love now?” – “out here in the dark…” – a minimal guitar solo takes us to another verse, and a quietly strummed section – and the song is over.
“undecided” starts with an almost unaccompanied sam, her voice alone, with a barely audible acoustic guitar – then, the band comes in, the guitar becomes audible, and sam’s short vocal couplets are delivered with passion and intensity, “if you’ve got a heart and if you’re kind…” old-timey solo violin takes the place of the lead solo, in the second verse, sam’s voice really builds in intensity, then she hits the chorus hard…and then, the song slows, stops – and then starts up again, a false ending (not something we hear much of on sam phillips‘ records) but a lovely way to end the piece.
2010 “long play” “go on alone”/”when you’re down” single release, two sided single, contains the following:
go on alone – 2010 version
when you’re down – 2010 version
the fifth and final release from the 2010 section of the “long play” is confusing, in that it presents new versions of tracks we’ve heard previously in the long play – for “go on alone”, the second outing – this version is slower, more reflective, with strange percussion and pianos – a lovely variant from the not-very-long-before-released version from the “old tin pan” EP just months earlier…
then, believe it or not, this final 2010 release contains a THIRD version of “when you’re down” – piano and keyboards version, a lovely, sombre, serious version – with a beautiful, ambient piano in an amazing echo-ey reverb, a lovely, understated vocal – yet another fantastic version of a great sam phillips song – so – if I am understanding this correctly – the three versions of “when you’re down” run something like this:
2009 – band version
2010 – violin version
2010 – piano version – ambient
and that in itself is remarkable, but it goes to show you, how many different way sam “hears” things in her head – and that is a fascinating insight into the song-writing, arranging, and mixing process. did those three versions all come from one master session? two? or are there three unique sessions, re-recorded to encompass sam’s latest and newest vision of what “when you’re down” sounds like at this moment, in her mind? we may never know!
2011 – long play year three
the original culmination of the originally-envisioned “long play” series was a full album, and that culmination finally appeared in early 2011 in the form of the mostly all new songs-filled “cameras in the sky” CD. I think that this is a great record, and I was happy when later on, sam decided to make it available as a regular purchase item that anyone can buy – which is good, because you really shouldn’t miss it.
the full track listing for the “cameras in the sky” CD is as follows:
leap towards the earth
throw yourself away
little white feet
cameras in the sky
when I’m a camera
so glad you’re here
I won’t do a track-by-track analysis since this record is available to everyone, online, from sam’s website, but suffice to say that this is a most excellent and unique collection of very creative songs – well worth investing in.
but that still wasn’t the very end…! a few more 2011 releases round out the massive, three-years-of-output collection that is “the long play” – surely the most successful subscription service ever envisioned – and an excellent deal for subscribers, who got a LOT more than sam promised – a LOT more! which has to be a good thing.
next up then, was a three-song single, that collects together a few oddities, but I really like this release, especially the second track, “I don’t know what it all means” – which was given out with “believer” magazine in 2008 – a lovely little song.
the single contained these tracks:
I don’t know why – 2008 version
I don’t know what it all means – believer magazine version
trouble – world cafe version – 2010 (live)
so this is another great little release that just adds to the immense musical value of “the long play”.
one last thing – the penultimate “long play” item:
plastic is forever – 2011 version
this is a truly unique track in sam’s canon, from one of her most “difficult” albums (1996’s “omnipop (it’s only a flesh wound lamb chop”), re-imagined here sans electronica, with voice and acoustic guitar – which really brings out the fact that even when disguised by strange, electronic arrangements, as this song originally was; underneath, there is a living, breathing song – and this simplified version is really proof positive of that fact. a song with a message, too: “plastic is forever” – not a good message, but a truthful one, sung in a heartbreaking voice…”and ever…”
“plastic is forever” in it’s stripped down 2011 version, was the last “long play” offering proper; bringing to close almost three years of exciting new music from one of our best and most under-appreciated songwriters, ms. sam phillips.
but there was still one more goodie in the pipeline. once the series was over, sam decided to create a commercially available album that brought together 13 of the best tracks from the “long play” series – so that people that never subscribed, could at least get the essence of what happened during those three years. it’s a great collection, entitled “solid state: songs from the long play”. it draws from all parts of the series, including the recently-released “cameras in the sky” album – and it’s a great compilation:
magic for everybody
throw yourself away
tell her what she wants to know
lever pulled down
not so fast
what it all means
it doesn’t feel like christmas
when I’m a camera
so glad you’re here
and that, at long last, is truly the end of the story – “cameras in the sky”, the album promised for the end of 2009, was finally delivered in early 2011, since the “long play” had been extended from one year to over two years at that point; and then, retrospectively, sam decided nearer the end of 2011, to create a retrospective of “the long play” that everyone could enjoy, and thus “solid state: songs from the long play” was born – which if listened to on it’s own, really does give you a great flavour of what this exciting new music subscription was all about.
I would also say a word in general about the many, many string arrangements included and utilised within “the long play” – in fact, the very first tracks in “the long play” are of course, older sam phillips songs reworked for either acoustic guitar and strings, or piano and strings, and I have to applaud this approach, I am all for artists who constantly re-invent their catalogue – in this case, with “the long play”, sam has taken a number of her older songs, stripped them back to their basic arrangement of guitar and voice or piano and voice, and re-recorded them with new, special string arrangements – and of course, new vocals, but, often, the guitar is sometimes stopped so you get just sam’s voice against the strings – and these re-workings are just so effective, and so pleasant – in particular, the 2009 rework of “I need love”, which was a fantastic song to begin with, which used to sport a regular rock or pop arrangement, done by a regular “band” – and the original version is great, I love it – but the 2009 re-work, with it’s beautiful string arrangement, is in a class by itself; I love the new “I need love” – it’s simple, effective, and very, very beautiful.
these “string versions” of older sam phillips songs could have been a disaster, but instead, they are a triumph, and I love every one of them, and I also really love all the new songs sporting lovely string arrangements – I love where this is going, and I hope sam continues this trend, as well as some of the other trends within the long play, the increased use of piano, normal or jangly, the use of reverse guitars, the use of very distorted rhythm electric guitars, and so on, her “lo-fi/old timey” band – a lot of great musical devices are being employed here, on both the reworking of older songs and in the creation of new pieces – and I so, so applaud their use and inclusion in “the long play” series.
you can no longer purchase or subscribe to the long play, and most of the releases have been removed from sam’s website – but, you do have one recourse, which is the most excellent “solid state: songs from the long play” which still is available – and I heartily recommend it to all.
as for those of us who subscribed – no matter how late, ahem, some of us were, we are blessed with owning a massive collection of fantastic sam phillips music that took up three years – 2009 through 2011, sandwiching two great “standard” albums – 2008’s “don’t do anything” and 2013’s “push any button”.
what a great way to spend three years. I hope she has no regrets, for us, we got a mass of great EPs, singles and albums that we might not have normally got, had sam gone on in “record company” mode – I for one, am so, so glad that she made the decision to go down the subscription / direct dealings with the fans route – and I wish more artists would do this – cut the record companies right out of the mix – show them that we no longer need them.
sam phillips has created a business model that all of us musicians could learn from, and in doing so, has also created music that is real, vital and extraordinarily beautiful – I hope you will agree.
please also see my previous blog regarding sam phillips – a wizard, a true star.
no, not the classic album from jethro tull, nor, the tendency of mature folk to wistfully long for days gone by; but instead, just a state of mind I’ve had to become accustomed to with regard to my own music and…how much of it there is! 🙂
the problem is, stated simply, is that I record far more music than I have time available to “process”. as a result, there is an ever-growing backlog of tasks, two of which are always, always on my mind:
1) audio mixing and mastering
2) video creation and upload
things have changed for me, in some quite radical ways, two years ago, I had music made with instruments: guitars, basses, keyboards, soft synths, the kaossilator pad, and so on. familiar instruments, that I’ve been working with all my life (or, in the case of the kaoss pad, some of my life!). with the instruments, I had already become so prolific that I was about a year behind on video mastering, and some months behind on audio mixing and mastering.
but then came the advent of applications. that really threw a monkey wrench into my musical affairs, because suddenly, I had not one new instrument, but 40 or 50 new instruments, seriously, all of which allowed for the very quick production of a lot of high quality music. this overwhelming amount of new music made with a huge number of apps, became such a problem so quickly, that I was forced to invent a new kind of album to deal specifically with application based music – the “eternal album”.
the first four “eternal albums” are now live on bandcamp, and from what I can tell, they are working correctly. having these means I am free of having to worry about compiling albums for any applications-based music – which is great.
so now, I have two main, massive streams of music, which are kept physically separately, to maintain clarity:
1) music made with traditional instruments
2) music made with applications
however, I do view the backlog as a whole – I have audio mastering and video mastering to do for both instrument-based and application-based music, and I actually just tackle it in chronological order, regardless of what it is – maybe it’s a session done with addictive synth arpeggiators, then next, some live electric guitar improvs, then, some guitar synth improvs, then, back to the ipad for some n log pro pieces…it might be anything.
the one thing all of these mastering projects have in common, is how far behind I am on them J. at one point, I had the video backlog down to about three months – and then, things happen – and suddenly, not even sure how it happens, it’s back to over a year – 13, 14 months! so what can I do, what choice do I have, except to go back and master those 14 month old videos, to clear the way to mastering the 13 month old videos…and so on, ad infinitum, video without end. followed by, audio without end.
I will never, ever run out of work. sure – I could stop making videos. but that’s my “stage”; since both physical constraints and time constraints prohibit me from playing real gigs (I’ve played very few in the last decade, sadly), so performing live guitar improvs on youtube, or playing the kaoss pad, or singing peter hammill tracks at the piano, creating music with ipad applications or on the synthesizer– takes the place of that stage – in fact, it’s in a way, it’s better, because it’s a world stage, where anyone, from anywhere, is welcome to listen and watch the improvs and loops and songs.
in another way, it’s not better, because I miss the feedback that a “real” audience provides. I have to remind myself, though, that the youtube audience is just as real, and they do provide feedback in the form of comments, both online and offline, so that’s a great relationship – and besides all that, I don’t WANT to stop making videos – I love it!
all I can really do is keep going, and hope that I find enough time to eventually, get “caught up” – or at least, close to it. I know it’s possible, because I nearly was “caught up” at the beginning of this year. now, due to circumstances beyond my control…I am far behind once again.
however – there is hope. the “eternal albums” truly, truly help me, and once I have a couple dozen of those in place, life, and the backlog, will get substantially better. why? because for a full fifty percent of the music I make, the applications-based music, I no longer have the task of creating bespoke “albums” – I can literally complete a track; master it, and add it to the existing, live-on-bandcamp “eternal album” – and that is win / win / win:
- it no longer sits “in the can” waiting for enough material to form an album
- it’s out to the listeners and fans faster
- it’s off my backlog !
so once I have a couple dozen “eternal albums” all growing slowly and organically, as tracks using that application get completed, they go straight “up” and onto the appropriate album – that will mean I can spend MORE time working on the Instrument side – audio mixes and videos, which I hope means I might actually get caught up !
now, I do also have plans to create a few special “eternal albums” for some of my instrument-based music too. at the moment, what I have in mind looks like this:
new instrument-based dave stafford “eternal albums”:
1) “longer” by “bindlestiff” – lost live recordings from 1994, these were never assessed, over 70 tapes exist, so instead of trying to pick the best seventeen songs from 70 tapes, and make a single, traditional album, I plan instead, to go through them over time, as time permits, and as I locate viable tracks, upload them to the “longer” album – until all 70 tapes have been gone through. this will hopefully generate a long, long record, which will be a wonderful history of the “lost year” in the life of the band (including some very, very rare tracks, like our ambient, ebow-driven cover of jimi hendrix’s “the burning of the midnight lamp” which we rehearsed many times but never performed in public – somewhere, there may be a take of this – I hope) – even if there is just an average of one good track per tape, that means a 70 track album – and almost certainly many, many more. I am also hoping that these tapes will present many, many different “versions” of one of our signature pieces, “without difference” – which went through some really interesting evolutions, so I can’t wait to compare the versions from “longest” with the existing versions on “quiet” and “live” – and to hear multiple versions of songs, to hear them slowly evolve and develop as we become more and more comfortable and familiar with them as pieces of our repertoire.
2) “classical” by dave stafford – this is to cover a little-known side of my music, which is given away by the title. since acquiring the guitar synth, I’ve taken an interest in creating classical music, and I’ve got a nine minute plus, nearly-complete concerto for “nylon classical guitar” and “oboe”, which has been sitting waiting patiently for me to finish it and release it, for something like three years. it’s a lovely piece, that started life as a short classical-style loop (of guitar synth “oboe”, “clarinet”, and “flute”), which I then developed into a proper piece of music, and then – started expanding. it features the “nylon classical guitar” heavily, and the aforementioned “oboes”, (one of the “oboe” solos I play, I consider, may be the single best solo I’ve ever played in my life – not sure) – meanwhile, I’ve added “cello”, “organ”, “vibes”, “piano” – and, in the final coda – I used massed “string sections” to create real drama – in wonderful stereo – and a plethora of other classical instruments, too, and the piece is really, really coming along. I would say it’s about 90 percent plus complete at this point in time – so very close to ready.
it’s absolutely remarkable to me that a person can compose for “orchestra” – and I mean full orchestra, any instrument you dream of – with a single roland gr-55 guitar synth! but really, that’s all you need –you don’t need to hire musicians, or score all the parts – you just play them all yourself 🙂 so I really want to get this album set up so I can release this piece, and hopefully, if time permits, record and add more “dave stafford classical pieces” over time. a bit indulgent, perhaps, creating an album for one track – but I really want this track to be available, as it shows a side of my music that you might never, ever imagine – one where my prowess with the guitar synth “oboe” is much more important than my prowess with lead guitar 🙂 how very strange indeed!
3) “classical ambient” by dave stafford – this would collect all existing classical ambient pieces, there are many that were done as live videos, and some studio pieces, too, that are sitting “in the can”. this would give these works their own platform, as they are unique – mostly “strings”-based pieces, but “strings” performed as ambient loops – such as “bela teguese” which you can hear on youtube on the pureambientHD channel at the moment. there are also some string + guitar synth based pieces, pieces created with two guitar synths, that might fit in well on this album…but that gets tricky, as those are actually one instrument and one application – so not truly “instrument-based”!
4) “straight to video” by dave stafford – this would collect the best of my video performances (most of which, have never been compiled or collected into albums – with a few notable exceptions such as live ebow tracks for “the haunting” and tracks from 20120820 that ended up on “gone native”) – but in the main, these videos are shot live, produced, uploaded, and then never formally collected into albums or any other presentation – and also, we’ve had requests from fans for “audio” versions of some of these video tracks, so this would be a way to satisfy those requests, too. this would also include alternate mixes and alternate versions – in some cases, I might have done three takes, and only uploaded one video – meaning that there are actually three audio versions available, one from the video, and two unreleased – that’s the kind of thing that would be featured on this album. or, in some cases, I created alternate mixes of a single audio mix, to try out, so an alternate mix of “folding space”, for example, exists – “folding space (hypercardioid mix)” – same track as the video, but “treated” in a separate audio file – and then not used in the final video.
it’s remarkable how all this music has appeared in my life, often, I actually have no idea how it all gets done, but it does – somehow. I am working diligently to find the best way to present it to you, and bandcamp seems like the ideal platform, because, most importantly, you can listen first, which is a great feature, and secondly, you can select just the tracks you want, and not the ones you don’t – not every track appeals to every person – so it provides the ultimate in choice, the most flexible choice possible, which I think is really good.
I’m also very pleased that recently I did finally find the time to upload some of my archival albums – I always thought it strange, just seeing four or five of my more recent records up there, knowing that there is this huge back catalogue – and really, it’s just finding time to upload it – not easy, there is a lot of detail that needs to be entered to make the albums as complete and accurate as possible…for example, last night, I was working on the “song with no end” EP, which, because it contains four vocal numbers, actually meant that I needed to transcribe the lyrics to all four vocal songs directly onto bandcamp. I made certain that this was done, as lyrics are vitally important to vocal music.
bandcamp is a great platform for both artist and listener, and we hope long may it live. we shall continue uploading the back catalogue, and we’d like to take this opportunity too, to thank the many, many listeners who have been visiting bandcamp, and who have been checking out some of these archival releases – and in doing so, we are experiencing the highest visitor levels of all time on the bandcamp site. so – thank you for that, we really appreciate all of our visitors.
the early and mid 90s were a very, very exciting time for looping and ambient, we had “looper’s delight” – a mailing list where loopers could share their experiences; we also had, again under the auspices of that most excellent of communities, “looper’s delight”; various compilation CDs where we could submit music and become part of this very early looping community – and at the same time, for bryan helm and I, we had the support of the crafty community as well, and our ongoing interactions with guitar craft – and I think sometimes, that this amazing time is a bit overlooked, when “new” loopers like the oberheim echoplex pro were just arriving, this was such a great time in music.
for me, it was 1993 – 1995, as a member of live looping ambient duo “bindlestiff” that I experienced the bleeding edge of live looping and live ambient (and, the added inspiration of continued close involvement with guitar craft) – an unforgettable experience, that spawned solo albums for me from “other memory / sand island” to “transitory” to “1867” to “the autoreverse sessions” and so on, and concurrently, a string of seven brilliant “bindlestiff” CDs, too – and all of these recordings document a remarkable decade for both looping and ambient music in general – and I’m very proud to have been there right in the centre of it all !