Friday, 27 February 2009

Three extraordinary albums, part 3

I guess I screwed up my plans for doing a post like this every other Monday. I don't know whether I'll be able to (or WANT to) keep this on a regular schedule or just post it whenever the heck I feel like it, so let's get started. This time, I'll repeat some artists I've covered in previous posts, but I'm using here, as a sort of criterion, albums that I've been obsessed with recently. They're the sort of "instantly extraordinary" albums in heavy rotation in my playlists, so don't expect anything perfectly balanced. Ok? So here's the three of 'em:

1. Chemical Chords - Stereolab

Once again, it's the stereophonic laboratory I'm talking about. Last time it was Dots and Loops, but if you play both albums back to back, there are only two things that can tell you it's the same band: Lætitia Sadier and the obsessively, microcosmically intricate arrangement and production. Because, you know, the music is a world apart. Gone are the days when Stereolab would listen to 'Hallogallo' by NEU! and write a song on top of it (even though I really like that part of their career) -- Tim Gane turned into a wild music devouring monster by the time Emperor Tomato Ketchup came around, and their discography shows. Even still, Chemical Chords represents a drastic rupture for the band -- not only in moving to 4AD, but in using Motown as inspiration. The rhythms, brasses and tuned percussion will probably give that away. But, MAN. I think that, in terms of combining sheer fun with insane complexity, only Mike Oldfield's Amarok beats it, and that's not saying little.

Let your finger randomly fall in any title on the track list, and you'll be SURE that there'll be something absolutely devious going on in the respective song. Really. The album is that good. Not a single moment goes by in blank -- to the point where the first listen will probably be a mess, with all songs becoming a big mush in your mind. But learn to distinguish them and you'll start paying attention to all the moments the album is consisted of: the childishly funny trombone melody of 'Neon Beanbag', the little xylophone melody near the last chorus of 'Three Women', the chromatically "falling" strings near the end of the title track, the tingling melody bookmarking the chorus of 'Valley Hi!', the call-and-response in the beginning of 'Silver Sands', the vibraphone breaks in 'Self Portrait with "Electric Brain"', the buzzing synth melody on 'Nous Vous Demondon Pardons', the dissonant string haze on 'Fractal Dream of a Thing', the vibraphone patterns on 'Daisy Click Clack', and that's only covering the surface. The band was obviously in a phase when the music should constantly do something -- and not merely to make it "intellectual". This is not labour for labour's sake: this is music to keep you entertained. CONSTANTLY entertained.

But not only that: many songs here are already impressive only for the songwriting. 'Neon Beanbag' is an endless succession of little melodies that bounce off each other, switching between vibraphones, organs, Sadier's voice and whatnot. The title track is a miracle, built entirely on an unbelievably effective rhythm pattern, with melodic phrases coming in on every turn (I speak sincerely: if there is one song I wish I had written, in the whole world, THIS is the one). 'Valley Hi!' is short and very sweet, the closest to "cute" that the band ever got to. 'Daisy Click Clack' is so fun and so childlike it's more Syd Barrett than Stereolab. And it works! The band sounds totally at home with it, and Lætitia mixes lyrics like "Clap clap, clap clap, all will join in / Tap tap, tap tap, simple rhythm" and "Sensing the symbiotic forces" like only she can.

The musical ideas just keep coming in this album -- and unlike some other review suggests, I don't think the sense of fun is undermined by the complexity and labour contained in the album. In fact: one amplifies the other, and to me, only helps to prove that they are not mutually exclusive. Try it on road trips.

2. Just a Souvenir - Squarepusher

Though I still think Ultravisitor is his magnum opus, this album finds Tom Jenkinson at the top of his game. With Hello Everything, he tried to stitch all his different influences and styles into a "patchwork" album, but here, he throws them into a blender and lets it all loose. Jazz? Check. Breakcore? Check. Classical guitar? Check. Rock 'n' roll? Ch-- what, rock? Squarepusher playing rock? Yep, check! The songs have such an amazing combination of skills and talents that they're nearly unbelievable. Need an example? Check out 'A Real Woman'. The only way I can describe that song is "The Ramones meet jazz fusion breakcore". The brutal simplicity of the 'Blitzkrieg Bop' verses never directly clash with the unusual harmonies from the Vocoder or the insanely twisting bass breaks, but they actually live together in harmony and cuddle.

The trend goes well for the rest of the album: the jazzy bass lines go right along with freaked out pseudo-disco grooves AND with copiously distorted guitar riffs. The songs go from pleasant soundscapes of tuned percussion and synthetic pads to twisted one-man-band interplay, and the drums many times blur the line between sequences samples and live playing. I think Just a Souvenir has Squarepusher finding HIS sound, something that only he can produce, something that mixes the extremely refined with the violently intense, the pleasant and the exciting, the ugly and the complex. Of course he has already done similar things in previous albums, like Music Is Rotted One Note and the aforementioned Ultravisitor, but THOSE albums didn't have themes dealing with shimmering coat hangers, women that are happy because they're real, and acoustic guitars that can distort time.

Okay, I'll explain: the album is titled so because it's a musical representation of a "souvenir", which is Jenkinson's memory of a daydream which featured "a crazy, beautiful rock band playing an ultra gig". The liner notes describe in detail his "daydream", mentioning the crazy guitar that distorts time, the band members being washed by an electrical storm that turns the entire building into a guitar amplifier, and a snare drum that floats in mid-air and explodes due to "electromagnetic radiation emitted by nearby neutron stars". Knowing Squarepusher's purposefully "mythical" and sometimes mysterious image, I'm quite comfortable with taking the whole narration as a put on (what kind of daydream would go into such detail and feature "a small dent where a pantechnicon lorry had smashed through the back wall of the stage to deliver a replacement snare drum"? I mean, I don't think it's dishonest at all for a musician to make up a "story" to envelop his work of art. And, really, the story is so funny in its mix of dream fantasy and incredibly snobby descriptions ("sounded as if the bass guitar was actually a RSJ played with a chainsaw, enclosed in a ventilated cabinet of fine mahogany") that it's definitely worth reading. And it's even better when you hear, in the music, cues relating to the story. The time-shifting guitar? It's actually there! Three tracks are pieces for acoustic guitar and digital effects that sound exactly like that. The "chainsaw RSJ"? Check out 'Delta-V' and the AMAZING 'Planet Gear'. The gleaming coat hanger? Yup: observe it, respect it. Really, what can be better than a virtuoso electronic jazz musician being pseudo-humble and attributing his creativity to a bizarre daydream? The answer is, of course, the resulting album. Check it out.

3. Heaven of Las Vegas - Cocteau Twins

I don't think this is their best album (that post is occupied by Treasure), but this is the album I listen to far more often. I have difficulty talking about Cocteau Twins, because, really, how can you talk about their sound? Unlike a lot of people, I don't get the "music from Mars" vibe from this band. They don't sound at all like "aliens" to me -- they simply concocted a very unique sound and made excellent use of it. But, really, how close is this to "pop" music, or to "synthpop" or whatever? I think labels like "ethereal" are pretty silly, ESPECIALLY when it comes to Cocteau Twins. Better leave it unlabelled, you know? "You wanna know what they sound like? Well, listen to it yourself! That's what YouTube is there for!" That's better. However, Heaven or Las Vegas is unique for a reason: it's POP! Really, it's POP MUSIC. All songs are meticulously crafted like pop songs -- all with their usual mix of instruments and layers, but applied to extremely catchy tunes. In fact, there's exactly one thing that prevents this album from being 100% radio friendly: the unintelligible lyrics. Just like with every other Cocteau Twins song made since then, you just can't understand what Liz Frazer is singing -- and that's the POINT. While it sounds sad that excellent songs like these don't fall into people's tastes ONLY because you can't discern the words, the move reveals a sense of humour that's very in tune with the band derailing critics by titling all songs in Treasure with names of people. Liz purposefully sticks in SOME intelligible phrases, that is, the odd "thank you for mending me babies" or "must be why I'm thinking of Las Vegas", but only to give you the wrong impression that there ARE actual lyrics there, and you must make more effort to pick them up. And so did many people. And the results are beyond absurd. It's not a "new" trick for the band, but here, it makes more sense than ever.

Some people complain that the album lacks the band's "edge", because the moods in the different tracks are more similar than before. There aren't any truly ominous or moody songs. But why should I complain about that when the songs are nothing short of brilliant? The title track, alone, is worth the entire album, with guitar layers that spread into vast infinity, vocal harmonies that are at the same time complicated yet catchy, and even gritty guitar solos. I'm obsessed with that song -- and many others get really close, like the vague yet catchy 'Cherry Coloured Funk', the insanely groovy 'Iceblink Luck', the beautiful and soothing 'Fotzepolitic' and the glorious 'Frou-Frou Foxes in Midsummer Fires'. Even the less catchy songs always have something nifty going on -- usually Frazer's vocal melodies. Just like Robin Guthrie can extract all sorts of amazing and wonderful sounds out of his processed guitar and synthesizers, her voice takes all sorts of shapes and forms, producing tiny symphonies in these otherwise simple songs. Unique sound and ingenious songwriting make this album truly extraordinary. Start here if you want a smooth yet effective introduction into the band.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Talkin' 'bout Flash Games (and how they can be the best thing ever AND the worst thing ever) Blues

Yes, since this is a blag about music and whatever else (and since nobody reads it), I take this place to talk about Flash games -- not as a programmer, mind. I never programmed in Flash and have no means to make a Flash game. No, sir: I talk as a PLAYER. I'm not your everyday Flash junkie, but I do have an account at Kongregate and I like to collect badges (erk). So, what's up with Flash games?

They can be the best thing ever because Flash put A LOT in the hands of extremely creative and talented people who always wanted to make and publish games in a way that wouldn't attract the attention of only hardcore gamers who're willing to download and run .EXE files. Flash games are immediately playable by pretty much anyone - many systems already have the Flash plug-in installed, and most of the others make it very easy to install. To play, you just follow a link and -- presto -- no more needed. They allow fancy graphics, the performance is halfway decent, and many websites collect hundreds of Flash games because each game is a single, (generally) small file. Flash is a moderately easy tool to handle, it makes things very easy and simple, and ActionScript allows quite a lot to be done. People with a lot of ideas and a lot of willingness to break the rules and explore new territory are finally able to do so, without too many hurdles.

They can be the worst thing ever because, well, Flash put a lot in the hands of people who seem to have NO IDEA of what makes a good game. Really: go out there and see. It can become frustrating, as many games have great concepts and premises, but the execution? ICK. Horrid. It's not a matter of "knowledge" or things you learn at school, and it's not a matter of me talking because I never actually went there and made a game to see how hard it is: it's merely a matter of COMMON SENSE. It's concepts even a child can grasp. They are easy, simple things that we many times fail to realise exactly BECAUSE they're so easy and simple. It's things we take for granted, but forget they have to be actually implemented.

One example: go out, take the games you play the most and see how much your performance depends on luck. I'm not telling you to see how many games use luck as a deciding factor: I'm telling you to see to which extent luck is necessary in those games. I'm not kidding you: many games I've played DEPEND on luck to ridiculous extremes, to the point where you're simply left with nothing to do to save your skin if you're unlucky. An actual example: the game Death Dice Overdose is a very simple action game in which your character has to move left and right and jump in order to avoid dice falling from the sky. Get hit and die, simple. But not only that: you need to pick up "pills" to keep your panic down. Your panic increases over time, and if it reaches a limit, you die. The pills appear randomly (yes, ABSOLUTELY randomly) all over the screen, and there's a lower limit, so you can't simply pick up pills at will.

Bottom line: you have a limited amount of time to eat a pill in order to keep alive. The smart readers realise that if the game does NOT give you a pill before the timer expires, you're hopelessly dead, and there's nothing you can do. The game has to ENSURE that the rate of pills are enough to keep you alive, and you should only die of panic if you fail to reach the pills in time because of his limited skills. Well, to put it bluntly, the author of the game wasn't that smart. Yep: you can DIE because the game is too randomly. It does not calculate the rate of pills, and it simply gives them away at will. If it "decides" to kill you, you die. See? When you play the game, you DO NOT have the guarantee that you'll only fail because your skills are too limited. You can die without committing any mistakes. So what's the point?

It seems like programmers think that adding a bias will make the game too "easy" and not challenging enough, and that it HAS to be random and luck-based in order to be challenging. First: challenge is worthless if there's no fun. Second: luck and luck ALONE is not fun. If it were, people wouldn't bluff in poker, and people wouldn't need to prospect of earning money to bet on horse races and slot machines. Many games do depend on randomness and chance, but PURE randomness and chance is no way to make a game. You know why?

People play games because they want to be good at it. Just ask your friends and see how many of them play games because they want to suck at it and lose. They don't. People play games because they want to beat them, they want to play them once, lose, learn with their mistakes, get better at it, slowly advance, learn new tricks and tips, and FINALLY beat the hell out of it, and then try again at a higher difficulty. For that, people need an INCENTIVE to play. People need to feel rewarded by the game. I'm not talking about promising free cookies if they beat the game, no sir: I'm talking about making the game show the players when they're doing good, and KEEPING them at it. Did the player make a mistake? Punish them and let THEM see what they did wrong by themselves. Let them learn what they shouldn't do, and let them try again. You don't need to pat the player's back and say you love him, no way! It's not about being "nice": it's about being fair and balanced. The player wants to know he's playing well and want to see the consequences of that. He doesn't want to hang by a little thread and be brutally, unexplainably killed at the slightest mistake, or worse, see all his efforts WASTED because the game was badly programmed and was unfair to him. Didn't you ever wonder why many Flash games allow you to earn money or experience and "upgrade" your player as you go? It's a simple concept, see! As simple and obvious as you can be. I'm not saying the Gospel and dictating how all games should be: there are exceptions, but mostly, the player should be compelled to play. If he loses, he should sit back, think carefully, review his strategy and try again. Instead, many games have the player tearing out his hair and running his keyboard into the monitor in anger and disgust. Why? Because THE GAME'S AUTHOR SUCKS, that's it. Plain and simple.

Yet some people fail to grasp it. There's a game called Amorphous+, which is extremely frustrating. The concept is great: with a top down view, you control a guy with a sword who has to kill blobs that kill you at the slightest touch and in annoyingly long and stupidly violent ways (I'm talking Family Guy style here -- folks, gross-out humour is OLD. GET OVER IT). Basically, one touch and you're dead. And the stages are LONG. So, all the time, you have to watch your back and be careful and follow your strategy tightly. But that's not all: the smallest deviation, one millisecond you lose, one thing you failed to see -- or worse -- a completely insane and stupid situation means you're dead, and you have to start ALL over again and play through the BORING, SLOW early stages in order to get to the hard part. What was the "incentive" to the player? Achievements. Yep, the most dishonest and lazy way to keep the players hooked. And I'm talking about illogical, time-wasting achievements, and even some that depend on "one-in-a-billion" situations that, in order to be reached, either the player was born when all planers in the Solar System were aligned, or he's sick enough to play for a billion years uninterrupted. Months later, a "clone", called Cell Warfare appeared. It has achievements, but WAY fewer and more logical ones. The gameplay is instantly recognisable, and this time, the player can take more than one hit before he dies, AND he recovers his health with power-ups. This means, FINALLY, the premise was made playable. And just to give you a hint: the toughest, hardest achievement on that game is equivalent to the LEAST Amorphous+ expects from the beginning players. Yep: beating the easiest level without being touched once is the "ultimate" achievement on Cell Warfare. Wonder why!

Amorphous+ was fun, but it was unforgiving. It didn't give you the space to grow and sharpen your skills: by having to go through the boring parts ALL the time, the player loses patience and interest, only to be mercilessly killed by the slightest, most subtle slip. It's not a rewarding game: you don't tell your skills are paying off, because the game just throws them out of the window at random times through the level. And so do many, MANY games. You know, I sometimes wonder if the game makers actually PLAY their own games. Maybe they get so attached to their "brainchild" that they somehow refuse to see its most gaping flaws, and disguise them as "challenge". But if a guy does that, he's not fit to be a game maker, an artist or anything. The guy must be able to look at his own efforts with a critical mind if he wants to go. A guy that gets stuck to his illusion of "perfection" in his works gets stuck. He doesn't evolve. And worse: he unleashes garbage into the unsuspecting world. Don't do that, people: if you make a game, play it like an actual player would. Revise your expectations. Be clear on what you want the game to demand from its players. Is it a skill-based game? Don't make it too random! DO keep the randomness, because it adds unpredictability and interest. But see, chance and luck should merely force the player to learn to adapt to new and surprising situations. The player should be compelled to explore all the possibilities and adapt quickly, change his strategy when needed, NOT to pray for his life and hope the game doesn't throw him into unavoidable death. Make the game fun.

And please, PLEASE. STOP THE TOWER DEFENCE GAMES. Really, there are billions of them already. The formula got old ages ago. Stop it.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

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

Yep, MORE than I probably should. This is a counterpart to the previous post. And today's "thing" is:

Where the Streets Have No Name, by Pet Shop Boys

YES, I said Pet Shop Boys, NOT U2. Even if you know Pet Shop Boys reasonably well, you might not know about this relatively obscure item in their discography. Yep, it's a cover of the U2 song -- and predictably, done in early-90's synthpop/disco style. But not only that: it's not just a cover, but an actual parody, and maybe even a mockery of U2's song. Just to give you a hint, it was the B side of the single How Can You Expect to Be Taken Seriously?, a song that comments on famous rock stars that use their exposure and fame to taken on "serious" acts, and how they can often believe they're far more important than they actually are and forget they're still mainly seen merely as rock stars. By putting the U2 cover on the B side, it becomes more than obvious who Neil Tennant was using as an image for his lyrics.

The cover basically wipes out every significant mark the original song had: instead of the magical, mystical chords coming from another dimension and the Egde's echoed guitar picking, you're slapped across the face straight away with a heavy disco beat; Tennant's vocals are absolutely detached and unemotional; and to top things off, the main hook of the song is rightfully mocked as Neil turns it into "Can't take my eyes out of you", and the song launches into the actual titular song. It's absolutely cynical, disrespectful, and of course, brilliant.

Now, I'm talking here as an actual admirer of U2. I'm greatly fond of the band and their music (well... at least until they released Achtung Baby), AND I really like the original song. My feelings about Bono's "political" stance are... mixed. I have never been able to determine how seriously he takes himself and his actions. There's little doubt he has the best of intentions, but hey, no one said you can't use your good intentions for second intentions (ha ha, ha ha, ha ha ha), and I definitely can't tell if he's really determined to make a difference and show it's possible to do good things for the people, or if he's just stuck with a Messiah complex and is trying to show how badass he is. But I'm not here to judge anyone. I wouldn't ever try to judge Bono, especially since I never even met him. But Tennant's criticism is very valid, in my opinion, more as an "alarm call" rather than an angry rant -- and even more because Pet Shop Boys is a REALLY badass band, that was able to stick in bitter, acid social critique into a music genre that's supposed to shut off people's brains and make them dance. Tennant is a guy who knows what he's talking about, and Pet Shop Boys is great and I like them. And their version of Go West is one of the best 90's songs ever, in my opinion, hands down.

Big Robot, Little Robot -- in depth, part 10


Phew, that's the last one!

The concept to this piece was one of the very first ones to hit me, and the very last one to be finished. I purposefully left the writing and recording of this song for last, because I figured it wouldn't be easy at all to make. I wasn't wrong. It wasn't hard, but it's a song that needed quite a bit of care and attention to detail. Writing solos is a bit of a problem I have. After all, it's not easy writing and programming something that should sound immediate and spontaneous. The notes you're laying down might not have the same effect as what you have on your head -- and with me, for some reason, sitting down and opening the piano roll seems to make the ideas vanish from my head. I can make pretty cool sounding solos in my head, but I can hardly cling on to those ideas. And since this song was about 70% a solo, things wouldn't be easy. But it was a challenge to myself.

I guess this is the song that most literally translates the character. Noisy has a trumpet for a noise and often carries a drum around, and even her voice is naturally loud and rough. So, you get the drift. The idea was pretty much the first thing that hit me: Noisy's drum playing immediately evoked a marching band, and from there, it was a matter of finding the the way of making the most noise with a few instruments. My first idea was to have only a guitar solo, but then, the ideas I was having for solos started to become more suited for a violin, so I decided to include both. The chord progression is a slight deviation from the more cliché C → B♭ → G progression, by making it into a C → Bdim → G. It sounds a little more grating and sort of grabs your attention more. The recipe for the song is very simple: you have the percussion, the bass, a piano and a guitar. The problem: how the heck would I create the sound of a marching band?

See, I had the sound of the snare drum, but it had to sound bigger, larger, like dozens of drums being played together. Same thing with the kick drum, which should be turned into a large bass drum. The solution was the application of a chorus effect, with a few tweaks to make it change slightly over time. This makes some snare hits sound "tighter", and others "looser". The bass drum also has a bit of chorus applied, and only the splash cymbal is "dry". Too much chorus would add an undesired "phasing" effect, so it needed a bit of balance. Also, there are two different snare sounds and two different kick sounds used at the same time.

Another problem with the percussion is that the snare drums shouldn't repeat themselves too much. So, pretty much every bar is different from the ones close to it. There are triplets, quintuplets, rolls and other things going on to keep things constantly fresh. The same problem also plagued the rhythm guitar -- and if you're curious, the rhythm guitar was the last part to be written in the entire album. It was a slow, boring process that took several sittings.

The instruments are added gradually, until the solos end, and then this massive ensemble kicks in with a melody with north-eastern Brazilian overtones. This wasn't the first time I used that kind of music as influence: Thunders uses it as a rhythm in certain places of the second half. The melody was pretty much made up on the spot, using a few motifs as "building blocks" for the larger thing. As for the instrumentation playing the melody, there's brasses (trumpet and trombone, as well as alto, tenor and baritone sax), guitar, violin and piano. I wanted it to really come from nowhere, and keep up the heat until the final crashing chord. Initially, I envisaged it erupting into sonic hell, a wash of loud noise which would be jarringly cut short -- but I ended up opting for a simple echo effect which took a few resonant frequencies and made them louder and louder over time. Then, it's abruptly sped down, and seguéd into Sporty. That's the way I liked it better.

So all's good: but what with that weird intro? Once again, I thought of kicking in with a haze of weird, unrecognisable noise, but the idea I had made things a little bit more welcoming. And there couldn't be anything more simple than that: it's all ten tracks played at the same time. First, played at very slow speed, then pushed up to normal speed, and then into ludicrous speed. The metallic "twannng!" is, once again, the endless echo. I REALLY went overboard with it, didn't I? But to make it fun, I added a really strange effect -- I don't even remember what it's called -- that transformed the boring metallic hum into something that almost sounds like something out of an early Residents album. It was pretty fun coming across that effect, because I hadn't even imagined it, and even if I had, I wouldn't have had any clue of how to produce it. I reached it by accident. Poof: there I got it. Cool. So, I played with the speed a little more, and laid the song over an echoed, twisted, slowed down snippet of all ten tracks playing at the same time at hyper-speed. Is that EXPERIMENTAL enough?? Nah, it's not really experimental. It's just weird, and fun. Like the whole album! Ha!

Finishing this song was a great relief to me, and it meant that, FINALLY, I could listen to the album that lived in my head for more than two years. What a thrill! Never, I repeat, never did I have such a fixed and clear vision of what I wanted, and never did I expect to get so close to it. I had gotten attached to the album even before I started doing it, and there I had it, before me. Complete. I was genuinely satisfied with myself, not because I thought I had made an "awesome" album, but because I had beaten all the challenges I had set myself. After that, I took a little break, and started working on my next album, which was ALREADY living in my head.

Also, a small curiosity: the album is exactly 42 minutes and 2 seconds long, and each side (i.e. tracks 1-5 and 6-10) are exactly 21 minutes and 1 second long. I managed to split it exactly in half, and that wasn't planned beforehand. It was just something I realised upon having all tracks recorded. I noticed I had gotten very close to having a perfect 50/50 division, so I tweaked the noise bits a little here and there and settled it. Of course I could have further reduced it to 42 minutes exactly, but there's a special charm to that extra second per side... yep, it's an idea taken from Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, in case you're wondering. What can I do? It was just too good to pass up, you know.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Big Robot, Little Robot -- in depth, part 9


I said below my modus operandi is to execute an idea no matter how boring it is to do. But that doesn't mean I can't replace those ideas with better ones!

This track is pretty much a record for me: between having the idea and finishing it, it took me less than two days. And I had kept this track for last because I thought it would be really long and boring to make!

I explain: Scary is this robot who wants to be scary. He isn't. He's an actor, and he's fond of playing creepy roles and frightening people, but he just can't do it. Doesn't mean he doesn't try, though. My idea initially was to make a song that wants to be creepy, but ends up being too goofy for it. So, my mind concocted a droning, rumbling song with a goofy, clumsy "pounding" beat to it. It would go up to 6 minutes, starting from the echoing sounds from the previous track (Stretchy -- remember the album is an endless loop, because I have to constantly say this to sound way more clever than I am), rising higher every time, staying fixed on a B minor chord, eventually crashing down into an F♯ chord, without ever making it clear whether it's minor or major. I liked this idea of tonal ambiguity, and here would be a great place to make it. So, yeah. Scary was going to be a five minute long drone.

Then, like I said on the Sparkies post, I had this strange idea to turn that track into a pseudo-classical piece for harpsichord and piano, and it morphed into a piece for piano. It was something like an "utopia", however, because I didn't think I was able to make it. But the ideas kept on appearing, you know? The starting point were the first few notes of the song, a melody built on diminished chords. I kept the idea safely stored in my head, and on the next day, I started writing it. I finished it on a single sitting. Something REALLY inspired me to kept doing it, and it was fun: it was something completely different from what I had ever done, it was tricky, but it was fun and sounded great. I just kept going.

The only material I had to use as "reference" were piano sonatas by Beethoven. I was listening to them quite a lot (especially my favourite, the sonata no. 21 in C major, "Waldstein"), and I tried to write the song in sonata form. Yep. Picture that. Of course, the piece itself has nothing to do with Beethoven (except maybe from the coda), but the structure was somewhat derived from it. The exposition presents the primary theme, in C minor, and later the secondary theme in D major. Yeah, that's quite radically far from the "convention" of making the secondary theme either in the dominant or subdominant of the first (or in my case, the relative major, E♭). One oddity is that there is a third theme that is not played when the exposition is repeated: instead, it breaks into that crazy ascending figure. Yeah, so there you have the first departure from "rigorous" sonata form. The development does the usual stuff of transposing the themes to other keys, changing them in some ways, and those pieces with insanely fast, random runs were a lighthearted parody of the "virtuoso" parts of classical pieces. The piece has loads of quintuplets (an idea taken from Frank Zappa) and other weird rhythmical twists. It was written chronological, with one part bouncing off the previous one. One of my favourite bits here is how the rising pattern crashes into the recapitulation, which has a slightly expanded version of the first theme. Another oddity is that it ends on D major, which has barely anything to do with the piece's key of C minor. A piece like that would end either on E♭ major or on C minor, but I don't care. I like it that way.

I really, really liked writing that song. In fact, I considered writing two other movements and turning it into an actual sonata, but I never got around to making it. I did have some ideas for a rondó, keeping up with the rhythm and tonality, but it's on hold. By the way, a friend of mine sent the song to a friend of his, a maestro, and sent me his comments. They were generally positive, with a few notes: he says the different parts of the song aren't well defined (which is a sort of stylistic choice of mine), and that it sounds more like a "piece for piano" rather than a "piece for pianist". While I wrote it, I tried to make something that WAS playable by a person, avoiding anything like twelve simultaneous notes, intervals too big for one hand and so on. But since my training in music theory is virtually zero, I dunno. It would take a score and a well trained pianist to tell me if it's playable. It's a dream of mine to see this piece played on an actual piano. I'd be delighted. I definitely can't play it, and I never even tried. But as it is, a synthesized sonata, I'm very fond of it and I love how strange it feels as an intro for the album. Listening to it, you can barely expect what's coming up next.

And the beginning? Well, those ARE the echoes from Stretchy, though I used more brutal and grating effects which caused that "infinite" trick. I actually didn't realise how loud it sounded, and how shocking it was to be placed at the very beginning of the album. But I can't imagine the album without it now. So, PLEASE, when you listen to the album, lower the volume! Thanks.

Big Robot, Little Robot -- in depth, part 8


Hold on there -- we're near the end.

This track, I believe, is the one that most radically breaks away from the "expected" representations of the characters. At the very, very early stages, I did consider making it into a stereotypically fast, bouncy and restless piece, laden with electronic sounds and everything. After all, that's pretty much what the character is. He sleeps on his feet, on a cartwheel -- and his "alarm clock" is activated by turning the cartwheel on at top speed and slamming him against a wall. He's the most slapstick character on the cartoon, though he's also temperamental and emotional. And, somewhere along the process, I came up with this "samba" melody. That's when the piece started more or less to take shape.

And I tell you: that is how my mind was working when I was doing the album. In no other time of my life would I ever have an idea for a samba, I tell you! I was coming up with all sorts of strange things, and this track was something of a challenge to myself: could I have the chops to pull off a samba song? How would it sound? But I knew I wouldn't start straight off into it, so I came up with that slow, ballad-esque intro, which is slightly reminiscent of the mood of Rusty. And, of course, the ending would finally launch into a more recognisable electronic robo-bop, the perfect cue for Tiny. Assembling those pieces in my mind wasn't hard, but then the challenge was to make it.

It was actually rather easy to write the samba part, and the only annoying bit was the piano. If you listen closely, the piano part never repeats itself, and it's constantly improvising. The other instruments are pretty much playing the same thing over and over. I felt really glad at how I could assemble the percussion part (there are a handful of instruments playing there, such as a tambourine, a cowbell, a surdo drum, and of course, more cowbell), at how the woodwinds are entwined, and at how the brasses rise from way below the mix when the A minor chord hits. The mixing was a bit problematic, though. This was the one moment when I had real trouble making the mix, because unlike the rest of the album, there are many different elements that need their specific space. Because the speakers I was using were quite bad, I don't think the mix is as good as it could have been. If you pump up the bass, though, it can get better.

The other parts were no big trouble. The chimes at the end were more interesting to write, because the "descending" effect at the end demanded a bit of caution. That bit is really the only part in the song that represents the most slapstick side of Sporty, by making it fast and clockwork but weird and puzzling. The trick is very simple: at every bit, the instruments are modulated down a semitone, and after a few bars it launches into all out atonality.

I like this track. I think it's a combination, once again, of elements that are very simple. The interesting thing comes from how they're combined with each other, and combined with the rest of the album. It stands out, you know? Besides, it's a bit subversive: samba was always meant to be groovy, loose, free of restraints, heavily syncopated and full of swing. Yet here, even though the rhythm is played "correctly", it's a lot stiffer and mechanical than usual. It's sort of "danceable but not much", a "my joints don't allow me to move as freely as I should, but I'm dancing anyway". It's robot samba. And, of course, with a very elusive intro: when it seems to be a "more of the same" thing, it deceives all expectations and launches into something quite different. You know that melody? Initially, I tried to make it so the notes would lead the listener expect those corny Hollywood clichés, but ending on something completely different. I'm not sure if the final product does that -- I ended up too involved with the melody to make it merely a joke, so there you have it.

Only two tracks remaining!

Friday, 6 February 2009

Big Robot, Little Robot -- in depth, part 7


How much more simple than this can you get?

One chord, one rhythm, one nine note motif, and chimes. In theory, it sounds banal, empty, dull. In practice, it sounds... um... well, I personally think the song sounds a lot better in practice than in theory. And, in fact, its position in the album is quite convenient, because it follows three rather non-trivial songs. So, it stands as a sort of small "oasis" of simplicity and charm. And, after all, that's pretty much what Tiny represents on the cartoon. It's true that, as the main character and only character present in every single episode, Tiny can be perhaps a little TOO perfect and nice. He usually has The Right Things to Say, but I wonder if we really can blame them. After all, Tiny's greatest disadvantage is exactly what his name indicates. Every day he struggles to switch on the Day and Night Machine, and the more physical tasks are almost always beyond his reach, However, he compensates it with his skills with tools (stored in his head, which works like a lid he can open and close with a button on his belly), building and mending, and of course, his smarts.

As industrious and diligent as he can be, though, the aspect of his personality that really grabs me is his joy of living -- the sheer delight he gets from looking at the robots' world and seeing everything is fine, and the pure happiness he feels by just being there. It's pretty much the child's outlook of the world: it's a nice place to live in! Even though there are problems to fix and issues to resolve, it's great to be a live! Tiny shows this very often, and I wanted to transport that into the song. Thus, I wanted something inherently simple, catchy, perhaps a little bit quirky, but absolutely obvious and down-to-Earth. If you observe, the tempo and rhythm of the song is the same as that of Stretchy, but there are no drums. Thus, you have the momentum, but not the mechanic repetition, the endless clockwork motion; it remains suspended, hovering, and the meandering pad synthesizers are meant to be just like that. The only thing that actually keeps the rhythm is the bass, always alternating between two notes.

The melody was a very early idea, and it was very easy to come up with. I started simply with the A → E interval, an absolutely trivial and cliché interval, moved to the fairly unexpected A → G♯ interval, and tried to build a motif that would lead back to the beginning and, OF COURSE, like a good prog rock influenced musician would do, break into a 7/8 measure and twist the rhythm around a bit. It was fairly easy to come by. And from there, the final, badly needed descent through the keys of G, F, E and D were only a natural conclusion, and keeping the melody always on the same key is what really creates that "motion" in it. Also, if you observe, there is a string ensemble that arrives near the ending, and though they follow the descending chords, the pad synths remain in A major. That's why you get that strange dissonance.

Now, believe me or not, the tricky part here were the chimes. Like I already complained here before, this is some of that annoying manual, repetitive and uncreative work that slows me down. After all, writing it was more like making a painting rather than making music. It was all a matter of putting in the notes in a way they'd create interesting harmonies without repeating notes too often, AND also increasing their frequency steadily until they'd be playing in every single beat by the end. It's sort of mathematical and geometrical thing, and frankly, not very fun to do. And the chimes you hear were the first and only attempt I made of it. Since it took me several days to complete all the instruments (a celesta, a harp, a glockenspiel, a vibraphone and a dulcimer), once I made them all, I never dared to touch them again and just left them alone. This had an ill effect, though: if you notice, JUST as the bass arrives, the chimes echo the flute. It seems perfectly timed and intentional, but it was accidental. I only noticed it after it was done, and was too bored to change it.

And the annoying thing is that, while those chimes appear in two other songs, in Tiny, they appear OVER THE ENTIRE SONG. What a boring thing to make. But yeah, that's my modus operandi: if I have an idea in my head, I WILL do it, no matter how much it bores me. I just think of the final result and get on with it. Tiny wasn't what I'd call a challenging song to write. But hearing the final product, I quite like it. For a song so simple, I think it works. And if you wanna know, my favourite part is the intro, which was made by gradually fading in four notes in slow succession: A, E, D and B. I have no idea what that chord is called (probably something ugly and bizarre like Aadd9sus11), but I think it's beautiful, and the way it is resolved when the B finally moves down to A has quite a soothing effect. I have always been fond of those humming, electronic drone sounds. They remind me of sounds I loved hearing as a child, like the fan spinning and slowly moving from side to side, or the electric dryer in the bathroom. I think the intro and the finale, in fact, are what really make the song. The "middle" portion is simply something organic which grows out of the pad notes and slowly evolves and develops and builds the tension for the finale. You know, that ending in D? It's sort of deceiving, isn't it? Not only does it leave a feeling of tension unresolved, but it slams you straight into Messy. Does it sound melancholy? Hopeful? Dreamy? Sad? AMBIGUITY! Haha! Emotions are not absolute! See? To me, personally, it's sort of gazing absent-mindedly into the distance, with a feeling of joy, but also of wonder, curiosity for the unknown. But if it sounds sad to some people, I won't think it's wrong. There are slightly sad undertones to Tiny's character, and if the song unintentionally reflects that, it only goes to show how much is much more exciting when people don't try to enforce their own interpretation into others. I don't think music has to be absolute, and Tiny is a good composition to express that. Listen with your own ears and enjoy!

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Big Robot, Little Robot -- in depth, part 6


Yeah, now we'll start some severe bouncing around. Messy is the only non-anthropomorphic character on the series that has a somewhat important role. As you must have predicted, he's a dog. He's pretty much the sort of dog you find in children's cartoons, only perhaps less clichéd. And the song, well... let's say I took a radical stance here. By associating that description with the track itself, it might even sound like I hate his guts and wanted to kill him. No, that's not the case. This time around, it was a purely musical decision, and the track came out like this to kill the sugar.

To give some background: many years ago, I started producing a musical piece to serve as a "tone poem" for a collaborative story written by a group of Simpsons fans, me included. One of the scenes was a creepy nightmare sequence, and my idea of representing that nightmare musically was to go completely haywire. The song sounded more or less like Messy does here, with high-pitched instruments clashing against each other in a complete atonal chaos. The idea is brought over here, but this time with a tinge of humour.

The instrumentation is similar to the "chimes" on Stripy, being formed mainly of glockenspiel, piano, dulcimer, celesta, harp and "tinkle bells". The most important thing when writing this track was keeping a balance, building tension steadily over its running length, and not creating much of an abrupt climax at the end. Once again, the notes are basically random, and the only care taken was not to keep the playing as non-harmonic as possible. This is a sort of joke, really: the idea behind "random" writing is that people are often bound to find patterns in things, like seeing images in TV static. And by writing completely at random, I wondered if it was possible that anyone could "analyse" the sound and find patterns and theories that I hadn't even dreamed of. And, believe me, people do that. You don't need to look too far to see people writing volumes about a piece by, say, Schoenberg, Ligeti, Varèse and so on and describe all its perfections, all its intricacies, all its complexity; and when you actually LISTEN to the piece in question, your final impression is pretty much "... ... is that IT?". To the "untrained ear", it might all just sound like random noise! And, frankly, I find it fairly silly that one would have to go through years and years of learning, training, studying and pain just to go back to that piece and go "oooooh, NOW I get it!", as in... if you should need so much time to "understand" music, then to Hell with music! The world is way too full of people who think only a selected, blessed few can truly understand music, and this puts them on the élite of the world. That's just pure garbage. Music should primarily entertain, and should be listened to with one's ears -- not with one's "education" and one's "skill". It's not a good thing that so many people "study" music in order to destroy it, to restrict it, to put barriers and limitations on what it can be.

I honestly don't think it "cheapens" the piece of music is the "common man" listens to it and finds it pleasant, or cool, or beautiful, even if he doesn't understand at all why THIS note should follow THAT note, and THIS note shouldn't be anywhere else other than HERE. Messy could have many of its notes shuffled around randomly, and it would still be the same song. People with actual musical training could produce pieces that are inherently more complex and better constructed than Messy, but I made my song so it could be enjoyed and be fun. If it reaches that goal, why should someone criticise it because THIS note is in the wrong place, or because there's no harmonic progression or no tricky modal twists and no display of vast knowledge of all the 20th century modern classical techniques? Of course, I spoiled the "joke" by spilling it all here, and however impossible it would be, I'd love seeing Messy being "studied" in that level. But nah, nobody should do that. There's music out there that deserves careful studying, due to the sheer talent and effort of people who have helped make music what it has been through all these centuries. There are people who are truly passionate about music, and if all that "knowledge" and "skill" is motivated by passion, then it's fully justified, I think, and people should keep it up.

(to be honest, though, I wonder if notable composers have ever done that kind of "joke" before me. MAN, would that be fun!)

The final piece to the "chaos" of Messy is the drum machine. It wasn't an "afterthought", but I did conceive that idea way after the outline of the song was fully formed. As obvious as it might be, those drums are pretty much an imitation/homage/parody of Autechre. There's no real "meaning" behind it; the basic deal is that it seemed pretty funny to me to counter all the "modernist" instrument noodling with a braindead, obvious house rhythm; and then, promptly subvert the joke with another joke, by making the rhythm follow the Confield route and sabotage itself along with the rest of the rhythms. The buzzing at the climax, my friends, is a "snare rush", formed by the snare sound being played at an insanely fast rate. Once again, it's sort of subverted, because snare rushes generally follow the rhythm, and are more "discernible" than that; instead, on Messy, the rush becomes simply a dull, annoying buzz. That's not a mockery or critique: I'm a massive admirer of Autechre, Aphex Twin, Squarepusher and the like. In fact, Autechre's music was very mind-opening to me, and to this day I'm a follower (Quaristice RULES, d00d!).

The tail end of the song was made by manipulating the speed and playing direction of the song, and then applying an "infinite echo" to the final milliseconds or so. An "infinite echo" is merely an echo with its equaliser tweaked to increase the volume after each iteration. This is an obvious subversion of echo, since the sound is amplified to the point of saturation, instead of faded towards silence. This trick is older than me, folks, I'm not inventing anything. The echo, however, is greatly sped up. If you apply the effect, what you get is a pulsating sound that becomes louder and louder until it becomes a barely recognisable, speaker-destroying drone that loops on and on for a while. Eventually, something goes haywire on the calculations and the echo turns into white noise, and eventually into absolute silence (I've never studied what causes this -- it might be a widely known effect). I sped up the effect, making the transition into white noise happen in a about less than a second. The noise, then, was looped, muted at semi-random spots, laden with reverb, and turned into the pulsating drone that segués into Sparkies. If you notice, the break between the tracks happens at a moment when the noise becomes almost inaudible. I made that so you could have a "break" between the sides of the record at that exact spot, and yet have a smooth segué when played straight through.

Big Robot, Little Robot -- in depth, part 5


Ooo, I like this one!

So, Stretchy, the little robot. He's obsessed with work. His job is to stay in the junkyard, receiving the junk that arrives through the chute, sorting and organising everything. Everything. His obsession with his job has been in focus in a couple of episodes, and in one point, it injured him: since his neck is extendable and articulate (i.e. "stretchy"), an overload of work caused him to tie his own neck into a knot. So, yeah, picture that.

The song itself was one of the simplest concepts I could come up with. Basically, I wanted to make a slightly more direct connection between the album's concept of "robot" with the popular concept of "robot", and Stretchy bridged that gap. And the more obvious and simple way of doing that with music was to make a Kraftwerk parody. After all, they are the robots, innit? The iconic cover of Die Mensch-Machine and the image they created with it is unforgettable, and to me, it seemed inevitable to use that motif to represent a workaholic robot. The title track of Kraftwerk's album makes reference to the "Man Machine", the result of human beings turning (literally or metaphorically) into robots. By subverting it a bit, I could toy with the idea of an actual robot being somewhat stuck between his nature and the more humane attitude of his peers. So, presto: all I needed was a "blip-a-blip-a-blip" synth tone and a rhythm track that would be strikingly reminiscent of Die Mensch-Machine, but not exaggerately similar -- and from there, I'd build the joke, by using a completely random melody dabbling into microtonality, that is, notes "in between" the interval of two semitones (this makes the notes sound like either the result of a very complex and unintuitive algorithm, or like a friendly machine being playful, OR like a malfuncioning microchip). The rhythm would also morph from the ominous slow drone into the usual playful, upbeat mechanical robo-bop.

And THAT explains why Rusty would have had an extended ending with a synth solo -- together with Stretchy, it would have formed a massive Kraftwerk homage, by parodying Neon Lights AND The Man Machine. Eventually I gave up that idea, because it would have been a bit too overbearing and overlong. So, I came up with an even better idea: to incorporate the "waltz" orchestra INTO Stretchy. And, to me, that's what truly makes the song.

Stretchy was the first track I recorded which makes use of that 2/4 rhythm, which would also show up in a few other tracks. It's a very braindead thing, with just a few electronic percussion sounds, and an octave-bouncing bass. It's interesting how that same rhythm could be used to express something dull and lifeless, and yet here, there's an air of playfullness to it. Though I have to say, the song probably WOULD have been fairly lifeless if not for the orchestra. I really like the sound of it, but the orchestra in the end really makes it come alive and round off the album nicely.

The echoes at the end were produced by several tracks with slightly different echo effects applied. Some of the echoes fade out faster than others, some of them emphasize certain frequencies thus "changing" the sound as it goes, and some of them are slightly off-beat from the others. Most of those sounds are snippets of MIDI percussion samples, sometimes manipulated. Originally, these echoes would last a long longer and "wrap" into the next (i.e. first) track for far longer than that. The idea to cut off with a grating, unexpected noise was one of the oldest things here, and in fact was what truly completed the "concept" of the album, by making it not merely "circular", but inherently looped and locked. Even though I have already got myself used to the "two sides" thing, with openers and closers, I imagined the album as not having a definite beginning and ending, and that the listener could freely choose where to start playing and where to stop playing. So, yeah, folks: the last track DOES segué flawlessly into the first. Try it.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Big Robot, Little Robot -- in depth, part 4


Okay, I gotta be open and frank about this: I LOVE Rusty. She has always been my favourite character on Little Robots, and one of the TV characters I love watching the most. So, yeah. Rusty is a cute robot with her body shaped like a red dress (sort of like Lisa Simpson, but nifty) and who wears a funnel as a hat. Her appearance hints that she's an old and possibly obsolete model, since, like her name indicates, she looks sort of battered, and she overheats when under pressure -- i.e. often. Her jumpy and impulsive attitude often sends her into fits of near panic, and she blows steam off her head -- and in at least one occasion, only didn't overheat because Tiny fixed her up on time. This is not her most interesting aspect, though, in my opinion: her personality is somewhat frail, but always smart and full of good intent. She tries to be helpful whenever she can. She also likes decorating her house with items gathered from the junkyard, and has a crush on Sporty.

And my bias kicked in when I decided to focus Rusty's song not on her steam blowing attitude, but on her sweeter side instead. In fact, the song would focus on her "comic relief" side a bit more, but I don't think the result would have been as good. See, Rusty would have started right off the heels of Stripy, with the chimes modulating from A major down to G major, without the complete fade out of the other instruments, and it would lead directly into the piano and synths part. It would have been sort of a post rock tour de force, which would eventually break up the grandiose finale with an upbeat, boppy, long-winded synthesizer solo in A major with a steady, mechanical beat.

Things changed when, eventually, this waltz melody grew in my brain. I swear to goodness, I don't know where that came from. I think I was mentally fiddling with silly ideas and other things, and then I started to create this cute little thing. And I even wondered I was only unconsciously copying from some place else. But I guess I wasn't. I was out on the street when that happened, and I realised the little waltz would be PERFECT for Rusty. So, I had the idea to stick it in the beginning, kicking in from the chimes, and then leading into the "ballad" part. I didn't know if it would sound good or not, but in fact, I got quite satisfied with the result. It's a really, really simple thing: just your usual "rrum-pah-pah" rhythm accented initially by a piano, and with the main melody on flute. Later on, a brass band joins in, and the melody is taken over by a pair of oboes an a pair of clarinets, as well as an acoustic bass. I think what makes it works is the damn unexpectedness of it. A WALTZ? And it's not even a classical, Strauss-like waltz -- it's downright fairground-like! It's childlike, and naïve, JUST like the character I was representing. It was the right idea to present something different, unusual, and endearing.

The rest of the song would follow, with the usual Stripy-like piano and guitar this time used with a thick layer of synthetic pads and a melody for oboe. The twist into the part with the loud guitar is simply me being a Mogwai fanboy. I realised those dynamic twists were a quite cool way of creating tension in a way to grab attention in a sweet, but not corny way. I didn't want melodrama: I wanted a sort of "LISTEN TO ME, please" plead. I didn't really change the instrumentation too radically to achieve that: I just added the distorted guitar, changed the guitars from picking into strumming, and put banging chords on the piano. Presto: instant climax!... in fact, that piece sounds maybe a little more Sigur Rós-like than Mogwai-like. The oboe has a bit of Jón Þor Birgisson to it, now that I think of it. Well, both bands are wonderful. Maybe I was drinking from Sigur Rós's fountain thinking it was Mogwai's, but then, who cares?

Eventually, I decided to ditch the "boppy" part of the song. Partly because I felt the song was getting too long, and the solo bit would be too short and ineffective. And also because I thought the waltz worked so well, it would be a waste to use it only once. So, reprised it, using the same electric bass sound used previously, and adding a string ensemble playing staccato chords along. I really like that bit. And I think the waltz adds a necessary air of spontaneity and imagination to the piece, because to be quite frank, the middle portion was an absolutely "constructed" affair. THAT one was really a matter of fitting the right notes to the right chords -- right down to modulating from D major to E major with a weird twist of F major, right down to the key signatures and to the melody lines, and only the chord changes in the finale were chosen a little bit arbitrarily. In a way, I had to solve a sort of "puzzle", which was to build gradually from D major up to the 'D♯ → G♯ → A' interrupted climax. Even still, I think it's a really good track, I'm proud of it -- even though it's not my favourite song here (I can't name a favourite!!), in spite of it representing my favourite character. To me, it stands as an example that beauty is not exclusively a product of "inspiration". Making good music takes hard work, takes thinking, considering, experimenting and changing, trying again, thinking more, experimenting more and trying and trying again. It's not "whooop! Wow, I JUST got this idea to the greatest song ever oh dear it's beautiful and it's here, now, it's done!". It doesn't work like that. You don't need to be "enlightened" to write good music: you just need to keep trying. And I'm still trying.

Oh, really, screw that "humbleness" schtick. I hate hypocritical humbleness. Look, I've got a critical mind of my own to look at my own music and tell what I think is good and what I think is bad. I wrote a load of garbage in my life, and I think I've learnt enough with it to tell honestly that I think Rusty is a good song. It works a lot better on the context of the album (just like pretty much every other track!), so I wouldn't count it as a possible "hit". It doesn't deserve to be a hit: it's just a cute tune in an album. Listen to it. NOW.

Big Robot, Little Robot -- in depth, part 3


I've always been a bit miffed by the question of "emotion" in music, because I've been more and more convinced that emotion cannot reside in the music. Emotion arises from how people interpret sounds and music, and in theory, this interpretation is entirely subjective. However, possibly evolutive and adaptative issues, as well as social tendencies, lead people to associate certain melodies and harmonies with certain emotions. This means that when it comes to film scores, for example, people are being "manipulated" by people who have vast knowledge on how music can affect emotions. But that eventually means that music, as a form of art, is being restricted, by turning it into a language: with grammar, syntax, semantics and everything else. This is why I've become extremely cautious with the intentional use of "emotion" in music. I think it's a little discomforting to use music as a means of communication and expression, because in the end, nothing guarantees that people will get exactly what you mean; and on the other side, nothing guarantees that the music is an exact representation of its artist. After all, we're not in a shortage of people using music to acquire sympathy and affection they don't deserve and wouldn't get any other way: isn't that what Emo has become?

Stripy, as a song, sticks out like a sore thumb from the album so far. Like Spotty, it was intended to represent the character's personality somewhat accurately, but also vaguely. I'm of course biased to say that, but I'm not able to pin down one EXACT mood for each portion of the song. Even though minor chords are generally preferred to express sadness and melancholia, Stripy is entirely in the keys of A major and E major; and yet, some bits seem to betray a tinge of solitude, a tinge of pessimism, a sparkle of positivity, a bit of naïvety and so on. As I was writing the song, I intentionally kept myself away from trying to emphasize specific parts of his personality, and was mainly guided by my impression of the character as a whole -- which can be different from the impression other people have, and that's exactly the effect I tried to create here. In other words: your milleage may vary.

Stripy, the little robot, has a big, blocky, angular build, but his personality is better represented by the colourful stripes that form his body. He's imaginative, thoughtful and introspective, but his slow movements and low tone of voice give him a clumsy, clunky appearance, which end up making his true essence a sort of "hidden treasure". Stripy knows he has a lot to show, but is often unable to do so; this results in the other characters sometimes ignoring him, but other times being positively surprised by him. His most trustful companion is Teddy, a metallic teddy bear, that he talks to and takes care of, just like his garden of flowers. With the song, I tried not to be excessively "sympathetic" and corny to him, but I tried to hide a sort of poignant beauty, and contrast them with lonely, drawn-out passages devoid of melody, awkward chord changes and radical dynamic contrasts.

The song was born out of the piano line at the start, with the guitar parts and the clarinet melody almost growing naturally out of it. The "chorus" is built around the acoustic guitar line, and from then on, the song practically wrote itself. The passage with the clarinet solo was made to be intentionally confusing, with the time signature varying wildly and the chords being almost arbitrary, and I tried to make the clarinet solo not perfectly synched with the rest of the band. So yes, folks, I'm being quite frank: there's nothing "complex" in that passage, there's no underlying theory, and any sort of surprising conclusions reached with analysis of the chords and rhythmic twists will be accidental. I made up that part as I went, using only my ears and my sense of beauty to guide it. If you listen closely, I've only used major chords, and no complex modal tricks are used. The most tricky thing are the augmented chords that lead to that part, which ended up sounding a lot more dissonant than I expected, and thus a lot more satisfying.

The next parts were pretty much isolated ideas. The chimes are a combination of glockenspiel, harp, celesta and vibraphone MIDI patches, and they were supposed to represent Teddy, Stripy's companion, as well as the more childlike and positive vision of the world around him. And contrasting with it, the clarinet solo part is repeated, sans clarinet, and with a loud distorted guitar borrowed directly from Mogwai. One "accidental" thing happened here, when I was mixing the part, and felt the lack of something to smooth down the roughness of the guitars. I ended up sketching an "improvised" pad part that's somewhat buried on the mix, but that gave a very beautiful result. Myself, I was very surprised with how well it turned out to be, considering it was something sketched on the spot.

The ending of the song leaves only the chimes, that end up in a sort of circular figure. The chimes modulate from B major to A major, and originally, they'd modulate again to G major and segué into the next song. But then, things changed, for the better. Overall, Stripy is one song I'm quite fond of. As much as it's deceivingly simple and cobbled together, the finished product is pleasant and touching to me. Somehow, I feel I achieved just the result I wanted. Oh, and of course: that slow, tangled fabric of piano and guitars ended up becoming something of a personal cliché of mine. And the chimes would become a "leitmotif" for the album, but that's for later!

Big Robot, Little Robot -- in depth, part 2


Spotty is, on her own words, "large and round and covered in spots". She's a robot with a strong attitude, likes being in control, and has the ability to retract her limbs and roll around for fast locomotion. On the album, I decided to emphasize her character with this pounding, spherical rhythm, sprinkled with "spots" of sound. The puzzle was how to create that. The melody problem was solved very quickly: it turned out to be a perfect opportunity to recycle a very old reggae melody, written in 1999 or so, which I always liked but wasn't able to use adequately. A reggae tune was pretty much a perfect fit, and I just needed to find the right arrangement.

The ingredients used to concoct that arrangement were, firstly, a "bopping" staccato synthesized chord, with a phasing effect applied to give it a sense of motion of sorts. The second piece was a loop of hi-hat like sounds played at the same rhythm, with a bit of syncopation added to give it a certain "jitter", or something. Finally, the "pound" of the sound is a brutally banal drum rhythm played backwards. Throwing in a stupidly simple reggae rhythm (staccato guitar, organ chord and a two-note bass) and the main melody played on a sawtooth synth, the song's ready. You don't need to listen to it closely to see how simple it is. That was, in fact, one of the big steps I took to understand how important it is to give the sound an interesting shape. Even though those first two minutes or so sound absolutely mechanical, with all the instruments playing in near-perfect sync, the little effects add a certain roundness to it, and a hint of something tricky going on. But in the end, it's very simple stuff.

Of course, halfway through, the song sort of "comes alive", with drums playing on the right direction, a guitar riff also lifted from the 1999 song, and finally a synth solo that breaks the song free from the same two chords and leads it into a crazy direction. The chords were chosen almost arbitrarily, and the synth plays entirely on whole tone scales. All in the name of quirkiness. Personally, I think the track as a whole is quite effective. Even though it's a bit "buried" under the lengthier, heavier songs, it sums up the spirit of the album as a whole in but three minutes. The quirky mood, the crinkly mechanical sounds, the lighthearted melody and the simple arrangement aren't supposed to be a "break" from the heavier stuff, but actually the "rule" that some of the tracks deviate from -- and the deviation happens soon afterwards.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Big Robot, Little Robot -- in depth, part 1


We're starting with this song because it was the starting point for the album's recording. It started here because it was the opening of side B, and it didn't have a direct link to the previous track. The same was true for Scary, but I figured that one would take much longer to write and record.

This track, as odd as it may seem, has one of the strongest links with its corresponding character on the Little Robots cartoon. The Sparky Twins are these two sisters who look pretty much identical and whose preferred activity is to cause mischief. What greatly helps their plans is their ability to silently communicated through antennae on their heads, represented to us by crackling, visible lightning connecting them. The idea, thus, was to make a "twin song", which would be a very simple arrangement which would be played by different instruments, at the same time, on each speaker (that's why it's indexed as tracks 6/7 on the album's official page).

Musically, however, the link is not too strong. I decided on having this electronic "improvisation" with two synthesizer parts, doubled with slightly different synthesized sounds. It's entirely on Phrygrian G -- that means, it's played with the same notes that form the Eb Major scale, but it's rooted on G instead. This gives the song a faintly ominous feeling; and adding to that, I always envisioned the song to be slowly swallowed by a sort of haze; windy, spiralling waves of sound that I was unsure on how to do. The final piece of the puzzle were slices of noise of different kinds, which would form a dialogue between the two channels. So, the bits that ping-pong around your ears represent the Sparkies communicating. Clever, huh? The noises were created mostly with manipulation of different "colours" of noise, either by changing the speed or saturating them, and applying the same ideas to little bits of other songs. It was a quite slow process, actually, and it was important to find the balance to slowly increase their intensity until, by the end of the track, the noise would be constant.

The "haze" of sound was created with two layers of noise. The first of them was a copy of the track itself (sans noise dialogue) with a heavy dose of reverb, and then amplified until it saturated. This created a distorted "echo" of the song, which was buried under the mix and surfaced at the right points. The second layer was far more interesting: it was another noiseless copy of the song, played backwards, with a heavy dose of echo applied (which emphasised the lower frequencies and made them echo very quickly over a LONG period of time). The speed of the track was then heavily distorted, making the eerie "up and down" humming drone, with occasional hints of the melody line. This was also placed low on the mix and occasionally pumped up. Eventually, that track takes over when the instruments fade out. The cool thing is that the echo effect accidentally caused a VERY strange feedback-like effect at the end, which I decided to use as the segué with the following track. So, yeah, that sound was produced by accident, just like a lot of cool things in life.

The final detail is that, on the final months of recording, I had the passing idea to radically transform the song into a piece for piano and harpsichord. I'd make it into a jaunty, mischievous, atonal piece to be played by the piano in one channel and on the harpsichord on the other. But eventually that idea morphed into something else, and Sparkies remained to be what it is now. In my opinion it's not a standout song, but it gave the start to the whole process -- and in that sense, it was extremely important. Thank you, Sparky Twins!