The long, long wait for Metallica’s new album

In September of 2008, Metallica released Death Magnetic. While I wouldn’t argue that it rivals their best work, it was at least a return to something aggressive, and was much more cohesive than its predecessor, St. Anger. In spite of the terrible clipping problems, I did enjoy it.

Since then, they’ve toured. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They made a non-Metallica record with Lou Reed. They celebrated 30 years with a set of shows in San Francisco. They “made a movie.” They’ve toured. They’ve talked about recording, and how they either can’t wait to make another record, or how they’re not feeling obligated to thrash one out for the sake of having a new record. They’ve toured. James Hetfield has 800 riffs for the new album, and Kirk Hammett has 400. They played Antarctica, “forgetting” to play “Trapped Under Ice”… They played “One” at the Grammys with Lang Lang. They’re going to write and record a new album soon. They’ve toured. The latest news is that they’re writing the songs, hoping to get into the studio to record them in 2015, and have the new record out in 2016.

2016.

Let that sink in for a minute.

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Touring the new song

In March, Metallica began a short “By Request” tour in South America. Fans voted on the songs they wanted to hear, and Metallica used the survey results to create their setlists. As the tour approached, the band teased the possibility of a new song, and they delivered “The Lords Of Summer” at the tour opener in Bogota, Chili on March 16.

Beyond that, there’s little for fans to go on, other than nebulous indications that Metallica are working on the next record, and the aforementioned vague talk about not really getting down to recording until next year, and releasing it in 2016. According to this article, they have presumably reconvened (or will do so shortly) in order to continue working on the album.

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Thoughts on the new song

As a fan who’s been interested in hearing the next Metallica album since 2010, I have to say that the “late 2015/early 2016” thing has had me feeling a bit down about the whole thing. “Lords Of Summer” didn’t really ease that feeling. I like the concept of melding fast, thrashy parts with slower, melodic ones, so that idea has potential. But I wasn’t really moved by the song. In fact, I found it kind of boring. The thrashy part was fast, but was essentially one note chugged repeatedly with little variation with a stock riff thrown in at the end of each bar. The chorus was okay but generally uninspiring, and the beginning and middle sections were too long. The main riff sounded like a simplified take on the main riff from “That Was Just your Life,” and it got old for me during my first listen, before the vocals came in. Kirk’s solo started very simply and repetitively – and that bit lasted too long as well – although it got better when he started playing like he normally does. And the lyrics left me baffled.

I did like the little motif that starts at approximately 3:10 of the video above, and I liked Hetfield’s vocals in general. However, I hope that the song was, as Hetfield told the crowd in Bogota, written “for the shows” – hastily thrown together and recorded in demo form without the usual refinement that historically goes into their composition process.

I understand that it’s probably going to either be disassembled and reassembled in some other form, or gutted for parts to be integrated with other material on the new album, or jettisoned altogether. While it’s a better song than the two new songs that they performed before they recorded Death Magnetic, it’s so much more “stock” than “The New Song” from 2006 – a much heavier and more interesting song musically, riffs from which turned up in “The End Of The Line” and “All Nightmare Long” – that my guess is that they will likely either A) build up and refine the tune (and write new lyrics) for the album, or B) abandon the song mostly or entirely.

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Megadeth and the Big Four (and more)

What’s frustrating for fans like me is that, while Metallica keeps itself in the public eye by touring and participating in a variety of other non-Metallica-album-creating activities (Lou Reed, Through The Never, etc.), their pace of album creation has been slowing for the last 20 years. After the epic touring that took place in the wake of the Black Album, they put out two albums in two years. Since then, they’ve put out two albums of original material (and an EP, Beyond Magnetic). That’s two albums in, at this point, 17 years. Since the Black album, they’ve done four albums in twenty years.

To strike the most extreme contrast possible with their thrash brethren, one needs to look no further than to Megadeth. Dave Mustaine has put out nine albums since Countdown To Extinction (1992), and will soon be working on another one. And that one will probably be released before the next Metallica record. A very likely scenario is that, between the releases of Metallica’s ninth and tenth albums, Megadeth will have released at least four records.

It’s not like Megadeth are abnormal in averaging a record every two years or so – they’re certainly not the Beatles with their eleven albums and two soundtracks in eight years – but they’re the most prolific of the Big Six Or Seven of American Thrash over the past two decades. Additionally, Slayer may release their second post-Death Magnetic album late this year or early next, in spite of the death of Jeff Hanneman and split with Dave Lombardo. Same with both Anthrax and Exodus. Overkill’s third post-2008 album arrives in July. And Testament has released two albums and a live album since Death Magnetic, and a third is in the works, tentatively scheduled for release later this year.

Metallica, Megadeth, and albums

When we’re treated to releases every few years from many of the bands in the genre, we fans tend to wonder why Metallica doesn’t pick up the pace.

Everyone knows that record sales are way down from where they were ten years ago. With that in mind, it’s certainly understandable that a band in Metallica’s situation as a huge band that can make boat loads of money from touring would be less interested in taking a year or so to write and record an album – itself, an extravagant time- and money-sink that most of the other bands listed above don’t have.

However, I look at Megadeth, a hard-working, successful band that keeps pumping out records which are always well-recorded and are sometimes excellent (like 2009’s Endgame). Megadeth have managed to alternate efficiently recorded albums with lots of time on the road, themed tours, lots of fan interaction, and other creative outlets. Mustaine has always been driven creatively, and the fact that he is out-producing Metallica music-wise by maintaining the same cycle he always has can’t have gone unnoticed by someone as obsessed about his past with Metallica as he has always been. It’s certainly something that I’ve thought about, and I’m sure that others have done so too.

Anyway, with David Ellefson back playing bass, drummer Shawn Drover serving as a rock in so many ways both musically and otherwise, and an extremely talented creative partner in guitarist Chris Broderick, Mustaine hasn’t let neck surgery that has seemingly made it difficult to sing on the road stop him from going year-round, and keeping up his recording schedule.

When they do record an album, by the way, there isn’t any of Metallica’s six-months-to-a-year overanalysis that goes into the process. Perhaps this is because Mustaine is the unquestioned leader of Megadeth; at the end of the day, it’s his creative vision. Whereas in Metallica, James and Lars drive the car, and they’ve butted heads over the decision-making process so many times over the years that in some ways it’s no wonder that it takes them aeons to write and record an album, as opposed to Mustaine’s weeks…

That isn’t to say that every Megadeth album is great – although that’s subjective, of course – but many reasonable people thought that Endgame was very good, and that 2011’s Thirteen was also good. In my opinion, when Mustaine gets it right, he’s writing interesting, riffy, heavy tunes, and both of those records have those elements (if not in every song). And it doesn’t take him five to seven years, six to nine months in the studio, and “1200 riffs” to get there every couple of years.

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I wonder

This leads me to wonder what else is weighing down Metallica, with respect to the long lapses between albums over the past decade-plus…

1. Family?

All four of the guys have kids. All four are family men, in that they seem utterly devoted to their children. This is a good thing. And if the guys in Metallica are simply spending a ton of time with their families, I have every respect for that.

2. Stardom/money/Lars?

You’re James Hetfield. Every few years, you think about making an album. And you think about all of the other albums you made, and how long it took, in part, because both you and Lars are really anal about stuff, and sometimes it’s not the same stuff. But Lars has his hands in every pie – that guy is really, really anal about stuff. Do you really want to go through that again any time soon? Maybe. Maybe not.

Maybe, an alternative would be to play two-three dozen shows this year, make a ton of money from them, and spend the rest of your time playing guitar by yourself, hanging with the kids, tinkering with your cars, and doing the occasional interview.

I’m sure that’s an oversimplified, negatively assumptive view of what may go through the head of someone that I don’t personally know. I’m sure the guys are busy, both with family and with other things. Many other things.

And hey, James did have that 4-hour-per-day rule when they made St. Anger…

3. Lars?

But seriously. I don’t want to be one of those guys who dumps on Lars about everything. I actually like Lars, and its obvious that he’s a huge part of the personality and creative makeup of the band. He’s also its biggest fan.

But I wonder if there’s something about Lars. Post-Black Album, when the entire band started loosening their playing styles a bit, he arguably loosened his the most. He’s become more the guy who thinks globally rather than locally. He’s concerned with the big picture with respect to Metallica and art and other things. As such, he often seems to be openly at war with his drum kit (not in a good way), to the point where, when a video shows up on YouTube where he plays a lot of double kick drum on an old song, people get all excited: “All right! Lars using a lot of double bass drum! Awesome!” I don’t know of another situation in metal where people are so impressed by a drummer not playing sloppily, playing his old songs even just close to correctly, or by double kicks being used on a new song, but honestly? That’s how I’ve felt too. In those situations, it’s like there’s a whiff of a promise of “return to form,” and you want to feel good about it… even if it’s a fleeting thing.

And so I get a sense that, more than anything, Lars is less interested in making a new record than the other guys*, and more interested in playing live and being Lars From Metallica. I know that’s a trite, possibly cruel way to put it – and I don’t intend it that way, because I’m a fan of him – but fans (and people who care about the music so much) only see a certain amount of what is made public, and can only infer thereafter. And remember, he’s one of the guys who drives the car.

4. *About that asterisk in the above paragraph…

When we’re told that James has 800 riffs at his disposal, we’re not surprised. The guy is known to be a riff master, and he has “RIFF/LIFE” tattooed on his fingers. The Metallica catalog is littered with his riffs. Sure, some are Hammett’s or Cliff Burton’s, a couple are Jason’s, and several are Mustaine’s. But the vast majority are James’, and so many of them are extremely good.

I was reminded of this while watching footage from Metallica’s Guitar Center Sessions, which were released on YouTube earlier this year.

Watching James play, talking about his love for music and throwing out some riffs along the way, makes me excited about this new album. If there’s anything holding back the making of this album, it’s not the James of thirteen years ago, who seemed to be at a loss for virtually any inspiration at points during the Some Kind Of Monster film. This is the James of today, one of the three guys in the band who seems to really get off on doing his thing.

As for Kirk? We’ve been treated to several recent examples of his love for metal. He invited Exodus, Death Angel, and Carcass to play at his Fear FestEvil, and jammed with the first two. And his Guitar Center Session interview, while not as lengthy (or riffy) as James’, showed just as much love for music.

He’s not the riff master that James is, but the guy is passionate about making music.

As for Rob Trujillo, I don’t know as much about him, but he seems to be someone who would play with anybody, at any time (and he kind of has!). He’s talented and innovative, and shows both fire and fluency with his instrument during Metallica shows. I don’t know that he has played any part in preventing the band from making a new album.

5. A lack of creative juice?

Having said all of that, it would be difficult to infer that there is a lack of creativity from individual members of the group. However, I recently read a terrific article by The Metal Pigeon, who has an interesting theory on the subject.

The Metal Pigeon doesn’t consider Death Magnetic to be a good album, and posits the following:

So what was it that made Metallica’s new music come off to me as uninspired and clunky?

I think the answer, ultimately, is that there was little in the way of artistic continuity. Metallica’s writing sessions for the Black Album took place in 1990, and after its gargantuan mega-tour the Load/ReLoad sessions occurred around 1995 with some touch-ups in the two years afterwards. Touring and various projects such as S&M and Garage, Inc took up the intervening years. Metallica wouldn’t work on a collection of new material until those dysfunctional, therapist guided, captured on documentary sessions for St. Anger a whole seven years later. It would be nearly six years before they reconvened once again for Death Magnetic —- simply put, this is a band that tours and tours and tours, and I’ll argue that despite its financial benefits their incessant touring has come at the cost of their artistry. I’m not suggesting that its wise for Metallica to scale back its touring, these guys obviously understand where their huge paychecks come from. What I am saying however, is if the band is interested in making continually better original music, they would do well to realize that they need to attempt its creation more often. How do they relate to one another musically speaking when they haven’t attempted to write new material in half-decade long spans? At what point do you overdo touring?

I don’t know that I could argue with this idea. While Metallica has some great creative forces in its ranks, they’ve written and recorded just two albums in the past seventeen years. Whereas other groups gather to write and record on a (relatively) much more regular basis, Metallica tours, or records covers or a live album or with another artist. They do jam in the tuning room, of course, but if that were a recipe for writing new albums, I would imagine we would have seen at least one more album by now. So I think there is definitely merit to the idea.

* * *

By now, this post is firmly in longform land. I obviously think about this subject too much!

Sometimes, I wonder what would happen if there were different drummers involved. If, for instance, Hetfield, Hammett and Trujillo hooked up with Dave Lombardo, who seems to be completely comfortable with his drums, it’s easy to imagine that Hetfield would drive the car, and Lombardo would have an answer, drum-wise, for every idea that James bounced off of him. In this hypothetical situation, the members who have guitar straps slung around their necks would be able to offer their ideas, and James and Dave would hone them to a razor edge with less head-to-wall moments and dithering. Listeners would be treated to more albums, more adventurous albums, and better shows. More riffs. More double kick drums and more interesting fills.

But that’s not going to happen – it’s just the occasional fantasy of an occasionally frustrated fan. Lars is Metallica, just like James is. They’ve been friends and creative partners for more than 30 years, and my hypothetical situations don’t mean a damn thing to them. And that’s 100% as it should be.

Hopefully, the new album will come out sooner than later. I’m betting on later, myself, given the band’s history and the fact that they will be playing several more shows over the course of the rest of the year. As I said, the fact that they’ve been talking about this album for three years, and are just now starting to piece some songs together, rankles me. On the other hand, it’s not like we fans aren’t used to this. Remember: two albums, seventeen years.

I’ll be there when it does come out. I’m still looking forward to it, and I’m pretty sure that I’ll enjoy it, even if it isn’t the “return to form” that so many fans want. I’ll listen to it in the spirit that it deserves, which is that it is the next step in a journey (whenever that step happens). To me, Metallica is like an old friend at this point. The band has aged, grown, and changed with time, and I have as well. But its members and songs are still welcome.

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Thanks for reading this post by Russ at Dischordant Forms. Follow me on Twitter at @DischordantRuss. Comments are welcome!


Epiphany: I will expand my musical vocabulary

While playing guitar the other night, I had an epiphany.

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I’ve been “playing” guitar for twenty years now. I never had any formal lessons. I remember sitting in the living room in our old house as a teenager, picking up my mother’s acoustic guitar, and fretting the low E string the first time. The pain in my finger tip was a major deterrent. A couple of months later, I tried again, and stuck with it.

In the beginning, I learned chords from a chart my mother had on the piano. I could do E minor okay, but C chords always sounded like crap, and F was a disaster. G major was nice, once I could manage to fret the G on the high E string. E major and A minor came next, and sounded all right. It was slow going.

Eventually, I learned about barre chords, and was banging out terrible versions of Nirvana songs. And breaking strings left and right. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine those days, but they happened, and we all start somewhere. We learn…

* * *

About fourteen years ago, by which point I had progressed past banging away at simple three- and four-chord strummers to playing with a little more finesse and skill, I reached a self-induced crossroads. I became sort of paranoid, feeling that everything that I created was derivative. At that point, I decided not to learn any more songs that were relatively close in style to the things I was writing.

I can remember a pivotal point in that thought process. I was fiddling around on my acoustic one day, and I accidentally stumbled on Mike McCready’s opening/verse lick to “Given To Fly” by Pearl Jam. My initial reaction was “oh… cool!” – followed immediately by a weird feeling of guilt. The self-censor won – I never played that lick again, and never forgot that moment.

From that time on, I’ve maintained a strict “I will not learn other people’s songs” method. Which isn’t much of a method, in reality.

This is not to say that I’ve not learned any guitar licks since then. For example, I’ve spent hours working on songs like “Holy Wars… The Punishment Due” (Megadeth), along with riffs from songs by Pantera, Metallica, and other metal bands, because I don’t “create” metal songs, so they were in what I considered “fair territory.” And I’ve certainly benefited musically and technically from those experiences. But there is a lot that I’ve shut out, and since my goal has never been to become a competent metal guitarist, those experiences have only taken me so far.

Instead of learning other people’s songs, I found that I enjoyed writing my own songs. At the time, I got a lot of fulfillment from writing guitar parts that were slightly above my current skill level – and then learning how to play those songs. In this way, I improved as a guitarist, and came up with some pretty good songs… but I also ran into a lot of brick walls. Over time, those walls got higher, and my interest ultimately diminished.

Over the past ten years, the volume of creativity has decreased, and the amount of recording that I’ve done – even just riff demos – has slowed to an occasional drip. I basically trained myself to hold my playing within that holy grail of originality when composing music, so that, if I was not playing something that I’d already established, my censor-alarms would go off more and more urgently. Occasionally, I would have some small burst of creation, but for the most part, songwriting / guitar playing have generally been at odds with me for a while now.

This has, very likely, contributed to the long musical droughts I have experienced over the years.

* * *

However, my philosophy on originality has changed.

I mentioned before that I had an epiphany the other night, which is this: I have been stunting my musical ability, technical skill, and creative palette by not learning how to play more songs.

As we learn to play various songs, we build our musical vocabulary: the individual notes – the musical alphabet – are there; we can use those letters to create words or phrases, and we can make them our own by accenting them in the way we choose. Furthermore, learning via songs gives those notes and phrases context, which helps us understand how they work within the music, with the added benefit of being fun (rather than just a pure exercise). As I was playing that night, I realized that I’ve limited my musical options by refusing to learn how to play a wide variety of songs, missing out on opportunities to expand my vocabulary. Building a working vocabulary simply gives me more tools to use in the creative process, just as the practice of reading and writing hones a person’s ability to learn, comprehend, and write.

I realized that, since I am not a savant who is destined to rediscover everything that has already been discovered on the guitar, it can’t hurt me to learn more of what’s already there. In some way, I think that I wanted to repeatedly experience the joy of discovery, but, while it was a well-intentioned ideal to hold myself to, in reality I slid so far into my own little hole on the guitar that I painted myself into a corner of ignorance – and, in turn, frustration. The cost has been great: I was stunting my language skills by not playing new things, or things that are uncomfortable or difficult to play – or even familiar things that I enjoy listening to or singing along with. While I have limited skill and am closer to middle age than to childhood, I can still learn a great deal from developing new skills and applying them in different ways as I try to create songs.

In retrospect, I think that what I’ve done to myself as a musician over the past couple of decades has shown a severe lack of trust in my own ability to use established musical language to create something new. I know now that the result was that the holy grail of originality – an ideal that I clung ferociously to, to my detriment – ended up inhibiting my songwriting process a great deal.

* * *

I need to not be afraid to learn how to play music of any style that I enjoy. Doing so will open up a world of possibilities by expanding my musical vocabulary, giving me (relatively) more mastery over the instrument and removing some of the barriers to creation that I’ve experienced.

Recently, I’ve begun to try to figure out the horn melody to “Godchild” by Miles Davis, from his classic 1949 album Birth Of The Cool (in the video above). While it’s currently not exactly the style of music that I would typically write, I’m also looking at expanding the boundaries of the kind of music I create (which in itself is a post for another day), and is also a song that I’ve enjoyed for a long time.

The important thing for me is to play, and to learn, with a “no rules” attitude as opposed to a restrictive code like I did for so many years. This is probably a many-layered concept that will hopefully reveal itself further as I continue my musical journey. For now, I’m simply happy to have broken the dam.

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Thanks for reading this post by Russ at Dischordant Forms. Follow me on Twitter at @DischordantRuss. Comments are welcome!


Tearing down and starting over

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.

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Thanks for reading this post by Russ at Dischordant Forms. Follow me on Twitter at @DischordantRuss. Comments are welcome!