In which inspiration for an unlikely creative direction comes from an even more unlikely source…
This past Sunday, Metallica uploaded the 50-minute EPK for their 1998 album of covers, Garage, Inc., to YouTube. I spent some time watching it the next evening, and while the video is of some interest to fans of the band / the songs, something happened – as I watched the video – that I hadn’t been expecting: I became inspired to begin writing a new piece of music.
Of course, by the time this was happening, this inspiration came at a time of night when grabbing my guitar, in order to flesh out the structure and see where the muse took me, was absolutely not an option. This is par for the course with me… but when you live in an apartment with someone, and that person is sleeping and needs to be awake at around dawn, late night writing sessions with even an unplugged guitar are nothing less than disrespectful and rude.
So I sat here in my chair in the stillness and thought about the sound that was in my head. The picture that I had was of me playing an amplified hollow-body guitar, but the sound – as strange as this may seem – was like a vibraphone. “Bells” was the word I was thinking, but a vibraphone was the sound. Of course, my guitar doesn’t sound like bells or a vibraphone, and I don’t own any bells or a vibraphone. And right there, I had my first challenge in the can for future exploration.
As I spent the next twenty minutes or so thinking about these sounds and notes, I also started thinking about the process itself. I’ve often written the seeds of songs in my head and translated them to the guitar at some later point; in addition to what I wrote above about (often) being inspired late at night, I’ve also found inspiration in the car, at work, while out walking, and at other times where a guitar was either not handy or wholly impractical. This time, however, I was thinking beyond that. I was thinking that I may have found a way to break out of a creative rut, with respect to the type of music that I’ve created throughout my adult life. And that was exciting!
At this point, we’re way out of the boundaries of anything having to do with Metallica and their music; the event that was “watching the EPK” merely served to plant a seed of inspiration. I thought about the sounds that I was “hearing,” and where the notes could be played on the guitar, and filed that information away for future reference. But as I went to bed, I was thinking more about the process that excited me so: the idea that I could, in some way, deconstruct or distill what I know about putting a song together into more basic musical elements, with less rhythmic constraint (and by that, I mean common pop and rock rhythms), more melody, and a focus on exploring how series of notes sound when juxtaposed. I started thinking about what I have at my disposal instrumentally: the aforementioned hollow-body, a not-very-bright-sounding acoustic guitar, and an electric keyboard, along with various ways of providing percussion, if and when I decided to try to record it. I finally fell asleep with these ideas in my head.
The next morning, I spent a few minutes recalling and familiarizing myself with the snippet of music that I had found so inspiring the night before. It took me a few passages before I caught the vibe again, because while I had the simple melody down, the “song’s” key and the reference root notes escaped me momentarily. Once I had sorted it out, though, I abandoned the idea of playing the melody and root notes together for a moment and began to move up the fretboard, to the highest frets I could reach comfortably while playing the melody by itself… and I quickly decided that my best chance of finding the “bell” sound on that guitar was up in that area.
I didn’t spend too much time on it, however. After a few minutes, I had to put down the guitar and get to work on finishing the one pressing task that I had that day, which was to get my much-needed pre-Thanksgiving grocery trip out of the way before things got crazy at the store. Nonetheless, I turned off the radio in the car, concentrating instead on slow-cooking the ideas that were in my head, with plans to revisit them later in the day.
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Once the shopping was complete, vegetables cut, homemade soup on the simmer, and dishes washed, I got out the guitar, warmed up the tube amp, and set to work. It quickly became apparent that my little amp wasn’t going to produce the sound I was looking for, and an Electro Harmonix Mistress – while producing an interesting mood – wasn’t even close to the tone I wanted. So after messing around with root note ideas and working out a simple complete melody, I moved over to my old iMac, fired up Garageband, and decided to try recording direct to the hard drive.
I have an old Presonus (Firewire) preamp for this purpose, but I hadn’t used it in three or four years, so I plugged it in, tested some levels, and recorded a test track. I found that adding some reverb to the direct signal gave me a nice, if raw, effect, and then I copied it and applied an octave effect to the copy. (The reverb and octave shifter created something of a vibey, bell-like effect that served the idea I was going for, for the time being.) Then I recorded some bass lines, and the notes started to sound fairly nice together! Finally, I re-recorded both instruments** to a click track and saved the file.
**Note: I recorded the “bass line” with the same guitar that I used for the melody – since I don’t own a bass guitar, sadly – but I applied an octave shifter effect to make it sound like a bass… or, at least, to make it sound like a separate instrument.
The idea is now tangible. I now have a cornerstone for whatever this piece can become. I can listen back to it, rather than trying to recall it from memory, and add ideas as they come. And if I ever get to the place where I have a complete piece, I can record it right there and have a finished demo track to enjoy.
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The inspiration came from watching that Metallica EPK (for whatever reason), but the building blocks were already there within me. I’m still drawing from music and instruments I’ve heard before, and knowledge and skill that I already have, but I’m also learning and trying new things, including the idea that it is possible for me to approach songwriting from a new angle.
The song might not end up sounding like actual bells, or as deconstructed as it initially did in my head, but I’ve learned that going to a place of musical simplicity, and starting with some very basic ideas – rather than attempting to build on top of something more technical and in the same vein as what I’ve written before – can open new avenues of musical exploration and enjoyment.
I started listening to Lou Reed in 1998.
I know that’s not a hip, “I’ve been listening to Lou Reed since I was in short pants” story. But I don’t care. The fact is that Lou Reed’s music came into my life in 1998, and it has deeply affected me ever since.
Rolling Stone reported the sad news on Sunday, that Lou had passed away earlier in the day at age 71.
More than fifteen years ago, during my senior year of college, I was reading an article about Lou Reed in a guitar magazine (either Guitar World or Guitar For The Practicing Musician - I forget which). He was doing press around that time for his new live album, Perfect Night: Live in London, which was recorded at the Meltdown Festival in 1997. He played the show with a new amplified acoustic guitar that he had heard of and was inspired by… and I read words in that article that were similar to these, which are from the liner notes to the album:
The night of the show, when the band and I hit the stage, I was really pumped. I had an acoustic guitar with the sound of diamonds, a sound that no one had ever really heard before. I had a sound and I knew it, and I was going to be able to share it. Me and the guys in the band.
The words in the magazine were not necessarily those exact words, but this was gist of the excitement he was sharing at the time in many conversations. To someone who had never really listened to Lou Reed before, the article was inspiring. My interest was piqued, but I didn’t really have a chance to hear Perfect Night until I found the CD at the Norristown Public Library later that year. I borrowed it, and took it home to check out.
As I sat, fascinated, and listened to the first several songs, I was initially struck by two thoughts: “Man, this guy is a terrible singer!” and “This is amazing!” It was a mind-blowing experience – I had never heard anything like it. After the first listen, I dubbed it onto two blank cassettes (one to play constantly wherever I went, and one to make another copy of when the first copy wore out), and took it back to the library.
Over the next several years, I expanded my knowledge of Lou Reed. I bought Perfect Night. I dubbed my father’s copy of White Light, White Heat. I bought several albums from different eras, ranging from Peel Slowly And See – the Velvet Underground box set – to Transformer and Berlin, to all of his albums between New York and Animal Serenade, including the much-maligned Velvet Underground live reunion CDs. I also got the NYC Man greatest hits set as a gift. And since I’m a fan of both Lou Reed and Metallica, I picked up their frustrating-to-listen-to 2011 collaboration, Lulu, which I reviewed here at the time.
I pored over the liner notes and extra tracks on Peel Slowly - I was particularly thrilled by the demos. As this was my first exposure to The Velvet Underground’s complete studio work, I was able to absorb most of it as “new” material, collectively, and I came to enjoy Velvet Underground (the eponymous third album) the most.
I listened to Set The Twilight Reeling a ton during 1998-1999. Post-New York, it seemed – at least in part – like a love song to New York City. Then again, it seemed like many of his albums were love songs to his home town. But “NYC Man” has long been an all-time favorite Lou song to me, and will likely always be.
At some point, I made a mix tape of some of my favorite Lou/VU songs and sent it to my friend Kirk. We would have long conversations about music from time to time, and sometimes we argued over which versions of certain songs we preferred. I took a lot of flack from him for saying that I preferred the performance of “Heroin” from the reunion show over the original; this is apparently akin to heresy, but while I do like the original version a lot, something about hearing Lou’s more mature voice on the live album made the song seem more haunting at times to me. Listening to it now, I’m revisited by that feeling.
At any rate, that period of time, spent – in part – immersing myself in Lou Reed’s catalogue, was one of the most creatively fruitful and musically inspirational periods of my life. After a while, my infatuation with his music naturally settled down into a deep love, and that love has been a part of my life ever since.
I don’t have everything he’s done: in particular, I don’t have much from the mid-seventies through 1986. I don’t have all of the live albums, or any of the VU live albums, as a matter of fact. But I have a stack of CDs that will once again be in heavy rotation for a while now. I spent much of Sunday afternoon feeling heavy of heart about his death. Watching some videos of him during the afternoon, it was eerie to consider that he was here, and now he’s gone. This happens when we encounter death, of course; however, it’s a strange feeling when we can see someone who’s passed, but is nonetheless right there in front of you on-screen, doing what he or she has always done.
Some of his music is good. Some of it is great. Some of it is difficult to ingest to varying degrees. That’s ok – the songs of his that I didn’t care for never made me like his other work any less. Lou had an ethic that was inspiring to more people – musicians and music fans alike – than can ever be counted. And I am one of those people.
I’m so glad to have discovered Lou Reed, both the man and his music. It’s been a life-changing experience. Were it not for him, I would be both a different music fan and musician today. In the sadness over his passing, it will be fun to celebrate his life through memories of that time of my life where I learned about him and grew to love him, and by listening to his music.
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It’s been a while already since my last post of photographs, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t occasionally been taking them – I’ve just been lazy about posting them! As it is, I have a few posts-worth of photos to share, and hope to get them on the blog in the next couple of weeks.
My first set was taken on November 11th, which was Veterans Day. It got pretty cold the night before, and we had a bit of snowfall, so I decided to take my camera with me when I went out for my morning walk.
My previous photo post was taken at the Chestnut Hill Cemetery, as I tend to go there during my morning walks because the cemetery is on a hill, and I get some good inclines to walk up, down, and around. I generally approach the cemetery from the footbridge at Dodge Creek, and this set of pictures is mainly from that part of my walk.
(Click to enlarge if you like.)
The final photo was taken from the bridge that crosses Dodge Creek – I thought this was a nice view as the creek winds its way out of the woods toward town (which is the opposite direction from where I faced when I took the shot).
I hope you enjoyed these photos. I have some others that I took more recently, and I’ll include them in a future post.
Prelude: The Anniversary Shows
Last week (between December 5th and 10th), Metallica played four shows at the Fillmore in San Francisco for fan club members, in order to celebrate the band’s 30th anniversary. The shows were studded with stars, old friends, old band members, and heroes of the band members, and included set lists comprised of a wide variety of songs from the band’s career, as well as select covers.
Fans got to see every living current or former member of Metallica with the band, as Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine joined his old band for the songs “Phantom Lord”, “Jump In The Fire”, “Metal Militia”, “Hit The Lights,” and show-closer “Seek And Destroy” on Saturday, December 10th. Former members Ron McGovney (bass), Hugh Tanner and Lloyd Grant (guitars), who were with the band for short stints at its birth, joined the band also on this night for the final song and various other songs from Kill ‘Em All (1983), as did longtime bassist Jason Newsted, who joined the festivities during all four shows. Additional guests included Sabbath’s Ozzy Osbourne and Geezer Butler, Saxon’s Bill Byford, longtime Metallica producer Bob Rock, Rob Halford of Judas Priest, Jerry Cantrell (Alice In Chains), Pepper Keenan (Down/CoC), Gary Rossington (Skynyrd), Glenn Danzig, Lou Reed, Mercyful Fate, John Bush (Armored Saint), Apocalyptica, Metallica fill-in guitarist John Marshall (Metal Church), and Sean Harris and Brian Tatler of Diamond Head. It was quite the celebration and reunion!
For these shows, Metallica pulled a few songs from their catalog that had never been played before, including “Carpe Diem Baby” (Reload, 1997) and the Cliff Burton tribute “To Live Is To Die” (…And Justice For All, 1988). They also introduced some previously unreleased content, which has created a lot of buzz in metal circles.
At each show, they debuted an unreleased song from the recording sessions that produced their latest album, Death Magnetic (2008). From what I understand, fan club members were emailed the songs after each gig, and they quickly showed up on YouTube. This week, Metallica officially released the four tracks as the Beyond Magnetic EP, exclusively through iTunes here in the U.S.
The Beyond Magnetic EP
The buzz around these songs is that they are… really good. After Metallica’s recent collaboration with Reed, Lulu, which features songs written by Reed and arranged by/with Metallica and was roundly criticized for being very challenging to listen to (because the songs just aren’t that good), this EP is breath of fresh air in comparison.
Beyond Magnetic clocks in at 29:08 with four seven-minute songs and an 8-minute tribute to Layne Staley, “Rebel of Babylon”.
The first track, “Hate Train”, is a good solid song with strong, heavy riffs mixed with thrash sections that go a long way toward restoring faith in the band’s ability to write interesting music. Other than during a mellow breakdown at around 3:30, Hetfield’s vocals are strong throughout.
Track two, entitled “Just A Bullet Away”, was referred to under the working title of “Shine” during the sessions, as seen on the “Mission Metallica” videos that came out as part of the promotion for Death Magnetic. This track has a 6/8 feel for most of its duration, with galloping, marching riffs, although the song does break down at the four-minute mark for a mellow part, like the previous track.
“Hell And Back”, the third tune, is a mid-paced song with some dynamics, as it starts out somewhat quietly before gaining some heft for the choruses and much of the duration. It’s a good song, but difficult to write much about.
“Rebel Of babylon”, the aforementioned tribute to late Alice In Chains vocalist Layne Staley, is the most epic in scope out of this collection of songs. It combines a mellow intro that builds into slow riffing, and then some fast thrash riffs that, used liberally throughout the song, recall moments from …And Justice For All. The chorus, with its line “Don’t let it burn out tonight!” followed with “Kill me one more time/Stigmata/Kill me one more time/Neo martyr/Gonna die young/Gonna live forever/Kill me one more time/Rise up, rebel of Babylon!” are delivered powerfully in a higher register. THIS is the kind of music that James Hetfield’s voice is made for.
The mixes on the EP are similar to those on Death Magnetic, although they are described by the band itself as “rough mixes”. The vocals are, like those on the past two albums, among their driest ever – to say it another way, there is no reverb on Metallica vocals post-2000, and so these are fairly raw, pure sounds in that respect. The guitars are not softened and buried like they were in the mid-90s releases, but rather have a heavy, raw edge to them and sit nicely in the mix. And, unlike their counterparts on the album, the tunes on Beyond Magnetic are not over-mastered, to the point where the horrendous digital clipping that plagued Death Magnetic is, thankfully, not much of an issue here.
Overall, these songs are some of the ‘riffiest’ that Metallica has written in twenty years. **Since …Justice… in 1988, which was an exercise in “how many riffs can we stick in these songs”, the band has gone from “let’s be economical and make strong songs out of fewer riffs but still be heavy” (Metallica); to “we have many, many simple riffs, so we wrote so many song-y hard rock songs that they’ll take two albums to release them all (Load and Reload); to “two of our best songs from the Load sessions didn’t get released for some reason, so we’ll record them with an orchestra” (S&M); to “we’re so unable to write good songs or riffs that we’ll see if we can kill our fans by repeating riffs so many times that they scream in pain” (St. Anger); to finally putting together a body of work that pulled together a newly-recovered hunger and aggressiveness with their more recent songwriting skills and their classic arrangement skills on Death Magnetic.
**Yes, I’m being snarky here. I actually liked large portions of all of that music, but it was interesting (and rough) to watch them devolve and then re-grow as a band over the past two decades.
This EP is absolutely a companion to Metallica’s latest. The songs were written three or four years ago, but if their recent live performance and release is any indication of the direction that Metallica is still going – as well as indicating that the band likes the songs! – fans have a reason to be cautiously optimistic about their next album, which is currently expected in 2012… although we all know how that tends to go with this band.
The “What-if”s concerning these songs and Death Magnetic
In some ways, it’s a shame that one or more of these songs didn’t make the cut for Death Magnetic. I’ve read several comments that argued for certain songs to be dropped in favor of “Just A Bullet Away”, generally in the following order of ‘most desired to be trashed’:
- The Unforgiven III
- My Apocalypse
- The End Of The Line
Personally, I really enjoy “The Unforgiven III” and I’m glad it’s on the album. On the other hand, my least favorite song from Death Magnetic was, by far, “The Day That Never Comes”, which was the first single and video from the album. I skip that song every time it comes on now. If that had been dropped in favor of “Just A Bullet Away,” I would have been cool with that, but I think my favorite song from the EP is “Rebel of Babylon”, and if they had stuck that in place of the instrumental “Suicide & Redemption” (which I do like, by the way, but not as much as some of these songs), I think that it would not only make the album better, but its lyrical tone and epic nature would fit perfectly, both as ‘the epic song before the thrashy closer’ and within the overall theme of the album. That’s my two cents. But I loved listening to Death Magnetic as it was (other than my previously mentioned least favorite track), so this is all just for fun anyway.
Overall, I’ve enjoyed listening to these songs, and will probably listen to them many, many times in months to some. If you’re a Metallica fan, this is your contemporary Metallica sound. Lulu was not. This is.
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Ok, so this ended up not being so “mini” – but I thought it would be when I started it! Ah well, the title stays.