Thursday, 5 February 2009

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.

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