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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Peace, Love and Groovy Mellotrons,

 

 

dave

pureambient hq

january 17th, 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I had a notion…

on August 3rd this year, I went from having Notion for IPad as my main compositional tool and constant companion, to sitting here once again, rebuilding the instrument database yet again,  and after a full ELEVEN DAYS of having no working Notion, and the score I was working on, which was truncated and horribly damaged, has now been “repaired” three times by Presonus themselves…I’m now walking muttering to myself “well, I had a Notion…”.

I hadn’t realised how very under my skin this handy little app had gotten, I was locked into a happy routine of working on a score almost every day (for something like two years now!) and truly looking forward to that time, too.  To suddenly be without it, and, to have a two month old score ripped into pieces by the app that gave birth to it…I was nearly traumatised by that, to be honest.

Why did this happen?

I can answer that with just two words:
Untested Update.

Presonus rolled out a massive, sweeping update to Notion for IPad, at a point in time that for me, was and still is, utterly disastrous.  A two month old score, more than 90 percent complete…

Woke up one day, turned on Notion…and 90 percent of my score just disappeared.  Like magic, but not the good kind of magic.  The bad kind.  The kind where you push “play”, and the first eight bars roll by as usual, you hear the familiar glockenspiel and timpani introduction with the crashing, distorted guitar chord…and then, while the music is still playing…

the screen goes blank.  Bars 9 thru 200 and something, are now just a big, white, empty, probably scrolling sheet of nothing.

Panic.  I never made a single audio mix of the track.  Not one.  Why would I? … When it wasn’t finished.
Right now, I am really wishing I had,  because I will consider it to be a minor miracle if I do fully recover this piece of alternative jazz-rock-something genre music…which still remains unknown.

Several very unhappy email exchanges with Presonus later, I just received the “fixed” file from their support guy.  I just played it back now.
There’s good news and other news.   The good news is, they did manage to rebuild the score’s notation, the frightening empty white pages are gone, and the piece is complete again.  Huge relief there, the piece may survive…

However…almost all of the sounds, have defaulted back to pianos.  Both guitars, became pianos.  The jazz trumpet part…became a piano.  Both of the Jazz trumpets, I should say, 1 and 2…now pianos.  The solo trumpet,whose unmistakably voice was critical to one part of the song…is now a piano.   The really good news?  Hmmm.  The English Horn still works, and, it even still sounds good.  Unlike the rest.  

The drums seem ok.  The bass guitar is absent, so I guess that it, too, is now…a piano

I re-installed the app a couple days ago, while the guy was “fixing” my score.

I had tried to re-download or restore / re-load the instruments a couple times, you have to leave your iPad on and open until it completes, which, when you have the “all” bundle…takes a few hours.  I left it on all night as usual…

Then the fun part comes.  You get a message saying: “All your sounds have successfully downloaded”.  Ha ha ha ha ha!!! VERY funny.  Not even true, either, usually.  Not reliable.

So you try your broken score again…but the glockenspiel is missing.  And you then find that in reality, NOT all your sounds have downloaded.  So you have to restart the process…again.  And sometimes, again.  Before you can even try to save your piece.
Why is the glockenspiel missing? Why because, it’s not part of the “all” package, it’s a separate download, because it’s “free”.  Only in this case, “free” means, you can have this instrument, but you need to “register” with your full name and email address.  So that’s a cost, you have to give up your personal info, if you want the “free’ glockenspiel.  That’s actually, more like mild extortion.

Truth be told, right now, the way I feel…I’d rather I’d just paid too much for it, than get it for “free”.  Jumping through Presonus’ hoops once, mildly annoying.  Twice, quite annoying.  Thrice, very, very effing annoying.  And when you have to enter your details that fourth or fifth time….you’d rather eat your own hair by then.

They don’t think about that,about what an annoyance and what a waste of precious time, it is, to type in your email address over and over and over and over and OVER again.  When you are already, maybe, the most unhappy customer a vendor could really possibly have.  Why would you put a good customer through that?

Haste makes waste.  It’s not like I am using one of my old IPad 2s, here.  I’m running this app on state of the art hardware.  It should be perfect in this clean environment.  Instead, it’s not just messed up, it’s majorly messed up.

They’ve done one update…the one that wiped out my score, and they are doing another one “soon” to fix these issues.  In my humble, unsolicited opinion…that app was FAR FROM READY to see the light of day.   Not even close!! Clearly, it cannot have been tested properly? I expect better from my vendors, and I am feeling mightily disappointed right now.

To their credit, they are trying to make it right.  But the disruption it’s caused me, the trauma of my nearly complete breakthrough-new-genre-defying piece of music being so damaged, but worst of all, my daily compositional time is taken away, for almost two weeks.

And now, I am waiting for instruments to download…waiting.  Still waiting…

I had a Notion.

Yet…I love this product.  It enabled me to (re)learn notation, which I did understand, but had never written.  My first half a year with it, I wrote notation, and in that first full year, I learned that I could write classical music, I could write jazz, I could write alternative music…with notation, much was possible than was not possible in my pre-Notion pre-IPad days.

I’ve gained skill as a serious composer of serious work, I am now on my fifth piece of classical music, thanks to Notion, so until they broke it, it had been a real game-changer for me…a brilliant piece of kit.

The beauty of the IPad version, was that portability.  Work on your pieces anywhere, anytime, thru headphones, thru Bluetooth speaker…fantastic.  Hear your changes instantly.  Compose on the fly…truly brilliant.  I am really missing that, and I hope I can go back to it, soon,

However. I have not been idle during the unfolding of this great Notional drama.
Some good things have been happening, too.  Believe it or not.

A new song in Gadget, which utilises the new Korg iM1, their beautiful emulation of the classic M1 synthesiser, heavily.  It’s only perhaps, a minute or so in length so far, but it’s really coming along nicely.  I can’t really describe it, except to say it has a quasi classical / jazzy fender Rhodes intro, and from there, breaks into M1 drum kits, mellotron emulation and nothing quite sure what else is happening, but it’s definitely going to be a song,,,I can just tell!  Watch for that eventually, “from hero to zero” it’s called,  on the Gadget eternal album.

Work continues apace on “the complete unknown”, my first long form piece of progressive rock, made with mostly real instruments.  It’s currently at stereo reduction version 8; which means in lay terms, that the acoustic guitar duo-then-trio, has been built (including a final eight hour acoustic recording session last Saturday, ouch), and, along with an extemporaneous live iPad improv using the remarkable TC-11 touch controlled synth, those two pieces have bridged the second intentionally silent section, meaning that this is the first version to play continuously (i.e. no silences) ; the first version featuring the acoustic guitar / TC-11 synth bridging piece; and the first version to be at the extended current running time of 15:57.   The previously tested mix, Version 5, was a minute or so shorter.

What does it sound like…well, it’s still early days in some respects, but there are Rickenbacker basses (dedicated to the late, great Chris Squire, who was a huge inspiration to me as a guitarist, I thought of him constantly whilst composing the bass guitar parts of this song) – so maybe, at a stretch, you could say, “Yes-like basses”…at a stretch,

Powerful drum parts, in the Dave Stafford style, with two silent sections that were back filled later on…and lots and lots of vintage keyboards…Hammond organ, mellotrons, and featuring a keyboard quartet of vintage keys, a one minute-14 second “intro” to the piece proper…but, no electric guitars yet, or guitar synths.

That’s next; wish me luck!!

Best of all, as of a few days ago, Phase One of a Very Large Ambient Music Project is now complete.

Because of that, I’ve now increased the number of scapes available on the scape eternal album, to a nice round 100 !!    So please, go and have a listen…always free to listen.

So until I can change “I had a Notion” back into “I have a Notion”, and my composing ritual can be safely re-established, you will have to make do with reports of other projects, of which, as always, there are many, and, a rather large number of new Brian Eno and Peter Chilvers samples to delight in, contained with the last 30 or 40 scapes uploaded…happy ambient Eno/DNA/ambient dreaming…

Dave

back to the beginning …again

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what I want to accomplish in this new year, 2015, and I think one of the most significant objectives I have in mind, is to create “songs” in the old-fashioned way – using some new-fashioned tools to do so.

My last CD, “gone native”, from 2012, was a very, very enjoyable experience because it took me back to the idea of creating “songs” – I’d been so used to improvising, I’ve been playing largely improvised music since about 1995 when Bindlestiff disbanded amicably – once I became a “solo artist” again – and you really get into that “live” mindset – you have a guitar; a looper, a nice reverb – and your ebow – and you hit record, and you play.

If you are fortunate – music comes out.  Often – it did.  Sometimes, I am not quite sure what it WAS that came out – but, it was something, and, it’s a very, very enjoyable process.

Come 2012, and I challenged myself to make an album that is mostly “rock” oriented (which is about as far away from ambient loop guitar as you can get, really) and I believe that with “gone native”, I really succeeded quite well – the first ten tracks on the album were the core of my “band” or “rock” pieces, and some of them, were quite intense (such as “Wettonizer” which at one point, was as large as a 53-track multitrack master – which was toned down to about 35 tracks for the final mix!) others, such as “This Is A Test” came together very quickly, using existing elements (in that case, a guitar solo – around which I built a backing track by adding drums, bass and guitar synths) – but in every case, they were identifiable as “songs” – because for one thing, they all have rhythm sections – bass and drums – and also, some form of song structure, like repeating choruses or whatever – despite the fact that the album is, as most of my records are, entirely instrumental.

So composing the songs for “gone native” was a great experience, and as another example, the title track “gone native”, was fantastic fun to create, and I got to play a LOT of guitar, with a lot of nice guitar sounds – including once again, that wonderful roland gr-55 guitar synth, which can provide anything from a rainstorm in a teacup to a poly sitar in space – a fabulous instrument for adding colour, and with the track “gone native” I used it for several good effects, including the introductory cello which was just played over the existing intro – wham, there it was – it just happened one day.

I learned a lot during that experience, and, it was probably my last major work involving SONAR 8.5, sure, I’d used it since then for the “scorched by the sun” album for example, and for various improv loops or video music, but eventually, I upgraded to SONAR X3, which is a far better product – and now that I am running X3, I am truly set to record “songs” in multitrack – but with all mod cons – I have at my fingertips Guitar Rig Pro, and now, also, from Waves, I have GTR3 – which I can use instead of or in addition to my hardware effects pedals, I also have the rest of Komplete, which gives me an entire range of orchestral, African or other bizarre sampled and synthesized sounds – just about anything you can imagine, is probably available with Komplete – and of course, my beloved gr-55 is still there for a bit of that wonderful guitar synth colour.

On top of all that, though, I do have other new musical weapons in my arsenal, including the fabulous Kaoss Guitar, the Ibanez RGKP6 – which I absolutely plan to incorporate into my songs, not to mention, my original kaossilator, as well as my new Korg Monotron, a wonderful mini-analog synth – so sound colouration will not be an issue – I can knock out the basics using real guitars – my drums will still be virtual, but will be a vast upgrade from BFD2 (which is what I was using at the time of “gone native”, that and the stock SONAR drum kit) – I have all of the Abbey Road kits in Komplete, as well as Studio Drummer plus a host of electronic percussion available in various packages such as Evolve (by Heaviocity) or Evolve Mutations

So I can have a complex drum track using additional electronic percussion, or even african percussion if I want to break out the West Africa module…then, I can either play my real bass, or, design a Komplete bass part using a Rickenbacker 4003 or a Fender Precision or even a disco funk bass clone sample – just to get those amazing tones, I would happily give up the sheer fun of playing the bass part – or rather, I might play the bass part, and then REPLACE  it with a Rickenbacker or Fender !  That would be fun.

 

Then it comes to guitars – well, I would insist that these be real – but of course, with all the processing at my fingertips, from the remarkable and complex Guitar Rig Pro, to various hardware stomp boxes and other effects processors – and the amount of possibility I have in re-amping and post-processing of guitar signals is now approaching the ridiculous – guitar tone is not an issue any more, I can take even just a clean guitar signal and re-amp it into the most beautiful overdriven Mesa Boogie tone you ever heard, and then run it through the amazing Guitar Rig jet phasers so that I end up sounding like a latter-day Todd from the Nazz, circa 2015, with my distorted, swooshing jet aeroplane guitars…

Of course, I now also have ipad apps aplenty, including one game-changing ipad app for the guitar – the absolutely stunning FLUX:FX from Adrian Belew, mobgen and elephant candy.  I’ve been using FLUX since it finally arrived this past December (2014) and I am in love – it’s a dream to work with, it’s hands-down the best guitar effects processor for ipad, it surpasses by far even my very favourite apps, which would be Bias and AmpKitPlus from Peavey – both great apps, but what Adrian Belew has helped to design in FLUX:FX, just wipes the floor with ALL of the other guitar apps – they will be hard put to catch up with what FLUX is capable of.  It’s built for live performance, and I will absolutely play with it in my own version of a live setting – the live music video – but it will also work admirably as a very quickly configurable guitar effects processor in the studio, but, it has one amazing advantage over most effects boxes – it has the ability to run sequences of effects, so you can run a complex pattern of effects changes, where your guitar sound mutates WILDLY every few seconds – and you just play – and let the sequencer take care of all the wonderful morphing.

It’s fantastic to use, and it sounds so, so good – I love this idea, the idea of applying different effects over time, using a sequencer type arrangement – and it’s so easy to use, for any effect you are using, there is a default set up, so you can literally just hit the “sequencer” on button, and your “static” effect – suddenly becomes a moving target, a living, breathing, ever-changing, morphing kaleidoscope of sound – you have to hear it to believe it.

Belew has always been the king of strange guitar sounds, and FLUX:FX has some of those, too, in fact, there is an entire section of presets devoted to animal sounds – something Adrian Belew knows all about (The Lone Rhino, anyone? – Elephant Talk? – Ballet For A Blue Whale?) – and speaking of presets, never in my life have I ever seen or heard such an amazing collection of truly unique, unusual and eminently USABLE presets on any such device – it’s fantabulous, there are so many, it takes a long, long time to preview them all, but it’s worth it just to hear what is possible – and the answer to that is “just about anything”.   There are THIRTY basic effect algorithms, and you can have five (or is it six – I can’t recall) going at any one time.  And – they are very, very editable – each one has a deep edit screen, where you can edit and save your sounds endlessly – a lot of editing capability.

 

So FLUX:FX gives me an entirely new palette of guitar effects sounds and sequences (what a strange thing to be saying “effects sequences” – that is just weird!) and in combination with Guitar Rig Pro (and/or GTR3 from Waves), and my hardware devices, my guitar tone, in 2015, is going to sound like nothing you’ve ever heard before.  If I drive that with the Ibanez Kaoss Guitar– well, then, I am throwing synthesized real-time guitar effecting into the mix, so between using the Kaoss pad on the guitar, at the same time, FLUX:FX could be running an exotic effects sequence that I am playing the Kaoss pad “against” – and that could just go into the worlds of sonic wildness such as we’ve never heard before.  Re-processing that whole thing on the fly in Guitar Rig Pro, of course! – Why not?

I have then, a lot of sonic possibilities that I did not have when I made “gone native”, which in fact, I did not have last year – so having all of these new possibilities, means that the kind of songs I create, can be something new as well – sure, they will have a rhythm section – which will be played on drums recorded at Abbey Road, on a beautiful Fender Precision bass or on a nicely distorting Rickenbacker 4003 bass… and guitars – but those instruments will be processed and tweaked like never before.

And then – there is the keyboard section.  I wouldn’t even know where to begin with that, I really wouldn’t.  Within Komplete, I have many, many choices of keyboard – every vintage organ, clavinet, harpsichord, fender Rhodes, grand piano, etc. that you can imagine – and again, on the ipad, I also have an extremely large collection of keyboards, keyboard samples, and so on – so between those two, I have worlds of possibility – and I really want to incorporate more keyboards into my work, yes, I am primarily a guitarist, but I love to play piano, I love to play Hammond organ, I love to play the synthesizer – and God only knows how many of those I have now – between Komplete and the iPad – an incalculable number of synths are available to me in 2015.  I can’t wait – so many amazing sounds, so many vintage and even ancient sounds – which will sound fantastic in new songs.

This will allow me to make some of the most curious juxtapositions of sounds imaginable – say a solo section that rotates between a hurdy-gurdy drone/solo, an electric guitar synth raga/solo, and a distorted, leslie’d Hammond solo – why not?  In my latest classical piece, I am even experimenting with the idea of doing circulations using keyboards, and in that piece, I have a section where an entire section of keyboards is played note by note, first the harpsichord, then the piano, then the celeste, then back to the harpsichord, then piano, then celeste…this circulation goes on for a couple of minutes, and since one of those is in the centre of the mix, and one is full left, and one is full right, you can “hear” the circulation effect thanks to the stereo positioning of those particular instruments…

Since I now know that a keyboard circulation works effectively, I plan to use them in my rock compositions – why not, again, I think it’s a great way to play a melody – sharing it between instruments, and letting perhaps five or six different instruments “play” a melody, each one taking it’s turn, moving across and back and forth across the stereo field as it does so.

There are so many techniques and possibilities available to me, but, I also plan to stand on tradition:  I plan on, in most cases, starting with a drum track.

Then, once I am happy with the drum track, I would turn to the bass guitar – mostly likely using one of the remarkably high quality Scar-bee instruments, or possibly, playing the part on my bass – or maybe, doubling it up so that both are present – real and Komplete – that might be interesting!

Then, once I have bass and drums complete…then I start overdubbing guitars and ebow guitars and guitar synth and Kaoss Guitar.  For days and days.  And with all the sonic possibilities, this should be a hugely fun and exciting process – what sound to use today?  The choice is nearly infinite already, it really is…incredibly huge number of possible sounds given the effects I can bring to bear on a poor, lonely guitar signal 🙂

Then – keyboards, if desired, same thing – too much choice, amazing choice, so as long as I’ve left “space” for it – or for them – I can add in one or more keyboards to this emerging “song”.

 

Finally – does it want percussion?  More synth flourishes?  Special effects courtesy of Komplete or the roland gr-55 guitar synth?  A Korg Monotron solo?  Live percussion?

It’s all possible.  At some point, I will have a song on my hands, and if I spend the time, and tweak the mix until you can hear every instrument well but at the same time, they are nicely blended for smooth, clear listening…then I will know that the first piece of my 2015-initiated album is nearly done, and I can start thinking about the SECOND piece for the album…something totally different, probably.

Why not?  The amount of sonic choice available to us now, as technology finally catches up with music and musicians – it’s simply astounding, and I plan to take full advantage – it’s there, so I will use it, and I hope that my 2015 “songs” come out even better than my 2012 “songs” did – I am absolutely certain that they will.

Update: yesterday, January 10, 2015, I began work on the first song – working title “return of the native” – for the new as-yet-untitled rock album circa 2015 – a seven hour session has resulted in a very interesting 7:36 drum track, which is the start of…something.  we shall see what happens next…

 

To be honest, sometimes, when I am working on improvs, when I am looping, or playing apps in a solo or duet setting, or whatever I am working on – I really, really miss the “song” form – so that’s why I want to make an album of songs, or at least, start making an album of songs, this year.

I started out as a “rock” musician, playing in bands, now, I am my own band, I play all of the instruments, and I can create songs of a complexity and subtlety that I could not have even imagined in the bands I was in when I was 15, 16, 17 years old – it would be beyond our comprehension, back then, the idea that I could “play” an Abbey Road drum kit on the keys of a keyboard, the idea that I can choose between a Fender or a Rickenbacker bass guitar, again, played on the keys of a MIDI keyboard…unthinkable!  Not POSSIBLE!  Insane idea…how could that ever be?  I really wish I could go back, and show 15 year old Clapton- Hendrix- Gibbons- Steely Dan-loving rock guitarist Dave Stafford just what 2015 technology looks like – just to see the look on his face!

So – technology has really, truly changed everything, and the fact that I have both a powerful music computer with one set of amazing music tools, and, a portable, adaptable tablet device with an entirely different but equally wonderful set of amazing music tools – that is just astonishing, and it seems impossible to me even now, even though I know it’s not only possible, but, it’s up and running – and I can access it at any time, night or day.

Fantastic Technology – maybe that’s what I should call the album, if Reeves Gabrels and Bill Nelson can call their album “Fantastic Guitars” then I can call mine “Fantastic Technology” – I suppose.  I think I like their title better to be honest!!  By the way – that is a fantastic album that you really should hear – if you like Reeves Gabrels, if you like Tin Machine (featuring Reeves Gabrels and that other guy, oh – uh, David Bowie), if you like Bill Nelson, if you like The Cure (featuring Reeves Gabrels) – then you WILL like “Fantastic Guitars” – available via Bill Nelson’s web site.

 

Of course, this does not mean that I will stop doing improvised sessions – I absolutely will continue with those.  Some of the sessions pioneered during 2012 – 2014 were truly inspirational to me, such as, playing two instances of the TC-11 touch controlled synthesizer application on two different ipads, doing a “live duet” using two tablet devices – was huge fun, and I hope I can work out many other interesting ipad duets during 2015.

The recent series of “Kaoss Guitar” videos is also very enjoyable, and I want to hook up a looper next time, so I can really layer some awesome kaoss/guitar sounds in a live setting – and then be able to solo on top, too, with those fantastic harmonisers, decimators and other kaotic sonic madness that the Ibanez RGKP6 makes possible – a very interesting instrument, so I hope to work a lot more with the Ibanez during 2015, too.

 

Vintage and even ancient instruments, I’ve become very interested in these, as well as things like “glassworks” which features glass instruments designed by people like Harry Partch and Ben Franklin – fantastic instruments, and also, things like the “EP 73 Deconstructed” which is a 1973 Fender Rhodes Stage piano taken down to it’s component level, with five different basic sounds, key, pluck, mallet, bowed and FX – and this sound, the way this thing sounds, is nothing short of extraordinary, it takes me right back to my pal Ted’s home studio, in the early 70s, and playing his Rhodes and listening to him play it – a great instrument, and now, for the price of software, I have one too!

So I will be working with the Rhodes (which I have actually, a number of different sample sets for) as well as a number of other ancient and vintage instruments, including such rarities as the Ondes, and the Novachord, amazing early keyboards with extraordinary sound palettes (both from the wonderful Soniccouture – makers of the most amazing software instruments in the universe) – some of these early synthesizers were truly out of this world.

From the Conservatoire Collection, another Soniccouture act of genius, I have the beautiful beautiful baroque guitar, the amazing hurdy-gurdy, some lovely Flemish harpsichords, and some truly remarkable baroque timpani – which sound like no timpani I have ever heard – an astonishing sample set there.

Of course, there is always my familiar ambient loop guitar set up, with its counterpart, the “all instruments” set up, which includes a whole bunch of live instruments that I try to use in the loop or the solos over the loop, all in the space of one performance – it’s quite a challenge.  Ambient loop guitar should be better than ever, I have the best looper, the best reverbs possible, and a small but wonderful collection of ebows – and there is nothing quite like the energy bow out there, it’s a one of a kind sound source, and I also look forward to playing some ebow Kaoss Guitar – early tests proved very successful.

 

Right there then, are a series of possible live improvs or duets, using a broad range of current, vintage or ancient sounds – what a range of sounds it is – and I am so fortunate as to be here to bear witness to it all.  What a remarkable product Komplete is, and I really enjoy using it, and hearing the sounds of yesteryear brought to life as if it were yesterday – the Ondes and the Novachord in particular, are both astonishingly beautiful sample sets, and I can’t wait to do more work with both instruments – or maybe, both together, who knows?

 

Beyond all that, I am sure as the year goes on, that I will be able to add new “eternal albums” to the ever growing library of “music for apps” or “music for pcs” or other music data sets, and that I will be able to add more content to the existing albums, too.  Most recently, I’ve been adding several tracks to the “music for pcs: komplete samples” eternal album, tracks that I had completed but never had a chance to upload – I’ve been trying to get caught up, and slowly, I am…

Addressing the video backlog – well, during 2014 – I finally had to just give up, in one sense, and I have started publishing videos that were recorded recently, in some cases, very recently, and I have back-burnered the older videos that should have gone up to maintain the chronology.  I decided in the end, that I can easily control chronology by providing you with dated sessions, so that you can view the sessions by date, so as I am able to backfill the older videos, that you can still experience the live videos in chronological order, while at the same time, we can start to feature what is really happening NOW in the studio – rather than videos that were made two years ago!

I want to put up those older videos – in some cases, they contain truly ground-breaking footage, and they do deserve a spot up there, but – time is of the essence.  I’ve also reluctantly undertaken the decision to reduce the number of takes-per-session that get built and uploaded, so, if a session has say, nine good takes, in the past, I would have produced all nine as videos, and uploaded all nine tracks.  Now – instead – I will re-assess the nine tracks, and attempt to pick out the “best four” or “best five” and I will build and upload those, instead of all nine.  Depending on the session, this number (actually uploaded) may vary wildly from 1 or 2 to 9 or 10 (if there are 30 takes, then 10 isn’t very many takes, percentage-wise!!).

I hate to do that, but I truly do not have the hours in the day available to do all nine or all 12 or all 30 tracks – make a master audio mix and then make a video for each track – any more – in fact, because I was being so completest, and so chronological – that’s what got me to where I am – hopelessly behind – so I need to break the cycle, produce recent videos so you can see and hear what we are doing now, in early 2015 – and as time becomes available, I will backfill the missing videos from 2012, 2013 and 2014 until they ARE caught up.

By reducing the “upload-per-session” count to half or less, this will allow me to work through the backlog more quickly, which in turn, will allow me to get “caught up” sooner – which will be good when it eventually happens.  Once I am there – I won’t get out of sync again, I will just keep up!!  I promise!

If I post a truncated session, where I have made videos for just three or four of nine or ten good takes, if there is enough of a public outcry, i.e. “Dave, please let us see the other 7 videos from this session, please please” I will absolutely consider going back and filling in the blanks later.

 

In the meantime, those four or five videos will at least represent the spirit of the day’s or evening’s session, and will give a good idea of what happened during those sessions.  I will absolutely check and ensure that I select the very, very best of the tracks, so that the tracks with the highest quality, the most beautiful, the best improvs, are the ones that get their videos made, while less interesting takes do not have a video produced – that’s about all I can do, really.

All of these changes and adjustments are designed to gradually move the focus of studio events from a backwards-looking backlog view, to a view of current activities with occasional blasts from the past as time permits – hopefully, bringing everything up to date in a more “current” way, while still addressing the backlog as best as I am able given the circumstances.

 

Theoretically, at least, this will also leave me with MORE TIME to work on a number of the newer initiatives I’ve been talking about here, from more Kaoss Guitar work to more ipad duets to more applications videos to more new and unusual forms of ambient and looped, and, ambient looped, guitar and other instruments.  The more time I have for experimenting, for exploring new instruments, for improvising new music for new instruments – the better – I’d always rather be looking forward, then looking backwards – always.

I am definitely looking forward to a 2015 full of music from past, present and future – and hopefully, hit upon some new ideas, musical forms, formats and instrument combinations, that will enhance what we do here and bring some new and innovative joys of music to your ears.

And – also – the follow-up to “gone native” shall be begun in this New Year (note: was begun on January 10, 2015) – I am really looking forward to that, and with all of the new instruments, new technologies, new effects, new processing possibilities – I can extend the “guitar album” into the realms of the “amazing, extended, expanded guitar+++++ album” – 2015 style.

the return of progressive rock…

I turn now to a topic that I have not ever addressed directly from these pages, something very close to my heart indeed – progressive rock music.  I have very occasionally reviewed progressive rock albums, such as king crimson’s “larks’ tongues in aspic”, or written about some of my favourite progressive rock bands, such as focus, but I’ve never tackled the genre itself until now.

as a visual adjunct to this essay, please take a look at some selected album art from four of the best progressive rock bands – king crimson, yes, genesis and gentle giant. the artwork that was such an integral part of progressive rock music, deserves it’s own separate treatise, and would include, of course, familiar artists such as roger dean, who has long been associated with the progressive rock genre. the beautiful, fanciful, and extremely creative artwork that has graced many a prog album cover, we will leave for another time, and instead, this essay will concentrate on the music itself.

“prog rock” as it’s known, or progressive rock if you want the long version, is a unique, remarkable and very persistent genre of music. speaking of the “long version”, that’s exactly what the proggers are famous for, epic pieces of music such as (but not limited to):  “supper’s ready” (genesis), “a plague of lighthouse keepers” (van der graaf generator), “fracture” (king crimson) – or to choose an even longer live crimson improv, “a voyage to the centre of the cosmos”, “karn evil 9” (emerson, lake & palmer), “the revealing science of god” (yes), “thick as a brick part one” (jethro tull), “echoes” (pink floyd), “nine feet underground” (caravan), “in held ’twas in I” (procol harum), or even some of the very earliest works by, of all people, the mothers of invention, such as the title track from the “absolutely free” album – this trend for very long tracks was mimicked by, strangely enough, in the mid-1980s, a genesis-soundalike band called marillion – with their very long piece entitled “grendel”. of course, not all prog songs are very, very long – this is just one of many aspects of progressive rock.

it’s generally acknowledged that progressive rock developed out of psychedelic rock, and certain well known records, including the beatles “sgt. pepper’s lonely hearts club band”the mothers of invention‘s “freak out”, and the beach boys‘ “pet sounds” – these, and others, bands such as the left banke, who introduced unusual instruments into their songs, are considered to contain the first seeds of true progressive rock.  king crimson‘s robert fripp has cited the beatles “sgt. pepper” as being a profound influence when he first heard it, on the radio (along with classical works by bela bartok), in 1967, so that certainly lends some credence to this theory.

prog rock is remarkable for a number of reasons, the primary one being the incredibly short period of time that it existed in it’s original incarnation.  it is somewhat difficult to pick a year to represent the “beginning” of “true progressive rock” – because there are examples going all the way back to 1966’s “freak out” by the mothers of invention, whose leader, the late, great frank zappa, understood classical, jazz, and many, many other musical forms – which of course, came out in the mothers of invention’s music – these can be considered to be “prog prototypes”…but if I had to pick a “starting year”, I would say it was 1969 – the year that saw the release of “in the court of the crimson king” – the classic first long playing album from one of prog’s most important bands, king crimson.

in my mind, then, I’ve always felt that prog “ran”, if you will, from 1969 through 1977 – and it was during 1976 and 1977 that a new form of music came along that didn’t sit well with prog – punk. prog tried to persist all the way up until 1980 (and in a limited number of cases, beyond), but by 1977, a lot of the life had already gone out of it, so roughly speaking (this can be argued a number of ways, this is just an arbitrary span approximating the time when prog had the most influence) – progressive rock lasted exactly eight years. ten at a stretch – if I had an alternate, decade long version, it would run from 1968 – 1977.  if the beginning of prog is difficult to determine…really, we could place it anywhere between 1966 and 1969, in contrast, the end of prog is quite clearly delineated by the arrival of johnny rotten and co.  in 1977, there were still a few decent remnants of prog, but by 1978…progressive rock was in serious trouble. there were a few stalwarts who continued to work through the end of the 1970s, such as u,k., a late arriver on the prog scene featuring two ex-king crimson members, john wetton and bill bruford.

if you follow the career of any prog band that started say, in 1969, and ended, say, in 1980 – you can audibly hear the prog heart of the band dying.  an example of this, would be the amazing gentle giant, who put out an unbroken string of great records…up until 1977’s “the missing piece”, which, while still containing some excellent music, you could hear the change coming…and then, the albums that followed, between 1978 – 1980 – bear almost no resemblance to the band we knew and loved circa 1970 – 1977. something happened.  the catalogue of emerson lake & palmer traces a similar course – complex, inventive, intriguing music which perhaps reached it’s height with “brain salad surgery”…eventually gave way to “works”, which in comparison, seemed dull and lifeless.  and don’t even get me started on the musically reprehensible “love beach”…

I’ve always maintained that for myself, 1974 was the perfect year of prog.  I mean, in that year, we heard “red” by king crimson“the power & the glory” by gentle giant“the lamb lies down on broadway” by genesis (which I actually saw the concert of at the san diego civic theatre – outrageously good concert…), from yes the ground-breaking  “relayer”, two albums from the suddenly solo peter hammill“the silent corner and the empty stage” and the incomparable “in camera” , the live rendering of “brain salad surgery” and much more in “welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends…ladies and gentlemen, emerson, lake & palmer” – the obligatory live album from emerson,lake and palmer“exotic birds and fruit” from the redoubtable procol harum“hero and heroine” (strawbs), “hamburger concerto” (focus), from pfm (premiate forneria marconi)  a double release of “l’isola di niente” (the original italian album) and it’s english language counterpart (featuring english lyrics from king crimson’s peter sinfield – of course) “the world became the world” from italy’s finest prog band…

my perfect year of prog list of amazing albums continues…with the absolutely extremely innovative and incredible “mirage” from andy latimer‘s cameljethro tull’s “war child”, and the remarkable gryphon with one of their most amazing records, “midnight mushrumps”, the surprising debut from todd rundgren‘s progressive rock band, “todd rundgren’s utopia” and album of the same name (who knew that the previously very pop rundgren had a soul of pure progressive rock? – and was a guitar slinger second only to my next star?)…the incomparable, amazing, genius guitarist and composer, frank zappa, now mothers-less, with one of his most incredible records, the absolutely unique, hilarious yet deadly serious musically, “apostrophe(‘)”…none of these recordings being exactly second-rate.

of course, by choosing 1974, I do have to leave out a huge number of really fantastic albums that came out in 197119721973 and 1975…but, I had to pick just one, so 1974 is the year for me. I am sure you have a favourite year of prog too, which very well might be different, for different reasons, but there is something about prog, about that strange moment in time, an incredibly unique event that only comes once in the history of music…

I feel very, very fortunate that I was born at a point in time that intersected almost precisely with this absolutely unique 8 year period, because this is the music that I grew up with, starting with a love for the beatles, moving briefly to hard rock via led zeppelinjimi hendrixzz top and so on, and then eventually through yesgenesisgentle giantking crimson, and so on…in 1974, in my perfect year of prog – I was sixteen years old – old enough to go to concerts, and the first concerts I did go to cemented me in a place of first rock, then prog:

concert 1 = led zeppelin, san diego sport arena 1973 (OK, I was 15 for this one – barefoot in that amazing crush at the front, a stone’s throw from the amazing jimmy page…)

concert 2 = yes, san diego sports arena 1974 (tales of topographic oceans tour, quadraphonic sound)

and from then on, via various rock and progressive rock shows, as diverse as steely dan or the allman brothers…eventually leading to the aforementioned “lamb lies down on broadway” show, maybe the single most amazing concert I’ve ever been to…and then more yes, much more yes (they visited san diego twice during the “relayer” tour – not often you get to see one of your favourite bands twice in a row, although technically, it was on two different tours, 75 and 76 – the set lists were quite similar), then gentle giant (finally – a 40 minute set, but – better than not seeing them!)…

eventually, since I missed them in the seventies, much to my chagrin – in 1981, finally – I got to see king crimson.  as it turns out, I did see crimson several times in the 80s and 90s…which almost, but not quite, makes up for me missing the 1960s and 1970s incarnation(s) of the band.  I was just a tiny bit too young to witness the first few years of prog, but thankfully, by the time the “lamb” tour hit san diego…I was there with open ears.  I can still remember the crowd as we left the venue, complete strangers turning to each other, everyone wearing the same permanently-jaw-dropped facial expression, sort of saying to each other “do you BELIEVE what you just saw and heard??”.  the future of music – peter gabriel‘s amazing costumes and characters, the theatrical front man with the incredibly capable band…there was nothing on earth like genesis live at the end of the “gabriel years”.

the 1980’s king crimson, adrian belewrobert fripptony levin and bill bruford on the other hand, is one very rare example of a progressive rock band actually adapting to the times, and reinventing themselves in the very prog-unfriendly 1980s – and having a good run of albums and tours.  80s crimson were the exception to almost every rule, most prog bands that tried to exist in the 8os, simply found that they couldn’t.  some bands changed so much (remember yes-meets-buggles with the rather dreadful “drama” album of 1980? – not their best moment) that you could no longer recognise that they were a prog band any longer.  of course, I suppose you do need to change with the times, but in a lot of cases, it was better for a prog band to just quit (as gentle giant wisely did after their final three albums, which were not to the standard of their string of albums from 71 to 75) than to carry on forever trying to adapt your music to times that were, frankly, not suited to progressive rock at all. it’s such a strange series of events…

rock music, in the 60s, itself barely a decade old…then spawning psychedelic rock, which then in turn…spawned progressive rock (sort of) – and that then only really ran for less than a decade – before the big backlash, the punk wave and the new wave that overwhelmed prog completely, so that by the dreaded 80s…it was mostly gone.  except for king crimson, who held on from 1981 – 1984 before calling it quits once more. it was such a serious backlash, too, the punks really didn’t like prog (although, of course, not advertising that in one case, john lydon being not-quite-secretly a fan of the music of peter hammill (in particular, the punk-predictive 1975 “nadir’s big chance” album and his band van der graaf generator, so prog was actually a secret influence on punk…) and they were very vocal about it, and the whole punk movement and the new wave that followed, showed disdain for the “bloated excesses” of prog – made a lot of fun of that (even though those excesses were actually really only limited to a very few prog bands – who shall remain nameless – hint, starts with e, ends with p, l in the middle…but never mind that!)

and that sort of sealed prog’s fate until the various resurgences of very recent years…so out of all the genres that came and went from 1950 forward…progressive rock is one of the strangest, lasting such a short time, being of such a unique musical cast, with the “progressive rock” tag being applied to bands as different sounding as jethro tullking crimsongenesis, and van der graaf generator – none of whom sounded remotely like the other.  arguments ensued; was van der graaf REALLY a prog band?  because they had no lead guitarist (until 1975, anyway).  was king crimson really prog, when some of their albums (particularly, the lizard album) were so jazz there was very little “rock” to be found on them? and jethro tull – a band led by a crazed, bearded gentleman who shouted into his flute – how exactly was THAT progressive rock?

none of those questions can even be answered, and there is not much point in arguing about them – all of those bands were, for better or for worse – prog rock.  even oddball groups like gryphon, who were really more classically oriented than progressive, still had the “progressive rock” label attached to them, whether they would or no…

so if you think about it, all of these bands, who are labelled “progressive rock” – bands like pink floyd, who began life as a psychedelic rock band – eventually somehow mutated and evolved until they were then lumped in with “progressive rock” by about 1971 or so.  in the particular case of pink floyd, that would partially be due to the change in line up, from the psychedelic / rave up syd barrett era, to the calmer, relatively “normal” david gilmour version of the band (“relatively” being the operative word in that sentence!).

a few bands seem to “fit” the genre more neatly than others – genesis and yes, to my mind, being “typical” progressive rock bands (if there is such a thing) but even that doesn’t hold up, because if they are typical, then where does that put king crimson, also one of the bastions of the genre.  genesis and king crimson don’t really share that much musical common ground, not if you think about it.  those beautiful, pastoral genesis records, from “trespass” to “nursery cryme” to “foxtrot” – sure, there are some heavy prog passages, but there are also a lot of lilting, gentle acoustic guitars and 12 strings – something you do not generally hear on early king crimson records.

fripp did play acoustic guitar, but in a very, very different way to the way that anthony phillips, steve hackett, michael rutherford and tony banks did – very different, and if you don’t believe me, then simply play “the musical box” by genesis followed by “cirkus” (studio version, from lizard) by king crimson – and you will be able to hear what I am talking about. I love both of those tracks, but they are a million miles apart musically speaking!

first (original genesis guitarist) anthony phillips, and then steve hackett (phillip’s replacement), brought distinctive lead guitar sounds to genesis as their music evolved, yet, comparing either of those to the style envisioned by king crimson‘s robert fripp – there’s just no musical continuity – fripp plays guitar in a completely different style to hackett or phillips.  and bands like jethro tull – they were so odd, so unique, and really, no other band was quite like them – I think they were given the label “progressive rock” simply because there was no other choice, no other possible genre that a band that unusual and creative could by placed in.  but jethro tull have none of the standard hallmarks of a prog band, except perhaps a propensity for very, very long pieces of music.  but even though I suppose they were, I never really felt like tull were a prog band – they were just…tull !  a unique musical entity who perhaps, deserved a niche genre of their own…who knows?

if you know what I mean.

so – I was lucky, I was actually there, and I did manage to see some of these bands, at the time that they ruled the earth.  and those I didn’t get to see…well, that was what albums were for, and we all collected prog – british prog mostly, but also french prog, italian prog – we would listen to anything once, just to see if it was good – and much of it was good.  but the truth was, it was mostly a british phenomenon, and there were really very, very few prog bands from anywhere except the UK.  the USA produced a very few prog bands, all I can think of off the top of my head are happy the manthe dixie dregs (featuring guitarist steve morse), and todd rundgren’s utopia, and of course, canada’s redoubtable power prog trio, rush.  I suppose that early kansas (I mean, “song for america” kansas, NOT later kansas) were prog, but they moved very quickly towards more ordinary rock with songs like “carry on my wayward son” and “dust in the wind”, so personally, I don’t really count kansas as prog myself, but this is another one of those arguable points that prog fans will never agree on…they certainly started out as a prog band, “song for america” does prove that, but after that…well.

meanwhile, while the perhaps the best and brightest prog always came from great britain, italy produced pfmle orme, and banco;  france, angegong (which also featured brits and australians, and was actually founded by an australian, daevid allen – also a founder member of soft machine), magma and others, germany produced a few prog bands, most notably triumvirat and various versions and incarnations of amon duul, while the netherlands gave us the amazing focus (featuring one of my all-time favourite guitarists, the remarkable jan akkerman), as well as the arguably “are they really prog??” golden earring…most countries produced a few progressive rock bands, but it was really just down to the british isles from whence the lion’s share of progressive rock bands sprang…

and what an amazing and bizarre lot those british prog bands were – from the shulman brothers, born in one of the poorest parts of glasgow, raised in portsmouth, mutating from simon dupree and the big sound into one of the most remarkable and innovative groups of all time, in any genre, the insanely talented multi-instrumental gentle giant; to dorset’s soft spoken robert fripp with his singular vision of multiple guitar-driven incarnations of king crimson, which now spans four decades, to the canterbury scene with the extremely capable caravan, to andy latimer‘s fabulous rock-meets-jazzy guitar prog outfit camel – the list goes on and on, and each one of these groups, has a distinctive sound, sometimes more than one, which is often very unlike the others.

I would take a moment to mention an odd stem that branched off of the progressive rock family tree, and it relates to what happened in germany – which did produce some really good progressive groups, such as the aforementioned triumvirat, and while they had british members, were considered to be a british band, but were actually originally based in germany (so a lot of folk thought they were german) – I would be remiss not to mention the very talented nektar, a band that I used to cover – one of my earliest bands, “pyramid”, used to play both sides, the entire “remember the future” album, live – a fantastic achievement for three out of work nineteen year old musicians 🙂  what happened in germany, though, is that rather than just producing a few prog bands, as almost every european country did – prog mutated once again – into what became known as “krautrock” – as represented by tangerine dreamfaustcanpopol vuh and neu! – and if we fast forward a bit, that same branch eventually produced the decidedly unique kraftwerk – a band that I consider to be a sort of “descendant of krautrock“.  if there could be such a thing…

another odd thing about prog, is that all these progressive rock bands…almost every one of them had a unique sound, and often, did not sound anything like their contemporaries. for example, it’s difficult for me to name two progressive bands that “sound quite similar”, although if I had to, I might cite camel and caravan – if only because richard sinclair was lead vocalist and bassist for both bands at different times – so that did temporarily, give them a similar sound…I suppose.  but not really similar… this of course, does not include intentional sound-alikes, the most notable probably being bi kyo ran, a japanese band that sounds suspiciously like 1973 period king crimson.

some of the european bands might also semi-accidentally adopt an elp-like or crimson-like sound, but mostly, most of these prog bands did actually have a unique sound – and that’s possibly due to the very different instrumentation used by some of these bands – where for example, the lead instrument might be a flute (as in jethro tull) a saxophone (as in early van der graaf generator, played by the remarkable david jackson), or the more traditional lead guitar (as in many prog bands – but not all!!).

gentle giant sounded different because they would play completely different sets of instruments on stage, starting a song (such as “so sincere”, from 1974’s “the power and the glory album”) with all five members playing acoustic, classical instruments (cello, violin, acoustic guitar, recorder, drums), switching quickly during two bars of drum beat, to electric instruments (electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboards, drums, vocals), and ending with all five members playing drums!! – which was unheard of – no other band could do that!  they also sounded quite different to other bands in the studio, because they played so many different instruments. one of my very, very favourite progressive rock bands, the classically-oriented gryphon, had a very unique sound, because they used some very strange and quite rare instruments, such as the krumhorn.

speaking specifically of the instruments that prog musicians favoured, there are a few that do tend to crop up again and again as “common” in progressive rock bands, besides the ubiquitous electric lead guitar, the mellotron is absolutely associated with progressive rock, as is the hammond b3 organ– although that instrument is common across all rock styles – so probably the mellotron, and it’s successor the birotron, are the most often associated with prog. the other very, very common instrument found in prog, is the now ever-present moog synthesizer – in particular, the mini-moog, which rick wakeman helped popularise both in his work with yes, and in on his various solo albums, the most successful of which was “the six wives of henry VIII”, where he created six long suites using a huge array of keyboards, mellotrons, moogs and other synthesizers.

some prog bands used a lot of mellotron in their recordings on stage, notably king crimson, while others, like camel and nektar, favoured the hammond b3 sound, while still others such as yes, incorporated all three.

of course, the beatles had used mellotron quite a bit in the studio, and from the late 1960s onward, they were to be found on many of the most important progressive rock recordings and on the stages at progressive rock shows.  prone to breakdowns and notoriously hard to tune, they didn’t really evolve much during prog’s brief run, although rick wakeman had some success with the birotron in later years.  it is interesting to note that now, in 2013, you can get mellotron apps on your ipad or iphone, and even better, a company called “g force” has published a software synth (or softsynth) named m-tron pro (which, in 2011, I created an entire album with – “sky full of stars” – and, m-tron pro was also my instrument of choice for the “dreamtime” sessions from my latest collaborative band, “scorched by the sun”), that faithfully reproduces all the classic sounds of the original mellotron, plus, hundreds of more modern sounds, including looped versions of the classic mellotron strings, flutes, horns and choirs – as well as artist “presets” from players like rick wakemang force have also developed additional add-on sound libraries of other samples, such as samples from instruments like the chamberlin, another offshoot from the mellotron family tree…

all this to say, that there really was no “formula” for a progressive rock band – you might be led by a flute, a guitar, a sax, or a voice – you might have no lead guitars, or three of them – there was no formula like the formula “two guitars, bass and drums” for rock music, that really applied to prog, and that is possibly a good thing – because that meant that prog could be represented by some very, very different musical outfits, yet somehow, still be one genre.  I’m damned if I understand how it’s supposed to work, because I just can’t see what some of these bands have in common!  and some of them are so strange and so unique, that they probably ought to have had their own genres – but, when in doubt – just call them “prog”, and that sorts it all out.

having actually…been there in the 1970s, and witnessed certain watershed events like “tales from topographic oceans” and “the lamb lies down on broadway” performed live in the day, means that the recent, and not so recent, resurgences of prog, in the 1990s, noughties, and the tens, are simultaneously making me feel very, very old, and at the same time, baffling me greatly.  I mean, don’t get me wrong, I am very, very glad indeed, even grateful – as if what we knew all along has finally been vindicated! – that an entire new generation (or two or three generations, actually) of music fans are suddenly hugely in love with the current version of yes (astonishing!) – the one with the lead singer from the yes cover band – yeah, that yes – and are discovering the amazing music of all the bands mentioned in this article, and so many more that I did not mention – I think that is fabulous, and this means for those prog bands that still exist, they are getting some long-deserved recognition, after having to ride out the punk / new wave anti-prog rock backlash of 1976 / 77 / 78 and beyond – and that’s fantastic. it must feel so good, to the chris squires and steve howes and john wettons – to now suddenly find themselves lauded as musical heroes, after struggling for so long to get any recognition at all.

speaking of john wetton (possibly my personal favourite bassist of all time) – on my latest CD / download release, “gone native” (pureambient records – 2012), I wrote and performed a progressive rock track that honours the spirit of his playing, entitled “wettonizer”…so in a very, very tiny way, I hope, that I’ve added something to the progressive rock genre.  “gone native” contains three or four prog tracks, a handful of rock tracks, and a few improvs,  loops and experimental music too, and this is the first time in 41 years that I’ve recorded and released any songs in the progressive rock style – but that is only because I chose a very different path – ambient loop guitar, and it’s only been recently that I had the time to sit down, compose and record some “songs proper”.

some of those musical heroes…didn’t make it, too many to list – including peter bardens of camel, more recently, the very talented peter banks of yes, are not here to enjoy the latest resurgence of camel or yes-mania.  and that is indeed, a shame.  some of these bands are still here, in the same incarnation or very nearly the same as their original incarnation (van der graaf generator being one prime example, although they are down to a trio now – but what a trio!) and are actually playing at a level equal or better than in the day.  that’s mostly down to huge improvements in technology, so while in the 70s it was mellotrons breaking down, underpowered pa systems, and failing electronics…now it’s customised electronic organ / synth / mellotrons that never break down, and that sound absolutely amazing; pedalboards that actually work (most of the time…) and so on. current music reproduction technology, to a child of prog like myself, is absolutely unbelievable and astonishing, guitar and synthesizer magic…

so I am very happy for the surviving members of these bands, that their music is being hugely celebrated by succeeding generations of music fans, who have listened, and realised that the progressive rock music made between 1968 and 1978 is very special indeed, of a unique and unforgettable era (that amazingly, I grew up in) and that’s fantastic.

what’s more difficult for me to get used to, is the progressive rock bands of today.  I really struggle with most of them, because for me, anything they play – anything, no matter how good, no matter how clever, I am afraid I can point to each section and say “that’s stolen from genesis song x, that part, is a rush track y, that section there, is king crimson from track z” and so on…every bar of music, seems derivative, seems borrowed or copied from SOME record made between 1968 and 1978.  because really, I don’t think there is a lot of point in trying to improve on something that is impossible to improve on.  that music was of a time, and it was created by a bizarre set of musical coincidences that can never recur…so in a way, while it’s very, very flattering to the bands in question – in some ways, I don’t see the point in having new prog bands now, in 2013 !  this is just an opinion…please, no flame wars !! 🙂

I am not saying there shouldn’t be prog bands now – I have no issue with that, but for me – it’s difficult.  because while most people listen to a current prog band and hear something original and wonderful…I hear the albums from which they have copied, or adapted it, usually in a fairly obvious way, sometimes, in a more subtle (better) way – but always, at some point, always, always derivative of the original prog bands of the sixties and seventies.  at least, that’s been my experience so far.  I have to admit, because of that experience, I have been a bit reluctant to really embrace any prog made post 2000. or actually, post 1984…when the 80s crimson stopped performing and disbanded.

in a way, I just don’t…need new prog.  it’s great for young fans, and it’s fun for the musicians, because they get to play in a unique style that is pretty musically challenging.  but for myself…all the music I ever need, was already made in that “magic decade”, where progressive rock was the stuff of dreams, being “pretentious” was a bold and outrageous move, and prog rock ruled the earth.  I’m still discovering prog gems from the time, that I missed, or could not afford to buy, now re-released on CD forty odd years later. so while I am very, very glad that prog is “back” – for me, it was never gone, it was always here, kept alive by multiple incarnations of king crimson, by the return of van der graaf generator to full time performance beginning in 2005, to the “three friends” gentle giant partial reunions that very briefly saw part of gentle giant reforming as a new entity…

and it’s a good thing that some of these bands persisted.  I never got to see the sixties or seventies king crimson.  but, in 1995, at an outdoor concert by the double trio king crimson – I finally got to hear king crimson play “21st century schizoid man”.  I’d seen peter hammill solo shows, but had missed ever seeing van der graaf generator in the day – until one day in the late 2000s, I saw the classic four man lineup play a full concert in glasgow, and later, saw the trio version in manchester – and these modern versions of crimson and van der graaf are even more musically astonishing than the original early lineups.  van der graaf have even made several new studio albums which stand up very well when compared to their 70s output, as did king crimson.

after missing them in the 1970s, I finally saw dutch prog rock sensation “focus” live in glasgow in 2009 or was it 2010? – and they were absolutely amazing.  a fantastically talented and capable band, still led by thijs van leer, who is, without a doubt, a musical genius; while my favourite focus alumni, from the early 70s incarnation of the band, drummer pierre van der linden was absolutely spot on, it was so good to hear pierre’s meticulous, clean, precise drumming behind thijs’ “organ and flute” once again – and the two younger members of the band, were utterly equal to the task.  remarkable.

so the legacy of prog has moved forward through time in the hands and hearts of the original players who made it happen in the sixties and seventies…the visionary musicians who made progressive rock great then, and are still very much the masters of it now – the robert fripps, the peter hammills, the andy latimers, the richard sinclairs…the thijs van leers, still carrying that amazing musical legacy forward into the 2010s…

I can hear the skill and sincerity of modern progressive rock bands.  I can admire their instrumental prowess. but I really struggle with the actual music, because the form it’s based on, means that it almost has to imitate directly to even be “prog” – the apple has to fall far too close to the tree for their music to “sound” prog.  don’t get me wrong – there are a huge number of very, very adept, skilled progressive rock bands, from across the last three decades, from spock’s beard to steven wilson (oh he, the great re-mixer of the king crimson catalogue – all hail steven!) to dream theatre to pendragon to the mars volta to echolyn to glass hammer to the flower kings…prog bands from the 80s (like marillion, for example), 90s, 00s, and the current decade – the 10s, I guess we call them.  an enormous list that this is only the beginning of – which shows that there is so much love and respect for the music that is responsible for almost everyone in that list – progressive rock!

but – I am afraid that for me, the passage of time is just too long – I am very glad that prog, both old and new, seems to be having a fantastic resurgence, particularly right here, and right now, in march, 2013, but for me, as spectacular and as impressive as some of the new prog is…from porcupine tree to neal morse and beyond – for my personal taste, it’s just too derivative, so when I hear it, all I can hear is the 70s prog band that inspired it – whichever one or ones it is – which makes it more difficult for me to enjoy it for it’s own sake.  I don’t dislike modern prog, at all, I just…don’t need it 🙂 so when I witness a remarkable resurgence – which is two pronged: many, many new prog bands playing music that honours and compliments the progressive rock music by it’s imitation (and if you are going to imitate a genre of music, you can’t go far wrong by imitating progressive rock!) as well as, many of the originals, from the 60s and 70s I mean – still playing, bringing in whole new generations of fans, the original fans’ children and grandchildren, and who knows, by now, probably great-grandchildren.  and thinking about that really does make me feel as if I am getting old! 🙂

prog is an enormous topic.  I’ve just written over seven thousand words about it, and I’ve omitted dozens of great prog bands, and not touched on many important aspects of prog, but it’s the endless level of detail to be found within the music that continues to fascinate fans of the music old and new. I still listen to a lot of the records I mention in this article, and sometimes, even though I’ve heard a track a hundred times in my lifetime – I hear something new that I never noticed before.  a strange counterpart, or unnoticed rhythmic change – a strange sound you never heard before.  and of course remasters and re-mixes, and a good pair of headphones, can reveal musical details that were missed on previous “listens”! and CD only bonus tracks, for example, the “wind session” included on the remastered “in the court of the crimson king” deluxe box set, reveal much about the creative process that was not apparent from just hearing the original album…in that case, revealing in fascinating detail (complete with the band and engineer’s studio chatter from the actual recording session) how the famous sound effects that precede the studio version of “21st century schizoid man” were created.

scholars and aficionados argue about what the “form” of progressive rock is…and depending on which progressive rock bands you listen to – those “forms” can range from mini-classical suites, to modified and enhanced verse-chorus-verse forms, to the extended improvisations that might speak to the classical tradition or to the later jazz tradition, lyrically, prog is all over the place – king crimson’s peter sinfield (my favourite prog lyricist of all time) wrote epic poems (such as the title track of the band’s fourth studio album, “islands”) which were then set to music, while rush was unusual in that their drummer wrote all the lyrics, some prog bands depended on outside lyricists, not only king crimson, but procol harum is notable as well in this aspect with pianist gary brooker writing the music, and lyricist keith reid writing the lyrics – other bands had a lyricist or two in the band – van der graaf generator had peter hammill, as well as the absolutely remarkable, eccentric talented musician chris judge smithpeter hammill has covered a number of judge smith songs on his solo albums, long, long after he left van der graaf, and hammill often performs judge smith songs in live performance.

some prog bands go for the long form, with many extended interludes, additional verses, long solos, including some interminable drum solos that are difficult even for the fans to take! while other prog bands feature much shorter, more “normal” or “song-like” works.  classical influences are common but not mandatory, some prog acts seem to have quite a bit of jazz influences, others, hardly any… the only consistent thing about the “form” of progressive music, and also, the only consistency about what instruments were used to create it…is their complete and utter inconsistency.

but perhaps – that’s what makes it magic.  the fact that one band can have a one-legged flute and acoustic guitar wielding eccentric singer at the helm, while another was led by a very determined young guitarist with a particular vision of being in the best band in the world…and for a short time during their heyday in 1969, king crimson arguably were that band.  or maybe you just liked to do endless spacey jams, surrounded by science fiction lyrics, as the founder of gong, daevid allen seems to do, with a whole mythology around “planet gong” which was recently revisited in a very successful follow on album to their classic album “flying teapot”, entitled “2032”.

anything from the loosest, jazziest 20 minute improv, that you might get with can or the soft machine or any number of prog bands;  to the most incredibly practised, precision musical callisthenics (examples might be the “precision part” near the end of king crimson’s famous prog anthem, “21st century schizoid man”, or some of the guitar/bass/organ/drum precision work in the side-long “eruption” from focus’ breakthrough 1971 album “moving waves”  – which is sometimes also known as “focus II”, depending on the country of release) – in prog, just about anything goes! so the form, and the content of prog – is quite variable.  just about any configuration is possible, and there are some strange ones out there – the current line up of van der graaf generator is drums, organ/synth, and piano – or, electric guitar, depending on the song – so it’s quite odd, to see two keyboardists and a drummer producing prog rock, when genesis required drums, keyboards, bass guitar, lead guitar, and a lead vocalist to do the same thing.

a few examples of what in the world of rock would be called a “power trio”, guitar, bass, drums – rush takes those same well known instruments, as popularised in the rock world by the two most famous power trios of all, cream, and the jimi hendrix experience – and make intelligent, articulate, and very recognisably prog (with a bit of hard rock thrown in for good measure) …using the same three instruments that used to be the backbone of the hard rock power trio. technology helps, cream and jimi hendrix had a very, very limited palette of guitar pedals to use in live performance – three, basically: fuzz tonewah-wah pedal, and later, univibe (a device that imitates a rotating speaker). that was all they had, every other sound had to come from hands, strings and marshall stack – that was all they had.

fast forward 10 years, and in the 70s, the now common pedalboard started to make it’s appearance, the beatles (originally calling their chorus device “adt” for “automatic double tracking”) and jimi hendrix both had a hand in the development of modern effects such as chorus, flanging and phasing…and even in the early 70s, guitarists had a huge palette of sounds to choose from – but of course, each decade since has seen music technology leapfrog to newer and better sounding gear, it’s now gone beyond belief what you can control from one guitar and one pedalboard – it’s far beyond “guitar”. I’ve made this transition myself, from electric guitar and amplifier, with the crudest fuzz, wah and echo devices – to guitar synth controlling multiple pedalboards and effects – on three or four different signal paths – and it’s still something that I am still getting used to.

so technology enabled rock players to grow their sounds in many new ways, many improvements were made to the sound of the bass guitar, keyboards and in particular, synthesizers; that technology in particular, grew out exponentially, so during the last half of the lifetime of progressive rock, gear was changing so fast, so many new sounds – anything from compact guitar pedals, to the first guitar synthesizers, to the invention of the e-bow or energy bow, to the invention of “loopers” so musicians can capture digital recordings of what they are playing live, and layer many guitars or keyboards atop each other – those changes happened at the exact right moment for progressive rock musicians to take full advantage of.

so when I see all the excitement around this progressive rock cruise ship that’s about to embark on what surely must be the strangest holiday of all time, yes and several other prog bands on an ocean liner – how very odd that is – but I am glad, because new generations of yes fans get to enjoy the current version of yes – whereas, I don’t need to go, because I saw the real yes in 1974.  and again in 1977 (and while I want to deny it, I want to pretend I didn’t go, and it was the last time I went – I also saw the dread “drama” tour in 1980 – which I am afraid, put me off yes for many, many years afterwards…).  so it’s strange to me – but it’s OK.  for me – that magic decade is all I need, because I was there.  for folk younger than me – that could not be there, or can only experience it via video – well, this is a chance to connect with an amazing time in musical history.

and surely – that is a good thing. 🙂