Saturday, 2 July 2011

Probably the best album in the world...

One thing that has been taking up a lot of my time lately is listening to Punk & Poetry by The King Blues.

It’s a bold statement and somewhat unsettling to say, but this is currently fighting for the crown of being the best album I own. It’s the perfect mix of political punk and hook-laden pop and captures life in London in 2011. It’s full of passion, vitriol, love and most importantly sincerity.

The lyrics are pure poetry and Itch’s delivery and intonation add further colour to every word. There’s not a single mediocre track on the album and it’s a real struggle to single out a favourite track because I love so many so much.

If I have to select highlights then its We Are F***ing Angry for it’s anger and energy, I Want You for the line "like Robson wants Jerome", Sex Education for my political sympathies and Headbutt for making me want to jump up and down like a nutter. If pushed to single out one track then it’s got to be Everything Happens For A Reason. This track is so pure and sentimental and closes out the album on a beautifully uplifting note.

I had to edit out multiple uses of perfect from this entry but I’m saving one more.

This album IS perfect.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Refining the arrangement

It’s been a little while since I’ve blogged about it but I wanted to continue with documenting the progress through the production of Radio Silence.

Below is my final demo of the track. I hope you’ll agree that it’s a much slicker number following a few subtle changes to the arrangement.

I made the following changes:
  • Refined the drums, including simplifying the drums in the verses a little – the three tracks I identified for my critical listening were very helpful in working out what to do in the choruses
  • I kept elements that I liked and moved the tom hits to preceding verse 2 where they work really nicely
  • I got rid of the things that didn’t work - as much as I liked the feel of the drumming in the old 2nd verse, it just wasn’t working so it had to go
  • Rearranging the building blocks of the song can make a massive difference to the feel and momentum of a track. I reduced the 1st chorus to half length and inserted a small break before we hit the verse again. The 3rd and 4th verses get split up with another chorus stuck between them. The final chorus starts nice and pared down, has a nice fill in the middle and thunders through to the outro which has been tidied up so that it flows much better
  • There’s still work to be done; the guitar in verse 4 needs to be revised as it’s not really working. The track also needs a proper bass line and a couple of interesting guitar lines to add a little sparkle
I’m happy now that this will form the template for the final version which will be on my EP to be released later in the year.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

I wish I'd made this - #3 Private Eye by Alkaline Trio

It's very rare for me to listen to a song on repeat - the exceptions being when I'm scrutinising a track or reviewing my own work - but when I got my hands on the album From Here to Infirmary I just couldn't help myself. It took me a couple of weeks to wean myself off of prolonged periods spent listening to just this one song.

Alkaline Trio start the album as they mean to go on; there's no build up, no long intro, the track launches straight in with an urgency that just sucked me in.

The hook hits us straight away, a six-note guitar riff played in octaves. The beat is strong and the crash cymbals add to the momentum. The bass locks in tightly with the drums cementing that driving feeling with a simple variation the third time through the riff that adds enough interest without over-complicating matters.

The lyrics paint a bleak picture that gives me a real sense for the washed-out alcoholic that is our protagonist. I don't know whether this song is about a detective and his relationship with his work or a lover or if our supposed Private Eye is in fact a stalker. I opt for the first interpretation but, whoever he is, he reminds me of Jack Caffery, the Detective Inspector in Mo Hayder's gruesome crime novels.

My highlight is the start of the second half of the second verse. We get our alternative bass line, a subtle change to the hi-hats and a couple of punchy guitar chords. It's just two bars but it provides a perfect punctuation to our story.

There's nothing complicated about this track, it's all about the execution - a perfect combination of a great hook, evocative lyrics and a flawless arrangement.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

The pleasure of buying CDs

Having been busy of late (I’m holding the little puppy responsible), I’d overlooked the release of a couple of new albums from Shihad and Steriogram. I assume I could have gone online and instantly downloaded them both but instead I chose to order two CDs from the other side of the planet. I could have opted for instant gratification at half the price but I find pleasure in awaiting the thump as the package falls through the letterbox, even if it is two weeks later.
When that thump finally came, I ripped open the envelope to find these:

Look how shiny the Shihad sleeve is and how menacing those fortress-thingies are. And aren't those doodles on the Steriogram insert fantastic? No download could give me this! I’ve not even listened to the music and I’m happy already because buying an album is more than just getting a load of data that I can put on my mp3 player (which is very definitely NOT an iPod – but that’s a rant for another day).
I like having something that I can touch, something that I can catalogue (alphabetically by artist, chronologically within artist – obviously), artwork to look at and sleeve notes to read. Does the lead guitarist write all the tracks or does the band share all the credit? Are there any guest appearances? If I've got other albums by this mixer or producer can I identify their contribution to the overall sound?
Long live the Compact Disc!

Monday, 21 March 2011

The most awkward question

I went to a gig this week with a friend and a couple of their mates. Everything was going well until I was asked "So, what kind of music are you into?"

Given my enthusiasm for the subject it should be a question that I revel in, however, I always feel my heart sink as I've never been able to come up with a satisfactory response. I inevitably either over simplify things by naming a couple of "popular" bands and feel that I've misrepresented myself (and excluded 80% of my music collection) or talk about obscure bands and sound like a music snob*.

I wanted to give a very brief snapshot of my musical tastes to the readers of this blog and it took a great deal of effort to narrow down my favourite artists to just eight bands. Whilst I'm happy with my list it fails to acknowledge my love of NZ rock bands, early 90's dance music, prog metal or Billy Joel. I hate to be pigeonholed; there are genres of which I am a huge fan, but there will be respected and successful artists within them that I can't stand but there are artist whom I love, despite liking nothing else comparable.

Do you have the same problem, or have you found a suitable response to this awkward question?

*Proof that I'm not a music snob: I still know every lyric on East 17's album Steam and I reckon that Papa Roach are one of the finest live bands around.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Out of my head

Having covered the writing phase of Radio Silence I'll now continue into the arranging phase:

Whilst I usually have a good idea of how a complete song should sound, I make a demo to allow me to take a step back and really listen to the song. The beauty of recording on computer is that I can very easily change the arrangement; cutting, copying, pasting, inserting and deleting as necessary.

Having spent a little time working out how to play Radio Silence and finding the right key, I recorded a simple guitar track, the lead vocal and the outro vocals. Throw in a simple bassline on an organ and it's sounding pretty good.

Sometimes it’s a guitar riff or bass line that shapes a song and I'll build a demo with a very simple drum track. Not this time. The feel of this song is going to be very much dictated by the drumming. I wouldn't normally work so hard on the time consuming process of drum programming for a demo. In this instance I plan on getting the drums as close to perfect as I can and then using them in the final recording of the track whilst recording everything else anew. Demo #1 sounds like this:

I've listened to the track quite a few times and overall I think it works. These are my thoughts as I listen to the track:
  • I like the low-key first verse. The end injects a nice little bit of energy.
  • I like the feel of the drumming in the second verse but it doesn't feel right; it's at odds with the ending of the previous verse.
  • The chorus works pretty well but I'm not totally happy with the drums. I have a couple of tracks in mind that I want to listen to for inspiration. (All the Small Things, The Breakup Song, Katie W - Blink 182, American Hi-Fi, Fenix TX respectively.)
  • I'm very happy with the snare leading us into the third verse, which has quite a dark feel to it; a combination of the organ and the way I've sung "over and out" is really pleasing... a happy accident that could well survive into the finished song! I think I'm going to leave the bass out until the end of the verse where it's going to make a pretty elaborate reappearance.
  • The link between verses three and four doesn't feel right, although I like the tom hits entering the fourth verse... they'll probably end up somewhere else.
  • The break into the outro is good and I'm happy enough with this for now, it's going to rely on quite a lot of texture so it's sounding very thin at the moment. I'll probably end the song after a chanted "To the R, to the A... etc." without bringing the other two vocal lines back in.
  • FYI "To the R, to the A... etc." should be "For the R, for the A... etc."
  • I think the listener (and me as a singer) might need a little bit of breathing room as the song just rockets through without any time to absorb what's going on. I'm not sure how to achieve this as each individual section flows naturally into one another, but as a whole it might be a bit relentless as it currently stands.
Back to The Kennel...

    Monday, 28 February 2011

    Finding the words

    I've just written an entire song (working title Radio Silence) without picking up an instrument. It's not like I have a formula for writing, but this was a first for me. I've written music to lyrics before, but this time I knew exactly how the song would sound as I was writing.

    Lyrics have always been a big challenge for me and many projects get abandoned due to my struggle to find the right words. I finally decided last week that I needed to address my approach to lyric writing and adopt some new tactics. I had a good chat with Mrs Dog who suggested that I should carry a notebook with me at all times and write down any ideas I get about subjects and interesting words and phrases that I come across. In hindsight it seems foolish that I'd not adopted a similar approach before.

    By the end of the first evening I had a good collection of ideas and was already brainstorming on a couple of topics. I then came up with the first line You've got the perfect face for radio and the whole idea just grew from there.

    Hopefully I'll get into the kennel this week and knock up a quick demo once I've worked out how to play it.

    Monday, 21 February 2011

    Snip, snip, snip - making a radio edit

    My band writes music with the primary goal of playing live shows. So, with this in mind, when we recorded our recent EP, we played pretty much as we would do live. The only potential downside with this is that our tracks tend to turn out a little on the long side when compared to commercial ideals.

    So I got out my hatchet and hacked out 1'45" from the original mix, bringing it down to a more radio-friendly 3'48". In essence all I've done is remove a few bars from the intro, between the first two verses and then removed the bridge and third chorus before closing with a truncated outro.

    In the digital age it's almost as simple as that, however, in order to keep the track fluid it takes a little bit of effort to make the edits seamless. If I would have just stuck the outro on the end of the second chorus then I would have lost the bass run that leads into the solo, drum fills would have been out of context and the decay from cymbal crashes would have been lost.

    This is the first time I've ever done a remix of a completed track and it was a very useful educational experience. I got to where I wanted to in the end, but not in the most efficient manner. What I mean to say is that if I were to do this again, I'd do it differently and I have learned from my mistakes!

    Tuesday, 15 February 2011

    I wish I'd made this - #2 Who's Got A Match? by Biffy Clyro

    I'm sure I wasn't the only person who's ears pricked up instantly on hearing the quirky riff in this track. It demands attention and I still find it very hard to concentrate on anything else whilst it's playing (which is making writing this blog rather tricky as I listen on repeat). But it's not the riff alone that makes this a great track.

    By keeping everything stripped back each instrument is given the space to work. The bass is kept very simple, providing just a little underpinning. For a large proportion the guitar plays single notes and where the guitars double up everything is still kept straightforward.

    And then there's that riff. I think it was a brave and very wise decision not to throw it right in at the very start of the song. By holding it back it's allowed to introduce a further dimension to the track rather than setting the tone from the start.

    This gives the drums a little more breathing room to provide all of the rhythmical interest in the track - take a listen ignoring everything but the drums; they're really rather good!

    Things get a little bit louder and looser in the bridge, but you really feel the impact because of the dynamic contrast to the rest of the track.

    I think Who's Got A Match? is a textbook example of a minimalist rock arrangement and was one of my reference tracks whilst recording my band's EP. It proves that you don't have to throw the kitchen sink at a song in order for it to come alive. Too many people think you have to create layers and layers of guitars, reverb and delays to make a big rock song. I'm not saying that it can't work that way, just that it's not always necessary.

    Thursday, 10 February 2011

    Long Distance

    At last, here it is, my new track Long Distance.

    I wrote this song for Mrs Dog back in 2002 when we'd been together for just under a year. We'd just finished university and were living apart for a couple of months before going to spend a year living in New Zealand. Mrs Dog is a massive pop punk fan and I wanted to write her a song in this style.

    Long Distance was written on the acoustic guitar but I've never made a proper recording of this song until now. Whilst working on the arrangement and recording I listened to lots of New Found Glory, Elemeno P, Fenix TX and Simple Plan to try and find the elements that are used in making a song fit the genre.

    I hope you enjoy it.

    Saturday, 5 February 2011

    Good. Better. Right.

    Oh dear, I can't believe that a whole two weeks have elapsed since my last blog post. This new venture was supposed to be something to be maintained and not recklessly abandoned within a month.

    But fear not, my blog is not abandoned, I've just been terribly distracted trying to make Long Distance sound good. Sound better. Sound right!

    The hint of optimism at the end of my last post was warranted as I tweaked the arrangement, recorded some new vocals and now have a track that I think works really well. I'm struggling with mixing and keep edging it towards being finished but I just can't get there right now.

    I think it sounds good, I really do. I listen to it in isolation and it's doing pretty much everything I want it to, but then I play it after listening to the tracks I want it to sound like and it just sounds muddy, dull and lifeless in comparison. I know where I want the track to be and I have a vague idea of how to get there but I'm expending a lot of effort in fighting against my inexperience and what might just be a lack of talent.

    The current mix is good. And it is better (far better) than it was.

    It's just not right.

    Friday, 21 January 2011

    One step back, two steps forward?

    I spent a couple of hours this morning in The Kennel tinkering with my latest song Long Distance. I'm just finishing getting the arrangement laid down and all I have left to sort out are the backing vocals.

    I headed off to work with the rough mix on my MP3 player and gave the track a listen. I was settling in to the track and feeling a little too smug with the first verse and chorus and then got a bit of a shock when a new BV for the second chorus was missing. Oh well... then the third chorus rolled on and I had the terrible realisation that my morning's work had just made the track worse!

    What I have to remind myself is that this is just how the process works for me. I'm not good enough to get it right first time, every time, and often I have to go through what doesn't work before I can find what does.

    My missing BV will be hiding somewhere on my hard drive and now I know with certainty what I don't want to do with the third chorus so today was a success. Progress is all I can ask for.

    Tuesday, 18 January 2011

    Massive Dog interview

    Take a trip over to Entangled author Cat Clarke's rather fabulous blog to read her interview with me. I talk about theme tunes, a book about bunnies and answer the important question "chocolate or cheese?"

    Go read it here.

    Thursday, 13 January 2011

    I wish I'd made this - #1 Gramarye by Remy Zero

    I've never had a song burrow it's way into my subconscious in such an aggressive manner as Gramarye. Way back in 1999 I'd been watching MTV late at night and stumbled across this. 

    Although I only heard the song once, I couldn't escape it and found it constantly stuck in my head.  For a short, but rather stressful period, finding a physical recording of the song became my life goal. I eventually completed my quest in Virgin in Romford and can clearly remember thrusting the CD above my head in celebratory fashion before rushing home.

    For me Gramarye is the aural equivalent of a great horror movie; not the scary part where you jump and scream, but the bit before, where you know that something sinister is lurking in the dark and you try and huddle yourself into a tiny ball on your sofa.

    There are two things which make this song stand out for me. First up is the dissonant piano refrain which first occurs around 28 seconds which can only be described as haunting. It shouldn't work, but it does. The second thing is the use of noise. Shimmering guitars, feedback and reverb are allowed to build up and are then abruptly cut off and it's these transitions between dirty and clean that give the track momentum, pulling the track along, and the listener with it.

    After 11 years of listening to this track, I still couldn't tell you what it was about, but I don't think that's important. This song is all about mood and atmosphere and I struggle to think of any other tracks which come close in that respect.

    Monday, 10 January 2011

    CLASH trailer launched

    I couldn't think of a better occasion to launch my blog than with the release of the trailer for CLASH by Colin Mulhern.

    I found CLASH thoroughly gripping and I hope that the soundtrack conveys the tension in Colin's writing. I wanted to create something that suited the tone of the book (tense and gritty), reflected the narrative (a coming together of two very different characters with a dramatic conclusion) and respected the musical taste of the characters (Slayer and Metallica).

    An MP3 of the Clash soundtrack can be downloaded free here.
    Clash is out in March and is available for pre-order here.