Archive for ‘Music’

July 29, 2012

Beyond the Infinite – A review of the Moog Guitar

by George

Infinite.  The definition of this word is one we all know, but how can we possibly understand it.  Nothing we’ve ever known or experienced in our lives has been never-ending. Until now…

Behold…the Moog Guitar.  Moog?  Guitar?

Known for their massively influential (and sometimes monolithic) synthesizers, Moog have been at the forefront of sonic exploration for decades.  In addition to creating the most imitated and desirable monophonic synthesizer of all time, the Minimoog, one of Bob Moog’s greatest achievements was the creation of the Ladder Filter.  You’ll see why this is important in a minute but for more info on what this nifty circuit does read this.  Needless to say, when Moog announced plans for a guitar, many people were interested.

That was in 2008.  Now, four years later, not much more is known about this elusive instrument and they’re rare (if not impossible) to find in most music shops.  Most musicians I talk with aren’t even aware of it’s existence, let alone know exactly how it’s capable of being used.  With that, we begin our tour of this other-worldly instrument.

By appearance alone, there’s not much to indicate that this instrument possesses any magical powers beyond those of a standard electric guitar.  A ‘super Strat’ style body dressed up nicely with a flamed maple top on a swamp ash body, the only thing that strikes you as odd are the cluster of knobs and switches that dominate the lower curve of the body.  Two pickups, set neck construction, a Fender-style dive-only tremolo bridge, locking tuning machines and a clean, inlay-free (save the cryptic, circular logo at the 12th fret) rosewood fretboard…all features found on a number of guitars today.  Then the paths diverge; where you would expect to find a standard 1/4″ output jack is an XLR output, a connection commonly found on microphones, not guitars.  Curiouser and curiouser.  Following this cable leads to a junction with an expression pedal and on the opposite side of the pedal is the 1/4″ output you were expecting.  From here you feed out to the amplifier and things are starting to feel sane again.  Plugged in, you turn the amp off of Standby.

At first listen, it sounds like a standard electric guitar.  The proprietary pickups are akin to a fat single coil, or perhaps a P-90.  Not the most powerful or clear pickups, but they hold a decent amount of harmonic content.  Running through the pickup selector yields some interesting tonal variations; neck, in phase, out of phase and bridge only.  The 5th position in the selector engages the piezo pickups housed in the bridge saddles; percussive, chimey and bright, the sound brings to mind an amplified acoustic guitar.  A control on the guitar allows for a continuous blend of the piezo and magnetic pickups letting you mix the clarity of the piezos with the warmth of the magnetic pickups.

But below the pickup selector is a second three-way switch.  You didn’t really notice it yet because it’s function is coupled with the gold knob below the master volume knob and it’s turned down.  Turn it all the way up and suddenly the guitar is crackling with electricity; it comes alive!  The strings begin vibrating…on their own.  The entire guitar is steadily vibrating but you haven’t even touched pick or fingers to string.  What separates this guitar from a standard electric suddenly becomes clear even though you aren’t quite sure what is happening.  Those proprietary pickups have the ability of controlling a magnetic field that envelops and dictates the amount and type or vibration of the strings.  That gold knob controls the intensity of the magnetic field and the three-way controls the mode of control.

That first mode is Full Sustain, meaning that all six strings are being simultaneously driven by the magnetic fields and vibrate as if being played by some unseen force.  You hit a chord, it swells to an almost overbearing volume and the feeling is completely intoxicating.  As you hold the chord, it sustains and morphs, naturally, shifting overtones and harmonics.  This can be controlled with the expression pedal; heel to toe, the control moves from the bridge to neck pickup creating a pointed, aggressive harmonic crown that blends into a deep, airy and open halo centered around the notes being played.  Polyphonic sustain that is completely natural (i.e. the strings are physically being moved without end) and yet feels anything but.  Adjusting the amount of sustain allows for chords that have a volume pedal swell effect.   Using the tremolo bar to quickly dive before each chord change supplies enough vibration for amplification and the breath-like pulse from chord to chord leaves you baffled.  Techniques you had never even considered before allow you passage to harmonic destinations previously unknown.

The second position of the three-way is Controlled Sustain.  Not only are these pickups powerful enough to physically move the strings, but they’re intelligent enough to simultaneously mute strings that aren’t being played.  Infinite legato is literally at your fingertips and single-note runs take on a pedal steel feel, swelling into each note before growing to epic proportions only to dissolve gracefully once the next note is played and the cycle begins again.  With a nice delay effect unit you can manifest sounds and progressions that bring to mind the majestic ballad of a migrating whale or a spacious, repeated message to the heavens…a cosmic psalm.

You slide the three-way to the final position and something is drastically different.  All the power you held beneath your fingers is gone.  Not only has your new found power of sustain vanished, but it’s been reversed.  This is Mute Mode and it’s Biblical; where before the guitar giveth sustain it now taketh away.  The same forces that kept the strings vibrating in the previous two modes now are used to stop any string played from vibrating for more than a few seconds.  The sound…synthesizer? No.  Mandolin?  Not really.  Banjo? Kinda.  Sitar?  Sure.  More than the sound, the feeling is incredible.  If you pay attention, you can feel the string vibration die, again, as if guided by a supernatural force.  Finger-picked arpeggios and quick chord comping play to this mode’s strengths.

But that’s just half the story.  Dial back the gold knob controlling the magnetic mayhem and there’s still that 3-pole switch.  It’s been in the bottom position, where it functions like a regular tone knob on a guitar, the whole time but you flick it up to the middle.  Even before you play you hear something like a hiss.  Rocking the expression pedal and you hear this hiss build until it’s gone.

What you were hearing is the built-in Ladder Filter sweeping across it’s frequency range.  Yes, the same low pass filter made famous in the synthesizers of the 70s is an integral part of this guitar.  In this mode, the Articulated Filter mode, the envelope cutoff frequency of the filter is set by the position of the expression pedal and triggered by the on-board envelope.  The filter envelope is directly proportional to the signal output of the guitar meaning that the harder you pick, the further the filter “opens”.  The result is a low-pass, wah-like tonal accent that brings to mind the Mutron-inflected lead tones of Jerry Garcia or Frank Zappa.

The last postion of the 3-pole switch is a manual Ladder Filter mode where the expression pedal controls the sweep of the cutoff.  It operates even more like a wah, but sounds like something far more futuristic and covers a much wider range of frequencies.  Where a wah is a moving bandpass filter (meaning that it accents a set range of frequencies ‘up and down’ the spectrum) the low pass filter, at it’s heel setting, allows only low frequencies through.  As you rock the pedal forward, more frequencies are allowed through until, at its fullest, the full spectrum of frequencies coming out of the guitar can be heard.  It’s a sound that has much more sonic content to it and, as a result, feels much more alive and far less honky.

After all this, you don’t really know how to explain what just happened.  Your mind accelerates as you create mental notes about what you now may be capable of…the promise of the unknown.  You’re not sure what to do with this guitar but you’re thrilled by the possibilities.

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October 15, 2011

“…the power of inducing fantastic images.”

by George

One area we’ve ventured towards in previous postings but never really entered into is the impact of effect units on electric musicians and the music they create.  Since the first fuzz boxes & treble boosters of the 50s & 60s through the monolithic rack units of the 80s to the analog renaissance/guitar processor era of today, musicians have been using effects to tailor their sounds and elevate them above the physical constraints of wood, pickups and vacuum tubes and into sounds that had never been heard before.  The growth and expansion of these effects in all forms of music has led to the formation of an army of electronic (and a few adventurous acoustic) musicians seeking new tones and stepping through new gateways into worlds unknown.  For theirs is a wonderland of sonic exploration; a world where the impossible is possible.  Sounds great, huh?  Well it is…for those adventurous enough to open their mind and step out into the brave new world before them.

Inserting one of these devices between your sound source (be it a guitar, bass, synthesizer) and amplifier, adjusting a series of controls, knobs, sliders, buttons then stomping on a bypass button unleashes the power contained by the circuit/chip within.  In a way, it’s like stepping on the accelerator of a majestic transport that travels to the depths of your creative mind.  It can have all the impact of a black hole collapsing, sucking you in to the epicenter of the sonic transformation.  While some nuances are revealed, others are dampened.  When things go awry it’s as though Pandora’s Box has been opened, that ancient seal that held back terrifying evils broken.  Effects units (pedals, processors, whatever the device) transform the sound of an instrument into something beyond it’s natural form, restraints and capabilities and give the player a new perspective on the sonic potential.

In most instances, these effect pedals are attempts to instantly recreate certain physical or mechanical manipulations of sound or recorded audio.  A flange unit emulates the effect of slowing down and speeding up a recording tape head that, when played in unison with a second identical recording playing back at standard speed, conjures up the mighty rumble and whoosh of a 747 jet engine passing over head (flange was actually created by a studio engineer during the recording of a Beatles record and named by John Lennon).  Even the first fuzz box was designed to simulate a ripped and torn speaker, one push well beyond it’s limits until it could not physically withstand sound.  With a reverb unit, you can trick the listener into thinking that you’re a mighty sorcerer; one able to magically transported yourself from a small room to the Grand Canyon, then to the far depths of space and back, all while not missing a note of your melody.  Some devices extend the range of the instrument (pitchshifters, octavers) turning a single guitar into an wall of polyphonic might, while others increase it’s output to prodigious size and imbue it with aggressive harmonic overtones (distortions, overdrives, fuzzes).  Some are capable of distorting the fabric of time, creating fantastic and cosmic sounds from the far reaches of the universe (delays, echo units and choruses) while others still have the power of reducing and separating and recombining certain frequencies from the sonic spectrum, controlling sound in ways not possible without electronic wizardry (phasers, filters, envelopes).  Using more than one of these simultaneously can have a hypnotic effect, entrancing the listener with otherworldly sounds own heard in their mind’s ear.

Amid the vast myriad of these devices there can be seen two distinct classifications, regardless of the effect type, analog and digital, and many players have a strong preference for one or the other.  Analog devices are named as such because, to quote the great Bob Moog, “the way the electricity vibrates in the circuit is analogous to the way sound vibrates in an acoustic instrument.”  He goes on to compare analog electronics to light, saying “When we look at sunlight or the light from and incandescent bulb, we get a continuous spectrum of colors and, to our eyes, this seems very natural”, something that most would agree with, especially when compared to a fluorescent bulb. And because each has a unique mix and arrangement of individual components within, no two pedals (even of the same brand) are identical.  Human error and imperfection in the manufacturing defines these devices and analog fans can swear that the NOS germanium transistors in their fuzz pedals or the bucket-brigade devices in their delays have magical, almost god-like, properties.  This can be especially evident on reissues of classic fuzzes, etc. from decades past, as manufacturing processes have become far more regulated and consistent in recent years.  Although an old schematic may say that a 500 Mohm resistor was used, the actual value of the component put in place in 1972 may have been +/- 15%.

Digital devices sample the electrical waveform that would pass through a similar analog circuit, taking measurements and describing that waveform along certain points and at a certain rate, then adding them up to form a model resembling the original electrical signal.  The more samples, the more ‘realistic’ the sound and the lines between real and digital get blurred more and more with all the advances in computer processors and their use in audio applications.  Digital systems not only offer lower production costs vs. analog gear, they are also far more reliable (more resistant to changes in temperature than analog components) but they are also capable of being almost identical across multiple production batches.  Digital devices live or die based on the robustness of their sacred code, or algorithm, that is ‘taught’ to them before they leave the digital nursery.  These algorithm-driven megamachines allow us to process sound in ways not even possible through the use of analog circuitry, transcending the known and carrying the sonic explorer into another dimension.

Some players stand firmly on the warm, natural analog side, while others pledge their allegiance to the efficient and versatile digital contingent.  The smartest sonic architects have the wisdom and experience to know when each variant is best suited to their particular challenge or work.  Only experimentation and a willingness to extend out into the unknown can yield this knowledge.

The question (or argument) then becomes, does the creative potential lie within the hardware or the human?  Are these powerful tools the creative source or just the catalyst?  Could a painter create a masterpiece with only 2 colors?  A carpenter build a barrister bookcase with a pocket knife?  Or a driver win Le Mans with a Prius?  It’s true that having more options enables greater possibilities and opens up options that weren’t there before.  But at the same time, I could not accomplish either of these feats even if given a palette of unlimited colors, a workshop of tools or the most nimble sports car.  These powerful and unique tools are only utilized to their full potential in the hands of an experienced master.

pedalboard of J. Mascis

Pedal board of the great J. Mascis
September 11, 2011

Electricity shall be passed through your body

by George

We are electric beings.  We rarely think of ourselves and our natural state as being such, but the human body is a complex organization and execution of chemical reactions and electrical impulses all timed for optimal operation of our muscles, organs and tissues.  This is the natural way of all living things.  Yet when it comes to the creation of sound, one might think the opposite; that the most natural tones arise from acoustic instruments, ones made of wood and steel that resound un-amplified.

While it’s true that it’s hard to duplicate the simplicity and honesty, if you will, of an acoustic instrument like a piano or cello, there’s something equally beautiful about an electric, amplified instrument.  It’s a marvelous fusion of Earthly and synthetic materials; soul and science.  A leap into the unknown where emotion, both positive and negative, is amplified to extremes.  Volume, sustain, feedback.  Creation of sound beyond simple natural resonance and reverberation is possible with the institution of these tools.  Starting with a simple tone from a plucked string and bending that pitch upward across the stratum of textures found within the power section of a tube amplifier transforms a simple, stagnant soundwave into a complex downpour of sonic rain.   An exhalation and the subsequent inward breath, releasing tension and giving life to sound.

Taking those frequencies and natural overtones and embellishing them with electric sorcery in the form of effect processors, tone circuits and pedals elevates the sound to a new dimension, giving it lift and allowing it to escape the narrow confines of sonic reality in the world we know.  Molding and redefining the natural sound of an instrument through analog manipultation of electricity.  When you take something like a pure tone or waveform and push it past its intended harmonic content or filter it down to a fraction of its former self you start to focus in on the subtleties that really resonate with the listener.  That one particular pitch modulation or texture that imbues a musical piece or passage with a complexity that stimulates both the soul and the mind.

Another particularly powerful aspect of electric instruments is the sheer force and attention that they command by way of volume.  Amplification taken to the extreme imparts its own inherent qualities to sound.  So much so that it can cause intense (both pain and pleasure) and sometimes violent reactions from its subjects.  We literally begin to resonate with certain frequencies and at the same time are more immediately aware of those that conflict or are out of sync with our physiology.  The amplifier, speakers and even the venue itself becomes as much an instrument as the one in the hands of the musician.

We stand at the edge of a bold, electric landscape, waiting to behold the sonic architecture of the future.  A brave new world with nearly infinite possibilities for creativity and limitless sonic potential.

March 10, 2011

What’s the point?

by George

Let me begin by apologizing…to everyone.  Especially anyone who reads past this word.

Not long ago, I was walking around the racks at my favorite record store in Nashville, just perusing the aisles looking for a few of the albums on the seemingly never-ending list I keep on my phone, when I overheard some other patrons of the store talking.  They too were in search of some music, but their presence in the store alone was intriguing.

Here’s the part where you think I’m a judgmental ass, but they are not the point…typically I wouldn’t peg an early/mid twenties woman who wears fur boots with a mini skirt and is a tiny-dog-in-her-purse away from being the next celebrity look-alike we ALL care so much about ( just watch any/all new channels) to be the kind of person that you’d find looking for music in an actual record store (iTunes maybe)…let alone a trio of these women…let alone an independend record store…let alone in the vinyl section (more on that below).

So this gaggle of Gucci is walking around the store and gets to the aisle beside the one I’m in, when they’re approached by a most Indie Hipster looking dude (once again, he’s not the point).  Maybe they know this guy, maybe they don’t, but the first words out of his mouth to them are ” Hey, do you guys like Mumford and Sons?”.  OK.  To which their leader’s response was (and I’m eggagerating) “ccchyeah, do you have it on vinyl?”.  That was the 234th time I’d heard the words “Mumford and Sons” that day and a little piece of me died that very moment….(again I don’t know any of these people and may be generalizing, but that’s not the point)

Not because I’m a defender of the notions of independent record stores or a huge fan (or hater) of Mumford and Sons (in fact, I’ve not heard more than two songs of theirs), but because it reminded me why I have an inherent habit of not liking things that are popular, initially at least, for the simple fact that they are popular.  This seems to happen to me a lot, especially with music.  After much thought on the topic, here is what I’ve come up with: there’s a group of pop artists/musicians in EVERY genre.

All of them.  I don’t think there is a separate genre of music called pop, it just exists as a sub-sect within the other styles of music.  Every genre has a spectrum that runs from pop to independent to underground.  And that’s fine (not that it needs MY approval), that’s what makes the world go around…woohoo and la di da!  But these groups, to me and I assume many, represents the watered down portions of these styles.  This would, and does, piss me off were I a fan of a particular style of music or band.  To think that other music listeners/passers by think THIS is what ____ (americana, grindcore, dubstep, whatever the hell you listen to) is…yeah right!!

The argument to that is ” Well who cares what people think or how they dissect the music you listen to?”  Good point.  Of course I’d hate to think that people whose lives are deeply interwoven with the music they love are drawn to it because of popular opinion or fashion.  But to say ” Oh, I don’t care if people fully understand what makes true ____” is kind of a lie.  Inherent to any opinion is a certain degree, however small, of pride and identity.

Not that everything has to have crisp and distinct lines…”this is where one style ends and the other begins, right here, this spot”.  Not at all; blending genres and incorporating new ideas into different artforms is absolutely necessary to keeping music growing and listeners engaged.  Some of my favorite bands are groups that took multiple influences and turned them into something greater.  But most of the time, a merge of styles results in a product that is inferior to any of the original ‘ingredients’.  And, of course, this somehow ends up being insanely popular…oh well.

Keeping this in mind and surveying the new boom of indie bands making it big in music (to get an idea, take your brain out, smoke crack and watch the Grammys; they consistently prove that they have their fingers miles away from the pulse of music), it occurs to me that what we’re seeing is a recycling of failed/dated musical trends being infused into the current ones.  People from other genres are changing their look and sneaking in to these new-fangled music booms.  “Let’s keep the frail, wounded musician thing going, but roll it into garage rock and neo-folk music” “let’s hand out Ray Bans and womens’ jeans to kind of punk bands”.  That’s the ticket!

Perhaps what I’m saying is that I want people to proudly and firmly stand up for things they’re passionate about.  If nothing else, conversation with someone with some musical conviction is more fun, if only for the challenge they present in trying to convince them that you’re right and that death metal is way more brutal than black metal (or some equally cerebral argument).

Also (and I’m writing this while watching the news) people need to stop painting on the eyebrows they don’t naturally have.  Just stop.

-George

February 21, 2011

“All deep things are song…”

by George

The quote that is used as the title for this article made me think about the ‘birthplace’ or creation of music.  I’ve read/heard many different opinions on this topic with answers ranging in nature from scientific to psychological to pure subjective opinion but they all have similar strains of thought behind them.

In my mind, the composition of music is a three-way battle; it is the product of three forces pulling a creative spark apart and in three separate directions, each with its own purpose and goal.  Every unique piece that is involved in the equation counts, and the composite of these results in what we hear through the speakers.

But boil it down to its purest form and you start with that creative spark.  This is where peoples’ opinions, I think, are fractured and begin to migrate in different directions; down separate paths that may cross over and under each other dozens of times or perhaps never once.  You could make the argument that the birthplace of this spark is within one of these formative forces, but I think that is too simple an explanation…

The Mental

Our mind is perhaps the most powerful, influential and capable force responsible for the creation of music, or any creative endeavor for that matter.  So powerful, in fact, that we cannot, at times, distinguish between our own, controlled conscious thought and the wild, enigmatic subconscious that drives many of our most basic actions.  We study and learn to play instruments in a certain manner; there is a structure and methodology that impacts every aspect of ones creative composition.  There are certain ‘rules’ that guide creation; scales, patterns and rhythms and physical mechanics in music, whose inter-compatibility is defined by centuries of musical tradition.

There is beauty in the seemingly natural resolution that certain intervals and scales have and we strive to create and enhance those patterns.  Like a chess match, there are movements and counter-motions that define the ebb and flow of a piece of music.  Each of these actions planned and orchestrated for maximum sonic impact.  We calculate and plan out our works, sometimes delving so deep into the minutia of a sound and timbre of a particular passage of music that we lose sight of its role in the overall piece.

The Physical

While this force is seemingly the most simple (in comparison) it can be the most influential on the final product.  We may intellectualize an idea, craft it and shape it, but unless we possess the physical capabilities and prowess of executing the  broad strokes and subtle touches we envision, our desire to express our thoughts and emotions is futile.

It’s generally believed that the more technically proficient a player is, the more capable and precise he/she can be when crafting their work.  Sure, you can build a house using only wood, but there will be certain areas that may require other skills and materials and possessing these skills will enable you to build a more efficient and cohesive structure.  Ideally, the larger your vocabulary, the more vivid your descriptions and the more focused your message.

In contrast, it can be one’s physical limitations as players that define his style and unique voice.  There are countless artists that may not be the most talented musicians, yet they each have their own identifiable sound and style of phrasing that is, most often, a direct result of what they can’t do.

The Emotional

Finally, the force that we have the least control over but one that is most apparent and obvious, our emotions.  Just as energy is never created or destroyed (it’s physics, man, look it up) you could make the argument that the emotion that an artist pours into his/her work came from someone/place else in the form of inspiration.  These ideas and feelings are ingrained in the piece of work itself, in every melody, rhythm and tone.  Even though we filter this in through our ears, and there is a physiological response that allows us to recognize and organize the sounds as music, there is, simultaneously, another response elicited; an emotional response.  That response is typically expressed with both physical and mental actions: released as you dance around and sing out lyrics at a concert, recalling an event or memory tied to a particular sound or piece of music, or even in the form of enthusiasm you exude when talking about music with your friends…you’re passing along the emotional energy.

This is obviously not a scientific quantity that can be measured, or even properly defined.  Nevertheless, it may be the biggest reason that people enjoy music; it taps into some unknown and undefined part of their psyche and allows them to release some of the emotional energy that they have inside; to pass it along down the ever-flowing stream of our collective social and cultural creativity where it will meet and blend with other similar and different thoughts and creations.

May 27, 2010

The Black Keys Unlock Their Inner Groove

by George

Just look at the cover…how can this record not be awesome?

On their latest album, Brothers, The Black Keys show that while they helped define the DIY, lo-fi, garage-rock sound that had a renaissance in recent years, they aren’t bound to it.  Quite the contrary.  True, their first few albums portrayed the Keys as modern-day blues/indie revival shamans, liberating people from the notion that big record labels and bigger budgets don’t = better music.  But the duo, singer/guitarist Dan Auerbach & drummer Pat Carney, have taken the success of their last album, Attack and Release, with its somewhat adventurous attitude and slick Danger Mouse produced tracks, as a signal to really open the flood gates and show off some new studio tricks.

It’s obvious from the material that there’s been a lot going on in the Akron duo’s personal lives.  Auerbach stretches deep inside and pulls out a truly emotional and honest vocal delivery while Carney sticks to what he’s best at, laying down a solid, simple, one-track-mind groove for guitar, organ and string melodies to soar over and dance around.  Recorded at the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio (slide guitar great Duane Allman recorded there..boom) this album goes down smooth and feels as though it has an old soul, one that’s been weathered and worn but still has enough gritty charm left to entertain.

The band has delved into the realm of early 60s R&B and 70s Soul (check out the falsetto vocals on the opening track) and almost every track has a guitar hook or vocal melody that sticks in your brainparts like NASA-engineered velcro.  One new sonic departure (or arrival) for the Keys is the addition of a (at times prominent) silky bass line that slides through many of these tunes.  I’m all for it, especially with this material.  These simple yet effective bass lines, along with keys and some string orchestration, convey more depth than their usual fuzzed-out guitar and drum assault.  The band has taken one soggy, swampy footstep away from Delta-blues homage and moved more towards defining their own sound.  All the same pieces are there, but they’ve been re-calibrated to hit harder and resonate louder.  Some  highlights from the record:

  • Everlasting Night: At first you think, “This isn’t a Black Keys record”…then your foot starts tapping
  • Next Girl: could have been on Magic Potion…watch the video
  • Ten Cent Pistol: Revenge is a dish best served cold
  • I’m Not the One: More soul than a James Brown slow jam

No doubt, fans of the Black Keys will quickly adopt this album into the family (and if you haven’t heard Rubber Factory or Magic Potion before…do it now!) but innocent bystanders will have no trouble singing along with the hooks.  Still cool enough for the indie hipsters but accessible to blues-rock freaks and lovers of all things vintage, the Black Keys keep getting better.

May 16, 2010

Grateful for The Dead (Weather) – A review of the new Dead Weather album

by George

When their debut, Horehound, came out last year, I figured that the Dead Weather would just be another notch on the bedpost of musical projects for drummer/singer Jack White (see also The White Stripes & Raconteurs).  I was pleasantly surprised when I was greeted with a sleazy, leather-jacket wearing slab of 70’s style rock (they even put some Zep-style blues raunch on a Dylan tune).  It was simple, fuzzier than a moldy peach and most definitely rock but it still took me a few months to fully appreciate.  I soon came to realize that what lay before me was a go-to rock record.

That’s why I was chomping at the bit to pick up their latest album, Sea of Cowards.   It’s certainly more musically varied than their debut but the core elements are still there: thick distorted guitars and bass (with plenty of unrestrained feedback); the quirky organ & synthesizer melodies that make you wanna shake your ass; the simple but effective backbeat drumming raining with cymbal crashes.  Lyrically and musically, each of these songs follow a most weird spiral inward, repetitiously meandering with (seemingly) no purpose until they flip the switch and the bands breaks out into a heavy, head-nodding groove.  For me, the standout performance that claws its way to the top of this sloppy (in a good way) rock mess is the venom-spit vocal delivery from singer Alison Mosshart.  Her vocal delivery on this album seems like the cue to let the band know when to turn it up and let loose for a few bars.  Coupled with the occasional vocal duet from behind the drum kit, these chant-like mantras shake the listener with intensity.  Here are the tunes I’m diggin’ after the first few listens:

  • The opener, ‘Blue Blood Blues’, steps in with a drunken swagger and a slippery guitar/bass line that serves as the perfect linkage for listeners from the last record.  Some trippy, looped vocals at the track’s end give way to the funky bass line intro of ‘Hustle and Cuss’
  • ‘Jawbreaker’ is another tune that comes in with a dirty, hip-swinging rock and roll feel before switching gears into a rapid-fire, stop & start descending drum fill/synth arpeggio that reminds me of the post-breakdown (~ 4:57 mark) drum pummeling of ‘Dazed and Confused’.
  • The truly bizarre ‘Old Mary’ simply because of it’s foreboding, slurred organ drawl and killer final lyric (Carry this burden, now and till the moment of your last breath)

Just like the debut, I think that I will need a few months to digest this album as well.  If the last record brought to mind 70’s rock, it seems like the band has taken another half-step toward the 80s; the prominence of buzzy synth/organ lines is the most noticeable musical difference from their last offering.  At first glance, it may seem like those crazy kids have simply found more ways to keep the retro-without-coming-off-as-trying-to-hard vibe going but I think that this record serves as a solid platform for The Dead Weather to continue building their own schizophrenic sound.

-George

April 24, 2010

Format Over Function

by George

If you went over to your friend’s house and asked him/her to put on some music, what would happen next?  Would they dock their MP3 player into a home sound system or click open some files on their computer?   Would they drop a needle onto a large, spinning black piece of plastic, or open a little clear case and load their stereo with a few silver discs?

Today, there are three major formats (probably in order of descending popularity) used for consumption of audio: MP3s, CDs and LPs.  While most people don’t give much thought or have much preference about which they use, others are very particular & calculated about their choice.  Which is the superior format is a topic of great debate amongst music listeners.  This arguement typically boils down to a few key issues: cost, availability, ease of use and sound quality.

It’s pretty apparent why downloading digital media is the most popular way of getting your hands on some tunes. It’s hard to beat digital music in terms of cost, portability and availability.  An internet search for an album/artist will quickly yield links to websites/torrents to download music (illegally) at no cost.  Many times, you can get an artists whole discography within minutes and not spend a penny.  And if you’re one of the honest ones who is willing to pay a whole .99/1.29 cents for a song on iTunes, it’s even easier.  You click a few buttons, wait a few seconds and you can be rocking the newest Miley Cyrus song in no time (just threw up in my mouth).  My experience has been that illegal downloads are a bit of a crapshoot when it comes to quality.  Most are ok but there’s a good bit out there that sounds like it’s been recorded with a Playskool boombox and put on the web.  Pay programs (iTunes, Napster, etc.) not only have standardized audio file quality, but you know that when you click to buy “Heartbreaker” by Led Zeppelin you won’t get “Heartbreaker” by Pat Benatar…great googly moogly, what a travesty that would be!!!

CDs and LPs are a pain in the ass, in comparison.  Not only do you have to get up and go to a record store, but you run the risk that they may be out of or not even carry the album you’re looking for.  This may be a common occurrence if you listen to any music too far off of the beaten path, especially since record stores are becoming harder to find and stores like Best Buy are cutting way back on their selection.  You also don’t have the choice of buying just one song…you have to (gasp!!) commit to buying a whole piece of music.  Physical media is also typically more expensive (especially LPs) than digital media and since a book of CDs or a box of LPs is way bigger than an iPod, they’re nowhere near as easy to take with you.

This, for me, is the saving grace of the digital format…portability.  It lets me take my entire music collection with me wherever I go.  At any moment, I can switch from Queen to Queens of the Stone Age;  Black Sabbath to the Black Crowes; the Dead Weather to Death.  You can almost instantly change your music to match your mood, time or location.

Ahh, but there is a flipside to this that makes it worth the extra effort for these soon to be dinosaur formats;  you don’t get any tangible product for your money with an MP3.  Nothing.  Unless you sit at home and yourself draw some cool picture or write the song titles on the front of a burned CD of MP3s, there’s nothing to hold.  This bums me out immensely.

What is cooler than awesome album artwork??  It seemingly makes the music BETTER!  It’s part of the allure, message and image.  With CDs and LPs you get artwork, liner notes and other imagery that the artist wanted associated with their album…and on an LP it’s HUGE.  Plus, the bands that do issue their albums on vinyl seem to be putting extra effort into the package: unique and collectible colored vinyls, expanded artwork/picture discs…many even come with a code of a download of the album.  Best of both worlds.

While it’s not true of every piece of music ever recorded, some are composed as cohesive thoughts…like one long sentence.  This has become more evident to me when listening an album I’ve heard to before on CD or MP3 as an LP.  It makes me think that the format has maybe not influenced, but been a complement to this ‘concept album’ idea: Side A starts off with a bang that eventually settles on Side B (and perhaps rises and falls again on the subsequent Sides C & D).  It’s definitely more epic and engaging…you’re listening, getting into it and then the music stops, like intermission during a theatrical performance or concert.   The listener can take a break, grab a drink, use the bathroom, then flip over to Side B for the remainder of the performance.  While this seems jarring, I believe that more artists are aware of this aspect of the listening experience and it’s impacting their track sequencing.

The ever-rising popularity of digital music implies that most people don’t care as much about album art, liner notes, etc. as they do convenience.  I totally understand, but it’s consumer laziness at its best (or worst) and ultimately depressing & difficult: not only is the concept of a complete package lost on most people but the more popular MP3s become, the less incentive for record companies/labels/bands to want to put their material out on CD or LP and they become even harder to find.

Sound quality, though, may be the greatest debated aspect of the format discussion among audiophiles and one where I feel digital media (and CDs to some degree) takes the biggest hit and it’s because of compression.  Part of digitizing a piece of music is compressing it down to a particular file size.  This compression means that you can use less information to convey the same sounds and the result is that many nuances are oftentimes lost.  An analogy is writing with 250 words instead of 1000; yeah, you can understand the main idea that the author is trying to get across, but the detail  and nuance is lost.  These details are what differentiate one writer, musician, person from any other and are what music fans take great pleasure in.

Even CDs are compressed to a certain degree…but at the same time, they greatly reduce the signal noise that you hear on an LP and this increase in overall dynamics yields a greater perceived clarity by the listener.  But for devotees of the LP format, this noise is a small price to pay for the character that is found in a vinyl record.  While the hiss and pops associated with LPs are generally thought of as detractors from the music, some feel that they allow the listener to ‘feel’ the music, something that is rare with the other formats.  Even during sections of silence (intentionally by the artist or otherwise) you know that you are listening to an LP; you hear and feel it.  The speakers are still moving air toward your body.  This character and ambience is present during the entire record, even as the music plays.

I think (and hope) that in the end, all that matters to most music listeners is the actual content…the music.  Plus, someday we’ll all get albums downloaded to the hard drives implanted in our brains.  I guess I’ll have to buy ‘Abbey Road’ AGAIN.

-George

March 16, 2010

Fuzzy Wuzzy – The Fuzz Pt.1

by George

Why do we (lovers of rock and roll like myself) have such an attraction to the gnarly, distorted sounds of overdriven instruments (guitars, bass, synthesizers, whatever) heard on thousands of classic albums? What’s the appeal? Is it a conscious choice to embrace these unpure signals or the subconscious at play?

I think it goes along with the whole ethos of rock and roll: making loud sounds LOUDER because you can and want to. Expression in its simplest form: volume. The pleasure and, dare I say, relaxation that comes from a slow and steady stream of airwaves that bathe your senses as you sit in front of a blaring stereo. Or the celebration of firing off your favorite track from your iPod, listening as it travels like an ever-climbing rocket launched toward the sky. What’s wrong with pretty, soft and sweet?? Nothing…that’s what cheesy ballads are for.

I can’t explain it, but as a guitarist and music listener I am completely obsessed with distorted, overdriven, fuzz tones…this obsession leads me on what seems like a never-ending journey in search of the thickest and wooliest tones I can find (on record and in the form of various musical instruments/effects/random items used like instruments ala THIS). I find the greatest appeal and charm in the fuzzes; overdrives are great for a crisp boost and adding smoothness to a sound, distortions for articulation and sheer power; but fuzzes sit in between the two like a bearded, fat man in the middle seat on the 3:15 bus.

Without getting into all the minutia involved with these effects (silicon vs. germanium transistors, transistor bias, input voltage chokes, etc.) there are so many variations on this fuzz sound that you can have a different one for breakfast every day of the week…mmmm. From a soft clip to a hairy, lo-fi growl; a mid-scooped rasp or a throaty, mid-high bark; a smooth grind or a sputtery, dying battery bit-crushed sound.

Listen closely to the loose, slightly uncontrollable quake of the most famous fuzzboxes of all time, the Electro Harmonix Big Muff; that beautiful sound created when a note or chord is so saturated with electrical input that it has reached critical mass; one that has begun to crumble and is on the verge of collapsing in upon itself. It’s almost as though these devices are shaking the subtle harmonics out of each note, dissolving the composure of these tame and normal sounds and releasing their inner soul. Electric bloom!

Let’s take a trip through the history/highlights of the fuzz sound:

Early/Mid ’60s: Musicians stumble upon this magic box that makes their instruments sound like they’re capable of leveling a small building. Naturally, the human ear (and more importantly brain) likes this and wants more.  No longer do musicians have to tear the cones in their speaker cabinets to get this glorious sound. British bands like The Kinks, The Animals and The Rolling Stones come to America with their fuzz boxes; little girls scream; young men revel in the sound of syrupy, distorted guitars…

Late 60s/70s: The Beatles take fuzz tones psychedelic, Hendrix single-handedly destroys and rebuilds what we knew as guitar playing (using only wood, steel strings and a FuzzFace pedal) and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour slyly sneaks some fuzz into his soulful lead guitar voice.  ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons was stringing together up to 6 Expandora fuzzes to create his ‘Lapdog of Distortion’, heard on records like Tres Hombres, which he used to bring some Texas heat to the blues. Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin…Rangemasters, Tone Benders, on and on we go…

Late 70s/80s: Besides a couple Sabbath-clone bands, I’ll be skipping this decade. You can thank hair metal for that one (bastards!).

Late 80s/90s: Ahhh, rebirth of the fuzz: J. Mascis from Dinosaur Jr., Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo & Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins break out those ancient fuzz machines and in doing so, help define the alt-rock thing going on at the time. Enter the almighty fuzz lords Kyuss…masters of the massive-volume amp riffage that would later give birth to bands like Queens of the Stone Age and stripped down garage-rock bands to follow in the…

2000s -now: Fuzz revival is in full-swing with lo-fi garage rock and between the albums Elephant & Magic Potion you can hear almost every classic fuzz tone known to mankind. Then there are bands like SunnO))) that are capable of re-awakening dormant volcanoes with their sub-sonic, fuzzed-out rumble.

In a future installment, I’ll do the trifecta for gearheads:  a trident review of some fuzz pedals that have me giddy as a school girl:  the Swollen Pickle MkII, Fuzz Factory and the Bluebeard Fuzz.  And if this wasn’t totally boring for you, check out the awesome documentary Fuzz: The Sound That Revolutionized the World.

-George

February 25, 2010

‘Ground Control to Major Tom…’

by George

Have you ever listened to silence…complete and utter silence.  You might think that you have, but you haven’t.

This is nearly impossible on earth because we do not live within a vacuum.  Even the slightest vibration disturbs and propagates through airwaves enough to defeat silence.  But this is not a science lesson.

And while there is no sound in all the vast reaches of outer space, there is a lot of sound about space; it even has its own sub-genre if you wanna get picky about it (see Space Rock). And despite being a completely silent place itself, we are so intrigued by this unknown world that we have created sonic representations of how we imagine the galaxies to sound.

Any unknown, whether it be a person, place, etc., makes the best theme for a piece of music because there are no boundaries; it’s not something that everyone knows, has seen, experienced or can define.  It leaves itself open to for the utmost personal interpretation and does not limit creativity with harsh reality or preconceived ideas.  Space, to some degree, represents and defines the limits of our human understanding: we describe something/someone out-there as spacey; we space out when not paying attention.  Anything beyond the boundaries of normalcy must be from outer space.

While all music can be an escape from everyday life, there are certain compositions that offer an even farther refuge from this world…one Beyond the Infinite.

So what does rock and roll sound like in space.   It varies slightly depending on which artist you ask, but generally speaking HUGE.  It appears there are few subtleties amongst the stars.  Large, sustaining notes that stretch far into the stars; unlimited reverberations and echoes of sound from a distant planet; an intoxicating, lush swirl of sound; droning loud & distorted tones; a sputtering sequence of synthetic and alien bleeps and blurts.

Each of the instruments used to create this cosmic symphony serves a purpose: the percussion propels the listener’s vessel into deep space like a steady rocket; you feel the pulse of the bass and sub-low frequencies as you climb farther into darkness and then, you see the vivid and colorful guitar and vocal tones and textures of melody and harmony, like the bright astral bodies that litter the galaxies and pass by you on your interstellar voyage.

Pink Floyd, while speeding through the cosmos in Interstellar Overdrive, decided to Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun and took a few albums to come back to self-reflective reality here on Earth.  ‘Surely’, said Hawkwind, ‘Space is Deep‘ as they rode along in their Silver Machine until they heard Earth Calling.  Blue Oyster Cult is another well-versed student of Astronomy.  Even Black Sabbath have travelled Into the Void and beyond to Planet Caravan.

It’s liberating to listen to these sounds and mental place oneself outside the world as we know it; to carry only your imagination with you and be transported from reality.  I doubt that any record made about the confining atmosphere and gravity of Earth would be nearly as exciting.

Put on something ‘spacey’ (preferably on vinyl so that you can hear the hiss and pops), turn off the lights (lava lamps can stay on) and climb aboard.

-George

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