Friday, 23 January 2009

Things I like a lot less than I probably should, part 1

Tangerine Dream.

The title of this post explains just what it's like: things I like less than I probably should, not certainly should. And I include Tangerine Dream here because, well, I hear so much positive stuff about this band, but I never could get into them. Maybe I've listened to too little stuff? I have tried their biggest works, including Phaedra, Atem and Rubycon, but I just can't see what's so good about it. To me, it sounds like a mish-mash of different trends of electronic music, but taking the WORST of each world. It's not quite dynamic enough to be captivating, it's not quite soothing enough to be pleasant, and the textures and movement suggest that there is nothing to suggest. I don't get it. I'm a big fan of Jean Michel Jarre, and I'm a big fan of Brian Eno, and I'm a big fan of Vangelis and so on -- and I know, Tangerine Dream is quite a different league, but still, it seems to me that they are too involved in doing something way beyond than simply music, but failing. Is it technically outstanding? Maybe, but so is Brian Eno's stuff. Is it evocative? Perhaps, but Jean Michel Jarre is so much more it's not even funny. Really, if ANYONE can point me out what's so good about them, I might try again.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Three extraordinary albums, part 2

I'm thinking of making this a "series", with new parts posted every two Mondays. And since this is the second Monday since the first triple review, here goes another selection of albums I consider extraordinary for my own personal reasons and which you shouldn't care about if you don't want to.

1. Amber - Autechre

Even though this is not my favourite Autechre album, it's one that marked me deeply. It took me quite a long while to listen to 90's electronic music, mostly because of the stupid and illiterate fear that it was a dangerously territory to explore, filled with traps that go "doof! doof! doof! doof!" for hours on end. Eventually I assembled my courage to get into Autechre, following "recommendations" (not quite) from one George Starostin, and got hooked into it. It was Untilted (sic) that knocked some sense in me and helped me realise the genre wasn't at all to be dismissed, but Amber... ahh, Amber. Sweet Amber. It even sounds like a lady's name, but that doesn't sound too cool since I'm a married man (um, to avoid misconceptions, face "married" like this: we know the theorem is true, and we only need to formalise and publish the proof). The album, though! There is this sweet, magical combination of sounds and approaches that sound abstract, evocative, beautiful, hypnotic and disturbing. Some tracks are marked by rough, intrusive, repetitive sounds meant to dig deep into your subconscious; other tracks are like sudden, unexpected sights of gorgeous landscapes that don't look real but feel like it; other tracks throw you in the middle of an ocean of unfamiliar sounds, and leave it to you to find your way around it. And that's the way I like it!

The songs are, of course, long and repetitive, but that's the way it's supposed to be. In fact, my only complaints in regard to length is that some tracks could be longer than that. If I truly get into the mood, even the longer tracks are over in a flash; and 'Nine' barely sounds worthy of being merely a "vignette". But everywhere else, there are gorgeous slices of genius like 'Slip', 'Nil' and 'Piezo', as well as brilliant works of electronic texture like 'Foil' and 'Glitch', as well as unexplainable masterpieces like the lengthy 'Further' and the scary 'Teartear'. This album is an example that it doesn't matter how coldly crafted, carefully calculated, how synthetic, precise, robotic and artificial a piece of music may be, it's still perfectly possible for a listener to achieve a very high degree of emotional connection to it. Booth and Brown are obviously two people who put a lot of care into what they do, and the result is not that the album sounds "emotional", but that the album sounds amazing, intriguing, fascinating and beautiful.

2. Boy - U2

This album is one of the most amazing cases in my collection of songwriting and production being nothing short of perfect to each other, to the degree of being inseparable. This notion was increased further by the release of the Deluxe version, which includes, on the second CD, the entirety of the U2 Three EP. The production on that release is vastly different, and almost makes the band sound like a New Wave band. But on the LP, Steve Lilywhite's production definitely makes things shine. Larry Mullen's drumming seems to come from the middle of the Grand Canyon, in its aggressive grandiosity; The Edge's guitar is laden with reverb and delay to unprecedented degrees; Adam Clayton's bass rumbles right through the mix and makes its presence heard and felt at all times; and Bono's vocals are always on the spot, given just the right amount of stress at the right times. But production really doesn't mean all that much without good songs, and about 75% of this album consists of real classics. The songwriting is just brilliant; the guitar riffs are always carefully constructed melodies, and not just a couple of chords jumbled together because they sound "cool" -- and even the most simplistic ones, like in 'I Will Follow', refuse to leave your brain for a long while. The vocal melodies always have an interesting twist to them as well, and adding to that, the lyrics are at times absolutely direct and clear, at other times vague and intriguing. There's always something going on, you know? All songs make an impression -- even 'Stories for Boys', which sounds awfully similar to the far bigger hit 'I Will Follow'.

Side A, in particular, is entirely flawless and brilliant. The poppy, fast and nagging 'I Will Follow' can barely prepare to what comes next: 'Twilight' and its intense contrasts between sneaky and all-out raging; 'An Cat Dubh' and its dissonant riff, wild dynamics and creative arrangements; 'Out of Control' and its sheer level of fun and energy; and particularly 'Into the Heart', a song that has mystified and fascinated me right from the days when I only owned this album on vinyl. The lengthy, quiet passage for bass and guitar and leads right off 'An Cat Dubh' couldn't possibly come from a band without at least an ounce of talent. Really. I can only say that the most raging U2 detractors never listened to this song, or if they did, dismissed it because it was too much for them.

One of the biggest "historical" charms of this album, also, is the fact that it's pretty much impossible to tell that THIS band would become the worldwide messiahs of an entire generation. Really, THESE kids? THESE Irish boys who write lyrics like "My body grows and grows / It frightens me, you know"? All the signs of religious larger-than-life-ness and I-wanna-change-the-world intentions are pretty much absent -- and in fact Bono criticises his own ambitions in 'The Ocean', acknowledging how small he felt before the whole world (humanity = ocean, see?). Oh, well, anyway, but not let those details get in the way of the enjoyment.

3. EP+6 - Mogwai

Hope you don't consider me a "cheater" for including a compilation here. But no, this ain't a "greatest hits" compilation -- its merely a package containing three EP's by one of the most influential "post-rock" bands, Mogwai. There's no overlap whatsoever with their studio albums, and I see this as an absolute essential release for the Mogwai fan -- either that or the three separate EP's, but you've gotta have it if you dig this band. But look at this: I dunno why, but this album works far, far better if you rearrange the tracks to play the EP's in reverse chronological order. Try it! Really!

See, we start with the more recent EP, opening with the extremely mellow and pretty songs 'Stanley Kubrick' and 'Christmas Song' on side A, giving way to the longer, more hypnotic and "Mogwai-like" 'Burn Girl Prom-Queen' and the "mini-epic" 'Rage:Man', with the usual contrast between quiet and OMG OMG LOUD LOUD. If you don't know Mogwai too well, it's a great way to get used to the band! All four tracks are fairly mellow, staying away from the noise and repetition and focusing a bit more on "song-like" structures. They're brilliant songs, either way, and makes you ready for the second EP: No Education = No Future (Fuck the Curfew).

Side A of that EP consists of the magnum opus 'Xmas Steps', which packs together an excellent bass motif, guitar layers carefully stitched together, relentless building up of tension, brilliant control over noise and chaos, and an extended closing section with a cello solo. This song was re-recorded for the album Come On Die Young, but I always preferred the EP version better for some reason, including the fact that the cello is left intact. Side B works as a little "break" on the LP, with the slow 'Rollerball' and the hazy shoegazer-like 'Small Children in the Background'. They're nothing particularly unlike what you've heard so far, but they prepare you for the most extreme release: 4 Satin.

For starters, this opens with a drum machine and synthesized chords. It's sort of like a disfigurement of hip hop, and over the course of its eight minutes, the band gleefully assaults it with loud, rude guitar noises: distortion, squeals and screams everywhere keep pushing the envelope further and further, beyond anything you could imagine from this band. The lengthy "ballad" 'Now You're Taken', featuring the only vocals in the whole album (supplied by Arab Strap's Aidan Moffat), closes side A and leads into the final track, the epic 'Stereodee'. The opening groove might make it sounds like a pleasant and fun finale, but the "coda" arrives about ten minutes too early. You know those live performances in which the bands end their songs with a long, "stumbling" final power chord? Well, Mogwai takes that concept and extends it into ten minutes of a loud, massive wall of pure noise. It's not too far from what My Bloody Valentine used to do in live shows, but the band is not really intent on blasting your eardrums off here. But I gotta say, there are VERY few moments in my entire collection that invigorates me as much as these ten minutes, and its closing moments are really awesome, sounding like the band short-circuited and turned into a heavily sabotaged "techno" pastiche for no reason whatsoever. It's a pretty brilliant work, and a perfect finale for the album.

See? THIS is the perfect track order. If you have the album, try it once! And if you don't have the album, well, it's a quite good place to start with Mogwai, AND one of their best releases, in my humble opinion. This, Mogwai Young Team and Mr. Beast are items that should not be absent in your Mogwai collection. Maybe Ten Rapid, too, if only for 'New Paths to Helicon'.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Talkin' 'bout old works and future projects Blues

Sometimes I'm amazed at how long I've been producing music for. My first sketches of MIDI music date back to about 1999. Ten years ago! And worse: I was fourteen! Thankfully those pieces of music have pretty much disappeared, as they are laughably bad. Ok, perhaps not laughably bad, but more like laughably, absurdly amateuristic and aimless. You see, back then I was just piecing together little bits of music that I could come up with, and trying to stretch them up to 3 or 4 minutes or so. And usually, would you ever guess, I'd do all that stretching by picking up bits from other songs I listened to and admired. But to be fair with myself, I wasn't doing that as in "I'll steal these ideas and earn recognition and fame off of someone else's effort, MWAHAHAHAHA!", but more like "wow, man, THIS is what good music is supposed to sound like! From now on my songs will sound exactly like this". I was a kid, barely discovering music far above the fluff I was used to hearing until then, amazed at the still horribly limited possibilities. It would take LONG time until I started having ideas of my own (actually, do I have ideas of my own already? I'm still not sure!).

In fact, this style of ripping off went for quite a long while. In my first days, I'd just to a few compositions, produce MIDI sequences of other people's songs, download MIDI compositions I enjoyed, and one day I recorded a mixtape of that stuff. Yes, a mixtape of MIDI music. And eventually I felt like I was able to stand on my own two feet and write my very own ALBUM. And so I set off, doing lots of compositions, ranging from short snippets of stuff to a 9 minute magnum opus (yeah, right), including more and more borrowed bits and an entire "cover" of the first minutes of 'Into the Heart', by U2, a piece of music that to this day never fails to amaze and fascinate me. Back and that time, I didn't even have a CD recorder, so I asked someone else to record the CD for me. I titled it Electronic Rock and proudly published it on an Internet page. The album is disappeared. Really, I sent it off to some TV program, never heard about it and never got it back. I hope it has ended on some garbage deposit, because if someone ever finds it, my reputation (?) is gone. Gone!!

Well, ok, so the CD is not entirely bad. I could possibly salvage about five or six of those compositions; matter of fact, the so called 9 minute magnum opus ('Water') was recovered for another album of mine, and 'The Giant' was reworked into 'Spotty', from Big Robot, Little Robot; and maybe, MAYBE, a few other pieces might pop up in future projects. But I was still fairly proud of that album when I started working on the second one. This second one is Musics for Highways, an album which is still available for download on my music website. The first version of it was made entirely with MIDI, but a few years later I re-recorded it adding little sound effects and affecting the mix with some audio editing. Let me tell you: I'm still proud of that record. Really: as much as there are still things borrowed from other bands and bits of naïvety here and there, I like that music. There are several great little melodies and music ideas, and I still have difficulty in coming up with music as good as 'A Landscape in Red', 'Warm Breeze' and 'Somewhat Late'. As much as Big Robot, Little Robot is far superior an album in about every aspect, Musics for Highways has a charm of its own, including the misspelling "musics" (a mistake caused by a mistranslation from Portuguese to English, but which actually gives it an interesting spin).

The following album, The Binary Sounds of Nature, marks my dabblings with -- oh, the horror! -- Prog Rock. That was the time when I was into long songs and time signature changes, and I churned out a whole sixty-eight minutes of MIDI music, in eight songs. The album is also available for download, but honestly, I don't like that album as much. 'Water' and parts one and three of 'The Spirit of the Tree' are quite good, but the rest is highly dodgy. And for one, that MIDI sound is grating - mostly because I use only about six different instruments (synth strings, drums, picked bass, piano, electric guitar, acoustic guitar) all over the whole album, with just a few pinches of diversity (like a Morse code on track 2, which dates back to when I was a rabid, lonely fan of Lisa Simpson. Yes, I've been there!).

If that wasn't enough, "Buses" pushes the envelope forward into a SEVENTY-FIVE MINUTES LONG COMPOSITION. I was intent as hell in producing my own Tubular Bells, my own Amarok. Though I have to say, the music is a vast improvement over the previous album. It's also subtitled "Concerto Schizophrenia II" because "Concerto Schizophrenia I" was a piece written about a story written by a group of Simpsons fanwriters (me included) in collaboration. The story was never finished and the resulting album might still be up there somewhere, but "Buses" is the masterpiece. In there, I went ballistic, including some REALLY twisted ideas. For example, I commissioned a poem written entirely in Latin from a friend of mine, Christina Nordlander, and set it to music. However, I wrote the melody without knowing whether I'd be able to sing it, so when I realised my singing was crap, I double-sped it into a twisted, rather creepy nine voice chorus. There are several parts of the album that feature really good music, in my opinion, and some of the melodies are great. But here's the catch: the whole album hints are personal problems I was having, and I hate that. The album sounds dated to me, and there's even a spoken bit dedicated to -- AGAIN -- Lisa. I hate everything the album represents, I heartily despise Lisa Simpson, I despise everything I was and thought back then, and I can't listen to "Buses" without wincing.

Musically, though, I'm still rather proud of it (Chris's poem, for example, is fantastic, and my musical adaptation of it isn't really bad), but I was already starting to play and experiment with different sounds produced with different software, and wanted to go deeper into it. And since "Buses" was a way for me to stuff whatever idea I had into a wider musical frame, I took my time to "filter out" the ideas I deemed not good enough. Giving myself the time to develop actual ideas, I produced five tracks which I assembled into the recently re-published "Better Than the Beatles!". I already gave a long-winded description of its concept here, so it's uneeded to explain it again, but there's one thing I left off: the concept of "human presence or lack there of" was so fleshed out that the actual title of the album was "Better Than the Beatles!" The Adventures of Piggley Winks, and one of its "features" was the presence of a "rock band" formed by me and characters from the TV cartoon Jakers! The Adventures of Piggley Winks. I was really intent on showing, once and for all, that music doesn't need to sound "human" in order to sound "emotional" -- it all depends on the listener.

At this point, my interest in cartoon shows reached a new height, and I considered making an entire album inspired by one. Instead of using its characters as members of a fictional band, I'd use them as inspiration for the songs themselves. And I guess you know what came out of that idea: the album that was so superior to everything else that it basically rebooted my notion of musicmaking. Really, it just started all over again. The album was, at the time, quite challenging to make, because it incorporated tools that I wasn't familiar with, and demanded a kind of music making not based solely on putting notes on the screen. All those sound effects, playing with echoes, samples, reverb and whatnot, all of it was oriented towards a sound I had on my head. And it took me two full years between coming up with the first song ideas and creating the final mixdown. I was so satisfied that I now consider it as the beginning of my carreer, with everything that came before it as a mere warm-up.

So, what comes next? Currently I'm working on a "follow up", which is also based on characters from a cartoon, and took on a life of its own. Stylistically it's very different from Big Robot, Little Robot, with a more modest mix of influences, less abstract sounds and a more post-rock approach. I'm also planning ahead: I intend on trying something purely electronic and abstract, to try to rip me away from the conventions of "guitar and drums" music, and then I want to try and remake Musics for Highways. Yes, I want to reapply those melodies and themes with a different approach, maybe with a few new compositions as well. So, you might know what to look out for from now. And those old albums, well... let's say they gave me experience, so I'm not embarrassed of them -- except for the first one. That one deserves embarrassment.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

"New" album

So, after a short period of waiting, Jamendo put up my "new" album. It's "new" because it's not new, but I see it as a sort of reissue, in a more official fashion. "Better Than the Beatles!" (the quotes are part of the title, since it indicates it's a paraphrase and and irony) is the album immediately previous to Big Robot, Little Robot, and I'm publishing it mostly because I recently "rediscovered" it and realised it's actually quite good, even though it's quite a mish-mash of stuff. It's got but 5 tracks, and musically they're completely distinct, but conceptually, it does have a common thread uniting them.

The basic idea is that, after completing three albums using not much more than General MIDI sounds, I was being confronted with the idea that the albums were not very good because: a) they sounded unrealistic and annoyingly video-gamey and; b) they sounded unemotional. I can understand a), because I was only making music that way because of my poor equipment (an old AMD K6 computer with dial-up Internet), but b) left me quite puzzled. I highly doubted the notion that says the fact that I make music with genuine care and attention means nothing to the final product, and that merely tweaking the veloticies and positions of the notes slightly would make it more realistic and thus more "emotional". In that case, emotion is a fakery! A forgery! A blatant lie! That bothered me deeply, and I decided to put that to the test.

The idea here is that, basically, each track approaches that problem from a different angle. The two songs on side A have vocals. Yes, folks, I SING on those tracks. The first one is 'Thunders', a 16 minute monster with a sort of talkin' blues rant against, of all things, rain (that explains the cover artwork). The first half was recorded entirely on a very old Casio keyboard I owned since I was a kid. It's controlled via MIDI by the computer, and there's no handplaying at all - yet it gets VERY intense at parts, culminating in a massive ensemble with ALL of the keyboard's instruments playing a half-improv on locrian B, and from there are more "conventional" sounding rock band takes over, with two drumkits ping-ponging in stereo. It's still all entirely synthesized, with MIDI instruments and all, though. The second half also features the poem De Destructione Romae, written by Swedish writer Christina Nordlander specifically for me to use in a song (thank you, Chris!).

The second track is 'I'd Rather Be Home', a four minute pop tune with the same MIDI band and a slightly untrivial chord structure. The vocals kick in on the last third of the song or so, a style sort of borrowed from the Cure, though the vocals ain't worth of even a tenth of Robert Smith. Side B starts with a seven minute piece entirely handplayed on an electronic keyboard -- the main idea was to write a piece with little to no melody, but giving it the "human touch" by picking the most intense and mistake filled take. It's basically asking whether "emotion" compensates for the lack of actual content. The next track, 'Tetralogy', reverses that, by sticking entirely to MIDI and sampled percussion; the trick here is that the entire score is palindromic, and yes, it's an exact palindrome: the first half of the song was written, copied, pasted and reversed, thus creating an exact mirror image. But all the parts are written in a way to give the song a sense of flow and motion, and the palindromic nature of some isolated elements of the song results in "echoes" of things already heard.

In case you're scratching your head there, yes: this thing is very, VERY pretentious. I was indeed a bitter, annoying guy when I wrote that music, and everything oozes that kind of artistic irritation. And to lighten up things considerable, the last track bursts in with a sample of very weird canned laughter (taken from the Brazilian dub of the ultra-classic Mexican comedy El Chavo del 8, no less -- my Brazilian listeners will probably recognise that in a matter of seconds) which leads into a very upbeat, energetic and danceable piece of South-Brazilian accordeon-laden traditional music. Once again, the sounds are all synthesized, but the entire recording is augmented by sounds recorded live in my house and horrible bursts of feedback caused by swinging the headphones before the microphone! This is a sort of homage to the summer of 1996, when I grabbed a cassette recorder and made a whole side of tape with me playing keyboards and crackign stupid comments with my cousin, while all the sounds from the house flew right on top of the songs. Fun times!

I have to say, though: even all tracks are charged with that sort of cheekiness, I still enjoy them. And I think it's better to remove the "concept" and enjoy the songs by themselves (and for that you'll have to take 'Pompous and Pretentious' as a sort of Residents-y aimless improvisation), and I have far outgrown those issues. In particular check out the two last tracks, as that's a kind of music I probably won't be doing again for a long while; and the second track is a good example of what I'll sound like when I become a sell-out corporate whore (ha!).

Oh! And of course, in between the songs you'll find several recordings taken from very ancient vignettes from Brazilian TV. Those tunes were highly likely copied (illegally?) from North-American TV stations, so if you should complain about their use, blame them, not me. Ha! In either case, the end of 'Thunders' features the first movement from Entends-Tu les Chiens Aboyer? by Vangelis; the intro of 'I'd Rather Be Home' incorporates a barely audible 'Jamaican Girl' by Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra; and the album closes with a sample of 'The Fight', by Giorgio Moroder. The poem De Destructione Romae belongs to Christina Nordlander, and the rest of the music and words is mine.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Sometimes, making music can be a real pain

I don't think this should be any news to anyone, but in case it is: yes, it CAN. Does not matter how you're making music, sometimes it can just simply suck. In my, specific, personal case, making music can sometimes be really boring, actually. It almost seems contradictory, because making music is basically exploring an endless universe, filled with exciting possibilities and combinations. But there's always a sour side to everything. I don't know if it's the tools I'm using and the methods I'm applying, but there are very manual, repetitive processes on it that can be beyond annoying. You see, I use MIDI for writing virtually everything, and as amazing as it might seem, a great part of the effort is in copy-and-pasting. Really! It might seem absurd that making music can just be CTRL+C-CTRL+V-CTRL+V-CTRL+V, but you know, that's how it can be. But as you can imagine, the problem is not with the repetition itself, but with making the repetition not sounding too repetitive, in creating tension, building-up, softening-down, changing, making variations and things in order to keep things moving. Just to create, for example, the effect of a guitar strumming up-and-down and changing chords every two or three measures can be quite boring. And on the song I'm working on right now, there's a whole ensemble of instruments playing chords on a cyclical pattern of going up 2 and then 3 semitones. It's a really braindead, non-creative effort, but it has to be done because the final product sounds really cool.

There were moments like this on the making of Big Robot, Little Robot as well. For example, 'Noisy' was the last song to be finished, because it involved making those snare drums keeping up the rhythm but adding little trills and fills in every measure, which was needed to make the rhythm actually exciting and fun -- and it was quite painful, having to come up with fresh variations that kept sounding new and different. Same thing with the guitar chords that kick in shortly before the final melody in unison. Very boring thing to make. But the end result? Frankly, I love it. It was worth every minute. There were uncertain moments as well, for example in 'Tiny', which on the screen looked like a really boring thing going on and on with lots of "magic dust" (no drug references intended!) sprinkled on it, and I wasn't sure if I was able to make it sound good. I think I did -- at least there seems to be a rising tension on it, to these ears.

And there are just times when it seems like the work isn't progressing. And what is particularly frustrating is that, in almost all cases, I can hear the whole thing in my head. The songs dwell in my mind for MONTHS, until I can actually lay them down on the screen. You know Big Robot, Little Robot? Practically THE WHOLE ALBUM was stored in my head for about one year, until I could get it finished. The album I'm working on right now is entirely there too, and I pretty much know and hear every nook and cranny. But HOW THE HELL will I be able to get it recorded? I just don't know, and the work mostly consists of jotting down notes on the screen and hoping to hell that I'll be able to get it done properly. And it doesn't help that the songs actually have a more complex sound than Big Robot, Little Robot: on that one, many songs were a very sturdy, solid base with melodic components on top. On this one, the sonic textures are far more complex and intricate. It's pretty tricky.

On the other hand, though, when the work consists of actively creative work, it tends to flow very fast and smooth if I'm in the mood. Believe it or not, but 'Scary' was written entirely in a single afternoon. It was funny, because originally, it was going to be a completely different piece, basically a song embodying everything boring I just described above - repetitive yet ever growing, copy-and-pastey but ever changing, with tension, build-up and all that shizzle. But then, while I was walking to the bus stop one morning, I was struck by an idea to turn 'Sparkies' into a faux-classical piece for piano in one channel and harpsichord on the other, and immediately I followed it with a little melody based on diminished fourths, and soon it morphed into a solo piano piece. I figured I'd never be able to write it, though, but I finished it the day after. In one sitting. The ideas kept flowing out, and it was done very, very efficiently and smoothly.

The same way, sometimes I can produce entire solos and melodies in a matter of a few minutes, just placing notes on the screen. But when it comes to doing those repetitive, monotonous, manual parts, the thing seems to grind to a halt. And it gets worse when I have little time to work, and I sit down, listen to what I currently have and think "... so now what?... urgh, I'll guess I'll play some solitaire instead". So now, basically, you know why I take so long to make new music.

Oh, yes, and even though I'm already working on an album, I already have plans for another one. But I keep myself fixed to a very tight, restrictive work plan because I KNOW that if I venture into something else, I'll leave those old ideas abandoned for good. And I don't want that to happen: I don't give up on good ideas just because they're hard to execute. So, I keep doing this boring work because I know there'll be a reward in the end. And that's how I make music.

And then again, if making music was always 100% fun and games, it would become boring quite quickly, don't you think? That's the beautiful contradictory nature of life: things can become boring for not being boring. Life is indeed wonderful!

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Talkin' 'bout analysing music is NOT boring Blues

Music is, I suppose, one of the most natural and intuitive art forms in the world -- at its most primitive, you don't need any sort of tool or equipment to produce, since your own body is all you effectively need. And bad or good, ANYONE can do it. Probably that's why music is one of the art forms that "speak" the most to people, since not only the sounds are something very easy to connect to, but it gives you a pretty clear interface to the artist producing them; those "emotional" singers emote like that exactly to make the listener "see" or "feel" it.

That's not ALL that music is about, though, and I think that's a common misconception. "Feeling" the music is good, but it's not sufficient, really. Ever since I reached a certain maturity in listening to music, I've been naturally leaning towards trying to understand my music makes me feel the way I do. And I say that not in terms of "oh, the artist puts so much emotion in this!", but in terms of "why does that arrangement fit the melody so well?". It's pretty crazy, but sometimes it's tough to realise that, in a music recording, every little detail and little sound has most likely been painstakingly and carefully PUT there. It just didn't appear by magic, or because it was "meant" to be there - somebody decided it sounded good there, and put it there. How did THAT happen? How do those ideas appear? It's a process that definitely fascinates me, and I like analysing music in those terms, searching and discovering the little combinations that make music work, sometimes without us truly noticing.

And I don't think it's a "cold" or "boring" way to listening to music, really. Sometimes people think that "overthinking" music takes the fun away from it. In my case, it's the opposite! It's a somewhat "scientific" way of listening to music, and I honestly think science is absolutely beautiful and fascinating. So, why not using that approach on art? You don't need to give up entirely your feelings in order to study music. Sometimes they seem like mutually exclusive things, but honestly, I think some people just like to show off. I certainly don't. But yes, I do believe that the emotional response to music is not something you can measure and describe, because it's FAR too personal and subjective. But the sounds themselves have objective properties, and they can lead to interesting observations. Emotions aren't to be observed, and they come from within us. I don't deny they exist and affect us, but they don't reach us through the air, like the soundwaves do. Emotions can be, at best, expressed -- which is fun too, of course.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Three extraordinary albums

To "celebrate" the first day of this blag, I'm doing a post here to briefly "review" three albums that, for one reason or another, I consider extraordinary. Some of them you might already know, some you may not: what matters here is the insight into music, whether it serves as recommendation to try new stuff or to retry old stuff with different ears. I won't tackle on anything particularly obscure, so don't expect much snubbery.

Oh, and don't expect download links either. If you REALLY want to download this stuff, you should be able to do that yourself without my assistance, and I'm not here to promote that sort of stuff. AAAAnyway:

1. Selected Ambient Works, Volume II - Aphex Twin

Yeah, I'm definitely not breaking new ground here. This is a stone cold classic, and if you don't have it, you should. Why? Because there's hardly anything else like it! The previous "installment" in the "series" was hardly any Ambient the way Brian Eno originally coined it, but then again, Ambient was defined more by its intent and purpose, not by its sound. So, the music there was strongly rhythmic, accented, even quite dynamic at times. The difference is that Richard D. James invested a lot more on textures and layers than on dance patterns; thus "Ambient Works".

This one, however, dumps the rhythms almost entirely, and instead of merely focusing on textures and layers, it IS textures and layers. But hey, it's not at all what you would expect from your everyday Brian Eno record. In its original issue, the album has 25 tracks, is almost three hours long, and only one track has an actual title -- the only identification given to the tracks are "pie-chart" diagrams and images associated to them, which resulted in the tracks having "unofficial" titles given by fans, none of which are used by the record label or by James himself.

So with little else to focus on, we turn to the music. And what music! These 25 tracks actually cover up a pretty wide array of moods and textures; in parts, it's gorgeous to the point of bringing your defences down without pity; in other parts, it's radically unsettling and even -- dare I say it? -- frightening. Challenging the "Ambient" label, the album doesn't let down in terms of variety: some tracks have slow transitions between different parts, giving a feeling of motion; some tracks rely on melodies, chord patterns, percussion rhythms, musique concrète-like sound collages or hypnotic riffs; some tracks work marvellously as background "thinking" music, while others are so radical that they're bound to wake you up from your sleep and give you nightmares. And the album is structured in a way that you can treat it not like a "mood piece", but as an elaborate journey. It's true that sometimes the nuances between tracks are so minimal that portions of the journey end up as indistinct gobbles of sound, and since the tracks are long and samey, you might get the urge to skip to the next one in aching curiosity to see what awaits you. But be calm! The album is worth enjoying in its entirety.

Highlights I can mention are the first and third tracks on side A, two incredibly beautiful pieces that challenge the notions of "ambient" with unforgettable sketches of melody; track two on side B gives me the creeps, as its main synth pattern has a "breathy" quality that makes me think of crawling alien creatures, while the following track has an oddly bluesy swing to it. The following two tracks make great use of subtle, understated rhythms to add an hypnotic effect. The last track on side C and the fourth on side D have a collage-like structure, while the second on side D and the last on side E are pretty close to Brian Eno. For more gorgeousness, try "Blue Calx" and the second track on side E. Finally, the final side is just scary! The faint echoes on the first track barely prepare you for the relentless "drilling" sounds on the second track. The third track just goes on and on for 11 minutes with the same hypnotic plinky keyboard, while the last one is pretty close to a horror film soundtrack, with haunting string-like chords, echoeing percussion and menacing harmonies. Freaky!

If you're willing to chase it, the only complete issues of the album are the original UK vinyl triple LP editions, available on "limited edition" brown vinyl which is more common than the regular release. The UK CD misses the second track of side E, which is a darn shame, though it is available on an ambient compilation album. The US CD also omits the fourth track of side A, which is plain nasty. Either way, getting this album is a wise decision. Don't miss it!

2. Dots and Loops - Stereolab

Nothing fairer than paying homage to the band that inspired this blag's name, right? And Dots and Loops is not only my favourite Stereolab record, but also one I've been INTENSELY obsessed on during the second half of 2008. Somehow, everything about it just fits and sounds perfect. It's true that it lacks the hyperactive and playful experimentalism of Emperor Tomato Ketchup and the defiant boldness of Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements, but it MORE than makes up with fabulous arrangements, deeply layered and detailed, and melodies that are bound to stick to your brain for a long while.

For starters, the focus here is on rhythm, but not just in clichèd percussive ways. The whole band combines rhythm and melody making one pretty much indistinguishable from another, so the music is booth groovy AND catchy. This goes from the gentle balladeering of 'The Flower Called Nowhere' to the irresistible "walk-to-the-beat" groove of 'Miss Modular' (gotta love those horns!!). Everywhere else, the famous combination of Lætitia Sadier and Mary Hansen's vocals slip through melodies taking their cues from everything from 60's American pop to (maybe) French chansons, from Motown to Bossa Nova. To me, the album reaches its "climax" in two distinct tracks: first is 'Rainbo Conversation', a rich, delightful and invigorating Bossa Nova; and the second is 'Parsec', a piece that miraculously combines warp-speed drum 'n' bass with Bossa Nova. The goods keep coming with the laid back 'Diagonals' and the multi-part pieces 'Refractions in the Plastic Pulse' and 'Contronatura'.

Stereolab has a quite varied career, so unless you get focused on the first five or so releases, you're going to bump into a lot of different, exciting stuff; and Dots and Loops is one I consider a mandatory stop. Put this one on and be mesmerised.

3. Ultravisitor - Squarepusher

So this Tom Jenkinson dude likes to program drum machines and his laptop to produce absurdly convoluted and disoriented "breakcore" beats, and he also likes to sit down on his drumkit and go tappity-tap-tappa-tap like a jazz dude would, and he also likes to pick up his bass guitar and play some insanely complicated jazz solos with a weird ring-modulator-like pedal effect that goes "wWAAKOooOOAAawoOWwAAAAKKkkow", and he also likes to play classical guitar pieces on a Spanish guitar, and he likes to send his electronic machines on wild rushes of drum-'n'-bass. So in this album, he decided to do... ALL OF THAT.

In short, you could take this album as his "self-portrait", an album that basically gathers everything he did until then and carefully puts it together as one long (it fills up THE ENTIRE CD), seamlessly flowing suite, and it works to the point of being extraordinary. The styles bounce each other in a clever, interesting way, and propel the album through vastly different approaches at making amazing music. It gets hard to accuse him of noise-making hack when '50 Cycles' is preceded by the classical guitar piece 'Andrei', and it gets even harder to accuse him of jazzy self-indulgence when 'An Arched Pathway' only comes after the relentlessly melodic and thrilling 'Iambic 9 Poetry'. In short, Squarepusher covers up pretty much all ground here, without ever exaggerating.

I'd be lying if I said I like everything equally, of course. One interesting aspect is that the album incorporates live performances and floods then with obnoxious audience noise. On interviews, Squarepusher seems to purposefully sound like a jerk, and this gives me reasons to wonder what exactly he meant with these noises: one theory is that he was just being mean and throwing the spotlight on the morons that keep yelling and cheering along to his frenzied bass guitar workouts pretending they're enjoying every bit of his playing without truly knowing what they're doing, just so they won't look "uncool" to admit they don't get it; other theory is that he was just being mean with HIMSELF, sabotaging his own pomposity with the boldness of people who're just having a great time and a load of fun with it; or maybe he was just willing to connect with his audience, so I dunno. What I know is that 'An Arched Pathway' spends more than one minute assaulting the audience with unbearable snare rushes, and even though it fits in perfectly in the album, it sounds more like a "statement" than a sample of exciting noise. But it's alright.

Elsewhere, I'm grooving along to the unstoppable 'Tetra-Sync' and its evergrowing mix of layers and melodies, or being utterly carried away by the sonic washes of 'Circlewave', or having my brain exploded by the amazing 'Iambic 9 Poetry', in which he takes a simple yet beautiful jazz melody and runs it through vastly different styles: one time playing it nicely to a strong and accented beat, other time trashing it to beats with chaotic percussion bashing and broken rhythms, and other time driving it into hyperspace with increasing fury. That track alone is worth the price of admission -- though you shouldn't ignore the "hip-hop-from-Hell" of '50 Cycles', the pseudo-industrial solemnity of 'Steinbolt' and the gentle beauty of 'Tommib Help Buss'. This album is a great way to get into Squarepusher, and a careful reading on Wikipedia can show you the best way to delve in further into his music. Check the guy out, if you haven't already.

"Why don't you write it in your blag?" - xkcd

So, everyone and his mother (except you and your mom) has a blog. No, really. Like, man, really. No, I mean, like, really, like, dude, really. There's nothing special about having a blog anymore, and that should be pretty obvious to everyone already. In a way, this is good, because I can't pretend I'm teh speshul for having a blag to whine and express my opinions in it. It's just another dude, you know! I'm ok with that. Really, it's just fine. I don't need to be the enlightened guy in the Internet, because I'm just not. So... this blag here.

I'm a musician, you see. There's nothing particularly cool about that, though: my music is published only on a few Internet websites, it doesn't play on TV, or on the radio, you won't find my CDs in stores or on Amazon or on iTunes. It's just there, available for absolutely free download and for every sort of enjoyment. So I figured: why not just write about it?
I'll be fair: I REALLY like writing. I'm quite indulgent in it: I write a lot, if I'm able to. I can't control myself. So, this here blag is just a way for me to dump my own thoughts for my own fun and profit and with the added bonus that someone might read it and comment. Isn't that the very point of blogs, duh? So I'm happy with that.
And don't expect much of a focus or a theme: though I love music and love writing music and writing ABOUT music, I make myself free to talk about whatever the hell I feel like talking about here. You can read it or skip it: it's your choice. And I'd like comments: commucation is a wonderful thing. Value it. Treasure it. Use it.

A few things to clear up: "blag" is an intentional misspelling originated on the webcomic xkcd, which you might have heard of already. I'm a big fan of xkcd, without any shame to admit it. One problem I have thought is that I ALWAYS forget the names of the strips, so I can't link you to the actual comic that spawned the "blag" thing, but search the archives and you'll find it -- and you'll also bump into a load of great humour as well.

As for my music, you can download it on Jamendo. You can listen to and download Big Robot, Little Robot, an entirely electronic and instrumental album which is a sort of mishmash of several assorted genres and styles wrapped around a "concept" of sorts. Don't worry: there are no vocals. The link is HERE.

In short: hello!